Alternative Energy? It’s not always rocket science.

Alternative sources of energy: is it too complex, too ‘out there’ to even contemplate? Worse, is pursuit of glamour and glitz getting the go-ahead while the practical gets pushed aside?

Sure, wind farms look good, so long as the wind blows steadily. Solar has promise, too. But. There could well be more practical alternatives right under our very feet. Two examples- one to do with life down on the farm, and then, let’s head up to the big city.

If you have ever had the pleasure of staying over in a bed and breakfast; next to a feedlot (or even driven by a feed lot at 80 miles an hour on the interstate), you know that the stench of manure is nothing to sniff at. Yet, this vapor, rich in methane gas, can, with the help of an anaerobic manure digester, be transformed into energy.

In addition to producing energy, an anaerobic manure digester improves hygiene of the farm, reducing odor, fly problems and the like. It provides animal bedding, and creates a fertilizer rich in nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Incidentally, if you scoff at the existence of ‘odor free methane gas,’ methane is key ingredient in natural gas.  Thank you, Sierra Club for this tip. See: Sierra Club Magazine/March-April 2012.

Oh and hey kids, build your ‘AMD’ right here: USDA guidance Perhaps some kind of loan funding could help the farming community in this transition.

Now on to the city. Performance Contracting is where energy costs can be markedly reduced. We are all becoming familiar with this process. As old furnaces die, more efficient furnaces are going on line. Better insulation, lower-cost-to-operate lights, and more fuel efficient cars with a longer service life are also examples of this trend.

A little more complex, but with the implementation of smart electrical grids, rates for energy usage can be demand based. Power plants are currently being built to meet peak demand times- i.e. extreme weather, hot or cold. But if some activities can be time-shifted to lower demand times, it may become cost-effective for rate payers to shift their demand and the electric utility to offer a reduced rate to encourage users to do so, thus changing consumption patterns and leveling demand throughout the day.

On a larger scale, here are other examples of more energy-efficient practices: An office building in Okinawa freezes a water reservoir at night, to provide cool air-conditioning by day.  In Zimbabwe, the Eastgate Centre uses a design inspired by African termites to markedly reduce AC and heating costs.

We are definitely in for a very interesting next 10-20 years. Will algal oil ever become practical? Why pump primordial ooze out of the ground that began fermenting way back in the Paleozoic Era and it often only accessible in dangerous, difficult and inconvenient places. Instead, we we can brew our own…

What’s next, brave new worlders? Solar panels in space, with power microwaved to earth stations?  Gigawatt megapolis sized batteries…The only limit is in the imaginative genius of our scientists and engineers and the support of our citizenry.