How Much Do You Know About Wind Power?

The U.S. Department of Energy has a new quiz out that will challenge your knowledge of wind power and bring you up to date on some new and unexpected information, like how next-generation wind turbines will make a lot more wind power available, even in places that currently wouldn’t be considered good possibilities for wind.

electricity-generating "wind engine" from 1887

electricity-generating “wind engine” from 1887

My favorite factoid, and a surprising one to me:

Wind energy is now the cheapest form of power, with new power purchase agreements in 2014 averaging a record-low 2.35 cents per kilowatt-hour.

I got a 7 out of 13, and I felt like I was doing pretty well, considering! Hopefully you can beat that score. Check out the quiz at http://energy.gov/articles/quiz-test-your-wind-energy-iq.

Actually, We CAN Put It Back in the Ground

One of the most demoralizing things about climate change is that it’s generally a one-way process: it’s easy for us to put more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, but not so much for us to take them back out–at least, that’s what I thought until recently.

True, there has been some research into carbon sequestration (putting carbon dioxide directly into underground spaces or at the bottom of the sea), but these processes aren’t very far advanced or very affordable, and some of the plan for them is just to capture CO2 being produced by fossil fuel plants and sequester that. The fossil fuel industry likes to hold this very theoretical idea out as though it’s an available technology, so as to get a free pass to burn more fossil fuels.

But I mentioned that there was some hope, and there is: biochar.

What is biochar? It’s basically charcoal, an extremely carbon-rich material made at high temperatures, from 200 to 700 degrees Fahrenheit, which consumes pretty much everything in the fuel except the carbon. Biochar can be made from practically any burnable material–wood, seed pods, husks, brush, paper, manure, etc.–even trash.

biochar pellets

What’s so great about that? A few things, actually! First, using the right process to make it, biochar produces energy without producing much in the way of greenhouse gas emissions. Second, the process that makes biochar can alternatively make liquid fuels from renewable sources. Third, and most intriguingly, biochar is very stable: you can bury it in the ground, and the carbon won’t go anywhere for hundreds to thousands of years. Fourth, when you do bury it in the ground, it increases the fertility of the soil by making necessary chemicals more available to plants and by helping retain and regulate water in the soil. Fifth, the process is simple enough that it can be used for everything from massive plants to cookstoves.

So the cycle can go something like this: plants grow, absorbing and using carbon from the atmosphere. The plants are harvested, and some or all of the resulting plant matter is made into biochar, producing up to about six times as much energy as it consumes in the process. The biochar is then buried in the ground, accelerating plant growth. Even without this acceleration, the new plants that grow where the old ones were harvested absorb more carbon from the atmosphere, and the process continues.

If we’re willing to commission a lot of large biochar plants and to make biochar a standard part of preparing agricultural lands–including reclaiming currently unproductive lands, such as former farmland that is tapped out or turning to desert–then we can actually pull a huge amount of the carbon dioxide we’ve generated over the past couple of centuries back out of the atmosphere, and reverse the process we’ve been causing that is currently wrecking our climate with no relief in sight.

Photo by Lou Gold

A Cheap, Non-Polluting Heat Source? You’re Standing On It

winter house

What’s the cheapest, greenest heat alternative for a house, other than building it from the ground up for passive solar? Natural gas? Well, that’s cheaper and less dirty than oil, but no, definitely not. Wood pellets? Better, but they still require fossil fuel energy to manufacture. Cord wood? You’re getting warmer. Geothermal? Yes.

Your question about geothermal heat may be the same as mine was: how in the world are we supposed to get heat out of the ground? Doesn’t that require geysers or something? (OK, your question may not be as ignorant as mine was.) The answer is that no, there are no geysers involved. Here’s the thing: wherever you are in the world, if you dig down a bit below the frost line–say, around ten feet down–the earth is a constant 54 degrees Fahrenheit. Geothermal heating exchanges fluid in pipes between your house and that area underground to bring up the relative warmth.

Of course, 54 degree-fluid isn’t going to do much to thaw out your freezing toes on a cold day, but using a fairly efficient electrical condenser similar to what your refrigerator uses to create cold, a geothermal heating system can boost that temperature to be used as an efficient heating source for a home. How efficient? In the last few years, geothermal systems have improved to the point that modern ones use only about a third as much energy (to pump the fluid and run the condensers) as propane.

Here’s a video on how this works, though keep in mind that there are different kinds of geothermal heating systems

Not sold on geothermal yet? Well, did I mention that it also works as extremely cheap air conditioning, using the same apparatus and principles? And if you’re interested in going very, very green, you can generate some or all of the electricity used to run the pump and condenser with wind, solar, or another renewable source, which brings your non-renewable energy usage for heating and cooling down to nothing at all, as long as your electricity source can keep up. Contrast this with direct electric heat, which is pretty much the least efficient and usually most polluting heat source you could have.

Oh, and did I mention that the Federal government offers a 30% tax credit (that’s not a deduction–that’s a credit, i.e., money in your pocket) on qualifying geothermal systems?

So why isn’t everyone rushing out and getting geothermal heat? Unfortunately, these systems cost real money to install–apparently $20,000 is a good ballpark for a modest single-family home. Keep in mind that the government will pay 30% of that, which to my mind is a very sensible way to start addressing a very large part of the climate change problem (home heating). Even with that, though, it may take a decade for the system to pay for itself–yet in the long run, the cost savings are enormous, and of course the value of your home (if you own one) goes way up. Geothermal will also get cheaper and cheaper in comparison to almost all other options if over the coming years the price of fossil fuels goes up … which frankly seems more or less inevitable to me (more regulated + more rare = more expensive).

There was a good article on geothermal heating recently in my local electric co-op’s newsletter, although a piece elsewhere in the newsletter on the proposed wind power moratorium in Vermont is disturbingly complacent and ill-considered. (You can probably guess where I come down on that issue.)

Have any information or opinions pro or con on geothermal heat pumps? Please comment!

Photo by Denis Collette…!!!

Climate Change: Hope Is Vital–and Dangerous

First, a sanity check-in: over the past week or so, I had slowed down on my climate change studies (that is, on building an understanding of what’s going on and what we need to do, mainly by reading), because it was so stressful being buried under all of those grim statistics. This worked fine while I was completely preoccupied for three days doing a flooring project in our house, but as soon as that stopped, though, my stress level went up. The lesson for me is this: it may be stressful for me to learn about climate change, but since I have an idea how bad the problem is (thank you, Hurricane Sandy), it would be even more stressful to avoid it.

Reading Bill McKibben’s Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet has continued to be punishingly difficult, but even just a few minutes after I’ve stopped reading, I find I can regain my balance. Working on climate change will require giving up a lot, and we may fail miserably, but we have the capacity to absorb and understand that and still come back fighting for our future and our kids’ future. In the end, we are very, very resilient.

There may be a solution
I was enormously relieved last week when I started investigating the idea of putting some kind of filter between the earth and the sun to cut down sunlight, a sun shade. At first I had some trouble with the geometry, but after a little while I did come to understand that the closer such a filter was to the sun, the smaller it would have to be. We don’t have to have a filter the size of the entire planet to cool everything down a little.

This will sound like science fiction, but keep in mind that as I write this, we have robots rolling around on Mars conducting scientific experiments. If our only challenges are technical and financial ones, we might be up to the task. And what is the task? It’s an approach called “geoengineering,” in this case maneuvering one big asteroid (or a bunch of smaller ones) to a place called Lagrange Point 1 (L1), the spot in space where the earth’s gravity and the sun’s gravity balance out, so that an object has the best chance of staying in place.

The asteroids themselves wouldn’t be the filter: that would be created by us putting some machinery on the asteroids to grind them up very slowly into dust. The dust would be spewed out into a cloud that would settle into orbit around the asteroid and filter out a little bit of the sun’s light and heat from earth, turning down the temperature just enough to get us back in the green zone. You can read about this idea (with some maybe-outdated climate change information) here.

creating asteroid dust: image by Charlotte Lücking, based on images from ESA and NASA, via livescience.com

Some more complicated (and expensive) versions of this project would require objects floating between the earth and sun that could be tilted or maneuvered, so that we would have fine control over where and how sunlight was filtered. With technology like that, we might even be able to refreeze polar ice caps and mountain glaciers, rolling the clock back in terms of actual warming, though not in terms of other environmental damage. We can do all of this–at least, theoretically–with many billions of dollars and with years of work.

Even with a working sun shade, we’d still need to make a fast and extreme change to much greener energy production and reduced energy usage if we wanted to stave off disaster. Yet shading the planet offers a real (though very complicated, expensive, difficult, worrisome, and politically improbable) fix that would stop the worst of the flooding, forest fires, superstorms, plagues (for instance, of malaria and dengue fever), and desertification.

The problem with hope
… all of which is great, and I hope we throw ourselves into creating a solution like this with desperate and concentrated energy. However, I worry that if we do, the average person will say “Yeah, we have problems with global warming … but why worry about green energy now? We’ve got that asteroid thing, and then we’ll have plenty of time to fix that energy stuff … later.”

Yeah, right: later. Because later everything will be different and the whole world will be excited about making the difficult sacrifices to change our energy consumption habits. Because later politicians won’t be so argumentative and short-sighted. Because later things certainly won’t have gotten worse, making action even harder. Right? Ugh.

Thanks for reading this, and keep on pushing to make things better. We need you out there.