Someday, America is going to return to logic and reality. We may be making some progress as shown by the fact that there are an increasing number of people who no longer watch TV or trust the TV talking heads in the entertainment business called “television news.”
However, we still have our issues. One irrational topic that I have heard more conversation about recently is the notion that wind and solar energy, because they can be “distributed”, make the electrical power grid obsolete. What promoters of this silly notion (Jon Wellinghoff and David Crane, for example) gloss over is the fact that the wind and sun are terribly unreliable sources of power that absolutely require backup in order to work.
I’ve known a couple of hardy, self-sacrificing souls who have attempted to use solar panels, batteries and inverters to live “off the grid”, but they have had to live like paupers, conserving every watt-hour they could. No air conditioning, tiny refrigerators, gas stoves, and few, if any, power tools are the normal choices made by people who make that attempt.
There are, of course, some better resourced people who claim to live off of the grid, but they have big diesel or propane storage tanks with reliable generators. Some might not have tanks; they will piously claim that their “off grid” system runs off of natural gas that is delivered by an underground grid of pipes, not wires. (I hope you see the sarcasm in that statement.)
Recently, one of my correspondents who is a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) wrote the following letter to that organization. The UCS, like Amory Lovins’s Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), promotes the idea that inherently unreliable wind and solar generators can supply reliable electricity because they can be distributed and networked with other unreliable sources that will be able to provide power from somewhere else. They like to imply that this “distributed generation” capability makes the existing grid obsolete. Here is what George wrote in his letter to the UCS:
Got my UCS “earthwise” today, and I’m disappointed at much of its content. The article titled Bringing Science to the Fracking Debate did nothing more than talk about a recent forum and note that 2 publications about the forum will be out this fall. This is a waste of space. Instead, you could be giving the current science and then report on the forum when the publications are available.
I’ll bet that most UCS members would have preferred to learn that Louis Allstadt, the former executive vice president of Mobil Oil opposes fracking because, as he says, “With hundreds of thousands of wells leaking methane, you’re going to exacerbate global warming.” He also warns that “The industry is unloading all the costs of what it’s been doing onto the public. Just go out and build miles of levees around New York City and build drainage systems…. We’ll go on producing natural gas and keep the cost low by having taxpayers pick up the cost of dealing with the consequences of global warming. Something has to wake up the public. It will either be education from the environmental movements or some kind of climate disaster that no one can ignore.”
As for the Cleaner Cars for All Consumers article, I’d also bet that the average UCS member already knows about inflating tires, stop/start idling and regenerative braking, which my Honda Civic Hybrid has. Instead, why not give us the data on the carbon cost of making a hybrid compared to the carbon savings accrued over the life of a car kept for 7 years while being driven 15,000 miles per year. Why not give us the physics of how much the efficiency of an all electric car is degraded when operated in temps that average 15 degrees F for 4-5 months of the year?
How about an article about the planned closure of the Vermont nuclear plant that some applaud, although we should be increasing nuclear power generation with, for example, a Westinghouse /Toshiba AP1000 or MSRs as soon as possible, none of which produce CO2.
As a friend pointed out, replacing the plant’s 620 MW of power with intermittent solar or wind is not a good option – financially or ecologically if you factor in all of the costs. As he wrote, “ the only reason the wind and solar option can even be proposed is because of the already existing electric grid structure of rock-solid, baseload, fossil-fueled, undeviating 3600 rpm, steam turbine-driven, generators.
It’s easy to piggyback on those baseload generators with your intermittent, poor quality, non sine-shaped, non 60-Hertz, electrical energy. The transmission circuit (voltage between wires) is sine-wave stable only due to the low-resistance thick copper wires in the ac alternators that are attached to those steam turbines that work 24/7.
With a stable transmission circuit like that, ANYBODY can assert his little bit of extra energy into the mix without causing much disruption. But don’t try that without a stable baseload – it won’t work.”
That said, the Action page and the Dialogue article proved timely and useful.
PS: I actually like the notion of distributed power generation that makes the electrical power grid obsolete. My dad, who spent most of his electrical engineering career in the transmission substation engineering group at FP&L, might not agree, if he was still around to disagree. However, I’ve lived comfortably off the grid for months at a time on a vessel that carried more than a decade’s worth of fuel. If you like the idea of eliminating wires, you need to learn more about small nuclear power plants that can reliably run for years without any outside support or fuel deliveries.