Saturday, June 27, 2015

Solar Water Supply and Desalination

Well there is a lot of news these days and I am constantly bombarded by articles on solar, on renewable technologies, and the like, but we are in a unprecendented energy and infrastructure revolution.
The overall global picture has to my mind the following salient points:
  1. Climate Change, leading to varied phenomena
  2. Energy and Infrastructure Revolution, combined with the IT and AI revolution
  3. Population Decline, massive movements of people, new religious movements, and the rise of global black population, and global trade
  4. Water resource awareness and scarcity
A lot of times the news focuses on one of the above aspects of change in our world, but I saw an article today which brought together both water scarcity, the energy revolution, and global trade.

Here it is:

What I found very interesting about this article are three points which were not greatly emphasized:

California will soon be bringing the massive Carlsbad desalination plant online, but at the same time, another smaller desalination plant is coming online.  The two have big differences in scale, being orders of magnitude apart in capacity and cost.  The freaky thing is that the smaller (Only $30M US) plant is highly competitive economically, and converts 93% of the intake to distilled water, leaving behind only 7% of volume as highly concentrated brine.  The huge Carlsbad plant has a conversion rate of only 50%.  

And here is a link to website video describing the system in greater detail.

So this small system by WaterFX is efficient, produces a brine rich in minerals that is an appealing economic resource, and is small in scale, is scalable, and is ideal for distributed deployment.  There is some complexity to the system, and the smallest unit produces about 65,000 gallons (250 m3) per day, and requires about 6000 SF (560 m2) of space to deploy.  Possibly a bit too large for a rural house property, but could be excellent for a small campus or a community.  Finally, something deeply striking about this technology and approach:  Watering our crops with water that is cleaner than the groundwater - for hundreds of years now, humanity has been making their fields more and more saline by irrigating these fields with water containing salts (freshwater from streams and rivers has some salts).  Eventually the long-term concentration of salts in soils renders the fields far less useful for growing crops,  Now imagine we water the fields with pure H2O - this is likely over time to reduce the salinity of soils.
I feel this is definitely a technology and a company to look carefully at.

There are others in the race to low-cost, distributed water purification and desalination - this time focused more on drinking water.
Take a look at this one:

Looks like a very simple and accessible system, costing some $450, lasting 20years, and requiring no power inputs other than sunlight.  Still in fundraising mode, but also likely to be a major player in the near future.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Electricity Generation and Off-grid for Low Energy Houses

I was recently involved in two low energy house projects and they were both on rural, undeveloped land.  In these cases, I always ask, is it cheaper to have on-site generation and storage, or is it cheaper to be grid-connected?  Actually, I even ask this question all the time in the city, every time I get my electricity bill - the delivery charges are frequently higher than the electricity charges.

So dimensions of the question go like this:
  1. It is often something like $10k to $20k to create a new grid connection for a rural property.  Wouldn't it be nice to put that money towards electricity storage or on-site generation/both?
  2.  Sometimes there is a microFIT project involved - so if we are going to sell solar electricity to the grid, then we need the grid connection anyways
  3. Electric vehicle - If we are going to have an electric vehicle, then we are no longer purchasing gasoline, but must instead supply additional electrical energy to our vehicles as well as our house - well, do the math and you'll probably find that net zero may often be practical for our houses, but net zero including our transportation? - that can be quite an additional load, depending on how much one travels, or plans to.  While the vehicle can act as a big battery for the onsite storage of electricity, everytime I look at vehicles storing energy for the house, I come up short - either for the house, or for the vehicle - so in terms of timing, this option has yet to prove viable.
  4. Microgrid stability - In one project, there is kind of a significant computer activity in the house.  This owner is looking seriously at back-up generation, but one also needs a transition system - like a battery bank or an ultracapacitor bank  - basically a UPS that gives the generator the few seconds needed to come online in a black-out.  This house is also in a valley, so the back-up generator will be perfect to run pumps for flood protection - Even though we are in a big city, power outages frequently come when there are big rains.
    If we need back-up-generation AND the grid connection is costly, why not forego the grid connection altogether?
  5. Finances:  In one instance, the bank decided what to do, rather than the buyer of the land - The bank's position was this:  Build all services - septic, water, and grid connection, or we won't lend you the money to buy the land. - Sheesh!  They must not have heard of solar PV!  
This question always fascinates me - I get to go out looking for off-grid technologies.  So today I came across this on Gizmag: - the power pallet.  This is a machine which eats biomass, and makes heat and electricity, and it is smallish - relative to many biomass machines.  it produces about 20kW, and costs about $30,000.  Kind of attractive if a grid connection costs $15k and  back-up generator $10k.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Thoughts on Hiring Designers and Engineers, and the Design Process

Most residential projects involve little if any contact and exploration with the structural or mechanical designers, despite the fact that all projects present a range of not only challenges, but also opportunities.  As a provider of services in this area, I recommend clients think carefully about their goals in hiring 'professionals'.  One thing I feel is important is that the professional must have a sense of service.  All professionals are privileged to be in their position.  They must endeavor to serve their community as a primary and important goal of their work.  This applies to doctors and lawyers - so also to architects and engineers.  And frequently the first aspect of service is that each time one comes in contact with a professional, one should probably find that they are learning something useful. 

There is much to determine and discuss regarding the mechanical systems, which go beyond heating and cooling, and can include aspects such as;

  1. self-reliance, secondary and back-up systems
  2. Flood, snow, and disaster planning
  3. Versatility, reliability, future service, cost of ownership, etc
  4. Indoor Air quality, comfort, noise
  5. Accessibility (for the infirm, etc)
  6. Home Automation, internet of things
  7. thermal envelope design
  8. electric vehicles, vehicle servicing, hobbies
  9. ecological footprint, energy and water conservation,
  10. Rainwater collection, irrigation
  11. waste management
  12. food production - both for cooking, and for growing
  13. Lighting
  14. Renewable energy generation
  15. Energy and water Storage, recycling, and use
  16. Consumption monitoring
These are broader categories, so wood heating back-up and solar thermal back-up, or ice energy systems, or snow melt would be specific approaches that fit into a given category.
I believe every construction project should consider all of these opportunities, if only briefly in some cases.  Unfortunately, houses and other construction projects are frequently seen mainly as a financial instrument or a domestic instrument, and considerations such as resale value, turn-around time, and costs are over-riding, over-powerful factors.  I have seen many projects in which people build too big a house, and often wonder what they will do with the additional space.  Frequently, there is a feeling that one must maximize the lot coverage  - but why?  I firmly believe we should design houses to serve the existing owners - not the potential future owners - that approach is what led us into ridiculous protocols such as valuing houses by their square footage, or the number of fireplaces - in short, designing for 'resale value' on your own house project is the thing that often perpetuates many of the dumb things we did in the past.

The key point that is missed:
A building is YOUR project.  It should be built to serve you and your life and your goals, keeping in mind the broader community's needs as well.  It has to be something that will serve you in general - not create a problem in one area while making a small improvement in another, as so many buildings have in the past.  We have houses that are ugly, houses that are energy hogs, houses that have poor layouts, houses that are a major tax burden, houses that didn't fit their use, houses that are oriented the wrong way, houses that are disposable, houses that only suit younger people, houses that are always dark inside, and so on.

  If you are too busy to deeply define what the building should do for you, then consider not rushing into it, or be clear that your goals and needs for this project will be determined by others.  A project has the potential to provide very valuable dividends for the owners for a long time.  This can take the form of shelter, money, protection, serving the community, artistic expression, production, among many other benefits.  But a project can also be a big liability and burden both during and after construction.

We all know the three dimensions of project management and outcomes are:
Schedule, money, and quality - but I would argue that schedule and money are frequently going together, while quality stands a little on its own.  When projects are complex and large, quality needs to be carefully understood as far more than 'quality', also intention and opportunity.  A high quality building or project may be built, but it can still be redundant, malfunctioning, or deficient.  Many things have been made that should never have been made.  One who over-emphasizes schedule and cost risks producing scrap at a highly efficient rate.  A common stumbling block is that pre-conceptions and (unrealistic) expectations obstruct the heavy work of exploring and identifying the truest and best intentions and opportunities of a potential project.

So in buildings, and civil projects, give importance to design, intentions and opportunities, against how the project should serve for generations to come.

In other projects, I have been in the situation where what is needed, is mainly to get the permit.  This must be the lowliest task for the designer.  What happens is the client sees no value in the design, as it is little more than a bureaucratic hurdle.  Sometimes, the design fee is substantial, and yet there is no value in it for the client.  So I say, discuss this with your designer and find out if there is an opportunity somewhere, in which value can be created in the process of design.  On the other hand, at the moment, most buildings offer a lot of low hanging fruit, upon which good design may be brought to bear, with the potential for reaping great savings or improvements for the client, not to mention the environment or the community.