Category Archives: Electricity

Living in a “GREEN” world

This whole notion of being “green” seems to be sweeping through every product line in the nation.  Seeing a “green” product at any store is pretty common but, just a few years ago you had to search for “green” products.  The fact that so many organizations are jumping onto the “green” bandwagon is both promising and troubling.

I like to see that companies are trying to improve things like, operating efficiencies of their products, reduce their company’s overall energy consumption, reduce materials used while packaging, among many other things.  In addition to all of the positive environmental impacts, this is good and beneficial to everyone because, it costs the end user less to operate and it can cost less for the manufacture to produce/ship.  Why suddenly are we seeing so many “green” products, well there are several reasons for this but the main reason is that consumers are demanding them.  Energy costs have risen and because of this, consumers want devices that use less energy. For the very same reason companies are trying to reduce their energy consumptions.

The downside to seeing so many “green” products is being able to sort out the beneficial and non-beneficial products.  It is becoming increasingly difficult to find products that actually have a positive affect both environmentally and in reducing energy.  It seems the term “green” is being so over used that marketing departments are throwing the “green” label on anything they possibly can, in hopes of appealing to consumers.  Whether the product is actually all that “green” or not is besides the question.  Since “green” is the new favorite phrase of marketers, it is very important to be conscious of these tactics and to do some research for yourself. Don’t  buy something just because it says that is “green.”  Next time when you see a “green” product ask yourself some of the following questions:

What makes this product green?

How does this product compare to other products?

Does this green labeling have any actual positive affect on the environment or in reducing energy?

The United States Government is also getting on the “green” bandwagon.  Some of the things the government is doing are good and some of the things it is doing aren’t so good.  For example, the United States Government is planning on improving federal and state building efficiencies.  This is a good thing and it will not only save the government (and taxpayers) money but it will also use less energy.  Also, in order to reduce energy and environmental impact the government passed a bill that will end up phasing out incandescent light bulbs.  This bill requires that light bulbs be 70% more efficient by 2020.  As energy costs have gone up, people have been buying energy efficient products like compact fluorescent light bulbs (instead of incandescent light bulbs) without the government dictating anything.  We are seeing similar behavior with the Cap and Trade bill.  The Cap and Trade bill is going to try and force you to live a “greener” life by raising the costs of energy.  The hope is that doing this will reduce energy usage and benefit the environment.  Again, we are seeing an actual “green” change occur in all aspects of society already but, these changes are occurring because the market is adapting to higher energy prices.

So, Am I against going “green?”  No.  Am I against forcing people to go “green?” Yes.

I am fully in favor of trying to minimize the amount of natural resources we use and to use the resources we do use efficiently.  Also, I am in favor of using products that are more efficient and in favor of replacing incandescent light bulbs with more efficient bulbs.  I am not however, in favor of having someone else dictate to me what I have to do.  If someone does not want to stop using incandescent bulbs then they should not be forced to.  Instead of having big brother breath down our necks let the people and the market make the decisions.  That is how things are supposed to work, after all aren’t we suppose to have freedom and be a capitalist society?

Tell me your thoughts; I would be very interested to discuss some of these topics further.

Taming Home Energy Use in My Home

Earlier this year it dawned on me that the energy usage in my home had climbed dramatically when the weather got cold.  This was somewhat puzzling to me because nothing had changed since it got colder so the hunt for the energy hog began.



Many of you are familiar with the Kill A Watt by P3 International (as shown above).  This nifty device monitors your electricity usage and it even gives you estimates of how much money the device connected to the Kill A Watt will cost you to operate.  I don’t have a Kill A Watt but I have a similar device from another company, called the PowerAngel. I used my PowerAngel monitoring device in order to go through my house and find how out much energy various devices in my house were using.  This process can take a fair amount of time because, in order to get an accurate reading of electricity usage you may need to leave the device plugged into the monitor for an extended duration.  For example, in order to get an accurate idea of electricity usage I left my entertainment center plugged into the PowerAngel for about a week.  This gave me an accurate reading of how much energy is used per week; from this I can compute the cost and usage for any duration of time I wanted.

When going through my house I monitored my entertainment center, refrigerator, computer and many other devices.  Along the way I found items that were large electricity users and I tried to find ways to reduce consumption.  For my entertainment center I installed a Smart Power strip.  I configured the Smart Power strip so that the TV and satellite receiver have power constantly and the TV and VCR draw zero power when the TV is off.  For my bedroom entertainment system I configured it in a similar way.  These configurations reduced the amount of electrical draw by up to 50%.  I found my refrigerator to be comparable to most Energy Star rated refrigerators even though it is not Energy Star rated.  The majority of my other devices in my home are Energy Star rated.

After going through my house I didn’t find any devices that seemed to be drawing an over abundance of electricity so, the hunt for the electrical hog was still on.  My next location for my audit was the garage.  I have a small shop that I keep above freezing during the winter.  This shop is heated using an electric ceramic heater that is controlled using its built-in thermostat.  After leaving my energy monitor on the ceramic heater for just a day I realized that the heater was using HUGE amounts of electricity.  This ceramic heater was the reason behind my electric bill increase during cold months.  The ceramic heater’s thermostat was not properly working which was causing this unit to run almost all the time.  I quickly replaced this with a newer electric ceramic heater that i had in my home which, greatly reduced the electricity usage.

While doing the self-audit in my garage it also dawned on me that I should do something about an old freezer that looks like it is from the 70s.  The freezer has got to go.  I was debating to either replace it with a new Energy Star unit or to downsize.  I am currently going to be taking the route of eliminating the old freezer without replacing it.  This should reduce my energy usage substantially.

With roughly 97% of my lighting in my house already being fluorescent, there is no significant effecientcy gain that can be achieved here.  This leaves HVAC and water heating as my next targets.  Since I am heating my home using a wood stove, the only HVAC upgrade that I am currently looking at doing is my central air.  I have looked at several different options and I am left liking either a heat pump system or a standard AC unit that is very effecient.  To improve how effeciently my central air is operating and when it is operating, I have been researching several different Energy Star rated programmable thermostats as well.

In addition to all of the HVAC related items, I have also been considering a new water heating system.  Currently I am using a gas water heater that is about 10 years old.  If I decide to go the heat pump cooling route, which I doubt due to cost, I would also install a water heater that used the same system.  Due to the cost of heat pump systems I am realisticly looking at either a gas condensing water heater or a solar water heating system.  These systems will offer plenty of warm water as well as use less energy.

It is crucial that you learn the value of conserving and that you try to take steps to do so.  I am currently in the beginning stages of doing that more extensively.  For example, this past month the electric bill totaled 863kWh of electricity, which is 30 kWh per day.  The same month last year 35 kWh were used per day.  A 5 kWh per day reduction in electrical usage is a great start, I was very pleased with it.  I hope to continue reducing the monthly electrical usage to point that my monthly home usage is at least 800 kWh but ideally 750 kWh.  The more energy that we are able to reduce the better because it reduces the use of fossil fuels and the negative impact on our environment.

Any ideas or questions, feel free to leave a post.

Methods to Reduce Home Energy Usage

Update 6-11-2011: I added some information in the Space Heating and Space Cooling sections in order to discuss a different alternative, mini-split heat pumps.

 

Homes are one of the largest consumers of energy in the United States.  The unfortunate part of home energy usage is that a large portion of this energy is wasted because of inefficiencies.  Inefficiencies can range from air leaks to poor heating and air conditioning systems.

Increasing home efficiency will not only allow you to save money but it also reduces the amount of energy needed for your home.  Before you can start reducing the energy used in your home, you need to have a basic understanding of where the majority of the energy is used within your home.

US Department of Energy

Courtesy of U.S. Department of Energy

Looking at the pie chart we see that the four largest users of energy are space heating, space cooling, lighting and water heating.  These four segments account for roughly 66% of all the energy used in your home.  We are going to take a look at these four segments specifically and then cover the remaining segments generally.

Lighting

Typically, a large portion of household lighting uses incandescent light bulbs.  A very simple way to reduce your energy consumption is to use compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFL).  CFLs use about 75% less energy than incandescent bulbs and CFLs are designed to last ten times longer.  With so many benefits why wait to start converting your lighting over to fluorescent.  If you want more information on the available types of CFLs visit the Energy Star CFL search.  Amazon.com also has a decent CFL webpage that contains some good information on CFL bulbs and it is an excellent source to purchase your bulbs too.

Now I know many of you out there probably don’t believe that CFL bulbs are actually cost beneficial so, in order to help get this point across let me do some math for you.  I’m going to compute the total cost of each bulb which includes the cost of the bulb as well as the cost of the electricity used to run the bulb.  Incandescent bulbs have a maximum life expectancy of roughly 1000 hours while compact fluorescent bulbs have a maximum life expectancy of roughly 10,000 hours.  Since compact fluorescent bulbs last up to 10,000 hours I will compute the total cost of an incandescent bulb for the same duration of time, which will require the purchase of several incandescent bulbs.

Below is an example of how I computed this, following the example is the computation for each bulb type.


 

Example

(Bulb Wattage) x (Total Hours in Operation) = Watt-Hours

(Watt-Hours) / (1000) = Kilowatt-Hours

(Total Hours in Operation) / (Maximum Life Expectancy) = Number of Bulbs

(Kilowatt-Hours) x (Cost of Electricity per Kilowatt-Hour) = Cost of Electricity to Run Bulb

(Number of Bulbs) x (Cost of Bulbs) = Cost of Purchasing Bulbs For Duration

(Cost of Electricity to Run Bulb) + (Cost of Purchasing Bulbs for Duration) = Total Cost of Bulb

 


Incandescent Bulbs

(60 watts) x (10,000 hours) = 600,000 watt-hours

(600,000 watt-hours) / (1000) = 600 kilowatt-hours

(10,000 hours) / (1000 hours) = 10 bulbs

(600 kilowatt-hour) x ($ 0.10) = $60

(10 Bulbs) x ($ 0.50) = $5

Total Cost of Bulb = $65

 


Compact Fluorescent Bulb

(15 watts) x (10,000 hours) = 150,000 watt-hours

(150,000 watt-hours) / (1000) = 150 kilowatt-hours

(10,000 hours) / (10,000 hours) = 1 bulb

(150 kilowatt-hour) x ($ 0.10) = $15

(1 Bulbs) x ($ 15.00) = $15

Total Cost of Bulb = $30

So if you look at the computed cost of each bulb you see that a incandescent costs $65 for 10,000 hours of operation  and the compact fluorescent costs $30 for 10,000 hours.  Even though the compact fluorescent bulb costs $15, it is still over half the price to own and operate.

Water Heating

Water heating is the third largest user of energy.  Reducing the amount of energy consumed by your current water heater can be accomplished by:

  1. Reducing the temperature of the water heater, as described here
  2. Installing an insulating jacket over the water heater, as described here
  3. Installing insulation on the hot water pipes, as described here

The other way to reduce water heater energy consumption is by purchasing a new efficient water heater.  There are several different types of water heaters available today, which include:

  • High-Efficiency Gas Storage
  • Gas Condensing
  • Whole-Home Gas Tankless
  • Solar
  • Heat Pump

Gas Condensing and Heat Pump water heaters will have all-new models in 2009.  Both of these water heater types offer an easy replacement and significant energy savings.  A.O. Smith makes a gas condensing water heater that looks very promising, called the Vertex™ 100.  This water heater looks like your typical tank water heater but it offers 96% efficiency and can be used to feed a radiant heating system.

You can also use geothermal heat pumps to heat your water, and as you will see later in this article, to heat and cool your home as well.  A geothermal system that will heat your home, cool your home and heat your water typically cost several thousand dollars.

For some more information on water heaters and what type you may want to consider visit the Energy Star – Help me choose page.

Space Cooling

When you think about cooling systems, the first type you probably think about are air conditioners.  Over the years, air conditioner manufactures have continually increased efficiencies.  In addition to increasing efficiencies of traditional air conditioners, many companies have developed air conditioners that use solar panels or ice.  Solar panel systems use the electricity from the sun to help offset the electricity used by the A/C compressor.  Ice based systems will freeze water at night, when there is cheap excess energy, and then use the ice during the day to cool the air.  This saves energy and money because the ice reduces the use of the A/C compressor and the ice is created during the night, typically, when electricity costs are lowest.  For more information on air conditioner efficiencies visit the Energy Star Central Air Conditioners page.

Air conditioners are the typical cooling system but in addition to air conditioners there are several other alternatives that you could consider:

  • Ventilation
  • Evaporative cooling
  • Absorption cooling
  • Radiant cooling
  • Earth cooling tubes
  • Mini-split heat pump (see Space Heating section)

For more information on the above cooling technologies visit Department of Energy cooling site here.  A prime example of an air conditioner alternative is a geothermal heat pump system.  We will discuss how these systems are beneficial and how they function in the last paragraph of the Space Heating section.

Among these several cooling technologies there are also several methods that can be used to reduce energy consumption of your current cooling system:

  • Install a programmable thermostat
  • Sealing air ducts
  • Reducing air leaks
  • Shutting blinds during the day
  • Turn down cooling system, especially when your not home

Space Heating

Heating your home is vital during cold seasons and generating heat can be much more efficient than cooling your home.  Typically improving efficiency in this category is accomplished by the following methods:

  • Purchasing and installing new heating systems
  • Sealing and insulating your home

Replacing your current furnace with an Energy Star rated furnace can help reduce energy usage and costs.  If you are interested in looking at several alternative heating systems I suggest that you read a good article called, Alternative Ways To Heat Your Home on The Greenest Dollar blog.

The more that I learn about heating and cooling systems the more intrigued that I get with heat pump systems.  Heat pump systems can heat and cool your home.  These systems can either use outside air or groundwater as their heat source. The outside air heat pump systems are cheaper and easier to install than groundwater heat pumps but they are also less efficient.  Groundwater heat pump systems, also known as Geothermal Heat Pump systems, offer excellent efficiencies as well as a combined heating and cooling system.  Geothermal systems have a relatively high up-front cost, about $10,000 for a 1500 square-foot home, and require enough land in order to bury piping full of heat exchange fluid.

Geothermal systems offer high efficiencies for both heating and cooling.  As an added bonus, many geothermal systems can also heat your water.  If you can afford to go this route it allows you to increase your efficiencies in water heating, cooling and heating. For information on how geothermal systems operate visit California’s Consumer Energy Center site here.

Update:

In addition to centralized heat pump systems, there is also a smaller modular type system that can be used.  These systems are called mini-split heat pump systems.  They offer the same type of benefits as a typical heat pump system but these systems are ductless and can be added to an existing system (like wood, forced air, etc…).  Mini-split heat pump systems are primarily intended for retrofits or for installations that are difficult to install a large centralized heat pump system (think old house, or rental property).  These systems use an external compressor/condensor and indoor air-handling units, like your typical heat pump system.  The key difference is that they are linked to the compressor/condensor using tubing or conduit instead of ductwork.  By not using ductwork the mini-split system installation is simplified and the energy loss from the ductwork is eliminated.  For more information about this type of system please visit EnergySavers.gov here.

Computers & Electronics, Appliances, Refrigeration and Other

The remaining four categories would seem like large energy users but when you add the percentage from each of these categories together they equate to 34%, which is only 3% higher than space heating alone.

The three easiest methods to reduce energy in these four categories is the following:

  • Use Energy Star rated products
  • Install smart power strips
  • Unplug or turn off unneeded devices

Computer & Electronics

One of the largest problems with computers and electronics is that they continue to use small amounts of power when they are turned off.  Using smart power strips, like the Smart Strip LCG3, is an easy, relatively inexpensive method to reduce energy in the Computers & Electronics category.  Purchasing Energy Star rated devices when purchasing future devices or replacing existing devices are also ways to reduce energy costs.  When replacing existing devices it is crucial to compute how much your current device costs you per year and how much you could save with the purchase of a new device.  Many times you do not experience savings for several years, in some cases, waiting until your current device is in need of replacement is the beneficial thing to do.

Appliances

This category includes items like dishwashers, microwaves and ovens.

These devices, like all electronic based devices, use small amount of electricity when not in use.  Combating this is slightly harder in this category.  Using smart power strips and turning off these devices are not as easy or convenient as with computers & electronics.  You can unplug items like toasters but you can’t easily unplug a dishwasher.  Typically the only method that can be used to reduce energy consumption in this category is the purchase of Energy Star rated devices.  Replacing your current device may or may not be cost effective depending on the cost and savings of a replacement device, make sure you consider this.

Refrigeration

The refrigeration category does not allow you to reduce electricity consumption by turning off devices.  Just because you aren’t using a refrigerator does not mean the refrigerator will not need electricity at some point to cool itself.  With refrigeration, there are only two options for combating energy usage:

  • Purchase Energy Star refrigeration units
  • Consolidate and eliminate unneeded refrigeration units

Conclusion

Implementing practices that reduce energy waste like turning off lights, using smart power strips, installing CFL bulbs and purchasing only energy star rated products can greatly reduce your energy bill and usage.

Every small thing that you can do to reduce energy usage will save you money and will reduce the amount of energy used.  With many tax incentives available it makes these efficiency upgrades even more affordable.  All you need is a little bit of time and, in many cases, little money.

My next post will show you some of the things that I have done and am considering in order to reduce the energy usage in my home.

Transportion With Less Energy (Part 1)

Transportation is one of the largest users of energy in our society.  If you break down transportation even further you will find that privately owned vehicles are the largest users of energy within the transportation sector.  Privately owned vehicles are vehicles owned by people like you and me.

Our society’s infrastructure is largely dependent on people owning their own vehicle.  With the exception of some major cities, public transportation is either non-existent or is dismal at best.  Unfortunately, the United States hasn’t built a very robust public transportation like many other countries in the world.  Typically public transportation in only located around large cities and there is no form of public transportation for longer travels (with the exception of Amtrak).  If you live in a large city then you typically have some options for public transportation:

  • Bus
  • Rail and Train
  • Taxi
  • Water

Public Bus Transportation

Bus systems are very common in cities, even some smaller cities.  Buses offer a good use of resources because you have one bus transporting several people.  This cuts back on energy usage and many bus systems offer decent travel times.  If you can ride the bus it will help save energy and can save you money too.  Often time’s bus fares are very reasonable because tax dollars partially fund most bus systems. Another small benefit is the reduced wear and tear on your vehicle.

Public Rail and Train Transportation

Rail and train transit systems are typically found only in large cities, like Chicago or San Francisco.  Most of the time these rail systems are located within a large city and possibly the cities suburbs.  This form of transportation is very efficient.  Rail systems offer fast transportation times; the ability to transport many people and they typically operate on efficient energy systems using electricity.  I have personally used the Chicago rail system several years ago on a trip and I found it to be a very nice system.  If I lived in that area I could easily see myself using this system for the majority of my in city travel.

Public Taxi Transportation

Taxis are another form of public transit but they are generally privately funded.  I suppose there might be some minute gain in efficiency when compared to everyone driving themselves but this still uses inefficient vehicles to transport just a single person.  The fact that taxis can reduce the amount of vehicles on the road, seems to be the only significant positive to the taxi system.  Several taxi services are looking into increasing fuel efficiency by using hybrid vehicles. This might make the taxi system more efficient but, one can argue that hybrids require more energy to produce than a typical vehicle in the first place.  Also, from my experience taxis usually are not very price competitive so, this makes this a last choice in my book.

Public Water Transportation

Water transportation is very limited and is a niche form of transportation.  When it is available though it can be a good choice both economically and environmentally.  The major downfall that I can see with water transportation is speed.  From my personal experiences, most water systems, like ferries, are relatively slow.

So what should you do if you find yourself out of reach of public transportation?

That we will discuss with my next post.

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Helping Reduce Energy in the Industrial and Commercial Sectors

It is relatively difficult for you, as an individual, to have a large-direct effect on the energy usage in the commercial and industrial sectors.  These sectors consist largely of corporations and businesses that you have little control over.  This does seem like a large problem at first but, there are things that you can do to suggest increased energy efficiencies.

Commercial Sector

The commercial sector consists of things like: stores, restaurants and offices.  The commercial sector is mainly concerned about reducing operating costs.  As energy costs increase, the benefits of increasing energy efficiency also increases.  Some methods commonly used to improve energy efficiencies include:

  • Using Energy Star rated devices
  • Modern, automated HVAC systems
  • Efficient lighting
  • Occupancy and/or photosensors to dim or shut off lighting
  • Solar panels to generate electricity or to heat water

Most of the items listed seem small but when implementing several small changes, you can experience a larger overall change (I feel a reoccurring theme beginning).

Many companies in the commercial sector take suggestions from their employees.  If you are employed in the commercial sector, you can make a friendly suggestion to your superiors that include ways to improve energy and/or operating efficiencies.  This can help you by:

  • Being noticed by your superiors
  • By increasing your company’s profitability, therefore allowing you to keep your job.

So, if you have any ideas on how to improve energy efficiencies in your workplace, do it.

Industrial Sector

The industrial sector consists of things like: farming, manufacturing, mining, construction and water management.  Like the commercial sector, the industrial sector is largely concerned with maximizing profits and minimizing operating costs.  Reducing energy consumption accomplishes both.  The industrial sector can improve their energy efficiencies by using the same methods as the commercial sector, in addition to:

  • Using more efficient equipment for farming, construction and mining
  • Generating electricity from waste using methane gas
  • Improving manufacturing processes to use less energy

Several equipment companies like, John Deere and CAT, continue to improve the efficiencies of their products.  This in turn reduces amount of energy used for related industries, like forestry, construction and mining. Also, farmers who raise livestock are increasingly installing anaerobic biodigesters in order to generate electricity.  Any farmer that has livestock, has manure and will always have manure, so instead of piling it up, why not use it for something useful.  These systems can give farmers a way to use a pesky byproduct to generate:

  • Electricity
  • Bedding
  • Fertilizer
  • Heating fuel

Again, as with the commercial sector, many industrial companies accept efficiency suggests from their employees.  If you make a good suggestion, then this will reduce their energy usage and therefore make them more money.  Whenever you can benefit the company you are working for, it is a good thing.  It is not only good for you but, for your company as well.

Even though most of the efficiencies gained in both the commercial and industrial sectors will come from the companies and businesses making changes, due to increased costs, you as an employee can also help with your suggestions.  We need to remember, we need to work together to reduce energy usage EVERYWHERE in our society.

I tried to list several ideas and methods used to reduce energy consumption but, I could have easily missed something.  If you have any other methods that could be used to increase energy efficiencies in your workplace, leave a comment.

Next week, I will begin to discuss methods to reduce energy consumption within the transportation sector.

High Efficiency Google Server Design

Yesterday, Google revealed their own “home-brewed” data server design.  Google has been using this custom design since 2005, while constantly improving design efficiencies.  Google has custom designed servers in order to achieve maximum energy efficiency.  Some key aspects to this custom design include: a 12v battery built into every server and a custom made power supply that only uses 12v power rails, instead of the typical 12v/5v combination.

How much efficiency is Google really seeing with all of these improvements? Well, for example, Google has seen battery usage efficiency as high as 99.9%.  This is roughly a 4%-7% increase over using conventional centralized UPS systems.  Now this may not sound like a lot but when you have literally thousands of servers, this becomes a very big deal. Google has really displayed that they have a passion to make their company as energy efficient as possible.  Not only does Google have custom servers designed to maximize efficiency but Google continues to invest in energy through their Google.org arm as well.

Google is one of the few companies that openly and actively tries to reduce their energy consumption. Google seems to understand two very key aspects of energy:

  1. Energy is a valuable resource
  2. We need to help each other in reducing the amount of energy consumed

Now, lets not forget to mention one of the most obvious aspects to this: less energy means more profits.  Google must have an electrical bill the size of a small country so, any amount that they can reduce is a positive for them financially.  I mean, who doesn’t like making more money right.  :)

If you would like to look at some pictures or read more about this check out this CNET NEWS article.

New reactor design can put nuclear waste to good use.

Intellectual Ventures says they have developed a nuclear reactor design, called a wave reactor. This wave reactor is intended to use depleted-uranium as a fuel source. The reactor is reliant on a wave passing through the material to breed plutonium from the uranium. This allows for the use of spent nuclear fuel, without many of the worries of proliferation and contamination. Though the intent of this wave reactor is to run on spent nuclear fuel, theoretically wave reactors could also run using raw fuel as well.

The wave inside the reactor moves about one centimeter per year. According to the designers of this reactor, these wave reactors should be able to run for up to 60 years, without ever being opened. This also limits the amount of risk and cost that is involved with typical reactor designs, which require to be refilled with new fuel every 12-24 months.

Here are some questions that I have regarding this reactor:

  • What type of byproduct (waste) is there?
  • How radioactive is the material?
  • How much energy can be generated?

Unfortunately, these questions don’t seem to be answered, at least not with this initial information.  I’m sure there will be more information available as time passes.

A very interesting video that gives a visual idea of how this reactor works:  TR10: Traveling Wave Reactor Video

To read a more detailed article on the Wave Reactor visit Technology Review.

Google PowerMeter, helps monitor your energy usage.

Google announced a new service, Google PowerMeter, earlier this month.   Google is said to be currently testing this service internally.  I can’t wait for it go public because I know that I would use it.

In case you aren’t aware, Google PowerMeter is a service that will allow you to monitor energy usage in your home.  This will allow you to find high energy users and to help you reduce the amount of energy you consume.  For more information visit the Google PowerMeter site or the Google.org blog.  The Google.org blog also has some information on the ,”Plug into the Smart Grid” event that Google and GE co-hosted on February 17th.

If Google PowerMeter is as well refined as most of Google’s products, then this should be a very successful tool.  Nice!

What is more dangerous, coal energy or nuclear energy?

You’ve heard the politicians talk about clean coal technology and you’ve probably seen the clean coal advertisements as well. Both the politicians and the advertising campaigns have failed to answer two questions directly, “What is clean coal technology, exactly, and what benefits does clean coal technology promise to bring to your typical coal power plant?”  Both of these questions are fair questions that seem perfectly normal to ask.  I asked myself the same two questions, but no one could really answer either of them directly.  Clean coal technology is a technology that exists mainly in theory but not in practice.  At the time of this writing there isn’t a single coal power plant in the United States that has any sort of technology being used that you could classify as “clean coal technology.”  The beauty of clean coal technology is that is doesn’t have to exist yet.  When enough hype is created over something that is still in its infancy, then eventually you begin to believe it is real and that we should invest in it in order to make our future a cleaner one.  Since clean coal technology basically doesn’t exist, and since no one can give a exact definition of what this technology will do, I have come up with my own basic definition.

Essentially what clean coal technology is promising, is to clean up what is coming out of the smock stack(s) of a coal power plant. Clean coal technology is defined on Wikipedia as:

Clean coal technology is an umbrella term used to describe technologies being developed that aim to reduce the environmental impact of coal energy generation.[1]. These include chemically washing minerals and impurities from the coal, gasification (see also IGCC), treating the flue gases with steam to remove sulfur dioxide,carbon capture and storage technologies to capture the carbon dioxide from the flue gas and dewatering lower rank coals (brown coals) to improve the calorific quality, and thus the efficiency of the conversion into electricity.

Clean coal technology usually addresses atmospheric problems resulting from burning coal. Historically, the primary focus was on sulfur dioxide and particulates, due to the fact that it is the most important gas which leads to acid rain. More recent focus has been on carbon dioxide (due to its likely impact on global warming) as well as other pollutants[2]. Concerns exist regarding the economic viability of these technologies and the timeframe of delivery[3], potentially high hidden economic costs in terms of social and environmental damage[4], and the costs and viability of disposing of removed carbon and other toxic matter[5] [6].

I believe all of these ideas are novel, but the idea of CO2 being captured seems to be quite prevalent. This seems to be a very important thing on everyone’s agenda. Even on President Obama’s site, the only thing he mentions in the clean coal technology portion of his site is carbon sequestrating. It seems like we should focus on some other major issues with coal as well, like the fact that coal power plants emit radioactive particles. Coal plants emit more radiation into a surrounding environment than does a similarly sized nuclear power plant (Source: Scientific American and ORNL). Studies have shown that people experience more radioactivity next to coal plants, so why isn’t the general public afraid of coal power like they are nuclear power? Perception. Nuclear power has gotten the reputation as being highly radioactive and extremely dangerous. Nuclear power can be all of those horrible things, if it isn’t handled correctly.

Nuclear power isn’t a perfect energy producer, it has some drawbacks since it uses uranium, a finite resource, which, like crude oil or coal, does not have an endless supply, and long-term storage of the nuclear waste can be dangerous. Handling nuclear waste is a very serious problem, but coal power has a very similar problem with coal ash. Coal ash is a byproduct of coal combustion and it contains several toxic trace elements like uranium and heavy metals that are dangerous in certain quantities. Why then isn’t coal getting scrutinized for its byproduct, coal ash? Why isn’t there the same amount of panic towards a coal ash spill as there is for a nuclear waste spill? Again, I would have to blame this on perception and ignorance towards nuclear energy. The general public is afraid of nuclear waste because of the negative attention it generally gets, but much of the general public is unaware that coal ash is also a very dangerous substance.

Several dangers of coal ash are known, for example, it is said to increase the chance of cancer in surrounding communities and it can contaminate water with toxic metals and chemicals (See EPA Map for some known contaminated water sites).  Coal ash contamination is a very serious issue that needs to be dealt with, but for some reason the EPA has only been “promising” action since 2000.  Promises don’t help people much, especially when coal ash spills kill wildlife, destroy homes, pollute soil and contaminate water.  Below is a picture from the December 2008 Tennessee coal ash spill.

Courtesy of Brian Stansberry on Wikimedia

Courtesy of Brian Stansberry on Wikimedia

Without much doubt, coal will continue to be a important source for producing electricity. The need for clean coal technology is valid, but what part of coal is getting cleaned? Are we going to start storing coal ash in safer more contained places, instead of in open ponds, landfills and abandoned caverns?  Coal ash has the potential of being used for many things like cement, paints and metal castings, but very little of it gets used for any of this.  I hope coal ash begins to be disposed of properly, in a more environmentally and human friendly manner.

Neither coal power nor nuclear power are perfect solutions.  Coal, however, will continue to be used and it makes some sense to use coal. In a country that is in need of electricity and a country that has a significant amount of coal, it only makes sense to use it in certain applications.  Pushing for alternatives other than nuclear and other than coal would be the ultimate goal for generating societies electricity.

Ultimately, I hope to give an increased awareness of coal power and the major issues inherited in using it as a source for electricity. Hopefully coal stops being, what seems like, the first choice in power generation and maybe the EPA will actually start regulating the disposal of coal ash.

Oil, So Much More Than Fuel For Your Cars

With job losses, inflation, energy price fluctuations and the stock market fluctuating, who isn’t aware of the troubles our economy is going through.  With this post I hope to give a basic overview on how intertwined our economy is with oil and how it is causing turmoil in our society today…

Since the industrial revolution, oil has increasingly become the lifeline of our economy. Now over 150 years later we have become fully dependent on oil in ever aspect of our lives.  It is completely crucial to think about oil as more than just gasoline for your cars.  Oil is transportation fuel, but oil is also plastic, electricity and a key component of pharmaceuticals.  Once you start thinking about everything that oil is used for and what aspects of your life it plays an important role in, you see that we have become completely and totally dependent on oil in everything we do in our modern lives.  I have just briefly listed a very minute list of how we rely on oil but lets get into how our society needs oil to survive.

In the early 1900′s mass production of the automobile was introduced by Ransom E. Olds and further perfected by Henry Ford.  This opened the door for a completely new way of transportation for the common person.  This increased the demand for oil in the transportation sector not only because of the gasoline that was used, but now the demand for nice smooth roadways existed.  Construction and upkeep of our transportation system demands large amounts of energy to produce road materials like concrete and asphalt.  As vehicles became larger and more accessible, this required the transportation infrastructure to also become larger.  With the improvement of the transportation infrastructure people began living farther away from cities, which increased distances normal people had to travel on a day-to-day basis.  All of this added to an increased demand in oil.

This is only the beginning of our dependence.  As oil became more available, it was given more uses because it was relatively inexpensive.  Oil was used to power our developing cities in several ways; it could be burned in order to generate electricity and was also used by the coal mining equipment.  Coal is the largest source of electricity generation; unfortunately a large amount of diesel fuel, which is derived from oil, is used during the coal mining process.  As the demand for more and more consumer merchandise rose, so did the need for electricity generation.  Unfortunately electricity is not the only use of oil that rose as consumer goods began to be mass-produced.

Mass production requires that oil be used in several different stages of the production process of consumer goods.  Some of these consumer goods and services are: plastic products, aluminum, steel, fabrics, medicines, household cleaning products, package delivery (like UPS or FedEx), vehicles, makeup and food.  For a more detailed example let us look at a simple loaf of bread and see how something that is so common consumes oil in the production and delivery process.

Bread’s common ingredients are water, flour, oils like soybean oil and extract from corn and barley, which are just a few ingredients from whole wheat Wonder Bread.  Now look just at the main ingredient listed above, flour, which is produced from grains. Grains are grown in fields using large farm equipment like tractors.  In order to ensure that the farmer gets a larger plentiful crop, petroleum based chemicals are used to kill off foreign plants using pesticides.  Then these grains are harvested, with a combine, and then trucked to a grain elevator where the crop is stored and eventually sold.  While at the grain elevator the crop may need to be dried, so large dryers that run on an oil supported energy source dry the crop.  When the crops are sold, the grains are then shipped, either via rail or truck, to a manufacturing plant to be made into flour.  These modern flourmills require an oil supported power source in order to operate.  After the grain is ran through the mill and turned into flour, the flour is then packed (probably some petroleum based packaging used here) and delivered to the bread company.  Again this flour is delivered by either truck or rail.  Once the bread company gets the flour it then processes it in a manufacturing plant that is powered by some sort of oil based power source.  The bread has to be baked in hot ovens (more oil usage).  When baking and quality control is done the bread will end up in a plastic bag (plastic is made from oil in a manufacturing plant powered by oil, supplied by semi-trucks and/or trains with necessary materials to make plastic).  Now the bread will be shipped to different distributors, restaurants and shopping centers.  Now I know that this is a rather long drawn out paragraph that doesn’t have an overly exciting topic, flour, but I hope it helps you see how even with something as simple as a loaf of bread, oil is needed every step of the way.

I didn’t get into as much detail as I could have when talking about the flour to bread example.  Pick something, anything, and think about how the object you choose used oil in some form in order for it to be what it is. I think it could be shocking and possibly even scary to see that we have allowed ourselves to become totally and completely dependent on a finite source.

So are we in trouble if we continue our ways?  It is fairly safe to say that oil production has peaked (based on Dan’s previous blog post) and as the production of oil continues to drop there will be less available energy for the world to use. If the economies of the world are healthy, lowered oil production will mean higher energy prices but if the economies of the world are not healthy then we could experience lower energy prices.  If there is less energy for the world to use then how is an economy based on consumerism going to fair?  Consumerism is based on the consumption of goods which dictionary.com defines as “the using up of goods and services having an exchangeable value.”  Our economy has been weakening and in return oil demand also has been shrinking, this is why we experiencing these low oil prices.  The economy isn’t the problem; the total reliance on oil and fossil fuel based energy is the problem.  We cannot expect to improve the economy if we continue to be completely reliant on oil and until that begins to change, we will continue to experience an unpredictable volatile market and economy.