Monthly Archives: September 2015

Alternative Power, Part II

Last time we discussed two possible alternative “green” energy sources to replace our current use of fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas. We looked at wind energy and solar energy, and neither looked very promising, so let’s look at a few more:

Looking down on Hoover Dam, near Boulder City, Nevada

Hydroelectric Power

The picture above is the Hoover Dam in Nevada, one of the largest hydroelectric dams in the United States.

Hydroelectricty, or electric generated from the use of moving water, is widely used around the world, and accounts for some sixteen percent of all electricity produced worldwide. About seven percent of the electricity used in the United States comes from this method, mostly in the western portions of the country.

The process is pretty straightforward. A dam is built on a waterway, creating a reservoir of water higher than the outflow beyond the dam. Water flowing downward from the reservoir is piped to a water turbine and generator, creating electricity.  There are several variants on this theme, but most function in a smiliar manner (see diagram below).

hydroelectric dam


Power generated from large dams is often cited in gigawatts. A gigawat is one billion watts.

Let’s stop for some quick math. Remember our average home that uses about 30 kilowatts a day?  Well, one gigawatt is enough power for over 330,000 homes! Quite a bit of power.  The Hoover Dam in Nevada, pictured above, has a capacity of about 2.1 gigawatts, or  almost 700,000 homes. Indeed, Hoover Dam provides power to users in Nevada, Arizona and California.

Dams like the Hoover Dam are massive constrution operations. The dam took thousands of workers over five years to build between 1931-1936 at a cost of $49 million, which would be about $833 million today.  Over one hundred workers were killed during the construction of the dam.

The use of dams for electicity is limited. First, and obviously, the dam needs a source of water (a river). The building of a dam can require the dislocation of people and wildlife in the creation of the dam and reservoir. It can have a not insignificant impact on the ecology of the area. As such, the construction of large-scale dams is not practical in heavily populated areas, and new construction of dams has dwindled since the 1980’s. While there are thousands of dams nationwide, most are too small to be practical as significant sources of electricity.

A footnote on this: Proposed construction of new dams, especially large ones, are often met with steep resistance from enviornmentalists. A 1954 proposal for a massive five gigawatt damn in Alaska to be known as the Rampart Dam, was strongly opposed for years until President Jimmy Carter killed the plan in 1980 by turning the proposed area into a national wildlife santuary.

Biomass Energy

This is one of the more unusual methods suggested as a way to produce electricity. Essentially, biomass is anything organic that can be burned: wood, crops, trees, paper, and even manure.  Biomass currently accounts for about 1.4% of the electricity produced in the U.S.

Looking into this, I found parts of it to be amusing. “Biomass” can be almost anything you can burn: tree limbs, old stumps. leaves, grass clippings or wood chips. It can be old plants, like dried corn stalks, sugar cane, or even bamboo. In short, it’s burning organic trash to make heat, which in turn can fire boilers, which can turn turbines and make electricity.  Nothing new, and nothing much to see here folks. Every time you build a fire in your fireplace or fire pit, you’re creating “biomass” energy.

Burning stuff to make energy isn’t a new idea, but if biomass energy gets rid of some waste products, expecially stuff like manure, it can’t be all bad. Right? Actually that’s debatable.

While this form of energy is “renewable” (grow more trees), it’s not necessarily clean. Burning all these products produces the same dreaded CO2 that burning coal produces. Fuels produced from biomass are not particularly efficient, and expensive to produce. And, it’s not just about picking up dead tree limbs. On a large scale, it’s about actually growing crops to be burned, which takes up lots of room, and seems just a tad bit silly for the minimal return. This too can invoke the wrath of environmentalists — “strip farming the Amazon” etc.

Another example of this is the use of corn for ethanol, which helps farmers unload their unwanted corn, but actually takes more energy to create than gasoline from oil. The cost of production and the pollution from using the corn to make biofuels is no bargain. As far as replacing existing carbon fuels, it’s a very bad trade off.

cc waste

One area which isn’t actually biomass per se, but has some use is “trash to energy”. This is simply a spin on the old style incinerator. Instead of just burning the trash however, it is used to heat boilers to make electricity.  An example of this is a plant like this in Camden County, NJ. In operation since 1991, this plant burns about 1050 tons of trash per day and produces 21 megawatts of electricity from the burning, enough for about 700 homes. Not major, but the combination of keeping the trash out of landfills and providing some energy at the same time seems reasonable.

Time for another bottom line:

Hydroelectic power is great, but building large dams is a limited exercise.  It seems unlikely that hydroelectricity will ever produce much more than the current seven percent in the U.S.

Biomass seems even less likely than wind or solar to ever become a major energy player. After all the hype it received a few years back, it really does seem to be much ado about nothing.

So now we’ve explored four “alternative” sources from a pretty short list of possibilities. Three of them,  wind,  solar, and biomass account for less than six percent of our current electric supply combined.  Including  the hydroelectric seven percent, we’re still looking at a pretty paltry thirteen percent.  And frankly none of them offer any short term promise of being any more significant than they are today.

So are there no real answers? —  Well, yeah, there are.  There is an “alternative” source out there that is safe, reliable, climate friendly, and efficient.  It’s the one real possibility to reduce our use of carbon fuels. Strangely, it’s hardly ever mentioned in “green” or “save the planet” circles.  The best possible alternative has a very bad name. We’ll look at that next time.

Coming next: Nuclear energy.



A Story of Alternative Power, Part I

How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood? — Old Boy Scout saying.

I’m not here to discuss global warming or climate change or whatever it is called today. Whether I believe in it (I don’t) or not, the real issue is what we are being asked to do about it.

All over the news we read that it is necessary for us to get away from carbon fuels (oil, natural gas, coal), which  are “causing” climate change. The problem is of course, these three areas are most of our energy sources. Global warming worriers insist we must begin using alternative “renewable” energy sources and soon, or we’re all  doomed.  Can this be done? While the warmer worriers would say “of course”, our mission here is to look at these alternative sources and see just how effective they are and how realistic the demands that we rapidly abandon carbon-based fuels. For our purposes, for brevity, and the sake of understanding, we will focus only on electricity in this article. Perhaps we’ll look at other areas in the future, perhaps not. First, a primer:

Where does it come from?

Our electricity comes from a number of sources:

  1. Coal  39%
  2. Natural Gas: 27%
  3. Nuclear energy: 19%
  4. Hydropower: 7%
  5. Wind: 4.4%
  6. Biomass: 1.4%
  7. Oil: 1%
  8. Geothermal: .4%
  9. Solar: .4%


Electricity, a layman’s primer, or What is a watt?

Measurements of energy use can get pretty damned complicated, but our purpose here is to clarify, not complicate. To do this we will focus on one thing: watts. A watt is a measurement of electricity transmitted or consumed. Think of a light bulb:


This is Tom Edison’s good old fashioned incandecent bulb. Forget about those new ones, this one works fine to explain this.

Light bulbs are measured in wattage, as we all know. The higher the watts, the brighter the bulb and the more energy used. Let’s take the common 100 watt bulb as the example. This bulb uses electricity as the rate of 100 watts per hour. If it was turned on for ten hours (10×100) is would used 1000 watts or one kilowatt. A kilowatt is the basic measurement used in calculating our electric bills.

All the electrical appliances in your home use electric by the kilowatt. Some use more than others. That hair dryer you blow dry your hair with can use around 1500 watts or 15 kilowatts in ten hour. A microwave uses around 1000 watts. Your desktop computer uses between 60 and 250 watts per hour.

All these devices, going on and going off through the month add up to a certain number of kilowatt hours that you’ve used. This is how the electic company bills us, the price per kilowatts used. According to the EIA, the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the average home in the U.S. uses about 10968 kilowatts per year, or about 909  kilowatts per month.  This is an important number, and we’ll be seeing it again.

If we’re all using an average of 909 kilowatts per month, that’s roughly 30 kilowatts a day.  So if I use 30, and you use 30, we are using 60 kilowatts between us.  If there are ten houses on our block, we are collectively  using about 300 kilowatts per day.

We depend on the electric company to provide us with those kilowatts, and they do, mostly by burning coal or natural gas.  We also get electricity from nuclear power, but we’ll discuss that later.  These carbon fuels are burned in great qualities to light our bulbs, but there is a pretty sufficient supply of these materials, expecially coal.  But remember, these are the bad guys and must go.  So if we stop using them, what on earth will be use? Enter alternative “renewable” energy:

The Wind Turbine


There they are, the wind turbines.  We’ve all seen the photos, and maybe you’ve seen them in person.  These suckers are big, really big. A common 1.5 megawatt turbine built by General Electric  consists of 116-ft blades atop a 212-ft tower for a total height of 328 feet.  That’s an office building 32 floors high.  Pretty damn big.

Windmills and turbines have been around for centuries. Commercial wind turbines operate by using kinetic (wind) energy to turn a propellor which is connected by a shaft to a generator which produces electricity. A simple process on a small scale. On a large scale, however, something else entirely. As I said, these puppies are big,  and the average cost to install one commercial wind turbine is about three to four million dollars!  That does not include the cost of the land it sits on. These turbines require a lot of room to work effectively.  Operating and maintainence costs can run as much as a quarter of a million dollars per year.

Okay, so that’s how they work. In a nutshell, they generate electricity when the wind is blowing (more about that later). So how much electricity does one of these turbines generate?  A typical turbine today can generate about 2.5 megawatts of electricity. A megawatt is a thousand kilowatts, so think of it as 2500 kilowatts.

So here’s where it gets interesting. The companies that promote these things will tell you this can power about 400 homes or even more. But let’s do some math:

Remember our individual homes? Thirty kilowatts a day? If a turbine generates 2500 kilowatts, how many homes can it supply? We divide 2500 by 30, and we get the answer: 83. That monster turbine, can provide power to about 83 homes when the wind is blowing. If the wind stops, the propeller stops, the generator stops, the power stops flowing. No more electric. Nothing, none, nada. There is a rating for these turbines known as the capability factor. In essence, this means how often it is actually producing electricity. Overall the average in the industry appears to be 40%, meaning the electricity is actually flowing from it forty percent of the time. Critics, however, suggest that the real percentage is more like 25 percent.

Now this doesn’t seem sensible, but the way they are used is as supplemental energy. When they stop generating, the electric company switches over to more reliable fuels — carbon fuels.

One last point and we’ll move on. Let’s assume we have a 2.5 megawatt turbine and it’s totally effective. It would power about 83 homes. So how many wind turbines would it take to power a small (population 10,000) town? Hmmmmm….120 turbines! And remember, that’s just homes, not store, offices or factories which require lots more electricity.

How about a larger city? Well let’s see; South Bend, Indiana, households, 101,190 = 1219 turbines. Madison, Wisconsin, 245,691 households = 2960 tubines. How about a large city, say Chicago? 2,722,389 households  =  32,800 wind turbines.

Okay, so that’s a bit of overkill, but the point is this: Wind power is nice, it’s relatively clean, and it’s renewable. But commerial wind turbines are expensive to build, take up lots and lots of space, and other than as an auxillery power source, are not practical. Time to move on.

Solar Energy

Solar Panel with green grass and beautiful blue sky


The process of converting the sun’s rays into electricity is called photovoltaics. Suffice it to be said, the physics of the whole process confuses me, but we don’t need to know more than this: The sun shines down on panels of solar cells that use that heat and light to create electricity. I think we’ve all at least seen pictures of solar panels and have an idea of how it works.

So what is a “typical” solar panel, and how much electricity does it make? Residential and commercial panels differ somewhat in size. although not considerably. On average, the typical panel is about six feet long and 3 feet wide (6’x3′ – eighteen square feet), holds about 60-70 solar cells and weighs between 40 and 50 lbs. Again, on average, this one solar panel can generate 200-300 watts of electricity when the sun is shining on it. That two or three 100 watt lightbulbs. For our purposes, we’ll say a typcial panel is 250 watts.

Remember our house from the previous section? Thirty (30) kilowatts per day. If we take that number, 30,000 watts and divide it by 250, we get 120 panels to power our home. At eighteen square feet per panel, that’s 2160 square feet of solar panels. Not huge, but not small either. But….it only works when the sun is shining. Interestingly, “usable” sunlight is much less than you might think. It can be as low as three hours a day in some parts of the country.  The maximum, in places like Arizona, is only seven hours per day.

So how much does in cost? Well…..that gets tricky. There are tons of “deals” and “subsidies” out there as incentives to get those panels up on your house.  It can be as high a 7-9 dollars per watt! Keep in mind, it’s not just a matter of slapping the panels on your roof. The system also requires batteries to store the power, a controller to regulate the power in the batteries, and an inverter to covert the battery power into usable electricity.

But let’s suppose solar prices are going down, and you can get a deal for five dollars per watt. That’s $500 to light one lightbulb. It comes down to about $1250 installation costs per panel (250 watts).  So if you could fit 50 panels on your roof (900 square feet), you would generate about 12500 watts (12.5 kilowatts) for a cost of  $62,500. Before some reader goes ballistic and says “It doesn’t cost that much!”, let me repeat that there are many different kinds of subsidies to lower the cost to the consumer. Without dragging this out any further, do this: Calculate your kilowatt costs from your electric bill. Determine the return in kilowatts from solar panels, and see if it works for you. My guess is you’ll find it takes a considerable number of years to break even.

Remember the 30 kilowatts per house per day? Let’s try that with solar panels. Suppose we had a large solar panel the size of a football field, including the endzones. That area is 160 x 360 feet, or 57,600 square feet, a pretty big area. Using our 18 square foot panels, that works out to 3200 panels, each generating at the maximum 300 watts. That makes a total of 960 kilowatts from the football field grid, or enough wattage for 32 homes.  Yup, 32 homes when the sun is shining. The amount of space needed to power even a small amount of homes, part of the time is larger than large, it is huge.

Bottom line so far: Two very popular alternative energy methods are in fact not very practical at all. It seems to me that there is a fair amount of deception going on with alternative energy. An energy source is only worth discussing if it has a potential to replace what exists. After a brief look, we see these two sources do not.

Coming up next: Hydroelectric and biomass.




U.S. Energy Information Administration

Solar Power Authority


Kenneth, What is the Frequency?

Explain this to me like I’m a two year old:

“This was the moment when the oceans began to slow and the planet began to heal…” Barack Obama, June 3, 2008.

The seas are rising, or are they?

I’m not a “climate change skeptic”. Of course the climate is changing — it always changes. Since the beginning, earth has constantly been changing. Very hot, very cold, not so hot, not so cold, and so on. It’s the very nature of the planet we live on. During the Precambrian Period, (prior to 542 million years ago) the weather commonly flip-flopped over the years. so much so that between warm spells there were actually glaciers around the equator! During the Mesozoic era, (65-251 million years ago), the earth was pure “greenhouse”, with temperatures and carbon dioxide levels much higher than today. That’s when the dinosaurs were around, by the way.

The last glacial period or “ice age” on earth peaked a scant 22,000 years ago, just a few seconds on cosmic scale. Basically, we’ve been warming since then, a normal pattern on planet Earth (remember very hot, very cold,etc?).

Anyway, my point here is not to get hung up in the grand scope of things, but rather focus a bit to see what we can figure out. To that end, for this piece we’ll stick to one thing: sea levels. Are the seas rising or not?

First, what is sea level? It’s actually called MSL, for mean sea level, which is the midpoint level between low and high tides. Petty simple, right? It is. And the land is “above sea level” since it’s land, and anything else is “below sea level”, like say  the Titantic.

Now here’s where I start to get confused, so bear with me. Water is water, right? And we all know that water seeks it’s own level. For instance, when we fill a bowl or bottle with water, the level on one side is neither higher nor lower than the other — it’s even. In any container, the water “levels” itself out.

Think of the oceans of the world as containers, giant swimming pools, if you will. Like in a regular swimming pool, the water levels out all around, not higher nor lower on any side. Similarly sea level must be the same height on the shores of France as it is on the shores of the United States. Otherwise a ship making the journey might be going “uphill” to get to France, and “downhill” to come back. Silly, right? Yes it is. Sea level is sea level, the same wherever you go.

On this basis, I’ll argue that if the oceans rise in one place, they must also rise in every other place, as the water “levels” itself. Go up here, go up there.

So are the seas rising, and if so how much and why?

According to good ‘ol Wikipedia, that composite of human knowlege, between 1870 and 2004, sea levels have risen 195 milimeters, or… wait for it … 7.7 inches! Doing some math, that breaks down to .06 inches per year; that’s 6/100 of an inch per year! Wowzers! Exactly how they measure this and how accurate that is is arguable, but we’ll go with it for now.

Wiki also tells us that since 1993, the rise has been an astonishing 2.9 milimeters, or 11/100 of an inch per year, or 1.5 inches in the last twelve years! Have you noticed that? I haven’t.  If it continues at that rate, we’d be seeing an increase of maybe 11 inches in the next hundred years!

thumb forfinger


See the guy above? That’s a little less than ten years rise in sea level. Yeah, that’s right, ten years. 

But…we are led to believe that Armageddon is upon us if we don’t do something and soon! Just two days ago the New York Times had a major article that some scientists believe the seas could rise 200 feet: New York Times, but it order to do this, we have to burn all the fossil fuels on earth, everything! All the coal, all the oil, and all the natural gas. Take a minute to think about that one; it’s indicative of the silliniess surrounding this issue. And by the way, they suggest that even that could take a thousand years.  Yeah, a thousand years. Give me a break.

So I’m not a scientist, I get that. But someone needs to work with me if I’m going to buy into something. So, where is the sea level actually rising in some manner that we can see it? There are tons of charts and graphs, predictions and projections, but I’d like to see something more tangible.

Venice? Venice is one city that always gets thown out there as a warning of sea level rising. But let’s get one straight. Venice was built on water! If anything, I suspect Venice is sinking as much as any water is significantly rising.


sandy hook light

Cape May Lighthouse, 1859. Barnegat Lighthouse, 1859. Sandy Hook Lightouse, 1764. Portland Head Maine, 1791. Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, 1870. Many lighthouses were built in the US and around the world in the 18th and 19th century. I mention these above, because guess what, they’re still there. They’re not beseiged by the sea. The oldest, Sandy Hook, is actually further inland than when it was built due to the ocean pushing sand ashore. Over two hundred years and the ocean is not claiming these obviously close-to-the-shore structures.

Tuvalu and the Maldives

Global warming reactionaries often write that Tuvalu and the Maldives are sinking. Huh? Where the hell are they anyway?

Tuvalu is is string of coral reef islands in the South Pacific. Environmentalists have been pounding the drums for years that the islands will be submerged as the ocean rises. At it’s highest points, it’s only fifteen feet above sea level. So maybe in a hundred years or so, the residents might think about moving. There are only about 11,000 people in total on these islands, so it shouldn’t take much to relocate them.

The Maldives, a group of islands near India that have about 350,000 people spread out on twenty six islands, most of which are only about five feet about sea level. They are beautiful islands, but five feet above sea level in the middle of the Indian Ocean? Ever heard of cyclones?

So there may be some spots on earth with some risks, but living near a volcano includes risks too. Are the environmentalists worried about that?

I ‘ve been going to the Jersey shore every summer for over sixty years. Each and every summer, the ocean is still in the exact same spot I left it the previous fall. No closer, no farther away. Any changes have been completely unnoticable.

Look, I’m not trying to make light of this, (well maybe a little), but if you want to get me stirred up about global warming, give me something to work with. Don’t tell me Wildwood and Ocean City will be underwater a thousand years from now, it just doesn’t tug at my heartstrings. It’s not that I don’t care about those people fifty generations from now (I don’t), but that’s way too far out to concern me. Don’t tell me you’re going to triple my electric costs and make me pay ten bucks for a gallon of gas to save the planet for folks in the year 3015. Sorry.

That may seem heartless, but there are tons of actually important issues happening right now that need attention. I don’t think the people in the year 1015 worried how we would cope. They had enough on their plates, and so do we.

Here’s my bottom line. I’ll keep watching the shore in Jersey. If I see the ocean rising, I’ll let you know. Otherwise I have more practical things to worry about.