alternative energy

Wind power has a cost... in human life

This is the next chapter of our series on energy production. We take a look at wind power, it's history, application and challenges. The first time wind power was put to use was in the sails of boats and for more than two millennia wind-powered machines have been a cheap source of power for food production and moving water. It was widely available, was not confined to the banks of fast-flowing streams, and required no fuel. The Netherlands used wind-powered pumps to push back the sea and wind pumps provided water for livestock and steam engines for over a century.

With the development of electric power, wind power found new applications in lighting buildings remotely from centrally generated power, birthing the concept of distributive power systems. Starting in the 20th century saw wind plants for farms or residences and larger utility-scale wind generators that could be connected to electricity grids for remote use of power.

By 2014, over 240,000 commercial-sized wind turbines were operating in the world, producing 4% of the world's electricity. Today we hear news about wind turbines delivering almost all the energy needs for countries like the Netherlands and Germany... for one or two days a year.

What they don’t report as often is the failure rate of those turbines and the loss of life associated with them.

Approximately 120 wind turbines catch fire every year in the UK alone, according to a joint 2014 engineering study at Imperial College London and the University of Edinburgh. Beyond fire there are multiple accidents that don’t result in system failure but do result in the death of engineers servicing the systems. In England, there were 163 wind turbine accidents that killed 14 people in 2011. Wind produced about 15 billion kWhrs that year, so using a capacity factor of 25%, that translates to about 1,000 deaths per trillion kWhrs produced (the world produces 15 trillion kWhrs per year from all sources). Even using the worst-case scenarios from Chernobyl and Fukushima brings nuclear up to 90 deaths per trillion kWhrs produced, still the lowest of any energy source.

The United States appears to be the country that is most concerned with windgen safety, as it boasts the lowest number for deaths, injuries and catastrophic mechanical failures of wind turbines in the world. Even so, there are annual protests regarding the relative safety.

So why do countries continue to invest? Possibly for the relatively low cost. Each industrial turbine costs $3 million and can generate up to $500,000 in energy revenue, so they can pay for themselves in 6-10 years and they generate power more consistently than solar. However, it has been shown the effective lifespan of a turbine is less than 15 years, which flies in the face of conventional wisdom that they will last 20 years. The annual cost of maintenance for modern turbines is 2 per cent of the cost, or $30,000 and the cost of replacement parts can be as much as $500,000 over a 10-year period, so the total cost of a typical windmill over 15 years is about $4 million. That comes out to about $2.40 per watt per year for a typical onshore windmill if absolutely nothing goes wrong.

Wind power will continue to be a source of energy for years to come, but only as long as we are willing to pay the premium financially and in human life.


Three grids, two not ready for alternative power

In our first two posts, we talked about how our reliance on turbine technology and carbon-fueled generation is not going to be going away anytime soon, even though it is inefficient. Our next few posts will be looking at the problem of power distribution. The growth of alternative energy technology has fueled a movement toward distributed generation over grid distribution, which is what we more commonly employ.  Grid power in the US comes mostly in direct current (DC) generation, resulting from Thomas Edison winning the debate over the benefits of DC power offer Nikola Tesla’s alternating current (AC). We are not going to get into the benefits of one over the other here but will, instead, talk about what is. We have a massive investment in most of the US in DC generation. The exceptions are most of the state of Texas, which has a unique grid system capable of handling both, as well as a small portion of southern Alaska and some of the northeastern states.

The US has, essentially, three separate energy grids. East, West and Texas

DC is easier to distribute power over long distances. All grid systems have a certain amount of electricity loss but AC tends to lose more power than DC over distance. The problem with alternative power and most of the grid in the US is that alternative power cannot be sent to where it is needed when it is needed. It must be localized or “boosted” along the line. With large grid-scale facilities, like many of the photovoltaic facilities being built in the Southwestern deserts, that becomes a significant issue.

Distributed generation is a concept becoming more popular because it fits better into the uses of alternative power generation. Quite simply, it means you generate the power adjacent to where it is needed. If you put solar panels or wind generators on your property, you are a distributed-generation facility. That causes significant problems for the grid.

First, your solar panels are producing AC power, similar to what your handheld device uses, but your home is set up for DC. You have to add an inverter to your home to change the AC into DC so it can be used in your home and placed on the grid. Second, as we mentioned previously, the power you produce isn’t necessarily when you or the grid actually needs the power, so the utilities cannot rely on the power you produce being available when it is needed. An AC grid would be able to better distribute your excess energy, as it does in Texas, but most of us are not on an AC grid so we have to make do with what we have. We have invested far too much in the infrastructure to rip it out and install a new one.

That brings us to the owners and stewards of the grid: Utility companies. Power generation has become a major headache for utilities that draws resources and money away from grid maintenance (in other words, the powerless and towers criss-crossing the country). There has been little investment in upgrading the grid because of it, but it remains a significant source of income for utilities, especially as the distributed power network grows. When it looked like they could make money off of people who generated power with alternative energy, by buying it cheaply and selling for a profit, they were more than willing to offer sweetheart deals to companies like SunPower, but as we have pointed out earlier, the profits have not been forthcoming and the deals, known as net-metering, are going away.

At the same time, some utilities are looking at getting out of the generation game altogether. PG&E in Northern California has made no secret that it is not only not building any new generation facilities, it is selling off what it does have to independent companies, with an eye to upgrading distribution infrastructure. The utility actually buys much of the power it delivers to customers from out-of-state power plants. While this practice makes financial sense for the utilities as well as for the integrity of the grid, it means higher power bills for customers including those who have already invested in alternative sources. The big losers in this paradigm shift will be the solar and wind companies that have relied on a steady steam of investment and revenue from the utilities.

Turbines are foundational to electrical power generation

By Lou CoveyEditorial Director

This is our second part on our series on the weaknesses of alternative power. In this installment, we look at the core of our generation technology, the turbine.

Entering into an evaluation of turbine technology we need to understand how important the technology is to production of electricity. What is going on in California is valuable to that understanding.

California Gov. Jerry Brown signs bill to combat climate change by increasing the state's renewable electricity use to 50 percent and doubling energy efficiency in existing buildings by 2030 at a ceremony Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2015. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

Governor Jerry Brown recently signed a law that says 33 percent of it power production must come from renewable sources, primarily through solar technology. The state has been lauded recently for advances in this effort and by 2014 total production was 20 percent of the total from renewables. However, that does not mean that 20 percent of the energy the state consumes is from renewables. In reality, California only produces 67 percent of all the energy it consumes, down from 90 percent in 1990.

California is increasingly dependent on power generation from other states, like Utah and Idaho, where the bulk of energy is produced by facilities that burn natural gas and coal to produce steam that drives their turbines. As a result, the power consumed in California is actually dirtier than it was 20 years ago. How this happens is an interesting shell game.

Let’s say you have a coal-fired generation plant producing 1 GW or power every day, 24 hours a day. This power can be used anywhere because the technology is easily distributed through the entire network, but it is “dirty” power because it producing carbon dioxide. You want to clean up the environment so you build a 500 MW solar farm to produce clean, renewable energy. But that farm only produces power, at best, 6 hours a day and can only be distributed in a very small area of the state. And then you shut down the coal-fired plant.

That gives you a net loss of 500 MW so you contract with a Utah utility to buy their excess power to make up the difference, and you have to actually buy more than that 500 MW because you also have to provide power during peak usage, that begins after 4 p.m., when the solar panels go off line. So the carbon dioxide produced by the Utah facility is equivalent to what was produced by your shuttered plant in California.

Here’s the good news, though, by shuttering the coal-fired plant, you have now increased the net amount of energy you produced by renewables by a 1.5 GWs even though you are producing 500 MW less. You now issue a press release saying you have dramatically increased the percentage of renewable power produced by the state… even though you’ve really done nothing for the environment. In fact, you may have made it worse.

Multistage steam turbine blades

Steam turbines have been generating electric power since the early 1900s. In 1903, Commonwealth Edison opened Fisk Generating Station in Chicago, using 32 Babcock and Wilcox boilers driving several GE Curtis turbines, at 5000 and 9000 kilowatts each, the largest turbine-generators in the world at that time. Almost all electric power generation, from the time of the Fisk Station to the present, is based on steam driven turbine-generators. The Fisk turbine was a single stage, with one set of blades, and could achieve a maximum theoretical efficiency of 33 percent but achieved much lower numbers.

Efficiency is determined by the amount of power converted from the steam to usable electricity. Turbine efficiency is determined by the number of blades, their design, the amount of turbulence behind each set of blades, friction and steam temperature. Over the years turbine efficiency has been improved to as much as 40 percent improved as additional stages were added. Again there are limitations even today are based on the quality of the water (seawater, alkaline water, etc.) and the quality of the blades.

However, turbines don’t produce electricity as soon as you flip a switch. The huge and expensive turbines must be gradually spun up (using electrical or mechanical power) before the steam can be gradually applied to heat up and expand the blades to operational levels. This process can take several hours. Utilities have to predict what the demand will be a half day before spinning up the turbines so when the solar arrays go off line at 4-5 p.m. the turbines are generating power enough to make up for the loss. Utilities are producing as much as 110 percent of maximum power from just after noon on day one until demand drops after 8 p.m. That means a significant amount of the power produced during solar peak production is actually wasted energy.

Whether the turbines are driven by steam, hydro or gas, the blades of the turbine need regular replacement and repair, depending on the quality of the working fluid or gas. Heat, contaminants and turbulence can weaken and warp the blades in a relatively short time requiring that the power plant be taken down in part or altogether. There are constant design advances to lessen downtime and increase output, but turbine technology remains inefficient and costly. As a result many utilities, like Pacific Gas and Electric, are divesting themselves of power generation to concentrate on power distribution alone. As more third-party companies take over generation, our ability to maintain a steady flow of power is endangered. If one company fails economically, will we have the ability to make up for the loss of their production?

Is alternative energy really an alternative?

Alternative energy is a huge industry generating and spending money at breathtaking speed. Governments have invested trillions of dollars in building out the industry infrastructure and thousands of private citizens have invested billions in private applications. And yet two-thirds of our electrical energy is generated by fossil-fuel burning technology, just as it was 20 years ago. With all the infrastructure established in the past two decades, the world's demand for energy has outstripped our ability to meet it with alternative power. 1200x-1It's time we admitted that alternative power is not an alternative. It is only a supplement. Once we admit that fact, we may be able to get to work actually finding a real alternative.

This series had its genesis more than 40 years ago with my first foray into investigative journalism; a seven-part series on alternative energy as it was in the 1970s. The conclusion of that original work was that alternative energy lacked the ability to meet the world's needs, much less what in wanted for energy. After 40 years of following the industry I have found it is not much different now. The technology, while more efficient and cheaper now, is still not sufficient to meet demand and probably never will on our current direction. Multiple reports predict that our energy usage will triple in the next 15 years. If “alternative” energy can’t keep up with the need today, how bad will things be in 15 years and beyond?

In this new series we will look at various sources of alternative power; the good, the bad, and the future of each technology, and it will conclude with a look at what might be possible today if only we look outside of the box we have created.

Today we set the stage for where we are.

There have been two contradictory articles in the Washington Post recently. The first stated that the cost of wind and solar have come down dramatically and are close to being on par with coal and oil generation in the cost per megawatt. The article indicates that with those dropping prices, it should make it easier to meet the demand for energy using alternative sources. What the article doesn't state is that the cost is largely achieved through government subsidy, most of which are going away soon, not just in the US, but everywhere in the world. Take away the subsidy and the price will skyrocket.

The second article, however, paints a very different picture. In 1990, two-thirds of all our power production came from coal, oil and natural gas generation plants. That was the beginning of the modern alternative energy industry as subsidies started growing. What also continued to grow was the world's demand for electricity, much of which is driven by the computing industry with always-on computers and data centers, the latter consuming 10 percent of all electricity generated. That demand has required additional generation from carbon-fuel technology to the point that after trillions of dollars in investment in alternative sources, coal, oil and gas still account for two thirds of all generation.

Much has been made of Europe's advances in alternative power. The Netherlands recently announced that their ocean-based wind farms delivered more than 100 precent of their power needs on one day this year and some countries are claiming that 50 percent of their daily needs are often provided by alternative power. What is not discussed is how those alternative sources inconsistent.

Wind produces power when the wind is blowing within a specific narrow range of speed. If the wind speed is too low the turbines don't turn. Too high and the turbine has to be stopped to keep the blades from warping due to the torque placed on them. Solar produces power for 6 hours a day at best, during the summer. That works out great for Spain which gets a lot of sun in the spring, fall and summer. It's not great for Sweden which gets virtually no sun for several months in the year. Bottom line: sun and wind are just not always available.

As a result, Europe is quietly buying coal from the United States so they can gear up their older power plants to provide electricity on a consistent basis. This is good for the US since its coal reserves rival Saudi Arabia's oil reserves. The coal industry has seen US demand drop and harsher regulations keep electricity production from coal severely limited, but at the same time, natural gas is enjoying a rapid increase in demand.

California has been crowing about the rapid increase of its alternative energy production and is predicting that 50 percent of all power produced in the state will be from alternative sources by 2030. That is completely likely as the state closes nuclear and carbon-fuel plants, but California currently imports 30 percent of its power from states producing energy surpluses from coal-burning plants. Part of the problem is that even in perfect conditions, some of the most touted technologies are not producing as expected.

For example, there is a massive facility in Ivanpah, California using acres of reflective panels to focus solar radiation on a single column placed in the center of the facility. The heat turns water to steam which in turn drives traditional turbines to produce electricity. The problem is that the facility is not producing power solely on solar power. They have had to bring in natural gas to supplement the heat source and get the facility up to its promised capacity. The problem lies in the turbines, which are rated at 33.3 percent theoretical efficiency, but in reality operate at 25 percent efficiency.

That brings in the issue of utilities that have the responsibility of meeting power demands from the population. The alternative energy industries promised the utilities that they would have a source of home-produced electricity by using the roofs of customers for solar and wind power. Over the past 10 years that source has proved to be wildly unpredictable and required the utilities to keep current, carbon-fuel plants spun up to 110 percent, just in case the solar/wind production drops off, which happens more often than not. There have been multiple lawsuits going back and forth across the country as utilities and private home owners find that the promises of the alternative energy companies cannot be met with current technologies. There is also an investigation underway by the US Department of the Treasury against several large alternative energy companies regarding over-valuing technology for tax purposes.

When all the facts are in view, the alternative energy industry, in fact, the entire energy sector is in serious disarray. There is hope, but only when we have a realistic view of what is is actually happening.

At the core of the difficulty will be the centerpiece of all energy conversion: the turbine. Turbines are used in traditional energy plants run on coal, oil and natural gas, but they are also used in hydroelectric, geothermal, solar concentration (like Ivanpah), tidal, wind and waste-heat conversion. Without a thorough rethinking of turbine design, we will be hard pressed to find a true alternative.

This series will look at all forms of energy production, from fossil-fuel to experimental concepts and everything in between. We will begin, next, with a look at the problem of turbines.

Sponsored by 3DP-international

Energy Storage takes center stage at Intersolar

By Lou Covey, editorial director

The electrical energy storage industry continued to grow in credibility this week at the Intersolar 2015 conference with a co-located show in Moscone West. However, as a possible indicator that it is still a very small market, the Intersolar folks put the show name all in lowercase (ees).

The sector is set to see the installed base grow 250 percent by the end of 2015, year to year, according to GTM research , but according to other reports, that represents a total investment of $2.6 billion world wide. As a comparison, Solar energy installations represent an investment of $172 billion as of the end of last year. The industry has no where to go but up.

Showing a 10MW system at ees

There is no obvious leader rising in the ranks, except by general impression. Until this year the industry has done very little to distinguish itself until Elon Musk announced in May that Tesla will be offering home and industry storage products “real soon,” which was enough for lots of wealthy people that have electric cars and solar panels to put down a big chunk of cash to get their systems… sometime next year (A fool and his money…).

The reality is that the industry has been around for some time and selling products around the world relatively profitably, without a clear leader in the market. One would think that the attention being paid to the Tesla announcement might give them cause for jealousy, but that was not the case at ees. Every single company offering a storage system (and there were many) were practically salivating over their prospects.

“We are selling proven products with higher capacities and lower cost now than what Tesla says they are going to sell,” said Stefanie Kohl, marketing director of Sonnen-Batterie. “We made a decision to enter the US market early last year, and when Tesla made their announcement it was a nice gift to our marketing budget. Now everyone knows what it is and we can provide a better product for a better price." Being first to market is not always best.

Most companies offering storage products at ees called themselves a “market leader” for one reason or another, and Sonnen-Batterie calls itself “the German market leader.” It sold close to 4,000 units of its intelligent energy storage system to home owners, farmers and businesses since entering the German market in 2011. Germany has approximately 1.5 million solar installations currently and more coming every day, so Sonnen-Batterie has a way to go before they reach market saturation, but it seems a good start.

The investment community thinks so, too. Last December, Dutch and German investors sank put up $10 million to fund expansion.

The issue to be resolved is still cost per watt. Storage systems make sense for companies and residential applications when there is money to be spent. With solar installations producing power at $0.33 per watt, they are a pretty good deal over peak power costs from utilities, which is around $0.85 per war between noon and 6 p.m. But adding a storage system can make it a wash or even end up costing more.

So like all alternative energy technology, storage technology is still the realm of the wealthy. But it is a good start in the right direction.

Electric vehicles and hybrids: the science beyond the hype

Electric vehicles are all the rage today with politicians and pundits predicting mass adoption within the decade as a significant means to combat climate change. The reality, however, is not often reported and in a controversial presentation at the 52nd Design Automation Conference in San Francisco, Synopsys scientist Peter Groenevelt walked through the bare facts.

In his bottom line was a basic understanding that electric and hybrid vehicles have a place in society but might not be ready for worldwide adoption. In fact, if you don’t live in a Mediterranean climate and don’t live on flat ground, a conventional combustion engine may be your best choice.

We interviewed Mr. Groenevelt for a quick overview of his talk. If you’d like to receive a copy of his entire slide presentation, send a request to this link.  Here's the interview:

Interview with BOM Financial Investments

The Brabant province straddles the border of Belgium and the Netherlands. To the south it reaches into the Belgian capital city of Brussels the home of IMEC, arguably the leading nanotech research center in the world. To the north it comprises most of the Dutch southern communities and the home of the High Tech Campus in Eindhoven. New Tech Press sat down with representatives from the northern province Marcel de Haan, Director of Strategic Acquisition and Bodo DeWit, senior project manager, to talk about the one-stop-shop for technology companies looking to expand into Europe.


Poland a bright spot in EU fiscal woes

Recently, bad economic news has been almost a daily occurrence out of the European Union, but there are occasional bright spots that miss the regular news cycle.  Poland seems to be one of them. Poland is due to become an official member of the Euro Zone in January 2012 and is obliged, under the terms of the Treaty of Accession 2003, to replace its current currency, the Zloty, with the Euro, however, the country may adopt the Euro no earlier than 2019.  That's probably good news for Polish start ups that seem to be able to find plenty of government support and venture capital for a raft of innovative technologies.

Footwasher Media's Lou Covey sat down with three Polish startup companies touring Silicon Valley recently, as they were on the hunt for partners and investors to help them expand into the US.  The three companies were Ekoenergetyka with electric vehicle charging technology, virtual environment maker i3d , and a chemical synthesis innovator called Apeiron.

This interview is the first in a series of reports and interviews on the state of European innovation and efforts of the European Commission's Digital Agenda.



Does education lack perspective more than funding?

By Lou CoveyEditorial Director, Footwasher Media

Is learning from the past the key to the future, as philosopher Georges Santayana believed?  A former Lockheed-Martin CEO thinks so.

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Norm Augustine, an IEEE Fellow who served as Lockheed-Martin's CEO  from 1996 to 1997, said that the problem with US education is not a lack of focus on science and engineering, or even economics, but on history and communication skills.

Taking aim at STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education is a well-worn road for industry executives and gets fairly big headlines.

Earlier this past year, Google CEO Eric Schmidt, took a minute from a fairly long speech

in the UK to slam the UK education system for not encouraging science and math students .  As a result, most every member of the media in the UK and many in the US ignored 99 percent of Schmidt's text and focused on those four paragraphs out of 200  What was missed almost entirely in the coverage was the real focus of the speech: fostering innovation to boost the world economy. Even Augustine had piled on previously in a January 2011 Forbes Magazine piece blaming the lack of spending on science and technology education, as well as a lack of spending on energy technology, as reasons for the seeming dearth of innovation in the US. He claimed that the West spends more on potato chips than on energy research. According to recent data and the, however, Augustine's later position might have more validity.

When discussions arise about the state of education the focus is always on the current cuts in education from an individual level - local, state and federal, but the discussions rarely look at the whole. And that "whole" paints a very different picture.

According to UNESCO, total education spending worldwide now exceeds $7 trillion, just for 2011 alone. Total public spending on education in the United States is 24 percent of that total for 4 percent of all students in the world from elementary to graduate school – close to $2 trillion this year. Even with the cuts in the past decade, this total is greater than the totals of any other country in the world.  In fact, the US spends more than the next five countries combined.  The Institute for Energy Research estimates that The US also spends 7 times more on alternative energy technology than on fossil fuel, according to the Energy Institute of America, and 70 percent of what is spent on alternative energy is in the form of direct grants, while 90 percent of the spending on oil is in the form of loans that are repaid. (By the way, the US spends $6 billion a year on potato chips and $70 billion on alternative energy research.)

So it's not a lack of money spent on education or innovation.  Augustine points out that the National Assessment of Educational Progress shows that scores on STEM subjects (sciences, technology, engineering and math) for US high school students scores, while low according world standards, are not the students’ lowest scores.  Surprisingly enough, their best subject is Economics.  Their worst score is in History.

"A failing grade in history suggests that students are not only failing to comprehend our nation's story and that of our world, but also failing to develop skills that are crucial to employment across sectors," he wrote. "Having traveled in 109 countries in this global economy, I have developed a considerable appreciation for the importance of knowing a country's history and politics."

What seems clear is that the West is not getting what it pays for in education.  That is not a reason to reduce funding, but it is a good reason to reexamine the educational priorities.

What did the Google Chief say about the quality of UK school curriculum?  Find out at:


The fall of Solyndra was expected, and the DoD is happy

By Lou CoveyEditorial Director, Footwasher Media

The collapse of Solyndra has been the subject of both major news coverage and a foundational bit of political discourse recently.  A closer look at the facts reveals that the reality of Solyndra and the solar industry is far from the speculation, especially when viewed from a military perspective.

In the wider scope, industry analysts and observers wonder what all the kerfuffle is  about because everyone who knew the industry knew that Solyndra was not going to make it, especially in the current market.

"Solyndra's CIGS solar panels were expensive," according the Chirag Rathi of Frost and Sullivan. "The technology was innovative when it started out 6 years ago, but the global market place changed so fast in this time period that it became incredibly difficult for them to compete on price.  Their per watt production cost was widely believed to be above the $6 mark, much higher than the poly-crystalline technology of $1.75 per watt and falling."

According to the industry rule of thumb, for alternative energy to be competitive with fossil fuels, the cost per watt needs to fall below $1.

Rathi pointed out that the solar panel industry is in oversupply with the massive capacity coming out of China and Taiwan. "The Chinese government has provided more than $30 billion in soft loans to the domestic panel manufacturers."

With all this common knowledge, the persistent question has been: Why did the Obama administration push forward with the loan program?  The first answer is, well, that's been the way things have been done for some time.

Contrary to conventional thought, alternative energy gets the lion's share -- by far -- of any government investment in energy, including fossil fuels.  According to the Institute for Energy Research, direct federal subsidy (that's cash, not tax incentives) for renewable energy topped $14 Billion in 2010, while total subsidy of fossil fuel (gas, oil and coal) was just under $3.4 Billion... and 90 percent of the latter was in tax incentives, not actual cash payments.  And since the Solyndra investment was only in the form of loan guarantees, it won't come out of the federal budget until the bankruptcy is complete.  In other words, the fall of Solyndra has not yet cost the government anything.

So what, specifically, did the government get out of the Solyndra deal?  That's where no one is looking, and where you need to look to find the more interesting story.

Find out why the generals are smiling at