My Visit to Abound Solar

Checking the headlines today, I noticed one declaring that Abound Solar, a solar panel manufacturing business located in Colorado, had filed for bankruptcy and was going to lay off all 125 of its employees. I was struck by the news first because I just finished writing my book about renewable energy and so I’m generally sensitive to this sort of news. But I was also struck more personally because a few years ago, while researching the book, I visited Abound and was given a tour of the facilities. Behind a glass partition I got to watch the manufacturing process in real-time, as regular sheets of glass were turned into thin-film solar panels. It was truly impressive.

When I heard that Abound was going under, I first felt bad for the good people there who showed me great hospitality and took the time to show me around. Those people will shortly lose their jobs in a very tough job market.

I also felt bad for President Obama, whose administration had backed Abound. Like Solyndra, Abound will now surely be used as an example of poor judgement on Obama’s part. But that is patently not the case. Abound was a very solid, well-run company using very sophisticated technology it had developed in-house. The company failed only because Chinese investment in solar panel manufacturing has brought the price of panels down so far that it’s incredibly difficult for small companies to Abound to compete.

While this is obviously bad for abound, it’s actually good for the solar energy sector. Cheaper panels means that more businesses and people can afford them, which spurs forward the greater cause of growing the use of solar energy around the world.

So while I feel bad for the employees of Abound, perhaps they can take some solace in the knowledge that their work has been important and that their industry is vital and growing.

Original Article on ReNEWable


Geothermal in America: The Geysers

Driving north on the 101 up the California coast, I stifled a yawn. Partly because I’d started out early, around 6am, to make a 9am interview and tour I’d scheduled at The Geysers–a complex of geothermal energy plants about two and a half north of San Francisco. But also because the thought of spending an entire day touring a geothermal energy plant wasn’t exactly scintillating. When I began working on this book, geothermal was way down on the list of things that seemed exciting. Standing in the shadow of a towering wind turbine? Very cool. Walking among the sleek, futuristic-looking panels of a working solar farm? Intriguing. Even surveying a field of giant grass that might one day help wean us off gasoline had its appeal.

But geothermal?

I really wasn’t sure what to think. There are no iconic images associated with geothermal energy, as there are with solar and wind. Several Google searches had dug up a handful of pictures of ordinary looking power plants–squarish, industrial buildings coughing white steam from concrete silos. Not exactly eye candy. Serious geothermal action, like the kind the supercharges the hot springs and geysers at Yellowstone, takes place mainly deep underground, I knew, where rocks superheated by the earth’s natural body heat produce either steam, hot water, or just plain old heat. Tap that heat, channel it to spin industrial turbines, and presto: you’ve got geothermal powered electricity.

Reliable? Yes. Interesting? Kinda. Jaw-droppingly cool? Not so much.

Of course, I had learned a few intriguing facts. For one, geothermal is by far the most constant renewable resource for large-scale electricity production. The sun shines only during the day. Wind comes and goes. Energy crops have to be laboriously harvested, processed, and replanted. Even ocean and river currents ebb and wane. But the earth’s internal heat is steady: always there, always on. And there’s a lot of it–an entire planet full, really. Similar to solar advocates’ popular mantra that enough sunlight falls on the earth every minutes to meet the world’s energy demands for a year, geothermal proponents have their own astonishing statistic: within about 10,000 meters (33,000 feet) of the earth’s surface there’s enough heat to provide 50,000 times more energy than the world’s combined oil, coal, and natural gas resources.# In other words, the planet contains way more than enough naturally occurring, non-polluting, carbon-dioxide free heat to provide for humanity’s energy needs basically forever. (The rub is that only a relatively small amount of the earth’s heat is capable of producing lots of steam at pressures high enough to turn an industrial-strength turbine is easily tapped; most of the planet’s hot rock is buried miles underground and lacks an indigenous water source to produce naturally-occurring steam. More on this later.) At the moment (that is, in mid 2011) several dozen geothermal power plants generate around 10,700 megawatts of energy around the world–a relatively tiny amount that’s projected to grow to at least 18,500 megawatts by 2015.

And concerning The Geysers, the world’s largest complex of geothermal power plants, there was the intriguing historical “fact” (albeit probably apocryphal) that the place owed its existence to a grizzly bear that had been menacing trail blazers and homesteaders (in what would become northern California’s Napa and Lake counties) in the mid 1800s. Or more specifically, the geothermal region that came to be known as The Geysers owes its discovery and moniker to the man charged with hunting and killing the grizzly: an explorer and professional bear trapper named William Bell Elliot. An 1881 pamphlet, History of Napa and Lake Counties, California: Comprising Their Geography, Geology, Topograhy, Climatography, Springs and Timber, describes Elliot in mythic language: “On the plains, Elliott was a leader. He did not know the meaning of the word fear. Armed, he did not care a snap for Indians, and would have toppled them over if they interfered with him with as little compunction as he formerly knocked gray squirrels out of a tall poplar or chestnut tree in the mountains of West Virginia [where Elliott was from].”# One day, according to the History, out on a bear hunt, Elliott and his son (one of seven) came across some Native Americans, possibly of the regional Lake Miwok tribe, who pointed him toward a good spot to find grizzlies, over the mountains to the west. Several hours later, descending a divide between what came to be known as Big Sulfur Creek and its main tributary, Elliott and son got a strong whiff of sulfur. (He would have recognized the odor as what was known as “brimstone”.) Curious, they followed the creek and were soon stopped in their tracks by a spout of steam hissing noisily from the ground. Glancing around furtively, they noticed other towering columns of steam spiraling up from the earth and felt the ground trembling beneath their feet. Elliott and his son looked at each other and began to tremble themselves: they’d discovered the gates of hell! Just then, as if on cue, the very grizzly they’d been tracking (or possible another bear) reared up, bared its teeth, and roared. Despite the netherwordly surroundings, Elliott and son remained cool, shooting the bear to death before fleeing back to civilization to report what they’d seen.

That’s the story that became part of the region’s lore, anyhow. What Elliott had actually discovered was a part of the geothermally active region that came to be know as The Geysers–a curious misnomer, given that the area includes no actual geysers. (The steam vents are technically known as “fumaroles.” Geysers, like Yellowstone National Park’s famous “Old Faithful,” spout liquid water.) Of course, as is nearly always the case with “discoveries” made by white settlers in the American west, the region had been well known to the native inhabitants for thousands and possibly tens of thousands of years. Native Americans of the Lake Miwok and Wappo tribes used it as a natural pharmacy, bringing their sick to wallow in the bubbling mud pools and hot springs and to drink the mineral water that owed its reputation as a miraculous cure-all to its potent laxative properties.

Approaching the modern day Geysers visitors center, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place might have looked like during the mid 19th century. The area is still largely rural and has the look and feel of untrammeled wilderness, despite the presence of 22 power plants spread out over 45 square miles in the Mayacamas Mountains. Charlotte Doherty, head of safety at The Geysers, met me inside the center, near a large-scale plastic model of the entire, sprawling complex. A veteran of the California oil boom of the 1980s, Doherty had been with Calpine (the energy company that currently owns The Geysers) since 1989, first as an environmental chemist, for the last  ten years as a health and safety expert. She quickly took me through the basics: The Geysers is a dry steam operation, meaning that steam is mined directly from naturally occuring reservoirs miles underground. (Dry steam power plants are rare, making The Geysers something of an outlier. Most geothermal plants of are of the flash steam variety, where hot water is pumped from the ground into a low-pressure tank, which causes it to vaporize, or “flash”, into steam used to run a turbine. And, increasingly, some plants use a binary-cycle system, where hot water pumped from below is used to heat another liquid, which then flashes to vapor.)

“It’s really pretty simple,” Doherty said as we got in her truck and headed out toward one of the power plants. “We make electricity the same way it’s almost always been made: the steam goes to the power plants and turns rotors that create electricity.” Most of the steam is then condensed back into water, although some becomes a gas which is cleansed of pollutants and vented to the atmosphere. Yet, as Doherty went on the explain, making power at The Geysers is actually more complicated than it might appear, especially when it comes to harvesting steam. In the mid to late ‘80s, steam production at many of the plants began to decline. After nearly 30 years of mining, with dozens of wells siphoning stream from the natural reservoir, the underground water source necessary for producing the steam began to be used up faster than it could naturally replenish. Or, as Doherty put it, as more and more wells had been added over the years, and before long, “instead of just a few straws in the milkshake, there were a few dozen, every one sucking just as hard.”  So, in effect, dry steam geothermal was revealed to be a not entirely renewable resource–at least not in the classic sense. Unlike wind and sun, superheated underground steam could be used up. But Geysers engineers have found a clever way of replenishing the supply. For years, northern California municipalities had struggled to safely treat and get rid of their waste water; The Geysers’ decline presented an unforeseen and fortuitous solution. In 1997, Sonoma county began pumping treated waste water through a 40-mile-long  to The Geysers steam fields, where it was injected down specially reconfigured wells to replenish the underground water source and boost steam production. In 2003, the cit of Santa Rosa joined the effort, sending 11 million gallons of waste water per day to The Geysers.

From the outside, a geothermal power station looks a lot like a coal-fired (or any other) plant. And from the inside, too. The interior of the plant I visited, the West Ford Flat station, was dominated by the turbine apparatus: basically a block-like, school bus-sized metal casing concealing the turbine. A large, matte-green tube piped high pressure steam inside the casing to spin the turbine’s rotors to generate electricity. Like the coal-powered plant I’d visited in Indiana, the geothermal plant was loud, making it hard to speak and be heard over the turbine’s mechanical roar. The control room, too, looked familiar: a couple of guys in work clothes, sipping coffee, monitoring a large board with lots of lights and switches, ready to leap into action if anything went wrong, but mostly just watching to make sure that everything was running smoothly.

But entirely unlike the coal plant, West Ford Flat was conspicuously clean. At the heart of every coal-burning power plant is a multi-story boiler containing a massive, perpetual explosion of incinerated coal. The 24-hour, seven-days-a-week piping of coal particles through the plant and into the boiler leaves everything coated with a thin layer of dark, smudgy dust. And to keep all that dust from blowing around, coal plants are shut tight. Consequently, the boiler and turbine areas look and feel like a scene straight out of Dickens, or the Terminator movies: dark, loud, dirty, and dominated by large machines. Geothermal plants, by contrast, are loud but strangely clean. They’re also relatively small. Since the steam-generating “boiler” of a geothermal plant is the earth itself, the building doesn’t need to be large enough to contain a giant metal boiler. And because there’s no need to keep toxic coal dust from being swept up into the air or throughout the surrounding countryside, a geothermal plant doesn’t have to be quite so locked down. On the day I visited West Ford Flat, open windows and doors let in plenty of natural light.

Outside, we walked a few hundred yards toward a bunch of dull green tubes snaking out of the forest and converging at a central, boxy apparatus: the plant’s steam-feeding mechanism. Four wells fed steam into West Ford Flat, Doherty explained. Made of fiberglass encased in metal jacketing, the tangle of 24-inch diameter tubes had the look of a giant Habitrail. Although they weren’t particularly hot to the touch, the steam flowing inside them topped out at around 340 degrees Fahrenheit.

Original Article on ReNEWable

Steaming Ahead with Steam Power?

Think of steam power and you might imagine big, black locomotives puffing white clouds as they chug across the tracks, or steam boats paddle-wheeling down the Mississippi, or maybe dark, dirty, coal-choked factories of the Industrial Age.

In other words, steam–and the coal furnaces that produced it–may seem like a relic of the 19th and early to mid 20th centuries. Especially in our new, post-industrial age of software and fiber-optic cables, it’s difficult to consider coal and steam as still relevant to how things work in our seemingly clean, computerized, wireless world.

And yet, of course, burning coal to produce steam is still the basis of nearly every contemporary technology. Using voice recognition software on your iPhone to schedule a teleconference meeting next Thursday may seem entirely removed from the age of coal, but firing up the phone and activating its microprocessors requires electricity–electricity produced by and large in power plants that burn coal to superheat water to create steam under sufficient pressure to spin giant turbines that produce electricity.

In other words, the base sources of energy haven’t really changed over the past few centuries. Power plants have become more efficient, and renewables like solar and wind are growing in scope and capacity, but for the most part, the great bulk of the electricity we consume nearly every minute of every day depends directly on coal/steam power.

This is not a secret, exactly. But I bet that if I were to poll random people in the street, 9 out of 10 would have only a vague sense of how electricity is made and where it comes from. And I bet they’d be shocked to learn that the vast majority of it comes from coal.

Image via Wikipedia

Original Article on ReNEWable

Solar Decathalon 2011 Preview

After two years of planning, many sleepless nights, and crash courses in construction, the university teams competing in this year’s Department of Energy Solar Decathlon are ready to build!

The Team Meeting to kick off the competition brought all the students together for the first time for final instructions, a good meal, and pep talks on Tuesday evening. I was pleased to represent Applied Materials, a sponsor of the Solar Decathlon, at the event to share our company’s pride in the teams’ accomplishments to date and our interest in learning more about their solar-inspired innovations during the decathlon which runs through the end of this month in Washington, DC.

You can check out the latest photos and watch progress as the teams build their houses and prepare to compete in ten contests to determine which students have designed the most energy efficient, cost-effective, and affordable solar home. Who can throw the best dinner party – all powered by the sun? Does the house’s HVAC system function as intended? Who will receive the coveted architecture award?

Let the games begin!

Best of luck to all the teams!

Original Article on Cleantech Applied

Why We Need a National Renewable Energy Standard

Over the past two years I’ve spent working on the book, the most frequent question I’ve gotten from friends, family, and the occasional curious blog reader goes something like this: “is renewable energy for real, or is it just another hippie fad.” It’s a legitimate question, because for many people, renewable energy is something they hear a lot about but don’t really see or experience in their lives. They may read about some big new solar project or controversy surrounding the Cape Wind project in the waters off Cape Cod, but the bulk of their electricity still comes from good (or not so good, depending on your perspective) old-fashioned coal-burning power plants. And the (increasingly expensive) gasoline they pump into their cars is still around 80% derived from imported oil. So it’s easy to assume that renewable energy is more pipe dream than reality, more a suite of niche technologies than a fully functioning apparatus ready to take on an displace fossil fuels.

But is this view right? Yes and no. If you go by the numbers alone, renewables constitute only a miniscule percentage of the world’s overall energy production (somewhere in the realm of 2%). Even the largest solar and wind farms don’t come close to producing the same amount of power as even a medium-sized coal-fired power plant. But numbers don’t tell the whole story. Because numbers only speak to the present moment and reveal nothing about the bigger picture. The history of renewable energy is replete with ingenious inventors, fantastic inventions, and hundreds of near misses, usually in the form of path-breaking technologies that were either ahead of their time or were plowed under by more entrenched and better-funded fossil fuel corporations. Undergirding the history of failure is a lack of widespread government support. Until very recently, renewable energy innovators have been mostly lone wolves, engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs with big ideas but not quite enough cash or political clout to realize them fully.

But that’s changed significantly over the past few decades. Scanning recent energy headlines, I came across this one:

Army targets big renewable energy projects

The US military, the article reports, is investing heavily in large solar farms and other forms of renewable energy. The Army consumes huge amounts of energy and is always looking for ways to cut costs. Strategically, being able to produce energy on site at military bases is preferable to relying on fragile supply lines vulnerable to enemy attack. And so the Army is going to pour more than 7 billion dollars into developing its renewable energy infrastructure. This is remarkable not just for the large dollar amount but also because it marks a new and unprecedented shift in the history of renewable energy: namely, the embrace of renewable technologies by a large, state-supported institution.

The US Army is not the first or only example of this shift. Other countries, most notably Germany and Spain, have adopted strong renewable energy mandates that have pushed the development of wind and solar, especially, to new heights. China is forging ahead (some would say recklessly) at breakneck speed, building new solar and wind farms across the country.

And the U.S? While there’s plenty of renewable energy activity here, it’s more haphazard, happening in fits and starts. Despite the Army’s strong commitment to renewables, the country as a whole has not jumped on the green energy bandwagon. In short, while the Obama administration has laid out some very ambitious clean energy goals (80% of US energy produced by clean sourced by 2035), there’s no officially legislated mandate to back those goals and bring them to fruition. Individual states, most notably California, Colorado, and several others, have stepped in and taken the lead, but to truly push renewable energy forward, to help it transition from a bunch of still relatively niche technologies to a powerful player in the energy landscape that can butt heads with and eventually replace fossil fuels, the federal government is going to have to step up and make renewable energy a national priority.

Will this happen? Right now it seems unlikely. U.S. politics are so divisive on the issue of government spending that a massive national effort to advance renewable energy is remote in the short-term. But it’s exactly this sort of short-term thinking that has caused the U.S. to fall behind China, Germany, and other countries in taking the lead on clean energy. Despite the recent downgrade, the U.S. is still the world’s largest and most dynamic economy. Where the U.S. goes, the rest of the world follows (at least for now). If this country were to somehow band together in support of renewable energy, if there was a Panama Canal or moon landing-like effort to build up renewable energy technology and infrastructure, great things could happen.

Original Article on ReNEWable

The Promise of Enhanced Geothermal Systems

Geothermal power is the red-headed stepchild of renewable energy.

Unlike wind, solar, and biofuels, it rarely makes headlines or stirsup controversy. Politicians and pundits never hail geothermal as theNext Big Thing and often fail to even mention it when speechifying onthe importance (or, depending on their political slant, boondoggle) ofgreen energy. The average citizen, meanwhile, doesn’t even know whatgeothermal energy is, beyond the suspicion that it has something to dowith volcanoes and Old Faithful.

Here’s the thing about geothermal, though: it is, by far, the mostpromising renewable source for big time, base load, continuous (i.e. not intermittent, like wind and solar) energy. Dig down deep enough prettymuch anywhere on earth and you’ll find dry rocks heated by the decay ofradioactive minerals and by heat radiating from the earth’s molten coreare ubiquitous. Tapping the vast, virtually endless amounts of heatstored in these rocks could (at least theoretically) help solve many, if not most, of our energy problems. In a report published by MIT, geologists and other scientists estimate that the United States alonecontains 200,000 exajoules of recoverable geothermal energy–2000 timesthe amount of primary energy the country consumes annually.

How to harvest this bounteous resource?

The basic idea, known as enhanced geothermal systems (EGS) is simple: find a bunch of hot rock within drilling range, sink acouple of wells, pump water down at high pressure to open a network offissures within the rock, then cold water through the fissures to absorb heat, send the water back up through the second well, transfer its heat to a liquid with a relatively low boiling point, and use the resultingsteam to power electricity generating turbines.

So … what are we waiting for, you may ask. Dig the wells! Pump thewater! Let’s start using the planet’s in-exhaustible store of heat tomake clean, emission-free electricity!

Yes, let’s … but before we do, there’s just one thing to consider:after more than 30 years of enhanced geothermal research anddevelopment, beginning with the Fenton Hill project at Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico in the mid ‘70s, scientists are still a little shaky onhow best to make the elegantly simple idea of EGS work in the field.This isn’t to say that the technology doesn’t work; it does. Scientistsknow beyond a doubt that you can use subterranean hot rocks to producenet energy. But they don’t know how to make EGS work as efficiently aspossible every time, everywhere. Because, as the MIT report documents in fine-grained detail, when you start messing around with hot, dense rock buried several thousand feet in the earth’s mantel, there’s no tellingwhat might happen.

For example, engineering the a network of fissures and cracks is nocakewalk. Ideally, the fracture system channels the water toward theextraction well, up through which the now hot water returns to thesurface to give up its valuable heat. But as researchers have learnedover the past several decades, giant slabs of rock tend to have minds of their own when it comes to fracturing. Almost all large rocks havefused networks of cracks and fissures already in place; forcingpressurized water down to re-open the system often has unpredictable and unintended consequences, such as broadening the network so much thatthe water meant to absorb and return heart to the surface spreads outand seeps away.

Geothermal engineers have made progress since the ‘70s. Advances indrilling, fracturing techniques, and mapping and monitoring what’shappening deep underground have helped inch the technology forward.Small-scale commercial projects are operating in France and Germany, and dozens of other pilot projects are in the works around the world.

Still, EGS is a long way from realizing its huge potential. Whatneeds to happen for EGS to take the next step, to scale up and become atrue power player in the global energy game? I’ll tackle that questionin my next post. Stay tuned.

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Why the U.S. Needs a Renewable Energy Policy

In his 2011 State of the Union speech and in dozens of recent public appearances, President Obama has talked up clean energy setting a goal for the United States to produce a whopping 80 percentof its electricity from “clean energy sources” (including nuclear,natural gas, and “clean(er) coal”) by 2035. It’s an ambitious, welcomegoal. But how realistic is it without a comprehensive energy policypushing wind, solar, biofuels, and other renewables? I spoke with BruceBailey, CEO of the renewable energy consultancy firm AWS Truepower about the importance of a national energy policy

Why does the United States need a national energy policy favorable to renewables like wind and solar?

Because without one, it’s nearly impossible to establish a long-termmarket for wind farms and solar farms and other renewable energytechnologies. We’ve had short-term production tax credits, but they come and go. When a credit for wind energy is on the verge of expiring, forexample, development in that sector stops until there’s confidence thatthe tax credits will be extended. The uncertainty discouragesinvestment. Some states, like California early on and more recentlyColorado and many others, have taken the lead by adopting far-reachingrenewable energy mandates and tax incentives to encourage economicgrowth. But we still need a comprehensive federal policy to send thestrongest possible signal that the United States is behind renewableenergy and willing to push it.

Given the lack of a federal policy, how realistic isPresident Obama’s goal of producing 80 percent of electricity in theU.S. by 2035?

It’s hard to say, but a federal program would certainly help.Countries that do have a federal energy plan supporting renewables haveseen double digit penetrations of wind, for example. Denmark generatesaround 20 percent of its electricity from wind. Germany is in doubledigits with wind and solar. And China is forging ahead with large scalewind and solar plants. Germany and Denmark are much smaller than theUnited States, of course, and there are other important differences inour political structure and culture. But there are examples out there of countries that have used a strong national policy to take the lead inrenewable energy.

So why doesn’t the U.S. have a national energy policy that supports renewables?

Both parties support renewables, so there’s lots of common ground.But most of the legislation concerning renewable energy that’s beenproposed has been attached to bigger picture issues like cap and trade,oil exploration in Alaska, and other controversial issues that tend tobe show stoppers. Renewable energy is attached to those bills to makethem seem more attractive and to get them passed, but the controversialstuff ends up derailing the attractive renewable energy proposals. And,of course, other issues like the economic crisis, health care, andimmigration reform have gotten in the way. People want renewable energy, but they’re often confused by its upfront costs and uncertain about its true benefits.

What sort of renewable federal renewable energy policy would you like to see?

I’d like to see a policy that recognizes that renewable energytechnologies need the same type of government support that our currentpower generating sources received during their early years. Many peopledon’t understand or have forgotten that, for the most part, our energyinfrastructure was driven by federal mandates to build power plants andtransmission lines. And oil companies have enjoyed generous governmentsupport for many decades. Now wind and solar come along needing the same government boost, but the game has changed. Today, the private sectorbuilds and controls power generation. The trajectory has gone from thegovernment investing in energy for the public good to agreeing that weneed renewables but allowing the market to dictate how, if at all,they’re going to happen. So renewables are expected to struggle to gain a foothold without federal support by competing with coal, oil, andnatural gas–industries that have received and continue to enjoysubstantial federal incentives. It’s a very uneven playing field, andfederal policy supporting renewable energy could do a lot to level it.


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Did Abraham Lincoln Invent Wind Power?

You know who predicted the age of wind power? Abraham Lincoln, that’s who.

A New York Times article dated Nov. 22, 1936, quotes from a lecturetitled “Discoveries and Inventions” Lincoln gave in 1860, before hebecame president.  Here’s the relevant part:

“Of all the forces of nature, I should think the wind contains thelargest amount of motive power … Take any given space of the earth’ssurface, for instance, Illinois, and all the power exerted by all themen, beasts, running water and steam over and upon it shall not equalthe 100th part of what is exerted by the blowing of the wind over andupon the same place. And yet it has not, so far in the world’s history,become properly valued as motive power. It is applied extensively andadvantageously to sail vessels in navigation. Add to this a fewwindmills and pumps and you have about all. As yet the wind is anuntamed, unharnessed force, and quite possibly one of the greatestdiscoveries hereafter to be made will be the taming and harnessing ofit.”

Pretty cool, no?

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Who Cares About Energy?

I’m sitting in my studio/cell, as usual, working on the book, miredin one of those necessary periods where in order to write the next bit I have to do a lot of reading and thinking. Always good to learn more,but also frustrating because it seem unproductive, even thought it’snot.

During these times my mind often turns to big picture things, likewho’s going to be interested in this book. This speaks to an even larger question: namely, who care about energy?

To a degree, everyone cares. Energy is universal, ubiquitous. We alluse it and can’t live without it. But energy is so deeply engrained into the fabric of modern existence that, outside of those who don’t haveaccess to modern types of energy (which describes many people,actually), we normally don’t think about it or care how it works orwhere it comes from. We only care that it’s available on demand atprices we can reasonably afford.

Now, this does not describe everyone. For hundreds of millions ofpeople living in poor or developing countries, energy is a constant,in-your-face problem.  Too many unfortunate souls are all too aware ofthe importance of reliable power, due mainly to the fact that they lackit.

So I certainly don’t mean to complain about the easy access toreliable power enjoyed by those of us fortunate enough to live inindustrialized and post-industrial countries. I don’t want to have toworry or think too hard about where my power comes from. I just want toflick on the light, power up my iPhone, and watch stuff on Hulu whenever I want, no questions asked.

But still, we’re at a moment when energy has become more visible formore people, for a variety of reasons. Climate change, nationalsecurity, the recent BP oil spill — the list goes on. These things arein the air and seem to matter to an every wider group of people.

And yet it’s hard (for me, at least) to gauge just how wide thatcircle is, at to what extent the average person really wants to knowmore about how energy works and why it matters. I care about this ingeneral, because I think it’s important, but also for professionalreasons. I want people to buy and read my book, after all, and part ofmaking that happen is figuring out how to let people know about it andget them excited.  Most of the people who read about energy and followenergy blogs and the like tend to be industry insiders and/orenvironmental types.  Most of what’s written about energy is either very technical or very business oriented. There’s almost nothing along thelines of what I’m doing, which is trying to provide some context andplace renewable energy issues in a larger narrative and historicalcontext. In a way, that’s good. I’m doing something new. But in a wayit’s worrisome because I don’t want my readership to be limited to asmall audience of techies and industry players.

Original Article on ReNEWable

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Knowing Which Way the Wind Blows

“You don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows,” Bob Dylan once sang. But if you’re a wind farm developer, you absolutely do needsomeone to help you know not only which way the wind blows, but alsowhere, when, how often, and for how long. That’s where wind energy forecasting comes in.

“The knock against wind has always been that it can’t provideconsistent, high-grade power because it’s unpredictable andintermittent,” says Kristin Larson, manager of wind energy forecastingat Seattle-based 3TIER, a renewable energy “information-to-decision” company that providesdevelopers with data on wind, solar, and hydropower resources. “But with wind energy forecasting we remove a lot of that uncertainty by usingsophisticated tools to predict how much wind there will be in a givenlocation over time.”

Like most wind forecasting companies, 3TIER compares short-term winddata at a potential wind farm site with long-term measurements goingback as much as 50 years. (Much of the long-term information comes fromweather balloons, satellites, and surface observations at airportsaround the world.) Using powerful computers to crunch the numbers, windforecasters can provide an accurate portrait of a site’s wind resources, past, present, and future.

What really matters for wind farm developers (and their potentialsources of funding), though, is the degree of accuracy with whichforecasters can predict how the wind blows. Wind is notoriouslysensitive to changes in temperature, terrain, humidity, and otherfactors. Even a relatively small change in elevation from one locationto another can result in significant differences in wind speed. Forexample, as a recent article in The Economist noted, a 2009 study by theNational Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) found that an elevation difference of only 50 meters causedchanged average wind speed by 2.5 mph–enough of a variation to affect as much as 15 percent of a wind farm’s power output.

So wind forecasters strive to be as accurate as possible by designing computer models that take into account not only past and presentweather and topography data but also possible future changes. “Winddevelopers need to know not just what the wind is doing now but what itwill do in the future,” says 3TIER’s Larson. “That depends on climatechange, tree growth or loss of trees, land development and lots of other factors.”

In other words, wind forecasting is a tricky, difficult business.3TIER specializes in numerical weather prediction (NWP)–a commontechnique that creates a 3-D grid model of the atmosphere and pluggingin temperature, humidity, and air pressure data from a proposed windfarm location to simulate wind speed. Wind developers use thatinformation to calculate how much power their turbines will generateover time.

Wind forecasting has been around in one form or another since the late 19th century, when Danish wind power pioneer Poul la Cour did some of the earliest scientific studies of the relationship between wind, land, and climate. Today’s forecasting technology is a big leapforward and will continue to improve, Larson predicts, as wind powercontinues to grow. “The technology is already pretty mature, it’s justnot used as widely as it could be,” she says. “But as more wind powercomes online and feeds into the grid, operators will come to see thevalue of better and more accurate wind predictions.”


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Hearts and Minds

A few weeks ago I blogged about the “efficiency vs. renewables”dictum — that is, the commonly held wisdom that, practically speakingenergy efficiency comes first, renewables second. Whether you’re ahomeowner, business owner, or government, investing in renewables onlymakes sense if you’ve first done everything possible to use energyderived from all sources–fossil and renewable–more efficiently.

In that post I mentioned that my friend Alex Jarvis, a solarinstaller in Bloomington, IN, challenged that logic, claiming that inhis experience, investing in renewables can often act as a catalyst togreater energy efficiency. To see what other energy experts thought, Irecently spoke with Penni Mclean-Conner, vice president of customer care for NSTAR–a Massachusetts-based gas and electric utility–and author of Energy Efficiency: Principles and Practices.

It’s crucial, she said, that state and local governments push energyefficiency-based plans to reduce out carbon footprint. “But I don’tthink that at all precludes the rapid development of renewabletechnologies or should discourage customers from investing in bothefficiency and alternative energy technologies simultaneously,” shesaid. “I’m excited by whatever motivates customers.”

I think that’s an important point. One of the central challenges in dealing with climate change, energy security, and pollution is gettingpeople to care enough about these issues to actually do something aboutthem. Yes, it’s an unassailable fact that energy efficiency is, well,the most efficient and economical means of using energy wisely. (It’s no surprise, after all, that the ongoing Empire State Building sustainable retrofit involves replacing most of the existing windowswith more energy efficient windows but does not include solar panels orrooftop-mounted wind turbines.) [link:]

But motivation matters, too. The global effort to change the way wemake and consume energy is in large part a struggle for hearts andminds. Because, for all sorts of reasons, the inconvenient truths ofclimate change, rising energy prices, and dwindling stores of easilyaccessible fossil fuels are not necessarily self-evident. Unless you’realready a committed environmentalist, climate change activist, orrenewable energy advocate, It’s easy to ignore or remain willfullyignorant of the facts because there are other, more immediately pressing things to worry about (like the global financial meltdown). So part ofthe task is making these facts evident, making visible the ways in which energy is made, the ways in which energy is consumed, and the ways inwhich energy matters.

Which is why, finally, I’m with McLean-Connor. Whatever motivatespeople to be conscious of energy, whether it’s the common-sense logicand economic propriety of energy efficiency or the razzle-dazzle ofexciting renewable energy technologies–both matter. We need to thinkbeyond the rigid hierarchy of “efficiency first, renewables second” andrecognize how they work together as part of the new energy story.

You can check out more of my thoughts and writing about renewable energy and about my book-in-progress, Renewable, at


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Prospecting for Wind

Now that I’m working on a chapter about wind power, I spend a lot of time reading and thinking about … wind. What is windand how does it work? On the one hand it’s simple–wind happens what warm air rises and cooler air rushed in to replace it. But when and how much wind blow in a given area — that’s more complex. It depends ontemperature, topography, land use, and dozens of other constantlyshifting factors.

Knowing when and where wind blows, and how much it blows in a givenplace, is important the wind power, for pretty obvious reasons. Beforeplunking down millions to build a wind farm, a developer has to knowwith as much certainty as possible if there’s going to be enough windfive, 10, and even 30 years down the road to make the investmentworthwhile.

So how can you predict something as ephemeral and shifting as wind? To find out, I recently spoke with Kristin Larson, an atmospheric scientist at a Seattle-based energy information company called 3TIER. I’ll blog in more detail about the science of wind forecasting anothertime. For now, long story short, scientists like Kristin, whospecializes in wind forecasting, use a variety of tools to makepredictions, including models that crunch more than a half century’sworth of weather data from around the world. The company uses thedata-fed models to create highly detailed wind maps, allowing wind farmdevelopers to scout the most promising locations.

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Efficiency First, Renewables Second.. or Vice Versa?

While working on my book on renewable energy over the past year, I’ve repeatedly come across the common argument that while renewables areall well and good, they make little sense without first doing everything we can to make homes, businesses, cars, etc. more energy-efficient. Only then, the reasoning goes, will the average consumer get the mostvalue for their rooftop PV solar panels, or home geothermal system, a small wind turbine.

I see the logic, and I’m sure in many ways theefficiency-before-renewables argument is simply true. But there’s aflip side to that argument …

I put this argument to my friend Alex Jarvis, a solar installer based in Bloomington, Indiana (my home town). And while he agreed thatcutting back on energy usage and improving efficiency are important, hewasn’t sold on the notion that efficiency should always come beforeinvesting in renewable technology. Sometimes, he said, based on hisexperience with clients who’ve ponied up for a rooftop solar system,taking the technology plunge spurs efficiency. in other words, pouringseveral thousands dollars into a solar array or geothermal system or whatever is great incentive to become moreefficient in general energy use. In order to squeeze every last ounceof value out of the technology they’ve paid for, Alex said, his clientsoften become hyper aware of how much energy they use, how and when theyuse it, and what they can do to use less and consume energy moreefficiently. And when they do, they see up close and personal how theirsolar panels on their roof are offsetting a larger percentage of theiroverall energy use.

Interesting point, no?

Now, Alex’s experience is limited. He’s just one guy. But I wonder if other solar installers and people who invest on renewables on small orlarge scales have found something similar. Is there in fact a case to be made for renewable energy technology spurring energy efficiency instead of the other way around?

I plan to look into this in greater depth. Meanwhile, I’m curious to know what you think.

Let me know …


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The Story of a Windmill

I’m starting a new chapter, on wind power, and have spent the past few days digging into newspaper archives (digital digging, that is) to learn about the history of windmills and wind power.  I came across a strange story published in the Chicago Daily Tribune, August 31, 1873, titled “The Story of a Windmill.”  I can’t quite tellwhether it’s made up or not, or if it’s meant to be funny.  In any case, here it is:

“We went out to Slaymaker’s in June, to spend the summer, but we have been obliged to leave. Slaymaker had a small stream near his house,from which he used to pump water into the tank in hisgarrot.  It occured to him some time ago that it would be a good idea to put up a windmillwhich co do the pumping for him, so he built one at a cost of $200.  The first day it began to revolve it frightened Slaymaker’s best horse sothat it ran against the fence and was killed, and the arms were so longthat they nearly brained Slaymaker’s oldest boy, who was standingbeneath watching the machine, when it suddenly stopped work, and refused to move an inch.  Slaymaker accordingly pumped the tank full, and justas he stopped the mill began to pump like fury. Slaymaker, in alarm,procured a rope and tied one of the wings to a tree. When the tank wasempty he tried to make the windmill fill it again, but the concern wasimmovable. Then Slaymaker waited for a couple of weeks, and carried thewater up to the house in buckets, because he was afraid to fill thetank, when the mil might get to work at any moment. Finally, as thereseemed to be no hope of the machinery getting all right again, he didpump the tank full, and then went to bed. That night there was the first hurricane ever known in that neighborhood. The windmill made aboutfound hundred revolutions a minute, and left the bed of the stream below it completely dry, while it poured nearly six hundred gallons an hourinto Slaymaker’s garret. The boarders all swam out the windows, andspent the rest of the night in the barn, while Slaymaker took to a tree, from which, at daylight, he had a magnificent view of the falls as they poured picturesquely from the attic windows every minute or two brining out with them a chair or a hair trunk, or one of Slaymaker’s shirts, or a waistband. Mrs. Slaymaker will not clean house this summer, butSlaymaker has a windmill that he is anxious to sell. He will probablyclose it out cheap to a purchasers who wants to take it away rightoff.

–Max Adeler.”


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