What Would It Take To Reach Biden’s Carbon-Free Electric Power Goal by 2035?
President Joe Biden pledged on January 27 to conjure “a carbon pollution–free electricity sector” into existence “no later than 2035.” What would that involve?
According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), the U.S. electric power sector generated 4,127 terawatt-hours of electricity in 2019. Of that, 38.4 percent was produced from natural gas, 23.4 percent from coal, 19.6 percent from nuclear, 7.1 percent from wind, 7.0 percent from hydropower, 1.7 percent from solar power, and 2.8 percent from miscellaneous sources.
How many power generation units does it take to generate that electricity? The country has 668 coal-fired units (producing 20.8 percent of America’s summer capacity), 6,020 gas-fired units (43.4 percent of summer capacity), 96 nuclear units (8.9 percent of summer capacity), 4,014 hydropower units (7.3 percent of summer capacity), and 1,345 wind power units (9.5 percent of summer capacity), and around 2,500 utility-scale solar power production systems. Small and utility-scale solar photovoltaic generation combined amounts to 5.6 percent of summer capacity.
Non-fossil-fuel energy amounts to 31.3 percent of America’s available capacity; wind and solar account for 15.1 percent. But wind and solar produced only 8.8 percent of power actually generated, indicating that wind and solar generate power at roughly half their rated capacities. After all, the wind does not always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine.
What do those figures imply about Biden’s goal of achieving a carbon-free energy sector in a decade and a half? The current fleet of 96 nuclear power plants now generates 19.6 percent of U.S. electricity. This suggests that it would take about 290 new nuclear plants to replace the 62 percent of current power generated by burning coal and natural gas. That’s about 20 new nuclear plants per year from now until 2035. Due to excessive regulation, the costs of the only two nuclear power plants currently under construction in the U.S. have now exceeded $25 billion. Based on that figure, building 290 such plants would cost a bit over $3.6 trillion.
What about using only renewable power instead? Since most hydropower sites are already occupied, let’s look only at how much wind and solar capacity it would take to replace the power generated now using fossil fuels. Right now, 104 gigawatts of wind power and 36 gigawatts of solar power generation-rated capacity are installed. The EIA estimates that 12.2 and 15.4 gigawatts of additional wind and solar generation capacity, respectively, will be constructed in 2021. Generously assuming that the new plants would generate about half of their rated capacities, it would at that rate tak
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