Sunday, October 29, 2006

Gritty City...Dirty Fuel

I apologise for skipping last week, but I was studying for my renewable energy exam.

Of course Berlin was spectacular. The city seduced me with its history, structures and atmosphere. Touching the Wall and feeling the coldness that separated the East and West gave me shivers of the past. Neighbourhoods were split down the middle of the road and access to a small river was denied. West Berlin was a fortress surrounded by 12 foot high concrete protecting (or containing) the ideology of liberty. A list of names decorates a section of the Wall immortalising the few that survived, were caught or were shot in the Crossing. The most spectacular escape was the man who used Newtonian physics to plow through the barrier with a large truck laden with heavy weights. As of now, the Wall is completely dismantled with only 4 sections surviving, mostly left to the mercy of spray paint.

Since the largest section of Berlin was predominately the East-side, most buildings are from a bygone era. This is changing though, creating a very unique mix of modern structures full of angles and glass and beside them, stone, silent, uniform building blocks. All through the East side, (were I slept) buildings and streets seemed laid down with minimal effort attributed to its simple design. The West side, clearly identifiable, contains more complex structures and little historical value of old old Berlin.

I was confused at first how a city could be so divided. It will soon be 17 years since the cracks were widened and the city became whole. Yet, I felt an overwhelming sense of pity, watching as the city heals the festering wounds of history. All around the city, memorials and landmarks identify what we should remember as a note to not repeat it. Such a constant reminder gives Berlin a gritty feel, where all activities are exposed and facades are driven away.

Coming back to a clean-cut Stockholm to sit and study was difficult after a very enlightening time in Berlin. Yet the week was happily interrupted by a wonderful study tour of an industrial park in Norrkoping, a city 2 hours south of Stockholm. This park contained a wheat to ethanol plant and a huge combined heat and power plant. The ethanol plant is a large operation producing about 5 million litres of ethanol for the Swedish market. The plant is owned by a farmer’s co-operative which, I found out later, is a very large investor in Sweden’s bio-energy sector. They have plans to expand since the government has increased the current percentage of ethanol in gasoline.

The energy for the ethanol plant was provided by a immense combined heat and power plant. This plant supplied all the steam required to run the ethanol plant and heat a 300 km pipe network (district heating) for the city’s heating requirements. The cool thing about this plant is the fuel, a mix of wood waste, demolition wastes, municipal garbage, sawdust, and coal. All of this burned at a very high efficiency and very low emission rates. The plant of course makes electricity as well, but its main energy service is warm homes and buildings.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

From Me to U, Personal and Friendly

A message from Berlin... (Things are great here and this city is amazing)

Curious enough, but things in the energy world can be simple. When I mean simple I do not think about the dynamic complications of thermo-math or electrical circuit design. These things can be a headache, especially if you are up until three in the morning punching numbers into your calculator.

When I mean simple, I think about how easy it is to flick on a switch and the room suddenly be filled with light. How when you turn a dial, warm air flows from the vents. This is simple and easy. This is the way an energy engineer should think. How will someone use this energy? How can it be made to ease daily burdens? i.e.,chopping wood in the cold is not the choice of chores, but necessary to hold back the cold sensations in your fingers and toes.

Understanding this directs my thoughts to how producing the different forms of energy is not really the problem. It really is the delivery of a propre energy service to people. Knowing the needs and matching the production to the need as efficient as possible and economically feasiable is how innovation is born.

Providing a service is where the energy sector needs to move forward. Producing electorons and delivering a fuel is the model of the past. People will demand more and something different, even as demand for sustainable forms of energy are continuously increasing. This is when the business model will shift to a personal level. People taking charge of their own energy production, with a guiding hand showing them the way.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Falling Water Rising Heat

Humans have always liked a helping hand to do chores or to perform work. One such hand is the water wheel. This technology was developed a long time ago to aid in the tough job of grinding grains. Of course, geography played a significant role, where areas of hills and rivers could use the water wheel. It was later in our history, when we started damming rivers for irrigation purposes did the water wheel become easier to control and to optimise.

Europe was the first to capture falling water and make electricity. This is was a significant feat since it provided low cost electricity to the general public. This was the first mass production of commercial electricity, where electricity broke through all class castes. The demand for more production was large. Governments and universities even held competitions for water turbine designs, creating the most significant achievements in hydropower technology still in use today.

In the 1920s, Canada mined the white gold from the beautiful Niagara Falls to launch a huge undertaking in electrifying the entire province of Ontario, urban and rural. To note, this was only successful because Ontario developed a public electricity system, since private systems did not see the profit in providing electricity to farms.

So today, hydro power contributes 18% of the world’s electricity production, with China, Canada, Brazil, and USA holding on to the most resources. The largest hydro plants in the world are Three Gorges, China (18 000 MWe), Itaipu, Brazil (12 600 MWe), Guri, Venezuela (10 000 MWe). These are monstrosities and there is no fossil fuel plant that is as big as these beasts.

There is still potential to expand and exploit hydro power in many areas. The potential is there, but the will to go build is getting weak. There is a lot of planning and developing before construction even begins to make sure the environmental, social, and economic issues are handled correctly. Some governments realising the low greenhouse gas emitting potential of this electricity production have given leeway to facilitate construction. Other governments spur smaller scale plants and refuse to help the large scale plants.

The small scale plant has a bright future, it is easy to manage, to fund, and the Grid likes hydro power. These plants are reliable and have a very low impact on the environment. The one potential issue that will plaque this technology is water levels. All over the world, river water levels are shrinking. Some say it is part of global warming, others blame human consumption. As reservoirs shrink, the price of electricity will skyrocket affecting hydro power dominated Grids. This is not something everyone wants, except those developing new technology to produce electricity!

Monday, October 02, 2006

The Stream Continues...

The ice is melting in my whiskey glass. It dissolves inside the caramel liquid giving the alcohol a lighter taste. Drinking it cold satisfies my tongue and gives my brain a familiar fuzzy feeling. Perhaps the same feeling an oil company experiences when someone mentions the hydrogen economy.

A new economy with a similar infrastructure, while still dominated by fossil fuels and refineries. “Gee, this sounds like an easy way to continue our business”, whispers a big oil exec. He is right, it is an easy step to transform our oil dependance into a new form. To add, automobile manufactures are easily convinced, since fuel cell technology can be made to fit into the autonomous mobility vehicle. Yet, all these ideas still fall into the hands of the current energy regime, a slick and dirty oligarchy.

The new ray of hope, though, comes from a mix of renewable technologies and nuclear power. (Yikes... I said it. I have laid my soul into a murky abyss full of flying atoms and heated rocks) This idea of electrifying our economy more, continues to make more sense. When you use the right methods to produce electricity, we can achieve a sustainable future. Nuclear is included because of its huge potential to heat/cool our cities and provided electricity (When I say heat, I do not infer cooking our cities with radioactive material, but using the steam heat in district energy systems). Along with wind, geothermal, biomass, hydro and solar energy our mix becomes a wonderful recipe for economic growth, geopolitical stabilisation, and environmental protection.

Curious enough, solar energy is the main source of all our energy and new developments have come up with some interesting ways of capturing it. Like most resources, good solar energy is limited to certain areas of the earth. The sun’s energy can be used everywhere, but some areas are prime for super heating. Simply using a satellite dish of mirrors to concentrate the sun’s rays can achieve temperatures greater than 400 degrees Celsius. Remember, when you have a temperature difference, you have useful energy! Such a simple idea can really change the way a community produces energy.

Of course, the sun does not provide this type of power everywhere, but simple solar collectors on a roof can provide the necessary heat for your hot morning shower. These systems should come standard with any house when it is built, because it makes clear sense. Free energy is where we have to look, not in a refinery, or from sticky mud, these become too costly. Once we are able to find and capture the free power, then the fun science begins. All we need is for the public to understand it and to buy in.