Several years ago my boss told me an interesting theory that he had about energy. We were on a long road trip to one of our power plants in the middle of nowhere so he had plenty of time to develop his theory with me. I’ll try to boil down the discussion to what’s relevant to you in this post. Basically he told me that all of the forms of energy that we use to generate power today have their roots in nuclear energy. He is a chemical engineer after all, so he would think this way.

When he first told this to me I didn’t really know how to react. I mean I can think of many forms of energy that are not from nuclear reactions, coal, natural gas, wind etc. But then as we were driving down the long… long highway, we started to go down the list and he systematically showed me that all of them have roots in nuclear reactions.

Let’s start with oil/ natural gas/ and coal. All of these resources are substances that store Kerr Damenergy that we can later burn to make electricity. But where do they come from? They come from decomposing plant material that died millions of years ago and the got buried under miles of earth. Where do plants get their energy from? The sun, a giant burning ball of nuclear reactions going off in the sky. What about wind turbines? Well where does wind come from? It comes from air with different pressures that are being heated up by the sun. The different pressures of air then start to move around because they want to equalize. What about solar power? The sun. Even Hydroelectric power has its roots in the sun’s energy. If the sun didn’t heat up water and evaporate it, it would not fall on the top of mountains and then run down them in rivers to power our hydroelectric turbines. What about nuclear power? Just kidding I don’t have to explain that one. Lastly geothermal power comes from heat at the center of the earth given off by nuclear reactions.

All of this stems back to the concept that we cannot create or destroy energy we can only change the form of it. In this case some of the changing forms weren’t actually done by us, but rather by natural processes. I think this is kind of a fun twisted chemical engineery way to look at the world.

If you can think of a form of energy that doesn’t stem from a nuclear reaction please prove me wrong in the comments below.

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A Stunning Concentrated Solar Globe

I don’t know if everyone is seeing these glass ball solar collectors all over the internet or if it is just Google recognizing that I want to see stories about renewable energy. But either way I decided to click on the story and see what it was all about.  It turns out it is a company called Rawlemon based out of London. They have been working on this product for the last three years.  The concept is fairly simple, they use a perfect sphere filled with water to refract sunlight onto a concentrated area. At the point where the sun’s light is most concentrated, they place a photovoltaic cell right in its path. By concentrating the sun’s light, these photovoltaic cells can be up to 70% more efficient than traditional solar panels. It doesn’t hurt that they look pretty impressive too.

Magnifying Glass Concentrating Sunlight and Generating High Temperatures

It seems like a smart idea to me. I was thinking of something along these lines a few years ago when I was having fun in my backyard burning things with sunlight through a magnifying glass. The Rawlemon innovation is the same concept as concentrating light with a magnifying glass, but the brilliant spherical design allows it to easily track the sun as it moves across the sky. Tracking the sun on a dual access helps increase its efficiency.

In order for this company to gain some publicity and some funding, they have created an Indiegogo campaign where you can buy a little desktop version of their product. Another innovative idea that this company has is to build large scale versions of these solar concentrators and use them as windows in skyscrapers. They would certainly give buildings a modern look, and they could potentially result in net-zero buildings.

One other thought I had about this promising technology is that it probably isn’t very cheap. It seems like in the near future as 3D printing technology improves, people might be able to print large perfect spheres, and then simply fill them with water. The actual solar panels themselves are really small due to the light being concentrated in a small area. If these could be manufactured cheaply, they really have potential to change how we get our power in the future.

If you have any thoughts on how we can use concentrated solar power please let me know in the comments below.

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A Temporary Solution Before Mass Energy Storage

Today at work I attended a training about how to handle settlements in the energy imbalance market (EIM). It was a long training, but that is not the point. The point is that this is a new market place that has developed in recent years for industrial suppliers of power to be able to ramp up and ramp down their generation as the grid demands. One of the main reasons that this market has developed is because of the large addition of variable renewable energy (VRE). VRE is energy like solar and wind that has large swings in its

In my post ‘The Energy Storage Challenge’ I talked about how we need to develop more storage technologies and increase their presence in the market. That is still very true but until we get to that point the energy community has come up with this solution to get us through the transition. The idea is that we can look at the bigger picture of all of the electricity available on the grid. Then when the sun goes down or some clouds cover a certain area, this EIM can dispatch more power from another generator that is also on the grid.

This is a pretty good temporary solution, and it allows the grid to remain stable but it means we are still heavily reliant on non-renewable energy sources. Basically for every megawatt of wind or solar energy that is produced, we still have to have 1 MW of coal or natural gas to offset it. So we are still dependent on these other technologies. This dependence will continue until we are able to transition into mode where we can generate extra solar energy in the day and store it so that we can use it at night time.

I think this blog post went a little into the weeds but if you have any thoughts on the EIM please leave a comment below.

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A look at GreenFire Energy

I recently read an article about a company that has a new twist on industrial geothermal power generation. Unlike standard geothermal power plants that are reliant on naturally occurring geothermal reservoirs, GreenFire Energy drills its own systems. Another benefit to this type of geothermal system is that it doesn’t involve water. Instead this technology sends supercritical carbon dioxide down into the earth to collect heat and then collects it on the other end of the closed loop.


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This is an experimental technology, but if GreenFire can pull it off, it could revolutionize the geothermal industry. One huge limitation of current geothermal power plants is that they can only be located in certain areas around the world. These areas need to have the proper geology, a certain amount of heat, and ground water in the reservoir. With Supercritical carbon dioxide, there is a huge potential to increase geothermal power plants to much more of the earth’s surface.

Not having to use geothermal water gives this technology another advantage. Most geothermal water has a lot of dissolved minerals and salts in it.  That is why it is often called brine. When you send this water through a plant and it either flashes into steam or it cools down in a heat exchanger, the dissolved minerals tend to come out of solution. This leads to scaling or fouling. All these minerals get coated on the plant equipment and hurt the plant efficiency. By just using carbon dioxide GreenFire will be able to completely avoid this headache.

I am optimistic about this technology but they are definitely going to face some challenges. The wells that this company is planning to drill are much deeper and much more costly than traditional geothermal wells. Assuming they can drill the wells and get the closed loop system completed, they will have very large up from capital costs. This will make expansion difficult.  I will continue to follow this company and do a follow up post after they do their proof of concept.

If you know about any new interesting renewable technologies please let me know about them in the comments section.

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Not In My Backyard

I think a lot of us get kind of hypocritical when it comes to renewable energy. Most people are coming around to the idea that having renewable energy is a good idea. People can see that we are going to have to embrace this sometime in the near future. The problem is that nobody wants it in their back yard. I mean there are some people who are really dedicated to renewable energy such as the house I mentioned in my last post that installed wind turbines literally in their back yard. But it seems like a lot of people want renewable energy generation to be nowhere near them.


This is not only a problem for small scale home generation, but it also applies to industrial generation as well. Often when an industrial wind farm starts in its planning phase there will be a lot of opposition by the people in the surrounding area. They claim that “it is an eye sore”, and that “it will reduce their property value.” These same protests can be heard about industrial solar projects as well. So it seems like people want this kind of clean energy, they just don’t want to have to see it.

There are a few possible things that can be done to overcome this problem. First, developers can plan these large generation facilities in the middle of nowhere. Being from Nevada, I know that we have a whole bunch of “middle of nowhere”. This is a good solution on the surface, but you run into the inevitable problem of “Transmission is Expensive.” Another thing that could be done is to have a massive PR campaign to start changing the public’s perception of renewable energy and its requirements. The final solution I can see for this problem is a technological one. We have to develop new and better methods for generating power. I can see a future where we can utilize new technologies which can generate power from sources that blend in with their surroundings. One great current example of this is SolarCity’s new roof tile solar panels. They look just like any normal roof tiles. I believe these technological solutions are the best answer.

If you have any ideas for how to solve the “not in my backyard” problem, please let me know about them in the comments below.

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Why personal wind power isn’t ready to go mainstream

I was walking through my neighborhood last week and I saw a house with two wind turbines spinning away in the back yard. They were definitely noticeable because of the spinning motion, but they weren’t really an eye sore. The engineer in me got really excited and I decided to do a little research and find out more about this renewable energy option.

Back Yard Wind Turbine Cropped

After a quick internet search, I found out that these particular personal wind turbines are probably Windspire brand turbines.  Based on their website it looks like they produce a few different models of turbines from 1 KW output up to 5 KW output. The nice thing about these wind turbines is that they were pretty quiet. Now, to be fair I was about 50 yards away, but I didn’t hear anything.

The average house in the U.S. requires about 1 KW every hour to meet its energy demand. The problem of relating this to sizing a wind turbine is that the wind does not always blow. In general we can assume about a 25% capacity factor for wind turbines. In other words we have to assume that the wind is only blowing about 25% of the time. In order to power your house using mostly wind power, you would need to install about 4 Kilowatts of installed capacity. After you multiply that 4 KW by the 25% capacity factor you come out close to the desired 1 KW. Of course you will also need some sort of a battery storage system to store the excess energy to be used at times when the wind is not blowing.

On the Windspire website it looks like they will sell a complete 1.8 KW wind turbine package for $13,500. I assume this house in my neighborhood bought two of the 1.8 KW style turbines which would get them pretty close to the 4 KW desired generation. So not including the battery storage they probably spent $27,000 on this wind turbine system. If I do some back of the napkin math, I spend about $100 every month on my electricity bill. So that is $1200 per year that I currently spend. It would take me about 22 years to make that wind turbine system pay off. For a comparison, a similar roof-top solar capacity would cost between $25,000 and $30,000.

This is one of the big problems with these types of home renewable energy solutions. They are not economical yet. I commend this company for putting out a product that helps us to move in a more renewable direction. I also am happy that there are people who will buy these systems for what I assume is a personal commitment to go renewable. The problem is that if we want these systems to have a mass impact we need to figure out a way to make them economical. Average Americans move every 5 years for installing a 22 year payback wind turbine makes no sense. For this type of technology to have a big impact, it would have to have a payback time of a maximum of 5 years.

If you have a home renewable energy system installed at your home please let me know about it in the comments below.

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5 Reasons to Take Renewable Energy Seriously

  1. The best thing about renewable energy is that it is renewable

A majority of our current energy sources which come from fossil fuel are limited resources. At some point in the future of humanity we will use all of them up, and there will be no more. It is true that technology will improve and we will find new methods of extracting harder to reach fossil fuels. But that doesn’t change the fact that they will eventually run out. It’s like Daniel Day-Lewis explained in There Will Be Blood “I drink your milkshake”. The entire earth is one big milkshake and we are all sticking straws into the same drink.

  1. Renewable energy creates jobs

I understand that there are a lot of people in the coal industry right now that are struggling to find well-paying jobs. I feel bad that due to market forces and cheap natural gas the coal industry has taken a hard hit. It seems like there are two possible choices now. You can complain that the world is not fair and slowly fade away, or you can regroup and learn new skills that will make you more valuable in the job market. Renewable energy seems like a good fit.

  1. Huge Potential

According to scientists from the Sandia National laboratory the potential extractable energy from the sun’s energy that hits the earth is 7,500 Terawatts Electric. Just for some reference, a Megawatt of power is enough power to run about 1,000 houses. Multiply that by 1,000 and you get a Gigawatt. Again by 1,000 and you get a Terawatt. Now I’m no mathematician but if you can sell a Kilowatt of solar power for about 3 cents, and you multiple that 3 cents by 1,000,000,000 it seems like you get $30 Million per Terawatt. So correct me if I am wrong, but that seems like if you could collect all of the sun’s energy that is hitting us, you could get about $225 billion. That is what’s falling on our heads every day, all we have to do is collect it… and that’s just solar energy.


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  1. It takes a long time to develop new technologies and incorporate them into daily life

Refer back to point number 1. We are going to need alternative sources of power to keep our society running in the future. Those sources are not going to be developed overnight. It is a slow process even to build a power plant with our existing technology and that does not even take in to account the time it will take to develop new technologies. We need to put more effort into this beginning today.

  1. Man-made climate change is real

Science has spoken and it is official, the earth is heating up slowly over time and it is the result of chemicals that humans have released into the atmosphere. I think some people want to oppose this view point because they think it will lead to new regulations that will hurt businesses and the economy. I’ll admit that if we try to implement some sort of a carbon tax, it will disrupt several businesses, and new regulations will make business more complicated in many industries. But the faster we can develop new commercially viable renewable technologies, the sooner we can stop worrying about all of this stuff and remove the regulations that will become irrelevant.

If you have some other reasons why you think we need to take renewable seriously I would like to hear about them in the comments section below.

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