Planning for Abundance
Tuesday, November 1, 2011 at 09:48PM
Toby Considine

So what if things did change? What if distribution and electricity were not the be-all of commercial and domestic energy?

Some colleagues and I were discussing the improbable demonstration in Bologna on October 28, the demonstration of Andrea Rossi’s e-cat system. As I write this, responses range from exuberance to cries of fraud and, guardedly, some comments that he might have pulled it off. E-Cat, which is protected today by trade secrets rather than by patents, claims to create a reaction between Hydrogen and Nickel to create Copper…and a self-sustaining amount of energy. Dr. Rossi aimed to demonstrate a 1 MW generator; he demonstrated something less than half of that; and reasonable skepticism runs high.

However that plays out, the question is one I have pondered before. The E-Cat system creates heat. That heat is used in the usual ways to create electricity. If you had an unending heat source behind the house, then it is unlikely you would use it all for electricity.

I have a friend in the center of San Diego who is going off the grid using a fuel cell. It may not make economic sense, but he dislikes his local power company. He wants to be self-reliant. He plans to run his meter backwards because he can. He is using conventional off-the-shelf technologies. What he is pondering most, though, is the heat.

His conventional fuel cell generates heat from combustion, and spins a little turbine. He then must she the heat, and run again. On campuses and industrial sites, we take advantage of this heat for cogeneration. He wants to do the same.

Being in San Diego, he first began considering shedding heat into his Jacuzzi. His plans then moved to thermal exchanges with his domestic hot water system, and with the heat exchangers in his HVAC. He lives, though, in a temperate area, and uses most of his energy for cooling. For these, he uses conventional heat pumps, which use plenty of electricity.

His fuel cell, though, generates heat first, and electricity second. Absorption Chillers might make much more sense for him, but today, there are few sources for no-maintenance absorption chillers for the home. Some use them to cool as a use for solar thermal, but that market is aimed more at the energy hobbyist than at the high-end set and forget consumer.

For years, I have though that every data center is a thermal energy source. But last Friday, as something that appears to be the descendent of cold fusion was publicly demonstrated, albeit with close control over how well the public could observe, I thought about abundance, and how we might re-arrange our homes, or offices, and our cities around cogeneration everywhere, and around harvesting what we call waste heat today.

Today, the heat that makes our electricity is far way. For each of us, we start with electricity, and layer thermal energy on top. But what would we do, what equipment would we make, if we could each of us, in each building, start with thermal energy, and layer electricity on top.

Article originally appeared on New Daedalus (http://www.newdaedalus.com/).
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