The case for alternative energy
Energy is on everybody’s mind these days. Governments around the world are being forced by the increasing cost of energy generation to seek alternative technologies for the delivery of public utility power. Consumers, on the other hand, are forced by the rising utility bills to look more carefully at how they use the energy they pay for. At both levels, there is a new consciousness of the increasing cost of the limited supply of fossil fuels, the most prevalent fuel sources in use; this refers to both the direct and the indirect costs. That is, both the financial cost and the environmental cost. Financially, the producers of oil, gas and coal respond to the dwindling reserves and increased regulation with increased costs, costs passed directly to the consumer, with the expected increases for the management of the passing on process, so that a dollar’s increase in the cost of a barrel of oil becomes many dollars more at the pump. The increase also means an increase in the cost of generating power, which becomes a greater increase at the electricity meter. Environmentally, access to fossil fuels requires massive disruption of the fragile ecosystems on the planet, both by physical disruption and by the pollution of the air we breathe. The very existence of life on the planet is threatened, as it warms up and our atmospheric systems behave in strange and unfamiliar ways.
These concerns have led to unprecedented levels of cooperation between nations, as they pursue alternative ways to avoid the continued use of fossil fuels and to reduce their need for the generation of power to sustain their lifestyles. Of course, those nations must also promise their constituents that the new technologies are less threatening than the present ones. So while nuclear power, which delivers clean, efficient power through controlled nuclear reaction, has been attractive to some, concerns about public safety and the problems of disposal of nuclear waste have made most countries look elsewhere for their power generation alternatives. Most have settled on the use of the sun, the wind and water currents as the potential sources. Of course, there are a multitude of other possibilities for more convenient or cheaper power generation, yet undeveloped, especially those based upon the technologies developed for space travel, but there are three that have the stage for the present: the sun, the wind and the earth.
Generating electrical power using the sun is referred to as using photovoltaic power. Basically, sensitive cells exposed to the sun are excited by the sunlight and generate a form of electrical power. The power it produces is the same as that found in the battery in a car – direct current. Unfortunately, direct current is not the kind of current generally used in buildings, primarily because it is difficult to distribute over long runs without losing voltage. Buildings use the “friendlier” alternating power, which can be distributed easily and without significant loss. The sun-generated direct current is fed through an “inverter” which transforms it into alternating current, which is then more useful to the consumer. There are appliances designed to use direct current, however most consumers need alternating power. This process of direct current to inverter to consumer, however, would only work while the sun was exciting the cells on the roof, and would be useless at night, or during overcast days, so to store the power, batteries similar to the car battery are placed between the solar panel and the inverter. The power is stored in the batteries until needed, then fed to the inverter and the building systems. Of course, it is possible to use the system without the batteries, which provides power during sunlight hours, then reverts to the grid when there is no solar power available. A system working only from the batteries is called “off-grid”. Systems connected to the grid, that is to Bahamas Power and Light (BPL), are called “grid-tied”. Which system is used is a matter of circumstance.
The wind is used to generate power by turning a coil inside a magnetic field using a windmill. This is similar to the way the alternator works in the car, where power is generated by the coil rotating in a magnetic field provide power to the car or is sent to the battery to re-charge it. Like the photovoltaic generation, direct current is produced, which is stored in batteries and passed through an inverter to create alternating power for building use. Windmills are more dependent on windspeeds, which can vary more by location than the sun, and therefore wind generators are less popular than photovoltaic generators. However, in remote locations they can be very effective.
A popular use of the same technology is the use of water instead of wind, the best-known example being hydro-electric power, which has been in use for centuries. This system uses a waterfall to turn turbines to create electricity. Like the other systems, direct current is produced and stored, then converted and distributed. However, in recent years there has been significant progress in the use of ocean and river currents as well as tidal movement as the force behind the movement of turbines, and the research is expected to continue.
The real purpose of this focus on the energy equation is the reduction of the need for grid-supplied power. This can only be driven by the consumer, whose energy consciousness is demonstrated in the ways they design their buildings, in the use of energy-stingy appliances and in the use of these alternative technologies for both the generation of power and for alternative ways of achieving the benefits usually gotten through the use of grid power. Here, lifestyle choices replace and reduce public utility use with personal alternatives, resulting in an overall reduction in the need for government to generate power. This, in turn, reduces the overall cost of government production of power.
This reduction of the nation’s “energy footprint” is an international objective, made possible only if the consumer takes advantage of the wide range of alternative technologies available today, and likely to be available in the future. This in turn requires that the consumer educates himself or herself about the systems and appliances available, and becomes sensitive to their own “energy footprint”.
• Patrick Rahming & Associates is a full-service design firm providing architectural, planning and design services throughout The Bahamas and the northern Caribbean. Visit its website at www.pradesigns.com, design blog at https://rahmblings.wordpress.com and like its Facebook page. The firm can be contacted by phone at 356-9080 or by email at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. The firm’s mission is to help clients turn their design problems into completed projects through a process of guided decision-making, responsible environmental advice and expert project administration.