[Marxism] Old Man Winter, It turns out, is no friend of renewable energy

Greg McDonald sabocat59 at mac.com
Fri Dec 26 06:16:13 MST 2008

If the URL works, I encourage readers to go the source and check out  
the picture of the homeowner in minnesota cleaning snow off his solar  
panels. This brings back not so fond memories of life off the grid in  
northern ny. My panels were on top of the house, and I would have to  
climb up on the roof and brush the snow off with a long-handled  
broom. At least I had a permanent ladder fixed to the side of the  
house for such purposes, but standing on an icy roof in 20 below  
weather was the thing I most hated about life off the grid. Around  
this time of year I would need to run the generator for a few days  
anyway, due to the shorter time frame for daylight.  And at night I  
would use two hurricane lamps to read by rather than the electrical  
lights.  It's interesting how my sleep patterns would begin to change  
to adapt to the lack of light. I would usually be asleep by 8:00 pm.

At the same time, I felt pretty righteous about being energy- 

Greg McDonald

NY Times
Old Man Winter, it turns out, is no friend of renewable energy.


A new blog about energy, the environment and the bottom line.
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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.

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.

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.

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.

 From the standpoint of generating power, winter is actually good for  
wind turbines, because it is generally windier than summer. In  
Vermont, for example, Green Mountain Power, which operates a small  
wind farm in the southeastern part of the state, gets more than twice  
the monthly production in winter as in August.

The opposite is true, however, for solar power. Days are shorter and  
the sun is lower in the sky during the winter, ensuring less power  

Even in northern California, with mild winters and little snow, solar  
panels can generate about half as much as in the summer, depending on  
how much they are tilted, according to Rob Erlichman, chief executive  
of Sunlight Electric, a San Francisco solar company.

Operators of the electrical grid do not worry much about the seasonal  
swings, because the percentage of production from renewable energy is  
still so low — around 1 percent of the country’s power comes from  
wind, and less from solar panels. In addition, Americans use slightly  
less electricity in the winter than in the summer because air  
conditioners are not running. This is especially true in sunny areas,  
so solar panels’ peak production matches the spikes in demand.

But as renewable energy becomes a bigger part of the nation’s power  
mix, the seasonable variability could become more of a problem.  
Already, power developers are learning that they must make careful  
plans to avoid the worst impacts of ice and snow.

Trey Taylor, the president of Verdant Power, which has put small  
turbines in the tidal East River in New York City and plans more for  
the St. Lawrence River in Canada, said that ice chunks could slide  
over one another “like a deck of cards,” pushing ice below and  
harming turbines. That may rule out parts of otherwise promising  
sites like the Yukon River in Alaska, he said.

Kevin Devlin, the vice president for operations of Iberdrola  
Renewables, a wind developer, said that winter was probably the  
hardest time of year to maintain turbines, because workers must go  
out in snow and ice. Occasionally, he said, the turbines will shut  
down or set off alarms if it is too cold, and workers must brave the  
elements to fix them.

For homeowners, the upkeep of their power sources can also be a bother.

Mr. Stankevitz keeps his panels tilted 40 degrees or higher, but they  
still become covered with snow — and experts say that if even one  
cell in a panel is covered, the panel will not produce power.

On the other hand, the panels can get extra power from sunlight  
reflected off nearby snow. And like other electronic gear, solar  
panels work better when cold.

Mr. Stankevitz said that on some rare winter days, when the Minnesota  
sky is clear, the weather is freezing and the sun is shining  
brightly, his panels can briefly churn out more electricity than they  
were designed to produce, more than on the balmiest days of summer.

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