Monday, October 26, 2009

Windy City

No not Chicago but rather Cambridge Mass. The Big O showed up at M.I.T the other day to tout stimulus funds being thrown their way for wind energy research To wit: "In fact, in just a few weeks, right here in Boston, workers will break ground on a new Wind Technology Testing Center, a project made possible through a $25 million Recovery Act investment as well as through the support of Massachusetts and its partners."

Well peachy keen I'm sure and there are likely far less worthy projects, whatever their shovel relational statuses might be, that have lapped up milk squirted from the swollen stimulus teat, damning though that faint praise might be. Among the advantages touted for the Wind Technology Testing Center is that it will be able to test and analyze wind turbine blades as long as 300ft.

Good frakkin' grief. One can only assume that such behemoths are in the offing if testing is being essayed and what a monstrosity such a device portends. A wind turbine with 300 ft. blades will perforce be 600ft wide and will likely stand on a 400 ft. tower which projects the thing 700 ft. into the sky, at a minimum. A hazard to aviation is likely to be the least of such an installation's liabilities.

It is axiomatic in the world of aerodynamics that, in general, the larger the propellor the more efficiently engine power is transmitted to the air. This principle works just as well in reverse with large wind turbines being, again in general, more efficient extractors of power from a moving air mass. With aircraft there is a point of diminishing returns that can result in props that are so large that planes must use ever longer and more unwieldy, landing gear so that the spinning prop tips do not strike the ground. In addition large propellors frequently require gearing to efficiently match engine rpm to the lower more efficient prop speeds required.

Giant wind turbines can turn very slowly while extracting power very efficiently but they are beset by structural problems that suffer from their own sorts of diminishing returns. The longer the blade the more robust the structure required and therefore heavier which is obvious but the loads seen by such structures increase as the cube of their size so needed structural strength also cubes. I am fairly certain that a 300 ft. long turbine blade is at the raw ragged edge of the diminishing return curve or perhaps a bit past it. Such a long structure will have to be very stiff to both avoid destructive resonances and to survive high storm wind speeds that will severely stress all parts of the turbine even with the blades feathered.

Naturally not just the turbine blades will have to be much stronger but so will every other part of the installation which will subject to the cruelties of the cube law. A 600 ft. turbine will likely need to be over three times as strong, and three times the weight of the currently typical 300 ft. turbine. Three times the cost, and possibly much more, is quite likely as well.

The support structure for this olympian wind catcher will need to be far larger and stronger, to put it mildly. The steel pylon holding up this rig will need to be at least 400 ft. tall and likely higher to avoid aero interference with the ground. In like wise such a huge whirly thing will discombobulate the air flow so much that siting another turbine closer than a couple of miles will be inadvisable.

So this mega-puppy is going to eat up a lot of land, several hundred acres at a very minimum. The low frequency high decibel noises it will make may well create seismic stresses in any structure nearby. And there may be significant high frequency noise as well. After all the tips of those football field length blades will likely be hustling along at a couple of hundred mph which implies soprano screams from tortured air molecules. Fun!

A unit this size will likely be able to generate 10 megawatts of power at whatever its optimal wind speed will be. Impressive until one remembers that it will be generating that much juice maybe 20 percent of the time, if it's lucky. Considering that such an installation likely will cost at least 20 million dollars exclusive of support and auxillary hardware that's going to be some expensive watt/hours indeed.

It will require at least a hundred such turbines to produce power similar to a large hydrocarbon fueled powerplant or a medium sized nuclear reactor and of course in practice they will at best produce a fifth of the power of either of those alternatives in any given year. This means that at least 500 of those massive turbines, sited trans-regionally, will be required to equal the yearly output of one large conventional power station. I for one am afraid to calculate the stupendous required mega-tonnages of steel, concrete, advanced composites, aluminum, etc., etc. and we certainly don't want to forget the hundreds of thousands of acres of turbine sites and the thousands of miles of access roads needed for site building, maintenance, and transmission tower routes. What part of this scenario could be considered by anyone to be "low impact"? Compared to all this a nuclear plant lies extremely lightly on its measly couple of hundred acres of land.

Even if it's decided that such giant turbines are unnecessary the need for vast tracts of land and millions of tons of materiel is only aggravated not ameliorated if we are, as eco-warriors relentlessly aver, trying to substantially replace conventionally generated electricity. I assume that said eco-warriors and those in sympathy to their aims are simply unaware of the multi-trillion dollar tab for such bizarre extravagancies or are blithely unconcerned about it. We poor saps who will have to pay the tab for such grandiose fever dreams should damned well be concerned. Exactly how large an increase in our energy bill are we willing to tolerate? A doubling? Tripling? Quintupling?

How far are we willing to go to finance the modern Quixotes' tilting at wind turbines in pursuit of a fraction of a percent reduction of CO2 emissions in the next five or six decades? Millions of over-taxed lower/middle class Dulcineas will almost certainly spurn the eco-Quixotes' trillion dollar affections for the great green romantic energy scams of the 21st century. Oh we love the impossible dream right enough but we're decidedly lukewarm about the insanely expensive and economy destroying dream.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A New Leaf?

Nissan Corp has introduced, with predictable fanfare, the 2011 Leaf which is an electric only driven vehicle. It's a nice enough looking little package, about the size of a Versa or Honda Fit. Its battery allegedly permits a 100 mile range and can charge back up from near flat in about 8 hours with a heavy duty 230 volt source. The projected price is projected to be, sit down please, a cool 30,000 dollars. And that stiff tariff is after sundry large subsidies from the Feds without which the vehicle might cost from 5-8 grand more. Additionally to add considerable economic insult to injury the car's price does not include the battery! Oh no the lithium battery is so expensive that Nissan has chosen to lease it rather than sell it outright which might well have pushed the price well past 40 grand.

This is far more a marketing move than one that might produce savings since leasing the battery means that that though the initial hit will be lower you'll be paying for the darn thing one way or another. Comparing this with any ICE vehicle is pointless, probably even a Bentley, because the 20K that you'll pay for the Leaf over its similarly sized ICE brethren means that any conceivable "payback" will only kick in at about 200,000 miles--at best.

That 200k miles takes the average person at least 10 years to accumulate, usually longer, so even if you were to keep the thing that long you'll have been paying a battery lease payment the whole time. This would effectively push the payback to infinity.

Electric car boosters are usually at pains to state that such vehicles are not meant to be anything other than commuter mobiles and the hundred mile range would service most commutes successfully. I personally have never known anyone that bought a vehicle, let alone one that cost well over 30K, to do nothing but commute and grocery shop in one's immediate area. Vehicles are bought now, and have been for many decades, as multipurpose devices that can not only get you to work but also to visit aunt Lurline who's a hundred fifty miles down the road in a town with no air or bus service. Virtually everyone has such needs that simply will not be met by vehicles with 100 mile ranges.

It reasonable to expect that batteries will increase in capacity over time and may come down in price although there's not the slightest guarantee on that last point. Clearly electric vehicles are more expensive than conventional ones even without the expense of batteries included.

This should hardly be a surprise. Electric motors, large ones particularly, are not, and never will be, especially cheap devices. The electric motor in your home's central air compressor cost several hundred dollars to replace and it's all of about five horsepower--about one tenth the power needed for a vehicle--and they make millions of the things so most efficiencies of scale have been realized at this point. Add to that fact that electric vehicle motors are in general much higher tech devices that the typical commercial electric motor. Nissan could make a billion of the motors that drive the Leaf and they still could not be sold for a mere few hundred bucks.

Similarly the large lithium based batteries that will power the Leaf and many others may well increase dramatically in capacity but I'm brutally skeptical that they will also at the same time magically cost a lot less to manufacture and sell. Batteries and motors, plus the extremely heavy duty power distribution gear, are large heavy physical systems that simply will not experience the economies of scale that micro electronics do. Not going to happen.

So what we really have here is yet another high priced can of eco-credential polish that will only be purchased by the dedicated greenie, or at least the ones able to afford it. Certainly the bulk of the "working class", that group so allegedly beloved by progressives, will not be suckered into buying pure electric vehicles since they are forced as a group to pay much more attention to a little thing called a "cost/benefit ratio" than their college educated betters apparently do.

A few progressives are fully aware of how overpriced all this new-tech vehicular three-card-monte is. Consequently they are taking the tack that the internal combustion engine, since it always come out the economic winner in comparisons, really needs to be legislated out of existence and which efforts they are pursuing with vigor. That will be the only way that pure electric vehicles make any real dent in our use of hydrocarbon fuels. That this could result in an electoral bloodbath seems not to impinge on the sensorium of the dedicated eco-warrior. The pure electric bag of magic beans will be a tough sell to the penny-pinching blue collar hoi-polloi even if the sundry hysterical predictions of climate change come entirely to pass.