Skip navigation.
Aggregating Energy Since 2006


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.

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.

Saying nice things

Though many of us have already heard about this, I thought I would throw up a post anyway, just in case. Yesterday Gov. Pawlenty announced a target for the state of 25 percent renewable electricity by 2025. It basically ups the ante from our current renewable energy objective of 10% by 2015 and adds some teeth in the form of financial penalties for utilities that fail to the requirement. I'm still not clear on how this differs from the renewable energy standard that has come up recently. Business interests support Pawlenty's version - in fact a Minnesota Chamber of Commerce representative is quoted as saying that it is the "best of both worlds" - it avoids possible rate increases of a "mandate" while growing the renewable energy industry in the state. That leads me to believe that either utilities would be prohibited from passing on the penalties to ratepayers or that the penalties are rather mild.

Anyone have any more information?

Regardless, I think this could be a major step forward. I hope that there will be incentives for utilities to go beyond the 25 percent, and that lawmakers won't be prohibited from increasing the percentage in the future.


A new face of coal?

Heard an interesting piece on MPR this morning about a new coal-fired power plant being constructed in Springfield, IL:  Illinois Town Demonstrates Energy Flexibility.  Working with the Sierra Club, the town has created a plan to build a new coal-fired power plant but cut overall carbon emissions by investing in wind technology, encouraging consumers to increase efficiencies (see previous post - it really works!), and closing down two other coal plants.  Perhaps this can be a model for other new plants?

Cost of an Overheated Planet



The New York Times is continuing its "Energy Challenge" series with this article, the "Cost of an Overheated Planet," which attempts to bring economics into the discussion.



The Alternative Energy Blog has a detailed post about coal that features a number of interesting facts.

The post features a number of links to further stories and photos. The Alt Energy blog seems to feature infrequent updates with in-depth stories. At any rate, some excerpts follow.

Virtually every power plant built in America between 1975 and 2002 was fired by natural gas. However between 1970 and 2000, the amount of coal America used to generate electricity tripled.

I suspect this is a result of the Clean Air Act and the failure of government regulations. Coal generation massively expanded without "building new facilities" because incentives encouraged them to "expand" existing facilities. If they built "new" facilities, they would be required to install much more effective (and expensive) pollution abatement equipment. However, such requirements are rarely required when "expanding" facilities.

Nonetheless, coal plants are officially being considered again as natural gas spikes make additional plants uneconomical.

Now with natural gas prices rising steeply, U.S. power utilities are expected to build the equivalent of 280 500 megawatt coal-fired electricity power plants between 2003 and 2030. China is already constructing the equivalent of one large coal burning power plant a week with two thirds of energy production coming from dirty coal. 16 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world are in China. India is the third largest producer of coal in the world, also getting over two thirds of its energy from coal. If these new coal plants are built, they will add as much carbon dioxide to the atmosphere as has been released by all the coal burned in the last 250 years.

Existing coal plants already produce a lot of waste and environmental destruction from mining to burning.

Each year coal plants produce about 130 million tons of solid waste, about three times more than all the municipal garbage in the U.S. The American Lung Association calculates that around 24,000 people a year die prematurely from the effects of coal fired power plant pollution.

Apparently, much of the waste from coal plants can be recycled - one of its main uses is in building roads. IGCC plants (integrated gassification combined cycle) actually allow for greater recycling of waste from what I understand.

IGCC plants use heat and pressure to cook off impurities in coal and convert it into a synthetic gas, this gas is then burnt in a turbine. These plants are 10% more efficient than conventional plants, consume 40% less water, produce 50% less solid waste and burn almost as cleanly as natural gas plants.

Given the resource constraints of the future - particularly if we continue to expand corn production for fuel - IGCC's lesser water demand is quite a benefit as well as the ability to attach carbon capture and sequestration equipment to it.

Electricity Deregulation Flaws



The NYTimes is reporting on electricity deregulation markets that don't seem to be panning out as planned ("Flaws Seen in Markets for Utilities"). Industrial companies, municipal utilities, and consumer groups (an odd combination) say that the competitive electricity market structure has inherent flaws that allow gaming of the system and limited market information about the oligopolies that exist.

Most interesting is the bidding process, which pays the highest final bid, to all bidders regardless of their bid. If the last megawatt-hour of electricity to meet demand was paid $500, everyone gets paid $500, likely as an incentive to prevent generators from holding back capacity to bid the price up later. But studies cited in the paper, show that gaming is still possible, and probably likely.

Market data for the Midwest ISO can be found by clicking on the above picture, which should change with market changes (not much exciting happens in November though).

Sierra Club takes on Big Stone I

The Sierra Club is filing a lawsuit against Big Stone I because it has not followed the Clean Air Act. Both MPR and Star Tribune are reporting this story.

Sierra Club attorney Bruce Nilles said Otter Tail Power Co. and two other owners did not follow the law, which requires utilities to add modern pollution control equipment whenever they make "major modifications" to an older plant. [Strib]

They detail 3 major modifications that Big Stone I has made without installing the requisite equipment. The law is vague on the matter and the Bush Administration has weakened it over time as part of its Orwellian "Clear Skies Initiative."

What makes it interesting is that they were volunteering to install updated emission control equipment as part of the Big Stone II agreement. Now they may be forced to do it regardless of Big Stone II.

Star Tribune applauds Xcel plan

In an editorial published Saturday, the Star Tribune applauded a plan by Xcel to meet 1,125 MW of baseline demand growth in the next 10 years through efficiency, "upgrades" to Prairie Island, Monticello, and SherCo, and through combining wind generation with purchases from Manitoba Hydro. Personally, I'd like to read the filing for myself -- the editorial doesn't specify which filing it is, just calling it "a proposal ... laid before state regulators[.]"

MPR, meanwhile, devoted a significant chunk of this morning's coverage to the Excelsior Energy project and the cancellation of this week's scheduled expert testimony; they had a feature story on the issue and were leading off their hourly headlines with the cancellation. The text of their story is available here.

Net Metering Report



 (Source: Vermont Public Service Dept.)

The Network for New Energy Choice recently issued a report, "Freeing the Grid" (PDF) on state-level net metering policies, ranking them according to a grading criteria.  Minnesota ranked 6th nationally, getting an "A" grade.

While it's a generally interesting report, and a good primer.  Generally speaking, utilities hate net metering because, like energy efficiency, it reduces their electricity sales, which are tied to revenues and profits.  Coops hate it, not because of loss of profits, but because of a cross-customer subsidy from non-participating customers to the net metering ones.  Only one state (California) has decoupled sales and profits, which makes net metering a zero-interest game for them.

Regarding the report, I have two problems with it:

1. On p55 they have this to say about Minnesota, net metering, and RECs:

"Customer-generators retain ownership of all the renewable-energy credits (RECs) associated with renewable generation used to meet their on-site demand. Utilities
purchase any RECs that adhere to NEG purchased from customer-generators."

To my knowledge this is not true.  Minnesota requires all IOUs and Coops to use a standard state contract under MN Rule 7835, which doesn't mention RECs (because they weren't invented in the 1980s when the contract was written).  FERC ruled that states should decide on who owns them when contracts are silent, and to my knowledge, the MN PUC hasn't ruled one way or another.

2. The scoring system muddies incentive programs and net metering policies.  A significant amount of the "score" is based on the percentage growth and number of net metered locations in the state.  NJ and CA may very well have good net metering policies, but the growth in number is less a function of the good policy as much as it is a good solar rebate and/or high electricity prices that make net metering more attractive.  Data for 2006 after the 30% solar federal tax credit will result in a lot of percentage growth in a lot of states that has nothing to do with net metering.


Hating Foreign Oil



America! Let’s get our hatred straight. We may very well hate foreign oil but…

#1 Unless you are from Hawaii, electricity is not made from foreign oil in any significant amount! Wind turbines, solar panels, nuclear power, nor coal will reduce foreign oil under conventional assumptions. We don’t use oil to make electricity! Period. It’s too expensive. Plug-in hybrids and diesel generators are red herrings...

#2 As much as we hate foreign oil, we should hate Canada the most since they are the top crude oil import supplier, especially in Minnesota. About 60% of the U.S. oil supply is imported and about half of it comes from OPEC, which means about 30% of the total comes from the more objectionable countries we might typically think of from "foreign oil." In a perfectly distributed market, a one gallon reduction in gas use, reduces only 30% of the "problem." This isn't really true in practice, since there are vast differences in the sources of oil by region. Theoretically, the lower the price of oil, the more foreign it becomes, since domestic producers have a higher cost of production and turn off as the price drops below their profitability.

#3 If you really cared about maximizing your foreign oil vanquishing efforts at the minimal cost, you’d focus on national vehicle efficiency standards (aka higher miles-per-gallon) and driving less, not all the new exotica alternatives. Your car is 85% inefficient. Doing one without the other is pouring water into a bucket with a big hole in the bottom.

#4 If we use less oil, it will theoretically lower the world market price for oil, and others will consume more of it, which is fine for domestic security, but means nothing for global warming.

Here are examples of group, jumping on the foreign oil bandwagon...these may very well be worthy endeavors, but A doesn’t necessarily mean B:

1. Partners for Affordable Energy, i.e. coal

2. Americans for Independent Energy, i.e. everything but oil

3. Americans for American Energy, i.e. everything but oil

4. American Energy Now, i.e. renewable energy


Monitcello License Extended

Xcel's license to operate the nuclear power plant in Monticello has been extended.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Wednesday gave Xcel Energy permission to operate its Monticello nuclear power plant for 20 years past its original license expiration in 2010.

The plant now is cleared to stay in business until Sept. 8, 2030.

The article gives a number of details about recertification process and concerns of some regarding the safety of nuclear power facilities.

My opinion: ain't nothing safe 'bout nothing. Nuclear power certainly is dangerous, but you don't see me working a coal mine either.

Renewable energy and the election

I haven't found any sources discussing the election and what the results mean for renewable energy. This is a tricky one, because although renewable energy policy can be aggressive under either party (Democrat Governor Rendell in PA or Republican Governor Schwarzenegger in CA for examples). I firmly believe this is a bipartisan issue.

To avoid the severest of global warming consequences, scientists tell us we have about 10 years to make aggressive changes to our energy policy and how we do business. This includes energy standards and other initiatives, where government sets the rules of the market and the businesses play the game. Democrats and Republicans in Congress have recognized global warming as a national security and economic threat, but they need to take action NOW.

Signs point to Congress enacting some sort of tax or fee or restriction on carbon dioxide in the near future, and with over 20 states already having renewable electricity standards, a federal goal for renewable energy should not be a foreign concept to many in Congress.

If we're serious about pulling out of Iraq (either immediately or with a more gradual timeline), then talking about energy policy in the same breath is a great opportunity. We need our energy use to be as efficient as possible, and wean ourselves off this absurd overdependence on fossil fuels and start harnessing our own renewable energy options. Government needs to set the rules for this burgeoning clean energy market (like making the Production Tax Credit for wind permanent, for Pete's sake) so capitalism can figure out how to get us toward our end goal a more efficient, clean, and secure energy system for the 21st century.



Strib on Xcel and Wind

The Star Tribune recently ran "Xcel plans to tap wind, water for power needs." The story discusses Xcel's plan to expand its wind and hydro generation portfolio in the coming years to meet rising demand for electricity.

The utility believes that in going green for additional energy, it will eventually save customers big regulatory charges. Xcel is assuming that the government someday will impose a tax or other cost on carbon dioxide emissions, to the tune of $9 a ton. Saving 41 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions, therefore, could spare customers hundreds of millions of dollars by 2033 if the government hammers polluters as much as Xcel anticipates.

Left totally unsaid is whether Xcel is actually going beyond the wind mandates it has from the Legislature following the deal it made in order to expand storage at the Prairie Island nuclear plant. Xcel must add hundreds of Megawatts from wind generation to its portfolio in the coming years.

I'm glad Xcel is adding hydro as baseload rather than additional coal but I suspect they are getting a better price from the hydro than coal. I don't know if the hydro beats coal outright or if only the expected carbon tax makes the hydro cheaper.

Nonetheless, this article seems somewhat misleading.

NYTimes Energy Challenge


Roughly every two weeks, the NY Times has released a new article on various energy topics in what they are dubbing "The Energy Challenge."

Recent Topics:

  • Global Warming
  • Ethanol
  • Nuclear
  • Coal
  • Solar 
Syndicate content