Wind or hot air

Posted in , Energy at 17:05 by RjZ

While discussing the the benefits of offshore wind instead of oil,
In One Ear… Out the other writes “This means the decommissioning of many harmful coal plants along the coast who have the added problem of having to ship in coal.”

Would that that were true. Planting off shore wind turbines doesn’t mean we get to shut down coal–unless everyone agrees to finally turn off extra lights, keep the air conditioner off, and maybe stop having children. Power requirements are increasing and while wind is going to play a part in our future energy mix, hopefully a growing part, it won’t be as simple as the author hopes.

While we’re at it, have an aerial look at Rawhide Power Plant in Fort Collins, Colorado.

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In the center of that scene you can make out their boiler and pollution control equipment (look for the shadow of the stack). There’s the cooling lake, and then the coal yard on the top. In the upper right are four gas-fired combustion turbines used to meet peak load requirements. The power station is rated at 270 MW and can put out up to 285 or more. It’s a middle size power plant. Almost half of the 1400 north American plants are this size or smaller and the rest range to as much as 1300 MW or more.

Now let’s compare to Solar Two.

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This is one of the largest solar thermal plants in the world. It’s inactive now but the technology is being commercialized at Solar Tres in Spain. Nice looking set of concentrator mirrors and, this is on the same scale, you can see that it takes up a bit less space. Unfortunately Solar Two is only rated at 10.5 MW of power (back when it was in service). You’d need nearly 30 of them to do what average ol’ Rawhide does.

Wind is more powerful off shore than it is inland. Still, Texas has some of the best wind in the nation. And it’s home to the worlds largest wind farm Horse Hollow Energy Station.

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Horse Hollow puts out considerably more power than Solar two and almost three times the juice of Rawhide at 735 MW; but only when the wind is blowing full speed. Rawhide runs all day–and all night, of course, but Horse Hollow is admirable just the same. Horse Hollow also occupies 47,000 acres. The portion I’ve linked to is the same scale as the other two pictures, but only a tiny section of the farm. Then there’s the distribution lines to get that power to some place useful.

To be fair, we’d really have to include the size of the mine that feeds coal to Rawhide, and maybe even the train tracks that feed it, but, as I’ve mentioned before, coal is pretty energy dense and the result is, even with all the infrastructure included, fossil fuel plants don’t take up as much room as wind and solar, and while many say we’ve got plenty of space, they always clam up when it’s their back yard we’re talking about.

The point of this exercise isn’t to say wind and solar are bad, but rather to make people aware that there are other trade offs; some as simple as where are we’re going to find all the land. I think Out the Other Ear may have a great question for McCain and others about thinking further outside the box than simply repealing off-shore drilling prohibition, but, alas, it doesn’t mean we’re likely to get to turn off those coal plants any time soon.


  1. Marc said,

    June 18, 2008 at 19:06

    Well, no one said that they’d decommission all coal plants, and certainly not right away. Of course there is slack time with the winds (though with offshore wind thats less of a problem) and it isn’t like offshore mega wind turbines would go up tomorrow and yadda yadda yadda. Of course anyone who has knocked around the wind turbine debate for a while knows there are tons more complicating factors in setting up viable alternative energy solutions but discussing the problems with alternative energy wasn’t really my goal.

    Of course there are even more problems with coal we could have talked about, not just in terms of area taken up but in environmental and social effects. In area effect we could talk about miles of rivers and streams effected by mountains and did you know the preferred way of mining coal nowadays is to just bulldoze the top of a mountain into the adjoining valley and forests effected by acid rain, the effect of buning bituminous coal and never mind the social effects coal mining has had on appalachian american and on and on and on.

    These debates end up very circular because there are many factors; I could write a doctoral thesis on the matter. You were right though, all i was trying to do was highlight the fact that other options SHOULD be considered other than offshore drilling. We talk all the time of the why not’s when it comes to how alternative energy can’t fill in the gaps for our problems but the honest truth is, and we all know it, is that its never gotten a chance, not with the Bush administration in office for the past 8 years, and that if John McCain wants to make Manhattan Project out of something, as he indicated in his speech, it should be of alternative energy. Not of offshore, which is an ol’ addiction, not anything new. Even if he tries to wrap i in a shiny new wrapper of energy independence.

    Sorry if I ran long but I’d be than willing to discuss this more at anyones request, just stop by In One Ear… Out the Other. Link at the top of this page.

  2. RjZ said,

    June 18, 2008 at 19:56

    First, thanks so much for you comment and your blog too! Thanks for coming all this way…I knew the way to get more comments on my blog was to link to others!

    I think we both agree with your main point, that alternatives need to be considered and that McCain might want to pick up something better than an old addiction. As a result, any quibbles about the effects of acid rain (today there is not significant SOx emitted by coal plants because they are forced to meet the regulations that have successfully limited it) and the damage to people that coal-mining does (my that’s a stinky job, but most miners would wonder what you’d have them do if (well, let’s be honest, when) we took it away).

    Anyway, point is, we agree more than we disagree, but I am happy to hear your opinion here and it definitely wasn’t too long. Dear readers, go read Mike and Marc’s blog. We both like more clicks and comments!

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