Bringing Beauty back into Green

It is projected that by 2088, the world will run out of fossil fuels. We could even deplete our oil by 2040, or our natural gas by 2060. This may seem inconceivable, but taking into account the rate that we are guzzling energy, and the fact that this rate is constantly increasing may means that our lights will go out too soon. But do not fear! Renewable energy is forthcoming. There will never be a day when the sun is not shining, or the wind is not blowing, or at least, not in the near, foreseeable future. Renewable energy has minute if any emissions that contribute to global warming, improves public health and the environment, and is inexhaustible. Yet today, the world still uses 81% fossil fuels, with 34% oil, 21% natural gas, and 26% coal/peat. All the renewable energy used in the entire world is less than even one of these resources, at only 13% usage. The advantages of using renewable resources are many, and for a better future, a change needs to be made. So why is it that we still use so much nonrenewable energy?

The world's energy consumption by resource

Fig. 1: The world’s energy consumption by resource

     There are multiple reasons. First, these innovations are pricey. The average home solar system costs a little over $10,000. It’s hard to justify the installation of solar panels, which includes paperwork, construction, and a whole load of hassle, to lower your energy bill in the long run, when you oil bill is already only a few hundred dollars per month. The other downside to renewable energy is that it can be an eyesore. There have been countless complaints from angry citizens who believe that wind turbines have ruined their community’s scenic landscapes.  One man commented his on experience with the installation of turbines, stating “One of the most troublesome problems with the proliferation of industrial wind projects in Maine is their encroachment on the “treasures” of the state that we have purchased to protect for future generations. […] We have leveraged with these funds millions of dollars more from other sources to preserve places like the Mahoosuc Range, Rumford Whitecap, Bald & Speckled Mt, Tumbledown & Jackson Mt., and Schoodic Mt.  All these wonderful places are being surrounded by wind turbines.”

Fig. 2: Wind turbines on a scenic landscape

This problem with wind turbines is even plaguing Scotland, with the Daily Mail reporting that “They are famous Scottish landmarks which have withstood wars, weather and centuries of change – but they could not escape the Scottish Government’s green agenda.”  And I agree: these turbines placed around beautiful mountain ranges, historic sites, and rolling hills are certainly an ugly blot on the landscape.

Fig. 3: The Daily mail comments “The View? Gone with the Wind”

Fig. 4: There are even plans of building turbines “taller than the London eye” surrounding Loch Ness

This leads people to despise the idea of renewable energy. Eventually, the turbines will be disposed of due to unhappiness of the people. This only digs the world deeper into the hole it’s already dug much into: we need renewable energy to be used more, yet it’s becoming disliked, so it’s not. But a new option is emerging, something that blows all other ideas for clean energy implementation out of the water. What if, instead of attacking the world’s energy problem with boring, ugly white turbines, or a black, brooding expanse of solar panels, people were to approach this problem from a different angle? Instead of only productivity, why not combine productivity and beauty to create an efficient masterpiece?

 Yes, there is a solution!

Innovative companies are turning ugly wind turbines into something beautiful. They are, in essence, taking the meaning of the word “green” literally. The first of these companies is NewWind, based in France. NewWind has created an artificial Wind Tree, which uses tiny leaf-shaped turbines to harness the power of the wind. They can utilize anything from the smallest breeze to a giant gust of wind. They are completely silent, as well as modern, sleek, and pleasant to view.

Fig. 5: French people observing the Wind Tree

They produce 3.1 kwh of energy.  Though they are not quite as efficient as your typical turbines, which produce anywhere between 5-10 kwh or more, nonetheless, they have been praised and lauded by countless websites and magazines. They are currently are being used in Brittany, France and are set to be installed at the Place de la Concorde in Paris in March, 2015. In my opinion, they are most certainly energy made beautiful.

Vid. 1: Above is a short video showing the Wind Trees in action

Another emerging invention is the Power Flower created by NL Architects.  The biggest advantage of this power flower is that it minimizes space needed to function. Instead of a huge turbine, it’s a thin, lean build that utilizes vertical turbines for maximum space-saving.

Fig. 6: Wind turbines in comparison to Power Flowers

Just like the Wind Tree, it is basically silent and can absorb wind that blows form any direction. Though there are many plans for the Power Flowers to become domestic energy solutions, there have not been many installed just yet. But, the plans look incredibly promising. This is yet another example of a minimalistic, clean, attractive build that will certainly be admired by customers.

Fig. 7: A plan showing how the Power Flowers could be seamlessly integrated into the landscape.

Lastly, the Gardens by the Bay in Singapore is an example of an already functioning innovation that has smoothly merged into Singaporean culture. There are many words to describe the Gardens by the Bay, but the first that come to mind are awe-inspiring, breathtaking, and incredible. They are unbelievable feats of architecture, and look like they have popped out of a futuristic movie. They do not make people turn away, but rather, are an attraction that draw citizens and tourists alike near.

Fig 8: A beautiful shot of the Gardens by the Bay

But these Gardens are more than beautiful. As well as spectacular, they are also incredibly efficient. The trees are layered in solar panels, act as cooling ducts for nearby conservatories, collect rainwater, and de-humidify air before this cooling.

Fig 9: The Trees up close

Singapore is filled with high rises, skyscrapers, and a dense city landscape. Their initiative should be one that is followed by cities around the world: to transform their community into a greener place, both physically and energy-wise.

The world is transforming into a viridescent place, and a more beautiful one, too. I believe these three projects, the Wind Trees, Power Flowers, and Gardens by the Bay, will motivate people to become more excited about energy efficiency, rather than despising of it. They will look forward to the beautiful installations, and benefit from the clean energy that they produce. It was once believed that the stark white wind turbine, or black expanse of solar panels was the future, but I believe that real future is the combination of beautiful architecture and renewable energy.

So How Do We Convince Them?

Solar panels, wind farms, diesel-fueled cars, compact fluorescent light bulbs; the list of innovations to save energy goes on and on and on. Yet the people of the US still waste $40 billion every year on expended energy that does not contribute to their livelihood. This includes habits like leaving air conditioners or lights on in empty rooms. And who is to blame for that waste? Obviously, it’s the obstinate inhabitants who do not feel the urge to change their behavior. Now, we can continue to come up with cool new inventions to cut down on energy, but it won’t make the glaring $40 billion problem disappear. So how do we get thy pig-headed neighbor to shut off his air conditioner every now and then? Alex Laskey may tell say something along the lines of, “Well everyone on your street is doing so Sir. Why don’t you do the same?”

Alex Laskey gives a talk about the power of social pressure and how we can utilize it to save energy. People won’t respond at all to slogans like, “Be a good citizen!”, or “Save the planet!”, or “It saves you money!”, but they do respond to “Your neighbors are doing better than you.” Laskey goes on to explain the success story of OPower: a company he and his friend founded that is based on that piece of information. OPower provides personalized reports of a home’s energy use compared to that of their neighbors. From apps to thermostats, OPower provides suggestions and goals to help lower energy use that people actually follow! Energy wasters worldwide are pressured to at least be on par with the efficiency of that of their neighbors, and Figure 1 shows that with every passing year, OPower has been saving more energy with each passing year. In 2013, they saved 2 TeraWatt hours of energy worldwide. For to those eager to know what good that saving can do for the environment, 2 Terawatt hours equates to saving 3 billion pounds of carbon dioxide. All that power saved… due to behavioral science.

Figure 1

Featured image

Chances are if you’re reading this, you’re not part of a international corporation bent of saving energy. So how do we as individual citizens put this nugget of advice to use? Well, maybe we could start by telling our neighbor or dorm mates who has a refrigerator of an empty house/room that you and everyone else is using their AC sparingly. And maybe, we could make OPower’s 2 TWh become 2.1 TWh next year.

Sources:

http://cleantechnica.com/2013/01/28/opower-saves-us-residents-2-terawatt-hours/

Are American Wind Farms Helping the World?

To someone who may not know, American Wind Farms are exactly what they sound like; they are large patches of land in America with wind turbines as tall as a 30-story building.  These wind turbines have blades, which are rotating at a speed of 200mph, and provide hundreds of homes with clean and renewable energy. The difference between renewable and nonrenewable energy is that nonrenewable energy cannot be used again, while renewable energy can be recycled as well as used again. Some examples of nonrenewable energy are fossil fuels, natural gas, and coal, while some examples of renewable energy are solar energy, wind energy, and geothermal energy. The importance of using renewable energy is that even though it can be considered to be the most expensive source of energy, it is beneficial to the planet because it is clean. As I mentioned before, wind energy is one type of renewable energy and it is doing wonders around the world, especially in the United States. Over the past four decades, we are using more wind energy and it is providing an increasing amount of energy. Now a days, an average wind farm generates around 50,000 megawatts of energy. Figure 1 is a picture of a American Wind Farm that generates enough energy to support over 100 homes in its neighboring communities.

Figure 1.

turbines

Not only do these Wind Farms help provide the world with clean energy, but they are also helping the economy. While building these wind turbines can be expensive, they are helping save several thousands of dollars in local energy bills. The Wind Farms are also providing 75,000 americans with jobs. These wind turbines are providing a chance for workers from American communities to prosper. American companies are providing more than 65% of the parts needed for each wind turbine. Figures 2 and 3 show the factories where the parts are actually created.

Figure 2.

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Figure 3.

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In addition to this, as wind energy becomes more popular and the demand increases, a uprising worry is if congress will continue to support an important wind energy incentive, known as the Production Tax Credit. The Production Tax Credit provides financial support from the federal government for the development of renewable energy sources. If this incentive expires, then that means that several individuals will be out of jobs. It also means that there will be no chance that wind energy will cover 20% of Americas total energy used by 2030.  Furthermore, if the incentive is passed, then there will be a projected growth in the number of jobs as well as the amount of renewable energy that is used. Therefore, it can be determined that not only is wind energy good for the environment, but it is also good for the economy.

Coal Energy: Bane or Boon?

Mpumalanga, a province located in the east of South Africa, is the home to eleven coal-fired power stations owned by Eskom, a South African electricity public utility. Katerina lives in Witbank, a small town in Mpumalanga. Like many other people who live in her neighborhood, she has to worry about the air pollution brought by coal mining around her house. Dust is the major problem for her – the water that they have access to is full of dust and her son’s chest is also filled with dust. A study of air quality in Witbank by a team of scientists from the European Union suggests that Witbank’s air is the world’s dirtiest. Figure 1 is a diagram of current coal and air situation in Mpumalanga.

Figure 1: Coal Mining in Mpumalanga

Figure 1: Coal Mining in Mpumalanga

Almost all the disadvantages of coal can be seen in this area. Not only can coal mining be harmful to human health, but also can cause death. A report by Eskom shows that air pollution caused by its coal mining is killing more than 20 people annually. The coal mining is destroying both animal habitats and human communities. The worst impact of coal in this area is that 37 million tons of CO2 is emitted into the atmosphere by the Kusile power plant, which contributes to climate change.

During my research for the past week, it bothered me to see that the coal is still largely used as a main energy resource in the world, even in the United States. So do people not care about the damages that coal can possibly make? Or does coal just have too many advantages to be replaced?

Figure 2: Everything You Needed To Know About That Lump Of Coal In Your Christmas-Stocking

Figure 2: Everything You Needed To Know About That Lump Of Coal In Your Christmas-Stocking

Figure 2 shows things that one needs to know about coal. Indeed, there are many advantages of coal. First of all, it is a very cheap energy source compared to others. Price of coal from many places is very affordable. It also does not cost too much to build power plants that use coal as a major source. Second, coal is ubiquitous. Coal can be found in many different parts of the world. The three major countries that are abundant in coal are the United State, China and India. The abundance of coal also enables people to build power plants wherever coalmine is. Third, it is a relatively reliable source. The energy based on coal can be produced continuously while other renewable energy like solar and wind is not quite stable.

If we cannot find another energy source to replace coal, what can we do? The most important thing is definitely to improve efficiency level of coal use. According to World Coal Association, 1% improvement of efficiency of a coal-fired plant can result in 2-3% reduction of CO2 emission. Sadly, the efficiency of the most efficient coal-fired plants is only 45% while the global average is 33%. I believe that developing a more efficient coal-fired plant is urgent considering the damages that coal is making to our planet. While we care about our energy source, it is also necessary for us to think of the way that we are using energy in daily life. Therefore, educating people how to efficiently use energy is so important and it is the ultimate goal of my team’s energy challenge project.

How Much Do We Know About Fracking?

Many people have heard of fracking and the controversy that surrounds it, but few know what it actually means, or what the environmental cost is. Fracking is a word that has a lot of politics behind it, and triggers a lot of immediate reactions, but many people do not even understand what it is.

Natural gas is a nonrenewable fossil fuel, but burns cleaner than coal or petroleum. Natural gas is used in many domestic and commercial applications. It is composed of simple hydrocarbons, mostly made up of methane. It is traditionally mined from gas fields using wells, but a large amount of gas trapped in shale formations cannot be mined in this way. Fracking allows that gas to be mined. Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, works by injecting a high-pressure mixture of water, chemicals and proppant (solid material used to keep fractures open) into the shale, causing the shale to fracture and release the gas.

Fracking is a new way of mining natural gas, and there has been little time to see what long term negative effects it has on the environment. There are several specific concerns about fracking’s environmental impact. Fracking uses an estimated 70 to 140 billion gallons of water each year. This raises concerns about the impact on drinking water resources and the effect on aquatic ecosystems. Proppant used in the fracking, usually silicone based sand, needs to be mined, and can contaminate groundwater. Various chemicals are also added to the fracking fluid, some of which have very serious health consequences. Pollution from the fracking fluid can seep into drinking water reserves and aquatic ecosystems, threatening both natural and human health. The concerns about fracking are not just theoretical. There are multiple examples of spills like this occurring. In addition to the spills, there is a worrying lack of accountability, with gas companies failing to report the spills to the government.

Natural gas may be the cleanest burning fossil fuel, but if mining for it involves fracking, the trade offs may not be worth it. We still do not know the full potential to cause damage to the environment that fracking has, but that has not stopped numerous companies from setting up fracking sites. There over 2 million hydraulically fractured wells in the U.S., and around 95% of new sites use the procedure. To continue this trend of using technology without any consideration for its environmental impact is irresponsible and near-sighted.

 

 

Sources:

http://www.earthworksaction.org/issues/detail/hydraulic_fracturing_101

http://www.epa.gov/cleanenergy/energy-and-you/affect/natural-gas.html

http://www.csg.org/pubs/capitolideas/May_June_2012/fracking101.aspx

http://www.greenpeace.org/usa/en/campaigns/global-warming-and-energy/The-Problem/fracking/

From Wind to Walking: New Innovative Ways to Harness Energy

Change is all around if you look for it. Today, it seems to the regular citizen that energy innovation has been at a standstill, with the fossil fuels coal, petroleum, and natural gas still making up 81% of the world’s resources used to create energy, and 84% of the United States’.

The World’s Energy Usage by Resource

The USA's Energy Usage by Resource

The USA’s Energy Usage by Resource

Though one may know that solar panels, wind turbines, and other renewable resources are much more efficient, they are still not yet commonly found in the general neighborhood. Upon reviewing the NRDC’s Renewable Energy for America Map , I observed that though the United states has much potential for using renewable energy resources, there is a notable deficiency. Only roughly 70% of the country uses wind turbine facilities, along with less than 50% using solar energy. There are many factors that influence this shortage, such as cost, convenience, and appearance.

Screen Shot 2015-01-15 at 10.40.23 PM Screen Shot 2015-01-15 at 10.40.40 PM

But do not fear, environmentally conscious citizen! There are most certainly plans for a greener future. This same map shows planned growth of amount of facilities. And expanding, bright minds are looking to go beyond just photovoltaic solar panels and towering wind turbines. Just as we students are trying to lessen our school’s environmental impact, intelligent minds around the world are creating fascinating innovations, that, if they are to succeed, will vastly lessen the energy impact of not just the United States, but the world.

There are few things that a typical person can say that they do each and every day. There’s our routine, whether it be going to school, brushing your teeth, or eating breakfast. But there’s also the innate: breathing, blinking, and walking. Walking holds kinetic energy that begs to be harvested, and a researcher by the name of Laurence Kemball-Cook has found a way to do just that. People walk up to 150 million footsteps in their lifetime, and he and his company Pavegen have found a way to turn these steps into electricity. Tiles, created from organic materials and easy to install, are planted into the floor. To harness the energy of a footfall, they have a slight, unnoticable give when stepped on. These steps can generate up to 7 watts of energy!

Pavegen works best in places with lots of consistent movement: schools, train stations, and  recently, soccer stadiums. The company has just created a stadium fitted with Pavegen tiles that can fully power itself. This is a major innovation, as it is situated in Brazil, a location where there can be frequent blackouts. However, there are even more ways to harvest energy with only movement. A short time ago, EPGL medical created a contact lense powered by blinking. This power is then used to give medical or any other information to the user.

I believe that these innovations, especially that of Pavegen, will be soon implemented into the world around us. The tiles are cheap, easy, and effective. I certainly hope that they come over from their birthplace in the UK and surrounding regions into the USA, as they have the potential for one small step from a man to one day power the energy for mankind.

Wind energy is another renewable resource with major potential. In a prime wind-filled location, it can generate much power with little environmental detriment. But with positives come negatives. Wind turbines are generally disliked by the general citizen, as they can be an eyesore on the landscape. Rolling treeless hills may be a windy location, but if there are surrounding properties and homes, these people are often not pleased when their view is scarred by technology.

Another problem comes from efficiency. Wind turbines are not active one hundred percent of the time, as it is not windy at all hours. Trying to attack these problems, Altaeros Energies in Boston is working to change the ways we harness wind energy forever. They have created the “BAT”, a sort of balloon turbine that floats up to one thousand to two thousand feet in the air.

This turbine can utilize eight times as much energy as ones on the ground, using stronger, more consistent high altitude winds. They wouldn’t be deployed in heavily populated areas, therefore reducing human and wildlife impact, but instead rural communities, off grid companies, and areas of disaster relief. They would be less noticeable the their counterpart, as well as more cost effective. This is a huge jump in the development of wind harnessing technologies. One can only wait to see if this method spreads, as it definitely seems like a breakthrough in the way that humans can gather their energy.

The future of renewable resources is bright. Every day scientists are working furiously to improve and enhance the ways that we get our energy. Whether it be by wind or humans themselves, power can be found anywhere, if one is willing to look for it. Hopefully, as the world turns greener, one day you’ll be able to stride across Pavegen tiles and squint to see a far off BAT on the horizon.

If you’d like some further information about Pavegen, here’s a Ted Talk: http://vimeo.com/44078683

The Mt. Abram Ski Lodge and its Progressive Strides Towards Energy Efficiency

In this age of environmental panic, it is always refreshing to read about organizations that are actually making a proactive effort to rely less on non-renewable energy sources such as fossil fuels, which cannot be reused and take billions of years to form, and rely more on renewable energy sources such as solar energy, which replenishes rapidly and is readily available because it comes from sunlight. Mt. Abram, a ski area in Maine, is not only the world’s largest snow-making site, but is also the second largest solar ski area in the country and gets 70% of its energy from the sun. (http://blogs.usda.gov/2015/01/12/investing-in-the-future-of-maines-great-outdoors-with-renewable-energy/)

Solar panels rely on the photoelectric effect, or the ability of matter to emit electrons in response to light, to convert sunlight into electricity. In order to fully understand how the photoelectric effect works, one must first understand photons, electrons, solar cells, and kinetic energy. Kinetic energy is the energy that a substance carries by virtue of its movement and location. A rock falling from a cliff has more kinetic energy than a rock sitting still. Photons are the tiny particles that make up sunlight and they carry kinetic energy because they move at the speed of light. Solar cells are what make up solar panels and they consist of two different types of silicon; n-type, which has spare electrons, and p-type, which is missing electrons. When a photon reaches the semi-conductive silicon surface of a solar cell, it transfers its potential energy to loose electrons and knocks them off the silicon atoms. The loose electrons then diffuse to the p-type silicon where electrons are missing and create a negative charge on that side of the solar cell (electrons are negatively charged), while the n-type silicon becomes positively charged. This imbalance creates an electric current across the solar cell. The silicon maintains this electricity by acting as an insulator (remember silicon is semi-conductive). The electricity stored in these solar cells can be used to power cars, satellites, calculators, houses, ski areas, and everything in between.

Figure 1: Diagram of a solar cell (etap.com)

solar-panel-diagram-large

Mt. Abram also uses the energy generated from burning wood pellets to heat its lodge. While it is not as renewable as solar energy, wood can be a relatively sustainable energy source if trees are replanted frequently enough. Attracting over 40,000 skiers each winter, the Mt. Abram ski lodge is a pioneer in the fight to sever our dependance on nonrenewable energy sources and shows that it is possible to run a successful business that relies on renewable energy.

SOURCES: