Thursday, August 28, 2008

Power to the People

Below is a good article from Greenwire about promising developments in the "smart grid" -- or the ability to make the electrical grid that controls access to power more efficient and flexible. When we provide more information to consumers and tie that information with market incentives for using power more efficiently, we can begin to build an electrical system that meets our needs while avoiding waste. Even more important, we can begin to build up an electrical power system that is capable of taking on renewable energy from disbursed sites and use electric power to fuel our transportation system (think plug-in hybrids or electric cars).

Its good to see a utility moving forward on this. And again, it just points to the fact that solutions only come from working WITH the folks in the industry of making the power -- not just suing them and protesting against their pollution!

UTILITIES: Xcel starts turning Boulder, Colo., into a 'smart grid' Skinner Box (08/22/2008)

Jenny Mandel, Greenwire reporter

Part three of a series.

If you can think of electricity as a chain that connects the power plant to your portable music player, you can grasp the notion of "smart grid."

Broadly, smart grid means applying modern, digital technology to the analog world of electricity infrastructure. But what makes a grid smart is anybody's guess right now.

Xcel Energy, a utility serving eight states -- Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas and Wisconsin -- aims to firm up the definition. With a pilot program called Smart Grid City, the company is installing a network of technologies it says will serve as a "living laboratory" to test smart-grid components.

Some of those components will be put into the hands of the company's customers. Xcel plans to install 15,000 so-called smart meters at homes and businesses in Boulder, Colo., by the end of the year.

Roy Palmer, Xcel's managing director of government and regulatory affairs, said the first group of meters will be relatively simple, though more sophisticated than the familiar counting machines with the row of clock faces. The new digital meters will provide second-to-second data on power use, a vast improvement over the static, cumulative meters they will replace.

And unlike traditional meters, the new ones can be read by machines via built-in communications technology. Xcel is installing an arterial system of Internet technologies, including fiber optics and broadband over power line, that will reach across the entire grid and into individual meters and give engineers unprecedented insight into what is happening on the grid in real time.

"Today, we have a first look into customer meters that we've never had at Xcel Energy," Palmer said.

What advanced meters will not do is offer customers control over how individual appliances or outlets draw power, although models being tested by other utilities have that capability.

For the first stage of Xcel's test, the utility has installed just one bells-and-whistles system. At the University of Colorado chancellor's residence, a mansion that offers abundant opportunity for energy efficiency, Palmer said, Xcel will install an advanced metering system manufactured by GridPoint, a Virginia-based technology company.

Energy Meter
A computer-based "dashboard" lets users of GridPoint's system monitor and control electricity use in the home. Photo courtesy of GridPoint.

The GridPoint setup includes a command center, installed by the main circuit breaker, that takes over operation of key loads. Karl Lewis, GridPoint's executive vice president and chief operating officer, said that in a typical installation the command center would control a home's hot water heater, air conditioning, refrigerator and other energy hogs.

A consumer dashboard is designed to receive signals from the utility about the cost of energy throughout the day.

Energy dashboard

Many grid experts see a switch to time-of-use pricing as an important way to rationalize energy use, allowing utilities to pass along the higher cost of running an extra generation plant to handle peak afternoon load, for example.

Through GridPoint's energy dashboard, a homeowner can assign set-it-and-forget-it settings to reflect how his or her house should perform throughout the day -- maybe adjusting the thermostat a few degrees if the cost of power rises or charging battery-based appliances if it falls.

At the University of Colorado's site, the setup will also include GridPoint's system to support distributed power generation. A large battery will store electricity generated by in-home solar panels, allowing the house to draw on homemade power even when the sun doesn't shine.

The system will also include support for a plug-in electric vehicle, a technology that GridPoint sees as potentially transforming the electric industry.

"We're pretty excited about the car," GridPoint's Lewis said. He noted that General Motors Corp., Nissan Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Corp. have each expressed intentions to put at least 100,000 plug-in cars on the road by the end of 2011.

Charging those vehicles would represent a significant new market for utilities. Those that are prepared could see 15 percent to 30 percent revenue increases, Lewis estimated, while those unprepared could find themselves in a bind as their legal obligation to supply customers with power bumps up against capacity constraints.

"The utilities are scared to death [of the prospect of pluggable cars]," Lewis said. "We like that."

GridPoint sees technologies like its own, which give both the customer and the utility greater control over when cars might charge, as crucial to managing such a transition.

In Boulder, the control system will let the chancellor fuel his plug-in electric car overnight, when electric demand is low, rather than starting to draw power the second a driver arrives at the house and plugs it in.

Telegraph technology in a broadband world

While the university serves as a test bed for the high end of consumer systems, the part of Boulder wired with digital meters will provide valuable data to feed into the wider grid network, Palmer said.

That larger system includes a huge number of sensors and communication nodes that most people might assume already exist.

Today's electric grid is, in many respects, hardly changed from the system that first grew up in the 1920s, according to Phillip Schewe, author of "The Grid: A Journey Through the Heart of Our Electrified World."

The original electric system first entered homes in significant numbers in the early 1900s and by the end of the 1950s reached into virtually every corner of the country, Schewe said.

Most early electricity was powered by coal, Schewe said, and the country saw steady efficiency gains in the amount of power generated per ton of coal between 1900 and 1960, with accompanying cost decreases.

Similarly, utilities learned to increase the voltage of the transmission lines carrying electrons from power plants to city streets, allowing more electricity to be moved more efficiently. Starting at a few hundred volts, companies gradually increased that into the thousands, and today some lines carry power at 500,000 volts or more.

But Schewe describes the 1970s as a "depressing decade" for the grid. Advances stagnated, the first rumblings of deregulation surfaced with new companies that generated power but owned no transmission lines, and a long period of an uncertain investment climate began.

Today, confusion continues to reign over long-distance transmission authority and investments (Greenwire, Aug. 14), and the technologies that undergird the grid remain largely unchanged.

"A lot of companies live or die on their research. But the power company is one that, strangely ... largely does not rely on new technology," Schewe said. "That's partly because the nature of electricity hasn't much changed."

But data collection has changed.

Today, utilities largely rely on customers to call when the power is out and devices fail without warning. But part of the Smart Grid City project, and the larger conception of a comprehensive smart grid, is to bring new communication and data handling technologies into play to give utilities better insight into what is happening on their networks.

In Boulder, Excel will install sensors and automation on the city's five electric substations. By this time next year, the substations will communicate among themselves about power flows, and engineers at an operations center will be able to see what is happening at each. They will also have data on, for example, the current temperature of various devices, which can serve as a warning of imminent failure and allow them to take proactive steps to avoid it.

"We believe the distribution system digitalization will pay for itself," Palmer said. "But because these assets generally aren't linked in a smart grid-enabled fashion, the benefits of horizontal integration across the whole system, from generation to consumption, are best guesses."

Beyond the substations, the company will add similar sensors and Internet-enabled devices at other points in the network. "Everything that can have a sensor, whether switches or transformers or other [equipment], will be monitored and recorded," Palmer said.

The massive new flows of data will require new software and data analysis, of course, making full implementation of the system a challenge much bigger than just plugging it all in.

Closer bond with customers

Xcel's goal in all of this: a combination of financial and environmental benefits.

"If we can presume that our system is much more reliable and has distributed generation backup -- say that we had 10,000 [plug-in cars] plugged in at any one time -- then if we had a power event, if we had a smart grid, then we would instantly be able to access the power from those 10,000 batteries," Palmer said.

A half-hour of backup storage would cut down on inefficient "spinning reserves" that utilities run in case of need and could prevent the need to run an expensive plant, or even build a new one.

In addition to reliability and efficiency savings, though, Palmer sees potential benefits on the environmental side. If customers have real-time data on the balance of "green" and conventional power on the grid, they can make decisions to use more energy when the wind is blowing or the sun is generating juice.

The utility also aims to ensure that any customer who wants to take advantage of a solar subsidy can. Today the city has a program to foster home solar energy systems, but the number of people who use it is small, from a grid reliability standpoint. Palmer wants to know that as more people sign up, problems will not be triggered when a cloud passes over the city and all those power inputs suddenly go dark.

The program focuses on testing many different technologies and working with multiple partners.

"We don't know how good this is," Palmer said, echoing a utility refrain that they understand some elements of the project will fail to perform. "Part of what we want to demonstrate here, and measure, and tinker with a little bit, [is] to see how many megawatts we would save."

In two or three years, Palmer said, the company will have enough data from its living laboratory to know what works and what misses the mark.

'Creative power menu'

The utility has an unusual degree of flexibility in its program, in part because it relies on partners to cost-share their contributions and in part because Xcel has not sought a rate hike to pay for it. Officials hope that as data arrive, they can use Smart Grid City to make arguments with regulators and lawmakers on how such innovation should be paid for down the road.

The company estimates that the whole program will cost a bit more than $100 million, of which Xcel will contribute about $15 million. The list of partners currently includes Accenture, Current Group, Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories, GridPoint and Ventyx.

Schere, the grid historian, believes the time has not yet come for smart grid. Most utilities are too risk-averse, he said, and the federal government has not pushed the issue.

But American consumers have seen the provision of some services -- especially telecommunications -- evolve from a minimal fee-for-service relationship to one in which users can select from a menu of options and pricing plans to suit their individual needs.

Such a "creative power menu" could be on the horizon for electrons, too, Schere said, with choices to make about when and how power is delivered, and with varied pay rates. The whole thing could start with smart metering, he believes, because "the average consumer can wrap his or her mind around it."

If so, the power industry could show some of the "Prius effect" -- named for Toyota's popular hybrid vehicle -- whereby consumers are pushed by mileage feedback from the fuel-efficient cars to drive even more conservatively.

If that virtuous cycle shows itself in the tests, Xcel's gamble will look like a very smart one.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Running on Scum!

I just love stories about emerging feedstocks for biofuels and new technology making renewable power production less expensive and more efficient. The story below discusses the promise of scum -- and for once, not the political kind :)

Imagine - being able to take something that can cause so many problems (think algae blooms that upset the balance of a pond/waterbody) and turn it into a feedstock for energy production?! These and many more amazing opportunities await us all -- if we can focus on them and send the right market signals.

The research grant given here is very important -- and we need more of this type of targeted research investment. But after that, there is often a temptation to simply subsidize promising technology -- thinking it will then magically make the transition into the marketplace. History shows us time and again that this is not what happens. We don't need a subsidy for algae -- WE NEED A MARKET FOR IT!! A GHG cap-trade system would reward this type of fuel precisely because of its low pollution properties. If we want energy security and environmental protection, we MUST make sure our market asks for these attributes and rewards them!


August 27, 2008

Algae: Biofuel of the Future?

by Brevy Cannon, University of Virginia
Virginia, United States []

In the world of alternative fuels, there may be nothing greener than pond scum. Algae are tiny biological factories that use photosynthesis to transform carbon dioxide and sunlight into energy so efficiently that they can double their weight several times a day.

"The main principle of industrial ecology is to try and use our waste products to produce something of value." -- Lisa Colosi, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, U.Va.

As part of the photosynthesis process algae produce oil and can generate 15 times more oil per acre than other plants used for biofuels, such as corn and switchgrass. Algae can grow in salt water, freshwater or even contaminated water, at sea or in ponds, and on land not suitable for food production.

On top of those advantages, algae — at least in theory — should grow even better when fed extra carbon dioxide (the main greenhouse gas) and organic material like sewage. If so, algae could produce biofuel while cleaning up other problems.

"We have to prove these two things to show that we really are getting a free lunch," said Lisa Colosi, a professor of civil and environmental engineering who is part of an interdisciplinary University of Virginia research team, recently funded by a new U.Va. Collaborative Sustainable Energy Seed Grant worth about US $30,000.

With the grant, the team will try to determine exactly how promising algae biofuel production can be by tweaking the inputs of carbon dioxide and organic matter to increase algae oil yields.

Scientific interest in producing fuel from algae has been around since the 1950s, Colosi said. The U.S. Department of Energy did pioneering research on it from 1978 to 1996. Most previous and current research on algae biofuel, she said, has used the algae in a manner similar to its natural state — essentially letting it grow in water with just the naturally occurring inputs of atmospheric carbon dioxide and sunlight. This approach results in a rather low yield of oil — about 1 percent by weight of the algae.

The U.Va. team hypothesizes that feeding the algae more carbon dioxide and organic material could boost the oil yield to as much as 40 percent by weight, Colosi said.

Proving that the algae can thrive with increased inputs of either carbon dioxide or untreated sewage solids will confirm its industrial ecology possibilities — to help with wastewater treatment, where dealing with solids is one of the most expensive challenges, or to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, such as coal power-plant flue gas, which contains about 10 to 30 times as much carbon dioxide as normal air.

"The main principle of industrial ecology is to try and use our waste products to produce something of value," Colosi said.

Research partner Mark White, a professor at the McIntire School of Commerce, will help the team quantify the big-picture environmental and economic benefits of algae biofuel compared to soy-based biodiesel, under three different sets of assumptions.

White will examine the economic benefits of algae fuel if the nation instituted a carbon cap-and-trade system, which would increase the monetary value of algae's ability to dispose of carbon dioxide. He will also consider how algae fuel economics would be impacted if there were increased nitrogen regulations (since algae can also remove nitrogen from air or water), or if oil prices rise to a prohibitive level.

The third team member is Andres Clarens, a professor of civil and environmental engineering with expertise in separating the oil produced by the algae.

The team will experiment on a very small scale — a few liters of algae at a time. They will seek to optimize the oil output by using a pragmatic engineering approach, testing basic issues like whether it makes a difference to grind up the organic material before feeding it to the algae.

Wastewater solids and algae, either dead or alive, are on the menu. "We're looking at dumping the whole dinner on top of them and seeing what happens," Colosi said.

Some of these pragmatic issues may have been tackled already by the various private companies, including oil industry giants Chevron and Shell, which are already researching algae fuel, but a published scientific report on these fundamentals will be a major benefit to other researchers looking into algae biofuel.

Published evidence of improved algae oil output might spur significant follow-up efforts by public and private sectors, since the fundamentals of this technology are so appealing, Colosi said. Research successes would also open the door to larger grants from agencies like the U.S. Department of Energy, and could be immediately applicable to the handful of pilot-scale algae biofuel facilities recently funded by Shell and start-up firms.

Brevy Cannon is a general assignment writer in the media relations department at the University of Virginia.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Cool New Solar Stuff

I always love reading about cool new breakthroughs allowing renewable energy to be produced in ways that are more flexible and less costly. The fact that there are so many such advancements on a fairly regular basis these days speaks to the strong market signals that are being sent.

As we have talked about here before, getting energy is becoming increasingly expensive and difficult. The upside of that unfortunate fact, is that the market signals are finally being sent and the market is responding.


August 12, 2008

Flexible Nanoantenna Arrays Capture Solar Energy

by Roberta Kwok, Idaho National Laboratory
Florida, United States []

Researchers have devised an inexpensive way to produce plastic sheets containing billions of nanoantennas that collect heat energy generated by the sun and other sources. The researchers say that the technology, developed at the U.S. Department of Energy's Idaho National Laboratory (INL), is the first step toward a solar energy collector that could be mass-produced on flexible materials.

While methods to convert the energy into usable electricity still need to be developed, it is envisioned that the sheets could one day be manufactured as lightweight "skins" that power products such as hybrid cars or iPods with potentially higher efficiency than traditional solar cells. The nanoantennas also have the potential to act as cooling devices that draw waste heat from buildings or electronics without using electricity.

The nanoantennas target mid-infrared rays, which the Earth continuously radiates as heat after absorbing energy from the sun during the day. In contrast, traditional solar cells can only use visible light, rendering them idle after dark. Infrared radiation is an especially rich energy source because it also is generated by industrial processes such as coal-fired plants.

"Every process in our industrial world creates waste heat," says INL physicist Steven Novack. "It's energy that we just throw away." Novack led the research team, which included INL engineer Dale Kotter, W. Dennis Slafer of MicroContinuum Inc. and Patrick Pinhero, now at the University of Missouri.

The nanoantennas are tiny gold squares or spirals set in a specially treated form of polyethylene, a material used in plastic bags. While others have successfully invented antennas that collect energy from lower-frequency regions of the electromagnetic spectrum, such as microwaves, infrared rays have proven more elusive. Part of the reason is that materials' properties change drastically at high-frequency wavelengths, Kotter says.

The researchers studied the behavior of various materials — including gold, manganese and copper — under infrared rays and used the resulting data to build computer models of nanoantennas. They found that with the right materials, shape and size, the simulated nanoantennas could harvest up to 92 percent of the energy at infrared wavelengths.

The team then created real-life prototypes to test their computer models. First, they used conventional production methods to etch a silicon wafer with the nanoantenna pattern. The silicon-based nanoantennas matched the computer simulations, absorbing more than 80 percent of the energy over the intended wavelength range. Next, they used a stamp-and-repeat process to emboss the nanoantennas on thin sheets of plastic. While the plastic prototype is still being tested, initial experiments suggest that it also captures energy at the expected infrared wavelengths.

The nanoantennas' ability to absorb infrared radiation makes them promising cooling devices. Since objects give off heat as infrared rays, the nanoantennas could collect those rays and re-emit the energy at harmless wavelengths. Such a system could cool down buildings and computers without the external power source required by air-conditioners and fans.

More technological advances are needed before the nanoantennas can funnel their energy into usable electricity. The infrared rays create alternating currents in the nanoantennas that oscillate trillions of times per second, requiring a component called a rectifier to convert the alternating current to direct current. Today's rectifiers can't handle such high frequencies.

"We need to design nanorectifiers that go with our nanoantennas," says Kotter, noting that a nanoscale rectifier would need to be about 1,000 times smaller than current commercial devices and will require new manufacturing methods. Another possibility is to develop electrical circuitry that might slow down the current to usable frequencies.

If these technical hurdles can be overcome, nanoantennas have the potential to be efficient harvesters of solar energy. Because they can be tweaked to pick up specific wavelengths depending on their shape and size, it may be possible to create double-sided nanoantenna sheets that harvest energy from different parts of the sun's spectrum, Novack says.

The team's stamp-and-repeat process could also be extended to large-scale roll-to-roll manufacturing techniques that could print the arrays at a rate of several yards per minute.

The researchers will be reporting their findings on August 13 at the American Society of Mechanical Engineers 2008 2nd International Conference on Energy Sustainability in Jacksonville, Florida.

Roberta Kwok is a Research Communications Fellow at Idaho National Laboratory.

Friday, August 15, 2008

The New Century Farm

Iowa State University is launching what it calls "The New Century Farm" which ISU says will be "the first integrated, sustainable biofuel feedstock demonstration farm in the U.S. Research on the farm will be conducted in the areas of new feedstock development, processing, and increasing the utilization for biomass feedstocks into biofuel.

One of the main focuses of the farm will be on biomass breeding and new means for processing biomass into biofuel. The effort seems to be providing a promising boost to finding ways to make much more biofuel from non-feed resources. This fuel would also have the added bonus of being lower in its energy-intensity and pollution impact. Under a climate cap-trade system, these kinds of fuels are likely to command a market premium.

It is great to see this kind of massive, coordinated effort underway in America's heartland. To read more about the New Century Farm, click here.

More from Russia

The Georgian tragedy continues as Russia continues to blatantly violate the cease fire agreement it signed a few days ago. Russian troops remain in much of Georgia and human rights groups are reporting numerous executions, looting and burning of homes by Russian forces.

Again - we must keep our eyes on this vivid and heartbreaking example of what the world will be like so long as the West remains addicted to the fossil fuels that fuel the despicable actions on display by Russia. America is lucky in that it has far more natural resources than the Europeans, but even we are stymied in the response we might otherwise have to this issue because of the world's need for fossil energy and Russia, the Middle East, and Venezuela's control over much of that resource.

Below is a good op-ed from today's Wall Street Journal that makes some important points about what we are seeing. We can not allow our need for energy systematically dismantle the freedom we so enjoy -- and that other parts of the world so desire.

The price of our continued partisan bickering . . . is furthering the ability of Russia and the Middle East to get away with these power plays that destroy so many lives -- and ultimately, will aid in the destruction of our own country.
The Wall Street Journal
The Kremlin's 'Protection' Racket
August 15, 2008; Page A15

Russia's invasion of Georgia will be a defining moment for America's credibility and global stability. If the Medvedev (or, rather, Putin) regime succeeds in using force to topple a democratic and pro-Western government, based on spurious claims of "protecting" Georgia's population against its own government, the stage will be set for similar aggression against the other states -- from the Baltics to Ukraine -- that border Russia but look to the free West. The dangers of the post-September 11 World will be combined with the challenge of a new Cold War.

Russia is fully aware of these ominous implications. It has accordingly sought to cloak this act of aggression in the raiment of modern international justice. Its officials and surrogates (including Mikhail Gorbachev) have falsely accused Georgian leaders of violating international law in the South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions, which have "Russian" populations on account of Russia's extralegal issuance of its passports in those areas.

President Dmitry Medvedev has called for the "criminal prosecution" of the perpetrators of these supposed abuses and Vladimir Putin has alleged that if "Saddam Hussein [was hanged] for destroying several Shiite villages," Georgian leaders are guilty of much more. Ruthless Kremlin realists have learned the language of global humanitarianism.

The language of "protection" was once a favorite pretext for Tsarist expansion in the 19th century. It is also the same rationale that Germany offered for absorbing the Sudetenland in 1938. The Kremlin's current claims are no more credible than its tattered justifications for invading Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Afghanistan in 1979. Russian assertions that Georgian forces provoked the conflict by attacking Russian troops call to mind Hitler's story that his 1939 invasion of Poland was justified by Polish attacks on Germans. This is particularly ironic, given the Kremlin's penchant for comparing Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to Adolf Hitler.

Moscow's sudden embrace of a "limited sovereignty" for Georgia doesn't square with Russia's own previous protestations about the sanctity of its sovereignty and stubborn insistence that it was free to act on its own soil as it saw fit. Moscow's concern about alleged atrocities and genocide is also preposterous in light of the Russian government's callous indifference to the very real genocides conducted by its allies in Iraq and the former Yugoslavia, and in Rwanda and Darfur -- not to mention Moscow's own exceptionally brutal military campaigns in Chechnya.

Predictably, Messrs. Putin and Medvedev also assert that their actions in Georgia are no different from Western behavior vis-à-vis Iraq and the former Yugoslavia. Accordingly, they have demanded Mr. Saakashvili's resignation.

Moscow's clear goal is to replace a pro-Western government with a new Russian satellite, both through military action and by discrediting Georgia's leadership through false war crimes and genocide accusations. Behind the hypocrisy, Russia may be trying to lock in a new set of international rules, by which Moscow will be free to intervene at will in its "near abroad" while the United States looks on. These claims, reminiscent of the Brezhnev doctrine which posited that Moscow had a right to use force to preserve its empire, ring particularly hollow in the 21st century.

Moscow's attack on Georgia is only part of a broader campaign against its real and perceived enemies, a mission that has been conducted without the least regard for settled principles of international law. This campaign includes the de facto annexation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia -- which must now be considered "Russia-occupied territory" protected by the Fourth Geneva Convention. It also encompasses cyber attacks against the Baltic states, state-ordered assassinations of individuals in Western countries, and economic intimidation, as in the recent cutoffs of Russian oil and gas shipments to Ukraine or the Czech Republic.

It is important that Moscow pays a concrete and tangible price for its latest aggression, at least comparable to the price it paid for the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. Visa denials to all individuals connected to the Russian government and vigorous oversight and enforcement activities against Moscow's state-owned companies would be a good way to start. Given Russia's historic insecurities, and the desire of Russian plutocrats to travel freely throughout the world, educate their children in the West, and own property overseas, such modest measures would be quite effective. Russia's WTO membership should be blocked and its G-8 participation suspended.

The Bush administration should also make an assertive effort to deny the legitimacy of all Moscow's legal and policy claims, and defend Mr. Saakashvili without reservations. We should draw a sharp contrast between the American leadership in securing Kosovo's independence -- an infringement of Serbian sovereignty brought about by Belgrade's real genocide and war crimes -- and Moscow's cynical encouragement of secessionist movements in countries formerly a part of the Soviet Union, which was designed to reconstitute Russian imperial control. John McCain has already taken the lead on this, quickly reaching out to the Georgian president and condemning Russia's actions as a new form of empire building.

While rebutting Moscow's claims of today, the U.S. should also press for a historical accounting. Russia's history goes directly to its credibility. We should remind the world that Russia remains unrepentant for the sins of its past, not the least of which are its previous 1803 and 1922 invasions and annexation of Georgia, its 1939 partition of Poland with Hitler's Germany, and the Katyn massacre that claimed the lives of tens of thousands of captured Polish officers (which Moscow still falsely blames on Germany). Russia refuses to take responsibility for its past oppression of numerous non-Russian "captive nations" -- among them, of course, the Georgians.

American credibility is very much at stake here. If a true friend of the United States -- an ancient country already twice annexed by Moscow in the past two centuries, a democracy that has enthusiastically reached out to NATO and the European Union, and even sent troops to fight in Iraq -- can be snuffed out without concrete action by Washington, America's friendship will quickly lose its value and America's displeasure would matter even less. The repercussions would be felt world-wide, from the capitals of New Europe, to Jerusalem, Kabul and Baghdad.

Messrs. Rivkin and Casey are Washington lawyers who served from 2004-2007 as members of the U.N. Subcommission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Russia's Energy Lesson

What a sad set of events have unfolded over the past few days. You may not know it from the news coverage, but there is a new war in town -- Russia has been bombing and has troops on the ground in the small nation of Georgia (a former part of the Soviet Union by force that broke away in 1991).

This development is very serious and deserves far more attention than it has received. Russia is using force to restore its control over countries and resources that it lost with the fall of the Soviet Union. We are seeing no less than the beginning of an effort to re-construct the "Evil Empire".

And everything about this move has to do with energy. Georgia has access to important oil pipeline infrastructure and Russia is bent on controlling it and squeezing off energy supplies to Europe whenever it wants anything from them.

If this is not a clear sign of our need to develop our own secure, domestic energy infrastructure, I don't know what is! I hear over and over the pundits of AM radio screaming about how "oil is freedom" Well, take a good look at what 'freedom' is doing to the independent state of Georgia!

I'm sorry, but oil - as efficient of a fuel as it is, is located in ALL THE WRONG PLACES in this world. Isn't that a hint that we should depend more on our own ingenuity and less on the graces of the greedy?

I know my blog is about pragmatism -- and this topic is not an exception. I'm not saying we should turn our backs on drilling and finding new domestic sources of energy. Clearly, we must. But we CAN NOT continue to delude ourselves into thinking that we can continue to make deals with the devil AND be a free people. It doesn't work that way. It never has.

So just maybe Paris Hilton has it right? We need to drill AND we need to massively develop alternative energy -- all of it (nuclear, wind, solar, geo-thermal, biogas, etc) so that we do not have to continue to stand by and watch Russia eat up surrounding nations, watch the Saudis continue to hand out $ for extremist terrorists and fund the very empire that will hold us hostage for energy.

Would Luke Skywalker fund the construction of the Death Star? No. And neither should we!!

Below is a terrific excerpt from a blog I found that provides detailed background on the whole Russia, Georgia history and the role of oil. I highly recommend reading the entire post -- which you can see by clicking on the blue entry listing below.

From 'green with a gun' blog, entry: "Georgia, Russia, the West - checkmate"
Russia, Gazprom and oil
Russia has aspirations to return to the Great Power status it once had, both under the Tsars and under the Communists. As I described in talking about India and nuclear weapons, a "Great Power" is a country whose economic and military might is such that it cannot be ignored in world affairs. Australia or Belgium can be ignored; the US or China cannot. For most of the 1990s Russia had effectively lost its Great Power status. It is now reclaiming it. Part of this is waving a stick at its neighbours, neighbours who were once part of Mother Russia - or the Soviet Union.

But this is not mere prestige we're talking about. Being a Great Power lets your people have more than their fair share of world resources. The US, for example, has 4.5% of the world's population but consumes about 24% its oil - the USA's Great Power status means that Americans can eat burgers, drive SUVs, and watch lots of tv. Russia was never as well-off as that, but it's better-off now than it was in the 1990s, and its people and government aspire to more.

So these two things tie in with each-other, the military and the economic. And they mean that control over resources and where they flow to is very important. Russia's shown itself adept at manipulating this. For example, the Russia energy company Gazprom supplies something like three-quarters of Eastern Europe's natural gas, and overall about a quarter of the EU's natural gas. If the EU pisses off Russia, Europeans face a cold winter. Russia has already shown itself ready to turn off the tap, as it did with the Ukraine and Belarus.

You can see, then, that the US and EU are rather keen not to have to rely on Russian goodwill to keep the oil flowing out of Central Asia. If they rely on Russia for oil or for natural gas, then if Russia switches one off it hurts a lot but they can change to the other, but if Russia controls both, they're stuck. Russia has them not merely by the balls but also the throat. Russia can then dictate not only prices, but to some degree foreign policy. "Yes, dear EU, you can support airstrikes on our friends in Iran, but you will gain a new appreciation of your white Christmas, as you're walking out in the cold past your unfuelled cars."

Chokepoint #2, Georgia
The EU and the US have looked for a way out. From the Central Asian republics the oil - and any gas they find with it - can flow four ways.
  • through Russia, which option they cannot accept
  • through China, which would be technically difficult and extraordinarily expensive (it'd have to go through desert western China, and then on tankers all the way round to Europe again), and anyway by the time the pipeline got built the Chinese would want the oil for themselves, their consumption is increasing madly
  • through Afghanistan and Pakistan. This was part of the motivation for the US/NATO invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, but those two countries are simply too unstable for pipelines to be built or survive - the Afghans cannot even secure their main prison in their capital, with several hundred prisoners escaping
  • through Azerbaijan, and then by some route to the Mediterranean.
Having no other option, they chose the last. From Azerbaijan the pipeline could go south to Iran, but this just transfers the problem from Russia to Iran - one country controlling a huge chunk of the EU's oil supply. It could go west to Armenia, but Azerbaijan and Armenia fought a war over an Azerbaijaini enclave within Armenia for six years, and though they've signed a ceasefire, they've not signed a peace treaty, and are still technically at war (like North and South Korea).

That left going northwest to Georgia, and then into Turkey and thus to the Mediterranean through the port of Ceyhan. Of course Georgia faces two armed insurrections, one in Abkhazia and the other in South Ossetia. Russia supports the insurgents essentially to keep a country which used to be part of Mother Russia under its thumb. But until recently there'd been no major fighting for a few years. It also passes through Turkish Kurdistan, where the Kurds have been fighting for independence for decades (and they have it in fact but not in name in Iraqi Kurdistan, thanks the West's two wars against Iraq). Altogether, not brilliant, but... really that route seemed the best of a bad lot. Better than any of the alternatives, and better than nothing. And so we have the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline.

The BTC pipeline
This was built just last year. It can carry about 1.5 million barrels a day of oil, but currently carries just 800,000 bbl/day. It was built with extra capacity because the Azerbaijainis hope to increase production, and in any case the EU - who with Japan and the US paid for it - hope to get oil from the Central Asian republics in future years.

With the background so far, you can see why the BTC pipeline is so important to the West. With oil exports from the Persian Gulf declining over the next decade or so, Nigeria in a mess, Venezuela unfriendly, that leaves the Central Asian republics.

The BTC pipeline was already damaged last week, probably in an attack by Turk-Kurdish rebels, as discussed here.

On an oil pipeline, the most place most vulnerable to attack is the pipe itself, which can be ruptured with relative ease, and of course it's impossible to protect 1,700km of pipeline. However, while easy to rupture it's also easy to repair - you'd get a loss of pressure for half an hour until they found where the rupture was, then it'd be down for a few hours until they repaired it. Little effort, but little gain for the saboteur. But pipelines have pumping stations, these are large, relatively easier to defend, but if struck the line will be down for days at least, depending on the level of damage.

As for saboteurs, so for conventional warfighting. If in the course of the conflict pumping stations are destroyed, the oil flow stops. And while the fighting's still going on, nothing will be rebuilt - just ask the Iraqis, where more than five years after the invasion Baghdadis reckon they're doing well if they get six hours of electricity a day.

What's Russia up to?
Nothing more nor less than asserting and creating its Great Power status. It's not for nothing that last year they resumed patrols of nuclear bombers, flying close to Britain and to Guam.

There are many ethnic and historical issues behind the Georgia-Russia conflict. The Ossetians feel a kinship with Russia more than with Georgia, Georgia was set for NATO membership next year, putting a NATO country directly on Russia's border, and Russia has long held sway over the entire Caucasus. And since the West went to war with a Russian ally in Serbia to secure the independence and self-determination of the Kosovar Albanians, they can hardly complain if Russia goes to war with Georgia to secure the same for the Ossetians. But really that is not important: for the world and for Russia it all comes down to energy, to controlling the flow of it. Russia has chosen an effective means of controlling the flow of oil from the Central Asian republics.

Russia has accomplished a strategic coup de main. The aim of most warfare is to present your enemy with a dilemma. For example, achieve air superiority against his land forces, and his forces can either sit still in bunkers and be encircled by your troops, or move and be bombed - either way they're screwed, it's a dilemma. Russia has presented the West with a dilemma - do nothing to help Georgia and lose BTC, or go to war against Russia and in the course of the conflict lose BTC.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Paradigm Shift on Natural Gas

The investment message boards are often filled with good insight and analysis. This post from
Investor caught my eye and I wanted to share it with you. You can visit the post directly by clicking here

A Paradigm Shift in the Highest and Best Use of NG [Natural Gas]
posted by: seethefuture06

I am convinced that T Boon has it right, that the only way to wean this country off foreign oil dependency is the full scale conversion to a NG powered light transportation country.
Oil will fire heavy transportation, planes, trains, and long haul trucking.
Wind, solar, geothermal, nuclear, hydroelectric, and clean coal will generate the electrical needs of the US.
Compressed natural gas will power our cars and small trucks of tomorrow.
Reasons for NG to emerge the victor among the many competing technologies:
1. Huge domestic reserves. We're finding huge NG reserves (like the 10-20 Tcf Haynesville play) at a frequency similar to the discovery rate of giant oil fields a hundred years ago. Peak oil occurred in the US in the 1970. Peak gas is many years in front of us such that as the 20th century was oil driven, the 21st century will be gas driven.
2. Natural Gas Vehicle technology is proved and available today. Many cities, counties, and state transportation programs are driven by NG because a. their vehicles are generally kept in one or a few central locations where fueling can take place, and b. they are not driven very far away from their fueling facility.
3. NGV can be retrofitted (at a cost of $1,500 to $2,000) to existing gasoline combustion engines with the added benefit that the retrofitted car can be dual fuel meaning your existing retrofitted vehicle (assuming you retain your gasoline fuel tank) will still operate perfectly well on gasoline. Someone will probably invent the detachable gasoline tank so that for a 700-800 mile non stop trip, you might fill with CNG and gasoline, and around town, run exclusively on NG with you gas tank hanging in your garage.
4. The infrastructure in already in place for home refueling. Fuelmaker makes an in-home trickle fill fueling station (called Phill) which will fill at a gasoline equivalent rate of about a half gallon per hour. A 10 hour overnight fill puts about 5 gallons gasoline equivalent (GE) in your CNG tank, which will be about 70% of a full tank. CNG tanks will hold 7-8 gallons GE. At 30 mpg that's 200-250 miles between refueling and a 10 hour Phill fueling puts about 150 miles into your tank. Fuelink takes place at night when gas and electricity consumption is at it's lowest (Phill requires 6-8 amps (check this) to compress the gas which is like running a room air conditioner.).
5. It's the cleanest of the fossil fuels. Carbon dioxide is the by product. No Nox, Sox, CO. If however you were planning suicide by running your vehicle inside your garage, pack a lunch. It'll take days.
6. No, (well minimal) refining, no mining. NG is normally flows ready to use from a simple well. Compared to strip mining coal, its like athroscopic heart surgery vs open heart surgery. Plug and go. Land is repaired quickly and cheaply.
7. No other fuel source offers the potential for fast (high pressure) refueling at a commercial fueling station and low flow refueling at home with the safety of NG. Because NG flows from the meter to the compressor and into the car, there is no CNG stored anywhere in the garage except the cars tank. These tanks are very safe, on par with gasoline tanks. There is less danger of gas leakage and fire from Phill than any other NG fired appliance in your house. Risk is much higher will gas whether heater, gas stove, etc. Not som much with the Hydrogen car.
8. NG can flow from drill bit to spark plug safely without trucks (in home refueling, at least). Oil to gas obviously has the oil going from the well to pipe to refinery to truck to filling station to their tank to yours.
9. NG has a wide and localized distribution. NG is in the gulf, Texas, the midwest, the Rocky mountains, and Columbia basin and more to be found. We do not need to go to ANWAR or offshore in the foreseeable future. Adequate NG reserves can be proved up in the lower continental US for some time to come.
10. So why is there so much talk about the hydrogen economy, biofuels, ethanol, hybrids (btw, electric cars will likely be successful along side the CNG vehicles), electric vehicles? If it's so obvious (well to me anyway, so I got to be prepared for this question) why hasn't it caught on?
A. People don't understand two basic things about energy; 1, energy density and 2. energy volume. To most, a solar panel or a wind turbine and a gallon of gas are equivalent energy sources. The don't understand that the energy concentrated in that gallon jug of gas is enormous compared to the size of the alternative energy sourcing and storage infrastructure. Wind turbines, solar cells, batteries, etc are, from a power to weight and power to cost ratio, orders of magnitude apart. They also don't understand the sheer volume of energy that powers our economy. 20 million barrels of oil a day. The amount of energy, metal, and real estate, and human effort necessary to replace the incredible energy density of gasoline and its (now receding) once tremendous availability, is staggering. Doing so will place huge stresses on natural resources to simply build the new infrastructure. People just take oil based energy for granted, what a unique and irreplaceable resource it is (was). NG (along with nuclear) are the only viable, existing technologies with the energy densities and volume options to allow the transition to a post oil world.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Environmentalists "Strategery" Problem

As if to reinforce the point I just made with the previous post, here is a story from Politico talking about some of the strategic flaws made by environmental groups. Unfortunately, most of the groups just chalk it up to a "perception problem" with the public -- meaning, they aren't wrong in their messaging, the public is just wrong in their perceptions. Ugh!

Please - for the sake of the planet, LEARN to work WITH people rather than PREACHING AT THEM!!

Environmental groups faltered this year
By: Erika Lovley
August 4, 2008 05:47 PM EST

Former Vice President Al Gore may have made global warming a household term, but this year’s tactical mistakes by the green army may have set the cause back just when it seemed to be on the brink of a legislative breakthrough. While pushing for sharp emission reductions, a number of environmental groups failed to adapt their pitch to acknowledge rising energy costs, experts say, leaving voters to believe that saving the planet will mean unaffordable energy prices.

The Senate’s Climate Security Act — sponsored by Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), John Warner (R-Va.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) — called for quick emission reductions that would have raised energy costs significantly for Americans. A handful of well-advertised studies by the business community painted the legislation as an economic apocalypse.

But Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and other environmental groups were pushing lawmakers to go even further to prevent irreversible environmental damage.

In a year when gasoline soared past $4 per gallon, the green message triggered populist anger and eventually drove away a core group of moderate and conservative Democrats.

When the legislation came to the Senate floor, 10 conservative Democratic senators who voted to debate the bill also vowed to oppose it later — even after it had been sweetened with billions of dollars in last-minute public energy assistance.

The group included Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), who said he plans to offer his own legislation next year. He told Politico that environmentalists will be forced to compromise next year and support the development of clean coal, nuclear power and other alternative fuels.

“We need to be able to address a national energy strategy and then try to work on environmental efficiencies as part of that plan,” Webb said. “We can’t just start with things like emission standards at a time when we’re at a crisis with the entire national energy policy.”

Polls show that the public clearly sees global warming and high energy prices as separate issues, rather than one overall problem. Now more Americans than ever are urging politicians to solve the skyrocketing gas prices before finding a solution to climbing temperatures. And while support for offshore oil drilling has reached a record high, solving global warming is low on the list of voter priorities.

In a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, global warming ranked seventh in a list of eight top voter priorities, behind the economy and energy at the top, and also following the war in Iraq, health care, terrorism and illegal immigration. It was ahead of only housing.

“There was not enough emphasis that if we move aggressively toward sustainable energy, we will transform our energy costs,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who said he plans to offer his own global warming bill next year. “We were not as clear as we might have been.”

Still, Democrats who backed the legislation remain supportive of the greens’ agenda.

“I’m not discouraged at all,” said Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.). “The environmental community understands that we have to have a starting point. The next bill should be modified with the greens but also with those in the business community.”

Boxer said environmental groups would continue to play a vital role in next year’s debate. “The vast majority of green groups support the targets that are necessary to avoid the most dangerous impact of global warming,” she said.

Greens deny that their policy push overlooked the energy crisis but acknowledge a public perception problem.

“The solution for us next year is connecting gas prices and global warming. We have to show voters that the solution to gas prices and the solution to global warming is the same,” said Greenpeace global warming expert Kate Smolski. “What’s been lost on decision makers is that the cost of inaction will far exceed any costs of dealing with the problem now.”

It’s a balancing act that plenty of others saw coming.

“You cannot have a system that emphasizes pain,” said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), whose American Solutions group opposed the global warming bill. “It is elitist. You’d have to be so wealthy you don’t notice the cost or so dedicated that the cost is irrelevant.”

A study by the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity found that energy costs are disproportionally affecting lower and middle class minority families.

Sierra Club global warming lobbyist Dave Hamilton said the environmental community was partly a victim of timing. Despite efforts to educate the grass roots about the relationship between global warming and energy prices, news of the added energy assistance funding came too late and failed to resonate with key voting blocs.

“The problems with energy prices have really happened in the last few months,” he said. “We somehow failed in making that a priority, and I think we have a huge amount [of work] to do on energy policy.”

Environmentalists say Americans want immediate action on global warming but don’t want to pay for it. A recent study by the Commission to Engage African Americans on Climate Change showed that a large majority of Americans wanted serious government action on climate change but that only 14 percent were willing to pay more than $50 a month to help the cause.

“You cannot drive home environmental legislation without considering the cost on the economy,” said National Association of Manufacturers lobbyist Keith McCoy. “That message was already universally unacceptable.”

Leading policymakers suspect greens will continue to face hurdles if energy costs stay high.

“They’re defeating themselves and hurting all of us on an issue that hurts all of us,” said former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Todd Whitman, who was instrumental in implementing the Clean Air Act. “The trouble comes when people try to attribute everything to global warming. Then the public gets skeptical about the claims.”

Avi Zenilman contributed to this story.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Environmentalists vs the Poor ?

The story below caught my eye because it lays out what can happen when special interests focus too narrowly on any one issue and take on the armor of the righteous. By being so purely wed to the perfect solution to pollution, environmental groups often leave themselves open to charges that their stated priorities (i.e. the environment) come at the expense of other values (i.e. helping to alleviate poverty). [See the story below].

There is a grain of truth in what this new group is charging -- but they are employing the same extremism in defense of their issue that they accuse the environmentalists of.

As energy prices stay high -- and rise even higher, we will need pragmatic solutions for finding enough energy at affordable prices more than ever if we are to avoid the damaging pendulum effect where society and its policies swing rabidly from one end of the extreme to the other.

Does global warming disproportionately afflict the poor with the consequences it will bring? Of course - but the poor represented by this group also have a point that high energy costs also have a disproportionate impact on the poor. That, too, should be remembered the next time an environmentalist suggests adopting policies that will not take a balanced approach with the economy -- and could drive energy prices through the roof.

If we are to sustain good policy drivers that yield renewable, cleaner energy -- that has to be done in balance with the needs of everyday people to live their lives -- and that means making sure that economic gains as well as environmental ones move forward together.

Oil sands get nod from U.S. anti-poverty group

'All Energy Is Good'

Claudia Cattaneo, Calgary Bureau Chief, Financial Post Published: Tuesday, July 29, 2008

'Anything produced here will help'Canwest News Service 'Anything produced here will help'

CALGARY -- Support for Canada's oil sands is coming from an unexpected American group--an anti-poverty coalition led by African-American civil rights and faith leaders.

The group is waging a national campaign targeting 50 "extreme" environmental organizations and 100 U. S. politicians it says are restricting energy supplies through climate-change legislation, causing oil prices to spike to levels that are "strangling" the poor.

Niger Innis, co-chairman of the "Stop The War On The Poor" campaign and national spokesman for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), one of the oldest civil rights groups in the United States, said the alliance wants more oil from Canada's vast unconventional deposits.

"We favour any and every energy source," he said in an interview. "We do not believe in this artificial game that the radicals play of pitting the so-called bad energy versus good energy. All energy, when prices are as high as they are, which is such a critical resource and the lifeblood of a nation's economy and the survival of people, is good energy as far as we are concerned."

The alliance's views are in stark contrast to policies embraced in recent months by U. S. politicians to restrict imports of Canada's "dirty oil."

They include California's move to a low-carbon fuel standard by the end of the year, a resolution by mayors of the largest cities in the United States last month singling out the oil sands as part of a crackdown on fuels that cause global warming, and a federal law adopted last December by the U. S. federal government that bans procurement of alternative fuels that generate more greenhouse gases than "conventional sources."

Even presidential hopeful Barack Obama has said he would break America's addiction to "dirty, dwindling and dangerously expensive" oil if elected. The group challenged the top-ranking black representative in the U. S. Congress, Jim Clyburn, to a debate today in Washington, where Mr. Clyburn is launching a new commission to engage African-Americans on climate change.

Mr. Innis said African-Americans are more concerned about high energy prices, but many U. S. politicians are "being cowered by a very powerful, well-funded environmental extremist lobby that has a great deal of influence over them, and a great deal of influence over policy."

The alliance's strategy involves "outing" the extremist groups and the politicians it says are doing their bidding.

Its first targets, announced on the campaign's Web site, are California Democrat Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the U. S. House of Representatives, and the Washington-based Natural Resources Defense Council, a top anti-oil-sands crusader.

Policies that restrict energy development are hurting America's poor more than any other sector of society, forcing them to make "horrible choices between food, fuel and medicine," the alliance said in a news release yesterday. The alliance says it also represents a large cross-section of America's economically disadvantaged, from Latinos to farmers to consumer advocates.

Poor families spend as much as 50¢ out of every dollar of their income on energy, in contrast with 5¢ allocated by the average, median-income family, the alliance said. Energy prices are also one of the biggest causes of homelessness, it said.

The other co-chairman of the campaign is Bishop Harry Jackson, an African-American and the senior pastor of the Hope Christian Church in the Washington, D. C., area.

Americans for American Energy (AAE), a group advocating greater American energy independence, is also heading the effort.

"We certainly support the oil sands," said Cody Stewart, a spokesman for AAE, led by Wyoming State Senator Bill Vasey, Colorado State Senator Bill Cadman and Utah State Representative Aaron Tilton.

While the alliance's primary focus is to increase American supplies, it also favours taking a broader North American approach, he said.

"Anything that is produced here, or close to us, will help reduce prices and help the overall agenda to stop the war on the poor and bring costs down," Mr. Stewart said.

The message is similar to that made by U. S. oil companies, which for years have advocated lifting restrictions on oil and gas development in protected areas to boost secure domestic supplies.

Financial Post

China Investing More in Renewable Energy than U.S.

Again, for those who use the refrain, "What about China?" as an excuse for the U.S. to avoid taking action on climate change by ramping up renewable, low-carbon, DOMESTIC energy . . . take a look at what China is actually doing already.

China is actually ahead of the U.S. in dealing with many of these issues because they rightly perceive them as vital to their economic development and interest. We should too!
Renewables surge unleashing a 'low-carbon dragon'
Christa Marshall, ClimateWire reporter - Aug. 4, 2008

Dollar for dollar, China is investing more in renewable energy than the United States, even though the Asian giant remains the world's largest emitter of carbon dioxide overall, a new report has found.

China poured almost $12 billion last year into wind, solar and other low-carbon technologies, placing it just behind Germany as the world's largest investor in alternative energy as a percentage of gross national product. China also is the global leader in total installed capacity of renewable power and is expected to be first in wind exports by 2009, riding a 120 percent surge in installation last year.

"For too long, many governments, businesses and individuals have been wary of committing to action on climate change because they perceive that China ... is doing little to address the issue. However, the reality is that China's government is beginning to unleash a low-carbon dragon," said Steve Howard, chief executive of the Climate Group, a coalition of companies and governments that released the study on Friday.

Other highlights from the report, which combined new and existing data:

  • China currently accounts for 24 percent of total global emissions of carbon dioxide, but its per capita carbon output is much lower than the United States', which constitutes 29 percent of the total. If the per-person carbon footprint of the average Chinese person were to equal that of the typical American, the Asian country's overall greenhouse gas emissions would match that of the entire planet.
  • China's fuel efficiency standards for cars are 40 percent higher than those in the United States. Following a 2006 law, it also taxes sports utility vehicles at a much higher rate, up to 20 percent, than compact cars, which are taxed at 3 percent.
  • The country plans to double the proportion of renewable energy it uses, from 8 percent in 2006 to 15 percent in 2020, with the bulk of that coming from 300 gigawatts of hydropower, followed by bioenergy (30 GW), wind (30 GW) and solar (1.8 GW) production.
  • China is second only to Japan in the manufacture of solar photovoltaic technology.
  • The percentage growth in some low-carbon industries in China far outpaces that of many other countries, including an average 20 percent annual growth rate in the market for solar water heaters.
  • The country's economy has reduced its energy intensity, or the ratio of its total energy consumed to its gross domestic product, by 60 percent since 1980.

Policies such as a 2006 renewable energy law mandating that utilities purchase renewable power and building efficiency design codes helped drive some of the statistics, the report said.

Still ramping up coal

Yet don't expect criticism of the country's global-warming record to go away. Despite China's green efforts, fossil fuels still provide 80 percent of its power, and the country is still building roughly one coal-fired power plant a week.

In a separate series of briefing papers released Friday, the Climate Group noted that 70 percent of China's new electricity capacity by 2030 will be based on coal if current trends continue.

"Under optimistic assumptions, this new coal-based capacity alone commits China to an additional four billion tons of carbon dioxide by 2030 -- more than the European Union's total CO2 emissions today," wrote Michel Colombier and Emmanuel Guerin, of the Institut du Développement Durable et des Relations Internationales.

Furthermore, the country's reliance on hydropower has generated criticism. The Three Gorges Dam, which will be the world's largest hydropower project when it becomes operational in 2009, recently prompted protests for displacing more than a million people and worsening water pollution in surrounding areas.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Don't Give Up on Biofuels!

One of the latest green "fads" these days is to bash biofuels as causing everything from high food prices to global warming -- a neat trick when you consider the bigger culprit for both is OIL!! Below is a great story showing the huge gains that can be realized from miscanthus - a type of perennial switchgrass that can be used as an ethanol/biofuel feedstock.

Does corn ethanol have some "eco-problems?" Yes. Should we throw the whole concept of biofuels out the window . . . NO!

August 1, 2008

Miscanthus Shows Great Potential as Ethanol Feedstock

by Diana Yates, University of Illinios
Illinois, United States []

In the largest field trial of its kind in the United States, researchers have determined that the giant perennial grass Miscanthus x giganteus outperforms current biofuels sources -- by a lot. Using Miscanthus as a feedstock for ethanol production in the U.S. could significantly reduce the acreage dedicated to biofuels while meeting government biofuels production goals, the researchers report.

"Keep in mind that this Miscanthus is completely unimproved, so if we were to do the sorts of things that we've managed to do with corn, where we've increased its yield threefold over the last 50 years, then it's not unreal to think that we could use even less than 10 percent of the available agricultural land."

-- Professor Stephen P. Long, Deputy Director, Energy Biosciences Institute, University of Illinios

Using corn or switchgrass to produce enough ethanol to offset 20 percent of gasoline use — a current White House goal — would take 25 percent of current U.S. cropland out of food production, the researchers report. Getting the same amount of ethanol from Miscanthus would require only 9.3 percent of current agricultural acreage.

"What we've found with Miscanthus is that the amount of biomass generated each year would allow us to produce about 2 1/2 times the amount of ethanol we can produce per acre of corn," said crop sciences professor Stephen P. Long, who led the study. Long is the deputy director of the BP-sponsored Energy Biosciences Institute, a multi-year, multi-institutional initiative aimed at finding low-carbon or carbon-neutral alternatives to petroleum-based fuels. Long is an affiliate of the U. of I.'s Institute for Genomic Biology.

In trials across Illinois, switchgrass, a perennial grass which, like Miscanthus, requires fewer chemical and mechanical inputs than corn, produced only about as much ethanol feedstock per acre as corn, Long said.

"It wasn't that we didn't know how to grow switchgrass because the yields we obtained were actually equal to the best yields that had been obtained elsewhere with switchgrass," he said. Corn yields in Illinois are also among the best in the nation.

"One reason why Miscanthus yields more biomass than corn is that it produces green leaves about six weeks earlier in the growing season," Long said. Miscanthus also stays green until late October in Illinois, while corn leaves wither at the end of August, he said.

The growing season for switchgrass is comparable to that of Miscanthus, but it is not nearly as efficient at converting sunlight to biomass as Miscanthus, Frank Dohleman, a graduate student and co-author on the study, found.

"One of the criticisms of using any biomass as a biofuel source is it has been claimed that plants are not very efficient — about 0.1 percent efficiency of conversion of sunlight into biomass," Long said. "What we show here is on average Miscanthus is in fact about 1 percent efficient, so about 1 percent of sunlight ends up as biomass."

"Keep in mind that when we consider our energy use, a few hours of solar energy falling on the earth are equal to all the energy that people use over a whole year, so you don't really need that high an efficiency to be able to capture that in plant material and make use of it as a biofuel source," he said.

Field trials also showed that Miscanthus is tolerant of poor soil quality, Long said.

"Our highest productivity is actually occurring in the south, on the poorest soils in the state," he said. "So that also shows us that this type of crop may be very good for marginal land or land that is not even being used for crop production."

Because Miscanthus is a perennial grass, it also accumulates much more carbon in the soil than an annual crop such as corn or soybeans, Long said.

"In the context of global change, that's important because it means that by producing a biofuel on that land you're taking carbon out of the atmosphere and putting it into the soil."

Researchers at Illinois are exploring all aspects of biofuels production, from the development of feedstocks such as Miscanthus, to planting, harvest, storage, transport, conversion to biofuels and carbon sequestration.

Using Miscanthus in an agricultural setting has not been without its challenges, Long said. Because it is a sterile hybrid, it must be propagated by planting underground stems, called rhizomes. This was initially a laborious process, Long said, but mechanization allows the team to plant about 15 acres a day. In Europe, where Miscanthus has been grown for more than a decade, patented farm equipment can plant about 50 acres of Miscanthus rhizomes a day, he said.

Once established, Miscanthus returns annually without need for replanting. If harvested in December or January, after nutrients have returned to the soil, it requires little fertilizer.

This sterile form of Miscanthus has not been found to be invasive in Europe or the U.S., Long said.

Many companies are building or operating plants in the U.S. to produce ethanol from lignocellulosic feedstocks, the non-edible parts of plants, and companies are propagating Miscanthus rhizomes for commercial sale, Long said.

Although research has led to improvements in productivity and growers are poised to begin using it as a biofuels crop on a large scale, Miscanthus is in its infancy as an agricultural product, Long said.

"Keep in mind that this Miscanthus is completely unimproved, so if we were to do the sorts of things that we've managed to do with corn, where we've increased its yield threefold over the last 50 years, then it's not unreal to think that we could use even less than 10 percent of the available agricultural land," Long said. "And if you can actually grow it on non-cropland that would be even better."

Diana Yates is life sciences editor at the University of Illinois.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Storing the Sun

Three cheers for MIT!! They have made a major breakthrough in the ability to store solar power -- which is a key need if it is going to emerge as a mainstream form of power. This is a very exciting development -- and shows what can happen when America's ingenuity is applied to problem-solving rather than blame spreading.

MIT scientists announce breakthrough
Christa Marshall, ClimateWire reporter - Aug. 1, 2008

Harvesting the sun's energy at night may no longer be an impossible dream.

In new research that some experts said could have sweeping implications for a major source of carbon-free electricity, two Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientists have found a cheap way to potentially store solar power.

By a process mirroring photosynthesis, they have discovered how to split oxygen and hydrogen from water at low cost and using little electricity. The mechanism creates the possibility that the gases could hold power generated by the sun -- and possibly wind -- in fuel cells for later use in homes and businesses.

"What this allows is for the large-scale deployment of a technology that has yet to take off," said Daniel Nocera, an MIT professor of energy who performed the research, featured today in the journal Science.

"Until now we hadn't really been able to find a practical way to duplicate what a leaf does," he said.

Nocera and postdoctoral fellow Matthew Kanan recreated photosynthesis in the lab by putting an electrode in water filled with phosphate and cobalt metal. When a small amount of electricity was applied to the electrode, the chemical mix formed a thin film and produced oxygen bubbles.

Using existing technology, the team then used a nearby platinum electrode to produce hydrogen from a leftover oxygen proton.

Technology currently exists to split water in a similar fashion, but it relies on large equipment requiring massive amounts of electrical juice and an alkaline environment. In addition to being abundant and cheap, the cobalt-phosphate duo has the advantage of working in a small amount of water at room temperature.

'Major discovery' but not a 'silver bullet'

Nocera predicted that within 10 years, his technology could allow homeowners to live almost free of the electrical grid -- with photovoltaic cells powering most daytime needs and solar-powered storage operating at night.

Indeed, Nocera said he already was using the "photosynthesis" technique with a solar power panel in an MIT lab, although he acknowledged it was a bit "flimsy." The technology also could potentially be used to power cars if plug-in models became available, he said.

"This is a major discovery with enormous implications for the future prosperity of humankind," said James Barber, a professor of biochemistry at Imperial College London who was an early researcher of photosynthesis. He was not involved with Nocera's research.

A spokeswoman for the Solar Energy Industries Association, Monique Hanis, said the group typically doesn't comment on peer-reviewed studies, but that the industry as a whole is searching for ways to improve efficiency.

Still, others cautioned that the study provides a potential solution for only one aspect of using solar power to produce hydrogen and oxygen.

"This is not a silver bullet," said John Turner, a research fellow at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). "This is just one part of a three-legged stool."

According to Turner, one of the biggest challenges for storage involves figuring out how to mass produce a new type of photovoltaic panel specifically designed for working with a fuel cell. Science hasn't figured out how to design such a tool, much less mass-produce it in a commercial infrastructure that doesn't currently exist, he said.

Nocera agreed that engineering work needed to be done to integrate his research with technology that captures sunlight. He said scientists at MIT and elsewhere were tackling the problem. Companies including Polaris Venture Partners have already contacted the MIT office expressing interest in the research, he said.

Harnessing the fickle sun

"Photovoltaics are expensive because they're not making enough of them at scale," Nocera said. "And manufacturers are only going to start making a lot of them with a storage mechanism."

The fickle nature of sunlight is one of the biggest challenges for the industry, along with uncertainty about federal tax credits and a need for transmission lines ferrying solar electrons to population centers.

Another challenge is that the element typically used to derive hydrogen from oxygen on electrodes, platinum, is expensive and scarce, but Nocera said ongoing investigation is making progress on that front.

And every small advance is important, according to many solar industry watchers. Solar power has doubled in installed capacity since 2005, with an 83 percent jump last year outside California, but still constitutes a small percentage of U.S. electricity, according to figures from the Solar Energy Industries Association.

"If we could just have three hours a day of solar storage, the price of photovoltaic technology would not really have to come down much at all to be competitive," said Larry Kazmerski, director of the National Center for Photovoltaics at NREL.

That potential has prompted Nocera to stare at plants for years and ponder how to use their natural chemical processes to revolutionize power generation. Work on the study officially began in December, but the thought process had a much longer history.

"This research has been 25 years in the making," he said.

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