Other Alternatives

Here we will cover a few more electricity producing alternatives, specifically geothermal in its different flavors, and the waste of money that is tidal power. Before that, let's make a quick roadmap of what we have covered, where that is going, and what we haven't yet covered.

Pretty much, we have talked about electricity producing resources. We have only briefly touched on energy as a whole. In the US, for example, 35% of all energy use is petroleum for transportation. None of the stuff we have discussed is useful to replace that without better battery technology. Nonetheless, it is likely that at some point in the next century, much of our domestic energy needs, including transport, will be covered by electricity. And we will require a lot more of it. An upcoming post will assess all the different tech for producing energy we have discussed, and which ones can be potential solutions.


Geothermal energy exists because it gets hot underground. In general, the temperature of the Earth rises by 30 degrees C for every km you go underground. This temperature increase in depth is called the geothermal gradient. If you go 7km underground, you are pretty much guaranteed temperatures of higher than 200 degrees C. Which, as we all know, is hot enough to boil water. 7km underground is pretty deep, however. In some places, the underground is much hotter. The temperature rises much more rapidly. It could be due to volcanic activity in the area, or radioactive decay underground. Either way, when hot temperatures are closer to the surface, that heat can be harnessed to drive a turbine.

Map of the geothermal resources available in the US. In general, this represents areas of higher temperature gradients.

Geothermal comes in two main flavors. One directly harnesses the steam from the ground to produce electricity (called flash steam, cause the pressurized hot water comes out, flashes to steam at atmospheric pressure, and drives a turbine), the other uses a heat-transfer mechanism where pressurized hot water from the subsurface (it needs to be pressurized, because it is above the boiling point of water at atmospheric pressure) is run through a set of heat-exchanging pipes before being put back underground. There is a third type discussed later in the article called hot dry rock.

Surprisingly, the first mechanism of directly using steam, in practice, is unsustainable and produces pollution. This is because the used steam is often vented to the atmosphere. The steam produced underground has pollutants. Like CO2 and sulfur, amongst other things. If the steam is used directly in a turbine and then expelled to the atmosphere, these pollutants come with it. If the used steam is instead re-injected into the formation, this problem is avoided.

Reinjecting the steam is easier and more common in the heat-exchange mechanism. The super heated stream of steam from underground is already isolated, and re-injection is pretty simple.

And here comes the fun part. If the steam is used and then vented rather than reinjected, the formation will run out of water. Instead of being a renewable resource, the geothermal will be a depletable resource that will only last for 10 or 20 years. This is because the pressure of the formation will drop, and the steam will no longer be able to rise. Does this sound familiar? Oil and gas production need to do this all the time to get maximum recovery rates. Reinjection of fluids is rather easy, and has been pretty well developed by the oil and gas industry.

Hot Dry Rock

The next major innovation takes a cue from the oil and gas industry. Hot dry rock is exactly what it sounds like. The rock starts off hot and dry. It has plenty of heat in it, but there is no steam or water to produce and then make energy from. How is this dealt with? Hydrofracking and injection. A well is drilled, the drill hole goes horizontal, it is fracked to drastically increase the surface area that the well hole can be exposed to, and water is injected into the rock. The water heats up a lot, then it is produced via a separate well to make steam. It is fairly complicated, and costs a lot more.


EGS stands for enhanced geothermal systems. You will run across this term a lot these days. It more or less means that the heat in the field is managed by either fracking beforehand, injecting water afterwards to maintain pressure in the field and extend the life of the geothermal power plant, or a combination of both. It drastically increases the lifetime and viability of a geothermal site.


The capital costs of geothermal pretty much will dictate the average cost of electricity produced. It looks like flashed steam will cost the least. In reality, unless the steam is reinjected afterwards, the field won't last as long, and the capital investment costs will have to be paid out over a shorter period of time, resulting in higher costs. Hot dry rock will undoubtedly always remain more expensive because of the costs associated with fracking and reinjection.

Footprint and other

Most of our power plants produce heat above ground, and need storage for either spent nuclear fuel or a coal pile (except for gas plants. They just need pipelines). So geothermal power plants don't take up a ton of space

fun uses of geothermal: geothermal heat is produced and used in Iceland to melt snow on the roads and such.


I tend to think that tidal power sucks. In part because it is very expensive, and in part because at best it could provide all of 1% of world electricity.

Tidal power has two main problems: it uses salt water and it has only a few areas that it will work. There needs to be tides of sufficient strength that it can produce electricity, and even then, salt water is corrosive, limiting the lifetime of these power plants and making the levelized capital cost very high.

Tidal power also comes in two main flavors. One is tidal impoundment. Think of it as creating a hydroelectric dam every time the tide goes out. The tide comes in, fills up the area behind the impoundment dam, and then as the tide goes out, the area behind the impoundment dam is filled, and as it flows out, it generates electricity. As you recall from the hydropower article, the energy produced from a hydro dam directly relates to its height. The height of a tidal impoundment dam is limited by the height of the tide. In most parts of the world, this is not very high, so it is not very efficient. Moreover, it kinda messes with natural habitats.

The other type of tidal power is more or less an underwater wind turbine. The problem is that all the moving parts are underwater in the ocean. Where decay and breakdown happens quickly. Moreover, looking at the equation of energy produced via such a turbine:

 E = \frac{1}{2} A \rho v^3

where A is area, and v is velocity,

we quickly realize that the area of the rotor for a tidal turbine is small (wind turbines have 40m blades, and we aren't gonna have 80m of water depth in most places to replicate that scale in tidal areas), and the speed is slower (water doesn't flow at 6-8m/s very often). Tidal power can't scale and produce as much energy as wind. And the environment is unfavorable. In short, this is not a viable resource for large-scale energy production. And it costs a lot.

Hokay, that is all for today! Thanks for reading!

-Jason Munster


Solar 2

Photovoltaic solar cells. Solar PV.

This is not an easy thing to describe. For some, you may want to just skip past the technical section, cause it is pretty technical.

Solar PV: they used to take as much electricity to make as they produced in their lifetime. Now they they produce about 5x as much energy as they take to make, and the time to break-even on emissions compared to our cleanest fossil fuel stations is about 6 years (see Kannan, 2005, Lifecycle Assessment Study of Solar PV). Of all the clean technologies (nuclear power excluded), this is the only one with the potential to supply world energy needs (that is the subject of a later post).

In other words, when you hear some fool saying that solar panels take as much energy to manufacture as they ever produce, they are referring to a specific type of solar cells called thin film. A type that was made in the 70s and 80s and only goes into things like calculators. Feel free to ask them to stop being foolish.

Some Math

The light we see is not a homogenous single color. In fact, the light we see is not even all the light that is coming from the sun. Infrared and UV rays are also light, but we cannot see them at all. All this light is just an electromagnetic wave. The waves have different wavelengths, but the same speed, and so all the different wavelengths travel together. What we see is a blend of a tiny part of the electromagnetic spectrum.

This is the electromagnetic spectrum. Visible light, what we can see, is only a small part of it.

This is the electromagnetic spectrum. Visible light, what we can see, is only a small part of it.

The amount of energy contained in a photon is equal to

 E = \frac{hc}{\lambda} where \lambda is the wavelength. h and c are Planck's constant and the speed of light, respectively.

Smaller (shorter) wavelengths give more energy. This is easily shown just by plugging a smaller number into the denominator. Stuff in the infrared is long wavelength, and stuff in UV, X-ray, Gamma ray, etc, are really short wavelength.

Technical Stuff

There is no easy way to do this. I am going to use some terminology that most of you all are unfamiliar with.

A Photo Voltaic (PV) solar panel is a sandwich of two materials. The materials are largely the same, with a few key differences. Both are likely made of silicon (processed sand). But each one has very specific impurities put into them, in a process called doping (not the same type that Lance Armstrong does). This doping is incredibly technical, and very skilled chemists are paid a ton of money to figure out how to do it.


I won't get into specific materials. Some elements cause there to be a shortage of electrons, or a electron hole, in the whole material (p-type semiconductor). Other elements cause an excess of electrons (n-type semiconductor). So you have one material that can accept electrons, and another material that can give electrons. Putting them together (literally stacking them together) makes magic happen. And by magic, I mean quantum mechanics. Which to most people, including many who study it, is no different than magic.

Just because one has more electrons doesn't mean it wants to be nice and share them. The electron in the n-type literally needs to be excited to be shared. And in PVs, what turns the n-type material on is sunlight. More specifically, photons. Photons are particles of light. ("But Jason!" you say, "Isn't light, like, a wave?" to which I say, "It is both a wave and a particle! Please don't ask me why, just accept it.") Photons contain energy based on their wavelength. Shorter wavelength, more energy (see above).

Here's the fun part. It takes energy to make the n-type semiconductor want to party with the p-type semiconductor. There is a threshold level of energy that needs to be met to kick that electron up from the n-type to the p-type. Too little energy, and the photon doesn't get excited enough to go to the electricity-production party. If there is enough energy from the particular wavelength of light to make that electron jump, then is does jump.

But what if there is more than enough? This threshold level is pretty much determined. Any extra energy will be wasted. This is why PV cells are not particularly efficient. There is a huge amount of light that is too low-energy (all of infrared) for the cell to gather any energy from. There is a lot of light that has much higher energy than required to meet the threshold energy as well. The excess energy is wasted as heat. This can be solved by having a multiple junction cell (multiple junctions just means it has a bunch of different width absorption gaps, so it can harness tons of different energy levels in light). It is capable of absorbing more wavelengths of light, increasing efficiency. And since it has multiple junctions, it is also more expensive and complicated to produce.

Hokay, so, what happens next? You have an electron that has jumped the gap. Then you close the circuit by connecting them with a wire. The electron will go home, back to the n-type, and create an electric charge on its way down. That's about it.

New Methods 

Transistors are expensive. Normal glass optics are relatively cheap. The transistors absorb about 20% of the light that hits them. So it would make sense to use cheap optics to focus more light on the transistors and make the transistors small, yes?

One problem with these cells is how warm they get. If they warm up too much, they begin to lose efficiency. Here we see that we have a tradeoff. We want more optics and fewer cells, but if we do this, they get too warm. They stop being efficient. Some scientists and engineers are working on increasing the efficiency of the cells instead, to get more electricity from light. Otherwise, there are clever ways that some mechanical engineers are trying to get around these issues. One new design uses focusing mirrors and liquid cooling to get around this issue.

The pertinent stuff

Everything pertinent, like insolation and weather, was in the last solar article.

Next post: rounding up some of the stray power sources: tidal, geothermal, wave, and then I am pretty much done.

Thanks for reading.

-Jason Munster