Author Archives: Margot Gerritsen

Japan’s nuclear dilemma

Six months since the Fukushima disaster and Japan is still in the midst of a nuclear crisis. After the earthquake and tsunami, and resulting problems at the Fukushima plant, Japan has shut down the majority of its nuclear power stations. For a country that relies heavily on nuclear power for its electricity this is nothing short of an economic disaster. The Japanese government will not re-activate the power plants until all have been cleared. For a while, rumors were that Japan may be shutting down nuclear power stations permanently, but that is not yet clear.

To compensate for the reduction in output, Japan is forced to import oil-fuel and natural gas. The increased fossil fuel demands seem to be mostly met by Qatar, Australia and the Arab states.

To avoid paying huge sums for imported fossil fuels, the Japanese government is working hard to reduce demand in the country. Industry has already cut its energy use by 20%. This is an astonishing drop. Naturally, companies are looking at alternative energy generation and/or movement of their operations overseas. For an economy already fragile, the latter is very disconcerting. Although there is a strong push to build renewable plants now, it will be some time before they could replace nuclear plants.

Japan is not the only country that is re-considering nuclear energy. Germany has moved to close its nuclear plants permanently. It is rather interesting because it is not yet clear from where Germany will get its replacement power. Ironically, the two main options are electricity from coal-fired power plants in, for example, Poland, and electricity generated by nuclear power in France.
Other large users of nuclear power have not as yet changed their views. India, China and Russia will not revise their nuclear programs. I wonder if France will, but I do not think that even today’s nuclear accident will make a difference.

In the meantime, Japan is in dire straits.

Learn by osmosis… and extract some energy

Energy can be extracted from all sorts of physical processes. That wind can provide energy is very intuitive. So is solar heating. Solar PV takes a bit more to understand, but we’ve all seen it in action. Tidal energy extraction? Also fine. Biomass energy? Understandable.

What baffles the mind a bit more though is extracting energy from salinity gradients. It has been studied for some time. For example, Dr. Wick, from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, wrote a paper titled “Power from Salinity Gradients” in the 70s. In these earlier concepts, osmotic pressure was utilized, but costs and lack of robustness of the devices kept them from being commercialized.

Statkraft demonstration plant

More than 30 years later, the idea is revisited. The Norwegian company Statkraft built a first demonstration plant to generate energy from osmosis in 2009. It’s been a little quiet around them, but they are still hoping to open a large scale plant in the next decade. Osmosis is the transport of water through a semi-permeable membrane. Plants use osmosis, for example, to absorb moisture through their leaves. Our body cells use osmosis all the time for transfer of fluids. In an osmotic power plant,  fresh water and salt water are channelled into separate chambers. The chambers are separated by an artificial membrane that is good at passing through water, but not at passing through solutes like salt. Now comes the interesting part: the fresh water will be pushing through the membrane to the saltier side. This leads to an increase in pressure on the salt water side of the membrane. How much depends on the quality of the membrane. If the membrane is really good at drawing through the fresh water, the pressure difference thus obtained may be large enough to drive an actual turbine. Statkraft and other companies have invested a lot of money in developing ever better membranes and seem to be getting somewhere.

But, there are other ways to exploit salinity gradients. My colleague Yi Cui from Materials Science and Engineering at Stanford recently demonstrated a new technique. It’s nice and uses batteries rather than membranes. The following explanation of the mechanism was recently described in the Stanford Report.

The battery itself is simple, consisting of two electrodes – one positive, one negative – immersed in a liquid containing electrically charged particles, or ions. In water, the ions are sodium and chlorine, the components of ordinary table salt. Initially, the battery is filled with freshwater and a small electric current is applied to charge it up. The freshwater is then drained and replaced with seawater. Because seawater is salty, containing 60 to 100 times more ions than freshwater, it increases the electrical potential, or voltage, between the two electrodes. That makes it possible to reap far more electricity than the amount used to charge the battery. “The voltage really depends on the concentration of the sodium and chlorine ions you have,” Cui said. “If you charge at low voltage in freshwater, then discharge at high voltage in sea water, that means you gain energy. You get more energy than you put in.” Nice. Once the discharge is complete, the seawater is drained and replaced with freshwater and the cycle can begin again.

The cycle that generates electricity in Cui’s new battery. In their lab experiments, Cui’s team used seawater they collected from the Pacific Ocean off the California coast and freshwater from Donner Lake, high in the Sierra Nevada. They achieved 74 percent efficiency in converting the potential energy in the battery to electrical current, but Cui thinks with simple modifications, the battery could be 85 percent efficient. 

To enhance efficiency, the positive electrode of the battery is made from nanorods of manganese dioxide. That increases the surface area available for interaction with the sodium ions by roughly 100 times compared with other materials. The nanorods make it possible for the sodium ions to move in and out of the electrode with ease, speeding up the process.

Why are they even interested? Cui’s team calculated that if all the world’s rivers were put to use, their batteries could supply about 2 terawatts of electricity annually – that’s roughly 13 percent of the world’s current energy consumption. But, Cui realizes that river mouths and estuaries, while logical sites for their power plants, are environmentally sensitive areas. The good thing about his device is that it just needs to route some of the river water through the system. A power plant operating with 50 cubic meters of freshwater per second could produce up to 100 megawatts of power, according to the team’s calculations. That would be enough to provide electricity for about 100,000 households. After use, the water is simply returned. The process itself should have little environmental impact.

The water used does not have to be clean fresh water, and this is one thing I really like about Cui’s device. Storm runoff would be useable and maybe even sewage water might work.

Loan guarantees are a no-brainer

In one of our previous posts

, we discussed the House Continuing Resolution sections that called for a stop on loan guarantee programs for large scale renewable energy projects. Today, 34 CEOs of renewable energy companies wrote to House and Senate leaders to protest against this proposal. They say the loan guarantee program will help create tens of thousands of jobs and generate billions of dollars in investment from the private sector. Of course it will. Moreover, without a loan guarantee program it simply cannot happen.

I’ve had various arguments in the last weeks with people about this. “Unfair treatment of renewable energy over traditional (fossil fuel) energy” is the most heard argument against such loan guarantees. Of course, this is a crazy statement to make. All industries receive government support in forms of loan guarantees, tax subsidies, hidden tax subsidies, accelerated depreciation programs, stimulus programs, you name it. The oil, gas and coal industry certainly receive their fair share. In fact, I’d argue that at this point in time, the renewable energy industry is not at all yet at a level playing field with the established fossil fuel industry. The price tag for large scale renewable energy projects over the duration of their lifetime is nearly fully determined by capital costs: fuel is free. If a company cannot get a decent loan, with a decent interest rate, the price of the renewable energy resource will go up and its competitiveness will go down. Is it fair that large scale solar plants cannot get the same interest rates as a nuclear power plants, or coal-fired power plants? Typically rates are determined by perceived risk. Here’s a catch 22. The current perceived risk is high because we have little experience with large scale renewable power plants. But, if as a result, the capital costs remain unfairly high, we will never get this experience.

A governmental loan guarantee eases the discomfort that financial institutions may have with lending money to “risky” businesses. The guarantee means that the government agrees to pay part of the money owed to lenders if a company defaults. The government itself estimates a risk associated with the loan guarantee. Suppose that a plant will cost 2 billion dollars to construct. The government could, say, provide a loan guarantee for 80% of this capital investment, and decide that it needs to actually put aside 10% of this 80% for each project as insurance against the loan guarantee, so 160 million dollars. The higher this insurance set-aside is, the harder it is to convince congress to put the loan guarantee up. But, ultimately all it is is a perception. There is little base in numbers, because there are so few numbers.

In short, without a loan guarantee program, we will in the current economic climate not get anywhere with large scale renewables. Besides, the chief executives also say, the cuts would “defeat America’s effort to compete with China, Germany and others in the clean technology marketplace.”

Together, the companies these 34 CEOs represent have already invested $13.3 billion dollars in projects that are being considered for the loan guarantee program and should break ground before the end of September. The projects are in 28 states, and will create an estimated 25,000 construction and operating jobs. Companies include solar panel maker First Solar Inc (FSLR.O: Quote), solar thermal company BrightSource Energy, solar panel maker SunPower Corp (SPWRA.O: Quote), geothermal power company U.S. Geothermal Inc (HTM.A: Quote) and biofuels maker POET, among others.

I’m hoping this CEO plea will help. Particularly now that nuclear energy is being seen by many as a no-no, and we will (tomorrow) be commemorating the anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, it seems like such a crazy idea to halt large scale renewable projects and kill this industry before it even has a chance.

For sale, for cheap: Clever ideas in energy innovation

The wee town of Startup, Snohomish County, Washington State

If you have a little cash, an entrepreneurial drive and an interest in energy, but you lack the innovative idea of your new start-up, shop around at the Department of Energy. This week, our Secretary of Energy Steve Chu announced a new program, part of the Startup America Initiative, called “America’s Next Top Energy Innovator“. OK, cute play on America’s Next Top Model, although perhaps not as appealing to the general public. Here’s the deal: for a little money ($1000) you can obtain an option agreement to license a patent held by one of our 17 national laboratories. In the past, this would have cost anywhere between $10,000 and $50,000. So, the new deal is a bargain. There is more though: filing is made much easier with a streamlined online process, and DoE will even help you promote your new business idea to potential investors at the 3rd Annual ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit in 2012, as well as give you access (at some costs for some time) to national research laboratories. The announcement boasts that there are 15,000 unlicensed patents and patent applications on the books to choose from. That sounds like a nice well-stocked ideas stop. The Department hopes that through this simpler and much cheaper process, more startups will be formed based on innovative ideas developed using federal support. In fact, its goal is to double the number of new startups.

It all sounds terrific at first. I’m all for stimulating market innovation. We are in danger of loosing the battle with other countries in this area and, like many others, I’m concerned about our industrial competitiveness in renewable energy, energy efficiency and carbon emission reduction schemes.  Without stimulus, we may become dependent on other countries, such as Japan and China that are investing very strongly and at increasing rate, for our clean energy innovations. Patent applications are telling. Globally around 20,000 new patents are filed per year in the energy area. US patents account for around 4-5% of total, which is less than the annually than patents filed by countries like China and Japan. Applicants from Japan accounted for the largest number of applications in the fields of solar energy and fuel cells.  In the last decade, Japan filed over 40% of the patents in this area, with China 13%, the US 12% and Germany 6%, approximately. Germany and Japan were the top two countries of patent origin for wind energy technologies in that same time period. Of course it is not only the number of patents that counts, but also the quality of them. And it is (still) true that the number of citations, a measure of the innovation level of a patent application, is much higher for US patents at this moment than for Chinese patents, say, but this advantage is also shrinking over time.

So, it seems like a great idea, this ANTEI (aye, bad acronym) program. But, can we expect it, though announced with a lot of trumpeting, to achieve much? It’s hard to gauge. First of all, how many startups are formed now? I could not find the statistics. The Department does mention that at the moment only 10% of all available patents are licensed. I take it those are the good ones. Would there still be pearls amongst the remaining unlicensed patents, and was it really the higher fee and more arduous application process that kept savvy entrepreneurs away?  If so, these changes are certainly welcome. But more importantly, how many of these startups formed are actually successful in bringing innovation to the marketplace? And would the program really make a difference in this successrate, which is what really matters?

If you’ve ever tried to launch a successful startup, you know that strength of the underlying innovation is only one factor deciding your successrate. Especially in energy. Market penetration is particularly difficult because of large established players. Margins are relatively small. Competition is fierce, also international competition. And, moreover, the market is highly dependent on economic policies that are not always steady.

It seems to me that we need much, much more than this Next Top EI (hey, that’s funny, “ei” in Dutch means “egg” – Next Top Egg program!) to successfully launch more US startups in energy innovation. We need to help create the market. A carbon tax, or consistent and clear carbon trading, would help. Clear consistent policies on tax credits as well as loan guarantees would help. And of course, if we are wanting to tap more into clever ideas generated through governmental research support, we should keep supporting that kind of research, rather than constantly reduce its level of funding.

Burton Richter’s blunt honest commentary on energy politics

When we interviewed Burton Richter on nuclear energy two weeks ago, just before the Japan earthquake, we ended up talking a fair bit about energy politics in the US. I always enjoy asking Burton about his views on DC and you will understand why when you listen to his views on some of the current political actions or non-actions. Who else would refer to the House Continuing Resolution as a China Advancement Bill of 2011?  He’s got a very good point there.

Check out Burton’s book Beyond Smoke and Mirrors also, and let us know what you think.

Meanwhile, in the rest of the world…

This week was very unusual with the strong focus on the Japanese nuclear crisis and the reactions to it in the US and abroad. I thought it would be nice to go on a little trip around the world and look at what’s been happening lately elsewhere in the world of energy, and in particular renewable energy. Come along on a wee tour!

What's happening in A. China, B. India, C. Romania, D. Scotland and E. South Africa

China. Driven by great concerns about pollution and associated health costs, as well as the urgent need to grow energy production domestically to still its ever growing hunger for fuel and electricity, China is boosting renewable energy and moving from coal to gas. It hopes to double gas consumption in the next 4 years. Gas will be supplied primarily by Russia, Turkmenistan and also Australia. By 2015 gas should account for 8% of total energy. In the meantime, wind, solar, hydro and nuclear will grow from the current 8 percent of total energy to 11 percent. These numbers seem relatively low, but they are not. For nuclear energy it means building 40GW of new power, tripling current capacity. New hydropower will add 120GW to the mix.

Romania. Romania, not particularly known for wind energy production, has started the construction of what will be the largest land-based wind farm in Europe. The 600MW plant in the town of Fantanele will have 120 turbines rated each at 2.5MW. Fantanele does not consider wind a NIMBY (Not In My BackYard). On the contrary: each turbine in the backyard brings 400o US dollars in the back pocket of the landowner. A windfall indeed for most people there who typically receive little more than 1000 US dollar in income per year.

Scotland. Islay is better known for its (very tasty) whiskeys, but has received some attention recently as the site of a large new tidal energy project. The Scottish government approved the installation of ten turbines that will supply power to around 500o homes (and perhaps a few distilleries?).

South Africa. South Africa’s government just approved a plan to increase both renewable and nuclear energy. South Africa relies strongly on coal, like China, but it wants over 40 percent of new energy production to come from renewables. Energy is a charged issue in South Africa after the huge blackouts the country experienced in its summer of 2008.




What went wrong and what went right in Fukushima

A quick link to a good overview/opinion piece in the Economist

The real disaster in Japan: tsunami wreaking death and destruction

today about Fukushima. Nearly a week after the start of this nuclear nail-biter, it looks like the severe catastrophe people feared early on will not happen. At this stage, there is not a large scale health crisis. Local radiation levels (very near the plant) spiked and no doubt a group of people has been or will be affected by the exposure. This is very regrettable and sad. But, thank goodness, Fukushima is not a second Chernobyl.


There is fear still amongst the general population, here as well as in Japan. With the conditions as they are, we do not run any risks. Even if radio-active gases are blown in our direction, by the time any of them reaches our shores, the radio-active levels will be so low that it won’t affect anyone. Remember that we are exposed to radiation every day: the earth is radio-active. We also happily submit ourselves to X-rays and CT-scans. Whatever can reach us at this stage, will add just a tad, if anything, to our normal background radiation exposure. So, you can fully relax about it. Also in Japan, outside the safety zone, there is currently no need for concern. Radiation levels measured in Tokyo are a bit above normal, again not posing any threats at this stage.

Many people find nuclear energy scary. You cannot see it, cannot smell it, the science behind is is hard to understand and perhaps too closely related to nuclear weapons, and the radiation exposure can lead to cancer, which is also a very scary illness. But put all the dramatic news coverage about Fukushima in some perspective. This is an industrial disaster, not a large scale health crisis. The real crisis at the moment is with the people who suffered the tsunami, the high death toll, the displaced and those without sufficient food and water who try to survive in the shelters.