The Peak Oil Crisis: Alternatives #1

The year 2007 is shaping up as one filled with bad news. It’s only March and already oil prices are threatening new highs. This fall’s hurricane season is predicted to be a bad one. Worst of all, a new study of coal reserves, which were supposed to last for the next 150 years, is saying that, in terms of energy content, US coal production peaked in 1998.

Very soon we are going to have a more electrified civilization with the energy coming from the sun, the wind, the sea, the molten core of the earth, biomass, and perhaps exotic biological reactions. Until these new technologies come into widespread use —a transition that will be expensive and will take decades to accomplish— there will have to be serious conservation to see us through.

There is some good news however. Many people and organizations around the world are working on new technologies that could make a difference. Hardly a week goes by without some credible institution announcing a technological advance which, if it turns out to be technically and economically feasible, just might make a big difference in the years ahead.

Over the next few months, I want to apprise you of some of these advances; this week, we look at wind-generated electricity.

There is no question that the installation of wind generators is rising rapidly with installed capacity in the US and Europe increasing by some 25 percent each year. The US currently has about 11,600 megawatts installed. As each megawatt can supply 300-350 homes, the US has the capacity to supply over 3 million homes. The problem, of course, is that the wind does not blow all the time, so the actual power generated will be much lower than theoretical production.

In Europe they now have over 48,000 megawatts of wind generating capacity installed and currently are generating about 3.3 percent of Europe’s total electricity consumption.

There is no question the economics of wind power is about to get better. As concern about carbon emissions grows, emissions caps will be established in the US, Europe, and probably even China that will make the cost of operating coal-fired electricity generation very expensive.

A favorable development for wind power is that the large oil companies are starting to get into a business that has been the province of smaller developers, speculators and utilities. In addition to mammoth amounts of cash, the oil companies bring decades of experience managing multi-billion dollar projects.

BP recently bought a project that will install 274 wind generators near Greeley, Colorado. This will be only one of five wind projects the company plans to build this year and is part of an $8 billion BP program to invest in renewable energy over the next few years.

Development of wind-generating technology continues apace. Researchers at the Sandia National Laboratories recently announced they and an industrial partner have developed a significantly-improved wind turbine blade. This blade is designed to generate electricity in low-wind-speed regions such as the Midwestern US. If the tests of this new design prove successful, it will increase by 20-fold the land in the US on which it would be economically feasible to install wind generators.

The downside of wind generators of course are danger to birds, intermittent wind, plus people are not yet used to having them around. Bird strikes can be reduced through better placement of wind farms, and people can get used to looking at wind generators.

The intermittent problem too appears subject to solution. One way is to build large enough electric grids with enough wind farms networked together so chances are good that somewhere on the grid the wind will be blowing. Interest also is growing in the storage of wind generated power for use during peak demand and calm wind periods.

There are several ways to store electrical energy and solutions will vary from region to region. In southern Virginia, the power company simply pumps a lake-full of water up a mountain at night and lets it run down again during the day generating electricity as it falls.

Experiments are underway to convert electricity into hydrogen by electrolysis, store the hydrogen and then convert back to electricity in fuel cells as needed. One of the more interesting suggestions I have heard is to build wind generators along the southwest coast of Alaska and on the Aleutian Islands. This proposal has several benefits. First the area has lots and lots of wind. Then, there are very few people around to object to the view and the few that are would be delighted to be hired as wind generator technicians.

What do you do with all that electricity in the middle of nowhere? That’s easy. Make hydrogen by using electrolysis, pull nitrogen from the air, combine the two with a little catalyst and you have ammonia. The world currently uses 110 million tons of the stuff annually, mostly derived from natural gas. Someday natural gas prices will be high enough to make the Alaskan wind to ammonia project feasible.

The most interesting new way to store wind energy is a $200 million project underway in Iowa. A group of Midwestern utilities are planning to use excess wind-generated electricity at night and on weekends to compress air to 1000 psi and release it into a cavernous aquifer 3000 feet under ground. The air would then be released into turbines as needed to generate electricity. The plan is simple enough and environmentally sound. The facility currently is scheduled to be operational in 2011. Should it prove successful, and if we can find enough deep aquifers, it will go a long way to making intermittent sources of electricity – wind, waves, solar – useful and might turn out to be highly satisfactory replacements for fossil fuels.