March 31, 2009

Just to be a jerk, Glenn Beck yesterday used his show to demonstrate -- like a number of his fellow right-wingers -- his utter contempt for Earth Hour: running his klieg lights at full blast to show how much energy he could waste. Yeah, that's the kind of responsible rhetoric we need more of. Whatever.

But the really special moment in the broadcast came when he started talking about wind power as an alternative form of energy with Tom Borelli of the "Free Enterprise Action Fund" -- a right-wing anti-environmental outfit -- about the Obama energy plan, and this burst out:

Beck: You can't make wind energy work without nuclear energy as well. Wind stops --

Borelli: You know that, but Congress doesn't know that.

Beck: Use your common sense! Hey America! Use common sense here! Let just try this out!

Wind, when it blows, makes energy. When it stops, you can't store it, so what's making the energy? Wind energy doesn't work without something else making energy for when the wind stops, which it does -- especially if Al Gore controls the temperature, and all the winds and everything else, so we never have blowy days!


The problem with Beck is that he packs so much ignorance and misinformation into a single rant that it's hard to figure out where to start. Suffice to say that one can easily find out that there are numerous strategies for dealing with the unreliability of wind power:

Electricity generated from wind power can be highly variable at several different timescales: from hour to hour, daily, and seasonally. Annual variation also exists, but is not as significant. Because instantaneous electrical generation and consumption must remain in balance to maintain grid stability, this variability can present substantial challenges to incorporating large amounts of wind power into a grid system. Intermittency and the non-dispatchable nature of wind energy production can raise costs for regulation, incremental operating reserve, and (at high penetration levels) could require an increase in the already existing energy demand management, load shedding, or storage solutions or system interconnection with HVDC cables. At low levels of wind penetration, fluctuations in load and allowance for failure of large generating units requires reserve capacity that can also regulate for variability of wind generation.

A series of detailed modelling studies which looked at the Europe wide adoption of renewable energy and interlinking power grids using HVDC cables, indicates that the entire power usage could come from renewables, with 70% total energy from wind at the same sort of costs or lower than at present. Intermittency would be dealt with, according to this model, by a combination of geographic dispersion to de-link weather system effects, and the ability of HVDC to shift power from windy areas to non-windy areas.[27][28]

Pumped-storage hydroelectricity or other forms of grid energy storage can store energy developed by high-wind periods and release it when needed.[29] Stored energy increases the economic value of wind energy since it can be shifted to displace higher cost generation during peak demand periods. The potential revenue from this arbitrage can offset the cost and losses of storage; the cost of storage may add 25% to the cost of any wind energy stored, but it is not envisaged that this would apply to a large proportion of wind energy generated. Thus the 2 GW Dinorwig pumped storage plant adds costs to nuclear energy in the UK for which it was built, but not to all the power produced from the 30 or so GW of nuclear plants in the UK.

In particular geographic regions, peak wind speeds may not coincide with peak demand for electrical power. In California and Texas, for example, hot days in summer may have low wind speed and high electrical demand due to air conditioning. Some utilities subsidize the purchase of geothermal heat pumps by their customers, to reduce electricity demand during the summer months by making air conditioning up to 70% more efficient;[30] widespread adoption of this technology would better match electricity demand to wind availability in areas with hot summers and low summer winds. Geothermal heat pumps also allow renewable electricity from wind to displace natural gas and heating oil for central heating during winter, when winds tend to be stronger in many areas. Another option is to interconnect widely dispersed geographic areas with a relatively cheap and efficient HVDC "Super grid". In the USA it is estimated that to upgrade the transmission system to take in planned or potential renewables would cost at least $60 billion[31]. Total annual US power consumption in 2006 was 4 thousand billion kilowatt hours. [32] Over an asset life of 40 years and low cost utility investment grade funding, the cost of $60 billion investment would be about 5% p.a. ie $3 billion p.a. Dividing by total power used gives an increased unit cost of around $3,000,000,000 x 100 / 4,000 x 1 exp9 = 0.075 cent / kWh.

In other words, it's entirely possible to build all kinds of storage capacity to overcome the problem. Wind power certainly works best as a complementary part of a larger energy grid in which there are multiple forms of power generation. The key is building a grid that carries the capacity to storage.

Moreover, there's nothing that says nuclear power needs to be the source for this complementary power. Here in the Northwest, we have lots of hydroelectric power as our energy base; other regions use coal-fired plants. Solar energy is also becoming a bigger player in the puzzle, as are other forms of generation.

Glenn Beck might understand all this a little better if he were using someone other than an industry shill for his information source.


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