Today, GE announced a new power plant that is 61 percent efficient and can quickly ramp up to produce power, allowing it to make up for variations in power output from wind turbines.
Here's why this matters:
Wind power is variable. It depends on how fast the wind is blowing. These fluctuations could destabilize the grid and cause blackouts, especially as more wind turbines are attached to the grid. To make up for this variability, grid operators turn to natural gas peaking power plants that are designed to quickly ramp up power production. The problem with these plants is that they are very inefficient—the best ones from GE convert only 46 percent of the energy in natural gas into electricity, and older ones can have efficiency as low as 28 percent. So-called baseload natural gas power plants are far more efficient, but they take too long to change power output to keep up with changes in the wind.
The new generator can change power output quickly, and it can generate about two times more power from a cubic foot of natural gas than old, inefficient peaking plants. It's also more efficiency than even baseload plants. The new power plant could make the inefficient ones unnecessary, reducing carbon dioxide emissions. The higher efficiency could also reduce power costs.
Natural gas is cleaner than coal. It doesn't have any particulate pollution (the coal dust that creates smog and infects the lungs of Chinese everywhere), thousands of people don't die mining natural gas, and it causes less global warming. Natural gas is nearly as inexpensive as coal to boot.
But natural gas has its own problems -- it is finite and it still causes global warming. Enter wind power -- infinite power with zero emissions of any kind. If wind power handled the bulk of our energy needs with natural gas kicking in whenever wind needed help, we would have the best of both worlds. Wind power is also cheap, though not as cheap as coal. When you look at its advantages as a non-pollutant, however, it should be considered the better power source. The only reason wind was legitimately being rejected was its 'intermittency.' That's gone now, since you can just link wind power to natural gas power working together on the electric grid.
The problem with alternative energies is not their cost or unreliability. A full life cycle solar cell costs less than it will generate in revenue through the energy it harvests. Similarly, windmills earn more in energy across their lifespan than it costs to build them. Unreliability just means linking alternative energy sources with more reliable energy sources, such as natural gas. When one power plant turns off, turn the other on. No big deal.
The problem is solely infrastructure buildout. No one wants to front the price for the new power plants, the new power grids, and all the land it will take to buy up and put power plants on. This is a stupid way of going about business. No matter how far the technology advances, alternative energy will never happen unless someone takes that first step and fronts the cost of the infrastructure. It is doubtful any private business has the money to pay the upfront costs and wait twenty years for its expected return on investment -- it will go bankrupt before then trying to handle such heavy fiscal loads. Therefore the infinite reservoir of money that the federal government has at hand should supply the initial infrastructure costs, so that businesses can get to work doing what they do best, serving customers. Since it is a public good to have less polluting sources of power, it only makes since to pay for new clean energy sources publicly. Everyone pays, but everyone benefits. It was expensive to get rid of lead in our economy too, but the government had the bravery to go ahead and ban it anyway, and now there are tons of studies showing how this has improved our quality of life. The same is true of chloroflorocarbons, which were expensive to ban, but we did it anyway for the good of the ozone layer.
The free market has numerous weaknesses -- one is natural monopolies due to cost of entry -- rarely can anyone pay for massive infrastructure projects when the return is too long-term. We would need a business with vast pockets, trillions of dollars of reserves, to transform our energy infrastructure. There's no such business, which leaves coal in a natural monopoly, even though in an ideal market it would have been out competed long ago. But the government can afford anything, and it can wait for any length of time for a return on investment, because it will still be around when that return happens. Governments live longer than businesses.
Another weakness of the free market is it doesn't take into account negative externalities. Pollution which hurts everyone is still extracting a cost, its just a hidden cost that isn't factored into the price of burning coal. If coal were priced accurately, to include the damage it did via global warming and lung infections and dead miners and smog etc, alternative energy would be cheaper than coal. But the free market won't make that calculation, because the business doesn't have to pay the price of these things, only the public has to. In the case of public pain, public solutions are obvious. Government is always at its best when it is fighting pollution. Coal is an awful pollutant and always has been. Coal-lung is a real disease, but no one gets solar lung or wind lung. The price of coal's pollution must be addressed.
If we taxed fossil fuels with a pollution surtax, partially for their global warming emissions, and partially for other cancer-causing or health-related pollutants, and used the tax money generated from this fair pricing of fossil fuels, we could turn around and pay for the infrastructure of a new, 21st century alternative energy world. We could start living in a clean, green future we could genuinely take pride in instead of dooming our future and our neighbors for our own self-benefit. Nuclear must also be taxed for its nuclear waste that it keeps piling up but never dealing with, and the revenue generated from this tax needs to be plowed into truly clean power, solar and wind. Nuclear waste in America is becoming an open sore with no solution, promising to pollute our country for tens of thousands of years to come. It's a disgrace. It's another instance of the free market not taking care of its own effects on the rest of us, and it needs to be punished appropriately.
Technology still hasn't provided a sufficient answer to our oil needs for cars and planes, but we should still tax oil for its pollution in terms of global warming and whatever other harm it does to people. The money from these taxes could be used to fund research into better electric car batteries, like the one in technology review today:
It would also increase the price parity between clean electric cars and dirty oil cars, because the electricity fueling electric cars would stem largely from wind and solar, as well as natural gas power, but oil cars cause all sorts of pollution (smog, global warming). With more research into better batteries and a more even pricing playing field, electric cars could quickly surpass oil driven cars, and eventually oil driven planes as well.
We can either be dragged kicking and screaming into the renewable energy age by exhausting all of our fossil fuels while irretrievably polluting our world or we can fix the problem ourselves and turn these problematic lemons of peak oil and global warming into lemonades. A clean energy world is superior to a dirty energy world. Everyone will rest easier at night once it's achieved, and wake up prouder in the morning. I'm aware that we can dither and stall as long as we like, but that doesn't mean we should be dithering or stalling anymore. Sometimes societies need to act. We could have dithered and stalled about electrifying the entire country, but instead Roosevelt decided to just go and do it. We could have dithered and stalled about an interstate highway system, but Eisenhower went and built it. Ambitious government projects are part of what makes America great, from canals to railroads to roadways America has invested in its infrastructure since its inception. But this public-spirited forward thinking boldness disappeared in the 1970's and we have allowed everything to sink into a profound, listless decay. No new roads, no new monuments,no new refineries, no new, cleaner generation nuclear plants, and no new World Trade Center even ten years after it was destroyed.
We need to get back into building America. It was the people who built stuff with their hands that made America rich. Not the invisible paper trail of electronic currency exchanges that somehow make money each new transaction which forms the entire modern economy. Building an entire new energy infrastructure is a way to get America back to work doing real things of real value.