William Tucker at RealClearEnergy.org makes a good argument of not worrying about doomsday scenarios. In his column Dealing with abundance, he tells a good story about the Club of Rome’s 1970s computer simulation that predicted the world would soon run out of energy and other resources. The author’s analysis is that the future looked bleak because the economic modelers could not predict the unpredictable. That means the Club did not foresee developments such as hydraulic fracturing, a growing wind-power industry, dual-cycle natural gas-powered plants, or the Green (agriculture) Revolution.
Naysayers who push doomsday scenarios in tales such as The Limits of Growth (12 million copies distributed in 37 languages, says its ad) and The Population Bomb are all wrong because their vision fails them. One of the more insightful business minds is George Gilder, who wrote that socialism (and socialist economists) will always fail when competing with capitalism because the latter builds on surprise, and central planners can never plan the unexpected.
Tucker also makes what initially seems a reasonable argument for nuclear energy. For example he says, “…a few of the largest atoms are unstable and slowly break down again. This is what we call “radioactivity.” This release of energy is natural and dispersed across the planet. But if we accumulate these radioactive elements and concentrate them – as we do with other resources – we can tap into this natural release of energy and use it to run our civilization.”
That’s fine. Then he runs off his rails with, “Because of its tremendous energy density, nuclear power has the capacity to run a civilization without disfiguring the entire face of the earth with low-density energy collectors such as windmills and solar panels.”
He continues driving his train over the ties with: “Windmills in particular are a Medieval technology that can only be improved by making them bigger and more intrusive. The latest windmills from General Electric are 50 stories high and are being heralded as a “game-changer” because they produce three megawatts of electricity instead of 1.5 MW apiece. Thus, it will only take 500 of these giants to match the nameplate capacity of 1,000 regular windmills. (In practice, all windmills only generate one-third of their nameplate capacity.)
With these sorts of comments, Tucker reveal’s himself as just another nuclear fanatic content to deal with half-truths and old-world misconceptions. Let’s straighten him out.
First, even Tucker would admit GE’s most recent 3.2-MW wind turbine is just a tad more advanced than windmills built in the 1600s. It’s no revelation that the wind is not as energy dense as fissionable U235. But the wind is free and U235 is expensive, and wind turbines generate no radioactive waste.
And why does he think that the solid engineering that goes into modern turbines “can only be improved by making them… more intrusive”? At the recent AWEA Windpower 2015, a representative from Oklahoma told me there is room for at least 500 more turbines in that state’s panhandle. There is plenty of non-intrusive land in the Great Plains and elsewhere to erect wind plants. Taller towers, longer blades, and engineering improvements every year let each generation do a better job of keeping the cost of power lower low.
The one-third comment refers to a turbine’s capacity factor, usually expressed as a percent. It is the ratio of actual production for a turbine and site versus the turbine’s nameplate. So if a 100-kw turbine produces on average 30 kW in a particular local, its capacity factor is 30%. The figure varies with turbine, location, and wind source. In Europe, 28% might be right, but in the U.S. Great Plains, 33% is on the low end. Taller towers, longer blades, and offshore installs are pushing the figures closer to 50% and more.
And have you noticed that when the nuclear guys get going, the talk of cost disappears? Tucker does not mention the dollar amount needed to bring about his nuclear nirvana. Nuclear research is expensive and has been funded with tax-payer dollars since the 1940s. The cost of building new reactors will continue to be high despite 75 years of experience. And by the way, nuclear reactors do not work at 100% capacity; 85% is about average.
In closing his column, Tucker provides an unwitting endorsement of the wind industry: “As was true in 1972, the doomsday scenarios only arise when linear projections are made into the future with no consideration for human intervention. The tools to change the future are in our hands. We only have to elect to use them.”
The wind industry is doing exactly that.
–Paul Dvorak, Editor, Windpower Engineering & Development
Filed Under: News, Policy