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Smart Grid Jobs

Earlier this month Energy Secretary Chu announced that DOE was making $100 million in grants to support job training for work in the smart grid, with another $95 million to come from participating educational institutions, utilities, and manufacturers. The various programs supported by the grants are expected to produce 30,000 new trainees for smart grid work.

The ordinarily excellent Katie Fehrenbacher of Earth2Tech comments that "demand response devices are [already] shedding peak power in homes and businesses,” as "millions of two-way communicating, digital smart meters have been deployed.” If such load shedding in fact is already happening I haven't heard about it.

Does somebody know something I don't know?

Separately, Secretary Chu announced a series of partnerships and initiatives with other countries in the Western Hemisphere under the Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas. Projects include efforts to advanced electricity interconnections in the Caribbean , and creation of at Energy Innovation Center at the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB).

Smart Grid Proof?

The vision of a smarter grid is of course a lovely thing to behold: an electric power system that’s much more interactive, interoperable, reliable, and robust—“self-healing,” even. That’s why so much excitement attended the news this time last year that the U.S. stimulus bill would contain billions of dollars in new funding to support smart grid construction, and the news six months later than the National Institute for Standards and Technology was issuing draft standards and a roadmap for completing standardization of the smart grid (the Framework and Roadmap for Smart Grid Interoperability Standards, issued in final form in January). And it's the reason too why such high expectations ride on the avalanche of smart meter installation projects launched in the last year.

But that excitement will turn to disappointment if the smart grid does not deliver, in addition to efficiency and reliability, energy conservation, less dependence on oil and gas imports, and lower greenhouse gas emissions from the electric power sector. As NIST put it in a press release last September announcing the draft standards and roadmap: “When completed, the Smart Grid will employ real-time, two-way digital information and communication technologies in the operation of the nation’s electric grid. The system would allow consumers to better manage and control their energy use and costs, reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil and create clean-energy jobs.”

We'll know the smart grid can deliver when in at least one situation in the United States, however restricted geographically or functionally, interactive communications have helped consumers reduce their energy use and cut their electricity bills. When will that be?

Not this year. There have been some interesting attempts to demonstrate the smart grid, notably in Boulder and Tallahassee, but just because such projects are small does not necessarily mean they're well designed and executed. (Right around the time IEEE magazine published a report on the Boulder experiment, most of the executives managing it were replaced, prompting us to wonder whether it might turn out to be like Michael Armstrong's introduction of the telephony triple-play at the old AT&T—brilliant in principle, but mistimed, and mismanaged.) It’s possible that the first proof of principle will come instead from one of the huge smart meter installation programs, say in California or Florida.

Of course there are smart grid projects directed strictly at efficiency and reliability, such as the MIdwest ISO’s installation of monitoring devices to test the power system's state 30 times a second, so that the system can run with smaller reserve capacity and greater ability to absorb intermittent generation like wind. That's all well and good. But citizens and consumers are not going to feel, broadly speaking, that the smart grid is a success unless they can see it helping them use energy better, both for their personal benefit and the common welfare.

The Intermittent Supply Argument Shouldn't Hold Up Renewable Energy

One of the common arguments against moving rapidly toward renewable sources of electricity like wind and solar is their intermittent nature. The sun doesn't shine at night, or when it's cloudy, or for as long in the winter; the wind doesn't blow all the time, no matter how well sited the turbines are. The answer, generally, is that we will soon improve storage options for that power to the point where that won't matter. But according to a paper in the journal Renewable Energy, renewable energy sources connected to a power grid where other sources are available would be the last to be stored anyway.

Donald Swift-Hook, of the World Renewable Energy Network (who publishes the journal) in the United Kingdom, wrote in the journal that many different power storage options have been considered since the fuel cell was first conceived in 1838. These have included everything from thermal storage, compressed air and electro-chemical storage, and the recent focus on renewable energy - and wind in particular, which recently jumped past 10,000 megawatts installed capacity in the United States - has led to a renewed interest in the ability to store intermittently generated power.

The misconception, he contends, lies in the fact that all power sources have a certain degree of availability, which is never 100 percent, and wind power is no different. Instead of a zero "capacity credit," or the amount that a power source contributes to power generation, wind can actually provide as much as 38 to 58 percent capacity credit.

"The public are unduly concerned that wind and solar plant are intermittent but they fail to realise that, in fact, all plant has always been intermittent, including ‘base load’ nuclear," Swift-Hook wrote. "All their concerns are already well taken care of by the spare capacity that is needed for all plant, not just for wind."

And if one does start to bring stored energy into the equation, Swift-Hook has an answer for that too. Stored energy on a system that has multiple power sources, he claims, will come from the sources that are first to be shut down if the storage system is full or breaks down. Because wind and solar have no fuel costs - that is, once they are operating, the wind and sun provide free power - those are also the cheapest power sources on the system. Thus, they will be the last, not the first, to be shut down.

"This means that, even when storage is installed, grid-connected intermittent renewables like wind energy will never be stored (unless nothing else is available)," Swift-Hook wrote.

The end result of these jumps of logic is that when wind and solar power are merely part of a larger system of power generation, storage of the power they generate is largely unnecessary. So that battery bank in the Department of Energy image up top might not really be part of the picture, as long as the wind and sun aren't the only sources.

Even if that is true, though, others are still working on how best to handle the contributions of wind and solar to power mixes. In another paper in the same journal, researchers led by Dominik Heide of Johann Wolfgang Goethe Universität in Germany, modeled the optimal mix of wind and solar power based on seasonal contributions in Europe. In other words, the longer-term intermittent nature of renewables poses a challenge along with the day-by-day questions.

They found that because wind blows more in the winter and sun shines more in the summer, there is a specific mix that can allow for less energy to be stored in a future utopia where all energy is provided by renewable energy. That mix is 55 percent wind power and 45 percent solar, reducing the need for storage by a factor of two.

Of course, the authors of the latter paper also discuss the optimal breakdown during transitional periods when wind and solar account for larger percentages than now but not yet 100 percent of the total. But as we have already established that in a mixed power scenario storage is unnecessary anyway, we can skip that part.

Image via Wikimedia Commons and DOE.

Life's a 'Paternoster' (and then you fly)

"Don't leave the planet to the stupid." The corporate tag line from German solar module manufacturer Solon SE screams: 'We reject complacency' (not to mention gentility). It's a slap-in-the-face warning to expect the unexpected, so I was looking for something completely different when I visited Solon's one-year old Berlin headquarters on an architectural tour of Germany last week. I was not to be disappointed. What I found is probably the first cyclic elevator system installed anywhere in decades.

No pressing a button and waiting for a lift with this modern incarnation of a late-19th-C elevator design! In a cyclic elevator a string of passenger cars run by in a continuous loop. One simply steps into one of the open cars scrolling up or down through its adjacent elevator shafts and takes off. To your weary Canadian correspondent, presently immobilized in Berlin by an angry planet, the hassle-free transport offered by Solon's cyclic lift was a source of almost drunken pleasure.

Unfortunately, it may also be quite stupid (so to speak).

To Germans cyclic elevators are Paternosters, Latin for 'Our Father' -- a riff on the looping action of rosary beads. The lifts were a hit across Europe until the emergence of safety regulations in the 1970s. Authorities suddenly blanched at Paternoster accidents that crushed body parts, as well as the risk of fires spreading vertically through their open shafts. West Germany banned new Paternosters in 1974, and outrage at ongoing accidents has progressively winnowed the ranks of those left operating.

Solon won an exemption with a joint design from German elevator contractor Schoppe-Keil, engineering certification firm TÜV, and the Berlin State Office for Occupational Safety adding some high-tech safety features. For example, flashing green and red lights tell users when to step on and off. A visual detection system arrests the lift if one pokes even a pinkie past the threshold when the lights are flashing red.

It could be the start of something. Japanese heavy-engineering firm Hitachi is already talking up a Paternoster revival with its Circulating Multi-car Elevator System. Hitachi's system improves safety with an ingenious scheme for stopping individual cars while passengers hop on and off. And the firm claims that it could move more than twice as many office workers than a conventional elevator, shrinking the share of floor space in high buildings dedicated to lifts.

My question is: At what carbon price? Solon's impatient motto seems to embrace the urgency of scientists tracking global climate change, and its crystalline silicon solar panels offer an important alternative to fossil fuels. But where is the righteousness in its Paternoster's nonstop power drain, especially in a country which (like the US) burns coal to generate about half of its electricity?

I'm told that Germany's Federal Foreign Office in Berlin plan to remove their Paternosters as one means of reducing energy consumption.

Solon SE's provocative corporate logoSolon spokeswoman Sylvia Ratzlaff says architects built the Paternoster into the company's stunning new green building at the insistence of Solon's CEO, who thought its constant circulation would be "power-saving" relative to the on-off action of its two conventional elevators. But she offered no stats to back that up. And isn't the real question why most employees can't climb the stairs in the 4-story structure, especially the sort of environmentally-conscious folk one expects to find at a solar manufacturer?

Perhaps these are just quibbles from a grumpy travel refugee, whose emotions rise and fall daily with the passing of each trans-Atlantic booking. Solon certainly has plenty more to worry about just now after the economic meltdown rocked its world, prompting Spain to withdraw solar subsidies and slashing Solon's sales to 320 million euros last year -- roughly a third what they booked in 2008. Its stock price has slumped to barely 5 euros from a high of 92 euros in 2007.

Germans have an expression for things like Solon and I that go up down. Wait for it... Yes, they call them Paternosters. As in this 2001 post to a German investor discussion site on stock price gyrations entitled "Solon's Paternoster Ride". In fact, a commenter of little faith questioned whether that word usage, in light of Solon's seemingly inexorable descent at the time into single-digit share pricing:

Who knows the difference between a Paternoster and Solon? The Paternoster goes up again sometime!

In hindsight it's tempting to think her comment 'stupid'. But that would be arrogant and ignorant, in the eyes of this interloping Paternoster. Almost as bad as using stupid in a corporate logo.

Columbia University Honors One of Its Top Geoscientists

Wally on a shipIf an inventory were to be compiled of those who have contributed most in the last half century to our understanding of climate, ocean-atmosphere dynamics and global warming, Wallace Broecker would have to rank near the top by any reckoning. As it happens, Wally Broecker has spent the last half century and more--58 years to be exact--at Columbia University's Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory, which is nestled north of New York City in the Palisades, on the west shore of the Hudson River. He first visited it to interview for a college internship in December 1951,and once he started that internship the following summer, he never left. Coming from a slightly obscure college located near Chicago in the monotonous Illinois prairie, it was as if he had entered the Garden of Eden, he said at a celebration of his contributions last Friday, except that despite his sins he never got thrown out.

Though Broecker is indeed known as a cantankerous and demanding man who can be dangerous to cross, his audience was in a forgiving mood Friday afternoon, having gathered for several hours of talks and songs honoring "Wally Broecker's 50 Years of Innovation." And rightly so.

Were there a Nobel Prize in geoscience, Broecker would have at least one. He in fact has every other relevant award: the Franklin Institute's Franklin Medal, USC's Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, the U.S. president's National Medal of Science, AGU's Roger Revelle Medal (named for the scientist who first started directly measuring carbon concentrations in earth's atmosphere), the National Academy's Alexander Agassiz Medal (named for the scientist who discovered the ice ages), and the European Association for Geochemistry's Urey Medal (name for the isotope dating pioneer). Broecker's most influential single paper has been cited in scholarly publications more than 25,000 times.

Broecker started his career as a geochemist specializing in carbon dating. His major achievements, as summarized in talks by George H. Denton of the University of Maine and Michael L. Bender of Princeton University, have included the following:

--his leadership in charting the chemical composition and age of ocean waters at all depths, worldwide

--his discovery of what he dubbed The Great Ocean Conveyor, a giant current that loops across the South Pacific and South Atlantic and then heads north to what Denton called its "weak spot" near Greenland, where warm surface waters cool and drop, to return saltier to the southern hemisphere

--his discovery and analysis with Ewing and Heezen of a sudden cold snap 11,000 years ago, an event he later called "the big chill"

--his postulation, based on study of glacial moraines in both the northern and southern hemispheres, of a bipolar climatic seesaw, such that when the North is colder the South is warmer, and vice versa

Broecker was a leader in Geosecs (see photo), a large-scale global program to measure just about everything in the oceans that could be identified. In 1975, a time when there was much concern about global cooling, Broecker predicted that a combination of natural climatic variability and human-generated greenhouse gases would soon make for global warming. In 1979 he estimated that about half of the carbon dioxide put into the atmosphere by humans is soaked up by the oceans, a finding that has stood up well as precise measurements have been taken worldwide. Having focused early in his career on the abruptness with which each ice age ended, Broecker developed a theory about those terminations, in which he detailed the salient aspects of the problem. Though his initial theory has not held up, said Bender, his analysis of how to attack the problem remains foundational, "150 papers later." And though evidence has mounted that the initiating event in the Young Dryas cooling was a meteor strike, not Broecker's spontaneous breaking of a natural dam, his Big Chill scenario remains a chilling reminder of Europe's particular vulnerability to catastrophic climate change.

Quite a story for somebody who at age 20 was attending a small denominational school where you couldn't smoke, drink, dance or play cards, who had no idea really what he wanted to do with his life, and was thinking of becoming an actuary.

A lot of kind and generous things were said on Friday by colleagues, friends and eminences, including Al Gore, who sent a video tribute. But the most telling words, perhaps, came from Columbia President Lee Bollinger. He recalled how several years ago, upon the inauguration of a new geochemistry building at Lamont Doherty (featuring an especially ritzy office for Broecker), Broecker said (in front of a mike) he supposed he should thank Bollinger, but really Bollinger and just been obstructive and unhelpful. Bollinger observed that in any other kind of organization Broecker would have been fired. But speaking as a specialist in free speech, Bollinger wanted to remind himself and everybody else what the point of free speech is:

Every once in a while somebody comes along who thinks differently from everybody else. Free speech protects that person, so that eventually everybody else may think differently too.

POSTSCRIPT: Coincidentally, earlier this month, another Columbia-affiliated climate scientist, James Hansen of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, also was honored with a prize: the 2010 Sophie Prize, in recognition of "his clear communication of the threat posed by climate change and for his genuine commitment to future generations." Hansen also would be a clear contender for a Nobel Prize in geoscience, if such a prize existed. In his case the prize would have been for his construction of one of the first credible models of how global temperatures will be affected by rising greenhouse gas levels--a model whose results have held up well with time, despite its simplicity and relatively low computational requirements.

New York City Leads World in Hybrid Bus Adoption

Denmark and Germany led the world in development and adoption of modern wind turbine technology. Until recently, photovoltaics was driven mainly by the generous production credits provided by Germany's forward-looking feed-in tariff law. Conventional fast trains invented in France and Germany have been the path breakers worldwide, while the Japanese pioneered bullets. As for light-rail mass transit, the United States is simply nowheresville--just about any subway car running on any U.S. city line is built in Japan, Canada, or Europe. So it comes as rather a pleasant surprise to learn that in one area of advanced green transportation--hybrid buses--a U.S. municipality is actually ahead of the world pack.

By June this year New York City will have 1,675 hybrid buses workings its streets, which makes it  the world leader in terms of the number of hybrid buses it has brought into service, according to panelists at a recent briefing sponsored by the New York chapter of the IEEE Vehicular Technology Society. The NYC buses, all BAE Orion VIIs, are diesel series-drive hybrids. The earlier models (675) are equipped with lead-acid batteries, the more recently acquired (690) with lithium-ion ones--the former weigh about 3,000 pounds, the latter just 800 lbs.

Not only are the hybrids operating in New York and other major cities, they're actually made in the United States. A key factor, says Jerry Higgins, who until recently was in charge of bus procurement in New York, is the buy-America--or even buy-in-state--provision. The Orion buses are made by BAE and Daimler in Johnson City, in upstate New York. The other two U.S. manufacturers are GM Allison, which makes a parallel-drive diesel bus, and ISE, which has a gasoline hybrid. ISE, located in San Diego, developed the gasoline bus with that city specifically in mind, because Southern California's clean air regulations bar acquisition of diesel buses of any kind.

It's not hard to see why hybrid buses are all the rage in cities like New York--they're for all practical purposes the only kind of new bus the city is buying, says Higgins--despite their higher cost ($550,000, say, versus about $400,00 for a standard bus). They are much quieter, emit 90 percent less particulate and 50 percent less NOx, and give  carbon reductions in direct proportion to their lower fuel usage. That can vary widely, depending on routes characteristics and a particular driver's habits: "No two drivers handle the bus the same way"; depending particularly on braking style, "one driver might get 5 mpg, another 8," said another panelist. San Diego's ISE claims average fuel usage of 7.2 mpg, versus 3-4 with a CNG bus.

Graphene Solar Cells Loom

The graphite tip of a pencil wouldn't be of much use for collecting solar energy, but a one atom thick sheet of that same construct of carbon-known as graphene-sure would. Carbon-based solar cells, if made to be commercially viable and efficient, would be a boon for the renewable energy sector; carbon is as abundant an element as one can find, and could eliminate some of the problems of silicon and other materials currently used in photovoltaic cells.

The problem to this point, though, has been that sheets of graphene tend to stick to each other easily, and sheets made up of many carbon atoms tend to be difficult to work with. Researchers at Indiana University, however, recently managed to create sheets with 168 atoms that they could keep away from other sheets. They accomplished the feat by adding hydrocarbon "arms" extending at approximately right angles from the edges of the sheet. Two of these arms generally will cover each side of the graphene, preventing other nearby sheets from sticking to it.

Their compound was also highly soluble, an important characteristic if they are to be used in solar cells. The authors wrote that the 168 atoms in their sheets are the most in a soluble graphene sheet to-date. They reported a solubility of up to 30 mg/mL in "various common organic solvents, such as chloroform, tetrahydrofuran, or toluene."

Of course, this isn't the first time that graphene has been touted as a solar cell savior. Even though the new version was able to absorb energy in the range from 200 to 900 nm, turning that energy into electricity isn't an easy process.

"Harvesting energy from the sun is a prerequisite step," said Liang-shi Li, the lead researcher on the project, in a press release. "How to turn the energy into electricity is the next. We think we have a good start."

Image by Liang-shi Li.

Green Economics

If you're still on the fence as to whether carbon-reduction policies are called for, or whether direct regulation, a carbon tax or cap-and-trade is the best approach, then you won't want to miss Krugman's article in this week's Sunday Times magazine. Krugman explains the basic principles of environmental economics in easy-to-understand language, and forcefully states the case for climate action: "We're not talking about a few more hot days in the summer and bit less snow in the winter; we're talking about massively disruptive events, like the transformation of the Southwestern United States into a permanent dust bowl over the next few decades."

Citing a Congressional Budget Office analysis of the climate bill that the U.S. House passed last year, Krugman estimates that it would merely trim U.S. economic growth from 2.4 percent to 2.31 percent per year during the four decades from 2010 to 2050. The estimated global growth penalty would be even smaller, because countries like China produce energy inefficiently and can more easily improve performance and cleanliness.

Krugman might have made the case even more forcefully if he had observed that the world's major breadbaskets could end up getting much too much or much too little water as the century wears on, if global warming goes unchecked. (What we're REALLY talking about is the ability of the world to feed its 7, 8 or 9 billion people.) And he might have been a little more critical of the U.S. acid rain program: Its cap-and-trade system resulted in much more coal stripping in Montana's Powder River basin and West Virginia mountaintops, as detailed in my book, Kicking the Carbon Habit. (A drawback to cap-and-trade unmentioned by Krugman is that it can produced undesirable secondary consequences.)

The particularly acute concluding section of Krugman's article deals with the pitfalls and drawbacks of cost-benefit analysis as a guide to long-term climate policy. He notes, for example, that standard estimates of gains may be overstated because a lot of warming is already "baked in," as he puts it. Conversely, if we don't take action a lot of bad things will continue to happen well beyond 2100--the usual end-point in C/B calculations--and so, "if you place a significant weight on the really, really distant future, the case for action is stronger."

But there's the rub, as he goes on to argue. Technical economists and economic philosophers are deeply divided on the question of what the thinkers call "time preference" and the technicians "discounting." If too much or too little weight is put on the welfare of future people, absurd conclusions result. So, says Krugman, it may be better to rely on an insurance model: rather than take cost-benefit analyses too seriously, policy might better be based on insurance principles--we should take actions now to reduce the possibility of catastrophic events occurring in the future.

That's the better way to go, I'd agree, but it too begs some questions. When we insure our houses against total loss, as we're required to do when we get a mortgage, the amount we buy is based on the estimated replacement cost of the house, which in turn is based on objective market values. But we can't insure ourselves against total loss of Earth, and even if we could, we wouldn't know how to value its (inestimable) worth. So how much insurance should we buy? One possible answer is that we should buy as much as we can afford. But what happens when we start discussing how much we can afford? We find ourselves getting sucked right back into cost-benefit analysis--which is what happens to Krugman too!

South Africa Gets Big World Bank Loan for Controversial Energy Project

At the end of last week the board of the World Bank approved a $3.75 billion loan, most of which will go to build one of the world's largest coal-fired generating plants. The project had come under mounting fire from environmental leaders around the world and from the Obama administration, which wants to discourage international lenders from financing new coal plants. In the last 15 years, public lenders like the World Bank have funded $37 billion in 88 coal-fired plants in developing countries, according to a report cited in a New York Times article. And  as noted in a recent blog post here, South Africa's government has come under increasing criticism at home too, because its heavy investment in energy will burden future generations with a high level of indebtedness and present-day ratepayers with much higher electricity costs.

Eskom, the leading national energy company, is embarked on a $50 billion program to boost capacity, which could result in electricity prices rising 25 percent per year for three straight years.

The World Bank, defending its position, points out that large solar and wind projects also will financed out of the loan, and that South Africa has pledged to cut its greenhouse gas emissions 34 percent by 2020--twice the U.S. pledge, for what that's worth. The U.S. government, for its part, wants the World Bank to only fund projects in the future that are at least carbon-neutral.

No Joke: Extending Solar's Lease on Life

A notorious economics joke has optimistic implications for solar energy and its decades-long dreams of matching the cost of the electricity now flowing on power grids -- the vaunted grid parity that is most renewable energy advocates' image of the singularity that will free us from climate change and the anti-democratic effects of centralized power. In the joke an economist, physicist and chemist are stranded, starving, on a remote island when a can of soup washes ashore. The physicist proposes smashing it open with a rock, and the chemist wants to build a fire, heat the can and blast it open. The economist offers a simpler solution: “Let’s assume," he says, "that we have a can opener."

The joke isn't the work of a frustrated, underfunded physical scientist, but rather the Nobel-prize winning American economist Paul Samuelson. His joke provides an admission: Economists rely on a bevy of assumptions about people and their tools to reduce a complex world to dollars-and-cents and those assumptions can be wrong, rendering economic theories and projections of limited practical value. Solar advocates have begun to argue that its time for economists to reassess an assumption underpinning cost estimates for power from photovoltaics: the expected lifetime of a solar panel.

Accelerated-aging tests of solar panels installed a decade ago with 20-year lifetime warranties predict that 90% will still be operating at the 30-year point according to this BBC report on research by Heinz Ossenbrink at the EU Energy Institute. Ken Zweibel, director of George Washington University's Solar Institute, tells me he's betting that panels produced today warranted for 30 years will be working decades longer--albeit at roughly 30% lower power output. "My belief is that it will be 60 years," says Zweibel. 

If researchers such as Zweibel and Ossenbrink are right, the up-front cost of producing and installing photovoltaics today should be amortized over a longer useful lifetime, and a much larger number of kilowatt-hours of power generation. That will lower the estimated cost per kilowatt-hour. Combined with remarkable reductions in manufacturing costs achieved in recent years -- a 40% reduction since just the middle of last year according to authors from Applied Materials writing last month in Photovoltaics World magazine -- Ossenbrink predicts that solar will hit grid-parity across Europe within a decade.

That would be one heck of a can opener.

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