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The long-range forecast: no sun, no wind

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How could ANYONE or indeed ANYTHING possibly go out of business just after a straight cash infusion of a half a billion dollars? Somehow Solyndra has managed it. This middle-sized firm with the maudlin name was never Too Big To Fail in its own right but it is exemplary. Solyndra is a “Green” business. You know that. And “Green” is the economic future. Green is clean. Green is keen. Green is nice, unlike those nasty cro-magnon energies like oil, gas and nukes. Even hydro power is in an infamous stink. That’s something of a puzzler, isn’t it? What could be cleaner than washing the whole landscape with cool, fresh creek water? As with so many of our current misapprehensions we suffer from Humpty-Dumpty-itis. Which is to say that the words you are hearing, Alice, do not mean what you presume they mean. Indeed, they are subject to revision or even flat inversion opportunistically by the eggshell sophists. In such an environment your most basic presumptions will fail you.

The bugaboo with this stuff is always CO2, carbon-dioxide. You are sitting in a vile cloud of it right now. Wait! Don’t go fleeing into the street. Out there is a dose of carbon-monoxide! Not an improvement and in any case the CO2 is everywhere on earth; a disgusting state of affairs. Most sadly its source, among others, is your two little nostrils. You breathe in 300-odd parts per million of this toxin and breathe out considerably more. This, the Green Advocates seek to stop. And so they should. A shocked humanity gazes in horror at its exhalations and wonders, what is this poison and how did it get inside my lungs? Was it Monsanto? Dow-Corning or Dow-Jones? Ah, it was Archer-Daniels, wasn’t it? Perhaps a blanket ban on hyphens would solve our crisis.

But what we know of the world of science, even from PBS interposes some questions. We breathe in oxygen and breathe out CO2 no matter how hard we try to stop. Why haven’t we all perished in the toxic cloud then? After all, there are so many people in the world; another disgusting state of affairs. It seems like we would have smothered each other long ago. But you forget that we are not alone on our planet. Not just yet. Our leafy green friends (or even more, our water-born slimy mono-cellular friends) have come to our rescue like the marching battalions of sunflowers in a Disney movie. They see our foolish plight and come with little scrub buckets; possibly microscopic, and take that nasty CO2 away to a safe place. As we know, altruism is the foundation for all natural cycles. Kindness is the fuel of the universe. This is why the polar bears are so grateful to the Prius jockey and the penguin dances a jig for the recycling toddlers. You might remember that poor, misunderstood Hyundai driver, Rodney King and his exasperation at the riots with obscene carbon footprints in his name. “Can’t we all just get along?” he asked the microphone. Of course we can, Mr. King, just as soon as most of us stop exhaling.

The bewildered Mr. King did not start a movement (though the timing is suspicious) but his wail could be dubbed in as the final “argument” in many a controversy. What Rodney meant was, can’t all these people on TV just stop igniting, looting and killing? This after his own team portrayed him as a randomly selected target for racial abuse. The jury didn’t see it that way and the result was as predictable as the dawn except to Rodney King. An identical level of innocence infects our discourse on all matters but on Green ones most of all. Can’t we all just recycle? Can’t we all just drive electric cars? Can’t we all just compost? Can’t we all just have wind and solar power and leave the nasty goo and radioactive metal deep in the earth where we found it? The answer is, yes we CAN, but…

There is always a but. The Green Myrmidons don’t want to hear any ‘buts’. Of course they also don’t want to hear that their electricity is out or lose their wifi; pay what Green groceries cost or understand that Green energy lacks verve, reliability and practicality. And we have indulged these tantrums for a long, long time for the sake of peace in our homes and a spirit of helpfulness in our children. This was foolish, short-sighted and above all in violation of basic facts, some scientific some not, that we all should have learned while in knee pants. Better late than not at all.

A little grammar-school science might leave you with the idea that nothing is “greener” than burning. CO2 is no “pollutant”, no matter that the EPA yearns to declare it such. CO2 is what plants breathe IN. It is one of those fabulous coincidences of nature that it is also what we breathe OUT. This is crucial for that longest word you knew for many a year: photosynthesis. Just to refresh your recall, photosynthesis=good. CO2 is a compound; all CO2 is created equal whether it comes from your baby, from a volcano or from the deep, blue sea. It is all the same stuff. Yes, it blankets the earth preventing the absorbed sunlight from dispersing into space. We like that effect. The moon is no beach resort, children. Except for helium every gas in our atmosphere is a greenhouse gas and folks, believe me, you are better off within the greenhouse than without. We hold in reserve next week’s lesson: why you should not drink seawater. I hope there are no casualties.

Humpty-Dumpty pulled a real fast one a few years back when he substituted “Climate Change” for “Global Warming”. Do not let this pass unremarked. It is the slithiest of elisions. What? Are you not against Climate Change? Actually no, jackass, I am not against Climate Change. The climate is changing constantly, this was known throughout history but you know what? It wouldn’t matter if I was against it or not. The climate is always warming or cooling or moistening or desiccating or SOMETHING. But the term was revised because the climate, as nature often proves, was uncooperative. There has been no warming for fifteen years. Nope. Checking the satellite temps helps knock this one down but really it was never necessary. Once the Warmists became Changists the sleight of hand was apparent to anyone who remembered that these same genii were Coolists back in the Carter years.

Speaking of Carter, he was the first Green President. Do you recall that? “Alternative Energy” was coined in that long-gone era of patchwork jackets and honky afros along with “Alternative Music”; each vapid and futile. The subsidies of solar, wind and other yet more exotic energy sources were born here and in justice should have died here but Reagan and the Republicans that followed him were hardly less susceptible to the charms of “free” energy especially when the oil we were buying from overseas was anything but.

Again no science is required to rubbish this concept. As a fine philosopher doorman was wont to say, there ain’t no “free”. What they mean here is that the INPUTS for solar and wind are free. And yes they are. They are free to come and go as they please. Beware, indeed, the music man who appears in town promising “free”. Freedom, yes. “Free”, no. But the notion of free inputs is what really makes a mash of the whole enterprise. The various theories on solar and wind are based on a very simple and obvious flaw in comparison. When an oil or gas or nuke or even hydro power plant is built they all have one thing in common: there is a big red button somewhere that turns the thing on. As long as there are inputs of fuel or flowing water there is power. Where is the big red button that calls the wind or dispels the clouds? This is what the Green fantasists should really be working on along with unicorn aphrodisiacs and non-inflationary money printing but we should not bet our livelihoods on their success, as we have. And again, it takes no scientific rigor to understand this, one only has to know that a ten megawatt solar power emplacement is considered the output equivalent of a ten megawatt gas fired plant. Even night is not considered when they bandy about their figures that predict we can have “clean” energy for half our needs in a few years time. Dim is the kindergartener who is unfamiliar with night. Then we have the movement of the sun across the sky to contend with and if all these issues are conquered there is a chance of clouds even in Arizona. Where there are few clouds, still there is dust and every speck reduces the amount of sunlight falling on your solar cells while those who advocate for solar burp up figures that assume a blue sky at high noon. Forever. Only in space do these caveats not apply as here there IS eternal noon. We could entertain some investigation of that technology except our spacefleet was recently mothballed.

The wind is also inconstant. Often it does not blow even in that blustery corridor that makes the US “the Saudi-Arabia of wind”; a more crapulent Humpty-ism you will not discover. So we are blessed with mighty winds. But also are we cursed. The modern windmill is a giant construction that requires the erection of thousands of skyscrapers in remote locations. Is there any other ambition of man that the Greens and granolas would say is worth this desecration? And what of the expense? Still it is nothing but a dance of penance because long and hard experience has shown that the windmills produce very little usable power. First off the wind blows with relative consistency in the dead of night when power consumption is at its trough. This is where the electric car boondoggle comes in; we will charge our cars at night, is the riposte. Except the electric car has proven even more useless than Green power and it is as mature a technology as your Cadillac. Even today the savior of Government Motors; the Chevy Volt has a useful range of forty miles. Less with the heat or air on. But even if that were not the case and we had, as has been attempted so gracelessly over and over, a full fleet of economical and practical electric vehicles, still wind would fail because even when it blows, the wind does not blow evenly.

Here we will employ a little science; a soupcon of science but also just simple observation. Whenever the soundness of wind is flaunted they show a broad vista of whirling blades. You can see that this enormous, open-air food processor might pose a hazard to, say, birds of prey or birds of any sort but that’s a granola’s argument we shall not employ. You may also notice that each pinwheel spins to the tune of its own drummer. They do not turn in lockstep but each set their own pace. That’s cool, right? Like a throng of humans, they march at their own cadence yet all arrive at a common, beneficial destination. As a sociology metaphor that has appeal but as a technical reality it is purest crap. In each windmill there is a generator. These are not the simple generators you may have cobbled together for the science fair in sixth grade. These are hi-tech; efficient and computer controlled, requiring some rare and pricey materials to make them light enough to hoist on a giant pole but still they cannot contend with the difficult task of making the electricity they produce at their individual rotational speed jive up with that made by their neighbors. This is called rectification. While the blades spin at the speed of their local breeze the power each generator produces must be synched up with all the others to produce a useable, consistent flow so your vacuum cleaner won’t sound like a slide trombone and act like a bucking bronco. This necessary process absorbs huge amounts of that free energy so it never does come to your house and warm the oven. You may remember a fellow by the name of T. Boone Pickens. His scheme to make wind power viable rested on resolving the problem of rectification. This petro-billionaire, heavily invested in gas, planned to build a wind farm with a gas fired generator at the foot of each pinwheel, so the meticulously controllable gas-derived power could be matched to the crazy-wobbly power coming from gusting winds. The costs would be gigantic but hey, he was the Solyndra of his day promising “free, Green, clean” power in exchange for vast cash infusions, tax abatements, environmental waivers, SEC neglect and of course great control over the gas market. The fact that new, non-Boone controlled gasfields made gas too cheap to beneficially bastardize with wind, even after a $58m PR campaign is the clearest evidence of a benign deity in modern times. And this yet neglects that while sometimes absent and always variable, often wind is destructively powerful. If the soundest trailer park cannot stand against buffeting winds when so low to the ground you can imagine the effect of a decent twister or thunderstorm on a giant whirligig. Very often the windmills are shut down because of excessive winds. We can only presume the engineers deal with this through careful placement. There are no tornadoes in West Texas, are there? But again, neither meteorologic nor financial knowledge was really necessary to understand that this whole project is pointless as its  alleged benefit is reducing the CO2 that surrounds you.

That was the same non-reason Solyndra was ever conceived. Likewise Cash 4 Clunkers and its cousins, train subsidies, ethanol, Green this or that… they all now have the same purpose although many have existed since the earth was calamitously cooling; they seek to curb the Satanic Gasses emanating from your bodily orifices. Yes, farts too. Heck, that is even MORE of a warming gas. What master work would result from billions in subsidies going to fight THAT menace? Stop it all, folks, or we shall find out.

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4 Responses to “The long-range forecast: no sun, no wind”

  1. Ken, awfully long post … wish you could have made even a little space for application of CO2, using the by-product of these new industries to stimulate existing oil-and-gas industries.

  2. Yes, it did go long. And yes, needless to say, there are many sound applications for CO2 (I’m thinking of high pressure, high CO2, high density agriculture) but that wouldn’t shorten it, would it? I also have some caveats about the potential viability of wind but the problem and the point is that we are already paying vast sums for technologies with fatal flaws in their currently conceived applications, entrenching the damaging and pointless at the cost of many things. Could one of those things be PRACTICAL solar/wind? C’est possible. But first we have to stop subsidizing that which has proven so costly while providing essentially no serious benefits. Puncturing the big misapprehensions is Job One. Thanks for getting to the end, though!

  3. Ken,

    I have heard that solar has a net negative energy return. Do you have a link to details on this information?

  4. Try this. http://www.lowtechmagazine.com/2008/03/the-ugly-side-o.html
    It’s not really about an actual energy drain but total energy input and “greenhouse” emissions related to manufacture and operation. Clearly if there is no sunlight for a day just the tracking mechanism has some draw that will come from the grid. It does take a small amount of power to run the installation. Given the miniscule practical current produced it could well dip into negative territory when it is not, as the article argues, generally negligible.

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