Technology & Tech

Alternative Energy Technologies

The most common form of energy for end-users is the battery. People have been using batteries for generations; they are seen in everything from toys and cars, to sophisticated computers and technologies that are used each day by people globally. Energy that is stored in batteries or other “cells” is then plugged into a circuit when energy is needed making that energy transfer into mechanical energy. Energy storage devices can be conveniently turned on and off with the flip of a switch or push of a button to ration the stored energy conversion. It is because of this adaptability and accessibility to disposable energy solutions that people have become very dependent on things like batteries for countless uses throughout their lives.

There are definite downsides that make using non-rechargeable batteries something to change quickly. The effect of these downsides outweighs the benefit of short-term portable energy in the form of batteries, especially in the new world of alternate energies. The downsides of batteries include: the waste they produce when they are no longer viable and the need to replace them so often. Also, non-rechargeable batteries end up leaking chemicals more often somewhere in a landfill or, worse, in your community. Replacing batteries is both costly and unfriendly to the earth. While the life of the battery has been significantly extended in recent years, the advancement is still not enough to create a significant long-term, large-scale energy source. However, using other sources of energy to create electricity then storing it on the national grid has become the focus of energy production for the last several generations.

The national power grid is a system of “torage cells,” or regional batteries that store electricity so that it can be distributed across the region it services. These storage cells are placed regionally because electricity loses some of its effectiveness as it travels long distances, so the electricity grids and power cells are set up geographically; each serves a specific local region.

In recent years the global community has learned a lot about energy’s uses and how to contain and save it for the future. The U.S. government has sponsored many programs that research ways for our consumers to get better energy in a more responsible way. The research these programs and people are doing is geared toward reducing our dependence on non-renewable forms of energy for a sustainable future.

The real question about energy production is, “How can people incorporate the many different kinds of energy sources for integration to our national energy grid where all people can use that energy nationwide?” With the focus on conservation of energy, it is easy to see why obvious solutions are overlooked – they are in the opposite direction. Producing energy is definitely on the opposite end of the spectrum as conserving energy – but it can be more beneficial.

The United States government, corporations, and the people of the U.S. are better being served by everyone working together to produce local energy on a larger scale. Instead of thinking about individual energy needs like, “How can I outfit my house with renewable energy?” We should be thinking, “How can we create clean renewable energy for our community?”

The influx of power back to the grid could solve major energy crisis issues like brownouts or blackouts in areas that are power deficient, and if we just altered that train of thought by thinking about production instead of reduction, we could make the grid more of a two-way street than a one-lane highway. There are so many clean, free, and consistent energy sources available in many places locally or around the country, which enables our citizens to be less dependent on sources of energy from half the world away.

When scientists refer to energy conservation, they are speaking more about that energy’s uses than about not using it at all. Designing systems for efficiency in the transfer of energy from one form to another reduces unnecessary losses. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (USEIA) states on their website that the term “energy conservation” actually refers to more efficient transfer of energy. In some cases, when energy is transferred from one form to another (battery to mechanical, radiant to chemical, etc.) there is less energy produced than was inputted, and in some cases that energy is considerably less than it started out as.

The aim for electricity is to produce more than is needed to be able to transfer some of that energy back to places that don’t transfer energy as efficiently due to lack of resources or funding. Many of the states here in the U.S. have laws in effect that require the state to “buy back” unused energy on a monthly basis from consumers who produce their own energy. What if our cities became efficient energy producers, and gained energy credits from giving back to the grid? Cities would have fewer deficits and debt – and more revenue to spend on education and programs for its citizens.

Imagine how rewarding it would be for a consumer to not only have a $0 energy bill, but actually get a check from the state each month as tax-free, residual income.

Solar Energy

Solar energy gained wide-spread popularity in the 1970s during the oil crisis, when Middle Eastern countries realized they were sitting on a gold mine of crude oil. The change in OPEC’s outlook on the value of that oil incited the U.S.’s desire to find alternate sources of fuel, such as solar energy – which is plentiful in most parts of this country.

Solar power is a popular alternative and one of the most attainable renewable sources of energy in the world today. The power it harnesses – from the sun – costs nothing, is non-taxable, and is basically unlimited. Systems can be installed for each homeowner, and as long as the sun will shine, we will have our feed. We don’t have to tear up the environment to get it, and there is literally no harmful byproduct from solar energy. It is also not location specific, so solar panel systems can be anywhere – as big, or as small as we want.

We can see them on homes, cars, ships, and heating elements for pools; they’re even seen on hats to power small fans to keep the wearer cool.

The downside to solar energy is that depending on how large a system one wants, they can be fairly expensive to initially set up. This is why so many people choose solar as a supplement to their energy needs, if not a full replacement of them.

The other downside is that bad weather is unpredictable, and it will shut off your source of energy with absolutely no recourse. Because of this, some areas of the country are obviously more suitable than others. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has gotten together with the Department of Energy and determined that the states of Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah were found to be the best sources of solar power, as the sun shines bright enough to generate electricity at least 70% of the daylight hours there. [2] [3]

In order for land to have optimal solar production, it needs to have a suitable slope that will allow for rotational solar panels to follow the sun as it moves across the surface. This land also needs to be accessible by roads, and transmission lines, so this energy can be passed on to the national grid without a measurable loss.

Since solar power has these limitations, it may not be the total answer many people believe.

Wind Power

Windmills, turbines, and the like have been around for hundreds of years. There are even small island communities that derive their entire source of energy from wind turbines. Like solar energy, they work better in some areas over others, such as coastal areas,; mountain tops, and off shore. You can see from this map (National Research Energy Laboratory, 2010) that the central part of the U.S., just on the eastern side of the mountains, is where we experience the greatest wind speeds year round. Strategically placed wind turbines here help maximize energy production in these areas, helping to offset the nations need for more energy. While it is not a cure-all, feeding energy into the national grid from these locations supplies a free, constant source of electricity to a very large part of the country.

One thing most people don’t realize until they have a propeller-style turbine installed is that wind propellers make a lot of noise. Since they spin faster when the wind blows, the noise they generate is constantly fluctuating with the air speed, making it a terrible nuisance 24/7. They also have been known to kill many birds, which cannot see them until they are under the fast-moving blades.

There are new designs that are much more bird friendly, as well as homeowner friendly, in that they are more affordable than solar panels, and sophisticated enough to simply plug into your existing system. They can also come with a wireless adaption so the user can monitor its energy production from far away. Two or three of these near your house, along with a good set of solar panels on the roof will go a long way to storing usable energy.

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Biomass from Plants

The term “biomass” is not completely known to most people in the U.S., unless they are individuals who work in the industry. The truth is that bio energy is a remarkably cost-effective and reliable source of energy around the world.

The first image that comes to mind is how the people of India make cow patties from dung, and then burn it like wood. It is “bio-” and “mass” hence the name “biomass.” Indigenous people have been doing this for centuries, and it is about time America goes back to its roots and capitalizes on this fundamental procedure. Utilizing a number of other biodegradable products that when properly processed into methane gas, go back into the ecological life cycle with a much smaller carbon footprint than coal and oil has.

Waste from wood, paper, and some grasses are also being compressed into bio-briquettes, and burned for fuel on a small scale. The byproducts of corn and switch grass can easily be converted into ethanol for use in combustion engines. These sources of energy are typically used on a small (local) scale, but they are very economical energy producers and work very well. People and businesses in rural areas could easily benefit from banding together and converting bio-energy from many of their waste products they are already producing.

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Now imagine using this technology on a larger scale; there is enough biomass energy to run our entire country if it can only be harnessed and channeled properly.

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Not only our trash, but all our waste – waste from rotting food, animal waste, plant matter waste, anything that once grew – can be converted into fuel. Natural gas that is produced this way leaves little to no carbon footprint, and has had no cost fluctuations for over 10 years. The source of biomass waste is literally found in every corner of our planet. There is virtually no part of the earth devoid of this source.

Biogas production creates not only energy, but heat as well, so it can theoretically be used to kill two proverbial birds with one stone. While pipelines are used, they are not mandatory since gasses can be bottled and transported anywhere in the country for virtually any use.

However, the obvious downside is that gasses are explosive. Pure methane carries with it a medium risk that so far has not been a problem. If it is handled and stored properly, it has little to no risk at all.

Another challenge is that biomass power plants need a lot of space to produce any sizable amount of constant energy, but as the video explained, existing landfills come with this feature built in. If one is recycling everyday waste, such as from plants and excrement, they will also need a lot of water, as this helps keep the waste moving toward the digester pit.

This sort of energy production is best used in rural areas, where activities like farming and waste management occur. Biogasses can easily be used to replace fossil fuels, greatly reducing the amount of greenhouse gasses.

Geothermal Energy

Geothermal energy is produced from dry steam plants, flash stream plants, and the binary steam plants. These three methods produce energy by using the earth’s natural release of steam to heat and rotate turbines that produce electricity.

The dry steam method captures steam rising from the earth’s natural production by driving pipes deep into the ground, then channeling it directly into a turbine that creates electricity. Needless to say, this can be very expensive to set up, and there is no promise that the steam will continue to flow once the pipes have been drilled.

The flash steam method takes the earth’s heat in the same way, by drilling large pipes down deep, then spraying water into the heat to create steam that is then forced into the turbine to create electricity. Lastly the binary method adds chemicals to the earth’s natural production of warm to hot water, in order to create the steam needed.

These three methods are completely free of any pollutants, and once the water is extracted from the earth, it is promptly returned to it, so there is no footprint of any kind left behind. This makes geothermal energy very appealing. However, in the past, the costs incurred to drill wells and capture these high temperatures made geothermal energy prohibitive for most nations, and therefore out of reach for all but a few. These types of power plants were also limited to only a few regions, none of which were convenient to gain access to.

But new technology has made it possible to create energy from this steam at much lower temperatures, so geothermal plants can be built and start earning income right away while the power plant expands to meet our growing needs. Their increase in efficiency and technology has put geothermal energy back on the map as one of the most desirable forms of energy available. These new power plants can produce as much as one-third of the nation’s demand, without any side effects whatsoever. Lastly, unlike solar power, the earth will continue to produce this kind of heat 24/7, no matter what the weather is like in the region.

Hydropower and Ocean Energy

Since water is the most plentiful substance on earth, this technology is certainly the most promising, but it will need a little more time to develop.

We have hydro-electric dams that generate electricity by channeling water through a system that will capture the energy, but the downside to this is that entire valleys need to be flooded in order to accomplish this.

Many of us are somewhat familiar with oceanic turbines under water that tap into the ocean’s current in order to create energy, but how many of us are familiar with hydrogen power combustion engines? This technology is being perfected by inventors all over the country, and it is only a matter of time before Americans perfect this technology and make the move to retrofit their cars so that they will run on water.

The future of energy is here now; we only need to elevate our minds to accept the new technology and start using them around us.

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Nuclear energy has been around for over 20 years, but with bad publicity stemming from the chaos of 3 Mile Island (March 28th, 1979), and Chernobyl (April 26, 1986), many have been reluctant to use it. If you understand how nuclear energy works, and have the facts about why these two power plants failed, you will find that it was not nuclear power in general that was unstable, but a failure by people to keep the reactors cool enough so they would not melt the containing rods inside. With proper maintenance and training they can be managed well with no incident.[4][5]

The science behind why the plant works to produce power is interesting. When atoms are split, their electrons are released from the nucleus and the electrons are then free to connect with some other atom. This split releases energy as the atoms and the free electrons seek to be more stable by hooking up with other atoms.

This process takes place several hundred times a second within the core of a nuclear reactor. The way to control the splitting of atoms is by inserting metal rods into the reaction chamber in order to slow down the atoms from slamming around into each other.

In Chernobyl, these rods melted, so the atoms were free to run wild and create far more energy and heat than was reasonable, and the cooling system could not control the heat generated. Couple this with an archaic communication system within the Soviet Union at that time, and nobody found out about it until three days later, which lead to the compounding of the problem.

A similar thing happened on 3 Mile Island; a switch that regulated the cooling system failed and the temperatures rose too high and melted the rods. As this went on, hydrogen gas collected at the top of the chamber and caused an explosion. This was in part due to a lack of cooling fluids, and partly due to a lack of the operators’ understanding of how the power plant worked. The operators’ error in failing to continue lower the temperatures with the backup system aided the stigma that is associated with the term nuclear energy.

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The most recent U.S. reactor incident, 3 mile island, was a preventable accident. There are over 100 nuclear power plants currently in operation in the United States. In that 40-plus-year history there have been some incidents that were very unfavorable in the 1970s when nuclear reactor plants were still a fairly new technology, but over the past few decades there have been many advancements in technology and procedures that keep those power plants safe and incident free. Nuclear power has also come a long way in improving the technology that generates electricity, making it more powerful and less costly to create.

As far as the studies have shown on these power plants, nuclear power plants do not release radioactive gasses into the air. The plants have been reported to produce some radioactive gasses, but they state that these radioactive gasses are vented to tanks that allow the gasses to decay, and only after the gasses have been completely devoid of radioactivity are these gasses released into the atmosphere. The studies state that gasses are released in such a small amount that it is thought to be dissipated within a few feet of release.

Coal plants actually release more radioactive gasses than a nuke plant does. The cost, space, and byproducts of nuclear energy far outweigh the obstacles found within them, obstacles that have long been corrected, and made nuclear energy one of the leading options for providing the U.S. with their energy needs.

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