Skip to comments.The Idiot’s Guide to Why Renewable Energy is Not the Answer
Posted on 06/04/2010 7:39:12 AM PDT by SeekAndFind
In the salons of the coastal elites, it is a given wisdom that renewable energy sources are the answer - the answer to perceived climate change, the answer to our foreign oil dependency, the answer to how to feel good about yourself the Answer.
In Washington, politicians cant throw tax breaks at people and businesses fast enough, prodding them to install all manner of solar, wind, and geothermal devices.
Indeed, these energy sources are seductive. The wind blows, its free. Harnessing it, while not free, is certainly clean. Good stuff. The sun shines on us, why not use it? And so on.
The problem isnt that these energy sources are bad, per se. Theyre not. Youre probably thinking that Im now going to tell you that the problem is economics. Yes, theres truth to that argument; most renewables arent economic without subsidies, which is to say they arent economic. But some of them are close, and getting closer, so lets put this aside. Lets assume they are all inherently economic and can compete on an equal footing with traditional energy sources.
The problem is capacity. Renewables will not cannot ever be more than a fairly small fraction of our energy consumption because of fairly mundane reasons like land capacity. For a great perspective on this, I highly recommend William Tuckers book, Terrestrial Energy. Lets go through these one by one.
O-klahoma, where the wind comes sweepin down the plain Yes, it does, and T. Boone Pickens wants to build lots of wind turbines there to take advantage of Americas wind corridor. He sure sounds compelling in those ads, and wind power is certainly growing. Right now, there is about 30,000 MW of wind capacity in the U.S., up considerably from a few years ago. This is the equivalent of about 40 power plants. Thats nice, but its only about 1% of our electrical needs (and, obviously, a much lower percentage of our overall power needs).
Actually, 1% overstates things quite a bit. The real contribution of wind is much lower, because wind mills generate electricity only about 30% of the time. Wind just doesnt sweep down the plain all the time. It also doesnt always sweep when you want it to. For instance, peak electrical demand is in the summer, but this is when the wind doesnt blow (much).
Why not store the energy then? You cant, because the technology isn't there. This is one of the most important things to understand about our electrical grid; electricity must be produced when it is being consumed, and it is a balancing act. Produce too much, and you get electrical surges. Too little, and you get brown outs.
You can see why wind is highly inconvenient. You simply cant control when you get it, and as a result, it would be impossible to run an entire grid on wind. In Denmark, they get about 20% of their power from wind, but they couldnt do it without being heavily reliant on coal as the stabilizer. (The Danes have the highest electrical rates in Europe, but I know, I promised to assume economics away )
With conventional energy sources such as coal, oil, and nuclear, the output can be controlled to match demand. I can hear what youre thinking: so whats wrong with simply using wind to augment the power supply? Nothing, except that it will never amount to much. This is where some very simple realities get in the way.
Wind turbines are becoming gigantic. The one above is the largest in the world and produces 6 MW of power (when the winds blowing). It would take 125 of these to approximate just one typical power plant. So, the question for all of us is, where you going to put these babies? They completely alter the visual environment, and they make noise. Oh, and they kill birds. Ted Kennedy and Robert Kennedy Jr., committed environmentalists both, bitterly fought a plan to put a wind farm of the shore of Cape Cod. Their problem? Theyd have to look at them.
Do you know where wind blows the hardest? Across the tops of mountain ranges. Are you prepared to look at turbines like these along the tops of mountains? You can see the problem, and yet even if people came to terms with the aesthetics, you could put turbines everywhere and it still wouldnt add up to much power. It would take over six hundred thousand turbines like the one above to supplant our current power plants, assuming the wind blew constantly). Since it doesn't, it would take over two million. Never going to happen.
Solar may be closer to the heart of the environmental movement than all others, but it, too, will never amount to a hill of beans. The story is similar to wind: solar just cant do any heavy lifting.
At the equator on a sunny day, 950 watts of power shines down on a square meter. Thats about 9 light bulbs worth. There is no way, short of violating the laws of physics, to enhance that number. In the U.S., the number is more like 400 watts over the course of a sunny day. Were down to 4 light bulbs. However, we cannot convert 100% of this energy into electricity. Current technology captures about 15%. Half a light bulb, more or less.
If we covered every roof top of every home in America with solar panels we could likely power the lighting needs of our homes, but only during the day when the sun is shining. During the night, when we actually need lights, panels are useless. As with wind, electrical power can't be stored at large scale.
The basic problem here is that solar power isnt very, well, powerful. Sure, you can construct huge arrays like this
but they dont accomplish very much. For instance, lets say you went really big, and you created a solar array somewhere in the U.S. the size of five hundred football fields (roughly a square mile). How much power would you get? The answer is roughly 150 MW, and only during the day when the sun is out. A typical power plant produces about 750 MW. So supplanting one power plant would require five square miles of panels. This is not compelling.
Supplanting our entire electrical supply with solar would require turning the entire state of South Carolina into one large solar panel. Or...maybe we should stick them out in the desert. Seems logical. Senator Feinstein has proposed paneling over 500,000 acres of the Mojave Desert. But again, we run into mundane practical problems, even before considering things like the environmental impact of covering that much land. When solar panels collect dust and grime, they lose much of their effectiveness, so they must be cleaned frequently. Where, exactly, are we going to get the water needed for cleaning in the middle of the desert? And who's going to be out there wiping down 500,000 acres of panels?
Furthermore, the more distant a source of electricity is from where it's used, the more of it you lose during transmission, as much as 50% over 115 miles. Not a lot of folks living near the Mojave. Feinstein is nuts.
Like wind, solar can be a marginally useful way to augment our power needs, but it will never be a significant contributor.
Hydro power is really another form of capturing solar power. The sun evaporates water and redeposits it in the form of rain. Some of this rain is at higher altitudes and flows in rivers to lower altitudes. Dam a river, let the water flow through turbines, and you have hydro power.
The Hoover Dam
Hydro was once a major power source in the U.S., but its now down to less than 3%. Its clean, yes, but the problem is that most of the good sites have already been used, and it is unlikely that politics will allow for any new ones. Groups like the Sierra Club want to remove ones we already have, because they say spawning patterns for fish are interfered with.
Theres also the matter of space. The Hoover Dam created Lake Mead, which is 247 square miles. Can anyone imagine that such a project could happen today? Correct answer: no. Tolerance for any significant new dam project is probably around zero. Hydro power will only decline as a percentage of our electrical needs.
Whose bright idea was it (Jimmy Carter) to take one third of our nations corn crop to create fuel? Im not pointing fingers (Jimmy Carter), but this was a bad, bad idea. For one, it has driven food prices higher since the price of corn flows through to all kinds of other foods (think things like fructose and cow feed). Higher food prices have actually led to riots in the third world (see: Mexican Tortilla Riots).
But, that aside, food just doesnt store much energy, so you need a lot of it to get any results. Right now, the one third of our corn crop we are allocating to ethanol offsets less than 3% of our oil consumption. Tucker estimates that if you allocated every acre in the United States to ethanol production assuming it was all arable youd offset about one-sixth of our oil needs. Thank you for playing. Next.
There's a big popular trend towards generating electricity (and home heating) by burning wood pellets. This is another innocuous idea, seemingly. Cut a tree, and another grows in its place. Environmentalists like burning trees because the released carbon is recaptured by the new trees that grow where the old ones were cut. The problem, though, is the same as with corn: wood just doesn't store that much energy relative to its mass. To put it into perspective, one would have to cut and burn 56 million trees per year to match the output of one typical coal-fired plant. This is about 140,000 acres. If we replaced our entire power plant system with biomass, we would need to cut roughly 750 million acres of trees per year, or approximately one third of the land mass of the United States.
Once again, the simple math of it gets in the way of the best intentions.
Geothermal is mostly limited to places where magma comes close to the earths surface. In the U.S., this means California and Hawaii. California gets about 5% of its electricity from geothermal, which is great, but unless someone figures out how to tap much deeper magma sources, this is also a highly limited source of power. Oh, and it smells really bad.
Sorry, I know all this is a big buzz kill for many of you. Believing in renewables is so comforting. It's also fool's gold.
Right now, the U.S. is getting about 6% of its overall energy needs from renewables. Given all the practical constraints I've outlined, getting this to even 10% would seem remarkable, which leaves us with...conventional energy sources, specifically oil, gas, coal, and nuclear. They will continue to do the heavy lifting, and no amount of fairy dust will change that.
Not coincidentally, all four of these energy sources are continuously under fire from the enormously powerful environmental lobby. But frankly, until the Sierra Club, Earth First, and others come up with some solutions of their own, rather than just things they oppose, they have no credibility, at least not with me.
A large part of the answer, it would seem, would be to scale up our nuclear capacity. It's great stuff, nuclear. A few grams of matter holds as much energy as hundreds of miles of forests, sunshine, or wind. It's clean, and there's now a fifty year operating history in the U.S. without a single fatality. France gets 80% of its power from nukes. We should be more like France. (Did I just say that?)
In the 1970s, the Three Mile Island incident and the film The China Syndrome happened almost simultaneously. The combination was enough to cement public opinion for a generation. For the left, the "no nukes" movement still has a warm and fuzzy resonance. Some, though, are slowly coming around, because nukes don't produce greenhouse gasses. President Obama has even made some positive noises about nuclear power, so maybe there's hope.
Perhaps we need a movie about renewables. We could call it "The Inconvenient Math."
On Morning Joe this morning, Joe was going on and on about how we have to use alternative energy sources and that the president should order a 45 mpg CAFE. Most Americans don’t want to drive those little “Smart” cars. I know I don’t. This is a very good article. Thanks for posting.
He misses only one thing. Solar One, the tower thermal-based solar power plant, had a liquid sodium storage mechanism to provide power 24/7.
I still say we go nuclear as the stabilizer, with solar, wind and anything else to provide peak.
I’ll drive an electric car if :
1) The price can be brought down to the level of an ordinary sedan (e.g. Toyota Camry ).
2) If the infrastructure is in place similar to our gas stations for me to refill the juice the car needs.
3) If I don’t have to wait 8 hours every day to recharge my car.
4) if the maintenance cost is similar to or less than the ordinary petrol driven car.
Give me that technology and I’ll consider the electric car but not until.
Good article - thanks for posting.
The few times that I’ve seen windmill farms, most of them weren’t turning. Oops.
Michigan is a beautiful microcosm of the problems with renew ables.
First we have the legislature forcing electric and gas producers to reduce output.
Then we have the state refusing to grant permits to clean coal plants citing a lack of demand for the energy they would produce.
While we’re refusing the clean coal fired plants, we’re giving permits for wind farms despite the lack of demand that prevents the coal fired plants.
The wind farms are all at the low end of the 1 to 7 potential energy scale that the state has adopted.
Meanwhile we have some 300 unused dams in Michigan. Many of those could probably be fitted with turbines to produce energy to feed into the grid. They wouldn’t be huge producers but they would help. Instead we’re tearing the dams out as fast as we can.
Basically it all comes down to being forced to use wind at a much higher cost.
Very good article!!
Even an idiot like me could understand it!
And those are the small turbines. Not far from where I live there are windfarms with the larger 1.5Mw units - they provide power for Dallas which is over 300 miles away. Meanwhile, the city in which I live is powered by natural gas plants which are inside the city limits.
Let’s see that is 40 watts a square foot never happen!
Just the mining of iron ore for the steel, the mining of the rare earths for the generators in the turbines, and the petroleum-based lubricating oil inside the gearbox, the occasional blade falling off, or transmission lines catching fire on the prairies...
One suggestion for “storage” a teacher made to our class was to build reservoirs and pump water “up” to them during off peak hours using the excess power from windmills, solar, etc. During peak hours, the water can be used for hydroelectric power. Conversion efficiency is an issue, but if the power is just going to be wasted anyways... and of course it shares the hydroelectric issues.
My local nuke plant doesn’t use a cooling tower.
It has a warm water outflow that is friggin AWESOME for fishing, though.
I’m surprised they did well in crash tests. Still, I wouldn’t want to drive one. I prefer SUVs or at least larger sedans. And as you said, not practical at all for families with kids.
That they are. Even from non-nuke plants. The LILCO plant in Northport LI provided me with great fishing throughout the winters when I lived in NY.
Currently gasoline and diesel are the preferred method. Ethanol and LP have some popularity. But a common problem they all have is that the method of converting the energy to usable power is horribly inefficient (the most efficient reciprocating engine in the world, a diesel ship engine, is around 50% efficient).
Electric as the final drive is extremely efficient (over 90% IIRC). It also has multiple methods of portability for its energy source. Batteries are the most famous, but I don't think battery power is going to get good enough and cheap enough any time soon.
Honda has been running some full-size hydrogen cars in California for a while in a limited release, and the drivers love them. The hydrogen goes through a fuel cell and produces electricity for the motors. Fill-up takes as long as a regular car and costs about the same as gas. They have the range and power that we're used to in a regular car. They also require a lot less maintenance than a regular car. They fit most of the criteria to become successful in the market on their own.
The problems: They're still expensive and the filling station infrastructure isn't there nation-wide (only a few in California for this limited release). Honda hopes to have the price down to decent retail levels and start mass production before 2020.
I'm also thinking that if hydrogen takes, off, a home fill-up would be great. It would be a small appliance that would take your household water and electricity to slowly produce hydrogen, and pump it into your tank overnight. You vent oxygen out to prevent fire hazard, and don't actully keep pressurized hydrogen in the appliance. Of course put an O2 and H sensor on it, with a mechanical interlock to turn it off if levels get high or the sensors die. With the car's almost 300 mile range, most people would never have to fill up at a station.
BTW, there's your prior art if anybody tries to patent something like that.
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