Monday, December 31, 2007

AXP - More Fun with Numbers in 2008

A nice article in this month's Wired magazine outlines how 2008 will see the real launch of the Automotive X Prize, with dozens of competitors going for broke (with some going broke) to reach the objectives:
  • Efficiency: at least 100 MPG
  • Emissions: while producing less than 200 grams of greenhouse gases per mile
  • Economic Viability: with solid plans for safety, mass production and affordability
Contestants range from the well heeled (with millions in VC funding) to the non-heeled (sandal clad long haired California types). One point of interest - none of the big auto makers are participating. Just as Clayton Christiansen, Mr. Innovator's Dilemma, would have predicted, the large entrenched players cannot see past their current plans and their perceptions of what their best customers have always wanted. I think that guarantees we're going to see some great results.

Friday, December 28, 2007

207 Reasons Revisited

The 2003 book Small is Profitable offers 207 reasons for decentralizing electricity production. In the few short years since its publication, conditions favoring the book's premise have improved markedly: building-integrated wind turbines on the drawing board, rapidly improving photovoltaic technology, a flood of venture capital, growing public awareness of the need for energy security and energy independence, among other things.

Here's a sampling of the 207:

24 Small units with short lead times reduce the risk of buying a technology that is or becomes obsolete even before it's installed, or soon thereafter.

49 Volatile fuel prices set by fluctuating market conditions represent a financial risk. Many distributed resources do not use fuels and thus avoid that costly risk.

60 Distributed resources matched to customer loads can displace the least utilized grid assets.

82 Distributed resources have an exceptionally high grid reliability value if they can be sited at or near the customer's premises, thus risking less "electron haul length" where supply could be interrupted.

89 Multiple small units are far less likely to fail simultaneously than a single large unit.

123 Distributed resources defer or avoid adding grid capacity.

178 Distributed resources can often be locally made, creating a concentration of new skills, industrial capabilities, and potential to exploit markets elsewhere.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Power 2030

The American Institute of Architects intends carbon neutral buildings by 2030. Why not look at every building, the vast acreage and surface area this entails, as the opportunity to produce power (not just be "carbon neutral")? Every new building a Power Plant by 2030. Produce clean power in abundance at the point of consumption. Be carbon negative.

The goal of creating power is ambitious and captures the imagination, as compared to the more middling objective of neutralizing carbon emissions.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

PowerSheet My Plug In

Gizmodo's report of the already-on-the-market, cost competitive, put-it-anywhere Nanosolar Powersheet pictured above conjures visions of hundreds of PowerSheet skinned cars soaking up a little sunshine during peak power so they can send some back to the building from their plugged in parking spots.
Pimp my building.



Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Oil for Wind Program

If the energy bill passed by the House (but not the Senate) would have drawn down $13.5B over ten years in oil industry subsidies, and assuming you could frictionlessly redeploy this money, what could you buy? Follow this simple, klunky math to gauge the magnitude of $13.5B:

Subsidies forgone by the oil industry in the failed energy bill: $13,500,000,000 over ten years

If it cost $1M to build a 1 MW wind turbine,

You could buy 13,500 wind turbines outright, or,

If you subsidized 25% of wind turbines' construction cost

Then 13,500 turbines x 4 (representing the 25% subsidy): 54,000 turbines

Since 1 GW = 1,000 MW

New wind power created: 54 GW

Current US Renewable Nameplate Capacity: 26.5 GW

So you could more than double US renewable energy capacity by 2018. Since wind competes on cost with other power sources on occasion now, a 25 percent subsidy ought to make wind consistently, broadly competitive.

Sure, these calcs might be simplistic and hurried, but they're intended to serve as a ten minute assessment of the opportunity to buy the future instead of simply continuing to dole out for what the future used to be. Transform the oil subsidy into the wind subsidy. The Oil for Wind Program.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Quote of the Day

“One of the top 10 pleasures in life is watching your electrical meter go backward."

-- Marc Schambers, California residential wind turbine owner/operator

Wind turbines for homes becoming increasingly affordable in many US states. From article today in the gardening section of the NYT.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Out of Africa - Winds of Change

The Wall Street Journal featured this story on page one today about a young man in Malawi named William Kamkwamba showing some incredible imagination and initiative. He's building windmills (and changing lives) out of local materials and old bicycle parts based on pictures he saw in textbooks. William's blog here reprints the WSJ article and provides more background on this great success story. So, individuals can do it. Countries can do it (see recent post on Great Britain's 20 Gigawatt plan for offshore turbines). So what's keeping the mighty US from taking a giant step forward? What do you think it could be?

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Britain Winding up a Wind Power Whopper

Britain's decision to built 20 Gigawatts of offshore wind isn't going to change Bush's behavior ... or the current US Congress's either. But it may embolden the next president, GuliRomClintama. Current administration seems more likely to seek permits to drill for more oil. In reality, we need to pull out all the stops, find more oil but ensure we have the pedal to the metal on all forms of alt energy research. And implementation of what we already know works ... like offshore wind farms. Here's the link.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Far Out Energy Storage

Storage of energy, like storage of data in the computer world, isn't the sexiest topic on the planet. Re: a recent PowrTalk article on using gajillions of plugged-in Car batteries to to smooth out capacity, this C|Net article raises the specter of some way out-of-box approaches. Think: super batteries, compressed air (titillating image to the right is one of these new compressors ... try to contain yourself !!!). But wait there's more: putting the compressed air in natural underground structures - aka caves. And mega flywheels. Energy created when wind is blowing and the sun is shining that's not used immediately, needs to be stored for use at night and when the winds die down. As solar, wind and wave tech gets better and better, and especially when they start to put coal and oil out of business, this is going to be an increasingly important function. In fact, a la chicken and the egg, the storage issue needs to be solved long before alt-e will be able to go mainstream.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Ford Plugs In

Highlights from Ford's delivery of 20 Escape Plug Ins to electric utility Southern California Edison:
  • the Escape Plug In can get 120 mpg

  • Ford and So Cal are looking at business models to exploit the Plug In's connection to the home and, in time, the electrical grid

  • they're also looking at ways to make Plug Ins more affordable

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Buffer Cars

Okay, to the Car+ Building posts below, add the thought that plug in hybrids (or electric cars), could act as a buffers to the electrical grid, giving it a place to store surplus power, and then to draw that power to respond to surges or increases in demand. This buffering service could reduce our need for the most expensive, and dirtiest "peaker" power plants, and make the intermittency of wind and solar less of an issue. What's more, vehicle owners might be paid for the buffering service (in addition to the deep discount on their motoring energy costs). See this NewScientistTech article or some thoughts on V2G (vehicle to grid) from the Rocky Mountain Institute.

A little dowry for the building/car marriage.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Oil Drops Below $88 a Barrel Today

This is good news ... and bad news ... depending on which game you're playing.

Using Vision to Push Reality Around

Ponder this powerful vision of clean skies and home grown American energy: buildings that draw power from the wind and sun to power themselves and the cars that visit them . But that vision can be thwarted by the realities of how we cost things and how we allocate resources in our political system. Our laissez-faire market isn't as frictionless as we might want. Some of the things that thwart:
  • Transmission. If a building's power is made and used in the same place there is little to no transmission cost. But transmission (high voltage lines, substations, and so on, maybe $1M per mile to install) is costed separately from power production. So building power doesn't get credit for this advantage.

  • Power loss. More of the power generated on-site gets to the end user, it isn't lost in transmission. No credit here, either.

  • Peak Shaving. If solar panels are deployed incrementally to handle peak power needs to avoid building new power plants, the avoided cost is much more than the otherwise too expensive solar panel.

  • Oil subsidies. Oil is subsidized more generously than emerging renewable energy sources. The subsidies made sense given oil's national strategic significance during and after World War II . It now makes sense to transition to (that is, to subsidize) alternatives, given that they can now be used instead of oil, and offer significant advantages over oil. (With the building powered car electricity becomes an alternative to oil.)

  • Start Up. Given new energy's national strategic signficance, and that it faces the traditional hurdles of the start up, it deserves national subsidization (just as oil and other undertakings did in previous situations).

  • Reduced Health Care Costs. Improving air quality probably means less people visiting the doctor for asthma, allergies, lung and heart disease, and so on. So, we can expect, but probably can't price well, lower health care costs and higher productivity.

What is asked is a visionary leader (visionary like FDR or Ronald Reagan or Winston Churchill or John F. Kennedy) to gloss over these pesky realities, and draw us to this place. Why should such a grand vision not materialize because of a dozen or so worth less realities?

Monday, December 3, 2007

What's in a Word: Makani

Does Google know something you don't? Duh. I'm pretty sure they know hundreds of billions of things I don't. And here's one of them: one of their alternative energy partners, with a very minimal site is Makani. What is this? Their own explanation: mah kah' nee [Hawaiian] n. Wind, breeze.

Makani's stated space is high altitude wind power, where the breezes are reliable and super strong. Makes me think of Magenn or Skywindpower but with much less detail exposed on the web. Keep you eyes/ears open on this one. Having GOOG in their camp may make all the difference.

Straight Thinking Chevron Rebuttle

Sometimes a comment is so strong and so thorough, there's nothing to do but put the spotlight right on it. Take this, Mr. O'Reilly (from "Tracy"):

With an attitude like that, of course we won't achieve any great energy milestones in 25 years. Why not take a hint from the folks in the UK? The gov there has already committed to reducing greenhouse gases 26% by 2020 and earlier this month, PM Brown said they could achieve a reduction of 60% by 2050. See the BBC news story here. With that kind of drive and presumably research $$$ coming from the top, it's hard to believe that no new smart techs will be developed to supplant oil.

Furthermore, Mr. Chevron may not be taking into account that the fundamental way research happens in this country is changing. Although the lion's share still occurs at the university and government-funded level, where bureaucracy and special interests can weigh down innovation, some of it is getting underway at private sources. Look at Google. It behooves them to find a cheaper, alternative source for energy because computer servers suck up electricity. Why just today (Dec 3), the Global Action Plan released a report called An Inefficient Truth, which states that the computer sector has a carbon footprint similar to the aviation industry. To really hit the point home, they said that the average server, for example, has roughly the same annual carbon footprint as an SUV doing 15 miles-per-gallon!

Chevron's business plan might benefit from little to no innovation in alternative energy, but for others, finding a solution may be the key to their business's ultimate survival, and as an added benefit, our world's.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Chevron CEO Says Oil to Remain Dominant for Decades

Chevron CEO O'Reilly says, love it or hate it - the world is going to keep running on oil for a long, long time. I think he's old school and may be like a one of those guys in the early 1900s, perhaps a CEO of a company that made horse drawn buggies, who couldn't foresee the enormous changes coming in that century, as early as the 20s and 30s. You know ... cars, planes, etc.

Still, you have to admit he's got a great vantage from which to view the global economy and energy markets, even if his big oil CEO cap is screwed on a little too tight. And it bothers me to hear him say this about the mega-freaking-enormous size of current and ever-expanding energy demand. In an interview last week, when asked "Will oil become less important in the future?" Reilly said:

The scale of the energy system is enormous. Forty thousand gallons of oil are consumed every second, and that represents only one-third of the total global energy system. To significantly change the energy mix is a big challenge, and I don't think it's likely to occur anytime soon. Very long term, a century out, maybe 50 years out, with new technology and changes in the capital structure - maybe some changes will occur. But in the next 25 years, it's unlikely there will be significant change.

Here's his full interview from the November 28, 2007 edition of Fortune magazine. I think he's correct for this moment. And maybe for the rest of this decade. But he's not allowing for innovation and the tremendous breakthroughs we're going to see with so many good minds (backed by increasingly large sums of funding) trained on this problem. I really hope he's not right for much longer.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

What's Up With Wal Mart

This is not your father's Wal Mart.

The company is emerging as a leader in resource husbandry, to wit:
  • Green store test platforms. Wal Mart built two stores with an array of environmental features to study which could be implemented across the company. Maybe wind turbines like this one at the McKinney store will make sense at windier Wal Marts.

  • Truck Fleet Efficiency. Wal Mart engaged environmental consultant Rocky Mountain Institute to wring fuel out of its trucking operation, promising to cut fuel use in half by 2015.

  • Clinton Climate Initiative. Most recently, Wal Mart announced it will help "cities to buy green by using its purchasing resources to help drive down the cost of green technologies...the retail giant is working with the CCI [Clinton Climate Initiative] to create high-performance LED light fixtures designed for parking lots and street lamps."

Getting a little help from Wal Mart is exciting because:

1) the impacts of the world's largest retailer can in turn be large.

2) Wal Mart excels at rooting out efficient, market-worthy ways of doing business--showcasing sustainability's profit potential.

For those who have issues with the company's track record on corporate citizenship, Wal Mart deserves another look. It might not be your father's Wal Mart, but it's my Wal Mart.