Carlo's Think Pieces

Reflections of a Filipino in the Netherlands

Archive for the ‘solar energy’ Category

A Look into the Future

Posted by butalidnl on 14 April 2012

Predicting how things will be like in the future is fun. You can let your imagination run wild and nobody could tell you whether you got it right or not. At the same time, it is tricky; a lot of things forecast before hadn’t come true – take the idea of the personal helicopter, or elaborate space colonization by the year 2000.

It was about 30 years ago that I arrived in the Netherlands (from the Philippines). I find it interesting to note the changes that have happened in those 30 years. Big things have happened: the end of the Cold War and Apartheid, the eradication of smallpox, the Internet and the Web, e-Books, digital cameras. At the same time, some other big things have not happened: manned space exploration, ubiquitous robots, Middle East peace, the ‘paperless office’ (not yet, at least).

I will try to predict things 30 years into the future (or 2042), which is as long as I can hope to live (though I think that I won’t live that long). Perhaps I could still see the changes that I predicted.
So, here goes.

Some Guiding Principles
The Future is Already Here. One thing about predicting 30 years in the future is that a lot of things then will be based on things that have already been discovered or invented today. After all, the basic discoveries for the internet were already made in the 1980s, even the 1970s. Fax machines were around since the 1930s. It takes about 20 to 30 years before a new discovery is fully developed. In the near future, this pattern will surely continue. Really new things that will be discovered in the next 10 years or more will be part of a longer-term future – i.e. beyond 30 years.

More People, More Comfort. Doomsayers who say that the people in the future will be less comfortable because of overpopulation will be proven wrong. While there will be more people in the world, they will be living longer and better than we now do. A lot of this improvement in well-being will be due to the better lives of many people in the Third World. But people in developed countries will also see their lives improved.

No Radical Changes in People’s Preferences and Habits. Social inertia is strong; ingrained habits will most likely prevail.
Many people will still hold elaborate weddings. National identities will remain. The food that people eat will generally look the same as what they eat today. People will continue to ride automobiles.

What will the Future look like, then?
Food. The world’s population will increase by at least 50% (from 7 to 10 billion). But there will be a need to increase food production by more than 50% since many people are underfed today. The Earth can sustain this population if we eat more sensibly.

The pattern of meat consumption will be different.The reason is that some kinds of meat are produced with more grain than others – this grain/meat ratio is known as the FGR (Feed Grain Ratio). Beef will be too expensive to be eaten daily by ordinary people. People will generally eat meat with lower FGRs than beef (which is 8). Pork’s FGR is 4, chicken’s between 2 & 3, FGR  for fish (i.e. the vegetarian kinds of fish) is 2. It is likely that the per capita consumption of vegetables will be significantly higher than today. A lot of ‘vegetarian meat’ will be produced from soya, mongo and other beans.

Food will be grown not only in rural areas; a lot of it will be grown in plots in urban areas (mostly vegetables and fruits). There will be a lot more fish grown in fish farms, compared to the present practice of ‘hunting’ for fish. People will NOT be eating insects (except where these are now already local delicacies).

Transportation. Personal vehicles will be small and electric. Rental services will cater to people’s need for bigger vehicles. Some vehicles will be powered by petroleum products: especially ships, airplanes, earth movers and trucks, but these will be mostly hybrid. Intercity transportation will be often done by Maglev, at least in the richer countries. High speed Maglev will replace a lot of short commuter plane links. Smart highways will guide cars through special lanes, making it possible for them to safely cruise at high speeds (200 kilometers/hour or more).

Energy. There will be a lot of energy generated; more than enough to keep people living comfortably. G4 nuclear plants (which use up 95% of the nuclear fuel, instead of the 5% that present G3 plants consume) will supply some countries with cheap electricity. For most of the rest, there will geothermal, tidal, wind, hydro and solar energy. Fossil fuel power plants will mostly be de-commissioned.Temporary surplus energy will be stored in various ways to even out the electricity supply across the day.

Solar energy will boom. The yield of silicon solar panels will have increased from the current 16% to 40% (present prototypes with improved silicon panels already have a yield of 30%, while those with Gallium Arsenide already routinely exceed 35%, so the technological jump will not be much). Electricity from fossil fuels (including coal) will be too expensive, especially since environmental costs will be fully factored in. Petroleum will be used for some vehicles (mostly heavy duty and offroad) and for making plastics and other chemicals. Solar panels will adorn every rooftop, except those used to plant food. Some walls will be made of special solar panels. The newer solar panels will be integrated into the building materials, so thye won’t look at all like today’s solar panels.

The energy needed for lighting, heating and transportation will be much less than today. Energy loss in transmission will be less, since much of the electricity will be generated close to the user.

The problem of global warming will shift from greenhouse gases to the heat dissipated with the use of all the energy.

Space Travel. Space exploration or colonization will continue at the same more-or-less leisurely pace as today. Earth-bound considerations will continue to put limits to how much is spent in space. There will have been one or two manned missions to Mars, but no permanent bases. There will be people living on the moon, but this will be more like the present Antarctic scientific camps. There will be a number of space stations in low-Earth orbit.

Life Expectancy. Major diseases like tuberculosis, malaria and even AIDS will be greatly reduced, affecting a shrinking percentage of the population. In developed countries, the treatment of degenerative diseases will be more successful.

The obesity epidemic of today will be a thing of the past. Perhaps 5% of the people may still be classified as obese; but increased prices of food, more exercise and better therapy (medication and surgery) will result in  decreasing numbers of obese people.

Cancer will still be around, but for most cases, treatment would make it more of a chronic, rather than a deadly, disease.

Death from accidents (especially vehicular and work-related) will be low and steadily decreasing, as traffic authorities and companies institute more stringent safety measures. Large-scale industrial pollution will be lower, lessening deaths from chemical exposure. The most hazardous tasks (e.g. underground mining) will be increasingly robotized.

Worldwide average life espectancy at birth may reach the late 70s (in 2010, it was 67.2 years); lots of people will live to their 90s (and be relatively healthier than now).

Computers/IT. There will be a range of devices for all kinds of needs: wristband, handheld, slate, notebook, desktop, wall, company network and super computers. People will have a wide range of options for keeping information in the ‘cloud’ or in their machines. A person’s devices will more efficiently share information with each other, in various ways and extents.

Information will be available for a fee – people will make micro-payments to access this. At the same time, more information will be shared for free. All of human knowledge will  be available on the internet. Devices can all communicate with each other, The choice will include: text, audio, full audio-visual, data.

A lot of ‘office work’ will be done partly at home, as with school work. Work and study will be combined with regular (a number of times a week) face-to-face sessions. ‘Traditional’ offices and schools will still constitute the majority, and those will employ the latest IT tools.

E-books will be widespread. Almost all books will be in e-book format. Paper books will be quite expensive in comparison, and will be bought by special book enthusiasts or as gifts.
E-paper will be used for posters/signs at stores, and maybe even on billboards.

All-round robots will still be experimental. But there will be a lot of special purpose bots. Examples would be restaurant bus bots, automatic vehicles (for use as taxis within cities), cleaning bots and smaller industrial bots.

Politics. There will be more nation-states than there are today. At the same time, many of these will be grouped into supra-national entities e.g. EU, ASEAN, Ecowas, Mercosur which would assume many functions which today belong to nation-states.

There will be peace between Israelis and Arabs – but the form could vary from a unitary Arab-Israeli state, to Israel as Jewish state at peace with its neighbours. North and South Korea will reunite. There will be no more dictators ala Gaddafi or Lukashenko anymore. However, there will probably be some ‘failed democracy’ (like present-day Russia).

Posted in alternative media, electric car, electricity, environment, solar energy, World Affairs | Tagged: , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Alternatives to Feed-in Tariffs

Posted by butalidnl on 29 August 2011

Solar panels are sprouting all over Germany and Spain as a result of feed-in tariff programs by their governments. When governments face the need to develop their solar energy, the question comes up if they should consider feed-in tariffs.  Feed-in tariffs is a policy of governments to pay grass-roots producers of solar electricity higher fees (than traditional electricity rates) for the electricity that they generate. This policy has been extremely successful in Spain and Germany, to the point that so many people are putting up solar panels, and have become a major drain on their governments’ budgets.

The Philippines has very recently instituted a system of Feed in Tariffs for Renewable Energy. I think it will not only not work, it will end up raising the price of electricity to consumers, and be an unacceptable burden to the national budget.

I think that a feed-in tariffs policy may have been a good idea in the past; but that we should now use other strategies for promoting solar power. Feed-in tariffs are potentially a big drain to national budgets; but the main reason for not using them now is that the price of solar panels have dropped sharply in recent years, to the point where the price for generating solar electricity is almost the same as ‘grey’ electricity in some times and places. This means that price is no longer the main obstacle to people shifting to solar. Government programs to promote solar energy should address these obstacles directly.

Solar Bank
The biggest obstacle that keeps households or businesses from installing solar panels is the need for a large expense up front. It is similar to having a mobile phone where you pay for 15-20 years worth of service at one time. The mobile phone industry would not have taken off if this was the case. There needs to be a way to ‘cut up’ the expense of solar power to convenient monthly portions.

The government should put up a ‘Solar Bank’ which would pay for the panels, and to which the buyer could make monthly payments. The bank could charge the household for electricity produced, at slightly below the prevailing price of  ‘grey’ electricity(and at a very low interest), until they are fully paid (which should be between 15 and 20 years (solar panels are expected to last at least 25 years) . Included in this contract should also be insurance coverage, so that people will not continue paying if the panels get destroyed or damaged.

Net Metering
Another measure would be to require electricity providers to offer net metering for a modest one-time fee. Net metering is when a user is allowed to sell (excess) electricity to the grid at the same price that he pays for getting electricity.  This is favorable for those who produce electricity themselves,  from solar, wind, biomass etc. Another advantage is that net metering also reduces the need for batteries, which are a significant part of the expense of solar systems.

In Europe, net metering arrangements mean that a household can ‘sell’ excess electricity to the grid, for the same price, but only as long as it does not exceed the household’s monthly consumption. Beyond that, the electricity provider will only pay the ‘generating cost price’ (i.e. excluding transport and taxes )

Business Incentives
Businesses should be stimulated to adopt solar energy.  In a previous blog, I pointed out that, for commercial and industrial users in Metro Manila, the cost of Meralco electricity is sometimes higher than the cost of solar electricity (Solar Cheaper than Meralco in April). This is especially so during the dry season, when cheap hydro-electric power is less abundant. But businessmen consider not only the cost of solar energy; they also have other concerns, which need to be addressed.

Reliability. Solar electricity depends on the presence of the sun; so the panels don’t produce energy at night and only a little during cloudy days. Companies should be able to combine grid and solar electricity to get a very reliable energy supply. And for this, they would need heavy-duty batteries. I propose that the government subsidize the batteries for solar installations of businesses. Perhaps a subsidy from 25% to 50% of the cost of the batteries would be appropriate.

Resale Value. The government could take measures to develop the secondary market for solar panels. This would stimulate businesses to buy and install solar panels. Some businesses may then opt to install second-hand panels that are cheaper. A secondary market would also stimulate businesses to upgrade their panels when technological improvements improve panel efficiency.

One measure to help stimulate the secondary market is to allow panels to be subject to accelerated depreciation. When the panels’ book value reaches zero, businesses may decide to sell them for a tidy profit, and then buy new panels.

Maintenance. Companies may be unwilling to install solar panels because of perceived maintenance costs and hassle. The government should provide them with technical support, and even training programs for building administrators or maintenance staff, to teach them how to maintain the panels properly.

Of course, businesses should also be able to avail of the loans/insurance from the Solar Bank, as well as benefit from net metering.

Posted in electricity, environment, LGU, Philippine economics, Philippines, solar, solar energy | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Biofuels are not the Answer

Posted by butalidnl on 20 August 2011

Biofuels have been hailed as our way out of the dependence on fossil fuels. In the US, massive amounts of government funds have gone into making ethanol from corn. In the Philippines, the 2006 Biofuels Act targets the mixing of 5% ethanol in gasoline and 1% biodiesel in petrodiesel.

Biofuels as the solution to the energy problem is a myth, especially if you look deeper into its real prospects. Experts have computed that, in order to supply enough fuel for US’ transportation needs, they would have to grow corn in 3x the current cropland of the US. In other words, it is impossible for corn to do the job.

But why is that the case? Well, plants are actually (contrary to the myth) very inefficient transformers of solar energy. Plants transform only about 1% of the energy from sunlight into plant material. And of this plant material, perhaps only 20% (or 0.2% of the total) gets into the corn cob, which is what is processed towards ethanol. Then, the processing uses up energy. The end result is that only about 0.1% (one-thousandth) of the sun’s energy is transformed into ethanol.

Contrast this with silicon solar panels, which transform 16% of sunlight into energy. This is 160 times the energy obtained from corn! Some solar panels can even achieve 30% efficiency; but these are made with expensive Gallium Arsenide, and are thus only used for things like space satellites.

The main ‘problem’ that silicon solar panels face is that they still cost too much to make, making it cheaper to rely on traditional sources of energy. But the cost of making solar panels is rapidly going down; even to the point where it has reached ‘grid parity’ (i.e. solar costs the same as ordinary electricity) for some places or applications.  Reaching grid parity is important because this means that subsidies will no longer be necessary for these applications.

Cellulose and Algae
There are efforts aimed at using cellulose or algae as the source of biofuels. Using cellulose would mean that the full 1% of sunlight that the plant transforms will be used. Algae transforms up to 3% of sunlight, but they require expensive glass containers (which need to be regularly cleaned) so that the net yield of algae would be something like 1.5%.  Another problem with algae is that it grows slowly when it is producing hydrocarbons.

Algae is only marginally better than cellulose. And there is still a long road ahead, in terms of bringing either cellulose or algae to even get to 1-1.5% efficiency. It is a terrible waste of money to spend so much on biofuels of any kind. At the same time, solar is already 16 times more productive than algae and cellulose will ever be. And with further research, it should be possible to raise solar’s efficiency even more.

Use Other Technologies
The logical conclusion to all this would be that governments should stop all subsidies for biofuels immediately, and to rechannel the funds to more promising technologies. I suggest that these be solar, geothermal and wind. With a relatively small amount of research on solar and wind, their efficiency stands to improve a lot. Geothermal needs relatively big investments, but pays off well. Geothermal costs much less than traditional sources of energy to generate.  At the same time, the use of electric cars should be stimulated, so that gasoline and diesel will be replaced by electricity.

The Philippines should rescind the 2006 Biofuels Act. It is already a failure. Both ethanol and biodiesel are suffering from “volatile prices and insufficient supply”.  This is a natural result of the inefficiency of their production; and this basic inefficiency means that prices and supply will never be satisfactory, even with subsidies. Instead of biofuels, the Philippines should stress more on geothermal and solar, which are a lot more cost effective, and for which future price developments are growing more favorable.

Posted in electric car, electricity, environment, Philippine economics, Philippines, solar, solar energy, World Affairs | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Christmas Lights

Posted by butalidnl on 3 December 2010

Christmas is associated with light.  This has perhaps because Christmas started off as the Roman Festival of Light – because the days start to get longer again at this time. [Early Christians adapted the Festival of Light holidays to mark the birth of Christ, for symbolic reasons] The nights are indeed long around Christmas time, and it really helps to have lights to celebrate the holidays.

Lights at Ayala Triangle Gardens. Photo taken by Ferdie Llanes

There are all kinds of light shows and displays in the Philippines these days, to mark the holidays.

In Makati, in the Ayala Triangle Gardens, the former Ugarte Field, there is now an impressive show of lights.  What is less known is that these lights are LEDs (Light Emitting Diodes), and thus use a lot less electricity than ordinary Christmas lights. Organizers say that the present lights use only 5000 watts, as compared to 58,000 watts last year. 5000 watts means that for every hour the lights are on, it uses only 5 KWh, costing about Php 60 per hour. Compare this with 58 KWh previously – which cost about Php 70/hour. While costing less in terms of electricity used, buying LED lights will cost you a bit more than ordinary lights – about 4 times more in price. For an ordinary Christmas tree with 100 lights, it would cost about Php 800, while ordinary lights could be bought for about Php 200.  It will take about 3 Christmas seasons to earn back the additional cost of LED lights.

Not only Electricity Cost
If you think of it, the additional electricity used by Christmas lights could be quite excessive, even to the point of overloading the electricity grid. I don’t think this will happen, though, since the lights are used mostly during the night, and overall electricity use at night is much less than it is during the day. But there are other advantages of LED lights.
LED lights are solid-state, making them sturdier than ordinary Christmas lights. This means that they are less prone to damage, and less likely to cause electrocution or fire. LED lights could also be used for a very long time. These are advantages over and above the savings in the electricity they use. And of course, with the constantly rising cost of electricity, the savings from using LED lights could only go higher.
Using LED lights also are a way of supporting this environment-friendly technology. As more and more people use LED lights, these will tend to become cheaper – all kinds of LED lights. This means that LED lights for household use, for example, will gradually get cheaper, inducing more people to buy them. And when this happens, we would have a real chance at reducing our electricity costs.

LED light technology is actually just the opposite of solar panel technology. In the LED lights, electricity is transformed into light; while solar panels transform sunlight to electricity. Thus, as LED lights get used more often, not only will it make LED lights cheaper and more efficient; it will also result in solar panels getting cheaper and more efficient.

So, enjoy your Christmas and the many light shows that it brings. And hope that more and more of those lights will be LED lights.

Posted in electricity, environment, Philippine economics, Philippines, solar energy | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

EVs Are Good for the Environment

Posted by butalidnl on 21 June 2010

I came across a comment in FB where the writer said that EVs are not really good for the environment. He said that we are in effect generating energy at a distance, and that could not be good, since there are inefficiencies in energy transport. Then, he said that EVs only transfer the source of pollution from gasoline to coal, and the latter is worse.

Well, I disagree with these positions, and here’s why:

Generation at a Distance
True, there is energy lost while transporting electricity from the power plant to your home or car, but we should also look at the energy savings we get from not having the energy source at every home or car. It is like the case where each home will have a diesel generator. This is not efficient, even though the transport cost for the electricity will be zero. Why? Because, for one, fuel needs to be brought to each and every house (and that costs energy). And also, the generator will be one which will produce electricity for your peak capacity; meaning that when you use less electricity, your generator will be running below its capacity, and will be quite inefficient.

With a car, it gets even worse. The car has to carry itself, and when the motor is set for your maximum power needs, it will be quite heavy. And this means that more power will be needed to carry both the rest of the car plus the engine. A hybrid or an electric vehicle has a much lighter engine. Even a hybrid will be lighter than an ordinary car because its engine is smaller – it will be built to provide the average power needed.  The battery will provide the necessary boost to power at times, but the rest of the time, the battery will be loading up, and the car will run using a lot less power. And since the engine of a hybrid will continue running at a steady speed, it will be quite efficient – any extra electricity produced will simply be stored. And using the engine always at its most efficient means that there will be less soot output due to unburned gasoline.

And then, there is the regenerative braking which only hybrids and EVs have. When you brake, using a normal car, the kinetic energy is merely turned to heat. When braking with a hybrid or EV, the kinetic energy is stored as electricity, which you could use later.

From Gasoline to Coal?
With regards to the accusation that we will be mainly using electricity from coal to run EVs, well he has more of a point. But the objection here is that this is quite a static way of looking at things.

The first wave of EV owners will not overload electricity systems, they will merely “level it out”. They will mostly recharge their cars at night, when the rest of the grid doesn’t use too much electricity; thus, they will not cause the electricity utility to build new capacity just yet. However, as time goes on and there are more EVs, then daytime electricity will be used more often, with people recharging at work or while shopping. This will be the time when extra generating capacity will be needed. But then, the question will be: what will be the source for this new electricity? Well, chances are it will not be coal. It will most likely be something like a natural gas or fuel oil plant, which are faster to set up, and with less delays due to environmental hassles.

Grid electricity is a combination from all kinds of sources: from solar and wind, to hydro, nuclear, geothermal, natural gas, fuel oil, and then coal. The question is not whether an individual EV will use up more coal or alternative energy.  But rather if the coming of EVs in general will lead to more coal plants or to more wind, solar, hydro or geothermal plants. I think the latter will be true.

And then there’s the battery which EVs use are also used for solar installations. It’s the same technology. This means that as EVs get manufactured in scale, the price of batteries will go down, and that lower price will affect both the price of cars and the price of solar power. Thus, EVs will indirectly cause the price of solar electricity to go down. And of course, lower prices for solar power will mean that more people will install solar panels.

And there is also the matter of having a smart grid. By smart grid, I mean having software and regulators that optimize the flow of electricity, that is capable of delaying some uses when there are peaks, that is capable of storing excess capacity when needed.  An economy with many EVs will really need a smart grid to cope with the varying loads caused by the charging of autos. The same smart grid will also be needed to handle alternative energy – where the variability will not only be on the use of electricity, but also on its generation. This is the same technology, which I suspect will be put in place first to handle EVs, but which will serve both EVs and alternative energy management.

EVs in use in Europe can be set to only use “clean energy”.  Here, consumers have a choice of electricity suppliers. I expect that buyers of EVs will also choose to tap electricity that is “green”, for their household use. Since most EVs will probably be charged at home (at the beginning, at least), this means that most EVs will be running on green electricity also from the beginning. Of course, in the US or in developing countries, you may not have the chance to choose for green electricity. But perhaps this is something that your electricity net should also do.

EVs will promote and stimulate the growth of alternative energy. We won’t see this right away, or in such a dramatic way, but it will happen. Look from it from another way: how else will society shift from “dirty” gasoline to alternatives, except through EVs? It will happen, and that is going to be good for the environment.

Posted in electric car, electricity, solar, solar energy, World Affairs | Tagged: , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »