Chu Sends More Fed Dollars to Wind

Posted May 3, 2009 by snokiss
Categories: Uncategorized

It looks like the government hasn’t forgotten NREL after all. When Secretary of Energy Steven Chu visited the lab on April 29, he announced $100 million for facility and infrastructure improvements that will come out of the stimulus package. On top of that, wind energy R&D will receive $93 million, according to this DOE press release.

The report includes a breakdown of exactly how much money will fund turbine R&D, technology development, wind power R&D, etc., shown in the chart below.

Where the $93 million is going

Where the $93 million is going

About $26 billion – out of $100 billion total in stimulus funds for energy – have already been authorized. Chu wants to delegate $50 billion more by Labor Day, according to this New York Times article.

It’s good to see this increased sense of urgency from energy officials. Chu also promised to accelerate the Energy Department’s loan-making process – which can take up to 4 years – to help boost our sluggish economy.

It will be interesting to see how speedily this money is deployed by its recipients. NREL already has the infrastructure and scientists (although they are supposedly hiring more than 100 new employees this year) to turn the cash into research and technology quickly.

But how do you divy up “wind energy R&D” in a fair and productive way? Here is DOE’s plan as charted above:

  • $45 million for wind turbine R&D and testing – “toward enhancing the federal government’s ability to support the wind industry through testing the performance and reliability of current and next generation wind turbine drivetrain systems.” I’m not sure how you spend that sum of money testing the federal support structure, but I guess this falls in the hands of government researchers
  • $14 million for technology development in the private sector – this funding will get companies working on lighter-weight turbine blades and towers and “process controls” for blade finishing, trimming and painting. I think this should be great in sparking interest among industry, where great innovation is likely to take place
  • $24 million for wind power research and development –
    These funds go toward creating up to three partnerships between universities and industry to focus on overcoming wind energy challenges. This frees up capital for university scientists to work on designing advanced materials, analytical models, and to collaborate with private companies to streamline power systems operations, maintenance and manufacturing of components  more money for Golden, Colo! At NREL’s wind lab, researchers do performance testing on cutting-edge turbines. They’re building two new utility-scale turbines as part of learning how to integrate wind energy into the electrical grid

Sounds like the winds of change Obama promised are starting to blow!

A federal program for offshore wind energy

Posted May 2, 2009 by snokiss
Categories: Uncategorized

In an Earth Day speech at an Iowa wind turbine plant, Obama announced the Interior Department had come up with rules for developing offshore wind farms. This New York Times article carries the full story. The plan establishes a system to grand leases and easements for siting and building off-shore renenwable energy plants on the U.S. Outer Contintnetal Shelf. The main authority in the process will be the Minerals Management Service, which is also in charge of offshore oil and gas development.

Earlier this month, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman Jon Wellinghoff signed an agreement that outlined what jurisdictional role each agency would have in leasing and licensing renewable energy projects (potentially wind, solar, tidal and ocean current).

Offshore is used a lot in places like Denmark and Britain and has the potential to be a major energy source for America:

  • “The National Renewable Energy Laboratory, for example, has estimated that offshore resources located between 5 and 50 nautical miles off the nation’s coasts could provide 900 gigawatts of generation capacity, which is roughly equal to the United States’ total current electrical capacity.”
  • And the DOE has – more conservatively – estimated wind power could make up more than 20 percent of US power generation by 2030. By that year, the DOE expects 300 gigawatts of U.S. power to come from wind, 54 of those from offshore.

The main critique of of offshore development is the cost. Offshore turbines cost more than traditional wind turbines. Also, the technology is limited to shallow waters in the Atlantic, where winds are less powerful than on the west coast. Others say pursuing offshore wind development is a  political maneuver to avoid the NIMBY issue.

Either way, the new rules clear a path for investment. Cape Wind – a proposed wind farm off Nantucket –  is likely to be America’s first offshore wind farm. Cape Wind Associates has spent  $40 million over 7.5 years to overcome the legal and bureaucratic challenges of building its farm, according to this Wind Action report. Some people don’t want their ocean view blighted, and question the safety of air traffic. With this new regulatory program. Cape Wind may be under construction by 2010.

Why wind requires wealth

Posted April 30, 2009 by snokiss
Categories: Uncategorized

A recent New York Times article described how expensive energy was per kilowatt-hour (kilowatt-hour being the units used by utilities to measure energy use). The average price of a kilowatt-hour is 11 cents. The article reported an analysis from Black & Veatch that showed when the wind is blowing, energy is cheap – competitively so. It’s those still periods that require wind farms to have a backup generator that drives up the expense of wind systems.. The article states:

wind “A modern coal plant…(without carbon capture)  produces energy at about 7.8 cents a kilowatt-hour; a high-efficiency natural gas plant, 10.6 cents; and a new nuclear reactor, 10.8 cents. A wind plant in a favorable location would cost 9.9 cents per kilowatt hour. But if a utility relied on a great many wind machines, it would need to back them up with conventional generators in places where demand tends to peak on hot summer days with no breeze. That pushes the price up to just over 12 cents, making it more than 50 percent more expensive than a kilowatt-hour for coal.”

This underscores the challenge of transitioning to clean energy. Not only are we burdened by having to economically justify every renewable input (which is hard without a carbon tax), but every hurdle of renewable energy is seen as an excuse not to pursue it.

Doesn’t every major change (social, institutional, energy) require some breathing room, a grace period before new infrastructure has to pay for itself? Were coal plants instantly profitable once built and fired up?

I think it’s great experts are thinking about all sides of the issue of energy, and weighing the costs and benefits. But doesn’t our environmental situation demand, more than suggest, that we do something about the way we consume energy? And since we obviously don’t want to scale back our consumption or standard of living, aren’t we obligated to come up with less harmful sources?

Renewables & Recession – Friends or Enemies?

Posted April 28, 2009 by snokiss
Categories: Uncategorized

I’ve arrived at the unavoidable conflict of investing in renewable technologies and the recession imperative of cutting costs. As Roger Pielke says, Americans will never vote for or support anything at the expense of growing GDP, which is why he says cap and trade is doomed to fail.

Coal is presently the cheapest form of fossil fuel. Curbing carbon emissions will unfortunately raise electricity prices. Even with subsidies, credits and rebates, experts believe there will still be a premium. Congress has something else cooking – the Environmental Protection Agency recently designated greenhouse gases as pollutants, which means they can regulate them under the Clean Air Act. The lawmakers are considering a cap and trade bill. They are also mulling whether to mandate a certain percentage of America’s electricity come from renewables.

Requiring utilities to generate or purchase from renewable sources will provoke them to pass on the cost to consumers.

Right now, the cost of coal and natural gas is way down, which means despite a new administration, this recession may not be a friend to renewable energy.

Any love for NREL in the stimulus?

Posted April 27, 2009 by snokiss
Categories: Uncategorized

I just assumed NREL would get a big injection from Obama’s $787 billion stimulus package. According to this Denver Post article, the DOE  – which operates NREL – is getting a huge chunk of change but NREL may not receive any of it.

The DOE office in Golden will see its budget doubled to more than $1 billion. But the stimulus plan stipulates how DOE must spend the money, and it may go toward programs that NREL doesn’t participate in.

NREL, which is owned by DOE and operated by private contractors, may have to compete with other private companies to get grants from the stimulus. Had NREL been earmarked money in the bill, however, it would have a lot more capital to work with than just through applying for discretionary funding.

According to the Post article, NREL spokesman George Douglas says NREL is planning on hiring roughly 200 employees this year. I just hope the windfall funding for DOE trickles down to the lab that has the greatest role in helping to solve our energy crisis.

NREL Funding Snapshot

Posted April 26, 2009 by snokiss
Categories: Uncategorized

NREL is the nation’s main lab for renewable energy and energy efficiency R&D. With the current political popularity of green research, green technology and green jobs, how much money actually goes to this mother-lab and how is it split?

Actually, NREL’s budget has declined the past three years. While holding steady at $200 – $230 million between 2002 and 2006, DOE bumped NREL’s budget up to $378 million in 2007. This bump came after Congress gave DOE an extra $500 million in the summer of 2007, and DOE passed $100 million of that on to NREL. But then funding fell to $328 million in 2008, and is estimated at $316 for 2009.

What is the breakdown by technology? Here are the heavyweights:

Wind – $33.9 million

Biofuels – $35.4 million

Solar – $72.4 million

I found that interesting, considering NREL has its own Wind Technology Center separate from the lab. I was also surprised that they invested more in biofuels than wind, although they do a lot of partnerships with private industry in developing biomass. Also, is the high dollar amount for solar a reflection of how much more expensive the technology is? Is it because NREL and partners are pouring money into researching more efficient solar panels (like thin film), as the ones today are not cost-effective?

Flying on Algae Fuel?

Posted April 21, 2009 by snokiss
Categories: Uncategorized


Courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

Courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

Airlines like Continental are doing flight demonstrations using algae blended with conventional jet fuel, and some hope to use these blends within a few years. 


NREL scientists are researching the best strains of algae to use for biofuels.  The program – which wasn’t economically feasible a decade ago – has recently intensified because of unstable crude prices (although currently less than $50/barrel), Middle East conflict and climate change. 

Algae transforms carbon and sunlight into oil through photosynthesis. When stressed (or starved of the nutrients they need) their lipid (or oil) content can increase up to 60%. They can grow in fresh or saltwater, and according to this NREL press release,  “can generate 30 times more oil per acre than plants used for biodiesel and other biofuels.” Plus, they don’t compete with food crops like ethanol production does. 

Scientists are coming up with some cool ideas for the scummy creatures – like diverting smokestack emissions into ponds to force-feeding algae carbon dioxide. This might make them grow faster and would help suck greenhouse gases out of the air. 

NREL is currently working on a CRADA with Chevron to increase the productivity of algae (R&D is described here). The lab says 100s of companies worldwide are calling to get in on the biofuel movement. 

But algal fuel is still a product of the distant future, researchers say, due to engineering questions and quality standards. They need to study the basic biology of various strains to understand how the organism produces and regulates lipids.