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Systems Power: Three thoughts for Virginia’s next governor

August 17th, 2017 · No Comments

Energy and climate issues are a prominent part of Virginia’s 2017 campaign season, perhaps more than any time in the past.  From fossil-foolish pipelines to corporate donations to potential economic development opportunities, there is more energy about the discussion of energy in a Virginian election year than perhaps any time in the past.

Not surprisingly, the differences between the two candidates for governor are stark, with Republican “Enron Ed” Gillespie given minimal (at best) acknowledgment of climate change (not outright denying like so many other (Virginia) Republicans — what a low bar to reach) without any example of how he would address its risks/opportunities. While far from a passionate Climate Hawk, the Democratic Party nominee, Ralph Northam, clearly understands and respects climate science and proposes a number of policies to mitigate and adapt to climate changes realities.

While Northam discusses climate change and has proposed some steps (unlike his opponent) to help address it, clearly Ralph Northam can be more aggressive in those measures … and with steps that address climate reality while improving Virginians’ health, improving Virginia school systems’ performance, fostering job growth and the development of a stronger 21st century workforce/work environment, reducing costs (for citizens, businesses, government), boosting economic development, and improving Virginia’s image in the nation and internationally

The reality of 21st century opportunities and challenges is that they are intertwined: systems-of-systems where understanding and emphasizing those interconnections and interactions can lead to far more valuable outcomes.  Staying again, for convenience sake, solely within the campaign website, it is hard to see where or how Ralph Northam emphasizes any of this.

My top concern space is climate — and the environmental, energy, technology, societal, business practice, etc. arenas associated with it. One of the notable elements over more than a decade related to climate/environment policy/discussion are serious efforts to move past a stove-piped understanding of these issues. The simplest construct is that it is NOT environment vs. economy but Environment AND Economy.

The intertwining and reinforcing nature of linking environment AND economy  are seriously interconnected spaces, where smart policies/proposals could offer serious payoffs for Virginia and, in fact, the Northam campaign’s electoral prospects.  Here are three examples of tangible examples of systems-of-systems environment/economy proposals that Ralph Northam can – and should -embrace/promote.

  • Greening Schools
    • Greening schools might be the most cost-effective path toward improving school performance. In fact, it might be the only educational achievement-enhancing path that is also “profitable” (due to energy and operational cost benefits) even without considering the secondary (job creation, student/teacher health) and tertiary (pollution levels, capacity building for energy efficiency and other ‘green’ across the country) benefits.
    • Note that:
      • A ‘greening schools’ program can fit strongly with Northam’s STEAM concepts, create jobs, help address environmental justice issues and economic disparity (with additional greening support as a path to help improve educational performance in less-wealthy districts), improve energy resiliency, improve health, reduce pollution, and save taxpayers’ money.
      • Improving K-12 educational achievement is a top-notch path for improving economic performance (from attractiveness to businesses to job creation to …) and, again, a major program to green schools could secure these payoffs even while saving money.
  • Leveraging VW settlement funds for a PHEV/EV School Bus program
    • VW’s diesel fraud led to a major settlement — which includes $87M for the Commonwealth “to fund environmental improvement and air pollution reduction projects.” That is a targeted “trust fund for use on projects to improve the environment by reducing air pollution in the transportation sector.”
    • Virginia’s school buses are an excellent target for this fund.  School buses are fuel hogs, spew diesel fumes, and worsen student/public health.  Transitioning to plug-in hybrid electric school buses and electric school buses would have tremendous payoffs in terms of reduced pollution (from cancer-causing particulates to CO2 to noise), reduced damage to student (and public) health, improved grid stability, emergency response value, and financial savings.
      • Notes:
        • Dominion Power and other Virginia electric utilities should be supportive of such a program as it translates to increased electricity demand (while reducing diesel demands)
        • A strong program could create numerous jobs: Virginia, as a driver in PHESB/ESB introduction (that would drive down prices due to economies of scale), could demand suppliers (manufacturers) have work content (set up facilities) in the Commonwealth.  And, those facilities could end up exporting buses to other states — after Virginia’s program has create enough demand to drive down costs via economies of scale.
  • Championing a major acceleration of Virginia offshore wind:
    • For those of us who closely watch the energy domain, the dramatic price falls in offshore wind have been a pleasant surprise over the past few years.
      • Seriously, I do not recall a conversation from the early 2010s that postulated any offshore wind project delivering at below 10 cents per kWh (might not have been in the right conversations but …) and, well, we are now seeing hard bids for well under that in Europe.
      • Key players in offshore wind are bidding into projects in the United States … able to take their lessons from Europe and apply them here.
    • Virginia hasn’t been the “go-to place” for offshore wind for multiple reasons:
      • cheap electricity rates;
      • lukewarm (at best) Dominion Energy engagement;
      • no mandatory Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) or carbon price; etc.
    • Virginia can/should be a lead offshore wind energy player.
      • The dramatic price drops in wind power, along with the burgeoning programs up the coast, should help to change this in terms of Virginia government priority.
      • Among other things, offshore wind power development would help secure the Tidewater region (with its excellent harbor, extensive shipbuilding/manufacturing capacity, etc …) as the nation’s (or at least the East Coast’s) leading industrial/logistical support hub for what will likely be a booming industry for years/decades to come.

These are just three examples of environment AND economy proposals, with tremendous benefits for Virginians and Virginia, that Ralph Northam can — and should — embrace. Showing that he “gets” the environment/economic interaction (rather than opposition or separation), along with substantive proposals for action in these veins is a way for Ralph Northam to generate enthusiasm in this Virginian voter, and possibly many others as well.

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The power of solar and oil …

August 16th, 2017 · No Comments

The decades-long stark separation of ‘transportation’ and ‘stationary’ energy markets is breaking down in multiple ways. While one of the prime ways is transportation electrification (rail and automotive), there has been significant growth in the use of liquid fuels for electricity generation: primarily in oil producing nations but also areas with inadequate to non-existent electricity services.

Solar power’s plunging prices — due primarily to economies of scale and the related/intertwined innovations (technical, policy, business practices …) due to increased solar business — are on the cusp of having significant impact on that intertwining of stationary and mobile environments. This includes solar on Indian railroads and automotive roofs (primarily to support auxiliary demands) as well as solar displacement of diesel electricity generation.

The just-announced Kuwait deal is a significant milestone in this development.

Kuwait is putting out a tender for a 1 gigawatt solar farm with an expected price point about $1.20 per watt (or $1.2 billion). This project, to be competed by 2020, is expected to “save burning 5.2 million barrels of oil a year” for electricity generation.  At a relatively low estimate of $50 per barrel (anywhere from 10% to >30% below analyst forecasts …), that ‘saved’ oil will have a value of $260 million on the world market.  Thus, all things being equal, Kuwait will have a full return on investment for the solar plant in under five years. And, an ROI that will keep paying back year-after-year.

While this sort of rapid assured payback for a major unsubsidized solar project was close to inconceivable just a few years ago, it is a clear sign post of where the world energy market is and is headed: solar systems are ever-more frequently a pure high-value investment even without considering ‘externality’ benefits.

As to the Kuwait project, any calls of this as somehow ‘green’ should be — at best — muted (if not silenced).  Kuwait isn’t suggesting that this solar project will somehow keep these 100,000 barrels per day from being burned and contributing to our climate change challenges.  This is displacement — rather than burning for electricity, the hydrocarbons will be used for petrochemical projects and/or sold into the world oil market.

This project will add roughly the equivalent of a good sized well (about 14,100 barrels per day) to the available oil supply. This oil will contribute to, writ large, lowering oil prices and contributing to oil price stability.  While, in near term, this is a ‘positive’ good in terms of economic development, it is also — by definition — will be a (very minor) contributing factor to undermining movement toward a clean-energy future.

That ‘undermining’, however, is overwhelmed by the economy of scale issue — another $1 billion in solar work and another gigawatt deployed. That is another move forward in the ever-increasing solar economies of scale which is driving innovation that is helping to drive down prices that contributes to ever-lower solar pricing.

While Kuwait’s solar doesn’t displace oil, the value of that produced oil will be lower as ever-cheaper solar power increases the economic viability and attractiveness of electric transportation options.

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#AlternativeFacts from @RealDonaldTrump about #Gas prices

July 4th, 2017 · Comments Off on #AlternativeFacts from @RealDonaldTrump about #Gas prices

Amid the mania of Trump tweeting, this one passed millions of computer screens on the 4th of July

Donald J. Trump 

Gas prices are the lowest in the U.S. in over ten years! I would like to see them go even lower.

Oh, the pain …

There is an old adage: a lie goes halfway around the world before the truth gets out of bed.

It is painful trying to chase down and refute deceit — far more hear and absorb the deceit than ever hear the truthful refutation.

And, when the deceiver occupies the Oval Office and has the megaphone of a (bot-heavy) massive Twitter account …

Was about to chase down some truth in the vigil of chasing that lie halfway around the world when this one crossed my tweet stream:

Gas prices are the lowest in the U.S. in over ten years! I would like to see them go even lower.

Thank you, Richard Hine, for saving me the time to track down the data.

Some points from the Energy Information Administration data about gas prices across the nation.

  • Feb 2016: $1.78 per gallon
  • Dec 2008: $1.72 per gallon
  • June 2017: $2.37 per gallon

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DC United setting the PACE for MLS

June 29th, 2017 · Comments Off on DC United setting the PACE for MLS

PACE (Property Assessed Clean Energy) financing is a far under leveraged path to enable property (primarily building) owners to cost-effectively financed energy and resource efficiency along with clean energy.  In short, PACE financing makes the payback of loans part of the property assessment with extremely low interest rates available because this is generally bundled money through the locality and payments are secured associated with the property. While it had a troubled start, many places in the United States now have robust PACE programs to facilitate home owners and businesses to leverage PACE programs for more aggressive climate-friendly investments. Washington, DC, is one of those (with the program run by Urban Ingenuity).

Washington DC PACE Financing from Jackie Weidman on Vimeo.

Back in 2013, DC PACE executed a $340,000 loan with expectations of $40,000 a year of created value for the building owner with annual repayments of roughly $20k/year.  Reduced pollution with a low-cost loan structure that made this profitable for the commercial entity from day one.  A 2015 loan of $700k to the YWCA financed energy efficiency equipment and solar panels in its $17M low-cost/public housing development. And …

This week came news of the largest, to date, DC PACE financing: $25M for greening the new DC United stadium.

for installation of state-of-the-art energy and water efficiency measures, an 884 KW solar array, and stormwater retention systems on Audi Field, United’s new soccer-specific stadium with capacity for 20,000 people opening next year.

The PACE funded investments will help reduce water runoff, cut the stadium’s energy demand by about one-quarter, and the solar panels are projected to produce about 1 gigawatt hours of electricity per year or 1/3rd of the stadium’s electricity usage.

With a LEED Gold facility & public transport access, will DC soccer fans be the greenest in the nation?

While the Trump regime issues bad news for the climate and energy smart policy from DC, the DC government is showing itself to truly be on the path toward energy/climate smart policies and practices. As Mayor Muriel Bowser put it,

We know that cities throughout the U.S. will be leading the fight against climate change, and this deal is an example of how Washington, D.C. can think globally while acting locally. This deal will not only allow us to green Audi Field, it will also create new opportunities for local businesses and high-quality green jobs for D.C. residents.”

Large projects like this help boost an area’s capacity to execute clean-energy projects: economies of scale at play, doing the DC United Stadium eases and lowers costs for tomorrow’s energy efficiency and solar projects.

“This deal”, as indicated by this post, has another potential real value: public relations and knowledge building.  Will others in DC learn of the opportunity for low-cost clean-energy financing in DC due to DC United’s stadium and move to leverage it for their own projects?  Will others around the country similarly learn and act to either leverage their community’s PACE program or lobby their local/state politicians to create something similar.


Comments Off on DC United setting the PACE for MLSTags: Energy · solar

Size does matter

June 28th, 2017 · Comments Off on Size does matter

A simple truth is that, when it comes to wind power, size matters. The taller the tower, the better the wind conditions. The larger the blade length, the more energy captured. When it comes to wind, economies of scale are both in the number of turbines getting deployed and in terms of the energy production potential from each individual turbine. And, this reality is showing up in the real world.

As per that graphic, a doubling in high-end turbine size/height over the past 15 years with another 50% growth to come in the next few years.  As Reuters’ headline put it, windpower’s big bet: turbines taller than skyscrapers.

Further increases in height and size are serious engineering challengers — can the towers be built and turbines deployed — but we shouldn’t expect the turbines to stop at 10 megawatts. At the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects-Agency (ARPAE) innovation summit, earlier this year, I spoke with a University of Virginia team who envision their technology enabling 50 megawatt offshore wind turbines.  Having passed muster to secure $3.7 million in ARPAE funding through 2019,

The team led by the University of Virginia will design the world’s largest wind turbine by employing a new downwind turbine concept called Segmented Ultralight Morphing Rotor (SUMR). Increasing the size of wind turbine blades will enable a large increase in power from today’s largest turbines. The SUMR concept allows blades to deflect in the wind, much like a palm tree, to accommodate a wide range of wind speeds (up to hurricane-wind speeds) with reduced blade load, thus reducing rotor mass and fatigue. The novel blades also use segmentation to reduce production, transportation, and installation costs. This innovative design overcomes key challenges for extreme-scale turbines resulting in a cost-effective approach to advance the domestic wind energy market.

As discussed in Scientific American,

The team envisions these gigantic [500 meter tall] gigantic structures standing at least 80 kilometers offshore, where winds tend to be stronger and where people on land cannot see or hear them,

If, in 2020, deployed offshore wind turbines are in the 10 mw range, this UVA team envisions multiplying that figure at significantly reduced prices perhaps as early as the mid-2020s. If this occurs, just this one project will pay off the entire taxpayer investment in ARPAE many times over.

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Is Trump’s conceived Mexico Wall part of “#WarOnCoal”?

June 26th, 2017 · Comments Off on Is Trump’s conceived Mexico Wall part of “#WarOnCoal”?

Donald Trump has created some buzz with discussing the potential for making the Mexico border wall a power plant:  covering it with solar panels.

Amid Team Trump’s “Energy Week” (with nary a mention of wind or solar power, the fastest growing energy sources around the globe … and in the United States), a question to consider: how many coal-fired power plants would a solar wall displace?

First, to be clear, only the roughest of estimates can occur. The ‘solar wall’ is only notional at this time — while there is some analysis, there are no actual plans in place to evaluate fully. Rough estimates and initial calculations range from, if solar were across the entire length, are pretty far across the spectrum: from 3.6 terrawatt hours (tWh) per year to a(n unrealistically optimistic) high-end of over 80 tWh.

How does this compare to a coal power plant?  A reasonable notional modern US coal plant is 600 megawatts of capacity.  Running 24/7, that would mean 14,400 megawatt hours per day (14.4 gigawatt hours) or 5,256,000 per year (5,256 gigawatt hours or 5.256 twh).  Now, power plants are — by definition — intermittent (despite all the ‘baseload’ noise) and do not run 24/7/365. In 2016, the average US coal power plant had a 52.7% utilization rate.  Thus, this notional coal plant would generate 2,769,912 megawatt hours per year (2,770 gWh) or 2.7 tWh.

If an average coal plant produces 2.7 tWh, making the wall solar would displace the electricity production of somewhere between 1.3 to 22 coal power plants (with the actual figure likely somewhere in the 5-10 figure).

The reality is that, to date, solar has played a very small role in the decline of US coal (though the story is somewhat different elsewhere in the world: for example, in India, solar price competitiveness is leading to dramatic reductions in plans to exploit coal). In the US, the move away from coal has primarily occurred due to the drastic reduction in natural gas prices.  Cheap gas has killed not-so-cheap coal.  Now, with every passing day, solar is becoming more cost competitive with it achieving ‘cheapest’ in new markets virtually every month. Thus, if cheap natural gas killed off coal-fired power plants, what should be expected of even-cheaper solar?

Would making the ‘wall’ solar accelerate that ‘ever-cheaper’ and accelerate the (US and global) transition away from coal?

Thus, the impact of the solar wall on coal would not be constrained to those direct electrons but how the product, through driving economies of scale, would make solar even more price competitive even faster.

Notes: Some material re the solar wall includes:


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Grenfell Tower Tragedy lesson: regulations save lives (the lesson Koch operatives don’t want US to learn)

June 20th, 2017 · 3 Comments

Climate Denier RoundUp guest post.

The Grenfell Tower fire is a tragedy that should not be something we have to address. It is not something Carbon Brief should have to fact check. But here we are.

As Carbon Brief explains, The Daily Mail and other conservative outlets have pushed a theory that the fire was due to insulation installed primarily to meet green goals for reducing energy use.

This is false. Per Carbon Brief, savings on utility bills was the primary reason for the insulation upgrades, not pro-environment regulations.

But even the dozens of lives lost aren’t enough to stop some using tragedy to advance the Koch’s anti-regulatory agenda.

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→ 3 CommentsTags: guest post

Grenfell Tower and climate change

June 19th, 2017 · 1 Comment

A number of raving lunatics (is that too harsh a term …? probably not) are asserting that ‘climate alarmism’ (and other such delusional attack terms of those who understand climate science) is at fault for the horrific Grenfell Towers catastrophe.

Twisting arguments beyond pretzel logic, is an example

the coroner may as well scribble “cause of death: climate-change alarmism” on his report.

Before delving into these fossil-foolish muckrakers’ broadsides, some truthful analogies between Grenfell & (catastrophic) climate change. Both are

  • Preventable: expert opinion, knowledge, and advice provide(d) the tools to avoid the catastrophe.
  • Known: many voices warned/warning of risks.
  • Mired with financial and ideological self-interest driving myopia drowning out voices warning of the danger and undermining ability to execute solutions/actions to prevent the disaster.

Yes, there is an appropriate analogy between Grenfell Tower and climate change — alarmism, in both situation, highlighted/s real risks and offers paths to mitigating risks.

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→ 1 CommentTags: anti-science syndrome

Your commute costs me how much? Really?

June 19th, 2017 · 1 Comment

In civilization, civil society, people — in some form or another — subsidize each other, give each other assistance.  In modern capitalist societies, those subsidies are almost always measured in direct cash transfers with little attention, understanding, or incorporation of indirect (whether financial or otherwise) resource transfers and subsidies.  For the energy/climate world, for example, the key to this are ‘externalities’ related to fossil fuel exploitation: that impacts health, economy, and security directly (like mercury impacts on brain development, particulates that cause cancers/asthma) and indirectly (CO2 driving climate change as most direct).  While gasoline might only cost a few dollars per gallon at the pump, in the United States, a true accounting of all the costs (from providing security to oil movements to land impacts to health to …) typically puts the true per cost to society anywhere from $8 to >$15 gallon.

Few people, when they hop in the car to go to the Mall, consider their own fully-burdened costs of driving (insurance, repairs, amortization of the purchase price, the value of their home’s parking spot, …) let alone incorporating in the externalities associated with burning fossil fuel.  In fact, driving to the Mall costs us — and society — far more than we realize.

Although these costs are easy to overlook, that doesn’t make them any less real. Sometimes we pay them up front, other times indirectly. But, at the end of the day, we still pay them, so we should consider them in our calculus when making big decisions.

That is a point made by George Poulos, a transportation engineer and planner, discussing a calculator developed in Vancouver, BC, that seeks to assess the full cost of a commute amid a debate over how to finance public transportation. When it comes to public transportation, there is a pretty good old adage: a passenger train running a profit is charging too much. Why? Because so many of the quite real costs AND benefits are not accounted for in the accounting process that determines a profit. People riding trains into a city mean fewer people on the road which means faster driving — shouldn’t the rail passenger be ‘credited’ with drivers’ time savings?  That sort of calculation and valuation is just what the Cost of Commute Calculator seeks to account for in helping inform public discussion of and decision-making about transportation system options.

As per the graph in this tweet, try to consider the subsidy inherent in commuting options. If you walk, society has built the side-walk, there are police officers, etc … There is a ‘subsidy’ to burning shoe-leather which, according to the calculator, is somewhere in the range of 1% of your own cost.  When you drive, that subsidy balance is really thrown a loop.  If driving costs you $1 (under two miles driving according to the $0.535 per mile 2017 IRS rate), the societal subsidy — building roads, emergency services, pollution (noise, air, etc) — is $9.20.

To provide a context, the average US commute is about 15 miles each way — or 30 miles/day. While an ‘average’ driver might think that their daily comm

What does a commute cost you? What does it cost society?

ute ‘costs’ perhaps $3 in gas, the IRS calculation comes to $16.05, the Cost of Commuting calculation (in the Vancouver Metro area) would put the total societal cost at $276.

Honestly, I am somewhat of a ‘total ownership cost (TOC)’, ‘life-cycle cost’ (LCC), full-cost accounting geek — truly seeing how achieving a broader understanding of costs and benefits can enable more informed and better decision-making.  Within that context, this floored me … $9.20 in subsidy per mile …

Think about that … $276 in societal costs day in, day out for the average single-passenger commuter. Now do you understand why the post is titled

Your commute costs me how much?


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For well over a century: #climate in #PopularMechanics

June 9th, 2017 · Comments Off on For well over a century: #climate in #PopularMechanics

Popular Mechanics is an American institution, a window on “how your world works” for 115 years. Amid its myriad pieces fascinating to tech geeks of all colors and strains (including Energy COOL-loving geeks), it has published quite a few pieces directly on or related to climate change over the years.  Little did I know, but that ‘climate change-related’ publishing history goes back at least 105 years.

The caption from the photo above:

The furnaces of the world are now burning 2,000,000,000 tons of coal a year. When this is burned, uniting with oxygen, it adds about 7,000,000,000 tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere yearly.  This tends to make the air a more effective blanket for the earth and to raise its temperature.  The effect may be considerable in a few centuries.

Here is Popular Mechanics, in 1912, talking about CO2 as a blanket around the earth, sounding somewhat like Al Gore a century later.

As to “effect may be considerable in a few centuries”, note that 1912 coal use was about 2 billion/tons/year.  We are a century later and, in addition to massive use of other fossil fuels (oil and natural gas), global coal use is about 8 billion tons/year. When you consider the increased fossil fuel use (and thus increased emissions), not surprising that a century after Popular Mechanics‘ ‘in a few centuries’ we’re already experiencing ‘considerable effect’ on the climate from increased emissions with even more significant ‘considerable effect’ in the decades to come (especially without serious mitigation efforts).

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