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Roadmap to Nowhere: The Myth of Powering the Nation 100% With Renewable Energy

Renewables have captured the public’s imagination, but can they actually be scaled up to power the entire nation, ask Mike Conley and Tim Maloney? In their new ebook, available at RoadmapToNowhere.com, they present their reasons why they are convinced 100% renewables is a myth – and why we should rely primarily on nuclear power.

Extraordinary claims requires extraordinary evidence.

The claim that the United States, much less the entire world, can be adequately powered by 100% renewable energy is extraordinary, indeed.

The claim that we can have an all-renewables grid with no backup from fueled power plants, and practically no energy storage, is even more extraordinary.

To confirm or dispel our doubts, we ran the numbers on the industry’s most highly regarded proposal, the Solutions Project’s 50-State Roadmap to 2050.

We unpack the 35-year strategy in our short, non-technical online book Roadmap to NowhereWith all due respect to the Solutions Project, it’s not a solution.

Fuel-free systems

For $15.2 trillion, with no fueled backup and next to no energy storage, the Roadmap proposes a 1,591-gigawatt national grid of 100% renewables:

  • A half-million ginormous 5-megawatt wind turbines, on land equal to New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont and New Hampshire, and in open sea regions equal to West Virginia
  • 18 billion square meters of solar panels, on land equal to Maryland and Rhode Island
  • Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) with thermal energy storage, on land equal to Connecticut
  • Rooftop solar on 75 million homes, and nearly three million businesses

To compare, a 1,591-GW nuclear grid would cost less than $7 trillion, depending on the reactors used, on land equal to half of Long Island. With factory-built reactors and a streamlined regulatory process, it could be completed in ten years.

The essential difference between nuclear and renewables comes down to this: Fuel is energy storage. Renewables are fuel-free systems.

Mother Nature stores energy in substances we call fuel: stable, storable, portable stuff that we can use to generate power, when and where we want it.

Civilization has advanced by exploiting ever more energy-dense fuels: wood, coal, petroleum, gas and nuclear. The recent interest in renewables appears to be a reversal of this historical trend, in the sense that wind, water, and sunlight are typically regarded as less dense forms of fuel.

After sixty years of worldwide commercial nuclear power, the death rate per terawatt hour is lower than for solar or wind

Except they’re not really fuels at all. Renewables are fuel-free systems that exploit ambient natural phenomena. But the light and motion they exploit are not stable, storable, or transportable. They must either be utilized on the spot to make energy, or converted into something that can be stored for later use, such as the electricity in a battery, or the potential energy of water pumped uphill for hydroelectric power.

Renewable “fuel” may be free, but collecting and exploiting its energy is expensive. Converting it into smooth, dependable, on-demand power is even more expensive. Wind and sunshine ebb and flow, come and go. They should never be relied upon without substantial backup and storage.

Hyped-up fear

Since it’s an undisputed fact that fuel can power the nation, you would think the response to climate change would be a transition to carbon-free fuel, rather than a transition to fuel-free systems. In our view, the hyped-up fear of radiation and waste is the reason we don’t already have a nuclear grid.

No one died from the Fukushima meltdowns or from Three Mile Island, and no one will ever build a reactor like Chernobyl again. After sixty years of worldwide commercial nuclear power, the death rate per terawatt hour is lower than for solar or wind (and of course much much lower than for fossil fuels). And that’s with factoring in the total projected casualties from Chernobyl.

Nuclear’s energy density is millions of times greater than wind and solar, with less than 1% of the footprint. The technology is well proven, the fuel is abundant, and the energy is carbon-free.

Reactors could even power commercial shipping, and the factories to synthesize carbon-neutral fuel for air transport. Either one would make a serious dent in CO2 emissions.

When we run low on our finite endowment of natural gas (which should be any decade now; even sooner if we export the stuff), then what?

But instead of deploying a clean, compact and scalable technology to power the nation, a stupendous inventory of equipment is being subsidized and deployed on vast tracts of land, to collect the fitful energy of wind and sunlight.

And if it can’t be used at once, the energy must either be wasted or stored, if we can afford an adequate means of storage. But just one grid-day of storage for the bare-bones Roadmap raises the price to nearly $23 trillion.

It gets worse: Before the 35-year buildout is complete, we’ll also have to refurbish the 350,000 onshore wind turbines at least once, and the 150,000 offshore turbines three times or more.

And even when it is complete, it’ll never end: Solar panels only last about forty years. To maintain 18 billion square meters of panel, our renewable-industrial complex will have to fabricate, install, and recycle 1.23 million m2 every single day, without a break – forever.

Utility power plants should be compact sources of reliable power, free from the vagaries of weather, climate, season, or time of day, and under the operator’s control at all times. In a word, they should be decoupled from the environment.

Sprawling farms

The Roadmap would occupy over 130,000 square miles, plus the offshore region, and millions of rooftops. Utterly dependent on favorable weather, and without fueled backup or mass energy storage, its sprawling wind and solar farms will be utterly dependent on each other as well.

Fueled power plants are IN-dependent. Wind and solar farms are INTER-dependent. 

Coal, gas, hydro and nuclear can operate on their own, in any weather. But since coal is verboten and nuclear is the work of the devil, the Roadmap’s wind and solar farms will rely on natural gas training wheels, until they get their collective act together and roll with the big boys.

Before that happy day arrives (if it ever arrives), the wind and solar farms that are up and running will actually be natural gas plants, supplemented with renewables. As Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. said, “The plants that we’re building, the wind plants and the solar plants, are gas plants.”

Indeed, his Ivanpah solar farm has been hit with a penalty for excessive CO2 emissions. They apparently used 62% more methane last year than predicted.

One day of storage for the Roadmap would cost more than an entire nationwide all-nuclear grid

Which raises an interesting question: When we run low on our finite endowment of natural gas (which should be any decade now; even sooner if we export the stuff), then what?

Existing battery technology is completely inadequate to back up the grid. All the lithium mined on earth in 2016 would give us a whopping eighteen minutes of all-grid battery storage. If all the vanadium mined in 2015 were devoted to flow batteries, it would provide one minute of storage.

Pumped hydro is the only existing storage technology that can adequately scale up. The problem is, we would need 156 billion cubic meters of water to generate one grid-day of power. That’s our national fresh water consumption (tap water, irrigation, the works) for more than four months.

Even at the bargain-basement price of $0.20 per installed watt-hour, building one grid-day of pumped hydro storage would cost $7.6 trillion, more than the price of an entire nuclear grid.

That bears repeating: One day of storage for the Roadmap would cost more than an entire nationwide all-nuclear grid.

It would be folly to commit to a project like the Roadmap, hoping that a breakthrough storage technology comes along. We don’t have the time, or the money, to explore the possibilities of a fuel-free lifestyle while embarking on a quest for the holy grail of cheap storage. It already exists. It’s called fuel.

In fact, uranium fuel is so energy dense that a nuclear grid would have more than 500 days of storage built right in: the fuel rods in the core of each reactor.  

We only have this one chance at getting global de-carbonization right, so we have to build our energy future with proven and scalable technology. Because we’re not betting the farm, we’re betting the planet. And nuclear is the only carbon-free energy source that we absolutely know is up to the job.

Germany’s Energiewende is a cautionary case in point: Replacing their reactors with wind and solar has actually increased their CO2 emissions, from all the extra coal they’re burning to back up their renewables.

A fuel-free renewables grid would make every region utterly dependent on each other, whether they liked it or not. In a very real sense, a nationwide, interdependent grid would be the essence of Big Energy

And if the rest of the world follows their lead, we’ll have more to contend with than increased emissions: A global Roadmap’s solar panels would monopolize 90% of the world’s proven silver reserves, and one-third of proven copper reserves. (Transmission lines would be extra.)

In contrast, Generation-IV reactors would actually eliminate most long-distance transmission corridors. Since most of them won’t need water cooling, a Gen-4 can be placed wherever the power is needed, even in the harshest desert.

Green elephants

Aside from all the foregoing, the Roadmap has yet another drawback to consider. Once we start down that road, we’ll have to go all the way. Because the only possible chance to make the Roadmap work is to build all of it, or nearly all of it. That’s what a self-supporting, interdependent system is all about.

If we embark on a national buildout of fueled power plants and abandon the effort halfway through, we’d still have a collection of fully functioning, independent power plants. If we abandon the Roadmap halfway through, we’d have a herd of green elephants that will always need training wheels.

For the Roadmap to work, tens of thousands of wind and solar farms will have to be built in favorable weather locales. The problem is, we are nowhere near making long-term predictions about the weather. Climate yes, but weather no.

What if our wind-blown Northern Tier becomes the Northern Doldrums? What if Texas becomes the Monsoon State? A long-term weather shift could markedly degrade the productivity of wind and solar over a wide geographic area.

Go nuclear or go extinct

Supporters of renewables accept the science on climate change, and have great respect for Science Itself. And yet, they have embraced a multi-trillion-dollar scheme with a 35-year industrial mobilization, the success of which will ultimately depend upon accurate long-term weather forecasting, in a future of ever-growing climate disruption.

Political flare-ups are all but guaranteed, when a fiercely independent region finds itself exporting power to another region whose long-term weather luck has gone bad and stayed there.

A fuel-free renewables grid would make every region utterly dependent on each other, whether they liked it or not. In a very real sense, a nationwide, interdependent grid would be the essence of Big Energy.

And what happens if a region backs out of the Roadmap, and switches to, say, nuclear power? Could the Roadmap be re-drawn to work with the states that remain? Nobody knows, until we go down that road and see what transpires.

There is a school of thought that says we need to power down civilization. While it’s true that we as individuals should consume less energy, we as a global civilization actually need to power up.

Simply put, the world needs all the clean, carbon-free energy it can get. But there’s a catch: That energy source will have to be cheaper than coal, and just as reliable. Or the world will keep right on using coal.

Humans are like that. We’ve always had tribal minds, but now we have a global reach – big world, small planet. And there is no Planet B.

The good news is, the technology to cleanly power the planet already exists, without reinventing storage or hoping the weather cooperates. It can be deployed at the scale we need, precisely where we need it, in the time we have to act.

And if a nuclear-powered future seems too risky to consider, imagine growing old in a crowded, desperate, heavily-armed world of +4 degrees C, with rising seas and rolling blackouts.

The road ahead will be rough. But a reliable supply of cheap, clean and abundant energy will significantly improve our ability to adapt to climate change and mitigate its worst effects.

This is the challenge of our era, and will always be our legacy.

Go nuclear or go extinct.

By  and  

Mike Conley is a writer living in Los Angeles who has been studying energy issues for several years. Tim Maloney is a retired community college professor of Electronics Technology and Machine Control, with an MS in Electrical Engineering and a PhD in Educational Psychology from the University of Toledo, and a BS in Engineering from Case Western Reserve University. 

The authors are long-time members of the Thorium Energy Alliance, an advocacy group for the widespread acceptance and deployment of thorium-fueled Molten Salt Reactors. 

They stress that they “don’t have a beef with renewables – other than the claim that they can be scaled up to power the entire national grid.”

See RoadmapToNowhere.com to read the free online book, or to download the pdf. An ebook will soon be available. 

Check out the video at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7O7bB1ghqvU

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