Pandodyssey™ Panda Blog

This is a blog devoted to Giant Panda enthusiasts, environmental wanna-bes and peace loving funimals, world-wide.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

All Renewables Are Not Created Equal

That is what some science guys in Greece have discovered. They studied the output of solar, wind, and geothermal resources over the course of a whole life cycle assessment to ensure its pedi-green. They wanted to determine what the total environmental impact would be from these sources over the life of the system, and how energy output compared to that of fossil fuels.

They found that wind and geothermal sources were as efficient as their fossil fuel counterparts over one cycle. Solar sources were less efficient on the smaller scale than fossil fuels, but could be more efficient than fossil fuels on larger scales.

I don't know what happened to hyperlinking so here is the article:


Sunday, August 12, 2007

Wave Hello To the New Kid On the Block

The Seattle Times reports that test buoys will be deployed in a matter of weeks off the coast of Oregon, the first wave power technology test of this scale to be conducted to date in the US.

Wave power is like the newborn baby of the renewable energy kindergarten class. It's new and shiny and holds incredible, yet to be unleashed, potential. It's promise is great, with some experts estimating that, if done right, wave energy output could well exceed that of wind power. However waves are also one of the more difficult energies to harness. While the energy in waves and tides is enormous, storing it and transporting it is the key hurdle to wave technology proliferation. At present, the costs of R&D in wave technology are huge in comparison to the rest of the renewable energy class. The upfront costs of installation and investment in wave technology also presents a significant hurdle to a technology that is new and untested.

Opponents remain unconvinced that wave power is the wave (har) of the future. Fishermen worry that they will have to negotiate large buoy fields in order to reach their fishing grounds, or will be barred from fishing their prime spots altogether. Conservationists - you'd think they'd be on board right? - worry that an infrastructure of wave buoys connected by underground cables could impede ocean life and entangle certain migratory species like whales.

All in all, consensus seems to be that we just don't know what potential wave technology holds, and even its detractors are not adamant in their opposition to the technology. Rather, they are raising their concerns about its potential negative impact, giving wave tech proponents the opportunity to develop it with their cooperation. A couple of companies to be on the lookout for are Ocean Power Technology and Finavera Renewables Ocean Energy. These will be the guys who will be at the forefront of all that is wave.

This is truly exciting stuff! I can't wait to see how this technology evolves and where it could lead us. Wave technology might just evolve into the alma mater of the entire renewable energy class.

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Saturday, August 11, 2007

Yabaa Dabba Doo!

The HumanCar, is the world's first human-powered/electric hybrid automobile. Wait, is it even really an automobile? While you don't have to Fred Flintstone it, it does have 4 sets of pedals for all passengers and both front seats have a steering wheel so you can share captaining duties. It's not even available yet, but you can pre-order your very own HumanCar with a $500 deposit. You should probably consider this mode of transport only if you have fairly physically fit friends. According to the manufacturer, you can tell immediately who's slacking off. I bet Fred wished we'd had that option in the FlintMobile.

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Thursday, August 09, 2007

Take Stock of Renewables

In light of the proposed energy bill that's being tossed about in DC, I've been doing a lot of research into renewable energy companies. Solar, wind, biomass (still trying to figure out what that is exactly - I think it means "fuel from carbon things") wave technology, geothermal tech ... the list gets longer and longer every day. Renewables are a fast growing sector on Wall Street and, depending on Congress and the POTUS and what they do/don't do with the energy bill, this sector could be GINORMOUS in a matter of months.

With that in mind, here is a website with a very comprehensive list of the players, both big and small, currently dabbling in renewables. You'll notice that many of these companies are foreign and aren't even traded in US markets. The US is behind the rest of the world in renewable energy R&D (which goes hand in hand with our present woefully pathetic energy policy) but we, meaning the private sector, are rapidly catching up. Small speculative companies are popping up every where and even big guys, like GE, are suiting up to play as well.

Take Covanta Holding Corporation for instance. This New Jersey waste management company
is in the business of creating energy out of an abundantly available resource: trash. They pick up your refuse, transport it to an energy processing facility, burn it at upwards of 2000 degrees to heat water, convert the water into steam that rotates turbines, thus creating energy. Something to that effect. Now is that an efficient business model or what?

While considered a "renewable" technology by government standards, this process is not completely without its drawbacks. However, it's still contributing to the renewable effort. The ash that is leftover is used to make asphalt and other industrial stuff, and the process helps keep trash out of landfills, which creates ozone-depleting gas.

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Friday, July 27, 2007

i feel the need, the need for Reid

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid from Nevada sent a letter to the heads of four coal companies, urging them not follow through on plans to build new coal facilities in the eastern part of his state.

Reid is taking a green stance on behalf of Nevada and says he will oppose the construction of any new coal plant that does not capture and permanently store their greenhouse gas emissions. Senator Reid also opposes nuclear power as an energy source for Nevada, and he is against the construction of a nuclear waste storage facility within the state's borders. The Senator prefers that the state of Nevada look to and invest in renewable energy sources for its growing consumption needs.

The coal companies - Sierra Pacific Resources, LS Power Group, Dynegy, Inc., and Sithe Global Power LLC - obviously all disagree with the Senator. They claim that rapid expansion and growth in the state have caused a dire need for energy and, despite the Senator's letter, all four companies plan to continue with construction. Business as usual.

This is the problem with energy corporations, especially ones that aren't diversifying into renewable sources and are accordingly and rightfully, scared $hitless. Why can't they go ahead and build their dirty coal burning plants but modify the plans to capture and contain their greenhouse gases, and bring their companies into the 21st century? I admire the Senator's efforts, but it's going to take much more than a letter to persuade these mesozoic dinosaurs to give up some profit to make a change for the better.

Of the four coal companies at issue:
Sierra Pacific Resources - touts the cleanliness and efficiency of its newest coal burning plants but has zero renewable energy projects underway;
LS Power Group - cites 1 wind project currently "under development" (out of 24 total projects);
Dynegy, Inc. - currently operates 32 power facilities, none of which utilizes renewable sources, and lists zero renewable energy projects on their website. Astonishingly, a site search of the word "renewable" brought up zero results;
Sithe Global Power, LLC - currently has seven energy projects underway worldwide, none of which involve renewable energy. Sithe LLC also has a nice long pat-themselves-on-the-back page regarding their "cooperation" with the Navajo Nation and in mining Navajo land on one of their projects. Sithe LLC cites that the estimated annual benefit to the Navajo Nation will exceed $50 million. On the surface, it sounds like a considerable sum of money, but I want to know how much Sithe LLC estimates its own "annual benefit" will be?

Some stats:
70% of Nevada's electricity comes from natural gas powered plants and 13% from coal burning plants. In the US, 50% of the country's electricity comes from coal fired plants, 20% from nuclear energy, and 18% from natural gas fired plants.

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Thursday, July 26, 2007

walk on through to the other side

According to Professor Jesse Ausubel, professor of environmental science at Rockefeller University, renewable energy projects will do more harm than good for the environment in the long run. He claims that the vast amounts of land that would be needed to sustain the rate of the world's energy consumption would negate any benefit to the enviroment. Professor Ausubel's analysis, announced in a report on Wednesday, included such popular renewable energy sources such as wind turbines, biofuels and solar cells.

Professor Ausubel reached his findings by ranking each renewable energy source according to it's potential energy output per square meter. According to his findings, hydroelectric power in the form of dammed rivers produces the least amount of energy per square meter, at a paltry 0.1 watts. Biofuel crops and wind energy produced approximately 1.2 watts per square meter and photovoltaic energy cells produced the most energy at 6 -7 watts per square meter.

Under his analysis, to meet all the energy demands of the United States (using statistics from 2005), the US would need to build a wind farm the size of Texas and Louisiana combined. Professor Ausubel also calculated that providing enough energy to power New York City for one year would require a solar grid the size of the Connecticut.

While Professor Ausubel's analysis provides an interesting way of comparing renewable energy potential outputs to one other, it does a poor job of taking into account how these energies are practically implemented and integrated. These are technologies that can often be installed in and around existing infrastructure and would not require the dedication of new lands. For instance, solar cells are regularly installed on top of existing rooftops and buildings, and would not require additional acres of land. His analysis also does not take into account the prime rule of real estate: location location location. Meaning that wind turbines located in windy areas of the world will produce more energy than their calm wind counterparts.

Professor Ausubel's report also compares renewable energies to nuclear energy, which he unequivocally (and eyebrow-raisingly) touts as the greenest energy of them all. He claims that nuclear energy requires the least amount of land and provides the highest amount of energy output. This is comparing an energy apple to an energy mushroom (cloud that is). I'm sure he's correct when he says that one hectare of solar cells produces the same amount of energy as one liter of fuel in a nuclear reactor's core. However, solar cells - no matter how many you have - do not have the potential to melt down your neighborhood. Which, by the way, would really put a hurting on the environment. With solar cells and other renewable energy sources except for biofuel crops, once they have been installed, you "set it and forget it". There are no more investment costs to solar cells, save minor maintenance and repairs. The Professor does not go into detail about how much energy is used in creating nuclear energy, nor does he address the hazards of collecting nuclear waste indefinitely. Even Professor Ausubel admits that at best, nuclear waste can only be "contained", not neutralized and disposed of safely.

There's a fundamental difference in harnessing energy and creating energy. Both are far from perfect energy sources. However, there is something infinitely comforting about using a resource that already exists, capturing it for human use, and finding ways to make it sustainable indefinitely. At its core, it is recycling energy and you can't get any greener than that.

Nuclear energy, on the other hand, consumes vast amounts of energy to create and, while the output has the potential of being hundreds of times greater than the input, there also exists the potential of destruction hundreds of times greater than the input as well. The fact that we have not yet developed a way to dispose of nuclear waste is proof that it is not "green". As of right now, nuclear energy is more an imperfect resource than anything else. I have great hope that one day in the distant future, nuclear energy will be THE energy resource that Professor Ausubel claims it to be, and it should be studied carefully. I just don't believe that we are there technologically and may not be there for several decades. If researched responsibily, it SHOULD take decades to perfect. In the meantime, we have simple technologies that really work, that are sustainable indefinitely, and are truly renewable. In the scheme of things, renewable, not nuclear, energy, is the near future and nuclear (hopefully if all goes well and we don't blow ourselves up trying) is the distant future.

Professor Ausubel makes some great points in his analysis, however he is touting nuclear energy as "green", decades prematurely.

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