Energy Policy Meets Federal Land

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.

Brownfields WindSince 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.

Brownfield Solar

China’s Opportunity

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.

coal chinaOne 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.

china water scarcityThe 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.

Coal currently generates 80% of China’s electricity and the country is responsible for half of the annual consumption of coal worldwide.  Following the traditional model of building coal plants located far away from the end users is simply not the answer.  While high-voltage transmission lines are more efficient that shipping coal by rail or barge, much of the electricity produced is still lost in transmission.

solar chinaA 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.

Distributed generationChina’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.


Next Generation Batteries

ImageI 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.

flow batteryIn 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.

Four Climate Change Policy Ideas for the Next President

Congratulations! We are finally out of this election cycle and all the negative ads. And no matter who the winner is, I hope that we can all come together to build a stronger economy and a healthier society. While we wait for the mudslinging over the fiscal cliff to begin, here are the top four recommendations on climate change policy for the incoming (or returning) president as stated in Businessweek.

1) Put a price on carbon. I alluded to this in a previous post called Carbon Emission where we discuss the differences between a carbon tax and a cap-and-trade policy. Businessweek says that “A $20-per-ton carbon price—collected as a tax or by auctioning carbon allowances—would raise on the order of $100 billion per year while creating powerful economic incentives to curb pollution in the most cost-effective manner (and develop new technologies to do so). A carbon price is also an ideal way to help address the coming “fiscal cliff”: Using some of the revenue to pay for lower taxes on labor or capital would provide a double dividend by reducing distortions in our tax system. For that reason, a carbon price enjoys broad support from economists across the political spectrum, from N. Gregory Mankiw, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, and Arthur Laffer on the Right, to Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz, and Jeffrey Sachs on the Left.”

2) Cut Non-CO2 Greenhouse Gases. CO2 is obviously the biggest contributor to global warming, accounting for over 80% of GHG’s, but it is not the most potent. Other GHG’s such as Methane, Nitrous Oxide, and other flourinated gases such as hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, and sulfur hexafluoride are numerous time more potent warmers than CO2.  I wrote a paper on this earlier this year and will post it later this month.  Needless to say, focusing attention on these High Global Warming Potential gases may do more in the short-term to curb warming and create some international “good will” for tackling the CO2 problem. 

3) Promote Clean Energy and Energy Efficiency.  The administration should further the transition to renewable energy sources by removing subsidies for fossil fuels and encouraging smarter subsidies for clean energy.  I wrote extensively on this subject here.  In short, current subsidies to fossil fuels should be removed and invested into R&D.  The current subsidies in place for renewable energy promote widespread deployment of these technologies, but do nothing to increase their output and reduce their cost.  A better subsidy policy would promote increases in efficiency or reductions in cost in order to make these technologies competitive with cheap and abundant natural gas.  After all, the taxpayer wants to see results from their money.

4) Use the Clean Air Act.  Finally, the new administration should take full advantage of the Clean Air Act that sets new vehicle mileage standards, sets limits on pollution from industrial sources, and sets more protective standards for air quality.  “The next administration should build on these steps by setting carbon-pollution emission standards for stationary sources, including new and existing power plants. In doing so, the EPA can draw on a proud tradition, dating back to the Reagan administration, of making clean-air rules as economically efficient and flexible as possible—for example, by allowing averaging and trading so companies can meet standards on a fleet-wide basis rather than at each facility individually. The EPA should also design the carbon standards in a way that rewards states that implement their own rigorous programs—such as the innovative cap-and-trade approaches already in use in the Northeast and getting under way in California.”

There you have it.  In only a few hours from now we will know the next leader of the United States of America.  Now if the time for action on climate change.  The four steps outlined above are only the beginning, but they will help to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, improve the health of our citizens (and the other 6.7 billion citizen of this planet), and even provide opportunities for the growth of new industries.  This is a tall order, but we have never backed down from a challenge before, why start now?

Believe in Competition

One of the key components to having renewable energy achieving price parity with fossil fuels is the growth in global demand. As more systems are manufactured, efficiencies attributable to the learning curve and to economies of scale will allow the cost of RE systems to come down. However, in order to reach the global markets, you need a reputable product that meets the customers needs. By investing in science, technology, engineering, and physics the USA can lead this developing market for renewable energy products. While our political leaders debate the existence of climate change, the rest of the world has gotten busy developing products to meet this challenge. In a globalized market, the spoils are going to go to the leader in any given industry. Each firm has a duty to make a product better, cheaper, or leave the marketplace if they can not do this. If not, a hungrier competitor will definitely step forward to take your place.

Underground Coal Gassification

An interesting article in the 9/3 Bloomberg Businessweek introduced a new method of coal mining that has the potential to provide energy while limiting GHG pollution and completely avoiding mountaintop removal – one of the most destructive practices known to man.  Underground Coal Gassification (UCG) technology actually dates back more than a century but is only now gaining momentum thanks to the advances in technology as a result of the fracking boom.  UCG involves drilling well into a deep coal seem, igniting the fuel, and harnessing the gas released through combustion.  The CO2 is then pumped back into the ground to keep it from entering the atmosphere.  Many of the most harmful substances such as arsenic, mercury, and lead are left in the ground alleviating the problem of what to do with the waste (remember the TVA holding pond disaster?). 

UCG projects are currently underway in Canada, China, New Zealand, and Uzbekistan – areas where natural gas is expensive and the coal seams are hard to reach. 

There are plenty of downsides to this new technology – most notably the fact that you are in essence starting an underground mine fire (see Centralia, Pennsylvania).  Other concerns are groundwater contamination, water use, and a slew of environmental issues.  However, UCG has the potential to increase the USA’s exploitable coal reserves by a factor of 5. 

It is well established that coal-burning power plants are some of the biggest polluters in our society but their environmental effects are not limited to the generating facility.  From the beginning, whole mountains in Appalachia are blown up to access the coal in the cheapest manner possible.  After the coal is spent there is still the problem of disposing of the coal ash that contains toxins and carcinogens. 

Until our energy needs are fully met through renewable technologies, we are going to have to experiment with new processes that reduce GHG’s and are more environmentally friendly.  UCG is not the cure to our energy problem, but it does address several of the most devastating by-products of using coal as a power source.  To that end, it is definitely a technology worth researching.


In their own words

“The world is caught in a dangerous feedback loop – higher oil prices and climate disruptions lead to higher food prices, higher food prices lead to more instability, more instability leads to higher oil prices.  That loop is shaking the foundations of politics everywhere.”

-Thomas Friedman


“Fortunately, we are not doomed to eternal punishment, as Prometheus was for stealing fire for humankind.  Nor does the dwindling of the old fire of fossil fuels mean a return to the Dark Ages.  Instead, we can create a safer, stronger, fossil-free world by tapping into a far greater resource than fossil hydrocarbons.  The real underlying fuel of America and of modern civilization is innovation and ingenuity.”

-Amory Lovins