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Sustainable High Density

Modern urban centers from Manhattan to Hong Kong now boast neighborhoods that house well over 100,000 people per square mile, while providing their inhabitants an excellent quality of life. As world civilization voluntarily and inexorably urbanizes, new megacities will be built everywhere. It is estimated that within the next few decades the number of megacities on earth – defined as an urbanized area with over 10 million inhabitants – will increase from around 20 today to over 400. So what innovations being pioneered today will enable cities like this to provide a high quality of life, and how will cities of such size and density reduce their vulnerability to economic or physical disruptions?

In a way, a megacity is antithetical to the notion of being “off-grid,” yet in important ways it is the megacity that needs to be as self sufficient as possible, since having 100,000 people per square mile (20,000 per square kilometer) means that any resource that needs to be imported, stored or removed is going to have to be handled in very high volumes. Therefore energy efficiency, waste management, as well as energy and water harvesting and treatment are technologies that are extremely important to the megacity – along with smart systems to interconnect all of them. So along with energy and water efficiency, harvesting and reuse, how else can a megacity exist relatively off-grid? Equally important is the closely related question of how can a megacity experience a postive balance of payments – supporting itself economically?

Cities could become food exporters.

To explore this question beyond the usual suspects there are two evolving technologies (both are evolving, not emerging, because both have illustrious histories) that promise to transform megacities in important and very positive ways, one is high-rise agriculture, and the other is massive tunnelling systems.

It is common for the smart growth crowd to say “build up, not out,” but this misses two key points. First, of course, the smart growth advocates tend to forget that the smartest growth is unplanned. Centrally planned growth tends to actually promote sprawl, because those of us who don’t want to live in towers simply buy land and build homes on the far side of whatever “greenbelt” they manage to decree. But more on point, building up instead of out ignores building downwards as well. Some of the greatest urban gridlock ever seen has been ameliorated by tunnelling – anyone who tries to get to Logan Airport from downtown Boston during rush hour will have nothing but good things to say about the much maligned “big dig.” It’s too bad we don’t have more big digs – in the heart of urban centers we could put freeways and rail underground, and our cities could reach for the sky, and there would never be a traffic jam.

Tunnelling on a grand scale can seem mundane until you learn more about it – then you realize it is a fascinating field that is advancing at breakneck speed, incorporating new technology across multiple disciplines as fast as it becomes available. From GPS systems that allow a tunnelling machine to always know precisely where it is beneath the earth, to better cutting bits, to debris removal conveyers, to conveyers to bring forward shoring material, to worker shelter and control rooms, modern tunnelling machines can exceed a mile in length and cost billions to acquire and operate. The global leader in tunnelling systems is Herrenknecht AG. A good website that covers the world of tunnelling is

As the megacities of the future are built, tunnelling machines will play an integral part in endowing these cities with efficient transportation systems. Tunnelling underground to create utility conduits to transport water and energy will also be necessary in cities of ultra-high density. Using the volume of underground space to host much of the physical plant of megacities will make the surface areas far less congested, and far more pleasant for people. The underground systems of megacities can include large-scale water cisterns, or even enhanced geothermal power stations to extract power from the heat in the earth’s crust.

The imperative to build upwards is already a part of the new urban vision, but what about high-rise agriculture? The technology to grow food at extremely high volume indoors is already well understood – the Netherlands, for example, is a net food exporter in spite of being the most densely populated nation in Europe. But what the Dutch do using advanced hydroponics and lighting, in greenhouses that glow for miles across the reclaimed polders all year long, might instead take place on the stacked stories of a skyscraper.

One of the pioneers of high rise agriculture is Dickson Despommier, a professor at Columbia University and the founder of Vertical Farms LLC. Most of the technology to operate a vertical farm is already here, as well as much of the infrastructure. A properly designed vertical farm imports grey water (plenty of that in a mega-city) and pumps it to the top of the building, then allowing it to trickle downwards through hydroponic media on floor after floor. With mirrors and energy efficient lighting, along with daylight, a high-rise farm would probably consume, overall, less energy and water per calories grown than a greenhouse, since heating would be far more efficient in a multi-story structure. Despommier estimates a high rise farm on one city block (30 stories, 100,000 square feet per floor) could produce enough food to meet the needs of at least 10,000 people (possible much more, read “The Vertical Farm” .pdf, 2004). Every type of produce except for grains is potentially cost competitive to land-intensive traditional agriculture.

The implications of building upwards and downwards, employing novel technologies ranging from enhanced geothermal to high-rise farming, hold forth not only the oft-wished for promise of attracting humanity’s billions off the land and into densely populated megacities, but also the promise of cities that live nearly off the grid, cities that may, despite their magnitude, require very little from the rest of the world. Cities that might actually export power and food.

Posted in Energy Efficiency, Geothermal, Homes & Buildings, Other, People, Science, Space, & Technology, Transportation, Waste Management, Water Efficiency2 Comments

California's Renewable Electricity

In the aftermath of the defeat of Proposition 7, the ambitious citizen’s initiative that would have required California’s utilities to deliver 50% renewable electricity by 2030, where is the golden state in terms of increasing its production of renewable electricity, and what factors are likely to help or hinder implementation of large scale electricity projects in California?

Prior to the election on November 4th, California’s 2002 renewable portfolio standard (RPS) called for 20% renewables by 2010 – a tough challenge at this point since in 2007 California was only up to 12.7% renewable electricity (ref. CPUC). Immediately following Prop. 7′s defeat, California Governor Schwarzenegger issued an executive order calling for the state’s utilities to deliver 33% renewable electricity by 2020.

According to a spokesperson for PG&E, one of the utilities who, improbably, joined a formidable coalition of environmental groups in opposing Prop. 7, “We commend the Governor for taking action to address the long term challenge of developing renewable resources and transmission infrastructure so that meeting a 33% renewable goal may be attainable.”

One of the ironies of Prop. 7 was that environmental groups opposed the streamlining and expediting provisions in the initiative designed to speed the construction of plants because they failed to adequately address environmental issues, whereas the utitities remained concerned that getting to 50% renewables by 2030 was a logistical impossibility, regardless of relaxed siting and permitting standards. Even one of Prop. 7′s proponents, the noted Dr. Donald Aitken, agreed in a recent conversation “they would have to go flat out” just to get to 33% by 2020.

Aitken’s assessment of how to bring California’s RPS successfully up into the 30% range and beyond included some useful insights and recommendations. For example, Aitken pointed out California’s current RPS doesn’t include conversion of solid waste into energy. According to a July 6th report in the New York Times, there are currently 87 waste-to-energy plants operating in the United States, continuously generating 2.7 gigawatts. While these plants are arguably already clean-burning, even more advanced thermochemical and biochemical processes to turn municipal solid waste and construction debris into electricity are moving rapidly forward, as evidenced by pilot plants using various technologies already in operation by companies such as Ze-gen, Plasco Energy Group, and BlueFire Ethanol, or nearly operational, ala companies such as POET, RangeFuels, and Coskata. Given the extraordinary challenge presented by transforming a third of California’s electricity generation to renewable sources, it isn’t obvious why waste-to-electricity solutions aren’t allowed to be counted towards fulfilling RPS goals.

The question of relaxed siting and expedited permitting requirements for renewable electricity generation isn’t trivial. Most of the renewable energy solutions available now – enhanced geothermal is still several years off – consume large amounts of land. Transmission lines also require large corridors of land. Anyone who has ever tried to develop property in California in recent years will attest to the difficulties obtaining permits. Literally dozens of Federal, State, County and City agencies require various permits to develop land – they are never uniform, they are all extraordinarily complex, they take years to complete, they are incredibly expensive, and all along the way there are also a host of powerful environmental nonprofits whose lawyers will throw additional obstacles in the way of a developer. It is almost impossible to develop land in California – a reason why Texas is now the nation’s leading producer of wind generated electricity – in Texas it is literally orders of magnitude easier to develop land in terms of time and expense. If California is to have any chance of achieving their current RPS goals, let alone even more ambitious ones, significant changes will need to occur in terms of what it takes, and how long it takes, to develop land.

BrightSource Energy’s pilot plant.
(Photo: BrightSource Energy)

One large scale renewable electricity plant that is about to break ground is Bright Source Energy’s recently announced Ivanpah Solar Power Complex, using solar thermal technology, and scheduled to begin construction in late 2009. As we’ve reported in our post “Bright Source’s Power Tower,” Bright Source Energy commissioned a 1.5 megawatt pilot plant earlier this year in Israel. Their technology relies on a solar field of two axis mirrors that track the sun and focus the sunlight onto a single central boiler. This results in superheated steam – more easily condensed for reuse – and eliminates the need for plumbing being installed throughout the solar field. Bright Source’s Ivanpah complex, in its first phase, will generate 100 megawatts at peak output, or about 250 megawatt-hours per day.

Another company close to developing large scale solar thermal power plants is Ausra, who commissioned a 5.0 megawatt pilot plant in late October of this year in California’s south San Joaquin Valley. As reported in our post “Ausra’s Kimberlina Solar Thermal Plant,” Ausra’s innovative design uses several single axis, rectangular tracking mirrors to focus sunlight onto a single overhead receiver where water is turned into steam. Having several mirrors share one receiver reduces the amount of plumbing needed in the solar field, and Ausra has also developed a very low cost process for manufacturing these mirrors. Also, single axis tracking of very large rectangular mirrors is less expensive to install and maintain than two axis tracking using many much smaller square mirrors. Ausra may begin construction of a 177 megawatt (peak) solar thermal electricity plant in San Luis Obispo County sometime in 2010.

Ausra’s pilot plant.
(Photo: Ausra)

The fact that large scale solar thermal electricity is here, as evidenced by the projects Bright Source, Ausra, and others are developing right now, is quite inspiring. But if you evaluate exactly how much these two very large plants will contribute to California’s overall electricity production, it is clear how serious the need is to streamline siting and permitting requirements if there is to be any hope of reaching the ambitious RPS goals being set.

California produces, on average, about 800 gigawatt-hours per day. By 2020, even with vastly improved efficiency, because of population growth, economic growth, and growth in all manner of electronic appliances, from consumer electronics to electric automobilies, expect that figure to rise to at least 1,000 gigawatt-hours per day. If 12.7% of today’s 800 daily gigawatt-hours are currently coming from renewables, and the goal by 2030 is to have 33% of 1,000 gigawatt-hours coming from renewables, then about another 228,000 megawatt-hours per day will need to come from renewables. Assuming 400 megawatts for BrightSource’s Ivanpah power complex (taking into account planned expansion), and 177 megawatts from Ausra’s proposed plant in San Luis Obispo county, at a yield of 20%, these two power plants fully built out will produce 2.5 gigawatt-hours per day. It will take 88 times this much new renewable power to get California to a 33% renewable portfolio standard by 2020.

Whatever means technological and political developments emerge to meet or exceed this goal, a few things might be helpful:

(1) Streamline siting requirements.

(2) Allow waste-to-energy projects to qualify.

(3) Move transmission lines underground using HVDC technology.

(4) Require utilities to purchase surplus energy from small scale systems (negative metering).

(5) Be realistic about the costs and flexible in implementation. Californians can’t always afford to pay to be on the bleeding edge.

(6) Partner with the utilities instead of demonizing them – there are a lot of reasons why rapid conversion to renewable electricity isn’t easy.

(7) Lay off the scare tactics – California isn’t going to single-handedly solve whatever alleged global warming problem may exist.

Some Related Posts: Costing California’s Proposition 7, California Prop. 7, Both Sides of CA Prop. 7, Bright Source’s Power Tower, Ausra’s Kimberlina Solar Thermal Plant, Optisolar’s Thin Film, Photovoltaic vs. Thermal, Utility Scale Photovoltaics, Acciona’s Nevada Solar One, Ausra’s Solar Thermal Power, Megawatt Storage Farms.

Posted in Electricity, Electronics, Energy, Geothermal, Infrastructure, Policy, Law, & Government, Population Growth, Science, Space, & Technology, Solar, Wind0 Comments

Both Sides of California Proposition 7

It is difficult to put both sides of any initiative into a few words and capture all the nuances, but here are some observations for voters to consider as we go into the last days before the election. The points made here are based on very recent conversations with people intimately involved with the campaigns both for and against Prop 7. While everything revealed here was on the record, sources will not be disclosed. Here is the Legislative Analyst analysis of Proposition 7. If you wish to view for yourself the areas in the bill cited below, click here for full text of Proposition 7 (this is a .pdf and will not accommodate text searches, if you prefer to keyword search the text, please click here for the full text in a format that permits text search):

The question as to whether or not Proposition 7 excludes producers of electricity under 30 megawatts is hotly disputed. The NRDC has put out a talking points memo that states “Prop 7 could exclude smaller renewable energy providers from participating in California’s energy markets; it excludes renewable power facilities smaller than 30 megawatts from counting toward the measure’s new requirements.” And if you read the text of the measure it appears this is true. You can read for yourself section 14, which states “Section 25137 is added to the Public Resources Code, to read: 25137. “Solar and clean energy plant” means any electrical generating facility using wind, solar photovoltaic, solar thermal, biomass, biogas, geothermal, fuel cells using renewable fuels, digester gas, municipal solid waste conversion, landfill gas, ocean wave, ocean thermal, or tidal current technologies, with a generating capacity of 30 megawatts or more…” But proponents of Prop. 7 claim this is a misinterpretation, noting that the amendments to the Public Resources Code only refer to the projects that are eligible for expedited siting permits. If you skip through each section’s preamble, you will see the amendments to the Public Utilities code only go through Section 11 of the initiative, then beginning with Section 12 the amendments to the Public Resources code begin. According to the proponents, they are not connected, and therefore no change is being made to the existing renewable portfolio standard in terms of what would be a qualifying project.

According to one source, the reasons the big solar companies are against Proposition 7: have more to do with the fact the initiative would require them to use union labor, ref. Section 24 “All solar and clean energy plants receiving certification pursuant to this section shall be considered a public works project subject to the provisions of Chapter 1 (commencing with Section 1720) of Part 7 of Division 2 of the Labor Code, and the Department of Industrial Relations shall have the same authority and responsibility to enforce those provisions as it has under the Labor Code.” Our position here is unequivocal – the government should normalize taxpayer-supported (or rate-payer supported) benefits so all workers get the same deal, upgraded social security and universal opt-in medicare (available to anyone at any age who wants to buy it and competing with private sector insurance); collective bargaining in America has become an anachronism that preserves special treatment for those folks lucky enough to work in heavily regulated and subsidized, relatively noncompetitive industries such as government and public works. Normalizing taxpayer and rate-payer funded benefits to benefit all workers might reduce some union worker benefits, particularly in the public sector, but would render most unionized workers in the totally competitive private sector better off, make America more competitive, make municipalities and large manufacturers solvent again, and would use our taxes to protect ALL American workers according to one set of rules.

Several reasons were thrown around as to why the environmental groups oppose Proposition 7: those in favor of Prop. 7 have suggested the 30 MW reason is not their true concern. The expedited siting provisions of this bill – which we believe are absolutely necessary if utility scale renewable energy is ever going to get built – will trample many cherished prerogatives of the environmental community. Another reason cited is the environmental community objects to the mandatory 10% cap on the premium the utility will be directed to pay renewable energy producers. But it should be noted this is a cap, not a floor, and if there is sufficient supply of renewable energy, the renewables producers will begin to compete under the cap to win contracts. As for the 10% cap not being sufficient to incentivize renewable energy construction, this is possible but completely dependent on the future price of fossil fuel, natural gas in particular. The notion that environmental groups oppose Prop. 7 because the penalties to the utilities for not achieving RPS targets have been slashed to $.01/kWh vs. the current $.05/kWh don’t really make sense, when you consider the initiative also removes the $25 million cap on these penalties. Under Prop. 7, renewable electricity production will need to increase to about 500 gigawatt-hours per day, more than five times what it is today. At $.01 per kilowatt-hour, you have $10,000 per gigawatt-hour, which implies if the 2030 standards were imposed today, the utilities would be paying about $40 million per day in fines. Not much of an objection there.

At the end of the day – why would the utilities oppose Proposition 7? They are investor owned, but publicly regulated. They earn a return for their investors according to a strictly managed set of pricing and cost recovery formulas. They will make money with or without renewables – why wouldn’t they be renewable agnostic? Proposition 7 appears to have flaws, but not necessarily the flaws that are being made most public. Actually moving this fast – installing well over 100 gigawatts of renewable energy generating stations (full output) is a logistical challenge that may simply be impossible. It is also important to consider what better technologies may emerge, rather than quickly build large scale projects based on current or near-term technological solutions.


Can California go from about 10% to 50% renewables in under 20
years? If sunny California can do it, can the rest of the U.S. follow?
(Source: U.S. DOE)

The most significant potential problem with Proposition 7 may be how to facilitate the level of investment necessary to build this much capacity. We stand by our analysis of Prop. 7′s costs as reflected in our posts “Costing California Proposition 7″ and “California Proposition 7″ published earlier this year: It will cost a minimum of $330 billion to install this much renewable generating capacity – that is based on $2.5 billion per gigawatt, a 17.5% yield, and a need to increase renewables output to 500 gigawatt-hours per day (forget about electrification of the car at anything less than this). Adding to amortization of capital the costs for interest, return to investors, operating costs, and transmission infrastructure, it is likely adding this capacity will result in deliverable renewable electricity priced at about $.20 per kilowatt-hour to the consumer. Can renewables deliver electricity for less than this? It is certainly possible, but it would be helpful to see the numbers. Big solar – big wind – can you show us your assumptions? How do you arrive at projections of wholesale prices of $.04/kWh (wind) or $.07/kWh (solar), and what price does that translate into for the retail consumer?

And of course we would need a crystal ball to know the future cost of natural gas. Anyone who doesn’t think the price equilibrium of fossil fuel remains volatile hasn’t been following the news of the past few weeks.

Posted in Business & Economics, Electricity, Energy, Fuel Cells, Geothermal, Infrastructure, Natural Gas, People, Retail, Solar, Tidal, Wind3 Comments

Renewable Electricity Dominates California Utility Plans

On Thursday 10-16-08 I attended the User Group meeting of Plexos Solutions LLC, a boutique firm providing software and consulting to the rapidly changing California electric market. One of the presentations covered issues surrounding integration of renewable energy resources into the California Independent System Operator (CAISO). This is important to sustainable energy investors because virtually all the growth in generating capacity is forecast to come from renewable resources. While the fundamentals of this market have been overwhelmed by broader market conditions this last month, over time the fundamentals provide the tailwind that will lift stocks. And the growth expectations for renewables are very high in the California market.

Over the period 2007 – 2012 the CAISO is planning for increases over existing capacity of:

  • 5,053 MW of wind, a 187% increase,
  • 1,064 MW of geothermal, a 68% increase,
  • 946 MW of concentrating solar, a 203% increase,
  • 508 MW of utility scale PV solar, a 2,032% increase, and
  • 221 MW of biomass, a 28% increase

These are huge numbers representing billions of dollars of projects and electric revenues. Striking are the growth expectations for the two main solar approaches.

The ISO Control Room in Folsom directs the flow
of electricity and ensures access to 25,000 circuit
miles of high-voltage, long distance power lines.
(Photo: California ISO)

In the concentrating solar sector, the state currently has 354 MW of large projects operating with the last one completed in 1990, 18 years ago.

Most of this capacity is owned by FPL Energy, part of a large regulated utility. So the new capacity has to come from a sector that hasn’t, in California at least, been able to construct a project for many years. Equally noticeable it the paucity of publicly traded companies in the concentrating solar sector. Solar Millennium (S2M.DE) is one the few with significant concentrating solar activity.

The state currently has 8 projects with 3,689 MW of large concentrating solar projects in the permitting pipeline. But these numbers are deceptive. Of the 8, two projects are actually “solar/thermal” hybrids like the existing operating projects. These two projects represent 1,180 MW of capacity with 112 MW attributable to solar. The remaining 6 projects are a gamut of technologies ranging from troughs, reflectors, towers, and Sterling engines. These projects are all owned by private companies or municipal utilities and currently don’t present an opportunity for public market investors.

The PV solar sector provides more avenues for public investors to participate via investment in the PV supply chain. If the numbers work out the utility market represents a multi-year, very large opportunity. Let’s take a look.

As of the end of 2007 California had an estimated 279 MW of installed PV in homes and businesses and 25 MW of utility scale projects. This makes sense since the home and business markets are net metering against retail rates whereas utility scale projects have to compete against wholesale markets. So the premise is that PV solar is now becoming sufficiently competitive at the wholesale level to install over 500 MW in the next 5 years.

One of the first test cases was recently announced. On July 10, 2008 the California Public Utilities Commission approved a 7.5 MW contract between First Solar’s (FSLR) FSE Blythe project and Southern California Edison. Unfortunately much of the economic information was not disclosed but some key data can be gleaned from the record. First, the company is projecting an excellent 27% capacity factor for the project, significantly higher than typical estimates for PV projects. But equally important is the company is pursing the development receiving a price at or below the “market reference price” which is based on a highly efficient modern thermal plant. After accounting for some messy seasonal and time-of-use factors I calculate the project will receive approximately USD 0.14/kWh on average plus a 30% tax credit now that the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 passed. If First Solar can make money at this project then they are very near the holy grail of grid parity (at least until the credit expires December 31, 2016). And the utility systems can, according to the CAISO, absorb large amounts of solar power for years to come. Game on.

Mark Henwood is the founder of Camino Energy, an information provider specializing in globally traded sustainable energy stocks.

Posted in Business & Economics, Electricity, Energy, Geothermal, Solar, Wind1 Comment

The Case Against Nukes

Nuclear Power Stations
Nuclear power stations as of 2002. For more recent data including a
table showing data on all active plants go to World Nuclear Association.
(Source: U.S. DOE)

While we tend to agree with Dr. Patrick Moore, founder of Greenpeace, and many others, that nuclear power development is a choice worth considering, what follows is a thoughtful financial analysis of the nuclear option that comes to a very different conclusion.

Citing recent cost estimates of just over $8.0 billion per gigawatt output, the author claims nuclear power is far more expensive than other energy options, including alternative energy. And if nuclear power really costs that much, the author is right.

The case for nuclear power has gotten a huge boost lately thanks to concern about CO2 emissions, but like many issues of policy and investment, concern about CO2 emissions is being used as a trump card that creates a distraction from other pressing questions. In areas where the conventional wisdom is fairly undifferentiated, such as the “smart growth” lobby, concern about CO2 emissions is used to completely kill any remaining debate, even though alternatives to so-called smart growth are absolutely not beyond debate. Similar criticism can be leveled against the early biofuel industry, where European carbon offset payments subsidized a global market for biodiesel where nothing of significance had existed before, financing massive rainforest destruction to grow oil palms. Waving the flag of CO2 alarm is not always furthering the right decisions.

A more relevant question would be to ask what is behind such astronomical costs for nuclear power in America. It is interesting the author’s focus isn’t to question the potential for nuclear power to be relatively safe. And given the track record of nuclear power in Sweden and France, it is credible to say nuclear power has gotten safer than ever – maybe even safe enough to change the minds of many who have previously opposed it. But if nuclear power is so expensive, why are they continuing to build nuclear power plants in those nations, and why is electricity relatively inexpensive in those nations? Could it be the sky-high price of nuclear power in the USA is due to the cost of acquiring government permits and and fighting environmentalist lawsuits? How many billions are for these intangible costs, and how many billions are actually needed to put steel in the ground?

Whatever the underlying reasons, nuclear power in the USA is very expensive, and a detailed look at just what those expenses are might be a good topic for a follow up. – Ed “Redwood” Ring

The Case Against Nukes – Nuclear Power is Not the Only Way to Deliver a Kilowatt-hour
by Craig Severance, October 3, 2008
Nuclear Power Plant Next to River
One kilogram of uranium fuel yields 20,000 times
more energy than one kilogram of coal
(photo: US EPA)

Speaking to the nation about the energy crisis recently, President Bush proclaimed, “if there was a magic wand to wave, I’d be waving it.” Bush then proceeded to wave the perpetual “magic wand” for energy, urging more nuclear power.

Candidate John McCain followed suit in his speech on global warming, linking his carbon emissions cap-and-trade proposal to massive subsidies for the nuclear power industry. We have seen this all before — a powerful lobby promoting itself as our energy solution, and receiving Federal billions. Corn ethanol has now received these subsidies for decades, though experts warned it would do little but divert food crops to fill our gas tanks. Today’s food price crisis is in part a fulfillment of these prophecies.

The nuclear industry has launched a major effort to convince Americans nuclear power is the solution to global warming. This public relations campaign can be traced directly to a 2003 MIT study, “The Future of Nuclear Power”, which recommended it. Why would public opinion matter? The MIT authors noted, “Today, nuclear power is not an economically competitive choice. Moreover, unlike other energy technologies, nuclear power requires significant government involvement because of safety, proliferation, and waste concerns.” They concluded nuclear power faced “stagnation and decline”, without billions in new government subsidies.

The U.S. nuclear industry has in fact been in stagnation for 30 years. The last nuclear plant built in the United States was ordered in 1978. The industry blames environmentalists for its collapse, yet government policies have always favored nuclear power.

Nuclear Power Stations
Even if nuclear power were to experience significant growth,
it will still only produce a fraction of projected global energy.
(Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration)

Utility executives, not environmentalists, halted nuclear power’s expansion decades ago, because of extremely high costs. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, cost overruns for nuclear plants for the years 1966 to 1977 ranged from 200 to 380 percent.

The largest bond default in the history of the municipal bond market was a $2.25 billion bond used by the Washington Public Power Supply System to construct two nuclear power plants.

Nuclear power failed because, in the end, it is just one of many ways to generate electricity. In comparison with other choices, nuclear power proved to be one of the most expensive ways to produce a kilowatt-hour.

Nuclear power lost its market primarily to coal-fired power plants decades ago. However, coal is one of the largest carbon dioxide emitters, and now recent actions by state regulators, environmentalists and Wall Street have resulted in a virtual moratorium on new U.S. coal-fired power plants. The nuclear industry seeks to exploit this, by promoting the message that nuclear power is our only choice left – regardless of cost.

Some U.S. utilities are now proposing a new wave of nuclear plants. However, recent cost estimates are causing “sticker shock” – at least $9-$12 billion per plant, roughly double the $5 billion per plant estimated just last year. Few private projects in the history of the world have been so costly.

Making a leap from economical coal-fired plants, straight into buying a nuclear power plant is akin to shopping for a Rolls Royce, because your good old Chevy died. Sure, the Rolls Royce will get you around – but can you afford the payments? Will utility customers be happy to pay so much more for electricity?

At $9 billion for an 1100 megawatt nuclear plant, nuclear generating capacity is more than 12 times the price of the same power capacity in gas turbines, and 2 to 3 times more costly than comparable power output from wind farms. In addition to costing far more, the nuclear plants would not come on line for at least 10 years, delaying reductions in greenhouse gases by at least a decade.

Faced with such bad numbers, the nuclear industry has admitted it cannot find backing from Wall Street. Instead, the industry is turning to taxpayers. Congress has authorized $18.5 billion in Federally guaranteed loans for new nuclear plants. This will only be enough to fund two plants, so the industry is pushing for hundreds of billions more. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated the risk of default on these nuclear loans to be at least 50 percent. This massive new outlay for nuclear power would eclipse all public funds for all other energy sources combined.

The nation is now reeling from the aftermath of people buying homes they could not afford, because someone was reckless enough to loan them the money. Do we want our utilities to buy power plants they can’t afford?

The taxpayer funded banquet for the nuclear industry would not end with power plants. This initial pork would be followed by taxpayer subsidies for fuel enrichment, plant decommissioning costs, and perpetual taxpayer funds for thousands of years to maintain the nuclear waste.

There is another way. Most utilities across the country have adopted a strategy of prudence, recognizing we are finding our way to a renewable energy economy. These utilities are using gas turbines as an inexpensive way to add generating capacity needed to assure reliability of power supply. They then minimize actual fuel consumption, by purchasing wind and solar power and funding improved efficiency. Midwestern utility Xcel Energy, a leader in this approach, plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by 2020, while increasing output and keeping rates affordable.

Large solar electric farms are now being installed in the desert Southwest, and wind farms chiefly on the Great Plains. This is already making a big impact. Latest figures from the American Wind Energy Association show new wind farms made up about 30% of new U.S. generating capacity in 2007. Wind energy is now cost competitive even with coal. The U.S. Department of Energy recently announced wind energy can provide 20% of our electricity by 2030, equal to nuclear energy’s current proportion

The sun does not shine nor the wind blow all the time, so peak solar and wind power can be stored using simple compressed air technology, to provide a steady source of power. Mason, Fthenakis, and Zweibel, in their article “A Grand Solar Plan” (Scientific American, Jan. 08) show by 2050 these technologies, together with sporty new plug-in hybrid automobiles, can completely eliminate our need for imported oil, with renewables producing 69% of U.S. electricity. Additional technologies to provide even more clean energy include plasma generation plants that cleanly burn municipal waste, cellulosic or algal biofuels, geothermal, and ocean source generation. With no federal loan guarantees, billions in venture capital is flooding into renewable energy, a new growth industry.

We need not accept the message of fear that nuclear power is our only choice left. There are a lot of ways to generate a kilowatt-hour.

Craig Severance, CPA, is co-author of The Economics of Nuclear and Coal Power (Praeger, 1976). He is a practicing CPA in Grand Junction, CO, who has received the honor of “Top Ten Scorer” on the CO CPA Examination. He and his wife, Dr. Avis Severance, DO, own a “Net Zero Energy” medical office building with a 10 KW photovoltaic system that supplies all the energy used by the facility.

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Posted in Coal, Consumption, Electricity, Energy, Energy & Fuels, Geothermal, History, Nuclear, Office, Other, Policies & Solutions, Science, Space, & Technology, Solar, Wind20 Comments

The Crichtonian Green

In 2004 author Michael Crichton published “State of Fear,” a novel that he uses as a platform to attempt to debunk global warming alarm. Whether or not one finds Crichton’s arguments compelling generally governs how someone might characterize his views on environmentalists and environmentalism. But Crichton, in his own way, is himself an environmentalist. Having obtained a transcript of a recent speech by Crichton on environmentalism, what follows is our synopsis of some of the key points he makes:

“DDT is not a carcinogen…the DDT ban has caused the deaths of tens of millions of poor people…”

“Second hand smoke is not a health hazard and never was.”

“The evidence for global warming is far weaker than its proponents would ever admit.”

“There is no known technology that will enable us to halt the rise of CO2 in the atmosphere in the 21st century.”

“The percentage of U.S. land that is taken for urbanization, including cities and roads, is 5%.”

State of Fear)
by Michael Crichton

This is a lot of fairly contrarian stuff, but Crichton is correct about DDT, and assessing DDT – along with second hand smoke – rests on basic toxicology. Properly applied, DDT is a fantastic solution to malaria, and banning it instead of properly regulating its use has been a tragic mistake. Obviously second hand smoke with extreme exposure is harmful, but Crichton is saying the criteria being used to justify smoking regulations are far below genuinely harmful levels.

Our commitment to publishing skeptical analyses relating to global warming and global warming policies is well documented, but Crichton’s statement regarding low levels of urbanization is another area where we add conviction to principle. There is plenty of land in the United States, definitely including California. Declaring “open space” to be endangered is ridiculous. This fatally flawed argument – now buttressed if not guaranteed by the trump card argument of supposedly stopping global warming – is the justification to force people into ultra-dense, punishingly regulated and taxed urban bantustans inside the “green line,” or the “urban service boundary.” It is dangerous nonsense. Here’s one more of Crichton’s contrarian zingers:

“The Sahara desert is shrinking, and the total ice of Antarctica is increasing.”

We are constantly trying to get good information on this and it is astonishingly difficult, given how fundamental these two observations are towards assessing global climate change. But there is strong evidence supporting Crichton’s claim that the total ice mass of Antarctica is increasing. There is data indicating increasing or at least stable rates of snowfall in the interior, as well as data that the total surface area of the icecap is increasing. Furthermore, other than in limited areas where there is rising geothermal heat, or the waters around the relatively insignificant Antarctic Peninsula, most of the ocean around Antarctica is getting colder. In all cases this information is hard to find and often conflicting. Read our Climate page for much more.

Yet through all this, Crichton is an environmentalist – a Crichtonian environmentalist – but nonetheless someone with environmentalist sentiments. Consider this:

“It is incumbant on us to conduct our lives in a way that takes into account all the consequences of our actions, including the consequences to other people, and the consequences to the environment. I believe it is important to act in ways that are sympathetic to the environment, and I believe this will always be a need, carrrying into the future. I believe the world has genuine problems and I believe it can and should be improved.”

Environmentalism, according to Crichton, has gone well beyond this invocation, and has become a movement that cannot admit to past or present mistakes or excesses. He believes environmentalism has fulfilled an innate urge that urban atheists find fulfilling as an alternative to religion. This may be a bit much at least insofar as environmentalists, including Crichton himself, come from an infinite diversity of faiths and personal perspectives. But Crichton is on to something when he questions the reactions he elicits from many environmentalists to, for example, his observations regarding DDT, second hand smoke, global warming, urbanization, the Sahara or the Antarctic. Why is debate closed on these issues when they can be challenged on a factual basis? Why can’t the facts speak for themselves? The intense reactions environmentalists have displayed towards Crichton are unfounded unless something more powerful than reason is involved – belief, ideology, passion, a primal inner need for meaning and mission.

Crichton’s opening remarks included compelling reminders that humanity has always adapted and humanity has relentlessly improved the collective well being, and this is continuing. In his closing remarks he warns how politicized and entrenched environmental organizations have become, stating “what more and more groups are doing is putting out lies, pure and simple, Falsehoods that they know to be false.”

Of course everything Crichton says is not true, just as everything the current environmentalist establishment maintains is not false, or unhelpful, but in his final remarks, here, he also described his state of fear, and mine – and to paraphrase Czech President Vaclav Klaus – what is at stake, our global climate or our freedom? Or according to Crichton,

In the end, science offers us a way out of politics. And if we allow science to become politicized, then we are lost. We will enter the Internet version of the dark ages, an era of shifting fears and wild prejudices, transmitted to people who don’t know any better. That’s not a good future for the human race.”

Posted in Geothermal, Organizations, Other, People, Policies & Solutions, Policy, Law, & Government, Religion, Science, Space, & Technology, Smoking, Urbanization1 Comment

AltaRock Energy

AltaRock, a new company headquartered in Sausalito, California, has become one of the leaders in “enhanced geothermal” technology, a geothermal energy solution that begins where conventional geothermal systems leave off. Instead of relying on select areas where underground “hot spots” are easily tapped and injected with water that returns in the form of steam to drive an electric generator, enhanced geothermal takes advantage of modern drilling technology and, theoretically, can establish a geothermal power system virtually anywhere. By drilling as deep as necessary to find hot rock, and then “hydraulically stimulating” the fissures by pumping cold water down to the bottom of the bore, the volume of the fissure can be enlarged, allowing economic flow rates. In this manner, enhanced geothermal technology allows a developer to create a geothermal resource instead of relying on something already established via natural processes. This technology makes geothermal power something that can be developed at a far greater scale than previously possible.

Earlier this month Altarock signed an agreement with Weyerhaeuser Company allowing them to “explore the potential for developing geothermal projects in California, Oregon, and Washington.” This region is about 667,000 acres, or a bit more than 1,000 square miles. The fact that a company with holdings of this magnitude has embraced AltaRock to explore and develop enhanced geothermal systems is certainly testimony to the potential of their technology.

A recent MIT study estimated EGS “could supply up to 10 percent of U.S. electricity needs within 50 years at prices competitive with fossil fuel-fired generation.” And it appears enhanced geothermal technology is being taken seriously outside the U.S. as well, with a massive development already underway in the Cooper Basin in Southern Australia.

For more information about enhanced geothermal energy check the DOE website’s Enhanced Geothermal Technologies page, or Wikipedia’s reference: Hot Dry Rock Geothermal Energy.

Posted in Electricity, Energy, Energy & Fuels, Geothermal, Science, Space, & Technology0 Comments

Natural Gas Nation?

Yesterday Andrew Littlefair, President and CEO of Clean Energy Fuels, appeared on Jim Cramer’s cable show “Mad Money,” to talk about the future of natural gas in the United States. But there was nothing mad whatsoever about Littlefair’s message, which is why Cramer welcomes him on his show anytime Littlefair has room in his schedule.

Natural gas burns much cleaner than petroleum fuels, particularly when used for diesel applications. Not only can vehicles run on natural gas – note Autoblog’s report today “Honda sells CNG home fueling device to Clean Energy Fuels” – but as Littlefair pointed out, natural gas can also fuel long haul trucks that currently rely on diesel fuel. So how much natural gas have we got? Can the U.S. become a natural gas fueled nation?

Something happened between 2001, when, for example, California experienced spot shortages of natural gas, and today, where we have T. Boone Pickens touting wind farms and natural gas as the solution to U.S. energy challenges for the next twenty years (ref. Significant new discoveries of natural gas reserves in North America, combined with the commercialization of new ways to efficiently extract natural gas from shale, have led to a dramatic increase in natural gas reserves. As of January 1st, 2006, according to the CIA, U.S. proven natural gas reserves stood at 5.5 trillion cubic meters. This would be enough to replace 100% of the oil consumed in the United States (8.0 trillion BBL per year) for about four years. That was then.

In a report last month posted by the publication Money Morning entitled “New Natural Gas Discoveries are a Boon for the U.S. Energy Sector ,” shale oil reserves both recently discovered or recently deemed to be recoverable using cost-effective new drilling technologies, have – according to the most conservative estimates released by the Dept. of Energy – nearly doubled the proven natural gas reserves. Worst case, we now have enough natural gas to replace 100% of our oil for about 7 years. So where does T. Boone Pickens get the 20 year number? Apparently these estimates from the DOE are still very conservative.

According to a recent study by Navigant Consulting, as reported in Money Morning, there could be as much as 842 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in shale within the USA, seven times the DOE estimate, and yielding enough natural gas to replace 100% of U.S. oil consumption for 24 years. And this estimate doesn’t include dramatic new discoveries in Canada or offshore. Natural gas is already being used, of course, so 100% of production can’t be diverted to replace oil – but nearly 50% of U.S. oil is produced domestically – so suggesting there is enough natural gas to offset 100% of U.S. oil imports for at least 20 years is not far fetched at all.

In general there is far more fossil fuel than is generally acknowledged by environmentalists and policymakers, who tend to display a malthusian bias. EcoWorld’s analysis “Fossil Fuel Reality” explores the potential worldwide recoverable reserves of all three primary fossil fuels, coal, oil, and natural gas, and calculates there is a 300 year supply of fossil fuel, even when based on the rate of global energy consumption doubling. The potential of domestically produced fossil fuel in the U.S., combined with development of alternative energy, makes energy independence for the U.S. an achievable goal. On the other hand, for the USA to achieve energy independence in the next twenty years, before next generation alternative technologies such as enhanced geothermal begin to scale – to name one relatively noncontroversial example – while phasing out fossil fuel instead of developing more fossil fuel, is far more challenging.

Posted in Coal, Consumption, Energy, Energy & Fuels, Geothermal, Natural Gas, Other, Wind0 Comments

California Proposition 7: Renewable Energy to Account for Half of California's Utilities by 2025

There is nothing wrong with encouraging clean, renewable, domestically produced energy. But California’s proposition 7 “would, if approved, require California utilities to procure half of their power from renewable resources by 2025″ (ref. Ballotpedia). Currently California’s public utilities are mandated to generate 25% of their electricity by 2025, and this is an ambitious goal. Just getting to 25% renewable electricity by 2025 would require more than doubling renewable power generation in California. Getting to 50% by that time would require renewable power generation in California to nearly quintuple.

To understand why accomplishing such an ambitious goal is not necessarily practical, you don’t have to be an economist or a renewable power expert. You simply need to take a look at the current cost for renewable power technology. While you’re at it, write off hydropower, which constitutes most of the renewable energy in California. The chances any significant new hydropower generation ever gets built in California are slim and none – despite whatever sentiments you may hold for or against hydro. This leaves geothermal, solar and wind.

While geothermal holds exceptional long term potential, ala enhanced geothermal drilling, today there isn’t a single operating example of a power station employing enhanced geothermal technology. And most of California’s conventional geothermal power resources have already been developed. So now you are down to wind and solar energy. And since Californians by 2025 are going to be consuming about 1,000 gigawatt-hours per day, if proposition 7 is enacted, 500 gWh per day will have to come from wind and solar power.

Solar power, installed – not including transmission or storage infrastructure – costs about $7.0 million per megawatt of output; this equates to $7.0 billion per gigawatt. If this sounds expensive, it is, but to get a truly accurate price you have to also take into account yield. Even in sunny California, solar energy (in terms of full-sun-equivalent hours), can only be harvested on average for 4.5 hours per day, which means to get 500 gWh of solar generated electricity each day in California, you would need to install 111 gigawatts of solar arrays (500/4.5), which would cost $777 billion dollars.

Wind power, installed – is a better deal currently than solar – insofar as you can probably get costs down to around $2.5 million per megawatt of output, or $2.5 billion per gigawatt. But the yield figures are also not promising. In California there is widespread disagreement on the yield for wind power – credible estimates range from 10% (2.4 hours per day) to 25% (6.0 hours per day). Given the magnitude of what is being proposed, it would be prudent to project wind yields in California somewhere in the middle of this range, say 17.5%, or 4.2 hours per day. This means to get 500 gWh of wind generated electricity in California you would need to install 119 gigawatts of solar arrays (55/4.2), which would cost $297 billion dollars.

It is tempting, and not entirely implausible, to expect prices for solar power to drop significantly over the next several years. But given the cost of balance of plant and installation labor, it is unlikely solar electricity is going to get measurably cheaper than wind power no matter how inexpensive the actual collector materials become. Moreover, the costs for new transmission lines and grid upgrades, the costs for massive energy storage units (since the sun and wind are only producing power during small portions of the day), and the costs for land aquisition, permitting and fighting environmentalist lawsuits will be substantial. For these reasons, estimating the total cost for California to deliver 50% renewable electricity at $300 billion is probably the very best case, if not fantastically optimistic. This is $20 billion per year for the next 15 years. Readers are encouraged to critique these projections.

California has already mandated utilities to accomplish a 25% RPS (renewable portfolio standard) by 2025. It would make sense to see how this already ambitious process unfolds, giving solar and wind technology – along with future technologies such as enhanced geothermal – time to mature, before leaping to a 50% RPS mandate.

Posted in Business & Economics, Electricity, Energy, Geothermal, Science, Space, & Technology, Solar, Wind28 Comments

Green Public Works

Only an extreme libertarian would claim there is no role for government. In the face of population growth, aging infrastructure, and myriad new, cleaner and more sustainable ways to deliver energy, water and transportation resources, there is much to be done by the public sector. Green public works will create wealth and resource abundance. Green public works must include massive new infrastructures and determining what these will be is a qualitatively focused and very subjective exercise – despite the advances of science. In California, the self-proclaimed greenest state in the USA, what are these green infrastructure investments we should make?

BUILD DESALINATION PLANTS – Upgrade California’s existing coastal power facilities to also include desalination capability. This would allow desalination plants to be more easily built since their construction would merely involve extending existing facilities. Currently about 6.0 cubic kilometers of water from northern rivers are transferred into the Los Angeles Basin each year. It would only cost $30 billion to build desalination plants to completely replace 6.0 cubic kilometers of water – $634 per acre foot – and because water would no longer have to be pumped over the Tehachapi mountains, zero net energy would be consumed. If the brine is piped several miles offshore before release, the powerful California current will ensure it is dispersed adequately. Investing in massive desalination plants will free up water for farmers and Northern Californian ecosystems, and provide a decisive and cost-effective hedge against drought. Ref. California Water System, Desalination Cost, Affordable Desalination, Sverdrups vs. Brine.

INCREASE ELECTRICITY PRODUCTION – California needs to average about 50 gigawatts of output 24 hours per day if California’s commuters are going to turn electric. Currently California generates about 50 gigawatts during peak, and about half that at night. Extended range electric cars store at least 10 kWh onboard, all-electric cars store up to 50 kWh onboard. Whenever they are parked, these cars will all be micro-utilities for their owners. Load balancing with electric vehicles may provide a significant portion of load balancing necessary to make feasible large scale development of intermittant renewable power sources such as wind and solar. Along with utility scale wind and solar power plants, California should consider enhanced geothermal power, next generation nuclear power, and additional natural gas power plants. Investing in new power stations will facilitate the electrification of California’s vehicle fleet, and virtually eliminate California’s dependence on imported oil. Ref. Gigawatt-Hours per EV Commuters, Optisolar’s Thin Film, Utility Electric Storage, Bright Source’s Power Tower.

IMPROVE ELECTRICAL TRANSMISSION – Direct current lines, that have ultra-modern relays but overall cost much less, can be installed in underground conduits. High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) power lines should cross California and extend onto a super-grid spanning all of North America, to allow highly efficient electricity transmission in great volumes over large distances. Upgrading to a bigger, more efficient power grid using HVDC also creates more capacity to harvest large surges of electricity generation. Wind hits the turbines on the west coast, and the cost of coal fired energy in Pennsylvania drops. Ref. The Electric Age, TREK’s HVDC Transmission, Mediterranean Solar.

BUILD MORE ROADS AND FREEWAYS – Along with increasing the supply of energy and water, California’s public works need to include better transportation conduits – and in this context the war on the car is incredibly short-sighted. The car, the most liberating personal transportation system ever conceived, is within a tantalizingly few years of becoming completely green. Cars will be totally recyclable, ultra-safe, non-toxic, smart, use clean and sustainable fuel, and have no ecological “footprint” whatsoever. Instead of making war on the car, we must simply make room for it. Wider boulevards, wider freeways, more parking structures. Instead of adding trolley tracks, create more lanes for vehicular traffic. The idea that mass transit – except perhaps in the case of high-speed rail – can’t be fulfilled on roads is ridiculous. Many practical schemes already exist, such as busses and taxis, or are emerging, such as share-cars and autopilot, that will allow abundant, unclogged roads to deliver mass transit more comprehensive than ever before. The tragedy is that by developing light rail and maintaining roads, neither is done well. Roads are far more versatile than light rail, and we need to rebuild and expand all of them.

The mentality in Sacramento, to continue using California as an example, is to prioritize conservation. The conventional wisdom is that we are on the brink of experiencing catastrophic scarcity in all areas, food, energy, water and land. Clearly it is important to legislate reasonable upgrades to energy and water efficiency standards for buildings, as well as encourage more efficient vehicles. But the notion that we are running out of energy, water and land, particularly in California, is ridiculous. What we are running out of is a balanced discussion of these issues. It is easy for policymakers, hiding behind the proclamations of extremist environmentalists, to pretend there are only hard choices – it allows prices to stay high, which enriches the public sector without requiring they make any new investments.

It is ultimately up to California’s voters – do they want to live in a state where energy, water and land are rationed, so higher consumer prices for these necessities translate into massive hidden taxes, or will they finally demand the public sector start doing its job, investing in infrastructure instead of benefits taxpayers don’t get, and extreme environmentalists get out of the way? Green public works, to supply more transportation, water and power, would create more good jobs, and having these amenities would enable leapfrog levels of economic growth.

Posted in Buildings, Cars, Coal, Conservation, Drought, Electricity, Energy, Geothermal, Natural Gas, Population Growth, Solar, Transportation, Water Efficiency, Wind1 Comment

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