Based on policy pronouncements of governments, the media, and Left environmentalists, one might believe the world is about to enter the renewable energy era. In reality, however, the “new” is about a long gone era that ended before the dawn of the 20th century. Then the primary fuel was wood. Other renewables, including water and wind, were used because they were available and technologically harnessable for some very localized situations.
However primitive, renewables relating to the sun’s flow was the best our ancestors could do.
Will there be a renaissance of this era? Perhaps there will be, but it will be in a significantly different form and dependent upon a vastly transformed world, in both technological and societal terms, which will not be achievable for many generations. The question is: are we as societies and individuals prepared to make the necessary adjustments to realize the potential opportunities, which we do not currently understand sufficiently, that this may present in the future?
But this series of posts is about wind power specifically, a relic from this earlier period, which is inappropriately named, especially when applied to modern needs. Wind appears to be an electrical power source because it has some ability to generate electricity, which can be expressed as watt-hours, that is, energy. This is a term that we are fairly familiar with because it is the common measure of our use of electricity. But this is not power, which can be expressed as watts.
Power is the rate at which electrical energy is delivered, and can alternatively be viewed as watt-seconds per second, or watt-hours per hour, representing energy flux at any point in time or over an extended period of time. For effective use of electrical energy this must be consistently delivered, and reliable electrical power is the means to achieve this. This is one of the main, and generally overlooked, problems with respect to intermittent renewables in general, and wind in particular. The production of electricity, whatever the abundance of the energy resource, which is theoretically large for wind, without the coincident presence of sufficient, suitable and reliable power capability, negates the value of any source as a viable means of utility-scale electricity supply.
The reason for this is that reliable electrical power is vital for the needs of our modern world. It provides the necessary access to electrical energy in a timely manner. It is an important part of the foundation of the most developed countries. A reliable supply of adequate power enables us to do as much work as we need in the required time. In other words, the absence of adequate and reliable power limits our ability to access the energy that could be available to us. This is a major concern of the developing and undeveloped countries today.
There are drawbacks to the ability to access energy this effectively. An important one is the rate of pollution and waste produced in the process. Another is that economic and easy access can result in unnecessary and frivolous use. However, we cannot provide the essential aspects of the quality of life enjoyed in developed countries without some appreciable level of access. To start in determining what a reasonable level of energy use is, we have to ask ourselves if the profligate use of energy in developed countries has ensured: national security, sound economies, healthy and prosperous agriculture, cultural development, social cohesion and the assurance that the world’s population receives a decent level of physical well-being, nutrition, education and the basic freedoms.[i] Arguably it does not.
The time scale to transition, again in technology and societal terms, to a new energy conversion infrastructure, for example one that more effectively, and directly, harnesses solar energy, will take many decades/generations. This may not be compatible with the time frame of concerns, based on conventional wisdom, of an onset of substantial climate change impacts, which is, politically at least, a high profile initiative.
In this respect, one of the essential challenges for all countries in the near to medium term of one to three decades or more is to select and carefully use the most effective, and least harmful, generation means and invest national wealth in sufficient research and development to find better future ways of accessing energy. This applies to all energy uses, not just electricity generation, but the focus here is electricity, and electricity generation is arguably the most important form of energy conversion that exists today and for the future. Contrary to current major policy initiatives in some countries, wind does not qualify, and may never. This series of posts shows how the current set of new renewables, especially wind, are not ready for wide-spread utility-scale use. Two critical reasons are provided for this, both related to power.
As described above, power can be viewed as the ‘portal’ through which energy is accessed. Two important dimensions of power are:
This three-part series will review how wind electricity production fails to qualify as a source of power in both respects–power density and capacity (power) value. Inadequacy in either of these categories, let alone both, means wind cannot be considered a useful source of electrical energy. As extensive wind implementation is projected, it represents a needless diversion of resources, financial and governance, that produces no benefits, for example, in terms of fossil fuel or CO2 emissions reductions, costs, and job creation. An appropriate label for modern times might be just ”wind activity”.
On a final note, inevitably the issue of utility-scale storage will be raised as the solution for wind. There is a growing body of information about this, the bottom line of which is that this is not feasible for reasons of technology, scalability to the massive sizes required by projected wind installations, substantial costs, and the challenging permitting process for the most promising, extensive expansion of water reservoirs for pumped storage.[ii]
[i]Smil, Vaclav (2008). “Energy in Nature and Society: General Energetics of Complex Systems”. The MIT Press. Pages 386-387. This book is recommended, and arguably necessary, reading, for an understanding of the general subject of energetics.
(a) Smil, pages 383–385
(b) MacKay, David (2008). “Sustainable Energy – without the hot air”. http://www.withouthotair.com/download.html
(c) For an overview of technologies see the Electricity Storage Association article at http://www.electricitystorage.org/site/technologies/
(d) On the advocacy side, there is an article in the September 2010 issue of Power magazine entitled “Bulk Storage Could Optimize Renewable Energy”. It is written by Jason Makansi, executive director of the Coalition to Advance Renewable Energy through Bulk Storage. It also chronicles the many problematic issues with wind production. Suggested solutions should be considered within the broader context of the first two recommended books.