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Can clean energy compete?

2009.04.22 — Business | Energy | by Derek Jensen

Small scale wind power

Small scale wind power. [Tysto photo]

I've been reading a lot lately about alternative energy, and I find that some people have a bizarre view of it. They think that clean energy technology should have to compete with traditional energy in the free market. They decry subsidies, variability, and higher prices because those things are anti-competitive. That's wrong-headed, and here's why.

First let's define terms. What is alternative energy or clean energy? Both terms are used to refer to electricity derived from solar, wind, and wave energy, plus emerging technologies like bio-fuels and sometimes also more traditional hydroelectric and geothermal power. Some will even lump in nuclear and clean coal energy, but that means that only coal and natural gas are considered "traditional."

Nobody uses oil to produce commercial power on a large scale in the US, altho it is used as way of getting value out of waste oil and as a means of providing backup power to hospitals and factories.

Solar and wind get the most grief because they are generally more expensive than traditional energy and are highly variable. The sun, naysayers point out, only shines at night. And the wind blows whenever it wants. Coal, natural gas, nuclear, and hydroelectricity all create "base load" energy—that is, energy that's always available.

But there's a dirty little secret about base load energy: demand for electricity is variable, so we don't always need it, and we end up wasting some of it.


The variability of wind is a problem, but it's a problem that gets smaller and smaller as more wind turbines are added to the system. If you have enough turbines scattered far enough afield, the variability of each one gets offset by the others. Say you put 100 turbine fields across the US in places that have optimal wind about 60% of the time. (America is a big place, with great wind resources thruout the central and coastal regions.) You won't get 100% power out of all of them at once, but you will get nearly 100% power out of 55-65% of them at any given time, and that amounts to a reliable 55-65% of peak power 100% of the time.

Yes, power will still vary a bit from hour to hour and season to season, but there are ways to compensate for that too. Natural gas plants are fairly clean (they do produce carbon dioxide) and can be turned up and down to help compensate wind variability; this has to be done already to compensate for variability in demand. And new technology for storing power on a large scale will further help even out the peaks and troughs.


Solar power is better. It turns out that we generally sleep when it is dark, so the fact that solar panels (photovoltaic cells) don't make electricity at night is just fine. As it is, the base-load electricity that gets wasted is produced mostly at night because we don't need as much at night. But better still, solar thermal plants (the ones with the mirrors pointed at a tower full of molten salt) use the sun's heat to make steam power, and the heat they collect can last for hours after sundown, when we're still using electricity before bedtime.


Wave, current, and tidal water power are still in their infancy, but are very promising. The sea is much less variable than the sun and wind. But there are few commercial project under way yet. Plus, the sea—she is a harsh mistress. Severe storms can damage floating and even underwater power generators, so there is work to do to be able to protect them in all conditions.


There is some promising research being done on bio-fuels—crops, garbage, or algae that can be turned into ethanol, methanol, and other fuels for cars or power plants. But so far the jury is out on whether this will even be practical on a large scale, let alone profitable.

Hydro, and geothermal

We took great advantage of hydroelectric power in the 1930s, when we put millions of unemployed men to work building Hoover Dam, the Grand Coulee Dam, and the like. (Niagara Power Station was built earlier, but it's a good example of non-dam water power.) But since then, we haven't really tried to expand into smaller projects that would still be worthwhile.

And geothermal power is underutilized in the US. We've only exploited the easiest locations, but if we put the kind of effort into it that we put into the drilling and extraction of oil, we could be generating a lot more clean electricity from geothermal.


Of course, the biggest complaint among traditionalists is made by citing the wisdom of the invisible hand of the market in not choosing alternative energy technology already. They say things like "No-one in a free market would ever build wind or solar generating plants. The entire industry is built on government subsidies, carbon credits and tax breaks."

But no one in a free market would ever build sewage treatment facilities either, or find non-toxic ways to make bright white paper. For decades, we just dumped sewage and chemicals in the nearest waterway, and it had horrible consequences (as at Love Canal).

This is because, in a free market, individuals tend to act selfishly, and that can have widespread negative results. It's the tragedy of the commons: what we all share we tend to abuse unless we agree on rules to regulate its use.

Ideally, individuals in a free market practice "enlightened self-interest." That is, they do what is best for themselves, but recognize that they can't go so far that they spoil things for everyone because that ruins their own long-term interests.

Just as you want the government to use tax dollars to run sewage treatment plants to keep your drinking water clean, you should also want the government to promote non-polluting power to make your air cleaner. It shouldn't have to be as cheap as polluting is to get your vote.

Consider: you own a toilet, right? But toilets are expensive: they have to be purchased, installed by a professional, supplied with water, eventually repaired, and so on. It would be much cheaper and easier to just keep a bucket in a closet. Use it and toss the waste out a window; that's what people in cities did in the old days. But you don't do that because it would wreck your immediate environment.

If you don't want to wreck your immediate environment, it's a small step to realizing you don't want to wreck the general environment either. For more than two hundred years, billions of people have been pumping coal smoke into the sky day in and day out. Isn't it obvious that that is going to eventually hurt us? Heck, we had to clean up car exhaust just to keep our cities from being choked to death with smog.

It's worth it to buy and maintain a toilet and pay to maintain the sewage treatment plant (or septic tank) it's attached to. It should obviously be worth it to pay a little more for energy that doesn't wreck the air.

What to use it for

Some complain that electric vehicles (as I wrote about recently) will just move pollution from your tailpipe to the nearest power plant smokestack. But that's a specious observation. Electrical power in the US is already cleaner than burning gasoline. And it's far easier to control, reduce, and replace dirty power with new clean energy when it's centralized instead of coming from millions and millions of individual cars.

Moreover, as I mentioned above, a lot of electricity is wasted at night when power demand is low. Recharging electric cars at night will soak up that power at little additional cost to power providers And with smart chargers that can respond to the power company's need to store or retrieve a little power here an there, we can eliminate the peaks and troughs that fluctuating supply (from solar and wind) add to fluctuating demand.


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