Archive for the ‘Energy Efficiency’ Category

The LED Takeover

Photo by Dan DeLuca. Some rights reserved.

Photo by Dan DeLuca. Some rights reserved.

If you’ve been to a major city in the U.S., Canada, or the U.K. in the last five years, chances are you’ve been introduced to LED street lights. You know, they’re the ones that beam bright blueish light (instead of the traditionally warm, orange glow of high pressure sodium lights) and save tons and tons of energy! For anyone unfamiliar, a quick (like, one sentence quick) introduction: LEDs (light-emitting diodes) require only half the energy (48 to 62 percent less, according to Seattle City Light) output of traditional light sources and require much less maintenance or use of greenhouse gases in their production. In Seattle, we were early adopters of LED street light technology, with plans dating back to 2007, only a year after other U.S. cities like Ann Arbor, MI put plans down to try out LED lighting. In 2010, the Department of Energy announced that Seattle would be leading the national charge in replacing all streetlights with LEDs. Three years later, we’re ahead of schedule and much of the nation has followed suit, and while there is some resident-based push-back against the lights for being too bright and disruptive, the general consensus, especially among the greener-minder among us, is that these new lights are generally a good thing.

And the movement is picking up momentum internationally as well. It was just announced this week that Buenos Aires, the second largest city in South America, will replace 70% of its streetlights with LED technology, in an effort to cut energy consumption citywide by 50%. Philips has been chosen as the corporate contractor for the project, and have already replaced 10,000 of the total 91,000 street lights expecting upgrades. Having just visited Buenos Aires last year, I can personally attest that it is a beautiful city and that much of its charm comes from its old world, European design scheme, an aesthetic that surely spreads to its street lights. However, I can also say that much of the city felt particularly dark at night, and that as a tourist, I certainly would have appreciated a bit more light to navigate by. Philips has given themselves three years to complete the project, and the city of Buenos Aires hopes to save up to $180 billion annually by switch to LED.

The Panels Are Transparent But the Practices Are Not

Photo by Phil Champion. Some rights reserved.

Photo by Phil Champion. Some rights reserved.

The solar power industry gets a lot of love for being a sustainable, creative, efficient alternative energy source – and rightly so. Once the manufacturing of the panels is complete, the upkeep is relatively cheap and the things are built to endure the weather and last a long time (save for the occasional defective panel). But what about the manufacturing process? The idea that solar panels are being mass produced using only sustainable energy and materials is a paradisal paradox and, sadly, too good to be true (the solar industry is an industry, after all).

Yes, the crafting of these solar panels often involves toxic materials and unstable gases, and the process with which they are made is not getting any cleaner. The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, a group that oversees environmental conditions involved in manufacturing solar panels, publishes an annual “solar scorecard” which ranks solar manufacturing companies based on factors like emissions transparency, use of conflict minerals, C2C recycling, etc. This year’s scorecard was published last week, and based on their criteria, it looks link Trina, Yingli, and Sunpower came in on top, with scores of 77, 75, and 69 respectively (out of 100, presumably). Seven companies tied for last place (with a score of 5), including manufacturing giant Westinghouse.

Mother Jones points out, however, that transparency has  become a huge issue in this arena. Apparently only 35% of the industry responded to the SVTC survey, compared to last year’s 51%, and many of the companies gave very little to no useful information about their business practices. As SVTC executive director Sheila Davis points out, “If they are not providing the information, we have to assume the worst.” But with crude oil prices on a steep rise again, the solar industry seems primed for rapid expansion, and these are the kinds of kinks that should probably be worked out before the next big solar boom.

Storing Renewable Energy: Is It All In the Spin?

via Wikimedia Commons

via Wikimedia Commons

We’ve been discussing the double edged sword that is nuclear power and what role it should play in reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. The reason nuclear power keeps climbing out of its crypt, no matter how many stakes seem to be driven though its heart, is that other alternatives to dirty fuels like coal have been hobbled by a major flaw: even the most vocal proponents of wind and solar energy agree that energy storage is renewables’ Achilles heel. No doubt, windmills churning away in the breeze produce electricity, as do banks of solar panels in the Tucson sun. The problem is what happens on those hot still nights when turbines are stilled, the panels are dark, and you really, really want to turn on the air conditioning. The beauty of carbon energy and nuclear energy is that they can be relied on to provide electricity all the time, not just when the weather is cooperative.

All sorts of solutions have been proposed to the problem of storing the electricity from wind and solar generators so it can be used when it isn’t being generated. Good old reliable lead acid batteries like the one under the hood of your car predate the Civil War and are hardly models of efficiency (and are made up of lead and, uh, acid). Water pressure storage, thermal storage, and a host of other means of keeping electricity handy have been put forth to solve the conundrum posed by solar cells’ uselessness at night and wind turbines’ fickleness in the doldrums.

One solution that has been proposed but proven more technically tricky than expected, is a variant of a toy you may have had in your toy box – the top. Flywheels, in the form of gyroscopes, have been used for years as stabilizers. More recently they have been put to use to store energy. A flywheel spinning at high speed (and I do mean high speed) can store energy for use on demand. The trouble has been that the technology involved in using flywheels as a form of mechanical battery is complex, expensive, and heavy, principally because of the ridiculously high RPMs required to produce a usable amount of electricity. As a result, flywheel batteries have been largely confined to service as backup power supplies for hospitals and emergency services that require steady, reliable power delivery. But those flywheels are intended to supplement existing electricity as uninterruptible power supplies rather than long-term storage. In an effort to advance the state of the art in flywheel batteries, the federal government gave a $43 million loan guarantee to Beacon Power, but that company went on to join Solyndra in the bankrupt alternative energy graveyard.

Now a new venture is raising money for a new flywheel technology. Appropriately for such an undertaking, it’s turned to Kickstarter for funding. Inventor Bill Gray has come up with something he calls the Velkess. It is not a Nordic god from a Wagner opera, but an acronym for VEry Large Kinetic Energy Storage System.

Gray has high hopes for his new machine, which he claims avoids many of the problems that have stood in the way of previous flywheel batteries: exacting tolerances, the wobbling and stresses produced by rapid rotation, and the possible catastrophic failure of the ceramic or high tensile steel of traditional wheels. Gray’s new flywheel is made of common fiberglass, and designed to be more flexible and forgiving than prior iterations. Gray claims his machine could store electricity for one tenth the cost of the units Beacon was proposing.  His company is aiming first at the residential and small commercial market and then expanding out into the utility-scale market. This is the reverse of previous attempts to build out flywheel technology which usually started large and hoped to go small.

There is probably no silver bullet to reining in greenhouse gases. Combating global climate change will take a much broader armory than the traditional fuels we have relied on in the past. Maybe, just maybe, these grown up spinning toys will prove an important component.

Efficiency in Politics: Dream or Reality?

Senators Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Rob Portman (R-OH) have reintroduced their energy efficiency bill, S. 761, the Energy Savings and Industrial Competitiveness Act. A earlier version passed a Senate committee vote, but received criticism due to a provision to expand a DOE loan program. That provision has been removed and the bill is receiving bipartisan support that suggests it might make it to a full vote this time. Provisions include improved building codes and advance of efficiency measures in the federal government‘s operations, as well as business operations. Over 200 organizations are backing the bill, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources has scheduled a full committee hearing on the bill for April 23rd.

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