Doomsaying and Phony Energy Solutions

There's no need to panic over energy supplies.

Our world is at a turning point in many things: the rise of terrorist nations, the EU breaking apart, the ascendancy of China as a factor to deal with, and other global concerns. Rising to the top of the heap in our day-to-day lives, however, is the way that our world sees fit to use the energy that is available to us.

That energy that we can tap has an enormous reserve – we have no idea how large it is.  At one point in the 20th century, doomsayers were predicting the end of the availability of usable energy within that century. This has been proven to be a foolish response to what was thought of as an inevitable result of profligate waste of our energy resources.

New sources of energy have been developed since that time. We have known of many untapped types of energy for a long time, and only during the last 25 years or so have these sources become available. The dilemma now is related more simply to cost and to ready availability than it is to whether a particular source is obtainable at all.

We now know that we have the luxury of being able to make mistakes in our choices of energy sources without fear of seeing our planet go cold and dark. China, for instance, is making a choice to push electric cars and trucks as the only available products; they intend to eliminate gasoline powered vehicles entirely. California is making the same mistake: there are abundant reasons that electric vehicles will not become our only ones, and that gasoline (hydrocarbon) engines will remain one of our mainstays for a very long time.

The development of the hybrid automobile as a viable commercial product occurred in this century with the introduction of the Toyota Prius. Although it is a relatively expensive vehicle to purchase, at about year three in its lifecycle depending upon miles driven, the hybrid vehicle overtakes the gasoline vehicle (most manufacturers make all-gasoline versions of similar models) in total cash outlay for "total cost of ownership."

A new report in the Wall Street Journal shows a not-terribly-surprising correlation between the development of gasoline powered automobiles and hybrids. The article that accompanies that graphic is a little more surprising, since it includes a great deal more in the way of analysis than does the chart included.

The upshot of that article is that the gasoline engine is going to be with us for a while. We did not need the WSJ to make that point; it is rather obvious.

One of the conclusions that this author reached in a previous article was that, due to a number of factors, electric cars will not take over anytime soon. The reasons were doses of reality that many do not wish to think about in their daydreaming about all the “resources” that might be saved. It is entirely possible that the infrastructure needed to power a world-wide fleet of all-electric vehicles will never keep pace with the enormous number of vehicles of that type that would be needed if all-electric were to be mandated.

And, in point of fact, vehicles must work hand-in-hand with energy use and other aspects of our lives. Battery power for all sorts of things is the current vogue, but batteries cannot power everything. A range in your kitchen will probably never cook a Thanksgiving turkey on locally-connected batteries.

There is room in our future for all sources of power. Windmills, for instance, power small generators in some remote locations now, and there is reason to expect that the future holds many applications of wind power. What there is not, though, is a need for gigantic, ugly, dangerous windmills that some parties are trying to force upon the market by cooking the books and pounding the ultimate user with incentives.

Windmills are a perfect example of “environmental overreach” which has been the hallmark of the left as they strive to take over the choice-making in energy sources. If it were their decision, we would have a hugely expensive network of solar farms interconnected to windmill fields stretching from coast to coast – endangering wildlife and spoiling the view, while failing to provide reliable power on cloudy windless days.

The experience of a neighbor here in central Florida where the sun angle is exceptionally favorable to power production by a roof mounted array of solar panels tells the reality of the solar choice. On a day in June, when the height of the sun is at its apex, there are days when that neighbor still must augment solar production with power from the grid. Most days, there are long sunny periods during which his solar array produces enough power for his household.

Nearly every day, however, the cloudy periods dictate that he must use power from the grid. And he cannot do without it. Therefore, the grid is still connected to his house two years after installation of his solar array.

His whole hope in purchasing – at great expense – his solar array was to be able to cut the grid loose. But since he enjoys his meat cooked and his vegetables steamed, he needs reliable power, which, some days, he cannot have from his free power source. TECO (Tampa Electric) is well aware of his and others’ situation, and is going to no great lengths to accommodate.

Not far from here, there is a guy who has cut away from the grid entirely, but he is a hermit sort, and this writer has no idea how he is faring - attempts to communicate with him have not been successful. His solar array, though, is singularly unattractive, being detached from his house on an independent support system. It fared Hurricane Irma, whose eye passed directly over us, quite well, though.

All in all, the first neighbor is experiencing very large savings on his power bill, but he is still not able to “make the meter run backwards” like he had planned. The cost of his whole enterprise is not known, but he may be saving some in energy bills to help with the cost of the panels. He doesn’t cover the whole nut, though.

Solar panels come close to adequacy for a single floor residence, using the available area on the roof, but where a house has multiple floors, the floor area to roof ratio becomes too high. The electrical demand will exceed supply unless there are panels added to the ones arrayed upon the roof. The advent of LED lighting is a huge help in this regard, and may allow a single floor house to produce a moderate excess of power.

Office and similar commercial buildings are hopeless for being powered by solar panels mounted on the roof, though. The ratio of solar panel required per square foot of office space is in the order of 5 – 10 (low estimate – actual need is probably higher) square feet of solar panel per 1 square foot of single-story office space. More intensive, power-hungry commercial buildings of multi-stories are just not possible to power with solar energy.

Houses – maybe. Larger buildings for other uses – no.

On-site wind energy powering individual commercial buildings is a non-starter. Hence, the advent of the wind-energy farms with enormous windmills tracking across the landscape in hopes that a puff will swing the blades. The initial and operating costs of windmills are enormous; the power output is merely okay; the wind forgets to blow on days when it is needed most.

All these factors lead to a dominating conclusion: as much as many would like it to be so, energy sources that are environmentally friendly (green) cannot be relied upon.

So, power must be generated using the old standbys of burning things, cracking atoms, and water running downhill. And the grid must be powered by those things sized as if they are the only source of energy - for on many days they will be. The infrastructure must all be there for traditional forms of running the wheels of commerce so that the trendy little forms of energy generation can make some liberal Congressmen happy.

Solar panels have grown in output capability by an order of 10, and of the two “environmentally friendly” sources that have been described, is the one that has a little bit of promise for the future. Solar energy used in conjunction with battery power as it evolves into more capable systems may become a promising solution.

A very real and very present energy source that is not mentioned very much in trendy conversations is nuclear. Some countries, like France, are using nuclear energy to great advantage. There have been relatively small energy hubs – “package nuclear plants” – developed which are used in various locations in Europe.

For some reason, the horror stories of nuclear problems have been blown out of proportion by the mainstream media here in our country. The few incidents that have occurred here have resulted in non-events because of the cautionary methods that have been employed by the designers of the plants involved. If we allowed it to, a large opportunity exists for nuclear plants in our country.

Others have taken some of the mystery out of the development of small-scale nuclear sources, leaving the US with a relatively safe path that we can follow. True, there have been accidents, but the US is relatively free of negative results. “Three Mile Island,” you say; no damage, no leaks, no people injured. It was caused by a series of errors that could have been foreseen and forestalled. And the greatest negative result was in the minds of the press.

This writer’s father was among those who were assigned to Manhattan project during World War II. His experiences made him very skeptical of the precautions forced upon all who worked with nuclear energy in the US. He later spent 18 months working on non-nuclear technology in Japan during the 1980s, but he witnessed the leaps and bounds that the Japanese had made in nuclear proliferation. He came back to the US with a confidence in his previous opinions of the overwrought caution in the US about nuclear dangers.

The Japanese way worked. They spent time among nuclear sources that US scientists would never do. And they were completely unscathed. There are opportunities in nuclear energy that are available whenever we decide that there are.

The two energy sources that are receiving the most publicity, though, represent only between five and 10% of our energy need, and they are both unreliable at best. Money spent on solar energy may become a good investment. Money spent on large-scale wind energy is a boondoggle of the most egregious sort, and needs to be stopped, at least with taxpayer dollars.

New discoveries and new technology have unleashed opportunities for development and innovations in the burning of existing fuels. There is a great potential for the development of new sources that are not yet ready for prime time by a longshot: geothermal energy, power from tides, and some other sources being developed with an eye toward the future. All of this pie-in-the-sky work is commendable, and may provide power sources as others fade in centuries to come.

They can all work together to keep humanity warm and dry into the eons. We will presumably run out of petroleum at some point, but human ingenuity will prevail long before that sad day comes – if it ever does.

Thomas Anderson is a multi-state registered architect and an ex-Air Force electronic technician, who is a keen observer of the human condition.  Read other articles by Thomas Anderson or other articles on Environment.
Reader Comments

The larger utility will also be with us for some time, because it offers us the ability to draw lots of power economically, for a short period of time. Since one's peak demand is far less than average demand (by about a factor of 5), and most everybody peaks at a different time, some sort of shared resource is more economical. That is the benefit of a utility.

But if batteries get cheap enough, that could revolutionize the utility as we know it.

November 30, 2017 6:21 PM

Agree with C44. If there is a breakthrough on electrical storage, that will change the game 100%.

November 30, 2017 10:49 PM

One potential future for a nuclear powered economy includes process power beyond electrical power. High temperature reactors can provide the energy for manufacturing liquid and gaseous hydrocarbon fuels (e.g. kerosene, methane). We have the infrastructure to distribute these fuels and thus nuclear power can provide fuels for air transport, road transport, and home heating.

Nuclear power can also desalinate water allowing the growth of cities. Drinking and irrigation water can be provided opening up vast land areas for comfortable human habitation.

The question is not how do we power our existing lifestyle with limiting sources such as solar and wind, but how we can create a more prosperous society.

December 1, 2017 12:29 PM
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