Can We Reboot Civilisation Without Fossil Fuels?

“Would a society starting over on a planet stripped of its fossil fuel deposits have the chance to progress through its own Industrial Revolution? Or to phrase it another way, what might have happened if, for whatever reason, the Earth had never acquired its extensive underground deposits of coal and oil in the first place? Would our progress necessarily have halted in the 18th century, in a pre-industrial state?”

Read more: Out of the ashes, aeon magazine. Related: The bright future of solar thermal factories, Firewood in the fuel tank: woodgas vehicles, Medieval smokestacks: fossil fuels in pre-industrial times.

Biogas Backpacks

biogas backpacks

Katrin Puetz saw the potential of biogas for rural communities while doing her master’s thesis at a university in Germany. She wondered how to do the “last mile” of distribution from a central digester site to someone’s home. She came up with the biogas “backpack” — a sturdy bag to transport the gas.

Since then, she’s created a full line of products for villages to use biogas locally. First there’s a 2 x 5 meter bio-digester “system” for 44 pounds of cow dung a day. It’s a tank with an outer tent covering. Then, there are the packs which hold 1.2 cubic meters of biogas at a time (6 kilowatt-hours of energy or enough for four hours of cooking). And there’s a simple stove and several other parts.

The bag has a valve that attaches to the stove with a hose. Villagers place a rock or plank of wood on top of the bag to push the gas out. The bag presents no explosion risk because it is isn’t pressurized, Puetz says. “You can put the bag on an open fire and it will take 15 to 20 seconds to even melt the material. It is a very heavy duty material. And even after you’ve melted a hole the gas will come out and slowly flare off, because biogas needs to be mixed with air to be flammable,” she assures us.

Read more at Co.EXIST: These hilarious inflated backpacks are actually delivering cheap local energy to the rural poor. Picture: (B)energy. Previously: Gas Bag Vehicles.

Games on Disc More Energy Efficient than Downloads

videogame 2

Assasin’s Creed IV: Black Flag

“This research investigates the carbon footprint of the lifecycle of console games, using the example of PlayStation 3 distribution in the UK. We estimate total carbon equivalent emissions for an average 8.8-gigabyte game based on data for 2010. Two delivery scenarios are compared: the first examines Blu-ray discs delivered by retail stores, and the second, games files downloaded over broadband internet.”

“Contrary to current consensus that downloaded data will result in lower carbon emissions than distribution by disc, producing and distributing an average-sized game by Blu-ray disc in 2010 resulted in approximately 50 to 90% less emissions than downloading. The estimated carbon emissions from downloading only fall below that of Blu-ray discs for games smaller than 1.3 gigabyte. The study findings serve to illustrate why it is not always true that digital distribution of media will have lower carbon emissions than distribution by physical means when file sizes are large.”

[Read more…]

How Biomass Energy Has Become the New Coal

“The biomass power industry is undergoing a new surge of growth in the United States. While bioenergy has traditionally been used by certain sectors such as the paper-making industry, more than 70 new wood-burning plants have been built or are underway since 2005, and another 75 proposed and in various stages of development, fueled by renewable energy subsidies and federal tax credits. In most states, biomass power is subsidized along with solar and wind as green, renewable energy, and biomass plant developers routinely tell host communities that biomass power is “clean energy.”

teesside biomass power plant

Promotional photo of BEI-Teesside, a planned biomass power plant in the UK. The volcanoe shape is well chosen if you consider the pollution that is produced by biomass power plants.

But this first-ever detailed analysis of the bioenergy industry reveals that the rebooted industry is still a major polluter. Comparison of permits from modern coal, biomass, and gas plants shows that a even the “cleanest” biomass plants can emit > 150% the nitrogen oxides, > 600 % the volatile organic compounds, > 190% the particulate matter, and > 125% the carbon monoxide of a coal plant per megawatt-hour, although coal produces more sulfur dioxide (SO2). Emissions from a biomass plant exceed those from a natural gas plant by more than 800% for every major pollutant.

Biomass power plants are also a danger to the climate, emitting nearly 50 percent more CO2 per megawatt generated than the next biggest carbon polluter, coal. Emissions of CO2 from biomass burning can theoretically be offset over time, but such offsets typically take decades to fully compensate for the CO2 rapidly injected into the atmosphere during plant operation.”

Read the report: Trees, Trash, and Toxics: How Biomass Energy Has Become the New Coal (PDF), Mary S. Booth, Partnership for Policy Integrity, April 2, 2014. Via biofuelwatch.

Solar Powered Grain Mill

solar milling

“Graining cereal crops is a basic, century old business and it will continue to be as important as ever before for centuries to come. Before the age of oil grain milling was entirely based on renewable energy. It was either done by wind energy, hydropower, animals or manpower. For the last century the traditional grain milling has been mainly replaced by electricity and fuel driven milling.”

“The Solar PV Grain Mill works to the same principle like any conventional, electrically driven mill. The mill has a very efficient 3-phase AC motor which is directly coupled to the graining system. The main invention of the system is, and that makes it unique among PV systems, that it is a “direct drive system” without the need of batteries. The Solar PV generator converts solar radiation into electricity, and the generated electricity is directly feeding the motor drive. There are no additional conversion losses, such as energy storage losses in batteries, battery maintenance or replacement costs, which are a common problem in conventional Solar PV off-grid systems.”

Read More: Solar Milling. Via Engineering for Change.

I would like to add that the direct drive system also eliminates the high energy use caused by the production of the batteries, which can make solar PV off-grid systems everything but sustainable. Therefore, storing work instead of energy — the solar mill only operates when the sun shines — is a very interesting strategy in sunny regions.


Carbon-Negative Energy Machines

carbon negative energy machineAll Power Labs makes machines that use an ancient process called gasification to turn out not only carbon-neutral energy, but also a carbon-rich charcoal by-product that just happens to be a fertilizer so efficient that Tom Price, the company’s director of strategic initiatives, calls it “plant crack”.

Gasification, in which dense biomass smoldering — but not combusting — in a low-oxygen environment is converted to hydrogen gas, is nothing new. Price said that ancient cultures used it to enrich their soils, and during World War II, a million vehicles utilized the technology. But after the war, it more or less vanished from the planet, for reasons unknown.

All Power Labs has taken gasification and combined it with two of the
Bay Area’s most valuable commodities — a rich maker culture and
cutting-edge programming skills — to produce what are called
PowerPallets. Feed a bunch of walnut shells or wood chips into these
$27,000 machines and you get fully clean energy at less than 10 cents a
kilowatt hour, a fraction of what other green power sources can cost.

Because there’s no combustion in All Power Labs’ gasification process, the carbon isn’t released into the air.
Rather, it is pulled from the biomass and converted into charcoal. Thanks to gasification and the fact that that charcoal can be put back into the ground, the process of releasing carbon is reversed, Price argued.”

Read more: Carbon-negative energy source a reality, and cheap too. Via Slashdot.

The Oil Drum (2005-2013)

The Oil Drum has published its last post. The archive remains accessible.

Open Source Energy Production: The Solar Fire P90

solar fire p90

Solar Fire is currently testing a larger version of its low-tech solar concentrator; the Solar Fire P90. Just like its smaller predecessor the Solar Fire P32 (which we covered before), the machine can produce heat, electricity and direct mechanical energy, making it suitable to manufacture almost anything on your roof or in the garden.

The Solar Fire P90 delivers up to 5 kW of electricity and 40 kW of thermal energy, is built using simple, abundant and non-toxic materials, and requires no foundation in the ground. The frame size is 11.5 x 11.5 metres and the machine requires an area of 16 x 16 metres for revolving.

Tracking is done by hand using a simple but ingenious system — one person can operate up to five of these solar concentrators at the same time. The Solar Fire P90 is an open source design, but it can also be bought for about $ 12,000, excluding transport costs.

A video of the tests can be found here. For more information on the workings and applications of these kinds of machines, see the article “The bright future of solar thermal powered factories“.

Picture: Solar Fire.

Energy Cannibalism

Energy cannibalism refers to an effect where rapid growth of an entire energy producing (or conserving) technology industry creates a need for energy that uses (or cannibalizes) the energy of existing power plants or devices. For the deployment of renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies to grow while remaining net greenhouse gas emission mitigators, they must grow at a rate slower than the inverse of their energy payback time.

Previously: Can renewables power consumer societies? The negative case.

Public versus Private Energy Resources

“I’d like to propose what I think is an important and useful distinction – between public use of energy and resources and private use of energy resources. The former, I would argue, is essential to maintaining a good life, the latter is not.” Read more. (via TOD).