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November 2009

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Or the CR5. It takes CO2 and converts it to a liquid hydrocarbon fuel that will burn in any petroleum engine by using the power of sunlight to add heat to a chemical process that strips away one oxygen molecule, turning CO2 into CO.
The only catch that should be mentioned right off the bat is that when that new carbon monoxide based liquid fuel is combusted, CO2 is released again. But as long as there is always a way to sequester the emission, sunlight and a CR5 type device available at the sequestration point could make conceivably create an infinitely recyclable loop (with a single digit efficiency perhaps). The first application would be to use it on the huge CO2 polluting power plants.

It is all very far off and theoretical for now with the horizon for marketability beyond 20 years. But one of the comments notes that the aviation industry may be able to make use of this type of thing around 2040 as a transition tool as the rest of the world has moved to a clean electric economy but while it is still not yet feasible to fly commercially sans combustion.

It is basically a very fancy and complex artificial photosynthesis machine. Some forms of microbial photosynthesis also create CO as the first stage to carbohydrate production.

Inhabitat, Psyorg, Technology Review, Gas2.0, Popular Science



Sustainable Neighborhood Auxiliary Power

download full report here

The year is 2018 and recent legislative measures and the finishing of the smart grid infrastructure have made it possible for renewable energy companies to compete fairly with nonrenewables in the marketplace. As a result a number of companies have blossomed quickly in the past two years. The most popular of these has been S.N.A.P. which stands for Sustainable Neighborhood Auxiliary Power. The great thing about S.N.A.P. is not just that they are a single point turnkey solution source, but that they allow users to pay for the clean energy over time rather than in one large up front lump sum.

Every neighborhood has enough existing space to accommodate a S.N.A.P. installation. The 30 home install takes up the same area as a single family house lot. And every developer and planner is now making allowance for the S.N.A.P. lots into their layouts. The S.N.A.P. lots function to provide renewable energy to thirty houses and serve as charging stations for 9 electric vehicles at a time. With an integrated flywheel and compressed air storage area at the back of the installation, the power is available both day and night without the use of toxic batteries. The S.N.A.P. lots function also as open air community areas for people to gather and/or as community garden areas.

The most amazing thing about S.N.A.P. is that it arrives in one or two zero-emissions trucks and is installed in one or two days. S.N.A.P. can either come out beforehand to place the foundations or the developer can have them ready per S.N.A.P.’s specifications.

And the owners of the S.N.A.P. installation pay nothing up front. The greatest thing is that S.N.A.P. functions as a sort of energy company. The cost of the equipment and installation is amortized over a 30 year period with the end user seeing a bill each month that is roughly equivalent to the bill that they used to receive from their traditional fossil fuel burning energy company.

The sculptural form of the S.N.A.P. lot installation is a consequence of its 3 source combinatory system. The position of the two armature devices (solar CPV and horizontal wind turbine) are rotated around the central column to maximize their efficiencies based on local climate data. People love to sit and watch the system in action, especially the way the heliostatic CPV panels move to follow the position of the sun. You can almost keep time with them.

Existing communities around the world are getting together in cooperatives to purchase vacant lots in their neighborhoods. With each household only going in for 1/30th of the price, it usually runs around $2,000 each for the up-front cost of the lot. Once the lot is purchased, S.N.A.P. does the rest. The approximately $1 million dollar up front cost of the installation is paid back to S.N.A.P. over 30 years by each household through a $100 per month bill which includes a maintenance plan. The cooperative meets twice a year at the site to make decisions pertaining to usage and to add and remove households to and from the
distribution group.

The S.N.A.P. systems rely on concentrated photovoltaic (CPV) heliostatic panels approximately 4 meters on each side. These panels follow the position of the sun to maximize energy production. The face of the panels is an array of Fresnel lenses that concentrate the energy of the sun on very small 2cm square CPV chips with an efficiency of 40%. A typical installation has three of these with a combined output capacity of 20KW. Adjacent to these and on the same mounting column are two wind energy turbines, one vertical axis (VAWT) and one horizontal axis (HAWT). The HAWT are rated at 12Kw each and the VAWT are rated at 8Kw each with a total wind capacity output (for a typical three-column installation) of 60Kw. That amounts to a combined total of 80Kw capacity for complete dual-energy three-column installation. With each household typically consuming 2.5Kw peak demand load, this comes to 32 houses. With the expected draw from vehicle charging, S.N.A.P. advertises this system at 30 houses. Of course with energy conservation and smart appliances this could conceivably double.

This past year office buildings have started to get into the action as well with the announcement of S.N.A.P. commercial. It is a scalable system that can be installed easily between mid- or high-rise buildings in any downtown. The most popular application takes advantage of the natural wind tunnel effects of large buildings. Other systems install arrays of heliostatic CPV panels on roof tops with “growing roof” planter bins underneath. One system even places solar power towers on the top of existing buildings.

In a typical three-column wide installation between two buildings, each tier of equipment can run 3,000 m2 of office space (or 32,000 ft2) based on a per m2 load average of 25watts per m2. That’s the equivalent of a large downtown office building floor plate. Again, S.N.A.P. provides the up front cost and charges building owners a per month fee for service. Participating companies renting space in the building can choose to have their energy supplied directly from the S.N.A.P. renewable units or continue to pay their bills to the traditional energy company. Building owners are having a hard time keeping up with demand and it seems like it won’t be long until almost every building has a S.N.A.P. commercial installation running up its side.

A between-building installation has a number of advantages over a large-scale turbine in the open landscape. The natural wind tunneling effect of the buildings creates a higher velocity of air for the turbines which are in the 10-20Kw capacity range each. These smaller turbines are more able to function under extreme wind speeds and can generate far more than their rated capacity at peak operation on very windy days. The installation is designed for each street width to ensure that no moving parts are within reach from windows.

The location between buildings also allows the moving parts to be easily protected from flying animals by an array of very thin horizontal tension bands spaced at 15cm on center. S.N.A.P. has found that this spacing creates the exact visual barrier to birds and bats keeping them from flying near the system. And the thin ribbon profile of the bands allows the wind to flow through uninterrupted. The protection lines are pretty much invisible even from the ground directly below. They have been rendered in the image to the right for illustration purposes.

Cleaning and maintenance is no more difficult than it is for any building. With a permanent davit arm apparatus at the top of every S.N.A.P. system, a crew needs only to access the catwalk from the low adjacent roof and descend in a standard two person gondola to either side. For the occasion, the heliostatic panels are placed in a vertical position and all wind blades are locked. Gondola path is inside the tension cable boundary on the wind propeller side and outside of it on the CPV side.



Today in the United States, there is no real incentive for conservation other than the collective moral imperative which undoubtedly falls short. What this exercise is meant to show is that we need to have more creative thinking behind how revenue is generated. Can tax policy be progressive at the same time that it incentivizes energy conservation? What follows is a very simple approach that would be one way of addressing at the same time both income disparity and energy conservation.

The breakdown of fiscal year 2008 tax revenue is as follows:

  • Corporate ($300 billion)
  • Individual ($1,059 billion)
  • Employment ($877 billion)
  • Estate/Gift ($28 billion)
  • Excise ($49 billion)
    • Total (2,300 billion)

The only part of the above breakdown that this study is focused on is the $1,059 billion in individual tax revenues. Everything else would remain unchanged.


The first step in the plan is to take away the income tax entirely for 99% of the population. Currently the cut-off for membership in the top 1% of income earners is approximately $400,000 per year. The average income for that group of privileged 1,683,000 households is one million dollars per year. Currently, they are taxed at 38% of adjusted gross income and I propose that we actually reduce that rate to 30%. How can they argue with that? This will net $510 billion in revenue or about half of what is required to equal the total individual tax revenue amount.


The second step is to implement a tax on excess household energy consumption. The first 80 million btu per year that a household consumes are free of taxation. Currently 28% of households get by on that amount of usage or less. They tend also to be households of lower income. The implementation of a small $0.20 per 1000 btu tax on the usage above 80 million per household will net $330 billion in revenue.


The third step is to apply the incentive at the source of the consumer goods production. The greatest energy consumption comes from the manufacturing sector which consumes twice the amount of btus per year (22.6 quadrillion) as does total residential use (10.6 quadrillion). By dividing the 22.6 quad total consumption by the total square feet of enclosed manufacturing space, you can deduce that the average btu per square foot of manufacturing space is 2.13 million btu per square foot. I propose that the first 2 million btu per square foot be free from taxation and that facilities that require more are taxed at $0.25 for each 1000 btu above 2 million. Of course this added cost of production would be passed right along to the consumer down the chain of production. But this is OK, because if you remember, our consumer population has a lot more dispensable income now that they are not paying income taxes. This part of the plan will net (based on current statistics) $345 billion.

So the total revenue is:
(Step 1) $510 billion + (Step 2) $330 billion + (Step 3) $345 billion = $1,185 billion
(126 billion more than required – which can go to renewable energy investment)

Of course as behavior changes as a result of incentives, the thresholds for energy use would have to go down or the rate taxed per 1000 btu would have to go up. But that would be great because it would mean that the plan is working. Wouldn’t it be great to have to send in copies of your yearly energy bills along with your 1040 every year? The tax forms would remain similar, but there would be new lines to accommodate the energy use figures. And 99% of filers would get to skip the actual income tax portion and go straight to the energy tax portion.

As a case study, let’s assume that you make $55,000 per year and your household consumes 100 million btu per year (add your natural gas which comes in btu already to your electricity which comes in KWh and would have to be converted by multiply x 3,412). At present, you would be paying roughly $10,000 in federal income taxes and you’re already paying $1,600 per year for your household energy needs. The amount you pay for your energy would not change, but when tax day comes around you would have to pay an additional $0.20 for every 1000 btu that you consumed about 80 million (20,000 x $0.20 = $4,000). You would have saved $6,000 that year.

The real bulk of the taxes will be on the largest household energy consumers and those who choose to purchase goods with high embedded energy costs. But they will still not likely see an insurmountable increase except for the most egregious of energy consumers, and it’s really their choice to make…

click on image for larger size. Click here to download a full resolution pdf
What the graphic shows clearly is that planting trees to offset emissions is far from a viable solution. Projects that offset carbon emissions are certainly beneficial and should be applauded. Every step in the right direction is a good one and we should all be supporting these efforts on a personal and corporate level. However, no amount of reforestation or avoided deforestation will have an effect on the overall situation. The numbers that I used are based on United Nations statistics and are located here. You’ll notice interestingly they do not include carbon emissions from deforestation but only from human fossil fuel combustion. For each country, the number of tons per year was used in the following equation to arrive at the square km area for that country:

Country’s Annual Carbon Emissions in Tons x 100 trees per ton x 8 square meters per tree x 10[-6] conversion = area in square kilometers

The figure of 100 trees to offset each ton of carbon emissions is the most critical and yet most uncertain of the variables. The complicating factors can be understood by seeing this and this and this just to pick a few. My reasoning is that I have seen figures that range from 40-80 trees per ton per year and I’ve seen suggestions that each tree can absorb 1 ton of carbon over its lifetime. It depends greatly on the species and the latitude in which they are planted (trees nearer the equator are more efficient at carbon uptake on average). Assuming that the trees are planted as large saplings, they will take time to reach their full potential, so for the purposes of this overview, an average of 100 trees per ton per year seemed like a good average.
It is interesting to compare this graphic with the similar graphic of the surface area required to fuel the world with solar power.
As the world prepares for Copenhagen on December 7th, we should all get it clear in our heads that the magnitude of the problem is such that we can not hope for easy solutions. What is required is a massive and centralized effort if we are to meet the 2°C maximum target. This article in Science Daily is a good read.

The study also shows that, if all conservatively estimated available fossil fuels were to be burnt, two to three times more CO2 than allowed for the 2°C target would be emitted. This only takes into account the fuels which are already known and which are economically viable to extract. The fossil fuels will therefore not run out before the maximum CO2 emission calculated by scientists is reached. If we continue to use them, this must take place in combination with effective technologies which capture the CO2 and extract it from the atmosphere.


A ton of CO2

Yes it is a gas but it still has weight. Via Energy Race we can see the work of Dave Ames, from Cohasset, Massachusetts (photo via). He and his students constructed a large cubic volume (27m on a side) that shows what a ton of CO2 gas looks like if it were pure and in a gaseous state. Just like any other gas, if cooled sufficiently, it would solidify and be easier to measure. It would also then condense in the space that it occupied. Picture a ton of water. The same could be heated into steam which is still H20 but just as difficult then to picture as CO2 is at earth’s natural temperatures. Some better explanations can be seen here and here.
This 540 cubic meters of volume of a ton of CO2 represents an average of 15 days for every person living in countries of high per capita emissions. The whole world makes 27 billion of these cubes worth every year through human activity. It equals about 3000km of driving in your car, depending on the fuel efficiency. Of course the problem is that it doesn’t stay in the cube. It mixes with the atmosphere, constantly raising the ppm (parts per million) of CO2 in the overall mix. That number is at 387 ppm as of March 2009. We’ve raised the ppm by 35% since the beginning of the industrial age.

Every year we are collectively adding 10% more to the atmosphere than would be occurring by natural causes (animals, volcanoes, wildfires) which means that the balance has been shifted. The natural CO2 sinks (plants and oceans) can not keep the equilibrium. The excess that is being taken in by the oceans (about 1/3 of the anthropogenic CO2) is lowering the alkalinity of the water (acidification) with serious effect on marine habitats. But what is worse, as ocean temperatures rise, the ability of the water to take in CO2 diminishes, thus leading to a spike in atmospheric levels – a negative feedback loop.
This great site give a lot more information on numbers. For example, each year, the fossil fuel powered electrical generation in the United States creates 6.4 billion of these tons. And each US household’s portion of that electricity use comes to 9.4 tons per house.

If you really wanted to sequester your carbon, you should plant 100 green leafy trees (birch, maple) for EACH ton of CO2 you emit every year. So if you are in the United States, you would have to plant 2,400 trees in your lifetime. Some trees in the tropics can sink carbon at a rate of 40 trees per ton but it is impossible to place an exact number on tons per tree since there are too many variables (soil, sunlight, species, maturity, etc.). 100 trees per ton is a safer bet if you want to be sure. Obviously, every American is not going to plant 2,400 trees (who has 5 empty acres?), so let’s get real about modifying our behavior (individually and collectively) instead. Carbon offset programs that fund reforestation efforts are positive, but will never even come close to scratching the surface of the problem. Five acres of trees per American equals 1,500,000,000 acres – 1.5 billion acres. That’s 6,070,284 square kilometers. That’s 60% of the entire country (and far less area than would be required to fuel the entire world with solar power).


via Ecoart Blog.

A beautifully crafted and humorous piece that stimulates ideas of the potential energy inherent in our everyday machines. Of course this works off of the idea of embodied energy in the last post. It is fascinating that the physical structure of the wood grains at a microscopic level provides the elastic memory that allows the slinky action of the coil to function, and that physical structure is the embodied energy utilized during the creation of the complex cellulose from the energy of sunlight. The electricity used to run the escalator continuously for our hyper-convenience is also (sadly) taken from that same process, only from trees that died millions of years ago and the cellulose of which was compressed into anthracite coal.



Via ecoartspace on facebook, I came across the Emergy project by Maria Michails (TreiaStudios). From the project website:

Emergy is an interactive installation art project bridging sculpture, performance, media arts, architecture, mechanical and electrical engineering. At the nucleus of the installation is a 9ft mechanized rowboat that will generate electricity to power lights in the gallery. The project investigates romantic attachments to traditional notions of technology, production and land use. The created environment examines energy and water consumption in an urban desert environment by contrasting human consumption with human expenditure. Raising awareness through embodied experience, the visitor will come to know what it takes to create energy that powers our world.

The concept of emergy is one that should be well considered in the designing of energy generating installation art in the landscape. In summary it is the energy used in the creation of an object and that is therefore “embodied” in that object. Everything has “emergy”. Natural biological objects have embodied energy from the sun stored in complex carbohydrates and other chemistries. Manufactured goods have that same natural embodied energy but in a more complicated cycle. The fossil fuels burned for the sake of production have their millions-of-years-old beginnings in that same sunlight. Even seemingly inert bedrock has embodied energy from the cosmological forces unleashed at the creation of the universe. This is most apparent in the core of the planet which burns as an ember from that alpha-energy still.

But what is most important to the sustainability of our planet is to understand non-renewable emergy. It is the manufactured objects of human creation that uniquely embody this type of energy. If we are to strike a balance in a post-fossil world we must learn how to pay back the debt of this non-renewable emergy on every object that we use in our daily lives.

The only way that an object manufactured by human hands and fossil-fueled electricity can ever pay back the debt of its embodied non-renewable energy is to utilize some part of itself to harness the renewable energy of the sun (either directly, or through wind and waves) and place back into the grid of production a clean energy for an extended duration until that new energy is equal in quantity to that which was used in its production. It must count all of the joules of energy embodied in all of the other non-renewable objects that were combusted or exhausted during the course of its production and the transportation of itself and of its byproducts and waste. If the object’s purpose is incompatible with this, then the object must ideally be infinitely reusable and/or recyclable so that its embodied energy can more easily be offset by renewable energy systems that have already paid off their own embodied energy debt. At some point, the object is also then “emergy debt free” and by continuing in its recycled life at that point lives on as an object with a zero-impact on the overall balance of the planet.


There have been some detractors to the idea that we can fuel the world entirely with solar energy by 2030. It seems to me from the numbers that this is possible and it’s important that we all recognize that it is possible because we don’t have the luxury of time. There has been some confusion with regard to the 1000 watts per square meter value. Some question this, using figures that they find of 250 watts per square meter. But this lower figure is the average for an entire day. 1000 watts is the measurable value at any one time in direct sunlight which has fallen from 1,366 watts at the outer atmosphere. This entry clears this confusion up if you read it carefully. By using 1000 watts and multiplying this times the hours per year of direct light, we don’t rely on daily averages and arrive at a more reliable figure.

In the map showing the surface area required to do this, I used conservative figures (20% conversion efficiency and 70% cloudless sky). Recent advances by companies like Sharp have achieved 35.8% efficiency in a photovoltaic cell. CPV technology like that from Sunrgi achieves 37.5% by concentrating light and these are not just laboratory numbers; Sunrgi is in production. And remember that it is still 2009. By the year 2030, if we are as focused on solar energy as we have been on computer transistors in the recent past, then some modified version of Moore’s Law will undoubtedly be applicable to the efficiencies of solar energy conversion.

Since 1970 that law has held true in computing that the number of transistors that can be placed inexpensively on an integrated circuit has risen by 200% approximately every two years. If we look back at the history of PV technology, we see that the efficiencies were raised 200% between 1957 and 1960 as a result of the investment in space exploration which requires solar power as the only possible source of long-term energy for satellites and exploration devices. And again we see a 200% increase from that time to the present. If we are able to achieve one more 200% increase between now and 2030, then that means efficiencies of between 50% and 60%. Unless we completely give up (and all evidence points to the fact that more research than ever is going into PV technology), then this is almost an inevitability.

So going back to the numbers on the surface area required, it would be safe to say that a more realistic assessment of the state of technology by the year 2030 would see the square meter number reduced by half. Of course we need to start constructing solar power plants today at the 20%-30% technology and phase in new technologies as they come to the market. But the 2030 number was based on a projection of how much energy will be used in 2030, so the growth both of technology and of BTU consumption worldwide can be seen as happening together.


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