The future of power: Small, dumb, everywhere

This really is a pretty cool story in the Globe magazine on small-time wind power, now growing in Massachusetts one turbine at a time. The state is indeed subsidizing the heck out of the industry, but at least it seems to be making the investment in turbines a bit more attractive, and is getting some results.

But it's this passage that struck me:

[E]xperts like Nick D'Arbeloff, executive director of the New England Clean Energy Council, say there's no doubt where the market is headed. Forget about Cape Wind for a moment. Shelve the debate about that 130-turbine wind farm somewhere in Nantucket Sound. The future of wind power may be a lot smaller than you think, and the nearest windmill may be right around the corner. The landscape, many believe, is going to be dotted with them.

Before electricity and gasoline, nuclear power or coal, the peoples of Egypt, Phoenicia, and Persia set their minds on harnessing the wind. Powered by sails made of animal skins or woven reeds, and later flax and cotton, explorers traveled the world. And before the dawn of the second century, people realized that using sails on land — in the form of a windmill — could help move water or grind grain. The windmill became indispensable. From Crete to China to Europe and finally to the New World, farmers came to rely on these rudimentary turbines. They proliferated — in particular across the American West, where the land was flat and the winds strong — until, in 1888, a mustachioed Ohio inventor named Charles Brush set out to build a large windmill capable of generating electricity.

Back before we were so clever and had high technology to find energy buried in highly inconvenient places — like, under the land, or worse yet, someone else's land — we used to find power where it was: In the air, or in the sky, or shallow soil. It's returning to the ingeniously simple ideas that were around for thousands of years — and just doing them better — that represents the future of energy.

Point is, the task of “going green” may be a lot easier than we think it is. The Romans used geothermal energy very cleverly. And now solar thermal power seems to be on the agenda again. Now that is a low-tech idea, even if its execution for big power may be high-tech. Gee whiz, people  in China use solar mirror-cookers for their freaking rice.

Amazing how politically difficult it can be to do the simple, dumb thing that you could do everywhere.

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23 Comments . Leave a comment below.
  1. Agreed.

    We could do so much by decentralizing power.

    We probably couldn't get everything off the grid, but a flat school roof, for example, could reduce fuel costs as would certain design considerations. This is know is happening in new school design.

    The problem, I think, is that corporate interests lie in centralizing power (electric and market) in the hands of the few.

    Even many of our homes could cut their need for the grid with solar panels. The state has some incentives for solar power at the building level, but they are out of my price range. During construction might have been the time. But that was 15 years ago.

    Maybe there is or should be a tax credit for or a tax on buildings that don't use some green technology?


    • Just, please, don't ask for government help.

      Let the market find the solutions.  When we have the government do what is best for us we get MTBE in the fuel that poisons the land.  Or ethanol that starves the poor.  But whatever we do, let's not go nuke.

      • not ask the government help?

        It's government land which has low-bid leases to get oil and gas.  Government underwrites the insurance which allows nuclear power to even exist.  Government force via eminent domain allowed rail to be built, without which coal fired power plants would be an impossibility.

        Government is essential for all forms of energy capture and generation.  This kneejerk reaction that government resulted in MBTE ignores that without it we would have been using leaded gasoline, which had it's own severe problems.  The replacement for MBTE?  Ethanol.  By the way -- ethanol doesn't starve the poor.  Know what the peak price for corn has been?  About $7.20 a bushel.  That's $0.12 per pound.  Food prices are up because fuel is up and it takes lots of fuel to get your bananas from Central America and your broccoli from California and your beef from the west.

        So please do understand that (i) government is involved in all forms of energy, generally subsidizing all of them to various degrees through complicated layers of legislation, (ii) that the government almost never chooses a market winner, but does regulate away detriments even if there is only one alternative, and finally that (iii) ethanol has nothing to do with starvation because it doesn't have a large impact on price and because people don't eat corn -- the vast majority of it feeds animals.

        • Well,

          MBTE came about in 1990, long after lead was outlawed for gasoline.  Ethanol is wasteful as it produces only about 30% of the energy it takes to make.  Our elected barking dogs of industry are now proposing allowing drilling on endangered public land not to drop the price of fuel and it is a fungible commonity sold on the world market at world prices, but for the subsidies that government grants them in tax and bonus.    

          (i)  Yes!, let's drop the regulation of pricing.  (ii) True, they back the solution that benefits them and their masters (not us) most.  (iii)  Payment of  a premium to farmers to plant corn in lieu of other food crops leads to price hikes in beans, wheat and other crops.  And people do eat the animals that eat the corn.  There is only so much farm land to go around, why waste it?  

          • erm...

            MBTE came about in 1990, long after lead was outlawed for gasoline.

            That is incorrect.  Lead was banned effective December 31 1995.

            As for paragraph 2: (i) it's not pricing regulation so much as assorted subsidies that are skewing the price of energy in different forms.  As for (iii), there hasn't been much land converted to corn.  In fact, the increased output are the result of using fertilizer (from natural gas) and spreading it with tractors (running oil).  The reality is that most corn crop is grown on megafarms with monoculture; there's little substitution possible due to the high capital costs of the farming equipment.  As for people eating the animals which eat the corn... it takes 10 pounds of corn to make 1 pound of beef.  If quantity of food [not political will] was what was leading to hunger, why wouldn't we just feed people corn instead of beef?  So, in terms of "wasting" it, I'd argue food is wasted by feeding it to animals instead of creating usable energy with it.

            • A little misleading

              Leaded fuels for on-road use were banned at that time.  But by then, sale of leaded fuels must have been just a tiny fraction of total fuel sales, since any car manufactured after 1975 required unleaded.

              Maybe Mr. Tipton should have said that MBTE came about in 1990, long after leaded fuels had been virtually eliminated for automotive use in the USA.

              • A little misleading little misleading

                since any car manufactured after 1975 required unleaded.

                But then shouldn't you also mention that we've used MBTE as an anti-knocking agent [as well as an emissions reducer for cars built before 1984] in gasoline since 1979 or so?

                Had Mr. Tipton written what you suggest he perhaps should have, he'd have been off by two decades.

                • Yeah

                  In fairness MTBE has been used in U.S. gasoline since 1979 to replace lead as an octane enhancer but it increased in useage after the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments.  Like Mr. Tipton said.

                  • MBTE

                    also had the unintended consequence (besides acting like something out of T2) of drastically reducing fuel economy with the winter gas blend.  Noticed this first hand with my old Saab 900; if it reduced bad pollutants by 20% but also killed my MPG by 20%, isn't this kind of a big circle?

    • Flat roof?

      As in "might collapse under snow" or "pay people to shovel the roof" school roof?  That's a situation I know is relevant in Brockton.

      sabutai   @   Tue 4 Dec 7:00 PM
      • Huge number of flat roofs

        on super markets and malls don't collapse under snow loads. It's a matter of engineering and maintenance. Flat roofs planted with sedum and similar low, sturdy plants can cut a/c costs in the summer by 90%. It has been done for years in Europe and Japan, beginning to be done here.

      • come on sab

        there's a huge number of flat roofs.  Just google map satellite Boston.  Or any busy road with strip malls.  Most municipal buildings have flat roofs.

        Modern construction techniques and whatnot.

  2. Anybody seen the map in the article?

    The only maps I've seen aren't fine-grained enough for town-by-town analysis; they merely show that there's great wind on the coast and a smattering in the hills we call mountains in the western half of the state.

    Got maps?

    • AWS TrueWind

      Try WindNavigator.

      Or 3Tier's FirstLook (you need to sign up for a free account).

      Short story: Away from the coasts and the hilltops, Massachusetts isn't all that windy.

      For me, the key part of the article is:  "The fact is, there are only so many places in the state where there's enough wind to make a turbine feasible."

      I'm all for small wind. But, at least in MA, small wind is unlikely to make up a large percentage of the energy mix.  The wind resource is off the coast; the economics of offshore wind requires Big Wind.  

      So lines like "Forget about Cape Wind for a moment. Shelve the debate about that 130-turbine wind farm somewhere in Nantucket Sound. The future of wind power may be a lot smaller than you think, and the nearest windmill may be right around the corner" leave me perplexed.  If people want to make small wind happen, great.  But big wind is, and should be, very much part of our energy future.

      And don't forget solar and biomass, when thinking about locally available options.  Solar is still expensive, but a huge ramp up in silicon production means the price of production is about to drop, and part of the $700B bailout bill was a removal on the cap of the 30% tax credit- so if you install a $20k solar system, you get a $6k credit- not a deduction, a credit, so you pay $14k net for the year.  

      And though MA isn't exactly sun central, we do get 60% of the insolation of, say, the desert southwest (see the FirstLook link above for solar maps, too).  And given that our electricity is much more expensive than the southwest (think: cheap coal), solar is actually more economical than other parts of the country.  It's not just about how much sunlight you have, it's about sunlight and electricity prices.

      And for biomass, I'm talking solid fuel for heating and cogeneration- none of the problems (low lifecycle efficiency, [some] competition for food production) of biofuels.

      • Double plus

        I've always believed that wind in non-coast Eastern Mass wasn't a high enough quality, but the article above got me scratching my head.  In any case, the big projects generate cheaper electricity per kWh, and certainly shouldn't be ignored.  As for biomass -- ab fab.  In fact, biomass is responsible for more electricity generation than wind, solar, geothermal, and small hydro combined.

  3. Indeed.

    Point is, the task of "going green" may be a lot easier than we think it is...  Amazing how politically difficult it can be to do the simple, dumb thing that you could do everywhere.

    I love the idea of locally produced power.  Thing is, it's subject to the specific details of the natural resources.  Got enough of the right wind at your lot?  Is your home south facing with a good roof angle and no solar obstructions?  Does your property have geology appropriate for geothermal?  Do explore the answers to all of these, but in the mean time...

    conserve energy

    We can all do that, and do it now.  Really get in the habit of turning off lights, turning down the heat, and keeping your home well insulated, from the attic's batting to the window's caulking to the doorsweep.  Make sure your trunk is empty and your tires are at full pressure and that you're easy on the gas and the brake.  Turn your hot water heater down to 120 and limit the time you spend in the shower.  Stop buying bottled water, and start buying at the farmer's market.  Shop at Goodwill before Bed Bath and Beyond; shop at Netflix or the public library instead of buying a DVD at Best Buy.  Eat less meat.

    We can all do 100 things in our own homes, our own lifestyles, to reduce the amount of energy we use.  1 kWh saved is better than 1 kWh produced carbon free, because, if nothing else, it saved us money immediately instead of after some payback period.

    Generate green energy?  Yes please.  Look into that. Conserve black energy?  Yes please.  Start doing that now.

    • Holy Name HS in Worcester

      Has a wind turbine. The city of Worcester is looking to tax it. Your government at work.

      • That may be a good first step for Government to help

        exempt all renewable energy installations from property tax assessment, whether it be wind turbines, solar panels, etc.  Let's make it a State law.

        • done!

          There is a 20 year assessment exemption for solar and wind.

          Any solar or wind powered system or device which is being utilized as a primary or auxiliary power system for the purpose of heating or otherwise supplying the energy needs of property taxable under this chapter; provided, however, that the exemption under this clause shall be allowed only for a period of twenty years from the date of the installation of such system or device.

          These systems are also exempt from sales tax.

          Sales of equipment directly relating to any solar, windpowered; or heat pump system, which is being utilized as a primary or auxiliary power system for the purpose of heating or otherwise supplying the energy needs of an individual's principal residence in the commonwealth.
      • We'll need more info on that, billxi

        Is the city trying to tax it out of existence?  I doubt it - whatever they're proposing, it can't be too controversial since there's no mention of it in the many articles about the turbine I found when doing a google search for it.  Do you have a link to any articles explaining what's on the table as far as taxing this turbine is concerned?

        • I'm not sure that anything of the sort is being proposed

          Worcester is in the middle of a discussion about the impact of the dual tax rate on the business community, along with a chronically short budget characteristic of urban places.

          In this context, any number of ways to raise revenue have been proposed.  I'm sure that taxing the "profitable" turbine is one of them.  But I also think that no actual elected official has embraced the proposal.

      • Gotta do better than that billxi

        wind is exempt from property tax, and it's got a sales tax exemption too.

        So, got a source?  Gimmie linkie please.

  4. Great idea, but good luck

    Unless Beacon Hill provides some sort of anti-snob zoning protection, I can see plenty of resistance from not-so-green-minded neighbors suing others over small-turbine's visual or noise pollution or bird strike potential or insert-your-NIMBY-defense-here.

    Local zoning regs were written with lightening speed when cell phone towers started going up, and I betcha the same happens with small turbines.

    I can't help but laugh at Ed Beagly's TV show showing him driving his family nuts with his eco-sensitive lifestyle, now available on cable.  It's one thing to bake bread in the backyard solar oven if you live in LA, but it's not an alternative in Leominster.

    Every little bit helps.  But let's not have government MANDATE impractical alternatives.  Tax credits are a better idea.  If someone in Newton wants to cook solar rice outdoors in February, that's swell.  I don't, so don't make me.

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