Weatherdem's Weblog

Bridging climate science, citizens, and policy

Can Researchers Do Simple Math?


An upcoming paper in Energy Policy challenges an affirmative answer to that question.  Here is the paper’s topic: “Examining the Feasibility of Converting New York State’s All-Purpose Energy Infrastructure to One Using Wind, Water and Sunlight,”.   That sounds great from an environmental perspective.  The authors claim that by 2050, NY state can transform its entire energy infrastructure so that the state will not use any fossil fuel sources.  Based on my knowledge of the climate system and having done some work in the energy infrastructure realm, I challenge the conclusions drawn in the paper.  According to Andy Revkin, who wrote about this paper, the authors issued the following as part of their press release:

According to the researchers’ calculations, New York’s 2030 power demand for all sectors (electricity, transportation, heating/cooling, industry) could be met by:

4,020 onshore 5-megawatt wind turbines
12,770 offshore 5-megawatt wind turbines
387 100-megawatt concentrated solar plants
828 50-megawatt photovoltaic power plants
5 million 5-kilowatt residential rooftop photovoltaic systems
500,000 100-kilowatt commercial/government rooftop photovoltaic systems
36 100-megawatt geothermal plants
1,910 0.75-megawatt wave devices
2,600 1-megawatt tidal turbines
7 1,300-megawatt hydroelectric power plants, of which most exist

Kudos to the researchers for generating an actual list which we can use for discussion.  It is this list on which I base by answer.  And here is why.  What do all the numbers mean in that list?  They mean that if construction on this infrastructure began to finish as of January 1, 2013, the following would have to be built every year until 2030:

236 onshore 5MW wind turbines (~1 per day)
7512 offshore 5MW wind turbine (~2 per day)
23 100MW concentrated solar plants
49 50MW photovoltaic power plants
294118 5kW residential rooftop PV systems (806 per day!)
29412 100kW commercial/government PV systems (81 per day!)
2 100MW geothermal plants
153 1MW tidal turbines

It should be relatively easy to see the magnitude of the task in front of the researchers’ claim.  The social and political landscape is currently not one that supports doing this.  Where will this infrastructure be built?  What policies will we put in place to ensure this happens?

Look at the residential rooftop PV systems number: 1471MW needs to be installed every year: 294118 * 5kW * 1MW/1000kW.

And the commercial/industrial rooftop PV systems number: 2941MW needs to be installed every year: 29412 * 100kW / 1MW/1000kW.

If we add these two together, NY needs about 4,412MW of solar PV systems installed per year, for a total of 75,000MW by 2030.  We can compare these numbers to installation numbers maintained by different sources.  I couldn’t find anyone who tracks number of system installs per year.  In 2011, New York installed 60MW of solar capacity across residential, commercial, and utility projects, or 1.4% of the researchers’ stated goal.  That is a huge discrepancy.

MW installation won’t have to double every year to achieve the 75,000MW goal – that’s the good news.  The bad news is the installation will have to grow by 150% every year for the next 17 years.  What could possibly get in the way of that achievement?

We can also look at the number of PV installations: 806 and 81 per day!  While the solar industry has certainly grown considerably over the past decade, are there 81 100kW commercial and industrial rooftop PV installations taking place every day in the the state of NY?  How about 806 residential systems?  Every. Day.  If installers are not doing this at that rate today, those systems have to be installed at some point in the future in order to achieve the goals.  Will 1,000 installations take place every day by 2030?  It might be nice to hope so, but that ignores a whole suite of policy requirements.  Any delay in installation in the near term imposes a higher required rate of growth in the future to meet 2030 goals.

Zero off-shore wind turbines were installed as of the end of 2012.  The numbers listed above translates to 63.85GW of installed wind by 2030.  That exceeds the national goal of 54GW announced by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Energy Secretary Steven Chu just two years ago.  Goals can and should change, but they require people with vision and insight to establish them and set a course to meet them.  What happens if future Interior and Energy secretaries some from the fossil fuel industry?  What roadblocks will NY face in achieving 64GW of off-shore wind by 2030?

On the practical side, where is natural gas in this energy portfolio?  Do the researchers make a credible assumption that recent natural gas finds will remain in the ground for the next 17 years while renewable energy infrastructure booms?  How will that happen?  What about energy efficiency and net energy reduction?  The authors make a huge assumption that efficiency gains of 5%/year are achievable.  A further assumption is made that New Yorkers will consume less net energy over time.  Is that realistic?  If not, the above numbers would have to grow in size even further.  What technological innovations have to occur?  How will NY handle renewable energy variability?

Are there abundant renewable resources across America?  Yes, there absolutely are.  The keys to harnessing those resources as quickly and efficiently as possible are available through smart policies – something that this paper should include since it is going to Energy Policy.  At best, this paper presents an interesting thought exercise.  I for one want to see a lot more work on the policy trends required to get NY to these goals.


22 thoughts on “Can Researchers Do Simple Math?

  1. Weatherdem: not sure you are familiar with David MacKay’s work. He a Cambridge Professor and author of the brilliant book/website Sustainable Energy Without the Hotair.

    He has put up 5 Energy Plans for Britiain on the site and talks a lot about implementation:

    Getting to move the U.K. anywhere close to any of these 5 plans is a difficult thing (as he explicitly states) of course. But at least he has got stuck into policy though becoming Chief Scientific Advisor for the Department of Energy and Climate Change.

    Like you, he is adamant that everyone has to to do the maths whichever side of the political spectrum they come from.

    • RP-
      I wasn’t familiar with MacKay’s work; thanks for the heads-up!
      I will look at his energy plans. They seem similar to some work done by some of my university professors and their colleagues. Acknowledging the scale of the situation is the only way we can appropriately consider plans and implement policies. Decades’ worth of pie-in-the-sky thinking has not achieved sufficient results to date.
      I appreciate your last statement and am pleased to meet another person (now two) who takes that charge seriously.

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