Here’s How Wind and Solar Energy are Increasing CO2 Emissions

Picture: JMT (PD)

Picture: JMT (PD)

Almost everybody today agrees that it would be really smart (if not vitally essential) that we reduce the amount of fossil carbon we release from giant, tupperware-geological structures deep inside the earth.  But how would we accomplish freeing ourselves from coal, petroleum, and gas while maintaining a dependable flow of electricity?

Mainstream environmentalists currently advocate for generating energy from wind turbines and solar arrays, whose energy comes more-or-less directly from the sun.  With solar photovoltaic, solar thermal, and wind turbines we can produce electricity without generating any carbon dioxide (once these devices have been manufactured and placed on a field or ocean somewhere).   Unfortunately, one issue with these technologies is that the energy is intermittent.  With the wind dying down and the Sun being obscured by clouds or the night, these devices only actually generate electricity a small minority of the time, let’s say generously 30% of the time.

Unless one is a caveman or total hippie or something, one would generally like to have access to electricity 100% of the time.  This generates a problem with “zero-carbon” energy from wind and solar: what will produce the electricity the other 70% of the time to account for the interrupted power supply ?

The best answer we currently have is special natural gas turbines that can be turned on and shut off quickly.  Most turbines in gas power plants, use a Combined-Cycle Gas Turbine (CCGT) to generate electricity from natural gas which makes an impressive 60% efficiency. However, CCGT plants take too long (about 40 minutes) in powering up to compensate for the lack of electricity resulting from the wind dying down or a cloud passing over.  Therefore we must couple the wind and solar generators with Natural Gas Combustion Turbines (NGCT), which can be powered up in 10 minutes but only achieve 35% efficient.

Looking at the math behind these two alternatives, it becomes painfully apparent that running a CCGT generator (at 60% efficiency) 100% of the time burns significantly less gas than running a NGCT (at 35% efficiency) 70% of the time, even if the other 30% coming from wind and solar was absolutely free.  In fact in a 1,000 megawatt renewable-30%/NGCT-70% coupling, we could postulate that at any given time we would use about 2400 units of natural gas; whereas in a CCGT-100% gas plant, we would use about 1700 units of gas.  Thus, if we are looking to reduce carbon emissions, it would be smart of us to avoid building wind and solar plants altogether!  Strange but true! [Reference video]

Our most promising but oft demonized method of generating zero-carbon base-line energy is by building slowly shifting toward better-designed nuclear power plants.  Our current nuclear plants we humans operate are analogous to driving Ford Model T cars, when we could be driving a 2014 Honda Odyssey or some other paragon of modern engineering and efficiency, except this car would be impossible to crash and consume the waste of Model Ts for fuel!  Please take time to learn more about the possibilities of modern nuclear reactor design using thorium molten salt fuel and molten salt coolant.

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  • Tchoutoye

    Increased C02 will mean more plants, thus more food for us animals.

    • Ferdinand Marcos 2.0

      Not if we’re too busy destroying rain-forests and increasing desertification friend.

      • HCE

        Agreed. CO2 is *used* by plants, it does not create them.

        • Howingtron

          I’m made out of burritos.

      • misinformation

        Wow. I stay pretty busy working to put food on the table and caring for a high maintenance child but you’re out there destroying rainforests and increasing desertification…I need to budget my time better.

        • Ferdinand Marcos 2.0

          I do what I can.

        • kowalityjesus

          eating meat is doing that job pretty well. cattle ranching accounts for the obberwhelming majority of rainforest loss.

          • misinformation

            That’ why I don’ eat industrialized ‘meat’. Raising livestock appropriately (and in combination with perennial and annual plants) increases the amount of soil and is far more sustainable than annual plant production is on it’s own.

            Industrial farming practices, whether you only eat plants or not, isn’t the solution to anything.

          • kowalityjesus

            I have read The Omnivore’s Dilemma which discusses such ideals and I agree with you.

          • misinformation

            I’ve never read the Omnivore’s Dilemma, though I’m familiar with it. If you’re interested in the subject, Mark Shepard’s Restoration Agriculture is the most accessible book I’ve come across.

  • http://hormeticminds.blogspot.com/ Chaorder Gradient

    I figured we’d really need to work on figuring out high-capacity batteries to serve the night. But maybe i’m talking sci-fi.

    • https://twitter.com/anti_euclidean ÿ

      Nah, bro, radioactive waste is a critical element of the Invisible Hand of the Marketplace!

      It’s all there in Wealth Of Nations. If you don’t understand, maybe you just hate liberty?

      What could be more economically centralizing than nuclear power? The plebes will never break that monopoly.

    • kowalityjesus

      the best we can come up with is making a giant cavern and pumping air into it, or pumping water uphill; efficiency is abysmal…If we wanted to try to produce enough cheap lead-acid batteries, it is so not feasible on the order of needing as much lead as exists in the earth’s crust.

      “All the batteries in existence today would hold 10 minutes of the world’s current power needs.” -Bill Gates

      • Howingtron

        Bill Gates is heavily involved in consumer technology which is leaked little by little to maximize its profitability. Just sayin…

  • alizardx

    The wind energy availability problem is best dealt with via larger electrical grids. “The wind is always blowing somewhere”. In most warm areas, peak load (A/C) corresponds to peak energy availability for solar cells for some reason. Also, thermal storage (phase change materials, etc.) work well for solar thermal. Pure electric storage at the levels required for load-balancing is a work in progress.

    Thorium is an interesting technology, but IMO, it’s a niche tech, not The Solution. It should be sold on its merits, not on the demerits of natural gas which in a properly designed renewable-based grid, are largely irrelevant.

    • kowalityjesus

      Were I to discuss the other material/financial costs of actually implementing solar and wind technology, I would have pointed out that in long transmission lines, a minority of electricity generated actually reaches its destination, like 30-40% generously. It would be absolutely insane to consider the number of wind turbines we would need turning in Indiana to power New York. The materials that go into producing a wind turbine (cement, steel, and rare earths) already make it carbon-indebted enough, but the vast, vast quantities of copper transmission lines necessary to connect this dispersed energy source make it utterly impractical.

      There are other reasons why we don’t want a massive interconnected power grid even more than we have today. Another Carrington Event would be a superb example of why. Modular nuclear power plants of the most ideal design can literally be built alongside existing coal plants and completely replace them. 1 ton of fuel produces 1 ton of waste per year in a 1000mw MSR nuclear facility instead of 2,000,000 tons of fuel makes 200,000 tons of waste in a 1000mw coal plant. Fuck coal.

      • alizardx

        Not talking about anything larger than current regional grids. Extremely high energy users (DATA CENTERS) can be moved closer to sources of cheap power, which is an ongoing trend.

        As for “fuck coal”, no argument.

        • marytrasnick

          like
          Jacqueline implied I’m taken by surprise that a mom can earn $8130 in 1 month
          on the computer . see post F­i­s­c­a­l­p­o­s­t­.­C­O­M­

        • kowalityjesus

          You still have to couple intermittent photovoltaic electricity with a source to compensate for when the panels are not producing electricity. Also when you have a small generator hooked up to the grid, it is not as simple as “fuzzy electricity tide rising at PV generator to make flow of municipal electricity move more slowly or backwards” like I figured until recently. Since we use alternating current, there are issues with the PV electricity being out of phase and instead of acting as a source it actually acts as a load.

          An electrical engineer discussed this at the Thorium Energy Alliance conference in May. He cited other problems (“power flow control,” “torsional interaction,” “subsynchronous resonance,” “surge impedence point,” “torque amplification”) but if you want to figure out what any of those things mean, please let me know! : )

        • kowalityjesus

          In all fairness, I sent this video to my friend who works in a nuclear power plant and this was his response. Not as enthusiastic as mine, but promising in a realistic way.

          Interesting video, there are some good ideas in here. I agree that in
          order to change the source of electric power to a more environmentally
          friendly means, that it will need to be cheaper than more polluting
          methods. I was disappointed that he did not compare the proposed
          reactor with current nuclear technology. The cost to build a new
          conventional nuclear plant is a bit more than double what he suggests in
          the presentation during questions at the end from knowing a bit about
          the construction of VC Summer and Vogtle. The green energy arguments
          for storage are exactly right, but like he said, still in development.
          The argument that renewable energy farms could be tied together by the
          grid and create a reasonably constant supply of electricity are in my
          opinion about as far away as energy storage. The grid in the US in
          particular is so far out of date that it is not capable of performing
          this type of balance, or efficient enough to make it effective. We need
          to invest heavily in the grid even if we continue with the current
          power portfolio.

          It is obvious to me that this gentleman is very smart, but he comes
          from academia, not from the power industry. He makes some significant
          assumptions for scientists and engineers to solve, and from a comment
          about engineers in the presentation I know he is not an engineer. The
          quality requirements between aero and nuke are significantly different.
          Nuke is much more stringent because the influence of an error is not
          simply the contents of the equipment and what it can hit, but in some
          cases effect an entire country and beyond. It would not surprise me
          that a new nuclear technology’s actual cost would be more than double
          the initial intelligent estimate made even after complete design and
          licensing of a reactor. Another big hitter here is maintenance costs.
          Maintenance would be complicated and expensive because of the exotic
          coolant used. What about a primary to secondary coolant loop leak?
          Will the primary coolant react with the secondary coolant like a liquid
          sodium reactor does? How would the reactor be inspected? Right now we
          primarily inspect reactors with remotely operated submarines using
          cameras and some other more sophisticated means in some cases. We can
          work directly over the reactor, fuel, and pressure vessel because the
          water provides shielding for us from the radiation. How would shielding
          be accomplished and be able to perform work and inspections? Post 9/11
          security is a big deal such that the only way to do it economically is
          to have a small number of large reactors, or a large number of small
          reactors. It is not economical security wise to have small modular
          reactors scattered around, they would need to be in clusters. These are
          only the thoughts off the top of my head after listening to the
          presentation. All that being said, I hope that research continues and
          that solutions to problems can be solved. In my view there may be a
          solution, but it is realistically not as optimistic as this gentleman
          suggests. The solution may be equal to or cheaper than coal.

  • goatonastick

    This could be remedied by the ever-improving battery technology.

    • kowalityjesus

      Battery technology is indeed improving, but for small devices. We would need something incredibly cheap, like pumping water uphill. Unfortunately we get even less energy back, although the efficiencies are impressive.

  • Howingtron

    This article seems like misinformation…

    It should be noted that utility and fossil fuel companies have played a major part in stemming the development of harnessing the sun’s energy since (at least) the 1970s. They have bought out many small business innovators and stopped revolutionary research dead in its tracks that could increase the practicality of solar energy technology. If innovative ideas were allowed to flourish and ‘ma & pop’ inventors were given a chance to let their work take its own course (by receiving a fair share of government R&D grants, for example), I can say with confidence that we would’ve solved many of the problems involved with solar energy already; like storing it for later use when the sun is not out or when the wind is not blowing.

    A core aspect of any utility company’s business model is the centralization of energy production and complete control over energy distribution. The above nuclear energy rhetoric leaves room for this system of control to persist while a practical solar energy approach requires much less centralization and thus less profits and control. It should be kept in mind that the data provided describes technology developed by big energy/utility businesses and also any solar technology we currently have is at least 20 years behind where it could be because of the interests of big business getting involved. IMO the problem lies not with technology but rather with the social circumstances that have created a culture where the pursuit of profit trumps all else; practical technology and thinking just can’t thrive in that type of environment. A good book to read on this subject is ‘The Sun Betrayed.’

    • kowalityjesus

      That’s funny, the sentiment of the pro-thorium community is that if we had spent what we have already shelled out for subsidies/investment in solar and wind instead on molten-salt reactors (that kick the ass of our present light-water reactors in efficiency, waste produced, and SAFETY) we would already have a zero-carbon economy. That is not to say that fossil fuels don’t also enjoy copious subsidies.
      It’s not a hard jump to realize that trying to satisfy our entire electric demand with solar and wind is like trying to tug a huge container ship by attaching a bunch of fish on ropes to the front of the boat. We need a tugboat for that, and we have one that doesn’t pollute like coal, it’s nuclear and you need to learn about the exciting possibilities from better technology.

  • Kommie

    not sure what Kowality jesus’ problem with renewables is. Sure enough, industrial processes take consistent wattage/voltage and storage hasn’t been sufficiently worked out. However, if a densely populated as well as fairly cloudy country like Germany can get (in 2012) 25% of its overall use out of wind and solar, and by last month’s estimate over 50% of it’s domestic residential usage, then what’s wrong with that? Nuclear energy is by far less cost effective due to extremely high start up costs. Also Thorium, which needs to be irradiated to get altered into uranium 232, which gives off huge amounts of gamma radiation with a considerably shorter half life but nevertheless highly toxic and cancer causing. Thus it will need to get further processed into uranium 233 which can be used for fission reactors. Problem with that is it can also be used for bomb fabrication, so you need to add into your mathematical equation waste disposal, security measures and decommissioning costs. Once you add up your numbers and logistics its another BAD idea like any idea of splitting heavy elements to generate power. It’s bad for the future of life and what’s already out there glowing for tens of thousands of years will surely bite someone in the ass down the road.

    • kowalityjesus

      Yes industrial processes require constant electricity access, just like hospitals and schools and residences too. Therefore wind and solar are not ideal unless something miraculous can be devised to store the energy and we erect an absolutely insane number of solar panels (from China) and wind turbines.

      I don’t know where you got those numbers about Germany’s electricity usage in 2012. According to this video at 6:30 Germany has only reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 5% as of 2012, after getting an additional 13% more of its electricity from renewables, partially because it is burning natural gas to make up for intermittent energy sources, but mostly because it is shutting down its nuclear plants and building BRAND NEW coal plants, which will be operating for at least 50 years. Also, solar/wind industry in Germany is collapsing because govt is removing the subsidies put in place to spur its growth.

      Nuclear power plants produce MASSIVE amounts of electricity, which negates their high initial cost. If we could build nuclear power plants modularly, like an assembly line for a Boeing 787 for example, the costs would be much lower and almost certainly outdo coal (and produce no carbon whatsoever).

      Thorium-232 DOES need to be transmuted to Uranium-233 in a sustained reaction, which is why they designed the reactors to do just that. U-233 CAN be used in nuclear bombs, but it is terrible to work with because it can’t be handled due to high gamma radiation, also because the high gamma radiation could cause the bomb to detonate prematurely. We will never see U-233 being used in bombs, anybody with the robotics necessary to produce a bomb from U-233 will have access to way easier materials. Incidentally one reason why the US never pursued the Thorium fuel cycle is expressly because we CANNOT make a good bomb out of it. The thorium reactor is superior in practically every other way, especially in the quantity of waste produced and the efficiency of the reaction.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QEX-_B6e2UA

      • Kommie

        you can look up Statistisches Landesamt Hamburg, if you wanna sift through it in german. “Renewable energy generation by country” on wiki sets percentage at 23% in 2012 whereas some other googled information sources put it at 26%. Maybe the “ADDITIONAL” 13% means 13% added on to what was there before.
        Also you say: “U-233 CAN be used in nuclear bombs, but it’s terrible blahbahblah… high gamma radiation and because high gamma radiation bomb could detonate prematurely, blahblahblah” and you conclude your argument by saying: “us never pursued the Thorium fuel cycle because you CANNOT make a bomb out of it”. Well, what do you do with the gamma radiation then? Which is exactly why LFTRs are not all that feasible after all and why the early experiments at Oak Ridge Laboratories conclusively resulted in not further pursuing this highly inefficient and costly technology. Your MASSIVE amounts of electricity generated, are also due to MASSIVE amounts of neutrons will bombard the mantel so the mantel will have to be replaced every so many years even though they operate with considerably less pressure. The other problem is that the waste they will generate: Fluorides are highly water soluble. So what would Kowalty Jesus do with that? Are there barrels full of highly radioactive shit rusting away all over the place or WHAT? Why? Because all the smartypants pro nuke folks can’t really figure out how to get rid of the shit or do they? Hho’s backyard is it gonna be? Yours? Whats your plan? The clean up cost of the test reactor was only $130.000.000.00 and that was in the 60′s. And Neptunium 237? How about that nasty little byproduct? Let’s look up it’s half life: oh ok it’s not that bad only 2.14 million years! No problem at all. We got it all figured out or do we?

        • kowalityjesus

          A very widely-held misconception is that the longer the half-life, the more dangerous the radioactive substance. No actually the shorter the half life, the more radioactive a substance is. Thorium has a half-life of 14 billion years and it is a VERY common material in the crust.
          Some amount of radiation is unavoidable, it’s everywhere and it’s not dangerous because humans have evolved to live with some measure of background radiation (including from thorium/uranium in crust, radiation from the sun and from cosmic sources). If you are worried about radiation, we currently release approximately 3 times more radiation from any given coal plant than we are from any given nuclear plant per megawatt. There’s all sorts of weird radioactive and toxic that’s shit in coal. Solar and wind are just never going to replace coal, go talk to any businessman whether he will pay in excess of 5 times more for electricity that he could get instead from fossil fuels. Cost of electricity is becoming a major problem for German businesses.

          According to my knowledge LFTRs have not seen wide implementation because they never received jack shit for funding because they couldn’t make a bomb from the thorium fuel cycle in the 50s, 60s and 70s as we were deciding which path to pursue in reactor design. LFTRs produce a couple orders of magnitude less radioactive waste per megawatt, and can actually consume the waste stream from current nuclear reactors (stuff that is currently destined for Yucca Mt.).

          Jiang Mianheng, THE SON OF THE FORMER PREMIER OF CHINA, wonders publicly why we never put this technology to use, and is very grateful for all the work they did at Oak Ridge and the information that is now public domain that they plan to use to make some *500 gigawatts* of nuclear power by 2050. Small engineering challenges like alloys for heat exchange and materials for mantle are very small problems for the 500 PhD scientists that China currently has working on implementing this technology full time. They will own the patents and collect royalties on the technology that WE invented because we were collectively too uneducated to not be fearful about containing and controlling the moderate radiation we produce as a result of producing carbon-clean electricity. hahaha! It certainly will be one of the more remarkable ironies of history. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iLX8jCKL9I4

  • kowalityjesus

    Just household electricity usage does not take into factor the vast amount of energy used TO CREATE and TRANSPORT the things you use and have and use in that house. That is awesome, though, powering a house without using fossil fuels!

  • http://voxmagi-necessarywords.blogspot.com/ VoxMagi

    Okay…let’s just ignore that German success in the use of solar…in a country that gets a mere fraction of the US level of light…kind of radically discards the claims of severe inefficiency/intermittent issues. Storage capacity and issues of internittent generation are rapidly being resolved in better and better ways…just not in the US…where we genuinely can’t get our shit together to save our lives…mostly because a handful of companies already have a business model based on expendable fuel sources…so they pump out pseudo-factoids to ‘debunk’ renewable fuel sources which are picked up and bandied about the web by (I’m lookin right at you, kiddo)…anyone with an axe to grind looking for grist for their private fury mill.

    Look…I get that you have a pet fetish power source. I do. And you’re right about its usefulness…it is underappreciated. It’s also subject to the same risks that all man made situations are. You can speak rosily of how well it OUGHT to be done…and you’re right…it OUGHT to be done that way…but you live in denial of the basic truth that IRL…it will be built and operated by the same asshats that brought us toxic death everywhere else. Even with lower waste product and much shorter half life…its still being run or built by asshats. The solutions you are poo-pooing…have the special benefit of their worst case scenarios involving…nothing. Just a lack of power generation. That’s all.

    But…seriously, man…delivering shoddily researched and spurious rants about the imagined and exaggerated issues of other power sources…kind of just reminds people that you have an axe to grind and won’t let facts get in your way between extended rounds of fetishizing Kirk Sorenson. It’s not helping your case. For your own sake…just stick to pushing the benefits of your chosen beloved power source…regurgitating industry numbers that are already fading into obscurity as wild untruths…steals from your ability to deliver a solid endorsement for a possible power source with real merits.

    • misinformation

      ‘in a country (Germany) that gets a mere fraction of the US level of light’.

      Which part of the U.S.? Don’t you think it’s a bit silly to talk about ‘Germany’s’ sunlight levels vs. The entirety of the United States? When you say, ‘the U.S., do you mean Maine or Arizona or an average based on all 50 states?

      • http://voxmagi-necessarywords.blogspot.com/ VoxMagi

        I mean they succeed despite being the Seattle of Europe. Their cloudcover is heavier and more consistent than nearly any state you can pick. If we ran an average…US sunlight exposure is far in excess of German.

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  • kowalityjesus

    That’s awesome, thank you! Pumping water uphill is actually more efficient than I thought when I wrote that comment, as much as 80%. I still think that trying to supply our energy with wind and solar is quite sisyphean!

  • disqus_dqljRCaiM5

    Germany produced 50% of their energy for one hour in one week in June. It is not as if all of their power from this point onward is a constant 50% from solar, especially since peak consumer demand is in the evening. I don’t wish do downplay the achievement of the Germans. To achieve what they have, even for an hour, is impressive, but we still have a long way to go before it is just a plug and play solution.

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