Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Green Energy Perspectives

I recently spent a few days up in the Lake Ontario/1,000 Islands Region of New York State (and if you ever have the opportunity to visit this beautiful area, you really should), while I was up there for a vacation, I managed to have several very interesting talks with local residents about energy issues, specifically green/renewable energy projects in the area.

The one topic that seemed to come up in every conversation was wind power. Several major projects are being proposed for the area. On one hand, installation of the wind turbines is being touted as a job-producer for a region that has seen its manufacturing base ebb away. But most of the people I spoke to were opposed to the turbines. Some of the opposition were the expected complaints that wind turbines are big and ugly and that scattering them about the area would have a significant aesthetic impact on a region that now relies heavily on tourism as an economic driver; one man, and avid bird-watcher, also worried about how the turbines would affect the local and migrating bird populations. But a lot of the critique went beyond simple NIMBY-ism; another common complaint raised was the fact that wind turbines just aren't terribly efficient: while wind turbines obviously can't produce electricity when the wind is not blowing, they also can't produce it if the wind is blowing too strongly – in this situation, the turbine will go into a “safe” mode to avoid rotating too fast and literally tearing itself apart; as a result, a wind turbine will typically only generate 35-40% of its rated electrical output, not a terribly efficient form of generation. I had one discussion about other wind generation technologies that are not being as actively pursued as turbine development, such as using kites to generate power, which has shown promise in experiments.

In fact, rather than just saying no to wind, the people from the region that I spoke with had a number of suggestions for other methods of generating power. Hydroelectric was obviously one alternative discussed. Rather than constructing dams, run-of-river plants are one alternative, another discussed were subsurface turbines. At its outlet from Lake Ontario, I was told, the St. Lawrence River has a current flow of about four knots, and unlike wind in the area, this flow is constant. Turbines placed along the river's shipping channel, which is more than 100-200 feet deep, could provide a constant source of power, while going unnoticed by tourists to the region. A demonstration turbine project along New York City's East River, utilizing the river's (which is actually an estuary) daily tidal flow has show promising results. A local politician also told me of her suggestion that biofuel crops be grown in the region. Biofuels typically have been problematic – while they are a truly renewable fuel source since more fuel can be grown each year, in practice biofuels have taken arable land out of food production and anecdotal evidence indicates that biofuels have caused a rise in food commodity prices. But the 1,000 Islands region has numerous farms that have been abandoned; the land has already shown it is arable, so if these abandoned farms were reclaimed for biofuel production, they could grow biofuel crops without negatively impacting the region's food supply.

Finally, there's nuclear. The region is already home to the Nine Mile Point Nuclear Generating Station, the cooling towers of the plant can be seen looming above the shore of Lake Ontario. Grudgingly, most of the people I talked to said that expansion of nuclear power may be the best alternative; nuclear clearly provides the best EROI (energy return on investment) of all the options presented. The plant has operated in the region for years without incident. And despite the the recent events in Fukushima, Japan looming over the nuclear industry, everyone I spoke to said that the chances of a tsunami in Lake Ontario were pretty remote. There remained a certain wariness about nuclear power, but also a realization that, when properly designed and maintained, nuclear power plants can operate safely and efficiently.

There were a couple of takeaways from the energy discussions I had during my trip. The first is, as a friend put it, that there is no “silver bullet” in the energy picture, no one single solution to meeting our growing demands for power, so advocates of wind, nuclear, or even an old standby like drilling more oil wells, cannot present their pet project as THE solution. Second, the average citizen knows far more about sources of energy and has a much clearer view of the energy picture in this country than they are generally given credit for having by the so-called experts, and they also can have some pretty innovative suggestions for meeting our energy needs.
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