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Renewable Engergy

September 22, 2011
By MATTHEW L. WALD

“SMALL is beautiful,” wrote the economist E. F. Schumacher almost 35 years ago. In most areas of the economy, he reasoned, production had become too big and too centralized.

But he might have been wrong about the subject he knew most about: energy. When it comes to alternative ways of generating power, big may be better.

Wind, solar and other renewable-energy technologies that were once considered more appropriate for single homes or small communities are reaching levels of scale and centralizing that were formerly the province of coal- and gas-fired plants and nuclear reactors. In other words, green is going giant.

The companies that are building or dreaming up large projects argue that there are economies of scale to be gained.

In the desert north of Tucson, Arizona Public Service, an electric utility, is using an array of mirrors to concentrate sunlight and heat mineral oil up to 550 degrees; the heat vaporizes a liquid hydrocarbon, which runs a generator to make electricity.

But this is no rooftop operation. There are six rows of mirrors, each nearly a quarter-mile long, totaling nearly 100,000 square feet. The project produces one megawatt of power — enough to run a hospital or a large shopping center — but the company that installed it, now called Acciona Solar Power (formerly Solargenix), expects to open a 350-acre plant in Boulder City, Nev., soon, producing 64 megawatts with similar technology. And Arizona Public Service is one of about a half-dozen utilities that is considering a joint project to build a 250-megawatt plant based on the same technology.

Such projects run counter to some ideas of how alternative energy should be developed. Jeremy Rifkin, the author and futurist who believes that millions of people will soon be generating their own hydrogen from renewable energy, said that waste was built into large central projects because of electrical transmission losses.

“If you go and put it in the desert and bring it back in, you lose 7 to 9 percent on the way,” he said.

More to the point, Mr. Rifkin said, home-grown energy is going to be cheaper. “It’s a question of who owns and controls it at the end of the line,” he said. “If you own it on your own, it’s going to be at a cheaper price than if the utility company is going to sell it to you.”

But it is not just corporations that are finding that bigger may be better.

Hull, Mass., is about as far from an oil or gas well as it is possible to get in the United States. Its municipal utility decided in the early 1980s to build a wind turbine, making an asset from the strong breeze coming off the ocean north of Boston. The machine it built could generate 40 kilowatts, enough for a handful of homes.

Five years ago, Hull tried again, still wanting to cut energy costs and also the emissions of greenhouse gases that might one day cause the Atlantic Ocean, which surrounds the town on three sides, to creep up the beaches. It built a wind machine 16 times larger, 660 kilowatts. While the 1985 turbine was on a structure that looked a bit like a ham-radio operator’s antenna, the new one, named Hull 1, was on a 150-foot tower.

But it was too small. Last year the town installed Hull 2, which at 1.8 megawatts is three times larger. Now Hull is considering four new turbines that can produce 3.6 megawatts each. “The small one we have, purely aesthetically, is kind of an ugly thing,” said John B. Murdock, manager of the municipal electric system. With their slow-moving, graceful blades, he said, “the big ones are much more attractive.”

They also make better economic sense, he said. Earlier this year, the town put up a tiny turbine, 1,800 watts, as an educational tool, for $15,000. If 1,000 families in the area put up such machines, they would have the same output as Hull 2, at a cost of $15 million. Hull 2 cost about $3 million.

Hull’s economics are being repeated around New England and the world. Farther down the Massachusetts coast in Nantucket Sound, for example, entrepreneurs are trying to build the Cape Wind project, 130 turbines producing 3.6 megawatts each.

Read the full article on NYTimes.com

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