Salient White Elephant

August 7, 2009

Summary of the Best Ideas on the Salient White Elephant

Since there are currently 127 posts on the Salient White Elephant, I thought it might be a good idea to devote this post to summarizing the best of these ideas.

Big Wind or Small Wind?

A worldwide network of inexpensive desktop computers ultimately proved to be far more powerful than the super computer. This lesson should not be lost on wind enthusiasts. However, the Salient White Elephant has proposed intriguing ideas both for very large wind turbines as well as for small wind turbines that may be deployed in large numbers. So why not experiment with both, and let the market sort the winners from the losers?

Idea #1) Circular Wind Dam

Circular Wind Dam

Advantage Over Flow Concentrators and Diffusers

Flow Concentrator and Diffuser

Increasing the outer diameter of a shroud in order to squeeze more wind through a turbine rotor causes the wind to develop greater tendency to veer around the entire structure – shroud, rotor, and all. For this reason, the laws of fluid mechanics tell us that you can squash only a limited amount of “extra wind” through the small opening that contains the rotor. But the wind dam is not subject to this limitation. Why not? Because the purpose of its flow manipulating structure is not to “contain the wind”, but rather to force it to do what it already wants to do – to veer around the entire flow manipulating structure! This effect can be increased indefinitely by building larger and larger dams. In this case, having nowhere else to go, the wind is obliged to flow around the entire structure, regardless of how big it is!

Another obvious advantage of the wind dam is that it is stationary and attached to the earth. A concentrator or diffuser must be suspended high in the air, and must be yawed with the machine. The shroud is large, poorly supported, and vulnerable to mechanical failure.

Here’s a link to the original Circular Wind Dam post. (I wonder if an offshore version of this idea would be possible in shallow water. In this case, the underwater part produces hydro power and the above water part produces wind power. One nice thing about combining the hydro and wind is that it would probably increase the net capacity factor. Also, it seems like it might be possible to design the underwater part to harvest both tidal and wave power.)

Idea #2) High Capacity Factor Wind Turbine

A very large wind turbine with a flow accelerating component (like the Circular Wind Dam just described) is designed to have a very low cut-in wind speed. The turbine is also designed to be very inexpensive through the removal of weight, leaving it perhaps even flimsy. Structural integrity is achieved by providing the machine with ample means for shedding the energy of higher speed winds, and for allowing storm winds to pass through the structure virtually unimpeded. (Perhaps a wall has slats or portholes that can open and close.)

Now because of the flow amplifying nature of the machine, it should be able to produce a significant amount of power at low wind speeds. This feature is remarkable in that it directly and significantly addresses the most glaring deficiency of wind as an energy source – it’s low capacity factor. I discussed increased capacity factor in two earlier posts entitled Capacity Factor and Very High Capacity Factor Wind Turbine.

Idea #3) Small Wind Business Model

This company (Small Wind Inc.) installs small wind turbines into people’s back yards, or perhaps onto the roofs of their homes or small businesses. However, Small Wind Inc. uses exactly the same business model as does the type of company that owns, maintains, and operates utility scale wind farms. That is, Small Wind Inc. erects, maintains, and repairs all of its wind turbines, and it sells the electricity generated by these small wind turbines to the power company. In exchange for the use of the home owner’s property, roof top, electrical wiring, wind resources, and so on, the homeowner receives a monthly check from Small Wind Inc.

Advantages of the Small Wind Business Model

  • Because Small Wind Inc. has tens of thousands of turbines in the field, it is in an excellent position to negotiate contracts with the power company. For example, it may have the negotiating firepower to be financially rewarded for the benefits of producing power at or near the point of consumption (instead of wasting energy by transmitting it over long distances through high voltage transmission lines).
  • Convincing a homeowner to put a big chunk of her life savings into an investment that is difficult to understand is a hard sell. Convincing a homeowner to climb an 80 foot tower with a pipe wrench clinched in her teeth to repair a broken wind machine is even more difficult. But it’s easy to sell someone on the idea of getting a monthly check when their only contribution is to avoid hitting base of the tower with a lawnmower!
  • Small wind machines are often considered more attractive than large wind farms. This allows small machines to be deployed in very large numbers. Coupled with the increased efficiency of generating power near the point of consumption, the small wind business model is good energy policy. The distributed nature of small wind also means that only small fractions of capacity will be offline at any given time for maintenance or repair.
  • Small Wind Inc. has experts in turbine siting. Only those homes and businesses that happen to have a good wind resource are selected as customers.
  • If 4 out of 10 homes in a small community have good wind resources, then the whole community can run on green power. Simply install 10 wind turbines on the 4 properties that have good wind resources.
  • Because Small Wind Inc.’s technicians are experts, cost of maintenance and repair of the wind machines is low.
  • Since Small Wind Inc.’s turbines may be deployed in large numbers, costs are lowered through purchasing parts and services in bulk, and economies of scale are realized in a variety of predictable and unpredictable ways.
  • Because power is produced at the point of consumption, transformers are not required to step voltage up to transmission line levels. This delivers significant cost savings.
  • Financing costs are low due to the expertise Small Wind Inc. has in this area, economies of scale, and the size, scrutability, and stability Small Wind Inc.

Idea #4) Walmart Rooftop Wind Turbine

Walmart Rooftop Wind Turbine

Though not shown in the diagram above, slats are positioned in the gap between the edge of the flat top of the Walmart building (dotted line) and the bottom of the dome roof. (This is the gap through which the ram air flows in under the dome roof.) The slats can open and close to allow or block this flow. With the wind direction depicted above, all of the slats on the left hand side of the diagram would be open in order to allow the ram air to enter from the left and concentrate beneath the dome, and all of the slats on the right hand side would be closed to prevent its escape. The original post describing this idea, Venturi Dome Baseball Stadium, has a diagram that shows how the slats work. Another post, Rooftop Wind Turbine, described a rooftop turbine for a typical residence.

Idea #5) Another Walmart Rooftop Wind Turbine

Aerial View Walmart Rooftop Wind Turbine

Simply put a Circular Wind Dam onto the roof of a Walmart store. In order to reduce turbulence, the store is first provided with a dome-shaped roof, and the Circular Wind Dam is mounted on top of the dome. The dome would look a little like the dome in the Walmart rooftop turbine described previously, but it would not have a hole and a turbine rotor in its center. Also, there would be no slats or gap between the edges of the flat top of the store and the underside of the dome.

Idea #6) VAWT Forest With OmniDirectional Flow Accelerators

Savonius Forest With OmniDirectional Flow Accelerators

Here’s the original post: VAWT Forest With OmniDirectional Flow Accelerators.

Idea #7) Highly Scalable Horizontal Axis Wind Turbine

In the diagrams below, the orange and dark blue lines represent guy wires. Comments are provided that explain which load each guy wire supports.

Downwind View, Highly Scalable Wind Turbine

Aerial View, Highly Scalable Wind TurbineThe Highly Scalable Horizontal Axis Wind Turbine is remarkable in that guy wires assist in supporting all of the large tower loads that are carried by the machine. This allows a great deal of weight and cost to be removed from the design. The original post explains in detail, and includes some very cool tilt-down versions.

Idea #8) Automatic Wind Turbine Blade Washer

Automatic Wind Turbine Blade Washer

If you don’t believe this embarrassingly simple device will work, then read the original post. You’ll be amazed that none of us ever thought of this idea until now.

Idea #9) Semi-Direct Drive Linear Turbine With Yawing Oblong Track

This one is too complicated to summarize, so I’ll just post a link to the original post that described it. But first, a word of advice – don’t be fooled by the apparent complexity of the diagrams. It isn’t as complicated as it first appears, and offers some tremendous performance advantages: Semi-Direct Drive Linear Turbine With Yawing Oblong Track.

More Good Ideas

Here’s a link to a page that is full of links to the best posts on the Salient White Elephant. That page has more links than are included the current post. Or if you’re really a glutton for punishment, you could just read every single one of the 127 Salient White Elephant posts!

June 21, 2009

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.)

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