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home : opinions : letters May 23, 2016

8/8/2013 2:58:00 PM
Letter: It's time to invest in small-scale power generation


Facts are needed to understand current trends in climate change, but I don't see that Peter Nelson's contributions in the July 31 VI are any less biased than Jim Barber's.

Vostok ice cores show that temperature changes preceded changes in atmospheric CO2 concentrations by more than 200 years. And although CO2 concentrations remained within about 185-285 ppm during the last few ice ages, geologic evidence shows previous levels have been many times higher.

Evolution of land-based life occurred rapidly at CO2 concentrations 20 times higher than today. Much of that CO2 was sequestered in the fossil fuels and limestone we use to produce energy and cement, so the current rise cannot continue "indefinitely."

But let's agree that the current restoration of Paleozoic CO2 into the atmosphere is unprecedented and should be drastically reduced. What can we and our children do besides express our concern?

The answer, short term, is: Not much.

As of June 2012, close to 1,200 new coal-fired power plants were planned in 59 countries, with the overwhelming majority in China and India. China built 50GW of coal-fired plants in 2012 -- about one plant per week. If we in the U.S. shut down all fossil fuel sources and returned to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, rise in CO2 levels would continue to accelerate.

How about those billions of tax dollars spent to promote construction of solar collectors covering thousands of acres of remote desert, massive expanses of bird-whacking wind turbines dominating once-pristine landscapes, and hundreds of miles of transmission lines needed to transfer the intermittent energy they produce to where it's most needed?

Isn't that a good start?

No. Contrary to industry propaganda, industrial-scale wind and solar are neither environmentally friendly nor sustainable.

Just the turbines for a 9,000-acre '100MW' wind farm (that will typically produce less than 30MW) require over 10,000 tons of steel and iron, 30,000 tons of concrete, and hundreds of tons of aluminum and copper. The expected lifespan of the turbine towers is less than 23 years, and for the oil-filled gearboxes it's less than 10.

The $2.2 billion Ivanpah solar plant, nearing completion on 3,500 acres of endangered Desert Tortoise habitat, has a capacity of 392MW...so long as sunlight is reflected onto tower-mounted boilers by 170,000 sun-tracking mirrors. It isn't a build-it-and-forget-it installation. The towers are connected to a natural gas pipeline because the boilers must be heated during morning start-up and when clouds hide the sun. And water must be pulled from the underlying aquifer to keep those 170,000 mirrors spotlessly clean (no easy task in a desert).

An estimated 3,374 Desert Tortoises were displaced by Ivanpah. Biologists expect most will die from stress and predation. For birds, however, there is an advantage over wind. Birds that fly too close to the 1,000-degree heat around the towers will hit the ground fully-cooked and ready to eat.

Even with $1.6 billion in federal loan guarantees, Ivanpah would not have been financially feasible if purchase of its 'renewable' power output wasn't mandated by the State of California.

These dinosaurs of inefficient power production will be trashing the landscape for generations beyond their useful lifespan. That's not the path to a clean energy future.

Wouldn't it be better to invest in small-scale power generation near to where it's used?

• Solar panel efficiency can certainly be improved, along with that of solar roofing material, and there are thousands of square miles of rooftops and parking lots that could be producing power.

• Geothermal is woefully undeveloped. It can be tapped for energy in some locations, and for heating and cooling anywhere.

• New compact nuclear plant technology doesn't need elaborate cooling systems, shuts down automatically if a component fails, can be mass-produced off-site in a factory, can be sited underground, and can run for 30 years without refueling.

It can produce power using our stockpile of nuclear waste from old power plants and dismantled weapons, and also from thorium--a safer and more abundant fuel than uranium.

Waste from such plants has a half-life in hundreds rather than hundreds of thousand years. It's a very different technology from that of Fukushima, and should be a priority for development.

It's past time to stop financing the destruction of our environment as a knee-jerk reaction to a trumped-up fear.

David Perrell


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Reader Comments

Posted: Tuesday, August 20, 2013
Article comment by: David Perrell

i. b. Spider: "...you're unrealistic…"

No, I'm just describing change I could believe in. I didn't say I believed that politicians will trade lobbyist-inspired corporate cronyism for solutions that could actually accomplish something long-term.

As for the control aspect, consumer grid-tie solar could be monitored and controlled through smart metering, which also gives law enforcement and advertisers (and possibly criminals) access to more information. So, assuming consumers can be cajoled into smart metering to realize cost savings (and most almost certainly can), government should have no problem with distributed solar.

If, on the other hand, storage becomes affordable and a lot of consumers begin going off-grid, expect to hear a hue and cry from faux collectivists that such individualistic action is harmful to society and must be regulated.

Posted: Tuesday, August 20, 2013
Article comment by: itsy bitsy Spider

I'd say you're unrealistic, Mr. Perrell.

Neither the Power Industry nor the government wants small-scale local power generation. The industry will consistently opt for massive instillations such as Ivanpah and Solana because it wants to control the market and maintain its political leverage. Federal and state governments will favor the power companies because they're easier to regulate, easier to tax, local governments can be obstructionist, and individuals can be extremely irresponsible.

No matter what they say, the energy barons and federal/state agencies will work together to prevent widespread local and/or personal ownership of the means of energy production.

Posted: Monday, August 19, 2013
Article comment by: Gray Grammarian

To Mary Heartman:
Yes, that is a problem. It might even have a bearing on the counter-productiveness of the current generation's environmental policies.

Posted: Sunday, August 18, 2013
Article comment by: Mary Heartman

Speaking of Loraxes:
Shouldn't something be done about the pseudo-science flooding into our K-12 schools?

I'm as fond of The Lorax as anyone. I've also been known to cheer on the Ents as they demolish Saruman's industrial complex. But instilling a sense of reverence and responsibility for one's environment is one thing. Disseminating misinformation and indoctrinating children in a specific course of action is quite another.

When my grandkids come home mourning hypothetical polar bears and spouting dubious truths as if they'd just gotten out of catechism, it's time for Grandma to haul out her college days as a Global Cooling activist and to go talk to teacher about inserting homilies into everything from social studies to mathematics.

It's ironic that the same people who laugh at creationist theories have no problem whatsoever with faith-based Cap and Trade.

Posted: Tuesday, August 13, 2013
Article comment by: More crappy energy!

Methane from sewage treatment plants and landfills can generate electricity in biogas-fuel generators. A new California sewage treatment plant is producing more energy than the plant uses. A retrofitted plant in Minnesota is expected to save the city $350,000 per year. But 98% of plants that could utilize the methane are still putting it into the atmosphere. What a waste.

Posted: Tuesday, August 13, 2013
Article comment by: Slater Slater

Solar is the future,problem is the Electric Corp
have to buy back all non used power.There within lies the problem.The money spent to buy back that electricity will be passed on to
those least able to afford higher bills.
Here we go round in circles we opp like a bird
up in the sky.

Posted: Tuesday, August 13, 2013
Article comment by: Matthew Holmes

...while on the subject of deforestation, let's not forget that all of our national forests, parks, monuments, etc, established to protect our native environments, has only fueled massive outsourcing of the lumber industry to other countries with less strict environmental laws.

Posted: Tuesday, August 13, 2013
Article comment by: Matthew Holmes

I'm not a climatologist, or even a paleoclimatologist, but let's play with the idea that current climate changes ARE anthropogenic. Ruddiman's theories suggest that the current climate change trends started with the advent of agriculture on a civilizational scale. Even more drastic changes kicked in with the advent of the modern industrial era. So what happens when "natural" forcing mechanisms kick in, adding to and compounding the alleged anthropogenic influences? We don't know, but I think we ought to err on the side of caution.

One of my graduate professors, a world-reknowned paleobotanist/ecologist, stated that even if we humans were to stop all modern energy regimes NOW, that it would take at least 100,000 years for earth to return to some kind of normalcy (whatever that is). We may have started something we can't stop, and either we will adapt or go extinct. But in the meanwhile, the author of the letter is spot on, though I disagree about the nuclear option. Thanks for the well-documented, well-reasoned, and well-written letter.

Posted: Tuesday, August 13, 2013
Article comment by: David Perrell

@ Lorax et al, re cutting down forests:

Yes, it is indeed ironic that the Brits, having 'invested' £ billions in wind power, is cutting down swamp forests in the US to fuel power plants now restricted by European Union rules from burning coal. Even the climate-hysteria-promoter BBC asks: "Is this really the best way to combat climate change?"

EU rules are also the reason Sumatran rain forests are being burned down to make room for palm oil 'biofuel' plantations.

Of course, you all know what fuel the ships carrying the wood pellets and palm oil are burning, right?

Which highlights another irony:

There are laws restricting import of Indonesian hardwoods, purportedly to save the rain forests as climate moderators and irreplaceable wildlife habitat. Without financial incentive to cut the trees for woodworking, the plantation growers just burn them down, putting millions of tons of CO2 and soot into the air.

Of course, that's not much different than having wildlife preservation laws that protect eagles while simultaneously financing avian guillotines that slice them up.

Glad to hear you're still around, Lorax. Stay away from those wind turbines!

Posted: Tuesday, August 13, 2013
Article comment by: David Perrell

Thanks for all the thoughtful responses to my letter.

@ Peter, re "...ignorantly maintaining the status quo...the wrong choice…"

Agreed. And I hope you agree that nefariously squandering billions of tax dollars on massive projects that further enrich the wealthy while further impoverishing the poor is worse than doing nothing.

Speaking of the status quo, Walter Russell Mead, James Clarke Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs and Humanities at Bard College, describes it well:

"Environmental policy thinkers almost always begin with statist, top-down fixes, and quickly embrace crony capitalist ideas that involve subsidies for certain types of energy production, such as the ethanol abomination. Powerful economic lobbies then run with these ideas, perverting them until their environmental benefits take a back seat to their usefulness as tools of wealth capture."

How do we change that?

Posted: Monday, August 12, 2013
Article comment by: The Lorax

No, I think burning the Southeast Asian rainforests to provide coconut oil for power generation in The Netherlands and Germany is a better example. This type of environmental legislation actually is accelerating mankind's contribution to global warming. But England's return to "sustainable" wood-burning is a good example of Green agendas run amuck.

Posted: Saturday, August 10, 2013
Article comment by: To the Lorax

Are you alluding to England's purchase of American forests to replace its coal-powered electricity and gas heaters?

Posted: Friday, August 9, 2013
Article comment by: Keep Getting The Facts....

and keep spelling our the problems.

In the mix...we will find solutions.

Posted: Friday, August 9, 2013
Article comment by: It seems to me:

We shouldn't forget the trees.

Reforestation projects worldwide help balance atmospheric gases, help scrub particulate pollution, and slow weather-created erosion, heat-sinks, etc.

Any Green "advance" that results in deforestation is wrong-headed.

Posted: Friday, August 9, 2013
Article comment by: Slater Slater

Way to put the radio active communication
towers on the Back Burner.

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