Electricity: At what cost?

Don’t get me wrong, I am an environmentalist and I want us to move from carbon fuels as much as possible to electricity. Take a car, for example, a normal family car uses 10-plus barrels of oil a year to run. The same car with batteries only uses 1.2 barrels of the equivalent of oil (gas, coal or oil burned in generating plants). The problem is that as the economy of electric cars grows, so does the demand for electricity. And the same goes for electric heating in your home or office, electric boilers for hot water, electricity for aluminum smelting, electricity for all those factory robots and so on. All good for the environment, up to a point.

Moving to electricity is a bit like robbing Peter to pay Paul. Instead of a motor in your car using less than 20% of the energy in gasoline (the rest is exhausted as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, carbon dust and heat), electricity produced at a plant uses 85% of the energy in the same amount of oil or gas. Coal is not so good, but it is cheaper, so the cost to produce is about the same. Nuclear energy’s kilowatts are very cheap to produce when you look at operating costs of a nuclear plant, once up and running. The real cost of the nuclear plant is in the building, which makes the per kilowatt real cost of nuclear energy on par or slightly more than a gas electric plant.

Then there’s a real problem with turning everything electric — as good as this may be for the environment. And when I say environment I mean the possibility of all of us and our kids being able to live at all. So, yes, saving the environment is real, necessary, and a dire issue for us all. It is all about survival on this planet.

The real problem facing us all in the coming decade is the cost of putting in an electric generating industry, building “sustainable electric generation” (wind, tidal and solar). Why? To start with, our electric grid is at max capacity already. Want to renew the existing grid? Current estimates are $5,000,000,000,000 — yup, $5 trillion, or $14,500 per U.S. citizen. Then there are the costs of electric plants, wind, tidal or solar generators let alone another nuclear plant at a building cost of $9,000,000,000 each. 

The current estimate of electrical need by 2025 is that, all in all, we have to almost double our electrical capacity and handling, or to put in dollar terms (with grid growth) we need to find $120,000,000,000,000 over the next five years, or $342,000 for every man, woman and child in America, or $68,000 per person per year.

But there is a simple solution big industry is overlooking. There are about 100,000,000 residential houses in the USA. The average electric consumption for these houses is projected for 2025 (when more appliances and cars will be electric) to be $300 a month, or around 2,000 kWh (kilowatt hours at $0.15 per kWh). If you put solar panels on each and every house to produce clean electricity — back-feeding an existing grid — you could charge owners/users $150 a month for all their electric consumption. What would the cost of putting solar panels on every house be? With increased factory build of that many panels and installation uniformity and regulatory laws enacted, the cost would be around $28,000 per house installed. Let me repeat that, $28,000 installed, all using the existing electric grid.

Instead of a cost of $68,000 per person in America every year for five years, we could cut the expansion cost needs of electric generation capacity from $342,000 per person to $8,000 per person. In my opinion that makes fiscal sense. And it is all good for the environment — and employment and industry, and GNP growth.

 

Peter Riva, a former resident of Amenia Union, now lives in New Mexico.

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