Think small for nascent alternative energy technologies

Alternative energy sources are needed in the long run, but have obstacles to implementation in today’s financial and political climate. With dropping oil prices and a Congress less inclined to fund expensive, and often untested technologies, we need to consider ways to reduce costs, and get the most for our tax dollars. Big corporations prefer big power plants, often in remote locations. They have been counting on the government to subsidize them, for land, for building the plants, and for building transmission lines to where power is needed.

Distributed production has several advantages. It can be produced near to where it is needed, as is being done with rooftop solar collectors. New transmission lines are not needed; the electricity goes directly into the distribution network. A similar system can work with small-scale wind turbines and certain geothermal technologies in rural areas. Distributed production is less susceptible to variations in wind or sun that can affect large localized power plants. And distributed networks are far less susceptible to power disruption due to environmental catastrophes or sabotage. They are a viable alternative energy source for rural areas and a valuable supplement in metropolitan areas.

In the future, ocean-based wind and wave power generation will be important in the U.S., as most populated areas are near the coast. However, there are many technical and regulatory hurdles to be overcome before it can become a major contributor to our power mix. The ocean can be a hostile environment. Waves have enormous power, and salt water is corrosive. Most proposed sites are in areas with large waves with the aim of maximizing produced energy per installed extraction device. Most wave energy devices fail because they have moving parts that cannot withstand such an environment. Most proposed sites are also far from where energy is needed, and require extensive transmission networks.

An alternative approach to these problems is to start smaller, in less stormy seas, and close to where the energy is needed. Devices with few or no external moving parts, and encased in non-corrosive enclosures will be less prone to damage. Devices below the surface or on the ocean floor may be preferable; they would be invisible from shore, and also less affected by the surface waves. They would not extract the maximum energy of the waves, but starting with such a network could prove the technology, and be improved in successive iterations.

For a copy of the complete presentation given at the Pacific Section AAPG Convention, contact Ken at kp at

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Distributed energy generation alternatives

Sources of clean energy may be offshore or onshore, each with advantages and disadvantages.  Offshore development has technical and bureaucratic hurdles that will keep it from being an important source of US power for many years.

Onshore wind generation installations have fewer hurdles and lower cost.  However, large installations in areas of abundant wind resources often require more grid capacity than is available at those locations.   Utilities do not want to pay for transmission lines without a source.  Conversely generating companies do not want to build plants without transmission capacity.

Distributed generation, using low-cost wind turbines may be a way to increase energy production without waiting for development and construction of new transmission capacity.  It can be connected to the existing distribution network to bridge the gap and increase the incentive for eventual private investment in high-power transmission systems.

Distributed wind generation has several other advantages: 

  • It is more constant – Wind may not be blowing at a centralized wind-farm, but it will be blowing over a substantial portion of a distributed network.
  • It is less prone to sabotage, or local environmental phenomenon.
  • Landowners can partner in the power business.

There are several hurdles that must be overcome to make this a reality:

  • May need to modify electrical distribution substations.
  • Need to modify local utility regulations to allow running the meter backwards and provide financial incentives to utilities.
  • Need financial incentives to landowners.  Electrical cooperatives may allow sharing of costs and risk.

More details…



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