OPEC, Yeah, I remember her…….I think.

You came back, I’m impressed. It’s not everyone who could read three weeks of my drivel and return for one last helping. I know you’re chomping at the bit to see how this ends. So, without further delay, let’s give a shot at finishing up Tigerdad’s Energy Plan.

We’ve covered conservation and recycling, transportation and short to intermediate plans for generation of electricity. The intermediate in that last sentence is important. Regardless of our conservation efforts and despite the wailing of our “green” friends, it’s inevitable that our electricity requirements will continue to grow. Please don’t misunderstand me on this. I truly believe that our long term goals have to be zero use of fossil fuels for energy generation and minimal impact on our environment. But the reality is that, as long as populations continue to rise and new power using technologies continue to be developed, energy use will rise. The answer isn’t to stifle power requirements. The answer is to channel energy better.

Notice that I didn’t say “produce energy”. We’ve never produced energy in the history of mankind. All we’ve ever done is transform it from one form to another. Most of the time we weren’t very efficient at doing that, which is a big part of the problem. Hence my use of the term intermediate. All of the technology that I’ve discussed so far is here and now stuff. That’s fine for a while. But, our long term plans are going to have to exploit technologies that are, at best, only partially developed.

The first one to discuss is tidal or ocean current generated energy. Like wind power or current hydroelectric power, tidal generators transform kinetic energy into electricity. “So”, you ask, “what’s so undeveloped about the technology?”

As anyone who has ever been near the ocean during bad weather can attest, mother nature has created an awesome source of power with waves and tides. Unlike wind, which is basically created by the earth’s rotation and temperature differentials, tides derive their energy from the gravitational interaction between the Earth and the moon (with a little help from the Sun). That’s a much more predictable form of energy generation. In addition, due to it’s density, an given flow of water will have over 800 times the kinetic energy of an equivalent flow of air.

The technological challenge is going to be harnessing that much power without tearing the equipment apart in the process. That’s absolutely a solvable problem, but despite the fact that test sites are already in place in Australia, Italy, England and Norway, we are ten to fifteen years away from being able to call this an existing technology. But, if this is going to be a part of our long term solution, we need to kick the R&D efforts into high gear. The two most promising sites in the United States are the East River in New York City and San Francisco Bay. The utility companies in those areas and the respective state governments should begin plans yesterday for developing this resource. Like many of the other technologies we’ve discussed, we’re way behind much of the other developed countries on this one. It’s nice that we can kick ass in the Olympics, but I’m getting a little embarrassed that, when it comes to the really important things, we can’t even make the top ten.

We’ve already talked a little about solar power generation, but current methods for exploiting that power source have major limitations. Geography is one of the big ones. Solar farms take space and they have to be in areas that get a lot of sun. Another is that, at best, the collectors are only efficient eight to nine hours per day due to the Earth’s pesky rotation. But the big problem is that the sunlight that gets to the collector is filtered through the atmosphere before it arrives. Even using mirrors or a Fresnel lens for concentration, this greatly reduces the effectiveness of the process. The solution is to put the collector somewhere that geography isn’t a problem, the sun shines longer and no filtering occurs. That somewhere is in space orbit.

The concept for this was first put forth by an American scientist, Peter Glaser in 1968. Three separate studies by NASA, the United States Department of Energy and, most recently, the Pentagon have concluded that the concept is viable and the technology is achievable. The sticking point has been money. While the costs for implementation is substantial, the real problem has been potential profit. The assumption has been that much of the funding would come from private sources. That works for me, but those finicky private sources have a habit of expecting to get a return on their investment. That wasn’t so easy to do when energy prices were artificially low and implementation costs were heavily dependent on government space technology. Energy costs are up now and private industry is knocking on the door of space launch development. That’ll bring the cost down. It’s a whole new ball game.

The concept is simple. Solar collectors and concentrators are placed in a geosynchronous orbit. The energy they capture is transmitted by satellite to earth stations using microwave frequencies. Power can be transmitted directly to areas where it is required with no need for long distance terrestrial transmission. The amount of power available is, by human comprehension, limitless. If we hadn’t gutted our space program in the 70’s, this concept for energy collection would be a a done deal and we wouldn’t be having this conversation. India, China, the EU and Japan are all pumping resources into developing space based solar collection. Japan is poised to have a prototype unit in operation within ten years. How much are we spending for research…basically nothing.

In the last post we discussed Mr. McCain’s plan to build one hundred new nuclear power plants. He wants forty-five of those by 2030 and fifty five as soon as possible after that. As I said last week, I’m on board for the forty-five. We need those plants to bridge the gap. But, by the time 2030 arrives, we should be in position to exploit some of the other, less problematic technologies we’ve discussed and maybe a couple more.

Existing nuclear power is generated by fission. Essentially, fission splits the nucleus of an atom into smaller nuclei. In the process, energy in the form of heat escapes. This heat can be used to create steam which powers a turbine. The turbine produces electricity. There’s another type of nuclear reaction. That would be fusion.

Fusion is what powers the sun. As a process, it’s pretty much the antithesis of fission, Instead of splitting atoms, it converts energy by using plasma to combine them. Despite the need to use some of the energy created to maintain the superheated ionized gas, fusion has the potential to create much, much more energy than it uses. It’s a relatively stable process and when it goes out of control, it dampens and dies rather than accelerating. That makes accidents virtually impossible. It can’t be used as a weapon and it produces very little radioactive waste. What it does produce would degrade so fast that within a matter of years it would be benign. So, what’s the problem, well, we haven’t totally figured out how to do it. Don’t get me wrong, tons of progress has been made. We’ve got a real shot at being ready go in two to three decades and that’s why I’m saying forty-five fission plants are enough. By the time the last one is on line, fusion will be knocking on the door and, for once, we’re doing at least some of the research. One point for the home team!

Finally, and I have reservations about even discussing this, there’s one more potential energy source. Actually, it’s the third type of nuclear power, cold fusion. OK, Ok stop with the eye rolling. I know the history, but let me give the short version to the three people who are still reading.

In 1989, two scientists, Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann, announced that they had achieved a fusion reaction at room temperatures, no plasma, no tokamak. The scientific community went nuts, for about six months. The problem was, no one could duplicate the experiment. Stan and Marty were disgraced and slipped away into oblivion. That could have been the end of the story except, it wasn’t. The lure of cold fusion was so strong that scientists all over the world continued to work on it. Most of the work was done quietly, no papers and no seminars. No one wanted to join Stan and Marty.

Then, in 2005 and 2006 researchers at UCLA and Rensselear reported that they had sustained cold fusion reactions. The process was a bit different than the original, but it was repeatable. Having a repeatable reaction is a long distance from having achieved the holy grail of energy generation, but it’s still a big step. So where’s that leave us?

If you asked a hundred physicists in 1990 whether they though cold fusion was real, ninety-nine would have said no. If you asked them that same question today, fifty of them would say..”maybe” and a handful, five or six , would say yes. Cold fusion is not something we should bet our future on. But it isn’t something we should ignore. If it works, it could be a civilization changing discovery. We have to keep working on it until we find out for sure. OK, the “No Eye Rolling” sign is now turned off.

So, let’s recap the “plan”.

  • Maximize our efforts in recycling and conservation to minimize energy use.
  • Extend our current oil supplies by off-shore drilling.
  • Dump ethanol and increase natural gas use prudently as necessary.
  • As quickly as possible move away from fossil fuels transportation, concentrating on Plug in Hybrids and fuel cell vehicles using tax incentives and penalties to speed things along.
  • Use wind, solar, coal, nuclear, geothermal and tidal power generation for stop gap power generation, picking the method that’s most appropriate for a given area.
  • Level load our power generation using new battery and hydrogen technologies.
  • Center our long term power needs around space based solar and nuclear fusion power generation.
  • Elect leaders who understand that energy policy isn’t a political football, it’s literally the future of our world.
  • So that’s Tigerdad’s Energy Plan with no fanfare and no big profit margin for Boone Pickens (or me). But, on the bright side, there’s no sixty million dollar advertising budget either. That’s a good thing. I think my checking account was going to be a little short for that.

    See ya.


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    One Comment on “OPEC, Yeah, I remember her…….I think.”

    1. M. Simon Says:

      If this works out fusion won’t be two to three decades away. More like one:

      Fusion Report 13 June 008

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