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Henry Hewitt

Henry Hewitt

Henry Hewitt is an investment strategist and portfolio manager with 36 years of experience in renewable energy. He is also a seasoned writer having published…

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Cities Face Huge Power Shortages In Near Future


“You come to us and tell us that the great cities are in favor of the gold standard. I tell you that the great cities rest upon these broad and fertile prairies. Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic. But destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.”

(William Jennings Bryan -- aka, The Cowardly Lion, at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, July 9, 1896.)

The crowd went wild, and Mr. Bryan was nominated the next day. This speech ended with the following words: You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold. And so it has always been known as the Cross of Gold speech.

Mr. Bryan, who lost three presidential elections, including that one to William McKinley (then again in 1900 & 1908) was clearly wrong about that bit. He was not wrong about what happens if we ‘destroy our farms.’ Nor was he wrong about ‘the great cities [resting] upon these broad and fertile prairies.’

However, in 1896, when Henry Ford was still trying to rustle up $25,000 to finance his start-up, most Americans lived and worked on broad and fertile prairies. Today that is true for very few, however, the great cities now rest upon the energy supplies that come from elsewhere.

Hard to believe this fellow would sell 15 million vehicles in 30 years

Even as the Renewable superpowers (Sun and Wind) begin to tighten their grip on the future and drive the ancient conventional sources to their well-deserved retirement, one must wonder where we are going put enough PV panels, windmills and dams in the cities so that, in this regard, they pay their way. And if we don’t, what kind of a future do cities have? I will try to answer the first question; as to the second, I have no idea.

Related: China Outpaces Competition In Renewable Race

Urbanites, central planners and monopolists alike probably think the solution to how cities pay their own way, in terms of energy production, is nuclear power. The Indian Point plant up the Hudson River is an example. It is 36 miles from Manhattan and has a capacity of 2 GW (2,000 MW), which is a lot. Trouble is, from time to time, New York City and environs need about 13 GW, especially when it’s hot out and the AC units start to crank all at once.

(I’m not sure where Con Ed gets the extra 18 or 19 hours, ie, there are ~ 8,765 hours in an average year; it’s an easy number to commit to memory. “4 3 2 1 -- Earth below us, drifting falling, floating weightless . . .” But I digress. Life in the big city doesn’t take longer, it just seems that way.)

It is probably axiomatic to say that if you don’t know where you are going any road will take you there. The cities are united in understanding that efficiency comes first; it is the One Thing to Rule Them All. From there the roads diverge and, so far, most of them aren’t leading anywhere.

The first thing we do, let’s kill all the inefficiencies. Start by not making the problem worse, ie, every new structure could show it will be net zero or not get a permit. What would be the price for non-compliance? A stern warning seems weak.

Full of sound and fury: Signifying anything?

Among those in the vanguard, the NRDC, under its City Energy Project banner (Better Buildings, Better Cities), makes the following salient point: “The building sector is the single largest user of energy in the United States, accounting for roughly 40 percent of total energy consumption. In cities, however, that figure can be even higher: 60, 70, even 75 percent, and much of that energy is wasted.”

New York City has put forth its “Roadmap to 80 x 50”, ie, an 80 percent greenhouse gas reduction by 2050. (For details see the 134-page pdf) Is GHG reduction the right objective? Isn’t GHG reduction, in fact, best described as a beneficial side effect of getting up to speed with renewables? An economic depression is the fastest, though arguably not the best, way to bring about massive GHG reductions. How about aiming to produce enough energy to meet your city’s needs? How much of that will be renewable? 80 percent? By when? How would that be done?

Offshore Wind and Underground Water

To date, most of the fun in the renewable sector has been had by power producers. But cities have just as much to worry about, if not more, from heat. And it isn’t just a matter of staying warm in the winter; our concrete jungles have more heat than they know what to do with on a hot summer day. It isn’t always sunny in Philadelphia, but when it is, sometimes that becomes too much of a good thing.

Related: Libya’s Oil King Won’t Be Stopped By OPEC

Renters in Philadelphia, Manhattan, or Chicago and plenty of other big cities, may or may not have access to efficient air conditioning units. Even for those who do, the price of power during those hottest hundred hours may be more than their budget can handle. Is there any way to cool things off? Wouldn’t it be nice to take the summer heat and use it in the winter when the opposite problem comes into effect?

The good news is that a simple, cheap and effective way to do that is readily at hand. The next time city planners decide to repave a street, it would be sensible to lay pipes right in the road. In fact, it would be foolish not to. Running water through those pipes will draw heat from the street. Storing the hot water in tanks underground is extremely efficient (high 90 percent) and it can be used for space heating in the winter. It is hard to think of a cheaper way to go. There is no need to invent anything and there is plenty of spare labor around to replace street surfaces.  

As for more power, Scotty, it turns out there is plenty of that around, too, though in the U.S. it depends upon whether you live beside the deep blue sea or in a sea of wheat and corn in the Midwest.


Though the U.S. is lagging the big offshore developers in the North Sea, Denmark, the UK and Germany, progress is at hand.

In case you don’t live anywhere near a coast, there are windy cities in other places. The Denver/Dallas/Chicago triangle will get fed from Midwestern gales. San Francisco has plenty of wind offshore; ask any sailor. But for the most part, cities in California and other SW states will probably get their power from the sun. Those of us who must endure periodic ultraviolet catastrophes, living through Puget Sound winters, already have plenty of virtually free hydro power, courtesy of the rain. We’ll manage, but will the world’s cities, drawing more and more people, like filings to a magnet, really be able to meet the load, not just for energy but for clean water?

More than half the people on earth now live in cities. The UN expects that ratio to reach 2 out of 3 by 2050. Most observers would scoff at the notion that this trend could go into reverse? Absurd. Unthinkable. Not if they cannot find ways to meet their growing energy appetite.  If they don’t, many of them will be under water anyway. Rome, in Caesar’s day, probably had a million or more inhabitants. By the time the Black Death rolled into Europe (in the mid-1300s) that figure had fallen to around 50,000. Mutatis mutandis, which means something to the effect that the more things change, the more they stay the same (ie, the mutations mutate).

The good news is that corn and apples taste best from your own dirt, not the local supermarket.  The Gravenstein’s will be ripe in about a month and if you haven’t ever made your own blackberry pie you haven’t lived. M-mmm, good; please pass the Sockeye, another feature leaping out of the rain-soaked forests stretching from the Redwoods to Bristol Bay Alaska. Amazon will drone the wine over as soon as the Whole Foods purchase closes. No doubt those will be electric. A local Pinot sounds about right.

By Henry Hewitt for Oilprice.com

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