Sunday, January 13, 2013

Energy for an Interconnected World ... or Small is Beautiful

The world is so complicated. Things are all interconnected. Unintended consequences lurk at every policy decision. We can’t even agree on such obvious facts that the earth is warming up. And even those that grudgingly accept the warming premise are quick to state that it is just a natural cycle and humankind really has nothing to do with it.

I’ve been an environmentalist all my life. Sure I hug trees. I love those tall guys. Did you know that they actually produce the air we breathe? … them and some plankton somewhere in the middle of the ocean. By stating that I’m an environmentalist, I simply mean that I love nature. Now I love the city too, but nature has this ability to refresh and re-awaken me. I don’t get that from the nearest coffee shop, even with Starbuck’s strong brew.

The early morning sun glistening on the white-capped mountains, the roar of the ocean, and the tweet of the birds. These are things I feel so deep in my soul it turns me inside-out to just experience the beauty and solitude that is nature. But we’re really screwing it up … that’s my opinion.

First is overpopulation and urban sprawl. And that’s just in the US. Wait until all the Chinese want to fill their three car garages in their suburban homes that they want to build ... just like us! You’ll be able to cut the air with a knife. That’s what it is like in Beijing right now. The burning eyes and coughing are just signs that the developing world wants their piece of the pie.

You can blame a lot of things about modern living: transportation, industry, or construction. But at the core, the issue is most often ENERGY. That’s where it all starts. As we look to the sources of energy: oil, natural gas, coal, nuclear, wood burning, the wind and water, the sun; there are issues of renewability, greenhouse gas production, air and water pollution, spoiling wildlife habitat, and economic and regulatory issues, and many more I haven't even thought of yet. Even the scenery is at issue … Baker City, Oregon, residents objected to windmills that affected the mountain views and the people in Martha’s Vineyard did not want to see windmills in the ocean.

Which of these issues are most significant to you as an individual varies, possibly depending on where you live. But I’m a citizen of the west. I was born and raised and lived my life in the wide-open spaces of the American West. Sure it’s a little crowded around here in Colorado or California, but it isn’t like the city filled and  crowded Midwest or East Coast.

As with most complex issues, energy and sources of energy is a balance. Key is the relationship between supply and demand. No one wants their lights to go out at 8:00 PM or for there to be long lines at the gas pumps, but we also are suspicious of expansion of any source of energy from windmills to fracking. We often attempt to influence and adjust energy production with government policy and laws.

Last year California made headlines by signing into law an ambitious mandate that requires the state obtain one-third of its electricity from renewable energy sources like sunlight and wind by 2020. Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia now have renewable electricity mandates. The city of Boulder, Colorado, is in the process of taking responsibility for electric power production away from the local utility. One key reason for that attempt is to expand the percentage of renewable energy requirement beyond the already high level set by Colorado law.

President Obama and several members of Congress have supported one at the federal level. Polls routinely show strong support among voters for renewable energy projects – as long as they don't cost too much, or possibly in their own back yards.

But there is a downside … while energy sources like sunlight and wind are free and naturally replenished, converting them into large quantities of electricity requires vast amounts of natural resources – most notably, land. Even a brief look at these costs exposes the contradictions in the renewable energy movement.

Consider California's new mandate. The state's peak electricity demand is about 52,000 megawatts. Meeting the one-third target will require (if you oversimplify a bit) about 17,000 megawatts of renewable energy capacity. Let's assume that California will get half of that capacity from solar and half from wind. Most of its large-scale solar electricity production will presumably come from projects like the $2 billion Ivanpah solar plant, which is now under construction in the Mojave Desert in southern California. When completed, Ivanpah, which aims to provide 370 megawatts of solar generation capacity, will cover 3,600 acres - about five and a half square miles.

The math is simple. To have 8,500 megawatts of solar capacity, California would need at least 23 projects the size of Ivanpah, covering about 129 square miles, an area more than five times as large as Manhattan. While there's plenty of land in the Mojave, projects as big as Ivanpah raise environmental concerns. The federal Bureau of Land Management ordered a halt to construction on part of the facility out of concern for the desert tortoise, which is protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Wind energy projects require even more land. The Roscoe wind farm in Texas, which has a capacity of 781.5 megawatts, covers about 154 square miles. Again, the math is straightforward. To have 8,500 megawatts of wind generation capacity, California would likely need to set aside an area equivalent to more than 70 Manhattans. Apart from the impact on the environment itself, few if any people could live on the land because of the noise (and the infrasound, which is inaudible to most humans but potentially harmful) produced by the turbines.

Industrial solar and wind projects also require long swaths of land for power lines. Despite opposition from environmental groups, San Diego Gas & Electric started construction on the 117-mile Sunrise Powerlink, which will carry electricity from solar, wind and geothermal projects located in Imperial County, Calif., to customers in and around San Diego. Soon, environmental groups filed a federal lawsuit to prevent the $1.9 billion line from cutting through a nearby national forest.

Not all environmentalists ignore renewable energy's land requirements. The Nature Conservancy has coined the term "energy sprawl" to describe it. Unfortunately, energy sprawl is only one of the ways that renewable energy makes heavy demands on natural resources.

Consider the massive quantities of steel required for wind projects. The production and transportation of steel are both expensive and energy-intensive, and installing a single wind turbine requires about 200 tons of it. Many turbines have capacities of 3 or 4 megawatts, so you can assume that each megawatt of wind capacity requires roughly 50 tons of steel. By contrast, a typical natural gas turbine can produce nearly 43 megawatts while weighing only 9 tons. Thus, each megawatt of capacity requires less than a quarter of a ton of steel.

Obviously these are ballpark calculations, but however you crunch the numbers, the lesson is the same: the amount of steel needed to generate a given amount of electricity from a wind turbine is greater by several orders of magnitude.

Such profligate use of resources is the antithesis of the environmental ideal. Nearly four decades ago, the economist E. F. Schumacher distilled the essence of environmental protection down to three words: "Small is beautiful." In the rush to do something – anything – to deal with the problem of greenhouse gas emissions, environmental groups and policy makers have determined that renewable energy is the answer. But in doing so they've tossed Schumacher's adage into the ditch.

All energy and power systems exact a toll. If we are to take Schumacher's phrase to heart while also reducing the rate of growth of greenhouse gas emissions, we must exploit the low-carbon energy sources – natural gas and, yes, nuclear – that have smaller footprints.

There are several other reasons that I support these less attractive alternatives and my support is provisional on the solution to some of the nasty side effects from these power production methods. But, as you can tell from this article, I also have objections to the energy sources considered greener.

As a conversationalist, my real focus is on conservation. There is so much that can be done reducing our need for energy. Overpopulation, of course, is a key factor. But even with the existing number of people on this globe, we could preserve energy with conservation. Things as simple as building insulation and good windows, as well as complex solutions such as computer controlled heating and air conditioning must be implemented. It is as simple as turning off lights and television sets when not in use to complex appliance and device designs that save power. It will take a consorted effort and a conscious will of the people to convert our energy wasting society to one willing to conserve and save.

The ultimate solutions must be balanced on both sides of the scales. All human activity that uses energy and that generates energy must be considered and the most cost-effective and efficient methods to generate and use power must be used, while assuring that the impact on the environment is minimized. We need to be aware of the consequences of all our actions in both generating and using power. We must redesign both the buildings in our city, and even the designs of our cities in general to be more energy-cost-effective. Solutions such as public transportation must be considered with regard to population densities and real need. Let’s not just build a light rail because it is the “green” thing to do, let’s build a light rail because that’s the “right” thing to do.

That is the way to the future. There are choices and trade-offs to be made, and we need to be aware of the impact of any decision, even one that seems very “green.” To an engineer and a conservationist, such as myself, I’m inclined toward solutions that preserve our environment … all aspects of our environment. Windmills and solar are part of the solution. But, they are not the whole solution. Think big! Think deep!! Think how your behavior affects the world around you!!!

1 comment:

  1. I've got more to say ... no surprise there!

    Whether some are willing to admit it or not, the evidence for global warming is overwhelming. Among other things, before and after pictures of glaciers show melting and satellite photos show a steadily decreasing Northern ice cap. It is also true that the effects are potentially devastating.

    But global warming is only one symptom of overpopulation, and overpopulation is the crisis that even environmentalists seem unwilling to discuss. Why is this issue never discussed even in supposedly liberal newspapers like the NY Times?

    In addition to global warming, overpopulation is causing the world to run out of nonrenewable resources such as oil. Although this issue seems mitigated by the expanded use of fracking, fracking has additional economic and environmental costs, and all the facts are not yet known.

    In addition, other resources are limited, including water and land to grow food. For example, some news sources have blamed rising food prices for the unrest in the Middle East.

    It has been reported for years that the capital of Yemen is running out of water. Yet not only in Egypt and Yemen, but also in Libya and Bahrain, population growth per year has exceeded 2% per year, way above the world average. Amidst all of the reporting, it is seldom mentioned that population growth in countries with limited resources makes unrest inevitable.

    Even in the US, breadbasket to the world, over 40 million people are now enrolled in the food stamp program. Census figures show that from April 2000 to April 2010, the US population grew by over 27 million people while the number of US jobs actually went down! The simplest explanation is that overpopulation within the US is one of the primary reasons that living standards among the middle class and poor have stagnated.

    What good does it do to cut down auto emissions by 10 or 20% when the population grows by the same amount? The real issue is not global warming at all, but population growth. And Democrats, just like Republicans, have their heads in the sand on this issue.