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Week of July 6
Submitted by Dan Sweeney on Mon, 2008-07-14 23:26.
T. Boone Pickens and wind…Thorium nuclear reactors…High altitude wind…
As a journalist one just never knows what morsels the energy industry might throw one's way. Last week did not disappoint.
We might as well start with T. Boone Pickens' ringing endorsement of the wind industry in which he has invested $2 billion. T. Boon Pickens is definitely long on wind. He's also long winded, and he's been delivering statements to the press where he promises energy independence to the U.S. though wind.
That's funny because I've recently been reading some screeds from our European cousins where similar promises are being made with regard to solar. Sun and wind will dry your skin, but who'd have thunk they could make you energy independent? This in fact merits some learned commentary. Will either or both in fact provide energy independence?
I have made prior allusions to proposals coming from various intergovernmental groups in Europe for the construction of a new electrical system anchored with renewable sources. I have written on the same topic and have come to somewhat more pessimistic conclusions than my colleagues abroad.
The Institute for Solar Energy Technology (ISET) in Germany has recently published a position paper arguing that the current European electrical grid based largely on coal and natural gas, and having fairly heavy wind, hydroelectric, and nuclear components as well, could be revamped so that renewable sources alone provided all of the electrical power. The issue of power for personal transportation is not addressed. ISET claims that wind and solar facilities can be installed for the same cost per kilowatt hour as modern natural gas plants. Significantly, they don't mention coal plants which are much cheaper to operate, nor do they provide cost breakdowns that would lend transparency to their figures.
I do believe that a mixed wind and solar renewable energy grid would be much more cost effective than one that was utterly reliant on either resource alone, but I don't believe that such an entity would be cost equivalent to our present system. I see capital costs at least double those of new construction for fossil fuel plants and an additional requirement for an enormous overlay of new transmission lines. If the resulting electrical network is intended to support a largely electrically powered system of personal transport utilizing all electric and plug-in hybrid cars, then we're looking at another doubling.
You can bet your life and all of your worldly possessions that the public utilities will not undertake the construction of such a network absent very strong financial incentives to do so, either rate hikes or massive subsidies, and they would have to be massive because the utilities would in effect be writing off much of their prior investment prematurely. Senator McCain talks of a market driven changeover. The market, unfortunately, will drive nothing but a continuation of the status quo.
So where would the money come from to construct such a network? I don't think a further depreciation of the currency and expansion of the national debt is going to prove adequate. I think if the nation decides to go in this direction, and it may ultimately have no choice, then the government will either have to draw large sums of money away from other activities to subsidize the transition, or increase revenues, which is tantamount to increasing taxes. It's a matter of allocation of resources and of investment capital. It doesn't happen otherwise, the market won't bring it about.
A hundred and more years ago when the U.S. was setting up the present electrical grid and establishing the automobile industry, the major American investment banks under the leadership of J. P. Morgan made the collective decision to support both industries even though the return on investment was fairly lengthy. I don't see private equity firms following a similar course today.
The U.S. will either have to raise taxes significantly, effectively scrap the entitlement programs, or drastically reduce military expenditures. These are unpalatable choices for any politician. The other option is to build a lot more dirty coal plants, and since the last is most in tune with what has gone before, it is the most likely.
Thorium Reactors – a Further Option?
Last week I received a press release from a company calling itself Thorium Power. Thorium Power, so far as I have been able to determine, is the only company in the world attempting to commercialize thorium reactors, specifically, a variant developed by the late Alvin Radkowsky, an American physicist responsible for many of the Navy's nuclear propulsion systems. Radkowsky's reactor, which was eventually prototyped in Russia and in Israel, is a hybrid design using uranium and thorium. Thorium Power, an American firm, has established a relationship with the Russian researchers in this area.
Many variations of the thorium nuclear cycle have been discussed in the technical literature. Thorium is a safer radioactive substance with which to work than uranium or plutonium, is several times as common as uranium, and cannot easily be weaponized. Furthermore, some researchers believe hybrid thorium-uranium reactors represent the best means for producing a practical breeder reactor, which itself is the key to leveraging the world's supply of uranium and ensuring a long term future for the nuclear industry.
At this point, I have no idea if these folks are anywhere near to succeeding. They have, however, agreed to talk to me, and I'll know more soon. A practical thorium reactor could conceivably change the nature of the energy debate.
Yet Another Option – High Altitude Wind
Lately I've gotten a number of alerts relating to the power generation technology known as high altitude wind. High altitude wind rather than low altitude, garden variety, T. Boone Pickens wind may be one renewable energy source that can truly compete with coal purely on the basis of cost.
But that remains to be seen.
High altitude wind refers the wind itself and the techniques for capturing it. Generally, as one ascends in altitude, wind velocities grow more intense, culminating in the jet stream phenomenon in the substratospheric regions above 15,000 feet. High altitude winds also tend to be more constant than winds at sea level, and allow wind generators to approach the status of baseline power devices.
Several small companies are active in this area, and no large ones. Among the experimenters are SkyWind Power, the oldest; Makani; Magenn; and Sequoia Automation. None has a commercial product, and each has a distinct approach.
Obviously, when you're attempting to tap wind energy at hundreds or thousands of feet above the surface of the earth, you're talking about a wind turbine that is also an aircraft, generally though not always a heavier-than-air aircraft. The aircraft perforce must be tethered and positioned over empty land and away from flight corridors. Serious proposals have been made for establishing great fleets of such devices over the Canadian tundra where suitable areas are vast in extent and wind velocities are particularly intense.
Space does not permit a consideration of the many schemes inventors have developed for capturing high altitude wind. As is the case with the equally immature technology of ocean power, almost any approach, however fanciful is apt to get a hearing simply because there are no proven successes and no incumbent technology. You have ladder arrangements, kites driving carousels, autogiros, and even blimps—each with some startup insisting that his particular approach is ideal.
The claim that all of these firms make for their very different technologies is that they can beat the economics not only of conventional wind but of coal and nuclear as well. There is some inherent plausibility to these claims. The power output of any wind turbine increases according to the cube of the velocity of the wind, so there's an enormous multiplier factor when you're operating in high winds—provided, of course, the turbine is designed to sustain high wind speeds. All things being equal, a high altitude wind turbine should be physically much smaller than its counterpart on the ground and should require far less structural material. At the same time, I must say I've never seen an itemized spread sheet. At this point it's all guestimates.
One thing I will note. Every high altitude wind company I've encountered is following the familiar and fatally flawed approach of attempting pilots first and then proceeding by stages to commercialization—the standard engineering approach. Only nobody ever did that during the great age of invention in the nineteenth century. There were no pilot railroads, streetcars, automobiles, steel plants, telephones, or electrical utilities. Everything went straight to commercialization. If you really have anything, build a commercial facility the first time out and start selling electricity and figure out how to make a profit on a small scale. Otherwise you'll never get out of the pilot business which is no business at all.