SHADES OF GREEN: Sheboygan County in the year 2060

by David Lagerman

We are at a time of change, and there is no help for it. The relative unknowns of the future for our children are many. We do know that one of the foundations of our historic success, the availability of huge quantities of cheap fossil energy, is crumbling rapidly.

So: Now what?

It is very helpful to be able to visualize a sound future. The creation of a scenario, even as a piece of fiction, can do wonders here. So, here we go.

Here we are, in Sheboygan County, in the year 2060:

The county is part of the national and international economy, just as in the last century, and things are going reasonably well after a chaotic and somewhat painful time of transition.

Energy was the major single problem, with oil scarcity and coal’s habit of being deadly dirty to burn driving a shift to other sources. Many other sources. There was no one magic bullet.

Not enough happened soon enough. There was enormous opposition and resistance to change. The big industries with a vested interest in the profits being made from the status quo, enjoying huge giveaways from the government, drenched our previous generations of citizens with disinformation, drowning out the voices of wisdom. They were told relentlessly that converting to renewable energy was “too costly” and “impractical.”

Even so, there were small victories early on. One story was that of the Plymouth School District.

Emulating the example of the Fort Atkinson School District, they installed a series of measures over 10 years. They converted swimming pool heat to solar, installed a large wind turbine at the high school, photo voltaic (PV) panels at several of the other schools, geothermal heating and cooling in two locations. All this reduced the district’s demand for natural gas by 88 percent and greatly trimmed down their net electricity demand.

There was a lot of talk about “clean coal” in the early part of the 21st century; and to our surprise, it actually came to pass, somewhat. It didn’t help us here in the interior of the continent, though, because the successful method, to pull carbon dioxide out of the coal combustion process and turn it into calcium carbonate with salt water requires: sea water! And we don’t have any.

In broad, countywide terms, the key concept became the electrification of most things, and the production of energy right here at home. One of the county’s big assets, it turned out, was the same thing one sees anywhere in modern civilization: waste. We’d always been collecting garbage, yard waste, industrial waste, and disposing of it somehow.

When processes became available to make most of this into energy, we were in business. The Acme TCP plant right here routinely makes the fuel we need. “TCP” stands for “Thermal Conversion Process,” remember. When you add the casual and waste wood and slash in the rural parts of the county to the urban waste (think: falling-over box elder trees and such,) we’ve got a lot of biomass to convert.

The fuel produced is in the form of ethanol and oil. Because our cars and trucks are now almost all plugin diesel hybrids, they run on the diesel fuel we make, and on the electricity we make.

Remember the coal-burning power plant that once was a landmark on the lakeshore? It’s gone, of course. Instead, we generate most of the base-load power we need with all those fuel cells we have everywhere.

They are SOFCs or “solid oxide fuel cells,” and they are “fuel agnostic,” so they can make power and heat from a variety of fuels. The fuel comes from the Acme plant. These fuel cells operate at high temperatures, so our buildings are heated in winter with the waste heat. The larger fuel cells’ heat is sometimes also used in turbines to generate electricity.

Our power needs have gone up a bit, because all the plug-in hybrid vehicles we have, have to be powered up: plugged in. But we have a lot of energy here, now. What it boils down to is that all of our transportation fuel, half of our electricity requirement and a third of our heating needs are met by this waste-to-energy system we have.

Imagine the days when we imported into the county 100 percent of the energy we needed to make electricity, power transportation, heat buildings. We really did! Now, we have to import much less, and the fraction keeps going down as we slowly modify the “built environment” so that it’s more and more efficient.

Conservation and efficiency is always easier and cheaper than energy production, and we are making headway. New homes and other buildings are more routinely designed to heat and cool themselves and are solarized to the point where they need little energy from any outside source.

The economic benefits of all this have been enormous. We no longer send so much money away to import energy, and instead employ people in the county to make our own. In Sheboygan County, about 3,000 jobs are directly related to the energy infrastructure: building it, maintaining it, running it. We even have several small-size businesses that specialize in harvesting, very carefully, the waste, fallen or falling trees and such out in the country. When you see those “rolligons” with the big tires and the mechanical arms, they are at that task, and can do it with minimal damage to the countryside, paying property owners the going price per ton.

On high ground we see wind turbines in various places. They used to be very controversial, I am told.

Some people were violently opposed to them. Now they are an expected and welcome part of the landscape, and they provide about 11 percent of our electricity, in the latest (2058) report. PV, the electric solar panels and arrays tucked away on roofs and elsewhere are good for another 6 percent or so.

It’s a pity we don’t have more sun. In the sunny Southwest, PV and solar thermal plants are making fully 18 percent of our national demand now, and growing.

One of our enduring problems is that much of the high-energy waste we depend upon for feedstock at the Acme plant is itself derived from oil, and, as the cost of fossil oil is now astronomical, we see less and less of it. Hence, the national project to produce huge base-load electricity from the miles and miles of solar arrays going up in the Southwest is becoming more important. We’re building that long-discussed “spine” of very high voltage DC power lines to distribute the power, and the underground compressed-air storage facilities to store the energy to spin the generators at night.

It is too early yet to know just what a steady-state energy system in North America will eventually look like. Hydrogen fusion power is “still on the horizon,” but frankly, don’t hold your breath. Our basic triumph remains the integrated energy system we have. Sheboygan County is as good a place as any to see a sensible, sustainable, energy system in operation. We should be proud.

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