Energywise iconEnergywise

More Smart Meter Pushback

The United Kingdom's National Audit Office is predicting that the cost of delivering smart meters to 50 million British homes by 2020 will be considerably higher than the government projects and that it will be harder than expected to induce the desired changes in consumer behavior.

"For the money spent to provide value, we all have to change the way we behave. It is not clear how the department will stimulate this behavior change. And as technology changes, the department will have to be properly flexible to respond with up-to-date technology for the smart meters. These uncertainties can drive up costs more than planned," commented Margaret Hopf, a member of Parliament who chairs the parliamentary Committee of Public Accounts.

Separately, British citizens were also found to be broadly skeptical about smart metering costs and benefits, according to a survey conducted by The Economist magazine for the technology provider T-Systems, a subsidiary of Deutsche Telekom that has offices in California and India.

The promise of smart metering is that it will help utilities make the grid more reliable and help customers save electricity and money. Hence the multiplicity of new products being offered by major suppliers like Landis+Gyr [photo above]. Yet adverse reactions to smart metering have turned out to be surprisingly widespread in terms of both geography and concerns. For example: The Dutch have worried about home security as utilities gather more detailed information on domestic energy use, Californians about radiation from wireless communications devices in meters, and Texans about unexpected increases in electricity bills.

Inasmuch as smart metering is but the first phase of global efforts to integrate advanced computing and communications into traditional power grids, the broad pushback it's encountered indicates that the smart grid may have a tough row to hoe.

Troubled Kabul Power Plant

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.

Spectrum executive editor Glenn Zorpette, who has developed something of a subspecialty with muckraking accounts of poorly conceived electric power projects in poorly chosen war zones, has an op-ed in today's New York Times about the newly built Tarakhil power plant outside Kabul. Zorpette compares the the Afghanistan track record of the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID), which was responsible for the plant, unfavorably with that of the U.S. Corps of Army Engineers. (In an AID photo [left], the outgoing U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl W. Eikenberry, is seen at the plant.)

Zorpette's investigative work in Afghanistan builds on earlier accounts by Pratap Chatterjee, whose work has been published by CorpWatch (which does what it says) and by the Institute of Policy Studies, a left-leaning research institute in Washington, D.C.

Zorpette's earlier investigation of similar power problems in Iraq was honored with a Grand Neal business journalism award and with a National Magazine Award reporting nomination.

New York Governor Targets Indian Point

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.

New York State governor Andrew Cuomo let it be known this week that he intends to have the Indian Point nuclear power plant, on the Hudson River north of New York City, closed down when its current operating license expires. Though a state's power to close a licensed reactor is limited, Cuomo already has established himself as a man to be reckoned with, having just won major victories on gay marriage and the budget.

Critics of the governor's attitude, including New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, were quick to ask how New York City would replace electricity from Indian Point, which at present provides a quarter of the city's power. So it surely was no coincidence that Cuomo also announced this week that he would open much of upstate New York to natural gas fracking while protecting the New York City and Syracuse watersheds.

The issue of Indian Point's license renewal has centered and will continue to center on the plant's cooling system. It's a once-through plant, obtaining water from the Hudson and returning it to the river. The state has taken the position that the plant's operator, Entergy, should install cooling towers while the energy company would prefer a cheaper and more innovative "wire wedge" filtering system.

Protection of the river's fish is of course a real and legitimate issue, but everybody knows that's not the only issue.

Especially since Fukushima--but also after 9/11--New Yorkers have worried about the safety and security of these nuclear reactors and their cooling ponds, located only 45 miles north of the Empire State Building and just outside the perimeter of a metropolis with close to 20 million inhabitants.

The plant's advocates give Entergy credit for investing many millions in improving the plant, significantly enhancing its efficiency. Radio ads heard constantly by New Yorkers boast that the plant reliably provides relatively cheap electricity. And so it does. Having visited the plant, I personally came away impressed by what Entergy has done to upgrade it.

Since I am on record firmly in the pronuclear camp, let me say where I stand on Indian Point. As I see it, the plant--though a nicely running operation--is a classic case of a reactor complex that should never have been built in the first place. If a severe accident should occur, the immediately surrounding area could not possibly be evacuated, And it it were a worst-case accident involving a complete meltdown penetrating the steel reactor vessel, the Hudson River flowing into New York City would end up disastrously contaminated--permanently contaminated for all practical purposes, that is to say, from a human point of view.

My critics will say that I'm a weak-kneed nuclear advocate who just doesn't want to see a reactor in his backyard. I say I don't want to see this kind of plant in anybody's backyard. From Three Mile Island, which could have permanently contaminated Chesapeake Bay, we learned that reactors should not be built on or in major waterways. If they can't otherwise be built economically, so be it.

I see nuclear energy as an indispensable part of the solution to global warming, but the nuclear industry still has to prove itself in terms of economics and safety.

Hell Hath No Fury Like . . .

A few decades back my most significant other (that is to say, my wife) worked as an editor for a small organization called Environmental Action. Wags said it was dedicated to the promotion of physical intimacy in the woods. Actually, it was founded by the individuals who organized the first Earth Day in 1970, and it was best known--to the extent it was known at all--for its "Love Your Mother" T-shirts and poster [left].

As the editors of The Onion would have us believe these days, Mother Earth is feeling scorned and "doesn't know how to make it any clearer [she] wants everybody to leave," as one of its headlines blared a couple of weeks ago. Or as another magazine's blog put it this week, "Let's see: Today, it's a story about rising sea levels. Now, close your eyes, take a few seconds, and try to imagine what word or words could possibly go with such a story.... If 'faster,' 'far faster,' 'fastest,' or 'unprecedented' don't come to mind, then the odds are that you're not actually living on planet Earth in the year 2011."

That's just one sign of Mother Earth's self-professed defenders going into high dudgeon. In this week's Rolling Stone magazine, former vice president and presidential candidate Al Gore delivers an eloquent rant about the current state of climate politics, which he compares to a dirty Tennessee wrestling match.  Gore takes President Obama to task for not going to bat for climate legislation and, still more sharply, for never presenting to the American people "the magnitude of the climate conference." He quotes the respected presidency expert Richard Neustadt to the effect that the president's most important single power is the power to persuade and gently rebukes Obama for not exercising that power.

More interesting than any of that, perhaps, is a chart accompanying the Gore article showing how the drought-afflicted Earth of the last decade compares with what a drought-ravaged Earth will look like in the last decade of this century.

A sharper bite may be coming from another Earth steward, Connie Hedegaard, Denmark's former minister of the environment, the former chairperson of the Copenhagen climate conference, and now the European Union's environmental commissioner. She has been defending the EU's controversial new rule governing airline emissions, which will require carriers starting January 1 to participate in Europe's emissions trading scheme. Both China and the United States have taken strong exception and are challenging the rule in European court. China has cancelled an order for Airbus A380 superjumbo jets in retaliation, and the U.S. government has told the EU it does not want its airlines participating in the trading scheme. The EU's leaders take the position that the rule represents European law and have said they will not back down.

At Copenhagen, Hedegaard first faced a rebellion from third-world countries that feared the conference was going to impose mandatory carbon cuts on them and then saw the principle of differential mandatory cuts virtually scuttled because of the combined opposition of China and the United States. (China refused to commit itself to any kind of mandatory limits, and the United States refused to get into step with Kyoto in any way, shape, or form.) At the very end, Hedegaard had to relinquish the chairmanship of the conference to the Danish prime minister.

Scorned, perhaps she is now getting her revenge.

France Doubles Down on Nuclear Power

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.

French president Nicolas Sarkozy announced a new investment of 1 billion euros (US $1.4 billion) for nuclear power on Monday, bucking the European trend that has seen other countries move away from nukes in the wake of the Fukushima disaster in Japan.

France gets about three-quarters of its electricity from 58 nuclear reactors, a bigger proportion than any other country in the world. President Sarkozy told reporters on Monday that "there is no alternative to nuclear energy today."

Of course, the billion-euro investment--which will be accompanied by a further 1.3 billion euros ($1.9 billion) invested in renewable energy--is little more than a drop in the bucket when it comes to expanding nuclear power. Reactor costs run into the multiple billions, and with a new increased focus on safety after Fukushima, those costs could rise even further. The European Union's existing plants are all undergoing additional safety testing after Japan's earthquake and tsunami highlighted some of the risks.

And safety testing aside, much of Europe is taking the opposite tack from France and moving away from nuclear power. Germany has plans to shutter all of its reactors by 2022, and Switzerland, which gets almost 40 percent of its power from five nuclear reactors, will shut all of them down at the end of the reactor lifespans. A recent referendum in Italy showed that 94 percent of voters were against plans to resume a nuclear power program.

In spite of the reactions around the world to Japan's nuclear crisis, France obviously sees little upside to shelving its own nuclear power infrastructure. According to Sarkozy, putting a hold on nuclear power after Fukushima "makes no sense."

(Image via Toucanradio/Flickr)

Economics of Gas Fracking Is Called Into Question

The U.S. natural gas industry and its critics may be starting to wonder who that masked man is. Sunday's New York Times led with a major investigative article by Ian Urbina raising questions about whether the natural gas industry has overhyped the economic promise of gas fracking, with one source even calling the business a kind of Ponzi scheme and another comparing the conduct of individual companies to Enron's.

A follow-up in today's Times raises questions about the extent to which the U.S. Energy Department's Energy Information Administration and other agencies have relied on the gas industry for information about itself.

Earlier in the year, Urbina wrote another high-impact investigative article about gas fracking in which he raised important issues about water management, especially the regulation of fracking fluid disposal in Pennsylvania.

U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Federal Greenhouse Gas Regulation

Yesterday's unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision rejecting a state suit against electric power companies crosses political lines in complicated ways. Brought in 2004 by six states, New York City, and three land trusts, it sought to force utilities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; it had the support of environmental groups and was strenuously opposed by the electric power industry. Yet the decision is being hailed by the Obama administration as a victory, because it wishes to keep regulation of greenhouse gas emissions firmly in the control of the Environmental Protection Agency. And environmentalists, even in tactical defeat, are taking it as a signal for EPA to proceed forcefully. "Now the EPA must act without delay," said NRDC attorney David Doniger, who had supported the suit. "In this case," commented the Financial Times, "the EPA found itself in the rare position of being supported by the big coal companies."

The bottom line would seem to be this: In unanimously upholding EPA's authority in the domain of climate change, the court is reaffirming its 2007 decision that EPA could regulate greenhouse gases and should in fact do so if scientifically warranted. The 2007 decision has been challenged by states like Virginia, and House Republicans have introduced a bill instructing EPA not to regulate greenhouse gases. Yesterday's decision indicates that state challenges to the 2007 decision will not stand, and it takes political wind away from the sails of those seeking to block EPA action.

NOTE: In at least one earlier blog post, I incorrectly reported that former justice Sandra Day O'Connor was the swing vote in the 5-4 Supreme Court decision on carbon regulation. In fact, O'Connor had already left the court, and Bush appointees Alito and Roberts were already on the court. So the liberal-conservative political balance on the court is essentially the same today as it was then, contrary to what I suggested before.

Breaking Ground: Work Starts on World's Biggest Solar Plant

California governor Jerry Brown and U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar were both on hand on Friday for the ground-breaking ceremony of what will be the largest solar power plant in the world. The Blythe Solar Power Project, in Riverside County, Calif., will be home to 1,000 megawatts of solar thermal power.

The Blythe project, along with others like the much discussed Ivanpah project, represents a trend toward truly utility-scale solar power. Moving these projects forward to the point of actually beginning construction has been a challenge, with wildlife and other concerns standing in the way. In the case of Blythe, developer Solar Millennium was required by the Bureau of Land Management to fund 8,000 acres of protected land for desert tortoises and other threatened species. This is intended to roughly offset the 7,030 acres that will be disturbed by construction and by the resulting solar thermal plant. There have also been water-related issues to overcome, which changed the initial design.

Blythe will be built in phases, with the first electricity flowing toward homes—about 300,000 of them—by 2013. And though no large solar plants like this yet exist, Blythe will soon be followed by others: In 2010 alone, the BLM approved solar projects on public lands that total more than 3,500 megawatts of capacity. To put that in context, the Solar Energy Industries Association put the total installed solar capacity in the United States at the end of 2010 at only 2,593 megawatts.

(Image via Solar Millennium AG)

German Wind Bigger Than Ever

Siemens has announced installation in the sea off Denmark of its prototype 6-megawatt wind turbine, which has a rotor diameter of 120 meters and yet weighs only 350 tons. The company boasts that the machine's relatively low weight is pathbreaking. "In tendency, large wind turbines have always been heavier per megawatt than small ones," comments Henrik Stiesdal, CTO of Siemens's wind power business unit. "Reaching this low weight with a strong and robust machine is the result of targeted innovation combined with our more than 30 years of wind industry experience."

Just in terms of electrical capacity, the new Siemens turbine is astonishing. Yet it is not the only such very large wind machine and is not in fact the current record setter. Three years ago, Enercon unveiled a 7-MW wind turbine, the E-126. The first of that series was installed on land, in Emden, Germany.

Given Germany's decision to phase out all nuclear energy on an accelerated basis, the bigger-than-ever wind turbines could not be arriving at a better time. As if in anticipation of the new situation, the German Ministry of Environment, Nature Protection, and Reactor Safety last September issued an "Immediate 10-Point Program" in connection with the government's general "energy concept."   

If you happen to be wondering why your own country is not more daring and determined in its energy planning, the 10 points make for interesting reading.

Three of the first five points deal specifically with expediting construction of large wind farms in Germany's North and Baltic Seas. Several more are directly relevant to the viability of wind energy: new procedures to involve all stakeholders in grid planning, formulation of preconditions for a "coherent and Germany-wide grid expansion,"  a public information offensive to explain why building out the national power grid is essential to going green, financial breaks for energy storage systems, and so on.

In the context of the 10-point "immediate program," the government has authorized the quasipublic KfW Bank Group to make large concessional loans to bank consortia supporting large new wind projects and even to participate directly in such consortia. KfW may make loans of up to 400 million euros on a matching basis and still more, under certain conditions, if there are legitimate cost overruns. Taking that into account, total per-project KfW credit can go as high as 700 million euros (roughly US $1 billion).

Obama Administration Unveils 21st Century Grid Vision

There are some nice elements in the smart grid package that the White House rolled out today: a $250 million Agriculture Department loan program to advance grid modernization in rural areas; a collaborative private sector initiative, "Grid 21," to promote consumer-friendly grid tech; Energy Department projects to improve consumer access to energy information. Most interesting perhaps is the creation of an interagency Renewable Energy Rapid Response Team, to "improve Federal coordination and ensure timely review of proposed renewable energy projects and transmission lines."

But in view of the enormity of the jobs to be done, some surveying the administration's press releases and game plan will come away worrying about the location of the beef. Tellingly, the 95-page vision statement issued today by the Cabinet-level National Science and Technology Council contains just two-and-a-half pages under the chapter heading, "Progress Made to Date." Almost all that progress has to do with smart meter installation programs driven by the $10-billion package of grants and loan guarantees in the 2009 recovery bill.

Readers may judge for themselves, starting perhaps with the White House smart grid fact sheet posted today.


Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the EnergyWise newsletter and get biweekly news on the power & energy industry, green technology, and conservation delivered directly to your inbox.

Load More