Powering a large, industrialized country can be a dirty business.
The United States still relies primarily on fossil fuels such as natural gas and coal to produce nearly 400,000 gigawatt hours of electricity annually for commercial, industrial and residential consumers.
President Joe Biden wants the United States, by the year 2035, to have carbon-free electricity or what is termed “net zero,” meaning an overall balance between greenhouse gas emissions produced and so-called carbon offsets, such as planting of trees.
“There's no way that it is feasible without technologies that aren't currently in the marketplace today,” Mike Sommers, president and chief executive officer of the American Petroleum Institute, replied to a VOA question on a conference call with reporters.
API’s 600 members produce, process and distribute most of the energy in the United States.
API supports the 2015 Paris Climate Accord to cut greenhouse gases from which President Donald Trump withdrew the United States and which Biden rejoined this year.
The organization has unveiled its own climate action plan, which endorses a federal price on carbon emissions and pledges to advance cleaner fuels.
“While some public utilities may be able to get to net-zero emissions by 2035, for many others, that will not occur without technological breakthroughs in energy storage and other advanced technologies,” according to Desmarie Waterhouse, vice president of government relations for the American Public Power Association.
The APPA represents not-for-profit, community-owned utilities that provide power to 2,000 U.S. towns and cities.
“It is difficult to see how such a large undertaking could be done in less than 14 years without massive investments by the federal government in research, development, and demonstration of advanced clean energy technologies and changes in federal law to expedite the construction of clean energy infrastructure. And all of this needs to be done while ensuring the reliability of the grid and affordability of electric service for consumers,” Waterhouse said in a statement to VOA.
As a result, “fossil fuels will continue to play a major role in America for years to come,” acknowledged the new Interior Department secretary, Deb Haaland, at a forum Thursday.
“There are people who think that we can shut down everything and just run everything with solar and wind. That's a fallacy,” Washington State University professor Anjan Bose, a consultant to the electric power industry, said.
Rising global temperatures
Carbon dioxide emissions released from fossil fuels are the primary drivers of rising global temperatures, according to the scientific community, which warns this will be detrimental to human civilization.
Transportation is the primary source in North America of such greenhouse gases, followed by power generation.
Cutting carbon emissions to the level desired by Biden would require the country to rely more on the sun, wind, water and fission to produce electricity.
“What we call renewables — solar and wind — by themselves are unlikely to do the job,” said Jim Kirtley, a professor of electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Solar plants require a lot of land and the output of individual wind turbines is relatively small, especially compared with conventional power plants.
Take, for example, the coal-fired La Cygne Generating Station here in Linn County, Kansas.
To replace its 1,600 megawatt-capacity with renewables would require roughly 800,000 solar panels or 320 of the largest onshore wind turbines — plus an impossible assumption the sun never sets and the wind never stops.
Pairing batteries with wind and solar is understood to be a solution to the problem, but the technology and economics have yet to be proven.
Another challenge is the U.S. electricity grid itself. It was built to have a consistent flow of power running through it all the time. However, wind and solar being variable resources means the grid still needs a reliable baseload, such as those supplied by coal- or gas-fired turbines that can be quickly throttled up and down, to balance usage demands that vary by time of day and seasons.
Solar is now cost-competitive and, in some cases, cheaper than fossil fuels, according to Jan Mazurek, who directs the Carbon Dioxide Removal Fund at the ClimateWorks Foundation.
“But the challenge is knowing when to bring the solar online and knowing when to bring a firmer resource online after the sun sets. And that is a universal challenge whether it's in Southeast Asia or it's in the United States,” she said.
Overall, Mazurek is optimistic.
“We can get zero emitting electricity generation up to 67% by 2031 compared to 39% under business as usual … and that's just using the existing zero-emitting baseload with wind and solar layered on top, so I don't think that it's an insurmountable challenge,” Mazurek told VOA.
What about electricity?
Meanwhile, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, an independent adviser to the federal government, proposes funding experiments to shoot particles into the atmosphere to increase the amount of reflected sunlight, as well as seeding clouds with particles that would allow more heat to escape from the Earth.
From others there is a call for more down-to-earth solutions.
“The key to carbon reduction in our economy lies in electrification,” Kirtley said. “Electric cars, electric trains, and converting industrial processes like steelmaking to electricity are all feasible and would enable the use of carbon free sources of energy, such as nuclear power.”
For the U.S. economy to convert to carbon-free generation, according to Kirtley, an effective carbon tax would be needed and “we need to reform our regulation of nuclear power plant construction to shorten the time it takes to put one up.”
Some environmentalists and politicians remain reluctant to endorse nuclear power, pointing to previous disasters at Three Mile Island in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania, Chernobyl in Ukraine and Fukushima in Japan.
“Over the past few years, clean energy advocates and environmentalists have significantly shifted in support of nuclear energy as it becomes clearer that when we lose nuclear power, we often see it replaced by fossil fuels — working against any progress that is made even as we add more wind, solar and new nuclear in the decades to come,” said John Kotek, vice president of policy development and public affairs at the Nuclear Energy Institute.
“That’s why we have seen bipartisan bills passed in states like Illinois, New Jersey and Connecticut to preserve existing nuclear plants,” Kotek told VOA in a statement.
“It’s undeniable that we need public policy to drive much of this change to get us to zero and below zero by 2050,” Mazurek said. “It's a critical moment, but at the same time I'm very much encouraged by private sector action.”
Government, regulators and industry also will need to figure out how to manage a much more complex grid that, even without renewables in the mix, is always a delicate balancing act.
That was evident during last year’s rolling blackouts in California and this February’s electricity generation failure during a winter storm in Texas, the two most populated U.S. states.
“There is no entity which takes responsibility for making sure there's enough generation,” said Bose who also warns not enough attention is being paid to resiliency of the distribution system, which is no longer passive and one-way. Compounding that is the increase in the number and strength of damaging storms, which many blame on climate change.
“Policies and regulations seem to not always jive very well with the technologies that are coming up,” Bose, of Washington State University, said.