2014 sees two major milestones concerning wind & solar versus the Keystone XL pipeline (KXL);
- Annual energy production, of total installed US wind capacity, surpasses expected KXL energy output;
- Annual energy production, of US + Canadian wind & solar capacity installed since the start of the KXL permitting process, surpasses expected KXL energy output.
Reference in this article to the 'energy output' of KXL refers to the energy content of the crude oil which will flow through it.
KXL occupies so much political time and energy, in both Ottawa and Washington, that one could be forgiven for thinking that it is the only energy project of any significance in North America. However the reality is quite different: while KXL has been generating little more than headlines, wind and solar energy have been quietly getting the job done.
The information is summarised in the following graphic with an explanation after it;
In September 2008 TransCanada submitted an application to the US Department of State for a permit to build KXL. That application is still pending approval.
KXL (Phase 4 on the diagram), if approved, would be a $7-billion, 3,500-kilometre pipeline project that would deliver up to 830,000 barrels of tar sands crude daily from Hardisty, Alberta to the junction at Steele City, Nebraska. From there the crude would be delivered to the Texas refinery complex on the Gulf Coast as well as to an oil terminal hub north of Pakota, Illinois.
830,000 barrels a day equates to 41.3 million tonnes annually. The energy content of crude oil is 42 gigajoules, or 11.7 megawatt hours (MWh), per tonne. In other words 41.3 million tonnes of crude oil equals 483.2 terawatt hours (TWh) of energy.
However converting all of that energy into a useful (i.e. electrical) form results in significant losses - mainly as heat. A modern, oil-fired, power station will typically produce 4.4 MWh of electrical energy from a tonne of oil. This equates to an efficiency of 4.4/11.7 = 38 percent. If that oil is instead combusted in a car, truck or lorry (to produce mechanical energy), the efficiency will be significantly lower - typically 25 to 30 percent.
In other words; the maximum transported amount of 830,000 barrels of crude daily = 41.3 million tonnes/year *11.7 MWh/tonne * 38 percent efficiency = 184 TWh per year of useful energy.
The installed capacity of wind energy in the United States and Canada at the end of 2014 was 75.6 gigawatts (GW) (US - 65.9 GW and Canada - 9.7 GW). Assuming an average capacity factor of 33 percent, for the entire US/Canadian wind fleet, implies total generation of 219 TWh annually.
Out of the total of 75.6 GW, approximately 55 GW has been added since the KXL application was submitted in 2008. That 55 GW generates approximately 160 TWh annually.
At the end of 2014 the installed capacity of solar energy was 20 GW in the US and Canada. Substantially all of this capacity has been added since TransCanada submitted their KXL permit application in 2008.
Solar energy has a lower capacity factor than wind and we have assumed a fleet-wide figure of 17 percent which equates to annual generation of 30 TWh.
SUMMARY - WIND AND SOLAR VS. KEYSTONE XL
- US wind turbines now produce about 191 TWh annually (65.9 GW * 0.33 * 8,760 hours/year): this amount is more than the expected energy output of KXL (184 TWh).
- US and Canadian wind and solar currently produce approximately 249 TWh of energy annually (219 + 30) or 35 percent more than the 184 TWh expected energy output from KXL.
- Since TransCanada submitted its permit application to the US Government in 2008, approximately 75 GW of wind and solar capacity has been added in the US and Canada. That 75 GW now produces 190 TWh of energy annually or about the same as the 184 TWh expected energy output of KXL.
It is a testament to the fundamental attractiveness of the wind and solar sectors that these impressive results have been achieved despite intensive efforts by incumbents to block the uptake of these new, economically-attractive and clean, energy sources.
Decision makers that have been overly focused on securing US approval for KXL would do well to broaden their horizons and to recognise the fundamental merits of a balanced energy portfolio. This is particularly true given the recent collapse in oil prices and the multiple job cuts in the oil sector which have accompanied it.
The US President said as much in his 2015 State of the Union address to Congress when he called on lawmakers to avoid excessive focus on KXL;
"21st century businesses need 21st century infrastructure – modern ports, stronger bridges, faster trains and the fastest internet. Democrats and Republicans used to agree on this. So let’s set our sights higher than a single oil pipeline".