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Monday, December 11, 2017
Article written by Allen Goldstone

Alternative Energy, The Dream And The Reality

Oil prices have recently surpassed $70 per barrel for the first time in history. With gas prices in the US hovering at $3 per gallon, many citizens are reevaluating their lives. Each day more Americans ask questions such as: Can I drive this big pickup or afford a car at all? What will I do this coming winter about my increasing utility bills?

These and other questions drive us to pay more attention to conflicts in the Middle East, Venezuela and elsewhere.

The first installment of this article will deal with the major sources of alternative energy: solar, ethanol, coal gasification and wind power. The second installment will discuss the potential financial benefits of investing in this growing segment of our economy.

Solar Energy
Solar energy breaks down into passive and active solar. Passive is typically dealt with in the architecture phase of a building. Basically, passive solar is about orienting a building and constructing it with materials and techniques that take advantage of the sunís lighting and heating abilities when it is dark and cold and shading it when temperatures are hotter. Active solar involves installing solar collectors that capture the sunís heat and transferring it to a liquid for household or commercial hot water applications.

The newer form of active solar utilizes photovoltaic cells similar to semiconductors that convert the sunís energy to electricity. In simple terms, the solar energy knocks electrons loose from their atoms allowing them to flow through the material to form electricity.

Photovoltaic applications have been limited to low power devices like calculators or to remote locations where the electrical grid was not available. This is changing as the number of photovoltaic cells being manufactured increases, which has been lowering the costs per unit each year by 3 to 5%. At the same time, technology has been making them more efficient. The combination of these two factors has lowered the cost of producing a watt of electricity from $7.50 in 1990 to $4.00 in 2005 with the payback on installing a system coming down to 5 to 10 years.

Benefits of solar energy include the fact that it is free and has little maintenance once it is installed. When combined with lower costs and more efficient technology solar is sure to play an important role in the future.

No discussion of ethanol can take place without including the amazing success of Brazil in eliminating its dependence on imported oil from the Middle East. Brazil produces enough ethanol from sugar cane to provide 40% of its demand for gas. All fuel sold in Brazil is at least 25% ethanol.

In the US the primary source of ethanol is from corn. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 mandates that production of ethanol in the US will double to 7.5 billion gallons over the next 5 years. Projections are that private industry will exceed this level with no government intervention.

Ethanol is not without its challenges. It cannot be transported in pipelines and is currently moved in railcars and barges. When used in higher concentrations, which can be as high as 85% it can damage fuel tanks and filters, can cause improper readings on fuel gauges and can corrode iron parts and electrical fuel pumps. It also has problems with high levels of evaporation and only provides 66% of the energy content of gas.

With that said, in the short-term ethanol is one of the only solutions we have to the fact that transportation uses 67% of our nationís petroleum consumption.

Coal Gasification
The 600 traditional coal burning power plants in the US produce 50% of the electricity that we use to run our country. Unfortunately, coal pollutes when it is mined, transported, stored and burned. Using current methods, coal is pulverized and burned to heat up boilers to produce steam that spins turbines that turn generators that produce electricity.

This process is the primary cause of global warming, acid rain and a number of other problems.

In coal gasification the coal is heated to 2000 degrees in a closed environment with steam and a limited amount of oxygen so that it breaks down to its component parts without burning.

A form of natural gas is created that can be burned more cleanly. One of the component parts is carbon dioxide, the primary culprit in the pollution of our world, but it can be captured and pumped underground to revive oil fields or stored underground in caverns. Currently there are several power plants in the US using this new technology known as IGCC, one in Indiana, one in North Dakota and a more modern one in Tampa, Florida. With 300 years worth of coal in existence, this may be the most important current technological advance on our planet.

Wind Power
Wind power currently provides less than 1% of the worldwide electricity capacity. This source of energy has tremendous potential with the cost to generate it having gone down by 80% over the last 15 years due to technological advances. It is abundant, renewable and clean and is currently growing by 38% per year in the US, faster than any other form of energy generation. The highest levels of wind are found at high altitudes where average wind velocities of 100 mph are not uncommon. But places where winds average over 12.5 mph are economically viable. The best locations are on cliffs or on the ridges of mountains where changes in ground elevation cause an increase in wind speed. The problem with wind is its inability to gear up to meet heavy load demand and the necessity to have backup power production capacity from other sources.

These four sources of energy production are the major alternatives we have today to eliminate our nationís addiction to oil. As newer technologies such as fuel cells become more practical we should see less dependence on fossil fuels like oil and coal that can provide future generations with clean renewable energy.
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