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New Energy Currents: 2005-01-21

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Welcome to the first 'New Energy Currents' of what will undoubtedly be a big year (2005!) in new (and 'old') energy news. The pace of renewable energy projects all over the world is accelerating, as is the pace at which existing fossil fuel supplies are being developed and exploited. The policy front will be full of activity as well, with the Kyoto Protocol going into effect in February and the US Energy Bill returning to the legislative table in the near future. I don't know about you guys, but I'm pretty excited!

To help you keep track of these developments as they happen, 'New Energy Currents' is a broad but by no means comprehensive compilation of noteworthy news in energy technology and policy from the past month. Brought to you by John Atkinson of chiasm.


  • Willie Nelson is selling biodiesel! Mr. Nelson has formed a partnership to market biodiesel nationwide under the name “Willie Nelson’s Biodiesel.” Says Mr. Nelson: “I got on the computer and punched in biodiesel and found out this could be the future!” Says his biodiesel suplier: "What Willie brings to this is the ability to communicate directly with a truck driver… When he starts talking, these folks really listen to him.... It's like having Tiger Woods talk about golf clubs."
  • In light of higher energy and gas prices as well as expanded government support for renewable fuels, Florida's sugar industry is reconsidering ethanol production. All ethanol in the US is currently produced from corn, and is centered almost entirely in the midwest. Sugarcane, however, is a cheaper, easier, and generally more efficient feedstock, so sugarcane ethanol may be an idea whose time has come for the US. Brazil has long relied on sugarcane to fuel its own massive ethanol industry, the world's largest.
  • Green Car Congress points to this interesting bit of news - providers of home heating oil are starting to offer customers a 20% biodiesel blend. The biodiesel option has been made possible by the FSC-ETI bill that went into effect January 1, which grants a whopping $1/gallon subsidy to biodiesel producers.
  • Britain is rapidly expanding its domestic biodiesel production - early this spring the largest biodiesel plant in the UK will open in Scotland. This plant will produce 35,000 tons of fuel a year - more than triple the entire UK's existing production of 10,000 tons/year. Its run as the largest biodiesel plant will be short-lived, however - a truly ginormous 250,000 ton facility will open in northeast England later in the year.
  • Biomass power, Asia-style – researchers at Japan’s Hiroshima University have launched a project to make bamboo charcoal for power and rooftop gardening. The charcoal will be sold by a cooperative in Japan and will be made from Thailand’s abundant and fast-growing bamboo crops.

Fossil Fuels:

  • A new project in Kansas turns a triple play with an innovative design - a natural gas power generator provides thermal energy for a corn ethanol plant, and CO2 from the fermentation process is captured and injected into the ground to facilitate enhanced oil recovery (EOR).
  • Asia continues to go gangbusters for compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles as a way to combat air pollution and reduce oil imports - Green Car Congress has links to recent news of government CNG programs in Pakistan, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Myanmar. Moreover, Canada's Westport Innovations continues to make deals to produce CNG vehicles in China.
  • Meanwhile, back in the States, Mack Trucks has announced the success of an extremely promising liquefied natural gas (LNG) garbage truck demonstration project in Burlington, NJ. It's not the LNG trucks that are new, though - it's the LNG, which is refined from landfill gas (LFG) produced by the very organic waste that the trucks have been hauling to the Burlington Co. landfill. Elegant and economical!
  • China, the world's #2 oil consumer (with a bullet!), has announced plans to begin filling a strategic oil reserve next year.
  • Russia’s largest oil producer, Yukos, is staggering through the last stages of its renationalization by President Putin. Interestingly, it appears as if China may be helping to finance the transaction. Awfully nice of them, don’t you think?


  • Alt-E James links to a BBC article discussing various water-related projects around the world, including rural Vietnam's Pico Hydro boom. Pico Hydro is a small-scale version of conventional hydro-electric power generation (producing several hundred watts per unit), and it's an ideal power solution for rural farmers for whom grid power is unavailable or too expensive. An estimated 120,000 units are in use in Vietnam, more than anywhere in the world.


  • Physics Today has a lengthy and informative article on the scientific and technological breakthroughs needed to facilitate the much hoped-for hydrogen economy (via Crumb Trail).
  • Green Car Congress has the goods on the new Sandia National Labs/General Motors collaboration on developing solid-state hydrogen storage tanks. If successful, the project could greatly expand the driving range of hydrogen vehicles, which currently store hydrogen in either liquid or compressed gas forms that have yet to provide ranges comparable to conventional cars.
  • GM debuted its new hydrogen concept car, The Sequel (as in 'the sequel' to gasoline-powered cars, get it?) at the North American International Auto Show. Cue the usual ambivalence from environmentalists worried about how working towards long term goals could be used as an excuse for NOT DOING EVERYTHING WE CAN RIGHT NOW!!!!!!
  • The BBC reports on the successful trial of three hydrogen buses on Central London bus routes. The buses – part of a two-year demonstration program in nine European cities – have proven reliable and popular. But is there a double decker model in the house?


  • There’s a good editorial in the UK Times this week on the need for that government to stop ‘dithering’ over a long-term strategy for the disposal of nuclear waste, citing a need to clear the way for more nuclear power plants as well as a need to minimize the threat of terrorists seizing nuclear material. The same could be said about nuclear waste in the US, certainly.
  • White hot energy consumers China and India are racing to secure energy supplies wherever they can get it, and both countries see nuclear energy playing a significant role in keeping pace with soaring demand. The NY Times covers China’s nuclear ambitions here, and India’s own Frontline magazine has an interesting interview with the head of India’s Department of Atomic Energy here.


  • An important new breakthrough in nanoengineering will make it possible to create light-sensitive materials - including photovoltaics - that can utilize the infrared portion of the spectrum (current photovoltaics only harness the visible portion of the spectrum). This could pave the way for flexible, lightweight PV cells that could be incorporated into clothing or come in a useful 'spray-on' form while harvesting an extremely impressive 30% of the sun's energy. Current plastic PV cells only capture about 6% (via Crumb Trail).
  • Solar power continues to find a niche in rural electrification projects - government officials in India announced that 10,000 solar home lighting systems and 6,000 solar lanterns have been installed in 90 remote villages and hamlets in the Ladakh region.
  • That 'blue' Danube River just got a little greener and a little brighter - solar-powered LEDs will illuminate riverbank markers and buoys along the river as it winds through Serbia and Montenegro.
  • Worldchanging has a post up on the beautiful Solar Sailor, an Australian-made passenger boat that runs on both solar and wind power (and a diesel/electric hybrid engine when necessary).


  • Spain – already one of Europe’s largest users of wind power (with 8,500 MW capacity, second only to Germany) – wants to build a 400-turbine offshore wind farm off Cape Trafalgar. Local fishermen are protesting that the wind farm threatens their livelihood and their very lives, claiming that it will disturb tuna migration routes and force the fishermen to fish in more dangerous waters. You can't make an emission reduction omelette without breaking a few eggs, right?
  • A German utility wants to build a 25-turbine, 50 MW onshore windfarm in the Scottish Highlands. The project is expected to stir controversy among the Scots, much like the recent jousting over the much larger 702-MW farm on the Isle of Lewis. Construction of onshore windfarms is a major concern for rural Scotland, as expressed in this piece written by MSP Murdo Fraser and this article on famous Scottish conservationist and wind opponent Dr. David Bellamy. Scotland is one of the most beautiful places in the world, but, again, omelette, eggs, &c, right? RIGHT??
  • Alt-E James links to news on this interesting project from New Zealand - a hi-tech wind farm that will generate 120 MW of power with only 40 turbines, which are new models that use micro-computers to continually adjust blade angles to maximize efficiency.
  • Gristmill's Geoff Dabelko points to an LA Times article highlighting at least one way in which the War on Terror is facilitating the push for energy independence - the surge of 'residents' at Guantanamo Bay has forced the Navy to install more power, in the form of four new windmills producing 950 kW each.

Policy + Misc:

  • The European Union launched its Emissions Trading Scheme on January 1st. It will be the world's first international carbon dioxide emissions market, and is a key component of the EU's plan to meet its Kyoto targets. In a unique and time-honored ritual that traditionally accompanies large scale economic or social engineering in the EU, the European Commission is celebrating by suing four member states for insufficient compliance.
  • New York representative John McHugh has reintroduced a package of bills designed to spur economic growth in rural areas, dubbed the ‘Economic Development Initiatives for Rural America,’ that emphasizes an important role for new energy technologies. The package includes H.R. 140, the Agrofuel Rural Energy Empowerment Act, which provides incentives for investment into agricultural waste management technology, and H.R. 141, which would make the wind tax credit permanent.
  • The frequently-cited Solarbuzz unveiled a new feature this month - Greenjobs, a new job recruitment service for renewable energy professionals. Green power + Greenbacks = Green SQUARED.
  • The excellent hybrid car resource,, has had a facelift that includes an entire stable of blogs. I got word of this too late to include stories from these blogs in this edition of NEC, but I'm sure I'll be regularly citing them in the future.
  • Finally, Engineer-Poet has an interesting post up with numerous links detailing the massive energy efficiency gains (up to 148 GW including residential and commercial as well as industrial applications) we could make with wide scale implementation of distributed energy projects utilizing generation-side efficiency improvements and cogeneration.

As always, leave any tips or questions in the comments, or e-mail me at

1 TrackBack

Tracked: January 23, 2005 9:49 AM
Consider this an addendum from Why are all the good names gone...?
Excerpt: That the prices of renewable energy sources are likely to continue dropping while the prices of non-renewable sources are likely to continue rising - creating a scenario in which some of the more "loony" renewable energy ideas suddenly become much mo...


One nit regarding your pointer to my blog:  Primary Energy estimates 40-100 GW of potential cogeneration capacity from industrial sources alone.  They were only able to find 2.2 GW currently being used.  My own estimate of residential and commercial potential from natural gas alone is a further 50 GW.

This means we might be ignoring as much as 148 GW (average) of cogeneration capacity in the USA.

For whatever reason, no matter if I use AOL, Mozilla, or IE, whenever I click on a site, all my browser iterations crash to desktop w/o any messages.

That said...

Photovoltaics on my clothes?

So I'm wearing a powerplant?

Um...If I remember correctly, Mom spent an awful lot of time teaching me not to try to plug myself into the electric socket. Wouldn't this...fundamentally violate that prime rule one is supposed to learn at age 2?

The Windmills of Wrath

I think a book about politics in Continental Europe for Americans should be written. I'll try to explain my point of view:

First of all,

In this country [Spain], where almost all oil, gas and coal must be imported, the wind rush has been under way for more than a decade. Privately owned "wind parks," encouraged by official subsidies...

Well, this is the key point for a European: official subsidies. That would explain such a "rush".

Secondly, in Spain the concessions of windparks always go (guess why) to the traditional EPCO's (Electrical Power Co.) or some associated company. New entrants don´t have much to do. Therefore windenergy is in fact a collusion between the established energy sector and the government.

Third point, this stuff has much to do with propaganda: "my EPCO is greener than yours" for the businessman and "my country has more green megawats installed than yours" for the politician. Joined statesments with plenty of handshaking and complete photo albums are common. They represent the way big European business are done.

Meanwhile the fishermen that barely get enough money to pay the bills, soon will see four hundred!! subsidized new obstacles in their everyday work. In fact that area will be not navigable.

I agree with their complainings.

Just visited your site for the first time.
It would be much more convincing if you used the correct units for your data. Most egregiously, your fairly consistant use of "mW" instead of "MW".
A mW is a "milliwatt" or 1/1000 Watt.
A MW is a "megawatt" or 1,000,000 Watts.
A fine point to the uninitiated perhaps, but to anyone with a technical background, you are off by a factor of a billion.

Ted -

I'm blushing! just goes to show what a policy background gets you... thanks for pointing out the sloppiness.


why do you bother with this same old BS. hydrogen vehicles, using perfectly good gas to produce ethanol, carbon trading, subsidized wind power? all waste and nonsense that has nothing to do with the environment or conserving hydrocarbon fuel. hydrogen vehicles cost 650,000 to 1 million dollars each, brilliant. meanwhile you completely ignore real issues concerning energy production.

I dunno, jap, I just find a perverse pleasure in observing the 'BS' these idiots around the world are wasting their time working on. I appreciate your input tho!!!!

John, before you dismissively deride Jap's comments, you should analyse the net energy benefits of the purported "energy producing" alternative energy sources. If these wind and solar farms were truly able to produce a net surfeit of energy, then the energy produced would be worth more than the installed cost of the facilities.

The fact that they are not is proof that skepticism, at the very least, is warranted. The only people building these things are people who are heavily subsidized, or who lack conventional energy sources.

Why is that?


Absolutely correct. And a point I was going to make:

Except as a wate disposal means or some other byprododuct transformation bio-energy is not cost effective.

The problems of collection of the material and removing the water and transport to the converter make it non-economic.

Bio-diesel is a good way to get rid of waste cooking fats. As a primary source of fuel it is not cost effective.

Of all the technologies available wind is closest to non-subsidised viability. It can displace natural gas which is at a premium thesee days so it is cost effective there. When production turbine reach the 3 to 5 MW range the electricity will be competitive with coal and nuclear.

To make 100% wind possible (20% is considered feasible now) we will need cost effective energy storage.

Now don't get me wrong. I favor research in this area. Lots of work needs to be done. Niche markets must be found to increase volumes and bring down production costs.

The simple fact is that none of these technologies are robust enough or cost effective enough to replace the burners thtat produce most of our electricity. Or the fuels that power our cars.

Fuel cells have 20 or 30 years more R&D ahead to be viable for vehicles.

Supposedly the methanol fuel cell which was going to be ready in two years (for the last 5 years) may possibly hit the market as a recharger for laptops and cell phones. For situations where a wall socket or an auto cigarette lighter jack is not available.

If they come out this year it will still be some time before thay are integrated into your cell phone or laptop. Two problems. Not enough peak power (so you will still need a battery) and heat generation.

In other words fuel cells would be good for an emergency recharge (i.e. slow) not continuous power. Given the cost and energy densities currently available.


It reminds me of the "vapor ware" days of the early computers.

Lots of hype.

Very little real product.

Look up my article "Logistics" on this site. Also "Smoke and Methanol".

Any one can put out a press release.

Real profit is much more difficult.

Did I mention that fuel cell technology is 130 years old?

There is a reason it is not widely deployed.

There are better cheaper ways of generating portable electricity. At least for the forseeable future.

J-Pick -

sorry about the flipness, 'dismissive derision' - but there's a difference between being skeptical of the worth of our current clean energy technologies and questioning the worth of the entire enterprise.

you & m-simon sre right to be skeptical of the current state of alternative energy technologies, of course. I make a similar point myself in this post earlier in the week, while referring to a new report by the Pew Center demonstrating that it would be just as cost effective to plant trees to reduce greenhouse emissions as it would be to use current alternative energy technologies. plainly, we aren't 'there' yet, and I try to keep the tone of these posts as balanced as possible and to avoid becoming another cheerleader for technologies that don't yet merit widespread commercial adoption. obviously the editorial tone of many of the articles I link to is too uncritical, but there's useful information as well.

at this same time, I obviously don't agree with jap's perspective, that it is a waste of time to track the development of these technologies, that the work being done today is irrelevant. plainly, there's a great need for new energy technologies and/or new energy sources, and I think the race between all these approaches seeking to be a part of the solution will be one of the more interesting stories of the 21st century.

certainly, not all of the technologies linked to here will have, or deserve to have, a big role in our energy future - but only time will tell. to this end, I try to be relatively agnostic and not to pick winners - note that I cover news on fossil fuels and nuclear power as well as 'alternatives'. I just try to highlight stories that seem to be the most interesting, revealing, or relevant - a link doesn't connote an endorsement. in short, the post is meant to be informational, not political.

"J-Pick -

sorry about the flipness, 'dismissive derision' - but there's a difference between being skeptical of the worth of our current clean energy technologies and questioning the worth of the entire enterprise. "

Unfortunately, many of these solar and wind projects are simply NOT net producers of energy. In fact, far from being "clean energy" technologies, they cause far greater pollution than if they never existed. These are the most nefarious polluters, because people are being duped into thinking they are clean.

Before any such projects are approved, they should be required to perform a net energy balance evaluation, reviewed by competent third parties.

Otherwise, their implementation should be limited to demonstration projects to hopefully develop true "clean energy" systems.

JPickens -

I'm certainly sympathetic to the idea that countries and states that are buying bigtime into solar, ethanol/biodiesel, and other currently net-negative energy technologies are making a mistake that consumers in are already beginning to regret. many of the technologies covered in this space every month are not ready for widespread commercial adoption, and only a few of those pretend to be. again, I'm just reporting what's going on, not what I think should be going on.

however, there are reasons to continue developing, and even in some cases subsidizing, these kinds of technologies. in some cases - solar, for example - government action can help to 'grow' an industry that, with some technological breakthroughs, may become a net energy producer in the future. certainly, not always the most environmentally or economically optimal solution, but it's a popular one. we'll see how Europe does with it.

more generally, we make our energy policy choices based on a variety of factors that include not only economics but environmental and security concerns. the costs of our oil dependence, particularly on the national security front, are potentially great enough that we may be willing to spend the extra energy and $$ to get our power/fuel from other sources. Futurepundit had an interesting post up on this subject vis a vis a hydrogen economy a couple months ago -, if you're interested.


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