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Green energy dilemmas

January 29, 2012

The news about fracking and wastewater injection causing earthquakes and ignitable faucets reminds us that, while natural gas burns cleaner than coal, we still need to find sustainable energy supplies that make zero carbon and don’t pollute. Which kind of “green energy” do you like?

Remember, as we reach for green energy, we need to make sure that the new sources do not create more problems than they solve–especially when scaled up. Let’s look at some examples.

Solar energy is a big winner, especially for local apps like your home or college building. Here are solar panels atop Doan Library at Denison.
But when it comes to “big solar,” not so fast. As we see in The Highest Frontier, large-scale solar (1) takes up lots of land, displacing wildlife, and (2) decreases albedo, absorbing more energy than the desert it replaced; thus adding to the greenhouse effect. Big concern in California’s Mohave. On the other hand, what about space-based solar? Sure, there may be accidents with the microwave beam, but that’s about on the order of explosive dangers from current power plants.

Geothermal is great, even for homes in the midwest. Right here in Knox County, my colleagues claim they heat their homes entirely with geothermal and pay back the cost of installation. And Kenyon’s new art gallery is heated by geothermal heat pumps.
But large-scale geothermal–like fracking wastewater injection–has caused earthquakes, leading to cancel major projects. Back to the drawing board: Can a new form of geothermal avoid seismic disturbance? Let’s hope so, though you can’t blame people for feeling queasy.

Wind power is a favorite of mine. Personally, I have no sympathy for the Kennedys who don’t want to see those lovely towers on their horizon. And none for Native Americans who complain while building a casino.
Of course, once there are lots of towers, there will be problems with noise, birds, planes etc. I have no idea how large these problems may be. An intriguing variant is stratospheric wind, which promises orders of magnitude greater energy.

What’s your favorite green energy; and how will it scale up?

47 Comments
  1. January 29, 2012 10:35 pm

    I want someone to build a digging bot that makes it possible to retrofit a house for earth tubes without excavating the whole yard. Then I could cool it in summer and warm it (though it would need extra heating to be comfortable) in winter.

    No one wants to fund my mad science project, which is to deliberately sink geothermal power wells up and down the San Andreas Fault. Sure, there’ll be some big quakes to start with (especially when that stretch near Palm Springs that has seven meters of continental drift to catch up on lets go), but we’d have enough warning to bring buildings up to code. And then we’d get green power and fewer catastrophic earthquakes because we’d be trading them in for smaller, more frequent ones.

  2. January 29, 2012 11:39 pm

    My favorite green energy is conservation. If we were willing to indulge in the building spree, we in the US could cut our energy usage in half, easily. We’ve known how to do this for decades.

    Solar? Sigh. I love the concept of paving the miles of bare urban roofs with solar cells. Unfortunately, that doesn’t put enough megabucks in the pockets of international investors, so instead we get mega-plants on public lands, with promises of still more in the future (ref: 2012 State of the Union Speech). There are a bunch of problems with desert solar. The best summary was by a desert ecologist who showed a picture of a 6,000 year-old blackbrush landscape in the Mojave and asked “you’d destroy this for 20 years of power? Why?”

    To unpack that statement slightly:
    –There is something there already, something that took thousands of years to grow and will take thousands of years to regenerate. Only uneducated city-folk think deserts are empty.
    –Solar plant lifespan appears to be 10-20 years. Certainly they *could* build another plant on the site of an old one, but curiously, they don’t seem interested in doing that yet.
    –Solar plants require the land to be scraped flat and bare. It’s not just wildlife. Everything goes, plants, archeology, etc. We’ve had some luck persuading them not to build in flash flood washes, but that’s about it.
    –One big stumbling block for desert solar is the water needed to wash the mirrors and panels. That water evaporates, rather than running off, and water is precious in a desert. All water used cleaning solar plants is lost. One (killed) project appeared to have 10 years of water in the local aquifer and to take 15 years to break even financially. Following the water is always a good rule in desert politics.
    –The advantage of placing solar plants in the desert is that the deserts get 10-20% more sunlight than nearby coastal cities. Ironically, the power loss transmitting from the desert is on order 10-20%. The advantage to desert solar is that you can lease a lot of land for a relatively short time. Roofs have people living under them.
    –Right now, rooftop solar costs ~$7/watt to install (whole system, not panels). Desert solar is reported to cost ~$3.50/watt to install (whole system). I posted this on Antipope, and immediately got a number of recommendations for how to get the rooftop cost down. Conversely, the price on a big plant could easily double due to reasonable cost over-runs. Bottom line is they are roughly comparable in cost.
    –According to the squawking from the desert counties, big solar won’t generate a lot of long-term high-paying jobs, so they might not generate much in taxes.

    Wind? Sigh. Windmills are a great idea, so long as you don’t mind something that cranks up to 80-100 decibels in your immediate neighborhood. Turbines are loud. Or that shrapnels if one of the blades catches a support wire or central pylon in a windstorm (and yes, those huge blades bend back in the wind). Or that, if the bearings seize or the turbine catches fire, sprays flaming debris roughly a distance equivalent to the height of the turbine. During a windstorm. You’ve heard of Santa Ana and Chinook winds, I hope? That’s without going into the bird and bat kills.

    Now compared to the explosive potential of a gas, coal, or oil plant, wind turbines are pretty benign. Still, putting on in a school yard probably isn’t wise.

    As I said, my favorite form of green energy is energy conservation. After that, I’m fond of local generation (rooftop solar, septic-tank methane, passive geothermal), and wind in selected areas. Unfortunately, what we’re getting is more big, vulnerable plants put where they think no one’s looking. I get tired of them.

    And yes, places where no one’s looking includes space panels. Sorry Joan, but the idea that energy needs to come from a long ways away and involve international politics is so Oil Age. We really need to take responsibility for putting the generators where we live, so that we can care for them properly.

    • Alex Tolley permalink
      January 30, 2012 1:53 am

      In summary: Schumacher’s ” Small is Beautiful”?

      I think you underestimate the costs of personal power generation. There is a good reason for utility level power, if only for the simplicity of having quality power at the wall socket.

      If we restrict power generation to small scale systems, then our planetary future will be energy limited. Space based solar power is one way to open up that future. I would hate to close that future prematurely.

    • paws4thot permalink
      January 30, 2012 6:10 am

      Last month there were some very spectacular photos taken here of a big (one of the 3oo’ mast types) wind turbine that didn’t declutch in a storm exploding, buring, and chucking flaming debris everywhere. Fortunately, the ground was wet enough to put the flaming debris out! Cite – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-16115139

      As for solar power, Ok living in Scotland, but I prefer using solar energy for a base load for domestic Hot Water Systems to this insistance on solar cells to make electricity.

      So I’d go for hydro-electric plus conservation.

  3. Alex Tolley permalink
    January 29, 2012 11:43 pm

    For scale, space based solar would win hands down. But at this point, it isn’t close to economic.

    I think appropriate technology for the locale is important. Deserts do nicely for large ground based solar. Cities in the US sunbelt make sense for solar PV on buildings. Higher latitudes for wind power. Those stratosphere wind turbines should be based over oceans for safety. Geothermal in geologically suitable areas.

    I’d like to see more energy conservation, especially in residences. All those appliances fighting each other and not integrated. All that energy dumped down the drain after using hot water. Poorly designed buildings to the local climate, poor use of available insulation, etc, etc.

  4. January 30, 2012 6:05 am

    Transport is a major part of our energy consumption, especially everyday transport. I like muscles here, as in bikes. Not only will it keep you healthy, but it will also make people move about faster in the cities since there will be a lot less congestion. If the amount of cars decreases there will be fewer severe traffic accidents too.

    • paws4thot permalink
      January 30, 2012 6:12 am

      Ok, I’ll bite. What if you live 12 miles from work, in an area where 40mph winds and driving rain are a regular occurance and there is no closer housing?

  5. January 30, 2012 9:01 am

    The unfortunate thing is that for daily energy needs like, say, getting to the office (yes, more mass transit, electric please, is a better alternative, but our workers don’t all head downtown these days), sending goods or people cross-country (hmm… trains again would help, if we can make them fast enough), there’s no way to concentrate energy better than hydrocarbon fuels do.
    What we need is some sort of fuel cell that sequesters the carbon (perhaps as pure carbon/charcoal instead of CO2). We’re still using the darn hydrocarbons, but we’re not pumping them into the atmosphere that way.

    The advantage of things like this is that they can start relatively small, once the power systems have been scaled to car or truck size — I’d accept one that works in a widebody jet for that matter.

    And conservation? Not going to be a significant factor when the third world is gobbling it up fast enough to catch up to the first and second in the next couple decades. If we can “burn” them cleanly, and manufacture them from renewable resources (more than just oilseeds — we need some cellulose-converting systems), then I say, “burn, baby, burn!”

    • paws4thot permalink
      January 30, 2012 9:35 am

      Comes to screeching halt in para 2 – You do realise that getting the carbon out of HC fuels as carbon powder rather than CO2 actually means using a sub-optimal level of thermal efficiency, and hence burning more fuel than you need?

      • January 30, 2012 4:05 pm

        I understand that poly-CH2 + O2 -> C + H2O will produce less energy than -> H2O + CO2. But the current internal combustion engines are so inefficient already (using thermal expansion to drive a mechanical system) that we should be able to make it up with a fuel cell.

        Of course, I’m imagining cheap magical catalysts and fuel cells.

        • paws4thot permalink
          January 31, 2012 5:24 am

          Just a bit, considering that the latest turbo-diesels and high-bipass turbofan engines are approaching 50% thermal efficiency!

  6. January 30, 2012 9:59 am

    A couple of quick points to throw into the mix:

    –Conservation is essential for Western economies, in the short run. But studies show that as energy gets conserved, it gets cheaper, and people find more ways to spend it.

    –What about burning H2? Is H2 more sustainable, if we can find some way to store it? Bacteria can use sunlight directly to split H2O, making H2 and electricity. Two kinds of fuel at once.

    • Alex Tolley permalink
      January 30, 2012 10:18 am

      But studies show that as energy gets conserved, it gets cheaper, and people find more ways to spend it.

      I’ve heard about this effect, but is it really true. If you buy a fuel efficient car to commute to work with, do you really use it to take long drives, or live further from your work? I don’t believe so. If a building is more energy efficient, do you then build a much bigger one to compensate? I really don’t see the economic logic in these cases at all.

      The biggest counterfactual to this is the use of energy per unit GDP. The 1970’s saw a significant change in the energy used in response to high oil prices. That did not change in the 1980’s when oil prices collapsed. What we did see was US auto companies push highly profitable large SUVs and trucks onto the market, culminating in the Hummer. In that sense, there was an effect to use more cheap energy by being profligate. Note that this did not happen in Europe where gasoline taxes are high, streets narrower and traffic congestion higher.

      • paws4thot permalink
        January 30, 2012 10:23 am

        Ok, we never got quite as bad as the Hummer (H1 or H2) but we do have rediculous numbers of mostly pointless SUVs doing such “off-road” tasks as parking with 2 wheels on the sidewalk in South Kensington (one of hte most expensive parts of London).

    • Alex Tolley permalink
      January 30, 2012 10:31 am

      I don’t see the benefits hydrogen offers over carbon neutral carbon based fuels, e.g. algal biofuels. We already know that carbon based liquid fuels have high energy density, are easy to store and transport, and we have a good existing infrastructure for them.

      The only advantage I see with hydrogen is that it is easier to use in fuel cells, and the cost of fuel cells is still high and uneconomic compared to internal combustion engines.

      • paws4thot permalink
        January 30, 2012 10:52 am

        That and industrial hydrogen is usually derived from cracking hydrocarbons or electrolysing water, which either produces carbon or requires lots of electricity.

      • January 30, 2012 2:41 pm

        The advantage of H2 is that it makes zero greenhouse gas and zero pollution.

        The problem of making H2 can be solved in principle by photosynthetic bacteria, which only split H2O using energy from light. In principle, this is entirely clean. In practice, some genetic tinkering is needed to direct their metabolism entirely down this route.

        • paws4thot permalink
          January 31, 2012 5:27 am

          I’ll cede to the World-renouned expert on the idea of bio-H2; my last in this strand states the current commercial state of the art though.

  7. January 30, 2012 11:19 am

    Hydrogen is an energy storage medium, not a fuel. The fundamental problem with using hydrogen is that you have to make the hydrogen, which costs energy in some form. As a storage medium, it’s not as energy dense as, say, gasoline, which is why people drill for oil and flare off the light molecules (or did). Another issue with hydrogen is that it requires a whole new infrastructure to transport and use it. When you spill it, it’s gone.

    What I think will happen is that over the next century, we’ll blow a lot of our fossil carbon into the air. Where the energy return on investment allows it (meaning something like eight calories are captured for every calorie spent), we’ll use that carbon as fossil fuel. The rest will come from things like peat oxidation, methane clathrate eruptions, and so forth.

    Future civilizations will then capture that carbon out of the air to make alcohol, gasoline, diesel, or whatever, using everything from algae to sugar cane. When these materials are burned, the carbon will go back into the air. Rather than having a non-renewable carbon pool in the ground, will have a renewable carbon pool in the atmosphere.

    Yes, the climate will resemble the PETM (Paleocene Eocene Thermal Maximum), and this will result in culture crashes, mass human migration, mass extinction, and so on (all the horrors people say that they want to avoid). But it will provide a sustainable environment for industrial civilization. That’s what we want. Right? Or is it?

    One solution is bio-char producing stoves, but that’s another post. They could get the carbon back in the ground in a semi-stable form, but the result might be the end of industrial civilization.

  8. January 30, 2012 11:37 am

    As for urban solar being “tiny,” you have to look at the numbers.

    One thing to remember is that desert solar plants can only be installed where the ground is within a few percent of level. That’s a small percent of desert lands, and you have to avoid things like lake beds that occasionally flood.

    Rooftop solar doesn’t require a flat surface, and urban areas aren’t small. For example, the greater Los Angeles area is 148 square miles. Only a fraction of this area is available for solar, that’s still huge compared with the plants proposed. Some cities can probably power themselves off their rooftops, if they wanted, due to a combination of sun and equable climate. Others need external power, but they still can take up a huge chunk of their own power generation if they want. Additionally, as someone pointed out, a solar panel on a roof keeps the sun from heating up the building underneath, which makes it that much cooler.

    The biggest problem with rooftop solar right now, ironically, is the power companies. The ones in California don’t like rooftop solar, for a variety of reasons. I think ultimately, they’re afraid they’ll be asked to maintain a smart grid without getting their investors rich doing it, and they don’t want to be in that position. But I’m cynical. There are technical problems with wiring a bunch of solar panels into the existing power system we have. These problems are solvable, but it’s not as simple as plug and go.

    I don’t know the comparison with space solar. The best you can capture is 1361 watts/sq. meter (that’s the energy of all incoming solar radiation), and all construction costs (from launch costs to construction to operation) have to beat $3.50/watt, which is what we can do on Earth with existing technology. I’m not sure it’s possible, and given the abundance of space debris, I suspect maintenance and replacement costs will be high. Additionally, each solar sat will likely have a working life of 20 years. I’ll be happy to see how the numbers add up. One good thing is that we won’t be using the space shuttle to build the things (at $500 million/launch).

  9. January 30, 2012 1:10 pm

    The alternative power source that most impressed me was these ‘tidal kinetic’ mills–it’s just a big length of joined segments–as the tides push and pull on these things, the kinetic energy is converted to EM. It’s like geothermal, only less-impact.
    I used to admire the idea of putting little anemometer-looking windmills in large numbers down the center line of major highways–the passage of cars and trucks makes them spin–but these tidal-power ‘worms’ are even cooler. Plus, it has little or no impact on the ecosphere.

    • January 30, 2012 2:43 pm

      Yes, tidal mills look cool. I have no idea where to begin looking at this. Ecosystem effects, maybe?

      • January 30, 2012 6:35 pm

        I guess nothing is zero impact–but that is what we are, as artificers, little blobs of environmental impact. Tide-mills with blades, as most seem to be, have obvious risks for wildlife, but the newer, still being developed, self-contained (and presumably waterproof) tide ‘worms’ would only impact the sea-bottom it rests and rolls on (unless designed to float, although that would be defeating the purpose, I guess).

        And I suppose one must look at how much coastline/volt is required, if looking at a global, exclusive use of ‘just tidal energy’. But it seems far more accessible than geothermal, less impactful than fresh-water dam-generators, and pretty lo-tech when compared with some others, like solar, and the fabled clean-coal.

        But here’s a thought: we could protect whale pods by claiming commercial rights to their kinetic energy–which reminds me-the biggest question with regard to Tidal-Energy is it’s long period, going twelve hours (or is it six?) between deltas–so nobody goes nowhere without battery storage–the highest tech (and requiring the most rare-earth-type stuff–which means mining, etc.) so… maybe not so lo-tech after all. If the kinetic energy is used continuously, I suppose the peaks don’t really matter, if we can harness the tidal forces in that way. Too much for my head..great topic.

  10. January 30, 2012 2:42 pm

    Copied from above in case it was missed down-thread:

    The advantage of H2 is that it makes zero greenhouse gas and zero pollution.

    The problem of making H2 can be solved in principle by photosynthetic bacteria, which only split H2O using energy from light. In principle, this is entirely clean. In practice, some genetic tinkering is needed to direct their metabolism entirely down this route.

    • January 30, 2012 3:18 pm

      I’m not sure that adding protons is as zero-pollution as all that (for one thing, that’s a lot of acid you’re generating with all those excess hydrogen ions in solution). The bigger issue is that you’re capturing energy from another source, unlike fossil fuels, where you’re depending on energy that was captured long ago.

      Hydrogen has to be compared with things like batteries and compressed air, not with gasoline, diesel, and nuclear. As a storage medium, I’m not sure how it compares, either.

    • Alex Tolley permalink
      January 30, 2012 3:30 pm

      We can electrolyze water quite efficiently. Coupled with a PV cell, we could produce hydrogen today, in industrial scale quantities or at the micro level. No new tech needed.

      Converting hydrogen back to energy by combustion will be very clean, although not perfect.
      H2O is a GHG, so if we created a lot of extra water vapour, i.e. increased the local humidity, the earth would warm up locally, apart from the extra energy dumped as waste heat. Fuel cells are better.

      So you are left with the storage problem. High pressure containers, liquid containment at very low temperatures or adsorbed on metal hydrides (heavy).

      Hydrocarbons make more sense in this regard.

      heteromeles does make a good point about CO2 storage. The atmosphere makes a cheap container, so the tendency will be to load the atmosphere with CO2 as a sink and draw from it. If normal economic times would result in a partitioning of CO2 in the atmosphere and unburnt fuel reserves, a recession might initially reduce the atmospheric CO2, and increase it over time as reserves are exhausted. (Or maybe not).
      If however, we target low atmospheric CO2, we could source our carbon from the huge beds of limestones, ensuring that the partitioning was primarily between the rocks and the fuel reserves, rather than fuel and atmosphere. However we would have to be careful to ensure that atmospheric CO2 is controlled, preventing massive increases of CO2 from the rocks as the they are converted to fuel and burned.

  11. January 30, 2012 10:38 pm

    If we take these arguments further, assuming energy demands keep going up, we find that some day there is no way to avoid producing heat faster than we can dissipate it.

    Doesn’t this mean that not only our solar power but all our factories ultimately need to be out in space?

    • paws4thot permalink
      January 31, 2012 5:40 am

      That depends a bit on whether or not the industrial processes generate more heat from being processes or from inefficiencies in their present power generation methodologies I think. As observed further up, conservation technologies are needed. This doesn’t just mean things like insulating houses, but also trying to recycle heat from steel mills to heat the mill’s offices, its workforce’s houses, schools, shops… Do this right and we could maybe use the same generated heat 3 or 4 times I think.

      We’re both thinking that the same problem needs solving to build a beanstalk; how do we get a suitable strong material to make the orbital cables? The next question becomes “do we think we can get our cables to conduct electricity?

  12. January 30, 2012 10:56 pm

    Absent a new breakthrough technology, I’d argue that we’re actually near the end of human involvement in space. We may have machines up there, but the cost of launching is such that it’s never going to be cost-effective to make most things in space. Unless cheap anti-gravity or something similar comes along, I’m not going to bet on space factories, sorry.

    The other thing is to realize how much we don’t know how to do yet. I’m currently reading Thor Hanson’s Feathers, and there’s a long list of things that feathers naturally do that we can only crudely mimic with advanced materials and expensive engineering. We’ve got a huge frontier of room-temperature, low-energy manufacturing out there, and I suspect that’s where technology will go in the future.

    • January 31, 2012 12:40 am

      Extending ourselves beyond Earth is mandatory. We already have difficulty with greenhouse-gas and Van Allen Belt erosion, we already have overcrowding, we already have a new global paradigm based on the distribution of resources, the shrinking arable land area, The upwards of our population growth and our tech-style-living (and eco-damage) and the downwards of available raw materials and non-renewable resources–all of these things can be graphed to a point where the one goes too high and the other gets too low.

      The mathematics of our civilization insist that we either expand the pool of resources and the living space–or we can make rough estimates of when these figures start to go really pear-shaped–I’m convinced it doesn’t permit another thousand years–I’d be surprised if it could go a century even–and some of the forecasts regarding the next decade are pretty scary, too.

      It is true that we must try to develop our solar frontier before we run out of rocket fuel–and that, too, has an inevitable countdown leading to ‘too late-you lose’. Space factories will not be important to surface dwellers, here on Earth, but space mining of asteroids will supply metals and other materials whole orders of magnitude beyond what we could ever dig out of our home. To achieve the innovations that make near-Earth space really useful and valuable may take more time than we have, so we should start boosting the essential ‘boot-strap’ tech and personnel out of our gravity well now, while we still have fuel to do so.

      Once you get a solar-power array into one of the Lagrange points, construct a rail-launcher to send prospectors out to the belts, where they can construct a rail-launcher for the return trip–such processes and development will be able to grow geometrically, once the basics are in place–if water-ice-bearing asteroids are plentiful, they can even start some space gardens. Even carbon compounds may be available in our system’s two rock belts–they may end up with greater resources, if the tech gets worked out. Plus, we still aren’t sure of what useful stuff we may find on some of the other planets’s satellites (where gravity is less than 1G by a lot)

      The main point is this–not going into space, and soon, and in a big way, condemns our species to a mega-macro version of the overpopulated mouse cage experiment–and we know that doesn’t end well…

      • January 31, 2012 1:09 am

        How do you know we aren’t already 20 years too late? Besides, if you’re not ready and willing to build a thriving metropolis on Ellesmere Island, an arcology that is solar powered, sustainable, and not resupplied more than every two years, you’re not ready even to live on Mars, let alone someplace truly harsh.

        Let me make this very clear: humans are adapted to live on Earth, in a wide variety of ways. We have trouble with free fall. We have trouble with hard radiation. We have trouble with vacuum. We have trouble with extremes of temperature (trouble meaning we die horribly if exposed to an excess of any of these). These are not problems in space, these are space’s key resources: hard vacuum, freefall, wild swings in temperature, and a wide variety of highly energetic particles that we can’t readily use right now. There’s a limitless abundance of all of these, and a long, long distance to anything else.

        Anyway, we no longer have the energy for massive settlement of space, absent a massive technological breakthrough like anti-gravity. We have a fairly fixed budget of fossil fuels that we’ve run over halfway through, we’re having trouble making nuclear power a sustainable industry, and fusion power is still 20-50 years off, not that anyone’s really going for it as a power source any more. Beanstalks look less workable as a launch mechanism (there’s this little gyration problem that makes them really scary to ride), and we’re polluting near Earth orbit with debris to the point where we might lose the ability to send rockets into space in the near future. This rises to a near certainty if we have a space war and we explode a bunch of satellites, and given the huge “SPAWAR” building near where I live, I think that the US, at least, is planning for this very operation as we speak.

        So yes, we’re stuck on Earth. Fortunately for us, the only problem we have to deal with here is feeding 10 billion people, not feeding 10 billion undereducated people in a fragile space ship in the middle of space, with only gas and magnetic shields keeping us alive. Oh wait, it’s the same thing. Never mind. Let’s work on that one, shall we? After all, every other species in the history of the Earth has produced more individuals than can conceivably survive, and they made it five million years on average. Perhaps we should attempt the same? We still have roughly 492,000 years to go on that particular venture.

  13. January 31, 2012 9:01 am

    Heteromeles and XperDunn:
    Notice I didn’t say *humans* had to go out in space. Right now, I think there are huge barriers to *independent* human colonies in space (although, full disclosure, that won’t keep me from writing stories about them). What I said, though, was *factories* in space, sending products back to Earth. Like, Foxconn in space with robot employees. (Another good story there.) The only barrier see is power–and I’m confident that our technology’s ability to manipulate power will continue to increase exponentially. That’s why we’re such a danger to our own planet.

    Paws4thot: I saw a story that the Germans built a house that is has near-perfect heat retention, despite air circulating with the outside. I thought this violated the laws of thermodynamics and engineering in several ways, but it’s out there. Anyone know about this?

    • Alex Tolley permalink
      January 31, 2012 10:09 am

      I think this is the house that you are thinking of:

      passive house

      • January 31, 2012 10:52 am

        Yes, that must be it. I must say the extreme air-tightness makes me nervous, but the results are impressive. Why don’t we build more houses this way in the USA?

      • paws4thot permalink
        January 31, 2012 11:07 am

        AFAIK these houses do not use “open fire” heating systems (include all, gas, oil and solid fuel fires and central heating systems in this). This obviously reduces the requirement for ventilation systems.

        Also, I don’t know how familiar you folks are with low energy lighting systems. There’s a bunch of links in this sub-section of Alex’s entry http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Passive_house#Lighting_and_electrical_appliances but they typically burn about 20% of the power of a tungsten incandescent bulb of the same light output, and last 6 times longer as long as you’re not forever turning them on and off.

      • January 31, 2012 11:37 am

        Some people do build these types of houses in the US, and things like earthships have been around for decades. Since such buildings are not favored by local regulations, local suppliers, or local contractors, it’s generally more difficult to build them here than in Europe, and the best appliances, windows, and building materials generally have to be imported from Europe.

        We could have a whole other discussion about what’s wrong with the US housing industry. The best summary is my partner’s favorite TV channel, HGTV (Home and Gardening Channel). She loves watching all the interior design programs (how a coat of paint, a few knick knacks, and a bit of remodeling jacks up the value of a house). I like watching Holmes on Homes and Holmes Inspection, which are mostly about the problems with renovations and getting a house to work right, especially after someone else has botched a renovation. There are quite a few more decorating shows than shows on how to build a working home, which I think is the problem with the US housing industry. IMHO, we Americans are lazy, spoiled, and focused entirely too much on appearances when it comes to our houses.

        I’d also add that Planet Green, a channel originally devoted to environmental programming, used to show a program called The World’s Greenest Homes, and you can see episodes on the web. The channel has been rebranded as a general documentary channel, and now mostly shows programs about poltergeists and similar junk. All environmental programming shows up after midnight, and it’s almost all repeats. This trend seems to be occurring on all channels devoted to anything intellectual. Sigh.

        • January 31, 2012 2:06 pm

          Firstly, your argument that it may already be too late for space expansion is totally invalid–it’s the same as not trying because you might fail.

          Secondly, all these economics imaginings are based on existing models. The transfer of material up and down the gravity well becomes the last step in any space-oriented enterprise. Unlimited sunlight (and unlimited space to gather it in), unlimited resources of metal and water (from which, as discussed, H2 can be retrieved), and probably the best place for developing the kinds of tech that might produce a Beanstalk, or enough HydrOx fuel to power a shuttle fleet.

          And, as Joan points out, the human requirements in space are minimal, particularly as Space Exploration is our leading edge in automation and AI. But most important of all, the production of energy (which may even be microwaved to the surface–O my aching van allen belt!) and a place to put all our our nuclear waste are two reasons for needing a release valve for human activity on Earth.

          And, re: the making of LEO into a flying demolition derby is just growing pains–it reminds me of the automobile’s ancient history–the first recorded automobile accident occurred in Ohio at the turn of the last century–the only two licensed drivers in the state ran into each other.

          The economics of space say that a similar sophistication will grow within the space industry–in the near future, another Branson is going to hit the jackpot, charging stations and other orbiters for the removal of all debris within their orbital path–the cloud of space-junk we have today is going to become an opportunity–both in its removal AND the recycling of the metals, etc. (cheap compared with the cost of lifting the same materials from the surface).

          No, hiding on this one rock is NOT an option. Even potable water can be more plentiful up there than it is becoming in the water tables of the SW USA (and other locales). Besides, better we risk our fate on an adventure, rather than the slow madness and cannibalization that comes from a depleted pantry and a crowded cage.

          • Alex Tolley permalink
            January 31, 2012 5:20 pm

            The problem is how to get there from here. I agree that removal of space debris is going to important, simply because we have a very valuable satellite infrastructure that we cannot do without.

            As for potable water from space, it makes no economic sense to deliver to earth. We have oceans of it – all we need to do is removed all the other parts from it. You would still have to do this with space sourced water (comets are dirty and contaminated) and deliver it in a convenient way to the ground. How could that be cheaper than recycling water or desalinating it? If water delivery was cheap, we would have pipes from the Rockies and tugs dragging icebergs from the poles.

            I see solar power sats starting with specialized applications (e.g. US military)
            and growing as costs fall and energy demand rises. If they ever become cheap (space manufacture, very lightweight so launch costs reasonable) then I see a more widespread growth of the technology.

            Japan’s space agency is doing some tests for a possible deployment in a couple of decades. Note that cost is a major hurdle.

            JAXA solar power

          • February 1, 2012 12:16 am

            Again it is not a matter of bringing water down to Earth–my point is that Arizona and New Mexico were uninhabited until they began to draw from the water table–if they can colonize AZ, then we can colonize ‘out there’. Besides, I’d like to point out that moving material Up the G-Well is always expensive, but that moving material Down the well we can do like shuttles did–just a dead-stick aerofoil and a good long runway–the reentry glider itself could also be made of useful materials.

          • busy bee permalink
            February 2, 2012 5:58 pm

            “space: a place to put all our our nuclear waste”
            If you weren’t kidding, you don’t appreciate the incredible energy density of nuclear fuel. We have plenty of room down here for “all our nuclear waste”. There really isn’t that much of it. Think swimming pool volume rather than mountains of it. It’s much safer and much more practical to store it somewhere down here than to shoot it out of the gravity well. And the technical problem of quasi-permanent storage needs to be solved (and is satisfactorily solved, only the political will remains to be found) for the nuclear waste we already have, anyway, so there isn’t much additional cost in making more of it. Implementing that solution for twice the volume or a hundred times the volume still costs much less than studying the problem. Anybody who insists on abandoning nuclear power because of long-term technical issues with nuclear waste is either ignorant or disingenuous.

    • January 31, 2012 11:18 am

      As for manufacturing, there’s a neat article on manufacturing in America that explains the tradeoffs between machine manufacturing and human manufacturing, as part of a study of why the US is still the #1 or #2 manufacturer in the world despite the massive loss of employment from the manufacturing sector. Yes, it’s about robots and automation too.

      I’m not a manufacturing expert, but it seems that space factories have a couple of problems:
      –transport up and down is expensive, probably more expensive than shipping anywhere n the surface of the planet. The items manufactured in orbit would have to make enough of profit to justify this cost. I’m not aware of a “killer app”–something incredibly valuable on this planet that can best or only be manufactured in space–that would make those kinds of profits. Given our current preference for cheapness (smartphones vs. more powerful computers, drones vs. jets, etc.), it’s not clear that we could find buyers for whatever was made in orbit to justify the cost of making it.
      –There’s a marked lack of infrastructure in space. Setting up a factory on the South Pole would be easier, because there’s already air, water, transportation, and humans nearby to troubleshoot.
      –We’d need to get an order of magnitude better with robot factories. Currently, highly skilled humans perform the QA/QC on the machines. We’d have to figure out how to automate the QA/QC function as well, and I suspect that’s not simple. We’d also have to figure out how to make everything light enough to ship to orbit.

      Moreover, if we could do all this, think about what we could do with manufacturing on Earth. If we could make totally automated miniature factories that were more cost effective than anything we have now. This would revolutionize manufacturing on the surface of the planet first.

  14. Alex Tolley permalink
    January 31, 2012 11:34 am

    transport up and down is expensive, probably more expensive than shipping anywhere n the surface of the planet. The items manufactured in orbit would have to make enough of profit to justify this cost. I’m not aware of a “killer app”–something incredibly valuable on this planet that can best or only be manufactured in space–that would make those kinds of profits.

    Almost all the proposed space manufactured products – crystals, foamed metal, pharmaceuticals have not panned out. Clearly bulk mining might make sense for some metals, e.g. platinum. Juxtaposed with that is that human ingenuity has often found alternatives that circumvent their need and hence cost.

    Space does have lots of zero-g and vacuum, plus a huge waste sink and good environmental quarantine. So I would expect some uses for specialized facilities, but probably not for the vast majority of earth based manufacturing. Space manufacturing really only makes sense for products to be used in space. The cost of the facility remains more expensive than any return on the space manufactured product.

    I do think a factory to make solar power sats might eventually make sense, but the hurdles to overcome are immense and every improvement we make to reduce mass and increase reliability works against manufacturing in space in favor of terrestrial manufacture.

    Economics can be a real downer for us space cadets.

  15. January 31, 2012 9:09 pm

    Yes, the economics of space colonization do suck. It’s things like the 1361 watts/m2 of sunlight in Earth orbit (not “unlimited” as noted above) that also make it problematic. And the $3.50/watt cost of solar on Earth from existing panels. Even resource extraction doesn’t make a lot of sense, because dumping a huge amount of platinum (or whatever) will simply depress the price on Earth to the point where it’s only sporadically worthwhile to go out and get more.

    Even military solar satellites don’t make sense, since they’re enormous and very fragile targets during a war. A ground-launched missile could take one out, and I suspect that a ground-based laser would also destroy one fairly effectively.

    The thing is, we’ve already colonized space. Our culture currently depends on satellites to work, and we’re getting more dependent on space by the day. As Joan noted, we don’t particularly need humans up there, but we do need our communications and GPS satellites. We’re making quite efficient use of space’s best resources already, by using space and gravity to position satellites in useful orbits, and powering them with sunlight.

    The problem, for space cadets, is that science fiction conditioned us to expect something totally different.

    Since I’ve actually published a novel on space colonization, the only good reason I could come up with for a human colony in space was as a status project for a machine-based space civilization. It’s so hard to keep humans alive away from Earth that keeping a human colony alive is a useful demonstration of a civilization’s resources and technological capabilities. This is little different than the current economic justification for the international space station, and not terribly pleasant for the humans involved. One can only hope that, if humans colonize space this way, the machines are based on uploaded humans. Unfortunately, I don’t think we’ll even get that far.

  16. February 2, 2012 8:20 pm

    Busy Bee: About nuclear waste: Please be careful how we refer to those with whom we disagree. While reactors have gotten better, the waste problem still poses unsolved dilemmas with respect to the 10,000 year question.

    • Alex Tolley permalink
      February 2, 2012 8:55 pm

      Stewart Brand has made a good point – we really only need to solve the 100 year problem, and let future technology solve the problem. It is my understanding that nuclear waste can be burned so that the residual waste is much smaller and possibly has relatively short half-lives, so that decay removes the problem. I don’t have the details, so no cite, I’m afraid.

      Having said that, Fukushima should give us all pause. Accidents will happen (who coulda node a tsunami would breach the containment walls?), and they are messy to clean up, if that is even possible.

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