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A Bit Less Stupid


I maintain humans do not have an energy problem. The energy used by all of humanity is only about 1/10000 of the solar energy hitting the planet. There is no shortage of power. What we have is a technology problem: How do we capture more and/or increase efficiency?

Alternative energy boosters tout wind power. Given current technology, that’s just dumb. Wind is not synchronized with demand. If it blows at night when the factories and offices are closed, the windmills are useless. Texas wind farms are even paying the local utilities to take excess power, not because it’s needed, but to collect tax credits. And this is a problem separate from the environmental damage of windfarms (they slaughter birds), or from distribution problems (people don’t like to live or work where it’s always gusty).

Wind may never be more than a marginal source for a range of reasons. But even if it is dumb, technology can make it better:

So Xcel Energy, Inc., has become one of the first utilities in the U.S. to install a giant battery system in an attempt to store some of that wind power for later. "Energy storage might help us get to the point where we can integrate wind better," says Frank Novachek, director of corporate planning for the Minneapolis-based utility with customers in Colorado, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, the Dakotas, Oklahoma, Texas and Wisconsin. "The overall cost of electricity might be lower by using energy storage."

The energy storage in question—a series of sodium–sulfur batteries from Japan's NGK Insulators, Ltd.—can store roughly seven megawatt-hours of power, meaning the 20 batteries are capable of delivering roughly one megawatt of electricity almost instantaneously, enough to power 500 average American homes for seven hours.

The cost makes storing the wind a losing proposition, economically. Yet technology always improves. As batteries get better and costs drop, the case for wind power gets stronger. It still may never make sense in the way the boosters hope it will. But, if we’re going to pour money into inadequate solutions, it is some consolation that technology will drive the loss toward zero.