Powering the world with green energy is a myth, writer says

Author: Elona Malterre

Source: EnviroLine

Publish Date: Monday, January 17, 2011

            Renewable energy is unable to meet the world’s needs for power unless nuclear power plays a big role, says an internationally prominent writer.
            Society should be concerned about clean power rather than so-called ‘green’ energy because sources such as wind and solar cannot deliver the power density that’s needed, says Robert Bryce, a Texas-based author and freelance journalist whose most recent of three books is Power Hungry: The Myths of “Green” Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future.

            “Renewable energy is of marginal value,” he said. “What we really should be discussing is renewable power. The word ‘power’ connotes control, and hence the ability to switch it on and off.”
            The preoccupation with green energy, including by policy makers, is due to basic science illiteracy, Bryce argued. People don’t care about energy, he said, adding: “What we want is power in the cleanest, cheapest densest form.”
            The only sources that can provide power at the rates society needs are fossil fuels and nuclear power, he said.
           “Energy is the ability to do work. Power is the rate at which it gets done,” Bryce noted. “Rates are much more telling than amounts. It’s the rate of energy flow that matters.”
           Power by definition is a rate: one watt per second, he said. Renowned physicist Albert Einstein’s great insight was that energy and mass are interchangeable (represented by the equation e = mc2), Bryce said. Throughout human history, “the challenge always has been . . . turning the energy around us into useable, reliable, manipulatable power.”   
           Society can’t turn renewable energy – particularly the highly intermittent energy from the sun and the wind – into the power needed “unless we have widespread, ultra-cheap, ultra-reliable energy storage. And therein lies the challenge,” Bryce added.
           New energy storage technologies are being developed. (See EnviroLine’s website for a June 13, 2010 story, Alberta is a Good Location for “Game-Changing” Energy Storage Technology, about how the town of Presidio, Texas is using a large sulphur battery to harness wind energy to supply reliable power).
           Bryce, who the New York Times has called “something of a visionary and perhaps even a revolutionary” (See http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/07/books/07book.html?_r=1&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss), said that it is power that pulls people out of poverty, because energy is all around us whether it’s the photon energy of the sun or simply the energy embedded in concrete. 
            The planet’s 6.7 billion population uses the equivalent of about 226 million barrels of oil a day of energy in all forms, including fossil fuels, hydro, nuclear, wind and solar, he said. In terms of oil reserves, that amounts to about “27 Saudi Arabias” per day.
            Fossil fuels provide the bulk of the world’s energy – the equivalent of about 200 million barrels of oil per day. So if society wants to replace that daily fossil fuel usage with some other form of clean energy, then “it must find the equivalent energy of 27 Saudi Arabias a day of carbon-free energy.”
           That challenge is so enormous, the transition to a global carbon-free energy system will take decades but more likely centuries, Bryce said. “Hydrocarbons are here to stay . . . I’ll wager my grandchildren’s grandchildren will be using oil. Maybe not coal, but oil and a lot of natural gas.” 
           With the exception of nuclear power, only fossil fuels can produce the energy density that is required for current and future societies, he said. “A small footprint (on the land base) is the ideal of nature,” Bryce noted, adding that the greater the power density, the smaller the footprint of the source of energy. 
            One marginal natural gas “stripper well,” producing 60,000 cubic feet of gas per day, has a power density of about 28 watts per square meter, he said.
           That compares with a wind turbine which has a power density of one or 1.2 watts per m2. So, one marginal gas well has 23 times the power density of a wind turbine, Bryce calculated.  
            Bryce, who lives in Austin, Texas, said the city obtains its electrical power from a nuclear reactor that generates 2,700 megawatts. The footprint for the entire facility, including the fenced perimeter property line, is about 19 square miles, he said. He calculated that the nuclear power plan therefore has a power density of 56 watts per m2.  
            Producing the same amount of power using wind turbines would require an area of approximately 900 square miles, Bryce said. Producing the same amount of wattage using corn ethanol would take 21,000 sq mi, or an area size of West Virginia, he said.
           Bryce called fuel produced from corn ethanol one of the “biggest scams” of the modern era, and “one of the most malicious and wasteful agricultural subsidies that can even be imagined.”
 Biomass has a power density of only about one watt per square metre, he added. “Low power density is a bad idea.”
           The power density of BP’s deep water drilling rig that leaked a massive amount of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, based on the size of the rig and a daily output of 50,000 barrels per day, was about 127,000 watts per m2, Bryce said. That high power density is why so many companies are pursuing deep water drilling, he said.
           Every year in the U.S, the oil and gas industry spends one-quarter of a trillion dollars drilling and completing oil and gas wells, he pointed out.
           When it comes to nuclear power, Bryce argued that even the density of nuclear waste is ‘green.’ All the nuclear waste in the U.S. resulting from about 60 years of nuclear power production amounts to approximately 60,000 to 70,000 tons, which could be stacked on an American football field, he said.
           If the Americans had used the same nuclear waste reprocessing technology as other countries such as France and Japan, then the nuclear waste accumulated so far in the U.S. could be stacked in one end zone of a football field, he added.
            Bryce is confident that human ingenuity will continue to increase power density, because the world’s growing population and increasing urbanization will make it necessary.
            He referred to Stuart Brand’s new book, Whole Earth Discipline: Why Dense Cities, Nuclear Power, Transgenic Crops, Restored Wildlands, and Geoengineering Are Necessary (http://web.me.com/stewartbrand/SB_homepage/Home.html), which says that 1.3 million people move into cities every week. Over the next 15 years, 300 million people – approximating the population of the U.S. – will move into cities, resulting in an unprecedented demand for power, Bryce said.
           Thirty years ago, he added, he was ardently anti-nuclear power. “Today I’m ardently pro-nuclear. This has to be a major part of the answer if we’re going to limit CO2 emissions.”
           The wrong-minded attitude of Greenpeace and other ardently anti-nuclear groups in the U.S. has stalled nuclear power development, Bryce said. “If you’re anti-carbon-dioxide and anti-nuclear, you are pro-(power) blackout . . . you must love the darkness because (nuclear) has to be part of the solution.”
 Bryce’s other books include Pipe Dreams: Greed, Ego, and the Death of Enron, and Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of Energy Independence. His writing has been published in many magazines and newspapers, including The New York Times, Slate, and The Atlantic Monthly
           Managing Editor’s Note: Bryce is a senior fellow with the Center for Energy Policy and the Environment at the Manhattan Institute, known for its advocacy of free market-based solutions to policy problems. For more of Bryce’s opinions, see http://www.manhattan-institute.org/html/bryce.htm

           Bryce also is not without his critics.  For example, see http://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/undermining-the-critics-of-wind-power/ and http://climatechange.thinkaboutit.eu/think4/post/robert_bryces_myths_about_greenenergy



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