Author Archives: zkhudson

A Few Easy Ways That Can Reduce Your Energy Bill

The folks over at Apartment Therapy have a short, but interesting article that points out some methods to reduce energy usage in a home.  Many of these methods are not new, and the focus of the article is to reduce energy in each room of a house.  Also, as a commenter mentioned at Apartment Therapy, many of these are not renter friendly but are geared more towards home owners.

http://www.apartmenttherapy.com/8-ways-to-save-energy-throughout-the-home-164624

 

Some additional information on home energy reduction can be found from a previous article that we (Energy Strain) had written.

Methods to Reduce Home Energy Usage 

60-watt LED Bulb(s) to Become Price Competitive

LED light bulbs are very good for the environment, and can be very good for the finances as well.  The biggest issue with LED bulbs has been the up front cost associated with them.  Buying a 60-watt equivalent LED light bulb currently costs around $45 for a Philips Ambient LED bulb, compared to $8 for an 8-pack of GE 60-watt CFL replacements.  Mathematically speaking, LED bulbs are typically cheaper to operate per KWh than CFL or even incandescent bulbs. The reason LED bulbs are typically cheaper to operate is because they have a much longer lifespan than CFL or incandescent bulbs, so the need to replace LED bulbs is less, thus off-setting the higher up front cost.

Even when considering the typically cheaper long-term costs of LED bulbs, the up front costs of these bulbs typically scare away potential buyers.  In order to increase the adoption of LED bulbs it is crucial to bring down the costs of the bulbs.  This is what Lighting Science Group and Dixon Technologies India is hoping to accomplish when they introduce a 60-watt equivalent LED bulb sometime in early 2012.  The bulb to be introduced is reported to costs around $15 when it hits shelves. [via Cnet.com]

 

 

The Oil Standard

Up until 1971, the United States was required to back its paper currency with gold, using a system called the gold standard.  It was in 1971 that President Nixon implemented several policy changes that would take the United States, and the rest of the world off the gold standard.  This profoundly changed the world’s economic practices.  No longer were the currencies of the world backed by gold, which meant more currency than gold could exist.  This allowed governments to print money on-demand, because having $1 billion dollars of gold and $4 billion dollars of currency no longer mattered.  This behavior devalues your money because there is more currency than actual value (gold is the actual value to back up the currency).  In the case I mention above, your currency would be worth 25% less than if there were the same amount of currency as gold reserves.

If gold is no longer backing the United States currency, then what is?  Oil.

 

After the final nail was put into the gold standard’s coffin, the only thing backing the currency was the promise of wealth and economic growth.  The only way to continually have both economic growth and wealth is through the use of more oil.  The availability of cheap, easily abundant oil has spoiled us.  It has allowed consistent economic growth for years, but as oil becomes more expensive and more challenging to extract, the ability to grow has also become more challenging.  Oil was easy to come by around 1971 so no one thought otherwise.  Oil could easily drive the economy and could easily create wealth, because as the fiat currency was inflated the economy grew, thanks to cheap oil.  Aside from the short lived oil embargo of 1973, wealth came easily to many because manipulating the currency would allow more wealth.  This seems counterintuitive at first glance, but the truth was that printing more money equated to boosting wealth and power.  It was as if the currency was not controlled by physics, then came $140.41/barrel oil in 2008.  Again, we were reminded that currency manipulation can only go so far.

 

Since 2008 economic growth has slowed and both wealth and power has diminished.  The typical solution, manipulation of the currency, has not worked.  It appears that the currency manipulation has actually aggravated the problem, because oil is no longer cheap and easily obtainable.  Oil has never really been “cheap” since 2008 and as the economy begins to show signs of life, oil prices increase.  It would appear that a growing economy is effected by physical properties, not just man’s counterfeit economical properties.  Unlike the counterfeit properties many have grown accustomed to, the physical properties are not changeable.  The unchangeable physical properties that dictate our world are over powering the ability to continually print more money, accumulate more debt, and constantly grow an economy.

How can anything continue to exponentially grow?  It can’t.

 

What we are seeing is the reality that oil is the backer of our currency, our live styles, and our power.  For a long time the physical properties did not seem clear because obtaining more oil was just a matter of more money.  Manipulating the physical properties seemed no different than manipulating the man-made counterfeit economics.  Fiat currency systems are based on the idea that wealth, power, and growth will continue for ever.  Physics dictates that this is not true.  At some point you will reach a plateau, a point were you can no longer pump enough oil out of the ground in order to feed the desire of man to continually expand.  Man has become arrogant and has ignored the fact that the ONE thing the entire economical and political system is based on, oil, can not continue to be manipulated.  Unlike currencies, oil can not be printed on demand.

 

For more information on fiat currency systems check out U.S. Dollar Is The Next Financial Shoe To Drop on Forbes.com.

 

Government Policies Are Shaping Our Countries Energy Future

As the United States government has grown, so has its influence on our society.  An area that the government has had an increasingly large influence is energy.  The government influences the type and quantity of energy and fuel sources we use today.  In order to finance ethanol producers the federal government has bolstered ethanol, a fuel source, through laws requiring its usage and through subsidies.  The strong support from the government has created a market for ethanol, but the large demand for ethanol would probably not exist if the government was not involved.  As many of you know ethanol offers a low Energy Returned On Energy Invested (EROEI); corn-based ethanol is roughly 1 and at worst has a negative EROEI.  Would a fuel that behaves like an energy converter be in high demand if the market were allowed to decide?  I would probably say no.  I believe the only thing that has been propping up ethanol is the strong support it has been getting from the federal government.  If the government were not supporting ethanol, it would have probably failed by now and we might see other more viable options.  Ethanol is not the only case, but ethanol is one of the best examples of why government should not be making energy decisions.

The United States Capital Building

Courtesy of Wikimedia

With promising advancements in fields like algae, diesel engines, and ammonia, it makes no sense for the government to endorse a fuel like ethanol.  Many of these more promising advancements are in the background operating quietly, which is a shame.  These advancements are competing with every other energy advancement on the market, but they have one major disadvantage, they have not yet gotten the full attention of the U.S. government.  Even without the full support of the federal government many of these other energy advances are progressing.  Imagine what might be if these energy technologies were only competing against other energy advancements, and not the government too.  While the government is out supporting things like ethanol in our gasoline and battery powered electric vehicles, which aggravate our energy problems, individuals are working hard trying to come up with real energy solutions.  It amazes me that our country is relying on politicians to dictate our energy future, when the free market should be.

In a free market profit motive is typically at the forefront of the decision-making.  This is directly related to EROEI without the people making the decisions even knowing it.  That is because typically a good EROEI will equate to a profit.  This is the type of force we need driving our energy future, not politicians that are swayed for personal and political reasons.  In the end the market will hopefully prevail and the energy advancement of the future will be chosen, but this is only if the federal government doesn’t make it impossible to exist.  The federal government should not be making decisive decisions about what energy we should use, but the government can help all possible alternative energy technologies by giving tax incentives.  Stopping the subsidizations of alternative energy would be ideal, and instead implementing tax incentives so the free market can have more freedom to work.  I believe that in order for new energy advancements to be successful, government must have as little interaction with them as possible.  Government is not capable of choosing the correct energy path for our future.

 

Can the Electric Vehicle Replace Liquid Fuels?

Electric cars are making headlines all the time theses days.  Governments are promoting electric vehicles through tax credits, loan guarantees, and regulation.  For many it seems like the age of the electric car is finally coming upon us (especially with vehicles like the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf on the market).  It seems to me that electric cars are getting disproportional amount of attention when you consider that there are other options for future transportation.  I believe that we cannot replace the vast majority of our liquid transportation fuel with electricity.

Why I Believe Liquid Fuel is Still in the Future of Transportation

With electric vehicles usually comes increased electrification of society. Unfortunately, that does not mean that all vehicles can use electricity as their main energy source. There are some major points that I think people overlook when considering electric vehicles:

  1. Large vehicles (like semi-trucks) will still need a liquid fuel to power combustion engines
  2. Electric vehicles take too long to charge, and do not offer long distances
  3. Electrical demand will require more power generation and eventual grid upgrade(s) (smart grid)

In order to power large engine driven equipment like dump trucks, front end loaders, boats, etc…, we will need a liquid fuel source because no technology exists to power these pieces of equipment using electricity (batteries).  Perhaps you’re wondering if these pieces of equipment be powered using batteries.  The answer is possibly in some cases, but it is unlikely that we will see batteries powering a large barge going to the other side of the world anytime soon.  These types of vehicles need to be able to refuel quickly and have the ability to run for a long duration, something that electric vehicles do not currently offer.  It is because of these types of heavy duty equipment that we must still use liquid fuels and combustion engines for the foreseeable future.  If we must continue to use liquid fuels for the above equipment, why not also use liquid fuel for average cars too?

Can you imagine trying to drive form Michigan to Florida with a Nissan Leaf?  With a maximum of roughly 100 miles, it would take a VERY long time to go such a distance (not that it doesn’t already).  In order to travel long distances you must have a vehicle that can obtain an energy source very quickly (like getting fuel at a gas station).  It is this type of situation that has made Chevy engineers put a combustion engine in their ‘electric vehicle’ (the Chevy Volt).  When a person needs to go somewhere, they usually cannot afford to wait around for several hours before traveling.  The convenience of electric vehicles is not quite there yet.  For many, the distance issue may not be a problem on a daily basis, but on some occasions a different form of transportation will be needed (train, plane, combustion based automobile).

If electric vehicles take off, the demand on the electrical grid to power these vehicles will also take off. If the electrical demand rises, the use of fossil fuels in the power generation sector will have to rise too.  I know many electric vehicle advocates promote renewable energy to generate power, but the simple fact is that without a smart grid it is more likely we will see a larger proportion of fossil fuels being used instead.  In order to minimize the power loss, and because the current grid doesn’t offer the control to distribute electricity efficiently enough, fossil fuels will continue to see high usage.  Fossil fuels have the luxury of being placed closer to high power demand locations than alternative energy installations.  The lack of a smart grid will equate to little renewable energy buildup in comparison to what we really need.  This is not to say that renewable energy generation won’t increase, but rather that large renewable energy sources will remain few (in comparison to what we need and expect in order to replace fossil fuels and keep up with demand).  For example, large wind installations have been delayed or even cancelled due to the lack of quality grid infrastructure (see previous posts, Advancing Wind Power and The Power Grid Unable to Meet Our Needs).  I believe that the use of electric vehicles will be fine with our current system for a while, but eventually the need to implement a smart grid system will become a necessity.

Conclusion

Electric vehicles offer only one possible benefit at this time, reducing the use of oil.  The likelihood of electric vehicles reducing the use of oil, or even fossil fuels, is pretty low at this point.  Electric vehicles use batteries which require the use of rare earth minerals, manufacturing, transportation, and proper disposal.  All of these requirements take energy that requires the use of oil and/or fossil fuels.  When you factor in the use of fossil fuels on our nations electric grid with the fact that batteries require a fair amount of energy to produce and dispose of, the benefits of these electric vehicles really comes into question.  It seems like fossil fuel usage is being moved from the transportation sector to other sectors like manufacturing or electricity generation.  With the invention of other storage techniques, increased usage of renewable energy via the smart grid, or a low energy method to produce and handle batteries, we might see more benefits to the electric vehicle.  Until these things happen I don’t see how going to buy a Nissan Leaf or a Chevy Volt is going to help reduce fossil fuel usage, reduce oil consumption, or produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

 

Note: The Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Volt are the two mainstream vehicles currently available so I am using them as examples.

 

 

Peak Oil: The Limiting Factor Behind Government’s Social Programs

Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) was one of our Countries biggest proponents of progressive politics.  Through government initiatives like The New Deal, which created Social Security, and his Second Bill of Rights, FDR made a major impact on our Country’s social landscape.  This new social landscape promised services to individuals as if they were rights.  All of these services required additional resources and energy to maintain the social landscape that was being promised by the government.  These promises were easily maintained when cheap crude oil was abundant, making continued growth seem eminent.  In order to maintain these new rights, our country will be required to have continued energy production growth from limited energy resources, but continued growth can not continue.

As the world continues its plunge towards and beyond Peak Oil, creating a society that is energy efficient is very important.  All aspects of society must be considered, even the type of government that is implemented.  In a lower energy society anything that can promote hard work, innovation, and self-reliance is very beneficial.  I believe the United States Constitution creates the best government structure possible for post-Peak Oil.  The Constitution creates a system that does not require continual energy gathering in order to maintain a fully functional, and healthy nation; this is because The Constitution does not promise services to individuals, it only promises freedoms and creates basic structure.  Any philosophy that promises services to individuals will require the government to constantly take energy (resources) from one entity to give to another entity, in order to keep the promises made to the people by that government.

In a world where energy prices are high, and conventional crude oil has peaked (according to the 2010 IEA World Energy Outlook, pg. 6) is it possible to continue the never ending resource gathering?  The short answer is NO, so how can we expect ideals like FDR’s Second Bill of Rights, and services as rights be sustainable when the only way to maintain these ideals is through continuous gathering of limited resources (i.e. oil, natural gas).

What do you think, do you believe limited resources will shape our government structure?  Comment below.

High-Speed Rail Infrastructure Debate

High-speed rail has the potential to greatly reduce travel times between many major cities, and to move people more efficiently.  I am a proponent of high-speed rail (HSR), but I am also cautious about how it is going to be implemented. According to an article in The Wall Street Journal, the freight train railroad companies (like CSX, CN, etc…) are not happy with the idea of putting HSR trains on their freight train tracks.

I started thinking about the logistics of having 200mph trains sharing the same track as 55mph trains, and common sense says its not a great idea.  The government is pushing to use current track infrastructure whenever possible because they are hoping to reduce costs and increase time to market.  I fully understand the government’s stance on this, and from there viewpoint it does make some sense.  The problem is that mixing slow trains and HSR trains on the same track does not make a lot of sense, i mean there is a reason why Europe and Asia have made separate HSR tracks.

If HSR is going to be a large part of our future lives, then building the infrastructure correctly from the beginning is absolutely CRITICAL.  I agree with the private companies that sharing rail space with HSR trains will cause bottlenecks and safety issues.  Also, if the private rail companies don’t want to share their tracks, then why should they have to?  HSR needs its very own infrastructure, separate from freight and slower moving Amtrak trains, otherwise we will end up with a HSR system that isn’t as good as it could be.  Also, some valuable information can be found from the Wall Street Journal article here.

What are your thoughts about this topic, and about high-speed rail (HSR)?

Smart Grid Communication Network Technologies

Below is a literature review, which is defined on Wikipedia as:

A literature review is a body of text that aims to review the critical points of current knowledge including substantive findings as well as theoretical and methodological contributions to a particular topic. Literature reviews are secondary sources, and as such, do not report any new or original experimental work.

This literature review is written for an audience that has a technical background, so many technical terms may not be explained or defined.  I hope you enjoy this literature review, and please feel free to leave comments.

Selected Review of Literature: Smart Grid Communication Network

Given the increased emphasis on energy efficiency, the current electrical grid is in need of a robust communication network.  The communication infrastructure will rely on three technologies: 4G wireless communications, fiber optics, and/or broadband over power lines (BPL) to reliably transmit low latency data at speeds of 2-to-5 Mbps per device (Sood, Fischer, Eklund, & Brown, 2009).  The smart grid will need to be able to handle two-way communication in order to share energy-related data amongst utilities and end-users (Aggarwal, Kunta, & Verma, 2010).  This communication system must handle large amounts of continual two-way data transmission from all electricity users, devices, and sensors in order to provide proper usage feedback to both the end-user and to the utility (Aggarwal, et al., 2010).  This paper will look at the three competing technologies, and some of the pluses and minuses of each.

Broadband Over Power Lines

Broadband over power line technology uses the electrical grid to transfer data on top of the AC power already being transferred through the power lines.  This allows utilities to build a communications network on top of the already existing infrastructure, i.e. the power lines (Srinivasa Prasanna, et al., 2009).  BPL typically has limited bandwidth because the current power grid infrastructure was not designed to transfer data, but according to Schneider, speeds of 5Mbps are achievable in distances less than 1 kilometer.  Increasing this distance will reduce the speeds that BPL can achieve, but using additional equipment can help alleviate that issue (2009).  BPL typically uses the 1-34 MHZ frequency range instead of AC’s 60HZ to transfer data (Tsiropoulos, Sarafi & Cottis, 2009).  According to Anderson, the estimated installation cost of BPL is $1000 per home, but offers the capability to reach any home with electrical service (2010).

Fiber Optics

Fiber optics are able to handle large amounts of data at much faster speeds than any of the other communication technologies discussed in this paper.  Utilities typically have the right away along their transmission lines, so this makes laying fiber optic cable relatively easy.  Fiber optic cables have the ability for transfer speeds of several hundred Gbps.  Since such high data rates are possible it makes fiber optics an expandable and relatively future-proof communication technology (Aggarwal, et al., 2010).  Another strong reason to pick fiber optics is the fact that there are many fiber optic cables already available.  This gives utilities the option of leasing current fiber optic infrastructure to help reduce costs and time to market (Sood, et al., 2009). With so many positive points one might wonder why other technologies are being considered for the smart grid communication system.  One thing to take in consideration is that fiber optics may not always be the most feasible solution in certain areas.  This could be due to location, cost, or regulatory restrictions.

4G Wireless

Since 4G wireless technologies are starting to be deployed nationwide, this gives utilities another great alternative to the other two communication technologies.  Wimax 4G is estimated to cost roughly $440 per home to install and is currently seeing transfer speeds between 3-to-6 Mbps per connection (Anderson, 2010).  With a lower cost per home than BPL and a higher transfer speed than BPL, this makes 4G a very attractive option for utilities where 4G service is available.  Wimax 4G also offers very low latency times (~10ms), so the smart grid can communicate with devices rather quickly (Sood, et al., 2009).  Although fiber optics have a much lower latency time (~5 µs per kilometer), Wimax 4G latency is still within current smart grid requirements (Sood, et al., 2009).  The ability to communicate to devices quickly is very important, especially if a breaker is in need of being kicked as fast as possible.  Another quality of Wimax is its closed loop power control features.  These features allow each device linked to the Wimax network to have its own power control settings, and this minimizes the power consumption of the Wimax radio equipment (Sood, et al., 2009).  The single biggest issue that Wimax 4G has is its ability to communicate with devices inside buildings and other radio frequency dead areas.  Another major problem is that 4G wireless communications do not provide coverage everywhere a home would be located.

Conclusion

Due to the high cost of implementing a smart grid communication network it must be built with adequate capacity for future growth.  Utilities will need to plan their systems for increased usage during emergency situations, and for a lifespan of roughly 20 years (Wenpeng, Sharp, & Lancashire, 2010).  It is unlikely that any one-communication technology will reign supreme.  It is much more likely that we will see hybrid systems that implement several or all of these technologies for varying circumstances (Tsiropoulos, et al, 2009).

References

Aggarwal, A., Kunta, S., Verma, P.K. (2010). A proposed communications infrastructure for the smart grid. Innovative Smart Grid Technologies (ISGT) (1-5). Gaithersburg, MD. doi: 10.1109/ISGT.2010.5434764

Anderson, M. (2010). WiMax for smart grids. Spectrum, IEEE 47(7), 14-14. doi:10.1109/MSPEC.2010.5490999

Schneider, D. (2009). Is this the moment for broadband over power lines?. Spectrum, IEEE 46(7), 17-17.

Sood, V.K., Fischer, D., Eklund, J.M., Brown, T. (2009). Developing a communication infrastructure for the Smart Grid. Electrical Power & Energy Conference (EPEC) (1-7). doi: 10.1109/EPEC.2009.5420809

Srinivasa Prasanna, G.N., Lakshmi, A., Sumanth, S., Simha, V., Bapat, J., Koomullil, G. (2009). Data communication over the smart grid,” Power Line Communications and Its Applications. IEEE International Symposium (273-279). doi: 10.1109/ISPLC.2009.4913442

Tsiropoulos, G.I., Sarafi, A.M., Cottis, P.G. (2009) Wireless-broadband over power lines networks: A promising broadband solution in rural areas.  PowerTech, 2009 IEEE Bucharest (1-6). Bucharest, Romania:IEEE. doi: 10.1109/PTC.2009.5282200

Wenpeng Luan, Sharp, Duncan, Lancashire, Sol. (2010). Smart grid communication network capacity planning for power utilities. Transmission and Distribution Conference and Exposition (1-4). IEEE. doi: 10.1109/TDC.2010.5484223

Transportation: Future Energy Source(s)

Oil is continually becoming more scarce and more expensive to acquire, because of this finding a substitute is very important.  Unfortunately, there has yet to be a feasible substitute for oil, so we are faced with a future that will probably involve several different alternative fuels.  T. Boone Pickens recently released a new video outlining his plan, and mentions that he sees a world with multiple energy types for transportation.  This made me think and as I thought about this it began to make more and more sense.

We currently have no energy source that is adequate to replace oil, so we will have to use many different energy sources for particular uses.  This means, we could end up seeing electric vehicles for in-city driving or local commuting and hydrogen, fossil fuel, and/or alternative fuel vehicles for a multitude of uses.  Each energy type will play a role in our future, depending on geological location and vehicle usage.  Vehicles that are used for heavy loads may operate on diesel or natural gas, and vehicles that are used for every-day city driving may be electric, hybrids or alternative fuel powered.  Using multiple energy sources will complicate the consumers purchasing decisions, because consumers will need to choose vehicles based on energy type and predicted usage.

Our energy future must rely on sources of energy other than oil, and because of this we will see several different energy sources emerge.  Consumers will need to have a basic understanding of energy.  Energy will play a MAJOR role in the majority of our future decisions. In addition to alternative fuels, I also believe we will see an increase of rail-based transportation being used.  Rail transportation is generally energy efficient and relatively convenient.  Using energy without thought will become a thing of the past.

Here are my thoughts, i look forward to seeing some of your thoughts/comments below.