Wind Turbines Are Beautiful

...but a tad expensive.

Judith Gap, Montana—Sleek modern wind turbines are beautiful. Even their low pitched whooshing is soothing. At the first stop on my crosscountry roadtrip to check out a variety of energy production facilities, I was shown around the Judith Gap Wind farm by on-site manager John Bacon. Judith Gap’s 90 graceful wind turbines have the capacity to produce 135 megawatts of electricity when the wind is blowing just right. The $180 million facility was built by privately-owned Chicago-based Ivenergy and has been operating since 2005. The wind farm supplies electricity to meet local electrical utility NorthWestern Energy’s state-mandated 10 percent renewable energy obligation. That renewable energy requirement is going up to 15 percent by 2015.

Montana’s current wind energy capacity now stands at 375 megawatts out of an overall electric generation capacity of 5,445 megawatts, of which 60 percent is coal-fired, and 30 percent is hydroelectric. Encouraged by favorable weather conditions and tempting federal subsidies, local politicians such as Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) are eager to push the development of wind power in Montana.

The imposing white towers at Judith Gap rise from 8,300 acres of barley fields and pasture land in Wheatland County, Montana. During my visit a small herd of antelope were grazing underneath the spinning blades. The land is leased from five landowners and lease payments vary from $2,000 to $5,000 per year per turbine depending on just how much electricity is generated. Each windmill is 260 feet tall and the fiberglass turbine blades measure 122 feet long and three together weigh around 36 tons. The turbines were built by General Electric, the blades by a Brazilian company, and the steel towers were sourced from around the world including China and Korea.

Bacon said that the Judith Gap wind farm delivers electricity to its sole customer, NorthWestern Energy, at a remarkably low rate of about 3 cents per kilowatt-hour, not including the 2 cents per kilowatt-hour federal production tax credit. According to Bacon, hydroelectric facilities in the region deliver electricity to distribution utilities at about 2 cents per kilowatt-hour.

But according to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration (EIA), if one includes all the capital, operating, and fuel costs, electricity from wind still costs about 50 percent more than conventional coal and 100 percent more than natural gas. Proponents point out that the costs of turbines are coming down, but the costs for the considerable infrastructure needed to manage wind are still daunting.

The wind, even at as favorable a site as Judith Gap, doesn’t always blow, so the facility produces power at about 38 percent of its actual capacity, or roughly about 51 megawatt-hours of electricity on average. This is actually well above the industry average. Fickle winds make supply management challenging. For example, according to NorthWestern Energy, the Judith Gap facility has ramped up from zero to 131 megawatts in 10 minutes and has ramped down from 121 megawatts to zero in a similar time period. The equipment is reliable—after five years of operation, Bacon notes that the turbines rarely break down; they are available 98 percent of the time to generate electricity. Their operational life is 20 years, but Bacon expects that they will actually continue to work for more than 40 years. But reliable equipment isn't enough to bring prices down to competitive levels.

There are engineering solutions to these rapid swings in wind energy production, but they are costly. For example, NorthWestern Energy is proposing to build a new 200 megawatt natural gas power plant in Mill Creek, Montana, at a cost of $206 million, “primarily to provide balancing services [PDF] for wind farms.” An even more ambitious green proposal for balancing wind energy production oscillations is the $3 billion Wind Spirit Project by Grasslands Renewable Energy which would string a series of high voltage power lines across the state as a way to shift wind energy from regions where the wind is blowing to becalmed districts. Right now the wind power produced in Montana stays in Montana. Such a system of transmission lines would also make it possible for future Montana wind farms to export power to out-of-state big cities.

Grasslands Renewable Energy is proposing to build a 350 megawatt closed-loop pumped storage hydro project near Gordon Butte in central Montana. The idea is that water would be pumped to an uphill reservoir when wind electricity is cheap (mostly at night) and then allowed to flow downhill to another reservoir through turbines to produce electricity when the wind falters or demand peaks. Pumped storage functions as a kind of giant battery. Grasslands has not offered separate cost figures for the Gordon Butte project, but a recent report by the market research firm, Richard K. Miller & Associates, notes that typically pumped storage projects cost about $1,800 per kilowatt to build [PDF]. That would mean that the 350 megawatt Gordon Butte facility could cost about $630 million to build. In contrast, one might double the size of the Mill Creek natural gas power plant and just run it all the time.

The Department of Energy projects that wind power production capacity will more than double by 2014 fueled by federal tax subsidies, economic recovery stimulus spending, and state renewable energy mandates. This means that thousands more gleaming stately spinning towers will soon rise above the amber waves of grain in the heartland of America. Beautiful, but costly.

Note: I am traveling back to the East Coast over the next couple of weeks from a summer in Montana spent working on a new book. Along the way I am visiting various energy production facilities. The goal of this circuitous trip is for me to get a better understanding of energy production and to geek out on technological marvels. Today's photo is of me standing in front of a wind turbine blade that had been struck by lightning.

Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.

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  • johnl||

    Bailey please come down to Palm Springs and look at the decrepit hunks of junk littering the desert that never spin even when it's windy.

  • ||

    I saw those once on a work trip to Palm Springs. The only wind farm I've ever seen in person.

  • Paul||

    I recently drove through Eastern Washington's windfarm on a very windy day. Very few of the windmills were spinning. Frankly, it's perplexing.

  • ||

    Fuck it, if we're going to blow hundreds of billions, why not throw it all at fusion? Get that, and our only problem will be what to do with all of the excess heat we're generating with our horrifically cheap energy.

  • ||

    I did mention that controlled fusion has to be horrifically cheap after the trillion dollar investment, right? 'Cause that's a precondition.

  • Paul||

    "Giving society cheap, abundant energy would be the equivalent of giving an idiot child a machine gun."- Prof Paul Ehrlich, Stanford University.

  • ||

    So society is an idiot child? Isn't Ehrlich a member of society?

    Cheap, abundant energy gets us off this rock and maybe ends real, if not relative, poverty.

  • Paul||

    Ehrlich quotes never get old. He's a goldmine.

  • ||

    Didn't he say the Earth would be totally depleted of everything by 1980 or something? I tend to ignore his pronouncements.

  • ||

    I went through the Eastern WA wind farms recently too. None were moving, and there was wind.

    I do like the desert out there, though.

  • ||

    Paul Ehrlich is a fucking moron. If he wants to live like a cave man, then he is free to move into a cave, but I am not a child and most humans are not that fucking stupid either. Anyone who suggests that all of society is an idiot child is a megalomaniac know it all son of a bitch.

  • A is Awesome||

    Problem is, perfect nuclear fusion is a near-impossible feat to replicate. And trillions of dollars is quite a bit of non-existent money.

  • ||

    Paul: As I understand it, if the wind is too high, they shut down. Could that explain what you saw?

  • Paul||

    Paul: As I understand it, if the wind is too high, they shut down. Could that explain what you saw?

    Not likely, because some were moving. My understanding is that it's all or nothing. If the winds had been too high, I'd imagine they'd shut them all down. Plus, although I have no concrete evidence of this, the wind was blowing pretty good, but it wasn't storm-level or anything. It's wind kind of like you'd expect on a plain with open sky and fields of barley as far as the eye can see. You know, the kind of wind that makes people say "Hey, we should put a wind farm here! The conditions are perfect!"

  • Dello||

    "Not likely, because some were moving."

    Those were the broken ones.

  • johnl||

    Ron they are shut down *all* the time. I love the debris you stand next to. That would have killed anyone it hit when it fell.

  • ||

    You understand wrong. Each unit has a clutch, which slips during excessive wind, ie tornado, hurricane, wind shear. No earthly escuse for a wind turbine to be stationary, unless dead calm.

  • ||

    johnl: I suppose you mean these ugly beasts? They were built during the Carter Administration, weren't they?

  • johnl||

    Wow that's a lot of ugly Ron. Palm Springs has several plantations of windmills of different designs that I guess date to different times. I don't know who built them or who owns them. It's not like anyone is going to put up a sign "brought to you by Grifter Electric".

  • Drax the Destroyer||

    Sweet holy christmas...that picture reminds of that story from Heavy Metal in the dystopian future with the hot naked chick riding the dinosaur bird thing. I swear, there was a bunch of random windmill type enviro wet dream crap in the backgrounds of the desert wasteland planet depicted in that tale.

  • Geotpf||

    Um, they do in fact spin. At least a lot of them, though there are so many there that I'm sure some are abandoned.

    And I personally think they are quite beautiful.

  • johnl||

    You might think they are spinning but they are not. If you ever see a working windmill you see what it is supposed to look like and that's not it.

  • modnar||

    Agreed. I've seen the ones in Palm Springs and up in the Tehachapi area.

    Ugly things.

  • ||

    We are currently installing large fans and pointing them at the windmills so that we can have unlimited wind in the wind farm.

  • Carl||

    I remember my Env science professor lecturing the class on how bad the trans alaska pipeline disrupted the wiildlife but when asked by a student how giant turbines affect the wildlife he became dumbfounded and came with a quick response that "they dont affect wildlife nearly as much as the pipeline, plus they are so cool looking!" This is how I know the Green Movement is a racket like War is Racket like the Federal Reserve is a racket all pushed by government

  • GRRRR||

    The moose and caribou love the pipeline... and I think it's cool looking.

  • ||

    I would also like to know HOW the pipeline effect the wildlife. Its a pipe, not a giant spinning blade.

  • ||

    Wind power rules - glad to see libertarians embracing at least skeptically a positive vision rather than just attack attack attack

  • No Name Guy||

    Spur

    If only you were an engineer you'd understand...

    But, how about I phrase it in layman's terms, with respect to the reliability that Mr. Bailey touches on.

    Would you tolerate having a car that only ran 38% of the time?

    Would you tolerate said car suddenly slowing down and stopping, without command, while you're on the way to a vital appointment?

    How about if your refrigerator only kept it's interior at the specified temperature for only 40% of the day?

    How about if the anesthetics worked only 25% of the time?

    How long would you continue with a phone provider if you only had a 30% chance of getting your call completed?

    What if your ISP varied its service from 0 KBS to MBS speed, at random interverals?

    And what if you had to pay for duplicate, back up facilities for ALL of the above, that could come on line to take up the slack for the crappy services noted? WHY, Oh WHY would any sane person choose that? Pray tell.

  • mad libertarian guy||

    Cuz itz TEH GREEEEEEEEEEN N-ER-GEE

  • nodrog||

    Wind turbines don't have to run 24x7 to be useful. When wind turbines are running, fossil plants can reduce generation and fuel consumption, saving money for the power company and reducing fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

    As far as I know, no one is seriously advocating using only wind generation; the idea is to use them in conjunction with other renewable and non-renewable resources. The power grid in use now supports this model.

    Wind generation is a little bit like hydro generation in that you are limited as to when you can use the resource. With hydro, if you have a reservoir you have some ability to schedule generation, but with run-of-river hydro, you really do not. And, even with a reservoir, you have pretty limited scheduling ability - limited by the amount of rainfall, capacity of the reservoir, and a host of other considerations. Many hydro plants are generating much less than 38% of the time, but hydro certainly makes sense economically.

  • Dello||

    "Wind turbines don't have to run 24x7 to be useful."

    But geothermal DOES run 24/7, takes up far less space, and is far more economically efficient.

    Why not put investment dollars in green energy that actually makes sense?

  • nodrog||

    No argument from me against geothermal. Note that I said above: "the idea is to use them in conjunction with other renewable and non-renewable resources".

  • ||

    Because the capital costs suck. This is a direct consequence of other issues that may, in fact, be a strong prima facie indicator that the thermodynamic arrow is pointed the wrong way, i.e. there is more energy going into harvesting sun or wind than is actually coming out of it.

  • ||

    Why put any tax money into anything at all. Government has no role whatsoever in generating energy, green or otherwise.

  • Carl||

    because it would be too small of scale for the government to spend tax payer dollars on. c'mon dello go big or go home!!! really pass a HUGE spending bill to spur "green energy" and i think wind turbines are the perfect waste lol

  • johnl||

    No. You can't have a coal plant or even an NG plant off and then call them to turn it on when the wind doesn't blow. With hydro you can get the call and start the power going. And you can't start the wind blowing.

  • nodrog||

    Certainly nuclear plants and large fossil units can't be turned on and off with the flick of a switch. These high-efficiency units are called "base-load" units and are typically scheduled in advanced to run at peak capacity for an extended period of time. However power companies also have at their disposal units that can be regulated in real-time or near real-time to follow demand. (Like the wind, demand can't be scheduled.) These units can be ramped up and down to offset changes in output from wind turbines just as they are ramped up and down to follow demand.

    Remember, no one is advocating using wind alone; wind can only be used in conjunction with other sources.

  • johnl||

    The base-load units are more efficient than peaker plants. Second there is no surplus of capacity. So to switch from coal to wind + NG, you don't save as much fuel as you might like to think and you need more capital. You might end up using even more fuel than if you had no windmills at all. And it's for sure a lot more capital.

  • Colonel_Angus||

    To rely on wind at all, you need to back up 100% of the wind turbine capacity with something else. Something else, that could easily be reliable 100% of the time when its needed, and cheaper to build and operate than a wind farm (like a natural gas plant). Why build a wind farm and a power plant, when you can just build the plant with a little bit of extra capacity?

  • No Name Guy||

    nodrog

    With respect to the peaking demand. Hydro is the PERFECT peaking source. It can be ramped, at will mind you, with no influence from nature, from 0 to 100% of capacity and back again all within the span of a few minutes. Its AT THE CONTROL OF THE OPERATOR.

    Wind does not, nor can it, do that. You can only harvest the wind when it blows. If it happens to be at the right time. If it happens to be at the right speed (too slow, no power and too fast, its too dangerous to run the turbines).

    You also seem to miss the central fact of renewables: they ALL have to be backed up by reliable, controlable, practical power sources (coal, nuke, gas, hydro) that can back fill at a moments notice when (not IF, but when) they fail to deliver their scheduled capacity.

  • nodrog||

    No Name,

    I certainly never advocated using wind as a peaking source - I agree with you, wind is not a suitable peaking source. And you are right about hydro being a great peaking source - if it is available (in some regions, droughts often go along with hot weather/peak demand, limiting hydro availability).

    Finally, I don't think I missed the central fact of renewables; clearly they all have to be backed up. Note that I said:

    "Remember, no one is advocating using wind alone; wind can only be used in conjunction with other sources."

    elsewhere I said:

    "And, for the foreseeable future, we will certainly also need to burn fossil fuel."

    My point isn't that wind alone can wean us off of fossil fuels, but rather that wind plus other renewables can reduce the amount of fossil fuel needed to meet demand.

  • ||

    I keep my refrigerator inside of another larger refrigerator. . .just in case.

    And there is currently several prototypes for a car that runs 38% of the time. They are called solar cars and you cant even put a roof rack on them so dont think about taking the fam on vaca in it.

  • Carl||

    spur renewable energy is fine as long it is the individual making the choice to have solar panels put in his home or the small scale wind generator at his/her home. This government subsidized green energy industry is a net loss. I drove through the midwest back in may and all i saw was beautiful nebraska and iowa plains scenery blocked by imposing pork barrel projects. Put ethanol in their too, the farmers of the midwest with their amazing soil wont even grown basic veggies because of corn subsidies and now we have a bunch of fat porkers running around the country.

  • ||

    Wind turbines are beautiful? What are you smoking? Or is it just the novelty, you know, the way people thought Twiggy was sexy in the 70s because it was such a change from Jayne Mansfield.

    I think wind turbines are at least as ugly as smokestacks.

  • Mike Laursen||

    See, it's hard for me to follow your point, because I think smokestacks look cool, too.

  • A is Awesome||

    That's why some companies are building 'fashionable' wind turbines for city power-generation.

  • ||

    I prefer cell towers.

  • JOhnny MAckson||

    Those windmills are good in the sack. Up for anything. Solar panels don't go for rear protuberance fun. LOL

    Jess
    www.anon-yes-please.com

  • Cliché Bandit||

    uhhh...did SF possess the anon bot or something?

  • Paul||

    I think this is the singularity that Kurzweil keeps talking about.

  • ||

    Fucking. Genius.

  • ||

    I've always wondered why no one builds a pilot (there's gotta be a grant out there somewheres) hybrid windmill. One designed to run the power turbine at a constant speed.

    When the wind is blowing, a clutch engages the windmill to aid in spinning the power turbine. When there is little wind, clutch disengages and a gas-generator turns the power turbine. You could even set it up shaft-in-shaft like a twin-spool turbofan.

    A powerplant using this technique could always be generating whatever power the load demanded, all the time. If the wind is blowing, its just a bonus savings for the power company in not having to buy fuel. Instead of full capacity 38% of the time, you'd have full capacity 100% of the time on 62% of the natural gas normally required to generate the same power. Natural gas is a perfect fuel for such an application, being a gas it is rather easy to move it the 200 feet or so up to where the windmill is without a bunch of crazy pumps or (for coal anyways) buckets.

    I smell a phat Stimulator check in that scheme somewheres. Anyone here know where to go get a grant? Yar.

  • ||

    Powerplants are large because the scale allows more cost effective operation. Each windmill would have to have a much smaller (and proportionately less efficient) gas burning system. And I'm going to bet that all those clutches wouldn't be cheap either.

    Otherwise, it's a neat idea.

  • ||

    And instead of just maintaining a field of windmills, or one gas powered plant, you are maintaining a field of windmills and a field of gas powered turbines.

    This hybridization method might work beater with a source that can be more easily localized, such as a dam, but then again, a dam produces a constant supply so there is no need to hybridize it.

  • ||

    The needs of the windmill's airfoil and optimum RPM - to scale with a turbine - would lead to I think a rather different-looking blade setup than the norm.

    When I think of a pilot project, I think a currently-existing gas-turbine just big enough for a demo would be to leverage/mod one of those Lycomings they put in M1 tanks, they're right around a megawatt or so. Simplistically, it would be taking the transmission off, bolt the windmill/generator on. An ideal niche location for such units would be Wyoming, where n-gas and wind are all over the place.

    It would be expensive. And it would be hard to build, with numerous teething bugs and so forth. And the chances of it being profitable on its own - with current natural gas prices especially - would be remote. But I'm not thinking about profit-loss, rational market and all that. I'm channeling Rahm Emanuel when I think of this thing, its innovative, looks cool, has a jet engine on it and is green at the same time. In essence, I'm thinking of how to get a Stimulator check for Green Jobs for Working Families or whatever; before they're all gone!

  • ||

    All I want are friken sharks with fricken laser beams on their heads.

  • EscapedWestOfTheBigMuddy||

    I be willing to bet that the answer is "maintenance, capital cost, scaling, and infrastructure".

    The machine you describe is certainly realizable, but is more complicated and expensive. It's not big enough to be a really efficient gas turbine, and it means making arrangement not only to get power from the windy spot, but also to get gas to it.

    Good idea in principle, some problems to overcome in practice.

  • cynical||

    Better yet, use windpower mechanically to run a small pump storage plant, and use the water whenever you need it. Not useful as a primary source of power, of course, but could be handy for supplemental.

  • Tman||

    Zeitgest,

    I think the water pump/hydro battery idea is good in theory, and all things being equal would help solve the problems of intermittency associated with Wind Power.

    But jebus- $670 million for a 350 megawatt plant? This isn't even remotely practical.

  • nodrog||

    Actually, there is no need for hybrid windmills because the power grid is already hybrid. Power generated by windmills allows fossil plants to reduce generation (and fuel consumption). When there is no wind, the fossil plants will increase generation. Therefore, there is no need for a clutch, since the gas-driven turbine and the wind turbine are different generating units.

  • West Texas Boy||

    This

  • Tman||

    Considering the costs of wind vs. Natural gas, there is no need period for wind turbines other than the fossil fuel argument, and natural gas isn't really all that dirty.

  • Chad||

    But according to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration (EIA), if one includes all the capital, operating, and fuel costs, electricity from wind still costs about 50 percent more than conventional coal and 100 percent more than natural gas.

    And (ahem) ignore the mile-long list of externalities, which include over 100,000 deaths per year worldwide, and over 10,000 in the US...

    Btw, do you have your numbers reversed? Ignoring externalities, coal is usually cheaper than gas.

  • ||

    Gas prices have utterly collapsed in the past couple years. With some of the new fractional cracking techniques they have for extracting NG, there has been an absolute explosion of supply. Places like the Bakken formation and so forth have potentials of trillions CF.

  • ||

    Chad: Talk to the EIA if you don't believe their numbers.

  • mad libertarian guy||

    Well, if you want to talk about externalities.

  • ||

    "And (ahem) ignore the mile-long list of externalities, which include over 100,000 deaths per year worldwide, and over 10,000 in the US..."

    I'd really like to see some links for this one. Are those deaths directly attributed to the use of fossil fuel energy production or are they some statistical increase of some kind?

    SOmetimes you use numbers, the rest of the time you just allude to a "mile long list" of externalities. I say that externalities are best handled by courts in rothbardian style system rather than through government fiat, which is usually a blunt instrument. Their is no god like value giver who applies objective value to everything. All value exists as subjective quantifications between individuals acting freely. The entire concept of an objectively valued externality is sort of ridiculous.

  • Chad||

    I was thinking along the lines of this study (there are many that are similar).

    http://www.catf.us/coal/problems/power_plants/existing/

    Or you could just go to wikipedia:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Air_pollution

    If you support coal power, you are not far short of a murderer in my mind. Your only excuse is ignorance, which these links should have cured.

  • Chad||

    And btw, what is the cost of (6.5 billion ^ 2)/2 lawsuits, as everyone on earth would have to sue everyone else over each and every pollutant? I am sorry, but regulation is far, far, far, far, far, far cheaper.

  • ||

    Air pollution death. . . hmm nothing like a wikipedia article to support a claim that air pollution kills.

    Correlation does not equal causation.

    These studies are all epidemiological. Epidemiology is not science, it is a part of the scientific process. In fact, it is the hypothesis part of the scientific process. It is OBSERVATION. Epidemiology is simply observing a particular event, such as air pollution and then observing another event, such as death from lung cancer or asthma and that is it. There is no CAUSAL link between air pollution and the deaths sighted in the studies. The people who died happen to live in the same region where the air pollution was measured. On this logic, one could say that an increase in iPod sales led to the same deaths by simply measuring the number of iPods sold in LA and the number of lung cancer deaths over the same period.

    My advice to you. Dont be retarded and dont believe everything you hear in "studies". The word studies is always used because that is about how far it got in the scientific process.

    Reporters are stupid, they dont understand science and for that matter neither do politicians and people who write articles for wikipedia. When these people see a "study" they tend to conflate it for a fact. They conflate a study for fact because that fits their particular frame of mind. You see, people have a hard time breaking their cognitive dissonance when it comes to certain things so rather than break it, they would prefer to rationalize it. Do you think the "clean air task force" is completely objective? No they are not objective, they are the fucking clean air "TASK FORCE" they believe they must act to clean the air or some shit.

    I am not saying pollution isnt a problem, but you really should try to question what you read more often. A study is not a fact, just like iPod sales dont kill people. Any number of factors can be contributing to these deaths and without an actual CAUSAL link, you are speculating.

  • Shoeless Chris||

    Try this one on for size: *POOF* The entire country switches to renewable energy tomorrow, the price for heating a home (because as it stands, the price per kW is higher for most of the renewable forms of power generation), in, say, Wisconsin will now cost more to heat, a working poor family can't afford to heat their home, they freeze to death.

    Why do you hate the working poor?

  • ||

    I think I know the response. Less people = smaller carbon foot print. You see environmentalists cant outright start killing off polluters, but they can justify turning the other way when their greening projects start to have consequences.

    I know this because I have actually had conversations with people who believe less people would be better. I really couldnt believe I was talking to someone who on one hand denounces Hitler and on the other thinks there should be a baby limit for families.

  • David Gustafson||

    Wind farms are indeed beautiful when they show the contrast between humanity and nature - the equivalent of the narrow highway winding through the valley, or the magnificent bridge over the wild straights. However, when they begin to overrun every ridge for tens or even hundreds of miles, they become an eyesore akin to 10 packed lanes of superhighway rimming a bay.

  • ||

    DG: You're most likely right. But you gotta admit that sticking a few of them in the middle of Montana by themselves makes for a beautiful sight.

  • ||

    So, they're beautiful, as long as we don't get any meaningful amounts of energy from them. That'll work out, I'm sure.

  • ||

    Check out Pacheco Pass coming back into the SF BAy Area from Yosemite. There are hundreds of the damn things covering the parched hills. What an eyesore!!

  • ||

    Beauty is no reason to waste tax dollars on the project. If some artist wants to put windmills up in his big field of grass, then have at it.

    Also beauty is subjective. I personally think even litter is beautiful because it is like a wind worn memory of a human event, it is the ultimate reminder of thousands of years of imagination and innovation. That plastic bag didn't just fall off a tree, it took the combined efforts of every human past and present to get that plastic bag where it is today. This is no excuse to litter.

  • Cactus||

    While I find them aesthetically hideous they're also goddamned noisy especially when they're in clusters. If you're the type that enjoys the relative peace and silence of remote rural areas then wind power is a blight and pestilence. They're also bird slaughtering monstrosities if you're into things avian.

    The damned things aren't practical on a large scale and whatever energy they occasionally produce is better obtained through nuclear means either in a central large plant or smaller distributed ones.

  • Neu Mejican||

    They're also bird slaughtering monstrosities if you're into things avian.

    Not true, from what I have read. Any citation on that claim?

    Some one mentioned hybrid systems:
    http://tiny.cc/mdwby

  • EscapedWestOfTheBigMuddy||

    I'm sure that is realizable, but...

    The plan is to take a technology that really has to work at price competitiveness and solve the load-leveling issues by installing a biomass-gassification-storage-and-generation layer. OK. But it going to take some doing.

    And the paper talks about stabilizing a 40 MW facility, which means its going to need some scaling up too.

  • Paul||

    Here's one source that says they do kill birds: http://www.usatoday.com/news/n.....usat_x.htm

    Here's one that says it's much-ado about nothing: http://www.awea.org/faq/sagril.....ersonally, I'm neutral on the whole bird-kill issue.

    I just get yuks when I watch environmental extremists attack someone trying to do something about the environment.

    It helps put Global Warming scare stories into perspective.

  • mad libertarian guy||

    http://madlibertarianguy.net/2.....ernalities

  • Some Dork||

    I read somewhere recently (can't remember where) that they rarely kill birds, but do kill a lot of bats.

  • Syd Henderson||

    There are a lot of bats to kill.

  • Carl||

    its because nature recognizes it is green energy so it flys around themm

  • ||

    Thats also why birds dont shit on hybrids.

  • Cyto||

    I heard about the bat thing a while back and I really have trouble believing it. When I was a kid we used to play with the bats using BB guns. You could shoot a BB straight up and the bats would follow it up and down. No matter how you tried, you couldn't hit a bat with a BB gun though, they'd detect it coming and dodge it. I don't see how those little guys could fail to detect and avoid the oncoming windmill blade.

  • Cyto||

    I made myself curious, so I checked on the muzzle velocity of my old BB gun. At 350 fps the BB starts out at about 240 miles per hour. At that speed fired in the direction of a bat on the wing about 10 feet away will dodge a bb and then turn and give chase.

    Not sure how fast a turbine blade is moving, but under normal conditions it shouldn't be much more than 250 mph...

  • ||

    I used to throw rocks up at the bats and they would try to catch them. I dont know how fast the turbines are going, but i am sure that at some points they are going slow enough to register as something to catch rather than avoid.

  • ||

    Chad continues to ignore the positive externality of conventional power sources that swamps any negative externalities and absolutely crushes wind and solar in comparison.

    The minor little detail that conventional power sources actually produce usable power on a useful scale.

    Wind, solar and renewables (except hydro) don't.

  • Tony||

    The depressing thing about libertarians embracing the oil and coal status quo is that they thereby are willing to quash innovation in clean energy--innovation is how capitalism improves our lives, right?

    I don't get why libertarians think it's okay to ignore negative externalities and associate them with a cost. Is it because you don't understand the concept, or because you see it as your job to protect the industrial status quo, including only kinda sorta being against the massive government support of it, but only theoretically and only when asked?

  • mad libertarian guy||

    No.

    It's not that most libertarians are against alternative energies, we're against the heavy subsidizing of them. You want us to think of the trees and TEH ERTH, but want us to forget the hundreds of millions of dollars going right in to the pockets of some Demotard buddy's pocket at my expense.

    If capitalism wants to invest in it, great. I'm all for it. The market is absolutely the best way to find the best source of said energy.

    But if government wants to coerce money from me to support sources which don't actually produce energy efficiently, it can fuck off.

  • ||

    My Understanding of Libertarianism in a Nutshell, courtesy of MadLibGuy:

    If government wants to coerce money from me to support something which doesn't actually produce anything efficiently, it can fuck off.

    Pretty much leaves the gov't with just the military to run, but that's a feature not a bug.

  • Valkor||

    Damn. That's just slightly too long for a bumper sticker. I think it would fit nicely on a T-shirt, though.

  • Mr Whipple||

    It's like imposing tariffs on sugar, subsidizing corn, and complaining about all of the high fructose corn syrup, and teh evel corprashun, ADM.

  • Tony||

    Okay as long as you're consistent and are in favor of ending all government subsidies of oil and coal... including letting them pollute for free.

  • ||

    What inevitably gets missed in this discussion is that there are also two kinds of subsidy: capital and operational. Renewables inevitably demand both. Show me a country that's gone bankrupt subsidizing oil extraction to meet world prices.

    You will know an energy source really is worth a damn when governments line up to tax it.

  • ||

    "Okay as long as you're consistent and are in favor of ending all government subsidies of oil and coal... including letting them pollute for free."

    I'm down. I just think that externalities should be handled by courts that allow individuals to seek damages under a rothbardian system.

  • Carl||

    eliminate subsidies and regulatory agencies like the EPA and let the market and region decide on power generation. ill bet appalachia will continue to burn coal, texas oil but i would bet states like AZ, NM, NV would take advantage of solar.

  • Tony||

    And who would have standing to sue? And would this system possibly ever account for the real cost?

  • ||

    Anybody who experienced personal damages as a result of the power generation would be able to sue. Sure, this would not work for climate change, but to me that is an insurmountable problem. Because only a hypothetical government apparatus could approach the problem effectively in theory, it is doomed to fail. Government simply can't handle the problem without creating extra costs along the way. Systemic government actions have their own externalities that rub up against private property rights, so handling one externality by creating other externalities isn't really a solution. The rothabardian system would work well for just about every other problem.

  • Tony||

    I think fossil fuel energy "rubs up" against property rights far more than any government system to mitigate climate change ever could, and whatever costs you think would come about by such a scheme could never be more than the costs of climate change.

    I don't see what's fair at all about writing off huge costs for the fact that they're so huge, and that it might take government to account for them.

  • Chad||

    twelkge: I need your real name and address. You will be hearing from my lawyer soon. Go ahead and counter-sue, but I will come out ahead and you will owe me more than I owe you.

    Clearly, a few trillion lawsuits is the optimal way of setting matters relating to pollution.

  • ||

    Innovation is hard. Physics is hard. We live in a world where we've reached the limits of what chemical energy can do. With the "free" oxygen used, nothing compares in energy density to oxidizing reactions for power. Hydrogen/oxygen is the most energetic chemical reaction there is (next to hydrogen-fluorine anyways). This is why heat-cycle engines and fossil fuels dominate. You more or less get that reaction, plus a bunch of chemical junk that the hydrogen was initially bound to when you found it. Most hydrogen on earth has already been burned, the ashes are everywhere, its called water..which I'm sure an Al Gore of several billion years ago would've foreseen and claimed to be the Coming Water Catastrophe.

    Fuel cells have the same oxidizing advantage, and aren't trapped into

  • KPres||

    That's because the likely result of such criticism will be more regulation, so that while I share some of your concerns, I hesitate to voice it so long as the assumed solution is more government.

    I hear liberals screaming about some rhetorical bullsit like "corporate personhood" when it comes to campaign contributions (which I don't have problem with, people can donate their money however they want), but when I bring up limited liability, which is the real source of the problem because it's a corruption of property rights that filters through the system paralyzing the regulatory power of the invisible hand, all I get from them is blank faces.

    They might agee, but they don't want to agree too loudly because that would bring attention to the fact that the current corporate structure isn't a product of real capitalism, and their socialist strategy is dependent on having people associate these corrupt institutions with capitalism.

  • Tony||

    If your neighbor decided to make your back yard his personal septic tank, would you want more government intervention or less?

    I think the bigger vs. smaller stuff is a bunch of nonsense, but what I'm talking about is simply getting government out of the picking favorites game for the most part. Wouldn't you call that less government intervention in the market? Right now it heavily favors oil and coal. I personally don't see the big problem with it choosing clean energy and favoring it for a change. Maybe a little affirmative action to make up for historical inequities? Oh, not to mention protecting the environment we live in.

  • Ron L||

    Tony|9.14.10 @ 9:24PM|#
    "If your neighbor decided to make your back yard his personal septic tank, would you want more government intervention or less?..."

    If Tony decided to find a brain cell, what fun would we have?

  • ||

    How many times a day does his neighbor take a shit?

  • ||

    "Right now it heavily favors oil and coal."

    ON a per unit of energy produced basis, not even close.

  • Ron L||

    Tony|9.14.10 @ 9:24PM|#
    "...I think..."
    Not a chance.

  • Tony||

    I should say you ignore negative externalities... except what windmills do to the landscape. And birds.

  • ||

    Trees use CO2 to grow. I like trees and that is why I drive an SUV.

    Gas, coal and other "bad" energy sources are more efficient than wind and solar. Free markets drive innovation, not government. Government only forces potential innovators to focus on what they think is a worthwhile innovation.

    I know this next comment wont be popular, but I am going to say it anyway. While I concede that the moon mission did much to create offshoot innovations like the calculator etc..., it did little to actually move us forward into space. We spent massive amounts of TAX money to go to the moon and take back rock samples. The MOON LANDING represents the pinnacle of the American space program. Everything after the moon landing was a step backwards. Now the space program is more or less used to fix broken space stations and sattelites. I know they have also done some great science, but at the cost of the American tax payer. There are plenty of good reasons for private industries to go into space and I am sure there are smart people who will find a way to make space travel a profitable venture rather than a boondoggle bureaucracy. If only they would ease restrictions on development of this space travel technology, I would be willing to bet that we would already have communities in space.

    Back to wind energy. If the government forces wind as the alternative winner, then we shut out all other potential winners by making it next to impossible to get capital for other projects. Do you think you could get private capital for fusion energy if you have the government placing heavy bets on wind?

  • ||

    It's more apt to note that oil is more energy dense than its alternatives.

    There are technical reasons why we use oil, and most of them have to do with its energy density and its portability. The British Navy at one time had a large fleet of coal-fired vessels; coal was produced in large quantities domestically, so there was no question of supply. They had a large installed base, so converting to something else (oil) would be expensive. Yet convert they did, because of the greater range and convenience of storage and transport oil afforded them.

    The proponents of wind and solar are demanding everyone else ignore the fact that they don't have the portability thing down, nor energy density, nor storage.

  • ||

    Exactly. And if energy density is the key to efficiency, then we should be looking at sources that tap energies within the atom, not the great planes.

    Fusion may seem expensive and out of reach, but there are many different veins of research in this field and I think it is worth exploration. But for now, why not use more nuclear? Is there any other source more dense than this? Recently, scientists managed to produce a very small amount of anti-matter. I know this sounds like Sci-fi, and that scientists will tell you that producing any antimatter is a costly process, but when you look at the energy density of this kind of tech, we may be able create a source of energy that would very quickly pay for itself.

    For now, use what works instead of trying to force people to use what doesn't work.

  • ||

    Fusion hasn't been demonstrated in a net-energy-positive way. We can briefly make fusion happen, but it takes far more energy in than we get out of it, or else the return is unusable energy (thermal neutrons, e.g.).

    Thorium fission is the easiest way to get nuclear working now in a way that is scalable. Its economics remain unproven, which is a real problem. But there aren't a lot of other choices left that will withstand exponential consumption increases.

  • ||

    I agree completely. These technologies are far down the road at best, but if we are going to spend any time or effort on energy, then we should go for high density energy like fusion, not wind. We have enough nuclear, coal, gas etc... to get us to the next stage of research in these more challenging sources of energy. BTW, if we had a private space enterprise, we may be able to find a way to experiment with fuels that are not currently abundant on earth, but are widely available in the solar system, but we are stuck with NASA.

  • Alex||

    Antimatter will never be viable source of energy, since you require a lot more energy to create a few anti-atoms than the energy obtained from them.

    Unless if in the far off future we discover a large chunk of antimatter in a remote corner of the galaxy...

  • Cyto||

    Even that wouldn't be much help. What we'd need to discover is antimatter stars with antimatter planets that have antimatter societies on them. We could then arrange to trade in small, magnetic pellets. These would have the advantage of being easily handled, transported and contained without contact (due to their magnetic properties) and would be of identical value as an energy source in each society.

    Good luck with that one though...

  • ||

    Well, I am not one to discount this possibility. Just because it takes all sorts of energy to make antimatter now, doesnt mean there isnt a better method. My point here is that we really dont know a whole lot about this technology, but this technology has a lot of potential because it is extremely energy dense. If we are going to spend all sorts of money and time, then I would rather spend it on an investment that will have some possibility of paying back.

    At what point in history did we decide it was impossible to split the atom? and how long after that point did we split the atom? If you look at the science, the amount of energy we could haness from a modest antimatter reaction is incredible, it is orders of magnitude more than any other method we have today including one that we dont have (fusion).

  • nodrog||

    Portability is not a show-stopper for wind and solar. The transmission network allows power to move from the point at which it is generated to the point at which it is consumed. (This is why large coal and nuclear power plants can be and are located in rural areas.)

    Storage is also not a show-stopper. Solar and wind generation can be used in conjunction with fossil generation to reduce fossil fuel consumption when wind and solar generation are available.

    When and if we get to the point that we have so much wind and solar output that simply offsetting fossil generation is not practical (note: we are many years away from this point), real-time electricity pricing can allow the free market to find a use for the excess generation; smart appliances could be programmed to use energy when it is cheapest (e.g. for electric car recharging, water heating, etc.). It is likely that real-time pricing can reduce or eliminate the need for expensive supply-side storage technology like pumped-storage hydro.

    Note that I am not saying that solar+wind alone can meet our energy demands. Just as our (electrical) energy demands are currently satisfied by a variety of sources (primarily coal, natural gas, nuclear and hydro), there is no reason why we should not use multiple sources in the future. Developing wind and solar in no way precludes also developing geothermal, tidal, cheaper nuclear, etc. And, for the foreseeable future, we will certainly also need to burn fossil fuel.

  • ||

    "Developing wind and solar in no way precludes also developing geothermal, tidal, cheaper nuclear, etc. And, for the foreseeable future, we will certainly also need to burn fossil fuel."

    This is true only if the free market is allowed to choose to develop it. If the government is spending money hand over fist to boost wind, then it unbalances the market by drawing most development efforts towards the free money for wind and away from the other options. The other issue with government spending on wind or solar is that they are taking my tax money to do it (or borrowing or printing it). Money in my hand means I spend it on the energy that best suits my needs (the cheapest), but when the government spends it to place a bet on wind, then I am on the hook for the success or failure for that bet.

    Look at Enron. People often look at Enron because of the way they cooked the books, but they do not investigate why they were cooking their books. Enron spent billions on various green energy programs, including wind. None of these projects were even remotely profitable and so the money shenanigans begin. Enron had one of the largest pro green lobbyists before they went under, because they were counting on legislation to subsidize their bloated green energy mess. They bet on black and it landed on red.

    Guess who bought much of Enron's green tech after they went under. . . BP. Why do you think BP started launching its various green energy campaigns only a few years after Enron went under? When the govt wieghs in on something, they create this sort of moral hazard where companies feel compelled to take action to get in on whatever the govt is pushing rather than what makes economic sense to their business model.

  • ||

    Enron spent billions on various green energy programs...

    I'm still trying to figure out why Ken Lay gave all that money to George Bush.

    The track record of favorable treatment they got from the Clinton Administration was surely better than anything the GOP was offering.

    It's a certainty that Gore would have continued it.

  • ||

    Gore would have completely crippled the energy sector in the US by imposing Kyoto. The only safe move here is to have a Republican president who will keep Kyoto off the table while lobbying for more favorable gree energy programs.

    The only assholes that want Kyoto are the ones who have the trading infrastructure to buy and sell the made up comodity, or international investors like George Soros who can take advantage of the economic turmoil it would cause in the developed world by using some creative FX transactions.

  • DLM||

    The proponents of wind and solar are demanding everyone else ignore the fact that they don't have the portability thing down, nor energy density, nor storage.

    I'm pretty sure they've got the 'density' thing down, just not in the way to mean it.

  • Mr Whipple||

    Along the way I am visiting various energy production facilities. The goal of this circuitous trip is for me to get a better understanding of energy production and to geek out on technological marvels.

    Ron, when you are back on the right coast, drive into Atlantic City on Rt 30, and get a glimpse of the turbines sitting in the bay next to the Borgata/Water Club. They primarily power a waste water treatment facility. (Maybe you could get your employer to pick up the tab for a suite at the Borgata).

    http://www.acua.com/acua/conte.....88_btnlink

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v.....r_embedded

  • ||

    Mr. Whippple: Hmmm. Do you really think that Atlantic City beats out Harlowton, Montana as an entertainment destination? And the Borgata the Country Side Inn? ;-)

  • Mr Whipple||

    Well, dollar for dollar...It doesn't cost much to sit around and watch the grass grow wind blow, but it will cost you $50 to see Rick Springfield at the Borgata.

  • ||

    What do they do with the fiberglass blades when they are worn out - send them to a landfill? There are a LOT of very large blades associated with this technology. Had anyone ever demonstrated how this is going to be done?

  • ||

    In 40 years, these wind farms will be defunct eyesores as more reliable and efficient sources of energy supplant the current system.

    If more nuclear plants start going up, we might one day bring the cost of these plants to a reasonable level, but not while everyone still believes that nuclear waste is going to turn them into a glow in the dark troll.

    Fusion energy seems like a long way away, but physicists are making breakthroughs in this field all the time and if we do find a way generate energy using fusion, then it has the potential to replace many of the smaller coal and gas plants.

    Wind and solar rely on well, the regular availability of wind and sun. No wind, means no power so this makes wind at best a backup resource. Solar is no better. There is only so much solar energy hitting the planet, and even if you could capture that energy at 100% efficiency (and this really isnt possible) then you will still only get a very small amount (about 100 watts per sq foot per hour) of energy per square foot of coverage. While this seems like a lot, most electric solar panels only work at about 10% - 15% efficiency and there is not much we can do to improve this because light energy does not like to stay put. Now it is unreasonable to assume that we will never have a cloudy day so exactly how much land and ocean will we have to cover to make solar produce as much energy as one nuclear plant? I have no idea, but I can assure you, that it is not as land efficient.

    Both wind and solar are land inefficient and this is not their only inefficiency, it is not even their worst inefficiency. Land use inefficiency means that more government spending or just taking of private land. The other alternative is to put this stuff in the ocean, but that makes it even more difficult to maintain as you will see from my points below. Having a system spread over a large space of land makes maintenance a challenge because you need to send people out to fix things, you need to pay for that land (or just take it) and you need to manage these costly assets while protecting them from extreme weather. A nuclear plant is easy to protect from hurricanes and other natural disasters because you can contain it in a hardened facility. While one might imagine that a hurricane or tornado would be good for wind energy, I double they will think so when they are pulling turbine blades out of the side of a hill or sweeping up small pieces of solar panel to make room for the new panel that we are all being forced to pay for.

    You want wind power, that's fine with me, but I don't want to pay for it. If you are trying to sell me wind power because it is good for the environment, then I will simply say this: Plants breath CO2 and CO2 enhances bio-diversity. Additionally, global warming is not the issue people are saying it is. The studies are suspect at best and completely fudged at worst, my guess is that the AGW science is somewhere in between. And if you think Al Gore is 100% right, then at least admit that reducing CO2 to 0% output across the globe will do nothing to change it. This is not my opinion, but the opinion of the very same scientists who have formed a "consensus" on AGW. Not saying they are right, but you have to accept both arguments if you accept AGW cause they use the same "science". If reducing CO2 does nothing at all, then why cripple the world economy to try it. Instead, why not use the prosperity afforded to us by our fairly cheap energy to build levees and prepare for the "bad weather" that will come our way. Again, not saying I agree at all with AGW, but just pointing out the stupidity of the solution using the assumptions used by the "scientists".

    I got an idea, lets stop trying to "fix" our energy and just let people decide which energy they want to pay for. And let the most efficient method win.

  • Chad||

    Umm, the amount of solar energy hitting the earth is around 10,000 times greater than all the energy we are currently using. So even at 10% efficiently, we would still only need to cover .1% of the surface with solar panels to cover everything we currently use. Considering we already cover far more than that with roads and buildings, this isn't some absurd task.

  • ||

    Lets get some perspective here. .1% of the Earths surface is 510,100 square kilometers. Currently, the largest solar field in the world is 2.833 square kilometers. This solar farm in Portugal costs almost $400,000,000 to build on land that already belonged to the government. I will be generous with my math here and concede some economies of scale (though I cannot figure out how that would work in this example, I am being generous and assuming the people of Portugal overpaid). At $200,000,000 per square kilometer, your solar project will cost $1,102,020,000,000,000.

    That said, I am sure we would not do this project all at once, but even if the price of solar panels went down due to production improvements and "demand," then that number is still going to be unaffordable. Even if you get the cost of the technology down to $100,000 per square kilometer (not possible in any universe) the price is still $51,010,000,000. This is the cost to BUILD only. this does not include the cost to maintain.

    Now lets continue our little optimism spree and assume that these solar panels collect 100% of all solar energy that hits them. WOW, I must be on drugs, but lets do some math.

    If we covered just .1% of the earth with solar panels that are 100% efficient (impossible) then at best we are collecting at best 1,076,391,000 watts per hour or 1.076 GW (gigawats) per hour or 393 Gigawatt hours per year. One standard nuclear power plant gneerates on average 10,000 gigawatt hours per year.

    Of course my math assumes that the sun will be AT PEAK 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If you have been outside lately, you know this is not going to happen. My last example is also impossible because there is no way to capture 100% of the solar light energy, and this is not a technology thing, it is a physics thing. You simply cannot transform one form of energy into another without losing some of the original energy to entropy. Another problem with covering the .1% of the planet with solar panels is that you will have to take or buy all of that land, or if you do it on the ocean, you can just start adding commas to the cost of development because doing anything on the ocean is more complicated for reasons that would be obvious to anyone who has ever been in the ocean.

  • ||

    Windmills are an environmental disaster and NOT GREEN. They slow down the natural wind speed and interfere with the planetary climate. Duh, what energy do you think they they harness? It is giving the Earth a fever and Al Gore is going to do a movie on it soon!

  • ||

    They are also fucking useless.

  • Carl||

    i think once they become defunct we could use the existing towers to rope x-mas lights on

  • ||

    Holiday lights. . .Please!

  • Ivan||

    Back home they put up 10 big wind turbines on a ridge overlooking the town. A local guy told me that those big fans work real good, when they're turning there's a nice breeze in town. His only complaint is that they never turn 'em on when it's hot.

  • ||

    Oh see, now all they need are giant blocks of ice to place in front of the fans. . . to soothe the planets fever.

  • Colonel_Angus||

    "Sleek modern wind turbines are beautiful. Even their low pitched whooshing is soothing."

    I disagree. Seeing about a thousand of them on my regular drive, they look like a damn waste. They've gone overkill building these damn things. At night, they look like a shit ton of blinking red lights. I imagine the noise would piss me off if I had to be around them for any significant amount of time, say trying to fish or bike in their vicinity.

  • Colonel_Angus||

    They sure are fun to blow up in Vigilante 8, though.

  • trueofvoice||

    The table provided by the EIA does not include external costs such as this:

    "[F]ine particle pollution from existing coal plants is expected to cause nearly 13,200 deaths in 2010. Additional impacts include an estimated 9,700 hospitalizations and more than 20,000 heart attacks per year. The total monetized value of these adverse health impacts adds up to more than $100 billion per year. This burden is not distributed evenly across the population. Adverse impacts are especially severe for the elderly, children, and those with respiratory disease.In addition, the poor, minority groups, and people who live in areas downwind of multiple power plants are likely to be disproportionately exposed to the health risks and costs of fine particle pollution."

    Which you would know if you had bothered to do any research. Your laziness is showing again, Ronald.

    Source: http://www.catf.us/resources/p.....m_Coal.pdf

  • ||

    What William Tucker said about nuclear energy and I agree:

    When I was in college, I took a course in the great political philosophers. We studied them in order – Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx.

    In my mind, I had placed them with the historical eras they had influenced – Hobbes and the 18th century monarchs, Locke and the American Revolution, Rousseau and 19th century Romanticism, Kant and the 19th century nation-states, Marx and 20th century Communism.

    Then one day I saw a time-line illustrating when they had all lived and died. To my astonishment, each had lived a hundred years before I had placed them in history. The implicated seemed clear. “It takes about a hundred years for a new idea to enter history.”

    Almost exactly 100 years ago, Albert Einstein posited the equation E = mc2 in his “Special Theory of Relativity.” The equation suggested a new way of describing the origins of chemical energy and suggested another source of energy that at that point was unknown in history – nuclear energy. Nuclear power made its unfortunate debut in history 40 years later in the form of an atomic bomb. But 100 years later, Americans have not quite yet absorbed the larger implications of Einstein’s equation – a new form of energy that can provide almost unlimited amounts of power with a vanishingly small impact on the environment.

    E = mc2. Who has not heard of it? Even Mariah Carey named her last album after it. “E” stands for energy, “m” for mass, and “c” is the speed of light – that’s easy enough. But what does it really mean? (The answer is not “relativity.”)

    What E = mc2 says is that matter and energy are interchangeable. There is a continuum between the two. Energy can transform into matter and matter can transform into energy. They are different aspects of the same thing.

    This principal of the equivalence of energy and matter was a completely unexpected departure from anything that had gone before. In the 18th century, Antoine Lavoisier, the great French chemist, established the Conservation of Matter. Performing very careful experiments, such as burning a piece of wood, he found that the weight of the resulting gases and ashes were always exactly equal to the weight of the original material. Matter is never created nor destroyed, it only changes form.

    Then in the 19th century a series of brilliant scientists – Count Rumford, Sadi Carnot, Rudolf Clausius, Ludwig Boltzman – established the same principal for energy. Energy can take many forms – heat, light, motion, potential energy - but the quantity always remains the same. Energy is never created nor destroyed either.

    Now at the dawn of the 20th century, Albert Einstein posited a third principal that united the other two in a totally unexpected way. Einstein stated a Law of Conservation between matter and energy. Nothing like this had ever been imagined before. Yet the important thing is that co-efficient – the speed of light squared. That is a very, very large number, on the order of one quadrillion.

    We really don’t have a reference point for a factor of one quadrillion. We know what a trillion is – that’s the federal budget deficit. But a quadrillion is still a bit beyond our ken. What it means, though, is that a very, very large amount of energy transforms into a very, very small amount of matter and a very, very small amount of matter can transform into a very, very large amount of energy.

    Perhaps the way to understand the significance of Einstein’s equation is to compare it to another equation, the formula for kinetic energy:

    The formula for kinetic energy

    Kinetic energy is the energy of moving objects, “E” once again standing for energy, “m” indicating mass and “v” representing the velocity of the moving object. If you throw a baseball across a room, for example, its energy is calculated by multiplying the mass of the ball times the square of its velocity – perhaps 50 miles per hour.

    The two formulas are essentially identical. When brought into juxtaposition, two things emerge:

    1. For any given amount of energy, mass and velocity are inversely related. For an identical amount of energy, the higher velocity goes, the less mass is required and vice versa.

    2. When compared to the velocities of moving objects in nature – wind and water, for instance – the co-efficient in Einstein’s equation is fifteen orders of magnitude larger – the same factor of one quadrillion.

    How is this manifested in everyday life? Most of what we are calling “renewable energy” is actually the kinetic flows of matter in nature. Wind and water are matter in motion that we harness to produce energy. Therefore they are measured by the formula for kinetic energy.

    Let’s start with hydroelectricity. Water falling off a high dam reaches a speed of about 60 miles per hour or 80 feet per second. Raising the height of the dam by 80 or more feet cannot increase the velocity by more than 20 miles per hour. The only way to increase the energy output is to increase the mass, meaning we must use more water.

    The largest dams – Hoover and Glen Canyon on the Colorado River –stand 800 feet tall and back up a reservoir of 250 square miles. This produces 1000 megawatts, the standard candle for an electrical generating station. (Lake Powell, behind Glen Canyon, has silted up somewhat and now produces only 800 MW.)

    Environmentalists began objecting to hydroelectric dams in the 1960s precisely because they occupied such vast amounts of land, drowning whole scenic valleys and historic canyons. They have not stopped objecting. The Sierra Club, which opposed construction of the Hetch-Hetchy Dam in Yosemite in 1921, is still trying to tear it down, even though it provides drinking water and 400 megawatts of electricity to San Francisco. Each year more dams are now torn down than are constructed as a result of this campaign.

    Wind is less dense than water so the land requirements are even greater. Contemporary 50-story windmills generate 1-½ MW apiece, so it takes 660 windmills to get 1000 MW. They must be spaced about half a mile apart so a 1000-MW wind farm occupies 125 square miles. Unfortunately the best windmills generate electricity only 30 percent of the time, so 1000 MW really means covering 375 square miles at widely dispersed locations.

    Tidal power, often suggested as another renewable resource, suffers the same problems. Water is denser than wind but the tides only move at about 5 mph. At the best locations in the world you would need 20 miles of coastline to generate 1000 MW.

    What about solar energy? Solar radiation is the result of an E = mc2 transformation as the sun transforms hydrogen to helium. Unfortunately, the reaction takes place 90 million miles away. Radiation dissipates with the square of the distance, so by the time solar energy reaches the earth it is diluted by almost the same factor, 10-15. Thus, the amount of solar radiation falling on a one square meter is 400 watts, enough to power four 100-watt light bulbs. “Thermal solar” – large arrays of mirrors heating a fluid – can convert 30 percent of this to electricity. Photovoltaic cells are slightly less efficient, converting only about 25 percent. As a result, the amount of electricity we can draw from the sun is enough to power one 100-watt light bulb per card table.

    This is not an insignificant amount of electricity. If we covered every rooftop in the county with solar collectors, we could probably power our indoor lighting plus some basic household appliances – during the daytime. Solar’s great advantage is that it peaks exactly when it is needed, during hot summer afternoons when air conditioning pushes electrical consumption to its annual peaks. Meeting these peaks is a perennial problem for utilities and solar electricity can play a significant role in meeting the demand. The problem arises when solar enthusiasts try to claim solar power can provide base load power for an industrial society. There is no technology for storing commercial quantities of electricity. Until something is developed – which seems unlikely – wind and solar can serve only as intermittent, unpredictable resources.

    There is only so much energy we can draw from renewable sources. They are limited, either by the velocities attained, or by the distance that solar energy must travel to reach the earth. So is there anyplace in nature where we can take advantage of that “c2” co-efficient and tap transformations of matter into energy? There is one that we have used through history. It is called “chemistry.”

    Chemical energy is commonly described in terms of “valences.” A sodium atom has a valence of +1, meaning it is missing an electron in its outer shell. Meanwhile, a chlorine atom has a valence of –1, meaning it has an extra electron. Together they “mate” to form sodium chloride (table salt). All chemical reactions are either “endothermic” or “exothermic,” meaning energy is either absorbed or released in the process. The Bunsen burner in chemistry class is a way of adding energy to a reaction. The other thing that can happen occasionally in chemistry lab is a sudden release of energy called an “explosion.”

    The great achievement of 20th century quantum physics has been to describe chemical reactions in terms of E = mc2.

    When we burn a gallon of gasoline, one-billionth of the mass of the gasoline is completely transformed into energy. This transformation occurs in the electron shells. The amount is so small that nobody has ever been able to measure it. Yet the energy release is large enough to propel a 2000-pound automobile for 30 miles – a remarkable feat when you think of it.

    Still, electrons make up only 0.01 percent of the mass of an atom. The other 99.99 percent is in the nucleus of the atom. And so the question arose, would it be possible to tap the much greater amount of energy stored in the nucleus the way we tap the energy in the electrons through chemistry?

    For a long time many scientists doubted it could be done. Einstein himself was skeptical, saying that splitting an atom would be like “trying to hunt birds at night in a country where there aren’t many birds.” But other pioneering scientists – Enrico Fermi, George Gamov, Lise Meitner and Leo Szilard – discovered it could be done. By the late 1930s it had become clear that energy in unprecedented quantity could be obtained by splitting the unstable uranium atom.

    Unfortunately, World War II pre-empted the introduction of nuclear power. This is a historical tragedy. The atom bomb stands in the same relation to nuclear energy as gunpowder stands to fire. While gunpowder has played an important role in history, fire’s role has been far more essential. Would we want to give up fire just because it led to guns? Yet the atom bomb continues to cast a shadow over the equally important discovery of nuclear energy.

    The release of energy from splitting a uranium atom turns out to be 2 million times greater than breaking the carbon-hydrogen bond in coal, oil or wood. Compared to all the forms of energy ever employed by humanity, nuclear power is off the scale. Wind has less than 1/10th the energy density of wood, wood half the density of coal and coal half the density of octane. Altogether they differ by a factor of about 50. Nuclear has 2 million times the energy density of gasoline. It is hard to fathom this in light of our previous experience. Yet our energy future largely depends on grasping the significance of this differential.

    One elementary source of comparison is to consider what it takes to refuel a coal plant as opposed to a nuclear reactor. A 1000-MW coal plant – our standard candle - is fed by a 110-car “unit train” arriving at the plant every 30 hours – 300 times a year. Each individual coal car weighs 100 tons and produces 20 minutes of electricity. We are currently straining the capacity of the railroad system moving all this coal around the country. (In China, it has completely broken down.)

    A nuclear reactor, on the other hand, refuels when a fleet of six tractor-trailers arrives at the plant with a load of fuel rods once every eighteen months. The fuel rods are only mildly radioactive and can be handled with gloves. They will sit in the reactor for five years. After those five years, about six ounces of matter will be completely transformed into energy. Yet because of the power of E = mc2, the metamorphosis of six ounces of matter will be enough to power the city of San Francisco for five years.

    This is what people finds hard to grasp. It is almost beyond our comprehension. How can we run an entire city for five years on six ounces of matter with almost no environmental impact? It all seems so incomprehensible that we make up problems in order to make things seem normal again. A reactor is a bomb waiting to go off. The waste lasts forever, what will we ever do with it? There is something sinister about drawing power from the nucleus of the atom. The technology is beyond human capabilities.

    But the technology is not beyond human capabilities. Nor is there anything sinister about nuclear power. It is just beyond anything we ever imagined before the beginning of the 20th century. In the opening years of the 21st century, it is time to start imagining it.

  • redstate oregon guy||

    (Hope no one already saw this in the article. Didn't have time to read all comments) 30% hydro in Montana? Sounds like they've already hit their mandated "10% renewable"

  • Thatone Guy||

    if wind is so expensive..... why are my electric rates half the national average? And my city is powered 80% by wind?

    if wind is so inefficient....why are the wind turbines for my city turning more than 90% of the time?

    and if your concerns are so true, why did two cities in my region recently add turbine farms? would any utility build something that's a money loser? how about using some Reason?

    your efficiency numbers are based on a single wind farm in a single location. Others are far more efficient. That's not to say that nuclear power isn't - it most surely is. But you can get a wind turbine field permitted and constructed in 10% of the time of a nuclear facility at the worst....with nuclear dragging out so far we should use what's available NOW.....

  • ||

    Wind cannot and will not supply power full time to any city. Wind energy is not particularly powerful. I don't know where you live, but if you are saying that the wind turbines are turning 90% of the time then you must be living in the windiest place in the world. Wind does not maintain a constant speed. If the wind slows down so does your wind turbine. Less wind is less power generation. Nobody is saying that wind turbines cannot create energy, because that is illogical, but wind is not a viable primary source for the simple fact that nobody can control the wind and there simply isn't enough wind energy available to ever come close to satisfying a growing demand. The demand for energy is going up, not down and no matter how green you go, energy demands will continue to go up because population growth necessitates the use of technology to deliver and maintain the things we all need, including information.

    I have no issue with putting up wind farms, but don't spend tax revenue on wind farms, if they are worthwhile, then they would not need subsidies.

    To address your concerns about the slow development of nuclear, let me just say that much of the delay in building nuclear plants is regulatory. The cost of building a plant would be cheaper if two things happened. First, if regulation were more sensible and people did not have irrational fears of nuclear so much so that it costs a developer insane amounts of money to even secure a viable location by dealing with the various legal and regulatory challenges. Once nuclear energy loses the chains that make it impossible to make a profit off the energy, better profitability would open the door to greater private investment in these plants which would open the door to more construction of new plants.

    To sum up, wind does not have the energy density to take care of the needs of the growing demand. It might be able to work in some locals, but even there it is not a primary source. Nuclear power generates more energy and scales up much more effectively than wind. If the power needs of your community go up even a fraction, then you will have to do one of two things, either put in more wind turbines, or use more nuclear, coal, or gas. Adding more wind will not mean you have solved your communities new energy demand because you still have to fill the gap between what the wind cannot provide and what the other sources must provide, that gap doesnt go away by adding more wind, because it exists due to the fact that the wind is not consistent. Now it becomes a cost benefit issue. If you have to add both wind and nuclear to meet the needs of your community, well, you wont be able to afford nuclear if you are doing the wind and the wind will never fully supply your community so you have to chose the energy dense option of nuclear (or gas, or coal). If you chose both, or just wind, you are spending money on energy that will not scale up efficiently. How much land and how many wind turbines must you add to increase your output by ten percent? How much money would that cost per kilowatt hour? Do the same math for nuclear. Just know you dont necessarily need to build a whole new nuclear plant to increase it's output, many nuclear plant upgrades can be done within their current infrastructure and the amount of fuel needed for this increase is considerably small.

    Consider this. The difference between nuclear energy and wind energy in terms of the scale of power output is like comparing a nuclear warhead to a firecracker, and really the difference is considerably greater than that (50 megatons is 50 million tons of dynamite) One M80 fire cracker is six times smaller than a quarter stick of dynamite. You do the math and tell me which one you would rather have generating energy. And no, a nuclear power plant is not a nuclear bomb, it is not even remotely close.

    Your community is like a solar car, it is proof that a solar car can exist, but if solar cars were even remotely viable, we would all be driving them.

  • MS||

    So did the Montana Renewable bill exclude hydro for some reason from counting as renewable or have they met the bills demand for the last 200 years?

  • ||

    How much area does a wind farm require
    to produce 150megawatts or the area required for a solar fram to produce
    150megawatts ??

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