Thursday, May 31, 2007

After the "big one"

There are days when I am absolutely awed by what one can learn on the web.
Here is a superb photo-essay by a woman riding around Chernobyl on a motorbike.

If you ever wondered what it looks like after "the end of the world" check it out.

Edit 5/31 11pm: Many people claim the woman did not ride alone...makes no difference to me...the pictures tell the story.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Fact or Hoax?

When I saw this story, I nearly hit the roof. Headline goes:

New Legislation Would Bring Wind Power to 'Grinding Halt'

Oddly enough I just checked out the US congress website and found this piece on H. R 2337

"the “Energy Policy Reform and Revitalization Act of 2007” in an effort to introduce greater accountability in the management of federal energy resources, promote the development of innovative sources of energy, and grapple with the challenges of carbon sequestration and climate change impacts. "

Which quite frankly doesn't sound all bad. It continues:

The “Energy Policy Reform and Revitalization Act of 2007” highlights:·

Title I: Energy Policy Act of 2005 Reforms – Commonsense measures that require energy companies operating on federal lands to develop oil and gas resources in a more responsible way, avoiding conflict with landowners, communities and wildlife.·

Title II: Federal Energy Public Accountability, Integrity and Public Interest – Sensible provisions that ensure Americans are receiving a fair return for the value of the public resources they own.·

Title III: Alternative Energy and Efficiency – Innovative proposals that provide 21st century solutions to our Nation’s 21st century energy challenges, as the country works to meet the goals of energy independence and chart a new frontier in alternative energy development.·

Title IV: Carbon Capture and Climate Change Mitigation – Practical measures that address climate change by promoting technologies such as geological and terrestrial carbon sequestration, paving the way for the responsible management and proactive planning that will conserve our natural resources and wildlife for generations to come.

This bit actually sounds sensible...which makes me worry about either my reading skills or how truly twisted the legislative process is.

I emailed the AWEA to see if they could shed some light on the matter since I could not find a press release from AWEA on the topic on their website.

Let's see what comes of it.

Update 5/23 12:30 pm: Sadly this appears to be fact. It seemed so extreme I couldn't believe it yesterday but here it is: (special thanks to Lou over at The Cost of Energy for traking this bill language down).

According to the specific bill language found at
about 40% of the way down the bill, Under Article II innocuosly named

Title II: Federal Energy Public Accountability, Integrity and Public Interest
Subtitle D--Ensuring Safety of Wildlife With Respect to Wind Energy
but especially
is where all the wording exists to torpedo wind as the cleanest power source in America.

And I was also able to find the notice on the AWEA Legislative action web site urging action to remove subtitle D from the legislation.

This whole subtiltle D is predicated on the myth that windturbines kill lots of birds.

First of all, a very early wind project was located directly in a migratory bird path (Altimont Pass CA) before anyone was aware that turbines might kill birds. The Altimont Pass windfarm has ungraded its turbines so they no longer kill as many birds. The wind industry has worked closely with environmental groups to minimize the impact of wind farms on birds ever since (through better turbine design and not putting wind farms in major migratory routes).

And the industry has done such a good job that both the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society support wind power.

"The Sierra Club believes that data and observations from wind facilities at locations worldwide indicate that proper siting and design of wind turbines can greatly reduce harmful impacts on birds, animals and plants. Further, the Club believes that there should be appropriate sites for wind power in most general regions of the United States."

In the November-December installment of the magazine, Flicker wrote a column stating that Audubon "strongly supports wind power as a clean alternative energy source," pointing to the link between global warming and the birds and other wildlife that scientist say it will kill. The venerable environmental organization and avian champion was now on record as embracing wind power.

The endorsement makes a lot of sense, once the facts surrounding the issue are put in proper perspective. Birds are over 10,000 times more likely -- at least -- to be killed by other human-related causes (e.g., by buildings, vehicles, pet cats, pesticides, etc.) than by a wind turbine; put another way, for every 10,000 birds killed by such human activities, less than one death is caused by a wind turbine.


Please, please, PLEASE! Don't vote to fund the war in Iraq on the president's terms.

I was really proud that the Democrats pulled together last month and (in spite of almost hourly veto threats from the Decider!) passed a resolution that set a timetable for withdrawal.

I want us to withdraw all of our troops from Iraq today (or at least start the process today). Yes, I know most Americans (including the Democrats) are confused about what to do, afraid things will get worse if leave. It is essentially Bush's refrain since 2004, if we leave Iraq will descend into chaos or civil war. And everyday support for our failed strategy drops both at home (70% want a time-line for withdrawal) and in Iraq (80%+ want a time-line for withdrawal). Nobody questions Bush's assumption, despite the fact that every single thing he has said about Iraq is wrong!

I think it is just as likely (even more likely) that if we withdraw, the majority of the Sunnis and the majority of the Shiites will reach a true power-sharing compromise, since without US troops, the alternative would be a regional Islamic civil war. The moment the US leaves, Iran and Syria will no longer benefit from instability in Iraq, quite the contrary they will benefit from reducing violence in Iraq. And without US troops in Iraq, who in Iraq would support Al-Queda? It is possible that a small sliver of the minority of the Sunni minority might, but the overwhelming majority of Iraqis will not want, or support, or even tolerate a terrorist organization in their midst--especially one as active as the current Al-queda group. Without popular support (or at least tolerance) Al-queda will be forced to withdraw from Iraq. Will all hostilities cease overnight? No, of course not. But a new dynamic will begin where Iraq becomes less violent over time (just the opposite of the current US occupation dynamic where it becomes more violent year after year).

Is this vision of Iraq speculative? Of course it is, but so is the fear (and we must recognize that it is simply fear) that Iraq will collapse into utter chaos. Nobody knows what will happen if we withdraw. Moreover, at least my vision is rooted in the self interest of all the parties in and around Iraq (save for Al-queda perhaps--although they will be so jubilant that they faced down the Americans they may declare mission accomplished and go home).

In any event, I am mortified that the Democrats are simply giving up their resistance to Bushco and his neverendingwaronterrormirediniraqcivilwar. He has the lowest approval rating on record and more than 2/3 of Americans want us out of Iraq, and how does the Congress express the peoples disapproval? By giving $120 billion with no strings attached to enable him to continue this negative sum game that strikes me as human sacrifice on a grand scale.

Last year the Republicans controlled both houses of congress, and I could persist in believing that it would be different if Democrats held the purse strings. No longer. If the Democrats fund the war (the most unpopular war waged by the most unpopular president which is demonstrably hurting our national and strategic interests abroad) with no strings attached, I will truly have to face the fact that my country is a bad country. Despite the wisdom of our founding fathers who gave congress the duty to manage war finances, we must face the fact that fear of being labeled a "war micro-manager" [and just for the record, micro-manage implies a desire to manage everything down to the smallest detail...simply setting a deadline is normally considered management, even prudent management, something the Republicans obviously no longer do] or "loser" in a campaign ad is stronger than our congresses willingness to represent the people that elected it barely 6 months ago. No courage, no principles, no audacity, and precious little hope :(

Monday, May 21, 2007

Thermal storage for wind power

Engineer-Poet found this several months ahead of me, not to mention ZDnet, but I must say the Night Wind project is an interesting proposal for storing energy. The idea is not really new, but the scale of the project is significant.

The short version is that a group in the Netherlands is planning to over-chill freezers at night when the wind is blowing and turning off the freezers during the day at peak demand times. Basically they use ice to store wind energy, and “deploy” it in a predictable fashion. I haven’t done the math but they claim to be able to store 50,000MW of energy this way.

Clearly one can also store energy as heat…limited only by the size of the thermos (and its rate of energy loss).

Many people are concerned that intermittent sources of energy like wind and (from our perspective at least) solar can’t contribute to the grid because they don’t offset baseline power. Not that we will have to worry about this for another 6-8 years, but as we build intermittent capacity we can develop storage solutions.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Oil stabilization wedges?

Almost three years ago Pacala and Socolow came up with an innovative way to approach/analyze the problem of atmospheric carbon stabilization: wedge analysis.

They looked at how much carbon would likely be emitted over the next 50 years given business as usual (BAU). They then looked at about 15 different activities that could be pursued (individually) to reduce atmospheric carbon by 1 Gigaton per year of carbon per wedge. They then looked at how much of each activity would be required to accomplish each of the wedges.

I believe this analysis shows both the daunting challenge of the problem facing us as well as (more hopefully) the multiple paths available to solve the problem.

- Doubling fuel efficiency of 2 billion cars from 30 to 60 mpg
- Decreasing the number of car miles traveled by half
- Using best efficiency practices in all residential and commercial buildings
- Producing current coal-based electricity with twice today’s efficiency
- Replacing 1400 coal electric plants with natural gas-powered facilities
- Capturing and storing emissions from 800 coal electric plants
- Producing hydrogen from coal at six times today’s rate and storing the captured CO2
- Capturing carbon from 180 coal-to-synfuels plants and storing the CO2
- Adding double the current global nuclear capacity to replace coal-based electricity
- Increasing wind electricity capacity by 50 times relative to today, for a total of 2 million large windmills
- Installing 700 times the current capacity of solar electricity
- Using 40,000 square kilometers of solar panels (or 4 million windmills) to produce hydrogen for fuel cell cars
- Increasing ethanol production 50 times by creating biomass plantations with area equal to 1/6th of world cropland
- Eliminating tropical deforestation and creating new plantations on non-forested land to quintuple current plantation area
- Adopting conservation tillage in all agricultural soils worldwide

We need a stabilization wedge analysis of this caliber for reducing the US’s dependence on foreign oil. Such an analysis would allow us to compare which steps are most likely achievable and any possible synergies from combining or sequencing activities.

Given the annual focus on high and rising fuel prices as the summer driving season kicks off, perhaps someone will develop the thought.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Value of cost certainty

In thinking about renewable energy plants one has to remember that they provide both energy and a hedge against volatile fossile fuel prices. I wrote an article about this last year in Public Utilities Fortnightly. I was reminded of this while posting a comment over at Energy Outlook.

If one considers (fossil) fuel price volatility, wind power is much cheaper than it looks. Upon installing the wind turbine you know (within a couple %) what it will cost to produce power in 20, 30, even 40 years. Try that with fossil fuels!

Every wind turbine provides an energy price insurance contract (long term call option) in addition to a stream of electrons. The embedded call option is theoretically worth 1-2% (depending on your belief about future fossil fuel volatility) of the turbine purchase price PER YEAR the turbine will operate.

Another way to think of this cost certainty is to compare wind turbines to treasury bonds and fossil fuel turbines to junk bonds. You pay more per $ of interest for treasuries because of the added certainty of receipt. Experienced investors know that junk bond returns are more risky, i.e. volatile. In the same way, the cost of running a fossil fuel turbine is more volatile (or risky--especially if we consider the cost 20,30, and 40 years from now) than the cost of running a wind turbine.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Overhaul at the Dept. of Energy needed

Watching the NewsHour on PBS last night there was an interview with Marty Hoffert (a physicist at New York University and advocate of alternative energy sources) in which he said

One thing which I believe could be very helpful in this country is to re-task the Department of Energy to have the job of developing alternative sources of carbon-neutral energy.

Many people think that's what the Energy Department is in business for already, but that's not the case. Their job is actually stockpile stewardship, to make sure the nuclear weapons and the pipeline really work, and toxic waste disposal. I think their job ought to be to develop a sustainable source of power for the United States and for the civilization of the world in general.
Hoffert hit the nail on the head here, I couldn’t agree more. The Department of Energy’s (DOE) total 2007 budget is about $24 billion. $16 billion (2/3rds) goes to nuclear weapons stewardship and toxic waste disposal. $3 billion (1/8) goes to energy resources and only $1.15 billion (5%) falls into the renewable energy category.

Anyone else think something is screwy here?

DOE has done some wonderful things with the money it gets, like the Energy Star program, unfortunately and despite its name, precious little is invested into finding/exploiting new energy sources.

For perspective the US discretionary budget (the amount Congress can spend excluding “entitlements”) last year was about $1 trillion, 2/3 of which is spent on the military and 1/3 on everything else.

If we can spend (waste) $100 billion for 6 months in Iraq, we can certainly invest an extra $10 billion over the next 6 years to radically diversify our countries energy portfolio so it includes a significantly higher portion of low carbon sources.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Water Offsets

I just love I don’t make it over there as often as I should because there is so much good stuff, I can’t get my work done. But I enjoyed a piece today on water offsets. The concept is that there are (relatively) expensive ways of conserving water in urban settings, while it is fairly inexpensive to install drip irrigation systems (at least in terms of the cost differential between a drip system or a sprinkler/spray system) in rural settings. It is possible to save multiples of the amount saved in the urban setting at a fraction of the price. Just like with carbon trading systems, wouldn’t it make greater sense to invest in saving the rural water?

There is the problem of who keeps/uses/gets credit for the saved water…but on a societal level, the idea makes sense to me.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Explaining Offsets

I decided to renew my car’s TerraPass for another year. For those of you unfamiliar with TerraPass, they sell annual carbon offsets for cars, homes, and frequent flyers in a range of convenient chunks.

A carbon offset is a term that combines several concepts into one. Carbon, technically carbon dioxide, as everyone must know by now, is a greenhouse gas implicated in climate change. It is released from a variety of natural and man made sources, and scientists have noted in recent decades that CO2 is rapidly exceeding historic levels in the atmosphere. A staggering amount of CO2 is released from people burning fossil fuels for power and transportation. But there is also a massive natural cycle of CO2 emission and absorption, analogous to the evaporation/precipitation water cycle. Because there is such a variety of sources and “sinks” or methods of absorbing CO2, there is a corresponding wide range of actions that can be taken either to reduce sources or increase sinks. Some actions will be very disruptive (a.k.a costly) and other actions will be trivial (a.k.a. cheap).

For example, I drive my car about 6,000 miles per year (~half the national average) emitting on the order of 6,000lbs (3 tons) of CO2/year. For me to stop driving entirely would be extraordinarily disruptive to me personally, but there are actions I (or other people) can take, like installing a solar panel (or wind turbine) to produce electricity without CO2 emissions which would not be disruptive to any of us, which could easily result in 3 tons less CO2 being emitted each year. Nearly any investment to improve energy efficiency, increase recycling, or burn less fossil fuel (system wide) will cause less CO2 to be emitted. There are also “natural” emission streams of CO2 and equivalent gases that can be reduced. Methane, for example, is frequently released from the decay of plant and animal waste. A farmer can collect cow and pig manure, capture the methane gas this manure releases as it breaks down and burn it to generate energy, reducing both the amount of methane emitted (a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2 lb for lb, although it breaks done leaves the atmosphere much faster) and the demand for burning other fossil fuels. Landfills frequently capture the methane emitted from municipal waste streams and use it to generate power. Reforestation, or at the very lest slowing deforestation, can also increase the amount of CO2 “sunk” in any given year. There is still some debate about how effective planting trees is in terms of mitigating climate change, although most people would agree that trees “store” CO2 outside the atmosphere for as long as they live.

So getting back to the TerraPass example, they purchase credits (wholesale) from non-fossil energy producers or large efficiency initiatives that cause less CO2 to be emitted each year and resell the credits (retail) to people like me, which allows me to offset my 3 tons of CO2 for about $10/ton of CO2. TerraPass does nothing to reduce my gas bill, but I consider balancing out this slice of my personal pollution a valuable service. This transaction requires the small leap of faith that TerraPass is doing what it says it is…but I’m willing to take that leap/risk along the lines of “trust but verify” until I learn they are not performing at least as well as their competitors (or some damning evidence that the entire offset industry beats puppies). The system is entirely voluntary (in the US) and there are many other vendors of offsets, Drive Neutral (cars), Native Energy (electricity), RenewableChoice (electricity) are a few I’m familiar with.