Category Archives: Sustainable Energy

Cities, States, Lead the Way

President Trump, with the assistance of our Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, is working to reverse several steps President Obama took to clear the air and reduce the rate of global warming. The result here in Arkansas means dirtier air. Although the main focus of President Obama’s Clean Power Plan is reducing greenhouse emissions, an important side benefit is a reduction of pollution that impacts our health.

Burning fossil fuels especially coal releases not only Carbon Dioxide, the major greenhouse gas, but other noxious substances. Particulate matter, acid-forming gasses, toxic heavy metals, and even radioactivity are dumped into the air we breathe. In terms of human health, the fine particles may be the most important. Tiny bits of ash from combustion processes can be inhaled into the lungs. These very small particles penetrate to the deepest reaches of the lungs where they cause irritation and inflammation. This damages lung tissue and makes breathing more difficult.

Luckily for us, president Trump holds a minority position. The rest of the world is working in the opposite direction to limit greenhouse gasses and clear the air. Many corporations other than the fossil fuel industry are working to clean the air because that is what customers demand.

Cities and states are also doing their part. Here in Arkansas, our shining city on the hill has joined an august group in a Sierra Club sponsored program called Ready for 100. Several cities across the country from Santa Barbara, CA to Concord NH, from Minneapolis, MN to Orlando, FL have joined to clean the air.

Fayetteville, by joining the Ready for 100 program, has committed to a goal of producing 100 percent of its energy for governmental operations from clean, sustainable sources by 2030. The commitment from individual cities in the Ready for 100 program vary. For example, Berkeley, CA has committed to 100 percent carbon free energy for all energy used within the municipality – everything including transportation.

Tiny Abita Springs, LA population about 2500 has committed to transitioning to 100 percent of the town’s electricity by 2030. At the other end of the spectrum is Denver, Colorado with a population approaching 3 million. Like little Abita Springs, much larger Denver is committed to 100 percent of the city’s electrical energy from sustainable sources.

At the state level are renewable portfolios which commit a state to a certain level of renewable energy in the state’s mix. Leading the way, and not surprisingly, is California. Legislation recently signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown commits the state to the production of 100 percent of the state’s energy by 2045. The challenge will be met by a mix of common sources such as wind and solar but also more unique programs such as waste to energy and ocean currents.

This aggressive approach is needed to stimulate research and in so doing, take California to the head of the class in the development of energy resources for the future. Here in much of Arkansas we will stand back and watch the future evolve somewhere else.

Iceland – Fire and Ice

When it comes to countries with the lowest dependence on fossil fuels – coal, oil, and natural gas – the hands-down winner is Iceland. Because of abundant rainfall, about 80 inches annually, and considerable topographic relief they are able to produce over twenty percent of there energy needs from hydropower.

More important however is the production of energy from geothermal heat, almost seventy percent of their usage. Much of this is harnessed to generate electricity but a considerable amount of the geothermally produced steam is process heat for industries and for district heating. The steam is delivered to much of the populated portion of the island via underground piping.

The availability of geothermal heat is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing in terms of the energy available, but a curse do to volcanic activity. In 2010 Eyjafjallajökull erupted. The ash cloud disrupted air travel across Europe for several weeks. This was only a nuisance, but even larger eruptions have occurred.

In 924 CE a volcanic eruption was calculated to produce over 700 billion cubic feet of ash and lava. Human life was impacted only slightly as the island was only first settled in the 9th century, so the population was minuscule. Even today, the population is small for a nation, about 350 thousand. Compare that with the population of the urban area in and around Little Rock, Arkansas at over 400 thousand. Two-thirds of the population on this island the size of Ohio is in the capital, Reykjavik.

The most disastrous eruption was the event from June 1783 to February 1784. Rather than an eruption from one point, a volcano, a rift 15 miles long opened up and spewed lava, ash, and toxic gasses such as Sulfur Dioxide and Hydrofluoric acid. Ninety percent of livestock and twenty-five percent of the citizenry died immediately or over the next year due to starvation. Twenty villages were buried under lava.

All the geologic activity is due to Iceland’s straddling both the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. They are moving away from each other at the rate of nearly an inch a year. Tourists can stroll through the rift zone in Thingvellir National Park. You can even scuba dive in a lake with your hands in a narrow crevice, one hand on North America and the other on Eurasia.

On the opposite side of the globe these and the Pacific plate are colliding, one subducting under the other. This type of subduction causes the volcanoes in Alaska to Central America and western South America and earthquakes in both California and Japan.

Iceland, as the name implies is far north in the Atlantic. Reykjavik is the world’s most northerly national capital, a scant two degrees south of the Arctic circle. Considering just how far north it is, the climate is surprisingly moderate.

Along the coast, especially the south, the summertime highs are in the mid-fifties and winter lows only in the upper twenties to low thirties. The ocean current known as the Gulf Stream delivers warmer water from coastal Florida to moderate the climate in this otherwise northerly clime. The interior of the island is as expected, colder. Eleven percent of the interior is covered with glaciers.

Wrong Way President

Republicans have long been known as the party of business, both big and small. The party that believes in the free market. The party that doesn’t want government picking winners and losers. The GOP platform statement is unambiguous. “Government should not play favorites among energy producers.“

Recently Trump has floated a plan to order the electrical grid operators to buy power from coal and nuclear powered electrical generators. Even though power from natural gas-fired plants is cheaper and cleaner. Even though power from wind turbines and utility-scale photovoltaic systems(solar) is far cleaner and now cheaper than coal-fired plants.

His argument which will drive up the cost of electricity is a somewhat poorly disguised attempt to prop up industries whose time has past. Twenty-five coal plants have closed since he began as president. The two largest coal plants here in Arkansas are in negotiations for closure within a decade. There hasn’t been a new order for a nuclear plant in several decades.

Meanwhile, wind and solar power are rapidly expanding. Clarksville just added its own solar array and Entergy is building two major solar plants.

The plan to help the coal and nuclear industries is couched as a national defense emergency, and if this order were to be enacted would employ a regulation normally used to respond to national crises such as weather-related disasters.

Coal and nuclear plants are referred to as baseload plants. They’re designed to be turned on and stay on, at full power. It is Trump’s position that replacing these baseload plants with renewables will somehow make the electrical grid less resilient.

Nope. Numerous studies show that a broad mix of renewable energy supplies on the grid leads to greater stability. Two countries, Germany and Denmark, have far larger percentages of their electrical energy generated by wind and solar and have an order of magnitude fewer outages than the United States. This may be in part due to better investments in the grid infrastructure, but it certainly shows that renewables don’t hurt.

The people who really know what’s best are the grid operators themselves. They view today’s grid in better shape than ever in terms of reliability. Trade groups for the oil and gas industry joined with environmental groups to issue a joint statement claiming that the plan was legally indefensible and guaranteed to raise the cost of electricity to consumers.

A similar but more subtle plan was pursued last year by Rick Perry, administrator of the Energy Department. Perry requested the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to guarantee a financial return for any power plant that could store on site ninety days worth of fuel. This would, of course, mean coal and nuclear plants. The FERC earlier this year unanimously denied the request.

Trump, the purported deal maker, would be in this case increasing the cost of electricity for consumers. He would be reversing the trend towards cleaner air and lower greenhouse gas emissions. And finally, the plan would only make worse the problem with high-level radioactive waste, an issue we haven’t been able to resolve after sixty years of commercial nuclear power production.

Sustainability is the Future

The United States became the dominant world power by the conclusion of World War II. In essence, we were the last man standing, ie, the only real industrial power not impacted by war. In fact, the war brought us out of a depression and stimulated our industrial might. Additionally, we had vast resources of fossil fuels to run the factories.

To this day we are still the largest economy on the planet, but no longer the leader in some of the technologies that will be important, even determinative, in the future. Our utilization of fossil fuels in the past brought us to the top but continuing to rely on then in the future will bring us down.

Whether we recognize the inherent dangers of global warming and the need to decarbonize our energy mix, most of the rest of the world does. President Trump is trying to move us in the wrong direction by abandoning international agreements such as the Paris Accord. He has ordered a cutback of fuel efficiency standards, opened vast areas of public land for fossil fuel exploitation, and generally thumbed his nose at any and all previous measures meant to deal with global warming.

Clean, sustainable energy is the future. Economies built on this recognition will in the long run prosper. Although we pioneered electricity generation from wind, China has blown past us in installed capacity with over a third of the world’s installed power. The European Union led by Denmark, Germany and the Iberian peninsula, is now producing more than the US.

The latest big move into wind power is the United Kingdom of Great Britain. The UK has moved rapidly to install offshore turbines and now has more offshore capacity than the rest of the world combined. Scotland leads the world in the fraction of electricity demand it meets with wind power. An astonishing 53% of all electricity production comes from wind turbines. In the US, it is 6%. And they are not resting on their laurels. The UK will soon be home to the largest wind installation project with a capacity of 1,800 megawatts off the Yorkshire coast. The largest in the US the Alta Wind energy project with 1,548 megawatts.

This wind project will be powered by 150 turbines each generating 12 megawatts of power. Each turbine will provide enough energy to run 16,000 homes. These giants stand over 800 feet tall, almost 3 times the height of the Statue of Liberty.

A similar story holds for solar. China leads with about 25% of total world production. The US is fourth after China, Japan, and Germany. In terms of the fraction of total production, the US falls to tenth place with only 1.4% of our total production. Italy leads with 7.5% of there total.

As stated earlier, the countries which deploy the greatest fraction of their energy production via sustainables will lead the world if for no other reason than a decreasing demand for a diminishing resource is a good thing. As important however, is the advantage of leading in the development of tomorrows technology.

Every wind turbine and every solar panel also means cleaner air and reduced global warming potential. Did I mention that the Arkansas Public Service Commission is likely to soon make a ruling which will disfavor home solar arrays? MAGA, Making America Grate (on our nerves) Again.

Hurrah for Clarksville

Our neighbor to the west just had a ribbon cutting ceremony for their new 6.5 Megawatt solar array. It is visible from Interstate 40 near exit 55. The 20,000 panels will provide enough electricity to power 25 % of Clarksville homes. They also purchase wind-generated power so that nearly half the communities’ needs for power are met by clean and renewable resources.
 
Home solar arrays are being installed at an ever-quickening pace. Here in Arkansas, Entergy is in negotiations to close two large coal-fired plants, and the replacement? Installation of large-scale solar arrays locally and purchase of wind power from abundant sources to our west.
 
The cities of Fayetteville and Little Rock have joined with the Sierra Club in the “Ready for 100” program, a pledge to work towards 100 % sustainable power for their cities. All of this is important because our current administration has completely dropped the ball when it comes to addressing global warming by replacing the use of fossil fuels with clean, sustainable energy sources.
 
Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt has been all over the map when it comes global warming. In his previous position as Attorney General of the State of Oklahoma, he sued the EPA several times. Many of those suits involved actions taken by the EPA to reduce the impacts of global warming and resultant climate change. Pruitt, as Attorney General for Oklahoma was frequently joined by Leslie Rutledge, Attorney General for Arkansas.
 
Apparently, he previously agreed with his current boss who famously claimed that global warming is a Chinese hoax. His position shifted somewhat to maybe but we need more study and it sure isn’t us. By us he means his patron, the fossil fuel industry. Shortly after taking office he stated “I would not agree that it [carbon dioxide] is a primary contributor to the global warming that we see.” It has been shown and is known around the world that burning fossil fuels release carbon dioxide which leads to global warming.
 
His latest position is – maybe it’s real but not so bad. In a recent interview in Las Vegas, his tune is now ”We know humans have most flourished during times of what, warming trends, So I think there’s assumptions made that because the climate is warming, that that necessarily is a bad thing.”
 
One can only assume that he is referring to a time when humans went about barefooted in the snow, running down Woolly Mammoths. Were a warmer air temperature our only metric, he might have a point. Life is a bit more complicated now. There were no major cities to be flooded due to sea level rise – no Miami, Houston or New Orleans. Besides the obvious issue of sea level rise, the complexity and integration of a global economy are dependent on climatic stability.
 
A warmer climate in a temperate zone for wealthy countries may not have as negative an impact as the direct impact on poor countries in the tropics. Widespread crop failures from heat, drought or flooding could create major economic collapse and out-migration to cooler regions, regardless of these regions ability to support the immigrants. Walls will not stop the starving. Our arrogance to fail to join with the rest of the world in the Paris Agreement to address global warming will come back to us in the future.
 
It’s the (sustainable) economy, stupid.

Intermittency Need Not Be a Problem

There is no question that the future of power will be from the sun. Wind generation and solar panels are the predominant contenders. The president has wrongheadedly bragged about bringing back coal as an energy source. It hasn’t nor will it happen for simple economic reasons. Natural gas generation of electricity is cheaper and wind and solar are rapidly approaching parity in cost. Burning coal has the additional unaccounted burden of fouling our air and water.

The only advantage that fossil fuels have is that once extracted, they are available for power production near continuously. Sustainable sources such as wind and solar are available only intermittently. The relative availability is referred to capacity factor (CF), the fraction of time when a power source is available. Generally fossil fuel consuming power sources have higher capacity factors than intermittent sustainable sources, but are by no means constant.

The point of this is that all our electric generation sources are intermittent to a degree but power demands are continuous. At times less power is needed such as at night, or during the spring and fall when less heating or cooling is needed. Interconnected grid systems match power production and demand by balancing the various sources. Sustainability experts estimate that we can introduce intermittent power sources into the gird up to about 30 % of our total production without changing anything. After that we will need to add storage or change the way we utilize available intermittent power production.

Most think of batteries when considering electricity storage, but it is not the electricity necessarily that needs to be stored but rather the potential. Pumped storage is an example of the latter. In several locations, excess power at night can be used to pump water up a hill into a storage reservoir. During the day when demand increases water can be released to generate power.

Another strategy is to match jobs and/or lifestyle to the availability of electrical power just like we do for other traditional activities. We don’t grow corn and beans in the winter. We don’t go downhill skiing in the summer. In some locales power consumption is managed on a small scale with time of day pricing of electricity. Generally there is less demand for electricity at night, so power companies lower the price at night. This influences people to shift power consuming activities to later hours.

Larger scale operations could be shifted to times when energy is more available. The upper midwest has abundant wind energy available. It is available intermittently but predictably. Manufacturing schedules could be matched with the availability of lower cost power.

Solar power could easily be matched with power needs which themselves are only intermittent. Huckleberry Creek north of Russellville, Arkansas is a 500 acre man-made impoundment. It provides drinking water and in most years is sufficient. On occasion water is pumped from the Illinois Bayou uphill into the impoundment. Pontoon mounted solar panels could be floated on the lake to provide pumping power. There are a couple additional advantages here. Evaporation would be reduced by panel coverage and the solar panels themselves would be more efficient due to cooling from the water.

Property Assessed Clean Energy Act

Whether you personally are or are not concerned with global warming, you should be interested in saving money. Many steps taken to mitigate climate change such as sustainable energy supplies and energy efficiency save money. The Trump administration refuses to acknowledge the risk of global warming and subsequent climate change, indicated by his refusal to join the rest of the world in the Paris Accords. Regardless, cities, states, schools and universities, even businesses across the country do get it and are acting to honor the goals of the agreement.

Assuming Arkansas is like the rest of the United States, about half of all the energy and three-quarters of the electrical energy used goes into buildings. Acts, ordinances, etc. which lead to increased utilization of non-carbon energy sources can go a long way to save energy, lower costs, and lessen the use of fossil fuels which drive global warming.  Act 1074 of 2013, called the Property Assessed Clean Energy act or PACE is a program that allows a person or business to finance energy projects through the inclusion of the costs in a property tax assessment.

The act enables governments such as cities, counties or combinations thereof to form Energy Districts which organize financing for projects. Fayetteville, (later joined by Springdale,) and North Little Rock have active programs. A property owner/business identifies a project that will save energy or water or create clean renewable energy. The improvement district then arranges the financing for the project. This can be done with bonds or a variety of private financing. The property owner repays the loan through a property tax assessment over a defined period of time.

A number of energy efficiency projects come to mind: Increased insulation, more efficient window windows with low-E glass, solar hot water systems, projects which reduce water consumption, more efficient heating and cooling systems such as ground source heat pumps. Projects which actually produce clean energy are also funded: photovoltaic panels, micro-hydro projects, wind turbines and biomass energy are all included.

Here is an example of how it could work. A property owner with an older structure decides to upgrade the HVAC, insulate the walls and attic, and replace the windows. The total cost of the project is 10,000 dollars. She goes the Energy Improvement district and receives 100 percent financing. The cost is repaid over ten years through a property tax assessment. Generally, the savings in utility costs will cover or even exceed the annual fee. If she sells her structure before ten years the buyer assumes the assessment, just as they assume the energy savings from the energy improvement.

PACE benefits the local community by creating a cleaner, greener environment. Local businesses that supply the equipment will see increased sales. Installers will have more work and create jobs for skilled tradesmen and unskilled labor alike.

Such a program is easily within the reach of Russellville, and other cities which may choose to join the program. The City of Fayetteville created the model ordinance used by the aforementioned cities. Were the program adopted county-wide many farmers or other rural businesses and homes could benefit from energy saving/production.

The best way to save money and the environment comes through energy efficiency. Reduced use of electricity means lower costs but also less burning of coal and natural gas. This is a win, win, win situation. The adoption of ordinance to create an energy district will save the property owners money, create business opportunities and jobs for the community, clean the air, and cool the planet. What’s not to like?

Booming Solar

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Sustainable energy is currently the most rapidly expanding form of energy in the United States. The same is true here in Arkansas. Whereas we are not well set for wind as our neighbors are to the west, solar panels (PV) that generate electricity are effective, and getting cheaper by the day. Solar arrays now cost less than half of what they cost just 10 years ago.

The price is now so low as to be competitive with more conventional power sources such as coal and natural gas, and infinitely cleaner. Current solar capacity (as of 2015) is 20.1 megawatts (MW.) This is an unbelievable 640 % increase over all PV power installed up through 2014. The new power installed in 2015 is dominated by utility scale power, 15.4 MW. Commercial industries and businesses installed 0.24 MW and the residential sector 0.46 MW. This represents a 56 million dollar investment in clean energy and jobs.

Solar power has come of age, not just for people wanting a little power for an off-grid cabin in the woods, but residents tied to the grid, industries, and especially power companies. One real advantage of solar power is its scalability. If a power company needs to expand their energy supply a small amount, they can add a small solar field. If they need a lot of power, they install a bigger field. No alternative has this scalability. You just can’t build a (cost effective) small coal or nuclear plant. Not even natural gas fired turbines are as scalable.

The L’Oreal plant in North Little Rock will install several thousand PV panels, about 1 MW’s worth. In March 2016 a private-public consortium consisting of two Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corporations, and Aerojet Rocketdyne will install a 12 MW solar field near East Camden. The largest install this year will be an 81 MW solar farm to be installed by Entergy near Stuttgart.

Generally installs of home solar arrays are booming also. Most cost effective for the consumer is a grid-tied net metered array. This system allows the home owner to remain connected to the grid in addition to the solar panels. When the sun shines the panels provide energy to the house, but when the sun is not shining, the home can draw power from the grid just like any other home.

PV systems can be sized to provide all or any fraction of the power needed for the home. If a particular array actually produces more energy than can be consumed in a given month, the law allows the excess to be carried over to a month when energy is needed.

The consumers gain is however the power companies loss, and they don’t like it. They lose profits by not selling as much electricity and even worse net metering threatens the vertically integrated structure of the business. They are the power generators, the wholesalers, the distributors and the retailers, and they want to keep it that way. Other states, notably Arizona and Oklahoma, have instituted additional fees for home solar which will severely limit the development of truly distributed clean energy.

The Public Service Commission here in Arkansas is empowered by law to set rates and rate structures of electric utilities. Over the next year they will be conducting studies to determine if changes are needed (read additional costs to home solar users.) The utilities will be arguing that they have to claw back their profits to remain in business. Stay tuned.

The Future of Power

We are now at what appears to be the dawn of an energy transition. It will take a couple of generations to accomplish but it will happen. The transition is from an energy economy based on burning fossil fuels to clean sustainable electric energy generation from wind turbines and solar. We will transition from a few large power plants to a much more diffuse collections of wind farms, solar farms, and even more dispersed home solar photovoltaic arrays, all connect to a robustly interconnected transcontinental grid.

The technology exists and is operating on a small scale now but to bring in the future much will need to be done to strengthen, expand, and interconnect our electrical infrastructure. There are several drivers for the technological revolution. Fossil fuels are in limited supply, global warming is real, and large power plants are ideal targets for terrorism, an unfortunate reality in today’s world.

Fossil fuels are in limited supply so we continue to form alliances with despotic regimes and fight wars for access to oil. Even with the advent of new drilling technologies such as hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, we still need to import well over half of the crude oil we use in this country. Coal may be abundant here but it’s extraction and utilization has many negative consequences. The new energy economy can end this vicious entanglement, and produce energy in ways that are much, much cleaner.

Global warming is real and a real threat to all life on the planet. Not only is it getting hotter, but it is getting hotter faster. Although the global climate has changes over geologic time, we are driving changes to the climate at rates that in the past have lead to severe die-offs. Although we may survive without reversing global warming, it will be in a world with drastically reduced biological diversity. Producing our energy cleanly and renewably is the only realistic approach to reversing the dangers inherent in global warming.

Global economic inequity breeds despair, anger and, rightly or wrongly, attempts at retribution against the “haves” by the “have-nots.” Terrorism is a reality around the world, not just the near east and north Africa, but everywhere. An attack on a single large power plant could not only darken the the night, but threaten the well being and lives of hundreds of thousands of people in a single stroke. Widely distributed energy resources such as wind and solar coupled with a robust and redundant grid make that kind of threat essentially nonexistent.

The development of the new energy economy will not come with out costs, but the benefits of a sustainable energy future , and more stable ecological and political climate will far out way those costs. The process of developing, constructing, and maintaining the new energy infrastructure will provide jobs. The future energy economy will require a degree of technical expertise that generates well paying jobs the continue into the future and can’t be exported.

The upward arc of civilization is marked by our level of cooperation. The more we work together and the more of us that work together the more likely will be a bright, clean, and stable future.

Go Solar

The amount of solar energy available to the United States is overwhelming. With today’s Photovoltaic technology, 16 per cent efficient PV panels, the total energy needs of the country could be met using a land area of only 8,000 square miles. This is an incredibly small area compared to the 3.8 million square miles of total land area. All the solar panels we need to power the country could fit in a fraction of Elko County in Northeast Nevada.

Just imagine, miners don’t need to die underground to extract coal. Mountain tops don’t need to be blown off and pushed into valleys to get at a coal seam. We wouldn’t need to worry about whether fracking wastes pollute our ground water, or bust up the foundations of homes to access natural gas. We don’t need parking lots full of high level radioactive waste from nuclear power plants. Yes, you read that right. Our only plan for the storage of high level radioactive wastes, hot for tens of thousands of years, is to store the waste in concrete containers around the sites of nuclear plants.

The health of the public would be improved and incidentally the cost of healthcare lowered as we no longer would have have all the untoward things in the air that cause problems. Not burning any fossil fuels means less lung irritants such as fine particulates. Less heavy metals that cause nerve damage, less acid rain, less ozone, and the list goes on and on.

Rather than produce all the energy in a fraction of one county in Nevada, we could spread it out to the individual states. The US uses a total of about 4 trillion kWh per year. Closer to home, Arkansas uses about 50 billion kWh per year. To meet that need we would only use about 100 square miles, less than a tenth of the area of Arkansas County in the southeast part of the state. Or let’s make each county generate their share. For Pope County we need a scant 2 square miles out of 831. It’s easy to see that we have plenty of free, sustainable sunlight and the land foot print needed is not even an issue. We will also need to upgrade our transmission network, but still that’s doable. The real fly in the ointment is storage.

The aforementioned calculations of land area needed are for full power, 24/7 year around, assuming we have storage for when the sun doesn’t shine due to time of day, season or weather. This a problem but not an insurmountable one. Elon Musk, the manufacturer of the Tesla electric car, and Space X reusable rockets is building a huge battery factory in Sparks, Nevada. The battery factory will occupy a building covering an area equal to 95 football fields.

The factory will be powered exclusively by solar electric power, with energy to spare. The batteries built in this factory are lithium based and are intended for his fleet of electric cars, but it shows that really large scale production of all aspects of sustainable energy are not just something in the distant future but are close at hand.