Thursday, February 14, 2013

A conversion to renewables has many steps

What most people fail to understand about technology is while it's a long way from an idea to an actual product, it is usually an even longer distance to a product that is reliable and affordable.  That idea was the driving concept behind Elegant Technology—that the developmental distance between living in caves and watching a giant flat-screen television might even be less than the developmental distance between an industrial society that can make LED flat-screen TVs and an industrialization that doesn't screw up the planet.  Oh, and that progress will only happen one tiny detail at a time.

Today's detail is a system for monitoring the structural health of a wind turbines in real time.

Spotting the invisible cracks in wind turbines

A new approach is available for real-time monitoring of the structural health of wind turbine components during exposure to turbulence’s.

Physicists have now developed a new method for analysing the elastic characteristics of mechanical structures subjected to disturbances, akin to the turbulences affecting wind turbines. These results are about to be published in EPJ B by Philip Rinn and his colleagues at the ForWind Center for Wind Energy Research at the University of Oldenburg, Germany.

A significant percentage of the costs of wind energy is due to wind turbine failures, as components are weakened under turbulent air flow conditions and need to be replaced. The challenge for the team was to find a method for detecting fatigue in the wind turbines’ parts without having to remove each of the components and while the turbine is in operation.

Until now, standard methods have relied on so-called spectral analysis, which looks at the different frequency response. But these measurements are distorted by the turbulent working conditions. As a result, these detection methods often only detect really major damages, like a crack that covers more than 50 percent of a blade. The authors used a simple experimental set-up of undamaged and damaged beam structures and exposed them to excitations containing an element of interfering vibrations, or noise, made by different turbulent wind conditions.

The analytical method they developed enabled them to distinguish between dynamics attributed to mechanical properties such as stiffness of the blade and those attributed to interfering noise, such as turbulences. The authors demonstrated that they were able to precisely detect the changing mechanical properties of the beam material based on an analysis of the mechanical vibrations. Ultimately, when the method is further refined, this could be used to identify material fatigue or untightened screws, for example, and be applied to more complex structures such as automotive or airplane parts. more
I have friends who really love Thom Hartmann.  I would join them in my admiration if I wasn't so annoyed by the primitive nature of many of his arguments.  For example, in USA, Hartmann is a big-time progressive.  Those same ideas wouldn't get him into the environmental ministry of Angela Merkel's right-wing government.  But give the man credit—he does evolve.  And today's article shows he is actually becoming aware just how enormous the renewables conversion will be.  He is, after all, comparing it to the Manhattan Project.  If he understands how large a public-works project the Manhattan Project actually was, it is a sign he is beginning to understand.  Go Thom!

A New Manhattan Project

by Thom Hartmann | February 10, 2013

Something interesting is happening in Australia.

A new study by the research firm Bloomberg New Energy Finance has found that unsubsidized renewable energy is now cheaper than fossil fuels like coal and gas.

In fact, it’s a lot cheaper.
Data shows that wind farms in Australia can produce energy at AU$80/MWh. Meanwhile, coal plants are producing energy at AU$143/MWh and gas at AU$116/MWh.

Unlike the United States, where energy companies can pollute and have the costs (from illness to environmental degradation) picked up by the taxpayers, Australia has a carbon tax, which partially explains why renewables have a price advantage. But the data shows that even without the cost of carbon tax factored in; wind energy is still 14-cents cheaper than coal and 18-cents cheaper than gas.

And this is in a nation that relies more heavily on coal than any other industrialized nation in the world. But that coal reliance will soon change, as companies in Australia are quickly adopting new, cheaper renewable energies. As the study found, banks and lending institutions in Australia are now less and less likely to finance new coal plants, because they've simply become a bad investment.

And, while Australian wind is cheapest now, by 2020 - and maybe sooner - solar power will also be cheaper than coal and gas in Australia. The energy game is rapidly changing in that country.

Michael Liebrich, the chief executive of Bloomberg New Energy Finance, noted, “The perception that fossil fuels are cheap and renewables are expensive is now out of date.”

Well, here’s a news flash: That perception has been out of date for a while now – even right here in the United States.

According to the Energy Information Administration, looking ahead to 2016, natural gas is the cheapest energy in the United States at roughly $66/MWh. Coal comes in second at $94/MWh. But right behind coal is renewable wind at $97/MWh, which in large part accounts for why U.S. wind energy production has tripled since 2000.

And, unlike in Australia, none of those US prices account for the externalities associated with fossil fuels like pollution, cancers, military protection, or global warming. In America, the fossil fuel industry has made sure those externalities are paid for not by the coal and gas energy producers, but instead by you and me.

The fossil fuel industry doesn't pay a penny of the cost of rapidly accelerating climate change. Or the healthcare costs from exhaust- and refinery-driven diseases and deaths from air, water, and other pollution. Not to mention the community costs of decreasing property values when a coal plant is put in your backyard. Nor do they put a cent toward the cost of our Navy keeping the oil shipping lanes open or our soldiers “protecting” the countries that “produce” all that oil.

All of these externalities come with fossil fuel production, but pretty much don't exist with renewable energy production. And those externality costs are not only not paid for by the fossil fuel industry – they're never even mentioned in the corporate-run “news” media in America.

Research from the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences concludes that the total cost of these externalities, if paid by the polluters themselves, would raise US fossil fuel prices by as much as nearly $3/MWh. And that’s an extremely conservative estimate. Which puts wind power on parity with coal in America.

The trend lines here are pretty clear: Buggywhip, meet automobile!

Renewables are getting cheaper, and fossil fuels are getting more expensive.

Which is why we as a nation need to throw everything we have at making renewable energies our primary way of powering America into the 21st century.

Think of it as a new Manhattan Project. We need green energy, local energy, and a 21st century smart grid to handle it all.

Over time, the marketplace will do this for us. But with just about every developed country in the world ahead of us, and our dependence on oil making us more and more tightly bound to Middle Eastern dictators and radicals, to wait and hope big transnational corporations will help birth a new America is both naïve and stupid. Instead of depending on them, we should be recovering from them the cost of those externalities – a carbon tax – that can be used to build a new energy infrastructure in America.

Let’s take a lesson from Australia and the Eurozone, which have both set up carbon taxes to make 19th century energy barons pay for at least some of the damage they've done. And then use that revenue for a green energy revolution here in America.

Considering the threats of climate change, war, and disease, only an idiot – or a fossil-fuel billionaire like Charles or David Koch – would want us to bring in more oil with a pipeline or take any other steps to continue America's dependence on dirty and costly last-century fuels. more
In the meantime, Germany and Europe are calling for a breather in the development of renewables.  Of course, while 99% of this second-guessing is due to the economic problems caused by crooked bankers, it probably isn't the worst thing to call for a serious engineering review.  But a major slowdown is intolerable.  If banksters kill the development of renewables, they will have exceeded even the normal amount of evil they have displayed throughout history.

A Mere Breeze: Era of Fast Growth Ends for Wind Energy in Europe

By Joel Stonington in Vienna

A darker future for wind energy around the world?

The debt crisis is finally catching up with wind energy, once a fast-growing sector in Europe. After more than a decade of double-digit growth, austerity, rapidly changing energy policies and skittish investors are putting a damper on the industry.

It is often the elephant in the room at any conference on renewable energy. Sometimes, it's mentioned simply as the "s" word and other times it's not mentioned at all. But subsidies remain crucial, with wind energy still struggling to achieve price parity with coal and natural gas. This week in Vienna, at the European Wind Energy Association's annual conference, subsidies came up right away.

This time, it was the source of the comments that was unexpected. During the opening keynote, Fatih Birol, the chief economist at the International Energy Agency, proclaimed fossil fuel subsidies to be the "Public Enemy No. 1" of sustainable energy developments. This, from a man who just eight short years ago was urging "substantial" increases in new oil and gas drilling investments.

His argument was simple. Renewable energies right now are suffering from a dual problem: Governments around the world are slashing aid for clean energy, and massive subsidies propping up the fossil fuel industry are making it impossible to compete with the cheaper energy.

The current global total in fossil fuel subsidies for 2011, according to Birol, was $523 billion. The result was an incentive equivalent to $110 per ton of carbon emitted. In comparison, global subsidies for renewables amounted to what seems like a paltry $88 billion in the same year.

"If we had an ideal world -- with no subsidies for nuclear, gas or coal -- in that world, onshore wind would do extremely well," Christian Kjaer, CEO of the European Wind Energy Association, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "But that's a utopia."

Wind Power Still Growing, But for How Long?

Even in an uneven playing field, the wind industry has been growing rapidly in recent years. There are now 22 countries with at least a gigawatt of wind power installed (enough to provide electricity to 200,000 homes). In the European Union, countries installed 11.6 gigawatts of new energy capacity last year, up from 9.4 gigawatts put in place in 2011, according to the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA). Wind has long since become a mainstream player in the global energy market.

The problem is that the gains Europe made this year came mostly from orders placed before the debt crisis that has gripped Europe since 2010, Kjaer said.

And if national policies aren't adjusted to reflect a changing reality, the growth rate is expected to drop to 6 percent by 2020 and 4 percent by 2030, according to a report released in November by Greenpeace and the Global Wind Energy Council.

Germany has fared well in the crisis itself, but it has had its own share of problems with renewables, with electricity prices for consumers surging as a result of the government's Energiewende, a policy of phasing out nuclear energy and increasing reliance on green energy approved by Chancellor Angela Merkel's government in response to the Fukushima catastrophe.

Last month in Berlin, Environment Minister Peter Altmaier announced he would seek to stop the swift rise in electricity costs by capping subsidies on renewable energies -- a move that, while possibly helping consumers, could also adversely impact further growth in the wind power market. Political observers called it a bald political ploy to gain votes in the upcoming national election. Despite his announcement, however, most observers felt it was unlikely Germany would change its course. And support within Merkel's coalition government for his proposal is also limited. Nevertheless, the announcement is precisely the kind of thing that spooks investors.

Regulatory Uncertainty

"Who here believes regulatory uncertainty is the main hazard to growth of wind going forward?" asked Thomas Pütter, chairman of Ancora Finance Group, while onstage at the EWEA annual conference. Nearly every hand in the room went up.

In tough economic times, politicians are looking at every little thing to cut. And high energy prices have made renewables a target for politicians looking to score points.

Germany's current laws allow renewable energy producers to feed electricity into the grid at a fixed, above-market price, called a feed-in tariff. The goal of the law was to encourage investment and help bring the cost of energy from technologies like solar panels and wind farms into fair market competitiveness with coal, nuclear or gas. Renewables in Germany and other countries with feed-in tariffs have boomed, with a corresponding cost to consumers for the subsidies. Across Europe, the battles are loud and bitter on policy issues surrounding energy.

"At times of distress, every form of subsidy comes under pressure," David Jones, the head of renewable energy for Allianz Capital Partners, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. The group has 42 investments in wind worth €1.3 billion. Jones said that the key for investors such as Allianz is stability in the investments moving forward. He noted that the difference in risk between European countries has grown, with the possibility of making more money in riskier countries and also a higher possibility of losing it.

With wind, the initial capital investment is especially important. And the political uncertainty surrounding subsidies can have a negative knock-on effect. With increased investment risk, the uncertainty can make borrowing money for projects considerably more expensive. This double threat appears likely to push the wind power growth into the doldrums in 2013.

Confidence Crushed

And although Altmaier's proposal may have the potential to create difficulty on the financing side, it is still nothing compared to the loss in confidence created when countries retroactively change feed-in tariffs. The German environment minister's own plan would not change the guaranteed price for energy produced on wind farms that have already been built. But that's not the case in a number of countries around Europe that have announced retroactive changes since the downturn.

At the EWEA conference, those retroactive changes were spoken of with the kind of spite and anger usually reserved for criminals. The most commonly quoted worst-practices example was Spain. The country has spent the last few years consistently making decisions that instill a sense of horror among investors.

The country introduced a retroactive feed-in tariff cut in 2008 and a 7 percent energy tax last month. And new rules governing the feed-in tariff that became law on Feb. 2 caused major drops in valuation for Spain's wind farm owners. The most recent example was Acciona SA, which recently saw a four-day drop in valuation of roughly €850 million.

Trouble in Paris

In recent months, nearly every country in Europe that subsidizes renewable energy has been tinkering with changes or rewriting regulation in a haphazard way. The French government set up a successful feed-in-tariff to provide demand for energy from wind but later loaded it down with stifling bureaucracy. Wind energy projects must now slog through a process that can take five or six years before they get approved.

Further, France's feed-in-tariff has been bogged down by an anti-wind advocacy group called Vent de Colere, or Wind of Anger. The group calls the tariffs a form of state aid and has pursued a legal case all the way to the European Union's Court of Justice. With the uncertainty surrounding the court case, and a decision not expected until November, investment has slowed to a trickle.

The result has been that, in 2012, France installed roughly half of the government-set goal for new wind energy capacity. The French Wind Association, which represents 250 companies in the industry, expects 1,000 jobs to lost by the end of the year. The association's president, Nicolas Wolff, as if giving a eulogy, said: "The French market was a promising one."

Mixed Signals

Just going by the numbers, last year was an exceptional one for the wind industry in Europe. More than a quarter of the new energy capacity built on the Continent was wind-based, according to EWEA, and 7 percent of Europe's energy demand is now fed with wind.

However, the times of huge, double-digit gains may be over for the industry. In Europe, the failure of the Continent-wide carbon emissions trading system, which is intended to penalize CO2-heavy companies by requiring them to purchase certificates for their emissions and is thus intended to spur investment in green energies, is contributing to the growth problem. The floor has fallen out on the market for emissions certificates. Meanwhile, the US hasn't even established its own carbon trading system yet. Add to this the fact that fracking has given the country access to cheap and cleaner natural gas. Instead of burning coal, the US is now exporting it abroad and driving global market prices down.

With no real price on carbon and mass fossil fuel subsidies to the tune of $500 billion, wind power will likely stagnate. Until recently, China, with its turbo growth in wind power, could be relied upon as a major driver of global growth in the sector, but even there the market is stalling. And the Global Wind Energy Council's "Wind Energy Outlook" suggests that developing markets like Brazil and India are unlikely to fill the gap.

For those in the wind industry, it's the financing that matters the most. And for those with the money, volatility very simply means greater risk. Even high-level comments that serve as a political foil can mean lead to millions of euros in additional costs for a single new project. "If you want to attract investments," Kjaer commented. "You can't send mixed signals." more
The following article highlights a problem I identified in Elegant Technology.  Yes it is possible to build substitutes for coal-fired electrical generation.  But we must be careful that the new "solutions" are not more environmentally harmful.  And because pollution is always a function of design, the time to worry about these things is when the new energy systems are being developed.

Solar Panel Makers Continue To Ship Tons Of Toxic Waste Thousands Of Miles Away

Jason Dearen, Associated Press | Feb. 10, 2013

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Homeowners on the hunt for sparkling solar panels are lured by ads filled with images of pristine landscapes and bright sunshine, and words about the technology's benefits for the environment — and the wallet.

What customers may not know is that there's a dirtier side.

While solar is a far less polluting energy source than coal or natural gas, many panel makers are nevertheless grappling with a hazardous waste problem. Fueled partly by billions in government incentives, the industry is creating millions of solar panels each year and, in the process, millions of pounds of polluted sludge and contaminated water.

To dispose of the material, the companies must transport it by truck or rail far from their own plants to waste facilities hundreds and, in some cases, thousands of miles away.

The fossil fuels used to transport that waste, experts say, is not typically considered in calculating solar's carbon footprint, giving scientists and consumers who use the measurement to gauge a product's impact on global warming the impression that solar is cleaner than it is.

After installing a solar panel, "it would take one to three months of generating electricity to pay off the energy invested in driving those hazardous waste emissions out of state," said Dustin Mulvaney, a San Jose State University environmental studies professor who conducts carbon footprint analyses of solar, biofuel and natural gas production.

The waste from manufacturing has raised concerns within the industry, which fears that the problem, if left unchecked, could undermine solar's green image at a time when companies are facing stiff competition from each other and from low-cost panel manufacturers from China and elsewhere.

"We want to take the lessons learned from electronics and semiconductor industries (about pollution) and get ahead of some of these problems," said John Smirnow, vice president for trade and competitiveness at the nearly 500-member Solar Energy Industries Association.

The increase in solar hazardous waste is directly related to the industry's fast growth over the past five years — even with solar business moving to China rapidly, the U.S. was a net exporter of solar products by $2 billion in 2010, the last year of data available. The nation was even a net exporter to China.

New companies often send hazardous waste out of their plants because they have not yet invested in on-site treatment equipment, which allows them to recycle some waste.

Nowhere is the waste issue more evident than in California, where landmark regulations approved in the 1970s require industrial plants like solar panel makers to report the amount of hazardous materials they produce, and where they send it. California leads the consumer solar market in the U.S. — which doubled overall both in 2010 and 2011.

The Associated Press compiled a list of 41 solar makers in the state, which included the top companies based on market data, and startups. In response to an AP records request, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control provided data that showed 17 of them reported waste, while the remaining did not.

The same level of federal data does not exist.

The state records show the 17 companies, which had 44 manufacturing facilities in California, produced 46.5 million pounds of sludge and contaminated water from 2007 through the first half of 2011. Roughly 97 percent of it was taken to hazardous waste facilities throughout the state, but more than 1.4 million pounds were transported to nine other states: Arkansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, Rhode Island, Nevada, Washington, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona.

Several solar energy experts said they have not calculated the industry's total waste and were surprised at what the records showed.

Solyndra, the now-defunct solar company that received $535 million in guaranteed federal loans, reported producing about 12.5 million pounds of hazardous waste, much of it carcinogenic cadmium-contaminated water, which was sent to waste facilities from 2007 through mid-2011.

Before the company went bankrupt, leading to increased scrutiny of the solar industry and political fallout for President Barack Obama's administration, Solyndra said it created 100 megawatts-worth of solar panels, enough to power 100,000 homes.

The records also show several other Silicon Valley solar facilities created millions of pounds of toxic waste without selling a single solar panel, while they were developing their technology or fine-tuning their production.

While much of the waste produced is considered toxic, there was no evidence it has harmed human health.

The vast majority of solar companies that generated hazardous waste in California have not been cited for waste-related pollution violations, although three had minor violations on file.

In many cases, a toxic sludge is created when metals and other toxins are removed from water used in the manufacturing process. If a company doesn't have its own treatment equipment, then it will send contaminated water to be stored at an approved dump.

According to scientists who conduct so-called "life cycle analysis" for solar, the transport of waste is not currently being factored into the carbon footprint score, which measures the amount of greenhouse gases produced when making a product.

Life cycle analysts add up all the global warming pollution that goes into making a certain product — from the mining needed for components to the exhaust from diesel trucks used to transport waste and materials. Not factoring the hazardous waste transport into solar's carbon footprint is an obvious oversight, analysts said.

"The greenhouse gas emissions associated with transporting this waste is not insignificant," Mulvaney said.

Mulvaney noted that shipping, for example, 6.2 million pounds of waste by heavy-duty tractor-trailer from Fremont, Calif., in the San Francisco Bay area, to a site 1,800 miles away could add 5 percent to a particular product's carbon footprint.

Such scores are important because they provide transparency to government and consumers into just how environmentally sustainable specific products are and lay out a choice between one company's technology and another's.

The roughly 20-year life of a solar panel still makes it some of the cleanest energy technology currently available. Producing solar is still significantly cleaner than fossil fuels. Energy derived from natural gas and coal-fired power plants, for example, creates more than 10 times more hazardous waste than the same energy created by a solar panel, according to Mulvaney.

The U.S. solar industry said it is reporting its waste, and sending it to approved storage facilities — thus keeping it out of the nation's air and water. A coal-fired power plant, in contrast, sends mercury, cadmium and other toxins directly into the air, which pollutes water and land around the facility.

"Having this stuff go to ... hazardous waste sites, that's what you want to have happen," said Adam Browning, executive director of the Vote Solar Initiative, a solar advocacy group.

Environmental advocates say the solar industry needs greater transparency, which is getting more complicated as manufacturing moves from the U.S. and Europe to less regulated places such as China and Malaysia.

The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, a watchdog group created in 1982 in response to severe environmental problems associated with the valley's electronics industry, is now trying to keep the solar industry from making similar mistakes through a voluntary waste reporting "scorecard." So far, only 14 of 114 companies contacted have replied. Those 14 were larger firms that comprised 51-percent of the solar market share.

"We find the overall industry response rate to our request for environmental information to be pretty dismal for an industry that is considered 'green,'" the group's executive director, Sheila Davis, said in an email.

While there are no specific industry standards, Smirnow, head of the solar industry association, is spearheading a voluntary program of environmental responsibility. So far, only seven of the group's nearly 81 manufacturers have signed the pledge.

"We want (our program) to be more demanding, but this is a young industry and right now manufacturing companies are focused on survival," he said. more

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