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New Energy Currents: 2005-12-02

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After a two-month hiatus to 'adjust' to some new academic obligations, New Energy Currents is back, and better, with a more robust selection of links and significant expansions in two different directions. First and foremost, I'm happy to announce that this bulletin will now be a collaborative effort between myself and my friend/partner in crime Peter Wolfgang. Second, with the expanded staff will come expanded coverage - we will now run two segments here at Winds, with our regular monthly news on new energy projects and technologies supplemented by a second monthly posting, tentatively titled New Energy Politics and Markets, focusing on domestic and international energy politics as well as domestic and global energy market trends. Please e-mail us at newenergycurrents at with any tips and/or suggestions - we'll be back with the new post in two weeks.

Back in the saddle again -


  • The National Biodiesel Board has announced that, thanks to generous government sponsorship, US biodiesel production will reach 75 million gallons in 2005, three times as much as produced in 2004. Not only that, but there are currently proposals to more than double the 45 biodiesel plants currently operating in the US, with some of the newest plants under development weighing in at 30 million gallons/year capacity (compared to an average of 6.5 million gallons for current biodiesel plants).
  • To accompany its 2006 launch of four car models with a flexible fuel option, Ford has teamed up with VeraSun Energy Corporation, the nation’s second-largest ethanol producer, to convert gasoline pumps in the Midwest to E85, a blend of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline. Currently, only 0.3% of the United States's 180,000 fuel stations offer E85.
  • A former malting facility in Jefferson, Wisconsin will be converted to house an innovative, $200 million ethanol production plant that, in addition to 140 million gallons of ethanol a year, will produce 20 million gallons of biodiesel and, yes, 8 million pounds of tilapia fish filets. The biodiesel will actually be produced from the byproducts (leftovers, frying oil) of the fish farm, conveniently located on the same site as the ethanol/biodiesel plant. This talented multitasker will also produce its own electricity with a cogeneration facility, not to mention 325,000 tons of liquid CO2 which for beverage carbonation.
  • The Engineer-Poet notes news (via Green Car Congress) that an Illinois fertilizer plant that previously used natural gas as a feedstock is being converted to utilize gasified coal instead, and will produce 87 million gallons/year of synthetic gasoline and electricity to boot. E-P proceeds to discuss the potential for these converted plants to be fueled by either charcoal or raw biomass produced by agricultural wastes like corn stover - in trademark Ergospheric style, it's a feasible concept backed up with lots of usable numbers, well worth the attention of bloggers as well as elected officials from corn-producing states.
  • Shell is collaborating with the German company Choren to build a biomass-to-liquids plant to that will produce synthetic diesel using waste biomass as a feedstock for in a modified Fischer-Tropsch process. Shell estimates that this process yields almost double the CO2 reductions of biodiesel, although it projects that the synthetic fuel will be more expensive to produce at $3.10 a gallon. (via Peak Oil Optimist)
  • Also via Peak Oil Rob, Richard Branson has announced plans to build cellulosic ethanol plants to fuel the Virgin Atlantic Airways fleet. While details are sketchy, he hopes to replace 'some or all' of the 700 million gallons of jet fuel Virgin uses annually within six years. Give the man credit, he's not just complaining about fuel costs, he's dropping some serious cash on the problem - in September, Branson similarly announced plans to build his own oil refinery.
  • Increased producer interest in Canola in southern states like Texas led to increased participation in this year’s National Winter Canola Variety Trial, an annual research trial sponsored by Kansas State University whose aim is to develop varieties of the plant suitable for growing in southern climates (it’s mostly grown in the northern US and Canada). Because of inflated prices for soybean oil due to demand for soybeans for food products, canola will become a cheaper biodiesel alternative as more competitors enter the market and drive prices down.
  • Researchers in Tokyo have discovered a carbon catalyst for use in the biodiesel production process – created from sugar, starch or cellulose – that will further reduce the costs and ecological impacts of producing biodiesel fuel. The catalyst commonly used is liquid sulfuric acid, which is costly and wasteful to separate out from resultant fuel in the reaction mixture.


  • Complementing the efforts of the plug-in hybrid hackers at CalCars, a new group of automotive component suppliers has formed a new organization called the Advanced Hybrid Vehicles Development Consortium, which will develop a prototype plug-in hybrid vehicle in 2006 that will include more powerful electric motors, lithium-ion batteries, and ultracapacitors for improved acceleration. The Consortium claims that the prototype vehicle will cost about as much as current plugless hybrid-electrics, and that they will be able to travel up to 50 miles without using gasoline. Perhaps most interestingly, the consortium is looking to package the plug-in technologies to license to car manufacturers that don't already manufacture hybrids, allowing them to "jump in the game without having to do 15 years of research and development." (via Energy Blog)
  • Two physicists at the University of Pittsburgh are utilizing sophisticated computer simulations to improve their understanding of why heat renders superconductors useless. Currently, superconductors can only operate at extremely low temperatures - even “high-temperature” superconductors must be kept at temperatures of around -300°F.

Fossil Fuels

  • WattHead notes a recent CSM piece reporting that the US refining bottleneck may be eased in the near future. In the past two months, US refiners have announced plans to expand existing capacity totaling almost 1 million barrels of oil per day - nearly 6 percent of the US's current total. The planned expansions, which are still pending approval, would come online within the next 3 to 5 years.
  • As boom in Canadian oil sands continues, Green Car Congress takes a long look at the scale of new investments in oil sands development as well as new research on the environmental impacts of energy-intensive oil sands extraction operations. Geoff Styles suggests that these environmental effects could be significantly reduced by powering oil sands production facilities with small nuclear plants, which would provide cleaner and more efficient electricity while freeing up more natural gas for use in Canada (and the US).
  • New advances in the field of geoscience by the University of Houston's John Castagna will allow for the direct detection of oil and gas reserves using seismic data. Current techniques only detect potential reservoirs for fossil fuels below the surface, but new algorithms developed by Castagna will allow for direct hydrocarbon indicator (DHI) analysis, which indicates not only whether nor not fossil fuels are actually present but can determine what kind of fuel is present, advances which promise to significantly lower exploration costs in the future.
  • A joint project between the Canadian government and the US Department of Energy has successfully demonstrated the feasibility of sequestering carbon dioxide in oil fields to enhance oil recovery. Carbon dioxide from a coal gasification plant in North Dakota was piped into the Weyburn oil field in Canada. Not only was the CO2 safely stored out of the atmosphere, but the increased pressure in the oil reservoirs increases the field's production by 10,000 barrels a day. As Watthead notes, neither carbon sequestration from coal gasification nor using CO2 for enhanced oil recovery are new, but this is the first time they've been combined (via Jamais Worldchanging, who has reservations).
  • Geologists at the Idaho National Laboratory are studying the feasibility of sequestering carbon dioxide in volcanic rocks located below the Columbia and Snake river plains. Basalt was originally thought to be too dense for the injection of CO2, but researchers using computer models have recently hypothesized that layered basalts may be well-suited for secure, long-term CO2 storage. Volcanic basalt covers more than 85,000 square miles in the 'Big Sky' states in the US - enough to sequester 20 years' worth of CO2 emissions from (current) US coal plants - and there are similarly massive deposits elsewhere in the world.


  • WattHead has a lengthy post up on new work in Australia exploring the viability of hot-dry rock (HDR) geothermal power generation. In contrast to current commercial geothermal plants which utilize the heat from underground hot water reservoirs, HDR geothermal uses the heat generated by layers of mildly radioactive underground granite to operate steam-powered turbines. Australia has potential HDR resources equivalent to tens of billions of barrels of oil, and construction on the project's second pilot site is well underway.


  • A new collaboration between Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's Flexible Manufacturing Center (FMC) and Center for Automation Technologies and Systems (CATS) aim to develop an automated robotic "workcell" that will (some day...) enable the mass production of fuel cell stacks at greatly reduced costs.


  • The US Department of Energy announced this month that it will hold a public workshop to receive comments on the nuclear construction risk insurance provisions included in this year’s Energy Policy Act. If you can’t make it to the workshop, which will be held in Bethesda, Maryland on December 15, you can still submit a formal comment on the subject until December 23rd here.
  • Australian diversified mining and energy firm BHP Billiton expects global demand for nuclear energy to support its proposed quadruple increase in uranium production at the company’s Olympic Dam site in southern Australia. The move, which is being made in anticipation of quadrupling demand from China over the next fifteen years, would increase output at the world’s largest reserve of uranium from its current level of 4,000 tons a year to 15,000 tons.
  • This year's Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Mohammed ElBaradei, has recently been touting the potential of small, low-maintenance nuclear power plants to bring the benefits of nuclear power to developing countries that while avoiding the massive construction costs (not to mention, in many cases, the cost of building an extensive electricity grid) required to build traditional, large-scale regional plants. The MIT Technology Review article includes details on ElBaradei's proposal, including questions about proliferation concerns, as well as a brief discussion of current designs for such small-scale plants. (via Peak Oil Optimist)


  • Plans for large solar thermal power plants have recently been approved in Nevada and California, with a 64 MW plant planned near Boulder City and a 4,500-acre, 500 MW plant north of Los Angeles.
  • At 400' tall, Manchester’s landmark Co-operative Insurance Society (CIS) tower is the largest building in the UK outside of London, and it's in the process of being sheathed in photovoltaics. The tower went LIVE November 4 as the 7,000 solar panels covering the south side of the building were switched on by PM Tony Blair himself. Though only one face of the building’s solar covering is functional as of now, the building will eventually produce enough energy per year 'to make nine million cups of tea', charmingly.


  • A new 25 MW "run-of-river" hydroelectric power plant has begun operating in British Columbia, Canada. Unlike large-scale hydroelectric plants that require the construction of environment-disturbing dams to create large storage reservoirs, the run-of-river design relies on the natural downward flow of the Mamquam River, which is guided through pipes to turn turbines in a generating station.
  • Ocean Power Technologies is testing its wave energy device, the 40 kW PowerBuoy, off the coasts of New Jersey and Hawaii. The PowerBuoy, a simple technology which generates electricity from the bobbing motion of the buoy, is being considered for use a megawatt-scale array off the NJ coast and to provide power to the US Navy off the coast of Oahu.
  • Worldchanging takes a look at a new feature that the Australian company Energetech has added to their prototype wave energy technology - a reverse osmosis desalination system, which will use wave pressure to push water through a separation membrane. The system (which is actively being considered for use in the US, the UK, and Spain) is now attracting more attention in Australia for its potential to reduce the need for electricity-hungry desalination plants than it is for its potential to generate electricity.


  • The great and free state of Texas - not Long Island or Cape Cod - may be the home to the US's first large-scale off-shore wind farm. The state has sold a lease for an 11,000 acre tract in the Gulf of Mexico near Galveston Island to a subsidiary of Louisiana's Wind Energy Systems Technologies, which plans to build a 50-turbine farm with 150 MW of capacity over the next five years at a cost of $250-300 million. Due to Texas's long history of private development in the Gulf (and general independence from the feds), the state has jurisdiction over land 10 miles off the coast, which should help clear the way of the kinds of obstacles that have delayed large projects in federal waters off LI and the Cape. (via Wind and Wave Energy Weblog)
  • Construction is underway on the Big Horn Wind Project, a 200 MW wind farm in Washington State. The project is notable not only for its size but because it will be constructed on existing farmland - the 133 1.5-MW turbines have a 70-acre footprint that will be spread out over 15,000 acres of farmland that will otherwise to be used for wheat farming and grazing. The landowners will receive royalties from the electricity generated on their property, and the project will create 200 construction jobs as well as 6-8 full time positions when the wind farm begins operation in summer 2006.
  • Worldchanging has a great post up on the Native Wind project, which is bringing together wind energy experts and tribal leaders to explore the potential to build wind farms on tribal lands in the US. Just two small projects have been built so far on the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation and the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota, but 110 MW of wind farms are currently planned or in development, and the Fort Berthold Reservation alone is estimated to have over 17 GW of wind power potential.
  • On that same tip, the Native Renewable Energy Summit was held in Denver from November 15-17, where tribal leaders from across the US met to discuss cooperation with US cities - 178 of which have signed up to voluntarily pursue Kyoto's reduction targets as part of Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels' US Mayors Climate Change Protection Agreement - to develop wind farms and other renewable energy projects on tribal lands. The conclave was attended by the mayors of Boulder and Aspen, CO as well as Seattle's Mayor Nickels, who have already begun to explore such partnerships with neighboring tribes.
  • Norsk Hydro has announced plans to build a prototype sea-based wind turbine that may offer a solution to persistent concerns about the visual impact of off-shore wind farms in Europe and America. The 5 MW turbines stand 80 meters above water (and 120 below) with 60 meter-long blades, but they will be located too far away to be seen from the shore. Although installation costs for the floating turbines will be more expensive than near-shore turbines, stronger winds will increase electricity production.

2 TrackBacks

Tracked: December 2, 2005 4:07 PM
Off the grid from Exit Zero
Excerpt: The Engineer-Poet * says "Alternative energy is civil defense So far as I can tell, George Mokray originated the phrase "Solar is civil de...
Tracked: December 2, 2005 8:05 PM
Off the grid from Dean's World
Excerpt: The Engineer-Poet * says "Alternative energy is civil defense So far as I can tell, George Mokray originated the phrase "...

1 Comment

Good to have you back! I've missed the insights into the new and exciting energy technologies out there - always good to have things to throw into any discussion where somebody says "We should just meet the Kyoto targets".


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