Renewable Energy Overview
'Renewable Power,' we hear this phrase everywhere because of our growing concern about limited fossil fuels and the potential damage they are doing to our environment. The allure of natural, inexhaustible, free sources of power is great and should be explored and utilized when and where it makes sense. A few examples of renewable energy are wind, solar, hydroelectric, and geothermal; and while each of these has great potential, nothing is without its drawbacks. At the moment renewable power accounts for seven percent of America's energy consumption and is trending upward.
Many of these power supplies, however, are not cost effective and survive only through government subsidies and tax cuts. History has shown that government has a poor track record when it tries to decide market winners and losers. This lesson has been demonstrated in the energy business and on many other playing fields. Only two years ago ethanol was in vogue and was being pushed hard by federal and state regulators and industry groups with something to gain. Now it is common knowledge that it had an adverse impact on food prices, created environmental problems, took more energy to create than it produces and even caused damage to auto engines.
We believe in innovation and support initiatives that ween us from foreign energy sources. We use the example of ethanol only to show how quickly a product or technology can fall from grace. This newsletter edition is intended to provide a general overview of some of the more prominent renewable energy sources that could shape our future.
Types of Renewable Energy
Fiction: Wind is a free source of power that has no adverse environmental impacts and can replace our fossil fuels.
Fact: To many wind turbines are an eyesore and noisy. They require an extremely large footprint relative to other power sources, often on scenic mountain tops or seaside horizons. Miles of transmission towers, that have been opposed by environmentalists for years, also have to be built to bring that power to the grid. The 200 foot plus turbines can also interfere with the migratory routes of birds and now aquatic life as wind farms at sea are becoming more popular.
Wind turbines require sustained winds of at least 10mph; that limits them to certain environments. After construction wind-powered electricity only achieves an availability rate of approximately 30%. Each turbine requires one half an acre of land - even more space when multiple turbines exist.
Ideas for large scale wind farming have been proposed by philanthropists such as T. Boone Pickens, who is suggesting building a "wind corridor" stretching from the Texas panhandle to the Canadian border. This project would have a very long payback period and we only need look at Spain to see how unreliable the power grid becomes when you rely too heavily on wind sources. After the construction job boon, many manufacturing jobs have actually been lost in Spain as industrial customers flee in search of reliable power. The cost for electricity has also increased considerably adding to the economic woes. Pickens' bold project, however, does appear to have strong support in Congress and it would create many needed jobs over the next two decades.
Fiction: Geothermal energy is nothing but a show at Yellowstone. It is an unreliable phenomena that cannot harnessed.
Fact: Geothermal energy is actually one of the most promising types of renewable power. The power comes, as the name implies, from the heat of the Earth, from underground reservoirs of hot dry rocks hot water and steam. Geothermal energy can be found in countless regions, but the highest temperature, and thus the most desirable resources are found in the vicinity of active volcanoes.
Power plants that run on geothermal, use heat from the earth to heat water, which then turns a secondary fluid into steam to drive a turbine and produce electricity. These plants are closed-loop systems, so they release nothing into the atmosphere. A big limitation of geothermal energy is proximity, as noted the best sources are near active volcanoes. This means an ideally placed plant would be built on potentially hazardous terrain. Also, to tap into this power you often have to drill 4000 feet under the surface. A number of geothermal plants are active in the United States. California leads the way with 5 percent of its electric demand met by geothermal sources.
A smaller scale and more practical application of geothermal is the Heat Pump system that has become common in residential and commercial applications. This innovation uses energy from the ground and/or air to aid in heating and cooling. This technology is proven and easily implemented, but is only effective in moderate climates.
Fiction: Hydroelectric is an outdated method of producing electricity. When it is put into use it requires a large amount of fast moving water to produce even a small amount of energy.
Fact: Hydroelectric is currently the leading renewable energy source used by electric utilities to generate power. Many of the best waterways have been producing electricity for years, such as the Hoover Dam, the TVA project, Ice Harbor Dam and the Gauley River Facility in West Virginia.
Once built, hydroelectric facilities create little environmental impact and tend to blend in well with their surroundings. The water flow through the system remains fairly constant and reservoirs are often used to enable hydro facilities to be brought on in times of peak need. "Upper" reservoirs are filled by electric-driven pumps at night time, when electric rates are low, and then the water is released during the day to create electricity needed to meet peak demands.
Because water sources are different, the installed capacity cost of a hydroelectric facility can range between $1,500 and $25,000 per kilowatt. Contrast that to a similar sized natural gas fired combustion turbine that can be built for less than $500/kW. Moreover, like wind power, we are at the mercy of mother nature. With hydro power, seasonal changes and droughts cause rivers and reservoirs to swell and shrink, making this application unsuitable to meet baseload demand. As with many renewable resources, its value lies in the ability to augment traditional sources of energy that are produced from coal, natural gas and nuclear.
The potential for renewable energy sources is endless and future generations will hopefully benefit from the gains being made today. Our biggest challenge may be striking the balance that allows private industry to work in harmony with government mandates to harness the wind, sun and waves in an economical fashion. If you would like to purchase Green Power to demonstrate your environmental stewardship or to meet a state regulation, please contact the experts at Independent Energy Consultants.