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Thursday, May 5, 2016

Alternative energy options well out of reach, expert claims

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Energy specialist Bob Schultheis told the Barry County Soils and Crops Conference audience that real options for saving fuel were so far off the best approach available was to weatherproof one's hom, rather than look for different power sources. [Times Photo by Murray Bishoff]
Energy alternatives to using tra¬ditional petroleum products may sound appealing, but many of these "green" options are not yet avail¬able as a practical solution. How far alternative energy has yet to go was detailed by Bob Schultheis, a natural resources engineer from Marshfield, at the 80th annual Barry County Soils and Crops Conference, held recently at the Butterfield Community Building.

Despite all the talk about renewable energy, Schultheis displayed a graph from the Energy Information Administration showing renewable energy only made up 7 per¬cent of energy consumption in 2007. Petroleum still represents 40 percent of the total, with natural gas at 23 percent and coal at 22 percent.

Almost half of all energy imports come from the Western Hemisphere, and only 18 percent from the Persian Gulf, making the arguments about Mideast oil overblown, Schultheis said. The best solution to the oil import crisis is "to slow down 10 miles per hour. That would save 20 percent of the fuel," according to calculations from fueleconomy.gov.

As for ethanol, Schultheis showed the gasoline alternative represents no more than 8 per¬cent of the total fuel used in vehi¬cles. Gasoline usage has risen steadily almost every year since 1991 until last year, when high prices contributed to a drop of around six billion gallons, accord¬ing to the Energy Information Administration.

Home heating results vary ac¬cording to the heating method. Schultheis showed a formula that calculates the price of a standard heating unit. Electricity and propane cost about the same to generate one standard heating unit, or about 100,000 BTUs of heat. However, electricity systems run at from 100 to 280 percent efficient, while propane runs at 80 percent efficient at best. Kerosene runs at 85 percent efficiency, but costs more. Corn stoves can run at 80 percent efficiency. Natural gas and coal run at around 65 percent.

Real heating alternatives are still out of reach, Schultheis argued. "There's snake oil salesmen ev¬erywhere," he said. Infrared heaters have been pitched as able to save up to 50 percent of the heating bill. A basic electric heater, however, can produce the same amount of heat at one-10th of the cost of the equipment.

Wind power challenges

Wind power faces a variety of challenges, Schultheis continued. The biggest problem is intermittent results. The average wind speed in Missouri is 11 miles per hour, the minimum steady amount needed to consistently get electricity from wind generators. Missouri ranks 20th in the nation for wind energy potential, the best source located in northwest Missouri.

A 1.5-megawatt wind turbine-costs up to $3 million to build, us¬ing nine semi-loads of steel that have to be assembled like an Erector Set. Such a turbine needs a 17-foot base and a height of 260 feet. Maximum electricity produc¬tion comes when the wind is around 30 miles-per-hour. Turbines shut down at around 50 miles-per-hour.

One $3 million turbine can pro¬vide enough power for 1,200 homes per year. The infrastructure for transporting that power great distances is largely not there yet, Schultheis said. Barry County resi¬dents could construct household windmills with a 23-foot diameter blade. In a day's time with an 11-mile-per-hour wind, such a unit could generate about 1,110 watts.

"That's about what a toaster uses, or a hair drier on medium speed," Schultheis added.

Putting in a home scale windmill would cost from $39,000 to $57,000 in installation costs, plus cost about $2,000 more per year to maintain the equipment, just for enough power to run a toaster. If a system could be made that justified hooking it into the commercial power grid, Schultheis said the Missouri Public Service Commission requires owners of such units to carry $100,000 in lia¬bility insurance, further discourag¬ing involvement.

Solar power, biomass challenges

Solar heat is even further out of reach. Schultheis said there are two different types of solar systems available. On the panel system, if one breaks in a hail storm, the en¬tire operation shuts down. On the tube system, a broken tube will not affect the remaining ones.

Solar panels on a home scale produce up to 15 watts per square foot of panel area. At a cost of $60 to $180 per square foot, Schultheis cal¬culated panels would produce from 34 to 51 watts of power, or enough to run three compact flo¬rescent light bulbs.

While Missouri has a quantity of biomass materials available, Schultheis figured it would take 320 fuel plants converting cellu¬lostic materials, each producing 50 million gallons of fuel, to meet the federal mandate of 16 billion gal¬lons of fuel by the year 2012. At the present time, not a single con¬version plant exists in Missouri.

The average southwest Missouri farm is 240 acres. Just storing 120 acres worth of switchgrass to con¬vert it into ethanol would require barns to house 4.5 tons of crop, a realistic yield for an area farm, Schultheis said. A barn to hold that much grass would cost $67,200 to build, and it would take 36 semi-loads to haul it to a plant. The load from one farm could produce 54,000 gallons of ethanol, com¬pared to the annual American con¬sumption of gasoline at 140 billion gallons.

Further complicating the renew¬able energy strategy is the cost of fertilizer to produce the crop. Schultheis said most of the nitro¬gen used by American farmers comes from Russian, Trinidad and Tobago, produced from foreign oil and natural gas. Putting more marginal land into corn production encourages erosion. It takes 3.5 gallons of water to make one gallon of ethanol. At best, Schultheis said one unit of fossil energy is needed to make 1.5 units of fuel energy through ethanol.

Other complications include the corrosive qualities ethanol has on pipelines and small engines. Biodiesel creates significant quanti¬ties of glycerin, which has no use or safe disposal strategy. Biodiesel also presents serious storage chal¬lenges.

Ways to save

The best thing homeowners can do to save energy, according to Schultheis, is change to florescent lights and wrap all the joints for heating ducts in the house with in¬expensive foil duct tape. Both can give a 40 percent return in savings. He advised getting foam sealant from the hardware store to plug gaps in foundation joints. Upgrading to more energy efficient appliances like washers and refrig¬erators can bring significant sav¬ings.

Schultheis saw greater potential in renewable energy from geo-thermal sources, or getting electric¬ity out of wave activity in the ocean, than approaches being dis¬cussed. He thought common hy¬drogen use was years in the future, and better for stationary buildings than automobiles.

"We've used all the cheap en¬ergy and all the inexpensive op¬tions," Schultheis added/ "We're going to have a mot of a lot of energy types in the future. What works in California is not working here."

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