Focus on green energy sadly a little misguided

By Tom Gocze, BDN Staff
Posted June 18, 2010, at 10:36 p.m.

On the heels of a renewed interest in alternative energy and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, many people are seriously thinking about what they can do to reduce our use of fossil fuels.

The other night, I saw a spot on the local news about an elderly-housing project that just had its solar hot water system installed. The housing person talked a bit about the project and its effect on the community.

The tease for the segment was about solar, but the segment did not mention the solar system at all. I got a glimpse of the solar system, which consisted of three solar hot water collectors on the roof for what I believe is a 24-unit building.

A three-collector system is more suitable for a single family residence. Maybe there were more collectors somewhere else.

I hope so.

My point is that our focus is probably off by a couple orders of magnitude.

We will not get off fossil fuels by installing three solar collectors on a 24-unit building. Such a project should have more like 24 collectors — and perhaps a sizeable solar electric system. And it should be super-insulated to what is probably twice its current insulation levels.

That’s for starters.

We should then be doing this for every house in the country. We would probably have to lose a lot of really substandard housing that is not cost-effective to rebuild to a standard that would have an effect.

Then we would have to build nuclear plants, dam a lot of rivers, drive like little old ladies (sorry, no high performance jack-rabbit starts at traffic lights), use mass transit and put windmills everywhere along with pumped storage reservoirs.

We all have become the welfare recipients of cheap oil.

There are a lot of repercussions of our energy use. And our entire culture hinges on this use.

About a year ago, another news spot was done on a local solar expo. There was a very well-intentioned man there who bought a vacuum tube solar collector from China. It cost him about $600 and measured about 4-by-6 feet. He proudly stated that he was going to use this to heat his house.

This size collector will generate the equivalent of about 48 gallons of oil a year if the system is installed properly. I would have to guess that he will need five to 10 more collectors to have a reasonable effect (25 to 50 percent) on his heating bill. And at that point, there will be a lot more heat available in the spring, summer and fall than there is in the winter.

There is no magic about solar heating: When the sun shines, the system works; when it is cloudy and cold out, it does not work.

The fit between a properly sized solar heating system and a building heat load is critical.

Of course, if you build a house with the R-60 walls as we discussed last week, the need for big investments in heating becomes less important. Sunlight coming in through windows can have a major effect on such buildings.

But that is heat. We still consume a lot of electrical energy.

The homes that are being built that are touting zero — or very low — energy use are not always completely candid about their heating needs, either.

Some recent homeowners in the news nationally and locally talk about the fact that they can heat the building with the energy that an electric hair dryer uses.

That is 1,500 watts or about 5,000 Btu an hour. If a house requires 5,000 Btu an hour, that is about a gallon of oil a day when it is really cold out.

That is pretty good in our climate, but where will that energy come from?

If the house has a solar photovoltaic system that banks energy with the utility on an annual basis to allow the house to be a net zero user of energy, where is the energy coming from on that cloudy cold day when you need it?

Currently, in Maine, it is coming from nuclear, natural gas and hydro power from around the region.

If you hate nuclear, and want undammed rivers for a clean environment and sport fisheries, where will we put the liquefied natural gas terminal? And isn’t LNG a greenhouse gas generator?

I’m getting confused. I am going to go sit in the dark for a while and think about this.

Questions for Tom Gocze should be mailed to The Home Page, Bangor Daily News, P.O. Box 1329, Bangor 04402-1329. A library of reference material and a home-project blog are at www.bangordailynews.com/thehomepage.html.

http://bangordailynews.com/2010/06/18/living/focus-on-green-energy-sadly-a-little-misguided/ printed on September 16, 2014