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COMMENTARY · 5th July 2011
Merv Ritchie
In 1986 I began working as a diesel electrician in Campbell River BC. Almost every week, sometimes many times a week, I flew out across the inside channels in a 185 Cessna float plane to service or repair diesel electric generators. Logging camps, fish farms, native villages, resorts, isolated communities and vessels sailing on the salt chuck, I serviced almost everything, almost everywhere. Thanks to my boss, Howard McCoy, I became a fairly decent electrician. I was already a journeyman HD mechanic when I began working for him and his company, Pacific Generator and Marine.

Creating electricity became almost God like. I can’t describe the euphoria I felt at some of the various sites I restored electricity to. I took it as a personal challenge to discover a new way to make a generator work, a new way to distribute power, to bypass troubles, so that whenever I left the people had electricity. It was my job too, of course. One thing that stood out was the many conversations I engaged in with people in these remote “Off the Grid” communities. These were mostly on how to produce electricity from the creeks, rivers, tidal waters, wind and more.

During a logging strike in the late 80’s I was laid off and began working for the Canadian Military at the Comox Air Base. I was a civilian hired to share my knowledge with the enlisted men, Privates, Corporals and Warrant Officers. During that time I began researching alternative sources of creating electricity without using diesel fuel; renewable energy.

Hydro electric power was my first study; creating electricity from the flowing water in a river or stream. This became my area of expertise and I installed various Pelton style water turbines around BC. These required an elevation drop of at least 100 feet from the intake into a pipe to the generator turbine location. The higher the better and the shorter the distance, to achieve the elevation change, was better yet. These systems are the cleanest most environmentally compatible systems to produce electricity known to man. I challenge every environmentalist to show me any system in use today that is better in efficiency or better environmentally than a high head Pelton hydro electric turbine power plant. There simply is none.

My next two areas of study were Photovoltaic panels (solar electric) and Wind Turbines. “Off Grid” electric power systems, both wind and solar, require batteries to store electricity. These are most often lead acid batteries similar to any car battery but made with lead antimony not lead calcium. Golf cart, forklift and shopping center mobile floor cleaning machines use the same style of batteries. These are very corrosive, dangerous and poisonous to the environment. Even the manufacture of a photovoltaic (solar electric) panel is a huge hazard to the environment. As an independent “Off Grid” power system, solar sucks. Until we can find a method of storing electricity cleanly, (metal alloy capacitors?), both wind and solar are irresponsible as stand alone power.

While selling and installing these systems I was providing leading edge energy efficient products. In 1988 I was asked to sell CFL’s (Compact Fluorescent Light bulbs). It didn’t take me long to decide I did not want any part of that technology. The waste material and the mercury were obviously bad. I refused to sell them. Even over 20 years ago I had discarded this concept. Imagine my surprise when the BC government decided these were good and they would be outlawing the incandescent bulbs this year?

Using wind and solar to produce electricity required the user to be very aware of how much power they were consuming. Every watt of power produced and every watt of power consumed was counted. We had, and still have, fine instruments to monitor the electrical activity. I determined DC (direct current) appliances were almost always the most efficient compared with AC (alternating current). A 12 volt DC light bulb produced the same light more efficiently than a 120 volt AC light bulb. DC fridges were better too. Some appliances required 120 volt AC power so I researched the best of these and at that time the Trace Inverter built in Arlington Washington was the best and most efficient. I began importing and distributing them in BC.

I installed solar systems on residences, RV’s, at fish farms and in recreational communities. I worked on the design of new windmills and installed already manufacture ones. I designed many hydro electric plants, for grid intertie and stand alone, and installed a few around BC. I researched all aspects of electric power generation and consumption. One great discovery was a home and business heating module which uses infrared radiation from space to heat buildings regardless of the latitude, cloud cover or outside temperature. The list of new products and fascinating new efficient energy producing and consuming devices is almost endless.

And I told you all that to tell you this.

Today, 20 years later, I know we have the ability to greatly reduce our power consumption. Moreover, we have the ability to greatly increase our power production. I also know those who are in control of the electrical power generation business do not want you to know this.

The corporations and individuals in the positions to influence government decisions regarding electricity supply and demand need to have the public use more power and need to control and own the supply of that power. The reasons are as basic as the most primary economics course one could take in grade school, the law of ‘Supply and Demand’. These companies need to ensure the demand remains, if possible increases, and control the supply to ensure they can maximize their profits.

There is nothing more to the argument. It is now up to us and our government to change course.

Converting all our homes to DC current might be a good first start. We are a wasteful group of people. If we all produced, in our own homes, all the power we used we would become much more aware of how we waste it. Almost all of our electronics operate on DC current therefore virtually all of them have conversion devices built in. This converts the AC current, delivered to our homes by the utility, into DC power for the TV, computer or other electronic device. Generally you can feel the heat rising off of it as it wastefully converts the power. This is the very first conscious step into awareness we need to make. Just like incandescent light bulbs, the heat is an indication of a waste of electrical power, unless the heat is desired.

Since the time of Edison DC power was known to be more efficient. When Nicola Tesla invented 3 phase AC power generation it was hailed as a great breakthrough as this AC power could be transmitted long distances much easier. Westinghouse took this over from Tesla and today AC power is unchallenged.

We must convert all homes to, if not primarily DC then, at least a dual power residence; one circuit to run AC appliances and one circuit to run DC.

The next step is to determine what we use electricity for. Our forefathers designed hot water tanks, electric heaters and stoves in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s, when electricity distribution was new, cheap and plentiful. Today it is none of those things. Home heating along with hot water heating can be done completely with a bare minimum of electricity; just enough to turn a small fluid pump to circulate the heat throughout the building. Lighting is another consideration. In BC the heat given off from an incandescent light bulb is a benefit, not a detraction as the current BC government is apparently understanding. Where a DC incandescent is not desired a DC powered bank of LED’s could be used which are much more energy efficient than a CFL, though too, the manufacture of these presents issues.

If the electronic systems we use today were designed to be powered by a home DC supply, if the heating systems were converted to infrared passive heating, if our lighting was all changed to DC, we would easily reduce our residential electric power consumption by much more than 50%.

All of this could be done in small and large scale measures quickly and easily.

In 2003 a lecture was delivered by the leader of the Green Party at the University in Calgary, Alberta. He described how the government could fund this, or even how an innovative company might take up the challenge. The concept was to get the business or residential consumers to agree to pay the power bill at the same rate paid today, for the next ten years. Then the group would come in and convert the entire building to full energy efficiency. The energy bill would be reduced substantially, likely to under a quarter of the present rate. He stated 10%. The consumer would then essentially be financing his or her own conversion to energy efficiency over the next ten years or how ever long it is determined to be a financially viable conversion. The power bill would not go up so the consumer would have financial security in their bill, knowing too, a huge reduction was coming. At the end, and in the meantime, power consumption would be greatly reduced. If this was encouraged private companies would find even greater ways to find more efficient ways of running the buildings and appliances to earn better profits and returns on their investment.

The next item I wrote the opening paragraphs for was to address the production of electricity.

Just like hot water tanks and electric heaters in the 40’s 50’s and 60’s storing water behind a huge dam should become a thing of the past. All of the water that finds its way into the reservoir behind a dam, particularly in BC, came off of a mountain. Williston Lake, the huge reservoir formed behind the Bennett dam at Hudson Hope BC is fed by numerous mountain rivers. This reservoir is used to provide a stable secure source of water to drive the huge turbines, which turn the generators to create the electricity. Same goes for the Mica Dam and the Revelstoke Dam.

Rather than build a new dam, flooding large tracts of invaluable farm and grazing lands, BC could design and install numerous high head Pelton style turbines on the many raging mountain rivers across BC. On the west coast of BC the winter rains ensure a steady flow for the winter demands. In the interior of BC the warm summers melt the snow packs and glaciers meeting the summer demands. All that is required is the ingenuity to provide a grid network with an integrated river flow supply and power demand system to maximize the potential. Rivers flows are greatly reduced in one part of BC at the same time river flows are greatly increased in another. Energy Mines and Resources Canada produced numerous reports in the 1980’s on the potential of BC’s rivers.

It is easy to plan and build a dam. We just need to pull out a tattered set of blueprints from the 1950’s and make some minor modifications for today’s new turbines. A real revolutionary concept would be to use fresh young eyes and design something less damaging and more environmentally responsible. Just because that’s the way we’ve always done it doesn’t make it right, more likely it makes it just the reason we should look at it again.

The only real problem I have with the ‘run of river’ high head hydroelectric turbines is the privatization. The entire electrical power grid and the rivers with their turbines feeding it should be owned as an asset for all British Columbians. Power, electrical power, is the worlds most treasured resource. It is not a mystery why many lobbyists in the power and energy business have co-opted the BC government.

Even if we were forced to build a dam due to the industry lobbyists having more control over the government than the people (or our leaders own common sense), a dam is better than everything else except a pure “high head” run of river system. Yes a dam could break and destroy everything in its path and the flooding also destroys valuable land, but the alternatives for creating electricity are worse. Coal, oil and gas fired plants contribute to high levels of pollution. Nuclear however is the grand daddy of the bad ass in electricity production. We can clean up after a dam break. We can clean up after an oil spill; nasty, but it can be done. There is just nothing we can do about the melt down contamination for over 100,000 years after a nuclear accident, that which is happening now in Japan.

I love electricity. Since 1986 I have been fascinated with designing systems to create it and finding ways to manipulate it. I wrote a report on a number of power projects responding to BC Hydro’s first request for proposals from Independent Power Producers (IPP’s) in 1988. They can be designed to have no impact on fish habitat and in fact many are designed with spawning beds to improve and reinvigorate salmon stocks. There is little I do not understand on the subject except how misinformed our politicians are.

Footnote Imagine, 20 plus years after being introduced to CFL's, studying them, and determining they were bad, the government finally looks at them and determines they are good. Apparently they are now looking at the mercury content and considering this 'might' not be all good. 23 years and counting. Doesn't that make the government an entire generation out of date. Sounds about right eh?

505 61013
transformers use ?????
Comment by Dave on 10th July 2011
It's been several years since "basic electricity", but I am really surprised that after using transformers to step up or step down ac voltage,or used as an isolation device they have now replace rectifiers in converting ac voltage to dc voltage..when did this happen ?
(Thanks, we corrected that statement - but they still waste power)
I agree
Comment by Petri Nystrom on 6th July 2011
"Nuclear however is the grand daddy of the bad ass in electricity production. We can clean up after a dam break. We can clean up after an oil spill; nasty, but it can be done. There is just nothing we can do about the melt down contamination for over 100,000 years after a nuclear accident, that which is happening now in Japan."

I wholeheartedly agree with you on this, nuclear power is a genie that we have to put back in the box. I am glad to hear that some countries are taking steps to shutdown their nuclear plants in a controlled way.
I also liked your comment on oil spills, which look like a mere inconvience compared to the unimagable damage that nuclear can do.

great piece
Comment by Davey MacLennan on 6th July 2011
Merv, i have been reading your newspaper for several years now and i have to say this is the most interesting piece you have written so far, it was interesting in that it conveyed, good knowledge and and very exciting concept. fiurthermore it did not contain any of you usual politically bias rants. maybe you should look at writing an energy conservation /eco friendly book, or a dummies guide to producing your own electricty. might be a money maker for you.

again great piece
Comment by terry on 5th July 2011
Thanks for the clarification of the pros and cons of what everyone has to start thinking about, our future.
Nuclear power being proven to clearly be too much of a hazard to ever consider, and new solutions desperately needed.
I was already on board with the huge mistake of being forced to convert all our lightbulbs, but with your background I feel all the more confident that the decision they're making is wrong.
Keep up the great work attempting to inform the masses, some day your work will be far more greatly appreciated.