A Bazillion Windmills
May 3, 2009
Some people are prone to take, let’s say, the present total electricity generation in the U.S., and try to figure out how many windmills it would take to replace that. The result is typically quite absurd, at which point there is wailing and gnashing of teeth. Behind this is a sort of metaphor: that the economy is like a machine, like a laser printer for example, that takes a certain amount of electricty and doesn’t work unless you give it exactly that amount and no less. Actually, an economy is nothing of the sort. You could think of an economy as being the aggregation of however-many-hundred-million households (and commercial enterprises), which implies that the flexibility of the “economy” is comparable to the flexibility of households and the other enterprises that make up the “economy.”
We already know the way forward regarding “renewable” energy because we have been making these experiments for decades now. This was done by the “off grid” types beginning in the 1970s. When you disconnect from the grid, what do you do? An off-gridder has some basic decisions:
1) Install solar panels/microhydro/windmills etc. to replace the on-grid electricity that an average U.S. household would use (about 30 kwh/day.)
2) Use less electricity, which means less need for solar panels/microhydro/windmills etc.
When you do the math for a single household, it is just as ridiculous as it is for the economy as a whole. To generate 30 kwh/day, you would need about 10,000 nameplate watts of PV solar, or about eighty full-size 125 watt solar panels. That is a LOT, and at $800 per panel (not to mention chargers, inverters, batteries, etc. etc.) it adds up to serious coin.
So, the typical off-gridder relies overwhelmingly on the second option, which is to use less. Many families get by very happily on 3 kwh/day (1,000 nameplate watts), and 6 kwh/day (2,000 nameplate watts) would be rather cushy. The hardcore types sometimes cut their usage down to 1 kwh/day, which is really impressive but not necessary.
They do this primarily via the technique that I refer to time and time again, which is to introduce new systems, rather than taking the existing system and trying to wring small efficiencies out of it. For example, a tweaking of an existing system would be the Prius, which gets 45 mpg instead of 35 mpg for one of the better normal-engine cars. A “new system” would be to live within walking distance of work. We saw last week that there are colossal differences between transportation energy use in various cities, not because one city is populated by self-flagellating green-living maniacs, and another is not, but because the inherent design of the city.
The off-gridder, in their efforts to live within a 3 kwh/day “budget”, will first forego the most obvious low-value electricity-consumers like electric heating, air conditioning, and water heaters. High-efficiency lighting is next, possibly followed by low-energy computers. Electric clothes dryers also get the heave-ho, along with electric stoves and ovens. Chronic energy-users like refrigerators get replaced with low-energy models, which can use as little as 20% of the electricty of the standard models but are just as cold on the inside.
The result of all this is that the off-gridder accomplishes 90% of his goal by Method 2 (using less), and only 10% by Method 1 (generating energy by alternative means.)
Note that the balance is 90%:10% and not, for the most part, 97%:3%. At some point, the additional difficulties of cutting usage still further are greater than the difficulties of just adding on a few more solar panels. The 1 kwh/day guys are the hardcore experimenters. They get by with two 125-watt solar panels, instead of eight. Most people figure: hey, just stick six more panels up there so I can have ice in my iced tea. Nor is it 80%:20%. Then, people say: “hey, if I was going to use 6kwh/day [20% of the 30kwh/day U.S. average] then the cost of my power system would double. Ugh. But it wouldn’t be that big a deal to cut to 90%:10%, and in fact many people do so, and they seem to get along fine.” My point is, this ratio has been the result of experimentation, and not some pre-arranged planning.
The off-grid household is a microcosm of what could be done on a city-size scale. There are certain efficiencies which can be achieved by centralizing power production, especially as regards the elimination of the need for battery banks and inverters. Instead of having a solar panel on every roof, you could have a few large-scale solar generators (on top of warehouses for example). Instead of little teeny windmills you could have huge ones, and instead of micro-hydro you can use macro-hydro. But the logic of the situation works out more or less the same: the difficulty of generating power via these means is great enough (compared to coal or natural gas) that the natural strategy would be 90% Method 2 (use less) and only 10% Method 1.
So, we already know the answer (90:10) because we already did the experiment. It’s not my opinion!
At this point, it occurs to me that the “alternative energy” system of the future is already built, because nuclear, hydro, wind and solar already account for more than 10% of electricity production.
2006 U.S. electricity generation by type.
Indeed, we see that 29.5% of all U.S. electricity generation does not use fossil fuels. If you don’t like nuclear, then you can throw that out too, leaving 10.2% generated by hydro (mostly) and other renewables in 2006.
We would gain additional advantages because transportation losses would fall dramatically. Per-unit transportation losses increase linearly with usage, so if you reduce usage by 90% then your transportation losses also fall 90% on a per-unit basis. Since transportation losses can account for 30% or so of all “electricity use,” we would gain a 27% increase in total usable “renewable energy” from existing sources from that alone.
“Other renewables” were 2.4% in 2006. We could install a little more wind and solar etc. and quadruple this modest figure, to 10%. That’s not a very high hurdle. Combined with the transportation gains, that would increase our total from 10.2% to 21.4%, which is quite cushy. So, although the off-gridders can live very happily with 10% of the electricity used by most households, we would be doubling that to a plush 20% — more than enough to power the electric train system of your dreams, and all sorts of other stuff. (During the “renewables” build out we could slowly decommision the nuclear reactors as they reach the end of their lives.)
Ultimately, it seems that nobody takes action until motivated by price. The typical $0.12 kwh (or less) price of electricity in the U.S. is just not high enough to motivate people to adopt the low-energy solutions that have already been worked out in detail by the off-gridders. At $0.40 kwh, there would be an explosion of activity to reconfigure the typical U.S. house to look more like the typical off-gridder house, which is not very hard to do. Indeed it would become much, much easier to do, because at the present time, a lot of those off-gridder solutions are produced by teeny specialty companies. What would happen if you could buy a superefficient refrigerator from Amana for $500 instead of a SunFrost for $2500? (The thing that makes a SunFrost superefficient is more insulation. No kidding. You just put an additional $40 of Styrofoam in the walls, and use high-quality compressors.)
The commercial sector would make similar adjustments. There would be radical introduction of new systems to allow commercial enterprises to operate at a much lower energy level, just as households would do. But, there would also be a change in the mix of commerce. At $0.40 kwh, for example, certain things would become very expensive (aluminum production), while other things (piano lessons) would be virtually unaffected. The result is that we would use less of the things that consume lots of electricity (aluminum), and more of the things (piano lessons) that don’t really require electricity. The end result would not be “making do with less,” but rather a de-emphasis on energy-intensive activities (downhill skiing on manmade snow, heated backyard swimming pools) and a focus on less-energy-intensive activities (watercolor painting and surfing).
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“Self-sufficiency:” We kicked around the “sustainability” types last week in part for their overemphasis on “self-sufficiency,” which is a core element in the Little House on the Prairie Fantasy. There really is a history of “self-sufficiency” in American culture, which is not in European culture, because the colonial period in the U.S. really was a time when people were close to “self-sufficient.” This is something they were intensely proud of, and it formed a cornerstone of their American vs. European identity. Their counterparts in Europe were heavily taxed serfs, in subservience to their feudal lords for generations on end. How much better to be a free man, with your own land and no taxes! They weren’t really autonomous: even the most “independent” like the trappers of Quebec were tied into the European market for hats. However, their interactions with the “market economy” were often rather sparse. On top of this is the geniunely self-sufficient nature of the Native Americans, which was absorbed into American culture to a significant degree even if the early European settlers spent much of their time trying to kill off the locals in the most efficient ways possible.
Another reason for the tendency toward “self-sufficiency” is that those people who want to experiment with alternatives to the common sort of lifestyle find it easiest to establish a different modality if they can control all the elements. Thus, efforts like the off-grid permaculture types tend towards nuclear families or at best small groups of less than one hundred. A lot has been learned from these experiments, but I don’t think they are viable in their present state to be scaled up to civilization-size levels.
A third reason is the tendency for the “sustainability” types to ally themselves with the “doomer” types, in part because so many “sustainability” experiments have taken place in the context of “self-sufficiency.” I am talking about a different sort of civilization, which is a long-term (hundreds or thousands of years) project, not a five or ten year period of crisis and dislocation. I agree that, if the present agricultural system breaks down, it might be nice to have ten acres of farmland in back of your house. However, this is not really necessary, or even desirable or for that matter “sustainable,” in the longer term. People tend toward specialization and trade, and thus ruralization/urbanization, which is not a bad thing.