The American Wind Energy Association put out its “state of the union” message just before Christmas, and it reads like a list of victories. First of all DOE put out a statement in the spring (when energy prices were heading to their bubble-high-mark) that by 2030 we can drive 20% of our energy from wind. Woo hoo. More concretely, in the second half of 2008, the United States surpassed 20,000 megawatts of wind energy capacity, emphasizing the increasing speed of technology change — because the first 10,000 MW had taken 2 decades to get to by 2006. http://www.awea.org/newsroom/releases/Year_End_Wrap_Up_22Dec08.html
There are lots of feel-good statistics associated with that, like a putative saving of 91 million barrels of oil per year OR a saving of 30+ million short tons of coal, etc. Either way, of course, it decreases the output of carbon into the atmosphere IF we are able to cut back on the carbon burning. Problem is that just having a lot of wind energy available does NOT cut back on coal-burning, which is largely utility-driven — and utilities are not turning off turbines to accommodate energy streams from the new renewables.
The month of September was unusually cool, so consumption was off compared to the sweltering September of the previous year, but if you look at the report from EIA, the results are not encouraging with regard to energy created by burning things vs energy created by capturing energy from nature. http://www.eia.doe.gov/cneaf/electricity/epm/epm_sum.html
According to EIA data, our sources of energy have not varied substantially in spite of the apparent spike in renewables:
Looked at another way, this pie chart shows just WHERE the energy we use comes from on a comparative basis. Note that other than hydroelectric generation, renewables barely make the chart.
One logical argument is that utilities have no choice but to keep their turbines running all the time at full tilt, because it costs an arm and a leg to stop them and start them — and their liabilities if they do not generate enough energy are not worth risking a change or variation in SOP.
What would change that? Well, EPRI (trade association for electric utilities and their, um, buddies) put out a paper this month saying that deployment of a “smart grid” could save — actually save — up to 4% of electricity generation needs by (ready?) 2030. http://my.epri.com/portal/server.pt/gateway/PTARGS_0_237_317_205_776_43/http;/uspalecp604;7087/publishedcontent/publish/epri_releases_report_on_energy_savings_and_carbon_emissions_reductions_enabled_by_a_smart_grid_da_613496.html Admirable though that is, by 2030 my granddaughter would be 26 (she is 4 now), and the icecap in Greenland would already be substantially gone (as would various low-lying cities and nations around the world). That may not cut it.
What we need, it could be suggested, is a way of storing energy in huge quantities, so that we can actually cut back on burning, and concentrate on capturing energy from nature (solar, wind, tidal, hydro, geothermal, etc). Switching to burning biomass or biodiesel or non-petroleum gases will not arrest the climate change process. Only two things will do that — burning less STUFF, and cutting back energy consumption, possibly through making consumption more efficient.
However you look at it, energy storage is key, and energy storage is an area where we (that is, the WORLD, not just the US) is not making a lot of progress, at least not noticeably. We are seeing a lot of interest in Li-ion and NiMH batteries for cars and trucks — that promises to help control carbon emissions. But we are seeing very little progress in storing energy centrally or commercially — in ways that would affect the light switch on your wall. Why?
Most batteries are too expensive, in a word. By one calculation, a kilowatt-hour of energy storage in a li-ion or NiMH battery could cost hundreds of dollars. Just for comparison, kilowatt-hours of electricity to consumers are in the $0.18-$0.20 range on the high end. http://www.eia.doe.gov/cneaf/electricity/epm/table5_6_a.html
NYSERDA is conducting some demonstration projects on storage of renewable energy and storage of night-time turbine energy for reintroduction onto the grid as needed. http://www.nyserda.org/ Various utilities are pursing demonstration projects as well. But for the most part they are using batteries whose cost may be prohibitively high.
One non-sexy but smart solution may be to have a closer look at advanced lead-acid batteries — an old technology that STILL contributes most of the battery power worldwide. Check out http://www.alabc.org or http://www.axionpower.com, a leading developer of advanced lead-acid batteries that use plain nanocarbon to replace much of the lead in a traditional lead-acid battery, with strong performance improvements and low cost compared to other batteries.