Monday, September 10, 2012

This is not the Future

There is no intelligence where there is no change and no need of change. "The Time Machine" H.G. Wells 

There are three legs to the stool that climate change sits on; time, fossil fuels and desire. Of these time is the most important. I have always been struck by how we measure time. Why sixty? Turns out the Greeks were the first to divide the day up into a twelve base counting system. It was the constant they needed to make consistent astronomical predictions. Now we use this reductionist concept as our basis for knowing. We break everything up into little myopic focused moments and are unable to assess our actions relative to the present, past and future simultaneously. This lack of a holistic sense of place in time is evident in the technology that produces and provides the energy we use.

Nearly ninety percent of our power in the US is generated by non renewable resources. Seventy percent of our power is produced using fossil fuels, the other twenty percent by nuclear power. The burning of fossil fuels for energy production in the US contributes six billion metric tons of C0² per year to the atmosphere. To make matters worse the power grid that delivers the energy produced is highly inefficient. Half the energy produced is lost during transmission to the user. Most of this is due to the poor conductivity of transmission cables, however because there is no storage capabilities, power that is produced beyond consumptive needs is purged out of the system. In order to avoid shortfalls electricity production always is greater than consumption. This is known as base-load production and waste is an inherent part of the process. Perception of time is prevalent in this problem. For example the technology that drives the power generation plants is the same steam engine technology that was first patented in 1705. The fundamental tool for fossil fueled power generation plants in America uses three hundred year old technology. This is not the future.

Ten percent of the countries power is generated using renewable technology seven percent from hydroeclectric power generated by damming rivers. This type of power generation comes with a whole other set of environmental impacts. Three percent of our electricity comes form alternative sources such as wind and solar. There is a huge push right now to increase energy production using the power of the wind and sun. However the transmission grid and storage issue are severe impediments. The primary limitation to wind and solar is that the wind does not always blow and the sun does not always shine so production is intermittent. Intermittent production is not compatible with a power grid that requires a constant input that outpaces consumption. Storage is the solution however battery technology is not capable of accommodating the power grids base-load needs.

Some technological solutions using batteries for base-load storage are happening. The town of Presidio Texas had frequent blackouts due to undersized transmission lines built in 1940. Extra energy was being purchased from Mexico, but hours long blackouts were still common. So in 2010, the power company built “BOB” (Big Ol' Battery). BOB weighs over 320 tons, cost $25 million to produce, and provides just 4 megawatts of base-load power to Presidio for about eight hours. A large city uses 25 megawatts of power in eight hours. In short storing solar and wind power to provide base-load storage for an ancient inefficient power grid is not plausible at this time.

A friend lives on one of the San Juan Islands on the very north edge of Puget Sound. The Island is a community from another time. There is no ferry service and everyone on the island has a gritty way about them that self sufficiency brings. A visit to the island usually involves a dinner gathering by a large number of islanders. Almost invariably the killing of a goat or other small farm animal is involved, and there are always piles of crab fresh from the Sound. The quite and comfort that surrounds me at the end of these dinners stays with me for days when I get back to Seattle. There is something about a brief existence in that space that feels right. Being off the grid my friend generates all his power via solar panels. He lives a normal life from a power usage standpoint, with a fridge, computer, stereo ect. What is abnormal about his house is the large battery room that holds over 1 ton of batteries for power storage. I remember getting the tour not long after he completed the power station for his new house and thinking how odd it was that the success of the advanced solar technology he used was beholden to the 1915 technology of acid batteries. This is not the future. When I brought it to his attention he just laughed and said “yep, still the cheapest most efficient way to go, even after all this time, its hard to believe the existing machinery is still the same huh”.


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