Tuesday, February 22, 2011

How the Western US can implement large-scale implementation of wind and solar power

Most of us desire a clean environment, and desire electricity to be generated with no negative consequence. As it stands electricity generation has huge negative consequences from the coal emissions, to the mining operations to get the coal, to disposing of the coal residues, and the CO2 etc emitted from burning natural gas. It's a bad story that can be fixed through using more wind and solar energy. But wind and solar needs some sort of energy storage to balance out variability and the troughs in production.

Debra Lew, of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, gave a presentation at the Energy Seminar at Stanford University discussing models for how the Western US could adopt large quantities of wind and solar energy. One conclusion they came to is that large scale energy storage systems aren't as necessary as conventional wisdom would believe.

Wind power - mostly occurs at night - Solar power - mostly occurs during the day. Hence the simple assumption is you need to store energy from when generation is at its peak production and release stored energy when it's in a trough. That is, next to the wind farm you install an energy storage system that fills up overnight, and releases energy during the day.

However.. Ms. Lew says this isn't necessary, if the grid operators make some changes to how the business is run.

Observation: Wind and solar energy complement each other. One has its peak when the other is in a trough. Hence energy storage isn't required so much as having enough generating capacity. A factoid about energy storage systems is they're currently rather expensive. The grid operators will want to minimize energy storage systems, and the cheapest way to do so is to not buy it but instead by enough wind/solar generating capacity so that one system makes up for the other system's trough.

The Western US is covered by WECC which is an electrical interconnect zone. In most of WECC there is little cooperation between the utilities, leaving each utility on its own to balance its load.

Ms. Lew gives regional "balancing area cooperation" as a primary change to implement for renewable energy to make a big impact in the West. For example Wyoming has huge wind resources, and could be supplying electricity to the rest of the West if only there were enough cooperation and transmission lines.

She gave a bunch of other recommendations. The whole pile of them boiled down to: greater flexibility

Their study shows it's operationally feasible for the Western US to adopt Wind and Solar at a large scale.

She did say that historically this region has tried to set up more cooperation but ran into political problems. Essentially the individual utilities have resistance to their autonomy being undermined by a regional cooperative. But she went on to say that as they get more experience with renewable energy they'll realize regional cooperation is vital.


Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Obama: Winning the Future with Clean Energy

President Obama travels to Penn State University and speaks about encouraging and investing in innovation and clean energy technologies to create new jobs, grow the economy, and win the future. February 3, 2011.


Sunday, February 13, 2011

RFK, Jr.: Oil Industry Trying to Silence "Gasland" Director

A few years ago it seemed the U.S. was past its peak of natural gas production. Until the fossil fuel industry developed what they're calling "Hydraulic Fracturing" or Frakking. Which just gets us Battlestar Galactica fans giggling. But let's not go there and stay focused on the story. A recent movie, Gasland, has come out really slamming the "Hydraulic Fracturing" process, showing the poisoning of the environment, showing people who can set their tap water on fire, etc. Yup, able to set their tap water on fire. What's in that water for it to be flammable, and how can the tap water possibly be safe? Why wouldn't the EPA be leaning on the municipal water systems in question?

In any case an interview by RFK Jr of Gasland's director, Josh Fox, is claiming that the fossil fuel industry is working the system to keep his movie from being aired, and in every way keeping it out of the public eye. The implication is the fossil fuel industry wants to keep us as sheep, thinking that natural gas is cleaner, that every thing is fine, nothing to worry about, and they don't want this movie disturbing the serenity of current state of affairs.

As an incumbent industry the fossil fuel providers have a fiduciary responsibility to ensure they are free to sell their product to the population. There's laws saying that business leaders are responsible to share-holders to maintain the health of the business, keep it growing, keep the share price in upward motion, and so on. That may well mean that the fossil fuel industry is using their money to create clout to preserve the status quo where we continue using their product. Even though that product is demonstrably poisonous in all ways.


Saturday, February 12, 2011

Michael Pawlyn: Using nature's genius in architecture, dematerialization, and biomimicry

What if you had a building, a greenhouse in a desert, that cooled itself without power but instead through water evaporation, grew plants, desalinated water, and produced enough desalinated pure water to water the ground around the greenhouse to convert desert into a green plant-filled landscape? Magical? That's what one man says can come from using biomimicry principles to design systems.

Biomimicry principles, he says, can produce systems which perhaps 1000x energy and resource savings. He points to animals for example spiders who can weave silk stronger than anything humans have been able to make, the closest requires special materials, high pressures, and produces loads of pollution, whereas the spiders do it at ambient temperature with the simplest of raw materials. Obviously, as he said, "we have a lot to learn".

The challenges we face to maintain our technological society requires

  • Radical increases in resource efficiency
  • Switching from linear systems to closed loop systems
  • Switch from a fossil fuel to solar energy economy

He claims that biomimicry can easily produce these changes.

The natural world around us is the result of billions of years of "research & development" by Nature.

Resource efficiency: Naturehas, through evolution, developed the most efficient shapes and chemistries.

Closed loop systems: In Nature, everything is reused. One creatures waste is another creatures food. "Waste" is the wrong way to look at the system.

Solar energy: Nature doesn't convert sunlight to electricity to use it. It just directly uses it as an analog process. Perhaps that's more efficient than conversion to electricity?


Friday, February 11, 2011

Are compact fluorescent lamps (CFL) a fire risk? Can they catch fire? Are they dangerous?

Just now a warning email came through one of the mailing lists I'm on. It was one of those friendly warnings meant to inform us of a risky thing many of us are doing. It talked about a CFL light bulb danger. The writer witnessed a CFL catch fire and oh my gosh it was lucky s/he was right there or it could have been a horrible fire. It concluded claiming that these compact fluorescent lights (CFL) are dangerous and we'd better wait for LED bulbs rather than switch to CFL's. I've written about this before (see: 'Green' lightbulbs poison workers) but it seems appropos to write about it yet again.

There's a lot of fearism going around centered around CFL lights. They have mercury, mercury is dangerous, so if we want to be green we should stop using CFL's. Or, there's horrible mining conditions in China because of CFL's, that's bad, we don't want to be responsible for that badness, so we should stop using CFL's. etc... I wonder whether there is a disinformation campaign going on by the incandescent bulb industry to discredit CFL's? Or maybe it's the electricity industry instead who want to maintain sales of electricity?

To reiterate my earlier blog post:-

  • Electricity generation is usually done from fossil fuels, which themselves emit mercury into the environment. The reduced electricity use reduces mercury emissions by more than is in the bulb.
  • The danger of mercury mining in China is probably more to do with lax safety regulations than CFL bulbs. There are known practices to mine mercury safely, and it's a shame that the Chinese can't get it together to do this safely.
  • Mercury is a dangerous substance anyway, and we should strive to eliminate its use anyway

FWIW I have started buying LED bulbs but not because of any risk from CFL's (I've been using CFL's since 1990) but because LED bulbs are even more efficient. I started using CFL's in 1990 because of efficiency, and I'm always looking for the most efficient means for anything.

This particular email struck me as a mild form of that fearism. I pasted a couple sentences from the letter into my favorite search engine, and the top result was a snopes.com posting with the exact same wording. Yes, this was one of those email chain-letters that get passed around.

The text reads (analysis below the text):-

Below is a picture of a CFL light bulb from my bathroom. I turned it on the other day and then smelled smoke after a few minutes. Four inch flames were spewing out of the side of the ballast like a blow torch! I immediately turned off the lights. But I'm sure it would have caused a fire if I was not right there. Imagine if the kids had left the lights on as usual when they were not in the room.

I took the bulb to the Fire Department to report the incident. The Fireman wasn't at all surprised and said that it was not an uncommon occurrence. Apparently, sometimes when the bulb burns out there is a chance that the ballast can start a fire. He told me that the Fire Marshall had issued reports about the dangers of these bulbs.

Upon doing some Internet research, it seems that bulbs made by ??oGlobe??? in China seem to have the lions share of problems. Lots of fires have been blamed on misuse of CFL bulbs, like using them in recessed lighting, pot lights, dimmers or in track lighting. Mine was installed in a normal light socket.

I bought these at Wal-Mart. I will be removing all the Globe bulbs from my house. CFL bulbs are a great energy saver but make sure you buy a name brand like Sylvania , Phillips or GE and not the ones from China .

But if you want to be safe and protect your family from toxic mercury in CFL bulbs, use LED bulbs to save energy or Incandescent bulbs until you switch to LEDs.

Almost exactly the same as it appears on Snopes' website. Hence this is one of those emails that gets passed around.

The email specifically refers to Globe branded bulbs, and Snopes says there's no reports anywhere of fires with Globe branded bulbs. None. It does refer to a recall issued in October 2010 for a different brand of Chinese CFL bulbs, that's related to less than 10 incidents of fire in CFL bulbs. 10 incidents out of how many CFL bulbs in the world? This sounds like an excellent track record.

The Snopes article also says it's quite normal for CFL bulbs to emit some smoke as they burn out. They're designed to do this. It's normal. etc. It wouldn't be normal for actual flames to be emitted. Of course.

At the top I pondered whether there's a disinformation campaign. I don't have any knowledge, it's largely a brain fart, with some reasoning behind it:-

There are a couple industries which stand to lose out if CFL's become the norm. a) incandescant bulb makers, and b) electricity companies

Writing like the above is geared to raise doubt within the reader's mind ... "hmm, maybe __fill in the blank__ is bad" ...

It's interesting how it names specific brands, saying that this one brand is cheap Chinese crap and instead we should use those other brands, name brands, because name brands are safer?

The last paragraph reads like a delaying tactic...

The fact is that incumbent industries want to continue business as usual. The electricity generator companies want to continue increasing the amount of electricity they sell. As a business they're expected by their shareholders to continue growing the company. Hence anything which threatens to decrease the amount of electricity being used is dangerous.

The electricity companies therefore have a motive to fight against anything that improves efficiency, because efficiency decreases the electricity being sold.

It's known that modern marketing techniques are very closely tied to mass psychology manipulation. And that there are subtle forms of marketing such as having people pose on the street as being excited about some new piece of technology, but instead it's marketing agents planting ideas in the population. It seems possible that emails like the ones above could be manipulated fakery planted by the same sort of marketing efforts.

In any case it's time for me to put down the keyboard, shower, shave, hop on my electric bicycle, and ride to work (where I'll pick up another keyboard). Why an electric bicycle? Because it's hugely more efficient than any other transportation method I've found.