Storing Wind Energy

Storing Wind Energy

(C) Eric R. Pianka

The latest in Emily Grubert's Daily Texan series on energy usage by humans contrasts burning fossil fuels with capturing energy from the wind. Whenever you turn on a light, you are usually releasing solar energy captured by plants millions of years ago -- essentially, you are being illuminated by fossil sunlight that fell on the Earth long ago. Wind is renewable but erratic, electricity is difficult to store and usually must be used immediately. Battery technology to improve our ability to store electric energy has been painfully slow.

The great Dr. Jay Wright Forrester, a professor at MIT, grew up in rural Nebraska. While he was in high school, Forrester rigged up a wind powered 12-volt DC electrical system using a windmill and an automobile generator. Essentially, the wind turned the generator. But, what to do when the wind didn't blow? Inspired by a grandfather clock, Forrester came up with a solution: when the wind DID blow, it lifted a heavy weight, then when it was calm, the weight fell by gravity turning the generator. This same mechanism could be used to pump water uphill during with wind energy, which could then be reclaimed as hydroelectric power when there was no wind. Dr. Forrester invented "system dynamics" and won the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Medal of Honor in 1972.

Access to unlimited cheap clean energy, such as that so ardently hoped for in the concept of cold fusion, would actually be one of the worst things that could possibly befall humanity. Such energy would enable well meaning but uninformed massive energy consumption and habitat destruction (i.e., mountains would be leveled and terraced, massive water canals would be dug, ocean water distilled, water would be pumped and deserts turned into green fields of crops). Human populations would grow even higher until the last vestiges of natural habitats are all destroyed. Heat dissipation would of course set limits, for when more heat is produced than can be dissipated, the resulting thermal pollution would quickly warm Earth's surface to the point that all life is threatened, perhaps the ultimate ecocatastrophe. Even if humans were not adding vast amounts of excess heat by burning non-renewable fossil fuels and running nuclear reactors, Earth can no longer dissipate the heat it receives from normal incident solar radiation fast enough to stay in balance (Hansen et al. Science 2005). Waste heat generated from burning fossil fuels and nuclear reactors only adds insult to injury.

Humans must learn to live more frugally using much less energy. Our economic system based on continual growth must be replaced by a sustainable system where each of us leaves the planet in the same condition that it was in before we were born. This will require many fewer of us and much less extravagant lifestyles. We won't be able to move around so freely (flights to San Francisco will become a thing of the past) and we will have to go back to walking and riding bicycles and horses. In addition, our descendants will have to be more spread out, living without big cities.

Links: The Weakest Link

Searching for a Miracle

Ten Fundamental Principles of Net Energy

Down to the Bottom Line: Energy

Enyclopedia of Earth links on Energy

Download Burkhardt essay on energy technology

Al Gore's bold new goal

Gravity Batteries

The Energy Shadow of a Dollar

Realistic Perspective on The Decline of Oil Supplies

Wikipedia: Peak Oil

Enyclopedia of Earth: Global Warming

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