Archive for the ‘Renewable Energy’ Category

Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Artificial Photosynthesis

Photo by Popular Science Monthly. Some rights reserved.

Photo by Popular Science Monthly. Some rights reserved.

It took a few episodes to really get me on board, but I think at this point it’s safe to say that I’ve been enjoying Fox’s reboot of Carl Sagan’s PBS science-series Cosmos (airing Sundays and hosted by Sagan-worshipper and all-around-cool-guy Neil DeGrasse Tyson). There’s no way Tyson could ever hope to replicate what Sagan did with the original series, and I think he’s done a good job so far of updating the feel of the show for the current era (cheesy effects and all) and finding new topics to explore. If I was a kid watching it, I think there’s a very good change I’d be having my mind blown every week and learning all sorts of stuff in the process, and that’s ultimately the best thing that can be said about a show like this.

This Sunday’s episode I found particularly enlightening, as it found Tyson piloting his magical future-spaceship into a dewdrop to explore a concept I have never really full grasped: Photosynthesis. Sure, yes: I know that it’s the process through which plants convert sunlight into energy. But watching this segement felt like a sublime return to Freshman year Biology, re-introducing the concept through visual cues and functional metaphors that anyone could understand. I won’t do you, dear reader, the disservice of re-hashing Tyson’s elegant explanation. Instead, I’d like to focus on how he took the concept one step further. As Tyson explains in his intro, if we can learn the “trade secrets” of how chloroplasts manufacture and store energy, we can change the future of energy for our species. To quote Tyson directly:

We understand on a chemical level how photosynthesis works, we can recreate the process in a laboratory. But we’re not as good at it as plants are, and its not surprising considering nature’s been at this for billions of years and we’ve only just started. But if we could figure out the trade secrets of photosynthesis? Every other source of energy we depend on today – coal, oil, natural gas – would become obsolete. Photosynthesis is the ultimate green power. It doesn’t pollute the air,  and is in fact carbon neutral. Artificial photosynthesis, on a big enough scale, could reduce the greenhouse effect that’s  driving climate change in a dangerous direction.

This is a concept I’m entirely unfamiliar with, even as I read week in and week out about alternative energy solutions. Of course, at this point we don’t have the technology or the method with which to implement “artificial photosynthesis” as a viable energy source – but that doesn’t mean we aren’t trying. HowStuffWorks has a nice breakdown of the efforts so far to harness this kind of energy, what it would require (beginning with a catalyst, something to interact with the provided sunlight to induce a chemical reaction), and what kind of useful outputs we could expect. Meanwhile, research continues at the California Institute of Technology’s Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis forges ahead, and their website has all sorts of useful and detailed information on what kind of work they’re doing to make Tyson’s dream a reality.


Storing Renewable Energy: Is It All In the Spin?

via Wikimedia Commons

via Wikimedia Commons

We’ve been discussing the double edged sword that is nuclear power and what role it should play in reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. The reason nuclear power keeps climbing out of its crypt, no matter how many stakes seem to be driven though its heart, is that other alternatives to dirty fuels like coal have been hobbled by a major flaw: even the most vocal proponents of wind and solar energy agree that energy storage is renewables’ Achilles heel. No doubt, windmills churning away in the breeze produce electricity, as do banks of solar panels in the Tucson sun. The problem is what happens on those hot still nights when turbines are stilled, the panels are dark, and you really, really want to turn on the air conditioning. The beauty of carbon energy and nuclear energy is that they can be relied on to provide electricity all the time, not just when the weather is cooperative.

All sorts of solutions have been proposed to the problem of storing the electricity from wind and solar generators so it can be used when it isn’t being generated. Good old reliable lead acid batteries like the one under the hood of your car predate the Civil War and are hardly models of efficiency (and are made up of lead and, uh, acid). Water pressure storage, thermal storage, and a host of other means of keeping electricity handy have been put forth to solve the conundrum posed by solar cells’ uselessness at night and wind turbines’ fickleness in the doldrums.

One solution that has been proposed but proven more technically tricky than expected, is a variant of a toy you may have had in your toy box – the top. Flywheels, in the form of gyroscopes, have been used for years as stabilizers. More recently they have been put to use to store energy. A flywheel spinning at high speed (and I do mean high speed) can store energy for use on demand. The trouble has been that the technology involved in using flywheels as a form of mechanical battery is complex, expensive, and heavy, principally because of the ridiculously high RPMs required to produce a usable amount of electricity. As a result, flywheel batteries have been largely confined to service as backup power supplies for hospitals and emergency services that require steady, reliable power delivery. But those flywheels are intended to supplement existing electricity as uninterruptible power supplies rather than long-term storage. In an effort to advance the state of the art in flywheel batteries, the federal government gave a $43 million loan guarantee to Beacon Power, but that company went on to join Solyndra in the bankrupt alternative energy graveyard.

Now a new venture is raising money for a new flywheel technology. Appropriately for such an undertaking, it’s turned to Kickstarter for funding. Inventor Bill Gray has come up with something he calls the Velkess. It is not a Nordic god from a Wagner opera, but an acronym for VEry Large Kinetic Energy Storage System.

Gray has high hopes for his new machine, which he claims avoids many of the problems that have stood in the way of previous flywheel batteries: exacting tolerances, the wobbling and stresses produced by rapid rotation, and the possible catastrophic failure of the ceramic or high tensile steel of traditional wheels. Gray’s new flywheel is made of common fiberglass, and designed to be more flexible and forgiving than prior iterations. Gray claims his machine could store electricity for one tenth the cost of the units Beacon was proposing.  His company is aiming first at the residential and small commercial market and then expanding out into the utility-scale market. This is the reverse of previous attempts to build out flywheel technology which usually started large and hoped to go small.

There is probably no silver bullet to reining in greenhouse gases. Combating global climate change will take a much broader armory than the traditional fuels we have relied on in the past. Maybe, just maybe, these grown up spinning toys will prove an important component.

The Challenges to Offshore Wind

Photo by Rob Farrow, some rights reserved.

Mother Jones has a succinct piece on the challenges facing offshore wind projects, challenges that explain why the U.S. still doesn’t have a single offshore wind turbine. The UK has 870, and Germany has 416, for comparison. Now that has Congress extended the wind Production Tax Credit (after a long battle detailed here and here) and outgoing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said he is optimistic that the Cape Wind project in Nantucket Sound will begin construction in 2013, it is a good time to look at the roadblocks that remain.

Though offshore projects benefit from the Production Tax Credit, worth $1 billion a year, and the Incentive Tax Credit, which pays 30% of wind projects’ constructions, higher construction and transmission costs make electricity from offshore turbines twice the price of electricity from more traditional sources. While in the U.S., states and utilities are understandably hesitant to embrace it, Germany, for example, fully subsidizes the offshore wind system.

The opponents of offshore wind that have gotten the most press are “stakeholders” in areas near potential projects, those who organize groups like the Alliance for Nantucket Sound in opposition to the Cape Wind project, which to date has fought a dozen lawsuits over the turbines’ effect on interfering with boat traffic, desecrating sacred sites, and harming avian and marine life (the GM has covered this here and here). Not surprisingly, these wildlife worries have been hijacked by waterfront homeowners; meanwhile, the National Wildlife Federation, Greenpeace, and the Sierra Club are all in favor of the project.

The strangest problem offshore wind is facing is a 1920 law requiring ships sailing between ports in the U.S. to be U.S.-flagged. This is apparently a problem because the small fleet of ships capable of installing a 400-foot turbine in the ocean floor is based mostly in Europe – and once one of those ships installs the foundation for a turbine, it qualifies as a ‘port,’ and cannot proceed to dock in the U.S. A shipbuilder in New Jersey is building a turbine-installation ship, but until its completion at earliest in 2014, the cost of bringing in ships from abroad can be prohibitive.

Finally, our beloved federal system of government means that states award utility contracts, while the Interior Department manages the deep water where wind turbines can be built. Developers worry that even if they get a contract with a state to buy their power, Interior could award the ‘land’ rights to someone else.

New Investment Structure for Renewable Energy On the Radar

Looking for new ways to finance this. Photo by Paul Anderson, some rights reserved.

While those who created the Green Mien envisioned it as a blog focusing on energy regulation, this writer often strays away from the law into the workings of the energy industry. Today, we get to combine these topics, courtesy of the insight of a New York Times ‘Dealbook’ article on renewable energy companies lobbying for a new legal framework for investment structures modeled after those used by the oil, gas, and real estate industries.

The renewable industry credits themselves for technological progress but sees the cost of financing projects as a barrier to lowering the cost of the energy they produce. Allowing renewable energy companies to raise funds through a master limited partnership (M.L.P.) or a real estate investment trust (REIT) would make financing easier and cheaper and reduce the cost of their energy by a third.

Under current law, renewable energy companies receive a tax credit against their income, but because they are often marginally profitable, they need extensive investment from companies (often those looking to shield their non-energy profit from taxes) in order to take advantage of the credits. Through a M.L.P. or a REIT, renewable energy companies could reach a much wider pool of investors, allowing them to offer a lower rate of return than that demanded by the few big investors who can currently invest in renewable companies.

The IRS has the authority to allow a company to form a REIT for group of renewable energy projects – and is considering one such case right now. But M.L.P.’s, which have been used to fund the development of much energy infrastructure, especially pipelines, can be opened to renewable energy companies only through an act of Congress. There are signs of support: Senator Chris Coons, Democrat from Delaware, plans to reintroduce a bill on M.L.P.’s next year, and is building support from the Obama administration and Republicans for the measure. And in December, 31 lawmakers sent a letter to the White House supporting the changes.

The big challenge to opening M.L.P.’s to renewable companies or to similar changes is its small-fries status in the tax overhaul brewing in Congress. The White House is also focusing its efforts on eliminating subsidies and loopholes to level the playing field.


Salazar Departs Interior, Remembered for Advancing Renewables

Photo by Bob Johnson, USFWS Mountain Prairie, some rights reserved.

Photo by Bob Johnson, USFWS Mountain Prairie, some rights reserved.

One of the stars of the Green Mien since its inception has been Ken Salazar, Obama’s Secretary of the Interior, who announced he would be leaving Washington to return to his home in Colorado in March. He focused Interior on renewable energy and reorganized the formerly scandal-ridden agency into three agencies with clear and separate functions. We have written about his hand in the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, in developing oil drilling plans in Alaska, in offshore oil and gas oversight, and much more.

The White House has given no indication as to who might succeed him, and combined with the departure of EPA’s administrator Lisa Jackson and DOE’s Steven Chu, continuity of the Obama Administration’s policies toward energy development and climate change is in question. As these vacancies are filled, expect to read about expectations for the new administrators’ goals and policies here.

Salazar has broadened the scope of Interior’s activities from its traditional focus on mining, forestry, and oil and gas development to an emphasis on renewable energy. Since 2009, the department has authorized 34 solar, wind, and geothermal energy projects, settled a 15-year legal battle with American Indian tribes, and established seven new national parks. His handling of contentious oil and gas issues, like the Deepwater Horizon spill and allowing Shell begin exploration for oil in the Arctic, drew the most headlines.

President Obama once rebuked the famously blunt former lawyer for using cowboy language. “We have our boot on their neck to make sure they got the job done,” Salazar explained, referring to Interior’s oversight of BP officials in the Deepwater Horizon spill cleanup. Hopefully we’ll be able to find another character to replace him.

Expiring Wind PTC: Who Stands Where?

Photo by Francesco Gola. Some rights reserved.

In the intensifying battle over the extension of the wind energy production tax credit, a new tactic has emerged. The main lobby for extension, the American Wind Energy Association, on Wednesday announced its support for a middle ground solution. AWEA recommends a one-year extension, followed by a five-year gradual decrease in the PTC until it goes away completely. If gradually reduced until 2019, according to industry analysis, the PTC could be eliminated and a minimally viable industry could exist and be able to continue achieving cost reductions.

Our friends at Grist worry that this tactic essentially admits that the PTC is not actually needed, and that other renewable energy sources whose production tax credits expire soon, like solar, are left in a weaker position.

The tax credit, originally passed in 1992, has been extended three times. But now 17 days remain until its expiration, and the stakes are high for both sides.

Conservative groups argued in a letter to lawmakers Wednesday that the credit “essentially transfers taxpayer dollars from your constituents and subsidizes the states with such mandates.” The states without renewable electricity standards, mostly in the Southeast, Appalachia, and the Gulf Coast, generally have less installed wind power.

In addition, Republicans have pointed to the credit as a way to help close the deficit, as it will cost $12.1 billion over ten years. Not all Republicans are convinced, though. Joining many Democrats in voicing support for the extension are Republicans whose districts house more than 80% of wind installations.

Separately, the Department of Energy has offered some good news to the wind industry. DOE announced that seven projects will receive up to $4 million in grants to complete engineering, design, and permitting processes, and three of these will be selected to receive up to $47 million over four years with a target opening of 2017.

For readers to whom the above means anything, it is probably needless to say that DOE is optimistic about the energy potential from offshore wind generation. Data suggest that 4,000 GW of energy could be tapped in state and federal waters, which is four times the capacity of all existing US electric power plants.

Second Term Preview of Environmental Regulation

Photo by Carl Chapman, some rights reserved

In the next four years, the Obama administration will make its mark on energy and environmental laws, working through pending legislation and proposed regulation as well as considering further reforms in response to environmental and industry lobbying.

A Marten Law memo has the rundown on anticipated changes to energy and environmental laws. Obama’s “all of the above” energy strategy, well chronicled at the Green Mien, is likely to continue. Federal renewable energy programs have seen opposition recently, and the outcome of the pending battle of the wind energy production tax credit will be an early test of the Obama Administration’s policy. Either way, renewable energy growth is likely to be lower in the coming years as production of natural gas continues to increase.

Fracking, too, has contributed to the domestic supply surge, while prompting calls for closer regulatory scrutiny. In response, the Obama Administration has proposed regulation of fracking on federal lands, and EPA is studying the potential impact of horizontal drilling on drinking water.

Energy infrastructure questions are on the agenda, too. Most importantly, the Administration will decide whether to authorize a re-routed Keystone XL pipeline bringing oil from Canadian tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico. Proposals for coal and natural gas export terminals are making their way through state and federal agencies as well.

In the news this week is Obama’s stance on climate change, a topic he avoided during his election campaign. A second term will ensure that EPA will proceed with its plan to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under existing provisions of the Clean Air Act, a plan upheld last summer by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. In addition, EPA is expected to release standards for greenhouse gas emission from power plants and refineries. Several challenges to air quality rules are still pending, though, notably the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule and the Boiler MACT rule affecting industrial facilities.

At a press conference Wednesday, President Obama responded to a reporter’s question about his specific plans to address climate change. You should read his entire response here, but he made himself clear that ignoring jobs and growth simply to address climate change is not on his agenda: “I won’t go for that.” An agenda for job growth that includes making a dent in climate change, however, is “something the American people would support.”

In addition to air and energy policy previews, Marten Law’s memo has summaries of expected policy developments in natural resources and hazardous waste regulation.

%d bloggers like this: