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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Engineering Meet Agriculture - I'll Drink to That!

I love it when creative thinking solves a difficult problem, and manages to do it in a 'green' way.  Here is the problem:  hops, which are a tight commodity in the craft beer making market, just don't grow well in the Southeast part of the US.  It isn't so much that they don't grow well, it is more that they don't grow as well as they can elsewhere.  Longer days make for more bountiful harvests, and in Florida, the daylight hours aren't quite long enough.  Add some LED lighting to their unique farms, and what you end up with is longer growing days, bigger harvest, and a locally produced crop!  I have a relative in Missouri who does the opposite to trick certain flowers to bloom during the long summer days.  He has blackout curtains in his greenhouses that are drawn on schedule to shorten the daylight hours for Chrysanthemums and Poinsettias, causing them to bloom when they wouldn't otherwise.  Traditionally, it has been easier and more cost effective to take light away from a growing environment than it has to add light to it.  Modern LED lighting has reduced the cost, and University of Florida is experimenting with different varieties of hops in Hillsborough County.

Hops are like many ingredients in other food products; the supply of ingredients is protected by the big players by contracting a year or more in advance with the growers.  This leaves folks like small craft brewers struggling for supply, and often paying top dollar for this crucial ingredient.  Opening up local supplies would help them greatly.  I hope to soon be hoisting a lovely IPA to their success!

Below, the link for the Hillsborough County article about the lighting (tip-o-the-hat to Johnna for the heads-up on this piece),  The second link is for for the good folks at 47Hops for a great article detailing the current state of the hops industry.

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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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EM Drive - Hokum, or Holy Crap it Works?

EM Drive - Hokum, or Holy Crap it Works?

There is a certain amount of skepticism that is healthy in the science community. OK, usually there is a whole lot of skepticism, but many would argue it is still healthy. So, when an invention comes along that has claims that seem too good to be true, the skeptics pile on. Cold fusion anyone?  On November 17, 2016, a NASA team has seemingly validated some claims on a revolutionary new concept they call the EM Drive.  Some have been calling it the "Impossible Engine", claiming that for it to actually work, we would have to rewrite the laws of physics as we accept them today.  

The concept of the engine seems remarkably simple - a sort of a bell shaped resonance chamber or cavity reflects microwave energy from an emmiter, and as it resonates throughout this chamber the microwave radiation provides thrust; a very small amount, but thrust nonetheless.  A typical engine uses fuel and the reaction by-products ejected, to produce the thrust.  The EM Drive is known as a reaction-less drive, because no fuel is consumed.  In space, one has to bring along all the fuel one needs, while dealing with all that mass.  Not so, with the EM Drive.  This is just one step of many in testing this concept and completely validating the results, but it appears to show promise.  Keep in mind, there is an energy burden in creating those microwaves, but it sure beats literally hauling tons of fuel into space to be converted into thrust.

For a primer on reaction-less drives, and their history, see this Wikipedia article.  Also, National Geographic has done a great job explaining this concept and the latest independent test.  See their article here.

If this plays out and is validated, it just may pave the way of relatively low cost and higher speed space travel for the longer haul trips.

 

 

Cover Image by David A. Brady, Harold G. White, Paul March, James T. Lawrence, and Frank J. Davies. Eagleworks Laboratories, NASA Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center - 'Anomalous Thrust Production from an RF Test Device Measured on a Low-Thrust Torsion Pendulum' 50th AIAA/ASME/SAE/ASEE Joint Propulsion Conference paper, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49595842

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The Ultimate Wireless Energy: Lightning

LightningI've always heard that West Central Florida was the lightning capital of the world.  Living in the region, one could easily be convinced that is true.  On a warm summer evening, using unassisted, ground based observation only, you would be hard pressed to keep count of the flashes in just a single hour, let alone an entire evening.  Just how much lightning does strike in a region?  Can you determine when it is going to strike in your area?  The answers to these questions are not as easy to come by as you might think.  Both the National Weather Service (NWS) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have strike maps, data, and even some real time detection networks.  They have funded studies at a number of universities and even some commercial contracts to get the answers to these questions, but it is very difficult to find any real time data for "where I am right now", that is easy to use.  There are plenty of commercial sites if you look long enough, such as local TV stations, and even a handful of regional government funded sites for certain city/county/regions, but nothing on the scale of the commonly available temperature or weather maps that we are accustomed to.   Read on through to the end to find one solution that may trump them all.

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