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Back To The Future
Old Ideas and Modern Technology To Solve the Energy Crisis1
Taking a trip “back to the future” can put us on track to solve to the “energy crisis” in (1) buildings (to energy-efficient construction and systems), (2) transportation (to electric cars and trains), and (3) electricity generation (to renewable resources and distributed generation).
Solar power dates back to 212 B.C., when Archimedes advised Greek soldiers to use their curved bronze shields to concentrate beams of sunlight on Roman ships. Over 10,000 years ago, Native Americans used passive solar design in buildings and settled near hot springs that they used for cooking and heating. In the 15th century, Leonardo da Vinci described the concept of a solar concentrator that could generate heat and replace burning wood to save forests. In the early 1830s, the invention of the steam engine/electric generator turned heat into electricity. The first windmills were developed in Persia about 500-900 A.D. to automate the tasks of grinding grain and pumping water. The first large windmill used to generate electricity was built in 1888.
A good place to start – Buildings
Globally, buildings account for nearly 40 percent of all energy use and contribute more to world greenhouse gas emissions than all transportation systems combined. Yearly carbon emissions from US buildings are “greater than the total CO2 emissions of any country in the world except China.”1 We need to design buildings that work with nature, transforming them from structures that consume energy into structures that produce energy; from air polluters into air purifiers; from resource hogs into resource savers.
The Santa Fe architect, Ed Mazria, recognized the importance of energy-efficient buildings when he issued The 2030 Challenge to the global architecture and building community. The challenge asks that new buildings and renovations of existing buildings increase energy efficiency incrementally to become carbon neutral by 2030. According to Mazria, The 2030 Challenge targets can be met by implementing innovative, and sometimes quite simple, sustainable design strategies, generating on-site renewable power and/or purchasing (20 percent maximum) renewable energy.2
The most direct, immediate way to save energy and reduce greenhouse gases is to retrofit the nation’s 4.9 million older commercial buildings. In 2004, the Green Building Council created a standard to encourage retrofitting. In 2007, Chicago’s Merchandise Mart, the largest commercial building in the world, officially became the world’s largest “green building,” using recycling, installing energy-use meters, reusing non-potable water and fixing leaky pipes. These simple, common-sense changes immediately dropped utility bills by 10 percent and water use by 35 percent, saving $100,000 annually. Chicago now has more than 250 similar projects. In 2009 the Empire State Building also launched a $100-million green retrofit that included 6,500 window replacements and a new air conditioning system, at an estimated energy savings of $5 million annually.
Secondly, we need to build new buildings better. In 2030, according to a Brookings Institute report, about one-half of the buildings in the USA will have been built after 2000. In 2005, Wal-Mart, the biggest private consumer of electricity in the US, opened an energy-efficient store in Aurora, Colo. The store’s foundation incorporates more than 500 tons of crushed, recycled concrete for mass. The store burns used vegetable oil from its deli and motor oil from its Tire and Lube Express for heat, generates electricity with photovoltaic panels, and uses waterless toilets and efficient lighting, refrigerators and air conditioning systems.
Another example—the new Bank of America tower in New York City—is the world’s first skyscraper to win the highest platinum rating from the Green Building Council. The building incorporates a wind turbine to generate electricity and unique techniques for cooling, lighting, air handling and water use. For example, a hollow 14-inch chamber beneath the floors freely circulates cool air through floor vents, and “ice batteries” (large, water-filled steel tanks) are frozen at night, when the building’s power demands are low, and slowly melt to cool the building during the day. Low-E, double pane glass windows, coated with “ceramic dots” to prevent overheating, provide natural light, and sensors track the arc of the sun throughout the day to automatically dim lights and turn off electrical equipment when not needed. The ventilation system monitors CO2 and exhausts cleaner air than it draws in. Rooftop cisterns capture rainfall on the 2-acre roof, the water is cleaned and funneled by gravity into bathrooms equipped with low-flow fixtures, and wastewater is recaptured, filtered and reused, saving about 7.7 million gallons of water annually. These examples demonstrate what can be done, but we need to do more.
A Second Huge US Energy Sector – Transportation
Americans consume 1.5 gallons of gasoline per person per day—four times that of the average European. Our national car fleet averages less than 23 MPG, which is about the same as Ford’s Model-T in 1908, and about half the MPG of current cars in Japan and the EU. This was not always the case. In 1889, Thomas Edison engineered an electric car with a rechargeable battery. By 1896, American car dealers were selling mostly electric cars. In the early 1900s, the U.S. automotive industry was split among three technologies—40% electric powered, 40% steam powered, and 20% gasoline powered. Detroit and the oil industry began to buy and destroy electric cars, close cable-car and bus companies and lobby against train travel. In 1996, General Motors built the EV-1, the first all-electric car produced by a major manufacturer. For the next 3-years, GM leased these cars to satisfied drivers and then recalled and crushed them.3
We are beginning to take a step “back to the future” in the transportation sector. We are incorporating electric vehicles that use renewable sources of electricity as “fuel.” The hybrid Prius went on sale in December 1997. Today in South Korea, Japan and Detroit, the auto industry is designing hybrid gas-electric and all-electric cars including “plug-in hybrids” to transition from a gasoline to an electric transportation infrastructure. In addition, cars spend more than 90% of their time parked—time when they are useless for their primary function. With an electric fleet and “smart grid” technology, the two largest and dirtiest industries in the nation (power utilities and the automotive sector) will be able to seamlessly and efficiently use the enormous battery-power generation capacity of the US. The current US national power grid was designed for a “one-way conversation” between power plants and consumers and wastes 5-10 percent of its generated power in transmission. In the same way that computer technology moved from large mainframes to network architecture, “smart-grid” technology can efficiently support a 24-hour-a-day “conference call” among millions of small power generators.
The Big Climate Change “Gorilla in the Room” – Coal-fired Power Plants
It is not realistically possible to stop global warming while coal remains in the electric power generation mix. Even if the US eliminates all its coal burning, China and India are building two conventional coal power plants every week. In the last five years alone, China has built the equivalent of the entire US coal power plant fleet. By 2030, new coal-fired power plants worldwide will send 30 percent more CO2 into the atmosphere than all the coal that has been burned in human history.
Burning coal is a well-known local concern in New Mexico, given PNM’s Four Corners Power Plant and the neighboring coal-fired San Juan Generating Station. According to the EPA, the 45-year-old Four Corners plant is the largest single-source emitter of nitrous oxide in the United States. Unfortunately, PNM is challenging EPA cleanup directives and state law to include more renewable energy sources in its portfolio. PNM must be more responsive. With one small wind farm, five new solar plants, and the Prosperity Energy Storage Project (battery storage) funded by the US Department of Energy, PNM is still out of compliance with current state renewable energy requirements.4
Most US power plants are more than 50 years old and have effectively reached the end of their life cycle. By replacing these plants with smaller, decentralized renewable-energy power plants located near demand centers, we have an opportunity both to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to jump-start the sagging American economy. For example, the Bank of America tower in New York City uses an on-site natural gas-powered 5.1-megawatt “microplant” that captures and recycles its waste heat. This “combined-cycle” system generates its own power three times more efficiently than getting it from the grid.
The Road “Back to the Future”
America’s lead in wind energy and solar systems forged in the 1980s has disappeared. Today, six of the world’s ten leading wind turbine manufacturers are located in Denmark, Germany, or Spain. Only one, General Electric Wind Power, is a US company. More than 90 percent of photovoltaic panels are manufactured outside of the US, mostly in China. The picture is not entirely bleak. The long-starved US energy R&D budget received a historic windfall in 2009 when Congress, under the Obama administration’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, committed $70 billion over the next 10 years for R&D on clean-energy technologies, “smart-grid” upgrades, and fuel-efficient vehicles.
Given NM’s huge solar potential, we must convince state and city government, the private sector and many citizens to participate in solar-energy development. Small projects are being implemented. The Kit Carson Electric Co-op in Taos encourages members to buy solar panels or shares of panels that are added to a grid-connected community solar array. At the Foothills Community Solar Array at Taos Charter School, community residents can invest $500-$600 for a share in a community solar project.5 In Albuquerque, the Albuquerque Academy is home to a one-megawatt PV solar array—most likely the largest secondary school solar project to date in the US. A private developer assumed the cost of the $5 million array that will provide the Academy with more than 2 million kilowatt hours annually, approximately one-quarter of the school’s annual electricity use, under a buy-back agreement. In Santa Fe, the Buckman Direct Diversion project water-treatment plant has a 1-megawatt PV system and is considering expansion. The Santa Fe Community Convention Center is installing PV panels for 10 percent of its electricity, albeit a bit “after the fact.” The Santa Fe Skies RV Park on South 14 runs on 55 percent solar energy, and for 11 of the last 12 months, the owner has gotten a check from PNM instead of paying the utility. More and more people are choosing to generate part of their residential electricity with PV panels. During 2011, Santa Fe County and Santa Fe city reported 53 and 69 building permit listings for solar installations, and more than 500 systems were installed between Las Cruces and Santa Fe.6
No area today has the potential to reflect “American ingenuity” more than “clean technologies”—nonpolluting energy sources and the energy-efficient buildings, transportation systems and power plants that will use them. The shift away from fossil fuels and the maximization of energy efficiency equipment and techniques in a 21st-century energy sector require support from the US government and the private sector. There is no “silver-bullet” solution to the changes needed to develop an economically and environmentally sustainable 21st-century energy sector. It will be more of a “silver-buckshot” solution, where a complementary set of existing technologies, and some innovations, will dramatically improve energy efficiency in our individual and collective lives and diversify our power sources to provide clean, pollution-free energy. We can successfully move into the future in energy technology while reconnecting with the past!
Peter Borgo is an engineer who has worked for over 30 years in the US, South and Central America, the Caribbean, Asia, Eastern Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. Most recently he worked for the United Nations Development Program to identify renewable-energy and energy-efficiency projects in the electricity sector in Iraq and for the US Agency for International Development on a 5-year strategy to support renewable-energy and energy-efficiency project implementation in Jordan. He can be reached at email@example.com.
1 United States Climate Change Science Program Synthesis and Assessment – Product 2.2, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, May 2007.
3 Documented in the film “Who Stole the Electric Car.”
4 The Santa Fe Reporter, PNM’s Solar Dilemma, June 6-12, 2012, page 17.
5 Northern NM’s Solar Energy Future: Community Solar Projects and Scenario Planning, Green Fire Times, May 2012, page 5.
6 Home Magazine, PV Solar More Popular Than Ever, March 2012, page 24.
About the author
The Green Fire Times is published by Skip Whitson, edited by Seth Roffman with design by Anna Hansen, webmaster Karen Shepherd and Breaking News editor Stephen Klinger. All authors retain all copyrights. If you need to contact a particular author, or want to write for us, please be in touch.
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