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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.

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.

A reader chimes in on energy policy

4 Apr

I got this email from a reader the other day. Nice to know that people are checking out the blog …


“Jeremy, I was strolling through your blog site as I was interested in the book effort underway.  And I did not see a section about the contents of the book that dealt with energy policy.
I work with policy.  CLEAN policy.  The policy that has been supporting about 70% of the renewable energy on this planet has very little impact here in the good old USofA.  That deserves a chapter in your book.  All of the good ideas in the world won’t do poop in this country if there is not a way for implementation to take place that makes economic sense.  You know of this as feed-in tariffs.  We are trying to re-brand as CLEAN, Clean Local Energy Accessible Now.
In Michigan, my campaign is one that accepts that state government is screwed, so I am approaching one municipal utility at a time to try to get CLEAN policy adopted.  I sell it as an economic development tool instead of a way to save the planet.  Explaining CLEAN to the public and to utilities has been an exercise in determination and frustration.  But it also is a very graphic vehicle r showing the unique qualities of USA energy policy development which have kept us from enjoying the benefits of a robust renewable energy economy.
It would be nice if more authors could describe the problem, which would serve to educate the public as to the need for new policy.  Be well.”



Abraham Lincoln Foresaw Age of Wind Power

8 Feb
Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth President of th...

Image via Wikipedia

You know who predicted the age of wind power? Abraham Lincoln, that’s who.

A New York Times article dated Nov. 22, 1936, quotes from a lecture titled “Discoveries and Inventions” Lincoln gave in 1860, before he became president.  Here’s the relevant part:

“Of all the forces of nature, I should think the wind contains the largest amount of motive power … Take any given space of the earth’s surface, for instance, Illinois, and all the power exerted by all the men, beasts, running water and steam over and upon it shall not equal the 100th part of what is exerted by the blowing of the wind over and upon the same place. And yet it has not, so far in the world’s history, become properly valued as motive power. It is applied extensively and advantageously to sail vessels in navigation. Add to this a few windmills and pumps and you have about all. As yet the wind is an untamed, unharnessed force, and quite possibly one of the greatest discoveries hereafter to be made will be the taming and harnessing of it.”

Pretty cool, no?

POET CEO Jeff Broin: Ethanol Willing to Give Up Subsidies for Level Playing Field

17 Jan
This past October, the EPA raised the ethanol “blend wall” (the amount of ethanol that can be mixed with gasoline) from 10% to 15% for cars made in 2007 and later. I spoke with Jeff Broin, CEO of leading ethanol producer POET, about what this and other developments mean for the future of the ethanol industry.Is the EPA’s upgrade of the ethanol blend wall from E10 to E15 a positive sign for the future of the U.S. ethanol industry?Broin: As the first crack in the blend wall in more than 30 years, it’s definitely a step in the right direction. with 2001 and newer vehicles, it will encompass 54% of the fleet. The studies submitted in the waiver request showed that E15 was compatible with older vehicles as well and we will continue to push for that approval with the EPA.Congress recently extended ethanol subsidies (a 54 cent-per-gallon tariff on imported ethanol and a 45 cent-per-gallon tax credit per gallon of ethanol blended with gasoline) through 2011, despite a rising tide of critics claiming that it’s time to end ethanol subsidies and for the industry to stand on its own. What’s your response?Broin: What’s missing from that argument is that the oil industry has been heavily subsidizeddirectly and indirectly for more than 100 years. There are all sorts of tax breaks for oil companies permanently embedded in the tax code, and some oil companies pay no taxes at all. It costs around $150 billion a year to patrol the Persian Gulf. And there are significant health costs related to oil. The point is that ethanol is hardly alone in receiving subsidies; in fact, ethanol tax breaks have cost our country far less than tax breaks for oil.

That said, we’re now proposing a new plan to phase out ethanol subsidies that would allow ethanol to directly compete with oil. It’s important to understand that oil companies have a virtual monopoly on the gasoline business. Ethanol is up against a 10% blend wall [now 15% for 2007 and later model cars], meaning that there’s a strict limit on how much ethanol we can produce and sell. We’re proposing to give up part of our tax incentive in exchange for being allowed to compete with gasoline on a level playing field. This will require a large investment in infrastructure, including installing more blended fuel pumps at gas stations throughout the country and requiring car companies to make more flex fuel vehicles. If the market were open today so we could compete head to head with gasoline, ethanol could be the most competitive fuel on the planet. We want to give consumers that choice.

With Republicans newly ascendant in Congress, how likely is it that we’ll see the sort of pro-ethanol policy you’re talking about?

Broin: That remains to be seen. The ethanol industry is interested in a fair and open market, which is something I think will be popular with both Democrats and Republicans. Ethanol is the best cost and cleanest fuel. It creates American jobs and helps decrease our reliance on foreign sources of energy. I think legislators from both parties can get behind that.

Critics of ethanol claim that it raises food prices and is environmentally harmful because it leads to deforestation to make room for more acres of corn.

Broin: That’s simply not true. First, growing more corn doesn’t mean claiming more land. We grow six times more corn per acre today than we did in 1920, and yields per acre are expected to double in the next several years. Plus, there are more than a billion acres around the world sitting idle. Increasing ethanol production presents an opportunity to bring those acres back into production. And many of those acres are in developing countries, so using them to grow fuel crops would boost rural economies in some of the world’s poorest areas.

Second, ethanol does not raise food prices. Over the next 20 years the U.S. is projected to double its grain production. That’s enough to produce 48 billion gallons of ethanol annually (up from 14 billion gallons today) while still raising our feed supply by 40 percent. Plus, ethanol production doesn’t remove corn from the feed supply. All of the protein that comes into ethanol plants goes right back out into food and animal feed markets. We only take the starch.

Cellulosic ethanol (ethanol made from non-edible parts of plants) has been touted as the next big thing in biofuels. But according to a recent (Jan. 11) article in the The New York Times, no cellulosic biofuel was blended with gasoline in 2010. Is cellulosic biofuel still on the way, or has it hit a snag?

Broin: We’ve been researching cellulosic biofuel heavily for about 10 years and have put more than $40 million in research. We’re very far down that road and have been operating a pilot plant [in Scotland, SD] for two years that makes fuel from corn plant residue. We plan to build a commercial-scale plant later this year.

So cellulosic biofuel is on the way. Again, until recently, the biofuel industry was up against a 10% blend wall that was met completely by corn ethanol. The market was full, which makes it difficult to invest in cellulosic biofuel. But we’re forging ahead. There’s still lots of research going on to perfect the process, and we’ve partnered with multiple companies to develop microorganisms that break down cellulose. So I’m confident that, given an open market and an even playing field, we’ll start seeing cellulosic biofuel make a significant impact soon.

Today, electric cars are all the rage, with the Chevy Volt, Nissan Leaf, and others making daily  headlines. How does this affect the biofuel industry?

Broin: One thing that everyone seems to be forgetting is that electric vehicles will be powered mainly by coal. We can’t built enough wind and solar power to handle the increase in electricity demand for electric cars. So they’ll end up causing us to burn more fossil fuels and raise emissions.  Ethanol, on the other hand, helps lower emissions. It’s about 59% better than gasoline in terms of emissions, and could be 100% better in the future.

Also, electric cars are projected to be only 2% of all cars on the road by 2020. While Elon Musk and Tesla Motors, as well as many other manufacturers are trying to increase production of electric cars, gas-powered cars still dominate the industry. Right now, General Motors, Chrysler, and Ford have committed to make at least 50% of their cars flex fuel capable by 2015. So we need to get E85 (85% ethanol, 15% gasoline) into pumps and educate the consumer about making smart fuel choices. Look, for example, at your local Nissan dealerships. It will be a while before these cars are available in used car dealerships in Phoenix, Arizona, perhaps until after the market becomes saturated with these vehicles.

Wind Wagons

15 Dec

Today I’ve been reading about “wind wagons”–19th century covered wagons equipped with cloth sails used to “sail” across the flat, windswept plains of the American west.  This was not a widespread phenomenon; there were probably only a handful of wind wagons built. And nearly all of them ended in disaster of one kind or another. But still, it’s an amusing and interesting footnote in the history of wind power in the American West.

There’s a children’s book, The Wind Wagon, set in the 1860s, about a real person named Samuel Peppard who sailed a wind wagon from Kansas to Colorado.

And Disney made a short called Saga of Windwagon Smith (1961). Check out parts I & II:

The Big Green Buy: How Government’s Purchasing Power Can Drive the Clean-Energy Revolution

6 Aug

“An overemphasis on breakthrough inventions can obscure the fact that most of the energy technologies we need already exist.”

Sort of. But while wind and solar have come a long way, and made huge technical advances over the past few decades, they’re still a long way from making much of a dent, percentage-wise, in how we generate electricity. The largest solar power plants generate something like 60 MW of power. Not bad, but an average coal electricity plant generates 650 MW. To begin to match the amount of electric power made by coal plants, wind and solar need a lot of land. Is there enough to go around? Plus, there’s the ever present problem of storage. What happens at night or when there’s no wind? Finally, the “smart grid” is still in its infancy. For the most part, electricity still flows one way–from power plants to homes and buildings.

My point isn’t dismiss renewable energy. On the contrary, renewables are not only necessary but inevitable. Whether to mitigate climate change or bolster national security or due to the inescapable fact that, sooner or later, fossil fuels will run out, we’ll be forced to turn to renewable energy sooner or later. But the transition probably won’t be as simple as the US govt plowing trillions into buying electric cars. There are plenty of technology issues still requiring attention.
Read the Article at HuffingtonPost

Obama’s Oil Spill Speech: What Was The Point?

16 Jun

Apparently, the only way Obama could have won over critics on the left and right was to don a wet suit and plug the leak himself while at the same time ramming pathbreaking renewable energy legislation through the House and Senate. This was a no-win situation for the prez. The speech is good fodder for snarky blog posts, though.
Read the Article at HuffingtonPost

BP Not the Only Villains Here, We’re The Addicts, After All

2 Jun

“Why are you not completely over oil now? Why do you not see your low mileage cars as instruments of our own destruction? They are. They simply are. Why is everyone not talking about Solar, wind, geothermal, fuel cell and every other thing we have right now as an alternative right now because we’re shutting off the wells right now?”

I’m sorry, but this is simply not realistic. LIke it or not, the world is currently powered by fossil fuels. While it’s essential to develop renewable energy sources like solar and wind and biofuels, it’s also important to recognize that none of these technologies, alone or combined, can come close to replacing oil (not to mention coal) any time soon. We may be “addicted” to oil, but it’s not something the world can just choose to give up, cold turkey. Bouley may power his laptop with solar, but what about his car, heating? Does he fly? None of this is possible without oil, and lots of it. In the long run we’ll need to find replacements for this finite resource, but it won’t happen overnight.
Read the Article at HuffingtonPost

Mr. President: Now Is the Time For Clean Energy

20 May

Thomas Friedman makes a similar argument in a recent op/ed piece. This is Obama’s chance to be a true leader on energy policy. Will he lead? Looks doubtful.
Read the Article at HuffingtonPost

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