Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Training Energy’s Labor Force

Albany Township, PA. Photo by Nicholas Tonelli, some rights reserved.

As natural gas is booming, the industry is teaming up with the Labor Department to address a growing skills gap. Energy and utility industries are in growing need of skilled workers, especially those with backgrounds in science, technology, engineering, and math, and apparently these workers are becoming harder to find. Interviewed by The Hill, a Labor Department official expressed concern that the biggest obstacle to emerging energy industries is a shortage of workers with appropriate skills.

One way Labor is addressing the issue is by developing school curricula and supporting workforce-training programs. The Labor Department awarded a $15 million grant to western Pennsylvania community colleges’ training programs that feed workers into the region’s booming natural gas industry. If the program is successful, it could be replicated in North Dakota and other areas with growing energy industries. Energy firms are involved in the effort, donating equipment for training and supporting a nonprofit consortium to develop curricula and offer apprenticeships.

The electric utility industry, too, is facing the challenge of training a new workforce for the changing industry as many workers plan to retire in the coming years. Utilities are seeking workers with a new skill profile, combining electrical engineering with information technology, and sometimes struggling to find qualified workers to work on new “smart-grid” technology.

Data Centers: The High Environmental Cost of Computing


Photo by Humphrey Bolton. Some rights reserved.

Here at the Green Mien, we’ve brought your attention to the issue of power usage (and the accompanying emissions, depending  on the energy sources) by data centers before. The New York Times produced several lengthy pieces this week regarding the ongoing effects of large data centers (citing Microsoft’s and Facebook’s, among others) on the environment.  Microsoft has been accused of energy waste and was the subject of legal action by disgruntled locals regarding its “nearly 40 giant diesel generators that Microsoft’s facility — near an elementary school — is allowed to use for backup power.”  The Facebook piece noted that since Internet companies “typically run their facilities at maximum capacity around the clock,” the possibility for waste is high – “data centers can waste 90 percent or more of the electricity they pull off the grid,”  according to the NYT.

But measures are in the works to make some changes. Google announced this week that it will purchase wind power-based energy to run its data center in Oklahoma. And House representatives who sit on energy-related committees were alarmed enough by the New York Times stories that they are asking the DOE and EPA if steps are being taken to improve usage and efficiency.

And although the figures in the Times pieces are certainly worth a closer look, both InformationWeek and Wired have pointed out that in several spots the pieces refer to older-style data centers, and that recently built, more modern facilities have increased efficiency in step with improved technology. New data centers are being built all the time, however, and even with improvements in energy use, this issue will continue to be a prominent one.

Wave-Energy Generation: The Beginning

A lot of energy in every wave. Photo by David Spinks, some rights reserved.

Many words are written on developments in the wind and solar energy industries day in and day out, but this week another alternative energy source is making waves. The New York Times reported Monday that the first commercially licensed grid-connected wave-energy device in the country will be launched in October. The New Jersey-based company, Ocean Power Technologies, is sending a barge to carry a 260-ton generator to its anchorage off the central coast of Oregon.

The Pacific coastline from Northern California through Washington State is particularly well-suited for wave-energy generation due to consistent swell from never-ending northern Pacific winds. The weather, though, presents a problem of its own: stormy seas in the winter. Just 15 years ago, in fact, one of the first test-buoy generators sank shortly after it was launched off the Oregon coast.

Wave-energy technology is so new that OPT engineers and observers do not know what exactly to expect. The buoy has an onboard computer that collects input from ‘wave riders’ floating farther out in the ocean to adapt the generator to each incoming wave, as well as to gather data to help engineers understand the tiny differences between waves. While the OPT buoy floats on the surface, there are other ways to generate electricity from waves – other concepts have put generators on the ocean floor or rising vertically through the surface.

The near future of energy development could also hinge on the OPT buoy’s success. The federal permit issued last month approved up to 10 generators, which would produce enough energy to power 1,000 homes, but more important perhaps is the potential for future investment. Big power companies have mostly stood on the sidelines while smaller companies worked on wave energy generation, so Ocean Power Technologies has relied on grant money from public and private sources. If OPT proves the concept, private investment could flow into the industry, not just in the Pacific Northwest but in other spots with long fetch for ocean swell like parts of the coast of Western Europe and South America.

More Efficiency Standards, and Transportation Finance

Photo by Andrew Curtis. Some rights reserved.

Earlier this week, the Obama administration announced its fuel efficiency standards for cars in an effort to curb U.S. dependency on oil and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In a related measure, on Thursday President Obama issued an executive order to spur energy efficiency upgrades at manufacturing facilities across the country. Energy efficiency policy, put on the back burner for years, has hardly moved forward despite support from members of both political parties. Some of that support comes from DOE studies indicating that doubling the nation’s industrial efficiency could create 1 million skilled jobs and bring in $234 million of investment.

The directive aims to boost combined heat and power capacity to 40 gigawatts by 2020, an increase of 50 percent compared with today. Agencies will craft best practices and help states encourage combined heat and power implementation. The administration said that reaching the goals outlined in the order would reduce energy costs by $10 billion annually in addition to attracting $40 to $80 billion in private investment.

Combining heat and power facilities to produce both simultaneously on-site is more efficient than having separate facilities. By burning less fuel, the combined heat and power technology reduces greenhouse gas emissions and lowers energy costs. By having a fuel source on-site, manufacturing facilities are protected from electricity outages.

Also in the news are the fiscal policy repercussions of the new vehicle mileage standards announced earlier, because the requirements will make less fuel tax money available for road construction and maintenance. The highway trust fund, which pays for a large portion of road projects, will take a $71 billion hit due to the requirements. Already included in the current transportation bill, set to expire in 2014, are tax loopholes and fee increases to cover a $10 billion shortfall in gas tax revenue. Expect to hear more about financing transportation projects as the gas tax brings in less revenue in the future.





Insurers Offer Coverage for Solar Developments

Photo by theregeneration. Some rights reserved.

Challenges to “green” energy developments abound. Compared to traditional companies even in the energy sector, means of financing projects are fast-changing, subsidies and tax credits are unpredictable, and data on projects’ returns are sparse. We wrote about trends in venture capital and IPOs for clean technology companies in February in a post recently linked to by The Atlantic, seeing energy storage and generation companies faring well in 2011. The wind industry is still waiting for Congress to vote on extending its production tax credit, and as we covered here, if it is not passed, the industry’s capacity might fall by three-quarters.

However, it is becoming easier for “green” developers to secure private financing in a functioning market. In January, we posted about a Deutsche Bank study aimed at providing data on the accuracy and reliability of energy audits associated with building retrofits, to encourage private investment in retrofits, the “low-hanging fruit” of carbon reduction. Now, insurers Assurant and GCube Insurance Services are offering an insurance product to help solar developers navigate the risks of mid-size projects, aiming to fill a gap in coverage that has often prevented developers from securing financing.

In particular, Assurant’s product uniquely bundles property and liability coverage with equipment warranty management, allowing developers to move beyond their skepticism and uncertainty toward warranty management frameworks. They offer $10 million of coverage per location – initially limited to photovoltaic projects in the US – ranging from 100kW to 3MW in capacity. Environmental Finance has a detailed description of the insurance product here.

As those behind the Deutsche Bank building-retrofit study did, we can hope Assurant’s product will lay the groundwork for further comprehensive coverage products in other clean technology sectors that might open the floodgates of private financing, maybe making debates like that over the wind PTC unnecessary.

FERC Helps Renewables’ Transmission to Electrical Grid

Photo by Peter Craine. Some rights reserved.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) recently finalized a rule helping integrate Variable Energy Resources (VERs) into the US electric system. VERs are electricity generators that produce output that is not constant and controllable over time, sources like wind and solar. The existing electrical grid was designed with steady electricity generation sources in mind, and FERC’s Order No. 764 is an attempt to efficiently incorporate renewable resources into grid operations in the US by making power transmission from generator to grid more flexible.

Though renewables with variable generation are claiming a greater portion of electricity generation, the new rules could improve transmission scheduling flexibility for both VERs and traditional sources. The grid’s current setup challenges both renewable generators who struggle to work within grid rules designed for constant sources and for grid operators trying to incorporate hard-to-predict electricity sources.

The problems for VERs in the electrical grid are many. We have written about the Bonneville Power Administration struggling to cope with simultaneous surges in wind and hydroelectric power during storms, forcing it to give away or dump excess electricity. FERC’s new rule aims to help transmission from renewables to the grid in recognition of one of these problems. Under current rules, VERs incur high charges for supplying electricity in an amount above or below that committed to for each hour-long interval. With FERC’s change to scheduling transmissions in 15-minute intervals, VERs will be better able to match their committed transmission to actual output and avoid the imbalance penalties.

You can read Davis Wright Tremaine’s full advisory to learn about FERC’s Meteorological and Outage data changes, and a post of ours with background information about the new rules from November.

Powering the Cloud

Photo by Michael Graham Richard. Some rights reserved.

As technology companies expand their cloud storage services, data servers around the country are expanding and increasing their energy consumption. Several media and advocacy groups have taken note of these huge facilities’ power usage, and this week Apple has come under the microscope. Grist raises concerns over Apple’s new data center in Maiden, N.C., citing Greenpeace estimates that the facility will draw 100 megawatts of power, and noting that its power provider, Duke Energy, is “coal-heavy.”

Their criticism is based on Greenpeace statistics estimating the portion of major technology companies’ energy coming from coal. In terms of overall reliance on coal, Apple is in the lead at 55%, above rival cloud service providers Microsoft (39%), Amazon (33%), and Google (28%). A map compiling related Greenpeace data shows 52 of the largest data centers in the country and how reliant they are on coal.

Apple, for its part, highlights its planned construction of on-site renewable energy plants near the Maiden, N.C. center, to include a solar farm and fuel cell installation from which it plans to generate 60% of the center’s energy needs. They would not be the first to explore new strategies for powering their data centers, though. As we have previously posted, in a data center in Taiwan, Google runs cooling systems at night to chill liquid coolant for use during the following day. The nighttime electricity is cheaper due to low demand, and the reduced daytime electricity usage eases pressure on Taiwan’s electrical grid.

To better appreciate the energy accounting of “cloud” storage, I would like to see an examination of the efficiency cost or gain of outsourcing our data storage from individually-powered hard drives in our homes around the country to a few massive data centers thousands of miles away.

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