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What the ARPA-E Is Up To: $93 Million for Energy Research

In a third round of Recovery Act funding awards, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E, announced that $93 million will be awarded to 43 different projects around the country. According to a press release, the projects "focus on accelerating innovation in green technology while increasing America's competitiveness in grid scale energy storage, power electronics and building efficiency." Energy Secretary Steven Chu made the announcement on Monday.

ARPA-E is modeled after DARPA, the military's geeked out wing that develops things like stealth technology for fighter planes. One of the interesting sides of ARPA-E is that it encourages researchers to take shots at things that might be a bit out there. According to their mission statement: "To focus on creative “out-of-the-box” transformational energy research that industry by itself cannot or will not support due to its high risk but where success would provide dramatic benefits for the nation."

You can read about all the projects here [PDF], but here are a couple of newly funded projects that might fit that category of high risk and high reward:

  • ABB Inc. along with SuperPower Inc. and Brookhaven National Laboratory received $4.2 million to try and build an advanced superconducting magnetic energy storage device. In short, this involves storing energy from the grid in the magnetic field of a coiled wire, and could theoretically have "near-zero" loss of energy. The aim is to bring a fringe technology toward the mainstream of power storage, making it "cost-competitive for delivering megawatt hours of stored electricity."
  • The Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the University of Southern California will try and improve the technology involved with iron-air batteries. Iron-air batteries are attractive because of the super cheap nature of their materials, but have to-date suffered from poor efficiency and life cycle. In this project, $1.46 million will go toward improving on those issues and creating a proof-of-concept battery that could eventually be commercialized for cheap but effective energy storage.
  • Another category of project involves improved building efficiency, and Architectural Applications and partners will use $458,265 to try and develop a novel air conditioning system. If successful, recycled exhausted air will be used to partially cool and dehumidify incoming fresh air. "This design promises a performance increase of 25-40 percent compared to conventional air conditioning systems."

First Coulomb Electricity Pump Installed in New York

At a Manhattan parking lot owned by Edison Properties--no relation to ConEd, by the way--Mayor Bloomberg and HUD Secretary Donovan unveiled today the first Coulomb Technologies charging station. Part of a $37 million program to deploy electricity pumps in 9 U.S. metropolitan areas, with $15 million coming from the Obama administration's stimulus bill, the station is the first of 100 to be deployed in the next months in the city's 5 boroughs. Quoting former mayor Ed Koch, who called New York the city where the future comes to audition, Bloomberg said he wanted the city to be ready by early next year when the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf hit the market.

The ChargePoint network of charging stations, conceived and built by Coulomb Technologies, is being deployed in cooperation with Chevrolet (because of the Volt) , Ford (with its forthcoming Focus and Transit Connect EVs), and Daimler, which is introducing an electric Smartcar. Housing Secretary Donovan, a former member of Bloomberg's city government, emphasized that the administration's support is part of a broad strategy of future job creation. He said that the next day, on July 15, Obama would be cutting the ribbon at a new car battery manufacturing plant in Holland, Michigan.

When Obama took office, said Donovan, there were no factories in the United States mass-producing batteries for EVs; now there will be nine.

Bloomberg, who calls himself a political independent, voiced appreciation and support for the Obama program but volunteered that the number of new jobs resulting from ChargePoint installation will be small in the short run. Pointing out that climate benefits from electric vehicles are highly dependent on the carbon intensity of power generation, I asked how much of New York’s electricity comes from zero-carbon sources; Bloomberg deferred to his sustainability chief, who said New York gets about 40 percent of its electricity from nuclear power and hydropower plants. While that's less than I would have guessed--which shows that you shouldn't just guess when you're calculating your personal carbon emissions--it does suggest that curbing air pollution is a better argument than carbon mitigation for promoting electric vehicles.

Passenger cars and light trucks account for about 15 percent of New York City's carbon emissions, and so it's easy to see that if 2.5 percent of them were replaced by electrics in the next few years, as a study deems possible, the impact on greenhouse gas emissions would be negligible. Even if all the internal-combustion cars are eventually replaced by electrics, the global climate benefit would be modest, whereas the reduction in street-level pollution would be dramatic.

Paris Puts the Bicyclette First

Paris threw open nearly one thousand one-way streets to two-way traffic this week -- that is, for travelers willing to pedal. Whereas other cities such as Boulder and London have created a handful of designated counterflow bike lanes, the new rules taking effect in Paris this week allow bicyclists to cycle upstream against automobile traffic within all of the city's 30 kilometer-per-hour zones.

Generally speaking these 30-kph zones comprise knots of narrow streets serving primarily neighborhood traffic. But Paris city hall expects a big impact for cyclists. According to Paris planners the move will expand route options for cyclists and may also (seemingly against all odds) improve safety. The mayor's office notes that on some streets cyclists heading upstream will be further from parked cars, minimizing their risk of 'winning a door prize' from innattentive automobile users stepping out onto the roadway.

Counterflow cycling is part of a long-running push by Parti Socialiste mayor Bertrand Delanoe to pump up bicycling's role in Paris transport, and their second major innovation. Their first was Vélib, which brought bike sharing to the big cycle on a previously unheard-of scale. Parisians (and the millions of tourists that visit the city annually) can grab and drop bikes from any of 1800 parking spots across the city.

Reporting by the New York Times last year left many Americans with the impression that Vélib was on the brink, its bikes paralyzed by rampant vandalism. That's not what this visitor to Paris is seeing. And it's not what London sees. That city is in the process of rolling out a bike share of its own this summer.

Up next in Delanoe's urban transport innovation program: an electric car share system dubbed Autolib that the city hopes to launch next year. Paris envisions 3000 electric cars available at 1000 locations in the Paris metro region. City hall is in the process of choosing between the three finalists for the contract to launch and operate the system. 

The New York Times ran a suprisingly optimistic report on Autolib last month, despite starting the article with yet another misleading swipe at Vélib.

Hybrid Solar-Coal Plant: Excuse to Pollute?

Utility company Xcel Energy recently announced that the first ever demonstration of a hybrid solar-coal power generating station is up and running near Grand Junction, Colorado. The plant uses an array of concentrating solar parabolic troughs to reduce the coal consumption of unit 2 of the Cameo coal power station.

An interesting idea, to be sure, but the scale of the coal issue makes this seem like little more than lipstick on a pig. A very, very dirty pig. As NASA scientist and leading climate expert James Hansen writes in his recent book Storms of My Grandchildren, "If we want to solve the climate problem, we must phase out coal emissions. Period."

Hansen and others have shown [PDF] that only if global coal emissions are completely phased out by 2030 could atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide be stabilized at between 400 and 425 ppm (which certainly seems unlikely from our current level of about 392 ppm), most likely averting some of the more dire climate scenarios. The US currently gets about half of its electricity generation from coal; we better get started if we want that 2030 target to be remotely realistic.

Xcel's demonstration project - built along with Abengoa Solar - could reduce coal use at the Cameo generating station by two to three percent, and according to a video the company produced, scaling up the idea could someday bring that to 10 percent. If we take Hansen's - and many other scientists' - word for it, 10 percent reductions in coal use over the next decade or so isn't nearly enough.

That's not to say this isn't better than nothing. It just seems that the $4.5 million price tag might have seen better use in other renewable projects rather than a slick way to keep a 53-year-old coal plant open far into the coming renewable energy age.

"We are very excited about getting this unique renewable energy project on line," said Kent Larson, vice president of Xcel Energy, in a press release. "If this project produces the successful results we expect, this type of solar thermal integration will help move the use of solar energy one step closer to being a potential technology for improving the environmental performance of coal-fired power plants for Xcel Energy and for utilities around the country."

The key there is that the aim is to improve coal plants' performance. When faced with the realities of coal mining and emissions, though, most of us might prefer to just get rid of them.

(Images via Sandia National Laboratory and Xcel Energy)

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.



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