Tuesday, September 18, 2012

September 8th, 2012      Ozarks New Energy Barn Warming: Renewable Adventures          Liam Dillow
                The Crower College MARET Center is often asked to participate in local and regional alternative energy activities.  We were recently invited to participate in the Ozark New Energy Barn Warming event held in Bois D’Arc, Missouri.  What follows is the account of the event by one of our solar students, Liam Dillow, who participated.
                Following the crazy, wind-gusting downpour of Friday night, the sun rose the next morning on one of those gorgeous days of perfect weather that bless Southwest Missouri in the closing months of brutal heat as summer tiptoes off stage in anticipation of cooler fall months to come. I was thinking all of this to myself as I pulled up to the MARET Center Saturday afternoon. 
Crowder instructor and renewable energy guru Joel Lamson was already there, rigging up the solar trailer, hard at work even after a power outage at his house following the previous night’s storm. “If the power’s still out when we get back, I’m taking this baby back home with me!” he half-joked as we loaded up thermal panel equipment and prepared to hit the road. 
                After a road trip east down I-44, followed by several turns down country roads-- at least one of them being in the wrong direction-- we found ourselves on a country road, stopping to ask an elderly woman strolling along with a bright smile if she’d like a ride. She declined with a wide grin on her face. Little did I know that later, that same woman would be serving me a delicious home-cooked meal.
                The event was just beginning to kick into gear as we arrived, the various vendors setting up tables and equipment on the grassy avenue adjoining the barn and home of Dan and Margy Chiles. There were plenty of friendly greetings between Joel and other long-time friends. I myself was something of a newcomer to this group, but after finding myself warming up to the glow of friendly greetings and “How have you been’s?”, I began to recognize the people behind this event as folks who share a certain bond—no matter if they’ve just met today or known each other for years.
                But, business first: we got down to the hard work of setting up our solar thermal pump and PV panel demonstrations (soon swallowed up by the tree shade), remembered all the things we forgot (camera, brochures), and wondered: of all the demonstrators, why did we get picked to be closest to the dumpster?
Soon, however, we were busy as bees showing off our demonstration units. One minute I was chatting about how the solar thermal panel works(with Joel handling all of the tough questions, of course), and then at some point I looked around and realized that we were surrounded by a small horde of eager listeners. Joel made good use of his mental encyclopedia of knowledge of all things renewable to anyone interested in learning more.
                The event had over 200 volunteers, visitors, elected officials, vendors, and well-wishers, according to Dan Chiles’ web site. All proceeds went to Ozark New Energy. The main attraction of the event was the home of Dan and Margy Chiles, Dan being a former member of the Springfield City Council and local businessman. The home consisted of a large barn covered with installed photovoltaic solar panels, and a 2400 square-foot, 3 story home. The home was in its final stages of construction, and while touring the home, I imagined it to be something like visiting the set of the television show “Extreme Home Makeover” a day or two before the homeowners get back from Disneyland. The home’s features include passive lighting, insulating concrete walls-- which are claimed to be tornado resistant—and a cistern for the collection of rain water for use in irrigation. Dan hopes to attain LEED certification of his home and expects it to be a net zero energy home. The house features an interesting mix of wood and concrete, the centerpiece being a beautiful wood mosaic sculpture affixed over the entry, done by local artist JD Harris, with several balconies and an open air roof offering views of the lake below. The house was designed by Jennifer Wilson of nForm  Architecture.
                There was plenty of delicious food, drinks, and even a live jazz band on the portico (plugging their instruments into renewable energy, I presume). As I made a tour of the home, I noticed the lines of geothermal water hoses through open spaces in the ceiling. On the lower floor, a man was giving a presentation about the future of renewable energy as the crowd engaged in enthusiastic discussion.
                As the day darkened and the crowd wound down, we packed up our things and headed back down the road. Not bad for a full day’s volunteering. Luckily, Joel’s power was back on at home, the trailer being saved for its primary use of powering the Crowder soccer field scoreboard and PA system. We had a great time and shared a lot of information—but perhaps most importantly, we shared a sort of companionship with folks from all over with an interest in renewable energy.
ONE Homepage
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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

MARET Center Building

MARET stands for Missouri Alternative and Renewable Energy Technology.  Crowder College was designated the home of the MARET Center by legislative decree in 1992.  Since then, MARET has strived to achieve excellence in alternative and renewable energy.  The college competed in the 2002 and 2005 DOE Solar Decathlon’s in Washington, DC.  We offer degrees and certificates in solar energy, wind energy and biofuels.  We participate in community sustainability programs and help local communities, businesses and individuals with alternative energy projects.

The Building
Construction on the new MARET Center building (Phase I) is complete.  This building is a jewel in the crown of Crowder College in Neosho, Missouri.  It was conceived to be the most energy efficient building possible.  It is also designed to be a test-bed of new sustainable technologies. To meet those two goals, the MARET Center building employs a number of state-of-the art building and energy technologies. Some of the technologies are novel, others have never been tried on this scale before and still others were deployed to demonstrate their effectiveness, though they are well known.  In addition to sustainable building techniques, we have also employed a number of conservation technologies to reduce our environmental footprint. We are applying for LEED Platinum status.

This is only the 10,000 square foot Phase I.  We have plans for two more phases, with a total of 27,000 square feet of classroom, laboratory and conference space.

Ground was broken on the MARET Center in March, 2011.  This was nearly six years after the initial funds were made available through the efforts of our (then) US Congressional Representative, now Senator, Roy Blunt.  Sen. Blunt is and was a tireless proponent of education and economic development in southwestern Missouri.  He provided $3 million from the Federal Government and the rest was raised from private donors.

Design of the building took quite some time, as the two goals of state of the art sustainability and test-bed of new technologies meant that it would be like no other building ever built.  The architecture firm of Kromm, Rikimaru and Johansen, out of St. Louis, MO, was engaged to design the building. We also knew that we would need expert engineering skills and so we commissioned TME, Inc. from Little Rock, AR.  Both companies are national in scope of work and reputation.

After a rather lengthy environmental impact study, we began.  JE Dunn was hired as the construction management company. 

The building is oriented to the south to best take advantage of the sun for solar energy.

The walls and roof of the MARET Center employ two different construction techniques, both of which are extremely energy efficient and sturdy.  The north wall, which is covered by an earthen berm, as well as the foundation, are both made using ICF or Insulated Concrete Forms.  ICF uses polystyrene as the form, connected by plastic ties.  The foam can be 1-4 inches thick on both sides.  Steel reinforcing bars are applied, then concrete, up to 12 inches thick, is poured between the forms.  Once the concrete sets up, the forms are left in place. ICF uses the concrete as a thermal-mass, able to store a lot of heat.  The foam then prevents that heat from moving too quickly.  And, since it’s monolithic, there are no heat bridges for heat to transmit from outside or inside the building.   R values (a measure of heat insulating capability) range from R25 to perhaps R50. 

ICF is not only very insulating, but is very strong.  It is holding back the earthen berm.  Structures built with ICF properly can withstand tornado-force winds.

In the MARET Center, the ICF foundation is 12 inches thick with 2 ½ inches of foam.  The wall on the north side is also 12 inches thick with 2 ½ inch thick foam.  This results in an R value of near 50.  And, since the north side is also covered with an earthen berm, it is much more insulating than a standard construction.

The rest of the walls and roof are made from a construction system called SIPs, for Structural Insulated Panels.  SIPs are constructed of (usually) 2 panels of Oriented Strand Board sandwiching polystyrene insulation.  The panels can be of nearly any length.  The ends and edges are made of wood or metal, the thickness of the polystyrene. In most cases, standard wood sizes are used: 2x4; 2x6 2x8.  The R value of a SIPs can range from R 15 for a 4 inches thick panel to R40 for a 12 inches thick panel.  This is much higher than a standard ‘stick built’ wall’s R value because of the thermal bridging caused by the structural studs every 16 – 24 inches.  A SIPS panel can extend for many feet, without an intervening stud to help transmit heat.  

The walls of the MARET Center are 6 inches thick.  The roof, which is also the ceiling, is 8 inches thick. 

All this insulation, from the foundation to the roof makes for a very energy efficient building. 

Interior features
Since the envelope is so insulating, the heating and cooling system doesn’t need to work so hard.  We are employing an unusual, and extremely energy efficient system.  We use exposed radiant heating and cooling panels. 

Most folks are familiar with radiant floor heating systems.  In these systems, warm water is flowed through a flexible pipe under the floor, heating the floor and the air above the floor.  It is a very comfortable system.  Cooling is usually handled another way, such as standard forced air, using an air conditioner or heat pump.

In the MARET Center, we have panels placed in the ceiling.  Warm or cool water is flowed through the panels, heating or cooling the surrounding air.  The warmed, or cooled air is then moved about the building using ordinary convection or natural movement of air from warm to cool and vice versa and a small amount of positive air pressure.  There are no vents as would be found in a normal forced air system.  Make up air is brought in from outside, warmed or cooled as needed and gently flowed into the building.

The water in the radiant panels is heated or cooled using a novel geothermal system developed here at Crowder College.  It is a two field systems that will alternate depending on the season and need of the building. Not much more can be said as we are applying for a patent.  Once we get the patent application submitted, and we gather sufficient data, we intend to publish our findings.  It is our hope that this system will be much more efficient than a normal single field geothermal system.

The heating and cooling system is monitored and managed by a sophisticated computer program that can tell if a person is or is not in a room, and adjusts the flow of water, either warm or cool, into the panels in that room.  That way, the room is efficiently managed, without wasting heat or cool when it’s not needed.

In addition to the heating and cooling sensors, there are proximity sensors and light sensors in each room.  These are used to turn on or off the lights, depending on whether or not someone is in the room.  Since we have skylights and passive solar windows in many of the rooms, the light sensors also make sure that the task lighting is adapted to take this additional light into account. 

Since MARET stands for Alternative and Renewable Energy, we have both solar and wind supplying energy to the building.  The solar array is 280 Sanyo HIT 220 panels.  Approximately 240 are specially modified hybrid panels that have fluid flowing through pipes attached to the back.  This allows heat to be removed from the panel, helping the panels be more efficient even during hot summer days.  We capture that heat and use it to help heat the building by running it through the radiant panels.  Domestic hot water is generated with an evacuated tube thermal system. So, we have three types of panels on the roof: standard, hybrid and thermal.

The PV panels are 90% tied to the grid.  The remaining 10% will charge a bank of batteries that will store the power until needed, likely in event of a power outage.  The goal is not to run the building at full power off the batteries, but to provide lights and some electric charging and heat for campus security during an outage.

A quick calculation shows that 280 220 watt panels will generate almost 62kw of power.  With 10% charging batteries, we will have about 55kw of PV power at peak.  Couple that with our 65kw Nord Tank wind turbine, and we will be capable of generating 120kw of power for the building’s use.  It is our goal and expectation that the building will be a NET POSITIVE GENERATOR of power.  And that we will sell back more than we purchase from our electricity provider.


Monday, March 5, 2012

Crowder’s Solar Green Visits the Peoria Tribe in Miami, OK

Solar Green, Crowder College’s solar energy club, went on their first trip of the spring semester, 2012. Six members, Cheyanne Baker, Matt Blair, Russell Crawford (who took the pictures), Randi Martineau, Christian Schlenker, and David Siler, and their faculty advisor, Joel Lamson, piled into a campus van and were off to do a site survey for the Peoria Tribe in Miami, Oklahoma.

                They met with Chris Owens at Peoria Tribe’s Aquatic Facility to discuss the installation of a 5.16 kilowatt grid-tied solar electric, also called photovoltaic (PV), array that will help power the facility. The Aquatic Facility has a couple of different fish hatchery projects. One project focuses on the endangered species of the Neosho Mucket, which is a freshwater mussel, and the Neosho Madtom, which is a small catfish. Another program will focus on raising bass for mussel spawning, because bass carry glochidia, which is the microscopic larval stage of the mussel, in their gills; and the production of bass for stocking ponds.
                The 5.16 kW system consists of the aluminum mounting rail system, twenty-four 215 Watt panels, a 5.1 kilowatt grid-tied inverter, and balance-of-systems (BOS) components such as a PV combiner box, breakers, lockable external disconnects, wiring, etc.

                After inventory, it was time to go outside and find an appropriate location to ground mount the array; this is commonly called a site survey. The primary function of a site survey is to try to minimize shading of the array during the 6 to 8 hours of the best sunlight of the day. Three spots were selected. One location had a utility pole and utility line that would cause some afternoon shading of the array. Another location at the side of the building was a little better, but a few yards back in the pasture was recommended as the best location.

                The array will be ground mounted on posts concreted into the ground. One reason a ground mounted solar electric array is preferred is because solar panels like to be cool; the colder the panel, the more voltage, the more power output. A ground mounted array allows maximum air flow around the panel to keep it cool.

                The array will be mounted at an angle that equals the latitude for Miami, Oklahoma, which is best for year-round solar energy production since the buildings loads will be about the same throughout the year. The solar panel angle rule-of-thumb is latitude for year-round production, latitude plus 15 degrees for winter optimization (due to a lower sun altitude) and latitude minus 15 degrees (due to a higher sun altitude) for summer optimization.
                After the club completed the inventory and site survey, they had a little time left, so they decided to troubleshoot the tribe’s 960 Watt stand-alone solar electric system. The stand-alone system consists of four 240 Watt solar electric panels, a 60 amp maximum-point-power-tracking (MPPT) battery charging controller, four 6 Volt 105 amp-hour batteries, a 1500 Watt stand-alone, off-grid, inverter along with the balance-of-system (BOS) components.

                The stand-alone solar electric system will power an atmospheric mercury monitoring system for the next nine months. It will then be used to power the pond aerators for the hatchery troughs in the Aquatic Facility.

                The Solar Green team will return later in the semester, when they have mounted the array, to help wire the grid-tied system and check on the stand-alone system.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Geothermal Energy


As we have seen in the previous blog, fossil fuels were created by the capture of light from the sun by plants, the subsequent treatment of the plant material by heat and pressure to create coal, oil and natural gas.

Today we will explore the cleanest form of energy and what its relationship is to the sun.  Geothermal energy is energy derived from the naturally occurring heat in  the earth.  Geo is Greek for earth and Thermal is Greek for heat.  Therefore, geothermal means ‘earth-heat’. 

It is possible to use the geothermal heat close to the surface of the earth for heating and cooling of residences and commercial properties.  Within a few hundred feet of the surface, the temperature at any given point on the planet is roughly equal to the average annual ambient temperature of the air at that altitude and latitude.  So, if the air temperature where you live averages 60° F (by taking the average of all the high temperatures from Jan 1 to Dec 31 and the average of all the low temperatures for the same 365 day period, and then averaging those two), then any caves in the area, and the ground itself, will be more or less 60° F too.  In general, the temperature of the ground is between 50° and 70° F nearly any place on the planet.

You are probably now thinking that, sure, in a lot of places, it’s 50° - 70° but what about in Yellowstone National  Park, where the geysers and hot springs are boiling?! And what about the other natural hot springs (like Hot Springs, Arkansas and Pagosa Springs, Colorado)?  Those places are certainly hotter than 70° F if not quite boiling.  So why are they so much warmer?

For the most part, those places are warmer due to either the action of friction, such as happens at the interface of two tectonic plate (faults).  When the plates move against one another, heat is generated.  Another source of the heat is due to the action of pressure over certain types of rock.  This can create magma and the molten rock transfers its heat to the surrounding earth.  Finally, a majority of the heat in the planet is due to the radioactive decay of naturally occurring radioactive isotopes.  Uranium, thorium and potassium are the most abundant. 

But wait, you say, you said all energy is solar. Sounds to me like the earth makes its own heat.  And you would be correct, as far as it goes.  First, the top few hundred feet are heated by the sun.  The air temperature is directly related to the sun and the earth absorbs a large amount of that energy as well.  But now deeper, how does the sun affect that temperature?  It may or may not have been the sun we see in the sky today, but all the elements of our planet began inside a star somewhere.  You are probably aware that the sun (our star) is a large fusion reactor. It is made mostly of hydrogen which is fused with itself in the extreme heat and pressure in the center of the sun into helium.  This fusion process releases vast amounts of heat which spew into the solar system and comes to earth in the form of light and heat.  The process doesn’t stop at helium though.  It can continue, fusing molecules together into the other elements as well.  Eventually these elements also spew into space.  There was varying amounts of all the elements in our vicinity when the earth was formed.  The earth’s gravity sucked in enough material to generate the mass of our planet today.  Included in those elements were large amounts of silicon, sodium, potassium, oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, sulfur, chorine and many others.  And, to lesser extents, uranium, thorium and other elements.  Some (like the uranium and thorium) were radioactive.  The decay of these elements helps generate the heat of the planet.

So, you see, a sun or star, is responsible for the radioactive heat in the earth!

Also, the heat, from all this radioactive decay, goes up as you get deeper.  Geothermal maps (from Google for instance) show that at 10 km depth, the temperature is above boiling (100° C or 212° F) and can be hotter than 200° C (430° F).  A process called Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS) and also called Hot Dry Rocks, seeks to use the heat from these depths to heat water to create steam which can then be used to run an electric generator.

So, you see, the clean, geothermal energy is made from the same process that is used inside nuclear reactors.

Of course, nuclear power comes from the process of fission too.   In a nuclear reactor, however, the radioactive materials have been purified and concentrated to speed up the process of fission and therefore generate a whole lot more heat in a short amount of time. 

We will explore, in a later blog whether or not nuclear power is ‘clean’ and if it has a place in the future mix of sources of energy.

Understanding Energy

All energy is solar energy.

From a thermodynamic perspective, the Earth is, for the most part, a closed system. This means that matter stays constant and the heat and other energies may flow into and out of the system.  The odd meteor collision, and Einsteinian relativity not withstanding, no matter is added nor removed from the Earth.  The sole source of energy, also, is from the sun.

What?! You might ask, what about all that oil and coal and nuclear stuff in the Earth’s crust that we mine and convert to useful energy?  Isn’t that energy that doesn’t come from the sun? It’s already here, you might say.

But, the question is, how did it get here?  We will first consider the so-called fossil fuels.  There are two theories of the source of (primarily) oil and natural gas:  biotic and abiotic.  We will consider only biotic in this blog, turning to abiotic in a later blog. In biotic-produced petroleum and natural gas, it is considered that sometime between 260 million and 400 million years ago, bracketing the Carboniferous Period, vast amounts of biological material was generated.  The majority of that material was made through the process of photosynthesis.  This process can be performed in plants or in algae. 

Photosynthesis is the process of taking a photon of light, passing the energy from the photon through a series of membranes and chemical reactions to capture carbon dioxide (CO2), combining it with water (H2O) and converting these chemicals into sugars such as glucose. The plant or algae then uses the sugars to build other molecules including cellulose that is used for walls and other structures, proteins and even lipids (fats).    Carbon fixation and sugar production occur in a biological organelle called a chloroplast.  The process of capturing and converting CO2 is called Carbon Fixation.  The waste product of the capture of CO2 is oxygen.  So, the process of using light (energy) from the sun to generate biomass both consumes CO2 and produces O2!  And it’s all driven by the sun!!!

To recap, hundreds of millions of years ago the Earth had an explosion of biomass production, which over millions of years captured a whole lot of both light and CO2. This material was then converted into oil, coal and natural gas over a period of hundreds of thousands of years and has remained dormant for the intervening years until Exxon comes along and pulls it out of the Earth. 

So, how did it all happen?  Coal and petroleum had two very different environments and starting materials.  Coal is currently found in areas where the trees, ferns and other higher order plants lived, usually in a swamp.  As the plants died, they fell to the bottom of the swamp and were degraded.  You can see this process in a compost pile, or on the floor of a forest.  The plant material is converted first to humus.  Humus is valuable for agriculture and is the organic material-containing portion of rich dark soil.  If some pressure, or removal of additional O2  (anaerobic conditions) occurs the humus can convert to peat.  If the peat is further subjected to anaerobic conditions, pressure and heat, it can convert to coal.  The chemical processes for conversion from humus to coal can take hundreds of thousands of years and doesn’t always occur. 

What happens is that the pressure and heat, in the absence of O2, causes the removal of hydrogen (H2) and water from the carbons.  It also tends to shorten the length of the polymer chains.  So, the original plant material converts from extremely long chain cellulose to much shorter hydrocarbons and even just carbon.  If this process continues with higher and higher pressures and heat, diamonds result.  If the process equalizes, then coal is the result. 

It is thought by scientists that the different types of coal (anthracite, bituminous, lignite) are due to the amount of heat, pressure and time the coal was exposed.  The amount of ‘contaminants’ such as sulfur are dependent on the environment the plants existed in, when they died.  Those plants that were growing in shallow sea-type swamps which had a lot of sulfur in the water, then have an abundance of sulfur in the coal.  Those plants that died in more freshwater swamps have less sulfur.

Petroleum, now, it is thought, resulted from the death and settling of single celled photosynthetic organisms of algae.  Most of these are termed diatoms.  Diatomes are very interesting organisms.  If they died in dry conditions and didn’t get exposed to heat and pressure, they simply fossilized into small boxes of silica (silicon dioxide).  This material is good for filtration and abrasion.  If they fell to the bottom of the ocean and were eventually covered in sediment, subjected to heat, anaerobic conditions and pressure, then oil was produced.  The process acted similarly to the coal process.  The long polymers were dehydrated (water and hydrogen removed), and severed somewhat.  If you have ever played with wax, you know that it is hard when cool, and can be liquid if heated enough. This is due to the length of the single molecules making up the wax. The longer the chains, the more stable is the solid in the presence of  heat.  Most oils are relatively short chains.  And the longer the exposure to the pressure and heat, the shorter the chains.   You have heard of  “octane”. This is an 8 carbon long chain of hydrocarbon (oil).  Shorter chains than pentane (5 carbons) become gases at normal temperature and pressure.  You are familiar with some:  methane (1 carbon), propane (3 carbons), butane (4 carbons).  Between 5 carbon and 25 carbon chains you have the various components of oil.  Above 25 carbons, you have waxes and finally at 35+ carbons in the chain, you have asphalt.

Therefore, natural gas (composed of methane, ethane, propane and butane) is the result of continued reduction of the chain length to its shortest).  That is why natural gas is associated with oil deposits.

So, from a certain perspective, oil is solar energy.  Unfortunately it was energy captured a long time ago over a very long period of time.  It also sequestered a lot of ancient CO2.  Releasing all that CO2 in such a short time is likely to be deleterious to the modern environment.

Whew!  We’ve only just finished oil.  What about the other sources of energy?  Stay tuned to this space.  Next we’ll discuss geothermal and nuclear.