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Energy and Illusions

Why the key to America’s energy future is … physics

January 2024

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We know what the future of American energy will look like.

Solar panels drawing limitless energy from the sun.

Wind turbines harnessing the bounty of nature to power our homes and businesses.

A nation effortlessly meeting all of its energy needs with minimal impact on the environment.

We have the motivation. We have the technology.

There’s only one problem: the physics.

[OPENING SEQUENCE]

The history of America is, in many ways, the history of energy.

The steam power that revolutionized travel and the shipping of goods.

The coal that fueled the railroads and the industrial revolution.

The petroleum that helped birth the age of the automobile.

And now, if we only have the will, a new era of renewable energy.

Except … it’s a little more complicated than that.

It’s not really a matter of will, at least not primarily. There are powerful scientific and economic constraints on where we get our power from.

An energy source has to be reliable; you have to know that the lights will go on when you flip the switch. An energy source needs to be affordable — because when energy is expensive … everything else gets more expensive too. And, if you want something to be society’s dominant energy source, it needs to be scalable, able to provide enough power for a whole nation.

Those are all incredibly important considerations, which is one of the reasons it’s so weird that one of the most important concepts we have for judging them … is a thing that most people have never heard of. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the exciting world of … power density.

Look, no one said scientists were going to be great at branding.

Put simply, power density is just how much stuff it takes to get your energy; how much land or other physical resources. And we measure it by how many watts you can get per square meter, or liter, or kilogram — which, if you’re like us … probably means nothing to you.

So, let’s put this in tangible terms. Just about the worst energy source America has by the standards of power density are biofuels, things like corn-based ethanol. Biofuels only provide less than three percent of America’s energy needsi — and yet, because of the amount of corn that has to be grown to produce it … they require more land than every other energy source in the country combined. ii

Lots of resources going in, not much energy coming out — which means they’re never going to be able to be a serious fuel source.

Now, that’s an extreme example, but once you start to see the world in these terms, you start to realize why our choice of energy sources isn’t arbitrary.

Coal, for example is still America’s second-largest source of electricity,iii despite the fact that it’s the dirtiest and most carbon-intensive way to produce it. iv Why do we still use so much of it? Well, because it’s significantly more affordable … in part because it’s way less resource-intensive.

An energy source like offshore wind, for example, is so dependent on materials like copper and zinc that it would require six times as many mineral resources to produce the same amount of power as coal.v And, by the way, getting all those minerals out of the ground … itself requires lots and lots of energy.

Now, the good news is that America has actually been cutting way down on its use of coal in recent years, thanks largely to technological breakthroughs that brought us cheap natural gas as a replacement.vi And, because natural gas emits way less carbon than coal, that reduced our carbon emissions from electricity generation by more than 30 percent.vii In fact, the government reports that switching over to natural gas did more than twice as much to cut carbon emissions as renewables did in recent years.viii

Why did natural gas progress so much faster than renewables? It wasn’t an accident. Energy is a little like money: You’ve got to spend it to make it.

To get usable natural gas, for example, you’ve first got to drill a well, process and transport the gas, build a power plant, and generate the electricity. But the question is how much energy are you getting back for your investment?

With natural gas, you get about 30 times as much power out of the system as you put into creating it.ix By contrast, with something like solar power, you only get about 3 1/2 times as much power back.x Hard to fuel an entire country that way.

And everywhere you look you see similarly eye-popping numbers.

To replace the energy produced by just one oil well in the Permian Basin of Texas — and there are thousands of those — you’d need to build 10 windmills, each about 330 feet high.xi

To meet just 10 percent of the country’s electricity needs, you’d have to build a wind farm the size of the state of New Hampshire. xii

To get the same amount of power produced by one typical nuclear reactor, you’d need over three million solar panels.xiii

None of which means, by the way, that we shouldn’t be using renewables as a part of our energy future. But it does mean that the dream of using only renewables is going to remain a dream, at least given the constraints of current technology. We simply don’t know how to do it while still providing the amount of energy that everyday life requires.

No energy source is ever going to painlessly solve all our problems. It’s always a compromise — which is why it’s so important for us to focus on the best outcomes that are achievable.

Because otherwise … New Hampshire’s gonna look like this:

Sources

  1. U.S. Energy Facts Explained — U.S. Energy Information Administration 
  2. "The U.S. Will Need a Lot of Land for a Zero-Carbon Economy" (Dave Merrill)  Bloomberg
  3. What Is U.S. Electricity Generation by Energy Source?  U.S. Energy Information Administration
  4. "What Are the Safest and Cleanest Sources of Energy?" (Hannah Ritchie)  Our World in Data
  5. Minerals Used in Clean Energy Technologies Compared To Other Power Generation Sources  International Energy Agency
  6. Distribution of Electricity Generation in the United States From 2007 to 2022  Statista
  7. Electric Power Sector CO2 Emissions Drop as Generation Mix Shifts From Coal to Natural Gas  U.S. Energy Information Administration
  8. Ibid.
  9. "The Distortions of Cheap Energy" (Leigh Goehring and Adam Rozencwajg) — Goehring & Rozencwajg — Natural Resource Investors
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. "Power Density Primer: Understanding the Spatial Dimension of the Unfolding Transition To Renewable Electricity Generation" (Vaclav Smil)  Power Density Primer
  13. The Ultimate Fast Facts Guide to Nuclear Energy  U.S. Department of Energy

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Footage | NASA // The Standard-Star // The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine // U.S. Energy Information Administration // Rijksmuseum: Willem Roleofs// Philadelphia Museum of Art: Benjamin West // Library of Congress: Llewellyn V. Ludy // Adobe Stock: Bits and Splits, Chathuporn, Francesco Milanese, Panyajampatong Stefan  // Getty: Ashley CooperAttakan JampajanBoonchai WedmakawandBraunS, BraverabbitBurak KaraCarlos Sanchez Pereyra, Carolecastelli, Chain45154, Claudiio Doenitz, Craig K, CreativeSource, Cunaplus_M.Faba, Dgdimension, DrPixel, FPG / Staff, Godong, Gorodenkoff, Grandriver, Greenwud, H. Armstrong Roberts / Stringer, Heritage Images / Contributor, Holger Leue, Iantfoto, Imaginima, Ithinksky, Jeremy Poland, Jeremy Walker, JK1991, LordHenriVoton, Mark C Stevens, MassanPH, Mik122, Muriel de Seze, Nerthuz, Owngarden, Peter Dazeley, Press Association, Romenskaia Ek, Sasacvetkovic33, Schroptschop, Sean Gallup / Staff, Serikbaib, Shana Novak, Simonkr, SolStock, Steverts, STILLFX, Temizyurek, The Montifraulo Collection / Contributor, The-lightwriter, ThomPics - SK, Ulet Ifansasti, University of Southern California / Contributor, Urfinguss, VCG / Contributor, Vithun Khamsong, Wheatfield, Wirestock, Zhongguo // Pexels: Abraham, Binyamin Mellish, CityXscape, Cottonbro Studio, Jamal Yahyayev, Kervin Edward Lara, Lukás Vanátko, Milo Textures, Piccinng, Pixabay // Storyblocks: 8K, Bydronevideos, Ineedfx, IS2, Kk5hy, Kokhanchikov, Kukhunthod, Mediawhalestock, MotionFlow, Nopow, Vinkfan_art, Zuxela //  Unsplash: Augusto Oazi, Gautam Krishnan, Jani Brumat, LOGAN WEAVER, Lukás Lehotský, Marcelo Irigoyen, Paul Teysen, Phil Goodwin, Rishab Lamichhane Waldemar // Vecteezy: AWJ // Joseph E. Hinds // Mount Vernon Argus // CITED SOURCES AND NEWS OUTLETS ARE NOT AFFILIATED WITH AND HAVE NOT ENDORSED OR SPONSORED ANY PORTION OF THIS PRODUCTION. 

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