Little has changed since the last newsletter. Unsurprisingly, a lot of people broke out of protective isolation to be humbled by nature with a resurgence of virus infections. We’ll probably keep probing the bounds of social distancing for months to come – causing inevitable uncertainty for the foreseeable future.
Even though we’re uncertain about how socially distanced we need to remain to combat the spread, we have to continue moving forward and do what work is necessary. Getting work done probably takes all of our physical interaction “budget”, leaving little for social events, vacations, and general relaxation of our guard. Many have said it before, but we have a marathon ahead of us, and we need to get settled into a sustainable pace.
Hopefully you have noticed the change in the SES website, since you are reading this as an online article instead of a PDF document. Website changes are continuing, but it made sense to transition this newsletter to more of a blog format – and it makes it easier to view on multiple devices. I hope that the changes are welcome and make the newsletter more accessible.
As many people spend more time at home, continually running the air conditioning, sucking power through computers, and leaving lights on, it’s likely becoming readily apparent that the energy bills are rising. Now seems like a good time to talk about our energy dependence and the future of energy generation and consumption.
Since the last newsletter I have been made aware of the Solar Desalination Prize from the DOE. If you were following the preliminary design concept for the Armadillo Demonstration Platform (at http://sigmaexpertsolutions.com/design/) you would have noticed a grey water recycling system based on a miniature flash evaporator. Although not directly related to the desalination concept that is the heart of the Solar Desalination Prize, it has some striking similarities:
Rather than try to expand the Armadillo concept to a large water processing facility, I will instead focus on a portable water desalination system that can be temporarily deployed in regions where fresh, potable water is needed in a hurry. Potential applications are disaster recovery (like after a hurricane), seasonal drought water production (such as is being regularly encountered in California), and as a supplement to municipal systems during repairs (such as for Flint while replacing pipes). A very high level description of the proposed system is comprised of, a single large ISO container containing solar panels, pumps, tankage, and desalination equipment necessary to provide 2gpm of potable water. That doesn’t sound like much, but all of the equipment can be individually hand carried and set into place within a day, and the concept is expandable to as many ISO containers needed to meet the need.
A white paper and submission to the prize will be generated within the next couple of weeks. I’ll post the results on the SES website. I’d love to hear from all of you on your thoughts!
Energy generation, distribution, and use is a key part of modern society. Without ready availability to high quality energy, much of our lifestyle would not be possible.
It shouldn’t be any surprise that increased power consumption comes at a price. For the same reason perpetual motion machines are fiction, energy consumption without some cost is impossible. Whether that cost is borne by the energy consumers, and how heavy the cost is the primary consideration. The sections below discuss how energy is made, distributed, and consumed.
Humanity has been intentionally extracting energy from the environment for useful work since the discovery of fire. Up to some point, the cost of extraction has been essentially “free”, being available through resources readily available. As our society became increasingly power hungry, entire industries developed to extract the energy. I would consider coal mining the first example of this industrialized power extraction. It was this energy source that powered our transition into an industrialized society – and separated the source of energy extraction from its location of consumption.
With relatively plentiful resources and technical ingenuity, all seemed well as we continued to use what felt like an infinite supply of stored energy and completely changed our way of life. It didn’t take long before warning signs were starting to appear – poor health of miners, smog and pollution of cities, contamination of waterways. The brave new world this energy had provided was so addictive, we dismissed these as necessary inconveniences of a much greater good and continual progress.
We have evolved beyond this approach and are starting to realize that these “inconveniences” are more than just temporary annoyances, but potentially cause lasting damage to our planet. It can be argued whether climate change is cyclical or caused by our energy hungry society, but it cannot be argued that most of the common forms of energy generation pollute and cause discomfort and dangerous or unhealthy living conditions for a large portion of the population.
This has led to the rise of cleaner energy sources that make management of the byproducts of energy creation more manageable. With new energy generation technologies, cleaner energy generation is possible that creates less pollution per unit energy consumed.
The following sections will explore some details on different means of energy production and their pros and cons.
The first major source of distributed energy was fossil fuels, whether from coal, oil, or gas they are, much like fossils, limited in availability. Extraction and transport of energy as fossil fuels is generally quite efficient given their energy density and established infrastructure, making them an attractive option for powering our energy needs.
Immediately after widespread adoption, it was clear that use of fossil fuels causes environmental pollution. Originally considered a necessary evil, only minor mitigations were put in place to curb the extent of the damage. As technology advanced, improved processing and burning of these fuels has served to increase the efficiency of energy extraction and consequently decrease the resulting waste product stream. The most effective example is the use of cogeneration plants where the amount of pollution created is fairly low compared to the amount of energy generated.
Beyond the already mentioned visible pollution, other problems have started to surface. As easily accessed resources are consumed, more aggressive (and ecologically damaging) extraction techniques are being used and larger distribution networks are required. As the efficiency in using consumable resources is improving, these extraction and transportation costs are rising. In this context, costs captures economic, environmental, and political costs. At some point (if we haven’t gotten there already) these costs will overrun the gains in efficiency.
This is similar to fossil fuels in that a limited resource is extracted and burned. The major difference is the power density and the form of resulting pollution. There is a lot of debate about the “cost” of nuclear power. On pure economic terms, extracting energy through fission is much harder than burning coal, and therefore the systems are more complex and the required expertise is greater. Luckily, the power density is so high, that those operating costs are probably overcome.
The major economic driver is the initial investment and the political costs. Since the equipment is so complex, the initial construction requires significant up-front investment. Add to that political pressures due to the potential ramifications of accidents and public distrust, the regulatory structure has become a major driver of cost.
Waste disposal is becoming an increasingly valid topic. Much like the fossil fuel industry, little control was imposed on early nuclear facilities. In the current environment, waste is carefully managed, but the density of nuclear waste is an advantage and disadvantage. For fossil fuel plants, the waste is mostly distributed, whether as particulates in the air, or heavy metals into water. In contrast, all of the waste generated making power with a nuclear reactor is concentrated where we can see the true cost of our energy addition. An unlike the fossil fuel industry, the nuclear industry is expected to address their waste was part of the energy life-cycle.
New generations of nuclear power plants seek to address some of these issues. Small, modular reactors that come on-site mostly pre-built look to address the initial capital investment. Inherently safe designs address the need to show a high level of safety to meet regulatory and political requirements. New fast fission reactors burn fuel more efficiently, resulting in less waste. Even so, they are bounded by the limitation of the available resource, so even if we were to find a magical way to make the waste disappear (the only negative not being well addressed) we would still be living on borrowed time.
Often stated as the panacea of our energy crisis, it certainly addresses the concern that we are on borrowed time. Essentially all renewable resources are driven by the sun, so as long as our sun continues to be a fusion reactor, energy is available for extraction. What is overlooked are the other costs associated with renewable technology. It varies widely based on how we harvest energy, so we’ll look at the broad categories individually.
Perhaps the oldest renewable resource is wind. Whether it was sailing ships, or windmills, we have been harnessing the power of wind for most of our civilization. The most obvious advantage to harnessing wind power is that it can be consistent if the location is well chosen and seems to have little impact on the environment during operation. The major disadvantages include power density and distribution. To harness enough energy, very large structures are needed, in generally remote locations. This results in the need to build large things, install and maintain them in inconvenient locations, and lose power transmitting it long distances.
Careful placement of wind facilities to maximize their effectiveness and minimize transmission distance is a good way to address the major concerns with this renewable technology. Unfortunately, this minimizes the amount of total energy that can be extracted, making wind power an unlikely candidate to supply all of our energy needs.
There are detractors that cite the environmental impact of wind turbines in terms of bird strikes and aesthetics. Of the former, I’m sure some birds are killed, but I suspect less than can be attributed to pollution caused by a single oil spill, or the air quality decline caused by a coal plant. On the latter, I personally find them beautiful, but probably because I’m an engineer. I might feel differently if my unspoiled view of the mountain suddenly had a large tower in the middle. But it feels like a small price to pay to keep that mountainside pristine and unpolluted.
The concept of harnessing the power of flowing water is as old as the waterwheel. To perform power generation at any usable scale involves damming water and large, expensive facilities. Even more than wind power, the availability of the resource is fairly predictable at large scales. Power generation is also relatively dense, enabling more centralization of equipment and resources. The major disadvantages have been echoed by other technologies. Even more so than wind power, the location of generation is essentially fixed and generally distant from most of the power usage. And like nuclear facilities, large, complex construction projects are required that have an enormous up-front investment.
Of the renewable energy sources, this one has the most obvious environmental impacts. Creating dams of sufficient size results in completely changing the topography and ecosystem of the surrounding area. If done properly, this can be a benefit, but generally long-term impacts are realized well after the project is complete. This energy source is also very susceptible to climate change. Long term climate trends impact the availability of source water, and increases in severe weather make management more difficult.
As a means of generating large amounts of power from a relatively small area while providing some potential benefits in water control, hydro power is hard to beat. But when we considering the environmental impact of changing eco-systems, and the uncertainty of water supply in the future, it’s unlikely to be the long-term solution we need for a renewable resource.
This topic is very complex, but the essential aspect is that energy is generally distributed either as the energy source (gas pipelines) or as the end product (electricity). All distribution results in some losses. With large, centralized energy generation systems, such as large fossil power plants, nuclear power stations, wind farms, and hydroelectric plants, we are dependent on an energy grid to provide our ever increasing dependence on power. The grid is getting older and the rate of growth is decreasing our ability to provide reliable energy to our power hungry devices.
New advances in grid technology, energy storage, and decentralized control over grid nodes have the potential to alleviate these concerns. As seen in previous sections, there is a large variety of energy sources, each with their own power distribution needs. An integrated distribution system that addresses the obsolescence issue, the increased power requirements, and the larger variety of energy sources is still off in the future, but sorely needed. Compared to energy generation or usage, the distribution gets less publicity. If we continue to ignore this problem, it will become the weak link, and any advances in energy generation will be negated by the inability to safely and consistently provide the energy to consumers.
We talked about how dependent we are on energy in modern society. And the trend is certainly upwards. But what if we could continue on our path of greater technological saturation while decreasing our energy consumption? Lowering our consumption would address problems currently faced by distribution and generation.
Fairly recent advances in technology ranging from lighting, to microprocessors have raised the possibility that we can continue to increase our technological saturation while concurrently decreasing our energy consumption. The focus has always been on how we can generate more energy more efficiently, but that would all be moot if we didn’t need the power in the first place. As a basic example, imagine a house that replaces all of its incandescent bulbs with LEDs. If we consider that twenty lights are burned for six hours of the day, this could be as much as 12kW-hrs a day! If we used all LEDs, we would use 75% less, which is the equivalent to almost 8m2 of solar panels. Combined with more efficient air-conditioning systems, better power supplies, and house sealing systems, we could be significantly reducing our energy footprint without any major sacrifices.
The concept of entropy is likely not lost on any of the readers of this newsletter. Whenever we use energy, it’s really not destroyed, but less of it becomes useful. So there is always a cost and some unrecoverable quality of energy. So we should think about that every time we turn on that light, drive our car, or do a Google search. It’s unrealistic to think that we will slow down our energy consumption, but understanding that there is a cost involved helps us move towards energy stewardship.
If the energy you’re using isn’t costing you something, think about who is going to pay for you and when.