Saturday 25 April 2009

Obama moves forward on energy

USA Today reported yesterday that Obama is launching a program for offshore wind power – it could create 250,000 jobs and provide a fifth of our power in a few decades.

It is increasingly likely that wind and solar power are going to play a major role in our energy strategy.

We can think of airspace as a finite resource: there is only so much “space” into which we can put carbon, before truly disastrous things happen. In addition to conservation and getting away from fossil fuels as much as possible, there are a number of options on the table: capping emissions, taxing them, fining polluters, and so forth. On ambitious effort worth watching: Abu Dhabi is building a no-carbon city, Masdar.

Some options in the carbon battle are problematic. There are many carbon-trading plans out there, too many, and trading probably won’t solve the problem. Anything that is not statutory won’t work. And the technology for clean coal retrofitting shows promise but it is not anywhere near a stage that justifies building new coal plants. Obama has ruled out a straight carbon tax for now.

The western desert could supply the U.S. with all the electricity it needs. The LA mayor wants a project to generate 1.3 GW of solar power by 2020. China and India are exploring it too. One issue to address is cutting the cost of the silicon involved: since sand is plentiful, this sounds like a straightforward problem of chemistry and engineering.

In addition to the large-scale solar efforts to generate electricity, there are smaller efforts: solar water heaters, solar chimneys that get hot and create updrafts that circulate air, and solar water distillers (how much volume can they generate?). Some vehicles use solar panels to power air conditioning.

There are also ways to fight the sun: choosing the right building materials, designing spaces to circulate air, orienting the building the right way vis-a-vis the sun, low ratio of surface area to volume, shading, window sizes and shapes, white paint, and even computer modelling for the light and HVAC.

Wind power gives the U.S. one percent of its power; it could be 15 percent by 2020. They are using the Great Plains, but I’ll bet the Great Lakes are worth a look since they’ve got wind and population centers right there. China is building windfarms in Hebei. Germany, Ireland and Denmark are using it, and India is exploring it too.

Picking wind sites is critical: look at the the cost of land, value of energy generated, access to power lines, environmental issues, and of course the wind itself, or lack thereof. Some places like Texas have little wind in summer when electricity demand peaks; geothermal heat pumps can make air conditioning more efficient, but can the power be stored locally too? Since people usually don’t like living in windy places, a lot of the best places for wind farms are far from population centers, which bumps up the cost of power lines and substations; Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia have plenty of wind, but it’s way, way out there. Another complication is that it’s much easier to move turbine blades by water than by land, so some of those sites in the boonies are problematic. Wind power is becoming more cost-effective, and federal and state authorities offer tax breaks for using it. Some Americans are buying grid-linked turbines in the 1-10KW range to power their entire homes.

Engineers are deploying slow-water hydroelectric power in the Detroit River. A field of cylinders built on a seabed 1 km by 1.5km could power 100,000 homes. It would be cheaper than wind or solar, and won’t bother the wildlife much. Normal hydroelectric dams need to fuel but a river is needed; it is expensive and it can hurt the environment.

Twenty years ago the liberal fashion was to attack all nuclear technology. Later the conservatives were the ones worrying: more nations want nuclear technology, the technology to go from energy production to weaponry is easier to get, and countries such as Russia and China don’t seem to be serious about stopping proliferation. And then, even though it is cheap, there is the waste: Obama and Reid oppose storing waste at Yucca Mountain, but some scientists say it may be the safest way. CNN now reports that the Republicans, to cross Obama up, are calling for an energy plan that is heavy on nuclear, but nuclear plants can be incredibly expensive – 15 to 20 billion – and are notorious for cost overruns. So that isn’t really a comprehensive answer.

Geothermal hot-spot plants are worth a look. Less promising is biofuels, which take too much land and water, and save little in the way of energy or carbon. And they’re inefficient. However, we may also need to end our opposition to Brazilian cane ethanol which is more efficient than the domestic stuff. The airlines were playing around with aircraft that run on biofuels, but I don’t know how practical that is.

Are methane cars practical?

Just some stuff to think about.

More to come on energy and politics!

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