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  • Disaster Resistant Energy Sources

    Posted by Shannon Love on November 10th, 2008 (All posts by )

    I was reading about the new Hyperion mini-nuke power generator [h/t Instapundit] and as I read through the possible uses, it occurred to me that such generators would be very useful things to have in the event of almost any natural or manmade disaster. This in turn led me to think about how “alternative” electricity sources, i.e., wind and solar  would fare under disaster conditions. 

    We all should think hard about this before we put all our energy eggs in the fragile alternative basket. 

    The Achilles heel of alternative sources is their inherent unreliability. Wind and solar produce electricity on mother nature’s schedule and under nature’s conditions. Since we cannot store the power they generate, this unreliability alone makes them largely useless for providing a significant percentage of our power needs. Even when they do crank out the power, they do so only under ideal conditions. Even normal extremes of wind, rain, snow, sandstorms, etc. routinely take such systems offline. Since they harvest energy from natural forces, their physical infrastructure must be exposed to those forces for them to work. When those forces become extreme, that infrastructure will take damage. Clearly, major disasters like hurricanes, massive blizzards, earthquakes, etc. would make them completely useless for extended periods. 

    The marketing imagery for solar and wind power always shows the systems generating power on clear, sunny days. They don’t show them operating at midnight in a blizzard. Yet, a realistic power source must be able to do just that. It must be able to generate power in freakish and unpredictable circumstances. The marketing also implies that solar and wind power work in a decentralized manner, but in order for them to produce serious power, such as that needed to heat a northern home in the winter, they need a lot of room and that means that the power generation must be far from its consumption point. If some disaster occurs, people won’t have local power when the power grid goes down. 

    Since most leftists today advocate using alternative sources as the primary energy sources for the entire planet, we should also think about the effects that planet-wide changes and disasters could have on them. 

    If global warming does turn out to have the kind of extreme effects that many of its proponents claim, alternative sources would fare worse than they do now. Increased humidity would lead to more rainy days, cutting the efficiency of solar panels. Increased violent weather would knock wind and solar offline. One of the nightmare global warming scenarios has the oceanic conveyor system shutting down, which would block the transport of heat from the equator to the northern latitudes. In this scenario, global warming would make the northern latitudes colder and snowfall heavier. So, at a time when they would need more power for heat, they would experience weather that would disrupt their energy generation! 

    We also need to plan for more freakish events such as volcanic winter. In April of 1815, the volcano of Mount Tambora, exploded in the largest eruption seen in 1,600 years. It triggered a world wide plunge in temperature, creating the “Year Without a Summer” in 1816. Imagine such an event in the future with everyone dependent on an energy grid that goes offline in bad weather!

    Mini-nukes such as the Hyperion system represent the near perfect disaster energy source. First, such systems are completely insensitive to weather. They operate day or night, in any extreme from the Antarctic to the Equator, from the bottom of the ocean to outer space. Their small size means they don’t even require an extensive power grid. Individual buildings or neighborhoods could have their own reactors providing heat and power over very robust short transmission systems such as underground wires and pipes.  The Hyperion system is small enough that it would not be damaged by an earthquake. At the worst, you would just need to tap new cables into it. 

    People in the developing world would benefit the most from this technology. Simply providing a reactor that could provide clean drinking water in almost any extremity would be a massive humanitarian boon. Insulating them from price shocks of fossil fuels would be even better, long term. 

    Mini-nukes would also provide power in the case of some future planet-spanning war. Check out the science fiction section of your local book store for possible scenarios. Having a reactor in the basement that produces electricity for five years would be a big bonus in case of a zombie outbreak (or a more prosaic biological or nuclear war). 

    A lot of advocates of alternative energy seem to work from an unconscious conception that energy is to some degree a luxury good. They believe that we can live just as safe, healthy and well without it. Working from this conception, they plan in a cavalier manner, assuming that conditions will always be ideal and predictable, and if not, well, we can do without luxuries if we have to.

    In reality, energy is the heart of our lives. Without it most of us will die with days. Losing 50% of our energy during a northeastern blizzard would kill millions. Sustained shortages of energy would kill more slowly but just as surely as we reverted back to the horrific lives of our ancestors. We need to think about rare scenarios because we are so dependent on energy that it would take only the occurrence of one such scenario to destroy everything.

    People who advocate alternative energy need to tear their eyes away from the marketing brochures and instead try think hard about how to keep an old woman in the slums of Detroit warm in the heart of a once-in-50-years blizzard. If they can’t do that, they need to shelve their plans. 

     

    21 Responses to “Disaster Resistant Energy Sources”

    1. Lexington Green Says:

      “People who advocate alternative energy need to tear their eyes away from the marketing brochures and instead try think hard about how to keep an old woman in the slums of Detroit warm in the heart of a once-in-50-years blizzard. If they can’t do that, they need to shelve their plans.”

      Wrong. When the old lady dies, the politicians win. They can blame private greed for the deaths and regulate it and politicize it more.

      “They believe that we can live just as safe, healthy and well without it. Working from this conception, they plan in a cavalier manner …”

      Wrong. They know we will be poorer, and live harder, less safe lives. That is a feature. Creating scarcity and the ensuing hardship leads to calls for more rationing, more equity, scapegoating, and more government power. Making people equal by making all but the politically connected elite miserable is a goal, not an accident.

      Eastern Europe and Soviet Russia were squalid wastelands because the government wanted them to be that way. The steps that would need to be taken to ameliorate those conditions were not power enhancing for the Party and hence were not even on the table.

      The obvious fact that so-called alternative energy sources are toy-like distractions is also a feature. They are meant to distract from attempting a real solution while it is still possible.

    2. sol vason Says:

      Solar don’t work after sunset. Bad for Alaska. Too bad.

      Winds die down after dark. Have to eat early. No TV after dark.

      Need to invent environmentally safe battery. No harmful metals, gasses or cancerous plastics. Until then, Ban batteries.

      Raise carbon tax high enough to force users to shut down.

      A clean environment is a happy environment.

      Until alternate power arrives, we just have to do as the Chinese president advises: Scale back our consumption.

      Soon everyday will be a holiday and we can name them after the Change Bringer. Obama Day.

      Obama should appoint an Invention Czar who will invent these things we need. Real quick.

    3. Ginny Says:

      Well, cynicism reigns at Chicagoboyz. These are my fears, too; still, I have confidence we’ll rebel first. Take away my air conditioning and you’re going to have a real bitch to deal with.

      I love the thought of those mini-reactors – so much, I made each class this morning read a short description while I took roll. (A lot of their papers argue for opening ANWR or drilling off shore.) Optimism about their futures is good to encourage.

      Why is it impossible to find a way to store solar? Not now, maybe, not in five years. Not better or cheaper now than drilling nor than these mini-reactors. I’m not saying don’t look at those, but why not look at solar as well?

    4. Dan Says:

      Ginny
      I believe there was a comment here about a month ago regarding storing solar electricity in some sort of salt. Do you know anything about that?

    5. jsb Says:

      “‘alternative’ electricity sources”

      Just semantics but why can’t we begin lumping nuclear in with the phrase “alternative energy”? Windmills are thought to have been in existence as far back as 200 B.C. Nuclear still only produces 20% of our electricity, so I’d consider it just as alternative as wind and solar.

      As for Dan’s comment about salt, see:

      http://cleantechnica.com/2008/06/29/molten-salt-may-be-solution-to-solar-energy-storage/

    6. david foster Says:

      Molten salt looks interesting…seems like it will be able to store energy overnight, but not clear that it will be able to store it for, say, a 5-day spell of snowy or overcast weather. Also, solar-thermal plants (the kind that can use molten salt for storage) will be capital-intensive and will use a lot of land. This means that they will usually require long transmission lines, which environmentalists and others with axes to grind will fight on a mile-by-mile basis.

      There has also been some work done on compressed air storage for wind power. Here’s a blog entry by a GE researcher who is working on this. Again, it’s not clear how long it will be feasible/economical to provides storage for.

      I think what is most likely to happen is that natural gas will become even more dominant than it is now as the source of electricity…and this, together with growing uses for transporation and heating, will drive the prices up.

    7. Isegoria Says:

      I believe there was a comment here about a month ago regarding storing solar electricity in some sort of salt.

      As David Foster pointed out, it is solar thermal that can take advantage of molten salts to store energy, because that energy is simple heat, something we know how to store quite cheaply and efficiently. Compare a thermos to a battery.

      Solar thermal plants use mirrors to concentrate the sun’s rays from a large land area onto a tiny spot, where the heat can be used to turn water to steam, to turn a turbine, to generate electricity.

      This is in contrast to what most people consider “real” solar panels, or photovoltaics, which turn solar radiation into electricity more directly.

    8. david foster Says:

      Solar thermal actually provides an interesting example of a problem with Obama’s proposal for a big “green jobs” training program. Hooking up the boilers for a solar-thermal plant to the turbines certainly requires skilled welders; however, I doubt that the skills required a significantly different from those involved in hooking up coal-fired or gas-fired boilers to a turbine.

      The whole idea that there is a unique set of “green-job skills” seems to me highly questionable..but I’m sure it could be very profitable to a whole set of political entrepreneurs.

    9. Phil Fraering Says:

      Ginny wrote: Why is it impossible to find a way to store solar? Not now, maybe, not in five years. Not better or cheaper now than drilling nor than these mini-reactors. I’m not saying don’t look at those, but why not look at solar as well?

      I suspect it’s kinda like how the Soviet Union never made any breakthrough substitutes for wheat no matter how much energy they spent denouncing kulacks.

    10. Shannon Love Says:

      Ginny,

      Why is it impossible to find a way to store solar? Not now, maybe, not in five years. Not better or cheaper now than drilling nor than these mini-reactors. I’m not saying don’t look at those, but why not look at solar as well?

      It’s not impossible its just that the laws of physics make it unlikely we’ll get anything with the power density and flexibility of fossil fuels much less nuclear. You’ve got to jump through a lot of hoops to end up with just a hypothetical system.

      Thermal solar gives you a mediocre plant that only operates in a narrow geographical region and only under certain weather conditions. It certainly won’t work in Michigan in the winter.

    11. Robert Schwartz Says:

      I figure that with the White House and the Congress under Donk control, there is absolutely no chance of any large scale generation projects for the next four years.

      Will we hit rolling blackouts during this time?

      How much will all those home diesel units cost? and how much fuel will they use? How far will they set us back on air pollution and C02?

    12. Les and Jane Oke Says:

      Hello,
      If we all wait for politicians to help us we will be in for a long cold winter.
      Our family speaks from experience too, we have lived off the grid for over 15 years now. We started off with nothing, and I mean nothing, a small down payment on a bush lot in the middle of Northern Ontario.
      And we built our own house from trees on the property, and built our own renewable energy system, building our own wind generator and solar panels too.
      Someone mentioned the 50 year old woman in Detroit who will be cold this winter.
      We have helped many such people formulate plans, and make a better life for themselves, all it takes is some initiative and a plan.
      Want a better life, stop bitching about the government( we used to as well), and do something about it for your own family.

      That is where real change happens, not at the industrial or government level, but at the family level. One family, one voice creating a pattern of change for others to follow.
      Not one person comes to our home without a better grasp on changing the things that they can change.
      The fastest way to start, find a piece of property where you can control your own destiny instead of leaving it in the hands of bureaucrats and industry, build a wind generator, if you need help just give me a shout,
      Use the contact form on our website, we will help you. And if that 50 year old woman in Detroit is listening, she can have all of the information resources we have put together for the past 15 years to make a change in her life.
      But, you have to provide the initiative.
      For more info
      http://www.homemade-wind-generator.com

      All the best,
      Les and Jane

    13. Les and Jane Oke Says:

      By the way, we really like your blog, controversial yes, but we bookmarked it on 3 sites,
      All the best,
      Les and Jane
      PS, would you really rather live next door to a nuclear power plant or a wind farm?

    14. Les and Jane Oke Says:

      Sorry, only one more comment, we promise. Missed this point the first time.
      Our power has never gone out in 15 years, never. We have developed a system that works in blizzards, when the sun isn’t shining and even at night.
      If the sun isn’t shining then the wind is surely blowing, and water runs 24/7 producing power for our home.
      In contrast, our local neighbors have had their power go out for extended periods of time, over 20 times in the same period.
      But they are learning, 16 wind generators and 23 solar panel installations locally in the past 8 years, yes one family can make a difference.

      The marketing hype is just that, hype caused by people who don’t really understand renewable energy, just want to sell a book. Make sure you are dealing with an expert , not just a copy cat copyright thief, who reads a book, rewrites it and publishes it as their own.

      Want real security, you have to provide it for yourself. And it works in the city too.

      All the best,
      Les and Jane

    15. Shannon Love Says:

      Les and Jane Oaks,

      Want real security, you have to provide it for yourself. And it works in the city too.

      I commend your independent spirit but your self-reliant life style simply isn’t a realistic solution for the vast majority of people. There simply isn’t enough land for everyone to make do in the country. People in the city cannot harvest energy from the environment because the population is two dense. For example, if you covered every hard surface in New York city, including roads with solar panels, you could harvest only about 40% of the power the city needs. In the real world, you can’t even get close.

      More importantly, your family might be well protected against emergencies but you still rely on the broader planetary economy for critical supplies. I doubt you manufacture your own solar cells, windmill gears, smelt your own aluminum or manufacture your own antibiotics. Long term you need the vast industrial system that relies on abundant, reliable energy. If the plant that manufactures your photovoltaic cells was itself powered by solar power, you wouldn’t be able to afford them. The same holds true for all other manufacturing.

      Powering houses is trivial. Powering factories and transportations systems over the entire planet is a problem of a much larger magnitude.

      If the sun isn’t shining then the wind is surely blowing, and water runs 24/7 producing power for our home.

      There are only a few locations (relative to the size of the entire country) where you can use a low-head water generator. Even then, droughts can take them offline. I saw that happen back in the 70′s when Texas suffered a massive 7 year long drought. Not even giant hydroelectric systems can produce power reliably due to variation in rainfall.

      Energy sources are like breathing. You can live for years breathing fine but if a freak event shuts off your breathing for just a few minutes you’re dead. Natural source energy systems run the same risk. It might be a very rare event that all your energy sources get knocked offline at the same time but when it does happen (and if it happened for everybody) the effects would be disastrous.

    16. Al Fin Says:

      You get only 6 hours of useful sunlight in an average day. If you construct a large power plant, you have to build it 4 times as large as otherwise necessary, build backup power and storage to compensate for sunless days, sometimes sunless weeks. Likewise for wind, which is only practical in particular locations.

      Unless humans want to go with the dieoff.org crowd (and Pelosi, Boxer, Salazar,etc), and eliminate at least 90% of their populations worldwide, nuclear power is a vital bridge between here and truly renewable energy (enhanced geothermal, solar with utility scale storage, large-scale bioenergy).

    17. Shannon Love Says:

      Al Fin,

      …nuclear power is a vital bridge between here and truly renewable energy (enhanced geothermal, solar with utility scale storage, large-scale bioenergy).

      I don’t think it will be a bridge. I think that if we develop nuclear we’ll abandon other sources altogether. In the history of technology, energy technology progress down a gradient of increasing power density and availability. Why jump through massive hoops for “renewable” (read fixed and restricted) when you can get the more power when and where you want it for less investment in resources?

    18. model_1066 Says:

      Although it is an obvious solution, it may not be the most efficient, and is in use in at least one country I can think of (Switzerland, but don’t quote me on that): excess solar and wind energy can be used to power pumps that move water uphill into a dam: the stored energy is the gravitational potential of said water. Simple

    19. Shannon Love Says:

      Model_1066,

      The method you describe is called gravity storage and it maxes out at 20% recovery i.e. for every hundred watts you put in, you get 20 watts back. In order to make this a viable system you first have to generate extra electricity to store overnight and for extended periods. So you have to start out with 3 to 4 times as much energy as eventually consume. Then you need to quintuple that to account for loses in storage.

      So, to get 100 kilowatts out of the system reliably you would need to put in something like 2000 kilowatts into it. Oh, and since this system only works in specific locations you have to figure in up to 50% losses in transmission. So make that more like 4,000 kilowatts in to get 100 kilowatts to the consumer.

      It won’t work.

    20. John S Says:

      Although it is an obvious solution, it may not be the most efficient, and is in use in at least one country I can think of (Switzerland, but don’t quote me on that): excess solar and wind energy can be used to power pumps that move water uphill into a dam: the stored energy is the gravitational potential of said water. Simple

      Not in a desert. Gotta have water in the first place to move.

    21. Obloodyhell Says:

      > A lot of advocates of alternative energy seem to work from an unconscious conception that energy is to some degree a luxury good.

      True, but the most vocal advocates view humanity as a parasite, and believe that there should be far, far fewer humans. The events required in getting from here to there isn’t something they discuss loudly in public.