Squaring the Culture




"...and I will make justice the plumb line, and righteousness the level;
then hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,
and the waters will overflow the secret place."
Isaiah 28:17

11/12/2008 (11:53 pm)

Reality Check on Alternative Energy

I’ve been listening to manic soliloquies to renewable energy sources for about 35 years, since I debated energy policy during my high school debating days. The usual pattern is for somebody to find an article — one article — about some interesting way to generate electricity. Usually the article says something rosy like “Within 15 years, we could have [name your favorite blue-sky alternate source here] power plants generating power for millions of people.” Our somebody then says “we should do this,” as though they were on the board of directors of the fully-nationalized Federal Electric Power Board, making decisions for the nation. That person becomes a champion for alternative energy, confidently asserting on message boards and in comment threads for the next several years that if “Bush were not owned by the oil companies,” it would be obvious that [blue-sky alternate source] is the way to go, and we could be using it (meaning, it could be generating all the electricity anybody wants) in just ten years.

If you’re one of those people, please don’t take what follows as a personal insult. I’m not trying to insult you, nor am I trying to tell you that your favored alternative energy source is useless. It’s probably a great idea. I’m just as fascinated by new technology as you are. I just want to plant your feet on the ground a little.

Allow me to posit PlumbBob’s Rule of Electrical Generating Reality:

From the day an electric utility or research institute begins building the first pilot plant to generate electricity from a new, alternative energy source, until that energy source is producing about 20% of the nation’s electricity, a minimum of 30 years will have passed, and usually more like 50 years.

Mind you, I’m not talking about replacing all, or even half, of traditionally generated electricity; I’m talking about contributing 20%, enough to meet the increase in electrical demand for about a 5 year period, while traditional sources continue to contribute 80% of the power. Thirty years. MINIMUM. More like 50 if you’re going to be conservative.

Also, I’m not talking about research time, producing the new techniques that will make the alternative source viable. That sort of research occurs in addition to the 30 – 50 year ramp-up time.

It doesn’t matter how spiffy your alternative source is. It doesn’t matter how remarkably simple a technology it is. It doesn’t matter if we institute a Manhattan Project-sized effort to finish the design work (I’ll explain tomorrow why that’s truly an awful idea in any case.) Even if we have all the technology in hand already, it’ll take 30 – 50 years to get the power source producing just 20% of the nation’s electricity.

Why is that?

First of all, it frequently takes longer to build a pilot plant than it does to build a traditional electrical plant. The building process contains surprises, unfamiliar requirements, sometimes exotic materials. There’s a learning curve for the builders, who are unfamiliar with designs or techniques needed to implement the new product. There’s also a learning curve for the managers and the procurement people, and for the fabricators producing the first-ever structures needed for the pilot project. That’s the purpose of a pilot plant — to figure out how to build the first of everything, and to discover all the things they haven’t thought of. This takes time.

Then there are redesigns. Some take place during construction (causing delays, sometimes of years) and others after the fact, requiring a new pilot plant. This takes time.

Then some company has to decide they’re willing to take a chance on selling this new technology as a product. This is like the first model year of a new auto design; the first is not going to be as good, nor as profitable, as later designs. It will take an unusually long time to manufacture the parts for the first plant, because, again, there’s going to be a learning curve in the manufacturing process, just like there was in the building of the pilot plant. They’ll offer the plant for sale, and then sometimes wait a few years until some electric utility needs to replace an old plant that’s being retired, or needs to expand to meet rising demand, and is willing to take a chance on purchasing new technology. This takes time.

Then, let’s suppose the first couple of plants get ordered by electric utilities. If the demand is large enough, the manufacturer has to expand their facilities to produce faster. This takes time.

And then, of course, the electric utilities don’t have capital on hand to build 1000 power plants at once; they’ll wait until demand requires expansion before they order new power plants, or they’ll wait until some old plant is about to go offline. The new technology gets phased in gradually, as the need rises and as capital becomes available.

This all takes… you get the idea. By the time all these processes have taken their necessary course and enough power plants have been built and placed into production that this new design is producing a significant proportion of the nation’s electricity, at least 30 years will have passed from the beginning of the pilot plant stage, and sometimes a lot more.

We have modern examples to illustrate. Take wind power, for example. The DOE claims that if we subsidize heavily enough and start building wind power farms quickly enough, wind farms could be contributing 20% of the nation’s electricity by 2030. The first pilot plant for commercial-grade wind farms was built in 1980 — 50 years earlier than the date the DOE projects.

Nuclear power grew a little quicker. The Russians began constructing their first nuclear power station in 1951; the US began its first in 1954. By the time Three Mile Island put paid to the nuclear industry in America in 1979, nuclear power was producing roughly 20% of the nation’s electricity. That was a development time of about 25 years. It was quicker than my rule of thumb because they did not have to concern themselves with environmental impact, and because the number of plants to produce 20% of the nation’s power was a lot smaller in the 1970s than it is today. And keep in mind, nuclear power had been the beneficiary of a full-bore government development project in the 1940s, which gathered a great deal of experience with nuclear devices but is not being counted in the development time.

So, you say we’re ready to build a solar power station? If that were true today — and it’s not — solar power might be producing 20% of the nation’s power by 2040. Maybe. That’s if we manage to improve the grid sufficiently to carry the extra power load, and if we solve the gross inefficiency of long-haul power transfer (solar power requires so much space, and a sunny environment, so plants need to be located farther than usual from the cities where the power will be used.)

You want to be building a fleet of all-electric cars in the meantime? That would require at least doubling the output of our current crop of power plants. So, while solar is growing to cover some 20% of the nation’s power, other, existing sources would have to cover 80%, plus replacing older power plants that go off-line.

What happens if The Divine President Obama passes his cap-and-trade scheme and the price of generating electricity by coal or natural gas doubles? Because of Plumb Bob’s Rule, we’d either face an enormous shortage of electricity (driving prices through the roof and causing brown-outs and instability), or we’d have plenty of electricity at double the price. There would be an incentive to build alternative plants, but since replacing existing plants takes time, a lot of the demand would have to be covered with expensive coal/natural gas plants, or not covered at all. Either way, the attempt to “save the world” results in massive cost increases, which in turn results in recession or depression, increased deaths due to a lack of heating or cooling, unstable electric supply causing damage to critical equipment, etc.

You want to speed up the process by throwing gazillions of dollars into the equivalent of the Manhattan project? Careful — adding money or manpower makes some processes longer, not shorter. I used to see this in the Information Systems game; some smartie-pants once observed that a lot of IT projects are staffed on the dubious theory that if a woman can produce a baby in 9 months, 9 women could produce one in a month. Those of us familiar with critical path analysis understand — some processes take as long as they take, no matter how many dollars you throw at them, and adding more cooks only makes the cooking process longer.

The existing power grid is not designed for anything like the alternative energy sources that are contemplated today. Those require hauling power from remote locations into large cities; current power generation takes place nearer the location where it’s going to be used. Any major shift in electricity sources, or any significant increase in power demand, will require huge investments in new power transmission capabilities.

These things are doable — in time. Change takes time. Change also takes capital, and capital spent on these projects cannot be spent on other projects; capital is a finite resource. The nation can make changes if it’s beneficial to do so, but pretending that they can be made overnight will produce chaos. A crash government program is aptly named; such a program would crash. A sensible growth policy would mix existing, reliable sources with experimental sources generated by private companies, and allow the market to choose the best technology for each application and location. Allowing the market to choose will produce more power faster, and result in a mix of power generating technologies that is cost-efficient, clean, and reliable. Let’s make sure there’s pressure on the President and Congress to stick to sensible policy, and not to torch US productive capacity for a manic pipe dream. Real solutions take time.

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10 Comments »

November 13, 2008 @ 6:47 am #

Your idea is flawed because it assumes that we are starting from scratch. If we introduced cap and trade with no concievable other sources of energy, electricity prices would soar with no other supply. But alternative engergy research has been going on for years and it is commercialized right now and ready to go. The idea with cap and trade is that you slowly increase the price of credits so there is not a sudden hike, but over time it becomes worth the energy companies while to build renewable, not fossil fuel. In addition to cap and trade you have ‘feed in tariff’ like in spain and germany, where the governments guarantees a minimum price paid for renewable energy provided to the grid, encouraging new companies and giving investors confidence.
Leaving the market to choose the supply is not going to work. The market will choose the cheapest source right now – fossil fuels. When large oil price spikes occur, the industry cannot produce power from other sources. Markets do not take account of environmental concerns or the origin of the oil.

November 14, 2008 @ 9:32 am #

Tom, here, illustrates why it’s useless to attempt to talk sense to enviro True Believers.

Your idea is flawed because it assumes that we are starting from scratch.

I assume nothing of the kind.

I was very specific: “From the day an electric utility or research institute begins building the first pilot plant…”

This presupposes all the research on the project has been ongoing for however long.

Furthermore, if you’ll reread my paragraph on wind power, you’ll see that I assign a starting point at 1980, not today.

But alternative engergy research has been going on for years and it is commercialized right now and ready to go.

I just wasted my breath, didn’t I? I explained the process of bringing a new source online, and you just ignored the entire article and recited you mantra.

Ok, I’ll reiterate, not that I expect it will help:

The RESEARCH has been done on some alternatives, yes. On a few of them, there are pilot plants in operation, but not on all of them. One or two are productized and available for order, but are not cost-competitive. The manufacturing facilities do not exist for mass-producing plants. The capital has not been acquired for building the plants. The construction is not underway, even on one plant, let alone thousands. Wind is the sole exception, and even so, it doesn’t even produce 1% of the nation’s electricity yet. I explained this all, above. Even if the design of the pilot plants that exist is a good design, there are decades of waiting involved in ramping up to a significant contribution level (I used 20% arbitrarily).

And by the way, none of the pilot plants you’re thinking of are acceptable designs, because none of them produce power at competitive prices, nor could they with economies of scale. That’s why they’re not being ordered. It’s not a conspiracy. It’s not short-sightedness. It’s simply that the power companies cannot compete if they produce power using the alternatives, which are uniformly not ready for prime time.

Leaving the market to choose the supply is not going to work. The market will choose the cheapest source right now – fossil fuels. When large oil price spikes occur, the industry cannot produce power from other sources.

I’m straining to refrain from calling names at the moment. This is just so incredibly vapid!

Do you genuinely believe there is nobody in the entire country who sees what you see??? Christ, the arrogance!!!!!

Everybody in the entire bleeping free world knows that oil is a finite resource. Research on alternatives has been ongoing for decades. They’re not blind, they’re not stupid, and they’re not children. Christ on a crutch, will you get a clue?????????

The free market has not switched to alternatives yet because the alternatives do not make sense yet.

The market will switch, not when the price of oil spikes, but when the alternatives can compete. They can’t yet.

Shit, you already know this! You’re trying to force the price of traditional sources up artificially, because you know perfectly well that the alternatives cannot compete on price!

Markets do not take account of environmental concerns or the origin of the oil.

In what universe?

You really do believe the men running the oil giants are stupid, greedy demons like those bozos in the B and C movies, don’t you? That they’re not capable of reading the Wall Street Journal and assessing market or social conditions as well as you do?

You really do believe that those stupid, greedy demons are preventing other companies like Westinghouse, duPont, Babcock & Wilcox, etc. from researching alternatives, don’t you?

Where in the name of everything holy and decent do you suppose all the f**king research on alternatives came from??????????????

Let me assure you, very little of it it was from Progressive Environmentalists. Most of it is being performed by solid corporations. And fyi, the designs that really do make sense and show promise, based on real-world economics rather than your unthinking, knee-jerk environmentalism, are fuel cells based on hydrogen. Those really are ready for production… and are a much, much better solution that the infantile, dream-world crap you enviros love so much.

I’m really looking forward to Obama’s cap and trade, which does not phase in the way you described. He’s going to completely wreck the US economy… and get the blame for it. The dunce.

November 14, 2008 @ 11:12 am #

Your thinking is stuck inside a fairly small box. The current improvements in battery, capacitor, and solar PV have reached a point where they are very nearly as cost-effective as centralized utilities, and are continuing to pick up momentum. There won’t be any building of large PV plants, because PV doesn’t really scale all that well. What you *will* see is hundreds of thousands of personal PV plants distributed all over the country. Of course, not everyone will have PVs, at least not right away, but I think that the 20% point will be reached in less than 20 years.

As soon as PV-generated electrical power has a fully-amortized cost/watt-hour even a little bit less than energy from current power utilities, you will see this take off at a rate you would not have imagined. That tipping point is likely to occur in the next 5 years.

I wouldn’t rule out similar revolutions in other power-generation technologies.

Large centralized power plants will become supply-leveling services, and the load on the grid will actually decrease even as more EVs hit the road.

An analogy: Imagine a centralized effort to move 100 million tons of metal and glass over a 20-mile course each and every day. Yes, that sort of thing would take a government 20+ years to get going (and would cost a fortune), but it already happens in Dallas, twice every weekday, once during the morning rush hour, and once during evening rush hour.

November 14, 2008 @ 1:41 pm #

TX CHL —

The part that I don’t completely understand is why, when I write about the reality of the time frame for development, advocates of alternative energy think I’m trashing their favorite technology. I welcome the sort of development you’re talking about when you write:

The current improvements in battery, capacitor, and solar PV have reached a point where they are very nearly as cost-effective as centralized utilities, and are continuing to pick up momentum. There won’t be any building of large PV plants, because PV doesn’t really scale all that well. What you *will* see is hundreds of thousands of personal PV plants distributed all over the country.

I see your point about the thousand points of light (or more accurately, a million sinks of light,) and it’s a good one. One of the nicer developments on the fuel cell front is the fuel cell power station sized for large businesses and small municipalities. These are on the market today, and available for use. If enough companies and towns buy ’em…

The problem with solar PV is, I think you’re wrong about the economics. You see, we were saying virtually identical things back in the 1980s about very similar technology, but ironically, the economic payback on small-scale solar PV is almost exactly the same today for the average homeowner as it was back then — around 20 years, and that’s not counting internal rates of return.

The symptom is that California today has more than 98% of the installed solar applications in the nation — and California has several billion dollars available in government subsidies for solar installations. Short version: nobody builds them unless they’re subsidized. That’s a sure sign that the economics aren’t there yet.

And they won’t be, not until they perfect ways to store electricity for use when the sun is not shining. That’s coming — there have apparently been some breakthroughs in the efficiency of hydrolyzing water, so a solar panel can split water into hydrogen during the day, and burn the hydrogen at night — but it’s not here yet, and solar is not going to work for most of the nation until it arrives.

Beyond that, I want to read a serious — and I mean genuinely serious, sober, and conservative — analysis of the environmental and economic impact of mining enough nickel, cadmium, or other necessary metals to support all those battery installations. I want to see the same with regard to electric cars. The impact will be far from zero, and I’ve seen nobody address this.

The inherent problem with solar power is bandwidth. Solar energy is diffuse; you only get so much sunlight on a given square foot of ground. There’s no way to increase that without launching really huge satellites. So, while I applaud attempts to make sunlight work for us, and really do hope they pan out, my bet is on technology that uses the most plentiful element on earth (that would be hydrogen fuel cells) or, better yet, the one that uses the material everything is made of (nuclear fusion.) But even with fuel cells, I want to see that environmental impact analysis of mining all that metal.

November 14, 2008 @ 2:02 pm #

It’s interesting that you mention hydrogen as if it were a solution for anything.

There is a problem with hydrogen. Actually, several, any of which is a show-stopper. Has to do with those pesky laws of physics and chemistry. Hydrogen is not, and cannot be made to be, an energy *source* (with one exception — nuclear fusion, and we don’t have that technology yet). It is a grossly inefficient, unsafe, inconvenient, expensive, and dirty energy *storage* mechanism.

Yes, dirty. Hydrogen is not ‘green’ in any meaningful sense of the word. The cheapest way to produce it commercially is methane reformation, so it’s actually just another fossil fuel. Plus, it is the most potent ozone-depletion agent ever created by man — and it cannot be 100% contained.

There is no scenario for using hydrogen that can’t be made simpler, safer, cheaper, more efficient, and ‘greener’ by leaving out the hydrogen.

Hydrogen is the perfect fuel for people who can freely spend other people’s money while pretending to be ‘green’. Like Al Gore, the guy who flies around the country lecturing the Rest of Us about how we should live our lives.

November 14, 2008 @ 2:26 pm #

Hydrogen is not ‘green’ in any meaningful sense of the word. The cheapest way to produce it commercially is methane reformation, so it’s actually just another fossil fuel.

And this is a problem… why, exactly?

Just for the record, I’m not green in any meaningful sense of the word, either, except when I embed “sickBob.gif” into a post, like I do in the one that follows this one.

November 15, 2008 @ 8:14 pm #

[…] Last week I wrote an essay explaining why alternative energy sources, as clever as they might be, cannot be expected to generate most of our energy within the next 50 years. They can contribute some, and the level of contribution can grow gradually, but America will have to continue to rely on fossil fuels and nuclear power for the bulk of our electricity for the next 50 years regardless of what breakthroughs occur in the future. This is just a simple reality, based on the size of our electrical demand, the lead times for construction and manufacturing, and the limitations on capital available for construction. […]

November 20, 2008 @ 4:56 pm #

“And this is a problem… why, exactly?”

Because that is the hype that is used to sell the hydrogen scam.

November 21, 2008 @ 9:40 am #

Hydrogen is not ‘green’ in any meaningful sense of the word. The cheapest way to produce it commercially is methane reformation, so it’s actually just another fossil fuel.

And this is a problem… why, exactly?

Because that is the hype that is used to sell the hydrogen scam.

You did not understand the question, apparently.

My point is that there’s no reason on God’s green earth why we should not use fossil fuels. They have been, and remain, the source of our prosperity, the most efficient and effective means to generate power to drive industry. The hype about carbon damaging the atmosphere was always primarily a political ploy by liars to coerce the world to give politicians more power over economies; the bankruptcy of the science supporting the claim is increasingly evident to those of us who actually understand the scientific issues. The facts are that humans are not powerful enough to alter the climate significantly, and carbon dioxide is not a pollutant, it’s plant food.

It makes sense to be aware of our impact on the environment, but the carbon hysteria is a cynical, political ploy to take down a powerful economy, and “greens” are dupes of it.

I’ll be writing about this today.

July 9, 2009 @ 11:56 am #

[…] Plumb Bob’s Rule of Electrical Generating Reality: the alternatives are nowhere near ready to replace any substantial portion of our nation’s […]

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