Sunday, 19 May 2013

Thinking about Renewables: Part 2

Going on from last week let's start with Infrastructure and the meta-costs of technology. Here the Archdruid uses system costs to refer to costs needed to apply the energy resource,the meta costs include this and the necessary social/cultural structures required to use the technologies (such as rampant consumerism or the belief in progress). To properly use renewable energy in an eco-technic society, due both to the differing energy distributions and the different social/cultural structures, would require a different infrastructure set to what we have now, though it could easily share many basic components and structures, and that would take time, resources and energy to both maintain it and create it. It would also involve much more decentralized economies and probably polities as well. So the best strategy is to use as much of the current infrastructure as you can while slowly developing the alternate infrastructure that will exist in the future to reduce the transition costs.

That's part of the reason I thing the Zero Carbon Australia plan is a good first step, it uses most of current infrastructure while implementing some of the changes needed. It isn't the end of the process, only the start. Yes, the electricity grid was incredibly expensive to build and that needs to be accounted for the true cost of the project, but the electricity grid is already there and can be put to use now. Rebuilding our entire infrastructure from scratch is both impossible and stupid, better is to slowly modify the existing infrastructure and build up the new components needed while scrapping what's not needed over time. The more the meta-costs are spread over time, the cheaper it is each year, the more can go to the production side and the less dramatic the changes are, likely leading to less resistance to the transition. All those plans to switch over to renewables, yes they are often quoted unrealistically and compared to past examples, but the advantage now is that most of the infrastructure is already in place and doesn't have to be built from scratch, like railways (for coal use) were, thus reducing both costs and time.

The differing scales that societies operate on is especially important to energy use and distribution. The energy use of someones day to day life is different from the energy use used to create the structures necessary for him to live that daily life and that is again different for the energy use a society uses to keep itself functioning. Peasant farmers normally don't smelt their own ore and use it to make tools, city dwellers often don't make many of the artifacts/resources they use and infrastructure is similar, those that benefit often don't make /maintain their infrastructure or tools. The energy use and distribution for the manufacturing scale is different than the energy use in the peasants daily life. What about the energy use of a state and its armies, its a very different pattern than the daily life of a peasant, much more of a pulse compared to the steady inputs of the former.

We need to tailor renewable energy usage to these different scales and patterns, and tailor these scales to renewable energy. Solar hot water, solar cooking and food can provide the majority of daily energy use but they can't be used in manufacturing. Large windmills, charcoal production, solar furnaces aren't so useful in daily life, but they can provide the energy used to manufacture stuff, including solar cookers or hot water systems which are useful in daily life. States and armies would use stored energy, like biofuels, and use them every now and then (like during wars or during large infrastructure projects). These different scales will use/require different infrastructures and technologies, the pipe system of a house or a city, a micro-grid, national grid or only the wiring in a single building and so on, but there's significant overlap. This is the main problem with the Zero Carbon plan, not a lot of local actions or small scale changes, but its understandable as to why. They should just add support to local renewable energy ideas and projects at this stage of the plan, saying any improvements there are extra. Other actions and plans are better suited to the local level.

From these changes a variety of differences would appear. A redistribution of wealth to different sectors, similar to the concurrent change to organic agriculture, along with the consequent changes to employment, education and transport such changes bring. Along with this, the values of the general population would begin to shift (its a process that happens over generations and so would be fairly hard to detect accurately), so they'd become more appropriate to the new economic enviroment. A similar process happens to the idea of courage in battle when technology changes, same process different context (also a bit slower). Transport routes will change, some will come into being while others die or experience a resurgence while others decrease or increase in relative importance and from this a large range of economic changes will occur. And so on, Societies will change in response to their enviroment and its various industries. The current consumer culture is nonviable on the long run, so something else will appear to take its place.

Supporting technologies is related to how renewables develop but lets look at them first. The supporting technologies for fossil fuels are different that those of renewables, storage is one of the best examples so we'll look at that. Storage for fossil fuels involves storing them in their natural state either as a gas, liquid or solid but most importantly you can simply leave them like that and burn them when you want to. Renewables on the other hand generally (this is not true for wood or food to some extent)  have to be stored either as potential energy (say in a battery) or in a different form than what they come in. I'll use electricity storage, but heat and mechanical storage are in a similar position. There is no point developing large scale electricity storage when you use fossil fuels, its easier to simply leave them in their extracted form and burn when necessary, but that option isn't available for renewables (except Hydro). The exact layout and shape of the electricity grid reflects this.

So the technologies to store electricity on a large scale are only being developed about now, see this salt water battery or storing it as liquid oxygen. The advantage of the last one is if you have the storage next to a factory that produces heat, you can use that heat to raise the engines temperature to about 100°C and in effect reuse the waste heat to increase efficiency. Both of those technologies can be implemented with current technology, air compression is over 50 years old and most chem labs have the equipment, they just haven't been developed because there isn't any point if your using fossil fuels. That's another reason to slowly change our infrastructure, we don't know what will be useful or necessary yet and we need to let the potential technologies develop first before choosing what infrastructure to build/modify.

The development of renewable technologies is also important and there are several categories involved. Some technologies are mature and unlikely to change greatly, solar hot water and hydro are good examples, without a revolutionary change. Other technologies are still being developed and may or may not take off Vibro-wind Piezoelectric, wind lens (which can purportedly double or triple a turbines output) or solar furnaces for example. Notice how solar furnaces and concentrated solar thermal (CST) use the same underlying technology, reflective panels. That would be the way to use the organic change of societies over time, create the manufacturing capabilities for the reflective panels for CST as it makes sense as the first step, and then use that same capabilities to build solar furnaces and other such devices later on.

Quite a few of the basic components/technologies that are used in the large scale renewable technologies are equally viable on smaller scales or for direct use and vis versa. See the use of salt heat storage here, salt heat storage is also used for the big CST plants. Then there's how renewables are being deployed now and why. At the moment the big push is for electricity generation, even though chances are direct use is better, but there is a logical reason for that push and many of the technologies being developed will still be useful later on.

Here's a way that the salt heat storage could be used to solarize a common historical feature of urban life. Take away and fast food is often seen as a feature of modern industrial civilization, when it is in fact as old as city life (and sometimes village life) itself. A significant portion of city dwellers cooking at all is actually unique to modern Industrial civilization. There was 1 Thermopolium, effectively a Roman fast food restaurant, per 60 residents in Pompeii alongside tavernas and such, while the ancient equivalent of a drive through window, for travelers on the road, probably came into being in ancient Persia. Things similar to restaurants are also incredibly ancient and sometimes even villages had their equivalent, and for the same economic reasons this is likely to be true in the future. A kitchen is expensive, so is fuel and in most historical settings the majority of urban dwellers can't afford them anyway and even if they could, its often not worth it for them to take the time and expense to cook. And so takeout, taverns and restaurants flourish. The only question is since firewood is likely to be a scarce resource, how can we adapt these features of urban (as in towns upward) life to a post Overshoot world. Also just to clarify what counts here, its cafes, restaurants (of various sizes), take outs, fast food franchises, taverns, inns and street vendors. Below is one idea.

Solar cookers are (in the right context) a wonderful technology, with only sunlight as an input they can cook food, which saves a great deal of fuel. However they have several short comings, they require sunlight (which is intermittent and time restricted), conventional designs have a limited amount they can cook at once and they're often designed for a family or individual use. But if we have an entire restaurant to work with and use salt (or another type of) heat storage we can remove those shortcomings. Instead of focusing the sunlight onto a cooking surface, use the roof of the restaurant to collect sunlight that either makes steam or heats the salt. Ovens would have a cavity between the heavily insulated casing and the inside in which heat can be pumped from the storage and the stoves would work by using the stored heat to heat a hotplate.

The system would often (doesn't have to be, but it would help) be built into the building itself and while it would work on the same principles as most solar cookers, it wouldn't look and behave as current models. The heat storage can be quite large, lets say its in the basement, and would optimally store a few days to a weeks worth of heat and have a backup in the form of the ability to burn wood or charcoal to add to the heat. That's a likely way that renewable energy would be used in the future and in the process make urban life that much more livable than otherwise. The main economic variable will be if its cheaper to build solar powered restaurants, cafes or potentially street vendors than for most urban dwellers to have their own kitchen as well as the efficiency of scale for heat storage.I'm currently writing a basic technical (first time I've written one) paper outlining the problem and solution above for the Arhcdruid's contest (post it next week).

How Industrial societies are currently implementing renewable energy is also important, they are simply adding them to current energy sources. Replacement of some fossil fuel use is happening, bio-fuels are the best example of that process through solar hot water and cookers also count. If you have a growing economy (which we had until just recently) then if your adding a new energy source, then it makes sense to simply add it to whatever energy form is growing in use (that's currently electricity) instead of replacing an established energy form. Then their's the fact that quite a few industries use electricity because of its various advantages and that at the moment only oil is stagnating. Since its a transport fuel, which is hard to replace with renewables, the replacement will again take longer while replacing coal and natural gas is relatively easy.

The effect of this strategy is that the direct use of renewable energy as heat or mechanical won't be pursued in all but a handful of cases, even through it makes more sense as a starting point. Mind you, the direct use of renewables will increase, but again it will happen over time as our societies change. Also the ideology/religion of progress partly drives this trend, after all from the perspective of progress electricity is the way of the future, in Lewis Mumford's words towards the 'neo-technic' future. Once fossil fuels start declining noticeably (rather than the slow decline/stagnation happening now) and more basic energy needs need to be filled by alternatives, the direct use of renewables should see a noticeable uptick.

Renewable energy is not a single thing and its a complex reality. And the process of getting from where we are now to the future endpoint is not a simple process that follows a linear path towards a set goal. It will be an organic process as new technologies are implemented, some technologies disappear, certain resources run short, strategies are tried out and so on. Figuring out how to get from step to step with the resources at hand and with the current limitations is the first goal, hence using electricity since the grid is already there and therefor allowing time for the support technologies to develop, also here in Australia our grid is roughly 80-90% efficiency  (in America its 30%, due to distance, bad maintenance and old equipment). Later on something else will be tried and so on. The end goal of a fully renewable society that is tailored to the particular traits of whatever renewables are available is not going to be achieved for the next few centuries. Few of the technologies or technical tricks of such a society could currently exist now, they are still being developed or yet to be conceived of. Saying here is the endpoint so lets build that isn't helpful, figuring out a path that gets us there is.

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