11.08.15

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Truth about Batteries

Posted in Uncategorized at 7:45 pm by Administrator

If we had affordable and reliable utility-scale battery systems our energy problems would be over. We could easily develop enough wind and solar power to meet our energy demands by storing excess energy generated at mid-day and when the winds were blowing strongly. It would then be available to use at night and/or when the winds are calm.

Inexpensive and abundant energy from renewables would also go a long way to solving water shortages in coastal areas around the world because desalination on a large scale would become economically feasible.

One energy writer back in 2013 stated that we had already reached the promised land and that concerns about the reliability of wind were effectively over. She was talking about the building of the Notrees battery complex in Texas – the largest such facility in North America. At that time I pointed out the fact that the installed batteries could deliver only 25% of the capacity of the wind farm. More importantly, the batteries could deliver that power for a total of 15 minutes. The facility, which cost $44 million, was not designed to replace the energy output of the wind farm. It was intended to stabilize the output over very short periods of time and to allow for a few minutes to bring on other rapid response power sources when wind was ramping down such as when a weather front passes.

Despite the limitations of the Notrees battery complex it appeared to be a step in the right direction. That is, until it was announced that all of the batteries have to be replaced after less than 4 years of service.


Oh well, maybe they just got unlucky … or maybe not.

The Kauai Island Utility Co-operative also installed a large battery complex in 2012 using the same technology as that used at Notrees and all those batteries also have to be replaced. In both cases the replacement batteries will be lithium ion – from Samsung for Notrees and SAFT for KIUC. My personal experience with Lithium Ion batteries in laptops and smart phones does not make me confident that they can last more than 5 years but only time will tell.

Regardless of the potential longevity of large battery systems the cost of truly backing up renewable resources such as wind remains unacceptably high. It is worth considering a real world example in order to understand the scope of the problem.

Texas currently has over 12 GW of wind energy capacity, the largest amount of any state in the U.S. Many renewable energy advocates make the claim that “the wind is always blowing somewhere” so that periods of calm in one area can be handled by shipping electricity from distant locations where the wind is blowing. I would dispute that contention.

There are frequent occasions when large high pressure systems cover much of the North American continent resulting in calm conditions over very large areas. For example, from November 22 to 26, 2013 the winds across the whole of Texas were calm even as electricity demand increased.

The average capacity factor for Texas is about 28% so for this period of time there was a shortfall of at least 1.5 GW of wind generation. In order to replace this “missing” wind generation with energy produced from storage it would be necessary to have 4 days x 24 hours x 1.5 GW = 144 GW-Hours of energy storage. The battery complex at Notrees cost $44 million for 36 MW x 0.15 hours = 9 MW-Hours of storage which translates into about $4.8 Million/MW-hour or $4.8 Billion/GW-hour.

The bottom line? It would cost 144 x $4.8 Billion = $690 billion to provide backup for a relatively short period of calm weather for just the state of Texas. If that enormous capital expenditure could be amortized over 30 or 50 years (as can be done with a hydro dam or a coal or natural gas fired thermal plant) then it might make sense. But it seems unlikely that any batteries implemented today would last more than 10 years.

Despite the many problems that have been encountered with large scale battery installations and the rather daunting costs there are still interesting projects under development. Once again, Kauai Island Utility Co-operative is blazing new trails with the proposed 52 MW-hour array at Kapaia. The batteries will be charged using the output from a new solar array which, for the first time, will not be used to provide electricity to the grid during the daylight hours. The project is going to break ground in the spring of 2016.

If successful this project will be the new benchmark for renewable energy storage based upon MW-Hours (the largest such facility currently in operation that I am aware of is a 36 MW-Hour iron phosphate battery project in China).


22-Nov-15: Update: I noticed that another large LI-ion battery project was commissioned in the fall of 2014. The Tehachapi Energy Storage Project came in at about $1.5/watt-hour, less than a third the cost of the Notrees complex so that is a major step in the right direction. Now if only the batteries can hold up we might be getting somewhere.
30-Nov-15: Update: I found another really interesting battery project – AES has been awarded a contract for a 100 MW facility that can deliver power from storage for 4 hours – that’s a total of 400 MW-Hours which will be by far the largest battery storage project in the world. I have not been able to find a reference to the cost of this facility but from comments made by the President of AES Storage the cost would be about $400 Million. Despite Mr. Shelton’s contention that the AES battery storage system is competitive with Natural Gas Peaker plants this would appear to require a very strange interpretation of costs. A recent Peaker plant in Texas is costing about $400/KW of capacity and this plant has an unlimited ability to deliver continuous power. The AES battery solution costs $1,000/KW of capacity and can deliver for 4 hours. So the capital cost per KW-Hour is very much greater for the battery based system not to mention that the electricity to charge the battery has to be paid for and that cost will be larger than the equivalent cost of natural gas. This is a great project but like so many others is being oversold with questionable claims.

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10.18.15

Dark Days Ahead for Roof-top Solar

Posted in Uncategorized at 10:53 pm by Administrator

If you have read any of my blog posts you will know that I am not a big fan of roof-top solar.

Roof-top solar panels are expensive and inefficient to install. These systems also cause major issues for utility grids because of the need to handle the bi-directional flow of electricity to and from the customer. This additional complexity unfairly imposes additional costs on all electricity users who do not have roof-top solar panels. I have also argued that the value of all solar energy, including roof-top solar will decline significantly between 10:00 am and 2:00 pm as supply begins to exceed demand.

Over the past 2 years some of these concerns have become reality in many parts of the world.

The problems associated with integrating large amounts of roof-top solar into the electricity grid on Oahu have led to a steady decline in installations.

On October 13, 2015 it was announced that the Hawaiian Public Utilities Commission was ending the Net metering program whereby customers with solar panels received a credit for any electricity they returned to the grid. The inequity of that approach was that it equated mid-day electricity generation that was increasingly problematic and would exceed demand on some circuits to expensive peak demand evening electricity that was required by all customers including those that had roof-top solar panels. The new system will pay customers something close to market value for their solar power generation – a value that will be much lower than what was received under the net metering system. Customers with solar panels will now also have to pay a minimum monthly bill to help cover the costs of servicing their more complex inter-connections. Most observers have concluded that the impact will be a further reduction in roof-top solar additions.

Hawaii is not the only place where roof-top solar installations are declining significantly.

The world leader in roof-top solar for most of this century has been Germany. I personally have never understood why a country at a latitude of 48 degrees would spend hundreds of billions of dollars subsidizing roof-top solar when there is very little solar power available in the winter – the peak demand season for electricity use in Germany.

I don’t know if this reality has finally become apparent to the Germans but subsidies have been decreased significantly in the last few years and solar panel additions have dropped pretty dramatically.

As in Hawaii, other jurisdictions with high penetration of roof-top solar utilities are requesting and being granted the right to charge customers with solar planels a fixed monthly fee. They are also being allowed to pay customers market based prices for excess solar power rather than a fixed feed-in tariff.

In Spain the government has dramatically cut subsidies and support for solar power development over the past few years most recently targeting residential battery storage systems. In September the Spanish government won a court case that was an attempt to force restoration of these subsidies.

Most recently the Tennessee Valley Authority published the most comprehensive study I have seen yet on the costs and benefits of residential roof-top solar. The study concludes that the amount paid by TVA for rooftop solar is still higher than the true value to the system despite the fact that the TVA has reduced the payments from $.22/kwh to $.12/kwh since 2012.

When you consider these developments it is difficult to see the installation of roof-top solar panels maintaining the pace of the last few years in the developed world (China is a different story where government mandates will ensure that solar installations continue at an accelerated pace). In my opinion that is a good thing. Development of solar power needs a reboot to take a more rational and less subsidized approach.

Believe it or not I am actually a big believer in solar power. At latitudes below 35 degrees N/S I think it is absolutely the best renewable source available. By pairing concentrated solar power installations which include molten salt storage with photo-voltaic solar panels to reduce costs it would be possible to build plants which can supply electricity 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year (the Gemasolar plant in Spain can already do that). Utility scale solar plants have the added advantages of being easily equipped with sun tracking which significantly increases plant output.

By centralizing solar panel installations it is also much easier to integrate this generation into the regional grid and to supply battery or other short-term voltage stabilization storage technologies. A recent example of how effective this approach can be is the Kauai Island Utility Co-op’s drive to install 30 MW of utility-scale PV solar by the end of 2015 some of which will have battery backup. These facilities will consistently generate more than 50% of the electricity required at mid-day on the island.

For many parts of the world including the Southern United States, Mexico, Southern China, all of India, north Africa, the Middle East and many other areas solar power is the obvious choice when it comes to renewable energy. Innovative projects such as the Khafji Saltwater Desalination plant point to a future where not only energy but abundant fresh water will be available in these areas. Energy storage systems based upon molten salt, batteries, or other technologies need further development and significant R&D funding needs to be directed towards this effort. But there is no doubt that in the long run solar power in equatorial regions has enormous potential.

North and south of 35 degrees latitude I believe that other technologies including wind, geothermal, and hydro-kinetics offer a better value proposition for both subsidies and R&D funding.

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08.03.15

Planning for a World Without Work

Posted in Uncategorized at 10:08 pm by Administrator

I have read a couple of articles recently that have crystallized my thoughts about a topic that has me concerned about the future faced by my sons and daughter.

The article I read yesterday had the title The Raise that Roared. It is about an entrepreneur in Seattle that decided that he was not paying enough to his employees for them to live a middle class lifestyle. He came to the conclusion that the wage gap between himself and his employees was too large and as a result he lowered his own salary and made the minimum wage within his firm $70,000.

This move has been heralded as visionary and lambasted as cynical and/or socialist. But to my way of thinking it simply highlights the yawning gap between the rich and everyone else that has been growing for more than a decade (recall the “occupy” movement that started in 2011).

One of the contributors to this gap has been the increasingly obscene amounts being paid to corporate executives.

When I started working for Gulf Oil in the 80’s (one of the most profitable oil companies in the world at that time) the CEO of the company made something like 30-40 times the lowest paid worker stocking shelves in a warehouse or answering the telephones at the reception desk.

In the world of 2015 someone performing the lowest paid jobs for a company like that makes about $20,000 (or less) and CEO’s now regularly make $10,000,000 or more. That’s a multiple of 500.

Just last year Yahoo paid out a record $110 Million to executive Henrique De Castro. What incredible feat did he accomplish to deserve such a generous award? He was so bad at his job that he was fired after just 15 months.

I would attribute this rampant escalation in executive compensation to the growth of Mutual Fund ownership of the economy.

Mutual Fund managers rarely look past the last few quarters of results and really don’t have much interest in the long term viability of a company. They have been completely “hands off” when it comes to senior management. At some point the boys in the executive suite figured this out and started giving themselves massive raises and bonuses.

Initially they were probably somewhat surprised that there was no push back but now it is simply accepted that precedents set by the last insane salary increase at one company should be replicated by any company that wants to remain “competitive”. Sort of like elite athletes salaries except that in the world of sport athletes actually have to perform to keep getting their contracts renewed.

The other and perhaps even more disturbing trend is that increasing automation in every field is putting more and more power and control into the hands of those that can afford the tools that are used to replace human labour.

The story that got my attention in this regard was the recent announcement regarding the development of a robotic brick-laying machine. It is not surprising that such a machine could be built. In fact it was inevitable. But what this demonstrates is that even skilled labour jobs are not immune to automation.

It has often been said that technology does not eliminate jobs but in fact creates even more jobs. In my experience that is only because technology when first introduced doesn’t really work very well. Once it becomes mature there are very negative impacts on employment levels.

My father was an underground miner working for INCO in Sudbury Ontario. In the 1960’s INCO employed 17,000 workers. Today that number has dropped to less than 5,000 and the company produces more nickel than ever. Automation and robotics have replaced more than 7 out of 10 workers. Is that is a bad thing? I don’t think so. Those jobs were dirty, dangerous, and dull. But it makes you wonder what jobs will be left when robotics and artificial intelligence reach their true potential in perhaps 30-50 years.

Does anyone doubt that self-driving cars will be the norm within 20 years? There go all the taxi, bus, and truck driving jobs. The result should be more efficient and significantly safer travel and transport – that’s a good thing, right?

If you can imagine self-driving cars then isn’t it realistic to think that airline pilot jobs and many similar highly skilled jobs will also disappear.

You might counter that there will always be jobs where human intelligence and analysis will be required. Maybe that’s true. But back before computers were mainstream could anyone have imagined that a machine could defeat the most talented chess players in the world? And what about that 2011 episode of the game show Jeopardy where IBM’s Watson easily defeated two former champions.

I foresee the day where you walk into a neighbourhood medical clinic and stand in a booth where you are subjected to a full body scan involving multiple sensors. Within seconds a computerized diagnosis would be provided that will be much more accurate than human doctors could possibly come up with.

The widespread deployment of these advanced technologies will require energy – a lot of energy. I have written about many energy storage technologies on this blog and I am absolutely certain that one or more will become economical within the 30-50 year time frame. At that point it will be possible to generate all the energy we need and more from wind, solar, hydro, hydro-kinetics and geothermal sources at very low costs. Abundant energy will also mean abundant water because desalination of seawater will become viable.

In a world where robots and artificial intelligence have come to dominate large parts of the economy how does a social structure based upon humans earning a living by “working” continue to function? The short answer is “it doesn’t”.

Over the next 30 years structural unemployment will creep continually upward. Unemployment rates of 20%, 30% or more will become the norm. It will make no difference how well educated, motivated, skilled, or industrious young people are. They will not be able to compete with either automation or older, more experienced workers. The inevitable result will be social unrest at a scale not seen since the 1930’s. The “Occupy Movement” was only a dress rehearsal.
I don’t think this is a disaster in the making. Society will evolve in order to adjust to the new reality. But evolve it must and the sooner we accept that and start heading in the right direction the better. Allowing the wage disparity to continue to grow is exactly the wrong direction.

As the work available for humans decreases there must be a corresponding reduction in the amount of time that each individual is expected to work. A shorter work week, a higher minimum wage, and better benefits for part-time workers are not luxuries that we as a society cannot afford. These are evolutionary changes that must take place in order to maintain social order.

Personally I feel that shared ownership provides one opportunity to address both the executive compensation issue and the more equal distribution of wealth. Democratically controlled organizations, be they credit unions, co-ops, or not-for-profit organizations such as auto clubs providing insurance and even car-sharing services would never put up with outlandish executive compensation packages. And the one member, one vote structure of these organizations allows individuals to share equally in the responsibilities and the economic benefits that are the reason these organizations exist.

I’m sure that some people will consider this vision of the future to be radical and alarmist. It certainly will be different. I just don’t see any other way that things can turn out over the long run. And organizations as credible as the World Economic Forum and Oxfam seem to agree.


19-Oct-15: Update – Apparently $10+ million severance is “standard in almost every public company in every industry”

The proposed purchase of Hawaiian Electric Industries (the electrical utility for most of the Hawaiian islands) by NextEra will trigger a payment of $11.6 Million to Connie Lau, the CEO of HEI.

Maybe I’m crazy but it would seem to me that a “golden parachute” of that magnitude would be a very compelling incentive to do the deal whether or not it is in the best interest of Hawaiian utility customers. When this payment was questioned at a Public Utility Commission hearing Ms. Lau made the comment that this type of severance was “standard in almost every public company in every industry”.

I believe that many, many decisions impacting our economy are now made purely for the personal gain of executives. The poster child for that contention is Joseph Cassano who many analysts have identified as the architect of the speculative derivative trading that resulted in the financial crisis of 2008. During his 21 years with AIG he received compensation of $315 million and even after the dire consequences of his actions became apparent and he was forced to retire he continued to receive a consulting fee of $1 million per month.

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06.09.15

Bike Share/Rent in Northern Europe – a sampler

Posted in Uncategorized at 9:52 pm by Administrator

I recently returned from a three week vacation in Northern Europe and during my visit I made a point of trying out the bike share/rental opportunities in a few different cities. In a previous blog post I mentioned using the bike share system in Chicago. In 2014 I was also able to try out a very similar system in Toronto. I think that after this last vacation I am getting a good sense of what works and what does not work so well with these systems.

Oslo, Norway. I think that the Oslo system would work very well for local residents who can purchase a smart card for the season for 150 Norwegian Krone (currently about $US 18). For tourists like myself the system does not work well at all.

First problem: getting a smart card. These are only available at the Oslo Visitor Center in the east part of the city center. And the smart cards must be returned to the same location. They also cost 100 Krone (about $US 13) per day which is a little expensive for this kind of service.

There are more than 100 bike stations throughout the city but sadly none at the Maritime Museum/Kon Tiki/Fram location which is where I wanted to go. I had to drop off the bike at the Viking museum about a 15 minute walk away.

My final complaint – no bike locks. This is very typical of bike share systems and frankly this is a big problem. Not being able to comfortably leave your bike for even a few minutes to make a purchase or grab a quick snack is a real drag. You end up spending more time trying to find a nearby bike station than you would making the stop. There are a few systems that do provide bike locks and it is a major advantage as far as I am concerned.

Port of Nynashamn, Sweden. After cruising for 9 days and having visited 6 cities we were feeling like a relaxing day when we got to Sweden. As a result we did not go into Stockholm. Instead we enjoyed some of the best desserts ever at the Jannis Cafe after which we burned a few calories biking along the waterfront.

Bike rentals in Nynashamn are through one of the two tourist offices – one at the waterfront at the foot of Centralgatan and the other further east near the industrial port. The staff at both offices were incredibly helpful and the bikes came with built-in locks and helmets. At about $US 2.40/hour these bikes were also relatively expensive but gave us the freedom to explore this charming little port. The short ride over to the outstanding Nynäs Havsbad Spa is very rewarding even if you don’t go for a sauna or massage. Watch out for the troll under the bridge.

Copenhagen, Denmark. Of course we had to try biking in the bicycle Mecca of the world. In our case the hotel we were staying at had rental bicycles so that was easier than using the pedal assist electric bike rental service which is also somewhat expensive at 25 Danish Krone (currently about $US 3.75)/hour.

Most of the streets in Copenhagen have bike lanes which are physically separated from sidewalks and the street by a small ledge with the result that you are never jostling with automobile or pedestrian traffic. The sites in central Copenhagen are easily reached by bicycle and getting around on two wheels is definitely the right way to see the city.

Both the rental bikes we used and the rental electric bikes come equipped with the same kind of “clasp” locks that we had seen in Sweden.

Paris, France.The Paris bike sharing system is very heavily used by locals and tourists alike. That is a good thing and a bad thing.

Getting a bike is very easy. You go through the menus on the screens at any bike station, swipe your credit card, and the system provides you with an ID number and requires you to select a PIN number. For the duration of your pass you just enter the code and PIN to unlock a bike.

One thing I loved about the bikes in Paris is the built in cable lock. That allows you to feel comfortable leaving your bike while you pick up some croisants or better yet some very affordable French wine. It is a simple system with a key to lock and unlock and I wish more bike-sharing systems offered this feature.

In Paris the cost for bike-share is 1.7 Euros for 24 hours or 8 Euros for a week. Those prices are as good as I have seen anywhere.

Like most true bike-sharing systems (Chicago, Toronto, London England) you only get to use the bike for 30 minutes for free. If you keep the bike longer than 30 minutes you pay an additional fee. In the case of Paris it is 1 Euro for the first additional 30 minutes, 2 Euros for the 2nd, 4 Euros for additional 30 minute periods. That means that if you keep the same bike for 2 hours you would end up paying additional fees of 7 Euros – not so cheap. But the whole concept of bike sharing is that you keep the bike for as little time as possible – essentially to get from “A” to “B”, then return it to a bike station so that someone else can use it. If you need a bike for a longer trip you can just park the first bike at a station and take a second and so on – in theory at least.

But that does raise one issue that can make bike sharing a very frustrating experience; bike stations that are full.

Bikes tend to accumulate at tourist sites in the early part of the day. I first encountered that problem in Chicago at the Field Museum. In Paris I encountered full bike stations on several occasions. The operators use trucks to haul bikes away from popular destinations but that seems to be a somewhat unreliable service especially in Paris.

So what do you do if you encounter a full bike station? In Paris you can enter your ID and PIN and get an additional free 15 minutes if the station is full. That may or may not be enough time to get to the next bike station on your route and that station could also be full. The struggle to find a spot at a bike station can get pretty annoying very quickly.

One thing you can do to reduce (but not eliminate) the “full bike station” problem is to pay for one more bike than you actually need. At 8 Euros for a week that is a small price to pay in Paris. With that approach if you encounter a full bike station along your planned route then you can just check out a bike using your “surplus” ID and PIN then check in the bike that is reaching its 30 minute limit.

If the bike station nearest your final destination is also full then you are still hooped. You can use your “surplus” ID and PIN to get an additional 30 minutes free rather than the 15 minutes you could get normally. But you would still have to just wait around and hope that someone shows up to take a bike leaving a spot open for you. If you are traveling with a group the wait to get enough empty spots is unpredictable and in the meantime precious vacation time is wasted.

There is a free mobile phone app (most bike-sharing systems have one) that lets you monitor the bike stations to find one that is not full. If you have a local SIM card or a good roaming plan that is an option. But the status of a bike station will change very frequently as bikes come and go so even that option does not provide a lot of certainty for planning purposes.

Given how busy bike stations can get in Paris would I still recommend using the system? Absolutely! Despite a few short waits to return a bike I never really experienced a serious problem and it was a gas to bike through the narrow streets of Paris. Motorists and pedestrians alike are used to dealing with the shared bikes (although they may not like them) so I never felt that I was in an unsafe situation despite not having a helmet.

London England.The bike sharing system in London is also heavily used. In fact, the website claims that there are more than 10,000 shared bikes available at 700 locations in the city.

A bike-sharing plan can be purchased at any bike station and costs 2 pounds stirling (currently about $US 3) for 24 hours. Additional fees of 2 pounds/30 minutes apply if you keep a bike longer than 30 minutes.

One minor annoyance with the London system is the requirement that you swipe your credit card to identify yourself every time you want to take out a bike. In my case I was traveling with a group and we put all the bicycle rentals on one credit card. That meant that we had to be together to get bikes and there were a few times when that wasn’t convenient. Having a code (Chicago, Toronto, Paris) provides a more flexible approach.

As with many systems the London bikes do not have locks and they also lack the baskets that Paris bikes were equipped with.

Conclusions:
After this last trip I am now addicted to bike sharing. In many cities, especially in Europe, riding a bike is literally the fastest way to get around. That means that you can see more in less time which is awesome. Much as I also really enjoy walking in these cities it can get pretty tiring and hard on the feet. Biking for part of the way provides some relief.

If you have considered using bike-sharing but are nervous about traffic I would recommend that you give it a try. In the cities where there are bike-sharing programs everyone is getting used to pesky tourists that flip from street to sidewalk whenever it is convenient. If you want to enhance your experience take along a small backpack, lightweight cable lock and helmet.

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03.14.15

Renewable Energy Highlights for the 2nd half of 2014 – Few and Far Between

Posted in Uncategorized at 9:56 pm by Administrator

I haven’t posted anything to the Black Swan Blog for 8 months. One reason is that I have had a few other projects that have really monopolized my time.  But the other reason is that I usually write blog posts in response to something that interests me in the world of renewable energy.  Frankly, not much has been happening since last summer.

I was pretty certain that Texas would be encountering severe problems because of the fluctuations in their wind energy generation.  In fact, they had no problems at all last summer.  That was helped by the addition of 1.3 GW (Net of reductions) of Natural Gas plant capacity (according to the December, 2014  Report on the Capacity, Demand, and Reserves) and a maximum peak demand of only 66.5 GW in August 2014 as compared to a peak demand of 67.25 GW in August, 2013 and an all-time peak of 68.3 GW in August, 2011).

I did find it interesting to note that ERCOT has now redefined the peak capacity percentages for wind resources.  This is essentially the percentage of nameplate wind capacity that can be relied upon during peak demand times.  Based upon 6 years worth of data and a large installed generation base this value is 12% for onshore resources in the summer, 19% for the winter.  For offshore resources the values are 56% in the summer and 36% for the winter. Unfortunately the vast majority of Texas wind farms are onshore and peak demand is in the summer.

Some of my most popular blog posts have been about the experience with renewables in Hawaii and on that topic there have been a number of interesting developments. In many ways, at least with regards to solar energy, Hawaii is on the bleeding edge with regards to dealing with the opportunities and the problems associated with incorporating large amounts of solar energy into their utility grid.

The issues I had raised in an earlier post have started to reach a critical stage. The “success” of the rooftop solar program has brought many of the circuits in the state to the point where they are at risk of becoming unstable, possibly leading to failures or equipment damage. As a result new permit requirements have been put in place and in the last quarter of 2014 there was a dramatic drop in the number of rooftop solar installations, continuing a trend that started in January, 2013 (Note: I am not a big supporter of rooftop solar even in Hawaii for a number of technical and social equity reasons that I have discussed previously. The law suit between Solar City and the Salt River will determine whether or not a fixed infrastructure charge for solar panel owners will hold up in court).

In another blog post I was very critical of the Hawaiian Electric Company’s approach to renewable energy. It seemed to me that they didn’t have a realistic plan and were basically completely lost with regards to creating a sustainable energy environment. So it was no surprise to me that the company was sold to NextEra in December, 2014. NextEra brings economic clout and a track record of successful renewable projects to the Aloha state utility but will also bring a focus on the “bottom line” that was missing.

Meanwhile, Kauai Island Utility Co-op (KIUC) is taking what I believe is a much different and better approach to the development of solar power. A major focus has been on utility-scale solar installations. In December, 2012 the largest solar installation in Hawaii came on-line in Port Allen. On a sunny day the 6 MW facility is able to provide almost 10% of Kauai’s daytime energy needs.

KIUC recognized that solar power output can vary by as much as 70-80% because of passing clouds. As a result the Port Allen facility was designed to have a large battery backup component that could compensate for short-duration power drops. Through real-world operational experience they found that their initial battery configuration could not stand up to the rapid cycling experienced when trying to stabilize solar power. As a result the utility is replacing the lead-acid batteries in the initial configuration with lithium-ion batteries.

KIUC has not been deterred because of the operational problems it has experienced. The utility is taking the sensible position that these kinds of issues can be expected when trying to really push a new technology. They are in the process of commissioning an addition 24 MW of utility-scale solar which will provide up to 80% of Kauai’s daytime electrical needs. And if the new batteries prove to be cost-effective the utility can start to extend the impact of the solar array by releasing stored energy to the grid in the late afternoon and early evening.

As far as I am concerned KIUC is on the right track. Now if only they would combine a Concentrated Solar Plant with their PV installations they could provide solar power 24 hours a day as they do at the Gemasolar plant in Spain.

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07.03.14

Doing the “Green” thing on 2 wheels for the environment and for charity

Posted in Uncategorized at 7:15 pm by Administrator

I have been biking to work from time to time for many years first in Calgary (which has a truly awesome bike path system) and now in Vancouver (which has a pretty pathetic bike path system despite lots of hype and money spent on downtown bike lanes). But I have never biked more than a few times per month on a consistent basis.

Here at the Black Swan Blog I have discussed lots of interesting applications in the field of electrically-powered transportation: everything from cars to planes and boats. I have also been keeping a close eye on developments in the area of electric bikes.

The announcement of the e-bike by the folks that make Smart Cars seemed to me to legitimize the whole concept. And after I published my blog on electric cars my good friend and high-tech guru Steve Darden pointed me in the direction of the Copenhagen Wheel. This looks like a fascinating concept but unfortunately (?) they have been so successful at generating interest that they have deferred actual delivery of their product until 2015. (by the way, do not visit Steve and Dorothy’s site unless you are really comfortable with escape fantasies and feelings of envy).

I started looking really seriously at electric bikes and after doing a bit of research I paid a visit to Evolution Bikes and test-drove a couple of different bikes manufactured by BH Bicyles. Although the brand is best know for racing bikes their line of electric bikes offers outstanding technology and design.

These bikes are “pedal assist” meaning you have to actually pedal to engage the electric motor. But with the BH bikes you won’t be breaking a sweat no matter how fast you pedal. The bike senses the pedal pressure and provides more boost the harder you push – you feel super-human as you climb moderate hills at 25-30 kph.

In the end I purchased a BH EasyMotion Neo Carbon like the one pictured above. At about 20 kg it can easily be carried on a bike rack and the 30 gears mean that the bike is a very comfortable ride even without the electric assist (I can’t say the same about the Smart e-bike which felt slow and clunky under electric power and was really not a fun time in manual mode).

The best part about having the electric bike is that it allows me to use my Cannondale Synapse Road bike more as well. I have an 18 km commute each way with several large hills and a rather long and nasty bridge to contend with. I found biking both ways on the Cannondale took just a bit too much time and energy for me to do on a daily basis. But now I am able to take the Cannondale one way and the EasyMotion the other.

Since buying the electric bike I have only driven to work once. The 4,000 lb van can now be used for what it is really good at – hauling around 5 adults plus dog and luggage when we go on family outings and road trips.

Biking every day has been good for my fitness level too. This past week my wife brought to my attention the Vancouver Rotary Club Bike-A-Thon in aid of Deaf and Hard of Hearing in British Columbia. It is a 120 km ride and I now feel that is something I can take on (we’ll find out if that is true on July 13). Of course that will be on the Cannondale, not the electric bike.

P.S. Should you be interested in supporting me on this ride for charity you can make a donation at my Ride-A-Thon page.

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05.21.14

40,000 “Reads” at energyblogs.com

Posted in Uncategorized at 5:36 pm by Administrator

Earlier this month the Black Swan Blog registered it's 40,000th "Read" on energyblogs.com. I took the opportunity to compare the most popular blogs now with those from August, 2013 when I celebrated 20,000 "Reads". I found it interesting to note that only 4 of the Top Ten from 8 months ago are still in that group of most popular blog postings. For example, the blog I wrote after the first anniversary of the Black Swan Blog has moved very quickly to sit at number 4. The complete list of the current Top Ten follows:

  1. We should use Concentrated Solar Power ONLY after sunset

    This posting is the only one to have maintained its position in the ranking. In this posting I discuss how photo-voltaic solar panels could be used in conjunction with a Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) plant to provide relatively economical and dispatchable power.

  2. Post-secondary Institutions Harvest Underground Energy

    This posting climbed one spot. It describes how Post-Secondary Institutions are using Geoexchange (sometimes referred to as Geothermal) systems to provide heating and cooling to their campus buildings. In my opinion all new commercial and industrial buildings should be required to implement Geoexchange systems which use about half of the electrical power as compared to traditional HVAC systems.

  3. What if "Climate Change" is the next "Y2K"?

    This posting from July, 2013 is new to the "Top Ten". It might seem from the title of this blog that I don't believe that climate change is real or that it is at least partially caused by burning hydro-carbons. That is not the case. My point in this posting is that the considerable "hype" around climate change may be distracting us from focusing on the real fundamental problem – we are consuming non-renewable resources in an unsustainable way. I am concerned that should the climate change concerns cool down we would lose interest in what I believe to be the more important problem.

  4. Reflections on one year of blogging

    This posting from October, 2013 discusses my experience with blogging. I am a little surprised at how fast it has surpassed much older postings.

  5. Hawaii Renewables Facing Cross-Currents and Headwinds

    This posting has slipped from the #2 spot but still remains very popular. In it I discuss some of the opportunities and challenges facing the renewable industry in Hawaii. In many ways the Aloha State is leading the movement to a more sustainable future but I am not convinced that they are taking the optimal approach.

  6. The Next 5 years for Renewables – A Best Case Scenario

    This posting from July, 2013 is new to the "Top Ten". It is the second of a pair of postings where I speculate about developments in the renewable energy industry. Interestingly, the "Worst Case Scenario" posting is much less popular. I guess that means we are either eternally optimistic or unwilling to "face the music".

  7. Power Generation – There's No Place Like Home

    This posting slipped from the #4 spot. It discusses several approaches to reducing residential energy consumption and distributed generation such as solar panels, Geoexchange, and community wind projects. I need to revise this posting soon because my views on roof-top solar panels have changed.

  8. How Much Battery Storage is Enough for Roof-Top Solar Panels?

    This posting is also new to the "Top Ten". It discusses the ebb and flow of power between the utility grid and a residential roof-top solar array. It provides a link to a couple of tools that can be used to estimate the amount of battery storage needed and the net electricity generated at different latitudes.

  9. The Hawaiian Electric Company Integrated Resource Plan – Welcome to Fantasy Island!

    When HECO published its IRP I was surprised at how unrealistic the assumptions and development plans were. I reference an independent consultant's report that takes issue with the almost exclusive focus on computer-generated models of supply and demand. As far as I am concerned this plan is not realistic.

  10. The Fright Before Christmas

    This is my Christmas blog posting from 2012 – it has grown steadily in popularity.

Thanks for your continued interest and support.

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05.03.14

The Future Ain’t What It Used To Be

Posted in Uncategorized at 6:31 pm by Administrator

Almost exactly 6 months ago The Black Swan Blog celebrated its 1st anniversary. It is about to achieve another milestone – 40,000 “reads” on the first site that I began blogging at – energyblogs.com.

At the same time that I was wondering if I should acknowledge this milestone I was attending the BCNET Conference in Vancouver which had the theme “Building Value Through Collaboration”. The presentations by two of the keynote speakers made me consider the value of my blogging and how I might be able to increase that value.

Jesse Hirsh made the case that traditional sources of “authority” from governments to professors to the legally recognized “professions” (i.e. doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc.) are being challenged and in many cases discarded or ignored. He suggested that we are entering an age in which a person’s expertise and their ability to influence will allow them to become a “Cognitive Authority”. And he further suggested that by identifying such “Cognitive Authorities” each of us can “tune in” to the “signal” – the useful information – that is becoming more and more difficult to separate from the cacophony of facts and opinions that we are bombarded with every day.

The key message I took from Jesse’s remarks is that there is an important role and even a responsibility for those of us who express opinions on forums such as The Black Swan Blog. In order to earn the right to be considered a “Cognitive Authority” we need to provide significant value for those that choose to read the material that we post.

As far as I am concerned that “value” must incorporate the following principles:

  • The information should be presented with the intent to broaden the reader’s perspective and base of knowledge on the topic being discussed. There are many sides to every story and it is perfectly normal and even useful to forcefully support one point of view. But that point of view must be reasonable. In our legal system we use the concepts of “preponderance of the evidence” and “balance of probabilities” to determine the truth about a body of factual evidence. With The Black Swan Blog I mentally test the ideas I am writing about using those concepts before I publish a blog posting.
  • The information and opinions should be original to at least some extent. I would much rather provide a link to an existing “in depth” study than simply regurgitate ideas that have been expressed previously. The ability to easily refer to other material on the Internet is perhaps the most powerful new capability available to us in the information age. In my postings I make a real effort to refer to original material wherever possible.
  • In responding to comments from readers it is essential to be respectful in all cases and positive and supportive of comments that provide additional insights into a topic, whether or not they support the premise of the posting. However, there is also an obligation to firmly refute statements that are clearly factually incorrect or deliberately misleading. I would also not hesitate to delete any comment that belittles or is otherwise disrespectful of another participant in a discussion.

Another keynote speaker at the BCNET Conference was Dr. Alec Couros, Educational Technology & Media Professor. Alec challenged the audience to truly “think different” about approaches to learning at all levels. He used the example of the Nyan Cat to demonstrate that the content of a work was insignificant compared to the creativity and innovation that the work can inspire. He also emphasized the power of Youtube and Twitter to support rapid learning and the organic creation of groups of people with shared interests.

Alec urges us to move beyond the exchange of data and facts to begin “sharing our collective human experiences”. In a world where knowledge is becoming a commodity, with handheld computing devices leveling the playing field, a deeper understanding of the human experience is perhaps becoming the most important goal we can aspire to achieve.

I consider myself to be a “techie” venturing dangerously close to “Nerdville” but I have to admit that I have not been a very active user of either Twitter or Youtube. Based upon the what I saw at BCNET, including a great presentation on Enterprise Social Collaboration I will be trying to make better use of these tools in the future.

On a related topic I have been in discussions lately with a number of people about the urgent need for digital curators on the Internet. Within the context of a discussion thread a “Cognitive Authority” can play a role. But in the broader sense of information management there is a need to categorize, prioritize, and sort through the millions of documents, photographs, videos and other digital assets that are strewn across the Internet like the contents of a teenager’s bedroom. It is, I realize, an impossible task to complete but any efforts in this area will improve the current situation.

In the academic world authors provide abstracts and in the corporate world we use “Executive Summaries”. But within the Wild, Wild West of the Internet the closest thing we have would perhaps be sites like Wikipedia. We need to do more.

Having taken that position I have to examine The Black Swan Blog with a critical eye. My conclusion, to paraphrase Pogo is  “I have seen the enemy and he is me” .. or is it “I”?  The Black Swan Blog has no table of contents and no abstracts so, as usual, I am as guilty as anyone when it comes to implementing an action plan based upon my own recommendations.  But at least in this case I can remedy the problem relatively easily.  So watch out for a table of contents including abstracts which should be in place within a week or two.

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04.09.14

How Quickly will the Electric Vehicle Revolution Come?

Posted in Uncategorized at 3:45 pm by Administrator

In a previous posting I stated my belief that the pure electric vehicle was the way of the future and that this sector of the automobile industry would grow more or less continuously for the foreseeable future. I decided to do a bit more investigation into how quickly that could happen given trends in vehicle sales over the past few years. I also decided to look into what has been happening with fuel economy rates given that retail gasoline prices have more than doubled in North America in the last ten years. Unfortunately, what I found was not terribly encouraging.

The chart below displays U.S. vehicle sales since the turn of the century.

There are a couple of things of note.

First, the shift from passenger cars to “trucks” (which includes SUVs) between 2000 and 2005 was significant. This trend did not slow down until the price of gasoline hit about $2.30/gallon and even then the impact was not dramatic. What was very dramatic was the decline in vehicle sales in the U.S. as the financial crisis of 2008/2009 battered the economy.

In those years, when cash was scarce for so many Americans, vehicle sales dropped almost 30% sending almost every U.S. automobile manufacturer into bankruptcy. Truck/SUV sales were hit particularly hard, dropping below sales for passenger cars for the first time in the 21st Century. Presumably this reflected a recognition that the cost of owning and operating a truck/SUV was hard to justify in tough economic times.

As the economy gradually recovered it could have been the case that this lesson would have had a lasting impact; that more economical and fuel-efficient vehicles would continue to dominate. Sadly (in my opinion), this has not been the case.

Sales of Trucks/SUVs have rebounded even more quickly than sales of passenger cars and have regained their leadership position. There is every indication that the gap will continue to grow despite historically high gasoline prices.

What impact have these buying patterns had upon the average fuel consumption for the U.S. vehicle fleet? The trends are shown in the graph below.

The gap in fuel economy between trucks/SUVs and passenger cars is large and has actually increased from 6 MPG to over 7 MPG since the turn of the Century. This is primarily because the two categories of vehicles are treated differently under the Energy Policy and Conservation Act which mandates certain levels of fuel economy for vehicles manufactured in the U.S.

The bottom line is that despite having made some progress in the past few years Canada and the U.S. continue to exhibit the worst vehicle fuel economy in the world (for an in-depth analysis see “International comparison of light-duty vehicle fuel economy: An update using 2010 and 2011 new registration data”). And despite record-breaking retail gasoline prices, tough economic times, and an increasing awareness of environmental issues we keep slipping back into the habit of driving fuel-hungry vehicles.

There are justifiable reasons for that purchasing pattern. We do get some nasty weather in much of North America including snow and ice which makes a four wheel drive vehicle a safer ride. And because there are so many SUV’s, pickup trucks and 4×4’s on the road driving a smaller, lighter passenger car can be more than a little intimidating. To some extent the whole situation becomes one of “I need to drive a big, strong vehicle because everyone else has a big, strong vehicle.”

Is there any realistic hope that vehicle buying habits will change in North America anytime soon? The incentives for such change could include significant increases in retail gasoline prices (very likely in the next 5-10 years), significant changes to the CAFE rules (unlikely because of intractable opposition from automobile manufacturers and conservative politicians), and/or a real change in public attitudes towards CO2 reductions that could moderate climate change (I have seen very little evidence of this as described in another blog posting).

Taking all factors into account the prognosis for a significant change to more fuel-efficient, generally more expensive and smaller vehicles is poor. That does not bode particularly well for EV’s which are even more expensive and often smaller than fuel-efficient gasoline, diesel, or propane-powered vehicles.

It was recently announced here in British Columbia that the the “Clean Energy Vehicle Program Rebate” has depleted its funding pool and would not be extended. These rebates provided up to $5,000 in direct government grants for EV’s, representing about 14% of the price of a Nissan Leaf. Even with this fairly generous rebate program less than a thousand EV’s were sold in BC in the last two years – and BC considers itself (perhaps incorrectly) to be the “greenest” province in Canada.

There is another concern that may start to become apparent over the next year or two. The new breed of EV’s rely upon Lithium-ion batteries – the same type of battery that is used to power mobile phones, laptop computers, iPads and other tablets. Having used these types of devices extensively over the past 10 years I have never had a single device where the battery was not essentially useless after about 3-4 years. Perhaps automobile batteries will perform better – I certainly hope they do. But as the early Nissan Leafs and Tesla’s start to age they may degrade significantly; And that would have a chilling impact on EV sales around the world (note that the Prius uses a NiCad battery that has proved to be extremely reliable over 10 years or more).

So have I changed my opinion on EV’s? The short answer is “No”. I still believe that we have embarked upon a revolutionary change that will take place at a steady pace. However, it could well be that the pace of that change will be slow for most of this decade. Only a serious spike in the price of oil, which is always a possibility, could radically speed up the EV revolution. But that would have all kinds of other negative economic impacts that we would all probably like to avoid.

Addendum:

Less than a week after writing this post I was on a business trip to Anaheim and finally was lucky enough to find a Nissan Leaf “in the wild”. It’s owner, Matt Buchanan was kind enough to spend a few minutes talking to me about his beautiful “Felix”. In fact he stated that he was always happy to talk to people about the car and has had lots of questions about it.

Matt has had the car for a few months and is very pleased with it. He noted that the acceleration was particularly impressive and he feels that the Nissan Leaf is the best engineered car he has ever driven.

In terms of range Matt feels that the 75 mile range on a charge is a reasonable claim although he has not driven more than about 50 miles with the car yet – hasn’t had the need to in his normal driving.

One issue that Matt highlighted was the situation with fast charging stations. Originally almost all the stations were free but some are now charging a fee – typically a monthly subscription plus a per minute charge. So this will impact the economics of driving the car if the trend continues.

Overall Matt is very satisfied with his “Felix” and would recommend a Nissan Leaf to anyone considering purchase of an EV.

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02.24.14

Imagine no possessions – I wonder if you can?

Posted in Uncategorized at 7:42 am by Administrator

John Lennon’s iconic song “Imagine” has been rated #3 on Rolling Stone’s list of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time”. It envisages a world where elimination of some of the major things that divide humanity – religion, nationalism, and materialism – are discarded in order to achieve global peace and harmony.

While the ideas delivered so powerfully in this song are immensely attractive at the conceptual level, things get a bit more nuanced when you take a cold, hard look at the details.  Would any of us really want to try and live with “no possessions”?  I don’t think so.  And yet there are social changes afoot that are heading in that general direction.

This fairly radical view of the future is based upon a growing recognition, especially amongst the millenial generation, that we don’t all need to own a copy of every possible consumer item even if we can afford to have one.  Instead, it might be possible to enjoy almost exactly the same lifestyle as we do today by employing a technique which was common in  rural agricultural communities not so long ago – it’s called sharing!

Evidence of the growing popularity of this approach is everywhere.

On a vacation in Chicago in 2010 my family used a bike-sharing system for the first time. Unlike a traditional rental shop which requires you to pick up and drop off a bike at the same location, the Divvy system encourages you to pick up a bike from any of hundreds of locations, drive it to where you want to go and drop it off at a station near your destination.  You can keep doing that as many times as you like in 24 hours for as little as $7.

Over the course of a week various combinations of family members drove bikes throughout the downtown area and along the lakeside bike paths for more than 20 hours in total.  The cost? $87 including taxes and some surcharges for trips lasting more than 30 minutes.  The convenience and flexibility of the system really made it a pleasure to use (in 2015 I wrote a blog post on similar systems in Northern European cities and the Mobi system started operations in Vancouver in 2016).

An identical strategy is taking place with car-sharing.  Here in Vancouver there are now no less than 4 car sharing systems available.  As with the bike sharing systems these services allow you to locate the nearest available car using a computer or Smartphone app, pick it up and drive it to your destination where you simply leave it for the next system user.

Car and bike sharing are really not that innovative in the sense that car and bike rentals have been around for a very long time.  But what about specialty consumer goods?

Do we all really need to have a full set of power tools?  When was the last time you used a router, circular saw, or sonic stud-finder?   And what about that deep fryer, chaffing dish, or food processor?

No doubt it is handy to know that you have these items around in case you need them (if you can actually find them in some dark storage cupboard buried under other “essential” items – I often can’t).

But even if you can afford to own them and even if you have a storage space for them think about this.

What if we could avoid the enormous use of energy required to fabricate these items, package them and deliver them to a retail outlet if we just didn’t require as many?   In order to try and assess what the potential savings could be I recently put together a video on the Fantastic Voyages of the Stackable Chair (See it on Youtube).

The idea of sharing our precious possessions is more than a little bit disconcerting.  And there are certainly things (like my 1975 Stratocaster) that I personally would not feel comfortable entrusting to the use of anyone but a very close friend.   But there are many other things that I use but rarely that it would make sense to make available in some sort of sharing scheme.  How much damage could someone do to my 20 foot aluminium ladder or my wheelbarow?

There might even be a few items that I wouldn’t be too upset to see damaged or destroyed – the Garden Gnome I received as a gift from my aunt Matilda comes to mind.

A recent article in a local newspaper here in North Vancouver described a new initiative which demonstrates how the concept could actually be put into practice as well as providing a great summary of the phenomenon that is becoming known as collaborative consumption.

The benefits go beyond efficiency and a reduction in energy use.  Sharing within a community, be it a University, neighborhood, or club reinforces the social connectivity within the organization and builds that most precious of social commodities – trust.

I grew up in a rural community where helping neighbors take hay off the fields in the late summer was just expected behaviour.  In the winter the outdoor ice rinks were built by volunteers.  When the local recreation hall was destroyed by fire the entire community pitched in to build a new one.  So I get the idea of sharing work.  But the concept of collaborative consumption takes sharing to a new level.

I am not quite ready to go “all in” with this idea.  But I do find it intriguing enough to pursue it in some form or other.  Any concerns I have are definitely not enough to overcome the reality that this is just the right thing to do on so many levels.

“Imagine all the people sharing all the world…”

Unrealistic?  Probably.  But what a fantastic tribute it would be to John Lennon’s vision and legacy if collaborative consumption reaches even a fraction of its potential.

 

 

 

 

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