This week we’re continuing our discussion on alternative energy by introducing another voice. A couple of articles ago you were urged to seek a second opinion on the realities of alternative energy. The following article in the Washington Post by Robert Bryce will constitute another attempt to get a full understanding of the picture. Consider it your third professional opinion on the matter…
Five myths about green energy
By Robert Bryce
Americans are being inundated with claims about renewable and alternative energy. Advocates for these technologies say that if we jettison fossil fuels, we’ll breathe easier, stop global warming and revolutionize our economy. Yes, “green” energy has great emotional and political appeal. But before we wrap all our hopes — and subsidies — in it, let’s take a hard look at some common misconceptions about what “green” means.
1. Solar and wind power are the greenest of them all.
Unfortunately, solar and wind technologies require huge amounts of land to deliver relatively small amounts of energy, disrupting natural habitats. Even an aging natural gas well producing 60,000 cubic feet per day generates more than 20 times the watts per square meter of a wind turbine. A nuclear power plant cranks out about 56 watts per square meter, eight times as much as is derived from solar photovoltaic installations. The real estate that wind and solar energy demand led the Nature Conservancy to issue a report last year critical of “energy sprawl,” including tens of thousands of miles of high-voltage transmission lines needed to carry electricity from wind and solar installations to distant cities.
Nor does wind energy substantially reduce CO2 emissions. Since the wind doesn’t always blow, utilities must use gas- or coal-fired generators to offset wind’s unreliability. The result is minimal — or no — carbon dioxide reduction.
Denmark, the poster child for wind energy boosters, more than doubled its production of wind energy between 1999 and 2007. Yet data from Energinet.dk, the operator of Denmark’s natural gas and electricity grids, show that carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation in 2007 were at about the same level as they were back in 1990, before the country began its frenzied construction of turbines. Denmark has done a good job of keeping its overall carbon dioxide emissions flat, but that is in large part because of near-zero population growth and exorbitant energy taxes, not wind energy. And through 2017, the Danes foresee no decrease in carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation.
2. Going green will reduce our dependence on imports from unsavory regimes.
In the new green economy, batteries are not included. Neither are many of the “rare earth” elements that are essential ingredients in most alternative energy technologies. Instead of relying on the diversity of the global oil market — about 20 countries each produce at least 1 million barrels of crude per day — the United States will be increasingly reliant on just one supplier, China, for elements known as lanthanides. Lanthanum, neodymium, dysprosium and other rare earth elements are used in products from high-capacity batteries and hybrid-electric vehicles to wind turbines and oil refinery catalysts.
China controls between 95 and 100 percent of the global market in these elements. And the Chinese government is reducing its exports of lanthanides to ensure an adequate supply for its domestic manufacturers. Politicians love to demonize oil-exporting countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, but adopting the technologies needed to drastically cut U.S. oil consumption will dramatically increase America’s dependence on China.
3. A green American economy will create green American jobs.
In a global market, American wind turbine manufacturers face the same problem as American shoe manufacturers: high domestic labor costs. If U.S. companies want to make turbines, they will have to compete with China, which not only controls the market for neodymium, a critical ingredient in turbine magnets, but has access to very cheap employees.
The Chinese have also signaled their willingness to lose money on solar panels in order to gain market share. China’s share of the world’s solar module business has grown from about 7 percent in 2005 to about 25 percent in 2009.
Meanwhile, the very concept of a green job is not well defined. Is a job still green if it’s created not by the market, but by subsidy or mandate? Consider the claims being made by the subsidy-dependent corn ethanol industry. Growth Energy, an industry lobby group, says increasing the percentage of ethanol blended into the U.S. gasoline supply would create 136,000 jobs. But an analysis by the Environmental Working Group found that no more than 27,000 jobs would be created, and each one could cost taxpayers as much as $446,000 per year. Sure, the government can create more green jobs. But at what cost?
4. Electric cars will substantially reduce demand for oil.
Nissan and Tesla are just two of the manufacturers that are increasing production of all-electric cars. But in the electric car’s century-long history, failure tailgates failure. In 1911, the New York Times declared that the electric car “has long been recognized as the ideal” because it “is cleaner and quieter” and “much more economical” than its gasoline-fueled cousins. But the same unreliability of electric car batteries that flummoxed Thomas Edison persists today.
Those who believe that Detroit unplugged the electric car are mistaken. Electric cars haven’t been sidelined by a cabal to sell internal combustion engines or a lack of political will, but by physics and math. Gasoline contains about 80 times as much energy, by weight, as the best lithium-ion battery. Sure, the electric motor is more efficient than the internal combustion engine, but can we depend on batteries that are notoriously finicky, short-lived and take hours to recharge? Speaking of recharging, last June, the Government Accountability Office reported that about 40 percent of consumers do not have access to an outlet near their vehicle at home. The electric car is the next big thing — and it always will be.
5. The United States lags behind other rich countries in going green.
Over the past three decades, the United States has improved its energy efficiency as much as or more than other developed countries. According to data from the Energy Information Administration, average per capita energy consumption in the United States fell by 2.5 percent from 1980 through 2006. That reduction was greater than in any other developed country except Switzerland and Denmark, and the United States achieved it without participating in the Kyoto Protocol or creating an emissions trading system like the one employed in Europe. EIA data also show that the United States has been among the best at reducing the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per $1 of GDP and the amount of energy consumed per $1 of GDP.
America’s move toward a more service-based economy that is less dependent on heavy industry and manufacturing is driving this improvement. In addition, the proliferation of computer chips in everything from automobiles to programmable thermostats is wringing more useful work out of each unit of energy consumed. The United States will continue going green by simply allowing engineers and entrepreneurs to do what they do best: make products that are faster, cheaper and more efficient than the ones they made the year before.
Robert Bryce is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. His fourth book, “Power Hungry: The Myths of ‘Green’ Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future,” will be out Tuesday, April 27.
To visit the Washington Post article above go to: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/04/23/AR2010042302220.html
Archive for April, 2010
In weeks past we’ve explored wind energy and the possibility of it overtaking fossil fuel burning plants as our main source of power. This week we’ll discuss the next most viable option to do the job, that of nuclear power.
Nuclear power, unlike fossil fuel plants, doesn’t combust fuel and therefore doesn’t contribute to air pollution. But unlike wind turbines, their electrical output is reliable, that is to say, we know, save for a major breakdown, that they will put out X-amount of power every day, regardless of weather conditions. As a matter of fact, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute, the 103 nuclear power plants in operation in the United States today are the most reliable and efficient producers of energy to our electric power grid. They account for about 20% of the power generated and produce a total capacity of 96.245 gigawatts, meaning, a whopping 96.245 billion watts. Nuclear energy is clean, reliable, and produces loads of power, so why not initiate a program to begin immediate replacement of our dirty fossil fueled plants? It’s time to take a closer look.
Needless to say, large scale replacement of fossil fueled power plants with nuclear power plants would be a huge undertaking. You’ll remember from my previous blog postings that the US Department of Energy reports that 71.2% of our power is currently being produced by burning fossil fuels. All power plants, and especially nuclear power plants, are extremely expensive to build.
Let’s look at an example. In 2007, Florida Power & Light informed the Florida Public Service Commission that the cost to build a new nuclear plant in south Florida would be approximately $8,000 per kilowatt-hour. How does this large sum affect the consumer in terms of real dollars? Well, let’s say you want to build a 3,000 megawatt (3,000 million watt) nuclear plant. This is enough capacity to provide power for about 2 million people in the US. When all is said and done, you’ll end up having to pay out $24 billion before you can start generating electricity. That looks like a lot of cash outlay for one plant, but what does it mean to each individual? If we do the math, a nuclear plant that is capable of supplying 2 million people with electricity will result in a cost of approximately $12,000 per person. Considering that, will investors, taxpayers, and consumers be willing to cover the losses that accrue when all existing fossil plants are closed and nuclear plants are erected to replace them?
As with wind powered energy, cost is an enormous factor when considering the viability of nuclear power plants, but there is something way more profound to consider. Nuclear power plants produce radioactive waste. This waste remains radioactive, and therefore highly poisonous to the environment, for millions of years. That’s right, millions, not hundreds, not thousands, millions of years. The Nuclear Energy Information Service states that for each nuclear reactor that exists, 50 to 60 tons of high level radioactive waste is produced every year.
So you’ve got all this waste as a byproduct of nuclear energy production, and, of course, there’s a lot of controversy surrounding its safe disposal. Not only does it lay around for millions of years, the costs of dealing with it are staggering. The US Department of Energy estimated in 2008 that it will cost around $96 billion to construct the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in Nevada, which is basically a huge underground garbage dump for nuclear waste. And this amount of money will only keep it in operation for about 150 years. What happens after that? And if we build more nuclear plants in addition to those that currently exist, what will then be the cost of disposing of their waste? No one knows for sure, but they know it’s a mighty large sum, and certainly much too large for the ailing American economy to absorb.
Now, Dr. Seuss, the guy that wrote The Cat in the Hat and other wonders, was an actual person, and he had a lot to say about things that didn’t involve gnarly looking creatures that go “BUMP!” in the night: “Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple.” Well, that’s sort of the case here. There are a lot of seemingly simple answers being posed to address our energy and environmental problems, but when you start asking pointed questions to delve deeply into the feasibility of those answers, things can get extremely complicated. We have seen through our present blog series that these answers inevitably lead to more questions and a multiplicity of other problems, and so far we haven’t seen an easy fix to our energy issues.
But are we just making an issue where none exists? Are we making a mountain out of a mole hill? Next week we’ll explore a few more options that are being considered as alternative energy sources. Perhaps there is an easy answer to our power dilemma.
This week’s blog is a re–publication of a web article by Alex Salkever which appeared on April 6, 2010, in Daily Finance, an AOL Money and Finance site. It’s an excellent followup to last week’s blog on wind turbine energy, which raised concerns as to the feasibility of its widespread use. It’s always good to have multiple sources of information when assessing the value of anything, such as when you seek a doctor’s second opinion, and this article serves that purpose. Enjoy!
Too Green, Too Soon? Renewable Power May Destabilize Electrical Grid
By Alex Salkever
Boy, that was fast. Only five years into the world’s renewable energy push, many utility companies are so concerned about grid instability that they’re saying they can’t accept any more electricity from intermittent sources of power. Translation: Solar power only runs in the day time and can’t re relied on for so called “baseload” capacity. Wind power primarily produces current at night and, likewise, can’t be relied upon for baseload capacity. Geothermal, meanwhile, is perfect for providing baseload. But geothermal projects take an excruciatingly long time to build out. And then there have been the recent spate of earthquake scares around geothermal sites.
The upshot: Utilities such as Hawaiian Electric in President Obama’s home state are voicing concerns about plans to integrate more solar and wind power into the grid until they develop methods to more effectively absorb intermittent sources of power without destabilizing the whole shebang. In Europe, Czech utility companies are concerned that “feed-in tariffs,” which require power companies to repurchase all home- and business-generated renewable power at elevated rates, might wreak havoc on the Central European grid.
This growing push-back from utilities could prove to be shock to energy project developers, lawmakers and homeowners. In the U.S., project developers and state lawmakers have assumed that the ambitious laws mandating as much as 40% of some states’ power come from renewable sources within the next few decades would ensure huge demand for green power as utilities scaled up their use of such resources from low single-digit levels. Likewise, homeowners have tended to assume that if they could put a panel on their roof (or a windmill on their property), they would be guaranteed a market for the extra power produced.
Storing Excess Power in Ice, Salt or Even … Caves?
The ability to sell back power to a utility at retail rates (meaning the rates they charge the public) is dubbed “net metering,” and many states have limitations on what percentage of total baseload power on a grid a utility must buy back. It was broadly assumed net metering would go away in hurry when the Green Revolution came of age. Now, that appears unlikely. The alleged problems with absorbing intermittent green power point to a more fundamental issue with the existing power grid — namely, that the system isn’t really ready to handle a significantly more distributed power production footprint.
One possible remedy would be for utilities to build more power storage systems, and many new forms for those are on the drawing boards. One solution could be massive battery installations from the likes of A123 Systems. Another could be a system such as that offered by Ice Energy, which uses cheap power at night to make ice, reducing the power requirements of air conditioning systems in the daytime. This effectively arbitrages the price differential between nighttime and daytime power generation — something that potentially could be a huge boon for wind power. Other, more exotic “battery” systems that have been proposed include storing power in molten salt or injecting compressed air into sealed caves, both of which create potential energy that can later be used to power electric generators.
Power storage is already being recognized as essential to new renewable energy projects. A wind farm on Maui will be the first in the country to have an added power storage component in the form of a bank of lithium-ion batteries. But most green power developers are still having trouble competing with coal and natural gas fired plants on a level playing field — even without adding in the costs of power storage. If the issues of dealing with intermittent power sources are as disruptive to grid stability as some traditional utilities are claiming, the Green Revolution may be a case of “too much, too soon” — at least until the engineers can figure out better, cheaper ways to capture sunshine and wind in a bottle.
From DailyFinance: http://srph.it/dAoxAj
Alternative energy is a hot topic today. There are certainly benefits to be gained by replacing fossil fueled power plants with alternative energy sources. One of the most publicized of these is the free energy that is generated by wind turbines that drive electric generators. Surely this is a win-win situation? Let’s take a closer look!
If you’ve been out in the country within the last few years you’ve surely seen the new generation of windmill. These mammoths are so large and intimidating they remind me of the cartoon robot, Gigantor, popular back in the 1960s—scary until you get to know him. Yes, these wind turbines are big, and so is their cost. They are so expensive that a return on investment is a rather long way off. Let’s examine the numbers.
A 2 megawatt wind turbine can cost over $2 million to purchase and install. By 2 megawatt, I mean two million watts of output. The generator on this baby can produce enough power to light around 33,330 sixty watt bulbs. If I were to install one on my property, my local electric utility would be willing to pay me approximately $10,000 per month to buy its power from me. At this rate of compensation, it would take over 16 years to realize a return on my investment. That’s the “looks good on paper” figure. Realistically speaking, it would actually take a lot longer than 16 years if we factor in the cost of maintenance and the interest rates on borrowed money.
So what happens if the Gigantor in your back yard needs servicing? I did some checking, and it’s not cheap. It can cost as much as $15,000 just to hire the massive crane that is required to lift the heavy parts involved. Aside from purchase price and maintenance expenses, another thing to consider when talking installation of wind turbines is the fact that they operate at the mercy of Mother Nature. No wind, no power.
Is there anything we can do to compensate for this factor, like store the energy generated on a windy day for future usage? This would be a great solution, if only battery technology was economical enough for storage of the vast amounts of energy that is required to power an electric utility grid if the wind stops blowing for an extended period of time. For example, sodium battery technology is up to the task, but the cost is high, at around $3,500.00 per kilowatt-hour. At this price a 2 megawatt wind turbine would need about $7 million worth of storage just to get us through about one hour of calm weather!
Now here’s a proposed solution to the storage issue that you may have read about. It involves utilizing storage systems which would use electric motors to convert the electrical energy from the turbine generators into mechanical energy. This energy would then be transferred to mechanical storage devices, such as a huge flywheel. Then, if the wind stops blowing and power stops flowing, the motor on the flywheel can be turned into an electric generator. The mechanical energy stored in its spinning mass would power the generator, which would in turn keep electricity flowing into the power grid.
Now remember, the amount of mechanical energy we can store in a flywheel spinning at a given speed depends on its mass, that is, how heavy it is. The more energy we have to store, the heavier the flywheel has to be. So when we’re talking about storing many millions of watts of energy to get us through several days of calm weather, we’d have to make a flywheel so massive it would be impractical and uneconomical to build. Just to store about one hour’s worth of energy from our 2-megawatt wind turbine we’d need to build a flywheel over 65 feet in diameter that spins at 1800 rpm and weighs more than 9 tons.
Another proposal to store the wind turbine’s energy involves the use of electric motors to drive air compressors that would pressurize caverns deep below the earth’s surface. This effectively creates what is called a compressed-air energy storage (CAES) facility. The idea here is that when the wind stops, the motors would act as generators and the compressors would act as air turbines. This pressurized air could then be drained from the caverns in which it is stored and redirected to flow through the turbine. Then, finally, the stored mechanical energy in the pressurized air would be converted by the air turbine and generator back into electrical energy to power the grid. At best, a CAES facility will run at about 70% efficiency. That means for every 100 kilowatt-hours of energy you put into storage, you only receive 70 kilowatt-hours in return.
Once examined, it seems that current technology does not provide a cost-feasible solution for the replacement of fossil fuel backed energy with wind turbine energy. So where do we go from here? We’ll continue our exploration of alternative energy next week.