By Paul K. Haeder
More than 500 million energy-saving compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) have been handed out to households affected by power outages in South Africa's Cape Town. It’s an effort that lowered peak demand by 100 megawatts. Jamaican and Cubans were given 30,000 of the bulbs to swap their incandescent bulbs.
Check out stories like this on a website promoting the use of compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs. CFLs use 66-75% less electricity to produce the same amount of light as a comparable incandescent bulb. More importantly CFLs have eight times the life of an incandescent -- typically that bulb is using 90 percent of the electricity to generate heat. only about 10% light. “If every household in the U.S. replaced just ONE incandescent light bulb with an energy efficient compact fluorescent light bulb (CFL), it would eliminate the equivalent of the emissions created by one million cars. And that's only one bulb per household! Most homes have 15-30 bulbs.”
Check that out fact and many others on the CFLBULBS website.
CEO of the Jamaica Public Service Company says, “The cost of energy will not go down in the near future, but if consumers control their usage, they can control how much they pay for electricity."
And since CFLs have hit the market, we’ve see innovation in research, energy savings and better design come about in the entire lighting arena – Light emitting diodes are one form of innovation, though expensive. Read about this new look at the old Thomas Edison bulb in a story in the New York Times.
The Incandescent Bulb: Not Dead Yet
Again, this is yet more evidence of why it is important that we push a Marshall Plan for solar power, wind-driven electricity and other innovations in low carbon emissions energy and manufacturing and transportation. We would have had huge innovations if the country had been serious about solar energy and alternative and green energy on a massive and across-the-board scale 30 years ago. We’d be working with some major second and third generation solar panel design and untold amounts of other innovations not even imaginable inside this current framework of old school thinking.
In future PacifiCAD blogs, we’ll look at the issues of retooling the globe for a post carbon world of high tech energy production, transportation modes and bio-regional carbon footprint management – to build all those panels, all those wind turbines, all those nuclear plants, what have you, will take energy, and extraction and manufacturing requires huge amounts of energy, and there are physicists looking at the amount of CO2 and other GHG’s emitted to take us to this green energy/transportation/food world. It will take use past the 420 parts per million, in some estimations, if we go green.
Even the basic building block for construction and retooling – concrete – is a huge emitter of GHG. Read on.
Concrete: A Burning Issue
Concrete is responsible for 7-10% of CO2 emissions worldwide, making it the biggest climate change culprit outside of transportation and electricity-generation. This is because concrete is a composite of "aggregate" material (rocks, sand, gravel) held together by Portland cement glue, and producing Portland cement means heating limestone and clay up to 2500 - 3000 degrees F. Multiply that burning by the sheer scale of concrete production (according to Sustainable Settlement in Southern Africa, "Twice as much concrete is used in construction around the world than the total of all other building materials"), and you'll see what the problem is.
The only real barrier to replacing cement? Industry inertia and unfamiliarity with the technological options: after the concerted work of scores of researchers and fledgling industrialists around the world, there are now a whole slew of viable alternatives.
Some Industrial wastes such as fly-ash, slag, silica fume, and rice hull ash, are the most popular cement-replacements today. Some of them have been used for decades, and they "have the dual benefit of replacing energy-intensive Portland cement, and of using material that would otherwise be landfilled."
Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (sometimes called AirCrete) is a technology long used in Europe but new to the US which does not replace normal concrete, but uses much less of it because it is a foam. Foamed concrete can still be quite strong, and because it is a foam it provides thermal insulation which concrete does not.
CeramiCrete by Argonne National Labs uses magnesium-based chemistry instead of normal cement's calcium-based chemistry. This makes it twice as strong as normal cement, so builders need less of it; also, industrial waste can be used as a magnesium oxide source, rather than sintering virgin material, so manufacturing energy can be drastically reduced. Other bonuses are that it binds to many aggregates that concrete won’t (dirt, straw, etc.), it’s non-corrosive, very fireproof, and all ingredients are food-grade or fertilizer (it's also patented for dental & bone repair, not just buildings). It's currently more expensive than Portland cement, but Tec-Eco's EcoCement is another magnesium-based chemistry, similar to ANL's CeramiCrete but better, according to Tec Eco founder John Harrison. He says that once set and exposed to air, his EcoCement also sequesters CO2 over the years.
Siloxo's geo-polymers are more of an aluminum-based chemistry, which they say can produced at ambient temperatures, thus eliminating the energy-intensity problem as well as making their product cheaper than normal concrete. It can also use waste materials, and they claim it has a low thermal conductivity, which would be another improvement over Portland cement.
Lime-based cement is an old technology (found in buildings like the Pantheon), which was swept away by the invention of Portland cement because the latter is a harder material. However, Lime-based cement has many ecological advantages over its successor: its production is less energy-intensive, it allows buildings to breathe, it can heal itself to a limited degree, and is extremely durable (arguably more so than Portland cement).
Ordinary cement reinforced with high-tech fibers / polymers are also being pursued in the lab, though none are yet on the market. Researcher Deborah Chung has found that not only is a carbon-fiber-filled concrete stronger, but it also changes electrical conductivity when stressed, so buildings and bridges with monitoring systems could warn you of problems before they collapse. Since cement does not bond well to carbon, many other fibers & polymers have been tried, including glass, plastics, PVA, and natural materials like flax, sisal, hemp, and jute. Other researchers have found that the strength of concrete can be much improved by reducing the sizes of defects ("macro-defect-free cement").
Finally, another technique which does not replace Portland cement but does make a more eco-friendly concrete: using waste as aggregate material, to avoid landfilling existing building debris or other materials while also avoiding the mining of more gravel or sand.
Algae as a new savior? Read the article in National Geographic almost two years ago and this CNN report:
And more fun reading? Ted Trainer’s look at energy consumption, economic growth, population predictions of 9 billion people and their wants and energy consumption desires? Here’s a book review of Trainer’s Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society
by Graham Strouts
Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society
Springer 2007 hardback 197 pages
Ted Trainer, of the University of New South Wales, has made a valuable contribution to the literature of energy and resource depletion with his new book Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society.
The title says a lot I think. With the focus of most mainstream debate on peak oil and energy being on the supply side - the oil is running low so what are we going to use instead? - Trainer brings a refreshing approach in which he provides a detailed and technically comprehensive analysis of existing renewable energy options- including wind, solar thermal, solar electric, biomass and energy crops, and hydrogen, as well as nuclear and the issue of storing energy. He concludes:
...we could easily have an extremely low per capita rate of energy consumption, and footprint, based on local resources- but only if we undertake vast and radical change in economic, political, geographical and cultural systems.
In the first section he outlines the context I which these discussions have been taking place: a context full of "Greenwash" and wild exaggerations on behalf of some renewable energy suppliers, which has been repeated by the media and left the public with a quite illusory understanding of what renewables can and cannot do.
In writing the book, Trainer claims that
considerable difficulty has been encountered from people hostile to having attention drawn to the weaknesses in their technologies and proposals... Where commercial interest might be threatened by critical enquiry, prickly reactions, including harassment, can be encountered.
In most of the renewable technologies Trainer examines, the conclusion is that although they may make a significant contribution to an energy system backed up by fossil fuels - from 10-20% in the case of wind for example - they simply cannot deliver enough constant power to run our current society entirely.
This issue is compounded when we take into consideration that our society is predicated on a growth ethic, with population and thus the demand growing:
If world population reaches 9+ billion, a global carbon use budget of 1Gt would provide us all with about 150 kg of fossil fuel per year, which is around 2-3% of our present rich-world per capita use of fossil fuels... Alternatively only about 170million people, 2.5% of the world's present population, could live on the present rich-world per capita fossil fuel use of over 6 tonnes per year.
In the case of solar thermal, for example, Trainer concludes that power stations built in hot regions of the world that use heat from the sun to drive turbines can make a valuable contribution in the summer, but not in the winter. From a global point of view, there would be difficulty in running long transmission lines from, for example, the Sahara to Europe. Even in the best case, large-scale solar thermal is likely to cost 7x the price of coal-fired energy.
In the case of wind, there are similar limitations in the summer, and again, the difficulty of exploiting enough good sites to meet current needs. In Australia, for example, Trainer estimates that because of wind variability, problems of integration with other systems and availability of space on suitable sites would limit the contribution wind could make to 10-20% of current demand.
The hope that wind and solar could be combined - one picking up when the other slackens off - is limited by the costs and logistics of building several large-scale systems each of which would effectively have to be capable of meeting peak demand.
Trainer has a detailed look at biomass but finds this would also run into problems of scale and absolute limits: since many studies have found that ethanol from corn may in fact take more energy to produce than it actually provides, the only possibility to keep the industrial rich world supplied with the volumes of liquid fuels for transport from biomass would be from cellulosic or woody input material - short rotation willow coppice and some other high-yielding shrubs and grasses.
He concludes that if the entire world's available land were given over to producing ethanol to supply just for the 1.5 billion people living in rich countries, it would still be possible only to meet 15% of our current consumption.
For the nuclear industry to supply all the world's needs at current rates of energy demand, we would need to build at least 100,000 more reactors and the uranium feedstock would be used up in just 12 years.
Having demonstrated in the first part of the book that renewable sources of energy cannot come anywhere near to replacing fossil fuels in sufficient quantity to keep running the current globalised, capitalist industrial economy, Trainer devotes the last two sections of the book to outlining what amounts to his manifesto which he refers to as "The Simpler Way":
...the essential factor in our global predicament is over-consumption... [so] we must move to far more materially simple lifestyles...We have to come to see as enjoyable living frugally, recycling, growing food, â€˜husbanding' resources, making rather than buying, composting, repairing, bottling fruit, giving surpluses and old things to others, making things last, and running a relatively self-sufficient household economy. The Buddhist goal is a life â€˜simple in means and rich in ends'.
In other words, Trainer argues that the quest to keep the unsustainable growth-based system going by renewable energy sources is a fools' errand:
It is a mistake to think better technology is important in solving global problems, let alone the key. Most of the things we need in the Simpler Way can be produced by traditional technologies.
Instead, Trainer advocates small-scale, decentralised communities designed around permaculture principles, a no-growth based local economy, the wise management of local natural resources, local community government, simple design approaches such as passive solar, and the replacement of TV and energy-intensive recreations and pastimes with gardening and crafts.
A key part of this which Trainer makes some valuable contributions is the actual number crunching of footprint analyses: how much land is needed to support how many people at what level of consumption?
- while agribusiness, with high fossil inputs, requires 5,000 square metres to feed one North American, bio-intensive methods such as have been demonstrated by Jeavons (2002) show it is possible for people to feed themselves on perhaps 1/100th of this space using far less energy-intensive methods, and requiring perhaps only 4 hours work per week;
- frugal use of electricity could provide a comfortable life sufficient to our needs at less than 2% of typical rich-world household consumption (4 kWh/day), easily achievable with renewables;
- a remarkably low overall footprint per capita of 0.25ha.- 0.5 ha could be achieved- "still under the 2050 globally available figure of 0.8ha".
Trainer concludes with a discussion of the Transition Process, and acknowledges that he has become increasingly pessimistic that this process will take place in an orderly or timely manner- not because of lack of resources, technologies or knowledge, but because of lack of will:
The problem group, the key to transition is- people in general. If they came to see the Simpler Way as preferable, consumer-capitalist society would be more or less immediately replaced...The battle therefore is to do with the ideology, world-view or vision held by ordinary people.
This is difficult because the Simpler Way involves the developments of social and economic systems that "flatly contradict some of the fundamental elements in Western Culture." But by turning the spotlight away from governments and political leaders and onto the role each citizen has to play in the way they make decisions everyday about how they live, Trainer offers an empowering response that anyone can begin with right now: it is up to you. Start your garden. Talk to your neighbours. Research low-tech energy options for your community.
Ultimately The Simpler Way is the Only Way. An abrupt petroleum crash would do wonders to focus people's mind on the predicament we face. Anyone interested in Energy Descent Planning, Community Powerdown responses and Economic Localisation should read this book.