Friday, June 27, 2008

Killing the Holy Cows of Renewable Energy

"the blame [for bad movies and poorly performing sports teams] can be laid at the feet of the people of South Asia, whose tolerance of mediocrity knows no bounds." - Chan Akya

"Leadership is not just charisma or showmanship. It means consistency, being forthright, having no tolerance for mediocrity, and not compromising integrity." - Rahul Bajaj

Chan Akya an Indian writer pointed out the consequences of a lack of critical standards. If people are tolerant of mediocrity, mediocrity is what they will get. When I began to read discussions of renewable energy sources as couple of years ago, I noticed that these discussions invariably left important questions unanswered. Pro-renewable environmentalists like David Roberts basically wrote public relations copy for the renewables industries. Needless to say they left many questions unanswered. I started to look for answers, and the answers I found, the things that Robers, Romm and others were trying to sweep under the rug, were disturbing.

The basic question with renewables is how much is is it going to cost. Other questions include where is the power going to come from if the wind does not blow and the sun goes down. Renewables advocates seldom provide satisfactory answers to these questions. Indeed they seemed to sweep these very real questions under the rug. Or offer answer that said in effect, "Don't worry, every thing will turn out oK." Eventually I began to find answers that were less comforting. For example, I discovered the question of summer wind. At first I found a reference to the problem in California, then New England. Senator Lemar Alexander was upset because wind generators only provide electricity 7% of the time during August in Tennessee. Texas has a summer wind problem too, including windy Amarillo, and so do the Northern Great Planes and Ontario. Nowhere in North America seemed safe from the summer wind scourge.

So there was a wind reliability problem even when during the summer. There are other issues. The cost of windmills has been going up. Yet none of the windbags seemed to be talking about that, There is a disconect, because the cost of reactors have been going up and all of the windbags seem to be talking about that.

We have similar issues with solar. While solar generators have the potential of generating electricity for up to 8 hours a day, But depending on where you live, and that includes 75% of the United States, it could be 5 to 6 hours a day. So what do you do for electricity for the other 18 to 19 hours a day. Solar advocates will talk about various storage schemes, none of which have been demonstrated to be practical and cost effective on a massive scale. When I examined the costs of storage schemes such as giant batteries, and pump storage facilities, they turn out to be as least as expensive as nuclear plants. Why build storage facilities that do not produce electricity when for the same amount of money you can build a nuclear plant that does produce electricity?

I have been posting recently on the cost of solar power. I have not based those cost estimates on information found in glossy handouts written by PR people, but on information from people who are actually building or paying for solar generating facilities. i am not trying to make the solar industry look bad. I am not cherry picking data. The information I have found, does not look as good as the information from the glossy handouts.

Tuesday I wrote about the costs of BrightSource solar facilities:
"A further consideration would be that BrightSources own estimated cost estimates falls within the cost range of current cost estimates for nuclear power plants costs. For the basically the same price as a 1 GW BrightSource generating facility PG&E could buy a 1 GW reactor that would generate power day and night, rain or shine with 3 times the daily electrical output of the BrightSource facility."

No one has disputed my calculations or conclusions. Yet in a comment posted on "Energy from Thorium", sam j demanded to know, "Why denigrate renewables?" Sam followed, of course, with the tired anti-nuclear line that we are running out of uranium and there is of course no other possible reactor fuel - I wonder what he thinks the "Energy from Thorium" title is about. Sam appears to believe that the problems of Renewables should be swept under the rug.

Jesse Ausubel has raised questions about the land use requirements of renewables. (Also see here, here, here, here Ausubel is a conservationist in the traditional sense, but not a green, and not a Amory Lovins clone. (also see here)  Jesse Ausubel is the Director of Rockefeller University's human environment program.  He looked at how much energy a given unit of land produced through different technologies.  His conclusion was that hydroelectric power made the least efficient use of land.  

Ausubel argued if the entire provence of Ontario Canada was surrounded by a 60 foot high dam, and the water behind the dam were used to produce electricity, the amount of electricity generated would only equal 80% of the electricity generated by Canada's nuclear 25 power plants.  

If American energy needs were meet by wind power, Ausubel argued that an area the size of Texas, would need to be covered with windmills.

To power New York City by electricity from solar cells, an area the size of the entire state of Connecticut would have to be covered by the solar array. 

Ausubel has argued that:
* renewables are not green
* nuclear is green

Needless to say, Ausubel's argument has driven the supposedly pro-environmental, anti-nuclear greens crazy, and no one went crazier than Joe Romm.  

Romm seems willing to sacrifice every tree in the forrest, if it means that we don't rely on nuclear power.    In his attack on Ausubel, Romm engaging in spin doctoring, worthy of an Exxon employed climate change skeptic. He accuses Ausubel on not mentioning climate change in a speech he gave in which he sumerized his findings. He accuses Ausubel of thinking that "if decarbonization is all but inevitable, then global warming will mostly take care of itself. He doesn't come out and say this, but his talk never discusses the threat of climate change, which is much more likely to rape nature than renewables."

Say what?

If we decarbonize society, that is we stop using carbon based fuels. then we stop adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Once this happens the processes that lead to anthropogenic global warming are interrupted, and eventually the climate change will no longer be driven by increasing levels of greenhous gases. So it would seem that there is no problem with this assumption. It is tasit in Ausubel's thinking. Ausubel is addressing the issue of how much land would be required to impliment various post-carbon energy schemes. We understand the reasons for wanting to do this. Romm is not pushing a weak case against Ausubel. He has no case at all, and simply substitutes words for statements containing substance.

Romm quibbles about land requirements for various renewable options. He argues, for example, that Windmills only occupie 5% of the land on which they are placed. The other 95%, the rest of the land could have alternative uses, Rumm argues. The issue is not just the question of competing land use, each installed wind generator must be connected by a service road and a power line. Thus an area larger than Texas must be densely packed with wind generating towers, service roads and electrical lines. This would represent an enormous investment for what is at best intermittant electrical service. But for windmills, roads and electrical lines, vegitation must be cut back, and maintance must be given, The impact on the environment will be considerable, and as yet largely unacknowledged by Greens like Romm. 


Jim Baerg said...

"Ausubel argued that an *aria* the size of Texas, would need to be covered with windmills"

So has the fat lady sung ;^) on renewables?

I wonder why pro-wind people never seem to mention

I consider that too unproven to be reason to not build nuclear, but promising enough to deserve R&D funding to build a prototype or 2.

Charles Barton said...

Jim, I don't plan to invest money into the scheme.

Greg Barton said...

"Thus an area larger than Texas must be densely packed with wind generating towers, service roads and electrical lines."

This is an excellent point, and one used (rightly so) to argue against drilling in ANWAR and other unspoiled areas. Nifty. :)


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