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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Hillbilly Windpower vs. Gleaming Super-Science

Something that's been kind of distracting me lately is wind power. By now, we've all seen the giant wind generators, but what about smaller ones? What got me started on this line of thinking was an online argument about nuclear energy. We're going to have to look at nuclear, the argument went, because other sources of energy were either way to expensive or not viable yet. Ironically, when I brought up the problem of nuclear waste, it was countered with "generation IV" reactors -- these recycle the waste. I say this was ironic because generation IV reactors aren't viable yet either. But the proponent was a nuke disciple and soldiered on with the argument anyway. I also pointed out that nuclear is stupid-expensive -- something I knew a little about, since I'd written about it before. But the disciple countered that wind power costs between $1,200 to $1,300 per kilowatt, which is comparable to nuclear. This struck me as insane. There's no reason wind power should cost that much. It's way too easy to do.

See, you set up a wind generator and you're done, for the most part. There's some maintenance and storage batteries need to be replaced occasionally, but the fuel itself is free. Meanwhile, everything that's true of wind is true of nuclear -- minus the free fuel. You've got to mine it, refine, and enrich it -- none of which are free. And besides, how difficult can it be to generate power from the wind? Turns out, not very difficult at all.

OK, so this is a small generator, but I want you to get a few points from it. First, you could build one. And I don't mean the hypothetical "you" as in "you can buy a 747 if you've got the money," I mean you personally. You could build one. And the reason for this is also my second point: you can make one out of junk. Mr. SlickVideo here made one out of an old treadmill motor and leftover PVC pipe. You could use a washing machine motor or a pump motor or an old car alternator... You get the idea. When it comes to wind -- or solar, for that matter -- we don't need the centralized generation as much. We'd still need it, but mostly as a back up.

So what would it take to generate enough electricity for a home? Let's take a look. We'll forget about Mr. SlickVideo and observe some geeks in their natural habitat.

Did you catch the cost there? About four hundred bucks for the generator, because it's made from the wheel bearing of a junkyard van.

Now I'm not asking anyone to go out and build a wind generator (although, if you want to, knock yourself out). But what I am asking you to do is think about energy differently. Do you know how a nuclear plant generates power? All electrical generators could be called energy converters -- they take one kind of energy and convert it to electricity. In the case of a nuclear plant, the reactor creates heat, which is turned to kinetic energy, which is then converted to electrical energy. The plant is basically a steam engine, which turns a generator. In other words, it works exactly the same way a coal or natural gas plant does. Put as simply as I can, you build a huge radioactive triumph of modern science and technology and you use it to boil water. This strikes me as overkill.

On the other hand, you can use some old crap you found at the junkyard to turn the generator. Either way, miracle of super-science or Sanford & Son, you're turning that generator. Now I ask you, which makes the most sense?

Yes, we're still going to need that centralized power grid and we probably always will -- multiple residence buildings, office buildings, schools, hospitals, etc. are probably too big for the junkyard solution. And everyone else is going to want that grid in times of what I guess we'll have to call "wind drought." But the goal is to reduce carbon emissions, not to eliminate them. Get enough of these things up and running in backyards and parks and parking lots and you'll have gone quite a way toward that goal of reduction. And when they finally break down, you just tear it down and build another one -- using some of the parts of the dead turbine -- because it's all crap that's lying around anyway. If there isn't enough room for a windmill-style generator, stick a vertical turbine on a roof.

I think part of the problem here is that we have a prejudiced view of the future. We grew up thinking it would be ultra-high-tech and shiny, gleaming white and stately. Nuclear looks a lot like the future we imagined. But it may be that the wiser future is steel rods and axle grease, some PVC pipe and the wheel hub from an old tractor. It may be that going green means the ultimate in recycling -- going hillbilly.

And, if it comes down to which future I'd rather live in, I'll take a roofing tin turbine over the gleaming white mystery. The wind generator is simple. I understand it. I've understood it since I built an electric motor in science class in the sixth grade. Like the guys in the second video, I might have built even the generator myself -- and this runs into a simple circuit I wired, into a couple of old motorcycle batteries, and then into a transformer I got for twenty bucks off eBay. It's not nuclear science and that's the beauty. It's no more complicated than it has to be. Nuclear power or wind power, all we're doing here is turning an axle.


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