Archive for the ‘energy policy’ Tag

LEEDCo announces partnership with GE for offshore wind turbines

A big step forward in the pursuit for wind energy off the north shore was announced today at the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) annual WINDPOWER Conference in Dallas. Lake Erie Energy Development Corporation (LEEDCo) announced that it will be partnering with GE for the Northeast Ohio offshore wind energy project.

This step has been in the planning for almost two years now. I’ve been to some of the public meetings for the Lake Erie wind development project, and recently I was struck by the sense of determination about the wind farm. I don’t think I can recall that sense of positive vision taking shape since maybe the Gateway development.

via Green City Blue Lake

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?

Carbon Capture Test Called a Success by We Energies

A test of carbon capture technology in Wisconsin shows that – in the perfect world – technology might lessen the impact of coal-burning power plants on climate change. From Journal-Sentinel writer Thomas Content (via the good people at Energy News Network):

We Energies says carbon-capture project works

An $8 million pilot project in Wisconsin successfully showed that carbon dioxide can be captured and kept from being released from the smokestacks of coal-fired power plants, We Energies and two partners said Thursday.

The project was the first real-life demonstration of technology that uses chilled ammonia to act as a magnet to capture the greenhouse gas and purify it for possible shipment into underground geological formations instead of into the air.

The Wisconsin project, at the Pleasant Prairie Power Plant, was able to grab at least 90% of the greenhouse gas, officials said, and the French company Alstom that developed the technology is optimistic its next test will capture even more carbon dioxide.

(via Energy News Network)

Since this was just a test, the captured carbon dioxide was released rather than sequestered underground. A similar test at AEP’s Mountaineer power plant in West Virginia will be the first full-scale implementation of the technology. Alstom plans to begin selling the technology in 2015.

A few potential problems are already apparent:

  • Ammonia is synthesized from natural gas. This process of ammonia synthesis generates CO2, so using synthesized ammonia to capture CO2 may not result in a net decrease. At the very least, the ammonia synthesis stage needs to calculated into the final reduction of this process for a true measure of the CO2 reduction accomplished through this process.
  • Ammonia happens to be one of the major inputs for commercial agriculture. It is used in creating fertilizer. Reducing the ammonia available for farming will have much the same impact that diverting corn into ethanol production did: reduced availability resulting in higher prices for ammonia and ultimately higher food prices.
  • The process of ammonia capture consumes between 20-25 percent of the energy produced from the coal-burning plant. This, too, has the effect of making electricity more expensive. As David Biello wrote in the Scientific American blog when the company announced the preliminary results of the test earlier this year:

    In other words, capturing that CO2 will cost between $50 and $90 per metric ton, though (Robert) Hilton [Vice President of Power Technologies and Government Affairs at Alstom] believes that scaling up the process and refining it will reduce that cost…

    The problem with the “efficiency of scale” argument made by Mr. Hilton is that he assumes a large-scale deployment of the technology. This is a circular argument, since widespread deployment of carbon-capture technology is dependent on making the technology affordable.

  • It is also important to note that there has to be someplace to but the carbon dioxide after it is removed from the plant exhaust. In this “small” test, over 58,000 tons of CO2 was captured from a small fraction of the total emissions of one power plant. Nowhere in Wisconsin is there anyplace to sequester the captured CO2 from this and other coal-burning power plants in the state. Wisconsin lacks the proper geological formations to use the same underground deep-well injection technique planned for the Mountaineer plant. Sending the gas by pipeline to a neighboring state has been proposed, but there are no plans and no funding to construct such a pipeline.

Even if all those obstacles can be overcome, it still leaves a power generation system in place that is dependent on cheap coal.
For the billions (or trillions) of dollars it will take to test, develop, and implement carbon capture, isn’t it worth at least considering something truly groundbreaking and sustainable, like improved firming capability for wind and solar energy instead?

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.

US subsidies of oil and coal more than double the subsidies of renewable energy

File under “Things that make me scratch my head:”

US subsidies of oil and coal more than double the subsidies of renewable energy

Jeremy Hance
mongabay.com
September 21, 2009

During the fiscal years of 2002-2008 the United States handed out subsidies to fossil fuel industries to a tune of 72 billion dollars, while renewable energy subsidies, during the same period, reached 29 billion dollars. Conducted by the Environmental Law Institute (ELI) in partnership with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the research shows that the US government has heavily subsidized ‘dirty fuels’ that emit high levels of greenhouse gases.

The funds provided to renewable energy sources plunges further when one takes into account that of the 29 billion dollars, 16.8 billion went to subsidizing corn-based ethanol, an energy source that numerous studies have shown is not carbon neutral and has been blamed in part for deforestation in the tropics and the global food crisis. The remaining 12.2 billion went to wind, solar, non-corn based biofuels and biomass, hydropower, and geothermal energy production.

Of the 72 billion dollars given to fossil fuels, 2.3 billion went to carbon capture and storage. The rest of the funds went to oil and coal.

via US subsidies of oil and coal more than double the subsidies of renewable energy.

I have no problem with using subsidies or the tax code to encourage private enterprise to move in a certain direction. But this boggles the mind. Why are we subsidizing businesses that have posted record profits, even in the middle of a recession, and slighting those that have demonstrated economic, employment, and environmental superiority?

Wind Power, Growing Pains, and the Economy

I came across a few interesting factoids recently.

  1. In 2007, wind energy not only led renewables in terms of installed capacity in the US, but actually led all forms of generation added that year – including coal.
  2. 2008 was a record-setting year for wind generation, with 8,500 MW coming online – adding almost 50% to the domestic wind generation capacity.

If that’s all you knew about wind power in the US, you might think that the future for wind power looks pretty good. But here’s the catch: the federal Production Tax Credit (PTC) for wind and other renewables expired last year. In every previous instance that the PTC has lapsed, new wind installations plummeted the following year.

This year is no exception. According to a story in Forbes magazine this week Wind Sector Looks To Congress For Lift – Forbes.com:

Following a half-decade-long boom, the wind energy sector went bust in the second quarter of 2009. Some 1,200 megawatts of new wind projects were completed during the quarter, the American Wind Energy Association said Wednesday, half the average for the previous four quarters, when wind developers installed nearly 10 GW of generating capacity, making the U.S. the world’s largest wind market.

This is particularly critical for wind installations because the major cost associated with wind is the upfront cost of development. (Ironically, this is also its major advantage over supposedly “cheaper” coal-fired plants, which require additional outlays for fuel) The PTC has been used as an investment vehicle and sold to the larger investment houses and commercial banks. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last six months, you probably know that the financial sector has taken a beating and just recently shown signs of recovery. As a result, they have clamped down on lending in general, much less for multibillion-dollar projects whose viability depends on a patchwork of state incentives and regulation and a Federal tax credit that is only intermittently available. Although the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act renewed the PTC for three years, and added a more streamlined investment vehicle (Investment Tax Credits, or ITC), the hiatus slowed what had been record growth in the industry.

To be sure, there are other problems facing the renewable energy sector. From the Associated Press: Pickens calls off massive wind farm in Texas

HOUSTON (AP) — Plans for the world’s largest wind farm in the Texas Panhandle have been scrapped, energy baron T. Boone Pickens said Tuesday, and he’s looking for a home for 687 giant wind turbines.

The article indicates that the lack of a robust transmission system to feed the Pickens wind farm energy to where it could be used is part of the reason Mr. Pickens has altered his original plan. While the current (relatively) low price of natural gas makes the original Pickens Plan less economical, surely the expiration of the PTC, and inaction by Congress for a national renewable energy standard also factor into the decision.

Echoing Pickens’ concerns, the American Wind Energy Association has been pushing for additional funding for improved transmission lines. From the Associated Press coverage of the AWEA annual conference:

The U.S. has become the world’s biggest wind-power generator and of the electricity production added in the country last year, 42 percent came from wind turbines. But as more megawatts come on line, the problem of getting power from wind-swept plains to places where people actually live becomes more urgent.

“In some ways we’re reaching the glass ceiling,” said Rob Gramlich, vice president of policy at the American Wind Energy Association. It was the organization’s biggest annual conference to date, drawing 1,200 exhibitors and more than 20,000 people.

The country’s grid is aging, often overloaded and, in the case of wide-open states like Wyoming and North Dakota — some of the best places to erect wind turbines — not nearly extensive enough to move electricity to major markets where customers wait.

The wind industry group says it needs 19,000 miles of new high-voltage lines — at a cost of about $100 billion — for wind-farm developers to keep building.

There is really nothing standing in the way of the continued growth of renewable energy in this country – except a lack of political will. And that’s a real shame, because these kinds of projects are what our country and our economy could use right now. According to AWEA, the 8,500 MW added last year pumped approximately $17 billion into the economy, and created 35,000 new, good paying jobs at a time when the overall economy was shedding jobs at the worst rate since the Great Depression.

Sounds like the change we need, all right.

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.

NPR: Power Hungry: Visualizing The U.S. Electric Grid

File under tres cool: Interactive map of the current US electrial grid.

Interactive power grid map from NPR

Is anyone else surprised by the relative lack of high-voltage lines in the Northeast and Great Lakes states? Is that because there is enough local generation capacity to meet local needs? Or is it an artifact of the way the power “system” was built?

I am not an electrical engineer, but it seems to me that a few more high-voltage lines to somewhere outside the region would be prudent. Profitable, even – selling surplus power becomes more economical when delivered over higher-voltage (less lossy) transmission lines. And building in some redundancy would also be a good thing, in case of an attack on the transmission grid. I am not a mad bomber, either, yet it seems to me that those transmission towers are pretty vulnerable structures.

Planning for additional renewable energy generation “not done”

This is one of the problems of not having an effective national energy strategy. From the LA Times comes this story: ‘Green’ energy plan in Obama stimulus may be losing steam:

The stimulus package increasingly appears unlikely to include major investments in “green infrastructure” — the wires and rails that could deliver renewable energy to Americans’ homes and help end the nation’s addiction to oil — according to alternative-energy advocates who are discussing the plans with the Obama transition team.

It’s a timing issue. The blueprints and, in many cases, the authority don’t exist to lay miles of high-speed rail lines or to build a sprawling web of power lines to create a truly national electric grid.

Remember August 2003 blackout? Some of the most heavily populated areas in the Northeast US were affected – including New York City – as well as the most people in Canada. It was caused by a power transmission system that was inadequate for the admittedly high load placed on it that day.
August 2003 blackout

It took several days to restore the network.

The cascade failure actually started near my house. It was set in motion by one of the high-voltage transmission lines sagging into a nearby tree and grounding out.

This should have been a wake-up call for a more robust power distribution system. Instead, the power company reacted by: cutting down trees within 100′ of their lines. Which was understandable: nobody was stepping up to provide any incentive to do so, other than customer outrage, and that’s transient. Still, it’s hard to believe that five years later, there has been no serious planning done to lay the groundwork for an improved power distribution grid.: