THEGREENGROK    Statistically Speaking

Statistical Grok: Energy Sources, Carbon Footprints and Subsidies

by Bill Chameides | June 6th, 2008
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 11 comments

 

Spain's wind powerhouse Acciona Energía has some 180 wind farms in 10 countries. Its recent inroads in the U.S. include the Tatanka project in the Dakotas. (NREL/Todd Spink)
Spain's wind powerhouse Acciona Energía has some 180 wind farms in 10 countries. Its recent inroads in the U.S. include the Tatanka project in the Dakotas. (NREL/Todd Spink)

We are going to have to slash our nation’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions — our collective carbon footprint. Even President Bush has accepted this. Electricity generation comprises about 40 percent of that footprint. How do those emissions break down? And how much of the federal government’s largesse is being used to lower those emissions? Let’s take a look.

Breakdown of Primary Electricity Supply by Fuel Type

Percent from coal: 52%
Percent from natural gas: 20%
Percent from wind: 0.7%
Percent from solar: 0.01%

Life-Cycle GHG Emissions by Fuel Type

From coal: 954 kg/MWh
From natural gas: 484 kg/MWh
From wind: 6 kg/MWh
From solar: 44 kg/MWh

Amount of U.S. R&D Funding by Fuel Type, 2002-2007*

Fossil fuel (coal, natural gas, oil): $3.1 billion

Renewables (includes solar, wind, biomass, and geothermal): $1.4 billion

Amount of Tax-related Expenditures by Fuel Type, 2002-2007

Fossil fuel (coal, natural gas, oil): $13.7 billion

Renewables (includes solar, wind, biomass, and geothermal): $2.8 billion

 

*Funding from Department of Energy

 

 

Sources

EIA, Energy Consumption by Sector: www.eia.doe.gov/aer/consump.html

EIA, Annual Energy Review: www.eia.doe.gov/aer/

GAO, Federal Electricity Subsidies: www.gao.gov/docdblite/summary.php?rptno=GAO-08-102&accno=A77708

Fthenakis, V.M., Kim, H.C., Alsema E., 2008, “Emissions from Photovoltaic Life Cycles,” Environmental Science and Technology, March, 44, pp 2168-2174.

Meier P., 2002, “Life-Cycle Assessment of Electricity Generation Systems and Applications for Climate Change Policy Analysis,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Wisconsin Madison.

Spath, P, Mann, M., 2004, Biomass Power and Conventional Fossil Systems with and without CO2 Sequestration – Comparing the Energy Balance, Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Economics, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Golden, CO, NREL/TP-510-32575, January 2004.

Spath, P., Mann, M., 2000, Life Cycle Assessment of a Natural Gas Combined-Cycle Power Generation System, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Golden, CO, NREL/TP-570-27715, September 2000.

Spath, P., Mann, M., Kerr, D., 1999, Life Cycle Assessment of Coal-fired Power Production, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Golden, CO, NREL/TP-570-25119, June 1999.

Spitzley D., Keoleian G. A., 2005, Life Cycle Environmental and Economic Assessment of Willow Biomass Electricity: A Comparison with Other Renewable and Non-Renewable Sources, Report # CSS04-05R, March 2004 (revised February 10, 2005), Center for Sustainable Systems University of Michigan.

White S., 1998, Net Energy Payback and CO2 Emissions from Helium-3 Fusion and Wind Electrical Power Plants, #UWFDM-1093, Ph.D. dissertation, Fusion Technology Institute University of Wisconsin.

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11 Comments

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  1. Daniel Wedgewood
    Jul 18, 2008

    I’m surprised that the GHG emissions of wind is so much less than solar. Is that due to construction GHG cost os solar panels?” title=”Solar vs. Wind

    • Erica Rowell
      Jul 20, 2008

      Bill Chameides responds – Yes, the so-called embedded GHG emissions of solar panels make them less favorable than wind with current technologies. In addition, a wind farm is more efficient at converting wind energy to electricity than a photovoltaic system is a converting solar energy. The good news is that the carbon costs of manufacturing solar panels are falling at the same time that conversion efficiencies are increasing. This will go a long way to reduce the life-cycle carbon emissions of photovoltaics. ” title=”Solar vs. Wind

  2. Wallace Kaufman
    Jun 12, 2008

    Sorry, but one more suggestion while I’m on the site. You posted this: Amount of Tax-related Expenditures by Fuel Type, 2002-2007 Fossil fuel (coal, natural gas, oil): $13.7 billion Renewables (includes solar, wind, biomass, and geothermal): $2.8 billion Yes, and I spend more to feed my cow than my canary. Is the cow unfairly subsidized? The kind of figures you posted are used by unthinking environmentalists and politicians whose thinking is mostly about votes to villify fossil fuels and the people who produce them, not to mention to indulge in a certain amount of self-flagellation for consuming them. (Environmentalists are not only puritans but penitentes.) The more useful comparison is the tax expenditure per unit of energy–kilowatt, BTU, or work accomplished. In other words compare bang for the buck. In this context fossil fuels produce far more bang for far fewer bucks than any of the alternatives. Once we focus on results or productivity rather than subsidy per fuel, we have the basis to ask why should it be this way or if it should be otherwise. If we consider only how much a given fuel gets in tax money and not how much it yields in energy, we have garbage in and garbage out. And that, friends, is the opposite of recycling.” title=”tax subsidies by fuel

    • Stephanie Thirolle
      Jun 13, 2008

      Dr. Bill Chameides writes: Wallace, I am impressed. All that erudition – psychology, literature, economics. I’m just a scientist – what do I know of such stuff. Nevertheless, I will make an attempt at a response. Perhaps you doth protest too much? And in protesting seek to set me in a box, alas, that’s not of my Making? I have been called many things but “puritan” and “penitent?” That’s a first. I was not aware that I attempted to tell you or anyone else who is to “blame” let alone “why.” By definition a non-renewable resource is being diminished if it is used – it’s a finite resource. And so our dependence on non-renewable resources is unsustainable. Checked the price of gasoline at the pump lately? That’s one trend I would call unsustainable. What about the water shortage crisis right here in the southeast? That’s been a wake-up call – current water management policies here are not sustainable and we need to find a new way of managing and using water. That’s not doomsday – that’s reality. You believe that it is appropriate for the government to subsidize energy generation from fossil fuels. I see it another way. I believe in markets, not in government handouts. I think, and most economists I have spoken to agree, that if the government is to subsidize technologies at all it should be those that are just developing and not those that are already mature and well established. In other words renewables instead of coal and gas. I guess the difference between you and me is that I believe in markets and you believe in government handouts. Or am I setting you in a box that’s not of your making? ” title=”re: diminishing resources and tax subsidies by fuel

      • Wallace Kaufman
        Jun 13, 2008

        Dr. Bill wrote, “Wallace, I am impressed. All that erudition – psychology, literature, economics. I’m just a scientist – what do I know of such stuff. “ You are too modest and perhaps too sensitive. I suspect that you had the same 101 courses I noted, unless you attended one of those schools where requiring students to know the basics of economics, psychology, and social sciences is considered oppressive. I do have to assume, however, that you either read too fast or that when one is “just a scientist,” he or she should be forgiven some shortcomings in reading English. I did not accuse you of being either a puritan or a penitente. The Constitution, of course, guarantees freedom of association and it is your privilege to choose. You also commit a non-sequitur: “By definition a non-renewable resource is being diminished if it is used – it’s a finite resource. And so our dependence on non-renewable resources is unsustainable.” The fact that we diminish a finite supply by using it, does not mean our dependence on non-renewable resources is unsustainable, except in some time scale that makes prediction meaningless. Humankind never has been dependent on any given resource with the exception of water and oxygen. Human history has been the story of a species that has the intelligence and imagination to substitute one resource for another by the use of technology. Fortunately about 100 years ago we substituted the relatively finite resources of fossil fuels for the animals and wood burning stoves and engines that were consuming vast amounts of forest land and wildlife habitat. (Consider 2 acres per horse in the east or 600 acres per camel in arid Central Asia.) Humankind is the “economic animal” and, given enough freedom, it generally finds the best economic solution to supplying its needs. When fossil fuels become scarce enough and the price high enough, we will move to another energy source, and are doing so as we write. So it is a non sequitur to say that because we are using a finite resource, we are dependent on it. In that sense we are “dependent” on anything we use to sustain life and civilization. Your language perhaps suggests a more useful perspective. You wrote, “Checked the price of gasoline at the pump lately? That’s one trend I would call unsustainable.” Exactly the point. It is not our use of the resource that is unsustainable, it is the price. The price, however, is not composed solely of supply and demand. The cost of government policy is also included, as are taxes. In any event, that unsustainable price is already the engine of development for many alternatives. As you have already noted in GreenGrok, the alternative once favored by environmentalists and still embraced by ignorant politicians—ethanol from corn—is counterproductive. The water shortage you note in the Southeast is also almost entirely the creation of government planning and policy. In the Triangle area and throughout the South, we would have been much better served if government planners had not subsidized lakes, reservoirs, water lines and other infrastructure that invited development dependent on those subsidized and relatively short lived resources. (Jordan Lake, for instance, is the primary source for much of the Triangle’s water and is already near the half life planned by the Corps of Engineers in the 1960s. Yet Triangle area governments hand out water rights as if this lake will exist forever. You also need to read what I wrote more carefully, because nothing I wrote suggests I “believe that it is appropriate for the government to subsidize energy generation from fossil fuels.” I did point out that your figures comparing the amount of tax subsidy to different fuels was misleading and useless because it showed “renewable” getting 5 times less than fossil fuels without noting that fossil fuels provide thousands of times more energy than the renewable. I concluded, “Once we focus on results or productivity rather than subsidy per fuel, we have the basis to ask why should it be this way or if it should be otherwise. “ Perhaps we both agree that the solutions will be found in “markets, not in government handouts.” Most of what I wrote suggested that markets are far better than government handouts or planners in developing future energy sources. If something I wrote led you to the conclusion that the “difference between you and me is that I believe in markets and you believe in government handouts,” either I need remedial writing or you need remedial reading. Where do I suggest any belief in government handouts? As a scientist you must have some evidence for that assertion. Should I suggest the opposite, however, I might cite your preference, “that if the government is to subsidize technologies at all it should be those that are just developing and not those that are already mature and well established.” Why would that mean, “renewables instead of coal and gas?” Coal liquefaction and gasification are non-traditional and offer huge sources of clean energy. And why not mention small fission plants or fusion? Your embrace of government solutions instead of market mechanisms is also evident in your recent post, concluding that “the U.S. Senate pulled the plug on the latest, comprehensive climate bill introduced to the legislative body. This is another in a string of setbacks for U.S. climate legislation since 1997.” In other words, you prefer the government solution despite the fact that the latest effort was defeated because it would have skewed markets and put huge burdens on average citizens for small or no changes in climate. The run-up to that lament said, “While the rest of the industrial world is figuring out how to tackle the gargantuan problem of global warming . . . “ Might you tell us what they have figured out that actually will reduce warming (assuming the present cooling trend is temporary)? Can you tell us why US CO2 emissions increased only 6.57% since we refused to ratify Kyoto in 1997 (almost unanimous rejection by Democrats and Republicans), while the global increase was 18.05% and signers like Japan, Russia, and Italy increased emissions by 10.6%, 15.6%, and 15.5% respectively? France, generating more than half its electricity from nuclear plants, increased emissions by almost the same percentage as the US. That the US does not have a coherent energy policy may be lamentable, but the failure to legislate new government programs and powers at the expense of its citizens and for no clear results, is a reason for celebration and an opportunity for markets. ” title=”Resources, govt and markets

        • Stephanie Thirolle
          Jun 13, 2008

          Dr. Bill Chameides writes: Wallace, this has been great fun, but I think we’ve gotten to the point of you said I said I said you said. Let’s just let the record stand where it is and let the other readers decide. Also please keep your comments on the topic of the specific post. ” title=”re: Resources, govt and markets

  3. Russ Keenan, Ph.D. (Duke 1983)
    Jun 12, 2008

    I am curious as to why your analysis makes no mention of nuclear energy. Clean, safe and reliable nuclear energy must play an important role in the future of U.S. energy needs if we ever hope to solve the energy crisis. Nuclear energy also has tremendous benefits associated with reduced emissions of particulates, sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, metals and radionuclides over coal-fired plants. ” title=”Energy Sources, Carbon Footprint, Subsidies

    • Stephanie Thirolle
      Jun 13, 2008

      Dr. Bill Chameides writes: Russ. Good point. Nuclear power is an important part of this discussion. It’s also a very complicated issue. There are wide ranging and strongly held convictions concerning nuclear power. On the positive side there is the fact that it is a low-carbon energy source-and because of global warming that is very important. So important that I do not believe we can afford to reject nuclear power out of hand. But there are negatives, such as the issues of waste and safety. My own take on this is that we should allow nuclear power to go forward but if, and only if, we can adequately address the negative issues. No permits, no building before those issues are resolved. And no government subsidies. And even then, it’s not clear to me that any one will invest in nuclear because the capital investment is so huge. ” title=”re: Energy Sources, Carbon Footprint, Subsidies

  4. Wallace Kaufman
    Jun 12, 2008

    You write, “While world populations and consumption grow, resources diminish and global warming threatens our way of life.” This is the standard Malthusian/Diamond prediction of doom. Among the many weak assumptions it relies on is the one that assumes the resources desired or needed today are the ones that will be in demand tomorrow. Never has been true and never has been more false. Once upon a time the primary source of energy for almost everything was wood. In many places the resource was all but wiped out. Today it is in demand largely for paper and building and that is changing rapidly. America and Europe have more forests today than 100 years ago. We can argue many forestry issues, including the definition of a forest, but the point is that wood, as a resource, is no longer in great demand. Same for building stone. Same for whale oil, once a primary source of lighting and lubricant. Same for grazing lands. Why not address the old Simon-Ehrlich bet about resources? We are already substituting previously unimagined materials for ones we thought would always be in demand. We have begun to produce meat and other protein from tissue culture. (Just think what tissue cultured meat would mean for liberating grazing land from cattle and sheep!) Use your imagination. That’s what has enabled the world’s living standards to rise despite growing numbers. That’s what has meant that we are not short on most resources, but most people in the world have more of what they need and want. Imagination is the greatest resource of all. Oddly it is denied and devalued most in politically correct academia. ” title=”Climate and sustainability

    • Stephanie Thirolle
      Jun 12, 2008

      Dr. Bill Chameides writes: Thanks for the comment, Wallace. “Use your imagination?” Ouch, that hurts. Much of what you say I agree with. What I don’t agree with is your implication that I am a predictor of “doom.” Far from it. The quote you cite is from manifesto for The GreenGrok: “We are on an unsustainable course. While world populations and consumption grow, resources diminish and global warming threatens our way of life. We must find a more sustainable path. But how …” You seem to have a problem with my statement that resources are diminishing. It is surely true that some resources, especially renewable ones like forests are plentiful. But there can be no debate that nonrenewable resources – like petroleum and natural gas – are diminishing. That does not mean that we are headed to doomsday – if I thought that why would I bother to do what I do? It does mean that we need to find a more sustainable path before we are forced to by the complete consumption of a resource we have not yet learned to live without. And hence the raison d’etre for TheGreenGrok: “… (to) find answers by elucidating causes of and remedies for environmental change and identifying pathways towards a more sustainable future.” You state: “Among the many weak assumptions … is the one that assumes the resources desired or needed today are the ones that will be in demand tomorrow.” You are absolutely correct. We have plentiful resources – especially renewable resources. We have plenty of resources that would allow us to generate energy with little or no pollution. So why have we not take advantage of them yet? That is a topic we will revisit many times in the coming months on TheGreenGrok. I hope you’ll join the conversation and continue to call me out when you think I am wrong.” title=”re: Climate and Sustainability

      • Wallace Kaufman
        Jun 12, 2008

        Dr. Bill replied about diminishing resources, “That does not mean that we are headed to doomsday – if I thought that why would I bother to do what I do? It does mean that we need to find a more sustainable path before we are forced to by the complete consumption of a resource we have not yet learned to live without. And hence the raison d’etre for TheGreenGrok: “… (to) find answers by elucidating causes of and remedies for environmental change and identifying pathways towards a more sustainable future.” Having taken only Psychology 101, I shall refrain from answering why you might bother to write about resources if you believed doom imminent. I will note that many people who forecast doom, nevertheless also spend considerable time telling us by what sins we are doomed. It is what I have elsewhere explained as the puritan element in environmentalism. (Having also taken Comparative Religion and American Lit and read Hawthorne, I note that from colonial times on we have had a substantial group of Americans who are prepared for certain doom and who are also willing and eager to tell us who is to blame and why. People free to pursue happiness, as our Declaration says we should be by unalienable right, have seldom, if ever, achieved “the complete consumption of a resource we have not yet learned to live without.” Even in Samuelsonian economics (if his book or something like it is still the foundation text), a diminishing supply creates an increasing cost; an increasing cost diminishes demand, as we have already seen with oil, and the cost also sends free people in pursuit of substitutes, as I cited with wood and animal power. The obstacles to this generally successful complex that has multiplied our numbers and increased our lifespans and allowed the average laborer to live better than the medieval king are usually restrictions on the free search (or pursuit of happiness) by governments who believe the bureaucrats and politicians can best select the path of sustainability, choose substitute resources, determine prices, and impose what they consider the “moral” choices. Such propositions may be challenged, and in many university courses in environment, they are challenged without being given a hearing. I’d call it intellectual lynching. I do not accuse anyone at Nicholas or on the faculty of Duke, but I have often heard arguments and sermons that create the atmosphere for such lynching. The choir, of course, is often inspired by someone like a former vice president who contends that science proceeds by consensus rather than by the testing of dissent. ” title=”diminishing resources

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