Thursday, July 28, 2011

Assembling a test tower

The wind crew, for its swansong this summer, is assembling an anemometer test tower and satellite weather station on campus.

We're using components salvaged from a Bergey 10KW turbine last year from a site in Newport, Maine. The original turbine was another example of a poorly sited household turbine -- there are hundreds of these now in Maine, mostly Skystreams, but some Bergeys.

Unscrupulous contractors sell the turbines to householders without reference to any anemometry, and when the turbine fails to produce even a small fraction of the power advertised, the householder is left with an expensive white elephant.

The expenses persist even if the turbine is not being worn out by power production. There's still the problem of regular servicing. A Bergey 10KW turbine is not by any means a "plug-and-play" device, and contractors may charge several thousand dollars just to lower it to the ground for servicing.

Unity College received this particular turbine as a tax-deductible gift as long as the wind crew would remove it from the site, which gave the owner some compensation, and it gave us some turbine and tower parts for future use.

After some cogitation and reflection and a few phone calls to Bergey, we decided to give the turbine parts themselves to MOFGA for use as repair parts for their identical 10KW Bergey.

We won permission from the college administration and Efficiency Maine Trust to use the tower for anemometrical testing and weather station purposes. In a separate gift, also last year, we had received a satellite-operable anemometry system made by NRG Systems, Inc, whose equipment we generally use for our Maine state wind survey. If we married the tower with the satellite system, we would have a weather station whose data could be viewed real-time in the classroom.

So much for the theory.

Putting up anemometer and wind turbine tower systems is partly a problem for theory, but mostly it's a problem of cold steel and warm muscle.

Yesterday I enjoyed myself puttering quietly on the tower. The wind crew, who made the foundation for the system, is having a couple of week's vacation, so I worked alone.

It was pleasant to be out there in the field putting the tower parts together.

Very Zen.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Great British Bale-Out

Guardian photo of bale based SIP in factory production.

The British are baling, according to their leading non-News International paper.

The local government in Lincolnshire is building bale-based social housing. And a university research program has come up with a bale-based SIP (structural insulated panel) which can be pre-manufactured in a temporary factory, saving what I imagine is a good deal of hand labor.

The main problem in making a bale wall is getting the clay stucco (AKA "adobe") surface smooth and solid. Hand labor is usually the solution, and bale-builders have been know to have stucco parties and picnics where a lot of friends descend on the building site to lend a hand.

I did the stucco for most of our own bale house myself, and the biggest energy-waster was getting the very large quantities of stucco material up the various steps and stairs and ladders. It's surprising how little coverage you get from a three-gallon bucket of clay stucco. It took me most of a summer to get it done, and I finished up needing a cement mixer to get the right consistency from the very mixed consistency of the Maine native clay deposits I was using.

I expect this is a good deal quicker to achieve in a factory where machine tools like a stucco sprayer or a cement mixer might be used. You'd need to use a Lull (extended arm fork lift) to lift the finished bale-SIPs into position in the final building, but those are in common use for construction projects. The Terra Haus panels were lifted into place with a Lull.

Now, before anyone gets all excited and wants me to start a bale SIP factory in Unity or any such thing, let me remind you that straw is not grown in large quantities in mid-central Maine. You can't use hay bales -- the moisture content is too high.

We'd have to import barley straw from Aroostook County.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011


I was asked to host a tour group of Chinese college students and their tour guide and American instructor, a summer travel course from Thomas College here in Waterville, Maine.

We toured the new Terra Haus project, our second passive solar campus building.

We toured the Unity House, the first.

We looked at an anemometer tower under construction, we looked at wind maps and anemometers, and we played with my concentrating solar power demonstrator -- a converted satellite dish that focuses the heat content of about three square feet of sunshine onto a tiny focus of about four square inches, and gets to temperatures above 600 degrees F.

They seemed to have fun, but the language barrier prevented me from properly answering some of their questions, I'm sure, so if I write them down here, they might yet get the answers they were looking for, possibly with the use of a Chinese-English/English-Chinese dictionary.

Possibly the most interesting question, "How long will it take for the ideas expressed in our solar-heated, solar-PV buildings to spread to the rest of America?"

I said, "It depends on the price of oil and other heat fuels."

Demand for oil in emerging economies is rising faster than the world as a whole can develop new supplies, which is why the price is so high right now. China and India together now demand 20 million barrels a day. Americans in general and Mainers in particular will abandon oil heat in larger and larger numbers every year these trends continue. The passive solar houses we are demonstrating at Unity College are one answer to the problem.

Another question: "How cost-effective are the prototypes?"

Bensonwood's Unity House is now available in several options as a factory-built modular home beginning around $300,000. This is cost-effective if you take into account the lack of need to buy an oil bill.

The Terra Haus type of homes that G.O. Logic are putting together start at around $160/square foot, a good deal cheaper than Bensonwood.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

More evidence for degree inflation

Here's the article.

Nothing new, just a more visible confirmation of what a lot of us already knew.

The article cites the demand from an increasingly large number of bachelor's degree-seeking students as the primary driver, and I think this is true enough. Massive numbers of young people have flooded into higher education in the last couple of decades, sponsoring huge growth in colleges and universities.

To some extent, they're forced to do this because without that bachelors degree there's no pathway to a decent, secure middle-class job. Which means the demand isn't going to go away any time soon.

What it doesn't describe well, most likely because it's written from a point of view external to the industry, is how difficult this flood of often poorly-prepared students has made the teaching function.

If the masters degree is the "new bachelors," part of the reason is because students arrive at college unable to perform to even a high school graduation standard.

Of course, this is convenient for college teachers, because it shifts the blame to high school teachers and parents.

But think about it: If you really want me, as a college professor, to properly teach the science and analysis I'm qualified to teach, hadn't you better send me a student who can, for instance, read a basic science paper?

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Interesting analysis of jobs in biofuels

From Renewable Energy World.

The greatest number of jobs posted require engineering, but the science and business management numbers are almost equally high.

Good news for our Sustainable Energy program graduates.

We decided several years ago that we probably couldn't cover enough engineering to offer a purely technical approach to renewable energy and energy efficiency here at Unity College.

But, with our large investment in young, innovative PhD scientists, our policy-and-economics strength, and of course our superb living-learning laboratory of a sustainable campus, we remain very competitive, and our graduates are looking at good job options or grad school options.

They will still have to study very hard, though. It's a competitive world out there.

And most of these jobs will require experience and graduate school. Students who sign up should be prepared for that.

The days that some guy at a party could give Justin Hoffman's The Graduate that one word-advice snippet, "plastics," and actually expect that all that would be needed to secure a management-level position was that bachelor's degree, well, those days are long gone.

It's hard for me to imagine any student having a truly successful career in energy management these days without some graduate school.

Friday, July 22, 2011


Picture: Wikipedia image of the Tassa 5KW VAWT.

This debate is a bit like the old "nature-or-nurture" controversy, or "paper vs. plastic," and I try not to get into it, except to point out that both Vertical Axis Wind Turbines (VAWTs) and Horizontal Axis Wind Turbines (HAWTS) must still obey Betz's Law and the Power Law, and the Laws of Supply and Demand, and therefore won't make enough power to pay for their own construction in Maine, except on the tops of mountains or on the seacoast or the middle of the Gulf of Maine, or on very tall towers.

But the question keeps coming up, primarily because lots of folks in Maine dislike the look of the large white, shiny (and very energy-productive) HAWTs that have begun to proliferate on our mountaintops.

People also continue to ask me, all the time, why we can't have "nice" little turbines, outside people's own homes, instead of on our beautiful mountains.

The answer of course is the same: they won't make enough energy to pay for themselves. And indeed, I've begun to be involved as an expert witness in litigation, as householders begin to sue contractors in Maine who oversell the productive capacity of small, "nice" household scale turbines.

There's nothing nice about being ripped off.

Some new research involving a breakthrough, sort of, in VAWT array design suggests that VAWTs might indeed command the future, or some of it at least. A Caltech researcher reversed the direction of turn of half the units in an array of VAWTs and was able to beat the usual spacing rules by an order of magnitude with no drop in power production, along the way overcoming the costs of the inherent lower thermodynamic efficiency of VAWTs in a sense by allowing greater placement of turbines per acre or hectare.

Thermodynamic efficiency is easy to understand: it's energy out divided by energy in, generally expressed as a percentage, and is a primary factor in the cost per unit energy of turbines. But land leasing or buying is also an input cost in wind power production, and so the latter can be used to offset the former.

This is just another example of why economics is as useful as physics or engineering or aerodynamics or anemometry in wind power production.

I think it's why I like wind turbines so much.

This technique provided a great reduction of turbine land use per unit power, and if it could be commercialized, the new idea would reduce the "sacrifice area" needed in Maine to make clean energy.

The formal report is available here, from the Journal of Renewable and Sustainable Energy

But, before all of our anti-wind activists get themselves all worked up about banning HAWTs, let's just identify a couple of minor lingering problems:

  1. There is, as yet, no commercial VAWT design above a few KW of rated capacity, at least that I know of. We need MW-capacity, or better yet, multi-MW capacity turbines. We will have to build them. Not that this would be such a bad thing. It would provide for a new Maine industry. (But the last thing anti-wind activists want is a successful Maine wind power industry.)
  2. VAWT arrays will still need to go on the tops of mountains or seacoasts or out in the Gulf. The Californian desert test site used looks to have Class 5 or 6 winds, just scanning the anemometric data in the paper. This kind of wind power density only exists in certain places in Maine, the kinds of places we're (surprise!) currently using for HAWTs. We will just require fewer acres to make the same amount of power, assuming we can design and build a commercial scale VAWT product as in 1) above.
  3. If high-density VAWT deployment turned out to be successful, that might encourage more, rather than less, use of Maine's mountains and coast for wind power -- we'd probably just export even more of it to the "lower 47." And the economic friction that is currently slowing Maine wind power development, from permitting and legal costs and form lack of available capital, would be reduced overall, probably increasing the pace of all wind power development, HAWTs and VAWTs alike.
  4. All of this requires that land leasing is a major factor in power production costs. I don't think it is. Planning friction is a major cost, but it's one that can easily be scaled up by activists, ie: you might get just as many complaints from a ten-acre VAWT proposal and you previously might have done from a hundred-acre HAWT proposal.
Not that any of these reasons will prevent the question coming up.

Indeed, since this research is published and publicly available, I can now confidently predict that in the next Maine wind power siting battle the following question will come up for planning board members and selectors to puzzle over,

"Why can't we have some of those nice high-density VAWTs I read about in Science Daily instead of all these nasty low density HAWTs that the company proposes."

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Straw bale beauty

Photo: Our own bale house in Monroe, Maine, 900 square feet, shown here during last year's renovations, built for less than $20,000 in 2003

The New York Times has an article and slideshow today on some very artsy-craftsy straw bale houses in the Catskills.

I recommend both. The slides show particularly beautiful dwellings that must add deeply to the day-to-day lifestyle quality of the users.

The photos show how graceful bale-building can be, and how it can be incorporated into other architectural styles.

I don't think the example is very helpful, though, to the ordinary American human. The owners and builders of these homes obviously have money and time.

Most ordinary Americans have way too little of either, and so if a building is to be truly exemplary, and help solve serious societal problems like climate change, it has to work within these constraints too.

Here in Maine, for instance, a truly exemplary climate friendly architecture for a dwelling house would have to be capable of being built for around the same price as a secondhand double-wide trailer on a small lot, cost much less to heat and light, and be affordable by a family with less than the Maine average household income ($45,000).

You don't see too many architects that are willing to really work within those constraints. We know only a handful. But we do know local contractors who can fashion super-insulated dwellings using conventional-but-local materials that meet these kinds of constraints.

Examples of both are under construction on our college campus right now. The Terra Haus, an exemplary passive solar dorm, is designed by local architectural firm G.O. Logic that is also designing homes for the Belfast Cohousing and Ecovillage group.

A little to the south, Bellerose Construction is creating a super-insulated annexe to Koons Hall, our main science building. Joe Bellerose, an alum of the college, has been building cost-effective super-insulated dwellings in the Unity area for many years now.

Our own experiments with straw bale many years ago, recently renovated, showed that it was a useful form of insulation for use in a natural-material home, but that cheaper, more ecologically stable insulation was available for owner-builders who didn't have a hang-up about using non-natural materials.

An update in the form of letters of advice to prospective bale-builders is available here.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Solar infographic? Info-what?

Newspeak is not only Orwellian, but tedious. I tend to think it results from the lack of a disciplined English teacher in one's life.

Since I had Mrs. Wagstaff and Mrs. Tucker of Lydgate Lane Primary and Tapton Secondary, Sheffield, England, respectively, I would never feel the need to coin any such phrase. I would actually feel the edge of Mrs Wagstaff's ruler on my hand, were I to even try.

However, when a commercial solar firm emailed me a bunch of their free so-called "infographics" on spec, I did take a look, just to see whether they were any good.

I quite liked this one. And it didn't have a commercial push that I could see.

As long as you don't click on it. In which case you'll be virtually kidnapped and taken to their web page.

Don't do it!

Path to Parity: infographic on history of solar technology

Geoengineering? Nie Danke!

The Guardian has a terrifying update on the notion that technological means can be used to take control of our planet's climate -- to avoid some kind of catastrophe, or just to get the "designer" climate we might like for certain regions.

Apparently, Newt Gingrich and the American Heritage Foundation both are on record in favor.


What do I think about this?

Well, we're already in charge of the planet's climate, whether we like it or not. We're just not very good at running it yet.

But I think it frightens me that we're willing to seriously consider this instead of making what I tend to think of as easy choices that would make us capable of running the climate a little better: like the choice to stop burning coal for electricity and instead use natural gas, wind, and solar power, and possibly low-risk modern nuclear power systems such as thorium reactors; the choice to properly weatherize and super-insulate our homes and buildings, and when we need to build new, build passive solar; the choice to more forcefully begin the transition to better more coordinated mass transit and electric vehicles; and the choice to switch to a more local agriculture and forestry that can begin to manage the major nutrient cycles without large amounts of energy input.

The problem is that making such to-me obvious choices leaves whole political constituencies, primarily coal and oil, hung out to dry, and so politicians in hock to those constituencies must have an "out" that holds their clients harmless.

For fifteen years the big money has been on climate denialism. A whole industry of insufferable and moronic web monkeys has sprung up, bought and paid for, and somehow managed to go on to convince a large section of the public, mostly the angry white male demographic, that two hundred thousand climate scientists in fifty major countries all around the world have a secret conspiracy tighter than a pygmy shrew's wotsit to spin the data.

Well, that was always a non-starter. The legend of King Canute is instructive here.

This year is a La Nina aftermath year, and the summer is shaping up to be super-hot in the US, tornado ridden in the south central states, and almost catastrophic in the southwest, and never mind the fact that the next summer might be an El Nino and even worse!

Now that climate impacts are becoming undeniable, the Neocons are hoping for a technology to emerge that puts them in charge of the weather, not only in the 50 states of the United States, but in Canada, South and Central America too, and from Capetown to Cairo and from Marrakesh to Vladivostok.

Well, that's a non-starter too, isn't it? From geo-engineering to geopolitics in one swell foop.

Can anyone spell hubristic?

A great way to have even more billions of people all around the world mad at the United States. I can see that we might need an engineering solution to climate change, in the event that something like the clathrate gun hypothesis holds true.

But if we had one, will we then put Newt Gingrich, or Exxon, or Massey Energy, or indeed any American member of the industrial-military complex that can win a plurality of the electoral college in charge of it? I don't think so.

What would be the Chinese reaction? The European? The Islamic world's reaction? Currently climate change doesn't have a home address. There isn't one single culprit. We're all in it together, even if we haven't been able to convince ourselves to take a few simple steps to stop it.

And now we want to end that collective regime and instead put ourselves in charge?

To my mind, that sounds like the slippery slope to World War III.

Isn't it time we collectively called that contractor and insulated our own house instead? Literally and figuratively?

Wouldn't that be the more honorable, sensible, and reasonable move?

And better for the economy and American small business to boot.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Just fixing

I probably shouldn't be given pocket money and allowed to go to yard sales. I never saw a mechanical device at a yard sale that I didn't want to think about taking home. I am somewhat circumspect. I will avoid the worst, most of the time, the drippy oil pans, the seized blocks, the ancient rust.

But even then, if the price is right...

It's high summer in Maine, with rolling thunderstorms sweeping through from Manitoba on a regular basis, hot humid days before the storm, dry breezy ones after the storm. The wind research crew just got done with the second-last anemometer tower of the field season, and we have a three-day weekend before completing the last tower, which is in any case only a little one, a baby 30/40 footer for student edification and experimental purposes on campus.

The pressure is off.

Accordingly I'm feeling relaxed and expansive, and I just re-read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for the fortieth or fiftieth time, which always adds greatly to my serenity.

High summer is, however, the worst of times or the best of times, for yard sales where mechanical equipment is being sold.

Don't stop me now...

In the last two weekends I have purchased the following broken or run-down motorized equipment:

1) A small Poulan weedwhacker, starts hard but runs, needs some carb TLC, five bucks

2) A small and very ancient post-hole digger, motor completely shot, but will take a new (secondhand) motor someday, fifteen bucks

3) A much larger Cub Cadet four-stroke weedwhacker, pictured, already repaired and running well, ten bucks

4) A Craftsman five-horse mower, pictured, fires but won't run, needs carb rebuild, ten bucks

5) A 2-inch pneumatic brad nailer, works well, ten bucks

In addition to these items requiring mechanical attention, I also stripped most of the bed off the farm truck, the better to get at a combined muffler and rear brake line replacement job.

You can see the new muffler kit behind the weedwhacker.

The short, very rusty pipe in the last picture (of the truck's rear area) is the one that needs to be replaced right now. But to be on the safe side, I'm replacing all the brake lines that are in the road salt zone.

Even after nearly 210,000 miles the engine bay of this truck is still rust-free, and the cab itself is nearly rust free, but the rear end is another matter. last year I chipped away at much of the rust with an air chisel, then cleaned up much of the rest with the wire brush on the angle grinder. Finally, I gave the whole rear end two coats of red oxide primer.

Even so, there's still rust, new rust and old rust, and I may do some more air-chisel/angle-grinder/undercoating work before I put this baby back on the road.

To say I enjoy mechanical work is an understatement. It really doesn't matter to me how beat up or run-down a piece of equipment is. I can always get some pleasure out of trying to fix it.

What I like best, I think, is the trial-and-error logic process. I also enjoy the unhurried feeling I have when confronting a mechanical issue, especially on the farm in summer. There's just me and the piece of equipment, and I can study the problem for as long as I want, stripping it down as I go until I get to the faulty parts, and then just go find or make whatever replacement parts I need. The Internet is a real boon to the farmyard or dooryard mechanic, if he or she is computer savvy. Most manuals and parts lists are now available online, and spare and replacement parts can be found speedily from online parts houses and even Google shopping.

But I also have welding gear and other fabrication tools and a huge pile of saved parts from all kinds of equipment, but of which I can use to make or adapt my own parts.

Mechanical repair work is a very meditative process. I've been properly taught to meditate, by both Buddhists and Quakers, and although these days I never attempt a proper sitting meditation, I certainly do lots of mechanical meditation.

Pirsig was right. There is definitely a kind of Zen to it all.

The important thing is not to fix the equipment, but yourself. What is most important is the control you achieve over your own mind during the process of fixing the equipment, and the balance and serenity that results.

Zen masters talk about "just sitting." I could talk about "just fixing." It's the same thing.

By just sitting or just fixing, you can begin to subtract your ego and the problems your ego causes in both your own self and in the machine.

Most mechanical problems are in fact personal problems. To paraphrase Pirsig, the real machine you're working on is a machine called yourself.

By working properly on both at once, you build balance and serenity in yourself, which then allows a more perfect use of reason.

You can also then take that balance and serenity, and more perfect use of reason, to other areas of life's endeavor. You can even put it to use for society.

Most societal problems are personal problems writ large and magnified by the unintended consequences of all our collective personality problems working together. If even one person can build balance and serenity and employ reason more perfectly, than that person can create an oasis within society where things work, for once, because personal problems are not allowed to ruin the machine.

You could become a wind researcher, for instance, learning where the wind power is and what problems there are that will be caused for people by using the wind power.

That's definitely a job that needs the use of a more perfect reason. There's an awful lot of unreason in the wind power business in Maine, from both activists and corporations, and in the energy business in general in the United States.

Or you could be a better teacher. That is definitely a job where a more perfect use of reason would come in handy.

For me, the phrase "day job" means teaching, which is much harder than fixing or even wind research. Teaching is a real challenge because it doesn't build serenity for me the way that mechanical work does.

There's not much Zen in teaching, it seems.

Actually, that's not quite true. If, and it's a big if, you have all the time in the world to work with the student and all his or her hang-ups, and your own hang-ups about the student, one step at a time, one student at a time, then teaching is all about Zen.

But this kind of concentration of time and effort and serenity rarely happens. Instead of working properly on every student, and every student's personality, and every instructor and every instructors personality, one step at a time, building balance and serenity as we go, and developing a more perfect use of reason in student and instructor, most teachers are in fact doubly employed.

We're hired as teachers for students who do want to learn, but society also wants us to be, at the same time, baby-sitters for students who don't want to learn. And this second role subtracts greatly from the first.

I'm not a baby-sitter. I'm a fixer, an applied scientist who, given time and funds and equipment, can figure out the answers to all kinds of difficult problems using reason.

Don't send me your kids who don't want to learn. Find them a baby sitter.

Send me the ones who do.

The world is full of problems for them to fix, if they can just learn the art of just fixing.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Price elasticities

Farm picture: the Womerlippi Farm wood pile, about 28 MWh of pure power

In the lingering absence of any real national energy-and-climate policy, the differential prices of energy resources are currently the most important factors in our climate future.

Tracking and using differential pricing isn't a very open kind of information. While the general public operates at a fairly sophisticated level in making choices when shopping for energy, trading off one kind of vacation against another, or one kind of house against another at the margin on the basis of embedded energy costs, the actual price of energy in scientifically comparative terms is badly hidden by efficiency factors and by the different mechanics of the systems used to extract the energy and put it to use.

This is why electric cars are so cheap to run.

They use a slightly more expensive fuel. Household electricity in Maine comes out at about 16 cents per kilowatt hour, where as gasoline is currently about 9 cents per kilowatt hour.

But your car's engine is usually only 35% thermally efficient.

In other words, you pay roughly three times 9 cents per kilowatt hour of actual motoring service, or, say, 27 cents/unit.

While a battery pack/electric motor combination is usually more than 70 or 80% thermally efficient, and the average electric car itself is usually lighter, about half or two thirds the rolling weight in most cases, and thus yet more efficient. Say 8 or 9 cents per unit.

An electric car can thus deliver motoring service for much less than a gasoline one. A plug-in hybrid delivers this kind of pricing too, for the first 25-40 miles of driving. After that the gasoline generator kicks in and prices go up.

Sure, a low-end pure electric car like the Nissan Leaf is more expensive than a comparable Ford Focus, and a medium-nice plug-in hybrid like the Toyota Prius or Chevrolet Volt is more expensive than a comparable Ford Fusion or Chevy Cruze. But the electric vehicle will pay that additional cost off very quickly in reduced gas prices.

This is also why wood stoves are so cheap to run.

There are similarly invisible energy cost comparison problems in household heating and cooling. Different mechanical forms of energy consumption have different thermal efficiencies as well as different prices for each different kind of energy.

So my wood stove, for instance, a super-efficient Norski model, gives me more than 85% of the energy I put into it back in the form of heat, at very little cost per BTU because I cut and split my own wood from my own land. It takes me about ten-twelve days a year to put up the four cords we use. My opportunity costs for fuel wood are low because I don't generally work in the summers when I cut wood. If we imagine that each of my cords of mostly ash wood costs me the market price of $250 per cord, then at 21 million btus per cord, a million btus costs me about twelve dollars to buy, and by the time I get it into my home's building envelope, it's up to $14/mbtu unit.

My forced-air oil furnace, on the other hand, only gives me 75% thermal efficiency, and each million btus costs me $25 to buy, and by the time I get to enjoy it, $32 to use each mbtu unit.

My wood stove cost about $4,000 with the chimney, but it paid for itself very quickly.

Additionally, different kinds of energy have different regional and local economic "multipliers." So, for instance, if we really want a thriving Maine economy, we would do much better to pay ourselves for energy than to pay the Canadians, or worse, the Saudis.

This is why on a purely economic basis, setting aside the environmental problems for a second, Maine wind power and Maine biomass energy make so much economic sense. Not only are they much cheaper to use and enjoy, but we also employ our neighbors and friends to access these energy forms, not some faceless, nameless guy in Edmonton or Riyadh.

And I haven't even talked about the dollar benefits of avoiding dangerous climate change, particularly the increased chance of extreme weather events.

I find it interesting how uninterested most folk are in knowing this kind of information.

We seem to much prefer to pay high prices for energy than to have to think about energy.

But at the margin, even high price has an effect. Most folk will curtail some energy use if faced with higher prices for long periods. They may not switch energy format. But they will reduce energy expenditures.

Which means that a lot of people are falling, ever so slowly, into energy poverty.

Why don't we want to think about this, when it creates so many problems, and when there are so many interesting solutions?

I don't know.

But what I do know, is we need a lot more energy geeks. And energy geeks are cost-effective.

They pay for themselves very quickly.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Letters to an anti-wind activist and a wind development company

Maine has a home-grown and connected movement of activists mobilized against wind farm development. It's fair to say that they are a relatively small minority -- repeated polling by the Natural Resource Council of Maine shows that wind power maintains approval ratings of eighty- and even ninety-plus percent among randomly sampled Mainers, and has done so consistently for several years. Preliminary work by social scientists at the University of Maine shows that second-home owners and retirees are least likely to favor wind power development, and work by the Island Institute on the Fox Islands Wind project shows that support for wind power increases yet further when locals benefit from wind power plants.

Even so, some wind power plants have produced noise nuisance for some households, and there have been lawsuits, threats of lawsuits, and buy-outs of residences by development companies behind the scenes. And lots of folks do find them ugly.

One result has been that any new development plan attracts committed local and state-wide wind power activists to public hearings and planning board meetings, while ordinary Mainers mildly in favor of wind power are, of course, going to stay home.

Another result has been a proliferation of different lines of argument against wind power development from these activists. Some of these lines of argument are perfectly reasonable, such as worries about noise, or the fact that many folk find them ugly, or worries about sustaining tourism when landscapes are plastered with turbines.

Other arguments are less reasonable and one or two are perfectly spurious. One in particular, that wind turbines don't reduce greenhouse gas emissions, is the falsest of the spurious arguments. That they are not profitable is also held to be true, when of course development proceeds apace simply because wind turbines are, or can be, very profitable on the right site.

The development companies have their own lines of argument, of course, and their own somewhat spurious memes. But in general, and probably because they can be sued, the development companies show more respect for reason.

Even so, I've developed a new line of voluntary work in my role as a wind power expert that hasn't been bought and paid for by a development company, helping planning boards and selectors sort all this out, winnow the grain from the chaff as it were.

It's interesting to go to planning board meetings as a kind of piggy-in-the-middle, between the two sides. I get interesting emails from both developers and anti-wind activists, as well as from development companies, and of course unless the letters I receive are hateful -- one or two from anti-wind activists have been -- I generally write back with as much useful information and perspective as is available to me. My responses of course change over time, as I find out more information on a given topic. It's interesting to me to record how and why the changes take place.

A gentleman would never publish his private correspondence, right? But this is private correspondence about public matters that Mainers care deeply about, and I for one would like to have the material available to others. At the very least it would save me some work. In any case, it's easy enough to redact names and other identifiers.

Here are two examples, suitably redacted for anonymity. The first is a letter-and-response to an activists, the second to a developer.

The spelling of my last name is, as it always has been, approximate. (Sigh!)


Hello Dr. Wormsley – My wife recently found (using Google) a study of the actual metered wind power output in the UK compared to the output that was predicted. The study also reports the frequency of times when there was no wind at all, also when there was too much. The analysis was done for the John Muir Trust by Stuart Young Consulting - . The John Muir Trust has a website:

The title of the study is: “Analysis of UK Wind Generation November 2008 to December 2010.” The document is dated March 2011.

One thing I remember (from scanning the Executive Summary) is that “wind speeds are averaged”. As an amateur, I am beginning to realize the significance of this fact. Electric power, from any source, is generated and consumed instantaneously; and averages can only be useful if sufficient power storage and grid-balancing power is available and used. Apparently pumped storage has not been sufficient in the UK. As far as I know Maine and the NE grid have no pumped storage. Anyhow, maybe this study relates to your work in some way.

Also you might want to contact Dr. XXXXXXXX,(Economics, Univ. of XXXXXXXX) He and his wife are long-time cottage owners in the XXXXXXXX. When Dr. XXXXXXXX spoke at the LURC Bower Mountain/Kossuth hearing Monday night, he noted the lack of cost/benefit analyses of existing Maine industrial wind farms. I think he would be interested in your studies.

At the LURC hearing Monday night at least 75% of the public who spoke were opposed, and most who spoke in favor were local municipal officials and representatives of construction companies.

I think you and Dr. XXXXXXXX will find mutual interest in studies of actual wind power production compared to predictions. The FERC website is the only source of grid-scale wind power production. I am certainly interested in knowing if these things are actually producing power, and how much.

Thank you for all your work.




Thanks for the study. Although otherwise they are an excellent environmental group, I tend to think the John Muir Trust an unlikely source of unbiased wind power analysis. NREL has a very good study by Milligan available on the web site for NEWEEP seminars. NREL, a branch of DoE, is staffed by serious scientists and engineers and they are not biased either for or against wind power.

In general, yes, wind turbines don't produce power all the time, nor do they ever produce their rated capacity. This is understood by developers and the government. If they ran at rated capacity, they would be able to produce that capacity 8760 hours a year. (365 times 24.) Instead they produce some factor of that capacity, usually between 25 % and 47% (the lower number representing when break even points are generally achieved, the upper number the highest capacity factor so far achieved by the wind industry -- in Denmark, I believe).

As long as the wind power total that is produced at any given time is less than 20% of the total power used in the grid, this poses few problems balancing the grid. As even a very large wind farm comes online, the grid acts more or less as it would if a large demand source were suddenly turned off -- like the end of a football game on TV, for instance. That many so-far unused electrons means the grid senses a slight rise in power availability, as it would if a lot of people all turned their TVs off at once, and resultant less demand for peaking power load, and some power stations, generally the most expensive ones, are turned off. (Fast dispatch peaking load from conventional power stations for grid area balancing may cost up to $1/KWh.) This saves power companies money, which is why they are prepared to pay a premium for wind power up to that 20%.

If you think about it, you'll realize the grid is always handling intermittent demand, and intermittent production works much like intermittent demand. This is the beauty of distributed production, wind and solar both. The important thing is to make sure any given power line is capable of handling both demand and production load on that line.

Ordinarily, grid demand balancing requirements vary by much more than 20%, indeed around 60% diurnally. If wind power exceeds 20%, as it sometimes does in Texas or Spain, first wind forecasting is used to handle the excess, then after some point storage is needed for grid balancing, or turbines are turned off. It isn't a big deal to have turbines turned off. At any given point in the grid day, turbines are turned off -- usually natural gas turbines. All this is taken into account in cost analysis, and it still pays to have turbines as long as they are on decent sites.

Eventually storage is helpful. Pumped storage, storage in electric car batteries, and storage in grid scale battery systems are the leading ideas in storage so far. Another option is to shunt excess capacity to some other purpose than electricity, building heat being the most useful.

The UK, with over 4,000 turbines, is much closer to needing storage than Maine is. Their pumped storage hydro power stations, originally built to handle large amounts of slow dispatch coal power over the diurnal cycle, have been used to store wind load, and they've been useful. (We have such a station at Racoon Mountain in Tennessee, built for the same reason.) Their long term solution is to build more offshore wind, but also build a large undersea cable to deliver the power to mainland Europe, and to switch to electrical home heat from heat pumps. I can't say I blame them considering that natural gas (used for heat) availability there is held hostage to Russian whims, and so energy independence for home heat is crucial.

I think I'd choose wind over the Russians.

So, unfortunately for your point of view, there is as yet no good economic or grid balancing reason not to build turbines in Maine. One might determine this by reading the analysis of experts such as Mr. Milllgan, or one could infer it from the fact that companies that sell power to consumers do want to buy wind power from producers. And ordinary business plan-type cost analysis is done for every wind farm.

It can be argued that natural gas is currently cheaper than wind power, and it is. It's also increasingly abundant since we learned how to extract shale gas. We're very lucky in the States to have this bridging resource, but it won't last forever. And it's not cleaner than wind power, and it still attracts protests, indeed more protests now are held against 'fracking" in Pennsylvania than are held against turbines.

I have a nice PowerPoint slideshow of seven different actual protests: against oil, coal, natural gas, hydropower ( a new dam), nuclear power, wind power, and even solar power (the desert tortoise, an endangered species, is slowing solar development in the southwest). Apparently there are good solid protests available for every form of energy production. Go figure.

It sure is a puzzle.

It can be argued that wind subsidies distort the market and this is true, but coal and oil are also heavily subsidized. But to balance out subsidy is the factor of variance in wind site quality. Maine's anti wind activists ignore or conveniently forget this in their condemnation of subsidies. In effect, if we were to remove subsidies, our Maine wind turbines would be restricted to only the better sites. Maine wind turbines would still be built without subsidy. There would just be less of them.

There will a good economic argument one day, as our turbine capacity approaches that 20%. But if we allow for the fact that we can also export power to Massachusetts, it's even further off than you might think.

There are instead other far more reasonable arguments, mostly the fact that they are ugly on the landscape, produce noise, and a minority don't want them. These kinds of questions can be asked economically, using "contingent evaluation" cost benefit studies that attempt to put a dollar value on the nuisance or the dislike. This may have been what your friend was referring to.

If it could be demonstrated that wind turbines deter tourists, that would also be a good economic argument, and likely to carry more weight since we'd be foolish to give up one paying industry to develop another. (Instead we should then concentrate on offshore wind, over the horizon, because tourists aren't going to keep us warm in the winter if we get another serious energy crisis in this lingering recession.)

If the Maine anti wind movement stuck to these perfectly valid reasons, I tend to think that they'd be more intellectually honest and believable.

I particularly object when it is stated by anti-wind activists that wind turbines do not reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This is patently not true, and I wish
XXXXXXXXXX would stop saying it. He just makes me cringe every time, like listening to a "birther," or a black helicopter conspiracy theorist. I'm afraid I now think of him as a rather untrustworthy character as a result, when previously I had a good opinion of him as a forest sustainability activist.



And here's the one to and from the developer


Dear Mick:

First, I seem to recall now that you and I were on a panel together for a virtual seminar a while back – along with Javier Herrero. Nice to see you again.

I appreciate that you are acting in a position to represent the Town's interest from a third party perspective, so I do not intend to try to start an offline dialogue directly with you or to influence your position. I appreciated a good deal of what you had to say last night and am hopeful that the 6 residents appointed to draft an ordinance in the town will listen and do proper research.

There were several concerns I wanted to raise with you in the interest of maintaining an accurate record of the science, and the business side, of the wind business.
We were concerned about your representations regarding shadow flicker. We believe that the concerns about the potential impacts of shadow flicker may have been over stated and led to an impression that the problem is worse than it is. We agree that this is very easily modeled.

We generally agree that a sound level limit is the appropriate way to regulate noise, rather than distance setbacks. Our concern here is that offering lower numbers than DEP regulations casually (37 or 40 dBA) may have very substantial impacts on a potential project prior to any analysis regarding whether existing standards and models are adequate. I do not believe anyone in Town has said that the 45 dBA limit required under DEP regulations is inadequate in this case.

The issue of requesting the wind data to validate sound models. We do not agree with the assertion that our interest in protecting proprietary and expensive data constitutes a "red herring". A person's ability to estimate within 10-20% what the wind characteristics and anticipated NCFs are for this site does not concern us. But those uncertainties are approximately an order of magnitude greater than the margins upon which power sales contracts are won or lost. If every developer in New England knows precisely what our wind resource and plant capacity factors are, that is a substantial competitive advantage in the market. There is nothing nefarious in our desire to protect our interests. Further, understanding the reason why the data was being requested, we offered to supply it confidentially to the Town's consultant, who we would pay for. This is the proper solution in any event since the data is useless to individuals without modeling software. I got the impression you may not have thought this proposal was satisfactory, or that you too exception to proprietary data protection in general. I am asking only that you reconsider this position, particularly in light of an easy solution that allows everyone to get exactly what they want in this case.

Thank you for your consideration.

Best Regards,



Dear XXXXXXXX, thanks for the note.

The only substantial differences we have are that the wind data should be shared and that sound levels could reasonably be set that are lower than the DEP requirements.

I realize now that my shadow flicker comments were too academic and might be taken out of context. The planning board members have a good grasp of the flicker problem, though, so I shouldn’t worry.

As for data, you need to accept that a public anemometrist will generally feel that all wind data should be shared, in which case, basic market economics would dictate that wind power developers must find something else to compete on.

Additionally, towns can plan better for noise impacts when they have the data.

As for sound levels, I suggest you study the Jackson and Dixmont wind ordinances and take note of what was in the end stipulated and passed the town vote.

Once a wind power subcommittee with as many members hostile to wind power as those in Jackson and Dixmont gets going, behind closed doors and out of range of your ability to influence them, you’ll be fairly happy to end up with a sound level at or close to the upper range of my suggestion, which for the record is either 40 or within the range from 37-43 dBa.

I concede that 37 would make life difficult for developers, but making life easy for developers is not my job. My job is to answer the questions to the best of my ability and knowledge. I was asked to provide a feasible range as a basis for a tighter noise standard if one were needed. What you got was my stock answer.

Absolute noise level regulation makes the most sense and is easiest to measure. I suggest 43 as a start point because it is significantly less than 45, otherwise there’s no point regulating further at all, except were towns to decide to regulate to 45 during the day as well as night. Humans can’t easily distinguish differences of less than 3 dBA, so it makes sense to use steps of 3 dBA.

I think 37 is the minimum feasibly applied. Less than this, and my guess is there would be immense difficulty filtering out turbine from background noise. 34 would be ridiculous.

It follows that if the planners wish to protect residents very forcefully, then they should regulate at or around 37, if they are less concerned, 43 is the only maximum level that makes any sense, given the Site Location of Development law. As a center point, 40 is a nice round number. In either case I would be keen to clarify, I mean 37-43 dBA at the doorstep, not the property line, and I mean 37-43 dBa from the turbine alone, not including background.

This isn’t casual. It’s just simple, process of elimination, common sense, given the site law and the feasibility of measurements, should residents wish to regulate noise at all.

Since noise is the primary substantive complaint from existing Maine wind developments, you must realize that most people who have thought about it at all now think 45 too high at night-time.

You’d probably have an easier time of things if you conceded this whether you can come to believe it or not, psychologically at least, particularly with the planning board members if not the subcommittee. Otherwise it’s easy to seem as if you discount the response from residents who believe themselves affected by 45 dBa at these other sites, and that makes you suspect, since there obviously must be some difficulty, even if we don’t know quite what it is. Call it group think, or mob rule, or herd mentality or what you will, you can’t do a durn thing about it. If the move is to regulate noise, you’d do better to go with it and work for 43 DBA. The planning board seems inclined to give you the benefit of the doubt at this point. The subcommittee does not.

Generally speaking, though, I’m not your problem.

Your problem occurs when this subcommittee copies boilerplate from Jackson or Dixmont or similar restrictive ordinances. My recollection was that one of these (I forget which) disallows any noise more than 5 dBa above ambient, which you and I both know is effectively 25 dBA on a calm summer night.