July 14, 2008

Ghosts of my past

Even after all these years, I still get fan-mail about USS Clueless. After nearly four years you'd think people would give up on the idea of me starting to blog continuously about politics again, but I get letters asking me to start.

Forget it. Not gonna happen. I have occasionally made posts like that here, but it isn't something I'll start doing routinely.

My least favorite subject about which to blog, back in the day, was "alternate energy". I made a few posts about that and those are among the most-linked articles in the USS Clueless archive (for example, just today), and I get mail about those, too. The usual theme is, "Hey, did you see this? Ha! Now what do you think, eh? Ready to change your mind?" Sigh. Here's one I got today:

I happened upon some old entries on USS Clueless in which you express considerable skepticism about the technical feasibility of large scale thermal solar plants. In some ways, I share your pessimism (see for example, my "Energy Independence Isn't Very Green" - http://www.hoover.org/publications/policyreview/17086446.html) . But I can also see some possibilities for political and technical breakthroughs. I wonder if you've had occasion to revisit the question of large scale solar installations recently, and if so, would you refer me to the URLs.

At least he was a lot less confrontational than many of them. Here's the reply I sent him:

I don't blog about that kind of thing anymore. I never enjoyed blogging about energy, anyway, because for too many people "alternate energy" is more about religion than about physics. They believe that if we are just creative enough, we can overcome fundamental physical limitations -- and it's not that easy.

In order for "alternate energy" to become feasible, it has to satisfy all of the following criteria:

1. It has to be huge (in terms of both energy and power)
2. It has to be reliable (not intermittent or unschedulable)
3. It has to be concentrated (not diffuse)
4. It has to be possible to utilize it efficiently
5. The capital investment and operating cost to utilize it has to be comparable to existing energy sources (per gigawatt, and per terajoule).

If it fails to satisfy any of those, then it can't scale enough to make any difference. Solar power fails #3, and currently it also fails #5. (It also partially fails #2, but there are ways to work around that.)

The only sources of energy available to us now that satisfy all five are petroleum, coal, hydro, and nuclear.

My rule of thumb is that I'm not interested in any "alternate energy" until someone shows me how to scale it to produce at least 1% of our current energy usage. America right now uses about 3.6 terawatts average, so 1% of that is about 36 gigawatts average.

Show me a plan to produce 36 gigawatts (average, not peak) using solar power, at a price no more than 30% greater than coal generation of comparable capacity, which can be implemented at that scale in 10-15 years. Then I'll pay attention.

Since solar power installations can only produce power for about 10 hours per day on average, that means that peak power production would need to be in the range of about 85 gigawatts to reach that 1%.

Without that, it's just religion, like all the people fascinated with wind and with biomass. And even if it did reach 1%, that still leaves the other 99% of our energy production to petroleum, coal, hydro, and nuclear.

The problems facing "alternate energy" are fundamental, deep, and are show-stoppers. They are not things that will be surmounted by one lone incremental improvement in one small area, announced breathlessly by a startup which is trying to drum up funding.

The way you can tell that a fan of "alternate energy" is a religious cultist is to ask them this question: If your preferred alternate source of energy is practical, why isn't it already in use?

Why not? Because of The Conspiracyâ„¢. The big oil companies don't want it to happen, and have been suppressing all this live-saving green people's energy all this time for their own nefarious purposes.

As soon as you hear any reference to The Conspiracyâ„¢, you know you're talking to someone who is living in a morality play. That isn't engineering any more, that's religion. And while religion is an important part of many people's lives, it has no place in engineering discussions.

UPDATE: There's actually another common answer to the "Why not" question. It's because you engineers are just too hidebound and conservative and unimaginative. If you'd just get on board and recognize how utterly cool and romantic these other ways of producing energy would be, then you could wave your magic engineering wand and make it happen.

That's another kind of religion. It's not a religious struggle against evil (as personified by Big Oil) so much as a religious image of paradise. If the adherents of this kind of religion can just convert enough doubters, then paradise can happen. If you just believe, we can all be saved! Hallelujah, baby! Praise Gaia and pass the biodiesel!

Thanks, but no thanks. My "conservatism" on this subject is due to my understanding of the laws of physics and the principles of engineering, not to me being hidebound and unimaginative.

UPDATE: I'm going to open up comments on this. Please don't make me regret it. Also, yes I've seen this. No, I'm not impressed, until someone shows me practical plans for 85 gigawatts of installed capacity and tells me how much it's going to cost and how long it will take to build it.

UPDATE 20080718: Instaflood!

Posted by: Steven Den Beste in Weird World at 09:25 AM | Comments (32) | Add Comment
Post contains 955 words, total size 6 kb.

1 Wow, your braver than I would be.

I once, on a lark, tried calculating some of the numbers for large scale wind power generation.  IIRC, producing enough power to cover the current global energy consumption required making a wind park the size of New Jersey.

( and it would actually be far, far bigger, because I was assuming 100% efficiency for sake of argument, and I was assuming an impossibly close placement of the turbines, and I was assuming consistent, reliable wind of 100 mph 24/7. . . )

IMO, large scale wind power is pretty much the stupidest of the alternate energy sources, unless you happen to live on a gas giant.

Posted by: metaphysician at July 14, 2008 12:57 PM (9Lztf)

2 Yeah, I'll admit to being one of the people who really miss your USS Clueless days.  That post on alternate energy is THE cold iron against which all the alchemicaly  transformed false gold of alternative energy shatters. 

It used to be that at least the hard science courses could teach some amount of rigorous thought, but the disease of lefty Lysenkoism has leached all such capacity from our educational system.

Now if the spam filter doesn't eat this for too many links...as to the numbers themselves, where are you getting the 36 gigawatts from?  I went to the DoE's site, and they list national energy expenditures in BTU's.  The preliminary figure for 2007 was 101.6 quadrillion BTU.  That converts to 29,776 terawatt hours.  Wait, just realized, you're apparently discussing production level and I'm discussing consumption total.  Back to the research bureau...

Can you imagine how impossible this is for the average fuzzy-brained person who doesn't understand any of it?  It's so much easier to chant "Big oil bad! Clean energy good!"   Remember, if you clap loud enough, Tinkerbell will come back to life.

Related aside:  A while back, I had an interesting discussion with a mass transit lefty who didn't understand that BTU or Kwh didn't matter; it was all energy.  "I'm suspicious of such conversions."  (Elsewhere, he had called himself "an applied scientist").    Thanks to your post, an online converter and a reference site  I was able to spank him for engaging in religion, not science.

Really, that post should be declared a national resource. (After which, it would be locked away from public eyes "to protect it for future generations!" Heh. )

Posted by: ubu at July 14, 2008 01:54 PM (UukMI)

3 As long ago as the late 70s I was trying to explain concepts such as energy density to solar power freaks.  After some years of aggravating and generally futile arguments about nucear power plants, I began to preface any such argument by handing the person a piece of paper (often a bar napkin) and pen, then requesting they draw a schematic of  a pressurized light water reactor.  If they could not do that, I would then point out they were not equipped to argue the pros and cons of nuclear power with me, and turn to other less volatile subjects such as the Gnostic Heresies.

Posted by: Toren at July 14, 2008 02:20 PM (K0BV/)


I just had someone mail me a link to this, to ask my opinion. First response: "Singularity" is another religious word. It means that the person thinks that technology is going to reach an explosive point where miracles start happening.

Second response: the blog post's fundamental argument was, "Look at all these companies on Wall Street that relate to solar power. That's gotta mean something!"

Third was that he linked to a Scientific American article. Time was when I thought the world of SciAm but about fifteen years ago the editorial slant of the place changed and now it's mostly a worthless rag. That said, the front of that article contained a claim that it was possible to produce 35% of our energy with solar by 2050.

As mentioned, average energy usage in the US today is about 3.6 terawatts. If our energy usage remains flat level for 40 years, then 35% of that is 1.26 terawatts.

24-hour-365-day average solar power density in Albequerque is 240 watts per square meter. If our hero's proposed solar farms are 25% efficient at converting that to useful energy, then to produce 1.26 terawatts he'd have to pave 21,000 square kilometers with high tech. That's larger than the dry area of New Jersey.

Of course, if the efficiency is more like 10%, which is far more likely, then he needs to high-tech pave more than 50,000 square kilometers. You believe that'll happen?

And if our energy consumption continues to increase along historical norms, then by 2050 our power consumption will be 2.85 times what it is now, and our 10%-efficient solar farms would have to cover an area comparable to the dry area of Michigan.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at July 14, 2008 02:41 PM (+rSRq)



  The best part about your posts on "alternative energy" was when you explained to people that electricity is not a SOURCE of energy, in that something has to actually fuel the production of said electricity.  I can't tell you how many times I still have to explain this to folks who believe that if we all drove electric cars our problems would be solved. And unsurprisngly to you I assume, the numbers haven't changed. US electricity production is still over 50% fossil fuels, with "renewable" energy still at 1% or less (minus hydro, which as you have noted is all tapped out).

  I can understand why you have abandoned (for the most part) any discussions about politics as I can only imagine the crap you put up with through USS Clueless just by judging the crap you put up with at MetaFilter.

 As you undoubtedly have found out, you can try and explain to some people that it's raining and even though they are soaking wet from the rain they still won't believe you. Most times it simply isn't worth the trouble you will have to deal with.

 All we can say as fans of the good ole days aboard USS Clueless is thanks for doing what you did. I learned a lot reading your posts and I am most grateful.

Posted by: Tman at July 14, 2008 02:47 PM (Gt906)

6 Completely in agreement with ubu and Tman here.  It was those engineering posts (and the way you stepped through the thinking) that drew me in originally.

I've used very watered down (partly because I do *not* have photographic memory) versions of your energy posts in conversation several times, and I've found the posts on scaling in particular to be immensely valuable in following the subject.

I do really miss those posts, but I certainly understand the desire to stay out of the muck.

Posted by: BigD at July 14, 2008 03:14 PM (JJ4vV)


I still chuckle like an idiot when I think about the concrete flywheel solution to the energy storing problem.

Posted by: Will at July 14, 2008 03:22 PM (WnBa/)

8 A lot of silly ideas can be punctured just by doing the math.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at July 14, 2008 03:28 PM (+rSRq)

9 ...large scale wind power is pretty much the stupidest of the alternate energy sources, unless you happen to live on a gas giant.

Washington DC, then?

Posted by: Wonderduck at July 14, 2008 03:34 PM (AW3EJ)

Second response: the blog post's fundamental argument was, "Look at all these companies on Wall Street that relate to solar power. That's gotta mean something!"

 He is right of course.
This is the same reason that the most valuable thing on the face of the planet today is the tulip...wait...what?

Posted by: The Brickmuppet at July 14, 2008 04:16 PM (V5zw/)

11 In an area rich with coal would shifting electrical generation to nuclear and transportation fuel to coal to oil make sense at $140/barrel?

Posted by: engdre at July 14, 2008 04:22 PM (L4gtU)


I can't tell you how many times I still have to explain this to folks who believe that if we all drove electric cars our problems would be solved.

There are a lot of people who think that electricity comes from a wall socket. (And in their sophistication, they would laugh at someone else who thinks that food comes from a grocery store.)

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at July 14, 2008 04:24 PM (+rSRq)


Engdre, any 100% transition makes no sense. Coal gasification will probably be part of the solution in future but it doesn't really make economic sense yet.

Nuclear will also be part of the solution for electrical generation, but we've got some serious political hurdles to get through before that starts happening. There hasn't been a design-start for a new nuclear plant in the US in 20 years, mostly because of regulatory hassles.

Recently we reached an interesting cross-over point, however. Big-name environmentalists are starting to say, "You know? Nuclear power may not be so bad after all." So maybe there's hope.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at July 14, 2008 04:29 PM (+rSRq)


Engdre, any 100% transition makes no sense. Coal gasification will probably be part of the solution in future but it doesn't really make economic sense yet.

I should probably expand on that. The reason coal gasification doesn't make economic sense yet is that there are other, cheaper, things available to us now: Colorado oil shale, and Alberta tar sands.

Money invested in those will produce more yield than coal gasification. The only reason right now to prefer coal gasification is that the other two are tied up in legal knots that effectively make exploitation of them illegal.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at July 14, 2008 04:32 PM (+rSRq)

IMO, large scale wind power is pretty much the stupidest of the alternate energy sources, unless you happen to live on a gas giant.

Although I just posted myself on that very topic, in fairness to the wonks of windmill wankery, I don't think its stupidity even comes close to that of corn based ethanol. Ethanol from corn is literally one of the least efficient way to get hydrocarbons from crops....

....and even if you do it successfully...you've used your food or cropland to do it.

(and ethanol from corn is even stupid on a gas giant!)

Posted by: The Brickmuppet at July 14, 2008 04:42 PM (V5zw/)

16 Okay, you got me there. . . unless I argue that that corn-based ethanol makes slightly more sense.

In that it makes a pre-existing mega business, ADM, a hell of alot of money.

So at least corn ethanol is smart for *someone*. 

Posted by: metaphysician at July 14, 2008 05:19 PM (9Lztf)

17 I am an engineer, even if I am very low level at this time. I may be hidebound, conservative, and fairly skeptical of any proposed technological innovation, but I am by no means unimaginative. I like to claim to be chair of stupid ideas over at my alma mater, and I have an alternate energy proposal that is as bad or worse then any other alternate energy proposals. (Kill greens, fix greens to shafts, hook shafts to generators, implement policy hateful to greens, watch 'em spin.)

Steven: I would like to thank you for posting these types of things. On the one hand, for the analysis and the description when I had/have not developed the ability to do it all on my own. And on the other hand, for the part they played in inspiring me to study engineering. I know why you quit, but they were a good influence on me. I second ubu, Tman and BigD's comments about being a fan of the old USS Clueless. I am also a fan of Chizumatic.

Toren: I think I am reasonably qualified to discuss the pros and cons of nuclear power, but I am fairly sure I couldn't draw such a schematic. At least not yet.

Steven: Once I figured out what the Sci Fi singularity writers were talking about, I decided to ignore much of what those writers say, and certainly not to trust their estimates of technological progress. After that, I conceived a Ranma fanfic built around the same fallacy, where Ranma hits the 'martial arts singularity'.

Will: I remember that one. At the time, or the last time I read it, I had just bought my copy of the Machinary's Handbook. This has a section on flywheels, experiments some guy had done bursting them, and a set of tables that explained very clearly that this was quite impossible. I'd thought of email Steven or the other guy, but figured Steven was getting enough crud on the subject.

The Brickmuppet: Some time ago I read a DoE publication titled something like 'Fuel for the Farms', which was about the onsite production of ethanol to suppliment gasoline. Basically, the message was, if you are producing something that can be converted as a byproduct, and can't sell it or use it otherwise, it may be worth converting some.

That book convinced me that ethanol might be pretty useful, but wasn't ready for prime time. Back when I was deciding on which disipline in engineering school, I'd considered going ChemE and trying to figure out an industrially viable to turn celluose into ethanol, but I didn't turn out to be the right kind of smart for that. I haven't run the math on corn, but I am not that surprised to hear that it is stupid.

I was thinking that corn-to-ethanol, in driving the price of food up, might provide africa with an opportunity to get its act together, but that is probably a different type of fairy tale thinking.

Posted by: PatBuckman at July 14, 2008 06:08 PM (JR4YN)

18 You could technically add one more source of energy to your list that makes the cut but it's very localized and not really that practical as a significant power source for the USA. It would be geothermal power but there aren't really enough sources for a country as big as the USA. Iceland is obviously the poster child here with more than 50 percent of their energy coming from that source.

I was actually pretty surprised at the number of hot drill holes even in the Eastern USA that could potentially be used for such purposes but didn't really research it further.

Posted by: ColoradoJim at July 14, 2008 06:18 PM (rEsWx)


The people who are entranced with the idea of the Singularity have been bewitched by extrapolations of certain curves. Engineering knowledge and ability has been rising on an exponential curve since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and they extrapolate that curve and see that it reaches titanic levels in the next few decades.

Only it won't. It's like the curve of CPU clock speeds. It did rise at an exponential rate for a long time, and then the technologists ran up against certain limits, and the cure began to level out about four years ago. It's still rising, but nowhere near at as fast a rate.

And the rate of technology advance also isn't going to follow a simple extrapolation. A number of intractable factors will restrain it, not least of which is the simple problem of human education.

Of course, that doesn't matter when you're writing science fiction. The goal is to entertain. But when I hear people talk about the Singularity as a real thing that's really coming, and as something we should depend on, then it bothers me. At that point I know I'm dealing with religion.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at July 14, 2008 06:19 PM (+rSRq)


Jim, not even altenergy cultists preach about geothermal anymore because it's obvious to everyone now it cannot scale enough to do any good.

And the motto of Chizumatic is "We take pride in the fact that we are not comprehensive or complete." (People with completeness fetishes were one of the banes of my existence back in the day. "You forgot to mention..." Bah!)

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at July 14, 2008 06:30 PM (+rSRq)

21 Steven,

Some of the writers of the stuff I was talking about mention it, outside of their books, as something that is going to happen. I just can't remember which ones .

Posted by: PatBuckman at July 14, 2008 06:41 PM (JR4YN)

22 If "alternative energy" means "a worldwide replacement for current energy sources" then I can't think of any. There are, however, energy sources that are practical "alternatives" for certain areas with natural advantages (e.g. Iceland's geothermal energy). I think California could be an example of this. A rough SWAG (given average insolation and photocell efficiency) is that we could provide around a third of the state's energy needs with 250 square kilometers of photovoltaic film. This meets conditions 1 and 4, , and meets 2 provided we keep traditional power around to provide a steady, predictable baseline. It technically violates point 3, but California has a lot of useless empty space to stick the photocells in. It would still violate point 5, though, at least with current prices... so it isn't a viable alternative for us just yet. There's physical reason why it *couldn't* be practical, though.

Posted by: Dan at July 14, 2008 06:45 PM (ZSAGS)


Dan, all I've got to say is "I'll believe it when I see it."

I don't expect the photovoltaic manufacturing industry to achieve that kind of production volume any time soon. 250 square kilometers is 250 million square meters. If they're turning out even as much as ten thousand square meters a year now I'd be very surprised. (I'd be a bit surprised if it was even one thousand.)

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at July 14, 2008 07:04 PM (+rSRq)

24 Hmm.  The back of this envelope says they'd use a thousand square metres a year just on cheap pocket calculators.  Those have a square centimetre or two each, and they must sell more than ten million of them a year.

Which is still a hell of a ways short of 250 square km.

Posted by: Pixy Misa at July 14, 2008 07:39 PM (PiXy!)

Posted by: ubu at July 14, 2008 08:19 PM (UukMI)

26 I know, I thought about writing Glenn about unstoppable.

Posted by: Pete Zaitcev at July 14, 2008 08:47 PM (/ppBw)

If they're turning out even as much as ten thousand square meters a year now I'd be very surprised. (I'd be a bit surprised if it was even one thousand.)

Given that a single residential roof's worth of solar cells is a good twenty square meters, I'd be seriously shocked if didn't exceed those figures. That's only 50 to 500 roofs!

The problem isn't the inability to produce massive square footage of materials. A handful of motherboard manufacturers produce several square kilometers of motherboard each year; at the opposite end of the complexity scale the American carpet industry produces something like 1300 square kilometers of carpet annually. The thin-film photocell production rates of companies like Nanosolar could reach those rates of production with the investment of a few billion in production facilities. The reason this isn't done isn't because of a Conspiracy or anything, but simply because at current $/kwh prices even cheap solar panels are only appealing to people looking to Make A Statement. There aren't hundreds of square kilometers of Statements to be made.

There's no reason to think solar cells will remain uncompetitive forever, though. The price trend lines are moving in the right direction, and there's no physical reason why thin-film solar cells can't eventually be as cheap as dirt; the amount of material that goes into each square meter is quite low. The long-term limiting factor will be sunny real estate that nobody especially wants to use for other purposes, which is something most of the world lacks (but which the desert southwest of the United States has in abundance).

Posted by: Dan at July 14, 2008 10:57 PM (5L/I8)

28 I recall a while back running the numbers on a best case scenario for biodiesel using the lowest numbers available for gasoline usage and the best numbers available for acres to barrels of BD. To meet just California's automotive fuel requirements, we'd have to plow all of Oregon under and monocrop it in soybeans. Anyone care to fill out the environmental impact statement on that?

Posted by: Cybrludite at July 15, 2008 01:01 AM (GDpMq)


Pat, I bet you could, at least to the level I 'd consider acceptable.  I was just trying to weed out the idiots who didn't know nucs were basically steam turbines, or had no clue what ionising radiation was, etc.  The whole claim of nuc waste being an insoluble problem is another thing than leaves me moaning with my head in my hands.

Geothermal is locally interesting, especially backyard heat pumps.  But large scale operations are a hell of a challenge, really no less significant than nucs.  The one I visited up in Napa Valley was producing enourmous quantities of arsenic and other nasty heavy metals that no one knew what to do with and were not only turning the place into a toxic waste dump but ruining the machinery.

Is there room for alternative energy in society?  Hell, yes!! I use a heat pump in my vacation home, and my RV has two large solar panels.  However, it will never be popular unless it makes financial sense.  My current home came plumbed for a solar hot water heater.  A five minute calculation showed it had a twenty year payback.  Forget it, kemo sabe.  Solar power?  I live in the fog belt of San Francisco.  You figure it out.

Running your life on solar is a joke, unless you're Ted Kaczinsky.  (A common-sense company called Backwoods Solar has some brutal realities for those interested.)  Slapping up a few panels in certain areas of the US and hooking them up to run your meter backwards (illegal in many areas--including much of California---so much for government support) can make some sense, especially to knock you down into a lower charge bracket.  But until you can slap a full solar roof on your house, that will last as long, for no more than 25% or so extra, people aren't gonna bother.

Hence Global Warming.  If the peons won't do what What Is Right For Gaia, they will be forced.

Bottom line: hell, go ahead on developing alternative energy.  Options and competition are beautiful things.  But claiming you're going to run things like aluminum smelters off of a few windmills is fantasy qua religion.

Posted by: Toren at July 15, 2008 01:28 AM (K0BV/)


I always enjoyed your USS Clueless posts, but I definitely sympathize with why you got out of the game. I've pretty much given up on trying to educate people when I run into the mindset of "And then a miracle will occur and we'll all be using alternate energy sources to do exactly the same work we use fossil fuels for now." When I was still trying to dispel that myth I used your posts on alt energy quite a bit, thank you for writing as much as you did.

Now, back to the anime!

Posted by: Joshua Robson at July 15, 2008 04:25 AM (kW513)

31 I think the reason backfeeding isn't allowed is because it prevents the power company from shutting *off* the electricity in specific segments of the grid.  Makes things more dangerous for the workers.

Posted by: metaphysician at July 15, 2008 07:27 AM (9Lztf)

32 I'm going to close this now.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at July 15, 2008 07:39 AM (+rSRq)

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