Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Energy: Tilting at Windmills?

Mitt Romney's remark that 'you can't put a windmill on your car' meant ... what?
I'm sure he agrees you certainly can put a propeller on an airplane, right?

But, everyone knows a plane must burn refined fuel pretty rapidly to make that propeller turn fast enough to overcome gravity and fly.
Where does that fuel come from?
Mostly from underground deposits of petroleum, that's where.

Of course, cars use fuel, too, mostly from underground.
But things are changing pretty quickly as the heretofore artificial costs of refined fossil fuels are rising in response to what?
For you economists out there; supply and demand!

I should know a little about this subject, because 8 years ago, I bought a so-called hybrid vehicle with much higher fuel efficiency than I had ever owned before.
Part of the reason for that increased fuel efficiency is applied technology that allows electrical power to be generated from the car's own momentum while it's not being accelerated.
That may not sound like much, but it does add about 10% to rated horsepower.

More importantly, there are vehicles now being developed, sold and driven that have much higher efficiencies thanks to even newer applied technologies. [WWU's solar vehicles are a good example]
One of those technologies uses electrical power stored in high-tech batteries that can be recharged by simply plugging into the power grid.
Granted, much of the existing power grid also relies upon fossil fuels from underground, but that is changing due to smart applied science as well.

Ever heard of solar power? Of course you have!
That's where we get nearly all of our energy to grow things, heat things and light things, whether in real time or stored underground from earlier centuries.

Of course, the enormous solar energy the earth receives is free of cost.
It is available to use, collect, store and transmit in various ways, including photovoltaic [PV] arrays.
Did you know that if we were to invest 1% of surface area in solar panel farms, we could produce ALL the electrical power we need?
Let me repeat that; ALL our electrical power needs can be supplied by solar farms covering 1% of our land surface.
Does that surprise you?

Of course, a smart grid system would be required to accomplish this and that would take time and investment, plus be a long term game changer for all those interests who benefit from the status quo.
But a smart grid needs to happen anyway, for several reasons; reliability, efficiency, national security, normal replacement of aging infrastructure, distribution improvements, among others.

It's normal to resist something so big and daunting, but you know its going to happen anyway so why deny the necessity for eventual change?
And, remember, big, gradual and natural changes also have the potential to create jobs, investment opportunities, certainty and the type of innovative R&D development this country prides itself upon.

A smart grid is something that is inherently American, too. It can't be simply outsourced.
Two role model examples of this type of game change are NASA and our space program -which has spawned all sorts of new technology and thinking- and the Internet -which has transformed the way we do business and live our lives.

There is no question that finding ways to harness solar energy more effectively into our fuel needs not only brings many desirable benefits, but very few -if any- downside risks.
A side benefit could be to conserve increasingly scarce underground resources for more important purposes than simply burning, while also decreasing damaging trends in our atmosphere that contribute to Greenhouse effects.

So far, the USA has made scarcely a dent in the potential solar power has for our future.
Yet, other countries are embracing the concept willingly and aggressively.
That should be troubling for a society that is used to thinking of itself as privileged and advanced.
We're simply not acting like the progressive leaders the world has come to expect.

In 2006, I made a decision to install a small [1.5kw] PV array on my garage roof and sell the electrical power it generates back to Puget Sound Energy.
Fortunately, the State of Washington -compliments of Federal incentives- provided some financial incentives to help me justify fronting the cost.
Almost six years later, I decided to triple the size of my PV array installation, again with modest financial incentives from the State of Washington.
Now, I produce fully two-thirds of the power I use in my home.
I feel good about that, because it gives me the chance to tangibly contribute to some goals and ideals I support.
It also provides Puget Power with power it doesn't need to produce from fossil fuels; which they gladly pay me for.
And, it provides jobs to fine local people, plus sets a small example that others may wish to emulate.

One small step at a time is always necessary to begin any campaign for change.
After a while momentum will begin to build and the next thing we know, things are happening!

OK, I got off on a little solar tangent, but wind power is also free.
All we have to do is harness it, just like the solar energy from which it derives.
Remember Mitt Romney's statement, 'you can't put a windmill on your car'?
Well, literally, he's right, but directionally he's wrong; here's why:
 Since plugging into a power grid now can fuel a high-tech car, where that power came from doesn't have to be just fossil or solar, but also wind.

I expect folks in Lynden know that already, with their Dutch heritage and history of harnessing wind for beneficial purposes.
Heck, a large part of Holland was reclaimed from the sea by pumping water from behind dikes using windmills.
Farmers used windmills before electricity was available to mechanically pump water for livestock and crops.
It ain't exactly a futuristic high-tech concept, it's an established method that's been used a long time.

Of course, modern wind turbines and their towering supports have now been refined and adapted to power generation purposes, so that electric grids can transmit it to multiple uses.
Above ground wind power is an alternative to underground fossil fuels. 

That wind turbines are already established technology can be easily demonstrated by driving through windy gorges or viewing windy ridges where wind farms have been established.
Admittedly, there is controversy over locations that are appropriate, but wind turbines remain a viable alternate to burning fossil fuels, as well as opportunities for income generation, investment and jobs. Why not embrace this new, more efficient concept?

Not long ago, I heard of a potential investment opportunity that was local in nature.
It hasn't happened yet, mainly because the Whatcom County Council can't seem to get its collective head around what policy it ought to adopt regarding permitting.
I guess its just not yet a big enough deal for them to consider important, but maybe there are other reasons.
Anyway, it's a shame that not much progress is currently thought necessary for wind power to become a reality, especially so near a place like Lynden.

Two wind power articles appeared recently, one in the latest issue of Whatcom Watch on this very subject.
This one is from the Oregonian.

Sorry to be so windy........