Is Wind Power the Way? The Top 7 Alternative Energies

New Scientist reports that a study by Mark Jacobson of the atmosphere and energy programme at Stanford University found wind power to be by far the most desirable source of energy. Excerpts below.

Link: Top 7 alternative energies listed – environment – 14 January 2009 – New Scientist.

The US could replace all its cars and trucks with electric cars powered by wind turbines taking up less than 3 square kilometres – in theory, at least. That's the conclusion of a detailed study ranking 11 types of non-fossil fuels according to their total ecological footprint and their benefit to human health.

The study, carried out by Mark Jacobson of the atmosphere and energy programme at Stanford University, found wind power to be by far the most desirable source of energy. Biofuels from corn and plant waste came right at the bottom of the list, along with nuclear power and "clean" coal.

Watch a video of Jacobson discussing his findings.

The energy sources that Jacobson found most promising were, in descending order:

• Wind

• Concentrated solar power (mirrors heating a tower of water)

• Geothermal energy

• Tidal energy

• Solar panels

• Wave energy

• Hydroelectric dams

To compare the fuels, Jacobson calculated the impacts each would have if it alone powered the entire US fleet of cars and trucks.

He considered not just the quantities of greenhouse gases that would be emitted, but also the impact the fuels would have on the ecosystem – taking up land and polluting water, for instance. Also considered were the fuel's impact on pollution and therefore human health, the availability of necessary resources, and the energy form's reliability.

"The energy alternatives that are good are not the ones that people have been talking about the most," says Jacobson.

"Some options that have been proposed are just downright awful," he says. "Ethanol-based biofuels will actually cause more harm to human health, wildlife, water supply, and land use than current fossil fuels."

U.S. Energy Policy Favors Oil

Thomas L. Friedman at the New York Times describes the political mess that constitutes U.S. energy policy (excerpts below). While I have some reservations about subsidies for alternative energy, I don’t think that subsidies for traditional energy (oil and gas) should be extended. Apparently the oil lobby and their fat wallets are more important in Washington than energy independence.

Link: Dumb as We Wanna Be – New York Times.

Few Americans know it, but for almost a year now, Congress has been bickering over whether and how to renew the investment tax credit to stimulate investment in solar energy and the production tax credit to encourage investment in wind energy. The bickering has been so poisonous that when Congress passed the 2007 energy bill last December, it failed to extend any stimulus for wind and solar energy production. Oil and gas kept all their credits, but those for wind and solar have been left to expire this December. I am not making this up. At a time when we should be throwing everything into clean power innovation, we are squabbling over pennies.

These credits are critical because they ensure that if oil prices slip back down again — which often happens — investments in wind and solar would still be profitable. That’s how you launch a new energy technology and help it achieve scale, so it can compete without subsidies.

The Democrats wanted the wind and solar credits to be paid for by taking away tax credits from the oil industry. President Bush said he would veto that. Neither side would back down, and Mr. Bush — showing not one iota of leadership — refused to get all the adults together in a room and work out a compromise. Stalemate. Meanwhile, Germany has a 20-year solar incentive program; Japan 12 years. Ours, at best, run two years.

While all the presidential candidates were railing about lost manufacturing jobs in Ohio, no one noticed that America’s premier solar company, First Solar, from Toledo, Ohio, was opening its newest factory in the former East Germany — 540 high-paying engineering jobs — because Germany has created a booming solar market and America has not.

The Problems with Nuclear Energy

Here are some comments from a post on The Energy Blog that highlight several of the major problems with relying on nuclear energy as an alternative to fossil fuels.

Link: The Energy Blog: Yergin: Climate Change and Energy are Converging into New Era of Clean Energy.

1) Disposal of the hot fuel rods (95% U-238, <0.5% U-235, and the rest being plutonium (1%), americium, and a wide variety of fission products – the strontium, caesium, and iodine isotopes being the most dangerous). A main issue here is proliferation of plutonium-based nuclear weapons.

2) Potential for catastrophic failures exist – cooling systems and neutron-absorbing safety systems can both fail, resulting in Chernobyl-like events. In today’s world, we should also include susceptibility to bombings, etc.

3) Cooling water is a big issue! A 1 GW nuclear reactor sucks up massive amounts of cold water to cool the reactor and to generate steam for the power turbines. During heat waves and droughts, many reactors have to be shut down due to lack of cooling water. The American Southwest, or Sub-Saharan Africa, are thus poor sites for nuclear (but excellent for solar thermal and PV!).

The fact is that solar, wind and biogas-powered electricity grids are entirely possible. Put it this way: if we did not have access to uranium or fossil fuels, would we all be reduced to pre-industrial civilization?

…we can’t have an aggressive expansion of Nuclear energy is because of the overhead costs associated with proliferation…especially when you consider state sponsored terrorism where the operators are complicit.

Certainly it could be done, however it’d be rather irresponsible to act like that cost doesn’t/won’t/shouldn’t exist.

Just like new Coal Plants, Nuclear power plants CANNOT get financing, no matter how hard they try, unless it comes from TaxPayers.

Applications of Solar Energy

I’m a strong advocate of the benefits of solar energy — I’m waiting for the breakthroughs (like the microprocessor/PC in computing) that will revolutionize energy production. Here’s a summary of the current state of solar energy.

Link: A Solar Technology for Every Application | Alternative Energy Stocks

Tom Konrad at Alternative Energy Stocks writes:

To understand the future of any technology, you first need to understand its applications, which will lead to an understanding of the characteristics necessary to meet them. Broadly, solar power is used to produce heat for climate control and process heat, and for electricity, both on the grid and off.

Application Table

Application Category Dominant/Best Technology Other Technologies
Daylighting Lighting Windows, Skylights Light Shelves, Active systems
Space Heating Thermal Passive Solar Design Active solar thermal, especially if also used for other applications such as water heating.
Process heat/ Water heating Thermal Active Solar Thermal flat plate or evacuated tube
Distributed generation Electric Photovoltaic technologies
Off Grid Electric Non-tracking PV with battery backup
Central Power Generation Electric Concentrating Solar Power Concentrating PV, Flat plate PV
Dispatchable Power Electric CSP with thermal storage Others w/ battery backup
Intermediate Generation Electric All technologies, should be tracking or west-facing to make production align most closely to peak load.
Base load Generation Electric CSP with thermal storage Others w/ Battery backup

Electric Generation Technology Table

Technology Best uses Strengths Weaknesses
Photovoltaic
    Flat Plate Distributed, off grid Simplicity, Scalability Cost
       Crystalline Distributed Low maintenance, high durability Cost
       Thin Film Distributed, off grid Low cost; scalability Low efficiency
    Concentrating PV Sunny areas, Central installations Low cost Higher maintenance
Concentrating Solar Power (CSP)
     Solar Trough, CLFR, Solar tower Central Generation; peaking and intermediate power; base load capable. Thermal Storage, Cost Large Scale
     Dish Stirling Sunny areas, Central installations Low cost; can be hybridized with natural gas; Scalability Higher maintenance

DISCLAIMER: The information and trades provided here are for informational purposes only

Barriers to Clean Energy in the US

This article from Grist describes why we are not adapting to the new energy realities and recommends some solutions. Excerpts below.

Link: New energy rules could unleash an economic boom and help quash climate change | By Timothy E. Wirth, Vinod Khosla, John D. Podesta | Grist | Soapbox | 22 May 2007.

Why aren’t we moving faster toward a clean energy future?

Huge society-wide change comes only when millions of consumers change their habits, and consumers will not change their energy habits until we reach the "crossover point" at which clean energy beats coal and oil on the basis of price, convenience, and availability.

Right now, most drivers cannot pull into a gas station and fill up with domestically produced biofuels. Most homeowners cannot choose wind- or solar-generated electricity to power their appliances. Going green too often costs more — in time or money.

Change won’t come until the price is right. That price is set by the market, the market is shaped by rules, and the rules favor fossil fuels.

If we want to change the future, we have to change the rules.

Rules matter. Rules define the character — and shape the future — of the society that makes them. Democracy’s distinguishing excellence lies in its ability to write the rules in a way that serves the common interest.

Good rules align the interests of individuals and corporations with the public interest, so that business can profit in ways that also make society richer and safer. This is the foundation of sound public policy. When high purpose is combined with the profit motive, the results can be astonishing. Time and again market capitalism, bounded by smart rules designed to serve the public interest, has delivered the desired result more cheaply, quickly, and easily than anyone thought possible.

Unfortunately, rules that are passed to advance the public interest can come, over time, to harm the public interest.

The rules we have now encourage the use of energy — especially oil and electricity. For most of the 20th century, this was smart policy. Electrification of the U.S. economy produced huge gains in productivity and quality of life. The increased mobility of people, goods, and services had similar benefits. Using more energy did not make us dependent on foreign oil. As late as 1940, the U.S. produced 63 percent of the world’s oil, compared to the 5 percent that came from the Middle East.

But the world is very different today. Geologists estimate that the Middle East has over 60 percent of the world’s oil reserves, the U.S. just three. And carbon dioxide emissions from our power plants and vehicles are wrecking the world’s climate. The rules need to change.

The rules today give oil and gas companies — the most profitable industry in the history of the world — billions of dollars in tax breaks and research subsidies. The rules do not factor in the indirect costs of oil — the cost of protecting oil supply lines to the Middle East, the cost of oil price shocks that lead to recessions, and the cost of intensified storms that make coastal property uninsurable. Insurers have priced insurance in Florida so high that the state has stepped in and pledged tens of billions of dollars in public money if a major hurricane strikes — despite the fact that neither the state’s catastrophe fund nor the state-chartered insurance company has anywhere near enough money to pay the claims.

The rules perpetuate our energy habits. Auto companies sell cars that get as little as 13 miles per gallon — something they could never do in Europe, Japan, or even China. Utility companies make more money when their customers waste energy and less when they save it. Developers build with energy-inefficient materials because they don’t have to pay the utility bills. And power plants use the atmosphere as a free garbage dump for their global-warming emissions.

We need new rules that will make the best choice for the country also the best choice for consumers.

Here are five more rule changes that would reduce emissions, give consumers new choices, launch new businesses, and accelerate the profitable transition to new energy technologies:

  • Put a price on carbon.
  • Set "carbon efficiency" standards for vehicles.
  • Make energy efficiency the business of utilities.
  • Modernize the electric power grid to be more efficient and better deliver clean energy.
  • Increase government support for clean energy.

via Clean Break

Energy: Paying Now or Paying Later

Sara Robinson at Orcinus on There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch (TANSTAAFL):

Years ago, bars used to offer a "free lunch" as a way to draw customers. Of course, the drinks in those bars cost twice as much, so the lunches weren’t really "free" at all. Similarly, in complex systems, what looks like the cheapest solution to a problem often turns out to be the most expensive one in the long run. TANSTAAFL is a way of saying, "Don’t expect something for nothing — there’s always a hidden cost somewhere."

Fossil fuels have been a big free lunch, until we found out that there was no "away" with those, either. And now we’re going to get to spend the next 50 years trying to pay for that long lunch. There are a couple lunches that look considerably cheaper right now — biofuels and nukes among them — but anybody who thinks those are going to be free is kidding themselves, too.

Jim Jubak at MSN Money (U.S. economy’s fate in Saudi hands – MSN Money) describes the Saudi stranglehold on the U.S.:

I have bad news for anybody who thinks that this Saudi control over the U.S. and global economies is a brief phase that will end by itself. The decision among oil producers such as Saudi Arabia to shift away from being a mere producer of crude oil to becoming a producer of value-added products made from oil — such as gasoline, fertilizer and plastics — will prolong the economic clout of these countries. Saudi Arabia will go from being the low-cost swing producer of crude oil to being the low-cost dominant producer in gasoline, fertilizer and plastics.

The only thing that changes this game — that redresses the balance between supplier economies and consumer economies — is a change in the price signals that consumer economies send in response to price increases. As long as the response to an increase in the price of oil is an increase in consumption, then oil prices will drift higher at a pace set by the self-interest of oil producers. Those of us who live in the consuming economies will just have to hope that the Saudis and other oil producers efficiently milk consuming countries’ cash-cow economies.

On the other hand, if higher prices lead to less consumption because consumers become permanently more efficient in the ways they use energy, and because consuming economies adopt lasting sources of alternative supply (and don’t abandon them at the next dip in oil prices), then consuming countries have a chance to take back some degree of control over their own economies.

Do we really need alternative sources of energy?

Do we really need to cut back on energy consumption?

Americans Understand: Oil Money Funds Terrorism

Thomas Friedman, in an opinion column in The New York Times on Oct 13, 2006 entitled The Energy Mandate, cited an Aug. 27 survey of likely voters that asked the following question:

“Which of the following would you say should be the two most important national security priorities for the administration and Congress over the next few years?”

Here are the results:

42 percent – reducing dependence on foreign oil

26 percent – combating terrorism

25 percent – the war in Iraq

21 percent – securing our ports, nuclear plants and chemical factories

21 percent – addressing dangerous countries like Iran and North Korea

12 percent – strengthening America’s military

Does this suggest that the American public understands that as long as we continue to spend billions of dollars on oil in terror-supporting countires like Saudi Arabia (the origin of most of the 9/11 hijackers), Iran, Nigeria, and Venezuela, well-funded terrorists can continue their destruction of peaceful societies?