Sunday, May 24, 2009

"The True Cost of Chevron"

I think most people aren't aware of the full cost of filling the tank on their car. Do they ponder the environmental disasters which go along with drilling for, transporting, refining and using oil? Fossil oil is full of nasty poisonous chemicals and the whole process from well to wheel involves releasing those nasty poisonous chemicals into the environment. Some are released at the well, some during transport, some during refining, and some during use. It's poisoning us all. But there are some places which are more poisoned than others. is an awareness building website which focuses on one oil company, Chevron. I don't know why they're so focused on Chevron when all the oil companies are in the same boat as Chevron.

One thing they did (that I like a lot) is to parody the recent advertisements from Chevron. To me those advertisements so deserved parody, and they have done so with great effect.

As of this writing the site is a shell of what will be there on May 26. It seems there is a Chevron shareholder meeting on May 27, and that they (well, Antonia Juhasz) have prepared a report timed to coincide with the shareholder meeting. The report appears to be examining and debunking Chevron's corporate annual report.

Antonia Juhasz is an oil industry analyst whose work is more to exposing the problems created by the oil industry. She is listed as the author of the report, so I expect the report to be a doozy.


Thursday, May 21, 2009

EnerVault, Flow Batteries, and the need for Energy Storage

Most renewable energy technologies are intermittent. Solar power comes from sunshine, Wind power comes from wind, etc. Some renewable energy technologies are constant though, like the flow of rivers through a dam or the flow of tides. It is Solar and Wind power that has the brightest promise but it's difficult to envision powering a city only when the wind is blowing. What if it's a hot day with no wind and everyone wants to crank up the air conditioners? Thus relying on intermittent wind power doesn't pass the Aunt Millie test. Society has grown to expect electricity to always be there in abundant quantities. Hence for renewable energy technologies to fill that role, there must be affordable energy storage systems.

EnerVault is a stealth mode startup company working on on "Flow Batteries" for large scale energy storage. Unfortunately there is very little information out there so this article has to do some detective work.

First, what the heck is a flow battery? Flow battery (Wikipedia) says:

A flow battery is a form of rechargeable battery in which electrolyte containing one or more dissolved electroactive species flows through a Electrochemical cell that converts chemical energy directly to electricity. Additional electrolyte is stored externally, generally in tanks, and is usually pumped through the cell (or cells) of the reactor, although gravity feed systems are also known.[1] Flow batteries can be rapidly "recharged" by replacing the electrolyte liquid (in a similar way to refilling fuel tanks for internal combustion engines) while simultaneously recovering the spent material for re-energization.

Fuel cells are electrochemical energy conversion devices that convert chemical energy directly to electrical energy in which a fuel and an oxidant undergo electron transfer reactions at the anode and cathode of an operating electrochemical cell respectively, separated by an ion exchange membrane. These devices are not subject to Carnot's limitations and can ideally generate electricity as long as they are supplied with fuel and an oxidant. They differ from batteries in that the active chemical species are stored inside the battery where as they are supplied externally in the case of fuel cells. So, power and energy specifications can be scaled up independently for a fuel cell where as the energy density of a battery is limited by the amount of active material that it can stored inside it.

Flow Batteries: EnerVault Quietly Building Energy Storage for the Grid

Claim: $100 per kWh compared to $500 per kWh for Lithium-ION batteries

EnerVault is in a round of raising capital to build a demonstration unit.

Their CEO gave a presentation at the CleanTech conference at UC Berkeley on May 6, 2009. ( unfortunately it seems they don't publish video anywhere. This is the bio given for him:

Craig Horne: Chief Executive Officer, EnerVault

Dr. Craig R. Horne is CEO and Co-Founder of EnerVault Corporation, a start-up company developing next generation energy storage solutions for the grid and renewable energy installations. Craig's long commitment to a better planet has guided his 20 year career in cleantech spanning solid oxide fuel cell, Li-ion battery, Pb-acid battery, and Redox Flow Battery technologies. During his career he has served leadership roles at NanoGram Corporation, NeoPhotonics, Kainos Energy, and World Energy Labs. Craig currently serves on the Technical Advisory Boards of NanoGram and Amprius and previously was an Advisor to NanoGram Devices. Craig has over 15 publications and has been awarded 14 US patents in equipment, processes, and nanomaterials-based components for lithium ion batteries, photonic devices, and fuel cells. Craig earned degrees in Materials Science and Engineering from University of Florida (B.S. with High Honors), UCLA (M.S.), and UC Berkeley (Ph.D.). While at Berkeley, he minored in Energy and Resources and received several awards for his work in Li- ion battery active materials. Craig has twice served as Chair of the San Francisco Section of the Electrochemical Society, currently serves on the Sunnyvale Mayoral Green Ribbon Committee, and is an active volunteer in Sunnyvale community organizations and schools.


Monday, May 4, 2009

'Green' lightbulbs poison workers

'Green' lightbulbs poison workers presents a screwball slanted view of a problem arising from the rising use of compact fluorescent lights. It isn't widely known but these lights contain a small amount of mercury to aid the fluorescing process, and of course mercury is a well known poisonous metal that causes damage to the nervous system, lungs, kidneys and more. It poses a particular threat to babies in the womb and young children. The problem is that this article spins it as a problem with the lightbulbs, when the real problem is lax environmental regulations in some countries.

The amount of mercury in each compact fluorescent lightbulb is very small. There is a fearism scare going around about the exposure risk from breaking individual CFL bulbs, but that risk is overhyped. However at the other end of the process, mercury has to be mined and processed in factories in industrial quantities. This means exposing workers to risky work where they may be exposed to mercury. Fortunately in advanced countries there are worker protection and hazardous materials laws that require corporations to maintain safety, keeping workers in advanced countries safe.

Globalism however is involved. Globalism being the process that's undermining industrial production in the advanced countries, and causing industrial production to move to places like India and China where the workforce can be bought for less cost, and where laws are weak or nonexistent. In this case compact fluorescent lights are being built in China, causing a rise in mercury mining in China. Because China has lax environmental laws "hundreds of employees have found dangerously high levels of mercury in their bodies and many have required hospital treatment, according to interviews with workers, doctors and local health officials in the cities of Foshan and Guangzhou.... In one case, Foshan city officials intervened to order medical tests on workers at the Nanhai Feiyang lighting factory after receiving a petition alleging dangerous conditions...The tests found 68 out of 72 workers were so badly poisoned they required hospitalisation."

The article describes "medieval" mining conditions with miners lacking any protection gear, and working in toxic dust and vapours. However cinnabar mining has occurred in China for nearly 1000 years and the article has this quote: “Our forefathers had been mining for mercury since the Ming Dynasty [1368-1644] and in olden days there was no pollution from such small mines,” said a 72-year-old farmer, named Shen. “But in modern times thousands of miners came to our land, dug it out and poured chemicals to wash away the waste. Our water buffaloes grew stunted from drinking the water and our crops turned grey. Our people fell sick and didn’t live long. Anybody who could do has left.” Indicating that historically these people mined cinnabar in small quantities without problem, but the modern era has them mining it at a larger scale resulting in medical problems.

Let's take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Is this a problem of the light bulbs? The referenced article states the CFL's are the problem. Are they? Or is the real problem lax environmental regulations?

Clearly mercury is a known problem material that causes known health problems. It's not like a situation of "I didn't know it would cause that problem" because everybody clearly knows that mercury exposure causes health problems. Therefore if mercury is to be used it must be used safely.

The principle here is to treat materials with the care required to use those materials without negative side effects. One way is to simply not use the material but that's not always an option. So if you do have to use a given material then it must always be used safely.

The Chinese are violating this principle by not applying known best practices to address known problems. But that's not the extent of the diagnosis. Also at issue is the use of mercury in the first place. The best way to mitigate mercury poisoning is by not mining the mercury in the first place. That mercury is perfectly fine where it is, and if left in the ground does not cause problems. The problem comes when it's dug up, refined, and put into use among human beings.

This is not a purely local concern to a few people in a remote part of China. Mercury is among a group of pollutants called persistent bioaccumulative toxins or PBTs. These pollutants "persist" in the environment, meaning that they do not break down or go away. Mercury cannot be destroyed, it cannot be combusted, and it does not degrade. Mercury also "bioacccumulates" in the environment, meaning it builds up in the food chain over time. Because mercury bioaccumulates the mercury released in China will eventually spread elsewhere as animals eat other animals spreading the contents of each others bodies throughout the environment. (Biomagnification of Pops and Mercury in Canadian Freshwater Subsistence Fisheries and Food Webs, Bioconcentration, Bioaccumulation, and Biomagnification in Puget Sound Biota: Assessing the Ecological Risk of Chemical Contaminants in Puget Sound., THE GREAT LAKES TODAY: CONCERNS)

Algae eat up mercury in Chinese lake outlines research into algae blooms in China’s largest natural lake, Lake Baiyangdian. The lake is an important source of fish for the local population and is also heavily poisoned with arsenic and mercury. Algae blooms are resulting from the pollution and are mitigating the arsenic and mercury poisoning. However I can't imagine that is a complete solution, because of bioaccumulation. is looking into the mercury problem on a global scale with several projects to educate locals and mitigate mercury problems.

Mercury-free compact fluorescent bulbs? has some interesting answers. First, there are some improvements to reduce mercury use in fluorescent bulbs. Second, LED bulbs do not have mercury. Third, even if you use existing mercury-containing CFL bulbs there is a net decrease in mercury release into the environment. That's because fossil fuels like coal contain many poisons, including mercury, and that decreasing electricity use causes a decrease in coal being burned causing a decrease in the release of these poisons from burning coal.

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