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DOE Ramps Up "Clean Coal" Initiatives

The Department of Energy recently announced that $154 million in funding will head toward Thompsons, Texas, where NRG Energy will build a post-combustion carbon capture and sequestration project. The CCS technology will theoretically scrub clean the emissions from NRG's W. A. Parish Unit 7, a coal-fired power plant.

The plant will use a company called Fluor Corporation's to capture the emitted carbon dioxide, and the company's press release [PDF] says it will be capable of grabbing 90 percent of the CO2. For the plant in question, this will be equivalent to about 400,000 tons each year.

The captured gas will then be compressed, and used in enhanced oil recovery operations and sequestered in oilfields nearby. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu said "Advancing our carbon capture and storage technology will create new jobs in America and reduce our carbon pollution output. It’s another example of our country’s innovation at work."

Of course, it isn't hard to find people to point out the flaws in "clean coal" arguments. Sometimes it's a myth, other times... well, it's a myth a lot of the time, apparently. Environmental groups and renewable energy advocates point out that even if the carbon dioxide can be captured and stored safely - technology that has yet to be rolled out on a large, commercial scale - there is plenty still dirty about mountaintop removal mining, or even about traditional mining.

Still, President Obama has repeatedly touted the idea of clean coal, and Secretary Chu is clearly on board. So for the moment, projects like the NRG Energy plant will move forward, and the myth will perpetuate.

Image via Arnold Paul on Wikimedia Commons.

U.S. Wind Industry Calls for Renewable Energy Standard

This week the American Wind Energy Association assembled a bunch of energy industry executives to make a pitch to the press for a national renewable energy standard, that is, a mandate requiring utilities to generate certain proportions of electricity from renewable sources by certain dates. They argued that such a standard would create jobs, promote green tech manufacturing in the United States, and catch up with other countries that have been leading the way in renewables. "RES is the way we've done it across the world and across the country," said one participant, observing that 29 U.S. states have adopted renewable energy standards.

The trend is real but the assertion dubious. The European countries that have forged ahead the fastest in renewables--Germany, Denmark, and Spain--have done so not primarily with renewables standards but by means of feed-in tariffs: Any party that generates electricity from a designated renewable source is guaranteed definite returns as of specified dates, every such party is entitled to sell the electricity into the national grid, and the added costs are allocated among all ratepayers. The feed-in tariff has an enormously powerful stimulus not just to production but to R&D as well, in that the more cheaply you can make electricity from whatever renewable you use, the higher the profit you're sure to make.

What's wrong with relying on renewable energy standards instead? One big thing is that an RES encourages projects of dubious worth, which in the long run can backfire, as concerns about excessive costs and inadequate performance set it. RES implementation also depends as a rule on complicated systems of renewable energy credits that rivals, in terms of bookkeeping and administrative overhead, the cap-and-trade carbon systems that are so much in fashion.

Speaking of which, as prospects dim for congressional adoption of a really effective U.S. carbon trading regime, Columbia University's Jeffrey R. Sachs suggests we revisit the whole question of how to approach greenhouse gas regulation. Writing in the current issue of Scientific American, Sachs takes the White House to task for leaving negotiation of a climate bill to Congress and lobbyists. "The result is sprawling draft legislation, hard for the public to understand and replete with hidden and overt financial transfers to vested interests." (Sound familiar?) Sachs proposes instead that EPA should regulate carbon aggressively and that the government should reconsider a national carbon tax after all. (Cap and trade was supposed to be the more politically palatable approach, but if it's not palatable after all, why not adopt a much simpler and much more transparent tax bill?) Above all, says Sachs, "the public needs to hear a plan." The Obama administration has promised to reduce U.S. emissions 17 percent by 2020, but how exactly is that to be achieved?

Surpisingly Modest Solar Growth Is Predicted

Lux Research, in a recent message to energy reporters, predicts that world solar installation will total 26.4 GW or $77 billion in 2015, as compared with an estimated 9.3 GW and $39 billion in 2010. Considering that Lux is a top analyst covering the solar trade (both photovoltaics and thermal), what's striking about its latest projections is how modest and conservative they are. Going to 26.4 GW from 9.3 GW in just five years may seem like an impressive rate of increase, but in fact it's barely over 20 percent per annum. Estimates of how much the solar business grew from 2007 to 2008--the most recent year available as yet--were as high as 62 percent or even 78 percent. Solarbuzz reported around this time last year that shipments of PV panels had increased 110 percent in 2008.

Lux's projection of solar growth rates in the range of 20-25 percent suggests a conclusion by the firm that the boom peaked the year before last. Still, aren't the projected rates still pretty good, and won't it be an impressive achievement if  more than 25 GW of solar are installed in 2015? Yes, but let's keep those numbers in perspective. China alone saw its total installed electrical capacity go from 300 GW in 2000 to 900 GW in 2010--an average of 60 GW per year, if you just divide 600 GW by 10. In fact, the totals installed have been increasing year by year, so that in the most recent years added annual capacity in China has come to well over 60 GW, by any estimates. It's often said indeed that just the amount of new Chinese  coal generating capacity added yearly is roughly equivalent to total British generating capacity, which is somewhat in excess of 80 GW.

So, if countries like China, India, Brazil, Indonesia, and Russia continue to grow at the remarkable rates they've registered in recent years, briskly expanding their power systems, 25 or 26 GW will represent a significant slice of their new generating capacity in 2015--but it will still be just a slice.

Spain Could Get 7 Percent of its Power From Waste

A study published in the journal Renewable Energy found that Spain could produce up to 7.42 percent of its total electricity needs from various types of waste.

Municipal solid waste, sewage sludge and livestock manure all can be converted into energy using various processes, but the investigators, led by Antonio Gomez at the University of Zaragoza, found that the first of those options provides the most cost-effective means of electricity generation. Converting solid waste through incineration and landfill degasification was half as cheap (about 4 euro cents per kilowatt-hour, or about 5.5 US cents) as converting sludge and manure (more than 8 euro cents).

There could be as much as 4.4 million tons of oil equivalent in the country's municipal solid waste, which could produce 15 TWh per year, representing more than 5 percent of Spain's 2006 energy consumption. Landfill degasification could account for another 1.42 percent of the total.

"It gives added value to waste, because it can be seen as a type of fuel with zero cost, or even a negative cost if taxes are paid to collect it," said another of the researchers, Norberto Fueyo, in a press release. Waste in landfills releases the greenhouse gas methane, so using the waste as an energy source reduces emissions both in the avoidance of fossil fuels as well as reductions in landfill gases.

Momentum on waste-to-energy ideas has picked up recently, with the US Department of Energy giving out more than $130 million [PDF] to two companies (Enerkem and BlueFire) looking to open plants that will convert waste to cellulosic ethanol for use in vehicles. We also wrote last week about British Airways' new waste-to-jetfuel plant. It took a while, but trash is finally being put to good use.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Cursed Efforts to Diagnose and Correct Climate Panel's Accursed Himalayan Glacier Errors

The discovery of several errors concerning the fate of Himalayan glaciers in a report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has been an acute embarrassment to a group that recently was awarded a Nobel Prize and which has generally been considered authoritative by the press, public, and policymakers. It turns out that the errors arose from a complicated and seemingly cursed series of attributions and mis-attributions. What is more, according to what is to date the best and most detailed analysis, attempts to set the record straight have themselves been cursed.

"Dozens of articles and analyses of this situation, whether dashed-off blog posts or New York Times coverage, exhibit a curious consistency," say Bidasha Banerjee and George Collins, Yale graduate students. "Not a single article or analysis appears to include all relevant issues without introducing at least one substantial error. It's as though the original documents contained a curse that has spread to infect every commentator and reporter.  The curse seems to stem from not reading sources carefully (or not at all), which, ironically, was the IPCC Working Group II's central failing, and also a major issue in the documents that were the basis of the defective paragraph."

One person who comes in for some criticism both for inadevertently contributing to the IPCC errors and for not adequately elucidating them after the fact is Fred Pearce. It's not damning criticism, however, and Pearce's analysis of the climategate e-mail imbroglio--a separate but almost equally embarrassing matter to the climate community--is still well worth reading for the perspectives it offers. Pearce is a long-time and well-known contributor to Britain's New Scientist magazine; his article can be found at Yale's excellent environment360 website, which has just been honored with a National Magazine Award nomination in digital media.

The article by Banerjee and Collins is to be found at the equally excellent website, the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media.

Famed Texas Energy Takeover Runs into Heavy Weather

In fall 2007, the world's most accomplished practitioner of the leveraged buyout and corporate reorganization, K.K.R., engineered the biggest private equity takeover in history, buying TXU, the top Texas electricity company. What made the deal especially newsworthy was that K.K.R.'s Henry Kravis formulated it in close collaboration with Fred Krupp, the highly paid and hugely influential CEO of Environmental Defense (now once again the Environmental Defense Fund), as well as leaders of the Natural Resources Defense Council. The executives of EDF and NRDC, arguably the two most technically expert and politcally sophisticated environmental advocacy organizations in the United States, obtained from K.K.R. and TXU a commitment to ditch plans for 8 of 11 coal-fired power plants.

Writing in this space not long after, Spectrum editor-in-chief Susan Hassler raised some pertinent questions: Was the deal as green as it looked? Might the coal plants have been scuttled anyway? Assuming the new coal plants were actually needed, where then would Texas find alternative generation? Would those sources be as green as promised? Hassler quoted one analyst as saying that while the deal showed that climate change had emerged as a big factor in electricity planning, it might also have "provided TXU an escape strategy from its ill-fated plan to build 11 new coal plants in Texas."

At the time nobody seemed to wonder whether the plan was financially sound, probably because it was concocted by one of Wall Street's favorite wizards, with the support of an environmental leader who makes a point of matching the lifestyles of the CEOs he negotiates with. But in a long analytic article that appeared in the business section of last Sunday's New York Times, reporters Jenny Anderson and Julie Creswell suggest that the deal had a near-fatal flaw: It was in effect "a gargantuan bet that natural gas prices would keep climbing," but instead they plummeted; as a result those who financed $40 billion of the $48 billion deal " have seen losses," with their bonds trading at 70 or 80 cents on the dollar.

The Times article, though long, raises as many questions as it answers, and is not always as clear as it might be. Why was the deal a big bet on higher natural gas prices? Because, the authors say, electricity prices in the competitive Texas market are mainly governed by gas prices; thus, if a company like Energy Future Holdings (the former TXU) can generate a lot of electricity using cheap coal, it stands to make big profits if can sell the electricity at prices determined by expensive gas.

But wait a minute: Wasn't TXU supposed to be weaning itself off coal? And didn't it promise, as Hassler reported, to buy a lot more electricity generated by wind? If the company is buying more electricity in the open market, shouldn't it also benefit from lower prices? Which is it?

No mention is made in the New York Times article of nuclear energy. But within months of the K.K.R. takeover and coal plant cancellations, Texas announced plants to invest heavily in nuclear generation. The big Japanese nuclear manufacturers--Hitachi, Toshiba, Mitsubishi--began angling for business. But in the last year Texan nuclear prospects have dimmed markedly, with a San Antonio project hanging in the balance. Could false nuclear expectations have played a part in the 2007 transaction? It would be an interesting question to put to EDF and NRDC leaders, some of whom have turned quietly pro-nuclear because of climate concerns but still hesitate to tell their constituents four-square where they stand.

Radioactive Clean-Up, Venus Flytrap-Style

A Venus flytrap doesn't snap shut for just anything. It knows when something edible lands on its leaves, just as a newly developed framework of metal sulfide knows when a radioactive cesium ion has dropped into its "jaws."

Researchers at the Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago created a rigid structure that carries a negative charge. The substance, made of layers of [(CH3)2NH2]+ and [Ga2Sb2S7]2−, has pores which attract positively charged ions when in solution. Sodium ions, which account for the harmless part of nuclear waste, move freely in and out of the framework when it is immersed in water. The other part, though, is not harmless: cesium atoms are highly radioactive, can leach into soil and water and stay in the environment for decades (like they have at Chernobyl). They also bonded to the sulfide framework, but they didn't escape like the sodium could.

"Imagine the framework like a Venus flytrap," said one of the researchers involved, Mercouri Kanatzidis, in a press release. "When the plant jaws are open, you can drop a pebble in and the plant won't close—it knows it isn't food. When a fly enters, however, the plant's jaws snap shut." The research was published in Nature Chemistry.

Cesium does not bond as freely with water as does sodium, which explains the difference when the cesium atoms enter the framework and can't get out again. The authors say this could eventually be used to aid in cleanup of nuclear waste or disaster zones.

"The dynamic response we describe here provides important insights for designing new materials for the selective removal of difficult-to-capture ions," the investigators wrote in the paper's abstract.

Photo via Argonne Nat. Lab on Flickr.

British Airways to Green Itself Up With Waste-to-Fuel Plant

Traditional biofuel processes have been slammed in recent years for their effects on land use and food prices, as well as apparently limited overall reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Momentum has been growing, though, on some newer sources for biofuel production, like algae and solid waste.

Turning waste biomass into something useful could, if done on a large scale, potentially play a huge role in global warming mitigation. And now one of the biggest industry contributors - airlines - to the global emission of carbon dioxide is jumping on that bandwagon. British Airways will open a biofuel production plant in London that will convert 500,000 tonnes of waste that would otherwise head to a landfill each year into about 16 million gallons of jet fuel. The plan is in partnership with Solena Group, a Washington-based company that owns the process that will convert waste biomass into SynBioGas. From that, the Fischer-Tropsch process is used to produce bio jetfuel and bionaphtha (used as a blending component in gasoline and as a feedstock in petrochemical processes).

The airline promises that the plant itself will be carbon-neutral, and that the production and use of the biofuel in British Airway jets will save 550,000 tonnes of emitted carbon dioxide. For comparison, the airline itself calculated its carbon footprint in 2008 at 17,714,897 tonnes, so if these estimates are correct than the new plant represents about a 3 percent reduction. And at the same time, British Airways continues to stand behind plans for a third runway at Heathrow Airport, a plan that would increase the airport's capacity, probably resulting in many more carbon-spewing flights, and has drawn the ire of many who say it will be environmentally disastrous.

But the British Airways announcement highlights the current trend toward the development of biofuels for use in jets. Other than waste biomass, algae has shown the most promise for biofuel production, as it also does not supplant food crops like corn and can theoretically be carbon neutral. Whether or not other airlines follow suit immediately, chances seem good that jet fuel will be at least mildly more carbon-friendly in the near future.

Image: U.S. Navy via Wikimedia Commons.

EPA Carbon Regulation Is Challenged

Three years ago, in a dramatic ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court said that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency could and possibly should regulate carbon as a pollutant. Subsequently, the head of the Bush Administration's Environmental Protection Agency declined to declare carbon a dangerous pollutant, evidently contradicting findings of his own staff. The Obama EPA lost little time reversing that finding and has set about preparing carbon rules, to be issued soon. Meanwhile, the administration's hopes to get a strong cap-and-trade carbon bill through Congress have dimmed, as the president's political position has steadily weakened, coal-state Democrats have rebelled, and presumed former allies like Sen. John McCain--cosponsor of an early cap-and-trade bill--have jumped ship. Under these straitened circumstances, EPA authority to regulate carbon unilaterally has seemed to be the administration's trump card: If Congress refuses to enact an adequate carbon bill, well then, the administration can just regulate carbon directly.

Now, however, EPA's regulation of carbon is being widely challenged, in part on the basis of disclosures about the East Anglia Climate Research Unit and IPCC procedures ("climategate"). Alabama, Virginia, and Texas are contesting or planning to contest EPA's regulations, and so is a group of non-governmental organizations comprising the Competitive Enterprise Institute, FreedomWorks, and the Science and Environmental Policy Project. The CEI petition specifically cites a BBC interview with Phil Jones, the temporarily suspended head of the East Anglia CRU, in which Jones says that there has been no statistically significant warming in the last 15 years and that the rate of warming has not increased in the last 25 years, by comparison with earlier warming periods.

In the Virginia petition, the state's attorney general complains that the EPA carbon finding would be a "staggering burden" on the state's agriculture, manufacturing, and energy industry and "in truth the cost of living for every single Virginian." Dismissing threats associated with climate change such as sea level rise, droughts, and floods, the Texas attorney general said, with reference to climategate disclosures, that "a cadre of activist scientists [have been] colluding and scheming to advance what they want science to be."

As it happens, the Texas state climatologist has taken direct issue with the attorney general's claims: though natural concentrations of greenhouse gases are essential to life on earth, "it is also apparent that if atmospheric concentrations of the six greenhouse gases continue to rise due to human influence, the Earth would eventually reach a point where there would be massive disruptions of ecosystems, changes in sea level, decreases in air quality, and so forth," said John Nielsen-Gammon, in a formal statement. As for the Jones BBC interview, it's important to note that the East Anglia scientist also expressed total confidence that the earth is warming and near-total confidence that most warming since 1950 is man-made.

The mainstream climate science community and advocates of strong action on global warming have dismissed allegations arising from climategate as highly exaggerated, but there's no denying that disclosures have given opponents of action a lot of ammunition. Could EPA be disqualified from regulating carbon directly, and could Obama lose his political trump card?

In the closely contested Supreme Court decision of April 2, 2007, Massachusetts vs. EPA, the deciding vote was cast by Sandra Day O'Connor, the moderate conservative appointed by Ronald Reagan. In the meantime, the Bush administration filled that slot and one other with more uniformly pro-business conservatives, while Obama has replaced one rather liberal justice with another. So, in terms of environmental regulation, the balance has shifted from 5-4 pro-environment to 5-4 pro-business. Thus, if the issue of EPA carbon regulation were to be reheard today, the decision would almost certainly go the other way.

To be sure, the Supreme Court is traditionally reluctant to reverse its own opinions, especially those that are exceptionally important and very recent. To do so obviously undermines the authority of the court. But in this particular case, should it wind it way up to the highest court, the justices would not necessarily have to throw out its previous ruling to undo EPA's efforts at carbon regulation. This is because it's not EPA authority to consider regulating carbon that's being challenged, but only the specific way in which it's exercised that authority.

Maybe this is one reason why EPA administrator Lisa P. Jackson is letting it be known that the agency will regulate carbon with a light hand. "I share your goals of ensuring economic recovery at this critical time and of addressing greenhouse gas emissions in sensible ways," she recently wrote to eight coal-state Democrats.

This much is sure: How cap-and-trade legislation and EPA carbon regulation play out in the next six months will be overwhelmingly the most important single factor affecting development of all new green energy technology in the United States in the next ten years, from advanced cars and mass transit to electricity generation and the smart grid.



Fuel Cell Hype and Hopes

Fuel cells deserved to hit the headlines this week, but not the way that it played out. The big splash came thanks to CBS News' 60 MINUTES and heavy hyping of a stationary fuel cell developer emerging from stealth-mode development. More surprising, and of real significance, was a projection yesterday by Pike Research that fuel cell-equipped vehicles will go commercial in just 4 years.

The problem with Bloom Energy's Bloom Box stationary fuel cell is that, despite 60 MINUTES' assertion that it might be the holy grail to free Americans shackled to a coal-fired grid, the company has yet to deliver a product. Moreover, the technology is hardly new.

The Bloom Box will use stacks of solid oxide fuel cells to electrochemically turn natural gas into power, eliminating the pollution that comes with fuel combustion. Some fuel cell experts have been blistering in their criticism of Bloom and its hypers. "I'm actually pretty pissed off about it, to be quite honest," is how Nigel Sammes, an SOFC expert at the Colorado School of Mines, expressed his emotions on the Bloom Box to National Geographic. "It really is nothing new. Go to any [SOFC] Web site and you'll see the same stuff."

It's also a market that has been tried before. In fact, more than 200 stationary fuel cell generators were already operating a decade ago when United Technologies first raised the technology's profile, installing a pair in NYC's Four Times Square office tower--an early development in what's since become a green building craze (see Energy to Count On from the August 17, 1999 issue of the New York Times). The 200-kW generators, using an older phosphoric acid electroyte design, generate enough power the tower's nighttime electric demand, and turning waste heat into space and water heating.

If stationary fuel cell's haven't taken off it's because they produce power at higher cost than the grid, and there's no evidence that the Bloom Box will fix that. Cost estimates given by Bloom of 8-9 cts/kwh include healthy subsidies that cut the price in half.

Pike's largely overlooked report, in contrast, challenges the tendency of late to write-off the role of fuel cells in vehicles. The idea of hydrogen-power fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) has taken a beating ever since Joseph Romm, now editor of the Climate Progress blog, released his critical and influential 2004 book: The Hype About Hydrogen: fact and fiction in the race to save the climate. The fuel cells, said the critics, were too expensive and froze in cold weather, while hydrogen would be hard to produce and store (and required a wholly new fueling network).

But automakers haven't given up on FCVs. They've been chipping away at the technology, and the lithium battery-powered electric vehicles that are now the rage at auto shows remain an uncertain bet given their limited range and high cost relative to gasoline cars. As Pike notes, eight automakers (Daimler, Ford, GM, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Renault/Nissan and Toyota) vowed last fall to bring FCVs to the market by 2015. Their prediction is that automakers will roll out commercial FCVs in small number in 2014, then produce over 100,000 in 2015, with over 2.8 million FCVs on the road by 2020.

The wildcard according to Pike: whether governments and hydrogen producers establish the fueling stations needed to grow FCVs beyond a niche market.


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