Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Getting it right, doing it wrong

I have a family member who was in the navy, back in the 'sixties. They put him in one of those big missile submarines that submerged off the coast of Scotland and didn't see the light of day again for three months. It was all very hush-hush.

He tended the nuclear reactor. This made him a most valuable commodity when he got out, because commercial nuclear energy looked like it was going to be big at the time and trained reactor operators weren't exactly thick on the trees. He could have named his own ticket: I saw one of the headhunter letters. It was impressive.

And on the occasion that I saw it, he laughed, crumpled it up and threw it away. At the time he was fixing municipal traffic lights for a living and preferred to keep right on doing it. "I'd never go near one of those things," he told me. "Too big, too complicated. Every one is a disaster waiting to happen. Reactors are perfectly safe if they're small and modular, like on a ship. Scale them up the way the power companies have, and they're so complex something's got to go wrong."

History is on his side. The reactor at which he was offered the job was a place that later became famous as Three Mile Island.

Point being, he was certainly entitled to an opinion on the desirability of nuclear energy, and he was all in favor of it - but not the way it was being done. I thought about him this morning, after my own electrical power came up to the point where I could surf on my 'pooter using my home-made solar electric system with its scrounged and cobbled-together parts, the system that sort-of powers my little hermit's lair. The reason the subject came to mind is an article titled "Do Wind and Solar Work?"

The writer's answer to the question seems to be "no."
Slowly, information is leaking from nations that have spent heavily on wind and solar, such as Germany. This information should give pause to those touting solar and wind, including politicians. England is pulling back from wind, Germany has announced drastic cut-backs on its subsidies to solar, and Spain has announced the elimination of subsidies for renewable power. These actions are not the result of success. The erratic nature of these sources is well established. Further, electricity is rather unique among energy types – it cannot be stored on an affordable, commercial scale. [emphasis mine]
Reasons given for the failure are convincing, but the article is asking the wrong question. I've got neighbors for miles around who, if asked the same question, would answer "absolutely yes." It works for them, just as my scrounged and improvised solar works for me and I don't even know what I'm doing. But on a large-scale commercial basis, the answer is unequivocally no.

Design a means of generating electricity that would work marvelously well for individual households, and you free those households from dependence on a centralized grid. To those who think in terms of being "deciders," this is very clearly not a solution to any known problem. The problem is how you scale it up to augment the centralized grid, because of course the grid - like all solutions to all problems - absolutely must be centralized. All answers to all questions must involve dependency, or they're not answers at all.

And so once again we see billions of our own dollars, stripped away from us without the slightest hint of consent, poured down a rathole and/or into the pockets of well-connected charlatans.

But this time they made a mistake. All that R&D money did some good this time. Household-size fusion reactors will probably stay forever the stuff of wistful science fiction, but the wind and solar genie is free and gleeful in the real world and it's not going away. Prices have come 'way down for equipment that works ten times better than it did a decade ago. I'm living on the dregs of it, so don't let my travails influence any decision you might make. Wind and solar power has its problems, for sure. But it's practical, and it's more-or-less affordable, and it's here. Off-grid living can be a lot more comfortable than it used to be, and it's available to you.

We'll probably hear quite a lot more about the failures of wind and solar, with the next political administration. Do yourself a favor and don't listen to lies.


Anonymous said...

Solar and wind are great for small scale, or backup,but that's about it. I could live in a small trailer or house powered by solar panels and a battery bank and probably be O.K.,but it ain't gonna work commercially.
For the foreseeable future, other than hydropower, we're gonna hafta burn something to move electrons.

Joel said...

I believe that's exactly what I just said.

Matt said...

In AZ, if you had a system that harnessed wind and solar together(if the sun isn't shining, the wind is probably blowing), you might get a higher availibility rate without needing a large battery bank for storage.

Johnathan said...

Heh. I went the same route, except I was on the nuclear sub in to 80s, not the 60s, with the plan to go into commercial nuclear power when I got out. But, in '86, Chernobyl happened, and so *that* career choice went out the window.

MamaLiberty said...

As Heinlein said: When it's time to railroad, then you can railroad... (somewhat paraphrased because I couldn't find the quote quickly).

The devil with many excellent ideas is the absence of collateral art and available materials at market prices.

I'll be able to use a home based energy source when I can order the unit off the internet, have it delivered and set up, and hire someone to come along and maintain it on a regular basis - as well as trouble shoot the failures in a timely fashion.

All the current "off the grid" things I've read presume that the homeowner can and will do all this himself. It won't be a viable marketing idea until that changes.