Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Gaming Renewable Energy

The business culture in the United States overwhelmingly touts the virtues of a free market economy, but in practice what we have is a corporate nanny state (closely related to the conservative nanny state). This is particularly the case when it comes to power generation. The rules of the game, especially when it comes to renewable energy, are skewed in favor of the power utilities to the expense of the individual.

In a biting Truthout article, Renwables From the Bottom Up, Craig Morris compares the situation in Germany (where individual and small-scale renewable energy is thriving) to the United States (where net metering and other schemes limit the participation of the public). The profits of the utilities are assured, while the ability of small-scale producers to get a fair market value for energy they put back into the grid is restricted. Some free market...

In this article, Morris says:

Utilities also like net-metering because it imposes an artificial cap on the size of systems. In other words, it keeps the competition small. If your meter runs backward for the year, you may not even get the full retail rate for the excess power you produced, if you get anything. So if you conserve electricity at home, make sure you do not put too many panels on your roof lest you get nothing for your investment.

No wonder solar is moving slowly in the US. What we need is fair competition between energy providers and citizens - as cloudy Germany has. As a result of different legislation, Germans are not only the world leader in wind power, but also in solar, and their biomass sector grew by 55 percent in 2006. They don't use net-metering for solar or a tax credit for wind as we do. Rather, the secret to their success is that they empower citizens to compete with utilities eye-to-eye.

Remember deregulation? Where we failed, Germany succeeded. Since 1999, Germany's electricity and gas markets have been "liberalized," i.e. open for competition not only between corporations, but between corporations and citizens. Retail rates have remained stable, not skyrocketed, and there have been no rolling brownouts. On the contrary, Germany has only around 20-30 minutes of power outages on average each year - among the lowest blackout figures in the world. Renewables now make up 13 percent of the country's electricity supply - and this share is rising by around two percent per annum.

The German system does not pander to the vested interests of powerful utilities. Rather, utilities have to pay citizens a "minimum price" (floor price) set by the government for renewable power. The price is based on what power from a typical renewables generator would cost (cost of system divided by probable output); the retail rate on which net-metering is based is irrelevant here. Germans need only make sure that their systems are well designed and properly installed to turn a profit on their investments.

We desperately need to change our energy production policies to counter the rising spectre of global warming, but it's not an easy thing to do when somebody at the top is gaming the system.

Monday, January 28, 2008

The Energy Impacts of Meat

If you put the ethical issues aside (not an easy thing to do, because the ethical issues are monumental), the subsidized production of a commodity that Americans consume two or three times a day has far-reaching impacts. Meat, a commodity that contributes to a large number of environmental and health problems, is becoming increasingly popular outside the U.S. as well, a fact that is multiplying livestock production problems.

In an article written for the New York Times, Rethinking the Meat-Guzzler, Mark Bittman (who strenuously reminds readers that he is not a vegetarian) outlines the problem from a number of perspectives.

Global demand for meat has multiplied in recent years, encouraged by growing affluence and nourished by the proliferation of huge, confined animal feeding operations. These assembly-line meat factories consume enormous amounts of energy, pollute water supplies, generate significant greenhouse gases and require ever-increasing amounts of corn, soy and other grains, a dependency that has led to the destruction of vast swaths of the world’s tropical rain forests.

Just this week, the president of Brazil announced emergency measures to halt the burning and cutting of the country’s rain forests for crop and grazing land. In the last five months alone, the government says, 1,250 square miles were lost.

So how much energy does meat production require? The answer is eye opening.

To put the energy-using demand of meat production into easy-to-understand terms, Gidon Eshel, a geophysicist at the Bard Center, and Pamela A. Martin, an assistant professor of geophysics at the University of Chicago, calculated that if Americans were to reduce meat consumption by just 20 percent it would be as if we all switched from a standard sedan — a Camry, say — to the ultra-efficient Prius. Similarly, a study last year by the National Institute of Livestock and Grassland Science in Japan estimated that 2.2 pounds of beef is responsible for the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the average European car every 155 miles, and burns enough energy to light a 100-watt bulb for nearly 20 days.

Grain, meat and even energy are roped together in a way that could have dire results. More meat means a corresponding increase in demand for feed, especially corn and soy, which some experts say will contribute to higher prices.

Averting global warming is going to take more than switching light bulbs and driving a hybrid. It's going to require re-examining some of our most cherished habits--including the kind of food we put in our mouths.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Drought and Nuclear Power

The prospect of water wars and extended drought as a side effect of global warming places the nuclear power industry in an increasingly untenable position. As nuclear power proponents try to cast the moribund technology as a carbon-free power source to lead us out of the global warming crisis, real-world concerns cast a different light on nuclear futures.

As reported by The Associated Press and reposted on, droughts across the Southeast United States could force serious power reductions or plant shutdowns this coming year. The rivers and lakes that supply the cooling water essential to plant operation are at extremely low levels.

Already, there has been one brief, drought-related shutdown, at a reactor in Alabama over the summer.

“Water is the nuclear industry’s Achilles’ heel,” said Jim Warren, executive director of N.C. Waste Awareness and Reduction Network, an environmental group critical of nuclear power. “You need a lot of water to operate nuclear plants.” He added: “This is becoming a crisis.”

The current situation mirrors the crisis that occurred in Europe during the heat wave in 2006. Countries dependent on nuclear power often had to reduce power or shut down as the temperatures soared. Buying electricity from other sources in this type of situation is very expensive.

During Europe’s brutal 2006 heat wave, French, Spanish and German utilities were forced to shut down some of their nuclear plants and reduce power at others because of low water levels - some for as much as a week.

If a prolonged shutdown like that were to happen in the Southeast, utilities in the region might have to buy electricity on the wholesale market, and the high costs could be passed on to customers.

“Currently, nuclear power costs between $5 to $7 to produce a megawatt hour,” said Daniele Seitz, an energy analyst with New York-based Dahlman Rose & Co. “It would cost 10 times that amount that if you had to buy replacement power - especially during the summer.”

There are many other reasons why nuclear power doesn't make sense (safety concerns, waste disposal, scarcity of uranium ore, cost overruns, terrorist threats), but sometimes the issue is basic and inescapable: without abundant water, nuclear power plants can't operate.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Short-Sighted Automakers Ignore Indicators

Back in 1973 when a worldwide oil crisis was triggered by OPEC, U.S. automakers plodded unimaginatively along, trying to use the same forumula for success that had worked for the last fifty years--during the years of cheap oil when gas guzzlers ruled the road. In comparison, Japanese automakers invaded America's shores with a succession of small, fuel-efficient vehicles that over time captured a significant portion of the market from domestic manufacturers.

Apparently, it was a lesson quickly forgotten. Kelpie Wilson, reporting on the North American International Auto Show in Truthout, saw more focus on bigger, more powerful truck; beer coolers built into vehicles; and luxury machinery than on fuel savings. The notion of peak oil and fuel efficiency was relegated to a small footnote, a barely acknowledged afterthought that plug-in hybrids and hyper-efficient vehicles may be the better choice to slow the advance of global warming.

On the CNBC broadcast about the show, Kelpie commented:

Between the NASCAR heroes and half-naked women you would have thought there might be a few minutes to look at some of the green cars on display. According to Auto Alliance, the show features 34 flex-fuel vehicles from eight manufacturers, one hydrogen vehicle from BMW, 24 hybrids from nine manufacturers, and ten new diesels from four manufacturers. Chevy and Toyota also have plug-in hybrid cars at the concept stage. But the CNBC television special had nothing to say about green cars until 44 minutes into the show when there was a comment that green cars were there and "there is ethanol, plug-ins, a lot of stuff they don't have yet, but great eco-fuel stuff to talk about." And that was it. They didn't bother to show the viewing audience a single green car.

Retro styling, along with retro attitudes, is all we are seeing from Detroit at a time when the world needs to radically reinvent everything to do with energy and the economy. It's not just about climate change either, but also the fact that global oil production is near its peak while population and consumption are both rising. Meanwhile, the only cure for the US recession is massive public investment in a new, post-oil energy and transportation infrastructure. The future will revolve around plug-in hybrids coupled with a smart electric grid and a huge expansion in mass transit buses and railroads. There is no real reason why Detroit should not be a part of that, but the auto industry and its supporters will have to work to make it happen.

The world changes while the automakers sleep.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

High-Flying Algae

Previously outspoken global warming skeptic Richard Branson has seen the light. Branson, like many of the converted, has made fighting global warming a personal crusade and the billionaire founder of Virgin Airways is making a bid to power his jet fleet with biofuel.

As reported in Mother Jones, Virgin Airlines: Powered by Pond Scum, speculation abounds on what form of biofuel Branson will be using on the test run of a Boeing 747-400 from London to Amsterdam on a blend of 20 percent biofuel and 80 percent jet fuel. The test is scheduled for late February 2008.

Neither Virgin nor its partners, Boeing and GE, will say what biofuel the airline plans to use. Scott attributed the silence to "customer preference," indicating that more information could be released in the coming weeks. For now, he would say only that Boeing is investigating more than 20 different "feedstocks" for the production of biofuels, including a flowering plant called jatropha, canola, and the Brazilian babassu nut—all of which yield oils when crushed.

Another potential fuel source, one that Scott alluded to several times, is algae. "The biggest thing you get out of going to biofuels is the ability to reduce CO2 as the plants are growing," he explained. And along those lines, perhaps more than any other feedstock, algae represents a kind of holy grail to biofuel researchers. It's a fast-growing, hardy, single-celled organism that takes in carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide and releases oxygen, producing oil, sugar, and protein in the process. It's biodegradable, can grow in harsh weather, and holds an estimated thirty times more energy per acre than land-based feedstocks. The Energy Department estimated it would require 15,000 acres (an area about the size of Maryland) to grow enough algae to replace all of America's petroleum needs; it would require half the continental United States to accomplish the same with soy.

Algae is gaining increasing attention as a fuel source, so it will be illuminating to see if this is the fuel Branson is banking on. As a master of self promotion, Branson will undoubtedly have a moment in the spotlight to unveil his test results and focus the aviation industry on the possibilities of alternative fuels.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Biofuels are a Dead End (or Are They?)

As reported in the English version of SPIEGEL ONLINE, backlash at the negative effects of biofuel production is reaching a crescendo in Europe. Despite the fact the many governments across Europe have mandated a steady push toward gas and diesel made from plants, environmental group are marshalling forces to oppose this direction.

"The biofuels route is a dead end," Dr. Andrew Boswell, a Green Party councillor in England and author of a recent study on the harmful effects of biofuels, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "They are going to create great damage to the environment and will also produce dramatic social problems in (tropical countries where many crops for biofuels are grown). There basically isn't any way to make them viable."

The evidence against biofuels marshalled by Boswell and other environmentalists appears quite damning. Advertised as a fuel that only emits the amount of carbon dioxide that the plants absorb while growing -- making it carbon neutral -- it actually has resulted in a profitable industrial sector attractive to countries around the world. Vast swaths of forest have been felled and burned in Argentina and elsewhere for soya plantations. Carbon-rich peat bogs are being drained and rain forests destroyed in Indonesia to make way for extensive palm oil farming.

Because the forests are often torched and the peat rapidly oxidizes, the result is huge amounts of CO2 being released into the atmosphere. Furthermore, healthy peat bogs and forests absorb CO2 -- scientists refer to them as "carbon sinks" -- making their disappearance doubly harmful.

Note that much of the opposition is directed at the impact of deforestation associated with biofuels. Fuel sources such as switchgrass, algae, and hemp can be grown and harvested without infringing on conventional agricultural lands, competing with food crops, or requiring deforestation.

Hemp is particularly promising, but the misguided prohibition of industrial hemp farming in America presents a significant hurdle to overcome. As detailed in this article posted by Yokayo Biofuels, automakers from back in the days of Henry Ford and Rudolph Diesel envisioned biomass fuels as central to automobile travel.

Despite the fact that men such as Henry Ford, Rudolph Diesel, and subsequent manufacturers of diesel engines saw the future of renewable resource fuels, a political and economic struggle doomed the industry. Manufacturing industrialists made modifications to the diesel engines so they could take advantage of the extremely low prices of the residual, low-grade fuel now offered by the petroleum industry. The petroleum companies wanted control of the fuel supplies in the United States and, despite the benefits of biomass fuel verses the fossil fuels, they moved ahead to eliminate all competition.

One player in the biofuel, paper, textile, as well as many other industries, was hemp. Hemp had been grown as a major product in America since colonial times by such men as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and has had both governmental and popular support. Hemp's long history in civilization and the multitude of products that can be derived from this single plant has made it one of the most valuable and sustainable plants in the history of mankind. More importantly to the biofuel industry, hemp provided the biomass that Ford needed for his production of ethanol. He found that 30% hemp seed oil is usable as a high-grade diesel fuel and that it could also be used as a machine lubricant and an engine oil.

We have many solutions to the energy crisis at hand, but not enough wise leaders guiding our direction.

Popular Mechanics Looks at the Aptera

It looks a bit like a wingless aircraft and draws stares from nearly everyone it passes. It's loaded with high-tech ideas, from the solar panels on the roof that help vent hot air on sunny days to the recycled materials used on every inch of the cockpit. The prototype shown in this video, the Aptera, is reputed to get 300 miles per gallon. For another view of what the car of the future might look like, check out this video produced by Popular Mechanics:

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Extreme Hybrids and Future Driving

From a small company in Bellevue, Washington, AFS Trinity Power Corporation, comes an idea big enough to change the driving habits of millions of Americans and jumpstart the renewable energy industry. A prototype SUV displayed at the North American International Auto Show uses AFS Trinity drive train technologies to achieve 150mpg. As the company points out, this figure is not a projection. The SUV prototype is an actual running example of a vehicle design that promises to revolutionize driving.

The company describes the Extreme Hybrid drive train technology in these terms:

The Extreme Hybrid™ is the first practical drive train for a Plug-in Hybrid Vehicle. Its two-part energy storage system combines Lithium-ion batteries with ultracapacitors. This “hybrid within a hybrid” energy storage system exploits the strengths of lithium-ion batteries (light weight and high energy density) and ultracapacitors (small size and high power density). Batteries alone, have high energy density but they must be greatly oversized in today’s hybrid vehicles to avoid deep discharges. Battery-only hybrids also require a powerful internal combustion engine for hill climbing and acceleration.
Adding ultracapacitors with their high power density and high cycle life allows the Extreme Hybrid™ Plug-in to achieve top speeds and rapid acceleration in electric-only mode equal to a conventional hybrid. The Extreme Hybrid™ design allows for a smaller internal combustion engine while preserving high vehicle performance. For a typical daily commute of 40 miles round trip, an Extreme Hybrid™ vehicle does not use its internal combustion engine at all.

In an article for Salon, Joseph Romm points out that by themselves, hybrid electric vehicles won't contribute enormous greenhouse gas savings until cleaner electricity sources come on line:

The big greenhouse gas savings would come about as plug-ins enable a major transition toward clean electricity and away from petroleum-based fuel, which is getting dirtier every year, as unconventional oil, such as Canadian tar sands, becomes more popular.

Unlike petroleum, electricity is poised to get greener in the future, especially as we fight climate change. Indeed, once we have a national cap on carbon emissions, plug-ins will drive even faster growth of the diverse and growing numbers of carbon-free electricity sources.

As promising as Extreme Hybrid technology looks, the challenge is still daunting. Romm also explains that to prevent catastrophic climate change, the average U.S. car will have to have 80 to 90 percent lower carbon dioxide emissions by 2050 than today's vehicles.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Algae to Biofuel: New Interest

An idea for a fuel source that sparked interest over 20 years ago is now getting a fresh look. Algae offers the potential to produce inexpensive transportation fuel and back in the late 70's and 80's twelve U.S. universities, funds by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, studied 3,000 strains of algae until research money dried up in the 90's. As reported by the Environment News Service, one of the chief researchers at the time, Keith Cooksey, is a central figure in a new quest to tap both the CO2 absorption capabilities and fuel potential of brown algae.

"It's a very strange feeling," said Cooksey, now 72. "You don't usually have people bending your ear on what you did 20 years ago. Science doesn't work that way, but in this case, it did."

The revived interest in microalgae stems from conflict in the Middle East and the resulting focus on alternative fuels, Cooksey said.

"Our lab was one of three or four in the world doing research that nobody was really interested in," Cooksey said. "Now, suddenly lots of people are interested in it."

The oil companies, who may have been instrumental in quashing the earlier research, are now expressing significant interest in algae as we enter the post peak oil era.

The algal properties for sequestering CO2 make it especially attractive as a solution for transportation fuel.

Algal biodiesel is one of the only avenues available for high-volume re-use of CO2 generated in power plants. It is a technology that marries the potential need for carbon disposal in the electric utility industry with the need for clean-burning alternatives to petroleum in the transportation sector.

Already, a San Diego firm, Green Star Products, is working on agreements to construct commercial algae facilities that can offset carbon emissions, such as those produced by boilers in biodiesel plants. The trend definitely looks promising.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Faux Nuclear Renaissance

In sharp contrast to the numerous mainstream media reports (which have been widely circulated and strongly encouraged by numerous pro-nuclear factions), the nuclear power industry is in decline around the world. The "World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2007", presented to the European Parliament in late November 2007 by the Greens European Free Alliance group, documents that the proportion of nuclear energy in power production has decreased in 21 out of 31 countries. Compared to five years ago, there are five fewer functioning nuclear reactors. At the moment, 32 nuclear power plants are under construction or in the late planning stage, which is 20 fewer than at the turn of the millennium.

In a summary of the report posted on the Greens/EFA site, German Green MEP and energy spokesperson said,

"The shrinking of nuclear in Europe is particularly notable, with ten power plants being permanently withdrawn from the network since the last report in 2004.With fewer plants being built and existing plants becoming more decrepit, it seems clear that the grandiose ambitions of the nuclear industry will remain in the realm of fantasy."

False promises for a nuclear revival could lead to misplaced public expenditure, delaying a more intelligent and sustainable approach to energy supply. In addition, plans for building new reactors would be in direct competition for the limited manufacturing capacity that is already stretched by the maintenance costs for existing (aging) reactors.

"The gap between the expectations being promoted by the nuclear industry and reality are perfectly highlighted by the bungled attempt to build a new reactor at the Olkiluoto plant in Finland. This first new nuclear project in 15 years has been blighted by problems.After only two years of construction the project is already two years delayed and the budget is set to be overrun by at least 50%, with 1.5 billion euro in losses and shocking errors in key technical specifications. Clearly, talk of a nuclear revival is divorced from reality and political leaders must call the nuclear industry's bluff," continued Rebecca Harms.

Recognition of the fallacies perpetuated by nuclear power boosters could help steer more resources toward wind, solar, geothermal, and tidal power development.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Energy News from the Upper Midwest

We might think of the Upper Midwest as a place where interests in energy take a backseat to the gritty demands of farming, but as the weekly energy roundup demonstrates, activism and progressive energy policies are alive and well.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Simple Measures to Reduce Energy Use

Conventional wisdom (that is, the specious analysis that is generally circulated in the mainstream media) typically looks at our national energy needs as a matter of building more power plants, producing different kinds of fuels, or progressing slowly toward more use of renewables. The notion of doing more with less doesn't usually get a lot of coverage, although there are a number of efficiency studies demonstrating how we can successfully meet many of our future energy needs simply by eliminating waste.

As reported in the New York Times (and posted on truthout), The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory of the Energy Department conducted a research study recently where 112 households in the Olympic Peninsula were equipped with digital thermostats and computer controllers linked to other appliances, such as water heaters and clothes dryers. Controls for all of these energy-consuming items were also connected to the Internet.

The study results indicated surprsingly impressive energy savings over the span of a year, with the potential for tremendous long-term savings:

Over a 20-year period, this could save $70 billion on spending for power plants and infrastructure, and avoid the need to build the equivalent of 30 large coal-fired plants, say scientists at the federal laboratory.

The demonstration project was as much a test of consumer behavior as it was of new technology. Scientists wanted to find out if the ability to monitor consumption constantly would cause people to save energy - just as studies have shown that people walk more if they wear pedometers to count their steps.

More efficient cars, smarter heating and cooling of buildings, appliances used more wisely and deliberately--all of these measures clearly can substantially reduce our need for a drastic increase in the number of power plants and the frantic, often misguided quest for new fuel sources.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Of Birds and Turbines

As a reminder that few activities of humankind are without consequences, reports on the problem of bird deaths from the blades of wind turbines in an article titled "Wind power can be deadly." The strong winds that rip through the Altamont Pass in California have been tapped by approximately 5,000 windmills, but local avian wildlife has suffered, generating controversy over continuing operations.

No one knows for sure how many birds are killed by the Altamont turbines -- a 2004 California Energy Commission report estimated the golden eagle toll to be between 75 and 116 a year, while total bird kills were put in the 1,766 to 4,721 range. The Audubon Society lawsuit targets four raptor species -- golden eagle, red-tailed hawk, American kestrel and burrowing owl -- which suffered 456 to 1,129 fatalities per year, the study estimated.

Subsequent data indicate that bird deaths have not decreased since the settlement was reached last January and that efforts to achieve a 50 percent reduction in three years are far behind, said Shawn Smallwood, an independent consultant in avian ecology who co-authored the 2004 California Energy Commission study and is one of the five county-appointed scientists.

There are tradeoffs to almost everything we do, but in this case the solution clearly favors upgrading older turbines to more modern models, which operate at a higher level with more slowly spinning blades.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Biofuels Have Consequences

New analyses by researchers point to unintended consequences of increasing biofuel production, leading to environmental impacts potentially more damaging than fossil fuels. As reported in the Guardian Unlimited, if factors such as destruction of farmland and biodiversity conservation are included in the equation, biofuels based on certain crops (including corn and sugar cane) produce more risks than benefits.

As the article points out, differences exist between different crops:

Efforts to work out which crops are most environmentally friendly have, until now, focused only on the amount of greenhouse gases a fuel emits when it is burned. Scharlemann and Laurance highlighted a more comprehensive method, developed by Rainer Zah of the Empa Research Institute in Switzerland, that can take total environmental impacts - such as loss of forests and farmland and effects on biodiversity - into account.

In a study of 26 biofuels the Swiss method showed that 21 fuels reduced greenhouse-gas emissions by more than 30% compared with gasoline when burned. But almost half of the biofuels, a total of 12, had greater total environmental impacts than fossil fuels. These included economically-significant fuels such as US corn ethanol, Brazilian sugar cane ethanol and soy diesel, and Malaysian palm-oil diesel. Biofuels that fared best were those produced from waste products such as recycled cooking oil, as well as ethanol from grass or wood.

Given that many government initiatives are mandating a shift to biofuels, these impacts and risks should be cause to re-examine the rationale behind selecting one crop over another.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Market Potential for Clean Energy

In an article for the business technology publication Red Herring, analysts provided enthusiastic forecasts for the clean energy tech sector and trumpeted some of the strong growth rates experienced in 2007.

Solar companies were the clean tech engines on the U.S. public markets. Shares of Phoenix, Arizona-based First Solar soared, ending the year up nearly tenfold to close at $267.14. San Jose, California-based SunPower rose 368 percent on the year, closing at $130.39 per share. And Wuxi, China-based Suntech climbed 240 percent, trading at $82.32 per share at the end of trading.

Projections for 2008 are looking bullish as well:

Mr. Pernick predicted 2008 would be a good year for energy storage, energy intelligence—such as smart grid technology—and advanced materials within the clean tech sector.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Wave Energy Conversion

The following video, produced by Finavera Renewables, shows the test deployment of a wave energy converter, AquaBuOY. Analysts project that this form of power could supply 6.5% of U.S. energy needs in years to come.