Category — Energy Density/Power Density
[Editor note: One of the great energy scholars of our time is Vaclav Smil, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Environment and Geography at the University of Manitoba. This (modified) article remains as fresh today as it was when originally published in 2009.]
President Barack Obama has promised an energy revolution in the world’s largest economy, with renewable sources of power and “green” technologies breaking America’s – and ultimately the world’s – dependence on conventional fuels…. But how realistic is this vision?
Primary Energies: Unchanged
There is only one kind of primary energy (energy embodied in natural resources) that was not known to the first high civilizations of the Middle East and East Asia and by all of their pre-industrial successors: isotopes of the heavy elements whose nuclear fission has been used since the late 1950’s to generate heat that, in turn, produces steam for modern electricity turbo-generators. Every other energy resource has been known for millennia, and most of them were harnessed by pre-modern societies.
The fundamental difference between traditional and modern uses of energy consists not in access to new or better energy resources, but in the invention and mass deployment of efficient, affordable, reliable, and convenient “prime movers,” devices that convert primary energies into mechanical power, electricity, or heat. History could be profitably subdivided into eras defined by the prevailing prime movers. [Read more →]
November 22, 2013 No Comments
“One acre or 1,500 acres? 88 percent capacity factor or 22 percent? Less than $1,500,000 per megawatt of capacity or $6,400,000 per megawatt? Location near the customer load or remote? Highly dispatchable electricity or non-dispatchable? Do we need to really ask these questions.”
The huge California Valley Solar Ranch (CVSR) central-station solar plant is apparently now at “full power” thanks to a loan guarantee from the U.S. taxpayers of $1,237,000,000. Information regarding this project has been published here by Earthtechling, and also here, by the U.S. Department of Energy.
In an earlier article by Eric Lipton and Clifford Krauss in the New York Times entitled A Gold Rush of Subsidies in Clean Energy Search, the full cost of the project was established as $1.6 billion. Lipton and Krauss indicate:
The project is also a marvel in another, less obvious way: Taxpayers and ratepayers are providing subsidies worth almost as much as the entire $1.6 billion cost of the project. Similar subsidy packages have been given to 15 other solar- and wind-power electric plants since 2009.
The government support — which includes loan guarantees, cash grants and contracts that require electric customers to pay higher rates — largely eliminated the risk to the private investors and almost guaranteed them large profits for years to come. The beneficiaries include financial firms like Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, conglomerates like General Electric, utilities like Exelon and NRG — even Google.
A Critical Appraisal
In a realistic appraisal of the CVSR we should note the following: [Read more →]
November 7, 2013 19 Comments
“In this century the bulk of humanity will live in large densely populated cities. If the citizens of of these cities are to attain a high quality of life they will require large centralised energy generation. This is not a matter of ideological preference, but of engineering reality.”
- Robert Wilson, The Future of Energy: Why Power Density Matters, Energy Collective, August 8, 2013.
“There is no doubt that we in the United States need to alter our energy strategy. The question is how we will change it. A rational energy strategy must be determined by scientific evaluation of fact and logical analysis of performance and economics–not by emotion, political considerations, and ‘feel good’ methodologies.”
- Jerry Graf (below)
Other than the damage to the economy from the waste itself, the real problem with mandating and subsidizing non-viable energy technology projects is that this distracts us and diverts resources from other efforts to improve our energy production strategy.
Unfortunately, some of the arguments used to justify the mandates and subsidies are more political and emotional than logical.
August 21, 2013 6 Comments
It may be a bit of an exaggeration to say that understanding power density may be all the average person requires to put our energy sources and needs into perspective, but there is some merit in this argument. Unfortunately, this view of energy matters remains little discussed, probably because it appears rather academic.
This post attempts to overcome this by further illustrating the concepts. It will also demonstrate how industrial-scale wind and solar PV electricity generation plants fail to meet this important, high-level standard of performance for electricity sources required by mankind, particularly in developed societies, but increasingly in developing and even undeveloped societies.
This is even without taking into account:
(1) The persistent erratic (short term – minutes) and unreliable (medium to long term – hours to days) nature of electricity production that wind and solar PV provide; (2) their high costs; and (3) many other considerations described here.
This is not to diminish the importance of these other matters, but the contemplation of them all together is fairly elaborate and perspective is easily lost.
In summary, power density is the “gold standard” as a high-level pass/fail measure of an energy source’s value to humanity. [Read more →]
February 20, 2013 5 Comments
It is the second most famous term in the history of economics after Adam Smith’s metaphor invisible hand. It describes the competitive market process in the real world. It was coined in 1942 by the famous, iconoclastic Austrian-American economist Joseph Schumpeter, who would reminisce:
I set out to become the greatest lover in Vienna, the greatest horseman in Austria, and the greatest economist in the world. Alas, for the illusions of youth…. As a horseman, I was never really first rate.
“Creative Destruction” …
The best businesses rise to the top in consumer-driven markets. Less competitive firms contract and even disappear. Creative destruction is the process whereby the bad is eliminated, the better replaces the good, and past performance gives way to new strategies and victors. No firm is forever, and financial loss is a characteristic of capitalism, as is the more used term profit.
Protesting against the textbook “perfect competition” model, under which a multitude of price-taking firms were optimally efficient at equilibrium rest, Schumpeter focused on the real world of change. “[C]apitalist reality, he said, is “the new commodity, the new technology, the new source of supply, the new type of organization … which strikes not at the margins of the profits and the outputs of the existing firms but at their foundations and their very lives.”
He famously continued: [Read more →]
January 15, 2013 3 Comments
“While incremental improvements can be expected with biomass, wind and solar, what is needed for them to become viable is an order of magnitude increase in productivity…. As significant future energy sources these technologies are dead ends, which is why the government, and not the private sector, is funding them.”
When it comes to power, density is the key. Energy density. The reason that solar power, wind power, and ethanol are so expensive is that they are derived from very diffuse energy sources. It takes a lot of energy collectors such as solar cells, wind turbines, or corn stalks covering many square miles of land to produce the same amount of power that traditional coal, natural gas, or nuclear plants can on just a few acres.
Each of these alternative energy sources is based on mature technology. Agriculture and fermentation have their roots in prehistory, windmills date back at least to 65 B.C., the photovoltaic effect was discovered in 1839. Yet nowhere in the world are these technologies serving as primary energy sources without significant government subsidies.
Solar and Wind
While incremental improvements can be expected with biomass, wind and solar, what is needed for them to become viable is an order of magnitude increase in productivity. As old and as well-researched as solar power, wind power, and other renewable energies are, such improvements are possible but unlikely. As significant future energy sources these technologies are dead ends, which is why the government, and not the private sector, is funding them.
Industry is more than willing to risk research dollars on technologies that show real promise, but it is not willing to flush shareholder money down a rat hole. Politicians, however, operate from different incentives. When a crisis, real or imagined, makes headlines, they want voters to see them doing “something” about it, and they must move quickly because election cycles and constituent attention spans are short. [Read more →]
October 16, 2012 7 Comments
“The release of energy from splitting a uranium atom turns out to be 2 million times greater than breaking the carbon-hydrogen bond in coal, oil or wood. Compared to all the forms of energy ever employed by humanity, nuclear power is off the scale. Wind has less than 1/10th the energy density of wood, wood half the density of coal, and coal half the density of octane. Altogether they differ by a factor of about 50. Nuclear has 2 million times the energy density of gasoline. It is hard to fathom this in light of our previous experience. Yet our energy future largely depends on grasping the significance of this differential. “
- William Tucker, excerpted from his lecture, Understanding E=MC2
William Tucker has powerfully explained how the future of technologically advanced civilizations depends upon a sophisticated ability to convert the highest energy densities into increasingly denser power performance, and in the process compacting the time and space necessary to do productive work.
In fact, Tucker wrote an excellent book about this, Terrestrial Energy: How Nuclear Energy Will Lead the Green Revolution and End America’s Energy Odyssey. In light of the excerpt from that book recently posted at Master Resource, I thought readers of this forum might find my review from two years ago (see below) of interest, particularly if they have not yet read Tucker’s book.
The Primacy of Energy Density
Rockefeller University’s Jesse Ausubel has demonstrated that the trend in energy usage continues along a decarbonizing trajectory. Improvements in technology combined with a communal desire to live longer and more healthfully have spurred this phenomenon. Given a choice, who wants to live in a town where thousands of chimneys cast off carbon by-products like sulfuric smoke and soot? Civilization will continue decarbonizing apace, whether this aligns with climate change alarmism, or not. [Read more →]
January 24, 2012 3 Comments
Editor note: Del Torkelson of The American Oil & Gas Reporter covered Robert Bryce’s address talk to the Permian Basin Petroleum Association at its annual meeting in Midland last October. Torkelson’s summary is reprinted with permission.]
“One of the reasons I wrote Power Hungry: The Myths of “Green” Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future (Public Affairs: 2010) is that our discussions are fundamentally wrong-headed,” author and journalist Robert Bryce told the Permian Basin Petroleum Association.
“Politicians generally do not understand the issues of energy and power, and in particular, the issues of scale.”
Bryce expounded on a number of key themes, including density, the distinction between energy and power, and the future of natural gas and nuclear generation. He also pointed to signals that suggested ordinary citizens were losing patience with green energy sources.
Bryce’s comments touched on topics covered in both Power Hungry and an earlier book, Gusher of Lies. The writer riffed on a number of subjects pertinent to oil and gas producers:
- On his insistence that the density of traditional fuels made them more environmentally friendly than so-called green energy sources, Bryce calculated, “A well producing 60 Mcf a day–by definition a stripper well–has a power density of about 28 watts a square meter, 23 times the power density of a wind turbine. If you start with a source that has low power density, you have to counteract the lower power density with other inputs such as steel, transmission lines, concrete, land and manpower.”
- Regarding the suggestion that natural gas is a bridge fuel, Bryce countered that it was more. “A bridge to what?” he asked. “It is clean, it is domestic, it is relatively cheap. This is the fuel we have been looking for.” [Read more →]
January 14, 2011 6 Comments
[Note: This article has been updated to Twenty Bad Things about Windpower — go here.]
Trying to pin down the arguments of wind promoters is a bit like trying to grab a greased balloon. Just when you think you’ve got a handle on it, it squirts away. Let’s take a quick highlight review of how things have evolved.
1 – Wind energy was abandoned well over a hundred years ago, as it was totally inconsistent with our burgeoning more modern needs of power, even in the late 1800s. When we throw the switch, we expect that the lights will go on — 100% of the time. It’s not possible for wind energy, by itself, to ever do this, which is one of the main reasons it was relegated to the dust bin of antiquated technologies (along with such other inadequate sources like horse power).
2 – Fast forward to several years ago. With politicians being convinced by lobbyists that Anthropological Global Warming (AGW) was an imminent threat, a campaign was begun to favor all things that would purportedly reduce CO2. Wind energy was thus resurrected, as its marketers pushed the fact that wind turbines did not produce CO2 in their generation of electricity.
3 – Of course, just that by itself is not significant, so the original wind development lobbyists then made the case for a quantum leap: that by adding wind turbines to the grid we could significantly reduce CO2 from fossil fuel electrical sources (especially coal). This argument became the basis for many states’ implementing a Renewable Energy Standard (RES) — which mandated that their utilities use an increased amount of wind energy.
4 – Why was a mandate necessary? Simply because the real world reality of integrating wind energy made it a very expensive option. As such, no utility company would likely do this on their own. They had to be forced to. [Read more →]
September 20, 2010 39 Comments
Power Density Primer: Understanding the Spatial Dimension of the Unfolding Transition to Renewable Electricity Generation (Part V – Comparing the Power Densities of Electricity Generation)
Editor’s note: This is the conclusion of the series that provides an essential basis for the understanding of energy transitions and use. The previous posts in this series can be seen at:
Part I – Definitions
Part II – Coal- and Wood-Fired Electricity Generation
Part III – Natural Gas-Fired Electricity Generation
Part IV – New Renewables Electricity Generation
America’s dominant mode of electricity generation is via combustion of bituminous and sub-bituminous coal in large thermal stations. All such plants have boilers and steam turbogenerators and electrostatic precipitators to capture fly ash, but they burn different qualities of coal that may come from surface as well as underground mines, have different arrangements for cooling (once-through using river water or various cooling towers) and many have flue gas desulfurization to reduce SO2 emissions. Consequently, these conversions of chemical energy in coal to electricity feature widely differing power densities: for the power plants alone they are commonly in excess of 2 kW/m2 and can be as high as 5 kW/m2. When all other requirements (coal mining, storage, environmental controls, settling ponds) are included, the densities inevitably decline and range over an order of magnitude: from as low as 100 W/m2 to as much as 1,000 W (1 kW)/m2.
In contrast, compact gas turbines plants (the smallest ones on trailers and larger facilities that can be rapidly assembled from prefabricated units), which can be connected to existing gas supply, can generate electricity with power density as high as 15 kW/m2. Larger stations (>100 MW) using the most efficient combined-cycle arrangements (with a gas turbine’s exhaust used to generate steam for an attached steam turbine) will operate with lower power densities, and if new natural gas extraction capacities have to be developed for their operation then the overall power density of gas and electricity production would decline to a range similar to that of coal-fired thermal generation or slightly higher, that is in most cases to a range of 200-2000 W/m2. [Read more →]
May 14, 2010 6 Comments