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Get Excited: Tempering the Tempered Enthusiasm For Offshore Wind

Sometimes it seems like the offshore wind industry in the United States consists entirely of reports. Resource estimates, predictions, warnings... but still, nary a turbine to be found. This research is needed, of course, but one can only hope that the researchers make sure their central messages point a way forward rather than simply make excuses for the lack of progress.

A new contribution to the offshore wind report genre does contain some enthusiasm, but also falls back on some old - and largely answered - questions regarding the energy source's potential. The University of Maryland's Center for Integrative Environmental Research released a report [PDF] on Maryland's offshore wind potential, and put two major concerns front and center: expensive transmission issues and potential interference with nearby radar systems.

Now, to their credit, a press release from the University does allow the report's authors to tout offshore wind as "economically feasible and environmentally advantageous." Also, they at least partially answer their own transmission questions with the recent announcement of the Google-backed transmission backbone plan for the Atlantic coast (some of the issues with which fellow Spectrum blogger Bill Sweet discussed well here).

The radar problem, though, shouldn't be considered such an important issue. I've discussed it here and elsewhere, but generally speaking wind turbine interference with radar is a somewhat archaic issue. Newer radar systems don't really have a problem with turbines at all, and even older ones can be upgraded to see through the windmill's interference without a ton of trouble. Perhaps the most publicized radar-wind confrontation, the Shepherd's Flat wind project in Oregon (the biggest in the US, when completed), was settled quietly soon after the issue was raised; the government is comfortable enough with the radar issues to offer a $1.3 billion loan guarantee to the project.

So some tired and answerable questions prompted a tempered "mixed bag" take-home from the Maryland report's authors, and they buried the good stuff: that offshore wind could significantly contribute to Maryland's renewable portfolio standard requiring 20 percent of electricity from renewables by 2022, and that the costs of siting turbines in deeper water - where the transmission backbone project will likely be built - are roughly similar to shallow water.

I'm all for realism when it comes to renewable energy, but a little enthusiasm for planet-saving technologies wouldn't hurt either.

The Spill

Anybody even casually interested in the corporate environment that produced the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe will want to watch The Spill, a PBS Frontline investigative report that aired Tuesday evening in many markets and can be viewed any time online, along with supplementary interviews and supporting material. A joint production of PBS and ProPublica, it is mainly the work of PBS's excellent Martin Smith and ProPublica's Abrahm Lustgarten, who has done the best reporting to date on the environmental downsides to natural gas fracking.

To be sure, the show has much less to say about the details of the Gulf tragedy than the best initial post-mortems, flagged in an earlier post here. I am not the first reviewer to observe that the program could have been twice as long without straining patience or losing impact. Every major precursor--the Texas oil refinery fire, the Alaskan oil pipeline spills, the flamboyant PR-oriented culture that Lord John Browne introduced with his "beyond petroleum" campaign--could have been a program in itself.

One obvious issue left unexplored and barely alluded to in The Spill is whether BP escaped critical scrutiny from the environmental community precisely because of John Browne's campaign, the company's supposedly pioneering internal introduction of carbon trading, and arrangements it entered into with organizations like the Environmental Defense Fund to advance cap-and-trade. Carol Browner, Obama's so-called climate czar, acquits herself poorly in the show. (A recent New Yorker article also lays the White House decision to promote deep offshore drilling at Browner's doorstep.) But that's as far as it goes.

Perhaps it would be unfair to expect a young, relatively inexperienced president to be an expert on offshore drilling, among so many important things. But environmental specialists and activists should have known better.

First-ever Fuel Efficiency Standards for Heavy Trucks and Buses

The U.S. Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency announced yesterday fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks, having last year sharply tightened CAFE limits for light vehicles.  Covering new vehicles made between 2014 and 2018, DOT and EPA says the heavy-vehicle measures will "reduce greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 250 million metric tons and save 500 million barrels of oil over the lives of the vehicles produced within the program’s first five years."

According to the New York Times, the standards draw heavily on a National Academy study issued earlier this year, which said that big fuel savings could be achieved by means of current technologies such as low-rolling-resistance tires, improved aerodynamics, better engines, hybrid-electric drive systems, and idling controls. The standards do not seem to owe much, however, to T. Boone Pickens' proposal to switch trucks to natural gas--in his revised "Pickens plan"--or to the long one-on-one conversation he boasted of having with Candidate Obama during the last presidential campaign.

In the new rules, if they take effect largely intact after a public comment period, tractor trailers including 18-wheelers will be required to show improved fuel efficiency of 20 percent, the heavier pickup trucks and vans of 10-15 percent, and specialized vehicles like fire engines and cement mixers of 10 percent. Though heavy vehicles are a relatively small proportion of all vehicles on the road, they account for a relatively large fraction of fuel consumption and emissions in the transportation sector. Enforcement of the new standards thus will go some way toward meeting Obama's 2020 greenhouse gas reduction pledge.

Clean Tech Patent Survey finds Asia in the Lead, Europe lagging

This year for the first time, IEEE Spectrum magazine has published a patent survey that focuses specifically on intellectual property bearing on the future of clean tech. The findings are rather dramatic: Of the 50 companies identified as clean-tech leaders by Spectrum and its partner 1790 Analytics, 24 are based in Asia and 22 in the United States; just three are European, and one Canadian.

That's a startling finding, considering that in the last two decades of the twentieth century and well into this one, Germany--together with several other European countries--clearly led the way in alternative energy technology, the United States having pretty much forfeited the field, after some pioneering first efforts during the Carter administration. The current survey covers just 2009, so it does not take into account accumulated patent power from decades of clean tech R&D. But even so, it points to a dramatic shift in prowess--when it comes to the technologies that will shape the world's future economies--from Europe to Asia.

What qualified as clean tech in the Spectrum-1790 analysis? "After scouring Spectrum’s news archives for the most talked-about technologies with potential for generating power without polluting the environment, we selected eight candidates: batteries, clean coal, fuel cells, geothermal energy, hybrid vehicles, hydropower, solar energy, and wind energy," report the authors, Patrick Thomas and Anthony Breitzman.

That's a good list, but everybody will have their reservations, myself included. In the spirit of airchair generalmanship, had I made the list, I would have skipped geothermal and hydro, in favor of mass transportation, on the one hand, and manufacturing equipment and industrial process technology, on the other.

As I see it, geothermal is simply too niche and too far off to be of much pressing interest. Mass, transit, however, is the greenest of transportation technologies. Experts may quibble about whether electric and hybrid-electric vehicles yield net energy and carbon savings, but there's no doubt that to the extent travelers can be lured from cars onto trains, substantial efficiencies result.

Hydroelectricity generally is classified as carbon-free, like nuclear power, but hydro's alleged carbon neutrality is more seriously open to question: Plants thrive in the huge lakes behind big dams, and when they rot, they release methane, a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Still more to point, perhaps: How much really innovative technology can there be in dams, really?

Improving the energy efficiency of manufacturing equipment and processes, however, is perhaps the single most important way to green advanced industrial and fast-industrializing economies. And these technologies, as it happens, are just those in which the most technically advanced European countries--Germany and France, especially--excel. So if this category had been included, however amorphous and unwieldy it might appear, the effect surely would have been to boost Europe in the CleanTech50 rankings.

But this is a quibble. It's true that Germany and France are not much concerned about their trade balance with China today because they're busily providing its infrastructure. For them, China is as much an opportunity as a problem. But this situation is not going to last for ever. Not long from now China's basic infrastructure will be complete, it will have acquired key technology as part of the hard bargains its always strikes with companies like Siemens and Alstom--and then, if the Spectrum-1790 assessment of clean tech patent power is right, China's going to be a big problem for Europe too.

Significant Broadband over Powerline Standard Is Approved

IEEE announced this week the ratification of the IEEE 1901 Broadband over Powerline standard, which allows for data rates of 500 Mbps in local area networks such as the home, where it could be one of the systems of choice for delivering information about energy usage back to energy providers and  to residents in real time, allowing them to adjust and regulate usage in light of the information.

The standard also could be the basis for distributing entertainment in trains or airplanes--or, at home, for installing a new music playlist in an automobile that's being charged.

In Xcel's smart grid city experiment in Boulder, Colo.--admittedly not a general success--BPL has been used in combination with radio links to transmit data from power meters, hot-water heaters, thermostats, and renewable-energy systems. To communicate with the energy provider, the data flows along the power lines for about a kilometer before it’s siphoned off the line and into an optical fiber or cellular-based backhaul system. That system, however, operates at rate of only about 5 Mbps--two orders of magnitude lower than what IEEE 1901 can provide in principle.

The 1901 standard seems destined to join the 1547 family of interconnection standards--the protocols and algorithms governing how to connect up distributed generation resources such as wind and solar as well as distributed storage devices like supercapacitors or battery banks--as one of the really critical smart grid enabling technologies.

Why Silicon Valley Won't Be the Next Detroit

We don’t hear “death of Detroit” stories as often now as we did a year ago.
When GM and Chrysler plunged into bankruptcy and the entire U.S. industry laid off tens of thousands of workers in one year, the effects on an already battered Detroit region were dire. And they led to a rash of stories that Detroit was done with. Many predicted that the new, green auto industry of the future would be built around the electronics expertise of Silicon Valley.
A June piece in the San Jose Mercury News, "Silicon Valley becoming a hub of electric vehicles," argued that following Tesla Motors' IPO, the area's early adopters and its expertise in information technology made it a logical place for new electric-car companies.
NPR boldly pronounced, "The new automobile of the 21st century is likely to benefit from the culture of Silicon Valley, where people are used to taking a chip, a cell or an idea and working on it until it becomes something big."
We’ve thought about it for a year, and discussed it with many people. And we don’t believe it. Silicon Valley is the wrong place to build an auto industry, for three main reasons.
First, the entire Valley is built around quick-turn invention and monetization. Consider famously successful startups like eBay, Google, and Facebook. None required more than a good idea, a few desks, some computers, and smart software coders.
That’s the antithesis of a car company. These days, it takes $1 billion or more to design, engineer, test, certify, and launch a brand-new vehicle. And that takes roughly five years.
We’ve never felt that venture capitalists and startup automakers were a good match. A new automaker or even a new brand can take more than a decade to break even (despite CEO Elon Musk’s claim that Tesla Motors was profitable for a single month last year).
Ten years on, most venture-funded firms have long since either been killed off or sold for parts, or broken even and become self-sustaining and profitable enterprises.
Second, while Silicon Valley is replete with electrical and electronics engineers, the bulk of them are skilled at microelectronics. But integrated circuits for consumer electronics are very different from the large-scale electric machinery—high-voltage battery packs, electric motors of 100 kilowatts or more, and vehicle-grade power electronics—that electric vehicles require.
Silicon Valley may have proficient coders oozing out of every condo complex, but it lacks—and isn’t likely to develop—large numbers of engineers with the right mix of automotive mechatronics and high-voltage systems skills.
Tesla Motors admitted as much on its recent plant tour. Executives confirmed that the company recruits literally all over the world for engineers with the right mix of experience, including from England’s ample supply of Formula 1 race-car engineers.
Finally, California is an expensive and highly regulated place for companies to locate, especially if they manufacture physical goods. And in volume automaking, it's all about keeping costs below revenues.
The state has rules, requirements, and laws that simply aren’t found elsewhere—especially in the largely Southern, non-union states that lavishly subsidized green-field sites to attract plants built by BMW, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Toyota, and Volkswagen.
Those rules impose both a time and a cost burden. But it gets worse. After half a century of explosive growth propelled by the success of Silicon Valley startups, the San Francisco Bay Area is now very densely populated.
That means factories are no longer the highest and best use for large tracts of land. Office parks or dense residential development simply yield a better return. Sans Tesla, the likely fate of the Fremont plant may have been to be torn down for office parks and condos.
Then there’s the cost of living. The average price of a single-family house in Palo Alto, Tesla’s headquarters town, is over one million dollars—hardly par for the industry globally.
When even Stanford University has to build hundreds of housing units to attract everyone from young professors to assistant athletic coaches, startups face huge challenges in luring talented workers from other areas.
Ah, but isn’t Tesla Motors the prototype for this fabled new auto industry in the Valley? Funded by Silicon Valley venture capital, the company is now headquartered in the foothills just above Stanford University, in an old Hewlett-Packard building no less.
Nonetheless, Tesla still has to play by the same rules as the rest of the auto industry. If it truly intends to grow into an independent global automaker—a goal most analysts think is close to impossible—it faces the same high costs.
The company developed its groundbreaking Roadster smartly, by adapting and reusing large portions of an existing car—the Lotus Elise sports car—and outsourcing much of that work to Lotus itself, along with the manufacturing (in the U.K.).
Tesla confined itself to designing, testing, and assembling the Roadster’s battery pack and some other electronic components. They’ve recently brought more of that work in-house in their new facility.
But total Roadster production over three or four model years will number in the low thousands, a level at which outsourcing makes economic sense.
According to auto manufacturing guru James Harbour, outsourcing only
makes sense to volumes of 15,000 to 25,000 cars per year. After that, it’s simply cheaper to set up your own factory.
That’s why Tesla acquired a factory in Fremont, California, from Toyota earlier this year. The Japanese company had inherited the plant after GM pulled out of the New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. partnership that had jointly operated the plant, most recently building Toyota Corollas and Pontiac Vibes. It was also the last surviving auto manufacturing plant in the state.
Tesla says it will build and sell 50,000 Model S luxury sports sedans a year, as well as building battery packs and adapting vehicles for other makers. Its powertrain is currently used in the Smart Electric Drive and the Mercedes-Benz A-Class E-Cell, and Toyota is paying it $60 million to provide powertrains for an electric version of its RAV4 crossover.

If Tesla survives as a company, its headquarters and even manufacturing may stay put. Most analysts feel a more likely scenario is that the brand is acquired by another carmaker, in which case, manufacturing will likely migrate elsewhere.
Maybe not right away, but almost certainly when Tesla wants to build a $15,000 or $20,000 electric car that will sell in the hundreds of thousands of units. Around 2020, say?
Tesla’s headquarters might remain in the Valley. That’s a major part of its brand image, and most automakers have outposts there to keep current on innovations in microelectronics, telematics, and social media. But we’d be shocked if the Fremont factory is still building cars 20 years hence.
It’s worth comparing Tesla to Fisker Automotive, another venture-funded startup. Fisker says it will build up to 15,000 of its first car, the 2011 Karma plug-in hybrid sports sedan. That’s the right number for outsourcing; indeed, the Karma will be assembled in Finland by Valmet.
For its planned second car, Fisker too is taking over a former GM plant. But this one is in Delaware, a far cheaper location. More importantly, Tesla and Fisker are still tiny startups.
So is Coda, which plans to open a vehicle assembly plant for what it says will be up to 14,000 electric cars a year in Benicia, on the northeast corner of San Francisco Bay.
General Motors and Ford are now hiring hundreds of engineers to work on hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and electric vehicles, like the 2011 Chevrolet Volt and the 2012 Ford Focus Electric.
And they’re not doing it in Silicon Valley. They’re doing it in Michigan, just where they always have: the GM Technical Center in Warren, and the Ford headquarters complex in Dearborn.
Sure, their designers and engineers visit Silicon Valley to do deals with startups in areas like apps that will connect their cars to the world of always-on information. But then they take the apps back home to where cars are built.
In other words, we suspect that the new, clean, green auto industry in the U.S. will be pretty much where the old, dirty, gas-guzzling one was.
That would be … Detroit.
Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.
This article, written by John Voelcker, originally appeared on, a content partner of IEEE Spectrum.

Make Your Chevy Volt Drive Like a Tesla

Pretty much anyone who's driven one loves the performance of the Tesla Roadster, the first modern electric car with a lithium-ion battery pack.

The 2011 Chevrolet Volt is a much less radical electric car than the Roadster in certain ways, and one of them is its accelerator response.

GM's engineers have tuned the control software to mimic the behavior of a standard gasoline-engine car fitted with an automatic transmission. There's the standard idle creep at a stoplight, and if you lift off the accelerator, the car coasts freely, with little regenerative braking.

That's not how the Tesla works. Its regenerative braking kicks in as soon as you lift off the accelerator, and taking your foot off completely slows the car almost as rapidly as braking.

While different to a combustion-engined car, it's easy to get used to--on our road test, it took less than five minutes--and it lets drivers operate the Tesla Roadster essentially with a single pedal.

Its friction brakes are required only below 10 miles per hour, to bring the car to a full stop at traffic lights and stop signs as regenerative braking dies away with speed.

But Chevrolet's engineers have provided a similar ability in its Voltec powertrain: It's the "Low" setting on the "transmission selector". And when it's paired with the "Sport" power mode, which gives more aggressive accelerator response, it's the best way to turn your Volt into a mini-Tesla.

The Volt's 0-to-60-mph acceleration, of course, isn't anywhere near a standard Tesla's: We observed about 9 seconds, compared to the Roadster's stunning 3.9 seconds, a speed that humbles some supercars costing twice the Roadster's $109,000.

But if you get a chance to test-drive a 2011 Chevrolet Volt, we recommend that you try it first in the standard "Drive" mode. Then, after 10 minutes or so, switch over to the mix of "Low" and "Power," and see which you like better.

Our preference? We like aggressive regenerative braking, and on our 2011 Volt test drives last week, we preferred to use what we came to call the "Tesla combination" of settings.

That said, we think Tesla still has the best accelerator software going. We noticed a slight abruptness on liftoff in the Volt, as its regeneration kicked in rather suddenly.

It wasn't a lurch--nowhere near the experience of being slammed forward into the seatbelt that the unpleasant Mini E provided--but it could use a bit more work on the blending.

Perhaps that'll come in the Volt, Revision 1.1?

This story, written by John Voelcker, was originally published on All Cars Electric, an editorial partner of IEEE Spectrum.

UK Rejects Tidal Barrage, but Nimbler Tech May Endure

The UK government has shelved schemes to build a tidal barrage across the Severn estuary, West of London, that could have supplied 5% of the UK's power needs. What reports are missing is the endurance of more nimble tidal turbines and other marine power generators -- distributed energy devices that the UK is helping to nurture.

Barrages are essentially hydro dams that capture each high tide and generate electricity from their outflow.The first large barrage and largest currently operating crosses the estuary of the Rance River on France's Atlantic coast, generating a peak of 240 megawatts -- the scale of a large wind farm. Five competing proposals for a Severn barrage were to generate up to 40 times that much from the region's 14-meter tides.

But the government's Severn Tidal Power study published today found that the up-to-£34-billion cost would scare off investors. The most cost-effective scheme, it found, would cost nearly twice as much as offshore wind power per megawatt-hour of energy produced. “There is no strategic case at this time for public funding of a scheme to generate energy in the Severn estuary. Other low carbon options represent a better deal for taxpayers and consumers," says Chris Huhne, the UK's secretary of state for energy. 

Barrages also -- for all their potential to generate carbon-free power -- stomp a large environmental footprint onto marine ecosystems. A barrage to yield power from the immense tides in Nova Scotia's Bay of Fundy, for example, would alter the tides as far south as Boston. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds' Martin Harper, quoted in BusinessWeek, said today that the Severn project threatened to  "destroy huge areas of estuary marsh and mudflats used by 69,000 birds each winter."

What BusinessWeek buried and others ignored (as in the BBC's story, Is this the end for UK tidal power?) is the investment that the UK is already making in more environmentally-benign tidal and wave power devices that generate electricity in open water. Site leases for several big wave and tidal power projects around Scotland's Orkney Islands were awarded this spring, concluding a two-year bidding process that elicited strong interest from major utilities and energy entrepreneurs.

As I reported in March for MIT's Technology Review magazine, those projects could collectively generate up to 1.2 gigawatts of renewable power. Yes, that's smaller than Severn proposals. But if realized it will represent an immense scaleup for an industry that so far has installed only a handful of small devices, starting it down the same cost-reduction curve that made wind power the fastest-growing power source.

Some Cautionary Notes on Atlantic Wind Connection

It's a rare occasion when the New York Times leads its daily newspaper with a report on a proposed electric power project. But the Atlantic Wind Connection--a proposed offshore grid to link up offshore wind with onshore grids in Virginia, Delaware, and New Jersey--got that treatment this week. And my fellow Spectrum blogger Dave Levitan rightly picked up on the story immediately and reported it here.

Google is well known for its visionary long-term investment strategy and the dominant search company  has bet especially heavily on green technologies, as Spectrum's Sandra Upson reported several years ago--no doubt in part because of sensitivities arising from its power-hogging server farms. The large investment Google is prepared to make in the so-called Atlantic Wind Connection naturally gives the project a credibility it might otherwise lack.

Nevertheless, some sober-minded words of caution are in order:

--First, and most obviously, this is a long-term project; even if all goes as hoped, it will not begin to yield its full rewards for a decade

--Second, to move at all, it has to get through numerous regulatory hoops involving three states and at least several Federal agencies

--Third, politics will come into play too, of course. Already there's grumbling in Virginia that if the transmission backbone is used initially to transport  the state's relatively inexpensive electricity up to New Jersey, where it's more costly,  local rates will rise. (A similar concern on the part of people in Connecticut prevented the cross-sound cable to Long Island  from being used for years; it was finally activated during the great Northeast-Midwest blackout, when the Federal government invoked emergency powers.)

If this kind of argument about who's gaining and who's losing gets heated enough, skeptics may even start asking whether the right offshore wind resource is being exploited. According to a recent survey, Virginia, Delaware, Maryland, and New Jersey have a combined offshore potential of about 50 GW. But Michigan, to take just one of the Great Lakes states and provinces, has an offshore potential nearly double that.

This skeptic would be willing to bet that if offshore wind ever gets really really big in the United States, it may be in the old industrial heartland on the Great Lakes, not off the two ocean coasts.

Cancellation of Maryland Plant Delivers Double Whammy

Constellation Energy's decision this last week to not build a nuclear reactor after all in Maryland was a big shock to its partner EDF, which had been banking on the alliance to serve as its wedge into the U.S. reactor market, and to the market itself.

Constellation's reason for pulling out was the high fee the Energy Department proposed to charge for extending a Federal loan guarantee to cover the project, estimated at $10 billion. DOE and nuclear regulators had come under fire from influential nuclear critics like former NRC commissioner Peter Bradford for extending loan guarantees on excessively soft terms, at growing risk to U.S. taxpayers.

There's no gainsaying that nuclear construction projects are looking riskier all the time, especially in the United States, where many factors have conspired to spoil dreams of a big nuclear renaissance: declining energy demand since the onset of the global economic crisis (down 4 percent since 2007 in the States); plummeting natural gas prices (down almost half from what they were a few years ago); collapsing prospects for enactment of a U.S. climate bill (which would have raised the costs of fossil-fuel-generated electricity); and soaring reactor construction costs (with EDF's current reactor 40 or 50 percent more expensive than originally billed).

An analysis in the Financial Times deems Constellation's decision "strategically devastating" for EDF--but also potentially helpful in the long run, because France's national utility already was widely believed to have been putting too much money on its losing U.S. bet.

POSTSCRIPT, Oct. 14: It's being reported today that EDF, attempting to keep Calvert Cliffs alive, is offering to either buy out Constellation's stake in the project or assume all project development costs until construction begins. It wants Constellation to drop a contractual option that could force EDF to buy up to $2 billion in conventional generation assets from the U.S. energy company.


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