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Aggregating Energy Since 2006

Climate Change

China emissions to surpass US in 2009

emissions graph

The New York Times reports that the International Energy Agency estimates China will surpass the US in greenhouse gas emissions in 2009, a decade or so before previous predictions.


This quote from a Chinese official nicely sums up the issue:

“You cannot tell people who are struggling to earn enough to eat that they need to reduce their emissions,” said Lu Xuedu, the deputy director general of Chinese Office of Global Environmental Affairs, at a conference two weeks ago.


Investment in Energy R&D

The New York Times has an article looking at spending on energy-related R&D by the US government. Not surprisingly, spending has decreased significantly since the 1970s:

It has sunk to $3 billion a year in the current budget from an inflation-adjusted peak of $7.7 billion in 1979, according to several different studies.

Also noteworthy is that federal spending on medical research has quadrupled since 1979, standing at $28 million currently. Military spending has really soared, having increased 260 percent (don't you feel so much safer now??)

Interestingly, Gore has backed off from his somewhat provocative statement in the Inconvenient Truth that "we already know everything we need to know to effectively address this problem," now saying that existing technology can start us on a path to a stable climate.

Obviously, we need a mixture of smart policies promoting energy efficiency and renewables, as well as R&D investment to tackle climate change. I also think that more research needs to go into dealing with the effects of climate change - e.g., looking at structures needed to protect cities from rising sea levels, developing drought resistant crops, etc. We certainly shouldn't put too much faith in a future carbon tax to change our ways- would the federal government ever set a tax high enough to potentially hurt the economy? I doubt it.

Climate Change Commercial

The Environmental Defense Fund has a controversial climate change commercial which likens global climate change to a train. Watch it via the above link.

Gristmill already has a thread discussing this but I am curious what people think about it.

I like it. I think it is done rather tastefully but it has definite potential to be dismissed as overly alarmist by people not familiar with the science (meaning people who have relied upon news organizations for information about the subject).

Climate Change is a Myth

It's a climate skeptics trap! Run, run! Otherwise put your brain where your convictions are:

So You Don't Think Climate Change is Real?

It comes complete with four separate climate-skeptic categories:

  • Stages of Denial;
  • Scientific Topics;
  • Types of Argument; and
  • Levels of Sophistication.

Coleman on Carbon Dioxide

Coleman is knee-deep in global- warming fray

Sen. Norm Coleman is suggesting that Congress strip California and all other states, along with the federal Environmental Protection Agency, of much of their authority to control carbon dioxide emissions.

Catholics Unite Against Global Warming

The Strib reports that the Archdiocese of Minn/St Paul is launching a drive to get parishioners interested in global warming. A Global Warming Action Team is being formed which will study the problem and make recommendations for personal and political action.

I'm glad to see this. The Archdiocese has made positive impacts in the past on issues such as poverty and affordable housing. We need more religious leaders speaking out about global warming to underscore its moral dimensions.

Tune In to “The Climate Code”

Sundays at 5 p.m. EST

The Weather Channel

"Mark your calendars for a new program called “The Climate Code with Dr. Heidi Cullen.” Dr. Cullen, The Weather Channel’s climate expert, tackles global warming head on, showing how it impacts our lives and also how we can minimize the impacts of a warming climate. Check out the program."

Report from U of M Renewable Energy Workshop Oct. 12

I attended the Renewable Energy Workshop today sponsored by the U of MN Electrical Engineering Department. As expected, it was largely technology-focused, with some general discussions of the challenges facing renewable energy here and elsewhere. (And a good buffet style lunch). Here a few salient points of the talks I attended.

A Power Grid for the Hydrogen Economy - Thomas Overbye, U of Illinois

The speaker talked about his research into superconducting transmission lines. The idea behind the project is to supplement our existing grid with a network of underground high voltage DC transmission lines made with superconducting material. The benefit of using superconductors is that the current density can be much higher, so fewer transmission lines have to be built. Line losses would also be minimized.

Each line would consist of a superconducting core for carrying the electricity with an outer ring of liquid hydrogen, which would act both as a coolant and an energy storage mechanism. During times of low electricity demand, excess electricity from renewable sources would be used to create the hydrogen via electrolysis.

Though such a grid is technically feasible, cost is a major issue, though the speaker was quick to note that anything transmission related is expensive. He quoted a figure of roughly $2.5 million per mile to install these cables. Water scarcity may also be an issue in some places.

Lessons from Norway - an unlisted speaker, didn't get his name

(A grad student actually did this talk in place of his professor, who was scheduled to speak but couldn't make it.)

This talk mainly focused on the challenges facing Norway in meeting its future electrical demand and making use of its vast renewable energy potential (enough to supply twice that of its current annual consumption.) Currently, 99% of Norway's generation comes from low cost hydropower. However, similar to here, demand is outpacing supply. More supply will have to be brought on in coming years.

I was struck by how similar the challenges facing renewable energy are to here - public resistance (in the case of wind), cost (wind energy is still more significantly more expensive than hydropower), and political uncertainty (will subsidies continue?) Norway is also facing transmission limitations, just like here.Especially of note is that public resistance to wind energy projects has increased in recent years, for all the typical reasons - avian mishaps, other wildlife impacts, and aesthetics.

Planning for Renewable Energy at a MN Utility - Glen Skarbakka, Mgr of Resource Planning, Great River Energy

The speaker talked about the challenges of meeting GRE's rapidly growing load (about 100 MW/year) while incorporating renewables. GRE's load is mostly residential, meaning that demand goes way up in the summer, but varies a lot day to day, depending on weather. This makes it a challenge to use wind energy, which is not dispatchable in the traditional sense (though forecasting has gotten highly accurate.)

I was mostly impressed by GRE's goals to reduce its CO2 emissions to 2000 levels by 2020, as well as doubling its renewable objective of 10%. The speaker admitted that meeting the first will be extremely challenging, to say the least.

Wind Energy - Present Projects and Potential in Minnesota - John Dunlop, American Wind Energy Association

The speaker talked about how wind turbine technology has advanced over the last 20 years and how wind energy continues to grow rapidly in the US and elsewhere. He also provided a nice summary of the recent situation with the Dept of Defense blocking new wind farms due to concerns over radar. The report finally came out on Sept. 27, 143 days late. It didn't really say anything that could not have been written in one day - only that wind farms can interfere with radar. It didn't offer any mitigation measures to help current or future projects move forward. Sounded like a great use of taxpayer dollars.

Update on CapX 2020 - Terry Grove, GRE

The CapX project is an ongoing transmission planning project involving all major utiltiies in Minnesota, planning transmission needs through 2020. I already knew how long this process takes, but the uninitiatied would probably be shocked. Though, there are good reasons it takes this long. The Certificate of Need process for the first group of lines, mainly to improve reliability, alone will take through 2008. Then route permits have to be aquired, which will take through 2010. During this time, lots of meetings are held with city governments, landowners, and other agencies. The proposed Brookings -SE Minnesota line alone will require that 200,000 landowners be notified. This is just a massive undertaking.

From what I've heard, the last round of tranmission construction was an extremely drawn out and painful process. It will be even worse this time around, due to the industry restructuring that has occured since then. Now, independent power producers can bid in new projects to the MISO queue. Most of these projects fail to get off the ground, since banks won't supply the financing until a power purchase agreement is signed - a chicken and egg problem - meaning that planners don't know where new generation will actually be.

Results of Research Funded by NSF, Xcel Energy, and ONR - Ned Mohan, Electrical Engineering, U of MN

Ned gave an overview of renewable energy-related research in the EE department, then talked mainly about a matrix converter his research team developed. The converter can be used with any variable speed generator, including wind turbines and will boost power output by 1.5X of nameplate ratings. This would also eliminate the problem of bearing currents in typical motors, which eventually destroy the bearing and represent a major maintenance headache. Ned also talked about the benefits of using silicon carbide (SiC) in power electronics, which improves device performance by 10-100 times over plain silicon (Si). The cost of SiC continues to fall, making the use of this material more feasible.

Fossil Free Future Festival

The Macalester Conservation and Renewable Energy Society (MacCARES) is having a film festival organized around issues of energy and climate change. All events are in the John B Davis Lecture Hall (in the student center on Snelling and Grand) and are both free and open to the public.

Some events have already passed, but these are still approaching:

UPDATE: Who killed the Electric Car? showing has been cancelled.

Action Event: Bigstone Coal Public Hearing
Stand up for clean energy by pposing a new coal plant at a public hearing. Lets build a bright energy future.
Monday, October 16
6:00 pm Downtown St. Paul
Contact: Cesia

Kilowatt Ours
A family explores the coal industry that lights its homes, and then sets out to find alternatives that save $, energy, and CO2.
Tuesday, October 17, 7:00 pm

The End of Suburbia
We’ve built an American Dream on cheap oil. It’s running out, and getting expensive: the transition will change our way of life.
Wednesday, October 18, 7:00 pm

Two Adventures, One Mission
Speakers Chad Kister and Will Steger on Global Warming at the Poles. Global warming: it's visible, it's personal, it's time to act.
Friday, October 20, 7:00 pm

Bachmann on Global Warming

To be honest, I have long loathed Michelle Bachmann (R from Stillwater, MN) for reasons unrelated to this post. However, this is too much fun. The It's Getting Hot in Here blog linked to this video of an audience rejecting Bachmann's thoughts on global warming (41 seconds).

Minnkota Power not happy about climate change

Minnkota Power, a generation/transmission cooperative serving electricity consumers in northwest Minnesota and North Dakota, is not happy about climate change and they want their customers to know about it. A review of their customer newsletter, the Minnkota Messenger, indicates a consistent concern that climate change is a massive environmental sham. Some of it reads like grocery store tabloids and it's quite interesting how much coverage they give to it, perhaps hoping that quantity will make it true:

  • Jul/Aug 2006, p6: "Another Perspective: Noted scientist weighs in on climate change issue"
  • Mar/Apr 2006, p10: "Myth: Global temperatures are rising at a rapid, unprecedented rate."
  • Jan/Feb 2006, p10: "An astonishing discovery: Recent fnding underscores cautionary approach"
  • Nov/Dec 2005 - took a break
  • Sep/0ct 2005, p11 - "A hurricane of misinformation global warming activists turn storms into spin"
  • Jul/Aug 2005, p6 - "Earth’s ever-changing climate state geologist offers his perspective"
  • May/Jun 2005, p12 - "Alarmist warning; Myth: Carbon dioxide levels in the Earth’s atmosphere are currently at an all-time high."

And the list goes on...

Cross Post 

The Real Cost of Xcel Energy Windsource

Xcel Energy’s Minnesota Windsource green pricing program lets you buy wind energy in blocks of 100 kilowatt-hours (kWh) for 2 cents/kWh extra. Over 23,000 Minnesotans participate in the green pricing programs at various utilities, buying almost 80 million kWh (which sounds impressive but is something around 1% of total sales). The average price of “regular” electricity is 7.27 cents/kWh from October to May and 8.27 cents/kWh from June to September. Theoretically you add 2 cents/kWh to that for the price of wind energy.

However, that’s not the whole story. As a Windsource customer you are exempt from the Fuel Cost Adjustment, which is essentially a way of “truing-up” your bill if the cost of fuel was more or less than what they predicted it would be when they actually went to buy some of the non-contracted fuel on the open wholesale markets. So what?

Well, the prices in every month since June 2005 have been higher than they guessed and so you see a little extra FCA charge on your bill each month. The theory for the exemption (the merger negotiation bargain from 5 years ago not withstanding), is that since you are buying wind energy, you aren’t using any of these fuels that have the added costs. In places that use a lot of natural gas (Texas and Colorado), this can make the wind energy the cheaper option in some months. Not Minnesota though, which gets a large percentage of its electricity from coal (41% coal and 3% natural gas for Xcel). But the FCA does add up to something.

Here is the data since June 2005, including a hypothetical average household that uses 700 kWh/month (Source: Xcel Energy electric bills):

You’ll note that in August 2005, it was no net cost to use wind energy since the FCA adjustment was right at 2 cents/kWh. But over the 16 month period, the real cost of Windsource is about 1.2 cents/kWh. The average family thinks they pay $14/month but it turns out to have been closer to $8/month.

Does it matter? Would more people sign up if they knew it was 1.5 cents/kWh or less? Maybe. One idea is for Xcel to forecast the FCA or use historical data to reduce the advertised cost of Windsource by some amount, and then adjust the actual Windsource cost similar to the FCA after the fact. To my knowledge Xcel is the only utility that offers an FCA adjustment benefit in Minnesota for buying green power. Also of note is that Xcel has indicated that future wind energy contracts are more expensive than previous ones and holding the line on 2 cents/kWh will be harder since the average cost of the Windsource portfolio may go up. Wind turbine prices have gone up over the last year due to high global demand, cost of steel, and the foreign exchange rate.

What's also interesting is comparing whether buying Windsource is the cheapest way to reduce your carbon dioxide emissions. Should you offset your carbon emissions from Xcel or from someone like, who offers a 14,000 lb annual offset for $70 ($0.005/pound)? Terrapass says there are 1.84 lbs carbon/kWh (which sounds close enough), so some quick math shows that they are charging 0.92 cents/kWh to reduce your carbon. Quite coincidentally, this was the same price Xcel Windsource was in September 2006. However since June 2005, the average price of Xcel Windsource after the FCA was 1.16 cents/kWh (not weighted by use per month, since your bill usually goes up in summer when the FCA is higher). So Terrapass is marginally cheaper than Xcel.

Skepticism About Distributed Generation

When one has made a decision to kill a person, even if it will be very difficult to succeed by advancing straight ahead, it will not do to think about doing it in a long, roundabout way. One's heart may slacken, he may miss his chance, and by and large there will be no success. The Way of the Samurai is one of immediacy, and it is best to dash in headlong.

-Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai


So Al Gore’s speech at NYU on September 18 got me thinking about Distributed Generation. For those who haven’t read it yet, an archived webcast and the full text can be found here.
It was a terrific speech, by the way, and I could occupy a lot of space praising it, but that wouldn’t be very interesting. After all, you probably liked it too. But it was one issue that got me thinking, and which gave the impetus for this post. What I really want to talk about today is Distributed Generation, or DG. Gore gave voice to some ideas that are very widespread among left-leaning energy advocates, and many of those ideas deserve closer consideration.

I’m using this post to flesh out some of my critiques of the idea of Distributed Generation. Fundamentally, in reference to the quote above, I think DG advocates are setting out to solve the wrong problem. Our problem is not large-station electricity generation, our problem is climate change and energy security. Its my feeling that in dealing with climate change we are likely to deploy carbon-neutral energy technologies using the same large station (or refinery) production and distribution model that we use right now.

Wikipedia describes DG thus:

Distributed generation is a new trend in the generation of heat and electrical power. The Distributed Energy Resources (DER) concept permits "consumers" who are generating heat or electricity for their own needs (like in hydrogen stations and microgeneration) to send surplus electrical power back into the power grid - also known as net metering - or share excess heat via a distributed heating grid.

 Here’s what Gore says on the subject.

Today, our nation faces threats very different from those we countered during the Cold War. We worry today that terrorists might try to inflict great damage on America’s energy infrastructure by attacking a single vulnerable part of the oil distribution or electricity distribution network. So, taking a page from the early pioneers of ARPANET, we should develop a distributed electricity and liquid fuels distribution network that is less dependent on large coal-fired generating plants and vulnerable oil ports and refineries.

 So the main point of DG is that we rely more and more on homes and businesses producing their own electricity, and possibly selling electricity onto the grid and less and less on large station power generation (how we, by and large, do things now). Gore extends DG to include distributed (presumably somewhat larger scale) biofuels production as well. The main arguments are security (Gore’s argument), greater energy efficiency through the use of combined heat and power, and economic/self-reliance benefits (producing your own power, yeah!).

I think a lot of DG advocates miss some glaring problems.

DG and Economies of Scale

One problem with DG is that it would rely on small-scale power generation. This is actually put forward as one of the main BENEFITS of DG by many advocates. What these advocates miss is that the economics of energy production are absolutely dominated by economies of scale.

Let’s use wind as an example. A 1MW turbine produces cheaper electricity than a 200 KW turbine. And a large scale project produces cheaper electricity than a small scale project. The reasons for this are fairly intuitive. There are a lot of fixed costs that must be paid whether you’re building a large project or a small project – feasibility studies, wind measurement, planning, running around securing financing and power purchase agreements, paying to secure all of the cement manufacturing capacity in your county to pour the bases for the towers, etc. A larger project produces more kWhs, and the fixed costs can be divided over more kWhs, making the levelized cost of power cheaper.

But if you don’t believe me, you can use NREL’s online Wind Energy Finance Calculator.

To prove my point, I calculated the real levelized cost of energy for a 500 kW project (small), and for a 100 MW project (200 times bigger). I used all of the default assumptions, and only changed the size of the project.

Small (500 kW) real LCOE – 64 cents/kWh

Large (100 MW) real LCOE – 1.29 cents/kWh

So the electricity from the small-scale project is about 60 times more expensive, give or take. Its also about 6 times more expensive than retail grid electricity at about 7 cents/kWh. So in asking people to adopt small-scale distributed wind, we’re asking them to pay a LOT more for electricity than they would pay for grid electricity. Note also that, according to this calculator, a large scale project sells electricity that’s probably cheaper than even WHOLESALE electricity.

Economies of scale differ for various energy technologies, but are almost always a factor. The optimal size for pulverized coal plants, for example, is on the order of 1000 MW or larger. Gas turbines burning natural gas or fuel oil have low capital cost, and are therefore more economical at small scale. But because the levelized cost is more expensive then large station power, and they can be quickly ramped up and down, they are typically used only for peaking power.

Solar power is also cheaper at scale. Home or business scale photovoltaic panels produce electricity at around 20 cents/kWh (around 3 times higher than retail electricity). Only large-scale concentrating solar can produce electricity at anywhere near retail rates.

I could go on and on. The fact is that I can’t point to a DG technology that delivers electricity at a rate that is cheaper than, or even close to, the cost of grid power.

Economies of scale aren’t going away. If we have a limited amount of money to spend, as a society, on dealing with climate solutions, the cost of individual solutions must be a factor. Until we see the new cheap solar panels or fuel cells that we constantly hear are 6 months away (how’s that for a “Friedman”?) may not be able to afford the deployment of DG on a large scale.

Giving Up our Great Renewable Energy Resources

Another damning aspect of DG is that it may mean giving up most of our greatest renewable energy resources. Renewable energy resources like wind, solar, and biomass are not uniformly abundant around the nation. And, unfortunately, many of the best resources fall far from population centers. To stick with the wind example, taking advantage of the vast wind resource of the Great Plains likely means building large transmission lines connecting the wind resource with the potential users of that wind energy (or building large hydrogen pipelines, or building infrastructure for some other energy carrier).

This is true for biomass as well. In urban areas, where most energy is used and most people live, there are serious limits on the potential biomass supply. Take the Twin Cities as an example. There is a famous district heat project in St. Paul (District Energy) that has recently switched from coal to biomass as an energy source. Other projects are being planning, including Rock Ten and the south Minneapolis project formerly run by the Green Institute. Those projects are reportedly having great challenges in finding a sufficient supply of biomass because District Energy has secured much of the available supply of urban wood trimmings and the like. So we’re reaching the limited of the DG biomass potential in the Twin Cities, and supplying only a small fraction of the metro area’s biomass needs.

Utilizing the country’s biomass supply on a large scale probably means having projects in rural areas – with cheap land, fertile soil, and lots of biomass, and transporting products like cellulosic ethanol to demand centers. This will likely be wonderful for rural areas, but its not DG.

Solar energy may one day be an exception to this, but right now economics and the efficiency of panels stand in the way.


My point is not to argue that DG shouldn't be done. I think there are many niche applications for DG. In rural areas and small rural communities, for example, there will be applications for Distributed Generation from renewables, possible in combination with combined heat and power. I know some people who are very excited about their rooftop solar panels, and they don't really care that they're paying a lot for the electricity. I also think that there are credible scenarios under which DG could play a larger role in our energy system, provided there are some really fundamental technological innovations. I think that the vision of mass-produced, highly efficient, renewable DG technology, similar to Personal Computers, is pretty exciting to contemplate. But lets not fool ourselves. This kind of thing is a ways off, whereas there are a variety of large-scale carbon-neutral technologies that are commercial or near commercial and could be deployed over a relatively short time frame.

There are many energy advocates who feel that large station electricity generation is bad by its very nature. There are some who offer DG as an alternative, and even use the DG alternative as a rationale for fighting new transmission and new large energy projects. In the MN legislature last year there was infighting between those who wanted only community, small-scale wind development and those who wanted 20% renewable energy standard which would require a lot of large-scale projects.

All that said, I think that macro-scale analysis of power generation technologies, resources, and demands, will reveal that DG is likely to play a small role in the near term. DG can't be used as an excuse to fight large carbon neutral energy projects.

I welcome comments, and hope this starts some discussion.


Counting Tons of Carbon magazine reports on some poor sap who is one of two individuals in the whole United States counting his tons of carbon and reporting them to the U.S. government.

"Count Him In: One of two individuals in DOE's voluntary emissions program reports back"

MPR Discussion on Climate Change and Corporations

I just got done listening to a very interesting Midmorning with Kerri Miller. The topic was climate change and working with corporations to address it. The guests were two atmospheric/climate scientists, one from Environmental Defense and one from Dupont. The two talked (or at least tried to) about how Environmental Defense is partnering with Dupont to address climate change.

Early on, the discussion seemed to get sidetracked by Kerri's insistence, echoed by a few callers, of questioning how an environmental group can partner with a company with a poor environmental record like Dupont. Dupont has contaminated water supplies in West Virginia and elsewhere with their chemical manufacturing plants.

I agree with the guests that too often the focus in environmental issues is on our differences. We need to work with companies to find practical solutions to environmental problems, especially with a multidimensional, global problem such as climate change. Litigation and command and control regulations certainly have their place, but if relied on too heavily, can create animosity among corporations that is counterproductive. (Plus, from a pragmatic view, litigation is often a "hollow hope" in achieiving social goals.) I've witnessed first hand the positive things that can happen when the two sides work together.

I support the work that Environmental Defense does in working with companies and finding practical solutions, because like it or not, capitalism and corporations are here to stay.

(I'll get off my soapbox now....)

Update: You can find more information about this show, and listen to an archived copy from here.

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