Hydrogen is out of gas in the auto market, but has a great future in powering buildings

Hydrogen fuel cells are to renewable energy what the paperless office is to business: a good idea that never seems to take off. The difference is that hydrogen cells, in all likelihood, will take off in the not-too-distant future. Investors have put a boatload of cash into fuel cell development, the underlying science is sound, and society is more open to environmentally friendly energy sources than it ever has been.

Even when they hit the market in earnest, however, I’m skeptical that hydrogen cells will revolutionize the motor vehicle industry, as hyped. Hybrid gas/electric technology is years ahead of hydrogen cells in the automotive market, and auto companies are making huge strides in hybrid technology. Just last week at the Frankfurt Auto Show, Volkswagen unveiled a two-passenger concept car that gets 240 miles per gallon. Hydrogen fuel cell makers, by comparison, don’t even have production models on the road yet.

There might be room in the automotive industry for more than one power plant architecture, but there’s a better play for hydrogen cells – powering large buildings. There are two reasons. The first is that hydrogen cells generate heat as well as electricity. In small-scale applications like cars and homes, that heat is most likely wasted. Commercial buildings are large enough to support cogeneration systems that can capture the heat from hydrogen cells and use it either for heating or to turn steam turbines for generating more electricity.

PPM Fuel Cell Project - California State University http://www-admn.csun.edu/ppm/fuel-cell.html

The second reason is that hydrogen fuel cells require an energy source to produce the necessary hydrogen. Many automotive fuel cells use compressed hydrogen as their energy source, but it takes almost as much energy to produce compressed hydrogen as a fuel cell produces. Buildings, by contrast, can use any number of existing energy sources to power their fuel cells, and buildings adapt more easily to renewable energy sources such as biomass.

Hydrogen cells might be the greenest technology for powering vehicles, but history has proven time after time that incumbent technologies are hard to beat if they’re cost effective and do a good, if not great job. Look at Ethernet versus ATM (asynchronous transfer mode) in networking. ATM was faster and could support more services, but Ethernet was capable, inexpensive and well established by the time ATM came along. Ethernet remained the dominant local area networking protocol, but ATM found its niche in wide-area networking. Hydrogen fuel cells are looking at a similar situation. Hybrid vehicle technology is here and now and it yields good fuel economy at a reasonable environmental cost. That’s a moving target that hydrogen fuel cells can’t hit. Better to focus on a market where their adaptability makes them the technology to beat.

Wind energy's huge opportunity ... and its challenges

I see so many windmill blades I feel like Don Quixote. There are at least five windmills – turbines we call them now, since they’re only milling electrons – within a 20-minute bike ride of my doorstep. These devices hint at the appeal, promise and challenges of wind power as a major energy source for the country and the world.
 
A trio of turbine towers spikes the farmland just up the road in Eliot, Maine. Although the proud owners expect an eventual payback, are receiving tax credits, and are putting a few kilowatts back into the grid, their motives are largely ecological: In the first month, John Sullivan’s 2.4-kilowatt[1] turbine “saved 120.4 pounds of CO2 from going in the air.” That’s the amount he figures a coal-powered plant would have pumped out making that electricity.
 
Unfortunately, the next town over, Kittery, is dismantling the 50-kilowatt turbine it erected in 2008 and returning it to the manufacturer for a refund, citing “underperformance” of the project. Trees and buildings created turbulence no one had accounted for, and the tower was producing only 15 percent of its projected power.
 
But there’s more hope back in Eliot. East of the farms, on the banks of the Piscataqua River, deep sea engineer Ben Brickett has been developing a turbine that turns in a breeze as gentle as 2 mph. That’s big, because low-wind days are the bane of traditional turbines. Called a variable force generator, Brickett’s invention converts wind directly into electricity, bypassing the conventional gearbox. Unlike other turbines, he says, it also manages to produce power in proportion to the wind speed, up to 60 mph. His company, Blue Water Concepts, is deep into prototype testing and is attracting interest from academia and manufacturing partners.
 
These are just a few small examples of how the Unites States has come to be the world leader in wind power with the fastest-growing capacity.
 
A mighty wind
The U.S. wind energy industry installed a record-breaking 8,500 megawatts of new wind-generation capacity last year, enough to serve more than 2 million homes, according to the American Wind Energy Association. That brought the country’s total capacity up to 23,500 megawatts and pumped $17 billion into the economy. The new projects accounted for roughly 42 percent of the entire new power-producing capacity added in 2008. It was like taking more than 7 million cars off the road.
 
The country has more than enough wind resources to reach a 20-percent wind energy contribution to the US elecrtricity supply by 2030, according to a DOE report. We’re currently at 4 percent for wind, biomass, geothermal, solar, and miscellaneous sources combined.
 
As this DOE map shows, the best wind is on the coasts and in the plains states. Texas leads the country with the most installed wind-based capacity by a wide margin, followed by Iowa, California, Minnesota and Washington.
 
Without losing sight of our tremendous progress, to follow is a list of obstacles impeding even more robust wind development. Anyone promoting wind, whether a new turbine design or 500-megawatt wind farm, needs to consider these obstacles as they set out on their crusade.
 
Infrastructure
The country needs transmission systems that can shuttle power from rural wind farms to urban centers as well as load balancing installations that enable regions to consume a mix of generation sources.
 
Aesthetics
Green, in addition to being good, is fashionable. So your neighbor may never be more welcoming of the sight of a windmill, or fleet of them, on your roof or farm. That said, there’s plenty of resistance. The $900 million Cape Wind project slated for Nantucket, Mass., has dragged on in permitting, politics and litigation since 2001. Viewshed impact is high on opponents’ list of concerns. So why not site wind farms on sparsely populated land? That’s not so simple either, as a Wyoming farmer is finding out.
 
Ecology
Ten thousand birds, including 80 golden eagles, die every year at a California wind farm near San Francisco, according to a study by the local community development agency. Wind proponents blame that carnage an unlikely convergence of factors, including bad siting and older turbine technology. On average, they say, wind power’s avian toll is extremely low.
 
Noise
No doubt about it, windmills make noise. But the key questions include: How loud? Is the sound of whooshing blades a bad noise? How far away are you? How fast is the wind blowing? Wind proponents put windmill noise in the decibel range of household background noise or the sound of trees and leaves rustling on a blustery day.
 
Taxes
The government (i.e., taxpayers) has begun issuing $500 million in grants to spur wind energy development as part of the economic recovery package. They’re a double-edged sword for people worrying about personal and national debt.
 
Foreign Investments
One company with Spanish DNA has received more than half of that $500 million grant money, says the Environmental News Service. Too many reports like this won’t sit well with the public.
 
The communications strategy
So what does this all mean for the inventor or company promoting wind? The good news is there’s abundant popular support and a persuasive case for wind and other renewable energy sources. Yet, as with any complex technology that needs to go in someone’s backyard, there is bound to be wariness, if not opposition, to siting proposals.
 
Consequently, any development effort requires a solid communications plan born out of this strategy:
 
  1. Identify all the potential benefits of a project, not just those in your market segment or locale. Include the benefits of wind to the planet.
  2. Talking points promoting your project are just a start. You need data, and there is plenty of it out there. As you can see by the links in this blog, the American Wind Energy Association is a great place to start.
  3. Develop content up front that documents all of the benefits. Main audiences include the public, planners and regulators.
  4. Connect with advocacy organizations, politicians, utilities, business groups, landowners, conservationists and educators who are likely to favor your project.
  5. Anticipate all potential concerns and prepare to address them squarely. Avoid defensiveness or reactivity. Listen and talk rather than argue. Some skeptics just need to be informed.
  6. Depending on what you’re proposing, you could end up with a lot of energized opposition. Make sure you have the arms, legs and content to swiftly and effectively address the concerns.
  7. If you believe in your project, stay the course.
 
Some helpful resources from the American Wind Energy Association:
 
Handbook for permitting small wind turbines:
 
Talking points on the benefits of wind energy.
 
Handbook for commercial scale siting.
 
Wind power outlook for 2009


[1] A 5kW turbine is sufficient on average to power a home. Variables include wind speed, turbine height, terrain and home energy usage, according to the American Wind Energy Association.

Good vibrations

If the Smart Grid is to be truly smart and deliver energy efficiency, it will have to rely on swarms of wireless sensors scattered across our work and living spaces, providing continuous feedback of our energy usage.

The problem is, even the tiny low-power sensors consume some power. And replacing a few hundred or even thousand batteries in our buildings every couple years is neither green nor realistic.

Enter energy-harvesting technology, which in theory will be able to capture slight vibrations, motion or other kinetic energy to keep the sensors humming. ZigBee, a low-power wireless sensor standard for home automation, will soon have its own energy-harvesting specification. And ZigBee is already factoring into the forthcoming Smart Grid standards big time, so problem solved, right?

The folks at the EnOcean Alliance say "not so fast," claiming they're way ahead of the energy-harvesting curve with their own technology. Looks like it's shaping into a fun standards Donnybrooker. Amy Westervelt at the Earth2Tech blog has a great rundown of the energy harvesting smackdown.

A wisp of hope for American renewable energy wafts in on the climate & energy bill as China emerges

Solar panels in ChinaCap-and-trade, clean energy standards, cash for clunkers and smart grids are the headline grabbers and fight-starters in the climate and energy bill. These stars of the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 aren’t, however, going to save the U.S. from also-ran status in the renewable energy economy. Nothing in those provisions – or at least nothing obvious – confronts the very real possibility of China emerging as the superpower of renewable energy in the short term. Out of the limelight, in the bill’s back roads and side streets, lie the gems of hope for America’s future as a player in renewable energy, providing the U.S. can weather the Chinese onslaught. And it’s going to be a hummer of an onslaught.

The Chinese government is going after the top spot in renewable energy with a vengeance, and by employing their unique brew of free market talk and authoritarian action, they’re probably going to get it. If that makes you queasy, it should. The U.S., already a secondary player in renewable energy behind China and the European Union, is staring at yet another possibility of its energy future being tied to a foreign nation. Specifically, a foreign nation that’s also holding much of America’s debt.

There’s plenty afoot to bear out that pessimistic view. China has targeted wind and solar, the two most promising renewable technologies of the moment. The Chinese government has already created the world’s largest domestic wind power market, and they’re using it as a base to conquer the international export market for wind turbines. Using its success in textiles, food processing, electronics and consumer goods as a model, China has erected mazes of regulations specifically aimed at screwing foreign companies out of Chinese business. That gives Chinese companies a chance to flourish without competition on their home turf, subsidizing their push into export markets.

Having flashbacks to the Japan Inc. of the 1980s? The gradual demise of GM, Ford and Chrysler at the hands of Toyota and Honda? Well this is worse. Unlike democratic Japan, China doesn’t even pretend to play by free market rules. The New York Times reported last week that companies who built manufacturing plants inside China to satisfy domestic content requirements were aced out of the turbine market when the government outlawed turbines of less than 1,000 KW capacity. With tactics like that, it won’t be long before Chinese companies are the Honda and Toyota of the renewable energy industry. Next step, a wind farm near you. And solar is next on the agenda.

Even if China didn’t have a head start in renewable energy technology production, the U.S. wouldn’t be able to compete in volume manufacturing of renewable energy products any more than it could in apparel or consumer goods. China has a lower cost structure based on indentured servitude wages and light regulatory burdens. The U.S.’s winning game is not volume manufacturing of wind turbines or anything else. It’s innovation.

That brings us back to the climate and energy bill. There is $190 billion in the bill to fund renewable energy research. From the Apollo program to the Internet, the U.S. government has proven itself a great engine of new technology. That is the real secret weapon in the American renewable energy arsenal – a constant stream of new and better ideas.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT); technology and sustainabilityThe U.S. is the Saudi Arabia of innovation. No country has a better record of new technology development than this one. American universities and research institutes still attract the world’s best minds. The bill calls for establishing national centers of excellence in renewable energy technology across the country. Massachusetts took a similar approach in the 1980s under Gov. Michael Dukakis, funding centers of excellence in biotechnology, photovoltaics, nanotechnology and micro processing. Supplementing its disproportionately large share of world-class universities, the centers of excellence helped keep Massachusetts a technology leader. North Carolina had similar success with Research Triangle Park, which isn’t a center of excellence per se, but shows how government can effectively prime the private research pump.

China is gearing up to produce today’s state-of-the-art wind and solar technology. Let them. There is plenty of profit in developing tomorrow’s state of the art. Today’s solar and wind technology, for example, isn’t all that efficient. Most solar cells convert only 30 percent of the light that hits them into electricity. Wind turbines can’t turn light breezes into energy. There are no technologies for large-scale energy storage to even out the production peaks and valleys that make wind and solar unreliable in much of the world. Here’s betting the answers to those conundrums are going to come out of American laboratories.
 
A post script: Lest there seem to be a smack of jingoism in this post, I’ll say for the record that I’m all for China turning into a renewable energy superpower. The country is industrializing at a breakneck pace, creating a gargantuan demand for energy. Burning coal and oil to satisfy the demands of 1.3 million consumers portends a dismal future for the environment. Every wind turbine in the Gobi Desert or the South China Sea is an investment in a better world for everyone. As an American and a believer in democratic principles, I’d still like to think that we have a better way of developing a renewable energy economy than China. But as a father and potential grandfather, here’s hoping that both countries get there one way or the other.

Strategies for effective green retailing

Plus lessons from Coca-Cola, Dell and Timberland

Retailers go green for two reasons. One, consumers favor products they believe are green. Two, it’s the right thing to do.

One in three American consumers are more likely to choose environmentally responsible products, and 70 percent of Americans are paying attention to what companies are doing about the environment, according to an Opinion Research poll. Across the water, two out of three UK adults say environmental concerns influence their purchasing decisions.

Does the time and expense of green retailing to these consumers pay off? The jury is still out on that one, so the smart retailer at least considers going green. Fortunately, good green retail marketing is by definition good for the planet. It’s not greenwashing. To be effective, green retailing actions must be able to withstand reasonable scrutiny. They’re changes that matter, in ways however small, to the planet and your business.
 
Step one: the inventory
If you want to go green, the first thing to do is conduct a thoughtful inventory of how your business affects the environment. Consider both the obvious and less obvious impacts. Let’s say you sell cars. Obvious impacts include the gas they burn, the emissions they spew and the pile of tangled metal that eventually goes to the landfill. The less obvious effects include the production of electricity to illuminate your lot; the trees that die for your paperwork; and the impact of trucking new cars to your showroom. Less obvious still are the natural resources that go into the vehicles’ parts, the energy produced in refining those materials, and all the subsequent consequences of manufacturing.

With this inventory, you learn pretty quickly the infinite breadth of your environmental footprint. The good news is you don’t have to fix everything at once. The inventory simply introduces you to accountability and defines the scope of areas where you can become more sustainable. (This step also tells you how critics might attack you should you be so foolish as to make overly aggressive green claims.)

With your environmental impact inventory complete, here are some options for going green and some examples of companies that employ them:

Green your productPayless Shoes
Any product can be greened up. Downsize the vehicles you sell, for example, and make room for some hybrids. Or use greener materials. Payless Shoes now offers a full line of eco-friendly footwear, purses and accessories that use natural fibers like organic cotton, hemp, jute (plant), recycled rubber and plastic, water-based glue and (for packaging) 100-percent recycled boxes printed by soy-based ink. No metal or pesticides in the sourcing chain and no excess raw material extraction. (Sorry, ladies, no pumps either, but you can still get some elevation, see right.) The marketing benefits are immediately clear: Why else would this post mention Payless? How else would Payless have caught our eye on Reuters?

Green your most visible operations
Whole Foods Market banned the use of plastic grocery bags at its 280-plus stores starting on Earth Day 2008. In the ensuing year, it says it has kept an estimated 150 million plastic bags out of landfills. The campaign helped energize customers to triple their use of reusable bags – themselves made of recycled materials. The company also sells a special reusable bag for $29.99, each sale of which feeds 100 kids in Rwanda. That’s good marketing, and it’s hard to be cynical about feeding the hungry.

Timberland's new NY StoreGreen the building
Timberland opened a “carbon neutral” store in New York City last week with reclaimed wood, salvaged brick, efficient lighting and non-VOC paint. These green features hit the consumer between the eyes. Although less visceral, Timberland’s LEED certifications for its mall stores are also important for green credibility.

Green your energy consumption
Dell, for example, announced last week it gets 26 percent of its global electricity needs from renewable energy sources, up from 20 percent in 2008, and powers nine of its facilities with 100 percent renewable energy. Twenty-six percent doesn’t sound like a whole lot, but the company wisely uses credible third parties to compare itself favorably with competitors in technology and in big business. Dell also uses another tactic…

Buy renewable energy certificates
Renewable energy certificates, or RECs, are commodities that an organization can purchase from a renewable energy producer (solar, wind, biofuels) to conceptually offset the harm the first company’s power sources are causing. Purchasing a REC subsidizes renewable energy production and effectively increases the cost of emitting carbon. It’s of limited green retailing value except in bolstering a claim of progress toward carbon neutrality.

All of these measures can be effective, but they have the potential of doing more harm than good. Few media stories are more withering than a point-by-point analysis (of how a company took its green claims a little too far. So just be careful what you say and how you say it:

  • Modesty is always nice, lest you provoke observers to note all the ways you are not yet green.
  • Align green retail actions with your product. The auto industry needed greening, so Toyota greened an auto, the Prius. Coca-Cola, a beverage company, is vowing to replenish the supply of the world’s most popular beverage: water. Alignment resonates. If your building is LEEDS certified but your product pollutes, your overall message is weak.
  • Try to be correct. The Treehugger blog skewered an Italian architect for a stunning creation billed as the “first zero CO2 office building in Milan.” Among other things, the building is elevated on 13-meter pyramid-like “stilts,” effectively driving occupants onto elevators just to get inside. On a roll, the blog even complained about the carbon footprint of manufacturing photovoltaic panels for the roof.
  • Prepare for surprises. As BusinessWeek.com reported, Coca-Cola until recently assumed that most of its emissions came from manufacturing or its trucks. It discovered the lion’s share came from cold drink equipment – the coolers, vending machines and fountain dispensers. This gear includes potentially damaging refrigerants and insulation and consumes a lot of electricity. This unexpected source accounted for about 15 million metric tons of emission every year – almost twice that of the trucks and manufacturing combined.

These examples should give you some direction in planning your next step in green retailing. Remember, if it’s good for the planet, it’s good for business. Because it’s hard to profit without a planet.

Baseball, apple pie and sustainability

Portsmouth, NH Sustainability Fair 2009Today we are pleased to have guest blogger, Carrie O'Neil, a Sr. Account Executive at Beaupre, write about the local sustainability fair.

This past week the Portsmouth community took some giant steps forward in becoming an eco-municipality at the 2nd annual Portsmouth Sustainability Fair.

As the local Little League played games across the street, and farmer’s market around the corner was a hive of activity, the Sustainability Fair was a more contemporary scene. With human-powered vehicles, composting buckets, geothermal systems, solar hot water systems and rainwater collection systems, the Fair was abuzz with inspiring ideas.

Crowds came to the Zero Waste event with their recycled goods for donation and an open mind about what they can do to reduce their impact on the earth. While kids learned about ocean creatures and crafts made from recycled materials, their parents were able to learn about reducing dependence on fossil fuels and synthetic chemicals.

Portsmouth Sustainability Fair - 2009; Photo by Ralph MorangIn addition to the big ticket solar panels and geothermal energy systems you might expect to see at a sustainability event, people saw a lot of small measures like composting, locally grown and fair trade food, weatherization, waterless/earth friendly car washing solutions, and natural beauty products. All these measures, spoke to the single most important change we can make to help the environment: consuming less.

Portsmouth has been Beaupre’s home for 26 years, so it was gratifying for us to witness so much interest in environmentally sustainable practices (We were also pleased to help this local cause).

Maybe some day back-yard composters, geothermal pumps and bio fuels will be woven into the fabric of everyday life just as tightly as the Little League. 

Idea for solving an eco-calamity: garbage in, electricity out

Great Pacific Garbage PatchThe word’s largest garbage dump is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a toxic swarm of plastic trash twice the size of Texas that’s wreaking havoc on sea birds and marine life. It’s an obscene environmental problem for which we’re all responsible, but no one has a solution nor wants to deal with it. So yesterday, a group of scientists and conservationists set out to map the calamity and try to figure out a plan.

The US has nearly 90 waste-to-energy plants that turn garbage into electricity and hot water. They burn nearly as clean as natural gas plants, displace 7.8 million tons of coal-produced energy, and every ton of garbage consumed by the plants eliminates one ton LESS of CO2 emissions due to landfills and fossil fuel generation.

I’m just saying….

Green business may need a little white-collar entrepreneurship

 

Shai Agassi - Better PlaceDo you ever have a flash of inspiration, then shrug it off thinking it probably couldn’t pan out?

 

Shai Agassi never does. His back-of-the-napkin conversation with an engineer has quickly become perhaps the most viable plan for making all-electric cars feasible (hybrids still depend on fossil fuel). Agassi has a clever solution to “range anxiety,” the pervasive consumer worry that electric cars are prone to stranding their owners on deserted roads. His solution? If you run low on juice, don’t plug in for half a day; just switch the battery out. In the time it takes to pump a tank of gas, a robot would whiz out to your car, reach underneath, pluck out the battery and pop in a new one. If anyone can make that fanciful notion real, suggests the New York Times Magazine, it’s Agassi.

 Green business may need a little white-collar entrepreneurship

The 41-year-old Israeli-American has already created a software company, sold it for $400 million, started a SAP division that went from zero to $2 billion annually, and turned down the SAP CEO job. He has Israeli President Shimon Peres and Renault-Nissan behind his new venture, Better Place, and $400 million in investor backing. He is described as fearless, brilliant and charismatic, and a rhetorical steamroller in the face of objections.

 

Agassi is an exemplar of innovation (versus mere inspiration), a distinction about which we blogged a few weeks ago. He demonstrates the underappreciated need for clean, green and sustainable businesses to be as fiercely entrepreneurial as any other.

 

Unfortunately, the world often sees green concerns as starkly at odds with those of business, and every SUV or Superfund site in America reinforces the canard. Agassi, however, makes an eloquent case that classic entrepreneurship will be essential to green business success. He also trusts in the free market to drive demand for electric cars. In fact, he says, cheap electricity will subsidize those cars the same way that cheap minutes let carriers subsidize wireless handsets. (Agassi is, however, counting on government subsidies – to automakers, consumers and infrastructure builders – to kick start the market.)

 

Keep your eye on Better Place. This one promises to be a wild ride. If Agassi has his way, it won’t burn a drop of petroleum.

A plug for plugging in

Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid

About eight years ago, one of my best friends scoffed at my newly purchased electric lawnmower and even louder at the reason I bought it. I had decided against a new gas-powered mower because I had read how much junk their two-stroke engines release into the atmosphere. My friend said that my electric lawnmower was no more environmentally friendly than his two-stroke mower because they both burned fuel, just in different places. His lawnmower did it in his own yard, while mine did it at coal-fired power plants here on the New Hampshire Seacoast, the source of my mower’s electricity.  
 
Full disclosure: My buddy is not exactly objective when it comes to green issues. He’s about as environmental as a barrel of dioxin. He sells building materials and one of his favorite jokes is “I love spotted owls. They’re all we ate on the baby seal hunt.” You get the idea. So maybe he was dissing my lawnmower to get even with me for the year I gave his daughter a copy of “The Lorax” for Christmas, but he had a point. It’s a point society has to address as products like plug-in hybrid cars hit the market making claims at green cred. For example, General Motors is staking a lot on its soon-to-be released Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid. If, however, buyers don’t see economic and environmental upside in the Volt and its ilk, these products are going nowhere. It’s a given that plug-in hybrids burn less gasoline than their internal combustion-only cousins, but they don’t necessarily consume less energy.So they can’t be much better for the environment, right?
 
There is an answer to that knock against plug-ins, but government has to supply a critical missing piece before the answer stands up to scrutiny. The answer is based on the difference between point and non-point sources of pollutants. Power plants are “point” sources of air pollutants. Cars, lawnmowers etc. are “non-point” sources. It’s a distinction lost on most people, including my owl-munching friend. (I’m pretty sure he was just kidding about the owls, but I couldn’t swear to it.) This distinction gives plug-in hybrids the potential to change our transportation energy consumption habits for the better.
 
Point-source pollution is easier to manage than non-point source pollution because it’s easier to equip one power plant with effective pollution control technology than to equip 100,000 cars. Today’s emission control technology can remove up to 80 percent of the toxins, greenhouse gases and particles from smokestack exhaust. That could make plug-in hybrids an environmental improvement over conventional cars and their tailpipe emissions. “Could” is the key word, however. Most American power plants aren’t equipped with advanced environmental controls, especially carbon dioxide capture technology. Coal-fired power plant owners have consistently resisted retrofitting their plants with the highest levels of pollution control technology because they say it would drive up the cost of power. In some cases, the government has backed them up. The Department of Energy reported in 2008 that existing carbon dioxide capture technology isn’t cost effective on large power plants. Not surprisingly, there have been no government mandates for cleaner coal-fired power.
 
Can plug-in hybrids or my electric lawnmower make sense while coal generates 49 percent of America’s electricity? Yes, there are two reasons why plug-in hybrids are still a good idea. The first is that emissions control technology will get cheaper and more efficient if the federal government mandates it, which is the only way to create a market for it. The second is that plug-ins change how we think about our cars, and for the better. With wind, solar and biomass power gaining momentum, the grid will get greener. As it does, plugging in will make more and more sense than filling up. It will probably take a long time before conservation and renewable energy take a significant bite out of coal’s generating capacity, but it’s going to happen.
 
In the meantime, I think I’ll just let my grass grow longer and avoid the mower question altogether.

An unlikely love story: Alaska and renewable energy

Agree with it or not, Sarah Palin’s hymn to the oil industry, “drill baby drill” was one of the 2009 election’s catchiest mantras. Surprising to find, then, that Palin is a fan of renewable energy, according to a recent New York Times report. Furthermore, Alaska, the second-largest oil producing state after Texas, is fertile ground for renewable energy. Fuel prices there are high. Strong winds support a growing wind power industry. Palin wants 50 percent of the state’s electricity to come from hydro power by 2025.

This doesn’t actually jibe with Alaska’s image as the oil and gas industry’s treasured love child, but there’s more to this story than irony. It speaks to why renewable energy’s time might actually have arrived. For real, this time, and not like the giant renewable energy head fake of the 1970s.

That was the era when the Gulf oil states started flicking the spigot on and off according to how many tricked out 747s the Saudi royal family needed, or how mad they were at Washington over U.S. Middle East policy. Gas efficient cars went mainstream. The first roof-mounted solar arrays appeared. Utilities invested in fuel cell development. Jimmy Carter put solar panels on the White House roof. Schools and other public buildings were designed using passive solar heating and cooling techniques. Then the price of sweet crude dropped into the cellar, Ronald Reagan ripped out the White House solar panels, and the renewable energy industry turned back into a hippie pipe dream.

So renewable energy is hot again, but why won’t it suffer the same fate it did when bell bottoms were in style? After all, we live in a market economy. No matter how good an idea renewable energy is, the market still favors fossil fuels. When the price of oil falls, the power that renewable energy sources produce is too expensive to compete. 

The difference between now and the ‘70s is that the oil’s cost dynamics are changing permanently. China, India, and a host of developing economies are competing with the U.S. in international oil markets. Barring a complete collapse of those countries’ industrialization programs, that competition will keep oil prices at steadily higher levels. Also, the era of cheaply extracted oil is waning. An increasingly large percentage of oil reserves are hard to get out of the ground, and the prices will reflect the greater effort and new technology to bring it to market.

Rural Alaska is a laboratory for this dynamic. Market forces, acting through the price of shipping and the per-gallon price of the fuel, conspire to make fuel-generated electricity outrageously expensive in rural Alaska - five to ten times higher than in the lower 48. If the price of oil were lower, the market might be able to absorb the high delivery costs. But the price isn’t low enough, and here’s betting that it never will be. That means the local market conditions in rural Alaska will permanently favor renewables. “Despite high installation costs and the need for cold-weather engineering,” the Times reported, “wind turbines can often produce power at a lower cost than diesel generators by eliminating the need for fuel.”

How long before the base price of oil rises enough to make wind and solar the economic choice in rural Wyoming, the Dakotas, Texas, California, etc.? A long time off, maybe. But the fact that it is already happening in Alaska is not an isolated fluke. It’s the first sign that the economic case for renewable energy is growing strong enough to endure the next temporary decline in oil prices.

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