Maybe you heard about the recent North American black-outs? Or noticed their Energy Outreach program in the Middle East? Sustainability for the vast human project seems locked to energy in cities whatever way you look at it. Sitting on the sunniest continent in the world, it seems timely to reflect on how the energy demands and strategies of a mammoth metropolis like NYC might relate to our own. Cut to the big apple skyline. Zoom in on a solar powered rooftop, and there’s Jeff Perlman from renewablestoday.com and Renewable Brooklyn.com.
What switched you onto renewable energy?
I’ve been dreaming about solar for as long as I can remember. At university (Yale) I built a solar powered car, and raced it in Sunrayce ’99 (see solar.eng.yale.edu), then went to Australia and participated as an official observer in the 1999 World Solar Challenge. Solar car racing was a wonderful introduction, a great engineering challenge, and whet my appetite to do something truly practical with renewable energy (we won’t be seeing mass produced solar vehicles any time soon).
Now I’m involved in a variety of renewable energy pursuits: providing various forms of technical/investment/business consulting, research on solar companies and costs / benefits of green buildings with Capital E (www.cap-e.com), installing solar electric (photovoltaic) systems on rooftops with Solar Energy Systems (www.solaresystems.com), and NYC public education about the possibilities of solar with BASIC (www.renewablestoday.com/basic).
A ‘Renewable Brooklyn’ – how could it be?
First, Renewable Brooklyn is an artists collective with the purpose of promoting renewable energy and sustainable living/development in Brooklyn (www.renewablebrooklyn.com). As for a truly Renewable Brooklyn, let’s start with where we’re at. Many Brooklynites are quite perturbed at the various proposals to put new electricity generation facilities in. To avoid that, we need to cut peak demand consumption, through a combination of efficiency and renewable energy measures. Many Brooklyn residences are ideally situated for rooftop solar systems. Also the energy we get from the grid can be generated from fossil fuels or from renewable resources. Many firms offer renewably generated energy (mostly wind and clean hydro). You pay a bit more for this energy but it is certified green ( see www.green-e.org). Lastly, there are a number of sustainable architecture, interior design, recycled parts, organic foods, community gardens, co-op supermarkets, etc in Brooklyn in particular and in NYC as a whole. All of this contributes to the sustainability of the city.
Given your recent black-outs in North America, how reliable is renewable energy?
The recent power problems were mostly grid related. As in, our electricity grid is old and poorly maintained. Unfortunately large scale renewable generation won’t much help this. However, small solar/wind installations coupled with battery back-up systems allow buildings to maintain power even when the grid goes down. This is especially valuable for hospitals, mainframe computing centers, air traffic control centers and other critical applications, where any loss of power amounts to serious amounts of money lost every second (not to mention lives at risk).
What have been the most promising renewable energy developments in recent years?
Large-scale wind power production has costs on par with fossil fuel generation and lower than nuclear. In states like Texas, developers have been putting in more wind farms than required to meet the state’s legislation, because of it’s value.
Which renewable energy sources have been more disappointing?
Hydrogen power (fuel cells, etc.) are still more hype than reality, though I have faith the hydrogen economy really is forthcoming. Costs/reliability haven’t gotten to where they need to be yet. But the potential for this ultra-elegant system: power from renewable sources is used to cleanly created hydrogen, which is then cleanly converted back to electricity for cars and homes as needed, is just too great a dream to give up.
Scams or worthwhile – those ‘Green Power’ schemes where energy companies offer renewable energy at extra cost?
WORTHWHILE!!! Individuals can pay a little bit more on a monthly basis (instead of a lot of money at once to install renewable generation) to support the development of renewable energy. If RE is going to succeed, people need to support it. We can’t rely on the government to do it. The people have to put their money where they say they want it to go.
Half the world is urbanised. Some of your favourite energy saving ideas for major cities?
#1 is really just good building design. Windows that take advantage of natural light, buildings designed for natural air flow, etc, etc. I just finished working on a paper about the costs & benefits of green buildings ( www.cap-e.com ). We just waste so much energy that saving it isn’t all that hard. Turn off lights. Don’t run A/C so damn cold. Replace old refrigerators (replacing an old energy-sucking refrigerator with a new efficient one can pay for the cost of the new one in about 2 years just in saved energy costs). Replace large CRT monitors with flat panel displays. Use auto light sensors that turn off lights in public places when no one is there… use LED/compact fluourescents. Etc.
Current obstacles for renewable energy?
Cost. Financing. Getting enough capital so systems of long term value can be purchased despite large up front costs. Getting people to understand all the available options. Getting insurance companies to understand the benefits to the insured. Getting investors to understand the stability of the investment. Getting banks willing to lend because it’s a stable investment. Getting people to understand that they want renewables because otherwise we’ll keep fighting these silly wars, or, worse, start burning more coal, and keep breathing bad air, increasing asthma, etc. Environmentalism doesn’t mean unprogressive or technophobic. Supporting our modern way of life without destroying the environment, requires an initial cash outlay that folks aren’t yet ready to accept. We’re working to change that 😉