Monday, December 29, 2008

Getting a dose of electricity power losses

I now have the opportunity to answer my own question of a few blogs back; we lost power for 14 hours in our rental in Vermont. Energy is such an essential aspect of modern life, and electricity and its deliverance is a fragile commodity. We don't appreciate it until we lose it.

We were on our way to dinner in Waitsfield when suddenly my headlights illuminated power lines all over the road ahead of us. The lines were snaking in the high winds, which had knocked down a utility pole.

You see, it had been almost 60 degrees fahrenheit that day, and the rapid and unprecedented melting for Vermont (global weirding :) had apparently made the base of the pole unstable, so the wind easily knocked it down.

With the electricity off, we three-point turned away from the wires and drove route 17 west to Bristol for dinner. Then the fun started (for me at least). We returned to our little rented house, then by candlelight made a big "lodge fire" in the stone fireplace. The others took the two flashlights and went to sleep in the loft, while I slept by the fire and kept it going all night. It was wonderful.

I woke up when the sun came up and made camp coffee by heating the water in the fireplace. It was toasty and cozy in the room, and I didn't miss power for a second (although I am typing on a laptop right now). No vapid TV and blaring boom boxes; the cacophony of power excess. I was vaguely disappointed when the power came back on, although my family appreciated it, since my son had kind of a bad cold.

Everyone has to prepare themselves for a possible bad energy crisis, and more so, for gasoline supply shortages, which could happen within the year. What would you do if you suddenly couldn't get gasoline for several days or weeks? Have you even thought about it?

Another thought that came to mind was that a hybrid makes a pretty good energy-storage device.

When I turned on the Prius that night, it was the only robust power source on in that dark settlement, save for the amazing starlight. There are lots of proposals out to use millions of plug-in hybrids for energy storage during peak electricity demand, as well as to charge them up during off-peak hours.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Still dependent on fossil fuels after all these years

We have an array of 22 solar photovoltaic (PV) modules on our roof here in New England that will probably end up providing more than 15 percent of our kilowatt hours in 2008 (an upcoming blog will inventory our 2008 energy use).

This is great production, don't get me wrong; we don't exactly live in sunny Vegas or Boulder. Yet as we sit here in two feet of new snow (pretty, mind you), it occurs to me that we are still not quite hopelessly dependent on fossil fuels.

solar modules we hardly knew ye

On days like this, our solar PV array, which often provides up to 100 percent of our daylight electricity, is completely knocked out. If one or two modules in a PV array are covered by snow, for instance, this usually disables the entire array until the snow melts off (or I roof rake it off, which is known to happen!).

Homeowners have an option, however, to place a free-standing solar array on their property, which can easily be shoveled off.

Consequently, our house is heated by two propane-burning Monitor and Rinnai heaters downstairs, a conventional heat pump (electricity) when the temperature needs to be raised upstairs, and a fireplace insert that I am sitting beside writing right now. None of the energy sources are renewable or really sustainable (except for the wood, which I speculate is responsibly rotated at the local farm where I buy it).

Although we buy "green energy" in Massachusetts, the typical electricity user in Massachusetts derives more than 80 percent of their energy, according to this site, from nuclear (28 percent), natural gas (33 percent), coal (12), and oil (10 percent).

Solar provides far less than one percent of the electricity in Massachusetts, which is why our 15+ percent is exemplary. However, if we depended on solar for a substantial chunk of our heating, say, to power our heat pump, we would freeze and our pipes would burst.

Thus, we are overly dependent on propane to heat the house. Propane is a byproduct of oil refining or natural gas processing, and is not a renewable fuel. When natural gas and oil inevitably peak and decline, so will propane. Although our small heaters do a very good job, their use is ultimately not sustainable.

Propane is expensive too; $3.15 per gallon on our last bill. A very cold winter month will result in the burning of 100 gallons of propane by our machines (we also use it for an oven). In addition, burning propane produces carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. Further, since our country is dangerously dependent on oil and natural-gas exporters, then propane is also a part of this problem.

Propane is also potentially hazardous, as it will blow up a house if released in quantity and ignited (we store ours in two tanks on the side of the house).

The point is that the northeast U.S. is a very long way from being able to substantively provide heat energy from renewables: solar, or wind for that matter (ground-source heat pumps are a different story, and the subject of a future post).

That doesn't mean, however, that the sun belt of the U.S., including Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah, could not generate substantial amounts of energy from solar thermal plants in their deserts.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The latest cheap oil era may be fleeting

Gas was $1.67 per gallon at my favorite station down the road. Crude oil has plummeted from its Summer high of about $145 per barrel (pb) to less than $40 pb. Yippee! Let's get the Hummers down off the blocks and hit the road! The era of cheap oil is back! (Writer's disclaimer: the last few statements are facetious. I drive a hybrid.)

Hold your horses. The New York Times reported on December 16 that the sudden drop in oil prices, the yo-yo effect that experts call "volatility," has abruptly put the kibosh on many oil production projects throughout the world. From off the coast of Africa to the Dakota's countryside, an oil boom that had commenced apace last Summer is grinding to a halt.

The result is likely to be a tight oil supply, once again, that will inevitably increase oil and gas prices precipitously. Ironically, some of the sting has been taken out of alternative energy projects, even though new energy sources to replace oil will be critical, now that the oil price has dropped again.

The International Energy Agency, in a study of hundreds of the world's largest and oldest oil fields, has also raised peak-oil alarm bells in its World Energy Report about the long-term prospects for oil supplies.

"Even if oil demand was to remain flat to 2030, 45 mb/d of gross capacity – roughly four times the current capacity of Saudi Arabia – would need to be built by 2030 just to offset the effect of oil-field decline," the above link quotes IEA Executive Director Nubuo Tanaka.

Four new Saudi Arabia's, in other words, would have to be found simply to compensate for the on-going decline of the world's largest fields. Wow.

The latest drop in gas prices appears to be a tantalizing mirage, or relief, for drivers, but not much more meaningful than that. Therefore, we have to keep our eye on the ball: plug-in hybrids, electrified transportation, and finding ways to conserve oil use.

Monday, December 15, 2008

What do you do when the electricity goes off?

Many New Englanders were confronted with this problem just north of where we live, where an extensive ice storm knocked out electricity all over Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and parts of Massachusetts for several days.

The experiences are emblematic of what could happen during an extensive energy crisis involving supply shortages of oil, natural gas, and other energy sources.

Watching the news coverage, I was struck by the vast differences in preparation among the citizenry. Many were bearing up well with good-humored Yankee stoicism, but were barely surviving with homes cold enough on the inside to see your breath, long gas lines (or no gas), and difficult treks to find food to restock the pantry.

A lot of people simply threw up their hands and crammed into any hotel with power that they could find. I joked with my family, rather lamely, that we would have just headed with our Prius into Boston in search of a Marriott, where I have a sort of "frequent stayer" program.

The good ole venerable wood stove

I was impressed by one fellow in New Hampshire who seemed to be actually having a good time. The reason was that he had a wood stove, a chain saw, and plenty of fallen-down trees to chop up and stoke the heater with. A wood stove will keep a fairly large area of a house, about 500 hundred square feet, toasty enough to live in, and you can heat up water, soup, and other stuff on its hot surface.

The man's family was simply sleeping in the vicinity of the stove, they had plenty to eat and drink, and he was not letting the fire go out. He talked about how everything for this long weekend had become "simpler," and that there was something nice and bucolic about how they were living (no TVs, video games, iPods, modern stresses, etc.).

Doesn't this observation remind you of the kind of post-Peak Oil scenarios people often talk about?

I vowed after listening to him to do two things: replace my wood-stove insert with a full-fledged wood stove, and get a couple of free-standing, perhaps kerosene burning lamps. My father, who passed away this year in his eighties, but lived successfully for decades on the wooded coast of Maine, in his infinite wisdom, gave me a kerosene burning lamp about 12 years ago. After not using it for a couple of years I donated it to a charitable auction, and now I'm kicking myself.

As one stranded person in northern New England put it this weekend, "You don't truly appreciate something until you no longer have it," and that's electricity.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Have I really conserved?

By displaying how much gasoline I used on the year in the left column of this page, I'm helping myself reduce gas use by measuring my consumption, whereas also crowing about my accomplishment. I'd say I've reduced my gasoline consumption by about 175 or more gallons per year, compared with previous years.

But is 225 gallons of consumed gasoline in a year really a lofty goal? Not really. Let's do the math.

A lot of people in China want to realize the American dream and drive like Americans.

According to Lester Brown's book Plan B 3.0, if China reached the car-ownership rate of Americans (three cars for every four people) by 2030 China will have more cars than exist on earth right now (heading for 2009).

And to provide the space on which to drive them, they would have to pave over a lot of the acreage that they require to grow rice and feed their teeming throngs.

Now to my supposed reduced consumption. 1.1 billion cars is the projected number of cars owned in China given an average eight-percent economic growth rate from now until 2030. What if all of these cars driven by people in China used as much gas as I did in 2008?

1.1 billion X 225 divided by 365 equals 678,082,191 gallons of gas used per day. Since one barrel of oil produces about 20 gallons of gas (plus other products like heating oil), then China's 2030 consumption equates to about 33,904,109 barrels of oil per day.

This number exceeds present U.S. consumption by more than 10 million barrels per day, and would probably represent more than one-third of all the daily available oil in the world.

Therefore, not even my reduced consumption is impressive or sustainable, and I haven't even mentioned the associated carbon emissions, which is probably the most important aspect of reducing gasoline consumption.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

When I'll consider changing my mind about "global cooling"

One more word about global cooling and I'll clam up about it.

Until the Royal Society and the National Academy of Sciences come forward and say, "cool it folks (no pun intended), global warming is over, and actually, you better get your long underwear on," I'm not going to budge my position on global warming one iota (that manmade greenhouse gases pose a threat to trigger feedback mechanisms, such as vast methane releases, which will endanger civilization).

I listen to scientists, not Fox News bloggers.