the “efficiency” trap and RE’s benefits

Efficiency is an overused/misused concept. It is just a measure of the closeness to maximum energy exchange of a process. So when you burn coal, the best modern engineering can extract from this “burn” is ~33% (given conventional systems) because to get “electricity” (the energy we want) from the coal we have to create steam which then spins a turbine (and in each step there are losses in conversion). Geothermal systems are actually less efficient in converting heat to electricity (see article, ref 1; though much more efficient in extracting heat, as in, geothermal heat pumps which are much better than conventional gas-powered furnaces). And solar arrays are in the same ball park as geothermal systems with efficiencies of ~15-20%.

However, the big difference between the coal and the others is the fact that while the sun provides us light for free and the Earth provides us heat for free (24/7 as well), the coal comes by way of extraction from distant areas. (Solar photovoltaic panels and geothermal components require the extraction of materials from distant lands as well, but once this initial extraction is done and manufacturing is completed, they operate for 25+ years.) Also, sun and Earth heat will continue into the distant future while coal is limited in quantity (as it takes too long to replenish). Additionally, when one burns coal, waste products are produced, many which are quite toxic to humans and life, most notably, mercury, PAHs and sulfur dioxide (ref 2).

Thus, while efficiencies of renewable energy forms may be less efficient than fossil fuel forms, the key benefits derived from RE’s are:
(1) the pollution created in using them (over a 25-year cycle) is so much less;
(2) the RE energy sources are on-site (or close by) at the point of use;
(3) the RE sources are plentiful and renewable.

Additionally, and importantly, given the nature of geopolitics right now, RE resources also create more jobs (ref 3) and can be more decentralized (which allows people to have more control over their operation and production; I say “can” because this requires forethought and intentionality regarding democratic input and collective ownership, something still missing from most RE installations).

Given all of these benefits (here is the Union of Concerned Scientists’ take on these, ref 4), investors are finally taking notice in a big way and, as expressed best by a recent (April 2016) Bloomberg article, “Wind and Solar are Crushing Fossil Fuels” (ref 5). So, don’t be squeamish at all advocating vehemently for RE creation/expansion in your neighborhood/community. Everything is now on the side of RE (economics, environmental concerns, and social/health factors). The time is right, to “flip the switch.”

only two problems?

If we could solve only one problem, which problem should it be?
This is a question that I often get asked and it is one that I have pondered on my own as well. It presupposes that there is one problem that, if solved, could lead directly to the solution of other problems. Well, I haven’t figured what that one problem is, but I can tell you that if we solve two problems, we’d be well on our way to tackling most human challenges.

What must you do, each and every day? Eat food and drink water. So, assuming that these things were provided to you, you could get on with your “life.” What else would you need? Well, obviously, shelter of some kind. Would that be enough? Water, food and shelter may be enough to live, but there are other things that have become part of our “civilized” human condition. Most importantly among them is energy. We need energy to survive and to live a modern lifestyle requires quite a bit of it—to run our refrigerators, our computers, our water heaters, our cars and lawn mowers. Clearly, any future that looks anything like the present would require sufficient amounts of energy.
Here is the rub. Despite the fact that at least a billion people on Earth have sufficient access to food, water, and energy, many more do not. And while that is horrible situation (and how can we celebrate everyday things when so many go without, especially when there isn’t really any good reason why they don’t), the question I would like to examine here is, “How key are food and energy to our collective present and future?”

Clearly, if nearly a billion people on Earth suffer from chronic malnutrition (ref 1), “we have a problem Houston.” Obviously, every effort imaginable should be made to make sure that this problem is eradicated. A comparable but less recognized evil is the energy poverty that exists in the world today. Without basic allotments of energy, many people around the world cannot satisfy basic needs, such as, cooking food, heating/cooling their homes, or perform important tasks at night; consider that 1.4 Billion people do not have access to electricity (ref 2). Even in places where some energy is available for such things, it is often dangerous (e.g., kerosene) or detrimental to local environments (e.g., firewood). Without sufficient food or energy, more than 1,000,000,000 people suffer unduly.

Obtaining food and energy isn’t just an issue for those that don’t have much of them but also to those that live in areas where food and energy is plentifully produced but improperly distributed. How much current conflict in the world is due to “resource wars”? As these two sources indicate (ref 3, ref 4), many (if not most) of the conflicts occurring right now have strong drivers in resource shortages. And these shortages are not getting alleviated much because the current unbalanced distribution is due to the increased commodification (and profit obtained) of these resources. And sadly, the $1.4+ trillion dollars spent each year on militaries (largely to protect/secure these resources) creates a huge financial well that leaves very little left for other critical needs (such as education, health care, etc.).

In closing then, if we were able to tackle the food and energy problems, we would likely be on our way to solving most of the world’s current problems. We have enough (to be clarified in an upcoming BLOG), we just must begin to share what we have and look at each other as “brothers and sisters” rather than enemies.