Monthly Archives: June 2013

Biofuel is Inefficient

The United States attained the position of a superpower to a very large degree by our ability to utilize fossil fuels. Our way of life requires burning massive amounts of those fossil fuels. The wastes released by burning these fuels is leading to global warming and ocean acidification. If we want to preserve any semblance of a natural environment on this planet we must stop.

To maintain our lifestyle we have to adopt energy production systems that are free from carbon pollution and have long term sustainability. Direct solar, wind, and biofuels derived from crops are three strategies being exploited on a small scale already.

These three energy sources all derive from the sun but are they of equal efficiency? The short answer is NO, in capital letters. Not only are biofuels very inefficient in terms of land use, but also compete with food crops for acreage, fertilizer, and water.

Although the direct tax credits for biofuels like Ethanol and Biodiesel have been discontinued, we continue to subsidize these energy sources by crop price supports and mandates for biofuel use. This is certainly good for agribusiness, but is it good for society?

Consider the productivity of Ethanol from corn. In the United States, we use about half the corn we grow for ethanol production, roughly 50 million acres per year. For this we get 3 billion gallons of gasoline equivalent from ethanol. The problem is that we use over 130 billion gallons of gasoline a year. If we put every arable acre of land in the country in corn (580 million acres), we still would only be able to produce less than half of the fuel we need.

And we would have nothing to eat! The problem with biofuel is that photosynthetic efficiency is very low. That’s why it took hundreds of millions of years to accumulate the fossil fuels were are now consuming.

Of course, there are alternatives to biofuel.

wind turbines

wind turbines

If that same land area is used for wind turbines, solar thermal or photovoltaic applications, much more energy can be harvested. The 60 gallons gasoline equivalent per acre from corn ethanol represents less than 2000 kilowatt-hours per acre per year. Dedicate that same land mass to wind turbines with “good” winds and you get 130,000 kilowatt-hours per acre per year. And the land beneath the wind farm is still available for crops or pasture.

Photovoltaic systems are even more productive.rooftop_PV Virtually anywhere in the US, 800,000 kilowatt-hours per acre per year is attainable with current technology, That is 400 times as efficient as corn ethanol. We don’t need cropland, we can do it on our roofs. We get to eat.

In summary, photosynthesis is a very poor choice when it comes to energy production because it is so inefficient and it competes with food crops for land and water. Solar energy production methods such as photovoltaics and wind with current technology can sustainably power our future, now.

Arkansas Health Care

Generally speaking the quality of health care in a nation follows from the wealth of the nation. The economy of the United States is the largest in the world. When you divide the economy by the number of people (per capita GDP) we still fare well, generally in the top five depending on who you measure and who’s doing the measuring.

If you have money we have about the best health care system in the world. But if you don’t have the money, not so much. Measures of health of the population are not so rosy for us.cost_longlife75 Something like forty or so countries out of about two hundred, some much poorer than we have lower infant mortality rates, longer life expectancies, and a better overall quality of life. Most of western Europe, Asian countries such as Japan and South Korea, even Cuba out rank us in these health care measures.

Within the United States, Arkansas fairs poorly in these measures with a relatively high infant mortality rate (14th among the 50 states) and shorter life expectancy (7th shortest). The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act colloquially referred to as Obamacare should help advance Arkansas’ standing in the United States and our standing in the world.

The reality is that we are a poor state, ranking very near the bottom in median income. That translates to a larger than average fraction of the population without sufficient health care. To bring better health care to those without, Arkansas has chosen to expand our Medicaid rolls as part of Obamacare. The lion’s share of this will be born of federal dollars. One hundred per cent of the cost of Medicaid expansion will be covered by federal dollars for the first seven years, and ninety percent thereafter.

This will add close to a quarter of a million Arkansawyers to the rolls of the insured, and should help to lower our infant mortality rate and extend life expectancy. In the long run this will also help lower the cost of insurance for those already insured. How so you ask? Read on.

The cost of health insurance to an individual is dependent on what the insurer has to pay the medical community, doctors and hospitals. Both law and ethics require the medical community to treat both the insured and the uninsured. To recover the cost of taking care of the uninsured, doctors and hospitals charge the insured a rate that keeps them in business. Here is an important point: The more insured the fewer uninsured. The fewer uninsured, the lower will be the premiums for the insured.

An additional cost savings of better health care for the less fortunate is the fact that those with insurance tend to get better primary and preventive care. It is ever so much cheaper to provide an inexpensive diuretic to lower blood pressure than to treat a heart attack or stroke.

In the grand scheme of things it is cheaper for the haves to help out the have nots, unless you are willing to turn a blind eye on the sick, to literally block them from the emergency room door.

“…the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life; the sick, the needy and the handicapped. ” Hubert H. Humphrey

5.4 kW grid-tied

Cost of PhotoVoltaic (PV) Systems

Because of the previous high cost of photovoltaic (PV) panels, their use has been limited to rather specialized and unique purposes. PV panels have and continue to be used to power satellites, and remote sensing facilities on earth where traditional energy sources such as electricity provided by power plants was unavailable.

In the 1970s those PV panels that were used to power satellites cost close to eighty dollars per watt. By the turn of the century the cost of panels was down to the vicinity 8 dollars a watt. And the price continues to drop.pvcost When I put in the panels to power my home in 2008 the cost was around five dollars a watt.

The current cost of PV panels is now approaching one dollar a watt for small home scale systems. This results in a system payback time of about ten years. Imagine, you pay one upfront cost for for a system, it pays itself back in about ten years, and you have free electricity for the rest of the life of the panels which is well over 25 years!

So lets talk about the nuts and bolts of a system. It consists of three components, the PV panels which produce direct current (DC) electricity, an inverter to converter the DC to Alternating Current (AC), the stuff that powers you home, and storage for when the sun isn’t shining.

If a home is already connected to the grid then storage isn’t an issue. A “grid-tie” can be used as the storage, eliminating the considerable cost of batteries. The net metering law in Arkansas allows producers to utilize a bi-directional meter. When the sun isn’t shining power is drawn from the grid, when the sun is shining the meter runs backwards, crediting the production. A system can be sized to produce as much energy as is consumed.

And it doesn’t matter how big the system is, it always pays off in ten years or less. A larger system will cost more, but produce more so the break even point is the same regardless of size.

The average home is Arkansas uses about 1000 kWhs per month and hence has an electric bill in the vicinity of 100 dollars a month. Here is an illustrative calculation for the cost of a system to totally cover the electric needs for that household. The panels for a PV system should cost about 10 grand. Add in about 2 grand for a system inverter, and another 3 grand for installation and you get a total cost of about 15,000 dollars. There is a 30 % federal tax credit, a credit not a deduction, which will then lower the cost of the system to about 10,500 dollars.

For this household the system will generate all the energy needed to offset the billed amount of electricity, saving the consumer, now a producer, 1200 dollars a year. The payback time is less than nine years. And the system will continue to produce at this rate for two or three times as long as has been paid for already.

Do you have access to the southern sky? Then your roof, or open space can be utilized to pay for your electricity, and the cost can be spread over the life of the system. In the future companies like Entergy will be mainly involved in distributing energy, rather than producing it. Production will be at home.

Power to the people.

Distributed Energy Generation and National Security

Global warming and climate change clearly threaten the United States and for that matter the world around. In addition to a warming climate, arctic sea ice and glaciers are melting so sea levels are rising, the oceans are becoming more acidic, storms are becoming more intense and disease vectors are spreading. The obvious response to all these threats should be obvious- stop burning stuff.

Global warming is a direct result of the combustion of fossil fuels. For the most part it has served us well but we have to recognize that the party is or should be over. We now know there is a dark and dangerous side to burning fossil fuels.

If this were all the threats our current power systems posed, it would be enough, but there’s more. It has recently come to light that Iranian hackers have been attempting via the internet, to gain access to the communication and control systems of our electrical grid. Our current energy systems not only threaten the environment and economy, but now have become a national security issue.

The cyber attacks, apparently sanctioned by the Iranian government have so far only been attempting to gather information as to how our systems work but the threat is clear. Their ability to remotely control nuclear reactors, or even conventional coal powered plants could result in disaster. One way to mitigate the risk of catastrophic failures of power plants is to rely more on distributed energy systems. Lots and lots of little power stations present a bigger problem for hackers to overcome.

Energy sources such as wind, solar and geothermal are not only cleaner and sustainable but also less prone to attack because they can be much more widely distributed. If every home was contributing to electrical energy production, then a cyber attack becomes a near impossible task. If we generated our electricity via millions of solar homes instead of scores of nuclear power plants we will be that much the safer for it.

So how do we get to a more widely distributed energy supply? We don’t need to reinvent the wheel, we just follow the lead of others who are on that path already. Germany has adopted an energy plan “Energiekonzept” to power their economy via solar and wind. Additionally they are phasing out nuclear power. They have already shut down one third of their nuclear power plants, eleven reactors in the past couple of years. This even in the light, no pun intended, of the fact that January was the darkest in sixty years, with only 22.5 hours of sunlight.

The people of Germany have decided that clean, sustainable, and widely distributed energy systems are valuable and the energy from them should be priced accordingly. They are installing wind and solar faster than any other country on the planet. Funding for the conversion comes from additional taxes assessed on unsustainable, dirtier fuels.

Now we see that national security is an unanticipated benefit to their approach to cleaner sustainable energy supplies. Can we agree that our national security must keep pace with the changing realities of the twenty first century?