Peaked Electricity in the US: 2007

coal, uranium and natural gas are past peak
unconventional fossil fuels estimates are exaggerated
renewables could only power a smaller, steady state economy

related pages:

data from Energy Information Administration, US Department of Energy

from Dmitry Orlov

If we give up on nuclear energy, what will replace it? Nothing, probably. Let me try an example: if your lucrative murder-for-hire business suddenly runs afoul of a few silly laws (even though it has so far killed many fewer people than planes, trains or automobiles) that doesn't mean that you should keep killing people until you find another source of income. Same thing with electricity: if it turns out that the way you've been generating it happens to be criminally negligent, then you shut it all down. If you have less electricity, you will use less electricity. If this implies that economic growth is over and that all of your financial institutions are insolvent and your country bankrupt, then—I am sorry, but at this point in time that's not even newsworthy. Don't worry about that; just keep the nuclear accidents to a bare minimum, or you won't have anything else left to worry about.

Peak Electricity

by Mark Robinowitz

originally written May 2010, updated September 2013

Oil is not the only critical resource that is "peaking." The amount of electricity is also approaching a peak of production due to finite supplies of the fuels used to make electricity (coal, uranium, natural gas). Renewable energies are ideal generation sources, but they are a small amount of the electric grid and cannot be expanded fast enough to maintain current levels.


Coal: Dirtiest and Biggest (but finite)

Half of the electricity in the US comes from burning coal to spin steam turbines. Coal is the dirtiest type of fossil fuel in terms of mining damage and greenhouse gas production. Estimates of the amount of remaining coal have been exaggerated and "peak coal" globally is likely in the next decade or two. There’s not enough coal to fuel endless growth projections, but there is enough to further foul our air.

Coal peaked in the US in 1999, in terms of energy content. In Pennsylvania, where coal mining started, it peaked in 1920. In Britain, coal peaked in 1913 and Germany had Peak Coal during World War II. The last phase of coal will probably be in China, powered by Australian coal.

For more info:
the best book: Richard Heinberg "Blackout: Coal, Climate and the Last Energy Crisis."



Nuclear Power: Just a Fancy Way to Boil Water

The richest uranium deposits in the US were in the Colorado plateau, the best were extracted decades ago (with severe health and ecological impacts). Globally, uranium deposits are mostly in a few countries and are nearing their peak.

As of 2010, about half of the nuclear fuel in US power reactors comes from the "Megatons to Megawatts" program, which has diverted uranium from dismantled Russian nuclear bombs to civilian fuel production. Using weapons materials for power generation reduces weapons stockpiles, but still creates more high level nuclear wastes. This program will run out in 2013.

Some nuclear boosters want to revive plans for "reprocessing" of irradiated fuel rods, the most toxic technology ever invented. Reprocessing dissolves extremely radioactive "spent" nuclear fuel rods into acids, and uses solvents to extract the unfissioned uranium for reuse. The byproducts include the myriad "fission products" left over from the reactor’s operation ("high level waste"), dissolved into a nasty mix of toxic solvents and acids. It is thermally hot, lethally radioactive and extremely difficult to contain.

In 1975, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission published "The Impact of Intensified Nuclear Safeguards on Civil Liberties," also known as the "Barton Report." It predicted that an economy based on nuclear reprocessing would require the suspension of civil liberties to safeguard the nuclear fuel since it would create commerce in nuclear weapons ingredients. Reprocessing also separates out plutonium from irradiated fuel rods. President Ford blocked US plans for reprocessing since it would fuel nuclear proliferation by commercializing weapons materials.


Natural Gas: Overcommitted, In Decline

Natural gas is the cleanest burning fossil fuel and it is also the most versatile, which has led to increased variety of uses of it. In recent years, its role in the electric grid has increased and now powers about one sixth of US electrical demand.

US natural gas production peaked in 1973 and has been on a plateau ever since. About a quarter of US oil and gas production is from offshore wells in the Gulf of Mexico (since the on shore fields are mostly in terminal decline).

While natural gas is the easiest to use fossil fuel it is also the most difficult to transport, requiring pipelines between the well head and the ultimate user. About two percent of US usage comes from Liquid Natural Gas ships where the fuel is cooled to about 260 degrees below zero (F) to compress it for transoceanic transit. LNG boats and terminals have the energy potential of a small nuclear bomb if they explode.

A new technology called "shale gas" has resulted in a domestic boom of gas production. Shale gas involves "fracking" underground rock with toxic solvents to liberate embedded natural gas. While industry groups claim shale gas is a "100 year" supply, wells in the Barnett shale gas field near Dallas, Texas have sharp decline rates (70% in their first year), so shale gas will probably be a short term boom followed by sharp bust. A good summary is Richard Heinberg's book "Snake Oil: How Big Energy's Misleading Promise of Plenty Imperils Our Future"

for more info: (from Post Carbon Institute)


Damned Rivers

Hydropower was one of the earliest forms of large scale electrical production and is one of the easiest to operate. The fuel is essentially free and renewable (once the dam is built). It is easy to vary the flow rates up and down to match shifts in the load demand. But in the US, most sites with hydroelectric potential have already been damned, so even if society ignored the ecological impacts on rivers and fish habitat, there are few places left in North America for more damns.


Grand Coulee dam photos by the author, August 2011. Largest dam in the US (largest in the world for decades), roughly six and a half gigawatts when all generators in the dam are running at full power.


Grid Stability and Baseload

The electric grid requires balancing generation with load demands to keep it stable. Solar and wind power are reliable yet intermittent, it’s not always sunny or windy. Running more than a small portion of the grid with renewables would require major changes to the way the grid runs since it’s hard to store solar and wind power.

The Department of Homeland Security is running planning exercises on how to power "critical infrastructure" if the national grids break down and result in "islands" of fragmented grid sections. It will be harder to keep everything powered all of the time as fossil fuels decline, the economy contracts and components age.


Sun Power: Good for Billions of Years

Passive solar heating of buildings, solar hot water, and solar photovoltaic electricity are ultimately the best way to power our society. But there is a huge gap between where we are and where we would like to be. Current PV technology requires a global electronics infrastructure, rare mineral ores, copper and other materials that are energy intensive to process. Solar technology is a way to use fossil fuels, not a substitute for them.


The Answer is Blowing in the Wind

Wind turbines are also a way to use solar power, since sunlight creates wind. Commercial wind turbines require rare earth mineral ores for the magnets, which are mostly found in China. While there has been a big boom in wind farms, they cannot be built fast enough to replace depleting natural gas or the need to stop mining coal due to its ecological devastation.

Renewables for a Steady State Economy

Using solar energy for twenty years (and wind power for ten) taught me that renewable energy could only run a smaller, steady state economy. Our exponential growth economy requires ever increasing consumption of concentrated resources (fossil fuels are more energy dense than renewables). A solar energy society would require moving beyond growth-and-debt based money.

After fossil fuel we will only have solar power, but that won’t replace what we use now. We need to abandon the myth of endless growth on a round, and therefore, finite planet to have a planet on which to live. Will we use the remaining fossil fuels to make lots of solar panels and relocalize food production instead of waging Peak Oil Wars?



This chart from the U.S. Department of Energy is complex yet simple. It shows what each major energy source is used for: coal, nukes, and dams make electricity, oil is mostly for transportation, natural gas is used for heating homes, electricity, and industrial processes. Those sources are either near or at their peak. In the short run we need efficiency to mitigate the early stages of decline. We also need to reduce consumption for ecological and social justice reasons. Scaling up forest biomass to replace coal would require massive expansion of deforestation. A "quad" is a quadrillion British Thermal Units (one BTU is roughly equal to lighting a match).



North America's four electric grids

North America's power grids are roughly divided into a western grid, an eastern grid, Texas and Quebec. The grid is a 24 hour / 7 days a week, 365 day operation - there is no storage capacity in the grid, which makes it difficult to power it completely with intermittent renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. The eastern grid is nearly the entire US east of the Rockies. Most of Texas has its own grid. The western grid stretches from BC to Tijuana, from Denver to the Pacific coast. It is interesting that the most secessionist parts of the US and Canada -- Texas and Quebec -- each are largely on their own power grids.

October 18, 2013, 9:00 am

Electrical Grid Is Called Vulnerable to Power Shutdown


Two researchers discovered that they could freeze, or crash, the software that monitors a substation, thereby blinding control center operators from the power grid.

Over the past few months, the discoveries of two engineers have led to a steady trickle of alarms from the Department of Homeland Security concerning a threat to the nation's power grid. Yet hardly anyone has noticed.

The advisories [copy below] concern vulnerabilities in the communication protocol used by power and water utilities to remotely monitor control stations around the country. Using those vulnerabilities, an attacker at a single, unmanned power substation could inflict a widespread power outage.

Still, the two engineers who discovered the vulnerability say little is being done.

Adam Crain and Chris Sistrunk do not specialize in security. The engineers say they hardly qualify as security researchers. But seven months ago, Mr. Crain wrote software to look for defects in an open-source software program. The program targeted a very specific communications protocol called DNP3, which is predominantly used by electric and water companies, and plays a crucial role in so-called S.C.A.D.A. (supervisory control and data acquisition) systems. Utility companies use S.C.A.D.A. systems to monitor far-flung power stations from a control center, in part because it allows them to remotely diagnose problems rather than wait for a technician to physically drive out to a station and fix it.

[-] cjwirth on November 15, 2007 - 7:39am | Permalink | Subthread | Comments top

Deindustrialization will occur much faster. Power grid failures will occur in the not too distant future. The nation depends on electricity for: industry; manufacturing; auto, truck, rail, and air transportation (electric motors pump diesel fuel, gasoline, and jet fuel); oil and natural gas heating systems; lighting; elevators; computers; broadcasting stations; radios; TVs; automated building systems; electric doors; telephone and cell phone services; water distribution; water purification; waste water treatment systems; government offices; hospitals; airports; and police and fire services, etc. Phillip Schewe, author of "The Grid: A Journey Through the Heart of Our Electrified World," writes that the nation’s power infrastructure is "the most complex machine ever made." In "Lights Out: The Electricity Crisis, the Global Economy, and What It Means To You," author Jason Makansi emphasizes that "very few people on this planet truly appreciate how difficult it is to control the flow of electricity." A 2007 report of the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) concluded that peak power demand in the U.S. would increase 18% over the next decade and that new power supply sources would not meet that demand. NERC also noted concerns with natural gas disruptions and supplies, insufficient capacity for peak power demand during hot summers (due to air conditioning), incapacity in the transmission infrastructure, and a 40% loss of engineers and supervisors in 2009 due to retirements. According to Railton Frith and Paul H. Gilbert, power failures currently have the potential of paralyzing the nation for weeks or months. In an era of multiple crises and resource constraints, power failures will last longer and then become permanent. When power failures occur in winter, millions of people in the U.S. and Canada will die of starvation and exposure. There are not enough shelters for entire populations, and shelters will lack heat, adequate food and water, and sanitation. The following 2 sources are insightful:

Under this scenario, we would not be able to get the oil to get things running again and thus the U.S. and Canada could not get the power gird back up. The energy house of cards will collapse fast. Because there is no preparation by the governments, it can happen here fast.