Wind Power is Broken - How to Fix It

Any advocate of "wind power" should go through the “Electrical Energy, Science & You” presentation by John Droz, which very capably dissects the problems of wind power .

However, many of the conclusions derive from lack of a way to store wind energy, and I’m not yet convinced that is a dead end.

Regardless of the validity of the CO2 global warming hypothesis, we’re now politically on a path to CO2 reduction, so it makes sense to do it as economically as possible. Since there is also a lot of pressure to use wind power, we should also see if we can overcome as many as possible of the (quite reasonable) objections in the presentation, finding a way to make wind technology affordable and efficient enough to be picked up even in developing nations that are rapidly expanding their electricity production.

Rather than generating electricity and distributing it, wind power could be used locally to generate storable, transportable, useful products. While production would vary with the wind, that isn’t nearly as big a problem as it is for electric power distribution.

Some products that might be produced at wind farms:

Liquid nitrogen – Ship it on rail cars to power plants. First use it to first liquefy CO2 out of the exhaust, then to cool the output of a low temperature 2nd stage steam turbine, from that expanding to a gas under high pressure to power a turbine itself, and finally using the still cold gas (in coils) to pre-cool and dehydrate the power plant exhaust before CO2 extraction. (Think of it as “stored wind”!) In effect, wind energy stored in liquid nitrogen would be used, indirectly, for CO2 sequestration and increased power plant productivity per unit of fuel. This has the added advantage of leveraging existing power plants (modified) and the political advantage of supporting the “clean coal” faction, which seems to be struggling with lack of technical feasibility.

Liquid oxygen – needed to make coal and gas plants burn cleaner and make sequestration of CO2 cheaper. I’m leery of shipping large quantities of oxygen by rail. One alternative might be to only produce and ship liquid nitrogen, and use it to efficiently liquefy oxygen at the power plant. A liquid nitrogen rail crash would not be pleasant, but at least it wouldn’t result in a terrible fire. The same cooling uses could be applied to liquid oxygen, once separated from air, with the output gas fed into the furnace instead of being exhausted.)

(Note that the above don’t even require the added inefficiency of generating electricity from wind power. Compress air and pipe it down to the ground, to drive additional compressor stages to liquefy air. Use the tower itself as a big radiator, to pull heat out of compressed air.)

Liquefied methane – we have to ship tanks back to the wind farms, so we might as well fill them with liquefied CO2, and put that CO2 to use when it gets there. This would require hydrogen generation, presumably by electrolysis of water – but perhaps there is some more efficient way to turn CO2 into fuel? Ship the liquid methane out to gas-fired plants, reducing dependence on foreign natural gas. Collect the CO2 again, again convert it to methane at the wind farms – and burn the same carbon again in cars and trucks converted to run on methane. Another note – the CO2 needs to be heated up before being used to make fuel – which could feed back into the air liquefaction process, AND drive a turbine to generate electricity as it expands to power electrolysis. [I’m not claiming any sort of perpetual motion here – just trying to use the collected wind energy as efficiently as possible.]

Ammonia – again, generating hydrogen locally, and using it to produce liquefied ammonia for fertilizer.

Since the wind farms then would not need to be near concentrations of electricity consumers, the visual pollution and health issues would be minimized. There would be some loss of liquefied gases during transport, but it shouldn’t be anywhere close to the loss of transmitting electricity over the same distance. And I believe most the flaws of wind power as a source of electricity for the grid, are avoided. It still won’t be compact, but since it isn’t on expensive real estate, that is not as big an issue.

Of course, all of that would have to go through a much more detailed economic and technical analysis – but it can hardly help but be better than wind power as currently envisioned!


Anonymous said…

Thank you for your kind words about my online presentation.

I also applaud you for your efforts to come up with creative ideas. Some quick thoughts:

1) Indeed there are many ideas that can be explored for "storage" — which effectively amount to some type of energy conversion. In addition to major technical challanges, the number one problem with them all is that they are VERY expensive. There is no practical and affordable solution even on the horizon.

2) The storage avenue is extremely unlikely to be a solution as wind energy is already the much more expensive (levelized costs) than ANY conventional source of electricity (see EIA 2009 figures).

3) Even if the storage part could be solved, wind energy has several other inherent liabilities. For instance, there are numerous independent scientific studies that show it causing human health affects.

4) There are several ideas mentioned in the presentation that are doable NOW, and are afforadble. Nuclear energy is one. Tom Casten's ideas for improving delivered efficiency is another, etc. Geothermal is still another. Knowing that there are other legitimate options, why should we waste time and money on a poor choice. It is pounding a square peg into a round hole.


john droz, jr.
physicist & environmental advocate

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