Monday, July 14, 2008

Can You Stick It Where The Sun Don't Shine?

All this talk about wind and solar power is fine but, if the sun don't shine and wind doesn't blow (or the wind blows too much - see below), well, you need to fall back on traditional power production to keep the power "delivery" steady to our society. In order for wind or solar to solve even a "respectable" power production in this country, you are going to need massive redundancy and a nearly nationwide footprint with a power grid that is capable of carrying a single volt from one coast to the other. This is needed to cover the "wind" and "solar" downtimes that are bound to happen. You can't make electricity from solar when the sun isn't shining due to clouds or night. And, the winds don't blow all the time.

Just last week, T. Boone Pickens started airing a series of ads on television, where he, as a private citizen (and a very wealthy investor), is promoting wind farms as a way to solve our energy problems (See Full Story). He has invested a reported two billion dollars of his own capital in building wind turbines in Texas. However, I just don't think that wind turbines will supplant our energy production in this country. At best, I think that both wind and solar will be just an "additive" to our traditional forms of energy production.

As the title of this piece implies, wind and solar are not consistent. They are totally dependent on the "whims of nature". Wind turbines have a "cut-in" speed. That is, a minimum speed that they will begin to operate at. They also have a "cut-out" speed where they must be "disconnected" in high winds to avoid damage. Further, they are subject to damage from hail and freezing rain; and, they won't operate at extremely cold temps. Some will overheat or become less effective in extremely high temperatures. Their power output will vary as much as 20 to 30 percent from their cut-in to their cut-out wind speeds. Most importantly, they are big. A 100 meter wind turbine is over a football field in both it's minimum height and actual width (while operating). They take up massive amounts of land because they can't be placed any closer than twice the diameter of their vanes. Additionally, the higher the better to avoid the inconsistencies of ground winds. These things are hardly like the charming windmills that dotted the Dutch landscape or the water pumping windmills of the Kansas farms; and, put quite a few of them all together and they will produce a lot of noise. For this reason, the NIMBYists (Not In MY Back Yard activists) generally rule when companies try to license space for these massive devices. If you examine where Mr. Pickens has currently built his wind turbines, it is in the "no man" lands of Texas. And the fact that these things need so much open space, you will never find these things being built in large metro areas (The places where the "most" energy in this country is being consumed!).

In terms of energy production, a single, 1.5 megawatt wind turbine from General Electric will produce enough energy, when operating, to support between 300 and 350 households. In comparison, it will take more than 1,600 of these turbines (assuming constant operation) to replace a single, medium-sized 2,400 megawatt coal-fired power plant which is "consistently" capable of serving more than 1/2 million customers. Also, by comparison, the coal plant might have an operational footprint that is only equal to the same space used by 6 to 10 of those wind turbines; all clustered together. Of course, if clean is the goal, then I guess having wind turbines as far as the eye can see would be fine; but, my guess is not by most people.

Solar is even more unreliable than wind. It is operationally most effective during the summer months with the extended daylight hours and "when" the sun "is" shining. Otherwise, you'll be singing "Here Comes That Rainy Day Feeling Again" as in the hit single made famous by "The Fortunes" in 1965. To overcome this deficiency, you need an arsenal of lead-acid batteries and a big D/C to A/C converter to offset the loss of power production at night and those rainy days. For this reason and because of the associated cost, most solar power users elect to get their "off sun" electricity needs from those old-standbys: the existing power grid of coal. gas, and nuke plants. Furthermore, the technology is expensive. Sure, you can heat your pools and the water in your home with a rooftop full of black PVC piping and a pump (which needs electricity from power plants to run). But, to run all your lights, appliances, and electronics, you are going to have to buy some very expensive, and expansive, electrical-conducting solar panels. And, like their sister renewable, the wind farm, they take a lot more space than the average home has available in order to provide all of the energy needs.

I am a skeptic about T. Boone's plan. He knows that the NIMBYs and the environmentalists are his biggest obstacle in literally "paving" this entire country with wind turbines. Even if the Congress mandates wind and solar, it will be the courts, as a subject of environmental and NIMBY lawsuits, that will ultimately decide whether or not any will be built or installed. For that reason, he is trying to sell "apple pie and motherhood" to us and our government to facilitate the building of thousand upon thousands of wind turbines. It is an easy sell because we are sending trillions of dollars to our enemies who have us by a "oil" stranglehold. But, implementation is another thing. To me, the amount of space needed for solar and wind is the limiting factor; and, it is the NIMBYs and the environmentalists, in conjunction with our court system, that will generally rule the day. That is the "Great Wall of China" that exists between us and the ultimate and effective use of wind or solar power.

A couple of notes: (1) Wind and Solar won't directly impact oil consumption in this country unless we move to electric vehicles. These technologies will primarily offset coal, gas and nuclear power production. (2) the NIMBYs and the environmentalists are something that Barack Obama either doesn't understand or intentionally ignores when talking about all those "green" jobs he wants to create.

image in the public domain and royalty free

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