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California’s renewable energy future

Editorial, Los Angeles Times
Wind farms and solar energy have great potential — but there are still clouds on the horizon.

Remember rain?

As Los Angeles creaks through its driest year on record and nervously awaits its next explosive wildfire, many wonder if global warming is already taking a toll. Nobody really knows; California has always had intermittent droughts, after all. But climate models predicted this situation. Changes in ocean temperatures and currents driven by things such as the melting of the Greenland ice shelf — which is happening a lot faster than scientists expected — will probably produce an even more desert-like climate in L.A.

Efforts to slow or halt that process have to include a switch to cleaner energy. Coal-burning power plants account for more than 40% of the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions (the key culprit in global warming) while supplying half our electricity. California is already on the case. Last year, it passed a law that says 20% of the state’s electricity must come from renewable sources by 2010, and 33% by 2020. Even the sluggish federal government is considering a crackdown, with the House energy bill requiring that 15% of U.S. power come from renewable sources by 2020.

Renewable power is fueled by clean sources such as wind, sunshine, geothermal currents and ocean tides or waves. Though its potential is vast, serious technological and policy problems must be overcome before it will play much of a part in our energy mix. Here’s a look at the hopes and hurdles for the two renewable sources likely to have the biggest effect on California.

[Wind and solar] (17 September 2007)
The Los Angeles Times has been running some of the best editorials I’ve seen on environment and energy. -BA

Utility Will Use Batteries to Store Wind Power

Matthew L. Wald, New York Times
American Electric Power, a coal-burning utility company that is looking for ways to connect more wind power to its grid, plans to announce on Tuesday that it will install huge banks of high-technology batteries.

The batteries are costly and their use at such a big scale has not been demonstrated, but they may be an essential complement to renewable power, experts say.

“We’re looking at what we believe the grid of the future is going to be,” said Carl L. English, president of A.E.P. “We’re going to need a significant amount of storage if for no other reason than to take greatest advantage of alternative energy sources like wind power.”

…At least at this stage, saving money by storing a windmill’s production for peak-price hours will be difficult. The cost is very high, $27 million for six megawatts of capacity, or about $4,500 a kilowatt, including the price of substation improvements. Building a gas turbine of that size to meet peak needs would cost substantially less. But the battery system would be able to store power made from wind, a form of generation that does not produce any carbon dioxide.

The batteries can each deliver one megawatt of power – enough to run a medium-size shopping center – for a little more than seven hours. Replenished nightly, they give back about 80 percent of the electricity put into them. Each is the size of a double-decker bus, and installation is not permanent; they can be moved to another site as the need arises.
(11 September 2007)

Spitting into the Wind: Cape Wind Commentary

Michael Vickerman, RENEW Wisconsin

This is the second installment in a series of Michael Vickerman’s commentaries inspired by Wendy Williams’ and Robert Whitcomb’s absorbing new book Cape Wind, which chronicles the political clashes triggered by a proposal to build America’s first offshore windpower project. The Cape Wind proposal envisions 130 turbines in the Horseshoe Shoal area of Nantucket Sound, a shallow stretch of water equidistant from Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket Island.

When the Cape Wind proposal came to light in the fall of 2001, almost everyone in the Massachusetts political establishment reacted as though the turbines themselves were radioactive. Democrats and Republicans alike backpedaled from this ambitious scheme and dove for cover faster than you can say Senator Larry Craig.

Only a handful of brave souls were willing to buck the prevailing political currents. One of them was Matt Patrick, the state representative from the affected area. With his background in energy conservation, Patrick understood that a large wind installation in Nantucket Sound could dramatically reduce emissions from the aging oil-fired generator that serves the Cape and Islands region.

From time to time Patrick would publicly urge his constituents to consider Cape Wind’s merits before leaping to negative conclusions. This tactic did not endear himself to the ultrarich project opponents who had formed the faux grassroots group Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound.

Michael Vickerman ([email protected]) is the executive director of RENEW Wisconsin, a Madison-based nonprofit organization that acts as a catalyst to advance a sustainable energy future through public policy and private sector initiatives. These commentaries also posted on RENEW’s blog and Madison Peak Oil Group’s blog.
(14 September 2007)

Solar technology and alterntives ready to replace fossil fuels – Jeremy Leggett
Robyn Williams, The Science Show (ABC-Australia)
Jeremy Leggett is CEO of the company Solar Century in London and author of the book Half Gone, about peak oil. In this forum Dr. Leggett shows how we may just survive global warming and the end of fossils fuels by embracing solar technology and other alternatives. He also talks of SolarAid, a venture in Africa and South America aimed at bringing affordable and clean technology to the poor. SolarAid, based on solar lanterns costing a mere $6 each, is led by Leggett with Cate Blanchett as patron.
(15 September 2007)
Contributor Wag the Dog writes:
In this downloadable audio recording, Jeremy Leggett discusses the possible role of solar technology to mitigate global warming and peak oil.

Bubble Energy?

Mark P. Mills, Forbes
…the core question is, How big a piece can alternatives capture?

According to (some) wizards at Harvard, “Solar could meet one-fifth of U.S. energy needs within two decades.” At least that’s what they said 30 years ago in the widely acclaimed book Energy Future. What happened? If you count as solar both the obvious solar and indirect solar sources such as wind, wood, corn, geothermal and the like, America today hit a collective 4%, or one-twenty-fifth share.

…Has anything changed since 1979, when pretty much the same list of energy alternatives were proffered in that Harvard Energy Future report and similar studies by other energy gurus? Yes and no.

Let’s start with the three fundamentals that have not changed.

The laws of physics remain immutable

The laws of thermodynamics are fixed; you always waste energy converting heat to motion or to electrons or photons. There is always friction and gravitation–pigs don’t fly (more than once), and moving tons of matter thousands of miles at speed takes a fixed minimum amount of energy.

Physical chemistry hasn’t and won’t change; there is a fixed amount of energy available in chemical bonds–whether oil, alcohol, lithium or lead. The amount of solar energy arriving on Earth’s surface is at most 1,000 watts per square meter (high noon, clear day in the south), and it will never be more, or constant. These and many similar inherent laws of nature constrain reality.

You would think the foregoing you should be obvious. Yet surprisingly, many slick venture capital-oriented business plans and Microsoft PowerPoints fail what we might call the perpetual motion or cold fusion test, though some such still get government or venture capital funding.

Governments create their own (temporary) laws of physics

The gravitational pull for government to create its own laws of “physics” (make pigs fly, if briefly) remains undiminished. Technologies that are otherwise impractical are readily made viable by government fiat, sometimes for long enough for the well positioned to make money. The reality is that there are myriad ways to disguise or mute otherwise expensive policies. (Ironically, as society’s wealth expands, so does our tolerance for this economic kabuki dance.) Politicians also control the viability of all energy technologies, both directly and indirectly, through the natural purview of governments: land use, taxes and regulations.

Oil prices drive both perception and reality

The shock of high-priced oil created the first energy crises–and first alternative energy bubble–in the 1973 to 1985 cycle. To be sure, there were then, as now, environmental issues added to the mix, as well as concerns about instability in the Middle East. But long before any resolution of such issues, interest in alternative energy largely evaporated when prices finally dropped.

It is possible that politicians, regulators and investors today are more eager than they were a quarter-century ago to embrace alternative energy because of the twin demons of Middle Eastern dependence and environmental hazards. Practically every nation from China and India, to Kazakhstan and Spain, has established incentives for alternative energy. While all the plans contain varying degrees of environmental rationale, oil prices underpin the logic across the board.

… But some things have changed.

The world consumes a lot more energy.

It’s simple arithmetic, but with deep impact. With overall energy demand up, the niches where alternatives have initial viability are just that much bigger.

…Most of the growth in demand comes where alternatives can most readily play a role.

The lion’s share of alternative energy technologies produce, store or manipulate electricity. The economy is now much more electrified. Annual growth rate in electric demand runs at roughly twice the pace of growth in non-electric energy, everywhere. …

…New software and sensors permit energy monitoring and control unprecedented in capability, or cost. The single biggest opportunity for more efficiency, for eliminating what is truly waste, resides in real-time, dynamic control of complex systems, from commercial buildings and engines to factories and homes.

…While the next few decades will see many changes, the overall energy picture will, in the end, not be that much different. Even if alternatives blow past a 20% goal to, say, 30% this time, where will the remaining 70% come from? Conventional energy, largely hydrocarbons.

Written by Mark P. Mills, a physicist and a co-founding partner in Digital Power Capital, an energy tech venture fund. Mills is also the co-author of The Bottomless Well: The Twilight of Fuel, the Virtue of Waste, and Why We Will Never Run Out of Energy (Basic Books, 2005.) Mills may hold positions in companies discussed in this column, and may provide technology assessment services for firms that have interests in the companies.
(11 September 2007)
Enjoyable article. However, Mr. Mills omitted one change that will affect renewables – the approaching decline in fossil fuels. -BA

NGA announces state-level initiative to expand clean energy
National Governors Association, E&E News
The National Governors Association recently announced a new initiative to promote the expansion of alternative energy, conservation and efforts to combat global warming on the state level.

During today’s E&ETV Event Coverage, Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman, Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) of Minnesota and Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) of Kansas discuss the initiative entitled, “Securing a Clean Energy Future.”
(17 September 2007)