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Renewables Ranked

Earth Day at 41, the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl catastrophe, the ongoing Fukushima tragedy--what better time to assess the status and potential of green energy technology?

The good news, and it's very good indeed, is that renewables spending has "roared back" from the recession, increasing 30 percent in 2010 to a total of $243 billion. Nine tenths of that is in the G-20 advanced industrial countries, according to a recent report from the Pew Charitable Trust's Environmental Group, done in cooperation with Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

"Collectively, the European region was the leading recipient of clean energy finance, attracting a total of $94.4 billion," says the report, "Who's Winning the Clean Energy Race?" Germany, where its far-sighted Feed-in Tariff law of 1999 now is driving installation of rooftop solar arrays, having previously ignited a revolution in wind energy, led the way in Europe. Next comes Asia, led of course by China, which is now the world's leading manufacturer of photovoltaic panels and wind turbines.

"The Americas region," by comparison,  "is a distant third in the race for clean energy investment, attracting $65.8 billion overall in 2010." The United States slid to the Number Three position, behind China and Germany. What's going on?

Given uncertainties surrounding key policies and incentives," says the report, "the U.S. competitive position in the clean energy sector is at risk. Growth is sharper in Latin America, where private clean energy investment in Argentina increased by 568 percent and in Mexico by 273 percent, the highest growth ratesamong G-20 members."

Globally, the solar sector grew fastest last year, attracting 53 percent more investment than the year before. Wind investment, in second place, grew 34 percent. Whereas China installed 17 GW of new wind last year, the United States managed only 5 GW.

Altogether, clean-energy generating technology has doubled in the last three years and now exceeds total global nuclear capacity. Even bearing in mind that in terms of actual electricity produced, green energy still is only about a third or fourth's of nuclear, the progress in renewables is impressive indeed.

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New York City Updates Greenification Plan

Electrical engineer Michael Bloomberg, better known as the founder of Bloomberg Plc and the mayor of New York City, today issued an update of the city's plaNYC--the program for a "greener, greater New York" that it first released on Earth Day (April 22) 2007. In a press event that was a bit long on high fashionability and hero worship and a little short on vision, the mayor sent a message that despite some setbacks and currently adverse circumstances, the city will continue to work steady to use energy more efficiently and more frugally, and to obtain it increasingly from low-carbon generating sources.

The revised program, dubbed plaNYC 2.0, contains no dramatic new initiatives and in some ways disappoints. Even though the city's residents have been sorting and recycling trash for decades, New York still will not require businesses to do the same; instead it will study the subject. Despite some trial balloons lofted earlier this year, the city will not after all try to build a network of waste-to-energy conversion plants, a concept that has foundered on wide neighborhood opposition before. And though New York state's governor has called for closure of the aging Indian Point nuclear power plant, upriver from the city, Bloomberg's city government continues to insist it's needed. Replacing it would cost more than $2 billion and result in electricity bills rising at least 15 percent, the report says; without Indian Point, the city would not be able to meet its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 15 percent by 2030, the report continues.

When it's come to green initiatives in the past, the mayor has taken some lickings, as he reminded his audience this morning. His aggressive push to introduce congestion pricing on cars in Manhattan, on the model of London's system, was rebuffed. So too was his attempt to require all taxis to be hybrids. All things considered, he can be forgiven for thinking somewhat smaller now, and he deserves credit for basically sticking to his guns.

Somewhat oddly, neither the report nor the mayor claims credit for some things the city could boast about: leading all the world's cities, for example, in the number of hybrid-electric buses it has put into service--not to mention the large fraction of its buses that run on compressed natural gas; taking a lead, too, in introducing charging infrastructure for electric vehicles. Instead, the report tends to focus on green initiatives of the traditional kind--parks, playgrounds, waterfront improvements, and reclamation of "brownfields"--areas where it has much to brag about indeed, but which have little to do with energy and climate as such.

One modest energy initiative the mayor highlighted, with support from the Environmental Defense Fund's Fred Krupp, is a phase-out of the dirtier heating oils. Bloomberg and Krupp said that continued burning of #4 and #6 oil by just a few thousand buildings produces more soot than all the automobiles and trucks in the city combined. Bloomberg's new rules will phase out use of #6 by 2015 and #4 by 2030.

To meet its goal of cutting carbon emissions 30 percent by 2030, the lion's share of the reductions are to come from making buildings more efficient. PlaNYC cites estimates that by the 2020s there could be twice as many very hot days as now, and by the 2050s three times as many; sea levels around New York could be as much as 30 centimeters higher by the middle of the century, and the "hundred year flood," instead of occurring every hundred years, might happen every 45.

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Sharp Rise in Cyber Attacks on Grids Is Reported

McAfee, a network security firm in Santa Clara, Calif., and Georgetown University's Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) have issued a report documenting a high rate of cyber attacks against the electric power grids in 14 countries surveyed. Of 200 IT executives questioned, 40 percent thought vulnerabilities had increased, 30 percent thought their companies were not adequately prepared, and 40 percent expected a major attack in the next year.

Four fifths of the respondents said they have faced major denial of service attacks, and a quarter said they have experienced attacks tied to attempts at extortion. Between 60 and 80 percent of the respondents in India and Mexico, the countries most afflicted by extortion, said they had suffered such attacks.

The report, commissioned by McAfee and prepared at CSIS, covered oil, gas, and water infrastructure, as well as electric power systems. It found that China, Italy, and Japan to be best prepared for cyber attacks, but Brazil, France, and Mexico to be lagging. Communication between governments and network operators was found to be wanting in Spain, the United States, and the UK.

There was a general sense that as more sophisticated communications and computing are integrated with power systems, consistent with the smart grid vision, things will get worse before they get better.“What we are learning is the smart grid is not so smart,” said Phyllis Schneck, vice president and chief technology officer for public sector at McAfee. “The fact is that most critical infrastructure systems are not designed with cybersecurity in mind, and organizations need to implement stronger network controls, to avoid being vulnerable to cyberattacks.”

As the Financial Times commented in a story about the McAfee-CSIS report, the findings amplify concerns highlighted by last year's Stuxnet, the ultra-sophisticated cyber weapon that was designed to disable uranium enrichment centrifuges in Iran--and did so--but also penetrated power grids and control systems all over the world, albeirt without doing any damage. A New York Times report discusses efforts in the United States by FERC and NERC to disseminate checklists and establish power industry practices to address cyber threats to the grid.

Wave Power On Its Way to Oregon Shores

Wave energy company Ocean Power Technologies has announced four new contracts that will contribute to the construction of a pilot project off the coast of Oregon, near Reedsport. The contracts involve various parts of OPT's PB150 PowerBuoy.

The first buoy should be in the water by later this year, after which the company plans to build the installation up to be the "first commercial-scale wave power station" in the country. Eventually, there may be as many as ten of the PB150s in the water. This would yield an installed capacity of 1.5 megawatts, at 150 kW per buoy. According to OPT, further additions could someday bring as much as 50 MW. The buoys will be grid-connected once the first batch are installed, and even a 10-MW installation would require only 30 acres of ocean space.

The buoys, which drop more 100 feet below the water's surface and are anchored to the ocean floor, work using a sort of piston mechanism. The top of the buoy rises and falls with the wave motion -- they work at wave heights of 4.9 to 22.9 feet -- which spins a generator. An undersea controller then sends the collected energy along cables to shore.

This is far from the only wave power device in development, but it seems to have the most momentum. One other company, Pelamis Wave Power, does have several projects in development. Their technology is described as follows:

The Pelamis Wave Energy Converter is a semi-submerged, articulated structure composed of cylindrical sections linked by hinged joints. The wave-induced motion of these joints is resisted by hydraulic rams, which pump high-pressure fluid through hydraulic motors via smoothing accumulators. The hydraulic motors drive electrical generators to produce electricity. Power from all the joints is fed down a single umbilical cable to a junction on the sea bed.

And off the coast of Cornwall in the UK, an interesting project seems to be acting almost like a miniature, wave research-oriented version of the promised Atlantic Wind Connection: the Wave Hub, a grid-connected offshore facility, lets companies test their wave power devices without having to develop the infrastructure to send the power back to shore.

Waves, of course, are an infinitely renewable resource, so this is certainly a worthy avenue to pursue. And some estimates [PDF] put the full potential of wave power as high as 2,100 terawatt-hours per year in the US alone.

(Image via Ocean Power Technologies)

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Nuclear Energy's Grim Future

Special Report: Fukushima and the Future of Nuclear Power

This is part of IEEE Spectrum's ongoing coverage of Japan's earthquake and nuclear emergency. For more details on how Fukushima Dai-1's nuclear reactors work and what has gone wrong so far, see our explainer and our timeline.

Each of the major reactor accidents has had a major negative impact on global nuclear prospects, and Fukushima will be no exception.

The most immediate effect was in Germany, which immediately shut down its older reactors and put the rest under review. For a decade, Chancellor Angela Merkel has been trying to negotiate an "exit from the nuclear exit"--the plan adopted by a socialist-green government in the 1990s to phase out reliance on atomic energy completely. But she appears now to have thrown in the towel. Even more importantly, though nuclear-dependent generators have been trying to fight the reactor shut-downs, the national association of electricity generators has parted ways from that effort and seems to be acknowledging that nuclear power is basically dead in Germany.

In the meantime, China has suspended approvals of new nuclear reactor projects, the United States has inaugurated a review of existing plants, and proposed plants in India have suddenly become much more controversial. All older plants are subject to suspicion, and naturally the same is true of any plant proposed for a coastal site on the Pacific or Indian oceans and any in an area susceptible to severe earthquakes. As a result, the number of nuclear plants shut down in the coming years is sure to exceed the number of new plants brought into operation.

But that's nothing new. According to a Worldwatch Report released last week, in the three years from 2008 to 2011, eleven plants were closed worldwide while nine new plants were finished. Worldwide, the share of electricity generated from renewable resources now exceeds the fraction obtained from nuclear reactors. "In 2010 . . . worldwide cumulative installed capacity of wind turbines (193 gigawatts), biomass and waste-to-energy plants (65 GW), and solar power (43 GW) reached 381 GW, outpacing the installed nuclear capacity of 375nGW prior to the Fukushima disaster," says Worldwatch.

All this does not mean, of course, that there's no future role whatsoever for nuclear energy. Growth in wind energy may run into limits as the most attractive sites are exhausted. Sharply increased reliance on natural gas already is raising questions about the integrity of water supplies; because of chronic leakage of methane from gas distribution systems, the climate benefits of switching from coal to gas may be overrated. Photovoltaic electricity still is far from competitive in grid-scale applications, and may never be. So, in many instances, as countries and regions seek to cut carbon emissions and replace high-carbon energy sources, reactors will still look like the best alternative in some instances.

This last week, interestingly, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) almost simultaneously announced plans to shut down 18 coal generating plants in response to tighter environmental regulation and, because of Fukushima, to upgrade infrastructure at six nuclear power plants.

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Fukushima Severity Upgrade

Special Report: Fukushima and the Future of Nuclear Power

Editor's Note: This is part of IEEE Spectrum's ongoing coverage of Japan's earthquake and nuclear emergency.

Japan's upgrade of the Fukushima accident severity, though long overdue, has been greeted with some perplexity by reactor safety experts, as the Financial Times notes in a report today. After all, said one, there's been no sudden change in the state of the three affected reactors and four spent fuel ponds.

Had the upgrade been to 6 rather than 7 on the IAEA scale, it probably would not have encountered the same skepticism. From Day 2 of the unfolding accident, when the first explosion destroyed an outer containment building, the situation was plainly worse than Three Mile Island, which was rated Level 5. But has it been as bad as the Chernobyl Level 7 catastrophe?

Hidehiko Nishiyama, deputy director general of Japan's nuclear regulator, stated the essential difference admirably, showing that the upgrade decision must have been carefully considered. "Mr. Nishiyama," reported the New York Times, "stressed that unlike Chernobyl, where the reactor itself exploded and fire fanned the release of radioactive material, the containments [that is, the steel reactor vessels] at the four Fukushima reactors remained intact over all."

The difference between Fukushima and Chernobyl deserves to be underlined. Both hydrogen and steam explosions can occur in the standard light water reactor used around the world, and such explosions can take place in the inner reactor vessel, damaging the core (though at Fukushima, so far at least, they have occurred only in outer containment buildings). But at Chernobyl, the reactor core itself exploded, sending radioactive materials 9 kilometers high into the atmosphere, to be carried across Eastern Europe to Scandinavia, where they were first detected.

So why are the Japanese now classifying Fukushima as Level 7? It's because, as my fellow blogger Eliza Strickland has explained, the accident appears to meet the IEAE criteria for environmental release of radioactive materials into the environment. Though it's improbable that the total releases will ever exceed Chernobyl's, it's still possible, as the situation remains grim and the reactors not fully stabilized. Japanese authorities have said releases to date are about 10 percent of Chernobyl's, though Strickland makes a good case they may in fact be well under 5 percent.*

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* The New York Times has a report today that sheds considerable light on the discrepancies in Japan's reported ejection of radioactive materials. The authorities are saying now that releases of radioactive cesium and iodine were much higher in the first days immediately after the accident than previously believed.

Photo: TEPCO

Wind Turbine Blade Tumble Called a "Singular Event"

Last week we noted how a planned wind farm in North Dakota has "fallen" due to concerns over endangered bird species. A more literal fall, though, took place last month at an existing North Dakota farm, when the blades of one of 71 turbines at a Pierce County installation tumbled to the ground. The companies involved are now calling that event "singular" and "very out of the ordinary."

Apparently, the blades were not aligned with a power shaft on the turbine tower, eventually causing bolts holding the blade in place to fail. Inspections of the bolts on other turbines are being carried out as a precautionary measure.

No one was hurt when the blades fell. The company that manufactures this particular turbine, Suzlon, told the AP that it is unclear why the misalignment occurred.

Wind power has by and large been a very safe form of power as it has scaled up in the last decade, but accidents like this one are not unheard of. "Wiring anomalies" caused damage to two towers in upstate New York in 2009, and an impressive video of an out-of-control turbine in Denmark made the rounds online in 2008. There have also been injuries: In 2007, a turbine tower on a wind farm that had yet to begin operations snapped in half and killed a maintenance worker.

Still, the safety concerns for other power sources -- from nuclear crises like that at Fukushima, recently upgraded in severity to match that of Chernobyl, to the BP oil spill or Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion -- far outpace that of wind power. No energy source, though, will ever be completely free of hazard.

(Image via ruei_ke)

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Fukushima, TMI, and Chernobyl

April10

Special Report: Fukushima and the Future of Nuclear Power

Editor's Note: This is part of IEEE Spectrum's ongoing coverage of Japan's earthquake and nuclear emergency.

Early in the crisis still unfolding at Fukushima, the thought crossed my mind that when all the dust settles, there will be those arguing that even when much more goes wrong than anybody imagined possible--not just partial reactor meltdown and probable pressure vessel breaching, but hydrogen explosions blowing up outer containment buildings and a spent fuel pond overheating--the consequences of very bad nuclear accidents are still well within the range of what we tolerate in other areas of modern life.

Hundreds die in the occasional airline crash, after all, and oil refinery and chemical plant explosions often take many dozens of lives. Tens of thousands die prematurely every year from exposure to air pollution in the United States, and hundreds of thousands in China. Seen in that perspective, are worse than worst-case nuclear accidents really all that bad?

After all, no fatalities are attributed to the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island, and even the dreadful Chernobyl catastrophe caused only a few dozen immediate deaths. To be sure, thyroid cancer rates soared among children in Ukraine and Belarus, but long-term leukemia incidence traced to the accident still seems to be considerably lower than might have been expected.

This is a tempting line of thought, but it also leaves a lot out.

For one thing, the situation at Fukushima is still far from stabilized and under control. So all the consequences of the accident may turn out to be even worse than we know about now. In addition, as in many situations like this, as soon as investigators start looking into the conditions that led the disaster, unsavory ramifications come to light that will be costly to fix now that they have to be fixed. On Saturday, the New York Times reported that Japanese reactor operators have long been using low-tier labor on short-term assignments to get the dirty work done at nuclear power plants, exposing them to unsafe conditions. It's like turning over a rock and finding the worms and lizards underneath.

For another thing, there's the question of dealing with the long-term environmental consequences of the accident--and the very real issue of whether the consequences will ever be adequately addressed. Today, two and a half decades after the Chernobyl catastrophe, the severely damaged reactor still has not been properly encased and secured. Ukraine has been seeking hundreds of millions of dollars in international assistance to take care of the job, and so far the money has not been forthcoming. So Ukraine continues to drag its feet. Meanwhile, vast areas of surrounding land will be uninhabitable or only partially habitable for decades to come.

If the world nuclear industry and the political authorities that nurture it cannot be counted on to clean up the mess when something really bad happens, then it's pretty hard to make any honest case for further expansion of atomic power.

Photo: TEPCO

Large North Dakota Wind Farm Falls to the Birds

Wind power's impact on wildlife has long been a sticking point when it comes to the renewable resource's development. Ever since the Altamont, California turbines went up in the late 1970s, bird kills have been highlighted as the best reason to show some restraint on massive wind farms. Nothing has changed today: most recently, Minnesota-based utility Xcel Energy canceled a contract to build a 150-megawatt wind farm because of concerns over bird impacts.

The wind farm, which was to be built in southeastern North Dakota by enXco Development Corp., would have cost about $400 million and was scheduled to be completed by the end of this year. But two endangered species have scuttled the plan: the whooping crane and the piping plover. Xcel would have had to spend time and money attempting to mitigate any threats to the birds, and apparently those requirements made the project too uncertain to move forward.

Bird groups and some other environmentalists have focused heavily on the wind turbine impacts; a recent American Bird Conservancy video showed a vulture being struck by a turbine, and there are reportedly hundreds of thousands of bird fatalities each year due to wind power. As Andy Revkin points out at Dot Earth, though, this is actually a fairly low number compared to other manmade structures. If buildings kill hundreds of millions of birds every year, stopping short on wind power entirely because of such concerns might be the wrong move.

Still, Xcel's move to protect two species that are down to only a few individuals in certain areas is commendable. Proper siting and configuration of wind farms can obviously help with this issue as well; the Altamont turbines were small and situated extremely close together. Doing things carefully, in this case, will be better than not doing them at all.

(Image via Dirk Ingo Franke)

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Fukushima Inspiring Change in China and Germany

Special Report: Fukushima and the Future of Nuclear Power

Editor's Note: This is part of IEEE Spectrum's ongoing coverage of Japan's earthquake and nuclear emergency.

Amidst the stubbornly disappointing string of news emanating from Japan's Fukushima Dai-1 nuclear complex, there are signs that its melting nuclear fuel rods are inspiring some important and long-overdue developments in global power systems. And there's good news for both nuclear supporters and critics.

Hopeful spinoff number one: Berlin is getting serious about upgrading the balkanized and inadequate transmission grid that represents a serious liability for Germany's renewable energy ambitions.

Chancellor Angela Merkel's decision last month to shut down Germany's oldest nuclear reactors and temporarily scrub life extensions for the rest was widely seen as a sop to voters in the state of Baden-Württemberg. Well, Merkel's Conservative Democrats lost the state to the Green Party, and she hasn't looked back. Last week a document leaked from Germany's Economy Ministry and reported by Bloomberg revealed plans to revamp the power grid--a precondition to replacing nuclear energy with solar, wind and other renewable power sources.

The need for action is evident. The German Energy Agency estimated in 2005 that the country needed 850 kilometers of new high-voltage lines by 2015 to absorb growing levels of wind power on its fragmented grid. So far, only 90 km have been built, and the challenge keeps growing: An updated study released in November estimated that 3,600 km of new lines have to be built by 2020/2025.

Hopeful spinoff number two is China's modest nuclear slowdown. Beijing reaffirmed its nuclear ambitions immediately after Japan's earthquake-tsunami double-punch unhinged Fukushima Dai-1's cooling systems. But then it began to backpedal, suspending new plant approvals and stepping up safety inspections at existing plants. Whether you're a nuclear supporter or not, this is very good news.

That's because while China's nuclear future is assured, its nuclear safety is not. China has some two dozen reactors under construction, including a domesticated and upgraded version of France’s existing light-water reactors, Westinghouse’s AP1000 advanced light water reactors, and a modular pebble-bed reactor of Chinese design.

Problem is that China's nuclear exuberance outstripped the process of training  nuclear operators and inspectors. That inspired surprisingly frank criticism from National Nuclear Safety Administration director Li Ganjie two years ago -- to little apparent effect.

Confronting proposals to more than double the pace of China's nuclear construction schedule, Ganjie courageously warned an IAEA meeting in Beijing that "over-rapid expansions" could diminish reactor quality and safety. Ganjie lost that round, and China's nuclear capacity goal for 2020, already set to jump more than four-fold to 40 gigawatts, shot up to 86 GW. 

Now we're hearing a different tune. Last week AP cited state media reporting that, "China is likely to scale back its ambitious plans ... under a new policy that stresses safety instead of rapid development." AP quoted deputy director of the China Electricity Council, Wei Zhaofeng, predicting that the policy change would trim growth by 10 GW.

That 10 GW may look small relative to China's target, but in real terms it is a massive quantity of reactor construction. Most nuclear power proponents will count themselves lucky if the U.S. adds that much reactor capacity by 2020.

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