Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Energy Independence - Science Fact or Science Fiction?

Sitting through a lecture last week on the increase cost of oil, and listening to the blame on China's demand, increased US demand, and the inability to produce more due to Big Energy's inability to explore or tap more wells... I was struck by a comment from the Oil Company Spokesman: "Energy Independence is unattainable and illogical".

Not a shocking comment coming from one of the largest Natural Gas and Oil companies in the greater Rocky Mountain area.

And when further pressed with a question: "If you were king for a day, what would it take to achieve energy independence?"

The response was, of course "Energy Independence is a nonsense concept, so I don't accept the premise of the question". In fact, he stated that the best course of action was inaction... do nothing and the problem fixes itself!

So I asked myself... Is Energy Independence Science-Fact or Science-Fiction?

Let's first explore the energy consumption and production in the US.

The US consumed roughly 3.35 TW of power in 2004... that is 3.35x10^12 Watts. That is a little more than 1/5th of the worlds entire energy consumption. That consumption can be further broken down into four sub categories: Residential, Commercial, Industrial, and Transportation uses.

Those uses, across the board, can be broken down into the source of the energy.

Fossil Fuels make up about 80% of our total consumption... That is Coal, Petroleum, and Natural Gas. A recent study, shown in a new commercial advertisement, states that the US has enough petroleum and natural gas to run 60 million cars and heat 100 million homes for 60 years... So what happens on the 61st year? This does not sound like a problem fixing itself! It sounds like assured chaos! (but I digress... for now)

Transportation, in it's current form, does not seem to able or willing to part ways with petroleum. We currently import 30% of our petrol from outside the US. This is the main focus of our Energy Independence... how can we reduce consumption of petroleum? Fuel cell technology is a great place to start. Alternative combustibles is another great avenue to explore.

What about home heating and electricity costs? We have huge Natural gas reserves in the US, but we also import large amounts of NG from Canada. Most homes in the South Denver area are heated by gas... and I can assume that the same is true across most of the Midwest where the gas is readily available and easily distributed. (Sorry for all you folks on the west coast... you get your hydro-electric and coal based energy). 21% of all energy consumption goes into housing... and from a source that is being advertised as being 100% used up within 60 years.

I began looking into a plan that would help build an infrastructure for the future energy needs of Americans... and there is always one constant: The sun.

The sun can be the solution to all our energy needs here in the US. Let me explain.

Photovoltaics, also known as Solar Power, is becoming so advanced that the space sector (of which I am a part of) is beginning to use solar arrays with energy absorption efficiencies breaking the 40% range. The use of Triple Junction Gallium Arsenide arrays has set a new standard for the level of efficiencies, and this standard is being flown into the public market. For a reasonable priced solar array available to the public, we can assume a panel with the efficiency of 22% - 25%. As well, solar panels have a working life on the order of 30 years.

The argument is often made that solar power stations are inefficient because of their small energy output for the amount of land required to build a power generating facility. In fact, large power companies have created these large solar farms in areas like the Mojave Desert, where the sun is always shining and the impact seen by the public is often minimal (not seen because, honestly, who goes to the Mojave?).

But I would argue that the infrastructure for the smartest, widest reaching, and privately owned power grid is already in existence... There is no need for massive solar farms hidden away in the desert. It is the roof top of every homeowner in the United States... especially those in "Sunshine Regions".Using existing rooftops is the only zero impact to the environment. Using rooftops will allow the homeowner to generate his/her own power, and sell the rest back to the power grid. It will be a truly free market of energy trade.

The question is often brought up about the ability for homes to run completely on solar... In 2006, the average household consumption was 10,656 kWh. Based on the chart below, over half of the United States is blessed with an average daily solar energy exposure of 5.0 kWh per metere squared or more. 95% of the country (excluding Alaska) has exposure of 4.0 kWh or more.
With the efficiencies discussed above (23% efficiency), and assuming the availability of 5.0 kWh of daily exposure, and the energy consumption of 10656 kWh per year of the average household, we can crunch some numbers to determine that each rooftop would need 273.25 square feet of panels to accommodate their consumption entirely. This, of course, does not take into account power conversion or storage.

Power storage is also currently inefficient. The advancement in fuel cells and batteries is also making this future power source a fact over fiction. However, current technology requires a 10% power loss in transferring from DC power (collected) to AC power (used by the appliances in the house), and any unused power sent to the batteries would see additional loss due to inefficiency in power transfer and storage.

273 square feet of solar panels, per roof, as a minimum... If we expand that to 500 square feet to account for power loss and less than peak power days (clouds), we can replace our current coal and gas system for a purely solar power supply.

Utopian, sure... unrealistic, not at all!

Excess power sources can then be transferred to fill the need for transportation. Remember, all we need to do is to supplement 30% of the transportation energy requirements to eliminate the need to import oil from our enemies. If we offered a retrofit to vehicles, replacing their combustion engines with an electric motor and battery storage (assuming we can make an electric motor with similar vehicular performance properties), we could eliminate our need for oil on a large scale.

Keep the power plants running, sending out electricity, and use that electricity to provide overnight charges for our vehicles, or quick charge stations (instead of gas stations).

The fact of the matter is that Energy Independence is not a scientific absurdity. It is achievable, and imminent. The ability for our way of life to continue is in jeopardy, should we "stay the course" for 60 more years without planning a smart infrastructure built around "free" energy.

We need outside of the box ideas from our political leaders. We need an education of the masses on the inevitability of the need for alternative energy sources. We need to stop the "stay the course" mentality being pushed by the big oil and big energy companies.

Of course Solar is one leg in the stool of future energy... and I am focusing on solar because it is the best option to put the "power" of power in the hands of the individual. Imagine being able to share or trade power with your neighbors... perhaps in exchange for giving your tools back :) It is free market trade at it's best.

The closing point is that Energy Independence is achievable. With the right decisions made, the right resources made available, and the right education, the US is a prime candidate for reaching the unreachable. This has the potential to be a classic case!

1 comment:

  1. Great post. I'm very tired of our leaders talking about energy independence, but doing nothing about it. Our goal to be energy independent should be on the same par with when we set a goal to put a man on the moon in the 1960's. Mike Huckabee is the only candidate who I took as serious about energy independence.... It's a crying shame.