Potential energy independence solutions. "The Other Renewables."

Published by The New American (http://thenewamerican.com)
While our federal government refuses to support drilling for oil in Anwar, which I support, and whereas others have yet to sign on to support Assemblyman Chuck DeVore’s promotion of nuclear energy, which I also support, I thought you might enjoy reading the following report from The New American magazine that will out in the next two weeks.

The “Other” Renewables

By Ed Hiserodt
Created 2007-11-12 06:00

Over the past several months, THE NEW AMERICAN has looked at some of what are deemed “renewable energy resources” — hydrogen, ethanol, wind, and solar — and found them wanting. Wind and solar power have been shown to be undependable, environmentally disastrous, and puny providers of industrial-grade electricity. Ethanol requires high-grade energy in the form of electricity, natural gas, and petroleum products to convert valuable agricultural products to an inferior and troublesome fuel. Hydrogen was exposed to be no energy source at all because there simply aren’t any naturally occurring deposits of hydrogen, and it, too, requires wasting high-grade electrical energy and/or natural gas in its production to yield a thoroughly impractical, untransportable energy commodity.*

None of these would exist commercially in a free market with an informed public. Even though these “renewables” have received an immense flow of government subsidies and media hype, they are still unpopular with private entrepreneurs because they don’t make fiscal sense. As shown in the pie chart below, “renewables” account for 10.4 percent of electrical generation in the United States. This is further broken down to show that solar and wind generation — after years of subsidies, grants, and other preferential treatment — still produce less than one percent of our total electrical power. So we’ve covered the most politically popular renewables and found they had major drawbacks. But what about the “others”?


The energy in falling water has been harnessed for centuries and was the primary source of non human, non animal energy before Watts’ steam engine. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, water power drove the New England mills, making that region a competitive force in many energy-intensive industries, notably textiles. Hydroelectricity came into its own in the United States in the early 20th century with the hydroelectric plants built in connection with the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Hoover Dam, and many other less well-known but crucially important hydroelectric projects.

One might consider hydroelectric power the ultimate source of electrical generation as it can be turned on and off in short order, is nonpolluting, and has rain and melting snow as its fuel. Of course, every power source must have some drawbacks and dangers since that is the nature of potential energy. Dams silt up over long periods of time, and dam failures caused by earthquakes or design flaws have annihilated communities in minutes. Then, too, the flow might be too low during the periods when energy is needed, but all in all, hydroelectricity is a solid, reliable contributor of about seven percent of U.S. electrical-energy production.

However, as a solution for meeting our growing energy needs, hydroelectricity is dead in the water. There are too few, if any, generating sites available with the topography for dam construction — requiring both a large volume of flow and a considerable vertical distance between the “head water” and the “tail water.” (Hydroelectric energy is proportional to the volume of water channeled through the turbine, times the difference in reservoir levels.) In recent years, many dams have been removed, some because they have become decrepit and weren’t worth refurbishing, others because of pressure from environmentalists to return the rivers to their natural states.


We all know that it gets warmer as we drill deeper into the Earth, so it seems a simple enough matter to drill a hole, pour water into it, and wait for the steam to come rushing out. Actually that’s not far from what is done in a geothermal “Hot Dry Rock” system, except two geothermal wells are drilled with the rock between them explosively ruptured at a great depth. This is not a tunnel as such, just fractured rocks so the feedwater can come in contact with the hot rocks (with as much surface area as possible) before becoming superheated and being pumped to the surface where it is flashed into steam. At most locations, to get sufficiently high temperatures to produce steam would require drilling to a depth of 30,000 feet — nearly six miles down! This is between the deepest land-based well ever drilled (24,000 feet in California) and the deepest well in the world (36,000 feet in Russia). Costs for drilling to these levels are not readily available, but drilling to 20,000 feet would cost an estimated $10 million, with costs rising rapidly at increasing depths. It wouldn’t be surprising for the cost to exceed $50 million per well to drill to a depth of 30,000 feet — provided someone could be found with the equipment and technology to take on such a project.

In several volcanic locations, for instance Yellowstone Park and Iceland, the depth of the geothermally active level is much shallower than normal. In these areas, different technologies are available. Flash Plants take advantage of the fact that as pressure is released from superheated water, the water “flashes” into steam just as it does in the case when the superheated water is produced in a high-pressure boiler. This steam can be used directly for powering a generator with as much condensate as practical returned to the water table. A third method routes warm water through a heat exchanger, where the heat is transferred to a low-boiling-point liquid, which produces the gas to drive the generator. Because of the two fluids involved, this is known as the Binary Cycle and is the method of choice for most geothermal plants now being designed.

It appears that geothermal electrical generation is feasible at least to some degree, although much needs to be learned as to its economies and long-term reliability. There is concern that localized cooling will occur, interrupting the availability of sufficiently hot water/steam. Physical constraints (such as well diameters and friction losses) and some state environmental regulations (California regulates everything!) tend to limit the generator capacity to between one-twentieth and one-fifth of a nuclear or coal-fired plant. The cost per kilowatt output is two or three times that for coal or nuclear.

We all know that there’s a virtually limitless supply of hot rocks some five or six miles straight down — which gives geothermal the potential for producing electrical power. But it remains to be seen if technology in the foreseeable future will be able to utilize it.


“Biomass” is the buzz word to describe the burning of wood, farm stubble, and garbage — itself now known as waste or municipal waste. Tree-huggers can rest assured that this practice does not entail cutting down trees for the purpose of generating electricity. In fact, it would take a stack of oak logs four feet wide by four feet high by over four hundred miles long to fuel a 1,000 MW power plant for a year. Instead, the wood-products industry long ago recognized the advantage of burning bark and otherwise unusable tree parts to heat boilers for local steam, and (later) using this steam to “co-generate” electrical power in cooperation with a local utility. Obviously this is not going to be an exciting new energy source, but it still generates nearly as much electricity as the highly subsidized wind and solar industries — and with a great
deal more dependability.

Burning municipal wastes is not so straightforward. Most garbage arrives at the power plant just the way you put it on the curb — bottles, cans, paper, food, plastic, etc. This refuse is separated by machines and human labor to remove recyclables and burn the flammables. Even that is not so easy. Soggy garbage must be dried out before being ignited, usually with a natural-gas burner. Then large draft fans are used to insure combustion, and other systems remove particulates and odor-causing gases. While this may not be the wave-of-the-future in industrial electricity production, it at least gives cities an option on the size of landfills they must come up with.

Also Rans

Most of us have heard of the very high tides in the Bay of Fundy where the water level changes by about 50 feet during diurnal tides and would agree this is probably the best place in the world for tidal power. But such sites are very limited and, we might remember, have two periods each day when no power can be generated because there wouldn’t be a strong enough incoming or outgoing tide. Indeed, a generating plant might well be constructed across the bay entrance. But although this limited and localized source of energy would likely provide the power for Fundy, Cleveland would be a very different matter.

There are many other possible energy sources: wave motion, river turbines, landfill gases, chicken manure, and the latest — burning salt water in a radio-frequency energy field. All (except the saltwater fraud) have the potential of generating some positive energy. But our country doesn’t operate on a few kilowatts of piddle power, it takes millions of kilowatts — gigawatts — to power our homes, our factories, our water and wastewater systems, and our other electrical needs. The “also rans” are dreams, none of which have any chance of becoming a factor in large-scale, reliable energy production.

Of the “other renewables,” we can see that the energy contributions from hydro and biomass are essentially constant and not expected to grow, with biomass providing much less energy than hydro. Geothermal generation has — and perhaps will always have — great potential. Of the many other interesting and inventive ideas, none have caught the imaginations of wise investors.

The hard reality is that we are a nation of electricity users and our use goes up every year. To provide the trillions of kilowatt hours necessary for our health, safety, and enjoyment, our choices are coal, oil, natural gas, and uranium. Oil and natural gas are options for fueling a power plant boiler, but they are non-economical and a waste of valuable fuels that can be put to other uses. Coal will be with us for many years, but its disadvantages compared to nuclear power — in fuel cost, in pollution, in deaths from mining and transport, in actual (not eco-lawyer inflated) power-plant construction costs — make it unattractive to those without a vested interest.
As I anticipate OPEC raising the cost of a barrel of oil, that will break $100 per barrel by this Christmas, other than paying a higher price at the pump what option for energy independence are you willing to support?

Since the first OPEC embargo (in 1973) during the Carter Administration, when we waited in long lines to fill our tanks nothing meaningful has been undertaken by any administration. Yes, we are now in the process of switching to Ethanol but it has yet to reach any of the service stations in CA with one exception in San Diego.

Facts: In 1973 36% of our energy consumption was in foreign oil. In 2000 it grew to 58% and as of 2005 our dependence on foreign oil hit 66%.

We can no longer keep our heads in the sand. Unless the plan is to go back 100 years to the horse and buggy, environmentalists need to step aside and allow for the drilling in Anwar and the construction of nuclear plants without all of the associated red tape.

LG’s final comments. While many on the other side of the aisle argue that the war in Iraq is about oil, yet they block our efforts to break free of that dependence.
Become part of the solution or please get out of the way.

About Larry Gilbert