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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.


Some New Things Under the Sun

Recent mention was made here of Coulomb Technologies' EV charging system, soon to be rolled out in major metropolitan areas around the United States and featured in the current triennial design exhibit at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York City. Coulomb's cute electricity pump is not the only item of interest. Just as photogenic is the electric parasol featured with the headline to this story; almost as useful, potentially, are the solar-rechargeable lanterns (left), which were concocted by a group of Sri Lankan designers and engineers.

It's always good to be reminded that not every promising innovation is necessarily high-tech, electrical or electronic. One of the nicest items at Cooper-Hewitt is a more efficient and less polluting home cooking stove, meant to improve on the biomass-burning stoves that hundreds of millions of women use in India, China and other developing countries. The Chulha stove, developed by an Indian-Dutch collaboration under the aegis of Philips Philanthropy by Design, won two major design awards. It can be inspected in detail at the Philips design website.

"Improved fuel efficiency, a reduction in carbon monoxide and particle emissions, the exclusive use of simple materials like concrete, clay and terracotta, and even the packaging, which is made from recycled woven polypropylene, all contribute to making the stove stand out as an excellent example of eco design," boasts Philips Philanthropy by Design. The main aim with this innovative stove and others is to reduce the catastrophic rates of respiratory illness among the women who use them--an estimated 1.6 million of them die each year, according to Philips.

That's the most important reason but by no means the only reason to cut pollution and reduce carbon emissions from such stoves. Emissions from inefficient biomass stoves also are the major contributor to the Asian brown cloud and to the atmospheric greenhouse gases originating in human activity. V, Ramanathan, the eminent Scripps atmospheric scientist who discovered the brown cloud, has launched a project called Surya, in which the objective is to replace biogas cooking stoves with  solar and other gas-free cookers. An authoritative description of brown clouds and their effects can be found in Ramanathan's description of Surya.

According to that report, "about half of the world’s population, and 75 percent of households in India, use biofuels and biomass, including wood, charcoal, crop residues and dung, to prepare food and heat their homes. More than 70 percent of India’s population lives in rural areas. Cooking accounts for about 60 percent of the overall energy and 80 percent of the non-commercial energy used in rural India. More than 90 percent of the cooking is done with fire wood and bovine dung, i.e, cow-dung."

Australia Could be 100 Percent Renewable-Powered by 2020

Just as a report surfaced showing the way that Australia could be powered completely by wind and solar as early as 2020, the country's government reached a deal to maintain its renewable energy target at 20 percent by that year while adjusting more near-term targets upward.

The Australian non-profit group Beyond Zero Emissions published a Zero Carbon Australia report [PDF] with a roadmap toward total renewable energy penetration in an astonishing ten years. The plan calls for a 40 percent share of power generation to come from wind (Denmark, by comparison, has a plan to generate 50 percent of its power from wind by 2025), with the balance coming from enormous amounts of concentrating solar thermal installations. To manage variability in renewable power, they incorporate the use of molten salt thermal storage.

This plan even comes with a projected increase in energy usage, up 40 percent from 228 terawatt-hours/year today to 325 TWh/year in 2020. It also, though, comes with a pricetag: $37 billion (Australian dollars, or about $32.3 billion US) per year. The report authors don't find that so unreasonable:

"The required investment of $37 billion/year is the equivalent of 3% of GDP. The extra money spent versus Business-As-Usual to 2020 is the equivalent of $3.40 per person per day, the cost of a cup of coffee."

And after laying out the specific methods, including types of power, grid infrastructure and job creation and requirements, the authors conclude that the idea's technical feasibility now needs only one thing:

"What is required to make this happen is leadership from policymakers and society, with firm decisions made quickly that will allow this transition to occur."

And what are the policymakers up to? Well, 100 percent probably isn't on the table right now, but at least they're talking about 20 percent. This, of course, is more of a renewable energy portfolio standard than the United States currently has (although upwards of 30 states have their own now). But reports like that from Beyond Zero Emissions are cropping up often these days, over and over casting doubt on the arguments that renewables can't supply large proportions of electricity with existing technology. Maybe one of these days someone will listen.

Image via Beyond Zero Emissions

Gas Fracking Documentary Finds Nationwide Problems

Yesterday evening, June 21, HBO aired a two-hour documentary about natural gas fracking, which was made by a resident of Northeast Pennsylvania where unconventional gas production is just taking off. Filmmaker Josh Fox, having been offered about $100,000 for mineral rights under a property his family had owned for several generations, got suspicious and decided to look into the whole subject of hydraulic gas fracturing. What he found, after touring Wyoming, Colorado, Texas, and Louisiana, was a pattern of companies' riding roughshod over local concerns about air and water and--in some cases--almost certainly doing serious damage to human health and safety.

Though the film, Gasland, won this year's Sundance award for best documentary, its production values are nothing to boast about. A review in yesterday's New York Times complained, for example, about Fox's making a big show in the fashion of Michael Moore of trying and failing to obtain interviews with corporate players

That, however, is more a matter of style than substance. Reporting a feature article about gas fracking for IEEE Spectrum magazine, I also found that the oil and gas companies generally refused to talk to the press. Though there was one notable exception, most brazenly said that any coverage was likely to be negative, and that they therefore saw no percentage in talking with media people. One company even refused to respond to a series of damaging allegations made about its activities in the Dimock, Pennsylvania area.

In thirty years reporting for science and technology magazine, I had never run into this kind of attitude among high-tech companies.

Based on interviews with people in gas-affected areas and with experts who have sought to investigate the chemicals found in injection and flowback water, Fox makes a convincing case that some of them are much more dangerous than the industry would have the public believe. One such expert, Theo Colborn, talks of "insidious" neurological effects.

Despite Gasland's shortcomings, were you living in an area where companies are starting to frack, I'm in no doubt that the film would leave you feeling worried--irrespective of your politics or expertise.







Siemens Enters U.S. Market with Super-efficient Turbine

You don't have to be nearly as old as I to remember when it was considered very good for a thermal power plant to achieve an efficiency of 40 percent. The average efficiency of the existing U.S. fossil-fired plants is barely 30 percent, according to Siemens, and even gas-fired plants in combined cycle configurations typically achieve only 40 percent. So it's worth noting, for the record, that Siemens now has a gas-fired turbine that has set a world record of 60 percent, and that it's made its first sale of that turbine in the United States to a Florida utility, NextEra.

The turbine has just been demonstrated in a two-year trial run at an E.On plant in Irsching, Germany (above). The U.S. plant will have somewhat reduced physical dimensions and a slightly smaller output, reflecting the higher frequency of the U.S. grid. The first Florida turbine is expected to start operation in 2013.

The dramatically higher efficiencies of gas-fired plants, their correspondingly lower greenhouse gas emissions, and their relative cleanliness explain why natural gas is accounting for a fast-growing share of U.S. power production. Separately from the Florida transaction, Siemens also has just announced it will supply five advanced turbine plants to a North Carolina utility, to upgrade an existing plant.

Because gas is so attractive in terms of efficiency and environment, my guess is that U.S. production of unconventional gas will continue to grow, and that the industry will pay whatever it costs to satisfy local concerns about water and air pollution associated with fracking.


Warming Effects on the Major Asian Rivers

A new scientific report by Dutch researchers and published in this week's issue of Science magazine assesses the likely effects of climate change on the major Asian rivers and deltas. This is a subject that has been much in the public eye--and rightly so, considering its importance--since the disclosure of a very sloppy error in one of the IPCC assessment reports, and with ongoing difficulties setting the record straight about the fate of the Himalayan glaciers. The Science article, "Climate Change Will Affect the Asian Water Towers," finds that annual meltwater from the glaciers is extremely important in Pakistan's Indus River and in the Brahmaputra, which originates in China and runs down through Tibet to its delta, near Dhaka, in Bangladesh. Meltwater plays "only a modest role," on the other hand, in the Ganges, Yangtze and Yellow River systems.

The key elements in the Dutch analysis were, on the one hand, an examination of all upstream hydrological processes at elevations higher than 2000 meters, and, on the other, an inventory of downstream precipitation patterns. The net impact of retreating glaciers depends on the importance of meltwater relative to rainfall. Meltwater was found to have a dominating influence in the Indus system and a strong influence in the Brahmaputra, affecting potentially the food supplies of 35 million people. In the Ganges, Yangtze and Yellow River systems, rainfall plays a relatively greater role.

"We conclude," say the authors, "that although considerable cryospheric changes are to be expected, their impact will be less than anticipated by . . . the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change." The IPCC had predicted that because of global warming and glacial retreat, rivers like the Ganges, Indus and Brahmaputra soon would become "seasonal rivers." But the authors argue they already are seasonal rivers, and in some ways in a benign sense: Melt and rainy seasons generally coincide, and so a decrease in meltwater from warming will be compensated for to some extent by an increase in rainfall, also caused by the warming. In some cases, in fact, "an accelerated melt peak may thus alleviate a shortage of irrigation water in the drought-prone early stages of the growing season."

Even in the extreme scenario in which all the Himalayan glaciers disappear (as an IPCC report erroneously said could happen by 2035), the effects are most pronounced by far in the Indus and Brahmaputra basins. So, while those effects are nothing to sneeze at, global warming will not have a drastic impact on hundreds of millions or billions of Asians as the IPCC implied and has been explicitly claimed in reports on climate change and human migration.


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