Water issues give solar, wind power another advantage over traditional power plants

“Advocates for alternative energy are discovering that water issues may prove to be as important a selling point for the industry as reducing carbon-dioxide emissions,” according to an article headlined “Water Worries Shape Local Energy Decisions,” in The Wall Street Journal (26 March 2009).

Especially in the western U.S., where water can be scarce, communities are turning to wind farms or solar arrays — which have minimal water needs — instead of building traditional power plants that consume more water.

The electric-power industry accounts for nearly half of all water withdrawals in the U.S., with agricultural irrigation coming in a distant second at about 35%. Even though most of the water used by the power sector eventually is returned to waterways or the ground, 2% to 3% is lost through evaporation, amounting to 1.6 trillion to 1.7 trillion gallons a year that might otherwise enhance fisheries or recharge aquifers, according to a Department of Energy study.

The study concluded that a megawatt hour of electricity produced by a wind turbine can save 200 to 600 gallons of water compared with the amount required by a modern gas-fired power plant to make that same amount.

Twitter: RT @mitchbetts Solar & wind farms have another advantage over traditional power plants: They use a lot less water. http://bit.ly/1a4GCx

The next 100 years in geopolitical affairs

George Friedman — founder & CEO of the geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor — has a new book coming out Jan. 27: “The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century.” Now Friedman acknowledges that forecasting 100 years into the future may seem audacious, “but, as I hope you will see, it is a rational, feasible process, and it is hardly frivolous.”

“In this book, I am trying to transmit a sense of the future. I will, of course, get many details wrong. But The Next 100 Yearsthe goal is to identify the major tendencies — geopolitical, technological, demographic, cultural, military — in their broadest sense, and to define the major events that might take place.”

I stumbled across this news at “John Mauldin’s Outside the Box” blog. Maudlin hints that the book can be hard to believe in places, but ultimately he calls it fascinating and thought-provoking.  “George’s strength is his ability to take geopolitical patterns and use them to forecast future events, sometimes with startling and counter-intuitive results,” Maudlin says.

For example, Maudlin notes that Friedman’s book forecasts the following:

  • By the middle of this century, Poland and Turkey will be major international players
  • Russia will be a regional power — after emerging from a second cold war
  • Space-based solar power will completely change the global energy dynamic
  • The border areas between the U.S. and Mexico are going to be in play again
  • Shrinking labor pools will cause countries to compete for immigrants rather than fighting to keep them out

Related: Anticipating wild cards in world affairs
Twitter: RT @mitchbetts Preview of George Friedman’s new book “The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century.” http://bit.ly/c8QX

World’s first carbon-neutral garment factory

Is this the start of a rush towards green factories? “MAS Holdings claims to have built the world’s first carbon-neutral garment factory in Sri Lanka,” reports Anthony Townsend at The Institute for the Future. The plant will make underwear for retailer Marks & Spencer in the UK.

While the plant cost 25% more to build than a traditional design (it would have been 15% without some frills due to being a showcase), with rising fuel prices it’s expected to pay for the difference in less than five years.

According to MAS Holdings:

It features the biggest installation of solar panels to date in Sri Lanka, which will provide around 10% of the total electricity required for the plant. The remaining electricity will be mini-hydro, sourced through a green power agreement that MAS pioneered for Sri Lanka earlier this month.

Apparently this is part of Marks & Spencer’s wide-ranging effort to be carbon-neutral by 2012.

Pentagon studying space-based solar power platforms to prevent energy wars

Space-based solar power has been studied since the 1970s but the U.S. Department of Defense is giving it a new look, according to an article at Space.com (19 September 2007).

The deployment of space platforms that capture sunlight for beaming down electrical power to Earth is under review by the Pentagon, as a way to offer global energy and security benefits – including the prospect of short-circuiting future resource wars between increasingly energy-starved nations.

A proposal is being vetted by U.S. military space strategists that 10% of the U.S. baseload of energy by 2050, perhaps sooner, could be produced by space-based solar power (SBSP). Furthermore, a demonstration of the concept is being eyed to occur within the next five to seven years.

A demo of the technology is a critical first step (to prove it can be done and to identify the remaining challenges), says the director of the SBSP study, Col. (Select) Michael “Coyote” Smith, chief of the Future Concepts Branch in the National Security Space Office. (Smith’s shop is known as the “Dream Works” of the National Security Space Office.)

Smith says he sees the Defense Department as a customer of the resulting clean energy — not as the deep-pocketed financial backer of the project.

The U.S. Department of Defense has an “absolute urgent need for energy,” Smith said, underscoring the concern that major powers around the world – not just the United States – could end up in a major war of attrition in the 21st century. “We’ve got to make sure that we alleviate the energy concerns around the globe,” he said.

Proponents of the technology are looking at this scenario:

[B]y 2050 the goal is to have forty or so concentrator-photovoltaic space-based solar power (SBSP) satellites in geostationary orbit, each broadcasting via microwave between 2-5 gigawatts of power to terrestrial electrical power grids, with 1-to-5 broadcast antennas that can beam power to as many locations.

Gigawatts! Reminds me of the great movie Back to the Future (1985), where wacky scientist Dr. Emmett Brown discovers — back in 1955 — that he needs 1.21 gigawatts to ignite his Flux Capacitor for time travel.

Brown: “1.21 gigawatts? 1.21 gigawatts? Great Scott!”
Marty McFly: “What the hell is a gigawatt?”

According to the movie, it requires either nuclear energy (via plutonium) or a bolt of lightning.

But I digress. Back to the future of solar power satellites…

On the positive side, there have been technical advances in “micro- and nano-electronics, lightweight inflatable composite structures, ultra-small power management devices, as well as laboratory demonstration of photovoltaic arrays that are close to 68% conversion efficiency.”

But, of course, there’s no shortage of challenges, such as:

  • extreme complexity and scalability issues
  • a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars
  • the need for a long-term political commitment (i.e., budget)
  • the need for technology breakthroughs, such as “wireless power beaming”
  • the need to manufacture the satellites in space using lunar materials
  • legal issues
  • and did I mention the need to scrounge for hundreds of billions of dollars?

By the way, as one proponent acknowledged, “the microwave beams will heat the atmosphere slightly and the frequency must be chosen to avoid cooking birds.”

Personally, I put solar power satellites in the same category as the space elevator: Fascinating, ambitious, but ultimately so gigantic and expensive and fraught with complexity that it’s hard to imagine it really happening.

The Space Frontier Foundation’s discussion blog on Space Solar Power