Hallowe’en 2013: Nightmare on Main Street

Posted in Uncategorized at 8:54 pm by Administrator

It must be admitted that the circumstances were unique.

The consequences, although predicted by a few (or so they claimed) were dismissed as impossible by political leaders and the general public.

And yet there had been warning signs.

For months the price of oil had been moving monotonically higher; not at an alarming rate but without any obvious underlying cause.

Those with technical knowledge of the subject would have pointed out that the increase in daily oil production capacity had not been keeping pace with the increasing daily demand for several years.



Reflections on one year of blogging

Posted in Uncategorized at 5:58 pm by Administrator

It was in October of 2012 that I started "The Black Swan Blog". 

What was my motivation?  The trigger for me was reading a white paper written by Vinod Khosla entitled Black Swans thesis of energy transformation. This paper put forth the proposition that step-change technologies and approaches rather than incremental improvements will be required to address the energy needs of developing economies. The "Black Swan" event represents a sudden change in thinking or perspective which can lead to true innovation. This was the fundamental concept at the heart of the book "The Black Swan" by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

When I investigated various alternative energy initiatives that were underway and the way taxpayer and ratepayer funding was being allocated I became alarmed.  It did not seem to me that the large subsidies supporting the development of photo-voltaic solar panels and wind farms were sustainable.  It actually seemed like this was in many ways lost money. Nor did there seem to be any serious effort towards overcoming the biggest problems associated with renewable energy sources; reliability and variability.

In order to bring my concerns to the attention of the public I started "The Black Swan Blog".  Over the past year I have published more than 45 articles on everything from concentrated solar power to geoexchange to hydro-kinetics.  At Energyblogs.com I have had more than 25,000 "reads" and counting other sites that I post at (and various cross-postings of my blog) the total number of times my blog entries have been read is greater than 70,000.

Is that impressive?  In a world where almost any celebrity blog posting attracts millions of readers I certainly don't think so.  On the other hand, from many positive comments that I have received there are thousands of people who have found at least some of the postings in "The Black Swan Blog" to be of interest.

I have learned a lot while researching and writing blog entries.  I am now more convinced than ever that we should be focusing almost all of our R&D and funding towards the development of inexpensive utility-scale energy storage solutions that can retain energy for many days.  If we had a solution to that problem then wind turbines could basically meet all of our energy needs.  Conversely, without affordable energy storage solutions wind farms cause more problems than they are worth.

I am now absolutely opposed to any financial support for residential roof-top solar panels.  They are expensive to install and maintain, inefficient because they are installed at a fixed angle, and require unnecessary upgrades to the local grid infrastructure which other utility customers end up paying for.  This type of installation is consuming enormous amounts of money through capital grants, tax credits and Feed-In-Tariffs – tens of billions of dollars that could be better spent on storage technology.

I am also now opposed to any solar power development north and south of about 35 degrees latitude.  My concern with such developments is the very large difference between winter and summer energy production. 

In the higher latitudes peak demand is often during the late afternoon and through long winter nights when solar is not available.  Relying upon solar in any significant way will require a lot of over-building in order to deal with low solar energy availability in winter and would result in a large surplus of electricity during the middle of the day in the summer.  The other alternative would be to maintain some other source of electricity as back-up in winter.  Neither situation really helps us move towards a sustainable energy future in a cost-effective manner. At some point in the future compressed hydrogen may provide the large scale, long duration energy storage that would allow solar energy to be balanced throughout the year at these latitudes.  But until then solar power developments north and south of 35 degrees do not make a lot of sense.

On the other hand I believe that solar power should be the primary focus at latitudes lower than 35 degrees.  Combining Photo-Voltaic (PV) solar panels to supply electricity during the day with Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) and Thermal Energy Storage at night would provide dispatchable and reliable base load electricity generation for a reasonable cost. 

The Solana plant in Arizona which cost approximately $2 billion (about $7/watt)  represents one example (although it is a pure CSP facility).  The plant can produce 280 MW of electricity for up to 6 hours after the sun has set (in the same way that the Gemasolar plant in Spain generates 24×365).  A combined PV/CSP facility could have been built for significantly less and would have provided the same extended generation profile.

I am particularly bullish about PV+CSP for the Hawaiian Islands where residual fuel oil is burned to produce electricity.

Another possible application of this technology is in the Middle East where more than 2% of the world's oil consumption is used by desalination plants.  One large solar-powered plant is under construction in Saudi Arabia; PV+CSP has the potential to completely eliminate the burning of oil for desalination, a very poor use of a valuable and non-renewable resource.

While we develop energy storage solutions we also need to become more flexible in the way we use electricity.  Demand Response programs are being initiated by some utilities but even more needs to be done to promote public education and awareness of the importance of reducing energy use at peak demand times.  The truth of the matter is that we only have a problem with energy for a few hours per day for a few weeks per year.  A program such as the one implemented in post-Fukushima Japan would have a significant positive impact on our ability to manage peak demand.

Finally, I continue to be a strong advocate for geoexchange systems.  If building codes mandated the use of geoexchange rather than traditional HVAC systems the impact on energy use for both heating and cooling would be very significant.  Widespread deployment of geoexchange systems could effectively "clip" peak demand both in the summer and winter.

I can't say that "The Black Swan Blog" has had any impact on alternative energy policy or practice during year one. I do think it has given readers some different perspectives on the complex issues surrounding renewables and the practical realities that will need to be faced as we transition to a sustainable energy enviroment.

What's the bottom line?  I have had enough interest and positive feedback to keep "The Black Swan Blog" going for another year. 

Thanks for your support.



It’s time to do the right things “not because they are easy but because they are hard”

Posted in Uncategorized at 11:35 pm by Administrator

It was in May of 1961 that President John F. Kennedy declared that the United States would do the things required to land a man on the moon before the decade was out “not because they are easy but because they are hard”.



The Wind Production Tax Credit should not be renewed

Posted in Uncategorized at 2:36 pm by Administrator

With the U.S. government “closed for business” and a looming debt ceiling crisis the debate over whether or not to extend the wind energy Production Tax Credit (PTC) is not getting much attention these days. President Obama’s official position is that the PTC should be extended indefinitely. Many in Congress disagree and there are is ample private sector and research lab commentary on both sides of the question.

In my opinion the PTC debate has to be framed within the context of what is the most effective use of scarce public funding to advance our transition from an economy based upon hydro-carbons to one based upon renewable energy sources. On that basis and with all due respect to President Obama I don’t think the PTC should be a priority.

Initially there was general acceptance of the need to spur innovation and reduce the installation costs of wind generation. With the transition to larger and larger turbines and very tall mounting towers the efficiency of wind generation has been improved and costs per MW of generation have fallen. But those cost reductions were driven in large part by competition from Chinese manufacturers rather than any breakthroughs in technology and the cost reductions have largely leveled off.

As wind generation in many jurisdictions in the world has developed it has moved from being a “green energy” bragging point in annual reports to being an operational concern for most Independent System Operators. The fundamental problem with wind generation is its unreliability and variability.

Wind generation is a bit like nutmeg. In small doses nutmeg is a pleasant treat to sprinkle on coffee or eggnog; taken in bulk it can be fatal. We are rapidly moving out of “pleasant treat” territory when it comes to wind generation.

In areas where wind capacity is relatively large compared to demand (Denmark, Germany, The U.S. Mid-West and Texas) the problems with wind are starting to get serious.

From a physical grid standpoint the most difficult problem is the very rapid ramp-up and ramp-down that wind farms can experience, even over very large areas. A quick look at the German generation for 2012 demonstrates the problem.

Despite having over 30 GW of Nameplate capacity there are many times when there is virtually no wind energy production across the whole of Germany. The periods of regional calm have lasted from a few minutes to many consecutive hours. In Germany’s case interconnections with Norway, Sweden, France, and the Czech Republic allow these rapid variations to be balanced by fast response hydro and nuclear generation outside the country. The same is true of Denmark.

In Texas these variations are balanced by thermal generation assets (mostly coal and natural gas fired plants) many of which have to be kept on-line as “spinning reserves” able to respond quickly to wind generation fluctuations. But because of the deregulated market in Texas and the existence of the PTC wind electricity producers can bid very low prices into the ERCOT market to the point where quite often they are bidding negative prices (this practice of bidding negative prices is even more prevalent with the Midcontinent Independent System operator – MISO).