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Other energy - May 15

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Many more articles are available through the Energy Bulletin homepage

Alternative Energies: Wind power

Jerome a Paris, European Tribune
Today, as part of DarkSyde's series on alternative energies, I'm pleased to give you some information about wind power. Some of you may remember my earlier diaries over the past 18 months on this topic - the links are provided at the end of this diary if you want to explore the subject further.

I have been aggressively questioned before on the issue, so here's the full disclosure: I know the subject in a professional capacity, as my job is to finance wind farms, using the technique called project finance (which I described in detail here). I have been involved, at last count, in the financing of over 5,000 MW of wind power in 11 countries, for a total investment of close to $6 billion. So if you want to call me an industry hack and say I am partial, well, you can. (On the other hand, I do not work directly on US projects, so I have no stake in how the industry develops here).

That said, here we go.

About 1 to 2 per cent of the energy coming from the sun is converted into wind energy. That is about 50 to 100 times more than the energy converted into biomass by all plants on earth.

That wind is generated by the fact that the air at the equator is warmer than at the poles. That hotter air rises and spreads out. Thanks to the rotation of the earth (the Coriolis effect) it tends not to go all the way to the pole and instead to move in largeish circles.
(13 May 2006)
Also at Daily Kos.

In a follow-up post, Jerome takes on skeptics: Wind power - debunking the critics. Keep in mind that Jerome is intimately involved with the windpower industry, as he said in his first post. That said, the posts have a lot of good information. -BA

The Oil Sands Sweepstakes

Patrick Brethour, Globe & Mail
Companies are fleeing the overheated economy of Fort McMurray in search of cost-friendly alternatives. But will the great escape just cause another bottleneck?
CALGARY -- To understand the latest surge in the oil sands boom, break out your favourite Three Stooges flick.

At some point, the Stooges rush to leave a room, only to end up with all three wedged in the door frame. It is the Moe-Curly-Larry dilemma: What might work for one is defeated when everybody follows suit.

The Stooges' dilemma is now hitting the oil sands, as the sector searches for an escape hatch from the escalating cost of building upgraders, those massive industrial complexes that turn low-value bitumen into pricey crude oil. Companies have begun to flee the overheating economy of Fort McMurray, at the heart of northern Alberta's bitumen deposits, for the industrial land north of Edmonton. Some are eyeing Lloydminster to the east, while others are beginning to look at the United States as a refuge.

There are advantages and drawbacks to each, but all have two things in common for the firms involved. One is a determination to avoid the mistakes of the previous rounds of upgrader construction this decade, which were plagued by budget overruns in the billions. The other is the certainty that if a new location confers a competitive edge on one player, other companies are sure to follow, with the resulting pile-up blunting that edge.
(13 May 2006)

Solution or Distraction? An Ethanol Reality Check

Jim Motavalli, New York Times
...Q. Is corn really the best raw material for ethanol?

A. Maybe not. Other countries are producing ethanol, using less energy in the process, from cellulose-rich sources like sugar cane (Brazil), logging waste (Sweden), sugar beets (France) and sweet sorghum (India). The final product is referred to as cellulosic ethanol. Switchgrass, a native prairie perennial cited by President Bush as a possible ethanol source, also shows promise.

“I see the greatest benefit deriving from ethanol made from cellulosic sources rather than from the starch in grains,” said Lester R. Brown, executive director of the Earth Policy Institute, a nonprofit organization. Estimates of the energy that can be extracted from cellulosic plants vary widely, but Mr. Brown says that using sugar cane as the “feedstock” results in eight units of energy for every unit invested. Brazil’s sugar cane production works quite efficiently, because once the sugary syrup is removed, the fibrous waste product, known as bagasse, is burned to fuel the distillation process.

...Q. Don’t some scientists contend that making ethanol requires more energy than it produces? Is there enough agricultural land to eventually grow all of the nation’s fuel?

A. David Pimentel, a professor at Cornell University, published a paper in 2005 with Tad W. Patzek of the University of California, Berkeley stating that the corn-to-ethanol process powered by fossil fuels consumes 29 percent more energy than it produces. The results for switchgrass were even worse, the paper said, with a 50 percent net energy deficit. “I’m sympathetic, and I wish that ethanol production was a net positive and a help to this nation,” Dr. Pimentel said in an interview. “But I’m a scientist first and an agriculturalist second. I don’t think the U.S. will meet its goals with biofuels.” He also said the United States did not have enough agricultural land to displace gasoline with biofuels. “Even if we committed 100 percent of the corn crop to making ethanol, it would only replace 7 percent of U.S. vehicle fossil fuel use,” he said.

Others are far more sanguine.

Arthur J. Ragauskas, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology and the co-author of a positive study about ethanol that appeared in the journal Science in January, said the nation could replace a third of its current fuel demands by focusing on cellulosic ethanol from forest products and agricultural residue. Mr. Slunecka of the Ethanol Promotion and Information Council said that Dr. Pimentel’s calculations did not account for the increasing efficiency of ethanol plants and rising yields of corn per acre.
(14 May 2006)
A step in the right direction, in beginning to educate and address the issues involved with ethanol.
Related: Tug of war [on ethanol] (Gristmill)


US has low-cost alternatives to oil
Peak oil frenzy and human-induced climate change avoidable says Columbia University report
Surging oil prices have fueled calls for the United States to develop new sources of affordable and secure domestic energy. While renewable energy -- especially biofuels, wind power, and solar technologies -- is an area of particular interest, researchers from the Earth Institute at Columbia University say that the U.S. already has relatively low-cost alternatives to imported oil, including coal, tar sands, and oil shale. These resources can be extracted and used at a lower cost to the environment than some might expect.

In a report published in the most recent issue of Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, Klaus S. Lackner and Jeffrey D. Sachs argue that "coal alone could satisfy the country's energy needs of the twenty-first century." They say that "coal liquefaction, or the process of deriving liquid fuels from coal, is already being used in places and with expanded infrastructure could provide gasoline, diesel fuel and jet fuel at levels well below current prices." Further, Sachs and Lackner suggest that "environmental constraints such as increased carbon dioxide emissions arising from greater use of coal and other fossil fuels could be avoided for less than 1 percent of gross world product by 2050," a sum far less than others have estimated.
(14 May 2006)
The report from the Earth Insitutute is available as PDF here and here. The paper was apparently published in 2005, as a Brookings Paper on Economic Activity (Brookings is a centrist-liberal thinktank).

Co-author Jeffrey D. Sachs is director of the Earth Institute and has done much "work with international agencies to promote poverty reduction, disease control, and debt reduction of poor countries."

Co-author Klaus S. Lackner "is a founder of the Zero Emission Coal Alliance, an industry-led effort to develop coal power with zero emissions in the atmosphere. His recent work is on environmentally acceptable technologies for the use of fossil fuels. Lackner has published numerous papers and articles on clean fossil fuels technology."

The paper strikes me as way too optimistic; for example, it seems strange to label tar sands, and oil shale as "low-cost." I'm dubious of the paper's focus on the iffy technology of carbon sequestration, especially in view of co-author Lackner's connection to the coal industry.

Dead Cows Move Trains

Sanjay Suri, India Outlook
The farm is a rich source of alternative energy. It's time India caught up.
If ever a good Hindu should want to take the train between Linkoping and Vastervik in Sweden, it might be best not to think it runs on dead cows-at four kilometres per cow to be precise.

The entrails are processed for a month to produce the methane the train, Amanda, runs on. But call it biomass fuel, and Amanda will not appear such a sinner any more; just a train making rapid progress along a revolutionary track.

But the travelling Hindu is likely to be far more comfortable on a bus in Brazil. The ethanol it’s likely to run on is made, after all, from wheat, beetroot, corn or sugarcane-a nice vegetarian ride. It just might be okay in Germany too where a taxi takes a good deal of biodiesel made from all sorts of mix of rapeseed, sunflower and soy oil, though often with some animal fat thrown in.

But of course, look at what all this is not; it’s not mineral oil from Saudi Arabia, Russia or Venezuela. Not many are worrying yet about that oil running out, but everybody is worried about its price rising higher and higher.

...On present policy, India is lurching from oil to nuclear dependency, with only some recent and still weak moves towards bioenergy.

...The way forward for India may have to be the way backward, says [Jeffrey McNeely, chief scientist with IUCN-the World Conservation Union]. "Throughout its history, India has used mainly biofuel. Only in the last century, it has switched to fossil fuel." And that may well point to the need to extract energy from waste."It may be the better solution to convert waste into fuel," Yakimova said. "Timber waste being turned into fuel may be better than rapeseed oil. But finding ways to convert waste into fuel may take a long time."

Not that long necessarily, particularly for power generation. The Swedes are using the branches of willow trees for power generation. A Rwandan prison is now powering itself through processing human waste into energy. Delhi might just have the potential to power itself enough on its own waste to cut out power cuts, and clean up the Jamuna in the bargain. Delhi’s decision-makers, like everyone else in the city, might just be sitting on the solution.

The new energy that faraway Sweden and Brazil are finding can partially be duplicated in India. "But India is such a vast country and different things will work in different parts," McNeely said. Entrepreneurs and innovators have found all sorts of solutions but India has no policies in place yet that could significantly reduce that dependence on Saudi or Russian oil. "India has tremendous technological resources that it must mobilise on a very urgent basis to look at alternatives," McNeely said. "You cannot wait until a need develops...
(22 May 2006)

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