## Comparing the Interstate Highway System to Scientific American’s “A Path to Sustainable Energy by 2030”

November 14, 2009

In the November, 2009 issue of Scientific American, Mark Z. Jacobson and Mark A. Delucchi propose a plan to supply the world’s energy needs entirely by solar, wind and water sources by 2030. They conclude that the cost would be \$100 trillion. My calculations show the cost to be more like \$200 trillion.

This post dissects their comparison between the construction of the Interstate Highway System and their Energy system.

## Cost

Interstate Highway System (2009 dollars):  \$0.453 trillion
Jacobson’s and Delucchi’s Energy system (2009 dollars): \$200 trillion

Jacobson and Delucchi say…

“Our plan calls for millions of wind turbines, water machines and solar installations. The numbers are large, but the scale is not an insurmountable hurdle; society has achieved massive transformations before… In 1956 the U.S. began building the Interstate Highway System, which after 35 years extended 47,000 miles, changing commerce and society.”

The Interstate Highway System is “largest public works program in history.” The concept was first approved by congress in 1944. But it was more than a decade until President Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. The plan evolved to building 42,500 miles of “super-highway” by 1975.  40,000 miles were completed by 1980.

The expected cost in 1958 was \$41 billion. By 1995 the total construction cost amounted to \$329 billion (in 1996 dollars). This translates into \$58.5 billion 1957 dollars. That is not too far off from the original estimate.  Converting the \$329 billion 1996 dollars to 2009 dollars gives \$453 billion.

So if Jacobson’s and Delucchi’s estimate for the cost of their energy system is correct, then their energy plan would cost over 200 times as much (\$100 trillion / \$453 billion) as the Interstate Highway System to which they like to compare it.

If my calculations for the cost of their energy system are correct, then it would cost more than 400 times as much (\$200 trillion / \$453 billion) as the Interstate Highway System! And since they propose building their system in just 20 years, then it would be like building 20 interstate highway systems (which took about 30 years to build) every single year for twenty years.

## Required surface area

Interstate Highway System – paved area: 3,500 km2
Jacobson’s and Delucchi’s Energy system (solar portion only): 500,000 km2

Another interesting comparison is the amount of land required. The image at the left (click to enlarge) shows a spot check of interstate highway widths using Google Earth.  A liberal estimate of the average paved width of the Interstate Highway System is about 150 feet (about 45 meters, or 0.045 kilometers).  So, roughly speaking, the 47,000 mile (76,000 kilometer) Interstate Highway System paved over about 3,500 square kilometers ( 0.045 kilometers X 76,000 kilometers).

The area covered by solar panels in the Scientific American plan would be on the order of 500,000 square kilometers, or 150 times larger than the Interstate Highway System. (See calculated land required for Concentrated Solar, PV power plants, and rooftop solar, here)

## Let’s rip up the Interstate Highway System and build a new one.

Jacobson and Delucchi claim that the expense of their energy system “is not money handed out by governments or consumers. It is an investment that is paid back through the sale of electricity and energy.” This is a soothing argument that overlooks an obvious fact: We already have a power energy system that pays for itself “through the sale of electricity and energy.”

This is like pointing out that an Interstate Highway System would have great benefits for us, and then suggesting that we could reap those benefits by tearing down the system we have now and then rebuilding it.

It’s almost like swallowing poison so you can reap the benefits of good health after you recover.

## Controversy over a proposal build a new electricity generation plant

July 1, 2008

The Rocky Mountain News reported on a supposed controversy over a proposal by Xcel Energy to build a new electricity generation plant powered by natural gas in Denver.  This plant would cost under \$650 million dollars and have a generating capacity of 480 megawatts.  The RMN points out that critics…

“question the need for the plant, whose estimated cost today is more than \$600 million, up from initial estimates of \$436 million in November, due in part to escalating costs for labor, steel and equipment.

Opponents argue that renewable sources of energy, such as solar and wind, or energy conservation can substitute for an expensive new plant.”

Really?

Solar

I wonder if the opponents have checked the cost of solar energy lately.  According to the June 2008 survey results for the Solar Electricity Global Benchmark Price Indices, the cost per watt for industrial sized solar electricity installations is \$4.94 per watt.  At that rate it would cost about \$2.4 billion to build a 480 megawatt solar plant, four times the cost of the natural gas plant.  But, of course, the gas powered facility can operate near maximum capacity for 24 hours a day, yielding over 11,000 megawatt-hours of energy per day.  The solar powered plant can realisticly operate at its maximum power for about four or five hours a day on the average (in Colorado), and if lucky would yield maybe 3,000 megawatt-hours of energy per day.  To equal the the daily maximum energy output of the gas powered plant, the solar powered plant would actually need to have about four times the installed wattage, and would cost closer to \$10 billion!  With typical silicon solar technology of today, such a solar facility would have a footprint of about 15 square kilometers, or roughly 200 times the size of Coors Field, as illustrated in figure 1, below.

Figure 1.  Click on image to enlarge.  About 15 square kilometers of solar arrays would be needed to yield the same energy as a 480 kilowatt natural gas power plant averaged over a typical day.  That is approximately 200 times the size of Coors Field.  This image shows 15 square kilometers compared to downtown Denver with Coors field near the top.  Image is from Google Earth with annotation added by Tom Moriarty.

Wind

Wind is a better bet than solar at this time, and in the long run is cheaper than gas per kilowatt-hour generated.  It would still be very expensive to install enough wind turbines to be able to match the continuous output of a gas fired plant.  480 megawatts worth of wind turbines would put out 480 megawatts of power if the wind is blowing fast enough.  But when the wind is not blowing fast enough, the the output will be lower.  A multiplicative number, called the “capacity factor” is used to calculate the amount of energy that is produced over time, versus the amount that would have been produced if the turbine had been running at its maximum output 100% of the time.   Roughly speaking, the capacity factor for wind power in Eastern Colorado is about 35%.  The capacity factor for modern gas fired electricity generation would be better than 85%.  So, in order to get the same energy as a 480 megawatt gas fired plant, you would have to install twice as much wind capacity, or about 1000 megawatts.  The realistic installation cost of wind power (with the required transmission lines, etc.) is about \$3 per watt, as seen here.  So it would cost about \$3 billion dollars worth of wind generation facilities to replace the \$600 million natural gas powered plant.

However, even with the high construction cost, wind energy would still be cheaper per kilowatt-hour than gas in the long run.  Gas is expensive and going up, while wind is still free.  But wind has another problem.  When the wind is slow or zero, the power is low or zero.  It doesn’t make any difference how many watts of wind power have been installed when the wind isn’t blowing.  There is no power.  There must always be enough non-wind (and non-solar) power generation capacity to cover the load when the wind isn’t blowing (and the sun isn’t shining).

The folks at Xcel Energy figured this out a long time ago.  That is why our lights are not going out.  They know that wind turbines are a great asset for reducing the load on the more traditional types of power generation, but only when the wind is blowing.  That is why they are already the leading wind power provider in the United States, with over 2500 megawatts of installed wind capacity and plans for more in the future.  But they still must maintain the non-fickle conventional power sources, like gas, or the lights will start going out when the wind stops blowing.

Conservation.

Who can argue with conservation, if it means not being wasteful.  But be careful when some environmental activists says “conservation.”  The Rocky Mountain News article quotes the environmental activist, Leslie Glustrom expressing her reservations about moving from coal to gas.  In another recent opinion piece in the Boulder Daily Camera Glustom wrote:

“The alternative to building gas turbines to meet the summer peak is to begin using modern internet-based tools to manage the demand by cycling non-essential motors, lights, air conditioning and HVAC systems. There are a growing number of firms that develop these high-tech “demand response” systems, but, despite repeated efforts from citizen interveners, Xcel repeatedly refused to explore this powerful form of demand management.”

In other words, “citizen interveners,” (like Glustrom herself, no doubt) would like to use tools to control your use of pesky wasteful things like motors and lights.  Don’t worry, I’m sure they have your best interest in mind.

Conclusion

I am all for solar and wind energy.  Really.  Just click on the “ClimateSanity by Tom Moriarty” tab at the top of this page if you doubt me.  But I believe the market, rather than demands by “activists”  will ultimately lead to a better mix of renewables and non-renewables, with renewables gaining share as they become more cost effective.  As for Ms. Glustrom’s idea to “manage the demand,” I suggest a better alternative would be to have plenty of generating capacity and a varying rate scale for consumers based on the cost of generation by Xcel or the time of day.  That way, as the cost of generation varies with demand consumers can adjust their own practices and manage their own demand, without any help by Ms. Glustrom.