by John Atkinson of Chiasm
Three years after September 11th, there is more attention given to non-oil energy sources than ever: energy independence is widely recognized as an essential long-term goal in the War on Terror, and concerns about the extent of our contribution to global climate change continue to multiply.
Still, the increased public interest has not made the problems inherent in the massive project of transforming our energy systems any simpler. The goal is agreed upon, but the road is still unclear. Think of this roundup of energy news from the past two weeks as a series of signposts along several paths (including new paths using 'old' fossil fuels, which will almost certainly play an important role in the energy mix for decades at least), some of which intersect and run alongside each other, others which head in opposite directions - and some that we will doubtlessly abandon before we reach their end.
- Over at Power and Control, M. Simon looks at the potential for wind power in his area. His coverage include assessments of the wind potential for every state in the USA, some case studies, and some notes about wind power trends.
- The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston has helpfully removed some of the legal hurdles blocking the construction of the first major commercial off-shore wind farm in the US, in Nantucket Sound. The 130 MW plant is vigorously opposed by a variety of local groups and politicians - including Ted and Robert F. Kennedy! - much like similarly large off-shore projects in the UK. This article notes numerous other, smaller wind power projects moving forward across the home state of the most tragic team in the history of professional sports. [JK: Can you tell that John is a NY Yankess fan?]
- In an attempt to avoid precisely this kind of problem, a UK company is planning a deepwater wind farm demonstration project 25 km off the east coast of Scotland - too far away to spoil the view from the shore. This is part of a pan-European initiative with the extremely catchy name DOWNVInD (Distant Offshore Wind farms With No Visual Impact In Deepwater), and this demonstration project is aiming to operate at depths of 35 to 45 meters.
- Relying heavily on wind power, the small Japanese town of Kuzumaki has become 80% energy self-sufficient in just 5 years. Wait, did I say wind power? I meant 'wind power and 13 tons of cattle urine and manure a day.'
- A solar-powered coffee bean drier promises to bring the green revolution to coffee bean drying! Sure, it might not sound like much, but coffee is the second-most widely traded commodity in the world, and the World Bank and other international organizations thought the project worth a $1 million loan. Clever!
- The world's largest solar power station - a rather humble 5 megawatts - began operating last week in eastern Germany. An also-huge 4 mW solar plant opened this week, where BP solar took the opportunity to announce their plan to double solar cell production in order to meet anticipated demand in Germany and elsewhere.
- This is all made possible by the German government's aggressive policy on renewable energy, which forces utilities to buy the entire, expensive (even the German Greens don't predict solar to be cost competitive before 2020 or so) output of renewable energy produced by major facilities, guaranteeing a market that otherwise would not exist. The appropriately-named Alternative Energy Blog has a favorable view of Germany's renewable energy policy, here. I say, let's wait and see where things stand in a decade or so when German utilities are locked into long-term guaranteed contracts with antiquiated, expensive solar plants...
- Authorities in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh have drawn up a plan to use solar power to run computers in village schools where electricity is mostly unreliable or unavailable. Via WorldChanging.
- Solar power may also be the solution to bringing electricity to the estimated 18,000 Navajo in Arizona without connections to the electrical grid. While solar-generated electricity is still too expensive to compete directly with fossil- or nuclear-genereated electricity, it becomes much more competitive in off-the-grid applications like this.
- Similarly, government programs in the Philippines are helping to bring inexpensive solar energy systems to rural homes in <a href="Negros and Mindinao.
- The Philippines, blessed with the "Ring of Fire," are the world's second largest producer of geothermal energy (accounting for fully 15% of their power) and are looking to pass the US - the world's first largest producer - by developing 10 new geothermal fields which will yield up to nearly 500 mW of power. A substantial increase in wind power is desired, as well - but where will the money for these projects, part of an ambitious "energy independence agenda," come from?
- China continues to signal that nuclear energy will be a big part of its future, and it looks like the US is close to making a deal to allow US companies to sell nuclear reactors in China for the first time since Tiananmen Square. See this post on my home-blog for a quick discussion of the importance of pursuing US-China cooperation on energy issues, and energy technology in particular.
- While on one hand China is pursuing deals with established nuclear plant manufacturers, they're also forging ahead with research into Potentially Revolutionary pebble-bed reactor designs. This is via the always on-point Crumb Trail, which includes more information on the history of pebble bed reactors as well as an interesting discussion on the contrast between Chinese and US policies on nuclear energy.
- Meanwhile, back in the States... The US Department of Energy is developing a design for a portable, sealed nuclear reactor that can be delivered to a site, left to generate power for up to 30 years, and then retrieved when its fuel is spent. Called "Small, Sealed, Transportable, Autonomous Reactor" - SSTAR!, these reactors would be able to meet the energy needs of developing countries with no emissions and (more importantly) no risk of proliferation of fissile materials (OK, like, basically no risk...). More detailed information on the project here.
- For a taste of the nuclear future, do NOT miss this excellent review of the state of the art of next generation nuclear reactors (via Green Car Congress, which provides other links on the subject)!
- Scientists believe that enormous reserves of methane, the main component of natural gas, exist deep in the Earth's crust. Since extracting hydrogen from methane is the most cost-effective method of producing hydrogen, this represents a vast potential resource not only for the electrical generation and vehicle fuel applications of today but for the hypothetical hydrogen economy of 'tomorrow'. Of course, if these reserves do exist, they're currently inaccessible - they're too deep for today's equipment for conventional natural gas wells.
- Closer to the here and now, Honda has announced a partnership with FuelMaker to jointly market the Honda Civic GX natural gas sedan ("the cleanest internal combustion engine-powered vehicle ever tested!") along with The Phill home refueling appliance to the California consumer market in spring 2005. The Phill's market debut has been delayed before, but it looks like they're forging ahead this time, and it'll be interesting to see if the GX/Phill combination (which allows you to fill up your car at home, in your garage, overnight, from your regular natural gas line) catches on. Many stations being constructed for California's Hydrogen Highway will be producing hydrogen from natural gas, and thus many will also dispense compressed natural gas, which would make the GX convenient to refuel on the road as well.
- The California State Public Utilities Commission has ruled to allow liquified natural gas (LNG) to be transported from Mexico through California pipelines, for use in California and other Western states. This will increase California's natural gas capacity by an estimated 10 percent, which is especially important in light of the state's progressive clean-fueled fleet rules (such as the new garbage truck rule) that will continue to increase demand for LNG as well as CNG.
- A new study claims that the major applications for hydrogen envisioned in 'the hydrogen economy' - including in fuel cell vehicles - could be more efficiently accomplished using electricity. This argument has been gaining some momentum in the case of vehicles especially, as electric vehicles are beginning to re-emerge from the dustbin of car history with advances in battery technology as well as new innovations like the plug-in hybrid. Read the report for yourself - you can download it from the Institute for Lifecycle Environmental Assessment's site.
- A recent engineering breakthrough at the University of Wisconsin may substantially reduce the cost and increase the efficiency of hydrogen production by using less expensive materials and a simpler, room-temperature process to remove carbon monoxide during the production process (which is currently done at significantly higher cost). Not only is the CO safely removed from the hydrogen stream, but the process utilizes the CO to generate electricity in a fuel cell.
- A team of Australian scientists claim to have developed a Revolutionary New Process using a titanium oxide catalyst that will convert solar energy directly to hydrogen through electrolysis. They seem super excited about it - hope it works out, mate!
- More immediately, the first three fuel cell buses in Australia are now in service in Perth. These Mercedes-Benz Citaro buses are just three of 30 such buses equipped with Ballard fuel cell engines now on the roads of 10 cities worldwide.
- China has also ordered its first six fuel cell buses for demonstration projects in Shanghai and Beijing. Not huge news, but keep an eye out for these at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and the 2010 World Exposition in Shanghai - the Chinese government wants to make both of these events showcases for its advanced environmental technology, and ambitious goals have been set for hydrogen fuel cell and compressed natural gas (CNG) bus fleets, among other things.
- Here in North America, parcel delivery companies are leading the way in testing hydrogen fuel cell medium-duty trucks in real-world conditions, as the first fuel cell Dodge Sprinter entered service for UPS in Los Angeles and Purolator Courier in Canada works on developing a fuel cell hybrid electric delivery vehicle.
- Toyota's concept fuel cell race car = so god-damned futuristic.
- France's Peugot unveils a new 'Stop
& Start' system that switches the car's engine to stand-by when it stops at a red light or is stuck in traffic and then immediately re-starts it when the driver wants to move, much like hybrid cars. The Stop & Start system isn't a hybrid, but it yields a not-insignificant 6-15% reduction in fuel consumption. Much more information at Green Car Congress, the undisputed champion of green car blogs!
- Ford's only zero emission vehicle, the Th!nk electric car, had been discontinued (why work on marketing EVs when you can work on fuel cell vehicles? well...), with the remaining cars in the US headed for scrap - until activist groups holding mock EV funerals convinced them to stay the executions. Ford won't be resuming production in the US, but instead of being destroyed, the vehicles will be shipped to Norway, where they know how to really appreciate such a fine EV.
- The buzz on hydrogen fuel cell vehicles is such that investors keep pouring money into stocks like Plug Power, Ballard, and FuelCell, despite the fact that they are still burning through a lot of cash.
- Researchers at Los Alamos have demonstrated a simple, nanoscale method of improving superconductor performance in areas with high magnetic fields such as motors and generators. As if superconducting wasn't super enough already, right?
- Australian and Japanese researchers are collaborating on a "near zero-emission" coal-fired electricity plant that will include a system for the capture and geological storage of carbon dioxide. In related news, a Canadian group claims to have conducted the most thorough study to date demonstrating the feasibility of long-term, large-scale carbon dioxide sequestration.
- Also on the sequestration tip - a new process using modified serpentine (a naturally-occurring and plentiful mineral) can sequester carbon dioxide emissions in solid
bricks. Like, bricks you can use to build things with!
- The city of Pecs in Hungary is converting one of its dirty old 60 mW coal power plants (outlawed by EU regulations as of December 31st, 2004) to run on 300,000 tons of wood chips a year. This will be the largest bio-fueled plant in Central Europe, and will eliminate sulfur dioxide emissions, cut nitrogen oxide emissions in half, and have little or no impact on carbon dioxide emissions.
- Newsweek has a similar article about sluggish performance of renewable energy companies on the market - in fact, it's got a whole issue full of relevant stuff about the shape of our post-oil future.
- On the bright side, it's getting easier to follow and invest in alternative energy stocks, as the first alternative energy index - the WilderHill Clean Energy Index (ticker: ECO) - has debuted on Amex, and it may launch an exchange traded fund (ETF) based on the index at the end of October.
- That's right, cold fusion is back from pre-Matrix Keanu Reeves-action-vehicle hell - the DOE is quietly reviewing the science on this long-discredited subject, which is not at all total BS. It's just been completely beyond our understanding... so far.
- Before we get too excited about this cold fusion business, let's let Popular Mechanics at least try to deflate our hopes with this fairly terrifying article about the effect of cheap, small, powerful cold fusion reactors on nuclear proliferation.
- Robotics experts at the University of the West of England are working on an ominous and intensely disturbing project that would create an autonomous robot that would be able to generate its own energy by 'eating' flies, lured with human excrement, which would then be 'digested' in a microbial fuel cell. This seems like a catastrophic mistake to me, honestly, and 8 years from now, when we're all kept in laser-cages by our robot overlords and forced to shit into tubes to sustain the robots' enormous fly-farms like some nightmarish version of The Matrix, think back to this post and remember me!
Thanks for reading! I'm headed to the AltWheels 'festival' in Boston this weekend, and will hopefully come back with lots of pictures of the latest, greatest, and weirdest sustainable transportation technologies and, if all goes well, me getting my drunk ass kicked at a sports bar while the Yankees re-extend their lead in the AL East...