It has been much too long since my last post, but I think this one is worth the wait. Back in February Mrs. Greenbacks and myself were invited to a wedding in Costa Rica and we gladly attended! Special shout out to Connie and Dave – Congratulations Again!
Aside from the beautiful ceremony and spectacular reception, we got to enjoy much of what Costa Rica had to offer – beaches, rainforest and volcano.
Costa Rica is at the forefront of promoting sustainable practices in their everyday life and as Mrs. Greenbacks pointed out, one of the 5 “Blue Zones” of the world where people regularly live to be over 100 and generally enjoy better health and less incidence of disease than the rest of the world.
Just a few of the common practices that we saw in Costa Rica was composting of all organic materials, low flow faucets and showers as well as automatic shut off switches on the room lights after the key has been removed. A heavy public awareness campaign also goes a long way toward making guest appreciate the natural beauty of the land.
On our hanging bridges canopy tour, our guide explained that Costa Rica was well on its way toward meeting its power needs using renewable sources such as hydro, wind, and geothermal. Almost 95% of CR’s power is produced from renewable sources with hydro accounting for a full 75% of the total. Geothermal ranks second due to the areas 5 active volcanos and wind installations have been steadily increasing in recent years. Distributed solar would make a great addition to CR’s renewable energy portfolio and would help to power regions where grid transmission is simply too costly.
A recent article called Turning Pristine Public Lands Into Solar Farms in Bloomberg Businessweek highlighted the Obama administrations’ policy of opening federal lands maintained by the Bureau of Land Management and the Department of the Interior to renewable energy projects. The executive powers that Obama is using are similar to the ones that the Bush administration used to bypass Congress and push for oil and gas drilling on those same lands in 2001. Using Ken Salazar, the Secretary of the Interior, Obama has approved more than 37 renewable energy projects on federal lands that will power more than 3.8 million homes.
Since taking office, Obama has issued an average of 1,000 fewer drilling leases per year to oil and gas interests. Instead, the administration has green lighted more than 18 other utility-scale solar plant, 7 wind farms, and 9 geothermal facilities.
However, certain projects have angered environmentalist groups such as the Sierra Club and the NRDC who feel that some of the projects would be better sited on 80,000 – 285,000 abandoned mine sites on federal lands instead of pristine desert space near treasured national parks such as Joshua Tree in southern California. A coalition called the Western Lands Project is suing the Dept. of the Interior in federal court hoping to have the projects moved to those less desirable, degraded lands.
While I am generally skeptical of politicians bypassing Congress to achieve a political goal, I do favor building renewable energy plants on federal lands. I also agree with the Western Lands Project that the Interior should look for better locations for these projects that redevelop sites that have already been ruined by mining operations. Reusing depleted lands and brownfield development would be ideal for PV installation because the land does not have to be cleaned up beforehand and solar PV requires very little maintenance and can be seated on top of the land, not disturbing the contamination. The EPA announced a brownfield redevelopment project called Brightfields that aims to achieve exactly that. As with any major project, land use should be a major factor. This is especially true when using public lands for private development. By identifying sustainable sites that promote redevelopment of tarnished lands, the government can achieve a double victory of renewable energy and brownfield remediation.
The below image shows a refurnished open pit mine in Germany that is now one of the world’s largest PV plants at 166MW. This site would have otherwise been left uninhabitable for any purpose.
This week’s Bloomberg Businessweek had an article titled On China’s Electricity Grid, East Needs West, that explained the mega cities of China’s east coast are consuming resources from the coal rich areas in the country’s far western provinces resulting in lengthy transmission lines and growing instability among the minority ethnic groups there.
One of the biggest problems with having cities so far removed from the natural resources that power those cities is transmission. In China, freight railroads and river barges are already overloaded and overcrowded. This led party leaders to push for development of interior regions of the country and build high voltage transmission networks called the West-East Electricity Transfer Project. By 2020 the total capacity of this project is projected to equal 60 Hoover Dams.
The second problem with this large-scale coal driven buildup is the lack of water resources available to produce steam in these plants. Many of these planned coal plants are located in water scarce regions including Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia and has led to tensions with ethic Mongolians and Uighurs who depend on farming and herding for their livelihood. By tapping already stressed aquifers and wetlands, there could be a larger problem looming.
A better idea would be harness China’s production capacity of solar PV cells and adopt a domestic policy of distributed generation. DG is sited near the end user of the electricity and therefore less vulnerable to losses during transmission. PV cells can be placed vertically up the sides of the country’s many skyscrapers eliminating the need to clear land for ground-based systems. Smart building design is another idea that could drastically reduce demand for electricity and save the country from building expensive, inefficient, centralized power plants.
China’s massive infrastructure build out has been nothing short of extraordinary. Now it has the opportunity to leap ahead of other developing nations by committing resources towards building the next generation cities. Distributed generation, microgrids, and smart integrative building design can all help to make this idea a reality.
I read a quick article in Bloomberg Businessweek last week that detailed an unlikely alliance between tar sands producers and environmentalists to put a pollution tax on the dirty, heavy crude coming out of Alberta. Yes, that is correct. Tar sands producers are actually lobbying for a carbon tax or cap-and-trade system that would help to clean up their operations. In British Columbia, a province that enacted a carbon tax, families are paying an average annual premium of $376 and have reduced their per capita emissions 10%. The producer’s biggest fears are to be viewed as “too polluting” by other nations, resulting in no market for their exports. America’s opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline highlights this fear. Unless the tar sands can change their appearance, it seems that the world would be okay without the product. An oil industry spokesman even said that “If your country looks at Canada and says your energy exports are too carbon intensive, then it becomes and economic competitiveness issue.”
Standing in the way of this unlikely alliance and subsequent carbon pricing is the Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Harper has traditionally emphasized business and job creation over environmental issues and is responsible for pulling Canada out of the Kyoto Protocol, the only nation to do so. Failure to embrace cleaner regulations on the tar sands may soon become an environmental and economic problem for The Great White North.
The winds of change are blowing, and nations are figuring out how to monetize carbon. If Canada can enact sensible regulation that appeases both oil producers and environmentalists, then it can be a leader in the carbon markets. If it fights the winds of change, then it risks being left behind by the rest of the world. The simple answer is to put a price on carbon and use the proceeds to invest in clean technology developments.
Years ago, when the US thought they would have to import LNG’s from abroad there was a massive build out of over 24 LNG plants for regassification. Thanks to horizontal drilling and hydrologic fracturing, the US will not have to worry about LNG imports for the next century at the earliest. Converting these regassification plants to be export terminals makes economic sense and environmental sense. With the exception of Sabine Pass in Louisiana who was just recently granted permission to export, all that equipment now sits idle along the gulf coast.
At the heart of the issue is the fact that American gas now sells for $3.40 per MBTU domestically but over $12 in Europe and up to $20 in Asia. Turning American nat gas to LNG cost about $5 per MBTU, so exports of LNG can be beneficial to the economy. Furthermore, the glut of natural gas has actually forced producers to stop producing until the supply dwindles or demand picks up. Tapping the international markets would allow this process to balance out. Of course, there is steady opposition to LNG exports from uncommon bedfellows of environmentalist and business proponents who respectively oppose fracking on environmental grounds and who want to maintain their access to cheap fuels.
I have gone back and forth on the subject of fracking several times now but generally agree with the economic arguments set forth in this article. While I am not a proponent of fracking, the following issues deserve mention:
Nat Gas is priced on a regional market as opposed to a global market. The lack of export infrastructure acts as a subsidy thereby keeping the price of gas artificially low and promoting inefficient use of the fuel. Increasing LNG exports will increase the price but will hopefully establish a free and transparent market. The revenues of the fuel trade should be used in clean technology research and developing next generation technologies.
With cheap nat gas prices in the USA, developing nations have been leaning towards coal to fuel their consumption. Access to natural gas will hopefully reduce the emissions in the developing world more than if the gas were kept in the US.
These two points rely on the assumption that fracking remains legal. As I write this, a moratorium on fracking (bill A.5424-A) was just passed by the Assembly and will go before the NY State Senate and then on to the Governor for signature.
Clean technology has never been more affordable or accessible to the masses. Policy makers are now realizing the national security and economic concerns of relying on fossil fuels. Clean, distributed sources of energy combined with sustainable development are our best options for a healthy, prosperous future.
If you have ever wondered how much energy is wasted in the United States, then look no further than this chart from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. What your are looking at here shows how many Quads (Quadrillion BTU’s) of energy is produced from each source of energy . . . and how much is wasted through inefficient processes or simply lost as heat energy. In 2011 more than half (57%) of the energy produced was rejected. In terms of electricity generation, almost 2/3 of the potential energy is lost. Cogeneration plants achieve a much higher efficiency level than conventional coal or natural gas plants. In the transportation sector the efficiency ratio is even worse with only 25% of the energy produced actually being used. If there are any entrepreneurs out there, I see many opportunities for improvements here. In fact, I think this chart could show the next trillion dollar opportunity!
I read an interesting article in The Economist this week called Batteries Included? The Future of Energy that highlighted the new developments in battery technology that aims to usher in a new era of free and renewable energy. Storage has been the traditional problem with renewable energy deployment as the sun does not always shine and the wind does not always blow. Our current battery technology is simply too costly and not efficient enough to store energy produced from renewable sources for use at a later time. The Joint Center for Energy Storage Research just received a $120 million grant from the Department of Energy in order to make batteries 5x more powerful at 1/5th the price. The key to achieving this goal is to leverage the “Materials Program” of MIT to find new materials that are more efficient than the now infamous lithium-ion battery found in hybrids and grounded Boeing 787 Dreamliners after recent incidents of overheating. Examples of these new opportunities include using magnesium atoms, which contain 2 valence electrons, or aluminum with 3, instead of lithium atoms that contain only 1. The extra electron increases the amount of energy that can be stored.
In terms of grid-scale energy storage, JCESR is researching flow batteries that hold a charge in the electrolyte itself rather than inside a cell as conventional batteries do. This allows flow batteries to store massive amounts of energy, such as that from wind farms and commercial solar farms. However, these too face limitations.
Improvements in energy storage technology will allow renewable energy systems to play a larger role in society. Advanced research using new technologies will eventually make renewable products cost competitive with conventional products. Instances include new plug-in electric cars that can drive for days without being recharged and even grid-sized batteries that harness energy from wind and solar farms and produce the energy when and where it is needed. Hopefully these technologies will prove better than anticipated and we can improve our economy and our environment at the same time.