Renewables Outrunning Fossil Fuels and Nuclear
Together, biomass, geothermal, hydropower, solar, and wind energy sources provided 57.26% of new U.S. electrical generating capacity in 2019. These renewable resources increased much more than the combination of coal, natural gas, oil, and nuclear power.
A report issued in March 2020 by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) predicts that renewables will continue this dramatic increase over the next three years and will account for more than a quarter of the total US energy capacity. Nuclear and oil will continue declining, though natural gas will increase its share slightly. The forecast suggests that renewable technologies will help slow the pace of climate change.
On the other hand, advocates of nuclear power point out that the capacity for generating energy is not the same as the actual generation of electricity. The distinction is important because not all generating plants constantly run at full capacity — and that is especially the case with wind turbines, which (whatever their capacity) actually can produce only while the wind is blowing. At present, wind and nuclear are about equal in the amount of energy they generate in the United States, for nuclear and natural gas plants can produce almost all the time.
Regions differ in their energy sources, even in the same country. Much of the northeastern states still use coal, whereas California gets 31 percent of its electricity from renewable energy and only about three percent from coal.
Canada’s renewable energy comes largely from hydro-electricity, about half of it being produced in Quebec. Although Canada is a world leader in generating hydro power, its prospects for rapidly increasing the overall proportion of renewables is limited by its commitment to the ongoing production of oil for export. There is also substantial interest in Canada for creating a number of small modular nuclear reactors, though even if such a plan were adopted, these could not be built for several years, whereas renewables are continuing their rapid expansion.
Sources: Smart Energy International, Mar 13 2020. www.smart-energy.com/renewable-energy/us-renewables-to-rise-above-coal-and-nuclear-says-ferc ; Jeremy Whitlock; Natural Resources Canada, “Oil Supply and Demand,” “$”:https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/our-natural-resources/energy-sources-distribution/clean-fossil-fuels/crude-oil/oil-supply-demand/18086
We can now read the Imperial College report on COVID-19 that led to the extreme measures we’ve seen in the US the second week in March. Read on; it’s terrifying.
The Imperial College team plugged infection and death rates from China, Korea, and Italy into epidemic modeling software and ran a simulation: what happens if the US does absolutely nothing — if we treat COVID-19 like the flu, go about our business, and let the virus take its course?
- Here’s what would happen: 80% of Americans would get the disease. 0.9% of them would die. Between 4 and 8 percent of all Americans over the age of 70 would die. 2.2 million Americans would die from the virus itself.
- It gets worse. People with severe COVID-19 need to be put on ventilators. 50% of those on ventilators still die, but the other 50% live. But in an unmitigated epidemic, the need for ventilators would be 30 times the number available in the US. Nearly 100% of these patients die.
- So the actual death toll from the virus would be closer to 4 million Americans in a span of 3 months. 8-15% of all Americans over 70 would die.
- How many is 4 million people? It’s more Americans than have died all at once from anything, ever. It’s the population of Los Angeles. It’s 4 times the number of Americans who died in the Civil War…on both sides combined. It’s two-thirds as many people as died in the Holocaust.
- Americans make up 4.4% of the world’s population. If we extrapolate these numbers to the rest of the world (warning: MOE is high here), this gives us 90 million deaths globally from COVID-19, in 3-6 months. 15 Holocausts. 1.5 times as many people as died in all of World War II.
- Now, of course countries won’t stand by and do nothing. So the Imperial College team ran the numbers again, this time assuming a “mitigation” strategy: all symptomatic cases in the US in isolation: Families of those cases quarantined; all Americans over 70 social distancing.
- This mitigation strategy is what you’ve seen a lot of people talking about when they say we should “flatten the curve”: try to slow the spread of the disease to the people most likely to die from it, to avoid overwhelming hospitals.
- And it does flatten the curve — but not nearly enough. The death rate from the disease is cut in half, but it still kills 1.1 million Americans all by itself. The peak need for ventilators falls by two-thirds, but it still exceeds the number of ventilators in the US by 8 times.
- That leaves the actual death toll in the US at right around 2 million deaths. The population of Houston. Two Civil Wars. One-third of the Holocaust. Globally, 45 million people die: 7.5 Holocausts, 3/4 of World War II. That’s what happens if we rely on mitigation & common sense.
- Finally, the Imperial College team ran the numbers again, assuming a “suppression” strategy: isolate symptomatic cases, quarantine their family members, social distancing for the whole population, all public gatherings/most workplaces shut down, schools and universities close.
- Suppression works! The death rate in the US peaks 3 weeks from now at a few thousand deaths, then goes down. We hit but don’t exceed the number of available ventilators. The nightmarish death tolls from the rest of the study disappear.
- But here’s the catch: if we EVER relax suppression before a vaccine is administered to the entire population, COVID-19 comes right back and kills millions of Americans in a few months, the same as before.
- After the 1st suppression period ends in July, we could probably lift restrictions for a month, followed by two more months of suppression, in a repeating pattern without triggering an outbreak or overwhelming the ventilator supply. Staggering breaks by city could do a bit better.
- But we simply cannot EVER allow the virus to spread throughout the entire population in the way other viruses do, because it is just too deadly.
- How quickly will a vaccine be here? Last week three separate research teams announced they had developed vaccines. Recently, one of them (with FDA approval) injected its vaccine into a live person, without waiting for animal testing. That’s an extreme measure, but necessary.
- Now, though, they have to monitor the test subject for 14 months to make sure the vaccine is safe. This part can’t be rushed: if you’re going to inoculate all humans, you have to make absolutely sure the vaccine itself won’t kill them. It probably won’t, but you have to be sure.
- Assuming the vaccine is safe and effective, it will still take several months to produce enough to inoculate the global population. For this reason, the Imperial College team estimated it will be about 18 months until the vaccine is available.
- During those 18 months, things are going to be very difficult and very scary. Our economy and society will be disrupted in profound ways. And if suppression actually works, it will feel like we’re doing all this for nothing, because infection and death rates will remain low.
- It’s easy to get people to come together in common sacrifice in the middle of a war. It’s very hard to get them to do so in a pandemic that looks invisible precisely because suppression methods are working. But that’s exactly what we’re going to have to do.
Sources: Imperial College London, via Jeremy C. Young on Twitter.