March 30, 2014

Wind energy booming in the Midwest

"It's an economic boom for the county the likes of which we've never seen before," said Rodd Holtkamp, a Primghar banker and member of the county economic development board. 

There currently are no commercial wind turbines in O'Brien County, Iowa, but that's about to change in a big way.

MidAmerican Energy Co. broke ground in November on a 500 megawatt wind farm, the largest single site in Iowa history. It calls for 218 wind turbines spread out over 70,000 acres near the O'Brien County seat of Primghar.

Dubbed the Highland Wind Energy project, it’s part of a $1.9 billion expansion of Iowa's wind generating capacity that the Des Moines utility announced last year.

The foundation work for the Highland turbines started last fall and should be done by the end of the year, with the turbines and the more than 650 blades set to go up by the end of 2015, MidAmerican spokeswoman Tina Potthoff said.

MidAmerican, owned by Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway, also is scheduled to begin work late this year on a high-voltage overhead transmission line that will start in northern O'Brien County, near Sanborn, and head east along the Highway 18 corridor into neighboring Clay County. The line is among several so-called “multi-value projects,” or MVPs, designed to alleviate congestion on the region's electric grid and provide a better route for sending Iowa and Minnesota wind power to the east.

Potthoff said the MVP 3 line will serve as a secondary line for the O'Brien County wind farm, which initially will connect to an existing line running diagonally through the county. Construction of a substation for the MVP line is scheduled to begin this year.

Another major high-voltage transmission line, called the Rock Island Clean Line, also is slated to start in O'Brien, just southeast of Sanborn. The 500-mile line will export 3,500 megawatts of wind-generated electricity -- three times more energy than the Hoover Dam -- from Northwest Iowa and bordering states to power-hungry customers in metro Chicago and other large cities to the east.

The developer, Houston-based Clean Line Energy, is awaiting approval from regulators in Iowa and Illinois before going ahead with the direct current line. The company estimates the line to be in service in 2017 following about two years of construction that would begin as early as next year in O'Brien.

Clean Line projects the $2 billion project will create 2,000 construction jobs and 500 permanent jobs, as well as spur development of 1,000 to 2,000 wind turbines within a 100-mile radius of the county.

At least three other companies are looking to develop wind-related projects in O'Brien but are not as far along in the process as Clean Line and MidAmerican, County Economic Development Director Kiana Johnson said.

California-based Eurus Energy has secured easements from landowners between Highways 60 and 59 for a wind farm called Hawkeye Point. The development is still in the planning stages, said Rich Crawford, a consultant working on the project.

Chicago-based Invenergy LLC, which developed the Highland Wind project and then sold it to MidAmerican last year, is working on a second project at a yet-to-be announced site in O'Brien County, Johnson said.

Charlotte, N.C.-based Duke Energy, the nation's largest electric power utility, in a joint venture with American Transmission Co., is developing transmission lines to move wind-generated power more easily. One route is slated to run through far eastern O'Brien, with construction starting as early as 2016, Johnson said.


More than a decade ago, wind energy developers started scouting potential sites in O'Brien, which lies on the southern tip of the Buffalo Ridge, an ancient glacial formation stretching into southwest Minnesota that's known for its consistent strong winds. But the early initiatives stalled because of the bottleneck in the region's electric grid, Johnson said.

"That was the holdup all these years. There was nowhere to go if they did build it," she said.

Under the current schedules, construction on the Rock Island Clean Line and the MidAmerican line and wind farm would overlap beginning in 2015. At the peak, hundreds, if not thousands, of construction workers could be on site.

Skilled laborers from around the country are expected to flock to the rural county of around 14,000 to fill the temporary jobs.

"We are trying to prepare, but we really don't know what all to expect," Johnson said. "Housing will definitely be an issue for everybody. It will greatly impact all of Northwest Iowa, not just O'Brien County."

With the Highland project underway, the few hotels in the county already are starting to fill up. Some local residents are renting rooms in their homes to out-of-town workers. Others laborers are commuting daily to O'Brien County from larger cities such as Sioux City and Sioux Falls.

The workers are expected to spend money on everything from lodging and meals to fuel and clothing, giving local merchants a healthy boost in sales.

"The trickle-down of those dollars going through the community time and time again is just going to be amazing," said Holtkamp, executive vice president at Primghar Savings Bank.

The economic benefits would extend well beyond O'Brien. Clean Lean, for example, recently agreed to buy $200 million worth of utility poles from Sabre Industries, contributing to job growth at Sabre's factory in Sioux City.

When up and running, the wind farms and transmission lines are projected to create hundreds of permanent jobs in the region, mostly in sectors that would support and service the new wind farms, such as makers of towers, blades and other turbine components.

Clean Line anticipates hiring a handful of full-time workers to maintain a  station that would convert the wind power from AC to DC before sending it on the transmission line. The convertor station would be built at a cost of $250 million to $300 million, said Beth Conley, manager of the Rock Island Clean Line.


The slew of wind-related infrastructure also would generate millions of dollars in additional property taxes for local governments, as well as produce a new cash crop for local farmers like Haack, who has granted MidAmerican easements for two wind turbines on one of his farms.

Haack said he would collect annual payments of around $9,000 for each turbine and a service road.

The Rock Island Clean Line is offering to compensate owners for the value of their land, plus an additional structure payment, based on the number and type of poles or towers. Owners have a choice of a one-time payment or an annual upfront payment. For two poles and a half-mile-long, 145-foot-wide right of way, an owner would collect a one-time payment of about $100,000, Conley said. 

Farmers retain ownership and the right to till the land under both the lines and turbines.

Haack heads a newly formed landowners association that backs all the wind projects and offers legal assistance to guide dues-paying members through the negotiations with developers looking to build in the county.

A smaller vocal group of landowners is opposed to the Rock Island Clean Line. Critics fear Iowa's eminent domain law for utilities would allow Clean Line to force a sale and easement even if the landowners aren’t willing to sell.

But fifth-generation O'Brien County farmer Jay Hofland said he strongly supports the transmission line, which would pass less than a half-mile from his rural home. Hofland said the lofty job prospects helped convince him to option farmland for the Clean Line convertor station near Sanborn.

"We do not do a very good job of keeping our young people around here, Hofland said. "I'm hoping that through this economic development my sons or some other young people in the community can stick around and gain from these jobs."

Hofland said the county has the potential to generate far more wind power than its own residents would ever use.

"As a farmer, I sell hogs, cattle and corn and soybeans," he said. "We export all of those things. I'm strongly behind exporting some wind energy out of this area. It's another energy stream and it's a good opportunity." [Sioux City Journal]

Chipotle warns no more gaucamole if climate change gets worse

It’s your choice, America. Fix the climate, or the guac gets it.

Chipotle Inc. is warning investors that extreme weather events “associated with global climate change” might eventually affect the availability of some of its ingredients. If availability is limited, prices will rise — and Chipotle isn’t sure it’s willing to pay.

“Increasing weather volatility or other long-term changes in global weather patterns, including any changes associated with global climate change, could have a significant impact on the price or availability of some of our ingredients,” the popular chain, whose Sofritas vegan tofu dish recently went national, said in its annual report released last month. “In the event of cost increases with respect to one or more of our raw ingredients we may choose to temporarily suspend serving menu items, such as guacamole or one or more of our salsas, rather than paying the increased cost for the ingredients.”

Chipotle did say that it recognizes the pain it (and its devotees) would have to go through if it decided to suspend a menu item. “Any such changes to our available menu may negatively impact our restaurant traffic and comparable restaurant sales, and could also have an adverse impact on our brand,” the filing read.

The guacamole operation at Chipotle is massive. The company uses, on average, 97,000 pounds of avocado every day to make its guac — which adds up to 35.4 million pounds of avocados every year. And while the avocado industry is fine at the moment, scientists are anticipating drier conditions due to climate change, which may have negative effects on California’s crop. Scientists from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, for example, predict hotter temps will cause a 40 percent drop in California‘s avocado production over the next 32 years. [Climate Progress]

5 reasons we know extreme weather events are increasing

2002, 2003, 2006, 2007, 2010 

Those are the 5 hottest summers in European history between 1500 and 2010. 
The 5 coldest summers in European history? 1695, 1821, 1888, 1902, 1923
See the trend? 

European summer temperatures for 1500–2010. Vertical lines show the temperature deviations from average of individual summers, the five coldest and the five warmest are highlighted. The grey histogram shows the distribution for the 1500–2002 period with a Gaussian fit shown in black. That 2010, 2003, 2002, 2006 and 2007 are the warmest summers on record is clearly not just random but a systematic result of a warming climate. 

The European heat wave of 2003 may not have destroyed any buildings – but it is well documented that it caused about 70,000 fatalities. This is the type of event for which the probability has increased by a factor of five due to global warming – and is likely to rise to a factor twelve over the next thirty years. 

In a 2011 paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy, the authors calculated the expected number of monthly heat records based the observed gradual changes in climate. The paper determined that we should experience five times the number of heat records with 1 degree of warming versus the number expected in a stationary climate. This is exactly what we are seeing. 

I calculated the probability that the 5 hottest summers in 510 years all came from the last decade. The odds would be less than 1 in a billion if we were in a stable climate! 

I've been thinking a lot about what standards we should use for designing resilient buildings that are capable of handling these types of extreme weather events. 

This paper would suggest that our building design decisions may actually save lives. If heat waves, like the European heat wave of 2003 that killed 70,000 people, are going to be 12x more likely over the next 30 years – how should we design our buildings so they are able to maintain healthy temperatures at affordable costs when the extreme heat waves hit here at home? 

March 23, 2014

Sun Edison sells solar electricity for 5 cents a kWh

City-owned utility Austin Energy is about to sign a 25-year PPA (power purchase agreement) with Sun Edison for 150 megawatts of solar power at “just below” 5 cents per kilowatt-hour. The power will come from two West Texas solar facilities, according to reports in the Austin American-Statesman. According to reports, around 30 proposals were at prices near SunEdison’s. Austin Energy has suggested that the PV deal will slightly lower rates for customers.
This is one of the lowest, if not the lowest, reported prices for contracted solar that we have seen. Last year, First Solar (FSLR) entered a 25-year PPA in New Mexico for 50 megawatts of solar power at 5.79 cents per kilowatt-hour. That number included a significant PTC (production tax credit) from the state. The Macho Springs project, the Austin project and most solar projects of this nature rely on the 30 percent federal Investment Tax Credit.
Austin Energy’s net sub-five cent price does not include any state PTC, according to Monty Humble of energy development firm Brightman Energy. He said that the utility was “to be commended” for this solicitation. Humble added, “Based on our analysis, it can be done. There’s not a whole lot of profit in it, but it’s not a loss leader. It’s a legitimate bid.”
GTM Solar Analyst Cory Honeyman points out that “new PPAs signed in North Carolina fetched prices between 4.5 and 5 cents per kilowatt-hour.” Like Macho Springs, those projects could also take advantage of an in-state tax credit to make the economics work. Honeyman said that none of the projects in Georgia or North Carolina were larger than 20 megawatts, so 5 cents does seem like “an unprecedented low for large-scale projects.”
Bret Kadison, COO of Austin-based Brazos Resources, an energy investment firm, said this was “a highly competitive solicitation.” Although historically, “Texas hasn’t been a hotbed of solar, you’re starting to see that change. ERCOT needs the generation.”
He expects to see more solar activity “not just as a green source of energy, but as an affordable source of energy. Texas is seeing economic growth, but the power grid has not kept pace.” Kadison added, “When you think about the volatility of natural gas, a 25-year PPA starts to look pretty attractive.”
Kadison notes, “This is below the all-in cost of natural gas generation, even with low fuel prices and before factoring in commodity volatility and cost overruns.” He also points out that the original RFP was for 50 megawatts, but the utility ended up buying 150 megawatts “in a red state where hydrocarbons dominate the political landscape.” Kadison suggests that “one of the biggest cost reduction drivers that allowed solar to reach this parity came from the massive reduction in financing costs.”
The 5-cent price falls below Austin Energy’s estimates for natural gas at 7 cents, coal at 10 cents and nuclear at 13 cents. The utility points out that it approved a 16.5-cent price for the Webberville solar plant in 2009.
Austin Energy has a 35 percent renewable energy resource goal by 2016 and a solar goal of 200 megawatts by 2020. The utility is currently at about 25 percent, much of it made up by its 850 megawatts of wind.
Humble of Brightman Energy said, “I expect that this will force a lot of players to reexamine their approach and get far more aggressive. Because of the size of the ERCOT market and the size of the state, Texas is potentially the largest solar market in the country.” According to GTM Research’s 2013 U.S. SMI report, Texas ranked 8th in the nation with 75 megawatts installed in 2013.
GTM’s Honeyman notes, “This is the second major announcement in which a utility has stated plans to procure more than 100 megawatts of solar PV based on its cost-competitiveness with natural gas, as opposed to RPS-driven demand.” [Renew Economy]

IEA says integrating up to 45% renewable energy quite cost effective

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has released a report concluding that integration of large amounts of renewable energy can be achieved by any country at only a small increase on whole-system costs, compared with the current fossil-fuel-heavy electricity systems.

Making the conclusion even more startling is the fact that the IEA used present-day costs for solar PV and wind, with the two most widely deployed renewable energy technologies set to provide the bulk of the generating capacity in these transformed electricity systems.

While renewable energy is often blamed for driving electricity prices up and having a costly destabilizing affect on electricity grids, the IEA says that integration of renewables into electricity grids and markets can be done so at little cost. 

For the first 5 percent to 10 percent of what it calls variable renewable energy (VRE, essentially wind and solar), the IEA says this poses no technical or economic challenges at all. Even for higher levels of up to 45 percent penetration, the reports says it would cost only 10 percent to 15 percent more than the status quo.

"Based on a thorough assessment of flexibility options currently available for renewable energy integration, a major finding of this publication is that large shares of variable renewable energy (up to 45% in annual generation) can be integrated without significantly increasing power system costs in the long run." [IEA]

One way to encourage public transportation

You can see the Eiffel Tower -
if you look carefully
Paris imposed a ban on 50% of all cars in the center of the city as a way of lowering severely unhealthy levels of smog. 

Cars with odd numbered plates will drive on odd numbered days - Cars with even numbered plates will be allowed to drive on even numbered days.  Fines will be 22 Euros for anyone driving on the wrong day. 

According to the European Environment Agency (EEA), Belgium, Germany, and France all faced dangerous levels of air pollution with three quarters of France recording PM10 concentrations above the 50 micrograms per cubic meter legal limit. [Business Green

Electric Buses Pleasing Passengers

A large, 60-foot electric bus has been running for almost two weeks in Sao Paulo, Brazil where it has transported over 135,000 passengers since hitting the road. The electric buses are quiet, fuel-free, and reduce air and greenhouse gas pollution.

The bus, which can hold 124 passengers and travel 125 miles without recharging, is winning over local approval for its quietness and international approval for being environmentally friendly. The battery-powered buses do not require cables, as is the basis for the electric trolleybuses that use the city’s grid.

“The bus is super-healthy for the planet and can do its job almost like diesel-fueled models, thanks to its recharge technology and use of energy,” Ivan Regina, manager of the Sao Paulo state government Transport Planning, Technological Development and Environment unit, told Efe.

From a climate and environmental perspective, the battery-powered bus is a clear leader.
“The battery-powered bus has all the flexibility of diesel and does not emit greenhouse gases,” said Ivan Regina, the Planning and Projects manager for the EMTU. “It is a dream bus.” [Climate Progress

Duke Energy illegally dumping coal ash

Duke personnel using a portable water pump
to empty its coal ash pond. 
North Carolina regulators on Thursday cited Duke Energy for illegally and deliberately dumping 61 million gallons of toxic coal ash waste into a tributary of the Cape Fear River, which provides drinking water for several cities and towns in the state.

The incident marks the eighth time in less than a month that the company has been accused of violating environmental regulations. The North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) said Duke — notorious for the February Dan River disaster which saw 82,000 tons of coal ash released into state waters — was taking bright blue wastewater from two of its coal ash impoundments and running it through hoses into a nearby canal and drain pipe.

Fake Tesla Ad is a lot of fun

This fake Tesla advertisement is a lot of fun... 

and the story of the 2 recent college grads who created it is just as fun.