Friday, March 27, 2009

From Sea To Shining Sea

…And all the rivers and lakes in between

Pure water - Drinking water - With air, as Jacques Cousteau has been often quoted, “the two essential fluids, on which all life depends, have become global garbage cans.”
We have seen the “Hubbard Peak” for oil described as the point in time at which the supply of oil begins to decline until, at the end, the supply is gone. (See our blog #3 “The Learning Curve and the Hubbert Peak” Jan 24, 2009)

We cannot imagine that the supply of water would ever be “used up.” After all, water covers 71 percent of the earth. The question is whether the supply of clean, drinkable, water would decrease while a world population continues to increase.

We will talk about the world-wide water situation later. Now we are looking at conditions in the United States and along the border with Canada.

Every day the US consumes, on average, some 345 Billion gallons of fresh water. That amount of water would cover the entire state of Rhode Island to a depth of one foot! And the breakdown of that figure is interesting – and important

136 Billion gallons go to irrigation
136 Billion go to electric power plants
47 Billion go to public and domestic supply
26 Billion for industrial use.

Of the public and domestic category about half goes to the domestic or home use. That works out to be about 75 gallons a day per person at home.

All this is based on a current US population of 303,824,640 in mid 2008. The population figure is expected to increase at the rate of 0.88% per year (accounting for births and deaths).

Using this data, by the year 2020 the US will need an additional 2,535,375,234 gallons of good water per day. And this does not account for any increase in agriculture needed to support the increased number of people.

Clearly the world faces a possible shortage of water due to increased population, uneven supplies of clean water and other factors. In our next report we will discuss some of the solutions as they apply in the US, Canada and around the world.

Here again, there is hope if proper action is taken.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Good Earth and Its Roadways

The only planet we know to be inhabited, Earth, with its Sun and atmosphere provide perfect conditions for the development of life for its beings, human and otherwise.

It is only when humanity tinkers with the balance provided by nature that bad things start to happen.

We have seen what happens to the air when we burn fossil fuels to make electricity or to travel in vehicles of all sorts – on land, sea and air. The intelligence that has brought all the “good things of life” at horrible ecological costs is now beginning to consider serious alternatives to the pollution causing, and life threatening, energy generation processes. The world runs on electricity, at least the developed part of it. And a major part of the electricity generated in the United States is made by burning fossil fuels, coal, oil and natural gas.

And in addition, petroleum consumption by cars and trucks accounts for another major portion of the fossil fuel consumption – and in that sector some rather brilliant thinking has been inspired.

Researchers at Worcester Polytechnic have studied the use of the highway system itself as a source of energy. 4 million miles of roads and streets that constantly soak up the sun’s heat and that dissipates unused at night.

The researchers have found a way to use the heat absorbing properties of asphalt by installing heat exchangers a few inches below the roadway’s surface.

According to Rajib Mallick of the Worcester group, “blacktop stays hot and could continue to generate energy after the sun goes down, unlike traditional solar-electric cells. In addition there is already a massive acreage of installed roads and parking lots that could be retrofitted for energy generation, so there is no need to find additional land for solar farms. Roads and lots are typically resurfaced every 10 to 12 years and the retrofit could be built into that cycle.

Extracting heat from asphalt could cool it, reducing the urban “heat island” effect. Finally, unlike roof-top solar arrays, which some find unattractive, the solar collectors in roads and parking lots would be invisible.”

And so an Idaho-based company called Solar Roadway has gone into the business of constructing “solar roadways.” We wish them luck. And look for growing interest around the country.

Friday, March 20, 2009

American Energy – Nationalized? Not So Fast!

We’re still talking about National Grid USA and today we are starting to list all their operations in the USA – that we are aware of; and reviewing a few steps taken by NG that required them to step back.

Electric Utilities Owned
Massachusetts Electric Company (MA)
Niagara Mohawk Power (NY)
Nantucket Electric Company (MA)
Granite State Electric Company (NH)
New England Power Company (VT)
Narragansett Electric Company (RI)
Gas Utilities Owned
Colonial Gas Company (Massachusetts)
Boston Gas Company (MA)
Energy North Natural Gas, Inc (NH)
Brooklyn Union Gas Company (NY)
Niagara Mohawk Power Corp (NY)
KeySpan Gas East Corp (Long Island NY)
Rhode Island-Gas (RI)

Power Plants Owned
LIPA – 11 plants previously owned by KeySpan
New York City – former Con Ed plants provide 25% of NYC load
Glenwood Plant – Yonkers (NY)

It seems that back in 2003 the first US for-profit Independent Transmission Company, GridAmerica (Managed by National Grid, USA) went into operations in the Midwest. It was a subsidiary of National Grid Transco and began managing the transmission assets serving consumers through utilities in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Missouri.

Suddenly, in November, 2005 Grid America ceased operations and its services were taken over by the Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator (Midwest ISO). What appeared to be a giant step for National Grid has, thankfully, been turned into a corrective back-step. One either owns utilities or transmission lines. Apparently not both!

Monopolies are ok in Britain, but not here, thank you FERC.

Monday, March 16, 2009

American Electric System – Are We Nationalized?

Serendipity – is when you find something of value when you were looking for something else. What we found this time could be a Lulu!!

We were looking for an existing path, if any, that might lead from Canada to New York City to deliver lowest-cost hydropower to the “Big Apple.” The first thing to find would be the parts of the famous “grid” connecting the various utilities around the nation – particularly in the northeast.

A lesson learned from the “blackouts” of 1965, 1977 and 2003 is that an adequate and reliable grid does not exist. Not yet - although one is promised (for some future date).

What we did learn at first gave us hope but on further investigation brought us up sharply:
In 2000 a British firm, National Grid plc (NG) came across the pond to enter the U.S. market. NG is an international network utility with principle activities in the regulated electricity and natural gas industries, according to its advertising.

We thought that since they operated the entire grid in Britain, they might be able to get our gird operating on a truly “national” basis. So we welcomed National Grid USA.

Now, however, it has become clear that much bigger goals are in the NG eyes and the fact that deregulation has taken place in the US has made it possible for expansion into almost (if not real) monopolistic efforts.

We have found the NG now owns Electric utilities in 5 states, Gas utilities in 4 states and transmission systems serving 13 states, all, so far, east of the Mississippi.

NG operates Britain’s entire grid as well as that of Scotland. It is reported also to have interests in Germany and Australia.

National Grid USA became the 3rd largest energy supplier in the U.S. in 2006 when it acquired KeySpan, its fifth U.S. takeover since emigrating in 2000.

When authorizing the KeySpan purchase, the NY State Public Service Commission ruled that NG could not retain the large generating plant at Ravenswood, Queens, NY. So NG sold it to TransCanada’s US subsidiary.

There is more at issue here than just the “national grid.” The name itself is greatly misleading and everyone should learn that NG is not our national grid.

National or International, who’s in charge? Stay tuned for details

Friday, March 13, 2009

The “Carbon Principles” (Another Bank Failure?)

In February 2008 three major US banks, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase and Morgan Stanley, (who, as with all American banks, have come upon troubled times) set out a list of principles intended to affect financing of coal-fired electric generating plants.

“The Carbon Principles,” in an eight-page document, reflect the intense concern felt by the entire financial industry for their investments in coal and, in fact, all greenhouse-gas intensive industries.

In April, Bank of American joined the group, followed by Credit Suisse in June and Wells Fargo in July

A press release in San Francisco called “Carbon Principles another Nail in Coal’s Coffin.”
That might have been true if the principles outlined were seriously followed. It would mean careful scrutiny of the environmental impact of all planned, public or private, power plants of over 200MW for new coal-fired capacity or for expansion of existing coal-fired capacity.

In fact, what the “principles” set out to do was to protect the banks, not the public. They would attempt to make sure that investments in power plants utilizing or to utilize fossil or other carbon-based fuels would not run afoul of new or anticipated laws promoting clean energy.
In the words of RAN (Rainforest Action Network),”The proof is in the pollution. If this policy prevents the financing of new coal, it will be productive.”

Unfortunately that was not its function. More unfortunate is that there was no provision for any enforcement, penalty or even sanctions for failure to protect the public interest.

“Calling them ‘Carbon Principles’ is an overstatement,” according to RAN. “A serious climate change policy would commit banks to emissions reductions in their financing and extend beyond coal into other carbon intensive sectors such as coal mining and the oil and transportation industries.”

We don’t usually need to quote other sources, as we are starting out on our own second 100 years, but in this case we felt that the argument could not have been stated better and more to the point. Which is = we’ve got a long road to travel to energy sanity.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

“Clean Coal” (Oxymoron)

With all due respect to President Obama and his Energy Program, we have to most strongly object to the attention given to a ten year program to “clean coal” when our reliance on that fuel could be cut in half by hydropower and other renewable sources and the other half eliminated by natural gas – which everyone will admit burns much, much more cleanly than even “clean” coal!

One of the main reasons that so much emphasis is put on the use of coal is that there is so much of it. And in this country it’s owned, for the most part by our favorite oil interests. We’re back to the Politics of Energy and the Energy of Politics (see blog Jan 27)

Add to the ownership of those producing dirty coal, with its requisite mining and processing, their financiers: Bank of America, Citi and Royal Bank of Canada that provide billions of dollars each year for the “DEP” (Dirty Energy Projects)

So what are the facts and how do we get Washington to listen (D.C. not George-he would have listened)
Of all coal consumed to generate electricity only one third actually results in power under current operations. The rest is released carbon dioxide, sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides as well as dangerous levels of arsenic, cadmium, strontium and mercury as detected in bullfrog tadpoles in the Savannah River. Another product, not as well known, is naturally occurring radioactive materials, mostly uranium and thorium.

And even before burning the mined coal the act of extracting it from the ground is immensely destructive to the environment and particularly dangerous to those mining it.

So how clean can coal be made? The best minds put the final product as questionably “clean” at costs that could run into trillions to prove it. And all the various methods proposed to “store” or “bury” the wicked by-products are only new causes of concern for the environment.

For example, sending carbon dioxide down to aquifers only threatens to pollute that portion of the underground water supply that may well be needed for more important human requirements.

And the cost of cleaning coal? Prohibitive – unless you are one of the oil/coal barons and look forward to the government subsidizing what we must call “this oxymoronic dream.” $200 billion would provide and deliver a lot of clean renewable hydropower.

Next, let’s look at the ‘Carbon Principles” developed by the financial community and perhaps we can get to the backers of the coal industry and get them to think clearly (cleanly).

And then question if nuclear is really any cleaner.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

To Peak or Off-Peak, That is the Question!

We have spoken of the time-of-day electric rates recently offered to residential electric consumers by a number of public utilities. This same rate structure has been available to large commercial/industrial users for a number of years with questionable results.

The concept was to try to induce consumers to move their electric use from normally heavy use hours to other times in an attempt to shave the utilities’ peak loads. In the business sector this has been difficult. Loads were reduced – which helped, but commercial hours of operation were not as flexible as desired.

However – at home it is a different story. While we can’t turn off the heat on winter days, we can certainly hold off air-conditioning when that’s in season, especially when everyone’s at work or school. Moreover, clothes and dish washing and clothes drying can be done at night. Most major usage can be timed away from the utility’s peak.

So what are considered “peak” hours? Unfortunately there is great disparity around the nation.
Some examples and perhaps a reason for FERC or DOE to become involved to mandate some uniformity.

Duke, N Carolina 1pm to 9pm M-F Summer 6am to 1pm M-F Winter

Con Ed NYC 10am to 10pm M-F all year

UI and CL&P/ CT 12 noon to 8pm M-F all year

SO Cal Edison 10am to 6pm M-F all year

Detroit Edison 11am to 7pm M-F all year

Baltimore 10am-8pm M-F summer 7am-11am/5pm-9pm winter

There are others and some employ a medium rate for what are called “partial peaks” which occur on weekends or other moderate use times.

The real impact is that the energy rate ($/kwhr) is lower during the off-peak hours than during peak hours. In Connecticut the cost drops from 14.3 cents/kwhr to 10.7 cents.

In Detroit it goes from 7 cents to 2 cents: NYC in Summer from 10.54 cents to 0.70 cents- but remember that in NYC the peak runs 12 hours until 10pm.

The result is that in many areas today considerable savings are possible using the time-of-day rates. Once again – contact your public utility or private energy provider.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Daylight and Better Savings

The idea of “Daylight Saving Time” (DST) which has been fun for kids – in the summer – and grownups who like it to be light later, has been around for hundreds of years.

But I’ll bet you didn’t know that in 1784 Benjamin Franklin came up with this one too. Is there anything that man didn’t think up? He was the DaVinci of his age. And the Edison. And while his “discovery” of early morning light was part of a most amusing letter, the concept of a time change to take advantage of the different seasons of daylight was real.

But first Time itself had to be organized. Standard time and time zones weren’t established in the U.S. until 1883. This to make scheduling simpler for American and Canadian railroads, a practice already in place in Britain since 1840.

Ben Franklin’s idea of the saving of daylight came into actual use during World War I when Germany and Austria began the practice in April, 1916. The U.S. adopted the plan by ‘An Act to Preserve Daylight and Provide Standard Time for the United States” was passed in March, 1918.

Daylight Saving was used during the full years of World War II where it was called “wartime” instead of DST. But the inconsistent use of DST was corrected finally by The Uniform Time Act of 1966 (15 U.S. Code Section 260a) and since then has been consistently used throughout the country.

A recent minor adjustment of moving DST up by three weeks in the spring and one in the fall was meant to provide energy savings. This has raised a number of questions and serious doubts as to whether DST has any impact on energy use at all.

There are many arguments, pro and con, regarding the energy savings ascribed to DST. We will present these in a rather extended blog soon. Suffice it to say that there is a much more positive way to use the hours of the day to one’s energy cost advantage while helping the utilities maintain lower average consumption.

That little trick is called Time-of-Day or Time-of-Use rates now offered by most electric utilities. These provide lower rates for “off-peak” usage than for “on-peak.”

The definition of On- and Off- peaks vary by utility but in all cases leave night times and all Saturdays, Sundays and holidays as off-peak times. Call your utility for details. Or stay tuned.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Hydropower 103

Waterfalls, flowing rivers, great dams, pipelines – where is all of America’s hydropower, operating right now and potential for the future?

And while we’re looking, we must include the same data for Canada because their potential could be a major factor in removing the world political power of oil.

I’m afraid we have to deal with some statistics to make a point, but we’ll keep it simple:

Current data United States Canada
Total Energy Capacity (GW) * 1,087.2 411.7
Total Hydro Capacity 77.6 70.8
Total Coal Capacity (for comparison) 333.1 n.a.
Potential Hydro Capacity 150.0 233.8

Thus hydro – together with the availability of vast amounts of Canadian natural gas-could substantially reduce, if not eliminate, our dependency on coal – or reduce or eliminate our need for Mideast Oil.

The additional U.S. hydro potentials are all over the country and of all sizes. In Canada the majority of the available hydro sites are in the west and Quebec in the east.

The successful development of this clean and low-cost energy will depend greatly on

(1) the relationship between the U.S. and Canada; and

(2) the continuing development of a true and adequate transmission system to deliver the hydro-developed power to the ultimate consumer.

Much was learned from the infamous “black-outs” of 1965 and 1977. The disturbing statement from the commission studying the two massive power failures was basically that “it could very well happen again.” The grid was inadequate.

Finally, while the product of hydropower plants is the lowest cost, the cost of building the plants and upgrading the transmission system (also called “the grid”) must be considered. It is good to note that part of the new administration’s energy plan is to expand and improve the national grid.

Again we adopt the American tradition of optimism

*(GW) = 1 billion watts

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Hydropower 102

We have seen that falling water occurs in nature everywhere in the world. Some of these waterfalls can have their momentum harnessed to generate electricity at costs considerably less than conventional fuel based generation.

And there is another source of hydro power – flowing water.

Flowing as in rivers and tidal waters – any place where water moves naturally.

Of course waterfalls are meant to be harnessed by civilized man wherever possible. But where there is flowing water and that flow happens to pass a constricted area, as in a canyon, man builds a dam to create a lake from which he can develop – falling water.

In a recent survey of hydro projects in the United States, we found 159 hydro plants. Of these 124, or78%, involved dams or other man-made applications. The remaining 35, or 22%, utilized natural water use, falls or flow.

Actually whatever the source of the “hydro” the end result is the cheap and clean generation of electricity. Cheap is important in order to press the use of the power to replace the more expensive products (oil, gas, wind, bio, etc.) and Clean since it results in exactly 0% of GHG or any carbon-pollution.

So how do we get from all this moving water to the electricity we need to light our homes or desalinate seawater?

We all know what a turbine is. Anyway, what a turbine looks like on an airplane. The airplane turbine creates a force which moves the aircraft forward.

The hydropower turbine causes the rotation needed to operate an electric generator with the excellent side effect that it never “runs out of gas.”

At a waterfall the turbine stands vertically and the falling water turns the blades which then turn the generator rotors. In the flowing water generator, such as those planned for the East River in New York City, the turbines lie horizontally and the tides pass through, again causing the needed rotation.

In the winter, don’t waterfalls freeze? As the Niagara people point out, “Yes and No.”
In the case of Niagara Falls, a tremendous amount of water flows and it never stops. However during the winter the falling water and its mists can form ice along the banks of the falls and the river. The resulting ice can be very thick but the power of the water is unstoppable. As is the continuing story of the need for hydropower in this century.

So where is all this hydropower? Stay tuned....

Monday, March 2, 2009

Hydropower 101

You are at the top of the Empire State Building in New York City. You are at the very top where no one is allowed to go (except maybe King Kong) - 1,250 feet above the street!

And you drop a bucket of water and let it fall to the street. Say the bucket is enclosed so none of the water spills out. And say that fortunately there are no people on the street.

It hits the street level– with a crash you could hear blocks away! Might even go through the sidewalk, from 1,250 feet!

Now picture Niagara Falls – it’s only 176 feet tall.

But instead of a bucket of water, 150,000 gallons of water flow over the falls every second! It’s clear that it’s not so much the height of the falls that counts as how wide they are to permit the largest volume of flow.

There are a number of waterfalls in the continental U.S. that are a great deal taller than Niagara. And in Hawaii there are a number of falls taller than 2,000 feet. Too bad Hawaii is 1,625 miles from the mainland.

As we might expect most tall waterfalls in the U.S. can be found in the west. Washington has 28 falls from 600 to 2,500 feet tall. California has 22 and Montana has 17. How many of these can claim major electricity production – hydropower?

Not many and we can see why by looking at a few of the tallest:

- Colonial Creek Falls in Washington is 2,584 feet tall with average width of 50 feet!

- Avalanche Basic Falls in Montana is 2,320 feet tall with tallest single drop of 1,000 feet and here again, only 50 feet wide.

- Sulphide Creek Falls in Washington is 2,182 feet tall in an incredibly beautiful and inaccessible area with yet another 50 or so foot width.

These are just a few of many such powerful and beautiful water panoramas that are wonderful to see but impractical or impossible to harness for hydropower production.

All the same, there are hydropower plants all around the country. There is at least one in every state including Alaska:

Washington has 34; Tennessee 19; Oregon has 18; Idaho – 16 and California 12.
However, most of these use man-made dams and we will discuss the various components of water based electricity production in Hydropower 102 to follow.