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Big Bend Regional Sierra Club Regular Public Meeting Feb 15, 2007

Minutes of Big Bend Regional Sierra Club, Feb 15, 2007

Dr. Keith Klein and Ken Baierlipp spoke to the Regional Big Bend Sierra Club at its February meeting about recent advances in solar and wind energy that would allow extensive hydroponic farming, cheaper home construction and 'living off the grid' for people in remote areas. If advances continue to be made in harnessing electricity from photo voltaic panels and wind turbines, Baierlipp said, all of Texas could be powered from a 10-square-mile section of Brewster or Presidio County, both of which are well-situated for sunlight, proximity to the equator and arid climate. But the economics of solar power are not there yet, he added.

Dr. Klein, assistant professor in Sul Ross State University's Department of Industrial Technology, opened the program with pictures of papercrete construction in Marathon at Eve's Organic Garden B&B. Papercrete is an alternative building material made of ground-up waste paper and Portland cement that has recently been tested and given the civil engineering 'seal of approval.'

He then showed pictures of an experimental fireproof roof system with solar capabilities that he constructed on a grant for the Association of General Contractors of America. The roof could pull hot air off the roof and use it for heat within the building. The roof unit followed the path of the sun, which changes angle from season to season. A current test that he has constructed on the hill at Sul Ross runs at almost 100 percent efficiency and the 50 square foot "water collector" can heat a 165 gallon tank of water in a day from 70 to 140 degrees F. The energy of the sunlight striking the earth is about 1,000 watts per square meter, or enough to power 10 100-watt light bulbs. Present solar cells are about 15 percent efficient so about 150 watts of energy would go into a battery, he said.

Dr. Klein said the Department of Energy is now promoting experiments that convert sunlight directly into diesel fuel. He is experimenting with a parabola that catches sunlight, converts it into energy, and can funnel that energy into a hydroponic system to grow food. "We don't have surface farming (in Brewster County), but we could grow tilapia," he said. He said the ample sunlight in the West Texas area could be collected in a trough and sent underground. He is building a mechanism that can track the sun and catch optimum sunlight throughout the day. The entire spectrum of light from the sun is not used by plants, he explained. "Plants don't use the green light" from the sun, he said, which they throw off as the color green, nor do they use the infrared. These portions of sunlight could be converted into electricity, heat, or even into more visible light. In the first test for his tracking unit currently on the Sul Ross hill the absorber reached 406 degrees F 'within about five minutes,' he said.

Baierlipp, an ex-corporate pilot who is trained in chemistry transitioned his own company about five years ago from aviation to renewable energy and entered the renewable energy business by dismantling utility level photovoltaic systems. He said he has learned the systems' faults through taking them down, but he believes advances in photovoltaic systems will eventually replace limited fossil fuel.

All the energy man uses comes from the sun, except for nuclear. Even wind energy is created by the sun, since the driving force for wind is temperature or heat from the sun, he said.

Baierlipp said Texas is now the No. 1 state in wind energy, leading even California. And Texas wind energy last year exceeded the capacity of the nuclear-powered Comanche Peak power plant, with turbines built in less time and at about 1/6th of the cost.

But the economics of all green power (solar, biomass, etc.) are still not far enough evolved to avoid paying extra for its use, he said. Wind energy is now competitive but coal-fired power is still the most efficient. In the Big Bend area he said all homeowners should use solar energy for hot water, because "within a reasonable period of time" it pays for itself. (Don Dowdey was the only member of the audience who said he had a solar hot water heater.)

At the moment a photo voltaic energy system, including solar panels, batteries, inverters and associated wiring and accessories can be produced at about a 1 to 3 energy ratio, in other words, for the energy required to manufacture and install such a system, the system will produce three times that much energy in a reasonable lifespan. Europe is now having problems with balancing its electricity grid, he said, because it can't count on continuous reliability of either wind or solar, and its massive subsidies for installation of green power have placed great amounts of this variable power source on the grid. Currently much of the European solar energy is not cost effective but other benefits are obtained.

Baierlipp demonstrated that comment by showing pictures of the Hockaday School, a private all girls' school on the north side of Dallas, which has a 4 kilowatt photo voltaic system that powers a 60 x 30 foot greenhouse, swamp coolers and heating, plus all lighting for the greenhouse. He said the students use the system to study astronomy with a tracking computer that calculates where the sun will be. The greenhouse also has a transfer switch so that if it is cloudy for several days, electricity comes from the utility company - but that seldom happens, he said.

Baierlipp also showed how home builders can site a house in relation to the sun and achieve passive solar heating. He said photovoltaic is not (yet) cost effective if you're already on the grid, but if you want to add power or if you're a long way from the grid - on a ranch where it would cost thousands of dollars to run an electrical line to where it's wanted - it can be cost effective.' He showed pictures of a system installed at a ranch near Fort Davis. The power company wanted $123,000 to extend the power lines to the home. The solar panels, control equipment, batteries, and generator cost in the range of $40,000.00.

Sharp Electronics of Japan is the largest manufacturer of photo voltaics, he said, and he recommended Andy Prude of Prude Ranch as a local expert in installation of photo voltaic systems for wells. He said pre-planning - of where to put batteries, whether to use natural gas, wind energy or solar - is essential for putting in 'off the grid'' systems. He recommends a hybrid system with windmill and solar for 'off the grid' customers, with batteries to run the system for three days. The modern smaller wind turbines are now very effective.

He said Southwest Energy now has a small 'plug and play' wind turbine/ battery system which you can plug into an existing outlet in your home. Solar panels are mainly multi-crystal, single-crystal, or a newer "plastic" design. He recommends the multi-crystal or single-crystal patterns because they last longer and are high-efficiency with some converting 19 percent into electricity. Asked why Europe is so far ahead of the United States in its use of 'green power,' Baierlipp said it was largely because fuel costs more there. And the second dynamic, he noted, is that there are liability issues and the U.S. has "lots of trial lawyers." For example, Europe runs on 240 volts, "and if you stick your finger in the plug it's your fault, you can't sue the power company." The 240 volt system is more efficient "but people can get fried," he said. Europeans and Japanese are also more conservative with energy, he said.

Baierlipp said that anyone who wants to discuss solar energy in general terms may contact him at his company, Apoenergy (817-296-9349) or by email at apoenergy@verizon.net.

The March meeting of the Sierra Club will be held on Tuesday, March 13, at Alpine High School, in connection with a meeting of La Entrada. The April program will be presented by Texas Disposal System, the new waste management authority for Alpine.