Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Why T. Boone Is Mostly Hot Air

William Tucker tilts at windmills, in the current National Review (subscription only for now):
Nearly all the energy on earth originated as radiation from the sun. Somewhere around 750,000 years ago, early humans discovered the vast quantities of solar energy stored in dried plant material, and fire became a source of supplementary heat and light. Then, as forests began to disappear in the 17th century, Europeans discovered another source of stored sunlight in fossil fuels. These represent the accumulation of solar energy over millions of years. Coal is the most abundant — we will probably never run out of it — and the octane molecules in gasoline are probably the densest storehouse of solar energy we will ever encounter. Pound for pound, coal contains twice as much energy as wood, and gasoline and natural gas contain four times as much. The Industrial Revolution became possible only when these denser forms of solar energy were developed.

Now, as we begin to run up against the natural limits of fossil fuels, it is important to consider the energy density of anything we might use in their place. Wind, water, biofuels, and the direct use of sunlight are anywhere from 5 to 50 times more dilute than fossil fuels. There is only one way to compensate for their low density, and that is to consume huge amounts of land in gathering them.

This is the Achilles heel of every form of “alternative energy.” When first introduced in the 1970s, alternative energy came with the slogan “Small is beautiful.” Prophets such as Amory Lovins, David Brower, and Lester Brown pictured a post-industrial world of backyard windmills, rooftop solar collects, and organic gardens where small plots would be set aside for biofuels that would run hyper-efficient cars. Self-sufficiency was the theme. It all sounded charming and romantic.

The reality has been anything but. We now use one-quarter of America’s corn crop for biofuels in order to replace less than 4 percent of our oil. GreenFuel Technologies, a Massachusetts startup, has a plan to grow photosynthesizing algae that will consume the carbon emissions from coal plants, and can be turned into biodiesel to run cars. It sounds like a great idea, except that the pools required for gathering sunlight to convert 40 percent of the exhausts from a single power plant will occupy 15 square miles.

T. Boone Pickens will soon be running up against a similar density problem with his wind farms. A standard wind farm built to generate 1,000 MW — the capacity of an average coal or nuclear plant — would occupy about 125 square miles. Pickens wants to space his windmills a little wider — five to the square mile instead of eight — so for his 4,000 MW he will need 800 square miles.

But that 4,000 MW is only the “nameplate capacity.” Because wind blows so irregularly, even the best wind farms now generate electricity at only 30 percent of their theoretical capacity. (By contrast, nuclear reactors run at 92 percent capacity.) That means he will need 1,200 square miles of windmills to equal the output of three or four coal or nuclear plants, each of which occupies only a square mile. Factoring in the land required for mining adds several square miles for coal, and much less for uranium.

Even then, the electricity generated by windmills is not what the industry calls “dispatchable,” meaning able to be produced and delivered when and where needed. As the authors of “20% Wind Energy by 2030” write:
Incorporating wind energy into power system planning and operation, then, will require new ways of thinking about energy resources. . . . Thinking in terms of “backing up” the wind is not appropriate because the wind capacity was installed to generate low-emissions energy but not to meet load growth requirements. Wind power cannot replace the need for many “capacity resources,” which are generators and dispatchable load that are available to be used when needed to meet peak load.
In other words, don’t count on its being there — backup from other resources will always be necessary. Building and maintaining a wind-power infrastructure is a supplement, not a replacement, for fossil-fuel plants.

Part of the mistaken belief that wind can be a reliable source of electricity comes from a misapprehension of what the “grid” is. The national grid is not a machine for churning out electricity. It is more like a high-wire act — the Flying Wallendas balancing six people on a bicycle 50 feet above the ground.

Electricity must be consumed the moment it is generated; there are no methods for storage on an industrial scale. This means that supply and demand must constantly match within about 5 percent. Otherwise there will be power “dips” or “surges,” which can cause brownouts, ruin electrical equipment, or even bring the whole system crashing down.

Traditionally, maintaining voltage balance has involved two things: (1) matching supply with demand through the normal daytime/nighttime fluctuations, with demand usually peaking around mid-afternoon, and (2) maintaining a “spinning reserve” against sudden losses of power, in case an overloaded transmission line brushes against a tree and shorts out, or a generator unexpectedly shuts down. Utilities generally build “peaking plants” to handle high daytime demand, then carry a “spinning reserve” of 20 percent of output to guard against shutdowns.

Now imagine introducing a power source that is constantly fluctuating. The output of a windmill varies with the cube of wind speed, so it can change greatly from minute to minute. Putting windmills on the grid is a little like the Flying Wallendas’ hiring a new crew member to shake the wire while they are doing their balancing act. Engineers who work on electrical grids have been quietly complaining for years, and over the last decade, grid operators in Denmark, Japan, and Ireland have all refused to accept more wind energy. In fact, Denmark — the world leader in wind generation — stopped building windmills altogether in 2007. After long discussions at numerous symposiums and in professional energy journals, a consensus has emerged that, even with very accurate weather forecasts and other improvements, a grid can at best tolerate a maximum of 20 percent wind energy. Above that, the fluctuations become too difficult to mask. That’s why DOE chose the 20 percent–by–2030 goal. . .

Oh, there’s one more rub. Bringing windmills online will require building a whole new cross-country transmission system. While wind energy is concentrated in the Midwest, consumer demand is mostly on the East and West Coasts. Normal transmission lines — of 138 kilovolts (kV) and 345 kV — lose about 10 to 15 percent of their wattage every 1,000 miles, which is not a problem when the power is generated close to the consumer. But transmitting electricity halfway across the country will require a completely new infrastructure of 765 kV lines that cover long distances without losing power. This could be an enormous problem, because utility executives now say the only thing more difficult than siting a power plant is building new transmission lines, since every property owner and municipal jurisdiction in the path gets to have a say. Ranchers who are as just as picky as Pickens about what they permit on their land could pose huge obstacles.


andylora said...

This misuse of the term "density" constitutes a real category mistake, so the whole argument is misleading. Wind generators scattered over the landscape are in no way similar to a lump of coal. The bottom line: the increased loading of carbon into the atmosphere is not tenable. And the general "can't do" stance of the article; every energy source has its downside; engineering the balance of strategies is the challenge that must be met. The article has a nice passive-aggressive flavor though.

Carl said...


The density point serves to highlight how much land area must be devoted to obtaining equivalent BTUs (or relevant metric cognate). The article goes on to talk about nuclear power:

"Is there a way out of this conundrum? There certainly is. The greatest scientific discovery of the 20th century was the vast store of energy concentrated in the nucleus of the atom. The energy released from splitting a uranium atom is 2 million times greater than the energy released by breaking a carbon-hydrogen bond in coal.

The tremendous energy density in uranium produces an extraordinarily smaller environmental footprint. It explains why uranium can be mined at a few isolated sites, while coal must be extracted by digging whole cities underground or ripping the tops off mountains, as is being done in West Virginia. It explains why a 1,000 MW coal plant must be fed by a 110-car coal train arriving every day, while a nuclear reactor is refueled by a single tractor-trailer delivering a batch of new fuel rods once every 18 months. It explains why France can take all the waste from 25 years of producing 75 percent of its electricity with nuclear reactors and store it beneath the floor of one room at La Hague. The incredible energy density in the nucleus of the atom is the greatest environmental benefaction ever bestowed upon humanity."

I, and many others, dispute any causal link between carbon emissions and, well, anything. But even were such relationship proven, nuclear plants are nearly zero emitting--without eating up land.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

andylora - "the bottom line: the increased loading of carbon into the atmosphere is not tenable." Here's a tip - energy is complicated. Bypass professional journalists entirely when getting your science information. While there are a few (John Tierney, for example) who have general reasoning abilities, most do not. They pick up what is the socially acceptable science. As the Japanese say, they "read the air."

You will not get anything like unanimity from scientists who do this for a living. Those livings are dependent on foundation grants, academic grants, industry grants, government grants - everyone has a slant. But you will at least stop making blanket statements based on the consensus of those who are currently the social stars.

burnside said...

Carl, interesting post.

On the matter of nuclear power, the May 12 issue of New Yorker brings up thorium reactors in a Malcolm Gladwell article "In the Air", which I suspect you may find interesting.

Evidently Myhrvold is providing VC for a commercially scaled, sealed-unit thorium power plant:

"Teller had this idea way beck when that you could make a very safe, passive nuclear reactor . . . no moving parts. Proliferation-resistant. Dead simple. Every serious nuclear accident involves operator error, so you want to eliminate the operator altogether. Lowell and Rod and others wrote a paper on it once. So we did several sessions on it.

"The plant, as they conceived it, would produce something like one to three gigawatts of power, which is enough to serve a medium-sized city . . ."


burnside said...

Oh, that turned out well. Link truncated all to hell. Makes for a nice maiden post.

Carl said...


Excellent, fun article (corrected link here ) about simultaneous inventions. The nuclear section is but a few paragraphs--read the whole thing.

OBloodyHell said...

> The bottom line: the increased loading of carbon into the atmosphere is not tenable.

A statement loaded with bias but utterly without justification. And irrelevant. The article can argue just as much for nuclear, which can substantially reduce carbon output, since one nuke plant is usually 2 to 4 times the capacity of the typical coal-fired system.

> And the general "can't do" stance of the article; every energy source has its downside; engineering the balance of strategies is the challenge that must be met.

It's also the matter of choosing which strategies are complete losers, like most so-called "alternative energy" sources.

The development of these have been subsidized for the last 30 years, and they still suck. **All** of them.

Wind is crap, as the wind farm in Texas showed this last winter, and numerous analyses have shown.

The only earth based solar power system (as opposed to SPS) which has any hope of viability is Ocean Thermal, and THAT is the one getting utterly ignored by the eco-twits: use the vast surface of the ocean as a solar collector. Might or might not work, it definitely requires work on low-pressure power extraction, but it doesn't require mining lots of materials, creating vast amounts of toxic waste (You think the manufacture of solar cells is "clean"? HAH. Fool!), and then finding not only the places to situate them but also the huge mass of low-skilled manual labor to regularly clean them, which can reduce their already abysmal efficiency by as much as 50%... then there is the little matter of accidental falls, which is the leading cause of accidental death in the USA behind auto accidents. Solar cells don't usually lie on the ground, you know, but on rooftops, ergo, massively increased death by falling. But that doesn't count since it's "off the radar", innit?

When you consider the value of an "enhancement", you need to consider ALL the results, not just the ones you want to pay attention to.

Always remember the paving material on the proverbial Road to Hell.


The common technique for a link is to use the "a" html tag, in the form:
< a href="http://thisplace.com"> Link Text Here < /a>

(remove the single space following each of the "<" -- think of the brokets "<>" as parenthesis)

The result will look like this if you place it in your text:
Link Text Here
(note: that link doesn't actually go anywhere)

Hopefully, that will make your life simpler. Many blog comment engines support the usage of the a, b (bold), and i (italic) tags, even if they don't mention it. If there is a preview feature, test it and see before using it heavily on an unknown blog engine... but many do accept them.

OBloodyHell said...

Burnside: Great article. The kind of article Wired used to produce before Time, Inc., bought them out.

Along the same lines of that, I strongly recommend a Brit TV series from the 70s called Connections. Excellent series about the history and development of technology (At the time, it seemed very fast-paced, but to the modern MTV-trained eye, it's average).

The concept, of linking a range of ideas and inventions and showing how they all interacted to produce the modern world is still a fascinating one.

Burke's goal was to destroy the then-popular ideas of "Golden Ages" and "Solitary Inventors", and show how, often, things were invented and sat around for 50 years until someone noticed or applied it differently -- or how one invention was actually a chain of precursor inventions leading to that final, notable one.

Speaking of that sort of thing, This man, not Al Gore, is the true father of the internet. Read the article (long, mind you), and tell me that's not the internet he's describing.

Gringo said...

obloodyhell :
Wind is crap, as the wind farm in Texas showed this last winter, and numerous analyses have shown.

Document please. I have never noticed any lack of electricity in my TX house in the last 4 years I have been purchasing wind energy. TX wind energy has quadrupled since 2001. Bunch of pie in the sky tree-hugging Sierra Club liberals here in Texas. The legislation that pushed wind energy in TX was signed by beholden-to-the-oil-interests Governor Dubya.

One point about the wide geographical spread of wind turbines is that this will tend to mitigate the variability of wind at any one location, as there will be less overall wind variability overall when the wind energy comes from hundreds or thousands of square miles.
There is also a question at what % of electrical energy in a system coming from wind will the variability become an issue: the 20% by 2030 took that into consideration to keep the goal down to 20%. The point here is that the 20% goal takes the variability of wind into consideration; it is factored in: thus they did not say 60% by 2030.Thus far in TX it has not been an issue, but it will as % of energy coming from keeps increasing. Definitely needs more study, but at this stage, with the low % of wind energy, it is not reason to stop putting in wind turbines.

Energy storage needs further work, no doubt about it.

The point about needing transmission lines is a good one, as the Great Plains wind tunnel isn't where the customers are in Houston, Dallas, Kansas City, and Chicago. While Texas has approved improved transmission lines, states with more onerous regulations and more Limousine Liberals may have more trouble getting them approved. Cape Wind, anyone?

Our solutions will not come from any one source. Coal, yes. Nuclear, yes. Wind, yes.

Cost of wind energy is down from 40 cents/KWH in 1979
Current cost of wind.

OBloodyHell said...

> Document please. I have never noticed any lack of electricity in my TX house in the last 4 years I have been purchasing wind energy. TX wind energy has quadrupled since 2001. Bunch of pie in the sky tree-hugging Sierra Club liberals here in Texas.

1) Do a search on "Texas Wind Farm Failure Brownout Cold Winter" and play, if necessary, with those and similar words. It occurred near the very end of February 2008. I doubt if you'll have much of a problem finding multiple refs for it, to either blogs with clearly legit links (i.e., to newspaper articles on it) or to actual legit articles themselves. Simply put: On one of the coldest days of last (07-08) winter, the wind at a huge Texas windfarm just died, almost completely, for a long time, which very much highlighted its unreliability as a source of energy, and left the power companies scrambling to find another source so that people would not experience a serious extended brownout at a particularly vulnerable time.
--- Those eeeevil utilties corporation bastards did their jobs, of course, and you apparently didn't even notice how well they did it.
Here (but you'll probably still want to research it yourself).

2) The absolute max percentage of the electricity source mix which is believed theoretically possible is around 20%. And that is exceedingly optimistic, ignores the fact that wind electricity, unsubsidized, is ca. 6x to 10x more expensive than comparable coal or nuke power, requires that most of it still must be retained as EXTRA CAPACITY be available at all times to supplemeent an unexpected lowering of wind availability for an extended period.
--Power companies have a hard time dealing with variable demand. It adds up to a fair increase in your bills to maintain at all times the excess "fast up" capacity to prevent brownouts... and now some sub-geniuses want to add variable inputs to this very, very complex bit of magic? Great idea.
--Wind power is like solar -- it's fine for stuff that doesn't really, really have to be done at any specific time, but it would be nice if it were done within a moderate range -- like pumping well water into a reservoir tank, or heating water for use at a convenient time. For these things, the variability is mostly irrelevant. As a source of power-on-demand it's a loser of an idea.
3) From the WSJ (emphasis mine): The Energy Department optimistically calculates that ramping up merely to 20% by 2030 would require more than $2 trillion and turbines across the Midwest "wind corridor," plus multiple offshore installations. Like most politicians trying to sell an idea, Gore claims (i.e., lies) and says it will cost "only 150 billion", which fraction of the actual cost is still more than the entire US federal budget was until 1967... and that DoE estimate is more than the entire US budget was until 2002. (stats here). Yes, it gets "amortized" across two decades, but that right there tells you it's damned sure not a trivial amount. Giving out that kind of money -- 1/20th of the entire federal budget for one basic activity -- is a sure source of power, cronyism, and corruption.

I recommend Greenie Watch as a good source of a reliable alternative view on things ecological. Don't trust them, by any means -- but when they say one thing and the media says another, I'll tell you that I'd bet my own money that their commentary is closer to The Truth than that of most of the media harpies.

> I have never noticed any lack of electricity in my TX house in the last 4 years I have been purchasing wind energy.

And you figure it's the sole source of energy you have when you flip the light switch? Or is it far more likely that you buy electricity off the grid, which may or may not include a percentage of power generated by wind at any given time?

Self-contained interchangeable nukes is the way to go, really (doesn't directly solve the oil-gasoline issue, but it does damned sure cover the bases on both pollution* and global warming (though I do not believe for one moment that there is one whit of truth to the GW conjecture).

* pollution from nukes is far more manageable than for any other source, and most of the likely self-contained designs don't even use weaponable material.


re: Current cost of wind.

You do realize you're quoting a press release from a PR organization, there? Not saying I wouldn't believe a word that they say, but I'd damned sure want a second source.

I'd also read here, with a link to a report on wind power realities from the largest German Power Utility, which has a long history of attempting to use wind power.

Gringo said...

OBH: You do realize you're quoting a press release from a PR organization, there? Not saying I wouldn't believe a word that they say, but I'd damned sure want a second source.

I assume you noticed that the cost data for the second AWEA link came from Puget Sound Electric ( page 2). While I have not yet found the precise doc on their website that AWEA said they were quoting from, here are two docs that give results congruent with what AWEA quoted.

Puget Sound Electric Hopkins Ridge in 2005:

"The cost of all forms of energy, including wind power, is rising. But wind power remains very competitive, cost-wise, with other new electricity resources available today. In fact, when PSE built Hopkins Ridge in 2005, wind power was the least-cost source of all new energy supply available."

Puget Sound Electric Wind Integration.

I read the German report months ago.In fact, I printed it out. Perhaps I blew it off to a certain degree because Sellout Schroeder and Harridan Herta and subsequent events have given me a certain amount of skepticism towards that country. Your suggested Google Tx brownout search has not yet yielded results.

I might repeat that I am also in favor of increasing nuclear energy. We will also use more coal- combination of electricity and liquefied coal.

Carl said...

As the National Review article stated, wind power could supply as much as 1/5 of electric generation between Pittsburgh and Denver--including Texas. It's less efficient in costal regions, but still can be part of the solution in places like Rhode Island. But it is unlikely to ever supply more than 20 percent of any grid--as Denmark, which recently froze windmill subsidies, has learned.

Carl said...


As for fretting that the "increased loading of carbon into the atmosphere is not tenable," see here.