Friday, October 21, 2005

New Urbanism

I'm going to start this post with the caveat that I have absolutely no technical foundation to my arguments; as bubba could tell you, I'm hopelessly, physically ignorant. But that might just make me the perfect foil for all the strong, technical arguments made in the last few post and comments. I'll lay my case and let you explain where my naivete has led me astray.

Listening to NPR the other day, I was fascinated by the rebuilding ideas already being discussed for the Gulf Coast, specifically hurricane -razed Mississippi. The idea is New Urbanism - mix-use, walkable town centers with combined low and middle income housing, using architectural designs from the early 19th-century, but incorporating modern technologies. It's rebuilding the small towns of our past with an eye to the future.

After reading the AE posts of the last few days and thinking of SinceSlicedBread, wouldn't this be a great way to initialize schemes for alternative-based, energy-efficient communities. Things could be tested in these micro-climates and the successful ones transferred to larger communities, either over-layed or reengineered as necessary. Could a brownstone type structure, with a storefront on ground level and four single family apartments above get by with a roof-sized power grid and community biomass heater?

At one point none of our infrastructure was interconnected, not water and sewage, heating and electricity, phones, cable or satellite. All of these things have been incorporated over time, with new areas having the best of the new technology, but older housing being updated as it became possible. In 1980, fewer than 10% of houses had cable, today it is derigour for new developments, even though satellite is becoming more popular. In 1990 not one in fifty had heard of the internet, today technophobic seniors wouldn't dream of living without e-mail. It may take years of trial and error to get the country (world) out of fossil fuels and into alternatives, but it doesn't all have to be done at once. So longs as we make it a priority, it will happen.

It also doesn't have to be a one-size-fits-all proposition. Wind technologies may work better in rural areas, solar in sunny ones, wave-driven near the coast. Industrial areas may need more interconnected power, while populated ones could use more individualized solutions. Bubba worries that people would be slow to commit/utilize/accept such diversity, but as others have pointed out, necessity is the mother of invention. What about a slow, need-fit conversion?


Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Hydrogen Hype

There is a widespread belief that the savior of the planet, in terms of an energy solution, will be hydrogen. I'm here to tell you that just ain't so. Hydrogen, as it occurs on the Earth, is not a primary energy source. It can be used as an energy carrier, like electricity, but it cannot replace fossil fuels, which are primary energy sources.

From Wikipedia:

There is a widely held misconception that hydrogen is an alternative energy source. There are no uncombined hydrogen reserves on Earth that could provide energy like fossil fuels or uranium. Uncombined hydrogen is instead produced with the help of other energy sources. It may play an important role in a future hydrogen economy as a general energy storage system, used both to smooth power output by intermittent power sources, like solar power, and as transportation fuel for vehicles. However, the idea is currently impractical: hydrogen is inefficient to produce, and expensive to store, transport, and convert back to electricity. New technology may change this in the future.

From Physics Today:

Although in many ways hydrogen is an attractive replacement for fossil fuels, it does not occur in nature as the fuel H2. Rather, it occurs in chemical compounds like water or hydrocarbons that must be chemically transformed to yield H2. Hydrogen, like electricity, is a carrier of energy, and like electricity, it must be produced from a natural resource. At present, most of the world's hydrogen is produced from natural gas by a process called steam reforming. However, producing hydrogen from fossil fuels would rob the hydrogen economy of much of its raison d'être: Steam reforming does not reduce the use of fossil fuels but rather shifts them from end use to an earlier production step; and it still releases carbon to the environment in the form of CO2. Thus, to achieve the benefits of the hydrogen economy, we must ultimately produce hydrogen from non−fossil resources, such as water, using a renewable energy source.

However, even using Hydrogen as an energy carrier has its drawbacks, as are demonstrated by Engineer-Poet here.

That's all I have to say about hydrogen. Lots of other people have said it better elsewhere.

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Monday, October 17, 2005

Engineer-Poet Needs Your Help

Engineer-Poet writes a blog called the Ergosphere. He knows more about alternative and renewable energy than anyone else I have run across. He has entered a contest called Since Sliced Bread that is looking for:

"ideas that are original and creative, have the best chance of practical success and would most effectively:

Grow the economy

Create good-paying jobs that allow people to raise a family, afford health insurance, pay for their children’s college education, get additional training and save for retirement

Encourage existing companies to expand and entrepreneurs to start new ones.

Finally, keep in mind who should benefit from the ideas — whom this contest is about. "

He needs our help to put his ideas over the top. Go check it out, register, and comment.

There are further details on his blog, Ergosphere.


Sunday, October 16, 2005

Alternative Energy II

Based upon the energy generated by my last post, I have decided to make all of my future posts on things I am mostly ignorant about. That way, I will at least generate a lot of blog traffic by people correcting my misstatements. (Just kidding).

Clearly there are a lot of people out there, some of them down right brilliant, who are big believers in alternative energy, especially solar, wind, and biomass. A lot of these people have ideas on alternative energy schemes and systems that are very well thought out and make a lot of sense. However, one of the problems that I have with many of these schemes is that most presume a highly dispersed and distributed energy infrastructure where we all are our own power generation company. This idea works great for engineers, electricians, and technogeeks, but it kind of falls down for single mothers, senior citizens, and average Joe’s who can change a lightbulb, but wouldn’t know how to change a circuit breaker if their life depended on it.

Although the sun and the wind is everywhere, and there may be efficiencies, from a pure energy standpoint, to having distributed power generation, do we really expect a wind turbine in every yard, solar panels on every roof, and a battery of batteries in every garage/basement/utility room? I think not. If alternative energy is to have a future, I believe it has to be within the context of energy delivered through a centralized system to a customer base that is relatively ignorant. Think of how much penetration the PC would have if we all had to learn BASIC to use one. Any thoughts?

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