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We focus on energy policy and issues relating to climate change. Anyone may comment on an item; all views solely reflect the opinion of the author. Please email us if you have comments or questions.

solar's niche

I tend to be pretty critical of solar PV because the economics are so bad relative to other sources of electricity. But this chart made me think that I'm missing something.

electricity costs

Solar production would seem to be at its max just when retail electricity is the most expensive - those two really tall columns in July and August. I can actually see a path forward to solar PV.

A few things would have to happen for this to work out. 1) People would have to know what they were paying for electricity at any given time (the premise of the article); 2) The cost of PV would still need to come down a bit. Still, more promising that I would have thought.

Xcel Expands Coal

Two months ago, we discussed Xcel Energy and its support for a Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS definition). We also mentioned that Dick Kelley, CEO of Xcel said it would not be building any more conventional coal plants (after Comanche 3 in Colorado).

A recent story in the St. Cloud Times suggests Xcel will certainly be expanding its use of traditional coal even if it does not technically build new plants. Xcel wants to expand its largest coal production facility in Minnesota by 140 MW.

Update: The comments below corrected this story - looks like Xcel will not be increasing the amount of coal it uses, but rather the efficiency of the plant.

The Sherco Plant "is the largest in terms of square feet, steam production, power generation capability and coal consumption" according to Xcel. It already burns 30,000 tons of coal per day.

Xcel says it will cut the emissions of criteria pollutants (mercury, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and particulates). Nonetheless, this will certainly increase its carbon dioxide emissions - the main contributer to human-caused greenhouse gas accumulation.

The PUC will decide whether to allow Xcel to continue or not in 2008.

Update: As noted above, this story is in error. Xcel will not be increasing carbon dioxide emissions.

Wind Power Explanation

This is a post for people who are confused about wind power - specifically about how to support wind power. Shea Gunther has a post that explains how wind gets to the electrical grid and how you can support it.

I am posting it as a reference post for when we encounter people that have basic questions.

Update: The numbers in that post are suspect, but the principle is accurate.

Energy Resolution

Happy New Years! The regular readers of this site may not need these suggestions, but those around you may be interested, so please pass them along.

How about a resolution to use less energy next year? You can resolve to drive less, take the bus more often, use less electricity, or buy organic products (organic cotton requires less energy to produce).

I recommend doing a bit of everything - but I'm going to encourage you to focus on electricity. Especially here in Minnesota, electricity comes mainly from coal and using it more efficiently requires little effort.

Get the cool looking light bulbs! Compact fluorescent light bulbs will save you power and money over their lifetime. They are the bulbs that cost more upfront, but use considerably less power to put out the same amount of light. After they burn out, recycle them! Take them to a hardware store to be properly disposed.

Turn off electronics you aren't using. My apartment had a VCR plugged in that we use once every 4 months now. Unplug it. Unplug all chargers when not in use. Such chargers are a major contributor to phantom load. This is where devices use power to eseentially do nothing.

If you are not familiar with the Energy Star program, learn a little bit about it. When you purchase appliances, make sure they are energy star certified. Such devices are more efficient than non-energy star appliances.

Those of us who have made many of these efforts already must work harder to reduce our consumption. Perhaps Solar Kismet can add some tips, I know he runs a very efficient ship. I just purchased an electricity usage monitor to better understand where I am using power inefficiently.

One suggestion is to use power strips for computer devices like switches, hubs, and firewalls. When you are not using your computer (at night for instance) you can switch all those devices off to save power. Most people have no reason to leave the internet connected all night. Turn it off when you go to bed and switch it on when you need it.

For a resolution, resolve to cut your power usage by 5% each month. When you get your bill, write down the number of kilowatt hours you used in that month (alternatively, use the bill from the same month of last year as a baseline if you are as anal with bills as I am). Multiply this number by .95 and write down your target number. If you use more electricity than your target, buy some green tags as a punishment. Terrapass.com has options for green credits to balance your home usage.

Your actions do make a difference. Set some goals and get going. The average household in the U.S. uses between 700 and 1000 kilowatt hours of electricity a month. If you are above that, try to cut your usage by more than 5%.

Update: The Energy Star site has some tips for reducing energy usage over the winter. These tips won't reduce your electricity usage, but will save energy.

Penn State Buys Green

Penn State (home to legendary football coach JoePa) has arranged to purchase more than 20% of its electricity needs from renewable sources over the next 5 years.

"Under the 2001 contracts, when wind energy was our only renewable energy option, the University paid $14.00 per megawatt-hour (MWH). Under the new contracts, with other sources now available, we are paying an average of $5.00 per MWH," said Michael I. Prinkey, energy program engineer in the Office of Physical Plant.

PSU has a press release discussing the new contracts.

Under the contracts, the major sources of generation are wind, 8.1 percent; biomass, 3.9 percent; low-impact certified hydroelectric, 7.9 percent; new technologies (solar and bio-mass) 0.6 percent, for a total of 20.5 percent.

"In examining our energy requirements," he said, "our goals were to support new technologies, look at cheaper energy sources, and maintain our commitment to Pennsylvania-generated sources. We were able to achieve those goals and increase the total purchase to 20 percent of our electrical energy needs within our budget goal."

The University of Minnesota - Twin Cities campus is larger than University Park at State College in PA, but Penn State is a larger system on the whole. I haven't heard of the U doing something like this, has anyone else?

WindLogics Study Podcast

Renewable Energy Access recently posted a podcast about the Windlogics study that looked at whether the electrical grid can handle larger scale wind integration.

A study released last week by the Minnesota legislature found that the state could get 25% of its energy from wind without affecting transmission reliability or significantly raising utility operating costs. The study proves that, in addition to being clean, wind can be a cost-effective and reliable resource for many parts of America. Mark Ahlstrom, President of WindLogics, talks about his company's role in the study what the findings mean for the American wind industry.

If you have a computer, you can listen to this audio show. You do not need to have an iPod or any personal media player. The entire show is around 25 minutes and the interview is in the middle.

NY Times Energy Experts

Got a question for the NY Times' energy experts? Pose it to them by this afternoon and they may answer it.

Now it’s your turn to weigh in. Questions and comments are welcome through tomorrow, Dec. 28. Some of the project’s writers, including David Barboza, Felicity Barringer, Keith Bradsher and Andrew C. Revkin, along with a number of recognized experts from academia and government, will respond. Felicity and Andy are the first out of the gate, with the others joining in later. (Note: reporters’ answers are bolded, below.)

This is part of a larger feature by the NY Times, called the Energy Challenge. They have a number of interesting articles and charts through that link.

Iraq's Electrical Situation

IEEE Spectrum has a marvelous article on rebuilding Iraq's infrastructure by Glenn Zorpette. Aside from intesting text, it has some sweet Iraq power maps. It covers the electrical grid quite well.

Given all the problems we are wrestling with in the U.S. over energy issues, the problems in Iraq may give us some perspective. I really enjoyed this article because it comes from an engineering perspective rather than a political perspective.

The article has some unsurprising background:

It would be hard to find another endeavor, anywhere, anytime, in which so much was asked of engineers, personally and professionally. Never before has so vast a reconstruction program been attempted in the face of enemy fire or managed in the shadow of geopolitics, where infrastructure itself became a battleground.

Insurgents were blowing up electrical transmission towers at an average rate of two a day this past August, and Iraqi workers and foreign contractors were risking their lives to put them back up. Throughout reconstruction, projects have gotten funds, lost them, and sometimes even gotten them back again, according to changes in the prevailing political winds. Generating plants have been built that can't be fueled; a water pumping station repaired for $225 million was rendered useless by countless leaks in the pipes connected to it. Five distribution substations were built for $28.8 million, but they'll sit idle for years because the infrastructure to tap into them hasn't been started yet.

But also features some rather shocking numbers:

All of the money pledged so far for Iraq's reconstruction adds up to roughly $60 billion, according to a report last July by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). U.S. officials whom I interviewed in Iraq this past October said that the current consensus was that the final tally might be as high as $100 billion. For comparison, in the first two years of their reconstruction after being devastated in wars, Germany, Japan, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan together received a total of $25.6 billion, in 2003 dollars, according to the United States Institute of Peace, a congressionally created organization devoted to conflict resolution. The first European Recovery Program, known as the Marshall Plan, which rebuilt much of Western Europe after World War II, spent the equivalent of about $90 billion in today's dollars between 1948 and 1951.

Even though the dollars are in 2003 dollars, I don't know how you can compare the societal demands of rebuilding a society 60 years ago and building a modern one today.

For our purposes, it is most interesting when it delves into the numbers dealing with the electrical sector.

According to last summer's GAO report, some $5.7 billion had been spent on work in the electrical sector in the two years prior to spring 2005. ... What that investment bought was, among other things, the addition or restoration of several thousand megawatts of generating capacity (although at any given time less than half of it is actually available on the grid), several hundred kilometers of new or refurbished transmission lines, one new and one rebuilt transmission substation, and 44 new or improved distribution substations.

Still, there's a long way to go. According to the latest figures, the country's 173 generating units, spread among some 35 power plants, can reliably produce just under 5000 MW at peak periods. That falls well short of peak demand, which was estimated to be 8845 MW last summer and is expected to be 10 000 MW next summer.

As reflected in a U.S. Central Command briefing I attended a few months ago, Iraq actually generates more power overall while most people in Iraq get fewer hours of availability. How does that work? Well, a few people have it all the time and skew the data.

But honestly, the people in Iraq have bigger problems than electricity, right? Well, not according to them:

In the most recent survey by the International Republican Institute, a prodemocracy advocacy group in Washington, D.C., 2200 Iraqis were asked which of 10 different problems "requiring a political or governmental solution" was most important to them. The first choice, by a margin of about 10 percent, was "inadequate electricity." "National security" came in fifth; the "presence of multinational forces" was seventh; and "terrorists" was eighth.

A popular if not universal idea is that a more robust electrical system would be a weapon against the insurgency; it's a concept the insurgents themselves have helped propagate by focusing so many of their attacks on the electrical infrastructure. Counterinsurgency, it has been said, can't really succeed without successful efforts to improve a country's political and economic base. And few analysts dispute the idea that one of the key obstacles to further economic progress in Iraq is its inadequate electrical system.

Solving the electrical problem would theoretically greatly help Iraq's chances of turning away from civil war. It would allow increased economic development - which would decrease antagonism between sectarian groups. People are easily pushed to hate their neighbors when they are unemployed and future prpspects are bleak.

One of the main desires for electricity is during the extremely hot summer months. They want air conditioning. However, most Iraqis are not charged for electricity. No wonder demand is rapidly increasingly. The nearly free cost of electricity is caused by both technological and social factors. Many consumptiuon meters are broken and therefore worthless for measuring use (a prerequisite to charging for it). On the social side, politicians worldwide are reluctant to drive up prices of electricity because it angers their constituents. In addition, raising rates at a time when electricity is so constrained will upset constituents all the more.

Regardless of the problems caused by under-pricing electricity, there are other major sources of inefficiency in Iraq.

In the vicinity of the Quds complex, I notice several towering flare stacks across the street from the power plant, at an oil field called East Baghdad. Atop one of the stacks, an enormous orange flame indicates that natural gas pouring out of the oil deposits is being burned off steadily to keep it from exploding. Such flaring goes on continually all over Iraq. It is so widespread in the huge southern oil fields west of Basra that it actually fills the night sky with light.

The flaring is notable because if all that gas were captured, pressurized, and distributed rather than being burned off, it could be used to meet more than half of Iraq's demand for electricity. At the moment, Iraq is flaring more than 28 million cubic meters of gas a day. It's enough to fire at least 4000 MW of electricity.

The bottom of page 2 goes into detail about the problems with the combustion turbines, but I'll only include the end result of that discussion. This is just a fascinating article.

Iraq's 110 combustion turbines alone could in theory generate well over 4000 MW if they were being fueled by natural gas. So far, though, the actual output of these combustion turbine generators hasn't come close to half of that figure. At Quds, I begin to understand why.

The question is why they are using combustion turbines rather than steam-thermal. There are a number of reasons, but chief among them is the ineptitude of the U.S. ocupation administration.

"When we were starting to rebuild," says one of the formerly retired Iraqi engineers now working at Quds, "the U.S. didn't take the advice of the Ministry of Electricity on where to build plants and what kind of plants to build. It was a shortcoming in planning."

One of their considerations was time to build. The steam-thermal plants (which can take any fuel) take twice as long (or longer) to build than the combustion turbine plants (which are currently fueled by IMPORTING diesel fuel from Turkey). The U.S. wanted quick results and pushed for the inappropriate generators.

Who Guards Nuke Plants?

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has decided against changing the specs for new nuke plants.

The question is basically who is responsible for deflecting terrorist attacks on the plants from the air. Obviously, terrorists attacking the plants with airplanes is a serious concern for everyone involved. As of now, the responsibility for preventing such an attack apparently goes to the Department of Homeland Security.

My impression of modern reactor design is that it has passive protection measures. From listening to Science Friday, I had the impression that if "things go bad," the reactor's design would cause it to stop the nuclear reaction without requiring much intervention.

So I wonder how much damage a 737 landing on the plant would do. Would it merely release some radioactive material into the atmosphere (merely?) or spread it via the resulting explosion?

Is there a threat beyond the spread of the reactor fuel? Such a threat is obviously scary, but I wonder about the likelihood. Do nukes have radar currently? I would hope that Homeland Security has a mechanism to alert nuke plants if a plane is acting erratically and approaches a plant. How much warning time does a plant need to secure its material against such an attack?

This is important because some firms will soon build new nuclear facilities:

Mr. Peterson said the industry wanted the regulations to be issued soon, because companies had expressed interest in building 30 new reactors. The actual number built is likely to be much smaller, experts say, but there is a widespread expectation of new orders, probably in 2007.

Coastal Oil Drilling Incentives Offer Little

 

 

 

The New York Times is reporting that a U.S. Department of the Interior report ("Incentives on Oil Barely Help U.S.", delayed for over a year, estimates that off-shore drilling incentives for the Gulf of Mexico do little to induce additional supply.

"But industry analysts who compare oil policies around the world said the United States was much more generous to oil companies than most other countries, demanding a smaller share of revenues than others that let private companies drill on public lands and in public waters. In addition, they said, the United States has sweetened some of its incentives in recent years, while dozens of other countries demanded a bigger share of revenue."

 

PTC Extended

For those who missed this, Maria Energia ran a brief story about a one-year PTC extension.

The PTC is now available through December 31, 2008, giving the wind sector two full years of tax stability. The U.S. wind energy sector has been plagued by inconsistent growth because of the short-term, temporary nature of the PTC.

The PTC is crucial because it makes wind competitive with other sources of electricity generation. If you are going to build a wind turbine, the PTC is a tax credit of $.019 per kilowatt hour of energy produced. However, to qualify for the PTC, you have to begin producing power before it expires. I believe the tax credit is guaranteed for 10 years.

Thus, the extension of the PTC before it expires is very important to encouraging the wind industry. If the PTC were to expire in 6 months, few would contract to build new wind because it takes too long to build and it would begin producing power over the PTC expired.

Extending it early avoids the boom-and-bust model that has hurt the wind sector in the U.S. I think many of us would like to see it extended for several years in order to encourage firms to actually build factories to produce wind turbines here rather than having them mostly imported.

Raise CAFE?

For those unfamiliar: CAFE = Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards.

The San Francisco Chronicle ran an article encouraging an increased fuel tax rather than increasing the CAFE standards. The point is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Germany found that one way to do that was to impose an "ecotax." To improve fuel economy, Germany simply raised the price of gas with this surcharge.

Countries like France, the Netherlands and Germany already charged around $6 per gallon, but Germany raised the price by an additional 10 cents a year from 1999 to 2003. Germans now pay nearly $6.50 per gallon. The increase was not steep (less than 2 percent per year), but it sent a signal to the market that gas would not be getting any cheaper.

I really like the idea of slowly raising the tax. Schedule it a ways into the future to send messages to the market. Are there major downsides to this approach? The biggest downside may be that the government can always alter the schedule in the future and the market will count on that. Are there other downsides?

By 2004, fuel consumption had dropped by around 7 percent from 1999 levels; 6 percent more Germans were riding public transport; and cars with nearly 80 miles per gallon fuel efficiency hit the market. Yes, 80 mpg. That's not a typo; it's a Volkswagen Lupo. And unlike the two-seater Smart, with 69 mpg, the Lupo (like Audi's classy A2 with 78 mpg) is a four-seater.

Wow. The Lupo seems great. And check out that great green hue.

Of course, many Americans are calling for higher fuel-efficiency standards -- but that's the bad news. These standards are by their very design doomed to failure because efficiency can ironically undercut itself by making consumption cheaper. Think about it: if you could suddenly drive 100 miles longer on one tank of gas, would you drive less or more? When efficiency lowers consumption, demand for energy drops, lowering prices, which in turn undercuts investments in efficiency -- a catch-22 without price mechanisms.

People really don't want to hear about higher prices though. Is there any way to move forward with these policies? I wonder how they did it in Europe ... there can't be an enthusiasm for higher prices there, can there be?

Suggestions?

Thanks again to everyone who reads and participates on energista. This site runs on the drupal codebase and they will soon release the new version. Over the next couple of weeks, as I prepare to upgrade the software, I also hope to make improvements to this site.

Some of my ideas include

  • Cleaner events and calendar
  • Extensive profile capabilities for those who wish to use them
  • Ability to aggregate posts from similar blogs on one page

Any ideas you would like to see?

Recommendations for Offsetting Carbon Emissions

Looking to offset your global warming emissions but confused about where to start?  Which offset company has the most impact and uses the best methodologies?

Three articles that make recommendations:

Environmental Defense Fund recommended list

Grist Magazine article

World Changing article & full report (PDF)

No one company appears on all three lists.

Two for three? Climate Trust, Native Energy, and Carbon Fund.

 

Now, since green tags, renewable energy credits, and green pricing are confusing enough for consumers, will they be able to differentiate this new class of environmental credits?  Time will tell... 

Oil Op-Ed

Election season came and went, but talk of weaning ourselves from “foreign” oil remains.  As we may have permanently passed the era of cheap oil, the United States must develop a strategy to insulate itself from oil shocks.  However, talk of “foreign” oil is both deceptive and unhelpful. 

For economic reasons, the price of oil is essentially the same everywhere.  Thus, it really does not matter from where we purchase oil if we continue to require so much of it.  If something happens in Saudi Arabia or Nigeria, it raises the cost of oil everywhere.  Because the Persian Gulf contains half of all the oil in the world, events that impact production there will impact consumers here regardless of whether they sell it to us or not. 

 Some have used high oil prices and foreign entanglements to say we need to more nuclear power or renewable energy to create energy security.  While there are arguments for both, neither really has anything to do with the price of oil because oil is used for transportation, not electrical generation.  We must avoid this bait-and-switch approach to energy discussions.   

 Scapegoating “foreign” oil may be politically popular, but it does nothing to help Americans dealing with volatile prices.  Due to the nature of the world market, if we want to develop energy security, we must lessen our dependence on oil in general. 

 Here in corn country, we are told that ethanol will lessen oil dependence.  Unfortunately, ethanol would not do enough to reduce dependence even if we used all domestic corn production to make it.  Ethanol will thus be a small part of a multi-pronged solution. 

 Some are waiting for plug-in hybrids from automakers.  These cars would reduce our oil dependence by relying upon the electrical grid for power.  Unfortunately, we have to wait 5-10 years for the cars to hit the market and another 10-15 for plug-in hybrids to make up a measurable percentage of the fleet.  As with ethanol, this will help only at the margins. 

 The best solution lies in driving more efficient cars less frequently.  This strategy requires no technological breakthrough and should have been implemented years ago.  Government programs must provide incentives for fuel-efficient cars, regardless of the underlying technology.  Cars that achieve better than 40 miles per gallon should be rewarded regardless of how that efficiency is achieved.  Existing programs may reward people who purchase 19 mpg SUVs despite the fact that their vehicles are grossly inefficient. 

 The American auto industry has long claimed that forcing higher fuel efficiencies on vehicles will drive the up the cost of vehicles.  Yet, we now see a domestic auto industry that is dying because it cannot produce fuel efficient vehicles.  Raising fuel efficiency standards is long overdue. 

 Increasing fuel efficiency may create problems though because people may drive more as driving becomes cheaper.  This is a well known economic phenomenon that is quite annoying for policymakers.

 Americans must therefore change their driving habits.  We need to invest heavily in mass transit options and to reduce car dependence.  Only by driving less frequently can we reduce our oil dependence.  The question is whether we embrace such changes or wait for increased oil prices to force them upon us. 

 One does not need to believe in the peak-oil theory to see higher gas prices looming on the horizon.  The oil market is already tight and demand around the world appears to be rising faster than producers can pump it. 

 Even if the major oil producing countries are able to maintain their output, demand in China and India will ensure a rising price.  As Iraq’s civil war further destabilizes the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia and other oil exporters may see successful terrorist attacks on oil infrastructure. 

 No one knows what will happen with Iran.  Due to its geography, it can halt 90% of oil exports from the Persian Gulf and has threatened to do so if the U.S. acts against Iran’s nuclear program. 

 Rapidly increasing oil prices are probable in the future.  Insulating ourselves from the shock will take years to begin and decades to complete.  We cannot afford to wait for future technological solutions.  We need responsible government policy now in the form of convenient mass transit and vehicles with much greater efficiency. 

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