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Physics Teachers Discuss the Energy Problems (April 6 and 7, 2009)

Ludwik Kowalski, Montclair State University, Montclair, NJ

It would be interesting to read these comments, posted on Phys-L (an Internet list), in ten or twenty years. Unfortunately, I will not be around. Like other items on this website, this one is for future generations. Discovery of cold fusion was announced twenty years ago; will cold fusion become a promising option in twenty years? This remains to be seen.

Contribution 1
You wrote: “In 50 years we will probably have used up most of the oil, but then, if nothing else is available, we will switch to coal, of which there is enough to last a few hundred years.” Are you sure of that?  On a worldwide basis?

When I do the numbers, it looks like if present trends continue within a few decades we will have used up all (not just most) of the world's oil, all of the world's coal, all of the world's natural gas, and all of the world's 235U.

 The numbers might /appear/ different if you include only the  current US trends, because the US has a disproportionately  large share of the world's coal yet is burning it at a  disproportionately low rate, preferring (for the moment) to  burn imported oil.

To repeat:  On a worldwide basis, including coal does not solve the problem, and even including 235U does not solve the problem.

There are only two ways out:  renewable energy and/or breeder reactors.

 Breeder reactors can get energy from 238U, which is 200 times  more abundant than 235U.  Also thorium.  This could provide  energy for a few centuries (not just a few decades).  However,  almost* nobody wants to propose this as a solution, because it  makes the weapons proliferation problem so much worse.  Also  the track record for breeder reactor safety is not good.

  (*) There are folks in India who want to build a thorium-based   breeder.  Apparently India has indigenous supplies of thorium   but not much uranium.  The safety and proliferation issues   remain.

Contribution 2
This brings up some excellent points. Personally, I see nuclear power as an intermediate step. Not because of technology but because of humans. To convert to a system that is dependent on renewables will require changes in our behaviors and in our ability to accept responsibility for our actions and impacts on the planet -- including population control, the 200 kg gorilla in the room. I don't see that as happening quickly unless there is a crisis. It would also take tremendous political will to move the country in that direction quickly (10 to 20 years). One or two politicians with vision and knowledge and will is not enough. Look what happened to Gore for example.

As for nuclear power, we are in some serious trouble. The power plants that were built in the 60's and 70's were made to last for 30 years. Well, that "warranty" has expired. The metals are getting brittle, the containment buildings are getting weaker, and on and on. Those are also old designs with fewer safety features. Yet, we cannot afford to turn them off as Hugh has pointed out.

I visited the Idaho National Laboratory a few years ago and was quite impressed with the technology of newer designs for nuclear power plants. (The name of this lab is a curious example of public pressure and fear in its own right. The name has changed several times to make it sound more cuddly. Swapping the word "nuclear" for "environmental" and then dropping that all together.) https://inlportal.inl.gov/portal/server.pt?open=512&objID=255&mode=2

They have developed a system that results in glassified nuclear waste that they claim is very hard to reprocess into weapons material or to leak into the ground water. That said, the technology is new and experience with it is limited.

I'd love to see the shift straight to renewables, but I just don't see that happening. I agree with the closing quote that Hugh uses from Chip Giller. But I just don't see the USA heading in that direction because it requires personal change and thinking long term. (I just saw the movie "Idiocracy" which is crude and vulgar in many ways but is disappointingly accurate in even more ways. Maybe that is coloring my thinking right now...)

In the meantime, I'd like to learn more about what INL has developed and see if we have some new options for nuclear power.

Even so, we would still be left with issues like uranium mine tailings. I come from a state (Utah) that has one of the worst mine tailings problem on the planet with the old Atlas mine tailings next to the Colorado River near Moab, Utah. A legacy of our 1950's rush to all things nuclear. So even new technology nuclear plants is at best a stop gap measure. But, as Hugh points out, there are loads of problems with coal too.

Short of a national, in your face, crisis that directly impacts the "average Joe" in obvious and direct ways, I just don't see a direct conversion to renewables.

Contribution 3
One of the biggest asset of nuclear power during the transition period from fossil to renewable is HIGH DENSITY.  The current energy infrastructure relies on siting power plants in high population/land use areas. Coal/gas/nuclear power plants can be sited on a couple square miles of land and produce 2000 MW of power.  It would take 4000 1.5MW wind generators to AVERAGE that much (with 33% operational efficiencies--with are typical) and you'd still have periods of no wind in the region.  It will take decades to build up an infrastructure where HUGE wind/solar farms can produce, STORE, and TRANSPORT our total energy needs.  The North-East (Boston to DC) is always going to be a problem area.

One should be a bit skeptical (another thread) of Fusion power at this point since 50+ years of research has yet to yield anything remotely practical. The researchers are always saying "10 more years", but that has been the mantra for the past 30 or so.  When my class does their energy project (supplying U.S. energy 100 years from now without the use of oil or gas) we don't allow any 'deus ex machina' solutions.  We work with proven technology.  It can be done, for 10s of trillions of dollars, and several hundred thousand square miles of land.   But nuclear, 'clean coal', and as much hydro as possible are part of the program along with hydrogen as a storage medium and portable fuel.  What can be done in the U.S. can be more difficult elsewhere.  Japan for example has land problems.  They really need some high density energy sources.

Contribution 4
President Obama's Secretary of the Interior announced today that the use of wind energy on the east coast could replace all the coal powered electrical power plants in the US. When asked how many windmills would be required he said "I haven't done the calculation yet". Good grief!

We can't get the Cape Wind project going here in New England because of people like Ted Kennedy opposed to seeing windmills in the distance of the coast of Cape Cod. The promoter of the Cape Wind project estimates that it will take several hundred thousand windmills to match the output of coal fired plants, but that they will accomplish that only 1/3 of the time because of the periods when the wind is not strong enough. The coal plants will still have to be kept on line as a backup. I hope Mr. Obama's economic advisors are more competent than his energy advisors.

Contribution 5
You wrote: “Personally, I see nuclear power as an intermediate step. Not because of technology but because of humans. To convert to a system that is dependent on renewables will require changes in our behaviors and in our ability to accept responsibility for our actions and impacts on the planet -- including population control, the 200 kg gorilla in the room.”

First, nuclear power just isn't in the cards as an "intermediate" step. It takes about 10 years or more to go through the planning, designing, licensing, building and certification process before a nuclear plant can come on line, and we need change *now,* not 10 or 12 years from now (there are plants in other parts of the world that have been 20 years and more in the building and still aren't completed--we don't have that kind of time to fool around with a problematic technology, that may be abandoned before it even can have an effect). Second, I don't see how renewables will require much in behavior change. The goal is primarily to keep the electric power (and other needed energy sources) coming when and where they are needed. I agree that if we try to create a system that requires massive lifestyle changes, the problem becomes dramatically more complicated. The object is to integrate renewables and efficiency into the fabric without making a big deal about it, so that the main thing people will notice it their utilities bills decrease (overall--there may be increases in one sector or another, but the total utilities costs should come down), and the air getting cleaner. If we electrify the railroads and make it economically feasible to shift most long-haul shipping away from trucks and onto the railroads, the costs of maintaining our highway system should decrease by up to 40%, and the roads will become less congested. The net effect should be to make life better and at lease a bit less expensive. This shouldn't require a major change in our behavior, although the increase in freedom these changes bring might encourage us to do even better.

I agree that the population problem is with us still, and will be for at least the next couple of centuries, which makes it all the more important that we move as quickly as possible on energy efficiency, so that all the gains made in how we produce our energy won't be erased by uncontrollable population growth. But the solution to that problem has less to do with how we fix the climate change problem than with the education, freedom and empowerment of women world-wide. It is well established that in those regions where women have control of their own reproductive systems, and have access to family planning information, birth rates decline. I see the largest problem in the population arena is in figuring out how to successfully manage a world whose population is stable. For too long we have based our economic system on an ever-increasing population, to the point where governments faced with a stable or even declining population don't have a clue about how to deal with it, and often panic--either importing labor or enacting policies to encourage increased birth rates.

You also wrote “I don't see that as happening quickly unless there is a crisis. It would also take tremendous political will to move the country in that direction quickly (10 to 20 years). One or two politicians with vision and knowledge and will is not enough. Look what happened to Gore for example.”

Well, there is a crisis, and we need to start moving the country in that direction *now,* not in 10 to 20 years. We need to start a massive PR campaign in support of renewable energy--to convince people that wind turbines are beautiful (which I, personally, think they are) and that, combined solar energy, both PV and concentrated thermal can meet our energy needs if we do it intelligently (with the prospect of geothermal and wave energy in the not-too-distant future). That, of course, starts with a smart national grid, which will enable us to efficiently move electrical energy over large distances (perhaps superconducting?) and to use the grid to control how we use our electricity and to enable feed-in from individual sources (rooftop PV, etc.), as well as to eventually enable plug-in electric and hybrid vehicles to serve as our energy storage system to meet high demand situations, when the penetration of such vehicles into the market is enough to support that.

You also wrote “As for nuclear power, we are in some serious trouble. The power plants that were built in the 60's and 70's were made to last for 30 years. Well, that "warranty" has expired. The metals are getting brittle, the containment buildings are getting weaker, and on and on. Those are also old designs with fewer safety features. Yet, we cannot afford to turn them off as Hugh has pointed out.”

There is considerable pressure now to re-license many of those aging plants, which are facing deterioration problem that you mention, not to mention the aging of the nuclear engineering and plant operator populations, most of whom will be retired within the next decade or two. And the designs for the new generation of reactors is still very fluid. None has yet been finally approved by the NRC (the Westinghouse AP-1000 has just been sent back to the drawing board for rework, putting the plans for most of the 35 new reactors planned for this country on hold). We cannot afford to turn them off all at once, but relicensing should be done very carefully, and it is likely that an aggressive efficiency program, including building retrofits as well as new construction, and encouraging the use of solar thermal and solar PV units on homes as well as solar PV on commercial rooftops and parking lots can obviate the need for any new plants, so that the conversion to renewables can be phased with the retirement of exiting coal and nuclear plants as they come to the end of their design lifetimes.

You also wrote “I visited the Idaho National Laboratory a few years ago and was quite impressed with the technology of newer designs for nuclear power plants. (The name of this lab is a curious example of public pressure and fear in its own right. The name has changed several times to make it sound more cuddly. Swapping the word "nuclear" for "environmental" and then dropping that all together.) https://inlportal.inl.gov/portal/server.pt?open=512&objID=255&mode=2

They have developed a system that results in glassified nuclear waste that they claim is very hard to reprocess into weapons material or to leak into the ground water. That said, the technology is new and experience with it is limited.”

And of course that is a problem in itself. We need a storage technique that will be reliable for millennia, and we're talking about techniques with which we have "limited experience." It's clear that, even if by some political accident Yucca Mountain comes back into the picture, we have a long way to go in figuring out how to handle the nuclear waste. Another good reason for not creating any more of it than we are now doing.

You also wrote “ I'd love to see the shift straight to renewables, but I just don't see that happening. I agree with the closing quote that Hugh uses from Chip Giller. But I just don't see the USA heading in that direction because it requires personal change and thinking long term. (I just saw the movie "Idiocracy" which is crude and vulgar in many ways but is disappointingly accurate in even more ways. Maybe that is coloring my thinking right now...)”

There is a lot of inertia in the system. Power companies don't like to get away from the old technologies that they are familiar with, but this is an emergency, and I think that if the government takes the lead in emphasizing the critical nature of the problem that we can start moving in the right direction, but it has to be well planned. We can't build a bunch of wind parks or solar farms without having a robust means of getting that energy to market, and we can't afford to turn the problem over to people who don't have sufficient appreciation of the situation. We need to make sure that we have the capability to provide the base power needs until we can get the renewables well-enough designed and distributed to that they can pick up at least part of the base load requirements as well phase out the coal and nuclear plants and phase in the smart grid technologies that can provide the base load capabilities that will be needed for the long term.

You also wrote “ Even so, we would still be left with issues like uranium mine tailings. I come from a state (Utah) that has one of the worst mine tailings problem on the planet with the old Atlas mine tailings next to the Colorado River near Moab, Utah. A legacy of our 1950's rush to all things nuclear. So even new technology nuclear plants is at best a stop gap measure. But, as Hugh points out, there are loads of problems with coal too.”

Cleaning up the uranium tailings mess is easily comparable but not as dramatic as cleaning up the mess left over from building weapons. And the cost in lives to the miners, mostly Native Americans, on whose lands these predations were committed, is still going on. Cancer death rates among miners and other living near the mines (including children who played in the tailings piles without realizing the danger they placed themselves in) remain elevated and the life expectancy among those people has been measurably reduced by their exposure to the uranium ore that had lain safely underground for eons.

You also wrote “ Short of a national, in your face, crisis that directly impacts the ‘average Joe’ in obvious and direct ways, I just don't see a direct conversion to renewables.”

What the "average Joe" is concerned about, and rightly so, is his or her job and this or her family's future. By any ethical principle, we need to make sure that our efforts in environmental cleanup and GHG reduction end up being an opportunity for those people to better their own and their families' lots. Proceeds from such things as carbon cap and trade sales or carbon taxes or any other forms of revenue raising that goes on in the name of converting our energy sources to renewables, must be used to provide the opportunities to those whose present jobs will be impacted by such things as closing coal or uranium mines, or operating power plants, or other jobs that have kept them at least existing for decades if not generations. If they can see a future for themselves in what we are trying to do, they will not oppose the efforts and can be enlisted to help in them. A 21st Century "WPA," especially in the current economic downturn, will provide those who are facing a bleak future as our energy economy shifts from coal, uranium and petroleum to cleaner renewable sources with some hope that they will be a part of the new prosperity as it develops.

There are a dozen or more books on the market now that provide prescriptions for achieving a transition to renewable energy within the next 40 years, but my favorite is Arjun Makhijani's "Carbon-Free and Nuclear-Free: A Roadmap for U. S. Energy Policy," published by RDR books. It is available at Amazon, or can be downloaded for free from <http://www.ieer.org/carbonfree/CarbonFreeNuclearFree.pdf>

Much of what I have said in my two posts on this thread is lifted from the pages of that book.

Contribution 6
It's amusing that the "renewable" people are just as "all or nothing" as the "fossil" people. That's why NOTHING is done.

Contribution 7
You wrote “One of the biggest asset of nuclear power during the transition period from fossil to renewable is HIGH DENSITY.  The current energy infrastructure relies on siting power plants in high population/land use areas. Coal/gas/nuclear power plants can be sited on a couple square miles of land and produce 2000 MW of power.”

And that has meant that we have not built the smart power grid that we need for the 21st century, whether we do any conversion to renewables or not, and have subjected untold numbers of people to the radiation and pollution inherent in coal and nuclear plants, to say nothing of the dangers in storing nuclear waste on plant sites and coal ash in lakes like the one in TN that collapsed recently.

You also wrote “ It would take 4000 1.5MW wind generators to AVERAGE that much (with 33% operational efficiencies--with are typical) and you'd still have periods of no wind in the region.  It will take decades to build up an infrastructure where HUGE wind/solar farms can produce, STORE, and TRANSPORT our total energy needs.  The North-East (Boston to DC) is always going to be a problem area.”

I could point out that we once had hundreds of thousands of square miles under cultivation to produce hay for the horses that were our primary means of transportation, and 19th century environmentalists were afraid that cities like New York would be buried under and avalanche of horse manure.

Yes, wind parks and solar farms occupy large chunks of land, but they don't have to be dedicated to that use. Farming and cattle grazing can take place on the same land (under wind turbines at least--among solar panels is a bit more problematic). The wind farms east of San Francisco mix power generation and cattle grazing quite nicely, and have for nearly 40 years. And there is enough open parking area in this country to provide a good chunk of our electricity needs by covering them with solar panels (the parking lot surrounding the Pentagon in Washington, could by conservative estimate produce about 3300 MWh/month on a year-round average). In this country, we have between 10 and 13 parking spaces per car. It's time we used them for something more that leaf catchers during the fall. Offshore wind farms are better looking than offshore oil rigs, and can rely on much more predictable and constant wind sources. And while it is true that the wind doesn't blow all the time, so a windmill can typically produce only about 30% of its rated power on average (I note that both coal plants and nuclear plants operate at only about 30% thermal efficiency, and provide between 60% and 90% of rated power, on average), The wind is blowing *somewhere* all the time, and widely separated wind parks can, when interconnected, produce a combined output that is never below about 25% of rated power. (see: Louis Bergeron and Stephanie Kenitzer, "Study finds that Linked Wind Farms can Result in Reliable Power" <http://news-service.stanford.edu/news/2007/december5/windfarm-120507.html>; also Cristina L. Archer and Mark Z. Jacobson, "Supplying Base Load Power and Reducing Transmission Requirements by Interconnecting Wind Farms," Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology, Vol 46, November, 2007, pp. 1701-1717) There is enough potential wind energy off our coasts and in the Great Lakes to power the nation at present rates, and the central plains contain at least that much again.

Meanwhile, both solar PV and Concentrated Solar Thermal power farms are sprouting all over the Southwest, which contains as much potential solar energy as all the wind sources together. In other words, there is more than enough wind and solar energy to meet our needs, and it will occupy only a rather small fraction of our land area, and need not impact on agricultural land. The northeast (Boston to DC) can be powered by offshore wind as soon as we can convince Ted Kennedy to sell his yacht :-).

You also wrote “ When my class does their energy project (supplying U.S. energy 100 years from now without the use of oil or gas) we don't allow any 'deus ex machina' solutions.  We work with proven technology.  It can be done, for 10s of trillions of dollars, and several hundred thousand square miles of land.   But nuclear, 'clean coal', and as much hydro as possible are part of the program along with hydrogen as a storage medium and portable fuel.  What can be done in the U.S. can be more difficult elsewhere.  Japan for example has land problems.  They really need some high density energy sources.”

"Clean Coal"??? And you don't use "deus ex machina" solutions? If there was ever an oxymoron, "clean coal" is it. We have no idea if we can even capture a significant fraction of the CO2 emitted by a coal plant, or what the cost would be, and no one has a clue if any practical form of storage is or ever will be available for the CO2. It will need to be at least as long-term secure as nuclear waste, and there will be a lot more of it. Such a process is at least 20 years away from any possible practicality, and doesn't begin to deal with the severe environmental problems with every form of coal mining, especially the "mountaintopping" variety that is turning West Virginia into an extension of the great plains, without the grass.

If we can learn how to ship electric power halfway and more across our country, the rest of the world can learn how to ship power internationally (we can too--sending power to Canada and purchasing power from Mexico). North Africa can provide all of Europe's needed electricity, and China could supply Japan. I have seen a computer simulation developed by a team of German engineers that shows how Japan could power itself with renewables successfully. The simulation takes into account time of day outputs and local weather conditions. They show that Japan has the potential to produce at least enough to power its current needs, without taking into account any possible efficiency improvements.

The point here, of course, is that if we keep thinking up reasons why something won't work, we will never solve the climate problem. Creative, but level-headed thinking and planning is needed, here and abroad. My sense right now is that much of the rest of the world is well ahead of us in both.

Contribution 8
You wrote: “ President Obama's Secretary of the Interior announced today that the use of wind energy on the east coast could replace all the coal powered electrical power plants in the US. When asked how many windmills would be required he said "I haven't done the calculation yet". Good grief!

Obviously that answer depends on what size wind turbines will be used, how much space is available and how close to shore they can be placed. His statement obviously spoke to the wind potential in that area, and it is certainly true that there is more than enough wind power potential to provide the electrical needs of New England, but how it is to be done is a complex issue with scientific, engineering, aesthetic and political ramifications, as you pointed out, although I think Ted Kennedy can be brought around, and I thought I'd heard that a judge had already overruled Ted's objections and the plans for the Cape Cod wind farm were going forward.

As with everywhere, there are potential problems with offshore wind farms in that area, primarily because of the weather. I don't have a good feel for how large wind turbines (5 MW and up) handle gale force winds or higher, but if they are going to have to be replaced too often due to wind damage, that makes New England offshore electricity less attractive. The same problem exists on the mid-Atlantic coasts due to hurricanes. I doubt anyone has done the calculations yet.

Contribution 9
You wrote: “It's amusing that the "renewable" people are just as "all or nothing" as the "fossil" people. That's why NOTHING is done.”

If my only choice was coal or nuclear, I'd take nuclear. Coal is worse, except for the proliferation problem and the fact that nuclear waste lasts so bloody long and is so dangerous. But the damage coal is doing right now is definitely worse and in the immediate future, nuclear could be tolerated if it was the only choice.

Fortunately, we don't have to make that choice. The renewables are ready now, can be done incrementally so the effects can be seen almost immediately. I don't need all 1000 MW of my wind park installed before I can get the first watt out of it. Same with Solar PV and even some types of CST. Nuclear plants are going to take upwards of 10 years to get anything, and that is just too late. But the renewables do need to be accelerated even more. The sooner the better. If GM wants something to do between trips to Washington to beg for more handouts they could convert some of their idle auto plants to building wind turbines (the engineering is similar--a wind turbine is just a big transmission). Or maybe the folks at Chrysler could get a handout or two if they agreed that that would be a better investment than more cars that won't sell. Also wind turbines don't require specialized training to meet the special safety requirements that nuclear plants do, so the labor force is there essentially now.

Also fortunately, the debate over nuclear is mainly ideological. There will be few if any new nuclear plants built in this country--they're just too expensive. $10-$12B per reactor are the numbers that we are talking about here in the Southeast, where compliant legislatures and utilities commissions are falling all over themselves to approve whatever the local power companies want. But once the bills start coming in, I rather think that most of them will be cancelled, leaving the rate payers holding the bag, while the power company execs take the money and run.

But NOTHING is not what is being done. Wind and solar are building apace, and coal plants are being cancelled all over the place. As soon as the power company folks realize that nuclear isn't sexy any more, they'll quit driving for them, too.

I certainly agree that there is a group of anti-nuclear types who are ready to go back to ox-driven grist mills to avoid the possibility of a nuclear plant. But they are a small, if noisy, minority. I'm sure that there will be a few new nuclear plants started. Whether any of them is ever finished remains to be seen.

Contribution 10
Calculating the "wind resistance" of current ones, I think is an easy   engineering exercise.  The blades are made to be completely feathered   already?

Contribution 11
You also wrote “ The point here, of course, is that if we keep thinking up reasons why something won't work, we will never solve the climate problem. Creative, but level-headed thinking and planning is needed, here and abroad. My sense right now is that much of the rest of the world is well ahead of us in both.”

It is not a case of thinking up reasons 'why it won't work', but rather trying to be realistic about what it is going to take TO make it work.

OK--'cleaner' coal, if you wish, but with one of the world's largest supplies, coal (as clean as we can make it) is very likely to be part of our near future (next century) energy supplies.  With the inevitable phasing out of oil and natural gas, the net environmental problems of coal can be minimized.  Together with some nuclear, coal can provide the high-density power source that will be needed in _some_ locations.  It too can be phased out, but to do so that big IF about shipping power across country (say North Dakota to New York) has to be solved, a national (international if you wish) grid has to be designed and implemented--(that cost is almost never included in 'renewables' estimates)--or we really would need to develop something like Fusion power.

There are several things to include in discussing using wind and solar for the major fraction of energy needs:

1)  As you phase out fossil fuels, you then move many energy demands from 'chemical' to electrical.  Heating and transportation energy must now come from the renewables.  Biomass could only handle a fraction of the transportation fuel needs--we just calculated (for our project) that 3% of the energy needs in 2100 in the form of biodiessel (from soybeans) and ethanol (from switchgrass) would require 150,000 square miles of land use. If we can back off of oil soon enough, then perhaps some specialized needs--big rig trucks and aviation might still draw from remaining petroleum reserves.   The big point here is that the electrical demand could triple without oil and natural gas, and then if you want to eliminate coal, the numbers become daunting.

2)  The population (U.S.) is going to continue to increase.  Can we hold the population down to say 450 million by 2100?  That will take some aggressive work in immigration policy.  If the country keeps adding a million or more immigrants a year, immigrants with traditionally higher fertility rates than the 'native' population, and generally more religious attitudes against birth control, 450 million would be a very low estimate.  So lets assume at least a 50% increase in population.

3)  Efficiency and conservation can certainly lower energy needs.  25% proves difficult (for my classes) to fully quantify, but that should be possible and maybe a bit better.  However, with the population growth it means the overall energy demand will increase and with the reduction or elimination of most 'chemical' energy sources, the demand for electricity rises sharply.

4)  So what's a 'reasonable' estimate of yearly energy demand in 2100?  We work with 20,000 TWh or a power demand of 2.3 TW. What do such huge numbers really mean?  IF--you wanted to run the country on wind (assuming you had a grid and had generators spread so that you could guarantee the 25% availability at all times (according the Hugh), then using 1.5MW generators (pretty much the standard although bigger ones are available) you need over 6 MILLION wind generators.  In a more realistic system, without any fossil fuel, you might split up the demand, but you can't get much more than 3% from Hydro (and the environmentalists want to dynamite all the dams anyway), maybe 3% from geothermal, might push 10-12% from biomass, but then you have to split the rest--over 80% between wind and solar.  Without coal and nuclear--this is huge.

5)  Effective use of solar (and to a lesser extent wind) will most likely require storage techniques--maybe electrolysis to hydrogen--to assure an 'energy on demand' network.  Whatever the storage and distribution system, it will cost some big bucks.  We've estimated about $5 trillion for a hydrogen capable pipeline distribution system.

6)  Cost estimates have to account for the likely shorter lifetimes of wind generators and some forms of solar (PV panels) compared to fossil/nuclear plants (about 75 years) and dams (100 years or more).  We don't have enough experience to know the replacement rate for large wind generators, but it is likely to be at least twice that of current plants--this increases the cost above those normally estimated for the switch to renewables.  Again, such estimates are just to be somewhat realistic about the task--not to dismiss it.

**********************
To repeat what we do in my energy class--a MODEL of energy distribution for 100 years in the future (one that still uses coal and nuclear but is heavy on wind and solar) costs out at $30-50 trillion--capital costs-- and uses about half a million square miles (much for biomass) of land.  What these numbers say, to me, is that this is not a 10 year, 20 year, or barely a 50 year project.  To be affordable, the transition must be stretched over a century time frame.  However, clearly we need to start now (we are starting now) and will have to ramp up the transitions, but thinking we can eliminate the fossil fuels in a couple decades is, IMO, delusional.

Contribution 12
You wrote “I disagree with your analysis.  By not charging the rate-payers for the external costs, you reduce the incentive to conserve.  Thereby driving the cost up for everyone.  Here in southern California we have tiered rates for residential electric consumption to encourage conservation.”

US energy policies have led to profligate consumption of energy.  We have about 5% of the world's population, yet we consume 25% of the world's energy resources.

I get really tired of this one as well--(and the percentage is falling quickly as China rapidly moving to become king of the energy use hill).  Our energy use per person is about the same as Canada and Australia.  Not too far above Germany.  Big, developed nations, use energy.  Its why they are developed.  The larger the physical size of the country, the more energy necessary to move people and goods.  The more industry that resides within the country, and the more that raw materials are mined, processed, and used within a country, the higher the energy use.  Switzerland seems to use no energy--but it lives off the energy burned in France, Germany and Italy. You also have population density and (more to your point) life-style differences.  If all Americans would put their family of four into a 1000 square foot apartment, with that apartment stacked on top of and surrounded on all sides by other such apartments--sure the energy usage would drop. Yes, we can use less energy--but I repeat that reducing by more than 25% is tough.  As a country of 300+ million people, stretching 3000 miles coast to coast and 1000 miles border to border, with (still) the biggest economy in the world and a 21st century technology, the U.S. does not do all that bad. The problem is really not that the U.S. uses too much energy (OK, a little too much), it is that the rest of the world uses too little to provide a 21st century living standard to their people.  The comparison to be made is between the developed world and the 'third world'--average out the variations for population, area, population density, percentage of 'home grown' economy versus imported resources and then do your comparisons. Spare us, please, from the 5%--25% mantra.  It really is not useful.

Contribution 13
Here in the U.S. we use 67% more energy per person than the average of the top 18 developed countries.

Canada comes close, but most developed countries use much less energy per person than we do.

http://www.nationmaster.com/graph/ene_usa_per_per-energy-usage-per-person

China and India are using more energy as they develop, but don't come close to any of the developed countries in energy use per person.

Contribution 14
You wrote: “Calculating the "wind resistance" of current ones, I think is an easy engineering exercise.  The blades are made to be completely feathered already?”

It isn't the steady winds that I worry about. A feathered blade can handle a substantial wind speed. I've flown around in airplanes with a propeller or two feathered at speeds up to 250 knots with not problems. What I don't know is how well a turbine blade that may be as much as 30 meters long would handle gust loading that could easily be non-constant over that dimension, if the hub structure could be damaged by violent slewing as the wind gusts changed direction quickly.

I also worry about how well the foundation structure would withstand the storm surge. I heard of massive oil rigs being destroyed during some of the really bad storms in the North Sea, and I don't think a hurricane would be any easier on a wind turbine tower.

I'm sure these can be handled by competent engineers, but at some point the additional cost of making them strong enough to withstand a Category 4 or 5 hurricane may run the cost up to the "not worth the effort" level.

Offshore wind turbines are already significantly more expensive than on-shore ones, and having to replace them before their design lifetime due to wind damage doesn't make them any easier a sell.

Contribution 15
It's nice to see a reasonable approach championed. Alternate energy sources are "alternate" because they are not quite ready for prime time. We have an absurdly large supply of ridiculously cheap coal (sorry - I'm not swayed by arguments of "true" cost). It is national economic suicide not to use this supply. Clean it up - do whatever will lessen its environmental impact - but use it. Many "alternate" sources can be refined to the point where they will eventually make economic sense. Wind power NEVER will. No one wants wind farms near them. They may look wonderful to an environmental activist, but to most sane people they are just plain ugly. When even the East coast liberals won't live next to them you know you have a problem. When I fly to California every couple of years and look at the windmills outside of Vacaville blighting those beautiful California hills I get angry enough to almost start shaking. What idiots would do that to such magnificent countryside?

Centralized power from nuclear and coal feeding in to grids leaves the rest of the land available for our use and enjoyment. Solar and wind sources in diffuse arrays that are everywhere in sight are too big a price to pay for a supposed couple of degree warming from models that can't even hindcast.

Contribution 16
I haven't read every post on this thread, but there are two potential energy sources that seem to always be overlooked.  One is OTEC (Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion); energy produced by using the temperature differential in the deep oceans, and the other is tidal (think underwater "windmills").  One of the biggest problems with energy generation/usage is transmission and storage, and these impact greatly on OTEC.

Contribution 17
You wrote “The problem is really not that the U.S. uses too much energy (OK, a little too much), it is that the rest of the world uses too little to provide a 21st century living standard to their people.“  That, of course, begs the question "What is the right amount of energy use?" and the related question "Where will we get that energy?"

I would propose that the answer to the first question is "As much as we can sustainably (100+ yr time-scales) produce."  The goal SHOULD be to raise up the per capita use for those who do not enjoy the benefits of energy use, not to cut back those who benefit from the advantages of energy use.

Of course, "sustainable" must also include the ecological effects - pollution, global warming, destruction of habitat, etc.   It could even include aesthetic factors (like power lines or pristine wilderness or skylines) or political factors (like handling of nuclear waste or concerns over weapon-grade nuclear fuels).


Unfortunately, I don't see any real answers that don't involve some rather drastic choices - most of which come down to population!  From what I can figure out at current rates:

* We do not have 100+ yr reserves of fossil fuels (and there are global warming concerns) * We do not have 100+ yr reserves of uranium (and there are disposal concerns) * We do not have 100+ yr reserves of copper (to expand distribution and to build several 100,000 generators for wind turbines) * We do not have enough land to grow food AND biofuels to replace petroleum.  (And even current agricultural practices are not sustainable in many areas).

Solar holds promise it seems (it requires vast land, but the sun should keep shining for well beyond 100 years!), as do geothermal and energy from the oceans.

It looks like we need to (or will be forced to). * cut back on energy use * expand the few truly sustainable sources that can deliver huge quantities of energy * find completely new sources (fusion???) * decrease the world population. Am I missing something?


Contribution 18
You asked “Am I missing something?” Yes, choice (e)  all of the above!

Contribution 19
You wrote “ Wind power NEVER will. No one wants wind farms near them. They may look wonderful to an environmental activist, but to most sane people they are just plain ugly.”

For what it's worth, I actually think that windmills look incredibly cool. That said, it will take several states worth of land to get enough solar and wind energy to start replacing many coal, natural gas, and nuclear power plants.

However, we already blot the views of several states with farms. The Central Valley of California should be a lovely desert but it is filled with ugly canals and hideous fields of food, looking totally unnatural. Don't think I'm crazy that most farms look terrible. Most do not look like calendar pictures or gardens, especially after harvest. They smell bad too, not even counting the livestock.

Why do people put up with it? Well, we like to eat what we like to eat.

And I love my computer and the electricity that runs it. 

Contribution 20
Wassa matta? You think the California hill sides are somehow better or more deserving than the W Virginia mountains? Or... maybe you just think the California *people* are better or more deserving.

Quite aside from environmental concerns or what is done to "magnificent countryside," I seriously doubt, for example, just for starters, that any California family's cemetery has been dug up, moved, and then lost, by a stupid windmill company.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for using the coal as well, but... gimme a break. At least find a different point to argue.

Contribution 21
You wrote “What we can do is find ways for people around the world to generate enough energy to improve their standard of living ...” Can we indeed do this???  I certainly hope so, but it will take some MAJOR changes.

Planetary-scale energy needs will only be met by "harvesting" energy
from planetary-scale sources:
* energy from the earth (geothermal)
* energy from the sun (including wind and biofuels)
* energy from the moon (tides).
* energy from atoms (fusion - not fission because we don't seem to have
enough U)  

Until we start thinking on these scales, we are thinking too small! Furthermore, these are mostly diffuse sources, so storage & transportation on a global scale become an issue too.  If we do not figure out how to (or develop the will to) harvest these sources on these scales, civilization will not continue as it is.
 
Contribution 22
Just because people have had to suffer because of property rights abuses in one region is no reason to continue the practice and spread the abuse to other areas. Whenever people justify stomping on individual rights because of the "common good" (read mineral rights) there will be wholesale abuse.

I don't want to look at windmills while enjoying the beauty of Martha's Vineyard, and I doubt if West Virginians enjoy seeing the tops of their mountains sliced off to expose coal. I totally agree with your point that coal production has produced much greater ugliness than windmills have so far. We have the technology to stop these desecrations. Oil companies have figured out ways to let one platform gather oil from many sources miles away.

The remedy to the coal abuses is to have West Virginians and the state of West Virginia sue those companies that lower people's quality of life - and to keep suing until until it becomes more profitable for coal companies to take more responsible approaches. Courts need to review the whole concept of mineral rights in a country that is no longer predominantly wilderness. Northeastern states have taken such an approach with Midwestern power plants that spewed pollutants that were carried to them by the wind.

Environmentally friendly coal production will cost more - but we can't turn our back on such an abundant source of energy. Neither can we just ignore the abundant oil off our coasts. Coal and oil make more sense than seeing windmills everywhere one looks.

Contribution 23
Question 1 -- what percentage of energy supply is domestic?

Question 2 -- what percentage of our GDP is production and what percentage is consumption?

Contribution 24
For answers and more data, please see my PowerPoint I use in my energy course...
http://www.phy.ilstu.edu/~marx/phy207/High_Energy_Society.ppt

Contribution 25
Here's a sad but interesting story.  A few years ago we came pretty close to getting a 3MW Vestas wind turbine for Bluffton University.  I was one of the persons pushing for this, and I was appointed to the planning committee.  We did a preliminary study and found we had a good site with reasonable wind.  We found a group of investors willing to loan the whole amount as a capital loan at a reasonable interest rate.

Our regular source of electricity is American Electric Power (AEP), which in our area is 90% coal and 10% nuclear, and our rate is about $0.07/kWhr. We had two options for using the electricity from the turbine...

(Option 1) We could sell it to AEP for their generation cost of about ($0.02/kWhr) and then buy it back at $0.07/kWhr, thus saving $0.02/kWhr. We estimated a 10-year payback period doing it this way.  This would be easiest to implement because we wouldn't need a substation/switch to use AEP as campus backup when the turbine isn't enough.

(Option 2) Install a substation/switch that would allow us to use the electricity directly (saving $0.07/kWhr on what we use, and selling any excess to AEP at $0.02/kWhr), and also be able to supplement the turbine from AEP (at $0.07/kWhr) when the wind was too low or the turbine was down.  This was more difficult for determining the payback period because it's difficult to determine how often we would have electricity to sell to AEP as opposed to needing to supplement the turbine by purchasing electricity from AEP.  Our estimate for this was about a 3 to 6-year payback.

Either option seemed like a no-brainer, we had a lot of community support, and I thought we were going to do it.  But the best site on campus was west-southwest of the intercollegiate soccer field and baseball field.  The athletic department reasoned that late afternoon sun coming through the turbine blades would cast flickering shadows on the playing fields during games.  That killed the program.  The fear that an athletic event would occasionally get flicking shadows during a game killed what would have been an excellent investment in alternative electric energy for the university.

Since that time we have had a change in the administration, and I am trying to rekindle interest in a turbine, but movement is slow.

This is just one example that shows how difficult it can be to use "alternative energy" even in situations for which the economics looks quite favorable.

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