Integrating the alternatives

This array of panels at the Dickinson College farm in Boiling Springs, Pa., harvests sunlight for heating water. The small PV unit at the top of the array provides sufficient power for electricity to run the water heater.
Photos by Sally Colby.

Conversations about alternative energy are sure to bring out political and economic views, often generously laced with emotion. Measures such as energy audits and incentives for sustainable efforts are making it easier for individuals and businesses to move toward more sustainable energy, but is there a sense of urgency about developing alternative energy in the United States?

In Germany, where 70 percent of the country’s energy comes from outside the country, there is a sense of urgency. Germany’s alternative energy efforts are considerable, with extensive research being conducted by government, corporations and individuals. Some projects are relatively small; others are quite extensive.

Verbio, an ethanol plant in Zörbig, Germany, is one example of a large-scale effort. It was started in 2001 and is the only industrial-scale ethanol, biodiesel and biogas producer in the country. “We are converting raw materials [corn] from farmers, starch to ethanol, then converting proteins, fats and cellulosic structures to biogas, and residual minerals we are converting to biofertilizer and recycling to the farmers for the next harvest,” said Dr. Oliver Lüdtke, who oversees operations at Verbio. “We are converting all the carbon molecules to energy, and converting minerals back to the farmers. We extract only the energy components of the grain, and recycle all the minerals. We are optimizing the entire biofuel value chain from the farmer to the consumer, and back to the farmer. This will give a stable income to farmers in overpopulated or low-fertility areas.”

An inverter (red box) changes the direct current (DC) from the photovoltaic array to alternating current (AC).

On a different level, Erhard Thale, an organic farmer in Brandenburg, plans to transition his 2,000 acres to the production of bioenergy crops because, as he puts it, that’s where the money is. Thale has lost money over the past three years, and says that due to the worldwide cycle that affects the organic market, the corn he harvested two years ago remains unsold. Thale feels he’s left with only two opportunities: to maintain his farm as a “nice landscape where people can stroll around and relax,” or take a chance with researchers who can help him make the best of his poor soil to produce bioenergy crops.

Then there’s city of Ludwigsfelde, outside Berlin, one of 25 regions qualified for funding through the country’s bioenergy competition, which was designed to help expand the bioenergy sector in Germany and promote development in rural areas.

“Nuclear and fossil fuels resources are finite,” said Social Scientist Dr. Peter Schmuck, with the Ludwigsfelde project. “Sustainable alternatives are needed, and possible. The focus is on biomass. We can make fuel from it and deliver a continuous flow of heat and electricity.”

Since the success of the project is dependent on having the population on-board with renewable energy efforts, Ludwigsfelde, a relatively young city and the smallest to receive funding, paid particular attention to the social science aspects of the enterprise. Schmuck says the project began with the identification of potential energy resources, including wood, agricultural products, manure, biosolids and organic waste. Project leaders then focused on engaging the citizenry, which was accomplished primarily through ecotainment, education that would help citizens understand the urgency and potential of the project. Ecotainment events included interviews with decision-makers, activities such as movies and visits to schools, best practice tours, household surveys and a Web site. The goal was for Ludwigsfelde citizens to work together to plan and create the new bioenergy production facility, then profit from the advantages. “To avoid making people frightened,” said Schmuck, “we will present it positively and show that it will help future generations.” The plan worked, and 75 percent of households signed supply contracts. The anaerobic digester began operating in 2007, providing 16 percent of the town’s electricity and 44 percent of its heating fuel.

Solar energy is collected by small plates in an array, then transferred to a storage tank inside the greenhouse.
Pipes filled with hot water heated by the solar heating system run under the raised benches in this greenhouse to ensure a consistent temperature for young, tender plants. Insulation under the bench helps keep heat in.

As for the many choices in alternative energy, deputy director of the German Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection, Dr. Hans-Jüergen Froese, said, “You cannot consider one aspect in the future. You have to combine all the different approaches. That means climate change policy, food security and energy security as a common strategy.”

Would a united effort with attention to the vast array of possibilities be feasible in the United States, where there is limited interest in alternative energy among the general population?

Claire and Rusty Orner say “yes.” At Quiet Creek Herb Farm (www.quietcreekherbfarm.com) in Jefferson County, Pa., the Orners are learning how to use a combination of solar and wind power. Since 2003, the farm has operated as a nonprofit, charitable, educational organization dedicated to increasing public understanding of the importance of conservation of natural resources, ecological thinking and healthful sustainable living. Last fall, they committed to alternative energy with a hybrid solar and wind system.

“It’s a 5.1-kilowatt system,” says Claire. “We have a 127-foot, 2.5-kilowatt wind turbine and 2.6 PV (photovoltaic) array. They share a conduit that goes to two different inverters that change the direct current from the array to alternating current for use on the farm.” Claire says they use about 650 kilowatt-hours each month, and have been selling about 150 kilowatt-hours back to the power company. “We’ve been able to reduce our electric bill by two-thirds, so it’s paying for all of the nonprofit use.”

A PV array mounted on a modern farm building is a stark contrast to the old architecture in Germany, but is accepted as necessary to free the country from its dependence on fossil fuel from Russia.

Prior to installing the wind turbine and PV system, the Orners’ energy assessment showed suitability for wind power at a relatively low measure of 2.9 on a scale of 1 to 7. “It takes about an 8 mph wind to get the turbine going,” said Orner. Monitoring through Fat Spaniel (www.fatspaniel.com) tracks ambient temperature, cell temperature, irradiance, wind speed and direction, and provides real-time power usage readings for Quiet Creek at siteapp.fatspaniel.net/siteapp/
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Vertis Bream, an alternative energy contractor headquartered in Adams County, Pa., agrees with what the Germans have concluded: there’s no single alternative energy source that will solve the problems. Bream got into the alternative energy business in the late 1970s, when he was building and installing small wind turbines. He also built a passive solar earth-sheltered house—the first in Pennsylvania—for his family. “It’s a high-mass house with an average temp of 72 to 74 degrees year-round,” said Bream. He also uses solar and wind power.

“We operated from 1973 to 1989 completely off-grid,” said Bream, who has “played around with” just about every kind of alternative energy, including solar, wind, methane, hydrogen, wood gas and diesel fuel processing. “I’m getting ready to put in a 10-kilowatt grid-tied system.”

As for wind power, Bream said Pennsylvania is a low-wind state. “Our state average is class 4 winds,” he said. “If you want to tie into the grid, you need 10 mph, and if you want to sell, you need above 10 mph.”

According to the American Wind Energy Association (www.awea.org), a wind turbine typically lowers a household electricity bill by 50 to 90 percent. Long-term savings depend on the setup cost, electricity usage and the average wind speed at the site. Bream says although parts of the Northeast have sufficient wind for power, a hybrid system using wind in the winter and solar in the summer, along with a water source for hydropower, is often a solution. Sometimes, depending on the farming operation, there might be another byproduct like methane. However, he says solar photovoltaic systems, or PV, are a more feasible option.

“We have the perfect storm for PV grid tie,” said Bream. “The prices of PV have really dropped due to mass production of modules. We have the [Pennsylvania] state sunshine rebate program, the 30 percent federal tax credit and you can sell carbon credits since you have a clean generating facility that isn’t producing carbon.” Bream says most of the systems he’s been quoting currently have six or seven-year paybacks, compared to 35-year paybacks just a few years ago.

This German research farm has added PV power to help offset the costs of running a traditional greenhouse.

For another energy alternative, Bream worked with the owner of a 100-acre orchard to create cold storage for apples, peaches and pears. “It’s earth-sheltered cold storage using high-thermal mass principles,” said Bream. “It uses less than half of the usual energy that would be required for such a facility. We used 12-inch concrete blocks, filled the cores with concrete, plastered the inside and put insulation on the exterior.” Bream says that most properties throughout the Northeast include rolling hills suitable for earth-berm structures, and that 68 degrees can be attained without supplemental input. “It’s cheaper to have a backup system than to over-engineer for more heat,” he said. “You can store cool from the winter, or warmth from summer.”

Bream is somewhat surprised that greenhouse growers aren’t using more solar power, but believes it’s a matter of education. To add solar power to an existing structure, Bream digs 8 to 10 feet all the way around the structure and adds insulation. “We isolate that mass of earth on the inside of the greenhouse,” he said. “Once you’ve isolated that block, you have 54 degrees without doing anything else.” Bream says this system, which he calls high-mass thermal storage, can be done with nearly any existing greenhouse. “It doesn’t matter where you are in the United States,” he said. “There are six months of cooling and six months of heating. You’re using the block of earth under the greenhouse as a storage medium. It stores warmth over the summer and maintains a temperature of high 50s to low 60s all winter. Plants do well in that environment, even if ambient temperatures drop at night. Over the summer, the block warms up, then releases heat in winter, with most of the heat released by June 21 [spring equinox].” Bream says the principle of operation for such a system is the same as geothermal, except once the system is in, operation is passive, with no additional costs to operate pumps and compressors.

When consistent, warmer greenhouse temperatures are needed for starting crops, a solar hot water heater might be the answer. Bream worked with Matt Steiman, biodiesel plant manager and assistant director of the college farm at Dickinson College in Boiling Springs, Pa., to incorporate a solar water heater for the college farm’s solar-powered greenhouse.

German farmer Erhard Thale, left, with Ludwigsfelde Deputy Mayor Wilfried Thielicke on some of Thale’s organic farmland. Thale plans to start growing energy crops, which he says will make more money.

“The challenge is that you only need to heat a greenhouse for six months a year,” said Steiman. “From May to October, we don’t need any heat.” The solar water heating system is relatively simple: plates collect heat from the sun, then a coil brings heated antifreeze into the greenhouse to circulate through stored water. The antifreeze is returned to the panels outside in a closed-loop system. “The antifreeze is at 150 degrees, the water in the 500-gallon tank is 95 degrees,” said Steiman. “A second coil goes to tubes that run under the beds.”

In addition to the solar water heater, the farm’s electricity comes from a 5.25 kilowatt PV array. Excess power produced during the day is sold to the utility company, and purchased back when necessary at night. The farm’s vehicles run on biodiesel produced on the farm, except for a unique solar-powered car. “We bought an electric car and put an awning on it, then put solar panels on top,” said Steiman.

Finding alternatives to traditional fossil fuel energy will likely remain the subject of much debate. However, whether it’s referred to as alternative, sustainable or renewable energy, there’s little doubt that we should be making an effort to conserve resources and explore options.

The author is a new contributor and freelance writer who farms and raises Great Pyrenees in south-central Pennsylvania.