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Durban Climate Conference: Do We Need a Supercommittee?

A highly noted student of foreign relations, following the U.S. debacle in Vietnam, wrote a book with the rather odd  title: "The Irony of Vietnam: The System Worked." Something of the same might be said of the famous--or, if you prefer, notorious--Kyoto Protocol. The industrial countries that promised toward the end of the 1990s to cut their emissions by a total of 5-6 percent by 2012 have in fact largely succeeded in doing so, and that's no mean accomplishment. Yet their reductions have been swamped by soaring emissions by the very rapidly developing countries, notably China, which are exempted from mandatory reductions in Kyoto.

Nobody really knows what to do about that, diplomatically or otherwise. And so, as the nations of the world gathered this week for the latest annual climate conference, expectations could hardly have been lower. In principle the top item on the agenda would be to negotiate new reduction targets for a second Kyoto compliance period, running to 2020. But given the radical differences between the United States and China, nobody expects that to happen.

An immediate fear this week is that if Kyoto becomes in effect a dead letter, what will happen to the carbon trading systems that have developed under the aegis of Kyoto--the carbon-offset system, linked to the so-called Clean Development Mechanism, which enables those emitting excessively in the industrial countries to invest offset money in green energy projects in the developing world; and the European Trading System, which in practice is closely linked to the CDM. Reputedly, a very large fraction of the money going into the CDM comes out of the ETS.

Even if these fears are essentially exaggerated and groundless, their very existence could have an adverse impact on markets. "It's like somebody waving an empty gun around in a coffee shop," the director of the Climate Markets & Investment Association told the Financial Times yesterday. "It scares off customers even if there are no bullets."

If anything big comes out of Durban, it''s likely to originate in hallway conversation, not the plenary negotiating sessions. In the runup to last year's conference in Cancun, there emerged a group of important developing countries--a group somewhat more inclusive than the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China). A still larger version of the group could include not just South Africa and Argentina, but Mexico, Turkey, Indonesia, and so on. Perhaps a group of that kind could somehow bridge the gap between the very big, very rapidly developing countries like China and India, on the one hand, and the United States, on the other.

Some have suggested the answer might lie in direct bilateral talks between the United States and China. But even if those two countries could agree on anything, wouldn't all the important countries left out of the discussion regard the outcome with suspicion and resentment?

Maybe a better model is the Congressional Supercommittee--six U.S Democrats and six Republicans--who were supposed to agree on big budget balancing measures, or drastic spending cuts would result. What's generally referred to as the super-failure of that committee means that there will be sharp cuts in defense spending, which almost everybody recognizes as necessary but nobody wants to take responsibility for. So: create a global committee consisting of three China-like countries and three U.S.-like countries. If it fails--which it almost certainly would--then mandatory carbon emission targets result for  all!

Large Solar Project Proceeds on a Commercial Basis

For years I've been saying that no big photovoltaic project ever goes forward without big government subsidies. So as far as I'm concerned it's big news that SolarCity's Solar Strong project--to outfit military residences around the country with PV arrays, at an estimated cost of up to $1 billion--has obtained private financing for the project without a Federal government guarantee.

SolarCity originally hoped and expected the Department of Energy to guarantee 80 percent of the $344 million it needed to borrow to fund the initial phase of the project. But in the wake of the Solyndra debacle, DOE announced it could not get the requisite paperwork done in time to meet a mandated deadline. But today Bank of America's Merrill Lynch announced it would put up $350 for the project, with no guarantee.

So, the big solar project appears to be going forward--"without any government help," as the San Jose Mercury News trenchantly put it.

If "without any government help" happens to mean anything other than without any government help, we will be grateful if some alert reader will immediately correct the record. Otherwise it would seem that for the first time, anywhere in the world, a large solar project is proceeding without public subsidy.

SolarCity's plan is to outfit as many as 120,000 military homes with solar arrays in 33 states. The combined solar megawattage may come to 300 MW, about the capacity of a standard coal or natural gas generating plant--not small by any standard. The first installations already are taking place at the Pearl Harbor base in Hawaii. The next are expected in states with relatively high electricity prices.

Settlement in U.K. Sheds Little Light on Wind Turbine Noise Issues

A couple in the United Kingdom has settled a lawsuit against wind farm owners claiming their lives were severely disrupted by the noise from the nearby turbines. The terms of the settlement are "strictly confidential," according to the Telegraph, meaning that this case won't provide much insight into the ongoing issues surrounding wind turbine noise.

The couple, who lived on a farm in Deeping St. Nicholas, about 100 miles north of London, complained of an "unbearable hum" from the turbines installed in 2006. They were seeking damages and compensation for their home and farm that they said lowered dramatically in value due to the noise. The settlement terms will remain sealed.

Noise complaints have dogged wind developers in a number of locations over the years, with conflicting data on exactly how loud turbines can be and how damaging the noise is to human health. A study commissioned by the American Wind Energy Association found no problems with noise, but groups opposed to wind power such as the Industrial Wind Action Group are vehement in their claims of noise-related problems.

One independent study by the Department of Energy published in December 2009 concluded that property values are unaffected nearby turbines for reasons including noise. A Minnesota Department of Health report, also from 2009, noted that decibel restrictions overlook some low-frequency noise from turbines that can affect people, especially indoors while sleeping.

Generally, it seems the noise issues don't travel past about half a mile or so, so simply building wind farms a bit away from residences might negate these issues from cropping up. Of course, that isn't always possible, especially in densely populated countries, so it seems unlikely that turbine noise complains will disappear any time soon.

(Image via Dave Rogers/Flickr)

 

A Superconducting Surge Protector for the Grid

Nearly a quarter of a century ago a new class of superconductors--the so-called high-temperature superconductors--was announced to great fanfare at a New York City physics meeting. The new superonductors lost all electrical resistance at temperatures obtainable with liquid hydrogen or liquid nitrogen; before long, scientists predicted, more tinkering would yield materials that superonducted at room temperatures. And soon too, the evolving new materials would find wide applications in power systems, as transmission cable and in transformers, turbines, and motors.

As it happens, two decades later we have remarkably little to show for all that. Room-temperature superconducting materials have not been discovered or invented, and power applications have been few and far between. A few lengths of superconducting cable have been placed in service in operating systems, with a number of new projects announced this year, and the U.S. Navy has built a succession of motors for ships. But the materials have not found wide application, and most major power system components--notably transformers and turbines--continue to be made from conventional materials.

An exception is the fault current limiter (FCL), a device that does pretty much what it says: Constrain surge currents in the grid. There are two kinds: reactive FCLs, consisting essentially of inductive coils; and resistive. In the reactive FCL, use of superconductor allows for a smaller core, but the superconducting property of the conductor otherwise makes no contribution to the operation of the device. (Two such devices were described in IEEE Spectrum feature articles, in the 1990s.) In the resistive FCL, however, the superconducting property is crucial.

Earlier this month, three leading companies in superconductor applications--France's Nexans, Germany's Siemens, and American Superconductor (AMSC)--put a prototype device through its paces at Powertech's laboratories near Vancouver, British Columbia. The device "passed all tests to validate its performance," says Jack McCall, managing director, superconducting power systems, AMSC. That is to say, in the jargon of the trade, it was "qualified."

The new superconducting resistive fault current limiter, unlike reactive precursors, is designed for use at transmission system voltages (64 kV and above), not just distribution voltages. A length of superconducting cable is wired in parallel to a resistive or reactive element, depending on what the situation requires. When a surge current enters the superconductor, it turns resistive and acts as a very fast switch, shunting the current to the parallel element.

What's next? The three companies would like to find a utility to help it build a working prototype that would be tested in an operational situation.

Meanwhile, a project AMSC has with Con Edison in New York City to install a device connecting an old and new substation appears to be getting back on track. The idea was to develop and install superconducting cables that would connect substations in a much tighter mesh, so that if stations or feeder cables fail, power can be instantly rerouted. Delayed because the originally intended project tanked with the economy, a new project now has been identified, and so the project is going forward again, says McCall.

 

Million-Tonne Carbon Sequestration Project Begins in Illinois

The Midwest Geological Sequestration Consortium (MGSC) has begun injecting carbon dioxide into a sandstone formation under Decatur, Illinois, as part of one of the country's first large-scale carbon sequestration projects.

The project, which is run by the Illinois State Geological Survey -- part of the Prairie Research Institute at the University of Illinois -- will inject one million tonnes of CO2 over the next three years into a rock formation that lies 7,000 feet beneath the surface. They say there are several layers of shale above the CO2 injection zone that will keep the injected gas in place permanently. The Mt. Simon sandstone has a CO2 storage capacity of somewhere between 11 billion and 151 billion metric tonnes. The CO2 is being captured from a plant producing ethanol.

This project is part of a Department of Energy-funded initiative known as the Regional Carbon Sequestration Partnerships. According to a press release from the MGSC, DOE office of Fossil Energy COO Chuck McConnell said:

"Establishing long-term, environmentally safe and secure underground CO2 storage is a critical component in achieving successful commercial deployment of carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) technology. This injection test project by MGSC, as well as those undertaken by other FE regional partnerships, are helping confirm the great potential and viability of permanent geologic storage as an important option in climate change mitigation strategies."

The ongoing efforts toward carbon capture and sequestration remain a controversial topic, especially as high-profile projects continue to bow out due to overwhelming costs. Most recently, the Longannet CCS project in Scotland was cancelled, and in the U.S. a major project in West Virginia also bit the dust. Whether these DOE projects aimed at confirming the feasibility of sequestration help push the field along remains to be seen.

(Image of sandstone thickness in Illinois basin via MGSC)

Top Energy Experts Focus on Efficiency

Sometimes when you throw a bunch of miscellaneous balls in the air just to see what happens, something interesting actually happens. Such was the case this last Friday, when the Economist magazine assembled a dozen energy specialists--four in the UK, four in Brazil, and four in the US—and invited them to ruminate and ramble for 90 minutes about what lies ahead.

What was striking about the conversation--considering that we are still digesting the impact of Fukushima on nuclear prospects, the revolution in "unconventional gas," and the business crisis in solar energy—was how much of it centered on something else entirely, namely energy efficiency.

Perhaps this should not have been so surprising. A major technology assessment produced for the White House during George W. Bush's presidency found that improvements in efficiency have by far the biggest potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while keeping demand and supply of energy in balance. Evidently those in the know are of much the same opinion.

Energy efficiency is the "least sexy kind of energy so it's under-appreciated and under-invested," said Gregory Kats, president of Energy E. Thus, with proper incentives, its growth potential ought to be enormous.

One problem, when it comes to leveraging the smart grid in order to persuade consumers and help consumers use electricity more sensibly, is that power accounts for a small fraction of their expenditures: In the United States only 1.7 percent of the average household budget goes for electricity, said Alex Laskey, president of Opower. So consumers are not very responsive to price signals and need more to change their behavior.

Of the Americans who have programmable thermostats, said another, 70 percent do not know how to program them.

So far, most advances in improved efficiency have been in industry, among the companies that are really big energy consumers. "The industrial sector has in fact led the charge in demand response, load management, and energy efficiency management," said John Norris of FERC. Yet supply-side efficiency still is neglected, complained Joan MacNaughton, an eminent energy policy specialist in the UK. Tougher mandated standards will be essential, she said.

Sometimes favorable policy outcomes will be the result of serendiipity, observed Brazil's José Goldemberg, a former environment minister. There has been an enormous improvement in Sao Paulo's air quality because of flex-fuel vehicles, and yet that benefit was not really the reason the government decided to promote cars that could run on different combinations of cane ethanol and gasoline.

Given the nationalities of the participants, contributions tended to reflect national preoccupations: Brazil's with biofuels, America's with underinvestment in grid improvements, Britain's with climate. Yet the general theme connecting many disparate observations was that economic growth does not have to imply environmental degradation, partly because of growing energy efficiency, partly because of cleaner energy production. Since 1990, The Economist pointed out at the outset, global energy consumption has increased 45 percent but greenhouse gas emissions just 36 percent.

UN Panel Predicts More Extreme Heat, Drought and Precipitation

Contemplating the prolonged heat wave and drought that afflicted much of Texas through last summer, you would have to be an extreme climate change skeptic not to wonder whether global warming was playing a role. Instead skeptics have preferred to focus on unseasonable winter events, like the freak snowstorm that swept the U.S. Northeast in late October or the immense record-setting blizzard that swept the Mid-Atlantic states in January last year.

Actually, both kinds of events are consistent with what we should expect with continued global warming, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported this week.

"It is virtually certain that increases in the frequency and magnitude of warm daily temperature extremes and decreases in cold extremes will occur in the 21st century on the global scale," the report says. "It is very likely that the length, frequency and/or intensity of warm spells, or heat waves, will increase over most land areas. . . [A] 1-in-20 year hottest day is likely to become a 1-in-2 year event by the end of the 21st century in most regions, except in the high latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere, where it is likely to become a 1-in-5 year event."

Further, "It is likely that the frequency of heavy precipitation or the proportion of total rainfall from heavy falls will increase in the 21st century over many areas of the globe. This is particularly the case in the high latitudes and tropical regions, and in winter in the northern mid-latitudes." In other words, temperate regions will see more winter precipitation, including snowfall. In more tropical zones, '[h]eavy rainfalls associated with tropical cyclones are likely to increase with continued warming," though the frequency of cyclones and hurricanes is not expected to increase as such.

Surveying weather records going back to 1950, the IPCC finds "It is very likely that there has been an overall decrease in the number of cold days and nights, and an overall increase in the number of warm days and nights, on the global scale, i.e., for most land areas with sufficient data. It is likely that these changes have also occurred at the continental scale in North America, Europe, and Australia." Regarding rainfall, "There have been statistically significant trends in the number of heavy precipitation events in some regions. It is likely that more of these regions have experienced increases than decreases, although there are strong regional and subregional variations in these trends."

Readers will note that because of the criticism the IPCC has cone under for not hedging its forecasts with suitable qualifiers about confidence intervals, the panel has taken special care in this report to say whether its findings and forecasts are very likely, probable, or merely possible. This is especially so when it comes to the human contribution to global warming and its effects.

Thus, the report says: "It is likely that anthropogenic influences have led to warming of extreme daily minimum and maximum temperatures on the global scale. There is medium confidence that anthropogenic influences have contributed to intensification of extreme precipitation on the global scale. It is likely that there has been an anthropogenic influence on increasing extreme coastal high water due to increase in mean sea level. The uncertainties in the historical tropical cyclone records, the incomplete understanding of the physical mechanisms linking tropical cyclone metrics to climate change, and the degree of tropical cyclone variability provide only low confidence for the attribution of any detectable changes in tropical cyclone activity to anthropogenic influences."

Readers may want to consult for themselves the rather complex charts at the bottom of the IPCC documents showing how it expects the probability distributions for various types of events to shift with global warming in this century.

Summarizing the findings, Thomas Stocker, cochairman of the working group that produced the report, put it like this for the press release that accompanied the report: "For the high emissions scenario, it is likely that the frequency of hot days will increase by a factor of 10 in most regions of the world. Likewise, heavy precipitation will occur more often, and the wind speed of tropical cyclones will increase while their number will likely remain constant or decrease."

South Korea Opens World's Biggest Fuel Cell Park

A company caled FuelCell Energy announced that its 11.2 megawatt "fuel cell park" is open for business in Daegu City in South Korea. The facility houses four of FuelCell's 2.8 MW devices, and provides the power to a utility in the region. The heat generated by the fuel cells is also being used by a wastewater treatment facility.

Taehyoung Kim, of FuelCell's Korean partner company POSCO Power, touted the fuel cells' ability to balance out grid variability. "Distributing a number of multi-megawatt fuel cell parks throughout an electrical service area enhances power reliability and energy security for electric utilities and their customers," he said in a press release.

There seems to be a growing interest in this sort of installation especially in South Korea, and the "world's largest" title might not last all that long. In April of this year, several companies signed a memorandum of understanding to build a 15 MW fuel cell plant, with plans to expand it to 60 MW.

I asked a spokesperson for FuelCell Energy about their installations and orders in the U.S., and he told me there are a few installations already running in the 2-4 MW range, including one on the U.C San Diego campus that uses purified biogas as its source fuel. As of the end of July, the company has a backlog of 78.5 MW that they're working on delivering, so there is certainly movement on this front.

Overall though, the fuel cell realm has been relatively quiet since early 2010 when the hype over the Bloom Box was at its highest. Bloom Energy has quietly been installing -- or announcing plans to install -- its devices for a number of companies and facilities though, including a number of AT&T locations, the arena for the San Jose Sharks, and Adobe's headquarters. We may see a few more grid-connected, power plant style fuel cell installations like those in South Korea come online, but it seems that individual companies that want to be a little bit more grid-independent will remain fuel cell companies' primary customers.

(Image of Daegu City installation via FuelCell Energy)

How Canada Should Return Obama's Oil Pipeline Punt

Late last week President Barack Obama deferred consideration of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, designed to ship Alberta petroleum to the Gulf Coast, until after next year's U.S. elections. Obama's move immediately sparked vows in Canada to redirect crude exports to Asian markets less angst-ridden by the environmental impacts associated with tapping Alberta's tough, tarry petroleum. A smarter strategy would be to reduce those impacts, starting with the black mark that brought Keystone XL to national attention: oil sands crude's bloated carbon footprint.

The oil sands are already in the midst of a radical technology shift, as open-pit mines give way to drilling to reach the 80 percent of Alberta's bitumen reserves buried too deep to reach from the surface. So far that transition has boosted energy consumption, as so-called in situ extraction sites pump 250°C steam into the ground to melt the bitumen in place and then suck a steam-bitumen mix to the surface. Burning fossil fuels to make steam gives fuels refined from in situ bitumen a carbon footprint 2-3 times greater than gasoline refined from conventional crude.

There is, however, a cooler way to extract deep bitumen: dissolving the buried bitumen in place rather than melting it. My feature report in the November/December issue of MIT's Technology Review magazine profiles two companies -- oil sands leader Cenovus Energy and Calgary-based upstart N-Solv -- that are using lighter hydrocarbons such as propane and butane to extract and recover bitumen.

Cenovus has achieved a 15 percent reduction in energy use per barrel of bitumen with a hybrid extraction method combining butane and steam, and says optimizing the process could cut another 15 percent. N-Solv is testing a purely solvent-based process, eliminating steam altogether in a bid to slash greenhouse gas emissions per barrel by 80-90 percent. Imagine the impact on the oil sands pipeline debate.

If evoking such a radical shift in performance sounds pollyannish, consider recent trends in water usage by in situ bitumen producers. Over the past five years or so they have stopped using potable surface waters for steam generation, tapping deep saline acquifers instead; they also began to heavily recycle water. Last year Cenovus' Christina Lake site, which I visited for Technology Review, used over 5000 cubic meters of water per day, of which less than 4 percent was potable.

The lesson is simple: oil sands extraction is a young industry capable of rapid improvement when government raises the bar and demands change. Alberta's Energy Resources Conservation Board told in situ producers to slash water use, and they jumped to it. With an equally tough approach to greenhouse gas emissions -- be it through mandates or a carbon tax/price -- Canadians can respond meaningfully to their critics.

In fact, only such change from within can save the oil sands industry according to environmentalists and even some industry sources in Calgary that I interviewed this fall. The onus is on Alberta says Jason Switzer, director of corporate consulting for the Pembina Institute, the Calgary-based environmental think-tank that has been the oil sands industry’s closest and toughest critic for more than a quarter of a century: "The government needs to show it’s willing to kick some shins. Because otherwise Keystone XL and pipelines to the coast may not get approved and the oil sands will just be a nice small side business for a few large companies, instead of developing to the scale the province would like to achieve.” 

John Nenniger, the founder and CEO of N-Solv, was less diplomatic. Nenniger called today's energy-wasting oil sands producers, "an accident waiting to happen if they don’t evolve quickly."

The U.S. has even more to gain than Canada from a cleaner oil sands industry. The upgrade would  encourage the world's biggest consumer of petroleum to access more of its imported oil from a neighbor that has been consistently stable, democratic, and friendly. Those are abnormally good qualifiers for an oil supplier, encouraging a path towards taming one of the biggest elephants in U.S. budget debates: military spending to secure the Middle East.

The Next 25 Years in Energy

The latest annual energy outlook by the International Energy Agency, though not radically different from earlier editions in broad outline, nonetheless paints a very dramatic picture of the next quarter century.

The global oil market will remain tight, with prices trending toward $120 per barrel, and with all new net demand coming from the transport sector in rapidly developing countries. Though Russia's role as an oil producer and exporter will decline somewhat, its position in natural gas will be more pivotal than ever, with a fast-growing share going to China and a somewhat shrinking share to Europe. So crucial is the role of Russia, the report contains for the first time a special section devoted to it and has posted that section, in Russian, on the report's homepage.

Like previous outlooks, this one distinguishes between a business as usual scenario and a New Policies Scenario in which governments generally try to curtail consumption of fossil fuels and promote green energy; it appears to consider the New Policies Scenario (NPS) the more likely one. Even in NPS, however, fossil fuels remain dominant for the next 25 years and renewables continue to account for only about 10 percent of total world primary energy demand, thought their share of electricity production grows sharply.

Some of the report's most compelling highlights are displayed in a free-standing document containing ten charts, which is well worth a look even if time is lacking to study the whole report. For example, those subscribing to that theory that oil accounted for the decision of George W. Bush's administration to launch a second Gulf War will find Figure 3.17 arresting: Among the countries expected to make large additions to the world's liquid fuel supplies in the next quarter century, Iraq leads the pack by a healthy margin and is well of ahead of Saudia Arabia and total world biofuels. Other highlights incude:

• with oil production declining in all existing fields, an increasing share of liquid fuels will come from natural gas liquids and oil sands

• despite all the current concern about the prospect of declining subsidies for renewable energy, the 2011 NPS  predicts that total renewables subsidies will increase to $250 billion in 2035, from $66 billion in 2010; European subsidies will increase only modestly from a big base, U.S. subsidies more rapidly from a smaller base, and "rest of world" subsidies more rapidly still from an even smaller base

• in terms of power generation, NPS expects additions of renewable energy to roughly equal additions of gas and coal combined, with nuclear accounting for a considerably smaller share of increases

• even so, NPS sees a relatively robust future for nuclear, with the long-term Fukushima impact rather surprisingly small

• looking at where we are right now and how we got here, the Outlook finds that in the last decade, coal has met almost half of new demand for energy, roughly equally all other sources of energy

Mainly because coal is still so dominant, the Outlook finds prospects for greenhouse gas reduction rather grim. While the world is supposedly still committed to limiting the additional increase in global temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius, the Outlook concludes that on a business as usual scenario, the increase will be 6 °C. In the NPS scenario, the temperature rise is held to 3.5 °C, a prospect that is not comforting. Accordingly, the IEA also evaluates a third scenario, a 450-ppm one--that is, one in which the atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide goes no higher than 445 ppm, and the rise in temperature no higher than 2 °C.

Achieving the NPS scenario, implying a temperature rise almost twice as great as what the world supposedly wants, would require energy investment of $38 trillion over the next 25 years. The 450-ppm scenario requires a $15 trillion more--that is, $53 rather than 38 trillion.

Even at that level of investment, in the 450 scenario four-fifths of total CO2 emissions in 2035 already are "locked in" by capital stock existing today. "As each year passes without clear signals to drive investment in clean energy, the 'lock-in' of high-carbon infrastructure is making it harder and more expensive to meet our future energy needs and climate goals," said Fatih Birol, IEA Chief Economist.

 

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