Sunday, July 17, 2011

Simple Solutions and Occam's Razor: Why we are not seeing rapid adoption of energy solutions.

Interesting article in the Environmental Entrepreneurs “E2 Update” by David Willson. Mr Willson attended the 26 April 2011 White House Forum on Energy and heard DepSecDef Bill Lynn and DepSecEn Daniel Poneman speak. He was moved to write his article after hearing the tales of woe that the military was telling, yet again. It is the same tale that has been told since August 2006 when Major General Zilmer, USMC asked for a hybrid electric power station. Mr. Willson, who has a twenty five year history in the energy field, presents some simple (and possibly simplistic) solutions to the challenges of battlefield energy.

His holistic approach starts with energy efficiency. Geothermal heat pumps are one solution to inefficient generators and HVAC units. Close looped systems exchange heat between the atmosphere and cool temperatures thirty feet below the surface (more here). Small wind turbines provide the pumping power. Simple solutions for complex problems.

Mr. Willson also recommends swamp coolers as an old and proven technology. The water intensity of evaporative cooling may be a bit much for desert climes, but worth a look. He also advocates for thermally efficient buildings such as the Afghans have been building for centuries. On that point he aligns with COL (RET) T.C. Moore, USMC of leader of the Marine Energy Assessment Team. Can’t wait to see those showing up in the Sand Book.

Power production gets only a short mention. He is an advocate for combine heat and power applications. According to the Federal Energy Management Program, CHP “offers extraordinary benefits in terms of energy efficiencies and emissions reductions by optimizing the use of heat that would otherwise be wasted when generating power. CHP systems can improve power quality, reliability, and overall energy security”. These systems can be retrofitted to any system that produces heat as a byproduct. What’s not to love?

The bottom-line is that Mr. Willson’s suggestions are common sense, simple and have all been proffered before. Why have they not been adopted? Most often, we hear that U.S. Forces do not want to appear as permanent and such improvements give that impression. More directly, it may be because no one has changed the specifications that the various Contracting Commands use in writing the contracts for Logistics Civil Augmentation Program and for the contracts in support of CONUS installations.

The philosophical principal of Occam’s Razor is that we should tend toward the simpler theories in the absence of sufficient facts to support a more complex answer. In all the DOD energy conferences I have attended, I have never heard someone from any of the Contracting Commands speak about how energy efficiency is being considered in the products or services for which the government contracts. That does not mean it is not being done; it just says that I have not observed it. It will feature in the questions asked at this week’s Army/Air Force Energy Forum. Remember, if you cannot attend, send me your questions and I will respond; better still, post them in the comments section. Look forward to seeing many of you on Tuesday and Wednesday. Dan Nolan


David Willson said...

Dan raises some interesting and perceptive questions. Since a number of entirely-proven energy-saving technologies can in concert very materially reduce the volume of fuel that must be transported to Afghanistan by potentially vulnerable Convoy routes, and about half of US casualties have been incurred in such convoys, why then have these approaches not been rapidly adopted?

One issue cited for Evaporative Coolers, is the availability of water in such an arid environment. However, Iran to the west has a similar desert climate, and reportedly has nine million evaporative coolers. Even though rain is negligible in the fierce summer, water is often stored from the rainy winter (including as ice in special pits) and the spring. Moreover, if a central turbine is installed at a military Base, the prodigious volumes of water vapor generated from combustion can be readily condensed and used for evaporative coolers (or even for drinking water, after modest clean-up).

David Willson said...

Another issue cited is that “U.S. Forces do not want to appear as permanent and such improvements give that impression”. While these are not concerns for Evaporative Coolers and shallow geothermal heat pumps, large scale constructions of traditional thick-walled adobe buildings could certainly convey this dangerous impression, and might be reserved for any agreed-upon long term bases. However, once the underlying principles of why adobe works so well are grasped (e.g. latent heat transfers), a high performance thin-walled version predicated on Phase Change Materials can quickly be designed. These structures have the advantage of very rapid construction, and can even potentially include recycling of waste materials, such as empty plastic water bottles. If necessary, they can also be quickly destroyed without significant emissions or environmental issues. They may also be of interest to the Afghans.

The final issue cited (and possibly the most fundamental) is Contractual. In the domestic US, many Military Bases have had successful performance contracts with so called Energy Service Companies. The ESCo’s design and fund an energy-saving program, and they recover their costs by sharing in a portion of the value of the actual energy savings achieved. However, it is unclear whether the contracts in Afghanistan contain sufficient (or indeed, any) incentives to reduce energy consumption. History tells us that in any area, incentives are often important in the long term. A Management Accounting system that properly reflects the fully-loaded cost of delivering fuel to Bases in Afghanistan, and appropriate incentives for contractors/ESCo’s to benefit from the energy savings realized may be seen as logical precursors to effecting change. While certain longstanding contracting policies may have served admirably elsewhere for decades, we might ask ourselves if in the most unusual environment of Afghanistan they could now be giving rise to undesirable outcomes.

Francis Gentile said...

The simple blowing ventilation that can be provided by an not using any water in the Evaporative cooler is good enough for many installations I have made. Generally it is cooler as soon as the sun goes down, so the blower cools the place down in 20 minutes instead of waiting till 2 in the morning. I add 3m allergy filters on the intake and exhaust. The problem is that it is so simple people cant understand it. The innovation is overturning the expectation of magic button 'air conditioning'which people dont understand either. The mechanism is to stop supplying air condtioners. That would give the incentive to go get some mud insulation. Leaving the natives some buildings after we leave seems like a good thing to me. Not blowing up Saddams buildings or firing his army and police force, might have saved a lot of fuel. Not invading and occupying countries would be an incredibly novel way of saving fuel. Low expectations and doing a better job managing our own lives, is what I can actually do.

David Willson said...

Francis's passive approach of "simple blowing ventilation" can indeed be very effective in Afghanistan, especially since they take advantage of seasonal winds (such as the "120 Days Wind" of the summer). For a nice introduction to these passive approaches see:
In Afghanistan, a resourceful adaptation of an Evaporative Cooler is a thorn bush that has been soaked in water. In conjunction with adobe buildings it works well. The Afghans' A/C expense (and related Fuel Convoys) are both zero.
The ancient Persian windtowers also captured these seasonal winds in a resourceful manner.