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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.

UAH sustainability program brings changes to campus

Since 2013, Haley Hix, Sustainability Coordinator at the University of Alabama-Huntsville, has been hard at work, creating and implementing environmentally conscious projects. Her goal in each new endeavor is two-fold: to educate the Huntsville community about sustainable options and to make the UAH campus more environmentally friendly.

The small town girl from Tennessee has always been keenly aware of her environment.

ALCSE: “Is there something in your life that makes you love sustainability – or be a champion of it?”

HALEY: “I think it probably had a lot to do with growing up, the way I was raised on a farm, and learning to be protectors and promoters of our environment. In my eyes I just saw it as a very sacred thing. I mean it doesn’t belong to us. We’re here to be caretakers of it.”

Her position as Sustainability Coordinator required a little more initiative, but that’s something Haley isn’t lacking.

ALCSE: “So. Tell me how you got this job… because my co-worker.” Uncomfortable pause. “she said that you basically…” More pause. “kind of…”

HALEY: “Created it?” Laughter.

ALCSE:   “Well.” Laughter. “Let’s start with that.”

HALEY: “I started 2013 as an intern here for our energy manager. I was a Power Save Campus Intern. It was a position through the Alliance to Save Energy, which is a national nonprofit that encourages universities to do energy conservation and energy efficiency. I was about two months in when I realized: we don’t have any sustainability projects going on campus. We don’t have a budget for sustainability or any sort of way for students to start sustainability projects.”

 ALCSE: “What were your tasks when you began the internship if there weren’t any projects?”

HALEY: “We would do lighting audits of the buildings, make plans for upgrades for new lighting fixtures. We hosted events where students could come and switch out bulbs for more efficient bulbs in their dorm rooms. We would do energy competitions for the residents halls on campus where they would compete for three weeks in the spring to turn all their lights off and save energy and the winning dorm won a prize.”

ALCSE: “That’s kinda cool.”

HALEY: “We didn’t do any institutional changes. It was more an awareness program. And so I thought we needed to do something a little bit deeper. As a student I wrote a proposal for a campus green fund, researched other universities’ student green funds and put together a proposal for the vice president of finance. I proposed in August of 2013 and we got approval for 20K the first year.

“Then I started doing little projects here and there and I eventually convinced this department that they needed a sustainability coordinator.” Laughter.

ALCSE: “I love that.”

Haley loves her job. She’s implemented a lot of projects in the two short years she’s held the position.

If you’ve been to the Charger Union, or any academic building on the UAH campus, you’ve seen Haley’s first campaign: Hydration Stations.

Fact: Only 1 in 5 plastic water bottles really find their way into recycle bins.

Other projects followed, getting larger and larger in scale. Take for instance, the recent composting project, with four departments and three student groups involved.

Haley Hix, UAH Sustainability Coordinator heads up Ban the Battle

“That was actually my first project. We did a Ban the Bottle Project to get rid of all the little plastic bottles.”

Rainwater used for garden, recycle

ALCSE: “Which one of these [projects] is your fave? Or, to ask a different way, which one are you most proud of?”

HALEY: “Actually our composting project is really cool. I don’t know if it’s my favorite…but it is neat because it’s solar-powered and rain-water fueled.”

“Mike Marshall and I wrote a proposal for the Green Fund to start a composting project here at the community garden.

“We built – and I mean we literally, physically built – this composting facility with solar panels on top to power the compost tea brew room. Solar panels power the tea brewer for the compost. We have a rainwater catchment system. We use the rainwater to make the compost tea.

“We collect food scraps – this is in process – from the dining facilities on campus.”

ALCSE: “How big is it?”

HALEY: “Half the size of this room…the pile is….about 9×12. Our grounds crew turns it for us.

“We also have a vermiculture system. We take the compost and the worm castings [from the vermiculture system] and we use both of those things to make the compost tea.

ALCSE: “Where do you get that part?”

HALEY: “The castings?’

ALCSE: “Yes.”

HALEY: “We built a vermiculture continuous flow system. We put in red wrigglers and we have this system to catch the castings to use for the composting.”

UAH Compost heap

 

UAH Community Garden

Dr. Leland Cseke & Mike Marshall

ALCSE: “Who did that part?”

HALEY: “That was mainly Mike Marshall. He’s the student who headed the garden.”

ALCSE: “So he had other students help him?”

HALEY: “Yeah. That’s the other thing. We have curriculum designed around it.

ALCSE: “Who wrote the curriculum?”

HALEY: “One of our biology professors, Dr. Leland Cjecka. He’s kind of like the faculty advisor for the garden and he also designed a class around this whole system out here, which is called People Plants and the Environment.”

ALCSE: “Who takes it?

HALEY: “Well anyone can take it really. It’s mainly undergrad biology students. I took it as an undergrad. It was a really cool class.”

ALCSE: “That sounds like a neat program.”

 HALEY: “We use the compost tea on the garden and we use a few pieces of the greenway to test it out because we eventually want to use it to replace all our commercial fertilizers that are used on the entire campus. So that’s the big picture.” Read more about UAH’s Community Garden HERE

As big projects morph into even bigger ones, Haley plans to keep sharing the message. She’s most interested in the third piece of the environmental pie: environmental justice. She’d like to see more minorities in leadership roles and less environmental hazards placed in low-income areas.

And of course – more projects! Stay tuned.

OTHER COOL PROJECTS

Haley Hix

Tubeless Toilet Paper

  • Reduces packing waste by 95%.
  • Ensures complete roll usage.
  • Decreases total waste by 11,900 lbs.

Electricity-powered Heat Machines/Chillers

  • Savings Realized: 5.2 million gallons of water
  • Savings Realized: 350,000 therms of natural gas

Hybrid Utility Vehicles

  • Projected Savings: 700 gallons of gas.
  • Projected Savings: $2,000 in maintenance expenses.

electric vehicles for campus use at UAH

 

Tree campus USA - plannting trees at UAH

Tree Campus USA

  • Offsets greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Adds tree canopy to the UAH campus.
  • Creates aesthetically pleasing space.
  • Provides relaxing environment and reduces stress.
  • Shades buildings for lower energy bills.

Solar-Powered Golf Carts

Solar Golf Carts created in partnership with ALCSE

  • Raises awareness of solar power
  • Allows for maintenance-free transportation on campus
  • Develops partnerships with Hunstville-area business. (link to our story)

solar powered golf cart installation

 

UAH Community Garden

Community Garden

  • Provides fresh fruits and vegetables for campus dining facilities.
  • Connects the university with the larger Huntsville community.
  • Offers hands-on learning experiences for Biology Department.

 


5 AWESOME WAYS TO GET YOUR HANDS DIRTY


FUTURE PROJECTS

  • Gala Fundraising Event
  • Community Partnerships
  • Environmental Justice Programs
  • Campus-wide Solar Project
  • Climate Action Plan
  • Tree Planting Project
  • Fertigation

Want to learn more? You can read about Haley’s projects and lots more here: http://www.uah.edu/sustainability/past-and-current-projects

Electric Cars Create Jolt of Excitement in Huntsville, AL

There was a buzz in the air Saturday, October 31, at Whitesburg P-8, where student-built electric cars took to the track for 90 minutes to determine which team of young minds engineered the best vehicle.

The cars are part of a dynamic curriculum, called GreenpowerUSA, that challenges students aged 9-25 to apply S.T.E.M.-based thinking to the task of building and racing an electric car.

The Greenpower race

The Green Grizzlies at the Green Power Race

CROSS CURRICULAR GOALS 

Siemens, a global software company with an office in Huntsville, AL, brought the Greenpower program to the U.S. Siemens’ motives are practical. “Obviously, we’re in it because we’re engineers and we want our kids using our software but we’re seeing more and more [that] the big thing they get out of it is the ‘soft’ skills,” says Bill McClure, Vice President of Strategic Initiatives at Siemens. And the number one soft skill cited by students is teamwork.

Julie Folsom, whose daughter created a racecar with Chaffee Elementary, extols the virtues of the program: “We’re completely new to this but I love it. The kids have to decide what materials to use to make it more aerodynamic, what would affect the weight, what driver would be best depending on the size of the driver, the weight of the driver, the driver’s skills.”

Greenpower racer

The Greenpower program is diverse

DIVERSITY

The program attracts students of every ability and gender. According to Julie Folsom, almost all the fourth and fifth graders in her daughter’s school applied to be part of the Greenpower team. 35% of Greenpower’s participants are female, making it the highest female-participated engineering project.

“We can’t ignore 50% of the population!” says Michael Brown, Director of Academic Relations at Siemens.

HOW IT WORKS

  • Teams assemble their cars using a kit.
  • The only power source allowed is (2) 12-volt batteries, forcing teams to calculate optimal speed/energy efficiency.
  • Teams present their work in a formal setting.
  • In the scrutineering phase, technical experts from organizations such as the Sports Car Club of America check cars for rule compliance and safety.
  • Attention to detail is key. Simple mistakes such as misaligned wheels, incorrectly inflated tires, loose bolts, or rubbing brakes drain power. Too many errors will cost them the race.

IMG_1898

INHERENT LEARNING

“The students are learning without even realizing it,” Michael Brown explains. “Let’s talk about the Goblins. You might think that’s just a ‘costume project.’ But even at ages 9, 10, and 11 they learn about ‘righty-tighty’ and ‘lefty-lucy.’ You know, nuts and bolts. They also learn Fleming’s left hand rule – how an electric motor works. Now they don’t know they’re learning it, but when they wire up the car, if they wire the motor up the wrong way round, when they press the button, the car goes backwards.”

IMG_1870Pictured (L-R): Robert Clarke, President, Sports Car Club of America, Pro Racing; Michael Brown, Director of Academic Relations, Siemens; Bill McClure, Vice President of Strategic Initiatives, Siemens, enjoy a day of student racing at the Whitesburg track.

Executive Actions on Energy – What It Means

The last few years have seen a slurry of executive actions on clean, sustainable energy from the Federal government. There’s way more than just the Clean Power Plan. So what is there and what does it mean?

In March of this year, President Obama signed an Executive Order, Planning for Federal Sustainability in the Next Decade, which also included some interesting policy steps and aggressive Federal energy targets. In August the White House announced a whole host of actions, some new and some not. Here’s just a few significant pieces from the August announcement.

  • Making an additional $1 billion loan guarantee authority available and announcing new guidelines for distributed energy projects utilizing innovative technology and states looking to access this financing
  • Unlocking Residential Property-Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) Financing
  • Launching a new HUD and DOE program to provide home owners with a simple way to measure and improve the energy efficiency of their homes, by increasing homeowners borrowing power

Loan Guarantees

Loan guarantees have been a much discussed tool of the Department of Energy (DOE). Perhaps you remember Solyndra? There are two key things to remember about the new action announced in August. First, DOE is no longer placing loan guarantees on companies, like Solyndra or Tesla, but on projects. This is notable because it makes loan guarantees company agnostic and technology-centric. In other words, DOE doesn’t care who you are or, to some degree, what you are selling. They only care that your project makes economic sense. If it does, they can help with a loan guarantee. A good example of this in practice would be an energy-storage project with a signed contract from a utility company.

Second, the new announcement calls for $1 billion on loan guarantees on distributed energy technologies. This includes technologies such as rooftop solar, energy storage, and smart grid technology. Loan guarantees have been around quite some time, even before the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. This is a specific carve-out for distributed energy technologies which represents a fundamental bet on the future of energy in America.

Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) Financing

We wrote about PACE in Alabama a while back. Feel free to read up on it!

PACE financing has not always been well received. The main issue at hand is its senior loan position. Mortgage companies typically have the first right to the property after a governmental property tax lien. If you default on your property taxes, the government, typically local, can seize the property. The same thing can happen if you don’t pay your mortgage. But what happens if you don’t pay either? Well, the government gets their share first.

Herein lies the problem with PACE. If you are repaying energy-efficiency or renewable-energy upgrades through your property taxes, it becomes senior to the mortgage. If you default, there are less possible funds available to make the bank whole on the mortgage.

The big news here is Federal Housing Administration (FHA) backed loans are now compatible with PACE. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is issuing a preliminary statement indicating the conditions under which borrowers purchasing or refinancing properties with existing PACE assessments will be eligible to use FHA-insured financing. Since FHA backs an enormous amount of mortgages, PACE could become much easier for millions of Americans.

*Note: But not in Alabama. PACE, as currently defined by Alabama law, is only available to commercial properties.

FHA, HUD and Energy Efficiency

It turns out that people are much less likely to default on a home that is energy-efficient. This is pretty intuitive actually. If the home costs less to operate, chances are higher that the homeowner will be able to make their monthly mortgage payment.

To that end, HUD and DOE are launching a program to provide potential homeowners with an easy way to measure and improve the energy efficiency of their homes. Under the new HUD and DOE Home Energy Score partnership, in areas where the Home Energy Score is available, single family households will be able to increase their access to financing tools to make energy-efficiency improvements.

Note: DOE’s Home Energy Score offers a “miles per gallon” type rating to estimate a home’s energy use on a 10-point scale. A “1” corresponds to the least energy-efficient homes and a “10” corresponds to the most energy-efficient homes, while the average U.S. home will score a “5.”

Through this new partnership, home buyers or homeowners who want to obtain an FHA-insured purchase or refinance a mortgage for a single family home that receives a Home Energy Score of 6 or higher will be eligible to increase their income qualifying ratio by 2 percentage points above the standard Single Family FHA limit, making it easier to secure financing to make these improvements.

Summing it Up

Most of the recent action can be described as those to make clean, sustainable energy easier for the average American. This is being achieved through new programs, reducing red tape and increasing investment in targeted areas. If you’re in the market for a new home or a new to you home, take a look at what is out there that you can take advantage of. Energy efficient mortgages and 203(k) renovation loans are still great tools to help you. Long story short? Sustainable energy at the individual level was already cost-effective. And it just got easier too!

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Jeff Baker Electric Car charging station

Sustainable Energy Superstar – Jeff Baker

 

Solar Panels, Electric Cars, and new friends to nosh on pizza with: those are just a few of the many gifts Jeff Baker receives from his sustainable lifestyle.

Jeff drives an electric car.Chevy VoltHe has his own charging station attached to the side of his garage.Electric vehicle charging portHe also has 12 solar panels on his rooftop.

“Does that power your house completely?” I ask.

“It covers more than my car charging I know that.” Jeff says

“Is that why you put the solar in, to charge your vehicle?” I ask.

“Honestly,” grins Jeff. “It was more about publicity. I just wanted to be an early adopter and I really liked the idea of having [solar panels] located right here, co-located with the charging equipment, to showcase how well the technology synergizes.”

solar panels

 

 

“If I lived in California I’d be behind the times. But in Madison…. we’re the third household that’s even done this.”

There were lots of inspections and permits and electrical upgrades involved in getting the permit for solar on Jeff’s thirty-year-old house. At one point, he thought he might have to stop the whole effort but things worked out and now his home is up to code and his solar panels are creating about 3 kW of power per day.

“This allows me [freedom] to make my own energy here, use it to get where I’m going, and also if you add the right accessories, to store it and use it to respond to a natural disaster, or other kinds of power outages.”

Much of our conversation revolved around what its like to own and drive an electric car. If the thought of searching for a charging station while traveling makes you uneasy, you aren’t alone. There’s even an application called “Plug Share” Plug Share appwhere electric car drivers can locate charging stations.

In fact, the whole phenomenon has led to rather unusual friendships for Jeff.

Chevy Volt charging

 

“I’ve had through travelers that found me on Plug Share. Someone from Nashville came down to visit the Space and Rocket Center and realized they didn’t have enough charge to get back home…they called roadside assistance and got sent here because I’m listed publicly. “

Electric cars require planning because you have to allow for charge time. Jeff says drivers approach it in many different ways. Some sit in their cars and wait.

“Maybe they have a hot spot in their cars and they just surf the web.”

“Using the battery on their phones while they’re charging the battery on their car….” I say.

TurboCord electric car chargerWe get a shared laugh over that dichotomy.

Jeff says there are now higher-end electric vehicles that charge more quickly. But the Volt is designed for overnight charging.

“How long will that take?” I ask.

“Well it depends. There are different rates. It depends on the voltage as well as the current.”

“There’s a portable charger that comes with the car that will just run off the basic wall outlet. It doesn’t need any specialized circuitry or anything. It’s gonna take a whole night, maybe 9 – 10 hours. It still gets you there.”

“What I’m connected to right now is a dual voltage charger called a Turbocord.”

The cost and technology are changing rapidly. Volts emerged around 2011 and marketed at around 40K. Four years later, they sell for around 33K with better batteries and better technology all around.

 

“I just read today that 80% of 14 year-olds think their first car will be electric.

Jeff, you really are way ahead of the times! Thanks for sharing.

Jeff Baker - Electric car driving Sustainable Superstar