Electrical Upgrade Prescribed for Japan’s Crimped Grid

An advisory body for Japan’s powerful Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) has endorsed a tripling of the capacity to pass power between Japan’s otherwise estranged AC power grids: the 50-hertz AC grid that serves Tokyo and northeastern Japan, and the 60-hertz grid that serves western Japan. This frequency divide hascomplicated efforts to keep Japan powered since the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami — a task that keeps getting harder with the inexorable decline in nuclear power generation (at present just one of Japan’s 54 reactors is operating). Continue reading

A Mighty Extreme Wind for Offshore Turbines

In January we reported that winds across the Northern continents were losing some of their punch, and that climate change threatened to weaken them further — altogether bad news for wind power. In stark contrast, Australian researchers report today in the journal Science that gusts are accelerating over Earth’s oceans.

Unfortunately the trend offers offshore wind power a mixed bag: stronger but also more dangerous winds. “Mean wind conditions over the oceans have only marginally increased over the last 20 years. It is the extreme conditions where there has been a larger increase,” says Ian Young, vice chancellor at the Australian National University in Canberra and principal author of today’s report. Continue reading

Deciphering Big Oil’s Retreat from Renewables

road_tanker_refuelling_credit-bpA New York Times article this week concludes that major oil and gas companies are, as the headline roared, “Loath to Follow Obama’s Green Lead.” Such stories bashing Big Oil’s slim investment in renewable energy tend to fall short by failing to consider how renewables intersect with an oil major’s core business, and this one is no exception.

As the Times ably demonstrates, big oil is freezing or cutting investment in renewable energy and doing so from a relatively small base. It notes that Shell, which has frozen spending on wind, solar and hydrogen energy, has invested just $1.7 billion on alternative energy projects since 2004 compared to $87 billion to keep its oil and gas flowing.

That should come as little surprise since Big Oil’s insubstantial and fickle commitment to renewable energy goes back decades. Following the 1973 oil shock, for example, U.S. oil majors of the time such as Mobil and Chevron embraced photovoltaics, only to dump the projects when oil prices crashed and OPEC’s power waned a decade later. British Petroleum’s promise to go “Beyond Petroleum” already looked weak five years ago when it ditched production of next-generation cadmium-telluride thin-film photovoltaics — the technology that Tempe, AZ-based First Solar has since ridden to the top of the world PV market.

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Canadian ‘Stimulus’ Targets Carbon Capture & Nuclear

canadian-prime-minister-stephen-harper

Canada’s Conservative government unveiled a budget yesterday with an energy balance distinctly different from that contemplated by President Obama in his economic stimulus package. “Green Causes Left Out of Budget” is how the Toronto-based National Post headlined its coverage of the Canadian budget proposed yesterday. Toronto Star columnist Chantal Hebert writes that environmentalists may be the only “constituency, friendly or hostile to the Conservatives, that will not get a piece of the multibillion-dollar stimulus package.”

Whereas Obama’s $819-billion stimulus package proposes to give renewables a big boost, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s C$33-billion (US$27-billion) ‘Economic Action Plan’ would leave unchanged Canada’s EcoEnergy support program for renewable energy. Canadian Wind Energy Association president Robert Hornung predicts the program may run out of cash before the end of the coming fiscal year, blunting the industry’s ability to draw investment amidst a superhot U.S. market:

“Our ability to compete with the United States for investment in wind energy projects and manufacturing opportunities will decline as a result of this budget. At a time when the United States has made measures to support renewable energy deployment a key component of its plans to stimulate the US economy, Canada is moving in the opposite direction.”

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Probing for Fluff in Europe’s Supergrids Vision

European renewable energy supergrid map Credit Wibke von FlemmingLast month the European Commission (EC) called for construction of regional power transmission grids that would ultimately merge into a supergrid distributing Mediterranean solar energy and offshore wind energy across Europe. Today, in MIT’s Technology Review, I test the political reality of sharing power across Europe (see “Europe Backs Supergrids”) and show that the EC just might pull it off.

Why be skeptical? Because for over a decade the EC has been pushing the liberalization of the European electricity market. Whereas, given the limited capacity for exchange of power between many European countries one could fairly question whether a ‘European market’ for electricity even exists.

Wind power developer Eddie O’Connor, for example, told me that his priority – building an offshore grid to connect tens of gigawatts of North Sea wind farms to be installed in the coming decade – would remain a dream so long as the European states and their politically powerful utilities control tranmission planning. “The utilities are the enemy,” says O’Connor, founder of wind developer Airtricity and CEO of Mainstream Renewable Power. “Even at this stage they’re still the enemy.”

What my report for TechReview shows, however, is that change is possible. The best example is a French-Spanish agreement this summer — under intense prodding from the EC — clearing the way for a much-needed second powerline across the Pyrenees. A special envoy appointed by the EC broke what had been a 15-year impasse complicated by local environmental concerns, Catalan fury, and diverging interests of the utilities involved. 

Even O’Connor is optimistic. He believes that new international institutions must be created to conjur up the supergrid Europe needs to carry renewable energy. But, says O’Connor, both are possible: “I believe the building of the supergrid is imminent.”  

Stay tuned for more on the EC’s energy envoys.

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

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Solar PoweRING the Mediterranean

Areva's Bir Osta Milad substation in Libya copycreditpeterfairley2008Engineers working in the teeming cities and lonely deserts of North Africa are creating the last links in a power grid that will ring the Mediterranean Sea. Sharing electricity over this ‘Mediterranean Ring’ could secure Europe’s power supply with clean renewable energy, accelerating North Africa’s development and knitting together two worlds that seem to be racing apart — those of Muslim North Africa and an increasingly xenophobic Europe.

We make the case for all this unabashed optimism in Closing the Circuit – a feature story in this month’s issue of Spectrum. Closing the Circuit is the product of two years of on-again, off-again research that came to fruition with on-site reporting in Libya and Morocco this summer.

The timing is fortuitious: North African countries – in many ways among the most progressive in the Muslim world – face a rising threat of Islamic fundamentalism, including increasingly deadly attacks by Al Qaeda-aligned militants. Economic development and democratization are the best hope for a North African renaissance. At the same time Europe’s growing dependence on Russian oil and gas and desire to slash carbon emissions has intensified interest in North Africa’s energy resources.

The scale of the potential exchange is immense: Analyses by the German government estimate that solar power generated in scorching North Africa could meet Germany’s entire electricity demand. No wonder then that the Union for the Mediterranean launched by French president Nicolas Sarkozy this summer to spur cooperation between Europe and North Africa is fleshing out a “Mediterranean solar plan” as one of its first actions.

The geopolitical and social import could be bigger. Consider what Dominique Maillard, President of French grid operator Réseau de Transport de l’Electricité, said when asked last month what the Mediterranean Ring represents during an interview last month for the European Energy Review. Maillard began his response by noting that the electrical interconnections between the European countries got started in 1951 – well before the signing of the Treaty or Paris, which created a European coal and steel market, and before the Treaty of Rome in 1957. “At the dawn of Europe, energy – and even electrical energy – had therefore already preceded politics,” says Maillard.

The implication by extension is clear: Electrical interconnection can be the forerunner for peaceful codevelopment among the countries of the Mediterranean, even including Israel. Call it informed optimism. 

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

Return of the Solar Power Tower

Last week Spectrum Online ran my profile of Andasol 1, a solar thermal power plant that’s set to startup in Andalucia with the largest installation built expressly for storing renewable energy: a set of molten salt storage tanks that will hold enough heat energy to run its 50 MW steam turbine for 7.5 hours after dark. This week brought decisive evidence that another solar thermal design that makes even better use of energy storage — a so-called ‘power tower’ whereby sunlight is focused on a central tower — will also have its moment in the Andalucian sun.

The project, dubbed Gemasolar, will employ sun-tracking mirrors covering an area equal to 40 soccer fields to focus light at the top of a roughly 120-meter-high tower. There the sunlight will heat a solar receiver full of molten salt. In contrast, Andasol 1 (like most of the solar thermal plants under construction in the U.S., Spain, North Africa and the Gulf) uses thousands of square meters of trough-shaped mirrors to focus light on a synthetic oil; energy is stored via heat exchangers that transfer the synthetic oil’s heat to a molten salt.

One advantage of the power tower is thus obvious: heating salt directly eliminates the need for heat exchangers, reducing installation and operating costs. Another lies in the fortuitous thermodynamics of heating molten salts, whose maximum safe temperature of 565 C is about 165 C higher than the synthetic oil’s.

Sandia National Lab researchers verified these power tower advantages in the second half of the 90s, but also suffered through a series of operational difficulties. Five years ago the European Commission provided funding for the Gemasolar project (then known as the Solar Tres) to demonstrate that the difficulties could be overcome, but the project foundered on legal issues and changes in Spain’s renewable energy law. But engineering continued and this March the project sprung back to life when its lead proponent, Spanish engineering firm Sener, clinched a solar thermal joint venture with Abu Dabi’s alternative energy program.

With Abu Dabi’s deep pockets Gemasolar’s financing just might survive the current financial crisis. Siemens confirmed that the tower was moving forward this week by disclosing that it would supply the steam turbine to convert the tower’s solar-generated heat into up to 19 MW of electricity for the Spanish grid. 

For further details on Gemasolar, see this frank telling of its origins, design and goals on Sener’s website. For details on a competing power tower design that directly produces steam, see this white paper from Spains’ Abengoa Solar.

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This post was created for Tech Talk - Insights into tomorrow’s technology from the editors of IEEE Spectrum.