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African Energy Observations

These are some thoughts I have had in my first few days in Africa - I don't know how generalizable they are beyond my experiences here.

I arrived in Tanzania and proceeded to a little village outside Dodoma - the capital. This is a remote area, accessible 2 hours travel from the last paved road. There are some 40,000 people spread out over the metro area.

I frequently see power lines but the price of electricity is close to what we pay in Minnesota - on the order of $.075/kWr. Thus, few people have actually lines into their houses and those that do use it carefully. Most of the power comes from the dam so we have constant power now that the rainy season has filled the lake. 6 months ago, they had power only during the evening and night (except for the frequent unplanned outages).

The school has a new computer lab and just added a bunch of thin clients (basic computers without a hard drive) that probably take some 50-70 watts to operate. They have 70 of them and maybe 12 workstation P4's - taking certainly over 100 watts per unit. When the grid is down, they can run a generator to supply all their power, but it runs on expensive petrol (they pay more than us, as does most of the world). Nonetheless, they recognize the importance and power of information literacy.

I asked about the wisdom of adding all this demand to the grid locally and repeatedly got the response that power is either on or off, as though the amount demanded does not matter.

Word around town is that a nearby village got a contract for carbon offsets! They got a bunch of money and devices to plant 10,000 trees. No trees were planted. The money disappeared into the pockets of the corrupt and they told the foreigners that all the trees were planted and showed them trees that were already there.

Reading about local corruption from afar is considerably easier and less powerful than hearing about it directly from people who have been dealing with it directly. There are no checks and balances on such things here and I have to seriously wonder if seeking carbon offets in this environment is at all helpful.

So it goes, I'll post more observations if I get a chance...

Anti-wind, pro-coal

GreenJobs reports that Chairman Nick Rahall (D-WV) (hmm, I'm sure it's just coincidence that he's from coal-laden West Virginia) of the House Natural Resources Committee has introduced a new bill that is extremely hostile towards new and existing wind projects. The bill would require a cumbersome certification process by the Fish and Wildlife Service that would (in the words of the American Wind Energy Association):

Bar any new wind power project until new Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) rules are issued – a process likely to take years – and require FWS certification of every turbine * Require all existing turbines, even small residential units, to cease operating 6 months after issuance of new FWS rules until they are “certified,” an unwieldy bureaucratic process applying to many thousands of turbines that, again, will take years * Make it a crime, punishable by a $50,000 fine or a year in jail, to construct or generate electricity from an unapproved turbine, even for home use * Undermine state and federal efforts to promote renewable electricity generation and subvert the growing movement to reduce global warming pollution * Create an unworkable bureaucracy that will delay clean, emissions-free wind energy projects throughout the U.S.

Hopefully, this bill won't go anywhere, especially in light of promises to fight global warming by the House leadership.Meanwhile, the NY Times reports there is bipartisan support for federal subsidies for coal-to-liquid fuel plants. Dick Gephardt has even been signed on as a lobbyist for Peabody Energy, a major coal producer.

TTFN

I'm sorry for not posting recently but I have had my hands full with work, photography, and prepping for my trip to Tanzania. I leave Tues morning (10 hours from this writing) and still need to get a lot of stuff done, including packing. Awesome planning.

At any rate, I don't think I'll be posting much from there, but I may if anything occurs to me. I'll be back in July and I hope to get back on track then. Until then, I'll be posting updates on my travels on my personal blog.

I hope others will pick up the slack and delete the occasion comment spam that appears on the left column. Ciao.

World carbon emissions seen speeding up -- a short update on the state of GHG emissions

MSNBC has a reuters story on the increasing world carbon emissions.

World emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide increased three times faster after 2000 than in the 1990s, putting them at the high end of a range of forecasts by an international climate change panel, scientists reported on Monday.

At the same time, a trend toward cutting Earth's energy intensity — the ratio of how much energy is needed to produce a unit of gross domestic product — appears to have stalled or even reversed in recent years, the researchers reported.

Audio Shows and Climate Change

Climate Change Graphic

I've found some great audio shows on energy issues - from Cape Wind to climate change. You can listen to these podcasts on your computer or personal audio device.

Diane Rehm is a tremendous journalist on NPR in D.C. She recently did a show on Cape Wind. Wendy Williams and Robert Whitcomb recently published a book about the times and trials of this project off Cape Cod in Massachusetts. Robert Kennedy Jr. called in to provide a counterpoint as the authors saw little reason to halt the project.

One of my favorite podcasts is This Week in Science - a 1 hour, twice a week show off the UC-Davis campus. However, some find the hosts grate on them. I think they are great. In the second half of this show, they interview climatologist Dr. Gavin Schmidt from RealClimate.org.

This interview goes right after a common argument used by climate-deniers: that scientists only go along with climate change because they would not get grants or be published if they did not. Like many arguments against climate change, it results from a fundamental misunderstanding of how science works.

I also recently found the great site I have dreamed about. New Scientist has an online feature that offers rebuttals to the 26 most common climate change myths. This is really handy!

I hope to start an energista podcast in July or August. I have been hoping to do it for nearly a year now, but I am running out of excuses.

New storage nanotechnology for hydrogen, carbon dioxide

Several significant technology breakthroughs are needed to transition to a hydrogen based economy. The biggest question is how to store and transport copious amounts of hydrogen gas. Researchers at UCLA may have made significant headway in this regard.

Omar Yaghi and his team at the Center for Reticular Chemistry have developed new nanostructures called covalent organic frameworks (COFs). The COFs act as “crystalline sponges” and soak up specific gases. They work in a similar fashion to the molecular sieves that help remove water from ethanol fuel.

Molecular pores are designed to exclusively hold molecules of a specific size and shape. COFs benefit from high thermal stability, extremely low densities and large surface areas. COF-108, the lightest crystalline structure ever, has approximately the same surface area as “30 tennis courts”. COFs can be adapted for a variety of different functions. Yaghi specifically cited COFs as a possible storage medium for carbon dioxide capture and sequestration systems.

The Inherent Un-sustainability of WalMart

When I heard that our favorite web monkey Christopher got a job with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, I had to check them out, partially because they have a promising name, and partially to be sure they're worthy of him. The first link on their page talks about the fundamental barrier to a Green WalMart, and indeed to a Green big box store of any brand. The big problem is the distribution system. The enormous amount of effort customers expend to get to WalMart and haul their purchases back from WalMart dwarfs all of WalMart's other environmental impacts. And this is an intrinsic element of the way big box retail works. Fewer, bigger stores that consumers drive farther to get to. So, hats off to ILSR for that fine work, and best of luck to Chris while he's working there. Also, read the article, it's a good one, and covers several other important and interesting considerations.

Laurie David is Too Hot

Climate Change Graphic

I recently checked out Too Hot Not to Handle from Netflix, not knowing anything about it other than its title and recommendation from the Netflix search engine. Took me until the final credits to realize it was done by Laurie David - who was responsible for An Inconvenient Truth.

This HBO Documentary provides practically no new information to anyone who already knows the science. That being said, this is a useful documentary for those who are new to it and may not be interested in all the science that Al Gore presents. This is much more of a practical explanation of why global warming is bad as opposed to focusing on the why global warming is happening.

It talks about extreme weather events, the greenhouse effect, alternative power, heat waves, viruses and stuff like that. I feel like this was more of an emotional appeal than Gore's carefully reasoned approach. This is not a criticism, because I think the damage caused by global climate change should charge people emotionally.

The best piece I took away from it was its answer to the question of what benefits humans will derive from global climate change. I hate this question, because it suggests that humans should be free to kill off all other species on the planet if we want to. Despite the fact that extincting (my new verb) hurts us in the long run due to the fundamental interconnection of life on earth, humans should not take actions that will harm life on this planet out of a moral imperative as well as pragmatic.

At any rate, this documentary has a good segment on answers to those who claim that global climate change (if they concede it is happening) will improve human life.

Climate Change Mitigation Act passes MN House

Not many details to provide, yet, but the Energy Omnibus Bill passed the Minnesota House tonight. The Climate Change Mitigation Act is included. The controversial Sec. 5 that avoids backsliding while a plan is developed and implemented survived but not unscathed.

Jason Jones on Climate Change

If you need a humorous diversion, check out The Daily Show's Jason Jones and his Gore rebuttal.

News Breeze

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A drive-by look at interesting news stories just now...

Governor Pawlenty signed the omnibus ag bill. Mostly. Agri News covered the bill and its broad details.

As ethanol plants come off the state subsidy, other ag programs will receive that funding, Juhnke said. The money is going toward value-added research and NextGen ethanol now.

For whatever reason, Agri News does not talk about the Governor's two line-item vetos that eliminated spending on sustainable agriculture. Fortunately, Loon Commons covered it.

Nationally, the U.S. Senate is looking to improve fuel efficiency standards in cars.

Finally, on the West Coast, California has some problems with their solar industry. The L.A. Times covered the problem on May 8.

The problem appears to be that the rebate program requires customers to enroll in a variable pricing program. The program charges more for electricity during peak times than during periods of low demand. These higher prices means that people have to build a large enough system to cover all their electricity needs during those peak hours or risk making their investment uneconomical due to the increased cost of the electricity (though less is purchased overall).

Their electricity prices are stunningly high, with peak residential charges more 3 times higher than ours. Compare that with recent claims that businesses will flee MN if the cost of electricity rises by a few cents per kilowatt-hour (claimed during committee hearings around the climate change bill). Seems to me that California remains an economic powerhouse despite its high energy prices. It also conserves far more electricity than any other state.

I'm a supporter of time-of-day pricing. I think people should understand the impact of their energy usage - if they want to use lots of electricity during high demand, they should pay extra because that usage stresses the system far more than during periods of low-medium demand. The grid has a limited capacity and increasing that capacity is costly. Perhaps we can delay investments to increase the capacity of the grid by forcing people to pay for their usage.

However, pushing more usage to low demand periods will likely increased coal-based generation. That is why I think the variable pricing system should heavily encourage renewable energy with an artificial floor. Thus, the price of electricity would not drop below $.08 per kilowatt-hour regardless of demand unless there was a lot of wind on the grid at the time. As this floor would generate excess profits, that money could be diverted into conservation funds or revolving loan programs to encourage renewable development.

GM and 10 others join USCAP

Environmental Defense announced that General Motors and 10 other major companies have signed on to the US Climate Action Partnership, a coalition of corporations and environmental groups calling for a national cap-and-trade regime on greenhouse gases.I'm curious what General Motor's motivation is... are they supporting a cap-and-trade system knowing that automobiles can't be included for practical reasons? In other words, is this a smoke screen for continuing to fight against tougher CAFE standards?Nonetheless, it is pretty remarkable that so many major companies are supporting action on climate change. It looks like most of the USCAP members are either large manufacturers or utilities, so their operations will certainly be affected.

Omnibus Bill S.F. 2096

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The Environment, Natural Resources, and Energy Omnibus Bill (S.F. 2096) is out of conference committee and will be signed by Governor Pawlenty, according to Minnesota Environmental Partnership's John Tuma.

This bill touches on nuclear, hydrogen, wind, and carbon sequestration - all toward the bottom of the bill if you are inclined to read the direct language. It also continued to fund the Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment (IREE) at the University of Minnesota.

On nuke stuff - Xcel Energy already has to contribute to the Renewable Development Fund (RDF). Groups can get money from this fund to develop or commercialize renewable energy projects. Xcel now has to pay an additional $350,000 per year for each dry cask of spent fuel it stores on-site at the Monticello plant.

Outside of this bill, some are apparently opposing Xcel's new storage out of safety concerns though some are accusing them of merely using an excuse to block nuclear power. I'm not sure where that is at currently, but I certainly hope Xcel is able to continue running Monticello as existing nuclear power plants strike me as a win-win compared to needing to build more coal baseload plants.

Interestingly, nuclear power plant troubles have negatively impacted Xcel's profits. Looks like the future of nuclear power might not be as bright green as some have suggested.

Back to S.F. 2096 - the bill also makes it clear that Xcel can apply for RDF money though it must be judged equally to other applications.

Public Utilities must make monthly reports to to the PUC that show a bunch of stats, including number of customers, number and amount of accounts past due, average monthly bill, total sales revenue, and a bunch of stats relating to low-income energy programs. All this will be made publicly available. The bill has a bunch of language about the cold weather rule - detailing when utilities can cut power/fuel to customers for nonpayment and the rules for reconnecting. I'm not sure how this differs from current law.

On Hydrogen, the bill gets more specific than current law. Hydrogen fuel is to come from renewable sources and several Minnesota Agencies are to move beyond "identifying opportunities" to demonstrate the technology to identifying opportunities to deploy the technology. In other areas, it strengthens the language to force agencies to push harder for Hydrogen applications as it becomes feasible.

It creates the Minnesota Renewable Hydrogen Initiative:

The Department of Commerce shall coordinate and administer directly or by contract the Minnesota renewable hydrogen initiative. If the department decides to contract for its duties under this section, it must contract with a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization within the state to develop the road map. The initiative may be run as a public-private partnership representing business, academic, governmental, and nongovernmental organizations. The initiative must oversee the development and implementation of a renewable hydrogen road map, including appropriate technology deployments, that achieve the hydrogen goal of section 216B.013. ... The road map should describe how renewable hydrogen and fuel cells fit in Minnesota's overall energy system, and should help foster a consistent, predictable, and prudent investment environment. The department must report to the legislature on the progress in implementing the road map by November 1 of each odd-numbered year.

The DoC will be awarding grants to help meet renewable hydrogen energy goals. By the end of next year, the Labor and Industry Commissioner will have recommendations for the Legislature to unify codes and standards for a hydrogen infrastructure. It will also deal with saftey standards for the "production, storage, transportation, distribution, and use of hydrogen, fuel cells, and related technologies.

On Manitoba Hydro - it specifies a task force that will collect information about who is employed by the project and the status of lawsuits against the project as well as its environmental impacts.

On Clean Energy Resource Teams (CERTS), the bill says that they are great and says the commissioner may use the teams to "provide professional, technical, organizational, and financial assistance to regions and communities to develop and implement community energy programs and projects, within available resources."

Section 28 creates a Rural Energy Development Revolving Loan Fund. The fund is limited to loans less than $100,000 and has a max interest rate of 1.5%. It will assist in funding wind studies and transmission interconnection studies.

By Feb 1, 2008, the DoC will have issued recommendations based upon a stakeholder group's evaluation of designing a system to allow off-site renewable distributed generation. This would essentially allow some groups to invest in wind turbines while keeping the renewable energy credits that currently tend to go to utilities. The utilities are opposed to it, so we'll see what this stakeholder group does.

When it comes to Carbon Sequestration, the bill deals with both terrestrial (storing carbon in soil and vegetation) and geologic (injecting it underground). The University of Minnesota is going to assess Minnesota's terrestrial sequestration potential and impacts. The Minnesota Geologic Survey will study the possibilities and impacts of sequesting carbon geologically in the Midcontinent Rift system.

Finally, there was a question about whether county governments may own wind projects or not. Winona County now can. Rather than clarify whether all counties can do this, it just says that Winona County can use certain powers granted to municipal power agencies.

NAS on Wind Farms

Matthew L. Wald has a story in May 4's New York Times entitled "Wind Farms May Not Lower Air Pollution, Study Suggests." The subtitle is: "A new report says that wind-generated electricity can probably not reduce smog and acid rain but may slow the growth of heat-trapping gases."

Building thousands of wind turbines would probably not reduce the pollutants that cause smog and acid rain, but it would slow the growth in emissions of heat-trapping gases, according to a study released Thursday by the National Academy of Sciences.

The press release for the actual full report from the National Research Council's Committee on Environmental Impacts of Wind Energy Projects says

The committee concluded that use of wind energy to generate electricity probably would not significantly reduce emissions of two other pollutants, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, because current and expected regulations of these are largely based on cap-and-trade programs. The degree to which emissions would be further reduced through special provisions to encourage wind-energy use -- such as set-asides, in which a percentage of emissions allowed under the cap are retired to the extent they can be offset by wind energy -- is uncertain, the committee added.

Though there are caps on these 2 pollutants, I have to think that increasing wind power will allow us to reduce those caps more quickly than if we continue ramping up coal production. The less coal we burn, the cheaper it is for industry to abide by lower caps - therefore nasty emissions will decrease.

As for a popular anti-wind claim, that the turbines kill birds and bats,

Wind facilities can have certain adverse environmental effects on a local or regional level, by damaging habitat and killing birds and bats that fly into turbines. Among birds, the most frequent turbine fatalities are nocturnal, migrating songbirds, probably because of their abundance, the report says. However, the committee saw no evidence that fatalities from existing wind facilities are causing measurable changes in bird populations in the United States. A possible exception is deaths among birds of prey, such as eagles and hawks, near Altamont Pass, Calif. -- a facility with older, smaller turbines that appear more apt to kill such birds than newer turbines are.

Too little information is available to reliably predict how proposed new wind projects in the mid-Atlantic highlands would affect bird populations, the report says. As for bats, turbines placed on ridges -- as many are in the mid-Atlantic region -- appear more likely to kill them than turbines sited elsewhere. In fact, preliminary information indicates that in the mid-Atlantic highlands more bats are killed than expected based on experience with other regions, the committee said. Although scarce data make it hard to say how these deaths affect overall bat populations, the possibility of population effects is significant, especially if more turbines are added, given a general decline in several species of bats in the eastern United States.

Note the results - birds are not impacted outside of one area in California and there is not yet enough evidence (especially on modern turbines) to judge the effect on bat populations.

This study did not look at offshore wind - which may soon be a significant contributer to electricity production. Between Cape Wind in Massachusetts (468 MW) and Texas (at least 150 MW), major offshore wind farms will soon be a reality.

The important thing to remember is that wind power will play a role in the future but it must be coupled with things like energy efficiency and reduced consumption in order to actually decrease greenhouse gas emissions rather than merely slowing the rate of increase.

100% Wind Campus

Nope, not the University of Minnesota but I wanted to take a chance to tout my alma mater a bit. Colorado State University announced that they have committed to making the campus operate 100% on wind power for electricity. This will be done by building a wind farm on university land at the Maxwell Ranch located 30 miles north of Fort Collins, CO. The ranch has a total of 11,600 acres and maintains a herd of Hereford/Angus cross cows.  Capacity will be between 65 and 200 MW. The campus currently uses 16MW peak so there will be spare electricity to sell making this a revenue generator to the tune of about $30 million over the life of the project. The facility will also be used as a research laboratory for wind systems and the ecological and environmental management and integration of them. Area farmers will also be given then opportunity to be involved in the project with turbines located on their land. Supporting information from the Fact Book:

  • Main campus has 579 acres located in Fort Collins, CO, population 134,000
  • There are 24,670 students, 1,460 faculty, 1,378 graduate students, 2,039 admin professionals, 2,035 state classified staff over all campuses (most, by far, are on the main campus)

 

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