The New York Times is continuing its "Energy Challenge" series with this article, the "Cost of an Overheated Planet," which attempts to bring economics into the discussion.
Apparently kids love coal because it’s “American Energy” (that comes with “American Mercury,” “American Soot,” “American Carbon Dioxide” and “American Mountain Top Mining”). Our good friends at the “Coalition for Affordable and Reliable Energy” (CARE) are at it again and they sure “care” for kids. Phase 2 of the coal is exciting-and-good-for-you marketing campaign is up on the DC metro, shilling children for coal. (You’ll recall phase 1 was female internet excitement about coal.)
Women and children are apparently unconvinced about coal’s positive attributes and are the subjects of the marketing campaign. No burly men have been seen yelling about burning carbon however. The lumps of coal, blackened miners, and mountain top removal must not have polled well.
The Alternative Energy Blog has a detailed post about coal that features a number of interesting facts.
The post features a number of links to further stories and photos. The Alt Energy blog seems to feature infrequent updates with in-depth stories. At any rate, some excerpts follow.
Virtually every power plant built in America between 1975 and 2002 was fired by natural gas. However between 1970 and 2000, the amount of coal America used to generate electricity tripled.
I suspect this is a result of the Clean Air Act and the failure of government regulations. Coal generation massively expanded without "building new facilities" because incentives encouraged them to "expand" existing facilities. If they built "new" facilities, they would be required to install much more effective (and expensive) pollution abatement equipment. However, such requirements are rarely required when "expanding" facilities.
Nonetheless, coal plants are officially being considered again as natural gas spikes make additional plants uneconomical.
Now with natural gas prices rising steeply, U.S. power utilities are expected to build the equivalent of 280 500 megawatt coal-fired electricity power plants between 2003 and 2030. China is already constructing the equivalent of one large coal burning power plant a week with two thirds of energy production coming from dirty coal. 16 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world are in China. India is the third largest producer of coal in the world, also getting over two thirds of its energy from coal. If these new coal plants are built, they will add as much carbon dioxide to the atmosphere as has been released by all the coal burned in the last 250 years.
Existing coal plants already produce a lot of waste and environmental destruction from mining to burning.
Each year coal plants produce about 130 million tons of solid waste, about three times more than all the municipal garbage in the U.S. The American Lung Association calculates that around 24,000 people a year die prematurely from the effects of coal fired power plant pollution.
Apparently, much of the waste from coal plants can be recycled - one of its main uses is in building roads. IGCC plants (integrated gassification combined cycle) actually allow for greater recycling of waste from what I understand.
IGCC plants use heat and pressure to cook off impurities in coal and convert it into a synthetic gas, this gas is then burnt in a turbine. These plants are 10% more efficient than conventional plants, consume 40% less water, produce 50% less solid waste and burn almost as cleanly as natural gas plants.
Given the resource constraints of the future - particularly if we continue to expand corn production for fuel - IGCC's lesser water demand is quite a benefit as well as the ability to attach carbon capture and sequestration equipment to it.
I have been having a discussion on my personal blog about whether there was a conspiracy to lower oil prices to help Republicans in the November U.S. election. I wanted to throw it up here to see if there is a response.
It began with a link to this conspiracy article that details the accusations. I'm still not clear who exactly "they are" but I don't believe oil prices were manipulated by anyone in order to benefit Republicans.
I figured that we would see the same general downward trend for gas prices in the U.S. after September for most years. So I grabbed some data from the EIA on average gas prices (of all grades) in the U.S. since 1994.
I created the following graph (this is just for fun, so I don't have enough time or motivation to make it a slammin' graph, but I think it works). Click on it to get a slightly bigger version.
As you can see, gas prices (when over a threshold of around $1.30) tend to drop off around this time. I consider this to be some evidence against the theory that some groups deliberately manipulated prices to benefit certain politicians. Is there any evidence of it? Would there be?
My kneejerk reaction is that conspiracies like this tend to catch one because it plays so well to people's existing prejudices. If you are more interested, check out the thread from my personal blog or post here.
Sierra Club attorney Bruce Nilles said Otter Tail Power Co. and two other owners did not follow the law, which requires utilities to add modern pollution control equipment whenever they make "major modifications" to an older plant. [Strib]
They detail 3 major modifications that Big Stone I has made without installing the requisite equipment. The law is vague on the matter and the Bush Administration has weakened it over time as part of its Orwellian "Clear Skies Initiative."
What makes it interesting is that they were volunteering to install updated emission control equipment as part of the Big Stone II agreement. Now they may be forced to do it regardless of Big Stone II.
America! Let’s get our hatred straight. We may very well hate foreign oil but…
#1 Unless you are from Hawaii, electricity is not made from foreign oil in any significant amount! Wind turbines, solar panels, nuclear power, nor coal will reduce foreign oil under conventional assumptions. We don’t use oil to make electricity! Period. It’s too expensive. Plug-in hybrids and diesel generators are red herrings...
#2 As much as we hate foreign oil, we should hate Canada the most since they are the top crude oil import supplier, especially in Minnesota. About 60% of the U.S. oil supply is imported and about half of it comes from OPEC, which means about 30% of the total comes from the more objectionable countries we might typically think of from "foreign oil." In a perfectly distributed market, a one gallon reduction in gas use, reduces only 30% of the "problem." This isn't really true in practice, since there are vast differences in the sources of oil by region. Theoretically, the lower the price of oil, the more foreign it becomes, since domestic producers have a higher cost of production and turn off as the price drops below their profitability.
#3 If you really cared about maximizing your foreign oil vanquishing efforts at the minimal cost, you’d focus on national vehicle efficiency standards (aka higher miles-per-gallon) and driving less, not all the new exotica alternatives. Your car is 85% inefficient. Doing one without the other is pouring water into a bucket with a big hole in the bottom.
#4 If we use less oil, it will theoretically lower the world market price for oil, and others will consume more of it, which is fine for domestic security, but means nothing for global warming.
Here are examples of group, jumping on the foreign oil bandwagon...these may very well be worthy endeavors, but A doesn’t necessarily mean B:
1. Partners for Affordable Energy, i.e. coal
2. Americans for Independent Energy, i.e. everything but oil
3. Americans for American Energy, i.e. everything but oil
4. American Energy Now, i.e. renewable energy
Now this is where it gets confusing.
Because of its wind, nuclear and hydropower facilities, Xcel would be well-positioned to meet the standards under the draft legislation proposed by Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn.
The legislation would require utilities to generate up to 10 percent of their power from sources that don't emit carbon by 2020, increasing to 20 percent by 2025. Utilities would receive carbon- offset credits for renewables such as wind and solar power, coal-gasification plants, nuclear power and programs that encourage efficiency and conservation by consumers.
What is up with Coleman? We just ran a post about his opposition to state policies to regulate greenhouse gases. Now he is proposing the feds do it? I don't know enough about his motivations, but I have to wonder if some business interests (like MN-based Xcel) are encouraging him to make their life easier by setting a nation-wide renewable energy standard rather than the state-by-state patchwork of regulations they now face.
Xcel could clearly be motivated by the fact it faces steep renewable requirements in Colorado from the recent Amendment 37 and in Minnesota from the Prairie Island deal (which requires them to invest heavily in wind in return for expanded nuclear waste storage at that facility).
Xcel also seems to recognize the inevitability of a regulatory sytem to stem greenhouse gases. They are pushing for a renewable energy standard (sometimes called RPS) rather than a general carbon tax. Again, they must feel quite competitive compared to other energy companies when it comes to generating from renewable sources.
Nonetheless, as Maria Energia noted, they do not appear to be ending their opposition to a state-wide RPS here in Minnesota. I imagine they are worried about this proposal which would not include their mandated renewable generation from the Prairie Island deal in its renewable portfolio, forcing them to invest most heavily in renewable sources than any other energy company.
While I support a national RPS, this must not come in return for a trade that does not allow states to regulate GHG emissions. States like California must retain the right to both legislate car emissions standards and a higher RPS than the federal if they choose. This may not be ideal for the energy companies, but it is necessary to known global warming down a peg and encourage the industries that will thrive under a carbon constrained future.
Update: Coleman actually has a press release stating his position on the RPS. The press release basically says that he is in favor of it.
I haven't found any sources discussing the election and what the results mean for renewable energy. This is a tricky one, because although renewable energy policy can be aggressive under either party (Democrat Governor Rendell in PA or Republican Governor Schwarzenegger in CA for examples). I firmly believe this is a bipartisan issue.
To avoid the severest of global warming consequences, scientists tell us we have about 10 years to make aggressive changes to our energy policy and how we do business. This includes energy standards and other initiatives, where government sets the rules of the market and the businesses play the game. Democrats and Republicans in Congress have recognized global warming as a national security and economic threat, but they need to take action NOW.
Signs point to Congress enacting some sort of tax or fee or restriction on carbon dioxide in the near future, and with over 20 states already having renewable electricity standards, a federal goal for renewable energy should not be a foreign concept to many in Congress.
If we're serious about pulling out of Iraq (either immediately or with a more gradual timeline), then talking about energy policy in the same breath is a great opportunity. We need our energy use to be as efficient as possible, and wean ourselves off this absurd overdependence on fossil fuels and start harnessing our own renewable energy options. Government needs to set the rules for this burgeoning clean energy market (like making the Production Tax Credit for wind permanent, for Pete's sake) so capitalism can figure out how to get us toward our end goal a more efficient, clean, and secure energy system for the 21st century.
Apparently Britain does not have the natural gas crunches that the United States -- gas traders start giving it away. As one executive noted, "There is simply too much gas flowing into the UK." Odd.
Caveat: this story is from early October -- I am behind on my posting
If you have any interest in what it takes to get oil out of the Gulf of Mexico, the NY Times has a story for you.
To picture the challenge, imagine flying above New York City at 30,000 feet and aiming a drill tip the size of a coffee can at the pitcher’s mound in Yankee Stadium. Then imagine doing it in the dark, at $100 million a go.
Even after hitting pay dirt, it will take another decade and billions of dollars to transform oil from these ultra-deep reserves into gasoline. Some of the technology to pump the sludge from these depths, at these pressures and temperatures, has not yet been developed; only about a dozen ships can drill wells that deep, and no one knows for sure how much oil is down there.
This certainly gives a greater window into the expense of oil discovery.
Roughly every two weeks, the NY Times has released a new article on various energy topics in what they are dubbing "The Energy Challenge."
- Global Warming
I attended the Renewable Energy Workshop today sponsored by the U of MN Electrical Engineering Department. As expected, it was largely technology-focused, with some general discussions of the challenges facing renewable energy here and elsewhere. (And a good buffet style lunch). Here a few salient points of the talks I attended.
A Power Grid for the Hydrogen Economy - Thomas Overbye, U of Illinois
The speaker talked about his research into superconducting transmission lines. The idea behind the project is to supplement our existing grid with a network of underground high voltage DC transmission lines made with superconducting material. The benefit of using superconductors is that the current density can be much higher, so fewer transmission lines have to be built. Line losses would also be minimized.
Each line would consist of a superconducting core for carrying the electricity with an outer ring of liquid hydrogen, which would act both as a coolant and an energy storage mechanism. During times of low electricity demand, excess electricity from renewable sources would be used to create the hydrogen via electrolysis.
Though such a grid is technically feasible, cost is a major issue, though the speaker was quick to note that anything transmission related is expensive. He quoted a figure of roughly $2.5 million per mile to install these cables. Water scarcity may also be an issue in some places.
Lessons from Norway - an unlisted speaker, didn't get his name
(A grad student actually did this talk in place of his professor, who was scheduled to speak but couldn't make it.)
This talk mainly focused on the challenges facing Norway in meeting its future electrical demand and making use of its vast renewable energy potential (enough to supply twice that of its current annual consumption.) Currently, 99% of Norway's generation comes from low cost hydropower. However, similar to here, demand is outpacing supply. More supply will have to be brought on in coming years.
I was struck by how similar the challenges facing renewable energy are to here - public resistance (in the case of wind), cost (wind energy is still more significantly more expensive than hydropower), and political uncertainty (will subsidies continue?) Norway is also facing transmission limitations, just like here.Especially of note is that public resistance to wind energy projects has increased in recent years, for all the typical reasons - avian mishaps, other wildlife impacts, and aesthetics.
Planning for Renewable Energy at a MN Utility - Glen Skarbakka, Mgr of Resource Planning, Great River Energy
The speaker talked about the challenges of meeting GRE's rapidly growing load (about 100 MW/year) while incorporating renewables. GRE's load is mostly residential, meaning that demand goes way up in the summer, but varies a lot day to day, depending on weather. This makes it a challenge to use wind energy, which is not dispatchable in the traditional sense (though forecasting has gotten highly accurate.)
I was mostly impressed by GRE's goals to reduce its CO2 emissions to 2000 levels by 2020, as well as doubling its renewable objective of 10%. The speaker admitted that meeting the first will be extremely challenging, to say the least.
Wind Energy - Present Projects and Potential in Minnesota - John Dunlop, American Wind Energy Association
The speaker talked about how wind turbine technology has advanced over the last 20 years and how wind energy continues to grow rapidly in the US and elsewhere. He also provided a nice summary of the recent situation with the Dept of Defense blocking new wind farms due to concerns over radar. The report finally came out on Sept. 27, 143 days late. It didn't really say anything that could not have been written in one day - only that wind farms can interfere with radar. It didn't offer any mitigation measures to help current or future projects move forward. Sounded like a great use of taxpayer dollars.
Update on CapX 2020 - Terry Grove, GRE
The CapX project is an ongoing transmission planning project involving all major utiltiies in Minnesota, planning transmission needs through 2020. I already knew how long this process takes, but the uninitiatied would probably be shocked. Though, there are good reasons it takes this long. The Certificate of Need process for the first group of lines, mainly to improve reliability, alone will take through 2008. Then route permits have to be aquired, which will take through 2010. During this time, lots of meetings are held with city governments, landowners, and other agencies. The proposed Brookings -SE Minnesota line alone will require that 200,000 landowners be notified. This is just a massive undertaking.
From what I've heard, the last round of tranmission construction was an extremely drawn out and painful process. It will be even worse this time around, due to the industry restructuring that has occured since then. Now, independent power producers can bid in new projects to the MISO queue. Most of these projects fail to get off the ground, since banks won't supply the financing until a power purchase agreement is signed - a chicken and egg problem - meaning that planners don't know where new generation will actually be.
Results of Research Funded by NSF, Xcel Energy, and ONR - Ned Mohan, Electrical Engineering, U of MN
Ned gave an overview of renewable energy-related research in the EE department, then talked mainly about a matrix converter his research team developed. The converter can be used with any variable speed generator, including wind turbines and will boost power output by 1.5X of nameplate ratings. This would also eliminate the problem of bearing currents in typical motors, which eventually destroy the bearing and represent a major maintenance headache. Ned also talked about the benefits of using silicon carbide (SiC) in power electronics, which improves device performance by 10-100 times over plain silicon (Si). The cost of SiC continues to fall, making the use of this material more feasible.
The Macalester Conservation and Renewable Energy Society (MacCARES) is having a film festival organized around issues of energy and climate change. All events are in the John B Davis Lecture Hall (in the student center on Snelling and Grand) and are both free and open to the public.
Some events have already passed, but these are still approaching:
UPDATE: Who killed the Electric Car? showing has been cancelled.
Action Event: Bigstone Coal Public Hearing
Stand up for clean energy by pposing a new coal plant at a public hearing. Lets build a bright energy future.
Monday, October 16
6:00 pm Downtown St. Paul
A family explores the coal industry that lights its homes, and then sets out to find alternatives that save $, energy, and CO2.
Tuesday, October 17, 7:00 pm
The End of Suburbia
We’ve built an American Dream on cheap oil. It’s running out, and getting expensive: the transition will change our way of life.
Wednesday, October 18, 7:00 pm
Two Adventures, One Mission
Speakers Chad Kister and Will Steger on Global Warming at the Poles. Global warming: it's visible, it's personal, it's time to act.
Friday, October 20, 7:00 pm
Hat tip to MCEA for tipping us off to this story. A TV station from South Dakota is reporting on another potential coal plant for the Dakotas. It will be the same scale as Big Stone II though it does not specify what technology the plant will use. I have to assume pulverized coal but I hope I will be corrected by someone who knows more about it. They are looking to produce 600 MW.
Basin Electric Power Cooperative is currently searching for a place to site this new plant. Though it is based in North Dakota, 3 potential sites are in South Dakota and one in North Dakota. It will be burning powder river basin coal (low sulfur from Wyoming).
This is not solely about our need for more electrical power - it is also a patriotic act. They are motivated
to meet some of the energy needs of the country, so we see it as a regional project, a benefit to our community, but also to the country.
Without any hint of irony, they have a section of their website devoted to green bragging rights.
From the coal mine to the power plant, and from the power plant to the home, Basin Electric has invested in a system designed to meet future energy needs of our consumers while protecting the environment.
Naturally, protecting theenvironment means investing heavily into a $1.5 billion coal plant when the entire world knows carbon dioxide emissions are the leading environmental threat of our lifetime. Is that too dramatic?
When one has made a decision to kill a person, even if it will be very difficult to succeed by advancing straight ahead, it will not do to think about doing it in a long, roundabout way. One's heart may slacken, he may miss his chance, and by and large there will be no success. The Way of the Samurai is one of immediacy, and it is best to dash in headlong.
-Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai
So Al Gore’s speech at NYU on September 18 got me thinking about Distributed Generation. For those who haven’t read it yet, an archived webcast and the full text can be found here.
It was a terrific speech, by the way, and I could occupy a lot of space praising it, but that wouldn’t be very interesting. After all, you probably liked it too. But it was one issue that got me thinking, and which gave the impetus for this post. What I really want to talk about today is Distributed Generation, or DG. Gore gave voice to some ideas that are very widespread among left-leaning energy advocates, and many of those ideas deserve closer consideration.
I’m using this post to flesh out some of my critiques of the idea of Distributed Generation. Fundamentally, in reference to the quote above, I think DG advocates are setting out to solve the wrong problem. Our problem is not large-station electricity generation, our problem is climate change and energy security. Its my feeling that in dealing with climate change we are likely to deploy carbon-neutral energy technologies using the same large station (or refinery) production and distribution model that we use right now.
Wikipedia describes DG thus:
Distributed generation is a new trend in the generation of heat and electrical power. The Distributed Energy Resources (DER) concept permits "consumers" who are generating heat or electricity for their own needs (like in hydrogen stations and microgeneration) to send surplus electrical power back into the power grid - also known as net metering - or share excess heat via a distributed heating grid.
Here’s what Gore says on the subject.
Today, our nation faces threats very different from those we countered during the Cold War. We worry today that terrorists might try to inflict great damage on America’s energy infrastructure by attacking a single vulnerable part of the oil distribution or electricity distribution network. So, taking a page from the early pioneers of ARPANET, we should develop a distributed electricity and liquid fuels distribution network that is less dependent on large coal-fired generating plants and vulnerable oil ports and refineries.
So the main point of DG is that we rely more and more on homes and businesses producing their own electricity, and possibly selling electricity onto the grid and less and less on large station power generation (how we, by and large, do things now). Gore extends DG to include distributed (presumably somewhat larger scale) biofuels production as well. The main arguments are security (Gore’s argument), greater energy efficiency through the use of combined heat and power, and economic/self-reliance benefits (producing your own power, yeah!).
I think a lot of DG advocates miss some glaring problems.
DG and Economies of Scale
One problem with DG is that it would rely on small-scale power generation. This is actually put forward as one of the main BENEFITS of DG by many advocates. What these advocates miss is that the economics of energy production are absolutely dominated by economies of scale.
Let’s use wind as an example. A 1MW turbine produces cheaper electricity than a 200 KW turbine. And a large scale project produces cheaper electricity than a small scale project. The reasons for this are fairly intuitive. There are a lot of fixed costs that must be paid whether you’re building a large project or a small project – feasibility studies, wind measurement, planning, running around securing financing and power purchase agreements, paying to secure all of the cement manufacturing capacity in your county to pour the bases for the towers, etc. A larger project produces more kWhs, and the fixed costs can be divided over more kWhs, making the levelized cost of power cheaper.
But if you don’t believe me, you can use NREL’s online Wind Energy Finance Calculator.
To prove my point, I calculated the real levelized cost of energy for a 500 kW project (small), and for a 100 MW project (200 times bigger). I used all of the default assumptions, and only changed the size of the project.
Small (500 kW) real LCOE – 64 cents/kWh
Large (100 MW) real LCOE – 1.29 cents/kWh
So the electricity from the small-scale project is about 60 times more expensive, give or take. Its also about 6 times more expensive than retail grid electricity at about 7 cents/kWh. So in asking people to adopt small-scale distributed wind, we’re asking them to pay a LOT more for electricity than they would pay for grid electricity. Note also that, according to this calculator, a large scale project sells electricity that’s probably cheaper than even WHOLESALE electricity.
Economies of scale differ for various energy technologies, but are almost always a factor. The optimal size for pulverized coal plants, for example, is on the order of 1000 MW or larger. Gas turbines burning natural gas or fuel oil have low capital cost, and are therefore more economical at small scale. But because the levelized cost is more expensive then large station power, and they can be quickly ramped up and down, they are typically used only for peaking power.
Solar power is also cheaper at scale. Home or business scale photovoltaic panels produce electricity at around 20 cents/kWh (around 3 times higher than retail electricity). Only large-scale concentrating solar can produce electricity at anywhere near retail rates.
I could go on and on. The fact is that I can’t point to a DG technology that delivers electricity at a rate that is cheaper than, or even close to, the cost of grid power.
Economies of scale aren’t going away. If we have a limited amount of money to spend, as a society, on dealing with climate solutions, the cost of individual solutions must be a factor. Until we see the new cheap solar panels or fuel cells that we constantly hear are 6 months away (how’s that for a “Friedman”?) may not be able to afford the deployment of DG on a large scale.
Giving Up our Great Renewable Energy Resources
Another damning aspect of DG is that it may mean giving up most of our greatest renewable energy resources. Renewable energy resources like wind, solar, and biomass are not uniformly abundant around the nation. And, unfortunately, many of the best resources fall far from population centers. To stick with the wind example, taking advantage of the vast wind resource of the Great Plains likely means building large transmission lines connecting the wind resource with the potential users of that wind energy (or building large hydrogen pipelines, or building infrastructure for some other energy carrier).
This is true for biomass as well. In urban areas, where most energy is used and most people live, there are serious limits on the potential biomass supply. Take the Twin Cities as an example. There is a famous district heat project in St. Paul (District Energy) that has recently switched from coal to biomass as an energy source. Other projects are being planning, including Rock Ten and the south Minneapolis project formerly run by the Green Institute. Those projects are reportedly having great challenges in finding a sufficient supply of biomass because District Energy has secured much of the available supply of urban wood trimmings and the like. So we’re reaching the limited of the DG biomass potential in the Twin Cities, and supplying only a small fraction of the metro area’s biomass needs.
Utilizing the country’s biomass supply on a large scale probably means having projects in rural areas – with cheap land, fertile soil, and lots of biomass, and transporting products like cellulosic ethanol to demand centers. This will likely be wonderful for rural areas, but its not DG.
Solar energy may one day be an exception to this, but right now economics and the efficiency of panels stand in the way.
My point is not to argue that DG shouldn't be done. I think there are many niche applications for DG. In rural areas and small rural communities, for example, there will be applications for Distributed Generation from renewables, possible in combination with combined heat and power. I know some people who are very excited about their rooftop solar panels, and they don't really care that they're paying a lot for the electricity. I also think that there are credible scenarios under which DG could play a larger role in our energy system, provided there are some really fundamental technological innovations. I think that the vision of mass-produced, highly efficient, renewable DG technology, similar to Personal Computers, is pretty exciting to contemplate. But lets not fool ourselves. This kind of thing is a ways off, whereas there are a variety of large-scale carbon-neutral technologies that are commercial or near commercial and could be deployed over a relatively short time frame.
There are many energy advocates who feel that large station electricity generation is bad by its very nature. There are some who offer DG as an alternative, and even use the DG alternative as a rationale for fighting new transmission and new large energy projects. In the MN legislature last year there was infighting between those who wanted only community, small-scale wind development and those who wanted 20% renewable energy standard which would require a lot of large-scale projects.
All that said, I think that macro-scale analysis of power generation technologies, resources, and demands, will reveal that DG is likely to play a small role in the near term. DG can't be used as an excuse to fight large carbon neutral energy projects.
I welcome comments, and hope this starts some discussion.