Tag Archives: alternative energy

Iceland – Fire and Ice

When it comes to countries with the lowest dependence on fossil fuels – coal, oil, and natural gas – the hands-down winner is Iceland. Because of abundant rainfall, about 80 inches annually, and considerable topographic relief they are able to produce over twenty percent of there energy needs from hydropower.

More important however is the production of energy from geothermal heat, almost seventy percent of their usage. Much of this is harnessed to generate electricity but a considerable amount of the geothermally produced steam is process heat for industries and for district heating. The steam is delivered to much of the populated portion of the island via underground piping.

The availability of geothermal heat is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing in terms of the energy available, but a curse do to volcanic activity. In 2010 Eyjafjallajökull erupted. The ash cloud disrupted air travel across Europe for several weeks. This was only a nuisance, but even larger eruptions have occurred.

In 924 CE a volcanic eruption was calculated to produce over 700 billion cubic feet of ash and lava. Human life was impacted only slightly as the island was only first settled in the 9th century, so the population was minuscule. Even today, the population is small for a nation, about 350 thousand. Compare that with the population of the urban area in and around Little Rock, Arkansas at over 400 thousand. Two-thirds of the population on this island the size of Ohio is in the capital, Reykjavik.

The most disastrous eruption was the event from June 1783 to February 1784. Rather than an eruption from one point, a volcano, a rift 15 miles long opened up and spewed lava, ash, and toxic gasses such as Sulfur Dioxide and Hydrofluoric acid. Ninety percent of livestock and twenty-five percent of the citizenry died immediately or over the next year due to starvation. Twenty villages were buried under lava.

All the geologic activity is due to Iceland’s straddling both the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. They are moving away from each other at the rate of nearly an inch a year. Tourists can stroll through the rift zone in Thingvellir National Park. You can even scuba dive in a lake with your hands in a narrow crevice, one hand on North America and the other on Eurasia.

On the opposite side of the globe these and the Pacific plate are colliding, one subducting under the other. This type of subduction causes the volcanoes in Alaska to Central America and western South America and earthquakes in both California and Japan.

Iceland, as the name implies is far north in the Atlantic. Reykjavik is the world’s most northerly national capital, a scant two degrees south of the Arctic circle. Considering just how far north it is, the climate is surprisingly moderate.

Along the coast, especially the south, the summertime highs are in the mid-fifties and winter lows only in the upper twenties to low thirties. The ocean current known as the Gulf Stream delivers warmer water from coastal Florida to moderate the climate in this otherwise northerly clime. The interior of the island is as expected, colder. Eleven percent of the interior is covered with glaciers.

Sustainability is the Future

The United States became the dominant world power by the conclusion of World War II. In essence, we were the last man standing, ie, the only real industrial power not impacted by war. In fact, the war brought us out of a depression and stimulated our industrial might. Additionally, we had vast resources of fossil fuels to run the factories.

To this day we are still the largest economy on the planet, but no longer the leader in some of the technologies that will be important, even determinative, in the future. Our utilization of fossil fuels in the past brought us to the top but continuing to rely on then in the future will bring us down.

Whether we recognize the inherent dangers of global warming and the need to decarbonize our energy mix, most of the rest of the world does. President Trump is trying to move us in the wrong direction by abandoning international agreements such as the Paris Accord. He has ordered a cutback of fuel efficiency standards, opened vast areas of public land for fossil fuel exploitation, and generally thumbed his nose at any and all previous measures meant to deal with global warming.

Clean, sustainable energy is the future. Economies built on this recognition will in the long run prosper. Although we pioneered electricity generation from wind, China has blown past us in installed capacity with over a third of the world’s installed power. The European Union led by Denmark, Germany and the Iberian peninsula, is now producing more than the US.

The latest big move into wind power is the United Kingdom of Great Britain. The UK has moved rapidly to install offshore turbines and now has more offshore capacity than the rest of the world combined. Scotland leads the world in the fraction of electricity demand it meets with wind power. An astonishing 53% of all electricity production comes from wind turbines. In the US, it is 6%. And they are not resting on their laurels. The UK will soon be home to the largest wind installation project with a capacity of 1,800 megawatts off the Yorkshire coast. The largest in the US the Alta Wind energy project with 1,548 megawatts.

This wind project will be powered by 150 turbines each generating 12 megawatts of power. Each turbine will provide enough energy to run 16,000 homes. These giants stand over 800 feet tall, almost 3 times the height of the Statue of Liberty.

A similar story holds for solar. China leads with about 25% of total world production. The US is fourth after China, Japan, and Germany. In terms of the fraction of total production, the US falls to tenth place with only 1.4% of our total production. Italy leads with 7.5% of there total.

As stated earlier, the countries which deploy the greatest fraction of their energy production via sustainables will lead the world if for no other reason than a decreasing demand for a diminishing resource is a good thing. As important however, is the advantage of leading in the development of tomorrows technology.

Every wind turbine and every solar panel also means cleaner air and reduced global warming potential. Did I mention that the Arkansas Public Service Commission is likely to soon make a ruling which will disfavor home solar arrays? MAGA, Making America Grate (on our nerves) Again.

Property Assessed Clean Energy Act

Whether you personally are or are not concerned with global warming, you should be interested in saving money. Many steps taken to mitigate climate change such as sustainable energy supplies and energy efficiency save money. The Trump administration refuses to acknowledge the risk of global warming and subsequent climate change, indicated by his refusal to join the rest of the world in the Paris Accords. Regardless, cities, states, schools and universities, even businesses across the country do get it and are acting to honor the goals of the agreement.

Assuming Arkansas is like the rest of the United States, about half of all the energy and three-quarters of the electrical energy used goes into buildings. Acts, ordinances, etc. which lead to increased utilization of non-carbon energy sources can go a long way to save energy, lower costs, and lessen the use of fossil fuels which drive global warming.  Act 1074 of 2013, called the Property Assessed Clean Energy act or PACE is a program that allows a person or business to finance energy projects through the inclusion of the costs in a property tax assessment.

The act enables governments such as cities, counties or combinations thereof to form Energy Districts which organize financing for projects. Fayetteville, (later joined by Springdale,) and North Little Rock have active programs. A property owner/business identifies a project that will save energy or water or create clean renewable energy. The improvement district then arranges the financing for the project. This can be done with bonds or a variety of private financing. The property owner repays the loan through a property tax assessment over a defined period of time.

A number of energy efficiency projects come to mind: Increased insulation, more efficient window windows with low-E glass, solar hot water systems, projects which reduce water consumption, more efficient heating and cooling systems such as ground source heat pumps. Projects which actually produce clean energy are also funded: photovoltaic panels, micro-hydro projects, wind turbines and biomass energy are all included.

Here is an example of how it could work. A property owner with an older structure decides to upgrade the HVAC, insulate the walls and attic, and replace the windows. The total cost of the project is 10,000 dollars. She goes the Energy Improvement district and receives 100 percent financing. The cost is repaid over ten years through a property tax assessment. Generally, the savings in utility costs will cover or even exceed the annual fee. If she sells her structure before ten years the buyer assumes the assessment, just as they assume the energy savings from the energy improvement.

PACE benefits the local community by creating a cleaner, greener environment. Local businesses that supply the equipment will see increased sales. Installers will have more work and create jobs for skilled tradesmen and unskilled labor alike.

Such a program is easily within the reach of Russellville, and other cities which may choose to join the program. The City of Fayetteville created the model ordinance used by the aforementioned cities. Were the program adopted county-wide many farmers or other rural businesses and homes could benefit from energy saving/production.

The best way to save money and the environment comes through energy efficiency. Reduced use of electricity means lower costs but also less burning of coal and natural gas. This is a win, win, win situation. The adoption of ordinance to create an energy district will save the property owners money, create business opportunities and jobs for the community, clean the air, and cool the planet. What’s not to like?

PV Primer, 2017

The cost of photovoltaic systems (panels and inverter) has dropped to about 1 to 2 dollars per watt. At this price, including the 30 % federal tax credit, systems have payback times in less than 7 years, regardless of size. This assumes a cost of about 10 cents a kilowatt hour (kW-hr) for electricity.

Here are a number of nuts and bolts issues for those interested in solar power. First and foremost you must have a location with southern exposure. Even a small amount of shade can seriously reduce energy production. For most this means a roof top location, but it needn’t be if you have the space to put the array on the ground. The simplest mounting puts the panels flat on the roof. The pitch of the roof is not all that important as long as it faces south.

The amount of space needed for an array of course varies as to how much total power you want to produce. Different manufacturers make panels in different sizes (watts) but the total space needed is the same because all PV panels have the same efficiency, about 15 %. Five 100 watt panels will take up the same space as one 500 watt panel. One kW requires about 80 square feet of space.

A big decision is whether the array is isolated or connected to the electrical grid. Grid-tied systems here in Arkansas can take advantage of net metering. This means that the power produced by the panels can actually make a meter run backwards if they are producing more power than the home is consuming at any time. About the only disadvantage of a grid-tied system is that when the line goes down, so does the solar power production. This is necessary to protect power line workers.

The alternative to grid-tied is to go entirely off line by buffering production with batteries. This avoids the aforementioned problem, but greatly increases the cost and “hassle factor” of the system. This is only practical when connection to the grid is cost prohibitive, as in remote locations.

The total amount of energy produced by a system is obtained by the total wattage of a system. For example a 1 kilowatt system can produce a maximum of one kilowatt hour only when the sun angle is ideal. Averaged over a year, a simple rule of thumb is that you can get 4 hours of net production per day. Hence a 1 kW system can be expected to produce 4 kW-hrs per day, more some days, less others.

Let’s use an average consumption of 1000 kW-hrs per month (close to the average in Arkansas) to determined a system sized to replace 100 % of electric needs. 1000 kW-hrs per month means 33 kw-hrs per day. Divide that by 4 to get a a little over 8 kW system. To allow for some inefficiencies say we use a 9 kW system. At 1.5 dollars a watt, the total cost would be 13,500 $. The 30% federal tax rebate brings the final cost down to 9,450 $. Sales taxes and installation will add to the cost, but these numbers can be used to approximate a cost if you are interested in going solar.

Human Energy, Embodied Energy

Humans, as just about all living thing, have a capacity to do work. By subtracting the energy we need for basal metabolism from total caloric intake we get a measure of useful work. For an average American, we do about 500-1000 kilocalories of work daily. Converted to kilowatt-hours (kWh) it’s only 1.2 kWh.

We consume vast amounts of additional energy in the form of electricity and gasoline to name just two, and the indirect energy embodied in the goods and services we use in modern society. If we add it all up and convert it to a single unit, it comes to 220 kWh per day. It is as if we all employ over 200 slaves a day! How in the world did we get here?

One place to begin is with human control of fire. There is clear evidence of the control of fire 200 to 300 thousand years ago, which roughly corresponds with modern humans, Homo sapiens. However there is growing evidence of the use of fire goes as far back as a million years ago. Not only did fire provide warmth and protection but also increased nutrition.

Only a slight step up from burning wood was the use of charcoal. This was important for the advancement of the various metal ages. Copper and Tin were ores easily smelted using charcoal which provided both an energy source and a chemical reactant for making metals. The bronze age, bronze being made principally from Copper and Tin, dates to the dawn of civilization – about 6000 BCE, 8000 years ago. This begins the use of embodied energy, rather than direct energy use.

The next step was a giant one, the identification of fossil fuels as energy sources. The demarcation of modern life begins with the industrial revolution around 18th to 19th centuries. This is the age of coal and iron and mechanization. The steam engine powered by coal not only revolutionized manufacturing but also transportation via steam trains and ships.

The beginning of the age of oil is usually connected to Edwin Drake’s oil well near Titusville, PA. Crude oil and its refined products rapidly displaced other energy sources because of convenience. Our success in World War II was due in large part to our exploitation of fossil fuels for manufacturing and transportation.

World War II also ushered in the atomic age, first with bombs, then “atoms for peace.” The first civilian nuclear reactor in the US (the first in the world was in the Soviet Union) was in Shippingport, PA in 1958.

As our consumption of crude oil continued to increase, by 1969 our ability to produce oil peaked. Shortly thereafter the Organization of Petroleum States formed, began an embargo, and caused the US to realize that in terms of energy we are not be the masters of our fate.

Loss of control of the oil market, coupled with the increasing recognition of the harmful effects of the burning of fossil fuels ushered in the beginning of renewable, or better described sustainable energy sources, notably wind and solar.

Booming Solar

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Sustainable energy is currently the most rapidly expanding form of energy in the United States. The same is true here in Arkansas. Whereas we are not well set for wind as our neighbors are to the west, solar panels (PV) that generate electricity are effective, and getting cheaper by the day. Solar arrays now cost less than half of what they cost just 10 years ago.

The price is now so low as to be competitive with more conventional power sources such as coal and natural gas, and infinitely cleaner. Current solar capacity (as of 2015) is 20.1 megawatts (MW.) This is an unbelievable 640 % increase over all PV power installed up through 2014. The new power installed in 2015 is dominated by utility scale power, 15.4 MW. Commercial industries and businesses installed 0.24 MW and the residential sector 0.46 MW. This represents a 56 million dollar investment in clean energy and jobs.

Solar power has come of age, not just for people wanting a little power for an off-grid cabin in the woods, but residents tied to the grid, industries, and especially power companies. One real advantage of solar power is its scalability. If a power company needs to expand their energy supply a small amount, they can add a small solar field. If they need a lot of power, they install a bigger field. No alternative has this scalability. You just can’t build a (cost effective) small coal or nuclear plant. Not even natural gas fired turbines are as scalable.

The L’Oreal plant in North Little Rock will install several thousand PV panels, about 1 MW’s worth. In March 2016 a private-public consortium consisting of two Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corporations, and Aerojet Rocketdyne will install a 12 MW solar field near East Camden. The largest install this year will be an 81 MW solar farm to be installed by Entergy near Stuttgart.

Generally installs of home solar arrays are booming also. Most cost effective for the consumer is a grid-tied net metered array. This system allows the home owner to remain connected to the grid in addition to the solar panels. When the sun shines the panels provide energy to the house, but when the sun is not shining, the home can draw power from the grid just like any other home.

PV systems can be sized to provide all or any fraction of the power needed for the home. If a particular array actually produces more energy than can be consumed in a given month, the law allows the excess to be carried over to a month when energy is needed.

The consumers gain is however the power companies loss, and they don’t like it. They lose profits by not selling as much electricity and even worse net metering threatens the vertically integrated structure of the business. They are the power generators, the wholesalers, the distributors and the retailers, and they want to keep it that way. Other states, notably Arizona and Oklahoma, have instituted additional fees for home solar which will severely limit the development of truly distributed clean energy.

The Public Service Commission here in Arkansas is empowered by law to set rates and rate structures of electric utilities. Over the next year they will be conducting studies to determine if changes are needed (read additional costs to home solar users.) The utilities will be arguing that they have to claw back their profits to remain in business. Stay tuned.

Wood as Fuel

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The capture and control of fire is right up near the top when one considers technology and human evolution. Whether simply warming the hearth, defending a home place from wild animals or cooking food, fire is a most essential ingredient. Estimates are that an ancestral species Homo erectus learned to control fire ½ a million years ago, and some scholars believe as early as 1.7 million years ago.

Wood fueled the production of the various metal ages up to and including the iron age. Wood was still the dominant fuel used in blast furnaces in early 19th century England. In fact it was the shortage of wood for the furnaces that stimulated the development of the use of coal. Forests were gradually cleared farther and farther from the furnaces until transportation costs made hauling the wood impractical.

Wood, straw, dung, etc are still major fuels in the underdeveloped world. Worldwide wood is the fourth largest source of fuel after the fossil fuels – coal, oil, and natural gas. Wood and derived products like charcoal are about one third of all fuel use in Africa and over half in Oceania.

Industrial fuel wood use in the United States is limited. Certain industries that produce significant amounts waste wood can burn it to produce steam for process heat or to drive turbines.

The amount of heat derived from burning wood varies as the density of the wood with hardwoods such as oak and hickory having the highest fuel values. At the other end of the scale are softwoods such as pine. This is only true where the wood is measured by volume such as a cord (a stack of wood 4 feet by 4 feet by 8 feet- 128 cubic feet.)

When measured by mass all wood has about the same fuel value which is the same as the fuel value of carbohydrates like sugar or potatoes. A toothpick and a piece of spaghetti of the same weight will produce the same amount of heat when burned.

In rural areas where available, wood is used for space heat. It may be hard to think about it now in August, but come January or so, there will be nothing like a hot wood stove to back up to on a cold morning. An air tight wood stove can be a useful source of heat, but an open fireplace, regardless of how attractive, will actually remove heat from a room.

Wood can be a renewable energy source but just how “green” is it? Not all that much. There is much waste when wood is harvested for fuel, it’s call the “roots and shoots” issue. The roots below ground and the unused branches and leaves mean that a lot of biomass is wasted.

The biggest drawback about use of wood as fuel is the burning. Any time something burns varying amounts of noxious products are produced. Fine particulates damage respiratory systems and cause asthma, especially in children. Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons produced by combustion are carcinogenic. Carbon Monoxide production can be deadly. It interferes with oxygen absorption in the blood and result in acute respiratory failure or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

It is estimated that over 4 million premature deaths a year can be blamed on cooking and heating with biomass, essentially all in the underdeveloped parts of the world.

Go Solar

The amount of solar energy available to the United States is overwhelming. With today’s Photovoltaic technology, 16 per cent efficient PV panels, the total energy needs of the country could be met using a land area of only 8,000 square miles. This is an incredibly small area compared to the 3.8 million square miles of total land area. All the solar panels we need to power the country could fit in a fraction of Elko County in Northeast Nevada.

Just imagine, miners don’t need to die underground to extract coal. Mountain tops don’t need to be blown off and pushed into valleys to get at a coal seam. We wouldn’t need to worry about whether fracking wastes pollute our ground water, or bust up the foundations of homes to access natural gas. We don’t need parking lots full of high level radioactive waste from nuclear power plants. Yes, you read that right. Our only plan for the storage of high level radioactive wastes, hot for tens of thousands of years, is to store the waste in concrete containers around the sites of nuclear plants.

The health of the public would be improved and incidentally the cost of healthcare lowered as we no longer would have have all the untoward things in the air that cause problems. Not burning any fossil fuels means less lung irritants such as fine particulates. Less heavy metals that cause nerve damage, less acid rain, less ozone, and the list goes on and on.

Rather than produce all the energy in a fraction of one county in Nevada, we could spread it out to the individual states. The US uses a total of about 4 trillion kWh per year. Closer to home, Arkansas uses about 50 billion kWh per year. To meet that need we would only use about 100 square miles, less than a tenth of the area of Arkansas County in the southeast part of the state. Or let’s make each county generate their share. For Pope County we need a scant 2 square miles out of 831. It’s easy to see that we have plenty of free, sustainable sunlight and the land foot print needed is not even an issue. We will also need to upgrade our transmission network, but still that’s doable. The real fly in the ointment is storage.

The aforementioned calculations of land area needed are for full power, 24/7 year around, assuming we have storage for when the sun doesn’t shine due to time of day, season or weather. This a problem but not an insurmountable one. Elon Musk, the manufacturer of the Tesla electric car, and Space X reusable rockets is building a huge battery factory in Sparks, Nevada. The battery factory will occupy a building covering an area equal to 95 football fields.

The factory will be powered exclusively by solar electric power, with energy to spare. The batteries built in this factory are lithium based and are intended for his fleet of electric cars, but it shows that really large scale production of all aspects of sustainable energy are not just something in the distant future but are close at hand.

Solar Based Solar Energy

A major drawback of most if not all sustainable sources of energy is the matter of intermittency. Power can’t be generated by wind turbines if the wind doesn’t blow, and solar panels don’t generate power when the sun doesn’t shine.

There are three ways to deal with this. One is to simply expect to use power when it is available. This is impractical for homes or hospitals or industries where power is necessary 24/7, but it is conceivable that certain industries could run their industrial processes when power is available. Sources such as wind and solar are intermittent, but reliably so. A major problem with this strategy is that expensive equipment can’t be used for sizable amounts of time, making the industry less efficient and therefore less competitive.

The obvious solution is energy storage for leveling the availability of power, and there are a number of different strategies. Pairing energy sources to level access to power may be possible in some cases. In some areas the wind blows more at night. This could be combined with daytime solar PV. Actually this is already occurring to some degree via our electrical grid that utilizes both wind and solar inputs.

The holy grail of sustainable but intermittent energy is inexpensive grid scale battery storage. This is a major forefront of sustainable energy research today. Some Japanese researchers are taking another tack however. What if you could find a place to put solar panels where the sun always shines, with no shadows or clouds, just sunlight 24/7. No problem, just head out into space about 20,000 miles. Solar panels are already hard at work powering hundreds, even thousands of satellites and of course the international space station.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has a 25 year plan to develop gigawatt scale solar panels in space and then beam that energy back to earth. For perspective the average nuclear power plant produces a little less than a gigawatt. The two reactors at Arkansas Nuclear one combined output is about 1.8 Gigawatts.

This will be a BIG project. To produce that kind of power requires an array of solar panels that weigh on the order of 10,000 tonnes and covers an area of a couple square miles, but this is the easy part. Getting that power back to earth is the really tricky part of the plan. The idea is to beam the power back from space via microwaves. Satellites in geosynchronous orbit would point a sending device towards an earthbound antenna which would absorb the microwave power, then convert it to electrical energy that could be sent to grid along with all the other energy sources.

We use microwave ovens to heat up cold cup of coffee, but in this application the power is sent only a few inches, not tens of thousands of miles. Microwaves are sent long distances in the form of radar, but the relative power level is extremely low. To beam relevant amounts of power tens of thousands of miles is the real challenge.

So far testing has only involved sending kilowatts of energy over a fraction of that distance. Stay tuned.

RIP David Bowie 1947-2016

National Security is More than Bombs

The focus of a previous Republican debate was national security. To a man (or woman) the only concern was for the security that comes from a bullet or battleship. Their strategies involved variations on sending our troops to die in Syria, greater involvement of the Arab nation’s troops, increased drone attacks and a strangely abundant call for carpet bombing.

Other kinds of security may come to mind on a national scale, food security is a biggie, and avoidance of floods and droughts, and disease vectors such as insect born infections, and epidemics, and heat waves and on and on from global warming and climate change. Bullets and battleships won’t help here, just the opposite. Instead of fighting we must work on agreeing so we can reach solutions.

Back to national security of the bombing kind. Last July the Department of Defense (DoD) released a report outlining possible threats to national security that could involve the military. “Global climate change will aggravate problems such as poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership and weak political institutions that threaten stability in a number of countries…”

When the British exited the Indian subcontinent they partitioned the area into India and East and West Pakistan, based strictly on religious grounds. Later east Pakistan became Bangladesh. It is a small but populous, low-lying country. A predominantly Muslim country adjacent to a predominantly Hindu India. What happens when rising sea levels push 150 or so million Muslims “upslope” into Hindu India? The capital of Bangladesh is not coastal but still is just 4 meters above sea level. Even without forcing migration across borders, population concentration can cause strife.

Hardly any place on earth is immune from threats that could turn into military conflict. The melting of Arctic sea ice will bring several major nations into proximity in the area. Some of the area has ill-defined borders which when covered with ice weren’t much of an issue. Now those issues along with the seas are heating up.

Access to fresh water will surely become a flash point in the future. The high latitudes and low latitudes are predicted to get wetter, but the mid latitudes drier. There are already over a billion people with limited access to potable water and this may only get worse with global warming.

The DoD report emphasizes that the threat is real and requires planning to be prepared for the future. “The ability of the United States and other countries to cope with the risks and implications of climate change requires monitoring, analysis and integration of those risks into existing overall risk management measures, as appropriate for each combatant command, they added.”

A recurring theme in science fiction novels and movies has been the coming together of otherwise warring nations to fight a common enemy – space aliens. Will global warming be the threat not from space but from within which will bind us together as a world community? An important step was taken recently in Paris with a much heralded agreement among all nations. The meeting of world leaders has resulted in an international resolve to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius.