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Macro-Engineering and Renewables: Tilting at Windmills?

As we have covered in this space before, the Desertec Foundation wants to build massive solar thermal installations in the Sahara Desert and elsewhere, pointing out that if only a tiny fraction of the world's deserts were used we could have all the power we would ever need.

But that isn't the only instance of macro-engineering ideas in the renewable energy field: from T. Boone Pickens's ideas around wind power to proposed hydroelectric monstrosities in Africa, people have been thinking BIG when it comes to pushing fossil fuels out of the picture. Some of the ideas seem great, like the solar thermal plants in the desert; but given our general history with projects on such huge scale, is macro-engineering a new energy landscape really the way to go?

Take the idea put forth by researchers in 2007 of a massive dam at the narrow southern entrance to the Red Sea: the project would conceivably generate upwards of 50 gigawatts of electricity, but the authors themselves basically acknowledge such an idea is little more than a thought experiment. "The cost and time-scales involved are beyond normal economical considerations," they write, and seem more interested in simply discussing the implications of such huge projects.

But is that really so off-scale? The existing Three Gorges Dam along the Yangtze River in China (pictured) will peak at just shy of half that capacity, and the proposed Grand Inga Dam along the Congo River will supposedly have a generating capacity of 39 gigawatts.

Clearly, we as a species are not incapable of seemingly insane-in-scope projects, and renewable energy is no exception. Dams, of course, are public enemy number one among environmentalists when it comes to renewables, but is it possible that that's just because we haven't completed any really big solar or wind projects? Three Gorges displaced 1.3 million people, had cost overruns in the many billions of dollars, and has been threatened by such largely unforseeable problems as giant islands of garbage that could have jammed up the turbines.

What would Desertec do to the Sahara? What would happen to America's "wind corridor" through the Midwest if all of the Pickens turbines were actually built? Clearly, I am not suggesting that renewables aren't the most important energy source of the future (they are), only that thinking too big sometimes has unintended consequences. Macro-engineering concepts in other fields are often just ideas that don't get built:  the giant Shimizu Pyramid, or, say, a space elevator. With the need to massively expand renewable energy around the world growing greater with every ton of CO2 emitted, does it make more sense to focus efforts and dollars on individual, very doable projects than on giant quick fixes?

(Photo via Hugh/Wikimedia Commons)

Skeptical Environmentalist Embraces Climate Activism

In what's generally perceived as a radical reversal, the famed skeptical environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg is now calling climate change a major world issue that must be squarely addressed. Though Lomborg himself is claiming he has not switched positions, this is not the general perception; the Lomborg Wiki characterizes his new stance as a u-turn.

In fairness, contrary to a very widely held misperception, Lomborg has never been a climate change denier. His position was that the problem of global warming was exaggerated, that other global problems deserved much more attention and investment, and that to the extent greenhouse gas emissions were a threat, advances in solar technology would take care of the problem. (In a book, I called Lomborg's faith in solar technology remarkably credulous, for somebody who styles himself as a skeptic.)

If Lomborg is now noticing that solar will not actually be able to solve all our problems, and if he's owning up honestly to the implications, he's to be congratulated. One reason I've always defended Lomborg against his detractors is that he writes clearly and accessibly, and says what he really thinks. The evolution of his well-articulated thinking will be a positive service.

Top-level Review Panel Calls for IPCC Reform

A blue ribbon panel representing 15 national science academies, the InterAcademy Council's Committee to Review the IPCC, issued a long-awaited report today that focuses on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's procedures. The panel was established at the behest of the United Nations and the IPCC itself, after the disclosure of errors in the panel's last report--amplified by the brouhaha over the hacked East Anglia e-mails--tarnished the reputation of the climate science community.

The IPCC review report's key recommendations are simple and clear. An executive committee and executive director should be established, so that when issues come to light between major reports--like the embarrassing misstatements about the destiny of the Himalayan glaciers--they will be addressed promptly and effectively; to avoid such errors in the future, a more focused method of handling expert comments must be developed. More transparent methods of selecting IPCC participants need to be adopted, and no one of the eight major panels should be led by the same scientist more than once.

Evidently the panel concluded that the Himalayan errors occurred to an extent because the IPCC had responded to some 7,000 expert comments one by one, rather than keeping its eye on truly central issues. Once the errors were disclosed, they were particularly costly because nobody was in charge.

Though the review's focus was on proces more than substance, it determined that the Himalayan errors were not a completely isolated case. It found other instances of important generalizations in summary chapters not being adequately supported and explained.

Press speculation in response to the review report has centered on whether the panel implicitly is calling on the incumbent IPCC leader, the Indian scientist Rajendra Pachauri, to resign. Certainly, as Britain 's The Independent observed, the review "did nothing to lessen the pressure" on the embattled IPCC chairman. Pachauri has said he will not resign, and that while he welcomes the panel's recommendations, action will await an October meeting in South Korea of the 194 countries that participate in the IPCC.

It's probably a tribute to the review panel and its leader, Harold T. Shapiro, a former president of Princeton University, that press comment on the report has been so consistent and uniform across political boundaries. "The climate expert group is invited to reform itself," headlined France's business-oriented Figaro, so as to better respond to public criticism. Germany's left-liberal Sueddeutsche Zeitung characterized the report's thrust as an "invitation to openness": While the IPCC needs to reform itselt, there also is no basis for the sometimes excessive attacks on it. The liberal-to-moderate New York Times said the panel had found flaws in the climate panel's structure.

It was the centrist Independent that was perhaps sharpest: "IPCC feels the heat as it is told to get its facts right about global warming."

After Soaring, Wind Glides

A more sober mood has settled over the wind industry this year. In the United States, where 10 gigawatts of capacity was added in 2009, up a record-setting 20 percent from the previous year, new turbine installations this year are expected to be closer to 6 GW. On August 18, the top Danish wind manufacturer Vestas saw the value of its shares drop 20 percent, after a second straight quarterly loss and issuance of a profit warning. Because of several adverse trends, some of the countries that have pushed wind most aggressively may be approaching a saturation point where further turbine investment would be counter-productive. Wind meets 20 percent of electricity demand in Denmark, 14 percent in Spain and Portugal, and 8 percent in Germany, according to the U.S. Department of Energy's 2009 Wind Technologies Market Report.

An earlier DOE report famously said that wind could in principle supply 20 percent of U.S. electricity by 2030. Will that actually happen? EnergyBiz's Marty Rosenberg recently got a telling answer from Iberdrola executive Don Furman: "Certainly not in the next 20 years." The most Furman would say was that the United States would be getting "a substantial part" of its energy from wind within 50 years.

Wind currently satisfies about 2.5 percent of electricity demand in the United States, and there's ample room for much more growth. In the "interconnection queues" maintained by regional operating systems in the United States--ranked requests for transmission to accommodate added generating capacity--wind ranks Number 1 at 300 GW, far ahead of the next contender, natural gas. With about 18,500 Americans making turbines and turbine components and 85,000 working in the U.S. industry overall, the fraction of wind equipment that the United States imports has dropped to 40 percent from 50 percent, and General Electric has secured a global position as one of the top producers, giving the Danes and the Germans a run for their money.

But there also are limits. DOE registered a rather sharp increase in "wind curtailments" in 2009--orders to generators to stop feeding energy from turbines into the grid because demand was low or transmission lines couldn't handle the load. Higher curtailments contributed to a drop in average U.S. capacity factor--the percentage of the time a wind generator is producing at its maximum possible rate--after years of steadily improving capacity.

That's important because intermittent energy sources like wind and solar have by nature much lower capacity factors than baseload coal, gas, and nuclear. The 2009 drop in the U.S. wind capacity factor to 30 percent from 34 percent the year before means in effect that for every watt of coal, gas, or nuclear capacity installed, about three times as much wind capacity has to be built to deliver equivalent output over time.

Other limits include an unexpected increase in wind operating and maintenance costs, noted in a post earlier this year, and diminishing returns from wind as the best turbine sites are occupied. As the International Energy Agency charted in its generating electricity report this year, wind costs vary much more widely than traditional baseload generating costs, especially in the United States. And so it will not be good news for wind if it gets tougher to keep making average new installations cheaper.

Then too, perhaps, there is a growing unease in some places about the aesthetic impact of huge turbine towers. The traditional Dutch windmill, though a mighty machine capable of grinding minerals and moving water, also was mighty cute. Today's much larger and much more industrial turbines relieved monotony when they first were installed in large numbers in the North German plains and Jutland's rolling fields. Strung along a mountain ridge, they can make a stirring, even exciting, sight.

But I noticed this summer driving from the densely populated Rhine delta through Germany's Ruhr rustbelt to the unspoiled farmlands south of the Mosel that the opposite also can be the case. In the congested industrial areas of Holland and northwest Germany, big turbines make the landscape look even more congested and industrial. And in the fields that spread from Germany's Southwest to France's Alsace, which are unchanged from Napoleon's time, turbine towers--like transmission towers--are not a welcome addition.

All this is just a reminder that while wind is going to be a big part of the answer to future green energy needs, it will not be the whole answer.

As Shalegas Goes Big-time, Small Players Seek Bigger Pockets

The U.S. shalegas business is dominated by small companies that are not household names and which do not operate the way the better-known tech companies do. (One example: if you're a journalist looking to cover a technology story, generally all you need to do is contact the relevant company or organization, get put in touch with the public affairs department, and go from there once some ground rules are negotiated; reporting on the Marcellus earlier this year, I found that the typical shalegas company does not have a PR or media department, does not return phone calls, and in the rare event it does, tells you bluntly that it sees no advantage in talking with a member of the press.) The situation appears, however, to be rapidly changing--the little unknowns are starting to get gobbled up by the mega energy companies we all know about.

The inflection point came in June when ExxonMobil completed its purchase of XTO Energy, based in Fort Worth, Texas, for $40 billion. The month before, Royal Dutch Shell stated its intention to buy East Resources Inc., which owns gas development rights covering 650,000 acres in the Marcellus.

Now, several other of those companies so unknown outside the shalegas business are putting themselves up for sale. Chief Oil & Gas and Talon Oil & Gas, both based in Dallas, as well as Denver-based Anuschutz Exploration Corp., all have made known they are looking for buyers. According to an estimate cited in the Wall Street Journal, unconventional gas will account for close to two thirds of U.S. natural gas production by 2020, as compared with two fifths today. People familiar with the background to the current situation describe the three companies as "operations limited by their size, leading them to explore sales," commented the Journal.

Tech From Mars: Self-Cleaning Solar Panels

Taking a cue from technology initially created for missions to Mars, researchers have invented a self-cleaning system for solar panels that requires no water or mechanical movement, and uses only a tiny fraction of the electricity generated by the panel.

"A dust layer of one-seventh of an ounce per square yard decreases solar power conversion by 40 percent," said Malay Mazumder, PhD, of Boston University, in a press release. "In Arizona, dust is deposited each month at about 4 times that amount. Deposition rates are even higher in the Middle East, Australia, and India."

Compounding such difficulties is the worldwide goal of scaling up solar installations in rapid fashion to make meaningful contributions to power production. If huge projects like the Desertec plants in the Sahara and elsewhere are to become reality -- and an efficient, well-run reality, at that -- solutions to things like dust on panels are needed.

Mazumder's system, developed for NASA in use in Mars missions, involves use of an electrically sensitive material covering solar panels. When dust levels on the surface get too high, an electric charge flows over the panel capable of pushing the dust off the surface and back into the air. According to Mazumder, about 90 percent of the dust is removed within two minutes.

There are other self-cleaning systems out there, but they generally require water. Such systems might work well for home-based, small solar installations, but to keep the dust off vast arrays in remote desert locations, panels that clean themselves using bits of their own electricity and no water at all could make a huge difference.

$25 Billion European Smart Grid Market by 2020

A British consultancy predicts that between 133 and 145 million smart meters will be installed in European Union countries by the end of this decade, in keeping with the EU's aim to have 80 of households equipped with such meters by 2020. The market will be biggest in countries that have been relatively slow to implement smart metering, notably Germany, the UK and Poland, says Greenbang LTD in Europe's Smart Meter Outlook for 2020--a report that it's selling to interested customers for a cool 1800 pounds.

According to a precis of the report that appeared this month in Britain's Financial Times, the European country that got off to the fastest start on a large scale was Italy, which often surprises with its tech-savviness. With the assistance of California-based Echelon, 27 million smart meters were installed in Italy between 2000 and 2005. A program of similar scope is now underway in Spain, also involving Echelon.

On the face of it, Italy would appear to be the place to look, if you're trying to assess the near-term impact of smart metering on energy demand, conservation, and greenhouse gas emissions. Texas too: The report credits its smart metering with having helped avert problems in 2008, when lower than expected windiness idled its turbines.

Should We Just Pay Operators of Dirty Coal Plants to Shutter Them?

Last fall, inspired by the popularity and immediate success of the cash for clunkers program, I had the whimsical thought that maybe, instead of taxing coal-fired generators or forcing them to participate in a complicated cap-and trade system, we should should just pay them to shut down.

It turns out, as Grist blogger Ted Nace recently brought to my attention, that this little lightbulb had already lit up over other heads as well--several of them encasing bigger brains than mine. This is of more than merely personal interest because, with the death this year of the proposed U.S. cap-and-trade bill, if mandated carbon reduction is going to occur on a national scale, it's going to happen some other way.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal last August, T. Boone Pickens and Ted Turner suggested adopting a cash-for-clunkers program in the utility sector, so as to "save money and reduce emissions right away by retiring the oldest, least efficient and most polluting plants." Ten days later Silicon Valley entrepreneur and philanthropist Steve Kirsch proposed in the Huffington Post a "cash for coal" program, in which the government would pay owners of dirty coal plants their residual value, to finance the construction of clean coal plants.

Pickens, Turner, and Kirsch plainly meant the idea to be taken seriously and were not writing in mere whimsy. But the idea just as plainly was a trial balloon, and they did not linger over details. Kirsch confined himself to saying that any dirty coal plant would be eligible for replacement if replaced by a zero-carbon generator at an investment cost under $2,000 per kilowatt. Pickens and Turner preferred to see coal plants replaced by natural gas generators, which would cut per-kilowatt emissions roughly in half.

Nace, eyeing the added costs owners of dirty coal plants will incur in the next five years as they are required to install the latest in scrubbing equipment, has been calculating just how much they'd have to be paid to replace the plants instead. Going beyond that, he'd also like to show that net national savings would result from replacing all U.S. coal plants, which he believes will be necessary if the world is going to have any chance of attaining its 2030 greenhouse gas reduction goals. He believes the issue has legs: A site he helped build, "existing U.S. coal plants," has received 130,000 hits so far.

POSTSCRIPT (Sept. 2, 1010): Nace has now published his analysis explaining how he thinks the U.S. government could save money long-term by paying operators of dirty coal plants to close them. His basic concern is that although about one sixth of the aging coal fleet can be expected to be closed in reaction to rules requiring pollution scrubbers, we'll then be stuck with the other five-sixths, which will continue to emit huge quantities of carbon dioxide. Taking his cues from work done on the beneficial fiscal effects of tobacco regulation, Nace estimates how much money the government could save as a result of higher tax receipts from people who, instead of dying from exposure to coal emissions, continue to work.

His ballpark estimate of how much coal-emission mortality costs the government over a 30-year period? $175 billion. Additional costs attributable to morbidity over 30 years, the remaining time existing coals plants would be expected to operate, comes to $74 billion.

For Carbon Capture, DOE Moves Oxycombustion Ahead of IGCC

As reported by my fellow blogger David Levitan a couple of weeks ago, the U.S. Department of Energy has announced that its futuristic zero-carbon-generation project will be based on oxycombustion, not on integrated-gasification, combined-cycle technology,  as had been expected for more than a decade. With some reason, Levitan suspects the whole project may have turned into an ongoing boondoggle; certainly, FutureGen has come to seem rather like nuclear fusion--the technology that's always just a decade or two away but, like a mirage, never actually gets any closer.

Nevertheless, I'd like to offer another perspective: Possibly DOE's decision is sound and will open the way, at last, for FutureGen to actually be built and then lead, as hoped, to commercial prospects for zero-carbon coal-fired generation.

Several years ago, IEEE Spectrum magazine designated as one of its January winners the oxycombustion plant that Vattenfall, Sweden's national energy company, was building at Schwarze Pumpe, a site in eastern Germany. At that time, as we explained, IGCC still was generally considered the front runner in so-called clean coal technology. Yet the Florida plant that had pioneered the technology in the United States did not make a particularly prepossessing impression and for years had been generating the country's most expensive electricity by far. And now, two companies with substantial reputations in the power business, Vattenfall and Alstom, were betting on a different horse, dubbed oxyfuel or oxyfiring or oxycombustion.

In oxycombustion, coal is burned in an almost pure oxygen atmosphere, so that emissions contain virtually no NOx, which makes it easier to separate and store the carbon initially contained in the coal. IGCC involves gasifying coal, filtering out the carbon, and finally burning hydrogen to generate power. A big barrier to commercialization of oxyfuel is the initial separation of oxygen from air, which is expensive. But the technology is conceptually much simpler and arguably more elegant than IGCC.

Last November, Vattenfall announced that it was recovering virtually 100 percent of the carbon from the fuel burned at its small Schwarze Pumpe demonstration plant. Spectrum's account of the plant is somewhat dated, as the facility is being continually redesigned and rebuilt as part of Vattenfall's ongoing experiment. A fairly recent, nicely illustrated update about the oxyfuel plant is available.

Semiconductor Giant Pushes Millions Into Solar, LED Arena

One of the biggest semiconductor manufacturers in the world, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, is pushing its chips into the middle in another field: solar power and LED manufacturing.

Hsinchu-based TSMC announced that along with plans for new semiconductor foundries, they will spend more than $100 million on a LED manufacturing line and $218 million on a thin film photovoltaic construction facility. This comes a year after the company announced their intentions to move into these green tech fields, and follows on the heels of a number of business moves aimed at centering them in the push for solar and LED fields.

Late in 2009 TSMC acquired a 20 percent stake in Motech Industries, which is among the largest solar cell manufacturers in the world. More recently, the company reached a supply agreement with the solar thin-film manufacturer Stion, and in March they broke ground on an LED manufacturing facility.

Adding TSMC to the solar mix will only strengthen the tiny country's lofty position in the industry. Various reports from Taiwanese sources indicate that the country ranks third or fourth in the world in solar cell manufacturing, and adding TSMC's $3 billion in net income to that muscle can't hurt. And with nearby China recently overtaking the United States as the world's biggest energy user, the biggest market for those solar cells and LEDs isn't going anywhere.

(Image via Wikimedia Commons)


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