We seem to be engaging the issue of energy from within its specifics, lacking a broader view. It might be helpful to look at some “big picture” figures involving energy. Regarding Vermont’s energy future, this is a time for thoughtful and careful consideration. P.T. Barnum said there’s a sucker born every minute. Let’s, instead, be smart and not act in a way that could unnecessarily impact Vermont negatively, leaving permanent scars.
Some energy relationships you should know:
- Our homes generally use far more energy for heat than electricity, 5 to 10 times as much. If insulated to reduce the amount of energy used to heat it by one hardwood cord’s worth, or about 240 gallons of oil, a house would save the equivalent energy it uses in electricity in a year, about 9,000 kWh. That savings will be made each year for the rest of the life of the house. Saving heat energy is the cheapest energy you can “buy”, and it’s something you can take to the bank.
- How much energy do we use . . . really? The USADOE EIA (Energy Information Administration) tells us that in the year 2000, each American was responsible for the generation and consumption of 12 kilowatts continuously or about 105,120 kWh/person/yr. If the average home has 4 people in it, that house houses people responsible for 420,000 kWh/yr, 47 times the household electricity use. Saving energy in the home is essential, but much more must be done.
- Much is made of using renewables to power our future. Modern economies rely on high-quality power, and today, as expensive as they are, renewables provide only low-grade, sporadic, and unevenly delivered energy to the grid, energy that has to be balanced with a source that can be varied rapidly enough to keep pace with the rate of change of the renewable source. Gas turbines are often used to “dance” with renewables. There are two common types. Open-cycle gas turbines (OCGTs) are able to be varied fast enough to compensate somewhat for renewables. Combined-cycle gas turbines (CCGTs) are more efficient but do not vary quickly. Two Australian studies find that the combination of wind and its partner, OCGT, is less efficient (produces more CO2) than CCGT alone. The obvious question should and is being asked. It has not yet been found, anywhere in the world, that wind turbines save CO2 on their grids.
- How much space will renewables take up? Sunlight and its resultants—wind, waves, etc.—are “diffuse” energy sources. Devices to capture useful amounts of that energy will have to cover large areas. The discussion about hundreds of miles of turbines on Vermont ridge lines to capture small amounts of this raw, low-grade energy is an example of this basic nature of solar energy.
- If we decided to power the Earth’s predicted (by 2050) stable population of 9 billion to an American standard of living, as we hear they will demand (Michael Klare, 2009 Middlebury College lecture), with photovoltaics (PVs) that function as mine do here in Vermont – with adjustments for realities of transmission, storage (not invented yet), conversion from DC to AC, performance decline over time, etc. – we would cover an area the size of South America. That would understatedly be charged “an environmental impact”, perhaps of the same kind and degree as that predicted by climate change. Furthermore, PV arrays inhibit evaporation and CO2 sequestration by the shaded plants, and they get hot, radiating that heat into the atmosphere, necessarily warming it.
- A sensible energy choice: For centuries we have been reducing the amount of carbon produced per unit energy we use. Woody stuff has 10 carbon atoms for every hydrogen atom, a ratio of 10:1. Coal’s is 2:1, kerosene’s is 1:2, propane’s is 1:2-2/3, and natural gas’s (methane) is 1:4. Pound for pound, methane produces 4 times the energy of wood and 2 to 4 times that of coal. Fossil fuel plants (coal produces half of our electricity) are 33% efficient. Natural gas plants are 60% efficient, and natural gas–driven combined heat and power plants are close to 90% efficient (Jesse Ausubel, Rockefeller Institute, “Renewable and Nuclear Heresies”). The power provided by methane will be reliable and steady, enabling higher-efficiency appliances.
- It’s worth noting here that the wind and sun are not free, contrary to renewable energy (RE)–industry rhetoric. The sun is being used 100% to run the planet as we know it. How could it be otherwise? Taking it for our use deprives what’s using it now, and RE’s enormous physical footprint competes with food production—PV solar in Germany, corn ethanol in the U.S. and elsewhere. RE has a value where energy (usually electricity) is essential and getting it there is otherwise prohibitively expensive, i.e. when RE is worth all its costs. Otherwise, our electricity generation sources should be of the highest quality, reliable, compact, abundant, and affordable.
Vermont has just been voted one of the top 5 most beautiful places in the world. Let’s think, and protect this rare and precious resource.
[originally published in the Addison County Independent]