Salient White Elephant

June 21, 2009

Business Savvy or Sexy Technology?

Filed under: Brash Environmental Commentary, Wind Energy, Wind Power, Wind Turbine — Tags: , , — Salient White Elephant @ 11:40 am

The earlier post, Why Renewables Aren’t Cost Effective, describes how a taking a different approach to the business of wind technology may produce even more attractive results than a dazzling new technology. Let’s look at other ways for using business ideas to improve the profitibility of small wind.

The Problems with Small Wind

There are two problems with small wind – maintenance and financing. Let’s start with maintenance.

Maintenance

Not many home owners want to climb an 80 foot tower to fix a 10 kilowatt wind turbine. To date, the designers and manufacturers of small wind machines have solved this problem by making their machines virtually indestructible. Many have only a few moving parts – the rotor, slip rings, and yaw bearings. But these machines still break. They could even be hit by lightning!

My answer to this problem is to first reduce the cost of the machine by making it more destructible. If the cost is reduced by a sufficient margin, then it will be deployed in larger numbers. If the number of machines in the field reaches a significant threshold, then a business can be developed for maintaining the machines. In other words, opt for a cheap clunky machine rather than an expensive high tech ultra-reliable machine. Now a customer either hires the maintenance company to repair the turbine or exercises warranty privileges. Technicians repairing the machine are experts, and they aren’t afraid of 80 foot towers. In other words, you can spend your money on two different options:

  1. super duper designs with super duper components, or
  2. mediocre designs with mediocre components and a solid company that provides highly qualified service technicians.

The later option makes more sense. Most home owners won’t even consider learning to repair and maintain a wind machine, but they’ll consider an option that’s backed by service contracts and warranties.

Financing

How long does a wind turbine take to pay for itself? Oh man… I don’t even want to know. If you’ve seen this kind of financial analysis, it’s complicated, and I doubt the average home owner can even understand it, much less believe it. But wait a second… if it’s true… if it really is true… that a 10 kilowatt wind turbine for your back yard is a good investment, then why aren’t there companies that bank roll the installation of such machines in exchange for dividing the wealth so created with the homeowner? Just as service technicians know more about repairing wind machines, financial companies know more about financing them.

What Does This Company Look Like?

The small wind machine manufacturer proposed here does not sell wind machines – it sells electricity. And it sells the electricity to the power company, not to the homeowner. In other words, the homeowner has exactly the same relationship with the small wind company that a farmer has with a utility scale wind farm owner/operator. Just as the utility scale wind farm owner/operator pays the farmer a monthly fee for the privilege of using a few hundred square feet of his farmland, the small wind company pays the homeowner a set monthly fee for the privilege of using her home to produce the electricity that is sold to the power company. The home owner sees a “reduction in her electricity bill” equal to the monthly fee she receives from the small wind company. Everything else, the construction, grid connection, maintenance, repair, and financing of the wind machine is the responsibility of the small wind company proposed here. All the homeowner has to do is avoid hitting the base of the tower with her lawnmower!

Negotiating Power Purchase Agreements

Another advantage of the company proposed here is that, provided its revenue is sufficiently large, it enjoys a strong negotiating position with the utility company. Consider this. When a company that owns a wind farm sells electricity to a power company, what happens to all the energy that is lost in transit as the electricity is carried 30 miles to the consumer over high voltage power transmission lines? Well… maybe it’s easier to look at the flip side of that coin. Suppose you install a wind machine in your back yard and run your meter backwards. The power company just saved a bunch of money because little of this energy is lost in transmission, since it is all used either in your own home or at least in your own neighborhood. The power company also saves money in reduced maintenance of high voltage transmission lines, and reduced need for transmission line capacity in the first place. How much of these savings do you think will be reflected in your electricity bill? You guessed it – zero. You just gave the power company a nice birthday present, and every day is their birthday!

The home owner is not in a position to challenge this state of affairs. But the company proposed here that operates tens of thousands of small wind turbines around the province is in a position to negotiate a reward for the benefits they provide… including the benefits of producing electricity at the point of consumption rather than 400 thousand miles away at the other end of a 10 billion dollar 900 thousand volt transmission line.

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Conservation or Increased Exploration and Production?

In 1985 I bought a Toyota Starlet. A Starlet was a compact car that got 55 miles per gallon (mpg) on the interstate with a regular gasoline engine. (It was a regular car – not a hybrid). The average fuel efficiency of a car on the freeway today is easily half that value.

Think about it this way. It’s easy for us to drive cars that get 27 mpg instead of 55 mpg. All we have to do is to double our fuel production capacity. This is as easy as building a second Iraq.

Or you can think of it this way. If we double the fuel efficiency of cars, then we’ve just built a second Iraq – a virtual Iraq – an invisible Iraq – an Iraq that doesn’t actually exist. Everytime you drive 2 x 27 = 54 miles and burn only a single gallon instead of 2 gallons, then you just burned an invisible gallon of gas from an invisible country. You can’t go to war or even have policy differences with an invisible country. And the cost of the invisible gallon of gas is a whopping $0. Invisible oil fields are never depleted, and invisible OPEC’s are hard to disagree with. Invisible production facilities don’t catch on fire or need maintenance, and almost anyone can finance the exploration of an invisible oil reserve. Burning invisible gasoline produces, of course, invisible pollution. Even the increase in the earth’s temperature is not detectable, existing only in the parallel universe of “what might have been”.

Can you imagine what an incredibly huge task it would be to double the world’s oil production? The billions of dollars that would be required, the trade agreements, the transportation infrastructure that would have to be built to support it, the fear it would strike in the hearts of some governments if they felt they’d have less access to the new oil than other countries. Yet doubling the fuel efficiency of cars is easy. It’s already been done in 1985, and that was even before hybrid technology came along! Yet by doubling fuel efficiency, you’ve essentially accomplished all of the herculean tasks I just described for doubling the world’s oil production capacity, only instead of being a herculean task, it’s a piece of cake!

You can’t go to war with an invisible country. You can’t melt the polar ice caps with invisible heat. And you can’t stifle a government with invisible cronies.

Why Renewables Aren’t Cost Effective

The last electric bill I got charged me $65 for the luxury of being connected to the electricity grid, and $5.00 for the electricity I used. In other words, if I had conserved all of my electricity, using no electricity at all, then I would have saved only $5.oo! My bill would have been $65 instead of $70! Really makes you just want to go all out to conserve resources and reduce pollution, doesn’t it!?

The logic behind this rate structure is that the utility company must make electricity available to you whether you use it or not. They must guarantee that if you wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning and turn on every electrical gizmo in your house, then the electricity to power these devices will be available to you. That’s what I paid the $65 for. This $65 portion of my bill is appropriately called capacity charge. It varies based on how much capacity I require, as I will explain in a moment.

Two questions immediately come to mind:

  • Does this rate structure encourage waste. Answer: YES!
  • Does this rate structure reflect the utility company’s cost structure? In other words, are 65/70 = 93% of their costs really devoted to the provision of the service, with only 7% of their costs spent of making electricity? Well.. who knows… but does it sound believable to you?

How the Capacity Charge is Calculated

Now let me explain how the $65 is calculated. Basically, they keep a record of the amount of power you draw for 6 months. Then they look at the maximum amount of power you drew in any one minute for that 6 months, and your capacity charge is based on that amount. Let’s say for example that 3 1/2 months ago I turned everything in the house on at the same time and drew 10 kilowatts. And let’s say that this is the most power I drew at one time during the last 6 months. Then my capacity charge, $65, is based on that 10 kilowatts. Now suppose 2 1/2 months elapse, so that the moment when I drew 10 kilowatts is now more than 6 months ago. Now we look back over my history and find that the most power I drew at once during the last 6 months was only 5 kilowatts. Now my capacity payment drops to $65/2 = $32.50.

How to Beat the System

The manufacturers of small wind turbines designed for residential use are always complaining about this rate structure. Strange, huh? These small wind turbines go on dutifully pumping power backwards – into the grid rather than out of the gird – knowing that if there was so much wind as to make your net power consumption zero you would still only save $5!!! No wonder it takes so long for a small wind machine to pay for itself!

And yet the answer is obvious. Get a small wind machine, add a small battery, and use the wind turbine to keep the battery charged. Now design some electronics to detect peak power usage. Now if I wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning and turn everything on in the house, the wind turbine battery suddenly turns on to limit my peak consumption as much as possible. If the system is able to cut my peak consumption from 10 kilowatts to 5 kilowatts during the 5 minutes that I keep everything turned on at 3 am, then in that 5 minutes I just earned $35! Contrast this with the $5 I would have earned had my wind turbine worked hard every minute of the whole month, producing 100% of the electricity I used for that month!

Is a Wind Turbine Even Needed?

Obviously not. Just draw the electricity from an electrical outlet in your wall in order to charge the battery whenever you aren’t using much electricity for anything else. Now when you turn a lot of things on, the electronics that control the battery realize that you are approaching peak power consumption, and they kick the battery on so that it supplies part of the power you need, thereby limiting your peak consumption and its associated capacity charge.

If You’re an Environmentalist – Play It Smart

So if you don’t need a wind turbine, then what does all this have to do with wind energy? Well… if everybody had these battery systems in their homes to level out power consumption, we’d find out real quick whether $5 is really enough to cover the cost of electricity produced. My bet is that you’d see the rate structure change real quick. Once the rate depends more on the actual amount of energy the utility is required to produce, then it becomes more cost effective to install your own wind turbine and run the meter backwards.

Related Technologies

There’s a whole slew of technologies for conserving energy that become obvious when you look at the problem from the perspective of this post. For example, what about a clothes dryer that automatically shuts off anytime peak household consumption exceeds 5 kilowatts, and then turns back on anytime peak consumption dips back down below 5 kilowatts?

The Moral of the Story

The moral of the story is that environmentalism that is based on nothing but complaining is doomed to fail. What we need are jazzy inventors and entrepreneurs who are patient, calculating, and sufficiently intelligent to twist the arm of a greedy industrialist behind his back and inform him of changes to his job description. He needs to know that his duties no longer include destroying the planet and sending other people’s children overseas to die fighting over oil.

Remember – if twisted logic and pretzel laws work for those who oppose efficiency, then they will work for the proponents of sustainability as well.

A Product and Business Based on this Idea

You buy a product that includes electronics that monitor your electricity usage. A continuous record of electricity usage is kept. The system includes a battery that is just large enough to absorb the average amount of power you use in a day from the power grid. The electronics are designed so that the battery draws enough electricity for one day from the power grid between the hours of minimum demand. Let’s say the hours of minimum demand are from 11pm to 5 am. The battery draws enough power for one day’s worth of your electricity consumption, and it draws that power at a steady even rate from 11pm to 5am every evening. Anytime you use electricity in your house, it is drawn from the battery.

Now, to the power company, you are the ideal customer. You never draw anything but a small steady flow of power during the hours of minimum demand (when they’re trying to figure out how to get rid of their excess power anyway). If ever you use more than your average amount of power, the battery system is bypassed and you draw straight from the grid (increasing your electricity bill).

I think this is what they mean by the “smart grid”. (I keep seeing that term on the internet, but I haven’t had a chance to look it up in the dictionary yet.)

May 5, 2009

Powered Bicycles in the City

Filed under: Brash Environmental Commentary, Electric Vehicle (EV), green technology — Salient White Elephant @ 6:41 pm

Soft, pastel colored cotton ropes move through the city driven by pulley wheels. If you get tired of pedaling, you just grab on to the rope and it pulls you along. This would be particularly useful in places like San Francisco where lots of people want to ride a bike, but the hills are just too steep. A person could pedal on the level areas, coast downhill, and hold the rope to go up hill.

Of course, you don’t actually grab hold of a rope, because that would make it hard to balance. There’s a mechanical device that is easily flipped over that grabs the rope and transfers the force in a way that doesn’t throw you off balance. And this also allows you to have both hands on the handlebars.

One of the nicest things about China was its bicycle transportation system. Of course, I don’t guess there’s much left of it now, thanks to the magic of capitalism and its ability to turn every corner of life into the dullest and most discouraging of chores. I believe this is what Adam Smith was referring to when he coined the phrase “the invisible butt of the free market economy”. But let me tell you something – you haven’t lived until you’ve traveled to your destination anywhere in the city alongside young girls that just stepped out of a fashion magazine and wise old leather-skinned men and women with impenetrable facial expressions that have seen hardships you can’t imagine… everybody cruising along at about 15 miles per hour, no diesel smoke stinging your nostrils, birds chirping, and the nicest widest bike path you can imagine meandering through the city. There wasn’t a road you needed to travel that didn’t have one of these cadillac bike paths, for in 1990s China, the bicycle was the mode of transportation, and everything else had to get out of the way. And as for those wise old men and women and the emotional burdens of past hardship they carried, seems like most of them usually had the most calm and content aura, impenetrable though it was. How could that be? I don’t know, but I think it had something to do with the magic of riding a bicycle, the healthy bodies that bike riding produced (you couldn’t find an obese person in China in those days), the chirping birds, and most of all, the fact that you were king of the road.

… old stogies I have found,

shooooort, and not to big around I’m a…

maaaaan o means by no means,

King o the Roooad!

Ultra-Long-Range Ultra-Efficient Electric Automobiles

This post has been moved to my other blog:

Ultra-Long-Range Ultra-Efficient Electric Automobiles

May 4, 2009

Hammer Hat

Filed under: Brash Environmental Commentary — Salient White Elephant @ 9:14 am

The other day I was watching a talk show about the technology of fried chicken. The inside is fairly white, the outside crispy and with an appealing orange-brown color, and a little bit of steam comes out when you take the first bite. Best of all – it’s cheap! The show featured a scientist who was telling all about the amazing technology that is used to produce the foundation of the western diet. They showed how hormones were injected on an hourly basis by automatic needles that came down from the ceiling to make the chicks grow faster (translating into lower cost for you and me). Each chick was fitted with a garden hose that poured water down its throat to make it plump and juicy. As an engineer, I couldn’t help admiring the technological challenges that back-room designers had overcome to develop this highly automated and efficient culinary production system.

We all know how scientists can sometimes be a little clueless, and how they don’t always know how to make an idea appealing to people because they just aren’t in touch with who we are and what we like. It is as though they live in a different world. But not this guy. This guy was good… oh yeah, he was real good. He was so smooth and natural that I couldn’t help wondering if he was really an actor from General Hospital in a white coat. But as I watched the needles jabbing into the chickens, I felt a little queasy… you know, like I went to a dinner theater where they served fine wine and prime rib, but the action on stage featured a doctor performing hemorrhoid surgery. And there I was… watching hemorrhoids as a waiter swirled a sample of wine beneath my nose and asked if it met with my approval… and I was wondering how any of this could possibly be appetizing. But just then the cool scientist (General Hospital star) pointed out that test after test after test had proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that putting hormones into chicken could not possibly cause cancer or any other debilitating condition. You see what I mean about this guy? He had to be an actor. No scientist could possibly have so much mojo. He went on to explain that the orange-brown food coloring is carefully adjusted so as not to resemble fish that tastes fishy. He said the vat where they mix the dye is solid titanium, and is monitored by the latest high tech sensors for measuring acidity levels and whatnot. Contrast this with the old way of making chicken, which didn’t have anything titanium, and was probably just some sweaty guy in an apron.

I listened in fascination to his words, watching the beautifully detailed and colorful illustrations flash across the screen as he  casually pressed the “next” button on his Powerpoint remote. I couldn’t help wondering why us cave men of mechanical design don’t adopt some of the same principles for creating exciting new products. Products that would be developed and marketed by exciting new corporations with inscrutable mirrored windows. Corporations that don’t even exist yet, living only within the pages of business plans. Business plans that rest in cool leather briefcases, bouncing at the sides of sharply dressed Wall Street financiers.

Suddenly it occurred to me that once you’ve seen somebody else do it, it really isn’t that difficult to think of personal augmentation devices that won’t kill you or permanently damage your health. All you need to do is provide the device with a means for tuning its effects to the weight, height, and body type of the individuals who own them. For example, on the surface, hitting yourself in the head with a hammer seems like a kind of a thing that nobody in their right mind would want to do. But let’s ask what if. What if the hammer is mounted on a small supporting tube. What if it is able to rotate about a horizontal axis going through the top of that tube. And what if the motor that actuates its motion is controlled by a couple of simple dials that regulate the torque and frequency of hammer hits. The torque control allows a sleight woman of (say) 100 pounds to get just the lightest little tap, whereas a big guy like me could get a medium-sized rap. The frequency control varies from (say) one tap per minute up to a konk every ten seconds or so for a ripple muscled construction worker type. You can see that not only would a hat like this not kill you, in fact, as long as it is kept properly adjusted, you wouldn’t even need to pop an Advil:

Hammer Hat

May 2, 2009

Climate Change

Filed under: Brash Environmental Commentary — Salient White Elephant @ 11:55 am

I suppose it would not be untoward to declare the Salient White Elephant the most dazzling inventor of our time, indeed, of the recent 2 centuries. 1,000 years of human innovation have produced, what… 4 or 5 different kinds of wind turbines? And of these, only one – the massive upwind 3 bladed horizontal axis machine – has survived the economic slugfest. And this megalosaur has seemingly incurable obesity issues. Given the brightest minds of the millennium have a track record of wind turbine innovation that is foppish at best, how is it that the Salient White Elephant has been able to make – count ‘em – 107 salient white posts to this indubitable blog, a great many of which describe the most startlingly original ideas and inventions imaginable?

Most inventors hold their cards pretty close to the vest. Not so the Elephant. With intellectual property piled around like towers of smushed rusty cars in a junk yard, the Elephant will profit more by giving these ideas away and writing them off his taxes than by hiring a lawyer to encircle the premises with an electric fence powered by the Department of Justice. So gather round technopundits and industry heavyweights, and act civil – no pushin, no shovin. Remember, you are the public face of the renewable energy sector. There’s room for all if the young and more flexible will sit on the floor. For I, the Great and Illustrious Salient White Elephant, the Enigmatic, the Inestimable, will heretofore describe one of the key abstractions I employ to spin a most dizzying array of original and out-of-the-box designs!!! The key is to realize that facts gleaned from disciplines like fluid mechanics, industrial revolution, power electronics, and so forth, have a strong tendency to constrain design options. To make sure these limitations don’t creep into Salient White Wind Turbine Innovations, I usually keep the workspace clean – conspicuously devoid of aerodynamic textbooks and journals of structural design. And if anybody ever tries to tell me a theorem or a corollary or somethin, I just cover my ears and put my head down on my desk.

Given the stellar success I’ve had utilizing this principle to create the earth’s most superlative wind machines, I see no reason why it won’t work for socioeconomic slicin and dicin of things like national security and climate change. And in the spirit of this wisdom, I want to comment on these issues before I accidentally learn something about them. You never know when you’ll glimpse a newspaper headline in a convenience store, or get a Google ad with a graph that shows natural gas consumption. And so I’d just like to ask why the use of petroleum is discouraged with an abstract argument about global warming. Don’t get me wrong, I see nothing wrong with saving humanity from certain death and destruction. But given only our grandchildren will still be living by the time this happens, stories of flooding oceans and disappearing food supplies can only educe a resounding “ho-hum”. If you want to sell a world that depends less on petroleum, you need something more immediate… something we care about. A single candid photo of a guy returning from Iraq without his legs would do it for me. Of course, a picture of an Iraqi man who was blown to smithereens by a rocket propelled grenade while selling fruit from his cart near the city square would be equally effective.

April 25, 2009

Capacity Factor

Filed under: Brash Environmental Commentary — Tags: — Salient White Elephant @ 4:06 am

A number of posts have described extremely large wind machines that use flow accelerating structures. The circular wind dams are a good example. Since these machines are able to concentrate the flow of a very very large “streamtube”, you might wonder what the cut in wind speed would be. Seems like power could be produced from the smallest breeze. This is a very interesting characteristic, since it seems to suggest an improvement in the most glaring deficiency of wind energy – its low capacity factor. High altitude ideas like the Sustainable Skyscraper may provide an even greater increase in capacity factor, since average wind speed increases with altitude. I don’t crunch any numbers for this blog, but that doesn’t matter since I’d have no idea how to approach the problem of quantifying this improvement anyway. But it certainly seems like an issue that is worth a thorough investigation, particularly when you consider that the high capital cost of the fixed (non-turbine) part of a piece of aeroarchitecture may lead one to conclude that these ideas are not economically competitive. I think it would be a mistake to jump to that conclusion before developing an understanding of the capacity factor issue.

Another good reason for investigating the capacity issue is that it may impact the optimum scale of some of the machines here. Consider for example the circular wind dam. If this machine becomes so large that many rotors (say 10) are dispersed about the perimeter of the dam, then you might wonder whether the advantages of scale have been exhausted. And in this case you might draw the conclusion that building several smaller dams instead of one big one would do just as well. So I am just suggesting that the effects of scale on capacity factor should be examined before arriving at this conclusion. (Can you tell that I am biased toward thinking that capacity factor will be proportional to scale? I realize that this is probably not true. But is it true up to a point… or what?)

April 10, 2009

Wind Turbine Energy Storage and Highly Distributed Renewables

Filed under: Brash Environmental Commentary — Salient White Elephant @ 9:58 am

According to Wikipedia, energy storage mediums are matter that store some form of energy. The need for more diverse, stable, and clean sources of energy has engaged scientists and engineers around the world in a mad race to be the first to develop a reliable, economical, and safe means of energy storage. The team that first attains this goal will certainly be knighted, earning a place right alongside of no less than Sir Elton John himself, and will also be the envy of tech junkies like me from Singapore to New York City. I wonder if they’ll do better than the Persian engineers of the 9th century? They invented one of the greatest energy storage mediums of all time you know. It’s called “flour”.

Though Webster does not describe flour as a form of energy storage, it does have some remarkable properties that suit this application.We go to a lot of expense and trouble to raise the voltage of electricity to a level that could melt an aircraft carrier in order to avoid losing too much of its energy while transmitting it over a distance of just 30 miles. But once stored in the form of flour, energy is delivered to its destination with an efficiency that is not often witnessed in the world of science – a whopsnoggling 100%! (Provided, of course, the cashier doesn’t accidentally poke a hole in the bag while scanning it.)

Of course, these days people that grind grain for a living prefer to do their grinding between the hours of 9 and 5, whether or not the wind is blowing. But one of the houses I grew up in had a solar water heater on the roof, and that thing worked like a charm for years! This medium of energy storage – hot water – seems better than flour because hours of business do not have to be scheduled around it. But is this really the case? If the sun shines so much that you have more hot water than you need, then much of the solar energy that was harvested is wasted. But if you’re in the business of selling flour (rather than just grinding grain for your own personal use) then this problem goes away. Well, we don’t want to waste energy, and we don’t want somebody to have to go to work at 3 am just because the wind started blowing. Is there any other alternative?

I know of only one answer to this question, and it’s pretty lame – install a solar water heater that isn’t large enough to ever produce more hot water than you can use. But doesn’t it seem like there should be some kind of task that is completely automated (doesn’t require human intervention), and whose input and output can be stored indefinitely? Suppose, for example, there is some chemical that is used in some industry in large quantities. Call it X. And suppose X is produced by adding mechanical or electrical energy to chemical Y. Y + energy = X. And finally, suppose X and Y can be stored indefinitely, and that the production process is completely automated. Now a truck hauls Y to the wind farm, and picks up whatever X is available for delivery. Here’s some ideas to give you a general flavor of what I’m talking about here. I don’t have a clue as to whether any of these ideas will work, and some of them are pretty ridiculous, but I’ll go ahead and post them anyway:

  • forcing water through some kind of purification filter to make drinking water (do you really believe they have enough spring water in the world to fill up all those bottles of spring water in all those Walmarts across the country? I don’t. I think it’s just tap water.),
  • oxygenating water,
  • removing CO2 from the atmosphere or putting oxygen into the atmosphere to help make up for deforestation,
  • cleaning polluted water or getting algae out of water,
  • treating sewage,
  • killing bugs that eat crops.

Another angle to this line of thinking involves small wind turbines. Years ago, I made some estimates of the cost per kilowatt hour of various small wind turbine designs. It was really depressing. Small machines do not make good use of assets such as the tower they are perched on, the power electronics that interface them to the electricity grid, and so forth. I guess this is to be expected. Even people that don’t understand a thing about business know of the concept of economies of scale, if only because their aunt’s small town florist shop was driven out of business by Walmart. And it’s not surprising that the manufacturers of utility scale wind machines are in a race to extract the economic benefits of scale by designing larger and larger turbines. But the idea of energy storage seems to suggest different applications for small wind turbines. There are lots of ads these days on the web for small rooftop wind turbines. It’s interests me because it seems to say that if I can’t provide a good return on investing in an 80 foot lattice tower for your backyard, then maybe I should stop trying to be a utility scale giant and start trying to be what I am better suited for – energy storage. The use of a small turbine to heat water, for example, has a number of natural advantages. It even has some advantages over the utility scale monster turbine! For one thing, all of the costs of distributing the electricity generated by the utility scale wind machine completely disappear in the roof top water heater application! You could even go as far as to say that if enough people had these small machines, it would reduce the utility company’s cost of transmitting electricity, regardless of how it was generated. This is true because if a lot of people have these devices, and if these people live in lots of different places, then the probability that the wind will not be blowing in any of these places is lower than the probability that the local coal-fired power plant will be down for equipment failure or for maintenance. This means the utility company doesn’t have to have as many megawatts of capacity standing by in case all of you super-techie bloggers who follow me suddenly decide to shower all at the same time. (I’ve written many angry letters to my local utility explaining that the probability of this event is smaller than the probability that Elvis is alive and well on the moon, but they are too snooty to answer my valid concerns.) Returning to the problem of the small turbine tower, I now wonder if I didn’t fool myself with the cost estimates I mentioned earlier. Seeing that the small turbine was not providing a good return on investment for its tower, my reaction was to speculate about taller and taller towers. I figured you needed to get the higher energy density at altitude to pay for the tower. But now I wonder if it wouldn’t be better to go in the opposite direction! Just eliminate the tower altogether, mount the machine on the roof of a house, and let its energy be stored in the form of hot water. In this case, the tower is the house. You could say that the cost of the tower is zero because you will pay for the house whether or not you put a turbine on top of it. The same argument applies to any structure, such as a street light pole, whose purpose in life has nothing to do with electricity, but which can nevertheless support a small wind turbine. And I wonder if the same logic could not be applied to the turbine’s electronics. If the cost of synchronizing the turbine’s electricity with the grid is not well leveraged by a small machine, then maybe the answer is to eliminate the electronics altogether, and use an entirely mechanical means of heating water. Actually, the wind turbines of the 70s and 80s also had a dirt simple electrical design. That industry was spawned by the observation that there’s no difference between a simple induction motor and a generator. Use some wind turbine blades to try to make an induction motor turn faster than it wants to go, and voila!… you’re pumping electricity back into the grid! Here’s a company that has a turbine that does just that, and plugs into the wall right next to your microwave!

Jellyfish Wind Turbine

I got the water heating ideas from a post on greenpowertalk.org:

greenpower post about heating water with wind

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