Letter: Give me numbers, not adjectives

No article supporting wind/solar ever addresses the intermittency issue

To the Expositor:

A response to the July 3 note from David Samuels (‘More facts on the march of renewables toward a better world,’ Page 5). It is a reasonably common but fatal error to assume that the rate of progress/improvement in one technology can be duplicated in any other. Lightbulbs are not wind turbines or solar cells. Electronic processing of data is not the same as accelerating a mass to a given speed. The physics involved in each of these examples are quite different. When David Samuels says that he sees no logical reason why technology would not continue to increase the efficiency and reduce the cost of alternative energy systems at an exponential rate, he is making the stated error or he is ignoring the science for ideological reasons.

Perhaps a simple example will help. I was present at a cost reduction seminar a number of years ago in a pyrometallurgical plant. The session was organized to assist the ore drying department to reduce operating costs. A consultant was in the process of convincing the process engineers that reducing drying costs by 40 percent was a possible and required goal. During a break in the action, it was pointed out to the consultant that “drying” meant boiling the water out of the ore. Ninety percent of the department costs were for the necessary fuel. It takes 965 BTUs to convert a pound of water into steam. That simple bit of thermodynamics would determine what was possible, not some hoped for target plucked out of the air.

The same issue is involved in the generation of electrical power—regardless of the means of generation. I have already pointed out in previous letter to the editor the limits that science places on the efficiencies associated with solar panels and wind turbines. David Samuels can stand on his head, sacrifice a chicken to Odin, proclaim that he sees no logical reason, etc but at the end of it all, the only result will be a dead chicken and no exponential rates of improvement. 

The most appalling issue with his entire article is the willingness to cast aside the MacKay text because it was published in 2009. The science hasn’t changed! Newton published Principia Mathematica in 1687. Gravity hasn’t changed all that much in over three hundred years. According to Mr. Samuels, I “place an awful lot of faith in the book.” Actually, I place the same amount of faith in the Easter Bunny. Which is to say, none at all. MacKay points out the physics associated with each type of energy source. He then does the mathematics to calculate the amount of energy that can possibly be derived from each source. To borrow/hack a line from Monty Python’s dead parrot sketch, faith doesn’t enter into it! I suggest more time reading a science text and less time on Wikipedia. If there are deficiencies in the numbers, where might they be? To borrow again from the book, give me numbers, not adjectives.

Finally, a bit about renewables. Samuels would do well to define what he is including in this catch all. The UK includes hydro, landfill gas, bioenergy (wood pellets etc) and of course, wind and solar. It is the later two, wind and solar, that are at issue. in 2017 they generated about 18 percent of the UK total. Natural gas about 40 percent. Notice that no article supporting wind/solar ever addresses the intermittency issue. What happens when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine? And – the answer ain’t batteries!

Shane Desjardins