Energy Independence Is Cool(er)?

Figure 1: Energy Flow, 2005, in Quadrillion BtuThere is growing interest in the U.S.
both in achieving some increased
degree of energy independence
and in reducing CO2 emissions to minimize
global climate change. While both
are broad “goals,” no plan yet exists to
accomplish either.

Some believe that the U.S. should make
a comprehensive effort to become completely
energy independent, while others
believe that a significant reduction in our
dependence on foreign energy sources
would be worth accomplishing. Similarly,
some believe the U.S. should ratify the
Kyoto Protocol, while others believe that
CO2 emissions must be far more drastically
reduced to stabilize CO2 concentrations
in the atmosphere.

Those who believe that atmospheric
CO2 concentrations must be stabilized
at or below 500 ppm to avoid irreversible,
catastrophic global climate change
estimate that this would require approximately
a 75 percent reduction in global
annual anthropogenic CO2 emissions by
2050. Achieving this level of global CO2
reductions on a per capita basis would
require a reduction of approximately 95
percent in U.S. CO2 emissions over the
same period.

Following is a conceptual plan that
would meet this reduction and, in the
process, allow the U.S. to become completely
independent from foreign sources
of energy. It is intended merely to demonstrate
the feasibility, expansive scope
and massive costs associated with the
above-stated goals, not to accept or
endorse them. It also does not suggest
that this conceptual plan is the only
approach; merely that it represents one

The fundamental assumptions underlying
the development of this conceptual
plan are as follows:

  • U.S. population will continue to grow,
    reaching about 500 million by 2050;
  • U.S. per capita energy consumption
    will remain relatively stable throughout
    the period;
  • All current U.S. electricity generation
    capacity, with the exception of hydroelectric
    generation, will have reached
    the end of its useful life by 2050;
  • All current U.S. energy-consuming systems
    and equipment will have reached
    the end of their useful lives by 2050;
  • Technology that is not on the path to
    achieving the plan goals will not be
    implemented; and,
  • New technologies will continue to be
    developed and implemented throughout
    the period.

Each of these assumptions is subject to
challenge; some are subject to legislative
and regulatory interventions.

Stationary Sectors

Figure 2: Generation InvestmentThe U.S. currently has an electric generation
capacity of approximately 950 gigawatts,
with a capacity reserve margin of
~17 percent, serving a population of ~ 300
million. Figure 1 illustrates energy flow
in the U.S. All but ~100 gigawatts of this
capacity (hydro and pumped hydro) will
need to be replaced by 2050. In addition,
the U.S. will require additional capacity
of ~ 600 gigawatts by 2050 to meet the
electric demands of its ~500 million population.
This means that a total of ~ 1450
gigawatts of new and replacement generating
capacity must be sited, designed,
approved, financed and constructed over
the next 43 years. This requirement could
be reduced by a combination of demandside
management, efficiency improvements
and conservation; however, no
national goal quantifies this potential and
no national plan exists to accomplish it.

No technology has yet been demonstrated
at near-commercial scale that can
accomplish permanent fixation of CO2.
Therefore this plan assumes that all new
central generation, other than renewable
generation, will be nuclear until permanent
fixation of CO2 has been demonstrated.
This plan further assumes that renewable
generation sources will provide 20 percent
of total generating capacity in 2050, or
~ 300 gigawatts. The renewable share of
generating capacity could be substantially
larger if the technology to exploit dry hot
rock geothermal resources, ocean thermal
energy conversion or wave energy generation
becomes economically practical. The
renewable share could also be substantially
greater if large-scale electric storage
technology becomes commercially available
and economically feasible early in the
planning period, thus expanding the applicability
of both solar and wind generation.

Assuming a three-year design and
approval cycle and a 10-year construction
and commissioning cycle for nuclear generation,
this would require the completion
and commissioning of ~40 gigawatts of
new central generation capacity each year,
beginning in 2020. All of this capacity construction
would have to occur, regardless
of any effort to reduce CO2 emissions, to
meet growing demand for electric power.
However, the mix of generating technologies,
including the fraction of renewable
generation, would be affected by the
efforts to control climate change.

In addition, all residential, commercial
and industrial end uses of natural gas,
propane and fuel oil would be replaced
by electricity or renewable fuels, assuming
that biofuels can be produced and
consumed with zero net CO2 emissions
(ZNE). It is highly unlikely that CO2 fixation
technology will be developed sufficiently
within the planning horizon to make
distributed CO2 capture and fixation economic.
This would involve the construction
of an additional ~750 gigawatts of electric
generation over the planning period.

Finally, all transportation use of gasoline
and diesel fuel would be replaced
with some combination of electric power,
electrolytic hydrogen and ZNE renewable
fuels. This would require the construction
of an additional ~750 gigawatts of electric
generation, the equivalent useful energy
capacity of ZNE biofuels, or some combination
of both sources.

Therefore, if we assume that a combination
of advanced nuclear generation
technology, increased design commonality,
expedited siting and design approval,
uninterrupted construction and expedited
commissioning results in an installed capital
cost for nuclear generation of $1,500
per kilowatt, the generation investments
required are shown in Figure 2.

Regulatory delays could easily increase
these investment requirements, as they
did during the construction of the existing
U.S. nuclear fleet. Once the technology for
permanent CO2 fixation has been developed
and demonstrated, new coal generation
facilities could also be included in the
generation mix.

The amounts in Figure 2 do not include
estimates of the investments required in
nuclear fuel processing and reprocessing
to support these nuclear plants. They also
do not include any estimate of the investments
needed to reinforce and expand
the electric transmission and distribution
infrastructure. Assuming that the current
relationship between generation investment
and transmission/distribution investment
persists in the future, these investments
would be on the order of $1 trillion.

The sale of natural gas-, propane- and
fuel-oil-powered residential and commercial
appliances and equipment would be
prohibited after 2020. This would permit
them to serve out their normal useful lives
and be replaced by electric appliances
and equipment, or refitted to burn ZNE
biofuels by 2040. This would then permit
the natural gas pipeline system to be refitted
or replaced to transport compressed
hydrogen and the propane pipeline system
to be refitted for biofuels transportation.

Some gas and liquid pipeline capacity
would still be needed to serve chemical
manufacturing plants and fertilizer industry
needs. It is assumed these industries
would have sufficient scale to apply permanent
CO2 fixation technology similar to
that used on coal-fueled power generation.

No attempt is made here to estimate
the cost of replacing customer-owned
direct natural gas, propane and fuel-oil
burning equipment, since this equipment
would be expected to require replacement
during the planning period. Replacement
with high-efficiency electric appliances
would involve relatively modest incremental
investment in most cases.

Transportation Sectors

Accomplishing a 95 percent reduction
in U.S. CO2 emissions would require the
complete replacement of petroleum-based
fuel systems with ZNE engines and electric
motors, since it is highly unlikely that
permanent CO2 fixation technology will
be applicable to vehicles, at least during
the planning period. The vehicle fleet will
consist of electric vehicles, hybrid and
plug-hybrid vehicles, fuel cell vehicles
and engine-driven vehicles. Vehicle fuels
would include hydrogen and renewables,
such as ethanol and bio-diesel, assuming
that the renewable fuels can achieve ZNE.

Based on a useful life of ~20 years for
transportation vehicles, no new gasoline,
E-85 or petro-diesel vehicles would be
available for sale after 2020, allowing the
vehicle fleet to be retired at the end of its
useful life and replaced with ZNE vehicles
by 2040. The petroleum refining infrastructure
could then be largely retired, and
the pipeline transportation infrastructure
could be refitted for the transportation of
renewable liquid fuels. The petroleum marketing
infrastructure could also be completely
refitted for the sale of renewable
liquid fuels and compressed hydrogen.

The investment in electrolytic hydrogen
production facilities to produce the hydrogen
required for vehicle fuel would range
from $1 trillion to $3 trillion, depending on
the portion of the market using hydrogen
fuel cells or hydrogen-fueled engines and
the types of vehicles in the H2 vehicle mix.
The investment in distribution and marketing
facilities is also estimated to be in the
$1 trillion to $3 trillion range.

No attempt is made here to estimate
the cost of replacing transportation vehicles,
since they would also need replacing
during the planning period. At that time,
they would be replaced with ZNE vehicles.

Related Issues

The U.S. is already experiencing regional
water supply shortages at its current population of ~300 million. These
shortages will be exacerbated by the
anticipated population increase. Nuclear
electric generation facilities located near
the coasts or offshore would have access
to virtually unlimited supplies of salt or
brackish water for power plant cooling, as
well as for desalination and the separation
of hydrogen for use as vehicle fuel. The
incremental investment required to use
surplus off-peak electricity to produce the
additional potable water required by the
U.S. population in 2050 is on the order of
$1 trillion.

Assuming the average load factor on
the U.S. generation fleet does not increase
significantly above current levels, surplus
generation capacity could be used offpeak
to provide both potable water and
hydrogen. The investment required in
water purification and hydrogen production
facilities is difficult to determine,
because it is a function of the cooling
water requirements of the new power
generation facilities and the relative competitiveness
and market acceptability of
hydrogen as a vehicle fuel.

Summary & Conclusions

This cursory analysis suggests that it
would be technically possible for the U.S.
to transition to full energy independence
by 2050, using technology to reduce U.S.
CO2 emissions by ~95 percent. The total
investment cost of this transition would be
on the order of $10 trillion over the period.
This estimate is based on data from a variety
of sources within the U.S. government,
including the Energy Information Administration
and the national laboratories; and,
in many cases, is based not on the current
cost of the approaches identified but on
projections of future costs. The total costs
could be substantially higher if the anticipated
technology improvements and cost
reductions fail to occur or occur later in
the planning horizon. Approximately 75
percent of this investment would be incremental
to a business-as-usual scenario.
This investment is approximately equivalent
to the U.S. annual gross domestic
product; thus it would require investment
of about 2 percent of GDP per year over
the planning period.

Achieving this transition would require
an immediate decision to proceed toward
these goals. It would also require federal
and state actions to accelerate facility
siting approval and regulatory review
and approval of design, construction and
commissioning. While this is certainly possible
and has been accomplished in other
countries, it would represent a major
shift for the U.S. The timely siting of the
new power generation facilities will be
perhaps the greatest political challenge,
in light of the NIMBY (not in my backyard)
and BANANA (build absolutely nothing
anywhere near anyone) issues that have
historically plagued the power industry in
general and the nuclear power industry in

One potential approach to siting nuclear
generation, hydrogen production and
water desalination plants is to develop
floating, offshore facilities installed on
barges anchored behind massive artificial
breakwaters. This concept, first
“floated” by Westinghouse and Tenneco
in the 1970s, would involve construction
of “cookie cutter” facilities on the barges,
which would be towed into position and
placed in service. In today’s world, these
floating power parks would require the
protection of anti-ballistic missile and antisubmarine
warfare installations to protect
them from attack. One of the benefits of
this approach is reduction of the costs
associated with the one-off design of these
facilities, as well as reduction in the time
and cost of construction and inspection.
Siting would likely be a major political
issue, as evidenced by the resistance to
liquefied natural gas terminals, oil production
platforms and even wind farms offshore
but within sight of land.

It’s questionable whether the political
will exists to make this massive investment
in this time frame. If stabilizing CO2
concentrations is the goal, however, this
conceptual plan represents at least one
approach to getting there.