Monday, March 19, 2012

Solar Pants Almost On Fire, and the Smart Power Grid

It's not a big news item, but it's an item just the same, and one that caught my eye in particular for this one guy's quote.

Santago Arias, technical director of Torresol Energy in Spain, said "It is the first station in the world that works 24 hours a day, a solar power station that works day and night!"  He's right in the details - it is indeed the first solar power station that works 'round the clock.  But the first solar power station that could keep working beyond sunset was right here in the US: Solar Two, converted from its predecessor Solar One.

Mr. Arias is talking about the Gemasolar station, a huge (about 3/4 of a square mile of collecting area) installation that bounces sunlight from a tremendous array of flat mirrors, up to a single receiving collector on a tower in the center of the array.  Needless to say, the temperatures generated at the receiving station are tremendous.  The receiver dumps all that heat into circulating heat transfer fluid (maybe water, not sure), which in turn heats water to generate steam to operate power generating turbines.

But how does it operate during the night?

Easy.  You can't store AC electricity.  You CAN store heat.  In this case, the excess heat from the system is dumped into gigantic vats of molten salts.  The salts absorb a staggering amount of heat energy by melting from a solid to a liquid state - the change of phase in itself absorbs a lot of energy, and releases it right back again when it changes back from a liquid to a solid.  And after the sun goes down the heat collector in the middle of the mirror field is out of the loop; the transfer loop that was dumping heat into the salt vats earlier is now picking up heat from the salt vats, and conveying it to the steam turbines.  The steam turbines just keep working.  Stored heat, generated heat, it's all the same to them.  They just work.

But it's not entirely the first of its kind.  Let's talk about Solar Two.

Solar Two was Solar One for a while, but was expanded and added storage capacity and an integer to its name.  By adding storage capacity - the same molten salt scheme as Gemasolar is using - Solar Two in Barstow CA was able to keep operating as much as three hours after sundown.  The salt tanks also kept the plant operating at full capacity through periods of cloudiness, a big boon to be sure.

Now let's talk a little about why that's such a big boon.  The national electrical grid is kind of fragile.  It's designed to do one thing: deliver power from the generators to the consumers.  One thing it doesn't do is respond quickly to changes.  California has discovered just how difficult that makes things, having suffered the brunt of manufactured shortages via Enron, and discovered that the existing grid cannot easily handle added loads.  That's why it makes you such a popular customer in California if you sign up with the utility's "smart" or "responsive" grid program, which gives the utility the capacity to reduce or even turn your power off during high-usage periods.  You get a nicer rate on your bill for being willing to be in the dark for a while when the temperature spikes.

That responsive grid is part of what the issue is.  Solar and wind, they're a little sketchy.  They come and go.  The sun's output is at least predictable in that we know to the minute when the sun will come up, and we have a good idea of what the weather will be.  But wind, well.  That's even less reliable than the sun.  It might blow, it might not.  You might have years of data saying that there's an average wind speed of thus-and-such many miles per hour per day at one location, but that doesn't tell you anything about today.

The storage-enhanced solar plant is everything you could hope it would be.  It's power 'round the clock.  Where I live there's a big coal-fired plant down the road that's running 'round the clock, and a medium-small hydroelectric dam running 'round the clock.  But the coal plant contributes to acid rain, which is Bad.  The dam is continually drawing down on the lake, which for every extra foot of depth generates about an extra million dollars per week in revenue.  Losing the depth is Bad.  How then, if we could have a gigantic structure somewhere that reaped the sunlight and converted that into energy and also set some aside for use all night long?  Then we could close the dam's gates for a few hours and gain some depth.  We could leave the coal plant off for a few hours, just ticking over, ready to fire up to full power to generate a surge of power if needed.  How about we make the renewable, freely falling sunlight the steady-state power source, and have the dirty or detractive technologies on standby?

Or we have big enough solar storage that the storage is the standby, and we can close the coal plant entirely?  That would be cool.

It wouldn't even have to put all those coal plant workers out of business.  The technology on the turbine side is exactly the same, half those guys working at the coal plant could be lifted out of the coal plant, dropped into the solar plant, and know exactly what was what, and work effectively with minimal retraining, if any.

The coal miners might complain.  They could get work reconstructing all those mountaintops back to where they belong.  Then they could get jobs levelling landfills and whatnot into solar reflector fields.

Just a few thoughts.  A big solar plant like Spain's takes up almost a square mile, but what if you don't make it contiguous?  What if there's a patch of reflectors here and a few more over there and another batch on top of the new Wal-Mart?  Give up a few percentage points of efficiency, but you put the power close to where it's going to be used.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Rush Limbaugh: Shut Him Up, Or Not?

Limbaugh's big mouth is in the news again.  We must assume that all of Rush is in the news, because we must assume that his mouth is in fact under his brain's direction, but if it weren't that might explain some things.

The most recent flap is that Rush called law student Sandra Fluke a slut and prostitute.  He did this in a contextually iffy way, equating her with a slut or prostitute because, by wanting her insurance provider to also cover contraceptives, she essentially wanted to be paid to have sex.

There are several places you can go to get the whole transcript of what was said.  At first I thought, by the tone of all the news reaction, that he must be raving mad, eyes rolling in their sockets, spraying spittle at the microphone and slamming the desk with a big hammy hand.  Well, not so.  Unfortunately, Rush sounds perfectly rational and reasonable when he says these terrible things.

Ms. Fluke was invited by Democratic members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform to speak at a hearing discussing whether the Obama administration was failing to maintain the separation of church and state.  Committee chairman Darrell Issa (R. Calif.) disallowed her attendance on the grounds that she was not a member of clergy, but a speech she delivered at another event was included in the record on the grounds of its relevance to the topic at hand.

At this moment I would like to point out that out of the 40 members on this committee, four are women.

Let's write that really big: only four women on that committee.  

From the outset, you can't easily expect that issues of especial concern to women will get a fair shake.  Even when Congress has only approximately a 17% female makeup, it barely tops half that on this committee.  Talk about oversight.  This is an oversight if I ever saw one.

Why is it that Congress's makeup is only 17% female?  That's ridiculous.  The country is more than 50% female, let's get a few more ladies in here making some decisions.  The representation is off by two-thirds.

Anyway, here's where Rush starts to weigh in.  Being Rush, he weighs in a lot.  Read into that what you will.

Here's the real fly in the ointment: Rush has a point.  Fluke undermines her own argument pretty deeply at the outset, stating that many women have to stop using birth control because they can't afford it.  Well, having sex is optional.  You won't die if you don't have it.  And no one should be obligated to help subsidize your sex life: either you can afford to have sex, or you can't.  It's up to you to know the difference.  Fluke never points these facts out, she mentions the fact that these people are having sex, and points out that their financial situation has indeed caused them to change their behavior, but their change of behavior hasn't been to stop having sex.  No, their recourse is the most irresponsible option of all: keep having sex, but now they're also at risk for unintended pregnancies!  I'm not going to say anyone who does that is a slut or a prostitute, but I will freely say out loud and in print, they're stupid!

Fluke goes on to describe situations, not all that rare, where contraceptives have medical benefits besides just contraception.  That's a perfectly valid defense of expecting contraceptive coverage regardless of religious exhortation.  It's not for the purpose of contraception, it's for the health of the women.  That's the point where she finds all the bullets in her gun and starts firing for effect.

Rush doesn't mention that part.  No, he jumps on her sex statement.  Like I said, he's got a point: no one should be expected to subsidize your nooky.  You want to play, you got to pay: condoms, sponges, hormone patches, whatever.  That, or learn to respond to "mommy" and "daddy."  That's how these things work.  And if you can't afford any of those things, well, everybody just keep your hands to yourselves and all of your clothes on.  That's how these things are prevented from working.

But there's no need to resort to calling names.  Especially not insulting, demeaning names.  "Slut" is an ugly word no matter how you look at it.  It's not something you say to someone you hope to be able to speak nicely to later.  "Prostitute" isn't quite so bad but it isn't friendly either.  There are no positive connotations associated with "prostitute."

This was the part where Rush shook all the bullets out of his gun and threw it away.  It's one thing to be opinionated, it's one thing to be a highly conservative mouthpiece.  It's one thing to be considered a brilliant commentator.

And it's a whole 'nother thing to be a jerk.  I'm not actually calling Rush a jerk, notice.  I'm just saying that it's just awful to display jerk-like behavior.  One would hope that the whole thing could be blamed on being blitzed on Oxycodone.  But since he keeps submitting clean samples at his random tests, I guess that's not a viable excuse.

So while Rush may have had a point, he went way, way over the line with his commentary.  He went from attacking the stance, attacking the issue and its validity, attacking the Obama admiinistration's demand for universal contraception coverage, to attacking the person.  Failing to notice that Ms. Fluke never said she herself was having more sex than she could afford, Rush called her names that were entirely unwarranted and unsupportable.  Calling insulting names in the first place is immature at best, but when it comes from someone who's supposed to be thinking stuff like this through, it's frankly startling.

He gets even more insulting by suggesting that Ms. Fluke should "give something back" to the American people for subsidizing her sex life: he suggests she become a porn actress.  As if his scorn weren't enough, he has to become lewdly ludicrous.

In the wake of this indefensible vitriol, Rush has been losing advertisers left and right, to the point that some segments of his show are even closing with dead air: there are no advertisers at all to fill the slot.  There's just silence.

Now the question comes up: should Rush be muzzled?  They're asking this very question at such outlets as The Huffington Post and - both representatives of the so-called "liberal media" that such conservative mouthpieces as Rush constantly rail against - and defending him.  Make no mistake, they call him out as an arrogant bully, but they defend his right to say what he thinks.

And so do I.  He has the right to say whatever he wants, no matter how big of a jerk it makes him.

But that doesn't mean anybody has to pay him to say it.  Jane Fonda says he should be pulled off the air.  She's dead wrong of course, it's not up to her to say that.  It's up to everyone, and for the radio network that pays him those big checks to say, "all right, that's enough of you," and can him.  Rush shouldn't be fired because of what he said - but if there were something you should be fired for saying, I'd suggest this as a good example - he should be fired for alienating his audience and chasing off the advertisers.  That is to say, he's costing his network listeners and revenue.  That's the bottom line.  When you cost more than you're worth, you're done.

Don't worry, he's both rich and old.  He'll be dead before he's poor.