An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles

August 1, 2010

Solar Power now Cheaper than Nuclear

Inhabit reports that one study in North Carolina shows solar-produced electricity from a new plant clocking in at 14 cents/killowatt hour, while nuclear-produced electricity clocks in at 16 cents. This is big news, potentially, for reasons I touched on here: photovoltaic solar (i.e. solar-produced electricity, as opposed to passive solar heating)  has been improving in leaps and bounds over the last decade or so, and as it does, it starts to cut into the profitability of dirtier energy sources.

Bulky, expensive, fragile glass panels are giving way to cheaper, flexible vinyl ones. Increased demand (especially from China) has allowed companies that make solar panels to scale up their operations, making each panel cheaper. There are still some drawbacks–those are some very large, non-renewable silicon wafers they use, the cheaper thin-film cells are a few percent less efficient than the crystalline cells, and so on.

The folks at Inhabit point out that this study isn’t even the tip-top of the solar world: this study used regular flat-panel-generated power, not any of the sexy concentrating reflectors shown above. And North Carolina isn’t exactly the sunniest place on earth. Moreover, they show the cost of nuclear power rising. Nuclear power plants are hugely expensive to construct, and when states use nuclear to add to their electric output, those costs get split between the consumers and taxpayers–it’s not like the company is going to just eat the cost. You can download the complete study, done by Duke and NC WARN, here. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with their money graph (though I don’t know why they insisted on using straight lines for their best fit curve, when the cost of nuclear is definitely more of an S-curve), and one of my favorite ever solar power station: this one in Seville, Spain, that channels sunlight toward a giant boiler/turbine tower. It works on the same principle as a coal burning plant, but with sunlight instead of coal. And it’s literally awesome:

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June 13, 2010

The Biofuel Bubble: Looking Ahead to Our Next Economic Disaster

Biofuels and alternative energy are, broadly speaking, one of my professional interests as well as a political hobbyhorse. I don’t claim to be an expert by any means, but I try to keep up with the news, and at times I’ve made my living working on the biology side of some research projects. What I’m saying here is, don’t take me too seriously. This is just my opinion, as Some Guy on the Internet.

And now on to that opinion. I’m going to put on my Unprovable Prediction hat, and spin out some thoughts that started in a recent conversation with a friend.

I think worldwide, and in the US especially, there will eventually be a market boom-and-bust centering around renewable energy sources. Let me explain.

First, demand will only keep growing, for any number of reasons. I know environmentalists have been going on about peak oil since the 70′s, but it is bound to happen sooner or later. Note that doesn’t mean we’ll wake up one day to find the wells all dry. Just that we’ve drilled the most convenient wells first, and the price of oil will go up as the petroleum industry has to move on to lower grade wells, in less convenient places (ahem, Gulf of Mexico, ahem), at greater cost. As that happens, technologies (say, biodiesel, solar electricity or biojet (jet fuel)) which were a little too expensive before to be competitive will find themselves in a much more appealing place.

Moreover, many of those technologies are expensive for ‘fixable’ reasons–there’s room for more R&D to make them cheaper or more efficient (e.g. solar panels have recently taken a sudden leap forward), they haven’t had the chance to get good economies-of-scale going (look at the price on electric cars). Oil and coal companies have benefited disproportionately from having the living shit subsidized out of them, but that could change. Not that I expect the US will stop kissing oil company ass any time soon, but if Monsanto or the Iowa Corn Growers Association decide they want to be move into the energy market, they may get the way paved for them.

And there is demand. Huge demand, for anything cheaper, anything ‘greener,’ anything that could give America a new economic edge. Maybe not the biggest force in the economy, but not something I’d dismiss lightly. A couple years ago, I toured a biodiesel manufacturing plant in rural Georgia. Every day, they turned thousands of gallons of sub-food-grade chicken fat into diesel fuel and glycerine. I asked if there was much of a market out there, where they sold their product. The VP showing us around just chuckled his gool ol’ boy chuckle and said they didn’t even have a sales staff, they had so much demand each batch was sold in advance. They had just started working on a bigger facility to increase their production many times over, in the hopes of keeping up.

So where does the bust come in? Well, frankly, hopes are too high, and there’s no way of knowing what will work out. If we leave the market to sort it out, the market will do the same thing it did with the internet during the dot-com bubble–realize that a relatively new, smallish industry is growing much faster than the rest of the economy, decide it’s the Wave of the Future, and shit itself with glee. The problem with the dot-com bubble wasn’t that the internet wasn’t going anywhere (you’re reading this now, aren’t you?) it was that is was incredibly hard to guess in advance how the internet would fit in to people’s lives, and investors sort of knew that.  But rather than sit back and try to figure it out, they looked at the huge returns from a handful of successful start-ups and decided it was a good idea to deliver dump trucks full of cash to every comp-sci dropout with a witty-sounding web address, on the assumption that a few good bets would balance out their losses.

Renewable energy technologies have a similar problem. We don’t know yet how much better any given scheme can get. And expectations are often too high; when I talk to non-scientists, including some really smart people about this issue, I hear a lot of variations on ‘Ok, so which one will it be? When the oil runs out, will we switch to ethanol? Will everything be solar powered? Who’s gonna win?’

The answer is, no one technology will replace the oil industry, ever. There’s no magic bullet. If oil and coal go way up in price, if consumers even ever start having to pay the full price of the mess they make, we’re not just going to swap one energy source for another and go on like nothing happened. It’ll take a piecemeal approach, using solar where it’s sunny, wind where it’s windy, finding myriad different ways to turn whatever spare biomass a region has on hand into power. Some ideas will fail–if it doesn’t get better soon, it may be time to disappoint the corn industry and shove non-cellulosic ethanol production off the roster, never mind that it’s supposed to be one of the Biggest New Things.

And, in the event of any real attempt to slow climate change, stop using oil or build a ‘sustainable’ economy, we’re going to have to make some cutbacks. Switching to smaller homes, biking more than driving, and buying less shit would all go much farther than everyone rushing out to get a new hybrid. But contemporary capitalism is predicated on endless, ever expanding consumer spending. And when it becomes obvious that there’s no way to solve our energy problems just by buying more or different stuff, the US stock market is going to have a very, very bad day.

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December 26, 2008

More Fawning over Political Appointments

Ok, I promise this will be the last one. Probably.

Anyway, the scientific gossip mill (yes, there is one, so stop snickering) has it that Obama will appoint John Holdren as his top scientific adviser. From Wired Science:

Holdren, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School and former director of the Woods Hole Research Center, is best-known for his outspoken views on climate change, energy and government.

“The ongoing disruption of the Earth’s climate by man-made greenhouse gases is already well beyond dangerous and is careening toward completely unmanageable,” he wrote in October in Scientific American. “To achieve a better-than-even chance of not exceeding that figure, human emissions must start to decline soon, falling to about half of today’s level by 2050 and further thereafter.”

Lookin’ good. He’s all over environmental policy, and he at least says serious stuff about climate change. Plus, he should have an easier go of it that this poor bastard had under Bush. (also, what is it with presidents picking laser experts for high-level policy jobs? Is it just because lasers are badass, or is there some sort of relevence I’m missing here?

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May 15, 2008

Wind Power, Part One

Wired Science posted Monday about a new Department of Energy report that suggests the US could get 20% of its on-grid electricity from wind power by 2030. The report suggest that as it stands now, wind power and solar thermal power* are the only zero-emission power sources ready to be scaled up in a major way.

Personally, I’m not convinced the current big-power-plant-supports-a-large-area model is worth switching to new energy sources. Demanding that any new technology be able to produce large amounts of power in one spot overshadows technologies that can provide just enough power on the spot. Wind power may be able to do both.

The problem with wind power, traditionally, has been that any turbine large enough to produce significant amounts of power was too heavy to turn at all unless the wind was very, very strong. Using lighter weigh materials for the blades has helped significantly, but I think these guys have the right idea. Basically, they’ve strung together dozens of small turbines in parallel. Each makes a small amount of power, which adds up to some pretty significant voltage. They claim that, in high wind, their rig can blow out a bank of car headlights like flashbulbs. They’ve patented their design, but the Make blog is calling for someone to come up with a homemade version, since the design is basically a bunch of model airplane propellers strung along a pole.

*as opposed to solar photovoltaic power, made with solar panels. I’ve got an upcoming post planned on those two.

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