A Free-Market Energy Blog

80% "Clean" Energy by 2035: What Does This Mean?

By Ken Kok -- February 3, 2011

[Editor’s Note: Ken Kok has 35 years experience in nuclear energy and R&D project management, including business development, facility management, proposal preparation and project planning. He has a master’s from Michigan Technological University in Business Administration and Nuclear Engineering and is a licensed Professional Engineer and ASME Fellow.]

President Obama proposed in the 2011 State of the Union Address (SOU) that we have a goal of 80% of our energy coming from “clean” sources by 2035. The goal was not clarified as to the definition of clean energy so it is assumed that the mix of production will include renewables, e.g. wind, solar, geothermal, biomass, etc. as defined by the U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA), nuclear, and others such as clean coal.

So what are we really talking about in such a major energy transformation?  As calculated in Table 1, the staggering answer is 300+ large nuclear plants and 600,000 large wind machines–not to mention some 600 new gas-fired power plants to firm up the wind.

Table 1 – Evaluation of the electric energy production

Table 1 was generated based on the above numbers using data currently displayed by the EIA. As noted in the Table 1 footnote, the number of wind turbines is based on a 20% capacity factor. Because of the variability of wind and the need for stability in the electric grid the wind generation capacity needs to be augmented by a conventional, fast-responding generating technology.

Natural gas usually fits best in this application. The SOU scenario would require some 300 GW of this type of generating capability. The number of wind turbines (plus gas) and nuclear plants is presented to show the enormity of the task.

These numbers do not include replacement of current clean production capability such as nuclear plants that have come to the end of life. For example the current nuclear fleet even with life extension to 60 years will be at or nearing end of life in 2035. In addition the EIA forecast for the transportation sector shows 31 Quads coming from petroleum based fuels. Electrification in this sector might add considerably to the new electric generation requirements.

The SOU’s quick talk of a new energy future needs a detailed independent scientific evaluation examining and integrating all technical, economic, and environmental aspects in order to present a realistic impact of the proposed goal.

And we should not forget the fundamental question: why such a forced energy transformation? Does government really know best?


  1. Livingwill  

    The most realistic of the “clean energy” sources is the one the Greens hate the most, nuclear. It doesn’t require that the wind to be blowing or the sun to be up and it takes up far, far less land. If the Greens actually thought “Global Warming” was real they would be pushing nukes instead of trying to stop them. Not that I am proposing we tear down coal fired plants to put up nuclear ones. Coal plants work quite well.


  2. Dan  

    Long range outlook for electrical production on a purely scientific approach points to nuclear.
    Long range outlook from political opinion is uncertainty which is not good for a nation seeking to regain strength.


  3. Jon Boone  

    Those twin towers of Jello–FERC and NERC–have a lot to answer for as they continue to play footsie with the politicalization of our system of electricity. They issued not one peep of concern about Obama’s preposterous policy prescription. Until officials there take their jobs and mission seriously, the president’s energy prattle will continue.


  4. Ed Reid  


    As I suspect you are aware, “clean” is merely a euphemism for no CO2 and 80% is merely an interim “wish”. The prior ostensible focus on “climate change” has been replaced by a new ostensible focus on “clean energy”; and, the long term “wish” for zero CO2 emissions has been morphed temporarily into “80% by 2035″. I have seen no attempt to explain why “83%by 2050″ was changed to “80% by 2035″, but apparently they are in a bigger hurry than they were before; or, they wanted to “clearly” distinguish between the two “wishes”.

    I view this as dangerous. The “plan” you present above would require the investment of several $ trillion, some of which would become an economic dead loss when the “wish” morphed back to zero CO2.

    (“A goal without a plan is just a wish.”. Antoine de St. Exupery)


  5. John T A Miller  

    “the staggering answer is 750+ large nuclear plants and 1.4 million + large wind machines–not to menntion some 500 new gas-fired power plants to firm up the wind.”

    First, I think you mean OR not AND. According to your footnote #1.

    Second, I believe that you are off by a factor of 3 – or more precisely, 0.32 which is the EIA’s official conversion rate for thermal to electrical energy. I thought it strange because the current nuclear fleet in the U.S. numbers about 104 plants and they produced that 8.35 quads shown in your table. That works out to about 12.5 plants per quad or almost exactly 1/3 of your 36.8 plants per quad.

    At $5B/GW that works out to just about $1.5 trillion.



  6. How Nuclear Fits into Obama’s Energy Goal  

    […] are too small to have both quick and significant impacts on clean energy numbers. For instance, a recent assessment concluded that the 80% target would necessitate installing 1,410,060 2.5-MW wind turbines in tandem […]


  7. Ed Reid  

    John T A Miller,

    Nuclear generation is typically baseloaded. The capacity factor of the US grid is ~40%, so non-nuclear plants are modulated and cycled to follow load. Also, the US generating fleet has capacity reserve margin (CRM) of ~20%. Therefore, all capacity is not operated at capacity all of the time. [NOTE: ~40% CF * (1.0-0.2CRM) = 0.32]

    The US currently consumes approximately 95 quads of energy each year, according to the US EIA Annual Energy Review 2009. EIA shows fossil fuels providing approximately 78 quads, or ~80% of this energy. Therefore, to achieve zero CO2 emissions in the US, ~80% of US energy consumption would have to be shifted to non-fossil sources or supplied by fossil sources operating with 100% CCS.
    US population is expected to grow to ~450 million by 2050, assuming continuation of recent population trends. Therefore, US energy consumption in 2050 would be estimated to be ~140 quads, assuming continuation of recent per capita energy consumption trends. A combination of population controls, efficiency improvements, voluntary conservation and forced deprivation could cause that energy consumption to be less than this projection.
    The US annual energy consumption currently includes ~10% renewables of all types, more than half of which is large scale hydro and geothermal; and, ~10% nuclear.
    Current US electric generating capacity is ~1,000 GW. This capacity would be required to increase to ~1,500 GW by 2050 just to satisfy existing electricity end uses, again assuming continuation of current trends. However, only ~39 quads is currently consumed to produce electricity. This would be expected to increase to ~60 quads by 2050 to meet the growth of current electricity use.
    However, to achieve zero CO2 emissions in the US, all existing fossil fuel end uses would have to be replaced by alternative fuels or equipped for 100% CCS.
    Let us assume, for this exercise, that all current fossil fuel end uses in all sectors would be replaced by nuclear generated electricity by 2050. For simplicity, let us also assume that all current fossil fuel end uses could be replaced by electric end uses using the same quantity of energy as those end uses currently require. Further, let us assume that all current US nuclear power plants would reach end-of-life by 2050 and would have to be replaced.
    Therefore, satisfying projected US electricity consumption for current electric end uses in 2050 would require construction of new nuclear generating capacity of ~1,400 GW. Satisfying all current non-electric end uses would require additional generating capacity of ~2,100 GW. Assuming an average plant generating capacity of 1,400 MW (1.4 GW) and an average design, regulatory review and construction process of 10 years, the US would be required to commission 2,500 nuclear generators beginning in 2020, or approximately 80 new power plants each year.
    Assuming an average installed cost of ~$6,000 per kW (~$6 billion per GW), this effort would require investment of ~$21 trillion by 2050 in new nuclear generating capacity alone. Further investments would be required in extraction, fuel processing and reprocessing, etc. Massive investments would also be required by all non-electricity generating energy consumers in electric end use facilities and equipment, including electric vehicles of all types. Total investment in all sectors to accomplish this conversion is estimated at ~$30 trillion, or ~$700 billion per year over the period.
    Current US GDP is ~$14.6 trillion. Therefore, this effort would require investment of ~5% of GDP per year over the period.
    NOTE: This estimate does not include any US investment in infrastructure in the developing countries to support their conversion to zero CO2 emissions economies.
    NOTE: A GW of nuclear generation could be replaced by 2-5 GW of solar and/or wind generation capacity, assuming that adequate supply/demand matching could be achieved.
    NOTE: Surplus generation capacity during off-peak periods could be used to produce hydrogen for use as vehicle fuel and/or to produce potable water from brackish or salt water for a variety of uses.


  8. uvdiv  

    I confirm John T A Miller’s calculation (#5). The post incorrectly conflates thermal and electric generation. The EIA statistics here are primary energy, which for nuclear reactors means their thermal power, not their electric output. As the EIA clarifies in some other document [1]:

    The U.S. Energy Information Administration includes the following in U.S. primary energy production: […] nuclear electricity net generation (converted to Btu using the nuclear plants heat rate)…

    The average heat rate for US nuclear plants is reported [2] as 10,460 btu/kWh, or 32.6% conversion efficiency. So 2009’s 8.35 quads of primary energy from nuclear power actually means 8.35 quads / (10,460 btu/kWh) = 798,000 GWh of electricity generated [3], which you can cross-check is accurate [4].

    So the nuclear capacity requirements are overstated by a factor of 3: you need 12.1 GWe — not 36.8 GWe — of nuclear capacity per quad primary energy [5].

    [1] http://www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/mer/pdf/pages/sec14.pdf

    [2] http://www.eia.doe.gov/cneaf/electricity/epa/epat5p3.html

    [3] http://www.google.com/#sclient=psy&hl=en&q=8.35+quadrillion+btu+%2F+(10%2C460+btu%2FkWh)+in+GWh&aq=f&aqi=&aql=&oq=8.35+quadrillion+btu+%2F+(10%2C460+btu%2FkWh)+in+GWh&pbx=1&fp=f441cba8a7737ba9

    [4] http://www.eia.doe.gov/cneaf/electricity/epm/table1_1.html

    [5] http://www.google.com/#sclient=psy&hl=en&q=1+quadrillion+btu%2Fyear+%2F+(10%2C460+btu%2FkWh)+%2F+0.90+in+GW&aq=f&aqi=&aql=&oq=&pbx=1&fp=f441cba8a7737ba9


  9. Robert Hargraves  

    John Miller,

    Please redo your good analysis using Ed Reid’s suggestions. I, too, have been fooled by the EIA grossing up hydro power to quads that assume thermal generation. The LLNL energy flow charts are a more accurate source.


  10. Mark Krebs  

    DOE Secretary Chu elaborates:
    Expanding on the president’s recent remarks, Chu told reporters, “By that definition, roughly 40 percent of America’s electricity is coming from clean sources” already. “So we want to double it,”
    Source: http://www.eenews.net/eenewspm/2011/01/28/9/

    My concern is this :

    Natural gas is clean if used to make electricity but not if used directly?

    More specifically; given the supposed “scientific integrity” guidelines coming out of this Administration: How can that be reconciled with sound science if direct use is typically more thermodynamically efficient and less overall emissions?

    “Inquiring minds want to know.”



  11. uvdiv  

    Robert Hargraves (#9) —

    The LLNL flowcharts aren’t more accurate, in fact they’re the same EIA data. [1] Check the chart’s footnote.

    I don’t buy Ed Reid’s analysis. His nuclear capacity requirements hinge on the assumption that nuclear capacity factors would be the same as those of the grid as a whole, but they are actually far higher — in the US ~90% vs. ~45% [2]. (He also understated the grid’s capacity factor by subtracting off a reserve margin from it, which doesn’t make sense. Reserve margins come out of available capacity, not generation).

    By my estimate, to meet his 50% increased electricity demand, the US would theoretically need about 750 GWe of nuclear capacity, not 3,500 GWe as he calculates. (Although this could be a calculator error on his part: he elided from 2,100 GWe to (2,500 * 1.4 GWe) = 3,500 GWe). That is: based on current electricity demand [3], 4 million GWh/year, increased to 6 million GWh/year by 2050, and divided by 0.90 capacity factor [4]. With the load-following demand of a higher nuclear penetration this could be slightly higher, maybe capacity factor of 0.75-0.80 for 850-1,000 GWe capacity needed. And this wouldn’t be exclusively nuclear — a small fraction of electricity would have to come from peaking plants, gas or hydro.

    [1] https://flowcharts.llnl.gov/content/energy/energy_archive/energy_flow_2009/LLNL_US_Energy_Flow_2009.png

    [2] http://www.eia.doe.gov/cneaf/electricity/epa/epat5p2.html

    [3] http://www.eia.doe.gov/cneaf/electricity/epm/table1_1.html

    [4] http://www.google.com/#sclient=psy&hl=en&q=6+million+GWh%2Fyear+%2F+0.90+in+GW&aq=f&aqi=&aql=&oq=&pbx=1&fp=2c1a79b55cb84054


  12. Ed Reid  

    Secretary Chu’s remarks, quoted above by Mark, would suggest that the President’s “wish” was limited to electric energy, rather than all energy. There is a rather large difference (~3x). Is it possible that the Secretary of Energy and the President are not on the same page on this issue?

    Mark, the proper quote is: “Enquiring minds want to know.” :-)


  13. Mark Krebs  

    direct use of natural gas is typically more economical too.
    Sorry I forgot to mention that earlier;

    PSS: my friend Ed.
    I stand corrected. http://www.nationalenquirer.com/ ;-)


  14. Mark Krebs  

    Chu is conservative in this statement. See slide 16 of this presentation:


  15. Ed Reid  

    John T A Miller / undiv

    The US nuclear generating fleet of 104 plants CONSUMED ~8.35 quads of primary energy in 2009; and, it PRODUCED ~3 quads of electricity (8.35 * 0.32 = ~3).

    Therefore, as shown in the table in Ken Kok’s post, it would take ~36.8 plants (~1/3 of the fleet) to PRODUCE 1 quad of electricity.

    NOTE: I have not worried about decimal places in my calculations above, since the figure used for the primary energy input to nuclear generation is not even a SWAG.


  16. John T A Miller  

    Ed Reid,

    Ken Kok’s chart says “Nuclear Energy Production 8.35 quads”.

    There are 104 operational nuclear power plants in the U.S.

    Therefore, on average, each plant produced approximately 0.08 quads.

    Ken Kok says “New clean required 21.3 quads”


    That was my point. That was my only point. The math on Ken Kok’s chart does not add up. Perhaps my failure was trying to find an explanation of why he was wrong. I should just have left it at, “his math does not add up.”


  17. Ed Reid  

    John T A Miller,

    No. On average, each plant CONSUMED 0.08 quads.

    The chart labeling leaves much to be desired. So does the EIA graph labeling. However, 8.35 quads was CONSUMED in nuclear energy production; and. less than 3 quads of electricity was PRODUCED.

    Ken is not wrong. However, both he and EIA get an “F” on chart and graph labeling. :-)


  18. Ken Kok  

    Several of you have caught the error in the Table in the presentation and I thank you for that. The table has been corrected to deal specifically with Quads of electricity.

    The real point of the presentation is to provide people with a better handle on what the numbers really mean when a person in authority sets a goal of 80% clean energy. The public including most policy makers has no idea what a Quad is, so referring to a number of generating plants of a specific size gives a better conceptual picture. Many years ago when I was managing a 2MW nuclear reasearch reactor our corporate PR staff liked to talk about our 2 million watt reactor. The “2” with a lot of zeros was much more impressive even though the numbers were the same.

    Thank you again for all your comments.


  19. Craig Goodrich  

    Given that wind turbines are an environmental catastrophe and generate no power that is actually useful, that current-generation nuclear power designs reduce the waste problem to a vanishing point, that natural gas appears orders of magnitude more plentiful than was believed a decade ago, and that after twenty years and a hundred billion dollars in research money, no scientist anywhere has been able to find a shred of actual evidence that added atmospheric CO2 is having any effect whatever on the climate, does it strike anyone else that these proclamations (and EPA edicts) would be more appropriate coming from some forgotten padded cell than from the Nation’s capital?

    Thanks, Mr. Kok, for an informative post.


  20. TonyfromOz  

    I fail to see how natural gas fired power plants can be referred to as ‘clean energy’. True, they emit only one third the CO2 of an equivalent sized coal fired plant, but currently in the U.S. emissions from those natural gas fired plants are emitting 460 million tons of CO2 each year, and that amount is currently increasing at around 7% per annum.


  21. Ed Reid  


    The fundamental problem here is the accusation that CO2 is somehow “dirty”; or, as our Supreme Court has found, a “pollutant”. All else follows from there. :-)

    The current “clean energy” push in the US is merely a fallback position espoused after “cap & tax & trade & redistribute income & “pick winners” & debt reduction” failed in the Senate. It is an effort to overreach somewhat less, in the spirit of: “Do something, anything, even if it’s wrong.”

    As I stated in my first comment in response to this post above, I believe this approach is dangerous, in that it could result in massive investments in facilities and equipment which are not on the path to the ultimate goal; and, would thus be obsoleted before the end of their economically useful lives and result in a huge economic dead loss.

    “Don’t begin vast programs with half-vast ideas.”, Ed Reid


  22. Craig Goodrich  


    I don’t disagree with you fundamentally. but —

    The currently politically fashionable investment is in wind and solar, giving rise to the question, “What is the economically useful life of something hideously expensive that doesn’t work?”

    “NOTE: A GW of nuclear generation could be replaced by 2-5 GW of solar and/or wind generation capacity, assuming that adequate supply/demand matching could be achieved.”

    … and pigs could fly, assuming adequate wing structure and a sufficiently dense atmosphere. By all means build nukes; there are many good reasons to do so. Freedom from CO2 emissions is not one of them.

    “… massive investments in facilities and equipment which are not on the path to the ultimate goal …”

    When the ultimate goal is unmotivated, impossible, counterproductive, and fundamentally delusional, it would seem to me that any detour, delay, or diversion is preferable to progress.


  23. Jon Boone  

    What a pleasure to read your commentary here. You go to the heart of the matter, where blather can’t live. Ed is spot on. But awfully polite.


  24. Cooler Heads Digest 4 February 2011 | GlobalWarming.org  

    […] 80% “Clean” Energy by 2035: What Does This Mean? Ken Kok, MasterResource.org, 3 February 2011 […]


  25. Paul Fernhout  

    “The fully-loaded cost (not price) of solar electricity is $0.25/kWh or less in most of the OECD countries. By late 2011, the fully-loaded cost is likely to fall below $0.15/kWh for most of the OECD and reach $0.10/kWh in sunnier regions. These cost levels are driving some emerging trends:[8] … Oerlikon Solar announced in 2010 that its ‘ThinFab’ production line is capable of manufacturing 143Wp panels at a cost of 0.5 euro per watt (0.64 dollars per watt) and has a capacity of 120MW per year. The company also claims that its production plants have very low energy consumption rates, so that the energy payback time of its 10% efficient, silicon thin-film modules is less than one year.[12]”

    “Brittle Power: Energy Strategy for National Security is a 1982 book by Amory B. Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins, prepared originally as a Pentagon study, and re-released in 2001 following the September 11 attacks. The book argues that U.S. domestic energy infrastructure is very vulnerable to disruption, by accident or malice, often even more so than imported oil. According to the authors, a resilient energy system is feasible, costs less, works better, is favoured in the market, but is rejected by U.S. policy.[1] In the preface to the 2001 edition, Lovins explains that these themes are still very current. [2]”

    A level playing field in the market at this point will be picking renewables. Of course, that is not what we have, with tax preferences to fossil fuels, insurance preferences to nuclear, and next-to-no accounting for defense, health, environmental, or political externalities of such. See also:

    Not to say stuff like Hyperion small nuclear power systems are not very innovative… They just require a centralized support facility for reprocessing and accepting various risks. But, if the market won’t underwrite those risk, or can’t because of market failure (e.g. take all the insurance payments but declare bankruptcy in a major disaster), then nuclear isn’t going to happen (without government involvement).

    So, renewables are the choice of free markets at this point, IMHO.

    Of course, all forms of energy production and manufacturing has its hazards. No doubt we could make nuclear work well if we wanted to and were more open as a society and focused on safe reliable systems as discussed by Bernard L. Cohen in 1990:
    He goes into how market pressure caused large systems to be created pushed to the very edge of safety to maximize profits as opposed to safety. If we want engineers to design safe nuclear, he says engineers can do so.

    In general, then same reasons renewable are getting cheaper and better (better design, better materials, better communications, better education, better understanding of real market needs, and so on) are the same reasons nuclear is getting better.

    Basically, solar PV is growing exponentially (practically doubling every year at this point). If that exponential growth keeps up, we will be 100% renewable in thirty years or so, globally.

    Matthew Simmons’ mistake in his otherwise excellent 2000 report on Peak Oil and the on exponential growth of population and pollution problems was in discounting renewables because they were so small a percentage of total power production, and so ignoring their potential for exponential growth.


  26. Paul Fernhout  

    Oh, I should have added a qualifier, as in, “So, renewables are the choice of free markets at this point, IMHO … barring a wild card like cold fusion.” :-)

    Also, it is quite possible that in five or ten years, if Hyperion or similar firms develops some sort of track record with modular small nuclear, that it might be seen as more viable for widespread deployment (given government backing for concerns about various risks).

    In reality, we’ll likely see a mix of a lot of stuff, between legacy investments, niche needs, personal preferences, culture, redundancy, and so on.

    BTW, proven reliable energy storage technology:

    Even as batteries, fuel cells plus solid hydrides, and other energy storage alternatives continue to improve… We have plenty of options.


  27. Jon Boone  

    Yes, nuclear with functional regulation (not the fearmongering kind that exits today) would dominate a truly free market. And cold fusion would be more than a wild card. But your assumptions about renewables like wind and solar, since the former provides no modern power and zero capacity and the latter cannot function at industrial scale, is delusional.

    Saying that solar, with its unreliable fuel source, is competitive with conventional generation, either in cost or price, is simply a trick made possible because such analysis equates a Bentley with a soap box derby vehicle. Citing Amory Lovins for anything in a serious vein is a howler. And compressed air storage is a reality at industrial scale, huh? Really?! Rube Goldberg would have loved to send up this plenitude of options….

    And do invest in storage technologies, as Edison did a century ago.

    Such fey dimwittery, with its reliance on Wikipedia and Popular Mechanics, and utter lack of factual basis (such as the claim that tax preferences vastly favor fossil fuels over renewables when reality demonstrates that, on a per kWh production basis, wind and solar are subsidized over 25 times greater than fossil fuels) might be persuasive in a Road Runner cartoon. But it should not carry the day here.


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