biofuels

Pros and Cons of Bioenergy

A while back I shared with you a primer on the world’s oldest source of energy – bioenergy. As a reminder, Bioenergy refers to the process of “efficiently extracting considerable quantities of clean, low-emission electricity from waste.” The waste used as a fuel source is usually agricultural, forestry and municipal wastes, with sugar cane waste (“bagasse”) being the most commonly used source.

Today, I want to look a little deeper at the pros and cons of bioenergy.

Pros


  • Bioenergy a reliable source of renewable energy.  We will never have a shortage of waste that can be converted to energy. As long as there is garbage, manure, and crops there will be biomass to create bioenergy.
  • Bioenergy can be stored with little energy loss.
  • As long as there is agriculture there will be a constant energy source.
  • Bioenergy emits little or no greenhouse gas emissions and is carbon neutral. The carbon that is created by biomass is reabsorbed by the next crop of plants.
  • Bioenergy doubles as a waste disposal measure.
  • Bioenergy crops help stabilize soils, improve soil fertility, and reduces erosion.
  • Bioenergy is a source of clean energy, the use of which can result in tax credits from the US government.
  • Bioenergy reduces the need for landfills
  • Typically, Bioenergy plants are dispatchable, meaning they can easily be turned on or off. This allows more flexibility for electricity grid operators to respond to times of peak demand.

 

Cons


  • Using wood from natural forests can lead to deforestation if the forests are not replanted.
  • The cost of harvesting, transporting, and handling biomass can be expensive.
  • Storing and processing of biomass requires large amounts of space.
  • Some fuel sources are seasonal.
  • May compete with food production in specific cases.
  • Bioenergy plants have a large footprint and require a lot of space, limiting the location options.
  • Some renewable energies, like solar power, are significantly more land-efficient.
  • Bioenergy production typically creates liquid fuels like ethanol or biodiesel that can then be used in applications like combustion engines. However, electric motors can be 2–3 times more efficient than internal combustion engines, which makes bioenergy much less productive in terms of energy for vehicle transport.

As with every energy source there are pros and cons, but as you can see the pros for bioenergy definitely outweigh the cons, especially when compared to fossil fuels.  Bioenergy should be included as part of our larger energy picture that includes all types of renewable energy including solar and wind energy.

Bioenergy is best when it is created using waste materials. These are materials that are by-products of agriculture and farming, downed trees, and our garbage and waste that would be left rotting in a landfill. These waste materials can create valuable energy at a relatively low cost and using these for energy reduces the need for landfills and helps preserve our surroundings while creating another source of power.

 

 

Sources:

  1. Clean Energy Council 2012, Bioenergy myths and facts, Clean Energy Council, Melbourne.
  2. Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, Waste-to-Energy, US Department of Energy, Washington D.C.
  3. Searchinger, T. and R. Heimlich. 2015, Avoiding Bioenergy Competition for Food Crops and Land. World Resources Institute, Washington D.C.
  4. Lynskey, Rachel, et al. ClimateWorks Australia, 2020, Moving to Zero: Accelerating the Transition to Zero-Emissions Transport. Monash Sustainable Development Institute, Australia.
10 ways to make your home more energy efficient

10 Ways to Increase Energy Efficiency

What is Energy Efficiency?

We talk a lot about energy efficiency around here. It’s one of our core values because we can’t reach net zero without it. But, what is energy efficiency? What does it even mean?

Energy efficiency is doing the same things you always do, but using less energy to do them. Remember when you were a kid and you’d leave the front (or back) door open and mom would yell at you and ask if you were raised in a barn? The next thing out her mouth would be something about heating (or cooling) the outdoors. Yeah, well when you heating or cooling the outdoors you are not making the best use of your energy.

Energy efficiency means that you are optimally using the energy in your home and not wasting it. You don’t have air leaking out windows, you aren’t leaving doors open, and you don’t have cold air seeping into the house through wall sockets and unsealed duct work. When your home is energy-efficient you aren’t wasting money on your electric bill, you are using exactly what you need and no more.

Before we can bother with doing things like installing solar, we’ve got to make sure the building is energy-efficient. It’s a huge waste to install solar when so much of the energy you are creating is escaping the building it’s being created for.

Ever since ENERGY STAR became such a big deal it seems like most people think that that’s the core of energy efficiency, and yes ENERGY STAR appliances are much more efficient than their counterparts. But, the truth is that energy efficiency is so much simpler. There are ton of small ways that we can improve the energy efficiency in our homes and commercial buildings.

10 Ways to Increase Energy Efficiency

  1. Seal your duct work. Buy a tub of duct sealant and make sure that your duct work is sealed, this includes the ducts under your home as well as where they come into your home (the vents). While it may not seem like a big deal, a lot of air can escape through those tiny cracks between the floor and the ducts.
  2. Check your faucets for leaks. A leak left unattended can cost you big time on your water bill. Too often we don’t even realize that there is a leak until it’s too late, and often months have passed with increased electric bills. Keep an eye on your electric bill if you notice a large increase in water or electric usage there may be a problem.
  3. Insulate your water heater and pipes. If you are like many of us your water heater is in your uninsulated garage, but you don’t have to insulate your entire garage to insulate your water heater. You can purchase a water heater jacket for a minimal price and install it yourself, not only reducing the energy the unit has to use to heat your water, but it will decrease the time it takes for hot water to reach other areas of your home.
  4. Install a programmable thermostat. Whether you go with a basic unit or one of the new fancy thermostats that programs itself based on your actions, a programmable thermostat will not only save you money but will keep your home much more comfortable.
  5. Wash your laundry in cold water. Your clothes will be just as clean, but you’ll save a ton of energy that is wasted just to heat the water.
  6. Swap out light bulbs. I bet if you take a look around your house you will find that you still have some old incandescent bulbs stealing energy. Swap those old bulbs out for new LED and CFL bulbs. These bulbs use as little as 1/10 of the energy of the old bulbs and put as just as much (or more) light.
  7. Replace appliances before they die. Chances are your appliances are close to 10 years old. If you are still using old non-Energy Star appliances consider replacing them with more efficient appliances before they die. You’ll not only save energy (and money) in the long-term but you’ll save yourself from the short-term headache of having to rush out and replace a dead unit.
  8. Clean and replace filters. Check your air filters and replace them on a regular schedule.
  9. Check the humidity. If you struggle with keeping your home cool enough in the warmer months you may want to check the humidity. A $10 humidistat will allow you to see the indoor humidity. If it’s too high you’ll want to purchase and install a dehumidifier. Doing this will reduce your cooling bills and make your home much more comfortable.
  10. Caulk leaky windows – use rope caulk to caulk those leaky windows. Did you know you are losing a ton of energy to leaky windows (even if they are new)? Those little cracks can equate to having a window (or even two) open as wide as they will go.

 

It doesn’t seem like much, and these are just a few of the many easy things you can do around your house to save energy and save money.  Feel free to leave a comment and tell us what you’ve done to improve energy efficiency around your home or office.

What is Bioenergy?

What is Bioenergy?

Bioenergy is energy that comes from renewable biological sources. These sources can be any form of organic matter that stores sunlight as chemical energy. Typical sources include manure, wood pulp, and sugarcane. Although, many more sources are available and currently being researched.

The oldest form of biofuel is wood, typically used for heat. Biofuel is just another name for bioenergy. The sources of biofuel (manure, wood pulp, etc) are called biomass, while the actual biofuel (or bioenergy) is the energy that is extracted from the biomass.

The great thing about bioenergy is that the biomass is typically a by-product of some other agricultural activity. While some crops (including corn, soybeans, and sugarcane) are being grown specifically for biofuel, in many cases are simply using byproducts and waste that would not otherwise be used. Rather than throwing wood pulp or manure on the ground to decompose, we are using that wood pulp to make fuel. The great thing about this is that there is little to no competition between the biofuel sources and needed food sources.

The methane gas that is produced by rotting garbage, human waste, excess crops, and even leftover vegetable oil can be converted to useable biofuel in the forms of ethanol and biodiesel. Not only can we produce fuel for vehicles but in some countries biogas has become a primary source of electricity.

In the US, the DOE is currently researching algae as a great source of bioenergy and biofuel. Oil extracted from algae is processed and converted to fuels that we could use to operate vehicles. Algae takes CO2 out of the atmosphere, which is good for the environment and can eventually reduce our reliance on non-renewable oil sources.

Biomass generates the same amount of energy as non-renewable sources, but because it is renewable it is easily replaced. Biomass creates net zero emissions as long as new plants are being grown to replace those that are being used.

But what about the price?

The DOE has been working to not only find new sources of biomass, but to reduce the cost of biofuels. The DOE reports that once biomass production reaches commercial levels the price will be equivalent to gasoline.

Are you Familiar with RideShare?

Everyone knows about carpooling, that’s been around for years, but what is RideShare?

RideShare is a unique program offered by Enterprise that allows you to reduce not only the cost of carpooling, but reduces the wear and tear on your vehicle.

The program is simple, you get a group of at least seven people who need to get from Point A to Point B. One person coordinates and signs up for RideShare, then Enterprise provides a vehicle to match the size of your group. They offer vehicles that carry anywhere from 7 to 15 passengers. The price is based on the miles traveled and the vehicle rented, and can be split among all the passengers. And, don’t worry the coordinator doesn’t have to do all the driving – everyone can still take turns! Insurance is also provided as part of the rental fee.

I know you are thinking “but won’t this be more expensive than just a regular car pool? No. Not really, when you split the cost over more people, reduce the wear and tear, and miles used on your own vehicles, you will likely be saving money!

This is basically a long-term rental so you keep the vehicle as long as you are participating in the program, or you can pass it around the group to whomever is driving that week.

So, why is Energy Alabama talking about this anyway?

It’s simple really. When people share the ride, fewer vehicles are on the road. That means you are using less energy and less gas, and it means that you are saving money. It’s all about sustainable energy baby!

Ready to RideShare?

Let’s do it! Whether you are a company looking to set up a RideShare program, or an individual ready to make a change in your morning commute, all you have to do put your group together, and visit vanpool.com or contact Rideshare Rep, Kelli Davis at 205-824-8557 • Kelli.Davis@ehi.com

She’ll help you select a vehicle and turn your morning commute from a boring solo run to a fun community activity that gives you some cred in the sustainable energy community.

Sustainable Energy Superstar – Randy Buckner

For Randy Buckner renewable energy isn’t about saving the planet or “doing the right thing”, although he says that is definitely a part of it. For Randy, choosing alternative renewable energy sources is the smart thing to do from a financial perspective. Randy is a data man. He’s the type of guy that doesn’t just install solar and forget it. He wants to know exactly what installing solar means to his bottom line and he can tell you that in exactly 8.1 years (or less) his solar system will be making him money. For Randy, solar was an investment, one that is giving him 8.0% ROI.

Randy built his house from the ground up about five years ago, and in doing so he made choices that would make it a very energy-efficient home. Rather than the standard HVAC system he installed a horizontal closed loop geothermal system which takes the cool air from the ground and circulates that into the house, and not forcing the HVAC system to work overtime trying to cool extremely hot or heat extremely cool air. The air below ground is a constant 55° all year around resulting in less work and a more energy-efficient system.

Geothermal (or ground source) systems are more energy-efficient because they are heating warmer air in the winter and cooling cooler air in the summer (as compared to the outside temperature). The system involves two parts, the heat pump and the underground pipes. Since the warmer or cooler air is not having to be created, only transported, no fuel is burned.

Horizontal systems are great for people who have large amounts of land. A series of six pipes are laid horizontally below the frost line, requiring no drilling. The closed loop system recirculates the same water and antifreeze solution continually. This water solution absorbs the warmer (or cooler) air from the ground and transports it back into the home where it is then converted to air and distributed throughout the home.

It sounds complicated but it’s really simple –you have a more efficient system that isn’t having to work as hard. A system that isn’t having to work as hard equates to lower utility bills, and that’s the bottom line for Randy and his wife.

spray foam insulationIn addition to the geothermal system, Randy installed low-e windows throughout the home, and opted for LED lighting over traditional options. He also had spray-foam insulation installed throughout the house as it was being built. He didn’t stop at just the walls but made sure that the inside of the roof was also covered, and used the left-over shavings as added sound-proofing and insulation in the ceiling between the first and second floor. The house has two air-handling units –one for downstairs (which is their main living area) and a second for the upstairs, which is used only when the grandchildren come to visit. This, again helps improve energy efficiency and cuts their utility bills because they aren’t heating or cooling the upstairs when it’s not in use.

It seems like they invested quite a bit into energy efficiency, but really when building a new home that you intend to live in for the rest of your life these are affordable investments. Randy knew that he would get a solid return on investment in comfort, and dollars. And, because of this he had no trouble selling these budgetary upgrades to his wife.

It took Randy almost five years before he took the next step and installed solar. He says the delay was partially because their horse barn had to come first. However, once it was installed, giving him the perfect place to put his solar panels, he knew it was time. Of course, convincing his wife took a little doing. He had to show her the money, so to speak, and how it would pay off in the long-run.

About a year ago Randy installed his 20 kW solar PV array –a 6-string, grid-tied system. Being grid tied allows the Buckners to sell their energy to the grid, and buy back what they need. He said their system produces about 60% of what their home typically uses, but because they sell at a slightly higher rate than they buy at it works out nicely.

invertersThe 6-string system is connected to 3 inverters (2 strings per inverter), with 12-13 panels per string. They are grid-tied through the TVA Green Power Providers program. Through this program they are paid a rate of .04 cents over retail for the first ten years, then after that they are paid the standard retail rate. They have two meters on the side of their home, one measuring what they are using, and the other measuring what they are selling.

Their utility bills now shows line items for what they use, as well as what is purchased by TVA, resulting in a net amount that they either owe or are owed. Additionally, they get a check each month from the Green Power Provider for the difference in the two rates. When they combine that amount with the tax credit they received and the ability to depreciate the system as part of their attached business, the savings are astounding. Basically, they received over half of their investment back in the first year just from those savings.

As mentioned, Randy is all about the numbers. He even took the time to sit me down and show me the data. He has a software package that came with his solar system (a package that most people probably don’t use) which constantly shows the energy created, hour by hour. He keeps this data and updates his own spreadsheets on a regular basis so that he knows exactly what his system is doing. If there’s a change or it seems his system may not be working just right, he knows it. He can also tell you exactly the amount he’s getting paid on a day-to-day basis, and this is how he knows exactly when he can expect to start seeing profits from his system.

I asked Randy why it wouldn’t be better to be off-the-grid, that way if the power goes out they’d still have power. He pointed to the financial side of the equation as the answer. Not only would he have to invest in batteries for storage of the power, this way he will eventually not only be providing his own power but he will be getting paid to do so.