Alt Power Gestalt
We have been bombarded for years with lectures from Mr. Obama and the left in general about how America is "not doing enough" to "invest" in alternative energy sources. A Google on "America alternative energy falling behind" yields 4,300,000 hits, like this one, which opens with this: "Analysts believe that unless the US government does more ..." Analysts believe -- always a comforting sign. And of course the government should be doing more, shouldn't it?
Duly burdened by guilt that my government was not "doing more," I used to wonder how Germany, being so far north and overcast, could be a world leader in electric generation from solar panels. I thought, "Wow, it's that fantastic German engineering!"
Well, I was partly right, as a recent opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal makes clear. Except it was not German engineering that created the miracle, but social engineering: tax consumers through mandated "feed-in tariffs" on their electric bills to subsidize an industry that has no hope of being profitable. Sounds like what the watermelons (green on the outside, red on the inside) are doing in this country. Boy, the progressives' "progress" never looks quite so good up close.
I sent the above remarks, along with the link to the article, to some friends and received this in reply:
Your argument is debatable. Whether or not solar panels are profitable depends upon the price of energy, i.e. oil. Where I work, they will not invest in solar panels because "the cost doesn't justify the expense". However, in making such cost projections, the assumption made is that the price of energy will remain constant several years into the future. When I mention the possibility of the dollar plummeting as the price of oil skyrockets, people look at me funny. I see investment in solar & wind mills more as insurance against the over-dependence on oil.
Because my correspondent reflects the heartfelt dreams of many conservatives, not to mention lefties of every stripe, it is worthwhile examining some of the core issues with alt fuels.
First, petroleum accounts for only one percent of electric generation in this country. Coal is responsible for 45% of our electricity, while natural gas is second, at 23%. Because natural gas burns so much cleaner than coal, and because, due to fracking, the known reserves in the U.S. have skyrocketed while the price has gone down, natural gas is accounting for an increasing share of new electric generation.
As for renewable electric generation, I know literally dozens of engineers who have spent their entire careers in the power generation business, and almost to a man (or woman), they do not believe in solar or wind generation. Oh, they believe that alt fuels are necessary, but in niche applications, such as where the grid is miles away.
But even if solar panels and windmills cost nothing and had 100% efficiency, there is a bigger problem with alt generation: the grid is not a storage system, but a distribution system. That bears repeating: the grid is a distribution system, meaning that the electric load must be maintained within a narrow band (Denmark has had great problems with its nearly 20% wind generation). Incidentally, for a devastating and well-documented critique of wind turbines and their disruptive effect on the environment, go here. Apparently the wilderness must be destroyed in order to save it from global warming.
Peak wind rarely coincides with peak usage. Peak solar comes close to coinciding with peak usage in California, but not in Arizona or other desert states, where peak air conditioning demand comes late in the day. In addition, California does not want solar in-state, while locating vast solar plants in Arizona or other states would result in a loss of perhaps 20% of the power in transmitting it to the Golden State.
When utilities install solar and wind generators, they must also build natural gas turbines and keep them idling for rapid reaction to sags on the grid. Gas turbines must be used because they can be brought online quickly (it takes three days to spool up a nuke, a day or more to bring up a coal facility, slightly less for a combined cycle natural gas plant). However, gas turbines are only about 30% efficient, about half the efficiency of a combined cycle generator (a natural gas plant that uses both turbine and steam power). That's why gas turbines are not used for base-load generation. The end result is that when utilities install alt-generation capacity, they must put in new gas turbine generation as well, and the carbon output of the latter at least offsets that saved from the alt sources. What kind of a bargain is that?
At this point, someone says, OK, we need to store electricity. What else is new? It was lack of battery technology that killed the electric car 100 years ago, and while better today, batteries are nowhere near ready to replace the internal combustion engine.
One suggestion has been to use electricity in the excess generation periods to spin huge (and I mean huge) flywheels that can then generate power when the sun don't shine and the wind don't blow (incidentally, a flywheel system has significant losses in efficiency going in and out). Excellent idea, said Steven Chu, Mr. Obama's secretary of Energy. Mr. Chu should know, because he is a Nobel laureate in physics. The man is brilliant -- much smarter than those greedy venture capitalists when it comes to recognizing investment opportunities.
In August 2010, Mr. Chu's Department of Energy loaned $39 million to Beacon Power, a company building energy storage flywheels. As Beacon's CEO crowed at the time, the company had been "highlighted by the White House as one of the 100 Recovery Act projects that are changing America." Change you can believe in: it took a mere 14 months for Beacon to file for bankruptcy. Solyndra, by comparison, took 24 months to go bust, so the cronies of Messrs. Obama and Chu are getting more efficient at squandering taxpayer funds.
But on the bright side, Beacon took "only" 39 million taxpayer dollars down with them, a bargain compared to Solyndra's $528 million (over 13 times as much). Maybe Mr. Obama can squeeze some slogans out of that experience for his re-election campaign: "When greedy bankers and capitalists refuse to invest in America, Steven Chu can do" or "Changing America, one bankruptcy at a time" or "In a second term we can double our yield to 26 Beacons for the price of one Solyndra."
Don't get me wrong -- I want to believe in alt power, because sun and wind are free -- just as petroleum is free. It's only the extraction and distribution that cost.
Henry Percy is the nom de guerre for a technical writer living in Arizona. He may be reached at saler.50d[at]gmail.com.