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.


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