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Saying Adieu to the Mighty UCTE

By summer the mighty Union for the Co-ordination of Transmission of Electricity (UCTE), whose 240,000 kilometers of high-voltage lines connect 26 European countries, may cease to exist. Europe is not giving up electricity. Electrons will still flow on the world's largest interconnection of power grids. Rather, the 57-year-old UCTE will be subsumed within a new and broader organization designed to, among other improvements, make Europe's grids renewables-ready: the European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity (ENTSO-E).

CEOs from 42 transmission system operator companies in 34 European countries unanimously decided to create the new association last month. Whereas UCTE was limited to ensuring the interoperability of largely self-sufficient national grids, ENTSO-E is to play a proactive role in coordinating grid development to create a truly European grid that can operate on a larger scale. This is exactly what's needed as Europe increasingly seeks to widely distribute electricity generated from concentrated renewable resources such as wind power in the North Sea and Baltic Sea and Mediterranean solar power.

Moving power across regions implies a European-scale supergrid, while the European Commission (EC) has struggled simply to add small interconnections between the states. Last month for Spectrum Online I profiled the EC's latest desperate attempt to overcoming inertia in transmission expansion: recruiting high-profile volunteers to sell the interconnections.

One of those volunteers, WÅ'adysÅ'aw Mielczarski, the Polish electric power engineering expert whom the EC recruited to unstick projects connecting Poland to Lithuania and Germany, minced no words in describing his best efforts to get things as no substitute for European institutions dedicated to grid planning. "If we're going to do a professional job on interconnection," said Mielczarski, "we must have professional people working full time, and we must have more support from the commission."

A Commuter Rail Cautionary Tale

A cautionary tale in the annals of climate change policy implementation was offered up last week by Colorado Railcar Manufacturers LLC and Portland, Oregonâ''s, TriMet system when Colorado Railcar announced on December 23 that it was ceasing operations. The companyâ''s website stated that the firm has a â''major liquidity problem and its lenders have secured a position in the company.â''

In 2005, TriMet contracted with Colorado Railcar to pay $17 million for the purchase of railcars for its new Westside Express Service between the Portland suburbs of Beaverton and Wilsonville. The WES is to run every thirty minutes during commuting hours, Monday through Friday. According to a December 14 article in the Oregonian, TriMet spent an additional $5.5 million in public money to keep Colorado Railcar afloat since it signed the contract, including paying the CEOâ''s salary. Trimet also discovered that some of the monies it paid for the manufacture of its railcars were diverted to other projects.

Why did TriMet choose to do business with Colorado Railcar? The WES is to run on active freight lines and apparently Colorado Railcar manufactured the only commuter railcar that meets the Federal Railroad Associationâ''s crash test standards for mixed use freight lines. The companyâ''s DMU (diesel multiple unit) is a self- propelled rail passenger car that can pull up to three additional coaches. According to the Colorado Railcar website, the DMU logs 2 miles per gallon carrying 90 seated passengers (or up to 200 passengers including standing room)â''four times better than a standard commuter rail locomotive. While European railcar makers like Siemens and Bombardier manufacture DMUs, theirs donâ''t meet FRA crash-test standards. Furthermore, TriMet has reported that it was compelled to purchase from a US manufacturer in order to access federal funding for the WES.

There is clearly considerable skepticism about Colorado Railcarâ''s management practices and many unanswered questions about why TriMet undertook the WES project in the first place, especially since to realize the project it was required to sign a $17 million dollar agreement to build railcars with a firm that was already experiencing financial stress. Although the WES is still expected to start operations in February 2009, how its railcars will be serviced and repaired going forward is anyoneâ''s guess.

We all want to hope that once policies to address climate changeâ''like the approval and funding of mass transit systemsâ''are put in place all will be clear sailing. But Trimetâ''s misfortunes prove otherwise and that the devil, as ever, is in the implementation details.

The Four Biggest Energy Cliches of 2008

Clean coal, geoengineering, cellulosic alcohol, next-generation nuclear: What they have in common is that they all sound great and basically donâ''t exist. Itâ''s not that theyâ''re bad ideas as such, it just that so far theyâ''re little but ideas. Individually and collectively, they suggest that quite soon, weâ''ll have energy thatâ''s renewable or sustainable or carbon-free without our having to make any difficult choices right now about how to immediately make our energy economy greener and more climate-friendly.

For a dose of reality about clean coal, go to Reality, the organization thatâ''s been blanketing the airwaves and putting ads in many magazines. Reality emphasizes the elementary reality out that so far no commercial scale plant has been built anywhere in the world in which carbon emissions are captured and permanently stored. By most estimates the first such plant is at least five or ten years off. And of course it will be years later than that before CC&S makes much of a dent in aggregate emissions from coal-fired plants, which in the United States account for one third of carbon emissions.

This of course doesnâ''t mean that clean coal is a bad idea, just that we donâ''t have it yet. The same goes for climate modification schemes, which were recently reviewed in this space. Arguably, the world is not going to be able to reduce emissions fast enough to eliminate the possibility of dangerous climate change in the next generation, and so we shouldnâ''t exclude any optionsâ''maybe one or more of the geoengineering ideas will materialize and be demonstrated soon enough to mitigate some of the worst effects of human induced global warming.

But thereâ''s also the danger, and itâ''s a real one, that too much focus on geoengineering might produce complacency and delay constructive actions that can be taken right now to reduce GHG. One of the few benign effects of the global recession is that carbon emissions are sure to have been much lower than expected in the past year, and they likely will be lower still in 2009. Carbon reduction targets that seemed utterly unrealistic at the beginning of 2008 might now appear achievable after all.

Another silver lining: cellulosic alcohol has provided farm state politicians and the new Democratic leadership a graceful retreat from whatâ''s proved to be a reckless love affair with corn ethanol. As food prices have been driven up nationally and globally by the diversion of cropland to corn ethanol production, so-called â''next-generationâ'' ethanol gives politicians a way to say theyâ''re still for ethanol, even as they start to devise ways to cut back the current ill-considered subsidies. Even cellulosic ethanol may turn out to be not such a great deal in terms of energy and greenhouse gas balances, but we can cross that bridge when we get there, if we get there.

A general problem with â''next generationâ'' technologies is that people assume that sooner or later weâ''re almost sure to have them, even though in fact thereâ''s no guarantee theyâ''ll ever work and be economically viable. People have been talking for decades about the desirability of having nuclear reactors that are smaller, modular, significantly cheaper, more inherently safe, and proliferation-resistant. The trouble is, whenever anybody actually comes up with an idea for one, utilities around the world show absolutely no interest in buying it. So weâ''re not noticeably closer to next-generation nuclear than we were in 1980, when U.S. utilities stopped ordering additional reactors.

On this merry note, A HAPPY NEW YEAR TO ALL!

Obama the Super-Environmentalist

You wouldnâ''t have thought, to have judged from his campaign rhetoric, that energy and climate were going to be high priorities in Barackâ''s administration. You might have thoughtâ''and McCain said as muchâ''that Obama might turn out to be a social-economic radical, even, perish the thought, a socialist. But not an environmental activist.

Now look at the record: the presidentâ''s appointments to all major economics & finance positions have been entirely middle-of-the road, essentially uncontroversial, rock-no-boats players; his appointments to positions related to energy and the environment, in contrast, say loud and clear that a radical change of course is in the offing. The latest confirmation of that message comes today, with the news that Harvardâ''s John Holdren will be next science advisor and Jane Lubchenko the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Holdren, certainly one of the five or ten most influential energy experts in the country, chaired the last major blue-ribbon energy policy study, during the Clinton years. He is well known as a knowledgeable advocate for alternative, innovative, green, and carbon-free energy technologies. Lubchenko, an eminent marine biologist, is closely associated with the idea of creating oceanic wildlife preservesâ''making stretches of open ocean, in effect, international parks.

As with the appointment of Stephen Chu to Energy, the nomination of top experts to the science advisory and NOAA positions sends a message in itself; instead of our saying, â''Whoâ''s that again?,â'' we say, â''Wow! You canâ''t go much higher than that!â'' But in both cases thereâ''s a second, equally important message: for science advisor, Obama could have picked a space policy expert or a bioengineer or a pharmaceutics specialist, but he didnâ''t. He picked an energy expert, and one very closely associated with green energy. For NOAA, he could have picked some other leading marine or atmospheric scientist, but he didnâ''t. He picked the scientist most closely associated with marine conservation.

The message is clear: energy, climate, and conservation will be front and center in the Obama administration, and it will be a change.

Vattenfall Moves Forward with Carbon Capture

In the long and arduous negotiations that led to Europeâ''s reaffirmation last week of its 2020 goals, with many companies and industries lobbying hard for exemptions from having to purchase carbon dioxide emission permits, Swedenâ''s Vattenfall stood out as a company that was lobbying the European Council to stick by its guns. â''Vattenfall is running an advertising campaign in Germany urging consumers to support a single global carbon price,â'' reported the Financial Times. The Swedish national energy company has staked its future on the long-term success of carbon capture and storage, and has continued to report progress in advancing toward that goal.

This fall Vattenfall brought onstream its pilot oxyfuel plant at Schwarze Pumpe, Germany, where coal is burned in an atmosphere of oxygen and recyled gases. To date itâ''s captured about 100 tons of CO2 at the plant; it plans to inaugurate a two-year test program in February, and has applied for permits with Gaz de France to store the carbon underground at Altmark. Meanwhile, today it announced it is joining a British oxycoal project, which is led by Doosan Babcock and aims to develop a competitive technology suitable for full-scale power plants. Vattenfall also presented plans this year for other carbon capture and storage projects in Denmark and Germany.

Regarding the foundation of Vattenfallâ''s strategy, which aims for commercially viable CCS by 2020, Iâ''ve been given to understand that Vattenfall did an internal study some years back on the long-term costs of CCS. It concluded that the costs of capturing and storing all carbon created in electricity generation might be comparable to what the costs were of equipping the worldâ''s automotive fleets with catalytic converters. That is, the aggregate costs of CCS appear to the company to be easily affordable.

Gorilla in the Greenhouse Meets the Coal Machine

The Natural Resources Defense Council embarrassed the coal industry last week by acquiring and distributing video of Don Blankenship, CEO of number-four U.S. coal producer Massey Energy, proudly professing his continued denial that climate change is real. Now multimedia producer Jay Golden and environmental media firm SustainLane have released video that's considerably more entertaining and, thus, potentially far more damaging: a high-energy, Scooby Doo-esque production called "Turn It Up Day" from their savvy Gorilla in the Greenhouse cartoon series:

I heartily endorse the review by online videobiz blog NewTeeVee, which calls Gorilla in the Greenhouse "genuinely entertaining and informative":

Green gorilla KJ is an enigmatic environmental savant, telling the future through riddles that the kids who share his greenhouse must solve in order to ward off threats to the planet. (And in their spare time, they have a rock band. Of course.)

In the 7-minute episode released last week, the Green Gorillas gang exposes the blend of complacency and deception that allows our civilization to literally chew through mountains in search of the coal that fuels half of U.S. electricity production. With sage advice from KJ and a little follow-the-wire detective work, the kids trace the cause-and-effect connections between their own profligate energy use, the 'turn it up' hype embedded in popular media, and mountaintop removal mining.

As NewTeeVee put's it, the Green Gorillas' 2nd episode "fires on all cylinders":

It teaches complex issues in a digestible way; it shows the characters taking practical action; and it even goes a little deeper, teaching kids to not buy into the hype about something just because it calls itself green, but to really learn about what's going on behind the scenes.

My favorite character is the talking worm that plays the coal baron, Wormulus, who delivers several crucial Seussian rhymatribes. His malicious gloating opens the show: "My Wormulator chops the rocks, making loads of watts per hour. So They get their precious energy, but it's Me who gets the power!" Later his willful deception is exposed in this dialogue with Dr. Morlon Hufflebot, whose brain Wormulus inhabits: "Our robot tears at the Earth as fast as it can," says Hufflebot. "It's a cause and effect they don't understand," says Wormulus.

Kentucky author, poet and social critic Wendell Berry noted how hard it is for people to connect power use and coal mining when he spoke at the Society of Environmental Journalists' conference in Roanoke, VA this fall. He also told a poignant Christmas tale of direct action that helped me make the connection. Recalling a holiday season advertisement years ago by the coal industry with the message, "We dig coal to light your tree," Berry said he never again allowed an electrified Christmas tree in his home. The tale struck a nerve: I've been avoiding escalators ever since.

ENDNOTE: The 800-pound savant in Gorilla in the Greenhouse, KJ, is in no way related to the Green Gorilla power spray system, highlighted last week as a "special gift for the gardener in your life" by Canada's Financial Post. That Green Gorilla puts an end to hand pumping garden sprays thanks to its rechargable lithium ion-powered pressurizer. "No more sore arms and sore backs," assures the Post. It's a steal at C$71.95! (Solar charging kit not included.) Or buy direct and get the dual-tank bundle for just US$94.99! (With separate tanks for your herbicides and insecticides you'll "never cross contaminate again"!)

Season's Greenings!

Constellation Energy Partners with France Rather than Buffett

Earlier this year Warren Buffett appeared to edge out Electricite de France in bidding for the nuclear assets of Constellation Energy, one of the big U.S. players. But today, Dec. 17, Constellationâ''s board decided to sell the assets to EDF after all, the French national utility having sweetened its offer. Buffet still walks away with almost $600 million and a lot of Constellation stock, but Franceâ''s global position in nuclear is measurably strengthened. A few months ago EDF acquired Great Britainâ''s nuclear generating industry, and the countryâ''s reactor manufacturer Areva partnered with Northrop Grumman to manufacture major nuclear power plant components in Newport News, Virginia.

Stealth Coal: Like it or lump it

Oil and gas major ConocoPhilips and coal giant Peabody Energy applied for a permit yesterday to build a plant in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky to turn coal into synthetic natural gas. What interests me are not so much the details of their project but the fact that it's just one more example of what a longtime source of mine, Gasification Technologies Council CEO Jim Childress, calls stealth coal.

Childress uttered this colorful term while I was interviewing him on Chinese versus U.S. developments in coal gasification for power generation using integrated gasification combined cycle or IGCC technology. ('Combined cycle' because it uses a gas turbine to generate power from expanding combustion gases plus a steam turbine that generates power from the heat released.) My conclusion, reported today for MIT Technology Review in China Closes the Clean-Coal Gap, is that climate concerns have paralyzed IGCC projects in the U.S. whereas air quality concerns are helping push Chinese projects forward.

Stealth coal figures in Childress' argument that neglect of IGCC technology in the U.S. does not mean we're through with generating electricity from coal. To the contrary. As utilities turn to natural gas for more and more of their baseload power generation, they will drive demand for gas beyond what drilling can deliver. Childress predicts that coal-to-gas plants such as the ConocoPhillips-Peabody Energy project will keep the gas-fired plants running:

Right now coal plants in the planning stages are stopped dead in their tracks and the default fuel is natural gas. So we're looking at a tightening of the natural gas market and that's good news for coal gasification. It may not go [directly] to power but it will substitute for natural gas.

To my ear the word stealth makes coal-derived synthetic gas sound kind of sinister but its climate impact could be negligible according to a University of Kentucky study cited yesterday by Green Car Congress. Visual thinkers may prefer this report by Fox News on Dakota Gasification, the synthetic gas operation that pioneered carbon capture and storage in the U.S. (I'd send you to CNN, but they just axed their entire science, environment and technology team.)

Of course, one should also consider the environmental costs of coal mining. In October Energywise highlighted the upstream impacts of mountaintop-removal mining in Appalachia.

Yesterday Kentucky's governor Steve Beshear focused instead on coal development's economic impact -- about 1,000 construction jobs and 200 full time jobs for a $1 billion plant according to a Louisville Courier-Journal report. Beshear translates that into political terms in Peabody Energy's press release on their proposed gas plant: "Projects like this ... enjoy rock solid support: More than 80 percent of Kentucky residents support coal gasification."

I'm not sure about Governor Beshear's poll data, but one thing's for sure: There's nothing stealthy about his feelings for coal.

Is Obama Old School or New?

Is Obama just another neo-Keynesian or a follower of the emerging school of ecological economics?

Ecological economics attempts to assign a positive value to goods and services that promote the well being of the planet and a negative one to those that degrade it. This unapologetically values-oriented approach to the hitherto dismal science is gaining real currency in the post carbon world. Ecological economists (among them former World Bank economist Herman Daly and University of Vermont Gund Institute Director Robert Costanza ) advocate for replacing "Gross Domestic Product" with the "Genuine Progress Indicator." Says Costanza in a recent paper, â''True development should be defined in terms of the improvement of sustainable quality of life, not merely improvement in material consumption.â''

In a recent posting on the Post Carbon Institute website, â''Economists without a Clue,â'' peak oil theorist and ecological economics proponent Richard Heinberg maintains that old- school free marketeers and their neo-Keynesians counterparts are currently in a battle to shape policy responses to the current financial crisis. Neither one is on the right track, according to Heinberg. In a second posting, â''Transport: Time to Think Outside the Metal Box,â'' he warns that while we should be concerned about the welfare of the workers who depend on failing US auto manufacturers, pouring money into the industry to build yet more cars, however fuel efficient, is a suboptimum redeployment of scarce resources.

President elect Obama is now pushing for â''$50 million in loan guarantees to help the auto industry retool, develop new battery technologies and produce the next generation of fuel efficient cars here in America.â'' Heinberg counters:

â''Autoworkers do need jobs, but propping up a failing 20th century industry is a waste of money at this point. Public transit, urban redesign, and low-cost community rideshare programs will help far more in the long run.â''

Will a true ecological economist find his or her way into Obamaâ''s inner circle?

We will know when we see a truly holistic, post-Keynesian solution to the domestic auto industry crisis emerge from the new administration, one that redirects resources away from the old car culture and into mass transit infrastructure, equipment and technologies.

Obama Finalizes Energy and Environment Team

As expected, Obama yesterday, Dec. 15, formally announced his selections for Energy, EPA, the White House Council on Environmental Quality, and â''climate czar,â'' a new position in the executive office. In addition, itâ''s understood that his Interior nomination will be Ken Salazar, a deeply rooted Coloradan who the New York Times has described as a conservationist and staunch opponent of oil shale development on public lands. Regarding his choice for Energy, the Nobelist Stephen Chu, Joseph Romm agrees with my emphasis on Chuâ''s background as director of Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, but doubles me.

On his list of five reasons for hailing Chuâ''s selection enthusiastically, Romm gives him both #2 and #3 for LBL, for his mastery of energy politics AND his mastery of energy technology. However, Romm--a former top Energy Department official who now is one of the best energy bloggers around--says the most important single reason for liking Chu is his emphatic skepticism about the concept of clean coal.

On that theme, watch this space for more reflections soon . . .

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