Category Archives: Sustainable Energy

How Viable Is Solar Power?

Since I’m posting on nuclear power, I think it makes sense to post about the alternatives. The big reason there’s such a push for nuclear power is that too many people think the less polluting alternatives aren’t viable. I think they are, although I recognize that it’s going to take a long time before they’re in sufficiently common use.

Solar power in particular has improved in recent years. Panels with a lower cost per watt have been developed, as low as $1 per watt, although they’re not yet in common use. There are even solar roof shingles, so you don’t have to have to put up separate panels.

It’s not all about putting solar panels on houses, for example. Back in the 1980s there was some interesting work on a solar power tower that could generate electricity even at night and on cloudy days.

More big box businesses have realized that solar power is affordable enough for them to put panels up on their roofs – a great use for the space, I think. Solar power has come a long way to be seen as a reasonable investment for businesses to make for powering their stores.

Can Solar Power Take You Off the Grid?

Many people see solar power as a way to get off the grid. It’s a lovely goal, but not absolutely necessary. You may prefer to remain connected so that when you aren’t generating enough power on your panels, you still get electricity from the grid.

You can, of course, have your panels charge batteries so that you don’t need to be connected to the grid. It’s an added expense to the system, but not impossible, and is a great choice if you’re not close enough to be easily connected to the grid anyhow.

But Doesn’t Solar Power Need Subsidies to Be Economically Viable?

Many people say that solar power isn’t viable because it takes subsidies from the government to make it worth anyone’s while. That’s close enough to true, but it’s not the whole picture. Nuclear power gets subsidies. Oil companies get subsidies. Why is it so unreasonable for solar and other renewable energy sources to get subsidies as well?

Consider also that in California there are companies right now willing to install solar power systems on homes for free, and then charge the homeowners for the the electricity generated. The idea is that the homeowner will get a steady rate even if electricity prices go up (or down, that’s the gamble, unlikely as down may seem). These companies aren’t doing that out of the goodness of their hearts. They expect to make a profit while doing something good for the environment.

What About the Environmental Impact of Solar Panel Materials?

There is absolutely an environmental impact to the manufacture and disposal of solar panels. Just as with any other material, we have to mine for many of the supplies. We mine for coal, pump oil from underground, and mine for uranium too.

The wonderful part about solar panels is that significant parts of the panels can be recycled. They won’t just end up in the landfill, or have to be stored safely away for generations. They can be taken apart and made into new things.

How Long Until Solar Power Is More Common?

There’s the big question. What’s it going to take for solar power to become more commonly used, so that more people can see that it is viable?

I can’t say exactly, but I believe the time is coming. Cleco Company in Louisiana is testing solar panels there now, as well as other renewable energy technologies. The U.S. Government has a Solar Energy Technologies Program which focuses on developing solar technologies. The viability of solar power is being reviewed in Pennsylvania (PDF) as well.

Overall, progress is being made, and solar power is becoming steadily more practical. If you have the budget and a place to install solar panels, it’s worth researching to see what benefit you can get in your area.

Are The Benefits of Nuclear Power Worth the Risks?

Events in Japan have focused many people’s attentions on the risks of nuclear power. While the nuclear accident there hasn’t had the direct human cost of the earthquake and tsunami that started the entire mess, it’s still of great concern for its potential. It’s natural to fear what you can’t see, and many people don’t find enough reassurance in being told that they are not at risk from the radiation that has been released.

The interesting part to me is that so far coal power is far more dangerous to human lives and long term health than nuclear power, at least according to some calculations. Coal powered plants release more radioactivity than a well maintained nuclear power plant. They release more pollutants. Coal mining is a risky business. Yet many people are more comfortable with coal power plants than nuclear power plants.

The trouble is that it’s really difficult to calculate the exact impact on human health (or to the surrounding environment) when it comes to nuclear accidents. Most of the damage won’t be seen for years, and you can’t really tell which damage is caused by it in the long run. This is why estimates vary so widely.

A big part of the problem in my view is also that of long term storage of nuclear waste. Most current nuclear waste will have to be carefully stored for thousands of years. Even if we go to thorium reactors, the waste is hazardous for about 500 years. I’m not so fond of betting on anyone keeping track of any sort of waste that long, never mind keeping it secure. I wonder how the cost of nuclear power really balances out when you consider the long term storage issues.

So Why Support Nuclear Power?

With all that said, I’m not completely against nuclear power, and it’s for one simple reason. Plants are going to be built, I have no doubt about that. I’d rather push for safer plants if they’re going to be built, and keep pushing for other energy sources that don’t have such long term issues.

Truth be told, I’d far rather see us find ways to rely primarily on wind, solar and geothermal energy than on coal or nuclear. But with the opposition that exists to these, plus all the naysayers, it’s going to be a battle to get there. The way things are, there’s going to be a step between relying on coal and going to more renewable energy sources, and I strongly suspect that will be nuclear power. I’d like us to use the safest possible version of such power in that case.

Is nuclear power worth the risk? I certainly hope so, because I have no doubt that the risk will continue to be taken. Let’s hope safety continues to improve.

With All That Went Wrong In Japan, Is It Time to Give Up On Nuclear Power?

The 9.0 earthquake in Japan has been a nightmare for people in that country. Not only are thousands dead or missing,  with massive destruction by both the quake and the tsunami, they have a crisis with a nuclear power plant. Even milk and spinach in the area have been found to be contaminated as a result. Small amounts of radioactive iodine have been found in tap water.

Naturally, this disaster has resulted in many people calling for nuclear power plants to be shut down. I understand why. You can’t see radiation, you can’t tell if it’s effecting you, but it can shorten your life. That’s a scary thing.

That said, as of this writing I haven’t heard anything to make me stress about the radiation from the Fukushima nuclear plant. It has plenty of problems, but so far it hasn’t done the worst possible, by a long shot.

I’d love for solar, wind, geothermal and hydro power to take over the power generation we need. That would be wonderful. The only problem is that it won’t happen soon. There are a lot of obstacles in the way, and quite simply people aren’t willing to make that sacrifice, even though we’d be better off once we made it work.

I fully expect nuclear power to be around for a long time to come. That’s why I’d rather focus on making it safer.

For one thing, the radiation from a functioning nuclear power plant is actually less than that coming from a coal power plant. You don’t really think about natural radiation coming from coal, but it does. XKCD made a really interesting radiation chart, and it’s amazing to see what the numbers really are.

With Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima as examples, engineers now know more about the disasters to plan for in a nuclear power plant. Much of it was known before Fukushima, but that plant was old and lacked certain safety features.

The major problem I have with nuclear power is disposal of waste. Spent rods have been a big part of the Fukushima problem, after all. Nuclear waste is hazardous for far too long and is incredibly difficult to dispose of safely. More passive safety features must be in place in all nuclear power plants.

Grist has some interesting points on using thorium in nuclear power plants, stating this is safer than uranium. Some of the people commenting on the article have interesting ideas as well.

I hope that more serious looks will be taken at generating power in safer ways than nuclear or coal, but I’m also realistic enough to know it’s not going to happen that soon. Too many people with too much power over the situation are invested in keeping things the way they are. I think it’s better to fight to make them safer as we continue to work toward using more sustainable technologies to power our country.

Do Green Energy eBooks Really Deliver?

There are a number of ebooks on Clickbank and other places that talk about ways you can generate energy at home. They sound pretty good, but if you take a closer look, they have a lot of problems. The biggest problem is that they don’t deliver exactly what you’re hoping for.

Solar, Wind, Magnetic?

There are a few products out there, going on about how you can generate enough energy to run your entire home on solar, wind or magnetic energy for cheap. Matter of fact, you can build it yourself at a reasonable cost!

These schemes work well because we all want to save money on our power bills. Make it sound cheap and easy to do it in a green way, and people will go for it. They even include plans for building the product and tips on how to get parts for cheap.

Let’s start with solar. You can’t make your own solar cells. You can buy old solar cells and connect them, but they aren’t going to be good enough for what is claimed, and may not be safe to run.

Good quality solar cells are expensive, although the situation is looking better with thin film solar. You need professional installation to make sure the installation is done safely. You aren’t going to be allowed to connect your system to the grid if you don’t have a safe product correctly installed.

Wind sounds easy, but have you ever looked at a wind farm? Those towers are tall for a reason, and the blades are very long. This is necessary to generate a reasonable amount of power.

As for magnetic, they’re blinding you with terminology to hide the fact that they’re promoting a perpetual motion device. It will not keep working on its own.

Are these products good for anything?

Well, they might make interesting science fair projects for kids, but I wouldn’t be hooking the result up to my home. They also provide some reasonable tips on saving energy in your home, but you can probably find that elsewhere.

If it were really so easy to make systems that generate energy for homes, there would be entrepreneurs all over the place making these and selling them. Don’t believe in schemes to keep these things hidden. If these things are so simple, it would just take an enterprising soul to buy the books, start building the systems and home and selling them for massive profits that are still less than you’d pay for the real thing.

I’d love for green energy to be cheap and affordable. It’s not yet, and that’s the reality. We need to support the real green energy solutions so that they can be improved and made cheaper over time.

Check a Kill-a-Watt Out From the Library

I’ve posted before about using a Kill-A-Watt to keep an eye on your energy usage. They’re useful little devices. But did you know you can check them out from some libraries?

This isn’t available everywhere, but you can check with your local library to see if they have one. They’re available in libraries in Georgia and many other places. You should be able to check the website of your local library to see if you can borrow a Kill-a-Watt from them.

I like this because my one problem with a Kill-a-Watt is that once you’re done, what do you do with it? My mother has talked about getting one for the whole family to be passed around, which is a good way to handle it as well. But once you’ve found your energy wasting electronics there’s just not much more for it to do for you.