How to Power the Future
by Mad Rocket Scientist
I was going to write a big post about why we should be very skeptical of Climate Models (and the media figures who report on them), and if people are interested in why I remain skeptical of such, I may do that. However, in the interim, if you are curious, Dr. Pielke and Dr. Spencer may provide you with insights you don’t hear often.
However, while I may be skeptical of climate models, I am not a denier. Climate change is real, things are warming up, and we are culpable for some of it, so it behooves us to make changes.
The standard wind and solar power setup has issues: There are limited geographical locations where solar and wind are effective; it requires a lot of real estate; and there is almost always opposition from environmentalists with regard to bird kills or some other displaced wild life. Add in the loss of production when the wind stops or the sun is obscured along with low power output relative to coal or gas, and high maintenance costs, especially with wind, and it’s no wonder it’s been a rough start.
Still, I have hope we will find a way to provide power without the use of prehistoric remains. Here are some technologies that may prove useful to that end.
Personally, I find the current application of large scale wind power to be silly. Too much real estate is needed and the wind turbines are a bear to build and maintain for the small amount of power produced per turbine. I’d much rather see wind power billed as a way for home owners and businesses to offset their grid usage. Better 10 million small turbines blended into the architecture than 10,000 massive ones poking out of the desert. To that end, here are some ideas for smaller, urban turbines:
SheerWind: Place the turbine on the ground and use an air-scoop and nozzle to accelerate the air into the generator. You get the benefit of the moving parts being down where people can get at them; you don’t need nearly as much wind to spin the turbine, and the risk of bird kills is a lot smaller. Of course, unless you build a very tall air scoop, you can’t tap into the higher speed constant winds. Still, that is the whole point of the air scoop and converging nozzle.
Kites: Let the generator stay on the ground and send a kite up to harvest the wind. (This would be for remote power generation in areas without service). Again, mechanical parts are on the ground, the kite can tap into the higher aloft winds, and birds are safe. Of course, kites and their tethers represent aviation hazards, and the mechanical bits are rather complex.
Saphon: Or blade-less wind generators, which capture back and forth motion. I’m not sure how well this would scale up to industrial sizes, but it certainly is a great idea for small scale power (grid offset). Simple mechanicals, safe for birds, quiet, don’t need much wind. Of course, the moving parts are still up in the air, but if they are simple enough they won’t need much maintenance.
EWICON: Another bladeless technology using charged water particles. As with the Saphon, the only mechanical bit is a water pump. Again, it’s a good idea but I’m not sure how well it scales.
Aside from the whole ‘night’ thing, and the ‘overcast’ bit, I like solar. Photovoltaic (PV) is still figuring out how to become cheap to manufacture without using rare elements while reaching efficiencies that make it as affordable as fossil fuels, as well as how to be durable enough to withstand a driving rain or hail storm (thus it remains effectively small scale). Solar Thermal (ST), on the other hand, has a lot of potential when placed in the right spot – although the right spot always tends to have some endangered critter living there.
In all, I tend to find solar more palatable than wind. (Well, solar thermal, anyway.) PV is great for calculators or residential rooftops, but for base power, it is wanting. (Although PV films on skyscraper windows are a great idea, generating power and cutting down on building heating!). Solar thermal using water is a great start, but we should be moving toward solar thermal using molten salts, since the salts store a lot of heat and can continue to produce power after the sun goes down as the salts cool. Just keep them from becoming solid, and you are golden. Solar thermal plants still require a lot of maintenance though, and I imagine dealing with molten salts has a whole host of technical challenges, since us fleshy things don’t react well to fluids at or above 900F. Any ST plant still needs a lot of real-estate (which tends to be dry & dusty – so the panels need constant cleaning), and whether PV or ST, the panels need to track the sun, so that adds even more maintenance headaches. I personally like the ST systems where the fluid pipes run right past the mirror instead of being in a target tower, because the panels and tracking systems are more simple. But the added complexity of all that piping probably negates the benefit.
The one thing that strikes me with regard to wind and solar power is that they are not something that generally scales up terribly well to the point of providing significant base power needs (even if we had decent ways to store energy from peak production times). As an industrial answer to our power needs, most wind and solar power is, in my opinion, better suited to providing small scale/local power in order to offset what the grid has to provide (think every building with solar and wind power generators). To date, I have seen only one exception:
The Convection Tower: This is something I would happily spend tax money to support overcoming the engineering challenges, and pressure legislatures to make it happen. In short, use solar thermal heating to make your own wind. Build a huge green house in the desert (3 km in diameter) and at the center, build a 1 km tall chimney. Around the base of the tower, install a bunch of ducted wind turbines. As the sun heats the ground, the air wants to rise. It can’t, so it moves laterally to escape, either out the edge, or up the tower. As the air goes up the tower, it cools, and it draws more air in through the fans at the bottom. Some air will escape from the outer perimeter at the start, but once the convection starts moving, that will quit as all the air goes toward the tower. Pretty soon you are moving air at a solid clip and your fans are producing power constantly. As the sun goes down, the ground still has tons of heat to release, so the process continues.
Also note that I called the whole thing a green house. You can have plants growing there, maybe orchards, except near the center (it gets warm there). You still need the massive real-estate, but a lot of it can be multi-use. The turbines are at ground level, so they are easy to maintain. The greenhouse glass still needs to be kept clean, but probably not as clean as a PV or ST panel.
This is a solid idea, and 200 MW from a single plant is a respectable amount.
In my humble opinion, nuclear is the right path to follow – and had we not been side-tracked by hysteria despite the proven safety record in the US and Europe, we’d be at a much better place with nuclear.
Yes, I said proven safety record. How many nuclear plants have failed disastrously? Since 1952, there have been 33 incidents (rated 1-7). Only 6 are rated 5 or higher (accident with wide consequences). Three of those were pre-1960 (the first commercial nuclear power plant went live in 1954): one was Chernobyl (the only 7 on the list), one was Three Mile Island, and the last was Fukushima (a 60-year old plant that was fine until it got smacked by a record breaking earthquake and tsunami – come on people, be reasonable!). This is out of 437 plants currently operating and about 25 decommissioned plants. That also doesn’t count the plants operated by the US Navy, which has never had a reactor incident. (Two nuclear subs sank, but not because of their reactors, which appear to be fully contained).
Nuclear facilities are generally rigorously maintained (and rightly so), much more so than coal or gas plants. Accidents at nuclear plants are serious, but are by far not the most serious disaster power plants can suffer. I don’t think any incident in the US can match the devastation of incidents such as the Kingston Fly Ash accident, the explosion of a Natural Gas plant, or the failure of a hydro-electric dam. Yet we treat nuclear as a never option, while coal plants dump more radioactive waste into our environment than nuclear plants ever have. Given more public support and more regulatory support, better, safer reactor designs could be refined, such as Pebble Bed or Traveling Wave.
However, BWRs and PWRs are the mature technology, so even if PBRs or TWRs do happen, it won’t be for a while. Someday, fusion reactors will be here, but that is a someday far off.
Other Fun Technology
Bio-Diesel: I am a fan of Bio-Diesel (I had a neighbor who used to make it from fryer grease in his garage; his Mercedes always made me hungry when it drove past). I love the idea of using bacteria or algae to produce the base oil, and I truly hope we can find a way to scale up the production of such, because I think it could replace a lot of fossil fuel usage. Especially as the newest generation diesel engines come to market. If nothing else, it may one day be the best way to keep airliners flying
Tidal/Wave Power: There are so many ideas about how to extract energy from the oceans, be it hybrid turbines like this, or massive tidal turbines (one of my favorites, since we can predict tides with considerable accuracy, so no surprise days of no tides – I actually just got done running a CFD simulation on a tidal turbine, very interesting problem), or the snake like wave generators, or even devices that float and sink and produce power based upon the difference in water temperature. This is an area that could use a lot more investment, both private and government.
Building Technology/Green City: This is an area where I think we truly fail. There are so many technologies out there that can greatly effect the amount of materials, power, and waste a building uses and generates, yet such technologies are not as commonplace as they should be, primarily due to short-sighted or out-of-date regulatory environments. It’s not that communities have rules against the new technologies; it’s that they often have rules mandating the use of older technologies (and getting a waiver can be expensive/troublesome enough as to not be worth it), so there is often little to no room for better ideas to be implemented, or the new technology is opposed for spurious reasons. For instance, communities that insist all homes be stick-frame built (to maintain the character of the community), or how Plumbers Union’s oppose the installation of flushless urinals in new office buildings. Other tech like composting toilets, grey water cisterns, porous paving, green roofs, solar film for windows/solar shingles, fungus insulation, modular building design, etc., should all be actively encouraged in the building industry, instead of usually being relegated to specialty builders or experimental communities. Perhaps we could begin to relax the building codes, or mandate greener technology unless there is a solid case for the older technology, or offer property tax rebates/credits for buildings using greener technology. Or even start requiring better integration with the landscape.
Yes new technology needs time to be proven, but we should only truly be concerned with new tech that affects building structural integrity. Other technology should be implemented as seen fit (with appropriate safety concerns factored in). How else are we going to work out the potential bugs if we don’t give it a chance to be used outside of the lab? I do like that architects are trying to create better designs.
Another green city idea is to use old, unused industrial buildings (warehouses, big box stores, etc) as urban farms. I’ve seen ideas for skyscraper green houses to feed a city, and while very architecturally appealing, it’s not a good idea (very expensive for a limited amount of growing space). Using an old empty big box, sealing it off and installing grow boxes & hydroponics from floor to ceiling is a much better idea. Turns out, you don’t need the sun to grow food, new generation red and blue LEDs emit light at just the right frequencies for most plants, and the plants love them. An array of solar panels and/or wind turbines on the roof could easily provide all the power for the LEDs. By using a building, you also get the added benefits of absolute climate, resource, weed and pest control. Finally, the transportation chain is a lot shorter, so you don’t need to use so much fuel to get the produce to market.
This could be done on a small scale as well. I image one or more old shipping containers could be easily modified into a box green house. Now that I think about it, I wonder how long before marijuana growers figure this out. With LEDs, the tell-tale heat and power consumption spikes that give most home-growers away will be non-existent.
OK, last item, a lab in Japan thinks it has found a way to create a synthetic spider silk. I can not express just how cool this is, if they can manage to scale it up, we may all soon be able to wear silk shirts that are stronger than steel. I fully expect a wave of Batman wanna-be’s in bullet proof body suits to be on the streets within a year.