Energy and Climate Change Items of Interest

Every one of these is a topic I’d like to write an entire blog post about but I don’t have time right now. So, YOU write the blog post!

In Michigan there is an emerging debate and discussion about using the Vast Forests in that state to provide energy. This is a good idea because it does not involve the release of fossil Carbon from fossil fuels. It is a bad idea because it involves the release of Carbon currently trapped in a medium term and important Carbon sink. It is interesting because it highlights a key feature of the whole energy and climate change thing. Sun makes burnable stuff, we burn it. This is just another version of this where we would be relying on trees, and on whatever level of efficiency forests provide. I assume we can build a better mousetrap than this.

In Minnesota, Xcel Energy has broken a record:

MINNEAPOLIS — Xcel Energy issued a press release Wednesday declaring that it had achieved a milestone when 46 percent of customers’ electricity needs in the Upper Midwest were met by wind energy at 3 a.m. Sunday.

That’s an all-time high for Xcel, which recently was named the nation’s top wind power provider for the 10th straight year. At the time of the record, 1,622 of 3,512 megawatts were being produced by wind turbines.

It has been windy in Minnesota over the last few days! Anyway, details here.

When an oil spill or similar environmental disaster happens we are assured that new technologies will make such a thing much more unlikely in the future. Well, “New “Safer” Tank Cars Were Involved in Lynchburg, VA, Oil Train Fire.

And while we are speaking of accidents, “Accident Leads to Scrutiny of Oil Sand Production” and “Fracking disposal wells may cause quakes 30 miles away, researchers say“.

Climate change and President Obama’s legacy:

The satellite images viewed by President Obama before a meeting with eight Western governors were stark, showing how snowpack in California’s mountains had shrunk by 86 percent in a single year.

“It was a ‘Houston, we have a problem’ moment,” recalled White House counselor John D. Podesta, one of two aides who briefed the president that February day. Obama mentioned the images several times as he warned the governors that political leaders had no choice but to cope with global warming’s impact.

Read Juliet Eilperin’s interesting essay in the Washington Post.

Hydro power is “Carbon Free” but also can be environmentally destructive, and it only provides a small amount of our electricity. But, we could in theory get more. A “DOE study suggests America’s rivers are troves of vast untapped hydropower potential and developing many of them could help combat climate change by using renewable energy to reduce reliance on coal-fired power plants that emit climate-changing greenhouse gases.” Climate Central item is HERE.

And finally, Some see proposed wind farm as a threat in Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge. I’ve been planning to write up a 10,000 Birds post updating this topic, so maybe that will be my next post there. In the mean time I want to make a proposal. Invent a wind turbine that is very visible to birds. It will be less efficient than other turbines. So what? We need the clean energy, we can pay more for some of it. Just invent the damn thing. I have a design in mind, if you are a serious engineers in the wind power area contact me and I’ll tell you how it works. We’ll share the patent.

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19 thoughts on “Energy and Climate Change Items of Interest

  1. There are some 600+ possible hydro sites in the USA. Most are not very good, or involve adding hydro to existing control structures. Several years ago, a company filed for FERC licenses on all sites. Their hope was that someone would team with them to develop some sites. A couple of the sites were owned by City of Austin, TX. They were miffed to hear of the filing. The filing ties up the sites for some three years as the process goes on.

    I worked part time for the St Louis District Army Corps of Engineers at the time Lock and Dam 26R was under construction on the Mississippi River. We prepared a FONSI (Finding Of No Significant Impact.) which was signed off on by all affected agencies. The project was at the final approval stage when President Reagan took the Corps out of the hydropower business, and 19 of us lost our jobs.

    Later a consortium of 17 municipalities applied for a FERC license on the site. They used our report, with all the environmental safeguards removed. No affected agency would sign off on it. If that hydro plant is built in the future, it will be much more expensive compared to building it as an extension of the Lock and Dam construction.

    Ronald Reagan is not my favorite president.

  2. Bummer.

    Down the street from my house is the Coon Rapids Dam. The damn dam had to be rebuilt a few years ago and that rebuild is now being rebuilt again (didn’t stick). Point is, it WAS a hydro power dam but the machinery was removed years ago. There must be a lot of existing dams, like you say, that may have even been built for hydro power but where that component was removed rather than retrofitted or repaired at some point.

  3. I live in a province where about 80% of the power comes from Hydro and we export a lot to WA state. The Columbia River ( a few hundred feet away) has a lot of dams on it here and there are plans to add more. Despite the environmental damage (loss of habitat, temporary rise in methylmercury emissions ( – the upside is very low emission (decompoasing vegetation also produces methane but that can be mitigated by either pre-logging the entire resevoir are or using new underwater logging techniques to logg aft=er the fact)

  4. On wind power, I saw on TV a vertical rotor type turbine, said to be more efficient that present propeller type turbines, and clearly not a hazard to birds. Rotor has three curved vertical vanes, and does not care which direction the wind is coming from. I haven’t seen any more about it. They were making them in various sizes.

  5. Vertical axis wind turbines have been abandoned because they are not as efficient, both of the energy in the wind, and the amount of material required to generate the same amount of power. The trend is for turbines to be both bigger, and on taller masts. I would think this would keep them out of the routes birds commonly use. Of course I’ve seen eagles deliberately and repeatedly have near collisions, these were obviously not accidental, the bird was trying to gain altitude cheaply.

    I think Sweden is getting a pretty decent chunk of its energy from wind. But, I’d trust Swedish government and citizens to pay attention to environmental tradeoffs a lot more faithfully than Michigan state gov.

  6. Our snowpack here in California is about 30% of normal. This is a very bad situation in the short-term. However, the word on the streets is that a healthy El Nino is in the offing for the eastern Pacific. Typically that means a wetter than normal winter for California. I certainly hope that comes to pass.

    Is our drought a result of anthropogenic global warming? Most climatologists would say it is impossible to tell right now since the drought is a regional event on a relatively short time scale. Perhaps a few decades from now we will be able to tell in this particular drought was caused by AGW.

    But now is the time to act to mitigate further climate damage regardless of the short term weather events. The best way most of us can effect the greatest change is at the voting booth. So get out and vote!

  7. “On wind power, I saw on TV a vertical rotor type turbine, said to be more efficient that present propeller type turbines, and clearly not a hazard to birds. Rotor has three curved vertical vanes, and does not care which direction the wind is coming from. I haven’t seen any more about it. They were making them in various sizes.”


  8. First, a short screed against the idea that efficiency doesn’t matter. We live on a finite planet with finite resources. Inefficiency means using more resources and more energy. It also means higher costs, and thereby the prolongation of those technologies we have to move away from.
    Which leads me to why vertical axis wind turbines have never caught on:

    “Are there any situations in which a vertical model would be a better choice than a horizontal?”
    “Not today. Simply because there’s nothing reliable, there’s nothing cost-effective, there are no performance results, there’s no reality. That could change.
    The bottom line is, vertical axis wind turbines are less efficient, and it takes more materials and labor to make the things. It’s pure economics. Things make it in the marketplace because number one, they work, and two, they’re cost effective. If you have a technology that’s more cost effective and more reliable, than the competing technology, the competition is going to fall out of the marketplace. And that’s exactly what’s happened, commercially speaking.”

    The link above gives an expert’s view of some of the vertical axis turbines’ essential shortcomings. The link below is also worth reading.

    As for the unfortunate Squaw Creek confrontation: I’m a strong supporter of wind energy and I recognize that a certain number of bird fatalities are unavoidable, but a wind farm that would kill a disproportionate number of birds would be a propaganda victory for wind’s opponents and a setback for its advocates. The industry has been aware of the impact of the bird-shredder meme and has worked conscientiously to prevent bird fatalities. If there’s any reasonable risk that this wind farm could turn into a new Altamont Pass, it should be dropped or relocated. The U.S. has an abundance of good wind resources.

    P.S. Wind and solar complement each other, so they are not simply exchangeable. Also, an area with good utility scale wind resources might not have good utility scale solar resources.

  9. Don’t fetishize efficiency. Sometimes existing is important too. Eg. You can’t put the most efficient possible windmill on the roof of your building. But you still might want a windmill there.

    I could go on, and I likely will later.

    The overall objective is not efficiency, it is keeping all of the Carbon in the ground. Efficiency is a very important part of that but it is not the bias of every other thing. KAOTCITG is the boss if everything.

  10. You’re welcome.

    Re. keeping as much carbon in the ground as possible: If we’re inefficient we can’t do it.
    The worst possible example is the cute little renewable device that in all probability will never be able to reproduce the amount of energy that went into making it. Better, but still insufficient, are those whose EROI isn’t high enough to sustain a human civilization capable of providing amenities such as education, health care, and culture – literature, music, etc.

    I understand that R&D and the initial stages of implementation are a necessary learning process that involve a degree of waste. But one of the aims is to increase efficiency and reduce cost. Among other things, this means siting wind turbines where the wind blows and solar panels where the sun shines, and not just anywhere because it makes an environmental statement. It also means that large-scale, social solutions are generally better than small-scale, individual ones. (Note generally – small-scale, e.g. rooftop solar can make good sense. Small-scale wind rarely does.)

  11. Again, don’t fetishize efficiency.

    The most efficient way to get to work on your daily commute, in terms of time spent (a key measure of efficiency in a person’s busy work day) is to have your car accelerate as fast as possible at every opportunity so you spend as little time as possible speeding up to the speed limit when you need to do that. But the maximum possible acceleration would kill you. So maximizing efficiency in that regard is not something we do.

    The most efficient windmills are super big potentially fast high up turbines placed were there is a lot of wind. Transmission losses are higher, though, when those sites are far from cities. In some cases it may be more efficient overall to place turbines in less efficient but closer locations. When you do that, you don’t take wind away from the distant turbines. In this case, maximizing efficiency overall may be a matter of reducing efficiency with respect to siting the turbines. But to do that you have to be willing to consider more factors than just the windmill’s output.

    If we care about the environment enough to bother building windmills we probably care about important migratory routes or breeding grounds for birds. Placing the most efficient windmills in good locations that also happen to endanger birds is not acceptable. A less efficient windmill that has significantly reduced impacts on birds reaches the overall goal of getting some carbon-free electricity while not wiping out local populations of birds. That’s like not being killed by acceleration during your commute.

    There are tradeoffs in efficiency all over the place. If we focus on one or two of the most obvious places for efficiency and fetishize those numbers and don’t consider other factors, in some cases well actually be less efficient and in other cases we may be similarly efficient but we may be tossing some other important goal under the bus.

    I was certainly not suggesting that electricity generating devices be placed where they make environmental statements … that’s something you’ve added to my argument that wasn’t there. Having said that, now that you mention it, this may not be a terrible thing to do in some limited cases. There is a windmill near my house that is smallish, low down to the ground (relatively) and that is powered by an electric motor sometimes to make it look like it is working. It sits over the energy company’s headquarters. My understanding is that it makes more electricity than it uses, but it does in fact turn under power sometimes. Obviously that is very inefficient, but they feel it makes a point (I won’t argue if it is worth it or not). It is their version of a billboard advertising wind power. The same money that pays for that could have been use to produce a TV ad or a traditinoal billboard. Indeed, companies in the energy business do make billboards and TV ads.

    One could argue that every turbine built by an energy company is less efficient than it could be in terms of cost v return because that same company puts money into promotion, advertising, paying employees reasonable salaries, etc. Really, they should not advertise at all and tap the human trafficking market to get slaves to work for them. That would be way more efficient!

    Minnesota has good wind but lousy sun much f the year simply because the sun is low during the winter. To be efficient we should all move to Texas. Again, a horrific solution to increase efficiency. (Having said that we should probably be encouraging the development of electricity intensive energy in regions where mondo solar and/or wind generation can be carried out to support the industry.)

    Factories should run when the carbon-free energy is maximally available, to meet our carbon-in-the-ground goal and be efficient. This requires changing the nature of the work day and the work year for employees. Frankly I think we should experiment with that. But the truth is, nobody is really ever going to take that seriously. So there goes that efficiency, without a word of consideration.

    So, not only should we not fetishized efficiency, we should remember that we are being willfully inefficient in many areas (siting, timing of activities, etc.) and not even giving that a second thought.

    Here’s an example of small scale wind that disproves your point. I can build a device that has a small generator in it and that spins on a horizontal axis (much like the device that is already on many exhaust pipes on roofs) that generates enough electricity when it is breezy to charge my computer’s uninterruptible power supply (if I had one) or a couple of lights. I can built it for a few dollars and strap it to a 2×4 and use it at my house. If I don’t do that I get zero wind energy at home. If I do it I get non-zero and with little cost of materials. A friend of mine did this as a hobbiest activity, using an old car for 100% of the raw materials including the generator. (He had a bigger yard). It used zero raw materials that were not just rusting in the yard, and produced free energy. The time he spent was otherwise going to be spent hanging out and drinking beer. That is not inefficient.

    You can’t put a vibrating windmill (i.e. a larger, faster, efficient one) on many structures where wind energy might be useful. But you can put a lower speed, less efficient on there, perhaps. This is a solvable engineering problem. I have a very hard time believing that we know in advance that the calculations will always no matter what be negative on returns for such a thing. The only way that math works –that if wind turbine design efficiency and citing are the only factors — is if you put the F coefficient in there (F = 0 when those two considerations alone are not maximized) because we Fetishize efficiency … anything perceived as less than maximally efficient has its returns multiplied by zero because EFFICIENCY.)

  12. Before REA, it was common in the Texas hill country to see small wind chargers on farms and ranches. As I recall they were two bladed, with counterbalances, maybe 10 ft in diameter.

  13. Greg –

    (First a couple of corrections:
    “Wind and solar…are not simply exchangeable.”
    Should have been: interchangeable.
    “… are a necessary learning process that involve a degree of waste.”
    Should have been: …that involves…)

    If my second comment had been more nuanced it would have been very long. I’m aware that efficiency isn’t just about output and the highest possible number. I was, in fact, considering mentioning transmission lines, but I would have focused on a cost-benefit evaluation, because a system based on long distance HVDC would limit power loss significantly. Among the benefits would be that a geographically diversified power supply would be better at evening out intermittency problems. I was also considering quoting a passage from a European report explaining that the highest capacity factor isn’t necessarily the best solution. It’s worth quoting, so here it is:

    “By changing the size of the generator relative to the size of the rotor area a designer can really change the capacity factor of the wind turbine very much at will (for a given annual wind speed pattern). Let us redesign the turbine we used in Section 1.6.1. to prove this point.
    When we discussed the frequency of wind speeds at a typical wind farm site, we noted that on that particular site our 1.8 MW turbine would only be producing at maximum rated power during 18% of the hours of the year. During those hours, however, the turbine would be producing 43% of annual energy output. Now, if we downgrade our generator with, say one tenth, our turbine becomes a 1.62 MW wind turbine. This is equivalent to putting a ceiling on our power curve in Figure 1.20 of 1.62 MW. The annual energy output from the turbine will drop by 4.5%, but since we down- graded the generator even more, by 10%, our capacity factor will increase from 35.5% to 37.7%.(21)
    Will the wind turbine owner be happier with this larger capacity factor? No, obviously not, because his annual energy sales dropped by 4.5%, and the cost savings from using a 10% smaller generator are likely to be only around 0.5% of the price of the wind turbine.
    Hence, we see that differences in capacity factors for wind turbines are useless as indicators of the profit- ability of wind farms…
    Unusually large capacity factors may indeed be a danger sign that a turbine is not optimised for the wind climate in which it is operating, as our example proved.” p.54
    A reasonable view of efficiency would also have to include factors such as uptime and lifespan.
    Re. birds:
    “If we care about the environment enough to bother building windmills we probably care about important migratory routes or breeding grounds for birds. Placing the most efficient windmills in good locations that also happen to endanger birds is not acceptable.”
    Placing inefficient turbines along important migratory routes or along access routes to breeding grounds would also be unacceptable. Certain sites with good wind resources should be off limits. There would be plenty of good ones left. But I have no illusions that all bird deaths can be avoided, and I believe that holding wind to an unrealistic standard can only serve the interests of the fossil fuel industries that kill and endanger many more. And, as I wrote, the wind industry is aware of the problem and is taking steps to address it. The following, from AWEA, refers specifically to eagles:
    “Eagle fatalities only occur at a very small number of facilities across the country. In fact, collision with turbines at modern wind farms is responsible for less than 2 percent of all reported human-caused golden eagle fatalities, and only a handful of bald eagle fatalities ever, with vastly greater amounts attributed to power lines, vehicle strikes, lead poisoning, drowning in stock tanks, illegal shootings, etc.
    A significant mortality rate at individual wind sites is even rarer and exists primarily at very few wind farms developed in the 1980s, long before the interaction between eagles and turbines was understood.
    It is estimated that eagle fatalities will be reduced by as much as 80% as those long-standing wind sites replace their shorter, more numerous, faster-rotating old turbines with taller, less numerous, slower-rotating modern turbines that are sited based on more experience.”
    Note – those fewer, slower turbines are far more efficient than the ones they replace, and this is part of a general tendency. In Denmark we have essentially the same number of turbines today that we had in 1998, but the kWhs they produce have gone up fourfold. (You seem to be confusing rotor speed with efficiency. It doesn’t quite work that way.)
    To sum up, I agree that efficiency includes more than the turbine’s output and that there are tradeoffs. Having clarified that I would repeat that efficiency is a prerequisite for leaving as much carbon as possible in the ground. Your example didn’t disprove my point. I didn’t say that small-scale wind never made sense, but that it rarely does, and I still think that’s accurate. Energy is a social need, and modern societies need large-scale energy.
    If you want to get an idea of what I don’t find defensible, you can look here:
    I’m sorry that I can’t reply to everything you wrote, but this is already beyond long and it’s already past midnight. Good night.

    REA was one of those liberal socialist government projects to make life better for rural Americans. Actually we got private electricity from West Texas Utilities around 1943. REA was slowed down by WWII. And, as said, it inspired private development of rural electricity.

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