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A Note on Coal Pollution Fatalities

Some readers of an earlier post have complained about the provenance of an estimate that ten thousand U.S. citizens die yearly from exposure to coal pollution. A New York Times report about a new National Academy of Sciences study--the subject of my post--hadsaid that  coal and automotive pollution were  about equally responsible for causing $120 billion in economic damage each year and 20,000 deaths. But the number 20,000 (or 10,000 coal, 10,000 automotive) does not  appear in the Academy study itself, which is what prompted me to call Maureen Cropper, who co-chaired the expert panel that did the review.

I did not discuss Cropper's views in detail in my post, but she confirmed that the numbers 20,000 or 10,000  do not appear in the NAS report and said, consistent with the Times, that because 96 percent of the economic damage from coal plant pollution is attributable to premature deaths, one can in fact divide the total damage by $6 million--the value attributed to each lost life--to obtain the number of fatalities.

To put that the other way around, Cropper said in effect that estimated economic damage is based on estimated yearly premature deaths from coal pollution and from automotive pollution of about 10,000 per year each, but that those numbers are implicit, not explicit.

At least one reader of my post was surprised that sickness does not account for a larger share of estimated economic damage, and so was I, considering that hundreds of thousands of people are hospitalized each year for asthma and a variety of other pulmonary disorders. Cropper said in effect that as many of those hospitalized will end up among the prematurely dead, the cost of their hospitalizations is in effect a part of the damage attributed to their deaths. But she conceded that the costs of morbidity may be somewhat under-estimated in the study.

Chinese Eye Fast Breeders

The Wall Street Journal reports that China plans to design and build an 800 MW fast breeder reactor to come online around 2020. The rationale is essentially the same as usual: concern that the country will not have enough uranium to fuel its growing reactor fleet, and a desire to stretch fuel by transmuting spent uranium  into new plutonium.  The trouble is, every country that has tried to do this by building breeders has failed: France, which runs what is by most accounts the world's most sophisticated nuclear industry, built a commercial-scale fast breeder only to close it down after a few troubled years. Japan's smaller-scale demonstration reactor suffered coolant leaks. A large Soviet breeder is believed to have caught fire.

The essential problems with breeders are easily stated. The fuel consists essentially of bomb-grade plutonium, which is highly reactive and very volatile. Cooling the reactor and transferring its heat to turbines requires use of liquid sodium, which is flammable and therefore must be even more rigorously contained than the water coolant used in conventional reactors.

In the very worst case, if there were a loss of liquid sodium coolant and the breeder's core started to melt, the reactor fuel could reconfigure itself into a critical mass and suffer what's called in expert jargon a "prompt critical burst"--that is to say, in plain English, a nuclear explosion.

I wish I could say to the Chinese, "Good luck," but actually I just hope they'll come to their senses and change their minds. One of the first things Jimmy Carter--a nuclear engineer--did after taking office was cancel the U.S. breeder program. He was right.

Earlier this year, a subsidiary of the Russian company Rosatom completed construction of a small 25 MW Experimental Fast Reactor in Beijing, fellow EnergyWise contributor Peter Fairley reported. It was to be loaded with fuel this summer, to test and demonstrate the basic technology of neutron capture. In a fast breeder reactor, fast neutrons emitted by fissioning plutonium are captured by non-fissile uranium-238, typically in a "blanket" surrounding the plutonium core. The U-238 transmutes to plutonium-239, which can be recovered and recycled as fresh fuel. Hence the claim that breeders produce more fuel than they consume.

Besides being hard to control, which affects design economics and public confidence, breeders suffer from the disadvantage that their fuel cycle depends on transportation of weapons-grade plutonium, an enticing target for terrorists. This was the main publicly stated consideration in Carter's decision to ditch the U.S. breeder program in April 1976 

Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Food

Proper estimation of GHG  from food production and consumption is notoriously complicated: livestock emit methane, a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide; commercial meat production is disproportionately grain-intensive, and so the more meat is eaten, the greater the climate burden in terms of fertilizer and fuel inputs; finished food products, whether meat or grain, have to be transported, packaged, and sold, involving still further burdens. Several years ago,  a University of Chicago study found that in a typical household, GHG emissions connected with food can be as important as those associated with the home's car or cars.

A new report in World Watch Magazine argues that a previous study done under the auspices of the Food and Agriculture Organization radically underestimated the emissions from meat and poultry production. The FAO estimated in 2006 that such emissions amount to about 18 percent of total world GHG emissions; but World Watch puts them at 51 percent.

Could Mechanics Best Power Electronics in EVs?

Could smarter mechanical transmissions knock power electronics out of wind turbines, providing a cheaper and more efficient means of coupling the variable energy from ever-shifting winds to the regular waveform of AC power on the grid? They could according to my reporting in MIT's TechReview today on Viryd Technologies' bid to exploit continuously variable transmissions (CVTs). If mechanics reclaiming territory ceded to electronics sounds like a technological step backwards, here's an more heretical corollary: the same CVTs could also squeeze the power electronics out of electric vehicles (EVs).

That's the argument put forward by Rob Smithson, CTO for Viryd parent company Fallbrook Technologies and one of the inventors of its clever CVT (dubbed NuVinci in a tip-of-the-hat to the Italian polymath who first dreamed up the CVT concept). "If you look at cost in large car-replacement type EVs today, the cost gets dominated by the battery pack and the motor controls. There’s an opportunity to knock out one of those two with an infinitely variable transmission," insists Smithson.

Most EV elaborations today, says Smithson, rely on the electric motor to meet the entire dynamic performance envelope of the vehicle, from vehicle speed to torque demand -- a feat made possible by hefty power electronics. Swap in a CVT to handle the vehicle speed, however, and the electric motor can operate as a fixed speed variable torque device. "When that happens there’s a tremendous opportunity there to simplify your power electronics and a lot of the attendant cost that goes with that," he says. For more details, see Fallbrook's white paper on increased power, speed and range observed in a NuVinci-equipped electric scooter.

Smithson is well aware that his proposition will sound heretical to many EV designers ("I’m looking forward to my turn at being burned at the stake," he told me with a chuckle). But an EV source I trust says Smithson could be pardoned. Ed Benjamin, an expert in light electric vehicle and bicycle technology and managing director of Benjamin Consulting, agrees that CVTs have great potential in EVs. "If a CVT was light, had a wide range, worked well and did not lose much energy - it couldgreatly improve the performance of Light Electric Vehicles, extending the capability of the drive system and extending battery / range," says Benjamin.

Benjamin adds that Fallbrook's NuVinci CVT is the best CVT he has seen. "It is an impressive device. Ingenious, clean, works well. Not too heavy, does not lose a lot of energy," he says. At the same time, he notes that many attempts to engineer CVTs have failed in the past and, "often they are just a hair away from being right."

I'd call it a story worth following. Fallbrook has already commercialized its CVT in high-end bicycles, and says it is developing applications for power transmission in electric vehicles as well as auxiliary power generation in military vehicles and optimization of vehicle air conditioning, which accounts for nearly one-tenth of U.S. annual fuel consumption. And then there are the wind turbines I covered for TechReview today, which are arguably the toughest application of all. Automobiles are designed for something like 5,000 hours of lifetime operation, whereas wind turbines must run more like 80,000 hours.

For those who still doubt the feistyness of mechanical engineers (and their EE sympathisers!) to challenge the trend towards digital power control and transmission, check out the back-to-the-future example of GE's variable frequency transformers. We covered this adaptation of transformers for coupling non-synchronous power grids in 2007 in "Power Transmission Without the Power Electronics".

ARPA-E Funds 37 Projects--Some Lofty, Some Not So Much

Things are moving fast at the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). After languishing for a year and a half after President Bush signed it into law, and then for another half year after being funded by the Obama administration, the agency is finally picking up steam: Within a short two-month period, it got its first director and announced the 37 founding projects that will likely determine its future mission.

On Monday, ARPA-E announced that it had finaly culled those 37 projects from a herd of 3500 applications submitted over the summer in response to a funding it announced in April. (The task of sifting through those was heroic, and made all the more so by the fact that ARPA-E had no actual staff. House Science & Technology staffer Chris King told me that no one was comfortable making staffing decisions before ARPA-E got an actual director. But Energy Secretary Steven Chu was taking his time deciding who would head up his agency. ARPA-E was definitely Chu’s baby--back when he was just a Nobel-prize winning physicist, he co-authored a report called “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” that raised the alarms about the sorry state of innovation in the United States and recommended DOE ape the Defense Department with a high-risk agency that focuses exclusively on pie in the sky technologies that no private company would dare fund by itself.)

The agency is disseminating $151 million to a selection that includes the usual suspects (behemoths like MIT, Argonne National Labs, and GM) and some small, lesser-known entities like Momentive Performance Materials and NanOasis Technologies, Inc. Because these are the first of ARPA-E’s projects, they are likely to determine the agency’s future, in ways that are tangible and intangible. It’s already apparent that the funding choices will have an effect on the categories of research ARPA-E funds.

The categories under which ARPA-E classified the newly funded projects on its web site--Energy Storage, Biomass Energy, Carbon Capture, Renewable Power, Direct Solar Fuels, Building Efficiency, Waste Heat Capture, Vehicle Technologies, Water, and Conventional Energy--give some hints to how the agency will categorize its future research. The new director, Arun Majumdar, is particularly interested in energy efficiency research and alternative energy storage approaches.

“What happens in an agency in the initial year or two sets the culture in that agency for decades to come,” David Goldston told Spectrum two years ago, when ARPA-E was still inflicting labor pains on Congress. Goldston, a former House Science & Technology Committee Staff Director, had protested what he saw as the agency's hurried creation in a Nature magazine editorial. Goldston continues to pop up in the news, most recently in Businessweek, worrying that ARPA-E’s mission had become “too unfocused—and that congressional pressure to get fast results may steer it away from the most daring research.”

Well, it turns out he might have a point.

Some of the technologies that received funding are true to the pie-in-the-sky, mad science aspirations of a real ARPA: For example, a University of Minnesota project uses two symbiotic organisms to create gasoline directly from sunlight and CO2.That is outright bananas. And, as the saying goes, it’s so crazy that it might just work.

But then delve deeper into the 37 projects and you find some less inspiring technology. For example, consider the $4,992,651 bequeathed to Stanford University for its "sensors, software, and controls to track and improve energy use patterns." By no means do I think that Stanford should not be advancing this important area of research, but to borrow a phrase from Amy Poehler and Seth Myers: Really? Really, ARPA-E, this is transformational research? I thought transformational means “Google is not already working on it.” (the company's philanthropic arm) has created an online application called PowerMeter that can help you track your energy usage if you have a Smart Meter. Dean Kamen has developed a granular energy usage tracking system called the Teletrol System that will also do that for you. 

Or consider GM’s Lightweight Thermal Energy Recovery System, which uses an energy recovery device that promises to “increase fuel efficency by as much as 10 percent.” I’m not an expert in the field of fuel efficiency, but 10 percent doesn’t make me think “transformational.” Of 3500 submitted applications, only a hair over 1 percent--one lousy percent--was chosen. You’re telling me that in those 3463 proposals, not one promised something more exciting than a 10 percent fuel efficiency increase?


Smart Grid Grants

Today, Oct. 27, the Obama administration disclosed the winners of stimulus bill grants for smart grid projects. The president himself made the announcement touring a large photovoltaic power plant in Arcadia, Florida, which happens to be located in an electricity operating area that will benefit from a $200 million project in which Cisco, Florida Power, General Electric, and Silver Spring Networks are involved. By weird coincidence, another beneficiary will be Arcadian Networks (unrelated to Arcadia, Fla.!), which will be working with San Diego Gas & Electric to develop wireless communications for smart meter systems, relying on IEEE's 802.11 WiFi standards. Taking matching funds from private and other public sources, the administration says that total investments in the grid will be $8.1 billion. 

The grant-making process was highly competitive, requiring many utilities and energy companies to learn application procedures they otherwise rarely have to follow. Roughly a quarter of the applicants got grants, which range from quite small to relatively large. Many of the winners—the Cuming County Public Power District, in  West Point, Nebraska;  the town of Danvers, Massachusetts; the Sioux Valley Southwestern Electric Cooperative, in Coleman, South Dakota—are not household names. But the really big winners are.

In all, thirteen companies got grants of $100 million or more. Besides Florida Power & Light, they are: Baltimore Gas and Electric;   Center Point Energy, Houston; Consolidated Edison, New York: Duke Energy and Progress Energy, both in North Carolina; Electric Power Board of Chattanooga, Tennessee; NV Energy, Las Vegas; Oklahoma Gas and Electric; Sacramento Municipal District, California; Southern Company; Services, Alabama;  Potomac Electric Power Company, District of Columbia; and Detroit Edison. Almost without exception, those grants involve large rollouts of smart meters, along with data processing and communications systems to support them.

A major category of grants go to the organizations that manage and regulate regional transmissions systems, the RTOs and ISOs. Beneficiaries of grants ranging from $3.7 million to $5.39 million are ISO New England, the Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator, PJM Interconnection, New York ISO, and Western Electricity Coordinating Council. Almost without exception those grants involve rollouts of phasor measurement units, to better monitor and control flows of electricity through the systems.

Among equipment manufacturers, the Whirlpool Corporation gets $19.3 million to further develop smart appliances and networked home communications to support them.



Obama Lays Out Clean Energy Agenda at MIT

Boasting today, Oct. 23, that the stimulus bill represents (among other things) the biggest boost to science research in history, Obama hailed (as a case in point) the beginning of construction on a wind technology test center in the Boston area. That facility is getting $25 million in funding from the recovery act, as well as support from Massachusetts.

Obama said that the whole world is engaged in a peaceful competition to devise ample clean energy to power the 21st century, and that the winner of that race will lead the global economy. He said he wants America to win that race.

For the record, the New York Times reported on Saturday, Oct. 24, that Obama attributed the historic boost in science funding to the administration's climate bill, which a Senate committee will start to work on next week. That is an error. Obama did also plug the climate bill, saying that climate change skeptics and vested interests opposing climate action are now "marginalized." But that was in a different part of the speech.

Listen to his speech at the Massachusetts of Technology and, if you haven't already, check out what he had to say about climate science and green energy technology shortly after his election.

Europeans and Canada Lead in Fast Rail

According to a story this week in the Wall Street Journal, following up on earlier reports of big Bombardier sales of high-speed trains in China, the leading fast train manufacturers--none of them U.S. companies of course--are continuing to rack up nice global sales. Alstom SA, maker of France's famed TGV, recorded a record 5.69 billion euros (almost $9 billion) in the year that ended March 31. Germany's Siemens has made close to $1 billion from the sale of eight ICE-derived trains in Russia.

Bombardier will earn an estimated $2 billion from its high-speed train sales in China, which, says a Journal source, hopes to build "the most advanced rail network in the world." 

Coal Pollution Fatalities

A report issued on Oct. 19 by the U.S. National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine estimates damages to public health and the immediate physical environment from power plant and vehicular emissions. The overall effect is to reduce estimates of how many deaths result from power plant pollution by a factor of three or four. But the numbers are still shockingly high, and total estimated economic damages are very substantial. The national cost of power plant emissions in 2005 is put at $62 billion, and the damage from automotive emissions—from light vehicles, as well as medium- and heavy-duty trucks—at $56 billion. Given the report's valuation of a premature human death at $6 million, those estimates imply that about 10,000 people die each year from exposure to coal power plant emissions, and about 10,000 from vehicular emissions.

Earlier in this decade, when estimates of coal-pollution fatalities of close to 30,000 came to my attention in an excellent book called Coal, I found them hard to credit. I traced them to a 2000 report prepared for the Clean Air Task Force by experts connected with Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital ("Death, Disease, and Dirty Power”). Those experts stood by their claims, and leading public health experts independent of the study vouched for its credibility. The clincher came from a man who had been in charge of regulatory enforcement at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the Clinton Administration: Eric Schaeffer pointed out that if you looked at the Bush EPA's estimates of how many lives would be saved by stronger regulations, it followed that tens of thousands were dying annually from coal plant pollution, and not merely thousands.

Maureen L. Cropper, an economist at the University of Maryland (College Park) and Resources for the Future (Washington D.C.) who co-chaired the National Academies‘ panel, says because of improved methodology—and perhaps also because of differences in data sets, baselines, and comparisons—the National Academies' estimates of fatalities are significantly lower than EPA’s. They are lower by a factor of about four, even though the  Academies took a wider range of damage into account, she notes. At the same time, acknowledging that total estimated damages are still high, Cropper feels that tightening air regulations beyond what is anticipated by the 1990 Clean Air Amendments  probably is warranted.

Arguably, the implications go beyond that. The report's estimate of coal-related damages equates to 3.2 cents per kilowatt hour. That's a lot. But even so, that only takes immediate health and environmental consequences into account. It does not take in the impact of coal on global greenhouse emissions. What if they also are brought into the picture, if only qualitatively?

The National Academies report is an estimate of what micro-economists call "externalities" —costs of an economic activity that do not show up in the price of the activity as determined by the free-market interplay of supply and demand. Costs to public health and to the immediate physical environment are relatively easy to monetize (though the methods involved are prodigiously complex). Estimates of the possible adverse impacts from global warming are much harder to estimate, and such estimates are much more controversial. So it's easy to see why the Academies did not include climate costs in their analysis.

But as we all know, coal-fired power plants account for a third or two fifths of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. If, pursuant to Cropper's reasoning, the United States were to penalize coal power to account for its impacts on public health, a strong impact on carbon emissions also is to be expected.

Definitive up-to-date estimates of coal generating costs are surprisingly hard to locate, but generally they are put in the vicinity of 5 or 6 cents per kilowatt hour. So if one were to tax up the cost of coal-generated electricity by 3.2 cents to compensate for bad heath impacts, the net economic effect would be to increase the cost of coal-generated electricity by 50 percent or more. At that level, unsubsidized nuclear-generated electricity would be competitive to coal and so would wind; natural gas would be highly competitive. A 50 percent tax on coal-generated electricity, in short, would lead to rapid replacement of the country's dirtiest coal plants by brand spanking new gas and nuclear plants, and wind farms. It would be like replacing a 1952 Plymouth--a great car in its day--by a Toyota Prius.

This course of action, let it be said by way of fair disclosure, is exactly the strategy I proposed in a book several years ago. (The third chapter is devoted to the human costs of coal combustion.) Though the book may be ready for the ash can of history, its basic idea is alive and kicking. What gives the idea of replacing the dirtest U.S. coal plants with zero-carbon and low-carbon generation is this: According to the Academies' findings, 10 percent of the 406 coal-fired plants it examined account for 43 percent of the coal sector's damages to the public good; the least damaging 50 percent of the plants account for just 12 percent of the damage.

So if the United States were to shut down the half of its coal-fired plants that are the dirtiest, the immediate effect would be to save close to 9,000 lives and cut the country's greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent or more—that is, more than the Obama administration's current action plan foresees for the economy as a whole in the next ten years.




The Smart Meter Avalanche

The Edison Electric Institute, hosting a press briefing today on the smart grid, distributed an enumeration of smart grid rollouts which indicated that 21 states have plans to install smart meters for more than half the metered population, while another eight have plans for less than half the population. Those 29 states include most of the country’s largest and most populous except for Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Washington (state).

According to Edison’s Institute for Electric Efficiency, many of the country’s largest electricity distribution companies have plans to install millions of meters in the next years, with deployments to be complete between 2012 and 2015. These include the Southern Company (4.3 million), AEP (5 million), Baltimore Gas & Electric (2 million), and Michigan’s DTE (4 million).   In Texas, CenterPoint Houston expects to install 2 million by 2014, and Oncor 3 million by 2012. Southern California Edison is shooting for full deployment of 5.3 million meters by 2012, and Pacific Gas & Electric of 5.1 million. To date, by general consensus, PG&E's program is the largest and most advanced in the United States.

In total, according to the EEI compilation, nearly 60 million smart meters will be installed by 2015.

EEI’s media briefing was devoted mainly to the implications of smart metering for customers and distributors, in terms of energy conservation, monetary savings, improved reliability, and more efficient, less expensive maintenance. The representative of one energy company said it stands to make or save, over 15 years, $2.5 billion on a smart meter investment of $500 million. But there are big implications, too, for companies that specialize in processing and communicating data. This is because the data requirements associated with smart metering--not to mention all the other digital elements associated with the smart grid vision--will be gargantuan.

According to one calculation circulating this week, installation of 100 million smart meters in the United States might generate 100 petabytes per year of data that need to be transmitted, archived, and manipulated. That estimate,  by Jack Dahany of, is based on a current estimated per-meter data rate of 400 MB per year, which Dahany multiplied by 2.5 to allow for higher future sampling rates and additional smart grid data requirements. By comparison, Google handles 20 PB of data daily, observes Katie Fehrenbacher of, who publicized Dahany's calculation.   




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