June 2020 - Edition 14, Our Energy Future


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.

Demetri's Corner

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:

  1. Both concepts use solar energy as the primary heat input to create clean water.
  2. The use of flash evaporators is mentioned as a leading proponent in the Solar Desalination Prize for the same reasons it’s used in the Armadillo; the need to be able to process fairly contaminated water without heavy reliance on RO membranes and consumables.

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!

Today's Subject - Our Energy Future

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.

Energy Generation

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.

Fossil Fuels

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.

Nuclear Power

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.

Renewable Resources

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.

Wind Energy

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.

Hydroelectric Power

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.

Solar Energy

The posterchild of renewable energy is the field of solar panels. It is the most direct path to our ultimate energy source – the sun. And it will continue to provide energy as long as the sun is shining. The advantages to this source of energy is the scalability of power generation, flexibility of implementation, and simplicity of use. Major disadvantages are the power density, and the variability in the power supply. One of the most interesting aspects of solar energy is that it can be easily scaled to charge a cell phone, or power an entire city. And the technology, whether it is photovoltaic cells or solar water heating, is easily erected relative to a wind turbine or power plant. And assuming the sun shines at the location, some amount of power will always be generated. For these reasons it has become a ubiquitous example of renewable energy and generally implemented to fill in the “gaps” where other renewable solutions with a higher energy density are not an option. This may result in its use where it is not particularly effective, suffering from poor sunlight conditions and insufficient area. So, even though it has increased flexibility relative to the other options, it will not work well in all cases, which results in mixed outcomes and a wrongly gained reputation for a stopgap solution with low power density. But the disadvantage most focused upon is that it only works during the day. At night, power generation is zero (some are working on alleviating this concern), so a means of energy storage is needed. And if it rains for a day, that’s a day where little power is generated. With the advent of new grid scale power storage systems, this is becoming less of a consideration. But that highlights the real environmental cost of this solution. Much of this technology, as well as the storage solutions, depend on chemicals and production methods that can cause environmental damage. It can certainly be mitigated, but has to be considered as part of the cost.

Energy Distribution

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.

Energy Use

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.

Final Thoughts on the Future

Ultimately we will have to get to a place where we use all renewable resources – if for no other reason than we will run out of our other options. More realistically we will poison our planet beyond repair before we reach that point. But no single renewable resource is going to meet our energy hungry society, so all of them have to be developed – and they each have their own unique applicability. While we learn how to operate sustainably, we need to continue supporting our modern advances with power generation solutions currently available – leveraging as much as possible efficiency and environmental stewardship. But focus on these technologies at the expense of increased focus on renewables will slow our transition to a sustainable energy future. We cannot sacrifice our progress to the end state for the convenience of the present. Combined with better energy stewardship, we can do this and continue our technological progress without endangering our long term survival.

Your Dose of Aphorisms

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.

Explanation of Fields in the SMARRT form submission

Reference Scenario Inputs:

Number of People Infected – How many potential members of the gathering are infectious. The simulation starts when they enter (time=0).

Type of Activity – Impacts the number of particles spread as aerosols per respiration. More strenuous activities result in more viroid particles being released.

Air Changes per Hour – This is the air exchange rate with fresh air for the volume of air being breathed by the gathering. If you use forced air exchange, you can calculate the number of air changes per hour for your specific situation.

Space Floor Area and Ceiling Height – These are used to calculate the total space volume.

Duration Infectious Person is Present – This is how long the infectious person stays in the space after their initial entry. For the reference scenario, this defines the end of the simulation.

Gathering Scenario Inputs:

See the reference scenario for all inputs up to Time of space entry.

Time of space entry and exit – These values represent when you enter and leave the space referenced to the infectious person. For example, if you show up fifteen minutes late, but stay an hour after the end of a one hour party, the Duration Infectious Person is Present is 60 minutes, the Time of Space Entry 15 minutes, and the Time of Space Exit 120 minutes