Civil discourse – the ultimate education.

Some weeks ago, when Allegheny Treasures was just beginning, Jon Boone graciously agreed to be interviewed for a post, resulting in, “A Conversation with Jon Boone – Toward a Better Understanding of Industrial Wind Technology.”  The discussion was very well received and cross posted on many industry sites, including the highly regarded MasterResource – A free market energy blog.

In the comment section following the MasterResource posting was an exchange that deserves repeating here.  In the back and forth begun by reader TheLastMan’s question,  Mr. Boone, along with Mr. Tom Tanton, display the value of civil discourse between serious people with an interest in the pure exchange of ideas.

The beauty of this exchange is, even if you haven’t read “The Conversation” – which we encourage you to do – you will come away from these comments with an appreciation for, as Mr. Boone puts it – “the colloquy of good people.”


Comments begin:

TheLastMan { 11.01.09 at 10:09 pm }

Some very persuasive arguments here, and in the previous article. This is the “500 pound gorilla riding the elephant in the room” of all so-called renewable energy sources – it plagues solar energy as well. Apart from the problem of variability, the best places for wind turbines (off-shore) and solar power (deserts) are way off-grid, and so require huge amounts of copper cable to be laid at vast economic and environmental expense.

However, one thing not really touched on in your piece, and many others discussing renewables is the place that energy storage can play in smoothing the fluctuations. In the UK, we had a problem in the 1960’s that we had brought a lot of nuclear plants on stream but could not shut them down at night when demand was low. One solution was to pump water uphill. A large reservoir was built in the Scottish mountains. When demand was low water was pumped uphill into it. When demand was high the water was released to drive turbines.

For me, the enabling technology for all renewables will be efficient energy storage, better still, energy that can be transported relatively cheaply.

Some solar electricty plants are toying with molten salt as a storage mechanism. However this cannot be transported so does not solve the “off-grid” problem even though it might smooth out fluctuations. Another likely candidate is hydrogen generation by electrolysis. We already have working renewable technologies (albeit uneconomic at the moment without state subsidy). But the key to making them all work is energy storage. Until that is sorted they will continue to be marginal at best, even if they ever produce electricty cheap enough to compete with fossil fuels. with Jon Boone here. […]

Tom Tanton { 11.02.09 at 8:31 am }

LastMan: yes storage is crucial, but keep in mind the time horizon of various storage devices. You mention pumped hydro which is good for diurnal to weekly periods. It simply cannot respond as fast as wind gusts (which are order of 15 minutes) because the reversible pump/generator cannot that quickly. Other technologies, like capacitors and batteries can respond faster, but are cost prohibitive and not fully developed (yes, I know that sounds redundant.)

Jon Boone { 11.02.09 at 10:48 am }

Last Man:
Thanks for your comments. I did remark in passing about pumped hydro storage–and its limitations. The subject of “renewables” and energy storage would take many articles to engage properly. Thomas Edison spent a small fortune trying to invent a battery storage system for volatile intermittents like wind. He failed.

The principal problem tying wind with large scale pumped storage is cost, available land, and the Rube Goldbergesque nature of trying to coordinate such a system. Tom Tanton’s comments seem apropos here. There are several less costly, less intrusive, more energy effective methods of pumping hydro for storage than deploying wind technology. As soon as steam was harnessed in the nineteenth century, the Dutch, who had used just such a wind system to “reclaim” land from the sea, never really looked back….

The infatuation with making renewables like wind and solar work at industrial scale seems, well, fatuous, given the pre-modern nature of the physical realities at work. Modern energy systems insist upon highly precise, predictable, dispatchable machine performance. Wind systems are the antithesis of such performance. There is a round hole/square peg aspect to “integrating” wind energy that is best appreciated by Cinderella’s stepsisters as they tried to make Cinderella’s slipper fit their outsized feet.

TheLastMan { 11.03.09 at 7:50 am }

Mr Boone and Mr Tanton, thanks very much for your informative replies.

I like this blog, mainly because it focuses on energy technology rather than obsessing about whether or not global warming is happening and if so when and how much – which I find rather sterile and next to impossible to ascertain.

Personally I think burning less oil, coal and gas is a “good thing” mainly because I think that convservation of limited resources reduces costs and increases profits – something that I am sure any free-market blog will appreciate!

However (as stated in previous posts) I am also against massive state subsidies to alternative energy technologies that distort the market to favour inefficient and environmentally damaging technologies (e.g. onshore wind)

However, I am slightly disenchanted with some of the tone of some of the articles that seem to want to discourage all renewable energy projects – whereas I think everybody’s efforts might be better employed trying to make them work.

For instance rather than discussing energy storage systems that might work, you choose to simply to dismiss one system (pumped hydro) that won’t.

I also talked about heat storage (molten salt being one) and water electrolysis to produce Hydrogen – neither of which you explored. I am sure there are huge technological challenges around these types of systems but rather than dismissing them out of hand would it not be useful to discuss how they might work?

For instance I am aware that electrolysis and fuel cell technologies are improving in major leaps and that the cost of this technolgy is coming down fast.

I think maybe your worry is that efficient energy storage might eventually make some renewable energy generation viable – and many on this blog seem set against renewables as a matter of principle.

I suspect after all that this blog may not be the place for me. I am looking for positive minded engineers, scientists and economists looking for economic and profitable ways to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels – not the same sort of entrenched negativity that has become apparent in the global warming pro and anti blogs.

Tom Tanton { 11.03.09 at 8:38 am }

Lastman. I encourage you to stay—at least a while longer–and you’ll see that most of us are not “anti-renewable” but rather anti-market-distorting subsidies. I am, personally, first and foremost a “techie” and always relish a new, cost effective advancement. You’re quite correct that electrolysis (along with radiolysis, biolosis and other water to hydrogen techniques) has made progress, as have fuel cells. Having previously served as an advisor to the National Fuel Cell Reserach Center, I can attest that “large advancements” do not quite equal “competitive.” A complete discussion of the myriad energy storage is beyond a comment-in-a-blog, but your correct there are numerous ones–each with different applications and different time horizons/response times. More importantly and more broadly than just fuel cells, I find that overly generous subsidies from government are actually impeding technology progress, not acclerating them. Actually I love renewables–I just wish they’d grow up. It’s time.
I likely have other reasons and give different weight to “reducing dependence on fossil fuel” than do you, but that’s an area for discussion, not silence.

Jon Boone { 11.03.09 at 10:09 am }

The reality is that no energy system is sustainable or renewable, although some are better, from the standpoint of human time, than others. The Second and Third Laws of Thermodynamics are inexorable; even black holes will evaporate.

Because they are so “energy diffuse” and require so much territory, wind and solar technologies offer only a tinker’s chance of doing anything effective at the scale necessary to produce a modern quality of life for 7 billion people. The energy density of fossil fuels have provided a relatively temporary solution, although they eventually will run out. And they do have negative environmental consequences, although I should point out that their overall benefits outweigh–by far–any negatives. Nonetheless, annually dumping over 3 billion tons of CO2 into the earth and sky, which is in addition to the natural transpiration cycles of the earth, may have negative consequences that we now only poorly understand.

In preparation for a future without reliance on fossil fuels (which may take centuries), why not go with a sure winner–energy dense nuclear systems. Eventually, controlled nuclear fusion reactions at relatively low temperatures will make us kings of the solar system, if this is what we wish.

Whatever you do, however, don’t precipitously unleash untested renewable technologies that oafishly intrude upon the land and water, claiming that “one day” other technologies will come along to make them all work more effectively. Which is precisely what is happening now.

Wishful thinking about reducing dependence on fossil fuels should not be an excuse for becoming an environmental terrorist.

Comments end.

That, is education!

Note:  Mr. Tom Tanton – Environmental Fellow at Pacific Research Institute, has a long and distinguished career in the energy sector.

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