The environmental news has been dominated by the recent big oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Many people have been trying to gauge, estimate, or describe how big the oil spill is, but I have not been able to grasp what it looks like, until now. NASA has released a high resolution satellite image of the oil spill. From space, it does not look all that big, but it does cover a lot of area. It is probably the biggest oil spill in U.S. history and it does not take to much raw oil to make thousands of gallons of water toxic. It will be a long clean-up effort. If you are like me, you have been itching for a more in depth explanation of the problems involved in shutting down the well. Here is a more thorough article about the challenges.
The oil spill has of course brought more calls from environmental-minded people to stop off-shore drilling altogether. Seeing the cost of clean-up, many people will be tempted to make an economic case for stopping all drilling and all fossil fuel use. Although the disaster might cost tens of billions of dollars, the US spends 1.7 billion on oil everyday ($85 per barrel, 20 million barrels per day). It would be nearly impossible to immediately reduce our dependency on oil, off-shore drilling, or even deep water drilling alone. Most new sources of oil over the oceans is in “deep water”. Of course, if you don’t mind paying $10 per gallon of gas, we could reduce our dependency real quick-like, but I doubt there is a shred of political will to institute that type of economic sacrifice. What can be done? We can continue incrementally improving our clean energy technology. New inventions and manufacturing processes continue to pay increasing dividends each month and each year. What often happens with information-based technology (of which solar technology is becoming more and more) is that it seems to crawl along slowly and then explode upon the scene. We might be poised for such a revolution in a few years if solar power production keeps growing and costs keep coming down. As long as there is no major societal disaster, the trends for solar power are looking good. Even using biofuels or natural gas would help to bridge the gap from traditional fossil fuels toward the next energy source.
For whatever reasons – a mix of science and gut feeling – I have never jumped on the wind power bandwagon. Perhaps it is because I have seen the dilapidated old wind farms of the 1970s and 1980s. They were still there in California in 2000 but mostly broken down and not producing electricity – taking up hundreds of acres of land. I always wondered why they didn’t clean them up. Probably because it costs money. Someone needs cut these things up, maybe use a crane, ship it away, etc… Then there is a big cement block in the ground that serves as a base. The newest large wind turbines have even bigger bases. These are not easy to move, but I digress.
Besides off-shore drilling, the news cycle has also brought some other off-shore energy back into focus: The Cape Cod off-shore wind farm has finally gotten approval (kind-of, there is also more red-tape, but the fattest red tape has been taken care of). I made a little hay in the past about this wind farm project, pointing out some hypocrisy. When it was first proposed, the very environmentalist politicians who thought wind power was great (Edward Kennedy in particular), all of a sudden didn’t like it going up in their “backyard”. Besides wind power being an eyesore (according to many), it is still relatively expensive (including the life cycle costs) and unlikely to get cheaper. Off-shore wind farms are twice as expensive as on-shore according to this article. I wonder if off-shore wind farms will remain as popular once people start getting the electric bills. Large wind farms might also have unexpected negative impacts on the climate.
In the end, although I enjoy seeing people experimenting with wind power (like at Wausau East) and it is cleaner energy, I just don’t see a big future in it. It is an old form of mechanical power getting a new lease on life. Wind power is not going to “take us to the stars”. For continued progress we will likely require some form of energy that is cheap and abundant.
Have a good Tuesday! Meteorologist Justin Loew.
This post was written by jloew on May 4, 2010