Okay, You’ve Caught It. Now What Do You Do With It?

by Dave Schuler on March 8, 2012

The outrage in this article on wind power generation is about the subsidies:

Wind farms in the Pacific Northwest — built with government subsidies and maintained with tax credits for every megawatt produced — are now getting paid to shut down as the federal agency charged with managing the region’s electricity grid says there’s an oversupply of renewable power at certain times of the year.

The problem arose during the late spring and early summer last year. Rapid snow melt filled the Columbia River Basin. The water rushed through the 31 dams run by the Bonneville Power Administration, a federal agency based in Portland, Ore., allowing for peak hydropower generation. At the very same time, the wind howled, leading to maximum wind power production.

Demand could not keep up with supply, so BPA shut down the wind farms for nearly 200 hours over 38 days.

“It’s the one system in the world where in real time, moment to moment, you have to produce as much energy as is being consumed,” BPA spokesman Doug Johnson said of the renewable energy.

Now, Bonneville is offering to compensate wind companies for half their lost revenue. The bill could reach up to $50 million a year.

The extra payout means energy users will eventually have to pay more.

“We require taxpayers to subsidize the production of renewable energy, and now we want ratepayers to pay renewable energy companies when they lose money?” asked Todd Myers, director of the Center for the Environment of the Washington Policy Center and author of “Eco-Fads: How the Rise of Trendy Environmentalism is Harming the Environment.”

“That’s a ridiculous system that keeps piling more and more money into a system that’s unsustainable,” Myers said.

but I think the real significance goes quite a bit beyond that. The energy conundrum isn’t just about generating power. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

There are multiple engineering problems that need to be addressed and the power generation component probably isn’t the hardest. You need to generate the power. Then, as anyone with a lick of sense knows that the wind blows harder at some times of the year than at others, you’ve either got to find a way of storing the energy you don’t use until you need it or be prepared to not generate at top capacity some of the time and your financial structure has to take that into account. Wind, sunlight, high tides, fast-moving rivers, and steam (or lava) coming out of the ground aren’t always where the people are living and working. In fact, it’s generally quite the opposite: people typically don’t like to live where there are lashing winds, blistering sunlight, punishing tides, or the likelihood of a hot water geyser popping up in your backyard. That means you’ve got to be able to move the energy from where it’s being generated and/or stored to where it’s needed. At the present state of technology you lose a lot of the energy you generate simply by moving it around.

Generation. Storage. Transmission. Those are just three of the technical problems that need to be addressed. We’re not particularly good at storing electricity but we are pretty good at storing heat. Some designs for what’s called “alternative power generation&148; will probably incorporate converting the power that’s generated into heat and storing it in what are, effectively, big thermos bottles until it’s needed at which point it will be converted into electricity and transmitted to the point of use.

What’s the Chevy Volt’s battery weigh? Almost 200kg? For a fully-electric driving range of 40 miles? A lot of the energy it’s storing is being used to carry the battery around.

That’s why, by the way, the president is at least partially wrong when, as he did the other day, he characterizes petroleum as the “fuel of the past”. It’s the fuel of the past, the present, and the foreseeable future. At the present state of the art petroleum is unmatched for its low cost, capacity as an energy source and storage medium, and its portability. That’s why it’s best of available alternatives for transport.

We can and should have lighter and more efficient internal combustion engines. That doesn’t mean that, however much is invested in solar, wind, and thermal energy production, there’s a petroleum-free future just within reach. I might live to see such a thing but I doubt it. In thirty or forty years we’ll probably still be using a lot of oil. Hopefully, a lot of other things as well but we’ll still be using oil.

{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

Drew March 8, 2012 at 11:19 am

Speaking of clean energy. A friend of mine relays that a windmill farm in t he California Altamont pass has been shuttered due to objections from environmentalists.

Seems the blades have this propensity for decapitating birds.

Sometimes the winds of change just don’t work out………..so to speak.

Brett March 8, 2012 at 11:27 am

At the present state of the art petroleum is unmatched for its low cost, capacity as an energy source and storage medium, and its portability.

That’s the devil in the details for all renewable energy versus the “fossil fuels”: fossil fuels are just really, really good in terms of energy storage, production, and use. There’s nothing quite like them, except possibly nuclear power (which isn’t as versatile).

Seems the blades have this propensity for decapitating birds.

I know this will make me sound awful, but that was a hilarious mental image.

PD Shaw March 8, 2012 at 11:36 am

My municipally-owned utility settled a nuisance suit from the Sierra Club by agreeing to buy wind power. We buy it in the Dakotas at $X and hope that we can resell it somebody up North for >$X. I’m subsidizing somebody.

And then the city began building a new park, that included a single windmill, and I think the estimate is that it will pay for itself in 200 years. But it wasn’t meant to be a money-maker, its supposed to teach kids something . . ..

Dave Schuler March 8, 2012 at 11:40 am


The relative energy values of gasoline, bio-diesel, ethanol (per gallon):

Gasoline: 121.7 megajoules – LHV
Bio-diesel: 123.5 megajoules – LHV
Ethanol: 79.8 megajoules – LHV

That’s roughly on the order of a thousand AA batteries.

Drew March 8, 2012 at 12:02 pm

I know this will make me sound awful, but that was a hilarious mental image.

Take my wife, please…

Seriously, I just finished reading the 2012 Energy Information Administration summary. ( I know, but we are looking at fraking related investments, so I’ve got to keep up on this). The collective hydro, wood, biomass, solar, wind contribution to total US energ y sources is projected to increase from 7 % to 11% by 2035. The last time I kooked that’s about 25 years. Now hydro and biomass have to currently be a significant fraction of that ( current solar and wind are not broken out as a fraction). Let’s be charitable and say solar and wind are currently half. So they will increase from 3.5% to 5.5%…….a 2% increase in 25 years. Heres the icing on the cake. Projections of usage are very conservative (inflating the solar and wind fraction) and natural gas prices, now becoming more and more influential in electricity production at the expense of coal, are projected to stay low.

Ever heard the term “pissing in the ocean.”

Oh, and for the global war mers. For all these efforts, co2 emissions are projected to increase over the forecast period by 3% from current levels, just in the US. You better hope I’m right and the global warming thing is just hype…

Janis Gore March 8, 2012 at 12:32 pm

I’ve read the literature, and I still don’t understand why this country isn’t producing diesel cars. Average gas mileage ramps up 15 or so miles per gallon.

Enlighten me.

Dave Schuler March 8, 2012 at 12:32 pm

While we’re on the subject I don’t know where anybody got the idea that hydroelectric was a low carbon approach to producing energy. There’s a lot of methane produced in all that standing water behind the dam.

Dave Schuler March 8, 2012 at 12:37 pm

Basically, three reasons, Janis.

1. Diesel engines are more expensive to build than gas engines consequently the cars themselves are more expensive.

2. Diesel is taxed 30% more than per gallon than gas is.

3. Diesel has a bad rap for soot-belching here. Makes ‘em harder to sell.

Janis Gore March 8, 2012 at 12:43 pm

1. But not as expensive as a Volt.

Dave Schuler March 8, 2012 at 12:49 pm

If the Volt weren’t so heavily subsidized, the only people they’d ever sell them to are Ed Begley, Jr. and Daryl Hannah. It’s not hard to understand. Who wants to spend more than $30K for a street legal golf cart?

sam March 8, 2012 at 12:52 pm

Here’s an article on the storage issue: Storehouses for Solar Energy Can Step In When the Sun Goes Down. The plan is to store the energy in molten salt, which retains heat very well.

Janis Gore March 8, 2012 at 12:55 pm

I certainly don’t. My favorite and only sister lives about 400 miles away.

PD Shaw March 8, 2012 at 1:30 pm

Drew, I’ve not perused the 2012 report, but in the past what has stood out is the variability of those projections under different growth scenarios. A flat economy, coupled with energy efficiency, has meant in the past that we will need less energy in the future than today, not a great environment for radical change to our energy infrastructure.

Also, I think our biomass usage is constrained by tariffs on sugar-based ethanol imports. If true, there’s a very simple way to increase alternatives.

Icepick March 8, 2012 at 3:25 pm

Seems the blades have this propensity for decapitating birds.

They just want you to think it’s the blades doing it while they’re operatiing. The reality is that windmills have lots of down time. At night they go around with axes, hatchets and swords killing every bird they can find, just to alleviate the boredom. Windmills are not very nice people.

Drew March 8, 2012 at 5:00 pm


Dave’s absolutely correct. Many of the manufacturers have recently introduced diesels ( at least here). Mercedes calls there’s blutec and you can find it on the web.

But it runs about 1500 bucks more, and if you look at the price differential on gas vs diesel it takes a long time to recoup. They are rumored to not have that traditional belch and snorting engine sound, and also plenty of low end giddy up.

Something people also don’t usually think about. Most gas stations have only one or diesel pumps. Can you imagine the que ups? Else there’s a lot of investment in pumps to be made. It’s one of the nat gas for cars issues as well: no infrastructure.

Steve Verdon March 8, 2012 at 5:12 pm

While we’re on the subject I don’t know where anybody got the idea that hydroelectric was a low carbon approach to producing energy. There’s a lot of methane produced in all that standing water behind the dam.

Depends on if the facilities are as you note facilities with conventional damns or are run-of-the-river type facilities. These latter facilities have much smaller water storage or even none. I’m not familiar with BPAs hydro systems so I can’t say in that specific case.

However, those facilities with no pondage (water storage) are peak load facilities and are seasonal. Those with pondage are base load–i.e. can be run most of the time.

Hmmm…wikipedia says BPA does have at least on one ROR facility….

And the distinction between base load plants and peaking plants (peakers) is one not to be ignored. Base load plants are plants that can be run pretty much continuously and at low cost. Peakers on the other hand are plants that are run when you need them and come at a high cost. A peaker plant is typically a turbine that can ramp up really fast and start producing maximum output quickly. Think of a jet engine strapped to the floor and modified to produce electricity. These are typically used when demand goes well above typical base load (e.g. a really hot day when AC units are running a capacity).

Things like wind farms are not good at displacing base load facilities because they only run when the wind is sufficient to generate electricity. They aren’t even a good peaking plant either. Wind probably falls more into the range of load following plant. These plants operate between base load and peaking plants.

If you have a situation where you have a fair amount of load form wind you’ll likely also have a fair amount of spinning reserve–power plants that are running but not generating their full potential. These plants basically stand ready to step in and fulfill the energy demand if wind falls short.

This article basically describes the reverse situation. There is plenty of hydro and wind so that wind is idled. Problem is you still incur costs with this kind of a system and they have to be paid for, just as you have to pay for the spinning reserves. If it seems absurd it is because you have a situation where you have increased wind’s share of your generation portfolio and it is rather erratic.

Drew March 8, 2012 at 5:12 pm

Pd –

That’s exactly right. They run a high/low/medium. In my view the high and low have traditionally been unrealistic. But apparently what they did for 2012 was assume absolute values for increses solar and wind energy outputs, and calculated percentages on the medium, but pretty conservative case. That is, they probably overestimated the share gain.

Gee, I wonder if dr Chu had anything to do with that.

There is a bottom line to all this. Under all but bizarre scenarios fossil fuels (and biomass is still oxidation of carbon,; and I have no reason to doubt Dave’s hydro observation) will continue to absolutely dominate the two major energy consumers until long after most of the commenters here are long since deceased: electricity and transportation.

Given all the industrial competitive issues, looming financial issues, and geopolitical issues of the middle East facing the country, no matter how bright the gleam in ones eye, rather than submitting that current energy policy is forward looking it seems to me to be a profound misplace meant of resources and priorities.

Janis Gore March 8, 2012 at 5:22 pm

Mercedes introduced a diesel about 30 years ago. It was small, and it was popular.

Steve Verdon March 8, 2012 at 5:27 pm

Oh and regarding birds, careful lots of weird information out there. For example, from Wikipedia….

A study[32] estimates that wind farms are responsible for 0.3 to 0.4 fatalities per gigawatt-hour (GWh) of electricity while fossil-fueled power stations are responsible for about 5.2 fatalities per GWh. The study therefore states that fossil fuel based electricity causes about 10 times more fatalities than wind farm based electricity, primarily due to habitat alteration from pollution and mountain-top removal for coal mining. In Denmark, where wind turbines generate 9% of electricity, wind turbines kill about 30,000 birds per year.

Now, if we take the 0.35 birds killed/GWh and the 30,000 birds killed in Denmark and that 9% of Denmark’s energy is supplied by windmills the implication is that Denmark annual energy consumption is 952,380.95 GWh. That is huge. To give you and idea, that is like 10x the amount of energy consumed in the following counties:

San Bernardino County,
Parts of,
Riverside County,
Los Angeles County,
Orange County,
Ventura County,
Kern County,
Tulare County,
Inyo County,
Mono County.

Or about the energy consumption of over 5.2 million Southern California customers (businesses and residential). Basically 10x the electricity consumed in Los Angeles and the surrounding counties….I’m calling bullshit.

That 0.35 birds killed/GWh is probably low…way to low. A more reasonable number is something like 2.5 to 3 which would put Denmark’s electricity output at 133,333 GWh. That I could believe.

Drew March 8, 2012 at 6:23 pm

When it comes to environuts, one bird is too many…..

Drew March 8, 2012 at 6:25 pm


I think they were the original diesel guys here. I want to say Volvo had one too. Then they fell out of favore.

BTW – take care of them and they’ll run almost forever.

Janis Gore March 8, 2012 at 6:32 pm

It was my sister’s. She thought the Sentra drove as well.

The problem with Mercedes in this country is that all maintenace starts with a 9.

PD Shaw March 8, 2012 at 7:24 pm

One other thing needs mentioning — shadow pollution. There apparently are studies about adverse health impacts from living too close to the turbines; the flickering shadows and the strobe like effect may be associated with health problems. I have no idea whether this is sound, emerging or junk science, but communities use it to enact setback regulations. In turn that means, when you look at a map of available wind power:


you may find it difficult to locate it near the customers.

Janis Gore March 9, 2012 at 10:19 am

PD, I can imagine that. We recently lighted the bridge over the Miss. It’s lovely in an architectural sense, but on cloudy nights we have constant daybreak.

I have “supersonic hearing” as my managers is the next cubicle used to say, so I wonder how they sound. I’ve never been near one.

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