- E. Coli Bacteria: What Doesn’t Kill Us, Makes Us Biofuel
- BrightSource Going Big on Energy Storage
- The Midwest’s Wind Energy Hub
- Will Demise of Euro Kill EU Climate Plans?
- Stanford Researchers Explore Large-Scale Renewable Energy Storage
- Germany vs. the UK on Nuclear Power
- U.S. Navy Conducts Its Largest Algae Biofuel Test Ever
Posted: 29 Nov 2011 04:28 PM PST
That notorious killer bacteria e. coli is making renewable biofuel hand over fist for researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy. Scientists based in DOE’s Joint BioEnergy Institute have tweaked a strain of the bug to munch on tough-to-digest switchgrass like it’s sugar candy, and the result is a process that yields not one biofuel but three: renewable gasoline, diesel and jet biofuel. Hey, it’s like the Ginsu Knife of biofuels, right down to the low-low price.
More Biofuels, Less Money
Cost competitiveness really is the bottom line for biofuels, and that’s where E. coli (short for of Escherichia coli) comes in. According to Jay Keasling, the CEO of the BioEnergy Institute, the new strain of bacteria will cut costs by eliminating expensive steps that are otherwise needed to break down the tough cell walls of woody plants like switchgrass, to get at the goodies inside. In a press statement, Keasling described the e. coli-fueled process as a “one pot operation.”
E. Coli and Biofuel Crops
If you recall the corn ethanol craze that marked the end of the previous president’s administration (okay, so George W. Bush – hey, whatever happened to that guy?), you may also recall that U.S. biofuel policy at the time helped to spur a global food crisis by diverting too much corn to refineries. President Obama’s administration has focused on a biofuel policy that emphasizes non-food biomass, which places a heavy load on switchgrass and other weedy or woody grasses and plants. The downside has been the extra expense of breaking down these tougher plants, and the new strain of E. coli offers a way out.
E. Coli Biofuels – But Wait, There’s More!
The new process packs in another benefit compared to corn-based biofuel refining. Corn starch yields ethanol, which don’t replace any commonly used transportation fuel entirely. That’s why you can’t get pure ethanol when you go to the gas station, only ethanol blends. The new strain of E. coli produces biofuel substitutes and precursor molecules that can produce gasoline as well as diesel and jet biofuel on a gallon-for-gallon basis.
How Do They Do It?
Writer Lynn Yarris at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (a partner in the BioEnergy Insititute) explains that conventional strains of E. coli bacteria can’t grow on switchgrass, so the research team engineered strains that express an enzyme enabling them to get nourishment from cellulose (the tough material in plant cell walls) and hemicelllose (a weaker substance also present in cell walls). With additional adjustments to the bacteria’s metabolic pathways, the team was able to produce the three biofuels. There is also one additional secret: the switchgrass was pretreated in a bath of molten salt to soften it up.
But Wait, There’s Green Jobs
A good chunk of the President’s biofuel policy is geared toward creating permanent green jobs in rural areas, helping small, far-flung communities achieve economic sustainability and civic stability. That’s a far cry from the temporary housing camps sprouting in the western U.S. where oil fields are booming. The oil money, apparently, is good for now but when those wells tap out, there goes the neighborhood.
Image: E.coli bacteria for biofuel courtesy of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
Follow on Twitter: @TinaMCasey
Posted: 29 Nov 2011 04:26 PM PST
BrightSource Energy is a leading solar thermal energy company. In California, it’s in the process of planning and building some of the largest solar thermal power plants in the world. (For more on its technology, see the last paragraph of this post. For more background, check out our BrightSource Energy page.)
Yesterday, the company announced that it is adding “its SolarPLUS thermal energy storage capability to three of its power purchase agreements with Southern California Edison (SCE).” It now has two solar thermal power plants scheduled to be finished and delivering energy in 2015, and three, with storage, scheduled to deliver electricity in 2016 and 2017. (And, BrightSource — with partners NRG Energy, Google, and Bechtel — are building a 126-megawatt plant for Southern California Edison at the Ivanpah solar project in southeast California).
Energy Storage Benefits
“By adding storage to its solar thermal power plants, BrightSource is able to further reduce the total cost of energy by increasing its capacity factor — how much power a plant produces over a year — extending the production of electricity into later parts of the day when it is most needed by utilities,” the company notes.
With the added storage capabilities, BrightSource doesn’t have to build an extra 200-megawatt solar power station (so, it will build six such power stations instead of seven). This will also save approximately 1,280 acres of desert land and will save utility customers money.
The added storage also cuts the need for additional power plants, including more costly coal and nuclear plants, and avoids variability and integration costs that solar PV and wind power face.
"With these agreements, we're demonstrating that power tower technology is not only advancing the solar thermal industry, but that utility-scale solar generation can be both cost effective and reliable," said John Woolard, President and CEO of BrightSource Energy.
Clean Energy Mix Moving Forward
Some argue that the benefits of rooftop PV beat the benefits of solar thermal power plants. Some argue wind power beats them both. Personally, I’m of the opinion that we need them all of them at this point, so I’m happy to see BrightSource and California moving forward with these pioneering projects.
More on BrightSource’s power plants:
“A BrightSource power tower solar thermal system uses a field of software-controlled mirrors called heliostats to reflect the sun's energy to a boiler atop a tower to produce high temperature and high pressure steam. The steam is used to turn a highly efficient steam turbine to produce electricity. When storage is added, the steam is directed to a heat exchanger, where molten salts are further heated to a higher temperature, thus efficiently storing the heat energy for future use. Later, when the energy in storage is needed, the heat stored in the molten salts is used to generate steam to run the turbine.”
Thanks to one of our great readers for the story tip!
Image via BrightSource
Posted: 29 Nov 2011 03:18 PM PST
The Department of Energy says the potential for wind power is greatest in middle America, where strong, steady breezes blow across the prairie. But the wind farms built there often have to send their electricity across several states to find the homes and businesses that need it. So how can energy from small-town wind turbines reach big city power sockets?
energyNOW! correspondent Lee Patrick Sullivan got a rare look inside the Midwest power grid's control room to meet the people harnessing wind's power and moving it across the nation. You can watch the full segment below:
The Fenton Wind Farm in Chandler, Minnesota embodies America's growing wind energy industry. It spans two counties of prime Midwest corn country and is an economic engine contributing $800,000 a year in taxes and fees, $500,000 in revenue to the 150 property owners leasing land for turbines, and employing 60 full-time technicians.
Each of the 1.5-megawatt GE turbines can power about 1,500 homes, and the entire farm generates enough electricity for 66,000 homes – more than 10 percent Minnesota's total electricity demand. But the in order to stay in business, all those electrons need to find their way to utility customers.
It's a tough task normally, because wind often blows strongest at night when electricity demand is lowest, and electricity must be consumed in real-time. But this is even tougher for this wind farm because it's hundreds of miles from the nearest major city. That's where the Midwest Independent System Operator, or MISO, comes into the picture.
MISO is one of the large regional operators managing the nation's grid, and the engineers who work there are like air traffic controllers for electricity – making sure supply meets demand at all hours of the day. "When you start to move renewable energy, particularly wind, into the system, that energy shows up when the wind blows, not when you may or may not need it," said Clair Moeller, MISO's Vice President of Transmission.
If MISO can't find a home for all the electricity on its system when wind is peaking, it may have to reduce output from other power plants, order wind farms to go offline (a process called curtailment), or enter a negative pricing situation where utilities pay people to use power. None of these options are ideal, says Moeller. "Finding a place to put it (wind power) is a much more desirable solution."
One solution has been routing the wind energy along transmission lines built as a backup, but the secondary system wasn't designed to carry large volumes of electricity. "We're using that emergency backup system to move great blocks of energy all the time," said Moeller. "That's fundamentally the problem." Two of the top five states in installed wind capacity are within MISO's footprint, and ten of the thirteen states within MISO have renewable portfolio standards that boost alternative energy generation.
Given current transmission constraints, adding all that new wind energy seems problematic for the grid operator. But MISO says long-term planning and coordination with all the utilities across its system will allow it to meet demand with generation, regardless of the source. "Whether it be 20 percent renewable, or whether it be what we have today, coal, gas, or nuclear, our job is simply to keep the lights on," said Richard Doying, MISO Vice President of Operations.
Posted: 29 Nov 2011 02:52 PM PST
With the impending implosion of the Euro – the single currency that binds all the member nations of the EU together – the climate policies that have been among the most comprehensive in the world, and have resulted in Europe meeting the 8% emissions drop needed for the Kyoto Protocol 2012 target several years early, are now at risk.
Just this summer, the European Commission announced that environmental policy and climate change action would be "mainstreamed" into all areas of the EU budget from 2014 to 2020, with climate-related expenditure making up at least 20% of EU financing: an extraordinary level of funding.
According to Environmental Finance, the Commission proposed that the EU budget for the next seven-year period which starts 2014 should rise to €1,025 billion ($1.48 trillion by the US count of billions/trillions) ramping up further from €975 billion in the current seven-year period, already nearly a trillion in US dollars.
This would include a ‘Connecting Europe Facility’ that would use "innovative financing tools", including project bonds to speed up investment in Europe's energy and transport networks, and help the integration of renewables into the electricity grid.
Likewise, the EU plans to commit higher levels of funding to the fight against climate change in developing countries and allocate €80 billion for research and innovation – with the energy sector being a key recipient of funds.
These proposals are only the start of a lengthy negotiation between member states and the European Parliament over the future EU spending plan.
But European environmental groups, who don’t know a good thing when they see it, apparently, were very dissatisfied with the proposed level of funding. Tony Long, director of the World Wildlife Fund for Europe said the Commission’s budget proposal "holds out the promise of some minor environmental advances but is largely business as usual for Europe".
Green NGOs had called for a level of funding along the lines of the US gearing up for World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbour. They were hoping for a ramp-up from the current seven year period level of funding to at least 35% of the EU budget to be used to tackle climate change in the final seven years till 2020. This is the deadline by which world global carbon emissions must begin to go down if we are to avoid very long term and irreversible catastrophic climate change.
Will Europe stay the course? A final agreement on the funding levels is expected at some point in 2012.
Posted: 29 Nov 2011 10:11 AM PST
One of the biggest hurdles for integrating renewable energy from solar or wind sources comes from the question of storage – how can power be stored for times when the wind doesn't blow or the skies are overcast?
Researchers at Stanford University are addressing this headlong and have reported the development of a new high-power electrode that is cheap, durable and efficient. If development continues as hoped, this discovery might potentially foster the manufacture of batteries large enough to provide for economical renewable energy storage on the grid.
Said electrode was made using crystalline nanoparticles from a copper compound, copper hexacyanoferrate. The atomic structure of the crystals found in the new electrode has an open framework that allows ions to move in and out without damaging the electrode.
Laboratory tests show this electrode survived 40,000 charging/discharging cycles. Following that activity, the electrode could still be charged to 80 percent of original capacity. By comparison, today's average lithium-ion battery can only handle approximately 400 charge/discharge cycles before deteriorating. And because the ions can move so freely, the charging and discharging cycles of the new electrode are extremely fast.
“At a rate of several cycles per day, this electrode would have a good 30 years of useful life on the electrical grid,” said Colin Wessells, lead author of the study and a graduate student in materials science and engineering.
Yi Cui, Wessells advisor and Stanford professor of science and materials engineering, added his perspective on the discovery: “That is a breakthrough performance – a battery that will keep running for tens of thousands of cycles and never fail.”
Energy density has been a major focus for researchers working to build better lithium-ion based batteries for use in portable electronic devices like mobile phones and laptop computers. Cost is also a huge factor in developing energy storage solutions for the grid.
As some of the components used in lithium-ion batteries are expensive, scaling them up to a point where they could be used in the power grid isn’t economical. Instead of the organic electrolyte used in lithium-ion batteries, The Stanford researchers used a water-based electrolyte, which Wessells says is “basically free.”
However, according to New Energy and Fuel, more development work needs to be undertaken on this project. As it turns out, the new electrode's chemical properties are only usable as a high voltage electrode. Batteries need two electrodes – a high-voltage electrode for the cathode and a low-voltage electrode for the anode – in order to create the voltage difference that produces electricity. Researchers will need to find another material to use for the anode before building an actual battery. The team reports they are already investigating various materials and have some promising candidates.
Posted: 29 Nov 2011 09:33 AM PST
While Germany and Japan are backing away from nuclear power, the United Kingdom is looking in completely the opposite direction – 8 new nuclear plants are scheduled to be built. As a close neighbor, Germany has a number of words on the topic (all of them polite, but not particularly flattering).
Germany's announcement of zero nuclear was prompted by the Sendai quake and the Fukushima nuclear meltdown last spring, as Clean Technica readers may remember, but those phase-out plans were already in place. The announcement gave rise to fears of insufficient power feeding into the grid anyway. However, Jochen Flasbarth, president of Germany's EPA, pretty much thinks the entire idea is ridiculous, and furthermore that nuclear power is not the answer to a stable power supply:
The Guys on the Other Side of the English Channel Are Wrong
As mentioned above, the U.K. is planning eight new nuclear reactors. Their citizens apparently have very little objection to this; according to a poll commissioned by the British Science Association in September, 41% of the respondents felt that nuclear power was beneficial or even desirable. A Globescan poll showed a 37% approval rating for nuclear power among respondents in the U.K. – which puts over a third of the population probably supporting the new plants.
To be perfectly fair, the U.K. also shows considerable support for renewable energy, and a number of wind energy projects are in the works. But apparently they feel the appropriate way to balance out the inevitable inconsistencies in power supply is with nuclear power, and Germany just does not feel the same way.
United We Stand, Divided We… Keep Nuclear Power?
Germany is, however, not entirely all of one mind. Despite Flasbarth's strong support for getting rid of buildings full of radioactive material and replacing them with green energy sources, other Germans – including Stephan Kohler, head of the German Energy Agency – aren't quite on board with the idea that renewable power will solve the problem. Juergen Grossmann, head of energy giant RWE, fears that energy prices will rise without nuclear power, and companies will abandon Germany: “The deindustralization won’t come all at once. It will be a gradual process,” he said.
Flasbarth feels that the initial cost of the new energy strategy will not only be less than some might fear but will also pay off in the long run:
No, the Nuclear Power Plants Have To Go
While some Germans are divided on the whole renewable energy thing, most of them are pretty sure that nuclear power is wrong. The opposition to wind and solar power is negligible when compared to those who want the nuclear plants gone for good.
The opposition to nuclear power isn't even a completely new phenomena – it's been going on since the 70s, when East and West Germans were really uncomfortable about the tons of nuclear weapons in their back yards. The thousands of protestors who held up anti-nuclear signs following the Fukushima incident must have felt that their worries had been totally validated, mirrored by those who protested months later in Japan.
So yeah, the Germans are politely but firmly telling the U.K. where to stick their new power plants and leading by example. It's a slightly chaotic and argumentative example, but I think it's a good one. Let me know what you think, in the comments below.
Posted: 29 Nov 2011 05:15 AM PST
The U.S. Navy has quietly tested 20,000 gallons of algae biofuel on a decommissioned destroyer, carrying on its mission of transitioning to renewable energy even as the end phase of the fossil fuel era begins to play out. Though oil fields are booming in the western U.S., the Keystone tar sands oil pipeline has stalled and natural gas drilling is roiling communities in other regions. Fossil fuels will be with us for a long time to come (we still burn wood, right?), but with the Defense Department giving them the cold shoulder they are on their way to marginalization.
A Big Test for Algae Biofuel
The new test involved a decommissioned destroyer reconfigured as a remote-controlled test ship, sailing out of NAVSUP Fleet Logistics Center San Diego. The idea was to see if a 50-50 blend of algae biofuel and standard marine petroleum fuel could be used as a drop-in replacement, without the need for any special equipment or procedures. As explained by the Logistics Center’s fuel officer, Cmdr. Frank Kim:
“We use the same types of trucks, hoses and other pierside equipment to transfer the fuel, and no modifications are required either from a fueling perspective or on the shipboard side. It’s going to be pretty amazing to see where these fuels take us in the future.”
A New Green Fleet for the U.S. Navy
The test is part of the Navy’s Green Fleet initiative, which calls for shipping out an entire fleet running on alternative fuels by 2016, with a locally-operating Green Strike Force in the water by 2012. The fleet will also rely on nuclear energy which may disappoint some clean energy fans, but after all this is the military and the Navy’s main goal is to keep itself at peak fighting capability.
Support Our Troops…With Alternative Energy
Despite the efforts of some Republican legislators to resist integrating the U.S. renewable energy industry into the national defense landscape, the Department of Defense is full-on committed to freeing itself from the logistical and financial constraints of an outdated fuel supply. That’s nothing new or controversial given the U.S. military’s long running tradition of glomming on to cutting edge technology. For that matter, an entire branch of the armed services – the Air Force – was birthed by transformational technology just a few generations ago. Take away the oil-fueled politics and all you have is the Pentagon’s need to stay one jump ahead of the competition.
Follow on Twitter: @TinaMCasey
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