The Fright Before Christmas

Posted in Uncategorized at 5:07 pm by Administrator

T’was the night before Christmas and all through the town
The temperature was dropping, going down, down, down, down
The weatherman said that a front was to blame
A high pressure ridge from Alaska he claimed

It sat like a lump on the hard prairie stubble
Refusing to budge, clearly looking for trouble
On the map it was grinning, toothy and blue
From Montana through Texas to the Long Island zoo

And under that dome of slow falling air
Grew a problem so nasty it hardly seemed fair
For the flags hung like rags across the mid-west
Not a whisper of wind to wake them from rest

Outside of the town the turbines stopped spinning
On the weatherman’s map the cold front kept grinning
At the company office the manager frowned
As the power from the wind farms kept going down

A coal-fired plant was called and called fast
They’d always been there in a pinch in the past

“We can’t help you out” was the somber reply
“Our boilers have been cold since the 4th of July
It will take us all night with a talented crew
To get things in order and working like new”

The manager hung up the phone with a sigh
He had one last option he knew he could try

He called up the plant that was fired by gas
“Can you give us more power?” the foreman was asked
“I would if I could but the answer is ‘No’
We’re going full out – any more and she’ll blow!”

So he hung up again – no more numbers to call
All attention was fixed on the instrument wall
The manager watched as the meter hit zero
He knew the next day he would not be a hero

The grid creaked and groaned then it finally buckled
It seemed like the weather map grin actually chuckled

And now it spread out like a fast moving fire
The blackout was coming the outlook was dire
In no time at all the breakers were flipping
The wires were sparking, transformers were tripping

One after one the streetlights went out
In the blink of an eye there was clearly no doubt
That this was a night that we all would remember
As the coldest darn night in the darkest December

Now some folks stayed warm by a hearth that was crackling
But for most bitter cold finally made them start packing
And in thousands of homes linemen pulled on their boots
As they headed outdoors trying to turn on the juice

And back to the coal-fired plants went the men
That had kept the lights on since I don’t know just when
They worked through the night and by noon Christmas Day
The dinners were cooking in the usual way

A few short days later the cold front receded
The wind farms spun up, coal no longer was needed

The utility manager decided to go
To visit a plant, maybe stop, say hello
They shared some bad coffee as they sat for a while
Then a grizzled old coal-man spoke up with a smile

“Now I’m a recycler and I love to hug trees
But wind without storage is just a big tease
Here is one thing that I know for a fact
You didn’t quite get it when you called for the MACT”

“My dirty old cold-fired plant had to close
But when it comes down to it everyone knows
My coal-fired plant you can count on to run
No matter what happens with the wind and the sun”

“If you really want power through all kinds of weather
Treat coal with respect – we can work well together”

The manager left but what stuck in his head
Were the words that the grizzled old coal-man had said
Energy storage is something we need
Without it “green power” is useless indeed

We can launch a sleek rocket, land a robot on Mars
We can build hybrid engines to power our cars
A storage solution can surely be found
If we dare to think different, turn our thoughts upside-down

Taleb and Khosla have shown us the way
It’s “Black Swan” ideas that are needed today.

P.S. If you think this poem is far-fetched, check out the weather map for November 22, 2013 or this one from January 7, 2015



Solar Updraft – Inefficient but Effective

Posted in Uncategorized at 5:24 pm by Administrator

If you are a student of renewable energy you probably know the statistics regarding solar potential.  The earth receives solar radiation that is many thousands of times the energy requirements of the human race.  So energy supply is not the problem.  The efficiency with which we can capture that energy, the variability of sunlight received at any specific location and the requirement to have energy at night are the main obstacles to implementing a sustainable energy regime based upon solar power.

Much progress has been made over the past 20 years using a variety of solar technologies.  The most common technology employed today is called photo-voltaic (PV) which uses an electro-chemical reaction to convert light directly into electricity.  Historically this technology was very expensive but in recent years prices have dropped dramatically to the point where consumer solar panels are widely used to provide electricity for camping, battery charging, and other uses.

Rooftop residential PV installations have exploded in jurisdictions such as Germany and Hawaii where the regulatory environment is designed to promote a public policy goal of increasing electricity generation from renewable sources.  This strategy has generated not only electricity but also plenty of issues for local grid operators as passing clouds cause drops in PV output of as much as 60% in a few minutes.

Another solar technology referred to as Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) involves the use of optic lenses or mirrors to focus visible light onto receptors in order to generate very high temperatures.  The first and still the world’s largest CSP plant (with a rated capacity of 354 MW) was built in the Mojave desert in California between 1984 and 1990 (http://www.nexteraenergyresources.com/pdf_redesign/segs.pdf).  Since that time the technology has been refined and deployed extensively in Spain.  CSP plants use the concentrated solar energy to heat a fluid which in turn is then used to boil water for conventional steam turbines.

A large CSP facility is currently under construction in Gila Bend, Arizona.  The Solana plant (http://www.abengoasolar.com/web/en/nuestras_plantas/plantas_en_construccion/estados_unidos/#seccion_1) will generate up to 280 MW of power not only during daylight hours but also for up to 6 hours after sunset through the use of a molten salt energy storage system.  Because CSP plants generate electricity using steam turbines the variability issues associated with PV solar power are also eliminated.  The only drawback to this type of facility is cost which will come out to something like $5/watt of capacity compared to $1/watt for PV.

There are some variations on concentrated solar which do not involve the use of steam generators but instead generate power in smaller units directly at the location where the solar rays are producing heat.  Those technologies have not yet been deployed in large-scale production applications and will be the subject of my next blog.

A third potentially significant way to tap solar energy is a technology referred to as a solar updraft tower.  I would characterize this technology as a “Black Swan” because it has not, as yet, been demonstrated in a commercially viable operation despite many plans and proposals.

The solar updraft tower generates electricity by creating a large temperature difference from the bottom to the top of a vertical tower.  This, in turn, produces a vertical updraft which can be used to drive a wind turbine.

A pilot plant was operated in southern Spain from 1982 to 1989. This project was very successful in terms of the research data provided and clearly demonstrated that the technology could be used to consistently provide power.

The power generation did not drop off to zero at sunset but functioned at about 10% of capacity for several hours after sunset because of the dependence on a temperature differential rather than on the presence of direct sunlight. In fact, models indicate that by covering the area under the “greenhouse” with black, water-filled plastic containers the power production cycle could be substantially smoothed out with the facility producing power well into the late evening.

Finally, because the air and soil beneath the “greenhouse” act as a massive heat sink this type of facility is also not subject to the very dramatic short-duration variability that is associated with PV.

The major technological barrier that has so far prevented a successful commercial implementation of this technology is the height of the tower required to produce utility-scale electricity.  As an example, the towers being proposed for Arizona by Eviromission are planned to be more than 800 meters (half a mile) high.  The construction costs and associated engineering challenges associated with a structure this tall are formidable to say the least.

In my opinion this is a situation where “keeping things simple” might lead to success.  The original drawing of this concept contained in the 1954 book “Engineer’s Dream” by Willy Ley showed a large glass roof at the foot of a mountain acting as the solar collector.  The updraft tunnel in this illustration was a concrete tube built up the side of the mountain.

Updated technology could provide a workable solution.  Instead of a concrete tube, a series of hoops constructed from simple PVC tubing could be placed up the side of a mountain, covered by PTFE fiberglass fabric such as that used to provide roofs for sports facilities (an example being the Talisman Centre in Calgary).

Rather than have a single generator station located at the top of the mountain a number of large modified tunnel ventilation fans could be located at regular intervals up the slope (for example see the fans sold by Alphair).

With the right combination of technologies solar updraft could work.  It has the lowest efficiency of any solar power technology but offers the significant advantages of a smooth and reliable power production curve that extends well into the evening, matching electricity usage patterns.  It is mechanically very simple and in the right geographic setting could be very competitively priced.



Car Pooling Part II: Going for Gold

Posted in Uncategorized at 11:57 am by Administrator

If you read Part 1 of this blog you may have wondered why I would consider car-pooling to be a “Black Swan”.  It is a common practice and does not involve any innovative technology or processes. 

In this case what I believe could make this disruptive is the potential scale and the collective “mind flip” that would be required to achieve that scale.

As noted in Part I car-pooling has been almost static at about 10% of total commuting trips over the past 10 years in the United States.  Moving that to 12% or 15% would be useful but not radical.  Moving that figure to 20% or 30% or more would have a significant impact on everything from the cost to maintain highways to tailpipe exhausts and energy conservation.

In Part I the argument was made that car-pooling faced a multi-faceted psychological barrier that was comprised of a desire to control our individual travel plans mixed with some apprehension about possible conflicts or disagreements with car-pooling companions.  In addition, for workers with flexible work arrangements and schedules car-pooling is complicated.

All things considered most of us find driving our own vehicle just too convenient to give up.  This despite the fact that we all know, deep down, that we are causing more pollution and we are using more energy and we are suffering more out-of-pocket expenses than we could ever really justify.

So the question is “can we radically alter our attitudes towards car-pooling?”

I think we can.

I grew up in an era in which another driving practice was also generally tolerated because it was convenient.  That was “drinking and driving”.  It feels very uncomfortable to have to admit this in the context of the 21st century but the fact is that most people in post-war North America assumed it was perfectly fine to take command of a vehicle after having a few drinks. 

That was irresponsible behaviour which led to tragic results.  But I am happy to say that our collective attitude towards this practice has changed dramatically.  It may not be 100% justified but I will peg the beginning of that change to the foundation of “Mothers Against Drunk Driving” in 1980 (http://www.madd.org/about-us/history/madd25thhistory.pdf).

In 1982 53% of highway fatalities involved impaired drivers. That fell to 34% in 1997 and 31% in 2010 (all figures from NHTSA reports). This was brought about in large part by an aggressive and graphic public education effort by government, public service organizations, and private advocacy groups such as MADD. More severe legal penalties and stepped up enforcement also have played a major role. 

It is simply not socially acceptable to drink and drive anymore and that is a good thing.

The same sort of change is possible with car-pooling. 

The first step is to admit that we have a problem. 

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation the cost to build and maintain roads in the United States was $160 billion in 2009.  Even a small change in utilization through car-pooling could result in billions of dollars in annual savings.

There have been numerous studies linking tailpipe emissions to serious health concerns including premature death.  In Canada is has been estimated that the annual costs related to treatment of air-pollution related illness is in the billions of dollars. 

So I believe that one component of a “Going for Gold” strategy for car-pooling is a public awareness program through advertising that describes the negative impacts of single-occupancy commuting in a compelling way.

The second and very critical step for this program is a quick and easy way for commuters to find compatible car-pool companions.  There are a number of on-line car-pooling services which have met with varying degrees of commercial success.  However, it is my opinion that only a centralized non-profit service sponsored by or owned outright by a government consortium can be really successful.

Having home addresses, work destinations, and travel patterns stored on-line is a bit worrisome even for the least paranoid Internet user.  Having this information scattered across multiple for-profit web sites and systems that are competing to establish proprietary user bases is guaranteed to reduce the likelihood of a good match.

Public authorities already have all the basic demographic information about us whether we like it or not. They also have access to criminal records and motor vehicle violations.  By pulling this information together and gathering travel times and patterns these same authorities could provide the most effective car-pool matching service possible.

There is also an important role for employers.  Although many larger companies already support internal car-pool programs they are inconsistent both in the level of recognition and support they get and in the systems used to implement them.

Employers, large and small, need to treat employees that car-pool as the working class heroes that they are, sacrificing some of their own time and convenience for the greater good.  There needs to be a consistent and very public recognition program for car-poolers with a high enough profile to make people take notice.  This could include things as simple and inexpensive as special mouse pads or certificates of appreciation.  Long-time car-poolers could be rewarded with a lunch or possibly even a day off with pay from time to time.

Establishing public education programs to raise awareness about the societal benefits of car-pooling and having matching and recognition programs in place represent the “carrots” in our “Go for Gold” program.  But I believe that there also have to be consequences for people that ignore all the positive reinforcement.

In 2003 the city of London, England instituted a “congestion” charge of approximately $15 for every vehicle entering the central part of the city.  Despite political pressures including several mayoralty contests fought principally on this issue the charge has survived.  The impact has been a sustained decline of over 30% in car and mini-cab traffic and an increase of almost 100% in bicycle traffic (http://www.tfl.gov.uk/assets/downloads/corporate/Travel_in_London_Report_2.pdf). 

The technology exists to implement this in a modified form along the major commuter routes serving North American cities.  A charge could be applied based upon license plate recognition supplemented by human observers for every Single-Occupant-Vehicle (SOV) travelling during rush hour.  Exceptions could be made for drivers that have tried unsuccessfully to get a car-pool match.  Charges could also be applied only after a certain number of SOV trips by the same vehicle in a given month.  Flexibility and sensitivity towards people that can’t make car-pooling work should be important components of the system.  But in the end, if you have the opportunity to make use of a car-pool and you choose not to, you should have to pay a price.

All funds raised from the SOV charges should be used to support the public education, car-pool matching, and recognition programs.

Putting these elements together through public policy and private advocacy would put car-pooling where it belongs – at the top of the podium when it comes to energy conservation.