Sunday, June 10, 2012

Transforming how we use energy - Part 4

I listened to a very educational talk by Maggie Koerth-Baker about our energy future. She wrote a book: "Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before it Conquers Us". It was a great talk and I took the liberty of distilling more of the salient points. This is the final part - part 4.

"There was an idea to create biofuels on a regional basis using things that were grown in rural Minnesota. Not ethanol, what we would call cellulosic ethanol. It's not being made out of corn. It would be made out of things like perennial prairie grasses. The way we grow corn in today is not very good for soil and water quality. All of those things are important to having a future for farming. There's a rest stop in Iowa where you can see a visual representation of how much topsoil has been lost since the beginning of corn farming. It's something like eight vertical inches of Iowa have blown away. The Madelia model was really about trying to find a way for people to get paid for growing things that improved the soil, which would be things like perennial prairie grasses that produce these networks of roots underground. They nourish the soil rather than taking nutrients away. They can help clean water before it flows into estuaries into creeks. If farmers plant these prairie grasses on land that's doing poorly or on the borders around their farmland or against creeks and rivers, they can harvest and sell that the same way that they sell their corn. One of the things that they have had gone into play last fall was a project with the University of Minnesota that is based on this portable system called a microwave pyrolysis system. It basically starts with microwaves, which are just like a microwave oven only a little bit larger. You can toss in everything from corncobs to prairies grasses to any organic material into this thing. It heats it up to the point that it starts to release gas from it. Then you can get that gas and use that as synthetic natural gas. This little machine produces both a liquid, which is condensed out of the gas, and enough gas to run itself. You can take this from farm to farm and have people producing the equivalent of their own heating oil out of this stuff that they've grown on their own land.

We are out of good places to build giant hydroelectric dams in the US. So what we need to do is start building hydroelectric power at a smaller scale than we do today. Something that can serve thousands or hundreds of homes instead of millions of homes. Those are done with different technology. Instead of flooding out a valley and building a dam, you have a cut in the river where part of the river will flow through the power plant and then back into the river again. It's cheaper to build, better for the environment, displaces fewer people. This is a big deal in states like Kansas, that has never had a place to build a giant hydroelectric dam. I think Kansas right now produces enough hydroelectricity every year for about 800 homes. But if you captured all the potential from that smaller scale hydroelectric, Kansas could be producing clean power for 300,000 homes. We make most of our electricity at these giant power plants that serve millions of homes and are really far from the people that use the electricity. Going to a more decentralized system or distributed system is really about producing power closer to the people that use it. It goes all the way down to somebody putting up a solar panel on their roof and producing electricity."

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