Friday, October 23, 2009

Being President Should be Fun

The president of Vanuatu was in his office and his staff was seated around the big table, listening while he spoke.

"If such a tragedy does happen," he said, "then the United Nations and its members would have failed in their first and most basic duty to a member nation and its innocent people."

Department heads on the tiny island nation listened to him.

“Global warming is a serious challenge that has captured the world’s attention. And it will eventually destroy us…”

At that moment the meeting was interrupted by the arrival of an aide carrying a report.

“Mr President, I am here to give you a quick update on the malaria problem. After three years of fighting the outbreak in Utanlang we are beginning to make some progress. Mostly in the transportation of patients to the clinic. It is now possible for them to reach the clinic after a 30-minute boat trip followed by a two-hour car ride. Previously the villagers had to depend on their outrigger canoes, which added about five hours to the trip. And fewer of the people with malaria are dying.”

The president smiled. “Thank you, thank you, now please excuse us, we are in the middle of dealing with out Global Warming crisis.”

The aide left immediately and the president resumed his monologue.

“The tiny island nation of Vanuatu speaks with a big voice on global warming. We are calling for larger countries to make immediate carbon cuts. That is the only way to keep the seas from rising and submerging us...”

There was another knock on the door and another aide entered, also carrying a report.

“Sir, I am here to let you know about the success of our national plumbing program. We have found that some families have installed toilets and are no longer dependent on outdoor latrines. A few homes have also installed running water. It seems fewer people are dying in homes with toilets and running water.”

The president again smiled. “Oh that’s marvelous, truly marvelous, but we’re in a meeting about Global warming, as I think you know.”

The aide nodded and left the office.

The president resumed speaking to his staff.

“In the areas that will be worst hit by climate change, what do locals value and want prioritized?

Again the meeting was interrupted by another knock on the door and the entry of a third aide.

“Mr. President, pardon me for intruding, but we have discovered that most of the children in Vanuatu have never gone to school. Many of their parents keep them home because the kids who do go to school spend the entire day smoking marijuana in class.”

The president was looking annoyed by this interruption.

“We are in a meeting about the FUTURE of this nation, about the water that will cover it in a hundred years,” he shouted. “But all you can do is barge into the office and complain about malaria, whine about sewage problems and spew gibberish about kids going to school to smoke marijuana. Stop these pointless interruptions. We’re trying to run a country here!”

Windmills and Hamsters on their Treadmills

Electricity is getting cheaper, especially electricity made during the night shift. That sounds like good news for nocturnal power consumers who live in wind-swept parts of Texas, Ohio and California. Too bad the cheap power is available only at night when most of us are snoozing.

Mother Nature works her own hours

The science fiction fantasy of abundant free electricity is finally coming true. Sort of. Thanks to cheap wind energy, in some parts of the country wholesale power prices are now dropping to zero or below at certain times of the day.

In West Texas electricity prices dropped to zero 11% of the time in the 12 months through May 2009, says Bernstein Research analyst Hugh Wynne. Three percent of the time in the same period, prices dropped to nothing or below in northern Illinois and New York. Overnight prices are also occasionally hitting zero in Ohio and California.

Wind is the cheapest way for utilities to meet the renewable energy mandates that exist in 28 states and the national mandate that may soon come from Congress. But Mother Nature does not respond to mandates. Wind turbines spin the most at night when demand is low--and least on sultry afternoons when power is needed.

If there is too much power on a grid, the operator drops the wholesale price to zero.

Why don't power plants just shut down? Wind producers have an incentive to produce power even if they have to pay someone to take it off their hands: Their fuel is free, and they get a federal tax credit of 2.1 cents per kilowatt-hour.

Free juice occurs most often in places with lots of wind turbines but few transmission lines to get it to big cities. The Texas grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, told developers a few years ago it could handle only 4.5 gigawatts of (peak) wind power. Developers built 8 gigs anyway. A $5 billion transmission system that could bring some of that wind to cities like Dallas won't be complete until 2013.

In the long run, the wind power boom could push daytime prices higher. To balance fickle windmills, utilities will need more juice from gas-fired peaking plants. That intermittent power will be expensive.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

The Da Vinci Code

Italy was in turmoil. Naples was under the control of the French and Sicily was in the hands of Spain. But intellectual life across Europe was on fire; the Renaissance was underway and a key figure was Leonardo da Vinci.

Fame as the painter of the Mona Lisa may explain why he is known today. Or maybe it's the novel The Da Vinci Code. But during his lifetime da Vinci was valued as an engineer. In a letter to Ludovico il Moro he claimed to have designed machines both for the protection of a city and for siege.

In Venice in 1499 he found employment as an engineer and devised a system of moveable barricades to protect the city from attack. He also had a scheme for diverting the flow of the Arno River to flood Pisa. His journals include a vast number of inventions, both practical and impractical, including musical instruments, hydraulic pumps, reversible crank mechanisms, finned mortar shells, and a steam cannon.

For much of his life, Leonardo was fascinated by the phenomenon of flight, producing many studies, including his 1505 Codex on the Flight of Birds. He created plans for several flying machines, including a helicopter and a light hang glider. Most were impractical, like his aerial screw helicopter design that could not provide lift. However, the hang glider has been successfully constructed and demonstrated.

When war over Naples broke out between France and Spain, it became clear that new forms of transportation were needed. Horses had reached the limit of their usefulness and were beginning to spread environmental problems. The cost of feeding them was rising rapidly, especially as war raged in Italy. Then there was the problem of waste. Horse manure was piling up and leaders in every town saw that illness was spreading wherever manure accumulated.

New forms of transportation were needed and after lengthy studies the Pope privately acknowledged that Leonardo da Vinci had the answer. Flight. If man could fly, he would save himself from the encroaching doom that the growing population of horses was delivering. It was painfully clear in the Vatican that mankind would disappear from the face of the Earth if the number of horses and the diseases they spread were allowed to grow unchecked.

Thus, in 1505, it was mandated that man would fly and that da Vinci's theories and designs would become the basis for getting man into the air. Adventurous young men were recruited to test the wings built by experimenters who were guided by da Vinci. They were fitted with wings made of various materials. Feathers when possible. Sometimes silk. Others were tightly woven cotton stretched over bamboo ribs cut to form surfaces intended to provide lift. But something was missing. The young men repeatedly crashed and many were killed. Others crippled, often paralyzed when they fell to Earth, crashing on rocky ground.

The leaders were determined, and ordered more young men to test new wing designs. But the newer designs were no better than the old and more young men died when they failed to lift themselves off the Earth with their primitive flight equipment.

About 250 years later, Daniel Bernoulli discovered some of the shortcomings of da Vinci's thinking about flight. At that point experimenters got closer to the dream of getting airborne. But more knowledge was needed. Power,a ctually. Propulsion. Man simply lacked the muscle to power himself through the air. But by placing an internal combustion engine in the middle of a wing, the possibility of true flight had arrived. The final piece of the puzzle was slipped into the right slot when the Wright Brothers got the first airplane off the ground in 1903, at Kitty Hawk, in the US.

The Wright Brothers owed a lot to Leonardo da Vinci, and a lot to all the scientists and engineers who studied flight over the 400 years following his early efforts. It took a while. But we got there. And we learned an important lesson along the way. Some problems are complex and take a long time to conquer. But we can conquer them if we work on them long enough. That's the true da Vinci Code.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Nothing New Under the Sun

Americans need power in places and times where and when the sun don't shine and the wind don't blow.

Unbridled Energy: Predicting Volatile Wind, Sun

Utilities Ramp Up Focus on Forecasting When Renewable Fuel Is at a Peak to Avoid Squandering Power That Still Can't Be Stored

For more than a century, producing power has been a matter of flipping a switch. Need more electricity? Fire up some fuel. Need less? Dial the flame back down.

Things won't be that easy in a world that gets much of its energy from renewable sources, which come and go at nature's whim. Wind tends to blow hardest at night -- a problem, since people use electricity mostly during the day. Sunshine can lose its intensity in seconds if eclipsed by a cloud -- inconvenient for people who like their air conditioners to run steadily on summer days.

To harness renewable energy more reliably, some companies are experimenting with ways to story energy when the output is high and then distribute it when output is low.

Many states and countries are pledging to produce 20% or more of their electricity from renewable sources within about a decade. That will be a major stretch. The recession has severely crimped renewable-energy investment. Proposals to turn over large swaths of desert and coastline to renewable-energy generation are encountering angry opposition.

And so the search for ways to accommodate the vicissitudes of wind and sun continues to shape up as one of today's great technological quests.

A convenient solution would be to overcome wind and sun's intermittence by storing the energy and then dispensing it later, on windless or overcast days. But storage technology is still embryonic.

So the power industry is having to change the way it operates. To adapt its fossil-fuel-dependent infrastructure to renewable energy's ebbs and flows, it is trying to forecast them better. Largely due to the unpredictability of the heavens, the thousands of wind turbines across the country collectively produced 1.3% of actual electricity in 2008.

Currently, every wind farm and solar installation has to be backed up by a nearly equivalent amount of conventional fuel to keep the power grid running. That raises costs.

Wind power is the fastest-growing renewable source of electricity. Buoyed by government mandates and subsidies, wind farms accounted for more than half of all net electricity-generating capacity added in the U.S. in 2008, according to the Department of Energy.

The Bonneville Power Administration, a government-owned utility based in Portland, Ore., taps one of the biggest collections of wind farms in the country. Between January and August, average wind-power production accounted for 12% of average electricity consumption in Bonneville's service area.

From hour to hour, though, wind power swings wildly depending on how things blow at the Columbia River Gorge, where most of the wind turbines in Bonneville's service area are located.

This Tuesday was typically erratic. At 1 a.m., wind farms in the Bonneville service area were cranking out about 1,550 megawatts of power. By 7 a.m., that fell to about 800 megawatts, just as people were waking up and turning on their lights and toasters. That night, once most people were asleep, the wind picked up again. By 11:45 p.m., wind power topped 2,000 megawatts.

Most of the electricity in Bonneville's service area comes from hydroelectric power. To compensate for the volatility of wind, Bonneville tweaks the amount of water it lets through the dams. But that doesn't work for the most extreme shifts in wind. Sometimes, when the wind is blowing hard, Bonneville releases extra water over the tops of dams without using it to generate electricity. Otherwise, electrical wires might get overloaded. And when the wind is so strong that Bonneville can't ditch enough water, the utility orders wind turbines shut off.

Sudden doldrums can be as troublesome as sudden gusts. That was the problem on Feb. 26, 2008, in Texas, which produces more wind power than any other state.

At 3 p.m. that afternoon, Texas's wind farms, concentrated in the western part of the state, were throwing off about 2,000 megawatts of electricity, enough to serve about one million households. Then a cold front blew in. By 6:30 p.m. -- when electricity demand typically peaks -- wind production in Texas had cratered to about 360 megawatts.

Exacerbating matters, Texans began turning up their heat -- much of which, in rural parts of the state, comes from electricity.

The operator of Texas's electrical grid, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, known as Ercot, scrambled. It cut off power to various industrial customers that, in exchange for payment, had agreed to let Ercot pull their plugs in emergencies.

Related Reading

A major difficulty in harnessing the wind to generate electricity is that the wind is unpredictable. The Bonneville Power Administration, a utility in the Pacific Northwest, provides a continuously updated readout of wind-power generation in its service area. The readout shows how erratic the wind can be.

If there were a viable way to store large amounts of renewable energy, Ercot might have been able to tap it on that February afternoon. Investors and the government are backing storage development. One hope is a better battery. Other ideas include systems that would store water in uphill sites or compressing air underground, for later release when electricity is needed.

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