Picture from http://www.evwind.es/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/wind-energy-EWEA.jpg of some really TALL turbines somewhere in Europe on a foggy day. You can also see the very tops of some major high voltage transmission towers (pretty tall in themselves) which are dwarfed by the turbine towers. In Europe, wind turbine towers of 135 to 149 meters (up to 489 feet) in height are getting more common - ones made of at least some or all reinforced concrete. For tall towers supporting that weight of the nacelle and staying rigid so that the flexing blades don’t take a whack out of the tower just can’t happen using steel for the tower - even 1” thick steel is too elastic. But, that’s where things are heading in places where the technology can profitably develop…. which unfortunately is not in the USA to the extent many would like to believe….
Last week was World Wind Energy Day (June 15), a “holiday” sponsored by the European Wind Energy Association http://www.ewea.org/globalwindday/. Now, this is a PR holiday, but it is designed to get the public aware of and talking about wind turbines, what they can do, who they can employ and what it all means. And the industry and advocates of wind energy in particularly and renewable energy in general can celebrate what has been accomplished to date and perhaps speculate on what can be done with them in the future. There has been a lot of good accomplished so far, despite some pretty fierce opposition from the nuke, coal and methane pushers who seem so immensely better politically connected that those in the wind biz. If this aspect of renewable energy is to go further, it’s also going to have to do a lot better than it has been doing in the political realm. After all, with the correct politics, some really crazy subsidies can go into effect that make the most whacked technology (like nukes) seem viable - nukes being the prime example. Or perhaps energy generation approaches with drastically different costs can be priced identical with the differences covered by subsidies so that it appears that all are equally expensive. In the short term, politics trumps economics and politics determines what makes money and what does not. And it can get messy.
So far, the world is closing in on 400 GW of wind turbine capacity, and that will represent an investment of roughly $US 700 billion. At the end of 2014 installed capacity was around 370 GW (http://www.gwec.net/global-figures/graphs/) and last year over 51 GW (about $US 80 billion to $US 100 billion) were put up. That’s not too shabby. Imagine what could be done if most governments really tried to push this technology instead of being cheerleaders for nukes, gas and coal and generally the equivalent of brakes with respect to wind turbines…. And as some of the cumulative graphs show, exponential growth is still going on…..
But the problem is, this rate of wind turbine deployment is TOO SLOW. And it could be done SO MUCH FASTER. There could be SO MANY MORE PEOPLE EMPLOYED in making the stuff that goes into wind turbines. A LOT MORE CO2 pollution could be avoided, with attendent climatic and ecological consequences minimized. All that is both great for business and great for workers and communities where people live and try to make a living. And once installed, this wind based electricity causes essentially no pollution. Depending on what type and where they are installed, all of the energy expended in making and installing them is paid back in electricity generated in 4 to 16 months. And once they are generating, these turbines don’t need any cooling water nor do they make air pollution, including particulates that might cause Alzheimers (http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2015/05/air-pollution-dementia-alzheimers-brain) but do cause lung and heart disease, radiation that causes cancer and weakens immunity to all kinds of ailments not to mention acid rain, heavy metal poisoning as well as the CO2 pollution that is severely messing with our planet’s climate and energy balance.
Plus, you you can install more delivered electricity for a given cost with wind turbines than any other form of renewable energy (especially now that all the good hydroelectric sites are pretty much tapped out). ESPECIALLY IN THE USA. So if you only have $3 trillion to spare to power up our country with renewable electricity, you could easily do this within a decade while putting around 5 million people to work both directly and indirectly. And NO imports are needed to do this, either, though for all practical purposes, the technology to make and install wind turbines of the correct size and wind speed to rotor diameter ratio and tower heights is imported from Europe. It would take well over $15 trillion to do that with PV, not to mention the much larger buffering/storage issues. In general, wind turbines make SOME electricity at least 80% of the time, while PV (especially fixed orientation solar) generally makes it less than a third of the time and less than a quarter of the time in the non-desert parts of the country.
And there is room for both, as long as people understand that PV is more of a “make work” for somebody arrangement than is wind turbines. That’s because electricity made from PVs is between 5 to 10 times more costly than from wind turbines. Of course, in the US that tends to be very difficult to comprehend because of who REALLY PAYS for the installation of PV. When up to 81% of a PV system is paid by somebody else (generally those who cannot take tax deductions/tax credits - in other words, the bottom half of the income distribution) and 73% of a wind turbine installation is (eventually) paid for by somebody else, well, those tend to be some really bent incentives. For some it actually benefits those with a lot of money to have higher priced renewables because that leads to greater amounts of tax avoidance. For wind, at least there is an incentive to generate as much power as possible (the PTC is 2.3 c/kw-hr of electricity sold - no sales, no tax avoidance potential).
Anyway, how about $2 trillion for turbines and $5 trillion for PV, with roughly $500 billion for pumped hydro electrical energy storage…? The wind turbines/pumped hydro provides job creation and affordable electricity, while the PV provide jobs but jacks up the price of electricity in a steady and predictable manner. This way, electricity is not cheap and is thus less likely to get wasted on useless and valueless things, like that wall sized TV….
Right now this country has many pressing issues, but a closely related set of them is the lack of useful and especially decent paying jobs that really is coupled to a lack of renewable energy systems manufacture and deployment. Without the real wealth creating jobs, economic demand remains pathetic and lackluster, and Federal, State as well as local governments (whose incomes are tied to the performance of the economy and especially the number of people in the middle class) get starved for revenue. In turn, investments in what makes life livable (water, sewer, transportation, schools) do not get made or only get done at a fraction of the rate that they should be done. That in turn minimizes job creation on these public improvements, also helping to minimize economic demand. This gets to be a vicious spiral - also called an economic death spiral. Less economic demand leads to fewer investments which leads to fewer jobs which results in less economic demand…. One of the consequences is a “Sea of Money” that is looking for profitable investments and which generally cannot find them, which is why interest rates for large quantities of money are essentially zero - the ZIRP = Zero Interest Rate Policy. And example of this is explained in this article - http://wolfstreet.com/2015/06/24/goldman-equifax-face-wall-streets-nightmare-generation-millennials/
All investments are not the same. A massive investment in energy efficiency and swapping out depleting and polluting fossil fuel usage for renewables actually avoids future price shocks (both up and down) caused when energy prices drastically gyrate (most recessions are initiated to a big extent by sharp price rises in oil, natural gas and/or electricity). Recessions then drop energy usage which crashes prices and slows production of fossil fuels until supply and demand temporarily equilibrate. But since fossil fuel prices are generally unrelated to the actual COST to produce much of this supply, it tends to be things other than the average cost to produce fossil fuels that sets off a price spike. A large investment is renewables - especially those renewables with the lowest energy production cost - provides actual competition to fossil fuels (notably natural gas and coal) and lowers the demand for them and keeps the price and especially the profitability in them low to nonexistent. Renewables also employ more people per dollar invested than does a similar investment in coal and methane production - especially if those renewable systems are actually Made in USA.
We need something like 10 million jobs ASAP in this country to restore economic demand. And we need to restore economic demand in sectors of the economy that do not consume addition fossil fuels. For example, investing in mass transit that is electrically powered (mostly suitable for urban regions) creates a lot of short term jobs (construction and manufacturing), some permanent jobs, creates a demand for electricity and allows people and things to be transported with using petroleum, which we still import to the tune of $200 billion per year. That $200 billion/yr is also probably worth at least a 4 million job net loss to this country in itself. So even if the mass transit projects only knock back imports by 2 million bbls/day, that’s still a good thing. On the other hand, building more roads so that more cars and truck can roll across them consuming even MORE petroleum or at least NOT SHRINKING PETROLEUM USAGE - that is not the definition of a good investment….
The lack of a massive renewable energy effort is a crime in many ways - environmentally, climate, politically and especially economically. In effect, it leaves millions of people in this country as economic roadkill, at best, stalemated, at worst, preying on or hoping to get lucky over a few crumbs of the economic pie that they can grab or obtain. Of course, if they wanted to be successful in a life of crime, they would do the white collar thing - banking, investment, hedge funds, money laundering and financial consulting offer so many lucrative opportunities with a minimal probability of getting caught - the “too big to fail is also too big to jail” con is now a major sector of the US economy. And few of these criminal fraud schemes will produce investments in renewables - most of them actually make sure that long term mild yielding investments in renewables never occur. Or the returns to crime are just so much faster/bigger than those from renewables that renewable investments barely happen at all, and not in the quantity needed, either. It5’s the renewables version of Gresham’s Law (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gresham%27s_law) - bad money drives out good money. A corollary is that bad investments (fraud/money laundering, real estate scamming, petroleum, coal, government insured nukes, suburbia) crowd good ones.
So, despite all the marvelous technological improvements in renewables, we need to stop placing faith in the idea they can undercut pollution based energy on price. Fossil fuels are what we run the military on, and what we go to war over (does anyone go to war over prime wind resource sites, or deserts for solar energy? Did not think so…). Nukes are where the vital part of mass produced atomic weaponry comes from. Prices can be set via crooked means too easily, especially in ways that favor those already rich from and continuing to get rich from pollution based fuel usage. If this generation wants to stop being economic roadkill, it’s going to have to get political about where jobs get created and what is considered valuable to do. As a society, we cannot survive without energy - maybe we can get by with less, but not “none”, at least for the vast majority of people. And the beauty of renewables in general and wind energy in particular is that job creation, wealth creation and energy production all come together at a price that can be afforded. And we don’t even need to go to war to steal somebody else’s energy, either. But that’s a different sort of “roadkill”….., and about as original as Wile Coyote’s sole goal in life, which was to catch that infernal Roadrunner. And how did that work out? Over and over and over again..... Anyone for a new oil and/or natural gas based war....?