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Tuesday, July 5, 2011


The California Energy Commission reports that solar thermal electricity (using parabolic/dish mirrors or tower powers) could be produced for 6-7 cents/kWh.  Frankly, I think that is up to a factor of two too low, but that is about where wind is today (if grid connection is conveniently close), and right next to existing (meaning the investments occurred decades ago) coal/nuclear at 5 cents/kWh.  Here above is the Sopogy facility at the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority at Keahole Point on the Big Island.

Forget nuclear now, and there is that specter of global warming tarnishing coal power plants.  So why, then, aren't we producing more from this sustainable technology?

There is that matter of the sun, on average, only being available 8 hours or so per day.  Thus, for two-thirds (night, clouds, power factor) the time, you either need to use this as an intermittent source (which makes the investment risky), or install storage systems, which could double the price.  Molten salt heat exchange fluids are being used, and these ultimately could become competitive once the carbon tax is instituted.

Wheeling was one constraint (some say just transmitting this electricity if you need to build new grids could almost double the price of renewable energy), but there are power lines with sufficient capacity in various parts of the country, including especially that highway between Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

So what is the problem?  Squirrels, for one, and tortoises.  Yes, Solar Millennium (from Germany) abandoned a 250 MW solar project because of the Mohave ground squirrel, although water laws also got in the way.  Now Brightsource (started out as Luz), with 2,600 MW of signed contracts and a $1.4 billion loan guarantee from the U. S. Department of Energy, has reached a crucial decision for their solar tower power concept  because of the desert tortoise.  But Brightsource's chairman, John Bryson, was recently named as the next Commerce Secretary.  

Thus, a lot of politics and environmentalism at play here for this $10 billion effort.  You can't win for anything these days.  For example, Brightsource conducted an acceptable environmental assessment for these critters in 2007.  Unfortunately, that was a drought year, when these animals stayed burrowed.  Now with normal rains, tortoises are all over the place.

Brightsources's chief executive, John Woolard, was quoted to say:

"Climate change is the biggest driver of species extinction there is.  If Ivanpah (the site next to Primm Valley Golf Course--note that green spot to the right above--where I just played) doesn't move forward or can't be done, then we should write-off all renewable energy in the country."  

Woolard, 46, holds a master's in environmental planning.

With geothermal energy on the Big Island long stymied by environmentalists, lifestylists, marijuana growers, Hawaiian activists and Rain Forest advocates, and the $3 billion Big Wind project in big trouble, I guess we will need to wait until the combined hammer of Peak Oil and Global Warming crushes our economy.  No squirrels and tortoises here, but there is something called NIMBY (not in my back yard), people who want to protect their lifestyles.  Some might call them selfish.  A goodly number actually think living off the land and having fewer tourists might not that be all that bad.  When the doom comes, I can predict that when reality hits, many of the above will necessarily then willingly support these sustainable options.  But won't it then be too late?


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