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Archive for the ‘Energy and the Environment’ Category

The Beauty and Power of Wind Energy

Wed ,12/02/2014

Before fossil fuels, wind was man’s major source of power for sailing ships, grinding grain, and pumping water.  The beauty of ships and windmills were an endless source of inspiration for painters and photographers. Windmills were once the source of power for providing water in rural America, such as the one in the picture with the giant wind turbines towering over it. Though some criticize the wind turbines for being unsightly, they have a majestic beauty of their own. Their real beauty is in their utility as,  windmill4once built, there are no fuel costs or emissions. Much of the criticism of wind power has come from the fossil fuel industry, as it is hard to compete against a technology with no fuel costs and few  regulatory problems.

Fossil fuels now have a near monopoly on providing energy, and consumers would benefit from more competition in that market. Fossil fuels have served us well and we will certainly need them far into the future – even to develop sustainable energy sources.  But there is a trap if we wait too long, as the rising  price of traditional fuels will also increase the cost of  building the renewable sources,  possibly leading to an energy shortage before renewable sources can make up the difference.

Cost: As the cost of building new coal fired plants has increased prohibitively, a number of US power companies have taken advantage of wind energy to  increase the supply to their customers and lower their costs.  Recently, AEP/PSO  in Oklahoma was able to meet the demand caused by the heat wave in 2012 by bringing 200 megawatts (MW) of wind energy online. It recently planned to purchase 200 MW more, but took advantage of an opportunity to contract for an additional 600 MW of wind energy from facilities being developed in northwestern Oklahoma. AEP/PSO said the cost was now less than building new coal fired plants, and that the purchase will save an estimated $53 million in the first year and even more thereafter. The declining cost of wind energy is making it competitive to natural gas as well. Wind contracts in Texas, about one quarter of all US installations, are now regularly below $30/MWh. Even with a tax incentive, this still puts wind well below $50/MWh, while the comparable cost for a new gas plant is above $60 /MWh. New design and siting where there are good wind conditions allows Texas wind farms to get capacity factors around 50%. Nearly half of that occurs during peak load, defying characterizations of wind as essentially an off-peak power source.

Capacity: One criticism of wind energy is that it will not be able to supply enough power to replace the fossil fuel sources.  WindWind currently supplies about 3% of the worlds electricity and is growing 25% each year, meaning that it will double about every three years.The graph on the right shows the worldwide growth of wind power. Last year, wind farms in the U.S. generated 60,000 megawatts of energy, enough to power 15 million homes, and provided 81,000 jobs nationwide. Another criticism, based on a misunderstanding, is that there is not enough available space. Each windmill requires about about 14 acres of air space to insure they do not interfere with each other but they  require much less land space,  about 0.3 acres per turbine. Landowners can use the area below the windmills for farming or livestock, and they are compensated by a 5% royalty, about $3000 to $5000, as  each turbine generates about $80,000 in electricity.

Startup costs: To compare the costs of building new plants, the levelized costs of primary energy sources have been estimated for different regions  of the country. CostLevelized costs include all the costs of building a new plant and running it for a 30-year cost recovery period, regardless of the expected lifetime of the plant. Wind turbines may have a much longer recovery period, as some windmills in Holland have been operating for two centuries, though some of the gears are made of wood.  Though the table show some types of gas fired plants to be less costly that wind energy, the levelized costs do not include external costs, i.e.,  the costs indirectly borne by society. The external costs for fossil fuels do not include health and environmental damage from particulates, nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides, chromium, mercury, arsenic, and carbon emissions. An EU funded research study, Externalities of Energys ,  found that including externalities would increase the cost of producing electricity from fossil fuels by a factor of 30% for natural gas to about 90% for coal, if costs to the environment and to human health were included. If we include the  costs of letting fossil fuel release  their waste products into the environment, then sustainable energy sources have a big cost advantage.

Criticisms: The  intermittency of the wind is a problem, as is the lack of a way to store the energy. Putting wind electricity into the power grid solves some of the problem, as conventional sources can take up the slack. Each unit of wind energy put on the grid saves about three times as much in fuel energy, as conventional plants are only about 30% efficient. Better storage technology is under development , but conventional sources will be needed  as backup in the mean time.

Wind turbines are also criticized, somewhat unfairly, for their noise and for bird deaths. The noise underneath a well maintained turbine is not much louder than from the wind turning it. The turbines are responsible for bird deaths, but they are not among the top ten human causes of bird mortality. A peer reviewed Canadian study of bird mortality finds that less than 0.2% of the population of any bird species is currently affected by mortality or displacement by wind turbine development. The study concluded that even though the number of windmills are projected to grow ten times over the next two decades, “population level impacts on bird populations are unlikely, provided that highly sensitive or rare habitats, as well as concentration areas for species at risk, are avoided.”

Subsidies: While once the problem was getting electricity to rural America, the problem now is getting wind electricity from rural areas to population centers. It will require a large investment in research and infrastructure to develop wind energy. As Washington struggles to balance the U.S. budget, possible cuts in subsidies has created an uncertainty hindering investments in wind energy. While it is the national interest to subsidize the development of sustainable energy resources, a much larger share of tax breaks go to well established and profitable fossil fuel companies. The United States’ yearly subsidies to the fossil fuel industries amounts to about $13.6 billion, while all renewable energy subsidies together amount to about one sixth as much.

Our energy needs will best be served by a mixture of traditional and alternate energy sources, and we should not let unfair criticisms or politics keep us from developing the alternate sources.

(c) 2014  J.C. Moore    

Wind Energy and Bird Mortality

Tue ,07/01/2014

 

A rather curious letter recently appeared in the Tulsa World Editorial page titled Wind Turbines, by Jim Wiegand, Redding, CA.  Mr. Weigand has no ties to Tulsa, yet the editor published it and added a note: “Wiegand is a nationally recognized wildlife biologist and expert on the effects of wind turbines on birds.” The letter started with, “The wind industry is hiding massive turbine-related bird and bat genocide. The industry has created fraudulent mortality studies and been given voluntary guidelines in order to hide its slaughter.” The letter never mentioned birds again but went on into conspiracy theories and a criticism of wind energy.   

 Wind-turbines do sometimes kill birds and bats, but bird genocide? In other of his writings, Mr. Wiegand claims windmills are responsible for dozens of Whooping Crane deaths, and that wind turbines will cause their extinction within five years. So far, there is not one Whooping Crane death that can be attributed to windmills.  Carla Gilbert, in a post to the article, disputed the danger to similar birds. “When I was traveling in Portugal a number of years ago we could see many wind turbine farms from the highway. We were informed that the storks like to build their nests atop them. When the bus stopped for refueling I took pictures of the storks sitting on their nests atop the turbines and saw several storks coming and going from their nests. I did not see any injured or dead birds.” And, the storks are not becoming extinct as a result of the windmills. One falconer, who was at first worried about the windmills, now puts his falcon boxes on wind turbines and does not consider them a greater threat to birds than his picture window.

There has been considerable opposition to windmills and of renewable energy in general, so it is difficult to know whether all the criticisms are factual. Studies have found about an average of five to eight dead birds per windmill. That is about the number of birds who do themselves in on a picture window each year. When you add in the birds killed by cars and by hunting, it would seem that man’s other activities are a greater threat to the birds than wind turbines. For birds, the main threats are windows, cars, climate change, disease, hunters and pesticides.

There is a concern for protected species such as lesser prairie chickens and eagles. There are severe penalties for harming eagles, so to be on the safe side, the owners’ of windmills apply for permits to legally kill eagles. That has caused quite an outcry, but recently, the government gave the companies a 30 year moratorium on enforcing protection laws, while they study the problem. HPIM2053aIt does not seem likely that an eagle would fly into a windmill, particularly since another criticism is about the noise windmills make. Still there are confirmed reports that 85 bald eagles were killed by windmills in the past five years,  about 17 per year. Eagles are at the top of the food chain, so any environmental pollutant is likely to harm them, and DDT was the main cause of their population decline. Once DDT was banned and eagles became protected, their population recovered to about 140,000 in North America. They have been taken off the threatened species list. They are harmed by many pollutants associated with energy production – about 280 were killed by the Exxon Valdez oil spill. It is a shame when one of the magnificent birds is killed by accident, but if we cut out any activities that might harm them, then we would have to cease much of our energy production.

The concern about the lesser prairie chicken is that they avoid tall structures, and windmills might cause them to move from their normal habitat. Prairie chickens gather to mate each spring in large communal areas called leks. One enterprising oil company, opposed to wind power, drove a group of reporters up to a lek in the Osage Hills. They wanted to show the reporters what might be lost if windmills were built there, as if driving a van full of reporters around their lek is not going to disturb them. Many of the problems with wildlife and noise could be addressed by where the windmills are sited, and reasonable laws are needed to see that the windmills will disturb animals and people as little as possible.

Research finds the actual evidence of bird kills by windmills to be greatly exaggerated. In the Journal of Applied Ecology Volume 49, Issue 2, pages 386–394, April 2012, the authors found the impact of wind farms on bird populations to be minimal with the greater impact being during construction than during subsequent operation. A comprehensive study of bird mortality in Canada found most human-related bird deaths (about 99%) are caused by feral and domestic cats, collisions with buildings and vehicles, and electricity transmission and distribution lines.  A related peer reviewed Canadian study of bird mortality says their data suggests that less than 0.2% of the population of any bird species is currently affected by mortality or displacement by wind turbine development. They concluded that even though the number of windmills are projected to grow ten times over the next two decades, “population level impacts on bird populations are unlikely, provided that highly sensitive or rare habitats, as well as concentration areas for species at risk, are avoided.”

Mr. Wiegand’s letter is mostly fiction. A search shows that Mr. Weigand has a degree in biology from the 1970′s and makes his living by selling antiques.  He has done nothing that would qualify him as an expert in wildlife biology, and none of his claims, here or elsewhere, are backed by credible research. His avocation is writing letters to newspapers and posting comments on websites critical of wind energy. Some people can’t see the value, or the beauty of windmills, and they look for any excuse to criticize them.

IMG_0945a

Smoky Hills Wind Turbines Greet the Sun.

(c) 2014 J.C. Moore

 

A Politically Viable Alternative to Cap and Trade

Thu ,15/08/2013

Global warming could be addressed by a carbon tax if the tax revenue was divided and each taxpayer given an equal share as a dividend.

Dr. Theda Skocpol , a Harvard University scholar and a former president of the American Political Science Association, recently addressed an audience at Tulsa University about the futility of pursuing a cap and trade policy to reduce carbon emissions. Cap and trade was once considered to be the free market solution to pollution as it was used successfully by Presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush to reduce the sulfur emissions causing acid rain. To address carbon emissions by cap and trade legislation seemed to have the support of both businesses and politicians when it came up in Congress in 2008. However, it failed by a wide margin, even though Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. Dr. Skocpol was commissioned to study why. She quickly decided the question was not why the legislation failed, but why anyone thought it could pass. “Anybody who thought any issue having to do with environmental regulation or global warming was not a partisan issue … wasn’t looking at the data,” she said.

 Research: Dr. Skocpol’s research was aimed at understanding why the legislation failed. The League of Conservation Voter’s scores on environmental issues showed that about 55 % of the Congressional Democrats and 30% of the Republicans had pro-environmental scores in 1970. However, those began diverging in the middle 1990′s and by 2008 the scores averaged about 85 % for the Democrats and about 20% the Republicans. Clearly Congress had become more polarized on the issue, with many Republicans changing their position and Democrats, particularly those from fossil fuel producing states, having little incentive to support regulating carbon emissions.

The reasons had to do with popular attitudes about the cost and the actual threat posed by climate change. Addressing climate change would raise energy prices in the near future, while the benefits would mostly be to future generations. A survey examining tolerance for costs found those in the lower income brackets would be willing to pay up to 20% more for electricity while those in the top brackets would be willing to pay 10% more. Beginning about 2005, there was a stepped up media campaign to spread  misinformation about the cost to taxpayers and doubt about the scientific evidence for climate change. One false claim was that cap and trade would cost each U.S. household $3,100 a year. However, John Reilly, the MIT economist who authored the study, said that talking point was a serious distortion of his work. The EPA estimated more realistically that it would cost on average about $140 per household annually.

The opponents of regulating carbon emissions followed the successful path used by the tobacco industry. Rather than trying to address the evidence compiled in thousands of scientific research papers, the fossil fuel companies use their vast resources to spread doubt about the conclusions of the research and the effect it would have on the Earth’s ecosystems, climate, and weather. They used the same network of foundations, Libertarian think tanks, front groups, and hired grassroot organizations used by the tobacco industry to spread doubt. And, it worked. Many people were unwilling to support environmental regulations that might raise energy prices, particularly if there might be doubt about the scientific evidence. When it came right down to it, the public did not understand cap and trade well, and distrusted a system created by big business and politicians.

Dr. Skocpol’s graph below shows how the change in voter attitudes correlated with the propaganda campaign to spread doubt.

skop

Clearly, the opinion of  voters , particularly Republican voters , had changed. Dr. Skocpol commented that data shows the question really was “not why cap and trade didn’t pass, but why anyone thought it would”, given the polarization that existed in Congress and in the population. It was her opinion that any attempts to revive a cap and trade agreement would be futile. Dr. Skocpol pointed out that her assessment comes not from a climate-change denier, but from someone who believes irreparable damage might already have been done to the atmosphere. But as a political scientist, she said the data is quite clear: “Congress has no  interest in or incentive to act. ” What then can be done?

The Energy Dividend: Certainly the problem needs to be addressed, and it was her opinion that progress could only be made if everyone was given a stake in the solution. Her proposal was that it could be addressed by a carbon tax if the tax revenue was divided and each taxpayer given an equal share as a dividend. The dividend would be $800 per year if the carbon tax was the same as Australia’s, $23 per ton of CO2 emitted. Alaska has used a similar system successfully by taxing oil produced on public land and dividing some of the revenue equally among all Alaskan citizens. Over the past 31 years, each man, woman, and child in Alaska has received on average $1100 per year from that tax revenue.

The energy dividend produced by a tax on carbon should also help the economy. In 2008, George W. Bush gave each taxpayer a one-time $300 (or greater) tax rebate to stimulate the economy. A several hundred dollar energy dividend each year would give each citizen a stake in reducing carbon emissions and make up for any increase in energy prices. The tax on carbon would also level the playing field for other energy sources, making investments in renewable energy more desirable.

(c) 2013 J.C. Moore

 

 

Should the U.S. Subsidize Fossil Fuel Companies?

Wed ,10/04/2013

The world needs a reliable supply of energy. To ensure that, many countries have granted subsidies and tax breaks to fossil fuel companies to help develop energy resources. However, with the concern over our carbon emissions and over the economic crises that many countries are facing, the wisdom of continuing those subsidies needs to be examined. The fossil fuel companies are now quite profitable. As the chart below shows, two of the five most profitable companies in the U.S. are oil companies with Exxon Mobil greatly exceeding the profitability of the other four.

 Exxon

 It is understandable that some countries may still need to subsidize fossil fuel companies, but fossil fuel companies receive about six times as much in subsidies as sustainable energy sources. The International Energy Agency reports that subsidies to oil companies in developing countries could reach as much as $630 billion in 2012, with those in developed countries adding about $58 billion.  Below is a breakdown of the subsidies in developed countries along with their commitment to Fast Start Financing, which supports immediate action by developing countries to strengthen their
resilience to climate change and mitigate their greenhouse gas emissions, including those from deforestation.

 Subsidies

 

The United States’ yearly subsidies to the fossil fuel industries amounts to about $13.6 billion. As Washington struggles to balance the U.S. budget, that is certainly one of the cuts that should be considered. The Institute for Policy Integrity lists the number of laws giving tax breaks to energy companies. It lists 38 for the fossil fuel industries, 25 for all the renewable energy sources together , and one break for nuclear power. While it is the national interest to subsidize the development of sustainable energy resources, a much larger share of tax breaks go to well established and profitable fossil fuel companies. But that’s not the whole story.

Some of the tax breaks and subsidies meant to promote the development of renewable energy sources end up with the fossil fuel companies. For example, the Georgia Pacific paper company, a subsidiary of Koch oil, mixes  a byproduct of paper production, called black liquor, with diesel to make a product they claim as a biofuel. This fuel cannot be used in transportation, and can only be burned as fuel in their plants. However, Koch has managed to qualify the black liquor mixture to take advantage of the biomass fuel assistance program and has received $5 billion in subsidies for the process. Though Koch is on the record as being against green energy, funds meant for green energy projects are subsidizing the fuel for Koch’s paper mills.  Congress tried to close this loophole, but the effort was ultimately defeated.

The fossil fuel companies have become so large and so adept at lobbying, that they often distort U.S. policies for their own benefit. For instance, Exxon pays a lower tax rate than the average American. Between 2008-2010, Exxon Mobil registered an average 17.6 percent federal effective corporate tax rate, while the average American paid a higher rate of 20.4 percent. In spite of that, the company complains about its high taxation and is currently running ads against the Obama administration’s efforts to cut $36 billion in tax loopholes and subsidies to help balance the budget. Large oil companies are now multinational companies which have little allegiance to the United States. According to a Mother Jones article, “Exxon has 20 wholly owned subsidiaries domiciled in the Bahamas, Bermuda and the Cayman Islands that (legally) shelter the cash flow from operations in the likes of Angola, Azerbaijan and Abu Dhabi. Of the $15 billion in income taxes it paid in 2009, Exxon paid none of it to the United States, and it has tens of billions in earnings permanently reinvested overseas.” We should ask why our government is providing subsidies and tax breaks to companies that have little legitimate need for them and apparently little allegiance to the United States.

(c) 2013 J.C. Moore

Who Wants to Kill the Electric Car?*

Fri ,13/01/2012

 Who wants to kill the electric car? Apparently, a lot of people do. During the 1920’s, the Milburn electric cars were popular, particularly with the ladies who didn’t like cranking gasoline engines to start them.  In 1928, General Motors bought the Milburn out and it disappeared. In 1996, the EV1 electric cars appeared on roads in California. They were quiet and fast and produced no exhaust fumes. They were manufactured by GM under a mandate to reduce vehicle emissions. Ten years later, these futuristic cars were almost completely gone. A documentary, Who Killed the Electric Car , determined that the batteries were not the problem but that the culprits were mainly oil companies who stood to lose enormous profits if EV sales took off and GM, who didn’t think they would make enough profit from the car. If GM had developed and improved the EV1, they might not have gone bankrupt.

House Of Cards: Much of the damage to the EV1 was done by misinformation directed at politicians, regulatory agencies, and the consumer. The same campaign is being used against the new crop of electric cars. In a Seeking Alpha article, Why The Electric Vehicle House Of Cards Must Fall, John Petersen continues the tactic. First, Mr. Petersen determines the value of an electric car by using an “analysis that starts with a $19,000 gasoline powered vehicle, deducts the costs of unnecessary internal combustion drivetrain components and then adds the incremental costs of necessary electric drivetrain components.” This analysis found a $38,800 cost for an electric vehicle. That cost is not unreasonable but the analysis is something like taking a conventional oven, stripping it, and adding parts to convert it to a microwave. There are many hybrids and electric cars on the market that have an MSRP much less than $38,800, such as the 4 passenger Mitsubishi MiEV which is rated at 112 MPGe and listed at $21,625. The price of the vehicles will certainly come down, as Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu said at the Detroit Auto Show he expects the cost for electric car batteries to drop from a whopping $12,000 in 2008, to $3500 by 2015 and $1500 by 2020. Currently there are waiting lists to purchase many electric cars and hybrids because of high demand, so there is little chance for price negotiations.

The article goes on, “Electric drive proponents are selling a house of cards based on fundamentally flawed assumptions and glittering generalities that have nothing to do with real world economics. Their elegant theories and justifications cannot withstand paper, pencil and a four function calculator.” However, Mr. Petersen bases his economic analysis on his $38,800 cost and a list of subsidies from what he calls an “extraordinary article”, The Real Costs of Alternative Energy by Alex Planes . Fortunately for the future of electric cars, Mr. Planes’ real costs are extraordinarily misleading.

Subsidies: Mr. Planes says, “a clear-headed look at the true costs of energy is something many — including our political leaders — sorely need.” He goes on,“Subsidies are just one of the costs of supporting alternative energy, but are they worth it?” Using U.S. Energy Information Administration data, Mr. Planes calculates the subsidies to energy sources in terms of the dollars per barrel of oil equivalencies. The subsidies he comes up with are coal: $0.39, oil and gas: $0.28, solar: $63, and wind $32.59. Based on his values, he says renewable energy’s costs to the government are “in some cases so high, and the actual energy returns so low, that it hardly seems worth the investment. Solar’s pitiful slice of American power use — less than a single day’s worth of oil consumption — is underwritten by enough taxpayer money to simply buy most of the power outright and provide it to taxpayers for free.” Subsidies are a poor way to estimate “true costs” as they are more indicative of the perceived future value of the resource to society.

True Cost? The reason Mr. Planes article is extraordinarily wrong is that he does not really give you the “true cost” of the use of fossil fuels. The true cost  of a resource includes not only the price but also the cost of cleaning up the environment and disposing of the waste. Fossil fuels dispose of their waste by releasing it into the air which causes damage to the environment and health problems for many Americans. We are in effect subsidizing the fossil fuel industry by the cost of allowing them to freely discharge their wastes into the environment. Any effort to determine the “real cost” of subsidies should include health and environmental costs. Mr. Planes says in the comments section of his article that he perhaps should rewrite his article to include what he calls the external costs. In the meantime, many people are using his incomplete analysis to disparage sustainable energy sources.

A Truer Cost: It is difficult to come up with an exact value for the “real subsidies” to the fossil fuel industry, but it is possible to estimate their magnitude. Top economists such as Britain’s Nicholas Stern, using the results from formal economic models, estimates that if we don’t limit our carbon emissions, the overall costs and risks of climate change will be equivalent to losing at least 5% of global GDP each year, now and forever. If a wider range of risks and impacts is taken into account, the estimates of damage could rise to 20% of GDP or more in the future, and we would run the additional risk of an environmental catastrophe.

Using 5% of the US GDP for 2010 would give an environmental cost of $727 billion. The American Lung Association estimates that the EPA’s proposed guidelines for particulates could prevent 38,000 heart attacks and premature deaths, 1.5 million cases of acute bronchitis and aggravated asthma, and 2.7 million days of missed work or school. They estimate the economic benefits associated with reduced exposure to soot to reach as much as $281 billion annually. Those two add up to about $1.01 trillion, and when divided by the 13541 million barrels of oil equivalent given in Mr. Planes article for coal, gas and oil together amounts to an additional subsidy of $73.9 per barrel of oil equivalent. The subsidies to wind and solar electric energy do not look so bad if you actually use fossil fuels: $74, solar: $63, and wind: $32.59. The calculations do not include all the environmental and health costs, but they do give an idea of how much we are subsidizing the fossil fuel industries by ignoring the damage to people’s health and the environment. Then there is the added risk of an environmental catastrophe.

 Disclosures: In an apparent effort to be evenhanded, as required by Motley Fool, Mr. Planes then concludes, “Wind and solar power have their drawbacks, but continue to make notable improvements year after year. However, neither option can yet provide the clean, constant, and convenient power the world demands. Natural gas offers the best opportunity for the near term. It’s plentiful, well-developed, and efficient, and will take on greater importance as dirtier hydrocarbons lose market share. ” Mr. Planes then offers you a free analysis of an “exciting opportunity to play the natural gas boom, by investing in a small company turning our oil-guzzling vehicle fleet into clean-burning natural gas machines.” He disclosed that he holds no stock in natural gas vehicles, but he may not be disclosing a bias against renewable energy. He refers to one of Robert Bryce’s books in his paper and his analysis sounds much like those in Mr. Bryce’s “Power Hungry: The Myths of ‘Green Energy’ and the Real Fuels of the Future”. In Mr. Bryce’s  5 Myths about Green Energy, he attacks green energy using false comparisons, misquotes, scientific inaccuracies, and the omission of pertinent facts. It is not surprising that  Mr. Bryce is not a fan of green energy as he is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, which receives large donations from the Koch Foundation and Exxon/Mobile.

 Mr. Petersen, using Mr. Plane’s analysis, finds, “The law of economic gravity cannot be ignored and will not be mocked. Shiny new electric vehicles from General Motors, Ford Nissan, Toyota, Tesla Motors and a host of privately held wannabe’s like Fisker Motors and Koda are doomed to catastrophic failure. Their component suppliers will fare no better. There is no amount of political or wishful thinking that can change the inevitable outcome.” When Mr. Petersen was asked about the omission of health and environmental costs in a comment on his article, he replied he was only interested in “hard authoritative numbers.”

 Obscenity? Mr. Petersen goes on, “The ultimate obscenity is that a conversion from gasoline drive to electric drive will not reduce the total amount of energy used in transportation. It merely shifts the energy burden from lightly subsidized oil and gas to more heavily subsidized energy from coal, nuclear and renewables.”  Not really. The amount of energy used would be reduced even if using electricity from traditional coal fired power plants to charge the electric vehicle. Coal-fired power plants have a thermodynamic efficiency of about 30%. Electric motors are now about 90% efficient in converting electric energy to work and when considering friction, power line transmission losses, energy lost when the batteries are charged, and the energy gained by regenerative braking, the overall efficiency of using coal to run electric cars comes out around 20%. Internal combustion engines have a thermodynamic efficiency of about 15% but drive train losses reduce that to an overall efficiency around 10%. These efficiencies are reasonable as a  paper by Stanford University  comparing “source to wheel efficiencies” rated the electric Tesla at 1.145 km/MJ of and the gasoline powered Honda Civic at 0.515 km/MJ. At current prices, that figures out to about 5 cents/mile for the Tesla and about 12 cents/mile for the Honda.

  Using sustainable energy sources to charge the batteries would be the ideal case as the “energy source to wheel” efficiency would be 60 to 80% and the carbon emissions would be greatly reduced.  There would be a substantial savings in energy and carbon emissions even if using electric cars charged using coal-fired power plants. Electric vehicles have the added advantage that the infrastructure to charge the batteries is already in place. The electric car does not seem to be built on such a house of cards as Mr. Petersen’s article suggests.

An article titled Investors See Climate Opportunity to Make Money, Create Jobs, reports 450 large institutional investors who control more than $20 trillion worldwide, agree “climate change is a risk to avoid and also an opportunity to make a good return on investments.” It reports “Global clean-energy investments reached $260 billion in 2011, some five times more than the $50 billion in 2005.” Our energy needs will best be served by a mixture of traditional and alternate energy sources and we should not let pessimistic analyses keep us from investing in and developing the alternate sources.

* Revised to include a more recent Stern Report on 01/22/2012.

 (c) 2012 J.C. Moore

 

What Does the Solyndra Bankruptcy Mean?

Tue ,20/09/2011

 No one knows for sure why the solar panel manufacturing company, Solyndra, went bankrupt or what it means, but Congress is now investigating the matter. Though it will be useful to know what went wrong, bankruptcies in these tough economic times are not unusual. It is not clear why Congress is investigating the matter, but if the investigation is used for political purposes, it may delay our development of renewable energy resources. This could further hurt our economy and actually cause the loss of jobs.

In spite of the fact that the Solyndra bankruptcy may have cost 1000 jobs, that is a small amount compared to the hundred thousand plus workers who now work in the solar energy business in United States. Solar energy is one of the fastest growing industries and the graph above from this article estimates that the use of solar energy will increase fivefold by 2020. If the United States does not invest in the production of solar panels, it is almost certain that other countries will. China has set aside $34 billion to be invested in the production of solar panels. The $500 million in loan guarantees to Solyndra is rather small compared to that amount.

 Unfortunately, the US investment in solar energy may be derailed by  Congress.  In spite of the other problems facing our nation, Congress has now launched a Congressional investigation into the Solyndra bankruptcy. It would seem that the investigation is politically motivated with the goal of embarrassing the Obama administration and derailing our efforts to reduce our dependency on fossil fuel. The Department of Energy has made a number of loan guarantees for investments in green energy projects and this is the only one which has had a serious problem. A number of large and savvy investors put over $1 billion into the Solyndra, so it cannot be claimed that it was was a bad investment from the beginning or that the company was suppoted entirely by the Department of Energy. Also, the political ramifications are not quite clear, as this timeline for the loan approval process for Solyndra shows it started in 2005 under the Bush administration.

(c) 2011 J.C. Moore

Is There a Ban on Incandescent Bulbs ?

Sun ,10/07/2011

While Congress is wrestling with the problem of keeping our country from going bankrupt, some in Congress and our business community are concerned with the serious problem of  – light bulb standards. The Investor Business Daily posted an editorial “Let There Be Lights” on 07/08/2011. (1)  Although it is an opinion piece, it does not represent an informed opinion. The article claims that the ban on incandescent light bulbs sums up everything that’s wrong with intrusive, nanny-state government. However,  there is no ban- just efficiency standards that some incandescent bulbs cannot meet.

It is interesting  that the The Republicans for Environmental Protection are opposed to eliminating the standards while Republicans in Congress, such as Joe Barton and  Michelle Bachmann are pushing  HR 91, a bill which is designed to scuttle the efficiency  standards. The Investor Business Daily editorial uses many of the  politician’s arguments, apparently without checking the facts.  The article starts :

”Energy: The ban on incandescent light bulbs sums up everything that’s wrong with intrusive, nanny-state government.”

But, there is no ban- just efficiency standards that some incandescent  bulbs cannot meet.  The Republicans for Environmental Protection are opposed to eliminating the standards and here is what they say:

“There is no light bulb ban. There never has been. The bulb ban rhetoric misrepresents a 2007 law that sets efficiency standards for general-purpose, screw-in light bulbs. In fact, new, efficient incandescent bulbs that meet the new standards are already on the shelves of your local Home Depot. That fact has not prevented Barton, Bachmann and others from pushing legislation, HR 91, to scuttle the new standards. It is likely that HR 91 will come up for a vote in the House over the next few weeks.” (2)

The Investor Business Daily opinion article goes on :

” As the law stands, the incandescent light, the greatest invention by America’s greatest inventor, Thomas Edison, will disappear at the end of this year. It is being replaced with an unproven substitute — the compact fluorescent light, or CFL — that is both politically foolish and bad science.”

 Eh? The incandescent bulb will not disappear. It will still be available in more efficient designs. And CFL bulbs for home use are based on the same proven technology as other fluorescent light bulbs.  I cannot think of a company, school, or public building that does not use fluorescent light bulbs to save energy and avoid maintenance costs.

The editorial also puts words in the mouths of proponents:

 “Proponents claim CFLs would provide lots of healthy light but use as much as 30% less energy. Not true.” And “- because CFL bulbs cost as much as 20 times more than the reliable old incandescent bulbs, consumers will pay through the nose for pretending to be green. “

The article would like for you to believe that CFL’s are only 30% more efficient but no proponent would claim that.  CFL’s are three to four times as efficient as regular bulbs and last about 10 times as long. As to cost, where do they shop? Many electric coops sell CFL bulbs for $1.00 and they are less than $2.00 at most discount stores.  I doubt if you can find an incandescent bulb for  1/20th of that. And, over the life of the CFL bulb, it will save approximately $9.00 in operating cost over the ten incandescent bulbs it will replace.

Finally, the editorial wants you to be afraid:

“As for safety and disposal, the CFLs are downright dangerous. They contain toxins such as mercury, arsenic, lead and cyanide. You can’t just throw them out — they have to be recycled in a way that’s expensive.”

 Do they realize that much of our electricity is produced by coal-fired power plants. Coal contains a trace amount of mercury, lead, and arsenic  - but considering that we burn 7 billion tons of coal each year -  50 tons of mercury  and many tons of other heavy metals are emitted into the air annually. The mercury and other pollutants are carried to the ground by rain and much of them end up in our lakes and streams where they enter the food chain.  It’s true that CFL’s should be recycled, but even if you don’t, using them will keep much more mercury and other pollutants out of the environment. (3)

(1)    http://www.investors.com/NewsAndAnalysis/Article/577799/201107081902/Let-There-Be-Lights.htm

(2)    See : http://capwiz.com/repamerica/issues/alert/?alertid=51013516&queueid=7101172991 The article contains a link for you to contact your Legislator. 

(3)    http://jcmooreonline.com/2009/08/21/mercury-in-fish/

(c) 2011  J.C. Moore

The EPA vs. Oklahoma Power Companies

Sat ,21/05/2011

The EPA has been charged with reducing the pollutants released into the environment, but they are meeting opposition from power companies, politicians, and people who want cheap energy, though other people’s health and the environment may suffer the consequences . The EPA is accepting comments on the issue through May 23, 2011.  (1)

The Environmental Protection Agency is seeking a 95 percent reduction in emissions at three of Oklahoma’s coal-fired power plants owned by OG&E and AEP. (2) This has brought howls from the utility companies and from Oklahoma’s politicians. Utility companies claim that installing scrubbers or converting to natural gas will cost them billions of dollars and drive the rates for electricity up by 10 to 12%. The utility companies have defined the costs for the plant conversions or upgrades in the worst possible terms, without considering the long-term savings of conversion to natural gas or the impact on people’s health.

EPA.  Stopping the EPA has been put forth as a Conservative and a Republican cause, but it really is neither. President Richard Nixon created the EPA to protect the environment as the United States developed industrially. The Clean Air Act was passed not only to reduce smog in our cities, but to ensure that the air was kept pure and clean in our national parks and wilderness areas. Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA has the right to limit sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, organic compounds, and particulates to ensure the quality of the air in our region. Limiting regional haze would have the added benefit of improving the health of people, wildlife, and plants in the region. Sulfur and nitrogen oxides are known to damage plants and those, along with small particulates, cause respiratory problems in people. Also, the particulates emitted contain mercury, arsenic, lead, cadmium, chromium, dioxins, and radioactive isotopes, which are all health hazards.

Regional problem. The emissions from Oklahoma plants do not remain in Oklahoma, and some of the haze in Oklahoma likely comes from surrounding states, particularly Texas, which has a large number of unregulated power plants. Emissions from a source may remain in the air for many weeks and travel for hundreds of miles. Although each state in the region might wish to address its own air pollution problems, it is a regional problem and must be addressed as such. Some of the states in the region are regulatory averse, and may lack the political will to act in the matter. For instance, a fly ash disposal plant at Bokoshe Oklahoma was allowed to operate for seven years while it violated Oklahoma statutes and apparently caused health problems and possibly deaths among Bokoshe residents.

Cost. The main objection to limiting emissions at the power plants is the cost. However, the power plants have operated for years without paying the true cost of energy production, which should include the cost of limiting their air pollution. It also appears that the companies have overstated the costs by as much as two or three times over the EPA estimates.  AEP reported $1.2 billion in profit last year and OG&E $292 million, so they can apparently afford to address the problem without passing all the costs to  customers.

Timetable. Three years would be a reasonable time for the power plants to come into compliance. It has been known for several decades that the emissions are damaging to the environment and health, yet the companies did not act. Also, the EPA had previously informed the companies that they were out of compliance, yet they have failed to come up with a satisfactory plan. They should have made a move toward compliance long ago, and further stalling should not be allowed.

Alternate plan. The alternate plan of converting the power plants to natural gas is certainly an acceptable plan. Methane produces about 2 1/2 times as much energy per unit of carbon dioxide as coal. And, switching to methane would also alleviate the problem of properly disposing of fly ash, bottom ash, and scrubber sludge. Those, and carbon emissions will necessarily be regulated in the future. Addressing the haze, the solid and liquid waste, and the carbon emissions piecemeal will certainly be less effective and more costly in the long run. If the companies should choose to convert the plants to methane, the added benefits would justify an increase in the timetable of up to five years.

(1) Comments may be submitted to r6air_okhaze@epa.gov or at http://act.credoaction.com/campaign/oklahoma_coal_pollution/?r=7901&id=21282-3213732-Kunk_Zx

(2) http://jcmooreonline.com/2011/03/17/the-problem-with-coal-and-politicians/

(c) 2011 J.C. Moore

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The Problem with Coal and Politicians

Thu ,17/03/2011

The EPA has been charged with reducing the pollutants released into the environment, but they are meeting opposition from power companies, politicians, and people who want cheap energy, though other people  and the environment may suffer the consequences.

The Environmental Protection Agency is seeking a 95 percent reduction in emissions at three of Oklahoma’s coal-fired power plants. This has brought howls from the utility companies and from Oklahoma’s politicians. Utility companies claim that installing scrubbers or converting to natural gas will cost them billions of dollars and drive the rates for electricity up by 10 to 12%. The utility companies have defined the costs for the plant conversions or upgrades in the worst possible terms, without considering the long-term savings.  Conversion to natural gas would eliminate the problem of  coal combustion products such as acidic gases, mercury vapor, fly ash, and bottom ash. Although coal is cheaper than other fuels, it delivers less energy per unit of CO2 produced. Coal  produces 314 kJ/mole while natural gas produces 890 kJ/mole, almost 3 times that of coal. Considering Oklahoma’s abundant supplies of natural gas, it would make sense for Oklahoma to begin switching power plants to natural gas.

The power companies and the politicians have tried to define the problem as the cost of the  “elimination of haze”, as if there were no other environmental damage done by burning coal. That is because the elimination of haze under the Clean Air Act is all the EPA is presently empowered to do. Coal is 65 to 95 % carbon. What about the rest? Coal contains small amounts of mercury, chromium, lead, cadmium, arsenic, sulfur, particulates, and radioactive isotopes. Man burns 6 billion tons of coal each year, releasing millions of tons of pollutants into the air and leaving several hundred million tons behind in the coal ash. Some pollutants eventually find their way into the water, the food chain, and into us. Oklahoma has adopted limits on fish consumption because of high levels of mercury. For comparison, mercury is 100 times as toxic as cyanide, arsenic is 20 times as toxic, and chromium(VI) is 4 times as toxic. These three are also are carcinogenic and accumulate in tissue. Even exposure below the allowed levels increases the chance of cancer over time. The small town of Bokoshe, Oklahoma is located near an unregulated fly ash disposal site. The incidence of cancer among the residents of the town is extraordinarily high, though the power company claims there is no link between that and their fly ash.

The sulfur and nitrogen oxides released by coal combustion harm plants and produce acid rain. A recent article headlined “Pecan growers say coal-fired plant killing trees” described the plight of orchards downwind from a power plant with inadequate pollution controls. One farmer said his pecan crop dropped over the years from 200,000 to 8,000 pounds. The combustion of coal  also releases 30 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the air each year. Because  CO2 in 3water is an acidic, the oceans have become over 20% more acidic in the last century. That has led to the destruction of coral reefs and endangered crustaceans and the phytoplankton that convert CO2 to oxygen. Without phytoplankton, life in the oceans would be impossible. The concentration of CO2 in the air has increased 38% as well.  As a potent greenhouse gas, it is causing the Earth to warm, glaciers and polar ice to melt, and the climate to change in ways we will not always like. The Supreme Court, in Massachusetts v. EPA, ordered the EPA to make a determination as to whether carbon dioxide is a pollutant. The EPA has found, based on the best scientific evidence, that CO2 is an endangerment to public health and has moved forward to regulate it.

Oklahoma’s politicians, such as Sen. Jim Inhofe and  Congressman Dan Boren, are working on a solution- for the power companies benefit. They want to strip the  EPA of  its power to regulate pollution.  They also claim it is a states rights issue, and that the EPA has no business regulating Oklahoma industries. However, the pollution generated by Oklahoma’s power plants does not stay within its borders, nor is all the pollution in Oklahoma from Oklahoma sources. Much of it blows up from Texas, the state with the highest number of power plants out of compliance. Acidic gases released by coal combustion, and even mercury vapor, can travel for thousands of miles before being brought to Earth by precipitation, and much of the CO2 will stay in the air for centuries. Regulation of carbon emissions needs to be done on a national and even international level. It is a bad idea to focus on short term economic costs while ignoring the environmental costs, such as polluting the Earth and letting rural Oklahoma become a dumping ground for the power companies’ waste.

(C) 2011 J.C. Moore

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Arsenic and the Water of Death

Mon ,31/01/2011

Pabitra Mukhopadhyay has written an excellent article focusing attention on a serious environmental problem, that of arsenic in drinking water. Some areas of the U.S. have high arsenic levels in groundwater, but they are in less populated regions that have been able to find other sources for drinking water. However, many of the tube well drilled in Bangladesh and West Bengal, the adjoining Indian state, bring water to the surface that is highly contaminated with arsenic. The problem is serious as it was not discovered for a long time, and many people have been sickened or died from arsenic poisoning. Many more have been exposed to levels that will cause further health problems. Exposure at even low levels may cause cancer later as arsenic is a potent carcinogen. While Pabitra’s article dealt with the arsenic situation in general, this is an account of the physical and chemical processes related to arsenic contamination in ground water.

Arsenic is a reactive metalloid that is rarely found uncombined in nature. There are at least 50 minerals that have arsenic as a component. Most of these occur in areas that have had volcanic activity in the past. Weathering breaks down the minerals and streams pick up the arsenic compounds and carry them along. Evaporation, particularly in desert areas, will concentrate the arsenic compounds and the arsenic concentration may become very high in pools and shallow lakes. In many areas, the minerals eventually becomes covered with sediments so that they do not affect surface waters. However, water in aquifers still may come into contact with the minerals and leach out the arsenic compounds. Wells drilled into those aquifers will bring arsenic to the surface and the arsenic levels in the water may be too high for safe drinking water.

Human activities such as mining brings arsenic minerals to the surface, and leaching from mine tailings contaminates surface waters and shallow aquifers. Mobilization of arsenic in the sedimentary aquifers has been attributed to changes in the geochemical environment due to agricultural irrigation. In deeper wells, elevated arsenic concentrations are associated with compaction caused by groundwater withdrawals. A more recent concern is that our increasing use of coal may lead to increased levels of arsenic in groundwater. Coal contains an average amount of about 14.5 parts per million (ppm). That is a trace amount but since we burn about 4.5 billion tons of coal each year, coal mining brings about 67,000 tons of arsenic to the surface each year. When coal is burned, the arsenic ends up mostly in the coal ash, which is then disposed of in landfills, cements, and even by agricultural use. Once in the environment, some of the arsenic ultimately finds its way into the groundwater.

Arsenic in water is in the form of either As(V) compounds, called arsenates, or As(III) compounds, called arsenites. As(III) species are more toxic than As(V) species. However, one form may be converted into the other by chemical reactions depending on the environment. Oxidation converts As(III) to As(V) and reduction reactions convert As(V) to As(III). Water tests do not discriminate between the forms of arsenic and water standards usually have a standard for the total arsenic level of no more than 10 parts per billion, though some areas have even stricter standards. For comparison, the standard for cyanide in drinking water is around 200 ppb, so arsenic is about 20 times more toxic than cyanide. Also, arsenic is bioaccumulated and a carcinogen and the chances of poisoning or cancer goes up as the total exposure over time.

Toxicity: Arsenates are chemically similar to phosphates, and their toxic effect is expressed by interfering with reactions involving phosphates. Arsenate toxicity occurs when it replaces phosphate in the oxidative phosphorylation processes. This leads to mitochondrial impairment and inhibition of glycolytic energy metabolism, which causes cell damage and muscular weakness. Many biological systems carry out reducing reactions that convert As(V) to the more toxic As(III). As(III) is more reactive and forms strong bonds with functional groups such as the thiolates of cysteine and the imidazolium nitrogens of histidines. Arsenic toxicity depends on its chemical form and some plants and animals accumulate arsenic as relatively nontoxic organoarsenic molecules. Plants grown using water high in arsenic may not themselves be toxic.

Arsenate is predominant in water containing high levels of dissolved oxygen, while As(III) species occur under more reducing conditions such as found in deeper wells and anaerobic environments. The distribution of arsenite-oxidizing bacteria in upper layers and arsenate-reducing bacteria in lower depths of the sediments  impact the type of arsenic released into nearby tubewell groundwater.

Removal: Metal arsenites are much more soluble than the corresponding metal arsenates. Arsenates are more likely to be removed from water by being adsorbed by solid phases, such as sediments and soils. As(V) compounds exist in water in ionized forms that may be removed by precipitation with many metal ion, principally iron ions. In the pH ranges found in drinking water, As(III) exist as H3AsO3 which does not ionize enough to combine with metal ions, so As(III) is hard to remove by normal precipitation methods.

To overcome this problem, a very innovative and cost effective arsenic removal technology has been devised at Jadavpur University by Dr. Bhaskar Sengupta, and his colleagues. The method, subterranean arsenic removal (SAR), uses aerated groundwater that is recharged back into the aquifer to create an oxidation zone. The oxidation zone created by the aerated water boosts the activity of the arsenic-oxidizing microorganisms and oxidizes As(III) to As(V), which is then precipitated by the iron ions present in the water. No chemicals are used and the method has a very long operational life. This method shows great promise in making the water well contaminated with arsenic safer to drink.

(C)  2011 J.C. Moore

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