Energywise iconEnergywise

Looming U.S. Battle on Fast Trains

In the U.S. budget proposal for the next fiscal year unveiled this week, the Obama administration is seeking $53 billion to promote development of fast train lines like those in Europe and Japan.

"At least two projects—a proposed Tampa-to-Orlando route in Florida and a planned San Francisco-to-Los Angeles route—would allow trains to reach upward of 200 miles per hour, rivaling trains in Europe and Asia," as The Wall Street Journal noted in a report.

Besides generating jobs and pushing the United States to catch up with rivals in a key area of infrastructural technology, greater use of trains has the potential to reduce gasoline consumption, boost energy independence, and cut carbon emissions--all fundamental administration goals.

Republicans in the House of Representatives, where U.S. spending bills have to originate under the Constitution, have made the trains spending proposal a tactical point of attack in efforts to rein in Federal spending, cut the deficit, and strike an alternative strategic approach to promoting economic growth.

As such, the looming battle over train funding is just the opening wedge in what will be a comprehensive attack on the administration's approach to energy and climate policy.

At the level of state government, where Republicans enormously strengthened their position in the November midterm elections, efforts are being made widely to roll back renewable energy portfolio requirements--mandates enacted by more than half the states in the country to have a certain fraction of electricity generated from renewable sources by certain dates.

Perhaps the most important fight will be over the Environmental Protection Agency's plans to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, as the Supreme Court authorized--indeed virtually required--several years ago. In somewhat startling testimony that EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson delivered to a congressional committee, she said that the agency's intentions are consistent with plans already initiated and formulated by former President George W. Bush's environmental chief.

Smart Grid Education

Mel Olken and his team at IEEE Power & Energy magazine have outdone themselves this month with an exceptional issue about collaboration between the state of Illinois and the Republic of Korea in smart grid technology. The opener is devoted to a far-sighted initiative by the Illinois Institute of Technology to meet future engineering needs.

With an initial grant of $5 million from the U.S. Department of Energy, the Chicago polytechnic has established the IIT Smart Grid Education and Workforce Training Center. The aim is to mobilize energy companies, labor unions, pre-college educators, community colleges, and universities to arouse interest among young people in the smart grid and recruit some of them for advanced training.

As the article spells out, the need is urgent. Each year U.S. colleges graduate about 800-1,000 engineering students who have expressed interest in electric power, and about 550 graduate students obtain advanced degrees in power engineering. Yet electric utilities are expected to need 7,000 newly minted engineers in the next five years, and total industrial and governmental demand could be twice that.

The problem begins, according to surveys cited in the article, in kindergarten. By the time most pupils get to high school, they know little about engineering and are not equipped mathematically  and scientifically to pursue advanced education in the field. So IIT, teaming up with Argonne National Laboratory and community colleges, is starting with preparation of units geared to pre-college students.

This is not all. The IIT initiative is evolving in the context of a broader collaboration between Illinois and South Korea described in a second article in Power & Energy. A third article describes a Korean national program "laying the foundation for a low-carbon green-growth economy by building a smart grid." A third article describes how Korea and Illinois are jointly exploring community sustainability initiatives, and a fourth discusses "smart renewable energy development" in Korea.

Willi Dansgaard in Memoriam

Willi Dansgaard, the great Danish paleoclimatologist, died on January 8. His passing has received remarkably little notice in the world press, though the New York Times published an appreciative obituary today. Were there a Nobel Prize in the earth sciences, he surely would have been a recipient. As it was he had to content himself with the Tyler Prize, the highest award given for environmental research, which he shared with Hans Oeschger, the Swiss glaciologist with whom his work was closely linked, and Claude Lorius, a French scientist.

It was Dansgaard who discovered that the temperature of the earth's atmosphere could be inferred from the isotopic composition of rainwater and snow, and who then realized that the past temperatures of the atmosphere could be extracted from ice cores. Oeschger made himself the world's foremost expert on the measurement of carbon dioxide and other gases found in ice cores. Their work led eventually to a complete year-by-year reconstruction of the earth's climate going back a million years, through a handful of ice ages, showing a powerful linear relationship between greenhouse gas levels and temperatures. Lorius led a team that produced an early version of that record, going back hundreds of thousands of years, based on drilling in Antarctica.

Dansgaard and Oeschger also discovered cycles in which drastic climate changes were found to occur much more rapidly than anybody had imagined--on the scale of decades, rather than hundreds or thousands of years. Though Dansgaard was a rather apolitical person, the discovery of abrupt climate change put it on the global agenda, leading to language in the Rio Framework Convention on Climate Change calling for measures to prevent "dangerous" climate change.

It's regrettable that we don't have a Nobel prize in the geosciences, and not merely for personal reasons. There's altogether too little appreciation of the fact that a revolution occurred in the earth sciences in the second half of the twentieth century, as science historian Spencer Weart has observed, and that the study of the biosphere remains one of the most dynamic of the physical sciences today. Yet earlier this week the Washington Post published an excellent article detailing how most of the major U.S. satellites dedicated to monitoring changes on the Earth's surface and in its atmosphere are behind schedule and under-funded. These include the Global Precipitation Measurement mission, the latest Landsat satellite, Hydros, and the NPOESS satellite set.

Nuclear Power in France Sinks - Literally

Offshore isn't just for wind turbines anymore. (Or tidal power, for that matter.) France already gets a large majority of its power from nuclear reactors, and the country clearly isn't shy about continuing to innovate in the field. The state naval company, DCNS, announced plans to develop and build nuclear reactors designed to sit on the sea floor and send power back to shore.

The reactors, called Flexblue, will range from 50 to 250 megawatts (compare to standard large, land-based reactors, on the order of 800 to 1200 MW). The next phase of development will involve a DCNS collaboration with nuclear companies Areva, EDF and others. Over two years, they hope to establish commercial viability as well as address safety and security concerns with the underwater concept, as well as simply ironing out the technical details.

The Flexblue reactors will come in the form of a 100 meter-long cylinder, with a diameter of about 15 meters. They will be moored to the sea floor at depths of between 60 and 100 meters, no more than a few kilometers from shore. The CEO of DCNS suggested that siting the reactors underwater will reduce risks of proliferation and make them less vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

This idea takes the growing trend toward small modular reactors (SMRs) and adds a twist that probably does increase security, but clearly adds some technical complexity as well. It will be interesting to see if the initial studies can be completed and a prototype installed by 2016, as the company hopes.

(Image via DCNS)

China's Climate Cred

It's safe to say that China is the number one U.S. obsession, and that trade competitiveness is the top-ranking sub-obsession. Under competitiveness, China's climate policies may be the leading sub-sub-obsession. I personally have had my share of experience with the topic's touchiness. I can scarcely broach it with my best friend, a professional economist, because he thinks we should impose punitive tariffs on China unless it agrees to cut its carbon emissions and I don't. (I see trade sanctions as too violent a gesture; and if we impose them on China because the People's Republic benefits from any costly measures we impose on ourselves, what's to prevent Europe from imposing the same kind of penalties on us because they have adopted much costlier carbon cuts than we have?) Once, at a neighbor's cocktail party, when I suggested to a Harvard professor that it was fair to require carbon cuts of the advanced industrial countries before fast-developing countries like China had to adopt similar measures, his reaction was to turn his back on me and walk off.

So a lot of people would accuse me of being soft on China. But I see, surveying some recent comment, that I'm a long ways from being as soft as it gets.

This week, James Hansen of NASA's Goddard Institute of Space Studies at Columbia University stands accused in the arch-conservative Washington Times of comparing U.S. climate policy invidiously with China's. "I have the impression that Chinese leadership takes a long view, perhaps because of the long history of their culture, in contrast to the West with its short election cycles," Hansen is reported to have said.. "At the same time, China has the capacity to implement policy decisions rapidly. The leaders seem to seek the best technical information and do not brand as a hoax that which is inconvenient."

Sorry, but if you're trying to persuade Americans to adopt stronger carbon reduction policies, it's plainly not constructive to suggest or seem to suggest that we'd do better to adopt China's political system. Yet Hansen's not alone in giving China much more credit than it deserves.

Robert Rebetto, an economist with the United Nations Foundation, said in a recent letter to the New York Times that "China has already taken more forceful actions to limit emissions than we have"--stricter fuel efficiency standards, a national renewable energy portfolio standard, big investments in wind and solar, etc. But Rebetto seems to be losing sight of one simple thing: The United States has promised to cut its emissions, while China won't even say when its emissions growth will peak.

The list goes on. In the December issue of Scientific American, David G. Victor asserts that China is making the world's "biggest effort to check growth in its pollution." (That may be true in the literal sense that China is trying harder to cut its pollution than any other country is trying to cut China's pollution, but it's not true in any other sense.) Victor, director of the Laboratory on International Law and Regulation at the University of California, San Diego, refers to China's investments in nuclear power and supercritical coal combusion, and to its concerted drive to improve energy efficiency. ("Across the Chinese economy, efficiency has become a watchword. It even factors in to how the Chinese Communist Party promotes its officials.") Victor seems to be losing sight of the fact that each year China continues to add coal generation roughly equivalent to the whole size of Britain's electricity generation sector, and that its automotive sector is growing even more crazily. If China were really serious about cutting pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, it would be looking a lot harder for a way to bypass the internal combustion engine altogether.

(I'd give you the url for Victor's commentary, but it's not easy to locate on SciAm's website, perhaps not by accident.)

Why the sudden fashion for giving China much more credit for its climate policies than is its due? You've got me.

Tidal Power Coming to India?

A tidal power plant off the west coast of India could be among the first large-scale such facility in all of Asia. Atlantis Resources announced plans to install a 50 MW tidal plant consisting of 1 MW turbines in the Gulf of Kutch; construction could begin this year.

The Atlantis turbines, which also come in a 2 MW size, use a double turbine design to harness the flow of the tide. The planned Indian facility would be among the first in Asia, but tidal power -- along with wave power and related projects -- is clearly trending upward around the world. There are large proposed projects in South Korea, and Atlantis alone has other projects in Australia and Scotland.

In the US, pilot projects are underway in the northwest and elsewhere, and there is  interest in installing hydrokinetic turbines in the Mississippi River. Even New York City gets a tiny portion of power from tidal resources, with turbines under the East River providing small amounts of power to Roosevelt Island.

The potential of tidal power, like so many other renewable resources, is impressive. Some estimates place US potential at 15 percent of its total electricity needs. A report on global potential suggested about 90 gigawatts of tidal power are readily accessible, with far more in pure potential. And there is no reason some of this potential won't be realized; even the new Indian plant might not stop at 50 MW, eventually scaling up to 200 MW.

(Image via Atlantis Resources)

Corporate Fleets: An Unlikely EV Engine

Despite the high levels of excitement surrounding electric vehicles, there is reason to worry about this nascent market's capacity to fizzle in a big way. Most of the buzz surrounds electric vehicle introductions from major automakers, such as the Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Volt, for which consumer demand remains to be demonstrated. Today I've got a piece running at MIT's site raising doubts about the likelihood that corporate fleets will soak up EVs if consumers leave these pricey machines languishing on showroom floors. 

The TechReview story, a 'news-you-can-use' piece aimed at managers, concludes that big price reductions and adjustments to fleet management practices will be needed to make a business case for replacing gasoline and diesel fleet vehicles with EVs. In short, lithium battery costs push the purchase price too high for most corporate buyers to recoup their investment through efficiencies -- especially if they continue to replace vehicles every three-to-five years. AT&T predicts a return on electric Ford/Azure Dynamics service trucks they are phasing in, but only because the company bucks standard fleet practice and uses its fleet vehicles for 10-12 years.

Fact is that corporate fleets are technology laggards, just beginning to absorb the hybrid-electric vehicles that consumers got excited about back in the 20th Century. Hybrids are considerably cheaper per mile of operation than EVs and therefore likely to boom in fleets before EVs, according to Oliver Hazimeh, director of the automotive practice for Boston-based consultancy PRTM. "We see more hybrids coming online first and then, providing there are incentives, by 2015 it makes sense to switch over to electrics," predicts Hazimeh.

Yet fleet managers say they are still struggle to make hybrids pencil out. Companies such as Verizon and lawn-care giant ServiceMaster are getting serious about electrifying auxiliary equipment to limit idling by service vehicles, but still hedge when it comes to hybrid-electric drivetrains.  "We’ve been trying to justify hybrid electric vehicles for both lawn truck applications and pest control termite applications for about 4 and a half years and with the premium you pay today we could never cost justify it," complains Jim Steffens, ServiceMaster's director of fleet engineering. "The savings -- especially with fuel below 4-5 dollars a gallon -- could never come close to justifying the cost premium."

And therein lies the real rub for EVs: today's gas prices reflect none of the real costs of putting petroleum in a tank. Not the geopolitical costs of stabilizing oil supplies. Not the health and environmental costs from accelerating fossil fuel burning. Not the prospective ecological costs to Canada's tarsands, the Gulf of Mexico, and other oil production sacrifice zones.

Private-sector Greenhouse Gas Monitoring

AWS Convergence Technology, a Maryland-based company that operates weather monitoring stations, announced last week it would deploy a network of 150 greenhouse gas sensor stations to monitor regional emissions. AWS, known for its WeatherBug app, has renamed itself Earth Networks. The system will be built and operated in partnership with Scripps Institution of Oceanography, which will use its data in research. Consisting initially of 100 stations in the United States, 25 in Europe, and 25 other places in the world, the network  is meant to determine more accurately where emissions are originating, how they circulate in the atmosphere, and how their levels fluctuate regionally.

As explained by Katie Fehrenbacher of Earth2Tech, the sensors themselves will be provided by Picarro, "a Sunnyvale, Calif.-based startup that sells $50,000 greenhouse gas-detecting sensor boxes. The analyzers are about the size of a desktop PC, and they work by firing laser beams into the air to determine concentrations of green house gases, and then measure the changes in wavelength signals. While the technology has existed in labs for decades, Picarro has stuffed all this measuring capability into a portable, 58-pound box of sensors that requires little maintenance."

Scripps Director Tony Haymet says that regional GHG emissions are of vital interest, with California and the U.S. Northeast launching carbon trading systems. Reported emissions are not reliable, he says, and can vary by a factor of as much as four.
"If there were every a global trading scheme for carbon," he says, "we are positioned to be the 'SEC' of that market. We could be the regulator of a $1 trillion market."

Toyota To Put Hype in Hybrid

As part of the family of four Toyota Prius hybrids that the carmaker unveiled at the  Detroit Auto Show, it showed a concept for a new, compact Prius hatchback.
Low, edgy, and relatively sleek for a highly aerodynamic Kamm-tailed car, the Prius C concept is actually Toyota's second concept on the compact hybrid theme, the first being the lime-green FT-CH Concept that was unveiled at the same show last year.
Like the Prius V multipurpose vehicle that will go on sale as a 2012 model, the company says the Prius C responds to its customers' desire for Prius fuel efficiency and design in different packages.

This article, written by John Voelcker, originally appeared on, a content partner of IEEE Spectrum.

Chinese EV Doubles Nissan Leaf's Range

Earlier this week at the Detroit Auto Show, Chinese carmaker BYD took the wraps off a new incarnation of the e6 crossover it's shown twice before.
This time, however, it came with an upgraded interior, a more powerful drive motor, and a price: $35,000 before incentives. The company hopes to offer its 2012 BYD e6 S (for 'Sport') for sale in selected U.S. markets toward the end of this year.
$2,220 more than Leaf, twice the range
The price of $35,000, first reported on Plug-In Cars, is just $2,220 more than a 2011 Nissan Leaf compact hatchback, which retails for $32,780, and considerably less than the $41,000 Chevy Volt.
More significant, the BYD e6 S will have a range of roughly 200 miles--perhaps more--from its 60-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack. That's twice the Leaf's range, from a battery pack holding more than 2.5 times as much energy.
Twice as much power as in China
The BYD e6 is a five-seat crossover, rather in the same vein as the gasoline-engined Ford Edge. The e6 S model sold in the U.S. will be fitted with a far more powerful 160-kilowatt motor with more than twice the power of the home-market 75-kW motor.
BYD hopes to become the first Chinese carmaker to sell its vehicles in the challenging and competitive U.S. market. It has already placed a handful of test vehicles with the City of Los Angeles, sensible since it sited its U.S. headquarters in Los Angeles.
F3DM plug-in hybrid sedan too
BYD also plans to offer the F3DM plug-in hybrid in the U.S. next year as well. The car is an adaptation of the best-selling car in China, BYD's gasoline engined F3 sedan--more or less a cruder clone of a previous-generation Toyota Corolla.
While the F3DM was the first production plug-in hybrid sold anywhere in the world, starting in December 2008, its sales have been limited at best. It has been criticized by local press for crude transitions between power modes and marginal fit and finish.
This article, written by John Voelcker, originally appeared on, a content partner of IEEE Spectrum.

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