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A space station flying over the earth with red, gold, and green beams fanning out of it. The beams connect with the earth, the sun, and the moon, respectively.

Trump Dumps Climate Science and Innovation in 2018 Budget Blueprint

Al Gore didn’t really claim to invent the Internet in 1999, but he did champion a NASA mission that installed a deep-space webcam pointed at Earth in 2015. And yesterday President Trump put a bull’s-eye on that mission. Or rather, on part of it. Trump’s 2018 budget blueprint asks Congress to defund the Earth-facing instruments on the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR). Its sensors tracking magnetic storms emanating from the sun would keep doing their jobs.

Selectively deep-sixing well-functioning instruments on a satellite 1.5 million kilometers from Earth is one of the stranger entries in President Trump’s first pass at a budget request. But it fits a pattern: Throughout the document, programs aimed at comprehending or addressing climate change take deep cuts, even where there is no obvious fiscal justification. 

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Lithium-ion energy storage units stand in front of an array of solar photovoltaic panels in Hawaii.

Tesla Teams With Tiny Hawaiian Utility to Store Solar

A 33,000-member electric power cooperative on the island of Kauai in the Hawaiian archipelago is emerging as a leader as it moves from fossil-based power generation to renewables, and deploys what ranks as one of the world’s largest arrays of lithium-ion battery packs.

The battery storage became operational in March and is expected to make solar power produced during the daytime available to customers well into peak demand periods after sunset.

Tesla Motors Inc., in association with Kauai Island Utility Cooperative (KIUC), deployed the battery storage using a design derived from the Tesla Model S vehicle. The 272 Powerpack energy storage units are sited at a solar farm whose 55,000 photovoltaic panels have a generating capacity of 13 megawatts (MW).

Under terms of the deal with Tesla, KIUC will buy power for 20 years at the rate of 13.9 cents per kilowatt-hour (KWh). The 52 MWh battery system is design to feed up to 13 MW of electricity onto the grid. Doing so is expected to shave the amount of conventional power generation needed to meet the evening peak, which lasts from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.

KIUC President and CEO, David Bissellsays the cost is lower than that incurred to buy power from diesel-fueled power plants and is below the charge paid by electricity customers elsewhere in the state.

The solar-plus-battery facility means that KIUC has achieved roughly 44% renewable generation, says Bissell. “This is truly remarkable when you consider that as recently as 2011 we were 92% dependent on fossil fuel generation,” primarily diesel and naphtha.

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Kelp farm

Robotic Kelp Farms Promise an Ocean Full of Carbon-Neutral, Low-Cost Energy

Renewable, carbon neutral energy is critical to a future where we’re not all living on rafts in the middle of a suddenly much larger ocean. Happily, we’ve got lots of ways of generating renewable energy, like solar farms, wind farms, and hydropower. Despite this diversity, renewables are horrendously inefficient compared with the dense solid or liquid combustibles that come straight out of the ground, both in terms of the energy density that they represent, as well as the amount of physical space that it takes to harvest them.

This is an often overlooked problem with renewable energy: Scaling up solar, wind, and hydro to make a dent in overall energy consumption takes up a significant amount of land area. Plus at some point, it starts to become impractical: There’s a finite amount of land area that is appropriate for and can be devoted to large-scale renewables. Not to mention that usually, these installations aren’t things that people want next door. As the global population increases, and energy consumption increases even more, we’re simply going to run out of space.

At the ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit, a company called Marine BioEnergy was showing a potential new way of producing an enormous amount of low-cost energy in a way that doesn’t compete for land area. Their idea is to use drone submarines to farm kelp out in the open ocean, and then process it into carbon-neutral liquid biofuel. Turns out there are a lot of reasons why this might be a very good idea.

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ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit: Self-Fluffing Fabrics and the World's Coolest Paint

Every year, ARPA-E (the government's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy) holds a big conference/party in Washington, D.C., that includes an expo hall full of all of the latest, most exciting government-funded technology innovations in the energy sector. No, we're not being sarcastic. Last year, we focused on ARPA-E's push towards personal thermal regulation. The big idea: that heating an entire building is incredibly wasteful, when you could potentially save massive amounts of energy by heating each human inside of that building (or a small area around them) instead. We're happy to report that both RoCo and SRI's foot coolers have been significantly improved over the last year, although neither are quite ready for you to buy just yet.

This year, we're going to branch out a bit, and take a look two new technologies that ARPA-E has funded to try and improve our lives by saving energy.

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A flying satellite with several green beam projecting down to a cliff of ice

Is This Twilight for the Golden Age of Earth Observation?

When leaders of the Congressional committees that approve NASA’s missions and budgets put forth their priorities in February, only space science and deep space exploration made the cut. Conspicuously absent was Earth science—a US $2 billion function within NASA that tracks our rapidly changing “home planet.”

Add in White House skepticism of climate science, and what experts call today’s “golden age” of monitoring Earth via satellite faces some serious challenges.

That age began in 2009, when President Barack Obama responded to a U.S. National Research Council warning that budget cuts had left the United States’ Earth observing system “at risk of collapse.” NASA, the lead federal agency for satellite development, saw its Earth science budget rise 56 percent between 2008 and 2016, and it placed eight new Earth-observing satellites in orbit during that period packing state-of-the-art sensors.

The data they deliver inform a widening range of activities—crop planning and management, wildfire risk assessment, extreme air pollution warnings, and more. NASA delivered 1.42 billion data products in 2015—174 times as many as it delivered in 2000—according to a November 2016 review by the agency’s Inspector General.

More missions are in the pipeline, such as NASA’s second Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellite (ICESat-2), whose primary objectives are tracking melting polar ice sheets and glaciers and quantifying the carbon locked up in the globe’s forests.

ICESat-2, however, exemplifies both the present strength of the U.S. Earth observation program and a less visible weakness. To understand why, you need a sense of the ambitious nature of ICESat-2’s mission.

Rather than rerunning the first ICESat mission, which ended in 2009, NASA redesigned the laser altimeter to boost its impact. One laser beam firing sporadically became six beams firing 365 days a year; higher-precision digital photon counting replaced analog detection of beams bouncing back from Earth.

ICESat-2 should enable measurement of annual elevation changes in ice sheets at ± 4-millimeter accuracy (and better for other targets), and at 17 times the spatial resolution of its predecessor, according to Thorsten Markus, chief of cryospheric sciences at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, in Maryland. Such data, he says, will elucidate some basic physical processes that elude climate models, and thus improve their predictions.

But pushing for the best has not come cheap. Instead of $300 million for an ICESat rerun, NASA’s estimate for ICESat-2’s development started at $559 million and has grown to $764 million. Including operations for up to seven years, the mission could cost nearly $1.1 billion, according to that November Inspector General report. Launch dates, meanwhile, have slipped from 2015 to 2018.

Delays and cost creep in ICESat-2 and other missions, as well as several failed launches, put a significant tarnish on Earth observation’s golden age. Extending existing missions to avoid gaps in observational data creates risk, according to NASA’s Inspector General: “More than half the Agency’s 16 operating missions have surpassed their designed lifespan and are increasingly prone to failures that could result in critical data loss….”

Similar risks confront the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a key partner in climate and weather observation, according to a February report by Congress’s watchdog agency the Government Accountability Office NOAA’s polar readings currently come from a dying NASA demonstration mission. If it fails before the agencies’ long-awaited Joint Polar Satellite System launches, it would degrade weather forecasts, “exposing the nation to a 15 percent chance of missing an extreme weather event forecast,” writes the GAO.

If the golden age of Earth observation harbored weak spots before the 2016 election, experts say the new administration introduces new risks. One is the $54 billion in belt-tightening proposed for federal agencies by President Donald Trump. In early March the Washington Post reported that the President will ask for 17 percent less funding for NOAA.

Another is potential interference with climate science. In February, Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, called for “rebalancing” of NASA’s portfolio. A former chairman, Robert Walker, now a lobbyist for space-related industries, built a similar plank into the space platform that he drafted for Trump’s campaign. Both men question human-induced climate change—a view held by many Republicans in Congress and Trump appointees.

Walker says expanded Earth observation under Obama came at the expense of other science programs, particularly deep space robotic missions. He also alleges that NASA science was “tainted" by a political agenda against fossil fuels, focusing on impacts from burning coal, oil, and natural gas and neglecting natural climate influences such as volcanic eruptions. “There’s an extremely complex system that involves a lot more than CO2,” he says.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2014 assessment, however, expressed “very high confidence” that volcanic eruptions caused only “a small fraction” of the warming observed since the Industrial Revolution. And it cites “robust evidence” from satellite data showing that natural factors have had “near-zero” effect since 1980.

The notion that human activities alter climate is not a political invention, but a scientific judgement based on gigabytes of data downloaded daily from a gilded era’s orbiting sensors. “It’s not a belief,” says NASA’s Markus. “That’s what the data show.”

Gas stove ring alight with blue natural gas flame

Full Cost of Electricity: Modeling Natural Gas Prices Offers Insight for Future Fuel Prices

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

In any business investment, price forecasting plays an important role in determining the viability of the project. Energy investing is no different, especially when it comes to fuel for a generating project. Quicker to construct than coal-fired power plants, natural-gas-fired projects offer environmental gains, but fuel prices are one key—if volatile—element to their success. Our role in the Full Cost of Electricity (FCe-) project by the University of Texas at Austin Energy Institute? Come up with a model that forecasts the long-term level of natural gas prices.

There are several approaches to developing long-term forecasts for commodity prices, including many types of econometric models, equilibrium models, and expert survey forecasts. We use an approach that is based upon calibrating some of the commonly used stochastic process models [PDF] with data from the commodities markets. (For an explanation of commodities markets, spot prices, futures, and other market modeling terms, see this article. For more on our specific model details, equations, and math, see our white paper [PDF].)

Data, equations, and models in hand, we used a two-factor economic model (two factors as causes of some event) to develop forecasts and confidence ratings for both the risk-neutral price (investor ignores risk completely in the decision-making process) and the expected spot price (current market price for a physical commodity). The risk-neutral version of the model yields a slightly lower forecast. The historical data shows that from 2009 through 2014, spot prices oscillated around a mean price just under US $4 per million Btu, and then prices dropped significantly and rapidly in 2015 [see graph above].

When the model is calibrated to shale gas era futures price data, leaving out the very high historical prices before 2009, the expected spot price is forecasted to recover to only about $3.00 per million Btu over the next two years, but then grow at a modest rate to a price of $4.35 per million Btu by the end of the forecast horizon, 2025 in our calculation. This forecast aligns with the Low Oil Price case projections from the Energy Information Administration 2015 Energy Outlook, slightly lower than their Reference case.

Our research shows that the choice of the data set has some effect on the two-factor model parameter estimates and the resulting forecast. The longer term data set yields a slightly lower forecast, thanks to the long-term downward trend from the high prices realized in the middle to latter part of the decade from 2000 to 2010. With either data set, however, forecasts roughly align with the High Oil and Gas Resource and Low Oil Price scenarios from the 2015 EIA Energy Outlook, two outcomes that seem increasingly likely as judged by market sentiment [see graph above]. This market-based forecasting model provides the added benefits of simple updating (as new futures data becomes available) and a statistical basis for uncertainty analysis, through the confidence envelope around the future expected spot prices.

For more information, read the full report, “Market-Calibrated Forecasts for Natural Gas Prices” [PDF] on the University of Texas Energy Institute’s page for The Full Cost of Electricity.

Warren J. Hahn & James S. Dyer are professors at the University of Texas at Austin, McCombs School of Business.

John Goodenough, co-inventor of the lithium-ion battery, heads a team of researchers developing the technology that could one day supplant it

Will a New Glass Battery Accelerate the End of Oil?

Electric car purchases have been on the rise lately, posting an estimated 60 percent growth rate last year. They’re poised for rapid adoption by 2022, when EVs are projected to cost the same as internal combustion cars. However, these estimates all presume the incumbent lithium-ion battery remains the go-to EV power source. So, when researchers this week at the University of Texas at Austin unveiled a new, promising lithium- or sodium-glass battery technology, it threatened to accelerate even rosy projections for battery-powered cars.

“I think we have the possibility of doing what we’ve been trying to do for the last 20 years,” says John Goodenough, coinventor of the now ubiquitous lithium-ion battery and emeritus professor at the Cockrell School of Engineering at the University of Texas, Austin. “That is, to get an electric car that will be competitive in cost and convenience with the internal combustion engine.” Goodenough added that this new battery technology could also store intermittent solar and wind power on the electric grid.

Yet, the world has seen alleged game-changing battery breakthroughs come to naught before. In 2014, for instance, Japanese researchers offered up a cotton-based (!) new battery design that was touted as “energy dense, reliable, safe, and sustainable.” And if the cotton battery is still going to change the world, its promoters could certainly use a new wave of press and media releases, as an Internet search on their technology today produces links that are no more current than 2014-2015 vintage.

So, on whose authority might one claim a glass battery could be any different?

For starters, Donald Sadoway’s. Sadoway, a preeminent battery researcher and MIT materials science and engineering professor, says, “When John Goodenough makes an announcement, I pay attention. He’s tops in the field and really a fantastic scientist. So, his pronouncements are worth listening to.”

Goodenough himself says that when he first coinvented the lithium-ion battery in the 1980s, almost no one in the battery or consumer electronics industries took the innovation seriously. It was only Japanese labs and companies like Sony that first began to explore the world we all today inhabit—with lithium-ions powering nearly every portable device in the marketplace, as well as electric vehicles and even next-generation airliners.

In other words, who better than Goodenough to cocreate the technology that could one day supplant his mighty lithium-ion battery?

The new battery technology uses a form of glass, doped with reactive “alkali” metals like lithium or sodium, as the battery’s electrolyte (the medium between cathode and electrode that ions travel across when the battery charges and discharges). As outlined in a research paper and recent patent filing (of which Goodenough, 94, says more are forthcoming), the lithium- or sodium-doped glass electrolyte offers a new medium for novel battery chemistry and physics.

They find, for instance, that the lithium- or sodium-glass battery has three times the energy storage capacity of a comparable lithium-ion battery. But its electrolyte is neither flammable nor volatile, and it doesn’t appear to build up the spiky “dendrites” that have plagued lithium-ions as they charge and discharge repeatedly and can ultimately short out, causing battery fires. So, if the glass batteries can be scaled up commercially, which remains uncertain in this still-proof-of-concept-phase research, the frightening phenomenon of flaming or exploding laptops, smartphones, or EVs could be a thing of the past.

Moreover, says lithium-glass battery codeveloper Maria Helena Braga, a visiting research fellow at UT Austin and engineering professor at the University of Porto in Portugal, the glass battery charges in “minutes rather than hours.” This, she says, is because the lithium- or sodium-doped glass endows the battery with a far greater capacity to store energy in the electric field. So, the battery can, in this sense, behave a little more like a lightning-fast supercapacitor. (In technical terms, the battery’s glass electrolyte endows it with a higher so-called dielectric constant than the volatile organic liquid electrolyte in a lithium-ion battery.)

Moreover, Braga says, early tests of their technology suggest it’s also capable of perhaps thousands of charge-discharge cycles, and could perform well in both extremely cold and hot weather. (Initial estimates place its operating range between below -20º C and 60º C.) And if they can switch the battery’s ionic messenger atom from lithium to sodium, the researchers could even source the batteries more reliably and sustainably. Rather than turning to controversial mining operations in a few South American countries for lithium, they’d be able to source sodium in essentially limitless supply from the world’s seawater.

Sadoway says he’s eager to learn more about the technology as it continues to be developed. In particular, he’s paying attention not so much to how quickly the battery charges but how well it can retain its energy. “The issue is not can you do something at a high charge rate,” he says. “My big question is about capacity fade and service lifetime.”

But, Sadoway adds, perhaps the chief innovation behind Goodenough and Braga’s technology is the possibility that they’ve solved the flaming and exploding battery problem.

“Addressing the [battery] safety issue is, I think, a giant step forward,” he says. “People have been talking about solid-state electrolytes for 20 years. But I can’t point to a commercial product yet…. If he can give us an electrolyte that is devoid of these flammable, organic solvents, that’s salutary in my opinion.”

If Goodenough, Braga, and collaborators can ramp up their technology, there would clearly be plenty of upsides. Goodenough says the team’s anode and electrolyte are more or less ready for prime time. But they’re still figuring out if and how they can make a cathode that will bring the promise of their technology to the commercial marketplace.

“The next step is to verify that the cathode problem is solved,” Goodenough says. “And when we do [that] we can scale up to large-scale cells. So far, we’ve made jelly-roll cells, and it looks like they’re working fairly well. So I’m fairly optimistic we’ll get there. But the development is going to be with the battery manufacturers. I don’t want to do development. I don’t want to be going into business. I’m 94. I don’t need the money.”

A power plant at night shrouded in steam

Kemper County and the Perils of Clean Coal Technology

Politicians who talk about the future of “clean coal” as part of the U.S. energy mix need look no farther than the Kemper County Energy Facility in Mississippi to see both the promise and the peril that the technology has to offer.

Kemper is years behind schedule and billions of dollars over the $2.2-billion cost estimate given in 2010 when construction began. And a recent financial analysis paints a dim picture of the plant’s potential for profit.

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three power plant chimneys emitting vapor cloud

How EPA Calculates the Cost of Environmental Compliance for Electricity Generators

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

People pay for electricity directly, out of pocket, when they pay their electric bill. But they may also pay in an indirect way, when they bear the environmental and health costs associated with pollution from electricity generation. With a new EPA administrator recently installed, how these costs are calculated is under new scrutiny. The University of Texas Energy Institute’s Full Cost of Electricity Study includes estimates of these environmental pollution costs as one part of the full system cost of electricity.

There is a well-established body of literature at the intersection of toxicology, epidemiology, and economics; it’s one that also governs how the Environmental Protection Agency estimates the benefits of regulations that reduce pollution from power plants. As part of the University of Texas Energy Institute’s Full Cost of Electricity (FCe-) Study my colleagues and I took a deep dive into the cost of these environmental externalities. Our goal: Describe in detail how the EPA estimates the dollar value of pollution reductions.

Whenever the EPA proposes a major new rule, it undertakes a rigorous analysis, comparing a benefit estimate with its estimate of the societal costs of complying with the proposed rule. Our analysis [PDF] illustrates how the EPA completed this kind of analysis for three recent and major rules targeting fossil-fueled power plants: the Cross State Air Pollution Rule (regulating pollutant transport to downwind communities), the Mercury and Air Toxics Rule, and the Clean Power Plan (regulating greenhouse gas emissions).

In each of these three rulemakings, the EPA concluded that the health and environmental benefits greatly exceeded compliance costs, even though in some cases compliance costs were in the billions of dollars.

These analyses are not without controversy. Many dispute the dollar value that the EPA places on a premature death, and many others disagree with the value assigned to a ton of carbon emissions. For the mercury rule and the greenhouse gas rule, benefits dwarf costs only because of so-called co-benefits—reduction of pollution other than the pollutant targeted by the rule.

These and other measurement issues are laid out in our white paper, “EPA’s Valuation of Environmental Externalities from Electricity Production” [PDF].

David Spence is a professor at the McCombs School of Business and School of Law, part of the University of Texas at Austin.

Software coders William Stevens, from left, Michael Harrison, and Brack Quillen work on computers at the Bit Source LLC office in Pikeville, Kentucky, U.S., on Monday, Feb. 1, 2016.

The Kentucky Startup That Is Teaching Coal Miners to Code

Coal’s role in American electricity generation is fast diminishing. A few large coal-mining companies declared bankruptcy last year, and several coal power plants have been shuttered. The biggest loss in all this has been felt by the tens of thousands of coal miners who have been laid off. But despite the U.S. president’s campaign pledges, those jobs are going to be hard to bring back. Besides competition from natural gas and cheaper renewables, coal mining, and mining in general, is losing jobs to automation.

But now, a small startup in the middle of Appalachian coal country has a forward-looking plan to put miners back to work. Pikeville, Ky.-based Bit Source has trained displaced coal industry veterans in Web and software development.

The retrained workers now design and develop websites, tools, games, and apps. Bit Source is proving that coal miners can, indeed, learn how to code, and do it well.

“Appalachia has been exporting coal for a long time,” says Justin Hall, the company’s president. “Now we want to export code. We’ve got blue-collar coders. It’s the vision of the future of work: How do you train a workforce and adapt it for technology.”

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