Choosing Renewable Energy

Pick alternative sources of energy like geothermal, wind, or smart grid systems to cut down your carbon footprint.

| December 2018

Healthy Solutions

Spend enough time pondering climate change, and the magnitude of the challenge can begin to overwhelm anyone. There’s a daunting array of numbers and trends, choices and consequences. Much of what we do as modern humans contributes to the problem, little by little by little. Our appetite for high-carbon energy has unquestionably put the world and its inhabitants at risk, and we appear to be hurtling toward a very unsettling conclusion. But we must not lose sight of a very simple and reassuring fact: we have already invented virtually everything we need to get us out of this crisis. The job won’t be easy, and we could certainly use a few more clever tools. But we can build a low-­carbon society. Indeed, it’s already happening.

Changing-Planet
Cover courtesy of University of California Press

In 1999, David Riecks and Anna Barnes faced a dilemma familiar to many homeowners. Barnes was working at home as an editor and Web designer, but their 1,200-­square-­foot house in Champaign, Illinois, lacked adequate air conditioning to ward off the stifling summer heat. Their furnace had seen better days. Any way they looked at it, they were about to spend a lot of money. They could have easily invested in a high efficiency conventional furnace and air conditioner and felt comfortable with their choices. Instead, they went underground, installing a ground source heat pump.

Just a few feet below the ground, the earth’s temperature remains a nearly constant 13°C (55°F). The heat pump taps this natural energy source, reaching as far as 150 feet down with plastic tubing with a circumference about that of a garden hose. A nontoxic liquid that works like antifreeze cycles through the tubing, slowly attaining the temperature of the surrounding earth. When the weather is cool, the heat pump uses electrical compressors to deliver that underground heat into the house, helping to provide heat and hot water. In the summer, the system runs in reverse, removing heat from the house and helping to provide free air-­conditioning.



Adding a traditional central cooling system might have doubled their utility bills; instead, Barnes and Riecks estimate that they’ve saved hundreds of dollars in heating expenses per year. While ground source systems cost more to install than a typical furnace or central air conditioner, they typically save buyers enough on their power bills to pay for themselves within three to seven years. Such savings have helped sell more than a million ground source heat pumps in the United States and a similar number in China, reports James Bose, executive director of the International Ground Source Heat Pump Association.

Choosing a more efficient heating and cooling system simply made sense to Barnes and Riecks, just like riding their bikes or buying local produce. “I think it’s a personal responsibility,” Barnes said. “Just like milk does not magically get into a milk carton, electricity just doesn’t jump into a light switch. It’s not lost on us that every Btu that we’re buying is coming from coal.” And she knows that coal carries a heavy carbon price. “Everything has a cost. It’s a matter of accepting your responsibility for that cost.”

• • •

For years, Ron Later scoured the marketplace looking for an alternative to his monthly $300 electric bill. That’s what he paid to power the 4,500­-square-­foot home he shares with his wife, Edna. The Laters live in Hinkley, California, an unincorporated community in the Mojave Desert where summer temperatures often soar above 38°C (100°F), and staying cool isn’t cheap. But the monster on their utility bill is the well pump that waters their home and a nearby stand of two hundred pistachio trees.

To save money on his electricity bill, Later, a 58-­year-old freight train mechanic, decided twenty years ago to try alternative energy sources. “I’m tired of giving people my money,” said Later. “The wind is out there, the sun is out there, so why should I have to pay for it?”

When he first looked into alternative energy sources, he suffered sticker shock. But Later, a do-­it-yourself type who grows his own vegetables and fruit and built his own house, kept his eye out, finally spotting an advertisement for a small wind generator manufactured by Bergey Windpower in Norman, Oklahoma. Later finally managed to install his ten-­kilowatt wind generator, complete with a 120-foot tower, in 2003. He estimates that he now pays just $600 a year for electricity.

The generator cost $47,000 to purchase and install, but state and federal incentives cut the costs by more than half. No one has ever complained about the site of the tower or any noise. In fact, the Commonwealth Edison meter reader didn’t even notice it. She did notice that the meter wasn’t racking up the watts, and the Laters received a call from the utility wanting to replace their “broken” meter. “Well, ma’am,” Later told her, “did you see the wind generator out there?”

The turbine has become something of a novelty, with friends stopping by when it’s windy simply to watch the meter run backward. And two neighbors have since installed their own systems. “It’s quite trippy,” Later said. “It’s very exciting. You did something and it’s actually working for you.”

• • •

Jerry Brous and his wife, Pat, were accustomed to keeping an eye on their appetite for electricity. They used to take long trips in an oceangoing trawler, and all appliances — including vital systems like their radio — ran off a bank of batteries. “We became our own utility,” said Brous, sixty-eight, who was retired from a job in management at U.S. Steel. “We learned what each thing costs you in terms of amp­hours.” So one day in Sequim, Washington, when Jerry heard about GridWise, he jumped at the chance to participate.



GridWise is a nationwide consortium of research labs, high-tech companies, and utilities working to increase the efficiency of the entire electricity grid, from the power plant to the plug. Its goal is to make a smart grid, to automate the kind of keen awareness of power use that the Brouses developed at sea.

The problem is that the two sides of the grid — supply and demand  — run independently of each other. Demand is constantly waxing and waning: up for morning showers and after­work air conditioners; down at night. But on the supply side, the grid has virtually no capacity to store electricity. Balancing supply and demand is a tightrope act, and right now it’s accomplished with special power plants called peakers that get cranked on and off, up and down, according to demand. Compared with the average watt of electricity, peak power costs more and emits more carbon dioxide. “That’s the most expensive power you can buy,” said Rob Pratt of the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

In some areas, customers can allow their utility to power down major appliances such as air conditioners during peak demand. The utilities can avoid firing up the peakers, and cooperating customers get a discount on their utility bills. This is a start, but it supplies only crude, on–off intelligence. The GridWise team plans to refine this.

During a one-­year trial in Washington and Oregon, Pratt’s team put computer chips into appliances and linked them to the Internet. Home owners could set their heating and cooling to choose either comfort or energy savings, or some balance in between. For example, if three homes wanted to heat some water during peak demand but there was only enough for one, the home set for the highest comfort setting would get the electricity but also pay a bit more for it. “We literally auctioned off the available electricity that we could deliver to that neighborhood to the highest bidders,” said Pratt.

Every five minutes the grid talked to the appliances, giving them feedback about how taxed it was. When demand was low, current flowed, but when it was high, the GridWise system might shut off the dishwasher or power down the air conditioner for twenty minutes. The appliances talked back to the Brouses’ computer. Jerry could sit down at any computer and monitor their energy use and control their appliances. “It was exceptionally easy,” said Brous.

The Brouses went for maximum energy savings, though they occasionally overrode the settings for comfort. They barely noticed the difference in their lives, yet during the one­-year study, they cut their overall energy use by 15 percent — a typical result, said Pratt — and they could reduce it up to 50 percent on short time scales. The GridWise system opened their eyes to how much electricity they were using, which inspired them to save energy in other ways, such as opening the curtains on cold mornings to let the sun’s rays warm up the house. “That made a huge difference,” said Brous.

Thinking Big, Thinking Positive

David Riecks and Anna Barnes installed a ground source heat pump. Ron and Edna Later erected a ten­-kilowatt wind turbine. Jerry and Pat Brous helped test the smart grid. Not one of these people qualifies as a professional environmental crusader. Yet each cared enough to invest a little extra time and some resources into making a good choice. They all saved money and reduced their carbon footprints at the same time.

Scale these efforts up, compound them by the millions of opportunities out there, and the world begins to look like a very different place. The ground source heat pump industry has set its sights on increasing its share of the heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning market from about 2 percent to 30 percent by 2030. This will significantly reduce the largest source of residential greenhouse gas emissions. An ambitious deployment of 1.5 million two-­megawatt wind turbines in the United States could be accomplished by 2020, meeting 40 percent of global electricity needs and re-purposing dozens of shuttered automobile assembly plants to manufacture the turbines in the bargain. A national smart grid like GridWise could save customers 10 percent on their bills and $70 billion over twenty years and eliminate the need to build thirty large coal­-fired plants. We can change our dangerous trajectory. But with a problem as big as climate change, how can we frame the challenge so that it can be best understood, discussed, and ultimately solved?

At current rates, carbon emissions will double by mid-century, significantly raising the odds of climate catastrophe (current projection). Each stabilization wedge represents large-scale implementation of a technology or policy that could cut 1 billion tons in annual emissions by 2055. Seven wedges would keep emissions steady; twice as many, or wedges twice as large, would keep greenhouse gas levels steady. (Recent calculations show that wedges need to be somewhat larger.)

figure-33
From S. Pacala and R. Socolow, “Stabilization Wedges: Solving the Climate Problem for the Next 50 Years with Current Technologies,” Science 305 [2004]: 968–72

In 2004, ecologist Stephen Pacala and engineer Robert Socolow from Princeton University’s Carbon Mitigation Initiative unveiled a frame­work for dealing with climate change called the stabilization wedge. Though we’ll be debating the details for decades, it’s generally accepted in the climate change community that preventing a doubling of the pre-industrial concentration of CO2 is feasible and that it has a chance to stave off the most devastating changes. When you draw this target line on a graph alongside today’s trend of a steep and steady increase in greenhouse gases, the area between them is essentially a big triangle. Pacala and Socolow cut the triangle down to size, dividing it into seven equal wedges, each worth roughly a gigaton (one billion tons) of carbon emissions avoided annually by mid-century (figure 33).

Then they assessed the current array of potential fixes, calculating what was needed to equal a wedge. The initial list compiled by Pacala and Socolow included simple but ambitious conservation wedges such as doubling fuel economy or halving vehicle travel; utility-­scale wedges such as replacing 1,400 gigawatts of coal­fired power with natural gas generation; alternative energy wedges such as increasing wind generation fifty-fold; and ecological wedges such as stopping deforestation and ramping up reforestation.

In all, Pacala and Socolow tagged fifteen different technologies that were already “beyond the laboratory bench and demonstration project.” Their list was not exhaustive, and more potential wedges have been identified using this framework. For example, increasing recycling and routinely harvesting methane from decomposing material in municipal landfills could save more than one billion tons of carbon emissions a year, enough for a wedge. In their report on the wedge concept in the prestigious journal Science, they concluded that “humanity already possesses the fundamental scientific, technical, and industrial know-how to solve the carbon and climate problem for the next half century.”


Excerpted from Changing Planet, Changing Lives by Epstein and Ferber, with permission from UC Press.

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