Category → Energy Efficiency
In Solar, a novel by acclaimed author Ian McEwan, the protagonist, a physicist named Michael Beard, has been tasked to evaluate submissions from the public sent to a UK panel looking for new ideas for clean energy. He divides them into piles: those that violate the first law of thermodynamics, those that violate the second law, and those that violate both. This cleantech reporter could relate.
That’s why ideas that start with the laws of thermodynamics – rather than those that have to account for them later – are so attractive. Take entropy, for example. In our daily life we struggle against entropy – the iPod headphone wires that get totally knotted up in my handbag, the fact that the neatest person you know still has a junk drawer, and so on.
This week’s issue of C&EN explores research that tries to harness the universe’s arrow-like movement to disorder. When CO2 laden emissions from power plants are released into the atmosphere, the CO2 mixes into the ambient air mass. As Naomi Lubick explains, an electrochemical cell could harvest the energy that is released when these two gases mix. Researcher Bert Hamelers of the Dutch water treatment tech center Wetsus, has developed a lab scale device to do just that.
But Lubick points out that to implement such a solution would require overcoming at least two hurdles – one, the sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides may foul the system’s membranes. And two, it is no easy task to dissolve huge amounts of CO2 in liquid.
In fact, dissolving the gas uses quite a bit of energy. Which reminds me of another literary reference: the witches of Shakespeare’s MacBeth chant “Double, double, toil and trouble; Fire burn and cauldron bubble” – indeed, there is some toil and trouble involved.
I know that many other researchers and technology companies are working on these two problems. For example, there are programs working on carbon capture and storage that are using liquids, catalysts and membranes to grab components of power plant emission gases. And firms such as Calysta Energy and Lanzatech have plans to use microbes to make useful products out of gases such as methane and flue gas. For that, they need to dissolve the gas in water. It is not a trivial problem.
Today, the International Energy Agency put out a report saying that CO2 emissions in 2012 grew by 1.4%, or 31.6 gigatonnes. This increase means that the chances of constraining emissions to cap global warming at 2 degrees C are narrowing.
When I first started covering the cleantech/renewables space for C&EN back in 2008, there was a common belief among technologists and some policy makers that within a few short years, a price would be put on carbon with policies (such as cap and trade or a carbon tax) that would act like jet fuel, powering demand for renewable fuels and related industries.
But as IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven points out, ““Climate change has quite frankly slipped to the back burner of policy priorities.” The good news in the report is that the growth in renewable energy production in the U.S. and Europe has helped those regions decrease carbon emissions. However, it was the switch to shale gas from coal that had the biggest impact on U.S. emissions. In contrast, growing energy demand from China and other developing nations has more than made up for those changes.
(You can read C&EN’s recent coverage of the EU Carbon Trading scheme here: http://cen.acs.org/articles/91/i7/EU-Carbon-Emissions-Trading-Scheme.html)
IEA is pushing four policies that are all outside of the renewables space. The organization’s plan would shave 8% off the carbon emissions compared to no further constraints by:
1. Making buildings, industry, and transportation more energy efficient, to get 50% of the cut.
2. Limiting construction of the least efficient types of coal-fired power plants, for 20% or more of the cut.
3. Halving methane emissions from upstream oil and gas operations (18% savings)
4. A partial phase-out of fossil fuel consumption subsidies (12%)
Update: Here’s a link to C&EN’s election story – including new House & Senate leaders in energy-related roles.
It’s been a quiet time in cleantech news lately, what with Sandy and the election happening in back-to-back weeks. But the election – and the superstorm – are likely to have meaningful long-term impacts on energy policy. I took a tour around the internets to see what analysts and cleantech-ers are saying in their reaction to the election results.
Though it was past my usual bedtime, President Obama’s victory speech caught my ear when he remarked “We want our children to live in an America . . . that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.”
With Congress still divided, most policy wonks suggest that any energy and environmental policy changes will have to be led by the White House. Things to watch include any movement to block the Keystone Pipeline or push forward with EPA regulations on smog that were delayed due to cost concerns.
Environmentalists have signaled that they will be putting pressure on the President to use national policy to address climate change. Look for Bill McKibben, activist, author and co-founder of climate change group 350.org to be very vocal. He was quoted in three articles I read.
Energy and cleantech activists are pressing for a national renewable portfolio standard that would require power generators to obtain 30% of electricity from renewables by 2030. Nearly 30 states and D.C. have such a standard, the most well-known and successful is California’s, which is headed to 33% by 2020. Wind energy backers will work to return the production tax credit.
The Washington Post points out that Obama recently spoke about upgrading energy efficiency standards for buildings – codes are currently set by state and local governments.
And renewables businesses will be looking for government action that might help them gain financing for facilities or adjust subsidies on competing oil and gas producers. On the other hand, Obama has been pursuing an “all of the above” energy strategy that is likely result in further development of domestic oil and gas (including hydrofracking) resources.
Perhaps most fascinating to me, though also the most far-fetched, is discussion about whether the fiscal cliff, tax reform, and the deficit will drive Congress to think about introducing a carbon tax. Hmmmm…
My favorite takes so far on the election and energy policy:
From the Washington Post: Obama to continue efforts to curb greenhouse gases, push energy efficiency
Politico: Obama’s green cred on the line in second term
Marc Gunther: For green business, blue skies ahead. For climate policy, who knows?
Huffington Post: Ron Pernick on Five Cleantech actions for President Obama
The Daily Climate: The “Flat Earth Five” – House Members and Climate Change
For an international take, check out Click Green, which compares the horizon for climate change action in the U.S. versus China. China will have new leadership in Xi Jinping
It appears that recent efforts to raise miles per gallon on the nation’s auto fleet – spurred by government regulations – have hit an interesting tipping point. As this guest post by my colleague Jeff Johnson points out, both consumers and automakers have learned to love running lean.
Despite the recent bankruptcy of Department of Energy supported vehicle battery maker A123, auto analyst Alan A. Baum stressed last week in a briefing and report that fuel efficient and electric vehicles are here to stay. Driven in large part by new federal fuel-efficiency standards, the average vehicle fuel efficiency for model year 2012 reached 23.6 miles-per-gallon, more than 1 mpg above 2011, Baum says, adding that this is the largest one year mileage jump in five years.In previous years, Baum says, when fuel efficiency increased, sales dropped, but for model year 2012, sales are on track to increase by 10% above 2011 levels to some 14 million units. Baum adds that electric-gas hybrids, coupled with plug-in electric vehicles, are on track to top half-a-million in sales in 2012.
Efficiency conscious consumers, he notes, also have more choices—the number of high efficiency model vehicles has grown from 28 in 2009 to 61 for 2013 model year. Also Baum predicts that automakers will increasingly promote vehicle efficiency to increase profits and sales. He singled out Ford’s Series F trucks that advertise an “Ecoboost” turbo-charging system that adds $1,000 to the cost of the truck but gets more horse power out of a smaller engine. – Jeffrey Johnson
For those of you who know your way around a torque wrench and want to know how an Ecoboost engine works, I highly recommend Johnathan Gitlin’s guide over at Ars Technica.
Several days ago I received an e-mail from the press office (press person?) at the Energy Information Administration (EIA). At the time I looked at it, thought “hmm… interesting” and set it aside. Been thinking about it off and on since. The crux of the information was this graphic:
A few thoughts that came to mind immediately were 1) Wow, look what a monster recession did to our industrial energy consumption and 2) That brick-colored stripe is rather tall.
The other two categories of energy consumers aside from industry are residential (people at home), commercial (businesses) and transportation. In 2011, industry was responsible for over 30% of total energy consumption, according to the EIA. Transportation is approximately a similar amount, and residential and commercial users split the rest.
The more I thought about it, though, the more I reflected on basic chemicals’ place in the lifecycle of a finished good – maybe a shampoo, or a carpet or a car – and the chunk of energy use it represents. A branded goods manufacturer that does a lifecycle analysis – say to measure energy use or emissions – would no doubt zero in on chemical inputs as a large contributor to its overall footprint.
Of course, mining and agriculture have their own energy footprints, as shown in the graphic. Obtaining any raw material will bring energy baggage with it.
The graphic also reinforced a message that my C&EN colleague Alex Scott recently wrote about in the magazine. He attended an event in Brussels called the Global Chemical Industry Sustainability Summit. In his report, he writes that chemical industry representatives were chided for their “business-as-usual model” and told that other industries, including customers of the chemical industry, were beginning a trek toward zero targets for things like oil use and CO2 emissions. Should someone hold a similar event in the U.S., this illustration might appear in the presentation.
This week’s issue has C&EN’s update on what’s going on with the Obama-touted advanced battery industry. In short, the U.S. can make many, many big batteries for various flavors of electric vehicles. More batteries, in fact, that the U.S. has electric vehicles.
One flavor of vehicle that may be a new one to many is a microhybrid. These are not tiny cars, nor are they like the all-electric Nissan Leaf or plug-in hybrid Chevy Volt. Rather, a microhybrid system is part of a less radical design intended to help gas-powered cars use less gas. They use some version of what are called start-stop batteries. Andy Chu, vice president of marketing & communications at battery firm A123 Systems explains:
“With start stop batteries, also called micro hybrid batteries, the primary function of the system is that it turns the engine off when you stop. And it turns the engine back on automatically. Just by turning off the engine at a stoplight you can save a few percent on fuel economy. Some of the batteries just crank the engine. But when you ask it to do other things – like launch assist – or move the vehicle from a stopping point – that is the hybrid function. This is great because the battery can respond instantaneously.
You need something beyond typical lead acid, like for regenerative braking. The A123 solution has higher charge capability, then you don’t waste braking energy as heat. Also, it extends the life span – you use the battery much harder – with A123 you don’t need to replace the battery as often as with a lead acid. Weight is another advantage that helps with fuel economy savings. Compared to a lead acid version, we expect 50% better fuel economy gain. If you gain 10% with lead acid, you’d gain 15% with our battery. It is very difficult to save weight in vehicles. A lead battery is very heavy – so its easy to take weight out there.
Automakers, especially in Europe, are really moving to microhybrids. They require very little design change; the battery and alternator are a little bigger, lighter, and provide better fuel economy. They are easy to integrate. So microhybrids are part of our message – though electric vehicles are the sexy topic, advanced batteries can be used across a wide variety of vehicles.”
Lux Research analyst Kevin See says the hybrid-you’ve-never-heard-of will be responsible for the bulk of future growth of energy storage technologies for vehicles, along with batteries for electric bikes. “Although battery prices for all-electric and hybrid passenger cars are dropping, they’re not dropping far enough or quickly enough to fuel the sort of broad adoption that advocates expect,” says See. “Instead, the substantial growth we see for vehicle-related storage technologies will be powered mostly by e-bikes – which are shifting from lead acid to Li-ion battery technology – and microhybrids, which offer a more incremental, low-risk way for automakers to improve fuel efficiencies.”
A Lux Research report states that microhybrids “ are set to surpass these other passenger vehicle types in terms of both total storage and dollars in 2016, growing from 5.1 GWh and $495 million, to 41 GWh and $3.1 billion – CAGRs of 52% and 44%, respectively.”
Dutch chemical firm DSM has been much in my sphere lately. In this week’s issue, I write about the firm’s engineering plastics, which were designed for recyclability and do not contain halogenated compounds.
When I’m not writing about earth-friendly technology, I cover the more day-to-day side of the chemical business by writing about company earnings. This week I am reviewing earnings results from European chemical firms and I note that DSM touts its sustainability efforts in its quarterly report. Most chemical firms relegate this information to their annual report, or to a separate yearly sustainability report.
DSM reported on the number of products in its pipeline that meet its own criteria for better environmental profiles (they call them ECO+ solutions). Apparently the pipeline is chock full of ECO+; 87% meet that benchmark. It reported on the ECO+ proportion of current products (40%) as well as progress toward energy efficiency goals. DSM has targeted a 20% improvement in 2020 compared to 2008.
The wording of the report indicates that these measures are updated at least twice per year. Usually, earnings reports are intended to inform investors of the financial results of a firm over a short period of time. Sustainability efforts, of course, tend to take a longer-term view.
I wonder what credit investors give DSM for claiming this eco-niche and for the transparency of semi-annual updates. We should remember that the reports have other audiences in addition to investors – stock analysts, regulators, members of the communities where a firm operates, and employees. Oh, I forgot the media. That’s another one.
If your very next car purchase had to meet the new mileage standards announced today, you’d be buying something roughly the size of a thimble. It would certainly be smaller than the petite Ford Fiesta, which gets a comparatively gluttonous 38 miles per gallon, highway.
Or, you could do away with any MPG concerns and get a new all-electric Nissan Leaf, though the range can dip down to around 62 miles. Forget the comfy hybrid Toyota Prius – that one only gets 50 MPG overall.
Luckily for car buyers, automakers have until 2025 to get their fleet average up to 54.5 MPG. By then, the choices will be much different than today.
Today’s New York Times story on the increase focuses on plans for hybrid and electric cars. But other technologies will have to come into play. According to Sujit Das of the Center for Transportation Analysis at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, drive train changes will not be enough to meet the new standards.
There will be more electric and hybrid cars, but overall, Das says, passenger cars will also have to be made smaller and lighter. Part of the problem is that it is too expensive to make larger trucks and SUVs high mileage, and automakers still want to sell a lot of those. So, regular cars will have to be designed for REALLY high gas mileage to make the averages work out.
Oak Ridge scientists estimate that for every 10% of weight reduction in a vehicle, the gas mileage improves by 6.5%. To make that happen, they are studying how automakers can use lightweighting materials including advanced high-strength steels, aluminum, magnesium, titanium, and composites including metal-matrix materials and glass- and carbon-fiber reinforced thermosets and thermoplastics.
Automakers have been using lighter weight materials for years, but not in a quest to increase mileage. According to a report [PDF] by the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, “Although technology to improve vehicle efficiency is available and is being used in vehicles now, vehicle manufacturers have directed much of the potential of the technology to purposes other than fuel economy, such as making vehicles larger and more powerful.” That’s a strategy that they’ll have to re-think.
Still, carbon fiber is not the first choice for automakers. Not too long ago I priced a carbon-fiber bicycle, and decided it was way too expensive. A carbon fiber car would be like George Jetson’s flying car that folds into a suitcase. It doesn’t exist, and if it did, very few people could afford it. Though parking would be a snap. The cost problem is a real barrier, which is why Oak Ridge scientists are also studying ways to make lightweighting materials more affordable.
Meanwhile, an organization called the Diesel Technology Forum says more people are choosing “clean diesel” cars, and that the new standards will bring more diesel models for consumers. The new diesel cars perform well on the highway – the Volkswagon Jetta TDI gets 42 MPG highway. A fiberglass and aluminum version would likely get even more.
The new mileage standards will also likely force automakers to experiment with more efficient designs for combustion engines. New approaches get more mechanical power from the same amount of gas, bypassing steps where energy is lost as heat.
A start-up called Transonic Combustion builds a system that heats and pressurizes gasoline into a supercritical state before directly injecting it into the combustion chamber. There, like in diesel engines, no spark is needed to ignite the fuel and move the piston. It is an efficiency improvement that the company says can increase mileage by 50%.
It takes some creative thinking to make clean technologies profitable. This is a theme that appears again and again in renewable energy stories about everything from algae to solar.
But cleaning up fossil fuels faces the same hurdle. Yesterday, private energy firm SCS Energy said it would take over a major California carbon capture project from mega industrials BP and Rio Tinto.
The Hydrogen Energy California (HECA) project aims to generate hydrogen for electricity production from petroleum coke and coal, while capturing CO2. The captured CO2 would be pumped into the earth as part of a neighboring natural gas project, where it would aid in gas recovery and presumably stay stored underground.
HECA has been backed by BP and Rio Tinto – to the tune of $55 million each - and by the Department of Energy, which supplied $54 million from Recovery Act funds. It is eligible for an additional $354 million in financial assistance in Clean Coal Power Initiative funding.
In total, that would be $514 million for the power plant, which is expected to start generating power in 2016. It is currently in the design and permitting stage. But operating HECA profitably is apparently still a challenge. SCS energy wants to add the capability of producing urea from the facility to create an additional income stream. The urea would be used for fertilizer.
It seems rather clear that without an additional product/revenue stream, this power producer cannot make the finances work. In its written statement about the transfer of ownership, HECA closes with “The approach of producing both electricity and urea helps address the economic challenge of creating a viable business model to cover the high capital costs of the plant and its carbon capture capabilities. ”
One would have thought it would be absurd to try to find a silver lining in the week-long tragedy still unfolding in Japan. But the world’s investors have strong imaginations, apparently. Earlier this week while searching for cleantech news, I came across a number of articles describing a huge run up in share prices of solar firms.
Bloomberg now reports, “The Bloomberg Global Leaders Solar Index has risen about 9.1 percent since March 11, when an earthquake and tsunami in Japan knocked out cooling systems at a Tokyo Electric Power Co. reactor, releasing radioactive pollution.” But the piece quickly lets the air out of the balloon, saying “While the incident triggered speculation governments will scale back nuclear power in favor of renewable, solar panel demand is stagnating.”
Basically, after a doubling of solar installions last year – led by Germany – governments have ratcheted back the incentives that are the primary driver of demand for companies like U.S.-based First Solar. First Solar was one of the leading firms to receive positive fall-out from the nuclear disaster this week.
Because solar is not now the main focus of government interventions, any turning away from nuclear energy plans is more likely to benefit energy efficiency and natural gas projects, Bloomberg reports.