Mar 18 2024

Energy Demand Increasing

For the last two decades electricity demand in the US has been fairly flat. While it has been increasing overall, the increase has been very low. This has been largely attributed to the fact that as the use of electrical devices has increased, the efficiency of those devices has also increased. The introduction of LED bulbs, increased building insulation, more energy efficient appliances has largely offset increased demand. However, the most recent reports show that US energy demand is turning up, and there is real fear that this recent spike is not a short term anomaly but the beginning of a long term trend. For example, the projection of increase in energy demand by 2028 has nearly doubled from the 2022 estimate to the 2023 estimate – ” from 2.6% to 4.7% growth over the next five years.”

First, I have to state my usual skeptical caveat – these are projections, and we have to be wary of projecting short term trends indefinitely into the future. The numbers look like a blip on the graph, and it seems weird to take that blip and extrapolate it out. But these forecasts are not just based on looking at such graphs and then extending the line of current trends. These are based on an industry analysis which includes projects that are already under way. So there is some meat behind these forecasts.

What are the factors that seem to be driving this current and projected increase in electricity demand? They are all the obvious ones you might think. First, something which I and other technology-watchers predicted, is the increase in the use of electrical vehicles. In the US there are more than 2.4 million registered electric vehicles. While this is only about 1% of the US fleet, EVs represent about 9% of new car sales, and growing. If we are successful in somewhat rapidly (it will still take 20-30 years) changing our fleet of cars from gasoline engine to electric or hybrid, that represents a lot of demand on the electricity grid. Some have argued that EV charging is mostly at night (off peak), so this will not necessarily require increased electricity production capacity, but that is only partly true. Many people will still need to charge up on the road, or will charge up at work during the day, for example. It’s hard to avoid the fact that EVs represent a potential massive increase in electricity demand. We need to factor this in when planning future electricity production.

Another factor is data centers. The world’s demand for computer cycles is increasing, and there are already plans for many new data centers, which are a lot faster to build than the plants to power them. Recent advances in AI only increase this demand. Again we may mitigate this somewhat by prioritizing computer advances that make computers more energy efficient, but this will only be a partial offset. We do also have to think about applications, and if they are worth it. The one that gets the most attention is crypto – by one estimate Bitcoin mining alone used 121 terra-watt hours of electricity in 2023, the same as the Netherlands (with a population of 17 million people).

Other factors increasing US energy demand include recent investments in industry, through the Inflation Reduction Act, the infrastructure bill, and the Chips and Science Act. Part of the goal of these bills was to bring manufacturing back to the US, and to the extent that they are working this comes with an increased demand for electricity. And fourth, another factor that was predicted and we are now starting to feel, as the Earth warms the demand for air conditioning increases.

All of these factors are likely to increase going forward. Also, in general there is a move to electrify as many processes as possible, as an approach to decarbonize our civilization – moving from gas stoves and heating to electric, for example. Even in industry, reducing the carbon footprint of steel making involves using a lot more electricity.

What all this means is that as we plan to decarbonize over the next 25 years, we need to expect that electricity demand will dramatically increase. This is true even in a country like the US, and even if our population remains stable over this time. Worldwide the situation is even worse, as many populations are trying to industrialize and world population is projected to grow (probably peaking at around 10 billion). The problem is that the rate at which we are building renewable low carbon energy is just treading water – we are essentially building enough to meet the increase in demand, but not enough to replace existing demand. This means that fossil fuel use worldwide is not dropping, in fact it is still increasing. These new energy demand projections may mean that we fall further behind.

Most concerning about these recent reports is that we currently are unable to meet this new projected increase in demand with renewables. Keep in mind, this is still far better than relying entirely on fossil fuel. Wind, solar, hydroelectric, geothermal, and nuclear capacity all replaces fossil fuel capacity, and is helping to mitigate CO2 release and climate change. But it has not been enough so far to actually reduce fossil fuel demand, and it’s going to get more challenging. The problem we are facing is bottlenecks in building new infrastructure. The primary limiting factor is the grid. It takes too long to build new grid projects. They are slowed by the patchwork of regulations and bickering among states over who is paying for what. New renewable energy projects are therefore delayed by years.

What needs to happen to fix the situation? First, we need more massive investment in electric grid infrastructure. There is some of this in the bills I mentioned, but not enough. We need perhaps a standalone bill investing billions in new grid projects. But also, this legislation should probably include new Federal authority to approve and enact such projects, to reduce local bottlenecks. We need Federal legislation to essentially enact eminent domain to rush through new grid projects. The report estimates that we will need to triple our existing grid capacity by 2035 to meet growing demand.

This analysis also reinforces the belief by many that wind and solar, while great sources of energy, are not going to get us to our goals. The problem is simply that they require a lot of new grid infrastructure and new connections to the grid. We will simply not be able to build them out in time. Residential solar is probably the best option, because it can use existing connections to the grid and is distributed to where it is used. This is especially true if you plan to switch to an electric vehicle – pair that with some solar panels. But still, this is not going to get us to our goals.

What we need is the big centralized power plants that can replace coal, oil, and natural gas plants – and this means nuclear, geothermal, and hydroelectric. The latter two are limited geographically, as there is limited potential to expand them, at least for now. Perhaps we may top out at 15% or so (that is of existing demand). This leaves nuclear. I know I have beat this drum for a while, but the most compelling and logical analyses I read all indicate that we will not get to our decarbonization goals without nuclear. Nuclear can generate the amount of electricity we need, and be plugged into existing connections to the grid, and can go anywhere. The main limitation with nuclear is the regulations make building new plants really slow – but this is fixable with the stroke of a pen. We need to streamline the regulation process for all zero carbon power plants – a project warp speed for energy. The bottom line really is coming down to – do you want a coal-fired plant or a nuclear plant? That is the real practical choice we face.  To some extend the choice is also between nuclear and natural gas, which is a lot better than coal but is still fossil fuel with the pollution and CO2 that comes with.

As the report indicates, many states are keeping coal-fired plants open longer to meet the increased demand. Or they are building natural gas fired plants, because the technology is proven, they are the fastest to build, and they are the most profitable. This has to change. It needs to be feasible to build nuclear plants instead. Some of this is happening, but not nearly enough.

We are dealing with hard numbers here, and the numbers are telling a very consistent and compelling story.

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