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Arizona Imposes Net Metering Fee on Rooftop Solar

After a long battle pitting solar advocates against parts of the electric power industry, Arizona's electricity regulator has imposed a small fee on home operators of photovoltaic systems that rely on "net metering" to feed excess solar electricity back into the grid. Net metering has been controversial among utilities across the United States and in countries like the UK as well, because of claims that if customers generating electricity at home are allowed to sell electricity back into the grid at the going spot price of electricity, then the added system costs of providing the needed infrastructure will be shifted to all the rest of the customers.

The state's utility regulator, the Arizona Corporation Commission, concluded that concerns about the cost shift are real and imposed a fee of 70 cents per kilowatt of installed solar, which would equate to about $5 per month in a typical household. Though that is but a tenth of what the power industry had advocated, spending millions of dollars to lobby the Arizona regulators and influence public opinion, it may have some national impact. As Arizona is  the country's leading solar state (on a per capital basis), its regulatory thinking could be a bellwether. What is more, rules governing net metering are bound to become more important almost everywhere, as homes start feeding electricity into the grid not only from photovoltaic panels, but also other sources such as electric vehicle batteries, fuel cells, and wind turbines.

The net metering fee could also have some impact on an alternative option for residential PV, which goes by the name of "solar gardens." In this model, instead of purchasing a home installation with all the attendant complications--including, now, factoring in the net metering fee--customers buy a "plot" or lease its output in a cooperatively owned solar farm. Electricity generated on the plot monthly is subtracted from the customer's electricity consumption, and if production exceeds consumption, the customer is credited. An Arizona cooperative has been a pioneer in developing solar gardens, and the concept is catching on even in the northern Midwest.

Photo: Jenna Wagner/Getty Images

A Low-Water Energy Future Isn’t Necessarily Low-Carbon

Planning for a low-carbon energy future is not the same as planning for a low-water energy future, according to new research from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

There is a lack of Academic research that compares carbon emissions, water use, and cost, according to lead author Mort Webster, an associate professor of engineering systems at MIT. “When we started this work,” he said in a statement, “we assumed that the basic work had been done, and we were going to do something more sophisticated. But then we realized nobody had done the simple, dumb thing.”

Although there may be a dearth of academic research looking at the exact question Webster was asking, there has been plenty of other research and action that shows governments, utilities and environmental groups are increasingly examining the issue and developing policies that address water, energy and climate change simultaneously.

Three years ago, IEEE Spectrum reported extensively on the water-and-energy crisis. The coverage included models that engineers were developing to look at not just the nexus of water, energy, and carbon, but also air, soil and pollutants. The special issue also looked at how regions as diverse as, say, Australia, Singapore, and California are addressing climate, water, and energy issues.

Last year, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) [PDF] included the issue of water use related to energy production as its own section within UCS’s annual report for the first time. Another report from the International Energy Agency found that about 15 percent of the world’s total water withdrawal goes to energy production, and that figure could increase by about 20 percent between 2010 and 2035.

Webster’s research, which appeared in Nature Climate Change, found what others in the industry already know: limiting carbon dioxide emissions and water usage at the same time requires a different balance of technologies than does just doing one or the other.

Nuclear power, for example, is low on the carbon spectrum compared to coal, but uses a lot of water. Even some more energy-efficient fossil fuel power plants can significantly cut CO2 emissions, but use more water as a result. Hydropower is low-carbon, but requires a steady supply of water. Wind and solar photovoltaic are both relatively low-carbon and low-water energy technologies, but concentrating solar power plants use more water than new coal-fired power plants. The UCS report found that the increase in water withdrawal by the power industry would be driven by higher-efficiency power plants and expanding biofuels production.

Water concerns are not necessarily taking a backseat to meeting renewable energy portfolio standards and carbon reduction goals. Black & Veatch has found that power utilities identify water supply issues as a bigger concern than nuclear disposal or carbon regulation.

In the Western United States, some power producers are already planning for a low-water future while trying to keep hydropower as a part of the energy mix. For the first time, India, which has growing power needs and water constraints, has identified water as a scarce natural resource in its most recent five-year plan.

But there is a way forward that can take both carbon and water into account. Energy efficiency throughout the entire power sector, from production, to delivery, to end-use, is one way to curb both water and carbon emissions.

As wind and solar PV come down in price, the renewables are also becoming more cost competitive and could displace some of the older, most water- and energy-intensive fossil fuel plants.

Photo: iStockphoto

 

Broken Bats: Wind Turbines and the Damage Done

Last year, IEEE Spectrum profiled an ultrasonic alert for wind farm operators designed to let them know when bats are nearing their turbines. The potentially bat-saving technology can't be ready soon enough according to this week's issue of the journal Bioscience. University of Colorado ecologist Mark Hayes estimates that at least 600 000 and possibly more than 900 000 bats were killed by wind turbines last year in the U.S.

Hayes' report is a statistical reassessment of data on bat carcasses found at wind turbine sites. His figure lends credence to a March 2013 mortality estimate of 880 000 deaths per year by Sacramento-based ornithologist and consultant Shawn Smallwood. That figure was well beyond previous estimates, which had ranged as low as 33 000. "My estimates, using different methods and data, bracket Smallwood's 888 000 estimate," writes Hayes in an e-mail to Spectrum.

He says his own estimates are likely conservative. That's because he plugged in the lower figure for mortality at given turbine sites when those were reported as a range, and his estimate focuses only on migratory periods of the year.

Turbines are not the biggest problem facing bats, which are being decimated by White-nose Syndrome. Last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that the fungal disease had killed at least 5.7 to 6.7 million bats in 16 U.S. states and four Canadian provinces.

But while the White-nose mortality figure is cumulative—representing the total number of bats felled since the fungus was first recognized in 2006—Hayes' figure suggests that turbines kill over half a million bats each year.

The system profiled by Spectrum last year aims to give wind farm operators the ability to ramp down turbines in order to protect bats—especially the most highly-endangered species. The acoustic system is designed to detect bat calls, identify the species, and then combine that information with meteorological data to determine the risk of bat collisions and, if appropriate, automatically idle nearby turbines.

No word yet from the Electric Power Research Institute on results from field tests of the system at wind farms in Wisconsin. But this April, Bedford, NH-based Normandeau Associates, the firm behind the technology, vowed to have it commercially available finish testing the system by next year.

Photo: Edward Kinsman/Getty Images

Editor's note: We were contacted on 19 Nov, 2013 with this note from Normandeau: The Normandeau website should have said that “The efficacy of the Bat Detection and Shutdown System will be tested in 2014.” We've updated the last sentence accordingly.

Normandeau Associates is creating a new, cutting-edge Bat Detection Shutdown System for Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) by installing ReBAT™ acoustic monitoring systems on four wind turbines at We Energies' Blue Sky Green Field wind energy facility. The project focuses on developing an acoustic-based, SCADA-integrated system that can be used to automatically modify wind turbine operations when an elevated collision risk for bats is predicted based on local and regional meteorological conditions as well as species-specific activity.

The Bat Detection Shutdown System will assist in minimizing bat mortality and complying with state and federal regulations.

Normandeau's Christine Sutter, technical director and bat team lead, describes how the system will work, "The Bat Detection Shutdown System receives near real-time data streams of bat acoustic activity and atmospheric conditions, which are fed into a species-specific, predictive mortality model." The model predicts risk levels that are then transmitted to the SCADA system in time to modify turbine operation to minimize risk.

Normandeau is coordinating with Vestas Wind Systems, manufacturer of the turbines, to ensure full integration between the SCADA and Bat Detection Shutdown systems.

"Ideally," adds Sutter, "this approach will allow wind energy facilities to operate at normal capacity with limited, targeted modifications, thus minimizing power generation loss while reducing bat mortality."

The Bat Detection Shutdown System is expected to be available in 2014.
- See more at: http://www.normandeau.com/pages/news/index.asp?NR_ID=183#sthash.sMSZ75mg.dpuf
Normandeau Associates is creating a new, cutting-edge Bat Detection Shutdown System for Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) by installing ReBAT™ acoustic monitoring systems on four wind turbines at We Energies' Blue Sky Green Field wind energy facility. The project focuses on developing an acoustic-based, SCADA-integrated system that can be used to automatically modify wind turbine operations when an elevated collision risk for bats is predicted based on local and regional meteorological conditions as well as species-specific activity.

The Bat Detection Shutdown System will assist in minimizing bat mortality and complying with state and federal regulations.

Normandeau's Christine Sutter, technical director and bat team lead, describes how the system will work, "The Bat Detection Shutdown System receives near real-time data streams of bat acoustic activity and atmospheric conditions, which are fed into a species-specific, predictive mortality model." The model predicts risk levels that are then transmitted to the SCADA system in time to modify turbine operation to minimize risk.

Normandeau is coordinating with Vestas Wind Systems, manufacturer of the turbines, to ensure full integration between the SCADA and Bat Detection Shutdown systems.

"Ideally," adds Sutter, "this approach will allow wind energy facilities to operate at normal capacity with limited, targeted modifications, thus minimizing power generation loss while reducing bat mortality."

The Bat Detection Shutdown System is expected to be available in 2014.
- See more at: http://www.normandeau.com/pages/news/index.asp?NR_ID=183#sthash.sMSZ75mg.dpuf

Japan Sharply Cuts Carbon Reduction Pledge

Japan's announcement yesterday at the global climate meeting in Warsaw that it could no longer promise to make a 25 percent cut to its greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, but instead would aim for a 3 percent cut, did not go over well. The Philippine typhoon already had cast a pall on the meeting of parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, reducing members of some delegations to tears, reportedly. Representatives of highly endangered island and low-lying states naturally were looking for stronger action from the big, rich countries, not weaker.

Four years ago, at the fifteenth Conference of Parties in Copenhagen ("COP-15"), an informal accord was adopted in which the nations of the world agreed to submit pledges about what they hoped to accomplish by 2020. In effect this turned out to be a substitute for the advanced industrial countries' making firm, binding commitments for the period of 2012-2020, as the controversial Kyoto Protocol had envisioned. In keeping with the Copenhagen Accord, the industrial countries proceeded to submit pledges as to how much they hoped to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, while the fast-growing large developing countries like China and India mostly sent in promises to reduce carbon intensity—the amount of greenhouse gas emitted per unit output.

Many of those pledges were a little vague and carefully hedged, including Japan's. In its filing with the secretariat of the Framework Convention, Japan said it would cut emissions 25 percent, "premised on the establishment of a fair and effective international framework in which all major economies participate and on agreement by those economies on ambitious targets." Its 25-percent pledge was generally taken to refer to the 1990 Kyoto baseline, though that is not stated explicitly in its filing. However, the weak pledge of a 3 percent cut refers to a 2005 base year. So it represents even more of a scale-back in national ambitions than it appears, because the country's emissions were higher in 2005 than they were in 1990.

Oddly, Japan's reduced pledge does not take account of the possible or even likely restart of at least some of the nation's nuclear reactors and in fact is based on the prospect of a non-nuclear future, even though that is not official policy. As any casual reader of the world press knows these days, the incumbent government led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe advocates renewed reliance on nuclear energy, while Junichiro Koizumi, a flashy former prime minister, says the country should end use of atomic power entirely. So, why would official Japan submit a sharply reduced climate pledge—based on a premise that is by no means official policy— knowing it would not go over well? Could the government be trying to put pressure on anti-nuclear environmentalists at home, telling them in effect that the price of no nukes will be much higher greenhouse gas emissions?

Photo: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg/Getty

Underwater Kite Harvests Energy From Slow Currents

A kite with a three-meter wingspan has just started to produce electricity in a pilot project off the coast of Northern Ireland.

The technology, dubbed Deep Green, consists of a wing with a gearless turbine mounted underneath that is tethered to the ocean floor. As the tide flows over the wing, it glides through the water and the turbine rotates. The tether also contains the unit's power and communication cables. For the pilot, there is an offshore control room in the inlet. The kites don't just float along anywhere they please—operators send them along a controlled trajectory to maximize energy output.

Deep Green can take advantage of lower velocity currents than most tidal technologies (less than 2.5 meters per second), according to Minesto, the company that makes the kites. Minesto hopes to field a 3-megawatt array in 2015.

The pilot involves a scaled-down version of Deep Green; the full-size versions have wingspans of between eight and fourteen meters. The eight-meter carbon fiber kite [PDF] has a rated power of 120 kilowatts at a tidal flow of 1.3 meters per second. The version with a 14-meter wingspan has a rated power of 850 kilowatts at 1.7 meters per second.

Although kite arrays could potentially be deployed in more locations than other tidal turbines, all tidal and wave technologies face considerable challenges, such as surviving in harsh, salty waters and being cost-competitive with other renewable energy options.

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Fukushima Operators Prepare to Remove Spent Fuel Rods

At Japan's crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, engineers are preparing to take the first big step toward decommissioning the facility. In the next few weeks, operators will begin removing the spent fuel rods from the storage pools in the badly damaged reactor 4. 

The Fukushima Daiichi plant was devastated in March 2011, when an earthquake and tsunami triggered a series of meltdowns and explosions at the plant. Reactor 4 was not in operation at the time of the accident; it was shut down for routine maintenance and refueling, which meant that its supply of fuel rods were in a storage pool on a top floor of the reactor building.

When an explosion shattered the reactor 4 building on 15 March, top nuclear officials in the United States and Japan worried that the pool had been structurally damaged, which would allow water to leak out and leave the fuel rods exposed and overheating. Since the spent fuel pools aren't sealed in heavy steel or concrete structures, such exposure would send large amount of radiation into the environment. The chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Gregory Jaczko, essentially caused an international incident when he stated on 16 March that reactor 4's spent fuel pool was empty of water. The public panicked until Japanese officials denied Jaczko's statements, and produced evidence that the pool was still full of water. 

The reactor 4 spent fuel pool continued to be a hot topic, however, with some activists questioning its structural integrity and its ability to withstand any future earthquakes. Additionally, its cache of 1533 fuel units—the most held at any of Fukushima's reactor buildings—makes it a priority for decommissioning.

TEPCO, the utility that owns the Fukushima Daiichi plant, has been preparing for this first fuel rod removal for some time. Workers have already removed much of the debris from inside the pool, and Japan's Nuclear Regulatory Authority has been inspecting the site and assessing the removal plan. When the operation begins in the next week or two, workers will use a crane to lift up the fuel assemblies and place them in submerged casks. Those casks will then be removed from the pool and taken elsewhere for safer storage. The video below, from TEPCO, explains the process in more detail. 

The operation is expected to be completed before the end of 2014. But that's just the first step in a decommissioning process that is expected to take 40 years. The spent fuel must be removed from the other reactor buildings before TEPCO can even being the process of locating and removing the active fuel in reactors 1, 2, and 3, all of which are thought to have suffered partial meltdowns.

Image: Tomohiro Ohsumi/AP Photo  

Global Energy Report Tracks Path From Doom to Slightly Less Doom

Solar power in the United States will shortly crack 10 gigawatts. Wind power has soared past 60 GW, and the vast potential of offshore wind is finally threatening to shift from potential to reality. Germany recently hit a record of 59.1 percent renewables on its grid. The punchline of all this good news? We have made essentially no real progress so far.

The International Energy Agency released its World Energy Outlook report for 2013 today, and it paints a picture of a world that is not changing its energy supply remotely fast enough to combat the various dangerous effects of climate change. The scariest tidbit is very simple to understand: the share of the world's energy mix attributed to fossil fuels has not changed at all in the last 25 years. Even with all those solar and wind power milestones adding up, it was 82 percent coal, oil, and gas in the late 1980s, just as it is right now.

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Nuclear Groundshift

Well, it's more like a subtle shifting or resettling of the ground after a slight tremor than like a full-fledged earthquake. But there are distinct signs indicating that educated and environmentalist opinion is moving in a distinctly more pro-nuclear direction.

One signal, noted here six months ago, occurred during a debate among the nine candidates vying at that time to be New York City’s next mayor. Invited to take a cheap, anti-nuclear shot by the moderator—who asked them whether they would favor closing the controversial Indian Point nuclear power plant north of the city—eight of the nine said they could not favor closing it unless ways were found to replace its electricity with clean, zero-carbon power. (One of those eight was the man just elected mayor by an overwhelming majority.)

Another sign of shifting opinion came last week, with the airing on Friday evening of a pro-nuclear documentary by CNN, the global cable news network. “Pandora’s Promise,” made by director Robert Stone, did not score high in television ratings. Still, it is noteworthy for the fact that CNN aired it and that Stone, who made an anti-nuclear film in 1988, has switched sides.

Some of Stone's reasons for changing sides, to be sure, are questionable. He minimizes the gravity of the nuclear accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima, and he may overstate the degree to which newer or alternative reactor designs would be immune to catastrophe. He certainly overstates the promise and understates the drawbacks of the so-called Integral Fast Reactor, a kind of breeder that would allegedly be almost proliferation-proof and consume its own waste. (An ancestor of that reactor concept, the Experimental Breeder Reactor II, is shown in photo.) Physicist Edwin Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists has subjected Stone’s treatment of the IFR to a withering critique, which seems sound to me in every single detail.

But Stone also does a good job of conveying the promise of new reactor designs being developed, and of getting across the reminder that today’s reactors are basically just the first shot humankind took at harnessing the atom for peaceful purposes. He asks, quite reasonably in my opinion, why we get so exercised about the possible dangers of ionizing radiation and reactor accidents when millions of people are dying each year from exposure to air pollution from coal-fired power plants and automobiles.

Among other things, the film includes interviews with several leading environmentalists who have switched sides on nuclear, the most prominent of whom is probably Stewart Brand, creator of the Whole Earth Catalog.  Another such environmentalist, not included in Pandora’s Promise, is George Monbiot, a zoologist and immensely influential climate activist in Europe. Monbiot has recently posted a blog expressing his dismay that Helen Caldicott, the Australian physician who for decades has been a leading anti-nuclear activist, is saying many things about atomic power that cannot be substantiated in the scientific literature.

Some of us who have been following Caldicott’s activities for years are not exactly shocked to learn that she has made unverifiable assertions. But it is noteworthy nevertheless when a grassroots leader of Monbiot’s stature makes that discovery and publicizes it.

Photo: Argonne National Laboratory-West

 

 

What California's Energy Storage Requirement Really Means

A few weeks ago California passed the United States' first energy storage mandate. Issued by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), the mandate commits all investor-owned utilities in the state to collectively buy what the mandate refers to as “1325 megawatts of energy storage” by 2020.

But as many Spectrum readers pointed out in the comments section of a recent Energywise post, energy storage is usually measured in units of energy, like joules or megawatt-hours, not units of power like megawatts. So what does it mean to ask utilities to prepare 1325 megawatts of energy storage?

Presenting the stipulations of the mandate in megawatts was "on purpose; it was deliberate," says  Haresh Kamath, a program manager at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), in Palo Alto. "But there’s no question it was a little bit surprising that it was only megawatts and not megawatt-hours.” 

EPRI provided the CPUC with analysis and metrics on the cost efficacy of today's energy storage options. Kamath says that the issue was brought up repeatedly in the proceedings surrounding the mandate, but CPUC wanted the utilities to have maximum flexibility in how they implemented the storage systems.

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A Liquid Metal Battery for Grid Storage Nears Production

MIT spin-off Ambri is a step closer to bringing a novel liquid metal battery to the electricity grid.

The company on Thursday cut the ribbon on a new production facility in Marlboro, Mass., where it intends to make shipping-container size batteries. Ambri also said its first two customers will be a military base on Cape Cod, in Massachusetts, and a wind project in Hawaii. The company will be making prototypes and demonstration units in Marlboro for installation next year and intends to have a full-scale manufacturing facility in 2015.

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