Solar, wind have problems. Nuclear is the answerMay 10, 2021
I’ve been convinced by the many extreme examples of rising temperatures (e.g., melting glaciers in Alaska, Greenland and Antarctica and the huge western forest fires) that the earth’s temperature rise is not a normal fluctuation, we are causing it, and we must take action. At least I do not want to take the chance that climate change is occurring and we take no action.
Although burning fossil fuels to generate electricity is only one of many significant greenhouse gas emitters, it is imperative to reduce carbon dioxide emission that electrical generation stop burning fossil fuels. However, solar and wind electrical generation are not the answers, even though they are generally the only non-fossil fuel burning methods mentioned.
It is recognized that solar and wind take up a lot of space, but it is not understood they take up too much space. Photovoltaic solar is too inefficient to work at grid level. Too much space is required to generate the kind of electricity we need. In the study I did several years ago, I concluded about half of all the land in Nevada would be required to generate just the electricity we currently (no pun intended) use in the U.S., and in a later similar, but independent, study done by my son, he concluded a space as big as the Great Lakes plus the size of Lake Superior would be required. These calculations do include an estimate of the electricity required to electrify cars but do not include electrifying processes like manufacturing.
A huge problem with relying on photovoltaic solar electrical generation is that the environment of an area the equivalent of half of Nevada would be destroyed! It would be covered with solar panels. Aesthetically, I do not want to look at a sea of black panels when I go out into the Nevada desert, but more importantly, all the plants and animals under the panels would disappear. The environmentalist should be shrieking, “No!”
Solar cell efficiency (the percentage of the sun’s energy striking a space on earth which is converted to electricity) explains why so much space is required. It has been in the 14 to 17 percent range for at least 40 years. Increasing the efficiency to 33 percent, which is its theoretical limit and which some say is possible, might cut the space necessary to supply our electricity requirements in half, but the space is still excessive.
Solar cells and integrated circuits are built of the same semiconductor material, so some people have thought Moore’s Law, which states the rate at which more transistors are continually being squeezed into integrated circuits, applies to solar cells too which would make solar cells infinitely more productive. However, a fixed amount of sunlight strikes each area used for electrical generation and more cannot be coaxed into striking it. Moore’s Law does not apply to solar cells, and the amount of electricity that any area can generate is limited.
Wind apparently requires even more space than photovoltaic solar, so relying upon it for grid-level power is even more problematic than relying on solar.
Both photovoltaic solar and wind are intermittent. That is, no electricity is generated when the sun does not shine, such as at night, and no electricity is generated when the wind does not blow. This requires that more electricity than is being used must be generated when generation is possible (i.e. the sun is shining or the wind is blowing) and stored. Unfortunately there are no feasible methods for storing this much electricity. Battery technology is not to the state that batteries of the huge required size are practical; pumping water to higher elevations and letting it run through turbines when the electricity is required is limited by our available water, and space for reservoirs and is inefficient. Storing gases under pressure below ground has not proven feasible in the volume required.
Because of the intermittency of solar and wind and the inability to store their electrical energy on a vast scale, they cannot be the sole electrical generation schemes. Extensive, expensive back-up generation capacity must exist, and if these backups burn fossil fuels, some or much of the advantage of sustainable power generation is lost.
Rooftop solar works because the grid functions as back-up and pseudo storage.
Another problem with photovoltaic solar and wind is the amount of space required to build the huge transmission lines necessary to transport electricity back East from the Southwest where solar power is to be generated, or the Midwest where wind power is generated.
I do understand how people are fearful of nuclear. However, designs exist for new generations of reactors which cannot explode or melt down, have much less nasty waste, do not require permanent active cooling, and can be small enough that they can be placed near the locations where the electricity is consumed so many huge transmission lines can be eliminated. These reactors can even burn the waste of the old generation reactors, and they can use fuels which are more plentiful than uranium
Nuclear heat and electricity generating technology is the only truly feasible sustainable option we have. It satisfies all of the requirements: no greenhouse gas emissions, reasonable space, low price, continuous generation, plentiful available fuel, no required storage and reduction of transmission lines.
Ralph W. Courtnay is a retired Silicon Valley computer programmer living in Reno, who possesses BS ’63 and MS’ 66 degrees from Stanford University in Engineering Science (electrical engineering and math).
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