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Thursday, April 29, 2010

Which way is the wind blowing?

The most controversial wind project in the US, the 400+ megawatt Cape Wind planned off Cape Cod, was approved by the Federal government Wednesday. Many considered this a surprising development, because of the adamant opposition of the Kennedy family — and other affluent members of the Massachusetts economic and political elite — who objected to the impact on their views of the Nantucket Sound.

As with solar energy in the Mojave Desert, this controversy found unlikely adversaries between pro-RE environmentalists and anti-development environmentalists. The Obama Administration, represented by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, came down (mostly) on the side of renewable energy.

The NY Times captured the tension of this conflict in its own backyard:
Friends and foes have squared off over the impact it would have on nature, local traditions, property values and electricity bills; on the profits to be pocketed by a private developer; and even the urgency of easing the nation’s dependence on fossil fuels, a priority of the Obama administration.

Opponents argued that Cape Wind would create an industrial eyesore in a pristine area; supporters countered that it was worth sacrificing aesthetics for the longer-term goal of producing clean, renewable energy.

Developers say that Cape Wind will provide 75 percent of the power for Cape Cod, Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard — the equivalent of that produced by a medium-size coal-fired plant. It would also reduce carbon dioxide emissions by the equivalent of taking 175,000 cars off the road, officials said, and provide 1,000 construction jobs.

The project has also made for some strange bedfellows. Cape Wind is backed by both Greenpeace and the United States Chamber of Commerce.

It has been opposed perhaps most prominently by members of the Kennedy family. Senator Kennedy was a longtime sailor on Nantucket Sound and fought the project up until he died.
President Obama himself on Tuesday toured the Siemens factory in Iowa where the turbines would be made. (No mention whether Iowa’s pivotal role as a swing state played any role in the factory location or the presidential visit.) The administration expects a string of future offshore wind farms up and down the East Coast, as part of a plan to raise wind to 4% of electricity generated in 2030.

In my memory, renewable energy was last in ascendancy in the 1970s and early 1980s around the time of the two Arab oil embargoes. Of the influential politicians of the day, Jimmy Carter probably would have sided with green energy (and energy independence) over Kennedy views — particularly when Sen. Kennedy began his very public nomination challenge leading up to the 1980 election.

Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People MatteredI suspect that another Carter primary rival in 1976 and 1980 — Edmund G. Brown Jr. — would have come down another way. Then at the peak of his “Small is Beautiful” (ala EF Schumacher) infatuation, Jerry Brown was then about building less things, using less, spending less and consuming less.

What about today? In his adamant support for AB32 — the California precursor to national cap-and-trade legislation — Brown today is clearly about consuming less energy. While his campaign website brags about tax credits in the 1970s that brought windmills to California (mainly in the Altamont Pass,Tehachapis, and near Palm Springs), it doesn’t say how he’d come down on an RE vs. environmental preservation issue.

Our current Governator has strongly favored RE over environmental protection, implying that favoring the latter is something only a “girly man” who do. Given their moderate records on green energy, I suspect both of Brown’s GOP rivals — Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner — would also come down in favor of renewable energy (ala the Chamber of Commerce), particularly if there’s little government money involved.

But what would Jerry Brown do? I guess it depends on which way the wind is blowing. For the Obama administration, it appears that making progress on long-term renewable energy goals is more important than satisfying a small number of avid supporters in its base. This is good news for the wind turbine industry, and renewable energy advocates more broadly.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Three cheeers: Facebook favors EE over RE

The Merc Sunday carried an AP story (also in Business Week) about how Greenpeace is upset at Internet companies for not using clean power on their datacenters. The BBC had a version of the story last month.

The Green peace criticism is particularly harsh for Facebook for building a datacenter in Prineville, Oregon, because the local utility uses coal instead of the hydro power commonly found elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest.

Datacenters are certainly important: the AP reports an EPA estimate that in 2006 they accounted for 61 billion kilowatt hours, or 1.5% of the nation’s grid power.

The charge is somewhat spurious: in the short term, having company X buy more RE means that there is less RE available to sell to company Y (or consumer Z). In the long term, it’s possible that greater demand for RE will push up the supply of RE, but in the near term the supply of RE — particularly hydro, solar and wind — seems to be growing as fast as is possible.

(Of course, firms like Google etc. that add their own onsite generating capacity are certainly increasing the supply of RE and reducing the demand for grid power overall).

Instead, Facebook is choosing approach both reduced costs and power purchased from the grid. By building its datacenter in a location with good natural cooling, it hopes to dramatically reduce its AC bill.

As the AP reported:
In most data centers, cooling the servers takes nearly as much electricity as running the servers themselves. Facebook hopes its new cooling system will take only 15 percent as much power as the computers. Facebook is also shooting for a gold rating from the green building standard known as LEED.

The climate is important. Even in summer, nights are cool. The center can take in outside air for free. When temperatures rise, a high-tech swamp cooler blows dry air over water, and the evaporation lowers temperatures. In winter, hot air from the servers is blown into office space.
In other words, by emphasizing energy efficiency, Facebook will pull less power from the grid (from any source), leaving that power (both RE and non-RE) available for other sources. In the long term, that will do more to provide a net reduction in CO2 emissions than any effort to shift some uses to RE.

As Matthew Humphries of geek.com concluded:
I don’t think any of the tech companies are dismissing renewable energy and trying to save power. The fact is, energy is expensive so any way it can be saved is thought about and implemented. Datacenters are starting to ditch air conditioning in favor of natural airflow through buildings, for example.

Hydropower, solar, and wind are all being used if they are accessible to a datacenter, and Google has also started experimenting with wave power and creating floating datacenters. Some datacenters route their waste heat to act as heating or a power source for other buildings. There’s also the introduction of Bloom Energy, which relies on natural gas, but uses significantly less fuel to generate energy. It’s a power source of the future, but is already in use at a number of technology campuses.

Greenpeace are right to highlight the need to focus on renewable energy, but I believe this is one area where the companies running these centers will jump to renewable and clean energy wherever possible because it is cheaper and more reliable going forward.
EE is decidedly unsexy, but every kilowatt-hour saved is one less kWH that has to be generated. Efforts by datacenters to reduce energy consumption — whether from servers, networking equipment, A/C or anything else — are a win-win proposition for the operators, the grid and the environment.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Rooftop wind turbines

The San Diego newspaper had an interesting story about a developer of small wind turbine.

The company, Helix Wind, appears to be struggling, but the product description was fascinating:
Helix Wind makes turbines small enough to be mounted on homes or commercial buildings. Its core products spin on a vertical axis and look like soft-serve ice-cream cones.
It reminds me a little of the story about Adobe installing wind turbines on roof of its skyrise HQ in downtown San Jose. The latest round of turbines generate about 50 kWh per year. The installation was finished last month.

We put solar panels on roofs due to scarce real estate, so at some level wind turbines on commercial or residential roofs make sense. The Merc story implies they get more energy per square foot than the equivalent solar panels.

To me, this seems to renew the (often unseemly) rivalry between the two main renewable energy growth areas. (Hydro is certainly renewable, but the recent growth has been in the wrong direction from a RE standpoint).