Sustainable Energy – Another Budget to Balance

There is a terrific book to recommend to all the readers of the Blog – Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air.  The author does a complete (that both understandable and believable) energy analysis for the UK.  The overall conclusion is that becoming completely self sustaining is very challenging and impossible without nuclear (now even more challenging post Japan tsunami) and without buying renewable produced energy from solar generated in North Africa.

I suspect that pretty soon every group of people that think of themselves having a political or economic self identity will have to go through this same analysis.  And many will find the answer that it is very tough or impossible without changing dramatically how we live or expanding our sphere of this group.  Let’s look for a bit why this is.

I have built green homes in both Indiana and California.

The California home has an energy surplus and is considered very green by any standards.  We even include rain water collection.  The house in Tiburon shows a surplus of electricity of about 3000 KW-hrs per year.  We use about 0.3 therms of natural gas and  100 gallons of water per day.  Having a “green home” is relatively easy in Tiburon, CA.  The weather is never very hot or very cold and it is very sunny perhaps 7 months of the year!

The home in Indiana has somewhat similar solar PV power but has much more solar thermal.  I did this to try and really make a difference in the heating bills for the winter.  But in fact doing that is really hard.  Indiana is not as sunny as California throughout the entire year.  In the winter it is much colder and in the summer it is hotter than Tiburon and has much more humidity.  All of this makes the load larger in every season.

According to 3Tier – FirstLook solar maps the Tiburon house receives about 2x as much usable solar PV radiation than the Indiana home.  That’s a huge difference.  The same reasoning works for solar thermal and unfortunately when you check the maps relating to wind you find a similar answer.  Indiana just does not have much renewable sources of energy.

Finally, if you look into other more exotic forms of renewable energy, Indiana also loses.  California has fault lines (and earthquakes) and along these fault lines are the best sites for geothermal energy.  California has mountains where snow accumulates in the winter and slowly thaws for much of the summer and this enables good hydropower sites.  Indiana is relatively flat.

So when you read statistics like – Indiana ranks 2nd worst in the USA in terms of “Green” score. It makes sense that the hoosier state uses lots of coal to produce its energy!  And it also makes sense when you read that California will get more than 30% of its energy from renewable resources by 2020.  California is renewable resource rich and Indiana is not.

As the author of “Sustainable Energy” found, the same facts apply to the UK, except they have abundant wind resources.  But very little sun (no surprise) and little hydro.

How can this gap be closed for the UK or IN if we must displace burning carbon compounds to CO2 with something that is sustainable?  The most obvious is to move to nuclear, but I believe this will be most difficult for some time due to the tragedy in Japan.  Next alternative is to use energy that is sustainably produced from another region; this will tend to impoverish the region that must constantly import to survive.

So barring some magical invention not known today, both the UK and IN are left with no good alternatives.   Where as California has many.

Other ideas?  Submit them to Small World Group and we will turn them in to funded Clean Tech companies!



Posted in Essays, Green Perspectives

  1. Michael M. Hay says:

    I enjoy reading your posts. I think building small and super insulating is one path for Hoosiers to take to lesson the load.

    Some Hoosiers still have the mentality that bigger is better. There are also many homes across the state that are very poorly insulated.

    Reducing home energy use would be a practical and rewarding (utility bills) good first step for Hoosiers. The next steps may be more difficult.

  2. Bracken Fields says:


    Living in Indiana and being interested in alternative energy I am constantly looking for new solutions. I wanted to get your thoughts on Plasma Arc Gasification as a means of creating Syngas and heat to make steam. It looks cool but I wonder if there is a net gain. What are your thoughs?

    Thank you,
    Bracken Fields

    • Frank says:

      Hi Bracken – I tend to favor simpler solutions and the plasma technology you mention is pretty advanced in terms of complexity and not yet widely deployed, proven and therefore not certain to be long term successful. Sorry to be negative.

  3. Bracken Fields says:

    Hey Frank,

    Thanks! That’s what I wanted to hear, in the limited amount of research I did this weekend, all I read amounted to roses and lollipops. It seemed to me the energy required to get something to 10000 degrees F would be less than what you are getting out, not to mention extremely expensive.

    Best regards
    Bracken Fields

  4. Samir says:

    “…becoming completely self sustaining is very challenging and impossible without nuclear (now even more challenging post Japan tsunami) and without buying renewable produced energy from solar generated in North Africa.”

    I tend to agree with this.

    In the short term, the German government thinks they can become sustainable (not necessarily the same as self-sustaining) without nuclear. Is this just a political ploy or are they renewable resource rich in a way that is not immediately obvious to the rest of us?

    • Frank says:

      Samir – Of all the known renewable energy sources (wind, solar, geothermal, hydro, biomass … ), Germany has exploited what they have pretty well. There may be things we “don’t know of yet” but baring those, they are stuck and will have to reverse their decision at some point.

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