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If you've ever thought about switching your home from traditional electric or gas heat to an alternative energy source, you may have gone beyond solar power to consider geothermal, hydroelectric, or wind power. Although hydroelectric power is one of the cleanest and most efficient energy sources available, unless you live on property with a steady stream, you may believe this option is out of reach. However, a new system at the University of Nebraska is actually allowing the college campus to be heated and cooled by the students' own (treated) wastewater. Read on to learn more about this recent innovation in geothermal and hydroelectric technology and what it could mean for your home.
How is hydroelectric power generated from the sewer system?
In most situations, hydroelectric power is generated from the physical force created from falling or quickly flowing water. Most modern large-scale hydroelectric installations involve a dam to control the flow of water and generators that capture the kinetic energy when the water is released through the dam. Smaller "home" versions of hydroelectric generators will operate from a creek, river, or other quickly flowing or steady stream. For the homeowner, these systems usually have an electric or gas backup so that you won't be without heat or air-conditioning during particularly dry seasons.
However, the University of Nebraska's system combines two energy technologies: hydroelectric and geothermal power. The thousands of individuals who use the University's plumbing facilities -- showering, flushing toilets, and washing their hands -- create their own miniature river through which power can be generated. During this process, the wastewater is first routed to the nearby water treatment plant, then funneled back to the University's buildings through a series of tubes that keep the water at a steady, warm temperature. The water in these tubes can then be used to produce heated air (in winter) and cooled air (in summer).
This type of geothermal system is another eco-friendly alternative to coal, gas, and other "dirty" energy sources. By using the earth's own constant, comfortable temperature to keep water heated and cooled, contractors can design and install systems that directly convert this heated and cooled water into heated and cooled air.
What can this technology mean for the average homeowner?
Although the University of Nebraska's system is fairly unique -- based on the number of students utilizing the campus and its close proximity to a water treatment facility -- these same hydroelectric and geothermal principles can be put into use in smaller buildings as well. Although most traditional geothermal systems involve the burial of water pipes beneath the ground, where they can be kept at a steady temperature by the earth's crust, the University's system is unique in that these pipes are routed above ground, straight from the water treatment facility. These pipes must be properly insulated to prevent the temperature of the water inside from dropping too sharply in the winter or rising in the summer.
Depending upon the layout of your specific home and property, you may be able to combine hydroelectric and geothermal trends in your home as well. For example, a gravity-fed collection receptacle on the top of your home can route rainwater through a hydroelectric generator, which will utilize the speed of the falling water to create energy. The water itself can then be piped underground, where it will be brought to a steady temperature by the earth's crust and can be used to create a comfortable temperature in your home. By combining these energy-efficient technologies, you can provide your home with year-round heating and cooling while significantly reducing your energy bills and avoiding pollution.
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