FM Frequency: Powerful Realities

By Jeff Crane, P.E., LEED® AP
Published in the July 2009 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

While environmental demagogues command headlines, procure political favors, and intimidate the masses with scare tactics that make H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds look like an amateur documentary, the U.S. government is preparing to implement a stealth energy tax (a.k.a. “carbon cap and trade”) and is refusing to develop a coherent national policy supporting domestic sources of reliable, scalable, and affordable energy. Taxpayers and facility managers (fms) deserve better and should be outraged.

Considering the relatively miniscule amounts of power generated from today’s political favorites—wind and solar—it’s absurd that hydroelectric and nuclear power aren’t more serious contenders as large scale fossil fuel alternatives. But perhaps that’s most reasonably explained by the initial assertion of this column.

It would be even more reasonable to expect scientists to convert nuclear waste to powdered milk than to envision windmill farms across the fruited plain. By the way, has anyone else pondered the climactic implications of stripping the atmosphere of solar induced kinetic energy? The kite and pinwheel industries should hire better lobbyists!

And who would maintain a national network of rotating precision equipment? If the condition of our roads and bridges offers any indication, this mechanical engineer would expect rapid efficiency losses (friction), blade imbalances (bird impacts), deferred maintenance (budget cuts), and shaft bearing failures within a few short years (even less when in proximity to salt water, hurricanes, and tornado prone areas).

This isn’t to suggest there aren’t viable applications for wind turbines, but it seems naive to consider this a scalable, long-term solution. Even Don Quixote wouldn’t support taxpayer subsidies for windmills at a rate of $23.37 per MWH. (For an interesting report on federal subsidies related to various energy sources, please visit the Energy Information Administration’s Web site for official government statistics.)

But let’s not limit scrutiny to the windmill “fans.” Solar promoters aren’t exactly “lighting up” the grid either. Passive solar strategies (such as sun rooms, day lighting, and water heaters) employ proven and sensible technology that can be very cost-effective. In contrast, photovoltaic (PV) technology remains an overpriced underachiever.

PV panels can be excellent solutions for remote (and small) power needs (such as emergency phone boxes), and they can be ideal for serving low wattage compact fluorescent and LED lighting circuits. But despite federal subsidies of $24.34 per MWH (see aforementioned source from the Energy Information Administration) and priceless media promotion, the installed PV cost for a home ranges from $8,000 to $11,000 per kilowatt (KW) according to Southface, an Atlanta, GA-based non-profit advocate for sustainability. This cost should continue dropping, but until KW generation per square foot of PV improves substantially, the shadows they cast on a roof are probably worth more (HVAC savings when shading a roof from direct sun) than the electricity they generate.

To offer some powerful context so readers can understand the operational value of a $10,000 PV installation (generating 1 KW when the sun is shining), consider this example. In my home, my refrigerator is rated at 1.4 KW, my washing machine requires 1.2 KW, and microwaves typically range from .7 to 1.4 KW. So when we read about “net zero energy” commercial facilities (at least in the near future), we shouldn’t expect them to contain data centers, kitchens, copy machines, laundry facilities, computers, or occupants who refuse to work in parkas or bathing suits while adapting to seasonal temperatures.

So what are the possibilities of nuclear power as a resource of the future? The international community, local utilities, and the U.S. Navy have been effectively and safely using nuclear power for decades. While touring the San Diego Navy base during the spring TFM Forum, we learned that a nuclear powered aircraft carrier can travel the globe for 15 to 20 years between fill-ups. If a ship can be self sufficient for 20 years, why can’t a building or a small town?

Hydroelectric power, used for more than two centuries in the U.S., might be the most elegant, clean, and innovative of all the solutions currently under consideration. River flow volumes can fluctuate with precipitation. But in direct contrast to sunshine and wind speed, gravity is incredibly reliable—all day, every day.

In addition to spinning turbines to produce electricity, damming rivers to form new lakes and reservoirs would provide critically needed fresh water supplies and sustainability to growing areas of the country where recent droughts threatened large population centers (Atlanta, GA, Charlotte, NC, and the entire state of Florida).

Large freshwater lakes not only offer recreational benefits, they also provide new habitats for migratory birds, fish, and other wildlife. Niagara Falls (2.4 million KW) and the Hoover Dam (annual average of 4.2 billion KWH) are two of the most impressive examples of hydroelectric power made possible by exceptional engineers and courageous politicians.

Unfortunately, we live in a crisis driven society with many misplaced priorities. If $4 per gallon gasoline (2008), a bridge collapse in the midwest (2007), a three year drought in the southeast (2005 to 2007), gulf coast flooding (2005), a power blackout in the northeast (2003), and rolling blackouts on the west coast (2000 to 2001) didn’t “energize” the nation to put priorities in order and demand rational energy and infrastructure policies, we should probably anticipate even more crisis before reason and logic (and perhaps some degree of panic) are allowed to overpower emotions and political correctness. Until then, fms will prepare for increasing costs and decreasing reliability of utilities.

Crane is a mechanical engineer and regional property manager with Childress Klein Properties, a leading real estate developer and property management services provider in the Southeast.