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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.


Daimler Introduces Electric Smart Car in United States

Daimler Benz is getting set to roll out an electric version of its tiny Smart Car, though U.S. sales will begin only two years from now. The German company has been showcasing its plans this week and last with a string of Smart Cars parked on a residential street in Brooklyn (above), where members of the automotive press are given briefings. The cars, rather fetchingly painted to highlight certain design and safety features, make an engaging sight.

The plan is to lease 250 electric Smarts in the coming year, on a trial basis, to select customers in five urban areas: Portland, Ore., San Jose, Orlando, Indianapolis, and in the Interstate 95 corridor from DC to Boston. A few vehicles may also be placed in Austin, Detroil, and Los Angeles. Customers will make a down-payment of $2,500 and pay $599/month, and they'll get a four-year guarantee. Daimler introduced 100 electric Smarts in London in 2007, and currently is placing about 1500 more worldwide.

The electric Smart Car employs the so-called Smart fortwo drive system--fortwo to be read as for-two (not Smart fort-wo, as I perversely read it at first glance), to distinguish it from the discontinued Smart for-four . With an extension cord provided either with the car or at the "pump," the car can be charged either at 110 or 220 Volts, but not at a higher voltage. At 220 volts the car can be charged to roughly 80 percent capacity in three and a half hours, at 110 in about seven. So, Daimler's business model generally anticipates overnight charging at home, though it also will be possible to charge roadside at stations like the ones Coulomb will install in nine U.S. metropolitan areas.

As an enthusiastic and loyal driver of BMW's Mini Cooper, I have to confess that the Daimler Smart Car has always looked pretty dumb to me. The car's absence of any front end has always reminded me of the original VW, in which drivers routinely were impaled by the steering column in head-on collisions. Daimler makes a strong case that it has designed around such problems: Its handlers point out that the car is made of exceptionally strong steel and is shaped like a "nut"--not a walnut (as I initially understood), but the kind of nut you put on a bolt. Looked at from the side (above), the hexagonal support structure is in fact plainly visible, highlighted by the paint job.

The Smart Car, like the Mini, performs well in the most demanding crash tests. But those tests have limits, not taking into account for example scenarios in which the car is pushed, dragged, or thrown off the road by a much larger vehicle. Analysts including those at Consumer Reports have pointed out that drivers of any micro-cars are about 50 percent more likely than drivers of large cars to die in accidents..

In terms of performance, the electric Smart fortwo handles nicely in city traffic, darting and slithering through openings no other car can navigate. A single-geared vehicle, it is equipped with a 16.5 kWh lithium ion battery and accelerates from zero to 60 km/h in 6,5 seconds. It has a range of 135 kilometers. Daimler estimates that a typical commuter would need to charge the car only once a week.



DOE Demonstrates Ability to Track Sequestered CO2

Among the many obstacles to commercial-scale deployment of carbon capture and sequestration technology is the need to be able to keep track of all that CO2 that we want to pump underground. Now, the Department of Energy reports that a test project has demonstrated the feasibility of using perfluorocarbon tracers to track the movement of the gases in underground reservoirs.

The test, conducted in the San Juan Basin area in New Mexico, involved a site where about 35,000 tons of CO2 have been injected both to sequester it and to displace the methane locked underground, making it easier to collect. According to the DOE's National Energy Technology Laboratory, "The technology can measure concentrations as small as parts-per-quadrillion and differentiate injected CO2 from natural CO2."

The Obama administration has not wavered from its insistence on pursuing so-called "clean coal" technology, in spite of some of the government's own scientists' insistence that continuing to burn coal is the surest way toward the worst of climate change-related catastrophes around the world. (For an example, read NASA's Dr. James Hansen on mountaintop removal mining and coal in general.) The 2009 stimulus package included $3.4 billion aimed at CCS technology, and the NETL's press release list reads like a coal research funding program and little else. And there is little debate that the highly touted FutureGen coal project (artist's reflecting pool-pristine rendering above) has already proven to be more trouble than its multi-billion dollar price tag is worth.

The glaring problem with CCS is timing. Virtually all of those DOE projects have "demonstration" or "test" in front of the name, and no amount of money could bring CCS to the point where a meaningful amount of carbon dioxide is captured from coal plants on a time scale that meshes with what climate science calls for. As fights continue over climate and energy legislation and the billions of dollars in fossil fuel incentives and subsidies Congress provides, the question of whether CCS research is just another on that list is hard to avoid. The incremental progress like that seen in the perfluorocarbon tracer technology is promising, but only if there really is no desire to move away from coal completely.

Image via DOE

Deepwater Horizon pre-Post Mortems

To date, the best blow-by-blow account of what happened on April 20 on the Deepwater Horizon and what led up to the catastrophe appeared on May 27 and 28 in the Wall Street Journal. The second installment, "There Was 'Nobody in Charge,' " is particularly absorbing--reminiscent in a way of Titanic eyewitness testimony and, to anybody familiar with the work of Malcolm Gladwell, of what he's had to say about "mitigation."

A technical term in the field of management and industrial organization, mitigation refers to the tendency of people working in highly hierarchical situations or cultures to minimize problems when addressing superiors. The situation on Deepwater Horizon appears to have been one in which workers had a hierarchical mentality but didn't really know who was at the top of the totem poll--the worst of all possible Gladwellian worlds.

Both the Journal and a somewhat similar account that appeared later in The New York Times, "At Issue in the Gulf: Who Was in Charge?," tell the story of a young woman in the control room who realized minutes into the accident that the rig had neglected to call for help. When she sent out an SOS on her own authority, and was immediately reprimanded by her boss for doing so. As people around then were jumping into life boats or into the water, she apologized to him.

The Gladwell syndrome may be somewhat academic, but not the details of what led up to the tragedy, as spelled out in the preliminary Times story and the first installment of the Journal's investigation, "BP Decisions Set Stage for Disaster." As Attorney General Holder's people look into criminal charges, the president calls for a top-level shake-up at BP, and lawyers prepare all manner of class action suits against the oil company, there will be plenty to work with. Among the details in the two newspapers' accounts:

--BP cut short a procedure designed to detect gas in the well and skipped a quality test normally used to evaluate cement around the pipe

--Halliburton advised BP to install 21 devices to make sure the pipe was properly centered in the well before starting to cement, but BP installed only 5, ignoring Halliburton's written warning that without all the devices there could be "a SEVERE gas flow problem"

--in the weeks before the disaster, there had been repeated "gas kicks," and the blowout preventer was found to be leaking

--almost a year before the disaster, BP engineers had expressed misgivings about the kind of casings the company was planning to use in the well

--rather than install two pipes, one within the other, which is widely considered best practice, BP installed only one

--before cementing, BP cut short the normal practice of circulating drilling mud through the well, which enables workers to check whether excess gas is leaking into the well

--BP did not properly test the final cementing, and even though Schlumberger technicians were on board the Deepwater Horizon and available to do the testing, BP sent them packing 12 hours before the rig exploded

On April 20, the Deepwater Horizon's work was running a month and a half behind schedule, and a great deal of evidence suggests that BP was cutting corners, hoping to reduce losses and get the well producing. Delays, according to the Times, already had cost the company about $21 million.




Electric Car Charging Stations to Be Deployed in Nine U.S. Metropolitan Areas

Coulomb Technologies has announced that it will set up nearly 5,000 electric vehicle charging stations in nine U.S. metropolitan areas: Austin, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York, Orlando, Sacramento, San Jose/San Francisco,  Redmond, Wash., and Washington, D.C. The $37 million project, drawing on $15 million courtesy of the stimulus bill, will enable cars like the Chevrolet Volt, the Ford Transit Connect Electric, and the Ford Focus Electric to be recharged, using a hose-and-nozzle type plug built to the SAE J1772 standard. Coulomb reports that it provided 700 such stations to 130 customers worldwide in 2009.

The stations also will be able to accommodate the electric version of Daimler's Benz's Smart fortwo. Future cars that are now merely concepts, like the model currently on display at New York City's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum together with the Coulomb charging station, presumably will be accommodated eventually.

The network of stations, known as ChargePoint America, will be available to any plug-in EV driver, at no down payment. Anybody wishing to make use of a station can make a toll-free call from the station to ChargePoint, or sign up in advance for a monthly access plan and get a (trademarked) ChargePass smart card. Businesses wishing to obtain a charging station are invited to visit the ChargePoint America website, where individuals interested in buying plug-in EVs can also obtain information.

Coulomb's direct charging system represents an alternative and a competitor to Better Place's model, being rolled out and tested in Israel and Denmark, in which batteries are traded out at charging stations, saving drivers time.


Europe and Turkey's High-Power Embrace

Ethnic and economic tensions may have stalled Turkey's longstanding bid to join the European Union, but electrical circuits can be color blind. As of September the alternating current on the Turkish power grid will flow in synchrony with Continental Europe's, according to the European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity (ENTSO-E), which took control of Europe's power grids last summer.

Yesterday's announcement means that Turkey can trade electricity with Europe and benefit from the bigger grid's stability, in turn helping to stabilize the lines in neighboring Bulgaria and Greece. The link will run for at least one year, with power exchanges ramping up in stages.

Turkey's integration provides hope for would-be regional developers in the Mediterranean, who face rising protectionism, ethnic tensions, and seemingly endless diplomatic bombshells from Israel and the Palestinian territories. The Middle East troubles caused the Union for the Mediterranean organized by French President Nicolas Sarkozy to delay a second summit scheduled to convene in Barcelona yesterday until November, according to the AP.

Interconnection for Turkey was a long road. Turkey applied for interconnection ten years ago, spawning a series of system studies and upgrades to lines, power plants and control systems to ensure that its grid could hold its own against the raw power in ENTSO-E's 240,000 kilometers of high-voltage lines, which link power generators and consumers in 26 European countries. Turkey's work climaxed this spring with a successful pair of 2-week interconnection tests.

ENTSO-E's cautious approach looks reasonable in light of Europe's last effort to expand its electrical embrace with developing nations on its periphery. In 2005 power engineers opened circuits between Tunisia -- which was already synchronous with Europe -- and a block to the east including Libya, Egypt and Syria. Suddenly Turkey's was the only Mediterranean grid not interconnected with Europe's.

That isolation lasted just seven minutes, however, as electrical feedback overloaded weak links in Morocco and Algeria and broke the connection.

Extending AC power flows beyond Turkey and complete a long-dreamed-of Mediterranean Ring for power may will face similar technical challenges and also test the degree to which electricians can ignore broader political tensions. That's because a Mediterranean Ring must either confront or ignore the ongoing electrical isolation of Gaza.

For a read on the Israeli-Palestinian tragedy's corrosive impact on regional infrastructure development consider the Union for the Mediterranean, which proposes to turn North Africa into a giant solar power field. The Union takes one step forward only to be driven back two steps. With every new flare up in Gaza and the West Bank diplomats from Muslim countries refuse to sit down next to their Israeli counterparts. Israel, for its part, torpedoed a ministerial water conference in April, refusing to sign a concluding text that referred to the "occupied territories."

BP's Other Problems

Far from the Gulf of Mexico, a subsidiary BP had established in Siberia  was forced into bankruptcy at the end of last week when BP called in loans. BP had negotiated much of this year with Russia’s state-owned Gazprom and Rosneftegas, hoping to find mutually agreeable arrangements that would salvage its investments in the Kovykta  gas field and in RUSIA Peteroleum, in which the joint venture TNK-BP  holds a 62.9 percent stake.  But on June 3 it threw in the towel.
According to a Financial Times analysis, BP’s decision to force RUSIA into bankruptcy court may indeed be its only hope of recovering a $600 million investment in Kovykta, but it’s risky, because the Russian government could simply revoke its license to develop the field, leaving it with nothing.
The New York Times said that TNK-BP’s Kovykta venture “embodied” the fierce desire of investors to connect Russia’s oil riches with East Asia’s insatiable energy demand. That ambition put investors into direct conflict with the Putin regime, which has made no secret of its intention to cement a Eurasian natural gas monopoly, leaving it in a position to play off European and East Asian customers. Things got so heated between the Russians and BP that at one point TNK-BP’s CEO Robert Dudley withdrew to a secret location, citing a long campaign of legal harrassment by the Russian authorities.
Ironically, just as BP was shutting down its Siberian subsidiary last week, it announced it was bringing Dudley in to manage its Gulf clean-up operation. Perhaps BP is seeking to get the spotlight off its embattled chief executive, the tone-deaf  Tony Hayward. During the last month BP has lost a third of its value, and as the Financial Times put it in a separate analysis, “when a whale is wounded, it does not take long for the sharks to circle.”
Because BP is exposed to such huge long-term financial risks a takeover is most unlikely, at least in the near future. But as its legal and financial liabilities mount, its longtime competitors and rivals are sure to be smirking, among them Russia’s Vladimir Putin, whose environment complaints about oil companies like  BP used to be dismissed as mere pretense.

Pioneering Glaciologist Sets Sights on Another Big One

ENSO--the El Nino-Southern Oscillation--plays a huge role in governing short-term climate fluctuations from Peru to India. Accordingly, how it is being affected by climate change is one of the really big issues in ocean-atmospheric science. Hoping to cast light on that issue, the pioneering glaciologist Lonnie Thompson of Ohio State University and Dwi Susanto of Columbia University's Lamont Doherty Observatory are getting set to head for Indonesia's Puncak Jaya, the highest mountain between the Andes and the Himalayas and the world's highest island mountain, period. They will take ice cores, whose annual "rings" will tell them how much precipitation fell in any given year, while changes in the isotopic composition of the water record yearly changes in temperature.

The cores may also contain, says Columbia's Earth Institute, pollens, volcanic ash, wildfire soot, plant debris, insects, and other animals--including possibly human remains.

Thompson, the first scientist to ever take cores from tropical mountain glaciers, has in the last four decades explored many such glaciers all over the world, including on Africa's famed Mt. Kilimanjaro; he is a leading authority of the Himalayan glaciers, a subject of especially intense controversy of late. Generally tons of equipment have to be carried up mountains and back, a challenge that has stimulated technical and logistical innovations.  Susanto, says Columbia, "has focused on studying how ENSO affects the gigantic, highly changeable flow of Pacific waters through the torturous straits formed by Indonesia's 17,000 islands into the Indian Ocean, and how this in turn links to changing climate. Studies by Susanto and others. . .have shown that during the cold, or La Nina phase of ENSO, the so-called Indonesian throughflow may increase 10 times over."

On this expedition, Thompson and Susanto, having brought four tons of equipment to the top of Puncak Jaya, plan to drill six 100-millimeter cores to bedrock. The cores will be shipped to Thompson's ice laboratory at Ohio State for analysis. Progress with work can be followed on the expedition's blog.


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