About Me

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I've had a varied career, mostly as a technical writer for various high-tech firms in eastern Massachusetts, which is my home of origin. I enjoy speculating about many kinds of technical and philosophical concepts far beyond my level of education. I hope this blog will be an opportunity for me to express some of the ideas that have been percolating for years in my mind. I would consider a respectful exchange of ideas to be the ideal result of this effort.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The New Energy Source

Welcome to my post on our energy crisis. I will attempt to define the problem as I see it and offer some general solutions. I will also attempt to lay out detailed plans to make my suggestions more viable.

Drill Baby Drill?

The current disaster in the Gulf of Mexico vividly underscores the pitiful status of our energy policy, or the lack thereof. Wails and bleats of "Drill Baby Drill" show the total lack of understanding of our energy situation by national political leaders. It seems they could have learned the simple fact that oil removed from wells drilled here does not stay here. Oil companies are international in nature and the product of their wells is not typically sold to individual countries. Oil extracted is sold in an international open market to whomever pays the current price. The oil companies that drill in our territory own the oil they remove and are under no obligation to sell it to the United States. In fact I suspect that agreements they have entered into obligate them to sell on the international market.

The Foreign-Oil Problem

Regardless of where the oil originates, our need is not for cheaper or more readily available oil but rather to reduce and eventually eliminate our need to purchase foreign oil at all. We need to find methods of producing non-polluting and renewable energy while securing for our own use the relatively tiny oil resources we currently possess. This means cancelling all oil leases currently active in our territory and sequestering the oil for our own uses. We need to understand that burning fossil fuels is an incredibly inefficient use for them as well as the fact that they produce toxic gases that remain for years in our atmosphere and interfere with the temperature and weather balances of our fragile world.

Wasteful Practices

Most people consider oil only as a means of creating energy. Whether that energy is to be used to move vehicles or to generate electrical energy, using it primarily for those purposes is a disastrous waste. These fossil-based materials have vital uses that will no longer be available when the oil is gone. For instance oil is used to produce a myriad of vital products such as fertilizer, plastics, lubricants, medicine and much much more. We need to set aside our domestic oil resources to fulfill these needs for when the international oil is either gone or is so expensive that we can no longer afford it. Our current reserves only represent about two percent of the world reserves while we use over twenty percent of the world's production. The overall solution, therefore, is to find other clean ways to power our vehicular traffic and generate electrical energy. Until the day comes when we can all own a DeLorean, or it's equivalent, with a fusion reactor running on trash, our best solution seems to be converting our vehicles to run on cleanly generated electricity.

Cleaner Energy Production

Currently there are several methods of generating electricity that do not produce toxic gases and byproducts. These include nuclear power (which has it's own waste-disposal problems), hydroelectric (which would include tidal and river-powered turbines), wind farms, solar (both thermal and direct electric - i.e. solar cells) and geothermal. Most of these processes suffer from the fact that their production is location limited. In other words wind farms, to be efficient, must be located where strong winds are reliably available. Solar generation requires vast tracts of land in locations where strong sunlight is available on most days of the year. Geothermal can only be efficient in areas where subterranean heat is reasonably close to the surface. Hydroelectric dams are terribly expensive and must be located where a large quantity of flowing water is present. In addition, the lakes created behind power dams make very large areas of valuable real estate unusable for crops or homes. Of these, the most effective would probably be the river and tidal-power generation because cities, which use tremendous amounts of electricity, are often located on or near rivers and oceans.

Power Distribution

For most of these processes, however, a major difficulty is that, to be useful, the power must be transported over long distances to population centers. This means that it must travel through our national power-distribution grid. Unfortunately, our power grid is in truly terrible condition. It is literally falling apart and will only get worse as time goes by. Full maintenance and upgrading of the grid will take decades to complete and will cost hundreds of billions of dollars. In addition, the long lines of the grid are very vulnerable to interference from radiation and mass ejections from our sun which, in the past, have caused wide-scale power interruptions. This begs the question: What can we do in the meantime?

Versus Distributed Power

I believe that a major part of the answer can be the creation of a widely distributed power-generation network. Simply stated, this means the building and installation of many thousands, or even millions, of small power-generation sites spread across the country. These could be small, efficient vertical wind turbines situated on homes, schools, factories, offices, apartments and government buildings across the country. Vertical turbines are different from the usual pinwheel-type turbines with which we have become familiar. They could be compared, in appearance, to the old style barber pole sign that used to be so common. They are much less visible, quieter, are much less harmful to birds and can operate efficiently at much lower wind velocities. Being smaller they do not produce the high voltage and current outputs of the 300-foot giants spreading across the midwest and off our coasts. This can be offset, however, by their simpler and less-expensive construction and installation and by being produced in very large numbers. The value of this approach was shown during World War II when the the American army, faced by very large and powerful battle tanks of the German army, produced over 40,000 smaller, lighter and more maneuverable Sherman tanks. Although outgunned and out-armored individually by the Tiger and Panther tanks, our smaller Sherman tanks swarmed across the battlefield and overwhelmed the enemy by sheer numbers.

More is Not the Only Answer

This doesn't mean, in my opinion, that we can solve our energy problem by simply producing large quantities of smaller, vertical wind turbines. They must be just one facet of an overall program that attacks the problem on several fronts. Properly handled, this approach can help solve, or at least ameliorate, other major problems we are facing. We can put many more people to work in long-lasting careers, rather than in just make-work efforts. We can help revitalize a large part of our manufacturing capacity that has been short-sightedly shipped off shore. We can help to stabilize our balance of trade disaster, primarily with countries on the Pacific rim, and we can put a large dent in our energy deficit and pollution problems.

Bring On the Hybrids

The program I am going to describe must be introduced in parallel with a major effort to produce lightweight, inexpensive, plug-in hybrid vehicles. They are a vital part of this overall effort and, if ignored, the entire project may fail. As an aside, we have very large natural-gas deposits that could easily be used to power engines in plug-in hybrids. This should be a relatively simple conversion effort and would go a long way in reducing our dependence on foreign oil. The oil companies may complain about such a program reducing customers for their oil but, in reality, the foreign markets, especially in India and China, are growing by leaps and bounds. Since the oil companies have received billions of dollars in government support for exploration and drilling activities, they should have little complaint about losing the little oil left in our worn-out wells. The loss of much of the U.S. market over several years should have little or no impact on their long-term profitability. We are in the midst of a nearly intractable problem that cannot be resolved by half-way measures. This is a complex problem and demands complex solutions so I ask you to please have patience as I explain my concepts. They may seem to you to be unnecessarily detailed but, as is often said, "The devil is in the details".

Millions and Millions

The ultimate goal is to install vertical wind turbines in millions, yes I said millions, of locations, including individual residences, office buildings, schools, factories, apartment buildings and government buildings all across the country. Each turbine will be connected to its own electricity-storage (battery) unit along with electronics for charging the batteries, transforming the voltage to higher levels and stabilizing the AC frequency to that in the external grid. I parenthesized the word battery because other and more efficient storage methods are being developed and would be incorporated as soon as possible.

More is Less

One major advantage of producing these systems in such large numbers is that it provides what is called the economy of volume production. Basically, the more you produce, the cheaper each unit becomes. By the way, in addition to helping resolve our energy problems we would in all probability find an absolutely huge foreign market for these units. Imagine all the tiny villages and hamlets in Africa being powered by one or several of these units. I hasten to add, however, that this should not be our immediate goal. A moderate-scale pilot program would provide the best opportunity to test the viability of this approach. Imagine, if you will, a program centered in the rust belt of the midwest, near Detroit. With government assistance, which I will describe later, we could build pilot plants to produce these units. There are certainly enough abandoned factories for use and enough idle very skilled workers to staff them. (Oops, I almost said 'man' them.)

Location, Location, Location

Starting in the Detroit area is important, I believe, since that is the focus of our automobile-manufacturing capability and a major part of this program is the development and manufacture of lightweight, efficient, plug-in hybrid vehicles. Placing the first element of the program there means that problems that weigh upon all aspects of the system can be quickly resolved and changes made in a smaller geographical area. Once the program has been validated, factories can be established all across the country, logically in areas of high, systemic unemployment of relatively skilled workers.

The Funding Solution

Although the initial program would probably be established and funded by the federal government, it is necessary to establish early on how it would be financed on a national basis. I believe that, with some initial government assistance, this should be a program owned and operated by individuals or corporations established for this purpose. One needs only to Google 'wind turbines' to find a plethora of small and medium-sized companies that vie for niches in a yet undefined market. Many have very competent engineering, manufacturing and marketing capabilities but struggle to find a profitable place in this immature and fragmented market. The individuals and assets of these companies would provide the perfect hotbed for the development of this program. Although many have the abilities and desire, I doubt that few have the capital to see this through without assistance. If the federal government, however, were to assist in financing at perhaps a 50% level through the purchase of preferred stock in these nascent companies it could provide the impetus needed to boost production to lucrative levels. Then, once the companies were profitable, they could purchase back their stock from the government and be full owners of their operations. In this manner the loss factors to the government would be minimized. This approach has already been proven by the payback of large amounts of the TARP funds.


As I see the program, there would be separate production facilities for the turbines and for their installation and electrical elements, such as the generator, charging circuits and storage equipment. Sales, installation and maintenance could be handled by a number of individual companies spread across the area. As an aside, these companies could probably use idle automobile dealership facilities for their bases. This would provide ready-made display, storage and testing facilities as well as maintenance bays and lifts for their installation vehicles. Talk about synchronicity! The management and workers for these facilities should be readily available from the existing turbine companies. If necessary, the same government assistance could be made available for these companies. Since expensive manufacturing equipment and raw materials would not be needed, the costs should be significantly lower.

Bring in The Power Companies

At the final installed level there are just a few items to clear up. By bringing the electric power companies into this project early and fairly, animosity by them could hopefully be minimized. It would probably be a good idea to restrict ownership of these units initially to individuals and companies who also own plug-in hybrid vehicles. In this way, there would be a built-in incentive for the system in saving vehicle-operation costs. First claim for the power should probably go to charging vehicle batteries. Any excess electricity, for instance that generated after the vehicle is charged or late at night or when the owner, company, office or school is closed, could be shunted directly into the power grid. There might be some significant benefit in shared equipment ownership by the owner and the power company. This could be effected by shared purchasing costs, or by the owner bearing all installation, maintenance and insurance costs while the power entity purchases the unit. In this case, all excess power could be provided to the power company at no charge. In addition, the unit owner could be provided a tax deduction or credit to compensate for the necessary road taxes to be assessed on the electricity used by the vehicles.

... And Finally...

Finally, it's essential that this effort begin as soon as possible, if not sooner. Even as we blog, the problem gets larger, deeper and more difficult to converted to more effective pathways. Even should you think my ideas are bunkum, I urge you to develop your own thoughts and let them be known. We the people are the only ones who can create solutions for these problems. They don't go away by themselves if we just ignore them.

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