What if energy were free?
What would our world be like if energy were as free as air? For one thing, abundant energy could provide clean water everywhere by desalinating, purifying and transporting seawater, allowing for an immense increase in agricultural production including food, clothing and building materials. We could have all the necessities of life in abundance.
But this would not be in the interest of the social predators and parasites who thrive by creating artificial scarcity. They think nothing of instigating mass starvation and energy shortages to reap enormous profits. They have manipulated us into wars for foreign oil to power our society. Attempts to reduce our energy dependency through development of alternative sources or through innovations like electric cars have been underfunded or blocked, while Big Energy has been subsidized and deregulated. We had a chance to take a different road in the 1970’s in the aftermath of a contrived energy crisis, when the experience of waiting for hours in gasoline lines was still fresh in people’s minds. But the opportunity was squandered.
We must decentralize energy production if we are to break free of elite domination, beginning with already available renewable energy options such as solar, geothermal and wind. There is plenty of renewable energy available to support a decentralized society that is no longer burdened by wasteful, inefficient high-overhead manufacturing, gratuitous consumption of frivolous and short-lived consumer goods transported over vast distances, and the daily ritual of commuters creeping along in rush hour traffic to and from cities in their gas-guzzling SUV’s.
We can expect continued advances in renewable energy technology, making implementation on local scales increasingly cost-effective. We might even see breakthrough technologies that could realize the dream of abundant and virtually free energy. But existing technologies already support regional or community-level energy independence in many areas and so we should move aggressively toward energy sovereignty without delay.
Our sun gives us an average of roughly 20 watts of power per square foot, depending on latitude and cloud cover. This energy already benefits us by providing warmth, growing plants and evaporating water which later falls as rain. If we wish to harness this energy for other purposes, we can expect to lose some of the power due to conversion inefficiencies.
Photovoltaic (PV) cells are typically 15% efficient converting sunlight to electricity and so can generate an average of roughly 3 watts of electrical power per square foot, enough to power a night light. This might be enough to provide for the energy needs of an energy-efficient home if the entire roof area were covered with solar panels, depending on geographical location. But such an installation is expensive with current technology. Historically cheap prices for non-renewable energy sources such as oil, gas and coal, combined with the high capital cost of solar panel systems limited their proliferation in the past.
But non-renewable energy costs have been soaring, even as solar cell conversion efficiency is increasing, manufacturing cost is decreasing, and energy storage solutions are improving. Therefore we can expect PV solar to become more feasible and cost-effective on the residential and community scale. It is now easier and cheaper than ever to install some supplemental PV solar capacity on your roof. In some areas such as the desert Southwest, complete energy independence of individual homes should be economically achievable. In other areas, communities can pool their resources to overcome the capital barrier, as demonstrated by a new community-owned solar farm in Rifle, Colorado, the largest of its kind in the U.S.
Solar thermal and concentrated solar
A large percentage of our energy use is for heating. Solar energy can be used directly for heating, thus avoiding the inefficiency of conversion to electricity. Relatively inexpensive reflectors or lenses can be used to concentrate sunlight, and these can be mounted to track the movement of the sun, significantly reducing the capital cost per watt of power generated. Here’s an example of a simple homemade solar concentrator designed to heat a swimming pool. Visit BuildItSolar.com to learn about hundreds more do-it-yourself solar projects.
Solar concentrators have been used on large scales to drive steam turbines to produce electricity. It has been estimated that all the electricity needs of the US could be generated this way using a only a small portion of the desert Southwest. A scalable modular approach to solar thermal involves arrays of parabolic reflector dishes to heat highly efficient, low-maintenance Stirling electric generators as in the PowerDish. One or more dishes can supplement the energy needs of individual homes or small communities. These dishes are expensive but should become more affordable as production volume increases, since they are designed for low-cost mass production. If you prefer the do-it-yourself approach, take a look at this open source project in India.
The total thermal energy stored in the earth is estimated to be equivalent to the total solar energy that comes to the earth during a few million years. Most of this energy originates from internal nuclear decay and so is partially renewable, and it is also renewed near the surface by solar energy.
By itself, geothermal energy could easily meet all of humanity’s energy needs. Better yet, it can be developed on local scales even without natural advantages such as hot springs. All that is needed is a way to circulate a fluid into the earth or a body of water so that the energy stored there can be pumped out by a heat pump (or pumped back in for cooling).
This video explains how geothermal heat pumps work. It’s hard to believe that all the energy we need is available right beneath our feet. Thanks to the leverage provided by heat pumps, extraction of the thermal energy can be cost effective in virtually any location where it is possible to dig into the ground. Heat pumps are already a highly refined technology, readily available commercially. Here is an example of a professional installation in the UK: part 1, part 2.
Wind energy production is less likely to be feasible and cost effective on small scales compared to solar and geothermal because locations with good wind resources are not as common, and wind turbines are more problematic than solar or geothermal solutions. In areas with abundant wind community-scale wind energy systems have proved successful. Small wind turbines, such as can be installed on a rooftop, are more justifiable in areas where there is no electric grid but plenty of wind. Here’s an example of a homemade wind turbine. Visit OtherPower.com to learn about other wind (and solar) do-it-yourself projects.
Waste to energy conversion
We can solve two problems at once by converting waste into energy. This plant in Philadelphia is an example of moderate-scale waste to energy conversion, while this operation in Belgium extends the concept to large-scale landfill mining. This plastic-to-oil converter demonstrates that the technology can be adapted for small-scale use.
Energy storage is a key component of decentralized energy because the sources of renewable energy that can produce electricity such as solar and wind are intermittent. Also, electric cars rely on batteries. Transportation accounts for about one-fourth of our total energy use, and more than two-thirds of our petroleum use. The main obstacle to replacement of internal combustion engines with electric motors is the expense, weight, large size and limited storage capacity of batteries.
More advanced batteries would greatly facilitate decentralized energy, but progress has been blocked by Big Energy, as in the case of the EV-95 NiMH batteries used in the discontinued Toyota RAV4 EV. But lately there have been major breakthroughs in battery technology, such as this recyclable sodium-ion battery, this improved lithium-ion battery, or this jelly battery. These advancements should accelerate the replacement of highly inefficient internal combustion engine technology which should have become obsolete decades ago, and enhance the feasibility and cost-effectiveness of decentralized renewable energy.
If we combine renewable solar, geothermal, and wind energy sources with breakthrough battery technology, convert our waste to energy, build more energy-efficient dwellings, and localize our economy so that transportation needs are reduced, we can have an abundant and sustainable decentralized society. Some examples of solar-powered, cost-effective and energy-efficient houses are being showcased right now on the National Mall as part of the 2011 Solar Decathlon.
Dreams of free energy
We don’t need to wait for the appearance of rumored devices that purport to draw energy from water or from the vacuum itself, yet the possibility is very intriguing. Free Energy: The Race to Zero Point is the best documentary I’ve seen on the subject, and it is compelling. There is no doubt that there are almost unimaginable energies trapped in the very substance of our reality. We have already witnessed incredible amounts of energy released from atomic particles. Theoretical physics backed up by such experimental evidence as the Casimir effect indicate that even greater energies may be trapped in the very fabric of space-time itself.
There is little doubt that the elite would do everything in their power to suppress free energy technology if it does indeed exist. Our world could transform virtually overnight if technology that has already been developed suddenly becomes available. But it would be a mistake to wait passively for this eventuality, when there is nothing preventing us from working toward decentralized energy sovereignty right now.
This is the ninth article in a series of eleven on the theme of decentralization: Fractal Sovereignty, Decentralized Manufacturing, Decentralized Money, Decentralized Education, Decentralized Agriculture, Decentralized Government, Decentralized Communication, Decentralized Security, Decentralized Energy, Decentralized Medicine and Decentralized Religion.