Alternative Energy: Savior to an Alternate Universe
A couple weeks ago, my local newspaper, Erie Times-News, printed this letter that I submitted:
"As an electrical engineer, I have always embraced the technology behind wind, hydro, solar and other forms of 'alternative' energy production. It is undoubtedly cool. What I despise is an agenda by special interest groups to mislead the public regarding the maturity and efficiency of those systems in an effort to destroy the nuclear and fossil fuel industries that drive our economy. The recent failure of the 5-year-old wind turbine at Tom Ridge Environmental Center is a good example. Numbers were not provided for that turbine, but were for the one on Barracks Beach, also offline (Erie Times-News, March 31). The turbine and tower cost about $36,000 in 2004 dollars, when installed. The stated best-case energy generation for it is 15,000 kwh/ year. Electricity rates around here are about 13 cents/kwh, but I'll use 15 cents for best-case analysis. That multiplies to $2,250 worth of electricity per year. So, it would take 16 years to recover the cost of replacement at that rate. The turbine has lasted 8 years, yielding an amortized cost of $4,500 per year. Installation would include expensive cost for cables and equipment for interfacing the wind generator power to the commercial power, which are not figured into my calculations. Similar numbers dominate for solar power as well since installation costs are high and the cells lose efficiency over time. Yes, we must continue pursuing other forms of energy generation to supplement fossil fuels. No, we must not punish and cripple the country's economic well-being in mindless obeisance to groups that are making billions of dollars pushing their disingenuous agenda."
About a week later, I received a telephone call (my letters on various topics often invoke phone calls) from Mr. John Droz, Jr., stating that someone had alerted him to my letter. John is a life-long physicist and environmental advocate. His mission is to dispel the myths regarding "renewable" energy as proclaimed, perpetuated, propitiated, and promulgated by laymen and lawmakers. Like me, he is a huge proponent of the exploration and implementation of alternative energy production, but not at the expense of downright lying to the public in order to further a political and/or social agenda.
John has researched and published very extensive presentations laying out his case, and provides a plethora of sourced data that shows the real state of the art with wind turbines, solar collectors, gas-, wood-, and coal-fired generators, nuclear, hydro and tidal schemes, algae production, and other popular means of generating energy. He stands before audiences in many venues to inform and address concerns about how the global push towards total adoption of an anything-but-fossil-fuel energy base. This particular presentation focuses on comparing the reality of wind power based on scientific data as compared to claims made using junk science, deception, and outright lies.
Perhaps three of the biggest areas of deception used in the promotion of alternative energy production are the inefficiency, the true costs of operation, and the environmental impact of massive land use. The same errant data is picked up by ignorant people and repeated over and over again, while simultaneously labeling anyone who dares to disagree "anti-science." Most of them wouldn't know real science if it smacked them in the face - which John's presentation does rather handily. Anyone caring to refute anything in his material is invited to call him out with verifiable proof. I will be glad to post it here as a counterpoint.
Efficiencies of solar cells capable of being installed on a commercial level are notoriously low - maybe 15% on a good day, and it drops off over time with ageing effects. Laboratory PV cells that employ exotic amalgams of semiconductors and metals are reaching about 25%, but installed costs of those would be enormous. Wind turbines average about the same if velocities are near optimal. Using superconductors in the turbines would at least double their efficiency, but as with exotic PV cells, the cost would be utterly prohibitive at this point.
Let's face it, any currently feasible scheme of producing energy on the scale required to run the world's economic engine is going to consume copious amounts of land, natural resources, and manpower. Fuel-fired generation has a lower land use requirement for the actual equipment site as compared to wind power, but unlike wind power it has "hidden" land use requirements in the form of mining sites and transportation of fuel to the point of generation. Ditto for solar generation. Hydro power, both in the form of dams and tidal basin installations, is my method of choice, but it is not capable of providing all our needs. Nuclear generation has matured significantly and can be implemented safely as long as proper precautions are taken, but it has the disadvantage of disposal and storage of spent radioactive fuel. Geothermal power is a great concept, but not enough locations exist to make it much more than a technical curiosity.
Cost of operation is well-documented in generation stations that have been in service for decades. Pro and anti groups have extensively published all aspects of coal, gas, oil, wood, and hydro power, so when a cost per kilowatt-hour is published, it fairly accurately reflects the true cost of generation. Conversely, the cost-per-kWh figures often published for wind and solar power do not reflect the immense levels of government (i.e., your tax dollars) subsidies both in research and development and in operational expenses. John's presentation does a good job of drilling down into the data to extract true costs. Again, to be fair, an awful lot of subsidies have gone toward R&D and operational costs in past decades for existing power generation technology, so that money was long ago absorbed into and made possible today's published costs. Increasingly strict EPA regulations have forced traditional generation to become more efficient and clean, but those costs were also absorbed by taxpayers in the form of higher bills for electricity even if the efforts were not subsidized directly by the government. I don't know how an inflation-adjusted, honest comparison of total system costs for legacy vs. newfangled generation methods would turn out, but intuitively you can bet that getting wind and solar power generation down to a true cost per kWh that is on par with coal and gas would take decades if not centuries. During that same period, improvements in legacy systems would continue so the two lines might never converge. Perhaps the only way to assure it in the near term is to promise to see to it that, "electricity rates would necessarily skyrocket" for coal-and gas-fired plants through regulatory fines and mandated carbon credit purchases.
Church of Wind Power and Church of Solar Power evangelists are willing to risk total economic collapse in order to see their radical agendas implemented. They care not a whit what the consequences are. Many believe that mankind is a scourge upon the Earth and that total collapse wouldn't be such a bad thing... as long as they themselves are not impacted. I have never subscribed to the philosophy of "Ignorance is bliss." In fact, I have just the opposite belief: Ignorance will drive us back to the stone age. Maybe that's why those same people tend to take the side of Taliban type societies who still live in caves.
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