Electric Cars

Electric Cars

Electric Cars. Are they really all they are hyped up to be? The short answer: hell yeah. These things are sweet. I want to get my hands on one right now.

Energy flows in the US.

Energy flows in the US. Transportation accounts for 28% of all energy use, primarily from burning petroleum. 

35% of US energy consumption is in transportation. Transportation requires that the energy source be within the vehicle (unless you are in South Korea, where the energy source is induction and is beneath the road. Pretty badass, if you ask me). Batteries currently weigh a lot, don't have nearly as much energy per pound as gasoline, and require a long time to charge. But if we could replace a huge percent of this with more efficient electric cars, it would go a long ways towards arresting GHG emissions.  

120 million Americans commute to work by car. The average person lives fewer than 20 miles from work. Substantially all of them commute alone. The Nissan Leaf gets 75 miles before it needs to be recharged. The Tesla model S goes about 275 miles. No matter what the source of energy for an electric car, it produces less CO2 than a normal car.

How does an electric car produce less CO2 than a gas one? No matter the source of the electricity, even if it is an old inefficient coal plant, the conversion efficiency of an electric car will result in lower CO2 emissions per mile than a gas powered car. The EPA estimates that the Nissan Leaf gets an estimated 125mpg using CO2 equivalent of gasoline. The recent fleet average for the US is about 30mpg for passenger cars. So electric cars emit only 25% the CO2 of your average normal car. Lets be generous and say they emit 40% the CO2 of your best gasoline powered cars.

Commuters would make a very significant difference in emissions if they changed over to electric cars.


Most Americans base the acceleration needs of their car on the idea that they someday need to accelerate down on onramp to get to 65mph on the highway. The amount of power a car has is typically listed as horsepower (hp). This is a terrible measure. The real measure of power of a vehicle is Peak Torque.

Allow me to explain this concept. Roughly speaking, torque is the force going into a rotation of an object. It makes sense to use torque to describe cars, cause they have rotation parts. Think of it as the amount of energy going into the car from the tires rotating on the road.

 \tau = r x F (yes, that is a cross product) where r is the radius, or distance from the center of rotation, and F is the force. For the most part, the torque of a vehicle is entirely determined by its engine. It directly translates to how fast you can accelerate. More torque yields less time from zero to 60.

My motorcycle. Pretty, eh?

Let's compare some examples. First,  my favorite. My bike, a Kawasaki VN750, vs. a Hayabusa (fastest production bike in the world) and an electric bike from Zero Motorcycles, the Zero DS. The electric motorcycle gets up to the equivalent of 400mpg. Compare to a normal bike of around 40-50mpg.

VN750 Hayabusa DS-electric
Style Cruiser Sport Sort of cruiser
Weight 500 lbs 563 lbs 400 lbs
Torque (ft-lbs) 47 99.6

Before comparing, let's talk about peak torque. Peak torque is the maximum torque an engine can put out. For a gasoline engine, it is pretty much right before it redlines. So the numbers of 47 and 99.6 you see for the first two bikes means that it is the best they can do. You can think of an electric motor as pretty much always putting out peak torque. In other words, the hayabusa has to jump up to 6500rpm before it can be at full power, then it shifts up a gear, and drops back down out of its full power range. The electric bike doesn't shift gears, either.

Let's look at the Hayabusa power band to illustrate this difference.

Hayabusa power band in yellow. It is not a flat line.

As you can see, the torque output of a gas engine changes with RPM. You will notice the Kawasaki ZX-14 has more max torque, but less torque at the lower end. This is one of the main reasons the 'Busa is considered faster. It comes off the line far faster than other bikes, cause it has higher starting torque. Compare this to an electric engine, which has max torque from 0 RPMs up. You probably see my point about how sweet electric engines are.

So now we can compare electric vs gas based on torque. The electric motorcycle trounces my motorcycle all the time. In the first few moments, it will likely nearly match the Hayabusa. In fact, until the 'Busa hits 3000 RPM, the electric bike won't look too shabby. Why? First, cause it has the same torque as the 'Busa up til the Busa hits 3000rpm. Second, cause it weighs 150 lbs. less. In short, a smaller electric bike kicks butt. (note that the electric bike doesn't have super wide tires to accommodate all its power, so it might slide around a bit when you hammer down).

Where does the electric bike fall short? Range. This bad boy will only go 75 miles on the highway between charges. Funny enough, it'll go 125 in the city. This is all owed to wind resistance.  Back to the point, you can't refill this guy as easily. You need to plug it in. It takes a while to recharge. You can just fill up a motorcycle and go on your way. This bike is pretty much for commuting or visiting friends in nearby cities.

(*2017 update! New electric motorcycles are capable of going 200 miles. Then they have to recharge for a long time. But 200 miles is a long trip).

Also, let's admit it, both my bike and the 'Busa are sexier.

The cars.

Audi A5 Nissan Leaf Tesla S
Cost $38k $21.3k 62,000
MPG 22 102 90
Peak Torque 258 210 443
Weight (lbs) 3549 3354 4650
Range (miles) unlimited 75 275

As you can see, if you are commuting the Nissan leaf makes a lot more sense in every possible way. It costs less to buy than most cars, it has the acceleration potential of a high-end Audi A-5, and the range you need to get to work and back. This beast will accelerate onto the highway just fine. Also, there is the whole power band thing. These electric cars have peak torque all the time.


Electric vehicles. These puppies accelerate as fast or faster than most vehicles in their class. The shorter range ones are less expensive to buy than most cars, and the cost of making them move is lower. Oh, and they save the environment relative to normal cars.

Whats the drawback? Range anxiety: the other event people think of when they don't want an electric car. Visiting Grandma. People want to buy one vehicle that can do everything they want. There is also the concern of "what if I am in an emergency and really need a car that can drive far right away?!?" How many times has that happened to you in your life? For me, the answer is 0. Any family emergency I had, I took a plane or a bus to.

Most families still own two cars. At least one should be electric. Here's an idea: get one gasoline car to visit grandma when you need, and then get an electric for your commute. Here's another idea: get an electric car or two, and rent a car when you need to go visit Grandma. You will save money either way.

The ridiculousness that is trucks and SUVs? Get a subaru with a roof rack, and rent the trucks and SUVs otherwise. Why the heck are you in a vehicle getting 12 miles to the gallon when gas is expensive, and when burning that gas helps wreck the environment? You, person who commutes to work in a pickup, are a selfish person.

Grid Stabilization

In the Solar and Wind articles, we read that these technologies produce intermittent power. In other words, they can't provide power on demand or at night. Imagine, if you will, that those 120,000,000 commuters all had electric cars. And that they all had excess batter capacity. They could charge up while the wind was blowing and the sun was shining, and discharge while the sun was sleeping and while the wind was lazy. Suddenly part of the problem with wind and solar has some help. This is a huge topic, though, and I won't go farther into it.

Shortest version:

Get an electric car for your commute.

Hokay, that is all for now. I will edit this as I get comments. Thanks for reading!

Jason Munster

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

Power Grid

I was struggling to write a post about PV solar panels (the struggling part came in while trying to describe the quantum mechanics that take place), and realized that I need to describe how our power grid works in far greater detail than I had before. What follows is the gory details about how power is transmitted to your home. This is important because while solar power costs 5x as much as coal on the wholesale market, it only costs about 2x as much as coal at your house. Sometimes less. This is because coal-powered electricity is wheeled and dealed through several players as it reaches you, and is marked up every time. Solar power dumps straight into your home. Some of you are gonna love this article, others have already closed it.


On a logistical note, I haven't posted in the last two weeks cause I am too busy with life things to write both the blog and play computer games. Computer games sometimes win out. Thanks, X-Com: Enemy Unknown.

Generators, LSEs, Home Energy

Generators are all the different types of power plants we have discussed. They produce power, and in a deregulated market, sell the power to the grid. They are given a price based on demand. We have discussed how each power plant will "bid in" a day ahead and say how much power they can produce at which prices. As more power is demanded, the price will rise to bring more expensive power online. No matter what the power plant bids in, if they are online, they will get the per-MWh payment of the most expensive plant to come online. In other words, the marginal cost of energy production is what each power plant gets paid per MWh. If an expensive power plant is brought on-line for $1000/MWh, for instance, every single plant that is operating will receive that.

Okay, we have also seen the cost to produce power in several posts. It makes sense to repeat it here.

Dispatchable Technologies
Conventional Coal 85 65.7 4.1 29.2 1.2 100.1
Advanced Coal 85 84.4 6.8 30.7 1.2 123.0
Advanced Coal with CCS 85 88.4 8.8 37.2 1.2 135.5
Natural Gas-fired
Conventional Combined Cycle 87 15.8 1.7 48.4 1.2 67.1
Advanced Combined Cycle 87 17.4 2.0 45.0 1.2 65.6
Advanced CC with CCS 87 34.0 4.1 54.1 1.2 93.4
Conventional Combustion Turbine 30 44.2 2.7 80.0 3.4 130.3
Advanced Combustion Turbine 30 30.4 2.6 68.2 3.4 104.6
Advanced Nuclear 90 83.4 11.6 12.3 1.1 108.4
Geothermal 92 76.2 12.0 0.0 1.4 89.6
Biomass 83 53.2 14.3 42.3 1.2 111.0
Non-Dispatchable Technologies
Wind 34 70.3 13.1 0.0 3.2 86.6
Wind-Offshore 37 193.4 22.4 0.0 5.7 221.5
Solar PV1 25 130.4 9.9 0.0 4.0 144.3
Solar Thermal 20 214.2 41.4 0.0 5.9 261.5
Hydro2 52 78.1 4.1 6.1 2.0 90.3

So the cost to produce is the total system levelized cost (and now you should realize that producing power for $1000/MWh is ridiculously high. Except it has happened recently and momentarily in New England).

People at home don't see the price that a generator gets. Do you notice that you pay about 20 cents per KWh in MA (I use MA cause apparently all my readers are here), it is $200 per MWh. What gives? All these power plants are producing power for way less than that. Except for solar thermal and offshore wind, which both suck and are expensive.

The reason for this is that home/commercial retailers do not buy from the generators and from the wholesale market. Things called Load Serving Entities (LSEs) buy from the wholesale market. Often they will just be your utility company. They then distribute it to end-users or to other complicated things that we don't care about. The end users are your households and commercial things like shopping malls and stores and offices.

Sidebar: One important thing to note is that industry usually buys directly from generators. So while we pay $200/MWh for electricity, a Ford power plant might pay $60/MWh. This has implications that we will discuss later.

So, the LSE buys electricity off the wholesale market. And then marks it up and sells it to consumers. That is why you pay $200/MWh.

RTOs, system management

This section is getting specific, some of you may want to skip to the end of the article, the implications part.

Who tells generators when to come online and manages the wholesale market? Regional Transmission Operators. In New England, our RTO is called ISO-NE, for Independent System Operator of New England. They take bids and determine which power plants produce. They have important things to consider, like making sure a regional power line isn't too congested.

Line Losses

Nearly all power lines lose a percentage of their power as heat. Transmitting long distances loses around 8% of power. This is because there is always some resistance to the flow of electricity. It is like friction for the flowing of electrons. Power lines also have a limit to how much power can flow through them. If you try to go past the limit, they heat up rapidly and lose a ton of power.

The latter is something that the RTOs manage, to make sure that there won't be problems. The former has massive implications for renewable energy. Most of our renewable energy is wind and solar. Like wind in the sparsely populated midwest. And solar in completely unpopulated deserts. Transmitting this power to cities incurs huge line losses. With current capabilities, transmitting power from Iowa wind farms to NYC would make power more expensive than just building the wind farm near NYC, despite that wind in NY sucks (heh, punny). I don't have a source for this, I just saw it at a talk at Harvard.

Implications for installing renewables at home, commercially, and in industry


We pay $200 per MWh of power as residents in Boston. Solar PV in the best cases is $144. This will be in deserts. In MA, we don't get as much sunlight. But for the sake of argument, lets say that the average cost of solar in MA comes out to be $200-$250. With subsidies, it will be less. So would you pay $200 per MWh from your utility, or $200 per MWh to produce your own energy and stick it to the man? Also your own power would be clean, with far less CO2. With subsidies available in places like MA and NJ, solar comes out to less than $200/MWh at home.

Next lets consider commercial places. They also buy from LSEs. This is why you see a ton of them building solar panels. It makes sense economically and gives them a good vibe that the public likes.

Finally, let's consider industry. They buy directly from the wholesale market. So they pay closer to $100/MWh. They won't give two shits about renewables. Because they won't save money by installing renewables on their sites.

And this, my friends, is the trend we see. On-site renewables are adopted by commercial real estate and by residents, and industry is highly unlikely to ever embrace it. Interesting, eh?

Thanks for reading!

-Jason Munster

Solar Power

Solar power. It comes in two primary flavors: photovoltaics (PV) and concentrated solar power (CSP). The latter is easy. I decided to do solar power this week, and go back to the dams next week. Big picture: CSP is a bridge technology at best; an investment in most places is little more than a show that the investor is serious about green tech. Moreover, not all places are created equal to invest in solar power. Many of the places that offer the best incentives to have solar power (NJ, MA, Germany) are far from the best places to have solar power.

So this time: insolation, what it means, where it happens. And CSP. PV comes later. Cause it involves quantum mechanics.

So, first, solar insolation map, AKA "Where is the sun shining all the time" map.

Solar power resources in the US. Darker colors indicate better regions for solar power.

Solar power resources in the US. Darker colors indicate better regions for solar power.

Who is not surprised that Alaska is awful for solar power? But check out MA and NJ. Why are they giving tax breaks to install solar cells? Easy answer. To drive the technology forward. Solar panels are really useful in places without any other power source. Like small villages in Africa and other depopulated places. California also has big incentives to build solar, and at least that makes sense, yes?

What determines how much insolation a place gets? Well, you need sun to have solar power. The sun doesn't come out to party at night, so no solar power. A huge one is how much atmosphere the sunlight has to pass through on the way to the the solar panel. More atmosphere means more absorption and dispersing of sunlight (the atmosphere reflects, absorbs, and spreads out sunlight). So higher elevation, like mountains, helps. Less atmosphere. On a related note, the latitude is also very important. Far northern places don't get as much sun annually (Canada, Alaska). Finally cloud and moisture make a huge difference. If there are clouds or moisture in general, sunlight is blocked. This explains most of the east coast of the US, as well as why Nevada, a giant desert, has great insolation. It has a high elevation, and no moisture to make clouds or block sunlight.

The equivalent amount of sunlight hitting the earth at a high latitude spills out over a larger area. In other words, there amount of energy per area is lower. link

The equivalent amount of sunlight hitting the earth at a high latitude spills out over a larger area. In other words, there amount of energy per area is lower. link

CSP is easy. There are a bunch of mirrors, either flat or parabolic (to focus the light even more intensely), and they reflect light to a single point. It produces heat and and then that heat is used to make steam and drive a turbine, just like the basic thermal power plants we have discussed. The heat is typically stored in molten salt, cause it can store a whole lot of energy before it rises a degree in temperature (kind of like water). The heat from this molten salt is slowly released to make that steam for the thermal part.

CSP in action. Lots of light reflected to a single point that then gets very hot. link.

Given that some places on Earth receive upwards of 500W/m ^2 directly to the surface (assuming no clouds, no pollution, and daytime), a CSP plant that is 500m*500m could produce 125MW of power. Sounds great, right? 'Cept we know from basic thermodynamics that a thermal power plant that this thing is likely going to be 30% efficient. So something with a quarter of a square kilometer footprint might produce 40MW of power.

So why don't we use this? First, the depiction above is too rosy a picture. CSP is not all that efficient, because if you look at the picture above, you see that not all the area is used for gathering light. There are plenty of empty spaces. Moreover, the transfer of heat from the salt to water is not very efficient. Cause the high temperature and low temperature of the Carnot cycle are closer together (review the thermal power plant post for a review of Carnot efficiencies for all heat engines). Finally, this stuff is expensive. It is easily 2x as expensive as almost any other power technology (other than PV). It requires water to clean the mirrors and has other maintenance costs, the mirrors themselves are quite expensive, and the entire design is expensive. And, if you want to harness the power of the sun, there are better alternatives. Like PV.

As you can tell, I don't have a very high opinion of CSP. Why is that? Take a look at this guy again:

U.S. average levelized costs (2011 $/megawatthour) for plants entering service in 2018
Plant type Capacity factor (%) Levelized capital cost Fixed O&M Variable O&M (including fuel) Transmission investment Total system levelized cost
Dispatchable Technologies
Conventional Coal 85 65.7 4.1 29.2 1.2 100.1
Advanced Coal 85 84.4 6.8 30.7 1.2 123.0
Advanced Coal with CCS 85 88.4 8.8 37.2 1.2 135.5
Natural Gas-fired
Conventional Combined Cycle 87 15.8 1.7 48.4 1.2 67.1
Advanced Combined Cycle 87 17.4 2.0 45.0 1.2 65.6
Advanced CC with CCS 87 34.0 4.1 54.1 1.2 93.4
Conventional Combustion Turbine 30 44.2 2.7 80.0 3.4 130.3
Advanced Combustion Turbine 30 30.4 2.6 68.2 3.4 104.6
Advanced Nuclear 90 83.4 11.6 12.3 1.1 108.4
Geothermal 92 76.2 12.0 0.0 1.4 89.6
Biomass 83 53.2 14.3 42.3 1.2 111.0
Non-Dispatchable Technologies
Wind 34 70.3 13.1 0.0 3.2 86.6
Wind-Offshore 37 193.4 22.4 0.0 5.7 221.5
Solar PV1 25 130.4 9.9 0.0 4.0 144.3
Solar Thermal 20 214.2 41.4 0.0 5.9 261.5
Hydro2 52 78.1 4.1 6.1 2.0 90.3
Solar thermal is expensive. And the capacity factor is junk. There are places for it, but those are so few that it is not worth further exploring this technology.
That's it for now. Thanks for reading!
-Jason Munster

Hydro Power

Hydroelectric Power is pretty simple, yes? Build a dam, run water through turbines, get energy out. Turns out that it is a bit more complicated that that. But not by much, actually. So I am going to do a quick summary of how hydropower works, the environmental disaster that it can be (always with the tradeoffs, eh?). I was going to profile three major power plants: Hoover, Grand Coulee, and Three Gorges. But I ran out of space. Next week we will discuss pumped hydro to make the biggest batteries on the planet, and also these three dams in details.


Hey! Finally! A picture I took myself! I was at the three gorges dam as they were just completing it. Also, China has air pollution issues.

How does water power work? Put simply, water falls from a height and the energy of it is harnessed by spinning a turbine. More complicated, it is mass*gravity*height:

 m \cdot g \cdot \Delta h

Schematic cross-section / block diagram of a hydropower plant. link.

Now we also need to round down for efficiency. Our thermal power plants are limited by carnot efficiency, yes? And even the best don't really break 50% efficiency all that easily. What would you guess the efficiency of a hydro plant turbine is, then?

That depends on the type of turbine used. It turns out that turbines are some of the most efficient parts of any generating facility. In short, expect these guys to have 90%+ efficiency, probably closer to 95%. Different styles are used depending on the height of water drop (water moving really fast from a half-kilometer drop will have very different dynamics than water moving from a 20m drop).

The general design of a hydropower turbine. Water flows through the blades and the generator is, in turn, spun quickly. link

So let's figure out how much water we need to move to make 100MWh of electricity from a 200m drop! Now 1 MWh is    3.6 \cdot 10^9 J , so 100MWh 3.6 \cdot 10^{11} J

 3.6 \cdot 10^{11} = mass \cdot 9.8 \frac{m}{s^2} \cdot 200m

 mass = \frac{3.6 \cdot 10^{11}}{9.8 \frac{m}{s^2} \cdot 200m}

 mass = 1.8 \cdot 10^8 kg of water needs to be moved. In other words, it takes 18 thousand kilotons of water movement to produce 100MWh. Or, looked at another way, 18,000 cubic meters of water. Still not following? It's about 8 olympic sized swimming pools worth of water. Dropping 200m. Or 1/8 a mile, for you Americans out there that don't play in Metric.

Hokay, enough maths for now. This sounds great, right? Why don't we build these things everywhere? When I take courses on how to fix the environment, there are always a majority of people that assume we can build more hydro power plants. But we can't in the US. Why not?

Well, it turns out that you need to have a large height drop to make this work. You also need a lot of water flowing into whatever reservoir is behind the dam, a ton of land behind that dam to flood, and you also need enough high terrain behind it so the water doesn't spill out everywhere. Moreover, you need a massive height difference between the upper reservoir and lower reservoir to make it work. Example: the Amazon river has a huge % of total world river flow, but we can't get electricity out of it, cause the elevation drop of it is so tiny. In short, there aren't a ton of places where where hydro works well. And imagine if a few people live there. Most aren't gonna take to kindly to their homes being put under tons of water. But you know where this can happen? China! They moved 1.3 million people to build Three Gorges. More on that later. Also, Africa has a ton of places that are building dams. Turns out that China is funding a lot of these. Cause China is starting to do humanitarian things internationally to make allies with the countries that will be the source of most world growth over the next 50 years. Upsides and downsides of a command economy, right?

Hokay, I got distracted there. Environmentalists don't like dams because they mess up fish migrations, destroy natural habitats, destroy the landscape in general, and in many countries, since hydro power is so cheap, heavy industry moves in next to them to get the cheap electricity. China is a great example (sorry I keep using you as an example, China, but I haven't read about other countries much). Along many rivers, supposedly clean hydro power goes in, only to be followed by very polluting industries. Rivers turn funny colors, the water is terrible to drink, and you can't see the sun through pollution on several days. This is getting better, cause China is making the middle-income transition, and citizens are demanding safer living environments.

I got distracted again. Other problems with dams? They tend to be on rivers. Rivers carry sediment. Much like wind can pick up grains of sand and throw then around, rivers do the exact same thing. They carry a lot of sand in them. But when they hit a damn, the river stops. The sediment load drops to the ground. After several decades, sufficient sand has dropped to clog the dam. Adding to this problem is that these sediments have a bunch of heavy metals that have been leached from the local environment. In short, a hydro dam leaves behind a mess that is quite hazardous. Cleaning it up can be difficult. Still, hydropower doesn't cause many deaths, unlike coal-fired power plants.

Focusing on that last point, what does hydro power not produce? CO2. Mercury. SO2. NOx. It produces none of the nasty things that coal fired power does (even gas-fired plants produce NOx and CO2). It tends to be very inexpensive. It is much prettier to look at a hydro plant than a coal, gas, or nuclear plant (Except on a polluted day in China, look at that picture again!).

We are running out of space in this article (I am calling them articles cause I am pretending they are articles on a web page instead of a blog post, cause I am pretentious). To summarize, hydro power is cleaner than other power supplies. It is cheaper than most. It does have its drawbacks, including displacing people and destroying land, but these are smaller than the drawbacks of coal and natural gas. It is also a nearly completely tapped resource in the US.

-Jason Munster

End-note: if you have a lot of interest in this sort of thing discussed here, I would highly suggest the book When A Billion Chinese People Jump by Jonathan Watts. It is an amazing book