Archive for Energy

Small is Beautiful

My recent Forbes article Cheap Photovoltaics Are Eating Solar Thermal’s Lunch about how the rapidly falling price for photvoltaic (PV) modules is undermining the case for concentrated Solar Thermal Power (CSP) is just one instance in a larger trend: In the modern energy economy, modular technologies advance more rapidly than large scale technologies because it is easier to get experience with them in the field at reasonable cost.

PV started with sub-watt sized cells in solar powered calculators. Solar calculators may not seem to have much to do with today’s multiple hundreds of megawatt (MW) sized plants which can be a billion times larger than a solar calculator, but the manufacturing experience with those tiny cells allowed manufacturers to bring costs down to the point where kilowatt sized systems started to be used on off-grid homes, which in turn brought down the price enough to allow subsidies to make solar affordable for most homeowners, and 1-2 MW commercial plants, and now we’re seeing announcements of solar farms approaching a gigawatt.

CSP, on the other hand, only starts to make sense at around 100 MW, so building each new plant represents a much bigger financial commitment than even a million calculators. Looked at this way, PV’s potential eclipse of CSP perhaps should have not been all that surprising. But hindsight is 20-20.

This also has implications for the advance of other energy technologies. Look for the modular technologies to gain ground at the expense of the industrial scale technologies.

Modular technologies

  • PV
  • Wind
  • Gas Turbines
  • Land Fill Gas
  • Grid based battery storage
  • Energy Efficiency
  • Smart Grid / Demand Response
  • Fuel Cells

Industrial Scale Technologies

  • CSP
  • Coal
  • Nuclear
  • Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC)
  • Geothermal Power (sometimes small scale, but limited places it can be built)
  • Compressed Air energy Storage
  • Pumped Hydro
  • Flow Batteries

That’s just a few energy technologies off the top of my head, and I’m not trying to say that modular technologies will always win out over industrial scale technologies. But I am saying that price per kWh is not everything… sometimes small scale leading high prices per unit of energy but low prices for individual systems can allow a rapid evolution to lower prices per kWh. We’ve certainly seen that in Solar.

What’s next? LEDs were also able to develop rapidly because they were useful in a large number of specialized niches, such as indicator lights on electronics) despite the high initial cost per lumen.

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Top Ten Lists: My Stock Picks for 2008 and Most Blogged Stories of 2007

I did two top Ten lists to bring in the New Year. First, I picked ten speculative plays in renewable energy and energy efficiency that I think will do well. This was a 3 part series:

Part I: LED Stocks and Ultracapacitor stocks
Part II: Batteries, Distributed Generation, combined Heat and Power, and Electricity Transmission
Part III: Geothermal, Wind and Wave Power stocks, and a Solar Short

My second Top 10 list is plain fun… we used an algorithm to see what stories cleantech bloggers were linking to in 2007, and I did a short summary of each. Here is my Ten Most Blogged Cleantech Stories of 2007

Enjoy!

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Five Free (or nearly free) Ways to Learn about Alternative Energy near Denver

I’m often aghast at the price conference organizers ask for people looking to
learn about alternative energy, when there are so may great inexpensive
opportunities available, sponsored by nonprofits a and other organizations
whose mission is to get the word out about our energy options.  Here are
three monthly events that Denver area residents can go to… I go to most of
these regularly.

  1. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s Brown Bag Analysis seminar … Free, but make sure to bring photo-ID.
  2. The Colorado Renewable Energy Society’s Monthly Meetings. ($5 or $40 annual membership – snacks usually served afterwards.)
  3. The Colorado Cleantech Initiative monthly meeting. ($10 with RSVP – you get dinner & free beer.)
  4. Smart Energy Living Workshops (Usually about $10-15, lower with membership)
  5. Clean Energy Action monthly meetings (Boulder)

Please leave comments if I forgot (or don’t know about) your regular free
or almost-free event.

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Visual Comparison of Electricity Generation Technologies

I just put together a couple graphs for a talk I’m giving on Monday to give people a visual feel of the various technologies for generating electricity.  These come with a gigantic caveat: the numbers are far from precise.

With changing technologies, it’s impossible to represent any of this with a single number anyway.  I’m trying to show how the technologies compare to each other, and I used four parameters:

  • Cost ($/MWh),
  • Availability (better the closer the profile of the technology matches a normal demand curve (wind is bad, baseload is okay, dispatchable is best, solar),
  • Emissions (and I count waste storage when it comes to nuclear),
  • Bubble sizes represent the size and durability of the resource (I’ve tried to combine in one number how much power we can get from the resource, but also how long supplies of fuel will last.) 

In both charts, the “best” technologies are in the upper left (low cost, low emissions, and available when we need them.)

I know that I’m going to upset a lot of people because I was too harsh with their favorite technology, so feel free and comment on the numbers I’m using, but also please provide references for where you get your numbers.  Most of these are off the top of my head, so their accuracy is admittedly questionable.   Here are the numbers I used to make the graphs.

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The Psychology of Energy Efficiency

Efficiency is unquestionably the largest, cheapest, and cleanest wedge among the many we need decarbonize our energy economy.  Energy efficiency tends to cost just 1 to 3 cents per kWh saved, far less than even coal-fired generation.   Every renewable technology, from wind to solar, to biomass, has trade-offs.  At the very least, we have to decide if the energy we are using for one purpose is not better used for something else.

Energy efficiency is the exception to this rule: you can not use a kilowatt-hour or a BTU over and over again.  Given these advantages over generation, it’s amazing that energy efficiency is nevertheless so extremely cheap.  Given an even moderately efficient [pun intended] market, you would expect that all the cheap energy efficiency measures would long ago have been taken until the marginal price of the next efficiency measure was above the marginal price of added electricity generation.

So why hasn’t it? 

Why is TXU trying to build a half dozen coal fired power plants in the face of broad opposition from the community when, for a fraction of the cost, they could instead pay to help people insulate their homes, change to more efficient air conditioners, and replace energy efficient lighting and save as much power as they plan to generate with the coal plants without any cost for fuel and harm to the environment from mining and emissions?

For that matter, why don’t TXU’s customers (and the rest of us) take these steps ourselves, when the internal return on investment is many time what we can rationally hope to achieve in the financial markets, and in many cases is even higher than the interest borrowers with the worst credit ratings pay on their credit cards.  (Like most financial advisors, I hate debt, especially credit card debt, but even if you’re drowning in $30,000 of credit card debt at 25% APR, it still makes sense for you to buy a pack of CFL’s at $3 each on that high-interest credit card, and replace every incandescent light bulb in your house that you use more than 2 hours a day.)

Here’s a blog which does a good job outlining the usual answers: lack of financing, perverse incentives, and disinterest on the part of people for whom energy is only a tiny part of the budget (all of which are true.)  He goes on to outline perscriptions that will undoubtably help to break down the barriers to the adoption of many Energy Efficiency measures.

I see other barriers that lie behind these.  Not just a failure of normal market forces, but conceptual problems.   While energy in general is a fuzzy concept to most people, using less energy is even less tangible.  You just can’t drop energy efficiency on your foot.  You’re not even at risk of electricution from it.

The pernicious consequence of systems of measurement is always that things we can’t measure go unnoticed.  If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail, but even more insidiously, things that will never look like nails no matter how hard you squint dissappear from your vision altogether.  It is this psychological quirk that makes energy efficiency go unnoticed.

What image comes to your mind when I say “wind power”?  If you’re anything like me, you probably had a image of a forest of giant wind turbine blades turning gracefully on the horizon like ballet dancers.  Or, you might be like my wife, who would also have an image of a wind farm, but thinks they are ugly (although not so ugly as the haze from a distant coal plant) despite recognizing their necessity.  She wishes they were painted to camouflage them into the background.   Whatever your attitude towards wind power, you probably saw an image.

 Now try “energy efficiency.”  It’s a lot trickier, isn’t it?  I think about energy efficiency all the time, the way a teenage boy thinks about sex (okay, maybe not quite that much), and even I can’t settle on an image.  My mind flashes from the act of replacing an incandescent bulb with a compact fluorescent lightbulb (CFL) to an industrial scale combined heat and power facility, to closing the blinds at night to keep the heat in.

Not only is energy efficiency hard to picture, it’s also hard to measure.  To compute the energy savings from any activity, you have to establish a baseline: how much energy would you have used if you had not changed your methods.   Even in the simplest case of replacing a CFL, we don’t really know that the bulb we replace would really have stayed in the socket until the CFL breaks: A CFL can easily last 10 years, and by that time, we may be replacing all our bulbs with LEDs.  And that does not even begin to account for the effects on our HVAC systems.

Is your mind spinning?  That’s my point.  It can be so hard to get our minds around all the impacts of energy efficiency that, for most people, the most people, it may actually be rational to waste a little energy in order to avoid the headache that trying to get their mind around efficiency may entail.

The problem is, that decades of conserving brain power has left us as a society that wastes energy egregiously.

My prescriptions, designed to make thinking about efficiency easier:

  1. Measure energy use at every opportunity.  Many Prius drivers report that the real-time MPG gauge on the dash causes them to change their driving habits to grive more efficiently.  Getting a Kill-a-Watt energy meter makes us think more about our next electronics purchase.   Getting to know your electric meter can also motivate you to track down wasted energy.  A radical idea: on new homes, the electric meter should be inside, along with the circuit breakers.  New meters can be read (and even turned on and off) remotely, so there is no reason any longer to have them on the side of the house where we never see them. 
  2. Another thing we need to measure is when we use our electricity, not just how much.  Wholesale electricity prices can vary from a few cents per kWh to 30 cents or more during peak consumption.  As we move to a grid based on renewable energy supplies, most of which are intermittent and non-dispatchable, we need to get used to paying the real-time price of the energy we’re using.  Wide-spread adoption of time of use metering will drive the invention and adoption of appliances that can adapt themselves to changing prices.  There are direct, immediate benefits to the system by shaving peak loads, but the real benefits will come when people adopt new ways of doing things and new devices that will cause our appliances to run and our devices to charge when electricity is plentiful, and runonly the most essential uses of electricity when it is scarce.   Xcel is currently doing a pilot study on Time of Use Pricing in Colorado.  The preliminary result are that the right pricing scheme encourages customers to change their energy use much more than they had anticipated… but it still would not be “economic” to change out meters for more sophitocated models capable of handling this sort of billing.  Their definition of “economic” almost certainly does not include the benefits of the creativity which realistic pricing would unleash. 
  3. Allowing utilities to profit from selling less rather than more.  This concept, known as decoupling, is covered well here.  It’s important to remove (or even reverse) the incentive of utilites to sell us more electrons when we really want them to help us use less.

Finally, I do call this blog EE/RE Investing, so here are the sectors that I see benefiting from these recommendations as they are adopted:

  1. Companies selling advanced metering devices, and control systems that adapt to changing electric rates.
  2. Companies that sell building management systems.
  3. Energy storage technologies, such as as advanced batteries, flow batteries, and compressed air energy storage.
  4. Broadband over power lines technology, to handle the increased flow of information.

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Holistic Approaches to Energy Problems

H. L. Mencken said, “For every human problem, there is a neat, simple solution; and it is always wrong.”  When it comes to solving the problems of peak oil and global warming, I also think that the loudest barking is up the wrong tree.  We look for the quick fix, trying to find a substitute energy source that allows us to change the way we do things little as possible, when the real problem is actually what we’re doing, not how we’re doing it.   We need holistic solutions, not quick fixes.

Too abstract?  Here are some concrete examples:

 Problem: Peak Oil

Quick fixes: Ethanol and slight increases in vehicle efficiency standards.

Holistic solutions: Change our driving culture and infrastructure, by changing the way car use is priced from fixed charges to a per mile basis (“Pay as you drive”).   Removing subsidies to use cars when other forms of transport are available, and redesigning our cities to make them easier to get around on foot, bike, and public transport.  Like other holistic solution, all these steps increase safety and reduce congestion, reduce obesity and associated health problems, as well as reducing the use of gasoline.

Problem: Wind and Solar are intermittent resources, but coal produces too much CO2 and natural gas prices are rising rapidly.

Quick Fixes: Nuclear power and “Clean” Coal.

Holistic Solutions: Shift our demand for electricity to times when it is available, by using time of use pricing, energy storage and demand alignment, and distributed energy storage such as plug in hybrid vehicles.

Investing opportunities:On thing that’s striking about these examples is it’s much easier to find investment opportunities in the quick fixes than in the holitistic solutions.  To invest in ethanol, you can just buy ADM or one of the multitude of ethanol stocks that have been going public recently, but I have yet to come up with a satisfactory way to invest in better urban planning (except buy a house in a walkable community, which is something I’m planning on doing this summer.   Stapleton is the community.  I currently live there, but I’ve been renting and waiting for the end of the housing bubble.  I actually don’t think that housing is going to go up again any time soon, but I’m tired of waiting.) 

The investment landscape is a little better when it comes to energy management.  Itron and Siemens both have divisions that help utilities manage their grids better, and there are many battery and other energy storage companies to choose from.  Still, it’s a lot harder to pick through battery companies than to just buy a nuclear powered utility or uranium miner.

Holistic solutions, by their nature, have weak boundaries… the benefits tend to be diffuse, and spread over society as a whole, so it is difficult to charge fairly for them.  This, I think, is why there are so few companies pursuing them when they can pursue a quick fix that they can charge for up front.  

Companies have an obligation to their shareholders to make money.  It’s our job, as human beings, to work towards regulations that make it easier for companies to make money with holistic solutions that actually solve the problem than it is to make money with quick fixes that just cover the problem up.

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Energy’s Place in Economic Theory

I recently started studying for the second (in a series of three) CFA® examinations (I passed the first one last June.)  The CFA charter is a credential often used by stock analysts and money managers.  In addition to an industry work requirement, there are 3 tests, which are administered once a year, covering a curriculum including Statistics, Economics, Financial Theory, Ethical standards, markets and the like.    

I expect to study about 200 hours for the exam, which is in June. By the way, if there is anyone reading this in Denver who also is studying for the Level II exam, I’d be interested in getting together to work through some of the problems and share study materials.

I just finished a reading on theories of economic growth, a chapter from Economics by Michael Parkin, which is probably one of the best basic Economics text books out there.  It’s been a long time since I took an Economics course, and so I had forgotten how economic growth theory is taught.   

I was disappointed. 

Why?  Because the role of energy use in labor productivity is almost completely ignored. (Labor productivity is simply the sum of all economic activity divided by the number of hours worked.  Since the number of hours worked is relatively easy to measure, growth in labor productivity is the key factor which needs to be understood in order to understand economic growth.)  All three theories covered attempt to explain labor productivity through the interaction of two factors: the ratio of capital to labor employed, and technological change.  As a short aside, the role of energy use is given a slight nod, because the drop in productivity growth in the United States in the 1970s is attributed to the Energy Price Shocks of ’73-4 and ’79-80, in addition to a diversion of effort for coping with environmental problems.  To me, that sounds eerily familiar.  Those are precisely the same problems I expect the world will be trying to cope with for the next decade and beyond.   It’s not that economists as a whole fail to recognize the role of energy use in keeping our economy going.  For example, the effects of the recent rise in energy prices have been widely discussed, and many pessimists (myself among them) have been surprised at how little effect rising energy prices have had on the economy.   The explanation for the lesser effect on economic growth is that our economy has become (partly as the result of the ‘70s price shocks) much more efficient, requiring less energy per unit of GDP. What bothers me is that energy is dealt with as an aside, not as one of the major factors in determining economic growth.  For most of the 20th century, we were blessed with energy supplies which we could increase at will to meet increasing demand, so supply constraints were seldom a factor in determining the growth rate.  In a sense, economist theory is like military strategy: there is too much emphasis on figuring out how to win yesterday’s battles, not tomorrow’s.  Tomorrow’s economic battles, as I see them, will be learning to cope with diminishing supplies of fossil fuels.  Economists, who are the ones who will be helping society plan those battles, should be taught the role of energy in economic growth as part of their framework of understanding, not as an aside or afterthought.  This brings to mind the other aside in the chapter: The other cause given for the slowing of productivity growth in the 1970s was due to the expansion of laws and resources devoted to protecting the environment.  This is perhaps a graver weakness of economic dogma than the minor role for energy.  Because we measure only economic growth, and do not count natural resources like clean air and water among our assets, destruction of those assets is much more likely to be overlooked or minimized by policy makers than it would be otherwise.   This concept is known as Green GDP, and is still very much a fringe theory in economics, in large part because it is fiendishly tricky to measure accurately.  Unfortunately, what isn’t measured is usually ignored, and, like the unmeasured risk of terrorists flying airplanes in to skyscrapers, is likely to come back to haunt us in time.

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