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Renewables Up, Nuclear Flat in French Energy Plan

After months of negotiation, the French government has unveiled a long-awaited energy plan that is remarkably true to its election promises. The legislation's cornerstone is the one-third reduction in the role of nuclear power that President François Hollande proposed on the campaign trail in 2012.
 
Under the plan, nuclear's share of the nation's power generation is to drop from 75 percent to 50 percent by 2025, as renewable energy's role rises from 15 percent today to 40 percent to make up the difference. That is a dramatic statement for France, which is the world's second largest generator of nuclear energy, after the United States. France has a globally-competitive nuclear industry led by state-owned utility Electricité de France (EDF) and nuclear technology and services giant Areva.
 
When Spectrum reported on Hollande's promise last year, a plan was said to be just months away. And as discussions dragged on, doubts about Hollande's resolve grew. Discontent over the energy debate contributed to a breakdown this spring of the coalition between Hollande's Socialists and France's staunchly antinuclear Greens.
 
To get the job done, Hollande sacked his environment minister and appointed Socialist party heavyweight Ségolène Royal—a former presidential candidate and Hollande's ex-wife. Her plan is short on details in some key areas, including mechanisms for effecting a nuclear-to-renewables shift. A new nuclear electricity tax is expected to finance the installation of renewables, for example, but details remain to be defined.
 
That lack of specificity leaves France's nuclear critics non-plussed. “Nothing in the law guarantees that Hollande’s promise to lower the proportion of nuclear to 50 percent in 2025 will be kept... Politicians haven’t provided any means to shake off the shackles of nuclear," according to a statement by Greenpeace France quoted in Bloomberg's report on the plan.
 
In fact, Royal's plan merely caps the current level of nuclear power generated by Paris-based EDF. If renewable output and total electricity generation rises, the government could deliver its promised drop in the proportion of nuclear without shuttering a single reactor.
 
Royal's plan does call for a 50-percent cut in total energy consumption by 2050, but it aims to do that by cutting fossil fuel use in buildings and vehicles. One of the proposed avenues for accomplishing that is accelerating the adoption of electric vehicles. The government plan calls for rebates and tax breaks worth up to €10,000 ($14,600) per electric vehicle, and for sharply increased use of EVs in government fleets.
 
It will take a lot of electricity to charge up lots of extra EVs.
 

U.S. Will Auction Massive Tract for Offshore Wind Development

There are still no offshore wind farms in U.S. waters. That sentence is the backdrop to all the long-running machinations involved with getting an important industry off the ground, but it is clear that the government is doing what it can to change that seemingly static state of affairs. In the latest news, the Department of the Interior announced another auction of offshore real estate for wind development, significantly increasing the overall available area. This latest parcel is about the size of Rhode Island.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell joined Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick on Tuesday to announce the impending auction of more than 3,000 square kilometers (742,000 acres). The area, which will be divided into four separate parcels, dwarfs the 920 square kilometers of U.S. water rights that had previously been auctioned off for this purpose. Those previous auctions raised more than $5 million, and as several offshore projects get closer and closer to construction one would imagine that the new auctions will generate significant interest as well.

Looking at the map of the new area might set off some alarm bells simply because Nantucket is in the picture, but it shouldn't raise any of the same problems as Cape Wind. That project will sit in the shoals between Nantucket and Cape Cod, a location that precipitated the inane viewshed arguments that have plagued it for almost 15 years now. The new area up for auction is south of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard, and by a significant enough distance to avoid issues related to ruining prized vistas.

So how big is 3000 square kilometers when it comes to wind development? The London Array, currently the world's biggest offshore wind farm at 630 megawatts (with the eventual goal of 1 gigawatt), sits on a 100-square-kilometer area. That means if companies managed to develop all of the new area (not likely, of course), there is at least a potential to install enough turbines to generate 18 000 megawatts. That's enough to power, say, Finland. Or Chile. Or Kazakhstan.

Of course, just putting the area up for auction says nothing about when we'll see turbines spinning in the water. That could still be somewhere between five and infinity years away. For now, though, there will be a 60-day public comment period during which companies must inform the Interior Department of an intention to participate in the auction. A sale will probably take place toward the end of the summer, after which the first stages of development could start moving ahead.

For years now, wind power proponents have been hoping that once that first farm makes it into the water, it will start a cascade of development for offshore wind. As we wait for that first domino to fall—maybe Cape Wind, maybe Block Island, maybe a dark horse—it's good to see that the government is helping to set up all the dominos that will follow it.

A Cotton Powered Future for EVs?

A Japanese battery maker and a Japanese auto racing team have announced a collaboration to develop an electric car battery, whose promised performance certainly raises an eyebrow. The battery maker’s claims — faster charge times, greater capacity, longer range, greater number of charge-discharge cycles and less volatility than conventional lithium-ion EV batteries — perch the technology at the moment somewhere between “breakthrough” and “too good to be true.”

PowerJapan Plus, whose recent announcement video cites ten years’ lab development of its battery, has to date remained guarded about its proprietary technology. The company’s webpage about the “Ryden Dual Carbon Battery” states that it uses both a carbon anode and carbon cathode made from modified cotton fibers. (Ryden is a homophone of “Raijin,” a Shinto god of lightning, thunder, and storms.)

Not yet revealed is the detailed chemistry of the cathode, anode and electrolyte and how they might work together — and how this unique design might also yield such a powerful battery for EVs. (Though technical specs are still scarce, one fact that may have gotten lost in translation in English-language press coverage to date is the word “organic.” Some reporters have seized on the Ryden’s “organic cotton” composition, implying the cotton fibers in the anode and cathode were grown in a pesticide-free or pesticide-reduced field. We suspect the word “organic” in the present context instead means carbon-based, as in “organic chemistry.”)

Last month, PowerJapan Plus unveiled its Ryden battery to some media fanfare—albeit quizzical fanfare—for the many unanswered questions that remain about the technology. Readers are certainly prudent to remain cautious about Power Japan Plus until more details are known, and third-party verification of their claims are offered up. We’ve been down this road before, such as in 2007 and 2008 when ultracapacitor maker EEStor first made waves about an allegedly revolutionary energy storage technology that never quite materialized.

This month, the Japanese Le Mans auto racing team, Team Taisan, has announced its partnership with PowerJapan Plus to develop Ryden batteries for an electric vehicle it hopes to race with one day. The first stop on that road, they say, is a Ryden-powered electric go-kart that is now slated to start test driving in August. In the PJP-Taisan announcement video, Taisan team owner Yatsune Chiba says it had previously tried to race Tesla electric cars but had difficulties with its batteries overheating.

“We have faced a number of issues with electric vehicle batteries up until now,” says Chiba in the accompanying press announcement. “The Ryden battery from Power Japan Plus is the solution we have been searching for. We will first develop a battery capable of withstanding the rigorous demands of racing, before advancing the technology for use in commercial applications.”

And we will be watching, like fans at the start of a big race, curious to see more and not quite certain yet whom to root for.

Amid Blackouts, India's New Leader Vows 24-7 Power for All

Blackouts this week in New Delhi and surrounding states are providing a dramatic backdrop for a bold promise by India's new prime minister, Narendra Modi, whose Hindu nationalist party swept to power in a landslide election last month. As a scorching heatwave drove power consumption beyond the grid's capacity, Modi's government vowed to deliver "round-the-clock power for all by 2022," reports the Wall Street Journal.

That will be an awesome task. Nearly one-quarter of India's 1.26 billion citizens lack grid access. And India's utilities have struggled to keep up with demand from those who are connected. Power cuts are frequent.

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Time to Swap Power Plants for Giant Batteries? Almost

High costs have limited the use batteries in the electricity grid, but emerging technologies will make batteries a more compelling way to supply power during hours of peak demand. And they'll do it soon, say battery firm executives.

Utilities and energy project developers are now considering batteries as alternatives to traditional grid infrastructure, such as substation upgrades and natural gas-fired “peaker” power plants that only run a few days a year, according to industry executives who spoke at the Utility of the Future conference in Washington D.C. last week. Once the price of energy storage goes below US $300 per kilowatt-hour, batteries could transform how power is delivered, they said.

"You're seeing the price points going down and the capability to monetize the benefits of storage going up," said Steve Hellmann, president of Eos Energy Storage, which makes a zinc-air battery. "Once those two lines cross, there's no turning back." Hellman predicted that within five years there will be no need to build new peaker plants that operate during times of maximum demand, such as very hot days in the summer when the air-conditioning load is very high.

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Floating Wind Turbines Headed for Offshore Farms

Floating wind power is no longer science fiction. Promising results from five test platforms operating worldwide—including three in Japan—are turning into project plans for a first generation of floating wind farms. Industry analyst Annette Bossler, who runs Bremen, Maine-based Main(e) International Consulting, predicts that the number of test platforms will nearly double over the next two years and that commercialization is within site. "By 2018-2019 you will start to see the first really large-scale commercial use of floating platforms," predicts Bossler.
 
Putting wind turbines on offshore platforms akin to those developed for the petroleum industry provides a means of exploiting high-quality offshore winds—which are stronger and more consistent than onshore winds—in waters too deep for today's bottom-fixed foundations. The Department of Energy calls floating wind the future of offshore wind because over 60 percent of U.S. offshore wind resources—and nearly all of those off the West Coast—blow over deep water.
 
Last month, Seattle-based Principle Power secured $47 million in federal funding to test that potential 29 kilometers out from Coos Bay, Oregon. It has partnered with Rhode Island-based offshore wind developer Deepwater Wind to tether platforms for five 6-megawatt wind turbines in over 300 meters of water—way beyond the 50-meter maximum depth for fixed foundations such as those that Deepwater Wind plans to use at its East Coast sites.
 
Floating turbines also offer potential cost savings. Floating platforms and their turbines are fully manufactured on shore, then towed out and tethered to the seabed. By contrast, fixing foundations to the seabed and then bolting on massive turbines requires specialized vessels, which cost upwards of US $200 000 per day to rent—whether or not the weather permits their use.
 
Bossler says floating platforms can also achieve cost savings through serial manufacturing. Whereas fixed foundations must be tailored to each turbine site's depth and seabed conditions, every platform in a floating array can be identical.
 

Prototype testing is assuaging doubts about floating platforms' ability to stabilize massive offshore wind turbines against wave action as well as their ability endure punishing offshore storms. Principle Power's array of 6-MW turbines will sit atop larger versions of a prototype that has carried a 2-MW turbine in Portuguese water since 2011 (photo at right / Principle Power). The semi-submersible platform is, like a glacier, mostly below water; its stability derives from water moving around the platform, as well as ballast water moving within it.
 
This month also marks one year of operation of a floating test turbine in Penobscot Bay (photo at top). It remains the only offshore wind turbine in U.S. waters. The 20-kilowatt prototype installed by a University of Maine-led consortium is just one-eighth the size of a 6-MW turbine. But its smaller scale actually provides an accelerated means of "de-risking" the design, according to Habib Dagher, the University of Maine structural engineer and composites expert who directs its DeepCwind Consortium.
 
Dagher says the platform relies only on water flowing around it for stability, yet is proving extremely stable through waves that—given its 1:8 scale—equate to 23-meter hurricane-scale assaults. "It saw 100-to-500-year storms relative to its size, and its maximum inclination angle was just 5.9 degrees off of vertical," says Dagher.
 
While Dagher's consortium lost out to Principle Power in the current round of DOE project funding, its plans to install two 6-MW turbines off Maine's coast may yet hold water. Maine has only deep water, and state regulators eager to jumpstart offshore wind development guaranteed DeepCwind a generous 23 cents per kilowatt-hour for its power. That power purchase deal is worth over $240 million, says Dagher, and is something that other U.S. offshore wind developers are struggling to secure.
 
Then there is DeepCwind's unique materials technologies, which it asserts could slim the cost of offshore wind power by more than half by the mid-2020s. DeepCwind replaces steel with corrosion-resistant concrete in its platform and with comparatively lightweight composites in its turbine tower.
 
Bossler says cost reduction will be critical to commercializing floating wind power. This is true even in Japan, where idled nuclear plants and soaring power costs are accelerating floating wind development. But she declines comment on whether DeepCwind's solution is the way forward. "I do work for a competitor," she says.

China to Follow U.S. on Limiting Carbon Emissions?

Advocates for action on climate change have long urged the United States to make the first major move in limiting carbon dioxide emissions, with the hope that other big emitters around the world would follow suit. That seems to actually be happening now: only days after the United States announced a new rule that will cut emissions from power plants by 30 percent by 2030, China made some noise about instituting a carbon cap of its own.

As the Guardian reported on Tuesday, He Jiankun, chairman of China's Advisory Committee on Climate Change, told a conference that the Chinese government plans to limit the country's emissions both "by intensity an absolute cap." That would be huge, if true—developing nations like India, as well as China, have long promised only to limit carbon emissions based on intensity, meaning as a function of the country's economic growth. But China passed the United States way back in 2006 to become the world's champion in CO2 emissions; reducing the total amount is the only thing the atmosphere and a warming planet care about.

But we can't rejoice just yet. There is no official word out of China, and He did backtrack later in the day saying he was merely stating his personal views rather than any official position. And of course, the specific level of any absolute cap will be critical to assessing whether it will really help. China's previous CO2 goal was a 40 to 45 percent reduction in carbon intensity, compared to 2005 levels, by 2020. The country did launch a pilot carbon trading program in Shenzhen last year, but again, an absolute limit on emissions country-wide would represent an enormous shift in policy.

If China does set a cap, and the United States pushes ahead with its new 30 percent reductions from power plants rule, the landscape will be dramatically different as countries head to Bonn, Germany, for this year's round of climate talks. The talks in past years have ranged from downright useless to mildly promising (very mildly), but with the two biggest CO2 culprits in the world on board for actual, meaningful reductions, there may be a chance to convince others to jump in as well. As noted by Quartz this week, India in particular remains an outlier, and will account for a huge proportion of emissions increases in the 2020 to 2040 range.

Nothing concrete is expected out of Bonn this year, but there is optimism that next year's talks, COP21 in Paris, will result in a firm agreement. In a teleconference last year, The United Nations' top climate official Christiana Figueres stressed that no country was doing enough just yet on this front, and added some confusing explanations for why the last time there was optimism surrounding these negotiations, at COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009, it was an abject failure: "What is very different is that we all went to 2009 having made our own decision that governments had to come to an agreement. But there was actually no commitment of governments to come to an agreement." So, we had to agree to agree before actually agreeing.

How exactly coal-dependent countries like China will limit and eventually diminish their emissions is still up in the air, of course. But even mentioning an absolute cap is big step from where we've been.

Ford and Samsung Team Up on Regenerative Braking for Non-Hybrids

After a decade of research, a revolution in batteries could be coming to conventional cars.

Ford and Samsung SDI have partnered to bring hybrid drive technology to Ford’s line up of non-hybrid vehicles to increase fuel economy. The technology, a decade in the making, pairs a traditional lead-acid battery with a lithium-ion battery to allow for regenerative braking.

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Construction of Ice Wall Begins at Fukushima Daiichi

Construction has begun on the "ice wall" at the shattered Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, TEPCO announced today. This underground wall of frozen soil is intended to prevent groundwater from flowing into the reactor buildings, where it mixes with radioactive materials. Every day, about 400 tons of groundwater flows into the reactor basements.  

Since the meltdowns of March 2011, TEPCO has been trying to capture this contaminated water, store it safely, and treat it to remove the radioactive materials. It's an understatement to say that the company has had some trouble with this process. Storage tanks have leaked, and it took a long time to get the water treatment systems working properly. 

Stopping the contamination of groundwater is an important step in Fukushima Daiichi's 40-year decommissioning process. Right now, TEPCO is constantly building tanks to store the ever-accumulating water. Once the groundwater is kept out of the reactor buildings, TEPCO can focus on the radioactive water that's leaking out of the perforated reactors themselves.

In the video below, TEPCO explains that the ice wall technology is similar to that used in ice skating rinks. Pipes of coolant are inserted into the ground, which freeze the soil around them all the way down to the bedrock. The ice wall will redirect the groundwater around the damaged reactor buildings, letting it flow harmlessly to the sea. TEPCO plans to begin freezing the soil in March 2015. 

Grid-connected Electric Buses Could Displace Diesels

Anyone who has taken a school bus is familiar with the crunching sound of an idling diesel engine—and the nasty exhaust they give off. Researchers at the University of Delaware argue that cleaner electric school buses can make financial sense for school districts if they provide services to grid operators.

In an economic analysis published in Applied Energy and announced yesterday, researchers found that switching over to a fleet of electric buses, each of which costs more than twice a diesel bus, could save a school $38 million over at typical 14-year lifespan. “It would be cheaper to operate these buses,” said Jeremy Firestone, director of the Center for Carbon-free Power Integration at the University of Delaware. “And kids don’t need to be exposed to diesel fumes.” 

The University of Delaware has an ongoing experiment that's at the leading edge of vehicle-to-grid technology. It has 15 electric Mini Cooper sedans that earn money by providing quick bursts of power—as short as a few seconds or as long as several minutes--to balance the local electric grid. The cars’ batteries effectively act as a mini power plant, providing frequency regulation services that are normally provided by fossil fuel plants or very large stationary batteries.

Electric school buses could provide the same services and, in some ways, are better suited for the task than consumer-owned plug-in cars. Because electric buses are only used for short periods of time, their batteries are typically available for many hours of the day, which makes them more valuable to the local grid operator that would purchase frequency regulation services. Also, fleet owners are more likely to invest in the inverter and control hardware to create two-way connection to the grid.

The shorter range of an electric bus compared to a diesel bus is not going to be a problem for most urban and suburban school districts, said Firestone. Regenerative braking from frequent stops can aid battery range as well.

The analysis included the medical and climate benefits of using an electric bus. Even when they were not included, a vehicle-to-grid-capable electric bus could save a school district more than $5,700 per seat over its life, according to lead author Lance Noel.

Diesel exhaust, which contains benzene and soot, is classified as a probable human carcinogen by many government agencies, including the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the US Environmental Protection Agency. And children are particularly susceptible to the adverse respiratory effects from fine particular matter, according to the nonprofit Environment and Human Health. It's estimated that 0.3 percent of in-cabin air comes from the bus's exhaust, the University of Delaware paper notes.

Practically speaking, many school districts will be unwilling or unable to pay more for electric buses. In its test, the University of Delaware ran its analysis with a bus that costs $260,000, compared to $110,000 for an equivalent diesel.

Firestone speculated that parents could be motivated by the health benefits of an electric bus to press school districts to pay the higher upfront costs. Also, a third-party fleet operator could own the buses and earn money from the frequency regulation grid services. Third-party ownership of rooftop solar panels has helped fuel rapid growth of distributed solar in the U.S. States and the federal government could also provide financing for first-of-a-kind vehicle-to-grid projects, Firestone said.

Another variable in vehicle-to-grid technology is the local grid operator. The University of Delaware is earning money with its fleet of electric Mini Coopers with PJM, which is a large and progressive grid operator. PJM makes relatively large frequency regulation payments and pays more for fast-acting energy resources, such as batteries, which has helped enable a number of innovative applications. For example, the Philadelphia subway authority has been able to finance an energy storage system that captures energy from braking trains and provides balancing services to the local grid.

Firestone is hopeful that school districts will consider electric buses when they need to upgrade. "Once you have the first couple installed and people understand both the economic and health benefits, it's an idea that could catch on rather quickly," he said.

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