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New Energy Currents: 2005-03-18

| 18 Comments

Kyoto is one month old, and we're no closer to figuring out a masterplan to solve the world's ginormous energy problems - not that that's necessarily a bad thing, at this point. With all the feverish activity in the realms of energy science, technology, and policy, we've got at least a couple of thousand flowers getting ready to bloom. Spring isn't quite here yet in the freezing NYC, either, but I'm trying to be patient, you know? As all the brightly colored new technologies and approaches begin to compete in earnest for the public's attention, acceptance, and tax dollars, New Energy Currents will do its best to continue giving you a broad overview of the... bouquet. By John Atkinson of chiasm.

Bio

  • The US Senate Environment & Public Works Committee passed legislation to increase the US's Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) to mandate the production of 6 billion gallons of ethanol by 2012. A previous draft of the RFS mandated 5 billion gallons.
  • The UK's Argent Energy has opened the world's largest biodiesel plant in Scotland, which will produce 50 million litres/year. The article notes that the plant will focus on producing biodiesel from used cooking oil and animal tallow, both of which were used for animal feed until recently (BSE!). Argent's parent company owns a meat rendering plant next door, conveniently enough.
  • Crumb Trail looks into new research deep, deep in the Lost City - a newly-discovered formation of limestone chimneys and hydrothermal vents deep in the Atlantic Ocean. The City is inhabited by an enormous colony of extremophilic life that consumes and produces methane, with potential implications for future research into the bioproduction of methane and hydrogen.

Electricity

  • The Engineer-Poet has a typically meaty post up analyzing some recent news on battery technology and looking at the implications for the future of plug-in hybrids.
  • Also check out this Ergospheric exploration of the future of residential cogeneration, one of the Engineer-Poet's favorite topics and a source of enormous potential energy savings.
  • The EPA is extending its successful Energy Star program to provide guidelines for more efficient AC adapters. Did you know there's something like 1.5 billion adapters in use in the US? The majority of which are actually adapters that I have personally lost?

Fossils

  • Senate Democrats failed to pass a bill that would strike language opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for limited oil exploration, clearing the way for drilling in the environmentally sensitive area. It's estimated that ANWR contains 6-16 billion barrels of recoverable oil, which would take over a decade to reach market.
  • Canada's Suncor Energy announced plans to expand its oil sands processing in northern Alberta with a third upgrader, which will cost a hefty $5.9 billion and increase Suncor's oil sands production to 550,000 barrels/day by 2012.
  • Green Car Congress has news of plans for a new, $2.75 billion coal-to-liquids plant in Wyoming that will produce 33,000 barrels of synthetic diesel fuel a day from Wyoming's coal reserves. The facility will use an advanced integrated gasification combined cycle design that will also produce 350 MW of electricity.
  • Worldchanging points to a recent New Scientist article on the potential of a new technology to harvest methane gas from landfills much more efficiently. Like a similar technology covered here in the past developed by the US firm Acrion, this process can capture methane and efficiently process it for a variety of uses, including vehicle fuel, electricity generation, and pipeline gas.
  • Purdue University researchers have determined that the precious metal palladium is an ideal catalyst for use in electricity generation from natural gas. The catalyst has the potential to enable natural gas combustion at a lower temperature, which would significantly lower emissions of smog-forming nitrogen oxides without losing efficiency.
  • Scientists at Brookhaven National Laboratory have developed a tabletop apparatus that can recreate the high-pressure, low-temperature conditions of the seafloor, an important step for the study of methane hydrates. Methane hydrates represent a potentially enormous source of methane (the primary component of natural gas) trapped within sediments below the ocean floor, but their recovery poses similarly enormous potential problems - bringing the hydrates up from the ocean floor could cause them to destabilize, releasing huge quantities of methane (a greenhouse gas 20x more potent than CO2) into the atmosphere. By studying different samples and learning what combinations of pressure and temperature keep the methane locked up, scientists hope to identify ways to safely harvest this resource. Wired has more background here, as does Crumb Trail here.

Geothermal

  • Construction has begun on the first geothermal plant to be built in Nevada in over a decade. The Galena Geothermal Project will join three other geothermal plants operated by Ormat Nevada in the Steamboat Hills south of Reno, and will generate about 20 megawatts of power.

Hydrogen

  • The US Department of Energy has created a new portal for its Hydrogen Program, which conveniently brings together a variety of (previously scattered) DOE material on hydrogen-related research and policy under one cyberroof (via Green Car Congress).
  • Alt-E Blog points to news of a potential hydrogen/wind megaproject in Argentina - 16,000 MW of wind power producing 13.3 million cubic meters a year of hydrogen and 40 million tonnes of carbon credits at a cost of $19 billion. Big numbers, not many details yet.
  • Green Car Congress brings news of new EU and US hydrogen production research programs reflecting distinctly different priorities. The EU is funding SOLAR-H, a European research network that will investigate potential approaches for the production of hydrogen from solar energy and biological sources. The US, meanwhile, has signed a multilateral agreement - the Generation IV International Forum - that will develop next-generation nuclear energy technologies that will include substantial research into designs for electricity/hydrogen producing reactors.
  • Engineers at Ohio State University have developed a new and improved catalyst for the production of hydrogen from gasified coal. Where previously catalysts using the toxic metal chromium were used, the new design substitutes aluminum and other metals, making the catalyst more environmentally sound and 25% more active.
  • Also in what was by all accounts a monster week for catalyst materials science news, researchers at Brookhaven National Laboratory studying the properties of cerium oxide nanoparticles believe that the results will pave the way for much more efficient catalysts for use in hydrogen production as well as in vehicle catalytic converters.

Nuclear

  • Since the process of storing the US's nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain was moving along so smoothly, it's hardly frustrating at all to learn that apparently a US Geological Survey worker may have falsified documentation about work he did on the computer programs responsible for modeling water infiltration and climate at the potential repository!
  • A new forecast by the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency projects a growth in worldwide nuclear power generation, reversing previous downward estimates as more countries look to nuclear power to meet energy needs. The report projects global nuclear generation to increase from 367 GW today to 430 GW in 2020.
  • ...but now, suddenly, the plot thickens: India has apparently been involved in talks with the EU to join the ITER project as a possible hedge against Japanese non-participation. Juicy!
  • Scientists studying acoustic inertial confinement fusion aka sonofusion aka bubble fusion have peered inside the bubble - and it is EXTREMELY HOT!! Energy Outlook and Peak Oil Optimist (who also has some links in the Energy Outlook comments) explain to you why this is exciting news.

Solar

  • Gov Schwarzenegger has proposed a pair of bills that would create a 10-year incentive fund, most likely paid for with a new fee on utility bills, to promote the use of solar power in California. Monkeysign takes a look at the bills, explains, and approves.
  • Solar-powered rural electrification in India is beginning to have a real impact - television!
  • Has the Holy Grail of solar power, a technology that can deliver solar electricity at 5 cents/kWh, been achieved? Nanosolar claims to have developed 'a new class of solar electricity cells based on the economics of printing', which sounds like a good enough idea to me. Details are sketchy, and Peak Oil Rob is justifiably skeptical, but come on, those Google guys are investing in it, they don't pick losers!

Water

  • Carolyn Elefant comments on a pair of stories coming out of New Jersey about the difficulties ocean energy technology demonstration projects are having with state regulations. Carolyn is a lawyer specializing in these types of cases, and worries that "conflicting regulatory policies and a propensity for overregulating even temporary prototype projects threatens to stifle ocean development."
  • FuturePundit asks, do hydroelectric dams cause global warming? It's a rhetorical question - a new study claims that dams increases the amount of plant matter that decomposes anaerobically (at the reservoir's bottom), releasing significant quantities of methane - a greenhouse gas that is shorter-lived but 21 times as strong as CO2. The post touches on several other aspects of the little-discussed problem of methane emissions, with a lively and interesting conversation in the comments - all well worth your time.

Wind

  • The Renewable Energy Law Blog notes that the EPA has found the draft Environmental Impact Statement for the chronically embattled Cape Wind farm to be inadequate, further delaying the project.
  • A new study by Germany's energy agency indicates that wind power is an expensive and inefficient way to reduce greenhouse gases - which must come as quite unpleasant news, considering that Germany has pursued the most aggressive wind energy policies in the world and is the world's largest producer of wind energy. It costs 41-77 E ($68-$129) to reduce a ton of CO2 emissions with wind energy, which is significantly more expensive than either energy efficiency improvements or simple reforestation projects.

Policy &c

  • In a typical environmental policy wreck, the Bush administration's "Clear Skies" legislation to reduce emissions from coal-fired power plants using a cap-and-trade system failed to make it out of the Senate Environment Committee. The Volokh Conspiracy has some worthwhile commentary that includes a link to an excellent history of the legislation from the Washington Monthly.
  • How SERIOUS is the UK about climate change? As of April, government officials that fly will have to compensate for the plane’s carbon-dioxide emissions by “investing in renewable energy and energy-efficiency projects." I can't decide whether it's an worthwhile symbolic gesture, a pointless symbolic gesture... or just karma.
  • One of the more potentially helpful elements of the Kyoto Protocol is the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), which allows developed countries to get emissions credits for funding clean energy projects in the developing world - thus, emissions are reduced where it's most cost-effective to do so, and developing countries get developed. Worldchanging notes some current CDM projects as well as some emerging concerns about accountability, among other things. Unfortunately, the CDM is already so tied up in red tape that there probably won't be many projects to worry about for the next few years at least.
  • John Global Guerillas has written a GG-style threat scenario for green guerillas wishing to force a transition to (ostensibly) clean, distributed energy sources through a program of systems sabotage. Unlikely, but not uninteresting.

Feel free to send any tips, questions, or warm weather to newenergy at windsofchange.net - see you in April.

18 Comments

What energy problems? If the government gets its nose out of this issue, the market will decide the most effecient means to solve whatever "problems" arise.

Someone mentioned 'oil shale' as a store of oil more expensive than oil sands to extract. I don't know enough about this, where are they, how much is 'proven', how much is expected, and where would the price of oil need to be for oil shale to be profitable with current technology?

Keep up the good work!

A new study by Germany's energy agency indicates that wind power is an expensive and inefficient way to reduce greenhouse gases

Thank God or better Gott sei Dank that someone knows how to use a calculator.

Al

WEC Survey of Energy Resources might be a good place to start.

As long as you're over at my blog looking at the available tech for plug-in hybrids, take a look at my latest entry where I examine the prospects for slashing both the costs and carbon emissions for powering them:  cogeneration@home

Why is it that no matter how expensive a barrel of oil, photoelectric power is never economical?

Photovoltaic

Among others:

- efficient (25%) solar cells are expensive
- they get this maximum efficiency only a few hours each year unless you use a sun tracking system
- energy is generated in DC and low voltage, therefore to run standard equipment you need an inverter and transformers
- often energy is generated when is not needed, thus a storage system is necessary (charger, batteries, room for them and maintenance) if it is a stand alone supply system
- Theft and vandalism are also issues

Thank you USMC.

PacRim Jim, part of it is that forming the cell in the first place is so energy intensive -> so as the price of energy goes up, so does the capital cost of a major solar facility.

PacRim Jim asks:
Why is it that no matter how expensive a barrel of oil, photoelectric power is never economical?
That's a non-sequitur on two levels:
  1. Solar is competing mostly against coal and natural gas in the market for electricity, not against oil in the transportation market.
  2. Where electricity is generated from oil, solar appears to be quite competitive to judge from the number of people installing solar panels instead of generators.
To get solar energy into the transport market, you need vehicles which draw power from the electrical grid.  Plug-in hybrids are coming.  When people can charge their vehicles from solar panels, you will see solar competing with oil.  My analysis from last year and the update seem to indicate that this day is not very far off; a couple of years at most.

Ask the residents of the Western slope of Colorado about oil shale. The plans for an oil shale operation started a speculative boom in places like Grand Junction and Rifle. The plan to extract oil from the oil shale involved underground detonation of nuclear bomb to liquify the oil for extraction. Needless to say this proved problematic. When the plans were abandoned, the economies of many Western slope towns collapsed. Still the oil shale is plentiful and could someday be processed economically. Hopefully without the 'nuclear option'

Joe A.,

Be interesting to see what data the German's used. Were they figuring marginal cost or were they using current installed costs? Or were they looking at the learning curve and projecting future costs?

In any case at current natural gas prices wind will be quite competive and complimentary to natural gas.

At 5 MW (rated) wind electricity costs run on par with coal and nuke. As the turbines get larger than that the costs are below coal.

That should take us up to 20% of total load. After that you need storage.

I have some ideas........

Contact me.

A summary of the German report can be found here

See also this

As far as I understand (my German is almost forgotten) they calculate all the costs they will incur to reach a given installed wind capacity in 2015-2020, including the improvement of the electricity transport network, the building of underwater lines to bring the energy from the offshore locations and the CO2 emission costs (spare) forced by Kyoto.

Sorry, I can not spend more time on this now.

Take also into account the costs of the reserve power plants (high consumption and strong wind may occur simultaneously in Southern California but it is not a constant in the World) and the effect on the landscape, an important issue in Europe.

The common element here is that regulated electric rates give no reason for consumers to adjust their demand to the availability of supply.  Why should we expect demand to be the same on sunny and windy days vs. calm, cloudy ones?  If electricity was cheap when it was highly available, people would use things like ice storage to take advantage of it, like stocking up at sales.

You can say "we don't have the means to do this", and you're right.  But available technology offers lots of ways to take advantage of this or that opportunity.  We don't have markets for such technology (and the incentive to improve it) because regulated electric rates offer no reason for anyone to buy it.

Go over to The Knowledge Problem for more on this.  It is Important.

There are a view problem with setting different prices at different days for small consumers.

A really important one is that it was until recently impossible to set a variable price at a unpredicted time. The electricity business has also a lot of inertia so it isn't like they can change metering on the fly.

I also have to wonder if this has much effect on electricity usage. Day and night time tarifs have existed for eons and its effect on electricity usage is not exactly big.

I also have to wonder if this has much effect on electricity usage.

I agree. Most of the people seek at home, above of all, comfort.

a writes:
The electricity business has also a lot of inertia so it isn't like they can change metering on the fly.
It's been mandatory for businesses for quite some time.  Ramping up the production of new meters might take a while, but we are talking about a ten-year program here.  This is not a problem.
Day and night time tarifs have existed for eons and its effect on electricity usage is not exactly big.
Oh, really?  You should tell that to the people who've had radio-controlled relays on their electric water heaters for the last ten years, or the same on their air conditioners.  They get reduced rates for this.

And Joe A. adds:
Most of the people seek at home, above of all, comfort.
Yup, and failing to do market-rate metering forces more investment in generation, transmission and distribution than is necessary and winds up costing people comfort by running their bills up.  If we all paid $.20/kWh or more on hot afternoons and $.05/kWh from 11 PM to 7 AM, you can bet that everyone would be just as comfortable with an A/C which ran all night to make ice to keep the house cool the next day.  If wrapping foam around a ton of ice and water cost less than the generation capacity to run the system in the afternoon (and at $500 or so per kW plus fuel for peaking turbines, I'm sure it does) we'd all wind up paying less.

Solar absorption A/C might cost less than the expense of providing peaking power, but because of fixed electric rates we've misinvested in electric capacity instead, not to mention the consequent pollution.  This is one problem that cannot be fixed soon enough.

In some markets there is already a price difference of almost 100% between what you pay at 0:00 and 12:00 and it doesn't change usage patterns that much.

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