Friday, April 30, 2010

There Once Was a Wind Farm From Nantucket: Rethinking Energy Production

By Dave Rochlin -
Originally posted on

The state of Vermont is poised to shut down the Yankee nuclear power plant, after months of underground tritium leaks, and misleading statements from Entergy's local management team.

A BP drilling rig explosion will lead to as much as 4 million gallons of crude oil leaking out into the Gulf of Mexico, threatening wide-scale coastal damage.

29 miners were killed this month in an explosion in a Massey Energy coal mine in West Virginia.

You would think that these messes would have the public - and especially environmentalists - running towards wind power as a solution...without even factoring in the climate change benefits of renewable energy. Yet in Cape Cod, some environmental groups and residents are fighting hard to overturn approval of the nation’s first offshore wind farm. The Cape Wind project will build 130 turbines covering 25 square miles of Nantucket Sound. As the New York Times reports, the offshore wind farm would lie about 5 miles from the nearest shore on the mainland, and about 13 miles from Nantucket Island. The tip of the highest blade of each turbine would reach 440 feet above the water.

Is anyone seriously more concerned about 400 foot towers 5 miles off shore than they are with oil spills and radioactive leaks ino the water tables? The answer seems to be yes.

As one resident put it, "I’m 100 percent for alternative energy, but just not in Nantucket Sound.” The movie The Age of Stupid also documented similar attitudes in the UK. The term for this is NIMBY (Not In My BackYard), a sort of reverse tragedy of the commons. The tragedy of the commons describes "a situation in which multiple individuals, acting independently, and solely and rationally consulting their own self-interest, will ultimately deplete a shared limited resource even when it is clear that it is not in anyone's long-term interest for this to happen." In this case, the individuals will prevent a common resource from being created, but the outcome is the same.

If we're serious about renewables, this sort of thinking has to change. Dams, turbines, and solar panels visibly alter local vistas and ecosystems, so there is a perceived and visible negative impact to renewables. In contrast, most of us don't see mountain top mining, fossil fuel related CO2e emissions, or where spent nuclear reactor fuel goes to slowly die over thousands of years. It's also much more convenient for energy to be produced somewhere else and transported - inefficiently and at great expense - to where we use it. Everyone wants wind power, but not always the windmills.

My friend Rosie, who grew up in Nantucket, has a more enlightened view: "Cape Wind will certainly diminishes the vista, but that's the price we have to pay to get clean energy. It's better than an oil spill, a nuclear accident, air pollution, and war." She's actually more concerned with a second issue raised by opponents to Cape Wind: that a private firm - Energy Management Inc. (EMI) is developing the project, and plans to make money at it. But both Vermont Yankee and the leaky oil rig in the Gulf are also private enterprises. If cleantech is going to succeed, private firms will need to have the opportunity to make profits. A lot of speculative capital is needed to scale up new innovative approaches and the delivery of clean energy.

It's clearly time to change how we think of electricity production. When it comes to farming (roughly 1% of the US economy) we want to buy local, know where our food comes from, and support a vibrant private sector. Since energy expenditures are 6-8% of our economy, maybe we should be thinking along the same lines.

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Thursday, April 1, 2010

The New EPA Fuel Standards: Why MPG No Longer Matters

By Dave Rochlin - originally posted on

I love the ambitious new automobile efficiency targets set by the EPA this week. This is long overdue. As the EPA pointed out, "transportation sources accounted for 28 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2007, and have been the fastest-growing source of U.S. GHG emissions since 1990."

While the new targets works out to an average of 35.5 MPG by 2016, the rules are actually set in terms of "grams of CO2 per mile." I suspect that it was done this way because of the EPA's new found authority to regulate CO2, but it also highlights that "miles per gallon" is not all that matters when it comes to climate change.

From an oil perspective, setting these aggressive targets may be the single most important action taken to preserve the United States since Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox. Rather than balanced trade, our dependence on foreign oil has created a systematic drain of dollars from the US to the tune of $200 billion per year, with many negative implications to the stability and economic well being of the country. Additionally, our massive military expenditures are driven by the need to protect our overseas oil supplies (see the Carter Doctrine.) And with the looming specter of peak oil - or even just $150/barrel oil - closing the spigot is needed.

But in dealing with climate change, there's a lot more to think about than just how much gasoline gets burned.

The good: Reducing gasoline related emissions.
Assuming a 100,000 mile life, a car getting 25 MPG will burn 4,000 gallons over its lifetime, resulting in 40 tons of CO2 emissions. By raising fuel efficiency to 35 MPG, that car will use 1,100 less gallons of gasoline, keeping 11 tons of CO2 emissions out of the atmosphere.

It also reduces the amount spent on gasoline by almost $4,000! While automobile manufacturers are estimating that the cost to meet the new higher targets will be around $1000 per car, that still puts consumers way ahead of the game. As an old 1987 Honda CRX owner (and how I miss my old pocket rocket), I can say that this does not need to be the case. My CRX was high mileage (40-60 MPG), high performance, and very reasonably priced...and this was 25 years ago. The secret was a small but efficient engine, and a very lightweight design...which brings us to:

The bad: Considering the lifecycle and impact of the automobile.
An awful lot of rubber, steel, plastic and other materials go into making a car. The energy used to power the gigantic factories stamping out parts and assembling it is also significant. The most recent estimate I've seen is that producing a mid-sized sedan results in roughly 7 tons of emissions. I'm guessing that a full-sized SUV with 19 inch wheels and TVs in the seats checks in a lot higher than that.

Unfortunately, automobiles seem to be designed for obsolescence rather than reuse. While many materials are recycled, a more modular cradle to cradle approach to automotive design would be much more eco-friendly.

The support system for automobiles, and consequences of our autocentric culture also have led to the large US emissions footprint. Road building and maintenance, replacing natural habitat with asphalt and sprawl, lack of convenient public transportation...all of these help create an automobile emissions intensive culture. As cars become cheaper to operate, will we simply demand our own version of the autobahn, and drive further and more often?

Avoiding the ugly: Swapping coal for oil?
The biggest battle in the EPA' s new rule was over how to treat electric cars. While the industry likes to use the term 'zero emissions vehicle', a plug-in car requires electricity from the grid. Several estimates I've seen put the amount of energy used in the range of 3 miles per kWH. If you're connected to the hydroelectric-powered clean grid up in Washington, your plug-in would be six times less carbon intensive than a gas powered vehicle. But if you operate that same car in coal-dependent North Dakota, then your 'zero emissions vehicle' would actually be 20% more emissions intensive than if it used gasoline. Of course you can offset this electricity use by supporting wind farms in North Dakota, but the vehicle itself is far from 'zero emissions'.

It's possible that a hybrid Prius, which generates electricity from its braking system, may actually be better from an emissions perspective than a plug-in. In any case, the EPA gave each automobile manufacturer 300,000 'zero emissions' car waivers through 2016, which means the 35.5 MPG figure is actually closer to 34.5 MPG. Beyond that, who knows.

But three cheers for the EPA, for thinking about oil and emissions. Whether we replace gasoline with electricity created from coal, bio-diesel from corn, or hydrogen produced in a refinery, they need to keep the focus on grams of CO2 per mile, not MPG.

It would also be great to start thinking of the the footprint of the actual vehicle and other consumables (tires, oil, other consumables) that go with it. I think we'd be better off with hybrid CRXs rather than than plug in Escalades....Or maybe more light rail, and less of both.

Photo copyright: CC BY 2.0