The Case For Alternative Energy- A Primer

Energy is on everybody’s mind these days. Governments around the world are being forced by the increasing cost of energy generation to seek alternative technologies for the delivery of public utility power. Consumers, on the other hand, are forced by the rising utility bills to look more carefully at how they use the energy they pay for. At both levels, there is a new consciousness of the increasing cost of the limited supply of fossil fuels, the most prevalent fuel sources in use, both the direct and the indirect costs.  That is, both the financial cost and the environmental cost. Financially, the producers of oil, gas and coal respond to the dwindling reserves and increased regulation with increased costs, costs passed directly to the consumer, with the expected increases for the management of the passing on process, so that a dollar’s increase in the cost of a barrel of oil becomes many dollars more at the pump. The increase also means an increase in the cost of generating power, which becomes a greater increase at the electricity meter. Environmentally, access to fossil fuels requires massive disruption of the fragile ecosystems on the planet, both by physical disruption and by the pollution of the air we breathe. The very existence of life on the planet is threatened, as it warms up and our atmospheric systems behave in strange and unfamiliar ways.

These concerns have led to unprecedented levels of cooperation between nations, as they pursue alternative ways to avoid the continued use of fossil fuels and to reduce their need for the generation of power to sustain their lifestyles. Of course, those nations must also promise their constituents that the new technologies are less threatening than the present ones. So while nuclear power, which delivers clean, efficient power through controlled nuclear reaction, has been attractive to some, concerns about public safety and the problems of disposal of nuclear waste have made most countries look elsewhere for their power generation alternatives. Most have settled on the use of the sun, the wind and water currents as the potential sources, now and increasingly in the future. Of course, there are a multitude of other possibilities for more convenient or cheaper power generation, yet undeveloped, especially those based upon technologies developed for space travel, but those three above have the stage for the present.

The Sun
Generating electrical power using the sun is referred to as photovoltaic power. Basically, sensitive cells,  exposed to the sun, are excited by the sunlight and generate a form of electrical power. The power it produces is the same as that found in the battery of a car – direct current. Unfortunately, direct current is not the kind of current generally used in buildings, primarily because it is difficult to distribute over long runs without losing power. Buildings use the more “friendly” alternating power, which can be distributed easily and without significant loss. So the sun-generated direct current is fed through an “inverter” which transforms it into alternating current, which is then more useful to the consumer. (There are appliances designed to use direct current, however most consumers need alternating power.) This process of direct current to inverter to consumer, however, would only work while the sun was exciting the cells on the roof, and would be useless at night, or during overcast days, so to store the power, batteries similar to the car battery are placed between the solar panel and the inverter. There the power is stored until needed, then fed to the inverter and the building systems. Of course, it is possible to have a system without the batteries, which reverts to the grid when there is no solar power available. Which system is used is a matter of circumstance.

The wind is used to generate power by turning a coil inside a magnetic field, usually using a windmill. Like the photovoltaic generation, direct current is produced, which is stored in batteries and passed through an inverter for building use. Windmills are more dependent on windspeeds , which can vary more by location than the sun, and therefore wind generators are less popular than photovoltaic generators. However, in remote locations they can be very effective.

Water Currents
The most popular use of currents has been in use for centuries. Using a waterfall to turn turbines to create electricity is the principle behind what is known as hydro-electric power. Like the other systems, direct current is produced and stored, converted and fed to the consumer. However, in recent years there have been significant progress in the use of ocean and river currents as well as tidal movement as the force behind the movement of turbines, and the research is expected to continue.

The other side of the energy equation is the reduction of the need for power. This must be driven by the consumer, whose energy consciousness is demonstrated in their choices in the design of building fabric, in the use of energy-stingy appliances and in the use of alternative technologies for both the generation of power and for achieving the benefits usually gotten through the use of grid power. Here, lifestyle choices replace and reduce public utility use with personal alternatives, resulting in an overall reduction in the need for Government to generate power.

This reduction of the nation’s “energy footprint” is an international objective, made possible only if the consumer takes advantage of the wide range of alternative technologies available today, and likely to be available in the future. This in turn requires that the consumer educates himself or herself about the systems and appliances available, and becomes sensitive to their own “energy footprint”. 

Patrick Rahming

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