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What We Can Learn About Energy From Apple and the Phi Suea House

· energy,renewables,hydrogen fuel cells

The Phi Suea House in Chang Mai, Thailand is a group of residential developments that uses a combination of solar photovoltaic and hydrogen fuel cells and is completely energy self-sufficient.

We often assume that when technology is developed that it will be immediately available to the public for consumption. However, oftentimes, the political imbroglios between the public and private sector often pose an impasse to the fast adoption of technology. Energy itself cannot exist in a vacuum. Legislators, architects, builders and communities must work together to build a system of sustainable energy.

When President Obama came into power in the United States, he inadvertently lead to the widespread phenomenon of hydraulic fracturing (otherwise known as fracking). The Obama Administration had inherited the 2008 financial crisis and had to find a short term fix towards economic recovery to prevent the US from entering a second Great Depression; that short term fix came to be the adoption of fracking to quickly bring revenue into the nation.

Radioactive water waste from fracking. Although hydraulic fracturing or fracking initially began during the Bush II Era under former Vice-President Dick Cheney's company Halliburton, it didn't become commonplace until after the financial crisis. Fracking creates tonnes of waste products per month, mainly radioactive in nature that have taken up space in America's landfills and now being disposed of into oceans.

However, as the United States deliberately chose natural and shale gas as the primary new energy source, and left other renewable sources of energy, such as hydrogen fuel cells on the sidelines to promote hydraulic fracturing, it lead to a succession of events in that it stunted the growth of companies that were developing and working in sustainable technology and instead, furthered the goals of natural and shale gas, whose byproducts include toxic radioactive substances, such as uranium and radium, which were often dumped into landfills (called superfund sites), rivers and oceans, posing an environmental danger to all.

The Obama administration stated that shale gas had been revolutionary in that it allowed the U.S. to become energy sufficient, powering 15 million homes for up to one year and decreasing energy prices. However, one has to ask how expensive that one year of energy actually is when its byproducts have lead to an accelerated increase in the toxic dumping of landfills, so much so that now, 15 million+ Americans live within 1 mile of a fracking site, and 1/3 of Americans now live within 1 mile of a toxic superfund waste site? Was the short-term fix of economic recovery worth the potential long-term cost of hundreds of billions or trillions that future generations must now grapple with?

A map section of the United States of America from drilling maps. Green dots signify fracking sites and dark Blue dots signify reported health and safety issues, either through spills, chemical leakage into water or soil or problems with the storage of radioactive waste.

During his second term, President Obama attempted to rectify these early decisions by supporting renewable energy, however, made the misstep in giving all of the govt tax credits, to one fated company, Solyndra. In the end, when President Obama left office, he wrote an article in Scientific American defending his Administration’s choices. His administration had prioritised air pollution (eg, carbon pollution) in lieu of water and soil pollution, and had supported fracking as a movement away from coal to prop up the American economy, with the unintended consequences of the multiplication of radioactive superfund waste sites, but in the end, he doesn’t write in support of fracking, but renewable energy and cites Google and Walmart as corporate examples.

Google and Walmart, like Apple have transitioned into using 100% renewable energy in its operations in the coming years. Apple has also recently launched Apple Energy last year in which they will sell excess electricity they produce from a combination of solar energy and hydrogen fuel cells into the grid.

Apple solar and wind farms in California utilise hydrogen fuel cells. Apple has transitioned into an energy company and will be selling excess electricity derived from its energy division directly into the electrical grid. 

As UK legislators grapple with the problem of energy sufficiency, advocators of fracking such as former Prime Minister David Cameron, and Andrea Leadsom, Leader of the House of Commons, have all raved about how shale gas is a "safe" energy as a transition towards renewables; in that it emits less CO2 than coal, taking a cue from their American cousins across the ocean, as a soundbite to the early Obama years. However, they do not mention the radioactive substances that are dumped into rivers and lakes, such as what happened in Manchester, and also in the US, the Great Lakes of Lake Michigan, which provides freshwater for 20% of the American population.

One must note that when counties in Michigan changed water sources, what occurred was devastating consequences of water poisoning in areas such as Flint, Michigan where schoolchildren were exposed to toxic amounts of “lead”. The administrators at the time cited lead as the primary culprit in the water supply, which is one of the byproducts of fracking, however, no one mentioned that the Flint water source was close to several superfund waste sites in which tonnes of fracking waste had been disposed of and also included substances such as uranium and radium which may have leaked into the Flint River.

Since space at superfund waste sites are reaching full capacity in the US, fracking companies have been disposing radioactive waste directly into the Gulf of Mexico (red dots).

Since the landfills in the US are already nearly at full capacity and quickly running out of space, fracking administrators have been dumping radioactive fracking waste directly in the ocean, a practice that is now being proposed in the UK by companies such as Ineos, that also want to dump fracking waste directly into the ocean around the UK. The dangerous consequences of these actions seem clear even to the casual observer, however, when legislators are in bed with the energy industries, the policies that result may not beneficial for its citizens and instead turns into a talking point in political debate in which it is utilised to confuse and misinform. Although UK and US politicians often discuss that environmental protections must be strictly taken into account as the hydraulic fracturing movement continues in the US, and is beginning to take shape in the UK, no amount of protection can guarantee a safeguard from radioactive substances that take 9 billion years to fully degrade.

The short-term fix of economic recovery has had long-term consequences, in which no one knows the full extent of the damage that has been caused by hydraulic fracturing. The quality of water, soil, real estate, standard of living, and dumping of radioactive waste into rivers and oceans will have more lasting consequences than a simple oil spill. The clean-up of 1.5 tonnes of uranium in a single waste site cost the State Department $4.4 bln in 2008. These sites have now multiplied dramatically in the last 10 years in the US and its legacy could cost trillions for future generations.

Instead what we can learn from Thailand is that housing developments such as Phi Suea House (a completely self-sufficient solar-hydrogen energy development utilising a combination of photo-voltaic solar panels and hydrogen fuel cells without the use of fossil fuels) is that this is something that can be also be developed and rapidly scaled in the US, in the UK and also in 3rd world nations that suffer from a lack of energy sources.

The Phi Suea House utilises a combination of solar power and hydrogen fuel cells to deliver 24 hour energy to several houses in a development in Chang Mai, Thailand and was developed by German engineer Sebastian-Justus Schmidt and CNX Construction.

The problem for developments such as the Phi Suea House, is that it also poses disruption in several different industries that actively lobby the govt.

1. Disruption of the Water/ Utility Industries: Because the only byproducts of this energy are water and oxygen, it also allows developments like these to produce its own water supply, bypassing the need for water and utility companies that utilise water from oceans, lakes and rivers, which then uses a process to chemically treat the water before dispersing to neighborhoods in nations around the world. With the proliferation of hydrogen fuel cells, it is possible for all housing developments to become 100% self-sufficient by producing its own water.

2. Disruption of the Fossil Fuels Industries: The fossil fuel industries, such as coal, oil and gas have had more than a 100 year reign in the US and UK, which became a dominant force in political lobbying as well as being cited as the being the source for the conflicts we have come to know in the Middle East. These industries accelerated the US into a military industrial complex in the last century and lead to the uprising of insurgent groups, or “terrorists” who want to maintain control of the fossil fuels and natural resources of their nations away from US/ UK control.

3. Disruption of Secondary Industries that are dependent on fossil fuels: Electric car companies, such as Tesla that are dependent on natural or shale gas to power its electric cars through batteries. Although Tesla’s head chiefs and engineers have openly criticised hydrogen fuel cells and instead have supported electric powered batteries for their cars, Tesla has recently had major problems with their cars, enacting a complete recall of all their cars sold last year and its fast turnaround of senior engineers shows that there is something going on underneath the surface of the luxury car company. However, Tesla has also recently reinvented itself as an energy company: Tesla Energy and will begin producing solar and glass panels, including a lithium battery charged powerwall that the Tesla founder Elon Musk says can take houses off the energy grid, to become self-sufficient from fossil fuels.

Tesla is also making a transition into the energy industry as Tesla Energy. Tesla plans on utilising a combination of solar voltaic roof and glass panels and integrating it with a lithium power battery called a PowerWall.

However, the problem with batteries is that they must be replaced after several years and has chemical byproducts that are undesirable to the environment, and not particularly optimal for energy storage as hydrogen fuel cells. In places such as California, Arizona and Nevada, where there is an abundance of sunshine, it is possible for housing developments to completely subsist on solar photovoltaic energy alone. However, for places such as the UK, South Korea and Japan, where there weather tends to inconsistent, overcast and rainy, a combination of solar + hydrogen fuel cells ensures that there is an 24 hour supply of energy.

In the Phi Suea House, an AEM (Anion Exchange Membrane) Electrolyser was used to convert water directly into hydrogen and oxygen at a low cost, therefore, being able to adapt to inconsistent weather patterns, so that renewable energy such as solar power can be compatible with hydrogen fuel cells without the use of fossil fuels as a backup.

AEM (Anion Exchange Membrane) Electrolyser separates water into hydrogen and oxygen in a cost-effective way so that its integration with solar voltaic panels results in an energy loop with hydrogen fuel cells to provide 24 hour power whether or not sunshine is actively available.

As companies such as Apple and Tesla are transitioning into the energy industry and other corporations such as Google and Walmart are turning towards 100% renewable energy to power its operations, it is clear that there is a distinct shift occurring in the pattern of energy supply and consumption as we enter the Fourth Industrial Revolution and move away from fossil fuels.

Schematic of an experimental development by Nocera in 2008 that utilised a combination of solar voltaic power with hydrogen fuel cells as a precursor to the Phi Suea House.

The United States and United Kingdom can both learn from housing developments such as the Phi Suea House, the first development in the world that has been completely powered by renewable energy through its use of an AEM electrolyser to make solar and hydrogen fuel cells compatible into an endless supply of power. However, no matter how revolutionary the technology, energy companies cannot expand on their own. Legislators, architects, builders and engineers must work together to build a brave new world, a world in which we must prioritise the protection our land; our rivers, oceans, and forests and preserve our ecosystem for future generations. A brave new world that embraces long-term growth and economic stability, and not at the illusory price of short-term profit, but a long term return on investment.

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