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Local Futures Conference: Tom Karas
Mark Tovey, 3 Jun 08


I'm attending the International Conference in Peak Oil and Climate Change in Grand Rapids, MI this weekend.

Tom Karas's session looked at coal generation for electricity. His argument, essentially, was that transportation and housing would more or less take care of themselves as energy prices rise. Cars and houses would be replaced. But coal is still regarded as cheap, and accounts for almost 50% of the electricity generation capacity in the United States. He believes that it's realistic to replace that that 50% using 20% conservation, 20% wind, and 10% new technologies. How do we get to 20% wind, when it's a variable power source? The short answer: energy storage.

Large scale storage with compressed air

If you site wind generation capacity in geologically appropriate areas, you can take a small percentage of generated energy, and use it to compress air into geological structures which are capable of maintaining the pressure. When the wind isn't blowing, you allow some of the air back to the ground, and run it through turbines. He said that the concept of 24/7 production of electricity from a wind turbine surprises many people, but there is one operating in Iowa as we speak. One of the audience members gave an example from his own life. A farmer he knows, this man said, ran a personal wind turbine to run his physical plant, coupled to a compressed air tank: the same effect on a personal scale.

Pumped storage with water

Karas also pointed to the Ludington pumped storage facility, which, at 842 acres, and an 1872 MW generation capacity, is one of the largest electricity storage facilities in the world. If we can feed coal-fired electricity into pumped storage, we can do the same for wind or solar.


For future solar solutions, he looks to thin film solar and the kinds of Compact Linear Fresnel Reflector (CLFR) that companies like Ausra are developing for utility scale solar generation.

Speeding up adoption

How do you encourage this kind of infrastructure? How do you make development of these projects make economical sense for investors? Germany's success with Feed-In Tariffs, giving producers reliable prices over the long run inspired Ontario to start their own program in November 2007. Ontario, he said, was hoping for 100 MW of proposals. In fact, they got 65 proposals, totalling 330MW. In Sault St. Marie next year (2009), they will be creating the largest solar farm in Canada (60MW), thanks to Ontario's Renewable Energy Standard Offer Program (RESOP).

He emphasized the need to keep the utilities running to maintain the power lines and infrastructure. It is unrealistic, he said, to expect them to continue the same service they provide now, while reducing their revenues. One promising approach, which has been tried with considerable success in California, is to decouple demand from revenue, by rewarding utilities when their demand goes down.

Outside photo: Local Futures
Inside Photo: Tom Karas

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Great post. I'm so jealous. I wanted to go to that conference. I was in contact with an organizer and suggested Goodstein, the Out of Gas author, who agreed to speak. Look forward to your future posts.


Posted by: Jeff Kart on 3 Jun 08

Karas is long on sunny optimism, but much of what he claims is totally false. Compressed air storage has been proposed and even used for storing wind generated power, but is hopelessly inefficient. The facilities that do exist find it necssary to burn massive amounts of natural gas to heat up the air as it's expanded (and expanding gas cools dramatically and loses kinetic energy). Karas sound more like a shill for some pretty useless technologies. Perhaps he can suggest where one might build pumped storage reservoirs in flat-as-a-pancake western Texas, where
all their wind is located? Wind's problems are far, far greater than any electricity it can generate, which is miniscule. And parrotting the wind industry arguments about wind potential is a childishly irrelevant argument. How much wind is out there is of no consequence when analyzing its value, which is practically nil, as once wind-crazy Denmark has found out via massive government deficits and the dirtiest air in Europe. They are now hoping for plug-in cars to soak up there unusable excess wind, which the government must buy. Photovoltaic is almost as useless as wind and almost as deadly for grid operators when those clouds suddenly reduce output by 100% in a few minutes. Happy days with some really bad alternative energies. Solar thermal is the only
technology out there with any chance of success, as shown by the gigantic switch of billions in investment capital away from wind and wave and PHEV and into solar thermal. The biggest problem with envirnmental hucksterism like Karas' rosy scenarios
is that they are based almost entirely upon fraud. Karas is presenting only the bright side of some dreadfully unreliable, inefficient, extremely costly (wind costs more than 12 times the cost of nuclear power to construct)and just plain primitive. Wind is today no more technically advanced today than it was 2000 years ago.

Posted by: Kerry Bradshaw on 3 Jun 08



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