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Smart Grid Promises Substantial Carbon Abatement

The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory  has issued a report in which carbon savings from introduction of smart grid technologies are estimated, looking ahead to the year 2030. PNNL, located in Richland, Washington and operated by Batelle for the U.S. Department of Energy,  puts direct carbon savings from equipment like smart meters at 12 percent, and indirect savings from things like stronger grid support for renewable electricity generation at 6 percent.

Studies like PNNL's must of course be treated with a degree of skepticism, first of all because their estimates depend on a large number of uncertain factors, and second, in this particular case, because the whole subject of the smart grid gives rise to a certain breathlessness. "With smart grids, there should be no need to send out lorries and ring door bells when the power fails," Britain's Economist predicted. "A few mouse clicks may do the trick, or the equipment may even fix itself."

Tell that to the Philadelphia linesmen who risked their lives last week restoring power to homes, following what was in that part of the world the snow storm of several centuries.

Still, the PNNL report meticulously explains its methodology and procedures, and is useful if only for the rather complete laundry list it provides of smart grid technologies and connections. Positive aspects of the smart grid include energy conservation resulting from real-time consumer feedback; more effective efficiency and demand response programs; building diagnostics; load shifting to lower-carbon generation; charging support for electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles; advanced voltage control; and enabling of wind and solar generation.

Of the 6 percent reduction in energy and carbon that the report credits as an indirect effect of smart grid technology, 5 percentage points are from greater use of wind and solar. Support for EVs and hybrids is expected to account for a quarter of the 12 percent carbon reduction from direct effects, that is, 3 percent.

The report's estimates assume that smart grid technologies are "fully implemented by 2030. For equipment like smart meters, which are being installed by the tens of millions in the United States and many other advanced industrial countries, that assumption seems warranted. But for technologies such as EV and hybrid charging, high obstacles must be surmounted if the technology is fully implemented, even assuming that electric and hybrid vehicles mature as hoped.

In an article that appeared last year in the March-April issue of IEEE's Power and Energy magazine, Ali Ipakchi and Farrokh Albuyeh pointed out that "plug-in vehicles will represent a significant new load on the existing primary and secondary distribution networks, with many of these circuits not having any spare capacity and no monitoring and automation capability." Typically, they say, charging a vehicle will more than double an average household's electric demands on the grid.

The PNNL report itself concedes on p. 76 considerable uncertainties in its estimates for hybrid and electric vehicles, because of factors such as choice of reference vehicles, postulated duration and intensity of charging, and assumptions about demands on baseload versus peak generation.

In detail, the PNNL report contains many insightful observations. On p. 52, for example, it points out that considerable carbon savings can be realized if smart grid technologies facilitate load shifting from peak to baseload generation. This is partly because, it says, natural gas peaking plants are about as carbon-intense as coal-fired plants--even though, as is well known, large baseload gas plants emit only about a third or half as much carbon as baseload coal plants.

Will the PNNL's estimated carbon savings largely materialize by 2030? If you had asked me fifteen years ago whether technologies based on the new high-temperature superconductors would be revolutionizing power generation and distribution by 2020, I would have answered in the affirmative, with confidence. But here we are in 2010, with little sign that any of the HTSC technologies are market-ready.

Wind Turbines Cause Radar Cone of Silence

In 2009, about 10,000 megawatts of wind power were installed in the United States, bringing the total capacity in the country up to around 35,000 MW. An interesting technical problem, though, has already slowed the development of wind power and prevented some proposed wind farms from being built. That problem is radar.

Spinning wind turbine blades create a “cone of silence” above the turbines, making it difficult for 2-D radar systems to see aircraft as they fly overhead. It can also create false positives on radar that can look like weather systems (photo). According to Gary Seifert of the Idaho National Laboratory speaking at the RETECH conference in Washington, close to 10,000 MW of wind power has been held up or abandoned completely because of conflicts with FAA, DoD or Department of Homeland Security radar system concerns.

There is ample reason to believe, however, that this type of problem can be overcome. In the United Kingdom, Raytheon was recently awarded a contract by the British National Air Traffic Services (NATS) to develop “clutter erasure” algorithms whereby radar can differentiate between a spinning turbine and an airplane. The company has already completed a feasibility study began in 2006, in which they determined five methods that could now or with future radar systems eliminate the turbine-generated noise.

One of these methods, called concurrent beam processing increased the chances of detection of an aircraft by more than 16 percent in tests at the Altamont Pass wind farm in California. Dual beam radar systems alternate between a lower-angle and higher-angle radar signal, but by processing the two beams at the same time a higher degree of accuracy was achieved.

Radar’s uneasy relationship with wind power doesn’t stop solely at the ability to track aircraft. The much more high-profile complaint about wind farms has been their potential for bird and bat deaths. In order to track bird populations especially around offshore wind farms where simply counting is difficult, the use of radar has been proposed; but radar, of course, doesn’t do so great around the turbines.

A paper by researchers with the radar systems developer DeTect published in Marine Pollution Bulletin in October outlined a wide array of problems radar tracking of birds will face in offshore locations, and a major one is “turbine shadow,” or the turbine’s own radar reflectivity hiding the birds the radar is meant to track.

One of the proposed solutions for such a problem is similar to one of Raytheon’s methods: the use of tracking algorithms. This would allow birds that entered a turbine’s “blackout zone” to be tracked until they left the zone; technical issues do still remain with this fix.

Although wind power installations have increased dramatically in recent years, clearly the radar issues will have to be resolved in order to meet the standing goal of having 20 percent of U.S. electricity come from wind by 2030.

Images via NOAA and Wikimedia Commons.

Inquiry Clears Climategate Researcher

A three-person panel at Pennsylvania State University has cleared faculty member Michael E. Mann of charges that he destroyed or misused data, or engaged in a conspiracy to distort climate science. Mann, a central figure in the so-called climategate scandal, is the person behind the controversial "hockeystick" graph (above) that shows a sharp rise in global temperatures in the last century. The graph, reproduced prominently in the 2001 IPCC climate assessment report, has been a lightning rod for global warming skeptics. Some scientists such as John Christy, see the 20th century temperature record as critically important, but others place more emphasis on the long-term temperature record or on modeling results. In effect there are within climate science several scientific subcultures: some put the most faith in theory, others in simulations, and yet others in empirical results--and even among the empiricists, opinions differ as to what kind of evidence is most compelling.

Image: This chart is Figure 1(b) from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Third Assessment Report, (c) 2001 The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The source of this image is a PDF file that can be downloaded here:

UN Posts Post-Copenhagen Pledges

The frustrations and hardships of the Copenhagen meeting--the long and slow lines endured by members of NGOs, the tortured negotiations that increasingly seemed to make a mockery of the "Hopenhagen" posters seen all over town--have been amply documented here and elsewhere. The adequacy or inadequacy of the Copenhagen Accord adopted during the meeting's 11th hour and 59th second will be debated until the end of time. So it's a relief to see the much-maligned UNFCCC posting, as scheduled, two lists of pledges: one of mid-term carbon reductions promised by advanced industrial countries; the other mitigation actions proposed by developing countries.

The schedule of industrial country emissions cuts is short and straight-forward: The box for each country contains a number or range of numbers, plus usually a few lines of text qualifying or elucidating the pledge. The numbers correspond generally to negotiating positions taken before Copenhagen and come as no surprise. Thus, Europe promises to cut emissions 20-30 percent by 2020, subject to a strong follow-on agreement being reached, and Japan 25 percent, subject to the same reservation. Canada and the United States each promise cuts of about 17 percent, Australia 5-25 percent, and Russia 15-25 percent..

The list of statements by developing countries looks more ominous, in that each box instead contains a link to a letter or memorandum, which one naturally opens with dread. But many of the letters turn out to be short and to the point. China's letter, for example, consists of  just four paragraphs, of which the operative one is this:

"China will endeavor to lower its carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by 40-45% by 2020 compared to the 2005 level, increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 15% by 2020 and increase forest coverage by 40 million hectares and forest stock volume by 1.3 billion cubic meters by 2020 from the 2005 levels."

India's letter says: "India will endeavour to reduce the emissions intensity of its GDP by 20-25% by 2020 in comparison to the 2005 level."

Explicitly and implicitly, virtually all statements quoted in the two lists are contingent on future progress in negotiations. The best account I've seen of developments leading up to Copenhagen, the conference and its outcome, and what comes next,  is in Earth Negotiations Bulletin.





U.S. Energy Budget Highlights

The president's 2011 budget, posted yesterday on the White House/OMB website, triples Federal loan guarantees for new nuclear power plant construction, to $54.5 billion. That compares with $3-5 billion in loan guarantees for innovative energy efficiency and renewable energy projects, and $144 million to support grid enhancements. In addition, the Energy Department will invest $4.7 billion directly in development of clean energy technologies, including almost $2.4 billion for efficiency and renewables, $545 for "advanced coal climate change technologies," $300 million for ARPA-E, and $793 million for clean energy activities and civilian nuclear energy programs.

The content and composition of the 2011 energy budget is all the more significant because, as the administration appears to be resigning itself to enactment of what will be at best a weak carbon cap-and-trade bill, the weight of meeting carbon reduction goals will fall more heavily on direct support for green tech. Bearing in mind the U.S. Copenhagen pledge to reduce carbon emissions 17 percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050,  the budget allocates $2.6 billion in research on climate change and impacts. The government will invest in registries to account for greenhouse gas emissions and issue regulations to improve energy efficiency, lower consumer bills, and reduce emissions.

Especially considering the more than $10 billion the energy department will be spending on activities associated with nuclear weapons--$2.7 billion to secure materials, $8.1 billion for weapon stockpile stewardship--the budget is bound to dismay advocates of renewable energy and carbon reduction. But bear in mind that the administration already spent very aggressively in 2010 in hot areas like the smart grid and advanced batteries. Even so, green tech advocates in the United States and abroad will be watching like hawks in the coming year to see whether developments are living up to promises.

WSJ Calls China’s Electric Bicycle Craze a Killer

Mainstream media have finally noticed the electric bicycle craze that's swept China — where there are now 120 million e-bikes on the road — and is now making inroads in Europe and North America. This weekend the New York Times examined what it called China's “accidental transportation upheaval”, and the Wall Street Journal devoted a coveted cover slot to China's e-bikes in January. The latter, unfortunately, paints an unduly dark picture of this energy-efficient and relatively affordable urban transport option.

“Because they are so silent, fast and heavy they've become a traffic menace,” says WSJ China correspondent Shai Oster in the video that accompanies his piece on e-bikes, unwisely shot while riding one through Beijing (video embedded below). Oster says this is why there is a “new backlash” against e-bikes, with various levels of Chinese governments trying to squelch the e-bike. What I see is ongoing harassment that China's e-bike community has endured for the past 6-7 years.

Early on the official complaint was that rapid replacement of the lead acid batteries most Chinese e-bikes carry  fueled pollution (According to the Times a typical Chinese e-bike uses five lead batteries in its lifetime, each containing 20 to 30 pounds of lead). Today the complaint is that deaths have “soared” from 34 in 2001 to over 2000 in 2007 (not too surprising given that e-bike use was exploding exponentially over that period). My take — reinforced by alternative-transport and urban design activists in China — is that these complaints are a smokescreen for car-oriented industrial and urban planners.

I stand by that analysis, argued for Spectrum in the 2005 feature “China's Cyclists Take Charge.” But I also ran the issues by Chris Cherry, a transportation engineer at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville who wrote his dissertation on the environmental, safety and mobility impacts of China's e-bike phenom.

Cherry responded yesterday with a back-of-the-envelope comparison that reveals e-bike fatalities — about 3.8 per 10,000 vehicles in 2007 — about as high as you'd expect for China's dangerous streets. In the same year fatality rates for riders of conventional bicycles, motorcycles and cars were roughly 1.5, 12.1 and 81 per 10,000 vehicles, respectively. In the U.S., by contrast, the road fatality rate is about 1.8 per 10,000 vehicles. “An ebike on crazy Chinese streets is only twice as dangerous as me driving to get a gallon of milk in the US”, says Cherry.

He is more sanguine about e-bikes role in Chinese lead pollution. The problem, he says, is that many small, poorly regulated smelters recycle used e-bike batteries and they make a mess in the process, and it is largely the e-bike's explosive growth that keeps them open. “The rate of new high tech facilities can’t keep up with consumption,” says Cherry.

That said, Cherry tells me I'm “right on” as far as the best role for Chinese officials. They could do more good, he agrees, by trying to solve the lead problem than trying to snuff out the e-bike. His proposal is that they use economic rather than traditional regulation (which clearly isn't working): “I think that it would be more cost effective to subsidize clean batteries (as a larger part of their e-vehicle initiative) or [to] heavily tax lead.”

Winter Reading Tips

If you found yourself wondering during President Obama's State of the Union speech last week why he thinks the United States is ready to speedily build some high-speed rail infrastructure, you'll want to consult the nicely illustrated feature in the February issue of Wired magazine--and for some news updates, you might search our blog posts as well. But note: while text to the Wired feature is accessible online, to get full benefit of the excellent graphics you'll want to look at the magazine itself.

To judge from communications from organizations representing the left-liberal flank of Obama's constituency, nothing in his speech went down worse than his call for more nuclear energy. If you're seriously interested in nuclear prospects you'll want to have a look at the fall issue of Daedalus, the high-brow journal of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. Two of the contributors to that report--Richard A. Meserve, the physicist-lawyer who served as head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and John W. Rowe, chairman and CEO of Exelon--also are serving on a blue-ribbon panel that Obama has set up to review nuclear waste disposal options. In the budget request due out this week, Obama is expected to ask for a tripling of Federal loan guarantees for nuclear construction, consistent with Energy Secretary Chu's complaints that current guarantees are not ample enough to jump-start a nuclear revival.

Obama claimed he's still determined to get a carbon cap-and-trade bill through Congress, though skeptics are beginning to wonder about how seriously he means that. For a withering critique of offsets trading, take a look at Mark Shapiro's article in the current issue of Harper's, though you have to be a subscriber or buy the magazine to see the whole thing. For Spectrum's take, the online feature by Melissa Checker is still worth a look too.

Spectrum contributor Peter Fairley  was quick to recognize how key Boliveia will be in supplying lithium for the batteries expected to power hybrid and electric cars. As it happens the current issue of Technology Review has a stunning photo essay on what Bolivia's nascent lithium industry looks like. There too there's no substitute for the magazine itself.

Despite Higher Installation Costs, Wind Continues to Surge

New turbines amounting to almost 10 gigawatts were installed in the United States in 2009, bringing the country's total wind capacity to about 35 GW, according to data released by the American Wind Energy Association this week. Next week the Global Wind Energy Council, based in Brussels, is expected to release figures showing that wind installation worldwide almost equalled the booming growth rates seen in recent years, which have been around 28 percent per annum.

The 2009 performance is all the more remarkable in light of last year's severe economic recession and a sharp run-up in wind installation costs, going back several years. Steve Sawyer, secretary general of the global council, points out that the cost of steel doubled from 2004 to 2006-7 and the cost of copper almost as much; pretty much the same was true for the price of the fiberglass used in turbine blades, made from a petroleum feedstock. Four or five years ago the cost of European wind installation was about 1000 euros per kilowatt (or roughly $1.4/W), says Sawyer, but in the next years it increased to around 1400 euros/KW, mainly because of the higher commodity prices. Wind costs peaked about a year ago and have since come down some, but only a little.

The China price, notes Sawyer, is to be sure 30-40 percent lower than the global average--and the India prices is even lower than that.

Putting its spin on the rather sensational 2009 news, the American wind association asserts that additional U.S. wind capacity avoids or saves more than 60 million metric tons of annual carbon dioxide emissions, 200,000 tons of sulfur dioxide, 80,000 tons of nitrous oxide, and 20 billion tons of water. A spokesperson for the association claims, perhaps a little dubiously, that their numbers crunchers got these results whether the generation that wind is substituting for is taken to be the average national mix or the specific mix replaced by specific turbines. The amount of wind installed last year in the United States, the association boasts--and rightly so!-- was equivalent to the amount of new natural gas capacity installed. Together, wind and gas accounted for 80 percent of new U.S. generating capacity in 2009.

To keep things in perspective, recall that when wind (or solar) capacity is compared to baseload fossil or nuclear generation, it is normally divided by a factor of three, four or even five, to account for intermittancy. (The wind doesn't always blow and the sun doesn't always shine.) By that standard, the new wind capacity really is equivalent to no more than 3.3 GW of natural gas. But even by that reduced benchmark, it's the equal of three nuclear power plants--not a single one of which is getting built in the United States at present.

Surveying and elucidating wind cost trends, Sawyer takes note of other factors that have been at work. During the peak growth years when global demand was straining capacity, a sellers' market contributed to cost escalation. Then too, in some cases, the best wind sites were getting exhausted and new turbines were having to be installed in more challenging circumstances, This has been true for example of Gemany, which is having to go off-shore and build larger windmills.

Even so, the European Wind Energy Association did a study last spring in which wind was found to be cost-competitive with all other electricity generating sources, in the current range of carbon prices, at wind speeds of 7 meters per second or higher onshore and 8.25 m/s offshore. As Sawyer sees it, offshore wind is about where onshore was ten or fifteen years ago in terms of technology and economics; it's time now for offshore wind "to grow up."

Looking ahead, Sawyer is confident wind will continue to grow at robust rates. He says that in systems containing a large wind fraction, the wind reduces demand for expensive peaking power and therefore cuts total system costs. He believes that standard economics methodology have underestimated those savings, and that once this is recognized and fixed, wind will look better than ever.

GM's Feisty and Embarrassing Vice Chairman

"Once again, Bob won't get the job." That was the definitive prediction this weekend by Automotive News, the industry's journal of record, on GM vice chairman Robert Lutz's chances of being named CEO [link may require subscription]. Yesterday they were proven right when GM's acting CEO, GM chairman Ed Whitacre, announced that he would continue permanently in the position. What they got wrong, however, was why Lutz was unfit for the top job.

Automotive News let Lutz speak for himself, arguing that at 78 years old he was too "geriatric" for an ailing automaker in need of rejuvenation. That logic flies in the face of Whitacre's logic that what GM needs most, after ousting two CEOs in 2009, is stability. After all, Lutz has served in top product development and marketing roles for GM since 2001, and previously held top jobs at Chrysler and Ford.

What makes Lutz the wrong man at the wrong time is that he rejects the intensifying concerns for sustainability that now drive automotive markets and innovation worldwide. At the Detroit Auto Show last week Lutz held forth on climate science with the Sydney Morning Herald, explaining that Earth is being cooled by a dearth of solar flares rather than warmed by greenhouse gases from cars and other fossil fuel-burners:

"All I ever say is look at the data, look at the empirical evidence...Katrina was six years ago and we have yet to have the next hurricane.”

It was classic Lutz. The product-development chief who contributed to GM's reliance on ever larger and less fuel-efficient trucks has made regular headlines with his contempt for the theory of climate change, most famously in 2008 when Dallas-based D magazine quoted Lutz calling global warming a "total crock of ****." No surprise then that many in the green-car movement cheered Lutz' imminent retirement early last year -- plans he suspended to help save GM.

Lutz apologists point to the self-styled motorhead's role in developing and securing plans to produce the Chevy Volt, a fuel-efficient plug-in hybrid -- this after dismissing Toyota's hybrids as a marketing stunt, albeit  a wildly successful one. Unfortunately, the Volt will be too expensive to save GM, according to my colleague Philip Ross' analysis in Spectrum's January issue. (Will the Real marketing stunt please stand up?!)

Lutz himself  has argued that his off-color remarks on climate change "have nothing to do with the decisions I make to advance the cause of General Motors," but that is just silly. Daniel Sperling and Deborah Gordon cite Lutz' remarks as a failure of management in their treatise on automotive sustainability, Two Billion Cars, published last year by Oxford. Sperling and Gordon quote a 2008 editorial by Automotive News publisher and editorial director Peter Brown on the value of posture and words:

"When the vice chairman of GM, an icon and the czar of vehicle development, calls the scientists' consensus on global warming a bunch of doo-doo, he's unavoidably speaking for the company. Does the consumer want to buy a car from a company that professes to want to save the world (think Toyota and Honda) or from a company that begrudgingly plans to meet what it characterizes as misguided federal standards?"

Sperling, who runs UC Davis' Institute of Transportation Studies, and transport policy analyst Gordon say Lutz' commentary reinforces questions about the depth of GM's commitment to advanced environmental technology, since the company "feels no need to reign him in."

Hopefully CEO Whitacre, who was installed as Chairman last year by President Obama, will do just that.

If Whitacre does send Lutz packing, it will be on behalf of GM's employees, shareholders, and creditors. GM's latest CEO reiterated yesterday that the company plans to repay $5.7 billion in loans outstanding from the U.S. government by June, as well as $1.4 billion it owes the Canadian government.

Samsung to Install 2.5 Gigawatts of Wind and Solar in Ontario

One of the more startling experiences you can have, if you happen to be in the U.S. Northeast, is to cross the border into Canada around Niagara Falls. On the U.S. side, everywhere there is industrial and urban decay, as if the whole area had somehow been bombed back into the pre-industrial age. Immediately across the frontier on the Canadian side everything is humming along nicely, as if one had just entered the 22nd century.

Three years ago IEEE Spectrum magazine reported on Ontario's forward-looking program to end reliance on coal generation, by boosting renewable energy and propping up nuclear. Last year the province's Liberal Party government adopted a Green Energy Act, aiming to create 50,000 new jobs in the green energy sector and kick-start economic growth. Now the province has reached a deal with Samsung wherenby the South Korean conglomerate will install 2.5 GW of wind and solar generation, and build manufacturing facilities to support the effort in Ontario.

The deal is all the more striking because Samsung is a relative newcomer to wind turbine construction. But this is not the first time in recent months Korea has suprised the world with a sudden move into global clean-energy markets. Late last year a Korean consortium entered bidding for construction of an initial nuclear power plant in the Emirates--and ended up winning the competition.





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