Solar Power isn't Feasible!

Solar Power isn't Feasible!
This cartoon was on the cover of the book "SolarGas" by David Hoye. It echoes the Sharp Solar slogan "Last time I checked nobody owned the sun!"

Thursday, March 25, 2010

We the people vs. the richest man on earth

Bill Gates has announced that he will now back mini-nukes (in partnership with Toshiba) as his way to 'solve the energy crisis', tackle global warming and provide electricity to developing countries. He even made his way into the TED conference with these grandiose plans, and seems to have won over the crowd. The utopian rhetoric initially sounds wonderful, particularly coming from a man who has recently been dedicating his time and money to fighting malaria and earning a new reputation as a philanthropist. It almost certainly will captivate you if you haven't thought through the issue and asked yourself not only about the health and safety and security issues from uranium mine to reactor to reactor to reactor to eternally radioactive waste, but about the implications for truly renewable and safe energy systems.

As the TED conference is dedicated to promoting "ideas worth spreading" this proposal seems to be endorsed by some really cool people. It seems that the richest man on earth is going to get a lot of free advertising for his initiative to put billions of dollars into small scale nuclear reactors that can be deployed everywhere. The problem is that this is not an idea worth spreading. It is a nightmare.

You've played the game "Monopoly" since childhood, right? Getting to own Boardwalk and Park Place seems to be the most important thing in the world once you've amassed enough capital, doesn't it? It becomes an obsession. Do you think Bill Gates is now too philanthropic to want to own the real world equivalent?

Perhaps you don't remember "The United States v. Microsoft" wherein it was shown that Gates and co. violated the Sherman Anti-Trust Act seeking a monopoly in operating systems and browsers. Judge Jackson ruled that Microsoft had indeed created a monopoly and that they had even taken actions to "crush threats to that monopoly". Now the leader of that monopoly effort wants to get into the energy business.

This is the same Bill Gates, African philanthropic activities notwithstanding, who tried to take over the computing world, and now he wants to purchase a controlling interest in the biggest operating system on the planet - the energy system that operates all of our machinery. You've heard Lord Acton's famous admonition "power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely"?

Ever see Bill Forsythe's 1983 film "Local Hero" with Burt Lancaster as the Texas Oil Tycoon, in which they say "oil isn't just any business, it's the ONLY business"? For a century the oil industry has monopolized energy and thus controlled almost everything else, since everything else depends on energy. But peak oil is here and the oil business is soon to be just one of many energy businesses because many many sources of energy are now economically competitive with oil. As Sheikh Yamani said to OPEC after the first "oil crisis", "The stone age didn't end because we ran out of stones". He was warning the Arab Oil Producers that a time would come when oil was still available but couldn't compete economically with its renewable contenders.

That day is dawning now. Solar, Wind, Geothermal, Tidal, Wave Action and Biomass are now proving they can easily outdo oil, especially now that economists are forcing policy makers and business leaders to account for and put a price tag on what were previously ignored as mere "negative externalities" But the dawn of safe, clean, ubiquitous, affordable renewable energy may end before we know it.

Why? Because the richest man on earth is putting his money into a form of nuclear power that can be leased in small enough packages that it's price tag won't scare off utilities and governments hungry for a "quick fix" to matching supply to growing demand. With subsidy and support from the largest source of centralized capital on the planet, Gate's initiative could spell the end of truly decentralized energy production and make nuclear energy not just any business, but the only business.

This newest energy monopoly will dwarf any that came before because Gate's vision is to use the endless supplies of nuclear waste generated by "conventional nuclear power plants" as his primary fuel. And because Gates and Toshiba want to use so-called "depleted uranium" as an energy source, we will never see "peak nuke". We will never run out of these radioactive stones, because the power plants that use them actually breed them, and the radioactive stone age will never end because once hooked on this form of energy, which will have a huge infrastructure of security and control embedded in it and around it, the energy mafia that grows out of it will never willingly let go.

It is said, "those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it". The history of the biggest industry on the planet is fraught with violence and attempts at world domination. If we allow centralized energy suppliers to corner the market on distribution of a faux "decentralized energy"solution your energy freedom will be as secure as your computing freedom in a world where the only supplier is Microsoft. A nuke in every small town and village running the fuel equivalent of Windows and Internet Explorer. No, you may not switch to biogas-fired Firefox equivalents, or Sun-based energy microsystems for your home!

But just as the United States v. Microsoft was able to dismantle the juggernaut's control of browsers and operating systems, we the people can stop Gates' and Toshiba's and big-business's control of the earth's energy OS.

Sun Microsystems, Apple, Netscape and other start-up companies produced superior products to everything Microsoft made and successfully captured significant market shares, knocking the giant off his throne. This time the stakes are much higher, but we can do it again. It is time for micro-systems of energy production, microsystems that use the sun, and apples and other fruit and vegetable and table scrap wastes, in a net-scape of crowd-sourced innovations to take the energy industry over and provide the world with so many clean, safe, healthy, convenient, low-cost, sexy alternatives that nobody wants to buy from the richest man on earth.

Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, who gave a much better speech at TED, once classified energy into two types: "Hard Path Energy" -- oil, coal and nuclear, which were dangerous and in limited supply and could be centrally controlled, and "Soft Path Energy" which was safe, ubiquitous and decentralized by nature so that every town, city or country could control their own sources of it.

If we can get enough truly micro-soft-energy technologies in place before this awful micro-nuke nightmare gets put into place, then when Bill and his army of Microsoft hard path energy salesmen ask you to download their mini-nukes, you can just say no, and we can browse for our energy somewhere else.

Yes, we can.


What Solar CITIES is doing about all this:

We may be a poor mom & pop NGO and no match for the richest man on earth, but that doesn't stop us from continuing to do everything we can to improve the lives of the poor and protect our environment. Despite the odds being against us, our religious heritage tells us we must not give up.
Who knows, maybe the meek shall inherit the earth yet!

To counter the threat of micro-nuclear breeder reactors, which will have a disproportionately adverse affect on the poor, we are working hard on improving natural microbial breeder reactors -- i.e. biogas digestors. T.H. Culhane's latest design and our proudest innovation is using the concept of "fuel rods" that nuclear reactors use, and applying it to biogas systems. The concept is very simple -- in a nuclear reactor the rate of reaction is controlled by putting fuel rods into a liquid where they come into contact with neutrons. The more rods you put in, the greater the energy the reactor produces. In our mini-biogas digesters, we have created "bacterial fuel rods" using plastic bio-blocks in tubular nylon-mesh socks. Each bacterial "fuel rod" creates a substrate of maximum vertical surface area where the bacteria can form their methane producing bio-films. By having bacterial fuel rods in the tank we can now accomplish two things:
1) we dramatically increase the surface area of reaction so that it no longer is restricted to the sludge granules at the bottom of the tank. And by having fuel-rods that can be placed into the tank and removed from the tank we can control the rates of production in a controlled environment and determine the optimum feeding/bacterial-count ratios. We can also use the bacterial fuel rods to seed new reactors (making them true breeder reactors).
2) by having vertical bacterial fuel rods we can now populate our reactors with a mix of psychrophiles, mesophiles and thermophiles in the hope that the psychrophiles will adapt to the colder water at the bottom of the tank, the mesophiles will adapt to the medium temperature water in the middle of the tank and the psychrophiles will adapt to the hotter water above the thermocline at the top of the tank. This potentially enables "stereo breeding" of methanogenic bacteria (just as the Chinese do for fish) and could increase output and create a "reactor for all seasons".
We need more people to test these ideas, so if you are interested in building a Solar CITIES style microbe breeder reactor and help us all stay on a course toward true energy independence, just let us know and we'll hook you up with our initiative.

(Bio Blocks are just pieces of plastic designed so that bacteria can colonize them and form bio-films while permitting water and nutrients to flow through them. You find them at most aquarium shops as they are designed to help clean water in biofilters. Our innovation is to use them to produce higher quantities of biogas and give the different types of methanogens a place to live along the thermal stratification gradient of the tank.)

( Solar CITIES' "bacterial fuel rods": Bioblocks from the local pet shop (pond department) are placed in a nylon mesh sock. Each sock holds approximately 175 bioblocks (sale price per bioblock is 0.08 Euro). At the bottom of each sock are two stones for weight, and the top of the sock is open to let gas come out. At the top of the sock (which has handles) a piece of styrofoam with a hole in the middle is inserted. This enables the fuel rod to hang vertically in the reactor. Your pet/aquarium store will also sell you a packet or bottle of anaerobic bacteria starter but it is cheaper to get pond or lake mud and animal manure.)

(Solar CITIES co-founder Sybille Culhane loads the bacterial fuel-rods into our newest reactor before we finish insulating it with 30 millimeter styrofoam wrapped in pallette stretch plastic. We built our first telescoping biogas reactor on our porch exactly a year ago, at our "2009 biogas birthday bash bonanza party". Now, at the end of March 2010, since our mesophilic bacteria survived the freezing events over the long harsh winter, our birthday party this year is devoted to making a reactor that can support different types of bacteria and be kept at more reasonable temperatures in the winter ).

(Solar CITIES co-founder T.H. Culhane, a.k.a. "the innoventor" is delighted with his latest creation -- a "microbial fuel rod" for home scale biogas reactors that uses bio blocks in a nylon mesh sock with rocks for anchors and styrofoam for floats. With this innovation one can do controlled experiments on how much surface area increases gas production and how much feedstock one can put into a 1 cubic meter reactor for maximum yield. One simply has to put different numbers of fuel rods into the reactor and measure the output. Over the next couple of years we should see what the optimum number of fuel rods and the optimum feeding rate is. )

(Close up of a bioblock on top of the styrofoam float on the sock. Note the hole in the float to allow gas bubbles to escape)


Marcel said...

Hi again.

Just thoughts and questions on your bioblocks and 'fuel rods'.

Whilst it's proven that the bacteria like to sit on a surface, I'm thinking that we need to have the feedstock move past that surface so they can get at it. With the closed sock design, are the bacteria going to be able to get at the feedstock sufficiently?

This evening I'm thinking of making the digester out of say 20 feet of 4" pipe (then burying it in the garden!). The feedstock has lots of surface to travel past in order to reach the exit. With a slight incline on the pipe, as gas is produced and feedstock input, it would naturally move the feed along the length of the pipe. Maybe bioblocks inside the pipe would help increase surface area here too (without obstructing the flow).

For more questions on a postcard...


Anonymous said...

hi, very nice work, i am aware that you are trying to make thing as cheap as possible but you must add a mechanism to help on steering the materials with the digester.without steering eventually a scum layer will be formed on the top that can clog the output hole for the biogas but also biodegradable matter (volatile solids as usually called) are not digested as these are coming away from the liquid phase. just a small pipe of the same material with the digester glued on the top with a couple of bearings and gaskets and a rod to make a small propeller, hand cranking and you are done.