Mr. Greenbacks Goes to Costa Rica!

La Fortuna, CRIt 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.

ImageOn 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.

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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.

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Burning Money . . . by Wasting Energy

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.
US Energy Flow Chart 2011What 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!

 

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.

2013 State of the Union

Well Mr. President, you proved me wrong.  “Climate Change” was mentioned a total of 3 times during your SOTU speech last night.  But more importantly was the context in which you used the phrase such as:

But for the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change.  Yes, it’s true that no single event makes a trend.  But the fact is, the 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15.  Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and floods – all are now more frequent and intense.  We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence.  Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science – and act before it’s too late.

To stress his point, Mr. Obama directed Congress to come up with “market based solutions” (think cap and trade) to climate change or else he would step in with an executive order.

The good news is, we can make meaningful progress on this issue while driving strong economic growth.  I urge this Congress to pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change, like the one John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on together a few years ago.  But if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will.  I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.

The bill that Obama mentioned was the 2007 Climate Stewardship and Innovation Act that proposed a reduction to 2004 levels by 2012, 1990 levels by 2020, and 60% below 1990 levels by 2050.  This can be done.  We need to evaluate how we use energy and how we can make our products more efficient.  As any homeowner knows, wasted energy is wasted money and right know we can’t afford it.

Obama 2013 State of the Union

Tonight’s the Night: Will the President Speak on Renewable Energy and Climate Change

Seal of the POTUSThe State of the Union speech marking the beginning of a Presidents second term has historically been a chance for the President to lay out big, hairy, audacious goals for the upcoming administration.  Reagan had tax reform, Clinton had education, and GW had Social Security reform.  Some were achieved while others failed.  So too tonight, Obama will lay out his agenda for the next four years.  Given the economic condition of the US right now, it is rightly expected that jobs will be a major theme of the speech, but some others for consideration:

  1. Jobs, Jobs, Jobs
  2. Deficit Reduction
  3. Economic Growth
  4. Immigration
  5. Gun Violence

Missing from this list is Climate Change.  Will the President even mention those words tonight?  With North Korea’s nuclear test last night, I expect the President to devote more time and attention to foreign policy issues rather than outlining climate initiatives.  Prove me wrong Mr. President.

Question for my readers:  Will Obama mention Climate Change or Renewable Energy in tonight’s State of the Union address?