No Such Thing As A Free Lunch

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of Ordinary Times. Relapsed Lawyer, admitted to practice law (under his real name) in California and Oregon. On Twitter, to his frequent regret, at @burtlikko. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.

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38 Responses

  1. Rufus F. says:

    One of the things I find weird about the discussion is I’ll read these articles in various places about how much power the average home uses and it’s really quite a bit; but then the articles will be about how difficult it will be to replace that amount of power produced by coal to the same amount produced by greener methods and how everyone’s trying to figure this out. I always think wait, can’t we figure out how to use a lot less energy in a home? Especially since there was such a long stretch of pre-electric history in which people still lived in houses. I’m not saying we should go back to candles, but it would seem like there’s got to be a way to cut down. On the other hand, I’m now typing on a device, the laptop, that I imagine is a major energy suck in our house.Report

    • greginak in reply to Rufus F. says:

      Well yeah we could be doing a lot more to make ourselves efficient. However the push to get rid of old fashioned light bulbs and move to more efficient bulbs has led to the usual “GAHHH SOCILISM DICTATORSHIP” cries. Raising CAFE standards has been a long struggle with R’s fighting every little bit.Report

      • KenB in reply to greginak says:

        the push to get rid of old fashioned light bulbs and move to more efficient bulbs has led to the usual “GAHHH SOCILISM DICTATORSHIP” cries.

        No doubt there are those, but there are also more sober responses. The latter (Postrel’s) is especially interesting — the incandescent ban was a bipartisan move that looks more like corporate favoritism than conservation.Report

    • Pat Cahalan in reply to Rufus F. says:

      > I always think wait, can’t we figure out how to
      > use a lot less energy in a home?

      No. For two reasons… one, you increase efficiency, you lower demand, and the price goes down and people use more of it… and two, people now have a billion things they plug into a wall.

      I don’t see most people giving up their iPhone, iPad, 52″ TV, computer, laser printer, microwave, blender, electric dryer, or the death killers the refrigerator and air conditioner.

      You make refrigerators more efficient and what you wind up with is people buying bigger refrigerators.

      People will only really start conserving energy if they feel that there is an actual energy crisis. And they don’t feel that way.Report

      • Trumwill in reply to Pat Cahalan says:

        No. For two reasons… one, you increase efficiency, you lower demand, and the price goes down and people use more of it… and two, people now have a billion things they plug into a wall.

        This was my first thought. We use a lot of electricity because we have a lot more stuff than we used to. I think that the answer to this – to the extent that there is one – involves product manufacture. I know that I am more willing to put my computer in hibernation mode if there is a really quick return-to-state when it wakes up. SSD HDs provide that. And figuring out ways for lower base consumption when something is not in use.

        But these are under-the-radar things that it’s kind of hard to incentivize. SSD HDs are expensive and people don’t think about what kind of power is being consumed when things are “off” (though as I understand it, some headway has really been made in this area).

        A more conspicuous example is the light bulbs. However, objections to this are not wholly illegitimate. There is a cost to making things more expensive (which, if you put a CFL in a damp room or a room where lights are constantly going on and off, they can be) and some people find them deeply unpleasant. On the other hand…

        The utilitarian and politically deaf approach to this is simply to tax energy use. I know that when I moved to an expensive-power place to a cheap-power place, I started worrying less about what was on for how long.

        To get back to light bulbs for a moment, I think that this is an area where taxing would have been a better alternative to banning. You’d have a lot of the same complaints, as Greg alludes, but at least those that are sincerely bothered by the light emitted by CFLs could get what they want if they were willing to pay a little more.Report

        • Rufus F. in reply to Trumwill says:

          Okay, now I’m going to ask a dumb question: Is there an energy crisis here? I understand that oil might be peaking, but I figured there was still more than enough coal around.Report

          • greginak in reply to Rufus F. says:

            That is a big question. The world economy depends on relatively cheap oil. Further increases in the price of oil can permanently stall the economy. Coal can do some of the jobs we need but it would run vehicles or make all the plastic stuff we use. Cheap energy fuels growth, expensive energy hampers it. Then of course the environmental concerns regarding how we get energy and what we do with it.Report

          • Trumwill in reply to Rufus F. says:

            It depends in large part on what we’re willing to do for energy. Are we willing to accept the potential environmental degradation that goes with fracking? To strip-mine Utah? To go nuclear in a serious way?

            As Greg alludes to, some forms of energy is more mobile than others. Truthfully, though, I think that there’s going to be a big push to increase its mobility. If we double-down on coal, I would expect to see a lot more emphasis put on electrical cars and hybrids. Conservatives scoff at the (lack of) economy on them now, but energy mobility will likely become a greater and greater issue.

            On the other hand, I think that, as time progresses and energy costs rise, a couple of things are going to happen. First, a lot of resistance to energy exploration and utilization is going to evaporate. Utah will be strip-mined, if need be. We’ll drill deeper and deeper. We’ll go nuclear. We will do everything except accept a lower standard of living that can be avoided with more exploration.

            It seems that a lot of environmentalists think that Peak Oil, if it exists any time soon, is going to win the issue for them. I am skeptical of it.Report

            • tom van dyke in reply to Trumwill says:

              Can we destroy entire industries and countless jobs some other year? I’m just not in the mood presently.

              This “green jobs” shit is a fiasco.


              • BlaiseP in reply to tom van dyke says:

                Ecch, I don’t see this as a market destroyer. We could burn coal more efficiently. One of the interesting side effects of coal burning is that we no longer mine sulfur: it’s a byproduct of coal burning. There’s plenty we could do on the Green Jobs front, all market-oriented. Tom, we are literally throwing useful industrial chemicals away by letting them puff out the smokestack. Most of that CO2 could be captured.

                It’s the same perverse stupidity we saw in the early days of petroleum production. Do you realize we used to flare off the gasoline fractions? They were Too Explosive. We refined petroleum to get kerosene for lamps. The first automobiles ran on alcohol until someone realized they could condense those fractions in a cracker.

                The same is completely true of coal. We’re acting like antiquated idiots with this valuable resource. Every time someone says something about this unscientific lunacy, there’s always some to start waving his hands and running around in circles and flapping his wrists and making little squeaky noises about it. There’s no excuse for allowing the coal companies to continue this criminally stupid behaviour.Report

              • tom van dyke in reply to BlaiseP says:

                The current “two birds with one stone” green jobs scheme is a fiasco, Blaise, as cited.

                I’m all for market creativity. I think this is the wrong year to destroy the coal industry. But that’s one thing Obama was quite open about doing, so we have ourselves to blame.

                California just passed a green energy law that will drive up energy costs even higher, just when we need jobs, not more industry chased out of state.

                The shit’s gonna hit the fan, dude. If it’s still turning, of course.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to tom van dyke says:

                What? How does what I propose destroy the coal industry? It doesn’t, and you know it. We go on mining coal and we burn it more efficiently.Report

              • tom van dyke in reply to BlaiseP says:

                I was speaking of the president, Blaise. He wants to destroy the coal industry.

                Much to the consternation of the West Virginia delegation in Congress, the coal industry, and the working people of the Mountain State, the agency took the unprecedented step of revoking a mining permit that it had issued four years ago to Arch Coal’s Spruce No. 1 Mine in Logan County, West Virginia.
                The revocation prompted unusually harsh responses from West Virginia’s two Democratic Senators.
                Sen. Jay Rockefeller sent the president a letter which read, in part: “I am writing to express my outrage with the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) decision to veto a rigorously reviewed and lawfully issued permit at the Spruce Number 1 Mine in Logan County, West Virginia. This action not only affects this specific permit, but needlessly throws other permits into a sea of uncertainty at a time of great economic distress.”Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Good grief. Arch Coal could have come up with a water remediation scheme. They didn’t. Their application was revoked. Tough shit. These mountaintop removal schemes are manifestly stupid. They do a preposterous amount of damage. We’ve got plenty of coal in places where remediation is possible.Report

              • tom van dyke in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Obama: “So if somebody wants to build a coal-powered plant, they can; it’s just that it will bankrupt them because they’re going to be charged a huge sum for all that greenhouse gas that’s being emitted. That will also generate billions of dollars that we can invest in solar, wind, biodiesel and other alternative energy approaches. ”

                The magic two-fer. End result: no coal plant built, no nothing. That’s “progress” forya.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Uh, that’s a pretty cavalier use of quotes, Tom. There will be two moons in the sky before a Conservative has an honest debate about Conservation.Report

              • tom van dyke in reply to BlaiseP says:

                I’m trying to cut you some slack, Blaise, but you need to do better if you’re going to call somebody out. My main point is about the two-fer, green jobs, which is a fantasy, for many reasons you yrself pointed out. And making energy more expensive at this exact economic moment is stupid and destructive.Report

  2. Good post.

    I’ve a thought on this:

    But one solution to the cost of space already exists — retrofitting existing structures. The entire renewable energy mandate could be filled with 166,400 acres of retrofitted roof space. A single-family home could host about 2% of an acre on its roof and commercial structures would vary with their size. Are there 8.3 million homes in the desert communities of California? Well, no. Are there that many buildings if you count commercial structures? I’m not sure, but we’d probably be reasonably near that target. The problem here is that retrofitting existing structures takes a lot of time, labor, and money. And money’s another thing we don’t have a lot of.

    I assume that at least in part 2009’s Stimulus bill featured measures like this. It seems like now would be a perfect time to put more people in construction (who have been simply devastated by the Little Depression*) to work on something that we’ll have to do anyway. This would be what smart policy is supposed to look like.


    • Doubling down on this comment…

      > The problem here is that retrofitting existing structures
      > takes a lot of time, labor, and money. And money’s
      > another thing we don’t have a lot of.

      Disclaimer: these numbers are old.

      I can supply my own energy needs (for day-use consumption) for a capital investment of about $25,000, give or take, plus another smidge for routine maintenance.

      That $25K would essentially give me free electricity for about 20 years, and the breakeven point is somewhere around year 10 or so, a bit earlier if my local government actually buys power from me (they currently don’t), a bit longer if I buy a nighttime battery storage unit. I’m planning on living in my house for at least the next 15 years, so it’s actually worthwhile to do it right now.

      Here’s the rub: I’m a pretty abnormal dude, when it comes to life/work security. Most people in California have more insecurity when it comes to their long-term living situation, either due to work factors or other. So almost nobody is going to shell out $25K for a system that they don’t believe they’ll see a return on, especially when they’d have to optimize by also replacing their roof, wherever it is in its lifecycle (I have a brand-new one, so that’s another factor in my favor).

      The advantage of in situ power generation is that you’ll lose less from an inverter than you do schlepping all that juice over high capacity lines 1/2 across the state. That offsets a lot of the environmental cost of the panels themselves.Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Pat Cahalan says:


        Maybe if we invested more money in making the existing in-situ technologies (wind, solar, batteries) more affordable & more durable, as well as improving the ability of the grid to accept power from end-points, and less on trying to scale the technologies to supplant base power from coal or nuclear, we might actually get somewhere.Report

  3. North says:

    Or we could just go with modern fission technology. It’s somewhat more pricey, though compact. If Americans are feeling too jittery about the safety of light water reactors then the Canadians would doubtlessly be happy to peddle some of their incident free heavy water (CANDU) reactors to us instead.
    But really that option probably won’t be explored until either fossil fuels run low or the AGW end o’ days comes (I’m betting on the former).Report

    • North in reply to North says:

      Which isn’t to say efficiency isn’t a good idea, but unless you jack up the price of electricity then efficiency gains will simply be offset by higher use.Report

    • Trumwill in reply to North says:

      My state has some solid alternative energy provisions. Enough that there is a drive to export it. It’s turned out to be politically difficult, though. People don’t want the lines built that would have to be in order to export the power. Particularly since the company running things is from out-of-state, where the profits wouldn’t be seen locally. For every job provided, there’s ten thousand people that are sure their property will be infringed upon in the process.Report

  4. dexter says:

    One of the things that need to be done is convince people that things will get worse if we don’t conserve energy. Mr. Smith, who seemd like a fairly intelligent person saw the the problem as the “so called consensus”. I did some repairs for a very wealthy man a few years ago(he bought a sold multimillion dollar homes) and in one of his homes he had an air conditioned three car garage that he left the bays open with the AC running in August in Louisiana.
    If it were up to me I would put utilities on a sliding scale. The first x amount of electricity would cost y per kilowatt, then it would cost yplus a and after that it would go up exponentiality to the point where even very rich people would feel the bite.Report

  5. Lyle says:

    One point about wind farms is they don’t have to be the entire use of the land. If you drive around Sweetwater TX you find space to graze cows (who don’t care), and around Roscoe they grow cotton, which again does not seem to care very much. Yes it does mean not building structures under the turbines but the land can still be farmed, or if desired kept as a grassy habitat for wildlife.Report

  6. BlaiseP says:

    Not so fast, there. The watts/hectare ratio for solar power varies with the efficiency of the panels. The power conversion efficiency is improving with every iteration of solar panels. We lose a significant fraction of generated power on transmission lines: California imports power on three trunks. It’s a logistical nightmare.

    I’ve done solar panel work in Niger Republic, Burkina Faso and India. Solar only pays when the need is so far off the grid nothing else can substitute. My system works on a 24 hour cycle: the sun rises, the panels start running a DC pump at the bottom of a well, filling a tank. When the tank is filled, a float valve shunts the power to deep-cycle truck batteries. When they are charged, the power shunts to ground. The setup powers a vaccine fridge, a schoolroom and a teacher’s house. The system requires a maintenance worker to keep the batteries topped off. That’s the big problem, storing the power that’s been generated.

    Solar doesn’t scale well. It is the partial cure for air conditioner overload. The most useful application for cities is on rooftops in cities which get 250 days of full sunlight per year. Germany went solar in a big way: it hasn’t worked as well as they had thought: they don’t get enough sunlight.

    The large-scale problem for the future isn’t power generation per-se. Storage and transmission are the real problems. We could go to a nuclear power plant used safely by the US Navy for decades. Two of those reactors survived catastrophic failures aboard USS Thresher and USS Scorpion — the reactors survived, folks. None of this wretched Fukushima Daiichi reactor meltdown crap: a reliable reactor design has been available for many decades. We’ve been hornswoggled into building these massive reactors at enormous cost. Tens of thousands of nuclear reactor techs have graduated from US Navy Nuclear Power School at Goose Creek: these guys should and could have gone to work in thousands of small reactor facilities across the nation. The Navy reactor design doesn’t generate the waste, either: they’re neutron poisoned, you add a bit of new fuel every few years and the thing will run for fifty years. There has never been an accident. Ever.Report

    • Pat Cahalan in reply to BlaiseP says:

      > That’s the big problem, storing the power that’s been generated.

      Yes, that’s the big problem. Well, storing it and getting it from *here* to *there*, which you also mention.

      Base load nuclear still seems the least-impacting energy generation method, to me.Report

  7. NoPublic says:

    Hasn’t anyone noticed that (unlike solar) wind farms don’t actually cover the applicable land? Most of it is used as farm/grazing land in every wind farm I’ve ever seen. Why doesn’t that enter into the land use equation?Report

    • BlaiseP in reply to NoPublic says:

      I’ve seen wind power farms in north Texas and along I-10 entering California, but never seen cultivated land below the towers. I can’t remember seeing any livestock below large multiple-tower installations, either, though I have seen farms and ranches running single turbines.Report

      • NoPublic in reply to BlaiseP says:

        I suspect that’s a byproduct of the “way more land than people” function of North Tejas. In the NE and Midwest where I hale from I see cows and corn and all sorts of things in fields with windmills.Report

        • BlaiseP in reply to NoPublic says:

          Yesterday, coming back from Eau Claire WI to Minneapolis, I saw a titanic wind turbine blade on the back of a low boy, hanging waaaay off the end of the trailer. Hoo boy, talk about an oversized load! The scale of these new wind turbines is only getting bigger.

          All manner of interesting schemes are afoot these days. Here’s a curious one I was looking at a few years back called VIVACE: power generation by water vortices.Report

      • Burt Likko in reply to BlaiseP says:

        There’s a wind farm near Mojave in which I’ve seen cattle grazing. I believe, but am not certain, that if any individual turbine needs servicing or human attendance, the cattle must be segregated away from that portion of the field somehow to avoid, shall we say, mishaps.Report