Whitesburg KY
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Oil and electricity don’t mix




To the Editor:

I enjoyed reading Jim Hightower’s piece about the consequences of our nation’s addiction to oil featured in last week’s paper. I was in agreement with his thesis about the need for stringent regulatory oversight when it comes to the deep water drilling and recovery of our oil reserves.

He made a very basic error however, when he asserted that “America must aggressively — urgently — expand our nation’s transition to renewable energy.”

Crude oil has many uses in today’s America but generating electricity is not one of them. This is a common misconception repeated by President Obama almost daily. Renewable sources of electricity (wind, solar, geothermal) have virtually nothing to do with freeing America from her addiction to oil.

Oil is used to fuel our vehicles and to a much lesser extent heat our homes. When it comes to the power switch however, America generates electricity using coal, nuclear and natural gas.

Until this country transitions in some significant way towards electric and electric hybrid vehicles using the grid to recharge, renewable source of energy have very little real connection with our insatiable thirst for oil.

On numerous occasions, Hightower has expressed unbridled optimism regarding the immediate impact of renewable energy sources. While renewables most defi- nitely have a promising future, that big impact on the energy front is premature. Renewable wind and solar are afflicted by a very fundamental problem — both these sources of electricity yield unpredictably intermittent output.

Compounding the problem, statistical estimates for the actual on-line production of electricity using wind or solar east of the Mississippi River are generally under 30 percent. This means that for over 70 percent of their operational lifespan, wind and solar assets are simply idle, contributing no electricity to the grid.

Large coal-fired power plants simply cannot adapt their output quickly enough to compensate for unpredictable, instantaneous changes in wind and solar intensity. Consequently, coal-fired power plants would continue to produce the same thresholds of baseload power necessary to maintain grid stability with or without sun or wind power inputs. Nuclear plants also lack the needed flexibility to partner efficiently with these renewables.

Large power plants require considerable lead times in order to make significant adjustments in output. Smart grid technology has not yet been able to bridge this critical divide in ‘response time flexibility.’

Engineers believe that large capacity electrical storage is the solution to this problem. Storage would enable a more smooth electrical output profile and alleviate the instantaneous hard stops and starts in power delivery which now characterize wind and solar.

Research into electrical storage has been ongoing since Thomas Edison designed both the first crude battery as well as the first operational power plant. Unfortunately, as of today we are primarily limited to either shipping containers loaded with interconnected lithium ion batteries (the wind in- dustry now proposes wiring such a container to each wind turbine) or an indirect form of electrical storage involving water and gravity known as ‘pumped hydro-storage.’ The latter employs two reservoirs at diff erent elevations. Water is pumped from the lower to the higher reservoir when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing. That same water is then simply released back down to the lower reservoir through a pipeline equipped with a turbine. Releases are controlled and done at the discretion of the power company when electricity is needed.

Constructing industrial wind farms or concentrated solar plants in regions with under 30 percent capacity factors constitutes a misallocation of scarce resources. Without electrical storage, such facilities would displace absolutely no coalbased power. Saddled with the considerable added costs of storage and redundancy (i.e. multiple wind farms in diverse locations to improve total wind-based input), such facilities become extremely expensive per kilowatt/hour of electrical yield.

When electrical rates rise well above general affordability, tremendous numbers of people resort to burning wood or coal on their own during the winter months . . . an environmental and health care disaster.

Along these same lines, residential rooftop solar suffers from the same inadequacies. Equipment and installation costs for units in our region far surpass the system-life dollar savings on home power bills. The scarcity of residential-based solar reflects the fact that most people will not accept a negative return on investment.

Additionally, residential solar suff ers from the same power supply instability as does industrial wind and solar. When significant numbers of households sell their surplus solar power back to the utility through a net metering arrangement, the problem of unpredictably intermittent output becomes a major problem for the utility company which must manage the supply-demand balancing act.

Kentucky Power, for example, maintains certain baseload power thresholds to satisfy regional demand. To be truly ‘green’ when it comes to electricity, the first consideration of a household should be disconnection from the grid so that the power company could deduct their daily household demand from the daily baseload calculations they use to ensure sufficient regional power.

It is clear that renewable energy applications will have their independence day from traditional baseload power fuels like coal, natural gas and nuclear. When large capacity electrical storage is figured out and made commercially viable, wind potential should be developed in natural wind corridors off shore and in the Great Plains where capacity factors are highest.

Concentrated solar power should be sited in the American Southwest where power yields are optimized. High voltage D.C. lines can transport the power with very little ‘line loss’ over great distances.

The energy game must be played with great skill and foresight. Throwing scarce tax dollars at misplaced energy boondoggles simply makes our predicament worse.

JAMES LEWIS Whitesburg


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