Category Archives: wind power

Al Gore makes himself difficult to defend

With this absurd speech.

… I’m proposing today a strategic initiative designed to free us from the crises that are holding us down and to regain control of our own destiny. It’s not the only thing we need to do. But this strategic challenge is the lynchpin of a bold new strategy needed to re-power America.

Today I challenge our nation to commit to producing 100 percent of our electricity from renewable energy and truly clean carbon-free sources within 10 years.

For reasons I still haven’t grasped, it’s nearly impossible to write about climate change in a mainstream setting without having denialists pop up and, among other things, accuse you of taking orders from Al Gore. (My friend and Ottawa Citizen colleague Kate Heartfield remarked on it a little while ago.) Or, for reasons even more obscure, “Algore,” like he’s a biomechanical replicant of a former vice-president with a model and make instead of a person with a regular name.

But anyway, the criticism usually revolves around the idea that Gore is a crank, full of pie-in-the-sky ideas about someday we might live in a paradaisical vision of windmills and solar panels, not useful proposal for what we might actually do right now in the world we actually live in. Or, alternatively, that he’s a doomsayer whose obviously absurd prophecies of planetary doom are beneath any rational consideration.

Either line of criticism is so disconnected from the reality of Gore’s message, and the manifestly reasonable tone of his main vehicle An Inconvenient Truth, that they’re difficult to engage.

Then he goes and says something like that America should be carbon-neutral in its electricity generation by 2018. And he compares it to the U.S. space program.

On July 16, 1969, the United States of America was finally ready to meet President Kennedy’s challenge of landing Americans on the moon. I will never forget standing beside my father a few miles from the launch site, waiting for the giant Saturn 5 rocket to lift Apollo 11 into the sky. I was a young man, 21 years old, who had graduated from college a month before and was enlisting in the United States Army three weeks later.

I will never forget the inspiration of those minutes.

I wasn’t alive for them, so maybe I can’t fully comprehend the power of the moment he’s talking about, but this strikes me as a dangerously false parallel. The Apollo program, as ambitious as it was, was essentially about making it possible for a few people (astronauts) to do one thing (walk on the Moon) once. More often if possible, but once would meet the challenge. Gore is talking about changing the way everybody does everything, for always. (Clive Crook makes a similar argument here.)

Someone whose public credibility is as fragile as Gore’s is — on a rising curve but certainly not secure — and so important to the movement he argues is key to the continued viability of the planet Earth as a home for humanity, should treat it with a little more care.

From Crook:

Does he even mean it? “I see my role as enlarging the political space in which Senator Obama or Senator McCain can confront this issue as president next year,” he says. Translation: I advocate the impossible so that the possible becomes more probable. Fair enough, one might say. But propaganda in a good cause is still propaganda, isn’t it?

Ah. So it’s strategic nonsense.

Look. It’s not happening, no matter who gets elected. Building a new wind farm, a small one, takes two years, and there’s a shortage of gear and qualified people to install and maintain it. You can’t fix that in a decade (see the difference between an accomplishment for the few and a fundamental change for the many, above). It’s so far from happening that it’s difficult even to take the idea seriously. You can’t.

It’ll be all the denialists talk about for the next year, pointing and laughing, and for a change they’ll be right.

Dept. of the Bleeding Obvious: Subsidies are not capitalist

Photo credit: “smokestacks,” Flickr/curran.kelleher

I don’t have a Ph.D., so maybe that’s why I have a difficult time following the mental gymnastics needed for Thomas Homer-Dixon and David Keith (Ph.D.s) to spin massive government subsidies for carbon-capture as a free-market measure:

Environmental groups are wrong to argue that we shouldn’t use government funds to support promising technologies before the mess is straightened out. We don’t have the time to wait, because Earth’s climate is changing fast, now. Without carbon prices or regulation, public funding is the only way to ensure that CCS technology gets going quickly. …

CCS will be a big-industry technology: major implementation will require huge outlays of capital and armies of scientists, engineers and construction workers. It will also generate huge profits. So when environmental groups saw that industry representatives dominated the blue-ribbon panel, they assumed that the energy industry was once again positioning itself to line its pockets, and attacked its recommendations. As Dave Martin of Greenpeace Canada put it, “Carbon capture is a public relations smokescreen for the tar sands and coal-fired electricity generation.”

It’s time that Canada’s environmental groups freed themselves of this ideological straitjacket. They need to acknowledge that modern capitalism is the most dynamic, innovative and adaptive economic system human beings have ever invented. It’s true that capitalism has fuelled our climate problem, and that many big businesses have lobbied hard to block serious action, but we’re not going to solve the problem without capitalism’s help.

I don’t want to be snide. These are serious guys, and there’s a lot of truth in much of their Globe essay. There is a lot of unhelpful anti-capitalism built into a lot of environmentalism, advanced by people for whom saving the planet really is a stalking horse for disapproving of other people’s lifestyles on non-environmental principles (“a deep suspicion of big business and big industry that’s a residue of the leftism of the original environmental movement”).

Carbon-capture is almost certainly a necessary immediate response to an immediate crisis, and objecting to it because its not good enough in itself is imprudent. Sure, it’s not enough. And giving four years’ warning, as Environment Minister John Baird did today of his plans to require all oilsands projects to use the technology by 2012, is asking for a rush of dirty plants between now and then.

It’s a fair concern — that carbon-capture will be a stopgap that distracts us enough that we won’t solve the actual underlying problem — but that’s making better the enemy of the good. A world with extensive use of carbon-capture technology is a lot better than a world without it, whatever else is going on.

But spinning government subsidies for the technology as a capitalistic measure is, frankly, bollocks. Subsidies are, in the most generous possible assessment, a necessary evil. They will interfere with the construction of wind and tidal and solar power, unless such projects are subsidized even more to compensate. They will put off pricing of carbon emissions, if only because the federal policy apparatus can only handle so many massive innovations at a time. They will take money that taxpayers would have spent on something else and commit it to helping large corporations that — even if Homer-Dixon and Keith dismiss the significance of this fact — are mostly very profitable.

If you think the subsidies are necessary, by all means say so. But let’s not pretend they’re something they aren’t.

Small and close beats big and far

… and we’re back!

Via Green Options comes this study (PDF) from the Minneapolis-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance, arguing that the costs of large wind-power and ethanol facilities outweigh the benefits.

The major benefit: economies of scale. Great big windmills, or huge farms of them, generate a hell of a lot more power than little ones do, so the fixed costs — paying somebody to maintain them, for instance — can be spread out more. The same is roughly true for big ethanol plants. This has long been an economic truism, that (up to a point) bigger is generally cheaper.

The major problem: transmission and transportation costs. A great big wind farm usually needs to be in the middle of nowhere, either so fewer neighbours will be offended or to take advantage of high enough winds to turn all the turbines. If you’re generating gobs of electricity in the middle of nowhere, you have to get it to where the consumers are, and that takes expensive transmission towers and wires, which take studies and permits of their own.

Overall, transmission and array losses increase the cost of power production.  A project 500 miles distant could cost about 1.8 cents/kWh more than a local project.  Higher wind speeds could lower generation costs to offset or exceed these higher transmission-related costs.  A wind speed 5.3 percent higher would be needed to offset a 500 mile trip.

The second diseconomy of scale for wind farms can occur in higher infrastructure and maintenance costs. While large projects save on site development and legal costs by spreading them over several turbines, a single owner-operator with one turbine can avoid legal and permitting fees (about $20/kW).

The same sort of problems apply to large ethanol plants, the report’s author John Farrell writes, with the added difficulty that a big producer tends to depress the local price of the stuff by flooding the market.

Now, one solution to the legal and permitting problems surrounding large installations is to reduce the red tape entrepreneurs need to cut through to build them. Set some simple standards and enforce them, rather than fussing endlessly over details. Particularly, don’t get caught up in battles over whether the neighbours have a right to an un-bewindmill’ed view of the landscape. They don’t, beyond the right not to be assailed with great rackets and other interference on their own property, and that should be reflected in the law.

But even so, the costs of transmission and transportation are large and not subject to government policy. (Not to sensible government policy, anyway.) If Farrell’s figures are right, they jibe with my instinct that distributed generation of renewable electricity is better than centralized, and that ethanol’s generally more trouble than it’s worth no matter how you make it.

My only reservation about Farrell’s work is that he asserts, twice and without demonstrated foundation, something like this:

The most significant diseconomy of scale is that bigness leads to absentee ownership, significantly reducing the benefits to rural communities of harnessing renewable energy.  Public policymakers should decide whether the loss of those rural development benefits is worth the small decrease in production costs.

You’d expect this from an outfit calling itself the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, of course, but you’d also expect some research proving the point. Farrell’s work is heavily footnoted for its other facts and figures, but the idea that absentee ownership is bad is taken as a given. There’s a reference to another ILSR report called Energizing Rural America, supposedly published in April, that’s missing from the group’s website. I believe this is it, but it doesn’t seem to me to prove that local ownership is better. Better for the locals, yes, but it rather goes without saying that if ownership is good, and locals are owners, local ownership is good for locals. I’d want to see evidence that local ownership is intrinsically good for everybody before buying into that conclusion.

Wind annoyances

Wind turbineWindmills are an interesting and challenging frontier in environmental regulation, as this story from the New York Times suggests. This fellow Michael Mercurio, who’s in the windmill business, put one up on his Cape Cod property and is now fighting tooth and nail with his neighbours:

Some of his neighbors say it is also annoying. They say it is too big. They say it is too noisy. And some residents in this middle-class borough on Long Beach Island have gone to court to try to make him take it down, while the township has stilled it since winter.

“I don’t understand why they are against this[,” Mercurio says, “]I really don’t.”

Maybe because, as Mr. Mercurio’s neighbors Patricia Caplicki and John Miller say in the lawsuit, in a 14-mile-per-hour wind, the three fiberglass blades produce noise greater than 50 decibels, the rough equivalent of light traffic or a noisy refrigerator.

The suit also says that the spinning blades throw “strobe-like shadows” on their property from noon to sunset.

According to the Times, the windmill and additional solar panels cut Mercurio’s electricity and gas bills from something like $4,000 a year to $114, suggesting it’s a significant environmental improvement. This kind of distributed, consumer-controlled generation is a good thing because of that, because it means individuals are taking responsibility for linking their consumption to where power comes from, and because it means a more resilient generation system overall.

That said, I can understand somebody not wanting a 35-foot-high windmill looming over his or her yard, particularly if the business about the strobe effect is true, and I don’t imagine it’d be pleasant to inhabit a neighbourhood forested with them. It’s not that it’s unpleasant to look at, but that it has a deleterious effect on the neighbours whether they look at it or not.
Lots of harmless property improvements — solar-powered water heaters, say, or new kinds of insulation — are effectively forbidden under zoning codes because they’re not specifically permitted, and without official standards, they can’t be inspected. This is dangerously silly; if I want to stick some panels on the roof of my house, that’s nobody’s business but mine, and perhaps my insurance company’s.

In cases such as Mr. Mercurio’s, though, there’s doubtless a role for the local government in setting limits on what you can do that affects other people’s enjoyment of their property. If you couldn’t put up an antenna or an advertisement that does certain things, you probably shouldn’t be treated different just because your goal is environmental rather than commercial.

 Photo credit: “Wind turbine,” Flickr/Lepti

Practical problems sink climate-prediction markets

David Jeffery at Oikos has been compiling research and writing on the usefulness of prediction markets for weather. These are commonplace in politics now. The typical system sees willing participants “buy contracts” representing victory for a particular candidate or referendum side, at some price less than $1; if the candidate wins, the buyer gets $1, and if not, the buyer gets nothing. Many of these markets do an excellent job predicting winners, even down to the seat-counts in complex parliamentary elections.

There’s much less central control than in a typical betting arrangement, which sees house oddsmakers setting payoffs and whatnot. Here, the going prices are set simply according to what existing contractholders are willing to sell for. It’s their money, so they have a powerful interest in getting it right.

Confused? Look at an example.

The University of Iowa runs several such markets, including two on who’ll be the major parties’ nominees for president in 2008. (There’s one on Canadian elections at the University of British Columbia, too.) As I write, the participants collectively figure Hillary Clinton is the favourite for the Democratic nomination, with a $1 contract going for 44.1 cents, and Barack Obama in second at 30.4 cents.

If you want, you can imagine these as percentage chances, as collectively assessed by the people who decided to play. They have real money on the table so they have a powerful interest in dispassionate examination of the facts, trends, history, and all other evidence they can get their mitts on. The odds of unexpected events (Bill Clinton has another “bimbo eruption,” Obama is found to have written a viciously racist paper in university) are “priced in” to the numbers as they stand — though, of course, if one of those things actually did happen, the numbers would change dramatically.

Applied to the weather, the hope is that the wisdom of crowds could help us anticipate global temperature changes and other climate and weather events. Jeffery’s found a hurricane market, for instance, where participants try to predict where a given storm will make landfall. The idea, where climate change is concerned, is to come up with a collective best guess, incorporating all the science and all the common sense of hundreds or thousands of market participants to make long-term predictions that would be better than any single computer model or even set of them.

Mind you, plenty of financial giants already do make such predictions, and bet money on the outcomes, even if there isn’t a market you and I can speculate on from our desktops. Insurance companies, in particular, need to predict the climate and the weather to know how to price all sorts of property-insurance policies. Solar-energy companies bet on sun; wind-power companies bet on wind. They don’t necessarily trade securities on an exchange, but bet they do.

Unfortunately, exchange-traded weather securities got a bad name thanks to the company that pioneered the industry: Enron. The idea of trading weather-based securities comes in for quite a bit of scorn in the excellent documentary on Enron’s collapse, The Smartest Guys in the Room, seeming to represent as it did the very depths of the company’s slot-machine mentality toward customers’ money, but it still made quite a bit of sense.

If you’re in the solar-power business, you might hedge against the possibility of a cloudy summer — spend a little money now on a contract that pays off big if there are X days of cloud between June and August. If it’s sunny, you’re out the price of the contract, but you’ve made more in solar-power profits so you’re OK. If it’s cloudy and you’ve no electricity to sell, you probably still lose money, but your cloudy-weather contract pays out so it’s not so bad. Other commodity companies — coffee, oil, you name it — do this all the time by buying and selling inputs and outputs at inflated or reduced prices well in advance, just to have the advantage of certainty, so why shouldn’t energy companies?

The fact that trading weather-based securities was an idea with merit regardless of all the nasty things Enron did is indicated by the fact that nearly all the 50 or so people who worked on Enron’s “weather desk” were snapped up in the months after the company’s collapse, at least according to this 2002 story from Environmental Finance:

But six months on, the majority of Enron’s 50-plus weather team – by far the largest in the market – has found new homes. Rather than depressing activity in the market, brokers say, the dispersal of Enron’s weather team has significantly bolstered existing weather desks, as well as promising to bring new participants into the market.

Perhaps the most significant development is the hire of five Enron employees – including Mark Tawney, the former head of weather at the firm – by Swiss Re. This promises a dramatic increase in activity in the market by the reinsurance giant, an enthusiastic early weather derivatives vendor, but one which scaled back its activities dramatically at the end of 2000. It largely pulled out of the traded weather market, concentrating instead on the structuring of larger, one-off deals for clients.

But a rethink at the firm coincided with the availability of staff following Enron’s collapse.“ Swiss Re has been in the weather business for three and a half years and was in the process of identifying steps that would ensure it would become a more effective player in the market when the team came to our attention,” says Phil Lotz, co-chief operating officer of Swiss Re Financial Products (SRFP).

In the U.S., the Chicago Mercantile Exchange has a weather-derivatives market, but it’s all short-term — season-to-season at most, not 50 years down the line.

For the rest of us, as Jeffrey writes, it sure would be useful to have a trackable market in climate futures, so we could see what the big players are predicting.

But we’re talking about contracts that come to fruition in 20 years, or 50, or 100, not at a political convention next summer. Given the thin trading even in short-term weather futures, it seems unlikely we’d see big market plays in long-term climate predictions by giant companies such as Swiss Re. Even more unlikely is the prospect of a “toy” market like the University of Iowa’s, since agreeing to operate one is a decades-long commitment for the benefit of, at best, a couple of hundred interested amateurs. Once the money’s in, the market operator has to see it through to the end.

I think practical problems are going to sink this idea.

Paying for Gordon Brown’s eco-towns

Gordon Brown, who almost certainly succeeds Tony Blair as Britain’s prime minister at the end of June, wants to help create a “home-owning, asset-owning, wealth-owning democracy” by, er, sponsoring the construction of 100,000 houses (BBC).

The good news is that he has in mind five carbon-neutral “towns” of 20,000 houses each, ideally built on brownfields, contaminated old industrial sites that the government will presumably clean up and then sell.

The Scotsman has the most thorough story I can find:

The eco-town idea is the first concrete proposal to emerge from Brown’s campaign nerve-centre.

In a speech to Labour party members in Kent yesterday, he said: “If we are to meet the aspirations of every young couple to do the best for themselves and their children, then we need to build new homes. We need to deliver well-planned, green and prosperous communities where they will want to live.”

The eco-towns will be built primarily on brownfield land. Each home will be constructed to environmentally friendly zero-carbon standards, using energy generated locally from sustainable sources.

Brown aides said the towns would include state-of-the-art zero-carbon schools and health centres, supported by extensive public transport.

The first eco-town is proposed for the abandoned Oakington Barracks in Cambridgeshire, and will include 10,000 new homes, with electricity delivered entirely by solar and wind power.

The Sunday Mirror has it that the government will provide the land, and private developers will do the rest. After Oakington Barracks, Brown wants local councils to “bid” in some way to have the others constructed in their territory.

Brownfields are a significant public-policy problem. They often end up in government hands because a private owner or owners have so fouled the land, perhaps over decades, that the cost of cleaning it up exceeds any profits anybody can imagine making from building on it afterward. They can be as small as an old gas station (though usually cleaning up such a site is within a private owner’s reach), or as big as the 100-hectare (250-acre) Sydney Tar Ponds in Nova Scotia.

Trouble is, when the government gets its hands on a piece of fallow ground, it frequently has an overwhelming impulse to build Something Special on it. A prime district in Ottawa sat empty for 40 years after the government expropriated it from hundreds of private owners planning to build an office complex, then changed its mind. In this case, Gordon Brown seems to see an opportunity to make a bricks-and-mortar statement about, I don’t know, wanting Britain to be green and very slightly less rented.

The second part’s easy. Once you’ve cleaned up the brownfield, sell it to someone who promises to build houses on it and sell them to other people.

The first, less so. State-of-the-art schools and health centres and elaborate transit systems and solar and wind power are expensive, and not just at first — they bring ongoing operating costs. From the coverage, it doesn’t sound as though Brown intends his government to have an ongoing financial relationship with these eco-towns, so presumably the costs of these green amenities will be distributed in the usual fashion: to the customers and local ratepayers.

Which in turn means these sound likely to be middle- to upper-class (by the standards of North America, where we don’t have dukes) communities. So much for sharing the dream of home ownership with the masses. Remind me what the public interest is here again?

Who has stolen the wind

Wind turbineA little part of me has always worried that solar and wind power aren’t quite all they’re cracked up to be — that if we made the technological leaps necessary to get enough energy out of them to seriously start replacing fossil fuels, we’d find there are lots of unforeseen negative effects.

Sure, the sun and the wind are “renewable,” but the idea of generating large amounts of power from them depends on thinking similar to that which underlies smokestacks and untreated sewage. The planet’s air and the oceans are just such utterly vast things with so many systems for self-filtering and -repair, how could they even slightly notice the stuff we put into them? (Or, in the case of mighty rivers, what we take out.)

The same, I fret, might happen with the sun and the wind, and I’m not just talking about the physical danger of birds smacking into churning windmill blades in midflight. Imagine the long-term effect of using windmills to pull ever-increasing amounts of energy out of these natural systems. It’s utterly intuitive, if not actually supported by any direct research I’m aware of, that there’d be knock-on effects we can’t predict.

Economist’s View points to a Der Spiegel story about a German businessman who wants to set up a wind farm … directly upwind of another wind farm some other people have been operating for a while. Apparently this is a growing legal problem in Germany, where wind farms are pretty common.

Sometimes the dispute only arises once the wind turbine is in operation. For example, a court in Münster has found that a neighboring turbine can cause damage that isn’t even measured in kilowatts. The plaintiff claimed that a new wind farm upstream had been passing on the wind in irregular quantities. The air turbulence, he claimed, caused his own rotors to vibrate — and his turbines to totter dangerously.

If one wind farm can slow the wind enough to have significant effects next door, the birds and the insects and, I imagine, the local weather systems are going to notice, too.

I’m just saying nothing is as easy or as harmless as it looks, is all.

Photo credit: “Wind turbine,” Flickr/Lepti