Offshore wind beats oil

As the US counts the cost of offshore oil drilling Janet Larsen of the Earth Policy Institute has sensibly respondedwith a reminder of the advantages of offshore wind energy. Offshore drilling has tempered the rapid decline in US oil production which peaked in the early 1970s. But only somewhat and with increasing difficulty and apparently at a level of risk greater than credited until now.

We should leave oil before it leaves us” was the advice of Fatih Birol, chief economist at the International Energy Agency.  Larsen points out that it’s not as if there aren’t other options. One is expanded public transport and better space for bicycles and pedestrians. That’s not an insignificant contribution to lowered use, though it’s not one that has any appeal for our Minister of Transport who is intent on starving public transport in favour of roadbuilding over the next few years. A second is the electrification of vehicles and powering them through renewable energy sources. Larsen points to the US Pacific Northwest National Laboratory estimates that the current electrical infrastructure could power over 80 percent of the US car fleet, relying largely on off-peak electricity as cars are charged at night. She notes that upgrading to a stronger, smarter, and interconnected national grid that taps into the country’s enormous wind, solar, and geothermal resources completes the transition. Here in New Zealand the positive possibilities of powering our entire car fleet from renewable energy sources have been canvassed with similar optimism.

Wind-sourced electricity has the potential to work particularly effectively in powering vehicles. The Edison pilot project in Denmark will aim at showing how:

“The basic idea is to charge the vehicles at night when the wind continues to blow, but when there is low demand for electricity. During the day, each vehicle will become a mobile electricity storage unit that can be plugged back in after the morning commute, potentially supplying energy back to the grid during times of peak demand, thus smoothing out energy distribution woes.

“Electricity charging stations powered by wind turbines will be installed in private homes as well as in corporate and public parking lots. Both fast-charging stations as well as battery swapping alternatives will be explored by the project.”

Back to Larsen’s article. A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds that the world’s top carbon emitters have enough wind energy potential to meet their current electricity needs many times over. When land-based sites are included, the total US potential from wind is estimated at 22 times current electricity use. For China the wind resource potential is 15 times greater than the country’s current electricity consumption, and for Russia, it is a staggering 170 times higher.

Offshore wind alone, Larsen points out, has the potential in the US to provide four times the nation’s current electricity use.  Looking at only the offshore potential she provides a graph of the ten top CO2 emitting countries.

To date most of the offshore production has been in Europe, but China and Japan have begun developing offshore farms and it seems possible that the US will soon join them. The recent approval of the Cape Wind project off the coast of Massachusetts and other proposals under consideration point in that direction.

Wind energy is still much disputed, including here in New Zealand.  This statement from the Wind Energy Association was issued in March in reply to what it saw as the failure of the Institute of Professional Engineers to understand the potential wind power offers. But for all the naysayers the industry is growing rapidly in many countries, including the US and China.

I liked Janet Larsen’s final paragraph:

“Unlike oil, wind is widely-distributed and clean; it does not spill or disrupt climate. It is also becoming increasingly cheap. With wind, we have a well that will not run dry.”

Tell that to Gerry Brownlee as we offer extended tax breaks for offshore oil exploration in New Zealand.

A sustainable energy future for NZ (without all the hot air)

This is a guest post by Phil Scadden, a regular commenter at Hot Topic (bio at the end of the post). Phil’s interested in energy issues, and has spent a considerable amount of his personal time developing an overview of New Zealand’s energy issues, inspired by the approach used by Cambridge physicist David MacKay in his recent book Sustainable Energy – without all the hot air. I’m very pleased to say that Phil is making his work available via Hot Topic (PDF here), because the perspective he brings provides a starting point for the strategic energy debate we need to be having. Over to Phil:

Sustainable Energy – without all the hot air by Cambridge physicist David MacKay is an excellent and highly readable book of numbers about the questions associated with sustainable energy (available as a free download at As an advocate of sustainable energy, he describes himself as “pro-arithmetic” rather than a campaigner for one type of energy production over another, which is surely what informed debate needs. Rather than dealing with daunting numbers, he reduces energy calculations to units of kWh/person/day. 1kWh is the unit we pay for in our electricity bills — the energy used by one bar heater switched on for one hour. If you want to prioritise savings then you need to read this book. Turning off a cell phone charger when not in use for a year saves the energy found in one hot bath. “If everyone does a little, then we will achieve only a little”.

The majority of MacKay’s calculations are done for the UK, and I was interested in a New Zealand perspective. To this end, I have used a similar approach to look at two questions.

  • Can New Zealand maintain its current per capita energy consumption without fossil fuels and, in particular, can we live on renewable energy sources alone?
  • How can we achieve a BIG reduction in our personal and national energy consumption, in order to reduce our power requirements?

The detailed document (about 20 pages) can be downloaded here, but this is a quick overview.

Currently 30% of NZ’s energy comes from renewable generation. My calculations (based mainly on 2007 data) show that NZ has the potential to increase this to nearly 100% over the next few decades, thus eliminating fossil fuel use, while still maintaining our current per capita energy consumption (assuming no significant population growth). We could do this initially with new hydro, geothermal and wind generation, while large-scale solar and marine technologies are promising options for the future. Biofuels are feasible but only at the expense of considerable agricultural intensification.

Continue reading “A sustainable energy future for NZ (without all the hot air)”

Ten technologies to save the planet

As the news on climate change becomes increasingly serious it is all the more important to affirm that the problem has solutions provided the world applies them soon enough.

Prominent UK environment writer Chris Goodall surveys some of those solutions in a well-researched fashion in his new book, Ten Technologies to Save the Planet.  In combination he shows them adequate to the deep reductions of global greenhouse gas emissions needed over the coming decades.

On the renewable electricity front he explores wind power, solar energy and the tides and waves of the oceans.  Where fossil fuel continues to be used for electricity he considers carbon capture and storage a viable technology and one which carries with it the additional possibility of extracting carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere for sequestration. Combined heat and power technologies through fuel cells and district heating plants using biomass offer significant emission reductions. House insulation and airtightness, including refurbishment of existing houses, are easy gains.  On transport, he points to the fast advances in technology for battery driven electric cars, and to the large number of companies working on developing biofuels from cellulose. Wood part-combusted to make charcoal and dug into the ground both sequesters carbon and in many soils improves fertility. Finally, he details various better treatments of soil, trees and plants to improve their carbon-sink properties.

All the technologies Goodall canvasses already have solid indications of technical feasibility. Some of them, such as wind power, are in substantial operation. Together they present a credible world in which we could live in reasonable comfort and in a great deal more safety than our current path offers. There are further technologies, such as nuclear energy, which Goodall discounts but for which others make a strong case.

Altogether there is good reason to feel encouraged. We can decarbonise our energy and our industry.  We are not doomed to destruction for lack of alternatives.

Why then, in view of the utter urgency of the need, isn’t the world in general and New Zealand in particular getting on with it?  Goodall feels obliged to evaluate the technologies in terms of their cost relative to fossil fuel. But why should competitiveness with fossil fuel matter as much as it still seems to? We now understand that the continued burning of fossil fuel is dangerous for the human future. The fact that it may be cheaper in economic terms doesn’t lessen that danger.

Within a market economy, Goodall urges measures to put a price on carbon either through direct tax or through capped emissions trading schemes.  He points out that a high carbon price (he suggests US$50 per tonne) would make almost all the technologies in his book competitive very soon.  Against those who say the economy would be crippled he argues that in fact the impact on GDP will not be large.

But even if it were large, governments cannot allow the burning of fossil fuels to continue unhindered.  The new technologies have to be adopted as rapidly as possible – by regulation and subsidy if market signals are not sufficient.

Unfortunately, many politicians remain scientifically ignorant and vulnerable to vested interests. Our own new government is still dithering, possibly even back-pedalling, on the modest measures adopted in the emissions trading scheme.

The recent calm and impressive statement of President-elect Obama may herald a new urgency. Announcing that he planned to reduce US 1990 emissions by 80% by 2050 through a cap and trade system and direct government investment in clean energy, he concluded: “Delay is no longer an option. Denial is no longer an acceptable response. The stakes are too high. The consequences, too serious.”

This column first appeared in the Waikato Times on 9 December 2008

Down on the farm

20040612-CRW_0583.jpg An Italian olive grove and vineyard is on its way to becoming the world’s first carbon neutral farm (they claim). According to the BBC, the Castello Monte Vibiano Vecchio estate in Umbria is converting to electric vehicles (and biofuelled mini-tractors) and has installed a “solar filling station” designed by Austrian company Cellstrom, based on an array of solar panels feeding a “flow battery” – a new battery technology that allows greatly increased energy storage.

Depending on the amount of usage, the battery centre can store solar-sourced electricity for up to three days. They are working to extend that to 10 days and more, enabling the farm to continue operating through foggy days when the sun does not shine. It means that golf carts and electric bikes will become the key means of transport for farm workers and that they can all charge up at the battery centre.

Cellstrom estimates the farm can save 4,500 litres of petrol every year and reduce CO2 emissions by 10 tons.

According to Lorenzo Fasola Bologna, Monte Vibiano’s chief executive, it will take about five years to recoup the initial investment.

Flow batteries store negative and positive electrolyte solutions (based on vanadium salts) in tanks, and pump them through a reaction cell to charge and discharge. Energy storage is therefore linked to storage tank size, not the number of cells in the system. This makes them ideal as backup storage for wind and solar energy generation, making the energy available even when the sun’s not shining or the wind’s not blowing. New Scientist has a good backgrounder here (behind a paywall, sadly), and there’s also information on the Cellstrom site. Another company in the field is VRB Power Systems of Canada, who have been working with Australian-developed technology.

Back in Umbria, the Italians are covering all their carbon-neutral bases by planting 10,000 trees to mop up any excess emissions.

By the end of next year they hope to be the first farm, anywhere, to reduce their inherent net carbon footprint to zero – ie without using off-site offsetting projects. “It will be great,” says Lorenzo, “to pass on this great, green enterprise to my children and their children.”

Chez Hot Topic we have a vineyard and an olive grove, and I’m already planting trees to offset at least some of our emissions. I wonder if there’s a flow battery in an off-grid future down on our farm?

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Pleasant (Silicon) Valley Sunday

flodesign.jpg I sometimes describe my self as a techno-optimist, something of an ecogeek. I like the idea that there are technologies which can help us to deal with climate change – new and interesting stuff that can make decarbonising the global economy a reality. To illustrate what I mean, there’s an excellent (and long) article by Jon Gertner in the New York Times, discussing the activities of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, the powerful venture capital firm with substantial “greentech” interests. Gertner was given an inside look at some of the more visible of KPCB’s investments (FloDesign – that’s their wind turbine above, Ausra, & Bloom Energy amongst others), but I found the following section particularly interesting. Gertner interviews Al Gore, and discover’s he’s become more optimistic about our ability to deal with climate change:

“My previous optimism involved an act of will that occasionally was hard to reconcile with the worsening reality,” he told me. His optimism had recently grown considerably, partly because of the prospect of new policies on carbon emissions, and partly because of innovations he’d seen at Kleiner. Some of these were green-tech companies, Gore said, that were in “deep, deep stealth”; they were known to no one except for a few V.C.’s and the entrepreneurs themselves. I heard a similar point elsewhere. John Doerr’s speech last spring at M.I.T., for instance, was notably more upbeat than the emotional one he gave at the 2007 technology conference, where he said, “I don’t think we’re going to make it.” I recently asked Doerr how he felt now. “I’m more optimistic about the innovation that will occur,” he replied. “I’m more humbled by the scale of what has to be done. Or more sober. And I’m particularly concerned about the speed.” The green-energy technologies Kleiner was investing in, Doerr continued, “won’t impact the problem at scale in the next five years, just because they have long development times associated with them. In the 5-to-15-year period of time, I think they’ll demonstrate, and clearly point the path to, lower costs than we would have otherwise imagined possible.”

That has to be good news. Technology is not the only answer to the problem, as Lomborg might insist, but it is a key part of the response we have to make. There’s a race on – climate change against human ingenuity. We’re smart enough to win, but we’re greedy enough to make the job difficult. And we need to be lucky…

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