By Dan Hebert, PE, senior technical editor
Technical professionals are trained to be skeptics, and nothing raises my cynic antennae like fake green, a technology that promises environmental benefits but neglects its excessive financial and environmental costs.
As related in a recent Newsweek article (Food vs Fuel), the share of U.S. corn crop devoted to ethanol production has increased from 6% to 25%. Farmers and ethanol investors reap benefits, but everyone else loses. Food prices are skyrocketing, while biofuel accounts for less than 3% of transportation fuel worldwide. Meanwhile, biofuels encourage deforestation in developing countries. These adverse consequences were widely known, but lobbyists still managed to garner government subsidies.
Take wind power as another example. Electric utilities need two types of power—one for base load, the other for peak loads. Wind can’t be relied on for base loads, and wind velocity often varies inversely with peak power needs.
That certainly is the case here in California. “We benefit from the great natural air conditioning system of the wind going over the ocean and cooling California,” says Peter Darbee, CEO of electric utility PG&E, in a recent interview with the San Francisco Chronicle. “But it gets hot in California when the wind stops blowing, so wind power is least available when you most need it. Some wind power is good, but above about 15%, you have to back up wind power with natural-gas-fired turbines.”
Wind power also can blight the environment as it takes acres of wind turbine towers to generate relatively small amounts of electricity.
The same is true with solar. Power produced is sporadic, often not available when most needed, and incredibly large amounts of land are needed to produce relatively small amounts of power.
If so many purported technologies aren’t green at all, then what is? Cutting energy use is the greenest course of action.
The problem is that there is no huge industry with paid lobbyists that benefits directly from reduced energy use, so cutting consumption falls to a motley collection of industry engineers, environmental groups and utilities.
Darbee describes a good example of an unintentional collaboration between environmentalists and utilities in a recent Power magazine interview. “California’s electricity policies, driven by far-left environmentalists and overzealous regulators, have made it nearly impossible to build new power plants,” he says. “But we still must provide enough electricity to fuel a growing economy.”
Improving energy efficiency is the best strategy, and the numbers tell the story, argues Darbee. “Energy-efficiency programs cost electricity customers an average of 2 to 3¢ per kilowatt-hour, less than half of what they would pay to help fund a new power project,” he says.
We recently bought a more-efficient refrigerator, washer and dryer. Our utility companies gave us more than $500 in rebates, and our utility bills dropped $20/month. Our electric utility pays us $200/year for the option to switch off our air conditioner compressor during peak summer demand.
Machine builders and their customers also have a part to play as high energy prices force industries worldwide to increase energy efficiency. Automation and information technology play a big role.
For example, machines often are supplied now with smart motor controllers that constantly monitor power use. Power use often can be reduced at peak demand times, cutting utility charges. Automated closed-loop control of machines and processes reduces energy use by keeping parameters closer to set points, eliminating inefficient gyrations around desired values.
As with consumers, the greenest path for most industries is not to promote or use alternative energy, but to simply use less energy.
POWER TO THE PEOPLE
Alternative energy is on everyone’s mind, but does Dan’s approach make more sense? Forget it and just reduce consumption? Add to the discussion about this on Machine Builder Forum at ControlDesign.com/green.