Energy efficiency turns Joules to Dollars

The new course, Joules to Dollars, is an integrative collaboration of chemistry and economics. Taught by Professors Micheal Donihue and Whitney King, it is focused on connecting the way our energy needs are supported both physically and monetarily. In a world where carbon emissions are astronomically growing, it is important that we are making calculated choices for our environment as well as our wallets.

The beginning of the class focussed on the economics of alternative and renewable energy sources. For the first week, a tour of the under workings of the college’s biomass plant provided the class an appreciation for the resources provided by Maine and the engineering and work that goes on behind the scenes for heating our water and buildings.

One of the strengths of Joules to Dollars is its practicality. The first homework assignment was to help King compare four different cars that he was considering purchasing. Students had to analyze the Toyota Prius V, the VW Golf TDI diesel and gas engines, and the Chevy Volt, each from an environmental and an economic perspective. First economically, students had to finance each car with monthly payments, research fuel costs through economic forecasting and fuel economies, as well as look at the repair rates of each model. Next, they compared fuel types, carbon emissions, and engine efficiency for each model. With near unanimous agreement the class concluded that the best car for King was the VW Golf TDI with diesel engine.

After the third week, the class ventured north on an overnight field trip, snowshoeing into the Maine Huts and Trails hut located on Flagstaff Lake. Maine Huts and Trails not only provides four huts for overnight visits but have connected all of them together with 50 miles of trails that can be skied, snowshoed, hiked and biked. All but one of the huts are completely off the grid and use a combination of renewable and non-renewable energy sources to provide comfortable living space for hundreds of guests every year.

After dinner, the hut staff took the students on a tour. The first attraction was the main dining room. Here, they take advantage of natural light through large windows to reduce electric lighting, keep heat in with a heavily insulated ceiling, and they have also tiled the floor with slate from Monson, Maine in order to absorb warmth from the sunlight during the day and release it at night. This design keeps the dining room as comfortable as possible while also being heat efficient.

Next, students learned about the hut’s composting toilet. All of their huts use Clivus Composting Toilets which break down visitors’ waste into compost. The process is completely natural and only uses minimal water, wood chips, yeast bacteria, and worms in order to dissolve the matter. This system is so efficient that after five years of operation, it has only created “two wheel barrels” full of compost. The process turns the waste into carbon dioxide and water vapor, and viable fertilizer. Clivus claims that its systems reduce the volume of waste by over 90 percent.

After they had all seen enough of the Clivus, the students’ guide moved us along to their boiler. Their boiler is a Tarm two stage gasifying system, similar in design to the college’s own biomass plant. It runs on cord wood sourced locally, and burns the wood in a large funnel before injecting oxygen and air into the next stage where the gas of the wood is burned at nearly 2000 degrees  Fahrenheit. Their boiler is more than 85 percent efficient, and all of the heat it can capture goes into heating an 800 gallon tank of water.

The students then learned about their solar array, perched atop the hut. They are able to collect electricity from the sun, run it through a AC/DC inverter, and store that electricity in huge batteries. This solar array is slightly out of date and loses nearly 20 percent efficiency during the inverting process, however, it can provide electricity for the entire day during the spring, summer, and fall. For whenever the sun is not shining, they have a generator fueled by propane to keep the lights on and keep guests happy.

This hut is completely off the grid and is reducing its carbon emissions greatly. The class was able to learn about the practicality of renewable energy sources, as well as get a real sense for just how much of a demand we have for electricity and energy. Back on campus, the students invited Charlie Woodworth, Executive Director for the Maine Huts and Trails non-profit, for a question and answer session. He described the mission of the huts, the real economic figures, and his goals for the future. His decade long plan involves a total of 12 huts and 180 total miles of trails.

Through the first few weeks of Joules to Dollars, students have found an eye for energy needs and are looking for improvements. Colby College is one of the first carbon neutral colleges in the country, however, that does not mean the college is perfect. There are always more efficient methods, cheaper options, and greener systems, and Joules to Dollars is working to find them.

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