Friday, January 16, 2009

From Wind to Waste - Changing Fuels in Changing Times

Today President-elect Obama is touring a company that makes the bolts for wind turbines and oil drilling platforms. Currently it employs 65 workers and was working mainly in the oil business, but added 15 of the current staff to cover the growth of the business into wind. It hopes to add 40 more. But in times of recession the demand for energy drops. It does not discriminate between solar, wind, coal or natural gas, but purely, in terms of what is pulled out of the grid, the numbers drop. The NYT points out that this drop is hurting wind turbine manufacturers as well as others. In Arkansas, whose Senator Lincoln quizzed Dr Chu earlier in the week about having a state that made turbines, but had no wind, they are laying off staff, as orders are delayed. This is shortly after the state began to anticipate that this would be a major growth industry.
Besides LM Glasfiber, Polymarin Composites USA Ltd. plans to begin operations in Little Rock this year along with Wind Water Technology, making windmill blades and turbines. Those operations comprise a $20 million investment and a projected work force of 800 employees. Also, Nordex USA Inc. announced in October plans for a $100 million wind turbine plant in Jonesboro that is expected to employ 700 people.
Even Boone Pickens is delaying construction of his wind farm, until energy prices become more congenial.

This drop in demand is helping those who are looking to install solar systems, since the concurrent increase in production has meant a drop in prices with prices for panels, that have dropped up to 10% since October, expected to drop by more that 15% in the months ahead.
In California, which accounts for nearly 70% of the U.S. solar market, a typical 4-kilowatt, $32,000 solar energy system cost a homeowner about $23,000 last year after state and federal incentives. This year, if prices sink as expected, that system is likely to cost $10,000 to $12,000.
Of course, on days like today, where in the Mid-West there is a gently falling snow, and no wind, neither system would help. The only renewable fuel, in this case that might help (in the short term) is wood.

(And a slight personal note I was diagnosed with “golfer’s elbow” yesterday from swinging the maul with too much vigor in splitting wood for the tile stove that mainly keeps us warm through the winter. It should make these coming cold months a little more interesting).

The British Government is encouraging schools and hospitals to install wood burning furnaces, which for some reason makes me think of Edward 1 (Longshanks) of England who banned the burning of coal in London in 1305 because of the fumes, throwing the burden back on charcoal. However the demand for lime in building (and the fact that his dad Henry III had licensed monks in Northumberland to collect coal, from which ere long he charged a commission) and that in those days a yeoman’s house required the wood from 2 acres of mature woodland (not to mention all the ships) meant that soon the burning of coal became ubiquitous in England and around Europe. Not that the fume problem went away, both Elizabeth I and Charles I also tried, without success, to limit its use in London. They did not, at the time have much in the way of an alternative and so coal continued to be used. (From “Coals from Newcastle”)

In the current recommendation the UK Carbon Trust is suggesting significant savings:
For example, using wood or straw can provide cost savings of 2-4 p/kWh (pence per kilowatt hour) relative to use of heating oil. A biomass system generating 1,600MWh of heat (roughly equivalent to the annual heating requirements of a typical school) could therefore save up to £50,000 per year on fuel costs relative to an existing oil-based heating system. The costs of biomass fuels also tend to be much less volatile than fossil fuels. . . . . . . Cwm Taff NHS Trust decided to replace heating oil with a 1.2MW biomass boiler burning woodchips. This will save an estimated £35,000 per year and pay back the initial investment within five years.
At the same time Christopher Booker, in the Telegraph, points to the waste paper and cardboard that is now becoming a problem for disposal, since there is no longer a demand and it is still being collected and stored.
If Defra was capable of reading EU law correctly, what a remarkable prospect this might open up for Britain, and for all those councils which are making such an outrageous mess of our waste disposal. If we consider waste paper and cardboard alone, we produce around 12.5 million tons a year. If all this could be burned as fuel to generate power, its calorific value is up to 60 per cent greater than that of the wood chips ad other vegetable matter we currently use as biomass, to help meet our EU target of 32 per cent of our electricity from renewables by 2020.

Drax in Yorkshire is planning to spend billions on four plants to generate 1.4 gigawatts of electricity from 5.9 million tons of biomass, importing wood chips from Canada and contracting for thousands of acres of English farmland to be switched from producing food to crops for fuel. On these figures, if all those 12.5 million tons of waste paper and cardboard could be used to generate power, 60 per cent more efficiently, it might produce 4.8 gigawatts, more than 10 per cent of our average national electricity needs. This alone would go more than a third of the way to meeting our renewables target, equivalent to the output of more than 10,000 wind turbines. Furthermore, because, under EU law, this is a "renewable" source, it would attract some £2 billion a year in subsidies under the Renewables Obligation.

So if you don't burn wood before it is processed into something else, then you can burn it after. Like many things this is likely to be practical on a smaller scale and as a local solution. The University power plant here, for example, burns wood products at a cost equivalent in $/Btu to that of the coal that makes up the rest of the mix. But there are not enough trees for this to be a global answer. But these are the things that we have to think of now, as ways of moving forward, because the problems are not getting further away.


  1. There could be no better investment in America than to invest in America becoming energy independent! We need to utilize everything in out power to reduce our dependence on foreign oil including using our own natural resources. Create cheap clean energy, new badly needed green jobs, and reduce our dependence on foreign oil. OPEC will continue to cut production until they achieve their desired 80-100. per barrel. The high cost of fuel this past year seriously damaged our economy and society. Oil is finite. We are using oil globally at the rate of 2X faster than new oil is being discovered. We need to take some of these billions in bail out bucks and bail ourselves out of our dependence on foreign oil. Jeff Wilson has a really good new book out called The Manhattan Project of 2009 Energy Independence Now. He explores our uses of oil besides gasoline, our depletion, out reserves and stores as well as viable options to replace oil.Oil is finite, it will run out in the not too distant future. WE need to take some of these billions in bail out bucks and bail America out of it's dependence on foreign oil. The historic high price of gas this past year did serious damage to our economy and society. WE should never allow others to have that much power over our economy again. I wish every member of congress would read this book too.

  2. Thanks for the lead, I'll see if i can get a copy, and, in some future post, can then review it.

    I fully agree that we need to find alternate solutions, but I also believe that we need to do the necessary checks to ensure that the pathways that we try and go down have a real chance to get us to where we need to be.