That’s Funny, Sen. Feinstein Doesn’t Look Like Sen Kennedy

…but she certainly sounds like him today.

Where Kennedy wanted to block a wind energy project that had a (trivial) view impact on his Cape Cod mansion, I’m not aware of any personal interest Sen Feinstein has in moving to block solar and wind energy from being developed in the California desert…

Reporting from Washington — While President Obama has made development of cleaner energy sources a priority, an effort is underway to close off a large swath of the Southern California desert to solar and wind energy projects.

In a move that could pit usual allies — environmentalists and the solar and wind industries — against each other, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is preparing legislation that would permanently put hundreds of thousands of acres of desert land off limits to energy projects. The territory would be designated California’s newest national monument.

The move has triggered cries of NIMBY-ism on Capitol Hill.

Look, I certainly don’t believe in build anywhere you want to, but at some point this is just BANANAs (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone).
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89 thoughts on “That’s Funny, Sen. Feinstein Doesn’t Look Like Sen Kennedy”

  1. I certainly don’t believe that large wind turbines should be built in any one’s back yard. There are “significant noise and strobe impacts”:http://www.viewsofscotland.org/library/docs/wtnoisehealth-1.pdf within a mile.

    Nor should they be built on public lands previously set aside for preservation. This doesn’t appear to be the case here.

    What is the federal interest here? Why isn’t California developing its own land use laws concerning wind turbines? I wouldn’t be surprised if Feinstein could horse trade votes with other Senators to get such a law passed because most non-Californians wouldn’t care. And since California is a one-party state, Feinstein ain’t exactly accountable either.

  2. Much of the land in question is federal land, some of it originally acquired by private groups for conservation purposes.

    Feinstein is quite right, of course. Solar and wind energy, on the scale imagined by greenies, is a perfect eco-catastrophe. If you could still find any “eco” at all underneath the endless acres of massive, clumsy infrastructure.

  3. Glen:

    bq. Much of the land in question is federal land, some of it originally acquired by private groups for conservation purposes.

    Thanks, I missed that part of the article, which at one point describes the area as undefined and between the Mojave National Preserve and Joshua Tree National Park. Typically, federal land is held under some category of usage, whether complete non-use on one end or leasing to the highest bidder on the other. Also, conservancy groups usually transfer such property subject to restrictive covenants on subsequent use.

    Now apparently, rule of law concerns no longer bind the government to complying with previous contractual obligations, so the conservancy group can kiss Uncle Sam’s fat @ss.

    But I do understand the federal issue now.

  4. To answer my own question, the land is subject to the least restrictive protection: “the Bureau of Land Management considers the land now open to all types of development, except mining.” “Link”:http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2009/03/21/feinstein-dont-spoil-desert-solar-panels/ That doesn’t strike me as evidence of an established sense of the importance of conservation of this particular land and its habitat. If it weren’t going to be used for energy, I’d suggest turning it into a large parking lot for unsold cars.

    I do wonder about how much prime farmland is being devoted to wind energy.

  5. _”Anything to back up these statements or are they the product of a personal free floating anxiety”_

    Simple math? “Steven Den Beste”:http://chizumatic.mee.nu/ghosts_of_my_past cocktail napkinned some figures of the required amount of landscape to get 35% of our energy useage from solar power _even if_ we ever get the efficiency up to 10%. It was about the size of the state of Michigan.

    Wind is just as bad if not worse because there is less potential to increase efficiency, even in theory. Electricity production is a direct ration to turbine length. No getting around it.

    Consider we’re _already_ fighting over space for this stuff. It just aint gonna happen. They will never be more than niche players unless there is a gamechanger such as a space elevator allowing some actually useful work in space at a reasonable price. At that point we can build as much solar power as we like and microwave it back down.

  6. _”Just take in to account the problems that would arise from the melting of the Himalayan glaciers. Literally billions of people would be denied water, with no hope of finding another source.”_

    I’m concerned about a 1km wide meteor striking an ocean and killing most of the life on this planet. The only difference is my fear is almost a mathematical certainty given enough time.

  7. That is a lot to extrapolate from the back of a napkin. It is also a comment on how inflexible we must be not to be able to adapt to our environment nor come up wioth better solutions than massive on the grid projects.

    I have never heard of Mr. Beste or Den Beste before but from the article you linked to the commentary look like the usual stuff you get on talk radio or among “cultists”. Glib and not very informed or knowledgeable.

    Despite the Disclaimer:

    _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._

    I think the opposite is true. He seems to be not much more than the opposite side of the same left cultist coin he is trying to distinguish himself from.

  8. That is a lot to extrapolate from the back of a napkin.

    In opposition to what? Blind faith? And how do you know it is a “lot to extrapolate”?

    It is also a comment on how inflexible we must be not to be able to adapt to our environment …

    Seems to me to adapt you have to account for the realities. If you don’t what those realities are how can you know if it’s inflexible?

    I have never heard of Mr. Beste or Den Beste before but from the article you linked to the commentary look like the usual stuff you get on talk radio or among “cultists”.

    He is an electrical engineer. Do you think maybe he knows a bit about electricity? From one of his old posts read the part ”
    You’ve got to start thinking really, really big“. Tell us how his back of the envelope numbers are wrong.

  9. For those that have claimed that placing a 3-4 foot pipeline raised up on stilts from an oilfield to a port constitutes unspeakable environmental destruction this is actually an entirely consistent and logical claim.

  10. This site suggests that you need about 1.25 acres (at best) to produce 1GWh / year. That includes packing (area actually covered), efficiency, etc.

    That is not at best, it is totally unrealistic. They list efficiency at 10%–20%. 10% is closer to reality, 20% only in the lab at standard temperature (25C). Any real life solar arrays I have looked at measure in the 10% to 12% range. The 25C is the substrate temperature (the silicon cell) which isn’t going to happen in the real world. The sun heats them up. A lot. Silicon has a negative temperature coefficient and efficiency drops with increasing temperature. Fast. The reduced efficiency alone doubles your area. From my experience with NREL projections the other numbers are probably optimistic too.

  11. “US nuclear reactors”:http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/reactors.html produced 806 billion KWh in 2007; they fit on something less than 800,000 acres.

    Solar and wind are BIG, and there’s no way around it. Not even considering the roads and facilities that would be needed to provide the massive maintenance they would need, and the transmission lines.

    Anywhere they go there will be a huge footprint, and the greenies will be deploying their politicians to stop it. Their “energy policy” is all about trashing oil companies and expanding government power, not producing energy.

  12. If you want to have even more fun consider this: both solar and wind energy change our climate directly.
    When the sun beats down on a piece of land, the land gets warmer and heats the air. The warm air rises and is displaced by colder air. Add a solar cell between the two and this equation changes. The solar cell converts a certain percentage of sunlight into energy. Some of the rest just gets wasted by the inefficiency of the cell. Most probably gets converted into heat and duplicates the normal cycle. But not an identical amount. And that amount is removed from the climate.

    Wind energy uses giant wind turbines to get energy from the wind. The giant propeller itself is not one hundred percent efficient. And the turbine itself does not convert the energy it gets from the propeller. So the wind entering the wind turbine gets slower as it passes through the turbine.

    If you assume one hundred percent of the US energy needs are produced by wind and solar energy, and you assume the number 3.8E14 Kwh is correct, and then at a minimum of 3.8E14 Kwh would be removed from the Earth’s climate. And that has to have an effect.

  13. _”you then intimate that even accepting this there is less chance of a Melting of the Himalayan Glaciers than that the Earth being hit by a meteorite.”_

    The meteor is a (near) certainty. The melting glaciers, at least as far as AGW is concerned is a highly disputed conjecture.

    I didn’t throw that out there as red meat. I mentioned it because it is a very interesting insight into human nature.

    One disaster is pretty close to scientific certainty, that could end human life on earth literally. It could happen tomorrow or in 100,000 years, but it will happen. The other is the political cause de celeb that hinges on so many undefined variables to make it laughable even to try to spitball the margins of error, for which only the true tinfoil hatters claim human existence is at stake.

    The latter we are apparently going to spend trillions on, the former we spend what amounts to a rounding error on. It’s just interesting.

  14. TOC2 @6:

    bq. Just take in to account the problems that would arise from the melting of the Himalayan glaciers.

    And:

    bq. That is a lot to extrapolate from the back of a napkin. It is also a comment on how inflexible we must be not to be able to adapt to our environment nor come up with better solutions than massive on the grid projects. …I have never heard of Mr. Beste or Den Beste before but from the article you linked to the commentary look like the usual stuff you get on talk radio or among “cultists”.

    And, you had a sharper napkin or something? Sheesh. DenBeste is one of the godfathers of blogs. Go back to the USS Clueless and read. Come back when you are finished. Then you may, just may, be equipped to discuss. BTW, he is a EE, I believe, but deals in systems as a living. He writes about systems as an expert.

    You make the same leaps with AGW as does a true believer. It turns out that AGW is a theory, just a theory. It may prove to not be a very good theory at that. Go do the research yourself. Al Gore and Hansens writings do NOT count. Go elsewhere. No, I am not giving you links. Do it yourself.

    PV farms are HUGE! 30kWh going up near Clayton will be 500k 2′ x 4′ panels covering 1 sq mile. The panels are black! The albedo will be much more than the brownish sage land out there which means the local temps will be much higher. It turns out there are a few things with these kinds of installations:
    1. Gotta keep the glass or cover film clean. Keeps efficiency up.
    2. Efficiency goes down as local temp goes up.
    3. Efficiency is directly affected by air clarity. If the air is cool AND dry then efficiency is higher by some small amount but it matters.

    So that being said, they do not work all that well. And the Danish experiments with alternative energy say that about 27% of peak demand is the MOST that alternative (read variable) energy sources can supply.

    Oh, and TOC2, you said @6:

    bq. Should we live within an energy budget?

    You first. Similar to the guy in the UK who said that the UK could only sustain a population of 30m. I assume some would have to disappear or be disappeared. Hmm? You first. Walk the walk.

  15. You didn’t critique his article. You didn’t address a single point he brought up. Your sum contribution to the discussion was to exhort us to be more “flexible”, as if the laws of physics gave a damn about your opinion on the topic.

    You then proceeded to call him a big fat doodoo head.

    Seriously, were you under the impression that your discomfort with the numbers somehow constituted a cogent counter-argument? That, somehow, it’s okay that the numbers don’t add up so long as the person who points it out to you is a meanie that you can safely ignore?

    I don’t know if it would be worse if you were just being deceitful in the face of unwelcome facts, or if you really are that poor at math and logic. Either way, it has become obvious that you are unqualified to offer an opinion on this or any other topic of public concern, and that were there a just god, you would not have been inflicted upon us.

    (THAT is how we fly off the handle.)

  16. TOC2:

    “I have never heard of Mr. Beste or Den Beste before but from the article you linked to the commentary look like the usual stuff you get on talk radio or among “cultists”. Glib and not very informed or knowledgeable.”

    “He seems to be not much more than the opposite side of the same left cultist coin he is trying to distinguish himself from.”

    That all looks like commentary on my character, not on the substance of my post.

  17. I may not say this very often (or ever again), but Armed Liberal has the facts more or less right on this one – especially compared to Den Beste’s numbers in the linked post.

    The first thing I’d point out is that Den Beste is talking about total energy usage, when total electricity usage is more relevant when we’re talking about power generation. The former may well be on the order of 3.6 terawatts, but the later is, as AL said, about 3,892,000,000,000 KWh, or 445 GW. 35% of that amount, which is the target Den Beste is using for his New Jersey/Michigan land use claims, is about 155 gigawatts.

    Now, using Nevada Solar One as a guide to solar energy generation for area of land, we have a 1.6 square kilometer facility generating about 64 MW or about 40MW per square kilometer. If we follow Den Beste’s argument from earlier in his post that only 10 hours out of 24 will actually be producing power, that takes us down to about 16 MW per km^2. (Note that this is about the same efficiency as stuff like Solar Two, which uses molten salt thermal storage to generate all day).

    So, running those numbers, we get about 9700 square kilometers of thermal solar plants to provide about one third of the US’s electricity usage. That’s less than half the number Den Beste came up with, and, moving away from scare talk like “covering an area comparable to Michigan”, it’s about 1.6% of the combined area of Arizona and New Mexico. Not a trivial amount of land, but far from an unimaginable one. In fact, the BLM reports that it has applications to use about one million acres of desert for solar power, which is about 4000 square kilometers.

    And AL is again correct that if we want this kind of thing to move forward, Senator Feinstein’s actions should be condemned. Kudos to him for doing so.

    As for Den Beste’s character, I won’t say anything against it. But I will point out that he frequently omits or overlooks engineering assumptions unfavorable to his case – the total energy vs. electricity use is one example, his failure to discuss steadily increasing gains in photovoltaic production, efficiency, and falling prices is another. There’s unquestionably a great deal of work to be done in converting the country substantially over to renewable power, but the laws of physics and the principles of engineering definitely don’t support his idea that alternative energy supporters are religious cultists.

  18. Let’s compare plant costs, shall we?

    The capital investment for Nevada Solar One was $266 million. For their troubles, they have a plant that can generate 64 MW burst; let’s go with your assumption of 16 MW average. (It doesn’t really work like that, but meh, as an approximation it’s favorable to you.) That results in a cost of $16,625 per kilowatt/hour.

    GE’s installation of third-generation ABWR reactors in Japan recently cost approximately $2,000 per kilowatt/hour. They advertise that they can do it for $1,400 to $1,600 depending on where it’s going in. Remember, this is the plant type with very high construction costs and very low fuel costs…

    Granted that NSO is a semi-experimental facility, and you’d expect the cost to come down somewhat for future installations. But that’s also the case for the nuclear plants – scaling them up would drop that price too.

    But if we’re talking real-world performance costs for creating new power installations, nuclear has solar beat, not by a few percent, but by 800%. The solar plants aren’t even on the right order of magnitude to be competitive with nuclear, even with a subsidy. Even as supplemental plants for peak usage, they’re not competitive yet.

    Now, maybe NSO ran way over cost, and it could be done more cheaply – but we can’t conclude that it can be done for a fraction of historic prices, so someone will actually have to build a cheaper plant first. ;p

  19. TOC2:

    “I have never heard of Mr. Beste or Den Beste before but from the article you linked to the commentary look like the usual stuff you get on talk radio or among “cultists”. Glib and not very informed or knowledgeable.”

    *Is the fact that I had never heard of you an attack on your character? Is my comment about the general tone of the article an attack on your character?*
    “He seems to be not much more than the opposite side of the same left cultist coin he is trying to distinguish himself from.

    *This is my opinion on reading the article. Is this the attack on your character?*

    Maybe you are being a tad oversensitive here. No?

  20. Avatar: 1) How much does it cost to dispose of that nuclear waste? I think that’s a cost that’s somehow forgotten in the nuclear discussion. If you look at the Yucca mountain site (which has cost 1.3 billion dollars, only to find a running fault line underneath). This dramatically changes the cost of nuclear fuel. here is another problem, rapidly growing “construction costs”:http://online.wsj.com/article/SB121055252677483933.html?mod=googlenews_wsj

    I am not anti nuclear fuel. From the nuclear engineers I’ve talked too, they claim that Europe uses higher standards for recycling uranium than we do, leading to lower waste content. But it costs more money, and my understanding is that nuclear companies are reluctant to eat those costs. (arguably, this is hearsay, I don’t have evidence to back this up).

    I think San Fransisco has the right idea here. Subsidize local business, houses etc that plug right into the grid, then slowly reduce the energy needs of the city. It will never solve the ‘entire’ problem, but it will dramatically reduce the power needed over time.

    AL is using an individual solar system now. Is this still working good?

    Solar plants are a good idea, but the technology is still young, and so I’m not surprised that the early plants have a low efficiency. They’ll get better.

  21. On the other hand, storing nuclear waste is a problem that we’ve been working on for 50 years, those costs have only gotten more expensive.

  22. Talk to Harry Reid. Didn’t used to cost 10 billion dollars to dig a hole in the ground and then decide not to use it.

  23. Maximum capacity is a pointless statistic for our purposes. According to the Solar One people, they expect an annual capacity factor of 24% (134,000 MWh/(64MW*8760h)). The largest solar plant in the world is “SEGS”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_Energy_Generating_Systems#Plants.27_scale_and_operations which claims a factor of 21%, and i’m not sure that that is confirmed independently. “These”:http://www.treehugger.com/files/2008/03/solar-versus-wind-power.php researches studied two multi mega-Watt AZ plants and found the capacity factor to be 19%.

    If you assume a 21% capacity factor, scaling up Solar One i get about 7414 square miles to provide 35% of the current US electricity useage (1.3 billion MWh), which is indeed about the size of New Jersey. The catch is it has to be the ideal location to get this capacity.

    I’m not saying solar isn’t a piece of the puzzle, but I think we are dreaming to think its going to ever be a major player. Ironically it might make some sense (if it could be done economically) to turn _huge_ swatches of desert into power plants, but if we won’t build a pipeline in the most remote part of the planet because it might emotionally upset a deer, we just aren’t going to basically pave over state sized stretches of the continental US, desert of not.

  24. _”As long as companies don’t have to pay for their own landfills, the true costs of nuclear get obscured.”_

    Now that’s ironic, considering the left has brilliantly made nuke plants marginally economically by tying up their design and construction in so much red tape, law suits, and long term uncertainty, and then declaring that they aren’t economically viable.

    I guarantee the utility industry would jump a deal whereby they pay for disposal/recycling in exchange for getting the environmentalist anchor of their backs.

  25. Some of the questions TOC2 raises in #6 are illuminated by these pdf maps:

    “LINK”:http://www.nrel.gov/analysis/power_databook/docs/pdf/db_chapter13.pdf

    In particular, wind and solar are best located in the West or Southwest, in areas where there is substantial public lands. These energy sources are rather poor along the East Cost, except for wind in the Appalachians, and Cape Cod.

    If the public lands are too important to be used for renewable energy resources, we are probably wasting a lot of time in that direction. It would probably be better to use the cheapest energy and hope that time and economic growth produce more options.

  26. The capital investment for Nevada Solar One was $266 million. For their troubles, they have a plant that can generate 64 MW burst; let’s go with your assumption of 16 MW average. (It doesn’t really work like that, but meh, as an approximation it’s favorable to you.) That results in a cost of $16,625 per kilowatt/hour.

    AvatarADV, that’s not an approximation that’s favorable to me, that’s more or less in line with the 134 GWH/yr numbers that numerous people have cited: producing 16MW on average gives us about 140 GWH/yr. And it’s true that the power generation far from perfectly average over the course of a year, but it’s also true that the maximum power output for a solar plant’s production cycle matches up pretty well with maximum usage demand for surrounding homes.

    And yes, NSO is an experimental plant whose costs are probably way, way above the average per unit cost if we were putting these things up everywhere. In contrast, you claim nuclear costs might go down as well, but even though we haven’t been building plants in the US, plenty of other countries have – it’s a fairly mature technology, and you’re not gonna see anywhere near the kind of drop you are with solar moving from the prototype stage to the mass production stage. Add in the long term storage costs that Alchemist talks about below, and nuclear’s not anywhere near as rosy as you make it look.

  27. Chris has a point- discussing the economics of this is probably impossible. You can’t take test facilities, or even first generation plants and assume their economics will be anything like the large scale we are discussing. Particularly considering the level of government meddling/subsidizing involved. Neither can we clearly see what our energy markets will look like in even 10 years .Will we go to electric cars? That’s a monstrous potential increase in demand. Why bother even spitballing when the margins of error are bigger larger than the data available?

    I prefer to talk about the physical limitations and what we can predict about our political/social reaction to them. This isn’t an issue that can be laughed off. I think we are vastly overestimating how much ‘useless’ land we think there is in our country. We think the Mohave Desert is 22K square miles but don’t realize that it includes Las Vegas,Palmdale, Inland Empire, Palm Springs etc. Even Death Valley is only about 5500 square miles, still less than the total land we spitballed earlier. And realistically the enviros arent going to allow a huge chunk to be paved over.

    I absolutely agree with PD Shaw- before we further commit to making wind and solar X percentage of our energy production by year Y, we better figure out what will be required and if it is viable politically. Find me the 7000 square miles, let everybody agree to it, and _then_ we can start talking about the cost and resource balancing. Otherwise we are massively putting the cart before the horse. Yucca Mountain was a great warning- spend 10 billion and then figure out if its politically viable. But this investment is much huger and requires a much more careful commitment.

  28. _”Even Death Valley is only about 5500 square miles”_

    Scratch that- 3000 square miles. And it may be too hot for solar anyway.

  29. Let’s set aside Den Beste’s 35% number and talk about what could reasonably be done regarding where power’s generated (the Southwest) and where a lot of it’s needed (the Northeast). No, it’s probably not feasible to pipe all that power from Arizona to New York.

    That said, if I do some back of the envelope calculations, I get the combined populations of the LA, San Diego, Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Albuquerque metropolitan areas as a bit under 30 million, or about 10% the population of the country. All these people live in close enough proximity to prime solar territory so they can get their electricity from solar thermal; even using Mark’s numbers above, that’d require around 2100 square miles of solar to be put up. Which is just under 1% of the combined area of New Mexico and Arizona.

    If it could be done economically, I think that’d be a reasonable trade for large amounts of renewable, largely emission-free energy. The CS Monitor article I linked to above gives solar costs at about 17 cents per KWh; depending on who you listen to nuclear’s anywhere from 4 to 17 cents per KWh, with current retail prices at about 9 cents per KWh. And while it’s true that red tape NIMBY is a bad thing when it comes to both nuclear and solar, it’s not the case that this is a purely partisan issue. While McCain did say that he’d push for Yucca Mountain, if elected, he also, IIRC, said that he’d fight nuclear waste trains from going through Arizona en route to Yucca.

    All of which is a long way of reiterating that Den Beste’s characterization of alternative energy is wrong, and that solar is feasible, although not perfect.

  30. Just a bit of snark:

    bq. Sen. Feinstein Doesn’t Look Like Sen Kennedy

    Uhm, I am not so sure. There may be a bit of a resemblance.

    The discussion above is good except for one thing, TOC2, calling someone a cultist is considered poor form and insulting in some circles. Just so you know.

    Here is the practical side. The Danes (from that country called Denmark) have been doing alternative for a long time, of all types. Solar, wind, tidal, etc. They have peaked at 27% of alternative (read variable output) sources for their grid. That means you must have steady state or instantaneous demand sources for the rest => coal fired, U238 fired or gas fired generation. These sources can meet instantaneous demand situations ‘cuz the wind don’t blow, the tides don’t change and the sun don’t shine all of the time. There are other sources that can be considered. Temperature gradient generation where practical, the salt temperature storage(? – not familiar and I will study on it) and others we may not know about yet. Broussard cold fusion?

    The point is that for the real and current world, we must do it all right now to reduce threats to the US from outside and inside. Drill for oil and natural gas in all areas. Work on solar efficiencies. Work in theoretical fusion sources. Etc.

  31. Well, when there are commercial solar plants besides NSO that we can examine to get a cost basis, then let’s do so. Until then, it’s essentially all we’ve got to look at.

    But keep in mind that Steven’s criteria for “let’s even consider this” is a cost structure, both capital and operational, within 30% of what we have now. Spending a little more to get energy from what is, admittedly, pretty close to a perfectly clean source is not a bad idea. Spending several times more on it is something we cannot afford.

    (I’d also like to comment on the fraction of electrical power generation versus total energy question. Fact is, electricity generation is only a fraction of our total energy consumption. On the other hand, if we had an emissions-free and cost-competitive source of energy to tap, wouldn’t we want to do more with it? There’s nothing that says we have to heat houses with fuel oil or natural gas instead of electricity. Obviously if we use a lot more electric cars, that will increase the share of national energy production focused on electricity and reduce the share focused on petrochemicals. And so on and so on… If it can scale up to a significant fraction of our electricity generation needs, why would it have to stop scaling up there?)

  32. _”All these people live in close enough proximity to prime solar territory so they can get their electricity from solar thermal; even using Mark’s numbers above, that’d require around 2100 square miles of solar to be put up. Which is just under 1% of the combined area of New Mexico and Arizona.”-

    I think this is correct, and it already seems to be happening (and already hitting the friction of competing interests as this thread demonstrates). But that’s my point (and why I invoked Mr. Den Beste). As a national, long term, energy policy, wind and solar are going to be relatively minor players, even assuming we push them as hard as possible. Doing so may not be wise! If, as you suggest, solar can be a big part of certain regions- that’s great, but lets not confuse that with being a legitimate answer to our long term needs. Its one component, but its also a mirage. We aren’t talking about how to deal with the other 80%, which is the hard part. What i see happening is we spend so much time and money and resources on things that at the end of the day aren’t the answers to the big problems. The myth of renewables is that once you figure them out you can scale them up infinitely. You simply can’t do that. So great, lets spend 20 or 30% of our resources on wind and solar etc, but lets spend the rest on figuring out what to do with the big parts, for which at the moment we have no idea outside of nuclear which we refuse to figure out.

    In other words, we are spending (I suspect) a lot more on research and subsidies for solar and wind than we are on fusion or space elevators, when at the end of the day that is backwards. In my opinion we should be using a shotgun of spending at a myriad of ‘game changer’ technologies instead of focusing laser like on techs that can’t be. There is a black swan out there that is going to change the human race and their relationship to energy forever, and its not going to be wind and probably not solar (at least on terra firma).

  33. Two points:

    – W/r/t doing more with clean power, it’s almost certainly true that that’s the case. However, it’s also almost certainly true that moving a lot of cars from gasoline to plug-in hybrids will significantly change how much energy gets used, for two reasons. First, electric motors are far more efficient at using their power – in the 75% range, IIRC. In comparison, gas engines are about 20% efficient, which means that the giant numbers Den Beste throws around when he talks about total energy usage will likely go down significantly.

    Second, electric cars are lighter, and get driven differently (e.g. they’re not as capable of going from 0 to 60 in 6 seconds). We can have an argument about whether those are _good_ things (yes, lighter cars are more vulnerable in a crash, but more lighter cars means that crashes, on average, aren’t as deadly.) But, although I won’t try to quantify it here, I suspect total energy usage will drop still further when we factor in the fact that electric cars mean we’ll be moving less mass, and accelerating it less quickly.

    – Second, I just outlined a proposal for thermal solar to take the place of 10% of the nation’s energy budget – one that Mark agreed seemed feasible. 10% isn’t a “minor player”, especially when you consider that’s _just_ solar thermal, and _just_ in one specific region of the country. Factor in smart grid technology (smart appliances turning themselves on during non-peak load times, smarter instantaneous pricing schemes for power use, better utilization of distributed power sources like solar panels, etc.) and the fact that there’s a lot more out there than just solar and renewable energy starts to look very feasible. (High altitude wind generation makes a lot of sense to me, because there’s more wind higher up, it blows more consistently, it can be tapped at almost any location, and it’d probably be a good testing ground for the kind of tether technology that’d be integral to the space elevators Mark talks about.)

    Making this stuff work isn’t trivial, but it’s far from physically impossible or economically infeasible – a lot of it’s just engineering work. Dismissing it because it can’t take over from fossil immediately is like dismissing computers ever reaching teraflop speed back in the 50’s because it’d take several thousand acres of vacuum tube-based systems to do so. Den Beste continually acts like he’s got a monopoly on talking from an engineering perspective, but he’s not disproving things so much as he’s describing problems to overcome… which is the whole point of having engineers in the first place.

  34. Let’s leave space elevators out of the discussion for the moment. They rely on, well, fantasy materials; we have to have fundamental advances in materials and construction technology before we can even consider things like that. (Don’t talk to me about buckytubes. Laboratory processes that can make grams of the stuff won’t scale to making cables of it over 100 miles long! Come back when I’m a grandpa, maybe it’ll be feasible.)

    Also, careful of your terminology – you specifically chose to address electricity generation, as opposed to “total energy budget”, so don’t pretend you’ve already solved the latter issue. ;p

    And if you get to talk about the disadvantages of nuclear (i.e. waste disposal, which is more of a political problem than a technical one), then can’t we mention the downsides of high altitude generation… that is, failure modes involve heavy things crushing people to death (or crashing airliners.)

    Nobody’s saying “we should abandon any generation technology that doesn’t involve setting fire to a petrochemical” or anything stupid like that. But at the same time, talking about political mandates for using non-competitive power generation is bad, mmkay?

  35. Also, careful of your terminology – you specifically chose to address electricity generation, as opposed to “total energy budget”, so don’t pretend you’ve already solved the latter issue. ;p

    I did choose to address electricity generation; you specifically put it back on the table with comment #40. I don’t claim to have “solved” it, but I do think it’s worth pointing out that it’s not as difficult to deal with as might be thought.

    W/r/t space elevators, I’ll leave you to argue that with Mark; I’m not as enthusiastic as he is about them being a “game changer” in my lifetime, but I don’t think we’ll have to wait several decades for large-scale nanomaterial production to be economically feasible either.

    My guess is that NIMBY for kite generation will be far less intense than NIMBY for nuke waste – more or less on the order of wind or solar. (People really freak the heck out over nukes, plain and simple.) That being the case, while I won’t pretend the issue doesn’t exist, and agree the burden of proof is for the Obama admin to show that it can overcome resistance from Feinstein and Kennedy to actually implement substantial renewable capacity, I think it’s reasonable to argue that nuke waste is still at least an order of magnitude harder to deal with than renewable NIMBY issues.

    Lastly, I simply disagree about political mandates for using “non-competitive” power generation for three reasons:

    1. “Non-competitive” is in the eye of the beholder, as we’ve seen through this argument. It’s far more sensible to talk about “less competitive” vs. “more competitive”, and to consider the extent to which that relationship can and will change in the future.

    2. Much depends on how the political mandates are structured: there’s a difference between saying “no more coal plants ever” and saying “we’re going to structure taxes and incentives to minimize the number of new coal plants constructed in the future to better reflect the external cost of carbon emissions”.

    3. Unless you believe cheaper, more efficient renewables are simply physically impossible, government incentives for research and deployment are an important and useful tool for encouraging economic development, both in the limited case of power generation markets, and in the wider case of the economy as a whole. (Hint: more electric cars powered by renewable energy means less overall grief when demand from China and India pushes gas back to four bucks a gallon.)

    But beyond that I suspect arguing over the proper use of government power brings us to more fundamental political questions, which is where I get off this ride.

  36. Greg-

    1. Even at 50% for electric, my point still stands – you’ve basically cut the amount of power needed for the fleet by 60%. (And complain about snow if you like, but you’re still running those numbers ignoring the weight advantage of electric.)

    2. The whole point of NSO is that it can store energy generated at peak for use later in the day at fairly high efficiencies. And while there are definitely solar installations that can’t store power that way, the whole point of a smart grid is to smooth out the peaks – to charge the plug-in hybrids at noon, and to stagger AC usage around 5pm to avoid spikes. Again, the point here is not that solar is a wonderful cure-all, or even that immediately going completely solar is a great idea, but that it’s not nearly as infeasible as some have suggested.

  37. _”Even at 50% for electric, my point still stands – you’ve basically cut the amount of power needed for the fleet by 60%.”_

    The power is immaterial, the source of the energy is what affects demand. Petroleum is a wonderful, portable (if not terribly efficient) medium that already exists in the ground. Electricity has to come from somewhere. We don’t use much electricity getting petroleum into our cars, so all that is important from an energy policy standpoint (setting aside environmental and foriegn policy issues) is that a huge influx of demand (possibly double) will be created for electricity. In other words there is no trade-off between gas and electric cars from an electricity demand standpoint, there is purely a huge increase in demand that has to be accounted for.

    Which, to go back to my overall point, relegates renewables to an even smaller and smaller _potential_ portion of the total electricity pie. 10% might be realistic right now, but if demand doubles you can’t scale up solar and wind much farther. At that point it either becomes 5% or our energy needs go unmet. We’ve been playing a bit of a fantasy game in this thread because our electricity needs WILL increase substantially (barring disaster) over the next few decades. The physics of renewables won’t change with it.

  38. AL, i wasn’t talking about cost, but production, which will ultimately affect cost. My point is that your house won’t likely scale upwards to meet your increasing energy needs.

    Imagine if you went to an electric car tomorrow, what percent of your electricity budget would be covered by your solar panels? You would go from (say) 90% now to maybe 50%, because the total useage would increase. That excess electricity would come from a grid which would come from either nuclear or coal (maybe hydro in your area). Now you may end up paying less for energy in total because your gasoline was more expensive than your additional electricity, but if everyone started doing it we would have a scarcity issue that would rapidly spike the price of electricity. Where is all that electricity going to come from?

    My point is that conservation and indeed PV is great, and it has a real _but relatively minor_ impact on our long term energy policy. Nobody is even dreaming about renewables replacing 100% of power generation. What i’m saying is that given our historical increase in energy consumption and population growth, the theoretical limitions (space required) combined with political reality (scarcity of space) is guaranteed to relegate wind and solar to minor players- if it were 20% in 20 years i’d be shocked. _Certainly_ not anything close to 50%.

    That’s NOT to say we should ignore or abandon these technologies. But we need to recognize their limitations, physical and social as we decide how to allocate resources. We are currently spending huge amounts of research and subsidies on these technologies _under the illusion_ that they can solve our energy needs. They can’t by themselves. We need to be pursuing other avenues, bigger avenues that can account for the vast bulk of our demand.

  39. Look at what Mark is saying from this perspective…

    Solar can replace some of our peak load electrical production. If the experiments with storage media for energy pan out, they can even replace a chunk of the base load. If they come down in price, they might even be able to do it without subsidy, though we don’t know exactly how much.

    But what solar is replacing is electrical power generation. Electrical power generation is not the lion’s share of carbon emissions. It’s an even smaller share of carbon emissions than it is of our total energy use (because the plants involved are fairly efficient compared to the internal combustion engine, and also because some of it’s run off nuclear as it is.) Thus, even an all-out solar project won’t have much more than a modest effect on total emissions.

    To have a greater effect, we need to move other forms of power generation onto electricity, and increase the electricity generation with low-emission/zero-emission sources. But solar’s space requirement is large and scales linearly with increases in power generation, so “lots more solar” takes up “lots more room”. Of course, more nuclear generation takes up more room too, but nuclear power doesn’t increase linearly in size with increases in power generation, and it doesn’t take up much room to start with.

    (Yes, yes, more nuclear power means more nuclear waste. But we know how to handle nuclear waste. It’s not a technological challenge, it’s not even an engineering challenge. It is, as “let’s save the world” tasks go, pretty damned easy.)

    Of course, all this is assuming that we ought to be worried about carbon emissions, so take with the appropriate grains of salt. But, as has been noted by our host and others before, there’s also net positive value of moving away from burning oil for energy independent of global warming…

  40. Mark, a few things:

    – You argue that if AL switched to an electric car tomorrow, his almost-breaking-even approach – which is purely based off the roof of his house – would go from almost providing him enough power to get by to only providing him enough power to get by half the time.

    Which basically proves my point, because AL’s using photovoltaic, a renewable energy source we didn’t even consider when we ran the earlier numbers and you agreed that powering everybody in the SoCal/LasVegas/Arizona/New Mexico area would be feasible with solar thermal. You and Avatar are basically saying solar thermal might be ok to “only” provide power to 10% of the US, but it can’t get their electricity and their cars too. I’m saying that solar + photovoltaics can probably take a big, big chunk out of electricity + fleet usage, at least in the Southwest.

    – You keep insisting that renewables are only a minor part of the solution, but when it comes to actual energy policy, we’re not taking about spontaneously destroying every fossil plant and replacing it with solar (or wind, or bio, etc.) tomorrow, we’re talking about what direction _new_ plants go in. Insofar as solar PV and thermal can, in some regions of the country, handle the demand for new and replacement plants, I say let’s pursue that.

    Yes, it’s only 1% today, and maybe it’s “only” 20% in 20 years. but as things keep moving forward, more fossil gets taken offline, more renewable goes online, renewables keep getting cheaper and more efficient (check the trend lines) and we get to a point where fossil takes up an increasingly smaller part of our budget. And insofar as DenBeste’s original point was that solar couldn’t even get to 1% because of physical constraints, I’d say that reasoning has been pretty well disproven.

  41. Oh, and one other thing for PV. They need iridium for one things and a couple of other rare earth metals _which are becoming hard to find_.

    The old snark was:

    “Earth First.
    We’ll mine the rest later.”

    Looks like it may be time to consider a trip to the van Allen’s.

  42. Greg, we’ve been over a lot of this – the $266 million for NSO is meaningless, because it’s a prototype. Those are always more expensive than the production version, not to mention less efficient, and more fault-prone. It’s like estimating the cost of everyone’s cell phones based on the fact that the Motorola StarTAC cost a thousand bucks at launch.

    I don’t know where you get the number of 48.8,% and I’m not particularly interested in arguing it with you, but the weight thing is trivial to prove: the Toyota Camry’s curb weight is 3483 pounds, while next year’s model of Prius is 2975 pounds. The Chevy Volt’s specs, from what I’ve seen, should similarly save about 500 pounds compared to more traditional cars. You can also compare, say, the Tesla Roadster (~2700 lbs) to a Porsche 911 (3,175 lbs). The weight advantage for electric isn’t huge, but it is quite real. (AL’s past arguments regarding SUVs vs. Minivans are probably likewise relevant here.)

    Yes, there’s a lot of infrastructure to build for electric cars; there’s likewise a lot of infrastructure involved in building new or replacing outdated gas stations. I don’t know the price comparison between the two, but continuing to maintain our current petroleum-based setup isn’t free. And yes, we’ll have to build a lot of new transmission capability, but this comes at the exact time that we’re just about to replace much of our 1950’s-era power transmission grid anyway. (Take a look at some of the IEEE’s reports on this kind of thing sometime).

    That said, we’re clearly going around in circles here – ultimately it’ll come down to practical examples. And those practical examples are either here (NSO) or are coming – BrightSource Energy is already in the process of building 500 megawatts (with a possible extension for 400 more) for PG&E. These plants are being built as we speak. Hell, the _whole point_ of AL’s article above is that Feinstein wants to _prevent_ widescale deployment of this technology in many areas. If you honestly don’t think this kind of technology is feasible, then you should bloody well be telling AL that his post is pointless, because solar isn’t feasible anyway, right?

  43. Greg-

    bq. Nonsense. [NSO] is a production plant. Comparison to a cell phone is non sequitur.

    No, it’s not a production plant, it’s an experimental prototype. And even if it were “only” a first generation production plant, it’d still be likely to be far more expensive than the same technology under full scale rollout. In that sense, it is very much like a cell phone, or virtually any other piece of technology you can name.

    bq. Of course your not going to argue (about the 48.8% efficiency) since it was based on your previous claim of 75% efficiency …

    Well, no, I’m not gonna argue it since my 75% figure was just a best guess, and I simply don’t know enough about car efficiencies to argue it one way or another.

    bq. Your doing the apples and oranges thing again [w/r/t/ electric car weights]. Which is interesting since you could have compared the the weight of the same model car like the 2008 Honda Civic which comes in both hybrid at 2877 lbs, and standard model at 2690 lbs.

    Actually, Greg, that’s a poor comparison, since the whole point of a vehicle model that comes in hybrid and non-hybrid models is that they really are shrinking the engine and throwing in a battery pack. In the examples I gave, you’re looking at what happens when similar classes of cars are designed from the ground up as electric vehicles, and there is a real weight savings. Since wide scale production will almost certainly involve the latter more than the former, I think my numbers are reasonable.

  44. Mark B:

    bq. What i’m saying is that given our historical increase in energy consumption and population growth, the theoretical limitions (space required) combined with political reality (scarcity of space) is guaranteed to relegate wind and solar to minor players- if it were 20% in 20 years i’d be shocked. Certainly not anything close to 50%.

    I would be shocked if it exceeded the natural increase in power. According to the preliminary 2009 EIA report, U.S. energy consumption in 2007 was .95% from solar, wind and geothermal. In 2030, its projected to reach 1.9% of total energy. That’s an increase of 1.18 QBTU, while total energy consumption will increase during the same period by 11.43 QBtu. “LINK”:http://www.eia.doe.gov/oiaf/aeo/pdf/appa.pdf

    Of course policies could change it, but not IMO without crippling the economy given those numbers. I think very little appreciation is given in these discussions to the improvements in capacity and efficiency in the mature technologies, particularly coal. The Clean Air Act of 1990 discouraged making substantial improvements to coal plants that would trigger new restrictions, that disincentive is fading and we are in the midst of a lot of expansion in coal burning capacity, which will be cheaper and more efficient than what’s being replaced. And as for nukes, we are not even building any more and their generation capacity is keeping up with “solar power.”:http://nextbigfuture.com/2008/03/big-energy-picture.html

    That last link IMO has a pretty good energy plan, but YMMV. It emphasizes more research at this stage, in which case Feinstein’s efforts are pretty irrelevant.

  45. Greg –

    bq. You are entitled to your own opinion. You are not entitled to your own facts.

    Funny, that’s exactly what I was going to say. Solar thermal is _far_ from a “mature” technology – even if the engineering principles behind parabolic reflectors, tracking software, molten salt technology, etc. are well understood (and there’s probably a bit of room for improvement) then there’s almost certainly a great deal of R&D to be done in integration.

    And that doesn’t even consider the kind of cost savings you get from moving from a few plants here and there to the kind of mass production we’d see if we really did put this stuff on a million acres, which the BLM currently has applications in to do.

    As for there being “no electric cars”, all I can do is point to the million+ hybrid cars Toyota’s sold (not to mention Chevy’s Volt program, Tesla Motors, the Aptera 2e…) and shrug. There’s not much else to say, if you’re so committed to the “drill baby drill” party line that you can’t even acknowledge current reality.

  46. Eh, Chris has a few points. Specifically, we could expect that the specialized mirror components used in solar plants to get less expensive as they went into larger production.

    At the same time, not all technology advances at the same rate! I’ve got more computing power on my desktop than the entire world had available in 1950. But the batteries I have are not more than a few percent more efficient. The kind of huge-leap-ahead advances that make the impossible (or the impractical) a reality are things we can’t budget for or plan to have available.

    We don’t have any particular reason to expect that solar plants will suddenly gain in efficiency; sure, a few percent as manufacturing processes are worked out, as people try different mirror arrangements, that sort of thing, but we can’t expect even a 50% increase from that sort of thing, much less multipliers.

    That doesn’t mean that we can’t keep working on the scientific problem, or for that matter the technical problems; if someone has a “Eureka!” moment and we get solar cells that are 5x more efficient, or batteries that have 5x the energy density, hey, that will be nice indeed. On the other hand, you can’t PLAN for it. At this point, we can’t plan that solar plants will be a major part of our electricity generating infrastructure. We can work on them, we can see if we can improve them to the point where we can count on them as part of the solution. But if we plan first, and the expected technological advances don’t appear, what then?

  47. Avatar-

    I agree, but none of the calculations I’ve been making feature major breakthroughs in solar power or battery efficiency. *Cost*, sure, but not efficiency. As it is, solar is _not_ orders of magnitude more expensive than fossil – it’s not as cheap, but it’s not tremendously far out of reach. (At worst estimate, it seems to be about 3 times as expensive per KWH; at best it’s a bit under.)

    That being the case, it doesn’t strike me as unreasonable to move ahead on the idea that we may not get any more efficient (though photovoltaics definitely might), but that it’s likely to get cheaper in mass production. Which, again, is what’s actually happening in the California desert, which is why, to bring this full circle, Feinstein’s bill is worthy of condemnation.

  48. But again Greg, I assume you’ve conveniently forgotten to account for the costs of nuclear waste storage.

    BTW, where will it be stored? And how will it get there? Even McCain, who supported nuclear, refused to allow waste to travel through Arizona. So where’s it going next?

  49. Greg-

    Again, the $266 million for NSO is _not representative_ of mass market cost, something even Avatar himself seems to agree with in comment #61. Completely setting aside the nuclear waste issues Alchemist mentions above, we can look at the numbers from the CSM article I linked to above in comment #24 and referenced in #38:

    bq. The CS Monitor article I linked to above gives solar costs at about 17 cents per KWh; depending on who you listen to nuclear’s anywhere from 4 to 17 cents per KWh, with current retail prices at about 9 cents per KWh.

    As for transmission costs, when we’re talking about where solar makes the most sense (e.g. the Southwest) then the plants most definitely _can_ be placed close to cities like Phoenix, Las Vegas, and, to a lesser extent, Los Angeles, because all those cities are relatively close to (or are located directly inside of)prime solar territory. No, you can’t put the solar plants _inside_ the city, but see how far any plans to put, say, a similar nuke plant particularly close to any major US city get.

  50. Right, I freely admit that you can expect some price drops with larger-scale production of solar power generation components. (‘course, that’s true for nuclear too!)

    I don’t think that alone will take it into the “competitive” range, maybe not even the “competitive with subsidy” range.

    As far as nuclear waste, that is not a technological problem. It’s not even an engineering problem; making a big vault in the ground is easy, relatively speaking (so long as you’re not talking about safety margins greater than the existence of human civilization, which came up a lot with Yucca.) The problems with nuclear waste storage and transport are the result of public hysteria, and lest we forget, hysteria largely drummed into existence by the very forces stating that Something Must Be Done Now with respect to global warming.

    Which brings us back to the original post! One of the reasons that people are skeptical with respect to global warming is that many of the proposed solutions (i.e. less production, consumption, and greater government control of all economic activities) are suspiciously similar to the same things that those groups were prescribing for other problems. When those same groups, or at least their political representatives, also seem to act in ways to counter any possible technological solution to the problem, it makes one wonder if they aren’t just using the problem as a pretext.

    (Let me be clear – I’m not saying this about anyone posting in the thread. I am, definitely, saying this about Feinstein and Kennedy.)

  51. Avatar-

    I respect your views, but it’s worth pointing out that the pre-existing skepticism many on the right have toward environmental issues can just as easily be read as blinding them towards legitimate problems.

    Many of the arguments people on this very thread have made come across not as rational opposition, but as certainty that the other side simply _can’t_ be right because they’re all a bunch of damn hippie tree-huggers. Which is a bias worth considering.

  52. _”Yes, it’s only 1% today, and maybe it’s “only” 20% in 20 years. but as things keep moving forward, more fossil gets taken offline, more renewable goes online, renewables keep getting cheaper and more efficient (check the trend lines) and we get to a point where fossil takes up an increasingly smaller part of our budget.”_

    PD Shaw pretty much beat me to the punch on this response. What we talked about was _today’s_ energy usage. Which was interesting but ultimately not even half the story. We have to consider the (inevitable) increase in our electricity usage, with or without electric cars.

    And the point is as the years progress and consumption increases (unless we forgo our plasma screens and PS3s and agree to zero population growth) renewables _don’t scale up._ The space they require is constant, but the space doesn’t increase. What might be plausible to today won’t be remotely plausible in 30 years when our energy consumption has doubled (if our energy use continues to increase 3% per year for 3 years it will be more than double).

    Coal plants produce orders of magnitude more energy than solar or wind. Simply replacing them as they age wont even keep up with current demand, much less growing demand. Again- every little bit helps, but these technologies simply are never going to be what replaces coal, or even nuclear.

    That being the case, we need to either live with coal or nuclear, or look hard for something else. My beef is with wasting inordinate resources on technologies that can’t do what we are being told they will do at the expense of potentially finding a true answer.

  53. PD-

    If solar thermal, by itself, can power all the Southwest today with only about 1% of the land in Arizona and New Mexico, then complaining that there’s not enough space if our energy usage doubles seems… illogical. 2% is doable. 4% is doable. (How many orders of magnitude more land do we have set aside for cultivation than that? And isn’t energy nearly as important as food?) More wind – particularly high altitude or offshore – is doable, more photovoltaics are doable, more geothermal is doable. That gets us 100 years out, at which point arguing about solar vs. coal will probably be like arguing sail vs. paddleboat.

    Also, that completely ignores the fact that there are a lot of technologies out there that’ll allow us to do as much with much less energy – you bring up the PS3, I bring up the energy-sipping Wii. (Guess which is in more homes, and is displacing energy-hogging las-gen consoles like the PS2 and the XBox?) You bring up air conditioning, I bring up geothermal cooling. You bring up plasma TVs, I bring up OLEDs and e-paper. And that’s not even touching on the kind of savings we could get with a fully integrated smart grid.

    At the end of the day there’s absolutely no question that there’s several orders of magnitude more energy coming from the Sun than we need, just waiting to be harnessed. Complaining that we’re wasting resources by trying to capture a slightly larger percentage of it seems grossly shortsighted.

  54. I also want to bring up (again) what I brought up before… namely that the future doesn’t HAVE to be all large scale power plants.

    Think smaller. Think of a metropolitan city that used roof space (or walls) for solar. Or could be retrofitted with wind turbines. This is not that far from what AL is doing himself, and in the next ten years San Francisco is going to demonstrate if this system works.

    Is it an end all answer? No. But we’re talking about curbing off energy needs, piece by piece. You have an electric car? Add a solar panel. Need heat? Get a geothermal system. Reduce and reuse as much as possible. For now, using environmental energy to (only) reduce fossil fuel demands, but I think you’re going to see the rules for environmental energy change dramatically in the next 15-30 years.

    On the nuclear waste issue: The reason why nuclear dumps have gotten more and more expensive is that these “storage” dumps have proven to be inadequate over, and over again. “Hanford”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanford_Site was always a big joke in my house, since my parents worked so close to the plant for a number of years.

  55. _”If solar thermal, by itself, can power all the Southwest today with only about 1% of the land in Arizona and New Mexico, then complaining that there’s not enough space if our energy usage doubles seems… illogical. 2% is doable. 4% is doable.”_

    Lets reestablish those number again- 1% of Arizona and NM is 2350 square miles. Thats enough to theoretically produce 411 million MWh.

    The total US consumption currently is 4 billion MWh, 30% of which is 1.2 billion MWh. That’s enough to supply *1/3rd* of the Southwests electricity demands (assuming they are 30% of the population). Mind you 2350 square miles is the size of 5 cities of Los Angeles put together.

    In 30 years that 411 million MWh will only account for 14% of that regions electrical production, assuming a 3% growth rate. So you would have to double the amount of land in question _just to keep up with demand._ Another 5 Los Angeleses.

    Mind you none of this has remotely even happened yet and we’re _already_ fighting over land.

    _”Also, that completely ignores the fact that there are a lot of technologies out there that’ll allow us to do as much with much less energy – you bring up the PS3, I bring up the energy-sipping Wii.”_

    Those are already accounted for and assumed in the growth rate. They _offset_ some additional growth. Population growth adds a base level increase, and wealth production adds more (bigger house = more TVs, more AC, etc). Unless we intend to drastically reduce either our wealth creation or (somehow) our consumption, we will be hard pressed just to keep the growth rate at 3% via conservation.

  56. Mark-

    See the numbers above in my comments #24 and #38; the Southwest is more like 10% of the population. That amount of solar thermal, at production rates comparable to Nevada Solar One, would be enough for 10% of the 4 billion MWh you’re claiming.

    As for new technologies being assumed in the growth rate you cite, I’m fairly skeptical of that. Certainly if you’re simply assuming houses will consistently get bigger and we’ll consistently fill them with more stuff… that’s doesn’t really look to be the case, post real-estate crash. We also waste a staggering amount of energy, and could both enjoy a higher standard of living _and_ save money and electricity by adopting some fairly straightforward efficiency measures – _not_ stuff like eating meat only on Tuesday, but improving our insulation, AC and refrigeration efficiency, etc. And, again, that’s not even counting what energy-smart appliances and a smart power grid could do.

  57. Ultimately the ratio of the country doesn’t really matter. 10% of the nations electricity as a top out point is marginal. Important, but even if we hit that number we will still end up burning more coal in 30 years than we do today. Probably much more.

    As far as future growth, we’ve been growing at this rate since WW2 (with ups and downs), I see no reason to think we will stop. Unless you assume our economic growth is over and/or we intend to allow electricity prices to rise high enough to truly force people to change their life styles (turning off the AC). You have to remember even in the last 10 years we have done some fairly important conservation work- light bulb efficiency, etc and even factoring that in we still grow at this rate. And lets not forget population growth- we grow at 1% per year in sheer number of people. Even if we managed to freeze our per capita usage, we’d still increase 35% over 30 years.

    All of which is to say what we already know- the only way to live in a world of renewables is to make our current coal/nuclear either illegal or insanely expensive, which will make electricity in general much more expensive, which means instead of people buying those PS3 and college educations they will be paying ComEd out the rear. That is a green world, and its a world of sky high utility prices and far fewer creature comforts. In other words less wealth and more government. And that, as many argue, is precisely the goal of the hard core greens. The green party’s biggest nightmare is cheap, abundant, clean energy. And that is probably why they have us focused on technologies that are neither cheap nor abundant and never can be.

  58. Mark-

    That’s not 10% of the nation’s energy at a top-out point, that’s _all_ of a selected geographic region using only _one_ kind of renewable energy source, with plenty of land left over for growth. _Clean_ growth, even if we do look at the kind of doubling in energy use that you’re arguing will happen.

    Now, obviously what works in the Southwest won’t work everywhere. But add photovoltaic, wind, wave, and geothermal into the mix, and we’re talking about a much bigger chunk of energy from renewables – not all of it, perhaps, but enough to start seriously biting in to our carbon emissions and fossil fuel dependencies.

    And your math for “insanely expensive” just doesn’t make sense – if solar thermal is 17 cents per KWh now, then it can only get cheaper from here on out. (Absent bonehead restrictions like what Senator Feinstein’s suggesting.) 17 cents per KWh won’t break anybody’s financial freedom (although it might encourage capital expenditures on energy efficient products).

    On the flip side, what a lot of renewable energy promises is energy independence on the individual level. AL’s photovoltaic system is, in his own words, in winter, almost breaking even. That’s a _lot_ less dependency he has on PG&E (or whoever his local utility is). He doesn’t have to worry about more Enron-esque chicanery sending his bill through the roof – it’s a flat rate, based on his own equipment. And as long as he keeps it in good working order, he doesn’t have to worry about externally-imposed brownouts either.

    If he adds in more panels, or swaps them out for cheaper and/or higher efficiency panels, then maybe he has capacity to at least partially power a plug-in hybrid – that’s less dependency he has on foreign oil. If a substantial chunk of the country does the same thing (and note that giant solar thermal installations are only feasible in the Southwest, but distributed photovoltaic is feasible across the entire South), then the country as a whole is less dependent on foreign oil. With a smart grid setup, he can actually _sell_ the power he generates to his neighbors or the wider grid for a profit… and while it may not be feasible for someone in the suburbs to go into the power generation business, it sure as hell is feasible for farmers and ranchers to throw up wind turbines and sell their power onto the grid without missing a step in their existing agribusiness.

    That’s not government control, that’s giving individual entrepreneurs freedom to enter and thrive in new markets. Which is a hell of a lot more attractive to me than squabbling over dwindling, less-exploitable fossil fuel reserves.

  59. _”That’s not 10% of the nation’s energy at a top-out point, that’s all of a selected geographic region using only one kind of renewable energy source, with plenty of land left over for growth. “_

    That’s where we differ in opinion. Can you even picture a land mass the size of 5 Los Angeleses covered with solar panels? Its staggering. AND it would still only account for 1/3rd of todays electricity in that region.

    _”And your math for “insanely expensive” just doesn’t make sense -“_

    Don’t misunderstand me- i have no idea what solar will end up costing. It doesn’t matter. If solar can’t supply more than X amount of electricity physically, and we decide it has to be Y percentage, the only way to accomplish that goal is to artificially inflate the costs of the alternatives via taxation in order to force people to by solar. This causes scarcity driving up the price of any electricity. It would be like the government mandating the 50% of all cars will be Prius. If only 100,000 priuses can be made a year, the cost of ALL cars would skyrocket as consumers bid for the 200,000 cars available.

    Everything you are saying about PV is true and great, but again, that is a _relatively_ very small percentage of our huge energy production. If you want to say: fine, coal and nuclear are going to make up 80% of our electricity production for the forseeable future but renewable will play an important part in whats left, great! But that’s not what we are talking about here. _The only viable ways to stop burning at least 50% coal is to either go nuclear or radically reduce our electricity consumption._ Radically as in more than 50%. Thats the point. Everything you are mentioning is playing around the margins.

  60. bq. That’s where we differ in opinion. Can you even picture a land mass the size of 5 Los Angeleses covered with solar panels? Its staggering. AND it would still only account for 1/3rd of todays electricity in that region.

    As I’ve said before, it’s not one third of the electricity in that region, it’s all of it – you overestimated the population in the Southwest by a factor of 3. See comment #72. That’s not an opinion, that’s a fact.

    And yes I can picture that amount of solar infrastructure, because it’s _not all going to be in one place_. You’re basically talking about hundreds of relatively large – but not unimaginably so – installations scattered throughout the Southwest… but still on a scale far smaller than, say, cornfields in Nebraska.

    bq. If solar can’t supply more than X amount of electricity physically, and we decide it has to be Y percentage, the only way to accomplish that goal is to artificially inflate the costs of the alternatives via taxation in order to force people to by solar.

    Mark, again, _you’re_ the only person who’s saying solar can only provide X amount of electricity. We can tax other sources of energy, sure, but that doesn’t prohibit the development of new solar plants, which, again, we have plenty of land for. Or new wind, or thermo, or wave. Or use different technology to achieve the same results with less energy.

    Is that “playing around in the margins?” Doesn’t look like it to me. You’ve tried to prove otherwise by quoting Den Beste and using scare numbers about areas the size of Michigan; I’ve proved that Den Beste’s original estimate was flawed, and repeatedly pointed out that _one kind of renewable_ in _one area of the country_ can get us into double digits of energy production. If you’re convinced that renewables can _never_ be more than marginal, then you can at least realize that you’re arguing that by assertion, rather than proof.

  61. _”As I’ve said before, it’s not one third of the electricity in that region, it’s all of it – you overestimated the population in the Southwest by a factor of 3.”_

    I’ll leave it to you to decide whether 100% of 10% of the population is more meaningful than 30% of 33%.

    _”And yes I can picture that amount of solar infrastructure, because it’s not all going to be in one place.”_

    Which doesn’t particularly help your case considering how big the parcels are. If you added 5 Los Angeleses to the map, people would notice. And again, that’s to reach that 10% with _today’s_ consumption. Wait til everybody in America has to have a Kindle.

    _”Mark, again, you’re the only person who’s saying solar can only provide X amount of electricity. We can tax other sources of energy, sure, but that doesn’t prohibit the development of new solar plants, which, again, we have plenty of land for”_

    Again, we don’t. Otherwise we wouldn’t be fighting over it before we’ve even begun.

    _”and repeatedly pointed out that one kind of renewable in one area of the country can get us into double digits of energy production”_

    By the time it was created it wouldn’t be double digits anymore, and, as I keep trying to say, even if you could you can’t replicate it to Maine or Florida or Montana anyway, even if you could agree on the space. The engineering feat you are contemplating is beyond enormous, imagine what solar plants larger than the largest cities (many of them) would look like from space. Is it possible? Physically yes. Political… convince me given the title of this article. And EVEN SO we’d still be using vast amounts of coal and/or nuclear. Best case scenario doesn’t ween us off the other sources.

  62. Mark-

    bq. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether 100% of 10% of the population is more meaningful than 30% of 33%.

    Since the main thrust of your argument has been “renewables can only help on the margins, they can’t really get rid of coal”, and I’ve shown that just _one type_ of renewable _can_, in a fairly large area of the country, yeah, I think that’s more meaningful.

    bq. Again, we don’t [have land]. Otherwise we wouldn’t be fighting over it before we’ve even begun.

    Insofar as Feinstein’s bill passes, and the vast amounts (4000 square km applied for _right now_) of solar people are envisioning don’t go forward, yes, you can crow that it’s all a pipe dream. Until that happens, the argument is not settled the way you think it is.

    Beyond that, I think we’re just going in circles here. Please do remember this thread, though, the next time you want to use the “size of Michigan” talking point.

  63. Leave wave out of it until we can come up with a plant that doesn’t get eaten by salt water. That’s a TREMENDOUS engineering problem, one that we don’t have an answer for.

    Leave thermo out of it until we get some large-scale production going. Yeah, yeah, theoretically a lot of people can install thermo heat exchangers to help the AC… except that, realistically speaking, it won’t happen; it would require radical and expensive refitting of existing housing stock, not to mention the permitting problem of getting the thing installed… and god help you if it breaks; even if it’s warrantied, someone is going to have to excavate one hell of a trench to service it. Try getting that past your neighborhood association.

    I’d like to say “leave wind out of it”, but honestly, there are commercial wind turbine generation plants. So instead, I’ll say “get us numbers to play with”. Is wind energy less land-intensive than solar, in current applications? If it’s more land-intensive and more expensive than NSO, we can scratch it off our list barring a big technological advance (good luck). If it’s cheaper to build and less land-intensive than solar, then let’s quit yapping about NSO and talk wind. If it’s cheaper to install but more land-intensive, or more expensive to install but less land-intensive, then we get to do some fun math indeed!

    But no fair pretending “this is JUST solar and we have four other applications just as good.” No, you don’t. You’ve got two pies in the sky and one maybe-better, maybe-worse, maybe just as good. But as a land-intensive energy generation method, wind is in direct competition with solar; solar will have to get a lot cheaper (and wind as well, likely, though I’d appreciate the numbers on it) before they can compete with coal or nuclear.

    (And yes, realistically there will be places where wind is feasible but solar is not, and vice versa. Obviously if both technologies were cheap enough to make it worth it, we’d do well to exploit both niches. Though that won’t work if the jagged ridges and the desert wastes are more important as environmental shrines than generation points…)

    Also, if you tell me I have to give up my PS3 for a Wii because of the energy it consumes, I’ll hunt you down and murderize you. Careful, I’ve been playing those killer-training games! ;p (Of course, I play those on my PC, which actually heats the room it’s in…) For that matter, while there are indeed good reasons to get a Wii, I cannot imagine that a single Wii purchase was motivated by its power consumption profile (or rather, anyone who DID should probably quit playing video games altogether.)

  64. Avatar-

    bq. But no fair pretending “this is JUST solar and we have four other applications just as good.”

    Actually, I never claimed that. Seriously, go back and take a look. This entire thread has been in the grip of a very odd delusion where, if alternative energy can’t completely and utterly replace coal and nuclear _right now_, it’s worthless. _Right now_ we can, feasibly, get into double digits with one kind of renewable. Adding other stuff into the mix may not get us all the way there, power-wise – probably not even half way there. But I have a suspicion that it’ll get us farther than many here would like to believe, and farther still as we develop and refine these technologies further.

    You can doubt that if you like – I surely don’t believe I’m changing many minds here. But insofar as this thread’s gone from “solar requires an area the size of Michigan!” and “solar is orders of magnitude more expensive” and “there ARE no electric cars” to “well, it’s politically difficult to get land for solar (but probably vastly less difficult than getting land for high-level radioactive waste storage)”, I’d say the burden of proof – the burden of proof that human ingenuity _cannot_ feasibly get vast amounts of power from sources other than fossil and fission – is on you guys.

    As for wind numbers, I don’t remember the details, except that even the terrestrial-based stuff we’re doing now is not vastly more expensive than fossil; that offshore is even cheaper and more reliable (and aggregated offshore farms can substitute for baseline capacity), and that high altitude wind could be as cheap as 1 to 2 cents per kilowatt hour.

  65. _”Since the main thrust of your argument has been “renewables can only help on the margins, they can’t really get rid of coal”, and I’ve shown that just one type of renewable can, in a fairly large area of the country, yeah, I think that’s more meaningful.”_

    The problem we have had is that something can be meaningful yet marginal. 10% is meaningful, its a real number. It’s also marginal when you are talking about the entire 100%, particularly when people are making grandiose demands on the economy that involve the majority.

    _”Until that happens, the argument is not settled the way you think it is.”_

    I don’t think it’s settled. The politics could change tomorrow. But it almost certainly wont. As Governor Schwarzenegger said: if we can’t build in the desert, where the hell can we build? To the contrary, i’d argue we are seeing just the tip of the iceberg on the policy fight. Perhaps the population greenies should have a word with the energy greenies and talk about land usage. It might be enlightening when examined over time.

    _”Please do remember this thread, though, the next time you want to use the “size of Michigan” talking point.”_

    I’ll remember. Hopefully i’ll even remember in 50 years when indeed it will require that amount of land and yet we are still growing our energy consumption undiminished and yet the Earth fails to expand in size with it. I hope so anyway. Energy consumption isn’t an evil, it’s a residue of prosperity.

    And that being the case, my entire point is that there are potential energy sources out there that are game changers (as earth based solar and wind can never be) that can and almost certainly will change the history of our race. We should be devoting a fair share of resources to those big ideas, instead of these small limited ideas.

  66. _”This entire thread has been in the grip of a very odd delusion where, if alternative energy can’t completely and utterly replace coal and nuclear right now, it’s worthless”_

    Chris, somehow you have come through this entire thread and missed the point, well displayed, that the case for renewables GETS WORSE OVER TIME. I don’t know how much more clearly to say this, but if it is marginally useful today it becomes even more marginal every year that goes by, as our energy use goes up. Not sure how else to explain it.

  67. bq. Chris, somehow you have come through this entire thread and missed the point, well displayed, that the case for renewables GETS WORSE OVER TIME. I don’t know how much more clearly to say this, but if it is marginally useful today it becomes even more marginal every year that goes by, as our energy use goes up. Not sure how else to explain it.

    Mark, YOU HAVE NOT PROVEN THAT. Don’t know how much more clearly to say that. Solar _does not_ take the amount of space Den Beste says it does, and there is plenty of room left over for growth in the future, both in space to put collectors up, and in ways to squeeze additional utility from the same amount of energy.

    As for your preferred game changers (assuming we’re talking fusion and extra-terrestrial solar), I invite you to sit down, take a look at the technical issues involved sometime, and realize that the hurdles remaining to be overcome absolutely dwarf those involved in merely adopting renewables and widespread efficiency measures. It’s vastly easier to cover thousands of square miles of barren earth with mirrors or lenses than it is to contain gigawatts of plasma with nothing but magnetic fields; it’s ridiculously easier to put a wind turbine on a large wing or a balloon at the end of a 10 kilometer-long tether than it is to put a geosynchronous anchor at the end of a tether tens of thousands of mile-long tether.

    (Hell, by the time you can even _begin_ to think of a space elevator, you’ve _already_, pretty much by definition, got materials technology to a point where kite generation is trivial by comparison – the one is almost a prerequisite for the other. And there’s a ridiculous amount of constant, high-speed wind blowing just over our heads.)

  68. _”Mark, YOU HAVE NOT PROVEN THAT”_

    True, i can’t prove that we will use more electricity in the future than we do now. I’ll leave it to anyone still reading to decide if that is a worthwhile assumption, or if in fact going by the assumption that we _won’t_ use more electricity in the future is hopelessly naive to the point of being argumentative.

    _”Solar does not take the amount of space Den Beste says it does, “_

    It does, it simply depends on your assumptions of electricity demand and potential efficiency. Solar One et al are still basically test projects. It remains to be seen if they can produce that level of efficiency over the long term, much less scaled up massively. If the efficiency ends up closer to 10% than the 20+% they claim, Den Beste will be exactly correct.

    _”As for your preferred game changers (assuming we’re talking fusion and extra-terrestrial solar), I invite you to sit down, take a look at the technical issues involved sometime, and realize that the hurdles remaining to be overcome absolutely dwarf those involved in merely adopting renewables and widespread efficiency measures.”_

    I’m not an engineer but I’m not sure how you can assume some potential radical improvements in solar collectors is more likely than the long term development of fusion etc. A better question is can you really imagine a future where fusion _hasn’t_ been cracked, or where space based solar collection hasn’t become economical. Those things are going to happen, its just a matter of when. Even if it’s in 100 years, think what a colossal waste of resources it would be to piss away all the money and time on these marginal alternatives. Our entire energy/CO2 debate suffers from a pathetic lack of imagination, or even pragmatic assumption based on the history of the human race. We ARE going to use much more energy, and we WILL find a cheap, clean, and plentiful way to get it. On the other hand wind turbines are _never_ going to produce more electricity than the ratio to their turbine length, and solar is always going to depend on the amount of photons its exposed to. Those are absolute physical limitations, and ultimately they doom those technologies unless we really want to live in a world surrounding by windmills and tripping over solar farms- and even so we’d reach a point in time where even that wouldn’t do it any more.

    Our job should be stimulating breakthroughs, not derailing then and in the mean time use proven technologies that can efficiently and cost effectively meet our needs- renewable where they make sense and as they develop, but certainly nuclear.

  69. bq. True, i can’t prove that we will use more electricity in the future than we do now. I’ll leave it to anyone still reading to decide if that is a worthwhile assumption, or if in fact going by the assumption that we won’t use more electricity in the future is hopelessly naive to the point of being argumentative.

    Cute; I say we can install new capacity and improve our efficiency, you take that as a blanket statement that we’ll absolutely be using less electricity. What was that about being argumentative…?

    bq. [Solar] does [take the amount of space Den Beste says], it simply depends on your assumptions of electricity demand and potential efficiency. Solar One et al are still basically test projects. It remains to be seen if they can produce that level of efficiency over the long term, much less scaled up massively. If the efficiency ends up closer to 10% than the 20+% they claim, Den Beste will be exactly correct.

    Mark, it’s unlikely as hell that we can’t get _at least_ as much efficiency out of a production model as out of a test model. You’re privileging Den Beste’s opinion to the point where you’re willing to argue for it in the face of hard proof that his assumptions are flawed. He was mistaken, Mark. Get over it.

    bq. I’m not an engineer but I’m not sure how you can assume some potential radical improvements in solar collectors is more likely than the long term development of fusion etc.

    I _AM_ an engineer, Mark, and unlike Den Beste I actually bothered to graduate college. I’m _not_ assuming “radical improvements in solar collectors” – every argument I’ve been making is more or less based on demonstrated technology. I _am_ assuming that it’s _really freaking hard_ to contain and control plasma running at several thousand degrees with nothing but magnetic fields, given that (AFAIK) even small changes in the charge and density of a plasma flow can make it react entirely differently to the same magnetic field configuration.

    bq. A better question is can you really imagine a future where fusion hasn’t been cracked, or where space based solar collection hasn’t become economical. Those things are going to happen, its just a matter of when.

    Ok, but…

    bq. Even if it’s in 100 years, think what a colossal waste of resources it would be to piss away all the money and time on these marginal alternatives.

    bq. No. No, no, no, a thousand times no. Because A) 100 years is a _really long time_ in technology terms, and if renewables are a bridge between us and fusion for “only” 80 years or so, it’ll _still_ be a worthwhile investment, and B) many of the material science breakthroughs we need to make, say, space colonization or an orbital ladder work are _exactly what we’d get from increasing R&D for renewables_!

    I’ve already talked about why kite generation is easier than an orbital tether, but if it helps you to understand how increased efficiency would work, think of it this way: any kind of habitat in earth orbit (say, a maintenance facility for orbital solar collectors, even if people aren’t living in space, which is kind of the whole point of an orbital ladder) needs to be self-contained to a _huge_ degree. Water, air, heat, maybe even food – they all need to be provided by the habitat, once it’s been constructed. Assuming it’s economical to construct such a structure, it’ll be _vastly_ cheaper to construct similar, less hyper-efficient structures _anywhere else on the surface of the Earth_. You could cheaply live in the Gobi desert in a way that would make any zero-footprint hippie green with envy before you get anywhere near being able to live in space, because living in the Gobi (or Antarctica, or you name it) presents similar efficiency-and-reuse problems to space, but on a _far_ smaller scale. In this case, and in others, going green is a necessary prerequisite to the kind of breakthroughs you want to see.

    bq. Our entire energy/CO2 debate suffers from a pathetic lack of imagination, or even pragmatic assumption based on the history of the human race.

    Yes. That is exactly what I think when I see the arguments you’re making. You’re willing to talk about tech so far out that it’s basically magical, but utterly unable to imagine steady, incremental improvements in manufacturing and efficiency… something our technological society has actually proven itself really good at, when it puts its mind to it.

    bq. On the other hand wind turbines are never going to produce more electricity than the ratio to their turbine length, and solar is always going to depend on the amount of photons its exposed to. Those are absolute physical limitations, and ultimately they doom those technologies unless we really want to live in a world surrounding by windmills and tripping over solar farms- and even so we’d reach a point in time where even that wouldn’t do it any more.

    Mark, I’ve said this before – we’re talking about maybe 2% of the land in Arizona and New Mexico to power the Southwest. That’s not “tripping over” anything, even if you double the amount needed in 50 years. The “absolute physical limitations” you’re talking about would be killers if A) there was a severely finite number of places to put wind and solar (which there isn’t) and B) it was impossible to do stuff like put wind collectors in the stratosphere or boost photovoltaic to 20 or 30 percent. Neither, however, is impossible, or anywhere close.

    bq. Our job should be stimulating breakthroughs, not derailing then and in the mean time use proven technologies that can efficiently and cost effectively meet our needs- renewable where they make sense and as they develop, but certainly nuclear.

    Again, any land use issue you can propose with regard to wind and solar is _much_ worse with nuclear. Yes, the left has Kennedy and Feinstein to deal with, and they’re obnoxiously blocking important green development. But pro-nuclear folks have the vast majority of the population against them, and no real idea on how to change things, except blame greens (not entirely without justification) for the anti-nuke hysteria. Still, that’s not actually a solution to get nuclear built, that’s just a stick to hit your political enemies with. As for making breakthroughs, I’ve said my piece.

  70. Yeah, it’s quite pointless to talk about fusion at this juncture. It’s one of the technologies where, if it suddenly starts working, you go back and tear up your whole playbook (kind of like widespread self-directed nanoassembly in that regard).

    On the other hand, solar can’t “power the Southwest” with the assumptions you’ve made. We still don’t have solar plants that can provide 24/7 generation; even Solar Two and its Spanish follow-ons are only capable of generating for a few additional hours so far. It’s also instructive that the generation numbers for that type of solar plant are smaller than NSO; the Spanish plants are in the 15 MW range, if I’m not mistaken. They’re based on an entirely different generating principle than NSO, and thus it really does remain to be seen how their operational costs will stack up – Solar Two was a test project and has been decommissioned, and the new Spanish plants aren’t online yet.

    And, again, you’re conflating “power” with “provide electrical generation for”. But as we’ve reminded you, that’s not the point; if we replaced every bit of our electrical generation capacity with solar power, that’s still only a fraction of our total energy usage, and of our total carbon output. Congrats, you’ve spent a lot of money to push back emissions by 10%… which is what, 3-4 years of growth? Maybe 5-6.

    What we’re looking for is electrical generation that’s scalable to the point where we can replace hydrocarbon fuel sources… electric cars, electric heat. If we don’t get there… if we’ve set our sights low enough that we don’t even consider that we want to get there in the first place… we have to ask ourselves, why are we bothering at all? Save the money and deal with the climate change, if that’s the extent of what we can manage.

    We can probably manage to shoehorn solar in somewhere, especially if it gets less expensive. But we can’t then use it to power electric cars instead of internal combustion engines.

    The problem with nuclear isn’t endemic; it’s just “people don’t like it” (because they’ve been told that it will DESTROY THE WORLD and give them all cancer…) Eventually the attitudes will change, we’ll site some more plants and build them, and wow! Amazing! We’ll have gigawatts of carbon-emission-free power, at the cost of a few holes in the ground to store obnoxious wastes. (Trust me, if you grew up in Houston, you’d know about trucks full of obnoxious materials…)

  71. bq. On the other hand, solar can’t “power the Southwest” with the assumptions you’ve made. We still don’t have solar plants that can provide 24/7 generation; even Solar Two and its Spanish follow-ons are only capable of generating for a few additional hours so far. It’s also instructive that the generation numbers for that type of solar plant are smaller than NSO; the Spanish plants are in the 15 MW range, if I’m not mistaken. They’re based on an entirely different generating principle than NSO, and thus it really does remain to be seen how their operational costs will stack up – Solar Two was a test project and has been decommissioned, and the new Spanish plants aren’t online yet.

    It’s true the Spanish plants aren’t online, but they are being built as we speak – this isn’t some pie-in-the-sky idea, this is as real as any proposed pebble bed reactor. It’s also worth pointing out that Solar Tres will generate 15MW, but in a far smaller area (about a quarter of a square kilometer) as opposed to NSO, which did 64MW in 1.6 square kilometers. And at least in the summer, Solar Tres will be able to generate at least 20 hours – that’s not “a few extra hours.”

    bq. And, again, you’re conflating “power” with “provide electrical generation for”. But as we’ve reminded you, that’s not the point; if we replaced every bit of our electrical generation capacity with solar power, that’s still only a fraction of our total energy usage, and of our total carbon output. Congrats, you’ve spent a lot of money to push back emissions by 10%… which is what, 3-4 years of growth? Maybe 5-6.

    Emissions from plants were rather more than 10% of the total, last time I looked, but if you’ve got different numbers, please link to them. As for only worrying about electrical generation, if you’re proposing nuclear to power electric cars, I’d like to see numbers on how many plants that’d take.

    bq. What we’re looking for is electrical generation that’s scalable to the point where we can replace hydrocarbon fuel sources… electric cars, electric heat. If we don’t get there… if we’ve set our sights low enough that we don’t even consider that we want to get there in the first place… we have to ask ourselves, why are we bothering at all? Save the money and deal with the climate change, if that’s the extent of what we can manage.

    And as I keep saying, there’s no shortage of land to put up solar plants, no shortage of roofs to put photovoltaics on, and no shortage of sky for turbines. (Hell, discount kite generation if you want – Ted Kennedy aside, the upper Atlantic coast of the US is ideal for offshore generation.) I say let’s deploy what we can, gain experience with that, make improvements, and then see how much farther we can go – because there’s surely no _theoretical_ limitation to how much juice the sun’s pumping into this planet all the time, and the “engineering” arguments I’ve seen here as to why it can’t happen have been… lacking.

    bq. The problem with nuclear isn’t endemic; it’s just “people don’t like it” (because they’ve been told that it will DESTROY THE WORLD and give them all cancer…) Eventually the attitudes will change, we’ll site some more plants and build them, and wow! Amazing! We’ll have gigawatts of carbon-emission-free power, at the cost of a few holes in the ground to store obnoxious wastes. (Trust me, if you grew up in Houston, you’d know about trucks full of obnoxious materials…)

    If you grew up anywhere near Houston, you have my condolences. That said, mark actually did mention the real, non-hysterical problem with nuclear waste above:

    bq. …making a big vault in the ground is easy, relatively speaking (so long as you’re not talking about safety margins greater than the existence of human civilization, which came up a lot with Yucca.)

    And although on second read-through it looks like Mark’s dismissing those concerns, I’m not so sanguine, because the half-life of some of that crap _really is_ far greater than the existence of human civilization. But that said, you’ve got a deal – you wait for attitudes to change so that you can do your preferred solution; I’ll wait for incremental improvements in efficiency and manufacturing, and we’ll see who gets there first.

  72. Frighteningly (to me anyway), “Thomas Friedman”:http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/15/opinion/15friedman.html?_r=1 wrote an article this month that is almost exactly what i’ve been arguing:

    _”And we need to keep working on all forms of solar, geothermal and wind power. They work. And the more they get deployed, the more their costs will go down.”_

    “_But, in addition, we need to make a few big bets on potential game-changers. I am talking about systems that could give us abundant, clean, reliable electrons and drive massive innovation in big lasers, materials science, nuclear physics and chemistry that would benefit, energize and renew many U.S. industries.”_

    _”At the pace we’re going with the technologies we have, without some game-changers, climate change is going to have its way with us. Yes, we’ll still need coal for some time. But let’s make sure that we aren’t just chasing the fantasy that we can “clean up” coal, when our real future depends on birthing new technologies that can replace it.”_

    He also sites some big fusion projects making good headway (I know, the engineering is impossible. Then again I’m positive there were some very fine engineers explaining the fission power was impossible in 1945. Surprise.)

  73. If there was no shortage of land to put solar on, this thread wouldn’t have existed. ;p

    Photovoltaics aren’t limited by “number of roofs”, but by the materials used therein. The high-efficiency ones that are in development now tend to contain (small quantities of) trace elements that we don’t have in abundance – meaning that their widespread deployment is inherently limited until we find more of whatever element they’re needing to work.

    There’s a big shortage of sky for kite turbines. Tethered balloons are extremely dangerous for aircraft (hell, they’re an anti-aircraft defense!) This effectively means you can’t have them anywhere you may need to fly – and not just 747s either. People dying because Lifeflight doesn’t dare take a helicopter into an area with a lot of tethered generators is a cost that doesn’t show up with other methods.

  74. *Solar and wind energy, on the scale imagined by greenies, is a perfect eco-catastrophe. If you could still find any “eco” at all underneath the endless acres of massive, clumsy infrastructure.*

    Anything to back up these statements or are they the product of a personal free floating anxiety?

  75. *I do wonder about how much prime farmland is being devoted to wind energy.*

    Which is essentially a question what type of energy we want to produce on these lands, energy we consume physically or energy we consume in the form of electricity.

    We haven’t had to really ask these questions of ourselves before on the scale that we have to now.

    I think that Feinstein’s concerns are valid as are Rep. Hastings’. Tough choices are going to have to be made.

    In my view, the greenhouse gas problem is real and accelerating in its negative effect on the planet. If we accept that as true for purposes of this argument, then we will need new paradigms as far as energy is concerned. From farm and grazing land for the energy we directly consume, to nuclear power and everything in between.

    Should State Legislatures and the Congress be presented with state and national energy budget, that includes land use issues like the one PD points out, carbon emission limits, sequestration sites and accoplishments?

    Should we live within an energy budget? What is surprising about this article is that these questions are only beginning to surface now, on a large scale, rather than years ago.

    I am very conflicted about our reaction to our present problem, but I am beginning to perceive it as the largest public health problem we have ever faced.

    Just take in to account the problems that would arise from the melting of the Himalayan glaciers. Literally billions of people would be denied water, with no hope of finding another source.

  76. mark, Den Beste didn’t exactly do a lot of deep math in that post…so let’s do some quick math.

    “This site”:http://www1.eere.energy.gov/solar/pdfs/35097.pdf suggests that you need about 1.25 acres (at best) to produce 1GWh / year. That includes packing (area actually covered), efficiency, etc.

    So 800,000 acres would produce about 6.4E^11 KWh. The electricity use for the US in 2007 was about 3.8E^14 Kwh – so the 800,000 acres could produce 17% of the US electricity.

    Note that this doesn’t account for off-hours availability, peak leveling, transmission, etc. But it’s make a hell of a dent in the energy we use.

    Is it the most efficient way to do it? Not necessarily. Am I advocating it? Not necessarily.

    But it certainly would have an impact, let’s at least acknowledge that.

    Marc

  77. Mark,
    I state early in my comment

    “If we accept that as true for purposes of this argument”

    you then intimate that even accepting this there is less chance of a Melting of the Himalayan Glaciers than that the Earth being hit by a meteorite.

    Where you come up with that, I don’t know. I guess you feel you score points with that sort of stuff, but it doesn’t make much of an impression on me since I don’t come here to play basketball, but rather to discuss people’s opinions.

  78. I didn’t impugn your character. I did critique your article. A critique that I stand by.

    Actually, the fact that you took it as impugning your character tends to go along with my talk radio characterization and the hyperbole that is at its core.

  79. Why not fly off the handle? I am sorry that my critique made you go ballistic. Parson me as well for not realizing that Mr. Den Beste was an object of veneration. I couldn’t see that from the article.

    You appear to be as sensitive as the the lefties.

  80. Of course what’s interesting is that Nevada One’s nominal output is about 560 GWh per year, but the estimated output is only 134GWh per year.

    Which indicates either poor estimated reliability (breakdowns), nominal yield only being achieved under certain conditions (weather?), or just nobody needs that much power out in the middle of nowhere.

    Which brings up the 7-10% loss for long range transmission…

    Why aren’t we repealing the ban on nuclear fuel recycling again?

  81. First, electric motors are far more efficient at using their power – in the 75% range, IIRC. In comparison, gas engines are about 20% efficient…

    Apples and oranges. Your comparing well to wheel of a typical car to that of just a electric motor. If your thinking plug-in-hybrid add in 7% grid losses (alternative sources in the middle of nowhere will degrade that further) and 30% battery charge discharge losses. That takes the electric car to below 50%.

    1. You want all electric cars? We use about 143 billion gallons of gasoline a year. That is equivalent to 5.2 trillion kWh. If we use the 20% efficiency for the typical car the equivalent energy in kWh is a little over 1 trillion kWh. Double that and that is how much more electricity you will need to generate for a complete conversion to electric cars for the same number of miles.

    2. Who ever said lighter cars for part of the solution obviously doesn’t live where it snows.

    3. Without #1 to store energy the averages are almost useless. You have to have enough capacity to supply the peaks in demand. Solar peak is around noon, electric demand peak is late afternoon for the southwest US. I think that is true for most of the US in the summer.

    Demand peak press release

    Nevada Power Company achieved a new record system peak of 3,855 megawatts Friday, July 17, at 5 p.m.

    Using the Bird model direct radiation incident upon a horizontal surface (W/m2) it is easy to show that the solar peak does not line up with the demand peak. Not even close. For the Nevada Solar 1 site the calculated solar energy at noon is 710 W/m2. At 5:00 pm the calculated solar energy is 187 W/m2. The take home point is you still have to build traditional power plants to cover the peaks.

  82. mark, you’re not making a lot of sense here.

    The suggestion was to transfer a portion of the energy budget from petroleum to (as an example here) solar. It’s not hard to do; note that the PV system on my house is _almost breaking even_ in the winter of the first year I’m using it (which kind of blows my mind).

    Will we replace 100% of the petroleum/coal energy we use with PV? Not bloody likely. But it’s feasible to suggest that – like my installation – we can cut back on some of our consumption, which is a good idea for a lot of reasons.

    And one of the points is the one made in this thread, which is that we wouldn’t need to set aside too much of our landscape to do so.

    Marc

  83. The actual efficiency I calculate for the hypothetical electric car was 48.8%. The 48.8% for a hypothetical electric car does not include losses from accessories such as lights, radio, and AC. It also doesn’t include the heater required by those of us who have white Christmas’s. Nor does it include rolling resistance, wind resistance, or power train losses. Using solar generators will add additional transmission losses due to the remote locations the solar generators will be in.

    The weight advantage of the hypothetical electric car is imaginary. The batteries for this hypothetical electric car don’t exist and nobody knows how to make them. We can’t even make a electric car at the same weight. Feasible is not a word I would use to describe the situation.

    It seems whenever someone is promoting alternative energy we never can get the real data, only estimates. It has been my experience that whenever the real numbers do see the light of day they show the estimate to be optimistic, sometimes wildly so. Keeping that in mind, the estimate for Nevada Solar 1 is 134 million kWh/year at a cost of $266 million. For the sake of argument assume the above electric car (at equivalent weight to a gasoline car) became possible. Assume the additional losses listed above knocked the efficiency down to 45%. Based on the gallons of gasoline used per year the additional generating capacity needed would be 2.3 trillion kWh/year. That additional power would bring total demand for electricity to 6.21 trillion kWh/year. To determine how many Nevada Solar 1 plants we would need to produce 6.21 trillion kWh divide total demand by the estimate yearly output from Nevada Solar 1. To supply 100% with Nevada Solar 1 type plants we would have to build 47,761 of them. Multiply that time the cost of Nevada Solar 1 and your talking in excess of $12.7 trillion. 10% of demand is still $1.27 trillion. This does not include the additional transmission line infrastructure that will become increasingly more expensive as the solar plants are built in more remote locations. Nor does it include the infrastructure that would be needed in every company parking lot so the employees could charge their cars during the day. I hardly think we are at a point where we could call this feasible.

  84. Greg, we’ve been over a lot of this – the $266 million for NSO is meaningless, because it’s a prototype.

    Nonsense. It is a production plant. Comparison to a cell phone is non sequitur.

    I don’t know where you get the number of 48.8,% and I’m not particularly interested in arguing it with you …

    Of course your not going to argue since it was based on your previous claim of 75% efficiency …

    Your comparing well to wheel of a typical car to that of just a electric motor. If your thinking plug-in-hybrid add in 7% grid losses (alternative sources in the middle of nowhere will degrade that further) and 30% battery charge discharge losses. That takes the electric car to below 50%.

    You go on to say:

    … but the weight thing is trivial to prove: the Toyota Camry’s curb weight is 3483 pounds, while next year’s model of Prius is 2975 pounds.

    Your doing the apples and oranges thing again. Which is interesting since you could have compared the the weight of the same model car like the 2008 Honda Civic which comes in both hybrid at 2877 lbs, and standard model at 2690 lbs.

  85. note that the PV system on my house is almost breaking even in the winter of the first year I’m using it (which kind of blows my mind).

    Which says more about how messed up the California electricity market is screwed up then it does about the efficacy of solar panels.

  86. And even if it were “only” a first generation production plant, it’d still be likely to be far more expensive than the same technology under full scale rollout.

    You are entitled to your own opinion. You are not entitled to your own facts. Your belief that it “be far more expensive” does not make it a fact. The solar plants are not a technology, they are a combination of numerous technologies which are mostly mature technologies. If 90% of your costs are mature technology there will be no expectation of significant cost reductions.

    Actually, Greg, that’s a poor comparison, since the whole point of a vehicle model that comes in hybrid and non-hybrid models is that they really are …

    Try to absorb this fact. There are no electric cars because the batteries weigh to much. Your continuous hand waving past reality not withstanding.

  87. Chris you continue to create your own facts out of whole cloth. The 3 times more expensive is nonsense. AvatarADV posted this earlier:

    The capital investment for Nevada Solar One was $266 million. For their troubles, they have a plant that can generate 64 MW burst; let’s go with your assumption of 16 MW average. (It doesn’t really work like that, but meh, as an approximation it’s favorable to you.) That results in a cost of $16,625 per kilowatt/hour.

    GE’s installation of third-generation ABWR reactors in Japan recently cost approximately $2,000 per kilowatt/hour. They advertise that they can do it for $1,400 to $1,600 depending on where it’s going in. Remember, this is the plant type with very high construction costs and very low fuel costs…

    Solar is more then 8 times more expensive. It is actually worse when you consider transmission costs.

    The cost of building 1 mile of 115-kilovolt line is assumed to be $286,000, the midpoint of the range for the relevant voltages (Table 32).[16] That amount includes the cost of the transmission line itself and the supporting towers. It also assumes relatively ideal terrain conditions, including fairly level and flat land with no major obstacles or mountains. (More difficult terrain would raise the cost of erecting the transmission line.) The cost of constructing a new substation for a 115-kilovolt transmission line is estimated at $1.08 million.

    The nuclear plant can be put close to where the power is needed. The solar plant can’t. The cost for the transmission line are not insignificant.

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