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Sustainable Society:  A society that balances the environment, other life forms, and human interactions over an indefinite time period.

 

 

 

 

 


 

The False Promises of Wind Energy

Michael Fox, Ph.D.*
May 10, 2005

Hidden Costs
Poor Performance
The Need for a Backup Energy System
System Unreliability
Reader’s Comments
[discussion]

 

That windmills retain a mystical popularity among its Northwest supporters, is truly a triumph of hope over substance, not to mention unawareness of hidden costs and poor performance data. There is a huge amount of information now available regarding wind energy from around the United States and Europe. It’s not good news. It is past time that Northwest energy agencies, utilities, and elected officials use the data before building anymore of them and ripping off the rate payers. Reasonable people of the Northwest expect energy agencies to learn these lessons from around the world, just as they expect them to provide low cost reliable electrical energy.

Hundreds of windmills now stand over the formerly beautiful Palouse landscape of Southeastern Washington. Further, a company named Zilkha Renewable Energy is proposing a new wind farm in the Ellensburg area. In this case the proposed wind farm will have an installed capacity of 180 MW.

Hidden Costs

Part of the energy debate must include the large and hidden costs of such windmills, not mentioned on the Zilkha website. A major reason why windmills are being built around the US is because of the huge tax breaks, subsidies, and tax credits now available to the owners. For example, let’s assume the construction costs of the Zilkha 180 MW wind farm will be $180 million. The first two years of depreciation will be about $108,000,000, or about 60% of the total value! At an assumed taxation rate of 35% they will avoid the payment of $37.8 million during this time!! We taxpayers are stuck with this bill! The entire $180 million project can be depreciated in about 6 years!!

Furthermore, Zilkha will get a federal tax credit of $ 0.018 for each kw-hr produced! This tax credit will allow Zilkha to deduct another estimated $9 million ($.018/kwh x 473,040,000 kwh/yr) from it annual tax liability for the next 10 years.

Furthermore, in Washington State, according to the report on Zilkha by expert Glenn Schleede, wind farm owners are exempt from paying any sales or use tax on equipment used to generate electricity from the wind. This also includes charges for labor and services used during construction. The value of this exemption could be as much as $10,000,000 during construction.

All of these exemptions are in addition to the revenues from sales of such electricity. Even if sold at $ 0.03 per kilowatt hour, the revenues would be about $15,000,000 per year. These certainly fatten the wind farm owners’ coffers, but are done at the expense of the taxpayers who pay the bulk of the costs. This is a classic scheme of state sponsored redistribution of wealth from people at the bottom of the economic ladder to those on top, more associated with 20th century dictators.

As Schleede points out, the big losers in this scheme are the rate payers and the taxpayers who pay the taxes avoided by the wind farm owners. The neighbors and citizens also bear the costs of adverse environmental, ecological, scenic, and property value impacts.

Poor Performance

The Zilkha website also states that this capacity is enough to serve 45,000 homes. This is untrue. The actual amount of such intermittent energy received would be about 30% of this energy produced at unscheduled times. Much of that energy would be produced when it was not needed.

The 180 MW capacity of the Zilkha farm operating only at an estimated 30% of the time would produce (unpredictably) a total 473,040,000 kw-hr per year. This seemingly big number is less than ½ of 1% of the total electrical energy consumed in the State of Washington in 2002. According to Schleede, this would be about 16% of the energy produced in 2002 by the single natural gas combined cycle plant in Hermiston OR (474 MW), which stands on only a few acres. We need a serious realistic debate on these energy issues, without the exaggerations.

Wind energy is unreliable for the simple reason that wind is unreliable, unpredictable, and intermittent. That is, more than 70% of the time more reliable sources are needed in its place.

The Need for a Backup Energy System

Because of the unpredictability of the wind, a dedicated equally-sized backup system must be kept in reserve, not producing energy of its own. This backup energy capacity (called spinning reserve) is a hidden cost, requiring its own fuel consumption, emissions, and costs in reserve, which usually are not considered in the overall cost analyses for wind energy.

System Unreliability

As is being learned in England, Denmark, Germany, US, and elsewhere, wind farms also add to transmission system instabilities. The windmills can actually reduce the reliability of the transmission system, because of the need not only to match loads with variable energy generation, but the additional needs to control for both system voltage and frequency stabilities. These costs are typically not included either in such analyses.

Windmills have been described as deduction generators more so than energy generators, and it is the deductions which are of interest to the big owners, not the energy per se. It’s time to put the interests of the ratepayers and taxpayers first, by ending the huge subsidies in costly and unreliable energy sources. If wind energy can’t compete without grotesquely large subsidies, it must be abandoned.

###

Reader’s Comments

Name Date Comment [Note names are abbreviated.]

Jack E., 5.7.05

Mr. Fox is correct in pointing out the many hidden costs of wind energy and in lamenting it's aesthetic impacts. But unlike most areas of the country, the Pacific Northwest with it's abundant hydroelectric resources is an ideal place to site wind energy because the two sources can be operated in a complementary fashion.

Although the output of wind machines is irregular on an hour-by-hour or perhaps a day-by-day basis, it is fairly predictable over longer periods of time. When wind energy is abundant, hydroelectric generation can easily be curtailed and water can be held behind the region's many dams until the wind stops blowing, at which time water can be released to assure an uninterrupted supply of electricity.

It remains a fact that there is no energy source currently in service that is environmentally benign. Fossil-fuels contribute many forms of pollution on the journey from extraction to electrons, nuclear power produces highly toxic, long-lived wastes, hydroelectric projects damage fisheries and inundate prime real estate, and wind machines have a negative impact on scenic vistas.

When it comes to the hidden costs of wind energy, let's not forget that the Northwest is paying some of the lowest electricity prices in the US thanks to it's sweetheart deal with the US Treasure.

Arthur O'D., 5.10.05

My, my. What a bitter missive from a nuclear engineer. Don't worry though, the US Government seems intent on resurrecting the nuclear option with plenty of subsidies to go around.

Edward A. R, Jr. 5.11.05

Arthur, If you view this as a "bitter missive", wait until CA reaches its renewable portfolio goal (which exceeds its conventional capacity reserve margin) and the voltage and frequency variations, no less grayouts and rolling blackouts begin to occur. Then you'll know "bitter missives". Also, remember that much of the hydro capacity available in the Northwest is "source of opportunity" capacity - no rain, no snow, no hydro.

Marilyn H., 5.11.05

This is a very one sided article. No mention is made of the depreciation allowances and tax incentives for all forms of energy. Generation from the large wind farms is predictable. As a distributed form of energy, wind generation increases grid stability, provides jobs and economic development in rural areas without pollution and environmental concerns about nuclear waste disposal and global warming.

Doug K., 5.11.05

Below please find correspondence I've had with Mike Fox, the author about this article. The issues raised are important to debate, as Congress is now gearing up for a new round of multi-billion dollar subsidies to new nuclear power plants.

Some of Dr. Fox's replies, such as that he seems to think it inappropriate for nuclear power to have to pay for the cost of its oversight and waste management, indicate that we have a long way to go in defining what a transparent market in energy means.

My original note to Dr. Fox:
Date: Tue, 10 May 2005

Dear Dr. Fox,

I found your article amongst the most entertaining I've read in quite some time. My favorite was your concluding paragraph:

"Windmills have been described as deduction generators more so than energy generators, and it is the deductions which are of interest to the big owners, not the energy per se. It’s time to put the interests of the ratepayers and taxpayers first, by ending the huge subsidies in costly and unreliable energy sources. If wind energy can’t compete without grotesquely large subsidies, it must be abandoned."

Given your 37 years in the nuclear industry, would I be correct that you have similar beliefs on fission power? Could I put you on record on my website as supporting the following identical statement on nuclear power: "If nuclear energy can't compete without grotesquely large subsidies, it must be abandoned?" Please do let me know.

If, despite your many years in the industry, you are unfamiliar with the specifics on government support for nuclear power, allow me to offer a few choice compilations done over the past 30 years:

< http://earthtrack.net/earthtrack/admin/edit.asp?page_id_fk=177#NuclearEconomics >.

Or, for an overview of how this mature industry is now gearing up for a big push into the federal trough:

< http://www.earthtrack.net/documents.asp?docUrl=NNC_Overview.ppt >.

I look forward to your reply.

Sincerely,
Doug K., Earth Track, Inc.

Dr. Fox did reply to this message with a number of points. His points, along with my follow-ups to them, are included below.

Date: Wed, 11 May 2005

I'm happy you replied to my e-mail. I've responded to your comments below. My text is preceded by **.

Doug K.

Mike Fox wrote:

Sir:

Do I sense an attempt to establish a logical and/or moral equivalence here?

**If we operate in a market economy, by which energy choices are made through prices, there is very much of a moral and logical equivalence. Prices should be as accurate a reflection of the costs of an energy source as possible, to ensure efficient consumption and investment decisions. You can't on the one hand attack wind power for being subsidized while on the other ignoring (much larger) federal support for nuclear.

I'd be much more interested is such a colloquy if the historical debate omissions were discussed:

1. Blurring the budgetary supports for both nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. This has been a historically favorite debate trick to inflate nuclear subsidy arguments.

**I've always made the distinction in my work between the two. That being said, when functions and facilities are shared, it is inappropriate to make a 100% allocation of the underlying cost burden to the military sector. This is certainly relevant with the clean-up cost of certain federal facilities.

**Linkages also go both ways. Massive investments into military-related development of materials and reactor technology have had significant spillover benefits to the commercial sector over time (a similar dynamic occurs with regards to aircraft). Yet, military R&D is rarely counted as a subsidy to the commercial sector.

**If you have specific information on where military costs are being counted as subsidies to commercial nuclear power, please forward them to me. I would certainly be interested in seeing them.

2. Including the huge costly regulatory burdens singularly placed on the US nuclear industry (and far less than on foreign nuclear programs). One shouldn't complain about government subsidies without simultaneously considering costly government regulatory burdens. There are reasons why Japan, France and England can build 1000 MW(e) plants in 1/3 the time and at 1/3 the costs as in the US. They don't have to deal with the US regulatory climate.

**A couple of responses here. First, there is very little public information on government subsidies to commercial nuclear power in either France or Japan. Part of the reason their delivered power costs are so low is due to embedded public subsidies. Second, regulatory burdens in the US are at least in part reflective of public distrust of, and unhappiness with, the nuclear technologies and the way companies have been deploying them. As an engineer you may discount these concerns, but they are real. Poor public oversight in Japan's nuclear sector has certainly demonstrated that industry is an ineffective self-regulator. Lots of evidence in the US supports this same conclusion. Just as the public should have input into the location of airports (noise and disruption-related property damages), windmills (concerns over visual property damages), LNG terminals (concerns over safety), they should have the rights to demand transparency and accountability for the very real potential property and safety risks from nuclear plants.

**Had the industry been effective in addressing these concerns, rather than running a dual strategy of PR dismissal of them and political efforts to cut public input out of nuclear regulation altogether, my guess is that you would have seen these regulatory costs decline over time.

The CBO published a report on just the radiation dose limits of radiation. They discussed 14 different regulations 11 by the EPA and 3 by the NRC (there are more). None of them agreed with each other, and none appear to be supportable by basic science. The range of risk in these 14 differing regulations is more than 38,000 (when we would expect a range of 1!!!) There are many more such dose limits and many more imposed at the state levels as well.

What these mean is that each utility during operations is required to employ small armies of lawyers, analysts, and bureaucrats just to work out with the agencies just what it is they want. The problems are more costly during construction. Lots of bucks, lots of frequent flier miles, big budgets within the utility years of effort are consumed to satisfy the regulatory agencies.

**I can't address your complaints about a fragmented and inconsistent set of regulations. This is a problem of our governance structure, and applies across the entire economy. I don't have a problem with trying to make these regs more consistent, for nuclear power and for many other sectors of governance. However, I'd encourage you not to overstate the case:

**-These burdens do drive up costs, but say nothing of the massive fuel cycle subsidies the industry receives, and continues to push for. In addition, if you are to count areas of "over-regulation" for the industry, you'd also need to examine closely whether there are areas of "under-regulation" as well. I'm sure there are.

**-Fiscal subsidies, of which nuclear is a great beneficiary, go through very little due diligence or cost/benefit assessment at all, in contrast to regulations aimed at protecting human health and the environment. This disparity works to the advantage of fuel cycles with more potential health and safety problems (i.e., nuclear), and to the disadvantage of simpler-approaches such as improved energy efficiency.

**-Little that I've seen from the industry in recent years is focused on transparency and more systemic approaches to risk assessment. More often, it's just blatant spin and attempts to remove oversight. Hardly a logical way to reduce public distrust of the technology. 3. To reduce the "subsidies" which I support, what would you propose for the ownership (other than the government) of the fuel? Would you insist upon the private ownership of that??

**If you support subsidy removal, why are you putting "subsidies" in quotes? Are you saying these are figments of my imagination?

**In response to the fuel question: the fuel is hardly the largest source of subsidy to the nuclear fuel cycle. Furthermore, you can ensure there are no subsidies regardless of whether it is publicly-owned or privately owned. This issue is a red-herring. If publicly-owned, though, I would certainly insist on ensuring that risks associated with enrichment, storage, and disposal are not dumped on the public sector, as has historically been the norm for your industry.

**I do see significant proliferation risks associated with bringing the cost of enrichment down significantly, as markets always expand when this happens, and with potentially large costs and risks to society. Proliferation concerns are another critical reason why nuclear power has a higher level of regulation than other sectors. I've not seen very good long-term assessments by the private sector on how you will deal with this problem. Again, your fuel cycle has risks specific to it. Just as the price of power generated by coal should include the extra oversight to ensure it is mined safely and that emissions are appropriately controlled, nuclear-generated power must include the additional costs to deal with its security issues.

4. And what other energy industry do you know of which is forced to pay for its own regulatory agency? The NRC is funded by the nuclear industry. No other energy industry is forced to do that.

**Well, much of the regulation of hazardous wastes is paid for by fees on users. FERC is entirely funded by fees on the industries it regulates. Drug approval in the FDA is almost entirely funded by fees on drug submittals by pharmaceutical companies. Shall I continue?

**Again, when your energy source generates particularly complex oversight concerns, what justification would you put forth for NOT paying for it? From a societal perspective, our economy should be encouraged to provide the energy resources that have the lowest cost not only in terms of direct costs of production, but in terms of negative externalities and associated public oversight costs as well. Why should nuclear get a leg-up on the windmills you so mercilessly ridiculed in your article by shifting public oversight costs onto the taxpayer rather than onto the beneficiary industry?

**The amazing thing about nuclear power is not that it pays fees to finance the NRC, but how many years it paid none, or only a part, of the costs of regulatory oversight. Chock up another couple hundred million a year to subsidies to nukes.

5. And what other energy industry is forced to pay for disposing of its waste. The entire bill spent at Yucca Mountain (now over $10 billion) is collected also from the nuclear utilities.

**Is this really a serious question? Who do you think pays to haul off the millions of tons of waste from coal-fired electricity? Who pays to manage, stabilize, and remediate mining sites? Who pays any time there is an oil spill, or to cap oil wells before they are abandoned? In every case, its industry. Why should nuclear be different? The fact that you have by far the worst long-term waste management issues of any power source I can think of is another reason why you want our market economy to identify and develop more favorable fuel cycles. There is no serious economic argument that would justify shifting waste management costs onto the public.

**You say that the entire cost of Yucca has been paid by utilities. First, the very idea that the government would commit to provide a complex and as-yet-unknown long-term disposal facility in return for a small up-front fixed charge is a great example of the risk-related subsidies that made commercial nuclear power possible. The Price-Anderson cap on liability is another. Long-term power contracts by TVA at the inception of commercial nukes to generate the electricity needed to enrich uranium, without parallel contracts from nuclear utilities to take or pay for the enriched material, is a third.

**Any rational private actor would have created a more risk-neutral vehicle in which utilities remained at risk for the inevitable uncertainties of this undertaking. Second, aren't some of the costs of Yucca paid by the military, to cover the non-commercial wastes? Third, legal suits by the utilities have forced the taxpayer to pay "rental" fees to utilities who have to store fuel rods on-site for longer than anticipated. This last factor is a great way to measure financially the poorly-structured risk-sharing agreement on waste disposal. Dr. Fox

 Doug K., Earth Track, Inc., Cambridge, MA 02140 < http://www.earthtrack.net/ >.

James H., 5.11.05

Jack,

I agree wholeheartedly with your points about the synergy between hydro and intermittent sources like wind. The Pacific NW may be the place where wind achieves its greatest level of penetration.

I do believe, however that there is some truth to some of the points the author makes. Suffice it to say that the total overall subsidy for wind power is more than 1.8 cents/kW-hr (i.e., more than the PTC). It would be interesting, and beneficial, to have a thorough study which estimates the overall effective subsidy, in terms of cents/kW-hr. This can be difficult, because some of the details of financing, and their net effect on power cost, can get pretty arcane. Perhaps another approach would be to analyze the other main energy sources, and calculate what their price would be if they received all the same terms that wind does, at every phase of the process (i.e., the same loan terms, depreciation schedules, power purchase commitments, tax breaks/treatment, etc....). Then, we would see what the power cost would be for all other sources, under those exact same terms.

In general, I don't believe that having all sorts of subsidies, throughout the woodwork, at numerous phases in the process, is good policy. It makes the overall subsidy hard to calculate, and seems to be a good way to bury them. It makes it hard for the general public to make judgements (i.e., anyone who is not a tax attorney or a financial analyst/banker). My opinion is that if we wish to support or subsidize a given energy source, we should only apply a direct PTC, quoted in terms of cent/kW-hr, period. The PTC is the only intervention. Otherwise, it is the pure, raw market. Financing terms? Go talk to the (private) bankers/investors. Another example is the upgrades to the grid that many say are required for wind. Under this policy, they'd just get their 1.8 cents, period. They (utilities, etc..) would have to decide what grid upgrades are necessary, and if wind is worthwhile.

Arthur:

One can only hope...... It must be noted, however, that nuclear has a looong way to go before it's subsidies are anywhere near those enjoyed by both fossil and renewable sources. Even if they got every one of the goodies that are even being considered for nuclear in the new Energy Bill, they'd still be way behind any other source. In fact, under the new Energy Bill, fossil fuels are actually pulling even further ahead of nuclear, in terms of subsidies.

Len G., 5.11.05

Just one of the many sadly funny items in Doug K's insertions.

"Who do you think pays to haul off the millions of tons of waste from coal-fired electricity?"

What about the millions of tons of poisons placed into the lungs of millions of US citizens every year by coal-fired electrical generation plants? Who pays to "haul off" the 100,000 bodies of the EPA estimated "premature deaths from coal-fired electrical plants each year"? And who exactly is it that is hauling off the millions of tons of CO2 emitted annually from ALL fossil-fired electrical generators which is steadily increasing the threat of possible global climate change?

this "Earth Track" outfit would be funny if it weren't such an important issue.

Doug K., 5.12.05

Len has a good point. I did not mean to imply that all externalities associated with other energy sources are controlled. Much remains to be done, and appropriate controls should be added. CO2 will hopefully come under regulation soon, though this doesn't mean that nuclear power is deserving of windfall carbon grants at the outset just because they don't emit carbon. My basic point is that each fuel cycle should reflect its full costs, whether through required government oversight, emissions and waste remediation, reclamation, or accident risk. This should apply to nuclear just as Dr. Fox wishes it to apply to wind power.

I'd love to see some analysis supporting James H's claim that nuclear receives far less in subsidies than all the other power sources. This is not my impression by a long shot.

Dan Li., 5.12.05

Doug et. al.

Renewable Energy Policy Project published a report entitled "Federal Energy Subsidies: Not All Technologies Are Created Equal". It's about five years old, and is not from a non-partisan source, but does provide some interesting information, analysis and ideas. The report can be found here:

< http://www.repp.org/repp_pubs/pdf/subsidies.pdf >.

Len G., 5.13.05

Dan: Good reference. One point made well in the report is how the Energy industry is the very lowest investor in R&D for it's own benefit, expecting the taxpayer to pay all costs of research right up to profitable commercialization, and often further.

Definitely a point to be weighed in the debate over "privatization / deregulation / {so-called} competitive" energy markets. No industry deserves to be regulated as much as this backward bunch.

Sean R., 5.15.05

Hidden costs? Oh, you must be talking about the hidden social costs (i.e. externalities) that are borne by society that result of power production sourced from hydrocarbon resources.

Kevin C., 5.16.05

Mr. Fox,

With regards to the viability of wind power generation as discussed in your The False Promises of Wind Energy, I found I quite agreed with many of your assessments. Indeed, the technological application of wind power generation has been inefficient primarily because its output fluctuates over time.

Where you note that, “Wind energy is unreliable for the simple reason that wind is unreliable, unpredictable, and intermittent. That is, more than 70% of the time more reliable sources are needed in its place.”

That was very true.

Indeed, as late as 2003, Alan Greenspan characterized the entire electrical generation business, “as an industry without inventory.”

But a very recent development – a new type of battery if you will – called the Vanadium Redox Battery Energy Storage System (VRB/ESS) is just being commercialized which efficiently stores mass amounts of electricity. VRB/ESS doesn’t care how power is generated, so we’re also talking about applications for traditional power generation (such as providing demand management for blackouts and brownouts), backup generation for telecoms, as well as alternative energy applications like wind and solar.

From a consumption viewpoint, when there is wind, demand may be quite low. And when demand is high, the may be little or no wind at all. Matching supply - the availability of wind with peak electrical demand times - with end user demand is the key. But this could only be done if it were possible effectively store mass quantities of wind-generated electricity for later distribution when demand is high.

By combining an VRB/ESS electrochemical energy storage facility with wind generation it is now possible for this alternative power to be operated over a full range of acceptable speeds as power is first fed to the storage system, which will then smooth and control the output voltage, power factor and current. The batteries can be recharged indefinitely and have almost instantaneous “flow-through”.

Importantly, the batteries employ a “green” technology, and uses conducting plastic electrodes - which do not contain heavy metals - unlike other conventional systems that rely on toxic substances such as lead, zinc or cadmium.

But don’t take my word for it. At the company’s website, < www.vrbpower.com >, their executive summary explains this new technology far better than I. You may also wish to download the new Fraser Mackenzie research report, which concluded in part:

“An efficient storage technology for large amounts of electrical energy provides the basis for a complete change in the thinking surrounding power generation and use. VRB-ESS takes the solution into the scale of small power generators and individual users, while RGN-ESS has the potential to turn the power industry upside down. The result would be a world in which hydroelectricity and other Kyoto-friendly technologies (wind, nuclear, etc.) can be allowed to dominate the power generation landscape.”

Wind power may have been overblown, but could a cool breeze be on the way?

Sincerely,
Kevin C., Bangkok

Don G., 5.17.05

A little challenge to critics O'Donnell, Hardy and Kaplow: Refute the points made in Dr. Fox's article without reference to the nuclear industry.

Roger A., 5.17.05

I'm no fan of the way wind farms are financed in this country. But comparing subsidies for wind vs. other sources of energy and analysing the economic effects of those subsidies is a subject way outside my competence. And the basic fact remains that new wind turbines have become about the cheapest source of new energy capacity that there is. That's based on straight capital, O&M, and fuel costs, regardless of PTCs and other financial shenanigans.

Note that I said "energy capacity", not "power capacity". Kilowatt hours from wind are cheap, but wind isn't always a cheap way to add killowatts of capacity to a utility grid. As Dr. Fox points out, reliable grid capacity involves a lot more than just delivered kilowatt hours. We do have an institutional problem in that wind farm developers are allowed to build just the wind farms proper, and pass on to the grid operator the problems of maintaining grid stability and scheduling around intermittent availability. That's actually a more egregious subsidy than the tax breaks.

That said, it's not actually all that hard to accommodate high levels of wind penetration in the grid --or shouldn't be. Dr. Fox's suggestion of spinning reserve equal in capacity to the wind resource is about the worst possible solution. In areas with large hydropower resources, it's easy to adjust the water flow through the generators to balance what the wind turbines are providing. In areas without hydropower, that's not an option; nonetheless, there are good alternatives that don't require holding fossil-fueled generators in spinning reserve status.

One solution is to take advantage of "responsive loads". Those are loads that have some degree of latitudes in when they operate --such as pumping water. Another solution is compressed air energy storage --CAES. CAES is an under-appreciated option that I hope to write about in the near future.

A third solution is to utilize available regulation capacity to bridge the startup and shutdown intervals for regular dispatch. It's not as if wind power were totally random. It may not be very predictable on a day-ahead basis, but on an hour-ahead basis it is. It doesn't have to be treated as a contingency --which is what spinning reserve is intended to address. Adjusting the dispatch schedule for other generators around wind power availability is annoying to plant operators, but it's what's done now. It's a controversial subject, but Danish experience suggests it doesn't take a large increase in regulated capacity to be able to accommodate wind penetration levels up to 30%.

George Fl., 5.17.05

"...though this doesn't mean that nuclear power is deserving of windfall carbon grants at the outset just because they [sic] don't emit carbon."

Mr. K, please have a look at the information on the websites listed below. It shows that even now, with relatively few nuclear plants in service and with rich uranium ore and other high quality nuclear fuel still available, nuclear power produces a lot of CO2. If more nuclear plants were built, then the average quality of the ore would decrease, the supply of high quality fuel from decommissioned nuclear weapons would be quickly exhausted, and the CO2 intensity of nuclear power would greatly increase.

The claim that nuclear power is a solution to global warming is akin to the claim that global warming is a hoax, even though they are contradictory. Both are false, and both are promoted with considerable success by powerful selfish interests, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

< http://www.oprit.rug.nl/deenen/ > ("Nuclear Power: the Energy Balance", Jan-Willem Storm van Leeuwen and Philip Smith) < http://www.asponews.org/HTML/Newsletter51.html > (paragraph 498, "Doubts About Nuclear Energy", by John Busby) < http://www.antenna.nl/wise/621-22/621-22_en.pdf > ("A back-door come-back: Nuclear energy as a solution for climate change? Nuclear Monitor. A Publication of World Information Service on Energy (WISE) and the Nuclear Information & Resource Service (NIRS), incorporating the former WISE News Communique)

Vicente Sa., 5.17.05

Good set of Points to consider. Wind Energy is intermittent because wind is intermittent; this is why a good site assessment is fundamental. But, wind is much more predictable than rain and water supply.

However, beside these natural technical issues, what it looks important to me is the energy density of the generation plant. Wind Parks are very low dense energy plants. Each modern wind mill is in power average 1 to 2 MW energy conversion devices (The old wind turbines are average in the 500 to 900 kW range). We can imagine, for a 100 MW wind project, we would need 50 turbines of 2 MW each. That is a huge lot of machines spread in an area that has to be defined and designed in order to operate with minimum interference between machines. This does not make sense from aesthetic and land use point of view. Furthermore, given a Capacity Factor, at a highly promising location, of 30-40% , this wind park would generate on average just 30 to 40 MW of peak power. Does it make sense all these 50 huge machines for this tiny amount of power?

We should be aware of all the electrical grid problems in the northwestern part in Spain (Galicia) where there are enormous problems with grid instability due to the high penetration factor of wind energy and grid administrators requested to turn off the mills and make upgrades.

I think we need to feel responsible for how next generations will use energy. At this moment GTCC (gas turbines combined cycle) offer the best energy efficiencies (53-56%) and the smallest power plant foot print (high density energy plant). Also, for the lovers of Coal, IGCC represents an alternative logic option. These two technologies could be coupled with Carbon Dioxide sequestration techniques. Small and advanced nuclear plants -very well and wisely designed- could provide huge and safe amounts of kWhs.

Wind mills do not represent a solution for the fast pace of energy demand we currently see in OECD and no-OECD countries. For a similar rationale, Solar Integrated Photovoltaic represents a much more logic option, if we think of installing, for example, 2-5 kW of solar panels in already existing home roofs. The space for the panels exists on each house; we do not have to build anything. The excess of power can be injected into the existing grid in a more reliable manner.

Vincent Sa.,.

Graham C., 5.17.05

I second Don G's suggestion.

I think Leeuwen and Smith are blatantly dishonest, and anyone repeatedly calling on their authority is revealing himself as a public petrodollar pussycat. Since Fleming apparently disagrees, perhaps he could remove some of the taint of argument-from-authority by distilling their argument for this forum along the following lines.

A 2,000-MW(e) nuclear power station that runs at 70 percent capacity factor for 40 years produces 56,000 electrical megawatt-years. But that's not all net. The big three deductions are (1) the energetic cost of construction materials. The containment dome and various other structures include, I guess, 250,000 tonnes of concrete; if this were all "clinker", and the clinker calcination furnace were an electric one, construction would entail a 37-megawatt-year energy input for making clinker, i.e. 0.027 years of the 40 would be spoken for. (2) Old-style fuel enrichment takes back 0.8 years' worth of the 40 years' output. New centrifuge-based enrichment plants will reduce this to about a week, but are, of course, being diligently obstructed. (3) -- what's the third big deduction?

Graham C., former hydrogen fan
fireproof internal combustion fuel, real-car range:
< http://www.eagle.ca/~gcowan/Paper_for_11th_CHC.html >
 

Joseph S., 5.17.05

Our kind author has been too generous to wind electric producers in the state of Washington. He assumed a 30% capacity factor for wind farms in his state.

Past performance in Washington state has not been that good. According to the US Energy Information Agency, in 2002 (last year data available and tabulated - see < http://www.eia.doe.gov/cneaf/solar.renewables/page/trends/tablec12.html > and < http://www.eia.doe.gov/cneaf/solar.renewables/page/trends/tablec4.html >, for a calculated 21.1% capacity factor.

These are the facts, according to the US government - neither ad hominem insults nor delusional pipedreams nor "bitter missive".

William Q., 5.17.05

The underlying issue in these comments to Dr. Fox’s article hasn’t yet been addressed. It pertains not to which source is best, or even lowest cost, but which sources must we use and how should we use them. For most of us, I expect we have accomplished 70% to 80% of the theoretical conservation potential through better insulated homes, sometimes smaller cars, etc. We could do more but I do not believe that is realistic and I do not think living is caves is good for our overall economy. I am of the belief that we need to produce domestic energy and use it wisely.

I am also of the belief that what this country needs in a new “Alan Greenspan” for energy policy. We have been making energy decisions on two to four year cycles and calling that long term planning. I contend that “experts” at the Department of Energy can barely find their desks between election cycles and then, once they find their desk, they start posturing for the next election cycle to support their bosses. We do our short term planning on the “quarterly report” cycle basis. This poor planning has left us under supplied with viable energy choices and with confusing economics and questionable environmental planning.

Clearly, at least to me, we need a non-political effort of planning that sets 25 to 50 year goals. We need economic incentives to divert all energy sources to their highest end uses (possibly use thermodynamic efficiency as a measure). We need to re-examine all energy generation schemes including the use of waste heat for low grade uses such as district heating. Why should any energy system dump from 50% to 70% on the available thermal energy into the sky or into local water supplies? Capital investment into district heating can make the waste heat a resource. We need to avoid the mistakes of the last 10 to 15 years where we divert the use of natural gas to electric power generation. For a while it looked cheap – that is until we see the price increase from 2X to 3X. Furthermore, regardless of the gas turbine advocate claims of 40% to 50% efficiency, this is still a far cry from the efficiency of domestic and industrial gas heating which can easily achieve 90%. Additionally, the chemical industry uses natural gas to produce many critical items for our end use at very high efficiencies. Now, we divert the natural gas to electric power production and pay more for everything else.

So, as a result of misguided use, we have homeowners and businesses everywhere effectively subsidizing the cost of energy from gas turbines. What this wise economics for the power generators at the time? Certainly, or they wouldn’t have proceeded. Was it wise for the country? I think not. This is where long range planning of power sources and supply utilization becomes important.

Electric power can be produced from coal and nuclear without impacting other uses of these materials. We should abandon the use of both oil and natural gas for electric power as they both have higher end uses. Nuclear fuel is useless for any other end use than nuclear power production. Coal does have other uses such as gasification but considering its abundance, electric power generation should continue to be a priority.

Renewables including conversion of municipal solid wastes can contribute to the energy supply where real economics can justify the use with suitable subsidies for a 10 to 20 year period while performance and production efficiencies are optimized. After that, let the market determine their use. This should apply to all energy sources as well but keep in mind the disastrous subsidy we call the US military. Having to spend soldiers lives protecting our oil supplies should be terminated as soon as possible by focusing on domestic energy production as a priority.

What would our employment situation be if we spent all of the foreign oil revenues making windmills, solar collectors, fuel cells, clean coal plants, and nuclear reactors? We can employ scientists and engineers to solve all of the by-product problems of all of these sources. We can employ technicians in high paying jobs to operate and maintain the plants. Coal plant emissions can be reduced to below detection levels – it just costs money and technological improvements. CO2 from a coal plant can be used as an oxidizing agent in waste and coal gasification plants. Nuclear waste issues need to be looked at differently than we now do. Burying them is a poor solution when recycling the used fuel can have long term energy benefits. And we do not have to recycle it immediately; it can be allowed to decay until such time as handling issues are substantially reduced. The environmental disaster claims of the nuclear detractors are overstated. Careful management, yes! Paranoid fear, no!

Are these suggestions the best solution? Maybe or maybe not but we can work toward achieving “good enough” solutions if we have real long term energy planning with domestic production as our

Patrick M., 5.17.05

Some of us like the look of windmills. There are even wind and wine tours in which people go out to look at the windmills and visit local wineries. So I guess it's in the eyes of the beholder. Windmills pretty, Dr. Fox.

Points about all energy sources being subsidized have been made well by previous respondents. Good to underscore that the lifetime fuel cost is embedded in the upfront capital expense of wind, so some leveling of the playing field is needed. Though with wind costs declining while fossil fuel prices rise, perhaps even this won't be needed in a few years.

The article's representing the 30% production rate as some kind of scandal is ludicrous. That is the industry standard.

Managing mass-scale intermittents will ultimately require a smarter grid capable of balancing demand response, local generation and energy storage. With improvements in battery technology and the shift of the transport system to electric drive, vehicle-to-grid applications could provide massive energy storage resources perfectly matched to intermittents.

Wind is not the whole answer, but it's an important piece of a picture I believe will ultimately include mass PV, wave and tidal energy, biomass-based fuels - gaseous, liquid and solid, and geoheat, both geothermal electric and ground heat pump. We'll subsidize them all to launch them, and this is perfectly appropriate.

Joseph S., 5.17.05

As to Mr. M's complaint that "The article's representing the 30% production rate as some kind of scandal is ludicrous. That is the industry standard," the wind industry capacity factor nation-wide during 2002 was only 26.8% per EIA . As I noted above, Washington state was below average with 21.1%.

So it appears the "industry standard" claim is slightly inflated (11%) based on past performance. Granted, machine availability may improve but resource yields will likely fall as less desirable sites are developed. Actually, the wind industry performance would improve if Washington state's windmills were closed down.

Mr. M's solution appears to be to spend even MORE money on energy storage AND to cut off people's power at the whim of the winds.

Great plan, dude.

Kent W., 5.17.05

All through the ages we’ve had pearls of wisdom passed on to us, such as “Be careful of what you wish for, because you might get it.” …and “Hope is not a plan.” In the prospect of wind generation these gems are especially appropriate, but unfortunately, when someone such as Dr. Fox tries to point out a few raw facts, he gets flamed royally.

Having read many a gushing article (no pun intended) on the fine attributes of wind power, I find some troubling aspects, not the least of which is a lack of total honesty. For instance, the wind generation potential of any given planned-for site is always overstated in their press releases. Invariably, such reports proudly proclaim such absurdities as: “So-and-so’s proposed wind farm of (for example) 150 megawatts will provide enough electricity for 100,000 homes.” The first item lost in such articles is the distinction between power capability and energy delivered. Never are the capacity factor and end-use energy consumption factors taken into account, whereas a slightly more honest portrayal would at least say “enough electricity for 100,000 very small homes about one-fourth of the time and not necessarily when you need it."

Do we really want an expensive add-on to the grid system that is idle upwards of three-fourths of the time? In the Pacific Northwest and eastward across the Dakotas there is apparently enough wind, i.e., 12 to 35 mph on the average, to drive wind turbines slightly more, say 30 percent of the time. But all too often promoters quote this higher number for regions of far less wind potential such as Central Tennessee. The most ludicrous example I have ever found was in the October 2004 issue of Audubon Magazine, a widely read and highly respected publication. The writer, obviously quoting from his sources, the promoters, confidently announced that the community of Pleasant Valley, New York, will soon receive ALL of its electricity from the wind. Soon, I expect to see the Brooklyn Bridge spanning that beautiful valley as well.

Yet another challenging issue stemming from the wind discussion, as Dr. Fox correctly points out, is the intermittency of the wind. Even this is dismissed out of hand by wind advocates by imagining large and efficient batteries and various other large storage devices for electrical energy, such as hydro-electric and, even better, pumped storage. Never mind the fact that such devices barely exist anywhere, much less in the remote areas where many planned-for wind farms are to be located. One Energy Pulse reader thoughtfully suggested that hydro power can be curtailed while the wind farms are actually producing electricity, thereby saving the hydro capacity for later. That may be possible in a few specific favorable locations, however, curtailing river flow may not be compatible with other concerns, such as salmon migration and spawning, navigation, irrigation and flood control. Some readers may recall that during the 1993 flooding of the Mississippi and Missouri basins, water was beneficially held up in other waterways such as the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers. Given the limitations on additional dam sites and the propensity of the public to deny the building of additional dams anywhere for any reason, it is not likely that we will build more dams on rivers to accommodate wind power (or anything else).

While still on the topic of intermittency, it often strikes me that in virtually all serious discussions of “renewables” such as wind and solar, even the most hardened advocates eventually admit that the intermittent nature of wind and sunshine is problematic and that large capacity storage devices are inevitably the ultimate solution. If that is the case, why should we bother to build exotic new generators in far-flung and remote places at all? Why not just build the storage devices, such as pumped storage ponds, giant yet-to-be-delivered batteries, superconducting capacitors, etc., in companion with upgrading the existing infrastructure and forget about a vast new infrastructure of windmills that will be idle most of the time? Let’s not forget that virtually all of the proposed wind sites will require large capital expenditures for transmission lines and towers plus access roads in places where a grid structure currently does not exist (this is also conveniently not mentioned in most articles).

Another issue related to intermittency which is always either misrepresented or glossed over is the concept of average wind speed. All too often an “average” of anything is generally taken to mean a central tendency which is relatively constant over time. That may be true for some parameters, but in the case of wind resources, the variance in wind speed around the central tendency can be rather extreme. At times we may see dead air for days on end and at other times, speeds that would wreck a wind turbine’s structure. Just imagine batteries that never die.

Moreover, when wind generators are idle they can actually be net users of electricity. These behemoths must be rotating more or less continuously in order to prevent bending of the blades by gravity. Typically, this is accomplished by motorizing the generator with existing power from the grid at times when wind speed is insufficient to cause rotation. In addition, in times of high moisture and freezing conditions the idle generators must be heated by consuming power from the grid. For this I suspect that even industry accepted assessments of capacity factors may be overstating their capabilities.

As for the subsidies, they are the primary reason for a wind farm’s existence. Witness the year 2004 when the subsidies went away so did the plans for new wind generators. Witness their remarkable comeback in 2005 when the subsidies returned. Given that the public has been misled to believe that wind power is free and environmentally benign (neither is true) tax subsidies for wind will be in strong demand and it is unlikely that any politician wishing to be re-elected will ever oppose them. Furthermore, tax subsidies are always more popular to direct users, as opposed to rate hikes in the user’s region, simply because someone else is paying for it. Promoters love subsidies too because they obscure the real cost and further mislead the voters and taxpayers, which of course results in more sales. Given further that it is largely owners of large rural tracts of land who have the most to gain as well as the last word on whether or not to install wind turbine on their farms; and given that farmers everywhere have never heard of a subsidy they didn’t love, it is unlikely that this juggernaut will be slowed anytime soon. Nevertheless, the best solution to tax subsidies would be to eliminate all of them for all forms of energy at least until the public understands the true cost of any form of energy and is ready to accept real solutions.

Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not opposed to wind-produced electricity where it works, but let’s be honest in our assessments of it, and not overbuild where it’s not feasible or even unnecessary just because it makes us feel green all over. It might be OK in some pockets of the Pacific Northwest and Fargo, North Dakota but would not be feasible for vast regions of the U.S. including the coastal gulf states and most of the states from the Mississippi to the Atlantic. And when someone like Dr. Fox tries to give an honest critique of something this expensive we owe it to ourselves and our progeny to give it careful consideration or we may get what we wished for but not necessarily what we hoped for. KDW

Marlene O., 5.18.05

The technology to support reliable, cost/effective wind energy is not here. Two years ago, traveling through the Netherlands, about half of their hundreds of windmills, by my count, were not working. In windy Denmark, with the world's acknowledged wind mill manufacturing "experts", we counted only twenty-six windmills driving through most of their peninsula . When we asked why so few windmills, the universal response was, "because they are unreliable." Danes are more than willing to export windmills, but do not install them in their own country. Danes were working on obtaining a big order from England. And what about the energy required to build them?

Notes: 1. The Finnish Parliament voted to build more nuclear power reactors. 2. About five years ago, the U.K. decided to move forward with their nuclear waste reprocessing program. This waste reprocessing/"recycling" is illegal in the United States, so our waste continues to pile up. 3. The French have been reprocessing their nuclear waste for years. Their goal is to move to about 90% nuclear energy from about 80% now. The practical French don't understand our anti-nuclear mentality. 4. Question: Has anyone heard of/have feedback about "forgone" energy?

Joe Sch., 5.18.05

Dr. Fox is correct to assert that all costs of power production should be included in their evaluation, but then he goes on to provide little such information about the traditional power sources such as fossil fuels and nuclear that he seems to believe are superior. Many of the critical comments to this article correctly point this out. As for the "formerly" scenic Palouse landscape, I cannot resist pointing out that it is mostly wheatfields, and while true that there is certainly an agrarian beauty to this landscape, ecologically, it is a highly altered and degraded landscape compared to its former natural grassland beauty. Appreciation of an agrarian landscape as beautiful is just as subjective as appreciation of windmills as beautiful. I feel compelled to comment on the comments made by Vincente Sanchez regarding the energy density of the wind power plants because he is guilty of the same sort of failure to account for all of the costs that Dr. Fox is trying to address. In this case, he is ignoring the vast areas of land destroyed by coal mining, and oil and gas drilling when he tries to portray fossil fuel energy plants as having a small footprint. The plant does not occupy much area, but harvesting the fuel destroys vast areas. Wind plants occupy large areas, but not to the exclusion of other beneficial uses, such as whet farming in the Palouse, but require no land destruction to provide their "fuel." Len G was also quite correct to point out that one of the most ignored externalities in the fossil fuel industry is their medical costs.

James W., 5.19.05

Dr. Fox lists sales tax exemptions as a subsidy for the wind power located in Central Washington. Zero times any number is still zero. The sales tax exemption just means that the state will not receive any direct sales tax revenue, regardless of whether or not the wind turbines gets built. The state would not lose any income if the turbines get built. Dr. Fox does not understand many aspects of power generation in the Pacific Northwest. First, the amount of snow and rainfall contains the amount of energy we can deliver, but we typically have plenty of generation capacity to meet peak generation demands on a daily basis. We are not capacity constrained. In other words, the fact that wind power is variable is not as big of a problem in our area as it is in other parts of the country. The NW hydro-electric system has the ability to "shape" the power. BPA has established rates for doing this, this is not a subsidy or a problem. Dr. Jim W, P.E.

Adrian L., 5.22.05

Dr Fox and several of the respondents have made reference to wind and nuclear energy in the United Kingdom. Given that over here we get the same claims and counter claims regarding these technologies, I’d like to chip in my tuppence worth.

It is over 10 years since a nuclear power station was built in the UK. Over the next 10 years, three-quarters of our currently operating stations are programmed to shut down and we are about to engage in a national debate as to whether or not we should build any more.

The proponents of nuclear are already advancing their arguments, which can basically be summed up as a) we need non-carbon technologies to meet green-house gas targets (as well as having obligations under the Kyoto protocol, the UK has stiff European Union targets to meet) b) renewables are too unreliable and too costly to enable us to meet the targets c) nuclear is well understood and is reliable. d) most of the skilled people who designed and built our nuclear fleet in the 70s, 80s and 90s are reaching the end of their working lives. If we don’t built some new plant soon, they will not be able to train the current generation of engineers and we will lose the know-how.

Unfortunately, the record of the nuclear industry does not help its cause. British Energy, the privately owned company that operates the bulk of the nukes, has not been able to compete in the totally deregulated UK market. It only survives thanks to a £1.3 billion restructuring (that left the original shareholders with just 2.5% of the equity) and a large government bail out whereby the UK tax payer will shoulder a very large chunk of the decommissioning liabilities. British Energy’s financial straits have given people the opportunity to examine its annual accounts against the market determined price of electricity, and conclude that nuclear power’s operating costs (fuel, day to day O&M and management) alone exceed £26 per MWh. When estimated capital, finance, waste disposal and decommissioning costs are added, the total cost of new nuclear power seems to lie in a range from £47 to £92 per MWh, compared with the current price of wholesale baseload power of about £30 per MWh. The wide spread is due to lack of uncertainty regarding capital costs, the maximum length of loan that the financial markets would accept, and the interest rate that would be charged (assuming that financial institutions willing to give new loans can be found).

This may perhaps explain why nuclear proponents over here choose to cast doubt about renewable technologies rather than emphasising the record of their own. In the case of wind energy, this takes the form of emphasising intermittency and the cost this imposes on the grid, as it is already recognised that wind energy is cheaper than nuclear in terms of £/MWh at the station gate. However, the intermittency argument has been advanced and knocked down many times in the last two decades. Every single official study (i.e. by government agencies and Select Committees of Parliament) has shown that intermittency can be accommodated without excessive cost.

The latest study was released last week by the Sustainable Development Commission (a government funded advisory body < http://www.sd-commission.org.uk/pages/media/list/wind.html >. Entitled Wind Power in the UK, this concluded the following:

“Wind blows at variable speed, variable intensity and sometimes not at all. But this variability is not a problem for the electricity grid. Wind is accurately forecast over the timeframes relevant to network operators and other market participants. Increasing the proportion of wind power in the electricity system does not require greater “back up” capacity, as is often believed, but it does slightly increase the cost. The greater the proportion of wind on the grid the lower its “capacity value”, and the lower the quantities of conventional technology it displaces. Nevertheless it continues to reduce carbon emissions.” “The generation costs of onshore wind power are around 3.2p/kWh (+/-0.3p/kWh), with offshore at around 5.5p/kWh, compared to a wholesale price for electricity of around 3.0p/kWh. The additional system cost is estimated to be around 0.17p/kWh, when there is 20% wind power on the system. Generation costs are likely to decrease over time as the technology improves, but this will be balanced against increased costs for integrating higher levels of wind generation into the system”.

I recognise that nuclear energy may have a very important role to play in the future energy supplies of our planet. However, until there is greater honesty about the true cost of nuclear, and until there are technically and publicly acceptable solutions to the problems of fuel supply and waste disposal, I suspect most people will remain deeply suspicious of the nuclear industry. I would therefore urge nuclear protagonists on both sides of the Atlantic to concentrate on solving the problems of their own industry, instead of trying to undermine wind and other renewables by unsubstantiated and spurious claims. And if at the end of the day, your major problem is that you simply don’t like the appearance of wind turbines, why not just say so?

Len G., 5.23.05

a) Electricity generated by wind turbines can most easily be accommodated into the system by increasing the use of battery/electric vehicles, so-called plug-hybrids, which can charge their batteries when the wind blows, or feed back (at a premium) when it doesn't. Only requires one further item of technical development, which is the reduction in cost of manufacture of Lithium Ion batteries. Any day now.

b) All the sobbing etc. about so-called "high cost of constructing nuclear generating stations" is nonsense. If anyone REALLY wanted low-cost affordable energy from nuclear stations, they only need to simply consult the French, Canadians, South Africans or Chinese. Just because UK and US can't figure it out doesn't make it impossible.

Todd McK., 5.24.05

Each and every single electricity generation option mentioned above has been critiqued from both sides. The one thing that's amazing to me is that every single source I could possibly think of was mentioned... BUT ONE. Not one single mention has been made of concentrated solar thermal power. Why does everyone constantly debate the pros and cons of all the sources that have pros and cons, when there's an option that has no cons out there. I challenge anyone to find a con to putting power towers up en masse in the desert with smaller distributed systems scattered over the rest of the country. These places include any unnecessary acre south of Canada (or in some places of Canada) such as interstate cloverleaves or medians or over other locations where partial shade would be nice such as parking lots or large building rooftops or cattle lots. Mostly these areas can be sited on land that is not carrying a high aesthetic value (i.e. deserts) Before you jump on the 'intermittency' of solar, keep in mind that solar "thermal" has heat storage backup capacity that's easily sized to any time frame, be it hourly to compensate for wind or days to compensate for storms that block the sun. Additionally, the heat storage can be increased to critical dependency with bio/fossil/Hydrogen heat backup if storage time might be exceeded. Generating power from a constant heat source is the simplest challenge to load factor matching and overall load matching.

On top of these benefits, NREL's and Sandia's own reports state that power towers are nearly now and will definitely become the cheapest form of electricity. Keep in mind also that this is a comparison of other forms with their subsidies against CSP with NO SUBSIDIES AT ALL. Let's see, zero subsidies, zero pollution, zero environmental impact, zero grid issues, and enough room around to increase our total power usage from all fuels and run from just this. Ok, there will probably be some grid upgrades required if too much is concentrated too far from the demand. All these benefits also come at a lower cost than any other source. Gee, doesn't it make you wonder if there's really a conspiracy of sorts going on? The only ones capable of researching this is the government labs on a large scale and they even say it's the best option, but then they push each stage of development out 3-5 years so it takes 30 to realize the dream.

Then we can use oil for the important stuff like chemical production and fuels for restored classic collectable cars and use our NG for storm backup in the power towers when the bio fuels can't meet that demand.

Anyone care to comment on why this hasn't been mentioned in comparison to everything else that's been vigorously debated here?

Graham C., 5.24.05

Maybe you need to abandon the notion that "the only ones capable of researching this is the government labs on a large scale". Government labs, like every arm of every major Western government, are funded in large measure from special fossil fuel taxation. If they own the job of researching and developing energy sources that promise to reduce that portion of their income, and that portion of the income of virtually everyone they associate with, then of course they can make sure it doesn't happen.

Graham Cowan, former hydrogen fan

Jim B., 5.26.05

If one ever reviews the SBIR offerings from the DOE, you will find that the solicitations are always very narrow and serving established pre-ordained agendas. They also make statements that indicate in their minds that hydrogen as fuel is THE WAY of the future. Many others in the private sector do not see it that way, and find hydrogen as a fuel highly problematic.

In a rejected proposal I sent to the DOE, I received the comment: (Quote) "They did an excellent job in building up case why the hydrogen economy isn't going to work and that a methane/carbon dioxide economy would be easier to implement than a hydrogen one."

Now, perhaps our proposal had other deficiencies and was not viable in any case, but that didn't matter because since they were only soliciting input on hydrogen storage -- we were considered non-responsive.

If anything, the DOE is a hindrance to energy research, not a help at all. They waste billions on hydrogen. They allocate billions to improve the use of coal, but when it comes to wind or other renewables, that's left to the private sector. Well, why can't the private sector of the coal interests fund their own dang research?

-Jim

Len G., 5.27.05

Just seems to me empirically, that US research and especially development in many areas, including energy, has stagnated a lot in the past 15 years. I've sort of been interestedly watching for a long time and there appear to be two main problems.

1) The sea change during the go-go Reagan years to make university fundamental research "more responsive to industry" and "economic goals".

2) The shifting of decision-making emphasis in project management away from the technical resources to "professional managers", a problem not only for R&D but for every aspect of the economy. The current "popular wisdom" that "management is management, regardless of the project" is probably doing more to damage US economic strength than any other single factor. Though it is true that "professional managers" are more capable of producing PERT and GANNT charts than scientists, and more likely to avoid HR conflicts etc., their projects are far LESS likely to produce any useful results.

Too bad.

Edward A. R., Jr. 5.27.05

Mr. Gould:

Your second point is right on! Professional managers are more committed to "scheduling" major breakthroughs than to achieving them. If invention could be scheduled, we could have solved our problems long ago.

Government research managers seem to suffer both from abandoning ongoing research for the new "great idea" and from trying to ride "dead horses" too long. Both are terminal afflictions.

Todd McK., 5.27.05

So how does one go about promoting that next great technology without the involvement of professional managers, professional researchers or the government professionals? :O

I have this sneaking suspicion that a lot of our technical "problems" have already been solved but are dying on the vine as we speak. Harvesting them right now can only promote further solutions. Wouldn't we all benefit?

Graham C., 5.27.05

B points out that the US Department of Energy is unhelpful; I believe I have explained why members of that group could hardly could be otherwise, unless being shunned by all their civil service colleagues, which is to say, virtually everyone they know, is a small matter to them. G and R talk about professional managers. Is there a mutual fund enabling investors to target their dollars specifically to companies otherwise managed? If not, such managers seem to be a necessary evil. Perhaps they can also make a contribution in the life sciences, as test animals that researchers never become attached to.

R concludes by restating government researchers' apparent ineffectiveness -- but apparent, I think, only to those who don't understand what they really are rewarded for doing.

McK needs to be less vague in his final paragraph. He probably doesn't think we would all benefit, but what technical problems is he talking about? The soft caramel inside the hard chocolate? I believe that's done with an enzyme (the caramel isn't soft when the chocolate goes on).

- Graham Cowan, former hydrogen fan

Jim B., 5.28.05

I think the problem that McK is talking about proactively developing and deploying renewable energy technologies on a scale that will make some difference. It's a huge undertaking (try doing the numbers on replacing 100 Quads of energy with wind or sun power) but it certainly isn't going to get any easier as time goes on. If we want to minimize the pain of this transition, we should start now. At present, our key energy resource (oil) is controlled by people who HATE US. Our backup energy source, coal, is either useless or very expensive if global warming is to be believed. I can't think of a worse situation to be in.

The existing energy companies are so massive, they can't change their thinking even if they wanted to. Sadly, I almost wish there WAS a conspiracy. For example, take Kodak. They KNEW that film was a dying product at the consumer level because of the onset of digital cameras. They had about 10 years to react to this, but they just couldn't do it. They were too entrenched. With the massive infrastructure that oil and coal companies already have in place, its no wonder they use their influence to hide the problem, rather than solve it. The government is hopeless -- kept by energy interests (or maybe just kept stupid...)

What to do? Well, I'm not sure. Voltaire said something like "If people believe absurdities, then they will commit atrocities". I can't think of a bigger absurdity than the Hydrogen Economy. And I shudder to think of what atrocity it may lead to. It seems like an action item at this point would be to try to point out the absurdities. Maybe then not so many people will believe them.

Whenever I see a full-page ad from GM on their hydrogen car research, I think that the company is publicly proclaiming "We don't understand basic thermodynamics!". Well, maybe shareholders should express their concerns to GM. Maybe they should ask that their investment not be wasted on hydrogen fuel cells.

If GM and other companies are forced to explain their actions, maybe some more open dialogue can occur on this subject. One can hope, anyway.....

Len G., 5.28.05

Too bad there wasn't some procedure to "mine the ideas" of that large group of technical developers in the energy field who are just too small to warrant the attention of huge organizations. Possible I'm thinking of a one-time emergency allocation of 2 billion over four years assigned to (one or more) panels of experienced technical persons for the express purpose of financing/supporting the development of useful ideas where the backers are just too small the get the attention of the "professionally managed" organizations.

Given that even I can list off the top at least four (and with time, many more) such projects myself where the technical and scientific work is excellent (a novel concept in concentrating solar thermal generation, an alternative-fueled transportation turbine engine, a solar-thermal concentrating water splitter, a light-weight rotary diesel engine.... etc, etc.) and the common roadblock to their development is the needed first million to produce and debug some prototypes, such a panel should be easily able to satisfy a mandate of swiftly identifying about 1,000 such efforts, hiring 200 qualified accountants to control funds dispersal within some loose guidelines such as readable quarterly reports of results, and simply expect to loose the entire first billion.

Then, at the end of the first year, identify the top 100 efforts and commit 10 million over three years to each, under much more formal controls, and then see what the outcomes are. After that, then the projects are required to sink or swim in the public marketplace. Hire honest expert technical evaluations as required before any serious money is committed to any group.

Given a mandate to keep the overhead costs below 5%, it seems to me it might be the best use of a relatively small amount of research any government has ever made. Let the idea people decide what other expert input they need. And part of the up-front terms are that at the end of the road, the government holds 25% of equity in the resulting organizations. Bet that over time the whole thing might break even.

Would inventors go for those terms?

Graham C., 5.29.05

I think inventors might get on side with that.

But surely, in this group, there can't be anyone who seriously believes government people have any interest in the energy field except to maximize their long-term fossil fuel revenue prospect?

If G were an American, what he would be proposing would be a second Department of Energy.

If such an idea is meant to work, the billions -- including the first, sacrificial one -- must come from private philanthropy. Lots of people have lots of their own money and want energy progress; if, refusing any state contribution, they put it together, results are likely.

-- Graham Cowan, former hydrogen fan
_____
* Courtesy of Energy Pulse.
See original at < http://www.energypulse.net/centers/article/article_print.cfm?a_id=989 >.

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