Category: Energy

UBS urges investors to join the renewables revolution


Click to enlargeVillage of Eitting near Munich, Germany

Big power stations in Europe could be redundant within 10-20 years as electric cars, cheaper batteries and new solar technologies transform the way electricity is generated, stored and distributed, say analysts at the world’s largest private bank.

In a briefing paper sent to clients and investors this week, the Zurich-based UBS bank argues that large-scale, centralised power stations will soon become extinct because they are too big and inflexible, and are “not relevant” for future electricity generation. Instead, the authors expect it to be cheaper and more efficient for households and businesses to generate their own energy to power their cars and to store any surplus energy in their own buildings even without subsidies.

In language more closely associated with green NGOs, the bank with assets of more than $1.5tn says it expects a paradigm shift away from large-scale conventional power plants. “Power is no longer something that is exclusively produced by huge, centralised units owned by large utilities. By 2025, everybody will be able to produce and store power. And it will be green and cost competitive, ie, not more expensive or even cheaper than buying power from utilities,” say the authors, who urge their financial clients to “join the revolution.”

“Solar is at the edge of being a competitive power generation technology. The biggest drawback has been its intermittency. This is where batteries and electric vehicles (EVs) come into play. Battery costs have declined rapidly, and we expect a further decline of more than 50% by 2020. By then, a mass [produced] electric vehicle will have almost the same price as a combustion engine car. But it will save up to $2600 a year on fuel cost, hence, it will begin to pay off almost immediately without any meaningful upfront ‘investment’. This is why we expect a rapidly growing penetration with EVs, in particular in countries with high fossil fuel prices.”

The expected 50% reduction in the cost of batteries by 2020 will not just spur electric car sales, but could also lead to exponential growth in demand for stationary batteries to store excess power in buildings, says UBS. “Battery storage should become financially attractive for family homes when combined with a solar system and an electric vehicle. As a consequence, we expect transformational changes in the utility and auto sectors,” it says. “By 2020 investing in a home solar system with a 20-year life span, plus some small-scale home battery technology and an electric car, will pay for itself in six to eight years for the average consumer in Germany, Italy, Spain, and much of the rest of Europe…”

By 2025, falling battery and solar costs will make electric vehicles cheaper than conventional cars in most European markets. “As a conservative 2025 scenario, we think about 10% of new car registrations in Europe will be EVs. Households and businesses who invest in a combined electric car, solar array and battery storage should be able to pay the investment back within six to eight years,” UBS says. “In other words, based on a 20-year technical life of a solar system, a German buyer should receive 12 years of electricity for free.”

But the bank does not expect power companies or the grid to disappear: UBS says they have a future if they develop smart grids which manage electricity demand more efficiently and provide decentralised back-up power generation.

But, hey, your SUV is running OK. Cousin Ernie’s Chevy pickup truck does everything it should do. If our public utilities need to be modernized – well, that’s what we have state legislatures and regulatory commissions to take care of. Right?

Leading Americans in the direction of renewable, cheaper, cleaner sources of electricity is probably as unnecessary as eventually converting the Affordable Care Act to a single payer system. This all may save money and improve our quality of life; but, isn’t it all a little too foreign for Americans to adopt?

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Genetically-engineered E. coli poops out propane

bacteriagasolina1

Propane is an appealing fuel, easily stored and already used worldwide, but it’s extracted from the finite supply of fossil fuels – or is it? Researchers at Imperial College London and the University of Turku have engineered E. coli bacteria that create engine-ready propane out of fatty acids, and in the future, maybe even sunlight…

With the premise of producing a fuel that’s more sustainable in a biological host and easier to bring to market, the research team engineered a pathway in E. coli that interrupts the conversion of fatty acids into cell membranes and instead couples naturally unlinked enzymatic processes to manufacture propane…

“Although this research is at a very early stage, our proof of concept study provides a method for renewable production of a fuel that previously was only accessible from fossil reserves,” said Dr Patrik Jones, from the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial College London. “Although we have only produced tiny amounts so far, the fuel we have produced is ready to be used in an engine straight away. This opens up possibilities for future sustainable production of renewable fuels that at first could complement, and thereafter replace fossil fuels like diesel, petrol, natural gas and jet fuel.”

Manufacturing useable quantities of propane is the goal for future experiments, along with recreating the process in photosynthetic organisms, so that propane could truly be manufactured with the power of sunlight.

Genetic manipulation continues to forge ahead in the realm of molecular biologists. While I share the humor of fellow sci-fi fans, I doubt the fear of synthetic overlords is justifiable – given the requisite conservatism of the craft.

Though, poisonally, I ain’t holding my breath until this process is productive enough to be commercially viable.

Richard Kinder pays himself $1 a year — poor guy only made $1 billion this week


Click to enlarge

Kinder Morgan (KMI), which operates some 80,000 miles of oil and gas pipelines through a network of separate entities strung together by its billionaire chairman and chief executive, Richard Kinder, is consolidating under one corporate roof. In a deal valued at $71 billion, the parent company will fully acquire three companies it already has partial stakes in: Kinder Morgan Energy Partners, Kinder Morgan Management, and El Paso Pipeline Partners. Think of it as fusing a disparate collection of pieces into one, functioning whole—kind of like building a pipeline.

The deal simplifies a complicated corporate structure that carried big tax benefits for its partners while also resulting in higher borrowing costs. The new corporation should generate more cash for investors and for buyouts. And it will also make Kinder Morgan the fourth largest-energy company in the U.S…

Richard Kinder co-founded Kinder Morgan in the late 1990s after losing out to Ken Lay [Phew - bet he doesn't miss that call] to be chief executive of Enron, and Kinder proceeded to cobble together a bunch of cast-off assets from Enron. In doing so, he pioneered the master limited partnership (MLP), a corporate tax structure that has come to dominate the pipeline industry.

The basic premise of an MLP is that instead of organizing as a corporation, pipeline companies were a collection of limited partnerships. Like corporations, MLPs still have thousands of investors and trade publicly. But under the law, stakes in MLPs trade as units, not shares—and that technically makes their investors partners, not shareholders. The IRS counts each stake in the profit as income, allowing the company to sidestep the 35 percent federal corporate tax.

Which further points out how real capitalists ain’t whining about how the IRS is run.

…Richard Kinder, who takes a $1-a-year salary and earns no annual bonus from any of the four companies, will increase his annual pay from dividends by more than $100 million, according to Bloomberg. His ownership take from all the companies earned him $380 million in dividend payments in 2013.

Bloomberg’s analysis doesn’t include which members of the Senate and the House of Representatives Kinder owns outright. It will take the Progressive bloggers and journalists to sort that out.

Thanks, Mike

China provinces on track to meet 2015 energy/pollution reduction goals


Pilot project in carbon capture and storage technology at this facility in Inner Mongolia

Most of China’s provinces are ahead of schedule or on track to meet 2015 energy savings targets, the government said on Friday, with Beijing and Shanghai among the frontrunners as the world’s No.2 economy seeks to reduce its impact on the environment.

China has pledged to reduce its energy intensity – the amount of energy it uses to add a dollar to its gross domestic product – to 16 percent below 2010 levels by 2015.

Beijing’s intention in setting the targets was to slow emissions of climate-changing greenhouse gases and cut expensive fuel imports, but they have won new relevance with the pollution crisis that has enveloped the nation the past two years.

Data released by China’s top economic planner the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) showed that 26 of 30 regions had achieved more than 60 percent of their targets by the end of last year…

Yang Fuqiang, an environmental expert with U.S.-based non-government agency Natural Resources Defense Council, said China would meet its 2015 target.

“But for the (following) five-year period, there is not much that can be done to improve end users’ efficiency, other than clean up the entire energy mix,” he said.

I guess he’s not as much of a news junkie as I am. Beijing is planning to ban all coal-fired electric generation by 2020 – converting to natural gas and syngas. The national government plans to have 50 coal gasification plants on stream around the Northwest and Central cities in the next few years.

SynGas is what we used in the United States until natural gas was available in economic quantities. I remember the changeover. And natural gas, either recovered domestically or brought in as LNG will enable further reduction of coal dependency.

The “last mile” of this solution is as critical in China as it was in the UK after World War 2. Probably half of the air pollution in northern and eastern China comes from coal fires used for home cooking and heating.

Details in the article – including regions ahead of schedule.

We don’t have to worry about being on time or ahead of schedule in the United States. Our Do-Nothing Congress won’t OK a schedule or fund an energy program that acknowledges either science or the need to reduce pollution.

Offshore wind farms provide feeding opportunities for seals – and more

New research has revealed offshore wind turbines may act as artificial reefs and seals have been deliberately seeking out the structures whilst hunting for prey.

Dr Deborah Russell carried out research with her team from the University of St Andrews where they gathered data from GPS devices attached to seals in the North Sea. The findings were published in the journal Current Biology.

The movements of Harbour and Grey seals were tracked and the researchers found a proportion of the seals continued to return to offshore wind structures. This suggested seals forage around wind farms and underwater pipelines along British and Dutch coasts.

Russell said, “I was shocked when I first saw the stunning grid pattern of a seal track around Sheringham Shoal – an offshore wind farm in Norfolk.

“You could see that the seal appeared to travel in straight lines between turbines, as if he was checking them out for potential prey and then stopping to forage at certain ones.”

She added, “The behaviour observed could have implications for both offshore wind farm developments and the decommissioning of oil and gas infrastructure.”

A study published in the journal of Applied Ecology in May suggested that renewable energy projects could help certain marine species settle in new areas and thrive.

The first thing I learned about offshore structures when I started work down along the Gulf of Mexico was that the best fishing spots in the Gulf were underneath well producing platforms. Between structure and shade which offered temperature gradients, you always had better luck catching your limit next to an oil platform.

The shade was nice, too.

Thanks, Mike

First Buckyballs from boron


Wang Lab/Brown University

Just in time for the World Cup final, researchers have succeeded in building the first ‘buckyballs’ made entirely from boron atoms. Unlike true, carbon-based buckyballs, the boron molecules are not shaped exactly like footballs. But this novel form of boron might lead to new nanomaterials and could find uses in hydrogen storage.

Robert Curl, Harold Kroto and Richard Smalley found the first buckyball — or buckminsterfullerene — in 1985. The hollow cage, made of 60 carbon atoms arranged in pentagons and hexagons like a football, got its name from the US architect and engineer Richard Buckminster Fuller, who used the same shapes in designing his domes. The discovery opened the flood gates for creating more carbon structures with impressive qualities, such as carbon nanotubes and the single-atom-thick graphene. Since then, material scientists have also searched for buckyball-like structures made of other elements.

In 2007, Boris Yakobson, a material scientist at Rice University in Houston, Texas, theorized that a cage made of 80 boron atoms should be stable. Another study published just last week predicts a stable structure with 36 boron atoms.

Publishing…in Nature Chemistry, a team led by Lai-Sheng Wang, a chemist at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, has become the first to see such a beast — although its structure is slightly different from that predicted. The researchers call their 40-atom molecule borospherene. It is arranged in hexagons, heptagons and triangles…

In addition to having a less elegant shape, the borosphene balls form a different type of internal bond from their carbon counterparts. This makes them difficult to use as isolated building blocks as they have a tendency to interact with each other, but this reactivity may make boron buckyballs good for connecting in chains. It also makes the balls capable of bonding with hydrogen, which the team says could make them useful in hydrogen storage.

Which should have GM and Toyota knocking at the hallowed doors of Brown University. Both are dedicated to producing alternative-fuel vehicles using hydrogen.

Thanks, Mike

Net-zero energy test home ends first year with leftover energy

Braving a harsh winter with snow-covered solar panels, a net-zero energy home in Washington DC has come up trumps in a year-long study of its energy harvesting capabilities. Located on campus at the National Institute of Standards and Technology researchers used computer simulation to replicate the energy consumption of a family of four. At the end of its first 12 months, there was a large enough surplus to power an electric car for 1,440 miles.

The 2,700 ft sq two-story construction was developed to look like a regular home, but function as a laboratory for clean energy research. Much like the Honda Smart Home, NIST’s effort combines stable ground temperatures with geothermal systems to minimize heating and cooling loads throughout the building. Another factor in overall energy efficiency is a doubling of insulation levels, sealed by special sheeting that reportedly heals itself when pierced.

“The most important difference between this home and a Maryland code-compliant home is the improvement in the thermal envelope – the insulation and air barrier,” says NIST mechanical engineer Mark Davis…

The energy surplus and the home’s claim to net-zero living was compounded by a stretch of severe weather. For 38 days through winter, the 32 photovoltaic panels were largely covered in snow and ice, hampering their ability to harvest energy from the sun. But over the 12 month period, the home generated 13,577 kWh of energy. This surpassed the virtual family’s energy usage by 491 kWh, an excess that could in theory be directed toward an electric vehicle or back into the grid…

Despite boasting the aesthetics of a typical suburban house, adoption of the technologies used will largely come down to cost. NIST estimates that fitting out a similar-sized house with all the bells and whistles of its test home would cost around US$162,700. On the upside, it puts savings in electricity costs at $4,373 for the year.

Further research will center on how the measurements of the home can improve its energy efficiency and addressing the difference in up-front costs and long term savings. NIST is hopeful its findings will lead to improved energy efficiency standards as a resource for builders, regulators and home buyers.

A couple of comments.

First, the design is two or three times the size of sensible requirements. Make your decisions based on need instead of cultural McMansions and a family of four could be quite comfortable in 1200 square feet instead of 2700. My wife and I and a dog live in 1400 sq.ft. and use about 900 sq.ft. including a study/home office. We have a spare bedroom we refloored a couple years ago and haven’t yet gotten round to moving anything into that room!

Second, custom home building adds a premium of as much as 30% to cost. Building comparable homes as part of a subdivision, growing economic advantages of scale will reduce the cost of building homes like this. Working this out from scratch probably increased cost from projected by 10-15% just on change orders. :)

Wastewater from Big Oil triggers surge in small earthquakes

Massive injections of wastewater from the oil and gas industry are likely to have triggered a sharp rise in earthquakes in the state of Oklahoma.

Researchers say there has been a forty-fold increase in the rate of quakes in the US state between 2008-13.

The scientists found that the disposal of water in four high-volume wells could be responsible for a swarm of tremors up to 35km away.

Their research has been published in the journal, Science…

There has been increasing evidence of links between the process of oil and gas extraction and earthquakes in states like Arkansas, Texas, Ohio and Oklahoma in recent years…

The US Geological Survey (USGS) has also reported on the question of seismicity induced by wastewater disposal.

This new research goes further, linking a large swarm of Oklahoma tremors with a number of specific water wells, distantly located.

More than 2,500 earthquakes greater than magnitude 3.0 have occurred around the small town of Jones since 2008. This represents about 20% of the total in the central and western US in this period.

Researchers have now linked this increase to a near doubling in the volumes of wastewater disposed of in the central Oklahoma region between 2004 and 2008.

Water is never far away in the energy extraction process. It is used not just for hydraulic fracturing, but also to squeeze more oil out of conventional wells…

According to Dr Bill Ellsworth from the USGS, the high price of oil has driven this water-based approach. But the law says that drinking water has to be protected from the salty flow.

“As part of the business model, you have to be able to dispose of these very large volumes of saline water. You can’t treat it; you can’t put it into the rivers. So, you have to inject it underground…”

Most studies like this always characterize quakes around 3.0 magnitude as small. There is the possibility that all these little quakes are what folks are forced to put up with – until the Big One.

Thanks, Mike

An algae that switches its internal quantum computer on and off

Scientists have shown that certain algae which use quantum effects to optimize photosynthesis are also capable of switching it off. It’s a discovery that could lead to highly efficient organic solar cells and quantum-based electronics.

Like quantum computers, some organisms are capable of scanning all possible options in order to choose the most efficient path or solution. For plants and some photosynthetic algae, this means the ability to make the most of the energy they receive and then deliver that energy from leaves with near perfect efficiency. This effect, called quantum decoherence, is what allows some algae to survive in very low levels of light.

Recently, scientists from the UNSW School of Physics studied one of these algae, a tiny single-celled organism called cryptophytes. They typically live at the bottom of pools of water, or under thick ice, where light is scarce. The researchers found that there’s a class of cryptophytes in which quantum decoherence is switched off, and it’s on account of a single genetic mutation that alters the shape of a light-harvesting protein.

In quantum mechanics, a system is coherent when all quantum waves are in step with each other. When it’s coherent, it can exist in many different states simultaneously, an effect known as superposition.

The researchers used x-ray crystallography to determine the crystal structure of the light-harvesting complexes from three different species. Two cryptophyte species had a mutation that led to the insertion of an extra amino acid that changes the structure of the protein complex, which disrupts decoherence.

The next step for the scientists will be to determine whether the switching effect is assisting the algae’s survival. What’s more, further understanding of this phenomenon could eventually lead to technological advances, such as better organic solar cells and quantum-based electronic devices.

I’m beginning to worry that quantum mechanics is starting to rub off on my little gray cells. This is making sense to me – and it only took five or six decades.

Thanks, Mike