Sunday, May 4, 2008

Words of the Weasel: Alternative Energy

It sounds so virtuous and green that everyone is in favor of it. Alternative energy will replace $120 a barrel oil, clean the air, and reduce acne, cellulite and halitosis. Users of the phrase just let it roll of their tongues and then quickly change the subject.
So what is this wonderful energy source? Well obviously it is not the workhorse conventional fossil fuel sources that keep the lights burning, houses heated, and the traffic moving by air, sea, road, and rail. Could it be nuclear?
Actually nuclear works. Nuclear plants have been running for 50 years and produce 20% of US electricity. Nobody has ever been hurt by a US nuclear power plant. The cost is competitive with $120 a barrel oil. Spent fuel rods have been stored on plant sites for 50 years without a problem.
How about solar? Trouble is solar power only works when the sun is up. Dunno about you, but I want my electrical to work after dark, that's when I truly need my house lights to light.
And wind? Nice stuff, fields of huge windmill blades whirring over the wheat and corn. Cool. What happens when the wind stops blowing? Even mountain top sites have calm days. Of course when the price of bunker C gets high enough we could bring back the sailing ship...
Biofuels? Wood is good, and wood stoves will heat your house. Of course if you go away overnight the stove will go out and then your pipes freeze... Ethanol is going full tilt, due to heavy government subsidies, but it takes nearly as much fossil fuel (tractor fuel, fertilizer, and heat for the still) to make the ethanol as you get back for burning said ethanol. The energy gain from making ethanol is disputed with figures running between 0.5 and 1.5. No one is claiming gain as good as 2.0. Energy gains of less than one mean a loss, making the ethanol consumes more energy than it yields.
Hydrogen fusion? After 60 years of R&D, no one has created a fusion reactor that stays lit for more than a second or two, or that yields more energy than the reactor machinery consumes. There are two promising efforts under way, the multinational $13 billion ITER in France, and the shoestring Bussard Polywell in the US. Neither project has lit a break even fusion reaction yet. Wish them well, but a lot of very smart people have been working on the problem for 60 years without success.
Next time someone says "alternative energy" ask them what they mean.

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