Facts and Information on Solar Energy

April 2, 2010 · Filed Under solutions · 1 Comment 

Every fact about the Sun is hard for most of us to take in.  The numbers are so huge it makes us and our Earth seem very small and insignificant. When we feel the heat of the Sun on our face, it is hard to believe that it has come from 150 million km away. Just a tiny fraction of the Sun’s energy hits the Earth, yet every minute enough energy arrives to meet our demands for a whole year if only we could harness it properly.

Most of the energy we use is sunshine, but only a part of it is present-day sunshine. The rest is what I like to call “Pre-historic sunshine” –  sunshine that was collected by plants and marine organisms hundreds of million years ago through the process of photosynthesis and stored in a concentrated and convenient form as fossil fuels.
It has been extremely hard for anyone collecting present-day solar energy to compete with previously collected solar energy that flows out of the ground in the form of oil and gas in huge volumes at very low cost. However, one thing we can be sure about is that fossil fuels are finite and one day supply will not match demand.  When that happens there will be chaos as nations, companies and people fight over remaining reserves. We therefore need to reduce our dependence now before that happens using incentives to encourage the efficient collection of solar energy which should be with us for the next few billion years. If we do not, we will be at Peak Food time. Our oil and gas dependent food system will fail and the Earth’s population will collapse.
There is no doubt that there is more then enough current solar energy . Obviously we can’t collect it all but the question is can we collect enough to meet our needs at a price that will not ruin us?  Governments tinker with taxation of fossil fuels and subsidies for renewables, but to make a real difference to carbon emissions and at the same time slow fossil fuel depletion, international agreements will be needed.
The main methods of collecting solar energy are through exploiting the weather systems driven by the sun, using man made collecting panels or cells and most important of all, using the original solar panel, the plant leaf to collect energy in the form of both food and fuel.

Quitting our Addiction to Economic Growth

February 19, 2010 · Filed Under solutions · 1 Comment 

The recent change from years of continuous economic growth though most of the world to much slower growth in Asia and negative growth in America and Europe has shown just how addicted we’ve become to continuous growth. It seems that without growth our economies cannot cope. Unemployment rises, assets fall in value and bankruptcies rise. Governments see that the boom that began by excessive debt and the illusion that property prices have made us rich without working for it has ended, so they use government debt and money creation to attempt to stimulate growth.

This apparent inability to manage without growth throws up significant problems. Economic growth increases living standards and richer people consume more of the Earth’s resources, especially fossil fuels. Indeed, it is only due to the availability of this energy collected from the sun millions of years ago that we have lifestyles undreamt of 100 years ago. Unfortunately these fuels are finite, the main reserves of oil and gas are in unstable, unreliable or unfriendly countries and their continued burning is causing the climate to change in a way that threatens our future food supply.

Does that mean that there are just two very unpalatable choices? Should we resume rapid fossil-fueled economic growth, consuming more and more of the Earth’s resources and emitting more and more greenhouse gases until the inevitable time, perhaps not far away, when we reach a rapid decline in oil and gas availability, at the same time as we experience weather related food shortages? Farming is now so dependent on finite energy inputs that food supply will in any case fail when these fuels become scarce. The panic, hoarding and breakdown of the economic system as well as law and order, that will take place when this happens will make the present recession seem like heaven.

The second option doesn’t look much better. This would be to drastically reduce our consumption of energy, thereby slowing the depletion of oil and gas reserves at the same time as reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The snag with this, of course, is that economic growth would stop, the recession would turn in to a longterm depression and the billions in the developing world would continue in abject poverty.

Looking at these two options, it appears as if we are leaving the next generation with no hope. However there is in fact a third way foreword that would be possible if the world’s leaders accept that we are facing disaster.

That third way is to use ingenuity, innovation and invention to collect far more of the abundant solar energy reaching us each day using solar panels, wind, wave and tidal collectors but most of all the age old method of collection by the plant leaf using photosynthesis.

Because fossil fuels have been so cheap and plentiful, there has been no incentive to improve the inefficient and wasteful farming methods that have become nothing more than a way to convert finite but cheap, fossil energy in the form of nitrogen fertilizer, pesticides and diesel fuel, into a much smaller amount of more expensive food energy. How can anyone think that this will not fail in the long run?

A large proportion of the energy in crops is wasted, either in the field, during processing, in the home or by feeding it to animals. There are now ways to efficiently harvest more of the crop and turn the previously wasted portion in to liquid fuels or gas. Besides traditional crops, there are developments to turn cellulose from any organic such as managed woodland or grasses, into ethanol fuel. Similarly oil can be produced from algae grown on the water that covers 70% of the planet.

If we also use technology to make it possible for us to enjoy a satisfactory lifestyle while using less total energy, we would be able to delay the depletion of fossil fuels and also reduce climatic change. What a result that would be!

The only way to make this happen quick enough to avoid disaster is to drastically change the price relationship between fossil energy and renewable energy through the tax system. We could replace income and other taxes by a carbon tax on all fossil fuels, or introduce a carbon tax with a 100% dividend. That would mean all the proceeds of the tax would be distributed back to the population.

These changes would bring about vast new industries producing both the renewable energy and the new low energy appliances, buildings and transport methods. Economic growth would no longer be leading us to disaster. It’s a possible solution.

New Holland Hydrogen Powered Tractor

February 17, 2010 · Filed Under solutions · 1 Comment 

We have said many times that when finite oil supplies become scarce we will reach a situation of Peak Food because our farming system is now totally dependent on these fossil reserves.

So it’s good to see that at least one major tractor maker is looking to make a tractor that does not run on oil based fuel.

The NH2 tractor is a working prototype with fuel cells that generate 106 horse power. Hydrogen, stored at 350bar in a tank under the bonnet, is passed over one electrode, while oxygen (from an air pump) is passed over the other. The electricity produced by the process then passes to a pair of electric motors, one supplying drive and the other providing power for pto and auxiliary services. Because it runs on hydrogen and oxygen, the tractor’s only by-product is water.

There are at least two problems:

  • Fuel cells are prohibitively expensive, though New Holland hope that commercially viable cells could come on line as soon as 2018!
  • Hydrogen is really an energy storage means and needs an energy source. The conversion of energy into hydrogen, the transportation and storage of the hydrogen and its conversion back into electricity by fuel cells is very inefficient but New Holland has a vision of an energy independent farm that generates electricity on the farm using wind, solar or biogas, and then using an electrolyser to produce hydrogen which is stored in a high pressure tank.

Plainly, developing the tractor and setting up the infrastructure is not going to be a quick solution and may never be viable.  However, we must give New Holland full marks for recognising that fossil powered farming can only be temporary and attempting to come up with an alternative.

Energy and Fertilizer from Waste

July 7, 2009 · Filed Under solutions · Comment 

When the world realises that there is a limit to the natural resources that the earth can provide, we will have to stop wasting energy and nutrient rich “waste” such as animal manure and waste food.

In Europe, anaerobic digestion is widely used to deal with these materials and is now catching on here in the UK.

At Biogen Greenfinch, managing director Andrew Needham uses 12,000 tonnes of pig slurry plus 30,000 tonnes of food waste from Waitrose, Sainsbury and local authorities each year to generate renewable energy with the digestate being used as a fertiliser across 600 acres of arable land.

On Owen Yeatman’s farm in North Devon, 8,000 tonnes of manure and 3,500 tonnes of maize every year goes in to his digester to power a 270KW generator. By using the digestate as a fertiliser, Mr Yeatman has stopped buying nitrogen fertiliser. He estimates that his digester unit will have paid for itself in 5 years.

Soil – our most precious Resource

May 5, 2009 · Filed Under solutions · Comment 

Soon, we will need to move from an oil economy to a bio-economy if we are to fight the challenges of climate change and oil depletion. So, as we devise methods to obtain much more of our energy from the sun mainly via the original solar panel-the plant leaf, it is vital that we do not do so by degrading our soil, something that is happening much too quickly anyway.

Until around 70 years ago, in Europe at least, cereal crops such as wheat, barley and oats were harvested intact by binding, with most of the above ground biomass removed from the field. After threshing, the grain was used for human and animal feed and the straw for animal bedding.

The animal manure and human waste was returned to the soil in due course and so the soil nutrients were constantly recycled.

That cycle has long been broken. The nutrients are now flushed down the sewers of the great cities or treated as a waste product at huge feedlots, hundreds of miles away from their origin, but at least some of the straw remains on the soil to help organic matter levels.

In modern farming we now replace the lost nutrients with fertiliser made, or mined and transported, using finite fossil fuels. This oil and gas (for N fertiliser) dependent farming system is plainly doomed to fail as oil and gas supplies deplete and as their use causes climatic change severely disruptive to farming.

A new farming system that again removes most of the above ground biomass to produce the food, fuel and chemicals needed in the post oil era will need to be carefully planned.

By removing the entire crop, just as was done in the past, crop residue levels would be low making no-till or minimal till easier. Keeping the roots and stubble near the surface helps prevent erosion and slows decay, compared with energy hungry deep tillage, so soil structure remains good.

So far as soil nutrients go, they don’t generally disappear and the trick is to return them to the soil.

Ideally, crops should be used locally by being processed at a local integrated bio refinery where all of the components are used to produce food, fuel, chemicals and process heat.

If some of the grain were used for ethanol production, the brewers grains would be fed to animals, then the manure would produce biogas, leaving a residue containing soil nutrients that would be returned to the soil. Even sewage sludge should be digested to provide energy and fertiliser.

As nitrogen fertiliser production is the biggest use of energy in most farming systems, heavy government investment should be made in to high yielding legume plants that can fix nitrogen and be an important part of maintaining soil fertility as well as providing vegetable protein to partly reduce our meat consumption.

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