Saturday, September 17, 2011

Electric Cars, Wind Turbines, and Logical Fallacies

contrarian thoughts on alternative energy

Among the faculty at AVC there are a fair number of shop-at-Trader-Joe's, voted-for-Obama, left-of-center types, and among those (many of whom are dear friends and fabulous teachers) there's a vague sense that wind turbines are a good thing, as are electric cars.

Indeed, in the newly redone parking lots, shaded now with the ubiquitous solar panels, there are electric car charging stations.

I've not seen anybody at them, but I assumed it was all vaguely for the public good.

A photography expert, Ken Rockwell, writes a very respected independent photo blog, and while his Libertarian politics do manifest themselves, on average, he stays clear of general politics or cultural commentary.  He did break that rule recently, to talk about electric cars.  While I encourage you to see the site itself (, some of his points are so provocative, they merit discussion here.

Among the points he raises are these.

---Electric cars consume huge amounts of electrical power.  Rockwell: "One electric car consumes as much power in typical operation as four homes."

---If electric cars become widespread, we will need to increase energy output.  That means not just more power plants (up to four times as many as now exist, if the USA went all electric) but four times as many transmission lines and sub-stations.  The skyline would be nothing but utility towers, from horizon to horizon.

While some phone poles have a kind of quaint, "out West" feel along a deserted road, we hardly need more things to create even more visual static. 

---Rockwell again: "It is ironic that the same people who worry about replacing real bulbs with carcinogenic CFL bulbs loaded with mercury, lead, EMI and EMF just to save five watts are the same ones mislead into thinking that an electric car that charges at 10,000 watts overnight on 440V three-phase [ equipment ] is saving energy."

---One problem is the inherent waste in the system.  No car is 100% efficient, nor are the transmission systems efficient, nor the production methods, even with nuclear power (which has its own very problematic ancillary issues).  "When you ignore all the free subsidies handed out like cocaine to get people hooked," he says, then you have to admit that "electric cars need to burn about four times as much [ oil ] to fuel the [ average ] power plant compared to just burning it in your car."  He does the math: "75% of the heat energy of combustion is wasted converting heat to spinning motion in a power plant, [ then ] converting that motion to electricity, transmission to your home, storage in a battery, and conversion back into motion in your car, all with more heat lossses over simply burning the same fuel in your car to make that motion directly."

---A final point of concern is a bit dystopian, but may make some of us pause: "Repressive governments love electric cars, because as soon as power is cut during an uprising, no one can recharge their cars until the civil unrest subsides and the government chooses to restore power."  This assumes that we could buy and pump gasoline without electricity (which, on average, we can't), and assumes too, the refineries and distribution infrastructure would be intact (which it might not be), but I do love the point itself.  Be careful what you give up, as you may want it back one day.

But what about the wind?  That's clean, right?  Couldn't a wind-powered sailboat car park here?

I am in the minority who don't find miles of windmills on the ridges attractive, but that's no reason not to go full-ahead with wind farms, so long as they do what are promised.

But do they?  If we ignore who builds the ball-bearings and which countries sell us the rare metals for the innards and where the money comes from to install them, once up, are wind turbines an answer to everything?

Not for the wildlife.  Ever see those Star Wars kinds of sci-fi films where the hero has to cross a narrow catwalk then dodge between the spinning blades of a turbine fan?  It is like trying to make your way through a garbage grinder.

That is what wind farms are to things that fly, namely hawks, eagles, songbirds, and bats.

Bat Conservation International has a page about bats versus wind turbines on their website.  They claim to have the documentation that shows how "Wind-energy sites, especially those on ridge tops in the eastern United States, are causing unexpectedly high bat fatalities."  Don't think that this won't effect us.  Among the insect-eating species, one bat can eat 600 mosquitoes in an hour, while other types prey on the moths whose larval forms destroy crops.  Other bats pollinate saguaro cactus and the plants that tequila comes from.

At Altamont Pass near San Francisco, 2000 eagles and hawks a year are killed, some chopped right in two, following their annual migration routes from Alaska down over the ridges towards wintering grounds in Mexico, the Antelope Valley, and other wide open spaces.  Just as a hang glider needs to use thermal winds to provide lift, so too for raptors, and where the wind flows through a series of turbines (over 6000 on those ridges as one leaves I-5 before Stockton for the swing west to San Francisco), it is murder alley.

Not all news is bad, though, and after many years of debate, the relevant utility companies are going to start dismantling the old style "lethal" windmills and replace them which much taller units that not only can generate a lot more juice per pole, but also will be placed to cause much less harm to the residents of that airspace.

(A note on photo sources: while almost all of the photos in this blog are by Charles Hood or else are clearly credited to their source, this osprey, above, is better than any of my reference pictures, and came pre-loaded on my Aperture photo software.  I don't know who took it, but it's a great shot!)

The world always seems to be a contradictory and unyielding place.  If electric cars soak up too much just and wind turbines place slice-n-dice with birds of prey, what's left?  Gas is expensive and running out (and probably causes global warming), solar power has yet to become significant, nuclear power is expensive and dangerous (especially in earthquake areas), and so-called "cold fusion" turned out to be a hoax.

I was talking about this once with somebody in Brazil, where they supplement a lot of their petrol with ethanol.  One man told me he had the perfect solution .... and patted his horse's head.

I guess the Lone Ranger never had to wait in line at Arco on a Friday night.  Hi ho Silver, awaaaay!


  1. It's great that we are starting to use more of this kind of technology nowadays than we did before. It helps saves energy which leads to saving the planet as well. Although we have A LOT of room to improve in this area, it's nice that we have at least started to care.

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  2. I've been reading a lot of issues about CFLs and the danger it may bring. I don't know if I already need to change my bulbs at home. All of my bulbs are CFLs. My contractor who took his Contractor CE said that LED is much better to use.