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Clean Energy from Below

UPDATED with interactive map

Hear my radio feature on geothermal energy and the rest of a five-part collaboration on renewable energy between NPR and KQED, on NPR’s Morning Edition.

It may be a distant second to California now, but Nevada is making a run to become the nation’s largest producer of geothermal energy.

A conventional geothermal power plant at The Geysers complex in Lake County. (Photo: Craig Miller)

California still produces an estimated 80% of the nation’s geothermal power (used to produce electricity*), with more than 40 plants online. But according to a summary from the Geothermal Energy Association (GEA) this summer:

“Nevada could become the leading geothermal energy producer in the coming years if growth and production trends continue on their current trajectories. Nevada’s 86 planned or developing geothermal power plants have the potential add up to 3,686.4 Megawatts of geothermal power to Nevada’s energy portfolio, power for 2.6 million homes – enough to meet the electricity needs of 100% of the homes in the Las Vegas metropolitan area.”

GEA describes 14 Nevada projects as being “in latter stages of development.” Meanwhile, says the group’s executive director, Karl Gawell, development in California is slowing down. “Everything’s relative,” Gawell told me in a phone interview. “Projects are moving forward in California, they just take longer.” Continue reading

The Overspray from Prop 23

On Monday, US energy secretary Steven Chu became the latest high-profile voice against California’s Proposition 23, the statewide initiative to suspend AB 32, the state’s four-year-old climate strategy.

“AB 32 was a good bill and continues to have California in a leadership role in developing clean energy and the efficient use of energy,” Chu told reporters at a dedication in Menlo Park. “From the middle 1970s California played that role and it would just be a terrible setback.”

Last week the trend was given full voice by Mary Nichols, who, as chair of the California Air Resources Board (CARB), is charged with getting AB 32 fully implemented in the next two years, called Prop 23 a “very serious threat,” not just to the core programs of AB 32, but to an array of regulatory programs that support the state’s attack on greenhouse gases. Continue reading

DOE Secretary Opposes Prop 23

In what are believed to be his first public remarks on the subject, US Energy Secretary Steven Chu came out against California’s Proposition 23 today. Chu said passage of the measure, designed to suspend the state’s landmark climate law known as AB 32, would be “a terrible setback.”
Continue reading

Wind Picks Up Nationally, California Lags

A cluster of wind turbines in Tehachapi Pass marks California's early commitment to wind energy. (Photo: Craig Miller)

Wind power generators added nearly 40% to their total capacity in the US last year, as several states blew past California, according to a new report from the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. According to the tally, four states now generate more than 10% of their total electricity (excluding exports) from wind.

Texas is the undisputed leader in the wind race, installing nearly 2,300 megawatts of capacity last year alone. Other Midwestern states such as Indiana, Iowa, the Dakotas and Minnesota have also been aggressive installers of wind farms. Continue reading

The Next Frontier: Artificial Photosynthesis

The ultimate model for clean fuels? (Photo: KQED QUEST)

Amidst all the fretting over the development of solar and wind technology, it hasn’t been lost on some scientists that there are organisms on the planet that have already cracked the renewable energy code: plants.

Photosynthesis is a highly efficient way of converting sunlight to fuel. So why not try to copy them?

Continue reading

California Behind in Weatherizing Homes

87567720Touted as a “shovel-ready” project that would create jobs immediately by leveraging existing infrastructure, the Department of Energy’s Weatherization Assistance Program has so far fallen far short of its goals.  The program received almost $5 billion under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) to improve the energy efficiency of nearly 590,000 residences of low-income citizens — more than a tenfold increase over the $450 million approved in FY 2009.

But a Special Report released last month from the Inspector General of the Office of Audit Services at the DOE found that as of December, just $368 million (8%) of the $4.73 billion allocation had been spent, and 5% of the nearly 600,000 units nationwide slated for weatherization with funding from the Recovery Act were actually completed.

That includes completion of just 12 of 43,400 planned units in California, which has been allotted more than $185.8 million in Recovery Act funding for its Weatherization Assistance Program.

So much for shovel-ready.

The report outlines reasons for the hold-up. Among them was a lengthy delay while the Department of Labor conducted wage surveys to determine appropriate compensation for weatherization work, so that the program would be in compliance with regulations.  Many states did not want to begin work until the wage rates were in place, the report stated, so much weatherization work throughout the country did not begin until late in 2009.

The report also found that, “Ironically, given the anticipated stimulus effect of the program, economic programs in many states adversely impacted their ability to ensure that weatherization activities were performed.”

Effects like hiring freezes, and, in California in particular, furloughs created significant staffing challenges in implementing the Weatherization Program, the report said.

In a a press release responding to the DOE report, the National Association for State Community Services Programs  (state officials implementing the DOE program), said that, “While it is accurate to assert that the ramp-up of expenditures and production has been slower than anticipated, this has been due largely to variables outside of the control of network providers.”

T. Maria Caudill, a spokesperson for the California State Department of Community Services and Development, the “network provider” in that state, said that as of December 2009, state administrators were still waiting for “specificity” from the federal government with regard to wage requirements.  In the last two months, California has aggressively worked to get contracts in place and units weatherized, she said.

According to Caudill, as of the end of February, 849 units had been completed across the state and 1,047 were in the process of being weatherized.

“We are on target to meet our first milestone,” said Caudill, referring to the goal of 12,900 units weatherized with ARRA funds by September 30.

She said that currently, eight service areas including Los Angeles, San Francisco, and El Dorado County are still without contracts for the ARRA weatherization work.

In a speech at Stanford yesterday, Energy Secretary Steven Chu told students and faculty that the number one priority of the DOE is “to get America employed using clean energy as the tool.”  Repeating a favorite metaphor of his, Chu called energy efficiency the “low-hanging fruit” for creating jobs, saving money, and reducing emissions.

As of December 2009, 520 jobs had been created or saved in California by the DOE’s use of recovery funds, according to a recent report from the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. That number will grow as California plays catch up, weatherizing more than 40,000 units between now and March 2012, which is the deadline for spending Recovery Act funds.

Mapping Out Solar Power Hotspots

Somewhat overtaken by the other headlines of the week, dominated by celebrity obits and California’s financial meltdown, was the release by federal agencies of some new solar maps. They pinpoint federal lands in seven western states that present–in the government’s view–some of the best potential for building out utility-scale solar power production.

The four California locations (.pdf link) combine more than 350,000 acres in San Bernardino, Riverside and Imperial Counties. They supposedly represent the best combination of production potential, least conflict with other land uses and environmental concerns, and proximity to existing transmission lines or power plants. Areas were also mapped in neighboring Nevada and Arizona.

Update: Scott Streater has more on the controversy over planned renewable power sites, including California’s Iron Mountain site (see map, below),  in a New York Times Greenwire post.

All California locations are on BLM property in the state's southeastern deserts. Image: DOE/BLM

All California locations are on BLM property in the state's southeastern deserts. Image: DOE/BLM

The maps appeared just as California’s main regulator of power companies issued an update on solar projects in the state. The California Public Utilities Commission reported that the rate of new solar installations nearly doubled last year, from 2007 levels.

The CPUC tally shows California with over 500 MW of solar photovoltaic (PV) connected to the electric grid at almost 50,000 customer sites. The report notes that all those electrons combined are equivalent to one large power plant. About half of the current total went in under the California Solar Initiative, which has reached 13% of it’s 10-year goal, with another 8% in pending applications.

Also this week, more than $300 million fell from the federal money tree for a hydrogen power project in southern California. Cash from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (better known as the federal stimulus plan) will flow to the Hydrogen Energy California (HECA) project in Bakersfield. The project is designed to provide power for 150,000 homes in the area, by converting oil to hydrogen.

A statement from the California Recovery Task Force (CRTF), a conduit for federal stimulus funds, describes the HECA project as “an Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle power plant that will take petroleum coke, biomas, coal or blends of each, combined with non-potable water to convert them into hydrogen and carbon dioxide (CO2). The hydrogen gas will be used to fuel a net 250-megawatt power station.”

Perhaps more significant are the plans for the carbon dioxide generated in burning the oil. The CRTF statement says that “The CO2 will be transported by pipeline to nearby oil reservoirs and injected for permanent storage which will enhance U.S. energy security and enable additional production from existing California oilfields.”

CRTF says the project will “avoid” emissions of more than two million tons of greenhouse gases per year.

No Crystal Ball for Fusion Power

Lawrence Livermore Nat'l Lab

Photo: Lawrence Livermore Nat'l Lab

Now here’s a guy with some historical perspective: For something north of a half-century, David Perlman has been covering science for the San Francisco Chronicle. On KQED’s Forum program this morning, he noted that “40 years ago, they said ‘in 20 years, we’ll have unlimited energy from fusion’.”

The record will show that we didn’t quite get there–but that hasn’t stopped them from trying. The long quest for bottled fusion will pass another milestone this week, when the US Dept. of Energy formally cuts the ribbon on the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Lab.

Comparing the hardware with other titanic undertakings, like the CERN particle accelerator in Switzerland, Perlman called the 192-laser assembly “one of the most amazing machines–if it succeeds–and one probably won’t know for the next two, three years.”

That’s the hopeful time frame for creating fusion in a fuel pellet the size of a BB (artistically rendered in the image, above) Will they? Perlman says: “I would not dream of putting a bet on it.”

Nor would sparking some mini-fusion at NIF quickly translate to a national solution for clean, safe energy. Scaling that ignition up to practical size for reactors would likely require decades more.

A NIF technician appears to be gazing into a "crystal ball," which is actually used to amplify laser beams--but not much good for predicting the future. Photo: Lawrence Livermore National Lab

A NIF technician appears to be gazing into a "crystal ball." Precision-ground crystals are used to amplify laser beams--but not much good for seeing into the future. Photo: Lawrence Livermore National Lab

Earlier this week, in an interview with NASA scientist James Hansen, I asked him about the potential for nuclear power to make a comeback with new technology. Rather than waiting for fusion, Hansen favors the technology known as “fourth-generation nuclear,” which he says could “burn nearly all of the fuel, where at present, the nuclear technology that we’re using burns only one percent of the energy in the uranium.” From one percent to “nearly all” would represent a drastic reduction in the current radioactive waste problem.

There may be some wishful thinking in that. An early report published in the magazine 21st Century Science & Technology describes these “Generation IV” reactors as “about 50% more efficient than conventional nuclear reactors.”

Other nations have moved ahead with Gen-IV reactors. The French expect to have one under construction by 2020.

Meanwhile, as the US pursues a parallel Gen-IV research program, it will press on toward the Holy Grail of fusion with its Livermore megalaser, described by Perlman as “already a mini-Manhattan Project.” Costs so far have run to nearly triple the original budget of more than a billion dollars. DOE expects to spend $140 million per year to run the NIF. So, it would be–you know–nice if something comes of it.

CNN: Berkeley Lab’s Chu to Head DOE

xbd200805-00226-24.jpgReuters news agency is quoting CNN today in reporting that Steve Chu will get the nod from President-elect Obama to head the U.S. Dept. of Energy.

Since 2004, the Nobel laureate physicist has been the director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL). Lab spokesman Lynn Yarris said he could not confirm the report. In an email to KQED’s Cy Musiker, he wrote that Chu is traveling until next week, adding that right now the report is “all still speculation.”

Chu has maintained a fairly high profile, writing op-ed pieces on America’s energy future and lecturing on potential solutions to climate change (note that this link is to an hour-long video).

He’s also been a vocal supporter of California’s comprehensive plan to attack climate change, known by the shorthand AB-32. From an opinion piece for the San Francisco Chronicle last year, co-written with U.C. Berkeley’s chancellor, Robert Birgeneau:

“The development of new, carbon-neutral energy sources are needed to avert the predictions of disastrous climate change. The landmark global warming legislation signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last year committing our state to ambitious reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions by 2020 is a strong and encouraging step. California is a national and global leader moving toward a sustainable energy future, and it is in the public mission of the University of California to help find ways to meet these goals.”

LBNL has been a leader in developing energy-saving technology, from lighting to windows, to “cool-roof” coatings.

In 2006 Chu was interviewed on KQED’s Pacific Time.

The California Air Resources Board is expected to vote on final acceptance of an implementation plan for AB-32 tomorrow. Speaking of which, published reports indicate that Mary Nichols, who heads California’s air board, will be passed over for the top spot at the Environmental Protection Agency, and that the nod will go to Lisa Jackson, a former state environmental regulator in New Jersey.

Photo: LBNL.

Climate Conference, Day 2: Re-roof the World

Morning presentations covered various public health effects from climate change (mostly from air pollution) and some ideas for carbon sequestration, from the potential for low-tech wetlands storage, to the huge WestCarb pilot project, aimed at injecting surplus carbon dioxide into subterranean rock formations. Just approved by DOE is a plan to inject a million tons of CO2 over a four-year period, at a site near Bakersfield. John Henry Beyer of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab says that oil companies may be able to use the stored CO2 for “enhanced oil & gas recovery.”

Greg Rau of UC Santa Cruz cast the mandatory pall-of-the-day with a blunt assessment of the battle against global warming: “We are failing to mitigate atmospheric CO2.” Too much of growing energy demand is being met with fossil fuels, Rau explained. “We need to urgently think about this.” Most of Rau’s talk was devoted to the problem of ocean acidification, recently profiled by my colleague Lauren Sommer for Quest Radio.

One guy who’s done a lot of thinking about it is Hashem Akbari, who will take the lectern today to call upon cities around the world to move rapidly toward “cool roof” policies. Akbari, who works at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, has been a long-time advocate of using reflective roofing and paving materials to help offset the effect of “urban heat islands.” He says that replacing the roof of one typical suburban home (about 1,000 square feet) can produce a CO2 “offset” of four metric tons. He adds that replacing flat commercial roofing with white “cool” roofing or coatings can increase the solar reflectance of the roof from as low as 10% to as high as 80% (at least until it gets dirty). I  interviewed Akbari for a Quest Radio piece on heat islands last year.