Friday, May 29, 2009

A High Sodium Solar Solution?

The Los Angeles Times today answers two vexing questions for Californians:

Question 1: "Is there a more effective and evironmentally responsible way to leverage the power of solar energy in the production of electricity?"

Answer: Maybe. (More on that below.)

Question 2: "What the hell is that??" (Referring to a bizarre industrial facility in the desert near Barstow that has long been a curiosity for countless drivers making their way up I-15 from Southern California.)

Answer: It's a shuttered solar power plant that made innovative use of molten salt technology-- not a movie set or a light house.

The solar installation in the Barstow desert may be closed, but the Times reports that the process perfected there could be reserrected soon.

A Santa Monica company called SolarReserve has secured $140 million in venture capital financing to produce electricity using molten salt, water, and mirrors.

The process, as described by the Times, works like this:

"It would use an array of 15,000 heliostats, or large tilting mirrors about 25 feet wide, to direct sunlight to a solar collector atop a 600-foot-tall tower -- somewhat like a lighthouse in reverse.

The mirrors would heat up molten salt flowing through the receiver to more than 1,000 degrees, hot enough to turn water into powerful steam in a device called a heat exchanger. The steam, like that coming out of a nozzle of a boiling tea kettle, would drive a turbine to create electricity.

The molten salt, once cooled, would then be pumped back through the solar collector to start the process all over again."

The environmental benefits are myriad: zero emissions, far less water consumption, and limited ecological impact from the mirrors surrounding the solar collector.

The earliest the plant is likely to go online is 2013.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Palliative Power of the Green Energy Photo Op

As the old saying goes, "When the going gets tough, the tough get going..." Exactly "where" the tough go is another story. In California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's case, we're starting to sense a pattern.

Whenever the Gov. is having a bad week, you can pretty much count on him showing up at a renewable energy photo op. Last week, while his ballot propositions were going down in flames in California, he scampered off to Washington to bask in the Presidential glow of a White House renewable energy event.

This week, amidst darn-near-impossible state budget negotiations, the media is blasting Arnold for his proposed program cuts. Add to this mix the just announced decision to allow the voter-approved same-sex marriage ban to stand, which has resulted in protests up and down the state, and the Governor is having yet another bad week.

So where did he turn up yesterday? At a hydrogen refueling station in L.A. to mug for the cameras and cheer on the 1,700 mile "Hydrogen Road Tour," a publicity stunt featuring a caravan of hydrogen-fueled cars driving from San Diego to Vancouver.

Boasting about recently doubling the size of his own eco-friendly vehicle fleet with the purchase of a Honda FCX Clarity, Arnold seemed to be enjoying his breif respite from the real world of Sacramento politics.

The Hydrogen Road Tour features 11 fuel cell cars that the public can test drive at any of the 28 stops along the tour. Fuel cell vehicles produce no tailpipe emissions, save for water vapor, but detractors gripe about their cost, about difficulty in storing the fuel and about the potential for emissions generated during the fuel production process.

Whatever your position on fuel cells, at least they give the Governor an outlet for his frustrations...

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

New and Improved?

The conflict between conservationists and renewable energy advocates has been duly noted, but today the New York Times adds a new stakeholder to the greening of America debate-- preservationists.

An issue increasingly coming to the fore: is it appropriate-- or even permissable-- to make modifications to historic properties, in the name of energy efficiency and a smaller carbon footprint?

The Times throws up this jump ball: would you, or should you, put solar panels on the roof at Mount Vernon?

Both sides are staking out their positions on the extreme fringes of the argument, which obviously is not conducive to finding a middle ground, or even realistic. There is merit to the argument that we shouldn't cut holes in the roof of George Washington's home to toss up PV panels, but I seriously doubt that anyone would ever consider actually doing so.

The real question will be whether homeowners who have filed for historical designations simply to reap the tax benefits will be prevented from making energy efficient modifications to their homes.

The times cites the example of a homeowner in a historic distric who was rebuffed in his effort to install a 45 foot wind turbine. Nothing will get a NIMBY's hackles up like a 45 foot propeller next door, so you can guess that the opposition has about as much to do with historical integrity as the Malibu millionaires' opposition to LNG had to do with security and the environment.

In the extreme, this is a stupid conforontational argument, but in practical cases involving old homes that lack any real national historic value, this is just one more procedural issue to work through.

Historic Architecture vs. Clean Energy [New York Times, Green, Inc.]

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Environmetalists Continue to Pan ACES

You would expet an opinion piece in the San Francisco Chronicle about the Waxman-Markey bill, written by the president of a Berkeley-based environmental organization to be, if not entirely supportive, at least not openly disdainful, right? Not so fast.

Patrick McCully, the executive director of International Rivers, takes the legislation to task, calling its underlying offset provision mechanism "at best expensive and ineffective in combatting climate change, and at worst, to have aided increased carbon emissions".

McCully bemoans the bill's political giveaways to the coal industry and anemic pollution targets, but focuses most intently on its carbon offset provisions:

"The bill's offsets component (and similar "cap-and-trade" schemes being designed for California, and the Western United States) is modeled after the world's largest carbon credit system, the Kyoto Protocol's Clean Development Mechanism. The Kyoto mechanism has allowed polluters in Europe and Japan to avoid cutting their own emissions by buying offsets from project developers elsewhere, mainly in China and India.

Many of the Waxman-Markey credits are likely to come from the this or whatever global offsetting scheme replaces it after Kyoto expires in 2012. After a decade of closely monitoring the mechanism, I have found it to be at best expensive and ineffective in combatting climate change, and at worst, to have aided increased carbon emissions.

Projects that earn credits must document that they would not be feasible without the income from selling the credits. Further, to quantify how many credits a project is allowed to sell, evaluators must determine how much greenhouse gas would have been emitted if the project were not built. One English journalist described offset credits as "an imaginary commodity created by deducting what you hope happens from what you guess would have happened."
This dependence on guesswork makes it easy for developers and consultants to scam the CDM.

As a result, all sorts of projects with dubious claims to climate-friendly attributes have been approved. David Victor, director of Stanford's Energy and Sustainable Development Program, believes that up to two-thirds of these offsets do not represent genuine emission cuts.

The Waxman-Markey bill would allow the use of up to 2 billion offsets each year, up to three-quarters of them from international sources. The use of these offsets would allow U.S. polluters to boost emissions by nearly two-fifths by 2012 and would not force cutbacks below today's levels until 2027."

International Rivers is hardly alone in opposing the bill-- many environmental groups, including Greenpeace-- also stand in opposition.

Carbon trading's inconvenient truth [San Francisco Chronicle]

Friday, May 22, 2009

Summer Is Here!

No post's get-away Friday!

Have a happy and safe Memorial Day and try not to think about budget deficits or energy policy... instead, take a moment to remember the folks we honor on Memorial Day!!!!!!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Show Me The Money! Drilling Back in Play

What a difference a year and a half (and a failed special election) makes! Arnold Schwarzenegger, who in January of last year was lambasting the notion of offshore drilling, is changing his tune.

With legislators in Sacramento now reduced to looking for loose change under the sofa cushions, budget cuts that were once unimaginable are now in play and just about any revenue generator will receive legitimate consideration-- even offshore drilling.

Last week Arnold floated a plan to "unblock" the on-again, off-again offshore drilling proposal at Tranquillon Ridge in Santa Barbara. Essentially, the Governor is seeking to give the Department of Finance the ability to overrule the State Lands Commission, which put the kaibosh on the project earlier this year.

The projected revenue to the state is $1.8 billion. That must sound pretty good if you are a legislator tasked with closing a $20+ billion budget hole, but when you consider that number is spread out over 14 years with $100 million up front, it becomes somewhat less impressive. However, Sacramento has proven adept at borrowing against future revenues in the past (think tobacco settlement money) so maybe this is something that elected officials will want to consider.

The response to the plan has been swift. Last night representatives of the Sierra Club and other environmental interests voiced their opposition at a meeting Santa Monica. No doubt there are a million reasons not to greenlight this project, just as their are legitimate arguments for it.

The $64,000 question (or $21 billion question) is how those conflicting sentiments stack up against each other in the post-special-election climate?

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Reacting To the California Model

Now that the ballot props have been eviscerated at the polls, we'll have to wait and see how forthcoming spending cuts and revenue fixes impact California's energy agenda, but reaction to the "California Model" that President Obama has embraced for country, has been swift.

Here's an opinion from the right wing, courtesy of the Fox Forum blog in which Competitive Enterprise Institute policy experts Ian Murray and William Yeatman take a decidedly dim view of applying the California model to the rest of the country:

"That should worry all Americans, because California’s energy policy is an unmitigated disaster. California’s expensive energy has driven industries out of the state. According to the Energy Information Agency, California has some of the highest electricity prices in country, due in part to the laughably-misnamed “deregulation” of California’s electricity industry. Californians were actually left with an over-regulated energy supply that cannot deliver energy at the affordable prices the rest of the country can. No wonder, then, that it has exported most of it electricity generation to other states.

The Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was left bemused recently when it became apparent that he cannot even build a solar power plant in the middle of the Mojave Desert, due to the federal Endangered Species Act which prohibits any construction that disturbs the habitat of species designated as endangered. The state’s remaining hydro-power plants are offline because of the drought, so rolling blackouts like those of 2005 will be inevitable. This is the energy policy that President Obama in now trying to impose on the rest of the nation—to cut out all affordable sources of energy and cause bills to, as he once famously said, “skyrocket,” to encourage development of alternative energy sources.

The effect on California’s economy has been disastrous. Heavy manufacturing in the state is dead. The industries it has left—entertainment in Hollywood and technology in Silicon Valley—are not enough to supply the tax base the state needs to support its expansive social welfare programs, which in turn have seen demand spike because of high unemployment caused by the energy policy."

Messrs. Murray and Yeatman-- and their allies-- are either a clarion voice of reason, or cannon fodder. Fox reports, you decide!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

"B.O." and "BK" Headline the News

Taking a page from California's playbook, the president has announced his new plan to mandate better gas mileage and fewer emissions.

Depending on your perspective, all you might see is the number "1300"-- as in $1,300 more per car, which is what experts are predicting this will cost in sticker price; or you might focus exclusively on the environmental benefits of the plan. However, the blog Gearlog has come up with a Top 10 list of of the way the new regs will affect you.

Also in the news, the Sacramento Bee takes a look back at the history of the now bankrupt Pacific Ethanol (to clarify, the company threw four plants into BK-- the partent company and marketing subs did not file).

Monday, May 18, 2009

Verbal Jousting.

I'm scurrying about this morning but wanted to call your attention to an interesting Q&A between the Sacramento Bee and flacks for the proposed massive transmission line project in northern California.

If you remember the old Isuzu motors pitchman, Joe Isuzu-- a slippery character who you knew was not giving you the straight story-- this reads kind of like one of his commercials. In an exercise that surely put the public relations staff to the test, project backers seek to deflect a series of basic questions such as:

Why not put the wires underground? (Too hot...)

  • Why not install rooftop solar throughout the regions to be served instead of a massive transmission line? (solar is inadequate...)

  • Is consumer demand sufficient to warrant the new lines? (Technically, demand is flattening but it won't be like that forever...)
Fun reading...

Friday, May 15, 2009

Take That Henry Waxman! Hoosier Daddy?!

This morning we turn our attention to the Heartland where Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels EVISCERATES cap & trade in general, and the Waxman bill in particular. Stating that he is "not a candidate for any office -- now or ever again," Daniels pens a blistering oped in the Wall Street Journal assailing the basic assumptions and predicted effects of cap & trade.

Some highlights:

Calling the plan "imperialism," Daniels states: "This bill would impose enormous taxes and restrictions on free commerce by wealthy but faltering powers -- California, Massachusetts and New York -- seeking to exploit politically weaker colonies in order to prop up their own decaying economies. Because proceeds from their new taxes, levied mostly on us, will be spent on their social programs while negatively impacting our economy, we Hoosiers decline to submit meekly."


"No honest estimate pretends to suggest that a U.S. cap-and-trade regime will move the world's thermometer by so much as a tenth of a degree a half century from now. My fellow citizens are being ordered to accept impoverishment for a policy that won't save a single polar bear."

Still more:

"Already we observe the piranha swarm of green lobbyists wangling special exemptions, subsidies and side deals."

And that's just a taste of the Governor's objections... he also predicts that legislation before Congress would double Indiana electric bills and cause Indiana factories to post signs reading "Closed, Gone to China" on their front doors.

Daniels then offers his own thoughts about alternative energy, touting Indiana's amped up production of biofuels; its year over year growth in wind energy; and its commitment to clean coal.

Did I mention Daniels is a Republican?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Reality Sets In On Solar

Speaking at a conference in La Jolla yesterday, BP CEO Tony Hayward called solar power a lemon. As reported by Reuters:

"BP CEO Tony Hayward said on Wednesday solar power technology was unlikely to ever be competitive with more conventional energy sources.

"I think solar is probably the most challenged of all of BP's alternative energy interests," Hayward said.

"It is not going to make the transition to be competitive with more conventional power, the gap is too big...if solar is going to make a breakthrough, there will be a technology disintermediation step," he added."

This is a stark assessment from a genuine industry leader-- BP has an entire subsidiary, BP Solar, devoted to solar energy with installations in over 160 countries and more than 2200 employees. However, it isn't entirely unexpected- the writing has been on the wall.

The Financial Times called Haywards comments, "a further sign of the company’s move away from renewables towards oil and gas."

The FT also notes, "BP has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in making solar cells and components, but in the past six months it has been closing factories around the world, and announced a sharp cut in its investment in alternative energies, such as solar, from $1.4bn last year to $1bn (£658m) this year."

It's going to take the force of sheer political will to continue the proliferation of infrastructure for solar and other uneconomic sources of alternative energy, which is not to say it will not happen. In places like Washington, D.C. and Sacramento, money is no object.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Addition and Subtraction

A couple of quick items today and then back to work:

Pacific Ethanol is on life support and likely to go BK at any time if (once) it can't restructure its debt and raide cash.

Fresno has welcomed another gas-fired peaker plant into the neighborhood as the 116 Midway Power Plant near Mendota came on line this month. The Fresno Bee reports that it is one of three such plants in a cluster:

"Already up and running area pair of adjacent power plants, both operating since 2001. One, also owned by Starwood Energy, is the 49-megawatt Panoche plant, originally owned by CalPeak Power LLC but purchased along with several other CalPeak plants by Starwood in 2006. The second is the 49-megawatt Wellhead Power Plant."

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Debating REC's

Last month UC Santa Cruz Professor Daniel Press published an oped essentially lampooning the practice of purchasing "Renewable Energy Certificates" as little more than a foolish attempt to assuage environmental guilt without actually doing anything positive for the environment.

Earlier this week, Arthur O'Donnell of the Center for Resource Solutions took to the opinion pages of the Mercury News in rebuttal, claiming that when you buy Renewable Energy Certificates, your money goes to "pay for the environmental benefits that we all enjoy." Who's right?

Press argued that the Certificates allow people to purchase the "environmental attributes" of alternative energy, "but not the electricity itself. ":

"To understand why, consider the economics of renewable-energy production. Wind farms in California and Texas sell electricity on the wholesale market, with a significant boost from federal production tax credits for renewable energy. But prices for renewable-energy certificates, as negotiated by brokers and power producers, are very low — 10 percent of the difference between the cost of producing nonrenewable and renewable energy, and far too little to actually spur production.

By harnessing the power of the word "renewable" for spin and gimmickry, certificate brokers have persuaded hundreds of colleges to buy the "environmental attributes" of wind, landfill gas and solar energy — but not the electricity itself. "Environmental attributes" is the sort of mumbo-jumbo that's hard to explain in news releases and on Web sites, so thousands of certificate buyers simply say that 100 percent of their power is green."

Enter Mr. O'Donnell:

"No one is suggesting that renewable electrons suddenly begin flowing into your house when you purchase a certificate. You're getting the same mix of sources you always got. But you've taken ownership over a specific, discrete amount of renewable-energy generation that no one else can claim, and your money has gone to the wind farm or other source, helping make renewable energy more profitable (or at least less unprofitable) to build."

This sounds suspiciously like those goofy huckster ads you hear on the radio, pitching you to "name a star" for someone you love ("Your star will be entered in book form in the US Copyright Office!!!!).

So, from where I sit, it seems like Renewable Energy Certificates are a nice source of income for the brokers who traffic in them, and an admirable expression of support for renewable energy, but perhaps less of a game-changer than their proponents would like you to believe.

I score this one for Professor Press.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Is There An Alternative Energy Double Standard?

Here's a water-cooler discussion topic for today:

"Given the fact that California has a moratorium on new nuclear power pending a resolution of the problem surrounding storage of spent fuel rods, should California impose a similar moratorium on new wind and solar projects requiring the construction of new high voltage transmission lines?"

The question isn't as "out there" as it sounds.

We've posted frequently about the fight between green energy advocates and conservationists. Now, the Sacramento Bee takes up the issue anew with a piece that looks at a brewing controversy in Northern California and that revisits an existing kerfuffle over a proposed solar array in Southern California.

According to the Bee:

"The $1.5 billion project envisions stringing 600 miles of new lines from northeast California to Sacramento and the Bay Area with a targeted completion date of 2014. It would be the largest power infrastructure venture undertaken in Northern California in nearly two decades, sponsored by a consortium of 15 Northern California municipal power providers, including Sacramento Municipal Utility District and the city of Roseville.

But it's also a new front in an emerging, nationwide fight over green power that pits environmental concerns against each other.

In Southern California, opposition – including some from Sen. Dianne Feinstein – is mounting against plans to erect a large array of solar panels in the desert, and the miles of transmission towers needed to connect them to customers in Los Angeles and San Diego.

The Northern California project could help bring online new, renewable sources of power such as wind, solar and geothermal. But it negatively impacts residents, wildlife and ecosystems beneath long, wide power line corridors."

If the environmental impact of nuclear power generation is sufficient to ban its use, should the environmental impact of wind and solar generation receive similar consideration?


Friday, May 08, 2009

Ethanol's Merry, Merry Month of May

T.S. Eliot wrote that "April is ther cruelest month," but if you're in the ethanol industry (or if your name is Manny Ramirez) you might argue that April's got nothing on May in the cruelty category.

Already fighting against a potentially game-changing regulatory precedent at CARB where the agency is seeking to cripple ethanol's viability by subjecting it to a cradle-to-grave carbon footprint analysis, and dealing with the fallout from the Obama Administration's similarly onerous view of ETOH's carbon profile, now the ethanol industry has to contend with a new Stanford study that concludes that by converting biomass to electricity rather than ethanol, cars can travel up to 80% farther.

The Mercury News reports:

"The study, published Thursday in the journal Science, compares two of the leading fossil fuel alternatives. As state and federal agencies decide how to dole out billions of dollars in subsidies and design new environmental regulations, the study could play a key role in helping determine what the next generation of cars will look like."


"[Lead Author Elliot] Campbell and his two colleagues at Stanford compared the energy costs and output of the electricity and ethanol produced from the same patch of land. They estimated that an acre of switch grass could power a small SUV for 15,000 miles if converted into electricity, but 8,000 miles if turned into ethanol."

As the anti-ethanol crowd continues to pile on, look for a ferocious response from the ethanol barons and their minions in Congress.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Sempra Scores

Wow... today got away from me... not much interesting any way, with the possible exception of Sempra's whopping 40% increase in earnings per share.

Felsinger says the spike in profit is a "testament to our business model"-- a point Michael Shames does not contest, as the Union Tribune reports:

"This profit boost is the rate giveaway that the commission signed off on last year,” said Michael Shames, executive director of UCAN, the Utility Consumers' Action Network. “This was expected.”

Shames opposed the rate increase, saying that SDG&E shouldn't be given a profit increase on rates that its customers have no choice but to pay when other parts of the economy are suffering. "

Ironically, the same day this windfall was reported, analysts downgraded Sempra. Go figure.

Sempra's share earnings soar 40% [San Diego Union Tribune]

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

"Champagne Wishes, Caviar Dreams... and Solar."

Here's one from the Cal-Energy Travel & Liesure Section! is reporting that the toney Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur has gone solar in a big way-- like a 990 panel solar array. Supposedly, this is the largest hotel solar project in California.

The move makes the hotel virtually self-sufficient and allows it to sell excess power back into the grid.

The write-up also notes that:

"In addition to the solar array, the ranch boasts numerous other green initiatives including green roofs, gray water systems and organic bedding, and throughout its 17 year history, the hotel has consistently aimed to improve its local environment . On the surrounding 100 acres, for instance, the hotel maintains several conservation areas to help protect native wildlife such as the Smith's blue butterfly and the California red legged frog; and on site gardens provide herbs, vegetables and fruit for the hotel's organic restaurant."

Maybe now that the electric bill is set to come down, rooms won't go for $2,000 a night? Doubt it.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Another Front in the Ethanol War

Ethanol appears to have won the opening skirmish of an important battle at CARB over the LCFS, but is it about to lose the war? The Wall Street Journal is reporting that the Obama administration is about to land a body blow on the heavily subsidized & politicized biofuel.

Obama is set to call for efforts to increase the production and availability of ethanol through federal loan guarantees designed to stimulate construction of more biofuel refineries-- that's good for ethanol.

However, in taking a page out of the early CARB playbook, the President will also call for holding ethanol responsible for its total carbon footprint by "measuring the greenhouse-gas emissions associated with biofuel production -- including emissions that result overseas when farmers world-wide respond to higher food prices by converting forest and grassland to cropland. "

That's bad for ethanol and eerily reminiscent of the fight the industry has on its hands in Sacramento.

Out of LUC: Team Obama Prepares Ethanol Smackdown [Environmental Capital (Wall Street Journal)

Monday, May 04, 2009

Is Gasoline Changing California's Car Culture?

The Los Angeles Times takes a look at driver habits in response to fluctuating gasoline prices and reaches a conclusion that has been widely reported already: drivers are driving less as gasoline prices increase. While that might seem elementary and self-evident, the Times goes behind the numbers and offers some revealing observations:

- Beginning in April 2006, California has experienced 11 straight quarters of year-over-year declines in gasoline consumption, despite having more licensed drivers in the state.

- $2 appears to the tipping point for influencing consumer behavior.

- The generational shift appears to be driving consumer behavior more than previously thought; younger drivers who are more environmentally conscious then older drivers are leading the trend toward conservation and cleaner fuels.

- Consumers view gas as a discretionary item over which they have some measure of control, unlike basic staples such as food and housing.

As behaviors continue to shift, one has to wonder if notion of the "California Car Culture" will become a thing of the past, regardless of the price of gas...

Friday, May 01, 2009

Signals Crossed?

The folks in CARB's communications department are either not talking to each other or they are baffling us with their brilliance by executing an obfuscation strategy designed to head off criticism. I'll let you decide.

What is indisputable is that on the very day the press was reporting that CARB announced that it is going to revisit one of the fundamental tenets of its Low Carbon Fuel Standard because the numbers aren't quite what they thought they were, an opinion piece by Mary Nichols gets posted on the influential Huffington Post blog which extolls the virtue of the LCFS as "the first step of an effective long-term cure [for our nation's century-long addition [sic] to petroleum."

Dripping with irony or hypocrisy (again, you be the judge) the Nichols piece wraps the LCFS in the mantle of capitalism and free markets. Nichols states:

"The Low Carbon Fuel Standard breaks new ground because it does not anoint winners and losers. It leaves that decision to the marketplace."

Huh? The entire point of the LCFS is to identify and penalize certain fuels, while promoting others.

It's a lengthy piece, but it's Friday so I know you can find the time!