Obstacles Facing US Wind Energy

In the United States, we have been working on scaling up wind energy but not getting very far. In 2010, wind energy supplied only 2.3% of electricity purchased.

Wind energy

Figure 1. Wind energy (dark green) is barely visible in a graph of US energy consumption by source. Based on EIA data.

Such slow progress seems strange for a product that seems to have such great promise. It can reduce CO2 emissions. It doesn’t require fuel. It is at least partly US made. It seems to have promise for protecting against rising fossil fuel prices.

In this post, I discuss a few of the obstacles facing wind energy in the United States and their implications for the expansion of wind energy. 

Obstacle 1: Wind energy is dependent on large subsidies.

According to the EIA’s report, Direct Federal Financial Interventions and Subsidies in Energy in Fiscal Year 2010, wind energy received subsidies of $4.986 billion from the federal government for Fiscal Year 2010. This amount is equal to approximately half the cost of new wind power installed during that period. State and local subsidies would be in addition. (The US Wind Energy Association shows that 6034 megawatts of new capacity was installed between October 1, 2009 and September 30, 2010, so the subsidy per megawatt was $826,318. This compares to an average cost per megawatt of about $1.4 million, excluding construction and connection costs.)

Wind energy’s largest subsidy, the Production Tax Credit, is set to expire on December 31, 2012, unless Congress acts to extend it, so there is now a big rush to get orders filled before that date. A study by Navigant Consulting forecasts a large drop in wind investment, if the Production Tax Credit is not extended (Figure 2).


Figure 2. Annual Investment in Wind Energy in $ Billion, according to Navigant Consulting.

Needless to say, the US Federal Government is not flush with money for subsidies, so there is the possibility that subsidies will not be renewed or will be cut back.

Obstacle 2: Wind energy is more variable than electricity produced by fossil fuels and by nuclear energy.

Wind blows when it chooses, which is often not when it is needed most. In theory, this problem could be resolved with robust long-distance transmission of electricity and with adequate electrical storage, but in the US, these are not available. Bill Richardson, energy secretary under Bill Clinton has said, “We’re a superpower with a Third World grid.”  This means that even in locations where wind energy makes up a relatively large share of the fuel mix, other types of generations must be available to supply almost the full level of demand, if the wind is not blowing.

As a result, the role of wind energy is fairly limited.  What wind energy does is permit electricity generating plants, particularly those fueled by natural gas, to use less fuel. Consequently, the price of wind energy tends to compete with the price of fuel, rather than with the wholesale price of electricity.

Chis Namoviz, who is in charge of renewable energy forecasting at the EIA, explained this to me in an e-mail in 2009:

Because of its relatively low “capacity value” (a result of usually not blowing very regularly during peak load hours), wind largely competes as a “fuel saver” resource, and can generally be compared against the fuel cost of what ever mix of fuel it is displacing (whether from existing capacity or from alternative investments in future capacity). In the U.S., this is typically some mix of relatively inexpensive coal and somewhat expensive natural gas, depending on the location of the wind plant, and the resulting seasonal/daily wind and load profiles . . .[Note from Gail: Natural gas is now cheaper than when this statement was made.]

We can see the result of this situation in Figure 3, from Annual Report on U. S. Wind Power Installation, Cost, and Performance Trends: 2007. The price of wind generation tends to trade a below the wholesale band for other types of wind generation, more at the price of the fuel that is saved (frequently natural gas) than at the usual wholesale price.

Figure 3. Comparison of prices of wind generated electricity with electricity generated by other means, from US Department of Energy report, "Annual Report on U. S. Wind Power Installation, Cost, and Performance Trends: 2007."

This lower price for wind-generated electricity helps explain some of the need for subsidies.

A related issue is the confusion caused by a comparison of the “levelized cost of wind” with the levelized cost of other types of generation, such as is shown in Figure 4 by the US Energy Information Administration.

Figure 4. EIA's exhibit showing Estimated Levelized Cost of New Electricity Generation Resources, from Annual Energy Outlook 2011.

Because wind acts as a fuel-saver, Figure 4 represents an “apples to oranges” comparison, if one makes the standard comparison of amounts in the last column. Instead, since wind energy only replaces fuel, what needs to be compared is

  • “Total System Levelized Cost” for wind relative to
  • “Variable O&M (including fuel)” for other sources of production

In Figure 4,  the Total System Levelized Cost of Wind is 97.0, and of Wind-Offshore is 243.2. These might be compared with the Variable O&M (including fuel) of coal (Advanced coal is 25.7) or of natural gas (Conventional Combined Cycle is 45.6), for example. On this basis, wind energy comes out badly, and is one reason it requires such high subsides.

Another related issue is that a person would normally want to substitute a less-scarce fuel for a more scarce fuel, but to some extent this works in reverse for wind power. At least some petroleum is used in manufacturing, transporting, installing, and maintaining wind turbines, but the energy that is provided as an output is mostly replacing natural gas, and perhaps some coal. Coal and natural gas are much cheaper (and more abundant) than oil, so even a small input/output substitution in this direction can quickly hurt the economics of the process.

While one intent of wind energy was to protect against rising fossil fuel prices, in the US  those prices are not rising evenly. Oil is particularly high priced, but it is not oil that is being saved, it is other fuels.

Obstacle 3: Natural gas is now very cheap in the US, and there is a huge amount of natural gas generating capacity already built.

Since wind energy tends to compete with the cost of fossil fuels used to produce electricity (mostly natural gas and coal in the US), a low price for natural gas is a problem because even greater subsidies will be required for wind energy to be competitive.

Furthermore, natural gas generating capacity is no issue, because a great deal of natural gas generating capacity has been added in recent years.

Figure 5: US Generation Capacity by Year and Source, based on EIA Data. (The amount of electricity generated is not proportional to capacity, however. Nuclear is used at over 90% of capacity, coal a little below 70%, and wind at a little under 30% of capacity.)

Obstacle 4: In the US, we do not have an electrical grid that can provide very much long distance transport of electricity, and there are several reasons why changing this situation is very difficult.

Growth in wind energy requires very good long distance transmission capability, partly because wind resources are often located a long way from prospective users, and partly because the variable nature of wind can be “evened out” if wind energy is shared over a large area. Unfortunately, the US electrical system has grown up under a system where each locality has been expected to generate its own electricity. Under such a system, electrical transmission from city to city was originally designed to handle only occasional emergencies, and thus is very limited. I have written more about US electrical grid issues in The US Electrical Grid: Will it Be Our Undoing? and Upgrading the Grid – Many Pluses but Some Minuses Too.

The way the US electric transmission system was set up produces many anomalies. Electrical rates vary greatly from state to state. We needlessly burn large amounts of oil transporting coal to where it will be burned for electricity, rather than burning it near where the coal is mined, and then transporting the electric power over transmission lines.  Nuclear-fueled power plants are sometimes located near large cities.

The problem is very difficult to fix for many reasons. Any improvement in electric transmission would tend to even out electricity rates, but this would be to the detriment of customers who currently have low electric rates. To the extent that new transmission costs more, and these higher costs are charged back in electric rates, such a change could result in higher electricity costs for more than half of the population–something most politicians would find unacceptable.

If better transmission were readily available and free, no one would want to build a power plant in their back yard, making it even harder to site new power plants than it is now.

Another issue is that a good mechanism for paying for the installation and maintenance of new long distance transmission lines has not been established. Under current procedures, a determination must be made as to which electric generating companies will benefit from new transmission lines, and the costs allocated among the beneficiaries. The government in the past has not funded long distance electrical transmission. No one really “owns” the long distance lines.

The only partial fix I can see would be to create a separate organization to build and maintain a few new long-distance transmission lines. Wind energy and other users seeking to use these lines would be charged for the use of these lines, similar to a toll road. It might be possible that more coal fired-power plants would be built near these lines, because wind usage by itself could not support these lines. Even this arrangement would likely require a change to current laws. The net effect might be more CO2, rather than less.

The cost of long distance electric transmission is likely to be fairly high–at least several cents per kWh, for wind energy transported over long distances. Over time, the price can be expected to rise as the price of oil rises. Some maintenance may become very difficult, such as that currently done by helicopters in remote locations.

Obstacle 5: A high proportion of funding for wind energy is up front.

Oil, coal, and gas all started out as fairly high EROEI investments, and much of the investment took place as the fuel was extracted. In such a situation, the investments threw off a high level of profit which could be used to fund further investment.

Fossil fuels are gradually shifting away from this model, with higher up front investment, and lower profit available to fund further investment. Wind turbines represent the extreme end of this continuum with most of the investment up front, and the return trailing many years behind.

As a result of this shift in timing, it is becoming more difficult to fund projects with huge up-front investment. In the “good old days,” we had the low price of fossil fuels which made other investments easier to afford. We also could count on a being always able to add more debt, but we are reaching limits on sustainable debt. I wrote two posts on The Link Between Peak Oil and Peak Debt (Part 1 and Part 2). More recently, I talked about how Net Savings is dropping dramatically in the US, so that non-debt sources of funding are also disappearing.

Figure 6. US Savings and Investment Ratios, based on US Bureau of Economic Analysis Data.

The net of all of this is that if we are reaching limits with respect to finite resources, it is going to be increasingly difficult to fund projects that require large up-front investment and provide a return later. We will likely have to give up some investments we really need (such as replacing worn out roads, pipelines, and school buildings) in order to ramp up investments in projects that require large front-end funding, like wind turbines.

Obstacle 6: Adding wind energy to the electric grid adds complexity which may be difficult to manage with declining resources.

The job of balancing supply with electrical demand and keeping all sources of electricity “in synch” becomes more difficult, as more variable sources of supply come on line. While it is theoretically possible to find technical solutions to these issues, it is not clear that we will in practice.

Furthermore, one approach that is being tried in order to avoid the cost of adding new electricity generating capacity and new electric transmission is to use the Smart Grid to help limit demand when at times when demand would normally be high, such as when temperatures are high or low.  In the words of Smart Grid R & D: 2010-2014 Draft 2, “Smart grid can improve asset utilization and thereby avoid the need for new capacity.

The expected effect of avoiding new capacity is that components are operated at closer to maximum capacity. Since adding new capacity is avoided, assets will over time tend to be older as well.  While theoretically everything should go well, operating older units at closer to their theoretical capacity adds stresses to the system. Because of these factors, Smart Grid enhancements add efficiency to the system, but may reduce resilience.

According to the same report, the Smart Grid is being built as it is being planned. The amount of funding is not clear; costs must be recovered from customers based on cost recovery laws which vary by state. There are a huge number of details that need to worked out, such as necessary cyber security measures. It would be easier to rest easy if the Smart Grid had all been planned out in advance, tested on a small scale and pre-funded.

The grid with the new enhancements will work until at some point it doesn’t work–for example, an unplanned event causes a major failure within the system, or a needed system upgrade is too expensive to afford, or a replacement part from overseas is unavailable. Hopefully, failures of this type will be temporary and local, but if resources are limited, the time may come when the high cost of maintaining the system becomes unsustainable.

Further Thoughts about Wind Energy

I have not been able to touch on more than a few issues in this post.

One of the big issues with wind is that hopes have been raised for its widespread use, without really working through feasibility issues. If we are already having trouble with the electrical grid not being able to accept more wind energy in popular wind-generating areas when wind energy constitutes only 2.3% of total electricity supply, then wind energy is going to be difficult to scale up quickly. The issues I point out in this article suggest that the cost problem is still large, and the fixes needed to add long-distance transmission are likely to make the cost problem even worse.

The government needs to be able to show it is “doing something” about our energy problem, so it makes statements such as “Wind generation added 30% of all US generating capacity in 2007.” (See Figure 5 above.) Few people are energy literate enough to realize that even this progress is very slow, because relatively little new capacity is added in a year, and because wind, with its low-capacity factor, requires a disproportionate share of total new generation capacity, to make much progress. If wind turbines have an average life of 20-30 years, and other types of generation last for 40+ years, this will also affect the amount of new generation needed for wind, compared to other units.

It is easy for readers to become confused, when confronted with the many technology possibilities available, when they don’t understand the time, cost, and scale involved. Dr. Robert Hirsch, in the January 9, 2012, issue of the ASPO-USA Peak Oil Review writes:

The foregoing are realities that many people fail to understand, which means that they can be trapped into advocating energy changes that are not practical in the short term. Examples of some of the current common traps: 1) Assuming that wind and solar systems – electricity producers – can be a near-term solution to high gasoline prices; 2) Assuming that natural gas from shale is a near-term solution to our dependence on foreign oil; 3) Assuming that wind and solar can be a near-term means to lower the emissions from vehicles now powered by oil products; etc.

If transitions to new energy sources and new technologies could be made cheaply and quickly, then many options that appear to be feasible in fact would have a reasonable chance of working out. But there is another issue as well. Based on technology today, we need fossil fuels to make wind energy, and we need fossil fuels to transport wind turbines to the locations where they are to be installed. We also need fossil fuels to repair wind turbines and to maintain transmission lines. So wind energy and other proposed replacements for fossil fuels are deeply imbedded in the fossil fuel system, and dependent on it.

I expect that at some point grid problems will become overwhelming, so at least the long-distance portion of the grid will be lost. It is possible that adding more wind energy to the grid will make that date come sooner, rather than later, because of the complexity issues I mentioned. Unless the limiting factor on the life of the electric grid is the amount of coal and natural gas available, and wind energy somehow delays running out of these, I have a hard time seeing how wind energy will make the electric grid last longer.

There are so many obstacles for wind to overcome in the US that I am not sure that we should even try to push for higher wind penetration levels. The only exception might be in areas where wind energy is cheap to produce and the grid can readily accept the electricity.

Since the world is finite, there is a good chance that at some point we are going to have to get along with less electricity as well as less oil. Instead of focusing on delaying the inevitable, perhaps we should start thinking about preparing people for simpler lives that use less energy of all types. Such an approach might solve multiple problems at once–too much CO2, too little oil, and too little capital to tackle all the problems that need to be tackled at once.

This entry was posted in Alternatives to Oil and tagged , , by Gail Tverberg. Bookmark the permalink.

About Gail Tverberg

My name is Gail Tverberg. I am an actuary interested in finite world issues - oil depletion, natural gas depletion, water shortages, and climate change. Oil limits look very different from what most expect, with high prices leading to recession, and low prices leading to financial problems for oil producers and for oil exporting countries. We are really dealing with a physics problem that affects many parts of the economy at once, including wages and the financial system. I try to look at the overall problem.

81 thoughts on “Obstacles Facing US Wind Energy

  1. I am probably posting too late to get read but here goes. It is not really valid to look individually and piecemeal at the obtstacles facing one kind of renewable energy. One has to look at the possible renewable energy mix in toto. These forms of energy will complement each other. Wind energy will have a role but so will solar, tidal, hydro, geothermal and biomass. No single one of these (with the possible exception of solar) has the potential to provide all our energy needs.

    A combination of distributed systems, centralised systems and stand-alone systems comripising a mix of all these sources will make up our energy mix in the post-fossil future. This is if (a big if admittedly) civilization survives at all. Each of these forms of energy will have strengths and weaknesses and will be able to “cover” for each other’s weaknesses in the overall mix. Theoretically, if we captured just 1/7000th approximately of the solar energy hitting earth we would meet ALL modern day energy needs, not just electricity needs.

    Theoretically, the above is do-able as solar does provide a signficant postive EROEI, the payback time (both financially and energetically) is workable and the raw materials needed are mostly superabundant (silicon, steel or carbon fibre, cement, sand, gravel and clay.

    Our main enemies are runaway climate change, overpopulation, species extinctions, wars, resource misallocations, neoclassical economics and possibly non-ferrous mineral shortages along with soil erosion and water shortages; not the lack of energy sources per se.

    • You are right, the mix of renewables helps, but it is still a mix with a very small base. Most of the mix is hydroelectric, and it is already being used for balancing. The amount of hydroelectric has actually been going down, as old dams are taken out of service.

      Also, none of the renewalbes, with current technology, is able to do the major things we need done today, like manufacturing new supposedly renewable energy generating equipment, moving it to the proper location, and installing it. None of the renewables will build electric transmission lines either, or trucks for repairing electric transmission lines. So we have a very long way to go, in this regard.

      Solar PV is very tiny compared to wind. Burning biomass for fuel is a bigger share, but it is hard to scale up without cutting down our forests. It is hard to see any of these becoming very large in the next 20 years, partly because of the cost of new generation. In Figure 1 at the top of the post, you can see the change in hydro, other renewables, and wind since 1999. Wind is the one that has done best, so far, in making measurable progress.

      • I need to reply point by point.

        Hydroelectric is limited as you say. It is very good where it can be harnassed without too much ecological disruption. However, the world has probably reached its hydroelectric potential already (without more major dams causing more major ecological disruption.

        Biomass is also limited. I agree with that. If we are to produce enough food then biomass energy will be largely trash burning eg. cane and grain baggase (fibrous stalks left over from cultivation) and scrub trees.

        Wind has a place as you say but is far from the whole answer.

        Solar PV might be tiny now but can be scaled up I believe. You have not responded to the fact that harnessing 1/7000th of the incident solar energy on earth would supply all our energy needs. This seems feasible and the infrastructure seems feasible too as most of the required materials are superabundant.

        I see a role for creating artifical CNG (comprssed natural gas or methane) from H2O + CO2 using solar energy. This CNG can then power our converted IC (internal combustion) engined fleet and all the things that you think can’t be done without oil can actually be done.

        At the same time, I agree we will have to become more energy efficient and even energy watching in future. Private automobiles will be a thing of the past. Walking, bicycles, mass transit and some electrical vehicles will be the order of the day.

        We will need energy efficient buildings, naturally ventilated and climate controlled on termite engineering principles, greater use of heat pumps, re-use of of waste heat throughout domestic, residential and industrial sites and many other micro-climate tricks to deal with the future needs.

        • I think the amount of the things that you are talking about that will be possible depends on how soon and how hard the downturn arrives. If we are severely resource constrained, and the downturn hits very soon (say this year or next) then very little will be possible. If we can put of the downturn for, say, 20 years, then no doubt much more is possible. I have a hard time seeing that we will be possible to put off the downturn for 20 years, but some people may think that is true.

          The idea of harvesting vastly more of the incident solar energy depends very much on maintaining a fossil fuel structure to do the things that are needed–pulling out the required minerals from the earth, processing them properly, transporting them to the right location, and then servicing them once (plus the transmission lines they require) once they get put in place. None of this process can be done with electricity alone, and it won’t be able to be done with electricity alone without a whole lot more research, and a without a huge amount of investment in the new technology. Unless we have a good supply of fossil fuels for the next 20 years, we won’t be able to continue ramping this up, and if we cannot perfect and invest in new technologies and approaches, we won’t be able to maintain it either.

          There are a lot of technological things that can be done like CNG, if we have a lot of time and capital for investment. I just don’t see the time and capital for investment as being there.

          The question is what kind of future should we prepare for–one in which technology/renewables will partially save us, or one in which we have to make do with technologies that are available with local materials, without the high-tech devices we have today, such as computers. My view is that there may be a few solar panels that will help us for a few years (or arguably, more than a few years, if we have devices that can use them directly), but today’s high-tech wind turbines, long distance transmission lines, and practically all other high-tech solutions will disappear quite soon. If we want to plan for the future, we really need to “shoot low,” using technology more like low tech windmills and labor-saving devices our ancestors used.

          • Take a look at images of Frank Shuman’s CSP generator constructed in Egypt in 1912 (yikes, a century ago). It looks remarkably similar to “modern” parabolic trough projects, and all done without semiconductors, radio, TV, airplanes, computers or just-in-time inventory control. Definitely has to be “low tech”.

            And I plan to keep my high tech PV modules working as long as possible with the help of another 150 year old “low tech” appliance, the lead-acid battery. If necessary the lead-acid battery can probably be produced on a craft basis with no more technical sophistication than found in a smithy or machine shop, the tools of which have been around for well over a century.

            So the lifestyle enabled by the low-technology of 1900 could be fairly comfortable. Unfortunately, such a transition will be impossible for all but a small minority, since it is likely that our high tech world will crumble from lack of fossil energy before adequate substitutes can be built. We also have another really big problem; circa-1900 agriculture cannot feed 7 billion people.

            • Thanks for pointing out Frank Shuman’s CSP generator. This is one link with a picture. We may very well be able to make some of these.

              It is the crumbling of fossil fuel infrastructure, and how these things work together that really make a difference. I think we will be seeing a lot of Liebig’s Law of the Minimum.

  2. Metaphorical time.
    My ex and her girlfriend were out in rough weather in a small sailboat. They could not get back to the lee shore because they were sailing too close to the wind. My friend had to swim out to them and take the boat right out and then tack back in.
    We are in the same position. We have to be brave and sail right out into the void in order to survive. Clinging desperately to the Known will be our undoing.
    I have ordered my first eCat. It will be 5 to 10kW. (http://ecat.com/ecat-questions/where-can-i-get-an-ecat)
    Do you remember Dr. Gerrard K O’Neil? He and his team showed that the colonisation of L3 and 4 are not only do-able but lucrative.
    Ossified thought patterns will lead us like moths to a flame.

    • The way the world has evolved is through a network of small decisions. I offer my view of the future. It may or may not be right. You have your view, and it may or may not be right.

      It is important that we try different things, based on these different views of the world. I am not convinced the eCat is the right thing, but it seems like Tom Whipple has been rooting for it too. At any rate, some of the things we try have the possibility of working; others will fail. It is only through trying multiple things that we will discover for certain whether anything at all will work.

      So go ahead with your plan. Perhaps it will work.

  3. One general comment about “scaling-up”. The economics can be very different when you scale-down instead:
    The utilities are always harping about nuclear or coal-generated electricity costing 3 cents kwh, and solar costing 12 cents (or whatever). Makes it look very uncompetititve.
    EXCEPT that the utility *charges* me 12 cents kwh for the juice, and if I install the PV panels on my house it still comes out to 12 cents kwh.
    It’s not the cost that counts, it’s the **price**. I.e., I’m paying the same, I’m just not throwing on an additional pile so some rich sharedholder can send his kid to a college that my kid can’t attend.

    Generally: Energy discussions have to focus on work getting done in peoples’ lives, and not maintaining modern financial institutions.

    • Regarding not maintaining modern financial institutions, it is my understanding that the way purchases of solar PV panels are currently being financed is doing precisely this–giving modern financial institutions profits, thanks to the subsidies involved, and the way the arrangements are structured. I don’t have a link of this–I probably could find one if I looked for it. The real winners in the setup are the financial institutions, not the solar panel makers or the homeowners.

      One of the concerns on scaling up is the amount of instability to the electrical grid system all of the small feed in devices like your solar panels will add. The electric utility may be able to counter this instability by adding more capability on its end. This is a cost you don’t see. I don’t know how this added complexity will affect the system over the long run. It is my fear that the added complexity will bring the system down before other limits are reached (like running short of coal, natural gas, and uranium).

      The fact that the juice you are paying for still cost you 12 cents is another form of subsidy, by the way. The utility’s costs don’t go down proportionately when you start using electricity from your solar panels. 12 cents is a lot more than what they are paying for wholesale power elsewhere. The utility can keep this arrangement up if there are a small number of users, but not if there are a large number of users.

      • Aloha Gail,

        I think you underestimate the ability of the grid to accommodate intermittent renewables. Here on the Big Island, there are times when wind generation can approach 50% of the total generation of the grid (at minimum grid load in the early morning). The existing fossil generation backs off and load-follows the variations in wind output. All that is required is that the ramp rate of the fossil generator be equal or better than the variation in aggregate wind output and also of equal gross capacity. Combustion turbines easily do that job here.

        Sometimes we even have renewables comprising the majority of all power output. In this case some of the renewables are base-load, such as our geo-thermal and hydro plants.

        You are correct in saying that wind does not add much, if any, capacity to the grid and is mostly a fuel saving source of energy, but at present grid penetrations “the amount of instability” from intermittent renewables is minimal. Don’t worry about it.

        If that happy day ever comes when a significant fraction of generation is from wind and PV (say 25-40%, depending on the other generators), then dispatchable renewables will be required if fossil plants are to be avoided. These can be hydro, CSP, OTEC, geothermal, and biomass. Of these, I believe CSP has the greatest potential for the long term.

  4. In H.T. Odum’s systems ecology class way back in 1973, he explained how the “capital investment’ for establishing the down-low leaves on a tree is subsidized by the energy collecting power of the leaves at the top of the canopy where the solar intensity is much higher. The objective of the tree being to maximize its TOTAL POWER , or more correctly, to maximize the power of the ecosystem of which it is a part – so as to assure the survival of not only itself , but the entire ecosystem.

    Without those high power leaves at the top of the tree, there would be no subsidized leaves at the bottom of the tree. Now if a tree grows tall enough, the tree will cut off the energy subsidy to the lowest part of the tree since it will not generate net energy for the tree and no new leaves will be generated there.

    Does this lesson from the natural world foretell the outlook for low yielding alternative energy sources? As long as there is plenty of high yielding fossil fuel, we can probably maximize our power by subsidizing (to some extent) these alternatives. When the “good stuff” gets to hard to produce, the sources needing subsidy are likely to rapidly disappear.

    Gail, in being exposed to your systematic analysis of energy subjects, I often think that you have been a “student” of Howard Odum’s energy systems concepts. No one publishing on the energy blogs comes as close as you to understanding that energy involves systems.

    • Aloha Tom,

      You don’t extend your “tree as energy system” metaphor quite far enough. When the high-producing “fossil fuel leaves” at the top of the tree gradually disappear, the previously subsidized “renewable energy leaves” lower down will be the only ones left. Whether they will be enough to keep the tree alive is open to question.

      But if the tree somehow knew that it was destined to lose most of its upper, high producing leaves, it would certainly put as much subsidy into those lower leaves as it could, just to maximize its chance of survival.

      In this case, rather than maximizing energy production to grow higher as fast as possible (to out-compete other trees), it would be better off reducing its “standard of living height” and pouring all its energy into the only thing that can save it in the long run, those poor performing “subsidized” lower leaves.

    • Thanks for pointing out that analogy. It is a good one.

      I am not a student of Howard Odum’s, although I have encountered some of his work. I have also seen quite a bit of Charlie Hall’s work, and that of his students. I seem to naturally think in systems.

      This coming week, I will be attending the 7th Biennial Emergy Conference at the University of Florida. I may learn more about H. T. Odum’s work there.

  5. Hi.

    My name is Salvador Ferreiro from Spain

    I think that you will remember this work, that one day I sent you as a comment:


    I’ve been in the last month working on an idea that can “wake up” to many people who don’t visit these sites on energy.

    The Mission Statement of theoildrum.com say:

    Most people are not aware of society’s profound dependency on energy and the magnitude of the problems we may face if energy becomes either too expensive or scarce. Politicians and the traditional media have tended to overlook the these issues, out of ignorance or due to conflicts of interest. We seek to fill this information gap, disseminating under-reported facts and analysis and providing an educational forum for those interested and engaged in energy’s role in society.

    Film scripts, even it been imagined, have great power to reach everyone.

    My idea is that the next video be an entry with a single text theoildrum.com “Send this to your friends”

    Watch it and tell me your opinion as editor of theoildrum.com

    I don’t want publicity. The video can be copied at servers of theoildrum.com

    Thanks, and best regards

    • Regardless of what the Mission Statement of theoildrum.com says, it has found a need to limit its scope, in part because it can’t do everything. One thing that they are not doing now is posting movies, because people can’t take out time from work to watch them. (A lot of people read theoildrum.com at work.) So I am afraid they won’t be one who posts it.

      I think that different people respond better in one approach to telling the story than others. Your movie is good, and I am sure that it will appeal to some people. How about checking with EnergyBulletin.net about posting it? There is a form to fill out, I believe, requesting posting.

    • When I read that report, one thing that disturbs me is the low percentage of gearboxes made in the United States. Gearboxes have a history of poor reliability.

      I wouldn’t think that gearboxes would be too interchangeable. If we run into foreign trade problems, it seems like getting replacement gearboxes in a reasonable length of time could be a problem.

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