part 1 - MINDSET
The first part of the solution involves people
adjusting their mindset. Main points include:
GET REAL ABOUT
AE OPTIONS - We must be hardnosed and realistic about the benefits
and drawbacks of each technology. Learn what these are. There are
true believers and nay-sayers for each technology. The truth is usually
somewhere in between.
THERE IS NO ONE MAGIC BULLET - it will
take a broad spectrum of technologies to make a difference.
This includes things like improving the efficiency of our cars and
homes (so we don't waste so much energy) and reducing the environmental
impact of traditional sources (such as coal) as well as the sexier
new technologies like photo-voltaics and fuel cells. People tend to
get hung up looking for one technology that will solve everything.
Don't turn up your nose at anything that can provide 1% of the solution.
THEY WON'T BE CHEAP - The wind and the sun are free but they
are very spread out and the machinery to harvest the energy is NOT
free. Beware people promising free energy.
THEY WILL HAVE SIGNIFICANT
ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT - People often seem to think that "alternate
energy" automatically means "zero environmental impact". When done
on the scale needed to replace a 1000 megawatt nuclear plant, ANY
form of AE (wind, solar, bio-fuel) is going to take a LOT of land
area with definite side effects.
WE MUST IMPROVE EXISTING TECHNOLOGIES -
taking the electrical system as an example, we have 850,000 megawatts
of existing generating capacity. 52% is coal, 20% is nuclear. Even
using the most optimistic projections they are not going to be replaced
for a long time. (In fact, even aggressive introduction of solar/wind
electrical generating capacity is unlikely to happen fast enough to
offset the retirement of our existing nuclear plants). We better learn
to improve coal/nuclear/hydro and mitigate the drawbacks as best
THERE IS NO FREE LUNCH - We need to start implementing
some of these solutions even though they are NOT perfect. Waiting
for some technology that has NO negative consequences is unrealistic.
You have to support alternate energy in REALITY, not just theory.
This means accepting wind farms, solar farms, biomass projects, better
transmission lines and the like in YOUR part of the country.
section summarizes my opinions about various technology options:
IS THE ONLY "CHEAP ENERGY" - There are people who will spend $25,000
getting solar panels put on the roof but won't spend $250 to weather
strip their windows. They do not understand where the big payback
actually lies. The majority of the energy we consume is wasted. Capturing
a part of the energy that currently serves no useful purpose is the
"GREEN BUILDINGS" CAN BE EFFECTIVE - a well
designed home or office with proper insulation, heat recovery systems
and high efficency lighting can greatly reduce energy consumption with
a modest additional initial cost that is more than recovered over
the life of the building. In this context, passive solar can be quite useful,
although it is often undervalued because in never shows
up on the power grid.
CARS CAN BE MORE EFFICIENT WITHOUT ANY MAGIC -
maybe someday we will be driving those hydrogen powered fuel
cell cars everyone talks about. In the meantime, use of stronger/lighter
materials, hybrid drivetrains and new clean diesel engines has the
potential for large increases in gas mileage through better use
of existing technologies.
WIND AND SOLAR POWER ARE BECOMING COMPETITIVE -
for limited applications they are cost effective now. Assuming a continued
decline in manufacturing costs, they will be cost effective for much
broader application. Properly targeted financial incentives
(tax credits and the like) can help pump volume and make this happen
BUT ENERGY STORAGE IS KEY - The wind and the sun
are intermittent. Energy storage to cover the dry spells may
cost much more than the wind or solar generators themselves. Biofuel,
hydrogen and superbatteries can all provide some storage. Until someone
perfects large scale energy storage that is both high efficiency and
low cost, wind and solar will be limited to a modest percentage of
our power needs.
BIOFUELS CAN BE WORTH WHILE
- again, utilizing
resources currently going to waste is the biggest win. Using methane
from landfills and agricultural waste for electricity can
be cost effective. Growing crops primarily for energy purposes
is promising but you have to be careful with energy input
as well as environmental and land use issues. This is usually carbon
neutral since burning the biofuel releases carbon that is pulled out
of the air by the next crop.
HYDROGEN IS NOT AN ENERGY SOURCE -
it is a storage technology. It has a lot of potential, particularly
if fuel cells can really be perfected. But there are questions about
the efficiency of producing hydrogen from various primary sources
and more questions about how to transport large amounts conveniently
The Answers part 2 - TECHNOLOGY OPTIONS
grandiose schemes of powering the entire country with -> insert
your favorite technology here <- in just a few years is not going
to happen. The scale of the infrastructure is just too big and there
doesn't seem to be any one technology up to the task. We have to start
with more modest goals using a wide variety of technologies.
I say that for the next 10 years we should aim at 10% solutions.
In many areas 10% seems a safe, realistic number that is big
enough to have real impact but not so big as to risk destablizing
existing systems. Too high a percentage of wind power, for example,
is a real stability problem for the electrical grid, but 10% is probably
OK. What might this look like?
Electricity: aim at a mix of generating
capacity that includes 10% wind, 10% solar and 10% biomass
(wood, switch grass, bio methane). Natural gas fired capacity
will continue to increase. This is the lowest carbon impact of the
fossile fuels, but we will probably have to start importing an
increasing percentage of our natural gas over time. A gradual switch
to fuel cells run with hydrogen from natural gas has the potential
to significantly decrease the fuel used per kw-hr due to the improved
efficiency of fuel cells. We probably need to invest in a new
generation of safer nuclear plants (pebble bed perhaps?). This is
not popular in some quarters, but when talking base load capacity
it is either new nuclear plants or more coal plants for quite a while.
we invest in energy efficient biofuel processes, most existing
vehicles can run on gas with 10% ethanol or diesel with 10% vegetable
oil. Hybrids and clean diesels might each be 10% of the
market. If the latest hype about super batteries pans out, true electric
cars might finally become practical for another 10% of the market.
least 10% of our homes can have passive solar in a manner that
is cost effective. The more practical "green building" techniques
can often reduce energy by 10%. Switching to efficient lighting can
reduce energy consumption by 10%.
Get the 10% idea? Look for
it in as many places as possible.
Kevin's Alternate Energy Answers
part 1 - the 10% Solution
We may never see the total solution in our
lifetime. Still, it is worth while trying to imagine what it might
look like so that we can at least head in that direction. One problem
is that when you look 50 or 100 years down the road, almost any technology
may become feasible. Nuclear power was total fantasy 70 years ago.
You can't completely rule out some radical new technology coming along
and changing everything, but you can assign some probablities and
make an educated guess.
We know about a few
possible energy sources that might become practical in 50 years.
I rate nuclear fusion (the conventional hot kind) at about
a 50% probability. I rate cold fusion, orbiting solar power satelites,
zero point energy, etc at less then 5% probability (can't
say never, but not likely).
The more predictable line of development
is continued improvement of existing technologies. Imagine a
really cheap photo-voltaic solar panel that turns 50% of
the available solar energy into electricity. Or
panels of engineered
material that uses 20% of solar energy to directly split hydrogen
As mentioned before, energy storage
is the key to fully utilizing wind and solar energy. The capability
to store large amounts of energy at a reasonable cost is required
before these intermittent sources can start to replace base load electric
generating capacity (which is currently mostly coal or nuclear). My
wish list includes:
1) a super battery with 10 times the
energy to weight ratio of the standard lead-acid battery,
high charge and discharge rates, many thousands of cycles with little
degradation, minimal environmental impact
2) long life, compact
fuel cells with a cost of no more than $50 per kw.
improved biofuel production with high energy density per acre and
a high energy payback. This might involve genetic engineering of plants
or some combination of bio-engineering and nano-technology that mimics
biological processes on an industial scale.
These are the
kind of things that need to happen before you can really run most
of the country on Alternate Energy.
To be continued.....
The Future part 2
- the Total Solution