What’s the bright idea?

Phil Castle, The Business Times

Robert Bryce compares various sources of energy in part by density — how much power can be produced in a given amount of space.

Such low-density renewable energy sources as wind and solar power simply require too much space to keep pace on a global scale with an increasingly power-hungry world, let alone supplant fossil fuels, Bryce says. “I’m sorry. You can’t get there from here.”

That makes such comparably dense sources of energy as coal, natural gas, oil and nuclear power the real fuels of the future, he says.

The implications are important in the United States, where a technical revolution in the oil and natural gas industry has resulted in record production and the country enjoys the largest coal reserves in the world, Bryce says. While advances have yet to lead to substantial increases in nuclear power production, he remains optimistic about that prospect. “We have to get good at nuclear, and we are.”

Robert Bryce

Bryce, a journalist, author and public speaker, discussed his views as the keynote speaker at the Energy Forum & Expo in Grand Junction.

Bryce has written numerous articles for such publications as the National Review, New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post. And he frequently appears on television and radio shows broadcast on the CNN, Fox and MSNBC networks as well as National Public Radio. In addition, he serves as a senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute Center for Energy Policy and the Environment.

Bryce also has written several books, including most recently “Power Hungry: The Myths of ‘Green’ Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future.”

Bryce describes in his book what he calls the four “imperatives” of energy: energy density, power density, cost and scale. Analyzing those imperatives makes it possible to compare different sources of energy production.

The scale of global energy consumption is substantial, Bryce says — as is growing demand for energy not only in such countries as China and India, but also Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam.

By one estimate, global electrical demand alone has increased since 1985 at an annual amount equivalent to the total use in Brazil, he says. As developing countries require even more electricity and more people move to cities, energy demand will continue to increase.

Discounting what he describes as the “big fib,” Bryce says low-density renewable energy sources can’t keep pace with increasing energy demand because of the space required to produce power.

Using wind power to meet increasing demand for electricity would require the installation of the equivalent of all the wind turbines in the world every year, he says. Moreover, those turbines would cover 48,000 square miles of land — an area about the size of North Carolina.

As for solar energy, it would require 23 times the installed photovoltaic capacity of Germany, the country with the most capacity in the world, every year, he says. One new coal-fired power plant in Germany will produce as much electricity as all the solar power installed in that country, he adds.

Meeting existing and future needs requires far more dense sources of energy, such as hydrocarbons and nuclear power.

By way of comparison, the two nuclear reactors at the South Texas Project produce 2,700 megawatts of power from a site that covers about 19 square miles, Bryce says. Matching that output with wind power would require enough turbines to cover an area the size of Rhode Island. Matching that output with ethanol made from corn would require farming an area the size of West Virginia.

Meanwhile, technological innovations in drilling and hydraulic fracturing to extract oil and natural gas from shale formations constitute the most important development in the energy industry since the discovery of the East Texas oil field in the 1930s, Bryce says.

While shale formations are among the most common worldwide, the U.S. enjoys a lead in oil and natural gas production from shale because of its drilling rigs and pipes as well as the workers who operate them, Bryce says. “It’s going to take decades for the rest of the world to catch the U.S.”

As natural gas development has increased, the resulting drop in prices has added an estimated $200 million a day to the U.S. economy and given the country a price advantage in the production of fertilizers, petrochemicals and steel.

Huge reserves make the U.S. the OPEC of coal, Bryce says.

Pressure to reduce the emission of so-called greenhouse gases believed to cause global warming could result in the decreased use of coal to generate electricity in the U.S., he says. But other countries will rely on coal to meet increasing demand for electricity, and could obtain more of that coal from the U.S.

Bryce expects what he describes as N to N — a transition involving first the increased use of natural gas and then nuclear power to meet energy needs.

Compared to other forms of energy production, nuclear power remains a comparatively new technology at a little more than 50 years old and has yet to fully develop. “I’m bullish on the prospects, but it will take awhile.”