Even though Solar Panels and Natural Gas Home Generators allow us to Disconnect from the Grid we Shouldn’t

Posted by PITHOCRATES - April 21st, 2013

Week in Review

I remember losing power for a couple of hot and humid days.  The kind where you stick to everything because you’re just covered in sweat.  Making it almost impossible to sleep.  But I was able to borrow my father’s generator.  So I would not have to suffer through that insufferable heat and humidity.  While I was able to run my refrigerator, turn the lights on and even watch television I could not start my central air conditioner.  Even when I shut everything else off.  It was large enough to run the AC.  But it was just not big enough to start it.  I tried.  But as I did that inrush of current (about 40 amps) just stalled the generator.  Which could put out only 30 amps at 240 volts.  So even though I had a 30 amp generator to start an air conditioner that was on a 20 amp circuit breaker it wasn’t big enough.  Because of that momentary inrush of current.  So I suffered through that insufferable heat and humidity until the electric utility restored power.  And I never loved my electric utility more than when they did.

Now suppose I wanted to go to solar power.  How large of a solar array would I need that would start my air conditioner?  If one square inch of solar panel provided 70 milliwatts and you do a little math that comes to approximately a 950 square-foot solar array.  Or an array approximately 20 FT X 50 FT.  Which is a lot of solar panel.  Costly to install.  And if you want to use any electricity at night you’re going to need some kind of battery system.  But you won’t be able to run your air conditioner.  For one start would probably drain down that battery system.  So it’s not feasible to disconnect from the electric grid.  For you’re going to need something else when the sun doesn’t shine.  And because there can be windless nights a windmill won’t be the answer.  Because you’re going to need at least one source of electric power you can rely on to be there for you.  Like your electric utility.  Or, perhaps, your gas utility (see Relentless And Disruptive Innovation Will Shortly Affect US Electric Utilities by Peter Kelly-Detwiler posted 4/18/2013 on Forbes).

NRG’s CEO David Crane is one of the few utility CEO’s in the US who appears to fully appreciate – and publicly articulate – the potential for this coming dynamic.  At recent Wall Street Journal ECO:nomics conference, he indicated that solar power and natural gas are coming on strong, and that some customers may soon decide they do not need the electric utility. “If you have gas into your house and say you want to be as green as possible, maybe you’re anti-fracking or something and you have solar panels on your roof, you don’t need to be connected to the grid at all.”  He predicted that within a short timeframe, we may see technologies that allow for conversion of gas into electricity at the residential level.

If you want carefree and reliable electric power you connect to the electric grid.  Have a natural gas backup generator sized to power the entire house (large enough to even start your central air conditioner).  And a whole-house uninterruptible power supply (UPS).  To provide all your power needs momentarily while you switch from your electric utility to your gas utility.  Well, all but your central air conditioner (and other heavy electrical loads).  Which would have to wait for the natural gas generator to start running.  Because if you connected these to your UPS it might drain the battery down before that generator was up and running.  No problem.  For we can all go a minute or two without air conditioning.

So this combination would work.  With solar panels and a natural gas generator you could disconnect from the electric grid.  But is this something we should really do?  Not everyone will be able to afford solar panels and natural gas generators.  They will have to rely on the electric utility.  Some may only be able to afford the solar panels.  Staying connected to the grid for their nighttime power needs.  But if our electric utilities cut their generation and take it offline permanently it could cause some serious problems.  For what happens when a day of thunderstorms blocks the sun from our solar panels and everyone is still running their air conditioners?  The solar panels can no longer provide the peak power demand that they took from the electric utility (causing the utilities to reduce their generation capacity).  But if they reduced their generation capacity how are they going to be able to take back this peak power demand?  They won’t be able to.  And if they can’t that means rolling brownouts and blackouts.  Not a problem for those with the resources to install a backup generator.  But a big problem for everyone else.

We should study any plans to mothball any baseload electric generation.  For renewable sources of energy may be green but they are not reliable.  And electric power is not just about comfort in our homes.  It’s also about national security.  Imagine the Boston Marathon bombing happening during a time of rolling blackouts.  Imagine all of the things we take for granted not being there.  Like power in our homes to charge our smartphones.  And to power the televisions we saw the two bombers identified on.  We would have been both literally and figuratively in the dark.  Making it a lot easier for the bombers to have made their escape.  There’s a reason why we’re trying to harden our electric grid from cyber attacks.  Because we are simply too dependent on electric power for both the comforts and necessities of life.  Which is why we should be building more coal-fired power plants.  Not fewer.  Because coal is reliable and we have domestic sources of coal.  Ditto for natural gas and nuclear.  The mainstay of baseload power.  Because there is nothing more reliable.  Which comes in handy for national security.

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Lithium Ion Battery Fires ground entire Boeing 787 Dreamliner Fleet

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 20th, 2013

Week in Review

The big drawback for electric cars is range.  For after a battery powers all the electrical systems (heating, cooling, lights, etc.) what charge is left is for going places.  And if that place is more than 30 miles away few people will feel comfortable taking a chance that they will have enough charge to drive there and back.  Unless that trip is to work where the car can recharge for 8-9 hours while at work.

Range anxiety is the greatest drawback to an all-electric car.  For if you run out of charge there is only one way to get your car home.  With a tow truck.  For you can’t walk to a gas station and ask for a can of charge to pour into the battery.  Charging needs an electrical source.  And time.  So the Holy Grail of the all-electric car industry is a battery that can hold a lot of charge.  But is small and does not weigh a lot.  And can be recharged in a very short time.  Right now that Holy Grail is the lithium ion battery.

But there is a cost for this Holy Grail.  There is a lot of chemistry to do this.  Chemistry that can produce a lot of heat.  Catch fire.  And explode.  Which has happened in some electric cars.  As well as in some airplanes (see Bad Batteries Seen as Best Case for 787 Overcoming Past by Susanna Ray, Alan Levin & Peter Robison posted 1/18/2013 on Bloomberg).

Other aircraft bleed air off the engines for a pneumatic system to power a variety of critical functions, such as air conditioning. That diverts power from the engines that they could otherwise use for thrust, and means they use more fuel.

With an electrical system for the jet’s other needs, the engines become much more efficient. The 787 uses five times as much electricity as the 767, enough to power 400 homes. To jump- start a so-called auxiliary power unit that’s used on the ground and as a backup in case all the plane’s generators failed, Boeing decided on a lithium-ion battery because it holds more energy and can be quickly recharged, Mike Sinnett, the 787 project engineer, said in a briefing last week.

Those capabilities also make lithium-ion cells more flammable than other battery technology, and they can create sparks and high heat if not properly discharged. Chemicals inside the battery are also flammable and hard to extinguish because they contain their own source of oxygen, Sinnett said.

A couple of battery fires have grounded all Boeing 787 Dreamliners.  The last commercial jetliner to receive such an order was the McDonnell Douglas DC-10.   Which happened after an engine came off while taking off at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago.  Due to a maintenance error in changing out the left engine and pylon.  Causing the plane to crash.  After investigation they found the slats did not mechanically latch into position.  When the engine ripped out the hydraulic lines the slats retracted and the wing stalled.  The plane slowly banked to the left and fell out of the sky.  Killing all on board.  The DC-10s were grounded worldwide until the hydraulic lines were better protected and the slats latched to prevent them from retracting on the loss of hydraulic pressure.  Now no 787s have crashed.  But few things are deadlier to an airborne aircraft than a fire.  For there is nothing pilots can do other than to continue to fly towards an airport while the plane is consumed by fire.

Stored chemical oxygen generators in the hull of ValuJet Flight 592 were stored improperly.  They were activated.  Producing oxygen by a chemical reaction that generated a lot of heat.  The heat started a fire and the oxygen fueled it.  Once the pilots were aware of the fire they turned to the nearest airport.  But the fire consumed the airplane and fell out of the sky before they could land.  Killing all on board.

Fire on an airplane rarely ends well.  Which explains the grounding of the entire 787 fleet.  Because these lithium ion batteries run very hot when they make electricity.  And they can generate oxygen.  Which is the last thing you want on an aircraft.  However, both Airbus and Boeing are using them because they are the Holy Grail of batteries.  They’re small and light and can hold a lot of charge and nothing can recharge as fast as they can.  Which is why they are the choice for all-electric cars.  Even though some of them have caught fire.  This is the tradeoff.  Smaller and lighter batteries are smaller and lighter for a reason.  Because of powerful chemical reactions that can go wrong.  So to be safe you should park your electric car outside and away from your house.  In case it catches fire you’ll only lose your car.  And not your garage or house.  Or you can stick to the gasoline-powered car and not worry about battery fires.  Or range.

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Lead–Acid Battery, Nickel–Cadmium Battery (NiCd), Nickel–Metal Hydride Battery (NiMH) and Lithium-Ion Battery

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 9th, 2013

Technology 101

The Chemical Reactions in a Zinc-Carbon Battery are One Way

A battery uses chemistry to make electricity.  An electric current is a flow of electrons that can do useful work.  The chemical reaction inside a battery creates that flow of electrons to produce an electric current.  In a common zinc-carbon battery, for example, a zinc electrode dissolves in an electrolyte.  As it does atoms release free electrons and become positive ions (cations) in the electrolyte.  Giving this solution a positive charge.  At the same time a carbon electrode is in a different electrolyte solution.  One filled with negative ions (anions).  Giving this solution a negative charge.

With no electrical load attached to the battery these electrodes and electrolytes are in equilibrium.  When we attach an external circuit across the battery terminals they provide a pathway for those free electrons.  As the free electrons travel through the external circuit the cations and anions travel through a porous membrane from one electrolyte to the other.  The positive cations (atoms with room for an additional electron) flow towards the carbon electrode.  And combine with the free electrons on the surface of the carbon electrode and become electrically neutral.

We can stop this chemical reaction.  Say by turning a flashlight or a portable radio off.  But we can’t reverse it.  This is a one-way chemical reaction that eventually dissolves away the anode.  A Zinc-carbon battery is inexpensive.  The amount of battery life we get out of it more than offsets the price.  And they’re easy to change.  But sometimes an application calls for a battery that isn’t easy to change.  Like a car battery.  Imagine having to change that a few times a year when it ran down.  No, that would be far too inconvenient.  Difficult.  And costly.  So we don’t.  Instead, we recharge car batteries.

The Chemical Reactions in a Lead-Acid Battery are Reversible allowing these batteries to be Recharged

A car battery is a lead-acid battery.  Each cell of a lead-acid battery has a positive electrode (i.e., plate) of lead dioxide.  A negative electrode of lead.  And an electrolyte of a sulfuric acid-water solution containing sulfate ions.  The lead chemically reacts with the sulfate ions to produce lead sulfate on the negative electrode while producing positive ions.  The lead dioxide chemically reacts with the sulfuric acid to produce lead sulfate on the positive electrode while giving up free electrons.

When we attach an external circuit to the battery (such as starting a car) the free electrons leave the positive electrode, travel through the external circuit and return to the battery.  Where they combine with those positive ions.  Lead sulfate forms on both electrodes.  These reactions consume the sulfuric acid in the electrolyte and leave mostly water behind.  Reducing the available charge in the battery.  But unlike zinc-carbon batteries these chemical reactions are reversible.  After a car starts, for example, the alternator provides the electric power needs of the car.  While applying a charging voltage to the battery.  This voltage will ionize the water in the battery which will break down the lead sulfate.  Deposit lead oxide back onto the positive electrode.  And deposit lead back onto the negative electrode.  Giving you a charged battery for the next time you need to start your engine.

A lead acid battery can provide a strong current to spin an internal combustion engine.  Which takes a lot of energy to fight the compression of the pistons.  And it can work in some very cold temperatures.  But it’s big and heavy.  And works best in things bigger and heavier.  Like cars.  Trucks.  Trains.  And ships.  But they don’t work well in things that are smaller and lighter.  Like cordless power tools.  Cell phones.  And laptop computers.  Things where battery weight is an important issue.  Requiring an alternative to the lead-acid battery.  One of the earliest rechargeable battery alternatives was the nickel–cadmium battery.  Or NiCad battery.

The Chemical Reactions produce Heat in a Lithium Ion Battery and can Catch Fire or Explode

The nickel–cadmium battery works like every other battery.  With chemical reactions that produce electrons.  And chemical reactions that consumes electrons.  The NiCad battery uses nickel (III) oxide-hydroxide for the positive electrode.  Cadmium for the negative electrode.  And potassium hydroxide as the electrolyte.  A NiCad battery may look like a zinc-carbon battery.  But the electrodes are different.  Instead of the zinc canister and a carbon rod the electrodes in a NiCad battery are long strips.  One is placed onto the other with a separator in between.  Then rolled up like a jelly-roll.

NiCad batteries have a memory effect.  If they were recharged without being fully discharged the battery ‘remembers’ the amount of charge it took to recharge the partially discharged battery.  So even if you fully discharged the battery it would only recharge it as if you partially discharged it.  Reducing the battery capacity over time.  The nickel–metal hydride battery (NiMH) eliminated this problem.  And improved on the NiCad.  Giving it 2-3 times the capacity of a NiCad battery.  NiCad and NiMH batteries are very similar.  They use the same positive electrode.  But instead of the highly toxic cadmium NiMH batteries use a mixture of a rare earth metal mixed with another metal.

Today battery technology has evolved into the lithium-ion battery.  Where the positive electrode is a compound containing lithium.  The negative electrode is typically graphite.  The electrolyte is a lithium salt.  Lithium ions travel between the electrodes through the electrolyte.  And electrons flow between the electrodes via the external circuit.  They have a greater capacity, no memory effect and hold their charge for a long time when not being used.  Making the lithium ion battery ideal for cell phones and other consumer electronics.  These chemical reactions produce heat, though.  And can catch fire or explode.  Trying to prevent this from happening increases their manufacturing costs, making them expensive batteries.  So expensive that people will buy cheaper generic brands.  Cheaper because they are not built to the same quality standards of the more expensive ones.  And are more prone to catching fire or exploding.

Something to think about when you feel the heat of your cell phone after a long conversation.  Only use a battery recommended by the manufacturer.  Even if it costs a small fortune.  It may be expensive.  But probably not as expensive as your monthly airtime charges.  So don’t skimp when it comes to lithium ion batteries.  For those cheap ones do have a tendency to catch fire.  Or explode.

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The Horse, Waterwheel, Steam Engine, Electricity, DC and AC Power, Power Transmission and Electric Motors

Posted by PITHOCRATES - December 26th, 2012

Technology 101

(Original published December 21st, 2011)

A Waterwheel, Shaft, Pulleys and Belts made Power Transmission Complex

The history of man is the story of man controlling and shaping our environment.  Prehistoric man did little to change his environment.  But he started the process.  By making tools for the first time.  Over time we made better tools.  Taking us into the Bronze Age.  Where we did greater things.  The Sumerians and the Egyptians led their civilization in mass farming.  Created some of the first food surpluses in history.  In time came the Iron Age.  Better tools.  And better plows.  Fewer people could do more.  Especially when we attached an iron plow to one horsepower.  Or better yet, when horses were teamed together to produce 2 horsepower.  3 horsepower.  Even 4 horsepower.  The more power man harnessed the more work he was able to do.

This was the key to controlling and shaping our environment.  Converting energy into power.  A horse’s physiology can produce energy.  By feeding, watering and resting a horse we can convert that energy into power.  And with that power we can do greater work than we can do with our own physiology.  Working with horse-power has been the standard for millennia.  Especially for motive power.  Moving things.  Like dragging a plow.  But man has harnessed other energy.  Such as moving water.  Using a waterwheel.  Go into an old working cider mill in the fall and you’ll see how man made power from water by turning a wheel and a series of belts and pulleys.  The waterwheel turned a main shaft that ran the length of the work area.  On the shaft were pulleys.  Around these pulleys were belts that could be engaged to transfer power to a work station.  Where it would turn another pulley attached to a shaft.  Depending on the nature of the work task the rotational motion of the main shaft could be increased or decreased with gears.  We could change it from rotational to reciprocating motion.  We could even change the axis of rotation with another type of gearing.

This was a great step forward in advancing civilization.  But the waterwheel, shaft, pulleys and belts made power transmission complex.  And somewhat limited by the energy available in the moving water.  A great step forward was the steam engine.  A large external combustion engine.  Where an external firebox heated water to steam.  And then that steam pushed a piston in a cylinder.  The energy in expanding steam was far greater than in moving water.  It produced far more power.  And could do far more work.  We could do so much work with the steam engine that it kicked off the Industrial Revolution.

Nikola Tesla created an Electrical Revolution using AC Power

The steam engine also gave us more freedom.  We could now build a factory anywhere we wanted to.  And did.  We could do something else with it, too.  We could put it on tracks.  And use it to pull heavy loads across the country.  The steam locomotive interconnected the factories to the raw materials they consumed.  And to the cities that bought their finished goods.  At a rate no amount of teamed horses could equal.  Yes, the iron horse ended man’s special relationship with the horse.  Even on the farm.  Where steam engines powered our first tractors.  Giving man the ability to do more work than ever.  And grow more food than ever.  Creating greater food surpluses than the Sumerians and Egyptians could ever grow.  No matter how much of their fertile river banks they cultivated.  Or how much land they irrigated.

Steam engines were incredibly powerful.  But they were big.  And very complex.  They were ideal for the farm and the factory.  The steam locomotive and the steamship.  But one thing they were not good at was transmitting power over distances.  A limitation the waterwheel shared.  To transmit power from a steam engine required a complicated series of belts and pulleys.  Or multiple steam engines.  A great advance in technology changed all that.  Something Benjamin Franklin experimented with.  Something Thomas Edison did, too.  Even gave us one of the greatest inventions of all time that used this new technology.  The light bulb.  Powered by, of course, electricity.

Electricity.  That thing we can’t see, touch or smell.  And it moves mysteriously through wires and does work.  Edison did much to advance this technology.  Created electrical generators.  And lit our cities with his electric light bulb.  Electrical power lines crisscrossed our early cities.  And there were a lot of them.  Far more than we see today.  Why?  Because Edison’s power was direct current.  DC.  Which had some serious drawbacks when it came to power transmission.  For one it didn’t travel very far before losing much of its power. So electrical loads couldn’t be far from a generator.  And you needed a generator for each voltage you used.  That adds up to a lot of generators.  Great if you’re in the business of selling electrical generators.  Which Edison was.  But it made DC power costly.  And complex.  Which explained that maze of power lines crisscrossing our cities.  A set of wires for each voltage.  Something you didn’t need with alternating current.  AC.  And a young engineer working for George Westinghouse was about to give Thomas Edison a run for his money.  By creating an electrical revolution using that AC power.  And that’s just what Nikola Tesla did.

Transformers Stepped-up Voltages for Power Transmission and Stepped-down Voltages for Electrical Motors

An alternating current went back and forth through a wire.  It did not have to return to the electrical generator after leaving it.  Unlike a direct current ultimately had to.  Think of a reciprocating engine.  Like on a steam locomotive.  This back and forth motion doesn’t do anything but go back and forth.  Not very useful on a train.  But when we convert it to rotational motion, why, that’s a whole other story.  Because rotational motion on a train is very useful.  Just as AC current in transmission lines turned out to be very useful.

There are two electrical formulas that explain a lot of these developments.  First, electrical power (P) is equal to the voltage (V) multiplied by the current (I).  Expressed mathematically, P = V x I.  Second, current (I) is equal to the voltage (V) divided by the electrical resistance (R).  Mathematically, I = V/R.  That’s the math.  Here it is in words.  The greater the voltage and current the greater the power.  And the more work you can do.  However, we transmit current on copper wires.  And copper is expensive.  So to increase current we need to lower the resistance of that expensive copper wire.  But there’s only one way to do that.  By using very thick and expensive wires.  See where we’re going here?  Increasing current is a costly way to increase power.  Because of all that copper.  It’s just not economical.  So what about increasing voltage instead?  Turns out that’s very economical.  Because you can transmit great power with small currents if you step up the voltage.  And Nikola Tesla’s AC power allowed just that.  By using transformers.  Which, unfortunately for Edison, don’t work with DC power.

This is why Nikola Tesla’s AC power put Thomas Edison’s DC power out of business.  By stepping up voltages a power plant could send power long distances.  And then that high voltage could be stepped down to a variety of voltages and connected to factories (and homes).  Electric power could do one more very important thing.  It could power new electric motors.  And convert this AC power into rotational motion.  These electric motors came in all different sizes and voltages to suit the task at hand.  So instead of a waterwheel or a steam engine driving a main shaft through a factory we simply connected factories to the electric grid.  Then they used step-down transformers within the factory where needed for the various work tasks.  Connecting to electric motors on a variety of machines.  Where a worker could turn them on or off with the flick of a switch.  Without endangering him or herself by engaging or disengaging belts from a main drive shaft.  Instead the worker could spend all of his or her time on the task at hand.  Increasing productivity like never before.

Free Market Capitalism gave us Electric Power, the Electric Motor and the Roaring Twenties

What electric power and the electric motor did was reduce the size and complexity of energy conversion to useable power.  Steam engines were massive, complex and dangerous.  Exploding boilers killed many a worker.  And innocent bystander.  Electric power was simpler and safer to use.  And it was more efficient.  Horses were stronger than man.  But increasing horsepower required a lot of big horses that we also had to feed and care for.  Electric motors are smaller and don’t need to be fed.  Or be cleaned up after, for that matter.

Today a 40 pound electric motor can do the work of one 1,500 pound draft horse.  Electric power and the electric motor allow us to do work no amount of teamed horses can do.  And it’s safer and simpler than using a steam engine.  Which is why the Roaring Twenties roared.  It was in the 1920s that this technology began to power American industry.  Giving us the power to control and shape our environment like never before.  Vaulting America to the number one economic power of the world.  Thanks to free market capitalism.  And a few great minds along the way.

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Wind Power is both Costly to Build and to Maintain

Posted by PITHOCRATES - December 9th, 2012

Week in Review

Green energy enthusiasts love wind power.  For they think it’s free and as good and reliable a source of electric power as is coal.  Because you don’t have to buy wind.  It’s just there for the taking.  As long as the wind is blowing.  But wind power isn’t free power.  For one you have to build a lot of wind turbines to get close to what a coal-fired power plant can generate.  Covering acres of land (or water).  That’s a lot of moving parts that someone has to maintain.  And a lot of gearboxes to wear out (see Deval-ued Wind Power by Kevin D. Williamson posted 12/3/2012 on National Review Online).

Last September in the tiny town of Princeton, Mass., the general manager of the local utility authority sent out an extraordinary little memo that is one part standard bureaucratic posterior-covering and one part cry for help, noting that a modest wind-energy project already has lost nearly $2 million — a whopping number for a community of only 3,413…

“As best I can look into the future,” general manager Brian Allen wrote, “I would expect the wind turbine losses to continue at the rate of around $600,000 a year. This assumes current wholesale electricity rates, no need for extraordinary repairs, and that both turbines continue operating. If any major repairs are required, this will be an additional expense for the PMLD. The original warranties on the turbines have expired, and extended warranty options are not available.”

Those warranties are an acute concern: After becoming operational in 2010, one of Princeton’s two wind turbines broke down in August 2011 and was not back online until nearly a year later. Princeton had a warranty from the turbine’s manufacturer, the German firm Fuhrländer, but the usual political cluster of agents and subcontractors meant that the whole mess still is in litigation. If Princeton does not prevail in its lawsuit, it will suffer hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional expenses. The cost of replacing a gearbox on one of the Fuhrländer turbines is estimated at $600,000.

Those breakdowns are real concerns. According to the trade publication, Wind Energy Update, the typical wind turbine is out of commission more than 20 percent of the time — and regularly scheduled maintenance accounts for only 0.5 percent of that downtime. The group also estimates that some $40 billion worth of wind turbines will go out of warranty by the end of 2012, leaving the Princetons of the world looking at a heap of expensive repair bills. In Europe, the largest wind-energy market, operations-and-maintenance expenses already are running into billions of dollars a year.

So, if you have a wind farm with let’s say 600 wind turbines that would be approximately $360 million to replace all of those gearboxes.  But if they’re lucky enough to only have to replace 20% each year that’s only $72 million a year.  That’s a lot of money for ‘free’ electricity from the wind.  Especially when you consider routine maintenance comes in at around $600,000 a year.  And even that number is a lot higher than anyone dreamed it would be for free electricity.

The truth is this.  Wind power isn’t free.  It’s very, very expensive.  And this for generating equipment that is offline 20% of the time.  Worse, for those that are online their capacity factor is only about 30%.  Meaning that over a period of time a wind farm will provide only about 30% of their nameplate capacity.  So not only is this power costly but it is intermittent.  Which is why no one builds wind farms without massive government subsidies.  As they are about the worst energy investment anyone can make.  With the only way of funding these projects is by bleeding the taxpayers dry.

It’s different with coal.  Green governments have to impose costly regulations to try and shut down coal-fired power plants.  Because they are such a good energy investment the only way they can stop the free market from building and operating them is reducing the return on investment through costly regulation.  Which increases our electric bills.  So with coal money flows from the power producers to the government.  And we get less expensive electricity.  For wind power money flows from the government to the power producers.  And we get more costly electricity.  Which makes no sense whatsoever for the taxpayer.  But it makes a lot of sense if you’re getting campaign contributions from your friends in green energy.

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Wind Power cannot work in the Free Market without Massive State Subsidies

Posted by PITHOCRATES - December 9th, 2012

Week in Review

A typical size of a wind turbine is around 3 megawatts.  Whereas a typical steam turbine (the kind spun by a coal-fired power plant) can be as big as 500 megawatts.  So you would need about 167 wind turbines to produce the output of one steam turbine.  But even then they won’t produce the same amount of useable power.  Because the wind doesn’t blow all of the time.  Making wind power a very expensive, intermittent power.  So expensive that no free market solution exists.  Which is why the government heavily subsidizes wind power (see 7 Myths About the Wind Production Tax Credit by David Kreutzer, Ph.D., posted 12/4/2012 on The Foundry).

The wind production tax credit (PTC) has created an industry that produces overpriced, intermittent power, and it will continue to produce overpriced, intermittent power so as long as there is a PTC to pay for it…

… if wind were already cheaper, then it could compete right now. If it is on the verge, then wind-power producers could enter into long-term contracts (which they already do) that would allow them to recoup their investments in the near future when wind will supposedly be so cheap. Neither case argues for subsidies…

The legislation in force has been very clear ever since it was written: Wind turbines put in place by December 31, 2012, qualify for 10 years of production tax credits. Windmills placed in service this year will continue to receive credits—which are worth 40 percent or more of the wholesale value of electricity—for every kilowatt-hour generated until 2022…

Subsidies may well provide jobs and income for those receiving the subsidies, but, as the Spanish experience illustrates, whatever job-creating mechanism the subsidies put in play is offset by running this same mechanism in reverse elsewhere: Financing the subsidies requires taxing other parts of the economy.

A 40 percent or more subsidy?  Anyone that needs a 40% subsidy to stay in business shouldn’t be in business.  That’s a lot of money pulled out of the private sector to produce substandard electric power.  If we went with reliable electric power from coal-fired power plants we wouldn’t need to pull a 40% subsidy from the private sector.  And the power would be first-rate.  Whether the wind blows or not.  Which is why coal-fired power plants work in a free market economy.  And wind power does not.

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Britain’s Secret to reducing the Carbon from their Electric Power Generation is Frequent Power Outages

Posted by PITHOCRATES - November 18th, 2012

Week in Review

It’s pretty sad when a nation’s green energy policies requires an energy bill to ‘keep the lights on’.  But that’s precisely what’s happening in Britain.  Because they agreed to give up good, reliable electric power generation for something that may not be able to keep the lights on (see Energy Bill: The Plan To Keep UK’s Lights On by Gerard Tubb posted 11/18/2012 on Sky News).

The energy and climate secretary, Ed Davey, has to balance the need to create new generating capacity with commitments to a low carbon future and more electricity from renewable sources.

Many power stations are coming to the end of their life and the Government estimates it will cost £110bn to replace and improve electricity infrastructure over the next decade…

Electricity use is increasing, with suggestions that demand could double by 2050…

The UK is signed up to providing 15% of electricity from renewable sources by 2020 and to reducing to zero the amount of carbon pumped into the atmosphere from electricity generation.

Electricity use is on pace to double by 2050 and the UK is decommissioning power plants and spending a fortune on electric generation from renewable sources.  Going from reliable power generation to intermittent power generation.  Which is nothing more than a step backward to a time before Margaret Thatcher.  And a return to the British Disease (strikes, industrial unrest and frequent power outages).  Or worse.  For the environmentalists would have Britain go back to the time of Stonehenge if they had their way.  A time when there was no electricity.  Or man-made carbon in the atmosphere.  Or indoor plumbing, air conditioning, refrigerators, telephones, etc.  Now that would make the environmentalists happy.  Abject misery for the human race.

Life was pretty precarious back in the 3rd century BC.  We’re lucky the human race survived to make it here today.  A time where life is not so precarious.  Thanks to technology.  Especially electricity.  Which helps keep our food safe, our water safe, our homes warm in the winter and allows hospitals to save lives.  Just look to the recent devastation of Hurricane Sandy.  And how the loss of electric power took away safe food, safe water, warm homes and life-saving hospitals from the victims of that storm.

Electric power saves lives.  And makes those lives safer.  We should not be compromising our electric power to ‘save the world’ from global warming.  At least not until man-made carbon moves the glaciers as far as Mother Nature did during the Ice Ages.

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Electricity, Heat Engine, Superheated Dry Steam, Coal-Fired Power Plant, Geothermal Power Plant and Waste-to-Energy Plant

Posted by PITHOCRATES - November 7th, 2012

Technology 101

(Originally published August 1, 2012)

Geothermal Power Plants and Waste-to-Energy Plants each produce less than Half of 1% of our Electricity

We produce the majority of our electricity with heat engines.  Where we boil water into steam to spin a turbine.  Or use the expanding gases of combustion to spin a turbine.  The primary heat engines we use are coal-fired power plants, natural gas-power plants and nuclear power plants.  The next big source of electricity generation is hydroelectric.  A renewable energy source.  In 2011 it produced less than 8% of our electricity.  These sources combined produce in excess of 95% of all electricity.  While renewable energy sources (other than hydroelectric) make up a very small percentage of the total.  Wind power comes in under 3%.  And solar comes in at less than 0.2% of the total.  So we are a very long way from abandoning coal, natural gas and nuclear power.

Two other renewable energy sources appear to hold promise.  Two heat engines.  One powered by geothermal energy in the earth.  The other by burning our garbage.  In a waste-to-energy plant.  These appear attractive.  Geothermal power appears to be as clean as it gets.  For this heat isn’t man-made.  It’s planet-made.  And it’s just there for the taking.  But the taking of it gets a little complicated.  As is burning our trash.  Not to mention the fact that few people want trash incinerators in their neighborhoods.  For these reasons they each provide a very small percentage of the total electric power we produce.  Both coming in at less than half of 1%.

So why steam?  Why is it that we make so much of our electrical power by boiling water?  Because of the different states of matter.  Matter can be a solid, liquid or a gas.  And generally passes from one state to another in that order.  Although there are exceptions.  Such as dry ice that skips the liquid phase.  It sublimates from a solid directly into a gas.  And goes from a gas to a solid by deposition.  Water, though, follows the general rule.  Ice melts into water at 32 degrees Fahrenheit (or 0 degrees Celsius).  Or water freezes into ice at the same temperature.  Water vaporizes into steam at 212 degrees Fahrenheit (or 100 degrees Celsius).  Or steam condenses into water at the same temperature.  These changes in the state of matter are easy to produce.  At temperatures that we can easily attain.  Water is readily available to vaporize into steam.  It’s safe and easy to handle.  Making it the liquid of choice in a heat engine.

Today’s Coal-Fired Power Plant pulverizes Coal into a Dust and Blows it into the Firebox

A given amount of water will increase about 1600 times in volume when converted to steam.  It’s this expansion that we put to work.  It’s what pushed pistons in steam engines.  It’s what drove steam locomotives.  And it’s what spins the turbines in our power plants.  The plumes of steam you see is not steam, though.  What you see is water droplets in the steam.  Steam itself is an invisible gas.  And the hotter and drier (no water) it is the better.  For water droplets in steam will pit and wear the blades on a steam turbine.  Which is why the firebox of a coal-fired plant reaches temperatures up to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit (about 1,650 degrees Celsius).  To superheat the steam.  And to use this heat elsewhere in the power plant such as preheating water entering the boiler.  So it takes less energy to vaporize it.

To get a fire that hot isn’t easy.  And you don’t get it by shoveling coal into the fire box.  Today’s coal-fired power plant pulverizes coal into a dust and blows it into the firebox.  Because small particles can burn easier and more completely than large chunks of coal.  As one fan blows in fuel another blows in air.  To help the fire burn hot.  The better and finer the fuel the better it burns.  The better the fuel burns the hotter the fire.  And the drier the steam it makes.  Which can spin a turbine with a minimum of wear.

In a geothermal power plant we pipe steam out of the ground to spin a turbine.  If it’s hot enough.  Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of geothermal wells that produce superheated dry steam.  Which limits how many of these plants we can build.  And the steam that the planet produces is not as clean as what man produces.  Steam out of the earth can contain a lot of contaminants.  Requiring additional equipment to process these contaminants out.  We can use cooler geothermal wells that produce wet steam but they require additional equipment to remove the water from the steam.  The earth may produce heat reliably but not water.  When we pipe this steam away the wells can run dry.  So these plants require condensers to condense the used steam back into water so we can pump it back to the well.  A typical plant may have several wells piped to a common plant.  Requiring a lot of piping both for steam and condensate.  You put all this together and a geothermal plant is an expensive plant.  And it is a plant that we can build in few places.  Which explains why geothermal power makes less than half of 1% of our electricity.

We generate approximately 87% of our Electricity from Coal, Natural Gas and Nuclear Power

So these are some the problems with geothermal.  Burning trash has even more problems.  The biggest problem is that trash is a terrible fuel.  We pulverize coal into a dust and blow into the firebox.  This allows a hot and uniform fire.  Trash on the other hand contains wet mattresses, wet bags of grass, car batteries, newspapers and everything else you’ve ever thrown away.  And if you ever lit a campfire or a BBQ you know some things burn better than other things.  And wet things just don’t burn at all.  So some of this fuel entering the furnace can act like throwing water on a hot fire.  Which makes it difficult to maintain a hot and uniform fire.  They load fuel on a long, sloping grate that enters the furnace.  Mechanical agitators shake the trash down this grate slowly.  As the trash approaches the fire it heats up and dries out as much as possible before entering the fire.  Still the fire burns unevenly.  They try to keep the temperature above 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit (about 538 degrees Celsius) .  But they’re not always successful.

They can improve the quality of the fuel by processing it first.  Tearing open bags with machinery so people can hand pick through the trash.  They will remove things that won’t burn.  Then send what will burn to a shredder.  Chopping it up into smaller pieces.  This can help make for a more uniform burn.  But it adds a lot of cost.  So these plants tend to be expensive.  And nowhere as efficient as a coal-fired power plant (or nuclear power plant) in boiling water into superheated dry steam.  Also, raw trash tends to stink.  And no one really knows what’s in it when it burns.  Making people nervous about what comes out of their smoke stacks.  You add all of these things up and you see why less than half of 1% of our electricity comes from burning our trash.

This is why we generate approximately 87% of our electricity from coal, natural gas and nuclear power.  Coal and nuclear power can make some of the hottest and driest steam.  But making a hot fire or bringing a nuclear reactor on line takes time.  A lot of time.  So we use these as baseload power plants.  They generate the supply that meets the minimum demand.  Power that we use at all times.  Day or night.  Winter or summer.  They run 24/7 all year long.  Natural gas plants add to the baseload.  And handle peak demands over the baseload.  Because they don’t boil water they can come on line very quickly to pickup spikes in electrical demand.  Hydroelectric power shares this attribute, too.  As long as there is enough water in the reservoir to bring another generator on line.  The other 5% (wind, solar, geothermal, trash incinerators, etc.) is more of a novelty than serious power generation.

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Australia to buy TV Ads to Explain how they increased the Cost of Electricity with their Carbon Tax

Posted by PITHOCRATES - October 21st, 2012

Week in Review

That carbon tax is so popular in Australia that they are buying television ads to explain how good it is.  Good for the environment.  And good for the consumer.  As they get a cleaner environment.  Not a bad deal considering the only people paying these carbon taxes are those filthy, polluting electricity producers.  And they deserve to pay this tax as a penalty for polluting the environment (see More costly carbon tax ads set for TV by Andrew Tillett Canberra posted 10/18/2012 on The West Australian).

A fresh round of carbon tax compensation TV advertisements could hit the airwaves, a Senate Estimates committee has heard.

Bureaucrats from the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs told the hearing this morning a third phase of the campaign was being considered.

The first series of ads began in May and controversially failed to mention that extra payments going to households were to compensate them for higher living costs caused by the carbon tax.

Then again, it is the consumers that have to pay the higher electric rates those carbon taxes cause by increasing the cost to the electricity producers.  So they take a lot of wealth from the electric utilities.  Throw a little to the consumer stuck paying the higher electric rates to shut them up.  Sort of forget to tell them that it was their fault for those higher rates in the first place.  And use the rest to pay for their out of control government spending.  Which is what a carbon tax is for.  Because in this day and age with developed economies and welfare states it costs a whole lot more than it once did to buy votes.

Governments love taxing energy because people simply cannot live without consuming energy.  Which is why the US had their cap and trade (though they failed to implement it.  So far).  The Europeans have their emissions trading scheme.  And the Australians have their carbon tax.  Which are all just more elaborate ways to transfer wealth from the private sector to the public sector.  And has nothing to do with reducing carbon emissions.

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Environmentalists shut down Cheap Electricity from Coal-Fired Power Plants and sends US Coal to China

Posted by PITHOCRATES - September 23rd, 2012

Week in Review

Environmentalists don’t like energy.  Because it pollutes.  So they actively fight against energy.  To reduce pollution.  And to save the planet.  No matter the costs.  They don’t care how much they increase the cost of electricity for the American consumer.  Or how unreliable they make our electric supply (see Analysis: Coal fight looms, Keystone-like, over U.S. Northwest by Patrick Rucker, Reuters, posted 9/23/2012 on Yahoo! News).

Call it the Keystone of coal: a regulatory and public relations battle between environmentalists and U.S. coal miners akin to the one that has defined the Canada-to-Texas oil pipeline.

Instead of blocking an import, however, this fight is over whether to allow a growing surplus of coal to be exported to Asia, a decision that would throw miners a lifeline by effectively offshoring carbon emissions and potentially give China access to cheaper coal.

The environmentalists stopped the Keystone pipeline.  Because they didn’t want that Canadian tar sands oil coming into the US.  Bringing down the price of gasoline.  Which would only encourage people to drive more.  They have encouraged shutting down our coal-fired power plants.  Perhaps our least costly and most reliable source of electric power.  Because we have an abundance of coal in America.  For unlike oil we are not dependent on any foreign sources for our coal.  Coal gives us true energy independence.  If it weren’t for the environmentalists, that is.

Tough new Environmental Protection Agency limits on power plant emissions are often blamed, along with low natural gas prices, for the drop in domestic coal use, but burning the black rock in Asia will have the same impact on the atmosphere…

With nearly 9 percent of U.S. coal furnaces set to go dark in the next four years and more utilities moving to natural gas, the 100 billion tons of coal still locked in the region need to reach new markets or face being frozen in the ground.

The environmentalists would rather that coal stay in the ground.  If they can’t have that they’d rather the Chinese get it for their energy needs than the Americans.  Even though according to the environmentalists it doesn’t matter who burns that coal.  For those emissions will make it into the atmosphere whoever burns that coal.  And if that’s true the US should burn that coal.  Not China.  We should not give up what energy independence we have.  Besides, we’re never going to please the environmentalists.

They don’t like coal.  They don’t like fracking that gives us cheap natural gas because it may pollute nearby water tables.  They don’t like nuclear power because of the chance of a nuclear accident (which has happened a couple of times in the 50-60 years we’ve used nuclear power to generate electricity).  They don’t like hydroelectric dams because they disrupt the ecosystem.  So what do they like?  They sort of like wind power.  If it doesn’t kill too many birds.  They do like solar power.  And some other renewable sources that provide a negligible amount of electric power today.  The things they like, though, will never be able to produce enough electric power to meet our energy needs.  Especially if everyone starts driving electric cars.

So while our energy costs rise and we endure more power blackouts as we shut down more reliable coal-fired power plants and replace them with windmills and solar panels China will be enjoying the power our coal will produce for them.  Is this fair?  It is if you’re an environmentalist apparently.

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