Em"Powering" Small Communities
I believe that this country is soon coming the point where we will have to make a decision on how we will manage our energy demands in the future. We can continue with the model we currently have or we can switch to a decentralized smart grid. I personally am a proponent of the latter since it will allow more flexibility and innovation where people and communities acquire their power from. Having a decentralized smart grid will enable people to look at the resources they have at their disposal and plan accordingly. With that thought in mind I wanted to try and crate the bare bones of a plan to make this happen.
The town I currently live in is small rural community in a North Dakota which has its own municipal utility company. This fact I believe would be crucial to making a transition to a self-sufficient community. I say this because of the forces driving a public utility vs. a private utility. A public utility exists only to provide a service to its customers while a private utility is only concerned with making a profit for its shareholders. There is nothing inherently wrong with trying to make a profit but I don’t believe it would lead to a friendly environment to creating a self-sufficient community. I am going to approach this problem in a multiple ways since there is no silver bullet to solving the energy crises. The subjects I shall talk about will be Buildings, Energy Usage, Transportation and Lifestyle
The first subject I want to cover is buildings. Building in the USA from industrial to home, use about 41% of the annual generated energy in 2011. This adds up to 40 quadrillion BTU’s (British Thermal Units) or just for the visual of it 15 zeros.
I don’t know about you but that is one impressive number to me, but just to put it another way in case it hasn’t sunk in yet. If that number represented miles you would be able to go back and forth from the Moon 16.5 billion times. So to
For buildings I am going to highlight a community center that was built in recent years in my hometown here in North Dakota. It is a typical metal pole barn building that was built to code according to construction standards. While these standards are sufficient to build a effective building that do not take into account every option that is available for making it the most energy efficient and environmentally friendly it can be. On that note I would like to mention the Passivhaus movement. The philosophy behind this movement is as follows,
“A Passivhaus is a building, for which thermal comfort can be achieved solely by post-heating or post-cooling of the fresh air mass, which is required to achieve sufficient indoor air quality conditions – without the need for additional recirculation of air.” (passivhaus.org)
While this sounds fairly simple it does require quite a bit of planning of the building design, materials and placements for maximum energy gain. This will typically limit the full application of this principal to new buildings. I believe for a community to begin to live an energy independent future a building standard such as the Passivhaus or the LEED (Leadership in Energy Efficient Desgin) will have to be applied to all new construction projects. Also a program that promotes energy efficiency in existing buildings would be a must. This program would provide both funding and technical assistance to homeowners or business owners to replace lights, improve insulation, install new efficient windows, better heating and cooling systems etcetera.
I believe to kick start something like this a demonstration project would have to be established in the community in question. One to demonstrate new building techniques such as solar gain using southern exposure, passive geothermal loops to heat and cool the building, solar panels on the roof to gather energy, and many other techniques that are too numerous to tell here. The second would be to find a willing business or homeowner to apply as many energy saving measures to the building as they are willing to do. The next thing to do would be to keep track of the energy usage that each one of these buildings has and compare it baseline numbers from either comparable structures or the usage before the improvement were made. This data can then be used to demonstrate and educate the community on how beneficial in the long run these techniques can be and how they can be applied on a small scale.
Electricity, it’s always all about the electricity. Whenever I listen to politicians, government officials or fossil fuel energy proponents I always here a couple for recurring themes.
Theme 1-There will always be more.
True enough we have gone from wood to coal to oil back to coal and now especially here in the States we are starting to get involved with natural gas. There has always been something new to supplement or replace what has begun to wan. But that is not always going to be the case. What oil is still coming out of the ground is getting harder to get at and we may not be able to keep up with demand as supplies wan. The same will eventually be true for coal and natural gas.
Theme 2-Renewables will not meet current demand.
This statement is true there is no denying it. There is no way we can meet demand with current renewable technologies. There is no one silver bullet to our energy needs, well there was but we have used up a good bit of it. So what options remain but to either continue on our current path of energy consumption or reduce it.
Theme 3-To try and change will kill the economy
Again there is truth to that statement; a complete overhaul would be expensive and frankly not possible given the current political and economic climate. But we have to consider the future cost of our way of life and the fuels that power it. The way things are right now are not sustainable forever and while I might not live to see the full impact of it I fear for the existence of my children or grandchildren.
The way the empower small communities would be to start small so the themes mentioned above will either not be a issue or be negligible. What I think would work for my location would be a combination of solar and wind power with possible biofuels and maybe even hydrogen thrown in. I am going to use the community center example again. This building is placed at the edge of town with a decent southern aspect and great west aspect to the roof. That roof could be utilized for double duty, both being a roof and providing a anchor point for solar power generation. It could also be a location for one or two smaller wind turbines that could also be used to generate power. This same principal could be applied to any new or existing municipal buildings and could be enhanced if the buildings were designed with this thought in mind.
The second half of this equation is the conservation of energy that I talked about in the buildings section. Old homes and buildings would need upgrades to energy efficient technologies since they were built in a cheap energy era.
What I envision would be to take the money saved with these enhancements and apply it to more enhancements until everything and everyone that wants the upgrades will have them. I believe it would cause a cascade effect that could eventually change a whole community over into being energy self-sufficient.
Planes Trains and Automobiles, maybe some of you remember that old gem of a movie though maybe some of you are to young to know. It is a tale about a man trying to get home for Thanksgiving. But frankly I am more interested in the title of the movie than the movie itself.
Planes, trains and automobiles are the backbone of the American transportation system without them the country would not be what it is. But I am willing to argue the point that maybe they are being used to much and are no longer simply a mode of transportation but are now a way of life. A way of life that has been documented to have impacts to the environment. The one I wish to discuss in this post however the use of automobiles.
I live in a small town of about 750 people for about 2 years now and I have noticed one thing about the people of this town, they love their cars. I have seen reasonably healthy younger to middle age people drive the 2 blocks to grocery store and pick up 1- 2 bags of groceries. Does that seem insane to anyone else? Why would you spend the money on the gas and wear and tear on the car. Now I realize that 2 blocks is not far so the cost would be minimal to your wallet but what about the cost to your health if such habits continued. The real irony of all this is I have seen a 80 year old man walk about half a mile to grocery store while walking his dog to pick up the same amount of groceries. The way people think and act about their health and the environment these days frankly astounds me. Such wasteful usage of our precious transportation resources and our own bodies just doesn't make any sense.
For a small town like mine I believe a two pronged approach is needed to stop and reverse this wasteful uses of our resources. The first thing to do would be to establish a education program that outlines the true cost of using vehicular resources so frivolous ways. It would cover the,
The second would be to develop a infrastructure that would support the usage of non-polluting and more efficient transportation. This would include developing better sidewalks to support the usage by pedestrians and bicyclists. For those that don't have bicycles a rental program or free to use system should be established to provide bicycles to any one that would need them. I would also like to see the usage of electric golf carts increase for the use of transporting goods or people that are sick or elderly that may have need of them. While I realize that golf carts would be powered by coal burning plants they are more efficient than when compared to internal combustion engines (ICE). Coal plants on average are around 34% efficient while a standard ICE is only around 26% efficient so the shift to electric powered vehicles in town would be worth it. Plus if the community were to implement the energy saving and production methods I covered in part 1 of this post they would be able to power these carts on renewables eventually.
This would be the hardest to change I believe. We Americans have become accustomed to a fast paced high energy lifestyle and boy oh boy do we love it. But a change must be made if we are to survive as a society. This way of life cannot be sustained and that is a fact we cannot avoid for much longer. So how to bring about this change is the question that must be answered. I believe that education will be key to bringing about this change. People cannot be made to care about the environment. They must be shown how their actions and lifestyle has impacts far beyond just what they can see. They must be show that when they throw something in the trash that doesn't mean it is gone. They must be shown that we are rapidly using our finite resources that cannot be replaced. They must be show how to live a different life.