A renewed look at 2010, a sustainable vision for 2011


The goal of this issue is to understand where we are coming from and where we are headed. This is a very different structure for a Renewable Energy Review than we have ever attempted before.

The first section of this piece will be a look into the major areas of knowledge that our writings in the year 2010 dealt with. Listed with brief summaries are:

  1. all the issues of the Renewable Energy Review
  2. the major energy technologies we chose to investigate deeply (including solar PV, solar thermal, nuclear fusion and nuclear fission)
  3. the ideas in social innovation for a better energy system that we advocated for the year 2010 and beyond.

The second section will look at some of the new work that we have been exposed to in the last month regarding developments in both renewable energy technologies and deployment. For the first time, this publication will resemble a Blog Carnival. A number of these articles are submission to this carnival, but several have simply been found by us during our readings. We hope you enjoy them.

A look back at 2010

Renewable Energy Review

Progress and potential of renewable energy

The first issue of the Renewable Energy Review was intended to be a broad introduction to the field of renewable energy development. First we look at what ‘renewable’ means in some detail. We draw a clear distinction between energy developments that are labelled as ‘green’ and those that are distinctly renewable. Then we go on to dig into the different forms of renewable energy that are available to us on the earth (Hydroelectricity, Wind, Solar, Geothermal, Biomass, and Tidal Power). In each case we attempt to outline the potential, problems, and feasibility of each energy resource.

Why electrical energy storage is useful

There are a number of important reasons why energy storage systems are desirable for power grids. Thanks to their generally very fast ramp-up times, energy storage systems can be utilized in order to stabilize the grid, a very valuable role. We detail a number of the distinct roles in which energy storage systems can be deployed in the power grid. Lastly, we look at a few exciting developments in the area of energy storage: compressed air storage and gravel-argon heat batteries.

Types of hydroelectric power: How do the dam things work?

Hydroelectricity, or ‘hydro’, is generated from the energy in the water cycle of the earth. In this piece we look in detail at the numerous forms of hydro power. We focus on dam-reservoir systems, pumped hydroelectric energy storage, and run-of-river hydro. We also look briefly at the idea of hydro dam uprating, an idea that will help maximize the ability of hydro to fill the role of a dispatchable peaking power source. The dispatchability of hydro makes it very special among the renewable energy technologies currently available.

Land use of coal vs wind: Still room for debate

Land usage for power systems is a common comparison metric, touted most prominently by energy expert Vaclav Smil. In this piece, we examine the land use arguments for two energy systems: coal and wind. While land usage is a useful metric for examining power systems, great care must be applied when conducting such analyses. We go into detail about how comparing coal and wind on the basis of this metric alone will lead to a very distorted perspective on the land usage and feasibility of these two power systems.

How can renewables deliver dispatchable power on demand?

A crucial discussion with regards to the viability of a renewable power grid is the fact that power must be there when you need it. Dispatchable power plants are those that can be turned on and off essentially at will, and on relatively short time frames. Power systems of this sort play a crucial role in our power grid. In this piece we look in detail at how this is done currently, and which forms of renewable energy can fulfill this role. In closing, we look at a number of other technological solutions to this problem.

Feed-in tariffs: A fitting policy for renewable energy

A feed-in tariff is a policy mechanism for stimulating development of specific power systems. While these policies have a common overall structure, it is possibly to tailor them to the specific needs and resources of a geographic region. In this piece we look at the various facets of a feed-in tariff law, and also conduct an overview of how effective feed in tariffs have been at stimulating the renewable energy industry around the world.

Power system performance metrics

Everything has its price. Every form of power production has costs in dollars, time, land, materials, pollutants, greenhouse gas emissions, and human deaths. We look at the most important factors for analyzing the feasibility of a proposed power project. Considering only some of these factors will inevitably lead to an incomplete picture of power system costs and abilities. We believe that every proposed power system should be scrutinized according to all of these criteria, as all of them can be crucially important to our society.

Demand side management to help build a renewable power grid

Demand side management helps make our power grid more cost-effective and aids in the transition towards renewable energy. It can also be considered as a very green policy on its own, as it reduces the amount of power we need to produce, and thus our impact on the environment.

Major Technologies

Solar Thermal Power

Solar thermal power generation presents a unique opportunity among renewable technologies today. Prototypes and commercial power plants of this sort exist. It has capabilities for both baseload and peak-matching power generation. Lastly, it is very affordable in locations with lots of sunlight. Costs are in the range 10-15¢/kWh currently, with great potential for the near future.

Solar power from photovoltaic panels

Photovoltaic (PV) solar power is the technical term for solar panels that convert sunlight directly into electricity. In this piece we look into the various advantages and disadvantages of this power system. While PV installations can be put almost anywhere and scale almost perfectly in size, it is important to notice that their efficiency is heavily influenced by location. PV is still rather expensive, and some types of installations suffer from notable disadvantages in terms of land usage and aesthetics.

How can we create power from nuclear fusion?

Achieving sustained nuclear fusion for power production is incredibly challenging. Scientists have been working on this problem for decades. This piece is an overview of the basic concepts and technologies needed for nuclear fusion power. One could also view this as a tutorial, or a crash-course, in fusion power. Following the publication of this piece, we wrote a series of articles (all linked from within this introductory piece) detailing in much more detail the exciting developments in fusion power.

Social Innovation

Publicly Administered Green Energy Futures

Our goal is to keep our physical power infrastructure publicly owned, but gain some of the advantages of the private sector. The key to our recommendation is voluntary public investment from the people of Saskatchewan. In order to stimulate new renewable energy construction, we recommend that SaskPower open up renewable energy projects for direct public investment.

Personal and social change for a green energy future

The question is: what can we do to be more in harmony with the environment? The answers we present here are intended to be practical pieces of an answer to that question. We look at a few distinct categories of development towards a green energy future: personal energy conservation, green buildings, buying ‘green power’, personal power generation, investment, political pressure, education, and activism. This article should give you a deep look into what we believe it means to live green.

Specific Issues

Is nuclear fission power renewable?

The long term supply for nuclear fission fuels on the planet earth is estimated to last several thousand years at current consumption levels. This assumes that we adopt reprocessing as well as develop and implement breeder reactors. This discussion is inextricably caught somewhere between the factual and the possible. We regard status-quo nuclear fission as non-renewable, but that does not mean that fission should play no role in our present and future. Most importantly, we know that the potential for fission power goes far beyond what our current plants can do. With careful development and steady support, nuclear fission can be an incredibly valuable long-term energy resource for humanity.

Misconceptions spreading about the price of solar power

A recent Clean Technica article said that solar power would be cheaper than coal if it received the same subsidies. This is incorrect, and we show just how incorrect it is in this piece.

A look forward

Here is a collection of some of the things that have leaped at us off the news pages in the last couple months.

Framing the question of sustainable development

Building on the analogies of ‘push’ and ‘pull’ resolutions, which represent forced legislation and voluntary action respectively, this author brings up what we think is an important point about sustainable development.We have written in the past about voluntary and communal efforts towards sustainability because we consider these efforts to be the most effective at creating genuine change in our society. Coercive measures such as law might be inevitably necessary in order to preserve a semblance of balance with nature, but these measures can be less than ideal.

Fuel-cell bus research seeing some support

Public transit systems are often at the forefront of transportation technology. We hope to see continued innovation of mass transit systems in cities. In North America the roads are still of prime importance, and that is where most of our public transit takes place. A fleet of buses is often the mainstay of a public transit system. In other areas of the world there are extensive systems in place that are arguably much more efficient such as streetcars, light rail, and subways.

Whether fuel-cells will prove to be economical in the short term is another question entirely. There are reasons to be critical of hydrogen fuel cells, including their relatively low energy conversion efficiency. Despite these problems however, ongoing research into energy storage techniques such as this will continue to intensify well into the next decades.

Hydrofracturing

Hydrofracturing (colloquially known as frac’ing or fracking) is a technique for extracting large amounts of natural gas from the ground quickly and cheaply. It has garnered a great deal of attention over the past few years because of the vast effects it is projected to have on our health, our environment, and our energy future. While our society might expand our reserves of recoverable natural gas, we will have to deal with consequences as extreme as having tap water that can be ignited (due to contamination of ground water). We expect many new developments regarding this controversial technology in the upcoming year.

Recently, the EPA has begun a review of this technology as activists and excellent documentarians, such as those behind Gasland, have let their voices be heard. It has been shown to cause damage aquifers, releasing hydrofracturing chemicals and natural gas into water supplies. This technology will either become greatly more widespread and its destruction more evident, or become strictly regulated to maximize the value it can deliver while minimizing risks.

Already there is rising resistance to this technology as major municipalities in the United States ban fracking. We feel that over the next year which path has been taken will become apparent. For a good read on fracking in North America, with particular attention being paid to British Colombia, check out this excellent piece at straight.com called Hydro-fracturing has a lucrative dirty secret.

CCS

Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS), refers to a variety of technologies for capturing carbon and storing it permanently. Typically these systems are intended for use at point sources of C02 such as coal power plants and will be coupled with deep geological storage techniques including enhanced oil recovery to make it more economically feasible.

CCS is already a hot topic in energy discussions. Many people feel that it is an absolutely crucial technology to develop and deploy. Without it, they argue, we are doomed to push the C02 parts per million (ppm) in the atmosphere substantially higher than we would if we successfully capture and store most of our fossil fuel C02 emissions from power plants.

There have been some crucial questions however about the viability, costs, and efficiencies of CCS systems. Many of these questions are still very much unanswered. It remains to be seen in the next few years whether cost-effective CCS can be implemented on a large scale. Additionally, there remain a number of crucial questions about the effectiveness of deep C02 storage. The next section briefly discusses some effects which are believed to be due in part to a C02 sequestration test site.

Carbon Dioxide leaking out of ground in Southern Saskatchewan

Near the carbon capture and sequestration pilot project in Saskatchewan, a couple has noticed bubbling ponds, algae blooms, and dead farm animals. A consultant was brought in to ascertain the causes, and discovered that C02 seems to be bubbling up from underground.

This may be a very problematic finding since there have been high hopes of storing very large amounts of C02 in the Williston Basin area. CCS would be an extremely useful technology for speeding our society’s transition towards a carbon neutral society. If C02 is found to be leaking upwards from this test site however, it may cause a paralyzing effect on the continued experiments and research. It is important to note that significant quantities of C02 leaking into low-lying areas can be a health hazard for humans, even causing deaths in the past through events like the Lake Nyos disaster. A deeper investigation of these events is underway, and is something we will be watching out for with great anticipation in the coming year.

Carbon Taxes

Anyone who takes an interest in renewable energy, climate change, or global warming will be familiar with the idea of a carbon tax. Make the carbon polluters pay for the amount they are contributing towards climate change. The financial burden on polluters would thus raise the economic competitiveness of low-carbon forms of power such as wind and solar.

Carbon taxes have been deployed in many jurisdictions around the world. This debate is likely to reach a fever pitch in the next few years in places such as the United States. The Republican party has made it clear that they do not believe climate change is happening, so they will likely resist any proposed carbon tax.

Climate Change Debate

The scientific consensus on climate change continues to be strong, but the media continues to cover the subject as if it is a debate with two equally valid sides. Climate change scientists have made continual efforts to improve their methods of discussing these issues with the public.

It has increasingly become clear that the climate change ‘debate’ in the media is non-accidental. This stance of equality and uncertainty is being deliberately created by organizations that have a vested interest in the status-quo of carbon emissions.

These companies control a very substantial portion of the world’s money and industry. Corporations are entities that will try to protect themselves from things that will affect their profits. In this case there is a negative externality in the form of climate change that they do not want to take responsibility for. This has led to the anti-climate change think tanks and lobby groups to be very well funded. For more information on this subject, you might be interested in our piece on how to change your society, in which we wrote a section about the climate change meme war. Another excellent resource is the DeSmogBlog and its highly-regarded book, the Climate Cover-Up.

This debate seems likely to intensify in the coming years. As the battle becomes entrenched, the minds of the citizenry of the world become the battleground. We encourage anyone taking an active interest in this issue (from either camp) to read more on this issue. A person cannot become a climate expert overnight, but any of us can garner a lot of broad understanding by reading what the experts have to say on the matter.

Greenland ice sheet melting at increased rate in 2010

The summer of 2010 was unusually warm in Greenland. It also started exceptionally early and ended exceptionally late. This paper outlines some of the observed mechanisms of the increased melting, including a decrease in the ice/snow albedo effect – which is essentially the reflectivity of the surface. A lower reflectivity means that more energy is absorbed, leading to an increased rate of melt.

Renewable Energy Review in 2011

In the year 2011, we expect to be publishing new issues of the Renewable Energy Review on a monthly or bi-monthly basis. The uncertainty in this claim is due to our extensive time commitments in other areas such as work and school.

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