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William O'Keefe
CEO, George C. Marshall Institute

William O'Keefe

William O'Keefe is CEO at the George C. Marshall Institute, a think tank that promotes better use of science in public policy. He is a former COO at the American Petroleum Institute. ALL POSTS

Solar and wind can't replace conventional power generation

The notion that so called green technologies can significantly replace fossil energy in a large way is a fiction and pursuing that illusion will only waste more taxpayer dollars.

The most recent EIA Outlook document forecasts that by 2035 we will need about 25 percent more energy than we currently are consuming. They project a very large increase in the contribution of renewables, primarily wind and biomass, which strikes me as very optimistic. At a time when our nation is hemorrhaging red ink, the last thing we should be doing is pursuing energy sources that require larger subsidies. And, it is questionable how green biomass really is.

Wind power cannot replace conventional power generation because it is episodic. Where it is cost-effective to supplement base load capacity with non-subsidized wind power, utilities should be free to do so. But, continuing subsidies for wind and requiring utilities to generate more power from it simply results in overall higher costs which eventually are borne by consumers or less capital investment.

Solar energy is a low density power source that probably is best suited for limited applications like passive hot water heating and augmenting conventional heating systems.

Research and development into these and other low or no carbon power generating technologies is a legitimate task for the government but subsidies and mandates to use them are not. The bulk of our electrical power comes from fossil energy and nuclear. It is going to take decades for that mix to change significantly and efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions should be based on that reality.

As our economy has become more service driven and our standard of living has increased, electric power has become an important input for economic growth. What we need as our economy struggles to recover from the current recession is an energy plan that encourages abundant and cost-competitive power sources to help businesses grow and compete and allows consumers to enjoy the benefits electric powered devices.

In the last couple of years, technology, primarily from private sector investment, has unlocked enormous reserves of natural gas. Some estimates conclude that we now have enough natural gas to meet our needs for a century. What the government should do instead of focusing on the unproven is to focus on aligning incentives to encourage greater use of natural gas for power generation. Natural gas is the bridge fuel of the future.

There is also an important lesson to come from these new proven reserves of natural gas. It was only a few years ago that forecasts showed declining natural gas production with an need to import increasing quantities of LNG. Few if any saw the near term potential for making shale gas economical. If we could not forecast this breakthrough when it was on the horizon, why should there be any confidence in the government's ability to forecast the rapid emergence of no carbon energy systems?

By William O'Keefe  |  February 3, 2010; 1:20 PM ET Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Considering that the peak of world oil production has already happened, or will very soon, the need to switch to some other source of power generation is desperate.

Unfortunately, all alternative methods of power generation are either constrained by energy and material costs and/or the limited time left until an energy crunch derails industry, making further expansion impossible.

China is about to overtake America as the biggest importer of oil from Saudi Arabia, and, Mexico, the second largest exporter of oil to the U.S. is declining at 17% a year. These ominous signs, among many others, signal that time is running out quicker than anticipated (by C.E.R.A., the I.E.A. and nearly every western nation's energy watchdog).
Time has virtually run out. The only thing that is keeping oil supply at resasonable levels and prices now is the disastrous demand-destroying world-wide recession/depression - which may or may not be temporary.

Having looked at every possible way out of this mess, over the last five years, I've come up with only one way to upscale quickly, and, it's a version of enhanced solar power generation.

What I’ve essentially done is combine several new industrial applications and married them to a resource that is being wasted as a by-product of natural gas processing (helium).

Helium-filled solar balloon arrays, that rose above most cloud, and using the most recent conductive tethering and thin-film photovoltaics, would supply over-the-horizon cheap energy from coast-to-coast across continents, and not only reduce the need for other electrical sources, would also shade the planet’s surface reflecting heat and light back into space.
Manufacturing vast numbers of solar balloons could be done quickly with exponential expansion as energy became cheaper.

Helium is a wasted noble gas that is vented into the atmosphere and lost (forever) during the processing of natural gas, except in a few plants to date. The real value of this commodity as an "energy resource" would make it as valuable as the methane burned in gas-powered power-plants.

On a global scale (taking decades) continents could supply other continents with surplus daytime energy as their "customers" slept on the nightside.

(Thin-film PV's use one hundredth the silicon and are very lightweight.)

By the way, having a good idea and getting it "out there" is no small feat. There are no patents attached to this "idea" yet the prime consideration of many who enquire is how much profit is involved and who owns the patent. Sorry, but patents are locked up in whoever has the tethering patents and the thin-film PV patents. I do have a design for a balloon array that magnifies the amount of sunlight the P.V's receieve, but, I'm sure others will see the same and other ways to do this.

You can't have too many ideas, many heads make light work.


Posted by: icurhuman2 | February 7, 2010 8:54 PM
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"Renewable clean energy sources can never replace fossil-based dirty energy sources"...

Why, because a fat cat petroleum industry lobbyist like the author says so?

We're past this.

* Last year, America's electricity usage actually declined.

* Last year, America's petroleum usage actually declined.

Sorry, fatcats, your days are numbered. America is finally (not all of us yet) ready to break our addiction to your petro-crackpipe. Our dependence on middle east oil has been a negative influence on our strength in the world.

I question the motives and loyalty of those who align themselves against America's recovery as a world econimc leader to feed their own profit motive.

Posted by: free-donny | February 7, 2010 8:23 PM
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Unless we're going to abandon all air and water pollution regulation, the economics clearly favor renewable energy now and in the future. Ontario recently turned down a bid for 2600 MWe of nuclear at $26 billion. Even without CCS, coal thermal has a gigantic ash / CCW toxics liability.

On the other hand, wind and solar thermal electric are now cheaper than coal, while conservation, passive solar and solar hot water have very short paybacks. European experience has shown that power conditioning and matching for intermittency is not a big issue, and in fact, overcapacity of baseline is a far larger economic burden. Other advantages of renewables: labor intensive versus capital intensive, long term price decline, secure domestic versus vulnerable foreign. Bird studies are showing far less problems with wind power than previously thought. If investors have to see massive subsidies for into nuclear and fossil projects, but have already lined up 200,000 MW for Midwestern wind, its pretty clear which way the wind is blowing. -- Bill Kovarik

Posted by: wkovarik | February 7, 2010 9:51 AM
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What some people don't realize about wind power is how much damage is done to migrating bird populations and endangered bat populations by the turbines. This is an area that is still under study because people have just realized how many dead birds and bats are being found under these structures. Migrating birds often fly at night, bats also fly at night. Apparently there is something about the disturbance in the air caused by these turbines that either draws flocks of birds into them or that confuses the bats echolocation. Either way this needs to be studied more before a lot of these get put up in areas where endangered species migrate or live.

Posted by: RazorGirl | February 7, 2010 9:04 AM
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Mr. O'Keefe is exactly right. The "green energy" movement is trying to move technology faster than nature is going to allow. We figued out fire a few million years ago, it took until the 1800's to come up with our first central heating system. Ol Ben got his hands on electricity 200 years ago but of course it took us another hundred to get that genie in the light bulb bottle. We've been working on fuel cells for years but you just can't mandate mother nature to speed up. We've had wind power for thousands of years. But it is so unreliable that we abandoned most of it for the reliable fuel generation systems we have today. The green people want to paint everyone as greedy, stupid and evil who does not want to throw our current energy system into the dumpster and and give fuel from mushrooms a shot.

Posted by: billyo1 | February 6, 2010 8:56 PM
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Price coal and oil at its true long-term costs and the equation changes. How much do non-renewables cost when you factor in how much their contribution to climate-change costs? Let's get all the cards on the table if we are to make true comparison.

Posted by: dikdik2002 | February 6, 2010 7:46 PM
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FLASH!!

This Brand New Video Blows a Huge Gaping Hole in Obama's Cap and Tax Scheme: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BVm5-6H_sH4

Posted by: CommieBlaster | February 6, 2010 6:56 PM
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FLASH!!

This Brand New Video Blows a Huge Gaping Hole in Obama's Cap and Tax Scheme: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BVm5-6H_sH4

Posted by: CommieBlaster | February 6, 2010 6:56 PM
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The first step should be tax credits for private conservation of energy and alternative energy. An amortized tax credit for 30% of improvement upgrades costs over the life of the improvement will see thermal windows/doors, high efficiency mechanical systems, insulation, wind towers/solar panels and where feasible geothermal transfer in new structures, improving the old across the country. Allow only U.S. made goods a condition of the credit. Large projects by utilities can be put on public lands, desert solar farms, wind in mountain passes, tidal power on the coasts, etc.
A small tax on coal, oil and gasoline/diesel could pay for the credits with bank guarantees on loans for the purchase/installation costs. Eventually safe nuclear power (fusion or more feasible thorium hybrids) will replace fossil fuels and make our motor fleet run on hydrogen. Livemore labs have already used lasers to produce temps hot enough for fusion, but fusion will destroy the lasers. One thought is a giant thorium reactor started with fusion destroying the lasers but continuing the reaction. A thorium reactor theoretically can burn waste from current fission reactors. Rock fracture mining for natural gas has the problem of poisoned water tables and earthquakes by fault lines which I wonder could be solved with captured co2 pumped in instead of current methods of gas capture.

Posted by: jameschirico | February 6, 2010 4:34 PM
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Denmark and Germany are perfect examples of how inefficient renewables are. The amount of money both countries sink into the technology in terms of wasteful subsidies, does not justify the measly energy gains. Europe is ripe with examples of how cap and trade can be exploited for corruption.

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There is no question that windpower, carefully done can provide large amounts of power that would replace power by coal, oil, and natural gas.

This has been done in Denmark which gets 23% of its electricity from wind and is planning to go up to 50%. Germany, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland already get 10% or more of electricity from wind.

In the US, Iowa now gets over 15% of electricity from wind.

It's obviously doable and the utilities and power companies are proceeding with it at a very fast clip.

It may cost more at first but it's better than importing more natural gas and increasing US dependency on external sources of supply.

Posted by: moebius22 | February 6, 2010 2:24 PM
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Another Gore acolyte writes: " Services can't be exported- cars, manufactured goods, technology can."

This dimbulb has not caught on to the massive shift in services to low cost labor pools in Asia.

=================
Bwwwww - "You're right: The problem with wind power is that its episodic. However, this isn't an insurmountable problem. A modern, well connected energy grid can send power from where the wind is blowing to where it's in a lull."

Not really. Wind not only varies by day and location - resulting in huge backup power investment to be made, but it also varies nationally in strength by season.
You get lots of wind in spring and fall, but not in high winter or the "dog days of summer" - which in turn requires even more wasteful investment in backup capacity.

================
Al Goldberg - "There is no question that windpower, carefully done can provide large amounts of power that would replace power by coal, oil, and natural gas.
This has been done in Denmark which gets 23% of its electricity from wind and is planning to go up to 50%. Germany, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland already get 10% or more of electricity from wind.
In the US, Iowa now gets over 15% of electricity from wind."

All three claims are false in that they cherrypick only a certain hour on a certain day when wind is blowing optimally. If you look at annual power production from wind in kw-hrs vs other sources, the contribution of "wondrous wing" in DEmark, Iowa, etc. is significantly less.

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Al Goldberg54 - "It's obviously doable and the utilities and power companies are proceeding with it at a very fast clip.
It may cost more at first but it's better than importing more natural gas and increasing US dependency on external sources of supply."

We now have natural gas out the yinyang we can develop domestically. The power companies are happy to take money loaned from China by the future generations of taxpayers and build whatever - even stuff that makes no economic sense. Subsidize me to eat organic wild blueberries over the more expensive and more efficiently grown cultivated ones and I'll of course go with the former.....

Posted by: ChrisFord1 | February 6, 2010 2:18 PM
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Why is it that so few focus on the issue of "transmission" in discussing renewable energy? Unlike oil and natural gas, which can move from the production source to the consumer source via a vast system of interstate pipelines and even on trucks, the electricity produced by wind and solar must be transported like all other electricity, via electrical transmission lines built from the source to the end consumers. These transmission lines do not exist. They still need to be build. They are huge and they are visible and they must be constructed on private and public lands. Environmental groups have already filed a massive lawsuit in California to halt the construction of transmission lines on designated energy corridors in the western U.S. Let's get the transmission systems in place before anyone gets excited about using wind and solar to produce the energy.

Posted by: maritxu | February 6, 2010 12:57 PM
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The issue is not replacing all of anything - never has been. This is an unreasonable and illogical starting point for an issue that is physics and economics based.

The issue is balance across both supply and demand - and, this translates to:
(1) lower energy use at the appliance (electrically powered equipment, transportation, etc) level by good design and engineering,
(2) logical (non-wasteful) use of the appliances,
(3) smart construction to minimize energy use,
(4) balanced (timing, load shifting, etc) of energy use across the electrical grid,
(5) additional power generation by less invasive systems like wind and solar at the individual consumer level,
(6) additional power generation by newly engineered nuclear plants, and
(7) behavior modification of both supply and demand side by the only entity with this ability - the government.

Finally and most importantly as it goes to every point, non-political debate is required - by knowledgeable, reasonable people using information vice rhetoric as a basis for discussion.

Posted by: GeorgeStephenson | February 6, 2010 10:37 AM
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There is no question that windpower, carefully done can provide large amounts of power that would replace power by coal, oil, and natural gas.

This has been done in Denmark which gets 23% of its electricity from wind and is planning to go up to 50%. Germany, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland already get 10% or more of electricity from wind.

In the US, Iowa now gets over 15% of electricity from wind.

It's obviously doable and the utilities and power companies are proceeding with it at a very fast clip.

It may cost more at first but it's better than importing more natural gas and increasing US dependency on external sources of supply.

Posted by: AlanGoldberg54 | February 6, 2010 8:13 AM
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People are missing the big picture.

Unless these things make *economic sense* then it's no use investing in them.

Perfect example -- I looked into having Solar Cells put on my roof. The cost was $45K. And that wouldn't even supply all my power.

So when you looked at what it would save me, factored in the costs of the money and the payback time, not only was the rate of return less than 1%, but the payback time was actually longer than the projected life of the equipment.

Think about that for a moment and then tell me again why "alternative energies" make sense.

Posted by: Ombudsman1 | February 6, 2010 7:47 AM
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This guy as the former COO of API sounds as looney tunes as the tea-baggers following the dimwit Sarah Palin with her "drill baby drill" mantra. In other words don't try to reduce our wasteful energy consuming ways, just find more pocket of oil and gas to suck. Just plain stupid. We truly are addicted to oil as GW Bush loved to say and must START to wean ourselves off of it. Take a look a all of the single occupant cars on the DC roads each day and tell me it isn't true. Also to say that our economy demands high wages due to it being service based is just plain stupid. The dollar is cratering because our exports are great enough to offset our material imports. Services can't be exported- cars, manufactured goods, technology can. Go peddle your garbage to the Washington Times sheep Mr. O'Keefe.

Posted by: dontblamemeivoted4gore | February 6, 2010 7:42 AM
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You're right: The problem with wind power is that its episodic. However, this isn't an insurmountable problem. A modern, well connected energy grid can send power from where the wind is blowing to where it's in a lull. Even without renewables in the picture, we need to update our energy grid to ensure consistent, efficient service.

If the grid is updated, cheap and efficient power will follow.

Posted by: bwwww | February 6, 2010 12:46 AM
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