Friday, August 17, 2012

The self-replicating wind turbine or oil/gas well that requires no subsidies

natuisola"I challenge the wind industry to build a self-sufficient, self-replicating wind turbine/factory that obtains a growth rate of >5%/yr." Quote from this post

In a previous post, I discussed how we need to populate Mars with self-replicating solar robots before we spend the money to send humans to Mars. The reason is that you can start with a small number of solar collectors (as well as the factory to produce more solar collectors), and then over time the number of collectors and factories will grow. These robots would provide the electricity required to terraform Mars so that humans can eventually live there.

But solar robots aren't the only self-replicating energy systems that one could imagine. There could be self-replicating wind-turbine-factories in which the electricity generated by the wind turbines is used by the local factory that produces the wind turbines. One could start in the Midwest (where wind and land are plentiful) with a few number of wind turbines and factories which produce wind turbine, and if wind-turbine-factories actually generate positive rates of return on work invested, then you could grow your wind turbine community with only a small investment. The question is: are wind-turbine-factories self-replicating? Could you build a wind turbine in the middle of nowhere and use only the materials in the region to build the turbines and the factory.  (I've asked the same question about building self-replicating solar collectors in the Sahara Desert. Can you build solar collectors in factories in the Sahara using only electricity collected from the solar cells, and then use some of the electricity to make new factories.) Until one can prove that wind turbines and wind turbine factories are self-replicating, it's hard to tell whether they are 'the next economic miracle' or 'crony capitalism.' I challenge the wind industry to build a self-sufficient, self-replicating wind turbine/factory that obtains a growth rate of >5%/yr. This means that you start with an initial capital investment into a few wind turbines and wind factories. You build these turbines/factories in an isolated location. You then have to operate the factory, and turbine maintenance equipment using only electricity derived from the wind turbines. (You can't get electricity from the grid!) And to build the new wind turbines, you have to use materials that were collected/mine using equipment running off of the electricity from the wind turbines. (You can use batteries or other storage devices...but remember that your factory now has to make batteries as well as wind turbines.) All the while, you have to grow the number of wind turbines by at least 5%/yr...which means growing your factory size as well. At 5%/yr growth, it would take roughly 14 yrs to double in size. At 10%/yr growth, it would take roughly 7 yrs to double in size. Once the industry proves that it can grow at least 5%/yr while doubling the number of wind turbines without input from our existing fossil fuel economy, only then can the wind turbine industry demonstrate that it has the capability of surviving without being parasitic on the rest of the economy.

I don't work in this industry, so I have no clue whether this is possible. But I can tell you from an investor's perspective, I would be much more likely to invest in wind companies if they proved that they could build self-replicating wind turbines/factories that don't require cheap oil or electricity from fossil fuels and that don't require tax subsidies (which ultimately derive from our use of fossil fuels.) The same goes for solar panels. Why are governments spending so much money developing solar and wind technologies that rely on the fossil fuel economy? Why aren't governments investing money into solar and wind companies that are self-sufficient and self-replicating? Most people who install the solar panels on houses don't drive cars running on renewable energy. Most of the people who drive to work at wind turbine factories don't drive vehicles running off of renewable energy. This industry is completely parasitic off of the fossil fuel economy right now.

We know that fossil fuel power plants and oil /gas wells are self-replicating. Why?  Because they have already proved that they can grow without subsidies (while paying taxes to the government.) The economy grew substantially from 1800 to today, and this growth was due to the fact that a fossil fuel economic is self-replicating and can achieve positive growth rates. But to be fair, even fossil fuel power plants and oil/gas wells have been dependent on human innovation, and human being require food (which has a large input of solar energy.) And to be fair, we now know a lot more about the environmental damage caused by this growing fossil fuel economy. The problem is that the fossil fuel economy doesn't seem to be growing any longer in the West. Does this mean that a fossil fuel economy with environmental regulations can no longer achieve positive rates of return on investment? Was the growth from 1800 to 2008 a fluke? Did this growth only occur when environmental regulations were lax and when most people didn't have 24/7 news available? So, below is a thought experiment discussing whether you could isolate the gas-well-factory-system from the rest of the world economy, and make a self-replicating natural gas well.

There's a lot of natural gas in some of the Central Asian countries like Uzbekistan. The problem is that a country like Uzbekistan is geographically isolated. It isn't an easy place to get people and equipment into the country, and it's not easy to get oil/gas out of the country. So, why not build a self-replicating gas well in Uzbekistan. You start with a few natural gas wells and a factory (that you have to import into the country.) Then you use the natural gas from the wells to power the factory. This means that the factory uses electricity generates electricity from natural gas power plant and that an vehicles operate on natural gas produced from the wells. The factory makes all the equipment needed to drill and to operate the wells, as well as the equipment required to store the natural gas so as to allow the factory to operate 24/7 in case of a faulty well. It also means that the factory has to build the equipment to generate electricity and the vehicles that move the equipment. On top of all of that, the factory has to make the equipment to make more factories. The question is: what growth rate could you achieve with a totally self-replicating gas well?  My guess is that it's much greater than 10%/yr, but this is just a guess. If on year 1 you have 10 wells, then by year 15, you might have 40 or more wells. What I'm saying is that if you're smart, you start small and you let the system self-replicate.

Too many times, we've seen major oil and energy companies go under because they bet big on a project that never came to fruition (think Enron and Unocal.) Why not start small and figure out how to build a self-replicating power plant or a self-replicating oil well? What we're seeing right now in North Dakota is a pretty good example of a self-replicating oil-well-system, but it's not an isolated system by any means. It doesn't need to be an isolated system because it's a part of the larger system we call the 'fossil fuel economy.'

My concern (and the reason that I'm writing this post) is that many renewable energy companies have a certain arrogance about them (i.e. that they deserve subsidies or mandates.) Sure, nobody likes living next to coal power plants without emission control systems, but it's one thing to require power plants and vehicles to have stricter emissions controls, and it's another thing to assume that you have an renewable energy technology that can survive without the cheap electricity supplied by coal/gas power plants and survive without any input of natural gas or gasoline. If you have a good product, then sell it on the market. Don't try to ban competitors from the market.

Until I see a self-replicating renewable economy with grow rates above 5%/yr (i.e. a growing self-sufficient economy with no fossil fuel input), I will remain skeptical of the renewable energy industry and request that my taxes don't go towards energy subsidies. This includes removing subsidies for natural gas and nuclear as well. I completely understand the need to pass regulations on emissions from power plants, but I see no need to subsidize one form of electricity at the expensive of other forms of electricity.

This goes back to the point of this post. If the wind industry had a product that could self-replicating, then you could place it in the middle of nowhere and let it grow. Your initial investment would grow over time, and once the system was large enough, then you'd use some of the electricity from the turbines to build and to power a factory that builds electricity cables. This would allow you to connect your system to the electricity grid. No subsidies, just growing a small investment into a much larger investment. It's that simple.

1 comment:

  1. Self-replication is a possibility, but only in the right locations. The rolling hills of Devon or the coast of Exmoor and the Channel would be perfect, but it just won't happen. Smaller wind turbines for houses from companies like will probably never be a success because they're just so inefficient.