4 posts categorized "Science"


Only In America: GHGs & Political Football


Last night, Federal legislatures came to an agreement to extend the deadline to advert the U.S. government from being shut down.  Depending on what news agency you follow there are several perspectives on winners and losers in this recent battle on the political gridiron.  One of the bargain points in the recent government shutdown was curtailing the EPA’s role to regulate green house gases (GHGs).  Huh? What do GHGs have to do with the price of tea in China?  I am sorry, how do GHGs equate to shutting down the government?

Let’s be clear, a partial government shutdown requires all non-essential government employees to be furloughed.  I tried to research exactly what this mean, but the information out there is pretty vague.  Here is what I found.  The post office will still deliver mail, but don’t expect to get a passport.  You still need to file your taxes with the IRS, but if you are expecting to get a refund you better file electronically or risk a delay.  Applying for a federally backed mortgage?  Sorry, no federally backed mortgage processing during a partial government shutdown.  Are you on active duty in the military?  You’ll be paid, but there are questions about whether there will be any delays.  Imagine that!  The government will still collect taxes, but just do not expect services during a shutdown.  It is more like taxation with lousy representation.

Now I know it seems as if I am digressing, but I am not.  I want to paint a picture of how despicable a government shutdown is.  Which brings me back to the EPA and GHGs.  I am not ranting.  I am frustrated.  Yes we have Federal clean energy programs.  Yes we have State-level programs and targets.  However, there is no coherent U.S. policy for clean energy.  It incenses me to know that China is now the number one country in terms of clean energy.  It stings even worse to know that they recently past the U.S. to become the number one country in terms of total installed renewable energy capacity.  What are we doing about it?  Playing political football with GHG regulations.  Even in the game of football you can be lucky and recover an onside kick.  However, that can only happen if you are in the game!  U.S. renewable energy policy is more like sitting on the sideline watching the clock wind down.


Clean Energy: Sunbathing Anyone?

I will admit lately my first thoughts have not been about clean energy.  A couple days ago, it was about 70 ˚F outside.  There was barely a cloud in the sky and there was a nice cool breeze.  My thoughts were more along the line of how nice it would be to put this weather in a bottle and bring it back to Cambridge, MA.  Although I enjoyed my time in Copenhagen and Madrid, I really appreciate the pace of life in Seville, especially considering our last night in Denmark (cold rain and sleet).  We are travelling through the countryside of Spain on our way to the Abengoa concentrated solar plant (CSP) just outside of Seville in Andalucía

 Earlier that morning we listened to different Abengoa corporate representatives deliver presentations about the company and its interests in the clean energy sector.  The company is involved in various aspects of clean energy including solar photovoltaic, solar thermal, and biofuels.  It was interesting to note that Abengoa is one of the few energy generating companies that we visited that did not have a wind energy presence in its technology portfolio.  Further inquiry revealed that the company exited the wind energy market due to its in-house technology not being able to compete.  With the growing popularity of wind energy and long projected viability of solar energy and bio-fuels, time will tell if this is the correct strategic move.

 For the most part, it is wonderful bus ride through the Spanish rural terrain; however, as we approach the CSP site, the roads get narrower and rougher.  It is one thing to talk about creating energy from the sun, but it is another thing to actually see it with the naked eye. It is easy to tell we are getting closer because not only are the CSP towers strikingly discernable against the landscape, but you can see faint traces of sunrays being reflected up towards the towers.  It is a pretty amazing sight to behold.  I had seen photographs depicting this phenomenon, but I had falsely assumed that the picture had been altered.  We would later learn that the site has a PS10 (~10 MW), PS20 (~20 MW), and a much smaller tower used for experiments.  There is an array of mirrors in endless rows reflecting the sun up towards the towers.  The top of the towers (the focal point) is so bright that you really cannot look at it to long with the naked eye (sunglass give you a much better view).  What is a little eerie is the silence.  There is no constant whirring noise or vibrations typical to other types of power plants.  It is quiet, but it is not hard to believe that work is being done here.  In some ways it is similar to the quietness of an electric vehicle…very little noise, but you experience the power.  Meanwhile, the towers bask in the light being reflected up to them.


 I have to admit that I am excited about the prospects of solar energy.  To be able to harness the power of the sun is ideal dating back to ancient times.  The only troubling clouds that fog my mind are the heavy reliance on government subsidies.  I think the government should be involved in developing new clean energy technologies.  It has been done in so many sectors, time after time…transportation, energy, technology, information, etc.  However, I believe the role the government should be to incentivize the private sector to innovate and push industries forward.  This is easier said than done.  To be successful governments have to be forward thinking, flexible, and have the finances to make the investments.  In the case of Spain, I believe they were forward thinking, but I think they made a poor policy choice.  It is easy to see how poor policy decisions can happen.  In new industries innovation is typically always moving forward and it is difficult for governments to keep up with the pace.  However, I do think the more critical factor is flexibility.  Poor policy decisions are to be expected; however, you need tools in place to analyze policy and make decisions accordingly.  With the current financial situation in Europe, Spain’s hands were forced to renege on the bad policy decisions.  The level set for feed-in tariffs were not sustainable.  Even more worrisome are the levelized costs of solar in comparison to traditional energy.  Even when sunbathing, no one likes to get burnt.  By retroactively changing the amount of the feed-in tariffs for solar, this could prove detrimental to future investment in Spain.  Time will tell the fallout from the new solar policy direction in Spain.  Hopefully more CSP towers will continue to bask in the sun.  Not just in Spain, but in other parts of the world.



The Nature of Energy

Tomorrow our Clean Energy Study Tour departs for Europe, visiting both Spain
and Denmark. As we prepare to depart, I find myself reflecting on the nature of
energy, and what it means to be "clean".

America's fuel sources consist primarily of oil, coal, natural gas, nuclear
material, hydroelectric, wind, solar and biomass. To generate the power that
propels our vehicles and electrifies our cities, we mine, drill, burn, pump,
and react. We must invest in systems and processes that convert raw materials
into a useful stream of high-energy electrons or high potential chemistries. The
laws of thermodynamics are grimly unequivocal: you cannot get more energy out
of a system than you put in and you must create waste in the process.

While some sources produce more tangible waste (burning coal produces more
particulates and CO2 per MW than an equivalent amount of methane) than others,
no source of energy is without its impact. While proponents of wind & solar
might claim the moniker of "clean energy", it should be remembered
that high purity poly-silicon is not a naturally-occurring substance and the
process of converting silica to solar panels is both energy consumptive and
involves intermediary steps that produce harmful byproducts. Nor, for that
matter, are the rare-earth metal used inside of high performance wine turbine
generator drives readily abundant on the surface of the earth. Instead, these
must be extracted from deep within the planet, purified, processed and
transported around the world before finding their home inside the stator behind
the whooping turbine blades that dot the landscape of north Texas and the
Columbia River valley. And this is long before these elements and compounds
reach the end of their useful lives and must be recycled, at expense, or
disposed of and replaced. 

Nothing is for free. Trade-offs must be made: CO2 emissions exchanged for
water pollution, particulate production exchanged for low-grade radioactive
waste. We cannot hope to win, and we can't even break even. Thermodynamics is a
cruel lawgiver.

By no means should this imply a level of equivalency between these various
forms of waste. To do so is dangerous, and misguided. Instead we must accept
that waste will be produced, and "clean" is a relative term.

To engineers and economists, this is neither new nor surprising. Our fields
are replete with such trade-offs. We balance quality and cost in our
manufacturing or precision and time in our designs, but this should be done in
full cognizance that the ideal state of a waste-free, abundant energy supply is

How to slice this Gordian Knot and give meaning to our pursuit of a better
energy supply?

In my view, it is comes down to minimizing the volume of entropy. Entropy,
or colloquially wasteful disorder, should be captured and contained in as small
a volume as possible. This facilitates more economical abatement, more compact
storage and, most importantly, less broadcast damage. For example,
electric-powered cars might displace the CO2 production from thousands of
tailpipes to a single coal smokestack or methane mining might replace the waste
of mountaintop removal with deep underground hydro-fracturing. While neither
would be desirable in a perfect world, in the reality of balanced concerns, we
must chose the lesser evil and advance as best as possible the methods of
containment, treatment, and resolution.

Completely clean energy is a dream that Gibbs himself dispelled. Hence, I
propose that we advocate for Compact Energy.

 Written by: Dean Berlin



20% by 2020

The EU has a new directive to make renewable energy 20% of total electricity by 2020.  I can’t really think of a catchier way to address global climate control, but I think the ease of which the saying rolls off the tongue makes me question whether it’ll actually happen or not.  According to the European Parliament and Council namely Denmark, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Lithuania, Poland and Portugal expect to achieve their 2010 targets for renewable energy in electricity generation and Austria, Finland, Germany, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Spain and Sweden expect to achieve their targets for renewable energy in transport.  This pressure should create a host of interesting challenges and business opportunities to provide regulatory demanded solutions to energy needs.  In the next decade it is expected that Biomass will remain the dominant technology, with 50% of the growth up to 2020 occurring in energy produced from this source (half of that in heating, a third in transport and the rest in electricity). The European Commission in it’s annual report mentions that annual capital investment in renewable energy today averages €35bn, and would need to double. 


The 20% by 2020 rule suggests that their may be many opportunities in the formation of public-private partnerships.  The government will need several private vendors to achieve their regulatory goals. One of the things we learned in our class is that the majority of windmills in Denmark are created a single to a handful of private owners.  This is interesting at is overcomes the Not In My Bank Yard problem and gives owners very real financial incentives to build wind mills in their backyards.  Perhaps this could help suggest a solution to the rest of Europe on how to build the infrastructure needed to meet the 20% by 2020.  One possibility is that private individuals should organize and look to find a solution to the regulatory quandary.  Government could look to create the tax incentives among individuals to make this lucrative and in addition help to foster a sense of community and help local communities make decisions to solve their unique energy needs.  Can’t wait for the trip and to learn more about it!