Finding Energy Where You Need It
The other day my friend Steve Darnley in "that other Portland" (i.e., Maine) sent me a link to an article about changes in his office building. He has sent me photos of the office before, because it's in a cool old converted mill. But now it's even cooler, because the new owners are taking advantage of the building's siting and construction to generate hydro-power, of which "a bit more than half goes to the grid, the remaining to the tenants." (Portland Press-Herald, 4 Jan 2008) It's as if high energy prices and greater awareness of consumption led to a realization of why that building was sited there in the first place!
Getting power locally, an alternative to relying on generic fuels shipped from far away, requires paying attention to the special qualities of a place. I'm seeing more and more examples of this as I read energy-related news. In some places, it's obvious: solar power in North Africa and the Southwestern United States. Offshore wind where ships once sailed: in the Great Lakes and off the California coast. But in others, it takes a little more consideration about what's there and what's going to waste. For example: a less-obvious source of windpower is our highways, where traffic creates constant breezes.
There's a principle in permaculture that "pollution is energy in the wrong place." It may be that the most profitable places to look are the places where we might otherwise just see a useless by-product of human activities. (I seem to remember Jane Jacobs predicting something like that in her 1970 book, the Economy of Cities.)
Harnessing waste heat from industry was the subject of an article by Bill McKibben in Orion late last year. Biodiesel proponents have been collecting fryer grease for a while; the East Bay Municipal Utility District in Oakland is going a step further and making biodiesel from grease from restaurants' kitchens' sewage. The utility district will power at least some of their fleet with the fuel, if it turns out as planned. As one of the Oakland engineers says, "if we can produce fuel from a waste, it's very exciting. There are other ways to derive energy from waste such as producing methane for electricity, but to have something that can replace transportation fuel, that's even more exciting."
Stockholm's Central Station
It gets more science-fictional in Stockholm and Japan, where the energy is coming directly from people. There's a project in Stockholm where they will capture the heat generated by the commuters that pack the city's Central Station each day to heat a nearby office building. That heat would otherwise be a waste problem to be dealt with through venting. The Japanese project is a power-generating floor, powered by the energy of people walking across it.
Developing these sources may seem like small potatoes, but they are examples of human ingenuity in the face of large problems. Energy and fuel solutions that are locally-based will be more resilient, and can be better tuned to the specific resources of a place.