Nuclear power — that's what started it all. Every single erg, joule and BTU of energy of any form we have on and in this planet has its ultimate source in a thermonuclear reaction that's still burning strong 93 million miles above our heads. If the sun didn't hang around like it seems wont to do, we'd be nothing more than part of a thin, frozen skin on an enormous piece of frozen rock zipping through the frozen void, going nowhere in particular. Did you know the total amount of solar power illuminating the Earth during one minute is about equal to the electrical power the entire planet generates in one year? But I digress.
The concepts of energy availability and economic growth are intertwined. Ever since the Industrial Revolution, this planet has been liberating the solar energy stored in wood, peat, coal, gas, oil and anything else that ignites — all the while following Mother Nature's hard and fast rule — hydrocarbon plus oxygen yields carbon dioxide and water.
It's all that pesky carbon dioxide floating around in the air that some claim is causing problems. Renewable energy sources don't generally release that heavy, nasty gas. So, most of the world has agreed to limit the amount of greenhouse gases sent to our shared atmosphere.
What's the big deal?
Kyoto, Japan, hosted the Third Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which was held in December 1997. The event involved more than 10,000 participants from various governments, intergovernmental organizations, non-governmental organizations and the press. The resulting document is the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Of the 124 countries involved with the document, 105 have ratified or approved it. The most relevant exception is the United States, which seems to be bucking the international trend. Being the odd man out is unnerving and raises the question of what's so objectionable about a document the rest of the world seems to embrace. If you're interested, you can find out for yourself by accessing the full text of the Kyoto Protocol at http://www.cop4.org/resource/docs/cop3/l07a01.htm.
So, what are we about?
The United States actually has an energy policy, and it's published on the big bad Web. You can access this 80-page bedside reader at http://www.whitehouse.gov/energy/. Don't waste time clicking on the extraordinary number of PDF logos that cover the page. Doing so merely reveals an explanation of the different formats in which the page can present its content. Instead, click on the words. Although they lack the traditional underscore, they're the links.
Energy Information Administration posts the official energy statistics from the U.S. government at http://eia.doe.gov/indexnjava.html. This is where you go when you need information about production and capacity data on nearly every form of energy, renewable and otherwise.
Energy Information Portal is the Department of Energy's gateway to hundreds of Web sites and thousands of online documents on energy efficiency and renewable energy and is found at http://www.eere.energy.gov/. And the Renewable Resource Data Center at http://rredc.nrel.gov/ offers information about the common sources of renewable energy.
Water former. It's supposed to be the key to limitless and inexpensive energy. At least one Web resource cites a price of around $1.28 per pound of hydrogen liquid. It sounds good until you realize the only logistical problem with the lightest element known is that it's light. Consider that a 120,000 cubic-foot tube trailer chock-full of hydrogen needs an 80,000-pound truck to tote a cargo weighing less than 630 pounds. The cost to get the truck's front wheels from the hydrogen plant to the expressway on-ramp exceeds the value of its cargo. That's no way to run an energy infrastructure. But we try.
Mouse your way over to http://www.clean-air.org/ and look for the link to the Hydrogen Calculator Charton the left side of the page. Clicking it reveals a comparison of the energy content of hydrogen to that of gasoline, methanol, diesel fuel, jet fuel, methane, propane, butane, coal (anthracite, bituminous and lignite), crude oil and electricity. While you're there, move to the right side of the page to access the bit about converting cars to operate on hydrogen. Watch out, NASCAR.
Another site promoting hydrogen is operated by the California Hydrogen Business Council, Independence, Calif., a not-for-profit corporation providing education about developments and future uses of hydrogen and fostering business partnership opportunities that can achieve a non-polluting global energy economy. There is much on the site. It has flow diagrams showing various processes for producing hydrogen on a commercial scale. It has a collection of videos in which business executives and celebrities discuss different aspects of moving to an energy infrastructure based on hydrogen. There are pages dedicated to fuel cells, transportation, as well as ship, submarine and aerospace propulsion, all of which are based on the smallest of all molecules. This is a large, rich site, so I'd suggest worming your way into it through http://www.ch2bc.org/industrial.htm. Note the graphic in the upper right corner of the page. It explains the organization's mission most succinctly.
Another source of renewable energy is biomass, defined as vegetation and organic waste. It's hard to imagine an economy deriving much useful energy from these sources, but then, as one site points out, biomass fulfilled most of humankind's energy needs long before the Industrial Revolution even began.
The American Bioenergy Association, Washington, D.C. offers Biomass: Clean Energy For America's Future, a fact sheet that lays out the arguments for commercializing the technology. Hop over to http://www.biomass.org/fact_sheet_2.htm for quick answers to a series of frequently asked questions.
You can get a good grounding in biomass from The International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, an international association of local governments implementing sustainable development. Click on over to http://www.iclei.org/efacts/biomass.htm to learn about sources, the agricultural balance between burning for the energy and plowing under for the fertilizer value, energy extraction processes that don't involve direct burning, and some of the environmental issues surrounding biomass as an energy source.
According to the Oregon Office of Energy, Salem, Ore., biomass still provides about 14 percent of the world's energy. Although its Web site revolves around the state's own biomass facts and figures, it offers links to information about anaerobic digester technology and a glossary, among other things. Visit http://www.energy.state.or.us/biomass/BiomassHome.htm for the details. Oregon appears to believe in the future of biomass energy sources, but the state is driving with one foot on the brake and another on the accelerator. Scroll down the page on the left to the "Permits and Standards" link to see some of the barriers to implementation.
Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Oak Ridge, Tenn. also has an interest in biomass. Some of the features of its site include bioenergy conversion factors, chemical characteristics and analysis data, and links to relevant papers and scholarly works. An interesting link shows how much arable land is needed to sustain one biofueled electrical power plant. But, don't bother trying to access Biocost, the software for estimating energy crop costs. You can't get it anonymously. And remember, the raison d'etre for this column is to highlight sites offering you genuine content that's totally free and can be accessed without having to register your identity. So, with that said, you've been warned. Now, go forth to http://bioenergy.ornl.gov/pubs/resource_data.html and enjoy the browsing.
If you want to go solar, get a copy of A Consumer's Guide to Buying a Solar Electric, which is posted at http://www.solarelectricpower.org/power/, part of a Web site erected by the Solar Electric Power Association., Washington, D.C.
While we're on the idea of residential solar power, visit http://www.hvac.okstate.edu/pdfs/bs97/papers/P141.PDF for Optimisation of Design Criteria for Solar Space Heating Systems Through Modelling and Simulation, a paper by I. M. Michaelides and D. R. Wilson. It explores the relationship collector area has to floor area and to heat load.
Another resource, the El Paso Solar Energy Association, El Paso, Texas, brings you solar design guides for homes, water heaters, pool heaters and stills on its Web site. It also presents energy efficiency tips and information about sun-tempered homes, adobe, thermal mass, straw bales, cooking and food drying, all of which use the good services of Ol' Sol. The information is available at http://www.epsea.org/design.html.
Steve Wade launched his company, Wind & Sun, in 1982 to design, furnish and install wind and solar systems that service isolated housing, monitoring and telemetry systems, boats, motor homes and other leisure applications. It's not exactly industrial-grade projects, but Wade cares enough to post a series of system sizing tips on his Web site, http://www.windandsun.co.uk/. When you get there, click on "Estimating Requirements" to find much food for thought.
This form of renewable energy comes in at least two forms. Bury a lot of pipe to circulate a working fluid several feet below the frost line and use a heat pump to move thermal energy back and forth between the fluid and the living space as needed. It's a benign approach to space heating that requires a minimum of heavy engineering.
The second form, geothermal wells, involves tapping into the heat from the magma residing in the belly of the beast we call terra firma. All of a sudden, you're talking pressures, temperatures, corrosion and special materials of construction. Don't try it at home. The sulfurous fumes would probably irritate everyone in the place.
Alliant Energy, Madison, Wisc. chose the safer way. Go to http://www.alliantenergygeothermal.com/ for an overview of geothermal energy, including fundamental principles, benefits and examples of the technology in action. You can see the anatomy of a geothermal heat pump and learn how it works in closed- and open-loop systems. The site also has technical details about designing, sizing, installing, operating and troubleshooting geothermal systems.
Geo-Heat Center at the Oregon Institute of Technology, Klamath Falls, Ore. posted An Information Survival Kit for the Prospective Geothermal Heat Pump Owner by Kevin Rafferty, P.E. This 27-page document is found at http://geoheat.oit.edu/ghp/ghptable.htm. It supplements the information from Alliant Energy.
The answer is blowing in the wind
Another possible source of renewable energy is the wind. Unfortunately, it doesn't blow consistently from place to place, from season to season. Two locations separated by, perhaps, 100 miles can exhibit dramatically different wind characteristics. Before charging ahead on a corporate wind project, it's worthwhile to do a bit of research. That's where our tax money comes in handy.
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory has already measured wind speed at points all over the country, tabulated the data and posted it on the Web. For example, if you ever find yourself staring at http://rredc.nrel.gov/wind/pubs/atlas/maps.html, you'll see two publications, Meteorological Field Measurements at Potential and Actual Wind Turbine Sites and Wind Energy Resource Atlas of the Unites States. Together, they pretty much tell everything you need to know to confirm your part of the country has enough wind during the year to make the project feasible. The ideal is a year-round wind speed in excess of 11 miles per hour. Hold on to your hats.
If the tabulated wind speed data suggests your location would be ideal for a wind generator, keep in mind that measurements weren't made at ground level. Instead, the numbers were collected anywhere from 30 to 50 meters above the ground. Make your new windmill very tall and all will be well.
The next site isn't for an engineer designing a system. The American Wind Energy Association, Washington, D.C., http://www.awea.org/policy/, presents Web site resources on wind and renewable energy sources for regulators and policymakers. It offers information on economics, politics and analysis as they apply to this form of energy. It's pretty amazing to think that while wind is free, politicos and other non-technical folk are trying to regulate it and constrain it with policies. Go figure.
During the research for this column, I ran across several citations directing me to the next Web site, http://home.earthlink.net/~fradella/green.htm. That suggests the site offers something more than one person found worthy of highlighting on their own sites. The grand conceptual work, called Building-Integral On-Site Solar and Wind Power Systems by Dick Fradella, owner of a company called Regenerative Power and Motion, suggests wind and solar systems can be constructed as integral elements of the building itself, instead of stand-alone add-ons. This approach provides the equipment with a rugged support structure and protection. The article goes on in some level of detail to discuss the required systems and components. It's an interesting read, that's for sure.
Minnesota Sustainable Design Guide, http://www.sustainabledesignguide.umn.edu/MSDG/text/topics.pdf
Science and Research, http://www.science-and-research.com/Science/Technology/Energy/Conservation/