Friday, October 8, 2010

Energy & Emissions Latest Updates - Justmeans

Getting Real About Depleted Uranium & Sustainable Business - Jim Hickey


For most people, the word 'accessory' brings to mind nice hand bags or belts. However, the word also has legal significance, as in 'accessories' to criminal activity. Many of my posts here have contained, at least as background material, the likely criminal nature of the imperial actions of the United States Government. Other essays have engaged such topicality directly or manifested it as part of the primary story.

Today, folks will need to think about what the meaning is of being accessories to murder. Of course, the nostrum, "all's fair in love and war" provides some comfort for those who don't like to think about such things, but the Geneva Convention and several hangings in the aftermath of WWII would suggest that such protestation only works so long as the demurral follows on the heels of victory.

Thus, if the U.S. government is participating in criminal activity, then citizens could be accessories before the fact or accessories after the fact. The former is a more serious charge, but in the case of murder, any involvement is, by definition, deadly serious.

An accessory before the fact helps to plan and facilitate a murder. Very few of us would be guilty of this charge. Only those who actually developed the homicidal plan and helped to put it into action would be suspects in this regard.

An accessory after the fact is one who helps to hide or otherwise harbor the killer. Or it may be one who has a duty to reveal or apprehend the murderer but who instead merely continues to proceed with business as usual. One might make a very potent indictmentt that, morally if not legally--the technicalities of international law almost never apply to citizens in such cases--most or even all Americans who do not actively resist murderous policies are accessories after the fact.

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The Village of Tocco Makes Big Bucks with Wind Energy - Richard Cooke

With nations like Denmark and Germany declaring that they are aiming for 100% renewable energy, it is easy to think that the renewable energy bug is spreading through Europe like wildfire. Unfortunately, that is hardly the case as some countries take steps forward but still deal primarily in fossil fuels. Italy, despite some advancement on some renewable energy fronts, has been a bit behind compared to some of their European comrades. However, with each small step made could be the next big spark for green energy.

The small Italian village of Tocco da Casauria has been in the news recently as the shining example of how renewable energy has been taking hold in the Italian countryside. Located in the mountains on the eastern side of the Italian boot and situated about in the middle, Tocco is fairly small with a population barely peaking above 2,800 people and a history that stretches all the way back to the Roman Empire. However, where aqueducts may have been the latest technological marvel then, the four windmills powering the entire village are the talk of the town today.

The decision to convert to renewable energy was made by Tocco as a way of adapting to the growing prices of electricity throughout the nation.

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A Renewable Energy Walk in the Woods - Jim Hickey


Narratives rule the work that I do about renewable energy, for obvious reasons. When I find myself in the position of beginning an article, therefore, I can only think in terms of finding the underlying elements of a story thread so as to orient readers to the particulars of a sequence of events. In relation to today's posting, I would encourage readers to reflect on several points that I have developed before:
  • The importance of the South in comprehending key social aspects of many issues;
  • The avoidance of the primary function of class relations in explaining social and technical matters, whether as policy or as phenomena;
  • The unavoidable shadow of color prejudice in events touching on the intersection of Southern, national, and technical situations;
  • The central role of capacity in activating community-led policy;
  • The important but necessarily limited part that media and culture can play in progressive transformation;
  • And other references as they appear below.
Whatever storytelling devices seem apropos in a given context, at times, my own movement through the 'territories' of the text is so odd, or contains so many apparently disparate elements, that I can only rely on serendipity to achieve a sense of coherence. While at times my own skills, or lack thereof, make the difference between a successful effort and one that crashes in flames, at other times the pathway among the events that transpire is as easy and clear as a bright ribbon of river viewed through the crystal firmament of Fall.

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Geothermal Power Could Change Energy and Emissions Landscape in West Virginia - Nick Engelfried

If there's one US state that has come to symbolize dependence on dirty energy, and the emissions and other side effects of fossil fuels, that state would probably be West Virginia. Located in the heart of Appalachia, West Virginia is ground zero in the debate over mountaintop removal coal mining—a practice that involves literally blasting away mountaintops to get at buried coal seams. Almost all West Virginia's electricity comes from coal-fired power plants, of which there are more than forty in the state. Few other regions can claim such a close and destructive relationship to the coal industry as this.

It's therefore both ironic and encouraging that a report funded by Google has revealed West Virginia to be surprisingly rich in an untapped renewable resource: geothermal power. According to the report, West Virginia may have more geothermal potential than any other state in the eastern US. If utilized to their full extent, the state's geothermal energy resources could supply more electricity than West Virginia's current yearly energy demand, completely displacing coal energy and emissions.

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Tuesday, August 10, 2010

India's Ambitious Solar Energy Projects Are Set to Make Them Renewable Energy Leaders

For the last several years India has been slowly working towards developing a renewable energy infrastructure to efficiently power the second most populous country in the world. So, it is no surprise that despite continuing efforts to integrate solar power into the nation that it all seems to be a mere drop in the bucket compared to the vast nuclear and fossil fuel energy resources already available. However, India presses on with several plans to complete even greater solar projects in hopes of achieving their 20 gigawatts goal for the next four years.

So far, India's many solar renewable energy projects are diverse in size and the impact that they will have on the country's overall energy output. One of the smaller projects is the current proposal to install a photovoltaic solar power generator in the Indian Parliament building in New Delhi. The project is currently accepting bids from five companies for the government proposal and is aiming to construct an 80 kilowatt generator on the site for use as a backup power source. Once completed, the generator would also divert about 50 kilowatts of renewable energy into the nearby power grid for regular use. While this is a far cry from fully converting India's government buildings towards being powered entirely by renewable energy, the Indian government believes that it is a step in the right direction. T.P.S. Sidhu, Chief Executive of the Punjab Energy Development Agency, believes that by installing this generator at the Parliament building it will demonstrate how effective they can be and perhaps gain more support for solar power.

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Friday, April 30, 2010

It's Oil the Same to Me

Well, it's hard to know how to start on this in a way that isn't obvious or smarmy. Or both.
A couple of weeks ago, the President opened up 167 million acres of ocean off our Atlantic and Gulf Coasts to oil exploration and eventual drilling. This week it looks like the oil industry isn't really ready to keep its promise of doing it cleanly after all. Not that they aren't trying. Having failed to activate the "blowout preventer" 5,000 feet down at the wellhead of the Deepwater Horizon gusher in the Gulf of Mexico, they have now decided to just burn the oil slick. I only hope that this isn't the new technology that the industry said would make deepwater drilling clean and safe when the President made his announcement.

We are learning some things here, however. The New York Times quoted Amy Myers Jaffe, an energy expert at Rice University. In a fit of perhaps unintended honesty, Jaffe said that deepwater oil drilling was," as technically challenging as space travel." And then hastily added, "but safer." She went on to say that in the last 15 years there was not a single spill of over 1,000 barrels among the 4,000 active platforms off our coasts.

Let's set a few things straight. First of all, it's not terribly difficult to be safer than space travel. And when Jaffe said that deepwater drilling "is assisted by thousands of supercomputers," that didn't make me feel any better. In fact, use of the phrase "thousands of supercomputers" is so egregious that it made me doubt that she has any serious technical judgment. Secondly, space travel is as safe as it is (which isn't great) because of meticulously controlled and choreographed operations by engineers. Engineers are crawling all over any launch operation in numbers that it's hard to imagine the oil companies funding.

But let's talk about those spills.

Space travel is daring because, not only is it risky, but the consequences of failure are so grave. It is this combination of risk and the gravity of the consequences that we assess when we decide if a given activity is worthwhile. I mean, light bulbs fail every day, but no one cares because the consequences are so trivial. Conversely, bridges seldom fail (Although they sometimes do!), but the consequences are so horrendous that we mandate periodic inspections.

So it is not the frequency of large oil spills that matters, but the potential they have for causing significant damage. (See Valdez, Exxon) And when that damage is not only to water, air, land, and wildlife, but to people's health and livelihoods in fishing, tourism, and other activities, we ought to really get it all in the balance before deciding that, yes, we are going to drill oil in deep water. Or anywhere for that matter.

So whether they are drilling with new or old technology, in deep or shallow water, it comes down to those, perhaps rare, but definitely horrendous, failures that forever change a place and people's lives. When you look at those, it's oil the same to me.

Image courtesy of NASA's Earth Observatory.

Paul Birkeland lives in Seattle, WA, US, and develops Strategic Energy Management Systems for government, commercial, and industrial organizations through Integrated Renewable Energy.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Owning ALL the Emissions

The US Department of Transportation and the US Environmental Protection Agency jointly issued new rules for automobile mileage standards. It’s a rule nearly 30 years in the making. (Such is the power of the auto industry even after taking Federal funds to prevent bankruptcies.) The new rules set required mileage rate at 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016, saving the drivers about $3000 in fuel expenses over the car’s life, and reducing emissions by about a billion tons over the lives of all vehicles. They estimate it will cost an extra $1000 per vehicle to do this, but past estimates have generally been pessimistic, and the actual added cost is likely to be lower over time.

But there was an interesting aspect of the rules that didn’t get much coverage in the media. Instead of counting electric cars as zero-emission vehicles, they are going to be counted as lesser-emission vehicles. I’m not certain how the new thresholds were determined, but car manufacturers will be able to count the first 200,000 electric cars they sell as having no emissions, But for anything above that, they need to count the emissions from the utility that made the power to charge the car.

This makes a lot of sense. I mean, there ARE emissions created by charging a car, just as there are when you heat your electric oven or turn on a light. In the carbon footprint world, these are known as “Scope II” emissions, and are almost universally counted when an organization determines its footprint. And the Government is not being stingy. They will allow manufacturers to count each electric vehicle sold as two vehicles so that they get the benefit of the low emissions on their fleet average mileage (which is technically what the standard actually applies to).

The ostensible purpose of this rule was to ensure that car makers wouldn’t use the sales of ‘zero emission electric cars’ to offset sales of the high end, but fuel hungry, behemoths that are more profitable, but would negatively impact the fleet average. This is a worthy goal. But automakers respond – justly I think – that we should in fact encourage sales of electric cars this way.
So this is a complexifying regulation that brings up all sorts of questions. For example, what utility’s emissions values should they use? A national average? Or should auto builders get credit for the geographic distribution of their sales and use local or regional utility emissions values? What about time of day charging? Emissions per KWH at any utility vary by time of day.

In short, this is a really questionable means of accounting for (if not controlling) carbon emissions. But at the same time, I applaud the regulators’ attempts to bring this problem to the fore. Given the absence of serious, nationwide emissions caps, there are few really elegant mechanisms to do so. It’s easy to come up with better approaches to this problem, but not under the existing Clean Air Act. If industry wants a more fair and coherent emissions control regime, then they should stop standing in the way of a national program, and start holding serious conversations with those trying to build one.

Paul Birkeland lives in Seattle, WA, US, and develops Strategic Energy Management Systems for government, commercial, and industrial organizations through Integrated Renewable Energy.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Low Tech Clean Tech

Not all the excitement concerning clean energy systems has to do with pushing the efficiency of solar panels, or finding the best way to produce biofuels. Some are actually pretty low tech.
Here in the Pacific Northwest of the US, we are blessed with an abundance of hydropower. The Columbia River in fact is no longer a "river" in the traditional sense of the word, but rather a series of lakes backed up behind dams.

Hydro dams cause big problems for migrating salmon. They block the fish from getting upstream to spawn, and the slack water behind the dams means that the fingerlings spend an inordinate amount of time and energy getting out to the sea. But there is at least one aspect of these operations that is being addressed.

Going through the huge turbines on the way downstream is often deadly for salmon. Well, they don't actually get chopped up the way you might think. The blades actually turn more slowly than that. But they do experience disorienting turbulence and horrifyingly steep pressure gradients. And they do get killed.

Turbulence and pressure gradients cause those smolts that survive the passage to spin out the dam in a very vulnerable state, a situation that a growing menagerie of animals - sea lions, arctic terns, etc. - have become aware of. But the salmon may be getting some help, and the dams can be made less harmful than they are.

The US Army Corps of Engineers, who own and manage the dams on the Columbia River, and the Bonneville Power Administration, which sells the power from the dams, are paying a Pennsylvania firm to design and build a turbine with smoother interior passageways to cut down on salmon fatalities. An aging turbine at the Ice Harbor Dam on the Snake River would be the first to be replaced.

This isn't exactly rocket science, but it's close. High performance aircraft have the same problem with turbulence around their blades as the turbines in the dams do. In the case of the aircraft, the turbulence leads to inefficiency and higher operating costs. But the tools that are being used to re-vision the powerhouse blades for the salmon are the same tools used to model high performance aircraft propeller and turbine fan blades.

The larger problem has been that the turbines are so expensive to replace, that the Corps generally waits until a turbine is "on its last legs" before buying a new one. So perhaps, with the turbines in the dams on Northwest rivers reaching the end of their service lives, we'll finally see an opportunity to do the right thing along with the necessary thing.