Friday, April 01, 2011

Technology: The Challenges of Green Energy

The "PR" of Green Energy is very good: good jobs! clean energy! saves the US economy! saves the world!

Of course, most things are never quite as good as advertised.

Why would anyone want to throw cold water on Green Energy?

Well, the reality is that Green Energy bumps its head up against the laws of physics and it costs lots of greenbacks (dollars).

This item I found at the Cato web page is a reprint of an item in Forbes magazine.

green energy is diffuse ... the entire state of Connecticut (that is, if Connecticut were as windy as the southeastern Colorado plains) would need to be devoted to wind turbines to power the city of New York.

Sad to say, the land footprint of a traditional power plant is much smaller than a wind farm. And building wind farms out in the ocean is very challenging and expensive. I wonder how many acres of solar panels would one need to match one good old fashioned natural gas power plant?

it is unreliable. The wind doesn't always blow and the sun doesn't always shine when the energy is needed. We account for that today by having a lot of coal and natural gas generation on "standby" to fire-up when renewables can't produce.

The CAL-ISO manages the electricity needs of California and they have cool graphs of what is happening on a daily basis. As one can see there are peaks and troughs from the wind and solar portions of the electrical portfolio.

As long as solar and wind account for only a small portion of the electrical generation portfolio and the system resource curves and demand curves don't get too close, one probably can live with those peaks and troughs. But when the lines get close, the electrical grid will need a more stable source of electricity; hence, backup generation capacity from gas and coal.

once the electricity is produced by the sun or wind, it cannot be stored because battery technology is not currently up to the task. Hence, we must immediately "use it or lose it."

Without battery technology, the peaks and troughs of wind and solar will need backup generation in case of a power crunch.

The Green Energy movement is hesitant to embrace nuclear power for philosophical reasons and the practical radiation risk as highlighted in the recent problems in Japan. But nuclear doesn't produce greenhouse gases so in that sense it can be included in the green category.

Unfortunately, nuclear, in addition to the radiation risks, does pose some financial challenges too. Because of the radiation risks, plant design has to be very good thus nuclear has very high initial capital costs which this item over at Reason discusses.

While the nuclear industry in the United States has seen continued improvements in operating performance over time, it remains uncompetitive with coal and natural gas on the basis of price. This cost differential is primarily the result of high capital costs and long construction times. Indeed, building a nuclear power plant in the United States has cost, on average, three times as was originally estimated.

Am not in the energy business but clearly there are some very big challenges out there!

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