Monday, August 29, 2005

It ain't bad, it just ain't that good

I don't think that wind farms do any real harm, I'm sure that if cause of death statistics were compiled for birds in those areas, colliding with the windmills would barely rate a mention.

But I also don't think they are the solution to the worlds energy needs. Their power output is pretty modest and only when the wind blows, not when there is demand for it. The problem with that is that it unless you have some other source for when there is demand and no wind, you have to try and store it, losing much of the power produced, then release it on demand, again losing much of the power stored. Solar power has the same problems.

What gets annoying though is continually hearing completely impractical suggestions about how we should use them as our sole power source. I read in the comments on slashdot today (about an article on nuclear fusion), that we shouldn't be looking at nuclear power, instead we should build a 250,000 square km solar power plant in the desert. Basically the idea is that if a solar panel this size produces this much power, all we need to do is multiply that area by the amount of power we need. Never mind the fact that there probably isn't anywhere that you could put a power plant that large that isn't either too remote and isn't the delicate habitat of the endangered puckered arse wallaby. I also heard a proposal from some environmental group during the election that every single rooftop in Australia should be required to be covered in solar cells.

They could be useful in some applications, in particular remote areas where it is impractical to connect them to the main power grid, and where local conditions favour them. For example an outback cattle station probably gets enough sun that it would be possible for them to run at least partially on solar energy. But for the moment at least, they are still a long way of being the most cost effective solution in those cases. I was actually looking into Solar cells for marine use last summer, and there was simply no comparison in terms of cost between Solar power versus Diesel generators, especially since you would still have to have the diesel generator as a backup for the solar.

I'm also not sure about the cost per Mw for them. A while back Western Power was running ads offering people the opportunity to join a renewable energy program, where they would be charged based on a rate for renewable energies rather than the general charge. I would be interested to know how much more (or less) those who signed up paid, and how many many takers they got. Given that it has been a while since I last saw one of those ads, I guess it probably wasn't many.