A number of you have responded to me, either on the blog or by email, about the wind issue, and the responses have run the gamut from strong support to strong opposition. I’m going to pause on the wind discussion, though, until after I go see the Lowell turbines, and even then I’m not sure I want to use this forum to get too deep into the specifics of a particular project. But I do want to think about the big picture, and I encourage everyone out there to do the same. In fact, particularly for those who find themselves in opposition to my position, I would like to know what your vision of a workable, realistic path forward is, using today’s technology (and I’m not being facetious when I write that). I often ask people, “If you had a magic wand and could rearrange the world, how would you fix it?”
With regard to energy, this is a tough question, even with a magic wand. When I wrote the other day that the amount of energy in fossil fuels is “staggering”, I wasn’t joking. Let’s just look at a very large wind turbine like the ones at Lowell. They generate a huge amount of power, over 3 megawatts per turbine at their maximum output. But, the actual amount of power generated by all wind projects fluctuates, because the wind doesn’t blow at full force all the time, and the total output is figured using a “capacity factor”, which is typically 20% to 40%. This is still a huge amount of power—let’s compare it with distributed roof-mounted solar arrays like the ones on my house. I have a 3kw system, but let’s just say for argument’s sake that I had a quite-large 10kw system. Solar installations have their own “capacity factor”. Just a back-of-the-envelope calculation—a 10 kw system in the Northeast, might only average 30 kwh of output a day over the course of a year, or, if you divide by 24, about 1.25 kw per hour, or a capacity factor of only 12%. It would take 720 such home installations to match the power generated by one turbine at Lowell.
But let’s compare a Lowell turbine to a coal-fired power plant. The average size of a coal-fired plant in the U.S. is 547mw. (Link to U.S. coal-plant data.) So although the Lowell turbines make a lot of power, it would take, in the real world, over 600 Lowell-sized turbines, to replace one coal-fired plant.
So you can do the math. Just to replace current electricity generation with renewable power is a tremendous challenge. And we’ll need a lot more as we switch away from all fossil fuels—we can all imagine driving an electric vehicle powered from renewable electricity, but, imagine the energy needed to say, make asphalt, or to smelt steel, or to run a cement kiln. When you couple this with rising world population, then the problem becomes even harder. When you add in factors like the intermittent nature of wind and solar, and the environmental costs of building new transmission lines, etc., then it gets truly daunting.
So it’s a good thing that we do have fossil fuel, for now—we’re going to need it, just to power the transition. And we need to get started.