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American Vanadium's Plan for Utility-Scale Energy Storage

Earlier this week, I had breakfast in New York with William Radvak, president and CEO of American Vanadium, and Michael Doyle, the company's vice president for operations. They described their plan to combine vanadium mining at a Nevada site, where they have acquired rights, with manufacture of electrolyte for grid-scale flow cell batteries. Doyle, who has extensive experience in gold mining, explained that in the process they propose to use—"heap leach"—the leaching fluid, sulfuric acid, happens to be the same in combination with vanadium as the electrolyte used in flow cell batteries.

Why, with gold booming like never before, would one leave gold for vanadium and a small start-up in Vancouver, B.C.? Well, as Radvak paints the picture, vanadium isn't doing too badly either. To be sure, in the short term there may be a market glut, with a new Chinese mine coming into operation. But longer term, the outlook is strong and solid, globally and in the United States. Vanadium is a standard steel strengthener used in virtually all rebar, says Radvak. Since it reduces the amount of steel and iron ore needed by about 30 percent, it can be called a green metal. The booming emergent market economies from Argentina and Mexico to Turkey, India, and China can't get too much of it; as for the United States, it gets almost of its vanadium from Venezuela (where it's a by-product of oil production), perhaps not the most desirable or reliable supplier.

But why then, if the steel market is such a sure thing long-term, spend time and money worrying about flow batteries to back up intermittent renewable generation? Partly, allows Radvak, because it makes for a "nice story." If that was meant to be disarming, the effect was rather the opposite. Is the flow cell battery a credible candidate for utility-scale applications? And what about American Vanadium's business plan?

It doesn't take much research to answer the first question in the affirmative. Though flow-cell battery technology matured only in recent decades, it has attractive features and appears prominently in every authoritative list of utility-scale energy storage systems. The battery, a cousin of the fuel cell, consists basically of electrolyte divided by a porous membrane into two compartments, with negatively and positively charged ions. The voltage of the battery is boosted by adding cells, and its storage capacity by increasing the amount of electrolyte. It can be recharged electrically or by adding electrolyte, and it discharges readily.

Flow battery installations are built or firmly planned in Australia (where critical R&D work was done), Japan, Ireland, and the United States. A handful of companies are in the business of making the batteries—Ashlawn Energy, Cellennium, Cellstrom GmbH, Prudent Energy, and REDT, among others—and technology big shots like Sumitomo and United Technology are beginning to show interest. (Among the current flow battery players, Prudent appears to have the most active projects.)

To be sure, the cost of delivering power to the grid from a flow battery is high: Estimates are $500/kWh and up. Yet those costs are mid-range when compared with the major alternatives (compressed air, pumped hydro, advanced nickel metal and lithium ion batteries, etc.). The actual cost depends a lot on operating conditions, on how frequently and for how long the battery is called into service, points out Paul Casey, American Vanadium's director of business development. A particularly attractive feature of the flow battery is its ability to respond to electricity demand in a fraction of a microsecond, fast compared with standard sources of voltage support such as gas peakers.

Casey says that providing electrolyte for flow batteries is a well-developed part of American Vanadium's business plan, not just a nice story to soften up regulators and investors. He says the company has been in touch with all the important flow battery producers, talking about electrolyte quality and leasing terms. Vanadium doesn't get used up in a flow battery, so it could be rented out rather than sold, which has some appeal, Casey says.

However American Vanadium fares, it's in an interesting business with a technology that's worth watching. 

DOE Will Spend $67 Million on Novel Carbon Capture Technologies

The Department of Energy's National Energy Technology Laboratory announced on Monday the funding of four carbon-capture technology projects totaling US $67 million. The goal of these projects is to achieve at least 90 percent capture of carbon dioxide from a coal-fired power plant at an added electricity cost of no more than 35 percent.

The NETL's press release points out that existing technologies can achieve 90 percent capture only by adding as much as 80 percent to electricity prices. The new projects cover several technology areas; for example, the Drake #7 plant in Colorado Springs will be outfitted with a NeuStream absorber, a technology that is "applicable to a variety of solvents and can be added to existing pulverized coal power plants with reduced cost and footprint." Another, to be conducted by Linde LLC, is described as follows:

The proposed project will use a post combustion capture technology incorporating BASF’s novel amine-based process at a 1 MWe equivalent slipstream pilot plant at the National Carbon Capture Center. This technology offers significant benefits as it aims to reduce the regeneration energy requirements using novel solvents that are stable under the coal-fired power plant feed gas conditions.

Each of these ideas seeks to improve technologies that have proven too costly to get off the ground on large scales. The DOE continues to stand behind the FutureGen plant (now in its 2.0 iteration), last year pledging $1 billion to modify a coal plant in Meredosia, Ill. (pictured, above); progress so far has involved picking sites for sequestration.

Elsewhere, American Electric Power tabled its plan to launch a full-scale CCS project at its Mountaineer Plant in West Virginia last month. An official within the Obama administration told the New York Times that the lack of federal incentive to spend $668 million on such an idea is what led to its demise: "This is what happens when you don’t get a climate bill."

Clearly, the political environment at the moment will not yield any change on that front in the near future. In that context, the DOE's efforts to find better methods of capturing and storing carbon emissions appear even more relevant; without federal legislation, the only way to start bringing emissions down from coal plants is to lower the costs of doing so.

(Image via DOE)

Gas Fracking Review Calls for Transparency

A Department of Energy committee issued a report this week calling upon the natural gas extraction industry to fully disclose chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing fluids and to keep track of all water flows connected with fracking operations; it also said state regulatory agencies should review existing rules to check their adequacy in the light of the revolution in unconventional gas that's been sweeping much of the United States.

Those recommendations may seem the equivalent of white Wonder bread, but for an industry that traditionally has kept a low profile and avoided the public eye, they may have real significance. Last year, reporting an article for IEEE Spectrum about the water implications of fracking, I was startled to discover that almost all of the companies in the business—mostly small, with names I had never heard before—had no press or public relations offices and did not return phone calls. And these companies, on the rare occasion I was able to smoke anybody out, told me bluntly that they saw no percentage in communicating with me. (This was unprecedented in my 35 years working as a reporter.)

One such company suffered a major accident in Pennsylvania fracking operations earlier this month, prompting aggressive calls for full disclosure of what went wrong and all environmental implications.

The DOE advisory subcommittee on shale gas production, chaired by MIT’s John Deutch, was convened by Energy Secretary Chu at the direction of President Obama, who has said that unconventional gas represents a big opportunity for the country but must be exploited in ways consistent with the environment.

Among other things, the panel recommended that the government support "existing, multistakeholder mechanisms" for tracking operations and assessing risks, such as the Ground Water Protection Council’s Risk Based Data Management System. It  suggests additional field studies to determine whether and how methane from fracking operations is finding its way into reservoirs or wells, and reminds industry and public authorities that air quality as well as water is an issue.

Emissions from natural gas pipelines and extraction operations are a major issue in their own right, inasmuch as methane is a potent greenhouse gas. (One of the more startling watchdog groups I hear from regularly is Natural Gas Watch, which sends a weekly e-mail headed "This Week in Natural Gas Leaks and Explosions.") In a perfect world without gas leakage, generating electricity from gas produces between a third and a half as much GHG as coal-generated power. But to the extent gas leaks, that advantage is reduced or possibly even canceled.

Startling Smart Grid Developments

Peter Fox-Penner, a former chairman of The Brattle Group, reports some surprising developments—one of them quite disconcerting—in the latest issue of IEEE's smart grid eNewsletter.

On the positive side of the ledger, Fox-Penner finds that contrary to what one might suppose, relatively small municipal and cooperative utilities have been among the most aggressive and imaginative early adopters of smart grid technology. Cooperatives currently lead smart meter deployment, with 25 percent penetration of their customers' homes—three times the average across all utilities—according to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission

On the negative side, use of dynamic pricing across the United States is currently flat or declining rather than growing, contrary to what just about every smart grid advocate has expected or predicted. Despite an 85 percent increase in advanced metering over the past two years, the number of entities offering sophisticated pricing programs has decreased.

The numbers are dramatic: "There are 72 fewer entities offering Time of Use (TOU) Rates programs today than there were in 2008—which translates into 180,000 fewer consumers being offered TOU plans," writes Fox-Penner. "The decrease in entities offering Real Time Pricing (RTP) is even more dramatic: In 2008, 85 entities offered RTP programs and within only two years this number has shrunk to 19."

Fox-Penner concludes (uncontroversially) that evolution of the smart grid will be gradual and halting. Yet, considering the hesitant state of the whole economy, the smart gird continues to produce relatively dramatic news on a regular basis. On August 8, the New York Independent System Operator announced a $74 million smart grid initiative, with $37 million in support from the U.S. Department of Energy. That announcement coincided with the ribbon-cutting at the NYISO's new central control facility in Rensselaer, N.Y., itself a $35.5 million project.

The smart grid initiative involves installation of capacitor banks and phasor measurement units (PMUs) throughout the New York State system, which NYISO estimates will save the state $9 million per year in reduced power losses and higher reliability. "Eventually, the NYISO’s PMU network will connect with PMU networks in New England, the mid-Atlantic, the Midwest, and Ontario, Canada, to create a broader situational awareness throughout the Eastern Interconnection Planning Collaborative, a coalition of 24 transmission planning authorities in the eastern United States and Canada," says the ISO's press release.

Another seemingly positive development: The consultancy Black & Veatch reports that ComEd customers could save $2.8 billion in electricity bills over the next 20 years thanks to smarter metering, EnergyCentral reports. Well, that’s very nice, but how exciting is it actually? ComEd appears to have 3.8 million Northern Illinois customers. It takes only a little arithmetic to discover that their $2.8 billion saving translates into $36.85 per year for 20 years.

And as long as we're dwelling on details, why aren't customers already equipped with smart meters seeing savings? If they don't pretty soon, we're going to start hearing mean talk about he Stupid Grid.

U.S. Nuclear Renaissance Rockier than Ever

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.

With nuclear power still controversial at the grassroots and the projected economics of new plants still marginal at best, the approach to rejuvenating the U.S. industry has been to use existing sites. By either building additional reactors at already approved sites or resuscitating old construction projects, utilities hope to reduce the number of regulatory hurdles, avoid public outcry, and cut costs. But this approach also has pitfalls, as exemplified by the Tennessee Valley Authority's plan to restart reactor projects at its Bellefonte site in Jackson County, Ala.

The tawdry history of the Bellefonte complex is detailed in a report released today by the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE), which commissioned it. According to the report, prepared by nuclear engineer Arnold Gundersen of Fairewinds Associates, TVA originally intended to build two Babcock & Wilcox reactors at the site and got the Atomic Energy Commission's permission to proceed in 1974. Fourteen years and US $4 billion later, TVA stopped construction. Then, in 2006, it asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to terminate the construction permit. The next year, TVA hatched the idea of building two all-new Toshiba AP1000 reactors at the site. But when costs of that project mushroomed, TVA returned to the idea of completing the original two reactors—one of which was 88 percent complete when construction stopped decades ago, the other 58 percent complete—and got the NRC's go-ahead for that in February 2009.

A dissenting voice in that decision was Gregory Jaczko, who is now NRC chairman. So it would not be surprising if TVA opted for the better part of wisdom, as SACE recommends, and dropped the project rather than going back to what is sure to be a more hostile and critical NRC. Today's SACE report enumerates seven categories of problems with the idea of finishing the two reactors, none of them trivial: among them, an obsolete containment made of concrete that's already 35 years old, undocumented cannibalization of reactor components following initial termination of the project, and costly post-Fukushima design changes that will be needed.

The vaunted nuclear renaissance isn't doing much better on other fronts either. Florida ratepayers are restive at being required to pay already for new nuclear plants where ground hasn't even been broken. (One projected plant would be an expansion, the other all-new.) Congressman Markey, a persistent, well-informed and aggressive critic of the industry, is telling the NRC not to approve the beginning of construction of new reactors at Georgia's Vogtle site (where two units already operate) until the Toshiba reactor design has been fully approved. The one reactor likely to come into operation in the foreseeable future is the second unit of TVA’s Watts Barr plant in Tennessee: That project was stopped in 1988 but resumed in late 2007.

Arctic Oil Geopolitics

Shell Oil is expected to get permission from the U.S. government to begin exploratory drilling in the Beaufort Sea north of Alaska next summer. The Shall news is being interpreted as an easing of the Obama administration's policy toward offshore drilling, but it also is a reminder of the big oil and gas stakes increasingly disputed in the Arctic Ocean area.

Russia, which has coasts going about halfway around the ocean, is of course the big gorilla in the room. Three years ago, on August 2, 2007 to be exact, it got the world's attention when one of its submarines planted a Russian flag on the seabed at the North Pole. No doubt the main purpose of the expedition was to assert a point, but it also had a quasi-scientific purpose--to gather evidence to bolster Russia's claim to continental shelf reaching out to the Pole.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the Arctic may hold about one fifth of the world's remaining oil and gas reserves. Some Russian planning takes the Arctic to be crucial to the country's economic strategy and prospects, starting as early as 2020. Already, Russia's Gazprom is involved with France's Total and Norway's Statoil in developing the Shtokman field, on Russia's northern coast.

Until recently, areas along that coast were considered barely accessible, but with the summer ice thinning radically, ships are now able to traverse the fabled Northeast Passage, linking the North Atlantic to the northern Pacific. As one recent report noted, “A Norwegian cargo ship has already traversed the Northeast Passage faster than expected and without encountering any major challenges." As the Earth continues to warm, the cost of extracting Arctic oil and gas will fall, even as the need for it mounts. No wonder we're hearing some overheated rhetoric comparing the Arctic race that's shaping up to the "scramble for Africa" and the California gold rush. There's also loose talk of developing a Kennan-style containment doctrine for the Arctic, to push Russia back and give NATO a new mission.

However inflated that kind of language may be, the stakes are not trivial. Norway and Russia are maneuvering for position in the Barents Sea, where Statoil recently made its biggest find in decades, advancing their claims at the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. Denmark is engaged in the same kind of struggle with Russia over seabed north of Greenland.

Canada, which is increasingly concerned as much about control of newly opening sea routes as it is over resource claims, is purchasing eight new armed ice-breaking patrol ships, has been conducting Arctic military exercises, and is constructing a base on Ellesmere Island. The European Union is bidding for a seat on the Arctic Council, consisting of Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States. 

Nuclear Implications for China's High Speed Train Wreck

The hand-wringing over China's high-speed train wreck last month may have just begun if the government's current explanation for the crash bears out. At present, official fingers are pointing to a failure in the trains' signaling system. The firm that installed them, it now appears, provides similar equipment for the nuclear reactors that China is building just as fast as it is adding rail lines.

Beijing-based Hollysys Automation Technologies provided the control systems for the two high-speed trains wrecked in the July 23rd accident near the southern city of Wenzhou, according to a report late last month by business news site iChinaStock. In a follow-up report the site says Newport Beach, CA-based investment banking firm Roth Capital had downgraded Hollysys's stock, arguing that "fallout over the tragic incident could have far-reaching policy implications and affect the overall railway industry."

As of last year China had over 6500 kilometers of high-speed rail, more than any other country, and plans were to double that by next year. But Roth Capital argues that the crash and the removal of China's railways minister, accused of corruption this spring, are likely to delay ongoing high speed rail projects and thus hurt Hollysys revenues.

The disquieting link to China's nuclear expansions appears as an aside in iChinaStock's followup report. Hollysys is the "only certified domestic automation control systems provider to the nuclear industry in China," according to iChinaStock. China's nuclear industry shares two dangerous characteristics with its high-speed rail network: explosive expansion and strong whiffs of corruption.

According to a recent statement by China's Ministry of Environmental Protection the country had 13 reactors operating as of June, 28 more under construction, and 100 expected to be generating power by 2020. And, as with the rail network, a leading nuclear official was recently sacked under suspicion of corruption. Kang Rixin, head of the state-owned nuclear plant operator China National Nuclear Corporation, was sentenced to life in prison last November for accepting 6.6 million Yuan (US $1 million) in bribes from an equipment vendor.

The stakes, however, are incomparable. Last month's train crash killed an estimated 40 people and dented China's national pride. An accident in a Chinese reactor could be truly catastrophic. Millions could be injured or killed and, in the process, China could lose a key alternative to heavy dependence on coal.

Let's hope that China's leaders recognize the threats and insist on a more transparent approach to nuclear safety than has been exhibited with the rail crash. Official reports first blamed lightning; the burial of a twisted train car during the rescue operations was widely interpreted as a clumsy attempt to hide evidence; and state censors ordered Chinese publications to toe the rail ministry's lines.

In a hopeful sign for safety, many news outlets refused.

Solar After Dark: BrightSource Adding Molten Salt Storage for Power Plants

BrightSource Energy announced yesterday the launch of SolarPLUS, a combination of its solar tower technology and a way to store the power it generates using molten salts. Storage of solar energy has long been a sticking point, given that a solar plant can't generate power when the sun isn't shining.

Molten salt storage has been proven in other countries in recent years, as described by our own Peter Fairley in a story on the Andasol 1 plant in Spain. Like the Spanish facility, BrightSource will use a combination of sodium nitrate and potassium nitrate in its system. Basically, the salts are heated during the day when the sun is shining using a heat exchanger, and the process is reversed at night when power is needed but no sun is available.

BrightSource's solar technology involves the solar tower concept, in which a huge array of thousands of mirrors -- known as heliostats, because they track the sun across the sky -- concentrates the sun's rays on to a centralized tower. Inside the tower, steam is generated from the heat, and the steam is used to run a turbine just as in a standard power plant. The molten salt storage will allow the turbines to turn after dark. Though possible to keep them turning all night, the company says a two- to six-hour window is optimal. BrightSource is currently building the Ivanpah Solar plant in the Mojave Desert, a 392-megawatt project that has generated controversy for its use of public lands and the potential environmental harm involved.

(Image via BrightSource Energy)

Solar Slump

One of the confusing problems with the so-called Moore’s photovoltaics law, which predicts a steady decline in PV production costs, is that costs are easily confused with prices. From the point of view of solar energy's long-term commercial viability, lower prices and costs are both a good thing, of course. But from the producer's point of view,  low costs are not a good thing if they only reflect weak markets.

That unfortunately is the situation today. Since the beginning of the year, solar cell prices have dropped about 40 percent, as some government subsidies have been phased out just as production capacity has sharply increased. Prices "are now below the cash cost for many manufacturers," the Financial Times reports today--meaning presumably that prices are below production costs. The situation suggests, the British paper continues, that there will be considerable consolidation in the photovoltaics industry in the coming year.

To be sure, there are still many bright spots in what the FT can't resist calling a "cloudy" outlook with "dark days." A big one is that China has just unveiled a feed-in tariff for solar projects, Taking a cue from similar laws in Germany, Denmark, and Spain, among others, China will guarantee the price of electricity generated by solar cells. For any projects completed before 1 July this year, the price is 1.15 yuan--nearly 18 U.S. cents per kilowatt-hour--and for projects completed thereafter it will be 1 yuan.

That's great news for China's solar manufacturers but not, admittedly, for all others. Chinese producers already dominate the world market, and the feed-in tariff will help them cement their hold. 

Renewable Europe: Wind Power in EU to Triple by 2020

The European Wind Energy Association (EWEA) estimates that the wind energy capacity in the EU will nearly triple by 2020, bringing the total installed capacity up to about 230 gigawatts. At the end of 2010, the EU had about 84 GW installed.

If EWEA's "conservative estimates" prove correct, the EU will get about 16 percent of its total power supply from wind energy by the end of the decade. According to the EWEA press release today:

Electricity production from wind power is expected to increase from 182 Terawatt hours (TWh) or 5.5% of the total EU demand in 2010, to 581 TWh or 15.7% of the total demand in 2020. By 2020 the electricity production from wind energy will be equivalent to the total electricity consumption of all households in France, Germany, Poland, Spain and the United Kingdom together.

The biggest gains in wind power capacity are projected for Finland (9.6-fold increase), Poland (9.5-fold increase), and Bulgaria (8-fold increase), though none of these countries are currently among the leaders in absolute or proportional capacity. Denmark, which already gets about 25 percent of its power from wind, will see only a 1.6-fold increase, but this will bring the total to 38 percent of its power needs. Germany and Spain, which lead the way in absolute capacity, are also projected to less than 2-fold increases, but will arrive in 2020 at 17 percent and 27 percent of their total power supply, respectively.

One of the biggest growth sectors of the European renewables landscape -- and that which clearly sets it off from the United States -- is offshore wind. As of the end of June, the EU has 1,247 offshore wind turbines for an installed capacity of 3,294 MW; 101 offshore turbines were connected to the grid in just the first half of this year. The US, at last count, has zero.

(Image via Vattenfall/Flickr)

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