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Spain and France Ready HVDC Connection

Siemens is building power converter stations for a 2000 MW high-voltage, direct-current underground transmission line that will connect France's Languedoc and Spain's Catalonia, regions that have deep cultural and linguistic ties but are separated by the Pyrenees The record-capacity, 65-kilometer-long cables are to come into operation in two years and will carry current at 320 kilovolts.

"The centerpiece of the HVDC Plus power converter stations," says Siemens, "is a converter based on IGBT (insulated gate bipolar transistors) which transforms the alternating current into direct-current and back again. By contrast with grid-commutated power converter technology, the HVDC Plus system works with turn-off power semiconductors, so that the commutation processes in the power converter are completely independent of the grid voltage. Very fast control and protective intervention in the power converter makes for a highly dynamic system, which is essential especially for coping with grid faults and disturbance in the three-phase ac network."

As northeastern Spain is more tightly linked to the European grid system,  could electricity prices drop and prospects improve for desalination plants built in Catalonia? Right now a partially built 300-million-euro plant at Torrevieja is sitting idle, without electricity or seawater access, as regional and national authorities feud about its advisability and costs. Wherever such plants are proposed, water and energy needs tend to collide. Tiny Malta gets 40 percent of its freshwater from desalination plants, and Jordan (photo above)--relying on a intelligent water management systems--has plans to move in a similar direction.

Fukushima's Collateral Effects

smoke from No.4 reactor at Fukushima
Photo: TEPCO/Reuters
Special Report: Fukushima and the Future of Nuclear Power
Fire and smoke are seen at a building for sampling from seawater near No.4 reactor of the Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear 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 and our timeline.

What a difference six months make. Last fall, at a smart grid technical meeting organized by IEEE's Communications Society, a Japanese speaker said that his country had no particular interest in making its electric power system more reliable, as it already was very close to 100 percent reliable.

Now we are hearing that because of the Fukushima catastrophe and the temporary shut-down of other nuclear power plants, there are almost sure to be summer shortages that will require the government to impose electricity rationing. The Financial Times reports that Tepco's peak load during last year's (unusually hot) summer was 60 gigawatts; the amount of generating capacity expected to be available this coming summer will be 52 GW. As reported here, Japan's bifurcated national grid will complicate the job of getting electricity to where it's needed.

In a shattering investigative article that led The New York Times on Wednesday this week, reporters Norimitsu Onishi and Ken Belson describe a "culture of complicity" that drastically weakened nuclear regulation in Japan. A revolving door between industry and government involving "ascent to heaven" and "descent from heaven" meant that regulators relied on industry people to do their technical work, so that in effect the foxes were guarding the henhouse.

That system will obviously have to be drastically reformed if Japan's nuclear industry is to recover public confidence and the country as a whole is to restore its technical reputation. The effects could go even beyond that. The Chernobyl catastrophe was a not insignificant factor in the Soviet Union's loss of legitimacy and the collapse of Russian communism. We won't be seeing a political revolution in Japan, of course, but we may see something close to it: a calling into question of the cozy government-big business system that has dominated the country since World War II.

ARPA-E Aims to Engineer Efficient Biofuel Crops

The fourth round of funding from the DOE's Advanced Research Projects Agency -- Energy, or ARPA-E, includes up to $30 million for the newly announced PETRO project. PETRO, or Plants Engineered To Replace Oil, looks to create new or modified plants that "capture more energy from sunlight and convert that energy directly into fuels."

Current biofuel crops suffer from low-efficiency energy conversion both from the sun and then in the processes we use to turn them into fuel, which means relatively low yields of fuel per acre. This, of course, leads to the seemingly paradoxical problem of biofuels from plants such as corn ending up with equal or even higher carbon dioxide emissions (when full lifecycle analyses are included) than traditionally dirtier fuels.

And carbon emissions aside, there is also the threat of biofuel crops displacing food crops, raising food prices around the world. This was evident in 2008 when food prices spiked, and it seems to be happening again now. There are many possible reasons for corn's 53 percent price increase in 2010, but the U.S. policy on corn ethanol undoubtedly plays a role. By 2022, the United States is mandated to produce 36 billion gallons of biofuel; even in 2010, with a 12 billion gallon requirement, close to 40 percent of the corn produced went to ethanol production.

All of that is to say that the ARPA-E goal to increase efficiency and yield per acre would, if successful, have wide-ranging and beneficial impacts. The PETRO project is described as follows:

ARPA-E seeks to fund technologies that optimize the biochemical processes of energy capture and conversion to develop robust, farm-ready crops that deliver more energy per acre with less processing prior to the pump. If successful, PETRO will create biofuels for half their current cost, finally making them cost-competitive with fuels from oil.

This joins other ARPA-E initiatives on cleaner fuels, including their direct solar fuels project and an umbrella biomass project that includes some work on advanced fuels.

(Image via Steve Jurvetson)

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.

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.

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)

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.

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.*


* 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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