Floating Wind Turbines on the High Seas

Master.Energywise.StatoilHywind

Norwegian oil and gas giant Statoil positions 6-megawatt turbines off the coast of Scotland for the world’s first floating wind farm. Photo: Roar Lindefjeld/Woldcam/Statoil

The world’s first wind farm employing floating turbines is taking shape 25 kilometers off the Scottish coast and expected to begin operating by the end of this year. New research by atmospheric scientists at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Stanford, Calif. suggests that the ultimate destination for such floating wind farms could be hundreds of kilometers out in the open ocean. The simulations, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, show that winds over the open ocean have far greater staying power than those over land.

Wind power generation is obviously contingent on how fast and how often winds blow. But only over the past decade have scientists and wind farm developers recognized that the winds measured prior to erecting turbines may not endure. For one thing, dense arrays of wind turbines act as a drag on the wind, depleting local or even regional wind resources. Continue reading

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Censors Take On China’s Silent Spring Moment

Jinhua skyline 2005c

Jinhua skyline, 2005

Chinese censors took down a hugely popular documentary on China’s air pollution crisis this past weekend, according to reports by the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. Under the Dome, a polished, 104-minute report by Chinese broadcast journalist Chai Jing [embedded below], had gone viral after its release last week, attracting several hundred million views in China before censors restricted domestic access to the video and squelched news coverage of it.

The film is a damning account of China’s declining air quality, the sources of its pollution, and the toothlessness of environmental agencies charged with controlling it. It’s a wide-ranging production that tries to explain the price China has paid for its industrialization and wealth generation, as well as a passionate call to action.

For me, the film’s visceral portrayal of contemporary life amidst smog—and the movie’s historic sweep—sparked flashbacks to my own discomfort breathing in Chinese air during visits in 1991, 2005, and 2006.

In 1991, my eyes burned as the aging cruise liner I’d taken over from Japan motored up the Huangpu River, past the petrochemical plants then lining the river’s eastern banks, on its way into Shanghai. But the historic city across the river was clean. Aside from a few buses, it was a city that still moved on pollution-free pedal power, its streets a flood of bicycles. And as I traveled inland for several weeks, the pollution faded further, revealing China’s natural beauty.

When I flew into Shanghai 14 years later to report on China’s rising tide of electric bicycles for IEEE Spectrum, Shanghai itself seemed still cleaner than I’d recalled. While cars and trucks were on the rise, the East-bank industry had been cleared to make way for gleaming skyscrapers.

But China was clearly changing. I visited smaller cities where smog nearly blocked out the sun. Continue reading

Will Shuttering Coal Plants Really Threaten the Grid?

Does President Obama’s plan to squelch carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants really threaten the stability of the grid? That politically-charged question is scheduled for a high-profile airing today at a meeting in Washington to be telecast live starting at 9 am ET from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

Such “technical meetings” at FERC are usually pretty dry affairs. But this one could be unusually colorful, presenting starkly conflicting views of lower-carbon living, judging from written remarks submitted by panelists.

On one side are some state officials opposed to the EPA Clean Power Plan, which aims to cut U.S. power sector emissions 30 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels. Susan Bitter Smith, Arizona’s top public utilities regulator, argues that EPA’s plan is “seriously jeopardizing grid reliability.” Complying with it would, she writes, cause “irreparable disruption” to Arizona’s (coal-dependent) power system.

Environmental advocates and renewable energy interests will be hitting back, challenging the credibility of worrisome grid studies wielded by Bitter Smith and other EPA critics. Some come from organizations that are supposed to be neutral arbiters of grid operation, such as the standards-setting North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC). Clean energy advocates see evidence of bias and fear-mongering in these studies, and they are asking FERC to step in to assure the transparency and neutrality of future analyses. Continue reading

Broken Bats: Wind Power and the Damage Done

Last year, IEEE Spectrum profiled an ultrasonic alert for wind farm operators designed to let them know when bats are nearing their turbines. The potentially bat-saving technology can’t be ready soon enough according to this week’s issue of the journal Bioscience. University of Colorado ecologist Mark Hayes estimates that at least 600 000 and possibly more than 900 000 bats were killed by wind turbines last year in the U.S.

Hayes’ report is a statistical reassessment of data on bat carcasses found at wind turbine sites. His figure lends credence to a March 2013 mortality estimate of 880 000 deaths per year by Sacramento-based ornithologist and consultant Shawn Smallwood. That figure was well beyond previous estimates, which had ranged as low as 33 000. “My estimates, using different methods and data, bracket Smallwood’s 888 000 estimate,” writes Hayes in an e-mail to Spectrum. Continue reading

Tidal Power’s Surprising Comeback

Below Sea Level: LaRance’s turbine hall

Can a U.K. firm’s novel plant design defuse environmental concerns?
By Peter Fairley

Fifty years ago this July, Électricité de France began sealing off Normandy’s La Rance estuary from the sea. After three years of work, the world’s first large-scale tidal power plant was born. The station operates still, generating up to 240 megawatts of renewable power as the twice-daily tides force water in and out of the estuary through the hydroturbines seated within its 750-meter-long seawall. But the three years of construction were tideless, which devastated La Rance’s ecosystem, killing off nearly all of its marine flora and fauna; it would take another decade for the estuary to bounce back. Due in part to that ecological hangover, La Rance would remain the only tidal station of its scale for nearly five decades …

Excerpted from the July 2013 edition of Spectrum Magazine. Get the full scoop via Spectrum.

Glimmers of Hope in Japan or Wishful Thinking?

For those looking for hope amidst the nuclear threat afflicting post-Tsunami Japan, there are some glimmers of possibly positive developments to report from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power complex:

  • Japanese authorities say that water canons and aerial water drops from helicopters may have stabilized reactor 3 and its fuel pool (video below). Of Fukushima Daiichi’s six reactors this was viewed as the most dangerous Continue reading

Spent Nuclear Fuel Biting Back at Fukushima

An explosion earlier today at Japan’s crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant could indicate that the primary containment vessels protecting two of its reactors have now been breached. And yet, stunningly, that was not the day’s worst news. Instead concern increasingly focused on the plant’s highly radioactive spent fuel rods, stored in cooling pools above the reactors.

Damage sustained from last week’s massive earthquake and tsunami as well as subsequent fires and hydrogen explosions have critically limited plant operator Tokyo Electric Power’s ability to maintain cooling in several of the plants’ pools or even to replace water that is evaporating or boiling away. U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman Gregory Jaczko told a Senate panel this afternoon that one of the pools was empty and that heating of the fuel bundles could thus melt them down—an outcome that could spread radioactive elements far beyond the site. Continue reading