What’s developing in renewables?

windmills-984137_19202015 was an exciting year for renewables. The Guardian announced that the Renewables Global Status report found, ” Overall, more than twice as much money was spent on renewables than on coal and gas-fired power generation ($130bn in 20150).”

Lots of progress is happening in renewables—much of it is expansion of wind and solar farms, but there are more far-reaching developments going on. Batteries are getting better and cheaper, solar panels are more efficient, and new storage methods are being investigated. Here are some recent developments.

Solar

Sunflare has developed a thin-fim solar technology. Here’s what it offers:

  • much lighter weight—65 percent less than conventional panels
  • simpler installation—no mounting rack necessary
  • increased energy generation—produce up to 10 percent more energy
  • fexible—can be applied to any shape

Sunflare’s founder, Len Gao states that, “the panels can be secured to any surface with a special double-sided tape.” While the cells themselves are more expensive than conventional solar panels, you don’t need a mounting rack so the total price should remain about the same. The amazing thing about these cells is the variety of mounting possibilities.

Wind

A white paper from Mita-Teknik describes an Advanced Blade Pitch System: New blade pitch technology uses electricity instead of hydraulics, which is more reliable because of the absence of hydraulic fluid leaks. The pitch systems have also been improved, which means that the systems are more responsive to changing wind conditions. This is especially important in machines that are designed for extreme weather and for offshore wind farms. This control lets the turbines operate in higher wind speeds, permits longer blades, and reduces wear on the turbine components.

Geothermal

For Canada with a record of no geothermal projects something is finally happening—in Hinton, Alberta. According to the Hinton Voice, this project that brings Epoch Energy and the town together, is currently at what they refer to as, “the pre-feasibility stage.” The plan is to look at whether existing capped oil wells could be used to heat some public buildings in the town. Although, it’s not electricity generation, this is a first for Canada to investigate the use of actual geothermal energy, not geo-exchange, directly as a heat source.

The Financial Post on August 9 of this year reported that a provincial legislator had requested, “the Alberta government to allow an old well to be converted to geothermal energy to heat an 8,000 square-foot greenhouse.” He proposed this for a former oilfield water disposal well in Leduc. Additionally, DeSmog described what the Alberta government needs to do to seriously develop geothermal energy in the province.

Smart Electrical grids

A smart electrical grid provides two-way information and power exchange between providers and consumers so that all of the devices on the grid can be managed to maximize conservation, efficiency, and continuity of electricity. The addition of renewables with variable power output increases the need for a smart grid that can ensure that power is available where and when it’s needed. Data that tracks electrical energy in real time is essential to operate a smart gird. Smart meters can provide this data. Ontario installed them several years ago and the U.S. currently has 65 million of them.

Greentech Media announced that several companies are currently designing and building devices for the grid that can “actively manage voltage and power at the distribution circuit level.”

Good news

In a year that should have shown lower investments in renewables because of  low oil prices, the reverse happened. This is a good indication that renewables are here to stay.

C is for costly

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BC Hydro’s devastation of the forests at Site C courtesy of Ken & Arlene Boon

One reason that environmental groups protest the development of large fossil fuel projects such as pipelines is that huge amounts of resources are channelled into an industry that threatens our existence. Additionally, these same projects stop resources from going to the renewable energy projects that promise a future for us.

Politics can make strange badfellows

An example of this resource diversion happened last week, but it had a strange twist. Instead of the resources being diverted to a fossil fuel project, the culprit is a hydroelectric project, the Site C dam proposed for the Peace River in British Columbia. Strangely, hydropower is being identified as being anti-renewable energy. What?!

Dark shadows

According to the Globe and Mail’s, Wendy Stueck, two proposed B.C. wind farm proposals were halted because of the Site C dam. Apparently the reasons is that Site C means that B.C. hydro isn’t interested in getting power from these wind projects. “Site C is casting a terribly dark shadow over the renewable sector in B.C,” says Vancouver energy lawyer David Austin. “Site C absolutely pushes out otherwise good, major wind projects—there’s no demand for them.”

Hydropower is a badfellow?

So what happened with hydropower? I’ve always considered it to be renewable energy. With a bit of digging, I’ve discovered that, although hydropower is renewable, its greenness is questionable.

The problem starts with the dam. Engineers design a dam to stop the flow of water and that’s the problem. Here’s what happens when you stop the water flow:

  • The water is displaced and floods a huge area of land. The extent of the damage depends on what the current land use is, but the land’s ecosystem is always damaged.
  • The river’s ecosystem is also damaged. Fish have trouble going upstream for spawning and fish ladders have had minimal success. The dam affects wildlife in many other ways as well.
  • The reservoir concentrates pollution such as chemicals, fertilizer runoff, and trash.
  • The trapped water behind the dam stagnates and becomes oxygen depleted. Consequently, the decomposition of organic material becomes anaerobic and produces carbon dioxide and methane—green house gases. It’s not a large amount.
  • Droughts from lack of rain and glacier reduction are reducing the water level of reservoirs behind dams and decreasing the amount of potential hydropower. Lake Mead behind Hoover dam is a good example. The power capacity of the dam has dropped 25 percent since 2000.  In California, the available hydropower has fallen by 60 percent in four years.If this trend continues, hydropower may no longer be renewable. Climate scientists claim this could happen as climate change gains momentum.
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What’s lost is lost

Rush it before they can change it

Meanwhile, the B.C. government has rushed the Site C project to approval in spite of the potential social and environmental costs; additionally, many critics have questioned the need for the extra power from the dam. According to Desmog, Premier Christy Clark “has vowed to get it past the ‘point of no return’.” This rush is proceeding in spite of ongoing court cases against the project. Also in doing so, the government has ignored the objections of First Nations people.

C is for costly

Currently, the estimated cost of the project is $8.8 billion, the most expensive public project in B.C. ever. The estimate in November of 2014 was 7.9 billion. Many projects of this size have been completed at double the original estimate and with an increase of $0.9 billion in less than two years, this project could end up following that pattern.This cost overrun is entirely possible given the seven year construction phase.

So we have a costly project driven by proponents who have downplayed any alternatives driving out renewables. It’s just what we needed for our future.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The amazing flight (or not) of the Solar Impulse 2

 

 

Hawaii, USA, March 27th 2016: Solar Impulse 2 undertakes a maintenance flight performed by the test pilot Markus Scherdel in Hawaii before the First Round-the-World Solar flights resumes late April 2016. Departed from Abu Dhabi on march 9th 2015, the Round-the-World Solar Flight will take 500 flight hours and cover 35’000 km. Swiss founders and pilots, Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg hope to demonstrate how pioneering spirit, innovation and clean technologies can change the world. The duo will take turns flying Solar Impulse 2, changing at each stop and will fly over the Arabian Sea, to India, to Myanmar, to China, across the Pacific Ocean, to the United States, over the Atlantic Ocean to Southern Europe or Northern Africa before finishing the journey by returning to the initial departure point. Landings will be made every few days to switch pilots and organize public events for governments, schools and universities.

The epic journey of the Solar Impulse continued Saturday night with its landing in Silicon Valley after a 62-hour flight from Hawaii. Think of it! 3857 km over the Pacific Ocean with no fuel on board! One reaction on the CBC website was, “13 months to go half way around the world Ancient (sic) clipper ships were just as fast, with far greater load carrying capacity.” That reaction was not isolated How do you explain them? Jaded? Cynical? Vested interests? Professional trolls? Ignorance?

Is it the beginning or the end?

In 1903, the Wright brothers flew 852 feet in a 59 second flight. In 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. In 66 years, we went from a flight about the length of 4 clipper ships (end to end) to a space flight of 740,600 km to the moon and back. Since then, many experts agree that the growth of technological innovation has become exponential. Besides, the mission of this flight is to “inspire new technologies to make our world more energy efficient.” Over and over the critics of renewables purposely misrepresent the goals of renewable energy products.

Rich guys getting subsidies

Just mention government incentives for buying electric vehicles (ev) and you will be immediately bombarded by complaints about “rich guys being subsidized to buy expensive electric cars. Naturally, the surest trigger is the announcement of a subsidized electric luxury car. Most governments need to work on that one. However, critics draw attention to the incentive by distorting the purpose of the subsidy. Governments offer subsidies for electric cars to reduce the pollution and green house gases emissions of the internal combustion engine (ice).

Mission of the Solar Impact

Let’s get back to the Solar Impulse 2 and its mission. Imagine an airship, inspired by the zeppelins, but using helium instead of hydrogen for its lifting power. The forward motion could be provided by electric motors powered by solar energy. These airships could be used for the lower-cost delivery of goods and services that are not as time-dependent as aircraft cargo.

An airship of this type could be used to supply remote regions because it wouldn’t need landing strips and could operate at lower costs. A prototype, the Aeroscraft, has been built although the forward power is provided by fossil fuels; however, a solar-powered zeppelin has been built in France.

Uncertain future visions

Renewables can revolutionize the way that we think about and consume energy. And much more! Assuming that renewable energy is simply going to fit into our present technology and do exactly what we’ve always been doing is to ignore history. The 1960s weren’t just the 1950s plus television; the ‘60s were the 1950s plus all the societal changes for which television was probably the greatest influence.

The future visions of the 1950s included cars that could fly or turn into boats and other extensions of the ’50s mind set. Those visions didn’t include the electronic breakthroughs, which have produced the present, chip-based technology. What unknowns will renewables bring us that could bypass many of the handicaps we see now?

 

Killing the electric car Part 2

Recap

Previously on Who Killed the Electric Car, the electric car (ev) was killed by batteries, the U.S. Government, the California Government, auto manufacturers, GM, hype over the hydrogen fuel cell, and last, but definitely not least, the oil industry. The ev was not only killed: it was crushed and destroyed! The allegation, that stakes were driven through their batteries, is merely an unfounded rumour.

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Dead EVs

 

The old cast

  • Oil industry—Just like today, they feared a reduced demand for their product and used questionable tactics to eliminate alternatives.
  • Auto manufacturers—Sued the California government over its zero emissions vehicle (ZEV) legislation.
  • U.S. Government— Joined the auto manufacturers in their suit against California’s ZEV bill.
  • GM—Killed it to focus on more profitable vehicle lines such as trucks, Hummer, and SUVs.
  • Hydrogen Fuel cell—Hype about it was used to provide an alternative to the ev threat.
  • Batteries—Manufacturers were discouraged to release information about improved battery ranges.
  • California Government—Caved to pressure to reduce the ZEV legislation.

The sequel?

Just when the fossil fuel companies think they killed the ev—dead, it resurfaces

The sequel cast

The resurgence of the ev has triggered negative responses from several repeat players, some of whom have attempted to rebrand themselves.

Oil industry aka fossil fuel companies

One return to note is the oil industry, which is now more commonly referred to as the fossil fuel industry. This past February, the Huffington Post reported that the Koch Brothers are plotting a multimillion-dollar assault on evs. The article goes on to say that the Kochs are involved in setting up a new group that is expected to push a pro-petroleum transportation message. The article quotes an unnamed industry (petroleum) source who speculates that the group is worried about state and community subsidies for evs.

Other players

Other players arise to question aspects of the electric car, which include factors that they never seem to question unless the electric car is involved.

Clean electricity—not dirty cars

Critics of evs question the greenness of the ev if the source of the electricity is not green especially if it’s coal. They’re aiming at the wrong target—target the electricity source, not the ev and push for clean electricity. Also, even with coal as a part of the U.S. electrical grid, the ev’s emissions are still less, because of the superior efficiency of the electric motor (80 percent) energy conversion compared to that of the internal combustion engine (20 percent).

Furthermore, it’s much easier to introduce improved emissions controls on a few power plants than on thousands or perhaps millions of vehicles.

Clean mining and recycling —not dirty mining

Critics who have never breathed a word of objection to dirty mining process around the world are now slamming evs because the mining process for some of the battery components is dirty. So clean up the mining process—don’t kill the ev! The batteries can be recycled and more research can lead to more effective recycling. More research could yield cleaner storage.

If the objections from these other players are sincere, then I expect we can see increased pressure to get rid of coal-fired electrical generation and to clean up dirty mining practices around the world.

Happy New Year!

I’ll be back next week with a new post.