Friday, October 23, 2009

Fantastic Future Friday: Alternative Energy

This post is the third post of my planned three part series that started With Temper-Tantrum Tuesday: Energy Conservation and Solar Energy and What We Know Wednesday: Peak Oil.

Alternative Energy is simply any energy source that isn’t derived from what we think of as the conventional fuels we have used throughout the 20th century (fossil fuels and nuclear).

As I explained in Peak Oil if the world doesn’t wean itself off oil at a rate of 2% or more per year we are doomed. We can’t replace it with Natural Gas as the same Peak effect will hit Natural Gas only the spike will be much more dramatic. Coal releases so much Carbon Dioxide into the atmosphere that even the Climate Change Deniers (at least the ones that don’t just put their fingers in their ears and say, “LA-LA-LA-LA, I can’t hear you”) can’t deny increasing our coal usage fourfold over the next twenty years will hurt the planet. Without getting into the debate over Nuclear Power it takes roughly 15 years to get a Nuclear Power Plant up and running, so it is out as a practical option.

The great news is we already have the means to offset our use of Conventional Energy sources available now.

Small Scale Solar:

Solar Heating:
It’s possible for a small family in a conventional house to most of their hot water from a 10 square foot (3’2” x 3’2”) solar panel mounted on their roof. Replacing a typical 80,000 Btu furnace with solar heat would take solar panel would take a solar panel roughly 250 square feet (16’ x 16’) and would only heat the house during the day.

However, even in the coldest areas a furnace doesn’t run continuously, I should know I grew up in the coldest place in the continental United States, so except for the coldest parts of the winter a household can use solar power to heat their homes during the day and only use a conventional furnace at night and in the coolest winter months.

Using the sun to replace conventional heating sources can go a long way towards reducing our energy needs and anyone with a little carpentry skill can do it.

Small Scale Solar Electricity (Photovoltaic):

There are two types of Photovoltaic systems available, AC and DC. The DC (Direct Current) systems are fairly cheap and easy to install. Their drawbacks are they use DC and most electrical appliances are designed for AC.

A small 250-watt solar panel with battery back-up can power roughly 5 halogen lights, so it would easy to set up a house that was completely lit by the sun.

The AC (Alternating Current) systems are a lot more complex but offer huge advantages. An AC system converts the electricity coming off the solar panels from DC to AC, not only does this mean you can plug it into your house’s conventional power grid but in most places you can sell the excess power back to the electric utility.

The Advantage of Small Scale Solar to Utilities:

Using small scale solar not only saves the consumer money by reducing their electric consumption, it helps the utilities especially in rural areas.

Electric Companies have to built their power plants based on peak rates, the maximum power usage they can expect at one time, even if most of the time usage isn’t anywhere near that.

They also have to make sub-stations to boost the power when it starts to dip in areas that are far away from the main power station.

Some activities like Aluminum production and Steel Recycling can be moved to off peak hours, some like farming can’t. For rural areas utilities have to build their plants figuring the farmers and residential customers will be using their peak energy usage at the same time.

By having residential customers use solar for their heating and some of their electricity needs it lowers the peak amount of energy used and they can build smaller power plants to serve the same needs. When some of their customers switch to Solar AC systems they can have the residential customers supplying electricity to the grid at the same time as the farmers need it most decreasing the amount of sub-stations they need to build.

The final advantage of small scale solar to the utilities is during power outages. When a storm takes out the power grid, the electric companies have to scramble to get it back up again. Obviously, if people are getting their own heat and some of their electricity from the sun it lessens the urgency, but it they have some people generating AC it lets them rebuild the system in a more organized fashion.

If you’ve ever gone through a major blackout (who hasn’t) that lasts a few days, then you know turning on you TV or Computer in the days afterwards is a scary thing. As they try to rebuild the grid they end up constantly switching the routes that electricity takes from the main station to your house.

With several small sources of power feeding into the grid from more localized sources it is easier for them to balance the amount of power in the areas of the grid that they get up and running.

With more people switching to solar power not only will it reduce our dependency on fossil fuels but also the existing electric grid will be able to offer more reliable power and that will lead to a fantastic future.

(I had intended to look at more sources of Alternative Energy in this post, but it got a little long, so next week I’ll look at Geothermal Energy in the fourth installment of my three part series.)


Stephanie B said...

Even that's just the tip of the iceberg if we designed houses to use sunlight intelligently. Passive solar power can do wonders to making the most (and minimizing the bite of) sunshine

And wind is also a very promising direction.

Project Savior said...

I'm beginning to feel this is going to be my first non-fiction novel. I was going to do a bit on Passive Solar but the Post was getting long.

Stephanie B said...

Don't blame yourself. I took a class in solar power 20+ years ago in college and it stuck. I'm amazed that capabilities readily known about then have been languishing for decades.

You wouldn't believe the number of houses here in Houston that have a wall of windows facing south or west (as my own used house does). Summer cooling bills are frequently in the $500/month range for very modestly sized homes.


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