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Monday, May 25, 2009

HSA, the future of fusion (solar) power

Replacing all of the electricity used in a typical home with photovoltaic panels is presently not cost effective--too expensive. We use too much electricity. The panels cost too much. But there is another way to look at residential solar. Installing just enough panels to offset your refrigerator and dryer can be viewed as a fancy refrigerator or dryer system. Two of your biggest electricity hogs can essentially become zero fossil energy use appliances.

This is something you will be envied for. Compared to driving a gas hog SUV for show or a poseur pickup truck, this idea, let's call it hybrid solar appliances, or HSA, is an example of an environmentally benign status symbol. Sure they will be pricey, but so are the industrial sized stainless steel ranges, fridges, dishwashers, and the granite countertops found in today's $40,000 (on average) designer kitchens.

The panels will have about twice the lifespan of a typical appliance and by the time you have to replace them in twenty years or so, they will cost a fraction of what you paid for your first ones. I use the word hybrid a lot because, like the word bio, it creates a warm fuzzy feeling in most people.

The concept can be extended to your water heater. Solar hot water panels supplementing your hot water tank can be viewed as one fancy hot water appliance, again driving one of your biggest energy hogs to close to zero fossil energy. Solar panels are very visible and therefor make excellent status displays. You can also put the controller in your parlor to entertain and impress guests.

That pretty much leaves things like lights, computers, and various phantom loads. It's easy and cheap to radically reduce the power used by these things. Replace incandescent lights with curly bulbs, or curly bulbs with much more expensive diode bulbs. Use sensors to control many lights and use timers on fans. There are all kinds of smart power strips available now that will turn off your various charger transformers when not in use. There's even a widget that will power down your computer when it detects you have departed.

Another way to view grid-tied residential solar is that, as far as the power company is concerned, it's equivalent to turning off electric appliances. They can't make money off you if you don't use their product.

The latest solar power plants are using concentrated solar rays to create molten salts that are stored for later use to heat steam to turn turbines that spin generators to make electricity. They can generate electricity for extended periods of time when the sun isn't shining.

Studies have shown that with a properly designed electric grid, wind and solar power can be combined to keep the lights on because when the sun isn't shining the wind is always blowing somewhere, or vice versa.

I just read an article in Science, which mentioned that load-peaking natural gas power plants are now more expensive than solar:

A power plant using natural gas can be quickly fired up or shut down to provide extra electricity when needed, like say on hot sunny days when airconditioners are being used. Coal fired plants cannot easily be turned off and on because it takes a lot of effort and expense to get the coal burning. They are designed to run continuously.

The sun is a giant fusion reaction. The future will be determined by how efficiently we capture its power. I will be cutting my home's electric use in the coming months and will keeping readers abreast of developments and projects.

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(photo credits frielp and The Lebers via the Flickr Creative Commons license).

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Ladies and gentlemen ...start your engines!

I grew up in Indianapolis where the Indy 500 was a spring ritual. Tomorrow will be the first time in three-quarters of a century that the race won't be listened to on the radio by my mother, who passed away just before Christmas.

I have three memories that stand out. The most recent was the time I worked as a high-school student in a hot dog stand to earn money for a service club. It was the only time I attended the race and I could only catch a glimpse of the cars during breaks because the stand was located in the back of the stadium. The next memory was the time one of the cars used a jet turbine. It was tearing up the track until the transmission blew up. My earliest memory goes all the way back to the day when two drivers were burned alive.

Some changes were made after that. For safety reasons it was decided that the cars would use smaller gas tanks and they would be filled with methanol instead of gasoline. Methanol was chosen because it's easy to put out with small amounts of water. According to the Methanol Institue:

"…If an engine fire develops in a methanol-fueled Indy race car, the pit crew simply pours water on the fire to put it out. Normally, the car is able to get back in the race in a matter of seconds…."

Here is a video of a fire started at the Gold Coast Indy race using methanol where a driver pulled out of the pit with the fuel hose still attached. The pit crew just dosed each other with buckets of water. There were no injuries.

The fuel was switched from methanol to ethanol in 2007 and it wasn't for safety reasons. Tom Slunecka, at the time executive director of the Ethanol Promotion and Information Council representing corn ethanol interests put it this way:

"…We could have put our name on the side of a car to promote ethanol, but instead we did it the hard way, so we arranged this fuel switch…."

In comparison, a pit crew member was seriously burned last year when a car using ethanol pulled out of the pit with the fuel hose still attached during an American Le Mans series race:

"…Safety workers quickly put out the fire, but not before Jones, wearing a helmet and fire-retardant clothing, was briefly caught up in the flames.
The hospital confirmed his condition and that he is in the intensive care unit, but would not disclose the nature or severity of his injuries…."

Update 2/5/2011 Look at this Indy car ethanol fire!

The following video demonstrates how hard it is to put out an ethanol fire (885 gallons is the equivalent of two hot tubs):

According to The Bulletin:

"…Ethanol presents firefighters with several unique challenges. For instance, ethanol fires cannot be put out with water; instead, they must be smothered with the careful application of alcohol-resistant foams…"

This stuff really burns as witnessed by this video documenting a tanker that turned over.

Let's hope it is a safe race this year. I'll be listening on the radio one last time in memory of my mom.

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(photo credit BSquared AKA Family Paparazzi via the Flickr Creative Commons license).

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

I apologize

This post has nothing to do with environmental or conservation issues. I just wanted to share. The last sentence spoken in this video is priceless.

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Thursday, May 14, 2009

Biofuel Myths

Biofuel myth posts are a dime a dozen. I thought it was time to do one of my own. Bookmark this post to use the next time you encounter a biofuel missionary or a member of the congregation in a comment field. This will be a work in progress. I'll be adding myths as I encounter them. Feel free to let me know of any you see or if you would like me to try to debunk one.

The only way out of our liquid fuel dilemma is for the public to start embracing the rapidly emerging new technologies that radically improve gas mileage 100% or more above our national average and radically improved mass transit for those who want to use it. Converting food into fuel is a financially and environmentally futile waste of money and resources. Educate your politicians. Send them an irate email.

I call these items myths but they might more accurately be described as Big Biofuel talking points. Every myth can be traced back to one of the dozens of websites that promote crop-based biofuels in the name of profit.

The people you find parroting these "facts" on Internet comment fields in defense of crop-based biofuels fall into two basic groups. People who make a living from crop-based biofuels and those who have been duped by same who might think they came up with these talking points on their own, but the "fact" that they all say the same things strongly suggests otherwise. We are all susceptible to being duped by things like car ads and this is no exception. Car ads are one thing, propaganda is another but they are both effective on the unwary and uncritical. Click here to continue.

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(photo credit Mike Licht via the Flickr Creative Commons license).

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Hybrid electric bike …with afterburners

In honor of national Bike to Work Week, I shot some helmet cam footage of my hybrid bike in action. Hills and cars are the bane of bikers everywhere. One problem at a time I always say.

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Friday, May 8, 2009

Electric cars get 81% better miles per gallon acre

(photo credit rsgranne and davipt via the Flickr Creative Commons license).

[Update: This article is crossposted on Grist.]

From a study published in this week's Science Express ($ub Req'd):

Bioelectricity produces an average 81% more transportation kilometers and 108% more emissions offsets per unit area cropland than cellulosic ethanol…

Given the limited area of land that is available to grow biofuels crops without causing direct or indirect land use impacts, bioenergy applications should maximize the efficiency with which a given land area is used to meet transportation and climate change goals.

Bioelectricity is the act of making electric power by burning biomass for boilers or turbines instead of fossil fuels like coal.

In a nutshell the study says that an electric car using electricity generated by burning biomass will get 81% more miles per acre than a car using cellulosic ethanol. That is equivalent to improving the purported American average of 24 mpg to 44 mpg, which coincidentally is also the improvement achieved by the Prius and Insight.

I touched on this subject in an article titled Misplaced Priorities over on Grist in last year. Imagine replacing the coal in the above photo with corn or wood or hay. Something has to give.

Corn ethanol was also part of the study and as you might have guessed, faired much worse than cellulosic. Not studied by this paper are environmental impacts and costs:

Specifically, the competitiveness of biomass ethanol depends on the cost of petroleum, whereas the competitiveness of biomass electricity depends on the cost of coal, wind, hydro, solar, and nuclear.

Which of the above energy sources will be increasing in cost and which will be decreasing?

The study looked at pure internal combustion cars and pure battery powered electric cars. It did not look at plug-in hybrids, which would eliminate range constraints imposed by today's battery technology.

The paper also said:

Two leading technology developments, cellulosic ethanol and electric vehicle batteries, provide alternative pathways for bioenergy-based transportation. Biomass can be converted into ethanol to power internal combustion vehicles (ICVs) or converted into electricity to power battery electric vehicles (BEVs). It is uncertain which pathway could reach technical and economic maturity first. The cellulosic ethanol pathway benefits from commercially available flex-fuel vehicles but requires significant investments in infrastructure as well as technology advancements to reduce costs for energy conversion. The bioelectricity pathway shows promise in existing distribution infrastructure and emerging commercial offerings of battery electric vehicles that meet technology challenges of range, cost, and charging time. Electricity produced from biomass is a near-term renewable energy source that can be implemented with biomass boilers, Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) power plants, or co-combustion with coal.

What we have here is a battle forming up between increasingly electrified transport (hybrid--plug-in hybrid--fully electric) and corn ethanol powered internal combustion engines (cellulosic is and will probably always be just five years from economic viability). One side is championed by consumer demand being met by market forces and the other side is championed by our politicians who force us to pay to turn our own food into fuel and then pour it down our throats. These are the same politicians who subsidize oil with one hand and its competitor, biofuels with the other. If it hasn't dawned on you yet that our politicians are not capable of solving complex problems like this, maybe its time it did. Take matters into your own hands. Make your next car purchase a hybrid, plug-in hybrid, or full electric when they arrive (on dealer lots next year).

The Renewable Fuels Association is going to have its hands full debunking all of this peer-reviewed rubbish being published in rags like Science (see here and here).

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Thursday, May 7, 2009

Time for a new ride?

(photo credit Wen-YanKing via the Flickr Creative Commons license).

The Cash for Clunkers Agreement is a short-term attempt to stimulate consumer spending on new cars, nothing more, nothing less. It's a no-brainier from a political perspective because voters will support any program that will give them thousands of dollars to trade in a junker for a new car.

It is also another example of why you should not be waiting for politicians to fix global warming. The global warming impact of making a new car nullifies any savings from the marginally better gas mileage required to qualify (click to enlarge):

As with corn ethanol policy, they are about to make things worse again by taking two steps back for every step forward.

There are a lot of questions as to how it will work. Here are just a few:

  1. Can I just buy a junk car for a few hundred dollars and turn it in?
  2. If I turn in my SUV do I have to buy another SUV instead of something like a Prius?
  3. Can I turn in the car I keep parked in the alley for hauling junk twice a year?
  4. Will all cars turned in be scrapped, including cars that get much better mileage than others being turned in?

I don't know the answer to any of these questions but I don't think they matter. The government is just trying to get you to go buy a new car to clear the inventory on dealer lots. Dealers sure won't care about what you turn in. You could probably get $4000 for your grandma. But if the answer to question 2 is yes, then this piece of legislation has taken your usual inept government bungling to a whole new level.

For more on the topic:

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