David Blittersdorf is the President and CEO of AllEarth Renewables, and serves on the Board of Directors of the Post Carbon Institute as well as Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility. He and Eric talk about the percentage of fossil energy we can reasonably expect to replace with renewable energy, the limitations of renewable energy, energy return on energy invested, and what drew David to the renewable energy industry, among other things.
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Eric Garza: Welcome to the Quillwood Podcast, a show dedicated to helping you learn to navigate today's changing world. I am your host, Eric Garza.
Today's episode features a conversation I recorded with David Blittersdorf. David is the President and CEO of AllEarth Renewables, a company based here in Vermont, and former CEO of NRG Systems, which he founded back in 1981. He sits on the board of directors of the Post Carbon Institute and also Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility. David is a long time participant in the renewable energy sector, and he and I talk about what percentage of fossil fuel energy can realistically be substituted by renewables. We also talk about what got David interested in renewable energy, particularly wind energy, all those years ago. We talked about the process of energy production peaks, and why energy return on energy invested is an important constraint to pay attention to as we transition away from fossil fuels, among other things. Our conversation ranges pretty widely.
Before I share that conversation, know that Quillwood Podcast is brought to you by Quillwood Academy. Through Quillwood Academy I offer a wide array of online educational events and programs. Registration is open for a reading group on the book Reality Blind: Integrating the System Science Underpinning Our Collective Futures, by Nate Hagens and DJ White. This book is a wonderful introduction and deeper dive into some of the topics David and I play with in today's episode. If this episode of the Quillwood Podcast leaves you curious, especially about things like energy return on energy invested and some of the economic issues that are connected to it, I invite you to sign up for this reading group. I think you will enjoy it. You can learn more about the Reality Blind reading group, and sign up, at quillwood.org. Go to the Offerings menu and click on Educational Events, you can find the reading group's description there. While you're at the Quillwood Academy website, I encourage you to sign up for Quillwood's newsletter, also.
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With all of that out of the way, I hope you enjoy today's episode I recorded with David Blittersdorf.
Eric: One of the things I appreciate about you is that you seem to have a very balanced view of renewable energy's potential, maybe more so than other folks who are actively involved in selling renewable systems. A question I want to start with is, What percentage—taking the fossil fuel consumption that we have today as a baseline—what percentage of that do you think we can realistically replace with renewable energy more generally, maybe in particular things like solar photovoltaics and wind turbines, and that sort of thing?
David Blittersdorf: That is a question that actually is very good, because it bothers me that some of my associates in the wind and solar field, mainly in the solar field, think that we can just replace all of this fossil energy with solar. Totally impossible, I believe. And the percentage that I work with that I think is doable, based on our resources that we have in the world, you're talking about mineral resources, energy resources that we have to build the energy collection devices called solar panels and wind turbines—they're collection devices, they're not power plants that burn the fossil energy that we're used to, so it's a little different conversion, and you have to do it in real time, so it's a realtime everyday thing that happens instead of a one time pulse of just burning tons of stuff, whether it's fossil fuels or nuclear fuels or uranium—so my best guess at this point is that we can probably do one quarter of what we're using in today's world.
And that assumes that we will use these technologies, we can build enough of these conversion devices called wind turbines and solar panels out of the materials we have. I sort of joke at times, we've got to take all the SUVs and start crushing them up and using those metals on materials and copper to make wind turbines. It's really wasteful to build cars and then consume all the energy of running around in them. We're going to have to do something different.
I go back to this one quarter—not 100 percent—and the reason is, as I said, that fossil energy was a one time gift, millions of years of solar energy made the fossil fuels we use today, and we're going to use them up in 200 years. It's a finite resource, and we have to use the rest of these resources that we have of fossil energy and minerals—it takes a bunch of copper to make our modern infrastructure, electric lines, wiring, motors, all these things—and going forward, we're going to end up with an electricity-based energy system, which is a huge difference from our liquid and solid fossil fuel system. So that's a big conversion that we're going to try to do in a lot less time than we've ever converted from one energy source to another. So we have a huge predicament on our hands.
Eric: You mentioned minerals, you mentioned copper. I would love to dig into this in more detail, because explaining this is a challenge I found with students of mine in some of the classes that I've taught in the past—and I can totally understand why this is true—but they don't seem to understand the particular limitations that go along with solar photovoltaics, for example, or wind turbines. One of the things that I've read about is relatively limited supplies of rare earth elements, which are, as their name implies, rare. What kinds of constraints do those put, for example, on us replacing fossil fuels with solar photovoltaics and wind turbines?
David: Rare earth minerals are used in the super magnets that are used in the new breed of electric cars. They're used in generators. The best wind turbines in the world use the rare earth magnets, and they make them the most efficient. And then you have the copper used for windings, you have silver used on the solar panels for connections, all these things. If you study—and the geologists have written the right, books looking at what we have for minerals left in the world, and Richard Heinberg wrote the book Peak Everything—we're going to peak out on all these limited resources. And the peaking of production is a key thing, because when you peak production, you're halfway gone with the material. It doesn't mean you're out, but you have declining amounts every year.
So we're in this century of, I believe, peak everything. How do you build this stuff without allocating these minerals and resources to what I consider the correct things to be using them for instead of consumer goods? Why do we waste it, and we don't always recycle all these things?
The permanent magnets in a wind turbine are totally recyclable. I actually have built wind farms with these large direct drive generators that have these neo-magnets embedded, and part of negotiating the contract with the supplier, they said, We'll give you this price, but we own the rights to the magnets when your project is done in 25 years. I said no, no, no, no, no, I own those. They're worth a lot of money, and you want to recycle them. At least they understand that those are an asset that we are going to have probably higher cost of getting in the future and they will be rare. It's very interesting. I'm putting in a $30 million wind farm, but you're saying my magnets are worth over a million dollars, maybe $2 million right now? Oh, I want to retain that. But it shows that at least the forward thinking companies are very concerned about where they're going to get their material and how do you build these things, and then rebuild wind turbines?
I think it was Nate Hagens that has adopted the wording that wind and solar are replaceable technologies, not totally 100 percent renewable. Now there's carbon, there's material, there's all these things, but we have to replace these devices after so many years. Just like a hydro dam, you don't tear down a dam after 25 years just because a generator needs to be replaced. You replace it, and you keep on going because the infrastructure is there. It's the more efficient and productive way to use the renewables, and all renewables, whether it's hydro, wind, solar, and maybe we'll have tidal and other sources someday, if they're ever economical, material wise. The resources, these finite resources are critical to understand.
Eric: I think the term that Nate uses is rebuildable resources instead of renewable. I read an article—I actually didn't read through the entire article, I read through a little bit of the start of it, and I saw the headline—but it was saying that in California now, one of the biggest challenges they face is disposing of all the solar photovoltaic panels that have reached the end of their useful lives, panels that were built in the very late 90s or maybe around 2000. Not particularly efficient, maybe cutting edge for the time, but modern photovoltaics are quite a bit better and so they're having a huge stream of these going to landfills.
David: One comment on that, the market, and the way that we've had lower cost of materials more recently, until inflation started to hit, a number of companies are disposing of their solar panels way prematurely. Most of the time they're lower efficiency panels that have been around 10 or 15 years. I go back in my company in Vermont, back to 2009 when I stepped up the first massive amounts of solar farms I was putting in, my typical panel was rated at 195 Watts. The same panel today, with the higher efficiencies that they've gained, is 320 watts. So you can see, just a quick calculation, they are 50 percent better. So these companies are just scrapping perfectly good, lower wattage panels that have a lifetime that's on the order, I think you can go 50 years, as long as you don't break them with rocks and stuff. You can go 50 years and still get roughly 50 to 60 percent of the output. All solar panels degrade with the sunlight, because the UV and the sun basically degrades them every year by about anywhere from 0.3 to 0.4 percent. So you do the math. They keep working, it says they produce less power.
What I'm doing with some of my sites that have these low power panels, because we make solar trackers that follow the sun we have a limited area of panels that we can mount on a tracker. When you have a limited footprint you want the highest efficiency, so we're taking the older panels off and repurposing them. We call them renewed panels, because we test them, Oh, they're perfectly fine. Yeah, okay, they're producing 8 percent less power, 5 percent less, but we repurpose them in ground mounts that have more area that you can put in. So we don't scrap them. I don't think we should be landfilling panels that are less than 50 years old. We reuse them. And then someday we'll figure out how to recycle them correctly. Because it's tricky to recycle a panel, because you got some silver in there, you get aluminum frames, you got glass, and it's really hard to totally recycle most of those things right now, because the designs weren't set up to be totally recyclable. So I hate seeing them landfilled.
Eric: That's actually something I've thought about a lot, is designing things so that when they do reach the end of their useful life it is easy to recycle them, and designing them in that way is a prerequisite or even a priority. Do you see any movement towards that in the renewable energy arena?
David: Yeah, I think the wind industry, which I grew up in since 1982, I started in wind industry when it just started to take off in the world in California. So here we are over 40 years into the wind industry—the solar industry is a lot less mature, it basically got going 15 years ago when the Chinese figured out how to make cheap raw silicon and drove the price down—but the wind industry is farther ahead on figuring out how to recycle and how to reuse. They're doing some wind farms that were built back in California in the early 80s, they're reusing the infrastructure, the power lines, some of the concrete, and basically rebuilding and repowering huge wind sites. They're using more efficient equipment and said, Okay, because the wind turbines are mainly steel for the towers, a lot of steel, that's quite easy to recycle. And, and there's a lot of tons of steel in a wind turbine. One of the hardest things to recycle is the fiberglass blades, but they're figuring out how to grind them up and maybe use them in road or concrete fillers. Because there's some strength in the grind up. But so far, not a lot of of blades and stuff have had to be recycled, but you're gonna see more of that. And the European nations are putting stricter rules on cradle-to-grave. If you design something, you got to have an exit plan of what you're going to do with this. And even in my little bit company—I'm a mechanical engineer and a product designer—so when we design something say, Okay, let's use the right plastic that can be recycled, let's do this, so that we can recycle or reuse in the future, because I think that's important.
Eric: I want to go back, a little while ago we talked about rare earths, and you mentioned peaking, and fossil fuels peaking, rare earths peaking, and Richard Heinberg's book, Peak Everything. I feel like it's worthwhile to go back and explore that process, because I don't think I've actually covered that in any great detail on this podcast so far. But the idea—I don't think he ever he actually used this language—but the idea comes from M. King Hubbert, originally. He originally described oil production as rising to a peak and then declining afterwards. And he graphed it using a roughly a symmetrical bell-shaped curve. I don't remember exactly which distribution he used. But that's a useful metaphor, even if in practice depletion curves aren't always symmetrical, and they're not always nice and smooth. When we say peaking, that's what we're referring to: you enjoy some number of years of rising resource extraction rates—tons per year, whatever it happens to be—and then you reach a peaking phase, where you max out that extraction rate, and then you are in for some number of years—or decades, or centuries—of more or less declining extraction rates. Do you have anything to add to that?
David: The bell curve of peak oil that M. King Hubbert first put out, and did it by hand, that is working out. You got some jagged pieces, and you got political things, you got wars, you got things that mess up the curve. But in general, when I do talks to students, I put up the bell curve of oil, and then you can put gas and you can put coal up there, they're a little different, but the concept is there. A lot of folks don't totally understand that the area under that curve is your total amount of oil, if you're putting up an oil bell curve. And when you're at the peak, you only have used half of it, but you've used half of it. And that's critical. And you can't produce more in the future, you're gonna produce less in the future. I've studied peak oil for years. We got delayed on the peak of world oil production because of fracking, but it's happened. Some of the experts are now saying it probably happened in 2019. And most of the world is unaware that we have an oil problem. We're going to have less oil, year after year, in the future, until in 2100 there's basically nothing left.
Eric: A useful distinction is that the area under the curve is not the total amount of resource as much as the amount of the resource that you can actually extract, or that you do extract, over time.
Eric: Some of it is not technically extractable. We can't get to it with the technologies that we have, or will have. And some of it, maybe we could, technically, but it's never economical. And of course, that doesn't stop some of the fracking companies, or tar sands. I would imagine that most companies are not going to go after a resource that's not going to give a decent ROI to them.
David: Now you're getting into a pet subject that I like, but very few people are studying it or paying attention to it, and that's the energy returned on energy invested. You're getting into recoverable resource as well. At some point it takes more energy to get it out of the ground than you produce, so why would you do that? That's a losing situation, a good way to go bankrupt, fast. And tar sands is one of those that is close to that. And fracked oil is not great on energy return on energy invested. But when you when you look at all the energy sources, actually large wind, it's one of the best, if you do it well. But it has to be large wind, it can't be small wind turbines. It has to be large wind turbines. That is a critical thing. No one totally understands which boundaries to use. And there's some variability on the results. But we all know, and we've all heard that ethanol is a 1:1, put about one unit of oil into growing corn and doing all this stuff, and you get basically one unit of energy out the other end in your car, and it's really not a smart thing to do.
Eric: One of the things that I did earlier on—I don't do this so much anymore, because interest in it has has waned—but towards the end of my doctoral dissertation, one of the projects I had was not estimating the energy return on invested on ethanol, but measuring the energy return on invested for biodiesel that is produced on small farms in Vermont. So going to the actual farm and getting all kinds of data on how much fuel they use to grow whatever crop they're growing, and look at their conversion rates. It was fascinating to me, because one of the things that it illustrated was there's an enormous amount of variability from one farm to the next to the next, in terms of what their EROI ended up being as a function of what crop they choose to grow and how they do it, and what scale they're operating at. And it's not to say that economies of scale always save the day, but sometimes they can. I think the producer that had the best EROI, which was around 6:1—one unit of energy in, six units of energy back—operated on a pretty large scale, and grew sunflower seeds. Some of the other producers didn't fare nearly so well. I don't think there is anybody that was an unambiguous energy loser, but there were some that were just barely above one, operating on a small scale, doing it just because they felt like it. Which is fine, if that's what they want to do, but obviously you're not going to run a country with a fuel with an EROI of 1.2:1.
David: Well, that's interesting. I was just gonna ask you, what was the range. So you're saying the range is more like 3:1 to 6:1, in that range?
Eric: Yeah, that was what I measured. And I did some modeling, especially with the larger producers, where I tried to encapsulate what their system would look like and what kind of return it would yield if they scaled up further. And one of those producers, I was able to get to an EROI of somewhere in the range of eight to 10:1 if they maximized their economies of scale. And by maximize economies of scale I don't mean getting infinitely big, but there's a there's a point where you get to declining marginal returns, and you grow your EROI to a point and then it levels off. And then if you try to keep growing anyway, eventually you get into negative returns. So finding that spot where you're maximizing your EROI and setting that as the optimal scale for your enterprise. But yeah, it maxed out in the 8 to 10 range.
David: That's interesting, because we hear that there's some proponents of bio energy that said, Hey, all we have to do is grow a bunch of algae or get some biodiesel and we'll grow some crops and we're going to save ourselves and replace all of the oil we're burning. I don't think that's going to work out too well, because of energy returned on energy invested.
Eric: Yeah, I would generally agree with that. I think that we're playing with a lot of different crops, and I've not dove into this literature in six or eight years, so I'm sure things have changed a little bit since last time I really dove into it, but I think that a lot of the crops, or a lot of the materials that people would use to try to create bioethanol or biodiesel probably have limitations in them that are going to cap their EROIs at 4:1 pr 5:1, maybe less than that. But some of them could yield some pretty solid returns. Sunflowers seem to work well, because they're relatively low input crops, the way that the people were growing them. You didn't need to buy tons of pesticides and fertilizers and that kind of stuff. Now, whether that would stay the same if you're growing sunflowers on a piece of land after 5 years or 10 years is another story. So there's another limiting factor built in if you have a very input intensive crop, eventually, once it depletes limiting nutrients in the soil.
One of the stocks in trades of people who do lifecycle assessments is the understanding that you can make the result whatever you want, as long as you're strategic about where you draw your boundaries, and what you include and what you leave out. I tried very hard to have broad boundaries, to tell my best attempt at the truth, but I recognize that not everyone does this. And having waded through the peer-reviewed literature and all these studies, it's easy to find, You left that out. And I've measured that on small farms and I know that's important. Why did you do that? I got to a point where I refuse to take any numbers that other people put out there at face value, because I know how easy it is to fudge things one way or the other. And that's even setting aside committing fraud in the first place, where you're fudging the data that you're getting to make things look better.
David: What I find interesting is when people are quoting their results on energy return on energy invested to three decimal points. I say, guys, if you don't get energy returned on energy investment above 3:1, you're taking a third of the energy produced just to make the energy that you're trying to get. And that doesn't work. You're growing your energy demand and trying to replace fossil fuels. So that's why certain things like tar sands and everything, there tend to be financial games in that real life physical importance.
Eric: Maybe I would back away from what you just said a little bit in the sense that it can work, but if you base an entire economy on low EROI fuels like that, it's a very different economy than anything we've ever experienced. You're basically requiring that your energy sector is a third of your economy. And that's not impossible, but it would be a shock if most people who are alive today were suddenly thrust into a world where a third of your economy was folks working in the energy sector to try to get tomorrow's energy.
David: I always tell folks when I do my talks, I said, You know, many people remember Beverly Hillbillies, and Jed shoots his shotgun down into the ground and oil spurts all over. I said, Oh, the energy return on energy investment of that oil well was maybe 1000:1. That's the easiest thing you could ever do. But that's not real life anymore.
Eric: Not very many places in the world Jed could go and get lucky like that. But you're right. One of the things that I I enjoy about the energy realm—but also I know that it terrifies a lot of people—is that there's all kinds of stuff going on that has an enormous impact on our day to day experience of the world, but unless you're one of the people that is attentive to these ideas and the data that people are gathering, it's all invisible. You can't turn on Fox News or NPR and listen to someone talk about, "Latest breaking news, US Global Average EROI Fell Below 10 Today, Brace Yourselves!" No one talks about this kind of stuff. We feel the impacts of it in our day to day lives with inflation, with a changing economic landscape, but the underlying cause of those changes is invisible to a vast majority of people. In some respects, I think that's scary. And it's just so intriguing to me to dig into this stuff and watch all of this play out in the relatively slow timeframe that it does, at least until we get down to, I think it's like an EROI of 6:1 or 7:1 when you start seeing the net energy cliff make its make itself known. And then things get interesting.
David: One number I find interesting, because the run up to the 2008 or 2009 recession, we saw oil hit almost $150 a barrel. And then we were watching what the gasoline price at the pump was. If you go back and look at $150 oil per barrel, and a barrel is 42 gallons, you can do a quick calculation, okay, I'm paying this much for my gasoline, but the raw material going in the refinery is this much. And when do the delta, Okay, what has changed? Now here we are, what? Over 10-12 years, 14 years later, the delta between the raw material of say, $100 a barrel, in your gasoline price at the pump is a lot bigger. Well, what's the reason? Is it just inflation? Or is there things like energy return on energy investment at work? It now takes more dollars of our economics to to get that gallon of gas delivered? And it's a bigger spread, and so Whoa, this is growing. So anybody looking at this, it was shrinking? Oh, it'd be doing better and everything's going forever, but it's going the wrong way?
Eric: It's going the right way, it's just not going the way that cornucopian economists would love to see it go. That's exactly what I'm referring to, is you look at those spreads and for a lot of people it's like, Oh, we're being price gouged! That's what Joe Biden is talking about. No! No. Maybe there's a little bit of price gouging—I would never put it past oil companies or gasoline companies to price gouge—but I don't buy the idea that that's where most of this is coming from. I think that a lot of these higher prices at the pump are a direct result of a declining energy return for the mix of oils that we produce ourselves, and buy in and send to refineries.
David: Yeah. And then the issue of refineries, Biden is saying, Hey, come on, guys build some more refineries, or whatever. Why would an oil company build a refinery when we've hit peak oil?
Eric: Yeah, and that's just it's a direct reflection of how energy blind our policymakers are. I'm happy to pick on Joe Biden, but obviously he's not unique. You mentioned earlier that we most likely here—this is what a lot of industry insiders are saying, and it makes sense to me—that we probably hit global peak of world oil production back in, depending on whose statistics you believe, October, November, December-ish 2019. If you know that, why would anybody invest in more refining capacity? Talk about bad investments.
We were talking, we had this foray into fossil fuels. And you're, of course, CEO of a renewable energy company. And I'm curious, if we want to go back to that topic, what in particular inspired you to get involved in that industry? You mentioned you were in the wind industry back in the early 80s. But what what inspired that interest?
David: Well, it goes back to being a teenager growing up in Vermont. For some reason, I was always intrigued to be something to do with weather as a kid. I suggared in the spring. I made my own maple syrup as a kid during high school. And I think it was my mom that got an article out that described the first large wind turbine that was ever built in the world to supply power to the electric grid, and it was built in my backyard 10 miles away from where I grew up on Grandpa's Knob in Castleton, in Vermont. It was built in the late 30s and early 40s. And as a 12 year old, in 1969, my dad rented a snowmobile and for a one day trip we snowmobiled that 10 miles over to the top of this mountain, Grandpa's Knob, and he showed me the concrete foundations that were left from that turbine many years after it was taken down. So I got intrigued about wind energy. I even built a little teeny wind generator for my sugar house. It lit up a little light bulb once. I made it from a bicycle generator. So this was as a kid.
Ever since that time, and then I started to figure out by reading, even as a teenager in high school—this was in the early 1970s—the Arab oil embargo happened in 1973. I got my first Volkswagen Beetle in was that, during the Arab oil embargo in 1973, I finally got my license, and we had no gasoline. The gas stations were shut down in my town. And I said, Holy smokes, we have a problem here. Oil has problems. And it turns out that Vermont Yankee, a nuclear power plant that was being built in Vermont, came online in 1972. And I said, this isn't a future. I don't think nuclear power is going to work. This is as a kid. So ever since then, I've dedicated myself to first wind, and now solar and other renewables. But that's how I got involved.
I figured out as a kid going out of high school that maybe the only way I can do something is become technically competent. So I became a mechanical engineer and started my own companies, and grew them all since. But they've all had a common theme, renewables, renewables, renewables. That was 40 some years ago, I started my first company in 1982 in wind energy, just as a wind business started in California. It was a start of the worldwide wind energy business, and I was there with about 200 other people starting it, building wind measuring equipment. So it's been in my blood. And I guess I just have gone with this passion and been successful running some business in some crazy world.
Eric: Mentioning the oil embargo. I was born in 1976, so the worst of the oil embargo was was already over with by the time I have any recollections of anything, but I do vaguely remember—and this could be just where I grew up—but I do vaguely remember sitting in my dad's Datsun when we were stuck in a gas line. This would be in Northwest Indiana, so not in Vermont. But I do have a vague recollection of that—this is in the era before car seats, and before anyone was required to wear seatbelts, so I was a little toddler sitting in the front seat, looking out the front windshield at all the cars in line ahead of us.
David: Oh, boy, yeah. Well, you saw second effect. Because we had the 1973 embargo, but then we had, in the early 1980s, high inflation. And we had another shortage, because I remember trying to get some gasoline to move to a new apartment when I was in college. And I was driving around, every gas station was closed. We almost had to camp out overnight in Springfield, Massachusetts, because no one had any gas and was open. You were probably the toddler then, seeing that effect. So it wasn't just one time, it was a couple of times that this happened. And I think most people today—being older, I remember that. But most people today have never seen a gasoline station shut down for lengths of time because of no fuel.
Eric: Talking about more nostalgia, you're in the Overshoot Reading Group that I organized through Quillwood Academy, and in getting ready to send out the discussion questions for this last chunk of our reading I found and rewatched the 1977 speech that Jimmy Carter gave, getting ready to introduce his energy policy. And, wow, talk about a different era. It was really magical, actually, for me to watch that. I've seen snippets of it in the past, but I've never watched the whole 18 minute speech, all the way through.
Another thing I was curious about, and this relates to that wind turbine that you said that you visited the slab from, when that first wind turbine was built, what was that actually made of? Do you happen to know?
David: Yeah, I studied it a lot. There was a book written by Palmer Putnam, who was the chief engineer that made this project happen, called Power from the Wind. He wrote the book in the late 1940s to go through all the technical stuff, the story, the private company, the S. Morgan Smith Company in Pennsylvania that built the turbine, or paid for it. Back then this huge experiment, this large wind turbine, they put in one and a quarter million dollars. That's what it took to build it. I don't know what that money is today, it's probably $50 million, or whatever. But the technology was basically they use steel, a steel tower, standard generators that they used in hydro, and the blades were stainless steel with a steel spar. That was a technology that they had at the time. And it turns out that the reason the turbine failed was because one of the blades broke off. And in the 1940s, they didn't totally understand the loads and the engineering to make wind work. They had the brightest MIT engineers, they had a team all across the United States that worked on this, they had the brightest people, but they didn't totally know about fatigue. You don't use metals in blades anymore. All the blades are fiberglass, carbon, fiberglass composites, or wood, for a reason. They don't fatigue. They only ran the turbine continuously for about a month, and then the blade broke off and flew down the hill. And then they had to take it all down. That was the end of the experiment. And the lesson was, at the time, coal was cheaper, and the promise of nuclear power was going to be too cheap to meter. So they said, We can't do this wind, because these turbines might cost 20 percent more. So it was abandoned until basically the late 70s, early 80s, after the Arab Oil Embargo that the whole world started to look at wind.
And just a side note, Palmer Putnam, the engineer that built this, my first wind conference I went to in 1981, in Cleveland, Ohio, sponsored by the US government for large wind, I met Palmer Putnam in an elevator and got the shake his hand. And a year later, he passed away. He got to see the reemergence of wind as a source of the world.
Eric: Wow. A last question that I have is, you and I live in Vermont, and there are definitely people in this state—and this is not unique about the state, there's definitely people in this state who are very interested in in developing rebuildable, renewable energy systems of many different types, and there are plenty of people who are against them for a lot of different reasons. A question I thought would be useful to explore and maybe end with is, What are some of the factors that drive resistance, for example, to solar photovoltaics? Or to the larger wind turbines that you've been mentioning have such a decent EROI? What are some of that resistance?
David: Yeah, I can combine wind and solar, being in both businesses, now solar second after my wind forays, and still doing some large wind stuff. But the very first thing is, as I said earlier on, that wind and solar use equipment that are energy collectors. We have to collect very diffuse amounts of energy, concentrate it into a generator and then, or solar panel, inverter, and distribute it. So you need large areas. That's the trick. And some people have said in the past, Hey, wouldn't it be nice to have a one foot diameter pie plate solar collector on your house that would generate all your electricity? Sorry. We have some physics here, that there's only so much wattage per square meter or foot that hits the earth. It's very diffuse. You have to collect it. So you need large collectors, and some of the resistance, the number one resistance, is people don't want to look at solar collectors or wind turbines. They're so used to having the nuclear power plant buried along the coast somewhere that nobody has to see, or a coal plant in someone's backyard—that's not necessarily what they want, but that's where it is. So the plants that we're used to are tucked away or concentrated because they're burning furnaces, basically. So they can do a lot in one place.
So by having to use a diffuse source with these large energy collection devices, people go to aesthetics. I don't want to look at it. But I want to be able to do everything I've always done. I want to heat my house. I want to have food. I want to drive anywhere I want. But I don't want to see this. And this is a particular problem in a minority of Vermonters. They say I love Vermont, I want Vermont to stay the same. I said Well, okay, so you do want electricity? But there's a conflict, because it goes to, I want all this stuff, but I don't want to be responsible for where it comes from. And that's the key. Because there's a thing called wind turbine syndrome. The opponents have assigned almost 300 different ailments you get by looking at a wind turbine, or being near one. I have a wind turbine in my backyard. I haven't gone blind yet. I don't have schizophrenia. I don't have all these problems that they come up with. But they're made up. And it's called wind turbine syndrome for a reason, because there's no proof that there's any of these things that come from being near a wind turbine.
And then you have some environmental issues. And some people use the visual as an environmental problem. So now it's a people problem. The bears, the wildlife don't care what they look like. And in fact, there's a wind farm in Southern Vermont, in Searsberg, that was built. Green Mountain Power spent a quarter million dollars studying bear traffic through the ridge where the wind farm was built. They did all this research, they found out afterwards bear habitat increased. They have more bears. And at the same time, they're allowed to shoot bears. So the hunters had more bears they shot. This is weird. You spend all this money to preserve the bear, but then you go and let everybody shoot them.
So you can see there's there's a lot of things at play. Avian mortality rates on wind turbines are very small compared to plate glass windows, cars, cats. All these things have a mortality rate so much higher, orders of magnitude higher, than wind turbines. I operated a wind farm for five years in Milton, Vermont. We killed a few birds, no endangered birds, but compared to what people may do at their house, they kill more bats than any wind turbine in Vermont does. You got to put it in perspective. It's a balance. Nothing's perfect. But there is resistance. And probably the last thing is resistance to change. We have a new world we're living in. And people don't want to change from what is, or what was. And that's probably the biggest problem.
Eric: On that resistance to change, I read an article—and I'll put a link to this in the show notes for folks who want to follow up—it was originally published back in 2018. It was a bunch of people who are involved in climate modeling, and they acknowledged that things were changing a lot faster than they had anticipated. A lot faster. So they went back and redid some of their models to try to reflect the faster rate of climate change. And then they looked into Earth's past to try to find useful analogues for what they think the global climate might look like in 2030, which was 12 years away for them, but 8 years away for us, and then 2100. And they actually had to go back 3 million years, 3 to 5 million years for what they thought would be a useful analog for what the climate will be like in 2030. Talking about a changing world! And they had to go back 30 million years to find what they thought would be a useful analog for 2100. So not all the way back to the time of the dinosaurs, but halfway there-ish, plus or minus a few million years.
It's so fascinating for the world to be changing so fast. And you have so many people, including people who totally understand the need to transition away from fossil fuels oftentimes, who are just so overwhelmingly and irrationally resistant to to change.
David: Yeah, the change—and I think the COVID-19 over the last two years has really shocked people—we're all reeling from what happened. It's the sort of change that, how do we, as humans, we are not wired to change this fast. And so we're being forced to change. And this is going to be hard, because we're talking about how you reduce carbon in Vermont to 40 to 50 percent less over the next 8 years. We have done poorly on reducing it so far. So how are you going to do this? And what comes out of some of our leaders is just basically magical thinking. Oh, we're just gonna go and drive electric cars, and we're all going to be happy, and everything's fine. Is it? No, it doesn't work.
And so, when you were talking earlier, in the beginning of this, Where's your boundaries when you look at energy or carbon or the system? We don't put our boundaries far enough out. Vermont sets targets, but the targets are set on what we import for fossil fuels. It doesn't take into account the boundary of importing embedded carbon in the shoes, in the cars, everything that we import. Guys, you have to create a larger boundary! Otherwise, you're kidding yourself on what you're doing. And that's where we're at. We don't set the boundaries, because they're scary! When you set the boundary all the way to China, when you buy your shoes and say, Hey, I got a lump of coal in their shoes. No, no, no, we don't want to talk about that. Don't worry, everything's fine.
Eric: Go shopping. Kind of like the George W. Bush, post September 11. Everything's fine. Go shopping.
David: No, doesn't work. So we have to be realistic. You asked me what inspired me to be in renewable energy, and you know, I studied as an engineer so I understand how you solve problems. But the only way you ever solve a problem is you got to know what the problem is. If you're in denial of what the problem is, you'll never solve it.
Eric: Yeah. And maybe that's a good spot to stop, in terms of my questions. Did you have any final thoughts, David, that you want to share before we wrap up?
David: I enjoyed talking with you, Eric. On this journey, the work you do, and what we're all trying to do, and help other people understand this predicament we're in is critical, because I don't know how we're going to deal with this, the way things are going. Business as usual doesn't work. I've said over the years to folks that I've had to have a career and grow a business, but I tend to have worked in two different worlds: the future world that I think is necessary and coming, versus the present world that you have to operate in. So you have to be schizophrenic, that you got to be working in both. Otherwise, you can never get anywhere. Because if I fail on my business side, I don't have methods and resources to do some of the stuff I'm trying to do for the world. So that's sort of how I look at life. We're all overwhelmed, but at the same time, you have to have some optimism. But it tends to be limited based on how you operate in your life and what you can do.
Eric: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Quillwood Podcast. Again, it is brought to you by Quillwood Academy. You can find Quillwood on the web at quillwood.org. Check out the Reality Blind Reading Group under the Offerings menu, on the Educational Events page. You can sign up for that. The reading group begins in late August.
This is Eric Garza signing off from this episode of the Quillwood Podcast. Until next time, walk softly and take good care.