1. Powering a Planet

Welcome to my place!

I'm an environmental scientist; I began my career as a Ph.D. on the environmental research staff at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Over the years I've run some large projects around the country; they introduced me to our energy sources and needs for the future.


This site is focused on the magnitude of the climate problem we face, and the sizes of the solutions needed. I'm especially concerned about the latter, since many reports assume that we simply have to continue our current pace of solar and wind installations to get to zero emissions. That's not true - the totals that must be installed are incredibly large; they dwarf our current installation rates.


The Goal: We must cut our worldwide CO2 (and methane) emissions to zero by 2050. At that point, we'll begin to extract CO2 from the atmosphere to get our climate back on track. This site's focus on zero-CO2 solutions cuts through the noise: At any moment during the discussion, we can simply ask "Does this solution take the particular problem directly to zero release?" If it doesn't, it's not on an efficient path to climate change reversal and we must find a better way.


This Section walks through what it will take to replace all of our energy sources with green energy. It also explains why "inherently safe" nuclear power (a new concept I've been waiting to see for decades) may be important to getting it done. Section 2 considers the use of hydrogen to replace solar and wind during periods when their energy flow stops, and as the alternative to gasoline, diesel and natural gas. Other sections expand on these concepts and point to recent advances.


Here's a quick summary of what has to be done in the U.S. alone, to replace all carbon combustion.

  • The U.S. will need to install 19,000 square miles of solar cells, 13 billion 600 watt panels, by 2050. That requires an annual installation rate 50 times larger than the estimate for 2021!

  • We'll need to erect a million 7.5 MW wind turbines on 8,000 square miles, too. That's an annual rate 30 times larger than in 2021!

  • And, we'll need to build 1900 power reactor systems (only the new, inherently safe small-core versions, please), on a total of 100 square miles (35 acres each), to provide power on the still nights when solar and wind are quiet.

That's a sobering set of statistics, and the numbers are validated by an International Energy Agency report released in May 2021. ( https://tinyurl.com/39ydym88 ) That report concludes that "Solar photovoltaic additions should reach 630 gigawatts a year by 2030 and wind power needs to rise to 390 GW." The IEA report recommends arriving at full renewable-electric energy production worldwide by 2040.


Let's look at my own solar, wind and nuclear conclusions more closely:


We’ve reached the point of no return -- we’re damaging our environment and we’re deep into it. CO2 in the atmosphere is at record levels and rising. We must make rapid and enormous changes, arriving as soon as we can at zero CO2 emissions planet-wide to leave a livable home for our grandchildren. There's no more time for studies, delays or half-measures.


First, to be clear:

As CO2 rises, our temperature rises. I won’t provide more climate change information here. Bill Gates' recent book provides details. Melting icecaps, flooding coasts, weather extremes, super-fires and nearly unanimous scientific agreement have convinced enough of us that it's happening.


And, at the same time that we repair our climate, we must make sure the solutions reach the rest of the world.


Zero CO2 emissions is the only choice we now have. We can no longer promote half-measures like substituting natural gas for coal, carbon-neutral fuels for aircraft, burning crop wastes for energy or condoning concrete- or steel-related CO2 releases. Every ton of CO2 that enters the atmosphere during the next 30 years, starting now, will have to be removed later at much greater cost. We can't support interim solutions that substitute lesser "temporary" evils for greater, later ones. They're not temporary -- that carbon will be out there forever. By compromising on zero release, we just make it more difficult to bring CO2 levels down in time.

We can make this happen, but it's an all-in game now.

Old discussions about which carbon-free energy source to choose no longer apply: After agreeing that our goal is to replace everything with electricity, we need to welcome everything green that makes it. That all-in approach can give us enough kilowatt-hours to replace the coal, oil and gas that built 80% of our society.

This is a tough set of conditions. Solar- and wind-power costs have become competitive but they don't produce energy all the time. Small nuclear reactors will be safe and reliable when they become available, but the first aren't due until late this decade. Hydroelectric dams meet most of the conditions, but we've dammed about all that we can. (They could be used as gigantic energy storage systems, however, and that's an important prospect.)


The answer is to build them all, complementing each other.

Not only possible: Essential.


The issue is the size of the problem: It's huge:

Electricity, produced as shown above, is only about a third of our power usage. If we include the other two-thirds (industry, homes, transportation etc.), our energy now comes almost entirely from burning a changing mix of hydrocarbons. Converting all that to green electricity requires a national effort, with participation down to the individual level.

The global CO2 puzzle is enormous and complex, much larger than the U.S. version and growing rapidly. The developing countries are building lots of carbon-burners to support their growth, although that tide is now turning just a bit. We must offer them better energy sources. Many countries can't afford that -- we'll have to help.

Is it possible?

We can easily be distracted by optimistic news that renewables are now a significant part of our energy supply. Solar and wind are not. They are a small part of a small part.

Here are other ways to look at wind and solar contributions:

It is encouraging that the solar power installation curve has tilted upward rapidly in the last decade. But, the curve must tilt much more rapidly:

Wind power began that rise a bit earlier, but installation rates remain tiny compared to what's needed:

There are signs that we can increase the rates rapidly:

Let's set some goals to see how much needs to be done:


For solar, wind and nuclear let's set as a goal the replacement of 50% of our total energy production by each (totaling 150%, giving us a 50% buffer for luck ;). I've incorporated corrections for actual power production vs the maximum-kW-ratings for solar panels and wind turbines that are often reported. My calcs are based on real results over the years. (Spreadsheet available.)

That means we have to install 400 million 600-watt solar panels each year to get there by 2050. We're forecasting installation of the equivalent of only 9 million 600 watt panels in 2021, and that's a new record.

Putting panels on roofs in the northern states isn't a cost-effective way to use them. (More on this in a future article.) And, we'll have to include many additional solar panels to cover the "worst case" periods of the year when solar output in half the country often drops to near-zero, since we need energy year-round:

In fact, for a large portion of the U.S., it probably makes sense to put the panels in Arizona and send the power up north via high-efficiency DC power lines. (More on this later, too.)


Bottom line: The commitment to install enough solar panels to meet our needs is enormous. It must also include backup power systems to handle nights and extended cloud cover.

That's the equivalent of about 30,000 7.5-MW turbines to install per year through 2050. We plan to install the equivalent of only 1000 such turbines in 2021 (the most ever). Wind can produce power at night, but the plan must still include backup power for periods when the wind doesn't blow.


The largest turbine concentrations will be in the center of the country. It probably makes sense to install most of them there and send the power east and west via, again, high-efficiency DC power lines.

Bigger plants of both types are coming online now:

If you drive I-40, -20 or -10 in Texas now, you'll be impressed with the number of wind turbines spinning or rising. I drove a stretch of I-40 east of Albuquerque in early 2020 and passed a solid hour of turbines.


Hey - how about a quick side trip to the foothills of the Rockies? ;)

There are lots of places like this cabin where a little solar makes a lot of sense. And, where land is scarce, putting it on rooftops in town can be useful.


But, given the random layout of houses throughout the country, putting solar on the roof is usually less power-efficient and more costly (it's slow, dangerous work up there) than simply paying to have a few dozen more panels installed in a large, countryside, community "solar farm", or perhaps in the southwest, with efficient HVDC lines carrying that power around the country. Large-number installations on the ground are much less expensive, don't have to deal with shade trees or shingle replacements after a storm, and can be oriented properly to provide more amps for the buck. Just "import" your personal-panel-power over the electrical grid and get reimbursed for it as if it were on your roof!


You can help by making a great investment: Work with your community to organize a solar island (hopefully on city/county/utility land, but lease if you must), and work with officials to be sure all of the various home-solar financial incentives will apply. Then, buy 20 of the panels for $4000 ($150 each plus another $50 each for installation by your island crew) to push power into the grid for your house. They'll produce electricity worth about $3.00 a day at 10 cents/kWh (given the utility's mandated support). That's $1000/year saved from your power bill, a 25% annual return. Ten million of us doing this next year will take us 200 million panels closer to the year's 800 million panel goal.


It's probably sensible to extend this concept to allow anyone to participate at much lower cost than rooftop solar: install the "personal panels" in Arizona and New Mexico, and send the power north (over HVDC lines that still need to be built.)


Now, back to the show:

So - can the U.S. build enough solar and wind power to replace all our current sources?

The challenge is enormous and probably much larger than most folks realize. I admit to being surprised by the numbers as I began to develop this website, given what I've heard about our progress in solar and wind. We can do it, but installation rates have to quickly go up by 30x for wind turbines and 50x for solar panels.


And, we'll need similar quantities of backup power for those quiet winter nights and hot, cloudy days. Batteries aren't going to handle that - the energy requirements are just too large.


Do we have sources for backup power at the scale needed?

Several, in fact. Let's consider one of them:

The first question even after 50+ years of nuclear power usually has to do with safety. That record is actually very good in the U.S.

There is no other U.S. industry with a public safety record as good as nuclear's:

This is something that I've been trained to understand as an environmental scientist and radiation protection specialist.

What has changed that makes nuclear power a comfortable choice for me now?

For decades, many of us with experience in this field have been concerned about this fact:

A very small chance of an individual plant accident increases to a significant chance, if thousands are built.

Until recently, no nuclear power plants were in the works that had zero chance of a meltdown accident.


That has changed.

(Notes: I have no financial interest in NuScale, and will be happy when other inherently safe small-core reactors become available from other companies - we'll need lots of them during the next 30 years. Also - all opinions on this website are mine alone.)


But, NuScale is the only game in town that is negotiating actual construction agreements for inherently safe reactors (to my knowledge -- let me know if I'm wrong). Bill Gates is making progress on a different, moderately small reactor to be built in Wyoming. I'm not convinced that his system meets the zero-accident requirement like a true Small Modular Reactor: The SMR's key differentiator is the small nuclear core. It can safely dissipate its heat in an accident. It can't melt -- that's a "critical" difference. Fifty thousand of these plants around the world should suffer no accidents resulting in radioactive releases, ever. We can't guarantee that for the old-design large-core reactors, and we can't afford any more nuclear power accidents: The public response is just too severe. Each of the three times the planet has seen an accident, the result has been near-shutdown of the industry for decades.


What makes these new power plants safe?

Simply put, NuScale will build and ship "can't-melt" modules one after another, building expertise and incorporating small changes implemented by expert staff as feedback from the field comes in.

Large reactors, in contrast, have large cores and are unique and huge in-the-field construction events. Each one of our 95 in the U.S. has had its own set of construction problems and solutions. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission regulates their construction and operation well, but the time required for initial approval and each set of field changes stretches into years or even decades. Costs skyrocket.


Better to install a dozen small power cells with about the same total power output, each with a small core that can't melt, produced efficiently in a factory.

You've seen (above) the huge solar and wind land areas required to supply 50% (each) of all U.S. power needs. Below is the same discussion for SMRs. Note that the SMR is its own backup power supply - no other power source (batteries, pumped storage or hydrogen) is needed since each module can run at full power more than 95% of the time. Add more modules and reliability approaches 100%.

That's 100 square miles of 35-acre facilities spread throughout the country -- small modular power plants replacing 50% of our total energy requirements. That compares to 24 billion solar panels on 19,000 square miles (plus backup power) or 2.3 million wind turbines on 8,000 square miles (plus backup).

Recall that we're not saying solar and wind should not be built -- to get to zero carbon we will need all sources of electricity. But, nuclear adds a real plus: backup power for the variable sources and baseload power as needed.

The existing infrastructure (high-voltage distribution lines and transformer centers) is adequate to current power needs, so replacing coal plants with small nuclear units installed on the old sites makes sense (where earthquake, sinkhole, flood potential and other safety issues are satisfied). Paralleling additional lines onto existing transmission towers will allow future expansion of the SMR installations at many of these sites. Adding a few "backbone" high-voltage DC power lines coast-to-coast will also be necessary to handle the increased use of electricity, and to deliver it a thousand miles or more from its source.


[Note: We should immediately consider manufacturing small-core modular reactors in partnership with other nuclear nations. The advantages would be enormous in terms of rapid deployment. But - we have to hold the line on inherent safety in a global SMR design - no old-idea large-core units can be considered.]


We were asked recently by a Montana official how NuScale power plants might fit into their system as coal combustion declines:

One "issue" that keeps surfacing:

Thirty years ago I ran a large project contracted by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to find a site for low-level nuclear waste storage. Dealing with spent fuel from a power reactor is a different problem in very significant ways, but a key fact is easy to understand:

Compared to any carbon-based power source, nuclear waste is a tiny issue.

Spent fuel is such a small problem that, despite decades of fruitless efforts by Congress to develop a storage site, no problems exist some 60 years since nuclear power began. The total amount of waste is very small and stored safely at the sites. I've visited the engineered concrete storage systems used in Pennsylvania and licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. They store the waste safely and at lower risk than shipping it across the country to a single site.


How about fuel for all those new power plants?

There is plenty of uranium for fuel, but we should be producing more of it here, maybe by simply requiring the utilities to "buy local" - it's a small part of the cost of nuclear power. The current mining method uses slightly acidic water pumped through sandstone formations in several western states to dissolve uranium to be extracted. (The process leaves the underground formations slightly less radioactive than nature since it removes the uranium.) U.S. uranium production levels can increase quickly - I've been closely involved in licensing new facilities and several are ready to operate or to increase production, given a better price. Seawater extraction is still at the experimental stage but looks promising - it would in effect provide a limitless supply of uranium, forever -- uranium is constantly being dissolved from crustal rock into the oceans - there's plenty there.


There are other possible backup power sources that can work at the scale needed: pumped hydro that uses two (generally man-made) lakes with a large altitude difference, pumping water up when there's extra power, then down, spinning a generator, when power is needed; or, stored hydrogen, splitting H from water when there's extra energy, producing electricity via fuel cells when it's needed later. (To use the latter, we need serious research right now to develop low-pressure high-density hydrogen storage.)


We can't do it with existing battery technology, though - the energy requirements to keep NYC, Houston or LA running on those quiet nights are just too high. Alternative battery systems being developed now may eventually have the capacity needed.

We can do this and get to zero CO2 by 2050, but it's an "All Hands" effort (I was a Navy Officer a long time ago). Everybody needs to be on deck, locally, at the State level and in DC, pushing for green power in city council meetings, at the capitals and in Senate hearings.


And: Watch for the Big Switch, already beginning, as Big Oil companies decide to become either Energy companies or irrelevant fossils. The latter would be ironic.

It can be done - the installation curves for solar and wind have turned sharply upward and the first small modular reactors will be installed in Idaho later this decade, built in the first-ever reactor factory. Battery- and hydrogen-powered cars are on the road. But, the amount of work to be done, and our Federal, State, regional and local efforts required in support, are enormous.


Fortunately, many of these projects will produce power or vehicles that can be sold for a profit, creating good jobs with good pay and a clean and comfortable planet where the oceans'-edge cities might not go underwater after all.


And much better lives, everywhere, as we share the results.


We can't punt this forward any longer.


Let's just do it.