Saturday, June 6, 2009

Renewable Energy Slide Show, See the Largest Plants in the World

We all hear about new types of renewable energy plants being proposed, developed, or coming on line soon. But just what do these large scale plants look like on the land or sea scape? Check out a slide show of the ten largest renewable energy projects currently operating around the globe published by Scientific American.

Just what qualifies as a renewable energy source remains a source of debate. Should hydro dams, such as China's massive Three Gorges dam, that alter natural river flows, block fish, hold back silt, and drown towns and villages qualify as renewable? How about a plant that burns biomass as fuel but the fuel is shipped from around the world or comes from conversion of native landscape to agriculture? Other plants capture out gassing from landfills or harness the energy in tides, waves, wind or solar power. While these fuel sources seem renewable, in that the fuel is a natural phenomena, the structures used to harness this energy or the conversion of landscapes to build them may have impacts that cause permanent change to energy flows or landscapes.

These questions are complicated and require rationale analysis. For example, wind turbines, as explained by Environmental Engineer Dr. Somnath Baidya Roy, from the department of civil and environmental engineering at Duke University may impact regional and local meteorological conditions by reducing wind speeds and increasing drying conditions. However, improvements in rotor blade design can reduce the turbulence causing these impacts while increasing the efficiency of the turbine. This improvement may not address the issue of bird and bat deaths associated with turbines and wind farms however. The bird article reports on the numbers of both small birds and raptors killed at one of the oldest wind farms in the country, while the bat article linked to explains how advanced radar technology, along with automatic start up and shut down of turbines, could mitigate many of these deaths.

So when you hear the words "renewable energy" remember to think carefully about the fuel, conversion, and impact of whatever type of plant is under discussion. Look through the slide show covering different energy sources in locations around the world and comment back with your thoughts, questions, or analysis.
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Friday, June 5, 2009

Coal Plants Are Dying Nationwide, Checkout This Coal DeathMap

Earth2Tech writer Craig Rubens shares this map showing the death of planned new coal generation plants between 2005 and 2007. During that time utilities and other power producers canceled 21 projects located in 15 states. In 2008 the National Energy Technology Laboratory changed their projections of new coal fired projects to be constructed by 2020 from 151 in May to 120 by October. That is 30 plants off the table in five months!

Mary Manning of the Las Vegas Sun reports this trend is continuing with the cancellation of two coal plants in Nevada and one in Iowa this year alone. Instead of new coal fired generation developer LS Power plans to focus on a new transmission line, the South West Intertie Project ("SWIP") connecting southern Idaho with Las Vegas. This chart from the Nevada PUC shows that, until the coal fired Mojave Generation Plant was shut down in 2005 for refusing to install pollution controls, Nevada exported far more energy than they imported. The SWIP line will allow Nevada to access these geothermal sites, this solar potential, and widespread wind. Manning also reports that LS Power is still pushing forward with a 1.5 gigawatt coal plant near Ely. Get interactive versions of these maps developed by university of Nevada Reno that display renewable potential along with land ownership and management classification. If Nevada returns to a net exporter and the SWIP connects Las Vegas and southern Idaho than it seems like Idaho is being set up to purchases public lands power generated on this desert landscape.

So while some plants die others are born. Until the public breaks the economic incentive for utilities to collect money only for units of energy sold we can expect to merely shift between generation sources instead of talking about money saving, environment saving, and security saving efficiency and conservation.
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Carbon Recycling, Not "Sequestering" Our Trash Out of Sight.

Carbon sequestration is a hot news topic these days as we search for some way to control the carbon dioxide emissions of power plants, industrial facilities, and manufacturing plants. However just putting pollutants "out of sight" do not mean they can be "out of mind."

As laid out on this chart, if we sign onto sequestration as the solution we are signing onto a scheme that merely pushes the problem further down the road and requires finding a place to dump billions of tons of pollution. We learned this lessons decades ago as landfills started overflowing, raw material prices escalated and, as a result, recycling of glass, aluminum, plastic, paper, and yard waste grew to the common practice it is today.

Instead of pushing the carbon problem down the road or pretending to hide massive piles of pollution a new company, Carbon Sciences, developed technology to convert carbon dioxide emissions directly back into hydro carbon fuels. Think of this like composting. Instead of dumping food and yard waste into landfills this energy containing material is composted, spread on gardens, and returns nutrient to the soils. Likewise, using their new CO2-to-fuel process Carbon Sciences routes high carbon emissions through microorganisms that extract carbon atoms from the CO2 and hydrogen atoms from water to create hydrocarbon molecules, the building blocks of all liquid fuels. The breakthrough is the use of "inexpensive, renewable biomolecules" instead of the "expensive inorganic catalysts, such as zinc, gold or zeolite, with traditional high energy catalytic chemical processes" currently used. Here is technology that takes a waste product and applies tools and mechanisms developed over billions of years of evolution to make something useful instead of merely changing where we throw our garbage from the air to underground.

Click here for an informative and detailed interview with Carbon Science President Byron Elton from the Berkeley Groks Radio Show, perhaps the most detailed, intelligent, and interesting podcast delivering cutting edge science to a general audience.

Besides recycling waste instead of just dumping it turning carbon back into hydrocarbon fuels, instead of growing new biomass to convert to ethanol, is far more efficient on a system wide basis as well. Direct recycling of carbon emissions into fuels can utilize the existing fuel delivery and consumption infrastructure. Converting carbon emission directly back into fuel avoids all of the cost and impacts of growing, harvesting, transporting, and refining biofuels. Converting corn into fuel has caused severe disturbance in world food markets and takes almost the same energy, if not more, to grow and make the fuel that it provides. Brazil has made serious advancements in converting sugar cane into a cost competitive and low emissions fuel. However, this 2008 report by the New Zealand Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority reviews the available literature and finds that while sugar cane does reduce harmful emission by up to 74% compared with the same energy derived from fossil fuels, no reliable assessment of the impacts from land use change is available. As growing sugar cane fields replace tropical rain forest the relative overall impact to the climate caused by land conversion to biofuels production will only increase the true negative impact of biofuels.

Instead of necessitating an entire new fuel infrastructure, converting food stocks into fuel, converting landscapes into more agriculture, or inputting more energy than is returned, direct recycling of carbon directly returns the waste product to a useful state. Like filling an empty glass bottle with new water to avoid the need to transport, crush, reform, refill, retransport, market, purchase, and deliver to your home, direct conversion of waste back into the useful product it came from is the paradigm of reasonable use.

As reported in the N.Y Times, Big Oil, never one to miss out on a chemical engineering revolution, is beginning to throw their substanital weight behind ethanol fuels. Because this entire field is based upon creating new fuels out of new sources the public should be very concerned about the role of Big Oil. Until they take recycling and efficiency seriously then we are doomed to repeat the same failures of: fake fuel scarcity to prop up prices, one time use of products, and ample waste products. The public can change change this path by insisting that utilities and other high carbon emitters recycle their pollution instead of supporting a new and likely disastrous stress on our landscape and pocketbooks from both hiding our garbage under ground or relying on biofuels.
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Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Electric Bill Draining Your Pocketbook? Paint Your Roof White and Save $ and the Earth.

On a summer day go outside and feel the difference between the searing heat of an asphalt parking lot compared with the strikingly cooler light colored sidewalk. This same phenomena happens on millions of rooftops nationwide causing hot houses, high cooling bills, and contributing to the heat island effect where urban areas are several degrees hotter than surrounding natural areas.

Energy Secretary and Nobel Prize winning physicist Steven Chu recently described perhaps the simplest, most effective way to reduce your home energy bills, converting your existing roof to reflective materials. Author Sam Kornell reports on a study by three leading energy experts showing that if the average American converted 2000 sqft of roof from black shingles to white, the reflected sunlight and heat from the albedo effect would offset the equivalent of 20 tons of carbon emissions under current technology. 20 tons of carbon happens to be the average American's output as well.

Air conditioning load belongs to a small class of serious strains on both the current grid as well as driving a disproportionate share of rising energy costs. The Florida Solar Center studied the impact of roof conversion on a set of typical residential homes in Ft Meyers Florida. Controlling for all other factors they found conversion of roofing to reflective materials reduced home cooling energy consumption up to 26% and peak demand overall by roughly 1/3rd. That's right, just simply changing roof color will cut your energy bill by 1/4 and avoid the need for 1/3 of new energy development.

The EPA and Department of Energy provide an online calculator anyone can use to find the potential energy and money savings available by converting their own roof to reflective materials. After entering some details about the building type, heating and cooling equipment, location, and local electric rates the calculator returns an estimate of yearly energy and cost savings. You can find your local electric rates here and gas price here. Check it out and report back your findings!

Builders and manufactures are quickly catching on to this simple, cheap and effective tool for combating climate change. Roofing company Petersen-Dean markets a new roof covering that is both reflective and integrates solar panels into the material. They estimate their SmarterRoof to be less expensive and last 40% longer than traditional roofing, offset up to 90% of your energy bills, and will repay for itself in 5 - 7 years. This double punch of cooling and electricity supply instead coating your roof with asphalt shingles empowers homeowners to take charge of their energy usage.

Some folks argue that the "winter penalty," or winter time heat gain lost by converting from black roofs offsets some energy savings from reduced summer cooling load. However, construction giant McGraw Hill explains that researchers studied 11 cities across the country and found that in while actual levels vary between homes in northern and southern sections of the country, in all instances the minimal loss of winter heating is outweighed by the savings in summer cooling. In northern climates any winter heat gain is minimal due to the low angle of sunlight, shorter daylight hours, fewer sunny days, and in the coldest climates snow covered roofs.

So what's stopping this cheap, effective method to reduce energy bills and our impact on the earth? Silly architectural and aesthetic community regulations and city ordinances that mandate dark roofing materials in order to reduce the glare of reflective light. A simple google search for "community CCR's and roof material" returns a wide variety of subdivisions, planned communities, and other organizations around the country that prohibit homeowners from choosing to change their roof color. These aesthetic regulations effectively require homeowners to pay higher energy bills and prohibit them from taking cost effective measures to reduce their personal energy consumption. For those of you who live under CC&R's, get a seat on the architectural review committee, or whatever your local review board is named, and advocate for dropping silly and wasteful aesthetic regulations that prohibit personal choice, sound economics, and good environmental practice. For others, make sure your state makes reflective roofing part of their building codes as California, among others, has done. For more information on cool roofs and building codes nationwide see this review by Dr.'s Akbari and Levinson.

The bottom line: Converting roof materials to reflective colors has the potential to offset a massive portion of the annual human contribution to global heat gain. Beyond drastically reducing summer cooling bills cool roof materials are less expensive and more durable than traditional materials. But until communities and cities drop restrictive aesthetic regulations some public citizens are excluded from this simple, cheap, and effective method to make our world a better place while saving their hard earned dollars.

The full original study: Global cooling: increasing world-wide urban albedos to offset CO2 by Hashem Akbari · Surabi Menon · Arthur Rosenfeld
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Wind Turbines on Roof Tops

Wind turbines capture free energy but also can degrade and fragment native habitat, kill birds and bats, and be seen from miles around. To address these critical public concerns new, homegrown, and innovative technology is coming online due to the Obama administration's economic stimulus and energy industry restructuring policies.

A small energy startup is beginning to install rooftop wind turbines that utilize a funnel shaped shroud to focus wind energy into a 22ft by 22ft set of rotors. "WindCube's" produce the same energy as the traditional 100 foot towers and fifty foot rotors while being mounted on unused roof space of industrial and commercial buildings. This small footprint allows for installation in downtown areas where skyscrapers and heating effects create locally high wind velocities.

This technology quickly pays for itself as well. Earth2Tech writer Jennifer Kho reports "The WindCube price tag is $279,000, plus installation. Green Energy says that with federal and state incentives, customers can expect to see a return on their investment in as little as 2-3 years."
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If Geeks Ran the Electric Grid

A vast interconnected series of tubes that responds to dynamic users, requests, and resources while remaining decentralized, easily accessible, and inexpensive. This could describe either the internet or, the electric grid. Except that the grid is dominated by a few vested monopolies with total control over the infrastructure.

Energy expert and CEO Steve Kropper explains why the internet infrastructure model should be applied to the energy grid for true public access.

Original article available at:

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