Saturday, August 22, 2009
- American flags not welcome at oil astroturf rally; Iraq & Afgahnistan veterans denounce 'Oil Dependence Tour'
- Joe Klein on the GOP: "How can you sustain a democracy if one of the two major political parties has been overrun by nihilists? … How can you maintain the illusion of journalistic impartiality when one of the political parties has jumped the shark?"
- The AP gets the bark beetle story right
- Peaking Duck: Beijing's Growing Appetite for Climate Action
Posted: 21 Aug 2009 05:44 AM PDT
Wonk Room details the unpatriotic Astroturf rallies.
At a "grassroots" rally organized by the American Petroleum Institute in Houston on Tuesday, activists bearing American flags were turned away. Oil company employees were bused in to the "Energy Citizens" gathering to hear billionaire Drayton McLane Jr. attack President Barack Obama's clean energy agenda as an economy-destroying energy tax. However, grassroots tea-party activists told Public Citizen Texas that they and their American flags were refused entry to the company picnic:
The activists explained that they were invited by Dick Armey's Astroturf organization Freedomworks, one of the participating organizations in the new Energy Citizens coalition.. While the activists were locked out, employees of the public corporations Chevron, Anadarko Energy, Halliburton, ConocoPhillips, and others were "invited to participate" and bused to the event on company time.
At the company picnic, Houston Astros owner Drayton McLane defended his billionaire lifestyle, saying, "We need to preserve this way of life." Inheriting much of his wealth, McLane made billions by selling his grocery business to Wal-Mart. In January 2008, McLane received the Woodrow Wilson Award for Public Service for showing a "deep concern for the common good beyond the bottom line." National Black Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Harry Alford, who recently accused Barbara Boxer of racism, was also a featured speaker.
Grist has details on the veterans organizing against these "oil dependence rallies":
Joe Klein on the GOP: "How can you sustain a democracy if one of the two major political parties has been overrun by nihilists? … How can you maintain the illusion of journalistic impartiality when one of the political parties has jumped the shark?"
Posted: 20 Aug 2009 03:25 PM PDT
[I'd love readers answers to the two headline questions posed by Klein. ]
When I get back from vacation, I'll blog at length about what the White House's dreadful messaging on health care says about the likelihood they'll improve their dreadful messaging on the climate and clean energy bill.
But Time magazine's Joe Klein — a generally moderate/centrist columnist — has written perhaps the definitive piece on what the health reform "debate" says about the Republican establishment, in a piece titled, "The GOP Has Become a Party of Nihilists." As Wikipedia explains:
I have previously made this point about the willful immorality of beltway conservatives/Republicans on climate change:
Klein shows it is a broader phenomenon. I'll excerpt him at length since the GOP scorched-earth strategy on healthcare certainly foreshadows the fall debate we'll see on climate:
Same goes for actual state of play on climate change, except failure on that legislation will bring all of humanity GOP-style annihilation and a literally scorched Earth.
[For readers of the post-"Happy Days" generation, "jumped the shark" denoted the point "at which the characters or plot veer into a ridiculous, out-of-the-ordinary storyline."]
Posted: 20 Aug 2009 01:23 PM PDT
What a pleasure it is to see a first-rate story on one of the major impacts of human-caused climate change in recent years, "Beetles, wildfire: Double threat in warming world." Even the photo caption is spot on:
We've had a number of bad national stories (from the supposedly liberal media!):
Whereas the local, conservative media got the story right:
Of course, the journal Nature understands the science, as a 2008 article made clear: "Mountain pine beetle and forest carbon feedback to climate change." So does the Canadian media: "Climate-Driven Pest Devours Canada's Forests."
Here's what the AP reports:
Kudos to the AP.
As Nature noted last year:
Hmm. "Eat itself out of house and home." Does the bark beetle sound like any other species we know? Finally, the species formerly known as homo sapiens sapiens is no longer alone in its self-destructive quest to destroy its habitat.
Posted: 20 Aug 2009 10:34 AM PDT
CAP's Julian Wong has a follow up to "China softens climate rhetoric, commits to emissions peak (again), shows flexibility on Western reductions." In the photo, Chinese Vice Chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission Xie Zhenhua shakes hands with Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Energy Secretary Steven Chu, and Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher look on.
China's climate change envoy, Yu Qingtai, made headlines when he declared in a news conference earlier this month that "there is no one in the world who is more keen than us to see China reach its emissions peak as early as possible."
Now all eyes are focused on the United States and China—the two biggest greenhouse gas emitters—with just four months to go to the U.N. summit on climate change in Copenhagen, where nations will negotiate a successor treaty to the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012. Attendees at the most recent round of U.N.. climate talks in Bonn, Germany may have left the meetings with a pessimistic sense that we're a long way off from a global agreement. But interesting developments are unfolding in China outside of these U.N. meetings that bring a more hopeful message.
China already committed in a declaration last month with 15 other large emitting countries at the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate in Italy to peak global and national emissions "as soon as possible." That provision lacks a precise timetable and is laden with the caveat that of the "overriding priorities of developing countries," but it is the statement of intent that the Chinese are clearly taking seriously.
Then just last week, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, one of the more prominent government think tanks, published an extensive 900-page report that has gained notable attention in both the Chinese and Western press for advocating the notion that China can feasibly aim to peak its carbon emissions by 2030. The report is advisory in nature and by no means represents official policy, but it is the latest in a series of overtures by prominent Chinese academicians to set emissions peaking pathways. Hu Angang, a public policy professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing and a prominent policy adviser for the Chinese government, has also advocated for China to aim for peaking carbon emissions in 2030. He Jiankun, deputy head of the State Council's Expert Panel on Climate Change Policy, has projected that China's emissions are more likely to peak at 2035. Additionally, a different report by CAS released earlier this year called for peaking between 2030 and 2040.
Setting the timing of emissions peaking alone without considering the trajectory of the emissions pathway—especially the height of the peak—may not be helpful in determining whether such measures go as far as the climate science requires. But the broader significance of such discussions at the top-levels of the Chinese government, especially at this critical juncture in the run up to Copenhagen, should not be missed. China's willingness to be a constructive player in the international climate change negotiation process is there; it just needs to be acknowledged and encouraged.
China's willingness is not just talk, but is backed up by concrete actions. We have discussed previously many of the actions China is taking, including its current five-year plan that boasts some of the most ambitious energy efficiency and renewable energy targets in the world. And today, the Climate Group has launched a report entitled "China's Clean Revolution II: Opportunities for a Low Carbon Future" that provides a similarly compelling narrative of how China, despite the current global economic downturn, is making hefty investments to accelerate a tectonic shift from grey to green in sectors such as transportation, industrial energy efficiency, wind, solar, geothermal, and urban design. The transition won't be easy, nor will it happen overnight, but there should be little doubt about the Chinese leadership's intent and resolve to reorient its carbon-intensive economy toward a more sustainable path.
China may announce its next five-year plan as early as this year, and many expect that it will contain even stronger commitments and perhaps incorporate some measure of carbon reductions in the form of benchmarks for reducing carbon intensity. China's State Council, led by Premier Wen Jiabao, last week laid down the objective of incorporating climate change considerations into "the medium and long-term development strategies and plans of government at every level." Also, Sun Qin, the vice chief of the National Energy Administration said he expects the government to complete a comprehensive plan for new and low-carbon energy development by the end of the year. A low-carbon strategy will be a central thread in China's ongoing economic development strategy.
China is also hinting at increased flexibility in the negotiation process. Su Wei, director-general of the climate change office within the National Development and Reform Commission, China's main economic planning agency, has signaled a change in tone, saying, "China will not continue growing emissions without limit or insist that all nations must have the same per-capita emissions. If we did that, this earth would be ruined." China maintains its hard line that developed countries are historically responsible for climate change, but climate envoy Yu has also backed off somewhat from China's previous demands that all developed countries commit to 40 percent reductions in carbon emissions by 2020, saying that, "[a] concrete figure has to be decided by the negotiations; we will get a result in Copenhagen."
All these developments in China are encouraging considering also that South Korea and Mexico, two other non-Annex I countries—developing countries as defined in the U.N. climate treaty process—recently indicated a willingness to enact carbon emissions caps for 2020. This underscores the need for reciprocal action from the United States.
The United States Congress must first move swiftly to enact comprehensive energy and climate legislation to show its own commitment to climate action. We should also properly acknowledge the progress that China and other countries have made in mitigating climate change. One way which we at the Center for American Progress have articulated before is the "carbon caps equivalents" approach, which would quantify the unilateral domestic green measures undertaken by, for example, China, in terms of the effective emissions reductions that such measures yield, and then aggregate those reductions into a single figure that can be compared to proposed emissions reductions targets of other countries
The United States must build upon the modest but significant milestones of U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu's visit to Beijing, where the foundations for a joint research center on clean energy were laid, and the recent Strategic & Economic Dialogue in Washington, D.C., where both countries agreed formally for the first time to engage each other on climate change.
The United States must muster political and financial resources to engage China on the joint acceleration of clean-energy technology development and deployment. Such a bilateral effort will send a message to the rest of the world that the two largest emitters are ready to rise to the challenge and lead the way forward towards a global agreement in Copenhagen.
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- Antarctica's Pine Island glacier and its implications for business strategy and the Great Disruption
- YouTube, Sinclair prove Anthony Watts knows as much about copyright laws as about climate science
- Carbon polluters launch another PR campaign — FACES of Coal — seriously!
- Warren Buffett: "Doubling the carbon dioxide we belch into the atmosphere may far more than double the subsequent problems for society."
Posted: 20 Aug 2009 05:53 AM PDT
You may remember Paul Gilding, former executive director of Greenpeace International, from Tom Friedman's Ponzi scheme column (see here and NPR interview here). I asked him for a post, and he has offered up this recent post from his website (– a good follow up to Large Antarctic glacier thinning 4 times faster than it was 10 years ago: "Nothing in the natural world is lost at an accelerating exponential rate like this glacier").
In my work with companies around the world, one of my key messages is that business strategy needs to be based on science. The logic is simple. Whereas most future planning involves an array of complicated and interrelated uncertainties – like technology shifts, political moods, consumer behaviour, competitor actions – science is delightfully predictable. That's the thing about physics and biology, the rules were written long ago.
Furthermore, climate science is deeply relevant and material to most businesses and to all economies. Therefore this week's report (see here for BBC summary) that the Pine Island Glacier in Antarctica was melting 4 times faster than it was just 10 years ago, and is now dropping at 16 metres per year, should strike fear into the hearts of oil company executives and bring delight to the CFOs of electric car companies like Better Place (yes, such is the perverse logic of climate science in the business community).
Why is it so significant?
Despite the extraordinary increase in political focus and public attention on climate change, the real financial impact to date on the business community is marginal in most sectors. There is a lot of talk about emerging public expectations, furious lobbying on new government policy and certainly plenty of earnest commentary about corporate commitment, but nothing that really engages the CFO yet. Pine Island Glacier and similar developments could change all that.
As I argue in my Great Disruption writing and talks (see here for relevant links), human history shows we rarely respond to major threats until we declare it a crisis. This doesn't have to be an actual physical crisis, it can easily just be a shift in perception – where, apparently suddenly, something on the edges of the mainstream leaps on to centre stage.
This is what will happen on climate change. The great weight of evidence that climate change is accelerating will break through the public consciousness and political leaders will suddenly have to deal with high expectations of action.
So that brings us back to Pine Island, one of the world's largest glaciers. Just ten years ago, the best science said the Pine Island Glacier would melt in around 600 years, now they think it's about 100 years. (What will be the forecast in 5 years time?) It's not that this particular glacier is a key tipping point, though its melting could alone trigger sea level rise of 25-30 cm. The problem is that it's just the latest in countless stories about glaciers and other ice stores melting much faster than expected. (See here for a well referenced overview of this from New Scientist "Sea level rise: It's worse than we thought" and here for a recent article "Why it's even worse than we feared" by Newsweek's science editor, on the increasingly desperate warnings by leading scientists.)
So how will governments respond when the public suddenly comes to accept that we now face the potential for 1 – 2 metres of sea level rise this century? And what does this mean for business strategy?
Governments will do two things. Firstly they will panic about the global economic impact of a huge amount of residential, commercial and industrial infrastructure facing medium term damage or total loss and short-term collapse in value. Imagine for example if all affected housing, airports, ports, power stations and tourist developments were suddenly devalued by 25% for the risk of sea level rise.
Secondly governments will actually take action to cut emissions to reduce this economic risk. This is where it will get really interesting. Let's take just one example, the auto and oil industries. They face a perfect storm of risk and transformational change when the inevitable sudden shift occurs in the political landscape..
This perfect economic storm already has a number of winds gathering speed. Firstly of course is the heavy government action to protect and boost the global auto industry with tax breaks, direct investment and loans.. Secondly, electric cars, long sidelined as a marginal technology strategy are emerging as a serious global contender, driven by the success of petrol electric hybrids and responses like GM's Volt. Thirdly is the acceptance of high oil prices being the norm, with peak oil a matter of when not whether. Fourthly and most significantly is the reluctant acceptance by the global auto industry of climate change as a game changer. The new assumption is that zero CO2 personal transport is inevitable, just a matter of when and with what technology.
So what would be a simple, politically popular, economically beneficial and environmentally significant action that governments could take if they were suddenly under pressure to act? How about using their leverage over the auto industry, taxes, standards and good old-fashioned political leadership to drive the auto industry towards an electric future, driven only by renewable power. Such a policy position, in the context of a global crisis on a scale commensurate to a war footing, would virtually overnight (i.e. a decade or so) transform the oil and auto industries. The politics and economics stack up very well, with massive job creation and new infrastructure needs along with powerful national and consumer economic benefits. (One of the leading disruptive contenders in the space, Better Place, claims per km running costs for electric cars are up to 70% cheaper, even allowing for amortised battery costs.)
The numbers at stake are staggering. Global oil trade in 2008 was around $3 trillion. The US alone sent $440 billion off shore for its oil, much to the delight of Middle Eastern oil exporters. Even little Australia spends about A$20 billion per year on retail petrol sales. Imagine the consequences of these numbers dropping by 25% or 50% with a focused government effort. Imagine the economic consequences of disruptive electric car companies like Better Place or China's BYD taking this market away from the oil giants!
Seem far-fetched? Think again. Change at this scale is absolutely possible, in fact I believe an inevitable consequence of the science. In fact the good news for society and the bad news for any business not thinking this way, is that we've done it before. To quote Lester Brown from his excellent book Plan B 3.0 where he compares our current challenge to the real world experience in WWII. "The shift from producing cars to planes, tanks, and guns was accomplished within a matter of months. One of the keys to this extraordinarily rapid restructuring was a ban on the sale of cars, a ban that lasted nearly three years.."
So if your company isn't monitoring the Pine Island Glacier very closely, I suggest your business strategy and your company may soon be under water. The Great Disruption is well underway.
Posted: 19 Aug 2009 12:42 PM PDT
When we last left our favorite former TV weatherman, he was offering the 'inanity defense' for his effort to censor Peter Sinclair's Climate Denial "Crock of the Week" video.
The man behind the top anti-scientific website WattsUpWithThat regularly defames top climate scientists and pushes the most seemingly detailed but ultimately nonsensical analyses (see here) — yet he could not even be bothered to spend one minute googling "copyright laws" or "fair use." The result: Not only did he publish the most embarrassing, torturous and self-revealing defense of censorship ever seen on the blogosphere but, YouTube has now (inevitably) sided with Sinclair and reposted the original video:
Sinclair explained to me the process for reinstatement on YouTube — and thanked Watts for the publicity boom — in an email:
I wish to extend my sincerest gratitude to YouTube, to all those who advised and supported me in this effort, and most especially, to Anthony Watts and SurfaceStations.org, for providing invaluable exposure to my video series, and greatly increasing my traffic and visibility.
WattsUpWithThat who regularly defames top
Posted: 19 Aug 2009 11:41 AM PDT
Now Ken Ward, Jr., the best journalist in West Virginia, reports today:
The FACES of coal? This acronym must be the work of real "Mad" Men, perhaps the genius who came up with Frosty the Coalman, Clean Coal Night, Deck the Halls with Clean Coal. I'm guessing they figured it was better than their first choice, the Federation for Everyone's Coal, Energy and Security.
Still, does the industry understand what people associate with "faces of coal"?
Here is the rest of Ward's piece:
The coal industry has all the friends that money can buy.
Posted: 19 Aug 2009 11:07 AM PDT
Okay, the NYT op-ed by the sage of Omaha, "The Greenback Effect," is almost entirely about our economic crisis. Still, it's nice that one of our top economic gurus understands global warming is nonlinear — and thinks enough people might understand that point so he can use it as a springboard for discussing monetary policy:
[Yes, Buffett may be confusing CO2 emissions with CO2 concentrations -- join the club -- but it's impossible to tell from this short hit.]
The article's final mention of climate impacts is, however, quite lame:
Note 1 to Buffett: Likely??? What do you think is already happening?
Note 2 to Buffett: It is land-based ice that humanity needs to worry about, not sea-based icebergs. Kind of surprising actually that the editorial page editor of the NYT let that one go by. "Icebergs" should have been replaced by "glaciers" or "ice sheets." I suppose this just shows that even the most sophisticated opinion makers don't really understand the basics of this issue.
Still, it's a start for Buffett, who hasn't been known for sagacity on this issue:
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Thursday, August 20, 2009
Ever watch someone destroy another's sand castle? Takes seconds, costs them nothing and gives them an opium high, for nothing!
But that's only part of it. Rethuglicans, and their mob of mercenaries, aside from being sand castle destroyers by personality (disorder) ARE Thugs, ARE the Mob, ARE Mercenaries - it is how they make their Living! Really! They don't create wealth, they steal it through bullying, intimidation, cheating, cronyism.... EASY! Profession: Sand Castle Destroyer - and Paid for it.
Progressives (if there WERE True Progressives) bear two HUGE COSTS (although to the True Progressives, hmmm, remember the Joy of BUILDING a Sand Castle?): 1. The orders-of-magnitude-greater-effort/cost-of-building/creating, and 2. THE PERSONAL FINANCIAL OPPORTUNITY COST! Rethugs are PRIMARILY motivated toward ill gotten $$$ Financial Gains (Corp favors at all levels, the "rape and pillage" awarded the hordes.... Progressives that Stay-the-Coarse FACE $$$ FINANCIAL PENALTIES / COSTS!!!!
A. Opportunity costs - hey, they could join the Rethugs and get $$$ returns on their time!
B. Unrewarded $$$ Time!
C. Penalties - the Rethug bullies will take it out on you, retribution, for opposing!!!
You get the idea.
This is a profound, fundamental difference that has a huge discouraging impact on Progressive investment (on BEING a True Progressive), in part because it goes on unrecognized.
Oh, would I that someone smart(s) would give visibility to this massive differential.
- NSIDC: Record low Arctic ice extent unlikely in 2009
- Rep. Markey reveals 5 more forged astroturf letters
- The dynamic duo: Hybrid solar/gas plants provide low-cost, low-carbon power when needed
Posted: 19 Aug 2009 05:06 AM PDT
The National Snow and Ice Data Center reports:
"The graph [click to enlarge] shows daily sea ice extent as of August 17, 2009. The solid light blue line indicates 2009; the solid dark blue line shows 2008; the dashed green line shows 2007; and the solid gray line indicates average extent from 1979 to 2000. The gray area around the average line shows the two standard deviation range of the data."
Since the 2009 arctic extent AREA seem to be close to 2008 levels, which set the record for minimum ice VOLUME, it is too soon to say whether 2009 will set a volume record (see "Will we see record low Arctic ice VOLUME this year?").
It remains as clear as ever that the Arctic ice isn't going to recover, and we are headed for ice free summers in the foreseeable future:
Posted: 18 Aug 2009 01:13 PM PDT
Via Think Progress:
Last month, Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) announced a congressional investigation of the DC lobbying firm Bonner & Associates. The firm, which has a long history of astroturfing, was caught forging anti-clean energy reform letters — purportedly from groups representing women and people of color — to Congress. Coal front group American Coalition for Clean Coal Energy was eventually revealed to be Bonner's client in the anti-clean energy campaign. Now, more forged letters have been uncovered.
Today, Markey revealed five new letters, and dozens more may be out there. According to a statement from Markey's office, the faked letters came from "elderly services and senior centers" and were sent to Democratic Reps. Tom Periello (VA), Kathy Dahlkemper (PA), and Christopher Carney (PA):
Between the five new forged letters and last week's leaked memo revealing that the American Petroleum Institute will be manufacturing "Energy Citizen" rallies to oppose clean energy reform, it is clear that the energy industry is willing to go to any lengths in their efforts to halt clean energy reform.
Update Progressive Media has a video taking a look at the extreme measures the coal industry is willing to employ to stop the clean energy bill. Watch it here.
Posted: 18 Aug 2009 10:49 AM PDT
Many people expressed interest in the hybrid concentrated solar and natural gas plants discussed here: Game changer 3: New natural gas supplies — great for low-cost climate action, bad for coal. So I asked guest blogger, Craig A. Severance, to do some research, and the result is below (first published here). Severance is co-author of "The Economics of Nuclear and Coal Power" (Praeger 1976) and a former Assistant to the Chairman and to Commerce Counsel, Iowa State Commerce Commission. He recently did one of the most detailed cost analyses publically available on new nukes (see "Exclusive analysis: The staggering cost of new nuclear power").
By far the largest source of safe, clean energy that will never run out (i.e. renewable energy) available in the United States is the sunlight falling on the unused deserts of the Southwest. This attractive source of energy produces no nuclear waste, no carbon dioxide or mercury emissions, and none is imported from foreign countries.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy enough sunlght falls in just the unused, nonsensitive areas of our SW deserts to generate over twice the total kWh's now consumed in the entire U.S..
SW Solar Now. In June, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar opened up 24 of the SW's sunniest areas on Bureau of Land Management lands in six states to begin leasing for installation of up to 100,000 MW of solar power plants. (See here for article on the Interior Department announcement). The first plants could be operating within 3 to 4 years in these ideal locations, which were chosen for maximum clear sunny days and minimal impact on the environment or other land uses.
Sun Doesn't Shine All the Time. Although the SW sunshine resource is enormous and largely untapped, critics of solar energy routinely note the sun does not shine all the time. The implication is that power is needed all the time, and since the sun is not always available, solar opponents say it would be foolish to invest in generating electricity from the sun.
Grid Can Use Solar. Utilizing solar electricity when the sun does shine is not really a major problem for the electric grid, until the percentage of power generated by solar reaches high percentages. This is because roughly 50% of the electrical capacity on the grid consists of load-following power plants (chiefly natural gas and hydroelectric), which can quickly reduce power output when a renewable resource such as solar or wind is available, and increase output when needed. The ability of the grid to absorb a high percentage of power from renewables has been documented by the U.S. Department of Energy and was discussed in my article "The Wind does NOT Blow Only 1/3 of the Time" here.
The output from a solar power plant also fits very well with the times when power is most needed. Most utilities see increased demand for electricity during daylight hours, with peak demands occurring on hot sunny days when a solar power plant produces well. By the same token, less power is needed at night.
It is generally agreed, however, that extending the percentage of our electricity generated by renewable power sources above 20-30% will require means to better regulate the grid (see "Smart Grid" article here), more efficiently supplement renewable power, or store it for later use.
Solar Thermal Offers More Choices. Solar photovoltaics (PV) require storage of their electrical energy output to extend their use into evening and cloudy hours. Methods the electric grid can use to store electrical energy include batteries, flywheels, pumped hydro or compressed air energy storage.
The "other" kind of solar power – Solar Thermal power — offers more choices to integrate with the grid to provide reliable power.
Instead of directly converting the sun's rays into electricity, Solar Thermal plants use mirrored surfaces to concentrate sunlight to produce high temperatures. This is why they are also called Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) Plants.
The high temperatures are used to boil water to produce superheated steam to generate electricity. This different technology means there are now three different ways that Solar Thermal power plants can provide power when the sun is not shining:
1. Integrate a back-up source of heat (e.g. natural gas) to produce steam.
This expansion of choices means that a Solar Thermal plant can function as a reliable source of "24/7″ power to the electrical grid.
Steam Generators Most Common Source of Electricity. The key to generating electricity for a century has been to produce high temperatures to heat water, superheat the steam (so it will not condense into water droplets inside the steam turbine and damage the blades), and then run this superheated steam past blades in a steam turbine to spin those blades to run a generator. After the steam passes through the turbine it is then cooled, and the water is re-used.
This same basic process is used in coal, oil, and most natural gas power plants. Even today's nuclear power plants are just "a fancy way to heat water".
Troughs. Solar trough companies such as Skyfuel use long "trough" collectors (see picture at top, and immediately below) which rotate east-west during the day, to focus sunlight on tubes carrying hot oils. The hot oils then pass through a heat exchanger, to heat water into superheated steam.
Source: Skyfuel (Note trough rotates east to west as day progresses).
Trough supporters point to the long track record of the technology, including some 25 years of continuous production at the SEGS plants in Southern California, which has established clear performance and cost histories. Skyfuel's key innovation is to develop a highly reflective coating film known as ReflecTech(TM) which eliminates the need for expensive curved glass mirrors for the troughs.
Flat Mirrors Focusing on Compact Linear Fresnel Reflector. Another "line" approach is typified by Ausra. In this approach, flat mirrors are ground-mounted and turn to concentrate reflected sunlight upward to a Compact Llinear Fresnel Reflector, which concentrates the sunlight onto a pipe carrying water which is turned into superheated steam (see figure from Ausra).
Ausra notes its technology saves costs by requring no curved mirrors, and does not use oil-to-water heat exhangers, as it uses water directly. Ausra's mirrors are also tightly packed together, harvesting more sunlight per acre of ground. Ausra CEO Bob Fishman has said, "We can get twice as much steam per acre as power tower and twice as much as trough."
Solar Power Towers. A radically different approach is the solar power tower, typified by Brightsource Energy and start-up eSolar. With the solar power tower, the solar field consists of tens of thousands of flat mirrors, each mounted with a 2-axis tracking motor to tilt the mirror in three dimensions to focus intense amounts of sunlight on a boiler mounted on the top of a tower. Superheated steam is produced in the boiler, and is fed to a ground-mounted steam turbine to generate power. See Brightsource Energy picture at top [right], and concept drawing below:
Proponents of the Solar Power Tower approach argue it has miles less piping and pumping, and the largest towers can operate at higher steam temperatures for better operating efficiency. They also claim higher kWh output on an annual basis because their mirrors can tilt upward to catch the lower sun in the wintertime.
Steam Plants in the Desert? While some locations may offer special opportunities to use water cooling, most solar thermal plants will be built with dry cooling. Keely Wachs of Brightsource Energy notes, "For our 410 MW Ivanpah site, the use of dry-cooling technology will reduce the projects' overall water usage by 90%, from 1000 acre/ft to a little less than 100 acre/ft annually. 100 acre/ft is roughly the equivalent of 300 homes' annual water usage. So we are producing enough energy to power 140,000 homes, while using 300 homes worth of water."
Hybrid Solar/Gas: One Power Plant With One Steam Turbine. Because Solar Thermal power plants produce superheated steam to generate electricity in a steam turbine, they can be designed to share the same steam turbine generator as a conventional natural gas power plant. See, for instance, the schematic from Solar Thermal firm Ausra, below:
Instead of relying upon a separate power plant miles down the road to guarantee grid reliability to generate electricity when the solar plant cools off, just one plant can be built, with two sources of heat — sunlight and natural gas.
This saves on construction costs because only one steam turbine is needed instead of two. Also, much of the ancillary equipment such as controls, pumps, valves, etc. are not duplicated. Perhaps most importantly, duplicate sets of transmission lines are avoided.
Operating costs can be saved with just one team of workers, running one power plant, instead of needing two sets of skilled staff.
Finally, fuel costs for the natural gas component of operations may be saved by smoothly combining the two heat sources, gradually increasing natural gas use as the solar resource cools. This is expected to be more operationally efficient than ramping up and down a separate natural gas power plant.
This "hybridization" of solar thermal and natural gas power plants is an economical "bridge technology" approach to immediately reach fully dispatchable solar plants, providing "firm power" available to meet utility needs — whether or not the sun is shining.
Hybrid Solar/Natural Gas "Load Following" Plants. In the ideal super-sunny locations in the desert Southwest where Solar Thermal plants are being erected, it is expected they will generate from solar, roughly 25-30% of the total kWh's they could generate if they were able to operate 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year. This percentage is referred to as a "Capacity Factor". (That's actually very good, when you consider how many hours per day the sun shines.)
Most natural gas power plants in the U.S. actually are under-utilized, operated at an average of only 42% Capacity Factor. This is because they typically serve a "load-following" function, turned on only when needed, during the higher-demand parts of the day and year. When demand for power drops to minimum levels, they are turned off because "Base Load" power plants designed to run all the time, are already running all the time to provide this minimum ("base load") demand. Most "Base Load" power plants are coal or nuclear plants.
If a "hybrid" solar/natural gas plant were also operated as a "Load Following Plant", it might also be needed only 42% of year-round time. However, if 30% of year-round time it's energy came from sunshine, the percentage of energy supplied by sunshine could be very high – 30% over 42% — or about 70% or more of the energy supplied.
This is good news for those seeking to cut fossil fuel emissions from power plants. Solar power could cut fossil fuel use (and hence CO2 emissions) by load-following power plants by roughly 2/3 compared to current patterns of operation for these plants.
Economics of Hybrid Solar/Natural Gas "Load Following" Plants. The relatively low annual use of a "Load Following" plant has traditionally favored power plants with low initial construction costs. Low construction costs are important when you don't use it very much.
A Combined Cycle Gas Turbine power plant today costs roughly $1,100/kW – $1,500/kW to build, one of the cheapest power plant options. However, unlike sunshine, natural gas isn't free, so total generation costs (at $7/MMBtu gas) are likely to be around 11 cents/kWh for a new natural gas "Load Following" plant in the first year of operation. (WIth no specific "carbon penalty" for fossil fuel.)
Costs for Solar Thermal plants are becoming known as several have already been completed. The Nevada One plant completed in 2007 was built for roughly $3,600/kW of capacity, using older trough technology with curved glass mirrors. With technology advancements, new proposals are now being estimated at lower costs.. For instance, planned 20 MW plants in Algeria and Morrocco were recently estimated as costing only $2,500/kW to build.
Since a Hybrid Solar/Natural Gas plant will not cost as much to build as two separate plants, these cost ranges imply total generation costs of a Hybrid Solar Thermal/Natural Gas "Load Following" plant may run approximately 13 cents/kWh (after today's 30% Federal Tax Credit for solar, and assuming $7/MMBtu natural gas), in the first year of operation. Since roughly 2/3 of the Hybrid "Load Following" plant's "fuel" is sunshine, the Solar Hybrid plant has a powerful hedge against future increases in fuel costs, including increases driven by "carbon penalties" on CO2 emissions.
What happens when the 30% Solar Tax Credit expires in 2017? Solar Thermal companies argue that during this time mass production of the mirrors and other components of CSP plants will bring down costs. At the same time, fossil fuel prices and carbon penalties may increase.
Possible Costs for Hybrid Solar/Natural Gas "Baseload" Plants. Operating the same plant as a "Baseload" plant can lower overall generation costs/kWh because the same capital cost is spread over more kWh output per year.
A new natural gas power plant operated as a "Baseload" plant, for instance, may cost roughly 9 cents/kWh total generation costs, lower than when the same power plant is used only about half as much in "Load Following" mode.
Operating a Hybrid Solar/Natural Gas plant as a "Baseload" plant will spread its total capital costs over more kWh's per year, however the extra generation would come entirely from burning more natural gas. WIth the same assumptions as above but with more usage, a Hybrid Solar/Natural Gas might have total generation costs/kWh of roughly 10 cents/kWh (with no specific Carbon Penalty).
Note the two choices (each seen as One Power Plant) are near parity in total generation costs, but the Solar Hybrid plant would have less exposure to long-term increases in fossil fuel prices and carbon penalties.
The Solar Hybrid plant can also eventually further reduce its fossil fuel use by adding storage.
Adding Solar Storage. As natural gas prices rise, Hybrid Solar/Natural Gas power plants can raise the percentage of energy from sunshine by storing excess solar energy generated during daylight hours.
Storing heat instead of electricity can be very physically efficient. For instance, Skyfuel notes that heat can be stored, then used later, with a 90% efficiency of heat recovered.
Adding storage isn't cheap, however.
First, it generally will require increasing the size of the solar field so that more heat is generated during the day than would be used to generate steam during the day. Next, this extra heat would be stored in a heat storage fluid, such as molten salts. This requires heat exchangers and heat storage tanks for the molten salts.
Hybridization with natural gas will make sense in a great many cases to start, and storage can be added incrementally as years go by, and it becomes important to reduce natural gas usage.
Skyfuel's William Felsher notes, "The optionality is there. You can add storage and more collectors to increase Capacity Factor later." With Solar Thermal's modular technology, "enhancements can be made incrementally."
Adding Solar to Existing Power Plants. With growth in demand flat or even negative, many utilities may currently have no need to build totally new power plants. However, adding solar to an existing power plant can help the utility meet Renewable Portfolio Standards and gain valuable operating experience with Solar Thermal.
One economical way to achieve a hybrid solar/natural gas power plant is to add a solar thermal collection field to an existing natural gas combined cycle power plant. The solar field of mirrors, lines, or troughs (or a small Solar Power Tower) would feed superheated steam into the existing steam cycles used by the power plant to generate power, as a supplemental heat source. Typically no new land is needed and transmission connections are already in place.
Savings of fuel consumption typically in the range of 10-15% may be achieved with a small solar addition. Skyfuel's FuelSaver(TM) program encourages utilities to add typically 5 – 50 MW of solar power to existing power plants, to reduce fossil fuel use and gain valuable experience with Solar Thermal power. Ausra is also encouraging solar retrofits, after reducing coal usage at an existing power plant in Australia.
A Solid Choice for Utilities. Utility managers seeking to add carbon-reduced firm electricity generation can now look to Solar Thermal as a viable choice. Decades of experience have proven the technology, and recent advances are reducing its cost.
American and overseas companies have operating power plants, and are competing for utility RFP's on utility terms that protect utilities from massive cost overruns. Announced projects for Solar Thermal plants in the U.S. already total over 6,000 MW.
The desert is blooming with power.
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