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“Harvard Needs Remedial Energy Math” — Robert Bryce

by Marlo Lewis on December 17, 2012

in Features

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Environmental activist Bill McKibben and his organization,, are on a ”Do the Math” tour in which they urge colleges and universities to “divest their endowments, estimated at a total of $400 billion nationwide, from the fossil fuel industry.” The campaign is explicitly modeled on the 1980s divestment campaign that persuaded many universities to dump their stock in companies doing business in South Africa. Radical environmentalists view fossil-energy use as the moral equivalent of apartheid — or worse.  

With about half of the student body polled, 72% of Harvard undergrads voted for the university to Go Fossil Free, reports energy scholar Robert Bryce in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal. Harvard is renowned for educating the ‘best and brightest.’ Should U.S. and global policymakers do as these ivy leaguers say?

Bryce takes the ‘Harvards’ to school and shows them what doing the math really means.

About 33% of global energy comes from oil, which is indispensable to transportation. Most of those voting to Go Fossil Free probably did not walk or bike from home to Harvard. As Steven Colbert asked McKibben, a Vermont native, during a Washington, D.C. protest rally against the Keystone XL Pipeline: How did you get down here? Did you ride your bicycle? Did you ride ox cart? ”Or do you have a vehicle that runs on hypocrisy?”

But okay, unselfconscious hypocrisy is a prerogative of the young.

Byrce’s math lesson proper begins with the fact that since 1985, global electricity demand has increased by 121%, three times faster than the growth rate of oil demand. Over the past 25 years, global electricity consumption increased on average by 450 trillion watts-hours (“terawatt-hours”) per year. ”That’s the equivalent of adding about one Brazil (which used 485 terawatt-hours of electricity in 2010) to the electricity sector every year,” Bryce writes. “The International Energy Agency expects global electricity use to continue growing by about 450 terawatt-hours per year through 2035.”

The point? The world in 2011 had 240,000 megawatts of wind generation capacity, producing 437 terawatt-hours of electricity. “Therefore, just keeping up with the growth in global electricity demand — while not displacing any of the existing need for coal, oil and natural gas — would require the countries of the world to install about as much wind-generation capacity as now exists, and they’d have to do so every year.”

Well, what’s wrong with that? For one thing, it would put a big fat industrial footprint across a lot of green space: “Put another way, just to keep pace with demand growth, the wind industry will need to cover a land area of some 48,000 square miles with wind turbines per year, an area about the size of North Carolina.”

Okay, then, what about going fossil-free with solar power? Germany, with about 25,000 megawatts, has the most installed solar capacity of any nation on earth. In 2011, Germany produced 19 terawatt-hours of electricity from solar. “Thus, just to keep pace with the growth in global electricity demand, the world would have to install about 23 times as much solar-energy capacity as now exists in Germany, and it would have to do so year after year.”

Even those numbers understate the scale of the ‘challenge’ of going fossil-free, because ”we haven’t even considered the incurable intermittency of solar and wind, a problem that requires backup capacity from fossil fuels or nuclear power.”

Bryce’s column does not estimate how much wind and solar power would have to be built each year to meet both current electric demand and incremental demand by, say, 2035. Maybe because by this point in the tutorial, even an egghead should grasp that literally going fossil-free is an agenda of economic suicide.

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