Pittsburgh, Paris and the Possible

Published June 5, 2017

While announcing his decision to withdrawal America from participation in the silly Paris Climate Accord, President Trump noted that he “…was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.”

It was classic Trump: brassy, pithy and completely politically incorrect. Unsurprisingly, the left, Hollywood elites and the mainstream media flipped out, predicting the end of life as we know it on planet earth unless we jumped back on the Paris climate change bus.

In response, Pittsburgh’s Democratic Mayor Bill Peduto said this: “Pittsburgh will not only heed the guidelines of the Paris Agreement — we will work to move towards 100 percent clean and renewable energy for our future, our economy, and our people.”

I am moved to respond to Mayor Peduto proclamation. This being a rather complex issue and complex issues taking a bit of time to explain, even by as talented a complex issue explainer as yours truly, my response must necessarily be delivered in two parts given the restraints of acceptable column-lengths. That said, let us begin: the following is an open letter to Mayor Bill Peduto.

Dear Mayor Peduto,

I am pleased to hear that you and other like-minded mayors will be working to move towards 100 percent clean and renewable energy. I don’t think that there is anything about President Trump’s decision to withdrawal from the Paris deal that prevents you, or any public official, from working to move towards any sort of energy plan you like.

Indeed, I believe that one of the early drafts of the preamble to the Constitution said something about “working to move towards possibly, someday, if everything works out, maybe creating something like a more perfect Union.” As Americans, we defend the right of any citizen to work to move towards any future one can imagine.

Satire – albeit briefly – aside, attaching one qualifier to a goal is grounds to be suspicious about the ability to actually achieve that goal. Attaching three qualifiers pretty forces one to conclude that we’re not talking so much about an achievable goal as we are talking about a fantasy. And, indeed, that is the case here, as anyone with a rudimentary understanding of physics and thermodynamics could tell you.

I’ll explain why you won’t be running Pittsburgh on 100 percent clean energy – ever – in a bit, no matter how much working and moving towards you put into achieving that nebulous goal. But, we should begin with the big picture: how science and technology come together.

There is an unfortunate tendency, particularly among those not educated in one of the sciences, to believe that science can accomplish anything if just throw enough money and brains at the problem. We put a man on the moon, didn’t we? We can do anything!

Well, no – actually we can’t. To quote Montgomery Scott: “you canna defy the laws of physics!” By way of example: as much as I might want to and as much it would undoubtedly benefit the nation, I cannot wave my arms and turn every politician in Washington into the High Plains Drifter version of Clint Eastwood.

We put a man on the moon by understanding and following the laws of physics, not by pretending they don’t exist. When it comes to so-called “clean energy” the first two laws of thermodynamics are particularly relevant. Simply put, the first two law of thermodynamics says that one cannot extract more energy from a system than one puts into it, nor can one extract an equal amount of energy from a system. Those of us educated in the sciences like to put those two laws in poker terms: “you can’t win”, and “you can’t break even”. (Third law, if you’re interested, is “you can’t get out of the game.”)

Let’s start with demand. According to the Census Bureau the Pittsburgh Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) contains about 2.3 million people. According to the Energy Information Administration the average electrical demand in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, of which I am reliably informed the Pittsburgh MSA is a part, is about 1.3 kilowatt hours per capita. When we do the math, we find the Pittsburgh MSA needs about 3,000 MW of generation capacity

Pennsylvania currently produces a little over 4.5% of its electricity from renewable sources. Assuming that we can apply that percentage to Pittsburgh, you are working to move towards adding renewable generation capacity to replace the remaining 95.5%, or a little over 2,800 MW of generation capacity with clean, renewable energy. Being a responsible fellow, I am sure you intend to do so without breaking any laws of thermodynamics, so in part 2 of this dissertation we will consider how you monumental a goal that is to work to move towards.

So Mayor Peduto, you need to come up with 2,800 MW of clean, renewable energy generation capacity in order to achieve your presumably life-long dream of successfully having worked to move towards running Pittsburgh solely on clean renewable energy. By clean, renewable energy I assume that you refer to the following: geothermal, wind, solar, biomass and hydro.

Let’s cross hydro off the list because your buddies in the Sierra Club and other environmental NGO’s don’t like dams and sure aren’t going to let you, or anyone, build any of significant size. Similarly we must cross geothermal of  the list because – and I hope you’ll trust me here – it is hideously expensive and makes no energy balance sense unless you live in Iceland, Yellowstone or some other place where lots of heat is available relatively close to the surface.

So, let’s go with wind. Wind is good for the environment, right? Well, except for all those birds that get killed every year, but sometimes to save mother earth you have to murder a bit of mother earth.

There is an inherent problem with wind: it doesn’t blow all the time. Since I assume the residents of your fine city would like their power on all the time, we have to have something to back up what is an unreliable energy source. This unreliability, by the by, is why most experts in the power transmission sector say that you can’t safely operate a grid with more than about 20 to 25 percent wind generation on line

As things stand today, we’ve got to have back up capacity for every MW of wind generated power. That means more spinning reserve, ready to take up that slack when the wind dies down, and that spinning reserve is going to be fossil fueled or nukes.

Well, what about using batteries instead. First, battery storage is really expensive. At best, battery storage would triple the cost of power. Second, if you used batteries with the highest storage capacity you’d raise the cost of power even more and use up such a disproportionate amount of world lithium production that I’ve no doubt you’d bankrupt Pittsburgh, which, if you’re being totally honest with yourself, would hurt your chances of re-election.

How about biomass? Biomass is kind of like solar, with a very inefficient intermediate step between the sun providing the power and people using the power: growing stuff. At best, biomass provides about 2 W/m2, although 0.5 W/m2 is more typical. But what the hey, let’s say Pittsburgh gets all of its 2,800 additional MW from biomass that retains energy at the highest end of the scale. That would require over 340,000 acres of land dedicated to biomass – about 2,600 typical Pennsylvania farms – just to power the Pittsburgh area AND the price of electricity shoots up AND food prices do too.

And then there’s solar. At best (very efficient solar panels and lots of sunshine year round) solar gets you about 20 W/m2. More typically solar gets you between 2 and 5 W/m2. Since Allegheny County has not yet turned into a scorching desert a la Phoenix, we’re not going to give you 20, but we will give you the 5.

At 5 W/m2 Pittsburgh will need about 60 square kilometers, or about 40% of the total area of your fine city covered in solar panels, plus all of the expensive battery backup we talked about when discussing wind because while the television folks tell us it’s always sunny in Philadelphia I have reason to believe that Pittsburgh not only experiences nightfall on a routine basis, clouds sometimes appear overhead as well.

There’s no getting around these limitations Mr. Mayor. I wish there were. I really do. Biomass, solar and, to a somewhat lesser extent wind, are just fantasies that serve little practical purpose other than making people who love to feel guilty about occupying planet earth slightly less miserable.

But take heart. Pennsylvania has been at the forefront of the energy revolution in the United States over the past decade and a half. The cheap, plentiful natural gas in the Marcellus has helped the United States begin to shed its dependence on foreign sources of energy while simultaneously also reducing domestic carbon dioxide emissions, if you worry about such things, which it appears you do.

From your point of view, Pennsylvania’s role in America’s energy revolution should be a case of having your cake and eating it too. Be happy Mayor Peduto for, whether you acknowledge it or not, the people of the great state of Pennsylvania has not only been working to move towards the goals of American energy independence and reducing American GHG emissions, they’ve actually done it.


Rich Trzupek