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Giving FutureGen a Second Chance

FutureGen -- the carbon-neutral coal power project initiated and then killed under the Bush Administration -- looks increasingly likely to be resuscitated under President Obama after proponents met with Energy Secretary Steven Chu this week. There is now good reason to take a fresh look at this proposed coal gasification power plant which integrates carbon capture and storage (CCS) from the ground up.

Those words don't come easy for this longtime FutureGen critic. But the context has changed since FutureGen was conceived in 2003, and even since Bush Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman killed it in January of 2008. While Energywise recently noted ongoing concern over FutureGen's cost, here are five arguments that could justify heavy federal financing:

  • Project scope: In its early years FutureGen was viewed as a PR exercise because it framed carbon-neutral coal as a research project, positioning the use of commercially-ready Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle power plants as a moon-shot. Chu has indicated that the project would be streamlined. One obvious element to drop: plans to generate fuel-cell grade hydrogen.
  • Financing: The most fundamental block to commercialization of IGCC technology was Bush's refusal to put a price on carbon emissions, which thwarted even utilities such as AEP that wanted to build cleaner coal plants. Carbon pricing may arrive under Obama--if he can push it through Congress--but the financial collapse has now slashed utilities' appetite to pore capital into big projects.
  • Efficiency: The carbon capture demonsrtations in construction by utilities mostly involve bolting carbon capture equipment on to the end of existing coal-fired power plants. Such retrofits are far cheaper up front, but likely to be considerably more expensive in the long run than an integrated design such as FutureGen. That's because integration should boost energy efficiency. Demonstrating that cost advantage could accelerate adoption of cleaner tech where it really counts: China and India.
  • Timing: FutureGen's site is selected and its environmental impact statement is complete. That means the project can advance quickly, making good use of the stimulus package's $1 billion in funding for advanced coal. And it could be generating electricity and putting CO2 underground in as little as three years, contributing to the critical evaluation of CCS as a strategy for slowing climate change.
  • Environmental protection: Obama Administration moves last month to challenge mountaintop removal mining mean the immediate impacts of U.S. coal demand could diminish somewhat in the years to come.

In other words, FutureGen is the strongest horse ready to run fast when it comes to technologies for neutralizing the CO2 emissions from coal.

Postscript: So why did the Bush Administration kill FutureGen anyway? It probably wasn't the cost overruns cited by Samuel Bodman last year. Those have been shown to be an accounting mirage by the GAO, Congress' investigative watchdog, and a report last month from Democrats on the House Committee on Science & Technology suggests that Bush officials knew their intelligence was faulty. Sound familiar?

That has conspiracy theorists rolling. Some say that the FutureGen Alliance -- the industrial consortium managing FutureGen -- doomed the project by choosing a site in Illinois over one in Texas. World Coal Institute CEO Milton Catelin saying Bodman ordered the hit to favor future investment in nuclear reactors, according to quotes in energy news pub Platts:

"What happened to FutureGen wasn't an accounting error. I believe it was a decision by an energy secretary in the United States to kill a project he didn't like because he was a nuclear enthusiast."

Can anyone recall when coal engineering supported such intrigue?

More on Climate Skepticism

Earlier this week I blogged about the publicâ''s growing skepticism on the subject of climate changeâ''â''more people less concerned about climateâ''â''and provoked some aggressive pushback. What particularly aroused many a readerâ''s ire was my claim that the debate over the basics of warming is essentially over. More than one reader seemed to propose that I should be stripped of my IEEE membership, or that IEEE should bar people like me from expressing my opinions online or in print. Under the circumstances, some further clarification and amplification of my position may be in order.

First, I am not, have never been, and never will be a member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. Nor am I an engineer. I am a journalist, one who was hired in the 1995 by IEEE Spectrum, the organizationâ''s flagship monthly, to cover energy and the environment. Iâ''d like to think I was hired because I had a solid track record in the field.

Let me digress for a moment to say something about journalists and journalism. It been a commonplace observation among people who do this work that top journalists often start their careers covering sports in small towns. (The late James Reston of The New York Times was an oft-noted case in point.) The reason for this frequent leap from small-time sports to big-time geopolitics is not hard to fathom. If you can report accurately and fairly the action and score of a Little League baseball game in Wichita, Kansas, then you can also report accurately and fairly on the Reykavik Summit, where President Reagan and Secretary Gorbachev sought to agree on the total abolition of nuclear weapons.

What journalists do is keep score.

About this time last year, I reported in this space about a conference of climate skeptics held here in New York City. I was surprised to note that the skeptical science faction still had a lot of life in it, and that it still was getting a lot of support from a variety of organizations around the world.

This year, when the same conference was held again, I was unable to attend. But Andrew Revkin of the New York Times covered the event and reported--again rather to my surprise--that the skeptical scientists all seemed to be throwing in the towel. When I took note of Revkinâ''s observations in this blog, several readers indignantly suggested that he had not characterized the event correctly. Of course Revkin has his personal opinions about climate and so do I. But the reactions to his reporting and my reporting of his reporting made me wonder: If readers have so little respect for what we journalists do, why do they bother to read us at all?

Last year, Exxon, which had been the worldâ''s leading funder of climate skepticism, announced it was cutting support to some groups, suggesting that it was about to get out of the game altogether. By this time, every advanced industrial country in the world except for the United States had signed onto the Kyoto Protocol, committing to sharp reductions in carbon emissions. In the 2008 elections, both candidates for the U.S. presidency were known to take the climate problem very seriously, explicitly rejecting the attitude that had governed U.S. policy for the previous eight years. Barely two weeks after his election, as reported here, President Obama gave a videotaped speech to the bipartisan Governors Climate Summit in which he said: â''The science is beyond dispute, and the facts are clear.â'' From now on, said Obama, any governor seeking to reduce emissions or develop green technology would have an ally in the White House.

Obama did not mean, and I donâ''t either, that people are not entitled to continue disputing the science and debating the facts. Some very eminent people continue to do so, including Freeman Dyson, and they have every right to do so. But until they elect a national leadership that agrees with them--and let me tell you frankly, as somebody has followed the game closely, that this is not likely to ever happen againâ''their views are politically irrelevant. The climate alarmists have won the game.

Could Natural Gas Hydrates Be Energy Bridge?

USGS scientists reported at a meeting of the American Chemical Society this week that huge sub-sea reserves of frozen natural gas, if economically recoverable, could serve as a bridge from todayâ''s fossil-fuel-driven world to a low-carbon future. Tim Collett of the U.S. Geologic Survey delivered findings of a November survey that estimated there are 85 trillion cubic feet of gas hydrates or cathrates stored in Alaskaâ''s North Slope alone, enough to heat 100 million homes for ten years. He said itâ''s been shown that itâ''s technically possible to recover the gas, though it remains to be determined at what costs.

Clathrates form when decomposing organic matter mixes with water at high pressures and low temperatures. In 1982, said Collett, the research vessel Glomar Explorer retrieved a meter-long sample of gas hydrate off the coast of Guatemala, prompting further exploration and the enactment in 2000 of the U.S. Methane Hydrate Research and Development Act.

Because natural gas is a fossil fuel, itâ''s not always appreciated that itâ''s a relatively green source of energy. By comparison with coal, per unit electricity produced, natural gas emits between one third and one half as much carbon dioxide. The implications, if huge quantities of gas hydrates could be economically recovered, are immense. To take the United States as the subject of a thought experiment: since coal accounts for half of the countryâ''s electricity and a third of its greenhouse gas emissions, if the entire fleet of coal plants were replaced by gas turbines, the effect would be to reduce U.S. carbon emissions by a sixth or more.

In a video press conference at the ACS meeting, Collett and colleagues described how cathrates were discovered in the laboratory in the nineteenth century and then in nature a century later. (To find the conference, scroll down to ACS Liveâ''s Video Clips and select the fourth screen from left in the second row of screens.) In the last decades itâ''s been established that catrates are available in huge quantities under the worldâ''s oceans, but typically at great depths. Assessment of their recoverability therefore requires a large international effort, but if economic exploitation proves feasible, they could start contributing significantly to the worldâ''s energy supplies by 2015, the USGS scientists guess.

U.S. Citizenry Is Less Concerned About Global Warming

We canâ''t improve on the headline the editors of the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media put on their recent story: â''Gallup Poll Finds More Americans Less Concerned about Global Warming.â'' Yes, even as scientists and opinion leaders are sounding louder alarms about the dangers of global warming, the broad public is getting more skeptical. Whatâ''s going on?

The latest Gallup poll, as reported in the Yale Forum story, finds that 41 percent of Americans consider alarmist news reports about climate change to be exaggerated, while 57 percent regard the reports as correct or underestimated. In a 2006 Gallup poll, in contrast, 66 percent regarded reports generally as correct or underestimated, while just 30 percent considered reports exaggerated. Just as Yale summarizes, more Americans are less concerned about global warming.

In a discussion of American attitudes and news coverage, carried concurrently by Yaleâ''s Environment 360 website, New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert reflects on the situation. Kolbert, author of a New Yorker series that appeared in book form as Field Notes from a Catastrophe, recalls that climate change often is characterized as a â''slow moving catastrophe,â'' one thatâ''s largely invisible until itâ''s too late. She quotes John McCain as having expressed skepticism about â''whether our political system can deal with a problem like this.â'' Kolbert concludes that â''the media have contributed to the general sense of it not being an urgent problem because itâ''s not the lead story of the paper every day.â''

My take, for what itâ''s worth, is rather differentâ''almost the opposite. In the last few years, with polls regularly reporting that Americans broadly think of themselves as more concerned about climate change than they take scientists and opinion leaders to be, the view has taken hold among journalists that they are to blame for having reported both sides of the climate debate, as if both sides were equally valid. Media coverage of climate debates has become more one-sided.

Why then has the public become more skeptical rather than less, even as professional skeptics have become less skeptical, scientists have become more alarmist, and journalists have focused more attention on the alarmists? In my view itâ''s because climate coverage has become repetitive and overly insistent, without being more probing and analytical. The effect has been, I submit, to make some of the public feel itâ''s being railroaded.

The debates are over about whether the world is getting warmer, about whether human activity is an important factor in that warming, and whether the consequences could be serious. People know all that and are getting tired of hearing it. What people want to know is: just how serious could the consequences be? To what extent can they be averted? What is it worth paying to minimize adverse effects of warming? These are the debates--in which scientists and policy economists are sharply dividedâ''that are not getting adequately covered in the press.

Too often, global warming is portrayed as something that can be simply stopped, consequences as something that can be simply prevented. But thatâ''s not the case, and all reasonably informed people know that too. So, I submit, people are tired of being talked down to, of being told things they already know, and not being told about things they need to know about.

Report Envisions Dramatic Urban Energy and Carbon Savings

A report done by a German university for Siemens takes as its test case Munich, the mid-sized but high-tech city where the electrical engineering and electronics conglomerate is headquartered. The postulates and conclusions of the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy are rather eye-catching, as are its examples and arguments. The authors believe itâ''s realistically possible, in just 50 years, to cut per capita carbon emissions in Munich from 6,500 kilograms to between 750 kg and 1300 kg, in keeping with the ambitious goals of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The reportâ''s starting point is the observation that over half the worldâ''s population now lives in cities. Those city dwellers consume 75 percent of the worldâ''s energy and account for 80 percent of its greenhouse gas emissions. So if it can be shown that energy and carbon can be sharply cut in cities, then thereâ''s hope for everybody.

The Wuppertal researchers see the greatest potential for savings in a program of thorough-going building insulation and re-insulation, together with installation of triple-pane windows and heating-cooling systems that recover and resuse warmth. Other big gains can come from smart electrification and smart vehicle management, together with much more reliance on electrified vehicles and public transportation. Electricity supplies will be more localized and small-scaleâ''right down to building developments and housesâ''with the lionâ''s share of energy coming from renewable, carbon-free sources.

The authors may at times be accused of pie-in-the-sky, â''best case scenarioâ'' thinking. Many a critical reader will be forgiven for refusing to believe that all the good things the report anticipates will actually come true. What saves the report from irrelevance and makes it truly interesting are its many detailed examples, which may not always convince, but do always provoke.

â'¢ For insulation, the report says tiles made from polystyrol, polyurethane, or fibrous materials are ready-at-hand for exterior mounting, but for full effect these need to be as thick as 30 centimeters. Under development, however, are vacuum-core insulation panels, a little as 3.5 cm thick. Even more intriguing: phase-change waxes that melt when ambient temperatures get warmer, absorbing heat, but then harden when itâ''s cooler, releasing heat.

â'¢ To discourage extravagant use of the gasoline car, Singapore has had a toll system since 1975 thatâ''s cut time sitting in traffic jams by 45 percent and helped double use of public transportation. London has had similar success with its inner-city congestion pricing system, and some of its red double-decker buses are now hybrids, consuming up to two-fifths less fuel and registering corresponding cuts in CO2.

â'¢ To show that cities donâ''t actually have to consume depletable fuels and emit greenhouse gases, Swedenâ''s Malmö is constructing a new district with 3,000 inhabitants who, by next year, are to rely entirely on renewable energy or waste combustion. Much of the districtâ''s heating and cooling will come from a geothermal system, in which water will be pumped to the surface at 15 degrees Celsius. (In summer the water will provide cooling at that temperature; in the winter it will be further warmed by means of heat pumps and solar-thermal devices, to provide heating.)

â'¢ A U.S.-Israeli venture is getting ready to deploy experimental networks of car charging and battery exchange stations. If successful, networked electrical and hybrid vehicles will be able to store energy, helping to stabilize grids by consuming it when itâ''s plentiful and feeding it back when scarce. (The reference is to the scheme concocted by Palo Altoâ''s Better Place, which has alliances with the state of Israel and Renault-Nissanâ''s Carlos Ghosn. In January, Better Place announced it would soon start deploying its first network in Denmark, to feed wind-generated electricity to cars.)

â'¢ Assessing the general potential for smart grids, the report reckons that as all households are equipped with real-time electricity meters, every home appliance will have the potential to help with load stabilization and electrical system management. For Germany alone, it calculates that aggregate contribution at 1300 to 3000 MW.

The Wuppertal/Siemens researchers do not shy away from big ideas, which is why their report is worth perusing. Right now itâ''s available only in German, but keep your eyes out for an English edition.

Toyota's Secret: The Clean Air Act of 1970

masatami-takimoto-credit-toyotaHow many automotive engineering leaders from Detroit or Stuttgart would identify the U.S. Clean Air Act Amendments of 1970 as the inspiration of their engineering career? Yet that's exactly what Masatami Takimoto did when I spoke with the Toyota executive vice president responsible for R&D and powertrain engineering earlier this month at the Geneva Motor Show.

Since Takimoto retires in June, I asked him to identify the most exciting chapter of his 39-year career with Toyota. His reply brought a smile: "You're familiar with the Muskie law?," asked Takimoto. I'd been asked the same question five years earlier, in Tokyo, while interviewing Takehisa Yaegashi (revered within Toyota as 'the father of the hybrid') for a cover story on hybrid vehicles for MIT's Technology Review.

Thanks to Yaegashi I knew that it was Senator Ed Muskie of Maine who drove through the 1970 amendments to the U.S. air pollution law. And I knew that Muskie's law, which required the federal government to set tailpipe emissions standards, had inspired a lot more at Toyota than pollution-eating catalytic converters: Toyota's engineers also began experimenting with new propulsion concepts such as the battery-powered electrical vehicle that produce inherently less pollution.

In fact, Masatami says Toyota started developing hybrids in 1969, while Congress was still debating the legislation. And they never stopped. When the challenge of climate change arose in the 1980s and California mandated the development of zero-emissions vehicles in the 1990s, Toyota leaders recognized an unstoppable trend towards environmental protection and responded by accelerating R&D on electric vehicles and hybrids. In 1996 they pushed the pathbreaking Prius into the market.

What was Detroit's focus through those years? One would have to say, based on their lobbying and lawsuits, that crippling California's demand for EVs was near the top. Just imagine what the automotive industry might look like today if GM had instead taken a chapter from Toyota's playbook and pushed its battery-powered EV1 sportscar nationwide, rather than crushing both California's rules and the EV1 demo fleet?

For other highlights of my interview with Takimoto, see "Inside Toyota's R&D Strategy", published today by MIT's Technology Review.

Preliminary Estimate Says 2008 Was Solar Boom Year

According to a report just out from Navigant Consulting, last yearâ''s PV shipments, at 5.4 GW, were up 78 percent from 2007. If confirmed by further analysis, the industryâ''s performance ran strongly counter to the general economic downturn, and photovoltaics seem to be taking off. But there are two major reasons for caution. One is uncertainty in the numbers themselves (estimates of 2007 shipments have varied from 2.8 to 3.43 GW). The other is that with about 1 GW of PV stuck in inventory, and incentives being pared back in the two countries mainly driving demand, last yearâ''s PV sharp uptick could turn out to be an aberration.

Last year, says Navigant, Germany and Span accounted for close to four fifths of PV purchases. But both countries are modifying the generous feed-in tariff laws that have driven demand. Spainâ''s 44 cent/kWh subsidy produced results faster than expected but by the same token proved much too costly; itâ''s being cut to 34 cents/kWh for small rooftop installations and 32 cents/kWh for all others.

Also of interest in the Navigant report are changes in the rankings of top ten PV producers. Sharp, after holding the number one position for years, has dropped to third place. Germanyâ''s Q-Cells is now Number One, and the California company Suntech Number Two. Arizonaâ''s First Solar, which has made headlines with its dramatic claims about manufacturing cost reductions for its thin-film cells, is fourth.

Fate of Major U.S. Carbon Capture Project Still in Doubt

In what seems like the economistâ''s equivalent of confusing metric and British units, a government audit has disclosed that the Federal governmentâ''s estimate of how much it would cost to build a major experimental power plant was off by $500 million because it confused constant (inflation-adjusted) with unadjusted dollars. The error produced an inflated estimate of the plantâ''s total cost that contributed to the Bush Administrationâ''s decision to cancel the plant last year, leaving the United States without a major carbon capture & storage (CC&S) project. The project, FutureGen, would generate electricity using coal gasification technology, with carbon dioxide separated from other waste streams and sequestered in some kind of quasi-permanent repository.

Energy Secretary Chu has told reporters that even with the error corrected, because of other factors, the total cost of the plant may still be too high. According to The Washington Postâ''s account, he said that if the plant costs more than $2 billion, that will be a serious problem because the country needs to explore a portfolio of affordable CC&S options. So, while the death of FutureGen may have been somewhat exaggerated, the same goes for its prospective resurrection.

5 Megawatts-a-Pop and Prepped for High Seas Action

Here's a shot of the prototype of REpower System's 5-megawatt (MW) offshore wind turbine, which has been generating power since 2004 in Brunsbÿttel near the mouth of the Elbe River on Germany's North Sea. I stopped to see the original REpower 5M last week while reporting an upcoming feature for IEEE Spectrum and clocked the turbine's 126-meter diameter rotor swinging at 11 rpm, nearly full speed. The 5M marks an awesome juxtaposition, with the 120-meter high turbine (hub height) towering over Brunsbÿttel's spongy marshland, chemical complexes and a nuclear power plant.

The 5M is creating buzz these days after RWE Innogy, the renewable energy subsidiary of German utility RWE, signed a deal to install 250 of them over the next five years. At a total value of â'¬2 billion it is the biggest deal yet for offshore wind. It also cements plans for RWE's Nordsee 1 wind farm, which could be Germany's first worldscale offshore farm if the first 30 5Ms are installed in 2011 as planned. Nordsee 1, about 50 kilometers offshore, could ultimately grow to 1000 MW -- the same scale as large coal and nuclear-fueled thermal power plants.


Heartland Conference Provides Window on Climate Debate

This time last year, a meeting in New York sponsored by the Heartland Institute provided a nice preview of the arguments climate change skeptics would be highlighting in the coming year, and of the star scientists they would rely on to put the strongest face on their arguments. This yearâ''s meeting, which opened last night in NYC, does the sameâ''and the upshot is a little startling. Last year I came away with the distinct impression that climate skepticism still had a lot of life in it. This year the impression, to judge from todayâ''s report by Andrew Revkin in The New York Times, is the opposite.

A notable development in the last year, Revkin notes, was the decision by ExxonMobil to stop funding climate skepticism, including the Heartland Institute and its conferences. But the shift in mood doesnâ''t stop there. The most noted and active of the climate skepticsâ''S. Fred Singer, Richard S. Lindzen, Russell Seitz, and John H. Christyâ''all are warning their fellow skeptics not to carry their arguments too far. Singer, for example, is reminding them that carbon dioxide is indeed indisputably a greenhouse gas, and that humans certainly are partly responsible for measured increased in CO2 in the atmosphere. Lindzen, probably the best qualitfied atmospheric scientist among the skeptics, warned them against trying to attribute recent temperature changes exclusively to solar cycles.

With skeptics like this, climate change skeptics might ask, who needs alarmists?


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