Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Wind Power Storage

As more and more wind turbines begin to dot the countryside, particularly here in my area of Central Iowa, the debate intensifies between those that see wind energy as one of the most convenient and cost-effective power generations of our time and those who see it as a nuisance that clutters the sky and provides no real benefits.
I see the debate now as shifting as most accept that wind energy can and should be a part of our future power generation needs. Now people want to know how we make the technology small, more powerful, and more responsive to human needs. Groups working at NREL, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, in Colorado are working towards making windmills much smaller but still capable of producing electricity comparable to their larger cousins -- this could allow 'back-yard' wind generation to occur in residential neighborhoods. But perhaps the greatest obstacle to overcome for wind, and the reason that I am still not totally sold on the whole idea, is the problem of storage.
Since electricity is impossible to store in quantifies large enough to sustain a city, many people balked at New York's Mayor Bloomberg's announcement that the city should install windmills all over -- on buildings, bridges, and off the coasts. But how was New York going to be able to power itself during hot, stagnant days when no wind is available? This problem would necessitate New York to build an equal electrical capacity in coal or nuclear power plants no matter how many windmills were put up in order to provide for the times when wind power would not keep up.
While the problem is a long way from being solved, a New Jersey company has an interesting solution -- store the power as compressed air during the night or during high-wind periods so that the stored energy could be used at other times. The idea is interesting but implementation will be hard to come about since the group working on the project estimate that it would take an underground container full of compressed air the size of New York's Giant's Stadium in order to provide 300megawatts of power -- only enough to power a large hospital for 300 hours. Still, I like the idea and that innovations are being considered. After this companies announcement, however, wind energy proponents pointed out that a DOE report indicated that 20% of our power could come from wind by 2030 without the need for electrical storage.... I guess we will just have to wait and see.

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Monday, August 25, 2008

Bacteria Boost Efficiency

A group at Washington University in St. Louis have managed to use bacteria to break-down unusable portions of the ethanol process in order to make methane. With this extra methane, the researchers are able to provide a readily usable fuel to power the ethanol making process, thereby increasing the efficiency. While only in the laboratory stages, the researchers hope that the process will scale up to the size of commercial ethanol plants. The numbers from their tests prove promising -- they are able to cut the natural gas/coal usage for the ethanol process by 50% when using this technology. Since natural gas accounts for approximately 60% of the process energy needed to produce ethanol, this could mean that the new technology would increase corn-ethanol's energy efficiency from plus 20% to up to plus 70%! This would be an emphatic jump and would contribute to the short term benefits of retrofitting current ethanol plants, which is the goal of these researchers. If the numbers hold up, this might be a great energy and cost-effective patch to put on current ethanol plants, minus the obvious need for initial capital to build another bacterial reactor and the needed infrastructure to capture the methane.

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