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SolFest - Accretions

Fata Morgana
2004-08-24 00:36
SolFest
Public
Last Saturday I went to SolFest, a renewable energy event at the Solar Living Center in Hopland, California. The event was full of solar panels, biodiesel converters, electric bikes, environmental ISPs, composters, natural fibers, yoga accessories, organic food, and the scent of weed. After wandering through the vendors, I attended a session on sustainable investing, then one titled "What Would Jefferson Do?" Unfortunately, the speaker wasn't able to make it to the latter, but he gave a rousing speech later that day on the main stage, and dag29580863 bought one of his books. In the afternoon I went to a session on "the value of knowing the history of the food we eat," which started with a demonstration of an elementary-school skit and ended with heirloom apple tasting.

darthabsinthe and bain_easag went to a session on shareholder activism, which advocated buying at least 2000 shares in a company you want to change (better yet, have an organization do it), then going to shareholder banquets and taking advantage of your guaranteed five-minute speech slot to highlight the company's indiscretions and advocate more sustainable practices. The speaker also described how much easier it is to talk to upper management when you're a shareholder, and how much more effective it can be. He gave as an example his involvement with getting Home Depot to stop carrying virgin old-growth wood: it turns out that only 1% of their timber fit that category and it was probably more cost-effective to ditch it and avoid the protests and bad press. After Home Depot, Lowe's quickly followed suit. Interesting technique.

I was disappointed that while there was lots of talk about alternative energy, nobody that I heard talked about the need to reduce energy demand. The closest anyone came was the sustainable investment fellow, who talked about the "energy ratio" (energy extracted:energy put in) of various energy sources while discussing investment in solar panels or other alternative energy. Oil used to have an energy ratio of 200:1 (= spurting out of the ground), and now is around 40:1. Solar is about 10:1 based on the average lifespan of solar panels (the low ratio is due mostly to fabrication costs), and most other often-mentioned alternative energy sources are around 10:1 or less. The speaker said that naturally there'll have to be "major rearrangement" in lifestyle when the energy ratio drops, but he didn't directly advocate a reduction in energy demand.

Throughout the sessions and around the booths, people self-righteously proclaimed their support for one alternative energy or another. But from what I've read over the years, they all have their drawbacks.
  • Oil has the obvious drawbacks of pollution, nonrenewability, destabilization of the world, etc. However, it's the easiest, most cost-effective energy source today.
  • Natural gas, though much cleaner, is also nonrenewable, and has a much smaller cache than oil, making scaling difficult.
  • Electricity, when produced from coal (and quite a bit is), is terribly polluting - if you have an electric car, it is more polluting than a similar gasoline-powered car.
  • Diesel generally pollutes less than gasoline, but has high particulate pollution, leading directly to bronchial problems in animals.
  • Biodiesel seems promising, but recycled sources are limited so it can't scale well, it releases some particulate pollution, and using primary sources, such as making your own corn oil, again takes more energy (and water!) than gasoline.
  • Wind turbines are pretty expensive (economically and environmentally) to manufacture, and they can (and do) chop up birds. (If they were deployed on a really huge scale, they may even change global weather patterns.)
  • Dams and other river-turbines are expensive (economically and environmentally) to build and install, really mess with local ecosystems, and can displace people too, as they are (on a huge scale) in India.
  • Ocean current generators are extremely expensive (economically and environmentally) to build and install, and are expensive to maintain since they can get gummed up with barnacles and other ocean-dwellers pretty quickly.
  • Solar panel manufacturing is again expensive (economically and environmentally), though solar seems like the best choice of those listed above, at least for places that get enough sunlight.
  • I don't know enough about hydrogen to say yay or nay. (Can you post something?)
So while some energy sources seem somewhat promising, all have their drawbacks. Why not, in addition to exploring alternative energy, also advocate a reduction in consumption? Here are a few ways of reducing demand that come to mind immediately (if I don't explain well enough, mention it in comments and I'll clarify):
  • Cities could be better-organized to facilitate walking and public transportation, instead of just allowing sprawling, low-density suburbs. This would have the added benefit of helping curb the obesity epidemic, which is partly (possibly largely) fueled by the drive-culture of suburb cul-de-sacs.
  • Houses could have drinking water only in the taps, and greywater everywhere else, such as in the toilets, showers, and especially the sprinkler systems. In light of water tables around the world dropping at an alarming rate, it's just stupid to use thousands of gallons of drinking water to spray off your driveway!
  • Buildings could be built with green materials and passive heating/cooling systems. It's not hard - the main impediments are ignorant architects and contractors.
  • Local sources for goods and services could be used whenever possible, rather than far-away ones that require lots of transportation. (This could also help prevent third-world degradation, such as the clear-cutting of forests.)
Please add more as comments!

Aside: you can calculate your ecological footprint based on your location and lifestyle. (I remember taking a pretty comprehensive ecological footprint calculator back when I was taking the sustainable city planning course, but I can't seem to find it. Here's a site that links to a bunch of them, though.)
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John
surpheon
2004-08-24 13:28 (UTC)
(no subject)
Advocating a reduction in consumption is something the green field shys away from now. High efficiency / low energy building are still trying to shake off the "shivering in the dark," sacrafice comfort to save a watt image that have been around since Jimmy Carter suggested putting on a sweater. However, there is movement towards efficient green design (all this is from my bias of new commercial/industrial building construction).

Currently, the USGBC has a building rating system called LEED that is popular. Basically, it scores how 'green' a building is based on materials used, energy efficiency, location, water use, etc. If it proves more than a fad, it will have a huge impact on moving forward sustainable design (already has). Seattle requires their city buildings be LEED.

San Jose has a large municipal "purple pipe" system, that is it supplies non-drinking quality water to businesses that request it for flushing and irrigation. This is enormously expensive. If they had put 1/10 of that money into promoting low/dual flush toilets and waterless urinals (which they currently ban in Santa Clara county for no reason), they would have saved more fresh water. But that's not as sexy as a purple pipe system. And look at just the trouble that has been seen in getting low-flow toilets into people's homes. It was a long running joke that they don't flush well and always clog ("get the black market flushers from Canada, hee hee"). When Consumer Reports actual tested 'em, guess what, some worked well, some didn't. It was not a matter of simply volume of water, but the design. Low flow toilets don't suck, $44 low flow toilets from Walmart suck.

Some buildings are built with green materials and passive heating/cooling systems. Having done it, it is HARD and expensive. Typical design is punched out using rules of thumb (standard practice) and one of three major loads analysis programs (to size equipment). There are no analytical tools available to say to someone, "Yes, your $16 million dollar building will be perfectly comfortable if you delete the AC and put that million dollars into better windows and shell." The risk of stamping that design for construction, taking full legal liability that it will work, is huge. Bear in mind any engineer who is sued for a non-performing building will probably lose millions due to ignoring "standard of care and typical practice" and the high cost of any re-work. Even if the design works, there is additional risk (my project took a $250,000 hit due to a stupid construction error that flooded the building where a normal design would have caused no problem).

LEED is cool because it finally starts giving some incentive to take that huge risk. You see, on the 99% standard project the client does not know if they got an efficient system. They always know if it does not work, however. So... risk being sued for millions to deliver a much more efficient system that no one notices? I had the chance to do it, but just because my boss is a zealous tree hugger.

Sorry, I'm getting a bit ranty. I've been out of work too long :) Anyhow, LEED addresses all of your recommendation. It's the best chance we have at the moment, a least in the area of controlling building energy use (which is huge). And PG&E is very active in giving companies money in return for more efficient buildings. And Title 24, CA state law on minimum building efficiency (insulation, windows, equipment effienciency, etc) kicks ass, especially when they bother to enforce it.

PS Hydrogen currently offers no hope. It's just an energy transport mechanism, usually derived via electricity at an overall energy loss. Hopefully, the guys trying to make algae produce hydrogen instead of O2 will have some luck (H is a midpoint product of the photosyn process...). PPS I have heard electric cars beat gasoline cars on total efficiency when the actual driving efficiency of autos is considered (around 12% gas --> miles of road), even considering trasmission losses, charging losses, extra weight, etc.
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Fata Morgana
chimerically
2004-08-24 17:21 (UTC)
(no subject)
Thanks, I was hoping for some more well-informed rants! :~) I forgot about LEED - we talked about it in the sustainable cities class, but at the time it sounded like only crazy people like Berkeleyans and Arcadians were jumping on the bandwagon.
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Fata Morgana
chimerically
2004-08-24 18:56 (UTC)
(no subject)
It sounds like the purple pipe system is costly mainly because it isn't the norm - if it were more integrated into the city's infrastructure, then maybe it would be less costly and more effective. But yes, I agree that low-flow toilets and other water reductions (drought-resistant grass? it's often tougher, but some public buildings don't allow anyone on the lawn anyway, so who cares?) are also a step in the right direction.
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John
surpheon
2004-08-25 02:04 (UTC)
(no subject)
Yes and no. The city infrastructure is an insane first cost, but all infrastructure is. Beyond that, integrating purple pipe will have a significant cost impact on a per project basis since it will require a certain quantity of the piping to be doubled (drinkable for sinks, purple pipe for toilets, or even just purple pipe from the street to an irrigation system). The question is can that money save more water if it is invested in other features. I don't entirely know. I have worked on projects that went whole hog on water, but design-wise, recycling the black water to bottled-water quality for human consumption came up before a district purple pipe (of course, that's really just a single building version of purple pipe :)(and no, last I checked that did not make it through 'value' engineering :( ).
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Darth Absinthe
darthabsinthe
2004-08-24 14:24 (UTC)
(no subject)
I must admit that the biodiesel fuel guys in both of their presentations did mention that biodiesel was not a panacea for our energy crisis but that we all needed to work on building more dense cities with better public transportation and reducing overall energy consumption per capita. But, he was the only one I heard mention that.
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Fata Morgana
chimerically
2004-08-24 17:23 (UTC)
(no subject)
Ah yes - you mentioned that before, too, but I had forgotten! :~)
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coderman
2004-08-24 15:39 (UTC)
future solutions
nuclear power starts to look quite attractive with a space elevator for waste disposal. it just wont be built any time soon...
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Fata Morgana
chimerically
2004-08-24 17:27 (UTC)
Re: future solutions
... as long as the power plant never blows up, and the elevator never breaks and releases nuclear waste into the stratosphere.
And as long as the barrels of nuclear waste never come back as meteors. And as soon as they can make carbon nanotubes for the space elevator that don't lacerate or clog your lungs ...

If the construction for solar panels is expensive, I can't even imagine the cost of a space elevator!
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coderman
2004-08-24 18:10 (UTC)
Re: future solutions
... as long as

very true :) and there will still be all the usual risks concerning transport of spent fuel.

i think it is possible to engineer a solution that is sufficiently safe, but it will take a lot of time and effort. the plus side is that once it's gone, it's done and we don't have to worry about safe storage for tens of thousands of years.


And as long as the barrels of nuclear waste never come back as meteors.

luckily that wont happen; the sun makes an effective waste disposal unit.


If the construction for solar panels is expensive, I can't even imagine the cost of a space elevator!

it will be costly for sure ($6 billion+ ?), but worth the investment if it works as well as expected.

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Fata Morgana
chimerically
2004-08-24 18:52 (UTC)
Re: future solutions
Even if the research can actually find a solution that's sufficiently safe, it seems easier and more environmentally sound to just use solar. :~) ($6 billion is only the cost of construction, after all ...) I don't think any solution is foolproof, and I'd prefer the ones that don't have the chance of failing cataclysmically when they fail.

Space elevators are a technologist's dream - the backdrop of countless sci-fi plots and one of the ultimate engineering challenges (at least presently) - but I shy away from advocating technology for technology's sake, especially when a simpler (though less sexy) solution is available to mitigate the energy crisis. (I do agree, though, that a space elevator is an extremely efficient way to get things like space probes into orbit, and maybe ore back to Earth - the current solution is no environmental walk in the park.)

BTW, here's one of the articles I've read on carbon nanotube risks.
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coderman
2004-08-24 19:16 (UTC)
Re: future solutions
especially when a simpler (though less sexy) solution is available to mitigate the energy crisis.

if solar becomes much more efficient and much cheaper it could be just the solution we need. it has a long way to go before it would be capable of meeting our energy needs (reducing energy consumption is an orthogonal issue which may greatly influence the demand and thus the alternative sources suitable. recycling, higher efficiency transport and electronics, etc)

btw: the health risks associated with nanotubes are not applicable to a space elevator. the individual tubes themselves would need to be continuous (which is the really hard problem that must be solved) so there is no inhalation hazard; it's one single molecule too big to fit in your lungs...

that doesn't mean i want nanotube corn flakes that stay crispier in milk though. *grin* (a lot of the nano stuff is bad for the body. bucky balls / buckminster fullerene come to mind)

it's also important to consider the cost of production for any of these technologies. right now making electronics (like solar cells) is extremely dirty business. this is also the problem with the hydrogen power myth: most of it is produced using electricity from the same fossil fuel burning power sources it is trying to replace.
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(Anonymous)
2004-09-02 18:25 (UTC)
Re: future solutions
Just a brief side comment on space elevator breakage. If a space elevator ever breaks, the amount of energy released by it falling down will far, far, far outstrip the health risk associated with releasing a few barrels of nuclear waste into the atmosphere, even if we assume that said barrels break open and scatter their contents. I don't have scientific references handy, but some plausible-sounding SF references for this include Jumping off the Planet (David Gerrold) and Red Mars (Kim Stanley Robinson).

Joshua (and yes, I really should just go ahead and get an LJ account, if only to remove the stigma of anonymous posting...)
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Ping
zestyping
2004-08-24 20:58 (UTC)
Hydrogen
I just don't see what the excitement about hydrogen is about. I've never heard of any natural sources of elemental hydrogen (unless you take a spaceship to get a bucket of it from the sun or something). That makes hydrogen an energy storage medium, not an energy source.

Why do proponents of hydrogen seem almost never to talk about where they get the hydrogen? Generating hydrogen by electrolysis is just storing electricity, and making the electricity pollutes in the normal ways. That makes fuel cells nothing more than extremely expensive batteries.
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Ping
zestyping
2004-08-24 21:00 (UTC)
Electric cars
Your point about electric cars is right on. It seems to me that hybrid cars are the only way to be sure you're actually improving the situation: it's clear that you're using strictly less of the same fuel source as everyone else and emitting strictly less pollution.
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Ping
zestyping
2004-08-24 21:01 (UTC)
Greywater
My dad and i think bathroom sinks ought to drain directly into toilet tanks. It seems to be a simple, relatively cheap way to save lots of water. Is there a reason why this isn't done everywhere?
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Fata Morgana
chimerically
2004-08-24 22:38 (UTC)
Re: Greywater
Yes!
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Kragen Sitaker
kragen
2004-08-25 01:13 (UTC)
Re: Greywater
It is commonly done in Japan, but I don't know why it isn't done everywhere.
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John
surpheon
2004-08-25 02:12 (UTC)
Re: Greywater
That is a great idea. I would guess that 1) it would be a design pain to set up the sink to allow gravity feed to the toilet and 2) the @#$%@#$ code officials would never allow it due to hygenic concerns (it could smell and foul the flushing mechnanism). The barriers put up by code officials to practical advances in technology are almost enough to make me join the Libertarian party.

The design approach I have seen is to collect the sink water (gray water), do a touch of treatment, and then pump it back up for flushing. The problem is that you typically need more water for flushing than you can collect from sinks (at least in commercial buildings), making things slightly (not much though) more complicated.
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Kragen Sitaker
kragen
2004-08-25 01:12 (UTC)
are you sure?
About electric cars --- this assertion surprises me. I'm pretty sure anthracite burns cleaner than gasoline (in everything but greenhouse gas), and multi-megawatt power plants are much more efficient at heat-to-useful-energy conversion than the small internal-combustion engines in cars. Transmission losses are significant but small. (Hydrogen promises to reduce transmission losses further, which is why some people are excited about it.) How, then, can electric cars produce more pollution than gasoline-powered ones?
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John
surpheon
2004-08-25 03:02 (UTC)
Re: are you sure?
I agree with you, that electric cars are more efficient on a life cycle basis, but there are a number of factors that muddy the waters. The most common argument is as follows:

The source of electricity can be dirty. The worst is coal. Coal is essentially carbon, with a heating value around 10,000 btu/lb (higher or lower? Well, there's a whopping range, so lets just say 10000 in a grave voice and confidently state that is consistent with the HHV of bituminous coal smartass and move on). Swap that over to units my combustion engineer mind can grasp and we're looking at 23.25 kJ/kg. Compare that to gasoline at 47.3 kJ/kg. So, right off the bat, you burn about twice as much to get the same energy, doubling your emissions.

Most coal in the US is bituminous, and the sulfur emissions are hideous. Gas is highly refined and pretty darn clean to burn, but since point sources like coal plants can be closely monitored and mitigated, they are about the same level of clean burning. The CO2 emissions are really the only things they can never be equal on - the CO2 per joule is a matter of chemistry (and those damn chemists can be tight asses about issues like this).

On the basis of CO2 emissions, an electric car needs to be about double the efficiency of a gasoline car to reduce emissions when using a coal plant.

A good coal plant with bottoming cycles and crap can pull out 50% of the heat energy to power. Consider that you lose maybe 15% in the grid, and you only get a third of that power to the outlet. A lossy charger could drop another 5% of the initial total energy, so you only have about 28% of that power in the battery pack. And the electric drivetrain is at best 90% efficient itself, so only about 27% of the total power plant energy goes to the wheels. How does this compare to an ICE car? It's about double the gas-to-motive-energy efficiency.

So, at worst an electric car is a wash, right?

Well, the counter arguments:
- What about gasoline transmission energy? Gas is trucked all over the god awful place. Why are you only penalizing the electric car for transmission losses; gasoline has transmission energy loss too.
- Point sources of pollution like power plants are easier to deal with. I have heard (but never bothered to run down) that a coal plant spreads more radiation around than a nuclear plant ever has onsite.
- Time of energy use is critical!!!! Coal plants can not be throttled down much at night. Turning one of those puppies off is a matter of days to shut down and then restart (and you thought Windows was slow). So, electricity at night could very well be 'free,' ie if you didn't charge your car up at 1am, the plant efficiency would drop from 50% to 40% and that power would be blown out the stack.
- Not all electricity is coal. I would cite a percentage, but my handy reference government page on US energy consumption has been removed so terrorists won't know what our energy sources are (thanks Ashcroft - you're just like a Big Brother to me!).

Overall, electric cars are IMHO a more efficient technology. Hybrid cars are an ugly hack (I may be a bit bitter because Toyota isn't even interested in letting me on the 12 month+ waiting list) that offer the benefits of developing a good electrical drive train. As soon as a battery is available get that gas engine out of there. No one ever says "I want a more efficient generator - lets make it smaller!" Or "hey, wouldn't it be more efficient to carry two full drive systems? And I bet increasing the part count will do wonders for cost and reliability!"

Gas should be saved to power Porsches, Ferraris, and Spitfires. Its a waste to use it for transport.
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Fata Morgana
chimerically
2004-08-25 05:38 (UTC)
Re: are you sure?
Thanks for the posts!

The articles I read about electric car efficiency/pollution (which were linked off of Slashdot, and which I can't seem to find again, unfortunately, though I'll keep trying) focused on the dirtiness of electricity generation in their arguments. The nice thing about electric is that you can have alternate sources; it's just not what is generally done.
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coderman
2004-08-25 04:01 (UTC)
(no subject)
additional info:

decentralizing the power grid: a good idea for any power source.

twenty hydrogen myths: a physicist’s review.

decentralization is general is rarely a bad idea. particularly communications networks run by a corporate oligopoly :)
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Jeremiah Blue
amnesiadust
2004-09-02 11:08 (UTC)
hmm... looks like I missed the party
fascinating thread though, with lots of great references from everybody. wow.

Re: nuclear waste turning into meteors after falling off the space elevator... I've had this staring me in the face every day at tea for the past six months or so. On the first few readings I found it quite persuasive... but even if you believe his arguments about unrealistic expectations for "100% safety", Yucca Mountain is supposed to have a capacity of 77,000 tons and we've already got 40,000 to put there. bleah.

I'd like to dream that nuclear fusion will pan out someday; I found some stuff in the archives of Physics Today (I'd link them but they're password-protected) intimating that we could have a break-even fusion reactor pretty soon, and a reasonably efficient "burning plasma" in "the next 35 years." The actual technical details of the problems to be solved are themselves fascinating. Of course, any timeline greater than 10 years is difficult to fund, and it becomes increasingly difficult to judge the rate at which the field will develop over longer and longer timespans. But a lot of very motivated and capable people are still thinking about it... and maybe someday that'll pay off.

In the end, it is a far, far better thing to use less power than the world will ever know. I should look at moving back to Berkeley and eating crock-pot meals out of a solar oven. :)
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Bartosz Milewski
bartosz
2004-09-03 22:42 (UTC)
Fusion myth
See my post about fusion reactors. It may make you think twice about their cleanliness.

Personally I think the problem will solve itself. Since the oil output is limited and the demand is constantly increasing, at some point gas will be too expensive and new sources of energy will become not only economically feasible, but a necessity. No amount of good will and activism can beat the economic calculus on the scale of the planet.
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