We Must Reduce Energy Use, Not Just CO2 Emissions, To Prevent Catastrophic Global Warming

playing with fire
Playing With Fire (image by charles chan, CC 2.0 license)

An article in Sunday’s Science Daily reports on research showing that more than half of the Earth’s warming since the dawn of the industrial age is due to the heat released from our energy use, not atmospheric warming due to the greenhouse effect.

While the greenhouse effect is still a significant contributor – and will become more so as GHG levels in the atmosphere rise – simply the heat released when burning fuels is also being stored in the atmosphere, as well as in the earth, sea, and arctic ice.

The researchers have calculated that the heat energy accumulated in the atmosphere corresponds to a mere 6.6% of global warming, while the remaining heat is stored in the ground (31.5%), melting ice (33.4%) and sea water (28.5%). They point out that net heat emissions between the industrial revolution circa 1880 and the modern era at 2000 correspond to almost three quarters of the accumulated heat, i.e., global warming, during that period.

Their conclusion is that simply capturing our CO2 emissions, will not prevent global warming. We have to actually reduce the amount of heat we are releasing into the world via our energy use – which mostly involves burning things, and therefore generating waste heat.

The good news is that solar photovoltaics, wind power, even solar thermal generate much less, or even negative, waste heat than either conventional energy sources, or nuclear energy. And of course energy efficiency is the cheapest and most cost-effective mitigation we have at our fingertips.

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Australian solar and geothermal cheaper than coal and nuclear within 15 years

According this this analysis, from New Energy World Network, within 15 years the cost of concentrating solar power will be less than the cost of “clean” coal, at least in Australia. The analysis is based on the rates of change in cost between the two energy sources. With the cost of coal increasing, relatively, and CSP decreasing, the cost lines eventually cross, leaving CSP cheaper.

In addition, the article mentions offhandedly that connecting the Queensland and South Australian electricity grids would “likely pay for itself quickly just in increased efficiencies brought to the existing grid.”

The average Australian household could pay up to 30 per cent more per year by 2025 for electricity generated from coal and nuclear power than from concentrating solar and hot dry rock geothermal power, according to clean energy organisation DESERTEC-Australia.

This idea illustrates the kind of synergies that we need to find throughout the energy economy.

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(H/T to Benjamin Chambers for the link to the article.)

Zero Net Energy Homes Part 2: Some Beautiful Examples

Cannon Beach zero-net energy house
Cannon Beach zero-net energy house

In lieu of a longer post today, I thought I’d provide links to examples of some of the amazing homes people are building today to achieve zero net energy:

30-fold Increase In Solar Energy By 2016 – Moore’s Law, Anyone?

Solar Power International Logo
Solar Power International Logo

The opening keynotes at the Solar Power International trade show last week were eye-opening. (See the Tuesday Keynotes video on this page – Resch at 20 minutes, Hamm at 37 minutes.)

Rhone Resch of the Solar Energy Industries Association first told the story of getting the investment tax credit for solar renewed – 17 failed votes before it finally passed with the Paulson Bailout bill. He then outlined the benefits to the solar industry of the ITC – stability for solar energy businesses, creation of thousands of new business opportunities due to the remove of the residential solar cap, and a return to leadership of the US in solar. “Solar energy is going to create 440k new jobs, 1.2 million new solar installations, and 28 gigawatts of new capacity – enough to power seven million homes throughout the U.S.”

To achieve the 28 gigawatts of new solar electric generation capacity predicted by Resch in the next eight years, Julia Hamm of the Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA) threw down a challenge to the attendees. The industry must “be bold, be innovative, be strategic.” In particular, she outlined four key policy guidelines the industry must embrace to achieve this goal.

Utility Ownership of Solar Power Projects

The utility and solar industries must collaborate to find program structures, such as utility ownership of distributed photovoltaics, that provide a winning scenario for both industries, as well as for customers at large. The solar industry can utilize this new market segment as a buffer until home and small business owners are back on more solid financial footing.

Increased Utility Engagement in Solar Markets

The utility and solar industries must work together to get more utilities engaged, starting by increasing the solar knowledge base of utility employees, from top executives down to distribution engineers. We must move beyond having ninety seven percent of all grid-connected solar installations in just 10 utilities’ service territories.

Greased Wheels

The utility and solar industries must work in partnership with regulators and investors to push for approval and funding of new transmission projects and the development of smart grid configurations to expedite the timeframe in which new utility-scale and distributed solar projects can come on line and provide maximum value.

Development of Innovative Approaches

By working in collaboration, the utility and solar industries can make great strides towards modernizing today’s electricity infrastructure and offering customers affordable and clean power. But the status quo will not cut it. We need bold new ideas developed in tandem for the mutual benefit of both industries, and society at large.

(A press release version of this challenge is here.)

The 28 gigawatt figure represents an increase in solar capacity of more than thirty fold between 2009 and 2016. This is approximately three times the estimated amount of generation predicted to come online as a result of existing renewable portfolio standards and policies in states with existing solar carve outs.

However, not only does 30-fold growth far outstrip most predictions for solar energy capacity in the next eight years, it has another interesting property. It corresponds to a “Moore’s Law-type” of growth, with a doubling period of about every 18 months. This is the first time I’ve heard a solar energy organization step up to a prediction of a Moore’s Law-type growth rate. And it means that in 18 years, if the doubling rate stays constant, solar would be responsible for over 400 gigawatts of capacity, or just about equal to our current energy usage in the U.S. Solar could be providing nearly 100 percent of our energy by 2026, or even more if our overall energy usage goes down due to efficiency, as is possible given California’s example.

And if our solar capacity keeps on doubling every year and half after that? What will we do with all that energy? Your comments welcome, of course!

Sahara Forest Project: An Awesome Example of Mega-Integrative Design

The Sahara Forest project will use seawater and solar power to grow food in greenhouses across the desert. Photograph: Exploration Architecture
The Sahara Forest project will use seawater and solar power to grow food in greenhouses across the desert. Photograph: Exploration Architecture

The Sahara Forest project represents integrative design at a huge scale. (Integrative design combines multiple design improvements to get an overall improvement that’s bigger than the sum of its components.) As it says on the the Sahara Forest project home page:

The project combines two proven technologies in a new way to create multiple benefits: producing large amounts of renewable energy, food and water as well as reversing desertification.

The two technologies are the Seawater Greenhouse, invented by Charlie Paton, and a concentrating solar energy generation capability. The synergies arise in several ways – the energy generation provides the power to run fans to work the greenhouse, while the greenhouse creates excess fresh water for cleaning the mirrors of the generator, for example. The team that’s come together to create the project also represents some interesting synergies:

An inventor – Charlie Paton, creator of the Seawater Greenhouse; an architect – Michael Pawlyn of Exploration Architecture, previously of Grimshaw and the lead architect on the iconic Eden Project; an engineer – Bill Watts of Max Fordham & Partners, an engineering firm that focuses on energy efficient systems for the built environment.

The Sahara Forest post at Treehugger features a long interesting response in the comments by Pawlyn in response to questions raised by other commenters.

This is one of several projects I’ve read about recently that combine energy generation via visible light with use of the excess heat to achieve much higher solar energy conversion efficiencies. For example, this report in Science Daily last year about a prototype PV/Thermal system that was projected to capture 80% of the energy. While it complicates the mechanicals of the system, it certainly seems to make sense to take advantage of the heat created as a side effect of PV energy collection, especially since the PV cells work better – are more efficient – at lower temperatures. The heat needs to be removed anyway!

So far neither the project’s website or news reports about the project have many details about its progress or funding, but it’s definitely something to keep an eye on.