Tuesday, July 31, 2007

New Mexicans Conspire?

In a stealth move, New Mexican Senators Domenici and Bingaman inserted unlimited loan guarantees for nuclear power in the Senate Energy Bill. This provides the ability to obtain very low interest loans for the construction of new nuclear power plants. You might think that this is just standard corruption, a quid pro quo for financial support from the industry. But is it? None of the proposed new reactors is intended to be sited in New Mexico. You'd think that covertly adding such a thing to the legislation would at least have some kind of benefit for New Mexico like construction contracts or other pork. What is going on here?

We should not forget that the Governor of New Mexico is a former Secretary of Energy. While the Arizona Corporation Commission dithers about net metering, the Governator fumbles the million solar roof project, the Nevada legislature can't meet for long enough to keep up with technology and Utah is lulled by Northwest hyrdo, he is cornering the market on big solar. Why shouldn't he? New Mexico is right in there in the best resource. But, how to preserve the market in electricity? That is tricky. Texas has wind that is getting too cheap to meter, the Northeast states are implementing renewable energy standards. It is just the South and Midwest that are complacent in their coal use. What is needed to keep them off their own Real Energy long enough for his efforts to make them dependent on New Mexico and it's ultracheap solar power? Remember, once you go renewable, there is no reason to switch again, so if there are going to be non-local renewables, the markets have to be developed NOW.

Bait and Switch is an old game. Promise nuclear power, then just run it out of business with the taxpayers taking the fall. A single high-voltage high-capacity direct current transmission line from New Mexico to Georgia puts twelve of the proposed new plants out of business only a quarter of the way into their design lifetime with only a quarter of the very low interest loans paid off. Upon default, the taxpayers take the fall and the Richardson Solar Power Monopoly is in place for the next two centuries at least. Make no mistake. The Department of Energy has always been all about playing hardball, beating the Soviets in bombs, running weapons labs in complete disregard of nuclear safety, and crushing foreign uranium markets. For DOE, civilian nuclear power has always been a useful idiot rather than a real priority. Richardson is looking centuries ahead in the solar power projects he is supporting in New Mexico. Just look at this small sample:

Solar Reduction of Carbon
Pueblo of Pojoaque / SolareC - $363,000
This innovative development effort will test a full-scale concentrating solar power system. This system uses sunlight to break down CO2 and allows direct production of electricity and hydrogen, which can either be burned at night to provide electricity or to produce synthetic fuels. If successful, this technology could revolutionize the solar energy world by providing an innovative means of storing solar energy power for later use.

Solar Combined Heat and Power Project
New Mexico State University / Heliodyne--$280,000
This project will provide a demonstration facility that uses solar energy to produce electricity for a large building while using the waste heat from the system to heat and cool the building. This approach could provide a highly efficient system that could be employed in commercial and state buildings across New Mexico.

Utility Scale Concentrating Solar Project
UNM / SkyFuel--$226,000
This project will develop an improved capability to produce efficient concentrating solar power panels at a lower cost than is presently available. It could result in development of megawatt scale solar power installations in New Mexico and elsewhere along with new manufacturing facilities in New Mexico.

The question is, does this count as a conspiracy or is Richardson just making convenient use of the state delegation's penchant for pampering their funders? It may be hard to tell. What is for certain is that Richardson is preparing for a future of large scale dispatchable solar power at costs that will drive new nuclear power plants right out of business because base load is just not going to matter anymore. Convenient corruption or sly scheming, it is the taxpayers who will foot the bill for keeping competitive local renewables out of Richardson's intended market. Even the Sunshine state, with it's 10 kW limit on net metering, should watch out for the trap. At least, if we are lucky, giving the nuclear industry enough rope to hang itself, even at tax payer expense, will be a less ignominous end than another Three Mile Island. Have you run your evacuation drill lately? Did it work? Just like New Orleans?

Richardson is running for President, and he might be a good one depending on his ability to look past New Mexico's interests to those of the country. But this development should give even his staunchest supporters second (or third of fourth) thoughts.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Facile Fables

Here it is, the report that will put us all at ease about fossil energy: Facing the Hard Truths about Energy.

Again, it is necessary to thank Alan Kelly for acknowledging that global warming may be a problem, or at least regulations related to controlling global warming could be a problem for oil companies. First, let's just note that factual errors of the most significant kind seem to be present in the report. The loudest howler seems to be this: on the core question, "Can incremental oil and natural gas supply be brought on-line, on-time, and at a reasonable price to meet future demand without jeopardizing economic growth?" they seem to have misquoted those who have tried to answer this question independently by a factor of two. Misquoting in that way seems just the sort of thing they like to do, so at least we know we are in for more of the same.

So, let's take their key findings in turn to see it there is anything worth knowing:


1) Coal, oil, and natural gas will remain indispensable to meeting total projected energy demand growth.

As we have seen here, we can dispense with coal rather quickly and while achieving the efficiency to use photosynthesis to meet our current liquid fuel use is not possible, advances in this area suggest that meeting a good fraction can be done. The improved efficiency that comes with shifting the rest to wind and solar far outpaces the moderate efficiency measures they are calling for.

2) The world is not running out of energy resources, but there are accumulating risks to continuing expansion of oil and natural gas production from the conventional sources relied upon historically. These risks create significant challenges to meeting projected energy demand.

Here we may agree, to a point, we are only just beginning to participate again in real energy and there is more than enough, but what they mean is that the world is not running out of coal, oil and gas, and on this, it is very hard not to laugh. The world is always running out of these things so long as they are being used. Perhaps they are admitting that "conventional sources" the kind they have always said there are plenty of, are depleting to the point where they can't meet demand.

3) To mitigate these risks, expansion of all economic energy sources will be required, including coal, nuclear, renewables, and unconventional oil and natural gas. Each of these sources faces significant challenges—including safety, environmental, political, or economic hurdles—and imposes infrastructure requirements for development and delivery.

Of the sources listed, only renewables are economic and have the capacity to expand, everything else is more expensive and hastens depletion. It is also interesting that safety, the environment, politics and the economy are considered hurdles rather than just the things we want to sustain. I guess when you are in the business of creating oil spills, everything looks like a beach to defile.

4) “Energy Independence” should not be confused with strengthening energy security. The concept of energy independence is not realistic in the foreseeable future, whereas U.S. energy security can be enhanced by moderating demand, expanding and diversifying domestic energy supplies, and strengthening global energy trade and investment. There can be no U.S. energy security without global energy security.

We must hitch our wagon to dictatorships. Almost all of the projected growth of supply (yes the report projects growth) comes from the Middle East. Brazil, on the other hand, may seek energy independence since they are a smaller portion of the the market and so are less important to the National Petroleum Council's business interests. Oh well, who would expect any patriotism from multi-nationals? Best to cut them out of the energy supply entirely. We're not dipping too deeply into the report here, but it should be noted that their idea of security seems to include the notion that strategic reserves allow for Venezuela or Iran to be taken off-line for more than a year each (ES p. 27). More wars for oil would seem likely to do for US security what the current oil war does. Multi-nationals may not be the best source for advice on these kinds of issues. They would like us to provide security services for them but this does not enhance our security.

5) A majority of the U.S. energy sector workforce, including skilled scientists and engineers, is eligible to retire within the next decade. The workforce must be replenished and trained.

Apparently we need to encourage students to train for jobs in a dying industry. Now, if this industry can't fund it's own training program then they must know they are cooked. But, we should look to bar the treasury doors since the retirement of this work force that they warn of here may, in part, be insured through the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation even as these types of companies move their assets offshore. Renewable energy is where the job growth potential is.

6) Policies aimed at curbing CO2 emissions will alter the energy mix, increase energy-related costs, and require reductions in demand growth.

This statement seems nowhere supported by facts. What we know is that wind is cheaper than gas wholesale and solar is cheaper than coal retail except very close to the mines. The only place where wind and solar compete directly now with oil (which is too expensive to really compete with coal except on a few islands) is in home heating. In most places, geothermal heat pumps make wind and solar the better deal. While it is silly to burn coal at a power plant and lose more than half the energy up the stack to run baseboard heaters, running efficient electric heating with wind or solar, which are not heat engines, makes loads of sense. So, yes the energy mix will alter, but costs will come down. Supply growth can lessen because wind and solar are not nearly as wasteful as combustion. Requiring reduction in carbon demand growth will reduce energy related costs (except for oil, coal and gas shareholders) rather than increase them.

Now, let's just run through those findings one more time: 1) We have to have oil, coal and gas to meet demand. 2) We're not running out but we are. 3) So, need to rely on other sources. 4) US security is hostage to oil company security: need a hand-out. 5) Need another hand-out to handle retirement of work force. and 6) Global warming is expensive so demand can't be met.

Laughter is the best medicine: Hope you'll see the humor in this even through the bathos.

Monday, July 16, 2007


The closets of ghost energy are crammed full of skeletons. It is long past time to clean them out and as it turns out, real energy may need the storage space, not for skeletons, but rather to smooth the transition to full participation in and celebration of real energy.

Two newspaper articles are out talking about storage of real energy. Both articles fail to notice that the US grid already runs on about 20% stored real energy through hydroelectric power. About 24 GW of that capacity can run backwards rather than just throttle so we already have quite a lot of what we might need. And, the articles don't notice that distributed renewable power is not very intermittent. The wind is always blowing somewhere and clouds rarely cover all of a continent. The trick is to shuttle the power from where it is produced to where it is needed. If you have enough capacity to meet the peak use, then you don't really care about storing the extra power you don't need when you are using less, you just find something fun and interesting to do with it. Remember, real energy is extravagant. Think of the amazing fecundity and diversity of a rain forest. It is about prosperity not scarcity.

But, before we get to the point where we produce more energy than we use most of the time, methods of storage can help to retire ghost energy plants more quickly. So, lets just list the kinds of storage that are covered in the articles and here on the real energy blog so we know a few of the options. We'll organize it in the types of energy physicists like to use.


Hot or cold, thermal storage adds a certain amount of extra time to use the energy. In some cases like the high thermal mass house, you are just avoiding using energy that you don't really need. The daily fluctuations of external temperature are not important with good insulation and a high heat capacity. In one article ice is used to shift electricity use from day time to night time and also save on over all use while in the another, molten salts are used to keep solar energy for use at night. You can see how these might work together.


Batteries have the potential for large scale storage and are mentioned in both articles. The anticipated sizes run up to 6 MWh. The batteries mention in the article are not exactly flow batteries which are also used together with wind farms and run up to 12 MWh. We have also looked at using ammonia as a chemical storage method and producing hydrogen for later use is also a chemical method though it experiences high thermal loses. Aluminum can also be used for chemical storage and used to produce hydrogen on demand.


Here we have two choices, potential energy or kinetic energy. Both articles mention gas pressure storage, essentially a form of potential energy similar to damming a river. The size of the facility mentioned is about 100 MW and presumably can run for a day or two. About half the energy comes from compressed air and half from natural gas. One article mentions flywheels which store kinetic energy. In this case the flywheel stores 18 MWs or 5 kWh. One can reduce the tensile strength requirements for a flywheel and increase its capacity by usinging a magenetic track. Then the strength requirements are compressive and, so, much simpler.


Capacitors are used to store power when very large currents pulses are needed as for example in inertial confinement fusion. These capacitors store about 3 kWh. Super capacitors are less bulky and are being developed for transportation applications.


Superconducting Magnetic Energy Storage is used in some applications with capacities moving toward 20 MWh.


For very high energy density, excited nuclear states might be used. This is actually a new listing, but not very practical just now.

The complaint in the articles is that power storage adds cost to the the electric power distribution system. But, pretty clearly, the decreasing cost of renewable energy is making storage more attractive to utilities. Thermal storage in solar plants that work with thermal energy anyway is a natural extension to their capabilities. Similarly, those that work using chemical energy are designed to store energy from the beginning. It is clear that flywheel and magnetic storage are already being used for power conditioning. Very shortly, the cost of renewable power will drop well below the cost of other sources. For wind, it is already the cheapest way to produce power in many places. As it turns out, once we're ready to chase the skeletons our of the ghost energy closet, we'll be able to put in a great new closet organizer with slots for all kinds of storage that will make the exorcism of the ghosts all the more rapid. Energy storage is not an Achilles' heel for real energy, but rather a stepping stone to full abundance. Daniel Arvizu should know better.

Sunday, July 15, 2007


When forests meet industrialization, they lose and along with the loss go the noble woodland professions in a romantic mist. Deep ecologists like Gary Snyder make us aware that this loss is unacceptable and at least on post-industrial Turtle Island forests are making a bit of a comeback. So, if you can work with the strengthening poison ivy you have more opportunities to get close to the forest floor and look at the various kinds of fungi that grow there.

The cursed report we have been anticipating is due out this week and since it seems that its conclusions have been predetermined since at least February it should come as no surprise at all that we'll be hearing that we can make poison ivy even itchier to our heart's content. So, with plentiful ghost energy sources and constant attacks on the idea that their use is dangerous we might think that an effort to replace ghost energy with real energy from forests would be completely pointless. But, these grave robbers have shown themselves to be untrustworthy so checking up on them makes some sense.

Dave Rutledge at Caltech, has tried to compare what they say with what they do to try understand just how much more carbon dioxide can be added to the atmosphere if we try just about as hard as we are trying now. His talk attempts to figure out what profile of emissions should be used when calculating the amount of temperature and sea level rise we might expect in the next 400 years. Based on the way that ghost energy companies have actually behaved rather than on what they say they can do, he finds that none of the scenarios used in the climate reports we have been following seem realistic because they all over estimate the amount of carbon available to further pollute the atmosphere. If his analysis is accurate, then this is pretty good news on the climate front, we just barely avoid the so-called dangerous climate change through no effort of our own. All of the economists will have to revise their models, but they would have needed to do that anyway because they have, for the most part, missed the prosperity real energy sustains.

Dave's analysis, like the ones we have already looked at that point in this direction, will need more checking but we can see a little motivation for looking to the forests for fuel. Now, just as in Brazil, the issue of cutting forests to make fuel needs careful attention. The new effort in Georgia intends to use forest products that are produced anyway in the lumber and paper industries there. They are competing (at the industrial level) with a method that uses enzymes to accomplish the same goal. So far, the enzyme method is pretty expensive, while the method to be used in Georgia could be considered wasteful since so much heat is needed to turn the wood waste into a gas. Both processes involve restrictive intellectual property. If Dave's analysis is correct, we may want to get this sort of thing going faster than patents might allow. So, I'm going to throw this out into the public domain:

The enzymes needed to break down wood or straw are naturally occurring is some kinds of fungi. Lentinus tigrinus in particular can grow quickly in straw because of the enzymes it produces. A mushroom is mostly protein but it also contains fiber and carbohydrate, the last of which is fermentable. So, one could produce protein from straw or sawdust and at the same time draw off the carbohydrates to produce fuel. A bit of reprocessing of the fiber may also yield further fuel. The process might even be made recursive. Most importantly, they do not require any extra sunlight, so they do not compete for real energy input. The fungi can be grown in old mines or in tall buildings so that forests or hay fields that collect the real energy need not be displaced to process the real energy. Suppose you have an unused 40 ft silo with a 14 ft diameter. You rig it up so that an interior scaffold can hold growing trays that pack at a typical square bale density leaving a similar space for fruiting. Then you can use the hay from a single cutting of about 16 acres to grow a mushroom crop. But since the mushrooms mature in under 15 days, you can do four crops before the next hay cutting. So a single silo of this size can service 60 acres or more if the silo use is extended past the hay growing season. Compared to about 8 ton of carbohydrate per acre per year for corn, we might expect about 1 ton of carbohydrate per acre per year (three cuttings) but the protein yield will be a bit larger than for corn and without a high nitrogen fertilizer input. The used mushroom mash should have a good value as chicken, hog or fish feed. (Talapia scraps can be used to make biodiesel.) To get started though, making a portion of the crop gastronomic would help to pay for the scaffolding costs. At about a dollar per pound wholesale, mushrooms easily beat corn on price even at $4 per bushel by factor of 1.5 adjusting for yield.

Cellulosic ethanol with no intellectual property to slow down implementations. Maybe Gary will write us another mushroom poem to celebrate.

"So here's to the mushroom family
A far-flung friendly clan
For food, for fun, for poison
They are a help to man."