Long time, no blog

16 Jan
I love PR (public relations)

I love PR (public relations) (Photo credit: Jerry Silfwer)

 

Well, it’s been a long while since I’ve posted here, and much has happened in the past several months. First, as I joyously noted in my last post, the book is done. But when I wrote that, the book wasn’t exactly “done” done. I had a draft of the manuscript but hadn’t gone through it carefully to make needed revisions.

 

Now, I’m happy to report, the book really is done. St. Martin’s recently showed me the cover they have in mind, which, I’m very happy to say, is pretty awesome. I don’t want to spoil the surprise, so I won’t post an image or say too much about what the cover looks like. Suffice it to say that the St. Martin’s graphic design folks know what they’re doing.

 

Now that I’m no longer actually writing the book, it’s time to begin thinking about how to best market and promote it. To that end I’ve been compiling lists of contacts, renewable energy organizations, and basically of anyone who might be able to help get word out about the book and why people should read it.

 

To be honest, one of the most difficult parts of writing the book was dealing with the nagging thought constantly in the back of my mind that people don’t read a lot of non-fiction of this sort. Or, at least, non-fiction books like this tend to not sell many copies. Not that selling as many copies as possible is the only thing that matters … but it matters. Like any author, I want lots of people to read (and like) my work. But now that the book is done and I’ve begun thinking about marketing and promotion, I’m more optimistic about the prospects of the book doing at least marginally well. Despite the sucky economy, renewable energy continues to be a relevant topic. And judging by the large number of college-level courses and programs on alternative energy, there’s lots of general public interest. So … I’m hopeful.

 

Anyhow, if anyone reads this post and knows anyone in the media or has any suggestions for contacts, I’m all ears (and eyes).

 

Book Finished!

2 Jul
potencial of renewables

potencial of renewables (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After three years, I am proud to say that I have finally finished writing a draft of reNEWable! It’s in the editor’s hands now. I’m sure there will be some edits, changes, revisions, etc. But for all intents and purposes it’s all there. Phew.

A few random thoughts:

When I began the book, in 2008, Obama had just been elected and there was a general feeling that, among other things, he would be a great champion of renewable energy. Now, four years later, that excitement has become somewhat tempered. Given the massive financial and military crises that Obama has had to deal with, it’s not surprising that energy has not dominated his agenda. Even the most die-hard renewable enthusiasts will agree that there have been more pressing matters at stake. Still, though, I understand how those who hoped that Obama would usher in a new age of investment in renewables are now disappointed.

Allow me, then, a few words of encouragement. Despite the years-long global recession, renewable energy technologies are still developing, and renewable businesses are still growing, at an impressive pace. In the past, when economic crises or wars and political upheavals intervened, whatever scarce interest there was in renewable energy would almost instantly evaporate, leaving handfuls of inventors and engineers more or less bereft. Now, though, despite everything, renewable energy is still moving forward. Solar panels have never been more efficient, cheaper, and widespread. New, giant wind farms are popping up all the time, while the small wind sector continues to grow. Even less advanced technologies like wave power and geothermal power are making strides, despite relatively little federal investment.

In short, renewable energy is in better shape than it ever has been. While the move toward renewables may be happening too slowly for some, we can take solace in the fact that movement is happening around the world.

When I Visited Abound Solar

2 Jul
English: A part of the „Demonstration Project ...

English: A part of the „Demonstration Project at Gobabeb of Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency“ (DeGREEE): The solar panels (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Checking the headlines today, I noticed one declaring that Abound Solar, a solar panel manufacturing business located in Colorado, had filed for bankruptcy and was going to lay off all 125 of its employees. I was struck by the news first because I just finished writing my book about renewable energy and so I’m generally sensitive to this sort of news. But I was also struck more personally because a few years ago, while researching the book, I visited Abound and was given a tour of the facilities. Behind a glass partition I got to watch the manufacturing process in real-time, as regular sheets of glass were turned into thin-film solar panels. It was truly impressive.

When I heard that Abound was going under, I first felt bad for the good people there who showed me great hospitality and took the time to show me around. Those people will shortly lose their jobs in a very tough job market.

I also felt bad for President Obama, whose administration had backed Abound. Like Solyndra, Abound will now surely be used as an example of poor judgement on Obama’s part. But that is patently not the case. Abound was a very solid, well-run company using very sophisticated technology it had developed in-house. The company failed only because Chinese investment in solar panel manufacturing has brought the price of panels down so far that it’s incredibly difficult for small companies to Abound to compete.

While this is obviously bad for abound, it’s actually good for the solar energy sector. Cheaper panels means that more businesses and people can afford them, which spurs forward the greater cause of growing the use of solar energy around the world.

So while I feel bad for the employees of Abound, perhaps they can take some solace in the knowledge that their work has been important and that their industry is vital and growing.

Geothermal: The Geysers

2 Apr

Driving north on the 101 up the California coast, I stifled a yawn. Partly because I’d started out early, around 6am, to make a 9am interview and tour I’d scheduled at The Geysers–a complex of geothermal energy plants about two and a half north of San Francisco. But also because the thought of spending an entire day touring a geothermal energy plant wasn’t exactly scintillating. When I began working on this book, geothermal was way down on the list of things that seemed exciting. Standing in the shadow of a towering wind turbine? Very cool. Walking among the sleek, futuristic-looking panels of a working solar farm? Intriguing. Even surveying a field of giant grass that might one day help wean us off gasoline had its appeal.

But geothermal?

I really wasn’t sure what to think. There are no iconic images associated with geothermal energy, as there are with solar and wind. Several Google searches had dug up a handful of pictures of ordinary looking power plants–squarish, industrial buildings coughing white steam from concrete silos. Not exactly eye candy. Serious geothermal action, like the kind the supercharges the hot springs and geysers at Yellowstone, takes place mainly deep underground, I knew, where rocks superheated by the earth’s natural body heat produce either steam, hot water, or just plain old heat. Tap that heat, channel it to spin industrial turbines, and presto: you’ve got geothermal powered electricity.

Reliable? Yes. Interesting? Kinda. Jaw-droppingly cool? Not so much.

Of course, I had learned a few intriguing facts. For one, geothermal is by far the most constant renewable resource for large-scale electricity production. The sun shines only during the day. Wind comes and goes. Energy crops have to be laboriously harvested, processed, and replanted. Even ocean and river currents ebb and wane. But the earth’s internal heat is steady: always there, always on. And there’s a lot of it–an entire planet full, really. Similar to solar advocates’ popular mantra that enough sunlight falls on the earth every minutes to meet the world’s energy demands for a year, geothermal proponents have their own astonishing statistic: within about 10,000 meters (33,000 feet) of the earth’s surface there’s enough heat to provide 50,000 times more energy than the world’s combined oil, coal, and natural gas resources.# In other words, the planet contains way more than enough naturally occurring, non-polluting, carbon-dioxide free heat to provide for humanity’s energy needs basically forever. (The rub is that only a relatively small amount of the earth’s heat is capable of producing lots of steam at pressures high enough to turn an industrial-strength turbine is easily tapped; most of the planet’s hot rock is buried miles underground and lacks an indigenous water source to produce naturally-occurring steam. More on this later.) At the moment (that is, in mid 2011) several dozen geothermal power plants generate around 10,700 megawatts of energy around the world–a relatively tiny amount that’s projected to grow to at least 18,500 megawatts by 2015.

And concerning The Geysers, the world’s largest complex of geothermal power plants, there was the intriguing historical “fact” (albeit probably apocryphal) that the place owed its existence to a grizzly bear that had been menacing trail blazers and homesteaders (in what would become northern California’s Napa and Lake counties) in the mid 1800s. Or more specifically, the geothermal region that came to be known as The Geysers owes its discovery and moniker to the man charged with hunting and killing the grizzly: an explorer and professional bear trapper named William Bell Elliot. An 1881 pamphlet, History of Napa and Lake Counties, California: Comprising Their Geography, Geology, Topograhy, Climatography, Springs and Timber, describes Elliot in mythic language: “On the plains, Elliott was a leader. He did not know the meaning of the word fear. Armed, he did not care a snap for Indians, and would have toppled them over if they interfered with him with as little compunction as he formerly knocked gray squirrels out of a tall poplar or chestnut tree in the mountains of West Virginia [where Elliott was from].”# One day, according to the History, out on a bear hunt, Elliott and his son (one of seven) came across some Native Americans, possibly of the regional Lake Miwok tribe, who pointed him toward a good spot to find grizzlies, over the mountains to the west. Several hours later, descending a divide between what came to be known as Big Sulfur Creek and its main tributary, Elliott and son got a strong whiff of sulfur. (He would have recognized the odor as what was known as “brimstone”.) Curious, they followed the creek and were soon stopped in their tracks by a spout of steam hissing noisily from the ground. Glancing around furtively, they noticed other towering columns of steam spiraling up from the earth and felt the ground trembling beneath their feet. Elliott and his son looked at each other and began to tremble themselves: they’d discovered the gates of hell! Just then, as if on cue, the very grizzly they’d been tracking (or possible another bear) reared up, bared its teeth, and roared. Despite the netherwordly surroundings, Elliott and son remained cool, shooting the bear to death before fleeing back to civilization to report what they’d seen. 

That’s the story that became part of the region’s lore, anyhow. What Elliott had actually discovered was a part of the geothermally active region that came to be know as The Geysers–a curious misnomer, given that the area includes no actual geysers. (The steam vents are technically known as “fumaroles.” Geysers, like Yellowstone National Park’s famous “Old Faithful,” spout liquid water.) Of course, as is nearly always the case with “discoveries” made by white settlers in the American west, the region had been well known to the native inhabitants for thousands and possibly tens of thousands of years. Native Americans of the Lake Miwok and Wappo tribes used it as a natural pharmacy, bringing their sick to wallow in the bubbling mud pools and hot springs and to drink the mineral water that owed its reputation as a miraculous cure-all to its potent laxative properties.

Approaching the modern day Geysers visitors center, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place might have looked like during the mid 19th century. The area is still largely rural and has the look and feel of untrammeled wilderness, despite the presence of 22 power plants spread out over 45 square miles in the Mayacamas Mountains. Charlotte Doherty, head of safety at The Geysers, met me inside the center, near a large-scale plastic model of the entire, sprawling complex. A veteran of the California oil boom of the 1980s, Doherty had been with Calpine (the energy company that currently owns The Geysers) since 1989, first as an environmental chemist, for the last  ten years as a health and safety expert. She quickly took me through the basics: The Geysers is a dry steam operation, meaning that steam is mined directly from naturally occuring reservoirs miles underground. (Dry steam power plants are rare, making The Geysers something of an outlier. Most geothermal plants of are of the flash steam variety, where hot water is pumped from the ground into a low-pressure tank, which causes it to vaporize, or “flash”, into steam used to run a turbine. And, increasingly, some plants use a binary-cycle system, where hot water pumped from below is used to heat another liquid, which then flashes to vapor.)

“It’s really pretty simple,” Doherty said as we got in her truck and headed out toward one of the power plants. “We make electricity the same way it’s almost always been made: the steam goes to the power plants and turns rotors that create electricity.” Most of the steam is then condensed back into water, although some becomes a gas which is cleansed of pollutants and vented to the atmosphere. Yet, as Doherty went on the explain, making power at The Geysers is actually more complicated than it might appear, especially when it comes to harvesting steam. In the mid to late ‘80s, steam production at many of the plants began to decline. After nearly 30 years of mining, with dozens of wells siphoning stream from the natural reservoir, the underground water source necessary for producing the steam began to be used up faster than it could naturally replenish. Or, as Doherty put it, as more and more wells had been added over the years, and before long, “instead of just a few straws in the milkshake, there were a few dozen, every one sucking just as hard.”  So, in effect, dry steam geothermal was revealed to be a not entirely renewable resource–at least not in the classic sense. Unlike wind and sun, superheated underground steam could be used up. But Geysers engineers have found a clever way of replenishing the supply. For years, northern California municipalities had struggled to safely treat and get rid of their waste water; The Geysers’ decline presented an unforeseen and fortuitous solution. In 1997, Sonoma county began pumping treated waste water through a 40-mile-long  to The Geysers steam fields, where it was injected down specially reconfigured wells to replenish the underground water source and boost steam production. In 2003, the cit of Santa Rosa joined the effort, sending 11 million gallons of waste water per day to The Geysers.

From the outside, a geothermal power station looks a lot like a coal-fired (or any other) plant. And from the inside, too. The interior of the plant I visited, the West Ford Flat station, was dominated by the turbine apparatus: basically a block-like, school bus-sized metal casing concealing the turbine. A large, matte-green tube piped high pressure steam inside the casing to spin the turbine’s rotors to generate electricity. Like the coal-powered plant I’d visited in Indiana, the geothermal plant was loud, making it hard to speak and be heard over the turbine’s mechanical roar. The control room, too, looked familiar: a couple of guys in work clothes, sipping coffee, monitoring a large board with lots of lights and switches, ready to leap into action if anything went wrong, but mostly just watching to make sure that everything was running smoothly.

But entirely unlike the coal plant, West Ford Flat was conspicuously clean. At the heart of every coal-burning power plant is a multi-story boiler containing a massive, perpetual explosion of incinerated coal. The 24-hour, seven-days-a-week piping of coal particles through the plant and into the boiler leaves everything coated with a thin layer of dark, smudgy dust. And to keep all that dust from blowing around, coal plants are shut tight. Consequently, the boiler and turbine areas look and feel like a scene straight out of Dickens, or the Terminator movies: dark, loud, dirty, and dominated by large machines. Geothermal plants, by contrast, are loud but strangely clean. They’re also relatively small. Since the steam-generating “boiler” of a geothermal plant is the earth itself, the building doesn’t need to be large enough to contain a giant metal boiler. And because there’s no need to keep toxic coal dust from being swept up into the air or throughout the surrounding countryside, a geothermal plant doesn’t have to be quite so locked down. On the day I visited West Ford Flat, open windows and doors let in plenty of natural light.

Outside, we walked a few hundred yards toward a bunch of dull green tubes snaking out of the forest and converging at a central, boxy apparatus: the plant’s steam-feeding mechanism. Four wells fed steam into West Ford Flat, Doherty explained. Made of fiberglass encased in metal jacketing, the tangle of 24-inch diameter tubes had the look of a giant Habitrail. Although they weren’t particularly hot to the touch, the steam flowing inside them topped out at around 340 degrees Fahrenheit.

Steaming Ahead

3 Nov
Coal, one of the fossil fuels.

Image via Wikipedia

Think of steam power and you might imagine big, black locomotives puffing white clouds as they chug across the tracks, or steam boats paddle-wheeling down the Mississippi, or maybe dark, dirty, coal-choked factories of the Industrial Age.

In other words, steam–and the coal furnaces that produced it–may seem like a relic of the 19th and early to mid 20th centuries. Especially in our new, post-industrial age of software and fiber-optic cables, it’s difficult to consider coal and steam as still relevant to how things work in our seemingly clean, computerized, wireless world.

And yet, of course, burning coal to produce steam is still the basis of nearly every contemporary technology. Using voice recognition software on your iPhone to schedule a teleconference meeting next Thursday may seem entirely removed from the age of coal, but firing up the phone and activating its microprocessors requires electricity–electricity produced by and large in power plants that burn coal to superheat water to create steam under sufficient pressure to spin giant turbines that produce electricity.

In other words, the base sources of energy haven’t really changed over the past few centuries. Power plants have become more efficient, and renewables like solar and wind are growing in scope and capacity, but for the most part, the great bulk of the electricity we consume nearly every minute of every day depends directly on coal/steam power.

This is not a secret, exactly. But I bet that if I were to poll random people in the street, 9 out of 10 would have only a vague sense of how electricity is made and where it comes from. And I bet they’d be shocked to learn that the vast majority of it comes from coal.

Invisible Energy

31 Oct
Coal mining Leseband

Image via Wikipedia

It’s been a while since my last post, mainly because researching and actually writing the book has taken precedence. But I read something last night that reminded me why I’m writing this book in the first place, and felt compelled to blog about it.

For the past few years I’ve taught a magazine writing class at the Indiana University School of Journalism, and this semester I assigned a 2007 GQ article titled “Underworld,” written by Jeanne Marie Laskas. It’s a fantastic piece about the dark, hidden world of a working coal mine. Laskas spent months shadowing workers in a mine in eastern Ohio, spending many hours underground with a crew, seeing and experiencing things that most people hardly know exist.

What struck me most about the piece, and what I took to be the story’s main theme, was the strange and ironic invisibility of something so loud, visceral, and vital. Here’s how Laskas put it:

I live on top of a massive vein of medium-sulfur bituminous coal–the very famous Pittsburgh Number 8 Seam that extends from eastern Ohio to western Maryland, where coal has played a vital role in the economy and culture for over a century. The fact that it still does takes a lot of people by surprise. We still have coal mines? I got that question a lot when I told people that I was hanging out in a coal mine.

In this way, I was slightly ahead of the curve: I know coal mined existed. And not just in pockets of some America that never caught up, not as funky remnants of a bygone era, but as current places of work, day after day, guys with lunch buckets heading in and heading out, taking home sixty, seventy, eighty thousand dollars a year … The question I had doing in was almost ridiculous in nature: If coal is really this big, and all these people really exist, how is it that I know nothing about them?

Precisely. The short answer, of course, is that coal mining is invisible largely because it’s underground. Oil drilling, with its iconic derricks and offshore platforms, is more visible, if still mostly mysterious to people who don’t happen to live near an oil field. Even alternative technologies, like wind turbines and solar panels, are more visible than coal, even though as industries they’re miniscule compared to the coal business.

But mainly coal is invisible because we don’t really want to know about it. When a mine collapses and miners are trapped or killed, suddenly the dirty business of gouging from the earth the stuff that makes our modern civilization possible is thrust in our faces. We collectively hope for the best and shake our heads about what a dangerous business coal mining is, and then once the crisis is over we promptly put the whole thing out of our minds and willfully forget, until the next disaster.

The irony, of course, is that coal is absolutely vital to just about everything we do, every day. In our day-to-day lives, plugged in as we are to our phones and computers and hundreds of other electrical devices (not to mention more mundane technologies like refrigerators, dishwashers, washing machines, and toasters), we’re much more dependent on coal than we are on oil (which we consume most directly as transportation fuel–although oil plays a much more pervasive role in our lives in every thing from the plastic bags we use to pack our kids lunches to the pills we take to combat high blood pressure). If you’re reading this on a computer (which I assume you are; it’s hard to imagine someone actually printing this out), you are quite literally participating in the burning of several pounds of coal. The fact that you never have to see, smell, breathe in, or taste this coal is part of the miracle of modern energy engineering. All we know, and barely understand, is that when we plug things in, they somehow work. The electricity that makes things work is odorless, invisible, mute. But on the other end, making that flow of electrons possible, is a great, fiery furnace within which burns an everlasting, coal-fed fireball.

Which brings me back to the point of the book, which is to make energy visible. It’s hard to take renewable technologies seriously if you don’t understand where they come from. And it’s impossible to know where they come from without knowing the story of energy writ large. Because energy was not always invisible. Not so long ago, when people had coal cellars, and before than when survival meant chopping wood and carrying water, energy was an all-too visible and pervasive part of people’s lives. Today we’re blessed with a modern system that tucks power plants away in remote regions. But we’re also cursed in being so far removed from our sources of energy that we’ve almost entirely forgotten and in many cases never knew what they are and how they work. Any society so ignorant of its most basic technological underpinnings is on shaky footing, primed for economic and ecological disaster.

Melodramatic? Maybe. But the prices of electricity and oil are volatile. The ice caps are not going to stop melting. The globe is changing bit by bit. It’s our job, our duty, to be aware, to take note and do our best to understand what we’re doing, what we’ve done, and what we need to do going forward.

Oregon Leads With New Wave Power Projects

14 Sep

I just published an article about wave power in Talking Points Memo’s “Idea Lab” section. Check it out here.

Q&A with Martin McAdams, CEO Aquamarine Power

8 Sep
Sea Storm in Pacifica, California

Image via Wikipedia

Wave power technology has existed for more than a century, but so far it hasn’t caught on like wind and solar power. Is there reason to believe that this is a breakthrough moment for wave energy?One challenge for wave power and for ocean power more generally is the nature of the environment we’re trying to access. The ocean is a rough, unpredictable place and it’s taken a long time for the technology to evolve to be able to work well enough in the water. Most of the early attempts required engineering, software, control systems, and materials that simply didn’t exist. A major breakthrough happened in the ‘70s with Salter’s Duck [a revolutionary, highly efficient wave power generator developed by British engineer Stephen Salter], which showed people for the first time that you could take innovative concepts for wave energy machines and actually deploy them at sea. And in the past several decades we’ve learned a lot from offshore oil and gas drilling about working in a marine environment. Plus, we’re at a moment when concerns about climate change and rising fuel prices have generated new interest in renewable energy. Wind and solar energy can’t provide all the power we need–there has to be a broader portfolio of renewable technologies. So the time seems right for wave energy to take the next step.Several companies are developing wave power technologies. Your device, the Oyster, is essentially a rotating metal sheet that moves with the waves and uses the motion to pump seawater at high pressure to hydroelectric generators on shore. What’s the advantage of the Oyster compared to other devices?

What we put in the water is the simplest possible configuration of hydraulic pump we can make. The part that’s in the water is just a simple pump. The more complex, electricity generating equipment is all on shore. Other technologies, by nature of what they’re trying to do, make it more complex. The Pelamis device [a tubular, machine consisting of sausage-like links] produces electricity within the actual machine, so there’s a lot of delicate equipment inside. There’s also been a lot written about buoy technology, but buoys only capture energy from the up and down motion of waves. Waves are more complex–they have a horizontal as well as a vertical component. So buoys are not very efficient. The Oyster, by contrast, is by its nature very efficient. Another advantage is that it won’t shut down in storms. The apparatus is hinged to the sea bed and even the most powerful storm will just wash right over the top.

Scotland is home to many of the world’s most advanced wave power companies, including, besides Aquamarine, Pelamis and Wavegen. How did Scotland come to be a center of wave energy?

The Scottish government has gone out of its way to encourage the wave power industry. The Scottish economy was once based on heavy engineering, mainly ship building, but that’s largely gone away and been replaced by things life life sciences and information technology. But Scotland still has a good amount of manufacturing capability for building and installing large devices. Combine that infrastructure with unlimited wave resources and you have the perfect conditions for developing a wave power industry. The Scottish government has probably been the most proactive in the world in relation to marine energy. It’s put in place support programs that offer companies like ours grants to help with the fabrication and installation of devices. The government has also been very helpful in facilitating the development of supply chains and building port infrastructure. This September the government is holding it’s second annual Scottish Low Carbon Investment conference. So the atmosphere in Scotland is very encouraging for renewable energy of all types, including wave power.

That’s quite a contrast to the United States, where the federal government hasn’t done or been able to do much to encourage long-term investment in renewable energy technologies. What can or should the US do to encourage renewable energy along the lines of Scotland and elsewhere in Europe?

As I see it, there are two main energy challenges in the United States. One is from an energy usage perspective. The U.S. has approximately 6% of the world’s population but uses nearly 25% of the world’s energy. So the primary challenge for the U.S. government is to encourage efficiency. This doesn’t necessarily mean using less total energy, but it does mean using energy more wisely. The second main challenge is cost. Most American consumers might not agree with me, but energy in the U.S. is actually very cheap compared to Europe. But cheap energy is not always going to be there, especially if near total dependence on fossil fuels continues. As we saw in the ‘70s and as we’ve seen more recently, volatility in the pricing of oil and other fossil fuels can cause huge economic shocks. In Europe, governments are beginning to factor volatility into the price of energy by encouraging renewables, where the the bulk of the cost is up front in developing infrastructure [i.e. building wind and solar farms] but the fuel is free. I think the U.S. would be wise to think more about how to insulate the country from energy price shocks. And that means doing more to change its energy portfolio. There’s a decent amount of wind development in the States, and growing solar development. I think wave power can be an important part of the mix. The west coast of the United States has enormous potential. Developing wave energy there, as we’re in the process of doing in Oregon, can help the country balance it’s energy portfolio and be a major contributor to GDP. It’s important to not underestimate the economic potential of wave power and other renewables for any economy.

Why We Need a National Renewable Energy Standard

11 Aug
PS20 and PS10

Image via Wikipedia

Over the past two years I’ve spent working on the book, the most frequent question I’ve gotten from friends, family, and the occasional curious blog reader goes something like this: “is renewable energy for real, or is it just another hippie fad.” It’s a legitimate question, because for many people, renewable energy is something they hear a lot about but don’t really see or experience in their lives. They may read about some big new solar project or controversy surrounding the Cape Wind project in the waters off Cape Cod, but the bulk of their electricity still comes from good (or not so good, depending on your perspective) old-fashioned coal-burning power plants. And the (increasingly expensive) gasoline they pump into their cars is still around 80% derived from imported oil. So it’s easy to assume that renewable energy is more pipe dream than reality, more a suite of niche technologies than a fully functioning apparatus ready to take on an displace fossil fuels.

But is this view right? Yes and no. If you go by the numbers alone, renewables constitute only a miniscule percentage of the world’s overall energy production (somewhere in the realm of 2%). Even the largest solar and wind farms don’t come close to producing the same amount of power as even a medium-sized coal-fired power plant. But numbers don’t tell the whole story. Because numbers only speak to the present moment and reveal nothing about the bigger picture. The history of renewable energy is replete with ingenious inventors, fantastic inventions, and hundreds of near misses, usually in the form of path-breaking technologies that were either ahead of their time or were plowed under by more entrenched and better-funded fossil fuel corporations. Undergirding the history of failure is a lack of widespread government support. Until very recently, renewable energy innovators have been mostly lone wolves, engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs with big ideas but not quite enough cash or political clout to realize them fully.

But that’s changed significantly over the past few decades. Scanning recent energy headlines, I came across this one:

Army targets big renewable energy projects

The US military, the article reports, is investing heavily in large solar farms and other forms of renewable energy. The Army consumes huge amounts of energy and is always looking for ways to cut costs. Strategically, being able to produce energy on site at military bases is preferable to relying on fragile supply lines vulnerable to enemy attack. And so the Army is going to pour more than 7 billion dollars into developing its renewable energy infrastructure. This is remarkable not just for the large dollar amount but also because it marks a new and unprecedented shift in the history of renewable energy: namely, the embrace of renewable technologies by a large, state-supported institution.

The US Army is not the first or only example of this shift. Other countries, most notably Germany and Spain, have adopted strong renewable energy mandates that have pushed the development of wind and solar, especially, to new heights. China is forging ahead (some would say recklessly) at breakneck speed, building new solar and wind farms across the country.

And the U.S? While there’s plenty of renewable energy activity here, it’s more haphazard, happening in fits and starts. Despite the Army’s strong commitment to renewables, the country as a whole has not jumped on the green energy bandwagon. In short, while the Obama administration has laid out some very ambitious clean energy goals (80% of US energy produced by clean sourced by 2035), there’s no officially legislated mandate to back those goals and bring them to fruition. Individual states, most notably California, Colorado, and several others, have stepped in and taken the lead, but to truly push renewable energy forward, to help it transition from a bunch of still relatively niche technologies to a powerful player in the energy landscape that can butt heads with and eventually replace fossil fuels, the federal government is going to have to step up and make renewable energy a national priority.

Will this happen? Right now it seems unlikely. U.S. politics are so divisive on the issue of government spending that a massive national effort to advance renewable energy is remote in the short-term. But it’s exactly this sort of short-term thinking that has caused the U.S. to fall behind China, Germany, and other countries in taking the lead on clean energy. Despite the recent downgrade, the U.S. is still the world’s largest and most dynamic economy. Where the U.S. goes, the rest of the world follows (at least for now). If this country were to somehow band together in support of renewable energy, if there was a Panama Canal or moon landing-like effort to build up renewable energy technology and infrastructure, great things could happen.

 

The Vast, Maddening Promise of Enhanced Geothermal Systems

31 May
Diagram of EGS with numeric labels. 1:Reservoi...

Image via Wikipedia

Geothermal power is the red-headed stepchild of renewable energy.

Unlike wind, solar, and biofuels, it rarely makes headlines or stirs up controversy. Politicians and pundits never hail geothermal as the Next Big Thing and often fail to even mention it when speechifying on the importance (or, depending on their political slant, boondoggle) of green energy. The average citizen, meanwhile, doesn’t even know what geothermal energy is, beyond the suspicion that it has something to do with volcanoes and Old Faithful.

Here’s the thing about geothermal, though: it is, by far, the most promising renewable source for big time, base load, continuous (i.e. not intermittent, like wind and solar) energy. Dig down deep enough pretty much anywhere on earth and you’ll find dry rocks heated by the decay of radioactive minerals and by heat radiating from the earth’s molten core are ubiquitous. Tapping the vast, virtually endless amounts of heat stored in these rocks could (at least theoretically) help solve many, if not most, of our energy problems. In a report published by MIT, geologists and other scientists estimate that the United States alone contains 200,000 exajoules of recoverable geothermal energy–2000 times the amount of primary energy the country consumes annually.

How to harvest this bounteous resource?

The basic idea, known as enhanced geothermal systems (EGS) is simple: find a bunch of hot rock within drilling range, sink a couple of wells, pump water down at high pressure to open a network of fissures within the rock, then cold water through the fissures to absorb heat, send the water back up through the second well, transfer its heat to a liquid with a relatively low boiling point, and use the resulting steam to power electricity generating turbines.

So … what are we waiting for, you may ask. Dig the wells! Pump the water! Let’s start using the planet’s in-exhaustible store of heat to make clean, emission-free electricity!

Yes, let’s … but before we do, there’s just one thing to consider: after more than 30 years of enhanced geothermal research and development, beginning with the Fenton Hill project at Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico in the mid ‘70s, scientists are still a little shaky on how best to make the elegantly simple idea of EGS work in the field. This isn’t to say that the technology doesn’t work; it does. Scientists know beyond a doubt that you can use subterranean hot rocks to produce net energy. But they don’t know how to make EGS work as efficiently as possible every time, everywhere. Because, as the MIT report documents in fine-grained detail, when you start messing around with hot, dense rock buried several thousand feet in the earth’s mantel, there’s no telling what might happen.

For example, engineering the a network of fissures and cracks is no cakewalk. Ideally, the fracture system channels the water toward the extraction well, up through which the now hot water returns to the surface to give up its valuable heat. But as researchers have learned over the past several decades, giant slabs of rock tend to have minds of their own when it comes to fracturing. Almost all large rocks have fused networks of cracks and fissures already in place; forcing pressurized water down to re-open the system often has unpredictable and unintended consequences, such as broadening the network so much that the water meant to absorb and return heart to the surface spreads out and seeps away.

Geothermal engineers have made progress since the ‘70s. Advances in drilling, fracturing techniques, and mapping and monitoring what’s happening deep underground have helped inch the technology forward. Small-scale commercial projects are operating in France and Germany, and dozens of other pilot projects are in the works around the world.

Still, EGS is a long way from realizing its huge potential. What needs to happen for EGS to take the next step, to scale up and become a true power player in the global energy game? I’ll tackle that question in my next post. Stay tuned.

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