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  • Why Alternative Power Is and Will Remain Useless

    Posted by Shannon Love on February 28th, 2010 (All posts by )

    Here’s a fact you won’t see mentioned in the public policy debate over “alternative” energy:

    There exists no alternative energy source, no combination of alternative energy sources, and no system of combinations of alternative energy sources that can fully replace a single, coal fired electric plant built with 1930s era technology.

    Nada.
    Zero.
    Zilch.

    Yet many want to make this group of functionally useless technologies the primary energy sources for our entire civilization.

    Most discussions of alternative energy talk only about the cost and reliability of the electricity when it leaves the grounds of the alternative-energy installation. This is called the Point of Generation (POG). However, energy is useless unless you have it where you need it, when you need it. It does no good to have plenty of power in Arizona when your work and home are in Michigan. It does no good to have a roaring fire in July when you’re freezing in January. Therefore, the only real factors that count are the cost and reliability at the Point of Consumption (POC).

    All current and forecast alternative energy sources fail miserably at POC. When you look at all the hurdles, redundancies and hypothetical/theoretical technologies you have to invoke to make alternative energy reliable at POC, you see they can’t even come close to matching the 80-year-old coal plant.

    An obsolete coal plant using 80-year-old technology can provide power where and when you need it. It can be positioned almost anywhere from the equator to the tundra. (It will even work aboard ships.) It can be positioned immediately adjacent to the point of consumption. It works around the clock and in all types of weather. It can easily store weeks or months of coal reserves in a big pile outside. 99% of its offline time is scheduled and it is trivial to build in redundancy to compensate for both scheduled and unscheduled offline time. For the last 80 years, this type of technology has chugged out the electricity all over the world without pause.

    “Alternative” energy sources have none of these attributes. They can only be built in specific locations, and those locations are wholly unrelated to the points of consumption. They can only operate under specific weather/environmental conditions, so they cannot fulfill the when of the point of consumption need.

    They operate on nature’s schedule not ours. If we could easily operate on mother nature’s schedule, we wouldn’t need the energy in the first place, because we primarily use the energy to alter natural environmental conditions to keep ourselves alive.

    “Alternative” energy is really Weather-Dependent Energy and it has all of the hazards posed by being exposed to the vagaries of weather. Wind turbines only generate power in certain locations, within certain wind speed ranges and only when the wind blows in the specified speed range. Solar panels only generates significant power in certain locations, in certain latitudes, in certain environmental conditions (deserts mostly). It only generates significant power in the daytime, only during certain hours in the day, and random weather conditions like thunderstorms, ice storms or sandstorms can knock it offline completely. (Even hydroelectric power is weather dependent and can be seriously crippled by drought or flood.)

    To even begin to replace the 80-year-old coal plant with weather dependent technology, you have to invest resources on a massive scale.

    A coal plant produces power around the clock and in all types of weather. To replace that functionality at POC, you have to build massive redundancy into the alternative power system. You can’t just stick up the number of wind turbines that on paper can crank out the same number of kilowatts generated by the coal plant. To compensate for the incessant variation in the wind, you have to put up at least three times that many turbines, in at least three different groups widely separated geographically. Even then it is far from certain you will have dependable power at POC. Every grid using significant amounts of wind power has suffered serious outages regardless of how large the dispersion of wind power. Solar power is even worse because it can under the best of conditions only produce power for around six hours a day. Half the time of course, it is dark and solar produces zero power at POC even when the solar panels are physically right above the POC.

    Neither can we efficiently store solar and wind energy. The most effective method, thermal storage in molten salts, has only 20% recovery. That means to get 1 watt back out, you have to put five in. Worse, the storage system is more costly and complex than the alternative generators that produce the energy it stores.

    A coal plant can operate anywhere, but since the alternative generators only work in certain locations, to replace the functionality of the coal plant you have to create a massive interconnected power grid to shift power from where nature provides the power to anywhere else a POC exists.

    Let me emphasize this: In order to replace the functionality of a single 80-year-old coal plant anywhere in North America, you have to build a continent-spanning power grid that can efficiently and reliably transfer power from any single location in North America to any other location. The entire grid has to extend everywhere and work all of the time or it has no hope of providing power where and when you need it.

    We have no such grid today, and it is not even certain that we could create such a grid at all given the severe problems of balancing such a massive system while its primary generator’s output goes up and down erratically as weather conditions change. Nobody has ever come close to creating such a grid and it might be physically impossible to do it.

    Worse, it should be fairly obvious that such a grid would be very vulnerable to large-scale disasters such as ice storms, hurricanes, earthquakes etc. as well as presenting a tempting target for hackers. Remember, the entire grid has to function to switch power. It won’t be like today where we have a lot of largely isolated regional grids. A failure in Mississippi river valley will isolate the entire East Coast from power from power supplies in the Midwest and West.

    Meanwhile, in the same scenario, our obsolete coal plant would keep chugging along cranking out power to the local grid.

    To sum: Just to completely replace a single obsolete coal plant anywhere in the country, we have to reengineer the entire continent-wide power grid from the generators to the light bulbs.

    And we have to do it all in one go. The non-alternative power system will have to remain online at full potential capacity to be able to step in and compensate for alternative power’s inability to provide power reliably at POC. We won’t be able to take any of the old plants off line without risking a fatal outage at some POC. We’ll have to build a massive parallel alternative system that will parasitize the non-alternative system until the alternative system reaches some critical size threshold that will allow the entire system to completely replace the functionality of a single 80-year-old coal plant.

    This is never going to happen. It would take decades and by the time we got it done our grandchildren would be getting their power from feeding banana peels into their Mr. Fusions.

    In the future, every time someone extols the supposed virtues of “alternative power” just ask them, “Can this system replace a single coal plant that uses 80-year-old technology?”

    The honest answer will always be no. You most likely won’t get an honest answer but it will be interesting to see the expression on their face.

     

    72 Responses to “Why Alternative Power Is and Will Remain Useless”

    1. Mike H Says:

      But all this wont be an issue if we just build a multi trillion dollar “smart grid” …. that’ll fix what ails renewables.

    2. TMLutas Says:

      Hydro power has long had these problems but that hasn’t stopped hydro. The solution generally has been to build the dam and then build relevant industry around it so you don’t have to transmit. For alternative energy this will further advantage the sun belt and also advantage the wind corridor states in the US. The problems that you point out do exist but relocation of industry makes them less troublesome.

    3. Soapbox Jill Says:

      Great information and points. Just read about the proposed “smart grid” in, of all places, an article in The American Legion magazine. The article made tons of assumptions, including that we NEED this grid in order to be current with technology and fight global warming. Yup, that was in there. Plus, there would be an advanced metering system so consumers “could see how much energy they are using and avoid peak times” to safe money. But you know as well as I do that such meters would be for the benefit of rationing energy when the hodgepodge of alternative sources don’t come through.

    4. swift boater Says:

      yes TM, thats the ticket, build industry around solar farms that may have cloudy days or wind farms that might be in the doldrums.

      Hydropower has nowhere near the problems, the river is almost always running, very rarely does it dry up.

      And thisisnt the Field of Dreams, if you build it private companies may not decide to build their multi million dollar factories in the desert of NM.

    5. Michael Kennedy Says:

      There is no serious plan to make alternative energy sources provide the energy for our modern civilization. Behind the fixation on alternative energy is a plan to reduce energy consumption until the human condition has returned to the stage where we do not have the impact on Mother Gaia that we have now. The sort of people who make these plans do not understand history. They do not, for example, know how much horse manure was produced per day in 19th century London. The people who know science and hold these views are a tiny minority and either support nuclear power or are nihilists. The vast majority of such people resemble Barack Obama in that they know no science, although they proclaim that they do, and their educations are deficient in the practical aspects of everyday life. Does any one suppose that he, or Al Gore, has ever wired a lamp or hung a door or adjusted the timing on a car with a mechanical ignition system?

    6. Mrs. Davis Says:

      Well, next thing you’ll be telling me there is not anthropogenic global warming (AGW) How much blasphemy must we endure? I’m going back to watch my Inconvenient Truth DVD.

      The tragedy is that by the time we realize the foolishness of this all there will be nobody left in West Virginia who knows how to run a coal mine.

    7. Carl from Chicago Says:

      The sad truth is that you are comparing a FUNCTIONING grid with what is coming next. Frankly the grid won’t be functioning soon. As these big sources fade out, more and more companies will view the grid power as “dirty” and build their own backup systems. Many, many are already doing this today.

      It won’t be long before residential and high rise start to either opt out or build in local, redundant systems. Those without the resources to do so will be at the vagaries of a poorly functioning grid. Since many components will be under de-facto governmental control so complaining about the power being out will be just as satisfying as complaining about the long lines at the department of motor vehicles. No one will care.

      Businesses will not start up new facilities that are energy intensive in areas where power is not available. This will be a perpetuating cycle because then there will be less pressure on the grid. This already is happening to some sense due to the recession; we haven’t seen drops in demand like this for decades.

      Some states will likely “opt out” and wall themselves out. Texas effectively already has done this. Some of the states that never really deregulated like South Carolina, Georgia and Wisconsin are in this boat, too. This will give them an edge in attracting power consuming industries.

      The grid will go from being all-encompassing to being very local. Ultimately relying on the grid will seem as sensible as going to a public school in a terrible city or waiting in line at the free clinic – a bad idea unless you have no other means available. But in some places, those walled off or choosing to invest in power capacity, there will be power available, and they can use it as a competitive weapon or to guarantee a higher standard of living for their residents.

      I do believe that local utilities will push the “smart meter”. They have to. They need to start to wring savings out of residential and business customers because capacity coming online is basically only natural gas.

      But of course I agree 100% with the thesis of the post that none of these technologies are nearly as good as a coal plant. But your theory is that we will ever keep a grid alive for the whole country. Likely we will just let a lot of it go to pot and the rich will have backups and the poor will just have poor reliability. Some areas will invest in power and use it as a competitive weapon and others will either deny industry new permits or effectively drive them out.

    8. Isegoria Says:

      An alternative energy source does not have to replace a coal plant to be useful. We currently rely on a portfolio of energy sources, not just coal plants, and something like cheap solar power could clearly play a role, even without cheap storage to make it reliable around the clock, because we really, really need electricity on hot sunny days, and spending over $1,000 per additional kilowatt of coal-plant capacity isn’t necessarily justified.

    9. Andrew_M_Garland Says:

      To Isegoria,
      The data you point to gives these Costs/KW Capacity, and Capacity Factor
      Wind . . . . . $1200 . 30%
      Scrubbed Coal. $1290 . 68%

      I assume capacity factor means the estimated continuous output expected from a nominal installed capacity. This would make Wind power $4,000 per delivered KW base, compared to $1,897 for Coal.

      This doesn’t support your presentation or conclusion.

    10. Robert Schwartz Says:

      Good work Shannon. Although, I would point out that nuclear power plants can do everything that coal can, with smaller environmental costs, and even less radiation dispersed into the environment.

      A couple of issues that have been raised need some further elucidation.

      Smart grids are being hyped as a solution to energy problems. But, what they really mean is that if the sun sets, as it does every day, and the wind dies down, the utility will be able balance the grid by turning your electricity off. What smart grids mean is that people who can afford diesel backup systems will still be able to have air-conditioning. This will not represent progress.

      “because we really, really need electricity on hot sunny days” Actually we need electricity in the late afternoons and early evenings of hot sunny days. At those times, the solar panels will be fading out, or, that old bugaboo, the sun will have set. Fortunately your diesel back-up will be able to pick up the slack.

    11. Shannon Love Says:

      TMLutus,

      Hydro power has long had these problems but that hasn’t stopped hydro.

      Hydro is built upon the idea of storing enormous amounts of energy in the gravity potential of the billions of liters of water held behind the dam. Even with this storage, however, hydro still cannot match coal plants for providing power when and were you need it.

      The West coast is hit with serious electricity shortages about once every 20 years owing to low snow fall in the sierra. The area has to carry quite a bit of redundant fossil fuel/nuclear capacity as well as plan for large scale imports just to have a hope of keeping the lights on. Back in the IIRC the 80′s Alcoa nearly got put out of business in Washington state because a drought dramatically reduced the hydro power their aluminum plants were built around.

      The solution generally has been to build the dam and then build relevant industry around it so you don’t have to transmit. For alternative energy this will further advantage the sun belt …

      You just can’t build whatever you out in the desert. The water situation seriously limits the rate of growth. The southwest is already struggling to produce enough water. Of course, with enough energy you can produce more water but that takes a lot time (decades) to build the infrastructure. Meanwhile, if your economic/military competitors don’t waste all these tremendous resources, you won’t have a market to pay for moving the factory, the people who work in them and building all the infrastructure they both require out in the middle of no where.

      Besides, where are you going to get the energy to relocate the factories and communities in the first place? All that building will take a lot of juice.

      What you are advocating is simply an acknowledgement that alternative power cannot provide power when and where you need it. The fact that you need to relocate entire communities to make use of the energy just proves my point.

      It’a tantamount to saying, “We don’t need to spend energy on heating and cooling. When it’s hot in the summer, every one will just migrate to the cool north and when its cold in winter everyone will migrate to warm south.”

    12. Shannon Love Says:

      Isegoria,

      An alternative energy source does not have to replace a coal plant to be useful.

      Well, yes it does. If alternative energy can’t replace the coal plant then it can’t support the infrastructure we’ve built up around coal plants.

      We currently rely on a portfolio of energy sources, not just coal plants,…

      That’s a strawman, The 80 year old coal plant is just an archetype for purposes of example. In reality, we rely on a “portfolio” of plants that function exactly like coal plants. We get 90+ of our power from coal, natural gas and nuclear all of which can in principle replace the other completely. My point is that a power source that does not produce power when and where you need it worthless.

      …because we really, really need electricity on hot sunny days…

      Yes and alternative power cannot provide that electricity because we never know how much power the alternative sources will produce even hour to hour. You will have to have a near 100% coal/gas/nuclear backup for all the alternative sources. The cost per kilowatt of alternative power must always include the cost of its conventional backup.

    13. Isegoria Says:

      I don’t want to see Chicago Boyz devolve into a right-wing echo chamber, in which all green ideas are dismissed, because we successfully knocked down a green straw man. (And I definitely don’t want that straw man to become my effigy, with my name it.) No, windmills can’t replace coal plants, but something like cheap solar could obviate the need for increased coal-plant capacity.

      Again, we currently use a portfolio of technologies to generate power. Some have higher fixed costs, and some have higher variable costs. Some are better for providing a cheap and reliable base level of electricity, while others are better for meeting peak needs. Currently, solar thermal plants cost over $3,000 per kW, and photovoltaics cost almost $5,000 per kW, with a capacity factor of just 20%. Compared to a scrubbed coal plant, which costs $1290 per kW, with a 68% capacity factor, solar looks like a waste of money — and I’d say it is, for now, even though it has zero fuel costs.

      But if PV’s cost per kW of capacity drops, over the next few decades, to less than $1290, then it can make sense to add it to our portfolio, even though it has such a low capacity factor — because it provides energy during peak demand.

    14. NedLudd Says:

      Back in 1982, I was searching for a job and had an interview with a small start up company called SES, Solar Energy Systems. It was started by a University of Delaware professor that had developed a method of creating thin film photovoltaic devices that were much cheaper than crystalline or amorphous silicon devices. In the interview, the head of the company made it very clear that the realistic goal for photovoltaics was to capture one percent of the grid. One percent!

      The physics of photovoltaics are such that they are only about 10% efficient. From Wikipedia; Typical thermal efficiency for electrical generators in the electricity industy is around 33% for coil and oil-fired plants, and up to 50% for combined-cycle gas-fired plants [Look up coal power plant efficiency and search on efficiency]. While there have been significant changes in fabrication technology since then, I don’t believe the basic physics has changed efficiency.

      We are looking at trading a reliable technology that outperforms “green technologies” by a great margins. Although it is not an order of magnitude better, it certainly has an advantage because the energy is available on demand rather than when mother nature feels like it.

    15. Paul Milenkovic Says:

      Yes, I hope this Web site does not become a “right-wing echo chamber” — I hope it continues to be an echo chamber of critical thinking rather than an echo chamber of fashionable thought.

      That solar is sunshine-dependent but may be matched to the airconditioning demand peak is not a new argument. I still question how well matched it is to that peak — the actual peak is shifted somewhat into the evening hours. Furthermore, reflective coatings or other ways of mitigating the sun load may be much cheaper.

      I recently needed a new roof, which ran about $7000. The contractor recommended the installation of ridge vents. After the new roof went in, the upstairs was about 10 deg-F cooler on a sunny August day.

      The ridge vents “came” with a new roof that I needed anyway. I did not qualify for a dime of “stimulus” weatherization money for this feature. I could have specified solar-reflective shingles, but that would have had to be special-ordered and would have held up the project beyond being able to do it this year, with a badly worn roof to go through another winter.

      Someone I know put in $40,000-plus worth of PV panels in Florida. That feature about balances their peak A/C demand — assuming the peak use isn’t time-shifted into evening by the thermal lag in their structure, but it will only reduce their electric use by 1/3 overall. They are getting enormous subsidies. After my roof ridge vent experience, I had suggested that as a lower-cost alternative, but the people in question were committed to this project because the window for the subsidy was closing. Actually, whether the window for subsidy was open is still in question as they are still waiting on $20,000 promised by the State of Florida.

      I suppose the reasoning behind the subsidy is to “move down the learning curve” of cheaper solar by stimulating demand for it now. It was discussed on another thread that even if the solar cells were free, there are substantial costs to a residential solar installation — it cost money to modify your roof by installing this large structure, their are costs with the wiring, inverter, and utility intertie connection. They have hurricanes in Florida and there is a question how well these panels will hold up in a major storm.

      I guess questioning whether solar or wind will make a meaningful contribution to our energy needs makes this place a right-wing echo chamber. On the other hand, the claims of “green technology” need to be questioned — otherwise enormous amounts of money will go into these things because they were deemed “sexy”, and more productive uses of the money may go wanting.

    16. Michael Kennedy Says:

      I live in southern California and have been thinking about solar for a while now. I’ve been waiting for the cost of PV panels to come down. I was solicited recently by a company so I told them to come out and give me an estimate. There are subsidies from some of the energy companies and I wanted to see what the price would be now compared to a few years ago when I last checked. The fellow came out and told me that, because my neighbors Italian cypress trees had gotten so tall, I could not use solar panels on my roof. There was too much shade. I had noticed that my roses were not doing well on that side and I had replaced them with azaleas but the house is 50 feet away from that area. Still, the shade factor was enough to make solar not an option. I’m glad I didn’t put it in ten years ago when the trees were not so tall. Apparently, the solar panels are very sensitive to the light level because my yard and roof are not that shady.

      A recent effort to put a field of solar panels in the Mojave desert stirred up an environmental furor so my point about the desire to reduce energy use still seems to me to be significant. It doesn’t matter that these people know no more about energy than Obama knows about insurance. If it is part of the modern world, they are against it.

    17. Isegoria Says:

      If you take fashionable thought, and you invert it, you do not get critical thinking. The problem is not questioning whether solar or wind will make a meaningful contribution to our energy needs; the problem is dismissing all “green” technologies, now and into the future, because many “green” suggestions make no sense now and may make no sense in the near future.

      In the short term, smart meters seem like a sensible way to shape consumption to meet capacity, and various unglamorous techniques for reducing consumption — light-colored roofs, better insulation, etc. — make more economic sense than high-tech PV panels. And we all agree that these government subsidies are feel-good boondoggles.

      Does that mean the PV panels, if they follow Moore’s Law and improve exponentially, will never make economic sense in any context? No. They don’t do what the dreamers are dreaming of, but that doesn’t mean they will always be useless.

    18. NedLudd Says:

      Isegoria; Agreed. It is sensible to pursue a number of green technologies and other building techniques in insulation, etc. that reduce energy demand. What I find missing from the discussion is clearly available number that show how much certain technologies cost in conjunction with how much advantadge they give. In short, an ROI evaluation.

    19. Paul Milenkovic Says:

      “If you take fashionable thought, and you invert it, you do not get critical thinking. The problem is not questioning whether solar or wind will make a meaningful contribution to our energy needs; the problem is dismissing all “green” technologies, now and into the future, because many “green” suggestions make no sense now and may make no sense in the near future.”

      If I took a fashionable thought, i.e. solar panels, and then inverted it, my argument would be forget about solar panels, forget about any kind of “green” tech.

      But I did not say, forget solar panels, simply pay the A/C and light bill and burn coal and natural gas. I said that a simple attic ridge vent system, perhaps in conjunction with high-tech white coating, could give the same saving in both peak and average electricity savings as an expensive solar cell installation.

      But solar panels are “democracy-whiskey-sexy.” Ridge vents recommended by a roofing contractor in Wisconsin are not.

      A person gets so fixated on PV solar panels that it becomes a solution in search of a problem. OK, the PV panel will never supplant more than 20 percent of the “electric power mix” on account of the capacity factor issue of the GP post, but they shave peaks. OK, if peak shaving and that degree of energy saving is the concern, what about white roofs (and ridge vents — that is what I recommended to the homeowner in Florida, who went ahead and did solar panels because they just had to have solar panels).

      As to the Moore’s law on the PV solar panels, there is no Moore’s law on the contractor and inspection expenses. But some people just have to have to solar panels and it is costing me, you, and you over there about 33K in subsidies alone for that one installation.

    20. Shannon Love Says:

      Isegoria,

      I don’t want to see Chicago Boyz devolve into a right-wing echo chamber, in which all green ideas are dismissed, because we successfully knocked down a green straw man.

      You are the one who introduced politics. I am making a technological argument about what technology can and can not do.

      No, windmills can’t replace coal plants, but something like cheap solar could obviate the need for increased coal-plant capacity.

      Not to any significant degree. Remember the conventional plants all have to be up and spinning (the spin reserve) so they can take over with just a few minutes notice when the alternative power output drops suddenly. The only thing you can ever do is episodically reduce the conventional plants online time. But owing to the fact that it takes hours to spin up large efficient generators you basically have to run the plants at around 25% fuel consumption whether you’re drawing power off them or not.

      Our unwillingness to build new heavy coal and nuclear plants has already made the grid unstable in many parts of the country. We’ve compensated by adding on quick spin up gas units but they are expensive and prone to price shocks for natural gas.

      But if PV’s cost per kW of capacity drops, over the next few decades, to less than $1290, then it can make sense to add it to our portfolio, even though it has such a low capacity factor — because it provides energy during peak demand. [emp added]

      Except when it doesn’t. Why can’t you seem to grasp this fatal weakness? We currently use the most reliable and flexible (fastest spinup) generators i.e. small gas fired turbines, to handle peak demand. What makes you think that it would be possible to replace those with the most inflexible and unreliable generators imaginable?

      I think you can’t understand the technical aspects because you are thinking with metaphors and you’r using the “electricity as water” metaphor.

      I think you believe a power grid is like a rancher with two wells that fill a common stock tank for the cattle. One uses a diesel pump and the other uses a windmill. Both wells feed into the same stock tank. You think, “Well, for the foreseeable future I will have to use the diesel but when the wind is blowing, there is no reason not to pump water with the windmill and so the diesel pump doesn’t have to run so hard and burn so much fuel. Over time I can keep adding windmills to the point that I won’t have to run the diesel pump at all or at the very least I can avoid having to buy a second pump.”

      This metaphor is misleading. To make the scenario more closely parallel the electrical grid we would need to add three additional behaviors: (1) the diesel generator is old school and has to manually adjusted to pump more or less water. It takes 10 minutes for the rancher to adjust diesel pump to reach a new output level (2) the water level has to stay above a certain point or the cattle can’t drink and (3) the tank has crack in it so large that tank will drain completely in 5 minutes unless it is constantly replenished.

      Now here you come along with your windmill and solar power pumps. You convince the rancher that since cattle drink the most water at high noon that a solar powered pump will take over the “peek demand” for pumping water and the windmill will help out all the time. So the farmer buys the pumps, He sets the diesel pump to pull up 80% of the water needed to keep the tank at threshold and then has the solar/wind pull up 25% (for a margin).

      Everything works spiffy for weeks until a sandstorm blows in, the solar panels go offline and the windmill autobrakes. The water level in the take drops 20% below were the cattle can reach it and they all die of thirst.

      Even this metaphor is not complete. A power grid is vast balancing act between loads (consumption) and source (generation). Unbalancing the grid anywhere buy a few percent can take the entire grid down in minutes. This is how blackouts occur. Worse, every device connected to the grid stops working unless it has a backup power source.

      In the stock tank metaphor, this would be as if once the water in the tank dropped below a certain point, all the water in the cows bodies suddenly disappeared and they went poof into a cloud of dust.

      You keep talking about alternative power as if it something that you can plan with. You talk as if you think that grid managers can say at 9am, “Well by 12pm well have X demand and Y alternative generation capacity”. They can’t, at best they can say, “we have a 60% chance of Y alternative generation capacity.”

      A grid has no margin for error. It’s not like water pipes it a vast electronic circuit that can collapse in minutes across hundreds of miles. If a load suddenly appears or a source suddenly disappears, the entire grid has to have the redundancy on demand to balance the grid or the entire grid blackouts.

      There is no way that alternative power can provide that redundancy. There is no way that alternative can even provide part of the peek base load unless you have a conventional source immediately able to jump in when the alternative unpredictably goes off line.

      Notice that nothing in my explanation touches on politics or fashion. This is about technology. A communist grid manager has the exact same problem as fascist grid manager who has the exact same problem with a grid manager in a liberal-democracy.

      If you want to convince me I am wrong you’re going to have to explain to me in technical terms how we will balance the grid using alternative power sources.

    21. Robert Schwartz Says:

      “No, windmills can’t replace coal plants, but something like cheap solar could obviate the need for increased coal-plant capacity.”

      No it won’t. It is not where it is needed, nor when it is needed. It can’t provide base because it is not available about 3/4ths of the time, and it cant provide peak — anywhere because it is not available at peak hours, which are in the late afternoon and early evening in California, but which may be — Lord help us — on really cold winter nights where I live in fly over country. Building solar, building wind is just wasting money and resources.

      “I don’t want to see Chicago Boyz devolve into a right-wing echo chamber, in which all green ideas are dismissed, because we successfully knocked down a green straw man.”

      Clearly, you, like most leftists, are more concerned about the conformity of technical ideas to political criteria, than whether they work technically and economically. As they used to say back when Chairman Mao was alive: “It is better to be Red than Expert”.

      “In the short term, smart meters seem like a sensible way to shape consumption to meet capacity”

      As I warned above, smart meters are a disaster waiting to happen. If we get smart meters, they will cut off your power instead of building new capacity. Americans will deal with it by installing diesel powered back-up generators. The result of smart meters will be worsened air quality, noise pollution, and increased fossil fuel consumption. Now there is a lose — lose proposition for you.

      “And we all agree that these government subsidies are feel-good boondoggles.”

      Boondoggles to be sure. But they make me sick to my stomach. I don’t feel good.

      “Does that mean the PV panels, if they follow Moore’s Law and improve exponentially, will never make economic sense in any context?”

      PV panels cannot follow Moore’s law. The productivity of solar cells is a function of the amount of sunlight that they absorb. The amount of sunlight is strictly a matter of their area. Moore’s law worked because features on the chip could be shrunk without impairing their function. Yes, efficiency is a factor but it cannot be the source of exponential gains, as it is ceilinged by various limitations at well under 50%.

      “They don’t do what the dreamers are dreaming of, but that doesn’t mean they will always be useless.”

      Useless. No. Useful for powering an advanced industrial civilization. Also No.

    22. B.L.Snyder Says:

      Interesting topic. If alternative energy is indeed obsolete as suggested by the author, a detailed comparative analysis would be of benefit.

      It’s difficult for me to believe that countries like Sweden, Cities like Malmo, and projects like Bo01 are passing policies and investing in new technologies – all in vain.

      The most reliable source of “alternative” energy may be efficient digestion of our own garbage and sludge, as well as the harnessing of tidal energy – systems subject to fewer variables.

    23. Isegoria Says:

      As I said earlier, I’m not arguing for the green straw man, and I don’t want my name attached to it, so that it becomes my effigy. I’m not arguing to “just” replace coal plants with wind and solar. And I’m not arguing that today’s alternative energy sources make any kind of economic sense. What I’m arguing against is the dismissive tone and the notion that no alternative energy source could ever make any sense.

      We don’t have a grid of high-voltage DC lines, we don’t have cheap energy storage, and we don’t have a critical mass of wind and solar sources to even out fluctuations — but, if we did, then balancing the grid would not be an insurmountable obstacle. And if we were seriously worried that burning coal would make the planet uninhabitable — or that it might — then investing in such a grid, researching better storage, etc. might make economic sense. It would not be irrational.

      Do I think it’s justified, here and now? No, but if I were Europe, and I thought the Russians might turn off the oil and gas spigot at any time — for political or military reasons — and I believed the climate science, then I might be performing a very different calculation. And, really, it’s not about what we can do now with these immature technologies; it’s about what we can do when PV capacity costs less than coal, with no fuel costs. Do we find zero use for that technology, because it’s unpredictable? Zero?

    24. TMLutas Says:

      Swift Boater – I was thinking more windmills than solar but, yeah, in certain places the number of days you don’t have wind or sun respectively is smaller than the number of days that coal plants are down for maintenance. No power source is up 100% of the time. We have well established work arounds for these eventualities. As I mention to Shannon below, there might be others that are not practical yet but are becoming practical in the mid-term future.

      Carl from Chicago – the financial draw of selling power for high profit across state lines will keep an interest in a functioning national grid. I have a great faith in the power of money to motivate people.

      Shannon Love – You are reading some things into my comments that are not there. I’m arguing against over-selling your point, not your point. You are correct about hydro having problems. But still people do use it for base load power and no amount of arm waving will get rid of that inconvenient fact. Hard headed, practical businessmen and engineers depend on hydro and very similarly the same people will depend on solar and wind. It’s just the nature of the businesses that *can* depend on solar and wind will not be the same.

      I think you have mostly miscalculated how much you’re undercutting yourself by going a bridge too far. It’s a bad tactical choice in a very good article.

      In your reply to me, you are a bit too pessimistic on water. The cost to desalinate and pipe municipal quantities of water from the bay of Baja to New Mexico are approaching the market price of water in the desert SW and the lines will likely cross within the decade. At that point water concerns change to concerns of Mexico’s political stability and keeping the pipelines running.

      I think you and Isegoria are speaking past each other. You’re right in saying that sun will not be base load power (unless it’s beamed orbital solar but I don’t think you’re condemning that because your article would make no sense). Isegoria’s correct that there are uses for alternative power even if it isn’t base load power. I think that the fact that alternative energy that can be generated by traditional end users fundamentally change the regulatory environment by radically increasing the number of producers and the number of people who will defend electricity producers.

      I think that a significant amount of the mismatched peaks will be able to be aligned by generating hydrogen on the generating peak and adding in fuel cell electricity to the less-than-peak wind and/or solar to better match demand. Given cheap enough fuel cell generation, using the spin reserve to generate hydrogen is another potential alternative. If your unneeded spin reserve generates enough hydrogen on Monday through Wednesday that you don’t have to spin on Thursday and Friday, that’s a real savings. At that point (sometime in the next decade I believe), you just have to maintain hydrogen reserves against leakage so you have enough fuel cell power to cover the spin up time.

    25. NedLudd Says:

      I have actually measured the power coming into a building in both Detroit and Chicago and cannot believe that either Wind or Solar can do anything but add to actual transmission supply in a small way. When early morning comes in Chicago, Commonwealth Edison pours power into the grid just before all those lights, coffee makers and computers are turned on. Green energy can’t do that. In fact , until a good method of storing energy from green sources can be economically developed (batteries) green energy will be a somewhat reliable supplement to a grid system that is not designed for such a fickle partner.

      Paul, I agree with you. Sometimes a combination of conservation moves will provide a significant reduction in power draw which is replicated across tens or thousands of homes can make a significant reduction in peak power which is way I believe in support for weatherization programs for existing home and commercial stocks.

      Right now, either combustion (coal or gas) or nuclear are the only ways to provide for our power needs. Otherwise I could only comment when the weather was right…

    26. sol vason Says:

      Shannon & Isegoria – I think you are actually in agreement. Shannon’s excellent example of the cattle ranch ends with
      “Everything works spiffy for weeks until a sandstorm blows in, the solar panels go offline and the windmill autobrakes. The water level in the take drops 20% below were the cattle can reach it and they all die of thirst.”

      Isegoria argues “The problem is not questioning whether solar or wind will make a meaningful contribution to our energy needs; the problem is dismissing all “green” technologies, now and into the future, because many “green” suggestions make no sense now and may make no sense in the near future.”

      If the cattle die, then there is no need for energy to pump water and there is no need for a cattle ranch. The land used for the ranch can be allowed to return to its original state before the white man ever set foot in the New World. Therefore solar and wind have made a very meaningful contribution to our energy needs by making them more manageable!

      Thus alternative energy promises a way in which alternative energy helps restore the world to the way it was before there were people. It offers the final solution to our overpopulation program and helps win the War on Global Warming.

      I agree it may not be fashionable, but shouldn’t we give thoughtful consideration to the Power of Prayer as an alternate energy source – since prayer alone can work miracles?

    27. Carl from Chicago Says:

      An interesting thread.

      Alternative power sources simply cannot effectively replace base load power. They aren’t efficient, they aren’t reliable, and the grid doesn’t connect the best wind and solar places to where demand is, for the most part. And the grid is getting worse, not better, and very poor at hooking up NEW locations. They may help with residential on the margins but are terrible for any sort of energy consuming industry. Basically our dis-investment in “real” baseload energy resources will spell the death knell of those industries in the USA.

      Coal absolutely works and works well. That is why they are putting them up everywhere in China. They aren’t stupid.

      The relative cost of coal / hydro / nuclear means nothing. We aren’t building any significant amounts of coal / hydro / nuclear, so their cost is irrelevant. Just view the existing baseload resources as essentially priceless.

      We do build natural gas plants. The cost of natural gas will effectively determine what the cost of power is throughout most of the US.

      It is interesting that people think that we will hold the grid up for everyone and keep investing to keep it reliable. These are public goods, and we tend to abandon public goods. Ever take the CTA in Chicago? Send your kids to public schools? Go to a public clinic? This is the future of the grid. Good where there is $ to invest, and poor elsewhere. Many states have abandoned traditional ratemaking and are essentially broke. Is the Federal government going to spend the trillions needed for new power and new transmission? Not likely.

      These alternative items can make a dent on the margins, like putting a new coat of paint on an inner city school. But they aren’t going to fix the inexorable decline.

    28. Alan K. Henderson Says:

      The article is sensible, but I’ll nitpick the word “useless.” Alternate energy can’t be a primary power source, for the reasons reported. But…assuming that a particular alt energy source can pay for itself and then some, it can be useful for a single home or institution as a supplement.

    29. sol vason Says:

      Another problem with alternative energy is that it relies on the invention of new technology. Liberals seem to assume that new, green technology will appear simply because we need it or because it is socially desireable for someone to invent it.

      Technology — inventions — appear because there are enormous, socially unjustifiable rewards for the person who creates it. I can’t explain why this approach has worked in America but it does. Normally, when the rewards get small enough to be socially acceptable to liberals the supply of inventions dries up.

      The liberal alternative to providing an enormous reward to the inventor is to create a Department of Invention and give it the task of creating new technologies.

      The Communist countries tried the “Department of Invention” approach. They got very little that was new but they did invent copies of Western inventions.

      I assume the principle product that a Department of Inventions will invent is excuses. I am sure liberals will assure us that I am wrong and that this time it will be different because we really, really need green inventions.

    30. foxmarks Says:

      Isegoria writes, “What I’m arguing against is the dismissive tone and the notion that no alternative energy source could ever make any sense.”

      Thus, the words at issue in the original post appear to be:
      “In the future, every time someone extols the supposed virtues of “alternative power” just ask them, “Can this system replace a single coal plant that uses 80-year-old technology?”

      The honest answer will always be no. You most likely won’t get an honest answer but it will be interesting to see the expression on their face.”

      The fact- and reason-based arguments are weakly challenged. The answer to Shannon’s question remains, “No.”

      Isegoria must resort to more non-logic in an attempt at a fighting withdrawal from the factual portion of argument, “No, but if I were Europe, and I thought the Russians might turn off the oil and gas spigot at any time — for political or military reasons — and I believed the climate science, then I might be performing a very different calculation.”

      Conjecture, speculation, and still a denial of the essential thermodynamic and economic problems associated with alternative energy.

      In others words, Isegoria says, “Yeah, well you’re right today. But if alternative energy ever becomes something radically different from what we call alternative energy today, it just might work.”

      The tone and attitude of which entirely misses the original mention of feeding banana peels into Mr. Fusion. Shannon’s argument is not about what potential imagined innovation might deliver, but about what today’s ideas (wind and solar) are worth.

    31. JohnTS Says:

      Hmmm. Shannon, excellent article and well stated. Just a couple of real-world facts. Firs, always consider the cost at the POC. Markets will seek the lowest cost and will use the low cost as part of their competitive makeup. Nebraska and Iowa have some very low/reasonable electric rates. And, the have generating capacity that far exceeds their in-state needs. So, Iowa and Nebraska, and several other states, are net exporters of power into the grid. In the past year, two well known heavy power users have built facilities that need low-cost (read coal and nuke) power that is reliable into the long-term. Those heavy power users are Google and Yahoo. Google built a server farm that taps into MidAmerica Energy’s plant in Council Bluffs and Yahoo, went across the Missouri River to Omaha to build its latest server farm. In Google’s case, they will spend upwards of a $1 Billion on their farm, Yahoo’s is smaller but is till in the $75 million range.

      For the “greenies” out there, take a flight out of Denver headed to Chicago and about 20 minutes out, if you look to the nortn you will see miles and miles of red blinking lights. Those lights are atop alternative energy windmills and you will see literally over a thousand blinking lights. If you were to hike out to those windmills, you will see on the ground hundreds of carcass’ of owls, hawks, and eagles, that met their fate by flying into environmental nirvana.

    32. Isegoria Says:

      If Shannon’s argument were purely about what today’s wind and solar are worth, we would have no disagreement. I’ve said that fairly explicitly. You’ll notice the title of the post, which asserts that alternative energy will remain useless. His argument is that because alternative energy cannot replace base-load generators it is and will always remain utterly useless.

      I argued that that is not necessarily the case. An expensive technology that delivered very few kilowatt-hours per dollar could still make economic sense if it delivered those kilowatt-hours during the few peak-demand moments on hot summer days in the southwest. Shannon finds this inconceivable. I don’t. (I have never argued that the current state of solar thermal or PV technology made this economical now or in the near term.)

      The arguments against my point have either been (a) arguments like Shannon’s, that current alternative energy sources are impractical and thus could never become practical, or (b) arguments that attack a caricature of some leftist “green” position.

      Wind costs more than coal! Um, duh?

      Smart meters mean they’ll shut you down when it gets hot! Or they’ll charge $1.00 per kWh on August afternoons, and we won’t need as much peak capacity.

      I know a guy who spent a bundle on PV and got all kinds of government subsidies! Yeah, people do stupid things to feel smug, and politicians pander to that.

      You’re just another leftist with Utopian ideas! Um, no, I’m a right-libertarian who agrees completely with Shannon’s point that these technologies are currently totally impractical — but who also thinks they could play a role if they continue to improve, along with transmission and storage technologies.

      All these wonderful “green” technologies will bring us back to a primitive hunter-gatherer lifestyle! Did I advocate shutting down coal plants? Building no nuclear plants?

      You see! Alternative energy can’t replace a coal plant! It doesn’t have to be usable anywhere and everywhere to be useful somewhere, and a new technology doesn’t have to perfectly mimic an old technology, only better, cheaper, faster. Sometimes the market finds a wonderful new use for a disruptive technology.

      We’ll all be feeding banana peels to Mr. Fusion by then! There’s plenty of time between the near future and the technology-indistinguishable-from-magic future.

      Windmills kill birds! Um, sure.

    33. Anonymous Says:

      All,

      Don’t abandon alternative energy work just because it cannot compete with base generation capacity. Work should continue on them with the caveat that they must be economically feasible for the uses that they are put to. Solar is good for remote areas in certain parts of the country but still has to solve the physics problem of low efficiency over coal. Wind is a bit better but has to face both efficiency and location problems as well as being a danger to wildlife. Both technologies cannot store energy and are at best episodic. Coal/Nuclear/Gas/Water and Geothermal have the advantage of being available continuously without battery technology. That is why they will have to dominate until technology arrives that can continue to make power available when it is needed.

      Perhaps someday (not holding breath for it)

    34. Helian Says:

      I’m not a great fan of alternative energy, but I think you’re short sheeting the molten salt idea, Shannon. When you say,

      “The most effective method, thermal storage in molten salts, has only 20% recovery. That means to get 1 watt back out, you have to put five in. Worse, the storage system is more costly and complex than the alternative generators that produce the energy it stores.”

      the implication is that you need to put in five watts of electricity. That’s not true. The energy is stored in the form of solar heat, not electricity. The efficiency figure claimed by the builders of these systems is more like 30%, not 20%, which is comparable to the equivalent (thermal) efficiency of your 80 year old coal plant. Such a plant would generate electricity using a steam cycle, not photovoltaics. Given current steam turbine and thermal heat transfer efficiencies, 30% seems about right. The manager of Sandia’s Concentrating Solar Power Program claims that such systems can produce electricity for 10 cents per kilowatt hour. The cost of coal power could be comparable depending on how much value you put on carbon-free production. If you don’t care, it’s typically something over half that much.

      In other words, as long as there’s plenty of sunshine during the day, energy around the clock from solar systems is not out of the question. If you have many cloudy days in a row, you still have a problem, but let’s give the devil his due.

    35. Graham Jenkins Says:

      Sol, I don’t know why this seems like a bad thing to you: “Liberals seem to assume that new, green technology will appear simply because we need it or because it is socially desirable for someone to invent it.”

      Are you saying that liberals are particularly pro-market and that it will serve to fill needs as they arise? Cause if that makes me a liberal, then that’s what I am.

      Look at the private space programs and the Ansari X Prizes that have served to jump-start an entire industry. I’m not sure whether you’re suggesting that inventors be expected to invent things without any sort of incentive to look forward to – that would be the entire opposite of a market-based solution.

      Regardless of your take on global warming or what-have-you, can it not be agreed on that reducing airborne pollution is probably a good thing? No one is advocating a shutdown of all coal plants and praying that alternative energies pick up the slack. But if more research is done into these technologies, they will get better. They will get more efficient. And then we can just fold them into our energy portfolio once their development reaches critical mass.

    36. David Smith Says:

      I see that once again, Moore’s law is being mis-applied to solar power, specifically photovoltaics.

      The fundamental problem is with people who confuse bits with atoms. In the computing world, you can make a bit as small as you want as long as it still works. That’s what Moore’s law really does, is make the transistors smaller.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moore%27s_law

      Energy works with atoms. Solar energy is area based. You want the cost per area to decrease. Smaller transistors don’t help at all. The transistors are less expensive but they are smaller.

      In pursuing Moore’s law, the cost for a fixed area of silicon actually goes up because the process keeps getting more complicated.

    37. Bill Waddell Says:

      Isegoria,

      Is “shape consumption to meet demand” greenspeak for “rationing”?

    38. Bill Waddell Says:

      Sorry – I meant “Shape consumption to meet capacity”, which I belive was your phrase

    39. Isegoria Says:

      Yes, Bill, it’s exactly the same kind of rationing that the market performs, day in, day out: price rationing.

      Electricity generation requires high fixed costs to build up capacity, but low variable costs to utilize that capacity. So any use up to that capacity should be relatively cheap, and any use near the margin should be very, very expensive — supply and demand. So, rather than charge, say, $0.10 per kilowatt-hour, regardless of when that kilowatt-hour is consumed, we could charge, say, $0.50 per kilowatt-hour during peak demand — from, say, 2:00 PM to 6:00 PM, June 15 through September 15 — and $0.09 per kilowatt-hour off-peak.

      Dumb meters don’t allow that, but mildly smart ones do. Even smarter meters, networked, could vary the rate in real time to reflect supply and demand more accurately, and smarter appliances could adjust their consumption to take into account price shifts. But, again, we don’t need much “smarts” to charge more during known peak times.

    40. Carl from Chicago Says:

      Ah, Isagoria, now you step into my area.

      You say that you want to charge more for peak power on the grid. Interesting.

      The OLD plan we had in the USA for 100 years was to BUILD CAPACITY TO MEET PEAK DEMAND. Now, the new plan is, PUNISH those that happened to need power during times of peak demand.

      I suppose that you are going to go into the inner city and disconnect those people that need power on hot days. You are now making a value judgment – that the implicit “value” of us NOT burning plentiful and cheap (coal) fossil fuels (which are going to be burnt in China and India, anyways) is worth charging more to poor people during hot (and cold) peak days.

      I actually worked with power companies for years and it is a brutal business to disconnect the poor every year. I hope your wind power is worth it.

    41. Tatyana Says:

      Carl,
      a very small note on a side: why stress “poor people” in your argument?
      Poor, as well as not so poor, as well as not poor at all” we all need airconditioning on a hot day. Do you want start pricing your product according to figure on a bank account of the customer? Why stop at energy, then – charge for bread and milk on a sliding scale, and demand the shoppers to bring an account statement to the grocery shop…

    42. Shannon Love Says:

      Isegoria,

      Everything you say has a grain of truth to it but you’re missing the big picture: It is now the official policy of the Democratic party that wind and solar are to be America’s base load power generation of the next century.

      The amount of money in research dollars, subsidies etc spent on “alternative” power dwarfs that spent on non-alternative power. Even fusion power is getting short shafted. The entire energy policy debate right here, right now is about how much we should be spending on wind and solar so that they can become our near future base load generators. They are quite definitely talking as if solar and wind can right here, right now take over for all CO2 emitting power generators.

      I think its very disingenuous of you to gloss over this fact. We are not in the policy arena today talking about whether we should fund research such that these technologies might someday produce significant amounts power. Right now today, activist are out there shutting down coal and gas plants and blocking construction of new ones based on the premise that solar and wind can replace them.

      More importantly you are simply wrong about their future viability. Without the ability to store the power and move it to where it is needed, when it is need. It is useless. It’s worse than useless because it actively destabilizes the power grid.

      You say that alternative power can help with peek loads but you never explain how that will work or how we will over come the technical challenges that myself and others have pointed out. You just keep repeating that it can like a mantra.

      Frankly, your smarmy, arrogant attitude just pisses me off. This is what energy policy debates have been like in this country since the 70′s. Oh, your just so open minded and thoughtful. “What’s wrong with trying new things?” you whine. “Why can’t people like you just have the courage to try something knew?” “Gosh, Shannon why can’t you just have the imagination, to envision a better world.”

      Well, screw you. “Mayby”, “perhaps”, “eventually”, “someday” are not grounds for public technology policy. You don’t get points for dreaming. It is not more noble, farsighted, intelligent or what ever self-flattering adjective you prefer to advocate for a technology that doesn’t work. It’s just stupid, arrogant and dangerous.

      (It wouldn’t be so bad if you gave any sign of actually understanding any of the technological issues at hand but you can’t even do that. All you seem to do is parrot and chant.)

      It is not even particularly sane to advocate a shiny new technology which cannot compete head-to-head with an 80 year old technology. Really, how useful would a new car be if it couldn’t perform better than a model-T. In the entire history of technology, a less efficient, less mobile, less dense, more expensive technology has ever replaced an existing technology. What makes you think alternative energy will be the one technology that breaks the mold. (by the way, I am a student of technological history so if you want to argue with me on this bring your big guns.)

      Lastly, let us not forget that the only reason we are having this debate is because anti-nuke hysterics have prevented us from using a proven, non-CO2 emitting technology that we have used safely for 70 years now. Those same hysterics are the ones who are pushing alternative energy the hardest.

      If you want to back track and say that all you meant that is alternative energy might be useful more minor task today and that someday it might prove more useful, well fine you’ll get no argument from me. However, that is not the debate we are having in America today. The debate today is how we will design our base load capability and right now half the country from the President on down believe we can replace the functionality of an 80-year old coal plant with alternative power.

      That reality is what I addressed.

    43. Shannon Love Says:

      Isegoria,

      Writing at greentechmedia.com Craig Hunter outlines an argument for why even if solar cells become almost free the current PV panel approach has so many other costs that competitive PV electric power remains a distant prospect.

    44. Isegoria Says:

      I’m sorry, I thought I was on the Chicago Boyz site. I didn’t realize that the audience here felt that artificial price ceilings were clearly superior to charging (closer to) the marginal cost of production.

      (And what does this have to do with wind power? Have I even recommended wind power?)

      The point is that capacity is expensive; the coal plant is expensive, even if the coal is cheap. (This is even more true of current alternative energy sources, of course.) Consuming electricity at peak times should be frowned upon — not for “green” reasons, but for purely economic reasons. Some uses of electricity at peak times are justified — like running the A/C in the old folks’ home — while others are not — like running the washing machine and the dryer, which can wait until sundown.

      If the poor need help, the poor need help. What they don’t need is a lower marginal cost of electricity during peak demand. It’s better to give them $50 than to lower their rate by an amount that would save them $50 at their current consumption. They’ll use it on peak electricity if that’s their best use of the money, or they’ll find cheaper and better ways to stay safe and cool.

    45. TMLutas Says:

      Thinking more about the subject, I now believe that a quick trip to the Wikipedia article on grid energy storage would do all sides a world of good. In short, grid storage has several variants, not just molten salt and several are in use today. As the economics of each of these storage systems improves, the practicality of green energy generation improves. There is no reason not to believe that at some point grid storage will become practical enough that the green dream of clean energy will be possible without deteriorating the reliable grid we all know and love.

      At that point, I expect that the luddites masquerading as greens to finally be unmasked.

    46. Isegoria Says:

      Shannon, everything went haywire when I suggested that a new technology does not have to replace coal plants to be useful. I still stand by that statement. A new energy technology can be useful without being available absolutely anywhere at any time.

      Suddenly that meant I must support every stupid “green” idea on the table — wind power, right now, damn the cost! When I mentioned a “right-wing echo chamber,” I wasn’t complaining about stupid right-wingers; I was asking us, on the right, to stop being so self-congratulatory, just because we can pick holes in the stupidest of the stupid left-wing “green” ideas. Let’s stop assuming that our arguments against bad ideas apply to all new “green” ideas, whether we’ve heard them or not.

      Because I felt you went one small step too far, in declaring alternative energy forever useless, I had the entire Democrat Platform ascribed to me. Thanks, guys.

      Anyway, in much of the country, peak demand corresponds to peak sun and peak A/C use, which is why I felt that solar should have the potential to play a role in places like Arizona and southern California, if (a) it comes down dramatically in price, and (b) we can develop distributed enough sites, connected by a decent grid, with perhaps some modicum of storage. You seem to think that idea is absolutely preposterous — inconceivable. I don’t.

      The more I think about it, the more it seems that just about any unreliable — or insufficiently reliable — alternative energy source can play a role, as long as it’s connected to hydro by a decent grid, since hydro is a time-tested means of storing energy. But I haven’t studied this in great detail — and all the alternative energy sources are still too expensive for this to make sense.

      Should I not share these thought here until the Democrats have been driven out of office?

    47. Carl from Chicago Says:

      Isegoria –

      I have been writing posts on power for this site for years. You are making assumptions about my background and way of looking at power that are not correct.

      In general – since the way the power market is established today is NOT a free market, it doesn’t make sense to selectively apply free market principles.

      For example – due to the NIMBY and Greens’, you basically can’t add base load power that is reliable (not talking wind or solar here) like coal, nuclear and hydro, other than natural gas, whose price is determined by the market cost of natural gas at that particular date. The government gave everyone who HAS generation a “free” monopoly, so to let them charge whatever the market will bear will be ruinous.

      Then most (but not all) of the states “de-regulated” (really regulated differently) by decoupling generation from distribution, and then disabling most of the funding mechanisms to invest in generation and transmission, as well as imposing price caps.

      Those that hold power generation assets, by and large, are NOT entrepreneurs. They inherited or bought assets that had been paid for by rate payers in that particular jurisdiction. The amount of hydro, coal or nuclear assets that were not paid for by rate payers is vanishingly small.

      Thus by implementing pricing other than on a cost basis, you are giving a tremendous windfall to those that own generating assets. Our prior regulatory systems, everywhere, used cost plus principles to avoid this issue.

      Now we also start to look at utilities from a “progressive” impact. For the poor, utilities represent a large portion of their spending. Since everyone pays the same rate, the impact of a rise in power costs falls disproportionately on the poor. If you ever worked at or near a utility you’d know this – they often have to decide between food, medicine, rent and utilities. You may look askance at a rising power bill, but for the poor it is a giant deal.

      Thus by 1) breaking our old regulatory model 2) replacing it with nothing that allows for new investment in “real” base load generation 3) then adding high cost solar and wind power into the mix 4) then using smart meters (also paid for by ratepayers, including the poor) to charge higher rates on hot days – you effectively are having the poor subsidize your dreams for alternative energy.

      This may not be the direct intention of the alternative power owners, but it is the actual impact.

      For my druthers, I’d rather make it easy to add “real” base load generation but since that is DOA in this country the plan B is basically for the government to put in some kind of regulation to ease the burden on the poor.

    48. Bill Waddell Says:

      My concern, from the point of view of my tunnel vision on manufacturing, is that the Obama adminsitration has poured billions of dollars into ‘stimulating’ green – both solar and wind – manufacturing. Many states – Michigan and Arizona are two I am especially familiar with – are adding hundreds of millions of dollars in economic development funds to build and revitalize factories and to create jobs to build everything from windmills to solar panels. And at the federal, state and local level we are pouring billions more into incentives for homeowners to fit out their homes to use these energies.

      But the market is not demanding these things. Fossil fueled energies are still cheaper.

      I would like to know what the assumptions are concerning fossil energy costs and availability. Coal and oil have to reach $X/ton and $Y/bbl in order for these energies to be economically viable. I would like to know what assumptions the federal government has made concerning what X and Y equal, and when they have to equal that, and what the total government spending will be between now and then, and what the plan is if they don’t equal those costs by that date.

      My concern is than tens of thousands of jobs are now dependent on federal subsidies, and either those factories and jobs may soon disappear, or the government subsidies will become an entitlement that no politician will dare to kill, or the greenies are assuming that these energies will be mandated whether they are economically viable or not and the cost will be passed on to the residents and businesses who will have no choice but to use these energies without the subsidies.

    49. Robert Schwartz Says:

      “I think you’re short sheeting the molten salt idea, Shannon.”

      Molten salt only works in concentrating solar projects. Ones where you cover several square miles with mirrors and pipes which are used to heat a working fluid. It is only worthwhile to do this in the desert areas of Southern California, Nevada, and Arizona. However, you need water to cool the working fluid at the end of the cycle. Guess what, water is hard come by in the desert. “whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting” CS will never be a major source of power.

      Second. More generally, wind and solar cannot provide base load, and they cannot provide peak power. If they cannot do either of those, they are not and will not be economically useful. End of story.

      Solar and wind are bright shiny baubles that the idiot savants who run the environmental movement like to use to distract the press and the politicians from the fact that they have pretty much wrecked the economy, and paralyzed us from saving industrial civilization. That is why I say that we will only see progress when the last lawyer is strangled with the intestines of the last environmentalist.

    50. Jonathan Says:

      Isegoria:
      If the poor need help, the poor need help. What they don’t need is a lower marginal cost of electricity during peak demand. It’s better to give them $50 than to lower their rate by an amount that would save them $50 at their current consumption. They’ll use it on peak electricity if that’s their best use of the money, or they’ll find cheaper and better ways to stay safe and cool.

      I agree with Isegoria on this point. How to price electricity and what to do about people who can’t afford electricity are or should be separate issues. It’s like congestion pricing for roads. Marginal-cost pricing (charging more during high-demand periods) of electrical power doesn’t punish anyone: it encourages demand-shifting by people who can afford to while allowing people who must have power now to get it at a price. Demand-shifting leads to higher efficiency overall. If we as taxpayers want to subsidize people who can’t afford power we can do that separately, without confusing the issue by bundling our pricing and subsidies schemes.

    51. Jonathan Says:

      Natural-gas prices are currently at moderate levels and have been declining, but that isn’t always the case. Here’s a monthly chart of natural-gas futures prices:
       

       

    52. Helian Says:

      “Molten salt only works in concentrating solar projects. Ones where you cover several square miles with mirrors and pipes which are used to heat a working fluid. It is only worthwhile to do this in the desert areas of Southern California, Nevada, and Arizona. However, you need water to cool the working fluid at the end of the cycle. Guess what, water is hard come by in the desert. “whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting” CS will never be a major source of power.”

      I’m no defender of solar power. Among other things, you would have to cover tens of thousands of square kilometers of fragile desert environment with solar collectors to replace a significant fraction of our current generating capacity. Seems like a bad idea to me. I was merely pointing out that what Shannon said about molten salt technology wasn’t entirely accurate. If you want to rationally debate the energy issue, you have to get the facts straight. As for water in the desert, it’s certainly an issue for solar collector plants, but, the problem can be greatly alleviated with dry cooling if you’re willing to take the additional hit to cost and efficiency. Again, I’m not a solar advocate. I just think that, if you’re making comparisons, all the facts should be on the table.

      Every technology has its drawbacks when it comes to producing electricity. With coal the problems only begin with greenhouse gas emissions. The particulates they release also kill some unknown but large number of people every year. Then there’s the matter of the radioactive hazard they pose. See, for example,

      http://www.ornl.gov/info/ornlreview/rev26-34/text/colmain.html

      They spew uranium and thorium into the air, and concentrate radioactivity in the ash. Uranium and thorium are alpha emitters. In other words, their radiation comes primarily in the form of energetic helium nuclei. These dump their energy in any physical object they encounter over a very short distance. For that reason, they can’t penetrate your skin. For that reason, too, they are extremely potent carcinogens if you happen to breath them in and they dump that same energy in your lung tissue. When it comes to radioactive hazard, I’d much rather have a nuclear plant in my neighborhood than a coal plant. That’s just one more think you need to take into account when you’re adding up the “cost” of electricity from 80 year old coal plants.

    53. Isegoria Says:

      Carl, I’m not sure what assumptions you think I’m making about your background. If my attempt to spell out my economic logic, step by step, seemed condescending or seemed to imply that you wouldn’t understand, I apologize; that was not my intention. Further, I don’t think I disagree with anything you added. Yes, the industry is a regulated monopoly, and there’s no quick and easy way to change that; half-measures to deregulate can give us the worst of regulation and the worst of markets. Restrictions on new plants meet short-sighted NIMBY goals, but put increasing pressure on the existing infrastructure. Etc.

      I stand by my point though that the marginal cost of a kilowatt-hour is much, much higher at peak-demand, and with just the slightest bit of “smarts” in the meters — enough to tell when electricity is consumed — we can charge higher rates during known peak times and thus shape consumption to better match capacity.

      This does not have to involve a tremendous transfer from the poor to the coal plants, if we just design the new rate scheme to be revenue neutral: for a fixed fee of $N, the plants can charge $M/kWh during well-defined peak hours. We can then use that $N fee to subtract $n from every low-income household’s bill, if that’s what we want to do.

    54. Carl from Chicago Says:

      As for the impact on alternative energy and the poor, that is something I will take up in a later post and probably be pretty unpopular here on Chicago Boyz. I will stand by the fact that the dismantling of our working (but flawed) former system and its replacement with effectively nothing that will work in the long term (it works in the intermediate term while you live off former investment; at some point that fades away and you are left with cold reality) will severely impact the poor.

      The utility industry and the poor have a long and complex relationship. It is worth looking at in detail.

      To let current generators who have come to their assets paid for by ratepayers earn a king’s ransom for adding no value is about as fair as letting the Russian oligarchs earn millions from privatizing state assets that they have acquired through whatever means.

    55. Tatyana Says:

      Carl: Russian oligarchs have high fatality rate…all in all, I find it fair enough.

      Isegoria: I want to thank you for “spelling out your economic logic step-by step”: tremendously helpful and well-argued. I added your blog to my roll, if you don’t mind.

    56. NedLudd Says:

      On demand. I know that DTE Energy in MI already has several programs for alternative energy and managing demand. My own house has two meters. One is for my air conditioning and I agree that DTE can turn it off periodically at peak times. Not a smart meter but it works fine. They also have A Green Currents and Solar Currents programs that use various incentives that use various incentive and trades to encourage alternative energy use. Participation as I understand it from an almost year old local NPR program is meager. Without a technical definition of a “Smart Grid” it is impossible to determine its benefits. I reserve any judgment until better info is available.

      On Solar. When I discussed employment with Solar Energy Systems many years ago, there plans for solar were much more modest than today’s advocates. They only saw a presence for solar in niche markets. Such things as remote locations in specific environments and stand alone things like the electric road work signs you may see or as a small supplement to a building or home. Thin film photovoltaics have made great progress since then. Dow Chemical is even making solar shingles to reduce the cost of installation. Physics is still a cruel master and despite all the advances, efficiencies are still in the neighborhood of 12%.

      On Wind. In MI, there are only two realistic places to put wind turbine. In the thumb and the top of the mitten. The Detroit Free Press reported in an extended feature last year the problems it is causing among the residents in those areas who are complaining about the noise.

      Both these technologies have the limitation of working intermittently and not having a sufficiently robust storage capacity, i.e. batteries. Companies like energy conversion devices have been working for over 4 decades on these technologies with progress but not on the scale for general power use.

      Other technologies such as plasma gasification, cogeneration and biohydrogen are worth trying to do, but only if it makes economic sense compared with other, existing technologies. If the political system attempts to tilt power generation to technologies for anything other than safety, efficiency, reliability and capacity , we will be in for some serious and possibly deleterious social effects. Both parties love social engineering. Economics should trump that.

      I single nuclear power out for special consideration. Many nuke plants will have to be retired soon and that will put a serious strain on our ability to provide adequate base generation capacity. We need to face as a nation the decision to add to these plants or to replace them. Both waste disposal and safety are going to be much stronger determinants of the future of this industry. Instead of worrying about 3 Mile Island (which was small) and Chernobyl (only one reactor was like that in the US at Hanford and is retired), we need to seriously decide to build the expertise to manage nuclear power or we will lose the ability to do so. If you really want to be scared, find the now out of print book “We Almost Lost Detroit” about the Fermi reactor in Monroe, MI.

    57. Robert Schwartz Says:

      Helian: Dry cooling (air cooling) just doesn’t work as well thermodynamically or economically as wet cooling. It can’t. Heat storage schemes must involve a loss of energy from the initial collection. Between that loss and air cooling’s inefficiency, economically marginal goes to white elephant. Heat storage would only be viable if you can find a desert close to the ocean, e.g. South Australia, Peru, Namibia. Even then you would have to deal with costs beyond the normal like salt water and transmission to civilization.

      NedLudd: (How aptly named!) “High level nuclear waste” or what is more correctly called used fuel rods is not a real problem. They must be removed from the light water reactors that use them because their solid oxide fuel elements have deteriorated, but they still contain 95% of their original energy value. The only rational thing to do is to recycle them, which is what the French, British and Japanese do. American policy was established by Jimmy Carter. ’nuff said.

    58. Tatyana Says:

      Robert: “desert close to ocean, e.g. South Australia, Peru, Namibia”

      Or Israel.

    59. Robert Schwartz Says:

      Tatanya: Right you are, and Saudi Arabia too. But Israel has more interesting possibilities, for instance, using water from the Gulf of Eilat they could generate hydro power by letting it flow into the now almost dry Dead Sea basin. Undoubtedly, they would have to co-operate with Jordan on a project like that, but it could pay dividends for both countries.

    60. NedLudd Says:

      Robert, I understand what high level nuclear waste is. I also understand that it is a proven fact that other components of nuclear waste (coolants, piping and structural members) are of a concern. Coolants can be glassified as they do in France but structural members and piping are actually physically weakened over the course of their exposure to radiation to the point they can no longer perform their required job. These have to be disposed of. We have no disposal plan for any of these components. It is not as simple as recycling fuel rods.

      When a nuclear plant has many of the same components exposed to similar doses of radiation for the same periods of time, engineering requirements imply a very large number of replacements of parts or just retiring the entire facility. The real question I was putting forth is twofold. Do we have the political will to replace these facilities and do we have the technical expertise to do so.

      I would support replacement at an appropriate scale. So much for the sock looms.

    61. Alan K. Henderson Says:

      If you were to hike out to those windmills, you will see on the ground hundreds of carcass’ of owls, hawks, and eagles, that met their fate by flying into environmental nirvana.

      Free poultry! I gotta get a house in a windmill flight path.

    62. Robert Schwartz Says:

      Alan:

      And they say it is an ill-wind that blows no good.

    63. Kate Says:

      An even better essay on the problems with alternative. They all start with the need to overturn the limitations imposed by this simple equation:

      E = mc2

      http://www.energytribune.com/articles.cfm?aid=2469

      “A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of hearing William Tucker speak at a conference in Washington, DC. His explanation of E = mc2 was the best I had ever heard. Even better, Tucker explained how Einstein’s equation applied to renewable energy sources like wind, solar, and hydro. His lecture was a revelation. It showed that the limits of renewable energy have nothing to do with politics or research dollars, but rather with simple mathematics. During a later exchange of emails with Tucker, I praised his lecture and suggested he write an article that explained E = mc2 and its corollary, E = mv2.”

    64. foxmarks Says:

      Technological speculations are red herrings. Although interesting, they do not address the original conclusion that what we now call “alternative energy” cannot replace base load power. (“Can this system replace a single coal plant that uses 80-year-old technology?”)

      The crux of the original argument is: “The non-alternative power system will have to remain online at full potential capacity to be able to step in and compensate for alternative power’s inability to provide power reliably at POC.”

      All I see is Isegoria saying there are “alternative” ways to add some small fraction of power to the grid at some lower reliability. By doing so, and by an improved pricing scheme, the peak demand for reliable “non-alternative” power will probably grow more slowly.

      Is slowing the growth of non-alternative power generation the best use of resources?

      Is the U.S. over-investing (due to subsidy) in technologies that promise, at best, to slow the growth of traditional power generation?

      The subsidy that goes to windfarms and PV installations could instead be given to those who cannot afford enough power. Maybe that’s a better way to spend borrowed dollars?

    65. Junk Science Skeptic Says:

      The simple truth with most alternative energy sources is that they won’t scale up to commercial production levels. Many of the comments made already have explained the incompatibilities between alternative sources and the grid in fairly exhaustive detail.

      Back in the seventies, billions in tax subsidies were dumped into “trash to energy” projects that worked fine in the laboratory at a small scale. Without exception, however, not one of these projects succeeded in scaling up to the point of a working demonstration plant. One specific demo plant example, personally verified, ran for the sum total of five days before being shut down as a failure. Thirty years later, what have the best and brightest minds in academia, government and business determined is the best way to extract energy from trash? . . . If you guessed the millennia-old practice of burying the garbage, and the century-old process of tapping wells into the ground to recover natural gas (produced by the landfill), then you were correct.

      A few years back, when Boone Pickens tried to use a wind-farm plans to gain eminent domain authority that would minimize the cost of getting his water sources in North Texas and beyond to customers in the Dallas-Fort Worth market, he never planned to make a dime selling electricity. Why then would a clearly smart energy guy get involved in wind energy (apart from that little eminent domain issue)? . . . Again, look to the past. Wind energy has been used for centuries to pump water, not through any commercial electrical grid, but rather, by having the windmill and the well in immediate proximity to each other, and most importantly not relying on the windmill to operate continuously. In the case of collecting water, a tank is used to store enough water to cover the periods on no wind, and in the case of removing water from lowlands, enough pumping capacity is used to prevent flooding. As explained by other comments, what works for water does not work for electricity.

      Pickens could use wind-generated electricity when the wind was available to run his pumps, and rely on water storage (not electric storage) capacity when the wind wasn’t blowing. Again, centuries old technology that works at its intended scale, but is totally incompatible with a commercial electric grid.

      A solar powered attic fan is one example of effectively using solar power, a commercial solar panel farm is not.

      Conversely, it’s not very practical for me to set up a nuclear reactor in my back yard.

      Theoretical possibility does not equate to real-world scale.

    66. mal Says:

      Your article is posted on free republic.

      http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-bloggers/2465537/posts

      Here is one commentator

      “An obsolete coal plant using 80-year-old technology can provide power where and when you need it. It can be positioned almost anywhere from the equator to the tundra. (It will even work aboard ships.)

      Sorry, but that is bullsh*t. Maybe not in the US, but in 3rd world socialist countries where coal plants are about as reliable as wind turbines. You need a functioning railroad network also to deliver the coal in time.

      Let me emphasize this: In order to replace the functionality of a single 80-year-old coal plant anywhere in North America, you have to build a continent-spanning power grid that can efficiently and reliably transfer power from any single location in North America to any other location. The entire grid has to extend everywhere and work all of the time or it has no hope of providing power where and when you need it.

      The point is: In the US this railroad network exists, but if you start from scratch, the economies look different.

      I’m not saying that alternative energy is cost-competitive and a useful one-for-one replacement for conventional power plants. Certainly not.

      What I’m saying is that the author of the article doesn’t understand economics. Everything can be done. At a price. Of course you can couple a wind turbine to an electrolyzer and a couple of fuel cells and back it up with biogas. That works 24/7. But it’s stunningly expensive.

      Also a statement like The honest answer will always be no is pseudo-religious. It’s an article of faith and not an analysis of economics.

    67. foxmarks Says:

      The railroad network that delivers coal to the US plants was built with coal energy.

      If you start from scratch, with no rail and no power lines, alternative energy isn’t going to pull you out of poverty any faster. What will you use as transport fuel? Windmills? Will you make steel for power pylons with solar-fueled steel mills?

    68. David Foster Says:

      Coal plants do not always depend on an extensive railroad network:

      1)Coal can be transported to the plant by river barge, in places where the geography makes this feasible.

      2)Alternatively, the power plant can be located in a coal-mining area (with short railroad lines to bring to coal from mine to furnace) and the *power* transmitted long distances via HVDC lines.

      But it is true that “alternative energy” will be more attractive in companies without an existant grid. Absent heavy subsidies, solar power is more likely to play a significant role in, say, rural India than in the U.S.

    69. Anonymous Says:

      > Hydropower has nowhere near the problems, the river is almost always running, very rarely does it dry up.

      And even when it does, it does so on a very predictable schedule.

      > And this isnt the Field of Dreams, if you build it private companies may not decide to build their multi million dollar factories in the desert of NM.

      Esp. not when the Greens are going to give them endless crap about interfering with the unique habitat of the spotted lounge lizard and the gecko running bird…

    70. O Bloody Hell Says:

      > I’m no defender of solar power. Among other things, you would have to cover tens of thousands of square kilometers of fragile desert environment with solar collectors to replace a significant fraction of our current generating capacity.

      Some months back, I did a back of the envelope calculation for this, based on the solar constant (Approximately 1kW/sq-m), and some very generous assumptions (50% conversion efficiency, 12hrs/day sunlight, etc.) The figure I came up with to “replace” the US power grid’s current capacity is roughly 5 GIGA square meters. Actual stats are more likely 25% efficiency and 6 hrs effective sunlight per day (Solar insolation for major cities here) — so x4=20Gsqm just on realistic numbers for those two factors alone.

      So: 5 GIGA square meters — How big is that? About 4/5ths the surface area of the entire STATE of Delaware (>3 Delawares by the likely figures, as opposed to the “generous” ones). A small state, I grant, but still — a frickin’ state!!

      What? you only want to manage 25% of current cap as solar? Ah, so covering a FIFTH of a state with little-blue-cells/mirrors/whatever is OK with you? Green enough? Let’s not forget the concrete and steel infrastructure to hold all that, eh?. And the people involved in keeping them clean (not unimportant), which, by the way, reminds me — what is the #2 cause of accidental death in the USA? Can you say “falls”? Think that might be relevant to all this panel/mirror cleaning that needs to be done?

      “Green” AND “Safe” power. Ooooh, doggy, gotta get me some o’ that!

      If you want to look over my reasoning:

      Solar Power: Flat-Out Wrong For All Time

      This is independent of Shannon’s considerations, I’m just showing that solar is simply too diffuse to be a fraction as “clean and green” as it’s sold to be, that the areal coverage to derive a substantial modern power grid from it — either in solar cells or solar thermal mirrors — is just flat out preposterously HUGE.

      The solar constant — the maximum solar energy that makes it to the surface of the earth — is just not that big a number, and it CAN’T be futzed with. There is no engineering trick, no inventive genius possible that allows you to get more than roughly 1 kW per square meter. That number is a law of physics no less immutable than the law of gravity… except one might be able to theoretically futz with the law of gravity, that is.

    71. vanderleun Says:

      This article has won this week’s award at Watcher of Weasels. Congratulations.

      http://www.watcherofweasels.org/public-sector-uselessness/

    72. NedLudd Says:

      O Bloody Hell – As I have said before in this post, Efficiency of Solar is closer to 10% not 25%. That changesd your back of the envelope calculations. Also, the distribution of sun in the US is definitely not a normal distribution across the country (just go to Seattle). That will change your calculations dramatically downwards.

      Again, the power is episodic. When night comes and you need lights and heat, what do you do? Storage of energy is only practical for hydro now.