“EcoMotion opened my eyes -- I was never really interested in the environment before and now I have a whole new passion!"
An Minh Quan, University of California Irvine Intern
Carbon Cap and Trade
The idea is simple: A limit is placed on emissions. That’s the cap, the maximum amount. Initially, that amount is split up between polluters. They get allowances. Then, allowances are cut over time. Those industries that can cut emissions to comply through site improvements, process changes, etc., do so. Those that can’t must buy emissions credits from others who exceed their mandated target levels. That’s the trade. You’re up or down.
Europe’s cap and trade system is top shelf, pioneering and bold. I was interested to hear some say that the cap and trade regulatory mechanism has its roots in the U.S. Acid Rain Program. That program featured a flexible program design for cutting overall emissions, allowing for a combination of onsite mitigation measures and offsets.
The world’s largest active cap and trade system is indeed the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme/System (ETS). Launched in 2005 after a “hostile” reaction across many sectors, the EU’s multi-national ETS is considered a pillar of European climate policy. EU governments get allocations and have to file National Allocation Plans to show compliance. These NAPs spell out “installations’” allocations, for instance allowances for power plants, steel mills, and the like. Phase 1 of the ETS covered some 40% of EU CO2 emissions, big industries from utilities to pulp and paper mills; Phase 2 calls for reducing emissions collectively in all 27 member states by 7% below 2005 levels.
In America, there has been broad support for the cap and trade concept, but little action. California, driven by its Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 which calls for emissions to be reduced to 1990 levels by 2020, has taken the U.S. lead. Not surprisingly, it has been met with mixed reactions.
In late June, and after a month-long legal battle on procedure, the California First District Court of Appeals ruled that CARB can proceed to implement its carbon cap-and-trade system. Earlier, a San Francisco Superior Court judge ordered state officials to halt work on the planned market. Key decisions, including how to allocate billions of dollars worth of pollution permits to utility companies and how to use revenue from the auction of those allowances, have yet to be made, thus the trading system had not sufficiently met its CEQA requirements (California Environmental Quality Act).
In its recent ruling, the court granted CARB’s request to be allowed to continue work pending further validation. CARB Chair Mary Nichols noted that the compliance filings will be delayed until 2013, but will not affect the stringency of the program. Six hundred industrial facilities, including cement industries, oil refineries, and electric utilities, will have to cap their GHG emissions at 2012 levels and then reduce them (or buy offsets) as the level is reduced over the next eight years until the State has reached 1990 levels as required by California AB 32 in 2020. Firms will be required to hold permits and credits equal to their emissions.
The Algal Footprint
Interest in algae is exploding. I hadn’t heard that a Continental Airlines jet successfully operated on an algal blend. Could this be the new “green crude?” Put more poetically, paraphrased miserably, “Can green pond scum replace fossil fuels?” Many say maybe, but it will certainly take time. The U.S. currently consumes 19.4 million barrels a day of petroleum products, about half of which is gasoline, for a total of nearly 300 billion gallons each year.
There are more than 6,000 strains of algae. Algae represent a large group of different organisms from different phytogenetic groups, covering taxonomic divisions. Simply stated: They are plant-like organisms without roots. Most are microscopic, but some seaweeds reach 50 meters in length. Researchers are working to identify those strains of algae most prolific in their oil production in specific locations. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory researchers have worked with over 3,000 strains thus far.
Algae are like tiny photosynthesis factories, and are among the fastest growing plants in the world. They take CO2 and sunlight and turn it into lipids, or oil. Some double in weight in a day. About 50% of their weight is oil. And, they thrive worldwide in saline or fresh or contaminated waters. They clean the water, and can be used to literally eat the carbon dioxide coming out of power plants. Imagine a Wal-Mart-sized algae digester located adjacent to a 500 MW power plant: a new-age bag house and bio-cycle.
Interest is algae is amplified by studies of its energy production potential. Its production is totally benign and leaks are innocuous. An NREL study of algae oil yields (assuming 33% of weight is oil), unveiled a stark comparison. While corn can produce 30 gallons of oil per acre per year, soy 48 gallons, peanuts 113, rapeseed 124, coconut 287, and palm oil 635, NREL reports that algae can produce more than 5,000 gallons of oil per acre per year! One researcher commented that you can get as much oil and bio-gasoline from algae from a two-car garage footprint, as from a football field of soybeans.
Dominick Mendola of the University of California at San Diego inspired me to the potentials of algae when he spoke recently. His topic was the potential for algae production adjacent to the Salton Sea, biocycling and filtering dairy wastes with algal production. I was struck by the energy producing intensity of algae. While there are large capital and operating costs for “algaculture,” much more than other biofuel feedstocks, algae can yield 10 – 100 times that of other sources.
The graphic, prepared by Mendola, shows the relative oil-producing requirements of corn, soy, and algae. Algae requires the least area; a small and proficient algal footprint less than a quarter of the size of Arizona, in this case to replace one half of diesel fuels in the U.S. Is it possible that all U.S. petroleum consumption could be replaced with algae-base biofuel? Three bases: 1) Arizona is 113,909 square miles. 2) Algae can produce 5,000 gallons of oil per acre per year; 3.2 million gallons per square mile (640 acres). 3) If the entire State of Arizona were dedicated to algal production, annual production would be on the order of 365 billion gallons, more than current annual U.S. petroleum consumption!
Shipping Container Construction
This past week I learned that we import so many freighter containers from China, and have so little to send back in exchange, that we have a surplus of containers. These are big, steel boxes, durable items, and they have become a solid waste problem. Imagine. There are reportedly tens of thousands of these steel objects stacked up and rusting at ports around the world.
They make for an interesting new form of rectangular construction: International Standards Organization began standardizing corner fittings for shipping containers in ---- to be integral to the honeycomb racking construction onboard ships and the fittings on rail and truck flat beds. Now shipping containers come in 5 standard sizes: 20, 40, 45, 48, and 53 feet. In the U.S. the most commonly used sizes are the longer ones. In Europe the 40-foot size is most common.
There’s an abundance of unused, steel shipping containers worldwide, punctuated in America by a manufacturing deficit with Asia. Goods flow into America from Asia and Europe in containers that are either shipped back empty , a “dead-head” in the trade, or left portside stacked to rust. In many cases, it’s less expensive to buy new containers than to ship old ones back. As a result, in America, they can be bought for as little as $1,000, about a sixth of their price when new.
I was impressed to check out some of the entries a container construction design competition at AltBuild, Santa Monica’s annual alternative building conference. I take back my “rectangular” statement! Architects and others were tasked by the AIA’s GBC to design homes built of shipping containers, and the winning design will be built.
Shipping container construction gained notoriety in England in 2000 when Urban Space Management completed the Container City project in the Trinity Buoy Wharf area of London, England. In 2006, the Dutch company Tempohousing built the biggest container village in the world near Amsterdam. It was commissioned in 2008 and consists of 250 student homes in the town of Diemen. It is a 5-story building in the shape of a square with a garden in the center.
One web site presents a long list of other actual shipping container uses. In addition to their original function as intermodal sealed storage on ships (where they can be stacked 12 high), trucks, and trains, they have been used for Press Boxes, Hurricane Shelters for Thoroughbreds, Concession Stands, Classrooms, Fire and Military Training Facilities, Emergency Buildings, Urban homes, Rural Homes, Apartment and Office Buildings, Artists' Studios, Stores, Moveable Exhibition Spaces on Rails, Telco Hubs, Bank Vaults, Medical Cinics, Radar Sations, Shopping Malls, Sleeping Rooms, Recording Studios, Abstract Art, Transportable Factories, Data Centers (in the form of Project Blackbox), Experimental Labs, Clandestine Cannabis Gardens, Combatant Temporary Containment (ventilated), Bathrooms, Showers, and Workshops. Among other benefits, note their proponents, they’re free from termites and vermin.
Transmission Line Losses
Recently I heard a presenter at a conference say that utility line losses can be 30 – 40%. Wow. I thought we might see 10% line losses in America, but no more. Anything higher must be symptomatic of the developing world. A trusted colleague shook his head at me emphatically: “Edison claims 10 – 15% line losses in its transmission alone,” he declared.
Naturally, the greater the line loss, the greater the case for on-site energy efficiency and distributed renewable generation, or DG.
I was stunned. Could line losses really be 30 – 40% in America? Could Southern California Edison, one of the most sophisticated utilities in the world, suffer 10 – 15% losses in its transmission alone?
The answer I’ve researched thus far is “No.” Please prove me wrong; I welcome informed comments to this piece. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the rural cooperatives, MIT, and others, line losses in America are less than 10%, actually more like 5%.
EcoMotion Network News research finds that line losses were 5% nationally in 1970. Since 1980, and compounded by an 80% growth of electricity consumption, the transmission infrastructure suffered from lack of investment and upgrade. By 2001, official sources reported line losses of 9.5% nationally. Now they have reportedly returned to the 5% level.
Let’s back up: Line losses are defined as the delta between measured output of power plants, and the measured consumption at customer meters. Most line losses are due to resistance and impedance. Sometimes the “losses” are due to faulty meters.
A paper by Harris Williams consultants calls the grid in North America aging and antiquated. It will be further stressed by the proliferation of renewable energy projects, primarily wind in the Midwest and solar in the Southwest. Harris Williams notes that, “The strain on the existing transmission grid can be measured by T&D losses (or electric power lost due to grid inefficiency), which is related to how heavily the system is loaded.”
In North America there are 283,000 miles of transmission lines, generally over 69 kV. There are 452,699 miles of circuit; many transmission corridors carry more than one circuit. There are 167,294 miles of EHV lines – extra high voltage lines – over 230 kV. The higher the voltage, the less the losses; the longer the run, the higher the losses. The most efficient (and expensive) form of long-distance transmission is high voltage Direct Current. Investor-owned utilities own about 66% of the transmission lines; municipal utilities own 33%. There are 15,600 transmission substations in the U.S. that step down the voltage for the local distribution system.
One data set is particularly interesting, based on 1,000 MW of power being transmitted. For every one hundred miles, there is a loss of 0.5% for 765 kV lines, 1.3% for 500 kV lines, and 4.2% for 345 kV lines. China is now building 1,100 kV transmission lines.
For example, imagine 100 MWh being generated at a power plant, and 93 MWh being sold to end-users. Of the 7% loss, 1 – 2% is for EHV transmission, 2-4% if for high voltage line and substation losses, and 4 – 6% is lost in the distribution system. There can be line losses in the 10 – 15% range due to higher resistance, long distances, and reactive power consumption.
An MIT paper by Mason Willrich discusses the need to upgrade the grid to prepare for Smart Grid. He characterizes the electric utility industry in the U.S. as “highly fragmented” with 3,100 separate entities. The good news is steady revenues of some $250 billion per year, based on some $800 billion in assets. Of the assets, 60% is in power plants, 30% in distribution, and the remaining 10% in transmission.
There are 2.2 million miles of distribution lines in North America. Of these in the United States, half are managed by electric cooperatives. While they serve only 12% of the consumers, they have half the distribution lines given the average customer density of 3.4 customers per line mile [ck]. This compares to 34 customers per mile for investor-owned utilities and 43 for municipal utilities [ck].
Transmission is regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). It oversees eight regional electricity reliability councils (ERCs) that in turn coordinate with ISOs, independent system operators. The country now falls into three major blocks in terms of power production and transmission: the Eastern Electricity Coordinating council with more than 750 GW of capacity; the Western Electricity Reliability Council with 125 GW, and the Electricity Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) with 50 GW, approximately the same size as the California ISO.
The Atlantic Wind Connection
It’s not often you see Google applying to the FERC, taking a position in the green revolution. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman Jon Wellinghoff was reportedly impressed. Google has teamed up with Good Energies and the Marubeni Corporation to build an “Atlantic Wind Connection” backbone transmission project. The project is being led by Trans-Elect, an independent transmission company. When ultimately approved, the AWC it will collect renewable power from offshore wind facilities in the Mid-Atlantic and bring it to market, more precisely, the population centers. Google says it’s good for business and good for the environment.
"Without a strong transmission backbone, offshore wind developers would need to build one or more individual radial transmission lines from each offshore wind project to the shore," stated Google in its filing.
The AWC will run offshore along the coast collecting wind power along its 350-mile route. It will consist of two parallel transmission lines stretching from northern New Jersey to southern Virginia, transporting up to 6,000 megawatts of electricity and connecting with the main electric grid at onshore sites in New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia.
Recently, FERC approved a plan for investors of the $5 billion project to earn a 12.59% return. The project still needs approval from the Interior Department, several state agencies, and the PJM grid operator. The companies anticipate that phase one of the transmission line will be operating in 2016.
EcoMotion Welcomes Team Members
EcoMotion welcomes team members: Pat Conlon and Kay Hazen join EcoMotion as “Local Specialists” in California’s Coachella Valley. There, EcoMotion has begun a greenhouse gas inventory and climate action planning process with each of the cities of Blythe, Cathedral City, Desert Hot Springs, Indian Wells, Palm Springs, and Rancho Mirage, and the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. Long-term colleagues Ralph Torrie and Rick Heede join the project as “Climate Specialists,” helping EcoMotion with the inventories and developing a regional framework for climate action.