Monday, February 17, 2014

Why Everyone Should Have a Love But Mostly Hate Relationship With Renewable Energy

Teaser: Everyone should have a mostly love relationship with extra-terrestrial solar energy. ET's parents, phone Earth!

I want to say at the start that I want renewable energy and all the other alternative energy sources to completely replace fossil fuels, making a cleaner, better world. See the love? However, the universe is not interested in what I want.

Lots of people advocate for renewable energy, like solar, wind, biomass and geothermal for very good reasons. However, if these things worked well now we would already be doing them on a much larger scale. Energy companies are eager to embrace renewables. They, better than anyone, know that their fossil fuel leases are going to run out of fossil fuels, so they want a replacement. They know they are good at making money with energy and they are on board. There is more than one reason T. Boone Pickens, an oil guy, has put up so many windmills.

T. Boone Pickens may love renewables. I have a love but mostly hate relationship with them, because they are so difficult. You don't need to be good at physics to know that renewables are very difficult, although it helps. One easy way to tell they are difficult is that they are expensive. This is also a good way to notice that they have a large ecological impact. Generally speaking, spending a dollar is ecologically equivalent to burning a dollars worth of coal. Money means effort. Effort means people using machines and chemicals. And people using machines and chemicals means ecological impact. So remember, if it is expensive, it is almost certainly bad for the planet. If solar power costs more than coal power, it probably is worse for the environment than coal power. I can't stress this enough. Be very, very careful about expensive solutions if you want to be kind to Mother Earth.

Wind and solar are too diffuse and too unreliable for use in the electric grid. That is engineering, which I studied some, although I am not expert in any way. Wind is particularly unreliable. Because of periodic huge, nearly continent size weather systems, very large areas can be without solar or wind for up to a week. We do not have good high capacity long distance electricity transmission systems to cover this, not to mention that if the U.S. has no solar because of a big weather system, Mexico and Canada have to have enough extra capacity to send it to us. Oi! Do you really think Mexico and Canada want to pay for enough extra capacity to handle 400 million Americans without power? Long distance transmission of electricity is not close to 100% efficient. So are we going to pay for more than double the generating capacity ourselves? Will Mexico and Canada allow us to build that much solar and wind power on their land for our use? Where exactly are we going to get this huge amount of money? Who will pay for it? Rich people do not have this much money, sorry. That means that middle class people and poor people will pay for it. I think poor people deserve better than that, myself.

Right now the only ways to fix that are storage or duplicate fossil fuel based generating capacity here (which is T. Boone Pickens's biggest reason), and both are far too expensive. If you do the math the current storage technology for our current need means that the environmental impact of going completely solar and wind is stunningly awful. We used almost four trillion kilowatt hours of electricity in the U.S. in 2009. Those really, really big numbers are essentially impossible for current solar and wind technology to deal with. We are talking about covering huge amounts of land with water for pumped storage as an example. Where do we get the water in an ecologically responsible way, not to mention the land?  Trying to store seven days in a big batteries doesn't work either. I strongly suspect solar and wind are a complete and total dead end not just from an economic perspective, but also from an ecological one. (And I have not even mentioned the large number of dead bats (600,000 a year) and birds some wind and solar technologies cause. Much, much worse than Silent Spring. We could use some research prizes on preventing these animal deaths.)

One weird thing Stanford found about wind power was this: "Ideally, the energetic cost of curtailing a resource should at least equal the amount of energy it cost to store it. That's the case for photovoltaics, but for wind farms, the energetic cost of curtailment is much lower than for battery storage. Therefore, it would actually be more energetically efficient to shut down a wind turbine than to store the surplus electricity it generates."

That's really bad news for wind.

Frankly, I don't think terrestrial solar and wind research is even worth prize money to improve. It's just too difficult.

Extra-terrestrial solar, i.e., solar satellites, would work at scale though. We just don't know how to do it yet. And the problems we need to solve generally have nothing in common with problems we need to solve to make solar power work at scale on the surface of the earth. We need a way to build/put big enough solar satellites up there and we need a way to safely and reliably transport the power down here. Not trivial problems, but not insurmountable scaling problems. We should be creating research prizes to create solar satellites. Teaser complete.

Biomass is at least reliable, and it requires no storage of electricity. However, you still have to burn it at present, making it little better than fossil fuels from an ecological standpoint. It does have the significant advantage that it takes out nearly as much carbon dioxide from the air as it puts in. It has the second advantage over wind, solar and geothermal that we can more easily use it for transportation. But the acreage you have to plant and the water, fertilizer and pesticides you need to create four trillion kilowatt hours of electricity, not to mention the seven billion barrels of oil (for transportation) is quite large. Not to mention we better use the whole plant, or we will be generating lots of waste. Half a billion tons of waste for ethanol, by one estimate. See below. Congratulations, you just tripled our amount of solid waste. (We generate a quarter of a billion tons of waste a year.) The energy density of our fossil fuels is pretty high. The number of acres devoted to fossil fuel is low compared to what we need for biomass. Near term, if we could make it affordable, biomass might be work at scale, but those are some very, very large, very, very bad ecological impacts.

It's not close to affordable yet.  We should be creating research prizes for biomass to make it affordable and to keep it's ecological impact under control.

Geothermal, on the other hand, has truly wonderful energy density and reliability. But it is extraordinarily difficult technically. There is real hope for geothermal at scale, in the form of core taps. It really could provide trillions of kilowatt hours of energy in an ecologically responsible way. We should be creating research prizes for core taps like crazy.

Steven Den Beste's old U.S.S. Clueless blog has a lot of long detailed posts on this. He is an incredibly smart and talented engineer. Not to be taken lightly.

My favorite post starts out discussing why bio-diesel, although nice, does not work at scale. It's my favorite because he mentions four technologies that would work at scale if we had them: core taps, solar satellites, nuclear fusion (not fission!) and direct conversion of mass to energy. Prizes for nuclear fusion and direct conversion of mass to energy are also a great idea. I know, they aren't renewable, but neither are solar, wind and geothermal, over time. The thing is, if we have direct conversion of mass to energy, we can probably get asteroids to burn any time we want.

Here is a good overview of the problem. The following quote is key:
In that last article, I gave this list of five properties any proposed alternative energy source must have if it is to make any real difference.
1. It has to be huge (in terms of both energy and power)
2. It has to be reliable (not intermittent or unschedulable)
3. It has to be concentrated (not diffuse)
4. It has to be possible to utilize it efficiently
5. The capital investment and operating cost to utilize it has to be comparable to existing energy sources (per gigawatt, and per gigajoule).
This post discusses problems of scale which are, generally speaking problems of large numbers. People are really, really, really bad about reasoning about large numbers. I am really, really, really bad at it, although I can occasionally do it if I work at it. Are you good at it? Odds are, no, but please prove me wrong! I love reading people who are good at it.  Steven is much better than nearly everyone. Do not underestimate how absolutely easy it is to wishfully think about large numbers.

This post explains how difficult it is for everyone to produce small amounts of electricity and feed it into the grid. Shorter version: If you don't balance the power generated with the power consumed all hell breaks loose.

This post discusses why conservation won't solve the problem.

Here is a big review of alternate energy sources.

Here is a discussion of why biomass won't solve the problem.

This post explains why ethanol as a form of Carbon Sequestration won't help us. Here is a key quote, giving an excellent example of creating new and horrible forms of ecological disaster by trying bad ecological ideas:
There is no possible way we can bury a half a billion tonnes of compost every year. There's nowhere to put it, and the long term effects (on things like groundwater, for example) would be horrendous. This is a waste disposal problem to dwarf the amount of garbage that all our cities create. (Note that it would have to be buried near where it was grown; if you have to transport it long distances, you'll more than use up all the fuel you thought you were gaining by producing ethanol in the first place.)
Steven Den Beste also has a post on his new blog from 2008 on this. Warning: His new blog features images which are decidedly Not Safe For Work. But the content on this subject is stellar, so, if you can tolerate the images click this to read it. Below is a long quote.
The problems facing "alternate energy" are fundamental, deep, and are show-stoppers. They are not things that will be surmounted by one lone incremental improvement in one small area, announced breathlessly by a startup which is trying to drum up funding.
The way you can tell that a fan of "alternate energy" is a religious cultist is to ask them this question: If your preferred alternate source of energy is practical, why isn't it already in use?
Why not? Because of The Conspiracy™. The big oil companies don't want it to happen, and have been suppressing all this live-saving green people's energy all this time for their own nefarious purposes.
As soon as you hear any reference to The Conspiracy™, you know you're talking to someone who is living in a morality play. That isn't engineering any more, that's religion. And while religion is an important part of many people's lives, it has no place in engineering discussions.
UPDATE: There's actually another common answer to the "Why not" question. It's because you engineers are just too hidebound and conservative and unimaginative. If you'd just get on board and recognize how utterly cool and romantic these other ways of producing energy would be, then you could wave your magic engineering wand and make it happen. 
That's another kind of religion. It's not a religious struggle against evil (as personified by Big Oil) so much as a religious image of paradise. If the adherents of this kind of religion can just convert enough doubters, then paradise can happen. If you just believe, we can all be saved! Hallelujah, baby! Praise Gaia and pass the biodiesel!
Thanks, but no thanks. My "conservatism" on this subject is due to my understanding of the laws of physics and the principles of engineering, not to me being hidebound and unimaginative.
No one who has read Steven would consider him hidebound, conservative and unimaginative. He worked on developing CDMA technology back in the day. You cannot do that if you are hidebound, conservative and unimaginative.

This is the Facebook comment thread that started me thinking.