Renewables who what when where
The facts on power and its production:
We open our browsers, watch the evening news or perhaps we use the original search engine the ole newspaper we see or hear renewables our savior. Like all stories it’s best to start at the beginning and explore how we got where we are today and what renewables will actually accomplish. I believe most of us would agree the generation and wide spread transmission of electricity is perhaps the single greatest development in the history of mankind. Now that’s a huge statement I agree. However stop and think about from the time we open our eyes in the morning to the time we drift off to sleep electricity is interwoven into our lives to the point most in the western world could not even survive without it. It rapidly moved past a tool to make life less toilsome to a life or death necessity. There was a Government sponsored study that basically said up to 75% of Americans would perish from a combination of exposure, dehydration and starvation in 30 days if we lost the power grid. WOW! Talk about a reality check! In around a hundred years we went from electricity being a poorly understood phenomenon to a critical part of our lives. Even so to most of us electricity may as well be magic. We just know, when we flip the switch, the light comes on it does our bidding and we rush through our days without ever thinking of it once. So I will attempt to give us a crash course in electricity 101 so we can better understand how and why the renewables may not be the savior we have been told. I will do my best not to put you to sleep. There are two types of electrical current DC or direct current think of batteries and flashlights. The other type powers our daily lives AC or alternating current think wall receptacles, lamps and the like. There is a significant difference between AC and DC power. Both are generated by rotating conductive metal typically cooper in a magnetic field. The major difference is DC flows only one direction and AC flows in both directions. Because of this difference without getting into the technical specifics AC is far easier to distribute long distances which is what won the infamous battle between Thomas Edison and Nicola Tesla. If you don’t know that story it’s worth looking up. It got very ugly at times, however Tesla won and we now use AC power to power our lives. Like I said above we have to rotate the generator turning mechanical motion into electric energy. We either use falling water or we use coal, natural gas or nuclear to make steam to rotate the generators. These methods with the exception of nuclear reactors have been around since the very beginning. Tesla’s first generating plant was on the Niagara River. He harnessed the existing water flow on the Niagara to spin the first commercial AC generators. So, not much has changed since our first generating plant water is used either as a falling liquid or in a gas form to spin the generators. Just a quick note on nuclear power plants most probably do not know all we are doing is using the heat produced from the reaction to create steam the reaction itself does not create the power. All of these methods are quite reliable and can easily be ramped up or down as the demand changes throughout the day. Of course, there are draw backs mostly environmental to each of these methods the burning of hydro carbons to create the steam pumps loads of pollution into the air we all need. Damming our rivers, while not creating ongoing pollution issues, does enormous damage to the natural flow of our waterways which can lead to all sorts of unintended problems. Nuclear, while under normal operation does not create atmospheric pollution, does leave us with spent fuel rods and reaction byproducts that have to be stored safely for thousands of years. That problem has never been adequately addressed. So here we are in 2015 and we still make most of our power from dead plants and animals, dams or nuclear.
Solar! Wind! Both green both look to be in abundance looks however as we all know looks can be deceiving. Let’s examine these closer and find out what the facts truly are rather the natural assumptions we all tend to make. Solar, at first glance would seem to be the answer since sunlight falls in abundance all over our planet. However, let’s examine the facts about solar power generation. Today’s solar panels are more efficient than the ones we had a few years back. Yet the efficiency is still quite low and the best on the market are around 20 to 24 percent efficient. Meaning at best they will convert one quarter of the sun light that it collects to electricity. Then like most everything they lose efficiency over time so maintenance of a solar farm will be critical to ensure output stays steady. The inherent inefficiency of solar panels creates perhaps the largest issue where to put acres and acres of solar collectors. Next, you have the obvious issue of the panels only working during the daytime hours which fluctuate depending on the time of the year. Weather can cause times of lower production and damage to the array wind, hail, and lightning. Due to these issues there must be a conventional power generating source that can be brought on line to cover these short comings which means fossil fuels, hydro, or nuclear. Generating power from solar panels is far more expensive as the tried and true production methods and leading to higher pollution rates since you must include the manufacturing of the panels themselves as well as the other components. Solar systems are far more complex as well the solar cell produces a DC current that is sent to a bank of batteries so the relatively small voltages produced can be combined before being converted to usable AC power that is then transmitted. As you can see there are quite a few more steps involved in producing power via solar array. Dropping the efficiency and reliability even further. At first glance solar would seem like a good path to follow yet in reality it’s not as green as it is touted and is far more expensive. Germany made the attempt to go solar/wind and they now have a new lexicon coined known as energy poverty because of the high percentage of consumers that struggle to pay their utility bills or simply cannot afford it. Germany’s fossil fuel use has actually increased even though billions have been spent on renewables. There are no free lunches!
Wind, another green source to generate power no argument. Again as we actually delve into the nuts and bolts of this generation method we find some of the same issues we have with solar. Finding a place where we can expect a constant breeze is difficult. They do exist though however in a lot of cases the areas that produce the most reliable source of wind are also areas we don’t want to have hundreds of tall, noisy turbines. Typically those areas tend to be mountainous or near shore lines. Like solar we have the issue requiring back up generating capabilities to cover the times when the wind isn’t cooperating and is either too little or too much. To combat these problems the turbine manufacturers must use light weight but strong materials. This means these materials are cutting edge technologies in some cases which translates very expensive to build. Once you identify an area where you can place these turbines you then have the issue of erecting and maintaining them in the remote and harsh environments. Remember, for optimum reliability you are talking mountainous or shore based sites to construct and then maintain. Same result we had with solar the cost of generation is much higher than the standard methods. Dang another lunch we had to pay for!
Well what a buzz kill this was huh? I do have good news about real a solution come back for my next hub post.