Tag: sustainable energy

Giving farmers a new crop: Solar Farms and expanding BTM methods for farmers

This is a guest post from Lena Stenvig, an undergraduate student at Michigan Tech. Lena is studying Computer Science and minoring in Environmental Studies. Lena took the photos included in this blog post. She can be reached at lsstenvi@mtu.edu

The cherry orchard at Garthe Farms LLC

America is all about its family-owned farms. From its popular food chains serving America-grown burgers to its corn-mazes in the fall attracting people from all around, none of it would be possible without the original small-town humble farmers that do their job equally for supporting their families and for the love of what they do every day; but now our farmers need help. When people moved away from their family farms over to less body-intensive jobs for work, fewer farms began producing more product on more land. Even so, many farmers struggle to produce enough crop to sustain themselves and their family. Around 91 percent of farming families have at least one family member working at a job that is not the farm. This is where Behind the Meter, or BTM comes in.

Behind the meter is a means of producing your own energy so that you are not pulling all of the energy you use from the grid, and as a result pay less for your electricity bill. A popular technique to behind-the-meter is installing solar-panels in one’s yard on upon the roof. In this way a household can produce green energy to lower its carbon footprint and can save on the electricity bill. A typical household has room for a few solar panels. Enough to sustain itself for most of the summer months, but usually not enough when the winter heating bill kicks in. A modern American farm has much more land than your typical resident. Even if most of it is used for farming, there are certainly space that could easily be allocated for a small solar farm. Having worked for Garthe Farms LLC this summer, a cherry farm deep in cherry country near Traverse City, MI, I have seen first-hand where and how this can work. My uncle, Gene Garthe, runs this farm and in recent years invested in four large solar panels that sit in empty space near the driveway nearing the farm house. These four solar panels produce enough energy to run what electricity is needed for the farm, and that is all they desire and need.

Despite producing plenty of energy via solar, Garthe Farms is not a emissions-free facility. Large machinery is used to harvest the cherries from their trees. There are three machines that are necessary in cherry harvesting: the Shaker, which shakes the cherries from the trees, the Catch Frame, which catches the cherries shaken by the Shaker and conveyors them into a tub, and the tractor that takes the tubs when full to the loading dock and brings the Catch Frame a new tub in which to fill more cherries. All three of these machines require diesel fuel to run, and as much work as one can complete towards electric vehicles, it is not economically feasible at the moment to make a machine that chugs through an entire tank of fuel in eight hours of work to operate on an electrically-rechargeable battery. To make up for their fuel usage, perhaps it is better that farms simply produce a form of green energy that can make up for the amount of fossil fuels they consume.

Cherry harvest in motion: The Shaker (far) moves to the next tree while the Catch Frame (near) is receiving a new tub in which to place the harvested cherries.

In this way farmers can reverse the BTM method. If they can produce their usual crop while also producing energy in either the form of solar or wind, they can sustain their household while also receiving return on what they put out to the grid. This can work if they can have some of their own personal solar panels to run what they need to on the farm, and then working with solar or wind companies to lease certain areas of their land to be utilized for said energy production. For wind, this is easy by simply taking up a small portion of land for each windmill. The minimally invasive turbines do not take up much room on the farm and do not hinder the crops from receiving enough sunlight. Solar panels can prove to be trickier. Because of their method of energy production, solar panels would not work well in a field full of crops that also require sunlight in order to grow. For farms that grow plants that take up less room per unit such as potatoes or corn, placing solar panels in spare spaces around the field while mostly utilizing wind power might be the best option. For farms like my uncle’s, it is a different story entirely.

Much of a cherry orchard’s area is taken up by plants and grasses that grow below the trees, and the trees stand spaced approximately ten feet apart within each row. Each row stands about another twenty five feet apart. Where some farms may be only able to place solar panels near roads or at the end of rows, orchards may place the panels in these locations are more. If one row of trees were to be replaced with solar panels, the loss of trees would be fairly minimal while also adding enormous potential for solar production. Even without removing trees, placing solar panels at the end of rows would not affect the production of fruit while also receiving gain on solar production.

If we are to look closer at our American farms and examine the issues they face today, and if we can only look at the potential they hold for energy production, we may not only be able to solve the growing problem of farms going bankrupt, but also for finding a place to produce greener energy without disrupting land that is not being used and additionally would ecologically be better off as it is. In this way farmers can continue to do what they love, and not have to work more than they have to in order to pay bills and keep their farm from dying. With this I might say the path onto greener pastures might just be creating greener pastures.


Your Role in Progressing Toward a Soft-Energy Society

Photo by Meghal Janarda

This is a guest blog post from Zoe Reep, who is an undergraduate mathematics major at Michigan Tech. Zoe can be reached at zkreep@mtu.edu

As our society has grown in population, technology, and abilities, so has its need for energy. And as our need for energy has grown, we have been forced to step outside of early methods of capturing and extracting this energy. Over time, society has shifted from reliance on muscular and biomass sources such as animal labor and firewood in the 15th century to a reliance on fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas in the late 20th century (Evolution of Energy Sources).

Figure 1: Graph representing the evolution of energy sources across periods of time (Evolution of Energy Sources).

In the late 1900s, influential writer and scientist Amory Lovins took a critical look at the future of our energy sector in his essay “Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken?.” He proposed that there are two ways in which society can proceed: the hard path, society’s current path characterized by intense fossil fuel consumption and lack of regard to the environmental effects of such consumption; and the soft path, the path that Lovins believed to be the better alternative characterized by renewable energy and the commitment to energy conservation and efficiency.

Those in support of the hard path argue that fossil fuels and nuclear energy alone can sustain our ever-growing population, with its ever-growing desire for energy, if we simply alter our extraction, conversion, distribution, and usage methods to be more efficient. Proponents of the hard path believe that society should focus on providing incentives, such as tax breaks and subsidies, for fossil fuel companies to encourage the exploration and extraction of coal, uranium, and petroleum. Following the decline of the availability of fossil fuels, these hard-pathers support a shift to nuclear power. Typically, those in support of the hard path envision a future of expensive, centralized systems (Newton).

In contrast, those in support of the soft path hold the belief that a reliance on solely fossil fuels is not only unsustainable in the long run, but dangerous. They believe that creating and sustaining large, concentrated facilities for power production enables powerful companies to dictate energy’s place in society and turns energy into a socioeconomic issue. Instead of these centralized systems, proponents of the soft path favor more local energy retrieval methods, such as solar panels on buildings or the use of wind turbines on properties. Additionally, soft-pathers would like to see society slowly transition from a heavy reliance on fossil fuels to a more dispersed reliance on renewable energy sources such as hydro, geothermal, solar, and wind power (Newton).

Lovins views sparked a time of controversy, but also brought up an important issue: which direction is the direction that we need to move in order to ensure that our successors have the same abilities to live full and meaningful lives as we do?

We’ve reached a point where it is difficult to argue that there isn’t something wrong with our current energy industry. [Check out https://ourworldindata.org/fossil-fuels for a look at the increase in fossil fuel consumption. Think our current methods can keep up with the ever-growing demand for energy?] Scientists and researchers have been presenting more and more evidence that our current path is unsustainable and that we might even reap the irreversible consequences of our procrastination and selfish desires in our lifetime. It is beginning to seem that the majority of people recognize the correlation between the dependence on fossil fuels and Earth’s degrading environment and atmospheric conditions , so what’s stopping us from converting to a more sustainable alternative?

We have grown increasingly dependent on energy and the comforts and commodities it supplies to us. We believe that others will find an answer for us, and that the answer will allow us to continue our life of ease. We hold the assumption that our own individual efforts will not produce change, since we are merely a single ant in the midst of a ginormous colony.

I tested a thought that I had on my Energy and Society class. I wanted to see if, when provided the education of why change was important and the means of producing that change, my peers would change small areas of their life that they had grown up comfortable with to benefit the world around them.

We had spent the previous class walking around campus and discussing areas that we felt could be improved, through methods such as user awareness or the implementation of more efficient systems,  to lessen energy consumption. The general consensus seemed to be that there were many aspects of our college life that, with a little change, could lower our energy consumption significantly and if only people knew about these areas, or acted on these areas, we would be in a much better position, energy-speaking.

I used a topic that I knew would strike controversy and that my class would be resistant to: food, and the environmental effects of the current animal agriculture industry – and our consumption of the proteins stemming from it.

Before I began, I asked my class whether they were vegetarian. This elicited several skeptical looks and maybe one or two hesitant “I once was…” or “I tried at one point…” I then provided them with some basic education on the negative effects of the animal agriculture industry through short videos. These videos walked my class through the water, land, and fuel consumption required to create even a single patty and informed them of the emissions and other land-and-water-degradation that results from a mass animal agriculture system.

Following the videos, I asked a very straightforward question: “Who is going to become vegetarian?” When that didn’t receive a response, I decided to cut them a little slack: “Who is going to change their diet?” That received a couple grunts.

I then posed one final question, which is what I want to leave you with today: if you’re not going to make the change, even after being educated about the issue and being provided means to pursue this lifestyle change (even if it is more expensive than the alternative, “normal” route), then what makes you think that anybody else will?

Stop believing that change will occur only when everyone buys into the change; start the change, and help people buy into it. Your actions are important and do create discussion. They have the potential to incite change. If you agree that this energy path we are taking is in fact unsustainable and quite dangerous to rely on, then step up, alter your lifestyle (yes, you might need to give up some of your comforts), and encourage others to do the same. And if you won’t do it for yourself, do it for the generations to come.

Zoe Reep.


Bringing Solar Energy Technology to Campus

Have you ever used solar energy to charge your laptop or cellphone? Have you ever had the chance to watch a battery’s charging meter go up as it takes in power from the sun? Would you like to learn more about the efficiency and potential of solar electric technology?

A study is about to begin on campus involving solar energy technology. Goal Zero is a leader in portable solar equipment technology, and eight of their systems are now here on campus. Two of these systems are meant for larger scale use (for a family or group housing situation); six of them are smaller, relatively portable, and meant for individual usage. A collaborative project between Dr. Joshua Pearce’s lab and Dr. Chelsea Schelly of the Department of Social Sciences, the goal of the project is to temporarily install these systems into Greek housing, shared student houses, dorms rooms and university apartments so that students can get firsthand experience using solar energy technology. After they’ve spent some time living with solar electricity, participants will be asked about their energy behaviors – how they use and think about energy. This project was recently discussed in the Lode.

Solar electric technology provides one means of decreasing our reliance on fossil fuels and localizing energy production. Participating in this study will provide students with exposure to the latest in portable and small scale solar electricity generation, and will provide researchers with information regarding how technology impacts our energy behaviors and attitudes. If you live in Greek organization housing, share a house with other students, or would be interested in participating as an individual, we’d love to hear from you! Please contact cschelly@mtu.edu.


Solar Photovoltaic Tariff Wars

[This is a post from Edward Louie, a MS student in the Environmental and Energy Policy program here at Tech. This was an assignment for our Ecological Economics course.]

Tariffs are normally imposed to protect and support domestic manufacturing, in particular emerging industries, by disincentivizing the purchase of imported equivalent products. The higher market price encourages greater supply of the domestic product. Neoclassical economists tend to view tariffs as regulations that distort the free market.  They argue that tariffs help domestic producers and the government via increased revenue and taxes at the expense of consumers, and they artificially shield an industry from competition, delaying collapse, but also slowing the innovation needed to be competitive. Tariffs only make sense if the financial gain by the government and increase in domestic demand outweighs the efficiency loss from reduced overall demand due to higher prices.

Throughout the 1990s and into the mid-2000s the cost of solar panels has decreased at a snail’s pace remaining at 3 to 4 dollars a watt that is until 2008 when Chinese manufacturers began mass producing solar panels with low cost labor on an economy of scale. Since 2008, the price of solar panels has plummeted breaking the one dollar per watt barrier in 2011. Beginning in 2012, the U.S. Department of Commerce imposed a 31 percent tariff on solar panels imported from China. The tariff was imposed when several manufacturers of solar panels in the U.S. (including SolarWorld and six others) complained to the Department of Commerce that Chinese factories are subsidizing manufacturing costs in order to flood the market and kill off competition with below-market price panels. These complaints came after several solar manufacturers in the United States and Germany filed for bankruptcy, while the market share of Chinese panels rose to nearly two thirds. However, more than 700 other firms, organized under the Coalition for Affordable Solar Energy, opposed the tariff. The opponents, which include manufacturers, installers and others involved in the solar industry, argue that the tariff will make solar energy less affordable. In 2013 the tariff wars continued with China imposing a 6.5% tariff on U.S. solar polysilicon suppliers. American companies defended their low prices, attributing them to inexpensive hydroelectric power. The European Union also imposed a tariff on Chinese solar panels and Chinese glass used to make solar panels.

Tariffs on solar panels will likely backfire and actually hurt the U.S. solar industry because 52% of U.S. solar jobs are in installation, another 18% in sales and distribution, and more in polysilicon manufacturing (the raw material of solar panels) (Lubin, 2012). In the midst of these tariffs, the average installed price of solar panels in the U.S. has continued to fall. However, it would be a large step backwards if this trend were to fall victim to escalating trade wars. Only time will tell if these tariffs have a positive or negative effect on the U.S. solar industry. With the U.S. solar industry continuing to grow, it may be difficult to identify out the percentage of additional growth or decline that could have been realized had these measures not been implemented. In today’s highly globalized world, it is often difficult to know for certain which economic policy tool to use and its effects and unintended effects.


Klyftig!

Usually when I read stories about the international waste trade, often it is of the variety of rich countries shipping their electronic and hazardous waste to poorer countries, where the waste is not properly handled and wreaks havoc with human health and the environment.

But Sweden is now importing waste from Norway (and Sweden is paid to take it). It is too expensive to incinerate the waste in Norway and meet Norwegian environmental standards, and the Swedes are so efficient at waste recycling that they don’t have enough waste to burn. Sweden incinerates the waste to produce electricity, and then ships the dioxin-laden ash back to Norway where it is landfilled. Both countries have roughly equal GDP, so I suppose there is no waste trade scandal here, other than to wonder whether the Norwegians really achieve any financial or environmental gains through this exchange.