Saturday, December 28, 2013

Keeping Fossils Underground

I develop technologies that keep fossil carbon from changing the atmosphere and oceans. More than thirty years ago I replaced the oil fired furnace that came with the house and installed a wood burning parlor stove. In 1975, burning three tanks (more than three tons) of fuel oil for heat was our home’s largest fossil greenhouse gas contribution. To help the wood stove to keep us comfortable, we insulated the house and upgraded the windows. We live on a hill where the wind often blows hard and, in addition to eliminating drafts, these conservation measures reduce how much wood and ash we have to handle. Years later in its place we installed a wood burning cook stove that was much fancier and not only does it heat our home, it enables us to prepare most of our meals, make maple syrup, bake, and preserve food.

Wood Burning Cook Stove with Cart for Wood and Bag of Kindling
We burn about six cords, nine tons when dry, of wood during a heating season. I glean about a third from our eight acres and procure the rest from neighbors. But the electricity and heat for water still add to our fossil carbon footprint.

Four years ago, the last time we filled the 275 gallon fuel oil tank, I decided to phase it out. Now, on a day we want hot water, we turn the system on for eight minutes that burns 12 ounces of oil (making 2.4 pounds of carbon dioxide). This warms enough water for two showers, a load of dishes and hamper of clothes along with ever cooler water for washing and cleaning up. When it’s very cold and we’ll be away for more than a day, we use a separate loop off this system to keep the core of the house above 50F that prevents the pipes and inside plants from freezing. The oil tank is now almost empty and I've plumbed in an old electric hot water heater to cover us when the oil runs out. Higher utility bills will become an incentive to hurry and install a solar hot water system.

It's taken about two centuries (probably by fewer than one billion people) to transfer around half the readily available buried carbon into the air. That amount of carbon dioxide is now changing the climate and acidifying the oceans. Coal, oil and gas are becoming ever more difficult to find and extract and we don’t have millions of years for geology to replenish these valuable fuels. Now more than seven billion people want the lifestyles they see in media. That second half of fossil fuels will dwindle rapidly and we all need new energy resources. And we cannot afford inefficient remote power plants and the solar panels available today. It's a waste of time to point fingers at big energy companies that bring us the fossil energy we so much enjoy using. It's up to us to create better solar tools.

For over 40 years I've worked with the most powerful type of solar collector. These point-focus tools some call solar dishes point directly at the sun and readily deliver more than 75% of sunlight for a variety of uses. A new design that my brother, Bob, and I have been developing is easy to make and install using only hand tools and no welding. Other types, including the more than 40 solar collectors we developed and installed decades ago, required expensive manufacturing processes. And it would take years of operation for them to pay for the cranes needed first to put them up and again each time the primary drive or bearings have to be replaced.

45 Kilowatt Hybrid Solar Plant, Albuquerque, NM, 1988
The solar collector shown above generated 45 kilowatts of electricity, enough power and heat for 45 homes, was also my doctoral thesis. With storage, the new design, but a size that has less than one tenth of the area of mirrors above, should enable a rural family to live comfortably in northern climates. Without subsidies, they should return their cost through the value of energy they deliver in fewer than seven years, or even less if you are able to utilize all the energy they could deliver during the summer. When many are happy with how well their own systems operate, we hope that add-on modules for making power, air conditioning and many more powerful applications will become available.

During 2014 I will report on progress developing this solar technology. I will also relate our daily routines that support living well: gathering wood, making maple syrup, gardening, putting away food and raising animals in ways that enhance the only environment we share with all other species.

If any of the above prompts questions, requires clarification or opens other topics, please let me know.