Should Be Based on Renewable Energy Sources

>e stated at the outset that it was not our intent in this book to be-rn£th the ills that plague us as members of advanced technological societies. The pervasiveness of our energy dilemma, however, is impossib to overlook. Our massive dependency on non-renewable sources of energy fossil fuels, and on nuclear energy, is one of the prime symptoms of the lac of resiliency that characterizes the developed countries at present.

Since the mid-seventies, in spite of substantial bulwarks from gov ernment subsidy and the protective vested interests of industry and the mi1' tary, nuclear power has continued to fall short of the expectations of its pr„ ponents. Potentially fatally dangerous, inelegant conceptually, perenially vulnerable to sabotage, accident, and disruption, it is now obligingly proving itself far more costly than sunny forecasters first predicted for the domestication of the peaceful atom. While the fact that it is economic criterea rather than social costs that has slowed its progress to a near halt, a sign o~ the lingering malaise of a nearly exclusively materialistic society, it has been the efforts of environmental and humanistic groups that have forced the installation of safety requirements which have increased the overall cost of nuclear energy. Rather than go into an analysis of nuclear power, which has been expertly done in a number of books to date, we would rather confine our remarks on the subject to the observation that it is an unforgiving technology, with a timespan we cannot fully comprehend, predicated upon both human and technological infallibility. The same criticism applies equally to the development of fusion, the advocates of which are strangely evocative of those of the peaceful atom.

Before the 1973 Arab oil embargo and the subsequent entrance of OPEC onto the stage of world events, most of us accepted our consumption of fossil fuels, in the myriad forms we did so, as heedlessly and unquestion-ingly as we do air or water. We traveled, drove cars, powered our houses and relied on the products of the industries and agriculture than ran on fossil fuels. As students of biological principles we became aware quite early of the fallacy of depending on so narrowly based and frequently distant supplies. Our work daily brought us into contact with the workings of efficient systems and we, like many others, realized the inherent shortcomings of such a dependency relationship. In explaining our windmills and solar devices at New Alchemy prior to 1973 we would argue, often to a circle of puzzled faces, that we as an industrial culture had predicated our way of life on a contradiction—the necessity of continuing economic growth in a world that had a biological base of finite resources. To the degree that it improved our credibility OPEC did us a favor by flexing its muscles when it did in the early seventies. The culture at last understood the limits of fossil fuels dur-

crisis, but the cultural memory is short. People return to the earlier : and use patterns without an energy crisis, forgetting that these els are still limited and finite. Now in the eighties, it would seem re-:. but again is totally necessary to point out the inherent political nomic instability of the profligate use of fossil fuels that charac-:ne period from the end of World War II to 1973. We dimly under-:s. as a culture, but have not changed either our domestic or foreign reflect anything but a total reliance on fuel oil. Imported oil is un-and renders us vulnerable. Coal, although still comparatively plen-i a potential interim possibility, raises grave environmental ques-:he form of land devastation, atmospheric pollution, and acid rain, c discounted are the intolerable human conditions under which the .med. Natural gas, the cleanest of the fossil fuels, is not renewable be regarded as finite. The gradual drop in fuel consumption of ei> since 1973 and the concomitant improvement in energy effi-: . chough less than it might be hoped, are encouraging signs that our -hip to fossil fuels, while addictive for a period, can be cured. -.> the cracks in the foundation of a society based on nuclear and/or r^s become increasingly apparent, there has been a concurrent rise esc m the possibilities for turning to renewable sources of energy to :he behemoths we had previously tapped. It is largely a grass roots r:it, moving more from the bottom up than from the top down. In ■jert analysis of the energy situation in the book Brittle Power, Amory nter Lovins list as renewable sources of energy those that harness d. water, and biomass or wastes. The transition to a society based renewable sources would, they point out, "eliminate the need for iMs wells, gathering lines, terminals, tankers, pipelines, coal trains, :pelines and most bulk transmission lines."1 They do qualify the use->t existing power grids for linking dispersed sources of renewable -applies. "Indeed," they go on, "[the power grids] eliminate the ■r the fuels themselves, oil, coal, gas, or uranium, and hence for de-, e on the nations or institutions which extract, process, and sell In addition, renewable energy is end-use oriented, and therefore rA more efficient. Renewable energy circumvents the clumsiness of .de single source strategies, which have been likened to using a r-. to kill a fly or a chain saw to cut butter. The particular energy need ulv analyzed before the possibilities, which are frequently multiple, ided upon. In many areas solar heat is best suited for space heating and has been used for this purpose with efficiency for thousands of years. There are now more than a million solar buildings in the United States. Solar hot water heaters are also growing in popularity both for domestic and industrial use. The technology for solar or photovoltaic cells for producing electricity is advancing rapidly, and their success is almost inevitable. The major problem forestalling their rapid evolution in the United States is a lack of government support—for want of which, as with the automobile industry, leadership in the field will probably go to Japan. As was the case in the development of micro-computers, the cost of solar cells is falling rapidly as both technology and materials are improved. One company is developing shingles that can be used on roofs to produce electricity. Optimistic experts in the field predict that by the late eighties new houses will be fairly common as net exporters of electricity. According to the Lovins: "The pho-tovoltaics revolution is indeed already upon us." 3

The fossil fuel era eclipsed, for a period, the proven effectiveness as well as the potential of windpower. Prior to the extensive rural electrification program of the thirties, many farms manufactured electricity using an on-site windmill. Interest in windmills subsequently waned to be revived only with the energy crisis in the seventies, at which time design in wind plants lagged far behind developments in other fields. Proponents and designers of windmills have moved quickly to close the gap. In the mountain passes and on the tops of California mountains "wind farms" of up to one-hundred windmills are under construction or already operational. According to Popular Science magazine "the wind-farm concept was kicked around through the energy crunch of the mid-seventies. Suddenly, in 1982, the idea blossomed into fact."4 California's Pacific Gas and Electric Company buys all the power generated by these wind farms, as all utility companies are required by federal law to do. Other sites for wind farms are being evaluated in Montana, Wyoming, New Hampshire, and Hawaii. The value of such centralized power stations notwithstanding, there is, as in the case of photovol-taics, a strong case to be made for individual mills to provide on-site electricity on a household or community or farmstead level in remote areas. As with the struggle to perfect the solar cell, wind technology is improving with remarkable speed in spite of minimal government support. One member of the energy industry has pronounced wind power the closest to true commercialism of all the emerging technologies.5

Hydroelectricity is not a new concept, and certainly strong arguments must be made against vast constructions that change the course of t n . ers and violate the integrity of entire watersheds and bioregions. i. - ale hydro causes far less environmental disruption. As was the case ?«mrr ::.dniills, innumerable small dams and hydro power stations fell in-I® :: - ..ic during the fossil fuel era. Now there is a broad revival of interest. TV 1 '■ ms estimate that "Nationally over the next few decades small hydro SUM t_ : .-.pproach the same total capacity as existing large-scale hydroelec-t far more evenly distributed throughout the country.'"' Abroad, 5»»«-"". - and New Zealand are actively developing small hydro. According to : ILr^ -" Brown of the Worldwatch Institute in his book Building Sustainable $» I in 1978 some 87,000 small-scale hydro-powered electric genera-a»r- r re in use in China and account for a third of the electricity produced iitr~- Other possibilities for decentralized production of electricity in-tOiOT ilar collectors to provide heat either for direct consumption or for <mr :'-ion to electricity, and heat concentration saline solar ponds which can ::e>. heating capacity per se or produce heat convertible to electrical new.:"- As for energy for heating, the first and most obvious energy strat-.tsr - <nservation. Once the need for energy for heating is reduced, and it car "c done so drastically, like the generation of electricity, the question r. a bioregional character. Obviously in heavily wooded areas efficient ».. < .-.-urners used in conjunction with a program of careful forest man-t and reforestation is an important and renewable strategy. In iess forested areas solar architecture combined with insulation a£i night heat loss has greater potential.

As for looking to renewable sources of energy to produce vehicular in- - :he most promising current solutions are gaseous hydrogen made it i- r:\ drolysis and gas'produced from the processing of biomass. A note in _ .-;< m is necessary here, as it is with the development of all new ideas for ,jr • :ng energy, even when it is not radioactive. Whereas wholesale giv-nc r' of acres of land to biomass production could encourage deforesta-n .:id soil depletion, there are at the present vast resources of waste bio-already available for conversion. In various parts of the country they in . :e cotton gin trash, which in Texas, the Lovins estimate, is enough to - j r"■ erv vehicle in that state; spoiled grain, walnut shells, and rice straw in .. : niia; peach pits in Georgia; logging wastes in lumbering areas; and «¡i: .1. the straw that is now burned in the fields of France and Denmark.8 3-i ass conversion, carefully thought out, is yet another possibility for re-ir ...Me energy just beginning to be seriously applied.

A satisfying account of conversion to solar is the story of Soldiers

Grove in Wisconsin. Situated on the Kickapoo River, the village grew up around a lumber mill built in 1847. As the forests on the surrounding hills were cut for timber and the land cleared for farming, the soil began to lose its ability to absorb and contain run-off, so the Kickapoo began to flood regularly after the spring rains. In some years flooding was slight, but in others it was massive and, occasionally, disastrous. After a good many unrewarding efforts to acquire government help in one form or another and repeated recurrence of flooding, community leaders, in an attempt to save the village, requested that the Federal government reallocate grant money which had previously been slated for a flood control plan. In an ingenious reversal of Mohammed and the mountain, the city leaders decided that instead of battling to keep the river away from the business district, it made more sense to move the business district and relocate it beyond the flood plain of the Kickapoo. A flood of disastrous proportions in July of 1978 finally extricated the money from the government. The people of Soldiers Grove began to take steps prerequisite to again coexisting with Kickapoo. By this time not only rising water but rising oil prices were becoming a concern to the businessmen of the village who were beginning to see, in rebuilding, a chance to restructure their downtown to reduce energy costs. A task force formed by the University of Wisconsin Extension Service recommended they incorporate maximum thermal efficiency and passive solar heating for the intended new buildings. Thus encouraged, the village hired an experienced solar architectural firm, the Hawkweed Group Limited of Osseo, Wisconsin, to design a master plan for the new downtown. The result, by the end of 1982, was the completion of the first solar heated business district in the country. According to a report by William Becker:

Soldiers Grove shows that site-built passive solar heating systems are economical, understandable and socially/politically plausible in any new construction situation. No housing development, industrial park or other new construction should be done without an analysis of solar potential. At minimum, unless there is unavoidable physical obstruction of the sun, new buildings should be oriented properly and be designed to take advantage of direct gain. Solar should be a normal and integral part of new construction planning anywhere in the country.

Because systems like those used at Soldiers Grove are practical, cost-effective and of great benefit not only to building owners and local stability, but to the nation as a whole, the burden of solar plausibility ought to be shifted. Rather than requiring local officials, solar businesses and other solar advocates to show why solar should be used, the own ers of planned buildings ought to be required to show why solar shouldn't be used, if they wish not to use it.

The folks at Soldiers Grove came to understand solar's benefits < > the point where they passed a requirement that all new business build-ngs receive at least half their heating energy from the sun. Owners must -eek a variance if they wish not to use solar heating. And in the one test .ise which has come up so far—that of the bank building—the coramu-:".itv demonstrated that it needs to be firm about the requirement. Rather :' granting the bank a variance, village officials brought in a special->: to conduct a solar-need analysis and helped the bank find an way to meet the requirements of the ordinance.'"'

The gradual, and as yet incomplete, shift to renewable sources of nr at New Alchemy offers an early if slightly ragged model of how such m cion can be accomplished in existing communities on a broad scale. %"-the Institute first moved onto the land, the only buildings were the sar--.nouse and the barn. The electricity for both came partly from the Pil-£>— Nuclear Plant at Plymouth, Massachusetts, just north of the Cape. Par-■r" • ' a allv. although some of our electricity still comes from there, and "BLz" ant is one of the oldest and least safe in the country, the same combi-i^r r. of nuclear protest and shifting economics have brought about the iir elation of plans for a second plant—Pilgrim II. Apart from electricity, tir :her energy then used in the poorly insulated New Alchemy farmhouse »a - ::.-.:ural gas for the hot water heater and oil for space heating. Over the •r-x - as ecological diversity was built into the natural systems, an analogous .¿cc " ach was applied to energy sources for the buildings. In all, four new » - buildings have been added, all of them bioshelters which do not rein, -: inxiliary fossil fuel heating. The Energy Education Auditorium de-•sur t : bv New Alchemy's Bill Smith with the help of an Apple computer % l - r '.ved out of a corner of the old dairy barn. It was constructed and insu-ii :> > make central heating unnecessary. Around the farm most of the uiture units have attendant windmills to pump, circulate, or aerate lie .iter rather than using electrically-powered pumps or aeration units. 1 - hot water heater has been installed on the south face of the roof of lie :.-.rm house to provide domestic hot water. The house itself has been i - :ciably insulated to reduce fuel consumption for heating. Although » - .; . e experimented with windmills and a demonstration photovoltaic if • e are still drawing electricity from the grid and are glad it is there. X- Alchemy, as the solar and wind technologies advance, one day will be energy independent. Further down the line again the Institute may contribute energy to the grid, thereby lessening the Cape's overall energy dependence on outside sources. It is a pattern bound to be repeated in a number of forms in many areas throughout the country and in many parts of the world.

The potential for renewables is not confined to replacement of what are referred to generally as conventional sources. For example, Joe Seale, Ocean Arks International's head of wind research, has invented and designed a highly efficient wind-powered ice making/refrigeration power plant for which we have been awarded fifteen patent claims. The technology grew out of a response to the very severe need for food preservation in tropical countries where spoilage is a major limiting factor in fishing and food production. Such soft technology applications of renewable energy are open to replication in innumerable ways. Many are reaching the phase of implementation. To those who still view renewable energies as inadequate to the task of nuclear and fossil fuel, it can be stated, as the Lovins phrase it, that "The methods used to forecast the path of the sun, or even next week's weather, are considerably more reliable than those which predict reactor accidents or Saudi politics."

Precept Six

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