by Gordon Fulks, PhD
Wealthy corporate giants like Apple and Google now hawk not only their innovations in the virtual world, but an ever greater commitment to “green energy.’ Even Portland General Electric relentlessly hawks their green energy. What amazing virtue! What progress!
But is it? There are dark clouds on the horizon, as we turn away from objective science and engineering to a look-alike promoted by the politically connected but scientifically challenged.
One of the dark clouds is certainly climate hysteria, which once motivated societies to sacrifice virgins to appease the climate gods, and today seems intent on merely sacrificing industrialization. But that is not my concern here.
I wonder why we are abandoning “efficient energy” in favor of “virtual energy” and why we are abandoning “efficient fuels” in favor of “politically correct fuels.” I wonder why we are sacrificing our last open spaces to post-modern industrialization, why we are burning our food for fuel via ethanol, and why we are destroying the earth’s last remaining rainforests to grow “biodiesel.”
For someone who has long championed science and the environment, the utter folly I see before me is heartbreaking. The Sierra Club I once admired is now taking money from the natural gas industry to drive competing coal out of business and move us into the “brownout age.”
But how can that be? Surely, the natural gas industry will be driven out of business, too, if green wins over fossil fuel. Not so! Technology is more complicated than simplistic good versus evil.
The game with green is to ignore the fatal downside and keep subsidizing the corruption and stupidity. If subsidies end, the nonsense will stop. Free markets quickly determine what makes sense. There would be no need for me to explain complexities to those sold on slogans. Thank god we still have competent engineers fighting to keep the lights on. For all others, let me continue.
Wind is very diffuse, requiring a vast environmental and financial footprint to generate significant power. Even then the power is far inferior to that produced by conventional means, because it is intermittent and comes when least needed. This can be solved by pumped storage, by backup from conventional sources or by tailoring usage to the availability of the wind. All of these are prohibitively expensive with wind, because wind is already prohibitively expensive.
Pumped storage works well with cheap nuclear power, because it allows power plants to run continuously, storing power at night for use the next day. Who cares if this increases the wholesale cost of power from 2 to 3 cents/kw-hr? But the equivalent 50 percent increase in the cost of wind power is prohibitive.
Backup of wind power by conventional sources is greatly inefficient. Hydroelectric systems do not like to be constantly turned on and off in response to fickle wind. And migrating salmon suffer nitrogen induced fatalities, if water has to spilled without going through the turbines. Besides, we just end up trading inexpensive hydro for expensive wind.
Backup by nuclear or fossil fuel is extremely inefficient. Large thermal plants can take days to come up to steam, forcing operators to keep them running constantly to back up wind.
Building specialized natural gas-fired power plants that can be switched on quickly is also foolish, because they are inefficient. We would be much better off scrapping wind altogether and building super-efficient gas-turbine power plants that run continuously. Birds and bats would live longer. Those concerned about their “carbon footprint” would certainly thank us, too.
Unfortunately, too many captains of modern industry live in a virtual world, selling gadgets, services, and even real power while promoting only the virtual.
Gordon J. Fulks lives in Corbett and can be reached at email@example.com. He holds a doctorate in physics from the University of Chicago, Laboratory for Astrophysics and Space Research.