Green4Geeks Blog

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There Is No Such Thing As A Free Lunch

Recently I came across a Facebook post that appeared to be great news - free energy from drinking water.  The premise is, by replacing a section of fresh water distribution pipes with a specially designed pipe with small turbines in it, the energy harvested from the fresh water running through the pipe and turning the turbine blades could be converted to electricity to do all sorts of things, even powering homes!  The special pipe is built by Lucid Energy.  This video explaining the process is a bit short on details, but has great production quality, and is very much a feel-good piece.  It was produced by a media company called ATTN:, and is one of a series of videos on various social and ecological topics.  The video on Facebook is can be found here.  The whole premise of this Green4Geeks site is engineering ecologically, going green because it is often the smarter long term solution, and basically just building smarter.  So when I see an innovative concept such as this, it really catches my attention.  I'm having a real problem getting behind this idea, and here is why; I believe this concept will use more energy than it creates.  

OK, so the water is going to be rushing through the pipe anyway, right?  It is fresh water that is going through water mains, that eventually makes it to the taps in our homes.  So, how does that water get there?  The answer is that it is pumped there from a reservoir.  Huge water pumps that are usually run by electricity create the flow and the pressure to keep the water flowing and under steady pressure.  Anything that is a blockage or impediment in the water's path adds to the energy it takes for the pumps to push that water through the pipe.  That includes the blades of the turbines that the video depicts.  So, while the energy appears to be free to the person downstream, something upstream is burning up energy to make it happen.  The only way I can see this working for free is if you are on a gravity system.  Most water systems here in the US are not gravity systems, they actively run pumps to keep all that water moving.  The water towers that you see around cities are actually there for mostly emergency use - when the power is out of there is an exceptionally heavy and sudden demand.

So, what i see is a rob Peter to pay Paul scheme here.  It really isn't free energy - someone is paying the bill at the pump.  The dismaying thing about this is that I observed a lot of positive comments, shares, and likes on the posting.  These are people that love the idea of free energy, but are trusting what appears to be junk science behind it.  Why does it work in Portland?  Their water source is up in the mountains and is primarily gravity fed - a rarity among water systems.  This project in Portland generates enough electricity to power about 150 homes, but it has cost $1.7 million to implement (so far).  They claim that there will be a $2 million savings over 20 years - not bad so long as there are no additional maintenance costs for the system.  I found this information here.   I'm not really sure how their math works out for the savings - I did a quick back of the napkin calculation and here is what I came up with:

Average $350/month electric bill * 12 months * 150 homes * 20 years = $12.6 million 

So, if you have saved $12.6 million in 20 years, you have more than paid for the system.  While it isn't clear whether the savings are an offset to the homeowners electric bill, the offset to construction costs, or both.  It should be noted that the savings calculations and actual energy produced and the homes powered varies widely depending upon where you read about it (the City of Portland, various reporters, and Lucid Energy) - I used the most generous figures for the calculation above.  Regardless, this works well in Portland, and two other cities are mentioned in the article, but for widespread use, not so much.  I would love to hear from any engineers that actually work on this and can correct any of my assumptions, or at least provide more detail on where the savings come in.  Either post in the comments section or email me directly.  

In short, feel good for the folks of Portland - for the rest of us, well, it is just a pipe dream.

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Practicing Energy Efficiency

I recently received an email from a reader who passed along a lot of links to sites that are the same theme as this one.  I took a look at her beautifully rendered site OurPreciousResources.org, and liked the message - ecology just one small step at a time.  The thing I like about that message, and what I try to promote, is just think about your day to day and your living environment in a critical way to see if you are doing it the most energy efficient way possible.  I like to put the engineering twist on it myself.  As an example, my front porch lights burned out frequently when I used to use incandescent bulbs.  They cost about $1.90 per bulb, and between my two fixtures, took a total of six bulbs.  I would end up replacing them nearly every year just due to exposure and burnouts (they weren't really on that much).  I tried CFLs when they became more affordable, but at at over $5 per bulb, and having no longer of a lifespan, it seemed like a foolish waste of money.  LED bulbs came along, and as an early adopter, I paid the premium price of $8 per bulb.  That was about five years ago.  They are still going strong and use a fraction of the energy the incandescent bulbs used in the beginning.  Not only have they paid for themselves by not having to replace them, they take way less energy, their eventual disposal is less harmful to the environment than CFLs.  One lesser known bonus feature of an outdoor LED light - they don't attract bugs like CFL and incandescent bulbs do; the narrower band of light (no UV and little infra-red) makes them less attractive to bugs.  

In short, switching to LEDs was a small step, but with many benefits, not just to myself, but to the environment.  

I started digging through the links from her email that I thought were the most interesting and will start sharing them.  The first one links to a good place to start if you aren't as geeky about these things as I am.  Take the energy efficiency quiz and see how you do (hint:  I gave you your first answer above).  This site is actually sponsored by an energy company, but the quiz might start you thinking over how much energy stuff around your house uses.  It might even guide your next appliance purchase.    The site is put up by Constellation Energy Resources, and the quiz can be found here.  Tip-o-the-hat to Ginger for the nice email!


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Why Australia's New Batteries Are Important

640px-500kV_3-Phase_Transmission_Lines

Tesla's new battery installation in Victoria Australia just demonstrated something remarkable.  A coal plant had an event that caused it to drop off line instantly, and the result was a drop in frequency of the power grid overall.  In Australia, the power grid operates at 50hz, and the drop took it to less than 49.8Hz, It was slightly less than a half percent drop, but could start causing some issues, had it continued to drop.  This isn't an unusual event on power grids, and normally, another generation plant would fire up and start producing power and stability to the grid so that no consumers actually lose power.  What is different about having Tesla's massive battery online is the near instantaneous stability it added back to the grid.  Before the alternate power plant could complete it's start up cycle, the battery synced and supported the grid with hardly a waver.

Why is this so important?  There has been shift, that is growing, to alternative forms of power.  The big plants aren't going anywhere soon, but as the solar farms, wind farms, and other alternative forms of energy are added to the grid, stability is going to be even more important.  Let's suppose a community was able to get half of it's daytime power from the sun.  An eclipse or a sudden weather event could take away a significant chunk of power, requiring a boost from the grid.  These new alternative energy plants also serve smaller geographic areas, introducing the concept of 'local energy'. If big power utilities become more of the energy transport than they do energy production, stability will be king.  We could see parallels to today's mobile phone technology - companies vying for the best up-time and quality of service.  Local energy is on it's way.  Tesla just proved that stability is already here, on a large scale.

Follow the link below for a great read on the event described above - and a tip-o-the-hat to Steve Hamel for alerting me to this milestone!

 Transmission line photo courtesy of:  By Varistor60 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=59368531


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Is it Less Expensive to Heat a Cold Home or Cool a Hot Home?

hotcoldhouseWhich is better?  If you live in the North part of the country, most of your energy costs go towards heating your home for the larger part of the year.  If you live in the South, that money goes to cooling instead.  So what climate is the most energy efficient?  The answer might surprise you.

First, consider that depending upon the region and the local climate, the source of the energy to cool or heat a home can be drastically different.  In the North, oil is often used for heating, but that really isn't a great solution in the South for much shorter season where heat is rarely needed.  Electricity has a higher price point in the North for heat, but it the most frequently used energy source for cooling.  The bottom line is, you have to look at regions individually, taking into account the length of seasons, whether your long season is heating or cooling, and then the cost and efficiency of your fuel type.  To do a kind of quick and dirty study, I compared a few states with different climates.  First, let's look at Maine.  Below is a graph depicting the energy usage for heating and cooling as compared to the national average:

ME heatcool

 

Here is the same chart for Florida:

FL heatcool

 

If you are to sum up the measure depicted, just for a one year period (FEB2016 through JAN2017), you get 4,371 degree days for Florida, while totaling a whopping 7,519 degree days for Maine.  Here are several states compared to the national average:

 
State Degree Days
Florida 4,371
Arizona 4,832
National Average 5,354
Kansas 5,496
Michigan 6,818
Maine 7,519

 

As shown, the relatively warm and Southern states of Florida and Arizona are below the national average, while Michigan and Maine are significantly higher in degree days.  Kansas, right in the middle, was relatively close to the national average.

In short, running that air conditioner turns out to be a lot less than cranking up the heater.  That is a win for the warmer states.  That, and you don't have to shovel sunshine!

 

Source:  U.S. Department of Energy, http://apps1.eere.energy.gov/sled/#/

 

 

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Ecobee3 is the Best Thermostat for My Money

Ecobee3 is the Best Thermostat for My Money

Shopping for a new 'smart' thermostat?  My review of the Ecobee3 here: Ecobee3 Review.

#green4geeks #Ecobee3

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Amendment 1 in Florida Failed - Now What?

Amendment 1 in Florida did not pass.  Even though there were slightly more than 50% of the votes cast in favor of the the Amendment, it required a 60% majority to be enacted into law.  The power companies in Florida waged an expensive campaign to convince voters that this would be good for them.  As numerous newspaper editors, online posters, and other groups have pointed out, this proposed amendment really wasn't good for the average consumer.  I understand the power companies protecting their fossil fuel interests, and that dealing with the purchase of consumer's excess power could chip away at their profit.  What I have a hard time justifying on their behalf is the monopoly this would have created.  By the amendments passing, it would have meant that if I generate excess power from my house, I would be prevented from selling it to my neighbor.  I believe that we should be able to put energy on a free market, inter-house, inter-neighborhood, inter-state.

So, what happens now that the amendment failed?  Nothing, for now.  However, this could all change at the legislative level.  Don't think for a minute that the power companies will attempt to take a run at this again through the state's legislature.  It is critical that the consumers in the state of Florida keep an eye out toward future bills that may harm them.  Even that is not enough - Florida remains one of the few states where consumers are not allowed to sell their excess power to anyone except for the established power companies.  This has had a stifling effect on the growth of solar expansion in the 'Sunshine State'.  Florida legislators, are you listening?

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A Wink and a Nod

house automatedWouldn't it be nice to come home, and have your home react to your arrival by turning on some lights, setting the air temperature to how you like it, and perhaps letting your other family members know you have arrived (even if they are not at home themselves)?  Home automation has been the domain of DIY'ers or expensive commercial contractors for decades.  That era is rapidly drawing to a close.  Today, there are numerous entry level kits that allow just about anyone, whether they have 'techie' skills or not, the ability to jump in.  There are so many options now, that it is often difficult to choose among the various brands.  The big box home improvement stores are dedicating end-caps to their brand or versions that they are backing. 

Among the better known brands:

Lowes Home Improvement stores are putting their weight behind a system called Iris Smart Home Management System.  It can be purchased as a kit, or each part or component can be purchased individually.  Iris is the Lowes brand of home automation, and it can only be purchased through their stores.  Their systems start below $200 for the basics, and can be expanded out to a full blown security system, or as simple as turning lights on and off.  Any Iris labeled product is pretty much assured to work with the system.

Home Depot doesn't have it's own private label, but does represent the Wink and Quirky/GE products.  This system is built around the Wink app for Android or iOS devices, which can interface with many individual products by itself, or with many more if you also purchase the Wink Hub.  This system is less a product line than a series of products that all work together through the apps inter-operability.  As with the other automation solutions, it is scaleable from small to pretty much full scale.  Wink uses a variety of protocols, and there are many products that are labelled "Wink Compatible", even to the level of detail of whether the hub is required or not.

Insteon is not linked to a big box store, but has a very thorough product set that can start as simple as an app and a device, and work up to a complete comprehensive system.  The entry point is a little pricier, but it does have a mature product line that could easily be called complete.

X10 is kind of the grandfather of DIY home automation.  It has been around for longer than most, and has a fairly complete set of products.  One unique difference of the x10 line is the wide variety of off the shelf remote control devices that are X10 compatible, even those that also have universal remote control features for home audio systems.

Vera positions itself in the market as a competitor to the monthly subscription model of home automation offered by cable or alarm companies.  It too, has a robust product set that one would be hard pressed to find incomplete.  It is scaleable, affordable, and has been around long enough to assure stability.

After weighing the pros and cons of these systems, I decided to start experimenting with Wink.  I liked that it was multi-protocol; it works with Z-wave, ZigBee, Bluetooth, and Wifi.  The hub was low cost, available for $50 or less.  To me, the main appeal was that it seemed much more open architecture than the others, and with multiple protocols, it was open to a wider set of options.  I don't mind getting down into the code or into detailed configuration scripts, in fact, I enjoy it; but I also wanted to see how simple this could be, so this was a factor as well.  I purchased my Wink Hub from Amazon, for less than $50, including free second day shipping.

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