Energy and Global Warming News for March 29: First flight test of warplane powered by biofuel blend; Ethiopia plans 15-fold increase in hydropower by 2020

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Camelina blend powers Air Force test flight

The Air Force conducted the first-ever flight test yesterday of a military aircraft powered by a biofuel-jet fuel blend.

The A-10 Thunderbolt II jet flew from Eglin Air Force Base in Florida for a 90-minute test of a blend of 50 percent jet fuel and 50 percent biofuel made from camelina.

Camelina — a flowering, non-edible plant in the mustard, cabbage and broccoli family — was tapped as a biofuel feedstock by a Honeywell company, UOP, under a 2007 contract with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Now UOP is under contract with the Defense Energy Support Center to produce 600,000 gallons of the camelina blend for the Air Force and the Navy. The company also makes a comparable biofuel for commercial aircraft.

The test flight’s goal was to let the Air Force determine if biofuel-powered flight would be indistinguishable from any other, said Maj. Chris Seager, the test fight’s pilot. The result, he said: “As far as things we’ve seen, the engine parameters are looking closely” like those of standard military jet fuel.

Leading up to the flight, the Air Force had completed lab and ground evaluations of the biofuel blend, said Jennifer Holmgren, UOP’s general manager of renewable energy and chemicals. She called the flight “an important step towards the Air Force’s goal to certify alternative fuels.”

Starting this summer, the Air Force expects to test the fuel in the F-15 Eagle, F-22 Raptor and C-17 Globemaster III as part of a wider effort to wean itself from fossil fuels.

“We hope to certify the entire Air Force fleet to use these fuels by the 2012 time frame,” said Jeff Braun, director of the Air Force’s Alternative Fuels Certification Office. The goal, he said, is to replace half the Air Force’s fuel with alternatives by 2016.

“I think the flight demonstrates that this is indeed a feasible objective,” he said.

But the high cost of the biofuel blend poses a problem. Standard jet fuel for military aircraft costs between $3.50 and $4 a gallon, Braun said, while the alternative fuel purchased for the test flight cost about $65 a gallon….

Commercial airlines have conducted flight tests with biofuel blends made from camelina, jatropha and algae, but they used jet fuel different from that powering military aircraft. Also, the airlines haven’t conducted a test flight in which all engines are powered by the blend, according to UOP.

Ethiopia looks to hydropower to meet growing demand despite enviro concerns

In a bid to end an energy crisis, Ethiopia is building a series of megadams on its plentiful rivers, hoping to increase its power generation 15-fold by 2020 and become an energy exporter to the region.

With the help of Italian and Chinese construction firms, Ethiopia is building dams hundreds of feet high to capitalize on hydropower from rivers coming down from the highlands.

“For a developing country like ours, the dams are a must,” said Abdulhakim Mohammed, head of generation construction at the Ethiopia Electric Power Corp. “Power is everything.”

In rural areas of the country, 2 percent of households have access to electricity, while the capital city of Addis Ababa has been beset by blackouts. The fast-growing economy and population has caused demand for electricity to rise by 25 percent annually with no matching growth in production. That led planners to look to the the rivers cascading from Lake Tana, which provides 85 percent of the water for the Blue Nile.

Several new plants will be built in the next few years, joining the dams that are already on line or near completion. But the scale of the projects is alarming environmental groups. A coalition of global environmental groups started an online petition to stop the dams, particularly the 797-foot Gibe III. The groups warn that the dam could cause environmental damage as well as social and economic effects on the tribes that live downstream.

The dam will end the Omo River’s natural flood cycle, which could affect herders and farmers and reduce the water level in nearby Lake Turkana. International Rivers, one of the groups that launched the petition, says Gibe III should be stopped and that other dams can meet the country’s power needs. But the government is dismissing those concerns, looking to China to secure financing to continue the project.

Putting wind-generated power where it’s needed

The national push for more wind turbine-generated electricity could turn Illinois into a transmission hub.

“Illinois is the crossroads. Historically, whether it’s rails, shipping, travel, O’Hare airport, it’s a geographical midpoint, or hub, positioned for all things moving west to east,” said Thomas O’Neill, chief operating officer at Chicago-based Exelon Transmission Co., a unit of Exelon Corp.

But while regulators are paving the way for wind-farm development with tax credits and loosened regulations, the key challenge facing those developers is that existing transmission lines, substations and transformers are inadequate to handle the amount of energy expected to come from wind farms in various stages of development across the country. There’s already a waiting list for wind-farm developers who want to hook into the existing grid.

“It’s easy to be green and say let’s build wind but we have to think about “” how are we going to deliver that?” said O’Neill.

In the near term, companies are opting to harness wind power closer to existing transmission lines, usually near urban areas, to avoid the lengthy and costly process of building new lines. Aside from pockets of strong winds in the midsection of Illinois, however, some of the most powerful wind in the U.S. stretches from the upper Midwest, south, into Texas.

In order to integrate and move that alternative power east through Illinois, the grid would have to be expanded and upgraded, say transmission experts and utility companies.

The estimated cost to move that wind power east could range from $64 billion to $93 billion in 2009 dollars and would require 17,000 to 22,000 miles of transmission lines to be built in the eastern half of the country alone, according to the Eastern Wind Integration and Transmission Study (EWITS) published in January and prepared for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

U.S., China Are Top Clean Energy Markets, Ernst & Young Says

The U.S., China and Germany are among the most attractive markets for developers of renewable energy technologies, according to Ernst & Young.

The U.S. scored of 70 out of 100, followed by China, scoring 67, on the Ernst & Young All Renewables index. The index, released today, rates countries based on the attractiveness of their renewable energy markets, infrastructure and support for specific technologies.

Provisions in the 2011 U.S. budget, including a proposal to increase the number of wind and solar energy projects built on government-owned property, are likely to boost clean energy development, Ernst & Young analyst Michael Bernier said in the report. Foreign developers may benefit from a new national renewable energy development fund in China, the report said.

Potential solar tariff cuts in Germany may drive investors away, the accounting firm said. The U.K. boosted its rank to fifth place on the index, tying with Spain, after Britain rolled out plans to extend its renewable obligations system to 2037 and pledged to support new projects for up to 20 years. India ranked fourth on the index.

Transmission dominates FERC chief’s 2010 agenda

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is striving to propose rules this year that would dictate how power lines are financed and pricing is set for nontraditional grid resources, the agency’s chief said yesterday.

Chairman Jon Wellinghoff said FERC “set the framework” last year for decisions on electricity infrastructure and new market resources by producing a five-year strategic plan and establishing the Office of Energy Policy and Innovation.

Now the agency is ready to provide more certainty and send the right signals to those who would build transmission and increase nontraditional or “demand-side” resources, including flywheel and battery storage. The agency aims to voluntarily reduce power consumption using demand response, Wellinghoff said.

“Getting the prices right and getting the ability to allocate costs right so that we can start really start moving infrastructure in place and start really putting the demand side in place into the markets — that is where I hope to get this next year,” he told reporters.

Wellinghoff said he has ordered FERC staff to draft a proposed rule soon on transmission funding formulas known as cost allocation. The staff is currently reviewing comments from stakeholders on that issue, and the agency may well see filings by regional transmission operators this year, Wellinghoff said.

“We ought to look at benefits to the entities that the costs are spread to,” he said. “We should not spread costs to someone that there is absolutely no benefits to.”

FERC already proposed a rule about making demand-side resources equal in market value to traditional power supply, and Wellinghoff said he is hoping to examine the pricing structure for other non-traditional supply soon

Why kill cap-and-trade? Because it’s there

Harvard economist Robert Stavins posted a short and provocative essay on his blog Sunday about cap-and-trade’s spectacular fall from rhetorical grace.

(I say rhetorical because, as he points out, some form of cap-and-trade remains part of all the major Capitol Hill climate change bills. What’s dead, at least for now, is the “economy-wide” cap-and-trade idea the House appoved last year.)

Stavins notes that the recession and the Wall Street crisis – which battered the reputation of trading markets – had something to do with cap-and-trade becoming politically toxic.

But then, the heart of his argument (and the italics are his):

But the most important factor “” by far “” which led to the change from politically correct to politically anathema was the simple fact that cap-and-trade was the approach that was receiving the most serious consideration, indeed the approach that had been passed by one of the houses of Congress.  This brought not only great scrutiny of the approach, but “” more important “” it meant that all of the hostility to action on climate change, mainly but not exclusively from Republicans and coal-state Democrats, was targeted at the policy du jour “” cap-and-trade.

The same fate would have befallen any front-running climate policy.

Does anyone really believe that if a carbon tax had been the major policy being considered in the House and Senate that it would have received a more favorable rating from climate-action skeptics on the right?  If there’s any doubt about that, take note that Republicans in the Congress were unified and successful in demonizing cap-and-trade as “cap-and-tax.”

Likewise, if a multi-faceted regulatory approach (that would have been vastly more costly for what would be achieved) had been the policy under consideration, would it have garnered greater political support?  Of course not.

BP closing Maryland solar manufacturing plant

BP will close its solar-panel manufacturing plant in Frederick, the final step in moving its solar business out of the United States to facilities in China, India and other countries.

Just 3 1/2 years ago, in an announcement widely hailed by Maryland officials and promoters of “green jobs,” BP unveiled a $70 million plan to double output at the facility and erected a building to house the production lines.

But on Friday the company said it would lay off 320 workers and keep only a hundred people involved in research, sales and project development. BP said laid-off employees would receive full pay and benefits for three months, followed by severance packages and job-placement assistance. The company, unable to sell or lease the building, will tear it down.

“We remain absolutely committed to solar,” BP chief executive Tony Hayward said in an interview Friday. But he said BP was “moving to where we can manufacture cheaply.”

The company said in a news release that by closing down high-cost manufacturing locations, BP slashed unit costs by more than 45 percent.

A few years ago, under the leadership of then-chief executive John Browne, BP said that its initials should stand for “beyond petroleum” and that the solar business was a key part of that new image even though it remained a tiny part of the oil and gas giant. Hayward, who came up through the oil-and-gas-exploration side of the company, said BP remains committed to renewable energy where it makes economic sense.

15 Responses to Energy and Global Warming News for March 29: First flight test of warplane powered by biofuel blend; Ethiopia plans 15-fold increase in hydropower by 2020

  1. Seth Masia says:

    I grew up in Chicago and like the idea that Illinois may become a transmission hub. But the idea that Chicago is, or ever was, a ground transport hub is ridiculous. Railroads were built with Chicago as a terminus. Today to push rail freight through Chicago you have to unload it at one yard and truck it across town to another, adding two days to the journey. The city needs an express track across town, or south of it. Same is true for the Interstate highway system: Chicago is nothing but a huge choke point, a clot in the nation’s arteries.

  2. Bob Wallace says:

    Camelina looks like a good biofuel plant. It has low water and fertilizer requirements, will grow on marginal land, can be inter-cropped with wheat to improve the soil, and sequesters a large amount of carbon with its massive root system.

  3. Ken Johnson says:

    Re “Commercial airlines have conducted flight tests with biofuel blends …”:
    The International Air Transport Association “has stated a goal of at least 10 percent of jet fuel coming from renewable sources by 2017.”

  4. Bill W says:

    Re Ethiopia, hydropower is certainly preferable to coal, but of course reservoirs do cause major environmental damage. I wonder if they’ve considered the issue of climate change-related droughts causing power shortages, as they have in Venezuela?

    In the longer term, the reservoirs could actually help the country deal with normal droughts by providing significant water storage, but while those reservoirs are filling, what’s everybody downstream going to do?

    Solar power strikes me as a much better fit for Ethiopia, but you’d need to solve the storage problem.

  5. David B. Benson says:

    Bill W — Hydro is an excellent backup for solar and wind. Here in the PNW, there is no solar but lots of hydro. The estimate is that up to 20% of grid capacity via wind can be backed by the available hydro. And yes, we have lotsa wind…

  6. Doug says:

    Something just occurred to me, after reading posts #4 and 5 above — one way to store “excess” solar and wind energy during peak production times would be to pump water back up above existing hydroelectric dams. Don’t know if the idea is out there already, but it might provide a lot of storage for a small incremental cost.

  7. Doug says:

    Regarding biofuels and airplanes: I wonder how the overall efficiency of this works out vs. using hydrogen directly as a jet-engine fuel? I’m talking mainly in terms of land use, for growing biofuel crops vs. setting up solar power plants that would generate electricity that would go to generating hydrogen.

    Now, hydrogen is quite poor for powering automobiles, as compared to batteries, and it’s also bad for general energy storage — both due to the big losses of going from electricity to hydrogen, and then again going back.

    But for airplanes, batteries have a *very* long way to go before the power density is high enough to be practical. So that leaves biofuels as the main near-term solution. But could hydrogen beat biofuels for this? Apparently hydrogen-powered jet planes would be bulkier, but also would be able to weigh less, for the same energy content of fuel.

    Has anyone seen any numbers for such comparisons?

  8. Bob Wallace says:

    Doug – what you are talking about is “pump-up hydro storage”. There are several pump-up storage facilities around the world, the oldest installed about 100 years ago.

    At the moment there are several existing dams in the US being retrofitted for pump-up storage. And one or two companies are purposing to build new storage facilities using “closed-loop” systems where the same water is used over and over by largely eliminating evaporation.

    We’ve got something like 80,000 existing dams in the US and are using only 2,500 or so for power generation. At least 10% of those existing dams should have adequate head and be close enough to existing transmission lines to be useful for storage.

    There’s another idea which has a lot of merit. Take an existing power producing dam and add more turbines. Now no longer use that dam for 24/365 power, throttle it back during low demand hours, and let wind/solar perform as they can. But turn on all the turbines and let them put out lots of power during high demand hours. That way you avoid the ~15% energy loss from pumping water up into the reservoir. Stream flow can refill the reservoir.

  9. riverat says:


    As Bob said, there are existing pump up storage plants but it usually doesn’t work very well if you just have river below the reservoir. It’s usually done out of an existing reservoir to a higher one. I’m most familiar with Grand Coolee Dam where they pump out of Roosevelt Lake (behind GC Dam) into Banks Lake which was formed by damming both ends of the Grand Coolee. Some of the water pumped into Banks Lake goes out the other end for irrigation but they can also let water back down to Roosevelt Lake and produce 314 MW of electricity.

    Also, liquid hydrogen in difficult to use in airplanes because the energy density by volume (usually expressed in megajoules/liter) is less than 1/3 that of traditional fuels. That means the fuel tanks would need to be 3 times as large for the same range and you’d still have to deal with the cryogenic nature of liquid hydrogen.

  10. Daniel Smith says:

    Greetings. On biofuels and airplanes, I have to say that I am dumbfounded. How is it possible that we are, in all likelihood, in the early stages of a food crisis that causes starvation already and will cause far, far more of it before long, and this story can be posted here without comment and receives no critique in the follow-up discussion? The crops are grown on “marginal land”? People have been making a living on “marginal land,” which is to say feeding themselves, for a very very long time, and they will be doing so increasingly as, yes, climate change disrupts existing agricultural ecosystems. How is the use of land that could be otherwise used for farming or grazing to fly airplanes around the world–military planes, no less!–anything short of immoral?

  11. Larry Gilman says:

    Daniel Smith —

    My reaction is similar. The notion of the US military policing the world on biofuel is surreal. Will we soon be treated to the spectacle of Predator drones running on biofuel _sustainably_ blasting Afghan wedding parties out of existence? (At least 10 times as many bystanders killed by drones as target personnel: ) But the US military establishment is so vast that there is plenty of room in it for schizophrenia: e.g., massive alternative-energy programs as well as genocidal stocks of nuclear weapons and savage bombing raids on civilians. Consider the heavyweight 500-MW solar plant going up at Fort Irwin, CA ( or, even more bizarrely, the windmills that are now helping power Guantanamo ( So how’s this for a sanity-stretcher: the very lights that keep certain prisoners awake around the clock in sleep-deprivation torture may now be powered by clean, low-carbon, renewable electricity! The cattle prods or whatever other toys US military jailers operating outside any legal system employ at Camp No (, likewise!

    Re. biofuels: there has at least been some acknowledgement among biofuel advocates that competing with agriculture is bad, bad, bad. The hungry of the world vs. the cars and planes of the world? No contest. Corn ethanol is thus not only grossly irrational on an energy-in, energy-out basis, as well as an ultimately suicidal soil-mining proposal like all industrialized till agriculture, but, in a word, evil. There is increasing acknowledgement of this fact in the expertocracy. But in place of the first-stage naivetee about biofuel I now see the claim that there is a great deal out there of something called “marginal land” on which very, very large quantities of switchgrass or bioengineered willows or whatnot can be grown, then converted into biofuel to feed the industrial beast — sustainably, mind you. I am extremely skeptical of the very category of “marginal” land, also of the claim that _any_ land can be continuously, sustainably exploited on a scale sufficient to feed the gigagallonage thirst of modern industrial civilization in its present form.

  12. Bob Wallace says:

    I’m not going to argue the “morality” of the military. So, putting that aside, let’s look at the reality we face.

    People are going to continue to fly. We can divert some long distance travel to rapid rail, but cross continent/cross ocean travel just can’t be done in a timely manner except for flying.

    Install a government that forbids flying and by the next election cycle there will be a different group of people running the government and planes back in the air.

    So, as people who are concerned about the future of the planet, what do we do?

    One idea is to use marginal land to grow aviation biofuels. (We could use algae, but no one has figured out how to do so at this point in time.)

    We have large tracts of land in the US and other parts of the world that just aren’t adequate for food production. There’s not enough available water and fertilizer requirements would be too high. There are the dry, infertile plains of the mid-west, the burned out cotton fields of the south, the water-starved tracts in the inland valleys of California.

    If we can grow switchgrass, camelina, or another hardy biofuel crop and thus cut down on de-sequestering carbon by pumping oil isn’t that a net gain?

  13. daniel smith says:

    Responding to Bob Wallace, above: Bob, I’m afraid I have to disagree rather strongly with your suggestions regarding both “marginal” land and the supposed inevitability of flying. First, people have been making a living, growing food and herding livestock, on the great plains and in similar places for a very long time. Those lands may not produce as much food per acre as Iowa, but to suggest that the people who live there and/or the people who could be supported on or by those lands are irrelevant is simply and obviously wrong, in my opinion, and it will become even more wrong as food supplies grow shorter. As for degraded lands, perhaps we should restore them to a healthy state so people can eat instead of using them to fly planes.

    As for the inevitability of flying, sure, I have no doubt that people will continue to fly. But perhaps a more relevant question would be: How much will people fly and how much should they fly? We can say that reducing such activities is impossible and by saying that we will make it true even as we make it appear that we have no responsibility for making it true, and in the process we will also condemn many more people to the painful death of starvation than we already, undoubtedly, have. On the other hand, we can take the question seriously in light of the consequences for humanity and nature (yes, biofuels displace other species, too), in which case maybe we might just possibly, as a society, decide that less flying and more food (and more biodiversity) would be a good thing. Maybe we won’t decide that, but would you really prefer that we simply avoid the question altogether and so guarantee that current trends will continue? If so, why not take that approach with climate change in general? As with flying, the chances are pretty good that people are going to continue heating up the planet, so whay read this blog in the first place?

  14. Bob Wallace says:

    Daniel, perhaps you don’t have any first hand experience with life on marginal land? Like giving up flying, people are going to have to be pushed long and hard before they move to those lands and struggle to keep themselves and their families alive.

    For those people scraping by on marginal lands at the moment, biofuels could mean a way to earn an actual living. Something more than keeping a few goats and a grove of date trees.

    Now, you might wish to spend time arguing about how people “should” live, but I don’t view that as a useful expenditure of time or efforts. If we try to design an “earth friendly” lifestyle that would cause a significant decrease in quality of life for people and try to get people to adopt it we will fail.

    Look how many people overeat, get addicted to alcohol and other drugs, fail to save/invest for retirement. All of these things will come to bite these folks in the butt later in their lifetimes and they know it.

    You think people are going to voluntarily change their lifestyle in order to make things better for those people who won’t be born for a few more decades?

    I believe that we won’t avoid the cataclysm that global warming could be unless we find ways to change our greenhouse gas outputs that a) don’t cost us a lot of extra money and b) don’t cause drastic decreases in lifestyle.

  15. daniel smith says:

    Hello Bob (and everyone)

    I think we’re missing each other here.

    I’m not sure why my personal experience with marginal lands is relevant. My point, which perhaps I should have made more explicitly, is simply that a given piece of land, with a given level of fertility and moisture and solar input and technology and practical knowledge, can yield a given amount of biological production in a year. That production, those calories, can either go towards feeding people or flying airplanes (or, of course, driving cars, as is already the case). One may not like goats, but they are the difference between eating and not eating for many people. So, in my opinion, it’s better to have more goats, or whatever, and less airplanes.

    You suggest, of course, that people in such places might make a better living growing and selling biofuels. I’m sure that in some places, or with some people in some places, this will be true. But I think there’s a problem here. We are moving into an era when there won’t be enough food, or enough land to grow it on, and that this will be greatly exacerbated by changing climate. (Perhaps this won’t happen, but it’s looking pretty darned likely that we may be on the cusp of unprecedented famine in many parts of the world.) So even if some people can make more money growing biofuels (and the chances are pretty good that it will not be small farmers, who routinely get pushed off their land when significant money comes into the picture), this will also mean that there will, by definition, be less food to go around overall. Ultimately, the more biofuels, the less food, the more starvation. Am I missing something here? Short of some technological agricultural miracle, or perhaps mass dieoff of people, I can’t see what would would violate the zero-sum, or at least near-zero sum, nature of this equation. If you grow calories, you can either feed someone or you can fly an airplane with them. No?

    Now, as long as you ask, I have had a lot of experience with marginal lands. I’ve lived on and visited and conducted social-ecological research on marginal lands in northern Maine and Mexico and Pakistan. Contrary to your assertion, people do not have to be pushed long and hard into such places. They already live there and while some would, as you say, prefer to give up their subsistence farming to make more money, others very much would not. Some of the most fulfilled people I’ve met do things like tend goats and grow dates, or potatoes. It’s complicated, just like any place. I think it’s a mistake to write these people and places off as “marginal” or somehow dispensable.

    You question whether people will voluntarily change their lifestyle. I question this, too. I think some will and some won’t. Probably most won’t. But I’m not sure that’s the point. Just like the larger issue of climate change, this is an important public issue that should be discussed, rather than simply assumed as having an inevitable trajectory that we shouldn’t bother talking about. Hopefully that discussion will make us more knowledgeable and prompt us to think it through. Then we can each make our own decisions about our lifestyles, and we can all make collective decisions about laws and treaties and taxes and regulations. Isn’t that how it’s supposed to work?

    And onward…