Wednesday, April 13, 2011
Solar service and wind work-ups
Renewable energy equipment is much like any other kind of equipment. You have to regularly inspect it for faults and test it for functionality, and it sometimes needs to be dismantled from one location and re-mantled in another. The basic procedure is something I learned more than thirty years ago now, working on other kinds of equipment, mostly airplanes, and really there isn't very much difference in terms of the intellectual tools needed to do the job.
To be honest and realistic, if we could only get this message across, explain that the new energy ideas are in fact not much different from the old ones in terms of their intellectual content, we'd speed up the process of retrofitting the economy ten-fold, because there are literally millions of unemployed or underemployed technical workers who are capable of learning the new equipment.
But humanity's innate conservatism being what it is, much of the world continues to walk around thinking that specialist training is needed. To some extent, that is true. Specialist training is needed to measure and account for the quantitative effects of renewable energy and energy efficiency improvements. Renewable energy differs from fossil fuel and other forms of conventional energy in that it is distributed unevenly across the landscape, and unevenly or cyclically in time. This, and accounting for GHG emissions, takes a slightly different kind of math.
But I can teach this math to anyone with basic bookkeeping skills, and some decent, high-school level geography, so even that isn't so very different or hard.
And the equipment is just equipment, and once you've learned a few slightly different safety procedures, in addition to the ordinary safety training currently given to technical level personnel, you can do the work.
So, for example, solar panels when not in use are turned away from the sun so they don't produce electrical potential that can create a spark if the wrong connections are shorted or if a tool drops across a couple of wires. Wind turbines are immobilized using positive brakes, electromechanical brakes, or both, before work commences, so no-one can be hurt by an unexpectedly spinning turbine. You always disconnect the negative terminal of an off-grid battery pack before disconnecting the positive, so as to eliminate unnecessary arcing if a circuit is unexpectedly closed somewhere.
And so on. Not so very hard, is it?
Yesterday's project was to dismantle the entire off-grid solar and wind power installation at the current student "Eco-Cottage," making it a non Eco-Cottage, or an Eco-Cottage in name only.
The current cottage-style dorms are slated for demolition, and the first ones to be demolished will come down shortly after graduation, to be replaced by the G.O. Logic Terra Haus concept dorm, a truly ecological building that will require only 10% of a normal building's energy input.
Yes. That's what I wrote. A building that needs 10% of the energy requirements of the ordinary or average kind of building.
Makes you winder why we're so concerned about oil and nuclear power right now, doesn't it?
But unless you understand passive solar building design, you're behind the times on energy.
Which, I venture to say, means that 99% of the population is behind the times. It also means that the standards people apply when buying new or retrofitting old houses need to be upgraded. People simply need to know about passive solar.
Not everyone will need to know everything, of course. But enough ordinary people need to understand passive solar design in more or less the way that literally millions of practical folks understand how to size a new truck engine to a job need, or how to get a mortgage they can afford, or how to grow a tomato plant.
It's the same kind, and level, of understanding that is needed.
To be absolutely scientifically correct, the new eco-dorm will require little or no net energy over the course of the year. It will make most of its own solar heat and most of its own solar hot water and some of its electrical energy in real time. Some of the time in winter it will borrow electrical energy from the grid. In summer it will pay that energy back to the grid. It will still require base load, particularly to run the ventilation and the back-up heating system, and big appliances like the fridge. It won't have quite as large a solar array as our other prototype low carbon passive solar building, the Unity House, so it will borrow slightly more of this seasonal energy, and it's unlikely that it will be "net zero energy" like the Unity House is. But I venture to say that the passive solar concept and design detail in the Terra Haus is just slightly more worked out than the Unity House, so the back-up heat supply will be smaller.
The Unity House has a relatively massive 5KW solar array that more than makes up for its slight design flaws. The Terra Haus won't need that, and so will be a much cheaper system once the prototype is marketed as a production model, or if the concepts were adapted to other building formats.
Anyway, there will be more on the Terra Haus later. For today, we were talking about working on energy equipment. Because of the Terra Haus plans, we no longer needed the old off-grid solar and wind demonstrator to actually feed power into the cottage. The Unity House long superseded the old Eco-Cottage as the solar demonstrator of choice on campus, and the Terra Haus will just add to that capability. This freed up the solar and wind equipment for some other purpose, and we decided to fit it to the new barn, which needs lighting and power supply in any case.
Even prior to this decision, the whole set-up was in need of a good service. Student Justin Cupka suggested that he be allowed to do this work for his Environmental Challenge class project. I agreed, with the caveat that the servicing happen in the context of the dismantling and refitting to the barn.
I got to the site at about 8.30 am, and quickly stripped out the old wiring, switchgear, inverter, and battery pack.
(I'll know when I'm getting too old for this job: when I can no longer manage these eighty pound batteries.)
That left the solar panels and wind turbine. I went for lunch, and then to our annual scholars day and awards ceremony, where, it just so happens, my promotion to Professor was announced.
I was back on-site at 12.20 and Justin and the Sustainability Office work study crew showed up at 12.30. After a brief inspection of clothing and shoes, and fitting of hard hats, we began dismantling the turbine, then dismantled the solar panels from the roof. We then took all this gear, including the 25 foot steel turbine tower, over to the barn for temporary storage. We cleaned up most of the remaining scrap lumber at the barn site, where it has lain, shamefully, for nearly a year while I waited for my teaching schedule and administrative and research duties to allow time for the work to get done, without destroying family life or sanity.
We used the dump truck to drop the lumber at the scrap lumber pile, then went back to the Eco-Cottage to pull the ground anchors for the wind turbine guy wires.
These are screw-in anchors or "ground augers," and the procedure, when removing by hand, is to insert a long steel bar in the eye of the anchor, and then literally walk around in circles as if driving a old-fashioned nautical capstan.
The main danger with this procedure is dizziness, since the effect is basically the same as in the game where you put your forehead on the top of a broom handle and run around in circles to make yourself dizzy.
I sang a line or two of a sea shanty since it seemed appropriate.
What was most interesting about this group of students is how much they enjoyed the work. This is a new generation of students and thus far they haven't had much chance to engage with these kinds of more technical projects. Jesse, our Sustainability Coordinator, has them working busily on recycling, on gardens, and on outreach, but I've had a year first of particularly heavy teaching and then heavy administrative workload, and I hadn't been assigned a single class with a work project or lab component, except for the Environmental Challenge class for which Justin's project is due.
So we'll have to be careful to schedule more of this kind of hands-on time in my workload, since it gets students engaged and asking questions. If it isn't in my formal workload, though, it tends not to get done because I have to deliver the programming and administrative product I'm assigned to deliver, first and foremost.
Justin, for his part, now has to figure out and execute an appropriate bench test for each component of the system, the two solar panels, the battery pack, the inverter, and the turbine, so we can cost the repairs needed.
That should keep him thinking hard through the end of the semester.
The Sustainability Office work study students, for their part, all asked, indeed almost begged, to be allowed to do more such work.
That's right, late-teenagers and early 20-somethings begging to be allowed to work!
Well, we should be able to accommodate this, although not so much this semester. Jesse will have a good summer Sustainability Office crew, though, while I will have the wind research crew. The two crews can be informally combined from time to time this summer for programming and projects. And there are appropriate classes throughout next academic year to give me the workload time I need to get practical renewable energy projects started.
Scottish musician Dougie Maclean has a song I've always liked which provides the basic philosophy in lyrical form:
RITE OF PASSAGE
Take the young ones to the desert, teach them how the arrow flies
How to smell the beast upon the wind and run with mother nature’s loving lies
Show them how to balance what is wrong and what is right
And make their own directions through the longest darkest night
Oh you need that rite of passage before you can continue on
That brave self understanding you can lean your dreams upon
You may want for children, you may crave for man and wife
But you need that rite of passage to the summer of your life
Show the children to the master, put the tools into their hands
Show them how to work the grain and how to hold the ever-moving sand
Place with them the knowledge of the far and of the near
And lead them through the waiting storms that will never ever clear
It’s a sad deluded vision this creature of our time
It’s body now is broken, it’s smile it rarely has the chance to shine
It stands so high and mighty with its never ending needs
While somewhere in the beating heart the earth it vainly pleads