Sunday, September 01, 2013

Storing Energy from Intermittent Power Sources

One of the enduring canards that is trotted out on a regular basis by those who disparage renewable energy (usually in favor of fossil fuels or nuclear) is that because the wind and sun produce energy intermittently, they have no value in the world's long-term energy strategies.

In truth, there are multiple methods of storing energy from daytime sunlight or windy days. One particularly good example is the Bath Country Hydro Pumped Storage Facility, operated by Dominion Power on the Virginia-West Virginia border. Energy stored as hydropower in one of the largest engineering projects ever implemented helps serve the energy needs of some 60-million people across 13 states.

A Think Progress article on the topic included this quote:
When Sean Fridley, the facility’s Station Manager, looks at the Upper Reservoir perched a thousand feet above his office, he doesn’t see drops of water. He sees a thousands-of-megawatts-deep block of power, a huge amount of stored potential energy — with more output than the Hoover Dam — that he can turn on with a flick of a switch.
Other innovative storage methods have been suggested, all based on proven technologies. A promising plan was presented in Scientific American in 2007 involving collection of solar energy in the US southwest desert, with distribution over high-voltage DC transmission lines  to compressed-air storage facilities around the country. The current cost of compressed-air storage is roughly half that of lead-acid batteries.

This video gives a nice overview of the storage facility in Bath County:

The next time someone tells you that intermittent energy sources can't solve our energy needs,   the evidence is abundant that they don't know half the story.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Solar Panels Sound Death Knell for U.S. Utilities

Energy supply and demand has been the dominating mechanism controlling prices in the public utility sector for a century and that model is threatened by the rise in solar power and other distributed renewable energy technologies, writes David Roberts in this Grist article. Reducing energy demand and improving energy efficiency are anathema to the utilities, by their own admission, as Roberts explains. 

The "money quote" in the article, taken from an Edison Energy Institute (EEI) report, states: 
The financial implications of these threats are fairly evident. Start with the increased cost of supporting a network capable of managing and integrating distributed generation sources. Next, under most rate structures, add the decline in revenues attributed to revenues lost from sales foregone. These forces lead to increased revenues required from remaining customers … and sought through rate increases. The result of higher electricity prices and competitive threats will encourage a higher rate of DER additions, or will promote greater use of efficiency or demand-side solutions. 
Increased uncertainty and risk will not be welcomed by investors, who will seek a higher return on investment and force defensive-minded investors to reduce exposure to the sector. These competitive and financial risks would likely erode credit quality. The decline in credit quality will lead to a higher cost of capital, putting further pressure on customer rates. Ultimately, capital availability will be reduced, and this will affect future investment plans. The cycle of decline has been previously witnessed in technology-disrupted sectors (such as telecommunications) and other deregulated industries (airlines). 
The bottom line is: don't expect the public utilities to be leaders in the shift to renewable energy. It's clearly not in their financial interests to do so. 

Creative Commons photo from USFWS Mountain Prairie

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Cars now trump bikes in Beijing

Towns and cities that accommodate cyclists have always seemed more human and approachable to me. Davis, California comes to mind. Portland, Oregon is bike friendly and Minneapolis, Minnesota (when it's not bone-chllingly cold) is another good example. To me, it's a hopeful sign when people move outside the norm in our petroleum-fueled society and take transportation issues into their own hands (and industriously pedaling feet). 

As Noah Feldman notes in Bloomberg world, Beijing used to be a cyclist's paradise where bikes dominated the travel landscape. It was a less a case of intelligent city planning than pure necessity, as the economy of the region hadn't reached the explosive growth the prevails today and bicycles, for many, were the only affordable mode of transportation. Sadly, streets packed with bicycles have become a quaint memory as poor air quality and an massive influx of automobiles have transformed Beijing from cyclist paradise to nightmare. 

Of recent experiences in the city, Feldman said:
When I went to rent a bike upon my arrival in Beijing last week, people looked at me as though I were mad. As I tooled around the old neighborhoods near the Forbidden City, I was often the only nonmotorized thing in sight. There were bike lanes, all right, but they were populated only by motorbikers and the occasional fellow intrepid Westerner. On the back streets, I saw a few older Chinese cyclists, wearing expressions of thorough disgust. Meanwhile, Boston, like lots of other U.S. cities, has become a reasonable place to bicycle. I still wouldn’t recommend it to the faint of heart, but as long as you bike defensively, you feel like a member of a forward-looking tribe of change agents.
Initiatives are being launched in towns and cities around the world to encourage biking, but Beijing offers a clear example of what happens when automobiles trump bikes.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Electric cars slowly become a reality

Often praised for innovative engineering, but also maligned for over promising and and under delivering, Tesla Motors Inc. has realized two-thirds of their original vision with the release of the Model S. A flurry of reviews, including this one in the Los Angeles Times, put the car up on a pedestal with the likes of the Audi A7 or Mercedes-Benz CLS. But, reviewers also note the issue that continues to dampen enthusiasm for electric vehicles: range anxiety. 

Until we reach a consensus in the U.S. over the need for charging stations, we'll continue to lag behind nations that are aggressively deploying charging stations. The European Union is embarking on a plan to deploy 8 million charging stations by 2020

Part of the problem is that a large contingent of our society is in total denial about the reality that resource depletion is inevitable and that peak oil is just around the corner. A post from the Peak Oil  news site summed up the prevailing attitude neatly: 
Who cares about how many wells must be drilled almost constantly to maintain some semblance of increasing production? Costs per well? Who cares? Keeping oil prices high to justify all that extra drilling and investment? We’ll figure something out soon enough….Rapid depletion of new wells in the tight oil formations of the Bakken and elsewhere? Can’t be bothered to worry about that! We’ll just drill more! 
Electric vehicles could be part of our future (rather than the 1/10 of 1 percent of auto sales in the U.S., as is now the case) if we have the foresight and will to create the infrastructure that will allow them to flourish.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Impossible Conundrum: Nuclear Waste Storage

There are a multitude of reasons why nuclear fission reactors make no sense as a part of our energy future (without even thinking about it too much, you've got dwindling supplies of uranium ore; the impossibility of building enough reactors fast enough to cope with climate change challenges; the difficulty finding suitable sources of cooling water for new reactors; the demonstrated problems during heat waves, such as in 2003 when France was forced to shut down reactors when cooling water temperatures became too high; the element of human error that frequently complicates safety issues, as demonstrated mightily during the ongoing Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster; and on and on).

Significantly, however, nuclear proponents have consistently dodged the issue that presents a glaring indictment of the entire technology: devising a long-term solution for the end of the fuel cycle, finding a way to contain and store the byproducts of 70 years of nuclear fission, much of it still residing in spent fuel pools—a storage solution that has always been deemed temporary, but with the lack of industry initiatives to move cooler fuel to dry casks and the absence of any progress toward a permanent repository, some 72,000 tons of nuclear waste exist with no plan for long-term storage.

Writing for, Gregg Levine analyzes the situation, tracing the initial enthusiasm of the nuclear industry to the present-day confusion.

As he points out in the article:
The crisis at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi facility was so dangerous, and remains dangerous to this day, in part because of the large amounts of spent fuel stored in pools next to the reactors but outside of containment - a design identical to 35 US nuclear reactors. A number of these GE Mark 1 Boiling Water Reactors - such as Oyster Creek and Vermont Yankee - have more spent fuel packed into their individual pools than all the waste in Fukushima Daiichi Units 1, 2, 3, and 4 combined.
In retrospect, it's completely insane that we've proceeded with nuclear power generation and proponents continue to present the technology as the solution to global warming when the most fundamental concerns—long-term isolation of the radioactive byproducts—have never been suitably addressed.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Unequivocal Evidence that Climate Change is Already Here

The draft summary of a new report, the National Climate Assessment, compiled by a 60-person team of experts, indicates that we're already seeing dire effects from human activities that have led to overall warming of the planet. An article published by Common Dreams asks the question Can US Government's Own Dire and 'Unambiguous' Report on Climate Change Spur Action? 

A raft of studies, predictions, and warnings from the scientific community has failed to produce the actions required to reverse the trend. From the article:
Despite the fact that an unending volume of climate science confirming that dangers of unregulated global carbon emissions has produced a well-observed policy failure, many still cling to the idea that the science will, in the end, play a decisive role in turning the tables on the fossil fuel industry's seemingly iron grip of the legislative process.
The hope is that the report will serve as a wake-up call.
“This could help restart a national conversation about climate change,” said Todd Sanford, a climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists.  “It gives us a road map for climate change. And the road is much bumpier if we continue along a higher emissions pathway.” 
Is anybody listening?