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

Of Heat Pumps and Heat Dumps

Here in Germany we have a friend, Dirk Roland, who spends his working life on construction sites in places like Ghana and the United Arab Emirates (formerly Iraq and Nigeria), managing teams of builders and budgets on projects where hundreds to thousands of people's lives and millions of dollars are at stake.

He is a no-nonesense kind of engineer, the kind who comes home from his hard working trips abroad to spend his weekends with a backhoe digging up and landscaping his own backyard. I've seen him transform a dirt lot into a green paradise, replete with Koi ponds and fountains, rolling lawns, a beautiful deck and a massive sandbox playground where his 2 year old son, Anton, is already learning to drive a miniature tractor.

Dirk will be putting in his own swimming pool and jacuzzi soon, and it will be heated, and when his son gets older, and inherits the house that dad built, he says, he won't pay a penny for anything. Especially not energy.

This, in a luxurious house in Northern Germany that you can walk in barefoot all winter because even the floors and the walls are all heated, for God's sake. But there are no ugly block heaters hissing and clanking throughout the house -- the entire place is ingeniously insulated and designed with capillary heat tubes so that it exudes heat -- where and when it is needed.

When it isn't, in the hot summers, the house is deliciously cool. Fully air-conditioned. And always will be, no matter what happens to the price of oil.

Anton will grow up oblivious to the rising costs of fuel.

And during that journey, says, Dirk, his energy costs will just keep going... DOWN.

Dirk has run the numbers -- that's one of his jobs as a construction supervisor. And it made sense to this hard-hat wearing hard-talking guy to put a 7 KW solar electric system on his roof and a ground-source heat pump in his basement. "So that Anton will never have to worry about what happens in this crazy world. As a father it is my duty to provide for my son".

Installing the heat exchange pipes for the heat pump required drilling a couple of bore-holes over a hundred meters deep in the back yard with the kind of rig they use for oil exploration. You can't see the scars -- landscaping has turned the evidence, all of it underground except for a circular maintenance hatch, into the site of a beautiful flower display.

The balance of the system, in the basement, takes up no more room than a traditional boiler, but is silent and sleek and high tech looking and emits no fumes or odors and needs no venting; outside there are no noisy, unsightly air-conditioners, coolers or fans. The ground-source heat pump that provides both heating and cooling for the house uses at most 3 KW of his beautiful building-integrated 7 KW Photovoltaic Array, leaving him plenty of surplus power for the massive brushed steel refrigerator and cuppocino machine and other hi-tech appliances in his elegant kitchen and home-theater graced living room. And for the mood lighting everywhere. And for the constantly gurgling Koi pond -- they just sold a prize Koi to a collector for a couple thousand Euro! And Koi isn't the only thing Dirk and his wife sell from this investment -- he takes me to look at the electric meter which, characteristically, is spinning backward.

"Money I can put toward Anton's college education".

The whole adventure did cost a lot up front -- it cost near 35,000 Euro. But unlike similar investments in creating a luxurious looking and year-round comfortable home that are only cosmetic, this one has created a home for Anton's future that is all but impervious to climate changes and market fluctuations. The earth and the sky provide all the energy this family needs.

We often hear about solar energy these days, and the words naturally conjure up images of the technology giving Dirk's roof its beautiful deep blue, sleek, multi-crystalline look.

We don't often think of solar energy as also being "that portion of the sun's heat that has been sequestered and distributed in the ground beneath our feet, creating the dependable, constant and comfortable delta T that can heat and cool the air and water in our homes, using a fraction of the electricity that our roofs produce."

I saw my first ground-source heat pump in Geyser California when utility consultant Frank DiMassa and I were producing an educational film for Roseville Electric called "Ben and Joe's Electric Adventure". In the film Benjamin Franklin comes to the future and takes Joe Roseville on his magic kite to explore our energy options. One of those was the ground-source or geothermal heat pump.

Frank DiMassa also showed me new housing units under construction in Sonoma County where all the new luxury lots were having heat pumps put in. Because much of California still has a lot of land available, the pipes for these heat pumps were being run horizontally, in loops a mere 2 meters beneath the house and the lawn. This makes construction particularly cheap.

In Germany, as in England where the technology is also popular, space is at a premium and the necessary surface area needs to be won by installing the pipes vertically (this was also done in the "Foundation House of New York" a demonstration apartment building on the island of Manhattan). This means bringing in a drilling rig, and this is what makes the installations so expensive.

Despite this expense, the numbers are so favorable that Germany has become a leader in heat pump technology ("one of the most efficient residential heating and cooling systems available today, with heating efficiencies 50 to 70% higher than other heating systems and cooling efficiencies 20 to 40% higher than available air conditioners"1) and you can see heat pumps advertised in ordenary shopping malls, not just in specialty stores.

It is a sensible technology -- the planet Earth is bathed in sunlight every day as it turns, and much of that sunlight is absorbed by the step-on-it earth. The dirt beneath your feet retains the heat of the sun and stays at a relatively constant temperature all year round. That is where the fun comes in -- while the earth maintains a constant temperature, the air above it is quick to gain or lose heat. In the winter the air in Germany is frigid, and the ground is relatively warm. In the summer the air in Germany is sweltering and the ground is relatively cool. That persistent temperature difference, or "Delta T" as engineers like Dirk like to call it, drives the heat pump (technically it is the compressor, which is driven by photovoltaic energy from Dirk's solar panels, that drives the pump, but the heat exchanging that does the work of cooling and heating the house, is done by the Delta T.)

It is a very smart system: On the sunniest summer days the PV panels are putting out the most electricity and the air temperature is the highest relative to the ground temperature -- this makes the heat pump produce the coolest air conditioning. The hotter the ambient air outside, the cooler Dirk and his family are inside. Similarly, but in reverse, the colder the air gets outside, the warmer they can make it inside. That is the magic of the Delta T. Ironically it works best where the differences in temperature between earth and sky are at an extreme.
This means that no matter what the climate change throws at them, Dirk and his family stay comfortable...

When we came home from a barbecue at Dirk's double-plus comfortable home, I was ashamed when I read the newspaper and discovered that Angela Merkel, normally a staunch champion of sensible climate change initiatives and environmental technologies, is considering caving in on the nuclear issue because other EU countries, like Italy (whose politicians are so corrupt they can't even keep toxic waste from getting into domestic garbage and can't keep the garbage from piling up on the streets and highways, turning Naples and the Campania region into "the triangle of death") are panicking about the effect of rising energy prices on their poorly planned and outdated infrastructures and are using this excuse to get everybody to go back to boiling water with uranium (we won't even begin to talk about the French nuclear mafia!).

But in Dirk Roland-land you don't worry about rising energy costs when you crank the air conditioner or turn up the heat. And you certainly wouldn't ever consider risking Anton's precious life by condemning him to a nuclear endangered future. In a nuclear future he not only has to worry about the power being disrupted because it has been centralized again and is in the hands of profiteers who can manipulate prices every time supply and demand mismatch (as they inevitably will when climate change makes ambient temperatures chaotic and unpredictable all year round) but also has to worry about terrorist threats and radioactive toxins in his air and water.

A child like Anton will say, "But Dad, why do we need to live with these threats, when we already have all the energy we need and all the comfort we desire, without hurting anybody else? How come we were able to build our own simple but efficient and effective energy infrastructure right here on our own home a system that uses only the sky above our heads and the earth beneath our feet to make us live like kings, and threatens or bothers nobody, while other people are building massively complicated atomic time bombs to get the same luxuries we enjoy?

How would YOU answer a child who asks a question like that?

Let's see how Anton might answer his own question when the long term cost savings his Dad's investment in Solar Powered Heat Pump technology enables him to take his first economics course in college. I paraprhase here page 35 of Krugman, Wells and Grady "Economics: European Edition; Economic Models, Trade-offs and Trade":

"Suppose that policy A (investing in renewable energy) makes everyone better off than policy B (investing in Nuclear Energy) -- or at least makes some people better off without making other people worse off. Then A is clearly more efficient than B. That's not a value judgement: we're talking about how best to achieve a goal, not about the goal itself... when policies can be clearly ranked in this way, then economists generally agree".

Certainly Anton's Dad would agree. This is the concept of "Pareto optimality" in Economics and Vilfredo Pareto started out as an engineer, like him.

"Why don't we all have a consensus on this issue", Anton will ask, "given that the numbers make sense"? Again he will read in his textbook,

"If nearly all economists agree on an issue ... reporters and editors are likely to conclude that there is no story worth covering and so the professional consensus tends to go unreported...It is also worth remembering that economics is, unavoidably, often tied up in politics. On a number of issues, powerful interest groups know what opinions they want to hear; they therefore have an incentive to find and promote economists who profess those opinions, giving these economists a prominence and visibility out of proportion to their support among their colleagues."

The horribly expensive and dangerous nuclear plants the EU wants to build, even if they start building them today, will be just beginning to come on line and produce electricity when Anton graduates from college 20 years from now with his economics degree -- and a healthy dose of skepticism.

He will have lived with free and abundant electricity and comfort his entire life. He will come home from college to his luxurious home in the country and Anton's Dad will show him the old spreadsheets. The numbers will do the talking -- he will say, "hell son, it made sense to invest in our solar powered ground source heat pumps way back in 2006 when you were a baby and oil was less than 100 dollars a barrel, to say nothing of today. Even with all their artificial subsidies, they can't make nuclear power as cheap as solar power -- Our investment was paid up 5, 10 years ago, and for the rest of your life you will continue to pay next to zero -- you'll pay no financial, and certainly no environmental or social costs. It's a shame others didn't understand that."

And Anton might say, "Hey Dad, I figured out that our house is actually working to mitigate climate change, to make things better for everybody."

Dirk will say, "but of course we solar powered families are creating positive externalities; using solar power and heat pumps we have never contributed any greenhouse gases to the atmosphere and we are helping society by contributing "green electrons" to the electron pool when we sell our surplus electricity back to the grid".

And Anton will say, "it's not just that, Dad -- the kids at school who are in favor of nuclear power say that radioactive source of energy doesn't produce carbon gases either. No, I mean our house and houses like ours are actually helping to cool the climate, to remove the excess heat..."

"How do you figure that"?

" Well, the way I see it, during the day, we capture the sun's light and heat and put it to work, making our lives better. At night, when the sky becomes a infinite cold heat sink, we let the heat return to the environment, but at the time when it has the best chance of escaping back to space. Energy always moves from hot to cold, right? In effect, if we engineer things right, our solar powered houses could act as heat pumps that could actually reverse global warming! That is, if only we could get those nukes that are now adding heat to the earth to be shut down. I haven't proven the theory, but I'm writing a paper about it now for my grad course in environmental engineering..."

(And as the sun sets on another beautiful day in the SolarStadt of Northern Germany, we fade to black, leaving Anton's theories about heat pumps and heat dumps for another blog post on another sunny day...)

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