Friday, January 21, 2011

An Opportunity for Underground Electricity Transmission?

Electricity transmission is a significant barrier to ramping up renewable capacity. The New York Times published a story this week about Texas where the Public Utility Commission has struggled to site 2,300 miles of new transmission lines. Much of the battle revolves around citizens unhappy with the prospect of lines degrading the quality of public and private property. Utilities are also constrained and looking to avoid costs associated with circuitous routing and permitting.

Controversies over electricity lines always leave me envious of the Germans. In Germany, a country that stands near the top of world rankings for total wind capacity, distribution lines are mostly underground – a considerable factor in mitigating localized power outages caused by downed trees. Destruction of infrastructure during WWII explains why Germany has a more modern and reliable electricity system compared to the US. Germany is also exploring underground transmission options through a pilot project near Bremen. Historically avoided due to premiums on installation and maintenance, underground transmission lines may be a solution to overcoming stateside NIMBY battles.

What exactly are the barriers to placing transmission lines underground? An operational barrier, emphasized by the American Transmission Company, is the fact that electricity transmission creates heat, which must be dissipated for safe and reliable delivery of power. While air is a much more effective medium for heat transfer relative to soil, releasing heat into the atmosphere is a waste of a valuable resource. If heat is released into the soil, however, the challenge of heat dissipation may be an opportunity for efficient heat capture. Capturing electricity transmission waste heat is a concept I’ve not heard about. Geothermal heating and cooling, a process that uses convection and heat pumps to capture ground warmth, is the obvious comparison.

There seem to be opportunities for coupling underground transmission development with heat capture, or combined transmission and heating. Namely, a chief inefficiency in the electrical grid, unused electrons, can be transformed into a revenue generating tool as heat is captured and sold to customers. This benefit alone may be enough to overcome the cost barriers associated with placing transmission lines underground. On the other hand, it seems like a bad idea putting fluids in close proximity to an electrical current. An additional concern is infrastructure requirements (I.e., electrical and fluid piping) under the principle of placing people close to heat sources to minimize heat loss, but away from electrical currents to minimize health risks.

I believe that is as far as my hair-brained idea should go without consulting experts. What are your thoughts? Has this concept been introduced before?

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982: Allowing politics to trump policy for nearly 30 years

Last week, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission struck down the Obama administration's decision to drop Yucca Mountain as the nation's only central repository for nuclear waste. The Nuclear Energy Institute and many others support the NRC's decision. But what people aren't talking about is how we got into this predicament in the first place. President Obama could use this situation to correct decades of poorly communicated policy on nuclear waste storage by keeping Yucca Mountain on the table but using a transparent decision analysis process with public participation that takes into account the efforts already expended on preparing Yucca Mountain for storage.

In one of my classes here in Portugal, we had decision analysis expert Larry Philips give a guest lecture on the multi-attribute decision making process that Great Britain is using to determine how to handle their nuclear waste. (Multi-attribute decision making refers to the process of determining objectives, developing criteria from those objectives on which to score alternatives, weighting the importance of each criterion, and the determining the best alternative by ranking them by score.) After they finish the first process and decide on a method, they will enter another round of thoughtful deliberation on where to locate whichever waste storage method they choose. Intrigued, I asked him what he thought of the U.S. process of picking Yucca Mountain. He glibly replied that the U.S. didn’t use any rational decision-making process to speak of.

Of course we didn’t. Because in the U.S., we rarely let scientific and rational thought interfere with a decision that a politician could use to his or her own electoral benefit. The case of where to site our nuclear waste repository was no exception.

The year was 1987. Three repository locations were on the table: Washington state (near the Hanford Nuclear Reservation site), salt formations in Texas, and Yucca Mountain in Nevada. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 called for an environmental assessment of each of the three candidate sites, and for the president to choose a site to begin centralized storage. This is the stage in the process where public confidence began to erode. President Reagan chose Yucca Mountain. Because of a carefully deliberated multi-criteria decision analysis facilitated by a team of non-partisan decision experts, you ask? I couldn't find anything to support that hypothesis, so I'll just post some pictures that illustrate how I think the decision might have fomented in that administration in a pre-election year:




(All images courtesy Wikipedia)

When I read the Washington Post editorialDon't let politics drive a nuclear-waste decision” from July 19, I thought how appropriate that title would have been twenty-three years ago when politicians were sealing the fate of Yucca Mountain and billions of ratepayer dollars. Even the first paragraph belies a logical inconsistency that should give a reader pause:

“In 1982, the government claimed ownership of the nation's wastes and vowed to dispose of them in a central location. In 1987, it designated Yucca Mountain as that location. In 2002, the Energy Department deemed Yucca Mountain suitable, and Congress voted its approval.”

It seems to me that before one location was chosen, before billions of dollars were invested in infrastructure, before nuclear utilities and ratepayers were forced to shoulder the cost of a huge public investment, the government should have done the necessary studies and public outreach to ensure that the project would be viable, both technically and socially. But sometimes what is obvious and logical is also quite elusive to Congress.

Now advocates of a central nuclear waste repository are calling on the Obama administration to stop bending to the will of a certain Nevada senator, but they are failing to grasp the possibility that the Yucca Mountain repository was doomed before it was built due to an opaque decision-making process and lack of public outreach.

I believe there are a number of areas in which the U.S. excels compared to England, but apparently making informed, transparent decisions about nuclear waste is not one of them. In this area, we ought to act more like the British. If U.S. citizens could follow the steps of the decision-making process in a timely, organized way, they are more likely to accept the outcome of the process, whether that outcome is storage at Yucca Mountain, or some other location or method.

Right now President Obama's decision to drop Yucca Mountain from consideration holds just as much logic as President Reagan's decision to drop Texas and Washington state in favor of Yucca Mountain. By embarking on a process that is more inclusive of ideas and that seeks to educate the public as much as it does to gain their approval, President Obama could reverse years of public misconception and apprehension about dealing with spent nuclear fuel.

I'll end with some vintage Daily Show footage...but even Jon Stewart fails to grasp the inter-generational complexities that have gone into making Yucca Mountain the political stalemate that it is today:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
The Little Engine That Could... Kill Us All
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Google buys 20 years worth of wind power

Today, TechCrunch reported that Google has purchased 20 years worth of wind power from an Iowa wind farm. They've bought the rights to 114 MW of capacity, either to use themselves to power their 'definitely not evil' enterprises, or sell on the open market.

Google has been playing in the clean energy field for awhile, but this is their most serious financial move to date. The article quotes a Google spokesperson as saying the deal represents 350 - 450 million kWh annually...if google paid $0.05/kWh, the deal is worth $350 million - $450 million. Some serious cash, and it should be viewed as a strategic business move, not as a 'beyond petroleum' greenwashing ploy.

I think these long term wind contracts are a good idea. Google gets power at a reasonable, guaranteed rate for 20 years and is protected against volatile and likely increasing electricity costs. The wind farm gets a guaranteed customer and doesn't have to worry about expiring tax credits, which means it can probably get cheaper financing. Most importantly, it shows other companies that wind isn't just for hippies or politicians, it can make economic sense. Apple, you're next!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Small step for electric cars, giant leap towards killing BP's Macondo well

Today's post is somewhat of a news roundup.

President Obama promoted electric vehicles at the opening of a battery factory in Michigan yesterday, while engineers finally stopped the oil gusher completely (albeit possibly not permanently) for the first time since it began nearly three months ago.

While Gulf wildlife is not out of the oil infested waters woods yet, this is a major step on the way to permanently stopping the uncontrolled flow of oil. Engineers will be monitoring the internal pressure of the well over the next 48 hours to determine how well the cap is working. If they see rising pressure, that could signal an oncoming breach in the cap equipment. If they see dropping pressure, that could signify that oil is leaking into the surrounding rock, in effect finding other ways to breach the ocean floor.

(FYI, you can monitor the leak from multiple underwater cameras here on BP's website)

Switching gears, an NYT article yesterday announced that GM will be offering 8-year or 100,000 mile warrantees on their Chevy Volt batteries. I question whether they will extend that offer to customers who choose to cycle their batteries more frequently through vehicle-to-grid programs that are sure to develop once these cars hit the road. The warrantee department should probably get out of their internal combustion engine mindset and set warrantees based on battery cycles, not miles, but as an advocate of V2G systems, I won't complain.

One interesting thing about the president's address at the battery factory yesterday was that he dropped the last protectionist line from his usual EV battery stump speech, which normally reads, "For years, we've heard about manufacturing jobs disappearing overseas. You are leading the way in showing how manufacturing jobs are coming right back here to the United States of America, instead of South Korea." Since the parent company of the battery plant, LG Chem, is from South Korea, some astute staffer cut out the last four words. In my opinion, he or she probably deserves a raise. (This was first noted in the WP article linked to above.)

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Obama, the spill, and the medical marijuana model

The President addressed a pissed off nation last week about the BP oil disaster. His speech clarified what we already knew...that the government is impotent to stop the spill, and we are all at the mercy of a gaggle of incompotent BP engineers.

However, the real problem is that the government also has no way to stop the other gusher...America's oil use. The President talks up alternative technologies such as PHEVs and next gen biofuels, but these will not substantially cut oil use for at least a decade.

The only short term way to dramatically reduce American oil consumption is to jack up the price, but mentioning a gas tax in DC is now as politically savvy as chanting "drill baby drill", and the President's speech avoided the topic like the plague.


With all of these issues swirling, I spent last week in Boulder Colorado, apparently the happiest place on earth. The first thing you notice in Boulder is the beautiful mountain vistas. The second is the funky smell emanating from the dozens of medical marijuanna dispensaries.

Boulder's liberal medical marijuanna laws mean that obtaining a doctor's perscription for pot requires $200 and a slight cough. The town is reaping the benefits of the many Colorado University students suffering from 'chronic pain' by taxing the hell out of the bud. And slowly, the city is relying more and more on the funds to keep budgets afloat...and legalized marijuana is becoming a reality in Colorado.

My proposition is this: liberal cities like Boulder make their crunchy citizens happy by dramatically increasing local gas $3 or $4 / gallon... and offset the tax hike by lowering income taxes. The tax would be revenue neutral for citizens, but the income from travelers would fill city coffers.

Naturally, the city would pressure it's neighbors to follow suit, so people don't fill up next door. Eventually the effort would gain steam, and gas tax hikes would become tenable at the state and federal level.

The Boulder Chronic Model (BCM) is the best cure for America's chronic oil addiction.

Update, 7/20/10:
The NYT did a great story a few weeks back on the burgeoning Boulder marijuana business:

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Offshore Wind and Oil: BFFs in a new Federal Bureau

Here's a link to a post about offshore wind on the east coast. Governors from ten East Coast states pledged to work together on exploration and development of offshore wind resources. The post also mentions Department of the Interior's new "Bureau of Ocean Energy Management." I hadn't heard of it before, but apparently it is a third of the new trifecta of bureaus replacing the Minerals Management Service. Here is a very under-hyped (in my opinion, maybe I'm just out of the federal energy loop) Secretary Order citing the formation of the Bureaus of Ocean Energy Management and Safety and Environmental Enforcement, and the Office of Natural Resources Revenue (the link goes directly to a pdf on the right hand side of the page, three items down). This effectively splits up the party responsible for ensuring offshore drilling ventures are safe from the one that collects the paychecks from the drilling profits. It sounds similar to the split of the Atomic Energy Commission back in 1974, forming one body responsible for the licensing and safety of nuclear plants (the Nuclear Regulatory Commission) and another responsible for the research and promotion of nuclear energy, now part of DOE.

It will be interesting to see how one bureau handles the management of both wind energy (and possibly wave and tidal energy eventually) and drilling for oil. Hopefully they can recruit people with expertise in offshore renewable energy since this is somewhat of a mission-change for them. Tradeoff decision-making will also be an important skill set for the new group, as situations where offshore wind and offshore drilling compete for the same spot of ocean may arise.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Welcome to Portugal Part II

This is the second installment in an as yet undecided-part series about my exploits and energy observations in Portugal.

Part II: Where's the dryer?

The Portuguese are exceedingly practical when it comes to using the sun to dry their clothes. It came as a surprise to me since growing up in the U.S., most (if not all) families had both a washer and a dryer, and if not there were laundromats. (Sidebar: I would question the logic of adopting clothesline drying in my hometown near Washington, DC since most warm months are accompanied by such high humidity that it would make line drying take about as long as drying your laundry in a bathtub full of hot water.) Line drying works amazingly fast when it is sunny and dry, though. And it is so satisfying to take dry warm clothes off the line that you know took absolutely no electricity to dry. (Maybe I derive satisfaction in different ways than most people, though. It's a possibility.)

However, there is one flaw in the plan. Much like winter seems to take Portugal by surprise each year (by my experience of n=1 years), two to three-week bouts of rain make line drying laundry difficult if not impossible during January, February, and March. My roommates and I would race to the washer at the first sign of a sunny day, keeping an eye on the weather report as we put our clothes out to dry, and more than once racing to pull them down as it became clear our luck with the sun had run out. During one particularly long rainy spell, where I had used up virtually all of my clean clothes, I decided to use a laundromat. But upon asking a few Portuguese how to do this, getting some blank looks and "what is a laundromat?" questions, my only other timely option was to go to a dry cleaners. This expedition cost me about 20 euros for the equivalent of 2 loads of laundry - washed, dried, and folded. Lesson learned. My advice: when you come to Portugal for the winter, make sure you bring plenty of clean underwear. Or, you might want to open a would have my business.