Fred LaSor: Man of La Mancha can teach us about energy

The musical stage production “Man of La Mancha” opened on Broadway in 1965, ran for 2,328 performances, and won five Tony Awards including Best Musical. Loosely based on Miguel de Cervantes’ 16th Century novel “Don Quixote,” its hit song, “Impossible Dream,” was recorded by many artists and heard on radio stations for years afterward.

“Don Quixote” (from whom we get the word “quixotic”) is remembered 400 years after publication for Cervantes’ quirky image of an imaginary knight attacking imaginary monsters as he tilts at windmills on his imaginary horse, Rocinante. The musical is a favorite of mine for its wistful hope during difficult times (it takes place in a prison).

Man of La Mancha comes to mind when I read articles about the promise of wind power. The sad truth is, as much as I like family-sized renewable energy sources like wind turbines, photovoltaic panels, and micro hydroelectric systems, all rely on government support to make a satisfactory return on investment. Photovoltaic cells have dropped in price more than any other renewable in the past decades, but they still are not competitive without a subsidy, usually in the form of a tax break.

Wind turbines (a friend who’s in the business explains they are not “wind generators,” because only beans and politicians generate wind), are deadly for raptors like the hawks and owls we have in abundance in our region, which prey on small vermin like field mice. There are no published estimates for crop loss from rodents in Nevada, but when I lived in Africa USAID estimated loss from pest contamination and consumption at nearly one-half the total harvest, which definitely makes raptors our friend. Wind turbines also require outsize initial investments requiring government subsidies. Neighbors complain of noise, fires are a problem, and they leave a huge concrete footprint when they’re decommissioned.

As for solar, a friend in central California told me the large photovoltaic installation on his company’s roof wasn’t justified financially. The deal with the installer was my friend would pay for the hardware and get discounted electricity, while the installer took the tax write-off in addition to his installation fee. He guessed the contractor wouldn’t be in the business except for the tax break, while my friend gets cheaper electricity.

But his big return came from “the good karma harvested from Bay Area clientele, who were customers because of his green lifestyle.” He laughed wryly: The positive reputation was more valuable than the cheap electricity.

Solar energy can also be harvested in a concentrator solar plant (CSP) by focusing the sun on a collector that heats salt to drive a turbine. Crescent Dunes CSP near Tonopah received nearly a quarter billion dollar loan guarantee from the Department of Energy and is projected to produce 110 MW of electricity when running at full capacity, all contracted for sale to NVEnergy at $0.135 per kWh. That’s approximately two cents more than NV Energy sells electricity for in Nevada, according to the Energy Information Administration.

Even if CSP produced profitable electricity, there are reports of birds falling out of the sky when they overfly the concentrators. From personal experience, I can say looking at the concentrator from an airplane 50 miles away leads to momentary blindness and is perhaps dangerous to the eyes. And we have no idea of decommissioning costs.

Lobbyists and politicians intrude constantly into the economics of energy production. They have delayed implementation of nuclear energy for half a century even though it’s cheap, safe, and reliable, as demonstrated daily in France. An economic alternative to fossil fuels could someday no longer be an impossible dream in America if politicians would stop meddling in the market.

Fred LaSor would like to see family-scale renewable energy systems come onto the market, without government subsidies.


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