Not Connecting the Dots

grid_0295Two developments this week would seem to validate concerns that things aren’t quite lining up for the vaunted new age of renewable energy.

While the Secretaries of Energy and Interior were offering confident assurances to a Senate panel about the future of renewables, a consortium of environmental groups was suing them over a plan for major new transmission lines for the western electrical grid.

The groups, represented by lawyers at Oakland-based EarthJustice, produced their own maps to show that the proposed routes appear to miss many areas with the most potential for solar, wind and geothermal resources. Instead, environmentalists say the West-wide Energy Transmission Corridors approved under the Bush administration would seem to line up just about perfectly with major existing and proposed coal-fired power plants (note that the maps themselves are PDF downloads).

According to EarthJustice:

“The Bush corridors plan ignores the Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) adopted by nine of the eleven western states to increase use of the region’s vast wind, solar, and other forms of renewable energy. The approximately 6,000 miles and 3.2 million acres of federal land in eleven western states designated as energy corridors puts imperiled wildlife at risk and slices or brushes against the borders of iconic public lands. Among these are Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Arches National Park, and New Mexico’s Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge.”

I asked Katie Renshaw, a Washington-based lawyer for EarthJustice, if Energy and Interior wouldn’t have updated their plans since the Bush-era maps were approved. “As far as we’ve seen, they haven’t,” said Renshaw.  “An analysis was never really completed.”

The lawsuit comes just days after energy entrepreneur T. Boone Pickens revealed that he’s having to reconsider his plans for a major network of wind turbines through Texas. The reason: no transmission lines.

In California and elsewhere, proposed transmission lines have run afoul of environmental interests, as Rob Schmitz reported in his New Gridlock series for Climate Watch.

Update: Scott Streater has more on the controversy over siting renewables in a New York Times Greenwire post.

Long, Hot Summer for Climate Bill

capitoldome_hr_blogAs California’s Barbara Boxer opened Senate hearings on the Waxman-Markey climate bill today, her committee was urged by Republicans not to “rush through this thing.” At this point there seems to be little danger of that.

Having squeaked through the House by the thinnest of margins, the American Clean Energy and Security Act is facing a gantlet of Senate committees that will likely spend most of the summer dissecting the 1400-page beast.

Boxer’s Environmental and Public Woks Committee heard testimony today, with Finance and Foreign Relations scheduled to have their whack at it tomorrow. During the latter, expect to hear gruesome details about Europe’s experiment with cap & trade, which has been fraught with problems. Peter Fairley recently provided an excellent overview of those pitfalls in MIT’s Technology Review. Fairley writes that in its current form, the Waxman bill is destined to hit many of the same potholes.

During today’s morning session, members of the Energy committee heard from several cabinet-level officials, including Department of Energy Secretary Steve Chu, who fielded numerous questions on the role of nuclear power in the nation’s energy future. While California still has in place a legislated moratorium on new nuclear plants, Chu assured committee members that restarting the nuclear industry is a “very important factor” in the low-carbon future and that faces “no reluctance” from him.
Chu said his department is “pushing as hard as we can” to provide loan guarantees for new plant construction (most of which is planned for the southeastern U.S.). The former head of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab said that the U.S. has lost the lead on nuclear technology and “should get it back.”

(We’ll look at the prospects for that in a Climate Watch radio feature, scheduled to air on the August 24th broadcast of KQED’s Quest radio series.)

Committee Republicans repeated concerns about potential job losses and the danger of “carbon leakage,” wonk-speak for when production moves overseas to countries where it creates more greenhouse gas emissions than it would here.

As in the House floor debate, Republicans recalled a comment made by then-candidate Barack Obama to the San Francisco Chronicle in January of last year, that electricity rates would “necessarily skyrocket” under cap-and-trade. David Hawkins of the Natural Resources Defense Council countered that the act would also offer some savings; that households could see “up to $14 per month” in savings from transportation efficiencies.

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.

New Report Finds More Clean Energy Would Grow CA Economy

wind-powersmThe think tank known as Next 10 is the Voice of Eternal Optimism, when it comes to the economic potential of decarbonization. Its latest report poses the question: “Can California afford clean energy now?” You can probably guess the answer.

The study [PDF], which was funded by Next 10 and authored by UC Berkeley professor David Roland-Holst and a team of researchers from the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, concludes that California will face greater economic uncertainty if the state continues on a “business-as-usual” path in terms of energy. A greater investment in clean energy, the report finds, will spur sustained economic growth.

The study analyzes five new energy scenarios including  three different degrees of Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS): 20 percent, 33 percent, and 50 percent as well as a 50 percent RPS plus energy efficiency increases of 1.0 and 1.5 percent per year.

According to the Executive Summary [PDF], the study’s most ambitious scenario, 50 percent renewable fuels and a 1.5 percent efficiency increase, could generate 420,000 additional jobs with more than $100 billion in cumulative payrolls over 40 years (2008-2050).   Without the energy efficiency  increases, however, the numbers are much lower. The report finds that a 50 percent RPS alone would create about 60,000 new jobs, whereas 33 percent would create just half that number.

California’s current RPS is intended to increase from 12 to 20 percent by 2010.  Last November, Governor Schwarzenegger set a target for California to have 33 percent of its electricity provided by renewable resources by 2020.

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.

California Not Catching the Wave…Yet

Tom Banse’s radio report on West Coast wave energy aired Thursday morning on The California Report. It’s also posted to the Climate Watch Radio section on this site.

A Crib Sheet for West Coast Ocean Energy

Every now and then when the government gets something right, it’s only fair to give credit.  So today we give props to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for making public records easily accessible.  Combined with our handy-dandy crib sheet, you can be the reporter and dig up all sorts of newsworthy nuggets.  We’ll get to some examples, but first the overview:

Wave energy buoys proposed for Reedsport, OR (artist's conception). Photo by Tom Banse.

Wave energy buoys proposed for Reedsport, OR (artist's conception). Image provided by: Ocean Power Technologies

Starting in 2006, there was a “gold rush” on the ocean to stake claims for wave energy sites.  Now the spray is settling and an industry shakeout is occurring.  Energy developers have given up on about a third of the wave power projects they proposed along the West Coast.  Some tidal power proposals are ebbing away as well.  When things go sideways, we rarely get a press release about it.  Often the news pops up first in a filing to FERC.

FERC is the agency that oversees wave and tidal power projects in state waters (up to 3 miles offshore).  The agency’s webmasters set up an “eLibrary” to archive project applications and correspondence.

You can see on the crib sheet that FERC dismissed three ocean energy projects in California waters last month.  The simple explanation is that the three projects ended up on the wrong side of a bureaucratic turf battle.  The Department of Interior’s Minerals Management Service (MMS) won jurisdiction over all energy development on the outer continental shelf, defined in this case as more than three miles offshore.  Grays Harbor Ocean Energy Company president Burt Hamner explained in an e-mail:

FERC has cancelled its entire preliminary permit process for projects located on Federal ocean waters, and thus dismissed our seven pending applications for preliminary permits (as well as those of a few others).  The new MMS framework says that applicants for wave projects must first get a MMS lease for space, then apply to FERC for a commercial hydropower license.  But, MMS is prohibited from issuing leases in national marine sanctuaries.  Two of our projects, San Francisco and Hawaii, are in sanctuaries.  Therefore these are terminated because there is no way to get a lease or permits there.

At the City of San Francisco, utility specialist Randall Smith said the FERC dismissal of the city’s preliminary permit for the Oceanside project “doesn’t put us back to square one, but does force a step back.”  Smith elaborated, “The difference with MMS is getting a lease.  That’s a little more protracted.”

One wave power project was proposed for waters off San Francisco's Ocean Beach (upper right).

A wave power project proposed for waters off San Francisco's Ocean Beach (upper right) is in limbo.

The voluminous dockets for PG&E’s WaveConnect projects off Humboldt and Mendocino Counties, and the Green Wave Mendocino Wave Park suggest those are the ones moving ahead the fastest.  PG&E recently secured $6 million to pay for environmental studies, design work, and permitting.  The utility started its community outreach by scheduling two town meetings–in Eureka on May 19 and Ft. Bragg on May 21–both scheduled for 6 pm.

And now, the secret code: An easy way to keep tabs on a marine energy project is to make note of the applicant’s docket number (the one that starts with P-xxxxx) and then periodically plug that number into a “Docket search.”  (Click on “Submit” rather than the more prominent “Search Consolidated Dockets” button.)Here are all of the West Coast wave energy projects proposed to FERC, listed from north to south, as of this week:

P-12751 Makah Bay (Finavera)  license surrendered  4/09

P-13058 Grays Harbor Ocean Energy (Grays Harbor Ocean Energy Company)  11/2007

P-13047 Oregon Coastal Wave Energy (Tillamook Intergovernmental Dev. Entity) 10/2007

P-12750 Newport OPT Wave Park (Ocean Power Technologies)  permit surrendered 3/09

P-12793 Florence Oregon Ocean Wave Project (Oceanlinx)  4/2007, withdrawn 4/08

P-12713 Reedsport OPT Wave Park (Ocean Power Technologies)  3/2006

P-12743 Douglas County Wave Energy (Douglas County, OR)  9/2006  (oscillating column device on Umpqua River jetty)

P-12749 Coos Bay OPT Wave Park (Ocean Power Technologies)  3/2006

P-12752 Coos County Offshore (Bandon, Oregon) (Finavera) permit cancelled w/o objection 6/08

P-12779 Humboldt County WaveConnect (PG&E)  2/07

P-12753 Humboldt County Wave Energy (Finavera) permit surrendered 2/09

P-13075 Centerville OPT Wave Park (Ocean Power Technologies)  11/2007

P-12781 Mendocino County WaveConnect (PG&E)  2/07

P-13053 Green Wave Mendocino Wave Park (Green Wave Energy Solutions, LLC)  10/07

P-13377 and P-13378 Fort Ross Project- N & S (Sonoma County Water Agency)  2/09 pending

P-13376 Del Mar Landing Project (Sonoma County Water Agency)  2/09 pending

P-13308 San Francisco Ocean Energy Project (Grays Harbor Ocean Energy Company, LLC)  10/08 Dismissed 4/09

P-13379 San Francisco Oceanside Wave Energy Project (City and County of SF)  filed 02/09 Dismissed 4/09

P-13052 Green Wave San Luis Obispo Wave Park (Green Wave Energy Solutions, LLC) filed 10/07 pending

P-13309 Ventura Ocean Energy Project (Grays Harbor Ocean Energy Company)  10/08 Dismissed 4/09

Total proposed wave energy projects since 2006: 21

Total projects scrubbed by developer: 5

Total projects rejected by FERC: 3

For extra credit – Noteworthy tidal energy projects:

P-12585 San Francisco Bay Tidal Energy Project (Oceana Energy)  10/08

P-12672 Columbia River Tidal Energy Project (Oceana Energy) Permit surrendered 3/08


“Smart Grid” Getting Some Juice

img_3197_blogThe mainstream media’s beginning to catch up to the “smart grid” story; the grand plan to remake the nation’s electrical distribution system.

On Friday, NPR began a ten-part series; “Power Hungry: Reinventing the U.S. Electric Grid.” The reports will air on both of the network’s flagship programs, Morning Edition and All Things Considered.

KQED’s Lauren Sommer set up the series earlier this month, with her backgrounder on emerging smart-grid technologies for Quest. Her report also includes a narrated slideshow, that includes a look inside PG&E’s version of “Mission Control.”

In March, Rob Schmitz previewed some of the challenges in his two-part series for Climate Watch, “Green Gridlock.”

And if you’re still “power hungry” after all that, Scott Pelley’s piece on the coal power industry is well worth a twelve-minute investment at the 60 Minutes website.

A Billion People in the Dark?

Where will you be when the hour arrives? Wherever it is, you might want to take a flashlight–LED, of course. In it’s third year, the organizers of Earth Hour are shooting for one billion people to turn out the lights in this global demonstration in support of decarbonization.

It’s being promoted as a kind of switchplate referendum. Begun in Sydney, Australia, in 2007, it’s a simple concept, which may be part of its appeal: Wherever you are, at 8:30 local time tomorrow (Saturday) evening, turn off the lights for one hour.

Last year organizers estimated that 50 million people complied. California icons like the Golden Gate Bridge went dark. This year, about two dozen California cities and counties have signed up to participate, as well as the State of California.

They’re not telling you to turn off your computer or iPhone, however. Electrons we save at the light switch might be made up for on the Internet, which will likely be abuzz with a worldwide conversation documenting the event on blogs and social networks like Twitter (tag your updates with #earthour and #location). Photo sites will be bombarded with picture uploads.

Personally, I’ll be in the high desert of New Mexico, beyond the sight of any town or even neighbors, so the event won’t make for much of a snaphot.

It might also be a bit anticlimactic for the folks who run California’s power grid. I asked Gregg Fishman at the California ISO (Independent System Operator) if they’d be able to see a dip in the load at 8:30 p.m. tomorrow. He’s not counting on it: “It will probably have some impact but it’s really hard to measure,” he told me.

This time of year, the state is usually pulling about 27-28,000 megawatts at that hour on a Saturday evening. In fact, if you look at the ISO’s grid status graph, you can see a little spike around 8 p.m., as people normally start turning lights on. But Fishman says that even though “most of the load is lighting” at that hour, it may be hard, even for grid technicians, to measure the actual effect of Earth Hour.

But of course, that’s kind of beside the point. The event isn’t designed to achieve palpable energy savings for one hour. It’s supposed to be a visual show of support for policies designed to reduce energy consumption and the global carbon footprint. Recent surveys have shown that economic woes have pushed concerns about global warming and the environment to their predictable recessionary lows, at least in this country. Tomorrow night we’ll find out how the rest of the world feels about it.

Oh, No–Another “Superhighway”

Just when we could exhale, assured that the term “Information Superhighway” had faded mercifully into the rear-view mirror–at the signpost up ahead: Your next stop: the “Electron Superhighway.”

That’s the term that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is using to describe the transmission web that will facilitate the nation’s transformation to clean energy. Some random notes from his (and others’) appearance today before the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee:


– 6,000 miles initially identified on BLM lands for new transmission lines on the “Electron Superhighway,” 1,000 on US Forest Service lands.

Access to land for transmission will be the “Achilles heel” of the plans for a new  clean-power grid.

– Oil & gas need to be part of a “comprehensive energy plan,” along with renewables. The US now imports 70% of its oil.

– Seven major onshore leases already approved, auctioning off another 34 million acres along the Gulf Coast this week.

Ron Wyden (D-OR):

– Let’s use the “backlog of deadly fuels” on the floor of federal forests to generate bio-fuels and reduce fire danger at the same time (Energy Act of 2000 apparently excluded forest slash from its definition of “biomass.”)

Hydrokinetic (wave & tidal) power should be higher on the priority list for energy development.

John McCain (R-AZ):

– The Obama administration “has effectively killed nuclear power in the foreseeable future, for this country” (by its actions regarding Yucca Mountain and reprocessing of fuel).

Phil Moeller, FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission):

– Wave & tidal power could potentially fill 10% of the nation’s energy portfolio.

Joanna Prukop, NM Secretary of Energy, Minerals & Natural Resources:

– Wind energy is now price-competitive with natural gas (about 5 cents/KW-Hour currently) and could thrive without federal subsidy. Solar, not so much.

Dan Arvizu, Director, Nat’l Renewable Energy Lab:

– Used the term “smart grid” one hour and 38 minutes into the hearing, the first and only time it was mentioned.

You can view the entire webcast at the DOI archive.

By the way,  Salazar will hold a public hearing on energy policy in San Francisco on April 16th. It’ll start at 9 a.m. at UCSF’s Mission Bay Conference Center.

Western Cap-and-Trade Plan Taking Heat

Proponents of the Western Climate Initiative’s (WCI) climate action plan encountered some vocal critics on Tuesday as nineteen U.S. Senators and House members from 10 states challenged western governors to rethink the plan’s approach to cutting carbon emissions.

In a letter to the governors, members of the Congressional Western Caucus, including three from California, expressed particular concern about capping carbon during the most severe economic slump in the post-war period.

WCI is a cooperative plan by 11 western U.S. states and Canadian provinces to create a regional cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gases.  Craig Miller reported on the plan in September for KQED’s The California Report.

The critics’ letter takes issue specifically with what it says are the WCI’s plans to rely on “renewable technologies and demand destruction” and to allow “for virtually no new baseload power plants deployed in the West through 2020 that are powered by natural gas, clean-coal-with-carbon-capture, renewable hydropower or nuclear energy”.  They say the region will lose billions of dollars in investments in green technology due to a plan that prevents new fossil-fuel power plants, even those with CO2 capture and sequestration technology.

At issue seems to be the WCI’s plan for the emissions caps, which are slated to be a “flat line” from either 2012 or 2015, depending on the source.  According to the WCI’s recommendations, the line would be set using “the best estimate of expected emissions for sources covered in the cap and trade program” in 2012.  Under this system, there would be very little room for increased emissions from any new power source covered by the program (i.e. electricity generation, combustion at industrial and commercial facilities,  and oil and gas processing).

The letter refers to a recent economic analysis commissioned by the Western Business Roundtable that found that the WCI would be expensive, cause job losses, and would not affect global climate.

California congressmen Dan Lungren, Elton Gallegly and George Radanovich were among the signers.