Category: Energy

What might kill wind and solar power?

Stephen Chu at Sandia Labs

Questions to Stephen Chu, Nobel Prizewinner in Physics, former Secretary of Energy

During your time at the Department of Energy the deployment of renewable energy in the U.S. doubled. Is the fall in fossil-fuel prices killing the business case for renewables?

The decline in fossil-fuel prices does have some effect, but remember that 78 percent of the economies of the U.S. have state-mandated renewable portfolio standards. They require that a specified fraction of electricity must come from renewable energy. For example, in California the goal is 33 percent renewable energy by 2020.

Right now renewable electricity is roughly 13 percent of total electricity generated in the U.S. Half is hydropower and the other half is mostly wind energy, with some solar, biomass and geothermal. Renewable energy costs have come down significantly. Even if natural gas, which is the cheapest form of electricity generation today, stays at $4 per million Btus [British thermal units], wind without subsidy is almost as inexpensive.

Electrical generation in the sunnier parts of the U.S. is also approaching equality with a new natural gas power plant. The cost of wind and solar is anticipated to decline for at least a decade or two. Perhaps in a decade, renewables will be competitive with any new form of energy in many parts of the U.S.

What do you think is the biggest energy problem today?

It’s a combination of things. As renewable energy and electrical storage become less expensive, one has to design the grid system to take full advantage of lower-cost energy.

As renewable energy becomes an increasingly larger fraction of the total energy, the cost of standby electricity and storage becomes part of the cost of renewables. Sometimes the wind does not blow and the sun does not shine…

…We can’t really abandon fossil fuels before the first half of this century because they are needed for backup power. We need to invent a method to transform very inexpensive electricity into cost-competitive liquid hydrocarbon fuels that can be shipped by tanker and stored around the world. After that we can begin to wean ourselves from fossil and fission nuclear energy.

You’ve straddled politics and science. At times this doesn’t seem to work. What’s going wrong?

Sometimes you can have sets of well-informed people who will have different opinions on how to deal with X, Y or Z. That’s where politics should come in.

…It makes no sense to say, “Unless science can prove unequivocally that very bad things will happen, we can continue on our present course.”

Science cannot predict who will get lung cancer if they smoke. With a half a century of hindsight we now know that the risk is 25 times greater than for nonsmokers.

Prudent risk management does not use uncertainty as an excuse for inaction, and fire and health insurance make sense. We need leaders who are scientifically well-informed and willing act in the long-term best interests of their countries.

Whatever the sum of our nation’s ignorance plus stupidity, the fact remains over half of our political choice is in the hands of fools who reject science, realistic decision-making, anything other than short-term profits for the smallest ownership class of American capitalism. Even the Chamber of Commerce – a wholly-owned subsidiary of the fossil fuels industries – doesn’t advocate the range of self-destructive, cloud cuckoo-land policies propping up the Republican Party and their obedient little brothers among Blue Dog Democrats.

Science and economy-based analysis of markets and needs offers no lang-range threat to diversified alternative energy production. The opposite is true. What threatens all of our society is the politics of ignorance coupled with the politics of stupid.

Electric tuk-tuk from Terra Motors hopes to clean up in Southeast Asia

Auto rickshaws, also known as tuk-tuks, three-wheelers or by numerous other names, are a common sight on the streets of many Asian cities. An evolution of the traditional pulled or cycle rickshaw, the gasoline-powered vehicles, which are used as taxis, are a major source of pollution in many Asian cities. Japan’s Terra Motors hopes to capitalize on efforts to cut tuk-tuk pollution with its new electric three-wheeler aimed at emerging Southeast Asia markets.

Although they are generally powered by high polluting two-stroke engines, a number of governments in Southeast Asia are forcing changes in an effort to improve the air quality in major cities. Some are forcing a switch to CNG or LPG fuel, while others are banning two-stroke engines in favor of four-stroke engines. The Philippines government is embracing locally emission-free electric powered tuk-tuks, with plans to introduce some 100,000 such vehicles by 2016.

Terra Motors is aiming for a slice of this pie with its electric three-wheeler, alongside the wider goal of becoming the world’s biggest seller of electric tuk-tuks within the next two years. Likely strengthening the company’s bid, Terra Motors will produce the vehicles in the Philippines.

I want one.

Actually, the critter I want is designed to be an enclosed tandem for about the same price — $6300. Wouldn’t work as a cab; but, it would surely get me forth and back from town for a lot less than my old pickup truck.

Time-lapse video of volcanic explosion in Mexico

A mesmerizing time-lapse video shows a Mexican volcano’s explosive eruption — spewing ash high into the sky.

The Colima volcano exploded around 9:15 a.m. Wednesday and sent an ash column about 29,000 feet into the air.

More than five minutes of the vulcanian eruption, which ejects lava fragments and lots of volcanic ash, were condensed into 30 seconds for the clip…

Experts say Colima is one of Mexico’s most active volcanoes, with multiple eruptions in recent weeks alone.

Nicely done!

Bridger’s Poplar pipeline spills into the Yellowstone River

Screen Shot 2015-01-19 at 9.33.56 PM
Bridger LLC – “We are committed to environmetal stewardship”

Bridger Pipeline LLC said on Monday it has shut the 42,000 barrel per day Poplar pipeline system after a weekend breach that sent as much as 1,200 barrels of crude oil into the Yellowstone River near Glendive, Montana.

The company said crews are now cleaning up the site after the leak on Saturday morning. Bridger estimates between 300 and 1,200 barrels spilled but could not say how much of the light crude flowed into the river.

The pipeline system runs from the Canadian border to Baker, Montana, where it meets the Butte pipeline. The Poplar system gathers crude from Bakken producers in eastern Montana and North Dakota. The company cannot yet say when the line will reopen or what caused the leak…

The spill is the second in the river in recent years. In 2011, Exxon Mobil Corp’s 40,000 bpd Silvertip pipeline in Montana ruptured underneath the river, releasing more than 1,000 barrels of crude and costing the company about $135 million to clean up…

Yup. The Yellowatone is a lovely river to fish. When you’re not concerned if the oil coating the fish is something other than olive oil.

When Reuters rolled out this article at 4:13 EST, they said no municipalities reported any problems with their water supplies. Well – the EPA has now shut down the water supply system for the town of Glendive, There is oil pollution in that system,, Federal, state and local agencies are working to secure a separate clean water supply for residents until the system can be flushed – and clean water from the river is available.

The screen shot at the top is from Bridger’s website. No mention of any oil spill in the Yellowstone River,

Vermont Yankee nuclear plant shuts down

Ellen Merkel says she gets “a little teary-eyed” when she thinks about the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant sending its last electrons to the regional power grid. She knows it will likely mean moving from her nice neighborhood in Vernon, where her husband works at the plant, to the South for a new job.

Frances Crowe, of Northampton, Massachusetts, says she’ll take some satisfaction that her anti-nuclear activism, which began before Vermont Yankee was built in the late 1960s, has had an impact. But she promised to continue to push for the highly radioactive spent fuel from the plant to be moved as soon as possible.

Those were among the reactions in the three-state region of Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts as the plant finishes powering down and prepares to disconnect from the grid, most likely Monday…

Vermont Yankee, the state’s only nuclear reactor, employed more than 600 people when it announced it would close. The workforce will be cut in half after a round of layoffs and retirements Jan. 19. In 2016, the plant will see another big reduction as it prepares for a 30-year period during which time its radiation will cool. The plant likely won’t be dismantled until the 2040s or later. [My emphasis added – Eid]

Continue reading

How much of the world’s arable land is used to grow food?

food vs fuel&feed
Crops grown for food (green) versus for animal feed and fuel (purple)

Just 55 percent of the world’s crop calories are actually eaten directly by people. Another 36 percent is used for animal feed. And the remaining 9 percent goes toward biofuels and other industrial uses…

The proportions are even more striking in the United States, where just 27 percent of crop calories are consumed directly — wheat, say, or fruits and vegetables grown in California. By contrast, more than 67 percent of crops — particularly all the soy grown in the Midwest — goes to animal feed. And a portion of the rest goes to ethanol and other biofuels.

Some of that animal feed eventually becomes food, obviously — but it’s a much, much more indirect process. It takes about 100 calories of grain to produce just 12 calories of chicken or 3 calories worth of beef, for instance.

The map itself comes from Jonathan Foley’s fascinating, visually rich exploration in National Geographic of how we can possibly feed everyone as the world’s population grows from 7 billion today to 9 billion by mid-century…

There are lots of possible strategies here. Farmers could increase agricultural productivity by boosting crop yields — either through new farming techniques or through improved crop genetics. But even if the rapid rate of improvement in crop yields over the 20th century continued, that still wouldn’t produce enough food for everyone…

One implication of that is that, as countries like China and India grow and consume more milk and meat, the pressure on global farmland will grow. But, alternatively, if the world shifted even a small portion of its diet away from resource-intensive meats or grew fewer biofuels, we could wring more food calories out of existing farmland.

There are many more strategies – which almost always fall under the category of tweaks. Poisonally, I’d rather see the production of flavorful vegetable-based protein continue to move forward, become practical and affordable. Yes, flavorful means “tastes like meat, tastes like chicken, tastes like fish”.

I think philosophical discussions about the life and death of animals that evolved along omnivore humans won’t change public opinion anymore in the next couple of centuries than was achieved in the last couple. Make veggie-based stuff that consumes fewer calories of potential energy and tastes like the stuff we grew up consuming, furry, finned or feathered – and costs less – and you have a winner.

Fortunately, there are a number of folks working on that. That’s the side I’m on.

Researchers set new record in solar energy efficiency

UNSW’s solar researchers have converted over 40% of the sunlight hitting a solar system into electricity, the highest efficiency ever reported.

The world-beating efficiency was achieved in outdoor tests in Sydney, before being independently confirmed by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) at their outdoor test facility in the United States…

“We used commercial solar cells, but in a new way, so these efficiency improvements are readily accessible to the solar industry,” said Dr Mark Keevers, the UNSW solar scientist who managed the project.

The 40% efficiency milestone is the latest in a long line of achievements by UNSW solar researchers spanning four decades. These include the first photovoltaic system to convert sunlight to electricity with over 20% efficiency in 1989, with the new result doubling this performance.

“The new results are based on the use of focused sunlight, and are particularly relevant to photovoltaic power towers being developed in Australia,” Professor Martin Green said…

A key part of the prototype’s design is the use of a custom optical bandpass filter to capture sunlight that is normally wasted by commercial solar cells on towers and convert it to electricity at a higher efficiency than the solar cells themselves ever could.

Such filters reflect particular wavelengths of light while transmitting others.

When the whole paper is published we will see and hear a lot more about the process. Proof-of-concept is already established. Prototype and pilot plant demonstrations are next.

And, then, if all continues apace, we start to be able to acquire greater output with fewer dollars invested in solar power. Hopefully, at the individual home level as well as commercial solar farms.

Thanks, Mike

Oil trains are virtual pipelines – with secret routes and fewer safety regulations


Click to enlargeTom Stromme/Associated Press

The Wall Street Journal has a story on issues surrounding the “virtual pipeline,” and it’s hard to know where to begin sorting out what’s what. The easy part is defining our terms: a virtual pipeline is the mile-long, or longer, hookup of railroad tanker cars that carry oil from places like North Dakota to refineries throughout the country. The issue in the Journal piece is that the oil trains aren’t bound by the same safety regimen as traditional pipelines, and that their routes are often state-mandated secrets due to the fear of a terrorist attack. With the virtual pipelines moving through dense urban areas, the report appears to contend that such constraints on safety and knowledge put the public at higher risk if something goes wrong, if not outright danger.

The controversy isn’t new, nor unusual…As the energy boom has, well, boomed, and railroad companies have looked for freight business to supplement and remedy the decline of coal shipping, rail transport of crude oil products has increased magnificently. With that, cities here in the US and in Canada have asked a lot more questions about how to keep that liquid black economy running and keep everyone safe, worried about first responder preparedness and the quality of train manifests meant to detail the cargo. The Lac-Mégantic train derailment and fire in Quebec in 2013 that killed 47 people only pressed the urgency.

Questions about the secrecy make sense, all the more so because the attempt at secrecy seems absurd; how much of a secret is a train that’s a mile long, that has DOT hazardous materials placards identifying the kind of substance in each car, has passed amateur trainspotting bloggers all along its route, and that can sit still in the middle of a city for hours at a time waiting for space to open up at the destination?

Yet we wonder why the transport of crude is what’s banging the alarm bells – trains carry all kinds of hazardous materials through cities every day, including radioactive substances. When the Department of Homeland Security put together a document called “National Planning Scenarios” in 2004, examining terrorist targets, it was rail cars full of chlorine that ranked alongside dirty bombs and the nerve gas sarin; a story in the Washington Post referenced the suggestion that a single 90-ton tanker car of chlorine could put three million lives at risk in an urban area, while the EPA said an attack at a chlorine plant near New York City could endanger 12 million people. And guess what: almost all chlorine is transported by rail, every car carrying it slapped with a DOT 1017 placard on its side. On the other hand, there’s a lot more crude in transit than chlorine.

From where I sit the question of rail transport of dangerous materials is amplified by the increase in flammable crap carried by these invisible pipelines. They’re only invisible in that the public rarely notices their passage. If no one is hollering our elected officials feel secure in ignoring dangers. They can always blame the railroads themselves, anyway.

Perish the thought that the portion of American bureaucracy charged with legislation and regulation actually get off their rusty-dustys long enough to earn their keep.