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Archive of posts published in the category: Energy

Should We Care about Btus?

For a few weeks I have been planning to write a message about Btus. It would have started something like this:

A Btu, or British thermal unit, is the amount of energy necessary to raise a pound of water one degree Fahrenheit. (A pint of water is equal to a pound of of water.) A Btu is equal to 252 calories, or about the amount of energy in two tablespoons of olive oil or a cookie. Put another way, you would need about 8 to 10 Btus to power your body for 24 hours. Utility companies typically talk about BTUs in “quads” or in quadrillions of Btus (a quadrillion is a trillion with three more zeros), or “therms” (100,000 Btus), which is the unit you normally see on your gas bill.

Why should we care about Btus? Well, it gives us a way to compare the costs of different types of fuel. To produce one million Btus, we would need 293 KWhs of electricity, 80 pounds of coal, 250 pounds of hardwood, 11 gallons of propane, 975 cubic feet of natural gas, 8 gallons of gasoline, 12.5 gallons of ethanol, or one-sixth of a barrel of oil. (A note on ethanol: It’s just plain stupid. You need 130,000 Btus to produce a gallon of ethanol, which is only worth about 80,000 Btus.)

And that is as far as I got. I was trying to compare the costs of producing and delivering different types of energy so I could explain which ones made the most sense. But as I was writing, I realized that the production and delivery costs of the different fuels were only one part of a very complicated energy puzzle.

In the last few decades, we have relied on oil for our transportation fuels (gasoline, diesel, and jet), coal and natural gas for our electricity, and natural gas for heating. We have enough natural gas reserves in the US to power everything for 200 years or so, and enough coal to power everything for 500 years or so. That leaves oil as our only “real” problem. Given that natural gas is clean and cheap, we could solve our oil problem within just a few years if we shifted to natural gas as our primary transportation fuel. (With electric cars, we are headed in that direction. We’ll burn mostly natural gas to produce the electricity to power the new cars.)

A natural gas solution would save us the $1 trillion or so it would take to upgrade to a “smart” electrical grid. We could eliminate the costly subsidies for wind and solar power. We also could forget about trying to find enough lithium for millions of hybrid and electric car batteries. We could go back to using corn for food. We could let other energy options compete in a free market environment. If all we had to worry about was our “real” problem, we wouldn’t need some sort of “moon shot” energy solution.

Unfortunately, we live in a world of speculators, special interest groups, and irrational tree huggers (I’m sure there are a few rational tree huggers, but most of them are immune to facts.). To this we add government intervention in the form of taxes, subsidies, tariffs, and regulations. We also have wars and rumors of wars and natural events like hurricanes. We also have to add-in dishonest and disreputable people pushing schemes like CO2 credits or manipulating markets. And then we have the fear, uncertainty and doubt that comes from the possibility of even more government intervention, more unrest around the world, more dishonesty, and any number of stupid decisions that might be made because of the possibility of global warming or other environmental concerns.

The energy world is even too complicated for someone like T. Boone Pickens, a billionaire who made his money in the energy business. He concluded that the answer to our problem would be to use wind power for much of our electricity needs and natural gas for our cars. He spent millions promoting his solution, but his plan requires the US government to come up with large subsidies for wind power and a smart electrical grid (one that could transport electricity more than a few hundred miles with a storage capacity for times when the wind isn’t blowing). Even with the help of an appearance on 60 Minutes, his holdings have lost billions waiting for the government to support his plan.

In a reasonable world, we wouldn’t have big energy problems. In a reasonable world, there is enough and to spare. But we don’t live in a reasonable world. In our world we have to save farmers, coal miners, and polar bears. We have to worry about CO2 parts per million and a temperature increase of 1.7 degrees derived from bogus data. We have to live with governments and crooks (am I being redundant?) and all those with special interests. We have made our world way too complicated for a few simple facts about Btus.

Batteries are Complicated


When I started I thought it would be easy to figure out how many batteries I would need for the system. I wanted 20 KWh to cover the possibility of 4 cloudy days in a row. As it turns out, batteries are not rated in KWh, so you have to do some math. Batteries are rated in AH or Amp Hours, and the number of AH available depends on how quickly the energy is used and the temperature. If energy is used quickly, less electricity is available. When the temperature surrounding the batteries goes above 77 degrees, the capacity of the battery goes down. At 95 degrees, the batteries are only half as effective.

In our case, the installers suggested using 8 Trojan L16H-AC 6 volt batteries. These are big deep cycle batteries—11 5/8” long by 7” wide by 16 3/4” high, and they are heavy—125 pounds each. Deep cycle batteries are designed for putting out low amounts of electricity for a long time, while car batteries are made for putting out a lot of energy in a short time. Each are rated to produce 25 amps for 935 minutes, or 75 amps for 245 minutes, or 357 AH (amp hour) if drained over 5 hours, or 435 AH if used over a 20 hour period of time.

Since we are hoping the batteries would last for four cloudy days, the 20 hour rating is the most likely to apply to our situation. In theory, using the power over 96 hours would give us a little more electricity than the rated amount, assuming the garage doesn’t get too hot. So, if we multiply 435 AH by 8 (the number of batteries), we should have 3,480 AH. If you multiply amp hours by the number of volts in the battery (6 in our case), you get watt hours. 3,480 AH multiplied by 6 volts is 20,880 watt hours or 20.88 KWh. In theory then, we should have four days of reserve power.

The cost for each battery with shipping and sales tax is about $500. They are sealed, so there is no maintenance, but they only last for 5 to 8 years. We should probably ignore the fact that if we do save $182.50 per year, we won’t have saved enough money to replace the batteries. At least the technology is really cool. The monitor has a lot of lights and numbers and switches.

In the picture at the top of this post, you can see the closet where the batteries are stored. If you look at the bottom of the picture, you can see a glimpse of the batteries. The batteries are mostly covered so the grandkids can’t touch them.

I’ll let you know as soon as we go live.

Almost Ready


Our solar power system is installed. Once we pass the Orem City inspection, we can flip the switch.

The system includes 6 panels on our garage roof, 8 huge deep cycle batteries, an inverter (to covert the DC energy to AC), a monitor (to keep track of the energy generated, used, and stored in the batteries), an electrical outlet inside the house, two electrical outlets in the garage, a small fan to vent the battery compartment, and some emergency lighting.

The panels are rated to produce 1.7 KWh each hour the sun is shining and in the right position in the sky (A KW is 1000 watts, and a KWh is 1000 watts for an hour. For example, 10 100 watts light bulbs would use up a KWh in an hour. A slow cooker is rated at 300 watts, so that would use 1.5 KWh if you cooked with it for 5 hours. Note: All the math makes solar power a lot more fun.). We’re hoping the solar panels give us 15 KWh on a sunny summer day and perhaps 8 KWh on a sunny winter day. Our goal is to have available at least 5 KWh per day year round, even if we have three cloudy days in a row. (The batteries provide the power when the sun isn’t shining. The “Dummy” books suggested we store enough power for 4 cloudy days, but the solar guys talked me down to about 3. I still don’t know exactly how much energy the batteries can store and produce, because getting an straight answer about batteries isn’t easy.)

Although we wanted the solar power primarily for emergencies, we decided to hook up a refrigerator and a freezer to the system so that we didn’t waste all the electricity we could produce while we wait for the power to go out. A few weeks ago we noticed RC Willey had a sale on all its Energy Star appliances (Energy Star is a government designation for energy efficient appliances), so we went looking for a refrigerator and a freezer for the garage that would work well with the solar system.

We weren’t too concerned about prices, but we did look closely at how many KWh per year each appliance would need. We found a fridge that used only 400 KWh and a freezer that used 550 KWh. Unfortunately for the environment, none of the Energy Star freezers were frost-free, so Marieta vetoed them all. We ended up buying a freezer that needed 800 KWh. We found that the efficient appliances were relatively inexpensive (and came with government rebates), but they lacked any fancy options like an ice maker or filtered water.

If we assume we will have 1,825 KWh of power to use in a year, we should have more than enough to provide 1,200 KWh for the appliances. We’ll see. We did put the appliances are on a special plug, so that regular power will take over if the batteries run out of juice.

I’m still not sure of the final price of the solar power system, but it will be about $20,000. If we generate and use 5 KWh per day, we will save 50 cents each day on our power bill. If this were an investment (and not just a project to keep me out of trouble), that’s a return of a little less than 1%. With the government rebates (by the way, I would like to thank those of you who pay taxes for contributing to our solar power system), the cost could be cut in half and the return could be as high as 2%. I will let you know the actual amounts once we know them.

In my next message, I hope to explain more about the batteries. I thought it would be a simple calculation to multiply the amount of energy one battery could hold by the number of batteries in the system to find out the total stored power in the batteries, but it’s not that simple. I wish I had paid more attention in my chemistry and physics classes.

Learning More about Electricity

After my last post about solar power, my neighbor Tom Dickson suggested I use propane instead of the sun. For a lot less money I could bury a propane tank in the backyard and run a generator whenever the power goes out. Tom is a really smart guy, and his solution makes a lot of sense.

Normally our electric company generates just enough electricity to match demand. If demand exceeds generating capacity by even 5%, we experience a brownout. If generated electricity exceeds demand, then the extra is usually lost. The power company has to have enough capacity to run all our air conditioners and appliances on the hottest day of the year and also carefully monitor customer usage to match moment-to-moment demand.

Electricity can travel only about 300 miles with our current power lines, so it is usually generated close to the place where it will be used. When you hear someone talk about powering the whole country with wind farms in the Midwest or solar farms in New Mexico, you also hear them talk about a “smart grid.” A smart grid would be one that uses new and more expensive power lines to create a grid that would allow electricity to travel across the county. It would also balance the solar and the wind energies.

Electricity doesn’t store well. You can charge a battery, compress air, or use “pumped storage” (water is pumped up into a large storage tank when there is excess electricity, and then the water is released to power a turbine on the way down when electricity is needed). These methods are very expensive, so it’s unlikely there would always be enough stored power to make up for many cloudy days or windless nights. A wind/solar, long distance transmission, and power storage system could easily cost $3 trillion. That’s about $10,000 for every man, woman, and child in the USA.

Usually a smart grid also includes putting devices in our homes that would automatically turn up the thermostats on our air conditioners whenever demand exceeded capacity. In other words, with a $3 trillion smart grid we could all experience hot flashes.

We typically pay 8-10 cents per KWh for coal, nuclear, or natural gas-based electricity. Solar or wind power costs more like 21 cents per KWh, even after federal and local governments subsidize half the cost. Even ethanol, which makes no sense at all, is cheaper than solar or wind power. As Tom Dickson suggests, propane at about 11 cents a KWh is a no-brainer.

So, why am I still interested in solar power? I guess I am trying to figure the whole thing out.

Thinking about Solar-Powered Electricity

Marieta and I have at least a year’s supply of food. We have stored about 750 gallons of water (I am counting the hot tub). We have first aid kits, portable toilets, a water purifier, and about 100 100 hour candles. What we don’t have is an emergency power supply. We have a small amount of propane for the barbecue and a small amount of wood for the outside fireplace, but neither energy source gives us a way to cook for more than a few days. We have no emergency heating capability.

Lately I have been thinking about the possibility of using solar power during an emergency. I’m not trying to heat the whole house or power a refrigerator or a freezer, but I would like to see if we can use the sun to cook, to watch a small TV, and to perhaps use an electric blanket. To find out if this is possible, I bought Solar Power Your Home for Dummies and The Complete Idiot Guide to Solar Power for Your Home.

I read the Dummies book in an evening, skipping many of the parts I didn’t need to read. I skipped things like “Playing the Energy Game,” “Building a Solar Home,” and “Finding the Moolah to Do the Job.” I also skimmed through many of the details about how electricity works. I quickly learned that building a small solar system is very complicated and expensive.

I also found a lot of information I didn’t need in the Idiot’s book. I was already interested in solar power, so I skipped the all the encouragement. I wasn’t looking for more information about conserving energy, and I didn’t want to learn anything about composting toilets (I am not making this up. You can buy toilets that connect to a composting box in the basement. With the right chemicals, the book explains that there is only a slight scent coming from the box). I quickly learned that solar power is almost more of a lifestyle than it is a source of electricity. You spend more time finding ways to conserve energy than you spend using it.

I was impressed with the small solar powered battery chargers. The chargers open up like a book to reveal the solar panels. With one the size of a small book, you can charge an iPod or a cell phone. With one the size of a large book, you can charge a laptop.

Also available are portable solar-powered generators. The battery and controller are about the size of a large picnic cooler. The solar panel is about the size of a door. With 5 to 6 hours of sun, you get about 1.5 kilowatt hours of electricity. If I understand things correctly, with 1.5 KWh you could run a 100 watt light bulb for 15 hours. Since you normally pay about 8 cents for every KWh, you are only making about 12 cents of power each day with a system that costs more than $3,000.

A built-in home solar system requires a solar panel, a controller, battery storage (expensive batteries, not car batteries), and an inverter. The solar panel collects the energy, the controller transfers the energy to the batteries (if you charge the batteries without a controller, you would overcharge the batteries), the batteries store the energy, and the inverter converts the DC or battery power to AC, the power you normally use in your home. The price for a home system starts at about $10,000.

A solar system requires special batteries. Car batteries are designed to produce a lot of power for a short amount of time, but solar power requires small amounts of energy over a long amount of time. The batteries wear out and have to be approximately replaced every 5 or 6 years.

There are a few of other solar-based options. Solar ovens are available for under $50. When the sun is out the small oven can get up 350 degrees. There are reading lamps and flashlights which can store the sun’s energy during the day for use at night. Solar lights with motion detectors work well for outside security lighting. A good website for solar gadgets is http://www.realgoods.com.

One statement in the Idiot’s book stood out for me: “There’s no such thing as a typical photovoltaic system.” That is a direct quote from page 204, and it says a lot about the current state of solar power technology. It reminds me of when I was a boy and watched my dad put together a stereo system. He bought kits for the amplifier, the turntable and the speakers. He soldered everything together himself. After a few weeks of work, he played an amazing test record of two guys playing ping pong with the ping pong ball going back and forth across the room. The sound was wonderful, the technology amazing, but the average person had neither the money nor the know-how to put together a similar system.

The more I learn about solar power, the more I appreciate the electric company. Our electricity is cheap, easy-to-use, and almost maintenance free. The power goes out only occasionally, and, when it does, a small army of technicians fixes things right away. Although we tend to glorify solar-powered electricity, it is expensive, complicated, intermittent, potentially dangerous, and requires a lot of maintenance. Since I am still interested in solar power, I think it’s safe to say I am either a dummy or an idiot.