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Vestas Unveils Goliath of Offshore Wind Turbines

Danish wind power giant Vestas has announced plans for a turbine of giant proportions. The 7-megawatt behemoth is an offshore design; it will rise 135 meters (443 feet) above the waves, and feature a rotor blade that measures a full 80 meters (262 feet).

This isn't the first turbine to crack 7 MW -- that honor probably belongs to Enercon's E-126 -- but it is the first time the world's biggest wind turbine company raised the bar that high. In an introductory video for the Vestas V164, the company's technology R&D president Finn Madsen said this is the first turbine "100 percent dedicated to offshore, and optimized for the conditions in the North Sea."

Most of the existing offshore wind turbines -- none of which, of course, are yet spinning in U.S. waters -- max out at around 5 MW capacities. Vestas is responsible for a huge percentage of the worldwide offshore wind capacity: as of the end of 2010, the company had installed 580 offshore turbines, for a total capacity of 1407 MW. This accounts for about 43 percent of the world market.

The first 7-MW giants will be built by the end of 2012, with full scale production starting a few years later.

Of course, building any turbines, let alone truly enormous ones, in offshore conditions is difficult. As Peter Fairley has reported here, wind conditions around the world could be changing and making it even more challenging; increasing dangerous gust conditions could require big turbines like the new Vestas entry to shut down to avoid damage more often than in the past.

(Image via Vestas)

Energy Shocks

It must be a tough time to be working at the OECDs  International Energy Agency. Ordinarily, what could be better, if you're a bright young economist or computer modeler, than working in a plush Paris suburb and dining at Michelin-starred restaurants? But right now your job is to figure out how prices for all fuels will be affected in the coming year by Mideast turmoil and the Japanese nuclear crisis--and the obvious truth is, nobody has the slightest idea how much costs of alternative energy sources will rise, and what all the ramifications will be.

Less that a week after the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, the Financial Times reported that European natural gas prices were up 13.4 percent, coal prices 10.8 percent, and carbon emissions allowances 10.8 percent. Even before the crisis coal prices in Asian markets had climbed by a factor of four from 2003 to 2011 and in European markets by a factor of 2.5.

With the global oil industry still reeling from the aftershocks of last year's Gulf oil spill, and companies like Shell and Toyoto predicting gasoline prices of over $5/gallon by 2015, now more than ever the prospect of such sky-high costs is credible. To what extent will consumers opt for hybrid electrics or much more fuel-efficient conventional cars?  And will utilities go mainly for gas, wind, or alternative fuels, and how fast?

Those aren't the only unknowns that have energy specialists chewing their nails rather than sipping their Beaujolais.

In response to the ongoing Fukishima reactor crisis, German Chancellor Angela Merkel temporarily shut down the country's seven oldest nuclear power plants and ordered a review of all operating reactors. She has asked for a Europe-wide "stress-test" review of all the continent's 143 nuclear power plants. The industry is pooh-poohing that idea. But Merkel, a PhD physicist, has repeatedly shown a determination and stubbornness that one underestimates at one's peril.

China, though continuing to build some 30-plus nuclear power plants, has suspended authorizations for any additional ones. A comprehensive review already is on in the United States as well, and it's a pretty safe bet that the most dubious operating reactors--those nearest big cities, and those vulnerable to earthquakes or tsunamis--will soon be shuttered for good.

Overall, the net number of nuclear power plants operating in the advanced industrial countries--that is to say, countries rich enough to have many options--will decrease rather than increase in the coming decades. That would seem to be bad news for all those who have sharp reduction of greenhouse gases at heart--except that there's also a countervailing effect, namely, the impact of generally rising energy costs, which will induce conservation and efforts at greater energy efficiency.

And then there are the ongoing effects of ever-stricter coal and carbon regulation. The week after the Japanese crisis began, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issues unprecedented rules for mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants, which the agency said might save as many as 17,000 lives annually. The impact of those rules on coal generation will be sharp, even if Republicans succeed in blocking EPA from also issuing greenhouse gas reduction rules, contrary to a Supreme Court ruling that instructed EPA to do so.

The week before Fukishima, the European Commission made known that it plans to adopt a new goal for reducing the European Union's greenhouse gas emissions even more than previously sought. Europe's existing objective is to cut emissions 20 percent by 2020 relative to 1990, and it "is on track to meet that goal," as The New York Times reported. The new goal will be a 25 percent cut.

So, will utilities and localities seeking to find alternatives to nuclear have no choice but to increase reliance on fossil fuels, or might new alternatives emerge? In New York City, the city government is quietly reviving the idea of building waste-to-energy plants in all five boroughs, an idea that went down in flames a couple of decades ago because of community opposition. If the concept can be revived, it would kill two or three birds with one stone: It would help solve the city's garbage problem, which became critical with closure of the huge Fresh Kills disposal site on Staten Island; and it would not only generate alternative energy but save energy, because of all the trucking as associated with garbage disposal at a distance. It might also help make up for energy lost if the Indian Point nuclear power plant north of the city is forced to close.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is on record as favoring closure of Indian Point. Now, under the circumstances, he may just succeed.

Luckily for those poor folk in Paris, they have till the fall to figure out what will be said in the next world energy outlook, which normally appears in November.


A Mighty Extreme Wind for Offshore Turbines

In January we reported that winds across the Northern continents were losing some of their punch, and that climate change threatened to weaken them further -- altogether bad news for wind power. In stark contrast, Australian researchers report today in the journal Science that gusts are accelerating over Earth's oceans.

Unfortunately the trend offers offshore wind power a mixed bag: stronger but also more dangerous winds. "Mean wind conditions over the oceans have only marginally increased over the last 20 years. It is the extreme conditions where there has been a larger increase," says Ian Young, vice chancellor at the Australian National University in Canberra and principal author of today's report.

Young and collaborators at Melbourne's Swinburne University of Technology created a global picture of offshore wind trends by mining 23 years of nearly continuous data from satellite-based altimeters. The biggest trend they found was a stiff boost in winds gusting in the 99th percentile for wind speeds, which have been increasing over most oceans by at least three quarters of one percent per year.

Those winds pack lots of extra energy, since the energy in wind increases with the cube of its speed. But it's extra energy that's worse than wasted on wind turbines, which must feather their blades and shut down to avoid being damaged by extreme winds.

The Australian researchers did find a boost in mean wind speeds where offshore turbines thrive. Those increased by 5-10 percent over the past two decades.

Even that "marginal" boost for offshore wind may be ephemeral. Young's team is confident in their satellite-based snapshot, which matches up well with measurements from ocean buoys. But they say the satellite dataset is still too short to predict whether the observed trends are here to stay.

At the Speed of a Gas Fill-Up: Battery Advance to Allow Rapid EV Charging?

An advance in battery technology could help push past one of the persistent criticisms of electric vehicles: the extended time needed to charge the battery.

Researchers at the University of Illinois published a paper this week in Nature Nanotechnology on a change to the cathode of a battery that allows for rapid charging and discharging without a loss of capacity. They describe it in their abstract as follows:

We demonstrate very large battery charge and discharge rates with minimal capacity loss by using cathodes made from a self-assembled three-dimensional bicontinuous nanoarchitecture consisting of an electrolytically active material sandwiched between rapid ion and electron transport pathways.

The 3-D structure could eventually allow an EV to charge in the amount of time it takes to fill a tank with gas. Senior author Paul Braun said in a story published at ClimateWire and Scientific American that batteries in the lab can be charged in "tens of seconds."

The lithium-ion batteries used in todays EVs generally take hours to charge fully. For example, Nissan says that charging the Leaf (battery pack pictured above) at home will take about seven hours; Chevrolet says the Volt can recharge in about four hours. Charging stations, where existing batteries can be refilled in shorter periods, will need to provide more power if the new battery type's rapid-charge abilities are to be used fully.

(Image via Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz)

Tepco Missteps Before and During Nuclear Crisis

Special Report: Fukushima and the Future of Nuclear Power

Editor's Note: This is part of IEEE Spectrum's ongoing coverage of Japan's earthquake and nuclear emergency.

With the onset of Japan's nuclear emergency, observers were quick to recall that the Fukishima Daiichi plant owner and operator, Tepco, had to fire all its top management in 2003 when regulators discovered the company had been filing falsified safety reports for years. The conduct of the supposedly reformed utility leading up to and during the current crisis has done nothing to refurbish its image.

The Wall Street Journal reported today that Daiichi had one of the worst safety records of all large nuclear power plants in Japan. Tepco officials attribute the poor record to the age of the plant, specifically the high rate of worker injuries, which they blame on the plant's higher repair rate. According to the report, written by the Journal's superb Rebecca Smith with Ben Casselman and Mitsuru Obe, a Tepco official said that the company, in making frequent repairs, "aimed to give old plants the same functionality as new plants. However, in reality it is quite difficult."

Today, top Tepco management held a press conference and ritually apologized to the Japanese public and those who have been risking their lives, trying to get the Daiichi reactors and spent fuel cooling pools under control. The pools are now said to be refilled, thanks to the efforts of the elite Hyper Rescue Squad, from Tokyo.

The Journal says that the Japanese practice of temporarily storing new fuel loads in spent fuel ponds during routine maintenance has long been controversial in the industry. The fresh fuel loads are considerably more radioactive and hot than spent fuel assemblies, and therefore represent a much higher risk if water cooling is lost. The pool in which assemblies caught fire last week, resulting in an explosion, contained fresh fuel assemblies.

It appears--and to far there's been no evidence I know of to contradict this impression--that the plant technicians and Tepco management were so preoccupied with getting the damaged and melting reactors back under control, they simply forgot about the fuel cooling ponds. I would attribute this--having here too seen no evidence to contradict my impressions--to the failure of Tepco management and Japan's nuclear regulators to immediately set up an emergency command center at Fukishima, to direct all operations. Had such a center existed (assuming it did not), the acute dangers posed by the cooling ponds would not have been overlooked.

Criticisms of Tepco's and regulators' conduct does not end there. Contrary to general impressions in the first days of the accident, when the reactors were flooded with sea water in a desperate attempt to cool them, this was not merely a "Hail Mary" pass. Sea water cooling is foreseen in General Electric emergency management literature, according to an expert quoted in a New York Times report last week. Tepco is being widely criticized for not having flooded the reactors with sea water much sooner. Evidently they hesitated, knowing the measure would ruin the reactors forever.

Instead what likely will be ruined for ever is the immediate environment of the plant--and the situation, with winds shifting in the direction of Tokyo and the reactors not under control, still could get much worse than that. Given Japan's high reputation for technical competence, commentators like Anna Applebaum are naturally asking whether, if the Japanese can't do nuclear right, can anybody? Actually, despite Japan's unhappy history with the atom and the country's nuclear phobia, nuclear management appears to have been an area of singular national incompetence.

Japan Nuclear Emergency Prompts Quick Action in Europe

Special Report: Fukushima and the Future of Nuclear Power

Editor's Note: This is part of our ongoing news coverage of Japan's earthquake and nuclear emergency.

As Japanese authorities continue to struggle with the Fukushima Dai-1 nuclear facility after last week's massive earthquake and tsunami, the rest of the world has jumped headlong into a discussion of nuclear power's safety. In Europe, where some countries rely heavily on nuclear reactors for electricity, the reactions have been swift.

In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that seven older plants -- those that came online prior to 1980 -- will be shuttered until at least June while safety tests are conducted. At the same time, a deal made last summer that extended the life of 30 German nuclear plants has been suspended for at least three months. Nuclear power provides about one quarter of Germany's electricity.

France, on the other hand, gets about 80 percent of its power from 58 nuclear facilities (one of them, at Lorraine, pictured above), a greater proportion than any other country in the world. And though French officials agree of the magnitude and importance of the Japanese disaster, there seems to be little plan to change their reliance on nuclear power. As President Nicolas Sarkozy said in a statement: "France has made the choice of nuclear energy, which is key to its energy independence and in the fight against greenhouse gases...I remain today convinced of the pertinence of this choice."

France has long been an innovator in nuclear power; as we covered here before, the country has spearheaded ideas like a small undersea nuclear reactor. In an e-mail, the main company developing that project, DCNS, did not say that the Japanese crisis will change the timeline at all.

In the United Kingdom, where nuclear power accounts for about 20 percent of electricity -- similar to the United States -- the energy minister Chris Huhne has expressed concern that the appetite to fund nuclear projects might now be lessened. Ten plants in the country need replacing.

There are clearly differing attitudes around the European continent as the crisis in Japan continues to unfold. But on a continent-wide basis, there is general agreement that all 143 plants in the European Union's 27 countries should now undergo additional stress testing. Whether the testing, or the political and cultural landscapes of individual nations, will change the course of nuclear power in Europe remains to be seen.

(Image via Toucanradio)

Implications of Second Japanese Reactor Meltdown

March 13

Special Report: Fukushima and the Future of Nuclear Power

UPDATE 3/16: For the latest news, read Timeline: The Japanese Nuclear Emergency.

Editor's Note: This is part of our ongoing news coverage of Japan's earthquake and nuclear emergency. A more recent post describes the second explosion at the Fukushima I power plant.

With the news Sunday that a second unit at the Fukushima I nuclear power plant is probably suffering a meltdown, and that the possibility of a second containment building explosion also cannot be excluded, the grave implications of the disastrous accident are beginning to sink in.

The previous day, as reports accumulated of radioactive cesium and iodine readings outside the plant, speculation was rife as to whether a reactor meltdown had occurred in Unit 1. Radioactive cesium and iodine are fission products--that is, they are created when fissile uranium splits--and their presence outside a reactor vessel implies not merely that a meltdown has taken place but, even more seriously, that the vessel has somehow been breached.

By today, March 13 in North America, official word had come that the Unit 1 core almost certainly had melted and that the Unit 3 core was likely melting too. A press release from the Tokyo Electric Power Company said that water containing boric acid was being injected into the Unit 3 vessel in an attempt to stop reactivity and cool the core. In what was generally seen as a "Hail Mary" pass the day before, TEPCO had injected sea water as well as boric acid into the Unit 1 core.

The TEPCO press release also said that a buildup of hydrogen in the Unit 3 outer containment building could not be excluded, and that it too might explode. The Japanese prime minister declared the general crisis in Sendai and the surrounding territories the nation's worst since the end of World War II.

What are the international implications? The most obvious is this: Next-generation nuclear power plants are to be equipped with passive cooling systems, such that convection alone guarantees emergency cooling of the core if the primary system fails. The new emergency core cooling system would exclude the kind of meltdowns that appear to have taken place in Units 1 and 3. That's the good news. The bad news is that the nuclear power plants operating in the world today do not have that kind of emergency system, and therefore in principle are all vulnerable to a Fukushima I-type accident.

As reactors are being relicensed around the world to keep operating beyond their intended 40-year lifetimes, the Japanese accident is bound to get universal and very close notice.

Credit: TEPCO

Japan Nuclear Accident: Worse than Worst, Again

Special Report: Fukushima and the Future of Nuclear Power

Editor's Note: This is part of our ongoing news coverage of Japan's earthquake and nuclear emergency.

In the disastrous accident unfolding at Japan's Fukushima nuclear power plant, essentially the same chain of events has unfolded three times: first the failure of backup systems meant to keep cooling systems running if the plant lost external power, evidently the result of damage to turbine generators from the earthquake and tsunami; then the explosion of the outer containment building, apparently the result of hydrogen buildup from several possible sources.

Emergency operators flooded reactor vessels with seawater to cool them and stop core melting. Operators also injected boron to head off a recriticality--a situation in which melting fuel reconfigures itself and starts reacting self-sustainably again. Meanwhile, with some radiation escaping the plant, the evacuation zone was expanded to a 20-30 kilometer radius and authorities passed out potassium iodide, which prevents radioactive iodine from concentrating in the thyroid gland and causing cancer.

Because of the explosion and the radiation leakage, Fukushima already ranks as the second most serious nuclear power plant accident after Chernobyl. In terms of public impact, it may come in first because it's taking place in a country that has the world's most sophisticated earthquake prediction and mitigation systems, top-notch nuclear technology, and a pronounced national radiation phobia. Japan is not a technically backward country with notoriously poor reactor designs, the way the former Soviet Union was. Its nuclear power plants were designed and built with an acute consciousness of extreme earthquake dangers.

So how is it, despite that sophistication, awareness, and preparedness, that the Fukushima crisis has nonetheless exceeded worst-case thinking? Here, the story is reminiscent of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, and the message seems to be the same: Worst-case scenario builders consistently underestimate the statistical probability of separate bad things happening simultaneously, as the result of the same underlying causes. As the TMI accident evolved, the nation was mesmerized by the buildup of hydrogen gas in the reactor vessel (a prospect no member of the general public had ever heard of before) and the danger of its exploding. Subsequent post mortems found, in addition, that a substantial fraction of the reactor core melted during the accident. Had it melted through the bottom of the vessel, a vast amount of radioactivity would have found its way into the Susquehanna River and Chesapeake Bay, poisoning their waters permanently.

In Chernobyl, a peculiar design feature that the general public had never heard of--a positive reactivity void coefficient--caused first one explosion and then, very likely, a second. Such explosions supposedly couldn't happen in nuclear reactors, but it turned out they could in some types. Water flashing to steam had caused reactivity to escalate (the positive feedback loop from water voiding), prompting more water to flash to steam, leading to more overpower, until the plant "disassembled," as the technical literature puts it. In addition, overpressure from the boiling waters in the cooling pipes lifted the top of the poorly designed reactor vessel, rupturing all pipes and control-rod systems, putting the reactor completely out of control. It was, as major reports done by various national and international authorities would later put it, a "worse than worst-case accident."

Actually, every major nuclear accident has been worse than worst case, and that's a fact every nuclear advocate--this one included--will have to take into account. As we learned in the global financial crisis as well, instruments and devices thought of as separate entities can all "go south" as the result of a single underlying cause, upending estimates of how serious and consequential any one failure would be.

Photo: TEPCO/Reuters

Fires and Nuclear Shutdowns: Japan Quake Hits Energy Infrastructure


Special Report: Fukushima and the Future of Nuclear Power

Editor's Note: This is part of IEEE Spectrum's ongoing coverage of Japan's earthquake and nuclear emergency.

As news and images continue to roll in from the devastating earthquake that struck near northern Japan, issues at energy sites are among the acute problems being reported.

The 9.0-magnitude quake led to the government declaring an atomic power emergency immediately afterward; four nuclear plants were immediately shut down as a safety precaution. Operators were having trouble cooling the Fukushima I plant, and nearby residents were evacuated. There was not enough electricity available to pump cooling water through, but that situation is apparently under control with no real danger reported. At another nuclear plant, the Onagawa plant (pictured), a fire was quickly extinguished, again with no apparent major damage or danger.

Video taken from a helicopter and shown on (and elsewhere) featured a large fire burning at an oil refinery near Tokyo, and it remains unclear if firefighters have been able to start fighting it yet.

These are obviously only among the first reports coming in since the quake struck at 2:46 p.m. local time, and it seems clear that the casualties and property damage will be immense.

(Image via Getty Images)

Banner Year for Solar: 2010 Saw Major Growth in US Installations

The Solar Energy Industries Association released its report on 2010 solar markets and installations yesterday, and revealed a rapidly growing sector of the energy market. The United States installed 956 megawatts of all types of solar power in 2010, giving a cumulative installed capacity of 2.6 gigawatts (enough to power about 500,000 homes). Impressive, no doubt, but this still represents less than one percent of the installed electricity capacity in the country

Still, it is the growth in the industry that is most impressive. In 2009, the total value of solar installations was $3.6 billion. In 2010, that number jumped all the way to $6 billion. As reported by Reuters, though, the global share of US photovoltaic installations actually slipped in 2010, to 5 percent of the world's total from 6.5 percent in 2009. Even though the pace is quickening in the US, other countries are pushing solar hard enough to leave the bigger market behind.

And if that's not enough to show how important specific solar-minded policies are, just a glance at the states that are moving fastest on solar power should reinforce the notion. California led the way on solar installations in 2010 and continues to lead in cumulative capacity, but right behind it is little, not-particularly-sunny New Jersey. Those two states, along with Florida, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado and Pennsylvania (also not the most obvious of solar landing spots), accounted for 76 percent of the solar capacity installed in 2010. New Jersey continues to offer some of the best solar subsidies and tax breaks in the country.

It is of course difficult to predict if the same degree of growth can continue in 2011 and beyond, but there have been good signs, including approvals for some of the largest solar installations in the world. If some of those get built on reasonable time scales, the industry goal of powering 2 million homes by 2015 could be easily within reach.

(Graph via SEIA)


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