The road to self-sufficiency: How cities are transitioning to renewable energy — and how Houston can, too

What would it take to go all renewable?

What would it take to use exclusively renewable energy resources? What would you have to add to or take away from your home? How would your life change? For most of my energy entries, I’ve talked about conservation at the individual level. That’s because I know we can make changes in what we do and how we view the world. However, it is always heartening to see large groups take up the challenge. And while a nation should have a plan, unless its citizens are behind it, it will never work.

That’s why I’m glad to report on some cities and regions that have made a plan to go to 100-precent renewable energy or beyond.

The District of Rhein-Hunsrück in Germany has a population of about 100,000. It uses a combination of wind, solar, and bio mass to produce 100-percent renewable energy for its area.

For most, that would be a good place to stop. But it has plans to increase renewable energy production to 828 percent of their needs by 2050 so it can export the energy to its  neighbors. (Well done!)

In the 1990s, it decided that it would take the money it used to import energy and invest it locally to become energy exporters. Its first step was energy conservation. Just by doing some energy conservation in its buildings, it was able to cut heating needs by 25 percent (something that is very energy-intensive in places that have weather other than “hot”).

German wind power

The city of Dardesheim, also in Germany, uses solar panels, wind turbines, and biomass to produce 40 times as much energy as it uses. How did it do this? Back in the 1990s (it takes time) the community decided on a shared vision to create jobs and eliminate the importation of energy. While it only has a population of 1,000 (100 times smaller than  Rhein-Hunsrück), it created a vision and made a plan.

And it isn’t only cities in Germany that are coming up with a renewable and sustainable path for their energy future.

For example, it’s expensive to import oil to the Island of El Hierro, off the northern coast of Africa. To replace the oil it uses to generate electricity, it will move to a combination of wind, hydro, and solar power. With any excess wind energy, it’ll be able to pump water uphill into an inactive volcano crater. This gives it a little energy storage. This will let the 10,000 people who live on the island save 40,000 barrels of oil a year.

But what about a little closer to home?

In 2007 San José, Calif., pledged to become a renewable-powered city by 2022. It was the first large city in the United States (around 1 million in population) to make such a pledge. Its plan had 10 points (not 12). It also has a website where you can view its progress. While it has had the most progress in diverting trash from landfills to waste to energy plants, it has made the least progress is in planting new trees. Fortunately, that’s fairly easy to do.

But what about Houston? What is Houston doing?

Houston is becoming greener in leaps and bounds. Houston has been granted a number of awards and distinctions for its green programing, such as being named one of the top 25 solar cities by the Department of Energy, the Green Power Leadership award from the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Best Workplace for Commuters award from the Houston-Galveston Area Council, with the EPA and the Department of Transportation.

Sure, while it’s good to toot our own horns, we should not rest on our laurels. There is an initiative (and funding) to help income-qualified Houstonians weatherize their homes. We have free, regular electronic recycling and paper shredding programs to reduce waste. While Houston is making strides, we should remember not to be too self-satisfied with what we’ve done.  Rather, we should dream bigger and dare more boldly.

What should Houston do next?

Be trashy: How waste-to-energy could help fuel America

Power Grid is one of my favorite games — but almost all of you have no idea what I’m talking about.

OK, so, Power Grid is a German board game where you compete with other people to create the power grid inside Germany. To do this, you buy different types of power plants — wind and solar, coal, oil, trash, or nuclear. You pay for the right to provide a city with power and pay for the connection fees between cities. You also have to purchase fuel for the power plants to use. It’s an exciting game as you balance the efficiency of your plants, the size of your territory, the number of cities you can power, and your fuel reserves. All the while, three to five other players are competing with you for all the same things.

Power Grid

As with most games, I accepted the rules and devices that the game used without thinking of them in real, tangible terms. When my armies are marching through Kamchatka, I don’t think of it as a real place. Nor do I when I try to build enough corrals for my pigs and sheep. But the Wiess Energy Hall  has got me thinking about the power grid in real terms.

I know that Germany is exiting the nuclear market and that they are the second, after the United States, in wind power. But I had not thought of the trash plants as using actual trash for power generation. Using waste to produce energy is surprisingly popular in Europe.

There are more than 400 waste-to-energy plants across Europe. Some countries and cities have gotten so good at using waste to power and heat homes, that they import garbage from the rest of the continent. In Oslo, the capital of Norway, trash is imported from England, Ireland, and even Italy to make up for the short-fall in waste production. Given the size of landfills in America, it seems silly to talk about a city that can’t make enough trash for itself.

The United States operates only about a fourth of waste-to-energy plants that Europe does and produces about 14,000 gigawatts of electricity a year (about the same as geothermal energy). Less then half the states even have waste-to-energy plants. In many states, waste-to-energy is not counted as a renewable energy because it should not be renewable and its not carbon neutral.

Should we be using waste-to-energy? On the one hand we do have a lot of waste. You produce an average of 4 pounds of garbage a day. That’s almost a ton a year, which means that the United States produces about 4 trillion pounds of trash each year. We also have a large energy need. However, depending on what they burn, waste-to-energy plants can produce nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxides, and even mercury.  But waste-to-energy plants do produce far less methane than letting all that trash sit there in a landfill. Can the harmful gases be scrubbed out and not released?  Yes, but this increases the cost of the plant and then you have to store those excess chemicals. One of the hidden costs of waste-to-energy is the assumption that we will continue to produce waste. While we will always produce some, we should be striving to recycle and reuse more and more.

So should we have more of waste-to-energy plants in the United States? Do the benefits outweigh the cost? Both sides have good points, and it would be nice to do something with all that trash we have sitting around. Should we export our trash to Europe? We have a commodity that they need, but what would happen if a ship full of trash went down? What we should do is realize that all that trash we produce might get a second chance as energy if policies, economics, environmental safety and will are aligned.

All Along the Watch Tower: United States Military and Renewable Energy

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.” – President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Farewell Address 1961

Over sixty years ago our president warned us of not letting a group, no matter how good their intentions, have undue influence on our government and people. In specific he was warning about the military industrial complex, or the different defense contractors as an industry (Michael Crichton has since warned about the politico-legal-media complex that he argues has replaced them). He was worried that a coordinated effort by any group would give them power to incant changes that would be harmful to the government and its people. But just as it has the potential for harm, it has the potential to help. And that’s what the military will do with their new energy policy.

This is the first time the United States military has created an energy policy that focuses on efficiency. Before now, it has been a policy of using as much energy as needed to get the job done regardless of its efficiency.

What has changed?

The military has come to a public realization that its’ current reliance on conventional energy and fuels are unsustainable and therefore they should take an active hand in solving the problem.

USS Midway aircraft carrier
Creative Commons License photo credit: cybaea

The military has always been conscious of their energy needs and the need for a more efficient and usable energy source. The Navy first used wind, but as technology advanced they went with propulsion systems that could provide more reliable and efficient energy. While wind is free, it does not always blow in a given area. This would lead to ships lost because they did not have wind. The Navy changed to coal and established a series of bases around the world to hold coal for them. Then they switched to oil and were able to have fewer bases to hold supplies. After that some ships converted to nuclear power. This allowed them to stay at sea for years at a time.

While the military has been moving towards a more efficient model, they have not had a well defined plan. And now they do. Currently the military uses about 1% of the fuel used in the Unites States, or about 5 billion gallons annually. As we all know the cost of fuel goes up. The military spent around $13.5 billion on fuel in 2010. The price has increased by 255% since 1997, and they expect it to continue to increase.

The Department of Defense’s new energy policy calls for 3 specific goals:

More fight, less fuel.

More option, less risk.

More capability, less cost.

These are good goals for good reasons. In 2010 there were over 1,100 attacks on military convoys carrying fuel to forward units. Less use of conventional fuel would mean fewer attacks, and would free up more units to go to the front. Today’s soldier on the ground carries over 10 pounds of batteries to operate his equipment. By 2013 it will be up to over 20 pounds. They will need more efficient equipment to keep the weight constant or even reduce it.

The Department of Defense is also shrinking its budget.

The Army is planning to use $1.4 million to implement a program to monitor their energy usage. It’s important to know what goes where and how much. It can be a little bit more challenging if it’s spread across 4 continents. They have another $5 million earmarked to help develop solar and wind generators to be used on the front lines. While solar powered battery rechargers have already been used in Afghanistan, there is need for more and better use of solar and wind power generation. $20 million is going to help reduce the weight of batteries and expand the capability of the dismounted soldier.

The Navy has plans as well. They have set aside $133 million for science and technology research. $16 million will be used toward making hybrid electric drives for ships. What is that, you may ask. It’s a drive that while still using fuel, can also run on a battery. If you have ever seen a Toyota Pruis, you have seen a hybrid electric drive. Currently, most ships use steam power to turn a turbine, which powers and moves the ship. With a hybrid drive, like a Prius, the Navy would save fuel. Ships would work even better with a smart meter and a smart electrical system. A smart meter would keep track of which systems are using electricity. If the entire system was smart it would optimize the electrical usage by giving just the systems that currently (that pun again) need electricity just the right amount. The Navy’s fleet is also moving to more bio fuels. Imagine fleets of ships and planes that run off of a bio fuel.

The Marine Corp (OORAH) has an ambitious plan as well. Their first step is to instill an energy efficient conscience. They also plan to reduce their use of fuel by 50% over the next 15 years (with a 25% decrease in 4 years). This is so the modern day Spartans will be more self-sufficient. Instead of having to shepherd supplies to the front, the Marines can focus on the front. They will be deploying more solar and wind arrays and even doing the small things such as using LED lights.

Air power on display at Red Flag 10-4 [Image 3 of 3]
Creative Commons License photo credit: DVIDSHUB

The Air Force plans on reducing their fuel needs by 10% in the next 4 years. They are also doing research into new and lighter materials to reduce the weight of planes. The Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs is ramping up its use of solar energy and trying to become 100% renewable.

So why does this matter to me?

While I enjoy a good military thriller, how can an energy efficient military help me? If the military uses less fuel, there is more on the market for me to buy. By reducing their costs, and therefore the amount of money my government spends, they have the potential (however small) of helping to lower the deficit.

But what will help the most is all the technology and procedures that they’ll develop. The military industrial complex is a large industry. Because of that they try to find multiple uses and markets for their products. They’ll repackage as much as they can for non-military use. Do I want a car that has a smart power system, so it can use less energy? Sure, I would even be OK if it did not have a combustion engine (as long as it still worked). Do I want smaller batteries that last longer? Of course, I would love for the charge in my iPod to last more than one chapter of a Patrick O’Brian novel.

Changing Energy Policies Across the Globe

Nuclear Power Plant
Creative Commons License photo credit: Intamin10

Japan will cut its electrical use by 15% this summer. After the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster, their electrical production capability has been decreased. Nuclear power plants made up for a quarter of their electrical production. After the disaster at Fukushima, public opinion in Japan has shifted against using nuclear power. Because of this, some plant managers in Japan are postponing turning their reactors back on after scheduled maintenance. Not only are they concerned about making sure their reactors are safe, they don’t want to take the reactor down again once new government regulations come into effect.

Time for some 101 facts about Japan.

Just to make sure we’re all on the same page, Japan is an island, or rather, a chain of islands. Japan is an energy power house. While it is only the 10th most populated country, it is 3rd  in electrical generation. (America has double the population and is the largest electrical producer, China has the largest population and is second in electrical production.)

Japan does not have a lot of crude oil or natural gas. Most of what they use is imported. That’s one of the reasons they turned to nuclear power for electrical production. It takes fewer imports to run nuclear facilities than the coal, oil, and natural gas equivalents. There have also been fewer uranium crises than oil crises during the last 50 years.

In order to reduce electricity usage, the Japanese government has called for office thermostats to be turned up to 82 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the entire summer. This is an easy way to save electricity, however it would be very uncomfortable in a 3 piece suit and tie. The government is promoting a new “Super Cool Biz” look. They are encouraging people to wear shorts and polo shirts. The government is getting some resistance. While I would love to have to wear only polos and shorts (guess what I’m wearing now) at work, a nice suit and tie does bring off a certain professional air.

Upolu Point Wind Farm
Creative Commons License photo credit: footloosiety

With all that has gone on, some countries are rethinking their strategy for nuclear power.

Germany has decided to shut down all of its nuclear reactors over the next decade. Nuclear power generation currently (ha, a pun) accounts for nearly a quarter of their entire electrical generation (coal counts for about half, and renewables counts for about 16%). They plan to convert all the nuclear power generation into renewable. There may not be as much hot air in Germany as there is in the States, but Germany is the second largest producer of wind produced electricity (with the United States being first). In fact it makes up nearly 7% of their total electricity generation.

If the German government wants to bump wind up to over 30% of their electrical production, not only will they need to install more wind turbines, but they’ll also need to replace the older models with new and more efficient models. They will also need to bump up their solar energy. While Germany is one of the top installers of photovoltaic cells, solar only accounts for a few percent of their energy production. With more efficient cells, it should not be too hard to move that number up.

The Italians also voted to abandon nuclear power again.

They abandoned it after Chernobyl and do not have any actual nuclear plants. The vote was more a comment on their current Prime Minister who favors the use of nuclear power.

France is still a proponent for nuclear generated electricity to remain in the EU’s energy mix. France is one of the largest producers of nuclear generated electricity. It accounts for over 80% of their electrical power generation.

As with most exciting things in the world, we’ll have to watch and see what unfolds.