Monthly Archives: July 2008

Scenes From The Apple Store

Seen on King Street this morning as the crowd anxiously awaits the Grand Opening. The youngster at the head of the line told me that he started the line at 9:30 last night. The sense of excitement on the sidewalk was palpable, and the Apple folks were passing out water and leading the crowd in cheers…..

Checking the line for familiar faces, we saw JJ of i’m not drunk enough for this…..

Yet More Energy Press…

Via The Heritage Foundation blog, some more interesting analysis about world energy production and demand, and where the US stands in the game. And it ain’t pretty.

Of note:

The economy is by far the No. 1 issue on most Americans’ minds. Gas prices are a close second. The two issues are intimately related. But the spike in oil prices this year is just the tip of the iceberg. Due to similar developments in supply and demand, electricity prices are set to skyrocket next year.

While American oil consumption has grown only 15% since 1973, electricity use has shot up 115%. Right now the U.S. has 760 gigawatts of power to meet consumption. We will need 135 gigawatts of new capacity over the next decade to keep the lights on, but right now only 57 gigawatts of power are planned. No matter what Barack Obama and Al Gore tell you, alternative energy sources cannot meet demand. Solar is still only one-tenth as efficient as the cheapest fossil fuels. Today 97% of our electricity comes from fossil fuels, nuclear and hydro power. Wind provides 1% and solar .01%….

Despite signing the Kyoto Protocol, countries across Europe are rapidly building new coal power plants. Germany plans to build 27 coal-fired plants by 2020. Italy plans to increase its reliance on coal from 14% today to 33% in just five years. In all of Europe, 40 new major coal power are set to be built in the next five years. In 2006 alone, China completed enough coal power plants to match all of Britain’s capacity. India plans to boost coal production by 50% by 2012 and quadruple it by 2030….

A highly organized network of environmental groups such as the Sierra Club have been using every state, local and federal law they can to stop construction of coal power plants nationwide. The environmental coalition, which includes the Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Defense Fund and Environmental Integrity Project, claims 65 victories over the last three years.


The United States has not built a nuclear power plant in 30 years. While there are 30 plants currently being planned, all are tied up in the arcane permitting process the environmentalist left has created. None of the projects has started construction. Meanwhile, the rest of the world is embracing nuclear power. France already gets 80% of its electricity from nuclear power. Japan has six nuclear plants under construction and another six planned. India also has six under construction and another 19 planned. China has seven under construction and another 85 planned.

…The nuclear industry does not need subsidies or handouts in order to succeed. The biggest risk the nuclear industry faces is reactionary government regulation. If the federal government could lift the ban on fuel recycling it could safely manage nuclear waste.

There’s a lot more there……enjoy.

Passing Wind

Via the New York Times, some information about wind power in Texas.

The story is found here, with a few highlights for your amusement:

Texas regulators have approved a $4.93 billion wind-power transmission project, providing a major lift to the development of wind energy in the state.

The planned web of transmission lines will carry electricity from remote western parts of the state to major population centers like Dallas, Houston, Austin and San Antonio. The lines can handle 18,500 megawatts of power, enough for 3.7 million homes on a hot day when air-conditioners are running.

The project will ease a bottleneck that has become a major obstacle to development of the wind-rich Texas Panhandle and other areas suitable for wind generation.

Texas is already the largest producer of wind power, with 5,300 installed megawatts — more than double the installed capacity of California, the next closest state. And Texas is fast expanding its capacity.

Wind developers reacted favorably…

“The lack of transmission has been a fundamental issue in Texas, and it’s becoming more and more of an issue elsewhere,” said Vanessa Kellogg, the Southwest regional development director for Horizon Wind Energy, which operates the Lone Star Wind Farm in West Texas and has more wind generation under development. “This is a great step in the right direction.”

Ms. Kellogg said that the project would be a boon for Texas power customers, whose electricity costs have risen in conjunction with soaring natural gas prices across the state. “There’s nothing volatile about the wind in terms of the price, because it’s free,” she said…

The transmission problem is so acute in Texas that turbines are sometimes shut off even when the wind is blowing.

“When the amount of generation exceeds the export capacity, you have to start turning off wind generators” to keep things in balance, said Hunter Armistead, head of the renewable energy division in North America at Babcock & Brown, a large wind developer and transmission provider. “We’ve reached that point in West Texas.”…

Lack of transmission is a severe problem in a number of states that, like Texas, want to develop their wind resources. Wind now accounts for 1 percent of the nation’s electricity generation but could rise to 20 percent by 2030, according to a recent Department of Energy report, if transmission lines are built and other challenges met.

But other states may find the Texas model difficult to emulate. The state is unique in having its own electricity grid. All other states fall under the jurisdiction of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, adding an extra layer of bureaucracy to any transmission proposals.

The exact route of the transmission lines has yet to be determined because the state has not yet acquired right-of-way, according to Mr. Withrow of the utility commission.

The project will almost certainly face concerns from landowners reluctant to have wires cutting across their property. “I would anticipate that some of these companies will have to use eminent domain,” he said, speaking of the companies that will be building the transmission lines.

It’s interesting to learn that the generation of power already exceeds the transmission capability. It is also interesting to learn that Texas, alone among the states, is not subject to regulatory review at the federal level. Lastly, this uninformed scribe asks why existing power lines cannot be used to transport the wind product, or why existing power line rights of way cannot be used with unique transmission lines.

Regardless, could we be on the verge of a significant increase in one of the alternative energy sources?

Engineering Our Way to Alternative Energy

Not so very long ago, Boone Pickens unleashed his vision for the future. Now we have heard from TheAlHimself. Their plans are noble, well-meaning, and surely offered in the spirit of altruism of the highest sort. My friend Xarker Dan “encourages” us all to climb on the progress train and get the ball rolling!

If only it was so simple. If only our enthusiasm and commitment and self-discipline could make it so.

Here is the scientific reality, delivered coolly and cruelly by Stephen Den Beste.

My least favorite subject about which to blog, back in the day, was “alternate energy”. I made a few posts about that and those are among the most-linked articles in the USS Clueless archive (for example, just today), and I get mail about those, too. The usual theme is, “Hey, did you see this? Ha! Now what do you think, eh? Ready to change your mind?” Sigh. Here’s one I got today:

I happened upon some old entries on USS Clueless in which you express considerable skepticism about the technical feasibility of large scale thermal solar plants. In some ways, I share your pessimism (see for example, my “Energy Independence Isn’t Very Green” – . But I can also see some possibilities for political and technical breakthroughs. I wonder if you’ve had occasion to revisit the question of large scale solar installations recently, and if so, would you refer me to the URLs.

At least he was a lot less confrontational than many of them. Here’s the reply I sent him:

I don’t blog about that kind of thing anymore. I never enjoyed blogging about energy, anyway, because for too many people “alternate energy” is more about religion than about physics. They believe that if we are just creative enough, we can overcome fundamental physical limitations — and it’s not that easy.

In order for “alternate energy” to become feasible, it has to satisfy all of the following criteria:

1. It has to be huge (in terms of both energy and power)
2. It has to be reliable (not intermittent or unschedulable)
3. It has to be concentrated (not diffuse)
4. It has to be possible to utilize it efficiently
5. The capital investment and operating cost to utilize it has to be comparable to existing energy sources (per gigawatt, and per terajoule).

If it fails to satisfy any of those, then it can’t scale enough to make any difference. Solar power fails #3, and currently it also fails #5. (It also partially fails #2, but there are ways to work around that.)

The only sources of energy available to us now that satisfy all five are petroleum, coal, hydro, and nuclear.

My rule of thumb is that I’m not interested in any “alternate energy” until someone shows me how to scale it to produce at least 1% of our current energy usage. America right now uses about 3.6 terawatts average, so 1% of that is about 36 gigawatts average.

Show me a plan to produce 36 gigawatts (average, not peak) using solar power, at a price no more than 30% greater than coal generation of comparable capacity, which can be implemented at that scale in 10-15 years. Then I’ll pay attention.

Since solar power installations can only produce power for about 10 hours per day on average, that means that peak power production would need to be in the range of about 85 gigawatts to reach that 1%.

Without that, it’s just religion, like all the people fascinated with wind and with biomass. And even if it did reach 1%, that still leaves the other 99% of our energy production to petroleum, coal, hydro, and nuclear.

The problems facing “alternate energy” are fundamental, deep, and are show-stoppers. They are not things that will be surmounted by one lone incremental improvement in one small area, announced breathlessly by a startup which is trying to drum up funding.

The way you can tell that a fan of “alternate energy” is a religious cultist is to ask them this question: If your preferred alternate source of energy is practical, why isn’t it already in use?

Why not? Because of The Conspiracy™. The big oil companies don’t want it to happen, and have been suppressing all this live-saving green people’s energy all this time for their own nefarious purposes.

As soon as you hear any reference to The Conspiracy™, you know you’re talking to someone who is living in a morality play. That isn’t engineering any more, that’s religion. And while religion is an important part of many people’s lives, it has no place in engineering discussions.

UPDATE: There’s actually another common answer to the “Why not” question. It’s because you engineers are just too hidebound and conservative and unimaginative. If you’d just get on board and recognize how utterly cool and romantic these other ways of producing energy would be, then you could wave your magic engineering wand and make it happen.

That’s another kind of religion. It’s not a religious struggle against evil (as personified by Big Oil) so much as a religious image of paradise. If the adherents of this kind of religion can just convert enough doubters, then paradise can happen. If you just believe, we can all be saved! Hallelujah, baby! Praise Gaia and pass the biodiesel!

Thanks, but no thanks. My “conservatism” on this subject is due to my understanding of the laws of physics and the principles of engineering, not to me being hidebound and unimaginative.

That’s a slap in the face of Al et al, but before you leave thinking me a complete loser with a negative attitude, let me ask this question, in the spirit of Xark:

Where are we in the War on Cancer, the War on AIDS, the War on Drugs, and the War on Poverty?

Notwithstanding the results of the aforementioned, I would offer one idea. Let’s stop spending money on earmarks for buidlings to be named after our congressmen, on favored highway projects, and on not-for-profits who employ the relatives and friends of said congressmen. Let’s take the billions of dollars siphoned off for whatever reason, and let’s spend all of that money on investing in alternative energy solutions. Because, as Den Beste says, it’s all about the engineering.