Arnold Kling  

Inconvenient Arithmetic and Engineering

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More on U.S. Education... A Hobbesian Thought Experiment...

Kevin Bullis writes,


Over the past couple of weeks, T. Boone Pickens, an oil tycoon, has been using some of his billions to run television ads supporting...what seems to be the biggest wind farm in the country. It would nearly double the amount of wind produced in the state of Texas, the state with by far the most wind power. But that project will only produce 4,000 megawatts of power. (Total electricity generating capacity in the United States is about 1 million megawatts.)

The post discusses Al Gore's proposal to switch all of America's electricity to renewable sources in ten years. "Can it be done? It isn't likely."

But for the same folks that can give us a risk-free financial system, affordable housing, universal health care, and everyone getting a college degree, it should be a piece of cake.


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COMMENTS (13 to date)
eric writes:

I heard that if you buy a windmill for your farm, for about $30k, you generally won't make that back over its lifetime. So I don't see how these make sense unless one supposes some big efficiency gain.

randy writes:

it would pay for itself if you see oil go up to even higher prices than what we have now. which seems possible.

Max writes:

Yes, the amortisation of the wind mill is a couple of years higher than the life time (which is most unfortunate). However, this is with todays oil and coal prices. If the expenses in transportation will continue to rise and the over-all availability of will further shorten, we will see even higher prices on conventional electric power.

And in that case even a solar panel might be a good investion for the centralized power grid we have today =)

eccdogg writes:

Pickens, as usual, is just talking his book.

He is making investments in Wind and wants to make sure that the tax credits are still around or increased.

Wind power is the most economical of all renewable sources (save hydro and maybe geothermal which are limited by the number of sites), but it still is only economical with the tax credit provided by the US govt.

As assman notes, due to its itermitency wind (or solar) power will never be a major contributor to US power generation (at least not until a cheap large scale method of storing electricity is found). At best the wind blows at suitable speeds for wind turbines about 30% of the time and you don't know when that 30% is going to be.

Not to mention that wind generation would need to cover huge amounts of land or coastline to produce a large portion of US energy needs.

At best with current technology Wind power is a nice to have. It can nibble at the edges of power supply and the greenhouse gas problem, but iw will not come anywhere close to solving it.

Dr. T writes:

"If oil prices go high enough, [insert power type here] will become economical."

Aren't we all tired of reading this garbage? If oil prices go high enough, sending a rocket scoop to bring back hot plasma from the sun will be an economically viable way to provide electricity. But, there will be about ten thousand more economical ways to generate electricity.

The key is relative efficiency, not comparison to some arbitrary oil cost per barrel cut point. Relative efficiency for generating electricity depends on many factors, but geography is very important. Iceland can use geothermal because it's a volcanic island. Hawaii could do this, but that island is too sparsely populated to raise enough capital. Solar power, while not yet economical anywhere, would work best in the southwest desert areas and would be worthless in Seattle. Wind power is too inefficient, even in areas with almost continuous wind. Hydroelectric power needs rivers that can be dammed. Tidal power needs coastal areas with strong, steady tides. Nuclear power needs a country whose citizens aren't freaked out by the word 'nuclear'. I sometimes read about sending solar or wind electricity elsewhere over 'the grid'. Electricity is not transportable over long distances because of power loss due to resistance.

So, at present in the U.S., we have our existing hydroelectric plants, our few existing (and very aged) nuclear plants, and our many fossil fuel-burning plants. I don't see this changing much over the next two decades, even if oil goes to $200 a barrel.

Bob Knaus writes:

The key (and libertarians reading this will wince) is massive centralization. Does the sun only shine during the day? Does the wind only blow strongly one day out of five? Yes indeed. Is battery technology totally inadequate to deal with intermittent power sources? You betcha.

So, what you do is construct a hydroelectric plant with a reservoir. Pump water up when the wind is blowing, or the sun is shining. Let it back down to generate electricity when it is not.

The scheme is subject to economies of scale. It doesn't work for backyard installations. It has effeciencies of 80% when used in 1000's of megawatt applications.

The barrier is, of course, NIMBY and not technology.

Julia writes:

I never lived in the US. It's interesting to see these comments here, cause in Germany a lot of windmills are in operation and more and more are being built. In China, they are developing windfarms as well. I never heard German or Chinese complaining about costs being too high. It seems to me that, what makes economical and ecological sense in other parts of the world doesn't make sense in the US.

Rithban writes:

Julia,

You're quite right. Germany is physically small compared to the U.S. Windmills can server a larger part of Germany. Wyoming wind-generated electricity can not be used to power New York because there's a limit to how far one can transmit electricity.

(The Chinese don't complain openly because it's grounds for getting shot. :) But seriously, China is building coal-fired plants at an astounding rate, opening one every 3 weeks. The role of wind power in China is grossly overstated.)

Snark writes:

Close to 20% of Denmark's total electrical generating capacity is produced by wind power, the highest penetration rate in the world. One source claims that Denmark's costs are 3x that of the U.S. Another indicates there were 54 days in 2002 during which the Danish wind carpet delivered less than 1% of demand.

Does adopting this model for the U.S. make sense?

eccdogg writes:

Bob Knauss, currently almost all feasible hydro sites in the US are allready developed and many have pumped storage as you suggest. They still are under 10% of US capacity. So you would need way more hydro than is feasible to ever see wind or solar get above say 10% of power generation.

Julia, many windmills are in operation in the US as well and many more are being built. As in Germany that has more to do with subsidies than economics. But Germany still only gets 5% of its electrical generation from wind power while it gets like 80% from coal, nuclear, and natural gas. And Germany has a much milder summer climate than the US so it does not consume near as much power per capita.

And as for Denmark, they are a small country surrounded on 3 sides by water with a mild summer climate. They are not a model in any way for the US when it comes Wind power.

At the end of the day you can pretty much tell who is serious/knowlegable in energy debates by how high someone puts the potential for wind power given current technology. Anyone going much higher than 10% of total generation for the US (not capacity installed) should not be taken too seriously.

Now 10% would still be a huge increase sinc I think Wind contributes only like 1%.

Julia writes:

Rithban,
so it's because Germany is small. So it perhaps would make sense to use windpower in one state in the US, but not in the whole country.
Another thing, Germany is much more populated than the States and doesn't really have great windpower climatically.
As to China, I guess you were never there. Believe me, you don't get shot easily there. I am not saying they are already doing great, but they are at least on their way.

floccina writes:

Max you need to consider that coal electric plants are not as efficient as they can be. This is because power companies are not so much efficiency optimizers as they are profit maximizers. At a higher cost for coal many things change like the plant will be made more efficient. So the price for coal that makes wind competitive may be further off than appears on first glance.

Gary Rogers writes:

I heard T Boone Pickens give his presentation on CNBC and there were three things I remember him saying. First, markets do not work for energy. Second, government subsidies are necessary to make this happen. Third, he has already bought the land and is building the wind farms. Mr. Picken's reputation and billions of dollars do not come from his ability to build things, they come from his ability to take advantage of other people's mistakes. Beware.

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