Monday, October 3, 2011

It's not easy being green

Now here's the sort of problem almost everyone wished they had—so much solar energy (including wind) that conventional electrical generation is impacted.  That's the whole idea, after all.  But this situation exposes the sort of problems that any conversion to renewables will face—solar is inconvenient because it isn't reliable.  At least nowhere as reliable as the ability to throw a switch and the power surges—any time, any weather.

Those of us who sail are well-acquainted with the problems associated with relying on wind.  The whole point is to extract the most energy out of the wind when it blows and do something else when it doesn't.  Unlike most of the sailors of history, we folks who sail for fun these days almost always have a reliable (and fossil-fueled) back-up system to get us home when the fun is over and we must return to our lives.  Multiply this situation by some orders of magnitude and you have the essential problem of powering a whole society with renewables.  Yes it is possible—but it is a whole lot more of a hassle than just starting up an engine.

Here is what a sailor can tell you about depending on the wind.
  • There is no set-and-forget with wind.  When the wind changes the sails must change—even (especially) if that happens at 2:00 am.  Wind power always requires more tending—good news if you want to create jobs but bad news if you think ongoing labor costs are evil (especially the high labor costs associated with those skilled enough to 'sail' a whole society).
  • Too much wind is an even bigger problem than not enough—as anyone who has ridden out a frightening storm will tell you.
  • Back-up power systems are essential if you want to run your ship on any sort of schedule.  On land, this means essentially building two power systems with the back-up system being almost as large as the primary one. 
Utilities Giving Away Electricity as Wind, Sun Overwhelm European Network
By Kari Lundgren and Lars Paulsson - Sep 30, 2011

The 15 mile-per-hour winds that buffeted northern Germany on July 24 caused the nation’s 21,600 windmills to generate so much power that utilities such as EON AG and RWE AG (RWE) had to pay consumers to take it off the grid. 
Rather than an anomaly, the event marked the 31st hour this year when power companies lost money on their electricity in the intraday market because of a torrent of supply from wind and solar parks. The phenomenon was unheard of five years ago. 
With Europe’s wind and solar farms set to triple by 2020, utilities investing in new coal and gas-fired power stations no longer face stable returns. As more renewables come on line, a gas plant owned by RWE or EON that may cost $1 billion to build will be stopped more often from running at full capacity. It may only pay for itself on days like Jan. 31, when clouds and still weather pushed an hour of power on the same-day market above 162 ($220) euros a megawatt-hour after dusk, in peak demand time. 
“You’re looking at a future where on a sunny day in Germany, you’ll have negative prices,” Bloomberg New Energy Finance chief solar analyst Jenny Chase said about power rates in wholesale trading. “And a lot of the other markets are heading the same way.” 
Europe’s biggest power markets give preference to renewable energy including forcing some utilities to use their fossil-fuel plants less. That cuts into profit, complicating investment decisions as the companies try to meet emission targets and replace older plants and networks that Citigroup Inc. estimates will cost them more than 900 billion euros by 2020. 
Northern Europe’s renewable-energy goals call for about 200 gigawatts of solar and wind capacity by 2020, or almost a third of the current installed base, compared with about 70 gigawatts today, according to the Finnish energy consultant Poyry. Even by 2014, gross profit from burning coal in Germany may skid by as much as 41 percent, according to Barclays Plc. 
The gross margin at a coal power plant after deducting fuel and emission permit costs, the so-called clean dark spread, may “collapse” to as low at 3.50 euros a megawatt-hour, Barclays analysts including Peter Bisztyga said in a Sept. 1 report. The spread was at 6.15 euros today, Bloomberg data show. 
Narrower margins mean it will take longer for companies to pay off building new gas- and coal-fired facilities. Those plants are needed. They can run around the clock, preventing blackouts when the sun sets or the wind dies as European power demand grows 5 percent through 2015 compared with 2010, according to Paris-based bank Societe Generale SA’s forecast. more
If there is one primary lesson the rest of us can learn from the Germans it is: It's a whole lot easier being green with money to spend.  I maintain that this fact means that the developments costs associated with the conversion to solar should be borne mostly by the well-off.  Sorry to bear this bad news to my lefty friends—going solar is not now, nor will it ever be a hippy enterprise.
The Transformation of Germany's Greens 
Neoliberals on Bikes
Hamburg’s most fashionable district is also its greenest, though this is not immediately apparent from the foot of the Marco Polo Tower — 16 storeys of luxury apartments that look like a sliced loaf. (They cost an average €3.7m.) A love of nature isn’t obvious either at the nearby offices of Unilever, but the agri-food and cosmetics giant has fitted low-energy light bulbs in its new 25,000 square metre headquarters, the biggest area ever so equipped. “The whole building has been designed to the strictest environmental standards,” said the receptionist. The ground floor atrium has even been fitted with a heat recapture system, he told me, pointing at the glass ceiling. 
The Marco Polo Tower and the Unilever headquarters are the pride of HafenCity, Hamburg’s 155 hectare business district, with offices and apartments slotted in alongside the brick warehouses of the old Speicherstadt on the banks of the Elbe. By the time the building work is complete in 2025, this Dubai of the north should be a workplace to 40,000 people and home to 12,000 members of the “creative classes”, according to the project’s promoters. Culture will be catered for by the Elbphilharmonie, a concert hall that the city is financing to the tune of €351m. The cranes are still at work in some places, but the lots already completed are buzzing with senior managers nibbling Thai tapas on café terraces or drinking mediocre wine in expensive bars. 
But appearances can be deceptive: just because the “biggest urban development project in Europe” is part of the reclamation of the waste land by bankers and city whiz kids, as was London’s Docklands, doesn’t mean it runs counter to the principles of sustainable development. Quite the reverse. “With its geothermal heating, low-pollution building materials, green spaces, pedestrian streets and cycle routes, it’s really a pioneer development in terms of sustainability,” said Harald Müller, 53, an engineer who lives and works in HafenCity. Sitting in Carl’s with a plate of pickled herring (which he favours over the other house speciality, truffle risotto), Müller made no secret of the fact that he has voted Green since 1997. The Greens didn’t conceive the project but they backed it all the way, he said, and “without them, the district certainly wouldn’t have this ecological dimension”. 
Hamburg, European Green Capital 2011, certainly has environmental credentials. The Greens have twice participated in coalitions that ran the city, with the Social Democrat SPD (1997-2001) and the Conservative CDU (2008-10). Their impact is nowhere more evident than in HafenCity. Even the street names bear their mark; the Greens insisted that names given to public places should respect gender equality. 
“Yes, it’s a district for high earners, but the buildings are very creative and I think it’s great for the image of the city,” said Katharina Fegebank, general secretary of Hamburg’s Greens. Her colleague, Anja Hajduk, a member of the Bundestag from 2002 to 2008, said: “On the whole a it’s success, even if the prices are high. What was important to us when we were in government was ensuring that the district was open to all the people of Hamburg so that they could walk there. We got a guarantee that the ground floor of the Unilever building would be open to the public.” 
Is this low-energy community of millionaires an early gain in the green revolution sweeping Germany? Leader writers have begun assessing the possibility of a Green chancellor in 2013 (see Green and golden). The rise of the Greens in the past few months is spectacular: “a mixture of Blitzkrieg and the Long March” according to their critics’ jokes. more
But just remember, green yuppie neighborhoods are only laboratories where solutions for the rest of us can be perfected.  Because the problems facing the planet are staggering.
With Deaths of Forests, a Loss of Key Climate Protectors
Published: October 1, 2011

WISE RIVER, Mont. — The trees spanning many of the mountainsides of western Montana glow an earthy red, like a broadleaf forest at the beginning of autumn.

But these trees are not supposed to turn red. They are evergreens, falling victim to beetles that used to be controlled in part by bitterly cold winters. As the climate warms, scientists say, that control is no longer happening.

Across millions of acres, the pines of the northern and central Rockies are dying, just one among many types of forests that are showing signs of distress these days.

From the mountainous Southwest deep into Texas, wildfires raced across parched landscapes this summer, burning millions more acres. In Colorado, at least 15 percent of that state’s spectacular aspen forests have gone into decline because of a lack of water.

The devastation extends worldwide. The great euphorbia trees of southern Africa are succumbing to heat and water stress. So are the Atlas cedars of northern Algeria. Fires fed by hot, dry weather are killing enormous stretches of Siberian forest. Eucalyptus trees are succumbing on a large scale to a heat blast in Australia, and the Amazon recently suffered two “once a century” droughts just five years apart, killing many large trees. more
And a visual reminder of how much power we humans use just for lighting.

1 comment:

  1. Coal Industry would suggest the commodity isn't going anywhere. Coal reports show if we have to live with it, we may as well reduce the impact of coal and CCS seems to be the best solution found to date. Cherry While for some an ideal world would see no reliance on coal statistics to produce electricity,