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I generally dislike the term “colonialism” to describe modern political and economic relationships, but I do observe a “colonial” relationship between the urban centers of Boston and suburbs and the rural community of Greenfield and surrounding forests, around the proposed Greenfield bio-mass plant.

The bio-mass plan proposal is to build a 40+megawatt electrical generating plant using timbering waste and “unuseable” forest bio-mass as fuel. Bio-mass is defined in Washington and in Boston as a renewable energy source and is therefore eligible for federal and state tax credits that make what would be an economically infeasible plant into a feasible one.

The tax credits are transferrable between entities, meaning that the plant can sell the tax credits on an “open” market, and realize cash from the credits immediately, even if the plant itself can’t take advantage of the credits on their own returns. If the plant fails and never earns the credits, after being sold (perhaps multiple times), it is a difficult trail to track whether the those credits can be recouped.

The plant itself is estimated to realize around 20% efficiency in conversion of the energy in the bio-mass into electricity, then as the local region is self-sufficient in electricity generation from extensive hydro power, the electricity will be exported in effect, primarily to serve Boston and suburbs (which seek electricity). There is then additional line loss, perhaps 50%, netting a realizable 10% of original biomass energy.

Most of the energy will be exhausted into the atmosphere in the form of heat. (There were considerations about operating a heating plant from the heat released, but the plant is too remote from residences or industry to be relevant.)

Estimates of the consumption of forest land required to feed the plant range from 1 1/2 sq miles of deforestation per year up to 6 was the highest that I heard. (I would assume that that was exagerated.)

The original assertion was that the biomass plant would be fueled by waste from other natural timbering operations, but domestic timber operations are in a near-permanent depression, largely resulting from ruthless international competition, most importantly Russian export, but also Southeast Asian.

So, if the fuel is not from waste timber, then it has to come either from original clear-cutting, or from other waste (which is often painted or otherwise treated with highly toxic materials which are extremely damaging to the public health to release airborne.)

To compound the inefficiency of the generation and delivery, is the likely inefficiency of use, say for electric heating into poorly insulated buildings, or inefficient lighting, or background household load. (As I referred in a previous post, the motivation for energy efficiency is much less in the more expensive Boston suburbs as the operating costs comprise a much lower percentage of the cost of living in a house than where I live.)

So, that creates a dysfunctional structure of negligence from Boston and suburban residents, creating the need to clear-cut Western Massachusetts forests.

From the state perspective, driven by a definition of present and prospective democracy of one-person one-vote, the urban populations’ needs supercede the rural. There is likely to be greater demand for electricity in the future, as transportation shifts in any material proportion to electric drive.

The problem is that the political dynamics of the plant indicate the really substantive divide between rural and urban centers, and might suggest some state secession (from Massachusetts, not the US) or becoming part of Vermont, with more common interests.

There are positives to an increasingly impoverished region, which is jobs (even if low-paying and dangerous – tree-cutting has an 18% workers’ comp rate), and property tax revenues to the town.

The opponents of the plant have their exposed NIMBY contradictions as well, as many do use wood heat with its particulate exhausts, and can’t really claim to be holier than thou. Also, the contracts between forest property owners selling their wood to the plant would be consented contracts between property owners. The right to a view is not legally binding. I don’t know what happens if deforestation reaches a status where other forest services (water purification, etc.) can’t function.

There are legitimate concerns about the effects on local aquifers as the plant will use an enormous amount of water, and certainly air quality affects will be significant. (In the Connecticut River Valley, bad air is funneled up the valley, concentrated.)

My assessment of the absurdity of the plant relates to the negligence to create incentives to conserve energy in space heating and transportation in Boston and suburbs (either in the form of deep tax credits for achieving targeted and audited results, or in much higher taxation of all energy in all forms).

I personally corresponded with the president of the company constructing the plant, requesting that he organize the investment of 1/35th of the capital investment in the plant, into direct investments in energy conservation. He responded that the capital was raised for the limited purpose of the plant, and even as he regarded conservation as meritorious and even profitable, he was not able to do so.

Polite. I don’t know if it is accurate.

In an environment in which all the even remotely economically justifiable energy conservation measures are undertaken, then I would say that a forest bio-mass plant could be a desirable next layer of renewable electricity generation, better than coal certainly.

But, that environment does not exist, and is not seriously contemplated. We will instead incentivize the deforestation of New England and the US, our last natural capital resource, our home.

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I’m not an engineer. The purpose of this blog is not to propose or even comment in an informed way on the state of sustainable engineering.

I do want to give a great deal of credit to the innovative engineers that have worked for multiple decades to convince other engineers, architects, planners of the relevance of a whole systems orientation in design of technologies, buildings, communities, human eco-systems (economies).

The proof is in the pudding, and there are many things that can make, or spoil, a “pudding”.

In Greenfield, MA, a local low-income rural housing authority, RDI (Rural Development Inc.) is making a pudding. It has constructed (in process) a solar village comprised of 20+ affordable net zero or near net-zero energy homes, all in a single neighborhood.

The buildings are built to 1 1/2 times the insulation requirements of the new quite rigorous energy components of the Massachusetts state building code (too often ignored sadly in inspection process). They are tight, and because of that require “extra” water vapor exhaust (fans) and internal atmospheric and micro-climate monitoring and fans to maintain safe conditions.

They contain features that allow in a maximum of diffuse natural lighting in a manner that minimally exposes the building to uninsulated skylights.

They also all contain building integrated photovoltaics on the south face of the roof of all the homes, that provides a significant portion of the average typical electrical draw of a small family. To get to actual zero-net, private families must install highly energy efficient appliances, which not every family likely will.

Its possible that some of the households will be net energy income houses.

In Massachusetts form of net-metering, homeowners may sell back electricity to the grid (up to the level of monthly consumption) at retail rates. That is not the case everywhere.

One factor that made it possible to realize a zero-net energy development was the siting. The neighborhood is on the top of a small plateau in town with no obstructions to sunlight (but also some exposure to wind). There are trees planted mostly on the north faces of homes, that also provides a shade when outside, but does not shade the photovoltaic units.

Things can change over time, as families privately plant trees.

It really is possible to reduce and/or eliminate net energy consumption. Its NOT rocket science. The most rocket science is in new recycled materials (better than wood in many cases), sensor controlled indoor climate controls (when fans turn on to refresh air, or to exhaust moisture, or to automatically draw down window blankets). But, those are NOT rocket science but simple computer programs.

They are moderate capital projects as well as behaviors, and both the projects and the behaviors must be designed carefully.

New life-skills will emerge in the modern sustainable world, which is how to enjoy and manage the “technologies”.

“Know thyself” will be important, as design is for a purpose. So, if you don’t know what you need as a family, the design won’t match the need.

Needs change as well. A family with two or three children might need a 1500 sq ft house, while a couple might comfortably need only 1000 sq ft of living space. We either design the homes and communities to be modular in some way, or we move if we are to match need to solution (a definition of efficiency).

http://www.wbdg.org/resources/bipv.php

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