How About A Sane Energy Policy Mr. Obamney?

It’s Presidential Election year.  Ergo, time to discuss our 40 year whacked out excuse for an energy policy.  Royally botched up by every President since, umm?

Objectives:

Make US energy supply cheap for the US consumer and industry, fast growing and profitable for the American energy sector, clean, widely available and reliable, and secure, diversified, environmentally friendly and safe for all of us.

or

Cheap, Clean, Reliable, Secure, Energy

 

An Energy Policy that leaves us more efficient than our competitors

An Energy Policy that leaves us with more and more diversified, supply than our competitors

An Energy Policy that leaves us more reliable than our competitors

An Energy Policy that makes us healthier and cleaner than our competitors

An Energy Policy that makes us able to develop adopt new technologies faster than our competitors

An Energy Policy that makes it easy for industry to sell technology, energy, and raw materials to our competitors

An Energy Policy that keeps $ home.

A Sane Energy policy

 

Think more drilling, less regulation on supply, lower tariffs, more investment in R&D, tighter CAFE and energy efficiency standards, simpler and larger subsidies for new technologies, less regulation on infrastructure project development.

 

A couple of key action items:

  • Support the development of new marginal options for fuel supply, and support options that improve balance of payments, whether EVs ethanol, solar et al
  • Make crude oil, refined products, Gas, LNG and coal easy to import and export
  • Drive energy efficiency like a wedge deep in our economy
  • Support expansion and modernization of gas, electric, and transport infrastructure
  • Support long term R&D in both oil & gas, electric power, and renewables
  • Reduce time to develop and bring online new projects of any type (yes that means pipelines, solar and wind plants, offshore drilling, fracking and transmission lines).
  • Support policies and technology that enable  linking of energy markets
  • Challenge the OPEC cartel like we do EVERY OTHER cartel and break the back of our supply contraints
  • Support the export of our energy industry engineering, services and manufacturing  sectors overseas
  • Incorporate energy access into the core of our trade policy
  • Support deregulation of power markets
  • Support long term improvement in environmental and safety standards
  • Broadly support significant per unit market subsidies for alternatives like PV, wind, biofuels, fracking as they approach competitiveness

Or we could do it the other way:

  • Leave ourselves locked into single sources of supply in a screwy regulated market that involves sending massive checks to countries who’s governments don’t like us because that’s the way we did it in the 50s?
  • Keep massive direct subsidies to darling sectors so the darling sectors can fight each other to keep their subsidies instead of cutting costs?
  • Keep a mashup of state and federal regulatory, carbon and environmental standards making it virtually impossible to change infrastructure when new technology comes around?
  • Promote deregulation in Texas, and screw the consumer in every other market?
  • Every time there’s a crisis, we can shoot the industry messenger in the head, stop work, and subsidize something.
  • Continue the Cold War policy of appeasing OPEC so they can keep us under their thumb for another 30 years
  • And drop a few billion here and there on pet pork projects

Come on guys, stop the politics, let’s get something rational going.  Oh wait, it’s an election year.  Damn.

And in the meantime how about making energy taxes (a MASSIVE chunk of your gasoline and power prices) variable, so they go DOWN when prices go up.  Then at least the government’s pocket book has an incentive to control cost, even if they’re incompetent at putting together a policy that does so.

Fighting the Military on Energy Strategy

For several years, the U.S. military has been one of the most active proponents and early-adopters of renewable energy and alternative fuels, with their Operational Energy Strategy.  Why?  Several reasons:

1.  Fuel delivered to the remote front-lines such as in Afghanistan for use in power generation and transportation has an “all-in” cost of $400/gallon.  Any energy source that can be supplied locally, such as solar, to reduce fuel has significant potential for economic savings.

2.  Being of critical logistical importance, convoys to deliver fuel are often the target of insurgent attacks, resulting in casualties to American servicemen and -women.  Anything that can reduce the quantity and frequency of these convoys should obviously be a very good thing.

3.  In buying so much oil, America sends hundreds of billions of dollars each year to regimes that not only don’t like the U.S., but actively attack U.S. interests.  As many astute observers such as James Woolsey, former head of the CIA has said on a number of occasions, “we are funding both sides of the war on terror.”  Military reliance upon oil is a key contributing factor.

Now comes James Bartis of the RAND Corporation, who argues in a recent study that “military planners are afflicted with petroleum anxiety.”  He says that the military shouldn’t be so worried about oil price increases and supply insecurity:  “they think prices are heading in only one direction:  up.  But history teaches us otherwise.”

Senator John McCain (R-AZ) is piling on to this argument.  McCain is alleging that the U.S. DOD long-term strategy to reduce reliance on fossil fuels is “an incredible waste of taxpayers’ money.”  In the mother of all current smears, McCain is wary of “another Solyndra” that might stem from this effort.

I pronounce Bartis and McCain guilty of imprudent short-term thinking — which is surprising and highly disappointing, since I have generally considered RAND and McCain himself as having a good grasp of the big picture. 

Fortunately, the military is keeping its head down and pushing forward with its plans:  earlier this month, the Army released a $7 billion RFP for renewable and alternative energy projects to be installed over the next 10 years.

The military’s energy strategy is not solely or even mainly about minimizing $/gallon or c/kwh, and it’s certainly not about environmental benefits.  This is about building and operating a military that is best suited to win against a dispersed enemy that derives its income from oil sales and targets oil supply lines to impede American military effectiveness and kill Americans. 

Period. 

Reducing oil consumption as much and as quickly as reasonably practicable is key to unhooking our military from this thorny problem.  True, part of reducing oil consumption is through increased efficiency, but part of reducing oil consumption can also be via substitution of alternatives:  biofuels, solar, and wind.

Whether the military’s push for renewable energy will be as successful as desired is unclear.  However, the only way to know is to try.  If they don’t try, the U.S. military — and our country more generally — will just paint itself further into the corner in which it finds itself strategically today.

Book Review: Private Empire

After having extensively tackled the topic of al-Qaida with The Bin Ladens and Ghost Wars, Steve Coll has turned his attention to ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM)

At first blush, this might seem like a dramatic thematic departure for Coll as a journalist and author.  However, Coll’s newest work, Private Empire:  ExxonMobil and American Power, makes clear that the world’s largest corporation is roughly as powerful a force on the global geopolitical stage as the world’s most dangerous terrorist network.  And, not only powerful, but also sometimes working against the interests of the United States and its citizens. 

Private Empire begins with a recap of the 1989 Exxon Valdez accident and ends with the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon accident, these two spills reflecting the hubris that widely prevails within Big Oil and the gap between the perceived and actual ability to prevent or at minimum contain such disasters. 

In between, Private Empire explores the cultural norms of ExxonMobil, its activities in U.S. policy circles (especially in sowing climate change denial), and its various dealings with bad actors around the world (e.g., Indonesia, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, Russia, Venezuela, Iraq) to obtain access to petroleum reserves.

Although definitive as a recent history of ExxonMobil, the book is far more than just a corporate biography.  It reveals the internal machinations of Big Oil and illustrates over and over how Big Oil needs to often stoop lowly into moral and ethical morasses in the relentless pursuit – a never-ending treadmill – of somehow replacing the oil and gas produced last year or else face inevitable decline.

One thing is abundantly clear:  as the largest remaining component of the former Standard Oil, ExxonMobil is most definitely the son of the father. 

Before being broken up into smaller pieces by anti-trust action in 1911, Standard Oil was ruthless in its rigor, professionalism and anti-sentimentality.  Everything and everyone not Standard Oil was an enemy to be conquered.  Strongly imprinted by the values of founder John D. Rockefeller, Standard Oil pursued one purpose – to maximize the wealth of its shareholders – fully cloaked in the belief that the company was doing God’s work in allowing Mankind to achieve higher standards of living.

ExxonMobil seems to operate in the same vein, and their leaders seem to follow closely in the footsteps of Rockefeller:  pious but cold, principled in their principles and no-one else’s. 

This was especially true of Lee Raymond, ExxonMobil’s CEO during most of the 1990s into the mid-2000s.  Raymond makes for an interesting villain:  someone with a few notable positive attributes (e.g., loyalty) that partially counterbalance his overt meanness. 

Notably, Raymond was convinced that everyone hated ExxonMobil and would always hate ExxonMobil no matter what.  As a result, Raymond didn’t have ExxonMobil undertake any proactive media or public relations strategies to soften the company’s image, as were more vigorously pursued by its fellow Big Oil brethren BP (NYSE: BP), Shell (LSE:  RDSA) and (to a lesser extent) Chevron (NYSE: CVX).  If the ExxonMobil empire was virtually-universally perceived as nasty, as long as it was respected and produced excellent financial results, that was fine with Raymond.

In the wake of Raymond, current CEO Rex Tillerson comes off much more favorably, with his Boy Scout earnestness and at least some willingness to engage productively with outside stakeholders.

Even with Tillerson’s less heavy-handed touch, the ExxonMobil playbook reveals itself again and again as domineering:  outlast and outspend the opposition, bend the truth and rules as much as possible, delay and litigate as needed.   It’s not a pretty picture.  Other oil companies no doubt act this way to some extent, but Coll makes the case compellingly that ExxonMobil is far and away the most extreme of the Big Oil club members.  Fully 100 years after the anti-trust dismemberment, resentment towards the government seems to still ooze from every pore and fiber of the ExxonMobil corporate body.

As you’d expect from the winner of a Pulitzer Prize, Coll is thorough in his reporting, and the writing is clear and energetic, effortlessly pulling the reader through the narrative.

One minor stylistic complaint:  the last seven pages of the book merit its own chapter, rather than being tacked onto the discussion of the Deepwater Horizon debacle.  Using Coll’s practice for naming chapters based on a juicy snippet of the text contained within, I would suggest that this denouement should be called “I Had To Do What Was Best For My Shareholders”.

This was a quote from Tillerson in 2011, when he revealed telephonically to U.S. State Department officials that ExxonMobil signed an agreement directly with the Kurds (not with the Iraqi government in Baghdad) to develop oil resources, against the explicit wishes of the Obama Administration.  With this anecdote and several others in the final pages, Coll ties up many of the loose threads he exposes in the prior 600 pages, and the cumulative effect makes for a sobering conclusion. 

Basically, Coll totals up all the ways in which ExxonMobil has won, at the expense of others who have lost.  In many cases, the loser was the United States itself. 

The subtitle of the book – ExxonMobil and American Power – is somewhat misleading, as it implies that the two subjects are on a similar footing.  Indeed, one can make the case that “American Power” (whatever that is, or whatever remains of it) is revealed by Coll to be in fact subservient to ExxonMobil.  When convenient, ExxonMobil benefited from the government’s service and support, and pressed upon both legislators and the executive branch for certain actions.  Otherwise, ExxonMobil went its own way, sometimes hostile to government (and often hostile to public) interests.

Perhaps in service of his role as President of the policy think-tank New America Foundation, Coll hints pretty clearly his sense that the “era of corporate ascendancy” — with ExxonMobil being a poster-child — is a significant negative force at work in the United States.  Mentioning the Citizens United decision as an example of the mechanics by which that force works, Coll asserts that ExxonMobil’s success “reflected in part the growing relative power of corporations in the American political and economic system.” 

The question that Private Empire ultimately poses the reader is whether ExxonMobil’s gargantuan success is a good thing overall – especially when considering who is losing, and why they might be losing.  This may be no more vividly illustrated than in the final paragraph of the book: 

“In 1999, the year that Exxon’s acquisition of Mobil closed, the federal government and the corporation each took in more money annually than was required to meet expenses.  Their paths then divided.  In an era of terrorism, expeditionary wars, and upheaval abroad, coupled with tax cutting and reckless financial speculation at home, one navigated confidently, while the other foundered.  From the day of the Mobil merger closing until the day of the S&P downgrade [of U.S. debt ratings in 2011], the net cash flow of the United States – receipts minus expenditures – was approximately negative $5.7 trillion.  ExxonMobil’s net cash flow from operations and asset sales during the same period was a positive $493 billion.”

It could be argued more broadly that the last decade has seen a massive wealth transfer from the U.S. taxpayer to its largest corporations (and its shareholders).  As Coll’s exhaustive and authoritative reporting suggests, nobody does it better than ExxonMobil.

Cleantech, Hedging Economics, and Commodity Hell

It never ceases to fascinate me the massive amount of impact commodity price swings have on business plans.  Apple, Google, Facebook, they don’t deal with this.   Commodity price swings just don’t hit their bottom line.  But in cleantech, well, government and policy is king, commodity and resource shocks are queen, you and I are the numbered cards, technology is the joker, and time is the ace.

Food for thought:

My colleague Richard Stuebi just did an article on the impact of the run up in corn prices – 60%!

The first wave of distributed power business cases (including the entire damn fuel cell sector) 10 years ago collapsed when natural gas prices spiked to unheard of heights.  They’re back now, based on low gas prices.

All the carbon development business cases got made, then crushed, under price swings in carbon prices, fixed price contracts, and delivery dates. I can count maybe a dozen billion dollar fortunes made and lost in carbon on this.

The entire Chinese solar market got built not because of great technology or even great manufacturing, but because of a price environment where old, larger US and Japanese companies BP Solar, etc. were unwilling to go long on silicon and risk getting upside down, and the the new manufacturers from China bet the farm on that and where able to add highly profitable capacity and take share as the German market grew.  Today’s margin pressure is a reversal of that .

There was never a shortage of silicon, but of refining capacity, a function of contracts.  However, this “shortage” drove billions in investment in thin film and concentrated solar power, mostly under a materials cost business case.

Today, all solar companies find the price of money is the new commodity that drives their margins.  And the Solyndra executives essentially claimed commodity price hell for their downfall, saying they collapsed because of “unsustainable prices” from China when PV became a true commodity and they couldn’t compete.

The wind market is under pressure now because low gas prices makes wind relatively less competitive – only a few years ago, wind was adding capacity in the US faster than anything else.

Those same low gas prices are making a mockery of the old solar business case that your power prices will just go up and up and up.

The first wave of corn ethanol darlings, VeraSun and Aventine, went bust not from bad business plans, but from busted hedges.  In fact, the valuations of ethanol companies were based on unrealistic refining margin assumptions based on very wide price deltas in the growth phase, when the industry was short capacity relative to the US demand.

Corn ethanol itself significantly moderated retail gas prices in that oil price peak, in part by simply adding a new source of very liquid supply into an inelastic demand curve, bringing down refining profits.

The EV and plugin craze launched in the heart of the oil price rise driving interest in anything that saved gas. But an EV’s payback is built on essentially on decoupled oil and gas prices – high oil and refined product and low power from cheap gas, combined with up front cost of batteries and their life.  The same “spark spread” business case that drove distributed generation.

 

A couple of proposals:

Linked ethanol markets between the US and Brazil would moderate the corn price spikes, our tariff ensures the value and pain of swings is steep and localized in our food market.

When you IPO an energy company, analysts look heavily at its “leverage” to different commodities, and value it appropriately.  Why don’t we do that in cleantech?  Looking through the latest biofuels prospectuses, Gevo, Codexis, Kior, Amyris, Solazyme, etc, they seem  suspiciously naive on the same things that killed their low tech brethren VeraSun.

I guess in cleantech, what the CTO maketh, only God and and CFO can taketh away. AKA, when are venture capital firms going to freaking hire economists before they make investments?

 

Corn Flakiness

The historic drought this summer across most of the United States has severely damaged this year’s corn crop.  According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, corn production is expected to be down more than 10% from last year.

Not surprisingly, corn prices have surged.  What may be surprising is how much they’ve surged:  up to record levels exceeding $8.00/bushel, up 60% over the past few months.  

Since prices have risen (60%) far more than volumes have fallen (10%), this is great news for corn farmers.

Of course, what’s good news for corn farmers is not necessarily good news for corn consumers.  The two biggest consumers of corn are livestock farmers/ranchers and ethanol production plants, and these twin pillars of corn demand are butting heads. 

Yes, this is another manifestation of the “food vs. fuel” debates so prevalent a few years ago.

By various measures, 28-41% of U.S. corn supply is used for ethanol production.  In turn, ethanol production is strongly influenced by U.S. energy policy — specifically, the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) implemented as part of the Energy Independency and Security Act of 2007, passed under the Bush Administration.  In 2012, the RFS stipulates that 13.2 billion gallons of ethanol must be produced and blended into gasoline for automotive use.

Without the RFS policy, it’s pretty clear that ethanol production would fall considerably under current market conditions.  Even with the RFS setting minimum levels, ethanol production is on the ropes, simply because the cost of the corn feedstock has risen much more than the price of ethanol has risen.  Put another way, ethanol margins have dramatically deteriorated — and in many cases are now negative.  In response, marginal ethanol plants are being idled.

Even with these adverse conditions, it’s widely expected that the ethanol quantities stipulated by the RFS for 2012 can still be met.  Pre-existing inventories of ethanol can be drawn down, ethanol exports from the U.S. can be reduced, and there are leftover Renewable Identification Number (RIN) credits from last year that can be applied to this year’s requirements.

Although financially bleak for this year, the ethanol markets won’t break.  Same with the livestock markets, but that isn’t stopping farmers/ranchers from raising objections:  they are pressing the U.S. EPA to at least temporarily relax the RFS to help alleviate the upward pressure on corn prices.  In the past few weeks, 156 House members and 25 Senators have written EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson seeking intervention.

A waiver on the RFS is probably not gonna happen right now, both because of economics and politics.

A recent study by Bruce Babcock of Iowa State University entitled “Preliminary Assessment of the Drought’s Impacts on Crop Prices and Biofuel Production” indicates that eliminating the ethanol mandate of the RFS would only reduce corn prices by $0.28/bushel, or less than a 5%.  In short, it doesn’t seem that relaxing the RFS will have that much beneficial impact on corn prices, as livestock interests are assuming. 

Representing the ethanol industry, the Renewable Fuels Association released a statement arguing that there is no need to waive the RFS requirements in the face of a tough corn crop.  The Obama Administration seems to be on the same page:  USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack continues to staunchly support the ethanol market.  Corn farmers do too — and there are a lot of voting corn farmers in swing states like right here in Ohio.

Given that it’s politically controversial during an election season and doubtfully effective anyway, it seems unlikely that Obama will relax the RFS.  And then, by November, a lot of the pressures caused by ethanol on the corn markets will have eased, since the demand for fuels peaks in the summer.

Now, if we have another serious drought during the 2013 growing season…?  The Dust Bowl years of the mid-1930’s tell us that unpleasant scenario is not unprecedented.

Two Years Later: Revisiting the Taxonomy of Cleantech

It’s been two years since Kachan & Co. first published its definition of what industries and categories constitute cleantech.

A lot happens in two years, so it’s time to refresh our taxonomy.

A clean technology taxonomy, a list of nested categories, is important. It shows where a clean technology “fits.” It helps vendors understand their competitive sets. It defines and helps investors understand the breadth of the sector and its sub-categories, and helps research and data organizations report consistently.

Ones available two years ago were lacking, out of date or not comprehensive enough. So we took the time to develop our own, influenced by others as we described here two years ago, when we first crowdsourced and validated our work with the cleantech community.

Our investment paid off. The Kachan cleantech taxonomy has emerged as one of the leading definitions of cleantech (cited in places like hereherehereherehere and here.)

But progress marches on. Industries don’t stay still very long. Two years later, it’s now time to revisit and improve our work. So the following is our firm’s latest take on the cleantech taxonomy, i.e. what industries constitute cleantech and how they’re organized, for your feedback and input.

Kachan 2012 cleantech taxonomy overview

A reminder of some of the factors affecting work like this:

  • It required discipline to remember the exercise was a classification for technologies, i.e. when hardware/software or other systems are involved. It was not a categorization of larger climate change initiatives, for instance… just where tech that’s supposed to get commercialized is involved, and where entrepreneurs and investors hope to make a return.
  • It forced the internal discussion of whether nuclear is a clean technology. While some argue nuclear has no place in cleantech, we feel otherwise. As we learned researching a Kachan report on the subject, there are important nuclear-related innovations being pursued to derive power from non-weaponizable fuels, new reactor designs that can’t melt down or be turned into terrorist weapons and new R&D aimed at cracking that other historical nut of nuclear power: waste.
  • It forced a focus on cleantech-related innovation. For instance, just because recycling is a category doesn’t mean that everything in the recycling industry is cleantech. Likewise semiconductors. Or hydro. But these areas are ripe for clean technology innovation, and there are new cleantech breakthroughs happening in each there today. Hence their inclusion.

The most important changes in this new version are:

  • Renaming of energy efficiency to just efficiency – Efficiencies are now being sought in as many areas of cleantech as possible, not just in the obvious places like energy, water and food. For instance, in an attempt to reduce the creation of new “stuff“, a category of “collaborative consumption systems” are emerging that deserve recognition. So we’ve broadened the category to include these and other new technologies being developed to foster efficiencies across the board. Vehicle sharing, incl. peer-to-peer carsharing, bike sharing and other vehicle systems, has been relocated here from transportation.
  • ICT stays a “layer” within all eight categories of cleantech – Information and communication technologies (ICT) today play an even greater role in cleantech than they did two years ago. Yet, even after much internal debate, we decided not to call ICT out here as a separate high-level category. It was recognized that ICT’s primary value is in making most other aspects of cleantech better, e.g. smarter buildings, more efficient energy management, more effective distribution and better remote sensing. Because it touches everything, it shouldn’t be consigned to its own silo, went the rationale. Even though some investors, say, specifically seek out only ICT-related investments in cleantech.
  • Energy storage embellished – There have been new developments in energy storage in the last two years, particularly in mechanical storage. Our storage section has been augmented and expanded and reorganized to reflect this.
  • Fuel cells moved to energy generation – Yes, fuel cells can be considered a way to store energy. But most commercial applications today involve power and heat generation. So they’ve been relocated from storage to energy generation.
  • More detail in nuclear technologies – Informed by our recent in-depth report on Emerging Nuclear Innovations, we learned a lot about types of new upcoming nuclear tech that stands to make nuclear vastly safer to run, less expensive, less risky as a terrorist target and waste-free, and updated our nuclear taxonomy accordingly.
  • Reorganization of data center technologies – Data center efficiency improvement has been low-hanging fruit for many companies since our last taxonomy. The efficiency category previously called “electronics & appliances” has been renamed “data centers & devices” and now contains more technologies like component efficiency improvement and intelligent power management in addition to virtualization.
  • Agricultural technology significantly embellished – We’ve been conducting analysis for a forthcoming Kachan report on breakthrough new agricultural cleantech companies, and have created a dramatically expanded taxonomy of agricultural technology as a result. It’s reflected in this new version. Look for even more detail, including leading vendors in each category, in our report.

A big thank you to Jeff Wen, Shannon Payne, Megan Amaral and Lucia Siplakovic of Kachan & Co., who each played valuable roles in helping shape this latest analysis.

Have thoughts of your own? Want to help influence this new taxonomy? Consider this another ‘crowdsourcing’ cycle—you can weigh in before we call this final. Please leave a comment with your feedback on the original version of this article on our website (so we don’t have to chase down comments from all over the web.) We’ll review and possibly fold in your thinking before we update our master definition page and chart deck that lives here.

In outline form, Kachan & Co’s latest taxonomy of what fits where in cleantech:

  • Renewable energy generation
    • Wind
      • Turbines
      • Components, incl. gearboxes, blades, towers
    • Solar
      • Crystalline silicon
      • Thin film
      • Other emerging photovoltaic
      • PV module technologies
      • Inverters
      • Thermal
      • Concentrated solar power
        • Thermal
        • Photovoltaic
      • Financing providers
      • Systems
    • Renewable fuels
      • Ethanol
      • Cellulosic ethanol
      • Biobutanol
      • Biodiesel
      • Methanol
      • Drop-in synthetic fuels
      • Biogas
      • Hydrogen [when produced from non-fossil sources]
    • Marine
      • Tidal
      • Wave
      • Run-of-river and other small scale hydro
      • Ocean thermal
    • Biomass
      • Wood combusion
    • Geothermal
      • Natural aquifer
      • Hot dry rock enhanced
    • Fuel cells
      • PEM
      • DMFC
      • SOFC
      • MCFC
      • Zinc air
    • Waste-to-energy
      • Waste heat recovery
      • Anaerobic digestion
      • Landfill gas
      • Gasification
      • Plasma torching
    • Nuclear
      • New fission designs
      • Fusion
      • Non-uranium fuels
      • Waste disposal
    • Emerging
      • Osmotic power
      • Kinetic power
      • Others
    • Measurement & analytics
      • Software systems
      • Sensor and other hardware
  • Energy storage
    • Batteries
      • Wet cells (e.g. flow, lead-acid, nickel-cadmium, sodium -sulfur)
      • Dry cells (e.g. zinc-carbon, lithium iron phosphate)
      • Reserve batteries
      • Charging & management
    • Thermal storage
      • Molten salt
      • Ice
      • Chilled water
      • Eutectic
    • Mechanical storage
      • Pumped water
      • Compressed air
      • Flywheels
      • Other moving mass
    • Super/ultra capacitors
    • Hydrogen storage
  • Efficiency
    • Smart grid
      • Transmission
        • Sensors & quality measurement
        • Distribution automation
        • High voltage DC
        • Superconductors
        • High voltage control devices
      • Demand management/response
      • Management
        • Advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) & smart meters
        • Monitoring & metering
        • Networking equipment
        • Quality & testing
        • Self repairing technologies
        • Power conservation
        • Power protection
        • Data analysis systems
    • Green building
      • Design
        • Green roofs
      • Building automation
        • Software & data analytics
        • Monitoring, sensors and controllers
        • Metering
        • Networking & communication
      • Lighting
        • Ballasts & controllers
        • Solid state lighting
        • CFLs
        • Daylight harvesting
      • Systems
        • HVAC
        • Refrigeration
        • Water heating
      • Consulting/facilities management
        • ESCOs
    • Cogeneration
      • Combined heat and power (CHPDH)
    • Data centers & devices
      • Component efficiency improvement
      • Virtualization
      • Intelligent power management
      • Smart appliances
    • Semiconductors
    • Collaborative consumption systems
      • Bartering
      • Bike sharing
      • Carpool/Ride sharing
      • Car sharing
      • Collaborative workspace
      • Co-housing
      • Coworking
      • Garden sharing
      • Fractional ownership
      • Peer-to-peer lending
      • Seed swap
      • Shared taxi
      • Time banks
      • Virtual currencies
  • Transportation
    • Vehicles
      • Improved internal combustion
      • Hybrid electric
      • Plug in hybrids
      • All electric
      • eBikes
      • New vehicle types
      • Rail transport innovation
      • Water transport innovation
      • Components
      • System integration
    • Traffic management
      • Fleet management
      • Traffic & route management
      • Lighting & signals
      • Parking management systems
      • Behavior management
    • Fueling/charging infrastructure
      • Vehicle-to-grid (V2G)
      • Fast charging
      • Battery swapping
      • Induction
      • Alternative fuel conversion
  • Air & environment
    • Carbon sequestration
      • Carbon capture & storage
        • Geological
        • Ocean
        • Mineral
        • Bio capture, incl. algae
        • Co2 re-use
      • Geoengineering
      • Biochar
      • Forestry/agriculture
    • Carbon trading/offsets
      • Software systems
    • Emissions control
      • Sorbents & scrubbers
      • Biofiltration
      • Cartridge/electronic
      • Catalytic converters
    • Bioremediation
    • Recycling & waste
      • Materials reclamation
      • New sorting technologies
      • Waste treatment
      • Waste management & other services
    • Monitoring & compliance
      • Toxin detection
      • Software systems
      • Sensors & other measurement/testing hardware
  • Clean industry
    • Materials innovation
      • Nano
        • Gels
        • Powders
        • Coatings
        • Membranes
      • Bio
        • Biopolymers
        • Biodegradables
        • Catalysts
        • Timber reclamation
      • Glass
        • Chemical
        • Electronic
        • PV
      • Chemical
        • Composites
        • Foils
        • Coatings
      • Structural building material
        • Cement
        • Drywall
        • Windows
      • Ceramics
      • Adhesives
    • Design innovation
      • Biomimicry
      • Software
    • Equipment efficiency
      • Efficient motors
      • Heat pumps & exchangers
      • Controls
    • Production
      • Construction/fabrication
      • Resource utilization
      • Process efficiency
      • Toxin/waste minimization
    • Monitoring & compliance
      • Software systems
      • Automation
      • Sensors & other measurement/testing hardware
    • Advanced packaging
      • Packing
      • Containers
  • Water
    • Production
      • Desalination
      • Air-to-water
    • Treatment
      • Filtration
      • Purification
      • Contaminate detection
      • Waste treatment
    • Transmission
      • Mains repair/improvement
    • Efficiency
      • Recycling
      • Smart irrigation
      • Aeroponics/hydroponics
      • Water saving appliances
    • Monitoring & compliance
      • Software systems
      • Sensors & other measurement/testing hardware
  • Agriculture
    • Crop farming
      • Land management
      • Bioengineering
      • Natural fertilizers and amendments
      • Precision fertilization
      • Biological weed, pest and disease control
      • Precision irrigation
      • Tools and equipment
      • Waste innovations
      • Transport decay prevention
    • Controlled environment agriculture
      • Hydroponics & aeroponics
      • Vertical farming
      • Improved greenhouses
    • Sustainable forestry
      • Lake and waterway management
      • Precision forestry
    • Animal farming, CAFOs
      • Closed loop
      • Waste innovations
    • Aquaculture
      • Health & yield
      • Containment
      • Waste innovations
      • Water quality

The End of Nuclear Power? Or Just the Beginning?

This week’s news: US NRC freezes decisions on new reactor, license renewal applications

“The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission voted unanimously Tuesday not to issue final decisions on granting licenses to build new nuclear power reactors and 20-year license renewals to existing ones, pending resolution of the agency’s waste confidence rule overturned by a court in June.

The commissioners, however, also ordered that NRC review of these license applications continue and that the agency’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board Panel not accept or deny new challenges that may be filed in these proceedings relating to waste storage issues.”

Nukes in the US not dead of course, but the revival still on hold?

 

The post Fukushima nuclear future in Japan?  Still shut down, the replacement generation fleet still a patchwork.  The future is . . .?

 

And Germany?  Trying to get out of nukes puts intense pressure on gas (from Russia), renewables, and the grid.  As well as adds costs. Prognosis unclear.

 

Has Fukushima changed China’s nuclear energy ambitions? Or just its technology choices?

 

And exactly what are the costs for nuclear?  I will say generally, that on a cents per kwh basis, the broad lowering of interest rates benefits nukes better than any other form of power but hydro, given the combination of high portion of the of costs from the capital, and the high capacity factor.

 

So is the end of nuclear power’s 50 year challenge to coal power insight?  Or are we on the verge of a resurgence?  Situation unclear at best.

Clear Signs of Innovation in Glass

Glass has been made for thousands of years, and innovators have always been tinkering to improve the basic product.  Over the years, these improvements have mainly been in terms of color, strength, weight, quality.  The cleantech imperative of the past few decades is now pushing glass innovations on two more dimensions, energy efficiency and power generation.

Regarding energy efficiency, the big issue with windows is energy transfer.  Of course, glass is more thermally conductive than most other building materials, so windows let out more heat in the winter and let in more heat in the summer than the rest of the building.  As such, improving the thermal-insulation of windows has long been pursued, such as through storm windows.

However, another angle on the efficiency topic is via the use of electrochromics, which uses chemistry to change the tint of the glass based on the amount of sunlight.  You’ve no doubt seen these on sunglasses:  the glasses turn darker in bright sunlight, and lighten up inside.  Well, these are now increasingly being applied to windows, so as to reduce the amount of energy (heat) transmitted through the glass.  SAGE Electrochromics of Minnesota, recently bought by the French giant Saint-Gobain (Paris: SGO), is arguably the leader in this field. 

With respect to power generation, a number of inventors have been dabbling with photovoltaics integrated into glass.  Most of this work has been to incorporate solar collecting material into the entire pane, but this recent article discusses some efforts at TU Delft in the Netherlands to use the glass as a lens to focus the light onto solar cells at the periphery of the window.

The moral of this story is:  even something invisible like glass is subject to advancement as part of the cleantech movement.

 

Seducing the Coulomb Barrier

by David Niebauer

“In contrast to conventional experience based on using high energy to overcome the Coulomb barrier by brute force, the CANR [Chemically Assisted Nuclear Reaction] environment apparently uses a mechanism that can neutralize the barrier. This more subtle method apparently is obscured when high energy is applied, this situation being like the difference between a rape and a seduction.”

— Dr. Edmund Storms

The Future of Hydrogen

Hydrogen is the simplest, lightest and most abundant element in the known Universe.  In addition, it is the most potent carrier of energy known to Mankind.  It has a propensity to combine with other elements, such as oxygen to form water (H2O) and carbon to form the familiar hydrocarbon fuels that we have been using for our energy needs for eons.

Burning hydrocarbons is easy, effective and relatively efficient.  Unfortunately, it also has its drawbacks.  The end products include nasty carbon and other residues that pollute the environment.  But even more fundamentally, there is only so much petroleum, coal and natural gas on the planet.  Eventually we will run out of the stuff, and at our increasing rate of consumption, this tipping point will come at an accelerating pace.

But burning compounds of hydrogen is not the only way to release the energy of hydrogen. In 1920, Arthur Stanley Eddington speculated that if the Sun generated its heat and warmth from burning hydrogen, or from some form of gravitational contraction, it would exhaust itself of the fuel in something like 20-30 million years.  But accurate calculations at the time put the age of the Earth considerably older – and the Sun had to be older than the Earth.  Something else had to be happening on the Sun.

That something else is nuclear fusion.

Hydrogen in its simplest form, called protium, consists of a single proton and a single electron.  It will also absorb neutrons into its nucleus:  one proton and one neutron gives us deuterium, one proton and two neutrons give us tritium.  The number of neutrons is important because when two hydrogen nuclei fuse, as they do in the center of the Sun, they form a new element with a nucleus of larger mass.  For example, when the nucleus of one deuterium atom fuses with that of a tritium atom, the result is helium-4, a new element with a nucleus containing two protons and two neutrons. A free neutron is also released in the process.  The mass of the nucleus of the helium-4 atom (plus neutron) is slightly less than the mass of the two hydrogen nuclei. The difference in mass is released as energy in the reaction, in accord with Einstein’s famous formula E=mc2, where E (energy) is equal to mass times the speed of light squared.

Mass and energy are interchangeable at the nuclear level in truly amazing ways.  And the amount of energy released boggles the imagination.  The nuclear fusion reaction is millions of times more energetic than the chemical reaction of burning.

A Brief History of Brute Force – Storming the Coulomb Barrier

But of course, fusing hydrogen nuclei is easier said than done.  It became apparent that the strong nuclear force pulling protons and neutrons together to form an atom’s nucleus is counterbalanced by the electrostatic force of the positively charged protons in the nucleus.  This electrostatic force was first described by Charles-Augustin de Coulomb in 1784, and today is commonly referred to as the Coulomb barrier.  If the barrier can be overcome, as it is through the tremendous gravitational pressure and heat at the center of the Sun, nuclei will fuse and energy will be released.

The theoretical basis for the fusion reaction was worked out in the early years of the 20th Century.  The result was the first thermonuclear weapon developed at the Los Alamos National Lab in Albequerque, New Mexico.  It did not take long for these scientists to speculate that the tremendous power of the nuclear reaction might be harnessed for productive use.  The first model envisioned was a magnetically confined fusion device in which powerful magnets could be used to hold a plasma in place while it is heated to high temperatures.  In 1946, a patent was filed for a contained fusion reactor following just this approach.

At the present time the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) is being built in the south of France for the purpose of harnessing the thermonuclear process for useful energy.  The ITER Reactor is not expected to be completed until well after 2025 at a cost that will exceed $20 billion (15 billion euros).

A competing program, the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory uses the focusing power of lasers to concentrate a tremendous amount of energy on a very small hydrogen fuel pellet in an attempt to stimulate the nuclear reaction.

The bottom line on hot fusion: despite more than 50 years of effort, today’s nuclear-fusion reactors still require more power to run than they can produce.  Success at producing useful amounts of energy is estimated by those working in the field to be at least 15 – 20 years away.  The cost of the programs is astronomical.

New Energy Technologies and Theories

Interestingly, however, there are other, more subtle ways around the Coulomb barrier that have not received as much attention (or funding), but which I believe hold the promise of our hydrogen future.  A recent paper by Talbot A. Chubb (www.lenr-canr.org/acrobat/ChubbTAthreetypes.pdf) describes three types of dd fusion.  One is the familiar “hot” fusion described above.  The other two are catalytic processes that can occur at much lower temperatures.  Catalysis is generally understood as a chemical process.  However, Chubb is talking about nuclear reactions (not chemical) when he states that “catalytic processes usually use surface and interface science to reduce the temperature at which exothermic reactions can take place.”

One well-accepted method of catalyzing fusion is muon-catalyzed fusion.  First discovered in the 1950’s, the process has been demonstrated to produce excess heat on numerous occasions.  As I understand the theory, a muon, which is some 200 times the mass of an electron, takes the place of an electron in deuterium and tritium atoms, thereby pulling the nuclei close enough together to overcome the Coulomb barrier and cause fusion, releasing energy as heat.  Most observers believe it unlikely that the process will ever achieve commercially useful heat, although a company in Australia is working on it.

Robert Godes of Brillouin Energy Corp. proposes a different catalyzed fusion process that he calls “Quantum Fusion”.  In Quantum Fusion, it is not the protons of the hydrogen nuclei that fuse, but rather neutron accumulation in a metal lattice of the right geometry. Godes applies an electronic pulse to certain metals (palladium or nickel) loaded with hydrogen, which act as the catalyst of the reaction.  The electronic pulse creates stress points in the metal where the applied energy is focused into very small spaces.  This concentrated energy allows some of the protons in the hydrogen to capture an electron, and thus become a neutron. This step converts a small amount of energy into mass in the neutron. Further pulses both create more neutrons and allow neutrons to combine with some of the hydrogen to form deuterium (hydrogen with both a proton and a neutron in the nucleus).  This ‘combination’ step releases energy.  The process continues, again, with some neutrons combining with deuterium to form tritium (hydrogen with one proton and two neutrons).  This step actually releases still more energy.  The process continues with some neutrons combining with the tritium to form quadrium (hydrogen with one proton and three neutrons).  Since quadrium is not stable, it quickly turns into helium in a process that releases more energy than it took to create all the preceding steps. (2.4 units of energy go in and 24 units come out).  The released energy is initially absorbed by the metal element, and then made available as heat.

Another leading theory suggests that the Coulomb barrier is not overcome, but rather suppressed or cancelled out.  The generalized theory of Bose-Einstein condensation nuclear fusion has been proposed to explain the processes involved in Andrea Rossi’s Energy Catalyzer.  The nuclei of hydrogen and nickel are proposed to fuse through the creation of Bose-Einstein condensation of two species of Bosons.  I will not attempt to summarize the physics here, but readers are directed to the paper “Generalized Theory of Bose-Einstein Condensation Nuclear Fusion for Hydrogen-Metal System” by Yeong E. Kim of Purdue University.

My point is not to convince you that any one of these theories is correct, but to suggest that something very interesting is going on.  The reactions described in the theories are variously called Low Energy Nuclear Reactions (LENR), Chemically Assisted Nuclear Reactions (CANR), Controlled Electron Capture Reactions (CECR) or Cold Fusion.

Rather than focusing on any particular reaction or theory, Dr. Edmund Storms, a leading researcher in the field of New Energy Technologies, likes to talk about the “nuclear-active state” or “nuclear-active environment” and to focus on the similarities of all reported experiments and theories.  In the following quote, which was the inspiration for this blog, Dr. Storms explains his approach:

“The large number of nuclear reactions being reported and the types of required environments give a particular challenge to theoreticians. In contrast to conventional experience based on using high energy to overcome the Coulomb barrier by brute force, the CANR environment apparently uses a mechanism that can neutralize the barrier. This more subtle method apparently is obscured when high energy is applied, this situation being like the difference between a rape and a seduction. The problem is to identify the nature of these environments. Up to now, almost all effort has been focused on explaining how the nuclear reactions can take place once the environment is created. While this insight is important, it has not been much help in finding the best environments. This approach needs to change if commercial applications are to be achieved and if the skeptical attitude is to change.” (emphasis supplied)

Conclusion

One of the primary skeptical arguments in the face of experimental evidence of “cold fusion” or low energy nuclear reactions (LENR) is that it can’t work because tremendous amounts of energy are needed to overcome the Coulomb barrier.  Yet after more than 50 years and an exorbitant amount of money, “hot” fusion reactors that attempt to overcome the barrier by brute force still require more power to run than they produce – and commercially useful energy is not predicted for 15 – 20 years.  Perhaps its time to find other ways around this barrier.  Hydrogen is the key because of its simplicity and abundance.  Work in the field of New Energy Technologies has produced some intriguing theories on new ways to coax energy from hydrogen by working around the Coulomb barrier.  Its time that more attention – and funding – is directed at this promising new field.

(Journalistic disclosure:  David Niebauer is general legal counsel for Brillouin Energy Corp.)

© Copyright David Niebauer.  All rights reserved.