Energy and Global Warming News for February 3: Converting Coal Plants to Biomass; California Sets Up Statewide Network to Monitor Global-Warming Gases; The Royalty Boondoggle

PhotoConverting Coal Plants to Biomass

Coal-powered generating stations retrofitted to run on a mixture of coal and dried wood pellets can produce cost-competitive, emission-reduced electricity even without the advent of a cap-and-trade system, according to a new biomass life cycle analysis published in the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology.

For utilities under pressure to meet renewable portfolio standards, biomass should be considered along with wind, solar and small-scale hydro, says Heather MacLean, the lead researcher and an associate professor of civil engineering at the University of Toronto.

“The study results suggest that biomass utilization in coal generating stations should be considered for its potential to cost-effectively mitigate” greenhouse gases from coal-based electricity, the paper concluded.

For more on biomass conversion and cofiring, see:

Here’s more of the Green Inc. story:

The team tested the life-cycle emissions and costs of “co-firing” scenarios involving fuel with 10 to 20 percent wood pellet content.

Coal accounts for a fifth of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, the authors noted.

If just 10 percent co-firing were to be implemented in all coal-generating stations in the United States and Canada, “electricity generation from biomass could contribute approximately 4 percent of annual generation of the two countries,” the analysis found, reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 170 million metric tons each year “” or about 5 percent of emissions from the two countries’ electricity sectors.

The result emerges from the Ontario government’s campaign to phase out coal from the province’s energy portfolio by 2014. With that deadline approaching, Ontario Power Generation, the provincial utility, has been looking to partly convert some of its coal stations to biomass made from unmarketable timber from the province’s northern region, which has suffered substantial job losses in the forest sector.

Ontario Power co-sponsored the study, but Ms. MacLean says the utility didn’t direct the research, which has been peer-reviewed.

Ms. MacLean also stressed that for wood-based biomass to remain an environmentally attractive alternative to coal, the timber must be harvested according to sustainable forest management practices.

She also acknowledges that the carbon released into the atmosphere by burning biomass is not necessarily reabsorbed by new plant or tree growth at the same rate, which is called carbon debt.

While the technology isn’t especially complicated, a handful of utilities have successfully re-engineered coal plants to run on wood biomass.

Three years ago, the Public Service of New Hampshire spent $70 million to retrofit the 50 megawatt Schiller coal plant to run on wood chips, a project that generates a revenue stream from the sale of renewable energy certificates.

The large European utility Electrabel operates a Belgian generating station that turns pulverized wood chips into a biogas, which is then burned to produce power.

California Sets Up Statewide Network to Monitor Global-Warming Gases

California is preparing to introduce the first statewide system of monitoring devices to detect global-warming emissions, installing them on towers throughout the state.

The monitoring network, which is expected to grow, will initially focus on pinpointing the sources and concentrations of methane, a potent contributor to climate change. The California plan is an early example of the kind of system that may be needed in many places as countries develop plans to limit their emissions of greenhouse gases.

“This is the first time that this is being done anywhere in the world that we know of,” said Jorn Dinh Herner, a scientist with the California Air Resources Board.

While monitoring stations around the globe already detect carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases, they are deliberately placed in remote locations and are generally intended to measure average global concentrations of greenhouse gases rather than local emissions.

The California network, by contrast, is meant to help the state find specific sources of emissions, as well as to verify the state’s overall compliance with a plan it adopted to limit greenhouse gases.

The air resources board has bought seven portable analyzers made by Picarro, a company in Silicon Valley that also supplies the machines to the federal government and academic scientists.

By this summer, the analyzers will be deployed on towers in the San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys, home to large agricultural operations and oil fields, and on Mount Wilson, outside Los Angeles. Data will also be collected from Picarro machines maintained by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory on the coast and from several monitoring stations operated by other agencies.

Depending on local topography and weather conditions, one Picarro analyzer can cover as much as several hundred miles, the scientists said. For instance, a machine installed on a mountain peak can collect data from most of the Los Angeles basin.

The state’s global warming law requires that greenhouse gas emissions be cut to 1990 levels by 2020. To achieve such reductions, the state is planning an emissions-trading market whose integrity will depend on accurate measurement of the gases from oil refineries, power plants and other industrial facilities.

“I think these monitoring networks are going to be essential, as we really need to have a system in place that makes sure markets match reality,” said Pieter Tans, a senior scientist in Colorado with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The air resources board uses computer modeling to estimate greenhouse gas emissions in the state. The first task of the new network will be to see if actual concentrations of methane match those estimates.

A Picarro analyzer costs $50,000. It is about the size of a desktop PC and takes precise, real-time measurements of greenhouse gases. Picarro’s chief executive, Michael Woelk, said his company’s scientists had charted plumes of methane by placing an analyzer in a car and driving from Livermore, Calif., to Sacramento, a route heavy with animal feedlots, truck depots and other industrial operations.

“This is the first critical step to building a nationwide monitoring network,” Mr. Woelk said.

The Royalty Boondoggle

In 1995, when oil prices were very low, Congress tried to encourage deep-water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico by giving oil companies relief from some of the royalties they incur for producing oil and gas on public land.

It has never been clear how much new exploration this provision inspired, since steadily rising prices provided plenty of incentive. What is clear is that it has been a good deal for the industry and a bad deal for taxpayers. According to the Government Accountability Office, the provision could allow industry to escape up to $54 billion in legitimate royalties, depending on the price of oil.

Representative Edward Markey of Massachusetts hopes to put things right with a bill that would clarify the law and prevent companies from signing new leases in the gulf until they renegotiate the old ones and pay royalties that are due. A similar bill has been approved three times in the House but has gone nowhere in the Senate.

Mr. Markey is particularly incensed this year because the oil companies are still doing very well despite lower demand, while the number of households needing federal help with their heating bills may rise to 10 million “” a big increase. To help out, he has introduced a bill increasing the money to help needy people with their energy bills by one-third to $7.6 billion annually.

The royalty mess resulted from a familiar Washington story line: lazy bureaucrats and legislation riddled with ambiguities. But the reality is that many of these leases are now beginning to yield oil, which will remain free of royalties as long as Congress fails to provide the kind of remedy proposed by Mr. Markey.

Actually, Congress owes this not only to the taxpayers but to itself. Its original intention in 1995 was to provide incentives during periods of low prices “” not a corporate gravy train when prices are robust.

Markey floats legislation to boost funding for LIHEAP

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) wants to increase funding and expand availability of a program created to help low-income families pay their energy bills.

Markey introduced a bill that would boost funding authorization for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, to $7.6 billion for fiscal 2011 to 2014, a level $2.5 billion more than the $5.1 billion authorized in the 2005 Energy Policy Act.

“Our economy may finally be heating up, but the effects of a recession, periods of cold weather and rising energy prices are still having a chilling effect on millions of American families,” Markey, chairman of the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, said in a statement.

LIHEAP helps low-income families pay their home energy bills, assisting 8.3 million households last year, according to the National Energy Assistance Directors Association. The organization estimates 10 million families may apply for assistance this year.

Markey’s bill would also authorize a formal expansion of the program, extending eligibility levels to families whose incomes are 75 percent of their state’s median income level. The authorization language currently allows families whose incomes are 60 percent of their state’s median income level to participate, although appropriations for the program since fiscal 2009 have allowed for the 75 percent level.

Congress appropriated $2.57 billion for the program in fiscal 2008 and boosted that level to the full $5.1 billion authorization in fiscal 2009 and 2010. In its budget request released earlier this week, the Obama administration proposed changes to the funding structure for the program.

The White House would cut guaranteed funding from $5.1 billion in fiscal 2010 to $3.3 billion. But it would set aside an additional $2 billion that would be released in the event of an energy spike or an increase in the number of families in poverty. If the full $2 billion were released, the administration’s plan would result in a net increase in funding for the program.

Vulcan secures $108M for Nev. power plant

Vulcan Power Co. said today it has secured a $108 million investment from Denham Capital to develop 300 megawatts of geothermal power in Nevada.

The investment, in the form of preferred and common stock, is Denham’s second in Vulcan. The Boston-based investment firm, which focuses on energy and commodities, has staked a total of $166 million in Vulcan; other shareholders include a principal investing division of Bank of America Corp.

Vulcan, based in Bend, Ore., has geothermal leases and applications across more than 170,000 acres in Arizona, California, Nevada and Oregon. The privately held company will use Denham’s latest investment to develop five 60-megawatt geothermal projects across more than 80,000 acres in northeastern Nevada.

Vulcan aims to begin generating electricity from the projects by the end of 2013, pending permit approvals, said Bob Warburton, Vulcan’s acting chief executive officer.

Vulcan has signed power-purchase agreements with Southern California Edison Co. (120 MW) and NV Energy Inc. (60 MW). Vulcan is negotiating another 120 MW power-purchase agreement with an undisclosed California utility, Warburton said.

He estimated that Vulcan could generate as much as 750 MW from its Western landholdings. Geothermal energy is produced by drilling for underground reservoirs of superheated water. The steam that rises to the surface is then used to power electric turbines.

“Geothermal development requires greater capital investment up front compared to other renewable power projects,” Warburton explained. “But once built, geothermal has significantly lower all-in costs, making it very competitive with traditional, nonrenewable generation sources.”

Nearly 150 geothermal power plants are under development in the United States, according to the Geothermal Energy Association, an industry trade group. The group projects that the geothermal projects could bring the nation 7,000 MW of baseload power in the next few years.

Renewables in Vogue at Obama’s DOE

Nuclear, solar and wind power are the popular kids in the Energy Department schoolyard this year, while oil, gas and coal have been sent to detention.

When he sent his proposed spending plan to Congress yesterday, President Obama recommended subsidizing new nuclear plants with loan guarantees and shoveling more money at wind and solar research.

But when the administration’s budget cutters got to the oil patch, they found a target-rich environment with plenty of programs and tax breaks they wanted to cut.

Not unexpectedly, that drew cheers from fellow Democrats and the renewable energy industry and howls from Republicans and fossil fuel providers.

“This administration talks a good fight when it comes to wanting to increase our production of oil and gas,” said Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah), the ranking member of the Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee. “But every time they get a chance to back that up with dollars, they don’t.”

DOE came out a winner in Obama’s overall budget, despite the freeze in nonsecurity discretionary spending. That is a reflection of Obama’s desire to foster a “clean energy” economy, where new, cleaner sources of energy create jobs and lower the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Overall, the $28.4 billion request for DOE would be an increase of 6.8 percent for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. But Energy Secretary Steven Chu noted that the National Nuclear Security Administration, which is not subject to Obama’s proposed freeze, gets a 14 percent increase. Aside from NNSA, Obama is proposing a 2.8 percent increase. That is still more than most departments, some of which are recommended for cuts under Obama’s domestic spending freeze.

“For years R&D has been on R&R here in America,” said Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) in a statement. “This budget invests in our workforce, so that the clean energy technologies of the next 100 years come from Boston, not Beijing.”

Much of the “clean energy” funding has been cast as providing for job creation, as Obama seeks to reassure worried voters that his environmental agenda won’t deal another blow to the faltering economy.

Many of Obama’s energy proposals resemble the energy aspects of the climate change and energy legislation that has stalled in the Senate, except that the legislation has more of what the oil and gas industry wants. Drillers have vehemently attacked the climate change plan, but Obama could be signaling that the way for the industry to get what it wants is for a climate bill to pass.

Renewables, research get boost

The administration is asking Congress for a 5 percent increase for the energy efficiency and renewable energy section of the budget. The request for fiscal 2011 reflects a sharp turn toward Democratic-favored sources of energy such as wind and solar and energy-saving methods such as weatherization. Those increases come at the expense of the hydropower and hydrogen, favorites of the George W. Bush administration.

Wind was the big winner, driven by the Obama administration’s desire to push offshore wind in the coming fiscal year. The request for wind power jumped 53 percent, from $80 million this year to $123 million next year. The administration’s campaign will seek to win public acceptance, overcome regulatory hurdles and find solutions to technical problems facing offshore wind.

The White House also wants a big boost in solar programs, seeking a hike from $247 million this year to $302 million next year, which would be a 22 percent increase. And it requests $500 million to cover initial fees, or “credit subsidies,” to support the $3 billion to $5 billion in loan guarantee authority for energy efficiency and renewable energy projects.

Obama wants big new investments in clean energy research. His $300 million request for the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E, is a show of support for the high-risk, high-reward research. Congress had declined to give the program more money for fiscal 2010 after it got $400 million in the stimulus. The Obama plan recommends the program be pulled out of the Office of Science and funded separately.

The Office of Science would also see a significant jolt in funding under the president’s request. The administration would provide the office, which operates the bulk of DOE’s research and development programs as well as 10 of the nation’s 17 national laboratories, with $5.12 billion, an increase of about 4.5 percent over fiscal 2010 levels.

A $1.8 billion request for basic energy sciences would include two innovative programs championed by Chu: the energy frontier research centers and energy “innovation hubs.”

About $34 million would go to a new hub to create a multidisciplinary team of scientists from universities, national laboratories and the private sector to advance battery and energy storage technologies. The hubs are at the centerpiece of Energy Secretary Steven Chu’s research agenda for the department and were first proposed in the administration’s fiscal 2010 budget request.

“Of all the R&D programs, I personally feel very strongly about ARPA-E and the innovation hubs,” Chu said yesterday.

In total, the administration requested $107 million for the hubs next year, including additional funding for three of the hubs that were previously funded. Those research centers will focus on fuels from sunlight, energy efficiency in buildings and nuclear simulation and modeling.

Bennett sees misplaced priorities. He said he supports wind and solar research, but the administration is going too far in subsidizing the industry.

“The wind doesn’t always blow, and the sun doesn’t always shine,” Bennett told E&E. “There’s got to be recognition that there is a finite amount that wind and solar can contribute to the overall energy needs of this country.”

But Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), said renewables still are not enough of a priority for the administration, noting the billions of dollars in loan guarantees to build nuclear plants.

“He has not funded [renewables] to that degree,” Sanders said. “Construction of new nuclear power may well be the most expensive way to go.”

Obama, who stressed his support for nuclear during his campaign, wants to boost loan guarantee authority for nuclear power facilities by $36 billion, for a total of $54 billion.

Obama’s request would also increase nuclear research and development of nuclear technology by 5 percent, for a total request of $824 million, while dropping two Bush-era programs, Nuclear Power 2010 and Generation IV.

Another Bush-era program taking a hit is hydrogen. Bush had made the idea of hydrogen cars the centerpiece of his renewable energy and energy independence plans. But the Obama administration has frowned on the program. The administration’s request recommends a 21 percent cut for the hydrogen technology program, taking it from $174 million to $137 million.

Vermont Power Plant Continues to Leak Radiation

Technicians seeking the source of a leak of radioactive tritium at the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant have found concentrations in groundwater there that were three times higher than what was discovered last week, a plant spokesman said Monday.

Tritium was measured at 70,500 picocuries per liter, which the spokesman, Rob Williams, characterized as a low level. The highest level discovered so far “does not present a risk to public health or safety whatsoever,” he said in a statement.

But it does put Vermont Yankee over the threshold at which it is obligated to make a report to federal regulators within 30 days, and say what it will do about the problem. The limit, 30,000 picocuries, was crossed on Sunday.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has already been at the site to study the problem, and Vermont Yankee is well into an attempt to find the leak and map the pollution.

The Environmental Protection Agency standard for the allowable level of tritium in drinking water is 20,000 picocuries per liter, lower than the N.R.C. reporting threshold. But so far no contamination has been found in drinking water sources, plant officials and the Vermont health department said.

The new, higher level of 70,500 picocuries per liter of radioactive tritium was measured in a monitoring well, one of six that the owner, Entergy, is drilling to try to find the problem.

At a new well, the tritium concentration was 1,840 picocuries.

Vermont Yankee is seeking a 20-year extension of its operating license, which expires in 2012, from the regulatory commission. Renewal is also subject to state approval.

Last week, Gov. Jim Douglas said that recent events had cast “dark clouds of doubt” over the plant, and recommended that the Legislature delay a decision.

15 Responses to Energy and Global Warming News for February 3: Converting Coal Plants to Biomass; California Sets Up Statewide Network to Monitor Global-Warming Gases; The Royalty Boondoggle

  1. kenshin says:

    “The wind doesn’t always blow, and the sun doesn’t always shine,” Bennett told E&E. “There’s got to be recognition that there is a finite amount that wind and solar can contribute to the overall energy needs of this country.”

    it also doesn’t always rain, but we have water. it’s called a reservoir system, or as most people in energy talk about it, a storage system. u store for a “rainy day”, or a windless, sunless day really. even with severe droughts, we have water, and only the most poorly-planned developments lose water pressure during drought. it’s just a matter of good infrastructure planning.

    japan is looking at hydrogen fuel cells in homes as opposed to cars, where it might be more economically feasible. we were also leading in battery development in the world. what happened to that?

    does it scare energy companies that people might be able to have more personal control over the energy we generate and distribute, with a personal or local energy reservoir system? that it would mean less dependency on centralized (monopolized) energy generation and distribution??

    something really does not makes sense when these “experts” talk. i don’t think they really understand wind and solar and geothermal energy production, i think they’re more interested in stopping investors from investing in them.

  2. Chris Dudley says:

    Bob Bennett of Utah gets one thing right. There is a finite limit to what wind and solar can contribute to our energy use. The limit is 100% which is finite.

  3. Len Ornstein says:

    Replacing coal with wood has much greater potential than is suggested in this thread!

    From 1.5 to 4.5 GtC/yr of negative carbon footprint could be achieved by sustainable eco-neutral conservation harvest (SENCH) of dead trees from old-growth tropical forests:

    and another 8 GtC/yr from covering parts of the Sahara and Australian Outback with irrigated forests:

  4. David B. Benson says:

    In this region, wind can eventually contribute 20%, the limit hydro can backup. That’s less than the 30% from energy efficiency, with Portland OR aiming for an astounding 40%.

    The thought of hydrogen, generated in periods of low demand and then burned cenrally (not cars, not even houses) is an interesting possiblity for the future. Done properly the thermal efficiency ought to be quite good. Dunno quite how the economics works out.

  5. Chris Dudley says:

    Interesting that Entergy, Vermont Yankee’s owner, had record earnings for 2009 while its plant has a growing radioactive leak:

  6. Jerry Levitt says:

    Burning wood of course creates toxins and carcinogens just like cigarettes. The oils and the tar in wood seems to be a problem. The pellets use a lot of fuel in the cutting, dehydration and pelletizing process. Coal has the best rate of return on investment.

  7. Leif says:

    Some wood each year will burn under uncontrolled conditions, (Forest Fires) and rotting, also a CO2 source, non the less. Enhanced forest management could be a a big gain long term. In effect recovering waste heat that is lost at present. Not an insignificant amount of energy, same CO2 that already happens. A lot less soot and aerosols .

  8. Leif says:

    Jerry, #6: “Coal has the best rate of return on investment.” That is only because the environmental costs are being absorbed by the tax payer or displaced people!

  9. Brendan says:

    I’m not sure that hydrogen even makes sense for stationary energy storage. You’re trying to accomplish the same task as chemical batteries (covert electrical energy into chemical energy and back), but introducing inefficiencies into the system by using a poor choice for a chemical medium. Either you need massive volumes of storage for small amounts of hydrogen, meaning you’ll never get a return on your investment, or you need to highly pressurize your storage chemical (hydrogen in gas form) adding considerable energy losses to the process.

    In an open system (which is all I have ever seen) where you use oxygen from the air in your reaction and allow the water vapor to escape into the air, you open the system up to all kinds of contaminants that reduce the life of the converter (a fuel cell, in this case). A lot of research has been focused on curing this problem. To close the system (recycling the water from the reaction and using it to create a pure oxygen source) would require additional storage hardware costs for the water and oxygen. This removes one of the hydrogen fuel cell’s major advantages: you only need to store a small portion of the chemicals involved in the process, the rest comes, quite literally, from thin air.

    A redox battery or flow battery (or redox fuel cell, depending on who you ask) accomplishes a similar task using liquids, meaning there are no gas compression losses. The liquid is heavy, making them a generally poor choice for portable applications, but work fine for stationary ones where weight and size are not major concerns. These batteries don’t suffer from contaminants being introduced from the environment like a fuel cell since all of the chemicals involved are recycled in the charge/discharge process. For stationary applications, it seems resources would be better spent on improving this battery design over hydrogen fuel cells. Alternatively, designing a new type of “standard” rechargeable battery that minimizes costs and maximizes life cycles at the cost of energy and power density may be another option that is better than hydrogen fuel cells. Right now there is little focus on developing this type of battery since the industry is focused on developing light, powerful and energy dense batteries for portable applications, especially electric vehicles.

  10. NathanS says:

    nice blunt article at the national post about “ClimateGate”

  11. David B. Benson says:

    Brendan (9) — Thaanks for the ideas about
    A rougn-n-ready calculation over lunch seems to indicate even running a GE H frame combined cycle gas turbine (rated 60% thermal efficiency) and storing all the water, hydrogen and oxygen would beat out buring natgas (by quit4e a bit) provided the off-peak electricity was priced low enough. Carl Hauser mentioned that there a nuclear reactor operators who will pay you to wheel away their output!

    So it might be that some such arrangement could make money whle supplying day-time power from hydrogen & oxygen produced overnight.

  12. Please note that what Len Ornstein, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, cites as a reference for his claim that, “from 1.5 to 4.5 GtC/yr of negative carbon footprint could be achieved by sustainable eco-neutral conservation harvest (SENCH) of dead trees from old-growth tropical forests,” is his own “editorial essay.”

    Fat chance.

    In fact, as real and acute as the climate crisis is, our planet is already scientifically judged to be deeper in deficit in terms of loss of biodiversity and disruption of the nitrogen cycle:

    It’s terribly wrong and dangerous to pretend that we can “harvest” our way out of non-renewable energy production in a large industrial way. Point to the commercial forests, anywhere on the planet, that aren’t already stressed to the point of loosing more biodiversity, and then there’s a place to start the calculations. Point to one real, industrial-scale, on-the-ground timber harvest project that collects “dead wood” from an old growth forest, tropical or temperate, in a way that is actually “eco-neutral.”

    I think it’s a lot easier to imagine large scale “eco-neutral conservation harvest” somewhere back east than it is out here in timber country. Even contracted thinning tends to be ecologically devastating, in actual on-the-ground practice. And the forestry regulators, even in this country, have so far to go to embrace real conservation, where to start truly is the challenge.

    As an optimistic natural resources consultant, I can imagine that forest biofuels might possibly contribute in some local areas to renewable and environmentally sustainable energy generation.

    But the scientific facts demand that biofuels be considered very cautiously. The correct default assumption is that forest biofuels are in general NOT renewably carbon-neutral and NOT environmentally sustainable. The intellectual responsibility to demonstrate otherwise must lie with the proposer.

  13. The smoke coming from the global warming skeptics is as thick as the smoke coming from vehicles and industries!

  14. Len Ornstein says:

    Kevin Matthews #12:

    As the “proposer”, I take the “intellectual responsibility” by citing the sources of my detailed arguments in support of my brief summary statements (#3).

    I agree with you that “forest biofuels are in general NOT renewably carbon-neutral and NOT environmentally sustainable”. My papers, however, address a few enormous exceptions!

    Why don’t you read the citations and then provide explicit criticisms?

  15. The adverse effects of the global warming can be seen in the different parts of the world, where people are experiencing extremes of temperature, whether the weather is cold, or hot, every season has become a great problem.