Category Archives: Sustainable Energy

Arkansas Lithium

There is no question that electric vehicles are the future. Although projections are all over the map, a decent guess is that by 2030 something like fifty percent of new car sales will be electric. The number for fleet vehicles such as cabs, urban buses, and delivery vans will be even higher. They will all need rechargeable batteries and right now Lithium is the material of choice for those batteries.

Most metals can be used in batteries and the periodic chart is populated by scores of metals. In fact, the majority of elements in the universe are metals. What makes Lithium unique is its charge to weight ratio. Lithium is the lightest metal and can exist as a stable ion. This means it is capable of giving up or accepting an electron, a necessary function of a battery.

Think of a charged battery as a reservoir of electrons. When a battery-powered device is turned on a circuit is completed which allows the electrons to flow. This is the electric current that does whatever work the device was built for, be it lighting a flashlight or powering an electric vehicle. Reversing the duty cycle will recharge the battery.

Current world demand for Lithium is about twenty thousand tonnes per annum and is expected to double in just five years. A large chunk of this is produced from brine wells in the Atacama, a high desert in Chile. The brine, with a relatively high concentration of Lithium, is pumped to surface ponds and allowed to evaporate – the Atacama is not only the driest place in the world but also one of the sunniest.

Trouble comes with the removal of the brine. This simultaneously lowers the water table for freshwater. In the driest place on earth, this is a big deal. Imminent local regulation is expected to reduce the allowed brine removal and therefore limit Lithium production. Other sources are being examined for Lithium production, most notably Arkansas.

A veritable ocean of brine exists under south Arkansas. This brine has been a source of crude oil and other industrial chemicals for years, especially Bromine. The Smackover formation originally produced mainly oil with Bromine from brine as a byproduct. Currently, Bromine produced in Arkansas represents the total US production and this is a third of the global supply.

A company is now exploring the possibility of producing Lithium as a byproduct of Bromine production. The Lithium is to be removed along with the Bromine, then the spent brine is re-injected. Bromine production in Arkansas is an eight hundred million dollar enterprise employing a thousand Arkansans. If Lithium production is practical it will add to both income and jobs in Arkansas.

Although all eyes are on Lithium as a battery component there are numerous other uses. Lithium grease, refereed to as White Lithium, is a valuable lubricant as it uniquely adheres to metal. Much Lithium is used in glass and ceramic manufacture. Finally, Lithium is valuable as a treatment for bipolar disorder.

Dr. Bob Allen is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, Arkansas Tech University.

Renewable comparisons

Arguments against the deployment of renewable energy supplies range from the ridiculous to the sublime. from economic to aesthetic. From deceptive to just plain lying. The biggest lie, of course, is that they aren’t necessary as global warming is a hoax. The scientific consensus concerning anthropogenic global warming is overwhelming. In terms of the general population, the understanding of the risk is highest among younger, more educated compared to older, less educated populations.

There may be some valid claims that disfavor renewable energy sources but in comparison to what? And at what cost to either our pocketbooks or to a globally stable climate? Considering the current cost and trends, Wind and solar win hands down. Even utilities in conservative parts of the country – Entergy as one example are installing solar panels and producing or at least buying wind-generated power.

The most important issue is one of the release of greenhouse gasses, notably Carbon Dioxide (CO2.) It has been disingenuously argued that because of the energy used in the construction of renewables, they release more CO2 than traditional fossil fuels. The argument is preposterous. Multiple studies around the planet vary only slightly as to the results. The measure is CO2 produced per net energy produced over the lifetime of source. The units are grams of CO2 produced per kilowatt-hour produced (g/kWh.) The smaller the number the better.

The gold standard is a large hydro dam, at about 4 g/kWh. Wind is second with about 10 g/kWh, but this number is decreasing as turbines become larger and more efficient. Solar Panels, about 30 g/kWh due mainly to the high energy demand to refine sand into pure Silicon. Fossil fuel-powered plants have energy demands from their manufacture but also from the burning of the fuel itself. Relatively clean natural gas results in 400 g/kWh. And the biggest loser? Of course, it’s coal at 1200 g/kWh. Renewable wins again.

Another specious argument is that renewables are bad for the environment due to the use of toxic materials in their construction as if fossil fuel plants don’t. The average solar panel has about 4 grams of Lead per kilowatt of installed power. For a home system which requires on average 10 kilowatts, there are about 40 grams of Lead solder. Recycling the panels brings the toxic load to near zero. A small percentage of panels, about 5%, employ Cadmium technology, but again this toxic material is incorporated into the easily recycled panels.

Compare that with just the lead released to the atmosphere on burning coal, lead that is widely dispersed in the atmosphere and then to the soil and water, over 42 tons per year of Lead that can’t be recycled. Along with other toxic metals including Mercury, Arsenic, and Cadmium. The homeowner with 40 grams of lead in solar panels has over 9,000 grams of lead in the battery of every car in the driveway. Whereas toxic releases are part and parcel of burning fossil fuels, toxic components of renewables are small in amount and are not automatically released to the environment. Renewable wins again.

Whenever you hear someone talking about the toxic components associated with renewable energy be sure you have the whole story which includes the far greater toxic burden associated with fossil fuels.

Dr. Bob Allen, Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Arkansas Tech University.

Renewable Energy Milestone

Renewable energy achieved a significant milestone in April, surpassing coal as the greater source of power for electric generation in the United States. This record may not persist as April is a windy month and because of mild weather less energy is needed for heating or cooling. Regardless, it is a milestone that portends the future.

Electric power from burning coal has been in decline for over a decade. Nuclear power is flat and renewable energy is ascendant. Of the renewable energy sources, wind is the leader followed by solar. Hydropower, geothermal and biomass are relatively static.

Technological advances and economies of scale are responsible for the lower cost and therefore greater penetration of renewables in the electric power production marketplace. Wind turbines are getting larger and taller which makes them more cost-effective in both production costs and efficiency as taller turbines reach windier levels of the atmosphere. As for solar arrays, the advances are mainly in cost reductions due to economies of scale rather than greater efficiency at capturing sunlight.

About seventeen percent of the energy mix is now renewable, and that is dominated by hydroelectric dam generation. In absolute terms, wind produces about seven percent and solar a little under two percent. These numbers are small but the two sources have the greatest potential for growth. Wind energy production has increased a phenomenal thirty-fold since 2000. When it comes to growth, solar is the champ having grown one hundred times faster than wind; that is, a three thousand-fold increase in installed capacity between the year 2000 and today.
One of the beauties of solar is its scalability. Practical installations range from small home systems providing most if not all of an individual homeowners electric power needs up to utility-scale monsters that cover hundreds of acres. Slightly larger than home size installations are those for schools and churches. Even larger installations include power for businesses such as Walmart Supercenters. The real growth, however, is in utility-scale solar arrays.

Entergy, the main supplier for electricity in Arkansas is now producing power from a giant installation near Stuttgart. This facility has 350,000 panels covering 475 acres. It produces enough energy for 13,000 homes. Using this scale of production suggests that every home in Arkansas could be powered from an area less than ten percent of Lafayette County, the smallest county in Arkansas.
Wait just a minute you say, what about when the sun goes down? Not to worry, at least for a couple of decades. Power grid managers won’t worry until intermittent sources reach somewhere between thirty and fifty percent of the total load. Right now wind and solar represent less than ten percent. Two factors are important, source management and grid size. Although wind and solar are intermittent, they are also predictable, and increasingly so.

Utility grid managers have become quite good at wind and sun forecasting. They know about how much wind and solar power will be available in the short term and can effectively plan for alternate sources during those times. The total size of the US power grid adds to the stability. Power can be shipped for one region to another with the flip of a switch – well, that and a more robust national grid of transmission and distribution lines.

Dr. Bob Allen, Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Arkansas Tech University.

Favoring the Sun

Polling shows that a clear majority of Arkansans, 60 to 70 percent give or take, recognize that global warming is happening. Without any polling data, we can only guess the everybody given a choice would favor clean air over polluted air. One method to reduce the rate of global warming and clean the air is to generate electricity from solar panels. Keeping the lights on in a house at night or through a week or two of wintery overcast requires one of two options, a battery bank or buying power from a utility during those periods.

The latter is by far the most common as batteries, where utility power is available, are far more expensive. A common solution is a so-called grid-tied array. People with rooftop solar panels remain connected to the utility grid so that they can get power at night. During the day they can generate the power they need from the sun. To make solar power more attractive most states have some form of net metering.

Net metering is achieved via a bi-directional meter. At night when solar panels are inactive, the meter runs normally, but during sunny periods when the solar panels produce more power than is consumed in the home, the meter runs backward. The homeowner is at these times a net producer, essentially a little power company selling to the utility.

Act 464, 2019 addresses some issues with solar energy production. It allows for third-party leasing. Essentially this allows a homeowner to rent his roof space to another company for placement of solar panels. It also allows for larger net metered arrays so a business can take advantage of the sun to power their facility. A debate exists as to how the solar panel owner is rewarded for their excess production. The simplest and current method in Arkansas is that excess production is rewarded at the same rate as consumption. If in a given billing cycle there is an excess production, credit for that production is carried forward.

Utility executives say that this makes them buy power at a retail rate. Of course, they want to buy power at a wholesale rate, then sell at a retail rate to maintain profitability. But that is an oversimplification. Utilities pay different rates for power depending on demand, so there is no single wholesale rate. High demand times calls for the purchase of expensive “peaking” power. Conversely during low demand times equipment is idled which also has a cost.

Power demands vary by both season and time of day, but one thing is clear. Demand for electricity is always higher during the day than at night. Wouldn’t it be neat if there were a way of producing power during the day when it is needed but not at night so no utility equipment is idled? Solar generated electricity is nicely matched to demand which can serve to lower overall costs to the utility and at the same time clean the air and slow global warming.

The act has good and bad points, but overall it is supported by several environmental organizations.

Dr. Bob Allen, Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, Arkansas Tech University.

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.