The Debate: Fracking and the Future of Energy

France 24 Energy in 2013 DebateThe Arctic is melting faster than predicted. Is now the time to shut down the low-carbon nuclear power plants in France — the 20th Century’s staunchest proponent of nuclear energy? Is natural gas produced via hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’ a gift that is buying time for a transition to renewable energy or a curse that reinforces fossil fuel dependence? Will carbon belching heavyweights such as the U.S. and China ever get serious about cleaning up their energy systems?

Such questions are top order in France, whose President kicked off a Grand Débat on energy this month Continue reading

Mideast Morass Dims Mediterranean Solar Hopes

abbas-sarkozy-and-olmert-at-paris-summit-credit-l-blevennec-elysee-photo-servicePlanning for massive development of North Africa’s solar energy potential became “collateral damage” of the war in Gaza this winter and won’t restart for at least another month, according to French newspaper Le Monde (article en Français).

The 43 countries of the Union for the Mediterranean, which includes Muslim nations such as Egypt and Algeria as well as Israel, adopted solar energy as its keynote project last summer. And last fall the European Commission endorsed the need for a high voltage DC supergrid to share the resulting clean energy with Europe. Planning froze in late December, however, after Israeli tanks rolled into Gaza in response to rocket fire.

Participation of Muslim countries in a development partnership with Israel — a coup for French President Nicolas Sarkozy when he launched the Union for the Mediterranean last summer — became politically untenable as Gaza crumbled.

Continue reading

Nukes, Gas, Oil and Coal All Losers in EU Energy Strategy

The European Commission issued its Strategic Energy Review yesterday, proposing energy efficiency investments, a shift to alternative fuel vehicles to end oil dependence in transport, and more aggressive deployment of renewable energy and carbon capture and storage to “decarbonise” the EU electricity supply. Figuring prominantly among its first six “priorities essential for the EU’s energy security” are the North Sea offshore electric power supergrid that Energywise covered in September and the Mediterranean Ring electric interconnection of Europe and North Africa that I’ve been harping on this week. 

The EC energy strategy not only endorses the MedRing, but views it as a component of a future supergrid traversing Europe and stretching beyond the Mediterranean to Iraq, the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa.

How would this new vision (and $100/barrel oil) alter the complexion of European energy consumption? The energy review projects that by 2020 total energy demand drops from the equivalent of 1811 metric tons of oil in 2005 to 1672 MTOE in 2020. Demand met by renewables such as wind, solar and hydro more than doubles in real terms from 123 to 274 MTOE, while their share of total demand leaps from 6.8% to 16.4%. Imported renewables – with the MedRing delivering North African wind and solar power – jump 10-fold from 0.8% in 2005 to 8.8% in 2020.

Oil, gas, coal and nuclear, meanwhile, all see a diminished role, both in real terms and as a share of European energy demand. Interestingly the role of natural gas – the low-carbon fossil fuel – drops the most, from 25% to 21%, reflecting EU concern over dependence on gas imports from Russia. Nuclear’s share drops the least, from just slightly over to slightly under 14% of demand; this assumes that nuclear phaseout plans, particularly Germany’s, are followed through. 

How to make it all come true? Accompanying the EC review is a ‘green paper‘ (the EU’s unbleached alternative terminology for what we’d call a ‘white paper’) outlining a variety of new regulatory and financial mechanisms. The EU is already a world leader in terms of incentives for lower carbon energy with strong price supports for solar and wind and a carbon cap and trade program up and running (though still lacking teeth as my Energywise colleague Bill Sweet notes). However, the energy review warns that the primarily national-level financing that drives energy projects today are inadequate to drive infrastructure that is pan-European or larger. A perfect example is the massive investment in high-voltage dc lines needed to turn the MedRing into a bulk power mover (see the second half of our feature on MedRing: “Closing the Circuit”). 

Even less viable under existing financing mechanisms are those projects that entail considerable “non-commercial risks” such as threats of political instability or terrorism. Did someone say North Africa?

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This post was created for EnergywiseIEEE Spectrum’s blog on green power, cars and climate

Fire the Grid

People around the world answered a call today to “fire the grid” this morning at 11:11am Greenwich Mean Time (7:11am EST). Unfortunately they’re not firing the grid that concerns me — the power grid — but rather the ‘earth grid’. Seems a near-death experience followed by other-worldly “light beings” inspired the organizer to call for a global spiritual embrace of the planet.  

Too bad. I for one thought that they were planning to lay-off electricity for a global hour, much as TV TurnOff Week frees our minds each April. Turning off the grid could be equally instructive.Pacific Northwest National Lab

The hour without power would be an opportunity to appreciate the grid, which has been called the greatest machine ever built and yet is all too often taken for granted. We should pay it heed, because the power grid needs to be modernized if it’s to shoulder increasing loads of clean-but-intermittent renewable energy.

At present investment is low. Universities have eliminated much of their research and teaching related to high-voltage power transmission. The power industry, meanwhile, spends just 0.3 percent of revenues on R&D, one of the lowest rates for any industrial sector. As one power expert lamented during an interview, “We’re beat out easily by the pet food manufacturers.”

Turning off the grid would also serve as a moment to reflect on our growing dependence on the various devices we plug into the power grid — some that we could easily get by without and others that may aggravate the stress and disconnectedness of modern life.

Science writer Phillip Schewe captured that last point succinctly in his wonderfully written precis on modern power systems: The Grid. Describing New Yorkers’ experiences of the August 14, 2003 blackout — the largest power system failure in history — Schewe writes that “after complaining about spoiled food or lost computer files” many also expressed a “sort of joy” at the conversations they enjoyed and the moments they spent with their children: “Provided it wasn’t too inconvenient, the absence of electricity was welcome. At least for a night.”

In The Grid Schewe toys with making the blackout a monthly affair, then rejects it as impractical. But one hour a year might not be so bad…

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Payoff from Sustained Solar Power R&D

Something good is happening in the world of photovoltaics: renewed investment in R&D is increasing the efficiency with which solar cells convert sunlight into electricity. See, for example, two reports I recently posted to the MIT Technology Review website:

Today’s on the latest in plastic solar cells: “Record Efficiency for Plastic Solar Cells”. And last month’s on the high-output crystal cells employed mostly in satellites: “Ultra-efficient Photovoltaics”.

That such performance gains are occurring in cells employing such radically different technologies suggests a systemic development. Alan Heeger, the 2000 Nobel Prize winner behind today’s advance in plastic power, told me his greatest hope is that the U.S. Department of Energy funding flowing once again to solar R&D will endure.

Consistent support is something the U.S. solar research community has never had. Support for PV jumped amid the 1970s energy crises, crashed with the energy price slide under Reagan, came back under Clinton and then fell again when Bush arrived. Plastic photovoltaics suffered similar short-term thinking in 2005 when DARPA (the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency) quietly shelved a $40 million R&D program in plastic and other forms of “organic” solar after just one year of research.

“My hope is that interest on the part of the funding agencies and more generally on the part of the people in this country is sustained,” says Heeger. Only that consistency, he told me, will deliver the improvements required to make solar a big part of the solution.

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Getting Past the Fear

We are suddenly petrified by carbon dioxide. Not because the risk of climate change is overblown, but because our technological mastery over this simple gas has been vastly undersold. By applying this technological mastery, readily-available carbon-neutral energy sources and efficient vehicles we can stop treating Earth’s atmosphere like a garbage dump, just as cities in the industrial world (and increasingly beyond) no longer flush refuse into rivers and bays. That is the message of Carbon-Nation, a blog to blow off the haze of claims and counter-claims obscuring climate change solutions, charting the technological paths available today to co2-capture at esbjerg in-denmark-small.jpgre-energize our economies.

Starting with carbon capture. Why do so many still view the capture of CO2 from power plants as science fiction, or at best impractical? CO2 leavens our bread, bubbles our soda, animates the pistons powering our combustion engines, and even dry cleans our best ensembles. We know how to handle this stuff. In fact, CO2 is rapidly becoming the key to domestic oil production: Since the 1970s U.S. oil producers have pumped millions of tons of CO2 into their rapidly maturing oil wells to free up the liquid gold trapped within (collecting handsome tax breaks in the process).

They’ll use hundreds of millions of tons more in the decades to come. In other words storing carbon underground is already standard practice in the oilpatch — and profitable to boot. See, for example, my story “Carbon Dioxide for Sale” in MIT’s Technology Review on Dakota Gasification, which buries more CO2 pollution in oilfields in a year than a hundred thousand cars release in their operational lifetime.

If the technology to capture and store CO2 is viable today, why does CO2’s growing concentration in Earth’s atmosphere leave us feeling so powerless? Why do we let utilities build new carbon-spewing coal plants and automakers build unreformed combustion engines? Because the anti-climate PR campaigns financed by oil companies, automakers, coal producers and utilities told us that reforming our energy systems would bankrupt the economy.

Carbon-Nation will seek to deliver the knowledge available to master that fear and to implement solutions that will give us cleaner, higher-performing energy system.

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