Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Way of Energy in the Future

I was out working in the garden this morning and I got to thinking about the gas crisis and peak oil and all the rest. So I decided to write up a little prophecy sort of thing. That is not to say that the following stuff is my prediction of the future, though in some cases it is, it is just how I feel things may go or should go. So don’t quote me in the future claiming that I said something that didn’t come true so I’m a false prophet. I am just presenting an opinion of how I think it will go or how I’d like it to go, and I’m certainly not an apocalypse monger.

First thing on the agenda is fuel. I’ve read a lot of stuff and seen a documentary or two that would have us believe that the oil supply will suddenly come to an abrupt end, resulting in mass chaos, rioting, and the end of “Dancing with the Stars.” Unfortunately in the latter case, I doubt this will happen. Since the Arab oil embargo, things have changed a bit, oil supplies have proliferated, there are new sources, new processes, and new ways of thinking as well as the possibility for vehicles that use much less fuel. I seriously doubt a sudden end for a number of reasons, first being the oil sands which are mined primarily from Alberta, Canada in this part of the world. Oil sands are much more difficult and expensive to mine than regular oil, but that brings up the whole point. There is lots of oil that is just not economical to get to. But enough to power the whole world at current consumption levels, not likely. I believe it will just get more and more expensive until people largely stop using it. The current trend already sees people driving less, using less fuel and buying smaller cars. When viable mass produced electric cars come on the market, (that’s when, not if) oil consumption will drop further. Eventually, the remaining oil supplies will likely be used to extinction in poorer countries for powering vehicles while they are used for industrial purposes in the United States, used for plastics and petrochemicals. I’d like to see an electric car revolution, I personally want to get an electric bicycle and convert my pickup into a series hybrid.

Biofuels. The use of biofuels that take the place of food crops in the fields must end. People come first, and the first thing that people need is food. We don’t need to be growing fuel where our food should be coming from. Hopefully cellulosic ethanol and algal biodiesel will come in to wider usage. I see them as recreational fuels, like charcoal briquettes in a way. In the same way as you might say “we’re gonna have a barbecue, did you get the briquettes?” you might also say “let’s go out on the boat, did you fuel it up?” The concept will go further as series hybrids or electric cars with range extenders like the Chevy Volt concept enter wider usage. “Lets go on a road trip, did you put biodiesel in the car?”

Housing. I was in Lowe’s the other week and was excited to see a book of energy efficient homes on the shelf near the checkout. My excitement quickly became disgust when I found that the primary feature of these “energy efficient home designs” was 2x6 walls. The best a 2x6 wall can expect to get using spray foam insulation is about R30 insulation value. That is not good enough, especially since the boards themselves present huge problems with thermal bridging. One of my home design plans features no less than R60 whole home insulation, that is ten inches or better of spray foam insulation and air tight. The best solution is adoption or at least some sort of promotion of the German Passive House standard or something like it. I believe there are less than ten of these houses in the US currently. There needs to be many more. I know this is Arkansas and all, but how is it forward thinking that I should be able to go into Lowe’s and buy windows that aren’t even Energy Star certified? The same goes for any appliance or other device. The worst part is that people actually still buy this stuff, windows last for 30 years or more, do you really want to replace them in five because you can’t afford all the heat pouring out of them all winter and pouring in them all summer?

Electricity and other fuels and energy sources. First of all, I’d like to say that hydrogen is not an option. It is not a fuel, it is an energy transfer medium with extremely inefficient conversion processes. It will never work in the face of efficient and advancing technologies like simple electricity. It just can’t beat electricity at anything considering costs and problems. Won’t work. We can argue about it later, but it won’t work. Electricity with distributed generation is the best option. Imagine having electricity when the grid is out, having heat during an ice storm, even if it is less than normal. Having it is better than not having it. Nanosolar is now printing solar panels like an ink jet. Whether the promises prove to be true or not is yet up for debate, but they are promising solar panels at less than a dollar per watt. As I’ve said before, I’d like to see renewable energy systems required on every new construction. Warehouse style stores have vast stretches of flat roofs, and vast parking lots in need of shade. The average Wal-Mart super center at 20 to 30 acres could produce quite a bit of electricity on a sunny day if covered by solar panels. Plus that shade will save additionally on power bills. Anyway, back to what I was talking about. The best option is for people to have solar panels on their roofs, and also for those who have opportunity, to have micro and pico hydro as well as small wind. These things not only allow people to produce their own electricity but there is this strange phenomenon where people begin to consume less to match their generating capacity, which can only be a good thing. I’d like to see micro grids in the future where an advantaged (locationally) group of neighbors sets up their own little grid with several small power sources and become their own utility. The technology is quite simple, and very scalable. There is benefit in having a grid, but in the future what will become of the huge ones we have today? Energy intensive applications like metals processing will still need large amounts of energy, which is why many of them are located next to hydroelectric dams or large powerplants already.

Food. Now that I’ve discussed being more like Europe, I’d like to discuss being more like Cuba. Before the USSR fell, Cuba was almost completely dependent on it for everything, being the Communist little brother as it were. When that era came to a close, Cuba was left mostly without an oil supply, and quite suddenly as well. Now, as a result, Havana is able to produce the vast majority of its food supply within the borders of the city because people have created community and rooftop gardens. Translated to the modern day, home food producing gardens are already a good idea, and as the price of food goes up with fuel, the prospect of growing “free” food at home will be that much more alluring. I believe the trend toward more sustainably grown food will continue, and I’d love to see Steve Heckeroth’s electric tractor idea hit the big time. One thing that is very much needed is for humans to eat far less meat, or eat only meat that they themselves raise. Something Al Gore has inconveniently ignored is that the methane and other emissions from meat production likely does more damage concerning global warming than tailpipes do since methane has around twenty times the greenhouse effect than carbon dioxide does. Additionally, most of our crop land in the US is used for growing grain for animals. It’s an extremely inefficient operation and it will come back to haunt us in the form of food and fuel prices.

One thing that’s not going to work is just doing everything the same way we are doing now. Some have already chosen the route of efficiency and reduced consumption, but for our society to be sustainable, many more need to do the same.


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