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.

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