Notes from my Renewable Energy talk

As promised, you can click through here and get a list of resources that I used in putting together my talk and that you might find helpful in general. I appreciate the great audience that I had – everyone was really engaged in the subject and I’m glad that so many of you got a lot out of it.

There are a couple of points I want to reiterate. First is that I think that true wealth can only be measured in Joules, the unit of energy, and that access to energy is a key human rights issue. I also think that the current and coming energy crisis can be solved by breaking both design and technology constraints on our production and use of energy. Of these, I think that the design constraints are going to be hardest to solve.

The two most useful resources that I found were the Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air ebook, by David MacKay, a professor of physics at Cambridge, and the Energy Information Administration website. Be sure to check out the EIA’s section on renewables. David MacKay’s book is worth a careful read, simply because he has a very quantitative approach to renewable energy. In general, I think he is a lot more pessimistic than is strictly warranted. For example, he assumes at one point that the British populace at large will simply reject certain renewables outright. I think that belies a certain cynicism. The book is well researched and footnoted, however, and while it is focused on the renewable resources and needs of Great Britain, there is a lot of relevant information for us Yanks as well.

The chart that showed the energy consumption in the US by sector was put together by the Energy and Environment Directorate at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. This is probably one of the most informative infographics I’ve ever seen.

I mentioned Amory Lovins and his concept of Negawatts. The book you want to read about this is called Winning the Oil Endgame. I also highly recommend his book, Natural Capitalism.

I’ll break the rest of the resources out by section.


Robert Rapier, a well-regarded engineer and writer, often posts very careful and critical pieces about new biomass technologies on his blog, R-Squared. He is very savvy about the field and is currently working with a startup in biomass gasification. He has been very critical of new ethanol startups that have claimed to “break the mold” with some new process and has thus far been correct.

Many companies are trying hard to breed bugs to generate biofuels in larger quantities and without the need for expensive distillation or other separation steps. Two that I think are interesting are LS9 and Synthetic Genomics. Synthetic Genomics is a startup company run by J. Craig Venter, the guy who made history for being the first person to sequence the human genome. He gave a TED talk last year about his work at engineering bugs that will produce fuel, which I recommend watching. The TED conference is a very wonderful program, by the way, and we’ll be doing a TEDxAsheville conference at the end of August. Very few scientists are as polarizing and controversial as Venter is, but he is undeniably brilliant. I highly recommend both of his TED talks.

Blue Ridge Biofuels is a local producer of high-quality biodiesel. They run a waste oil collection service for the WNC area and produce their biodiesel from that waste oil. Their facility is located in the River Arts District in Asheville.

The company associated with the University of Georgia that is working on biochar is called Eprida.


The cute little vertical axis turbines I showed are made by Mariah Power.  Unbeknowst to me, Bob, our host at Green Drinks, works for Blue Sun Renewables. You can buy these wind turbines from him.

The big turbines I showed are made, in large part, by GE Wind Energy. Many of the nacelles for these large turbines are manufactured at their Greenville, SC facility. Most of my data about the large turbines came from a presentation given by a GE Wind technical manager.


CIGS (copper-indium-gallium-selenide) thin-films and nanoparticle systems are the chief technology to watch in solar photovoltaics right now. The company I mentioned at length is called Nanosolar, but there are other competitors in the market, including OptiSolar, Miasolé, and Oerlikon.  I also mentioned that several groups have broken the 40% efficiency mark on photovoltaics. The first of these was a company called Spectrolabs. Their work has been published in a peer-reviewed journal [Applied Physics Letters 90, 183516 (2007)] and there is a mainstream article about it here.

Solar thermal is a great way for the average homeowner to take advantage of solar energy. There are companies in the Asheville area that install solar thermal panels. If you have the proper siting and the space for the tank, I recommend this.

One note about solar. A lot of folks will claim that the sun provides enough energy to power our society indefinitely. Suspicious of those claims, I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation and found that nothing could be further from the truth. I estimate that if we were to rely solely on solar power, we would “run out” in just over 500 years. There are some calculations to back that up, along with the assumptions I made in the process, in an earlier blog post.


The best source for information about geothermal energy comes from two places. The first is the MIT report that I mentioned in my talk. You can find that report here.  There is also Geo-Heat Center in Oregon that publishes a lot of useful information. My numbers for cost per watt installed came from the Geo-Heat Centre Quarterly Bulletin (Klamath Falls, Oregon: Oregon Institute of Technology) 28 (3): pp. 8-19.


A lot of you were interested in microhydropower. Western NC is a great place for microhydropower. Interested parties should check out, a web portal.

Finally, a few of the images I used in the presentation were Creative Commons licensed. I believe strongly in the Creative Commons model. Because of their license lack-of-restriction, I’d like fulfill my obligation by attributing the photos I used.

  • The photo of the Hoover Dam is licensed under the CC-By-SA 3.0 license from Wikipedia user Stubbleboy
  • The picture of the jatropha flowers is licensed under the GFDL.
  • The picture of the terra preta earth is licensed under the GFDL.

Most of the rest of the images I used are in the public domain. A few of the images were used without permission for educational purposes.

If I promised to make a note of something here during my talk and then forgot it, please contact me via this website or leave me a comment and I’ll rectify my oversight.

2 thoughts on “Notes from my Renewable Energy talk

  1. I really appreciated your site. I am graduating at OU this Spring and then going on the my Masters in sustainable energy. I will be an avid reader and participant in your articles. J Davis at CLS/OU gave me your info…God love her.

  2. She told me you’d be looking at the site. Please feel free to email me about any further questions about primary source mat’l.


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