Archive for the ‘Wind Power’ Category

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

Via WikiMedia Commons

Via WikiMedia Commons

Rumor has it that North America may be energy independent within a few years.

Alternative energy sources like wind, solar, and biomass are contributing ever greater amounts to the nation’s energy bank. And the country’s traditional oil and gas industry is booming as it hasn’t in decades. Where the U.S. had become an energy mendicant, relying on unstable (and occasionally unsavory) sources overseas, the country is set to be a net energy exporter and will soon overtake Saudi Arabia as the globe’s top oil producer. Energy independence is a good thing. Weaning ourselves from middle Eastern oil reserves will bring market stability and reduce the temptation to secure our oil and gas supplies by force of arms.

But supplying the bulk of our own energy needs domestically presents challenges of its own.  Wind and solar electricity has to make its way from place where it is generated to consumers who might be thousands of miles away. The national grid is being upgraded but is not yet up to that task. Moving all the new oil and gas that’s flowing out of the various bonanzas around the country presents a whole separate category of problems. Quite aside from the environmental toll presented by hell-for-leather production in, say North Dakota or Alberta, just moving the stuff around the country safely and efficiently is a herculean task.

We generally think of oil and gas as flowing through pipelines. The Keystone Pipeline, which would bring tar sand oil from Alberta is a political flash point. Lots of people are questioning its safety, and for good reason. Exxon’s burst pipeline in Arkansas  and PG&E’s fiery pipeline failure in San Bruno are still fresh in the public mind.

But pipelines are not the only way oil gets around the country. Increasingly, it’s making its way to market by rail. And that’s proving to be a bit of a train wreck in its own right. Last month, the town of Casselton, ND had to be evacuated after a mile-long train carrying crude oil slammed into another train, resulting in thunderous explosions and a searing plume of toxic smoke. ABC tells us that this was the third accident in six months involving trains carrying North Dakota crude oil. In July, a train of 72 carloads of crude oil in Quebec derailed and burst into flames, killing  almost 50 people.

Coal, too, is being increasingly transported by train in the face of growing opposition.

It’s naive to think we don’t need the energy we’re pulling out of the ground with such new-found vigor. It’s also naive to think we could stop it being distributed around the country. But we shouldn’t think that energy independence is an unalloyed good. It presents a whole slew of problems of its own.

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.

2013 Shaping Up to Be a Good Year for Wind

Photo by Lydd. Some rights reserved.

Photo by Lydd. Some rights reserved.

Despite the hurried efforts of Congress to avoid the fiscal cliff, wind power (and renewable energy as a whole) received an annual extension of its tax credit within the federal budget compromise. This renewal comes with a procedural change as well which states that, for wind projects to be eligible for the tax credit, they only need begin construction before December 31, 2013, where previously projects needed to be completed and operational to be eligible, a requirement that saw many projects stall as their developers realized they could not be completed before the end of the year.

The tax credit can be claimed in two ways: as a production credit, at a rate of 2.2 cents per kilowatt-hour for the first decade of production, or it can be claimed as an investment credit, which involves a flat payment of 30 percent of construction costs. With problems still facing the wind industry in terms of competing with fossil fuels and integrating wind plans with the U.S.’s larger energy schema, developers need all the governmental health they can get.

Growth issues aside, however, it appears from preliminary numbers through November 30, 2012, that wind power capacity may have edged out natural gas and coal as the leading energy source in 2012, with installed wind power adding up to 6,519 megawatts compared to natural gas’ 6,335 megawatts. As equipment (turbines, etc.) grows cheaper and more efficient, we can only expect (or at least hope with conviction) that this figure will grow in 2012.

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.

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.

Cape Wind Gets FAA Approval, Again.

The Cape Wind turbines won’t be this close. Photo by Morten A. Mitchell Larød, some rights reserved.

The FAA announced Wednesday that the 130-turbine Cape Wind project off the Massachusetts coast posed no danger to air travel. The FAA’s approval means that Cape Wind is fully permitted, with federal and state approval, a commercial lease and construction and operations plans, and power purchase agreements with utilities in Massachusetts – the only offshore wind farm so close to construction. Massachusetts, then, is about to add to its fast-growing use of renewables.

The approval does not come without controversy, however. Republican lawmakers want to investigate the possibility that the Obama administration put pressure on the agency to approve the project despite safety concerns. Even with that threat looming, the project is the subject of numerous legal challenges.

Last year, the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound challenged the FAA’s previous approval of the project, and the DC Circuit overturned that approval, ordering the agency to review its findings. Cape Wind must also set aside $15 million to address any issues with the radar systems used to locate aircraft in the area, but because the turbines, at 440 feet, are below a 500-foot threshold, the FAA does not expect them to obstruct pilots. has the story here.

For those of us who might have been following this story since the George W. Bush administration, this storyline might sound familiar. That’s because this is actually the FAA’s fourth no-hazard determination, an approval that must be reviewed if construction does not begin within 18 months. Maybe the fourth time is the charm on the high seas of Nantucket Sound.

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