Energy saving products & green living
Header

Author Archives: Dawn Richards

About Dawn Richards

Dawn Richards is dedicated to spreading the word about sustainability. She has been known to hug trees, but relies on her Ph.D. in environmental science to get the point across. Dawn is EnergyEarth's Director of Energy Efficiency and can be reached at AskDrDawn@energyearth.com.

How is Electricity Generated?

January 14th, 2014 | Posted by Dawn Richards in Ask the Expert - (2 Comments)

One of the Most Important Things We Don’t Understand

Long ago, the energy we used to do things like heat and cook came from locally sourced firewood. It was easy to gauge how much we needed and how much we had left. It was hard work to chop and haul that energy source, so folks probably didn’t keep putting wood on the fire when they didn’t need the heat. Now that obtaining energy in the form of electricity is as easy as flipping a switch, we don’t have much reason to think about where it comes from and how it’s made.

How is Electricity Generated? {The Dirt on Green}

According to the World Bank, all but about 1 billion of us have access to electricity. This doesn’t mean there are a billion people without a source of energy – it’s just not in the form of electricity. Those without access, and some with limited access, still rely solely on solid fuels like coal and wood for heating and cooking.

That leaves about 6 billion people, most of whom probably rely on electricity virtually every minute of every day. I recently asked a random assortment of ten people to explain how electricity is generated. The result? All but two of them hadn’t the faintest idea how burning coal, nuclear reactions or spinning wind turbines leads to the electricity that powers our lives. One of the reasons that electricity remains such a mystery is that we don’t need to think about it.

How Much Do We Use?

Six billion people use a lot of electricity. Together, we required the production of over 22,000 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity in 2011. Tera-what? The metric prefix ‘tera’ indicates a trillion of something. For perspective, it would take just 1 TWh of electricity to light 10 billion 100W light bulbs for an hour.

How is Electricity Generated? {The Dirt on Green}

With a population of a bit over 300 million, Americans comprise 4.45% of the world’s population (US Census Bureau data), yet we consumed 21.5% of the electricity generated worldwide. In 2011, more than half of our electricity came from coal (42%) and natural gas (25%) combustion combined. Especially in the US, the contribution of natural gas is on the rise, bucking the predicted price increase and remaining competitive with coal.

Compared to the world breakdown of fuels, we’re not that far off, except that hydropower comprises a greater proportion of global electricity production (15.8%) than it does in the US (just a few percent).

I’m a Little Teapot, Short and Stout

More than 80% of the world’s electricity is generated through thermal generating systems. Fuels like coal, natural gas, oil and even biomass (like wood and animal waste) are burned in large furnaces. The resulting heat is used to boil water.

The steam travels through boiler pipes where the pressure and speed turns the blades of a turbine. That mechanical energy is converted into electrical energy inside the generator because of the relative rotation between magnets and an electrical conductor.  The resultant electricity is run through transformers before beginning its journey along the electrical grid.

How is Electricity Generated? {The Dirt on Green}

Nuclear power is a mystery to many people, but in simplest terms, nuclear electricity generation is just another way to boil water. When radioactive materials like

Uranium-235 are bombarded with neutrons they split apart in a process called fission. This process releases a tremendous amount of energy in the form of heat. After that, it is the same as burning fossil fuels: the heat boils water, the water turns to steam and steam turns a turbine which is attached to a generator. Voila, electricity! Interestingly, December 10th marked the end of a 20 year program called “Megatons to Megawatts” whereby the United States purchased the uranium from 20,000 retired Russian warheads and processed it for use in power plants. Since 1993, 10% of our electricity supply has come from this material. That’s more than all alternative energy sources combined. Even though we’ve received our last shipment, the uranium from those warheads will be providing Americans with electricity even after 2020.

How is Electricity Generated? {The Dirt on Green}

It is worth noting that a technology called solar thermal electric generation has begun to have an impact on US markets in the past few years. Clustered in the US Southwest, these facilities use various methods to focus the sun’s energy to boil water which generates electricity as described above. Though this technology still occupies a very small share of the market, a recent report by the US Energy Information Administration reports that several new large installations are about to double the electricity generating capacity of this method.

Mother Nature Turns the Turbine

Humans have been using the sun, water and wind as energy sources since the beginning of time, yet they comprise what we call alternative energy. To generate electricity, wind and water turn the turbine directly, skipping the energy-losing step of boiling water, and the rest of the process is the same.

The immense natural power of water can be used to turn a turbine through a variety of methods including channeling through dams, submerging the turbine in an area with predictable tides, using the pressure created by ocean waves, and even small turbines submerged in minimally disturbed rivers and waterfalls. Hydropower is not without problems but continues to comprise a large portion of the renewable energy sector.

Wind power continues to be a rapidly growing source of renewable energy throughout the world. Detailed wind maps are constructed to find locations with adequate non turbulent wind without too many powerful bursts. Installations can be found on mountain ridges, plains, coastlines, and in coastal ocean waters. Wind power is not without controversy. Just last month amidst great controversy, the Federal Register published a decision designed to promote the development of wind power but may lead to an increase in the deaths of golden and bald eagles.

How is Electricity Generated? {The Dirt on Green}

Geothermal electricity generation is another example of using nature to turn that turbine. The United States led the world in geothermal electricity generation last year, providing us with four times as much electricity as solar based methods. These plants use the steam that is produced from heat that occurs naturally a few miles beneath the Earth’s surface in some places.

Photovoltaic cells, what most of us think of as solar power, are unique in that there is no steam or turbine. The special materials used in photovoltaic cells are called semiconductors. When sunlight strikes certain semiconductor materials (e.g., silicon) photons are absorbed and electrons are released. We can then channel these electrons into an electrical current. Materials that do not exhibit this photovoltaic effect just absorb the photons and heat up when struck by sunlight. Technological advancements in semiconductor materials that can be applied in thin layers and still efficiently turn photons into electricity are progressing so rapidly that the IEA predicts photovoltaics will grow more than 11.5% a year through 2040.

The Most Efficient Solution

The energy mix that powers your home with electricity depends on where you live and your utility company. For instance, power companies serving California, Oregon and Washington generate more of their electricity using hydropower than any other single source. In contrast, the primary source for the south atlantic states is coal. As consumers we don’t have much control over our electricity sources, but Amory Lovins, physicist and energy expert, called energy efficiency the world’s biggest untapped energy resource. By using less energy to perform the same task, we are not sacrificing comfort or convenience, simply using less electricity. The justification begins with the money you can save and has far reaching implications. Switching to energy efficient products is easy and EnergyEarth is here to help.

Dawn Richards of EnergyEarth

© 2014 Energy Earth LLC. All Rights Reserved

Sources:

http://www.iea.org/publications/freepublications/publication/KeyWorld2013.pdf

http://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.cfm?id=13791

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/15/business/international/last-shipment-of-nuclear-fuel-from-russian-bombs-heads-to-us.html?_r=0

http://phys.org/news/2013-12-solar-power-sector-small.html#jCp

http://energycommerce.house.gov/press-release/subcommittee-examines-role-diverse-electricity-generation-portfolio

http://keshefoundation.org/image/keshe_generator/Electricity_Production_400.jpg

Where Does Household Water Come From?

November 12th, 2013 | Posted by Dawn Richards in Ask the Expert - (2 Comments)

We live on the Blue Planet, yet less than 1% of Earth’s water is available for human use. Still, an average American household uses 400 gallons a day, costing well over $300 a year1. The American Waterworks Association blames persistent droughts and infrastructure upgrades for the forecast that our water bills are going to double or triple in the next 25 years.

So where does our water come from? According to the US EPA2, about 90% of Americans use municipal water, with 34% being supplied with treated groundwater and 66% supplied with surface water3. The remaining 10% of Americans get their water from domestic wells.

Ground water is considered by some to be the Nation’s most important natural resource due to our heavy reliance on it for agriculture and municipal water supplies.  Municipally treated groundwater and domestic wells typically use water that is stored in porous geologic formations called aquifers.  When it rains on land, the water that doesn’t stay on the surface soaks into the ground and may be trapped in aquifers.  While some of this important resource (30% of the world’s fresh water!) consists of that recent rainwater, much of it is called ‘fossil water’ and has taken millions of years to accumulate.  Don’t think about aquifers as flowing underground rivers though, since most of them are more like saturated sponges.

Where Household Water Comes From {The Dirt on Green}

Surface Water: Even more of our household water comes from rivers, lakes and reservoirs that hold rainwater and surface runoff until we are ready to use it. The land over which this water drains is called a watershed. These areas of land can encompass many states for large river systems. For instance, the Mississippi River watershed includes parts of 31 states and 2 Canadian provinces. The largest US reservoir, Lake Mead, gathers snow melt from Colorado, Wyoming and Utah and supplies millions of people with water in the southwestern United States.

Where Household Water Comes From {The Dirt on Green}

Water wars rage on! Since miners and settlers rushed to the dry, dry west, water diversion has been a problem. With the continual decline in Colorado River reservoirs and growing populations, it’s not getting any easier. Even in the southeast where rainwater is plentiful, Georgia and Tennessee have been arguing over their border for 200 years. A tiny one-mile strip of land could swing an estimated 1.6 billion gallons of Georgia runoff away from Tennessee and toward thirsty Atlanta4.

Where does my water come from and how do I know if it’s safe? The best way to learn about your drinking water is to contact your local utility. They can tell you about the source of the water and how they treat it.

Unless you are supplied with water by your own well, you should be supplied with a short report (consumer confidence report or drinking water quality report) from your water supplier by July 1st each year. These reports are easy to read, clearly define what they measure, and have a clear “Violation” or “Compliance” column that indicates if your water meets government standards.  Mine looks like this:

Where Household Water Comes From {The Dirt on Green}

Another option is to use this interactive map from the EPA . In all cases, once your supplier draws water from a river, reservoir or groundwater, the water is treated to meet federal and state standards established by the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Should I drink bottled water instead? About half of all bottled water may just come from someone else’s tap! There is no guarantee that it’s cleaner than tap water, and it probably doesn’t taste any different. You’re just paying for the convenience of having it packaged in that tiny bottle. Americans buy billions of gallons of bottled water each year, and according to the American Water Works Association, we are paying about $7.50 per gallon for single servings of bottled water – that’s about 2000 times the cost of tap water and twice that of gasoline!

Where Household Water Comes From {The Dirt on Green}

Do I really need to turn off the water while I brush my teeth? For those of us who live in rainy parts of the country it’s hard to imagine ever running out of water. The US Drought Monitor has an interesting tool where you can see weekly and seasonal drought predictions. I’ll admit I was shocked to see how much of our country is experiencing severe and extreme drought! Many of the states in the colored regions are implementing drought management strategies for agriculture, industry and municipal water systems.

How can I use less water and save money? You may not be surprised that the top three uses of household water in the US are toilets, washing clothes and taking showers – in that order. But did you know that the biggest savings comes from using less hot water?

Where Household Water Comes From {The Dirt on Green}

So what can you do? Americans use more household water flushing toilets than anything else. Newer toilets with a dual flush mode, like those described at EPA Watersense, do the job while allowing you to be a bit more discerning about the size of the flush. Where a new toilet isn’t feasible, you can install a simple and inexpensive toilet tank bag to reduce the size of your flush without sacrificing power.

The second highest water use is for washing clothes. Other than being more selective about what you put in the laundry basket, the best thing to do is to upgrade to an ENERGYSTAR qualified washing machine when it’s time for a new one.

If you really want to see a major savings in your water bill and your electric bill, make the switch to awater saving shower head. Since water heating can comprise more than 15% of your electric bill5, and showering is the third highest water use, you’ll see immediate results!

If you’re really serious about saving money on water and electricity, check out products like faucet aerators, outdoor water saving devices, rain barrels, water heater accessories and much more at www.energyearth.com.

— Dawn Richards of EnergyEarth

© 2013 Energy Earth LLC. All Rights Reserved.

 Sources:

1. http://www.awwa.org/

2. http://water.epa.gov/infrastructure/drinkingwater/pws/index.cfm

3. http://pubs.usgs.gov/circ/1344/pdf/c1344.pdf

4. http://blogs.ajc.com/atlanta-forward/2013/04/18/georgia-tennessee-water-dispute/

5. www.eia.gov

I Vant to Suck Your Energy: The Truth About Vampire Power

October 29th, 2013 | Posted by Dawn Richards in Ask the Expert - (5 Comments)

Electricity is needlessly trickling from dozens of devices in each of our homes, costing Americans $3 billion in energy costs each year.1  Vampire power, also called phantom power, ghost load or idle current, is a slow but constant flow of electricity that occurs even when devices appear to be off.  Although vampire power is sneaky and probably lurking in your home at this very moment, a little knowledge and a few great products will turn you into a vampire slayer – no garlic required.

I Vant to Suck Your Energy: The Truth About Vampire Power

Let’s face it, we all use electricity and we don’t like feeling guilty about it.  In response to the 1973 oil crisis, President Nixon asked Americans to “accept some sacrifices in comfort and convenience so that no American would have to suffer real hardship.”2 Today, if we eliminate just the electricity we waste in standby mode, we would meet 10% of Nixon’s reduction goals with absolutely no sacrifice in comfort or convenience. In fact, you won’t even notice until you get a lower electricity bill.

Many of our previous blogs have highlighted easy ways to save a lot of money by using electricity more efficiently (with CFLs, LEDs and other ENERGY STAR qualified products, just to name a few), but stopping vampire power is about conservation.  So what’s the difference?  Energy efficiency depends on technology to get the most out of each kilowatt of energy you buy. Conservation, on the other hand, is just plain using less electricity, regardless of the method. Eliminating vampire power is conservation without the sacrifice.

Vampire Hunting: How do you identify the extent of vampire power that is drawn in your home? Basically every device that rests in standby mode or has an indicator light is drawing power – and we have a lot of these. I found out how much electricity I was wasting a while ago when I stumbled to the kitchen in the middle of the night for a glass of water.  I was shuffling my feet across the floor, sure that my dog was laying in my path, when I realized that I could actually see. My fire alarm indicator, VCR (yeah, I have one of those), DVD player, TV, speaker, laptop charger and microwave clock provided just enough light for me to see the heap of fur in the hallway and the water glass in the kitchen. Groggy, I returned to bed thinking about those twinkling eyes staring at me in the darkness.  These were the eyes of vampires that were sucking my electricity – and money!

How to Identify Vampire Power:

Look for:

        • External power supplies
        • Large plugs (some cell phones)
        • Chargers with brick batteries (laptops)
        • Indicator lights and continuous display (clocks)
        • Devices with remote controls

Listen for a hum indicating an active drive or a fan

Feel for warmth indicating the flow of electricity

Measure the draw of electricity using a monitoring device

Sometimes that small draw of electricity is necessary. Devices with internal clocks, cable modems or routers, and appliances with temperature monitoring functions (such as refrigerators and HVACs) actually need to be on all the time. For most people, the biggest unnecessary drain of electricity comes from AV and office equipment with lots of peripherals, or accessory electronics. For instance, in my home office I have a desktop computer, laptop, printer, scanner, internet router and computer speakers. Even when I did remember to turn all of these devices off at night, they were still drawing electricity in standby mode.  I will admit that I never – and I mean never – bothered to unplug them all.  The same goes for my TV and its peripherals. There is no way I would tackle that mess of wires just to prevent what seemed like a mere few watts of electricity sacrificed to the vampires. When I learned from energystar.gov that an average US household wastes over to $100 annually on standby power, I realized it was worth taking action.

The Worst Offenders*

  • Desktop computer: $7/month
  • Game consoles: $6/month
  • Plasma or LCD TV: $5/month
  • Cable box with HD DVR: $3/month
  • Laptop with screensaver images: $1.50/month
  • DVD player: $1/month

*Data from: Lawrence Berkeley National Lab

Weapons for Slaying Vampire Power: Of course, the quickest fix is to unplug all of the devices that you are not using. This may be reasonable for the television in the guest bedroom, but are we really going to unplug all of these things every night and each time we leave the house for work or vacation? Probably not. Even if you’ve purchased ENERGY STAR qualified devices with the lowest power consumption in standby mode, you can take it one step further.

I Vant to Suck Your Energy: The Truth About Vampire Power

Smart power strips are the most powerful tool in your vampire slaying arsenal. I bought this BITS Smart Strip Power Strip and now I need to turn the lights on when I get up during the night! I plugged my television into the blue Control outlet, my cable modem and phone into the red Always On outlets, and the peripherals like my DVD player in the green Energy Saving outlets. It’s pretty remarkable how my peripherals power up automatically when I turn on my TV. Once the TV is switched off, the power strip stops the flow of electricity to all outlets except those designated to stay on all the time. It just doesn’t get any easier than that.

I Vant to Suck Your Energy: The Truth About Vampire Power

A host of other devices will accomplish the same result. The Save A Watt TV Standby Killer ensures your TV is actually off, not just in standby.  Chargers like the Belkin Conserve Valet draw no current once your phone is fully charged. Better yet, if you want to make an informed decision about where to start conserving, you can always use an energy monitor like the Kill A Watt to measure the amount of electricity used and cost of operating your devices even when they appear to be off.

How to Slay Vampire Power:

  • Unplug devices that aren’t in use
  • Use smart power strips
  • Switch to ENERGY STAR qualified devices with low standby power use
  • Use chargers that power down once  the device is fully charged

Forewarned is Forearmed:  Now that you know how much you stand to save and how easy it is, get out there and do something about it! Without sacrificing your way of living, you’ll begin to notice your electricity bill creep downward. Once you’ve been bitten by the energy savings bug, you’ll thirst for more. Check back often for more energy saving tips and product information.

— Dawn Richards of EnergyEarth

© 2013 Energy Earth LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Sources:

  1. http://www.energystar.gov/index.cfm?c=about.vampires

  2. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=4208#ixzz2hERYMG93

  3. http://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/annual/pdf/aer.pdf

  4. http://standby.lbl.gov/faq.html

vampire power infographic: http://www.radiant.co.za/blog/index.php/about-standby-vampire-power/

vampire tools image: http://www.savvyhousekeeping.com/antique-vampire-killing-kits/

 

AWSOM Powered