The Black Swan Blog Abstracts

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Hawaiian Transformation to Renewable Energy Sources

Hawaii Renewables facing Cross-currents and Headwinds
Hawaii represents perhaps the most important case study when it comes to integrating solar energy into the generation fleet. My first post on the topic reviewed significant obstacles and unrealistic plans for this transformation. I make some recommendations regarding the expansion of geothermal on the Big Island as well as the establishment of CSP plants.

Hawaiian Electric Company’s Integrated Resource Plan – Welcome to Fantasy Island!
The second in the series was a fairly harsh criticism of the Integrated Resource Plan put forward by the Hawaiian Electric company in June, 2013. This plan has subsequently been abandoned and NextEra proposed purchasing HEI. That deal fell apart in 2016 and so HEI is essentially back to square one.

There is a movement in Hawaii to convert the different operating units of HEI into a community owned co-operative.

Renewable Energy Highlights for the 2nd half of 2014 – Few and Far Between
This post discusses an evaluation of the effectiveness of wind generation in Texas in terms of how much generation can be relied upon in Winter and Summer for onshore and offshore wind farms.

The second part of the post discusses the rapidly declining permits to install roof-top solar in Hawaii and the success of the Kauai Island Utility Co-operative’s utility solar farm developments.

The German Energy Transformation

Germany At The Crossroads
This 2013 post discusses some of the challenges being faced by Germany as it builds out its renewable energy portfolio. In particular, the commitment to decommission the remaining nuclear power stations in the country, that currently represent about 15% of the electricity generation in the country, will make it very difficult for Germany to meet its long-term obligations to reduce CO2 emissions.

The German Energiewende – Modern Miracle or Major Misstep
This 2015 post discusses the considerable achievements of the German Energiewende but also identifies the problems with the way renewable energy has been developed in Germany. It points out that Germany is burning more hydro-carbons today to generate electricity than it was 25 years ago and that coal consumption has declined very marginally. It concludes by examining the financial health of utilities in Germany and predicts that further development of renewable energy in Germany will be constrained by grid security and economic issues.

The Problems With Roof-Top Solar Panels

Roof-top Solar Panels – Who Pays? Who Saves?
This post documents the financial inequities associated with tax-payer and/or rate-payer subsidization of roof-top solar. This inequity results from the significant capital expense required to install the solar panels and the fact that renters and those living in multi-family apartments cannot benefit from such subsidies.

No “Soft Landing” for PV solar industry
This post argues that the economics of roof-top solar panels ultimately do not work. Solar generation curves are compared to typical load curves resulting in the conclusion that as more and more solar power is developed the value of roof-top solar panel output decreases. The post predicts a rapid decline in the installation of roof-top solar panels once solar generation becomes a significant fraction of mid-day demand. This decline is already evident in Hawaii and Germany.

Why roof-top solar panels really don’t make sense
This post describes more problems with roof-top solar and compares roof-top solar to utility-scale solar farms. A link to a comprehensive study by the Brattle Group is provided.

Dark Days Ahead for Roof-top Solar
This post describes how the pace of photo-voltaic roof-top solar panel deployment has slowed dramatically in jurisdictions that were former leaders with this technology, Germany and Hawaii. The conclusion of the post is that as roof-top solar power generation becomes a significant fraction of total generation it becomes more and more difficult to accommodate additional deployments. The last section of the post discusses the successful efforts of the Kauai Island Utility Co-op in developing utility-scale solar farms.

Concentrated Solar Power

We should use Concentrated Solar Power ONLY after sunset
This post discusses how utility-scale photo-voltaic solar farms could be combined with a Concentrated Solar Power facility in order to provide 24×365 electricity generation only from solar power.

Solar Power 24 hours a day, 365 days a year – Believe It Or Not
This post discusses the Gemasolar power plant in Spain that utilizes molten salt thermal energy storage to generate electricity 24 hours a day, 365 days a year powered only by solar energy.

Arnold Goldman – A living, breathing “Black Swan”
This post presents a short biography of Arnold Goldman, one of the pioneers of the Concentrated Solar Power industry. From his development of the first utility-scale plants in the 1980’s to his recent involvement with Brightsource Energy, Arnold has demonstrated a commitment to innovation while always addressing practical considerations.

Unconventional Solar Generation and Applications

Non-Thermal Concentrated Solar Power (CSP)
This post discusses some unconventional technologies used to capture solar energy. Two companies (Stirling Energy Systems and Infinia) developed and deployed technology using parabolic disks to concentrate solar energy onto a Stirling Engine which then generated electricity. Both companies have subsequently gone bankrupt.

Another company, based in Australia, developed a highly efficient solar power receptor which also used parabolic disks to concentrate solar energy. It ceased operations in July, 2015.

The take-away from this post is that true innovation is both difficult and risky. While billions of dollars are spent on subsidizing wind turbines and photo-voltaic solar panels very little Research and Development funding is available for other innovations in alternative energy.

Solar Updraft – Inefficient but Effective
This post discusses a technology that makes use of temperature differences caused by solar heating to generate electricity 24 hours a day. A pilot project ran successfully in Spain in the 1980’s and there are proposals for much larger implementations. As with all new technologies there is significant “first mover” inertia as well as economic and technical challenges that need to be overcome in order to achieve commercialization of this technology.

Solar Power – From Rooftops to the Oceans and the Sky

This post briefly mentions some developments with Concentrated Solar Power. The bulk of the discussion focuses on very unconventional applications for solar panels including powering large sea-going vessels and aircraft.

Battery Technology

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Truth about Batteries
This post discusses several of the largest utility-scale battery deployments that have taken place around the world in the last ten years. The failure of any of these projects to replace non-renewable generation assets is documented. The post concludes by identifying some of the very significant financial and technical challenges that need to be overcome in order for battery technology to be a significant factor back-stopping renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.

How Much Battery Storage is Enough for Roof-Top Solar Panels?
This post describes some of the complications associated with calculating the amount of solar insolation that will be received at any point on earth on a particular day. It also describes how a smart micro-grid could control the ebb and flow of electricity between a set of rooftop solar panels, a battery array, and the local utility grid. I provide a link to a calculator that I built that can be used to determine the amount of battery storage required to reduce or eliminate the need to connect to the grid.

The Transition to Electric Cars

Electric Vehicles – The Promise and the Problems
This post from 2012 discusses the rationale behind a transition from cars powered by internal combustion engines to electric cars. It also identifies the environmental issue posed by potentially millions of very large batteries that no longer charge well enough to be used to power those cars. A research project by the University of Western Michigan that proposes using those batteries for utility-scale storage is described.

How Quickly will the Electric Vehicle Revolution Come?
This post from 2014 discusses the lack of progress in the transition to electric cars and some of the difficulties that continue to prevent the widespread adoption of this technology. The experiences of two individual electric car owners (a Tesla owner in Vancouver, Canada and a Nissan Leaf owner in Anaheim, California) are described.

Demand Response and Conservation

Can we control our addiction to electricity? Should we?
This post discusses the strategy referred to as “Demand Response” which involves having businesses and residential energy users voluntarily reduce their requirements for energy at times of high demand. Some early programs have not lived up to expectations but there is clearly a huge upside to successful implementations of this type of program.

Your Speed – 32 mph – Slow Down
This post discusses the importance of consumer awareness when it comes to energy use. The example sited is regarding flashing traffic speed lights which have been shown to change driver behaviour in a positive way that actually becomes increasingly effective with the passage of time. A similar approach has been used with regards to energy use and conservation in Japan since the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Creating a True Partnership between Consumers and Utility Companies
This is another post discussing the potential effectiveness of Demand Response programs. A J.D. Powers study of consumer behaviour is sited and the success of the program instituted by Oklahoma Gas & Electric is described in detail.

Harvesting the Energy Stored in the Ground Below Us
This post discusses the huge advantages to implementing geoexchange for heating and cooling buildings. An explanation of how such systems work is provided as well as examples of successful implementations.

The Sharing Economy (4 posts)

Imagine no possessions – I wonder if you can?
This post discusses the growing phenomenon of the “sharing economy” and what a positive impact it will ultimately have on energy consumption in modern society.

Bike Share/Rent in Northern Europe – a sampler
This post describes my experiences with bike sharing in a number of Northern European countries. I identify some issues with the various programs but overall I endorse the concept very enthusiastically.

Car Pooling Part I: Treading Water
This post discusses the state of car-pooling in North America. This very effective way to reduce traffic congestion, pollution and energy consumption has not been widely adopted and adoption rates have been essentially static for many years. The post describes some of the psychological and technical challenges that need to be overcome.

Car Pooling Part II: Going for Gold
In this second post in the series a number of suggestions are put forward that might significantly reduce single-occupancy vehicles in urban areas.

Why Energy Storage Should be the #1 Priority (2 posts)

It’s time to do the right things “not because they are easy but because they are hard”
This post discusses two difficult engineering projects – lunar landings during the Apollo Program and the building of the transcontinental railway in Canada. In both cases the most difficult challenges were the first ones to be worked on. These are valuable lessons that need to be applied to the development of renewable energy resources.

“Start off the development with the most difficult elements of the design” – Elon Musk
On September 29, 2016 Elon Musk made a presentation on his proposal to colonize Mars. While the concept is definitely “out there” the attention to detail in terms of addressing engineering challenges is admirable. And as with the other projects I have blogged about SpaceX is tackling the most difficult engineering challenges first.

Energy Storage Projects and Proposals (5 posts)

Funicular Power – Newton’s Apple to the rescue
This post discusses an approach to energy storage that involves lifting a large weight (railway cars filled with ballast) using excess energy from wind in most cases at night and releasing that energy the next day. A link is provided to a company attempting to commercialize this technology.

Hydraulic Energy Storage – Another Way to Use Gravity
This post discusses a method of storing energy using a large gravity piston which moves up and down inside a reservoir. A link is provided to a company attempting to commercialize a variation of this technology.

Compressed Hydrogen – A Viable Solution for Long-term Energy Storage
This post discusses a number of projects that aim to use compressed hydrogen as a long term energy storage mechanism. Although compressed hydrogen represents one of the only viable methods to achieve long-term energy storage commercialization of the technology faces numerous economic and technical challenges.

Unpumped Storage
This post discusses a proposal to build additional capacity into existing hydro-electric facilities in order to provide short duration generation in excess of what the reservoir can deliver over the long term. This approach would be used to counter-balance variations in wind generation.

The Panama Canal, Apollo 11, ISS … Energy Storage
This blog post suggests that a coordinated and well-funded international effort will be required in order to develop economical and reliable energy storage solutions at the scale required to support the transition to a sustainable energy environment.

Wind Energy

Wind Energy Headlines Need Scrutiny
This post discusses some of the very common misrepresentations promoted by Greentech writers about wind energy. The point of the post is that by exaggerating the value and achievements of wind energy and minimizing the significant technical problems yet to be overcome these statements lead to complacence and undermine efforts to obtain appropriate levels of Research and Development and financial support.

Alberta – A Case Study in Wind Energy Management
This post discusses some of the challenges being faced by Alberta, Canada as it integrates wind energy generation into the provincial grid.

The Wind Production Tax Credit should not be renewed
This October, 2013 post argued that the PTC had reached the end of its useful life and that the funds allocated to the PTC should be redirected towards energy storage research and financial support mechanisms for energy storage projects. In December, 2015 the U.S. Congress approved an extension of the PTC until 2020 at a cost of tens of billions of dollars to American taxpayers. No additional funding has been provided for energy storage projects.

The California Electrodox
In this post I discuss the Electricity Paradox that is happening in California (and elsewhere). The paradox is that electricity imports and retail prices increase at the same time as total generation capacity is also going up so that there is an over-abundance of available electricity most of the time. A surplus of any commodity normally drives prices down but not in the case of the Electrodox.

Hydro, Hydro-kinetics and Dam Conversions

LCOE for Hydro Projects – Pick a number, any number!

This post discusses the various components of Levelized Cost of Electricity for hydro projects and concludes that the figures presented in most publications are very unrealistic and will vary by almost an order of magnitude based upon different assumptions about the cost of capital, amortization period, and capacity factor. The post concludes that large scale hydro is, by far, the least expensive and most effective form of renewable electricity generation that we have available.

An Ancient Energy Source Re-Imagined
This post discusses the potential of river flows to generate electricity. Subsequent to publishing that post I researched the topic thoroughly and found that there have been more than half a dozen successful pilot projects demonstrating the viability of this technology. Unfortunately, there has yet to be a successful commercialization of hydro-kinetics and several very promising companies have gone bankrupt.

Dam Conversion and Hydro-Kinetics – 25 GW of potential to be tapped
This post describes the very significant potential of hydro-kinetics in North America as well as a number of promising pilot projects that have demonstrated that this renewable and reliable technology can play a significant role in our transition to a sustainable energy environment.

Hydro-kinetics – the Renewable “Silver Bullet”

This post describes the current state of hydro-kinetic developments in North America as well as the financial and regulatory challenges faced by the companies involved in this sector.  The post concludes that without a partnership which can pool resources the remaining participants will not survive.  Some have already succumbed.

Editorials (7 posts)

Introducing the Black Swan blog
This post from September, 2012 explains why I decided to start the Black Swan Blog. Although it has not garnered even a tiny fraction of the interest shown in the latest Hollywood wardrobe malfunction it has been read by tens of thousands of people. From the feedback I have had from readers all over the world I feel it has made a useful contribution to the conversation about renewable energy.

A Sustainable Energy Manifesto
This post summarizes what I believe would be the most effective policies to achieve a sustainable energy environment.

Imagine a World of Abundant Inexpensive Energy
This post discusses the very positive consequences of attaining a sustainable energy environment. This includes shifting a significant amount of agricultural production to greenhouses in Northern areas and providing plentiful fresh water through water desalination.

The $US 134 Trillion, 100 Year Challenge
Transitioning away from a hydro-carbon based economy will be a $US 134 Trillion, 100 Year Challenge. In this blog post I run the numbers on replacing the fossil-fuel based energy we all consume in modern society with renewables. Having spent $US 2.4 Trillion over the last 15+ years we are now 1.4% of the way to our goal. If the earth were a car the low fuel light would be blinking and we would be 100 miles from the next gas station. This is not going to be easy.

COP21 – Turning Good Intentions into Concrete Actions
This post discusses the measures that need to be put in place to meet the commitments made by world leaders as part of the COP21 agreements made in Paris in November, 2015.

Lights Out: The coming crisis in electricity generation
This blog highlights some structural issues in the electricity generation industry that are being introduced by the integration of renewables. Ignoring these issues may put the stability of the electrical grid at risk.

The Future Ain’t What It Used To Be
This blog post builds upon some observations by keynote speakers at a technology conference held in May, 2014. They described a shift in the way people gather information as well as which sources of information are trusted by the public. They also pointed out the desirability, perhaps even the responsibility of people like myself that distribute information on the Internet to be thoughtful, respectful, and as accurate as possible. They also suggested that some level of “digital curation” should be practiced by authors in order to help readers find information quickly. That blog post provided the motivation for me to (eventually) create this page of abstracts.

BC’s Electricity Conundrum – Politics, Profits, and Potential Partnerships
This post discusses the confusing state of electricity supply and demand in British Columbia. The complexities arise from the fact that BC is entitled to electricity actually produced in the U.S. under the Columbia River Treaty, as well as the significant amounts of private power generation that exists in the province with Fortis BC, Alcan, and PPP’s. Questionable forecasts of demand growth and the existence of the Burrard Generating station as a peak demand supply make it very difficult to definitively state that BC needs the Site C dam. However, using Site C as backup for Alberta wind generation might make sense.

Green Energy, Schmeen Energy – Nobody Cares!
This rather facetious post that suggests that although the majority of the inhabitants of Spaceship earth have a vague desire to treat the planet better there are many other interests and issues that bubble up to be attention grabbers – some trivial, some serious. The post discusses a psychological study that investigated communications and actions taken during “Demand Response” events and the conclusions are encouraging.

Reflections on one year of blogging
Written in 2013, these were my observations after my first year of blogging.

Just For Fun

Scary Energy Scenarios (Hallowe’en 2012)
In the spirit of trying to scare the dickens out of readers this post identifies 3 hypothetical disasters related to energy development. Thankfully none have come to pass.

Hallowe’en 2013: Nightmare on Main Street
OK – so this was supposed to be scary but in hindsight is a bit comical. The post speculates about the possibility of skyrocketing oil prices and the geopolitical ramifications. Of course, just the opposite has happened and the collapse of oil prices has had different global implications. I must say that I still think we have passed “peak oil” at least in an economic sense and a future oil price crisis may still be on the horizon.

The Fright Before Christmas
This has been consistently one of my most popular blog postings. It describes a scenario where there is a dead calm across much of North America on Christmas eve.

Doing the “Green” thing on 2 wheels for the environment and for charity
This post describes my personal experiences with an electric bicycle. It has allowed me to commute more using both it and my road bicycle.

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