The Fossil Folly

The Fossil Folly!

The Truth About America’s Addiction

While consumers defend their addiction to driving, automakers defend their addiction to old internal combustion technology and utilities defend their addiction to fossil fuels, we all must find a real solution to volatile energy prices, air pollution and global warming before we too become like the dinosaurs – extinct.

The fossil folly (in the United States) began in 1885 when coal replaced wood as a heating fuel.  Fuel usage escalated for the next fifty years as humankind learned to produce petroleum and natural gas.  In the 1920s internal combustion technology from World War I started rapidly replacing mammal muscle-powered machines, lighting up America’s addiction to energy. From 1950 to 2006, the U.S. population doubled, and at the same time, energy usage tripled.[i]  Today, U.S. citizens are some of the largest (energy) addicts in the world.[ii]


Per Capita Energy Use. Credit: EIA

World energy consumption IEA 2007

Comparison of Largest Energy Using Countries. Credit: IEA

The Amount of Fossil Fuels We Consume is Staggering!

Fossil Fuels dominate the landscape of energy use in the United States.

EIA fossil fuel consumption

US citizens annually consume (burn) over:

  • 5.1 billion barrels of oil for transportation plus 1.9 billion barrels burned in old power plants, poured on highways and rooftops as asphalt or made into other products.  2,550 supertankers of oil every year!
  • 22.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas (68% to heat buildings, 30% to power gen).  111 million Goodyear blimps worth of natural gas every year!
  • 1 billion tons of coal (91% in power plants).  That’s roughly 40 billion cubic feet or 3,420′ x 3,420′ x 3,420′.  An entire mountain of coal every year!

With the uptick in domestic natural gas production, coal use has decreased somewhat.  However, with global demand increasing total fossil fuel consumption is still projected to rise.   Worse yet, if cleaner burning domestic natural gas exports increase, gas prices will go up and dirty coal consumption will again rise to match the demand.

Local Addiction – Global Nightmare

In 2006, the U.S. generated over 2,700,000 MWh of electricity from its 10,800 fossil-fueled power plants emitting more than 3.7 million metric tons of smog producing NOx, 9.5 million tons of acid rain causing SO2 and 2.4 billion tons of CO2 greenhouse gases.[i] Putting that in perspective, the US only has 5% of the world’s population, but emits 25% of the world’s air pollution.[iii]  If we continue with business as usual, U.S. energy use will escalate at least 1 percent per year until 2030, while worldwide energy use will escalate at 2% percent.[iv] Developing countries are following our fossil path, not charting a sustainable path.  Atmospheric CO2 concentrations will continue to double from pre-industrial levels to 560 ppm before 2050. Dubiously enough, we are right on track to breach that threshold sooner!  This doubling is expected to cause an overall 1.8 – 5.4 degree Fahrenheit rise in global average temperatures by 2050 [v].

While this may seem small, these minute changes will cause drastic changes in rainfall patterns and continue the rapid melting of glaciers across the planet. This will cause extreme weather conditions and sea levels to rise, resulting in flooding. This will destroy delicate ecosystems and cause a sharp decline in mankind’s food supply.  Unfortunately, all you have to do is read any nature journal or science digest or get outdoors to see vegetation and animals dying off and becoming extinct at an alarming rate.  As a major contributor to global energy-related air pollution and stewards of the wonderful natural resources we have been given, we have the obligation to lead the world into a sustainable future.  We simply cannot bury our heads in the sand and “hope for the best”.


So Where Does It All Go?

Even though 3/4 of all oil consumption is for internal combustion engines in cars and trucks, it’s only a fraction (29%) of total energy consumed in the U.S.[vi]   Roughly 39% goes to feed our inefficient building stock – primarily just to heat or cool the air a few degrees or add light to a room, most often while it’s already light outside. The remaining thirty-two per cent (32%) is used in industrial processes (for producing, processing and assembling goods).


Worse yet, only 19% of the fossil fuels we buy result in actual productive energy use or work.  According to the EIA, “two-thirds (approximately 67%) of total energy input (for power generation) is lost in conversion” and “of electricity generated, approximately 5% is lost in plant use and 9% is lost in transmission and distribution.”  Consider the present model for heating and cooling most buildings.  First, we drill a hole in the ground, pump gas or oil hundreds of miles to a power plant, and then burn the fuel in a boiler or furnace to heat water to 600 – 1000 degrees F to spin steam turbine blades.  The turbine is connected to a generator which then makes electricity.  We then send the electricity over hundreds or thousands of miles of power lines connected to our buildings to heat wires to warm the air or run air conditioning compressors.  The air conditioner then cools a fluid so we can run that over a coil to simply heat or cool the air in our room by a few degrees. Pretty inefficient isn’t it?

Clearly, we must shift our investments from this grossly inefficient architecture to more efficient non-polluting architecture.  Fortunately there are many options for both consumers and utilities to become more efficient and non-polluting.

Clean Energy Options Abound:

Fortunately, the fossil folly can be rectified.  But with so much resistance to change, it requires everyone (in the global supply chain) to do their part.  Following is an overview of several clean energy options followed by a roadmap for: consumers, business, utilities and policy makers to follow.  If followed, this roadmap will allow the United States to transition to a diversified, clean energy portfolio and put an end to our global fossil fuel problems.

Energy Efficiency

Energy efficiency is the low hanging fruit to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.  Energy use in (residential, commercial, and industrial) buildings accounts for two-thirds of the nation’s total energy use.

While most people think of energy efficiency as buying an Energy Star refrigerator or copier, this false sense of efficiency only serves to reward status quo design and planning.  It’s the design of our infrastructure that is grossly inefficient.  Replacing components will only slow down the inevitable and never fix the root cause of our energy addiction. Our approach to designing and retrofitting buildings needs to be rethought so we can remove our dependence on unnecessary mechanical systems and utilize natural laws of physics, such as heat transfer, to provide comfort.  For example, we must design high efficiency buildings that first rely on thermal efficiency and natural ventilation with passive heating and cooling to provide comfort.  Windows, clerestories and light tubes, for example, bring in natural daylight.  Building integrated solar power can provide the small balance of electricity needed for computers or process loads.  Our water and wastewater systems must also be organic and avoid the need for complex wastewater treatment plants and massive water conveyance or public works infrastructure.

To do this, architectural design considerations must include the building site, orientation of the building, use of reused and recycled building material, the placement of windows, etc.  Engineering (whole building) design considerations must include building modeling, natural ventilation, passive heating and cooling, energy efficient mechanical and electrical equipment selection, evaluation of clean/renewable energy solutions, and design methods to minimize water use through efficient fixtures and/or reuse of water and/or capture of rainwater.  Incorporating campus or district master planning provides additional opportunities to improve efficiency via capture and reuse of wasted heating and cooling energy and water waste.

Sustainable design and construction provides a foundation for building sustainably.  The United States Green Building Council (USGBC) encourages sustainable design through the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System.  LEED “is the nationally accepted benchmark for the design and construction of high-performance green buildings,” providing business owners and operators with the tools they need to significantly improve their buildings’ performance.[vii]   Building owners can be assured of building performance and comfort with EPA Energy Star certification.  We cannot stop there though. Building owners must demand continuous measurement and commissioning processes to ensure inefficiencies in the original building design are corrected and even improved upon to ensure the building is always operated at peak performance.

So, how do you ensure that you have an energy efficient building? Anyone who builds a new home or business and/or owns an existing building should seek advice from architects, engineers and consultants who specialize in this area. Unlike conventional architects and HVAC designers who typically design to meet code thresholds, these energy and environment professionals are familiar with optimal solutions and can better navigate, educate and challenge codes and uninformed building officials while capitalizing on federal, state and regional transitional incentive programs that will help make “going green” a cost-effective solution for early adopters.

As energy prices escalate, the Whole Building, Campus or District Design approach to energy efficiency will become the de-facto standard due its inherent cost effectiveness for consumers. To promote this transition, it is essential that consumers demand more efficient performance-based designs and technologies from planners, architects, engineers, builders and manufacturers. Consumer demand for these services and products is essential to force a shift to exclusively using high efficiency building designs and products throughout the nation.

Adaptive Smart Grids, MicroGrids and NanoGrids

Demand management is a tool used by utilities to help them levelize power production and provide grid stability.  On the average day, the demand for energy varies significantly.  Daily power demand generally looks like a tall bell-shaped curve, peaking during the middle of the day (when people are at work and air conditioning units are humming) then dropping off throughout the night (when the weather cools down and most people are sleeping). Since large power stations are often slow to start up and expensive to idle, power demand needs to be well managed to avoid large fluctuations that can cause instability or blackouts on the power grid.  Overloading a single power line can generate excess heat, cause the line to sag or break and result in power-supply instability (phase and voltage fluctuations) that can ripple throughout the grid.

Demand management helps smooth power fluctuations by temporarily shedding user’s peak loads during extreme demand days, such as a heat wave, and flattens the bell shaped curve by temporarily eliminating or shifting peak loads to off peak periods.  Utilities accomplish demand management in two ways: by using a “carrot” or a “stick”.  The “carrot” gives incentives to companies who participate in a demand management program (a.k.a. a temporary load shedding program), where the consumer or business temporarily turns off or trims back their major power consuming equipment, reducing the demand on the grid and making the transmission infrastructure more stable. The business generally agrees to shut off equipment for 2-3 hours.  The stick method to demand management occurs when the utility has critical peak or real time pricing programs where power costs are extremely high (5 to 10 times higher) during high demand periods. This forces businesses to reduce their power usage during peak demand times unless they want to be charged the very high price for power.

Unfortunately, demand management alone may not relieve power congestion and blackouts. The Department of Energy (DOE), Federal Energy Regulation Commission (FERC) and other utility organizations including the Electric Power Research Institute and the Edison Electric Institute believe the “answer is to change the grid physically” by expanding “capacity so controllers can switch energy from line to line without overloading.”[viii] This is not an easy task though. Developers must foresee the capacity that will be needed in the future to ensure grid stability lasts as well as make certain that renewable technologies and distributed generation can be readily integrated into smarter utility transmission grids or micro-grids.  Development of new transmission lines is also capital-intensive and is usually controversial because environmentalists are unsupportive of increased development on undeveloped lands.  This debate leaves demand management mechanisms as the only near-term method of ensuring grid stability as power demand continues to grow.

A better alternative to additional infrastructure is the development of a smarter power grid.  A Smart Grid is essentially a computerized electrical power industry, from power plant to office or home appliance.  To make this work, software would be installed at power generation sources and connected all the way to end uses or nodes of end uses to optimize energy production to match demand from end uses such as air conditioners, appliances and buildings to manage energy use.  If Smart Grid software were installed on the majority of energy consuming equipment nationwide, equipment operation would be optimized and energy use would be reduced, saving consumers money, all while helping to stabilize the utility grid and reduce the need for additional transmission infrastructure. Studies indicate the average household would save 10% in energy costs annually. Implementation of a Smart Grid warrants significant research and consideration by utilities since it reduces the need for new infrastructure via enhanced power management and energy efficiency.  It is important to keep in mind that a distributed generation architecture will be inherently more efficient and secure than central generation since transmission and distribution inefficiencies and bottlenecks will be avoided.

Solar Power

Solar energy is free, reliable, and very abundant.  It is a source of energy that has sustained plants and animals for millions of years and is one of the primary solutions to sustain our energy-hungry way of life.

While solar radiation varies with atmospheric conditions, the position of the earth, and other atmospheric influences, the potential of harnessing solar energy in the U.S. is essentially limitless.  This was first realized during the oil crisis in the 1970’s. At this time, photovoltaic PV panels were not very efficient and not discounted or subsidized like fossil fuels, so installation was limited. Thankfully, recent advances in design, materials, and manufacturing have helped improve solar installation feasibility.  From 2005 to 2006, U.S. PV installation increased by 33 percent and continues today.   This significant increase in capacity was possible because of the 30 percent federal tax credits (that U.S. oil production has enjoyed for years), limited state tax credits, state rebates and utility net metering opportunities.  One existing problem limiting solar power from reaching grid parity in cost with fossil fueled power is the fact that fossil fueled power does not include the complete costs of pollution and healthcare.  According to a study written by H.M. Hubbard in 1991, the estimated societal costs of increased health care expenditures, environmental degradation, and lost employment due to emissions range from $100 – $300 billion per year.   While this 1991 study is dated, it shows that hidden costs associated with fossil fuel use are substantial.  A more recent 2006 air quality impact study conducted in the San Joaquin Valley, California determined that the cost of air pollution averages $1,000 per person per year. The results include the costs of health problems, premature deaths, missed schools days, and decreased worker productivity that result from air pollution in the region.[ix] Assuming this cost per capita was consistent across the U.S., annual cost for  air-quality related health-care is over $300 billion.  Including these hidden costs into the price of fossil fuels will allow for more accurate comparisons to alternative fuels such as renewable energy. Luckily, some state policy makers, like in California, are beginning to grasp this concept and are incentivizing clean energy to protect public health.  Governments worldwide must continue this trend so the open markets can act on it.

While solar power is fairly reliable in most southwestern states, it is not yet as reliable as utility power generators are accustomed to with fossil fueled power plants.  Solar energy production follows a curve during the day. Production peaks in the middle of the day when the sun is at its peak.  Inclement weather (clouds) reduces production and nighttime stops production. The map below shows solar radiation throughout the U.S. The southwest has very high solar potential, diminishing towards the northwest and northeast.[x]  Compared to Germany and Spain, even Alaska has more than ample solar capacity!

Credit: NREL

Credit: NREL

In recent years, technological advancements of solar resources have proven to be a promising technology to help diversify America’s energy portfolio.  The three primary technologies available today include PV, solar thermal, and concentrating solar power (CSP).

Wind Power

Wind power is also free, reliable, and very abundant.  Wind is a great teammate for solar power as it generally peaks when solar fades.  Night time and periods of inclement weather generally create high wind conditions, perfect for spinning turbine blades.  As of 2011,  installed wind capacity in the U.S. is over 12,600 MW.  However, this is still less than 1% of total U.S. electricity generation. As shown on the wind map below, the central U.S. as well as many of the coastal and mountain regions have medium to high winds and thus are good wind development areas.[xi].


Offshore wind potential is also plentiful.  According to the DOE, U.S. offshore wind capacity (potential) is projected to be 900 GW or 91% of total U.S. summer power demand in 2006.[xii]  Offshore wind farms are attractive because of the higher speed, smoother, less turbulent winds and ample open space. In addition, larger turbines can be installed offshore in these high wind areas.  Large turbines are more economical, and produce significantly more energy than smaller turbines (wind energy is a function of turbine size and energy is proportional to the cube of the wind speed).  However, not unlike oil rigs, installation costs for installing wind turbines offshore can more than double installation costs.

When compared to traditional fossil fuel plants, onshore wind power can be challenging because winds are intermittent. In other words, the supply of wind power to the grid varies with the wind resulting in fluctuations on the grid that can cause instabilities in the transmission infrastructure.    There are two methods to solve this problem: grid upgrades and storage.  Grid updates would help reduce the vulnerability to the grid by providing a more demand fluctuation tolerant transmission grid. As mentioned in the demand management section, this is a costly solution.  The second option is wind storage. At a wind farm with wind storage, power produced by the turbines would be supplied to the transmission grid.  If the grid was nearing maximum transmission capacity, the electricity produced by the wind would be routed to a storage system where the electricity would be used to store electrons, create compressed air or some other potential energy. When the grid needed additional power that the turbines could not supply, the stored potential energy would be released to produce electricity for the grid.  Until wind power becomes more reliable or storage becomes more economical, grid managers will continue to hesitate to promote a high percentage of wind power in their portfolios until one of these options is commercially competitive.

Nuclear Power

Nuclear power plants produce hundreds of times more power than a comparable fossil fueled plant.  Since the Chernobyl, Russia accident and misleading panacea from the movie Silkwood, growth of nuclear power in the U.S. stopped.  The Chernobyl power plant, a graphite moderated reactor, was a completely different (and inferior) design than any U.S plant (pressurized and boiling water reactors) in existence.  Moreover, the Chernobyl accident was a result of operator errors and testing with many fail-safes overridden.  As such, the U.S (and most of the world’s) power plants could no longer have this type of error.  Granted, concerns still exist, with long-term radioactive fuel storage as the major controversial issue.  The new generation of “breeder” reactors and power plants are far safer and have much less waste.  More importantly, they are far cleaner and easier to monitor than the thousands of fossil-fueled power plants spread across the U.S and China.   Without efficiency improvements, it would take 385  additional nuclear plants to displace the thousands of air polluting fossil fuel plants in the US.  If we electrified all our transportation in the US, we would need only 253 more nuclear plants.  In other words, a total of 742 nuclear plants would be required to completely offset all fossil fuel use in the U.S.


Credit: IEA

Carbon Capture and Sequestration

Carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) is an emission mitigation mechanism. In other words, it is a retrofit option for fossil burning power plants.  CCS refers to the capture of carbon dioxide (CO2) from large emission point sources and the long-term storage of that CO2 in the ocean or underground geological reservoirs. The objective of CCS is to slow the increase of anthropogenic CO2 in the atmosphere.

There are four steps to CCS: carbon capture, carbon transport, carbon sequestration, and carbon storage.  Carbon capture is the first step. It requires CO2 to be separated and captured from the flue gas of large emission point sources, such as coal and natural gas power plants.  Carbon capture is not a new technology. Currently, CO2 is separated in processes such as synthetic ammonia production and limestone calcinations. However, the carbon separation and capture process is expensive and varies greatly depending on the technology used. For example, according to the 2005 International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report,  electricity produced at a conventional pulverized coal plant costs $0.04-$0.05/kWh.  With carbon capture and geological storage, current cost range is $0.06-$0.10/kWh.[xiv]  Note: The cost of fuel has increased since 2005, so these prices do not reflect current prices. Nevertheless, the cost difference between a conventional coal plant and the cost of carbon capture and sequestration is illustrated.  More economical capture technologies, such as absorption (chemical and physical), adsorption (physical and chemical), and low-temperature distillation are being investigated. [xv]

Once captured, the CO2 must be transported (e.g. via pipeline) to a location where it can be stored. Possible storage locations for captured CO2 include the ocean and geological formations. The ocean is a natural carbon sink, so scientists are researching its potential to be an anthropogenic CO2 sink. Two different methods of carbon sequestration in the ocean are being considered: 1) enhance the ocean’s uptake of CO2 from the ocean via enhancing the fertilization of phytoplankton and 2) inject pure CO2 into the deep ocean.  Research about carbon sequestration in the oceans is at an early stage; therefore, many questions still have to be answered. For example, what are the consequences of long-term ocean fertilization, how will CO2 effect sea habitats, is CO2 injection into the ocean effective for long-term storage, will the CO2 effect the acidity of the ocean permanently? International and national legal and regulatory problems will also arise with CO2 disposal into the ocean due to off-shore disposal legislation and national borders. [xvi]


The most probable option is carbon sequestration in geological reservoirs. Injection of CO2 in geological reservoirs is a proven and available technology; it is called Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR).  For EOR, CO2 is injected into oil reservoirs to improve the oil flow rates during secondary and tertiary stages of production. Several commercially viable projects for enhanced oil recovery have been operating throughout the U.S. for many years; however, the injected CO2 was never expected to permanently remain in the reservoir. Scientists are researching methods to ensure the injected CO2 remains in the reservoir permanently. The International Panel on Climate Change believes it is a promising technology, estimating that well-planned and managed storage size could retain over 99% of the injected CO2 for millions of years. Further, estimated storage capacity of CO2 in the depleted oil and gas reservoirs and other formations (coal beds and saline formations) in the U.S alone is over 140 billion metric tons of CO2, providing storage space for 23 years at current emission rates (6,000 million metric tons per year).[xvii]  With renewable energies taking years to develop, it is important that CCS, a commercially available technology, be implemented to help reduce current emissions and mitigate global warming until the fossil fuels are replaced.

Cost – The Final Frontier

By current metrics, renewable energy costs appear to be higher than fossil fuels.  However, this paradigm is changing rapidly.  With continued investment in clean energy technologies, costs are declining rapidly.  Meanwhile, fossil fuel costs continue to rise with population and demand while available resources have arguably peaked.  Furthermore, current cost metrics do not even include tax credits and hidden costs of burning fossil fuels (public healthcare costs).

First, the petrol industry currently receives a 30% Investment Tax Credit as well as a $0.01/kWh Production Tax Credit in the U.S.  Is it necessary for a well funded, highly profitable, mature industry to receive incentives?   Second, fossil fuel related health care costs are not accounted for in supply pricing. In 2002, the estimated Gross Annual Damage from air pollution was estimated to be between $75-$280 billion, or (0.7-2.8 percent of the Gross Domestic Product).  It’s likely much higher now!

To look at it another way, this is equivalent to every US citizen paying between $250-$830 per year just to monitor and abate fossil fuel air pollution.  This doesn’t even include the personal health care costs to fight calamities such as cancer and asthma.  Clearly we must advocate that Federal Tax Accounting methodologies be modified to include air quality district fees with source (fossil fuel) pollution.  Without this, “grid parity” for renewables is actually lower in cost than fossil fuels.  Third, compensate clean energy producers fairly.  Today, most building owners can put solar panels on their buildings and get paid below market price for the energy use they offset, but not a penny more.  This is called net metering.  A compensation structure that needs more serious consideration is adoption of feed-in tariffs similar to those adopted in Germany and other countries.  This enables building owners and home-owners to use those roof spaces that can supply more energy than they may directly use and sell the remainder to the local grid for use by those who need it thereby reducing transmission losses and reducing security risks from a transfer station being blown up or a transmission line causing a fire.  More importantly, this method provides local energy where it is needed most, such as cities and suburban centers, thus avoiding the need for costly new power plants and transmission lines. Transitioning from a dirty energy economy to a clean energy economy will require additional stimulus.  The following actions will aid a smooth transition from dirty to clean energy.

  1. Eliminate federal tax credits and incentives for fossil fuels such as oil and natural gas.
  2. Shift air monitoring costs and an appropriate portion of public healthcare costs directly to the producers, such as power generators and gas stations, so thay can pass it along in the true cost of the goods (instead of an unfair tax to all).
  3. Legislate feed-in tariffs for clean energy, at least until it displaces fossil fuels as our primary supply of energy. In other words, fossil fuels should be a backup of last resort or “alternative”, not the other way around.

The table below is a projected comparison of fossil fuel sources adjusted to account for fossil fuel tax credits and air pollution costs and full pay for energy and power production.

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