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End of Energy Policy (2)

Looking at the over of the most recent New York Review of Books, the rather high-brow publication read mainly by academics and academic wannabes, you might trip over the headline, "Energy: Friend or Foe?" It looks more like something you'd expect to see in a London tabloid, or maybe a cheap sci-fi thriller. Actually the reference is to a review article by William D. Nordhaus of Yale University, an economist well known as an expert on the costs and benefits of alternative climate policy approaches.

My first assumption was the the headline was the work of an over-zealous editor (somebody, that is, like me), but No: the question is a literal rendition of Nordhaus's own first sentence.

His point is that while modern life would be inconceivable without ample energy, in recent decades its production and consumption has also come to be seen as a menace, because of all its sundry negative effects on the environment and public health, first and foremost the accumulation of greenhouse gases steadily aggravating the risks of dangerous climate change.

Taking his cues from Michael J. Graetz of Columbia University, a top expert on tax law, and a National Research Council report, "The Hidden Costs of Energy," Nordhaus argues that U.S. energy policy since 1973 has consistently failed because U.S. political leaders always shy away from the one essential thing, which is to make basic energy prices fully reflect social costs. (The shortcomings of U.S. energy policy have been especially glaring of late, I recently argued here.)

Drawing on figures from the NRC report, Nordhaus that if prices reflected those costs, coal-generated electricity would cost on average 70 percent more, natural gas used for heating 42 percent more, and oil in transportation 25 percent more.

Nordhaus is far from the first to make that point, of course. Perhaps the more interesting and provocative part of his article draws on his own research, which has shown that the world market for oil is almost perfect from an economist's point of view: Any change in the price for any kind of oil any place in the world is almost immediately and fully reflected in the global price.

It follows, he argues, that gasoline prices in the United States have nothing to do whatsoever with how large a fraction of their oil Americans import. The prices depend exclusively on the global price of oil. His conclusion is that "oil policy should focus on world production and consumption and not on the portion we import, and should focus as well on the externalities from our consumption  the [social costs] in the form of pollution and global warming."

That argument deserves serious consideration. Those consulting the print article should not be put off, early on, by a rather hilarious error: The average American, it said in the hard copy, consumes the equivalent of 40 million tons of  coal per year. Whether it was an over-zealous editor or Nordhaus himself who committed that blooper, it's been corrected online. The intended number is 40 tons per year. 

Radar Systems A Solution to Wind Power's Bird and Bat Problem?

A common concern with wind farms is that they can kill birds and bats flying through. The most high profile example is the Altamont Pass farm in California, where golden eagles and other species have had trouble navigating the tightly packed turbines. A company called DeTect, though, thinks they have a way to mitigate wind energy's impacts on birds and bats.

The Merlin Avian Radar System plants a radar transmitter in the midst of a wind farm, and looks out for migratory birds that might be passing through. If it sees some and determines they might fly into the midst of the turbines, it can automatically shut down the turbines in question to allow the birds' safe passage. A couple of these systems are already up and running, at wind farms in Texas (pictured).

The system has a range of 2-6 miles, meaning if a group of migratory birds are on their way, there should be ample time to shut down the wind farm until they're through (it takes less than one minute to get them down below 1 RPM, and five minutes to get them all off completely). I spoke with Helen Lewis, a company representative, at the American Wind Energy Association's Offshore Wind Expo going on in Baltimore yesterday, and she told me that their systems can also simply be connected to bird deterrent devices, like noise or light generators, to keep the birds from flying in to dangerous areas in the first place.

One problem with this idea, of course, is simply that some wind farm operators may not want to shut down the turbines every time a few birds fly into their midst. But if there are spots where bird issues might prevent a wind facility from going up in the first place, this type of system could allow it to move forward with a promise that it will be used as intended.

This short animation gives a good idea of how the system is meant to work:

This seems like a great idea, but it remains to be seen whether it gains any real traction among wind developers. The bird problem is certainly something worth trying to mitigate, but it is important to keep it in perspective: some experts say as many as one billion birds are killed every year from collisions with buildings, far, far outstripping any effects wind farms might have.

(Image and animation via DeTect)

Virgin Atlantic Looks to Biofuels to Halve Carbon Emissions on Some Flights

Virgin Atlantic Airways hopes that within two to three years its planes will start flying some of their long haul routes on a fuel with only half the carbon emissions of standard jet fuel.

Richard Branson's airline announced a partnership with LanzaTech, a company based in New Zealand that takes waste gases from various industrial facilities and converts them into usable fuels. The end result, theoretically, is a jet fuel that Virgin Atlantic will use on routes between London and Delhi, Shanghai, and elsewhere, with half the carbon footprint they have now.

According to Branson, in a press release:

"This partnership to produce a next generation, low-carbon aviation fuel is a major step towards radically reducing our carbon footprint, and we are excited about the savings that this technology could help us achieve....This new technology is scalable, sustainable and can be commercially produced at a cost comparable to conventional jet fuel."

Virgin Atlantic is not the first to try such schemes. Last year, we wrote here about a British Airways plan for a waste-to-jet fuel plant, and many other airlines have started to move toward biofuels as well. Of course, the standard environmental and food security arguments still surround using plants as a fuel source; the Virgin Atlantic and LanzaTech plan has the advantage of converting industrial waste gases into fuel, instead of converting food crops into biofuel production. The 50 percent carbon emissions reduction estimated here would far outstrip that of traditional biofuels, as many analyses have suggested little to no emissions savings when corn or other plants are used.

And the need to draw down emissions from air travel is indisputable. Aviation contributes an astonishing 2 to 3 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions. Any chance to cut this percentage is worth a shot.

(Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Major UK Carbon Capture and Sequestration Project on Thin Ice

The Guardian reported yesterday that a major carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) project planned in Scotland may soon bite the dust. The project, slated for the Longannet coal power station, to the northeast of Edinburgh, has been heavily supported by the government, but apparently the price tag might be too high in current economic and political conditions.

The Longannet station (pictured), owned by ScottishPower, has a massive generating capacity of more than 2300 megawatts. The idea was to capture some of the CO2 emissions and bury them under the North Sea. The collapse of this project might not bode well for the United Kingdom's CCS goals, though some officials said that this was just one project and others will still follow.

According to a recent report from the UK-based Carbon Capture and Storage Association, the government has said it will back three further projects after Longannet, due to go into operation by 2018. But even before this potential problem arose, the report noted:

"The investment case for CCS remains uncertain due to the absence of a firm timetable and a clear roadmap for how these demonstrations will enable and form part of a large scale deployment of CCS in the UK."

The report also notes that most likely 20 to 30 gigawatts of CCS-fitted power plants will have to be in operation by 2030 to meet emissions targets and a growing energy demand. If the Longannet project is any indicator, such targets seem unlikely at this point. And if this sounds familiar, the United States has not fared much better on CCS to this point. There is the ongoing nonexistence of FutureGen, as well as the recent shutdown of a CCS project at a plant in West Virginia. Attitudes remain somewhat split about whether CCS will actually prove cost-effective—and just plain effective—enough to help draw down CO2 emissions, and high profile failures or postponements such as these do little to clear the picture.

(Image via Brian Smith/Flickr)


Carbon Wedges and Carbon Wedgies

To clarify: a carbon wedgie is what Mallorcan tennis great Rafael Nadal suffers when he practices too long in the hot Mediterranean sun and his shorts get sweaty and creep up and in.

A carbon wedge is what you get when you want to avoid emitting 1 gigaton of carbon per year that you otherwise would emit 50 years from now if the world follows a business as usual path.

The wedges model, invented seven years ago by Robert Socolow and Stephen W. Pacala of Princeton University has been far and away the most influential and popular tool used in discussions of long-term climate policy. Besides providing handy reference points for back-of-the-envelope calculations, it has spun off a nice board game suitable for introducing children and grandchildren to all the fun of preventing global extinction.

Responding to what apparently was an inaccurate blog post suggesting Socolow now regretted his invention, the Princeton energy expert has published an article reaffirming his faith in the wedges tool and updating it. Because of delays in introducing effective climate policies worldwide, Socolow says it would now take nine rather seven carbon mitigation wedges to keep the human race from emitting more carbon 50 years from now than it emits today.

Socolow takes the occasion to deliver some thoughts about mitigation of climate acrimony. He says he wishes advocates of strong action had conceded that news about climate change is unwelcome, that today's climate science is incomplete, and that any suggested "solution" carries some risk. On the first point, for example, he seems to think that action advocates have suggested that if we just go green, we'll all be living once again in the best of all possible worlds.

Those considering Socolow's points—and they're well worth considering—may differ about the details. But everybody will welcome the thrust of what he’s aiming at: how to get discussion of climate science and climate policy onto a better plain, so that some people don't get a kind of carbon wedgie every time they hear talk of human-induced climate change.


Paris Unfurls EV Car-Sharing Program

Paris, the so-called City of Light, though often rainy and dreary, has been doing some really exciting things in advanced transportation. For decades, of course, it has had one of the premier subway systems, the model for similar systems the world over, producing huge revenues for French manufacturers. Four years ago the mayor of Paris introduced a citywide bicycle sharing system, Vélib, which has become hugely popular and in turn also is the model for systems elsewhere (most recently New York City). Two years ago France announced it would build a national electric vehicle charging infrastructure adequate to support 2 million plug-in hybrids and EVs by 2020.

Now, this week, Paris unveiled an electric car sharing system modeled on Vélib, the bike program. It will enter full service on December 5, with at least 250 vehicles for hire. As described in the Financial Times, "Following the Velib system, users can pick up the car at one point and drop it off at another destination, as long as they can find a dedicated parking space—something that an in-car computer system is designed to help identify." 

The electric car itself, a model of simplicity, was developed by entrepreneur Vincent Bolloré.  Dubbed the Bluecar (and not to be confused with clean-diesel technologies developed by Daimler and VW), it beat out Daimler's electric Smart and a candidate developed by Peugeot. The Bluecar was designed and will be produced by Pininfarina, in Turin, Italy, which makes the Ferrari and Maserati.

The car runs on a solid-state lithium metal polymer battery, also developed under the Bolloré group’s aegis. As described on the Bluecar’s Web site, it "can store five times more energy than a traditional battery weight for weight, and can be recharged in a matter of hours. It does not require any maintenance and has a lifespan of around 200 000 km, providing outstanding safety throughout."

Chinese Bullet Trains Carry "Black Box" Controls

In August we brought you disquieting news that Hollysys Automation, the supplier of a control system implicated in China's deadly bullet-train collision this summer, also provides controls for China's nuclear reactors (which are multiplying just as fast as its high speed rail lines). The Hollysys story now looks darker after informed speculation reported in the Wall Street Journal that the company may not fully comprehend how the control systems work [video below].

The WSJ reports that key components were supplied by Tokyo-based Hitachi without blueprints—a so-called "black box" sale. Don't confuse this black box with the data recorders that airplanes, high speed trains, and even, increasingly, automobiles carry to capture vehicle conditions during an accident. A black box sale is a means of protecting intellectual property. By keeping the buyer in the dark about the internal workings of a product, the seller hopes to prevent reverse-engineering of the equipment.

In Hollysys' and Hitachi's case, the deliberately obscure components lay within the trains' Automatic Train Protection, or ATP—a backup safety system intended to detect and prevent impending collisions. China's rail ministry awarded contracts to Hollysys to supply ATPs and other control systems for high speed trains, refusing to consider bids from foreign suppliers with more experience and sophisticated equipment. To deliver on its bid, however, Hollysys bought in technology that it lacked, from Hitachi.

The obvious drawback to this arrangement is that black box components are harder to understand. Here's the Wall Street Journal's money quote from an unnamed "senior Hitachi executive":

"It's still generally a mystery how a company like Hollysys could integrate our equipment into a broader safety-signaling system without intimate knowledge of our know-how."

That quote suggests that Hitachi could share blame in any failing of said system—a potential liability that the company is clearly aware of. The WSJ story quotes an Hitachi spokesman who asserts that Hollysys received a "technical explanation regarding those components, and we believe Hollysys, as a result, fully understands them."

Hollysys hasn't been heard from since August, when CEO Wang Changli issued a letter to shareholders reaffirming the company's position that its equipment was not responsible for the crash, which killed 40 passengers and injured more than 200.

Beijing-based China Railway Signal & Communication Corp., China's only other domestic supplier of rail control systems, has also been close-lipped. Immediately after the accident CRSC pledged in a statement to "shoulder our responsibility." Then all went quiet, with one exception. As the WSJ puts it:

CRSC hasn't commented about the accident directly, aside from a statement Aug. 23 stating that its top executive, 55-year-old Ma Cheng, collapsed and died during questioning by crash investigators.

Imagine the pressure on executives such as Ma Cheng. Then imagine the pressure on engineers responsible for Hollysys' controls sitting in Chinese nuclear power plants. Are those systems functioning as promised? And, if not, would their suppliers know?

Twirling for Power: New Offshore Turbine Design Can Store Energy

Though there are some alternative wind turbine designs out there, generally speaking, the windmill is a relatively mature technology. In other words, most turbines built will look largely the same. An idea currently being tested in Sweden, though, is about as novel a turbine design as you can get.

The SeaTwirl...well, maybe the Web site can explain what it is and how it works:

SeaTwirl uses a vertical axis wind turbine to absorb the wind energy and a torus ring to store this energy. SeaTwirl uses the physical law for conservation of momentum to enable the storage capacity. When energy should be stored SeaTwirl transports fluids from a less rotationally centered position to a more rotationally centered position to rotate faster, as a skater doing a pirouette. In this way it can store large amounts of energy at low speed and tap it at higher rotational velocity when the demand for energy rises.

It basically functions as a flywheel does. If you want a more thorough explanation, here's a video made by the company:

Some of the info on SeaTwirl's site is a bit sketchy, so I emailed the company's owner/inventor, Daniel Ehrnberg, for some clarifications. He said that the ability to scale up to a massive turbine—listed as a 10-megawatt rating capable of storing 25 000 kWh—is still actually a ways off (four to six years, according to Erhnberg). The biggest prototype made so far was at 1:50 scale, but he told me he is "convinced that the larger SeaTwirl units will have a much better cost-effectiveness than today's technology." He said it is "hard to say" what a full-scale device will actually cost to build.

Ehrnberg also said SeaTwirl plans to use undersea cables that are already in place to bring the power back to shore, at least for the early prototypes. The big advantage to something like this lies in the storage capability: by sending the stored power to the grid only at times of higher demand or lower wind speeds, the technology averts one of the most common renewable energy pitfalls—or at least diminishes it. As offshore wind continues to ramp up in Europe and we get closer to the first turbines in U.S. waters, this is something to keep an eye on.

(Image and video via SeaTwirl/Daniel Ehrnberg)


Will the Real PV Price Please Stand Up?

The Financial Times reported recently that prices of polysilicon photovoltaic modules, the workhorse of the global solar industry, have dropped to below US $1.50 per watt. Three years ago they were about $3.50/W, and three years before that the total installed cost of PV (not just the module cost) more than $7.00/W--about seven times the cost of wind, which already then could be considered on the verge of economic viability. A solar price approaching $1.00/W would in theory make solar near-economic too and ought in principle bode very well for PV prospects.

But the polysilicon price cited by the FT reflects market forces of supply and demand that are powerfully influenced by government subsidies for both production and installation of PV arrays. The fact is, nobody has the slightest idea what the world price of polysilicon modules would be in the absence of subsidies.

The situation brings to mind something Warren Buffett once said to Ted Koppel, the creator and former anchorman of ABC's "Nightline." Describing the U.S. housing bubble many years before it burst, Buffett said it was as though in a small neighborhood everybody kept selling their houses to everybody else, so that the price of a house just kept going up and up and up. We wouldn't know what the real price of a house was until somebody moved out of the neighborhood and sold to an outsider, Bufftett told Koppel, sipping coffee in the Omaha diner where he liked to work.

Three years ago, First Solar got wide attention with its claim that it had come up with a thin-film production technology that enabled it to produce large PV arrays at a cost of $1.00/W. Though such arrays consume a lot of real estate and therefore cannot be directly compared to polysilicon modules in terms of costs and prices, the reported production cost naturally got very wide attention, because it seemed to be approaching economic equivalence with wind's. Inasmuch as wind had been the big story in power generation for the previous 15 years, solar equivalence—if it was truly equivalence—suggested photovoltaics might be the big story in the next 15.

Adding spice to that tempting concoction: First Solar's eccentric policy of not talking to the press, which made its thin-film technology something of a black box.

As noted here two weeks ago, very low Chinese prices for polysilicon have made life tough not just for standard PV manufacturers elsewhere but also for companies with competing technologies, such as First Solar. Today it was reported that First Solar will be unable to meet a Department of Energy deadline to qualify for a $1.9 billion loan guarantee for a California wind farm it's been developing and hopes to sell. Previously, First Solar had made known it was putting less emphasis on its novel thin-film technology and more on general solar project development.

Because of disconcerting news like that, the slew of recent PC bankruptcies, and general unease about solar prospects, First Solar's share price has dropped sharply in recent weeks, to the lowest level since April 2007.

It also was announced today, Sept. 23, that SolarCity will be unable to complete paperwork in time to obtain a $355 million DOE loan guarantee to support installation of PV generating systems in military housing on various bases. As a result, SolarCity will have to sharply cut back that program. The adverse development is attributed to a tightening of rule enforcement at DOE, because of Solyndra.

United Kingdom Poised to Join Shale Gas Boom?

An energy company in the United Kingdom has revealed estimates for a huge shale gas resource under the northwest of England. Cuadrilla Resources, after drilling some exploratory wells in the Blackpool region, estimates there could be 200 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the region. Not all of this is recoverable, but the resource is substantial; the United Kingdom consumes about 3.3 trillion cubic feet of natural gas each year.

According to the Guardian, the area may soon play host to as many as 800 new gas wells, mirroring the recent controversial natural gas boom in the United States. The Marcellus Shale, a formation underlying Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia, and other states, remains at the center of natural gas issues to do with potential harm coming from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, of shale rock formations. Fracking involves injecting massive amounts of water, sand, and a toxic mix of chemicals deep underground; there is increasing evidence that this process can contaminate nearby water supplies.

In the United States, both fracking and natural gas itself have come under intense scrutiny in the last year. The EPA is conducting an analysis of natural gas extraction processes in the wake of reports of water contamination, and the idea that natural gas is a cleaner, more climate-friendly fossil fuel than other options has also been called into question. Also, the US Geological Survey recently released estimates of the Marcellus Shale's total gas reserves, which knocked the total down from 410 trillion cubic feet to 84 trillion.

There are already concerns in the UK that the newly discovered resource will be extracted before proper environmental assessments can be carried out. Some also expressed the worry that a shale gas boom will draw money away from renewable energy projects.

(Image: Gas drilling rig in the Barnett Shale region, via jermlac/Flickr)


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