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!"

Monday, June 2, 2008

Hands-on Climate Change Mitigation: Future Possibilities of "Climate Consultant"

My Urban Planning Quantitative Analysis Professor Robin Liggett and her colleagues Murray Milne and Rashed Al-Shaali at the UCLA Department of Architecture and Urban Design have come up with a neat software application called "CLIMATE CONSULTANT 3.0 A Tool for Visualizing Building Energy Implications of Climates".

This newly revised design tool "will display dozens of different graphic images of various weather variables for all 8760 hours per year in EPW (EnergyPlus Weather) format files which are available for over a thousand stations around the world. It will also suggest building design strategies appropriate for the unique characteristics of that climate. "

They presented this great data visualization tool, which can be generously downloaded at no cost from , at the Solar 2007 conference in Cleveland, Ohio last year. There they showed how easy it was with this tool to view and understand complex parameters such as "Tables of Mean Climate Data", "Set Criteria", "Temperature Range Bar Charts", "Radiation Range Bar Charts", "Sky Cover Range Bar Charts", "Wind Speed Bar Charts", "Dry Bulb vs. Relative Humidity Charts, "Dry Bulb vs. Dew Point Charts", "Sun Shading Charts", "Sun Charts", "Time Table Plots", "3D Charts", "Psychrometric Charts", and "Wind Wheels".

In their summary they stated "The beauty and power of these graphic approaches to climate data analysis is that they communicate in a way that allows users to see extremely subtle distinctions that would otherwise be lost in a page full of numbers.
If ‘information’ is defined as the recognition of small differences that make a difference, then these techniques make it possible to recognize some very subtle differences, indeed"

We've long known the adages "knowledge is power" and "forewarned is forearmed" but until data visualization tools like this (and the computer power to use them) became available to the average planner (or citizen -- we are all planners, really, and should think of ourselves as such!) it was hard for us to get involved in planning for climate change. How would we ever know the overall trends in our local climate and see how things were changing, so we could better plan to deal with "the vagaries of the weather" and optimize our utilization of the climatic resources around us? Consult the Farmer's Almanac?

Now we can "Consult the Climate" with Climate Consultant.

The implications are far reaching, especially in an age when we can control our home, office and industry HVAC systems in Germany or Los Angeles from our Blackberry Wireless while on the beach in the Canary Islands.

I learned that when I was working with Utility Consultant Frank DiMassa on a powerpoint presentation about CMS Energy System's "Utility Vision" software program for energy consumption monitoring and data analysis.

We were told at the time that the logical corrolary to be able to do real time monitoring and visualization of the data was the ability to control the energy systems in the building remotely. Now that is standard practice in many places, where energy managers can turn lights and chillers and other appliances and utilities on and off from remote locations.

This promise actually formed the sinister premise of the 1998 German thriller "23" in which a group of computer hackers in a German University (based on real-life hacker Karl Koch, the "hagbard") inadvertantly get involved with a Russian mafia group that forces them to hack into the control systems of a nuclear reactor to shut down its control systems and cause a meltdown. The film-makers suggest that Chernobyl like events could be under such nefarious control.

Whether such nightmare scenarios are plausible or not (and let us hope the worst hackers can do is turn out the lights in a building and make it uncomfortably hot or cold) we planners now have the tools and the opportunity to deal with spot climate changes, seasonal climate changes and long-term climate changes with a sophisticated bevy of tools and control sets that can let us optimize our planning and response.

The Climate Consultant tool puts in our hands the ability to plan better buildings, knowing how much sun and shade they receive, what the relative humidity trends are, what the local wind speeds are etc. We can thus decide not only if it is worth deploying PV and Solar Thermal and small wind generator systems on our roofs, but how to manage their contributions to a decentralized energy grid for 24/7 power.

The beauty of integrated renewable energy systems is that they are based on differences in temperature -- when it is sunny and hot in one area, warm air is rising. When it is cloudy or cool in another area, cold air is falling. This is creating solar radiation patterns, wind patterns and rainfall patterns which, once we can visualize them and understand them, can help us make optimal integrated use out of them.

Germany is already pioneering such work, as I found out this weekend at the Renewable Energy Job Fair at the Solar Center in Gilsenkirchen. Germany is using data management and visualization and computer numeric control software and hardware to link together heliostats on solar fields, wind turbine nacelles and biogas production facilities to provide a steady stream of electrons to the grid so that there is never an interruption in service. When the wind stops blowing, the sun power kicks in, when the sun goes down the biogas facilities kick in, when the rains come and the rivers and mountain streams swell, the micro-hydro generators kick in.

Such abilities to consult the climate and use whatever it throws at us defy the critics of renewable energy who whine "but it is intermittent -- waaaah! What do we do when it rains? Waaaah!" As if Russia threatening to cut off our gas supplies at any moment doesn't qualify for "intermittence"! (The same argument applies to our "constant" supply of oil from the Middle East and Nigeria and Venezuela and the other Petro-tyrant states, and to the output of French nuclear reactors, which presumably can be either hacked into by malicious people like the Hagbard, or shut off in some political power play by some CEO using his blackberry on the beaches of the Canary Islands....)

What we could evolve, if we are wont to, is a decentralized energy wiki, or an energy E-BAY -- yeah, that's more like it -- a spot energy market through P2P (Peer to Peer) file and power sharing. P2P would be redefined as "Power-to-Power".

I have some early experience in this "E-mule Energy concept" -- Before California's Rolling Blackouts (caused by Dick Cheney's Enron corporation -- who did have the power to make electricity "intermittent" or unvailable to California Citizens) when I installed my 1.2 KW photovoltaic system at the Los Angeles Eco-Village, my friend and UCLA colleague Angel Orozco also installed his "$1500 energy solution" a few light wells down on the roof of the same building (two all silicon solar PV panels, a charge controller, a deep-cycle battery and a small inverter on a sesame seed bun). It was obvious to us that whenever I went down to Guatemala and he stayed home (or vice-versa) each of our systems were continuing to put out surplus electricity that was doing us no good at all, but that could benefit our neighbor. You don't shut off the sun when you go on vacation!

So we talked about connecting our two systems so we could share the surplus. Later California's feed-in tarrif system with grid intertied home PV systems enabled all the homeowners out there to contribute green electrons to the common electron pool, but for renters like us, who were forced to install our own systems, learning how by reading "Home Power Magazine" and practicing "guerilla solar" that wasn't a legal option. Still, like students using napster, we could share electricity under the radar and "off the grid".

Now this "energy bartering" system could easily become a reality, and areas with local -- not even international but LOCAL -- comparative advantages can raise the production possibility frontier for all.

I envision a day very soon when folks across town who are experiencing shading from a bank of clouds, while my roof is under full sun, make up for their shortfall by using my surplus electricity, and vice a versa as the clouds move across the sky. I envision a day when we welcome wind and rain storms because, like Benjamin Franklin waiting for thunderclouds to send up his kite, we can use our real time climate data to predict when we should "raise the windmills" (the way mariners of old shouted "raise the sails"), or "connect to the stream generator", with the ability to instantaneously manage both our energy production and consumption.

The consequences of this ability to meaningfully use our information to make a difference are even farther reaching.

In my last post I talked about the dream of being able to use our renewable energy powered homes not only to reduce the amount of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere, but to reduce the amount of heat we contribute to global warming.

My idea came from reading the Ph.D proposal of one of Robin Ligett's students, Pablo LaRoche, who is now Associate Professor of Architecture in the College of Environmental Design and adjunct professor in the Masters of Science program in the Lyle Center for Regenerative Studies in Cal Poly Pomona University. When Pablo was Professor Ligett's student, he designed and published a concept with Baruch Givoni (presented at the Solar 2000 conference in Wisconson) called "Indirect evaporative cooling with an outdoor pond". What I remember from the Ph.D proposal I read in the library at UCLA was that they built a system on a roof at UCLA that used a roof pond to trap solar heat and convected room heat to keep the spaces below cool. With an ingenious system of louvers they were able to control the transfer and storage of heat so that, at night, they could vent the heat captured in the day into the "infinite heat sink" of the cold night sky.

From this I got the idea of "heat pumping and heat dumping" that I talked about in my last post.

The concept isn't trivial if it is correct. It could help us shed heat that is exacerbating global warming.

I've been thinking more and more about this since a person wrote a hostile comment to my "Solar Air Conditioning" video on my youtube channel (probably one of my hypothetical nuclear lobby shills!). The man claimed that the use of solar energy systems would increase global warming because we were "painting roof tops black, or covering them with black or dark colored panels, and black absorbs heat at a time when we should be reflecting sunlight back into space".

In my response I tried to point out that while he was correct that surface albedo is very important in controlling the greenhouse effect, solar energy systems should not be expected to have any impact. I told him he was correct that as the arctic and antarctic glaciers melt, the loss of huge areas of white reflective ice and snow, replaced by energy absorbing dark waters and rocks, is expected to exacerbate our runaway greenhouse effect. I said, however, that I thought that huge fields of solar panels would behave more like the leaves of trees -- surfaces that take the energy from solar radiation and store it by transforming it into another form from whence its re-radiation is considerably slowed. Rate is the problem with global warming (as with most pollution). I claimed that solar thermal panels, like we build in Cairo, and the PV panels we have on our roofs, take the sun's light during the day and instead of turning it directly into heat that reradiates into a moist atmosphere, is sequestered for a time as potential energy, either in the hot water system, or the electric energy storage system.

All of the sun's energy that is not reflected (and indeed all forms of energy produced on the earth) will end up as radiant heat. The question is when and how and how much of that heat goes where.

It is similar to the situation with carbon dioxide -- are you adding more carbon to the atmosphere than the system can assimilate and at a higher rate than the system can recycle, or are you returning it in the right measure to keep things in relative equilibrium. We do have biological and physical systems that sequester carbon, but they can only handle so much at a time. That is what carbon-neutrality is all about.

Now I'm thinking more and more about "heat-neutral" processes. The earth produces heat (both internally, through solar absorbtion, through the fission that powers nuclear reactors, through the testing of nuclear weapons and through the combustion of wood and fossil fuels (decades to hundreds to millions of years worth of sequestered sunshine). It also sheds heat, particularly at times when there are clear night skies and low humidity.

If my critic on youtube is right that solar energy systems are transforming more of the sun's light into heat through changing areas of surface albedo from light to dark colors, the obvious solution would be a form of energy management where we "consulted with the climate" and found the appropriate times to vent the heat of our anthropogenic activities into an appropriate heat sink.

Professor La Roche's paper made me consider that we could use the thermal characteristics of diurnal/nocturnal cycles to achieve a kind of "heat pump/heat dump" solution -- we use the sun's light during the day for power, and dump its heat back into space at night. When the relative humidity of a given night sky makes it harder to shed the excess thermal energy, we sequester it until a night when the wet-bulb temperature is low enough that cooling is no longer inhibited.

I am envisioning a huge network of computers contolling renewable energy systems, linked to energy management software, that monitors all the climatic variables "Climate Consultant" visualizes, and uses that data to automatically "capture and shed sunlight" when conditions are optimal.

Sound crazy?

It certainly is a lot saner than the eco-engineering proposals for increasing surface albedo being floated by the Bush Administration. When I was a teaching fellow with Richard Turco in the UCLA Global Environment class, he presented our students with one absurd idea being literally floated by some technocrats who think there is a technofix for everything: the launching of a trillion mylar party balloons!

The concept, he told us with as straight a face as possible, is that the luft baloons, once aloft, would reflect the sunlight back into space before it ever reached the earth to be transformed into heat. I remember we began singing Nena's cold-war era protest song "Neun-und-Neuntzig LuftBallons", changing the lyrics appropriately ("99 My-lar balloons, trying to stop our climate changes...")

Another stupid techno-fix idea was to pollute the air with enough sulfur particles to create a shroud "protecting the earth" from the "evil sun". Yes, yes, Europe was cold the summer I travelled here when Mt. St. Helens erupted. Great. That's all we need are more smoggy skies to keep us safe. Diesel engine operators rejoice!

These ideas are as stupid as the one proposed in Highlander II (arguably one of the worst Sci-Fi movies ever made, and a shame to Sean Connery) where a corporation creates an "anti-ozone shield" (???) to protect us from sunlight that is causing cancer. After 30 years of darkness people are described as "being depressed, driving old cars...". My "gang-banger" high school students who watched it with me in my Science through Science Fiction class at Crenshaw High School in South Central L.A. were first to point out, "Yo, Mr. Culhane -- 30 years without sunlight -- we wouldn't just be depressed... we be dead! Ain't these Hollywood producers never heard of PHOTOSYNTHESIS. Damn!"

Right you are kids!

The kids of the world can see through all the stupid proposals (like throwing all our styrofoam into the ocean so that it creates floating islands of white flotsam and jetsam to replace the missing icebergs! A municipal garbage mafia's dream!). Even if the politicians and industry shills can't.

But capturing, sequestering, transforming and then safely releasing solar energy back where it came from into space after using it to power our society -- is that so far fetched?

I still haven't heard back from anybody if my hypothesis that nuclear power plants adding more heat to the atmosphere from the profound exothermia of fission will create a problem. If true it certainly should be seized upon by environmentalists who are supposedly "on the fence" about whether to include nukes in the climate change mitigation package. Nuclear power may be almost carbon neutral (if you exclude the CO2 produced mining and transporting and refining ... not to mention protecting -- the deadly uranium. Or did you think that convoys were carbon-free?). It certainly can't be heat-neutral. We've all seen those massive cooling towers. Perhaps we should start calling them "Global Warming Towers"?

I can say one thing -- if reactors that produce thousands of megawatts of new heat from micro-nuclear explosions isn't going to adversely impact the climate, then certainly rooftops and troughs and solar towers recycling mere hundreds of megawatts of power aren't going to make a dent. And by comparison, once we get up to the thousands of megawatts per solar energy installation stage, considering that they produce no NEW HEAT (they aren't liberating it through E = mc2 from nuclear bonds like reactors and bombs) , they should still come out ahead on the heating ledger sheet. And if my hypothesis is true, and we can use solar sequestering to time how and when we release that heat back into space, we may need a million solar roofs, coordinated and managed through minute by minute consultation with the environment, to offset what those nuclear jockeys and their massive "cooling towers" produce.

I see a lot of possibilities and benefits for the full-cost environmental accounting we will get when we can become well-informed "Climate Consultants".

Knowlege is Power!

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