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[1THING] Blog: Archive for July, 2013

[ Advocates Urge Colorado Regulators to Reject Xcel Energy’s Anti-Rooftop Solar Proposal ]

On July 30th, renewable energy advocates, businesses and environmental groups joined together to urge the Colorado Public Utilities Commission to reject a new proposal from Xcel Energy that would discourage rooftop solar growth in its territory. 

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[ D.O.E. Awards $11 Million to Small Clean-Tech Businesses ]

The Energy Department on July 24 announced new awards totaling nearly $11 million to help small businesses in 9 states develop innovative ideas that could cut carbon pollution, reduce U.S. reliance on imported oil, and boost energy efficiency. The eleven plans are in California, Colorado, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, and Virginia. The plans will focus on developing clean energy technologies with a strong potential for commercialization and job creation.

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[ Fusion Energy Quest Faces Boundaries of Budget, Science ]

The idea of firing fusion power with lasers has hit major scientific and funding roadblocks. What does it mean for the effort to bring the energy of the stars to Earth?

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[ Fusion Energy Quest Faces Boundaries of Budget, Science ]

The idea of firing fusion power with lasers has hit major scientific and funding roadblocks. What does it mean for the effort to bring the energy of the stars to Earth?

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[ 25 Years From Now and Still Relying on Fossil Fuels? ]

Coal plant in Alma, Wisc.

Will the energy future look like the present; in this case, a coal plant in Alma, Wisconsin? Photo: U.S. Geological Survey

The federal government’s latest international energy projections are out, and there’s no question we’re living in a time of enormous change—and perhaps remarkably little progress.

The International Energy Outlook from the U.S. Energy Information Administration tries to identify the big trends and projections affecting the energy world through 2040. Some of the trends include:

  • The world is getting hungrier and hungrier for energy, but that’s mostly about China, India and the rest of the developing world. Energy consumption in countries that belong to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (basically the industrialized world) is expected to go up 17 percent by 2040. Consumption in countries outside the OECD is projected to nearly double. (See related interactive map: The Global Electricity Mix.)
  • Renewable energy and nuclear power are projected to be the fastest-growing energy sources, increasing by 2.5 percent per year. Thanks to new sources opened by fracking, natural gas is projected to be the fastest-growing of the fossil fuels, and by 2040 half of all the natural gas produced in the U.S. will be shale gas.
  • Because of improving technology, the world will continue to get more efficient in energy use, and that will have an impact on greenhouse gases.

Yet for all that, the EIA projects the world’s overall energy mix won’t change much at all by 2040.

EIA_fossilfuels_072813_442Yes, renewables and nuclear are the fastest-growing sources. But overall, the percent of energy produced by fossil fuels will only drop from 84 percent today to 78 percent in 2040. Renewables only grow from 11 percent to 15 percent, and nuclear rises from 5 percent to 7 percent. Liquid fuels drop by 6 percent, largely because of rising prices. And despite all the debate about the decline of coal and rise of natural gas, the overall percentage of those two fuels barely changes at all. Given that picture, we still be pumping out plenty of greenhouse gases. EIA is predicting a 46 percent increase in global warming emissions during the study’s time frame.

There are important differences in what’s happening in developed nations versus emerging ones. For example, even though the EIA is projecting a small 1 percent drop in the share of coal used by 2040, it expects a dramatic increase in coal consumption between now and 2020, most of it coming from the developing countries that need cheap forms of energy to house and feed their growing populations and to industrialize.

Projections aren’t karmic. They depend on taking current trends and best estimates of what will happen if those trends continue. But it’s a fair question: if there’s so much activity around new energy sources, then why don’t the projections look different? Why don’t the changes have more traction?

The answer may lie in the fact that we haven’t, globally speaking, really reached consensus on the fundamentals: What kind of energy sources should we be using? What economic changes are we willing to make to back up those choices?  What are developed nations willing to do to help poorer countries improve their citizens’ lives without depending so heavily on fossil fuels? Those of us living in the developed world have already reaped the benefits of industrialization based on cheap coal. It’s not surprising that developing nations would be tempted to follow the same path—and harder for us to preach to nations that are still building their economies. (See related story: “Desert Storm: Battle Brews Over Obama Renewable Energy Plan.”)

The fact is that the changes we’re making on energy are working on the margins, and that’s why the long-term projections only show marginal shifts. If you want big shifts, you have to start making big changes—and that means persuading the public that those changes are worth making. (See related story: “Climate Change Impact on Energy: Five Proposed Safeguards.”)

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[ Geothermal Plan Underway at Colorado State Capital ]

The state capitol building of Colorado is integrating geothermal technology into its heating and cooling system. 2 865-foot wells have been drilled under the building to extract and replenish water from the Arapahoe aquifer. The water, which is approximately 65 degrees, will be pumped through a heat exchanger to heat and cool the capital building. The plan is expected to save the state $100,000 in the 1st year, and $160,000 annually by year 15. The plan received a $4.1 million grant from the D.O…

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[ Field test could lead to reducing CO2 emissions worldwide ]

two emissions worldwide

July 26, 2013

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[ Mojave Mirrors: World’s Largest Solar Energy Ready to Shine ]

Ivanpah, the world’s largest solar thermal plant, is to begin generating power this summer. Challenges included relocating a population of endangered desert tortoises.

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[ Desert Storm: Battle Brews Over Obama Renewable Energy Plan ]

President Obama’s renewable energy drive would expand large-scale solar and wind projects on public lands. The plan is colliding with concerns over desert ecosystems.

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[ Preparing for the Zombie Apocalypse: Are Microgrids Our Only Chance? ]

The electricity industry’s been abuzz recently about the need for a more resilient grid. As a result, microgrids are quickly becoming the industry’s topic du jour—in fact, they’re the theme of the current July/August issue of IEEE’sPower & Energy magazine. However, nobody is talking about what is likely the most compelling reason to invest in microgrids: to prepare for the zombie apocalypse.

Scoff at your own peril, but consider this: Doomsday Preppers—a reality TV show about families who stock up on non-perishable food, ammunition, fuel, and more in preparation for a potential apocalypse, zombie-induced or otherwise—is the most popular series of all time on the National Geographic Channel, pulling in 1.3 million viewers for the season two premiere in November last year. We love to speculate about (and for some of us, prepare for) our own theoretical doomsday. Witness the June release of the Brad Pitt feature film World War Z, not to mention the popularity of The Walking DeadNight of the Living DeadResident Evil… need we go on?

If (or when) such a day arrives, communities with microgrids will stand the best chance for survival. Why? A well-designed microgrid—combining distributed, renewable resources such as solar PV and wind with smart auto-controls and energy storage—would continue to provide reliable power with little human control, keeping the lights on, even under chaotic circumstances. (See related quiz: “What You Don’t Know About Electricity.”)

NO PEOPLE, NO POWER: HUMAN OPERATORS KEEP THE U.S. ELECTRICITY SYSTEM RUNNING

Such apocalyptic scenarios make it illuminating to conduct a “war game” exercise with our national infrastructure, and especially our electricity grid. What would be the first thing to go wrong with our infrastructure if society were thrown into disarray by brains-hungry zombies? Without human beings around to perform certain routine tasks, the electricity system will quickly cease to function. In regions dependent on fossil fuels for electricity generation (i.e., the entire U.S.), power plants will shut down, or “trip,” within 24 hours (or less) without continuous fuel supply. As soon as one plant trips offline, voltage at various points along the transmission system will drop below preset thresholds, spurring a domino effect as automated protection devices kick in and disconnect additional sections of the network. This cascade of trips would bring the system to a standstill, and a blackout would ensue. (See related story: “High-Voltage DC Breakthrough Could Boost Renewable Energy.”)

A ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE ISN’T THE ONLY THREAT TO THE ELECTRICITY SYSTEM

Sure, this whole ‘zombie apocalypse’ thing may sound a bit far-fetched, and it is. (Then again, have you seen the CDC’s zombie apocalypse preparedness 101 information? Or the tropical fungus/parasite that takes over ants’ brains and turns them into real-life ant zombies?)

In all seriousness, while walking dead may never roam our streets, catastrophic events can debilitate localized or even regional populations and leave our energy assets without sufficient operational personnel. However, the loss of operational personnel isn’t the only, and not even the most likely, threat to America’s electricity grids. Coordinated terrorist attacks on the grid (including cyber attacks) keep Department of Defense officials up at night; insurance markets worry about the impact of an intense geomagnetic storm on the electricity system, many communities have already experienced first-hand the havoc that Mother Nature can wreak on an unprepared power system (e.g., blackouts resulting from heat waves, superstorms such as Sandy), and just this week the North American Electric Reliability Corp. and some 110 utilities announced that later this year they’ll conduct a mock exercise to see how our power system could handle a coordinated physical and cyber attack on the high-voltage transmission grid. Zombies or not, it’s a cruel world out there, and our electricity grid is looking mighty frail. (See related story: “As Sun Storms Ramp Up, Electric Grid Braces for Impact.”)

Many critical facilities (e.g., hospitals, military bases) have on-site diesel generators to provide emergency backup power. However, these generators have a 40 percent failure rate, are usually designed to run for 24 hours or less, and require an operator around to babysit them. With no one there to refill the fuel tanks, check the oil, and perform other basic maintenance, most of these generators will not last more than one or two days. Without backup generation, basic services like water and sewage treatment cannot function. During the Southern California Blackout, San Diego’s sewage pumps backed up after less than 12 hours without power, bringing the city dangerously close to a real health crisis.

Dr. Alexandra von Meier, Director of Electric Grid Research at the California Institute for Energy and Environment, points out that sewage may be the least of our problems in a prolonged blackout: “Your mention of sewage pumping is very important. I might say that besides your drains backing up, traffic signals being out (doesn’t matter because gas station pumps aren’t working), and food spoiling, the most immediately life-threatening thing about a widespread blackout is that you find you have no water pressure in your tap. No drinking water, and it’s hasta la vista, baby…”

NO PEOPLE, NO PROBLEM: AUTOMATED, RENEWABLES-FUELED MICROGRIDS ARE A ROBUST SOLUTION

Let’s revisit our zombie apocalypse war game scenario. This time, imagine you’re in a community with a microgrid that integrates renewable energy systems such as solar PV or wind, energy storage (e.g., batteries), and smart grid controls. What happens when people (but hopefully not you or us) start turning into zombies? With the right combination assets, the community’s microgrid could run on its own for days, weeks, or possibly even years … all with technology that is commercially available today! In addition to electricity, if your community were to invest in electric vehicles, as Indianapolis recently has, you’d also have mobility. Combine this with Tesla’s planned network of renewables-powered interstate charging stations, which Elon Musk has claimed could survive the zombie apocalypse, and you’d be good to go, literally. (See related story: “Second Life for Electric-Car Batteries: Guardians of the Electric Grid.”)

ZOMBIES ASIDE, THE MOVE TO MICROGRIDS SHOULD BEGIN NOW

The United States’ electricity grid is fragile, much more so than most people realize. Zombies or not, the reality is that the threats facing our nation’s infrastructure are no joke. As we’ve illustrated, numerous critical services are deeply dependent on our electricity system, and recent events like Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Irene, and the 2011 Southern California Blackout have made this clear. Should we be scared? Probably a little, but let’s take this as a call to arms: the time to reinvent our electricity system is now! Shifting toward automated microgrids that incorporate distributed, renewable energy sources represents the best opportunity to bring resiliency to our nation’s electricity system for the 21st century and beyond.

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