Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Alternative Energy—Our Only Alternative—Part VI

Science Fiction?

With the price of oil, gasoline, and natural gas skyrocketing, and payments for coal doubling, the costs to build nuclear plants tripling to quadrupling, and the heightened awareness of climate change, it is no wonder that the development of alternative energy sources appears significantly more compelling. As a result, the pace of research and experimentation in the field has increased exponentially.

A recently resurrected concept that seems more science fiction than science was first conceived 40 years ago by Dr. Peter Glaser, an engineer at Arthur D. Little. Glaser subsequently became closely associated with NASA, proposing (and patenting) the futuristic idea of sending satellites into space that would amass solar energy, and beam it back to earth in the form of microwaves that would be collected and converted to electricity.

While at the time, both NASA and the Department of Energy (DOE) agreed the concept [now known as “Space Solar Power” (SSP)] was feasible, the estimated price tag of $1 trillion was deemed too expensive. Nevertheless, over the last three decades NASA and the Department of Energy collectively spent $80 million in sporadic efforts studying the concept. As futuristic as this may seem and as complex are the engineering challenges that undoubtedly exist, the Pentagon’s National Security Space Office is encouraging the U.S. government to resurrect the development of space power systems. The rationale cited is, “A single kilometer-wide band of geosynchronous earth orbit experiences enough solar flux in one year to nearly equal the amount of energy contained within all known reserves of conventional oil reserves on earth today.”

As a result, in October of last year, the U.S. National Security Space Office recommended an expenditure of $10 billion over the next ten years to build a test satellite capable of beaming 10 megawatts of electric power down to earth. Considering that in 2007 the U.S. spent $331 billion on foreign oil, and at just $135 a barrel we will spend some $640 billion in 2008, a $10 billion investment that could save enormous sums in the future seems to be a bargain. Science fiction? Perhaps not.

Geothermal Energy

From the imaginative use of solar power emanating from the edges of outer space, it seems quite a leap of faith to consider another alternative energy source that is literally beneath our feet. Yet, seventy-two miles north of San Francisco in the Mayacanas Mountains lays the largest complex of geothermal power plants in the world. The area, known as The Geysers, contains 22 power plants with a net generating capacity of about 725 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 725,000 homes, or a city the size of San Francisco. In reality, these plants supply 60 percent of the average electricity in the North Coast region of California from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Oregon border.

The use of geothermal steam and hot springs for bathing and heating has been known for centuries, but not until the early 20 th century was their power employed to produce electricity. Geothermal power is generated in over 20 countries from Africa to the Philippines to South America and Russia. The United States however, is the largest producer of thermal energy.

To extract the steam necessary to power the electricity generators, two drill holes must be bored extending as much as 6 miles deep into the earth (but usually much less). The rock between the two boreholes must then be fractured, and water is pumped down one, and steam comes up the other. The ability to drill to these depths has been pioneered by the petroleum industry.

Geothermal power plants have some unique and significant advantageous characteristics compare to solar and wind energy. In the right locations (hot springs and heat vents), geothermal energy is extremely price competitive; it functions constantly day and night, (unlike solar that depends on the sun, and wind that operates only when the wind blows); the energy harnessed is clean and safe; it is also sustainable since the hot water used can be re-injected into the ground to produce more steam. One disadvantage is that in those cases where water is injected into dry rock, there is a danger that land stability can be adversely affected. Few people, including our government leaders and politicians recognize the potential inherent in geothermal energy to offset the use of fossil fuels.

A 2006 study prepared for the U.S. Department of Energy by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) maintains that beneath U.S. soil lays enough geothermal energy to provide 2000 times the 2005 annual consumption of primary energy in the U.S. In addition, it is not necessary to confine drilling only to known hot springs locations. The lead author of the report, Jefferson Tester, an MIT professor, states that geothermal energy “is a very large resource that perhaps has been undervalued in terms of the impact it might have on supplying energy to the U.S.”

Are Nukes the Answer?

In mid-June John McCain advocated the construction of 45 nuclear plants by the year 2030, with another 55 to be built beyond that date. Unlike elsewhere in the world, Americans have, in the past, been wary of anything nuclear, especially after the fiasco of Three Mile Island, and the Chernobyl disaster. Aside from the fears related to safety, there is also the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) factor. While nuclear power is an attractive alternative, a number of issues must be considered.

Senator McCain’s support has provided some impetus to at least a conversation on the subject. Despite the fact that no new nuclear facility has been built in 30 years, the U.S. is the largest supplier of commercial nuclear power in the world. Some 20 percent of the nation’s total energy consumption emanates from nuclear plants. Currently, there are 104 nuclear plants in operation in 31 states, and 18 states receive 25 percent or more of their power from nuclear plants.

The benefits of nuclear power go beyond the generating costs as estimated by the industry, of just 0.4 cents a kilowatt-hour. (This compares most favorably with 4.2 cents from coal plants and 7.0 cents for natural gas). In addition, unlike coal and gas fired plants, nuclear reactors don’t emit greenhouse gases that include carbon dioxide, the culprit associated with global warming.

While 30 new nuclear plants are being considered nation-wide, a five year-old report from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology entitled, “The Future of Nuclear Power,” was prescient in that it raised significant economic concerns stating, “The prospects for nuclear energy as an option are limited [by many] unresolved problems, [of which] high relative cost [is only one]” In the current environment, construction costs are exploding for new nuclear plants (those recommended by Senator McCain for example) with estimated costs up as much as four times higher than originally anticipated. In fact, the price of a new nuclear plant is now in the range of $8 to $12 billion.

Based on the magnitude of that type of investment, utility companies must view potential profits as questionable. Despite the fact that the MIT report cited above is five years old, its representation in the report that “Today (2003), nuclear power is not an economically competitive choice,” changing the “today” date to 2008 would be a more realistic view of the problematic future of nuclear power.

There are many who maintain that Nuclear energy is neither renewable (Uranium must constantly be dug up), nor is it clean since the waste fuel is a serious problem that has yet to be solved. However, it is included here because it has become a very current political topic.


Biomass energy production involves the use of plants or animal matter such as wood (the most common material), food crops, grasses, agricultural waste, manure, and methane from landfills. The U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA) positions biomass as the largest source of renewable energy, at 46.5 percent. Much of biomass energy is used by industrial organizations burning their own waste product to produce electricity.

Several reports have raised questions regarding the desirability of biomass as a clean renewable energy source. The February 2008 issue of Trends in Ecology and Evolution, as reported in Science Daily, that while biomass has many benefits there are limits to the extent that it can sustainably contribute to global energy needs.

Critics of ethanol production from corn have become increasingly vocal, especially as food prices have escalated. Two other recent papers, one in the journal Science, and the other from the National Conservancy conclude that huge amounts of natural land being converted to cropland throughout the world to support biofuel production increases greenhouse gas substantially. Thus, biomass may not be the clean energy source many profess it to be.


According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA) our second largest source of renewable energy (46.5%) is produced by hydroelectric plants, although that only accounts for less than 9% of our total electric energy production. The generation of hydro electricity is generally thought of as being derived from large dam systems, and while that is true, the opportunity to expand and build additional large hydro plants is severely limited.

Yet, there are alternatives to large dam systems such as those found at Grand Coulee Dam (the 4 th largest in the world), and Hoover Dam. What is known as “small Hydro” has great potential as a future energy source. These systems may consist of smaller dams using river and lake water control; damless systems driven by kinetic energy; “tidal power” using the movements of the tides; and more recently, “wave power” that uses the energy of ocean waves.

A 2006 study endorsed by the U.S. Department of Energy identified 5400 feasible small hydro projects that could increase U.S. hydroelectric production by 50 percent.

But Where’s the Money?

On May 21 st the House of Representatives passed legislation that extended and expanded the incentives for several renewable energy industries that would not only help break our addiction to oil, but would also accelerate the growth of new industries and create thousands of new jobs. The $18 billion monetary incentives would be paid for by eliminating that amount of incentives for the oil industry. The President threatened to veto the bill and in mid-June the Senate could not muster the necessary 60 votes to overcome Republican objections and a presidential veto—the bill was rejected. Without theses subsidies, much of the potential growth in the above renewable industries will slow significantly, and threaten 116,000 jobs in the wind and solar industries alone.

What Was I Thinking ? In previous articles, I mentioned that the “father” of the president of First Solar lived in Boca Pointe. I should have said “the parents”, and for that oversight I apologize profusely to Miriam.


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