The Finite Nature of Energy
Wow! What great weather we’re having. Brilliantly sunny everyday! And today the wind is howling! March can be a marvelous time to live off-the-grid. We’re a third of the way to the solstice so the days are starting to get longer. The sun is really getting stronger and it’s the type of sun the solar panels love. The air is very clean unlike those smoggy summer days, so they get the maximum charge possible. We still have lots of snow on the ground so they are getting the added bonus of reflection off the snow. In fact when I go out to turn the panels I’m almost blinded it’s so bright. And it’s cold! The panels love being cold, actually generating more electricity when they’re cold than when they’re hot. This is why if you mount them on your roof you should make sure they are up off the roof on some racks to allow air to circulate around them.
So right now from about 9 a.m. we are diverting excess electricity into our 40 gallon electric hot water tank diversion load. With all this sun our solar thermal system is really heating up the 60 gallon solar thermal hot water tank, so it doesn’t seem to matter how many baths or showers we have, the propane hot water tank never comes on but the water is always really hot. From the electric kettle to the electric toaster to the electric waffle iron for our waffles this morning, we just can’t seem to use as much electricity as we’re producing. It’s like living on the grid again! It’s like energy in our house is infinite, it just never ends.
This of course is not the reality of living off-the-grid. The sun goes down and wind dies and your batteries only hold so much energy in reserve and sooner or later, without sun and wind, it runs out. Most off-gridders will run a generator when this happens, but they are fossil fuel powered so we try and absolutely minimize this. So we don’t do laundry on cloudy days because we need the electricity to run the washing machine and pump, and we need the sun to dry the clothes on the line. It gets us into the rhythm of nature.
What people on the grid need to start doing is realizing like us, that energy is indeed finite and should be treated as such. While we keep finding more coal and uranium to burn in power plants, both have negative effects on the planet either when they’re burned or when we try and store their wastes. Natural gas, which the majority of North Americans use to heat their homes, is also very finite. In fact we’re running out of it in North America. As geologist and author Kenneth Deffeyes notes in “Beyond Oil: The view from Hubbert’s Peak” “Between 1980 and 2002 the best of the natural gas targets were drilled. We’re now being served the leftovers.” The hope most authorities have for natural gas is using pipelines from the north (which haven’t been built yet and may not with credit markets withering) and Liquid Natural Gas or LNG. With LNG we have to go to countries like Iran and Russia, not always noted for being huge fans of North America, and ask them to use massive amount of energy to change it from a gas to a liquid, then ship it in tankers across the ocean and use massive amounts of energy to switch it back from a liquid to gas.
ArcelorMittal recently ran ads in The Economist magazine where they noted, “LNG is volatile. If not stored at 163°C below zero in the most secure, leak-proof tanks, it explodes … VIOLENTLY!” Ouch! Now I understand why no one wants one of these terminals to unload the stuff near their homes. The ability of LNG to make up for our rapidly declining domestic supplies is highly questionable. So apparently we’re all going to start coming to grips with the reality of the finite nature of natural gas.
It certainly looks like the 85 million barrels per day of crude oil the world has produced since 2005 will also be the peak of that fossil fuel. If so, our lives are going to change dramatically and we’re all going to be traveling less in world of constrained liquid hydrocarbons.
The best way to deal with these challenges is to assume you live off the electricity grid and start treating electricity like the precious commodity it is. It’s hard to produce and hard to transport to your house, so make sure you don’t waste it regardless of how cheaply the utility sells it to you. With natural gas you should make your house extremely efficient by having an energy audit done. And in terms of peak oil you should start using an alternative to the personal automobile. More walking, cycling, taking transit within the city and trains between cites. These are solutions to the environmental challenges we face and provide an incentive to help you come to grips with the finite nature of the energy that makes our lives so comfortable, but which is starting to run out.
You could install a solar thermal system to make hot water for you home and PV panels to make electricity, then when energy starts getting prohibitively expensive you’ll be independent and protected from the inevitable coming price shocks. There’s no better time. I meanwhile shall go have a cup of tea in my electrically heated kettle and a piece of toast in my electrically powered toaster. Solar powered tea and toast! How cool is that!