Energywise iconEnergywise

Illinois Regulators Discount Smart Meter Fires

Having investigated several fires that broke out following installation of smart meters, the Iliinois Commerce Commission (ICC)—the state electricity regulator, among other things--has concluded that loose wiring and corrosion in the meter bases and not the meters themselves were to blame.

"Installers … received additional training to swap the analog meters for the digital ones, but they [were] not trained to perform extensive repairs to the old and deteriorated bases to which the meters are connected," the Chicago Tribune reported. "Regulators [said] the fact that installers did not recognize, repair or report the poor conditions contributed to fires and overheating."

Though the meter fires have made for bad publicity and provided ammunition to local activists opposing smart meter installation [see photo], the problem as such is obviously highly addressable. ComEd, the major Illiinois utility, has assured regulators that it is beefing up training so that installers will recognize and fix possible problems in the future. What is more, ComEd told the ICC, the new digital meters can take temperature readings and report overheating to the utility—something the older analog meters certainly could not do.

Read More

Personal Comfort Systems Could Slash Office Energy Use by 30 Percent

No one ever seems happy with the temperature in the office. Someone has a sweater stashed away in a drawer to throw on when the air conditioning blasts in summer, while another worker, seated one desk over, is always sweating in winter.

Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley’s Center for the Built Environment (CBE) recently received a US $1.6 million grant to tackle this long-standing problem. Their solution: a Personal Comfort System (PCS) that not only keeps individuals happy at their desks, but also provides feedback to the building’s facility managers so they can fine-tune the heating, ventilation, and cooling (HVAC) system.

“It’s even better than having a thermostat at every workstation, if that were possible,” Edward Arens, the center's director and the project’s co-principal investigator, said in a statement.

The PCS has foot warmers, fans and low-wattage devices embedded into office chairs to warm or cool an office worker on demand. The system focuses on the most thermally sensitive parts of the body, such as the head and feet, which is more efficient than maintaining one temperature for an entire office space.

On average, the PCS uses 2 watts for cooling and 40 watts for heating, far lower than the 1500 watts that a conventional space heater uses. The entire system operates on a rechargeable lithium ferrophosphate battery and turns off when the user leaves his or her desk.

The PCS's sensors don't just yield benefits in terms of comfort. The information they relay to facilities managers give greater control over the building’s energy consumption. The goal of the project is to integrate occupant information with cutting-edge energy controls and computer sciences to cut energy use. The researchers have found that for a typical California commercial office space, the systems can cut HVAC electricity use by up to 30 percent and cut natural gas use by 39 percent. The team will put together about a hundred prototypes of the special heating-cooling chairs for pilot studies.

The researchers are working with architectural and engineering firms and also the local utility, Pacific Gas & Electric. Even with a multitude of stakeholders, there are plenty of challenges. There are issues with integrating new technologies into legacy HVAC systems, and competition from other technologies that can also save energy.

Advanced occupancy sensors, for instance, can fine-tune HVAC output and lighting level based on how many people are in a room. Social networks can help building managers engage tenants in energy efficiency programs. Other upgrades, such as sensors on key pieces of equipment, can also save energy without involving fickle tenants at all. New technologies for HVAC and chiller systems can slash electricity use when they replace older, less-efficient systems.

For the average office worker, however, the idea of personal comfort system is a welcome concept. It might even free up the sweater drawer for another use.


Photos: Center for the Built Environment

Carbon Emissions: Tax or Regulate?

Harvard economist N. Gregory Mankiw, an adviser to former President George W. Bush, made an eloquent case for enactment of a national carbon fee in the Sunday issue of the New York Times. Democrats in the House of Representatives, led by Henry Waxman of California, have made the same proposal. Does the conjunction of a highly respected Republican intellectual and Democratic legislators suggest that gridlock is about to be broken on the immensely controversial subject of carbon taxation? Not a chance.

This is not because the case for setting a carbon fee is weak on its merits, or because the case against administrative regulation of carbon is so strong. If energy prices properly and uniformly reflected the social cost of emitting carbon dioxide, as Mankiw spells it out, you might respond with a number of money-saving actions that include: buying a smaller, more fuel-efficient car, swapping your traditional car for one with new technology, car pooling to work using public transportation, moving closer to your job, buying a smaller house that requires less energy to heat and cool, adjusting the thermostat to keep it cooler in winter and warmer in summer, putting solar panels on your roof, buying more energy-efficient home appliances, eating more locally produced foods, and so on. Having enumerated the many merits of a fee and decried the manner in which the U.S. government has tried to change consumers' behavior, Mankiw zeroes in on U.S. automotive fuel-efficiency rules (the CAFE standards) as an example of regulation gone awry. Quoting former GM executive Robert M. Lutz, Mankiw describes the whole idea of requiring automakers to sell more fuel-efficient cars as a bureaucratic nightmare. "CAFE is like trying to cure obesity by requiring clothing manufacturers to make smaller sizes," Lutz has said.

Had he been given more space in the Times, Mankiw would not have had any trouble citing multiple other examples of alleged excesses of the regulatory model: the tangled procedures states have adopted to implement renewable energy portfolio standards, typically involving clean energy credits with "carve outs" for specially favored types of generation; or the tightening clean-air rules that have prompted Republicans to accuse Democrats of conducting a "war on coal."

A news report in today's Wall Street Journal describes a small tempest raging over a newly issued Department of Energy standard related to the efficiency of microwave ovens. Energy Secretary Moniz boasted about the standard last week in a presentation about President Obama's climate action plan. What's at issue is the estimated social cost of carbon emissions. The DOE set the cost at $36 per ton ($39.6 per tonne) in justifying the microwave standard, up from $21 per ton ($23.1 per tonne) in 2010. The Journal spells out the pros and cons of the estimated $36 carbon cost, but obviously there's no "right answer" to the question of where a perfect market would price greenhouse gas emissions.

Mankiw suggests that a carbon fee might be enacted roughly as Waxman et al. have suggested "if the Democratic sponsors conceded to using the new revenue to reduce personal corporate tax rates." Dream on. Tea-Party Republicans will not agree to introduction of a new tax, whatever it is called, unless possibly there were a net reduction in total taxation; Democrats from the states that would be hardest hit by a carbon fee will not agree to the fee unless the tax code provides their constituents with a net offset. The gridlock will not be broken unless next year's midterm elections improve the president's position, contrary to the usual pattern, and the president's negotiators return from Paris at the end of 2015 with a global climate agreement that Americans like a lot better than the Kyoto Protocol.


Renewable Energy to Be Price Competitive in Western U.S. by 2025

Renewable energy installations are an active business in most of the Western United States, in part due to renewable portfolio standard (RPS) mandates, which require a certain percentage of installed capacity to come from renewable sources.

But most of those RPS requirements will be met by 2025, which leaves the “what’s next?” question. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) aims to provide the answer in its latest report [PDF], "Beyond Renewable Portfolio Standards: An Assessment of Regional Supply and Demand Conditions Affecting the Future of Renewable Energy in the West."

The report concludes that there won’t necessarily be a precipitous drop in renewable deployment after the mandates are met. There will still be population centers such markets in California, the Southwest and the Pacific Northwest whose demand for additional renewable energy will make financial sense, .

NREL found that if utility-scale solar and wind are deployed in prime areas that haven’t by then been exploited to meet the RPS mandates, the renewables, including transmission costs, could be cost competitive with new combined-cycle natural gas-fired power plants in 2025.

"The electric generation portfolio of the future could be both cost effective and diverse," said the report's lead author, NREL senior analyst David Hurlbut, in a statement. "If renewables and natural gas cost about the same per kilowatt-hour delivered, then value to customers becomes a matter of finding the right mix.”

Read More

Weakness of Indian Nuclear Regulation Manifest in Reactor Accident

It is no secret that India still lacks a politically independent nuclear oversight authority that is well separated from the industry it oversees. The Fukushima nuclear catastrophe was a recent reminder of just how important it is to have independent nuclear oversight, a lesson already driven home a generation before by the serious U.S. accident at Three Mile Island (TMI). The stubborn refusal of India's government to set up the kind of regulatory authority that is so obviously needed means, in effect, that one cannot have real confidence in a nuclear program that could in principle be one of the world's most important.

A telling but little-known and little-discussed example of what can happen under weak regulatory circumstances was a serious accident that took place at India's Narora reactor in March 1993, an incident that "came close to joining Chernobyl and Fukushima in the annals of industrial civilization," as writer Madhusree Mukerjee put it in a recent review of M.V. Ramana's The Power of Promise: Examining Nuclear Power in India (Penguin/Viking, 2012).

In that accident, which Ramana describes and discusses in detail in his book, two blades broke off a steam turbine and ruptured cooling system pipes, leading to a hydrogen leak, hydrogen fire, and oil fire. Though operators managed to shut down the plant manually, they then had to desert the smoke-filled control room for 13 hours, so that during that time they were "flying blind." Fearing that heat still being generated in the dormant fuel rods might lead to a recriticality, workers heroically climbed atop the reactor vessel to pour reactivity-quenching boron into the core.

All that is disconcerting enough, but what is really disconcerting about the story as Ramana tells it, is that the plant's owner-operator and Indian regulatory authorities were well-aware of issues having to do with the fragile turbine blades and possible oil fires well before the accident and yet did nothing to address those concerns. What is more, there is little or no evidence they did anything after the accident, either. Further incidents, less serious, took place.

Neither Ramana nor Mukerjee, both Ph.D. physicists who have contributed to Spectrum magazine, discusses the Narora reactors' somewhat unusual design and whether the reactors might have a feature that contributed crucially to the Chernobyl catastrophe. The two Narora units are pressurized heavy-water reactors, which means they are a kind of hybrid of the standard U.S. pressured water reactor and Canada's CANDU heavy water reactor. The CANDU, like the RBMK units at Chernobyl, has in certain operating regimes what is called a "positive reactivity coefficient," meaning that if coolant is lost at certain power levels, reactivity drastically escalates rather than de-escalating. It was this feature and operators' disregard of it that was the basic cause of the Chernobyl explosions (as I described in detail in the June 1989 issue of MIT's Technology Review).

What Ramana does do additionally, however, is deliver some telling stories about how the two questionable Narora reactors got built in the first place. When it became clear that the regional grid system was not really big enough to justify and support construction of a nuclear power plant, Indian planners took inspiration from the story about Mohammed and the mountain, as Ramana nicely puts it: That is, instead of deciding not to build a reactor too big for the grid, they instead cooked up hair-brained schemes to make the grid much bigger—with considerable technical support from Oak Ridge National Laboratory, let it be said.

From its earliest inception, as Mukerjee spells out in her review, India's Atomic Energy Commission and Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) have reported directly to the prime minister, enabling them to function largely in secrecy. Thus, when it comes to nuclear safety, "DAE never shares its emergency plans with locals," "does not reveal the health records of its workers," "does not even monitor the health of temporary workers," and "never reveals the quantities of radioactive substances released into the environment by accidents or routine operations."

photo: NPCIL

200 000 EV Fast Chargers by 2020?

The number of fast-charging stations for electric vehicles (EVs) will balloon to 200 000 by 2020 from about 2000 today, according to a new report from IHS Automotive.

The explosive growth is already underway, the study finds. The number of DC chargers are expected to triple to nearly 6000 between this year alone. Fast chargers use high-voltage DC power and can charge a car in less than a half hour instead of the hours it takes with lower voltage AC chargers.

Read More

Energy Secretary Elaborates on Obama's Climate Action Plan

If the most notable thing about President Obama's recent climate speech was the way he gave it, then the most telling thing about his energy secretary's elaboration on that speech, yesterday in New York City, was the size of the audience he attracted. On the last Monday of the North American summer, you'd think that anybody with the means would be in the mountains or at the beach. But some 200 people showed up to hear Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz talk about the U.S. climate action plan at Columbia University, many of them standing around the walls.

Plainly, climate policy matters to members of the more highly educated public.

Moniz's approach to the subject was matter-of-fact and undramatic. Regarding the general issue of human-induced climate change, he said he has been accurately quoted before as having said that he "was not here to debate what's not debatable." As for the impacts of global warming on Gulf oil extraction, power stations, water availability, fuel transportation, and electricity transmission, he drew attention to a July energy department report on climate change and energy infrastructure.

Reminding his audience that the most bang for the buck can be obtained from improvements in energy efficiency, Moniz said that the department is formulating new standards for appliances on a schedule, starting with microwave ovens and halide lighting, to be followed by commercial refrigeration and electric motors.

Taking exception to the charge that the administration is waging a "war on coal," he said that taking action to reduce carbon pollution from coal is required by the president's "all of the above" approach to climate action. He said $8 billion has been earmarked for carbon capture and sequestration (CC&S).

Noting that energy subsidies almost inevitably prompt allusions to the Solyndra bankruptcy, Moniz said that Tesla obtained a high-risk, half-billion-dollar loan from the energy department in mid-2009. Now Tesla, having paid off that loan ahead of schedule, is making a car that's been rated the world's best and safest—one that's attracting, despite its high price, large numbers of orders abroad.

On renewables, Moniz presented slides showing sharp increases in deployment and sharp decreases in installed prices for wind, solar, LED lighting, and batteries. The cost of photovoltaic modules has come down so much, he said, that future solar gains will have to come largely from improvements in non-PV system components—a conclusion spelled out in a recent report from the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, "Tracking the Sun VI."

It turns out that "the future is not always ten years away," he said, surveying those dramatic gains.

On the controversial subject of natural gas fracking, the matter of overwhelmingly greatest concern to his Columbia University audience, Moniz observed that because of the revolution in gas, recent U.S. reductions in greenhouse gas emissions have been much greater than they otherwise could have been. We are already half-way to meeting Obama's 2020 pledge for such reductions, and half of that advance is attributable to utilities' switching generation from coal to gas. Still, he said, serious safety and water issues must be effectively addressed: "saying they are manageable is not the same thing as saying they are being managed."

On the next most controversial subject, nuclear waste, he said the administration supports a consensual, dual-track approach involving consolidation of spent fuel in regional dry cask facilities and development of a national repository for long-term geologic storage. Regarding the two new nuclear plants being constructed in South Carolina and Georgia with Federal loan guarantees, Moniz said the department will be watching closely to see if they are built on schedule and on budget.

Photo: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

How Much Recoverable Oil Do We Have?

Oil's availability is of course of immediate concern to every driver, especially at a time when gasoline prices are high once again. The much greater concern, however, is whether we are reaching a limit where oil can no longer be recovered at prices consumers are willing to pay.

If something like that turns out to be true—a scenario that generally goes by the name of "peak oil"—then long-term economic growth may be constrained across the industrial world. At the same time, to look at the brighter side of the picture, long-term carbon emissions may be lower than previously projected.

As it happens, expert opinion is radically divided on this key issue.

A recent report from analysts at Lux Research, "Evaluating New EOR [Enhanced Oil Recovery] Technologies in Oil Industry Mega-projects," proposes that by means of EOR, the industry may be able to tap up to 10.2 trillion barrels of unconventional oil, over and above 1.4 to 1.6 trillion barrels of conventional oil. (Lux puts the number for conventional oil reserves at 1.6 tbl; a year ago, IEEE Spectrum cited an estimate of 1.4 tbl, based on work by Michael Klare.)

Klare, a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, seems to be in general accord with Lux's view that the age of oil is far from over. Writing in the Huffington Post, the left-liberal online publication, Klare said that "humanity is not entering a period that will be dominated by renewables. Instead, it is pioneering the third great  carbon era, The Age of Unconventional Oil and Gas." According to Lux, EOR techniques can boost recovery of oil in existing fields from an average of 25 percent today to up to 65 percent. Klare, citing International Energy Agency estimates, says that investment in such techniques will exceed US$ 22 trillion between now and 2035—three times the investment in renewable technology—and that world demand for oil will grow 26 percent in that period.

An article that appeared in the July 13 issue of Eos (the transactions of the American Geophysical Union) presented a radically different view of things. Taking a more economic view of what it means for oil to be recoverable, scientist James W. Murray and analyst Jim Hansen suggest that oil pricesand with them oil productionalready have arrived at the limit of what consumers worldwide are willing to pay. "Global production of crude oil and condensates…has essentially remained on a plateau of about 75 million barrels per day since 2005 despite a very large increase in the price of oil," say Murray and Hansen. (The latter is not to be confused with famous climate scientist Jim Hansen, of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies at Columbia University.) In effect, they suggest, prices have reached a level where consumers seek alternatives or conserve, rather than pay more; if oil prices go significantly higher, then the effect is to plunge the industrial world into recession, lowering demand.

The silver lining, Murray and Hansen suggest, is that the expert bodies like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) may have over-estimated future carbon emissions resulting from oil combustion. It will be interesting to see, when the next major IPCC assessment appears next month, how it handles that issue.

Where do I stand personally on this immensely important and controversial question? I cannot claim to be an expert, but for what it's worth, my impressions correspond more closely to those of Murray and Hansen than to those of Lux, Klare, and the IEA.

Photo: At Chevron's Kern River oil field in Bakersfield, Calif., U.S., enhanced production technologies such as steam flooding have made it possible to extract oil once considered economically unfeasible to obtain. Ken James/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Solar Panels Return to the White House

It took President Obama three years to return solar panels to the rooftop of the White House, but the real saga began long before he took office.

Back in 2010, former Energy Secretary Steven Chu said that the administration would install between 20 and 50 solar panels. Despite the pledge, however, the White House did not respond to offers for free solar photovoltaic systems from companies such as Sungevity, according to Renewable Energy World.

Now, in 2013, President Obama has found new resolve to discuss climate change and a more resilient energy landscape. Earlier this summer, the president delivered a speech calling for stricter regulations on existing coal-fired power plants, more wind and solar generation on public lands, and more energy-efficient buildings in both the public and private sector.

At the time, he said the changes would start with the federal government, especially in the realm of improving energy efficiency; for instance, he called for new efficiency targets for federal buildings.

Obama is now taking that message back to his own home, installing solar PV as “part of an energy retrofit that will improve the overall energy efficiency of the building,” a White House official told the Washington Post.

Of course, this all goes back much further than Obama's time in office. President Ronald Regan removed solar panels in 1986 that Jimmy Carter had installed in 1979. President George W. Bush also put a solar array on a small building on the White House grounds in 2003 to help heat the pool.

“Better late than never—in truth, no one should ever have taken down the panels Jimmy Carter put on the roof way back in 1979,” Bill McKibben, director of the climate group, told the Washington Post. “But it’s very good to know that once again the country’s most powerful address will be drawing some of that power from the sun.”

Today, solar panels are 97 percent cheaper than they were when Carter was in office, but the U.S. still has far higher soft costs—such as permits for installation and interconnection fees—than some other countries, such as Germany.  

Although the panels are already being installed, there is no word yet on the final panel count or the total energy output. President Obama has pledged that 20 percent of the federal government’s energy use will be powered by renewables by 2020.

Photo: Chuck Kennedy

Supercomputing a Quieter Wind Turbine

Noise created by giant wind turbines is high on the list of barriers to renewable energy deployment, with NIMBY and health complaints threatening or at least delaying a number of projects around the world. But noise also is related to efficiency, and now the research division for turbine manufacturing giant GE says it has figured out how to reduce noise and boost output. Win all around, apparently.

GE worked with Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to engineer new designs that would reduce noise. They used the Red Mesa supercomputer, which, when it first began operations in 2010, could reach speeds (500 teraflops) that made it the 10th fastest computer in the world. GE used it to run a Stanford University-created program called a high-fidelity Large Eddy Simulation "to predict the detailed fluid dynamic phenomena and resulting wind blade noise," according to a GE press release. After three months of continuous runs with the Large Eddy Simulation, the researchers apparently had "valuable insights that were used to assess current engineering design models, the assumptions they make that most impact noise predictions, and the accuracy and reliability of model choices."

That's a bit vague, what's unequivocal is the bottom line: a turbine rotor design that's one-decibel quieter equates to a 2-percent increase in annual energy yield, GE says. And with 240 gigawatts of wind power forecasted to be installed around the world in the next five years, that 2-percent increase could be worth 5 GW.

Aside from efficiency, reducing noise could cut down on NIMBY fights when it comes to getting wind projects built, and could possibly allow the turbines to be built slightly closer to where people live. Reports of health problems thanks largely to turbine noise (as well as "shadow flicker") remain largely anecdotal, with bigger studies suggesting that conditions such as "wind turbine syndrome" are likely overblown. But it's clear that cutting down on noise would benefit pretty much everybody, whether or not they live near turbines.

Image: GE

Most Commented Posts

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the EnergyWise newsletter and get biweekly news on the power & energy industry, green technology, and conservation delivered directly to your inbox.

Load More