19 Jan 2013
Talking Energy - On a lighter note
1988 view(s)

Every niche has its own lingo and Energy might have one of the most complicated ones around. Just as an example energy can be measured in six different ways! - Joule, Calorie, Tonne Oil Equvalent,  Watt hour, British Thermal Unit and Tonne Coal Equivalent. (For a good converter see: http://www.iea.org/stats/unit.asp ). Energy is one of those things that are increadibly hard to even define, some use the word 'work' or 'change' but it is hard to relate in a way that makes it understandable without leaving out some important aspect.

Add to that general confusion about the difference between Capacity, what a power plant could possibly produce at perfect conditions, (usually measured in Watt) and Generation, which is what it actually produces (measured in Watt-hour). Comparing 1 Watt of coal power capacity with 1 Watt of solar capacity could seem straight forward but 1 Watt of coal power could produce 1 Watt-hour four times faster than the solar plant because of difference in efficiency. Coal can be burned all through the night but the solar plant will only work during daylight hours and not during the cloudy monsoon or during Rajasthan dust-storms.

This large difference between Capacity and actual Generation is something that is sometimes not taken into account even by energy planners who have gotten used to counting in Capacity and unused to Renewable Energy technologies. (see for example the Central Electricity Authority's five year plan where very little is said about generation - http://www.cea.nic.in/reports/powersystems/nep2012/generation_12.pdf ). And the confusion is even more common among journalists, making many articles on energy confusing if not outright wrong.

Even with describing things in Capacity or Generation it might be hard for people outside the field to relate to what these numbers really mean to them. I like to count in 'per capita' i.e. How many people would be able to get their demand (and the demand of the industry and agriculture they rely on) satisfied by a certain Capacity of energy? In India the per capita usage is 800 'units' (yet another term and a pretty redundant one as one 'unit' is the same as one Kilowatt-hour) per year. This causes a very helpful statistical confluence (that I won't get into because it would just get more complicated) because it means that the efficiency of a plant will correspond (times 100) to how many people it can supply. I.e:

1 MW of solar power, working at an efficiency of about 20 % will produce enough energy for about 2000 people.   

1 MW of wind power, working at an efficiency of about 25 % will produce enough energy for about 2500 people.   

1 MW of hydro power, working at an efficienct of between 30-60 % will produce enough energy for about 3000-6000 people.

1 MW of nuclear power, working at an efficiency of about 60-70 % will produce enough energy for about 6000-7000 people.   

1 MW of coal or biomass power (with a sufficient supply of good biomass), working at an efficiency of about 80 % will produce enough energy for about 8000 people.   

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My own favourite gripe in Renewable Energy is with Concentrated Solar Power (CSP), or is it Solar Thermal? Or Concentrated Solar Thermal (CST)? Or even Concentrated Solar Thermal Power (CSTP)? That is just the problem - there doesn't seem to be any real clarity on what to actually call it! The technology that concentrates the heat from the sun through mirrors to heat steam and run a turbine still has an undefined name with different organizations choosing their favourite. Concentrated Solar Power has perhaps the most easily recognizable shortening - CSP - and it makes it clear that somehow power is concentrated - but then it becomes easily confused with Concentrated Photovoltaics (CPV). Solar Thermal is simple and easy, but it is also the same name as for the heaters that directly heat water for use in showers and other hot-water applications. CST or CSTP have not really caught on so far, perhaps it is too heavy terms. Hopefully with more of the technology coming up a preferred name will become clear.

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Lastly - With all this confusion around energy I took the help of an interesting tool - The "Up-Goer Five Text Editor" (http://splasho.com/upgoer5/) a text editor that only lets you use the thousand most common words in the English language (as an example it doesn't say thousand - it says ten hundred because the word "thousand" is not among the thousand most common words in English). I tried to explain Energy and Renewable Energy with the editor and it proved an interesting challenge. If you want to read, and have a laugh my attempt it is at: http://tinyurl.com/acsca92 but I present to you a small extract below but:

"...To use less black hard stuff and black wet stuff we try instead to use better the work that is coming now from the sun and inside our world, which is very hot. This lets out less, or no, tiny tiny things that keep in warm in our world. We can put pieces that turn around, like those that turn around from water-like air, to turn around when wind hit them. Wind is just tiny tiny things in the air moving to places where there is more room for them because the tiny tiny things coming from the sun has hit other tiny tiny things in the air and made them work and move away further up from the world so it is still work coming from the sun. We can also burn living green things as long as we put new living green things into the ground so the new living green things eat the tiny tiny things that will make the world warm by not letting out warm from the world because living green things need these tiny things to be able to store work from the sun.

We have also in new times been able to find hard stuff that when hit by tiny tiny things from the sun make work and move to other things through a line, when the work moves through the line we can move it first to our houses and places which make things to use some of that work. This way we right away make work from the sun work. These things take much money to build, more money than burning black hard and black wet stuff but black hard and black wet stuff is bad and will run out. We need to build more pieces of stuff that move around when wind hit it and stuff that when hit by sun makes tiny tiny things move through a line right away so we can have light and warm and not die."

Please take the challenge and see if you can improve upon my admittedly rudimentary explanation through the editor. Also, if you have any wisdom to add to how to make Energy and Renewable Energy easier to understand, please join the discussion.