back to article The true, tragic cost of British wind power

Two studies published this week calculate the astounding cost of Britain's go-it-alone obsession with using wind turbines to generate so much of the electricity the nation needs. Both studies make remarkably generous concessions that favour wind technology; the true cost, critics could argue, will be higher in each set of …

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Self-evident wisdom

I've spoken of this with a few people and in reality the best use of wind turbines is to pump water uphill with the windmill bit and then have the water flow back down through the turbine bit.

Anything which is not available 24x7 has to be cached\buffered in some way and putting potential energy into water allows you to regulate the output much more effectively so changes in demand can be met almost instantly just so long as your reservoir is big enough.

The only downside of splitting the functions is that it becomes a much less sexy project as this has been possible for years if not decades so it is hard to get a competitive edge or government funding.

Shame.

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Re: Self-evident wisdom

If your reservoir is roughly to the west of the Pennines, you can probably do without the wind turbines too and rely on solar energy to lift water from the sea and drop it high up on the land.

The snag is that a "big enough" reservoir is probably a lot bigger than you're imagining. And while I'd be happy to flood the entire Lake District if only to get rid of all those people in their "technical fabrics", I suspect there would be some considerable opposition from other quarters. I can't really imagine Julia Bradbury making a living from "Wainwright's Wellies".

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Re: Self-evident wisdom

"only downside of splitting the functions" - also efficiency losses in conversion.

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Re: Self-evident wisdom

The Dinorwic pumped storage system linked to the Trawsfynydd nuclear power station was a version of this.

Nuclear power stations are slow to start up and shut down, and their high capital cost means that they cost a lot even when shut down. Pumped storage allows you to keep the reactor running when the station is offline.

For some reason pumped storage never seems to have taken off. Perhaps we haven't got the geography for it, or that geography is too far from where the power's needed.

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@Jon Press

Definately. If I remember from Without Hot Air the amount of water required to store energy from a significant wind-power base was mind-boggling. We're talking re-landscaping a large percentage of Britain.

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Unhappy

Re: Self-evident wisdom

The problem with pumped water as an energy storage medium is that you need a LOT of it. By my quick back-of-the-envelope calculation, a thousand kilograms of water pumped up a hundred meters to a storage reservoir yields a very small 0.3 KWh of stored power. If you want enough capacity to be meaningful, you're talking about a huge reservoir located somewhere very high up.

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Worked example

Start with a Vestas V164 (really big) off shore wind turbine. 7MW installed capacity, 105 meter tall tower.

Pick a load factor - I will be generous with 33.3% so P=2.331WM average power output.

Pick a calm period - Europe usually gets five consecutive days of calm each winter. T = 5*24*60*60 = 432000 seconds.

Required energy storage is E = PxT = 10^11 Joules

Pick a height and depth: I will go for H=100 meters high and D=10 meters deep. The density of water is d=1000kg/m^3, and gravity (g) is a little under 10N/kg. The required area A is: A = E/Ddgh = 10000.

Water can be sucked up 10 meters - if you try to go higher, the water rises 10 meters and you get a vacuum above it. My pumped storage V164 has to take its mechanical power to the base of the tower, then pump water up into the 40 Olympic swimming pools supported by a forest of 100 meter tall towers.

In real life, transporting several MW of mechanical power 100 meters is not trivial, and you are better of converting it to electricity and back (75% efficient).

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Boffin

@ Kubla Cant

Don’t know where you’ve got your info from but there’s a lot of factual inaccuracy there - I think you’re trying to conflate the two sites just because of their *relative* proximity (there are actually a good couple of mountain ranges between them). Dinorwig (still very much in use) is linked directly to the National Grid, it’s nothing to do with Trawsfynydd (which hasn't produced any power in 20 years).

Dinorwig simply uses the spare overnight capacity of the NG to pump water uphill, ready to release during the advert break in Coronation Street (for example) when most of Britain decides to have a nice cup of tea. From zero, to 1800 Megawatts in 16 seconds, now that’s what I call acceleration. (The most powerful station in Europe – Drax – produces just over twice that, so Dinorwic gives us the ability to effectively add a sizable power station to the Grid at will, run it for up to 5 hours, but then switch it off again in seconds. BTW It gives about 75% efficiency – i.e it takes about 33% more crackle-magic to pump the water back uphill again, than is produced by letting the water go downhill through its turbines.)

Not having ever decommissioned a Magnox power station myself, I can’t speak from first-hand experience, but I’m pretty sure that any electrical requirements they still have at Traws similarly comes down a cable from the rest of the Grid.

Pumped storage wasn't expanded further because (in the early 80s) the UK cancelled a lot of its planned nukular stations; output from 'conventional' (fossil-fuel-fired) stations can be increased or damped down to allow for seasonal variations in demand, whereas a nukular plant produces about the same output for its entire operational life. So, fewer nukes means less requirement for ‘on demand’ production capacity.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: @ Kubla Cant

@Jimbo 6

Lovely writeup, cheers.

See also www.fhc.co.uk, the website of the Dinorwic operation. There is a visitor centre ("Electric Mountain") and there are tours for the public (check if booking is advisable before travelling). Tours for professional institutions also run occasionally. Last time I was there (sadly several years ago) on an unplanned visit, the visitor centre cafe did very nice food and I didn't do the tour because there was a 3 hour wait if you'd not booked in advance! Snowdon Mountain Railway just up the road too.

See also the recently suggested UK<->Norway HVDC link, which addresses a number of problems wrt UK plc not having enough topologically interesting land for pumped storage and not having enough electricity for UK peak demand in a year or three, whereas a suitable contract might motivate the Norwegians to make a few GW and a few GWh of theirs available to us.

"From zero, to 1800 Megawatts in 16 seconds,"

It's impressive isn't it. That's what I call engineering. And the civils work that was needed for this project is impressive too. Hard to see how it would get done these days.

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FAIL

Re: Self-evident wisdom

This was evident back in 1979. The only viable alternative energy solution is nuclear.

Politicians should keep their noses out of science.

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Re: @ Kubla Cant

"whereas a nukular plant produces about the same output for its entire operational life. So, fewer nukes means less requirement for ‘on demand’ production capacity."

On the other hand, overnight demand is expected to increase as we switch more and more to electric cars, so having more nukes could be a better proposition in that case.

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@Jimbo 6

My information was based on what I was told when I worked for TNPG, the consortium that built Magnox and AGR stations. But that was in the mid-60s, so my recollection is imperfect, and I may well have misinterpreted what I was told at the time anyway. I Googled to try to verify my recollection, but this may have munged the information even more.

I'm pretty sure that there was a Magnox station in North Wales that was linked to pumped storage, but I defer to your greater knowledge.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Self-evident wisdom

The only connection between Dinorwig and Trawsfynydd was the grid. The presence of Dinorwig has no impact or influence over the operation of Trawsfynydd.

Nuclear is not slow to shut down. It is instant. It may, in some reactor designs, impose a loading and de-loading regime such that rapid load following is not possible. But that is irrelevant, because nuclear in the UK is for is base load, and the lowest demand is higher than the nuclear capacity -and always has been.

Pumped storage does not allow you to keep the nuclear reactor running when the station is offline. Dinorwig was designed for one specific purpose, fast response generation to ensure system stability. This fast response being used for load pickups and loss of conventional generation or an overhead line circuit on the supergrid system.

AC - with 30+ years experience in the electricity generation and transmission business in the UK

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FAIL

Re: @Jimbo 6

Everyone here seems to be forgetting Maentwrog pumped storage PS. That's only a matter of a few miles north of Trawsfynydd PS, and is also run by the NDA. It's still in use producing leccy as well. It's Maentwrog that's connected to Trawsfynydd.

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Re: Self-evident wisdom

Indeed, the problem is the relative lightness of liquid water. I suggest switching to something heavier, like Mercury.

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FAIL

Omissions

To say these reports are biased in favour of Wind power (despite both coming out rather negatively against) them is a huge understatement.

Balancing capacity - as indicated in the article - is the real biggy here. The grid will need as much spare - and reliable - generating (or load shedding) capacity as it has wind generation for the days when there is no wind. This will most likely be provided be gas turbine plants.

So in effect, we'd need just as many of these plants as we'd need NOT building wind-turbines, but they would run far below designed load most of the time, yet cost just as much to build and maintain.

Wind energy is simply not a scalable or realistic renewable technology for bulk generation. Neither is PV Solar. Hydro and Tidal schemes on the other hand can work.

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Re: Omissions

"... cost just as much to build and maintain." - actually I'd expect it to be worse as the plants will have to ramp down and up in time with the actual wind. Gas turbines being the only plant that could do this at all but even then I imagine this is not the most efficient way of operating and probably increases wear and tear when you have rapidly changing loads and heat flows...

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Re: Omissions

I actually think it included extra gas-stations for this purpose. What they omitted was upgrades to the grid because some leccy will have to travel a lot further from remote windy spots to urban areas.

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Holmes

Re: Omissions

"Neither is PV Solar"

I would qualify that PV solar is not realistic for the UK, but is realistic for places that get more sun (Medierranean / Saharan North Africa / California and US midwest etc). Solar PV is creeping up towards 25% efficiency and prices keep on falling so for some of these locations Solar PV is not only realistic but also could be cost-comparable to fossil fuels in a few years

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Omissions

Why do people keep obsessing over this "reliability"? What matters is whether the turbines are net energy positive. (Unless of course you're just obsessed with the idea that cheapest is always the best, which is fine for now but is kind of crossing your fingers for the future.)

Yes, you need to pair them with gas plants.

Yes, the paired gas plants are less efficient than a CHP can be.

But as long as energy captured more than offsets the efficiency loss it's a winner.

Also, studies have indicated that as you add distributed renewable capacity you decrease variability. If so, then, on average, fewer of the inefficient peakers will be running, meaning that increasing renewable capacity makes renewable energy more efficient.

These variable sources aren't the full solution to future energy problems, but if they're able to increase usable energy then they're buying more "easy" time now and, unless we actually come up with we'll need them as part of the energy generation in future then in the future will provide some of the energy that will be stored and used.

The big problem with wind is not the reliability: it's building the transmission capacity so that you can distribute it effectively. That's also expensive, but tough shit. Unless somebody can tell me how you're going to keep electricity supplied for the next 1 billion years using _present_ technology (no, thorium isn't ready yet) we need wind, solar, tidal, hydro, digesters, biomass and every other capacity-limited or unreliable energy source to be developed so we can continue to do all the fun stuff until we get killed by a passing galaxy.

Complain about the implementation, priorities and corruption, but don't complain about the limitations of the technology, because that's not the real problem.

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@AC

Strange set of conditions you set. You demand that we be able to meet energy demands for a billion years and then preclude the option of using new technology in all that time, even technology which is only a max of a few decades away. That's fairly piffling compared to a billion years.

Methinks you are trying to rig the argument so that it can only have the answer you want.

Or just being a nob.

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Re: Omissions

The big problem with your argument is that it predicates on the wind always blowing somewhere within the grid that the wind turbines occupy and that that there is a turbine in the area that the wind is blowing.

Which is fine if you're looking at the entire planet, or your turbines can produce useful electricity at < 1 mph winds and > 30 mph winds. However we are on a small island, wind turbines aren't that good yet, and we regularly get periods where either the winds across the whole nation are to low or too high for the turbines to work.

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Re: Omissions

"The big problem with wind is not the reliability: it's building the transmission capacity so that you can distribute it effectively. That's also expensive, but tough shit."

Actually, cost of production matters.

First, if you manage to produce all the electricity the nation could ever need, but you're doing it for £8 per kWh, you have not solved the problem at all...because the cost of electricity would actually exceed the total size of the economy.

Second, every £ you spend on inefficient power production that is expensive and lacks high availability is money you're not spending on developing other sources of energy which are cheaper and/or more available. Even a fully mature wind power system might never reach the cost and availability of some other form of power generation.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Omissions

"every £ you spend on [x] is money you're not spending on [y]"

Grossly oversimplified view of modern economic thinking.

When the banks look like they may not have enough money to pay their top staff their anti-leaving bonuses, their governments print money for them ("quantitative easing", look it up).

Why can't our governments do the same for funding for enough energy R+D to keep the lights on for all of us? Like they used to do before the energy market was piratised, in fact?

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Re: Omissions

More importantly, for every £1 you spend on relatively overpriced power that is £1 not being spent anywhere else in the economy and, for the poorer elements of society, probably most of £1 not being spent on nutrition or increasing their subsistence standard of living you just foisted upon them.

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Re: Omissions

Regularly? No wind anywhere for one hour every three years. Buy the energy monitor app from the app store and monitor it yourself. Right now Wind is generating 5.2 % of demand. Pretty good.

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Re: Omissions

@AC 20:30GMT

nice try, it's a real shame that the facts disagree with you.

What happens actually is that, when the government has overspent itself on promoting such noble goals as "green electricity" (among other things) but still wants to pursue these goals thus increasing borrowing (and selling gilts), one way to keep the total cost of debt in check is to buy the gilts back with money invented by BOE. Buying own bonds (gilts in UK) with these invented money is what "quantitative easing" actually means. Of course the money goes back to creditors which includes banks, but also your insurers, pension found and your children's (if you have any) child trust fund and other financial investments you may (wittingly or not) have in the gilts.

I take the liberty to leave the side effects (such as inflation or flow of money back to wider economy) out of the picture, since it is not much relevant in this context and also known to cause controversy.

One thing to note is that large part of "green electricity" cost is paid directly by the consumers (indirectly included in your power bill), which perhaps explains why the government takes so little interest in the costs it creates for everyone else. Or imaginably the govenment might be actively interested in pushing these costs up, since electricity is taxed, thus customers paying higher electricity bills means more tax money for the government.

Perhaps this explains this crazy pursue for "green electricity", the more expensive the better :'(

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Trollface

Global Warming, Green Power and El Reg Commenters

Excellent. I look forward to a calm, rational, balanced and informed set of comments

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Devil

True cost

In 2010 I worked at an ISO (they monitor the grid, provide a neutral marketplace for buying and selling electricity, provide a place to report planned and unplanned outages, etc) here in the states. We all knew that, with government subsidies, electricity from wind cost -$.20 per kw. No one ever said what it cost without those subsidies.

Just sayin'; they weren't sayin', and you know what that says.

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Ecotricity

It would be interesting if you contacted Ecotricity for a view!

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Mushroom

It's about the money not saving the planet.

If we withdrew the hefty tax subsidies/payments from the wind farms then 95% of them would be shut down and sold for scrap within a week.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: It's about the money not saving the planet.

That's as maybe, but government subsidises new technologies (or grants development funds) in order that they can develop, mature and form a market. This happened with the grid itself, coal, gas, nuclear, PV, wave etc. etc.

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Re: It's about the money not saving the planet.

If you removed the tax subsidy from aviation fuel and building new airports , then 95% of planes would be broken up and melted down for scrap. Anyway with GW, we'll all need less heating thus producing less GHG, partially solving the problem. Or is it that the weather will get so much more windy (due to GW) that the turbines will reach unheard of levels of efficiency. Halt Wind now, I cant afford it.

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Re: It's about the money not saving the planet.

Domestic Gas, Oil and Coal are subsidised to the tune of 3.6 BILLION pounds a year by holding VAT artificially low. Wind power subsidies are in the noise compared to this, and they will have a lasting legacy.

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Facepalm

Re: It's about the money not saving the planet.

Firstly, what problem? Climate is always changing and we are always adapting to it. Secondly, if the UK reduces emissions by 80% by year 2040, as set out in the Climate Change Act, it will have spent around £750,000,000,000 and achieved a global average temperature reduction of 0.08C. In other words, the reduction will completely destroy our economic competitiveness, our relative economic strength, jobs and our standard of living, for an imperceptible decrease in temperature.

Frankly, you people are ******* idiots.

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@Michael31

No they aren't. Stop repeating this lie.

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Re: @Michael31

Yes I thought VAT on oil and gas etc. were kept low so as to stop old people freezing to death in their homes due to energy being way too expensive otherwise, because we don't have enough of it.

No one likes piles of codgers piled up in the streets every winter. Doesn't look good.

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Learning from history

All those arts degree civil servants obviously just studied the last tory government.

When they shut down a slightly uneconomic energy industry, which led to a year long, very expensive strike and has left half the country economically destroyed 30years later.

The government just doesn't want to see thousands of former windmill villages destroyed and is factoring in the cost of policing and social costs of millions of unemployed former windmill workers.

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The reason why wind power costs so much

is because there are grants and subsidies available. This means that if you wish to put up a windmill the company selling all the bits will ensure they get all the subsidies and you will just get a pretty good return on investment.

A nearby farm is putting up a 27m high UK built turbine that he has had to re-import from abroad to get it at a sensible price. He's looking at a four to five year payback time as a result.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: The reason why wind power costs so much

i assume that includes the maintenance contract?

how much is that setting him (her?) back?

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Flame

Re: The reason why wind power costs so much

Yup, here in Aus some bright spark decided to subsidise water tanks, the catch being that they had to be installed by an "authorised installer" and connected to the same pipes that the water grid is on.

This of course led to price gouging by the sellers of water tanks so that they now cost around the same price as they did before to the consumer after the subsidy was applied.

The trouble was (apart from the price gouging negating the subsidy making it worthless) was that if you didn't want to hook the tank up to the water supply using an expensive plumbing contractor (because you simply wanted a tank so you could water your garden in the face of water restrictions) it had suddenly become extremely expensive to buy tanks.

Garden watering tanks were not subsidised but the gouging still aplied.

People ended up importing tanks from interstate where they didn't have the stupid water tank subsidy.

Governments tend to fsck up everything they get involved with. The best thing they can do is get out of peoples lives and tax them as little as possible.

It'll never happen of course.

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Anonymous Coward

Carbon taxation

Normal person:

Rewards efficiency. Tick.

Simple. Tick.

Doesn't involve financial institutions taking a slice of the profits. Tick.

A*

Government:

Rewards efficiency. Tick.

Simple. Tick.

Doesn't involve financial institutions taking a slice of the profits. Cross.

Fail

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Thumb Up

Re: Carbon taxation

Excellent point!

Besides that, carbon tax is coming directly from the government, so the government can be blamed for higher energy prices. In a cap'n'trade or complicated subsidy scheme, the government has a cop-out by being able to say that any energy price increase is due to "the market". As if prices set by "the market" are not affected by how governments implement the market constraints and regulations.

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Re: Carbon taxation

Carbon tax? You want one?

You can take ours.

Please.

A disgruntled Australian.

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FAIL

Gas - the energy of the future?

UK natural gas production fell 20% last year. It fell 15% the year before and 12% the year before that. We now import more than half the gas we burn, a lot of it inherently expensive LNG. There is growing global competition for this gas, with Japan and China amongst others. Prices have risen relentlessly in the last few years, and Sterling has decline 20% in value in the last 3 years, so we are paying near record prices. Demand for gas has fallen, because it is cheaper to burn coal, and our CO2 emissions are rocketing as a result. (we already import 2/3 of our coal, and we also import an ever increasing percentage of our oil).

Shale gas is also an inherently expensive technology, the UK reserves are uncertain, and the logistics limitations means we will never be able to ramp up shale production faster than North Sea production is falling.

Importing energy into this country is already costing our country tens of billions of pounds a year, is rising exponentially, and we are already broke.

It may be cheaper to build a gas power station than a wind farm, but if we can't afford to buy the gas, then it is no more than a giant rusting monument to our own stupidity.

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Re: Gas - the energy of the future?

So... It's nuclear then.

Good show.

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Re: Gas - the energy of the future?

Predicted gas prices were included in the report obviously.

I could give the same blather about demand for steel and concrete in China (not to mention Brazil or India) pushing up the prices of wind turbines but since the predicted prices for those also already take this into account it's not a relevant argument.

You could argue that you think they've got the predictions wrong and give a detailed analysis of why based on knowledge of those markets but you aren't. You're just arguing that they've forgotten to account for these things, which they haven't.

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Boffin

Low CO2 electricity isn't cheap

We need to remember that anything other than burning coal is going to be expensive. All the alternatives have problems, hidden agendas and crap.

The cheapest thing to do is waste less, insulate more and use more efficient kit etc. Even so we will end up with an expensive mix of solutions and none of them will be a magic silver bullet.

How we keep cars moving and aeroplanes up in the air is another problem altogether, as so far we haven't found a viable alternative to burning petroleum derivatives. But peak oil is another story altogether...

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Re: Low CO2 electricity isn't cheap

Actually, EVERYTHING has problems, hidden agendas, and crap. But with fossil fuels, most of the problems and crap have been worked out, and the agendae are pretty much known/we're used to.

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