Many of my colleagues in the energy business try to be environmentally correct and do not like to make clear statements that criticize any particular energy source. They especially avoid any hint that they actively oppose the development of the “popular” renewable energy sources like wind and solar power.
(Note: At one time, biomass had achieved “popular” status, but there has been enough real information about its problems that it is now socially acceptable to reveal discomfort with the idea of massive conversions of plant matter into fuel for human activity, even in a gathering of environmental activists.)
I want to state my own position as clearly as possible – I love the wind, sun and plant matter, both living and decomposing. I strongly disagree with the efforts of the past several decades to try to figure out how to capture and employ more of those resources in industrial human activity.
The very concept of building massive windmills and solar collectors is inconsistent with enjoying natural beauty and the wonders of creation. I hate the idea of converting valuable food material or even “waste” cellulose into noxious gases plus a little usable heat. From what I know about soil, the highest use for waste plant matter is in restoring nutrients to fertile land to maintain its value for growing carbon sequestering new plants. (Of course I know that there are places where biomass is the only available choice and I will admit that I like a nice wood fire now and again. However, one of my life goals is to help reduce the number of people who have to spend their days carting firewood or animal dung.)
Adherents of “the soft energy path” advocated by Amory Lovins and others do not seem to get the fact that capturing natural flows of intermittent and diffuse energy is inherently wasteful of human effort and manufactured materials. What they do not seem to understand is the iron rule that producing a useful quantities of anything from a diffuse source requires a LARGE collector. When the diffuse source is also intermittent, with long stretches of zero production, that large collector is idle for a large portion of its lifetime.
(Aside: Since the collectors have to be fully exposed to weather in order to do their job, their lifetime is not anywhere near as long as some people predict. Take a look at a solar panel that has been in operation for 5-10 years and see if you do not notice some significant deterioration. I have not found a good source of data yet, but I expect that there are many owners that notice that their panel power production falls off as time move on.)
The actual collector is not the only part of the system that achieves a low capacity factor. Energy must reach a customer in order to be useful, so collecting systems have to be connected to delivery systems like transmission lines. Since energy does not store well, those delivery systems have to be sized to handle the maximum amount of power that the collectors can produce.
When the root energy source like the wind or the sun disappears, the collector and the transmission system are both idle capital investments that are not producing any returns in the form of useful energy or revenue. If the root source intensity is simply lower than the maximum flow, those capital investments are producing a much lower than maximum rate of return. What many people do not understand about the wind, for example is that the power is proportional to the cube of the wind speed – 6 knots of wind may feel like a nice breeze, but it only produces 1/8th as much power as 12 knots of wind. Think about the difference in wealth creation between a restaurant that is packed all day every day and one that only occasionally gets filled, is often empty and usually only seats a few casual diners.
I have heard many wind advocates talk about how their power source can be made reliable by distributing wind resources over a large area. Their argument is that the wind is always blowing somewhere. The problem is that it is also generally NOT blowing everywhere, so there is almost always a large portion of the total installed base that is producing well below the nameplate quantity of power.
Another difficult challenge associated with collecting natural flows for power is the allocation of property rights. There has been a lot of chatter on the web in the past couple of weeks about the famous neighbor dispute in California where the courts were asked to intervene in a six year long battle that pitted a couple of greens who like trees versus a neighbor who had installed solar panels.
Here are some varying views on the topic that are worth a quick read:
- Neighbors Clash Over Trees, Solar Power
- California case — environmental law trumps property rights
- California Hippie Court: Trees vs Solar Panels
- Trees versus solar panels, who wins in neighborly dispute?
And the list goes on. The issue is not simple; the trees were planted before the panels were installed, but the panel owner did not install shaded panels. Instead, the trees grew enough to shade more than 10% of his panels during the hours between 10 am and 2 pm. (The Solar Shade Control Act does not kick in unless that limitation is met.) That means that the trees branches were probably overhanging the panel owner’s property, because the sun is close to being directly overhead during those hours. In some jurisdictions, neighboring property owners have the right to cut branches that violate property lines, but that right is not universal and it can be quite expensive.
Some observers think that the Solar Shade Control Act is absurd, but one of the major functions of government by the citizens is to create laws that govern the ownership boundaries. Though some people like to believe that they have the right to do whatever they want on their property, the world has many dimensions that complicate things. Natural substances and forces like the wind, water, minerals and sun do not recognize two dimensional property lines drawn by surveyors. Neither do human created substances or forces like noise, noxious gases, or shade.
It is well understood that a person with a stream on his property does not have the right to dam it for his own use and that the rights to minerals under a piece of property are subject to a different set of ownership laws than the land itself. It is a natural function of government to try to draw some lines to help people understand who owns the right to the sun and wind energy associated with a particular location since one person’s collection of that resource may interfere with another person’s use of the same resource.
A final complexity associated with collecting weather dependent energy flows is that there really is no such thing as “average” weather. The actual variations are rather extreme – a solar collector system that is producing maximum power on a sunny day in Florida during one 15 minute period could be reduced to almost nothing just a few minutes later as a typical afternoon thunder boomer rolls through. The same can be said of the wind, but the scale and the shifts can be even more dramatic since large shifts in direction are generally prefaced by a calm period.
As a sailor, I can remember many exciting times as line squalls blew through on summer afternoons – it was fun to try to predict and respond to the changes more quickly than the competition. As a foredeck guy, I took pride in my crew’s ability to change sails from large to small or from small to very large. Playing with the wind is big kick and a great
However, as a guy who spent a few years operating a small grid with a number of finicky power customers – like the electronics technicians whose gear did not like fluctuations – I cannot imagine what it would be like to have power sources on my grid that could not be controlled by human hands or automatic control systems. Running a power grid can be nerve wracking enough; there is no reason to make it any more exciting than it has to be. I want boring grids that produce well behaved power!
I can predict the possible response to this rant by some people – after all, nuclear reactors do not operate 100% of the time and they occasionally shut down at unexpected times. However, it is clear to me that it is possible to achieve responsive, dependable, predictable, weather independent operation with fission power sources while those goals are impossible with “popular” renewable energy sources. Again, I will point out my personal experience of having been underwater for months at a time with a single reactor and I will point to the publicly available operating capacity factor performance data for commercial nuclear reactors in the US. (NEI – U.S. Nuclear Industry Capacity Factors (1971 – 2006))
You may have noticed that I put quotes around the word “popular” a couple of times. As a proud geek, a lifetime four-eyes, and the Class Scholar in high school, I long ago became comfortable with the idea that being popular is not worth much. Technical choices are not popularity contests – they are important enough to deserve honest evaluation and analysis by people who have an understanding of the hazards of making the wrong choice. As is often pointed out in energy discussions, there is an opportunity cost with every choice – resources invested in chasing popularity cannot be devoted to actually solving the problem of providing clean, reliable, abundant, affordable energy to the maximum number of people.
I will close by pointing out something that might cause some consternation among my energy industry buddies – a major reason why few of them will actively criticize wind, solar, biomass, gas, coal, or hydro is that they work for large conglomerates that have interests in all type of large scale machinery and engineering projects. They are agnostic because their companies encourage them to be that way.
GE and Siemens – for example – make more money selling wind turbines than they do selling nuclear power plant equipment. The intellectually honest members of those companies have to know that the turbines that they are selling today are not going to solve the world’s long term energy production challenges. Of course, from a business point of view that is a good thing – it means that there is yet another sales opportunity down the road when that glaring fact becomes more fully visible to the rest of the population.