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Aerial photo of the Sheldon power plant showing the generating station and its coal yard with rural Nebraska fields extending in the distance.

Nuclear to Coal to Hydrogen: Sheldon Station Blazes a Trail

You’d have to be pretty lost on a road trip through the southeastern part of the Cornhusker state to run across Nebraska Public Power District’s (NPPD’s) Sheldon power plant.

And that would be too bad, because Sheldon may deserve at least a mention in the annals of industrial history. If so, then it’s on track to add to that citation.

The plant was first built between 1958 and 1963 as an experimental nuclear power plant for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. That equipment is long gone. In its place is a two-unit coal-fired power plant that for a time tried (without much luck) to use old tires as fuel. It burned Eastern U.S. coal and today takes delivery of trainloads of low-sulfur coal from Wyoming’s Powder River Basin.

That’s set to change as NPPD engineers advance plans to convert Sheldon’s 125 megawatt (MW) Unit 2 from coal to hydrogen. Doing so would make Sheldon the largest hydrogen-fueled electric power station in the United States.

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Clean coal technology suffered a setback when efforts to start up the gasification portion of an IGCC plant in Mississippi were halted.

The Three Factors That Doomed Kemper County IGCC

When its history is written, the Kemper County clean coal plant in Mississippi might be seen in the same light as a transatlantic liner at the dawn of the jet age: a gallant piece of engineering to be sure, but ultimately irrelevant.

The first page of the 582-megawatt integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) plant’s history was written 28 June.

That was when Southern Company and its Mississippi Power business unit said they would suspend efforts to start up part of the power plant intended to convert lignite into synthetic gas. Once converted, the gas would be combusted to drive turbine generators in a fairly conventional “combined cycle” part of the plant.

Indeed, that part of the plant has been burning natural gas for months to generate electricity. In late June, the companies said they expect it to continue to do so.

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Illustration: iStockphoto

Can the U.S. Grid Work With 100% Renewables? There's a Scientific Fight Brewing

A battle royal between competing visions for the future of energy blew open today on the pages of a venerable science journal. The conflict pits 21 climate and power-system experts against Stanford University civil and environmental engineer Mark Jacobson and his vision of a world fueled 100 percent by renewable solar, wind, and hydroelectric energy. The criticism of his “wind, water, and sun” solution and an unapologetic rebuttal from Jacobson and three Stanford colleagues appear today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

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South Korean researchers create a successful experimental method that can be scaled up to detect radiation at distances kilometers from source

Detecting Hazardous Radiation From Afar Now Possible

Detecting radioactive materials from afar is not possible today. Take the typical Geiger counter for example. In order to detect 1 milliCurie of Cobalt-60, it needs to be within about four meters of the radioactive source, and it’s inefficient at measuring lower levels of radioactivity.

Given the frequency of accidents involving nuclear power plants around the globe, and the possibility of terrorists using dirty nuclear bombs as a weapon, there is an increasing need to detect radioactive materials remotely in order to protect those doing the detecting and to warn residents in areas close by. (Think of accident sites such as the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, which is currently undergoing a challenging and decades’ long decommissioning.)

Researchers at Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology (UNIST) in Ulsan, South Korea, have successfully demonstrated an experimental method for real-time remote detection of substances that emit hazardous radiation. Their technique is based on induced plasma breakdown by a high power electromagnetic (EM) wave source. Their results were published in the May issue of Nature Communications.

The researchers used a lab-made, 95-gigahertz gyrotron as a high power EM wave source with a maximum output power of 32 kilowatts. An RF detector was employed to detect the EM wave onset time and the time at which the RF pulse was attenuated due to plasma formation.

The researchers first performed the experiment using argon gas, both with and without the (controlled) presence of a radioactive source. This enabled them to study the formation of plasma under both conditions. They found that in the presence of radiation, the time it takes for plasma to form was markedly shorter: approximately half or one-third of the time it takes otherwise, depending on the amount of EM wave power produced by the gyrotron.

Because the threshold EM power for plasma breakdown in air was higher than the maximum gyrotron power available, the researchers conducted the air breakdown experiment only in the presence of radioactivity. They were able to detect 0.5 micrograms of cobalt-60 at 120 centimeters distance—the maximum distance allowed by the lab set-up.

Professor EunMi Choi, the leader of the group, told IEEE Spectrum that, “As soon as the next round of funding is secured, we plan to test the method outside the lab with a target range of about 100 meters.”

She added that the individual key technologies are almost fully developed, though integrating them into a practical unit that can be transported will be a challenge.

“The gyrotron needs to be mounted on a wheeled container for portable use, and an antenna will be added to change the tracking angle and size of the gyrotron’s beam,” said Choi. “We also need to improve the detecting method’s sensitivity.”

Employing current equipment available, such as a 300-GHz, 100-kW gyrotron, she estimates the system could detect radiation at a distance of 10 km in conditions of low humidity. And where humidity is high, a 100-GHz, 1-MW system would suffice. For distances of around 100 km, even lower gyrotron frequencies should be used: 30 GHz, 10 MW.

Choi explained that this is because humidity absorbs the EM wave, so the higher the frequency, the greater the attenuation. Similarly, with longer distances, lower EM wave-frequencies experience less absorption than a higher frequency source.

Choi estimates another three years of R&D refinement work is necessary, and a further three years of field-testing is likely before commercialization is something to discuss.

Team Tech demands resistance to U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement.

U.S. Tech Titans Vow to Resist Trump's Paris Pullout

U.S. President Donald Trump’s Rose Garden declaration yesterday that he will pull the country out of the Paris Agreement on climate change painted the United States as an economic victim, swindled into an “unfair” deal by the global community. He is right that the world is united: Nearly 200 countries back the 2015 Paris deal, with only Syria, Nicaragua and now the U.S. opting out. But fact checkers had a field day with Trump's justification: his claim (against all evidence to the contrary) that the treaty imposes “onerous energy restrictions” on the U.S. that would beget “lost jobs, lowered wages, shuttered factories, and vastly diminished economic production.” 

Nicaragua opted to stay out because it viewed the treaty's reliance on voluntary national pledges rather than binding greenhouse gas reduction targets as “a path to failure” that would allow human-caused global warming in this century to surpass the agreed limit of 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius. Trump said yesterday he would keep the U.S. in the Paris deal only if he can renegotiate it to be weaker still, though his language belied a lack of conviction. “If we can, that’s great. If we can’t, that's fine,” equivocated Trump.

The President's retreat from one the great technological challenges of the 21st Century marked a sad day for America’s innovation leaders, and a breaking point for Elon Musk. The tech titan behind such fast-growing engineering powerhouses as Tesla Motors and SpaceX insisted on Tuesday that he had worked mightily, both directly with the President and through his membership on three Presidential economic councils, to convince Trump to stick with Paris. Within minutes of Trump’s speech yesterday, Musk tweeted that he was pulling himself from Team Trump:

Here are three reasons why such resistance to the U.S. retreat from climate action makes sense: (1) Climate change science is solid and scary, (2) U.S. emissions are huge, and (3) ducking a global technological challenge is not in the interest of a technological powerhouse. Reasons (1) and (2) were left unacknowledged yesterday by both Trump and his EPA Administrator, Scott Pruitt, who spoke briefly after the President.

Scientists continue to struggle to specify precisely how much warming and disruption will result from a given atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane. However, there is a very strong consensus that human activity is the primary force shifting Earth's climate. And those shifts come with myriad risks, including coastal flooding, aggravated international disputes, and acidified oceans. 

There is similarly little debate left about America’s responsibility for the climate change threat facing the world community. The U.S. pumps out greenhouse gases at a rate second only to China, and remains the world’s biggest climate polluter historically thanks to CO2’s roughly 100-year atmospheric lifespan. U.S.-generated greenhouse gases caused one-fifth of the 1.1 degree C rise in global temperature since the Industrial Revolution, and the U.S. alone will likely warm the entire planet by an extra 0.5 C by 2100 if its emissions do not drop as pledged at Paris, according to modeling commissioned by the Associated Press. 

Climate Change Explained: @AP Science Writer Seth Borenstein (@borenbears) breaks down the role of U.S. emissions in warming the planet.

— The Associated Press (@AP) June 1, 2017

The third reason for forging on with Paris-level climate action, despite Trump's treaty rejection, centers around U.S. industries, which Donald Trump is counting on to create jobs. Globally-successful U.S.-based businesses—be they Silicon Valley startups or mainstays such as General Electric and Westinghouse — have science and engineering in their corporate DNA. Their leaders recoil at the notion that U.S. business can not compete in a global technology challenge such as the move towards low-carbon energy systems. 

Hundreds of major corporations spoke out in recent months urging Trump to stay in Paris. ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods made a last ditch effort this week at the firm’s annual meeting, saying an orderly process for addressing climate change is in Exxon's best interest. Woods is facing pressure from global investors, who passed a resolution (over the board's objection) calling on Exxon to provide more disclosure on climate-related economic risks

Many CEOs spoke up again yesterday in addition to Musk, including Apple's Tim Cook, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Sundar Pichai as well as Jeff Immelt, GE's chairman. Immelt tweeted: “Disappointed with today’s decision on the Paris Agreement. Climate change is real. Industry must now lead and not depend on government.”

Intel issued a statement saying, “Climate change is a real issue, and we firmly believe that the US should continue to participate in the Paris Climate Accord.” The statement said Trump's withdrawal would not change their investments in renewable energy, which are ramping up across corporate America.

Intel is the top consumer of renewable energy in the U.S., securing 3.4 million megawatt-hours during a recent 12 month period—enough to meet 100 percent of its power needs according to EPA. Microsoft secured 3.3 million MWh, also meeting 100 percent of its power demand. Other companies including Apple, General Motors, and Wal-Mart are committed to reaching 100 percent renewable power through an alliance called the RE100. The median target date to hit 100 percent is 2024. 

Outspoken attitudes and carbon-cutting action from companies such as GM and Wal-Mart show climate consciousness to be well ahead of what President Trump assumed in his discourse yesterday. Take Pittsburgh, which the President called out, declaring: “I was elected to serve the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.” But today's Pittsburgh is not the dirty-energy poster child in need of protection from global greenies that Trump evoked.  

Pittsburgh's age of coal mines and spurting oilfields has given way to a hub of energy innovation (thanks to Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh). It is also a hotbed for natural gas production via the hydraulic fracturing technology, helping to supply the cheap and comparatively clean-burning fuel that is shuttering U.S. coal-fired power plants and trimming U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. 

The city is working towards a 20 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2023 (compared with 2003 levels). Mayor Bill Peduto made it clear yesterday that he did not welcome Trump’s shout out to his city, tweeting: “As the Mayor of Pittsburgh, I can assure you that we will follow the guidelines of the Paris Agreement for our people, our economy & future.” 

First Utility-Scale Microgrid in U.S. Enters Service

Photos taken during the 2012 Hurricane Sandy disaster almost literally turned the spotlight onto microgrids.

Images posted on social media and in the news during the storm showed swaths of Manhattan plunged into darkness as power outages cut off electricity to large parts of America’s biggest city.

Just as striking, however, were blossoms of light visible against the otherwise black skyline.

Many of these lighted outposts had separated from the grid and were now generating electricity on their own. These microgrids were islands of light in a sea of darkness. Facilities such as hospitals were able to provide critical services both during and after the storm because of microgrids.

Now, Ameren Corp. has completed a $5 million microgrid at its Technology Applications Center adjacent to the University of Illinois campus in Champaign, Ill. The facility is one of the only utility-scale microgrids in the United States that serves live customer loads on an actual utility distribution feeder.

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Three men and two women in white chairs around a silver coffee table. The words "Consensus 2017" are on a large white panel behind them.

Enerchain: A Decentralized Market on the Blockchain for Energy Wholesalers

Updated 25 May 2017

Enel, a multinational utility, is teaming up with Ponton, an enterprise software provider in Germany, to develop a decentralized market for energy wholesalers in Europe. Diego Dal Canto, an innovation manager at Enel, spoke about the Enerchain project, yesterday afternoon at the the blockchain-focused Consensus conference in New York City. 

The goal of Enerchain is to create a blockchain-driven exchange that provides energy wholesalers with a way to list and sell expected future energy generation.  

Dal Canto estimates that Ponton will deliver a prototype by this summer, and a functioning beta application by the end of the year. There are already more than 20 European traders signed up to use it, he says. 

By listing and clearing exchange transactions on a blockchain, Enerchain has the potential to eventually obviate the software programs that currently mediate sales. These platforms, which typically charge fees for each sale, slice into the profit of energy traders. They also sequester valuable trading data behind proprietary walls. A decentralized market might recoup revenue for European energy providers while making pricing data available for anyone to see. 

“The beauty would be to open the market to smaller players,” says Dal Canto. 

However, the market is primarily intended to serve as a research project. Dal Canto, who shared the stage yesterday with a panel of blockchain enthusiasts, stood out as a conservative voice. After the event, he explained that he struggled to see use cases for blockchain technology in the energy sector.

For example, the oft-repeated idea that a blockchain should be used to coordinate sales between individual, residential producers of renewable energy, is much more complicated that it may seem, says Dal Canto. 

“When it comes to smaller and even residential customers, there are many issues,” he says. “What about forecasting of consumption and generation. If you want to offer one kilowatt-hour generated tomorrow at five and you offer that and someone buys, you have to actually deliver. There is an issue of the physical delivery.”

The wholesale traders who will use the Enerchain exchange may be able to deal with that kind of risk. But it will be a rougher ride for people listing smaller sales. 

While some startups are rushing into the blockchain space with elaborate schemes for disrupting the energy sector, Dal Canto is advocating restraint. Meanwhile, he has also announced the formation of a blockchain discussion platform at Eurelectric, an association of utilities that represents 32 countries in Europe. The group will begin with an analysis of the problems facing the industry and then move forward to look for ways that blockchains can help. The intention is to devise one strategy that unites as many people in the space as possible.

“We don’t have to make the mistake of reinventing the umbrella,” he says. 

Editor’s note: Diego Dal Canto’s name was originally misspelled as Del Canto. IEEE Spectrum regrets the error.

photo-illustration of light bulb

Will Energy Offer the Next Market for Blockchain?

Electric devices that operate at what is sometimes known as the edge of the power grid—devices that range from electric vehicles to rooftop solar arrays—could help upend the utility business model and further decentralize energy production. Helping  in that process is a tool more familiar to accounting wonks than to power producers: blockchain ledgers.

The digital tool first gained attention as a driver behind the global rise of bitcoin applications, and it’s gaining notice across the energy sector.

In early May, 10 energy companies in Asia, Europe, and the United States said they would chip in a total of US $2.5 million to seed the Energy Web Foundation, a nonprofit whose mission is to accelerate the commercial deployment of blockchain technology in the energy sector.

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Rex Tillerson used the melting Arctic to defend U.S. involvement in global climate policy

Energy Policy Defies Jobs-Versus-Environment Rhetoric

U.S. President Donald Trump called health insurance an “unbelievably complex subject” when Congress was debating health care in February. "Nobody knew health care could be so complicated,” said Trump as Republicans in Congress struggled to find consensus on how to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Given developments in Washington, D.C., over the past week, he could soon be issuing similar tweets about unimagined intricacies in energy policy—intricacies with critical implications for technology developers.

Last week's main affair in Washington, of course, was Trump's firing of FBI director James Comey, and the ensuing 'political firestorm'. But two big energy issues were also playing out, exposing policy rifts among Republicans—cracks that that could ultimately shift the course of U.S. and global policy. 

One momentous event was the Republican-led Senate’s failure to pass the override of Obama-era methane regulations that House Republicans approved in February. The second was the hardening of a split among top Trump officials over U.S. participation in the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

Both cases show energy policy—and its environmental drivers—to be richer than the jobs-versus-environment caricature painted by Trump and Republican leaders in Congress. Knocking down existing policies inherited from prior administrations to deliver on political promises—rather than carefully improving them—comes at a price that some members of Trump’s party and even his administration are not willing to accept. 

Mark Boling, a supporter of clean energy and climate action, makes that case forcefully. Boling, an executive vice president at the Houston-based natural gas producer Southwestern Energy, opposed the legislative attack on methane regulations pushed by GOP leaders in Congress. “It was too blunt,” says Boling.

The targeted regulations, finalized in 2016 by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, specify royalty charges, monitoring requirements, and emissions controls for methane vented or flared by oil and gas producers at sites on federal lands. The rules are defended by environmental groups fighting to slow climate change (because methane is a potent greenhouse gas), by local leaders grappling with local air pollution exacerbated by methane releases, and by taxpayer advocates bemoaning lost royalties from wasted methane. 

The Congressional resolution would have scrapped the rules and prohibited the agency from issuing new rules that were “substantially similar.” It was pushed forward by oil and gas producers, who saw the rules as an unwarranted drag on their industries. 

Last week was the dramatic showdown. It was the Senate’s last chance to use a streamlined procedure to scrap rules approved under President Obama, and Vice President Mike Pence was on hand in case the GOP’s vote count was off and there was a tie vote. Instead, the Senate defeated the methane rollback 51-to-49. Arizona Senator John McCain cast the surprise 'no' vote, joining two other Republicans and all of the Senate’s 48 Democrats. 

The Trump Administration will now review the rule, as Trump instructed EPA to do with related rules governing methane releases on new oil and gas sites nationwide in a sweeping executive order last month. Boling has strong ideas for how to improve the existing rule to get more emissions reduction at lower cost. “It clearly has flaws,” he says.

One flaw is what Boling calls its “prescriptive specifications” for methane leak detection and repair programs, which he predicts will slow the commercialization of novel sensor technology. Boling favors a performance-based approach whereby the Bureau of Land Management (and the Environmental Protection Agency) would set a ceiling on allowable methane releases and then set oil and gas producers free to meet it. 

He predicts producers will be empowered to press novel technology into service faster. Examples include drone-based methane detectors (which General Electric is working on), or small tuneable diode lasers for 24/7 onsite monitoring (being developed by IBM and Quanta3). Using such advanced technology, says Boling, will accelerate the identification of so-called super-emitters—the 10-20 percent of oil and gas sites releasing 90 percent of the methane—and thus slash emissions faster. 

A similar argument over the merits of policy improvement versus abandonment surrounds U.S. involvement in the Paris agreement. Pulling out of Paris was part of Trump’s campaign rhetoric, along with his assertions that climate change was a hoax. But concern about damage to various U.S. interests has fueled debate amongst key members of Trump’s team.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and Trump policy advisor Steve Bannon want the president to follow through on his campaign pledge, calling Paris a “bad deal” for the U.S. Others, including Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and the President’s daughter Ivanka advocate staying in so the U.S. can help steer global climate policy. 

The Paris “foes” had “gained the upper hand” early this month, according to the Washington Post, when a decision seemed imminent. But last week, that decision was deferred, and Tillerson took full advantage. On Thursday, he signed on to an agreement among Arctic nations (the Fairbanks Declaration of 2017) that refers to the human causes and severity of climate change and also cites the Paris Agreement. 

Business leaders, meanwhile, are speaking out in greater numbers against a Paris pullout, including top executives from the energy industry: 

  • General Electric chairman Jeff Immelt told a Georgetown University audience this month that the deal is a big business opportunity, reminding the students that GE operates a $12 billion renewable energy business. (Immelt also stated categorically that “climate change is real.”)
  • Colin Marshall, CEO of coal firm Cloud Peak Energy, wrote Trump last month arguing that he can best support the coal industry by staying in. For example, the Paris rules could determine the global acceptance of carbon capture and storage, which could ultimately make or break coal’s fate.
  • Last week, two dozen major firms financed ads in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and the New York Post that “strongly urge” Trump to stick with Paris. Signatories include Google, Intel, utilities National Grid and PG&E, and power equipment giant Schneider Electric. 

Boling says there are multiple issues at play, but he counts five big ones: science, social concerns, economic issues, environmental factors, and political calculations. All but one, says Boling, are slam dunks for staying the course: “The only possible way one could get to a ‘no’ on the Paris Agreement is under the political category.”

The critics get Paris wrong, says Boling, by viewing it as a “death march” rather than a “roadmap” for an economic marathon. As Boling puts it: “We have to move to a low carbon energy economy. The smart people will see that as an economic opportunity for those who want to get there first.” 

If other issues are any guide, the upside potential presented by global cooperation on climate change may be something important—something the President did not thoroughly analyze before his election. Trump attacked and antagonized China on the campaign trail, and has subsequently befriended Beijing in order to put pressure on North Korea. Might the climate skeptic discover similar nuance on climate change, embracing cleaner energy and the Paris Agreement to “make America great again”? 

artist illustration of people with arms raised

Consumers Express Community Values With Their Electricity Choices

graphic link to the landing page for The Full Cost of Electricity

Viewing electricity as an undifferentiated commodity, economic rational choice theory (RCT) tells us that individuals and communities will choose the lowest cost provider regardless of the source. However, there are a growing number of examples where this is not what is happening in the marketplace. Individuals or communities who adopt distributed energy, abandon incumbent utilities, and source their own low-carbon electricity, are often making judgments—and purchasing decisions—that reflect personal or community values.

In The Full Cost of Electricity (FCe-) study, our white paper (Integrating Community Values into the Full Cost of Electricity) discusses recent examples where public values impacted community decisions about local electricity supplies. The success of public policies coupled with technological advances in manufacturing and design are lowering the cost of distributed energy systems like photovoltaics, making it much more feasible for individuals to generate their own electricity.

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