Cheap Seats 2017
Pittsburgh, Paris and the Possible (Part 2) - 06/14
By Rich Trzupek
So Mayor Peduto, you need to come up with 2,800 MW of clean, renewable energy generation capacity in order to achieve your presumably life-long dream of successfully having worked to move towards running Pittsburgh solely on clean renewable energy. By clean, renewable energy I assume that you refer to the following: geothermal, wind, solar, biomass and hydro.
Let’s cross hydro off the list because your buddies in the Sierra Club and other environmental NGO’s don’t like dams and sure aren’t going to let you, or anyone, build any of significant size. Similarly we must cross geothermal of the list because – and I hope you’ll trust me here – it is hideously expensive and makes no energy balance sense unless you live in Iceland, Yellowstone or some other place where lots of heat is available relatively close to the surface.
So, let’s go with wind. Wind is good for the environment, right? Well, except for all those birds that get killed every year, but sometimes to save mother earth you have to murder a bit of mother earth.
There is an inherent problem with wind: it doesn’t blow all the time. Since I assume the residents of your fine city would like their power on all the time, we have to have something to back up what is an unreliable energy source. This unreliability, by the by, is why most experts in the power transmission sector say that you can’t safely operate a grid with more than about 20 to 25 percent wind generation on line
As things stand today, we’ve got to have back up capacity for every MW of wind generated power. That means more spinning reserve, ready to take up that slack when the wind dies down, and that spinning reserve is going to be fossil fueled or nukes.
Well, what about using batteries instead. First, battery storage is really expensive. At best, battery storage would triple the cost of power. Second, if you used batteries with the highest storage capacity you’d raise the cost of power even more and use up such a disproportionate amount of world lithium production that I’ve no doubt you’d bankrupt Pittsburgh, which, if you’re being totally honest with yourself, would hurt your chances of re-election.
How about biomass? Biomass is kind of like solar, with a very inefficient intermediate step between the sun providing the power and people using the power: growing stuff. At best, biomass provides about 2 W/m2, although 0.5 W/m2 is more typical. But what the hey, let’s say Pittsburgh gets all of its 2,800 additional MW from biomass that retains energy at the highest end of the scale. That would require over 340,000 acres of land dedicated to biomass – about 2,600 typical Pennsylvania farms – just to power the Pittsburgh area AND the price of electricity shoots up AND food prices do too.
And then there’s solar. At best (very efficient solar panels and lots of sunshine year round) solar gets you about 20 W/m2. More typically solar gets you between 2 and 5 W/m2. Since Allegheny County has not yet turned into a scorching desert a la Phoenix, we’re not going to give you 20, but we will give you the 5.
At 5 W/m2 Pittsburgh will need about 60 square kilometers, or about 40 percent of the total area of your fine city covered in solar panels, plus all of the expensive battery backup we talked about when discussing wind because while the television folks tell us it’s always sunny in Philadelphia I have reason to believe that Pittsburgh not only experiences nightfall on a routine basis, clouds sometimes appear overhead as well.
There’s no getting around these limitations Mr. Mayor. I wish there were. I really do. Biomass, solar and, to a somewhat lesser extent wind, are just fantasies that serve little practical purpose other than making people who love to feel guilty about occupying planet earth slightly less miserable.
But take heart. Pennsylvania has been at the forefront of the energy revolution in the United States over the past decade and a half. The cheap, plentiful natural gas in the Marcellus has helped the United States begin to shed its dependence on foreign sources of energy while simultaneously also reducing domestic carbon dioxide emissions, if you worry about such things, which it appears you do.
From your point of view, Pennsylvania’s role in America’s energy revolution should be a case of having your cake and eating it too. Be happy Mayor Peduto for, whether you acknowledge it or not, the people of the great state of Pennsylvania has not only been working to move towards the goals of American energy independence and reducing American GHG emissions, they’ve actually done it.