Judith Curry and I were discussing the ‘wicked’nature of addressing climate change. I said I don’t think it’s a ‘wicked’ problem, in that if we decide to reduce our emissions we have all the tools available to us–nuclear power plants, hydroelectric facilities, renewables, etc. I posted about it at my other blog here.
During the discussion I rashly said I would try to quantify the costs of transforming our energy portfolio and that I thought converting to cleaner fuels would cost an order of magnitude less than continuing to burn fossil fuels.
So I’ll try to do so here, but you’ll have to overcome a couple of heroic assumptions on my part if what follows is to make sense.
- The title of this blog is 3000 Quads for a reason. I believe that the world will consume 3000 quads of primary energy in 2075. So the total costs and consequences I will be working towards understanding are of that total, not current usage.
- I will not be considering any climate adaptation or mitigation costs. If I’m right, this monumental conversion will be a ‘no regrets’ policy that is a logical course of action no matter what happens to the climate.
- The global economic picture will show most people living (or trying to live) at a standard of living at or beyond today’s levels.
If we in fact consume 3000 quads in 2075, most of it will be generated by coal. The reason is simple–international agencies are underestimating future consumption. Even when they update consumption figures and increase the totals, they are silent about it, not telling planners and investors that the developing world really wants to consume energy at the same level as the developed countries.
A very conservative estimate of the coal that will be burned in 2075 is enough to generate 1,000 quadrillion BTUs of energy. One quad is the energy liberated by burning 38,000 train cars full of anthracite coal. about 30% of global energy consumption is coal today.
Some of the costs of coal have been computed. Let’s look at real costs, the ones climate skeptics and Republicans would grudgingly admit. There are costs that are disputed–the value of human lives lost during mining or due to pollution–that I won’t include because of disagreements on how to value those lives or even measure their loss. Similarly, things like reduction of IQ due to exposure to mercury are speculative about their impact.
From Wikipedia: “In 2009 the National Research Council released a report on the “external costs of coal” caused by various energy sources over their entire life cycle, from extraction to production to use and emissions, effects not factored into the market cost of the fuels. The report Hidden Costs of Energy: Unpriced Consequences of Energy Production and Use was released in October 2009. Requested by Congress, the report was sponsored by the U.S. Department of the Treasury, National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies. Putting together a diverse committee of experts including scientists, economists, and geologists, the committee estimated the use of fossil fuels had a hidden cost to the U.S. public of $120 billion in 2005, a number that reflects primarily health damages from air pollution associated with electricity generation and motor vehicle transportation. The estimate was derived from monetizing the damage of major air pollutants — sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, ozone, and particulate matter – on human health, grain crops and timber yields, buildings, and recreation.
The figure does not include damages from climate change, harm to ecosystems, effects of some air pollutants such as mercury, and risks to national security, which the report examines but does not monetize.”
The OECD estimated in 2012 that global GDP in 2075 will be about $675 trillion USD.
The $120 billion in U.S. costs was associated with 20% of our consumption being powered by coal, close to 20 quads.
Again, if you accept my heroic assumptions above, the (non climate, non-fuzzy) pollution costs from 1,000 quads at $6 billion per quad shows a cost of $120 trillion USD in constant 2005 dollars.
In the U.S. in 2011, nuclear provide about 17 quads of primary energy from 124 nuclear power plants, about .13 quad per plant. For 1,000 quads from the same average output, we would need 7,692 plants, about as many as normal power plants exist today.
In China, Areva just built a nuclear power plant for 3 billion Euros. Assuming that each power plant we built cost that amount, the total cost would be 23.07 trillion USD.
So it’s not an order of magnitude cheaper. Just a lot, lot, lot cheaper.