Category Archives: Wind Power

A Call for Perspective

Wind turbines in Denmark. The nation has strong government support for wind power, and at times generates over 100% of its electricity from wind.

Wind turbines in Denmark. The nation has strong government support for wind power, and at times generates over 100% of its electricity from wind.

(Note: This is my letter to the editor that was printed in the Addison Independent this week, though they changed the title from my original above. Several of you have asked for an electronic copy or link, so here it is.)

For the last few years I have been carefully following the debate about Vermont’s solar and wind development. There have been many valid points brought up by both advocates and opponents, and there seems to be a consensus opinion forming that revolves around a middle ground of sorts. Most Vermonters do agree that we need to transition toward a renewable-energy economy, but also that common-sense guidelines should be developed with regard to the approval and siting of wind turbines, solar arrays, and their distribution networks. I do sometimes wonder, however, if the body politic is occasionally losing sight of the forest for the trees, especially when I see the tiniest of details about specific projects being debated in various public forums.

In light of this, let me attempt to bring us all back a step. In the last several centuries, we humans have benefited tremendously from the use of fossil fuels; the power they contain has underpinned most of the world’s development and wealth creation. This energy source has also enabled human populations to mushroom, and, despite a gradual slowdown, world population is still increasing by about a million people every four days. The pressures that 7 billion-plus humans are putting on the planet are beginning to break it, as oceans acidify, the planet warms, wildlife habitats shrink, soil washes away, species vanish, pollution accumulates, and sea levels rise. Though the problems are many and disparate, a good portion of them are related to the use of fossil fuels, because using them has in some ways been a bargain with the devil. Despite the benefits that these fuels have given to mankind, we now better understand that they have dangers as well, and realize that burning them is not without cost, particularly with regard to CO2 emissions. Despite efficiency improvements across the board, CO2 levels in the atmosphere are still climbing steadily, and have now passed 400-parts-per-million—higher than any time in the last four million years. Worse, these higher levels hold a hidden danger, as atmospheric CO2 is quite stable, and continues to cause warming for centuries. This warming of the planet is also likely to exacerbate all of the other problems that we humans are causing, and many of them could become mutually reinforcing, or even spiral out of control in future decades. Mankind has unknowingly, and then knowingly, been playing a very dangerous game.

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A Tale of Two Energy Futures

Te Apiti wind farm in New Zealand.

The Te Apiti wind farm in New Zealand. About 80% of New Zealand’s electrical power is generated from renewables, making it an example for the world.

I often joke with Mr. X that “I can see the future”. Yes, I’m usually kidding, but the other day I was thinking about an article about energy that I had read, and the future did indeed seem to me to be as clear as a bell. To back up a bit here, the article is by John Mauldin, an economic analyst, and it is his take on low oil prices, entitled “Riding the Energy Wave to the Future“. It’s well worth reading, but if you want the quick summary, here’s my very-short paraphrasing—

Marked improvements in oil and gas production technology (especially fracking technology) are largely responsible for today’s low oil prices, and these improvement trends are likely to continue. As such, prices for oil and gas are likely to remain low. BUT, the same types of innovation are also causing prices to drop in the renewable energy field, especially solar and wind, and the prices there WILL DROP EVEN FASTER. The likely outcome of this, according to Mauldin, is that future energy prices are likely to be low across the board, and that natural gas will continue to eclipse coal and is likely to become a “bridge” fuel between fossil fuels and renewables.

Now, I think that Mauldin’s article is basically on the right track (I wrote about a closely related topic, grid parity, here).

(And now for an aside—this, as opposed to another article I read this week, that I won’t link to, that went on and on, seemingly supported by all the relevant statistics and graphs and written by someone with all the proper credentials, about how low oil prices are a sign that resources have run out and global growth is permanently slowing and will soon collapse. There are thinkers in the peak oil and similar movements who confidently swear that collapse is imminent every single year. Continue reading

Net-Zero is Possible

An interior view of Middlebury College's 2013 Solar Decathlon entry, a net-zero house.

An interior view of Middlebury College’s 2013 Solar Decathlon entry, a net-zero house.

Until this past summer, I had more or less assumed that a net-zero house, one that didn’t use any fossil fuel to function, could really only be achieved in some ridiculously expensive research and development setting. That may have been true a decade ago, but it isn’t true now. A combination of technical advances and cost reductions has now put a net-zero house within the reach of nearly everyone. Even better, net-zero can be achieved in most buildings in stages, and are investments that are likely to outperform the market in today’s investment climate. The result is a win-win-win situation.

First, what exactly is “net-zero”? There isn’t a hard-and-fast definition, but, in general, net-zero buildings create as much energy as they consume. They typically combine highly efficient construction and appliances with some form of renewable energy generation, usually on-site. But, this can be done in different ways, and sometimes with different goals in mind, and the result is a wide variety of net-zero terms, as delineated in this list from a designer in Waitsfield, VT (his house is in the list below)—

“Net-zero carbon, net-zero cost, net-zero source, net-zero site, near net-zero, net-zero ready…there are many terms used to describe a certain category of buildings that are referred to as “net-zero energy buildings” (or NZEBs).”

In the last six months I have seen or heard about no less than six examples of net-zero buildings, and the variety of approaches in these buildings will give you some sense of the term, I think. (Some of these details are from memory, so forgive me out there if I get something wrong).

Building #1— Kim Quirk is the owner of Enfield Energy Emporium in Enfield, CT, an architectural firm, and she bought and renovated this house and has turned it into a net-zero office space and living quarters. I saw her presentation about this at Solarfest this past summer, and if I recall, the house was originally built in the mid-19th century, and was mostly gutted when she bought it. She had the basement foamed, and did a deep-energy retrofit that included increasing the thickness of the exterior walls and filling them with cellulose insulation. She added a 5kw PV system in the yard, which is net-metered. And here’s the unusual part—for heating, she dug a huge hole under her driveway, about 10 x 12 feet by 10 feet deep, lined the sides with a liner and foam, filled it with sand, water, and tubing, and then buried it. (My rough calculations—about 60 tons of insulated mass). This thermal mass is a huge “Thermos” that can store an entire summer’s worth of heat gathered by a largish array of evacuated-tube thermal collectors. So all summer long they run and pump hot water through this thermal mass (pics here), which brings the temperature up to something like 180 degrees. In the winter another set of tubing pulls the heat out, where it’s radiated into the house in a system of low-temperature (90 degree F) baseboard heat. An interesting approach. One of her goals was zero-combustion in addition to net-zero, and from her talk this summer it sounded as if the building was on its way to achieving her design goals.

Building #2— Architect Bill Maclay’s Dartt House, in Waitsfield, VT. I saw Bill give a presentation about this building last week at Renewable Energy Vermont’s Expo in Burlington. This is another older structure, renovated in much the same way as Kim Quirk’s house. It is actually two or three net-zero projects together—a building that serves as an office, and an adjoining building that he been turned into two apartments. Unlike Kim Quirk’s solar-heated thermal mass method, these buildings use air-to-air heat pumps for both heat and cooling, all powered by a combination of larger PV arrays—one 17kw array that serves as the roof of a carport (last pic on this page), smaller arrays to the rear of the house, and another large net-metered array that is off-site.

Our house, under construction in 2004. Timber-frame construction with R-40 walls and R-60 roof panels.

Our house, under construction in 2004. Timber-frame construction with R-25 walls and R-32 roof panels.

Building #3— Oddly enough—our house. Technically a “near-net-zero building” as it is now, as we still use propane for hot water. But we’re on our way to net-zero, via yet a third approach—using sustainably-gathered biomass for heat. In our case, cordwood. Our house is off-grid, with a 3kw PV system and a 1kw wind turbine. With the addition of a bit more PV and solar hot water, we should get all the way to net-zero. Even as is, the building uses only a fraction of the fossil fuel that most Americans use. The house also has a fair amount of passive-solar design features—it is oriented to the south, and most windows and living areas are on that side of the building, and closets and utility areas are on the north. The site is shielded to the north by hills and trees, and open to the south. The building has performed admirably—on sunny days in the winter I can leave home for work with the house at 63 degrees, and come home to a house that is well above 70, all with no heat on, even if outside temps are in the 20’s. We typically use about 2 1/2 cords of wood per winter for heat, which we burn in a single wood stove on the main floor of the open-floor-plan design.

Building #4— Well, “buildings”, plural. A company called Vermod is making net-zero single-wide modular homes to address the need for efficient low-cost housing in the state. With 12-inch-thick walls and triple-pane windows, and a 6kw PV system on the roof, Continue reading

Cloudy Day Pause

snowy DC

Gray days to deal with.

Mr. X thinks my vision of a future without nuclear power is “too hard” (“Needed: The Hard Path“). I was all set to write a post arguing about it, but something that’s not too uncommon here has given me pause—a dark and cloudy day. This is because a big part of the entire argument of whether we need nuclear power hinges, for most people, on whether or not we can make enough power from renewable sources. And THAT entire argument hinges on the question of intermittency, which is what the cloudy day reminded me of. Solar arrays can make plenty of power on a sunny day, and wind turbines can make plenty of power on a windy day, but what about all those other times? If we depended entirely on wind and solar and hydroelectric, what would we do on short winter days when the entire East coast might be having a cloudy and windless day? Or worse, a week of such days? If the energy constraints in such a system were dramatic, or if such a system was too difficult to build, it might result in that path that would be “too hard”.

So, Mr. X had a variety of points, but his main ones, including whether or not I was being consistent in my thinking, hinge around this “too hard” piece. In general, there are two broad lines of thinking here-

Line-of-thinking #1—We will need nuclear power as we move toward carbon-free sources, because wind and solar and other renewable sources are intermittent, and we will need nuclear power for baseload power. Or, related, we will need nuclear power as a transitional power source, until we build out enough wind and solar and/or develop grid-scale storage capacity.

Line-of-thinking #2—We can indeed switch over to renewable power, and the intermittency problems can be solved, and the money we would have had to spend developing safer “Gen IV” nuclear power would have been better spent on developing the truly safe and sustainable renewable system that we will need for the long term.

So, who is right? Could we make the system work with just renewable power? After some contemplation, I’ve decided that we probably can, though I admit that it will be difficult, as it will involve some fundamental changes. Some factors that make me lean in this direction—

— I think we need to undergo a paradigm shift with regard to how people expect their electricity to be delivered; the new systems will not just mimic the old. Customers today expect electricity to be generated by the utility and made continually available, in any amount, at a set rate. The system of the future might function dramatically differently from this, with the utility companies buying power from thousands or tens of thousands of producers, aggregating that power, and then making it available at a continually varying spot price. Consumers will be able to monitor this price via smart meters, and will be able to use this information to shift their demand.  And, they will indeed shift their demand, because prices might vary dramatically. (And, because the generation is so dispersed, it will help moderate demands on transmission infrastructure.) This change alone would go a long way toward solving the intermittency problem—we might someday see tremendous electricity consumption during sunny hours, as people choose that time when power is plentiful (and cheap) to charge their EV’s, heat or cool their homes, run their water heaters, run their air conditioners, or, factories choose that time to conduct energy-intensive operations.

— Wind and solar complement each other really well. Germany is a good example of this—the country has 32 gw of installed solar, and about 30 gw of wind. Their solar peaks in spring and summer months, when daily solar production is about eight times higher than in December and January. But wind production is nearly the exact opposite, and the seasonal fluctuations largely balance out. (For a visual of this, see pages 13,14, and 16 of this presentation. It takes half a minute or so to load this page, but worth the wait.) Other factors also help, such as the fact that daily demand peaks in most systems during midday hours, and seasonally during the summer, exactly when solar production peaks.

Kaprun hydro-electric dam, Salzburg, Austria.

Kaprun hydroelectric dam, Salzburg, Austria.

— Hydroelectric power could be held back during the day, when solar power is at its maximum, and used during nighttime hours. In many locations it can even be held back seasonally, if required. Pumped-storage systems are used in similar ways; filled when power is cheap, then used for generation when power is expensive. Other forms of utility-scale storage are being developed at a rapid rate, from compressed air storage in abandoned mines, to grid-scale liquid-metal batteries, to ideas about lifting whole mountains (TEDx Talk here), or putting together used EV battery packs in stationary locations for grid-scale battery storage. In all storage situations, the higher the difference between low and high electricity rates, the more profitable the storage—another prime situation where market-forces will help to solve a problem.

— Roofs everywhere need solar panels, even if they don’t have optimum orientations. Panels facing east and west on rooftops (and not just south) spread solar production more evenly across the course of the day (…though in the Southern Hemisphere they put solar on the northern sides of their roofs).

— The larger the geographic area that is tied together by a smart grid, the easier it is to balance power and loads. Over large areas, solar insolation averages out, as does wind production. DC transmission lines are capable of delivering power for well over 1,000 miles, and such transmission corridors could link the production from the windiest areas in the Midwest and offshore to urban centers where it would be needed, and from the sunniest parts of the country to the less-sunny (see post “This is Interesting…“). Continue reading

Fiddling While Rome Burns

Massachusetts wind resource map.

Massachusetts wind resource map.

I don’t even know where to begin with this one. Opponents of the wind turbines in Lowell, VT, led by groups like Energize Vermont, say that Vermont ridges are far too precious to have wind turbines put on them. There are MUCH better places, according to them, and they whip out maps like the one above. “What could be better than this?”, they say. Huge areas offshore with mean wind speeds above 8 meters/second, all within easy undersea-cable reach of major cities like Boston. All readily doable with off-the-shelf technology. So, save the pristine mountains, and just put the turbines where they make more sense, miles from shore in some of the windiest places in America. I agree that they should be there (along with turbines in Vermont)—I think we need ALL the wind turbines (see post “The Magic-Wand Question“), and putting turbines off-shore seems like a no-brainer.

Well, not so fast. As you may have heard, many people there (and more than a few of them quite-wealthy property owners in Martha’s Vineyard, Hyannis, and Nantucket) don’t want the towers, either, even if they’re five miles offshore. The main project being proposed, a 454-megawatt installation called Cape Wind, has been trying to overcome regulatory hurdles and legal opposition for over a decade (great Huffington Post article about the project). The good news—it’s nearly fully funded and has indeed managed to clear most of the hurdles, though at great cost, and the project is still pushing forward. I won’t wade into the details of the mess around this, but it’s enough of a circus that two books and at least one feature film have been made about the struggle. Watch this trailer for “Cape Spin” below; it’ll give you a sense of what I’m talking about—

This opposition is clearly a huge case of Not-In-My-Backyard, as even the likes of Robert Kennedy Jr., an ardent opponent of Appalachian mountaintop removal mining and supporter of the Coal River Wind project in West Virginia, opposes Cape Wind. Not incidentally, the towers would be visible on the horizon from the Kennedy compound.

Then, in New Hampshire, people have lined up left and right to support a moratorium on wind development, because they don’t want any project in their “backyard”. (The measure was recently defeated, and wind development will go forward).

Meanwhile, in the midst of much inaction, the real devastation, like the removal on entire mountains in Appalachia for the coal that powers our intransigent lifestyles, continues.

Oh, for a bit of perspective; we might be fiddling while Rome burns.

 Image Credit: Mass.gov

A Beautiful Thing

DSCN8311 bigThis morning I was standing on a mountain, with trees and grass all around, feeling the fresh breeze in my face, and above me, almost silently except for a slight hum and whoosh, millions of watts of clean, renewable power were being created. And, they will continue to be created, hour after hour, day after day, for decades and decades. No air pollution, no water pollution, no fossil-fuel use, no mining, no waste, no noise to speak of. This is a beautiful thing. The access road is well-designed with water catchments and swales, the gravel pads are clearly permeable, and hardwoods are already sprouting on the new embankments. I have pondered both sides of this, and have concluded that we need more of these, even on beautiful Vermont ridges. As long as the energy is being used carefully and not wasted, the price is worth it.

Blog note: I don’t like the blog running my life, but I don’t like not blogging, either. I think the topic is important. So, I’m going to resume posting, but will try to achieve a middle ground in terms of time input. As such, posts might come at odd intervals from time to time. If checking back regularly for new material is bothersome, put your email address in the notification box on the sidebar; it works really well.

A few of the twenty-one towers.

A few of the twenty-one towers.

A damaged blade, now used as a display. 170 feet in length.

A damaged blade, now used as a display. 170 feet in length.

Continue reading

The Magic-Wand Question

turbine in field

Two of many required.

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.

Brown coal plant in Germany.

Brown coal plant in Germany.

Continue reading

All Actions Have Consequences

Lukas Snelling, of Energize Vermont, sent me some files, and here are some pictures of what it takes to install utility-scale wind turbines in mountainous terrain. In this case, the project in Sheffield, Vermont, which is now completed.

Sheffield Vermont wind project, during construction.

Blasting cut.

Clear-cut for pad.

Clear-cut for tower pad.

 

Completed pad.

Completed pad.

Access to hilltop pad.

Access to hilltop pad.

 

So take these images, and imagine access roads that are probably four times wider, cuts that are four times deeper, and infills that are four times more massive—that’s the project in Lowell, with its huge 3-megawatt turbines. I don’t have any images of the Lowell project that I have the rights to include, but look at the pictures at these links-

Lowell access road, Lowell pad, Lowell infill for access.

I respect Lukas and his opinions, but we happen to disagree on this particular project. Continue reading

Discontinuity

“We are all complicit. Have we all asked ourselves—are we driving the most fuel-efficient car we can afford? Have we taken steps to halve our own carbon emissions?” -Dr. Alan Betts, at SolarFest.

Early morning SolarFest

Early morning SolarFest

Your live, on-the-spot reporting from SolarFest here—many dreadlocks, much protest-music playing, sandals, Reggae music and Prius driving, henna tattoos, sprinkled with an occasional dose of suspicion of the government (ha, just like the far right), all wrapped up with a layer of techno-pop-Woodstock ambiance. But a great many products and workshops; ideas that could carry us a long way forward if they were applied across the board, from savannah farming to

Henna tattoos.

Henna tattoos.

carbon-zero houses and all manner of solar and wind products. But also on display—the problem we have that I’ve been writing about all along—many, many cases of the right hand not talking to the left. No one seems to have a workable master plan. On one side of the SolarFest lot, we have groups that are adamantly opposed to nuclear power, and particularly want the closure of Vermont Yankee. I’m not sure what their plans are to replace the power from today’s nuclear plants. My guess would be “consume less”, which, unfortunately, is everyone’s answer (I spoke with them after I wrote this, but I’ll save all that for future posts). Then on another side we have groups that oppose the new solar fields on Route 7 in Vermont, referring to this as “solar sprawl”. Then we have 350.org, which seems to oppose everything, and still other groups that oppose utility-scale wind here in Vermont. I spent some time talking to Lukas Snelling of Energize Vermont, a group that opposes all utility-scale wind on Vermont’s ridges. He had stacks of huge photographic prints of blasting and road construction and the huge access roads that are being built in Lowell, VT, in order to get the parts of these towers up the mountains. I will readily admit that the impact of these roads is substantial. These roads do not match one’s mental picture of “access roads”, they look more like four-lane highways prior to paving, complete with huge infills and equally huge blasting cuts, all in formerly pristine mountain landscapes. But as bad as this is, I’m also pretty sure this is a case of a failure to see the whole picture.

So let’s step back. How exactly are we going to save the planet? What exactly are our plans with regard to energy? The very short consensus by those who have looked at this—we’re going to need to phase out fossil fuels, and use power more efficiently, and, even with this (here’s the kicker)—double the production of electricity. Somehow. This after phasing out electricity generation from coal and natural gas . The amount of energy in fossil fuels is tremendous, almost staggering, and to replace it, even with serious conservation and efficiency, is going to take a massive effort.

Part of this will, and should, come from the one thing that everyone does seem to agree on—distributed, roof-mounted solar. I agree as well, for every roof to have solar on it would be a great start. But it wouldn’t be enough. The sun doesn’t shine at night, and, here in the relative north, it doesn’t shine much in the winter months. So, something else is going to have to take up the slack, and it’s going to have to be big, and it’s going to have to be carbon-free. And there’s no doubt in my mind that a big chunk of that needs to be from wind. Small-scale solar works, but small-scale wind doesn’t work nearly as well—there are huge economies of scale and efficiencies inherent in the larger wind projects. I will even allow that nuclear power might need to stay, at least for a while.

peace wallSo, more on this topic soon—Lukas is going to send me the files for some of his photographs of the Lowell wind project, and I’d like to post them; they are thought-provoking, and there is much to this that needs discussing.

But back to Solarfest—many good ideas, many dedicated people, mixed in with a few loonies and a few earth-types who could stand to shower a bit more often. It was all a bit messy, with not many clear answers, but perhaps that in itself makes it a miniature version of the problems we face.

Until next year.

Until next year.