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Solar can't do it all: Conservation needed to localize energy sources

Locally-based sustainable energy can replace oil-based imports but only if conservation cuts area energy use by more than half.

Thats the conclusion drawn from the report Recommendations towards Energy Independence for the City of Willits and Surrounding Community, prepared for the City of Willits by the citys ad hoc alternate energy committee and by the Willits Economic Localizations (WEL) energy sub-group.

According to the report, residents in the 95490 zip code burn up 1,046 megawatt/hours (MWh) of energy every day. The cost of that consumption drains more than $30 million ($30,599,499) out of the community each year.

More than half of the energy consumed, 590 MWh per day, is spent on transportation fuels, primarily gasoline and diesel.

The remaining 456 MWh of consumption is a combination of the electricity, natural gas, propane, and firewood used for heating, cooking, lighting, and other energy demands for homes, businesses, and city buildings and operations.

The report offers a recipe for producing 216.47 MWh per day of locally-based, sustainable energy. If the end of imported, non-renewable energy really is on the horizon, the remaining 239.53 MWh of consumption will have to be eliminated through conservation.

Those who equate sustainable energy with solar, water, and wind power, will be surprised that the largest component of the likely post-oil local energy mix is firewood. The reports energy transition chart predicts an increase in the use of firewood from 95 MWh per day to almost 142 (141.94). In terms of wood supply, that means an increase from 8,423 to 12,635 cords a year.

Uses for the firewood are listed as residential heating and cooking plus small-scale gasification for small engine/vehicles.

More wood is called for, some 6.41 MWh per day, for biomass generators feeding residential, commercial and public facilities, as well as electric vehicles.

In both cases, the use of equipment designed to eliminate related air pollution is in order. Possible sources of fuel include recycled building materials, debris from fire prevention efforts in Brooktrails, and sustainable harvest at the rate of no more than one percent, per acre, per year.

Solar panels mounted on area rooftops, shade structures, and/or hillsides could produce 29.15 MWh per day, the report says. That amount would replace about one-third of current straight-out electricity use, but would not replace the energy currently gained from natural gas and propane.

The rest of the alternate energy picture calls for 27.62 MWh per day of wind power; only .16 MWh from hydroelectric power; and 9.28 MWh from a combination of solar and geo thermal, that is, a process involving solar creation of direct heat (air or water household heating) or heat-based electrical generation.

Only 1.91 MWh would be drawn from biodiesel as a replacement for gasoline. The study regards the use of this fuel as transitional and useful only until an anticipated crisis in the cost of imported goods makes it necessary to use all local farm land for food production.

Even with conservation in place, the proposed alternate energy mix would not permit the current jump-in-the-car-and-go lifestyle to continue.

The personal vehicle may well be a thing of the past, the report concludes. It calls for the use of electric vehicles for transfer of necessary goods, services, and labor. Beyond that, restoration of rail lines, energy efficient bus service, and car-share cooperatives are on the to-do list.

Editorial Notes: See here for a slightly older article on the economics of a 30kW solar PV system being considered.

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