Energywise iconEnergywise

DOE Demonstrates Ability to Track Sequestered CO2

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

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

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

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

Image via DOE

Deepwater Horizon pre-Post Mortems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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


Europe and Turkey's High-Power Embrace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BP's Other Problems

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

Pioneering Glaciologist Sets Sights on Another Big One

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

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

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

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

Hydrokinetic Power Coming to New Orleans?

Although it probably won't stay this way for too much longer, for the moment, hydroelectric power remains the largest contributor to renewable power generation in the United States, ahead of solar and wind and everything else. Hydroelectric dams, though, come with their own vast set of environmental issues including the destruction of ecosystems when a river is turned into a lake. In Louisiana, one company wants to keep the "hydro" but ditch the "dam," going instead with the concept of hydrokinetic power.

Free Flow Power wants to install lines of turbines under water in the Mississippi River where the current is strongest, allowing the moving water to generate electricity in the turbines. The company already has 80 sites in the Mississippi picked out, along with another 17 in the Atchafalaya River. According to an Associated Press article, this idea "potentially could create enough energy to power the city of New Orleans."

That struck me as pretty amazing, considering that the Free Flow Power turbine design claims it can generate 10 kilowatts in water flowing 2.25 meters per second, and 40 kW in a 3 meter per second stream. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission says that 103 total inland preliminary hydrokinetic permits have been issued, mostly along the Mississippi but also the Ohio River and scattered in other locales as well; collectively, those permits have an estimated capacity of 6,759 megawatts. And that's not the half of it: a 2007 report estimated that hydrokinetic power could provide close to 13,000 MW by 2025 (okay, it is the half of it).

The appeal of a passive system that allows already-flowing water to just keep doing what it does best is undeniable, especially in the context of the damage that a large dam can do. While some countries around the world continue to ponder massive engineering projects like the Grand Inga Dam in Africa ($80 billion, anyone?), turbines that apparently have only one moving part and can sit unnoticed in the Mississippi start to sound like a pretty good deal.

Photo via Free Flow Power


Uncertain Outlook for Concentrated Photovoltaics

A report issued recently by CPV Today says that the levelized cost of electricity from concentrated photovoltaics "could fall as low" as 8 cents per kilowatthour in 2015, from 26 cents/kWh currently. Installation costs of highly concentrating PV--that is to say, CPV's average capital costs--"are set" to fall 49 percent to $2.47/W in 2015 from $4.84/W today.

What stands out in these industry-friendly formulations is the use of phrases like "could" and "set to." Even in this almost avowedly optimistic assessment, current CPV generating costs are a great deal higher than average electricity costs today and are almost sure to remain significantly higher five years from how. Compared with wind energy, solar's closest competitor, CPV installation costs will be at least 20 percent higher five years from now than wind capital costs are today.

The outlook for CPV is of particular interest because concentrating PV is sometimes considered closer to commercial competitiveness than standard PV, especially in relatively large plants that produce electricity for the grid. The CPV Today report mentions, in this connection, a 59 MW plant being built in Taiwan.

An alternative to CPV is thermal solar, in which for example an oil is warmed by parabolic mirrors and the heat is transferred to a molten salt in tanks, where steam is generated to drive turbines. Physics Nobelist Robert Laughlin has been giving talks in which he touts that solar technology, mentioning a plant in southern Spain (Andasol, above). But there too, Laughlin concedes, generating costs are at present about 30 cents/kWh, about five times average electricity costs.

Why Is This Man Smirking?

During the last five years or so, the Putin-Medvedev regime has repeatedly forced the big oil companies to renegotiate major development contracts on terms more favorable to Russia. The government's modus operandi, whether the situation pertained to the Sakhalin 2 field in East Siberia or the even more challenging Shtokman fields in Russia's northern waters, has been to bring environmental complaints against the partner companies, saying in effect that the multinationals have to pay Russia more to compensate for unforeseen damages. Though such complaints have not been wholly dismissed by industry experts and the world press, it's generally been taken for granted that Putin's environmental complaints--like his punitive use of tax law to eliminate rival power centers--have been a mere cover for his true political and economic objectives.

As Spectrum editor Sandra Upson put it in a news analysis several years ago, "The government’s environmental concerns may be genuine: Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund have raised strong objections to the damage inflicted on [Sakhalin]  island as a result of the energy companies’ operations. However, if the Russian government is challenging the companies’ environmental permits. . .solely to rework contracts to include Gazprom (as most analysts believe), the government is threatening the sanctity of all business relationships that bring in outside companies and capital."

As Upson explained, oil contracts with multinationals generally had been made on the basis that Russia would cover initial development costs but only start collecting revenues when oil production started. That meant, as the Putin-Medvedev government saw it, that the multinationals had little incentive to constrain development costs. Then too, there was Putin's basic determination, articulated in a kind of doctoral dissertation he wrote before becoming the country's leader, to take full national control of the country's mineral resources and use them to power its economic recovery and the reconstruction of a mighty Russian state.

Russia is overwhelmingly the dominant supplier of natural gas to Europe, and a major supplier of oil as well. It aspires to build out pipelines to Northeast Asia, and even become of significant supplier of liquefied natural gas to the Americas.

The decisive turning point in relations between the Russian state and the big oil companies was the arrest in late 2003 of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the country's top oil tycoon, who had started to act as if he were operating in a liberal democracy with competitive party politics and a prevailing rule of law. Khodorkovsky was funding opposition parties, threatening to challenge Putin for the presidency, negotiating international pipeline contracts without consulting Putin's people, and even thinking of selling a big stake in Yukos to Exxon or Shell. In the past decade, as some outside experts saw it, Khodorkovsky had made Yukos Russia's best-run company, and so he saw not reason why he should not be allowed to collect his just rewards.

 All those factors evidently contributed to Putin's decision to have Khodorkovsky locked up and to throw away the key. The arrest sent an unmistakable message to the general public that nobody in Russia was safe, not even the country's richest and most successful person. And it told the multinational oil companies that they had better watch their steps. Relations with the companies soon deteriorated to the point where, some years later, the British CEO of BP's joint venture in Russia--TNK-BP--announced he was moving out of Russia to an undisclosed location, citing a long campaign of legal harrassment by Russian authorities. From the end of July to the beginning of December 2008, Robert Dudley continued to run TNK-BP from a secret location, until the venture's Russian shareholders and BP agreed to replace him.

What an outrageous way to treat a fine upstanding company like BP, right? Well, actually, the arrest of Khodorkovsky and Putin's hard line on multinational oil development always went down well with Russians: with reason, men like the Yukos CEO were seen as robber barons, who had acquired their industrial empires for a fraction of their real worth; with some reason, the multinationals were seen as arrogant, accustomed to getting their way in relations with weak developing countries.

Outside Russia all that looked rather differently, of course, But now, in the wake of BP's Gulf of Mexico catastrophe, does one really need to ask why Putin is smirking?



Growing Expert-Public Rift on Climate Change

In the last week, just as the U.S. National Research Council issued a long-awaited trinity of blue-ribbon climate studies, the New York Times happened to report that growing skepticism about climate change, its causes, and its gravity is not merely a North American phenomenon. In fact,  that skepticism has grown just as fast during the last two years in England and Germany, where public opinion has been strongly alarmist about global warming for close to two decades.

A survey in February by the BBC found that only 26 percent of Britons believed that 'climate change is happening and is now established as largely man-made,' down from 41 percent in November 2009," wrote the Times's Elizabeth Rosenthal. "A poll conducted for the German magazine Der Spiegel found that 42 percent of Germans feared global warming, down from 62 percent four years earlier."

Yet, according to studies released by the NRC, "a strong, credible body of scientific evidence shows that climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks." Among them, specifies the first report on advancing climate science:  "rising sea levels, increases in intense rainfall events, decreases in snow cover and sea ice, more frequent and intense heat waves, increases in wildfires, longer growing seasons, and ocean acidification." Additional warming in this century, "on top of the 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit already observed over the last 100 years," could be as high as 11.5 degrees F or 6.4 degrees Celsius.

All that has been the climate science consensus for close to a decade, and so why are publics increasingly resisting calls for action? Could it be that many people are beginning to suspect that it may be cheaper to adapt to climate change than to prevent it? If so, a second of the NRC reports, on climate adaptation, addresses that preference.

"Even if emissions of greenhouse gases were substantially reduced now," says the report, "climate would continue to change for some time to come" and so "potential consequences for humans and ecosystems are significant." The report calls on the U.S. Federal government to "provide technical and scientific resources that are currently lacking at the local or regional scale" and to provide "incentives for local and state authorities to begin adaptation planning." The report praises New York City for being early to plan for climate change, highlights a heatwave early warning system that Philadelphia put into place several years ago, and focuses attention on Alaskan towns that already are having to be relocated because of greater erosion and flooding, reduced sea ice, and permafrost thawing. 

It would be interesting to know, given those circumstances, what exactly Sarah Palin thinks should be done to limit the magnitude of climate change, the subject of the third NRC report. (As governor, Palin did useful work to advance the cause of natural gas, but did anybody think to ask her during the presidential campaign about the effects of climate change in Alaska, where they are so dramatically evident?) 

The third report says that the United States should adopt a budget for greenhouse gas emissions., 2012-2050, and develop "policy mechanisms durable enough to persist for decades but flexible enough to adapt to new information and understanding." In its write-up of the report, the Times suggested, somewhat misleadingly, that the report implicitly endorses the Obama administration's goals and the energy & climate  bill it's trying to get through Congress. The NRC report does in fact endorse Obama's long-term goals, but it is quite critical of two major elements of the American Power Act: its proposal to give away some emission allowances for free, rather than auction them; and its sectorial rather than economy-wide approach to cap-and-trade.




Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the EnergyWise newsletter and get biweekly news on the power & energy industry, green technology, and conservation delivered directly to your inbox.

Load More