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Albert Browne

Albert Browne

On Aug. 29, I read in these pages an article by Jim Taylor advocating nuclear power as our only solution to climate change. It was well written. I enjoyed reading it, and as recently as 10 years ago, I would have agreed with every word of it.

But the technology is now changing so rapidly that even the most carefully crafted analysis written in one month may be obsolete the next. I spent 40 years in the electrical trade, mostly building powerhouses. As an IBEW retiree, I receive the “insider newsletter” of that industry. Mr. Taylor suggests that we currently have no way to store significant amounts of wind or solar energy, and won’t have for the next 30 to 40 years.

But the cover article of the July 2019 issue of the “Electrical Worker,” the journal of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, spotlights how IBEW members are now constructing “utility scale” storage units all over the country. The cover photo shows a 31.5 megawatt unit in Illinois called The Grand Ridge Energy Storage. The article explains that units 10 times that size are under construction. Ten times that size would be 310 megawatts, well within the size range of small nukes. So the good news is that, yes, we can store wind and solar power, and do so at a large scale.

The better news is that we may not have to. A fascinating article in the June 22-23 issue of the Wall Street Journal, entitled “Plugging in the Wind,” by Russell Gold, explains how the U.S. was on the verge of converting completely away from fossil fuels within a few years, and doing so without nukes. The new technology that makes this possible is the long distance DC transmission line. These lines can transport power across the whole continent with almost no loss.

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I’m sure Mr. Taylor would ask how this gets around the problem that the wind isn’t always blowing. In fact, the wind is always blowing — somewhere. If you look at the national weather map, the same system that produces a dead calm condition in one area produces strong winds over the leading and trailing edges of the same system. The wind resource total over the nation as a whole remains surprisingly constant over time. The trick is to build overcapacity in all the places where wind resources are best, and then tie the continent together in a single net, so as to continually ship power from where it is abundant to where it isn’t.

Would building these lines cost a lot? Yes, and according to the WSJ article, one entrepreneur, a man named Skelly, had enough investors lined up to do it all. But three senators from coal states scuttled it by ramming through federal legislation to make it harder to build anything across state lines. (One of the states affected was Iowa. Remember the Clean Line Project?)

Of course building overcapacity costs money, but the cost of wind and solar has dropped so fast in the last decade that this is no longer a problem. Every year and a half, the cost of wind power has dropped by half and the size of units has doubled. And in the last decade, PV solar has become cheaper by a factor of 20 to 1. According to WSJ, this initiative would not only give us clean power immediately, but also the cheapest power we have ever had.

But it isn’t going to happen, because three senators wanted to give one more generation of Kentuckians a chance to die of black lung disease.

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Albert Browne of rural Jesup is a retired IBEW journeyman who spent most of his life building powerhouses. He is the former president of IBEW Local 288.

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