Energy and Global Warming News for May 5: Microgrids are a part of our energy future; Want jobs? We can get them from clean energy

Microgrids are key to future energy strategy

Grid stress is a real problem.  In addition to the economic threat there is a potentially greater national security risk.

As the U.S. Senate prepares to take up the climate bill, power companies anticipate a provision that would limit power plant emissions and impose a federal standard requiring a significant use of renewable energy resources.  However, many experts agree that bringing our aging power transmission and distribution infrastructure into the 21st century, a task that could take decades and cost in excess of $100 billion will present a stumbling block to delivering a significant amount of renewable energy.

Are the goals of the climate bill no more than unfunded mandates that the power industry cannot afford to implement?  Not if they look to microgrids as a part of the solution.  Microgrids could enable us to fast track implementation of renewable energy sources, reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, lower overall energy costs, create more green jobs, and improve the critical reliability and security of our electric grid….

The overload to our nation’s grid system results in power outages and disruptions costing the economy $104 to $164 billion a year. In August 2003, a massive, cascading electrical power failure took out New York City and a broad region from the Mid-Atlantic States to the Northeast. In June 2008, a power outage struck downtown D.C. and knocked out the White House.

Grid stress is a real problem.  In addition to the economic threat there is a potentially greater national security risk. The electric grid includes thousands of miles of transmission lines, power plants and substations. Utility reliance on Internet-based communication for their move to smart grid technology makes the system vulnerable to hackers. In April 2009, for example, U.S. intelligence officials reported evidence of cyberspies penetrating the U.S. electrical grid. The intruders buried but did not activate disruptive software programs.

A new architecture of peer-to-peer power networks known as Microgrids is emerging.  Microgrids can meet both environmental and national security challenges through the introduction of “on-site power” – local power solutions developed for local needs under local control.  Microgrids operate in parallel to the utility grid.  They often utilize natural gas or renewable energy sources, such as solar, geothermal or biomass power and are ideal for high-use building clusters, (hospitals, office complexes and data centers.) The buildings remain connected to the utility grid but by generating their own power they reduce reliance on the grid and can even send surplus power back into the grid.

A Better Platinum Catalyst for Fuel Cells

A new type of catalyst could lead to fuel cells that use a fifth of the platinum they use now. The new material, developed by researchers at the University of Houston, Technical University of Berlin in Germany, and the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, CA, consists of nanoparticles with cores made of a copper-platinum alloy and an outer shell that is mostly platinum. The material is up to five times as efficient as regular platinum.

Platinum and platinum alloys are the most efficient catalysts for speeding up chemical reactions in hydrogen fuel cells. Platinum is the only metal that can withstand the acidic conditions inside such a cell, but it is expensive, and this has limited the broad, large-scale applications of fuel cells. Furthermore, about 90 percent of the world’s platinum supply comes from just two countries–South Africa and Russia.

The new material already meets the U.S. Department of Energy’s 2015 target for platinum catalysts: producing at least 0.44 amperes of electric current per milligram of platinum. It produces up to 0.49 amps per milligram of platinum, and the researchers believe it should be possible to increase the material’s catalytic activity even more. “If we could get another factor of two [improvement in catalytic activity], we think that the cost of platinum in these fuel cells would make the technology more practical,” says SLAC physicist Anders Nilsson.

“This is excellent work that should enable us to use less platinum in fuel cells,” says Jean-Pol Dodelet, a professor of energy, materials, and telecommunications at the Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique (INRS) in Quebec.

At the anode of a conventional proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell, the catalyst splits hydrogen into hydrogen ions and electrons, with the latter flowing out of the cell to create current. At the cathode, oxygen molecules combine with electrons and hydrogen ions to form water. This reaction is sluggish and speeding it up requires 10 times as much platinum as is used at the anode. “If you’re trying to replace platinum, it is more important to replace the platinum at the cathode,” says Dodelet.

U.S. EPA signs off on Pioneer’s new corn breed

Pioneer Hi-Bred, a subsidiary of E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Co., said yesterday it has secured U.S. EPA approval for its AcreMax corn seed, a breed that allows farmers to plant more biotech corn than otherwise allowed by regulators.

The seed will compete against Monsanto Co.’s SmartStax seed, which first went on sale for planting this year. Because the agency’s approval came too late for the 2010 growing season, Pioneer plans to launch its product in earnest next year, said Bill Belzer, the company’s senior marketing manager for North American corn.

“This is a runup to the 2011 selling season,” Belzer said.

In order to prevent common pest species such as rootworm and corn borer from evolving to adapt to genetically modified traits, federal regulators require farmers to plant 20 percent of their acreage with seed that has not been genetically modified to fight those pests.

Pioneer’s AcreMax seed shrinks that requirement to 10 percent of acreage by eliminating the need for a rootworm “refuge.” It allows the remaining 10 percent to be situated up to a half-mile away from the rest of the crop, making planting simpler, Belzer said.

Monsanto’s SmartStax seed shrinks the required refuge size to 5 percent of acreage, but the refuge must be located within the same field. The company said yesterday it is developing a “refuge in a bag” seed that would entirely eliminate the need for a refuge.

Sales of SmartStax have been slow in its first season, Monsanto said yesterday, because farmers are hesitant to start paying $300 or more for a bag of seed that can cover about two-and-a-half acres

EPA announces plans to regulate coal ash

In response to December’s giant coal ash spill in Kingston, Tenn., the Environmental Protection Agency on Monday announced that it is beginning the process of regulating the waste ponds around the country.

The December spill spurred increased attention to coal-waste issues around the country. The 1.1 billion gallons of slurry flooded more than 300 acres of land and damaged homes in the area surrounding the Tennessee Valley Authority pond, and clean-up could cost up to $825 million.

Coal-ash impoundments like the Kingston pond are not currently subject to federal regulation, and oversight rules vary by state. The agency’s regulatory plan begins by gathering information on the structural integrity of coal-ash impoundments from electrical utilities, and conducting on-site assessments of the impoundments. These are intended to locate the impoundments that require cleanup and repairs, and the information requests are “legally enforceable and must be responded to fully,” according to the EPA. Administrator Lisa Jackson issued a letter to containment facilities and the corporations responsible for them directing them to provide the agency with specific information about the structure and safety of impoundments.

Blue-Green Alliance promotes freight rail investment

A coalition of labor and environmental groups today called for greater public investment in freight rail infrastructure as a way to boost employment while cutting down on fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions.

In a white paper, the Blue-Green Alliance said that every $1 billion invested in freight rail capital projects creates roughly 7,800 direct “green” jobs, mostly centered in the manufacturing, construction, and iron and steel industries. When indirect and induced jobs are factored in, that total could translate to as many as 26,000 jobs throughout the U.S. economy, the group said.

The alliance said the investment would help to deal with a forecasted doubling of demand for freight rail in the next three decades, while also helping to curb the amount of greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector, which currently accounts for roughly a third of the U.S. total.

“Freight rail is a far more efficient mode of transporting bulk goods when ranked against trucking and aviation, especially over long distances,” the alliance said, citing industry figures that it can move a ton of freight 480 miles per gallon of fuel consumed.

The alliance did not say how much total public investment it hopes to see, instead offering a handful of policy recommendations. It wants lawmakers to provide a tax credit for rail capital investments, renew a recently expired tax credit for upgrades to short-line railroads and develop public-private partnerships between freight and passenger rail. The group also wants Congress to include “Buy American” provisions as part of any policy decisions.

“Over the past two centuries, rail has helped America realize its potential and become the world’s leading economic power,” the group said. “In this new century, rail’s eminence as an economic engine has the potential to be as great, and also produce significant energy savings, reduce pollution, move cargo across the country efficiently as part of a multi-modal freight network and create an estimated 7,800 green jobs per billion dollars invested.”

The Obama administration has previously touted investments in freight rail, and freight projects were among the biggest winners from a $1.5 billion stimulus program open to major projects in all modes of transportation.

The three largest grants from the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER, program, were: $105 million to build two new intermodal facilities in Tennessee and Alabama along a Norfolk Southern route linking the Gulf Coast and the mid-Atlantic; $100 million for a package of 78 projects addressing freight rail congestion in the Chicago area; and $98 million to increase freight capacity along three major CSX corridors connecting the Midwest with the East Coast.

The Blue-Green Alliance is made up of a number of unions and organizations, including the United Steelworkers, Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council and Laborers’ International Union of North America.

Germany: Climate meeting “broke the ice”

Some 40 nations at a high-level climate meeting have made headway toward a pact to curb global warming, but the most important issues remain unresolved, Germany’s environment minister said Tuesday.

Many delegates agreed that “this meeting has broken the ice and one cannot overestimate the importance of this,” Norbert Roettgen said as the three-day Petersberg Dialogue co-hosted by Germany and Mexico, wrapped up. “This is a contribution to making success possible again.”

Progress was made on several issues including saving the planet’s forests and transferring climate technology from rich to poor countries, he said.

But the toughest issues “” cutting greenhouse gas emissions, financial aid from rich to poor nations, and a method of measuring both “” still need consideration, he said.

Chancellor Angela Merkel initiated this meeting of ministers from nations representing all regions of the world at the U.N. climate conference of more than 190 countries in Copenhagen in December.

Copenhagen was originally set to produce an international climate treaty, but it came up only with a political declaration “” the so-called Copenhagen Accord brokered by President Barack Obama.

However, the Accord was dismissed by some nations, and the Copenhagen conference ended with a deep rift between industrialized nations, new economic powers China and India, and developing countries “” with considerable differences also within each group.

Roettgen said the Petersberg Dialogue, in a mansion high above Koenigswinter near Bonn, had worked to overcome some of the distrust.

“This has proved to be a platform of constructive discussions,” he said.

However, a Greenpeace official said the international fight against global warming is still deeply troubled.

“Fundamentally, the difficult situation we had in Copenhagen has not changed,” Greenpeace climate specialist Martin Kaiser told The Associated Press.

Want jobs? We can get them from clean energy (Reps. Inslee and Israel)

As we await introduction in the Senate of comprehensive energy and climate legislation consistent with the American Clean Energy and Security Act passed by the House ten months ago, it is time to focus on other critical steps that Congress can take to harness American innovation to create millions of jobs as part of our new clean energy economy.

The House of Representatives Sustainable Energy & Environment Coalition (SEEC) has been at the forefront of generating legislation in Congress to create jobs and growth in the most promising and successful sector of our economy: clean energy.  By enacting policies to incentivize and invest in renewable energy and energy efficiency we can revitalize domestic industries like manufacturing and construction, and increase the production of home-grown American energy technologies to power our nation to a more secure and sustainable future.

To start, we should focus on America’s most easily obtainable energy resource and job creator – energy efficiency.  By increasing energy efficiency in the United States we can cut costs, reduce pollution, and create jobs.  The bipartisan Home Star Energy Retrofit Act, which will be on the House floor this week, could create more than 160,000 American jobs increasing residential energy efficiency.  This legislation should be passed, and Congress should look to other opportunities- like property-assessed clean energy financing and combined heat and power technologies, among other policies- to further increase residential, commercial, and industrial energy efficiency.

A recent McKinsey & Company report on energy efficiency found that the United States could save $1.2 trillion through 2020 by investing in improvements like sealing leaky building ducts and replacing inefficient household appliances with new, energy-saving models.  Retrofitting the nation’s aging building stock would drastically reduce the carbon impact. The total potential market for major green renovations in the commercial building sector alone is approximately $500 billion.

Also, by extending incentives and investments for clean energy technologies we will give our entrepreneurs and manufacturers badly-needed tools to advance American leadership in these industries.  Congress should extend and expand tax credits for the production and deployment of renewable energy technologies like wind, solar, marine, electric vehicles, biofuels, and others.  Also, Congress should reinstate $2 billion to the Department of Energy Innovative Technology Loan Guarantee Program (funding that was used for the “Cash for Clunkers” Program last summer) to provide additional, badly needed capital that will foster these domestic industries and allow America to compete in the global race for clean tech.

SEEC understands that the most powerful incentive to catalyze private investments in America’s clean energy economy- and the most critical piece of any comprehensive energy legislation- is a cost or restraint on carbon pollution.  Restraining carbon, by means of a limit or cost element, is vital to creating millions of American clean energy jobs and real energy independence, and is essential to preventing the catastrophic consequences of unabated climate change.

20 Responses to Energy and Global Warming News for May 5: Microgrids are a part of our energy future; Want jobs? We can get them from clean energy

  1. Bob Wallace says:

    A few improvements in splitting hydrogen from water and in fuel cells lately.

    I’m wondering if there is a future ahead for hydrogen fuel cells in energy storage? We wouldn’t need the extremely expensive infrastructure that would be needed were we to try to power our vehicles with hydrogen. “Crackers and burners” could be placed either close to point of generation (wind/solar fields) or close to point of use (urban/industrial centers).

    I also wonder if the feedstock could be salt water and the fuel cell emission, fresh water, might have commercial value?

  2. Leif says:

    This video fits right in with the Microgrid concept. It is about 22 minutes long and first pointed out to me by another commentator on CP.

    Unfortunately one can only imagine the strides that might be taken if subsidies for fossil fuels to the tune of multi-millions of dollars a year were instead applied to green technologies. It is not like the fossil industry is not established and not making money. It is also quite obvious that the fossil fuel industry cares not the fate of humanity as witnessed by historical actions. Society owes the Fossil (fuel) Industry nothing. Quite the contrary, the Fossil Industry owes humanity BIG TIME.

  3. Doug says:

    Bob — the cost of the fuel cells is just one of the problems with hydrogen. A bigger problem is the efficiency of doing the electricity –> hydrogen –> electricity conversion, which is about 25%. You lose half the energy to heat when electrolyzing water to make hydrogen, and half again in the fuel cells. Perhaps both can be made more efficient, so maybe it could get up to 30% or 35% overall — that still seems pretty lousy to me.

    Basically, for such storage to be economical, you’d need a situation where it’s worth it to retrieve electricity from hydrogen storage at 4 times the cost of electricity coming from the original source (if you assume the cost of your fuel cells, electrolysis equipment, and H2 storage is zero). Or perhaps if you can directly use the heat coming from the conversions, such as for heating a building, all the time, in which case you’d relabel the efficiency as 100%.

    Otherwise, EVs with excess capacity and intelligent interaction with the grid will easily beat H2 as a means for energy storage.

  4. Doug says:

    Oh, the other reason to make hydrogen would be if you can use the hydrogen directly — such as if you had H2-burning jet planes. In terms of acres and types of land used, solar arrays pumping electricity to airports that make and store H2 to fuel jets will still be much more efficient than growing crops to create biofuels.

  5. Leif says:

    Did you not look at the posted video in #2 Doug?

  6. Doug says:

    > Did you not look at the posted video in #2 Doug?

    It was posted as I was writing. Video is also quite difficult on the computer I’m using. Care to give a couple of sentences of summary?

  7. Richard Brenne says:

    Leif (#2) you’re right on as always. And great post about microgrids.

    Richard Heinberg has an excellent analysis of what it would take for the national grid to continue compared to what it would take for it to crash and the takeaway message is that if we keep doing what we’re doing, it would be miraculous for brownouts and then blackouts not to occur with increasing regularity in some small number of decades, and quite possible in combination with other events for a complete collapse to occur.

    In all areas from the grid through fossil fuel use to our national government we’ve build systems so complex and archaic that their collapse is inevitable. This is also true of the incredible complexity and inefficiency of the global economy.

    Recent examples include the Gulf oil spill, the Iceland volcano interrupting jet traffic, and the Massey coal mine explosion – and those are just within the last few weeks.

    Our only hope is to rebuild new and resilient infrastructure locally that can work within the global and national economies and infrastructure but also independently of them.

    Microgrids are the prime example of this. I’d be grateful for more posts about them.

  8. Doug says:

    Leif, your video is unwatchable on my machine. What about my post was contradicted or otherwise affected by it?

  9. Leif says:

    Anything I say will not do the video justice. I am not even sure that Dan Nocera’s, (GOOGLE), approach is the answer thou he makes a compelling presentation. What I am sure is that breakthrough technologies are inevitable and past due because we have been committed to dead dinosaurs for so long and have subsidized their proliferation to the elimination of any other option. Even today we are told that looking at alternatives will result in economic collapse. The Fossil Industry knows that they are doomed in the long run and yet continue to beat a dead horse for one last quiver. ( a few more hundred billion dollars out of society)

    Unless we can convince Capitalism and by extension Corporations to pursue sustainability and survivability of earth’s life support systems with enthusiasm we must assume that both are indifferent, nay destructive, to humanities quest for survival as is quite evident if one looks around.

  10. prokaryote says:

    Ash and Snow Cause Chaos Again
    Wednesday May 5, 2010

    Sat here in my hotel in Madrid, I’ve just met a girl who has had her flight to Dublin canceled due to the ash cloud. Meanwhile, Spanish TV is showing pictures of snow-covered streets in the north of the country. Hold on, didn’t we do this already? And isn’t it May?

    The snow in northern Spain has surprised everyone, too. Roads in Barcelona have seen massive disruption and some trains have become stranded. Read more here: Snow Storms Bring Chaos to Northern Spain. Cantabria has also seen some big snowfalls. Here in Madrid the worst we have had is some cold winds. But we’re talking really cold.

  11. prokaryote says:

    18-wheeler explodes at San Antonio refinery

    SAN ANTONIO — An 18-wheeler being loaded with fuel at a San Antonio refinery exploded Wednesday, setting off a chain reaction of smaller explosions and sending a towering plume of thick black smoke over the city’s southeast side. One person was critically burned, and the driver of the exploding truck remained missing.

    Cold spell hits Spanish spring
    Madrid – A cold spell hit Spain on Tuesday, with rain, wind and snow hampering traffic and causing power cuts, officials said.

    The cold weather affected especially the north-eastern region of Catalonia, where 10,000 households were left temporarily without electricity, while rail links suffered interruptions.,cold-spell-hits-spanish-spring.html

  12. prokaryote says:

    18-wheeler explodes at San Antonio refinery

  13. Mark Shapiro says:

    “Consider the challenge: in the last decade, we have seen a 60 percent increase in electric usage for the average U.S. household. ”

    60% in ten years– is this correct?

  14. Mark says:

    More news from EIA – CO2 emissions down more than 6% in 2009.
    CO2 emissions are declining faster than GDP.

  15. David B. Benson says:

    EPA needs public comments on its two proposed standards in regulating fly ash.
    (1) Toxic Waste standards
    (2) Municipal garbage standards
    Please take the time to comment in favor of the more stringent standard; much fly ash contains mercury (and lots of other heavy metals).

  16. Doug says:

    Lief — I’ve done some searching on Dan Nocera, and so far I don’t see anything about him improving the efficiency of either electrolysis or fuel cells. Yes, he seems to have this goal of matching what photosynthesis does, and that’s great: we should be racing to push every against every bondary. But so far it seems that he’s only been working to make electrolysis cheaper. I see no mention of any actual progress in — or discussions of the prospects of — improving the efficiency. The articles generally have lots of misleading hype that give the impression that neither solar power nor electrolysis ever worked before this guy came along. This article, for example:

    So, since you don’t state any details of what you meant by your comment #5, I don’t see anything that detracts from my comment #3 at all. To restate it: as an energy storage medium, with some exceptions, hydrogen basically sucks, and it will continue to suck for the foreseeable future. One day Mr. Nocera’s advancements will hopefully make hydrogen-generating equipment cheaper, and help spur the conversion of things like jet planes from biofuels to directly using hydrogen, but by then EVs will have already pretty much solved the storage issues relating to renewables on the grid.

  17. Mark says:

    #12 – @Mark Shapiro – Here the numbers from the EIA on electricity growth.

    1998 – 8,741 Trillion Btu Retail Electricity Sales
    2008 – 10,152 Trillion Btu Retail Electricity Sales

    Works out to a 16% increase over that 10 year period.

  18. Bob Wallace says:

    Rough numbers…

    8,741 T Btu (1998) 281 million (2000) 31.1 T Btu/million people

    10,152 T Btu (2008) 309 million (2010) 32.8 T Btu/million people

    5.46%. Perhaps 60% should have been 6%. One of those pesky wandering decimal point problems.


    And Doug, thanks for your input.

  19. Bob Wallace says:

    “Since 1974, California has held its per capita energy consumption essentially constant, while energy use per person for the United States overall has jumped 50 percent.”

    “California really represents what the rest of the country could do if it paid a bit more attention to energy efficiency,” says Greg Kats, managing principal at Capital E, an energy and clean-technology advisory firm. “California is the best argument we have about how to very cost-effectively both reduce energy consumption and cut greenhouse gases. And they’ve made money doing it.” Kats estimates that the average Californian family spends about $800 a year less on energy than it would have without efficiency improvements over the past 20 years.”

  20. Mark Shapiro says:

    Thank you, Bob and Mark and others.