Friday, October 27, 2017

Solar Power for the Military:

Deja Vu All Over Again

I recently saw an article discussing the use of solar panels by the U.S. military.  It cited a Department of Energy (DOE) study concluding that the military needs to rely more on solar power in order to eliminate weaknesses in the grid.  The article speculated that, with military funding to help address some of the drawbacks of solar power (including energy storage), there might be a knock-on effect for the general public as well.

The story brought back memories.  Early in my career, I worked for an Air Force think tank called Analytic Services (or ANSER).  Since I was the resident nuclear engineer, by extension, I was also assigned other energy-related projects.  Which is how I came to work on a project to explore the possible use of renewable energy to provide power for military bases housing MX missile systems.  I worked on it for some months, and even published a paper on it.  Alas, this was so long ago that I couldn't find it on the Web when I looked, but I did find a passing reference to the concept at the end of a 1979 article.

I hadn't thought about that project in years, but seeing the news item made me reflect on how many technologies don't get off the ground the first time.  This is true in the nuclear area, too, as we are now talking about technologies like molten salt for nuclear reactors as though it was a brand-new idea, when in fact, that was one of the technologies that was explored in the earliest days of nuclear power development.

This development reinforces the observation that the path to a technological development is not always a straight line.  Modern windmills are, of course, a new incarnation of a very old technology, once used for mechanical power, not electricity.  Nuclear technologies that were once sidelined for a variety of reasons are now receiving renewed interest.  Now, it may well be that solar power for military applications merits another look.  I've been away from it too long to make an educated judgment.  I just wish I'd saved the work I did so many years ago!  


Friday, October 13, 2017

Natual Gas Projections:

Revisiting Conventional Wisdom

Just when you think you have a good handle on the facts, along comes a study that casts doubt on some of the "conventional wisdom."

At least, that was my reaction when I read a summary of two recent reports on natural gas projections.  Among the "blockbuster" findings were the following:

  • Fracking and drilling are not playing nearly as large a role as thought in boosting oil and gas production from shale,
  • Technology's role has been overstated by as much as 50 percent,
  • As prime drilling spots get used up, technology may not be able to counter the loss in productivity from shifting to less desirable locations,
  • And perhaps most surprisingly, the land-use needs of natural gas are similar to wind and solar production, at least in some locations. 
 I hasten to note that these are newly published results and it will be interesting to see the response to them.  In the first place, both studies looked at specific geographical areas, so it will be important to see if the results are typical of other areas.  Also, there may be ways that some of these concerns can be addressed.  The article hints at that, noting in particular that there are ways to decrease the land-use footprint.

However, the two studies do point to the fact that, once again, we find ourselves making greater use of a well-known technology, and suddenly finding that scaling it up introduces unforeseen problems.  Given the growing importance of natural gas in our energy use, it will be important to explore these issues further.  For one thing, the fact that productivity may decrease over time will result in higher gas prices, and thus our growing dependence on natural gas may cost us dearly in the future.

This, to me, reinforces the argument that it is important to maintain a diverse energy supply, and that energy policy should recognize this and incorporate measures to assure that we maintain a healthy mix of energy sources over the long term, including both nuclear power and renewables.