Archive for the ‘energy economy’ Tag

Ethanol In Your Gasoline Tank: The Pros And Cons

Ford Model T - the first commercially available flex fuel vehicle

Flex fuel vehicles have been around a while (Source: Wikipedia)

A really nice summary of ethanol as a replacement fuel for automobiles and light trucks over at Green Car Reports:

Conclusion If you want to use ethanol as a vehicle fuel today, you’re already getting up to 10 percent of the alcohol fuel in your “gasoline” every time you fill it. That percentage may slowly rise to 15 percent, but it’s far from settled as to whether occasional–or regular–use of use E15 may damage cars built since 2001. You can buy a flex-fuel vehicle, especially among full-size sport-utility vehicles and pickup trucks, and larger sedans offered by U.S. carmakers. Your challenge will be finding E85 to put in it, since only about 2 percent of all gas stations offer it, and those stations are not geographically dispersed. While ethanol offers numerous benefits as vehicle fuel, it comes with quite a number of drawbacks as well–and increasing its use to the levels mandated by law for the next decade may prove challenging, even impossible.

Meanwhile, you’re likely buying at least a little ethanol every time you fill up with regular gasoline–making it the future fuel you’re already using today.

via Ethanol In Your Gasoline Tank: The Pros And Cons.

Fortunately, I do live in the Midwest, and there are E85 stations reasonably close; unfortunately, I don’t own a flex-fuel vehicle (FFV). In fact, there are only about 10 million on the road in the US – out of over 247 million registered passenger vehicles.

And of course, situations like the one current drought affecting more than half the country will impact availability of corn for conversion to ethanol and exacerbate the “Food or Fuel” conundrum.

Hey, I didn’t say I had all the answers.

Will Politics Slow the Wind?: Scientific American

A very thought-provoking article in Scientific American walks through some of the growing pains facing the wind industry (Will Politics Slow the Wind?).

Not many years ago, there wasn’t enough wind power coming from the Great Plains to worry about. Now there is, and lots of people are worrying.

A group of mostly East Coast utility companies calling itself the Coalition for Fair Transmission Policy fears that the prime conditions in the Great Plains will make the region’s wind power too cheap for its members to compete with, unless developers there are made to pay the costs of moving wind power eastward.

The article also touches on the backlash generated when a windfarm in Texas announced it would be using stimulus funding to buy turbines manufactured in China.

For years, the knock on wind energy was that it was too expensive, too unreliable, and too far away to be of any practical use. Two of those reasons are gone, and the grid upgrades needed to deliver wind energy will solve a problem that has needed attention for too long.

Solar panel breakthrough would drive down costs

This sounds promising – a new method of manufacturing solar panels that runs faster, uses less material, and can set up continuous manufacturing process. Those three things combined should dramatically lower the cost of solar panels – one of the big stumbling blocks to greater adoption of solar energy.

The two wild-eyed visionaries behind this development are Robert Stemple, former chaiman of General Motors, and Stanford Avshinsky.

From the Oakland (MI) Press:

After nearly two years of work, they [Stempel and Ovshinsky] are finally ready to go public with a process that will make solar panels less expensive and easier to manufacture by using the thin, amorphous materials on which Ovshinsky has worked since the 1960s…

The key to the new process is that it uses less material. It’s also faster and can run 24/7, helping drive down the cost of the finished product.

via Executives team up, plan to build cheaper solar cells in Oakland County – The Oakland Press Business: The best place for news in and around Oakland County.

Stan Avshinsky is a certified genius. Chances are, you are reading this courtesy of one of his inventions, the LCD screen. He’s spent much of the last fifty years researching practical alternatives to fossil fuels. Among his more than 400 patents are discoveries which resulted in the development of nickel-metal hydride batteries (no longer used in laptop computers, but still important for hybrid cars), and thin-panel photovoltaics for use in solar panels. (Oh, and he’s self-taught. An amazing man, and a wonderful story. Someone should make a movie.)

Wouldn’t it be great if someone at First Solar, just down I-75, were to set up a prototype manufacturing facility under Mr. Avshinky’s direction?

Is Smart Grid Good News for Consumers?

Big announcement yesterday from the Department of Energy:

President Obama Announces $3.4 Billion Investment to Spur Transition to Smart Energy Grid

Applicants say investments will create tens of thousands of jobs, save energy and empower consumers to cut their electric bills

ARCADIA, FLORIDA – Speaking at Florida Power and Light’s (FPL) DeSoto Next Generation Solar Energy Center, President Barack Obama today announced the largest single energy grid modernization investment in U.S. history, funding a broad range of technologies that will spur the nation’s transition to a smarter, stronger, more efficient and reliable electric system. The end result will promote energy-saving choices for consumers, increase efficiency, and foster the growth of renewable energy sources like wind and solar.

The $3.4 billion in grant awards are part of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, and will be matched by industry funding for a total public-private investment worth over $8 billion. Applicants state that the projects will create tens of thousands of jobs, and consumers in 49 states will benefit from these investments in a stronger, more reliable grid. Full listings of the grant awards by category and state are available HERE and HERE. A map of the awards is available HERE.

My first reaction: while the improvements in monitoring capability, transmission efficiency, carrying capacity, and reliability are all welcome, one other aspect of the plan leaves me divided.

Currently, the vast majority of consumers and businesses in the U.S. are monitored with technology that is approaching its centennial. Most people would recognize an electric meter if they saw one. They record total energy usage consumed by one residential or commercial customer – but not the time of day it was used. The meters cannot transmit data and must be read manually. They do not provide price information to the customer, nor do they need to – rates are fixed.

Smart meters, on the other hand, will allow limited two-way communication between the utility and the consumer. In theory, this capability will permit utilities to discourage consumption by charging higher rates during periods of increased demand. The smart meter will notify the consumer in real time of current demand conditions and the rate being charged by the utility. Conceivably, that feedback could be configured into a power profile, allowing consumers to program air conditioners and other appliances to automatically go into power saving mode when rates go up, and activate again when overall usage drops and rates are acceptably low. This would have the effect of shifting some usage to later in the day and distributing consumption more evenly.

Of course, making this cost differential work will require some dramatic changes to the way electricity is currently priced. Most rate commissions have traditionally viewed their mission as consumer advocates, keeping rates as low as possible. That role will have to change, as Energy Secretary Steven Chu noted at a Smart Grid conference in September.

Electricity costs should move to reflect demand: Chu | Reuters

Tue Sep 22, 2009 3:35pm EDT

By Ayesha Rascoe

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – As the United States’ power grid becomes more sophisticated, electricity rates will need to rise to reflect periods of intense energy use and to encourage consumers to change their electricity habits, U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu said on Monday.

Chu said currently most local electricity rate commissions view themselves as consumer advocates and try to keep electricity prices as low as possible.

“Hopefully that will evolve somewhat, so that they begin to fold in some of the real costs of electricity generation and electricity use,” Chu said at conference focused on creating a “smart grid.”

For instance, on hot summer days when air conditioning use is high, utilities would charge customers more for electricity. Chu said those who set rates should be more lenient with electricity generated from cleaner sources such as wind or nuclear power.

Chu also pointed out that during periods of low energy consumption, electricity prices would be cheaper for consumers.

I must admit to some ambivalence on this development.

  • I wrote earlier about the need for a more robust transmission system, and my opinion hasn’t changed.
  • Naturally, I’m excited about the favored position renewables should have in the new regime. (In theory; if nuclear-generated power and power from renewables are put on the same footing, the utilities will likely favor nuclear – despite not having a long-term storage facility for waste, and the fact that there has never been a nuclear generator built on time and on budget in this country. But I digress.)
  • I’m all for encouraging consumers to make informed choices about their energy consumption.
  • Reducing the use of “peaking plants” –  among the costliest to run, and are only brought online to meet the periods of highest demand – is a good thing for consumers and producers.

However, I worry about the implementation, and the level of sophistication needed ot take advantage of the new system.

  • I am particularly concerned about the elderly. Will some choose to disable their air conditioning, in the interest of avoiding the highest tariffs during peak consumption periods, and put their health at risk?
  • I also wonder what the mechanism will be for deciding how much to charge, and when rates will be allowed to fluctuate.

Perhaps some protection is needed, similar to the Homestead Exemption, which would offset rates for qualifying individuals. Another option would be to give seniors credits that would be applied against their electricity bill, much as the HEAP program does for heating during the winter months.

So is the Smart Grid a good thing? Is it needed? Will it benefit consumers?

Train Prisoners for Green Careers?

Matt Kelley has an interesting and thought provoking post at Change.org on training prisoners in green jobs to help them re-enter society.

Corrections departments and facilities around the world offer many kinds of training for prisoners, including GEDs and college degrees, vocations like carpentry and plumbing and artistic talents like painting and video production. But prisons are too far behind the curve. Green jobs — including earth-friendly construction and solar panel manufacturing and installation among many, many other specialties — are certain to be booming in the years ahead, and prisons are a perfect place to teach these trades.

The comments are worth reading as well.

I wonder: how receptive is our society to training prisoners to take some of the best-paying jobs, especially given the current state of the economy? Ex-convicts should become productive members of society, but should that come at the expense displaced workers who haven’t committed a crime, or had to pay for their own training?

Where The Green Jobs Are – How to Find Them, How to Get Them

Want to find a job in green energy? Here you go. You’re welcome.

This map of renewable energy and energy efficiency companies from the Environmental Defense Fund is just plain cool:

The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) recently published an online map that identifies and profiles more than 1,200 companies in key manufacturing states that they see as poised create new jobs when Congress passes a cap on global warming pollution. The interactive map spotlights companies located in manufacturing regions, including those in communities in the rust belt and coal country.

via Where The Jobs Are – Interactive Tools Tells You Where to Look | The Green Economy Post: Green Careers, Green Jobs, Sustainable Jobs.

Now you know where to look. All you need are the skills. If you’ve wanted to make a career change, but weren’t sure if you had the right background and training, this free seminar from Green Career Central can help.

“NOW is the Time to Prepare for Your Green Career”
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
6 – 7 pm Pacific Time

Green Career Expert and author of the upcoming “Green Careers for Dummies,” Carol McClelland, will reveal five actions you can take right NOW to move toward your green career – even in an economy that is shifting and growing.

Click here to find out more and to sign up for the teleclass.

As I have mentioned before, the renewable energy sector has been adding jobs – even during the recession. If you’ve been thinking about making a change, this is a good opportunity to see what steps you need to take to start your career in the green economy.

Exxon Invests in Biofuel from Algae Production

Whether its “conventional” sources or renewable, energy is energy, and there is money to be made.

What does Exxon investment mean for algae biofuels?

By Callum James

The US Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) have recently announced that ExxonMobil are set to invest as much as $600 million in biofuel production technology, specifically biofuel produced from algae. Exxon seem to be following the lead of many other much smaller energy companies who have been researching algae as a source of biofuel for some time.

However Exxon are not doing this on their own, they will work alongside Synthetic Genomics Inc. (SGI). Together they have formed a research and development partnership focused on exploring the production of biofuels from photosynthetic algae. EERE plan on using photosynthetic algae, such as single-celled “microalgae” and blue-green algae, harnessing their ability to use sunlight to convert carbon dioxide into cellular oils along with some long-chain hydrocarbons that can be processed into fuels and chemicals.

via Biofuel from algae (via ngoilgas.com).

The are two main advantages of algae-based biofuel.

  • Algae-based biofuel could be converted into a renewable replacement for gasoline, diesel fuel, and jet fuel, without requiring major vehicle retrofitting. The flexibility to refine multiple fuels from a single source is also attractive.
  • Yield from algae production dwarfs that of even the most robust crop-based biofuels on a per-acre basis – more than three times as great as current crops can produce.

I applaud this move. The current actors in the energy markets are extremely well-positioned for this new development. The trading, distribution, and regulatory systems are already in place, no “perfect storm” of events has to fall into place (as was true of the Pickens Plan). No disruption of consumers’ patterns of consumption or lifestyles is required to transition to these new fuels.

Better living through chemistry – the 21st century version.

LakewoodAlive to host forum on wind energy feasibility in Lake Erie – cleveland.com

From the Sun News (Cleveland):

Great Lakes Energy Development Task Force members will discuss the possibility of wind energy in Lake Erie at 7 p.m. Sept. 30 at Harding Middle School, 16601 Madison Ave in Lakewood.

The results of the initial feasibilty study were made public in May (see Wind power initiative on Lake Erie passes feasibility test). Estimates for the next stage of the demonstration project – deployment of turbines in a pilot project – range from $77 million to $93 million.

Steinway & Sons Installs World’s Largest Industrial Solar Heating & Cooling System

This comes across my electronic desk courtesy of chloregy. I’m excited about this because I’m a fan of both Steinway pianos and renewable energy, and here’s a story that combines both.

ERS, Inc., a progressive energy engineering consulting firm based in Massachusetts, is currently working with Steinway & Sons to install the largest solar-sourced industrial heating/cooling system in the world at the renown piano maker’s 11-acre manufacturing complex in Long Island City, NY.

Solar power – in the form of photovoltaic (electrical) generation – will have to improve quite a bit in its efficiency before it is feasible for this climate (the Northeast US). But using concentrated solar power (CSP) for heating applications is another animal altogether. I remember reading an article some years ago about a demonstration project that successfully used solar-hot water for 100% of its water and living space heating. In Maine. (Memory is a funny thing, and not to be trusted altogether, but I want to say it was conducted by or with the University of Maine.)

Year-round, even on cloudy days, even in the depths of winter. In Maine. I believe they kept a natural gas option open as a backup plan, but it was never needed.

I took another look at solar hot water systems recently, as they are eligible for the new renewable energy home improvement tax credit. The solar water heating systems are fairly simple, really: A solar “collector” transfers heat energy to a heating coil containing water or a water-ethylene glycol mix (antifreeze). Tubing with that heated fluid is coiled inside a water storage tank, allowing the heat to transfer to the water. It’s very similar to a conventional hot water heater and tank setup, except the energy to heat the water is coming from the coil, instead of a natural gas burner or electric heating element. (Here’s a nice writeup from Popular Mechanics a few years ago, subtitled Help your country and your wallet – install a solar hot water heater.)

The environmental system installed at Steinway & Sons takes these principles a step farther, using CSP to heat the transfer fluid to over 300ºF. The system heats not only the hot water at the plant, but also the work space. In the summer months, the solar collector uses a separate mechanism to provide air conditioning. The system is expected to pay for itself in five years. (According the the article on PM, typical savings for home hot-water heating systems is 20-40%.)

Climate control in the Steinway plant is critical. The assembly of these instruments require high degree of precision with regard to temperature and humidity control. The company’s deployment of this system speaks volumes about the capacity and reliability of CSP heating and cooling.

As a Steinway fan, I am thrilled that the company has taken this step. As a renewable energy booster, I am through the roof.

Ford Truck Plant to Retool to Build Electric Cars

The New York Times’ Green Inc. blog is reporting that Ford will spend half a billion dollars to retool one of its factories to produce an all-electric verson of the Ford Focus:

Amidst one of the auto industry’s largest wholesale shifts in modern history, the Ford Motor Company is investing $550 million to turn a factory that was dedicated to making large and fuel-hungry sport utility vehicles into a modern and scalable small-car plant that will eventually produce an all-electric version of the Focus.

The Michigan Assembly Plant, known as one of the world’s most profitable manufacturing sites during the S.U.V. boom of the 1990s, was once the hub for the Ford Expedition and Lincoln Navigator. The plant is expected to begin building the new Ford Focus next year, followed by production of the all-electric Focus in 2011.

via Ford Truck Plant to Build Electric Cars – Green Inc. Blog – NYTimes.com.

This is great news, if a little late. I wonder how much of the impetus to produce an all-electric version of the Focus comes as one of the strings from the auto bailout, and how much comes from Ford execs noticing the popularity of the Prius and the incredible response to the mere announcement of the Chevy Volt.

Whatever the reason, it’s about time.