For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled. -Report on the space shuttle Challenger disaster, 1986
While technology will be necessary to shift a fossil fuel energy infrastructure to clean, renewable energy, technology is not a panacea. The use of energy is just one, albeit the largest set of human actions, that must change. The manner in which human live upon the planet must change in fundamental ways and technology is one set of tools to use in this transformation.
Solar energy is the technology used to intercept the sun’s energy and convert it into thermal and electrical energy. The three solar technologies are photovoltaics, solar heating and cooling, and concentrated solar power. Photovoltaics generate electricity directly from sunlight using solar panels. Solar heating-and-cooling uses the heat generated by the sun to provide hot water, space heating, cooling, and also pooling heating from residential to industrial size. Concentrated solar uses mirrors to focus the sun energy on a single tower to drive traditional steam turbines and engines.
Wind power harnesses the wind to provide mechanical energy through wind turbines to turn electrical generators. They can be mounted on land or on the ocean’s seabed just offshore. The latest and most efficient wind turbines are a mile wide.
Geothermal energy that is derived from tapping the ancient heat underground, which is harnessed to generate electricity and to warm buildings. The earliest forms of harnessing geothermal energy were the natural hot springs, which are still found throughout the world. This deep underground heat is found on every continent.
The energy infrastructure around the United States is over 100 years old and is based on systems designed in the first decades of the 1900’s. As we are learning, many of the large transmission towers, one of which caused the Paradise fire in Paradise, CA, are almost as old as the technology. Huge quantities of electricity are generated just to keep these transmission line, which run for hundreds of miles in every direction, alive twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. This electricity does not even light one bulb. A new digital infrastructure will make these huge transmission lines with their substations unnecessary, saving massive quantities of watts of electrical generation.
Minigrids and Microgrids
A microgrid is a local energy grid that can disconnect from the traditional grid and operate autonomously. Microgrids are self-sufficient and serve a specific and distinct geographical location. Minigrids are off-grid energy distribution networks with their own generation and energy storage unit. They are smaller than a microgrid, generating below 15 megawatts.
Community Solar is a term used specifically by government and energy to describe solar energy generation for more than one building or property. A solar farm supplying energy to an adjacent neighborhood is a good example of community solar. Community solar is also an investment vehicle for people who want to purchase “shares” (watts) of solar generated electricity when none is available in the immediate area.
Battery Storage power station
Because solar does not generate electricity in the absence of sunlight and turbines do not turn in the absence of wind, storing the unused watts for later use is necessary. Battery storage power stations is the last technological step necessary to remove fossil fuel generating power plants from the new digital grid. These batteries are already common in vehicles and are available for residential and small commercial properties. New technology is a race to balance high-performing electrical output with long-term functionality, which means a battery with a hefty kick that lasts a long time.
Efficient Energy Use
Energy Star Appliances
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a longstanding program of encouraging and promoting appliances and devices that adhere to an escalating standard of decreasing use of watts with better application outcomes. All mechanicals used in the home, office, and in commercial buildings are eligible for an Energy Star rating.
Heat pumps use electricity to move heat from outside to inside and in reverse, from inside to outside. They are used to heat and cool buildings, adjusting to the season and the needs of the building. They are also highly energy efficient.
Hybrid vehicles are an intermediate step between fossil fuel generation of energy and battery generation. Hybrid cars will have an internal combustion engine to drive an electric generator when the battery is low to power an electric motor. A diesel-electric train or submarine uses a diesel engine to drive an electric generator when the battery is low to power an electric motor. A Toyota Prius still uses gasoline but gets an estimated fifty-five miles per gallon (mpg).
Electric Vehicles (E.V.)
Electric vehicles derive their power from an on-board battery pack. While Tesla is well known, there many models available in the U.S. market. The market is evolving rapidly with luxury brands announcing their upcoming electric vehicles. Charging stations are an issue although the east coast and the west coast are far ahead of the interior states. You can keep up with E.V. and Hybrid news at https://www.greencarreports.com/news/electric-cars
A typical suburban homeowner uses their vehicle 4% of any given day, meaning the vehicle sits idle for 96% of the time. Ride Share, which is a form of collaborative consumption, is a digitally run technology where no one owns a vehicle, enrolling in a service that calls for a vehicle when needed. This technology removes the number of cars on the road. There are three types of sharing in process: peer to peer, business to consumer and co-op (not for profit). BMW, Peugeot and Daimler are investing in this business model. A fun website explaining Car Share in a long, long scroll can be found at http://futureofcarsharing.com/
The ultimate solution to carbon production from transportation is mass transit. One bus can remove fifty to sixty cars off of the road grid. Trains and subways can remove hundreds of cars. When these vehicles are electric like subways, the carbon savings are substantial. Mass Transit solves the problem of moving large numbers of people from homes to offices, industrial zones, and commercial zones.
The worst carbon polluters in the transportation industry are ships, followed by planes, trains and the fourth largest emitter of carbon pollution is long-haul trucks. Manufacturers are already displaying prototypes of electric trucks; however, the charging stations that are necessary to cross the country are not in place. While foreign countries already have electric trains in place that run efficiently for business, the U.S. market stubbornly refuses to adopt such technology.
Ships are the worst polluters, not only of carbon but of noxious fumes and illegally dumped bilges that poison the waters. Integrated electric propulsion systems are not near operational capacity for large ships. Some yachts do use these integrated propulsion systems.
Researchers around the world are publishing results of initial experiments and prototypes of carbon-sucking processes that will remove carbon from the atmosphere. Most of the technology is theoretical or impossible to implement at scale. Even when a prototype works, the effect is minuscule. The technology is nowhere near a production cycle.
Other motives are at work in these pronoucements. The Climate Denial industry likes to promote these stories as an argument to convince people to do nothing at this time. Technology will save the day later, they conclude; it is a false narrative. Another motive is research groups want to demonstrate promising avenues to attract funding. Whatever the reason, none of these technologies will be emerging before we need to cut emissions in half by 2030.
One Trillion Trees
The ongoing drumbeat of planting more trees has been around since the beginning of the ecology movement and Earth Day fairs. Planting trees is essential and important, yet how the trees are planted is just as critical as the planting. Planting trees for the sake reintroducing forested lands that serve as native habitat is the key to responding to climate change.
However, establishing trees for lumber plantations creates “green deserts” where nothing else can grow or thrive. Banana plantations are the first and most notorious green deserts. The trees are planted too close to together to allow undergrowth and the sprays of fertilizer, weed killer and pesticide kill everything but the banana trees.
Announcements such as a half-million trees to be planted in one country should be taken with a grain of salt. How trees are planted is just as important as the number of trees planted. The failure to restore native habitat weakens the carbon sequestration and causes further degradation of the land and the water resources.