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United States Finally Tightens Auto Fuel Efficiency Standards

The Obama administration promised to tighten U.S. automotive fuel efficiency standards almost immediately after taking office, as reported here, and today, following the customary process of policy formulation, comment and review, it did so. Equally important, the Environmental Protection Agency for the first time sets standards for vehicular carbon emissions--a move generally welcomed by the auto industry, which does not want to see states adopt a variety of carbon standards piecemeal, in California's footsteps. That would require them to develop and market different cars to suit the varying state requirements.

The new rules require automakers to improve fleet fuel efficiency and cut carbon emissions by about 5 percent per year, starting with the 2012 model year. By 2016, the required average fleet fuel efficiency will be an estimated 34.1 mpg (or 6.9 liters per 100 kilometers,  with some variance, depending on the degree carbon cuts are achieved by improving efficiency or by other means. If better efficiencies yielded all the carbon reductions, average fleet performance in 2016 will be 35.5mpg (6.6 l/100 km).

Efforts to tighten fuel efficiency standards have been stymied in the United States for decades, an embarrassing situation for liberals inasmuch as Democratic Party representatives of auto manufacturing strategy and the Big Labor lobby have sometimes been more at fault than Republicans. Obama has cut through that particular Gordian knot, and his EPA will soon take action to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from stationary sources as well. It is an open question, however, whether he will be able to corral auto and coal state Democrats to enact meaningful national legislation on energy and climate.

Elastic Edges Could Balance Out Loads Along Wind Turbine Blades

Wind turbine blades can measure up to 60 meters long, and in strong wind gusts will flex five meters or more. Because wind gusts can be very localized, though, long turbine blades sometimes experience loads of very different amounts along those 60 meters. Researchers at the Riso National Laboratory for Sustainable Energy at the Technical University of Denmark have created a maneuverable elastic flap that could attach to the blades and help control those loads to increase output.

By moving the flap in relation to the turbine blade using a pneumatic control system and sensors to determine wind speed and direction, the loads along the length of the blade can be balanced. Aside from the simple variability of wind speed there are also localized effects at wind farms due to turbulence from surrounding turbines. "It is these local influences which we hope our design will help mitigate," said Helge Aagaard Madsen, one of the project's researchers.

So far, the system has been tested on a small scale in a wind tunnel, but the researchers say it will soon be ready to scale up to a full size prototype.

"A further bonus of our design is that the moulded rubber trailing edge gives us a sharp edge which produces less noise and greater output," Madsen said. Most blades now are built as two pieces and fitted together, after which the edge's thickness is ground down.

The noise and turbulence produced by nearby wind turbines is always an issue in maximizing output of a wind farm, and reducing the loads using this type of flap system is only one way engineers are trying to mitigate those effects. A recent paper in the journal Renewable Energy attempts to optimize wind farm design with an algorithm for siting the turbines.

These types of efficiency measures, although individually probably without enormous effects on wind turbine and wind farm output, will undoubtedly help as wind power scales up around the world. After all, the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory now estimates that the country has an overall capacity to generate 37 million gigawatt-hours of electricity annually from wind power, an amount that dwarfs the total U.S. energy consumption.

Image via Riso National Laboratory for Sustainable Energy.

U.S. Power System Security

A theoretical paper by a Chinese graduate student and professor about the vulnerability of electric power systems like those in the United States to cascading failure has drawn attention in the U.S. press and prompted testimony to U.S. Congress. The paper,  "Cascade-Based Attack Vulnerability on the U.S. Power Grid," compares "the effects of two different attacks for the network robustness against cascading failures, i.e., removal by either the descending or ascending orders of the loads." It concludes counterintuitively that  that "the attack on the nodes with the lowest loads is more harmful than the attack on the ones with the highest loads."

The Chinese authors have said that their work is a theoretical exercise that just happens to model a U.S. electrical subsystem because good data is available for such a system. But because the word "attack" appears in the headline--and no doubt because there is a high level of paranoia in the United States about the country's economic and even military vulnerability to China--the article has been interpreted in some quarters as evidence the People's Republic is actually positioning itself to mount an assault on the U.S. power system.

Concerns about the fragility of the U.S. electrical grids are nothing new, and with the advent of more complex smart grids, there are well-founded worries that power system vulnerability could become greater, at least in the short run. "Although researchers have spent considerable time on smart-grid cybersecurity issues, major problems remain unsolved," a recent article in the IEEE Security &  Privacy  magazine reported. In a study issued last fall by the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the mounds of additional data generated in smart grids were deemed immensely helpful to grid operators and stakeholders--but also to people who could use it with ill will, as Earth2Tech's Katie Fehrenbacher put it.

To the extent grids are vulnerable to cyber intrusion, they would seem to be as vulnerable to malicious foreign attackers as to home-grown vandals. But is there realistic reason to fear such foreign attacks, and specifically a Chinese one?

As is well known, China is by far the biggest holder of U.S. national debt, and its economy is critically dependent on exports to the United States. At last tally, it owned $740 billion in U.S. Treasury securities, and it was exporting $24.7 billion in goods to the United States each month, running a positive trade balance of more than $20 billion--roughly $250 billion per year.

Under the circumstances, it's hard to imagine how it would be in China's interest to sorely disrupt the U.S. economy. The only scenario in which economic warfare would make sense would be one of all-out military warfare, say over Taiwan. But if the two countries were at war, disruption of the U.S. power grid would be the least of America's problems.

Russia, however, may be another matter. Criminal hacking is big business there and has global scope. Several years ago, when a local dispute in Estonia pitted ethnic Russians against Estonian nationals, seriously disruptive cyber attacks were mounted against the small Baltic country from sources in Russia. The culprits may have been members of the Russian intelligence services, ultra-nationalists, or just malicious hackers--and it's not reassuring that the outside world has no sure way of knowing which.

Suppose there were a military confrontation between Russia and Europe over the sovereignty of Ukraine, and suppose Russia wished to discourage the United States from coming to Europe's help. Might a cyber attack on the U.S. grid seem a tempting way of sending a shot across the U.S. bow?

The Economist's Climate Assessment

The March 20-26 issue of the The Economist, the British business-oriented weekly, is devoted to "spin, science, and climate change," as its cover puts it. The major element in the report is a comprehensive evaluation of climate science (pp. 83-86), which lays out the basics and takes up all the major lines of criticism, putting each in perspective. Though not short at nearly 4,000 words, it is the best concise treatment of the subject for a general audience that I've seen. Its conclusion: "The fact that the uncertainties allow you to construct a relatively benign future does not allow you to ignore futures in which climate change is large, and in some of which it is very dangerous indeed."

The issue is still available on some newsstands, and is well worth the U.S. price of $7. Its contents is available online only to subscribers.

The magazine also contains a long opening editorial (13) about climate science and policy, and a news report (32) discussing prospects for U.S. climate legislation. Here I have some serious quibbles. If you're one of those readers who regularly tells me I've drunk the cool-aid, I'd suggest you stop reading right now. But if you're the type of reader who has taken the time and trouble to not only learn the fundamentals of climate science but also to worry about the details of climate and energy policy, then you might want to read on.

Why is there so much confusion about climate science and policy? As The Economist sees it, "The problem lies not with the science itself, but with the way the science has been used by politicians to imply certainty when, as often with science, no certainty exists."

That's not how I see it. I'd say the problem is that scientists, policymakers, and politicians haven't been talking enough, and therefore have not come up with a coherent and convincing explanation of what climate policy can and should accomplish. If we can't actually stop global warming, what do we achieve by merely slowing it? How much and how fast do we need to slow it, and how much will we have to pay to do that? What ill effects of climate change can we avoid by cutting greenhouse gas emissions, and what effects will we be stuck with no matter what we do?

Nobody ever lost money underestimating the intelligence of the general public, as the saying goes, and maybe that's why I'm not rich. For I cling to the myopic view that the public is perfectly capable of understanding the following points: (1) Greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are rapidly climbing and are higher than they have been in any post-glacial era since humans started to walk the earth; (2) we are already in uncharted waters and are sailing more deeply into those waters all the time; (3) we need to turn around and go back as fast as we can, without making our situation even more risky or rendering our vessel unseaworthy in the process.

The Economist and its news writers are surely right that U.S. climate legislation will be a pale shadow of what once was hoped for. But with the enactment of health legislation this week, prospects for a climate bill are enormously enhanced. They will be evaluated in a post soon to come.

Building Better Solar Cells, at Robot Speed

Testing out new types of solar cells at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory's Process Development and Integration Lab used to involve multiple rooms, numerous pieces of equipment and any number of possible sources of error or accident. Enter a robot.

The lab now has several robotic bays that have automated the process of making new solar cells with varying base components, streamlining the process to an extreme degree. It's also a lot faster than it used to be. According to a story posted on the NREL website:

"How much faster? The robot working with silicon can build a semi-conductor on a six-inch-square plate of glass, plastic or flexible metal in about 35 minutes. It pivots and dishes like a point guard, sifts like a master chef, analyzes like a forensics expert and does it all while maintaining a vacuum seal on the entire process."

There are other robots as well, with two of them specializing in different materials. One uses Copper Indium Gallium diSelenide (CIGS) and another that has yet to be brought online uses cadmium-telluride.

The ongoing goal of improving solar cells is to bring their cost into a range that would be competitive with traditional power generation sources. Solar technology companies working toward that goal will now be able to use the NREL robot army to rapidly speed up testing of new materials and formulas for their cells. A big part of that cost equation is raising the percentage of the sun's energy hitting the cell that can be converted into electricity. Several years ago at NREL, researchers set a record by achieving 40.8 percent efficiency; most rooftop solar cells come in at around 11 or 12 percent.

"The system was designed to allow us to do things we could not do before, such as get a better look at impurities and the quality of materials, the different layers that compose the CIGS cell," said Miguel Contreras, a senior scientist at NREL. "It's helping us understand better what is limiting our efficiencies, as well as learning how to improve industrial productivity."

Images via NREL.

Hydrogen Economy II

After  President George W. Bush unveiled early in his first term a vision of a hydrogen economy--a vision that momentarily "killed" visions of an electric car--it did fot take long for the truth to sink in that it would decades at the least before motor vehicles would generally run on fuel cells fueled by hydrogen. So it came as rather a surprise to see, reading an account by a German Russia expert of a September 2006 meeting with Vladimir Putin, the following: "The age of oil will one day draw to a close. How is Russia preparing for the time after cheap oil, or indeed, after oil? Putin offers an optimistic perspective: 'We are working on hydrogen energy. In the medium term we will invest massively.' " So reports Michael Stuermer, in Putin and the Rise of Russia.

What did Putin have in mind? Was he still clinging to something like Bush's vision, well after most Americans had tossed it onto the dustbin of history?

Now comes a report from Siemens that it is working with the Russian National Research Nuclear University to develop turbines that would run on hydrogen. Siemens does not underestimate the challenges: "The idea of combusting hydrogen with oxygen to obtain water and extract a large amount of energy with zero environmental pollution is still a long way off at the moment. The production of pure oxygen is too costly and the combustion temperatures of 3,200 degrees Celsius are too high for the turbine blading used in the power plants. Natural gas, which burns at approximately 1,950 degrees Celsius, already requires air cooling of the blading. Siemens CT in Munich is therefore also conducting research intoheat-resistant ceramics for use in turbines."

Evidently that vision will be a long time comng too--if ever indeed it's realized--but it too is an interesting one.

A Nuclear Gem

For Americans who came of age in the 1960s, at least the more political of them, the holy of holies was the Port Huron Statement. The founding document of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the statement called for "establishment of a democracy of individual participation," a politics "bringing people out of isolation and into community."

Did it make a lot of sense, at a time when communities in the U.S. South were barring Blacks from schools and desegregation could be enforced only by Federal agents, to propose a progressive politics based on greater communitarianism? Not a lot, perhaps, but it also didn't much matter. That's because the details generally didn't much matter. What counted was the spirit of the document, which really did capture the longing of a new generation--the first postwar generation to reach adulthood--for new political beginnings based on a kind of humanism rather than traditional liberalism or socialism.

Mad Men, the wildly popular television series about the world of advertising in the 1960s, nicely captures this point in an episode in which two young men propose an ad campaign echoing Port Huron principles. Holding a copy of the statement in his hands, one of them tells their boss that the Port Huron authors "would replace power rooted in possession, privilege, and circumstances" with power based in "love, reflectiveness, reason, and creativity." (For those of you who are sticklers for documentation, that's in Season 2, "The Gold Violin.")

Does it really make sense that cynical Madison Avenue ad executives would  create a campaign for a New York City coffee brand on the basis of the Port Huron Statement? Not really. Could it really have happened? Sure. After all, nobody took the statement too literally, and for many claiming to be inspired by its principles, it might as well have been written in Latin, Arabic or Sanskrit.

Yet even so, there's one little detail that may come as a surprise to many a Sixties veteran today--especially those who may have become active in anti-nuclear-power movements of the Seventies and Eighties. In an article assessing President Obama's pro-nuclear stance in the current issue of the New Yorker, the magazine's political commentator Hendrik Hertzberg draws attention to these lines in the statement: "Our monster cities, based historically on the need for mass labor, might now be humanized, broken into smaller communities, powered by nuclear energy, arranged according to community decision."

Why would we want need huge nuclear reactors to power smaller communities once large cities are eliminated? Don't ask. The details really didn't matter.





More on Peak Lithium

Quite some time back EnergyWise contributor Peter Fairly shrewdly noted that the future of hybrid and electric cars might be subject to a "peak lithium" problem, analogous to the peak oil issue that has been the subject of so much debate for so many decades--and that tiny Bolivia might find itself in the position of Saudi Arabia. This week's New Yorker carries an article on Bolivia and lithium by one of the magazine's star contributors, Lawrence Wright. Meanwhile, Tech Review has carried a photo essay showing what Bolivia's nascent lithium industry might look like.


The Top PV Equipment Manufacturer Establishes R&D Lab in Xian

Best known outside China for the ancient terra cotta army found nearby, Xian also is one of China's major high-tech hubs and manufacturing centers, where many multinationals conduct operations. Though desperately polluted, like so many of China's big cities, it also has considerable charm, with old walls, a bell tower, a thriving Muslim community, and a lovely cloistered mosque. Soon it also will be home to what surely will be the world's foremost R&D lab for photovoltaics manufacturing equipment. Applied Materials, the leading maker of semiconductor and flat-panel-display equipment, is setting up an R&D lab in Xian and deploying one of its star chief technology officers, Mark R. Pinto, to run it.

Pinto describes the basic setup as follows: "The building has two floors for labs (each floor is the height of two office levels). The first floor lab will be mostly a crystalline silicon PV lab but the equipment is just arriving next month. The second floor is a full thin-film line--the one we've been working on with the 5.7-meter-square panels, so it is huge. And we just made our first panels this week.The main objective of both labs is to use equipment to prove in processes at full scale, something we cannot do in our other locations."

As described here last December in a post about utility-scale photovoltaics,  Applied Materials has made a nice business out of offering complete sets of tool-making equipment to aspiring makers of thin-film silicon sheets, in effect just about everything that's needed in the manufacturing process, which it has branded with the name SunFabs. An interactive video on the company's website describes how a SunFab factory can be linked to a solar farm; a photo-essay describing its production processes also can be found in the current issue of MIT's Technology Review.


Illinois Legislature Paves Way for More Nuclear Power

Since 1987, a moratorium has been in place in the state of Illinois preventing the construction of new nuclear power facilities. Now, the Illinois Senate voted 40-1 to repeal that ban, and with passage in the House as well a state that already gets 48 percent of its power from nuclear reactors could be upping that percentage even further.

Illinois has six currently operating nuclear power plants, five of which have two reactors. Exelon Energy owns all of the plants, and they have already been issued an early site permit from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to build a second reactor at the lone single-reactor site.

Across the country, we get about 20 percent of our electricity from nuclear power, so Illinois is a bit off the charts. In fact, the state ranked first in nuclear power generation and capacity in 2008. Of course, recent momentum has pushed nuclear power back to the fore, with President Obama touting its potential and the government recently offering its first loan guarantee for new reactors. That project will receive $8.33 billion to build two new reactors in Georgia.

Interestingly, the Illinois moratorium on new plants was put in place until an acceptable permanent repository for nuclear waste could be found. Earlier this year the Obama administration announced they would pull the permit application to use the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada, which was the only permanent storage site under consideration. Now, even without a replacement, Illinois is changing its tune.

And if you're pondering the "green" potential of nuclear power, then consider this: Illinois, with its 48 percent of power generated by nuclear reactors, ranked sixth from the top in terms of state carbon dioxide emissions in 2007. It does rank fifth in population, but with such a high percentage of its power from a supposedly carbon-free source, one might expect a bit better result.

Photo of Byron Nuclear Generation Station in Illinois via Ben Jacobson on Wikimedia Commons.


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