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EPA Re-ssues Tighter Air Quality Rules

The U.S.Environmental Protection Agency, having seen a Federal appeals court throw out its new clean air rules two years ago, has now reformulated those rules in ways expected to pass muster. According to the agency, the new rules will avert up to 36,000 premature deaths at a compliance cost of $2.8 billion, besides producing other significant health benefits.  Though the implied estimate of fatalities from coal-fired generation may seem high, it's consistent with the latest and most authoritative assessment of mortality and morbidity associated with U.S. air pollution. It's to be assumed that many utilities and energy companies will opt to shut down some of their oldest and dirtiest coal-fired plants, rather that install expensive pollution abatement equipment, and that as a result,  coal's share in U.S. electricity generation will continue to shrink.


Yet Another Review Largely Clears Climategate's Jones

A panel of outside experts appointed by the University of East Anglia to examine the conduct of its Climatic Research Unit (CRU) in light of the embarrassing e-mails disclosed late last year has delivered what is perhaps the most nuanced and authoritative judgment yet on "climategate." The CRU's Phil Jones, who had stepped down as the unit's director while it was under review, has been reinstated in a similar position.

"Climate science is a matter of such global importance, that the highest standards of honesty, rigor and openness are needed in its conduct. On the specific allegations made against the behavior of CRU scientists, we find that their rigor and honesty as scientists are not in doubt. In addition, we do not find that their behavior has prejudiced the balance of advice given to policy makers. In particular, we did not find any evidence of behavior that might undermine the conclusions of the IPCC assessments. But we do find that there has been a consistent pattern of failing to display the proper degree of openness, both on the part of the CRU scientists and on the part of the University of East Anglia, who failed to recognize not only the significance of statutory requirements but also the risk to the reputation of the university and, indeed, to the credibility of UK climate science."

Just days before the East Anglia review group released its findings on July 7, a Penn State panel issued similar conclusions, largely clearing Michael E. Mann of hockeystick graph notoriety. My assessment was that the e-mail imbroglio nonetheless had caused lingering damage to the reputations of the CRU and the IPCC, and that their work will be scrutinized much more closely in the future. Roger Pielke Jr, with whom I've crossed swords on occasion, has voiced the same opinion.

"The e-mail don't change at all the fundamental tenets of the science," Pielke told the New York Times. "But they changed the notion that people could blindly trust one authoritative group, when it turns out they're just like everybody else"--that is to say, subject to human foibles and human error.

Europe's 2009 Energy Growth Dominated by Renewables

The European Commission's Joint Research Centre released its annual "Renewable Energy Snapshots" report this week, and found that 62 percent of all new electricity generation installed in 2009 in the 27 EU member countries was from renewable sources. This represented an increase from 2008, when 57 percent of new electricity was renewable.

Europe has some relatively lofty energy and climate goals. They hope to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent, improve energy efficiency by 20 percent and ensure that 20 percent of all energy usage is renewable, and all that by 2020. That is a lot of 20s.

The region does seem to be well on its way in terms of the renewable share, with 19.9 percent of the total net electricity generation in 2009 coming from renewable sources. That amount represents 608 terawatt-hours, out of a total of 3,042 TWh; they are targeting between 1,120 and 1,400 TWh to achieve the desired renewable penetration.

In terms of newly installed capacity, wind power led the way, and now represents about 4.2 percent of the total electricity generation (compared to about 2 percent in the United States). After drastically exceeding previous goals for wind power, the European Wind Energy Association is now targeting [PDF] 230 GW of installed wind power capacity by 2020.

The report authors pointed out that meeting some of Europe's aggressive targets will be difficult without aggressive policy changes from those in charge:

"Without increased political support, especially in the field of fair grid access and regulatory measures to ensure that the current electricity system is transformed to be capable to absorb these amounts of Renewable Electricity, these predictions will not come about."

(Image via Joint Research Centre)

BP. Bhopal, Chernobyl

Writing in a recent issue of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Madhusree Mukerjee wonders why, at a time President Obama is demanding that BP fully compensate Americans for the Gulf disaster, his administration is simultaneously "leaning on the Indian government to render its citizens unable to claim damages from U.S. power-plant suppliers in the event of a nuclear accident." Pursuant to the controversial nuclear commerce deal that the Bush administration negotiated with India, the United States would like India to adopt nuclear liability limits analogous to those in the U.S. Price Anderson Act, which caps corporate liability for a U.S. nuclear accident at $11 billion. A proposed Indian law would limit corporate liability in that country to $110 million.

Yet the Chernobyl accident, notes Mukerjee, a former staff editor at Scientific American and Physics Today magazines, caused an estimated $250 billion in damages. Closer to home, the Indian government estimated the cost of the horrendous Bhopal chemical leak at $3.3 billion, yet the most it was able to recover from Union Carbine was $470 million. The December 1984 leak at the pesticide factory killed 15,000 people and maimed another 100,000.

Mukerjee is not the only person connecting nuclear liability exposure with the Gulf situation, which of course is a vivid reminder that industrial accidents worse than anything imagined somehow keep happening. Peter Bradford, a former commissioner of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, points out that the $54.5 billion in loan guarantees that the U.S. government is offering for new nuclear power plant projects amounts to an exposure of $500 for every American family. Bradford complains that although nuclear investors will be required to pay the U.S. Treasury a fee to compensate for the financial risk U.S. citizens are assuming, fees will be negotiated in secret and remain secret.

My own position? Though I'm on-record with my belief that nuclear energy will have to be part of the long-term answer to global warming and energy security, I'm also on-record as being opposed to liability caps like Price Anderson. If nuclear energy is as safe as its proponents claim, the industry should be able to get along without those limits. If nuclear construction cannot proceed without them, so be it.

Second Panel Clears Key "Climategate" Researcher

Pennsylvania State University's Michael E. Mann is the father of the famous--or if you will notorious--hockey stick graph purporting to show that Earth is warmer today than any time in the last thousand years. He also is a central figure in the East Anglia "climategate" emails that somehow were disclosed, revealing something of a bunker mentality among leading climate scientists. Though the correspondence often has an embarrassing tone, for the second time an investigative panel has cleared Mann of serious scientific wrongdoing, again a Penn State group. The panel's only criticism of Mann was that he had sometimes forwarded to colleagues pre-publication versions of manuscripts without the authors' permission..

The other key figure in the climategate imbroglio, Phil Jones, also has been been cleared of scientific misconduct, in his case by Britain's House of Commons. Nonetheless, as explained in an earlier post, the dustup has caused long-lingering damage to the reputations of the East Anglia climate research unit, Britain's Hadley Center, and the IPCC, whose findings will be scrutinized much more critically for a long time to come. Perhaps that is not such a bad thing, however much it may inconvenience leading climate scientists

Finland Opts for Additional Reactors

Finland's parliament voted yesterday to build two additional nuclear reactors, on top of the four already running and two under construction. When all are running, they will be producing around half the country's electricity, and with luck, Finland will be the first country in the world to be operating a repository for quasi-permanent storage of radioactive wastes. Its decision to build additional nuclear power plants is all the more significant because it shows that there's a strong long-term case to be made for nuclear, even when current projects are not going well, and because Finland is one of those Nordic countries known for technological excellence and visionary perspectives.

 Another such country, Sweden, announced two weeks ago it would build new reactors to replace those now running when they are decommissioned. It was a major development when Sweden decided last year to revoke its planned nuclear phase-out; this too is a major development, and for the same reason. Finland's decision shows that there's still a long-term case to be made for nuclear, even though costs are proving to be disappointingly high.  "Historically the [nuclear] industry has not been able to reduce costs with increased experience," the director general of Sweden's nuclear agency told The New York Times. Despite that, Sweden and Finland have concluded that greenhouse gases can only be cut and energy security guaranteed with continued or greater reliance on atomic power.

The decisions by Sweden and Finland will surely have an impact in Germany, whose leader, physicist Angela Merkel, would dearly like to negotiate an "exit from the nuclear exit" that the country adopted when influence of the Green Party was at its peak. But that debate also will be influenced by a countervailing trend, prompted by the Gulf disaster and memories of Chernobyl and Bhopal--"worse than worst-case" disasters that somehow keep happening.


Russia Launches Floating Nuclear Power Plant

Russian nuclear engineering group Rosatom launched the world's first floating nuclear power plant Wednesday, according to The Voice of Russia. Photos show the Akademik Lomonosov, a 21,500-ton barge equipped with twin 35-megawatt light-water reactors, slipping into the water at St. Petersburg's Baltic Shipyard.

The Akademik Lomonosov represents a particularly flexible example of the small modular reactor (SMR) nuclear power plants that are under development worldwide. SMRs provide a 'scale of multiples' that could lower the cost of financing nuclear energy. But their flexibility also brings a phalanx of new risk considerations to the nuclear bargain -- particularly one like this that's designed to change locales. No surprise then that Greenpeace Russia has dubbed the Akademik Lomonosov the world’s most dangerous nuclear project in a decade.

Nuclear engineering group Rosatom anticipates that within two years the Akademik Lomonosov will be operating in its first port of call: an Arctic oil and gas operation. In addition to remote locations, Rosatom sees a good fit for floating SMRs in developing countries, where the SMR offers a right-sized solution for power grids that are growing fast but also comparatively weak and cash-poor.

Russia's minister for nuclear energy Sergei Kiriyenko claimed to have "numerous orders" for the floating power plants during Wednesday's champagne-smashing event, according to The Voice of Russia.

Floating Wind Turbines Could Expand Offshore Possibilities

So far, offshore wind development has stuck close to shore where the turbines could be anchored directly into the sea floor. This means that the 2,000-plus megawatts of ocean-based wind in Europe have all been installed in around 50 meters of water or less, and the long-awaited Cape Wind project in Nantucket Sound also will sit in shallow waters.

For the same reason that heading a bit offshore yields consistent and strong winds, though, heading even farther offshore often will improve those conditions even further. To take advantage of the wind blowing over deeper water, there is movement now to use floating wind turbines as a way of avoiding the need to anchor into a deep sea bed. According to one company, the biggest turbines currently available could feasibly work on such floating rigs.

Marine Innovation & Technology's WindFloat can theoretically support giant 5-MW turbines. The floating rig, made up essentially of three platforms with the turbine tower extending from one of them, is designed to withstand the rigors of a "100-year storm," according to a paper published in the Journal of Renewable and Sustainable Energy earlier this month (by company employees). And according to Principle Power, who has purchased the technology for WindFloat, several projects are in the works that could see turbines in the water by 2011 or 2012.

The floating wind idea could remove some of the issues that have plagued offshore wind's entry into the US market. Decade-long objections to Cape Wind generally came down to the visual disturbances residents of Cape Cod claimed the turbines would produce. The project, finally approved by the Department of the Interior in April, would eventually have 130 turbines at 3.6 MW each, collectively capable of producing about 75 percent of Cape Cod's electricity demand.

Those visual disturbances, though, wouldn't even come up at, say, a proposed project off the coast of Oregon: instead of the five miles from Cape Cod's shores that would produce a line of half-inch-tall turbines on the horizon, floating turbines based 10 miles away would be largely invisible.

According to the journal paper's authors, several design features do still need to be improved on the WindFloat to ensure smooth operation in the harshest of conditions. Other companies, though, are already steps ahead: Norwegian oil and gas giant Statoil recently completed construction of its first floating turbine several miles off the coast of Norway. Dubbed the Hywind, the company will spend the next two years testing the turbine before moving forward with further installations.

Image via Principle Power

MIT Weighs In on Natural Gas

An MIT study group has issued a report on the future of natural gas, reaffirming that gas will play a "a crucial role" in reducing U.S. carbon emissions in the next decades. Two months ago, the Worldwatch Institute noted that gas already is displacing dirty coal in the United States, and that U.S. greenhouse emissions have dropped sharply in recent years as a result. Substituting state-of-the-art gas generation for obsolete coal generation can reduce carbon emissions "by a factor of three," notes Ernest J. Moniz, head of the MIT unit that produced the gas report and the former top scientist in the Clinton Administration's energy department.

MIT notes that because the United States has a large amount of excess natural gas generating capacity, gas can immediately contribute much more to electricity supplies without new power plants having to be built--a point Robert F. Kennedy Jr also has been pressing in recent years. "The overbuilding of natural gas combined cycle plants starting in the mid-1990s presents a significant opportunity for near-term reductions in CO2 emissions from the power sector," says MIT. "The current fleet of natural gas combined cycle units has an average capacity factor of 41 percent, relative to a design-capacity factor of up to 85 percent."

In other words, the present-day fleet of U.S. gas-fired power plants could be generating twice as much electricity as they currently do. In Texas's ERCOT electricity system, MIT found, substituting gas for coal could reduce CO2 emissions 22 percent without adversely affecting reliability, while also cutting sulfur and nitrogen pollutants.

What makes that kind of scenario not merely conceivable but a likely prospect is the rapid development of U.S. "unconventional gas" by means of hydraulic fracking. MIT concurs with the new estimates finding that the United States has enough gas to last at current consumption rates for close to a hundred years. Globally, even without taking unconventional gas and innovations in extraction technology into account, the world has enough gas for 160 years, says MIT.

MIT finds that concerns about water are the one factor that could stand in the way of gas, echoing Spectrum's conclusions in a recent feature article. MIT recommends that full disclosure of fracking fluids be required, and that integrated water usage plans be prepared in regions where fracking is intense. The MIT report agrees with Kennedy that regulation should favor substitution of gas for coal. It agrees with the gas industry that where intermittent wind or solar generation is installed, there should also be additional investment in new gas generation, as a backup.


Ambitious Transmission Projects in Texas and U.S. Northeast

For decades there's been a notion that you can't get new transmission built in the United States because of the NIMBY syndrome, unfounded fears about powerline radiation, overlapping local, state and Federal authorities, and unresolved ambiguities as to how transmission investment will be rewarded in the new world of electricity restructuring and deregulation. So it came as something of a surprise, when we profiled the New England Independent System Operator, to learn that New England has successfully got a lot of new transmission built in recent years. PJM, which we characterized in an earlier profile has a smooth grid operator, also has done well.

This week, at a meeting of IEEE's PES section in New York City, members heard about how Powerbridge LLC connected up PJM and Long Island with a 500 kV, 100-km HVDC line that's been running pretty much at full capacity since coming into operation three years ago. As Jim Nash, Powerbridge's VP for engineering said, it's as if a new 660-MW low-cost generator had come into operation to provide power to Long Island's hard-pressed consumers. Now Powerbridge is looking to build a second 660-MW line that would connect Manhattan's main substation with New Jersey, in part by using an abandoned raid tunnel in the Palisades. In the second project as well as the first, Siemens would supply most of the crucial filtering and control equipment, while Prysmian would lay the cable.

Meanwhile, Toronto-based Transmission Developers Inc. is looking to build a 700-km, 2-GW cable under Lake Champlain that would connect wind and hydro generation in Quebec with customers on Long Island and the New York City area. Expected to cost nearly $4 billion if built, the project must pass numerous regulatory hurdles and deal with all manner of interests that could be adversely affected, including the lobstermen who ply the waters of Long Island Sound.

 Deep in the heart of Texas, a major transmission line intended to carry wind energy will likely received regulatory approval, having been rerouted in response to complaints from the big ranchers and landowners of the Heart of Texas Landowners' Coalition. It's just one of several transmission lines being built in Texas to connect relatively cheap wind generation with customers.


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