Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Energy: The Lifeblood of the World

Our lives revolve around power. Power we rely on to charge cell phones, light rooms, and heat homes. Without power you wouldn’t be reading these words right now. (How sad would that be?) Electricity courses through conduits across the earth, the blood of our modern world. Where blood flows there must be a heart to pump it. And the hearts of our electric blood are power plants, making the earth a giant, multi-hearted beast.
Hearts vary across the planet. Small solar panels attached to a roof, struggling to produce enough power to supply a single home. Large dams spanning mighty rivers, feeding entire cities with a constant electrical rhythm. Wind turbines soaring into the sky. Their electric output a slave to the fickle wind. Coal hearts, burning harvested chunks of the planet and polluting the earth with each shovelful. Nuclear reactors, consuming uranium to give us power, but leaving us with radioactive leftovers that we struggle to safely dispose. These plants range from clean, renewable sources with minimal negative effects, to others burning a finite resource that poison the air, water, and ground both near and far.

Grand Coulee Dam. It produces over 7,000 MW at
peak operation.
We are lucky. Most of our power comes from a clean, renewable source. Hydroelectricity supplies most of Washington State with power. Roughly ¾ of all power generated in the state is from dams. Washington generates nearly 1/3 of all the hydroelectric power in the country. The next closest state is Oregon, and it produces less than half that amount.
I really like hydropower. I think it’s a good, long term source of power. Albeit one with a few flaws that people are working on solutions for.  I realize that not everyone feels the same way about hydropower and the dams that supply it. It blocks the natural flow of rivers and impedes the movement of fish. Silt piles up behind it and at times needs dredging. The river ecosystem both above and below a dam is forever altered. Raised water levels flooded towns. People were forced out of their homes and had to retreat to high ground. But I ask you this. Do you have a solution?
If we tore out the dams what would you suggest we replace their power generation with? Coal or natural gas plants that burn limited fossil fuels, and pump CO2 into the air and contribute to global warming? Nuclear plants that don’t pollute the air, but leave us with barrels of radioactive waste that remains harmful for thousands of years? I’ve heard a lot of people complain about the negative impacts of dams, but I’ve not heard many sensible solutions. Dams remain the lesser of evils.

There are other clean, renewable energy sources available. Solar and wind power remain underutilized. Geothermal energy remains viable in areas with geology that allows its use. Tidal generation is available on certain ocean coasts.
Even though a wind farm covers large areas of land most of
it remains usable for agriculture or wildlife.
Wind power is renewable, clean, and relatively harmless. Some birds and bats die each year when they run into the large blades (it averages out to a few birds per turbine per year), but it’s just a modern day evolutionary selector. Its impact to the ground it sits on is minimal. A wind farm may cover several thousand acres of land, but after construction is complete, the impacted area is a small fraction of that amount. Another concern is aesthetics, not everyone likes to see an army of spinning blades in their panoramas of the landscape. The biggest issue with wind turbines is supply. The wind doesn’t always blow. Even when placed in an area of fairly constant wind there will be days with no wind. Wind power requires a backup if the wind is still. This often takes the form of another operating power plant capable of taking up the slack when necessary.
Part of the solar array at Nellis Solar Power Plant.
Solar power takes a variety of forms. From photovoltaic cells (which directly convert sunlight into electricity) to concentrated solar power (which focus the sunlight and use it to heat a substance and from there function similarly to other power plants).
Photovoltaic cells are the generic form of solar power. They’re the panels that can be seen on some roofs or as free standing structures. They can be a little expensive, but the costs have gone down from their original prices as well as the efficiency going up. The biggest downfall is when they work. The sun has to be out. Effectiveness decreases under cloud cover and they stop working completely at night. Surplus power must either be stored (in batteries) or an alternate power source must be used during times of low or no generation.
Concentrated solar power relies on heat, as does most generated power. A very basic explanation of how they work is as follows. A field of mirrors (picture one or more football fields) would reflect the sunlight either onto a single tower and heat a substance to a molten flowing state (several hundred degrees), or it would reflect on several different pipes running through the field. This molten substance then is piped through water heating it until it boils, produces steam, and builds pressure. (At this point it becomes like almost all other types of power generation.) This steam is then used to spin a turbine, which spins a generator and produces electricity. (Hydro power is similar except it uses liquid water to spin the turbine instead of steam.) This type of solar power has the benefit of being able to continue working after the sun goes down due to the stored heat in the substance.
A depiction of the different styles of
concentrated solar power.
Tidal power relies on tides flowing back and forth to produce hydroelectric power in ways similar to a dam across a river. Geothermal power uses heat from the earth at active geological sites to produce steam and generate power.

Size also remains a factor. Picture Rocky Reach Dam, it looks pretty big, right? Let’s say the dam and associated electrical equipment takes up ~100 acres. It also creates a reservoir behind it 43 miles long with a surface area of 98,000 acres, almost all of it usable for water activities, irrigation, and other uses. Rocky Reach has a max output of 1300 MW (1 MW is enough to power 225 to 300 homes). So 1300 MW would power anywhere from 292,500 homes up to 390,000 homes. Wenatchee has a population of ~32,000 people. If an average household is 4 people that means there are ~ 8,000 homes in Wenatchee. (Of course I’m leaving out apartments, businesses, etc.)
The Wild Horse Wind Farm outside Ellensburg covers ~10,000 acres and has a max output of 273 MW with 149 wind turbines, enough power for 61,425 to 81,900 homes. It would take nearly 5 wind farms of that size to produce the power of that one dam.
Nellis Solar Power Plant in Nevada produces 14 MW on 140 acres, roughly the size of Rocky Reach Dam. This output is enough to power 3,150 to 4,200 homes. There would need to be nearly 93 plants of similar size to produce the same power as that one dam. And it would need to cover an area of ~20 square miles. Picture the entire city of Wenatchee replaced with fields of solar panels.

A view from the back of Grand Coulee.
My point to all this is threefold. One, there are lots of options for producing power that aren’t as environmentally harmful as current methods. Several options are renewable, clean (more or less), and environmentally friendly (mostly). Second, almost all power generation is going to have people on both sides of the argument. People will be wholeheartedly in favor and vehemently opposed. Third, size is a factor. The fact is some of these options aren’t viable in all location because of the space necessary.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Our World Supplied by Trees

Taiga forest in Alaska. Taiga forests exist in northern 
latitudes and consist mainly of coniferous trees.
Look out the window and consider what you see outside. There’s a good chance a tree is on that list. Trees can be found almost anywhere. They cover huge tracts of land in areas ranging from the equator to arctic regions. How often do you stop and think of everything that trees provide? Take a guess at the number of products derived from one species of a tree or another. Would you say 100? 500? 1000? The actual number is nearer to 5000. That’s right. 5000 products rely on a product derived from a tree. Industries ranging from construction to health care rely on trees.
Peeling bark from a Pacific yew.
When I say health care relies on trees, I don’t mean wooden tongue depressors. Several drugs found their origins in chemicals produced by trees. Aspirin was first isolated from the bark of a willow tree. The cancer drug, Taxol, was found in the bark of the Pacific yew. Quinine, an antimalarial drug, is derived from the bark of the cinchona tree. Eucalyptus oil, used in many cold medicines, is extracted from the leaves of the eucalyptus. I could keep listing more drugs, but I think you get the idea. The amazing thing is this is just a fraction of the possibilities. There are still countless tree species that have yet to be studied for their medicinal properties.
Trees supply our paper. The list of products that use paper is astounding. Books, newspapers, posters, brochures, etc. are all produced from paper. Paper gave us the means before computers to spread information around the world and make it available to the masses. Cardboard is produced in much the same process and is just as useful. And regardless of whether you consider paper environmentally friendly, it does remain a completely renewable resource. Computers, however, are not renewable. Every computer is built out of materials that are finite. Think about that next time you’re trying to save the environment reading the news on your tablet instead of on newsprint.
A log being rough cut into lumber.
How many buildings could we build without a ready supply of wood? Not many. And they’d probably look a lot different. I realize that many large buildings are constructed from other base materials, but houses still rely a great deal on wood. Lumber cut straight out of the tree is used to frame the house. Added to the wood needed for framing is the collection of plywood, particleboard, fiberboard, I-joists, and glulam beams used in other parts of the construction. All of these are made from processed wood parts. Most of it is wood that would be unusable otherwise, and is processed with an adhesive to create these uniform products.
What about all the food we get from trees? I realize we don’t generally eat the wood itself, but trees produce many of our favorite foods. Apples, cherries, pears, oranges, and several other fruits grow on trees. Walnuts, pecans, almonds, and other nuts do as well. These crops represent an important portion of our diets and for those that grow them an important source of income.
Latex flowing out of tree bark into a collection vessel.
Rubber comes from the refined sap of a few species of trees, but the most common tree is the ParĂ¡ rubber tree. Granted the majority of rubber doesn’t come from trees. Most of it is produced from petroleum. But rubber trees represent a renewable source of rubber. On the other hand removing natural habitat to grow these trees is not a viable option either. Rubber is used for car tires, without it what would we drive on? We use it to put soles on our shoes. Bouncy balls are made out of rubber, and who doesn’t love a bouncy ball?
A view of the Amazon Rainforest.
Obviously this is just a very small sampling of the vast number of products that come from trees. And while I’ve only listed a few I hope these stand out and show the importance of trees in our everyday lives. Without trees what would we have? Not much. Consider the importance of wood in just two items: lumber and paper. Where would our society be without these two things? Would we have advanced to this point without them? My guess is no.
I realize that many products have switched from wood to other materials. Sometimes this is because the other material is better for that use. Other times it’s because the other material is cheaper. But how often is that other product renewable? Unless it’s also a product that grows it’s probably not sustainable. I’m not saying to run out and start cutting down trees because they’re so awesome and can be used for many things. Improperly managed trees will not remain a renewable resource for long. But proper management and utilization of trees can allow us to keep using the plethora of items that are produced from them.

Come back next week for another post.


Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Native Plant Sale: Part 2

It’s the beginning of December and the snow is starting to fall as I sit writing the blog for this week. Frankly it’s about time. There’s something incredibly relaxing about watching the snow fall. As much as I would love to dive into talking about snow, I must save it until a little later in the winter. It’s the beginning of the month and therefore time to return to the topic of our Native Plant Sale and talk about four more plants we’re offering.

Quaking Aspenn
Quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) is the second deciduous tree that we’re offering this year. Its range includes all of Canada, most of the United States except for the Southeast, and down into Mexico. Quaking aspen prefers to grow in soils that stay moist most of the year. It can grow in some areas with less moisture, but will not reach the same growth potential. The trees can reach up to 90 feet in height with adequate moisture, but will often remain under 40 feet, especially in drier sites. The tree gets its name from the way the leaves move in the wind. The stem shape of the leaves causes them to “quake” in even a light breeze. The leaves are a very pleasing green color through spring and summer, and in fall they turn a brilliant yellow. Aspens stabilize well, but sprouts will grow off of the roots.

Mock Orange
Mock orange (Philadelphus lewisii) is another one of the eight shrubs offered for sale this year. The range of mock orange includes Washington, Idaho, Oregon, Montana, California, British Columbia, and Alberta. It prefers well-drained, moist soils. It can be found in areas ranging from riparian to open or forested lowlands to rocky upland sites. It reaches heights ranging from six to ten feet with a spread of roughly six feet. Mock orange flowers anywhere from May to June. The blooms are white and give off a sweet smell making this shrub quite pleasant to have nearby when in bloom. This shrub is very useful for soil stabilization.

Snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus) is the fourth out of eight shrubs offered this year. The range of snowberry includes the coastal mountains of the west coast, north into British Columbia, and east over to New England. It can grow in sun or shade, and in a variety of soil types including stream banks, moist clearings, and open forests. It grows from three to eight feet tall with an approximately equal spread. The flowers are white to pinkish. The berries are white during the summer and change to a darker color as they ripen. The berries are considered to be poisonous, so don’t eat them.

Woods Rose
Woods rose (Rosa woodsii) is the fifth of eight shrubs for sale this year. This rose has a range that covers western North America as far north as Alaska, south into Mexico, and east to Iowa and other Midwest states. It can grow in sunny or moderately shady sites. It is adapted to a range of moisture levels on site from riparian zones to dry grassy slopes. However, it grows best in moist, well-drained soils and on sites that are open. It grows roughly six to eight feet tall with an approximately equal spread. The flowers are various shades of pink and it blooms anywhere from May-July. Woods rose is useful for erosion control due to its rhizomatous root system that spreads out and helps stabilize the soil.

Of course by the time I finished writing this blog the sun was out and the snow has stopped without really any of it accumulating. Sigh. There will always be another day for more snow to come though. This concludes the brief look at these four plant species. Eight plants down, four more to go in the beginning of January. If any of these species interest you make sure to visit our website, download the available forms, and place your order!

Until next week,