Tag Archives: Alternate Energies

A molecular approach to solar power (MIT News)

This is another example of excellent innovation from MIT and Harvard. This one is for energy storage and it is quite similar to one I just recently posted on the “bionic leaf”. With better solar energy conversion and more efficient energy storage the idea of moving away from fossil fuels and nuclear power begins to look possible.

Open Matters

Diagram of molecules going through solar-induced charge-discharge cycle, with heat released. The working cycle of a solar thermal fuel, using azobenzene as an example. (Courtesy of Jeff Grossman.)

A molecular approach to solar power
Switchable material could harness the power of the sun — even when it’s not shining.

David L. Chandler | MIT News Office
April 13, 2014

It’s an obvious truism, but one that may soon be outdated: The problem with solar power is that sometimes the sun doesn’t shine.

Now a team at MIT and Harvard University has come up with an ingenious workaround — a material that can absorb the sun’s heat and store that energy in chemical form, ready to be released again on demand.

This solution is no solar-energy panacea: While it could produce electricity, it would be inefficient at doing so. But for applications where heat is the desired output — whether for heating buildings, cooking, or powering heat-based industrial processes — this could…

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What the heck is an Earthship? … maybe an idea whose time has come!

earthship brighton
figure 1: Earthship Brighton (Photo credit: ivanpope)

Have you ever heard of the concept of an “Earthship“?  I was introduced to the concept by my brother-in-law about 14 years ago and was blown away.  What is an Earthship then?  In a nutshell, an Earthship is an Eco-friendly home, made predominantly from recycled materials, designed to be as close to “off-grid” as possible.

The concept of Earthships arose in the halcyon flower-power days of the 1970s in various states in the southern USA.  The concept seems to have developed by Michael Reynolds, an architect from New Mexico.  As you can see in the linked Wikipedia article, his idea was not without problems, but it was, none-the-less revolutionary.  Michael has a website where he educates about, demonstrates and promotes the Earthship technology.  The site has designs for a number of systems that an Earthship needs if it is to meet code (see figure 2, below). Continue reading What the heck is an Earthship? … maybe an idea whose time has come!

Solar Lights Recycling | Your Solar Link

I am constantly looking for good environmental blogs and have been following a really good one lately named “Environmental world for all”.  The site is authored by a university student in peace studies with minor in environmental studies. One of the author’s recent posts discusses the benefits of solar LEDs for use as Christmas lights.  It is a really well thougth out article and in it the author discusses the pros and cons around this issue. 

When I left a comment and asked him about the ability to recycle these devices he brought my attention to this site (Solar Lights Recycling | Your Solar Link)  in the US that is trying to set up a recycling program for these products. 

If you are interested in environmental issues I think a few minutes browsing these two sites would be time well spent.

 

Hybrid cars – one buyer’s thoughts

IMA-equipped Honda Civic Hybrid.
Image via Wikipedia

Back in 2009, my family bought a 2010 model year Honda Civic Hybrid. The chart in the dealership, which was produced by an independent tester, gave the Civic a rating of 60 miles per imperial gallon (mpg) in the city and 66 mpg on the highway. A review of the Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) website seems to confirm this rating.

NRCan’s site gives the “mileage” of every car sold in Canada by year. It is supposed to be based on testing that simulates a fuel economy for a car that is driven 20,000 km per year. Presumably the test would simulate real-life conditions including the number of occupants, and a variety of weather and geographical conditions, but it isn’t clear from their web site. The mileage for my car the 2010 Honda Civic Hybrid is given here: http://oee.nrcan.gc.ca/transportation/tools/compare/compare-results.cfm and it confirms the 60/66 rating given at the dealer.

My question is, what drugs were the testers on when they came up with these figures? We have been using the Civic for almost two years now and we have never come close to those figures. I grant you, that the test figures are likely for the “average” driver, but even so, we have rarely got better than 6.1 l/100km. That works out to about 46.3 mpg. This is a far cry from the 63 mpg (combined city and highway) that we were supposed to get.

When I look at the United States government website I their numbers are closer to my results. they show 40 miles per US gallon (mpgUS) city and 45 mpgUS highway which is about 43mpgUS combined. That equates to about 51 miles per imperial gallon (or only 85% of the NRCan mileage estimates) which is getting better, but it still ends up being about 5 mpg high by my experience.

So what are these testers doing. I assume that they must have only a single driver, and that they must be always on a flat road, with no head-wind and they must be accelerating at a snail’s pace. If I want to approximate these ratings, I would need to get an 100 pound driver driving downhill with a tailwind and the car in neutral.

While I never really expected to get 60 mpg, I did expect better than the 43 mpg that we are getting. Am I expecting too much to ask for mileage approximating the promised rating? I don’t think so. I would likely have bought the car anyway, given that I am interested in the environment, but I don’t like being lied to. If the “independent” tests were to be even remotely useful they should be achievable by the majority of the drivers under normal conditions.

Now, I know I have ignored things like the benefits to the environment, but I have also ignored things like the total cost of ownership (maintenance of the batteries over time) and the cradle to grave costs of the car in terms of cost of building, cost of transportation, use by the consumer and cost of disposal.

But when it comes to strictly the way the cars are advertised, where is the truth of the situation? I sure don’t know? I do know that I feel ripped off! What about you?

Who’s making money on bio-fuels and are they a good alternative to oil?

MIT c1901 LOC cph 3g09599
Image via Wikipedia

I just read an interesting paper from the MIT Centre for Energy and Environmental Policy Research and it had some interesting things to say about bio-fuels and politics.  The paper Some Inconvenient Truths About Climate Change Policy: The Distributional Impacts of Transportation Policies (August 2011), by Stephen P. Holland, Jonathan E. Hughes Christopher R. Knittel and Nathan C. Parker is a technical paper where they reflect on the relationship that exists between various forms of carbon emission reductions that rely on subsidised biofuels and voting patterns in the United States. 

The paper compares the costs to reduce greenhouse gasses of three different policy choices against the Cap and Trade (CAT) option, which does not subsidize the production of biofuels.  They show CAT as the lowest cost alternative in terms of dollars per unit of carbon reduction but find that the higher cost options are frequently adopted.  They go on to show that the subsidized options, though more expensive, produce the highest potential for private gain, while CAT produces the highest potential for carbon emission reduction per dollar spent. 

While the article does not answer the question posed in the title, it does seem to conclude that if private interests were taken out of the equation, we could get better carbon reduction bang for our bucks if we adopted a cap and trade system rather than any of the subsidized bio-fuel alternatives.

The article is a bit technical, but it is still written in such a way that most informed readers can take something away from it.  It is also nice to see that these issues are being discussed by institutions such as MIT.

Solar light bulbs for pennies (Isang Litrong Liwanag/a litre of light)

A litre of light

I just ran across a wonderful innovationthat seems to have been around for a few years but just now seems to be garnering widespread attention. The innovation seems to be the brainchild either the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or of Mr. Illac Diaz of the Philippines. It is as brilliant in its simplicity as it is as a light bulb. I am going to leave the description of the “bulbs” and how they are used to the foundation (and to two interesting YouTube videos (describing the why and how). One of the linked videos below describes this as an idea out of MIT and that makes sense because that institution seems to focus on a lot of simple projects to help the poor (see my earlier blog about solar powered water desalinators that were developed by MIT folks).

Continue reading Solar light bulbs for pennies (Isang Litrong Liwanag/a litre of light)

Solar Thermal – What to do when the power goes out!

I spent 6 months living in Kathmandu back in the 90s.  It was commonplace for the power to go off each evening for 2 or more hours and to cope with the outages everyone had battery backups and gas-powered generators. 

But over here in Canada we have never needed battery backups or generators to keep things running.  The electrical system is far more reliable here than it was in Nepal in the 90s.  That being said, we do still get the occasional power outages but for the most part they are little more than an inconvenience.  The same cannot be said for solar thermal systems when the power goes out.  Continue reading Solar Thermal – What to do when the power goes out!

City of Ottawa – Help for Folks Installing Solar Thermal

The City of Ottawa has a nice new web page that acknowledges the existence of solar energy, and in particular solar domestic hot water (SDHW).  The site, which can be found on ottawa.ca gives information about two different types of SDHW systems: a CSA approved factory packaged system and not factory packaged system.  Both types of installation need a building permit.

Both installation types must be installed by a qualified installer (CanSIA certified) but non-factory packaged installations must be certified compliant with CSA F379.1-09 (the reference standard for SDHW) and with the Ontario Building Code by a professional engineer licensed in the Province of Ontario.

This doesn’t sound like a lot of help, but when I had my solar system installed, there were no guidelines or standards available and we had to slog through a morass of bureaucracy to get our installation approved, so that guidance is very welcome.

This information should make the process of installing SDHW more transparent and it should really reduce some of the risks to the homeowners and installers.  Good job Ottawa!

Failsafe systems for solar hot water

As I mentioned in earlier blog entries, my system has a number of failsafe features to maintain system heat and pressure within tolerable boundaries. In the summer, the system dumps excess heat into the swimming pool, and in the winter it dumps the excess heat into a radiant water heater in the basement.

This spring I got to see what would happen if I didn’t have these alternate heat sinks and I found out how robust the failsafe systems are in my installation.

Here’s what happened. To change my secondary (failsafe) heat sink from the basement radiant water heater to the swimming pool for the swimming season I need to open or close 3 manual valves. This spring, due to a brain malfunction, I only switched two of the three valves which meant that I had shut off the alternate heat sinks entirely. When I then manually switched the compter controlled valve (that determines whether to send water to the primary or the secondary heat sink) to use the “secondary” heat sink to dump heat, I had inadvertently gotten rid of all the system’s sinks. Effectively, I was just taking hot water from the solar collectors and circulating it back to the collectors without dumping any heat.

The first thing I noticed was that the pressure in the system built up (quickly) to 80 psi, from its normal 40 psi. This immediately got my attention and I looked at the collector temperature and found that it was 120 C – yes, that is degrees celsius, which means that the system was now boiling. I looked at the valve settings and realized my mistake and adjusted the valve settings appropriately, but by that time, it was too late … the failsafe features of the system had kicked in. My system had begun dumping antifreeze into a five gallon drum to reduce the pressure in the system. By the time I had realized this, the system was almost empty and the pressure had dropped to about 60 psi (by this time almost all vapour).

When I called my installer, he explained to me what had happened and suggested hooking the cold water from the city up to the antifreeze loop and filling the loop with fresh cold water. This had the effect of reducing the temperature and pressure immediately and everything and everyone calmed down immediately.

So what did I learn. Well…first and most important, even if you understand your solar system, you should not take it for granted. Keep checklists that help you with seasonal conversions and follow them. Second…the failsafe systems work. Even if I had not noticed the problem, the system would have emptied and the worst that would have happened is that my pump would have burned out. Finally, I learned how important it is to have your installer (or other expert’s) number close at hand…in my case the installer’s cell phone number was dymo-taped onto my controller and I was able to get hold of him – even though he was up at the cottage.

Does this make me less happy with my solar hot water system? On the contrary, I now know that even if I screw up, the family will still be safe, and I will be able to fix up the problems without spending a lot of money.

Power Surges and Drops – Causing Electrical Problems?

Electricity pylon - power outage
Image via Wikipedia

I don’t know if you have noticed it too, but there seems to be a lot more power outages and surges these days.  I’m not talking about the 20 day variety like the one that hit us during the ice storm, but rather the one and two second ones that seem to come in bunches every few months. 

Hydro has a fund to deal with hits to electronic equipment that is damaged due to surges like the one we had in Kanata when a 17 kV line dropped on a 10 kV line early in the last decade and fried a bunch of computers.  Fair enough as far as it goes, but what about the things that didn’t burn up?  What about the fridge that was supposed to last for 15 years, but ends up only lasting 10 years because it was hit by a large surge?  What about the dozens of light bulbs that were supposed to last for 10,000 hours and end up only lasting half that because they experienced a big surge?  Sure, they didn’t die when the surge hit, and there is no way to prove that their life span was decreased due to the surge, but doesn’t it make sence that it would be?  Where is the compensation for these items?

OK you say, but that is history…old news…almost 10 years old now!  What about today?  Well, of course, you’re right.  There aren’t a bunch of surges like the one I spoke of happening from day-to-day, but there are a whole bunch of little black-outs where the power drops for a few seconds and then surges back on.  Aside from the inconvenience of having to re-set every clock in the house, have you never noticed anything funny with your electrical devices after such an outage?  I have, and I am not speaking about problems with your computers because, like me, most of you will have shelled out hundreds of dollars to buy surge suppressing power bars or uninterruptible power sources (UPSs) for your high-end computer gear.  No, once again, I am speaking about your equally expensive fridges, stoves, and even furnaces, each of which is now controlled by computer. 

Every time there is a power outage in my house, the ice maker on my high-end fridge stops working.  I have to cycle off the power on the fridge at the circuit breaker, leaving it off for at least a minute (so that any capacitors in the system drain) and then cycle it back on.  Only then will the unit come back to life.

Or how about your heat recovery ventilator unit (HRV)?  An HRV is critical to the healthy functioning of an R2000 or an energy star home as it keeps the humidity level in the house within reasonable limits).  At my house, the same thing happens to my HRV when there is a power outage too.  Once again, I have to cycle off the unit, wait, and then cycle it back on again. 

To me, it is only reasonable to assume that these expensive devices “feel” these small power outages and surges.  Doesn’t it make sense to you too?  Well, if they “feel” the pain of the outage/surge combination, doesn’t it seem likely that they experience a shortening of their useful life when it happens?  Where is the compensation for this loss of useful life for these expensive products? 

The question in my mind is, if Hydro cannot provide more reliable power, shouldn’t they have to come up with some sort of mandatory standards for a new power distribution panel that includes surge suppression as well as some limited UPS (uninterruptible power source) capacity?  And shouldn’t they subsidize the purchase and installation of these devices until the volume of sales drives down the cost to a reasonable amount, or until their service provision becomes more reliable? 

I know that Hydro is bleeding red ink in a number of areas, like the need to replace dirty coal, the need to pay for expensive cogeneration, and the need to retire old debt, but in my opinion, these are symptoms of a poorly constructed business model.  What they need, is to engineer resilience into their business model.  I don’t want to have to replace everything in my home every time they fail to provide clean power to my home and I don’t want to have to pay through the nose to buy products to mitigate the risks associated with these instances. 

Law suits are not the way to go…they are too expensive and the only ones that profit from them are the lawyers on both sides.  Further, they are not the Canadian way.  Rather, Hydro needs to just step up to the plate and consider the needs of their clients and get together with the various standards councils and come up with a strategy for making homes more resilient to the surges and outages until they can fix up their network so that it becomes more resilient.  While they are at it, they might want to consider having each distribution panel set up for net metering (so that people can start feeding the grid using solar voltaic or wind energy generated around the home) and even consider having the panel set up to allow external generators to be plugged in (such as gas-powered generators that could be used during a long power interruption).  This would allow for better engineered homes that were resilient to power fluctuations, that allow for cogeneration projects and that do all this safely with consideration for folks that have to work on the lines when there is an electrical problem in the neighbourhood.

In short, we need Hydro to take back the playing field and start planning for the future.  A bright future if they play their cards right.

The Story of Stuff Project – or why did I need this do-dad again?

Logo of the International Bottled Water Associ...
Image via Wikipedia

Want an interesting way to explain to kids how consumer demand is created?  Want to get some interesting facts about bottled water? What to know what cap-and-trade really means and whether it is a good thing or not?  Want to know what all our electronic toys cost the planet? Why not mosey over to the “Story of Stuff Project” for some short, entertaining clips that are ideal for explaining difficult topics in simple English.  It’s suitable for kids and adults and, while it doesn’t always provide the answers to life’s woes, it helps you start asking the right questions.  Two thumbs up!

Undergrads bring energy education to Ghana

In another piece from MIT press, here is a story about how some MIT undergrads brought alternate energy education to schools in Ghana.  Now if we could only get the education here in Canada…

Undergrads bring energy education to Ghana.

OpenEI Blog: Solar-powered desalinisation

I just ran across this interesting post about a small (1000 gallon per day) and smaller (80 gallon per day) solar-powered desalinization unit that could be deployed quickly and cheaply in disaster zones where potable water is hard to come by and electrical power even harder to come by.  You can read more about it here: OpenEI Blog: Solar-powered desalinisation.

Public transportation woes in Ottawa

OC Transpo bus 4067
Image via Wikipedia

OC Transpo doesn’t have enough drivers or busses to make the public transit system work and the busses we do have aren’t large enough to meet demand. We need to address this issue in the short, medium and long terms. The municipal vision for a light rail system is a start because it gives us a glimpse of the long-term vision, but it leaves us with a broken system for the next 20 years. Further, even this long-term vision needs better documentation and communication. Continue reading Public transportation woes in Ottawa

300 Years of Fossil Fuels in (About) 300 Seconds « Fighting for Hope’s Blog

Got 5 minutes?  Spend it watching the worlds’s energy history at the “Fighting for Hope’s” blog.  Show it to your kids and to their teachers. 

300 Years of Fossil Fuels in (About) 300 Seconds « Fighting for Hope’s Blog.

So, what solar equipment do I need to buy (part 1)?

 Solar system components

 When you start to think about a solar system, you have to remember that the industry is relatively new in Canada.  It has been used in Europe for decades, but its penetration on this side of the Atlantic has been marginal until recently.  That means that you have to be conscious that some of the product on the market may not have been certified for use in Canada.  The components that were installed in our house and that I will be speaking about below were all CSA approved and the “non-packaged” installation proposal that prepared was certified as compliant with the Ontario Building Code by a professional engineer.

The solar collectors we use in our house are the CAREarth Vacuum Tube Solar Collector SJ Series Heat Pipe Technology.  Continue reading So, what solar equipment do I need to buy (part 1)?

But, it’s always cloudy and cold here! What good is solar heat here?

Solar Water Heating
Image by London Permaculture via Flickr

It is a sad fact, but if you don’t get any sun, you don’t get any solar heat.  But even the grayest areas of the country get a significant amount of sun.  Thermomax, a is a Canadian company that uses European technology to provide solar hot water products.  Its web site has done a great job of crunching the numbers to see how much water can be heated by a solar unit given the amount of sun available by region in Canada.  Its regional comparison page can be found here.  They also have a great set of interactive, audio enhanced graphics that explain how solar thermal energy systems work in various configurations.  They can be found here.

I will be using their charts to get a better handle on how much money I have saved in the 4 years since I installed my system and will report back to you in a future blog entry.

What are we doing to the planet? Watch the film “Home” to find out!

Director Yann Arthus-Bertrand (left) and Co-Pr...
Image from Wikipedia (fair use)

This is a bit of a departure from my past two posts, but I just saw this film and wanted to share the experience…

Ever wondered what makes the planet tick?  Ever wonder whether humanity is really having an effect on the planet and how it works?  Do you have children or grand children?  Want to see some amazing photography and hear some thoughtful commentary on these subjects?  Got a spare 90 minute? 

If you answered yes to any of these questions, treat yourself to a breathtaking, if at times depressing experience and watch the film “Home (the movie)“.  Continue reading What are we doing to the planet? Watch the film “Home” to find out!