Willett Kempton: Combating Peak Oil with Wind and Smarter Electric Power

We spend a lot of time on this site discussing the risks posed by Peak Oil. It's important to us that you understand the magnitude of our national/global predicament and take appropriate preparations.

But in addition to tracking the gathering stormclouds (of which there are many), our info scouting efforts also look for developments with potential to change the situation positively.

In the podcast below, Chris and Willett Kempton explore the potential of wind power to reduce the energy pinch threat posed by depleting fossil fuels. Dr. Kempton is an electrical engineering professor at the University of Delaware and director of the Center for Carbon-Free Power Integration. Turns out, while still early in the game, there's action going on in wind and electricity-management that offers real promise.



Click the play button below to listen to Chris’ interview with Willett Kempton:

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The interview covers:

  • The importance of electricity storage in making alternative energies viable, as they have fluctuating production (i.e., the wind doesn't always blow, nor the sun always shine)
  • Current options for increasing our energy output from wind
  • How much of our energy needs could be fulfilled by wind if we pursued it at a Manhattan-project scale (hint: It's more than you'd think)
  • Strategies for using electricity from wind (and other sources) to create liquid fuels
  • The promise of 'smart' technologies to optimize our consumption and conservation efforts

Some truly novel ideas come up, such as Willett's work around using electrical car fleets as a distributed electricity storage system - returning power from their batteries to the grid when the cars are fully charged and not in use.

As for Peak Oil, Willett agrees the threat is real: "If the population understood what the scientists understand," he says, we'd be fast-tracking moon-shot scale alternative energy infrastructure investments immediately.



Willett Kempton is Professor, College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment, Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and also Director, Center for Carbon-free Power Integration, at the University of Delaware.. He received a Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Texas, Austin in 1977. He has done extensive research on social and policy aspects of energy use and energy efficiency.

His scholarly articles cover topics such as American citizens' understanding of global climate change, beliefs and behavior regarding home energy, international comparisons of citizens' and policymakers' environmental perspectives, energy efficiency policies, and factors which move citizens to environmental action. He has written one book on theoretical cognitive anthropology, edited three volumes on energy, and most recently coauthored "Environmental Values in American Culture" (1995), a study of Americans' environmental beliefs and values. Kempton has held research or teaching positions at Princeton University, Michigan State University, and the University of California campuses at Berkeley and Irvine, prior to joining the faculty at the University of Delaware in 1992.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://peakprosperity.com/willett-kempton-combating-peak-oil-with-wind-and-smarter-electric-power/

 at the moment renewable supply is trivial compared to potential efficiency savings… “negawatts”
 As the EROI diminishes… that will become even more true… a joule saved will be 2… 5… 7… 12 … ++  joules earned…

 the demand side is where “easy”, RAPID gains are made… especially where it involves liquid fuels… ie transportation.

smart grid: making full use of capacity, staggering heavy but non-urgent loads like dishwashing. washing machine, tumble drying, car recharging, and water heating to make use of wasted capacity is a good thing ™.

the supply side will take time… and I think smart nuclear (pebble bed, thorium ) is the only sane/obvious/practical transition strategy…, not perfect…  plenty of challenges/problems… but scaleable, and efficient.

 Using nuclear + tar sands for temporary oil is a better idea than wasting natural gas…  anywhere you need concentrated heat , nuclear is a huge win. And the smaller the scale, the bigger the win…  a simple mass produced reactor delivering hot water and electricity to 1000 homes would be worth it’s weight in PM’s.

 Solar, wind… are distractions / long term prospects IMO… same as fusion.


Another fantastic interview Dr. M.,
As usual, your questions made all the difference.

Look out Puplava, Martenson is on fire! Laughing

Got to get off to work!
Cold Fusion is now 63% replicable.


This has the potential to be a game changer, if we can work out the theory behind it. We have the practical skills but not the theory.

It seems as though the helium trapped in the lithosphere is a product of cold fusion, and that the reason the planet’s core is hot is cold fusion.

One has to disengage the chatter of the left hemisphere to assimilate new information.

(See “The Master and his Emissary” on Amazon.)


Regarding LENR:
(60-Minutes-Clip about LENR, April 2009)

(Dr. Robert Duncan of the University of Missouri on LENR, May 2009. Dr. Duncan gives a very informative speech on LENR)

Just recently, Gerald Celente put LENR on his newest trends forecast. He said he expected an energy revolution from it, but he didn’t tell the time frame. I think it was in a King World News interview where he mentioned it.

The question is: If LENR should become technological and commercial viable, what would that mean for our planet? Even more exponential population growth? I consider “Peak Fossil Energy” as both a threat and chance to shrink our world population to a sustainable level. But if LENR became reality, this would push everything to a completely new level.

So I am keeping an eye on LENR, that’s for sure. :slight_smile:

Has anyone ever considered hooking wind turbines to pump air into compressed air storage tanks, which can then be used to power household appliance?

Some Amish have a lot of experience with using compressed air to power work tools (drills, lathes), blenders, washing machines, etc. Air cars are a proven technology - powered with compressed air.

With clean compressed air, you don’t have to deal with chemical batteries or hazardous wastes disposal after the batteries are done, or rare earth minerals. The tanks act as storage for when the wind doesn’t run, and can power dynamos to provide power and light.


I belong to several science/altenative energy discussion forums where they discussed the pros/cons of such ideas.  apparently there is a pretty significant loss of energy in the transfer.  of course that doesn’t matter if the energy is free, but the size of the tank vs payback is also not very good.http://fieldlines.com/board/index.php/topic,135908.0.html

I think both solar and wind power should be used to produce hydrogen on site.
 My thinking on this is as follows. When you save that electricity in a battery it ‘leaks’ away relatively quickly. If instead you used the electricity to create hydrogen onsite the the hydrogen could be stored indefinitely with very little loss. It could also be shipped across the counrty via hydrogen vehicles that don’t have the heavy load issues that electric cars have, due to battery depletion. In other words you could use hydrogen in large trucks, something that ‘electric’ vehicles have a hard time with right now. Yes I know that electric/hydrogen conversion is not very efficient but the source is relatively free.

Any thoughts?

[quote=Johnny Oxygen]I think both solar and wind power should be used to produce hydrogen on site.
 My thinking on this is as follows. When you save that electricity in a battery it ‘leaks’ away relatively quickly. If instead you used the electricity to create hydrogen onsite the the hydrogen could be stored indefinitely with very little loss.[/quote]
I hate to tell you this…  but hydrogen atoms are so small they escape through the walls of any container, and the higher the pressure the faster it escapes!  This is one of the major hurdles of the so called “Hydrogen Economy”.
If you’re going to do this, then you’d have to use the H2 up pretty quick…

Maybe special adamatium tanks lined with kryptonite?

Here’s an interesting email I received from a reader on the subject of wind turbines.  This is out of my depth on the subject, but I offer it as a starting point for conversation.  


A bit more on wind turbines. I have spent quite a bit of time researching this over the years and have a couple of great articles which I can’t send to you at the moment because they are on another computer which had a hard drive problem and I am not smart enough in that area to transfer it over. Waiting on younger family hotshots to do it. Severe weather has a far greater effect on wind and solar than most people realize and this is because most people don’t understand the dynamics of a thunderstorm. I have visited the US four times and am familiar with your weather and your tornadoes and ice storms. Any decent sized thunderstorm any where in the world, but particularly in latitudes 10 to 40 degrees from the equator can have severe wind gusts, hail and lightning especially when triggered by heat and mountain uplift. When a storm gets a top above 40,000’ it generates strong up draughts and down bursts inside often exceeding 200 m.p.h. and can rise or grow at in excess of 6000’ per minute. Lightning can have a voltage above 50 billion volts and the temperature generated above 30,000 C. Here in Australia, in airline operations, I have seen thunderstorms with tops to 70,000’ – now they really are severe. In fact as an aside the highest thunderstorm ever recorded was 94,000’ at the bottom of the Gulf of Carpentaria in Queensland – this was verified by radar by a US Air Force aircraft flying from Guam to Amberley Air Force base.

They are finding now that gear boxes and bearings cannot stand the strain of the severe gusts and no matter what earthing material you place in the blade and tower, those temperatures and voltages do damage. The German insurance industry will not insure wind turbines unless the gear boxes are replaced every 5 years and they cost in excess of 20% of the total cost. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado state that they are seeing gearboxes fail in as little as three years and that email I sent before states that the six massive 5GW turbines offshore in Germany needed the gears boxes replaced after 2 months. What the designers don’t understand is that the forces on those blades are so great that no gear box can be designed to withstand those loads over time. A 3/5 GW turbine can have blades up to 400’ in diameter with a single blade weighing between 8-10 ton.

Above 55 m.p.h they need to be “feathered” that is moved parallel to the airflow to reduce drag and stress on the gear box and bearings – this is done mechanically with a hydraulic brake, but the problem that they don’t understand is that when a storm passes the wind veers 180 degrees, quite suddenly, as the wind east of the storm feeding it with moisture, is overtaken by the storm’s own speed and direction of travel. This is quite violent and I have seen it with storms crossing an aerodrome – the result is the wind has not only changed direction suddenly, there can be downbursts under the cell with the wind coming from all directions. No wonder the blades are stressed and fracture or fail under theses conditions, with aerodynamic stress, load stress, torque stress and about three other forces all in action together. Another consideration is that over time all materials having significant mass and which rotate, are subject to centrifugal force, and this causes the mass of the atomic structures to migrate outwards. This is why there are limits to the size of flywheels and why large helicopter blades have to balanced every six months and in opposite pairs. Aircraft propellers have to be overhauled every 2000 hours. Can you start to see the problem of a large wind turbine sitting high on a ridge in an exposed location being subjected to these dangers and why they fail.

Above 42C most turbines have to shut down because of gearbox overheating and below –15C, freezing problems cause a similar limitation. Any ice or snow accumulation would cause out of balances problems as do bird droppings, and pitting and damage by rain, hail and dust. Off shore the winds are stronger, salt water is corrosive and impossible to prevent entering electrical equipment over time. Marine growth on structures, hurricanes and big seas are other issues not fully appreciated. The cost of maintenance can be up to 10 times higher because of weather limitations on boats and helicopters and finding days with calm winds – they are dangerous places to work. One link which I will send shows a photo of a wind turbine in Germany with the tower lying sideways on the ground and the whole concrete base pulled clean out of the ground as well as lightning damage and stress fractures to blades and gear box wear. Another is a good article by J.K Halkema a Dutch electrical engineer with much experience on European grids and high voltage switching.

That’s enough for now.


Any thoughts?  Seems like some legitimate concerns there to me.

One of my biggest concerns is that there is not yet, even remotely close to being done yet, a single manufacturing process that runs, beginning to end, just on electricity.

And by “beginning to end” I mean from making the mining vehicles that mine the ore that feeds the smelters that were built from electrically run plants that turn out the steel that’s used to build the turbines, etc and so forth, including all the necessary components and the feeding and housing of the workers at those plants.

We are a long, long way from a cradle to grave mfg processes for alternative energy devices that  run on electricity.


[quote=cmartenson]One of my biggest concerns is that there is not yet, even remotely close to being done yet, a single manufacturing process that runs, beginning to end, just on electricity.[/quote]But why would this be necessary?  There are currently viable methods to produce alternative liquid fuels (Amyris, LS9,AltraBiofuels,…) that can be used to power heavy equipment for mining, airplanes, locomotives, etc.  It’s just that they may not be scalable to personal transportation, and not in the time frame pressures from peak oil will require.  This however does not mean that we have to have all manufacturing or even shipping being done with electricity. 
My best guess is that fuels will become more expensive forcing reduced usage or transition to alternatives.  Those tasks deemed most important will get the more limited difficult to replace fuels (oil, bio-fuels etc) while personal transportation will be required to transition to electricity or fuel use being eliminated altogether (walking,bicycles, etc).
I agree we are in for some significant pain while we transition to the “new normal” and figure out what is “worth doing” and what was a luxury that we can no longer afford, but I don’t see us having a “collapse” where we suddenly have no way to move food around, it will just mean fewer luxury/non-neccessities for everyone.

There’s a big heated debate in a small town not far from me over the installation of wind towers near residential neighborhoods. These are BIG towers. 480 feet tall. One thing I never thought of is shadow flicker, where the blades cut through the sunlight, causing a flicker. That would be annoying to me. I have heard about the noises associated with the turbines rotating.
I do know living in an elevated area myself that the wind roars pretty good during and after storms so certainly some energy can be created with wind. But it’s not any easy solution by any means.

[quote=Damnthematrix]I hate to tell you this…  but hydrogen atoms are so small they escape through the walls of any container, and the higher the pressure the faster it escapes!  This is one of the major hurdles of the so called “Hydrogen Economy”.
If you’re going to do this, then you’d have to use the H2 up pretty quick…
The process you are referring to is called chemisorption and occurs due to a chemical reaction between the metals in the container wall and the H2 bond. Losses of hydrogen due to this process are typically measured at >1-2%/year, hardly enough to dismiss this possibility.

1. Gear boxes on Wind Turbines
They are going away to be replaced with direct drive generator heads, that no longer need a gear box to adust the speed. This is to eliminate maintaince and weight. The new generator head are 8 to 10 feet and diameter and and made of many poles so that can produce electricity at very low rotation speeds.

2. Storage

The only real economic electricity storage is Pumped hydrostorage. You need systems capable of storing peta to exajoules of energy. It would be very expensive to use chemical batteries to storage that amount of energy and it would also require mountain size amounts of heavymetals/rare-earth elements to build sufficient chemical storage systems. The  problem with pump storage is the most of the land areas that have the correct resources (large potential energy drop for gravity fed hydroturbines, abundant water to pump into storage area, etc) have already been developed. In many regions, water is in short supply which also compounds the problem, as water stored in a lake for hydropower completes with the supply for drinking water  and agraculture use. Already we see in some places such as the US west where the water taps for agraculture have been turned off, just to meet the increasing water demands for the major cities. In addition, demand for water will rise even future as the midwest aquifiers begin to deplent in the next decade.

3. Hydrogen

Its not a practical grid size solution. Currently there are two ways to make use of Hydrogen in chemical processes; Combustion and fuel cells. At best Combusion is 40% efficient in converting chemical energy into electricity. consider that much of the heat generated is loss, as no turbine is 100% efficient, nor is any generator head 100% efficient. While fuel cells are much more energy efficient in converting hydrogen into electricity is comes with a very high construction cost and most fuel cell stacks need to be rebuilt every 5K to 20K hours.  In addition electrolysis is only 85% effecient in converting electricity into hydrogen,

4. Cold Fusion.

While cold fusion does happen, it will never produce sufficient qualities of energy to be useful. It will take a large amount of resources just to produce a handful of watts using cold fusion.  Its about has practical as pushing your own car by hand  for transportation.

I am concluding with two other major issues not discussed:

1. Lack of proper infrastructure to transistion from oil/gas to electricity.

The US and the rest of develop world does not have a grid capable of transporting the ~300 exajoules consumed by the combustion of oil and gas every year. Consider how much new high power power lines would be needed to convert every home and building to be heated by electricity instead of oil and natural gas. Then add in the additional demand for transportation. We would need to have high voltage lines everywhere just to meet demand.

2. Lack of capital, time and energy resources replace 140 years of hydrocarbon investments and over-population.

It has take us 140 years to build all of the infrastructure we have today, using very cheap hydrocarbon resources. The day of cheap hydrocarbons is over. and we can barely maintain the existing infrastructure. There is simplity insufficient resources and capital to reconstruct our infrastructure to provide a hydrocarbon limited economy.

The bottom line is the world has too many people completing for declining resources. Consider how long hydrocarbons would have lasted had our population been much smaller. Imagine if the world population had been capped below a billion people. We would have abundant hydrocarbon resources for at least 500 years, and the amount of pollution produced would have been much more tolerable. Even if by some miracle, energy production constraints were resolved, the growing population will still lead to major resource problems, as we loose our ability to provide non-energy resource to meet the growing population. Soon or later one major nation will get pissed off and go to war to take the resources it needs to survive.



How about a two dollar a gallon gas tax. 1st; proceeds go to alternative energy R&D (by law no way for the money to be used elsewhere). 2nd; behavior will change rapidly.
Yes, I know it is a pipe dream.

 Rebutting the idea that simply building a lot of wind towers over a wide enough area will result in load stabilization is the experience of Germany as explained by wind critic J. A. Halkema:

This was a fascinating paper to read, I definitely have a few more questions about wind power now.  It was sent to me by a reader as a PDF, but the title is “Wind energy facts and fiction:  A half truth is a whole lie” and the author is an electrical engineer with a lifetime of experience in grid components.

If wind towers were going up in my neighborhood, I’d want this background.

A lot of great ideas there, and I really don’t want to diss Prof Kempton or the interview, but one needs to keep this whole electric car / smart grid thing in perspective.  While listening to the interview I kept hearing James Howard Kunstler in my head saying “techno-rapture…sustaining the unsustainable…keeping the cars running by any means other than oil…”
At the end of the day, cars and even the electric grid are not essential to life.  They are the icing on the cake of civilization.  The Roman, British and Aztec Empires all produced highly complex civilizations in which there were no cars and no electric grid.  Food and water are, however, essential to life, and if we run into major problems with food and water in the 21st century (as seems likely) then we probably won’t care whether or not we have a smart grid powered by smart electric cars.  


I work in the business of short term (1-24 hour) forecasting wind power for the purpose of helping the electric grid management authorities deal with the large amount of wind power in places such as Texas, California and the Pacific Northwest.  It’s worthwhile to contrast Texas with one of the European countries (Spain) to get some perspective.
In the U.S. the primary incentive for wind power developers is to place their wind farm where the best resource is located (where the annual average capacity factor will be highest).  For this reason many of the wind farms are packed into small regions of strong winds so that they all tend to be at full production (or zero production) at the same time.  For example, about 2/3 of the over 9000 MW of wind power capacity in Texas on the independent electric grid managed by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) is within an approximately 150 km diameter region near Sweetwater in west central Texas.  Because of this, there are frequent swings between near full capacity and near zero capacity - a large challenge both for ERCOT and for me and my coworkers who must somehow figure out how to forecast the hourly (or even 15-minute) averaged wind speed within about 2 mph and accurately predict rapid changes due to cold fronts, thunderstorms and other features that can effect many of the closely packed wind farms at once.  This is making it more difficult for ERCOT to manage the grid as the portion of energy supplied by wind approaches about 10%.  Furthermore, the wind farms were built before the transmission infrastructure was developed to handle all farms at full capacity.  Each time the wind blows hard near Sweetwater (a frequent occurrence), some of the wind farms are required by ERCOT to turn some turbine blades into the wind and essentially dump up to about 3000 MW of power. 

Spain has about 16000 MW of capacity spread out in small wind farms over the entire country (about 900 km from east to west and north to south).  Yes, they actually thought through the grid management process early in the game and created the proper incentives for a distributed network.  They have never been at over 70% of capacity due to the distributed nature of their wind farms.  The whole country never experiences strong winds all at once.  While there is definitely too much variability to run the country entirely on wind without storage, the lower variability combined with lower forecast errors (since positive error in one region have a significant likelihood of being offset by negative errors in another) make it reasonable to manage the grid even with 20 or 30% of power coming from wind.

If we in the U.S.A. could find a way to create a national electric grid, our very large land area would mitigate power swings and allow us to use as much or perhaps even a bit more wind than Spain.  But that would require a huge amount of copper for the transmission lines, tremendous political will to acquire the rights of way, and a gargantuan amount of capital to build.  Even then there would be times, especially in the summer, when the wind is not blowing very strongly anywhere.  Of course, we could throw in some solar to run all of the air conditioners (or learn to live in the heat again), a bit of storage, power from waves, tides and currents, and a heap of willingness to get by on less electricity and we just might squeak by.  

There are all sorts of potential problems though - like a mass northward migration when air conditioning becomes too expensive for many and what happens to the climate of the northeast U.S. and western Europe if we put too many turbines in the Gulf Stream and so on …

We have been at times amazingly cleaver with technology, and I have not doubts that we will come up with some amazing alternatives that we will be glad to have. Someone mentioned having to have energy to run our tumble dryers and dishwashers. Any new fuels and energy sources need to be matched with conservation where ever possible. Clothes lines need to be the fashionable sign of enlightenment. Also, there is a the huge issue of entitlement and resources. When the USA is 5% of the world  and uses 25% of the energy (not exact figures but useful for argument), we USers need to look at our consumption.