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Natural gas is cheap…do we still need renewable electricity?


What are the coastal implications of this little device (the BioLite CampStove and USB Charger-1)?

by Len Bahr, PhD*

The dramatic decline in the price of natural gas and its increased use in electrical generation has predictably led to suggestions that renewable power generation and conservation are outmoded concepts. This is particularly true in Louisiana, where lots of Methane is produced, lots of industrial electricity is generated…and where few economists, industry folks and politicians believe in climate change.

Jamie Holmes posted a provocative article in arguing that now is the time to increase investments in energy efficiency and alternative renewable electrical generation, not cut back, on the naïve assumption that natural gas prices will continue to drop.

During the blackout at our house during Hurricane Isaac we briefly resorted to using a hand-cranked radio to receive the latest news from NPR on WRKF FM 89.3. By the time my Girl Guille** found a few charged batteries in the back of a drawer I had learned a practical lesson in the cost of converting mechanical energy to electricity, using an admittedly inefficient system.

Flash forward to Hurricane Sandy, with its extended power outage, at first for millions and still for thousands. I was intrigued to read about a new product, the Biolite Campstove and USB charger, which allows anyone stranded outdoors to generate sufficient heat to cook a small meal and sufficient electricity to recharge cell phone batteries…by burning sticks and other organic trash.

Enterprising representatives of the company that designed this product demonstrated its usefulness on the blacked-out streets of lower Manhattan, with curious passersby lining up to recharge their phones. Here’s a quote from a promotional ad for the device that involves their principal product, the Homestove, which is aimed at folks in Less Developed Countries in Africa and elsewhere. The Homestove would help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reduce deforestation and reduce residential smoke inhalation:

Buying a BioLite CampStove helps fund BioLite’s other product, the HomeStove, which is a charitable system that allows people to cook meals safely and sustainably in the third world.  Over half of the world cooks over open flames, and the resulting smoke causes an estimated 2,000,000 deaths per year.  Both of these products, the HomeStove and the CampStove, could certainly do a lot of good for the world.  We want one of each!  CampStove is now in production and is available for pre-order for $129.

The electrical generation is described here in Wikipedia as follows:

Thermoelectric generators (also called thermogenerators) are devices which convert heat (temperature differences) directly into electrical energy, using a phenomenon called the “Seebeck effect” (or “thermoelectric effect”). Their typical efficiencies are around 5-10%. Older Seebeck-based devices used bimetallic junctions and were bulky while more recent devices use bismuth telluride (Bi2Te3) or lead telluride (PbTe) semiconductor p-n junctions and can have thicknesses in the millimeter range.

That’s a segue to the timely topic of the relative efficiency and environmental cost of generating electricity from natural gas vs. from renewable sources. The current glut of natural gas and its concomitant decline in cost has prompted calls for doing away with government-sponsored research on renewable electricity.

In our seriously impoverished and flood-prone state the future of electrical generation from natural gas will become a very important topic during the next two decades. Those who think purely in economic development terms will call for balls-to-the-wall gas/electricity, forgetting alternative ways to pull electrons through power grids.

Those who advocate conservation and the need to explore alternative ways will be derided with slogans like, “Frack, fools, frack!” That’s OK, we have very thick skin and we’re used to being on the minority side of every issue.

*Founding editor

**This is alliteration, not a sexist slogan!

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