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Location: St. Louis, Missouri, United States

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Wind Power; a Lot of Hot Air

Timothy Birdnow

Wind power is just a lot of hot air, according to Robert Bryce at National Review.

From the article:

" Consider the afternoon of August 2, when electricity demand hit 67,929 megawatts. Although electricity demand and prices were peaking, output from the state’s wind turbines was just 1,500 megawatts, or about 15 percent of their total nameplate capacity. Put another way, wind energy was able to provide only about 2.2 percent of the total power demand even though the installed capacity of Texas’s wind turbines theoretically equals nearly 15 percent of peak demand. This was no anomaly. On four days in August 2010, when electricity demand set records, wind energy was able to contribute just 1, 2, 1, and 1 percent, respectively, of total demand.

Over the past few years, about $17 billion has been spent installing wind turbines in Texas. Another $8 billion has been allocated for transmission lines to carry the electricity generated by the turbines to distant cities. And now, Texas ratepayers are on the hook for much of that $25 billion, even though they can’t count on the wind to keep their air conditioners running when temperatures soar.

That $25 billion could have been used to build about 5,000 megawatts of highly reliable nuclear generation capacity, or as much as 25,000 megawatts of natural-gas-fired capacity, all of which could have been reliably put to work during the hottest days of summer."

End excerpt.

There are problems with wind - many of them. Until we find a way to store just about all of the electricity obtained from high-wind peaks this will remain a pipe-dream technology. Also, there must be a much better way to harness wind power; giant turbines just won't do. We're trying to pull kinetic energy out of a moving gas and turn that into electric current; we need something that can reach up and out without hogging up a lot of material space. Perhaps some sort of mesh that can be raised when the wind reaches a certain speed? How would that work? We do that with water; build a giant stopper on a river and that way we get much more power when a giant mass of water flows through the spillway. Much better than a simple wheel on a brook.

We can generate electricity by using mirrors to focus light onto a fluid to turn a generator, but we can also use solar cells to do the job directly via the photoelectric effect. Is there a way to do that with the wind? (If it were charged we could build some sort of Magnetohydrodynamic system, but that isn't reality.) If so, somebody needs to come up with a new way. As it stands we are essentially using 16th century methods; the Dutch were doing pretty much the same thing we are doing now to run their water pumps.

Could wind be used in conjunction with something else? Perhaps it could be harnessed to increase the burning efficiency of coal; a giant wind sock funnelling air into a combustion chamber and supercharging the combustion? Make it burn much more efficiently. You reduce emissions that way, and get more bang for your buck with something we have in plentiful reserves. Attach this gizmo onto a normal coal-fired plant and you still get some generation when the wind stops.

Or perhaps we can imitate nature, using wind to artificially generate lightening. Stretch a big wind-catch between two poles widely spaced (perhaps even use helium-filled dirigibles, although how to keep them from blowing away is a daunting challenge) and set them in such a way as to force the wind to move in an updraft/downdraft pattern on the grid.

According to NOAA:

"Thunderstorms have very turbulent environments - strong updrafts and downdrafts occur often and close together. The updrafts carry small liquid water droplets from the lower regions of the storm to heights between 35,000 and 70,000 feet - miles above the freezing level. At the same time, downdrafts are transporting hail and ice from the frozen upper parts of the storm. When these particles collide, the water droplets freeze and release heat. This heat keeps the surface of the hail and ice slightly warmer than its surrounding environment, and a soft hail, or graupel forms.

When this graupel collides with additional water droplets and ice particles, a key process occurs involving electrical charge: negatively charged electrons are sheared off the rising particles and collect on the falling particles. The result is a storm cloud that is negatively charged at its base, and positively charged at the top.

Opposite charges attract one another. As the positive and negative areas grow more distinct within the cloud, an electric field is created between the oppositely-charged thunderstorm base and its top. The farther apart these regions are, the stronger the field and the stronger the attraction between the charges. But we cannot forget that the atmosphere is a very good insulator that inhibits electric flow. So, a HUGE amount of charge has to build up before the strength of the electric field overpowers the atmosphere's insulating properties. A current of electricity forces a path through the air until it encounters something that makes a good connection. The current is discharged as a stroke of lightning.

While all this is happening inside the storm, beneath the storm, positive charge begins to pool within the surface of the earth. This positive charge will shadow the storm wherever it goes, and is responsible for cloud-to-ground lightning. However, the electric field within the storm is much stronger than the one between the storm base and the earth 's surface, so about 75-80% of lightning occurs within the storm cloud."

End excerpt.

If we could artificially reproduce those conditions in a controlled way, perhaps we could use it to generate electricity? We would have far less work to do, since we can insert the particles in a gossamer material, pre-ionized and ready to generate. The material of the windsock would be metallic, so the particles would induce current flow in the mesh itself, moving the current down via a tether. I know this is rough, and an electrical engineer would scoff at it, but it's a feeble attempt to think outside the box.

Better ideas are needed.

Nikola Tesla wanted to run household appliances without power cords; he thought it would be possible to do a wireless energy transfer, and he demonstrated it was feasible. Why didn't the world adopt this technique? It would be nice to not have to run over cords everywhere. But it was just too damn inefficient a system, and when cords worked well and were readily available, there was no crying need to go cordless. (Too bad we don't have Tesla around today to work on the problem!)

Until they are found - if indeed they are ever found - we are stuck with the old faithfuls; coal, natural gas, oil, nuclear. I fear wind power may be like lighter-than-air flight; something with an allure but totally impractical. THEORETICALLY we could have built our civilization around balloons and zeppelins, but in practice they just weren't adequate to meet our needs. Wind power is likely more of the same.

In the end, it's just a lot of hot air.

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