Tag Archives: sustainability

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.

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.

Yet Another Dam?

Here in and about the river valley, we enjoy what could be described as plentiful rainfall, and a pinch of snowfall on occasions. In all, we average about 50 inches a year. Precipitation is generally spread over every month of the year with maximums occurring in the spring and early winter months. For the time being, we have sufficient water for both agriculture and drinking water, but this will change in the future. Growth alone will mean that we need to expand our drinking water supplies.

If the projections of computer models continue to correctly predict changing climate, we’re in for more trouble. Generally, global warming should mean more rainfall as warmer air can hold more moisture, but computer modeling predicts changing weather patterns with less rainfall in mid-continental regions and more on the coasts. Further confounding the issue of water availability is the prediction that what precipitation we do get will come in more intense and less frequent storm events.

Even if we get the same amount of precipitation, but it occurs less frequently, we will need more reservoir capacity to tide us over between rain events. Where will we get our drinking water in the future? In the 1980s City Corp looked to the North Fork of the Illinois Bayou as a possible site for a reservoir. Objections from the environmental community and the Ozark National Forest shifted the attention to the current site on Huckleberry Creek. The watershed of Huckleberry Creek is not large enough, but the reservoir is supplemented by pumping water out of the Illinois Bayou.

This “off-stream pumped storage” option has served the River Valley well for a couple of decades, but now City Corp is looking again to expand its supply by seeking an impoundment on the North Fork. Aside from environmental groups’ objections, and reservations on the part of the National Forest to cede land, there is the considerable expense of constructing a dam. If constructed this impoundment will flood a near pristine area currently used for hunting, fishing, camping, and other water sports.

And when this small impoundment’s capacity is exceeded, then what is the next valley to be flooded? And the next and the next? Ultimately the real long-term solution is to draw water from Lake Dardanelle. Why don’t we just cut to the chase and avoid the costs, both fighting with environmental groups and the monetary cost of construction of dams.

Water in Lake Dardanelle is good quality and can be further refined if necessary by technology. Reverse Osmosis (RO) is employed around the world to turn seawater in the potable water. RO systems are scaled from under the sink units for homeowners to multi-million gallons per day systems for municipal desalination plants.

The Arkansas Department of Health frowns on the utilization of the Arkansas River as a drinking water supply, but their objections are based on old data, and failure to recognize drastic improvements in the cost and efficiency of Reverse Osmosis technology.

Minimally treated water from lake Dardanelle could be pumped to the current Huckleberry Creek reservoir at a fraction of the cost of building more impoundments. This solution will allow us to have the drinking water we need for an expanding population under pressure from global warming. At the same time, we can save some of our wild places so our children and their children can have the experience of a relatively unexploited environment, the same as we enjoy.

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?

Nuclear is Not the Answer

RusselvillePowerplant

James Hansen is the climate scientist who first loudly and persistently proclaimed a risk to society of global warming and the consequent climate change and acidification of the oceans. Recently he and a few others suggested that a vigorous expansion of nuclear power is the only option for producing enough power to completely replace fossil fuels for energy production.

To achieve this goal would require the construction worldwide of over one hundred reactors a year, every year till 2050. As the United States uses something like twenty percent of the world’s energy, our share of the nuclear construction would be about 20 to 25 reactors every year. Conservatively that would be close to 700 nuclear reactors. Based on population that would mean about 7 new reactors in Arkansas alone.

This is a construction rate far, far beyond the heyday of reactor construction in the 1970s. It is just not going to happen for several reasons. Hansen has blamed environmental concerns for blocking the expansion of the nuclear power industry and there may be some truth to this. Past catastrophic nuclear reactor failures loom over the industry. And the seemingly intractable, politically at least, problem of permanent storage of high level nuclear wastes. The best we have come up with so far is on site storage in concrete containers – essentially the radioactive spent fuel rods are placed in casks standing around in parking lots adjacent to the reactors.

Environmental concerns are not the real issue, it is that nuclear power can’t compete economically. The extremely long planning and construction time make essentially impossible to stay on budget. The Union of Concerned Scientists report that the cost for the planning, construction, and licensing has gone from an estimated 2 billion dollars in 2002 to an astounding 9 billion in 2009.

Meanwhile the carbon free competition – efficiency, wind, and solar PV have see an opposite cost curve. For comparison, the cost of a 2 megawatt wind turbine is about 3 million dollars. For an equivalent amount of power produced by a nuclear reactor, the cost is a little over a billion dollars. For large scale commercial solar photovoltaic arrays the cost is about 2.5 billion dollars. Most importantly the cost curves for sustainable energy are downward whereas for nuclear they are upward.

The fuel costs for nuclear power are now relatively modest, but in a scenario with 700 nuclear reactors requiring Uranium, the cost will be substantially greater. Most likely fuel reprocessing will be necessary to produce new fuel but also to deal with the waste stream from all these reactors. Reprocessing fuel will add to costs and increase the risk of additional handling of radioactive material. Both accidents at reprocessing plants as occurred to at Kerr-McGee facility in Oklahoma, or the possibility of diversion to terrorists as weapons.

The future may see some expansion of nuclear reactors, as they serve an important function for baseload power, but something will have to be done to control costs. Savings via deregulation is a non starter. In fact increased regulation may save money. Standardized designs and construction methods may be able to contain costs somewhat. Additional subsidization of the nuclear industry via taxpayer backed insurance is a must. When it comes to the nuclear industry; capitalism, meet socialism.

Transportation Resistance

From Galileo to Elon

Over 400 years ago as the story goes, circa 1590, Galileo performed a scientific experiment which has been reproduced in schools across the planet to this day. Galileo went to the iconic leaning tower of Piza and dropped two balls, one larger and heavy than the other. As everyone knows, they hit the ground about the same time. This disproved Aristotle’s hypothesis that heavier objects fall faster.

What both Galileo and Aristotle were not considering was an aspect of fluid dynamics – air resistance. Basically air is a fluid and it gets in the way of movement. Anyone who rides a bike or paddles a canoe knows it’s a lot harder with the wind at your face; that is, greater air (or wind) resistance. Even if the air is standing still, it still gets in the way and slows things down. The faster you go, the more important the wind resistance becomes.

A bicyclist can make about 15 to 20 mph without too much difficulty but more than that is a problem due to drag. Get rid of the drag and the sky is the limit. Cyclists have attained well over 100 mph riding behind vehicles outfitted with a fairing to shield the cyclist from wind resistance.

In years past when fuel costs were low, the extra energy expended to overcome wind resistance was not important in motorized vehicles. It is today and will continue to become more important as fuel costs rise. Nowhere is wind resistance, that is aerodynamic drag, more important than in the trucking industry.

The first effort in the industry was the addition of fairings over the cabs of 18-wheelers which resulted in a 15% increase in fuel efficiency. A more recent innovation is the addition of side skirts on each side and between the wheels of big rigs, which have been shown to improve fuel efficiency by 5 to 15 percent depending on design. Finally “trailer tails” are being added to extend the saving another 5%. All together this add up to over 30% fuel savings, with payback times of a about a year for fleet vehicles.

Small steps to save fuel or increase speed result from reducing drag, but what if you could completely eliminate drag by eliminating the air itself? Listen up. Elon Musk is the billionaire savant who produces the wildly successful Tesla electric car. He also pioneered private industry space flight with his SpaceX company, which is regularly delivering supplies to the International Space Station orbiting above earth.

Mr. Musk has proposed building giant evacuated tubes into which transportation vehicles could attain speeds in excess of a thousand mph. These tubes would work just like the little canisters that deliver your checks and cash back and forth from the bank window to the remote drive-up station. The only difference is that people or bulk goods would go in the canisters, and travel thousands of miles at thousands of miles per hour. He has suggested that eventually an underground transportation network could transport people from New York to Los Angles in 45 minutes! That requires a speed of about 4,000 mph.

Sustainability and Jobs

Our new attorney general, Leslie Rutledge, was off to Washington recently to testify against the EPA clean power plan. As part of the plan Arkansas will be required to reduce our carbon emissions by 44 % over the coming decades. This will be achieved by burning less coal, thus cleaning the air and reducing climate forcing. From her press release:

“Arkansas is uniquely positioned on this topic because of our rich natural heritage. In the Natural State, we place a high value on clean air and clean water as we protect our state for future generations, and as Attorney General, I will not sit idly by while this administration pushes policy objectives that will ultimately hurt job growth and Arkansas’s ability to compete across the country and the globe.”

Installing solar panels

Installing solar panels

It is odd that she opposes a plan which will do exactly what she favors; that is, clean the air and water and protect our state for future generations. One can only assume from her statement that she thinks that we will have fewer jobs and be less competitive by burning less coal. But is that the case?

If one assumes that much of the energy not produced by by burning coal is replaced by sustainable energy sources such as wind and solar, what is the tradeoff on jobs? Or how about jobs created by avoiding the need for energy in the first place? How many jobs are there in becoming more efficient?

wind turbine blade

wind turbine blade

There are currently about 174,000 jobs in the coal industry including mining, transportation and power plant work. Compare that to about 172,000 jobs in the solar industry – fabrication, sales, installation and maintenance. An important comparison is the jobs per power produced. The solar power in the United States represents only 0.7 % of installed capacity where as coal power is at about 40 %. If we divide jobs by installed capacity, solar wins hands down – about 10 times as many jobs in solar compared to coal when capacity factor is considered.

The comparison for wind and jobs is similar. There are about 100,000 jobs in wind, and with about 6 % of the capacity, wind produces 5 times as many jobs as coal. Both wind and solar are expanding rapidly, where as coal jobs are declining.
It is difficult to calculate the number of jobs in efficiency which replaces energy production. That said, efficiency is estimated to produce about 4 times as many jobs to avoid burning coal as coal jobs.

It seems fairly clear that renewable energy and efficiency produce 4 to 10 times as many jobs as coal. If our attorney general is concerned about jobs she should have gone to the house hearing to endorse the clean power plan, rather than oppose it.

One final factor should be mentioned. There are no fuel costs for renewables and efficiency, but Arkansans pay in excess of 650 million dollars a year to import coal from Wyoming. Renewables such as solar and wind would keep those millions of dollars here. That’s money which will remain in the Arkansas economy and make us more, not less competitive.

Global Warming 2014 Edition

This year has seen several international, national, and local issues relating to global warming.

Organizationally, the IPCC or the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change might be considered the lead agency on issues of global warming. The IPCC is a group of thousands of climate scientists from around the world. The fifth pentennial assessment report states: “to avoid dangerous interference with the climate system, we need to move away from business as usual. Simply to hold the temperature rise to 2 degrees [Celsius] will require reductions of green house gases from 40 to 70 per cent compared with 2010 by mid-century, and to near-zero by the end of this century.”

Whereas the IPCC is the scientific wing of the UN, the UNFCCC or the United Nations Framework on Climate Change is more of a political policy wing. In their meeting in Lima Peru this year they concluded that it is increasingly difficult to prevent the temperature of the planet’s atmosphere from rising by 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. According to a large body of scientific research, that is the tipping point at which the world will be locked into a near-term future of drought, food and water shortages, melting ice sheets, shrinking glaciers, rising sea levels and widespread flooding—events that could harm the world’s population and economy.

After months of negotiations, President Obama and President Xi Jinping in November affirmed the importance of strengthening bilateral cooperation on climate change and will work together to adopt a protocol on climate change. They are committed to reaching an ambitious 2015 agreement that reflects the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in light of different national circumstances.

In June President Obama, through the Environmental Protection Agency, has promulgated rules for power plants to reduce carbon emissions by 30 per cent by 2030. This is the first time that the EPA has taken steps to regulate Carbon Dioxide as a pollutant, an action begun in 2007 by President Bush, but delayed by court battles meant to block the regulations.

Construction of the Keystone XL pipeline remains stalled. This pipeline, if completed, will move oil produced by strip mining the Athabasca tar sands in Alberta Canada. The line will terminate after traversing almost 1200 miles at refineries on the Gulf coast. It’s approval is questionable as this will exacerbate global warming by providing an international market for more carbon emissions.

The draft Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed Plains and Clean Line has been released. Basically the EIS determined that there are no adverse environmental or socioeconomic effects of the transmission line. The power line will move 3,500 MegaWatts of wind generated electricity from the panhandle of Oklahoma, across Arkansas to Memphis.

Entergy has recently purchased a gas turbine fired electrical power plant near El Dorado. With a capacity of 1980 MegaWatts, this may signal the intention to close the older less efficient coal fired White bluff plant.

plains-and-eastern-clean-line-project

Health Effects of Power Lines

The proposal of a couple of high voltage electric power lines in northwest Arkansas has some concerned about health effects of those who may be living nearby. The larger of the two is a 750 kilovolt DC transmission line which will move excess electricity generated from wind turbines in Oklahoma and Kansas across Arkansas to connect with the Tennessee Valley Authority network in Memphis.

The health concern is all about exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMF) emanating from the power lines. Are there health effects? What are they? How close do you have to be? There is no question that those giant pylons with the looping wires are unsightly, and in the minds of some unnecessary, but are they a health risk? The short answer is more than likely not, but it will take some discussion.

First and foremost we are bathed in electromagnetic radiation from birth to death. The sun provides many forms; visible radiation (sunlight) by which we see. Infrared radiation from the sun warms us. Ultraviolet radiation tans us.

In addition to these natural forms of radiation we are exposed to man made electromagnetic radiation from radio, television, and cell phone transmissions. Electrical wiring and all electrical devices in the home create electromagnetic fields.

The evidence of harm from Power lines is scant and contradictory. It all started with a study in Denver in 1979. Researchers found a correlation between living near power lines and childhood leukemia, even though it is not biologically plausible. Basically what the researchers proved again that income correlates with cancer, and those who live near power lines are in a lower socioeconomic bracket.

Since that time there have been literally tens of thousands of peer reviewed studies which show no clear indication of harm. An important principle of toxicology, the science of poisons, is the dose response relationship. The greater the dose – the the greater the harm. Any of the studies which did suggest harm did not correlate with exposure.

Magnetic fields are measured in units of Gauss (G). For example the magnetic field in a medical diagnostic device called a MRI is huge, of the order of 70,000 G . There is no evidence of harm from MRI scans.

Other magnetic fields that we are exposed to include those from small electric devices in the home. A hair dryer in use produces a field strength thousands of times smaller, 20 G with a similar values for an electric razor. A refrigerator produces a field of about .02 G.

So what about a power line? The field strength drops off rapidly with distance from the source so the actual field strength under or near a power line is quite small. At a distance of 30 meters the field strength is a fraction of a thousandth of a Gauss (.004 G.) This is hundreds to thousands of times lower than exposures in average homes.

At the expense of repeating myself there is essentially no proof of either toxic or carcinogenic risks associated with living near power lines. Argue if you will that they are ugly, or that you don’t want them on your land, or that they aren’t necessary. Arguments about health effects however will fall on deaf ears.