Tag Archives: renewable energy

Why We Need a National Renewable Energy Standard

11 Aug
PS20 and PS10

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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.


Hearts and Minds

23 Nov
potencial of renewables

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A few weeks ago I blogged about the “efficiency vs. renewables” dictum — that is, the commonly held wisdom that, practically speaking energy efficiency comes first, renewables second. Whether you’re a homeowner, business owner, or government, investing in renewables only makes sense if you’ve first done everything possible to use energy derived from all sources–fossil and renewable–more efficiently.

In that post I mentioned that my friend Alex Jarvis, a solar installer in Bloomington, IN, challenged that logic, claiming that in his experience, investing in renewables can often act as a catalyst to greater energy efficiency. To see what other energy experts thought, I recently spoke with Penni Mclean-Conner, vice president of customer care for NSTAR–a Massachusetts-based gas and electric utility–and author of Energy Efficiency: Principles and Practices.

It’s crucial, she said, that state and local governments push energy efficiency-based plans to reduce out carbon footprint. “But I don’t think that at all precludes the rapid development of renewable technologies or should discourage customers from investing in both efficiency and alternative energy technologies simultaneously,” she said. “I’m excited by whatever motivates customers.”

I think that’s an important point. One of the central challenges in dealing with climate change, energy security, and pollution is getting people to care enough about these issues to actually do something about them. Yes, it’s an unassailable fact that energy efficiency is, well, the most efficient and economical means of using energy wisely. (It’s no surprise, after all, that the ongoing Empire State Building sustainable retrofit involves replacing most of the existing windows with more energy efficient windows but does not include solar panels or rooftop-mounted wind turbines.) [link: http://www.esbsustainability.com/SocMe/?Id=0%5D

But motivation matters, too. The global effort to change the way we make and consume energy is in large part a struggle for hearts and minds. Because, for all sorts of reasons, the inconvenient truths of climate change, rising energy prices, and dwindling stores of easily accessible fossil fuels are not necessarily self-evident. Unless you’re already a committed environmentalist, climate change activist, or renewable energy advocate, It’s easy to ignore or remain willfully ignorant of the facts because there are other, more immediately pressing things to worry about (like the global financial meltdown). So part of the task is making these facts evident, making visible the ways in which energy is made, the ways in which energy is consumed, and the ways in which energy matters.

Which is why, finally, I’m with McLean-Connor. Whatever motivates people to be conscious of energy, whether it’s the common-sense logic and economic propriety of energy efficiency or the razzle-dazzle of exciting renewable energy technologies–both matter. We need to think beyond the rigid hierarchy of “efficiency first, renewables second” and recognize how they work together as part of the new energy story.

You can check out more of my thoughts and writing about renewable energy and about my book-in-progress, Renewable, at http://www.renewablebook.com.



Efficiency First, Renewables Second … or Vice Versa?

19 Oct



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While working on my book on renewable energy over the past year, I’ve repeatedly come across the common argument that while renewables are all well and good, they make little sense without first doing everything we can to make homes, businesses, cars, etc. more energy-efficient. Only then, the reasoning goes, will the average consumer get the most value for their rooftop PV solar panels, or home geothermal system, a small wind turbine.

I see the logic, and I’m sure in many ways the efficiency-before-renewables argument is simply true. But there’s a flip side to that argument …

I put this argument to my friend Alex Jarvis, a solar installer based in Bloomington, Indiana (my home town). And while he agreed that cutting back on energy usage and improving efficiency are important, he wasn’t sold on the notion that efficiency should always come before investing in renewable technology. Sometimes, he said, based on his experience with clients who’ve ponied up for a rooftop solar system, taking the technology plunge spurs efficiency. in other words, pouring several thousands dollars into a solar array or geothermal system or whatever is great incentive to become more efficient in general energy use. In order to squeeze every last ounce of value out of the technology they’ve paid for, Alex said, his clients often become hyper aware of how much energy they use, how and when they use it, and what they can do to use less and consume energy more efficiently. And when they do, they see up close and personal how their solar panels on their roof are offsetting a larger percentage of their overall energy use.

Interesting point, no?

Now, Alex’s experience is limited. He’s just one guy. But I wonder if other solar installers and people who invest on renewables on small or large scales have found something similar. Is there in fact a case to be made for renewable energy technology spurring energy efficiency instead of the other way around?

I plan to look into this in greater depth. Meanwhile, I’m curious to know what you think.

Let me know …

Colorado Research Trip Pics

26 Mar

Just got back from my Colorado research trip. Very successful. I met with scientists and researchers from the Rocky Mountain Institute, UC Boulder, Colorado State, SunDrop Biofuels, the Denver International Airport’s solar installations, and other places. I learned a lot, got great material, and took a lot of pictures …

Rocky Mountain Institute office in Boulder, CO

Notice the straight air ducts descending diagonally from the ceiling. They’re designed to channel air more efficiently than ducts with numerous twists and turns. The RMI building also features windows specially treated to trap solar heat and lots of natural lighting.

RMI’s non-water-flushing toilet.

SunDrop Biofuel’s solar collecting tower. Thousands of mirrors reflect sunlight onto a large plate that heats to around 1200 degrees C. The heat is used to turn a mixture of woodchips and chemicals into gas that’s then refined into gasoline and diesel.

A smart grid test station at Colorado State, in Fort Collins.

A large wind turbine barely visible through a dense snowstorm at the National Wind Technology Center.

A many-tubed apparatus at NREL’s wind-to-hydrogen project using solar and wind-generated electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen is stored and used in fuel cells and internal combustion engines.

Part of a wind turbine blade. These things are freaking huge. On the largest turbines, each blade is somewhere in the neighborhood of 80 feet long. So in terms of sheer length and width, a rotating large scale turbine is like a spinning football field.

Purdue Visit Part II

2 Mar

I went to Purdue again last week, on Feb. 23, to meet with people who are, across the board, about a million times smarter than me. I’ll say this about being a science writer: it’s interesting and often humbling to sit across from and talk with someone whose intellectual wattage surpasses your own. Not that telling stories doesn’t require intelligence … but it’s not quite the same thing.

Anyhow, I met with two scientists–agricultural economist Wallace Tyner and fluid power specialist Monika Ivantysynova

A few highlights …

A lot, most, of the people I talk to who are now tenured professors working on energy came of age during the late 70s–the last time energy was a big deal like it is today. (Energy is always important, of course, but the average person only takes notice when there’s an “energy crisis,” so-called.) Wallace Tyner is no different. Wallace Tyner actually is a product of the 60s. After getting an undergrad degree in chemistry, he joined the Peace Corps and ended up in India raising chickens. But Tyner wasn’t really a chicken farmer–he was a scientist at heart, and before long he began measuring the chemical composition of chicken feed, trying to figure out how to make it more nutritious.

After the Corps, Tyner ended up at the U of Maryland studying economics, spent time back in India studying the leasing of oil and gas resources for his Ph.D., then eventually got a job at Purdue as an energy economist. But when oil dropped to $4/barrel by the mid 80s, Tyner turned to development and ended up spending three years in Morocco working on agricultural policy and trade.

Now, though, since 2004, since energy is once again hot, Tyner is back to energy.We talked about corn ethanol, which by now is a fairly well known story. His current work focuses on the economics of cellulosic biofuels. Tyner seems fairly upbeat about the prospects for cellulose. He recently got a $1 million grant to study how biofuels consume water.

Monika Ivantysynova is a smart woman. So smart, in fact, that I barely understood what she was telling me about her work on hydraulic power systems in large vehicles like earth movers. I got this gist, though … I think. Hydraulics are actually pretty simple. It basically involves using pressurized liquid–typically oil–to move things. The breaks in most cars use hydraulics. Most construction machinery uses hydraulics to raise and lower arms and scoops. The benefit of hydraulics is that it’s a very efficient way of moving things around. It also allows for precise control over a machine’s moving parts. Or something like that. Anyhow, Ivantysynova and her colleagues and grad students are working toward developing hydraulic systems for passenger cars.  Here’s an explanation I found online of how such a system works:

“Hydraulic hybrids operate basically the same way as gasoline-electric hybrids, but they use a motor-pump instead of an electric motor-generator—and an accumulator rather than the battery pack. An accumulator is essentially a pressure tank that stores compressed gas or liquid. When the driver slows down or brakes, the pump forces the hydraulic fluid out of a low-pressure tank into a twin high-pressure tank. To accelerate, the fluid is forced back to the low-pressure tank past the pump/motor, which applies torque to the wheels. The hydraulic regenerative braking system, which can put as much as 80 percent of the braking energy back to the wheel, is more efficient than regen braking in current hybrid cars.” Source: hybridcars.com

Hybrid-hydraulic systems are evidently already out there, at least in prototypes. Since the systems relied on frequent stopping and starting, hydraulics make the most sense for delivery trucks, garbage trucks, etc. The reason scientists and auto companies are interested in developing hydraulic systems for passenger cars is because it helps save on fuel consumption and cuts down on emissions.

I’ll be honest–I still don’t quite understand this, but it’s worth learning more about.

Purdue Energy Center Visit Part I

12 Feb

This week I made the first of what will be four visits to the Purdue Energy Center at Purdue University in W. Lafayette, IN. Here are a few random thoughts and impressions before it becomes too hazy …

First, thank G-d for GPS. The first thing I bought with the book advance was a portable GPS system–the kind you mount on your windshield with a little suction cup. Without this thing I’d be lost. I now do whatever the soothing female voice tells me. If it told me to drive into oncoming traffic, I probably would.

Anyhow, I’d been trying for months to schedule a visit to Purdue, and for some reason it just wasn’t coming together. But then Jill Wable came on the scene, and within a few short weeks it was on. So thank you, Jill, for your expert logistical and coordinating work.

On Feb. 11, I met with three researchers: Jay Gore, Center director and a professor of engineering; Louis Sherman, professor of biological sciences; and Hugh Hillhouse, professor of chemical engineering. The first thing I should say is that these guys are crazy smart. If anything gives me hope that energy is headed in the right direction, it’s meeting with people like Gore, Sherman, and Hillhouse, whose work is right on the cutting edge of energy-related research.

Here are some highlights from my conversations with them …

Jay Gore grew up in India, studying engineering at the University of Pune. He vividly remembers the energy crisis of the late 1970s, when he was a senior. President Jimmy Carter had scheduled a trip to India, including a visit to Pune. Gore was especially excited because he was to be part of a group scheduled to meet the President. But due to a variety of political and security reasons, Carter canceled the trip, leaving Gore disappointed. This was a moment, Gore says, that sparked his initial interest in Energy.

Long story short, Gore came to the US, got a master at Penn State, then worked for a company that designed training programs for nuclear power plant operators. He then got a Ph.D. in thermal radiation at Penn State, taught at U of Michigan and U of Maryland for a few years before landing at Purdue.

Gore took me around to a few of the labs where grad students working under his guidance are doing some very cool things with some very sophisticated machines. I was taken into a bare, cell-like room in the middle of which a coal gassifier–a cylindrical device about seven feet high made of steel and PVC-type tubing. Coal gassifiers are nothing new–they’re devices used to combine coal with high pressure steam to produce gas that can then be condensed into liquid synthetic fuel. The one at the Purdue lab is different, though, because it’s built to allows for diagnostic testing of what’s actually happening inside. I didn’t see it in action, but the idea is to beam a laser through the device while it’s working to measure the precise nature of the chemical reactions. The end goal is to make the machine more efficient.

Near the end of my talk with Gore, he made an interesting point about why our energy moment is different from the late 1970s. “There are three main differences,” he said. “Microsoft, the Internet, and Google.” What Gore meant was that these companies and technologies have made billions of people in China and India that much more aware of the Western way of life, and how much energy we in the West consume. And that knowledge makes the Chinese and Indians want our way of life all the more. The upshot is that energy demand and consumption will rise dramatically in the coming decades.

Next I met with Louis Sherman, a biologist who for the past 20 years has been working on cyanobacteria, otherwise known as blue-green algae. He took me to a couple of growth chamber, where algae was growing in several flasks spinning on oscillators. I won’t pretend to have understood all the chemistry/biology stuff, but the gist as that cyanbacteria is interesting because when it photosynthesizes sunlight, one of the by-products in hydrogen. And hydrogen, of course, is a potentially abundant fuel for fuel cells. Sherman’s goal is to learn as much as possible about how cyanobacteria makes hydrogen, learn how to tweak its genes to get the microbes to make more hydrogen, and figure out ways to collect and store the stuff.

The last person I met with was Hugh Hillhouse, a young dynamo of a guy who works on nanotech solar stuff. Basically, he designed nanoscale scaffolding (or something like that) to increase the efficiency of how solar panels conduct electricity. It’s complicated, and I didn’t completely digest every detail (that’s what the digital recorder is for), but suffice it to say that Hillhouse’s work is the sort of high tech science stuff you hope to see when you visit a scientist.

More on this later. But this should suffice for now. My next trip to Purdue is next Tuesday.

Understanding Fossil Fuel Limits

15 Dec

Writing a book about renewable energy has given me a chance to think a lot about non-renewable energy. The more I read and think about solar power and wind and biofuels, the more I find myself thinking in new ways about oil, coal, and gas. Because one of the major justifications for investing in renewable energy is the fact that fossil fuels will eventually be used up. (The other two major arguments/justifications are environmental (global warming) and national and global security.)

But it’s easy to oversimplify and misunderstand the finite nature of fossil fuels and the practical implications of their finiteness. The problem with oil being a finite resource isn’t that we’re about to run out of oil or that any time soon. Same goes for coal and gas. The real problem is that although there’s still a vast amount of oil in the ground, the amount that’s relatively easy to bring to the surface is growing smaller.

Here’s how Vaclac Smil puts it in his excellent book, Energy in World History:

“Fossil fuel reserves are that small part of the resource based whose extraction is clearly profitable: Their spatial distribution and recovery costs (at current prices and with existing techniques) are known in enough detail to justify their commercial exploitation. As we recover higher shares of originally available resources, the best measure of their availability is the cost of producing additional or marginal units of a mineral. … Exhaustion is not thus a matter of actual physical depletion but rather a burden of eventually insupportable cost increases. There are no sudden ends, only prolonged declines, slow exits, and gradual shifts onto new supply planes.”

Well put, no? Now, Smil goes on to say that because oil depletion will be a slow, gradual process, it’s not as crucial an issue as more pressing environmental concerns. But I’m not sure about that. Assuming that there are “new supply planes” onto which the world will shift, perhaps the eventual transition toward other, renewable energy sources will be relatively seamless. But it’s also possible that even gradual declines in cost effective oil reserves will drive up prices in ways that are more like a shock to the system.

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