This is the 25th chapter of the Utopia/Dystopia series.
This week in Utopia, Jack's class tours the main energy producing facility in the Desert. The discussion is about central solar energy generation and "natural" swimming pools.
As always you can see a souped up version of the post with pix, links and reading lists at my blog
I have no doubt that we will be successful in harnessing the sun's energy... If sunbeams were weapons of war, we would have had solar energy centuries ago.
Sir George Porter
Utopia 13: G-Dec
The entire class was able to fit into the shuttle provided by The Great Desert Energy Cooperative (G-DEC), with room to spare. The shuttle cruised over the desert East of New Acrosanti.
A sharp glint of silver sparkled on the horizon as the shuttle crested on of the many dunes. The sun was now on a downward trajectory but the air only seemed to get hotter. Jack and the kids were dressed in light weight tunics and shorts but still, Jack at least, was covered in a thin layer of sweat. The children did not seem to notice the heat and continued to giggle and bounce in their seats just as they had at the beginning of the day. Jack finished the canteen of ice water provided by the shuttle prior to their destination.
The glint of silver turned into a needle and then a monolith worthy of any Egyptian temple. A bright yellow glow lit the base of the monolith as though it was on fire. The kids on the right side of the shuttle abandoned their seats to squeeze into seats on the left side to gawk at the shining tower rising out of the desert floor. The shuttle crested the next hill and paused to allow its occupants to gaze down into a valley where the tower resided. The tower rose 60 stories into the air. It had an oblong hole in the middle near the top heightening the feeling that it was an enormous needle waiting to be threaded. It shimmered against the desert with a light that was dazzling, as what appeared to be a massive fire consumed its base.
Their guide, a cheery looking college age woman named Cory, came to the front of the shuttle and began to give her canned speech, "Lemonade Tower was our first solar steam generator unit. It went on line 60 years ago. It now provides 9000 MW of electricity, enough electricity for 500,000 homes." The children were dually impressed.
"It stands 600 feet in the air but also 65 feet into the ground. At the base of the tower you see about 1900 individually guided mirrors called heliostats that cover 120 acres of desert land." As though on que the fire at the base of the tower shuddered and from the shuttle perspective became dimmer as the mirrors redirected the Sun's energy into the eye of the needle. "The heliostats direct the Sun's energy to the receiver in the tower. That is the small slit you see near the top of the tower. Each mirror directs about 5 megawatts a day. That energy is heat energy and 80-95% of that energy is transferred to the molten salts in the receiver. It causes the molten salt to rise to a temperature of 540-840 degrees Celsius. That is 1000-1500 degrees Fahrenheit for your teacher." Jack smiled at the joke and several of the children snickered. "The molten salt then flows to the base of the tower where it is either stored in insulated tanks for night time use or it continues its journey to the plant where the heat is used to convert water into steam that turns our turbines to make electricity. If for any reason the salts got stuck in the tower and cold salt did not continuously flow into the receiver it could easily reach as high as 2200 degrees Celsius, more than enough to melt glass, let alone the metal the tower is made of.
"Who can tell me why the tower was named Lemonade Tower?" Several children put their hands up and the guide called on Rupa.
"Because there was a saying at the turn of the century, 'If life hands you lemons, make lemonade.' It means they wanted to turn the disadvantage of their cropland becoming a desert into an advantage."
"That's exactly right." Rupa beamed with satisfaction. "Although there were smaller models of central receiver solar plants in Southern California, Lemonade Tower is the first to be built in the Great Desert. Now there are 56 of these facilities and 3 such facilities in Southern California.
The guide crowed, "Now we will show you our pride and joy." The children gave an enthusiastic round of agreement.
The shuttle lurched forward again and they descended into the valley toward the tower and its flaming base. As they approached the fire at the base became morphed into individual mirrors. A crescent of mirrors nearly completely encircling the base of the tower. Each mirror actually consisted of 12 panels, 6 on either side of a massive metal frame. The shuttle skirted the edge of the field of mirrors and proceeded to the far side of the complex to a nondescript square building.
The class exited the shuttle at the far side of the building. Before entering the facility each of them was required to place protective ear phones in their ears and a hard hat over their heads which read "Guest" on the front. They were also given especially dark sun glasses to use later in the tour. Despite the ear phones the din on entering the building could still be heard.
The sound of the guide's voice sounded in each of their ears as she stood in front of them. "Can everyone hear me? Good. The sound that you hear in the background is the turbines creating the energy for 500,000 homes. If you were not wearing the ear plugs, not only would you be unable to hear my lovely voice but the noise would actually cause you physical pain. It would most likely also do some damage to your hearing and leave you with ringing ears tonight." She turned and they followed her through the facility as she described the function of each of the great machines as she passed.
Finally, they were allowed to go outside again. Now it was approaching sunset and the air, thankfully, was cooling. They emerged into the outer circle of mirrors. A single panel of mirrors towered over them 20 feet in the air. Each black, shining surface flawlessly reflected the last of the sun's rays to the tower which loomed above them.
The air was stifling but their guide seemed undaunted. Now they were instructed to put on their sun glasses. Between the mirrors there were sapling trees. She explained that the plant not only brought electricity to the Northern half of the West but that they were also working in conjunction with The Desert Reconstruction Project. The panels provide shade for part of the day. The saplings and companion plants were carefully planted in areas where shade was expected to hit the ground about 50% of the day. Allowing the tender samplings time to grow and develop. When the samplings grew tall enough to obscure the panels the entire operation would be moved further east and the new forest would be tended by the Reconstruction Project. Thus they would slowly take back the Desert and provide energy for more cities at the same time. Similar situations were also being run on the Eastern side of the Great Desert. Eventually the Desert would shrink back to its former size and other energy sources would need to be created by then, but that was centuries away.
They made their way through the series of mirrors to the base of the tower. Their guide herded them into the the tower to a large elevator. As soon as she placed her key in the elevator slot their stomachs dropped to the bottom of their feet. The elevator climbed to a height of 55 stories in a matter of seconds. They emerged onto an observation deck still some distance below the eye of the needle. They race to the windows that provided a bird's eye view of the desert for miles around the facility.
"We are about 15 feet below the receiver, but from here you can see the black tubes with the liquid salt in them. They are painted black so they will absorb the most energy possible from the sun." She indicated a small window above them where they could see multiple black tubes in a circle around the tower being lit by an unbelievably bright light. Despite the clear heat shield between them and the receiver, the intense heat of the receiver could still be felt. "If it was not near sunset, you could not even stand on this deck. It would be far too hot." Cory added.
"Cold liquid salt is coming up this blue pipe," she pointed below them in the center of the tower, "And then moving through the receiver tubes and back down the red pipe." She pointed to a red tube.
After giving the class some time to explore the guide herded Jack's class back into the elevator and down to the bottom of the tower where the cold and hot storage tanks resided. Cold was a relative term as the salt solidifies at 220 (430 degrees F) degrees Celsius and therefore the cold tank was kept at a frigid 250 degrees.
After the tour of the paneled facility the guide herded the class into shuttle again. Now the sun had dropped below the horizon and the last light of day was fading. Jack was relieved to see that in front of each seat was a cold canteen of water.
The children began to look more worn as they entered the shuttle to return to the hotel. They were quieter and their movements more subdued. Jack had to break up two disagreements about seating arrangements prior to leaving the Energy Cooperative.
As they pulled up to the hotel, much to Jack’s relief, the air had started to cool. The children were brought into the cafeteria again for dinner. With dinner the children seemed to revive somewhat. Once they were done eating the children were allowed to go back to their rooms to change into a swim suits. Being able to swim was a rare treat for Jack's class. The water feature tucked under the bowl shape of the hotel did double duty as a cooling device and a "natural" swimming pool. The problem of evaporative loss had been solved by placing the pool completely under the bowl shape of the hotel. Any water that evaporated rose and hit the cool silt cast walls of the interior bowl and condensed again. The water was then directed back into the pool. Jack made a mental note to tell Craig about the pool and see what he could do with the idea.
The pool was designed to look like a desert oasis. The swimming area was marked with a row of raised tiles. A water fall on the far side aerated and agitated the water keeping undesirable elements out of the swimming area. Three sides of the pool were surrounded with a shallow area filled with a variety of aquatic plants which purified the water so that chemicals were not necessary. Jack knew at the bottom of the pool would be a pump that circulated the water through the various areas to help keep it clean. Somewhere hidden in the waterfall would be a UV device to further purify the water. Jack took the children down to the pool. They immediately dove in. A game of chicken started almost immediately but it was soon abandoned as the children burned off the last of their energy. At 9 o'clock Jack and the chaperones began to corral the children and shepherd them upstairs to bed. They were disappointed and stalled as long as possible when Jack announced that it was time to get ready for bed but they did finally comply.
At 10 pm the sounds from the balcony began to decrease to whispers. Jack walked up and down the balcony and listening at all the open windows. The night was actually quite cool and the desert breeze flowed into each room. Only sleepy whispers remained in the rooms. Jack went back to his own room with the intention of falling asleep but sleep did not come.
Finally he wandered down to the lobby and bought an herbal tea from a vendor there. He wandered out to the oasis garden in front of the lobby. There he found a seat by the waterfall. He sat staring into the hypnotic water as a night light illuminated the water to great effect. Even here his melancholy followed him and gnawed at his mind. How could he say good bye to these children at the end of the year? Had he given them everything they would need to succeed in this world? How would he be able to start the whole process again with new children? When these children left would they take the best of him with them? Why had he thought he could do this with his life? How had he thought this would make him happy? How would it ever make him happy again?
With no answers to his questions, exhaustion finally caught up with him and he finished his tea and went back to his room around midnight.
The Concepts behind the Fiction:
1. Smoke and Mirrors
Every day enough energy from the sun hits the US to power the US for 1 1/2 years. Although 15% of the energy is reflected back into space and another 30% is used to evaporate water so we can have rain the rest could in theory be used to power our world. An area of 100 square miles could generate all of the electricity that is now being generated by toxic fossil fuels like coal.
In 1978, near Barstow California, a test facility using mirrors was completed to generate electricity from the sun. The Europeans have already discovered the hidden wealth of their deserts and taken the technology developed in our deserts to provide electricity for their population. France,Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Israel, Germany, Japan, China and Russia are all building similar facilities.
TREC began a series of studies and seminars with world experts on the issue, which showed that affordable solar thermal power was possible — and by 2006, skyrocketing fossil fuel prices began to make it look even more economically attractive. In April 2006, TREC issued a report by the German Aerospace Center that found that using less than 0.3 percent of the deserts of North Africa and the Middle East, thermal solar power would meet a large chunk of Europe’s electricity needs — at a cost less than oil.
In November 2007, TREC presented the Desertec proposal to the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium. At a cost of nearly $400 billion over the next 30 years, the power stations in the desert — more than a hundred initially, but ultimately perhaps thousands, according to the Desertec plan — could not only meet much of Europe's energy demand by 2050, but also two-thirds of the energy needs of North Africa and the Middle East, according to the proposal.
In addition to providing Europe with power and cutting carbon emissions, TREC says another benefit of the thermal power plants is that the excess heat from the plants could be used for desalination. Each plant has to be cooled "like the engine of a car," Knies says, and using saltwater to do the cooling would be an effective method of desalination: The water would evaporate, leaving the salt behind, and could then be recondensed.
There are potential roadblocks, however. The power would be carried by undersea cables across the Mediterranean to EU member stations, and how much energy would be lost during the long transit — and whether that would make the plan less economically attractive — is one concern. The Desertec proposal says, however, that by using high-voltage direct current transmission lines, like the ones commonly used on land, to carry the electricity across the sea, very little energy would be lost.--Geotimes April 2008
A super grid has even been proposed. In this novel I propose a super, super grid. One that crosses the Atlantic so excess daylight energy generation from the US get used by Europe when they are in the dark and excess European energy is used by the US at night. This does require a great deal of cooperation and a switch to DC, though.
These towers are getting built. Even China, the queen of the coal plant, has one in the making. There are ones that work off of the sun's heat that is reflected into a receiver, like the one in the story, and those that take the heat energy of the desert floor itself and direct it to the tower where it turns turbines and makes energy.
2. Natural Swimming Pools
Chlorine is very toxic. Its manufacture and even its use hurts the environment. Without chlorine, though, a pool would become a cesspool of bacteria right? Well yes if it is designed that way. So here is a solution, don't design it that way. Instead design it to be self cleaning the way nature intended pools of water to be. A natural swimming pool uses plant roots and UV light to filter and clean the water.
To my mind these pools are so much more attractive then the pools you need to add toxic chemicals too. Here is a sample of what is out there:
[Sorry DKos readers, this portion of the blog really is better viewed on my blogsite.]
Nice huh. Makes a person want to dive right in. These pools not only provide a refreshing break for humans but a home for semi aquatic wild life, like frogs. Wouldn't that be better than a pool of poisonous water?