Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Our Energy Future Is Crap


Not as dire as the title sounds. What follows is still on the theme of water usage. I am going to sketch out a basic design for the sewage treatment plant of the mid twenty-first century. A place of wonder that makes money for the government meaning services can be supplied for less and lowering taxes. How do we accomplish this wonderful event? Feces, a great energy resource we now largely view as waste.

Let us begin with our toilet where we flush waste that at present, in most municipalities, is treated then dumped into the environment taking energy and money out of the system as a whole.

From the toilet, which should be flushed with rain water the waste will flow to the treatment plant as it does today. Here the fat and grease are extracted to be processed into Bio-diesel before the solids and liquids undergo a separation process, basically straining the waste. Let’s follow the solids that at this point are a sticky semi liquid sludge. This sludge is directing into fermentation tanks where it is allowed to rot generating methane gas, as it would anyway. This gas is collected and used to fuel methane powered electric generators. This electricity is sold to the electricity grid supplying a source of revenue to the community. The waste heat from the generators is shunted into the fermentation tanks maintaining them at the optimal temperature for methane production. Additional waste heat can be used for supplying hot water and heat for the treatment plant in general. This is done through a simple radiator and pipe system not unlike the one in most of our cars.

The advantages to this are enormous. For one, methane is about six times more effective as a greenhouse gas then carbon dioxide. By converting the methane into carbon dioxide through burning you immediately reduce the climate impact of the city’s solid waste to one sixth of what it would otherwise be. The electricity and heat are also bonuses adding money to the city’s coffers and reducing heating costs.

The system so far, I am proud to say, has been adopted by my home town Hamilton Ontario Canada. I will give credit where credit is due. I must salute my city council for having the vision to do the right thing on this score. If any of you are reading this don’t get use to it. I’m still an annoying git who thinks you could do better!

I am aware of another city in the states where they use a similar system to supply the fuel that they run their city vehicles on. The basic system dates back to the late eighteen hundreds when it was used to supply methane for gas lighting for several English cities.

The waste products from the solid processing are a sludge that can be dried using the sun and Carbon Dioxide. We will come back to both of these later.

For now let us address the separated liquid waste. This should be channeled into algae farms. These are basically shallow ponds with a low greenhouse-like cover. The waste water is already full of nutrients that the algae will absorb to grow thereby cleaning the water.

The waste carbon dioxide from the electrical generators is channeled into the algae farms. This makes use of the waste heat being lost in the exhaust by warming the farms and the carbon dioxide is fixed by the algae keeping most of it out of the environment. A heat dissipation system, a radiator, can be used to pre-process the exhaust during periods of high heat and bypassed to heat the algae ponds during periods of low heat. The exhaust gasses should be bubbled through the pond water, which will have the effect of catching most forms of pollutants that might creep in, though these would be minor at most.

The algae is allowed to grow. Now what happens next depends on future science. Currently Exon is funding research to bio-engineer algae that could produce more and better oils. These bio-engendered forms would presumably excrete the oil and it could be collected and separated from the water. The oils would then be processed at existing petroleum processing plants to make petroleum products.

At present what would be done is the algae would be harvested and processed to make bio-diesel. There is a pilot plant in the USA that is currently developing the techniques to do this on an industrial scale. The bio diesel is an ideal home-heating fuel and can be used to run any diesel engine. Its one drawback is a tendency to become a jell at temperatures around 10 degrees C / 50 degrees F or lower. There are regions where this isn’t a problem and regions where it’s not a problem during the summer. Also nothing says you can’t cut diesel from other sources with bio-diesel to make a more temperature-tolerant, hybrid fuel. Another use would be to use the bio diesel to run a diesel-powered, electric generator taking the waste heat from that and using it to keep the fuel in the storage takes liquid while feeding the carbon emissions back into the algae farm and the electricity into the power grid.

After being processed for its oils the algae then can be mixed with water that has done its time in the algae tanks and fermented to generate ethanol that can be distilled using waste heat from the electrical generators and used as an additive to gasoline doing the job of several of the most polluting additives currently used and cutting total fossil fuel consumption without wasting food crops and arable land that could better be used to feed people.

The water put in the algae farms will undergo a process of settling and bio-purification as the algae pulls the toxins, that are its food, out of the water. Much of the water will evaporate during several of the processing stages off gassing to rejoin the hydration cycle. The water that remains at the end will be almost pure and quite suitable for uses such as irrigation. Another use, if the water isn’t completely pure, would be the creation of artificial wetlands that will provide wildlife habitat and natural water purification as well as drawing carbon out of the atmosphere.

What remains of the algae after fermentation can be dried and mixed with the post process sludge left over from the treated solids. This material is a rich soil that can be used for the growth of non-edible crops such as hemp, cotton, pulp trees and soy, if used for ink production. Sadly, due to the fact it may contain heavy metals, that would be dumped into the environment by most treatment plants anyways, it isn’t advisable to use this sludge for food crops. Though the areas the sludge is used on will drop heavy metal concentration over times due to natural processes.

Now you may say this sounds like perpetual motion, but if you think about it there are several energy inputs. First the waste material. Feces is loaded with potential energy. All this does is transform it into a form we can use. Second the sun on the algae inputs energy.

It is interesting to note that several aid organizations have been supplying small methane composting systems to homes and villages in the third world in an attempt to supply amenities such as electricity that will encourage people to stay in rural areas and not add to the overcrowding of the cities. Another benefit of this form of grass roots methane composting is it can preserve trees by reducing people’s reliance on wood for heating and cooking fuel.

So there you have it. A rich energy source that most of us are currently flushing away.

Now for some reasonable comments people have made to me.

If it is cost effective why isn’t everyone doing it?

Because we haven’t placed any real costs on environmental degradation and up until now there were relatively plentiful sources of non-sustainable energy.

It can’t supply all the power the city needs.

No it can’t, but think of it like your kid earning money with a summer job for collage. If he or she earned let’s say twenty percent of what it costs that can make the difference between them getting an education and them not, even though you’re paying the other eighty percent. That eighty percent might be all you can afford. Even if you can afford more the child’s contribution will free up money for your retirement savings. We need to shift to an energy mosaic with many small sustainable imputes taking the place of large unsustainable ones. Also it makes a profit. The city in the USA I mentioned earlier found that if they factored in the fuel costs for running the city vehicles, in other words looked at how much they would have had to pay for fuel, the sewage treatment plant was running at a profit. I don’t have the numbers for the Hamilton facility, but I’m sure they’re similar.

Those algae pools will leak carbon dioxide.

Yup, some will escape. Would you rather be kicked in the head one time or ten? Same question.

Disease organisms will be in the methane.

Which is burnt to generate electricity. This is a legitimate objection if one is using the methane for cooking fuel, but not for this application.

Those algae farms will take up a lot of space.

Some I admit, but they can be put on roof tops where the water evaporation during the summer will help cool the buildings and on waste land left from demolitions. There is also land poisoned by industrial waste, old landfills. Heck they could even be incorporated into floating barges. Let’s face it, we’ve created quite a mess for ourselves.

In short, we’ve largely ignored a major resource for too long. This won’t solve all our problems but it can alleviate them reducing our reliance on non-local energy and drastically reducing a major source of greenhouse gasses.

Sunday, 4 March 2012


An examination of sustainable energy technologies from solar panels to methane-composting, sewage-treatment plants and the parts they can play in saving our society.

The above is a panel discussion I’ve suggested for the Ad Astra Science Fiction Convention. The title says it all and offers hope for a bleak future. In writing Tinker’s Plague I studied many of the sustainable ways to gain useable energy. One of the conclusions I came to is that no one system is the answer. Only by diversifying the energy supply can we hope to have enough. We’ve been squandering non-renewable resources up until now, but by the very nature of a non-renewable resource that system cannot last forever. By shifting today to using renewable resources where we can, and as much as we can, we can extend the life of our non-renewable resources. Maybe the big shareholders of the oil companies won’t make as much profit for the next few years, but because we extend the life of those non-renewable resources their employees will still have jobs when it comes time to retire. The reality is, we as a species have gouged for maximum, short-term profit with no view to the future. We’re like a kid on a survival trip who’s been given his food for the week and gobbles it down on the first day. What I’m suggesting is that we start acting like grown ups. Grown ups know there is a tomorrow and plan for it. Towards that end the following is offered.

This blog segment isn’t going to go into nitty-gritty details about the technologies but is intended to supply an overview of the available energy sources we can exploit. The list is not exhaustive. This is a blog about hope and taking responsibility for ourselves as a species.

BIO-MASS / METHANE COMPOSTING Methane composting is only one of many ways that power can be obtained. I’ve already discussed methane composting sewage treatment plants. That same basic technology can be applied to cattle farms or to any situation where there is a large amount of sh... faecal material. This is a family blog after all. Of course one must exclude centres of political power and corporate spokes-people because of the metaphorical nature of the waste they produce.

Another aspect of bio-mass can be putting tap mines into garbage dumps and extracting the methane there. It can be used to run generators that feed power into the electrical grid, or bottled  and used to run vehicles or pretty much anything where it doesn’t come into contact with food before it’s burnt.

Bio-mass can also refer to using grain products to create ethanol, although with the amount of hunger in the world using edible grains to make bread makes more sense, especially since there are lots of other sources for ethanol generation. One of these is a genetically engineered bacterium that eats cellulose and excretes ethanol. Corn stocks, grass clippings, old leaves could all be source material for the liquid fuel of the future.

Algie farms for the production of bio-diesel are an other form of Bio-mass as is burning wood to heat your house.

ETHANOL FUEL: (I decided to give it its own heading, so shoot me) When I worked as a shipping and receiving clerk I would toss dozens of loaves of bread and pastries that had gone off date into the dumpster every day. Multiply this by all the stores that sell these products and you have a substantial amount of product going into landfills. This doesn’t even begin to address things like off date candy, syrup and other high sugar foods. These products should be collected and placed in fermentation vats along with some water. Preferably partially treated waste water coming out of the end of the sewage treatment plant. This slurry could then ferment producing ethanol. The ethanol can be distilled off and used for fuel. The remaining waste can be added to the solid waste stream and rotted for methane.

WIND ENERGY: Yes I hear the objectors chanting now, undependable. Here’s one for you, the methane and bio-diesel generators from the sewage plant and the like can be run at a very low output most of the time. Just high enough to keep the engine warm. This allows the facility to stockpile fuel for periods when the energy demand is higher. In an integrated system that might be times when the wind isn’t blowing. Hmm, funny how the mosaic makes the anti-everything argument sound foolish isn’t it?

SOLAR: This power source will be a major player, but it must be used with some common sense. Putting a major solar facility in an area prone to cloud cover is dumb! However the place solar does shine is in dealing with domestic loads in most environments. Large solar projects are ideal for deserts and in a future blog I will be detailing the many benefits of this.

CO-GENERATION: Not so much a way of generating but a concept. I am ashamed to say that my city Hamilton, Ontario, contains, or at least did the last time I checked, the single largest consumer of electrical power in southern Ontario. This company could put in a generator that would take waste from one of their industrial processes that is currently vented into the atmosphere, burn it and supply all their electricity needs and then some.

Co-generation means encouraging end users that are in a position to generate energy to do so and feed what they can back into the power grid. On the part of government this means setting up incentive programs to encourage industry to use their waste products to make power. An example of this might be a coke plant (The high carbon fuel used in steal manufacturing not the soft drink) that takes its off gasses and burns them to run a steam turbine. A distillery that sets up an algae farm and bio-diesel system feeding off the waste CO2 of the fermentation process. Methods abound but they all require that we stop seeing waste as something you throw away and see it as the resource it is. If industry can’t be encouraged to do the right thing quickly it is time for government to step in and make them for the good of us all. After all, what is the purpose of government if not to look after the needs of its citizens? What more fundamental need has a person than a livable world?

HYDRO ELECTRIC: Not just the plants we have today but in-line systems that sit in a river and turn with the current. There is also a huge potential for small and micro-hydro. Pump and return systems can also allow for power to be stored at times of low demand and drawn on when needed.

WAVE POWER: Of course it won’t work in land, but if we exploit this it will take a lot of coastal communities off the grid.

GEO THERMAL: Where magma comes close to the surface this can supply a huge amount of clean energy. Again, it’s not the complete solution but part of the mosaic.

NUCLEAR: In a perfect world I wouldn’t include this. It is dangerous and we have no clear plan for dealing with the waste. As well, mining the uranium, though I will give the industry credit in that huge strides have been made to clean things up, is still not a particularly green process. How bad this aspect of the industry is varies greatly from nation to nation.

The problem with nuclear is we’re stuck with it because of the irresponsibility of our forefathers. That being said, we need to start doing it right. First, stop mining uranium and set up instead a loop of reactors where they reprocess each other’s waste and feed each other. In this way we can slowly start to reduce the tons of spent fuel rods we have sitting in temporary storage facilities around the globe. Develop the neutron injector reactor technology that causes the degraded nuclear fuel to revitalize, momentarily yield energy, then degrade. By doing this I’ve read that we could reduce the volume of waste to about a third of its present level. It would also supply us with energy through the transitional phase.

I’m not no nuke, I’m smart nuke. How else are we going to power space probes that go out system past the orbit of Mars?

FOSSIL FUELS: A limited resource we’ve already depleted that we will none-the-less need to use through a transition to sustainable methods. It was never the fact that we used these which was the problem, it was that we applied no replacement cost to them. Any manufacturer knows that you must take the cost of your equipment, divide that by said equipment’s projected life-expectancy and budget accordingly, adding the amortized cost of the equipment to your sale price. Why do we do this with a screw driver and not with natural resources? If we did apply this simple business accounting principal to our view of resources we’d have used fossil fuels far more sparingly from the start.

BIO POWER: Not bio-mass, like methane, but the actual power of our muscles. Ride a bike, walk to the corner store, crank a flashlight instead of using a battery operated one. All these things help and let’s face it, westerners could stand to put out a little more Bio Power, and I’m as guilty as the next guy of not doing it. One interesting example of this is a dance club in London England that supplies it electricity from the force of dancers moving on its floor.

TIDAL POWER: This can get sticky because some methods have been known to damage the environment, but applied carefully, many seaside communities could benefit from this form of energy generation.

FUTURE TECH: Things like orbital solar-platforms, fusion power. These are all worthy areas of research, but we need to start applying the solutions we have now to deal with the problems we have now, or we may not last long enough for tomorrow’s dreams to become today’s solutions.

A NOTE ABOUT REMOTE COMMUNITIES: Many of the above methods don’t need a big centralised facility and can be used to supplement or replace fuel-driven electric generators. Often remote communities rely on a diesel generator for their electricity. A reduction in the fuel used for power generation has multiple benefits. First it reduces the fuel wasted in transporting fuel to a remote location. This reduces the risk of environmental impacts from spills because fewer shipments equals fewer chances for disaster. It keeps money in the remote community because the wages that would otherwise be paid to a trucker will be paid to a maintenance guy who, by necessity, will live in the remote community. This is on top of the money the community saves by not buying fuel from outside.

I hope to be exploring all of these areas in more depth on this blog over the next year or two. Questions and comments would be most welcome.