Follow along as we take Ms. Jenkins’ sixth-grade class for a tour around the Energy Farm…
Welcome to the Energy Farm, everybody! My name is Hunter, and I’ll be your guide for this little tour of tomorrow. OK, folks, if you’ll just follow me…
Our first point of interest is right here at the head of the driveway. If you will notice we have a sign posted here: “No Fossil Fuel Vehicles Beyond This Point.” We do not allow the burning of fossil fuels on the grounds of the Energy Farm. That’s why your bus had to park at the entrance. Come along, the walk will do us good!
(we begin strolling up the path, enjoying the filtered sunlight and the songs of birds. We come to a place where the creek can be seen from the path)
(Stopping) Listen closely… do you hear that? That’s the sound of rushing water. The Energy Farm uses a hydroelectric system to generate electricity from the movement of water. The sound you’re hearing is the sound of water discharging from our hydroelectric generator back into the creek bed. We’ll have a closer look at that in a bit. Come along!
As we approach the center of the complex, you will begin to see our freestanding solar arrays. This is like walking through the fields to get to a farmhouse. Here at the Energy Farm, our fields are harvesting sunshine. Each module you see in this field is wired back to our Power Center. We’ll visit that a little later, too.
(We top the hill, with an excellent view of the farm, and stop)
Beautiful, isn’t it? Let me explain what you are seeing. The large central dome-shaped building was the first dome built here. That’s where we lived while we built the rest of the Energy Farm. We call that dome “Mother”. That’s where we eat our meals, and get together to watch TV and play Ping-Pong. Mother is also where we have meetings, and one of the places our visitors can stay. It is central to everything we do here. It’s sort of like our town hall.
The smaller building, the one with all the skylights, is the Fuller Library. That’s where we keep all of our books and information, and we spend a lot of time studying and archiving the data we produce. The Fuller Library is also where we keep the Solar Server, our super-cool Internet computer network powered entirely by the sun!
The big clear dome you see is our Agridome. It’s like a giant greenhouse. It lets us conduct agricultural experiments all year round. We’re learning how to turn plants into fuel for your car, and natural gas for your home appliances. We grow a little food, too, just for fun. I myself have a thing for strawberries myself, and have some growing in there right now.
Those funny little towers you see are our hot water heaters. They heat water using no conventional energy sources whatsoever. I’ll tell you about those when we get there.
The building you see that’s almost completely covered in solar panels? That’s the Power Center. The Power Center is where we house all of our electrical equipment, including a really big bank of batteries.
Our hydroelectric turbine is located in the creek behind the Power Center. The electricity it generates is delivered to the Power Center, along with the electricity from our solar panels and wind turbines. Our hydroelectric generator produces clean, nonpolluting energy around the clock. And it doesn’t harm the environment like those big hydroelectric dams sometimes do.
As we walk, you may notice little cottages nestled here and there. These are experimental houses, which we use to test methods of low-cost and energy-efficient design and construction. They also serve as housing for the people who work here, and the for scientists and others who visit.
Alrighty, folks. Our first stop is the R. Buckminster Fuller Library. We names it after the scientist who invented the geodesic dome, Bucky Fuller. He believed the human race could solve our problems with common sense and technology, and we believe that, too.
This is where we keep all of our books and information on clean power and energy-efficient living. We have books about solar power, wind power, water power, tidal power, fuel cells, and biomass farming. Biomass farming is when you grow crops and use them for fuel.
We also have books about how to light and heat homes without wasting energy, and how to make your house more energy efficient. Did you know that three compact fluorescent bulbs can light three rooms at once using less electricity than one old lightbulb? Did you know that planting trees on the north side of your house can cut back on your family’s heating bill in the winter? There are a million cool ways to save energy, and new ones are discovered every day. We’ve discovered a few here! That’s part of what we do.
We also have books on politics. Energy is so important in the world today. We have thousands of laws relating to it, and I’m sad to say that people have even fought wars and killed each other over energy resources. So what we do here is fun, but it also has a serious side. We want to find ways for Americans to live hi-tech lives without fighting wars and damaging the environment. We see the Energy Farm as part of the solution. Now let’s go upstairs and see the Solar Server!
This is the Solar Server. It’s the heart of our information network. The Solar Server makes our information available to everyone in the world through the World Wide Web. All computers throughout the Energy Farm are connected back to this server. We use it to compile and process all the data we collect in the field, including how much energy we are creating and how much we are using at any given moment. Did you that notice all the computer monitors in the library are the flat screen kind? You will see those everywhere we go today. This is because they use a fraction of the electricity that an old-fashioned monitor uses. The fact that they look really, really cool is just a lucky coincidence!
Let’s walk to the Power Center, and I’ll show you something along the way. Follow me, please…
This is one of our freestanding solar arrays. This particular type is called a tracking solar array. That’s because it actually turns throughout the day so that it always faces the sun. Notice it is facing directly towards the sun now. This increases the electrical output of the array by 25% over an identical array that doesn’t move. We know this because we tested it ourselves.
The term used to describe the conversion of light into electricity is “photoelectric”: ‘photo’ for light, and ‘electric’ for electricity. All the freestanding solar arrays you see at the Energy Farm are photoelectric arrays. They convert the energy of sunlight directly into electricity. The term “photoelectric” was first coined by Albert Einstein in his famous paper explaining the effect. Smart guy, Einstein, and this solar panel is a working testament to his vision.
By the way, you can stare at it all you want, but you’ll never see it move. I’ve tried. The solar tracking array moves too slow. You’ll make yourself crazy!! Now on to the Power Center…
This dome contains all of our power equipment. Notice that the exterior is covered with solar panels. The power from these panels is fed directly into the power equipment below. The power from the hydroelectric system also comes into this building, as does the power from all our remote solar arrays and wind turbines. We actually ran an extra set of wires all around the Energy Farm just to collect electricity from the solar panels and wind turbines and bring it back here. That makes it super easy to put up more stuff and generate more electricity. Let’s go inside.
That humming sound you hear is coming from our inverters. These are the transformers that convert the low voltage DC electricity generated by solar panels, hydroelectric turbines, and wind turbines into the high voltage AC electricity used in everyone’s home and office. They hum because they are actually putting a musical note into the electricity. You can hum along in unison, or even hum a harmony. Let’s try it!
(hilarious moment as everyone hums 60 Hz and its harmonics)
This is our battery room. We keep our batteries in a closed-off area because they contain chemicals. On a productive day, when these batteries are really cooking, they put off the faint smell of sulfur. We solved that problem with the little bathroom vent fan you see on the exterior wall. No jokes, please. Batteries have feelings. The vent fan of course is powered by its own little solar panel outside.
The reason we have batteries is because we use a lot of electricity after the sun goes down. And the Solar Server needs electricity around the clock, including emergencies. So what we do is collect extra electricity when the sun is up, and store it in these batteries. When the sun goes down, the inverters draw power back out of the batteries to give us electricity. Good thing, too, because I love my GameCube.
You may notice we keep a lot of extra stuff in here. This is also our shop, where we keep all our tools and outdoor equipment. Do you see this lawn mower? This is an electric lawn mower. We are just that serious about living without fossil fuels! That’s my mountain bike over there in the corner. Ha – tricked you! Domes don’t have corners. Now let’s go out back and see how hydroelectricity is made.
(sound of rushing water) Gather around close so you can hear me. The sound you are hearing is the sound of 120 gallons per minute of water being forced through four high-pressure nozzles onto a 36″ diameter turbine wheel called a pelton wheel. The wheel turns the shaft of an alternator, which generates DC voltage. The water comes from further upstream, and is brought down here in high-pressure tubing, kind of like a fireman’s hose.
Once the water is used to spin the turbine, it falls back into the natural creek bed to continue its journey to the sea. We don’t waste any of the water, and we don’t pollute it either. Environmental scientists have been up and down this creek bed looking for signs of environmental damage, and we have found none. If we did, we would have to shut down our hydroelectric turbine. That’s because Rule #1 here is we don’t hurt the Earth.
A hydroelectric system has many different stages where one form of energy is converted into another. The vertical drop converts gravity into water pressure. The wheel converts water pressure into rotary motion. And the alternator converts the rotary motion into electricity. The electricity is sent back to the power center, metered, and combined with the electricity produced by our solar panels.
In fact, hydroelectric power is also a form of solar energy. Before water can run downhill, you have to get the water to the top of the hill. The way this water got to the top of these hills was through the rain cycle, and the rain cycle is powered by the sun! This turbine runs day and night, burns no fuel, leaves no waste, and has no discernable impact on the environment. And the sound of the rushing water is really nice, too.
Let’s go to the Agridome, and I’ll show you a couple of things along the way…
We are standing at the foot of a 400-watt wind turbine. We have more, if you turn and look… right… there! See that gap in the ridge? That’s the best place for wind on your land, so we put most of them up there. We’re not going to hike up there today, though! Instead, we brought this one down and set it up here, so people could see what the other wind turbines are doing.
Wind energy is the cheapest and most cost-effective form of clean energy available today. It actually costs less to generate wind electricity than it costs the power company to make the same electricity with natural gas. And natural gas is always getting more expensive, so wind energy is always getting cheaper!
There’s a trick to wind power, though. As you can guess, sometimes the wind blows really hard, and sometimes it doesn’t blow at all! There are many different ways to capture and store the energy for times when the wind isn’t blowing. One really clever idea is to use wind turbines to pump air pressure into an underground chamber. Then the turbines can store up extra energy when the wind is blowing, and the air pressure can be used to generate electricity continually. People are always coming up with new ideas for energy. Let’s go take a look at one we’re doing here at the Energy Farm!
This funny-looking thing is one of our biothermal hot water heaters. ‘Bio’ means life, and ‘thermal’ means heat. We literally heat our water with the power of life! It works by taking advantage of the heat bacteria create in a compost pile. This silo is filled with organic compost – leaves, pine straw, grass clippings, that sort of thing. Isn’t that cool? We use autumn leaves to make hot water!
Here’s how it works, and it’s really simple. Pipes run all through the compost, and those pipes contain fresh clean water. The compost gets hot from the action of the bacteria, and that heats up the water in the pipes. Our biothermal hot water heaters work so well, in fact, the water can get up to 160 degrees – and that’s too hot!! So we invented a system that automatically mixes a little bit of cold water in with the hot water to give us perfect hot water every time.
When one of us takes a shower, hot water flows out of the bottom of the silo and cool water flows into the top to replace it. The new water is then heated up by the bacteria. As long as the compost stays hot, we have free hot water. Come and touch the side. It’s warm, can you feel it?
You may have noticed we have two of these silos, and we are building a third. That’s because the compost itself has a life cycle. When the bacteria have digested all they can of the compost, they no longer produce heat. So we are learning to rotate between two or more silos, so we always have a water heater that’s hot.
When the bacteria are done heating our water, they’ve done us another favor – they’ve turned a big pile of trash into top-grade gardening compost. When it’s time to empty the silo and start over again, we get rich organic compost coming out. We use it in our gardens and flowerbeds, and in the Agridome.
Welcome to the Agridome!! (kids: “oooooohhhh!”)
You will notice the air in here is fresh and exhilarating, and it smells wonderful. That’s because there’s extra oxygen in the air with all these plants closed up in here. Plants breathe in carbon dioxide, and breathe out oxygen. So there’s an increased oxygen level in the Agridome, and it makes the air feel super-fresh. We even installed a special set of pipes so we could circulate this air through some of our other buildings. It smells great because we have lots of plants growing here, and we grow some flowers too, just because flowers are nice.
The Agridome is where we study plants that can be used as fuels. Plants may become an important source of renewable energy one day, because with careful land management, they can be grown over and over again. That makes them a renewable resource. And plants don’t pollute! Instead, they take all that stuffy carbon dioxide out of the air, and make the air feel fresh and clean, just like it feels in here.
(guide takes a big deep breath, all the kids mimic – as they stroll among the rows, he continues)
There are many ways we can get energy out of plants. This easiest way is to simply burn the plants. This is what happens when we burn wood in a fireplace. We are heating our home with the energy stored in the wood. Another way to get energy out of plants is through distillation. Grain crops like wheat and corn can be processed a certain way so that the energy stored in them is released in the form of alcohols, and these can be used in a car just like gasoline. Fuel for our cars is already grown on farms in America. The fuel is called ethanol. It’s just like growing a crop of gasoline!
The kind of gasoline America uses now is the kind we pump out from deep underground. It’s a non-renewable resource. Once we burn it all up, it’s gone, and we can’t make any more. We burn the gas and oil in our cars, and this releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Scientists who study the atmosphere say that our cars and factories are making way too much carbon dioxide, and it’s changing the weather. They say if we don’t stop, the whole planet Earth will get hotter. That’s why they call it “global warming”.
To keep that from happening, we’re going to have to cut way back on the amount of carbon dioxide our cars and factories put out. When ethanol fuel gets burned in a car engine, that makes carbon dioxide, too. But there’s one important difference: ethanol is made from plants, and the plants take the extra carbon dioxide back out of the atmosphere when they grow! It’s an even trade. That’s a much better deal than the one we have now.
Every single one of you already knows how to turn plants into energy. In fact, you’ve all done it. That’s because another way to turn plants into energy is to eat them! When we eat fruits and vegetables, our bodies release the energy stored in them. We use that energy to live our lives. So in a way, our bodies run on renewable energy. And they always have.
Do you want to turn some biomass into energy with me? Let’s go to the farmhouse and eat fresh strawberries, what do you say? Oh, and we get to walk through our garden on the way. Come on, kids!!
This is our garden. It’s not for any experiment, it’s just here for enjoyment. Many of us spend our free time out here working on the garden. We have benches in pretty places, and ponds with goldfish in them. The fountain you see runs all the time, and consumes no energy. That’s because the water comes from higher up the mountain, just like the water for our turbine. But this water isn’t here to do work, it’s just here to make us happy. And the sound is so soothing. Let’s just sit and listen to it for a minute…
(outer wall of Mother) This is our original power meter. Looks like a regular old power meter, doesn’t it? But it’s doing something very few power meters do. Look real close… it’s running backwards!! That’s because starting last year, the Energy Farm began creating more power than we use. As we harvested more and more power, our meter ran more and more slowly. One day, on a really sunny day, the meter hesitated… and then it stopped… and then it began moving backwards!! It was really cool the first time it happened, and we had a big celebration. Now it happens all day long.
That’s why our original power meter is a special place for us, and we have these benches here and this commemorative plaque. Now we sell our excess produce on the free market, just like regular farmers do. And that helps us pay our other bills. That’s why we call ourselves energy farmers, and why we call this place the Energy Farm.
Alright, everybody, that concludes our little tour. Is there anything you’d like to ask me about energy farming?
“If you have all this extra energy, how come you still have power lines?”
When we first came here, we used electricity like anyone else. We even used a bulldozer to help build the road. We didn’t build this place with renewable energy, we’re still working on that! But we kept the power lines so we could sell our surplus electricity. When the meter runs backwards, that means energy is actually flowing back up the power lines and onto the North American power grid. That makes our clean energy available for everyone to use.
“This stuff looks like it costs a lot of money…”
Actually, you’d be surprised. Domes are less expensive to build than square buildings, and they are sturdier, too. And we are doing research on energy, so there’s a whole lot more stuff here than you’d need for your house! See that solar array right there? (points to a stationary array on the roof of Mother) Those panels, by themselves, are all you’d need for a regular house. That right there will make the power meter run backwards on a sunny day! And every year they get cheaper and better.
“How come everything is so clean here?”
Thank you for noticing! It’s clean here because we don’t make any pollution. Not even car exhaust. It’s also clean because everyone helps clean up. After awhile we all noticed how nice it was all cleaned up, and now it’s easy to keep it clean. You know you can do that in your own neighborhood.
“What about all the people who don’t live next to a creek?”
That’s a good question. Most people don’t have a creek in their backyard. But almost everyone has some sunshine and wind. The work we do here will help make solar panels and windmills something that everybody can have one day, like a TV or a microwave oven. It’s absolutely true most people can’t make hydroelectricity. But those who can, without hurting the Earth, can make a little extra energy for all the people who can’t make their own energy.
“Like people in apartments?”
Yes, exactly! In big cities, or any place where many people live in one building, there’s a lot less sunshine per person, so to speak. Same with apartments. We are studying that right now. There will always be places in America where people use more energy than they can make themselves, like New York City. But if everyone made a little bit of electricity, and then enough people across the country made extra electricity like the Energy Farm does, then one day we might have enough for all the people in New York City, too.
One day there might be energy farms all over the Midwest that sell their extra power to New York and Chicago. There might be energy farms all over the Southwest that sell their extra power to Los Angeles and Phoenix. It will be a good deal for everybody, because big city people will simply pay their bills like they always have, and the money will go to American energy farmers.
Any more questions? No…? Okay then, let’s go eat strawberries!!