24/7 Solar Madness

by Kieran Healy on July 23, 2008

Via Jim Lindgren at Volokh, some article from the Rocky Mountain News about Al Gore’s recent call for the U.S. to be fully running on renewable energy within a decade. The piece itself is hackery (though it does deftly compare Gore to Chairman Mao) but contains the following gem:

Stanley Lewandowski, the general manager of the Intermountain Rural Electric Association, is one of the few utility officials willing to suggest that the prophet of global warming is strutting about like an emperor without his clothes. “Al Gore’s statement of obtaining 100 percent of our power from renewables in 10 years has as much a chance of happening as the sun shining 24 hours a day,” Lewandowski quipped. “It’s nonsense.”

Excellent.

{ 48 comments }

1

aaron 07.23.08 at 4:30 am

Sorry to interject, but would someone like to explain to me the tendency in the blogosphere to find a rant from some random right-winger and ridicule it? One is left with a vague feeling of self-righteousness and an affirmation of one’s original opinions, but nothing constructive is gained. Isn’t there more value in a conversation with an intelligent article or post from someone with something interesting to say?

2

Kieran Healy 07.23.08 at 4:44 am

Sorry to interject, but would someone like to explain to me

Nah. Sorry.

3

Rich Puchalsky 07.23.08 at 4:52 am

Damned Copernicus. That Earth-going-around-the-Sun thing is an unproven theory.

4

Brian Schmidt 07.23.08 at 5:09 am

IREA is a coal-burning utility that funds denialist “scientists” to give them the outcome they want. More info here:

http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2006/07/31/warming

Responding to Aaron, Lindgren is a conservative but not a hack, so it’s worthwhile to set him straight.

5

leinad 07.23.08 at 5:16 am

aaron: you have a friend in norbizness

6

Down and Out of Sài Gòn 07.23.08 at 6:13 am

Aaron: because it is fun. Isn’t that obvious? And fun is its own reward. Dig it?

7

James Wimberley 07.23.08 at 6:56 am

“..Al Gore’s recent call for the U.S. to be fully running on renewable energy within a decade. “
No. Even the stuff you linked to made it clear that Gore was talking only about electricity, not transportation, cement, steel, etc. I’ve done a back-of-the envelope exercise here on how the UK could go to 80% renewable electricity by 2020 using existing technology.
American factories built 96,000 military aircraft in 1944. Is a modern wind turbine more complicated than a Mustang?
Pickens’ estimate is conservative. A federal research institute estimated in 1991 that the wind potential of the continental USA was about 1.3 continuous terawatt-equivalent, more than current electricity demand. Of course, you have to have nuclear stations or large-scale pumped storage to cope with intermittency, or else compromise and use gas for peak lopping as in my model. References here.

8

blah 07.23.08 at 7:44 am

Would be interesting to see a critique of the following physicist by some of the more quantitatively minded people here. If you read the full article, he doesn’t seem to be a wingnut by any means.

http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/06/20/mackay_on_carbon_free_uk/

A topflight science brainbox at Cambridge University has weighed into the ever-louder and more unruly climate/energy debate with several things that so far have been mostly lacking: hard numbers, willingness to upset all sides, and an attempt to see whether the various agendas put forward would actually stack up.

Professor David J C MacKay of the Cambridge University Department of Physics holds a PhD in computation from Cal Tech and a starred first in Physics, so we can take it that he knows his numbers. And, as he points out, numbers are typically lacking in current discussion around carbon emissions and energy use.

MacKay tells The Reg that he was first drawn into this field by the constant suggestion — from the Beeb, parts of the government etc — that we can seriously impact our personal energy consumption by doing such things as turning our TVs off standby or unplugging our mobile-phone chargers.

Anyone with even a slight grasp of energy units should know that this is madness. Skipping one bath saves a much energy as leaving your TV off standby for over six months. People who wash regularly, wear clean clothes, consume hot food or drink, use powered transport of any kind and live in warm houses have no need to worry about the energy they use to power their electronics; it’s insignificant compared to the other things.

Most of us don’t see basic hygiene, decent food and warm houses as sinful luxuries, but as things we can reasonably expect to have. This means that society as a whole needs a lot of energy, which led MacKay to consider how this might realistically be supplied in a low-carbon fashion. He’s coming at the issues from a green/ecological viewpoint, but climate-change sceptics who are nonetheless concerned about Blighty becoming dependent on Russian gas and Saudi oil — as the North Sea starts to play out — will also find his analysis interesting. Eliminating carbon largely equates to eliminating gas and oil use.

“I don’t really mind too much what your plan is,” MacKay told The Reg this week. “But it’s got to add up.”

MacKay sets out his calculations in a book, Sustainable Energy — Without the hot air. You can download it here. As he says:

The one thing I am sure of is that the answers to our sustainable energy questions will involve numbers; any sane discussion of sustainable energy requires numbers. This book’s got ’em, and it shows how to handle them.

9

abb1 07.23.08 at 7:48 am

If you’re so smart where’s the “the general manager” before your name?

10

noen 07.23.08 at 8:00 am

would someone like to explain to me the tendency in the blogosphere to find a rant from some random right-winger and ridicule it?

Tribalism?

Isn’t there more value in a conversation with an intelligent article or post from someone with something interesting to say?

It’s not possible to have intelligent conversation between opposing tribes on the internet. I’ve never seen it. Ok, sometimes here at CT but not too many other places.

11

bad Jim 07.23.08 at 8:13 am

A creationist propounding the Second Law of Thermodynamics argument, that since the earth is a closed system in which entropy can only increase and that evolution is therefore impossible, said something like “If Earth had an external power source, someone would have noticed it by now.”

Indeed.

12

ejh 07.23.08 at 9:00 am

Many years ago the Observer carried a piece headlined something to the effect of “fraud in business not yet eradicated”. So I wrote them a published letter asking if they proposed to run the stories “sun rises in morning” and “Earth spins on axis”. I thought this was pretty clever until my then landlord pointed out that those two stories were, in fact, one and the same.

13

William Sjostrom 07.23.08 at 9:00 am

Are you trying to be the next Gracie Allen? “Sun shining” means “sun shining so that we can see and use it”, as when my Cork neighbors tell me the sun is shining today so it is off to the beach, and a Cork native knows that perfectly well.

14

reason 07.23.08 at 9:06 am

But the sun does shine 24 hours a day (above the artic circle in mid summer with fine weather).

15

Another Damned Medievalist 07.23.08 at 9:17 am

Guy must be in Seattle …

16

Pete 07.23.08 at 9:26 am

Unless you’re proposing to power the US from solar panels located half way round the world, you have to admit he has a point?

17

ajay 07.23.08 at 9:40 am

Unless you’re proposing to power the US from solar panels located half way round the world, you have to admit he has a point?

You say that like it’s an obviously stupid idea. In fact it’s been seriously suggested – long-distance transmission is a lot less lossy if you use HVDC lines.

18

SJ 07.23.08 at 10:31 am

…you have to admit he has a point?

Why oh why won’t someone invent some device that could store energy so we could use it when the sun wasn’t shining. Something like a rechargeable battery, or a hydrogen fuel cell, or a pumped-storage hydro scheme, or a tank full of hot water…

19

antirealist 07.23.08 at 11:53 am

I believe “Does the sun shine at night?” used to be an 11-plus question.

20

Dave 07.23.08 at 12:09 pm

To which the answer would be ‘define “night”?’

21

bigcitylib 07.23.08 at 1:50 pm

Note: There is a subtle difference between an emperor that has no clothes and an emperor strutting around without their clothes. Al Gore is being accused of exhibitionism. I wonder if he could sue for defamation.

22

Marc 07.23.08 at 1:52 pm

Why do some blog commenters feel the need to defend abject dishonesty and stupidity? You have a corporate tool spreading a lie about Gore (who did not say “all of our energy” and did not say “only with solar” and did not say “without relying on any storage at night”). The tool then says something that makes him appear to be really, really stupid. That one is a classic. In fact, someone should send it to Al Gore so that he can include it.

23

dsquared 07.23.08 at 2:03 pm

I seem to remember a Soviet-era slogan that “The Sun Shines But Half The Day, While You, Comrade Stalin, Shine All Night Too”.

24

Dave 07.23.08 at 2:15 pm

Wrong thread. Those guys are in the mad donkeys one [or whatever].

25

chiggins 07.23.08 at 3:05 pm

Why oh why won’t someone invent some device that could store energy so we could use it when the sun wasn’t shining. Something like a rechargeable battery, or a hydrogen fuel cell, or a pumped-storage hydro scheme, or a tank full of hot water…

Flywheels. They don’t need replacing and the can’t blow up. Sure, some nasty things can happen if they jump their mounts, but what’s more fun as far as energy disasters go: releasing a cloud of nuclear vapor into the atmosphere, or a 16-foot steel disc bouncing across the country side?

26

Sebastian 07.23.08 at 3:14 pm

“Why oh why won’t someone invent some device that could store energy so we could use it when the sun wasn’t shining.”

You’re trying to be snarky yet amusingly enough the lack of high-quality, large-scale battery technology really is holding back solar and wind technologies by making it very difficult to make sure that the electricity is available when we need it.

We can hope for it though.

27

abb1 07.23.08 at 3:29 pm

@23 – I think there was also some song or poem about the sunflower outside the window that turns away from the sun and towards Comrade Stalin’s portrait inside the room. This phenomenon, if confirmed, could provide another way to produce electricity.

28

Dave 07.23.08 at 3:31 pm

The sun’s always shining somewhere, as has been observed above. And the EU is pressing for a ‘grid’ that will cover large parts of the northern hemisphere [in a utopian future…] So, theoretically at least, one could have a system that lit the night side from arrays on the day side.

Apparently High Voltage Direct Current transmission is the answer, so that’s one in the eye for poor old Nikola Tesla, then…

29

George 07.23.08 at 3:46 pm

30

bernard Yomtov 07.23.08 at 3:57 pm

Sorry to interject, but would someone like to explain to me the tendency in the blogosphere to find a rant from some random right-winger and ridicule it?

The author of the article, who approvingly quotes Landowski, is Steven Calabresi. The newspaper says:

Steven G. Calabresi, who serves on John McCain’s justice advisory committee, is a law professor at Northwestern University School of Law and co-founder of the Federalist Society. He served in the Reagan and Bush administrations from 1985 to 1990

Random right-winger?

By the way, the rest of the article is pretty dumb too.

31

noen 07.23.08 at 4:37 pm

Setting the obvious mistake aside I think it’s very unlikely we’ll achieve 100 percent of our power from renewables in 10 years. One, I don’t believe the political will for that exists or will exist. Two, I don’t believe it is technically feasible without resorting to nuclear power. Even James Lovelock has angered the environmentalists by saying we need to switch to nuclear power. Wind, solar and other renewables simply cannot replace petroleum, coal and natural gas. Currently wind accounts for .5% of energy needs and solar .o3%. 100% just ain’t gonna happen.

32

Nick 07.23.08 at 4:53 pm

Nuclear power? Technically feasible? Investing in nuclear is the slowest and least effective way of modifying the effects of global warming that those clever chaps with the white coats & bunsen burners have yet come up with. Oh, and you’d need to build four nukes a week for the next gazillion years to have any chance . . .
Next . . .

33

noen 07.23.08 at 4:57 pm

Sorry for the double post but notice also that Gore proposed we “commit to producing 100 percent of our electricity from renewable energy and truly clean carbon-free sources within 10 years.” Notice that he said “electricity” and not energy because there is a huge, huge difference. He’s not talking about the energy needs of industry or even about autos, he’s talking only about current electrical uses. That is a very modest goal and likely not nearly enough. And even within those very modest goals it is still not going to happen. And since it will not happen and nature doesn’t give a crap about our desires I fully expect the worst.

Our planet will flip into a new climate. One where life can only survive at the poles and the equatorial regions are uninhabitable. The seas will rise 3 meters at least and species extinction will reach 50% or more. Billions will die and western civilization will be extinguished.

If we’re lucky.

34

noen 07.23.08 at 4:58 pm

Nick, it’s the only chance we have. There is no other.

35

"Q" the Enchanter 07.23.08 at 5:28 pm

If the sun shines 24 hours a day, how can Lewandowski possibly be so dim?

36

abb1 07.23.08 at 6:52 pm

He operates in the shadows.

37

Richard Cownie 07.23.08 at 7:27 pm

“You’re trying to be snarky yet amusingly enough the lack of high-quality, large-scale battery technology really is holding back solar and wind technologies by making it very difficult to make sure that the electricity is available when we need it.”

Not a big problem, actually. Firstly, peak load arises when air conditioners are going full tilt, i.e. on hot sunny afternoons, which is just when solar (either thermal or PV) would peak. Secondly, there’s at least one proven way to store large amounts of energy: pumped hydroelectric storage. Ideally you have a reservoir up a hill – but you can get the same effect with a deep hole in the ground. Underground compressed air, and big tanks of high-pressure steam, can also be quite effective. Flywheels can do a decent job but AFAIK they aren’t actually cost-competitive: raising water a couple hundred feet can store a huge amount of energy, and the cost is proportional to the charge and discharge rate, not the total energy capacity.

Where battery technology really matters is for transport. There you need some form of energy storage with high energy density (MJ/kg), low risk of explosive release (a definite concern for flywheels) , high power discharge rate (for decent acceleration), and ideally also even higher charge rate (for regenerative braking).

That’s a lot tougher than the constraints for electricity-grid load-levelling.

38

snuh 07.24.08 at 12:29 am

Setting the obvious mistake aside I think it’s very unlikely we’ll achieve 100 percent of our power from renewables in 10 years. One, I don’t believe the political will for that exists or will exist. Two, I don’t believe it is technically feasible without resorting to nuclear power.

is nuclear power really “renewable”? the amount of uranium in the earth is finite, after all.

39

Nick 07.24.08 at 6:49 am

Noen @34 –
Except that it’s not. As a solution for global warming, building nukes falls into the category of ‘running around with the illusion of purposeful activity to make us all feel better’, not ‘stuff that’s going to make a blind bit of difference’. Saying ‘repent and believe or you will be doomed on the day of Gaia’s wrath’ doesn’t alter that. Your god is dead, be your belief never so fervent. Sorry.

40

ajay 07.24.08 at 10:03 am

Richard Cownie: all good points, but I would add a couple of others: a) pumped storage relies on you finding a suitable uphill reservoir site, which isn’t easy, especially if you are in a flat country; b) simple mechanics would show that there are other problems with flywheel-driven vehicles than simply the danger of the flywheel coming off.

41

functional 07.24.08 at 3:24 pm

This post represents everything that is silly and stupid about blogging. Obviously the guy didn’t mean that he thinks the sun goes out every night and restarts in the morning, so it’s just childish to ridicule him as if he meant that (and for a bunch of adolescent commenters to gang up on him). Instead, he meant to refer to the “sun shining” in the way that we all do when speaking colloquially — shining in a particular location. His point was that getting to 100% renewable electricity in 10 years is impossible — and I don’t see anyone even trying to refute that point.

Have you ever said, “I expected rain, but it looks like the sun is shining,” and then had someone respond, “Oh, what an ignoramus, the sun is always out there shining even when it happens to be raining on earth”? Probably not. Anyone who acted like that in real life would be either autistic or else just a blowhard; everyone else knows better than to pretend that they don’t understand anything other than literal meanings.

You guys must be very tiresome at parties.

“Hey, it’s been great; my wife and I are about to take off.” “Oh really? I don’t see an airplane.”

“These sandwiches are to die for.” “Are you really so desperate that you’d give up your life for a sandwich?”

“It’s raining cats and dogs out there.” “Actually, that’s just ordinary water falling from the sky — a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen.”

42

jimbo 07.24.08 at 6:05 pm

It’s when I read people like Nick that I realize we’re doomed. Self righteous, ignorant of physical and economic realities, will protest loudly against the only real energy solution we have and instead continue to propose preposterous “solutions” that have no chance of actually succeeding. Somehow, the idea of being able to rapidly scale up nuclear power (France: 0 to 80% of electricity in 15 years, and the only reason it stopped 80% is that most of the rest is hydro) is ridiculous, while scaling up wind and solar is somehow a piece of cake.

This is why I’m really hoping Obama gets elected – aside from really not liking McCain, I figure if Obama (against all odds) starts listening to reality and not wishful thinking and scaremongering on nukes, he might have a chance to get it done, in a “Nixon to China” way…

43

Helen 07.25.08 at 3:31 am

“Functional”: “This post represents everything that is silly and stupid about blogging.” Whereas a brown-and-white site offering links to “Body Building Supplements” is hugely intelligent?

The nuke-vs. Solar debate always reminds me of when the Marketing department of IBM pronounced that there would be no more than – four, or was it six? – computers in the world, eventually. Now we are communicating on the WWW. It seems like engineering types are always wedded to the Big Bang / Centralised solution and think the distributed version will never work, but surely we’re the living denial of that right now as we put fingers to keyboard.

44

ajay 07.25.08 at 1:04 pm

His point was that getting to 100% renewable electricity in 10 years is impossible—and I don’t see anyone even trying to refute that point.

Of course it’s not impossible. We’re talking about a nation that built a hundred thousand aircraft a year in 1944. Think the US couldn’t manage a similar effort with renewables? Politically infeasible and very expensive are not the same as impossible.

45

functional 07.25.08 at 8:01 pm

“We did something expensive involving airplanes 54 years ago” isn’t proof that it is now technologically feasible to scrap virtually all of our electrical supply and recreate it with solar and wind power within 10 years. That’s what we logicians call a “non sequitur.”

46

bruce 07.25.08 at 10:13 pm

neither wind nor solar will ever provide more than a fraction of our electricity as they are not cost effective yet.the basic reason for the hysteria over carbon dioxide is false as there is no correlation between temperature and c02 the earth has not warmed in the last 100yrs.don’t believe me ,type c02 during the carboniferous period. we are actually c02 deficient compared to earth’s past history.man made global warming=piltown man.this b.s. was pushed by the new york slime in the 1930’s when 1934 was and is the hottest year on record however there was no warming then or now. the average temp. has not changed in the last 100yrs.

47

George W 07.25.08 at 10:26 pm

That is a gem. Sounds like a line written for the designated dim bulb on a sitcom, like the blonde daughter on Married with Children.

48

Nick 07.26.08 at 10:25 am

Jimbo @ 42 – I’m relieved to hear that only my personality stands between humanity & the terrestrial paradise. Some mornings I don’t feel quite that optimistic, but the human condition’s a bitch, ain’t she?
I’m glad we can agree on Senator Obama. Though I’m rather hoping he won’t turn out to be another Nixon . . .

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