What can we do today to save the world of tomorrow?

The realization of the future being in your hands can be a hard one to wrap your head around. Even so, it is too important to brush it under the rug. This does not mean that you are solely responsible for everyone’s future, it just represents a new view for uninformed individuals.

In the not so distant future, the world could be facing a real problem and we can all make a difference. Exploring renewable energy is a step in the right direction.

I was graciously allowed to examine some of these epic devices up close at a local windfarm. I have always been interested in science and math as well as their amazing practical applications. Seeing such a colossal creation and being allowed to interact with its components was a joy.

Personal photo of me standing at the base of a local windmill

I visited the wind farm and immediately upon arrival I stand beneath one of these behemoths. Walking up for a closer inspection, I realized how incredible the power of wind really is. Three blades of over half the length of a football field spin viciously to siphon off some of this energy. Those blades are connected to a turbine, much like one inside a typical reactor. This converts some of this immense wind energy into mechanical energy and immediately disperses it to the surrounding towns.

Closer to the building layed parts of broken windmills due to storms and lightning strikes. There were massive blades with holes in the frame and some broken in half as a result of the lightning from a recent thunderstorm. I walked over to one and I looked down the hollow core. It was so big that I thought I could actually stand in it. So I did just that; I fit my entire 6'1" frame with room to spare in the center of just one of these blades.

Image from Trinity Hydraulics Website

The sheer size of just a few components was striking but it was not the most impressive aspect of my visit. Although a blade was about 60 meters in length and so wide that I could actually stand in it, it was also extremely light for its size. One of the workers and I were in the shop talking when he said, “Hey, you see that piece over there?” (pointing at a 20-meter section of a blade) “Go pick it up.” At first I thought he was joking but sure enough, I walked over and managed to hoist it over my head.

A former chemical engineer employed there explained that he previously worked in developing that material. It was a hollow tube base coated in a glassfiber epoxy composite. It was ultralight but still stable enough to handle the immense strain from the wind’s heftier gusts.

All windmills in the farm are controlled from the main building. There is an active system that they run to regulate the strength of the turbine and the exact cardinal directional angle.

Development and distribution of these systems should become more of a priority. If a wind farm was introduced into the environment of a developing country, their lifestyles could greatly improve. In saying that, I am not introducing the concept of giving them new toys and electronics because they now have enough electricity; I am merely establishing a simple concept. A developing country typically has a very low level of personal health and living condition. If there is more energy coming from the environment around them, then there is a lower cost of creation and collection of electricity.

Imagine if Haiti had more electricity but spent less money to get it. There would be a nearly immediate improvement. Businesses and people alike would have more access to water, food, technology, and even just heat or air conditioning for their homes. The entire economy would eventually flourish. No more starving, draught, or poorly constructed homes for these civilians.

The problem is the investment. It would cost money to develop a working wind farm or a field of solar panels, but that is where we can all help. Any developing country would need a little help at first. Nations like the U.S., China, Germany, Japan, etc., could all help. Not only would they benefit, but we would as well. They would not rely on other parts of the world for help anymore. A self-sustaining economy, or something similar, could begin to develop.

This efficient and revolutionary process can be replicated worldwide and can be used to grow self-sustaining economies. There are some islands off the coasts of the UK and some European countries that have developed self-sustaining economies by using a similar wind farm setup paired with a hydro pump system. The pump sends water uphill to a reservoir for later use. The wind powers the pump and the island while there is enough wind, then the hydro system does the extra work when more energy is needed. This leaves an almost perfect system for a howling wind down to a zephyr.

Similar methods could be used but as far as I am concerned, this is a great place to start.

With the growing energy needs of our world, there needs to be some idea of how we can stop this tragic occurrence. I was lucky enough to get in touch with a truly inspirational individual and interview him about his personal and professional opinions regarding the causes and possible solutions to these energy problems.

Photo taken by Keith Rohman

Keith Rohman, a Residential Solar PV Installer at Namaste Solar, and I have been in correspondence via email and he allowed me the privilege of picking his brain. Rohman graduated from the Renewable Energy program at Illinois State University with a minor in business environment and sustainability from the State Farm College of Business. With this winning combination of education and experience, he is truly the perfect man for the job.

At this point, the idea of renewable energy being good and fossil fuels being bad might be made painstakingly clear, but sometimes the most obvious ideas can be overlooked. Rohman’s minor in business might be the missing link when looking at these difficult solutions.

Supply and demand are what drive the world today. Energy is not an exception to this rule. Take the U.S. for example; we have huge energy demands but there is mostly a steady supply of energy at a constant rate. In peak hours on a hot summer day the average American could be cranking their air conditioning on high and enjoying their comfortable indoor climate. The problem is when half of the country decides to use this energy devouring device to get a break from the heat, and “This means that demand will peak on those hot summer days.” As I have explained before, we try to combat these issues by storing water in elevated water reserves and harness additional energy in this time of need. Problem solved, right?

Not even close.

Keith has a much simpler solution to overused power in the summer and it is the very thing that is causing the problem; the sun. If the sun is bearing down on us and making us hot, then why not just use that to our advantage? Using photovoltaic solar panels to gather this resource could alleviate the immense strain on the power grid so that we can “meet that peak demand at the perfect time”. Using this same idea, a homeowner could take advantage of the lower electricity dependant months when they can still gather this energy. In doing so, May and September could actually generate a personal surplus of energy. In the end, you can even receive a check from your provider for the surplus energy that you returned to the grid.

Put simply, “ Everything needs to work together” for a real change to begin.

The first step in the Scientific Method, a formal process for solving problems, is to make objective observations that describe a problem. Anybody and everybody that contributes to the consumption of electricity needs to be held accountable. We all need to be mature enough to see how we contribute and recognize that we are responsible for what happens to this planet. To our home.

The task of combatting the world’s energy crisis may be daunting but it is imperative that we do something, anything, to fight back before it is too late. As an average American citizen, I relied on Keith Rohman for any final insight that he could provide on where to start. Deceptively simple; “Conversation. Conversation. Conversation.” is the most important part of the solution. He recommends that we raise awareness and spread the word. The solution has to start somewhere. “ Policy will move away from personal financial interests to the holistic wealth of the world on both the national and local level.” explains Rohman for how change will inevitably occur, “It is just a matter of time.”

Below is the aforementioned interview with solar energy professional Keith Rohman.

My Interview with a Professional
Could you please provide me with a little information about yourself and what made you decide to work in the renewable energy field?
I graduated Illinois State in 2016. It was in my decision to study in the Renewable Energy program that really opened my eyes to the field. My minor was business environment and sustainability through the College of Business and my classes really tied everything together big picture for me. With not only the pressure from climate change and global warming, but the pressure from a rapidly increasing population both in the U.S. and worldwide, it brought to my attention the need for practical energy solutions that would not compromise our future generations. While water and food shortages are 2 and 3 in terms of the world’s biggest issues, energy is number one because a balanced energy portfolio will solve these other issues.
What is your role at Namaste Solar? What is Namaste’s main objective?
For Namaste, I work as a Residential Solar PV Installer. I work in department of the residential operations that is called NBC (new builder construction). We currently are working with a local homebuilder in building entire subdivisions that have solar panel systems built with the house. Before the customer purchases the home, they will have solar and everything will be installed. This is a much easier installation than installing panels on a pre-existing home as you have other variables. The homeowners are generally present and the wiring is more difficult since the house is already connected to the grid.
Namaste’s main objective, I think, is clearly shown with their mission statement: to “propagate the responsible use of solar energy, pioneer conscientious business practices, and create holistic wealth for themselves and their communities.” The last part of “holistic wealth” I find most significant. Everything should work together — it just makes sense.
What, in your opinion, are the biggest problems with our energy resources today?
One of the larger issues today with energy is lack of responsible business and lack of environmental and political regulation. It can be well understood as an American that oil and gas are imperative to our economies and meeting the bottom line for energy demand, from all sectors residential, commercial, and industrial. Issues arise when you have politicians (who are heavily lobbied by oil and gas companies) to blatantly deny climate change. This keeps the money flowing in their industries and tries to put down alternative and competitive sources of energy generation such as wind and solar. To quote Missy Nergard (director of the Office of Sustainability at ISU) when speaking to one of my classes on climate change, “you can’t ever solve a problem if you fail to address it.” This stuck with me and this is what I see happening in today’s business-political climate and it needs to change. Our current presidential administration has already made efforts to reverse progress made during the previous administration in terms of meeting emission reduction goals with the rest of the world. As one of the world’s top consumers and emitter of greenhouse gases, we have a responsibility to lead the world and prepare for the future. We need to keep the progress going, and work together. Oil and gas can continue to work with wind and solar as they are all part of our energy portfolio. Proper regulations in pace will lead to socially responsible business practices.
Where should our current and future efforts go in terms of primary energy resources?
Current efforts and future efforts need to simply focus on diversifying our energy portfolio. Let’s talk about why solar is so ideal for a moment. For the most part, all of this country has warm/hot summers. This causes people to blast their air conditioning on those hot days. This means that demand will peak on those hot summer afternoons. Now solar is also usually generating optimal power on those same hot days when everyone needs the power. The increased amounts of residential grid-tied solar systems take the pressure off larger scale electric generation to help meet that peak demand at the perfect time. As a homeowner, you will be saving a ton of money. And odds are, in months like May and September where you have plenty of sun but the temperatures are cooler, you are generating more electricity than you can possibly use and this is then added back to the grid. In Colorado the utility company Xcel will send you a check at the end of the year to compensate for excess energy generated and sent back to the grid. The same should go for Ameren in Illinois.
Obviously, not all houses are ideal for solar (you generally want a south-facing house with minimal shading from trees and other structures around you). This is what I am talking about with improving the energy portfolio. Everything needs to work together and in turn take pressure off of other energy generators and lowering that leveled cost as the consumer.
Is there any way to alleviate the reliance on fossil fuels and nuclear energy and push for a more “green” future?
I currently live in Weld County Colorado. The biggest economic driver is without a doubt the oil and gas industries. It felt like I was in Texas at first. Coming from Illinois, I was shocked by the sheer number of gas monitoring and oil drum stations. The countryside is littered with these giant tan colored cylinders and stations. There are also 20 plus active oil drills in Weld County, over 90% of the entire state’s number of active rigs. These are monstrous operations also on countryside farm land.
One thing that is hard to stress to people is that oil and gas just doesn’t just power our cars and keep our houses warm. The laptop I am typing on, the plastic bags you use from the grocery store, and knob you use in your car to change the radio station — these are all derived from petroleum products. It is impossible to imagine our economy without these. However, fossil fuels such as coal are dirty and obsolete. Improvement with natural gas has helped reduce our emissions significantly and gas-combustion engines are only getting more efficient. The reliance on fossil fuels will be around for a long time because our entire infrastructure and economy was built on petroleum. It is ironic because when driving around the country, you will notice that every gas/oil station has the electricity required to operate all generated from solar panels. Plenty of people who live in rural areas have this same option as there is generally no shading in a wide open country location and the sun is plentiful. You can see the industries working together because it just makes sense.
Where we can start to alleviate the reliance comes in many different forms. Tesla is already making extreme ground in terms of the personal automobile. Their battery technology is cutting edge and the fact that they are electric and clean is phenomenal. Companies like Honda, Nissan, and Chevrolet are following suit with their own electric cars models. Car companies offering and Eco Mode option which shuts engines off at a complete stop will also help. Swine and Cow farms have the ability to anaerobically digest different types of feedstock (manure and plant leftovers), which can be converted into methane based compressed natural gas. Fleets of vehicles can be run off CNG and you can install catalytic converters in your vehicles to operate off this alternative fuel source. When fleets of vehicles are running off CNG instead of gasoline you can see improvements. Issues of extreme water usage and potential water table contamination need to be brought to light that are a result of improper and irresponsible business practices and methods. Hydraulic Fracturing or “fracking” is huge culprit in using too much water. We need to think about how much energy we are using to harvest more energy. In oil and gas the answer is way too much. With wind and solar, the answer is minimum.
If you could personally tackle the world’s “energy crisis”, where would you start and what would your end goal be?
Current methods struggle because of high start-up cost and availability of materials. Where the world needs to improve is in not just the developed countries, but DEVELOPING countries. Take Nigeria and Brazil, for example. Their economies have shown massive growth in the short term and will continue to grow as their infrastructure gets established and trading relationships develop with other countries. If they can include renewable and alternative sources as a part of their energy portfolio from the start of this rapid and hopefully long term growth, we can see benefits from the world standpoint. As a matter of fact, it is imperative that countries and others like them make energy a priority as they continue to develop. Populations growing mean energy demand will continue to grow. The economies need energy to grow. A diverse energy portfolio with proper regulations in place will help us better plan for the future and avoid what has been decades of irresponsibility in countries like the USA and China. Denying climate change needs to stop. We need to work together, not as a single country, but as a world coalition. Much of the damage can’t be reversed, but we need to be able to stop and mitigate future problems. As a risk management or insurance specialist, climate change poses the single greatest possibility of risk to our population. The unknowns and uncertainties are heavy. We need to do what is in our control.
What steps can we take as average people to help professionals like you fight spreading energy concerns and spread the importance of renewable energy?
Conversation. Conversation. Conversation. Raise awareness. Talk to your friends and family about ways to improve energy efficiency. Not only because this will help the environment, but because it will save you money! Talk to your utility companies and find incentives they offer. Personally, I will only ever buy LED bulbs. Not only are you using minimal energy, you hardly ever have to change these bulbs. Small things in large numbers make a difference. Simply updating your appliances can be analyzed to show a payback period for the cost of updating with the cost savings generated from being more efficient. That old refrigerator in your garage is using more energy than we would like to know. Look into solar and see if it feasible. Keep things local. Do your own research and develop a sense of purpose for the groceries you buy. Think about the big picture. The answer is simple for me — I want my grandkids to grow up and experience the same natural world that I got to as a child. The awe and fascination we associate with our world will not be the same if changes are made. As a whole, I think that patience is going to pay off. When people in power of older generations get out, and our generation is able to step in, changes will be made. Until then, make it your responsibility to take any steps you can to minimize personal use. Buy a box or cloth bag and use that for your groceries instead of getting 10 plastic bags every time. Policy will move away from personal financial interests to the holistic wealth of the world on both the national and local level. It is just a matter of time.