There are plenty of popular ideas floating around about alternative energy, and about energy in general.  Many are flawed, conspiratorial or just plain wrong.  Should we call them “myths”?  After all, a myth, even though supernaturally themed or wildly imaginative, can still be valid, revealing truths about human nature.  The Odyssey or the tales of King Arthur come to mind.  On the other hand, trying to explain something about the physical world by means of imaginative story-telling is a risky proposition.  A case in point:

Anyway . . .

We do have a reliable system in place which does a really good job of explaining the physical world.  It’s called “science”.  Perhaps “meme” is the best name with which to tag these ideas in the age of cloud-based, cloudy online information.  So, without further ado, here’s the first in a series of takes on popular memes about energy, renewable and otherwise – and what the data say.

The Deadly Menace of Wind Turbines . . . and Cats and Buildings and Cars . . .

Wind turbines can and do kill birds and bats.  Fish and Wildlife Service estimates for the US range from 140,000 to around 500,000 birds killed per year.  Songbirds account for the most fatalities, with raptors second.  Digression – weirdly enough, it appears that the cause of death, at least for bats, isn’t being struck by blades.  Instead, scientists have discovered that barotrauma (like the bends for scuba divers) may be the specific mechanism.  Sudden, dramatic air pressure changes near blade edges are believed responsible for rupturing the lungs of bats found dead in wind farms with no other signs of injuries.  End of digression.

As in real estate, optimal wind turbine placement is all about location.  This is true for the site in general, and where you place individual wind turbines within a given facility.  The original Altamont Pass wind farm (famously featured in the 80s movie “Less Than Zero”) in California is a classic example of a bad location, and was lethal to birds.  At its peak, over 6,000 small turbines, some dating back to the 1970s, ran at high speeds birds had no chance of avoiding.  At peak turbine count, Altamont Pass was killing more than 10,000 birds every year, including more than 2,000 eagles, hawks and owls.  The good news is that after years of pressure and delays, removal of the oldest and deadliest turbines began in 2015.  A complete replacement of 569 remaining 100 kW units with just 23 modern turbines was planned for completion by 2022.  Problems are likely to persist after the repower.  Even running at slower speeds, new turbines are so tall that their blades operate at the flight height of nocturnal migratory birds.  But since upgrades and removals began at Altamont, overall bird deaths have dropped there by between 40 and 50%.

                Where do wind turbines rank as a threat to wild bird populations?  Short version – very close to the bottom.  In 2018, the US Fish and Wildlife Service published its estimates for bird deaths by cause, drawn from multiple scientific studies.  Here are their low-range numbers:

  • Oil Pits:  500,000
  • Electrocutions:  900,000
  • Collision with electrical lines:  8,000,000
  • Poison:  72,000,000 (median estimate)
  • Collision with vehicles:  89,000,000
  • Collision with building glass:  365,000,000
  • Cats:  1,400,000,000
  • Wind Turbines – 234,000 (mean estimate)

Bear in mind that this total – 1,838,400,000 bird deaths – is the sum of low-range estimates (with the exception of poison).  High-range totals for the same categories produce an estimate of 3,536,700,000 annual bird kills through various human activities (and, of course, the activities of our four-footed, long-tailed furry friends).  Even high-end estimated totals of bird deaths through wind turbines (327,586) amount to a total of .0092% of total mortality in the same high-end estimate.  As wind power expansions continue, raw numbers of bird deaths will likely rise as well, but at a very low overall percentage of total mortality.

Wind Turbines And Human Health

The dangers of wind turbines to birds and bats are established.  To some degree, they can be mitigated.  What about us?  For years, studies and anecdotal evidence have shown there are issues with noise from turbines.  As noted by the College of Family Physicians of Canada, turbine noise can disrupt sleep, particularly as wind speed varies.  The consensus :  these issues are real, and reduce quality of life, and the closer people live to large turbines, the worse these problems.

Others living near wind farms have reported problems including headaches, fatigue and depression.  These have been blamed on the flickering shadows produced by blades, or on infrasound – sounds too low for humans to perceive.    However, an exhaustive study by the Council of Canadian Academies, which covered peer-reviewed, unpublished, and “gray literature” found only “limited” causal links between wind turbines and sleep deprivation.  Evidence of connections to more serious issues – vertigo, heart disease, diabetes – was “insufficient”.  In addition, other reports noted the following:

People living near wind turbines who received rent from them were “less likely to report adverse health effects” than other living nearby:

In two studies, two groups of test subjects were exposed either to silence, or to infrasound, through headphones after watching videos.  Those who watched a video warning of the dangers of infrasound were more likely to report symptoms and more severe symptoms from infrasound, even if they were exposed to silence.  Those watching a video minimizing the same dangers were less likely to report any symptoms.

To the best of our knowledge to date, the dangers to birds from wind power are real, but limited.  The dangers to people seem minimal, though noise exposure can be harmful.  And the successful uptake of a new technology doesn’t just mean the act of adopting it, but doing so carefully, with ourselves and the rest of the world in mind.

Nuclear power may be America’s most controversial source of energy.  A dam can drown a stunning stretch of river.  Coal may loom larger in climate and public health debates, given its airborne pollutants and toxins buried in coal-ash dumps dotting the nation.  Solar-thermal plants, seen as environmentally benign, can incinerate birds in mid-flight.  Using any technology has consequences, but with nuclear power, they feel more . . . consequential.  It might be origins of nuclear power in the fires of World War II.  It could be echoes of Chernobyl or Fukushima.  Whatever the reason, bring up nuclear and you may generate heat that has nothing to do with physics.

The Nuclear Landscape

Whatever the opinions, these are the facts – 95 reactors at 57 plants in 29 states supply about 20% of America’s electricity.  As mentioned earlier in this series, nuclear plants are baseload plants.  They operate at maximum output nearly all the time, except when refueling or during maintenance.   The oldest active reactor came online in 1969, the newest in 2016 – the latter the first such in 20 years.  Two more reactors are now under construction in Georgia.  And though we’re down from 107 units operating in 2003 –upgrades and more efficient refueling mean total output is about the same as it was 17 years ago.  France remains the most nuclear-heavy country – more than 70% of its power comes from fission.  But in terms of total output, the US still leads the world.

It’s all driven by physics on a scale that’s hard to grasp.  Atoms of a few heavy, unstable elements like uranium are prone to split, or “fission”.  In the process, they release neutrons – neutral subatomic particles – and huge amounts of energy.  As those neutrons speed away, they hit other atoms.  Some of them split, releasing more neutrons and more energy.  That energy boils water, which generates steam, which turns a turbine – and so on into the grid.  Under controlled conditions, you’re in the control room of a nuclear power plant as smokeless fire converts steam to electricity.  Under uncontrolled conditions, you’re in the New Mexico desert on July 16th, 1945, as light brighter than the sun springs from the earth.

Keeping intense heat and potentially deadly radioactivity under control is an expensive, complex process.  American reactors are surrounded by massive containment domes of concrete and steel.  They’re cooled by networks of pumps and condensers backed up by multiply redundant systems in case of emergency or loss of power.  And given their fuel, they’re operated to the most exacting standards in any industry in terms of security.  All this adds up.  It’s not that nuclear power is all that expensive in terms of routine operations, fuel and maintenance.  EIA data show that between 2008 and 2018, these costs for fossil plants ranged from 4.1 cents per kilowatt-hour.  For hydropower, it was .9 to 1.2 cents and for nuclear, ranging from 2.1 to 2.7 cents.

Up-Front Costs vs. Climate Benefits

What has tilted the table against nuclear projects in recent years has been costs – driven by this need for safety.  An example:  the Tennessee Valley Authority began construction on its Watts Bar plant in 1974.  By the time a second reactor was done in 2016, total costs for the project hit $12 billion.  “Abundance of caution” fits the industry’s outlook.  After the Fukushima tsunami in 2013, new flood protection measures more than 6% to the costs of  that second TVA reactor.  And in Georgia, two new units for the Vogtle plant, first priced at $14 billion in 2009, are now estimated at $25.7 billion.

Despite high capital costs, nuclear power has one huge advantage over other forms of electricity in an era confronting climate limits.  It produces power without producing CO2 or other greenhouse gases.  Obviously, building plants and parts and refining fuel consume energy and generate greenhouse gases.  But nuclear plants – with up to nearly 4 gigawatts of capacity, and operating flat-out for months on end – do so without any GHGs.  With this in mind, there’s a big effort to extend the lives of nuclear plants now in service through the USDOE with improved materials, plant upgrades and risk analysis.

What’s Next?

There’s been a great deal of time and money invested in developing the next generation of nuclear technology.  We’re now in the fourth generation of plant designs, though none have gone beyond prototypes.  Some designs use water at very high pressure, others use helium or molten salt as coolants.  This next generation is designed to operate at higher temperatures, use much less fuel and generate way less waste.  Some new designs can use nuclear waste as fuel.  An additional important field is the development of passive safety designs – reactors that need no or minimal human intervention in emergencies.

Finally, given the high costs of nuclear, modular design is seen as the wave of the future.  Smaller, more efficient reactors could allow for deployments of this form of low-carbon power without the enormous costs seen in current projects.  Whether economic conditions and public opinion permit the deployment of this fourth generation will be one of the big climate/energy questions of the 2020s.

On KKFI Radio’s show for 7/12/21, listeners had the opportunity to hear from Mary English, Energy Program Manager, Building Performance, and Miriam Bouallegue, Project Manager, Sustainable Transportation, both with Metropolitan Energy Center (MEC).

Eco Radio host Brent Ragsdale talked with Mary and Miriam and discussed two initiatives MEC is working on with Kansas City MO – the building benchmark ordinance and streetlight EV charging stations.

Tune in here for a recording of the discussion.

“We at EcoRadio KC are glad to encourage awareness and protection of our world. We can create a sustainable present for a sustainable future!”

It is understandable to freak out over climate change, but the challenge is … to work hard on this crisis while still enjoying life on what is still a beautiful planet.

Like many technologies, the windmill is nothing new.  People have been using the wind to grind grain and pump water for over a thousand years.  If not for the windmill, there’d be no Netherlands as we know it.  Settling America’s plains states during the 19th Century would have been nearly impossible.  But the use of wind to generate electricity at scale is new, going back only about 30 years.  In that short time, this evolving technology has produced the biggest single leap in renewable electricity output since the Age of Dams in the early-to-mid 20th Century.

In theory, generating electricity from wind is simple.  Air moves over the turbine blades, generating lift and setting the system in motion.  The shaft on which the blades are mounted rotates.  In doing so, it spins a magnet inside the generator’s windings, producing electricity.  Turbines can be direct-drive systems, but most use gearboxes to speed up their blades, since higher RPMs generate more efficiently.  The electricity produced by the turbines hits the grid and powers everything from toasters to cities.  Simple, no?

The Where Of American Windpower

Well, not quite.  There are more than a few complications.  Wind is generated by the sun’s heating of Earth’s surface, which is uneven.  Geography, climate and terrain add more variability.  Result – the wind blows reliably only in certain regions.  In America that means the Midwest , especially the Great Plains.  That’s why Texas leads the country in wind energy capacity, with Iowa, Oklahoma, California (outlier!) and Kansas in spots two through five.  And that’s why eight contiguous states in the southeast to date have zero installed capacity.

Onshore, the strongest winds blow in thinly populated states far from power-hungry big cities.  Transmission lines can cost millions of dollars per mile, and they’re not always popular, locally or politically.  And as the seasons change, so does the wind.  On the High Plains, America’s wind power sweet spot, output falls during the hottest months, when electrical demand for cooling spikes, rising again during winter.

Upsides – Income & Jobs

However, there are multiple benefits to wind.  Unlike coal or uranium, the wind is free.  Building turbines means leasing land.  Those leases bring in between $5,000 and $8,000 per unit per year to farmers or ranchers, though they can also limit construction and access by landowners. Turbine maintenance means turbine techs.  More than 7,000 Americans are already working in this fast-growing sector, with median pay of nearly $53,000 per year.

Efficiency keeps improving.  In much of America, the higher off the ground, the stronger the wind.  Taller turbines are taking advantage of that fact.  Between 2000 and 2018, average turbine height jumped nearly 100 feet, with bigger units providing more power.  And the environmental benefits of wind energy are substantial.  Beyond the carbon embedded in building and installing the systems, electricity from wind is carbon-free.  As markets for clean energy credits grow, and clean energy demand grows, so does the financial case for wind.

Rapid Growth And What’s Next

For all these reasons and more, wind’s growth has been simply explosive.  In 1990, wind provided 3 billion kWh, or about 0.1% of all electricity.  10 years later, it had doubled, and was still stuck at about 0.1% of the market.  Total share in following years:  2005 – 0.4%; 2010 – 2.3%; 2015 – 4.7%; 2019 – 7.3% – the same year that wind overtook hydropower.

But this intermittent (though clean) energy source has limits.  Surpassing those limits means going to sea.  That’s because offshore wind potential in the United States is about twice the nation’s current electricity demand.  But offshore wind power is almost non-existent here, with exactly one site currently up and operating.   Beyond that, grid upgrades and the addition of large-scale energy storage are going to be necessary for wind energy to make its next big jump.

There’s a chewy chunk of truth in the perception that all-electric cars are expensive, because many of them are.  In June, 2019, the average cost for a new car stood at $36,600, compared to a $55,600 average for a battery-electric.  But averages conceal as well as reveal, so let’s keep on chewing.  For EVs, that average gets a substantial push skyward by plenty of high-end all-electric models.  Cases in point:  2021 BMW i3s:  $47,650; 2021 Mustang Mach-E Premium:  $52,000; 2021 Audi E-Tron:  $65,900; Tesla Model S Long Range:  $79,990; 2021 Porsche Taycan Turbo:  $150,900.  And so on.  Even the $7,500 federal tax credit, available for all these models except Tesla, isn’t going to make a big difference up there in the financial stratosphere – and most of us don’t live there anyway.

Back on earth, what about affordable new electric car options?  They’re out there.  Kelly Blue Book, reporting in September 2018, noted an average new car price of $35,742, and a total of 10 all-electric and 13 plug-in hybrid models with MSRP below that.  Less than three years later, choices have boomed.  As of April 2021 14 different makers offer 41 different all-electric models and trim levels; 21 OEMs have brought 45 different models and trims of plug-in hybrids to market.

Whatever the price, a new car is always a substantial expenditure.  At this point, Wentworth J. Stumblewhistle III – your inner CPA – should chime in with a reminder that an automobile is, in fact, a depreciating asset, not an investment.  With that in mind, what’s the best way to avoid some of the financial burden of a new car – the depreciation hit when you drive off the lot, sales and personal property tax, insurance? What about a used car?  Specifically, what about a used electric car?

When it comes to EVs, there are advantages to buying used that add up in an even bigger way than for a conventional model, and we’re happy to walk you through some of them.   For starters, depreciation has tended to be steeper with many all-electric models than it has been for conventional cars.  This isn’t true for some brands.  Used Teslas tend to hold their value longer than most EV brands – but that’s not really the market we’re looking at here anyway.

Some handy examples from CarGurus:  A 2020 Hyundai Ioniq SE EV, with 1,058 miles for $18,999.  MSRP for a new version of the same year, make and model – $34,295.  Even with the $7,500 federal tax credit that’s still nearly $8,000 cheaper with barely 1,000 miles on the odometer and an estimated range of 170 miles per charge.  A 2020 Chevy Bolt, with a starting new  MSRP of $36,620 and an estimated range per charge of 259 miles:  with just 3,030 miles, $22,519.  Older models are even more affordable:  A 2017 Nissan LEAF with 18,974 miles on the odometer and an estimated 107-mile range – $12,575.  (Disclaimer – These specific listings are only illustrations, and we’re not endorsing any specific brand, model or dealership.  And by the time this is published, these links may not work anyway, as the cars listed may have sold.)

So, what’s the catch?  After all, if it sounds too good to be true . . . Let’s just say it’s complicated.  For starters, all electric vehicles lose battery capacity over time.  This doesn’t mean they’re bad cars – that’s just the nature of batteries as they charge and discharge thousands of times.  A fairly extensive study of 6,300 electric cars, covering 64 different makes and model years came out in July 2020.  It found an average annual capacity loss of about 2.3% from time of purchase.  In other words, a new EV purchased today with a range of 150 miles should have a range of about 133 miles in 2026.  So, does the 2017 Nissan LEAF listed above still have a range of 107 miles 6 years after it was sold?  Probably not.

There are other variables in play when considering a used EV.  Beyond age and mileage, where was the car driven?  High temperatures can mean faster loss of EV battery capacity, so buying a used EV in Portland might be better than buying one in Phoenix.  How was it charged?  Some studies indicate that frequent use of high-speed charging can substantially cut into battery capacity, in some cases after a few dozen high-speed charging sessions.  Scientists are already working to find ways to work around this issue, through improved battery design and improved charging cycles.  But how much high-speed charging a pre-owned EV used isn’t the kind of information you’ll find in a Carfax.

Another issue is geographic, not technical.  Many manufacturers sell EVs only in certain areas of the country, particularly in California and the Northeast.  Accordingly, those are the areas where you’re most likely to find a used EV that fits your needs.  This means that you may have to travel to an out-of-state dealership and drive back or pay to have the car trucked to where you live.  Car shipping costs in April 2021 averaged between $800 and $1000 – not insurmountable, but still a substantial expense.

Yet even with all these considerations in the mix, there are substantial long-term advantages to electric autos compared with conventional models.  Service costs are nominal.  Without gasoline, oil, coolant or transmission fluid, routine maintenance is reduced to software updates and tire rotation, plus the occasional brake check.  Beyond the complexities of software and battery control systems, EVs are remarkably simple machines, with fewer possible points of failure and lower total costs of ownership.

Data to date support this.  Consumer Reports published a study in fall of 2020 that tracked long-term costs of nine different models of electric cars.  “For all EVs analyzed, the lifetime ownership costs were many thousands of dollars lower than all comparable ICE (internal combustion engine) vehicles’ costs, with most EVs offering savings of between $6,000 and $10,000.  While new EVs were found to offer significant cost savings over comparable ICE vehicles, the cost savings of 5-to-7 year old used EVs was found to be two to three times larger on a percentage basis.”

Electric cars won’t work for everyone.  But for those interested in making the switch, yet leery of new car prices, an affordable used model may be a viable option.  And remember, whatever you’re looking to drive home, the sticker price isn’t the cost of a car – it’s only the first installment.  Total cost of ownership is, in the end, the best way to measure how long and how much you’ll be paying for personal transportation.

By the way, if you’re looking for a chance to investigate electric car options, MEC is participating in Drive Electric Earth Day 2021, with two events coming up fast.  It’s not just about the cars – there will also be giveaways and a chance to win a $250 Visa gift card.  To find out more, you’ll want to click on the buttons for the Kansas City area events or visit the Drive Electric Earth Day homepage for events all around the country.

Batteries are ancient, by today’s tech standards.  Benjamin Franklin is the first person we know of to use the term, and the first published science on the topic dates to 1791.  The days of metal disks stacked in brine are long gone (except in middle school science class).  Lead-acid batteries in cars and golf carts are still common and will be for years, given their low cost.  But the focus here is on the next generation of large-scale systems.  And the question is how these batteries – bigger and more powerful than anything we’ve known  can redefine and remake the world’s electrical grid. 

You’ve likely heard the expression “lightning in a bottle”.  Storing electricity at industrial scale is very much like that.  Electricity moves fast.  In copper wire or other conductors, it’s traveling at somewhere between 50% and 99% of the speed of light.  And in grid operations, it has to be sold – that is, used – as soon as it’s produced.  If it isn’t, grid and utility engineers run the risk of power plants disconnecting, since they’re only designed to run in a very narrow range of conditions.  What this next generation of battery tech provides is a way to store that electricity and in doing so provide a whole basket of benefits – financial, technical and environmental.   

Arguably the biggest single benefit battery storage provides is the ability to capture electricity from renewable sources.  Obviously, the wind doesn’t always blow.  And even when it does, that’s an issue in itself.  In February 2017, the Danes powered their entire country for 24 hours on windpower.  But if a wind farm produces more power than needed, the system operator must start shutting down turbines or face overloading the grid.  And while the sun defines “predictable”, solar plants only provide power for so many hours per day.  Large-scale storage means that intermittent, low-cost, and environmentally-friendly electricity can be stored now and used later.    

Having large amounts of electricity in storage and ready to go at a moment’s notice is a financial boost for power companies.  It means that utilities can sell back low-cost power from renewables to meet peak demand; when power sells for far more than it cost to generate.  It also means that utilities can meet their own demand spikes without having to pay the often-bruising high prices electricity markets produce at peak demand. 

There’s more.  Energy storage can improve the system’s operating reserve.  Like energy, the grid is always moving – more demand here, less demand there, big storms and equipment failures now and again.  It’s a dance that never stops.  Engineers and analysts meet these constant changes with machines and data to keep the system balanced.  But they are never 100% correct in predicting what will happen on any given day.  Having stored reserve power that can be deployed in seconds boosts the operating reserve, and in doing so, boosts grid stability.  Improving stability can mean lower infrastructure investment costs.  It can also cut the costs of “black starts” when generators go down.  Typically, they have to be restarted with diesel generators, but battery systems for just this purpose have already been successfully tested. 

So, what do utility-scale batteries look like?  Imagine shipping containers lined up in an electrical substation, or row after row of gigantic desktop computer towers.  The Hornsdale Power Reserve, in South Australia, was designed and built by Tesla.  It uses lithium-ion batteries (like in your computer) and provides 129 MWh of power – enough to supply all the electricity for about 3,500 homes for an hour.  These projects sound large, though total deployments to date are tiny – globally about 6 GWh through 2018.  But there’s one simple fact that you need to remember.  In 2010, commercial battery packs cost about $1,100 per kilowatt-hour.  By December 2019, that price had fallen to $156 per kilowatt-hour, a drop of 87% – and nearly 50% of that total decline came in the preceding three years.  With costs set to break the $100 mark by as early as 2024, batteries are increasingly likely to be included in energy infrastructure and development for years to come.