NYT's Galbraith Admits Winter Weather Stifles Alternative Energy Sources, Will Nets Follow?

December 27th, 2008 7:33 PM

It has been a particularly cold winter season, and the energy issue is front and center for the Obama administration. In a surprising December 25th New York Times piece, Kate Galbraith wrote about the season's deleterious effect on alternative energy sources like wind, solar, and biodiesel.

The network news shows have yet to pick up on this story. Galbraith first tackles the issues regarding solar panels in snowy conditions(my emphasis throughout):

This time of year, wind turbine blades ice up, biodiesel congeals in tanks and solar panels produce less power because there is not as much sun. And perhaps most irritating to the people who own them, the panels become covered with snow, rendering them useless even in bright winter sunshine.

So in regions where homeowners have long rolled their eyes at shoveling driveways, add another cold-weather chore: cleaning off the solar panels. “At least I can get to them with a long pole and a squeegee,” said Alan Stankevitz, a homeowner in southeast Minnesota.

However, Galbraith still holds on to the liberal idea that the planet  is being affected by global warming, but she admits it is still “cold enough” to knock out green energy technology:

As concern has grown about global warming, many utilities and homeowners have been trying to shrink their emissions of carbon dioxide — their carbon footprints — by installing solar panels, wind turbines and even generators powered by tides or rivers. But for the moment, at least, the planet is still cold enough to deal nasty winter blows to some of this green machinery.

Galbraith also discusses the problem and safety issues of biodiesel when used in cold weather.

In January 2007, a bus stalled in the middle of the night on Interstate 70 in the Colorado mountains. The culprit was a 20 percent biodiesel blend that congealed in the freezing weather, according to John Jones, the transit director for the bus line, Summit Stage. (Biodiesel is a diesel substitute, typically made from vegetable oil, that is used to displace some fossil fuels.)

The passengers got out of that situation intact, but Summit Stage, which serves ski resorts, now avoids biodiesel from November to March, and uses only a 5 percent blend in the summertime, when it can still get cold in the mountains. “We can’t have people sitting on buses freezing to death while we get out there trying to get them restarted,” Mr. Jones said.

Finally, wind turbines do not get a pass either in the piece.  The energy source seems downright dangerous when the blades get too icy:

Winter may pose even bigger safety hazards in the vicinity of wind turbines. Some observers say the machines can hurl chunks of ice as they rotate.

“It’s like you throw a plate out there and that plate breaks,” said Ralph Brokaw, a cattle rancher in southeast Wyoming who has 69 wind turbines on his property. When his turbines ice up, he stays out of the way.

The wind industry admits that turbines can drop ice, like a lamppost or any tall structure. To ameliorate the hazard, some turbines are painted black to absorb sunlight and melt the ice faster. But Ron Stimmel, an expert on small wind turbines at the American Wind Energy Association, denies that the whirling blades tend to hurl icy javelins.

Large turbines turn off automatically as ice builds up, and small turbines will slow and stop because the ice prevents them from spinning — “just like a plane’s wing needs to be de-iced to fly,” Mr. Stimmel said.

Mr. Brokaw says that his turbines do turn off when they are too icy, but the danger sometimes comes right before the turbines shut down, after a wet, warm snow causes ice buildup.

While Galbraith concedes winter has not been kind to green energy, she is still reluctant to say that traditional energy resources like coal, oil, and nuclear are any better.

Galbraith showed examples of how expensive alternative energy can fail, but she does not mention coal, oil, and nuclear have been keeping modern society consistently warm in the winter, cool in the summer, and moving comfortably in our vehicles every single day.