I saw an oddball sort of news item not long ago. Come to think about it, I’ve never seen this kind of “news.”
There’s a massive landfill near Casper, Wyoming that’s filling up with gigantic windmill blades. Yes, windmill blades, like on those big windmills you see as you drive down interstate highways, or fly across the country.
Here’s a photo of some of those giant blades – 300 feet long – cut up and being prepped for burial.
Wait a minute! Who buries windmill blades?
I thought that windmills were a “good” kind of energy. That’s what the renewable energy crowd says, anyhow.
“Wind is free,” they say. Harness the wind with windmills and pump the grid full of wind-generated electrons.
But obviously, somebody is burying windmill blades. What’s going on?
Quick explanation here… Wind might blow “free,” just as sunshine comes gratis from above.
But the systems to harness wind, as well as solar, are complex and expensive. As in, they are NOT free!
Keep in mind… All mechanical and electrical equipment has a useful life. After a certain period of usage, the systems wear out and have to be replaced.
The windmill blades in the Casper landfill must have spun around for a certain number of hours. Their useful life is used up. It’s like how an airplane can only accumulate so many flight hours, and then it’s off to the bone yard and scrappers.
These buried windmill blades illustrate a small part of a very big problem… How the world obtains its daily energy. And how the world of the future will obtain its daily energy.
I assure you, “most” of the world’s energy does not come from windmills or solar… and won’t in any foreseeable scenario.
Along these lines, there’s a very knowledgeable guy in the field of geology and energy named Scott Tinker. He’s the former State Geologist of Texas and now a professor at the University of Texas.
Recently, Scott gave a talk about geology and energy at the Geological Society of America (GSA) conference in Phoenix.
Here’s one of Scott’s slides, graphing out the current mix of energy sources for global energy consumption; coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear, hydro and solar/wind (aka “renewables”).
In an energy-sense, this is what the world looks like. This is, in fact, your world.
Right now, the global energy mix is all about coal, oil, gas, nuke… and a small – very small – bit of renewable.
The energy mix above pertains to all seven billion (and more) people on the earth.
This energy mix has evolved over the past 250 years or so. Nobody really designed it; it just sort of evolved as part of the march of mankind across the plains of history.
Perhaps if people knew then – 250 years ago – what we know now… The world wouldn’t be the way it is. Of course, neither you nor I would be here either. The historical arc would’ve bent a different direction. Far less energy and many fewer people, no doubt.
If you’re a deep-environmentalist, this energy mix is likely not be what you want in your idealistic dreams; but it is what it is. So, let’s change it…
Let’s go all-in for “renewables” like solar power and wind. Let’s remake the global energy dynamic. Presto-chango. Here’s what 98% “renewable” looks like by 2040, which is a date that we’re hearing from several world leaders and 2020 U.S. presidential candidates. This is the world of the next 20 years, according to them…
Hmm… That’s a very strange graph. The curves are making rapid moves downwards. It definitely fails to reflect an orderly transformation from the way things are to a different state.
In fact, this renewable energy transformation looks kind of difficult. The graph represents immense and rapid – indeed, precipitous – alterations in what fuels are produced across the world, and then sold and used to generate energy.
But let’s play along and check the feasibility of these projections…
Say we go all-in on solar power and forget other renewable sources like wind, because after all, burying the blades definitely isn’t “eco-friendly.”
Here’s the solar map of the U.S., courtesy of the federal government’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory. And yes, obviously the sun shines everywhere, excepting northern Alaska in the depths of winter. But at what intensity? The shading on the map gives away the game.
Here’s the long and short of solar… It’s a niche application that works sometimes, in some places, to some degree of success depending on latitude and climate.
But in order for the U.S. to power itself with energy sufficient to meet current demand and usage, the country would have to construct high-efficiency solar panels atop 100% of Nevada and Arizona; plus, make allowance for extensive battery storage and grid-level power-wheeling for night time and bad weather.
This is according to professor Don Siegel of Syracuse University, immediate past president of the aforementioned GSA, who gave a talk not long ago in Phoenix.
That’s just to meet present electrical demand, via solar.
If you add in energy usage to replace oil – that is, to power a vehicle fleet approximating present numbers of automobiles and trucks – you’d have to pave over Utah, New Mexico and most of Southern California with solar panels as well.
Where would those solar panels come from?
Right now, most solar panels come from China… But aside from that minor issue…
Using current technology, or tech that’s reasonably forecast and in the development pipeline, ramping up a global solar panel industry for this new pattern of “renewable” energy usage would require an entirely independent industrial revolution.
Begin with an increase of about 10-fold in global production of rare earth elements (REE), per professor Siegel. No REE, and your solar panels are a science fiction dream. But right now, REE are also dominated by Chinese producers; and there are no surplus REE just sitting in stockpiles.
Meanwhile we’d still confront the requirement for utility-scale battery storage; and that tech, at continent-level scale, is entirely problematic.
Throw in the requirement to rebuild the North American power grid, to transmit all these newly generated electrons from out West to back East. Right now, the U.S. is not wired that way.
Any semblance of an energy program to rebuild the U.S. power system will create significant new demand for copper, aluminum, iron ore and numerous subsidiary elements, from silver, lithium, nickel and niobium, to vanadium, cobalt and much more.
In other words, just rebuilding the U.S. grid would require more mining, milling, ore processing and downstream manufacturing of dedicated components. All at a global scale.
Meanwhile, what’s the operating life of solar panels? Hint: They’re slightly better than windmill blades. Typically, a solar panel will work efficiently for 15 to 20 years at most. Then the systems simply wear out.
So as we build new “renewable” systems – solar, if not windmills – we’ll also have to uninstall old systems and haul them to a recycling facility… or to the landfill.
Here’s the takeaway in all of this… Certainly, the world has deep-seated environmental and energy problems. It’s critical to find many solutions to a multitude of problems.
Along the way, a certain amount of passion is important. But so is serious thinking, using serious science and engineering.
On the positive side, sunshine and wind are free and yes, renewable. But on the down-side, energy systems like solar panels and windmills are not free, and are definitely not renewable.
On this last point, I’ll rest my case.
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Managing Editor, Whiskey & Gunpowder