Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Paper or plastic? Neither.

“We just want to know what we can do!” said John after telling me he was seeing a lot on sustainability in the media. In this, I think John is like many people today: they know we’ve got serious environmental, social and economic problems and they want to help resolve them. But what does that look like?
  • Conserve, conserve, conserve! Conservation is the most important thing we can do collectively to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Bring your own reusable bags to stores.
  • Compact fluorescent light bulbs, a.k.a. CFLs. Replace incandescent bulbs with CFLs. It may seem wasteful to toss a good light bulb, but making the change makes sense in the long run.
  • Modify your driving habits to maximize MPG. Ok, boring. The thrill of the wind in your hair and all that! You’ll get over it. Moderate your acceleration (no more pedal to the metal) and speed. Have you noticed that the guy flooring it, changing lanes and generally being obnoxious gets to the destination at the same time you do? I got a BIG surprise when I changed the way I was driving. I was relaxed! Modifying your driving habits can be a great stress reducer.
  • When it’s time for a new car, consider the small car options.
  • Participate in our democracy to influence public policy in favor of sustainability. Getting public policy right on this is incredibly important! E.g., without the rebates from the California Solar Initiative, solar installations would be a small fraction of what they are today. We need public policies that create incentives for adopting sustainable practices.
Next on the list? Post your suggestions!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Long Strange Trip (part 2)

Distributed generation - two more words that prompt discussion (in my circles anyway). Think solar panels on an office building that uses that solar power. It’s also called on-site generation, decentralized energy and a bunch of other names.

Today we have centralized generation - large power plants, usually far from where electricity is needed, with energy distribution via long distance power lines. This model is fantastically inefficient.

Check out the diagram. Centralized generation is only ~ 9.5% efficient. The perfect scenario, of course, is 100%. That’s unrealistic but geez, can’t we do better than 9.5%??!

From the power plant to an industrial pipe, inefficiencies along
the way whittle the energy input of the fuel by more than 90%.
(Click on the graphic to make it larger.)

There’s been little technological advancement in long distance distribution over the past 50 years. Big power plants way out in nowhere will still be in the mix so investment in efficiency makes sense.

Distributed Generation

Today, this is largely solar. In the future, it will include wind, methane harvesting, algae and god knows what. The good stuff about distributed generation:

  • Highly reliable energy when power comes from many small sources rather than a few big ones
  • Less dependence on imported fossil fuels (and hence, improved national security)
  • Variety of feed stocks
  • Fewer new high voltage power lines decorating the landscape
  • Efficiencies of short transmission distances
  • Lower maintenance costs
  • Tastes great
  • Less filling

Public policy. (Two more words.) Regulatory rules have encouraged construction of big power plants and long transmission lines, and the energy industry business model has long been predicated on this. Legislators are beginning to rewrite the rules but democracy moves slowly when big industry money is at stake.

It’s like this. Big Energy is analogous to big railroads in the mid-1800s. If you needed to move something from Chicago to LA, there were few options. The railroad oligopoly controlled the market. Then came automobiles, roadways and trucking.

Railroads are part of the mix today, but they no longer control the transportation industry. Now it’s the energy industry’s turn to evolve.

What a Long Strange Trip It’s Been

And it’s not over yet. Sunrise Powerlink. If you want to get a lively discussion going in San Diego, say these words.

Per San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E), Sunrise Powerlink is “a high-voltage power transmission line that will bring 1000 megawatts of power from the Imperial Valley to San Diego County.” Some of this power is to come from renewable sources, e.g., solar.

On July 13, the US Forest Service issued a Record of Decision that allows for a 19-mile segment of the line to be built through the Cleveland National Forest. This means the last big roadblock to construction of the $1.9 billion Sunrise Powerlink is gone. Now more legal challenges. Court-a-thon.

Argh!...the time and money spent on this debate. If we’d put it into development of new energy technologies… But this is democracy. To paraphrase someone, it’s ain’t great but it beats the alternatives.

Next Up: Alternatives