Science & The Simpsons, Part II: What does the future of energy hold?

Editor’s note: In our last post, we left off with Radioactive Man battling The Fossil Fuel Four, an episode of The Simpsons where the show personifies all major aspects for retrieving and releasing energy. Nuclear energy (fission) is represented by Radioactive Man, and his sidekicks Solar Citizen and Wind Lad represent solar and wind power respectively. In this episode, they face their nemeses: a rough group of villains who call themselves The Fossil Fuel Four. They’re made up of King Coal, Petroleumsaurus Rex, Charcoal Briquette, and the Fracker. Through their battle, we see the struggle between sustainable resources and fossil fuels.

Will climate change continue unabated? What will happen to Radioactive Man now as he battles The Fossil Fuel Four? Will he defeat his foes — or is it too late? 

The world’s first fission nuclear reactor was built in Chicago in 1942. Touted by scientists as the energy of the future, some believed that electricity produced in this manner would be so safe, plentiful and inexpensive that companies would no longer have to monitor usage.

But things haven’t quite panned out that way.

While there was a veritable boom in the construction of nuclear plants in the 1960s and 1970s, some very high profile setbacks (such as Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima) have cast serious doubts about safety in the mind of the public. In response to Fukushima specifically, Germany intends to shut down all of its nuclear reactors within the decade, and Italy has banned nuclear power within its borders.

It remains, however, that nuclear energy has resulted in fewer deaths per unit of energy created than all other major sources of energy. Many scientists are still holding out hope for the development of nuclear fusion technology, which would be much more stable, secure, create more energy per unit, and not produce dangerous nuclear waste. This could be an economically viable option by 2050.

In the meantime, proponents of nuclear energy insist that the complete lack of carbon emissions from nuclear power plants should be a huge incentive for its use and maintain that it is a sustainable, safe method for the production of energy.

Additional sustainable energy options include solar and wind power (also hydropower, but since The Simpsons omitted it I will, in this case, refrain from delving into it further). Odd as it may seem, wind and solar power both capture energy from the same source – the sun. While solar power seeks to capture energy directly from the sun’s rays, wind power capitalizes on the fact that the sun’s energy heats the earth unevenly, creating wind currents (technically, even fossil fuels release energy from the sun, since that energy supported the life of the now fossilized organisms).

In the past few decades, these two processes of capturing energy and converting energy from the sun to electricity have grown by leaps and bounds. And while it’s still a small portion of total energy creation on a global scale, it seems to be one of the most promising ways in which we can create a truly sustainable energy environment for years to come.

Solar technology is generally categorized as either passive or active, depending on the method in which the sun’s energy is captured and converted for human use. Photovoltaic panels and solar thermal collectors are examples of active solar technology, while designing spaces to naturally circulate air and the selection of materials with light dispersing abilities are examples of passive solar technology.

Wind power uses airflows to run wind turbines. Harnessing wind for its energy has been a viable technology for millennia, but was (until recently) used to generate mechanical power (like using sails on ships), rather than electricity. As the wind blows, it turns the turbine to generate electricity. The greater the wind speed and strength, the more efficient this process becomes. This is part of why offshore turbines are becoming popular, since wind can be up to 90 percent stronger and occur more regularly out at sea than on land.

As you can see, this is a very exciting time for energy science with a lot of innovation going on. New technologies are being explored every day — from new methods of extracting fossil fuels from the Earth’s crust to new models and applications for nuclear, solar and wind energy production.

But the goal for all of this innovation is really the same: powering the future. So let’s revisit this idea of Radioactive Man and The Fossil Fuel Four.

Instead of The Fossils Fuel Four being evil, they and Radioactive Man should be the elders in the Energy League — a group of superheroes mentoring the new heroes in the league such as Citizen Solar, Wind Lad, Grid Smart, and Tidal Ti.  The Energy League should lead the fight against Baron Blackout and his cohorts, Social Disruption and the twins Ignorance and Want (OK, they’re Dickens characters, but wouldn’t they make great super-villains too?).

Let’s hope.

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?

Add it up: Doing the math on electric cars

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed by our contributing staff writers are their own and do not necessarily represent the opinions of the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Electric cars are a popular idea. You see them in movies, hear about them in songs, and especially get to know them via inventive commercials. They claim that they produce no pollution, unlike their dinosaur automobiles with the internal combustion engines. But are they as green as they claim to be? (Note: For this blog I’ll be talking about pure electric cars, not hybrids.)

Doing the math on electric cars

A normal gasoline-using car produces pollutants as a result of converting fuel into movement. An electric car uses stored electricity to propel the vehicle. But how much pollution was created while creating the electricity? To compare the two, we’ll have to find some way to make gasoline and electricity equivalent. Fortunately, we can convert both to one unit: joules. While you might want to wear a jewel, a joule will help you get work done. A joule (abbreviated by “J” ) is a unit of energy. It’s the equivalent of applying 1 ampere through a resistance of 1 ohm for 1 second, or the force of 1 Newton over 1 meter.

A gallon of gasoline contains about 1,300,000,000 joules. One kilowatt of electricity contains 36,000,000 joules. So 1 gallon of gas produces about 36 kilowatt hours.

Burning a gallon of gasoline to move your car produces about 20 pounds of carbon dioxide. One kilowatt hour can produce different amounts of carbon dioxide, depending on what energy source was used to make it. In the United States, much of our electricity (about 42 percent) comes from coal-fired power plants. One kilogram of coal can produce 2 kilowatt hours and 2.93 kilograms of carbon dioxide. That’s about 3.3 pounds of carbon dioxide per kilowatt hour, which means that 1 gallon of gas’ equivalent in electricity produces 118 pounds of carbon dioxide if all the electricity is made from coal-fired power plants. From this information, it seems that the internal combustion engine outperforms the electric, but not all electricity comes from coal.

While the majority of our electrical generation comes from coal-fired power plants, there are other energy sources. Thirteen percent of our electricity comes from renewables such as wind and solar power, which produce no carbon dioxide. Nuclear power gives us 19 percent of our electricity and produces no carbon dioxide, either. Using this division of power sources, the amount of carbon dioxide produced making electricity for an electric car has been reduced from 118 pounds to just 8. But what about natural gas?

Natural Gas is measured by the MMBTu (one million British thermal units), which is about 1,000 cubic feet (1 mcf). One mcf of natural gas produces 122 pounds of carbon dioxide and can produce about 29 kilowatt hours. Are you still with me? This means that natural gas produces about 4 pounds of carbon dioxide per kilowatt hour. So when we add that back into the mix, our electric car is producing about 9 pounds of carbon dioxide per kilowatt hour. A gallon of gas is about 36 kilowatt hours and produces 20 lbs of carbon dioxide, or about half a pound of carbon dioxide per kilowatt hour.

Does that mean that electric cars produce more carbon dioxide than ones that run on gas? Maybe, maybe not. All those numbers are based on the national average of the energy mix. If renewables provide more electricity in your area, the amount of carbon will decrease. If you get your electricity from an all-renewable company, then you’re producing no carbon. Also, this blog has only addressed the amount of carbon dioxide produced directly by energy sources. It has not included all the other pollutants produced. It has not included the entire life cycle of the energy source. For example, a nuclear reactor produces no carbon dioxide, but mining uranium is a very energy intense project. Wind turbines produce no carbon dioxide while creating electricity, but carbon dioxide is produced when they are built.

The amount of carbon dioxide produced by electric cars can be brought down easily, where the amount produced by internal combustion engines can not. yo could switch the source of electricity. You could take stored electricity and use it for you car. Because our grid is a stupid grid and not a smart grid electricity is put on the grid as needed. If there is a moment with high wind generation and a high need for electricity, then the amount of carbon produced decreases. If the wind stops blowing and the need is still there, then the more traditional sources kick in and the amount of carbon produced goes right back up.

So while an electric car, on average, may currently produce more carbon dioxide than a gas-powered car, depending or your location and your electric provider, your electric car may be producing no carbon dioxide. Also, while there is little hope to improve the internal combustion engine to eliminate the production of carbon dioxide, researchers hope to eventually eliminate the carbon produced by an electric car. So “Let’s take a ride in an electric car/To the west side in an electric car/How can you deny an electric car/Won’t you take a ride with me/Come on and take a ride with me!”

It’s Easy Being Green

s-postWhen you think of ecology for kids, you probably think of pine cones, bird feeders and planting seeds. Not us!

For the 2009 camp season, I am helping to write the curriculum for a new Xplorations Summer Camp called It’s Easy Being Green. 

So, when WE think of ecology for kids, we think solar-powered electromagnets, mini composters, the nitrogen cycle and practical ways little kids can make a big difference. Our campers are going to investigate solar, wind and water power as well as learning how every day decisions make a long-term impact.

My favorite activity so far is not particularly scientific, but it is super fun – a no-sew grocery bag made from an old t-shirt. I am also pretty excited about the day that the campers are going to investigate water ecology and oil spills.

To find out how you can sign up for this or any of our Xplorations Summer Camps, visit www.hmns.org today!

Also, if you are interested in going green, join us as we celebrate Earth Day in the museum tomorrow – if you hug a tree, you’ll get a free sapling to take home!