American Elephants


Sun and Wind and Rainbows and Magic Do Not Power the Planet by The Elephant's Child

A post I wrote back in 2013 is getting another round of attention, as it does now and then. I wrote about abandoned wind turbines, and the misguided notion that wind and sun are free, therefore renewable energy—and to be endlessly subsidized as our most desirable source of power. I hasten to add that I am not a scientist nor do I have any pretense of being one. I was an English major at a time and in a college where the pursuit of knowledge and the critical examination of sources were considered essential.

But I also grew up in the mountains of Idaho on 400 acres with a river running through it, and spent most of my time, winter and summer, outdoors. We had winters with 5′ of snow and winters that were fairly mild. Flood, forest fires, lightning strikes, cougar, bear, lynx and woodrats. (I’m a deadly shot on woodrats. They gather up the cotton from cottonwood trees, store it in the attic of the woodshed and then pee all over it, and have their babies there.) You don’t live outdoors for years interacting with weather, and get all panicky about a few degrees warmer or cooler.

Science is complicated. I just read about a cave discovered in Mexico, a half a mile down, so hot that scientists can only stay for a few minutes, where there are microbes trapped in crystals that could be 50,000 years old, living on minerals like iron and manganese. Lots left on Earth for us to discover yet, diseases to conquer, unknown territory, they are discovering new species every year. The world economy runs on some form of electric power, and not just for our convenience, light and heat. Transportation, manufacturing, business and government are dependent on electricity and their needs are growing constantly, so the more power we need.

People are frightened by nuclear power after the horrific catastrophe in Japan, and the nuclear accident in Russia. We have dams on most of our major rivers, and environmentalists long for free wild rivers. Power good, but dams bad. Environmentalists say that coal, oil and natural gas are all evil, and should “stay in the ground where they belong.” So it’s unsurprising that there is a fetish for energy from the wind and the sun. Surely with our advanced modern technology we can invent wind turbines and solar arrays to harness the free energy of the wind and the sun. Well, no, no we can’t. Or we can, if we’re content to live in extreme poverty.

The wind is terminally, fatally intermittent. When the wind blows, which is not most of the time, it blows in gusts and wafts or gales. What you need is a steady stream of wind and then you get “capacity,” which is what the manufactures of the turbines promise when they are extolling the virtues of wind. Never happens. In winter, when you are freezing, the wind is apt to not blow at all, and the turbines don’t turn. They have already tried most of the really windy places —Altamont Pass in California, the tip of the Hawaiian Islands, they’ve even replaced a lot of the idle turbines in my 2013 post, so now they are moving offshore. There’s a big offshore farm coming online off our East coast shortly. Offshore turbines take a lot more punishment from saltwater and weather. The life of an onshore turbine is 20 years at best, offshore is a lot less.

The sun, on the other hand, is too diffuse. For real power you need really hot sun bearing down, in a cloudless sky. How many cloudless, sunny days do you get? This is the Northwest, where we get rain all the time, and plenty of clouds. The sun also has a habit of sinking beneath the horizon at night, and even more so in the short days of winter. Elon Musk keeps promising battery arrays to take care of that, but it certainly hasn’t happened yet, and his solar farms haven’t been in the news much. Wind turbines have a nasty habit of chopping up bats and birds by the hundreds, birds of prey as well. What that does to our insect population and rodent population I don’t know, but it doesn’t bode well for malaria and Zika. and other disease.

Both of these technologies demand more and more land each year as the need for more and more energy increases, land in quantities simply unavailable.  Look for Robert Bryce’s book: Smaller, Faster, Lighter, Denser, Cheaper. It’s a clear, simple explanation of why wind and solar will remain interesting, but are not a major source of power except in the remote places where any source of power, however limited,  is a bounty.

Advertisements

Leave a Comment so far
Leave a comment



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s



%d bloggers like this: