Friday, August 17, 2012

Questions About Renewable Energy You Can (And Should) Ask

It seems that everyone around us is trying to convince us of the merits of various energy sources by quoting other people. Twitter is awash with tweets such as "What's the future of Wind Energy?" or "Can Solar meet the challenge?", and then go on to quote someone we don't know who lives in some far-away place, and who likely has their own agenda on energy, or may be paid to provide that report.

Can we verify that source? No, not really. We can Google the name in the hope we can get background information, but that rarely provides any real insight into the impartiality of the person, or their motives. Sometimes you get lucky, as I did with Jo Abbess, because she doesn't hide the fact that she's anti-nuclear, but mostly it's a closed book.

So we are largely left with our own values and judgements. How then, do we get the information we need to make an informed choice? In an earlier post I talked about using your own self-evident truths to evaluate what you read to sort out the crap from the credible. However the complexity of the science in some of these reports can make it very difficult to understand how the content applies against our yardsticks. Often the reports themselves are designed to hide the whole truth in favour of the author's intended message.

But there are some questions we can ask ourselves when reading about the leading renewable energy sources - Wind and Solar. Below I analyse some common basic questions and their current status. You will see there are questions still to be asked and answered:

  1. What happens when the wind doesn't blow or the sun doesn't shine? The current solution is a combination of one or more of:
    1. Backup storage This means batteries of some sort - either current technology such as lead-acid, or it can mean molten salts, or flywheels, or pumped water. Basically this option relies on there being excess energy generated above demand to charge the batteries.
    2. Redundant windmills and panels This means build much more capacity than we expect to need (overbuild) so that we guarantee we have energy to spare to provide power to other areas where the wind isn't blowing. This option identifies the need for transmission lines (aka 'Smart Grid') connecting Wind Farms and Solar plants across the country (and possibly the world).
    3. Standby coal or gas generators This is the current popular option used by Germany and others - gas is more popular because it can be switched off and on more readily than coal. This (gas) option is also driving the message that we don't need base-load power generation at all.
  2. How many windmills and solar panels do we need? You will find that this question doesn't have a definite answer. Because we can't predict the weather, we can't predict accurately the amount of wind. With solar we can more accurately predict sunshine, though. What is certain is the answer to this question will be 'an extremely large number'. You will also find that, as populations and economies grow, we will be constantly building and maintaining more.
  3. Can solar and wind do it alone? Currently even the staunchest allies of renewable energy have to admit "no, they can't". There will always need to be an on-demand backup generator that uses a fuel that does not directly depend on the weather (such as gas).
  4. How much is enough backup? The current answer is 'it depends'. It depends on the wind or sunlight available. With solar (and to an extent wind) it also depends on the season. In both cases this will vary with the region, energy demand, and the already changing climate.
  5. How much will this cost? This question is never answered adequately, because:
    1. It's a huge figure. Redundancy and backup storage do not generate energy on their own but at least triple the cost of Wind and Solar installations. And then there's the backup (gas) generators, and the need to constantly build new plants to keep up with energy demand.
    2. It's a constantly moving target. When your energy source relies on the weather, every second of every day is a variable that needs to be factored into every aspect of these technologies. How many blackouts do you think you can live with?
  6. Isn't climate change all bunkum? Do we need to change at all? That question no longer has any meaning. Your government and governments around the world are already forcing change upon you. Windmills and solar panels are heavily subsidised using tax-payer funds and huge sums are being invested. So instead of focusing on the already hopelessly bogged down debate on climate change, take a look at whether your money is being wisely invested.

Here are some more questions I ask myself about energy:

  • How much am I willing to pay for my energy?
  • Why would I want weather-dependent energy when I can have reliable, 24/7, guaranteed energy when I want it?
  • What high-capacity, safe, proven clean energy sources are there that are ready now and can be built quickly?
  • Why should we replace our entire electricity grid when we can replace gas and coal power stations directly with new, clean, non-emitting power stations that use what we already have?

So, if your opinion is that renewable energy systems such as solar and wind will solve all our energy and climate change problems, look again. There are serious questions that these technologies will never address. Relying on energy sources that rely on the weather is a self-evident and very expensive folly.

Take a good, long look at nuclear power. Don't just stop at Chernobyl or the 40-year old Fukushima plant (although if you scratch below the surface you may be quite surprised at the real story).

Investigate the new nuclear plant designs and see how the technology has evolved. If you want to see the future of nuclear, take a look at the liquid core designs at the cusp of commercialisation, such as the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor or the Thorium Molten Salt Reactor.

And finally, take a good look at what option will ultimately cost you the least.