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Saturday, November 13, 2010

An Insane Waste Of Money

A solar panel power plant in MA, of all places. Words fail me; this is apparently the result of state legislation:
The Western Massachusetts Electric Co. site in Pittsfield, New England's largest solar project, promises to produce enough electricity for about 300 homes starting later this month. That's a tiny fraction of what the region needs to run computers, lights, TVs and everything else utility customers take for granted.

But the $9.4 million solar plant and an even larger project planned for Springfield next year are expected to spur job growth in the solar industry and eventually make the cost of solar power competitive with the oil-burning furnaces that are common in New England.
Yeah, because solar power plants really generate a ton of electricity in the north during those dark, short winter days and very long winter nights when the heating is needed. If you want to stop using heating oil in New England, you are not going to manage it using solar power.

Blue states need more engineers and less politicians.

Btw, when MA asks for more federal help with its other costs, just remember how they spent these $$.

DU, of course, is thrilled and impressed.

Springfield. That's a wooded area. Unless they are building on a contaminated brownfield (unlikely) they are cutting down trees. Those trees were soaking up carbon dioxide. Now, had a few of them been cut for lumber or paper periodically (and sustainably) it would have taken carbon out of the atmosphere and ecosystem.

I'm not into anthropogenic global warming (or cooling, or anything else). But I wonder if the people who support projects like this have considered all the inputs and outputs. I expect that green-plant photosynthesis captures a much larger fraction of solar energy than our best thermodynamic and quantum-mechanical (photovoltaic) systems can. Someone check me, but I think we're talking 70% capture versus maybe 35% capture using a combined system. Which one will create a heat island?
They are building it on contaminated soil. That's one good thing.

Yes, if you wanted to look at energy efficiency, a tree is an incredibly efficient wind/solar capture system.

Millions of years of evolution have been remarkably efficient at generating carbon-collecting power units.

I think biology will beat engineering for some time to come in this area.
Don't get me wrong, I love my solar cell phone charger. But it just underlines the point: none of these alternative energy schemes are going to be of any practical use until we have a good way to store the electricity for later use, and that means better battery technology than we have now. Until that happens, pushing these energy sources is just a waste of time, money, and materials, because the electricity will all be generated unpredictably and at the wrong times.
Wacky Hermit, you ought to be President Obama's energy advisor. The one he has now, Stevn Chu, doesn't know what you do. He's got a Phd and Nobel Prize, but you've got what really counts, common sense.
Storage technology isn't going to solve the problem of these uncontrollable, stochastic energy sources, i.e., wind and solar. They produce to much or to little at the wrong times and can be unproductive for long periods. These systems actually destabilize the electricity grid since they require very different systems to try to balance than the energy from "stocks."

Check out theoildrum.com tag "Fake Fire Brigade" for a series of posts that discuss the engineering and economics of "renewables" and their impact on the current grid. There has to be load to burn every watt of energy produced at any given time with systems that maintain a base and systems that can surge. Solar and wind dump excess energy at times affecting the economic operation of the base load and require 100% surge coverage for when they don't produce. Basic outcome, the sources are unpredictable, require complex and expensive storage technology of four times the required load (and for wind that must store 20 days worth of backup).
It seems to me (and my non-mechanical engineering degree is old and disused) that if you are designing a new combined-cycle gas turbine/steam plant, it should be possible to build a five-to-one or six-to-one peaking capacity into it, although it will be expensive and it will mean that you lose some efficiency at the low end.

Here's what I see, and someone more knowledgable can shoot me down: if you have, say, a dozen gas turbines, you should be able to bring them offline (but still turning in an 'idling' condition) quickly. And it should be possible to go from idling to full power quickly.

Your steam plant will take longer, but as you throttle back the gurbine plant, you'll be putting less heat into the steam plant. You might have only six turbines on it, or even fewer (and perhaps two or three on one shaft) and you need enough steam reserve and enough throttle regulation that you can wind the plant down relatively quickly and spin it up quickly, even at some loss in steam pressure. In essense, you are using the gas turbines as tweeter and the steam turbines as woofer--only you have to keep their power production in proper phase alignment. This can be done with digital controls; it becomes a question of reserve and inefficiency.

If the combustion gasses are not provided by natural gas it's much harder. If you are burning oil, it will be a very heavy grade and you need to keep everything hot and the system will need special provisions to idle. If you are starting with coal and burning it directly (or reforming it, then burning it) those processes must somehow be managed. Storage, inefficiency, and cost all pile up, which is why a scheme like this really needs either natural gas or gas reforming with a lot of storage and a very adjustable supply.

If we are going to allow individuals to sell power back into the grid, we will probably have to require that those systems respond to signals on the grid. State one: as much power back as you like. State 2: we'll take the power, but we'll pay only one half for it. State 3: we'll take the power, but we won't pay at all for it. State 4: STOP! A more sophisticated system might merge states 2 and 3 into a continuum. Then the producer can decide whether it is better to feed the energy back or use it to (say) chill or heat a phase-change reservoir locally. (Hey, a market!)
If someone wants to use solar energy to reduce oil consumption for heating in New England, it would make far more sense to focus on rooftop heaters which heat water directly. Properly insulated, such a system could provide at least some storage capability for the heat, and also avoids the generation, inversion, and transmission losses that occur with a solar-to-electricity-to-heat system. The economics might still not be competitive with oil heat, but I bet they'd look a *lot* better than the system being hyped.
if this plant, costing $9.4 million, is only going to supply 300 houses, that is $31,333 per house. Plus, there will have to be additional sources of electric for the long dark evenings and other times of clouds...talk about destruction of capital. the Greenie creed is a cargo cult.
Massachusettes using funds in poor ways? That is a shocker to a life long Bay State resident!
I just read these questions elsewhere, and I think they are at least obliquely related to the waste you mention:

"What if virtually every variety of debt security were still overvalued? What if, to put it another way, the aggregate demand for debt securities had fallen off dramatically and never returned to its pre-crisis state? What if virtually every imaginable mechanism of accounting legerdemain, every method of budgetary chicanery, every generous wink-and-nod easement, every facility of subtle support for usury, had been employed in the effort to prevent the pain of that massive loss in demand from being felt?"

What if the insane waste (public and private) has lead to this situation? Are there answers to these questions? If our waste has led us to this situation, is there an out?

Credit where due: http://www.redstate.com/paul_j_cella/2010/11/12/some-hard-questions-on-political-economy/
John Cunningham - exactly.

Not only do solar panels provide much more net electricity per panel in the south, the power they provide is much better matched to peak power demand, which is associated with cooling.

In the north, there is less net power generated but much worse, the peak generation profile is the reverse of the peak demand profile.

So there is not a shadow of a chance that MA can ever replace fossil fuels with solar power, and this article and DU's enthusiastic endorsement stands as a monument of idiocy that rivals the later alchemists.

This isn't "Green"; it's magical thinking. Solar panels used as amulets in a fantasy adventure.
NJCommuter - the grid can accept power from highly variable point sources only until the net output at the high end goes over a certain percent, and then power will literally blow up the grid. Which, of course, means that later when the theoretical break even point is reached (theory being that fossil fuel costs keep rising) in fact the net effective output of installed renewables will drop instead of increase. So we never reach that point. That should be obvious even to a non-engineer who thinks about this for half a day.

But engineering is absent; we now live in a country in which impossibility is no barrier.

It's like watching lemmings run off a cliff.
Yes, solar makes sense in the southern US (coast-to-coast southern, that is) to power air conditioning loads, which are usefully fairly synchronized with solar energy. Doesn't make a whole lot of sense otherwise.
njcommuter - What you speculate is how things work in a fashion but natural gas is expensive which is why it is used only for peaking plants. Coal, oil and nuclear are used for base load plants and become very inefficient (costly) when not working at near full load. Use to much natural gas generated power or swing the base loads out of full utilization and you run the cost/KWh up real fast. And the cost of energy drives the economy. If it increases much from where it is now, recession. Which is why when oil runs up, the economy runs down. Long term increases in energy costs will drive industry out of the country faster than higher wages. Same for the grid becoming unstable as it will once renewables become even a small significant percentage. Also, once a steel plant goes cold it stays cold, cheaper to build a new one. Similar with an aluminum plant.
To further illuminate what David seems to be talking about:

I had a classmate in college in 1982 tell me about his northern Wisconsin fraternity's solar heating system. The frat house already had hot water heating. They bought a boiler, some river rocks, a heat exchanger, 10 car radiators, some wood, some black paint (green would have been better), a timer, a pump, and some one-way mirrors; all for about $1,000. They put the boiler in the basement, filled with river rocks. The put the heat exchanger in the boiler, and hooked it to the house's existing hot water heating system. Outside, they put the black painted radiators in wooden boxes painted black on the inside, with the one way mirrors on the side facing the sun, and hooked them up to the boiler via the pump, which was on a timer. They set it up so that the pump was only on during the day, and the water in the radiators drained back into the boiler when the pump was off. They saved over $1,000 on their heating bill the first winter. They eventually had to put a pressure relief valve on the boiler, as the temperature in the boiler was routinely exceeding 250 degrees, and they were afraid it would blow.

There are ways to heat your home with solar in New England, but photovoltaic might not be the best way to do it, due to its quantum nature (not every photon that hits a photovoltaic panel is available as electricity, but it is available as heat).
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