17% CO2 Emissions Reduction – Are You Joking?

Posted on Thu 11/26/2009 by


Yesterday, President Obama announced a target for emissions reduction that the U.S. will take to the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference. That target will be a 17% reduction in the emissions of Carbon Dioxide (CO2) by the year 2020.


This will be a long post, because something as technical and involved as this requires comprehensive explanation, so don’t be driven off by the length.

It’s wonderful to be able to just pluck a figure like this from the thin air. Actually implementing it is not only going to be difficult, but it’s something that just cannot be done. The cost will be absolutely prohibitive, but even though I’m going to mention it later, let’s just ignore that part of the whole plan, because in this day and age when the word ‘Billion’ just rolls off the tongue so easily, we will be told that money is no object.

Let’s just look at the electrical power generating sector, because we are told that those ‘nasty’ coal fired power plants are the biggest culprit in all of this. This sector alone accounts for almost 33% of all Carbon Dioxide (CO2) emissions. So this figure for the cutback effectively means that the Administration, to achieve its target will need to close those plants down and find a way to replace the electrical power that they provide, sitting there, just humming away, 24 hours a day, providing immense amounts of electrical power to the grids all across the Country.

So then, let’s do the math for closing down those coal fired power plants, and replacing them.

Go to this link. It’s the Government’s own link, so I’m not just making this stuff up. It looks like a meaningless page of figures, so it will require careful explanation to translate what it actually means. What it tells us is the actual electrical power being consumed from every source of power generation in the U.S.

As you can see, the amounts are expressed in thousand megawatthours, which is million kilowatthours, (KWH) which is what you as consumers would most readily recognise from your electrical utilities account.

The column on the left indicates the electrical power consumed from the coal fired area. That amount is 1.825 Trillion KWH.

So, a reduction of 17% in that total effectively means you have to find a replacement for 17% of that power. However, that’s not the end of it.

CO2 is also emitted from Natural Gas fired power plants as well, and you would be surprised just how much, and this link shows details for that. That being the case then, you will need to reduce the CO2 emissions from that sector as well. Now, what you will be told at great length is that Natural Gas will be looked upon as an attractive replacement for coal. Makes you smile eh! Watt for Watt, Natural gas emits half as much as coal fired power, not considerably less as you will be told, but half.

The emissions from that Natural Gas power generation sector in the U.S. alone amount to almost half a Billion tons of CO2.

Because the perception will be that Natural Gas will be looked to as a replacement, then not only will those natural gas plants not be closed down, they will in fact be building more of them. So, that 17% reduction will not be done in this sector. So that this can be covered, then the 17% from that sector will have to be added to the cuts from the coal fired sector. So what we need to do here is to work out the reduction for this Natural gas sector, and then add that amount to the reduction from the coal fired sector.

So, that fourth column in from the left is for the Natural Gas sector. That amount is 895 Billion KWH. So 17% of that comes to 152 Billion KWH.

Now back to the coal fired sector. 17% of that figure (1.825 Trillion KWH) comes to 310 Billion KWH.

Now, add the Natural gas component to the coal fired component and the new figure is 462 Billion KWH.

462 Billion KWH. In the overall scheme of things that amounts to 12% of the total electrical power production from ALL sources in the U.S.

So, to keep to the President’s figure of 17% emissions reduction, you now have to find 462 Billion KWH of new electrical power.

This needs to be emissions free power, and the only emissions free power are Nuclear electrical power generation, hydroelectric power, wind power and the two versions of solar power. Nuclear power has fallen so far out of favour, especially with Democrat Administrations, that it can be effectively discounted. Hydro electric power. Well, that’s out of the question, There won’t be any approval given to build huge new dams anywhere.

That leaves us with Wind and the two versions of Solar Power. Solar power currently makes up less than 1% just of that power generated from the renewable sector, shown at this link. The other problem with Solar power is that it would be utterly pointless to construct any of these plants in the North of the U.S. as during the colder months and especially during Winter, there would be almost zero power production from them at all. So that leaves the bulk of that new power generation to come from the Wind sector.

So then, let’s work out this new power needed and just do the math for the wind power sector.

Large Wind Turbine at Nine Mile Beach Wind Farm. Image courtesy of Verve Energy.

The image at left is a single wind tower. I have included it for the perspective relating to the size, and that is a Toyota  Land Cruiser Troop Carrier parked by the base of the tower.

Wind power can deliver it’s effective power for around 30% of the time. Well that’s the hope anyway, because when you look at the power produced for the whole inventory of Wind towers for a whole Country, Germany, it was shown that all of the 18,000 wind towers only delivered power for 20% of the time, and that wasn’t an isolated thing, but figures taken for the whole of last year 2008. But I’m a sanguine guy. I’ll believe the hype from the wind power people that they actually can deliver it at the rate of 30%, so I’ll do the math for that figure.

It’s a simple calculation, even though it looks difficult.

NP X 24 X 365.25 X 1000 X ER = Total Power, where NP is Nameplate Capacity, 24 hours in a day, 365.25 days in a year (leap year accounted for) the 1000 to convert from MW to KWH and ER being the Efficiency Rating for the delivery of that power.

So having a resultant of 462 Billion KWH we can work backwards to find how much Nameplate Capacity is needed.

That comes to 180,000 MW of Nameplate Capacity from new wind towers.

The average wind tower nacelle on top of those huge towers can generate 3MW, so now we are looking at 60,000 new wind towers.

That’s reasonable you think. After all, the President did say it was a target for 2020, so that gives us effectively 10 years.

60,000 Wind Towers.

A large plant of around 120 towers will take ten years from the thought bubble to the point it actually starts delivering power to the grid. That’s about the same really for any plant these days. All the planning, approval, licensing, State and Federal Authority approvals, and the actual construction process itself. Let’s pretend that in this unseemly haste to look good, that the whole process can be shortened, then many of those areas will be hastened in the mad rush to get it done, effectively short circuiting the whole process, and introducing the possibility of inherent failures of process, but let’s still pretend everything runs smoothly. What that in effect means is that this grand plan will need to be starting right now.

Right now.

Not in five years or eight years as we approach that target date. These 60,000 wind towers need to be actually on the drawing board right this minute.

Before they actually start even the construction, industry has to be geared up to build the towers, the nacelles, the generators themselves. We’re not talking of a factory here, a factory there, because right now the World Standard is that one factory can produce one nacelle with a generator complex in that nacelle every three days. That’s 100 a year. Let’s pretend efficiency rates rise literally off the map, and a large factory can produce them at double the current rate, 200 a year. Keep in mind the actual construction phase for the towers themselves will take years, so those nacelles will need to be ready for installation, so let’s then look at just the first five years. So now we’re looking at 60 of these huge factories, and to be ready those factories need to be starting the work right now. 60 factories and their complete work force already working flat out day and night to make these nacelles, and that’s RIGHT NOW.

We will need factories to produce the near 500 foot towers, also 60,000 of them, again in place now and starting the work now.

Let’s pretend this is in place now, and in five years, the time taken to do all the paperwork procedures for the approvals, they can actually start construction.

A large wind tower farm will have around 120 towers, so for 60,000, that comes to 500 of these wind farms, which is about right, because keep in mind they will be replacing coal fired power plants spread across the whole Country, and will need to be built where they will be supplying power to the grids in those area.

That’s 500 wind farms all across the whole Country.

So, now they need to start building the things. They have the remaining five years. Working 250 days a year, flat out for those five years, each of those 500 wind farms will need to construct from a bare patch of ground one tower every 10 days. That bare patch of ground needs to be in a place where good regular wind blows all year round, not a gentle zephyr of a breeze every now and then, but good quality wind around 17 to 20 MPH, and not more, because higher than that, they need to be shut down for safety reasons.  That construction phase is not just putting the nacelle on top of the tower, but all the other infrastructure from the tower to the central point, the building of the internal grid for the wind farm spread across numerous square miles, the connection from there to the grid, the whole lot.

There’s the infrastructure part of the equation.

I mentioned above that the cost would be prohibitive, but with the ‘money being no object’ principle in place, let’s then look at those costings. A large plant of 120 wind towers will cost in the vicinity of $1.2 billion, so now 500 of them will cost $600 Billion in today’s money. If the cost of money doubles every 5 years, then we are looking at it doubling twice, so now we have $1.8 Trillion. Divide that by the ten years, then an amount of $180 Billion needs to be allocated each year from now until the 2020 target date.

Keep in mind that this is just for the wind farms themselves. The factories, the infrastructure, the pay for the workforces involved are all piled on top of that.

Then, after all these pristine new 60,000 wind towers are in place, delivering power to the grid, there is the problem that they are still only delivering that power at a delivery efficiency rate of 30%, so they are only delivering their maximum power for around seven and a half hours a day at the absolute best. You might think I added that in at the front end and I did, but even with the larger number of towers, they still only deliver their power when the wind blows, and if Germany can be taken into account for the whole of year figure totals from there, then that comes down to 5 hours a day. I have contributed two posts on the German Wind problem at this link, and also at this link. This is not just speculation, but actual reported delivery of power to the grids.

See the problems now.

It’s easy to set a target of 17% reductions in emissions by 2020. Actually implementing it is another thing altogether.

That is why nuclear power needs to be kept on the table, and a decision on that cannot be just delayed and delayed. If that 17% emissions reduction is to be even considered approachable, then a decision on the construction of new nuclear plants needs to be made very soon, and I mean within the next few months to a year. We’re not talking one plant here or one plant there. This needs to be along the lines of doubling the existing number of nuclear power plants, and just mentioning that will see everyone in the current Administration laughing so loudly at the mere mention of even a thought like that. No! that won’t even become a thought bubble.

I’m willing to bet that is one decision that will not be made in the foreseeable future, and each year it is put off, then that figure of 17%, as small as those environmentalists might think of it, will be a target that is comprehensively beyond reaching.

This has been an exercise in just showing the work needed for the wind sector. Natural gas fired turbines will also need to be ramped up as well, and with this comes an actual increase in emissions of CO2.

In the meantime, those existing coal fired power plants will just keep humming along, providing their huge amounts of power 24 hours of every day. They will need to be kept in operation because it will take those ten years to replace them, with anything, and not just the Wind towers I have mentioned here. All the time, they will be adding further to the emissions, meaning effectively that even more of those wind towers will need to be constructed to make up for this ten years worth of emissions.

It further highlights the one thing in this whole argument.

We just cannot do without coal fired electrical power. Now. In the interim. In the future. Those plants are fast approaching their end of life now, the average age of the whole U.S. inventory now around 48 years, and 50 years is considered to be their effective life, even though that can be extended out to 60 or even 75 years, but the technology is old, and while the rest of the World constructs newer more efficient smaller plants producing larger amounts of electrical power, those in the U.S. will be closing down, not out of consideration for the environment, but because they have reached the end of their life.

Incidentally, the effective life of a wind tower is quoted at around 25 to 30 years, and even that is a best case scenario, because in all reality, 20 years would be the upper limit. That being the case, then the whole exercise will need to be repeated in half the whole of life time operation on a coal fired plant.

This has been a long post, but something as ‘seemingly’ simple and probably achievable as that 17% target requires a more thorough investigation than just an off the cuff comment.

17% emissions reduction by 2020. You have to be joking.