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Energy creativity – thinking outside the box

31 Jul 2013

Has inspiration struck?

Can we produce “clean” energy to: (1) cost effectively enough to put into use, (2) reduce dependance on foreign oil and US coal; and (3) reduce carbon emissions?

Despite a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal discussing Europe’s experience with higher cost, less dependable solar and wind power, the creativity of academia never ceases to amaze me. I recently came across an article about this publication, Environmental Science & Technology Letters and a paper in it about utilizing CO2 emissions from power plants in fluids, where the CO2 was split into positive and negative ions. The ions were then used to create a flow of electrons that could be captured by an electrode, creating electricity. While this proof-of-concept is not yet efficient (i.e., it uses more energy than it generates), the researchers believe that they may be able to turn that around and make it cost-effective. While this wouldn’t reduce CO2 emissions, it could double the amount of energy associated with the same emissions, effectively cutting CO2 emissions in half per kilowatt generated.  If this works (and there’s no guarantee that it will), it would also enable us to continue to use the current grid system.

Just as interesting, and farther along, are the University of Michigan’s experiments, described here, with capturing energy from low flow water bodies.  The concept of hydroelectric energy is not new but UM apparently thinks that they may have found an efficiency that others may have missed allowing energy to be generated without dams and using natural flow rates.

Whether these technologies will turn out to be cost-effective remains to be seen but the ingenuity of mankind certainly gives me hope that we can protect the planet, be efficient and not have to become luddites.

What can one man do against climate change?

9 May 2013

So, the President said in January and in February, that climate change was one of his priorities and Congress could either work with him or he’d go it alone.   What might the President do on sustainability and climate change without Congress ? Well, the Armed Forces are thinking about, talking about and planning for heightened conflicts caused by climate change and the challenges of waging war in a more intense environment.

What else might the President do? He could:

1.  Impose heavier regulations on existing power plants, which reportedly account for 1/3 of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

2.  Fully disapprove the Keystone XL Pipeline which many have said will result in few permanent jobs but perhaps the “dirtiest” oil available.

3. Attempt to regulate fracking – which will be difficult under the current Congressional regime.

4. Ramp up government procurement – making sustainability a mandate; retrofitting government buildings and pushing renewable power for government operations.

5. Attempt to require methane capture during natural gas production.

6.  Continue pressure on automakers to improve gas mileage.

7. Adopt even more energy efficiency standards for household appliances and industrial equipment.

8. Promote planning and codes for resilience in design and construction to guard against catastrophic harms from events like Hurricane Sandy.

Interestingly, without governmental involvement, the market itself appears to be pushing companies to assign monetary value to their impacts on the environment as part of an overall drive toward “sustainability.”  Once you start measuring the impacts, it becomes easier for shareholders and the marketplace to drive less efficient companies toward efficiencies.  So, perhaps the President doesn’t need to do anything.

Is this a carbon tax? A windfall profits tax? Or just a DOA tax?

18 Mar 2013

On Friday, President Obama announced in a speech his plans for an Energy Security Trust  to fund $2 Billion in research into energy technologies to help the United States, among other things: (1) get off oil altogether (particularly foreign oil); (2) develop clean coal technologies; and (3) improve efficiencies in the production of natural gas (thereby reducing greenhouse effects).

This hits at two interesting sweet spots –  1. It finally relates energy to national security; and 2. It focuses on something everyone agrees government should be supporting – basic research (vs that nasty old picking winners and losers). As a concept I really like this and think it’s the sort of future-thinking investment our government should be pursuing (like investing in education, clean water, good roads, etc.).

What I find interesting is the concept that this Trust will be funded by “Revenue from Profitable Oil and Gas Companies” and thereby won’t increase anyone else’s taxes.  Per the President’s speech, he wants to fund the Trust from oil and gas royalties on federal lands.

The government already collects around  $9.5 billion in oil and gas royalties.  Over half of the revenue goes to the U.S. Treasury. About a billion goes to the Land and Water Conservation Fund which is distributed to states and federal agencies to acquire and develop public lands. Finally, distributions are made to states or monies generated on federal lands within those states.

The concept has been used before. Back in a somewhat less contentious era, the federal Superfund was created to clean up “orphaned” waste sites.

It was funded in part by excise taxes on crude oil and refined oil products, on hazardous chemicals, on imported substances that used hazardous chemicals and by an environmental income tax of 0.12% on a corporation’s modified alternative minimum taxable income over $2 million.  Those taxes expired in 1995 and since then the EPA has funded Superfund based on Congressional appropriations of around $1.2 billion annually and whatever EPA recovers from companies liable for sites that EPA had cleaned up.

The President’s speech left out exactly where the $2 Billion would come from – will it be from: (1) an increase in royalties; (2) eliminating royalty waivers; (3) a reduction in payments for public lands; or (4) a reduction in payments made to states?  Based on the commitment not to raise taxes, it appears that the Treasury will continue to get its cut. I suppose another option would be to increase by some 20% the number of wells being drilled.  This appears to be the direction that the group that developed this concept wants to go.

We can see where this fight is going.  The House of Representatives and many in the Senate have taken the “no new taxes” pledge.  Liberals in Congress will fight more arctic and off-shore drilling.  Will the President dangling more drilling rights encourage the politicians to go for this and spur some of the world’s largest companies to agree to help subsidize their own potential extinction?  The odds of this proposal getting enacted seem very long, even if the goals are quite worthwhile.

Landfill gas and Coca Cola?

7 Mar 2013

As organic wastes in landfills break down, they form methane.  Until recently, that methane either escaped into the air or was directed to a flare to be burned.  Methane was viewed as a nuisance and something that could cause problems if it traveled in the wrong directions.  However, recently landfill operators have been either selling that methane or using it to generate power on site.  This is both economically and environmentally good as a resource is used and methane (which is a much stronger greenhouse gas than CO2) is combusted.

Recently, the EPA documented the numbers of landfills collecting and using methane and those yet to do so. It turns out that Michigan ranks number three in the Nation behind California and Pennsylvania with 39 landfills using landfill gas and only eight left to do so.

Even more recently, I stumbled across this article which discusses how the Georgia company that makes these fancy new “Freestyle” Coca-Cola machines uses landfill gas piped from a nearby landfill to generate almost 100% of the electricity and steam used to power the plant.  We’ve seen these new machines (which serve up to 100 different flavors) in various new fast food outlets and during a recent trip to Florida – who knew they were manufactured using renewable energy from waste?

Blue methane bubbles?

31 Jan 2013

Last fall, I blogged about this very cool burning ice, methane hydrate.  This is actually methane trapped in ice.  Well, I just came across this story which shows methane hydrate in another view.  The video, which shows the trapped gas being ignited, is pretty impressive.

On the plus side, this may be a cleaner source of fuel. On the other hand, methane escaping on its own is a powerful greenhouse gas (some say almost 20 times as powerful as CO2).  Extracting something like this obviously poses its own challenges when a spring thaw sends the methane bubbling into the air.

Top Green Stories of 2012

31 Dec 2012

As we race toward the end of the year, we thought we’d look back at what we thought were the big stories of 2012 on, in no particular order:

Wetland Rules – EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers submitted final guidance to clarify the scope of waters regulated under the Clean Water Act to the Office of Management and Budget for federal interagency review. The EPA and the Corps have been the subject of “inquiries” from Congress, industry organizations, environmental groups, states and the public for rulemaking to further clarify the requirements of the Clean Water Act consistent with decisions of the Supreme Court. We continue to wait.

Fracking– something that was little heard of before 2011, received a lot of notoriety as dueling reports were released and a flurry of rules and guidance including: an EPA rule to require well developers to institute “green completion” procedures which phases in over the next two years; EPA guidance when diesel fuel is included as a component of the fracking fluid used to free the trapped gas; and U.S. Department of the Interior draft rules for fracking on federal and Indian lands.  The comment period closed in September and the Department recently announced that the rules would not be finalized until sometime in 2013. Finally, the petition drive to amend the State Constitution to ban the use of horizontal hydraulic fracturing fell flat and did not make the ballot.  Given the voters’ response to Constitutional amendments and in particular, how Proposal 3 relating to the clean energy renewable portfolio standard failed, it seems likely that this would’ve failed too.

MDEQ reorganization – the Director shook up the staff at the MDEQ. There was a CSI process intended to streamline the cleanup program and, in the last month, the Department’s cleanup division got a new chief, Bob Wagner, and the Governor signed legislation that was developed in part through the CSI process.

EPA Greenhouse Gas Rules vs. Congress. – a federal appellate panel approved EPA’s rules under the 1990 Clean Air Act  aimed at coal burning power plants.

• Coal Ash – Hazardous Materials – while EPA had proposed rules to more heavily regulate ash from the combustion of coal, it ran into a political buzz saw and the regulations went nowhere.  Luckily, the coal industry avoided the sorts of accidents that plagued them in 2011.

Keystone Pipeline.  As we predicted, President Obama and Congress started 2012 locked in a politically charged dispute over the Keystone XL pipeline, a proposed 1,700-mile oil pipeline from Canada to Texas.  The President deferred it, catching some election year heat, and will likely have to deal with it again in 2013.

Governor Snyder focuses on Environment/Energy – at year’s end, the Governor issued a policy statement on these two interrelated issues and we expect next year to see a focus on improvements in both.

Change at the EPA? Lisa Jackson announced on December 27, 2012, that she’d be stepping down as head of the EPA early next year.


Smart Grid – brought to you in part by Michigan?

5 Dec 2012

In January, I blogged about the so-called “Smart Grid” and what it may mean for the future of the electric system in this Country.   And, while alot of the Smart Grid is about better information for both utilities and consumers, another part is about improving efficiencies.

Last week, the MEDC announced that a Michigan Company, Grid Logic, received a $3.8 Million federal grant to develop a low-cost superconducting wire for use by electric utilities and others.  This project, which sounds very cool, will involve embedding very fine superconducting particles in a combination of metals to induce superconductivity. If successful, the wire would reduce the cost of transmission lines, motors for wind turbines, and other electric devices.  I wonder if the technique will have other applications as well.

This was part of a series of 66 grants totaling $130 Million  by the US Energy Department to foster the development of various cutting edge energy-related technologies.

While the current administration calls it a good example of “economic gardening” – it seems to me that the Government is doing what it has always done, take chances on encouraging technological advancement.  When it pays off, it’s touted as common sense investment in the future – when it fails, it’s perjoratively called “picking winners and losers.”  The New York Times has been running a series on incentives (where it appears only one state has given more incentives than Michigan) – personally, I’m in favor of incentives when they’re well designed, well thought out and planned to foster future-looking efforts – that’s what the federal government did when it incentivized the railroads and oil drilling in the 1800s and 1900s respectively.  Is this program a boondoggle? It depends on politics and results and those are yet to be seen.  I favor investments in the future and  the Energy grants (while having some problems) seem to fall into that category.