Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Earth Day 2009: Focus on Electricity

NOTE: We've moved! Visit us at the California High Speed Rail Blog.

Ever since 1970, April 22 has marked Earth Day in the United States. The objective has always been to raise awareness of environmental issues and to prompt individuals to take actions that benefit the environment in some way.

Today marks the first Earth Day of the Obama administration. The President will head to Iowa to promote renewable electricity generation, specifically wind farms. This is part of a larger strategy to gradually wean the US economy off fossil fuels in general and oil in particular. Reducing US dependence on these finite resources is an essential contribution to both climate policy and national security. The administration's energy-cum-green-collar-jobs legislation is already making its way through Congress, albeit slowly.

Of course, any sensible energy policy needs to address not just how electricity is generated but also the total amount used. Without aggressive conservation, renewable electricity - hydro, wind, solar, geothermal, biomass - will always struggle to cover more than a tiny fraction of total demand.

Florida Power & Light has embarked on a $200 million project to install "smart meters" in all homes in Miami-Dade county. Each meter contains a WiFi transceiver that allows consumers to track their electricity usage with software installed on their PC. Knowing when they consume which amount of electricity on a given circuit - mapped to specific rooms or appliances - makes it much easier for them to identify and eliminate power hogs.

California's Bay Area and San Diego are just as exposed to the threat of slowly rising sea levels as south Florida. Yet it is air conditioning demand in the hot inland areas of both states that places enormous strain on the utility companies on the 10 hottest days of the year. In California, aggregate demand can jump by as much as 50% when people return home in the late afternoon and switch on their central A/C unit, often at full power to bring temperatures back down quickly. According to a KQED Quest radio report, simply selecting a device that is optimized for the temperature and humidity range in a particular area can save 20% on A/C-related electricity consumption. There are more than just cost savings here, because the rarely-used power plants that exist purely to cope with extreme peak demand have to deliver that power quickly and reliably - which means using gas turbines. While these could run on stored biogas, the regulatory structure still favors the use of fossil natural gas.

There are plenty of other examples of scope for structural reductions in electricity consumption in California:
  • for new buildings, solar architecture encompasses everything from avoiding large south-facing windows to insulation to self-shading, water features and vegetation, all in an effort to keep the indoor and interior courtyard areas naturally cool during the summer months
  • in some locations, apartment complexes and businesses can already choose to deploy green roofs with drought-resistant plants supported by recycled water to provide natural insulation
  • the pumps used to transport water from the Sierras to Southern California and the Bay Area consume around 2% of the state's total, so encouraging newcomers to move to where the water flows naturally is a good idea - especially since it will also discourage the agriculture of thirsty crops
  • Internet data centers in California also consume around 2% of the state's total, of which about half is A/C load. Emerging liquid cooling technology for servers and mass storage units should help bring that down.

Of course, all of the conservation measures described above relate to stationary devices. Small mobile devices like cell phones and laptops, even bicycles, can easily be powered using grid electricity stored in batteries. The same is not true of large vehicles - the high cost, limited range and safety aspects of large battery banks are the reasons why virtually all cars and trucks on the market use internal combustion engines that rely on oil distillates. Commercial airliners rely on kerosene-guzzling jet engines, though when they are fully booked, the newest long-distance aircraft do consume less per passenger-mile than single-occupant cars do on the highway. By contrast, short-hop flights are among the least energy-efficient modes of transportation. That means aggressive conservation and/or switching to electricity is especially important for the transportation sector.

While some bus systems have been electrified using overhead catenaries, it is far more typical of rail transit: streetcars, light rail and subways. In the US, regular heavy rail has been electrified in the NEC but virtually nowhere else. The California bullet train system will be electrified, if only because it's the only way to achieve 220mph. At full capacity, the fully built out network is epxected to require around 480MW of electrical power, roughly 1% of the total installed generating capacity in the state today.

In keeping with the spirit of Earth Day, CHSRA wants it to run entirely on renewable electricity, something that will be easier with energy conservation in stationary applications. In this context, 100% renewable means that for each kWh consumed during a given time period (e.g. 1 year), there must be a corresponding kWh produced at a wind farm or other renewable source. In terms of global warming impact, it isn't strictly necessary that there be sufficient active renewable electricity generating capacity to power all of the trains at any given instant. This arbitrage is exactly where President Obama's smart grid concept comes in, something German scientists have already been working on for a while. For political reasons, that country wants to phase out both nuclear and coal-fired generating capacity.

In the context of a busy rail system, brake energy recuperation from one train to others on the same segment further improves overall energy efficiency, especially if the grid operator gets 20-30 seconds advance warning of a train braking. That information is readily available to the rail infrastructure operator, except in emergency situations.

For all these reasons, I couldn't agree more with this article in today's Des Moines Register, entitled simply:

To push clean energy, back high-speed rail

Even diesel-based "emerging HSR" is a lot more efficient than cars are at comparable occupancy rates. Considering that most cars have just one occupant, that's a low hurdle. Electrification just makes trains an even more strategic element of the passenger transportation mix going forward.

Update by Robert: This seems like a good occasion to remind folks of the CHSRA renewable energy study that we discussed last September. The report goes into detail on just what is necessary for the CHSRA to achieve 100% renewable energy for their system, a goal the Authority's board adopted last fall.


TomW said...

My suggestion for cutting domestic AC power consumption: give everyoen free timer switches, so they come on a sensible rate half an hour before you get home, rather than being put on at full blast. Oh, and tell people not to have them below 18C/65F. I hate going onto shops on a summer's day to find the AC on the max and the staff wearing sweaters. (The opposite happens in winter, too).

Rafael said...

@ TomW -

no need to give away the timers, they're cheap enough. The problem is that electricity isn't expensive enough in California, so neither consumers nor retailers have sufficient incentive to conserve.

In particular, electricity ought to cost more on the hottest days of the year. There is a risk that some will risk heat stroke in an effort to save money, though, so any such change would need to be preceded by plenty of consumer education plus mitigation programs for at-risk groups such as seniors living alone.

I've caught a cold more than once because of the sudden temperature changes when going into and exiting roadside stores in summer. Pedestrian zones with some water features and more vegetation, perhaps also some shade nets over the public areas, would make strolling through downtown much more pleasant than ducking and weaving through stop-and-go traffic, breathing in exhaust fumes and suffering from the heat island effect of the asphalt. Trains enable walkable/bikable neighborhoods, cars destroy them.

Btw, the notion that profligate energy use somehow translates into an added value for customers is also in evidence at US restaurants. Every drink comes with about 5x the number of ice cubes you'd get in Europe. In California, restaurants fire up heaters to maintain pleasant temperatures for al fresco dining after the sun goes down. Appropriate architectural elements can convert an al fresco area into an indoor area in minutes.

Anonymous said...

The best solution for clean electricity in california is to expend the units on the existing nuclear plants and build a few more while shutting down the oldest coal fired plants. As for water. No amount of juggling the water and juggling which part of the state people live in is going to ehlp - we're certainly not going to get away with cramming everyone in northern california because the folks in norcal despise growth. There needs to be cap on the popualtion in Cali. ew already have to large a share of the US total. Enough is Enough.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

A sample of sacramento stupidity run amok------"Diablo Canyon has saved California from energy crises since it began operating. This one nuclear plant alone has been supplying 24% of the energy for northern California for decades. And it produces no greenhouse gases or pollution to the atmosphere whatsoever. However, another 50 percent of northern California’s energy is produced by filthy fossil fuel power plants the are putting 100 million tons of CO2 in the atmosphere every year – and more every year because California needs another 1000 megawatts of new energy each year – another major power plant. (Keep in mind that so-called “clean natural gas” power plants put 40% as much CO2 in the atmosphere as coal burning plants.)

The anti-nuclear politicians in California are the biggest and most vulgar Climate Change hypocrites in the world. They passed a law (AB 32) demanding that the California public reduce greenhouse gases by 20% in ten years. But these same political leaders+++ are authorizing and building new fossil fuel power plants every year +++ to supply the state’s increasing energy demands (1000 megawatts per year.) These new fossil fuel power plants are adding 3% more CO2 to the atmosphere each year, at least another 3 million tons of CO2 each year. This is more CO2 than can be reduced by all the AB 32 restrictive regulations on the working people in California !"

Anonymous said...

@rafael-In California, restaurants fire up heaters to maintain pleasant temperatures for al fresco dining after the sun goes down. Appropriate architectural elements can convert an al fresco area into an indoor area in minutes." but rafael - if we wanted to eat inside we'd go inside. we want to eat outside - with heaters. I'm not giving up choices like this when there are ways to generate enough energy to maintain a first world lifestyle. I don't want to live like its the 1800's thank you. and that means keeping the tahoe hot tub hot in the snow too.

Rafael said...

@ Jim -

I'm no fan of nuclear power as long as the issue of long-term waste storage remains unresolved. I'd much rather see more conservation and investment in renewables first.

As for population growth, the US is a free country. You can't hold a gun to someone's head to force them to live in a certain location. Even temporary work visas for foreigners do not restrict them to living in a particular county or area.

Therefore, new migrants to California need incentives to go live in the Sacramento-Merced-Auburn section of the Central Valley. Having HSR service will be one such incentive, though not a sufficient one.

The area needs to develop green collar industries to diversify beyond farming. Ironically, abandoned military sites like Castle Airport in Merced just might be an excellent place to start.

TomW said...

@ Jim / al fresco heaters / choice:
Sometimes governments remove choices for the common good. The choice to drive through red lights has been removed, as the has the choice about whether a person's children should be educated.

Anonymous said...

You are not taking away al fresco dining and thats the end of that. Its not gonna fly.

Anonymous said...

especially in san francisco where 360 out of 365 evening are too cold to dine outside yet food and tourism are our biggest industries.

Anonymous said...

Alternative energies without nuclear are not sufficient to meet demand Thats just plain science and numbers. There isn't a problem with waste. that is non problem that was cooked up by anti nuclear lawyers.

Rafael said...

@ Jim -

if and when retail energy - gasoline/diesel, natural gas, electricity - becomes expensive enough, consumer perceptions of what constitutes acceptable energy use patterns will change.

There's no need to give up al fresco dining or hot tubs in winter entirely - you just need some moderation plus innovation to marry these lifestyle aspects with the new reality of expensive energy.

Anonymous said...

amke the heaters electric and build the nuclear plants and theres not problem we can have as much as we want. The problem is that the science/numbers for alternative (wind solar) etc in clai dont even come close to being able to meet the demand. not even if you plastered the entire state with panels and windmills it would barely make a dent... for the next 20 years at least - nuclear is the only alternative that can replace coal/natural gas and oil for making electricity and the sooner we get it done the faster the economy will bounce back and the more secure we will be.

Anonymous said...

and while behaviors can be modified to some extant there is large pop. in cali out side the more liberal urban centers that only -over their dead bodies - will give up their big trucks. I know them and they aren't havin' any of this.

Alon Levy said...

Rafael: I'm not sure encouraging people to live in the Sacramento area is optimal from an energy consumption perspective. The need for water pumping is reduced, but the need for AC is higher than on the coast. In San Francisco, the average daily high in the warmest month is 21; in Stockton, it's 33.

Passive solar design is important not just in California. Ideally, houses should have large south-facing windows under sloping roofs. The roofs should provide shading in the summer, when the sun's angle is more direct, while in the winter, the sun will be below the roof and heat the house naturally. In addition, the government should subsidize retrofitting windows for better insulation, which will reduce both heating and air conditioning costs. This needs to be done federally, since almost all states need significant air conditioning in the summer, and most need heating in winter.

resident said...

"100% renewable means that for each kWh consumed during a given time period (e.g. 1 year), there must be a corresponding kWh produced at a wind farm or other renewable source."

Which is to say that CHSRA has no intention whatsoever on purchasing and running off renewable energy.

How appropriate that you spent 8 paragraphs pining over renewable energy usage - so much hot air. I suppose that hot air could be used as energy by something somewhere and so CHSR should be allowed to call themselves environmentally friendly.

What in incredible demonstration of political spin.

Rafael said...

@ jim -

that's simply not true. The Mojave desert alone is large enough to provide 100% of all the electricity consumed in the nation with solar power plants alone. Cost: approx. $300 billion. The problem with solar power is that it's not available at night. Hydro, wind, geothermal and biogas are needed to complete the picture.

The entire fully built out California HSR network will require only as much generating capacity as a single, fairly inefficient solar thermal power plant covering approx. 9 square miles.

Nuclear is cheap only if you disregard the huge cost of waste storage, decommissioning and the risk of weapons proliferation - all borne by future generations.

Alon Levy said...

Jim: you're overestimating the amount of space needed for solar panels. In absolute numbers it's huge, but you could satisfy world demand by building on a few unpopulated areas in the deserts, such as in Nevada (link).

Rafael said...

@ jim -

"in cali out side the more liberal urban centers that only -over their dead bodies - will give up their big trucks."

Right, which is why pick-up sales did not decline at all in rural areas when gas became ever more expensive through last summer. What people say and what reality forces them to do are two different things.

Rafael said...

@ resident -

you really have a talent for being exceptionally ornery.

If you buy X units of renewable electricity from a utility, they are required to install the required incremental production capacity and then actually produce those X units renewably. Unlike Joe Schmoe, a large industrial customer like the HSR infrastructure operator can actually verify that the utility is meeting those contractual obligations.

All I was saying is that the utility should have some leeway to optimize its generating capacity and/or electricity purchases from competitors. Some renewable sources are not entirely predictable, eg. wind. Sometimes there's not enough of it, so instantaneous demand has to be met using supplemental sources. Conversely, sometimes there is an excess of wind, so the extra electricity has to be delivered to customers other than the HSR system.

That isn't political spin nor hot air, it's how utilities operate non-renewable and renewable electricity generation in concert, because storing electricity is expensive (batteries) and/or inefficient (pumping water uphill). I can't help it if you cannot grasp the simple concept that a grid operator needs to correct any mismatch between supply and demand within a matter of seconds.

lyqwyd said...


the only issues with nuclear power today are politcal.

The waste problem has been solved from a technical point. It can be glassified and stored deep underground in a geologically stable location. Typical nuclear wasted decays back down to about the original radioactivity of Uranium in about 600-1000 years. Fossil fuel plant on the other hand are creating waste that is actively and massively harming the environment today.

Modern nuclear power plants can generate waste streams that cannot be converted in to weapons grade sources, they can also be designed to use weapons grade fuel, which would in fact reduce the existing number of nuclear weapons in the world.

Nuclear power is actually safer than most other mass produced energy sources. The worst tragedy ever: Chernobyl, only resulted in a small number of direct deaths, and probably less than 1000 indirect deaths (it's a bit difficult to determine), whereas coal mining regularly causes the deaths of dozens of miners a year (my number may not be exact, it's from memory)... not to mention the deaths from exposure to the wastes of coal and other fossil fuels.

Also, Chernobyl was as bad as it was mainly due to political reasons. The russions built it to make energy along with weapons grade plutonium, which meant the reactor was much larger than normal, and they didn't build proper containment around it. 3-mile island was the same type of meltdown (IIRC) but resulted in much less damage due to proper containment.

on top of that, modern reactors can be designed to be impossible to melt-down accidently. There is new fuel technology that causes the reactor to cool and shut down when control is lost, rather than heat up and melt-down like older generation reactors.

Nuclear power has come a long way from when the protests were legitemate. Look at France, in 2004 about 80% of their power was nuclear, and it is very popular among the citizens of France.

HSR supporters should really take a new look at nuclear power from an objective point of view (I used to be dead set against it until I actually did some research for myself). Nuclear power in the US has about the same reputation as HSR does, and for just about the same reasons (mainly ignorance and historical issues).

political_i said...

France reuses 96% of its nuclear fuel, we cannot do the same due to laws which I believe is dumb if we only have 4% of fuel rods going to waste for nuclear power. We should import the technology and use it to make nuclear power less controversial if 96% is recycled.

Spokker said...

We have a whole mountain to store that waste going unused. I'm no environmentalist. I believe nuclear power should be a part of our energy generation picture.

nikko pigman said...

My belief is that wind, solar, hydro, etc should be used whenever possible. But the reality is that this isn't always available (it might be possible in Cali though, I dunno). The gap is where nuclear energy comes in. France has displayed the effectiveness of nuclear energy. I forget where but I remember reading somewhere that assuming the average American consumes all of his electricity from a nuclear powerplant, the nuclear waste he is personally responsible for his lifetime is the equivalent of a doorknob. I can't find that anymore but whether or not that statistic is true, I would imagine that is extremely close.

As for nuclear weapons, nuclear waste is nowhere near radioactive enough to create nuclear weaponry. France has a plant somewhere that can remanufacture nuclear waste and create energy again but Plutonium is made as a byproduct -- probably not an option for us.

I know this sounds dumb, but has anyone considered launching nuclear waste to the moon? :p

Matt said...


I was going to write something similar, but you said it much better than I could have. Spot on.

Nuclear Fuel is much safer and cleaner than any other fuel. Politics has gotten in the way of progress.

Spokker said...

I've never seen lyqwyd post here before but whoever he or she is they are awesome.

That doesn't meant you neglect all the other options, but let's get over the nuclear boogie man before we get boners for solar power.

Alon Levy said...

Nikko: Edward Teller probably thought about sending nuclear waste to the Moon. I'm not sure, but it won't surprise me.

Anonymous said...

Rafael said...
@ jim -

that's simply not true. The Mojave desert alone is large enough to provide 100% of all the electricity consumed in the nation with solar power plants alone" no way. thats absurd. Nuclear is the only existing tech that can replace fossil fuels for the next several decades.

Anonymous said...

And what most people don't know is that by burning coal we are spewing tons of radioactivity into the atmosphere and the amount of radioactivity you get hanging out at a nuclear power plant is less than what you get sleeping next to your partner.

Anonymous said...

some science form actual scientists ( not politicians and environmental whackos )

Anonymous said...

"Nuclear Waste" and "Depleted Uranium"
How much "nuclear waste" (spent nuclear fuel rods) for a family of four for twenty years? What is "Depleted Uranium?"

The nuclear power for a family of four for twenty years generates no more than a shoe box of spent fuel rods that critics call "nuclear waste" The nuclear hysterics will not allow our country to reprocess the rods to extract the highly radioactive isotopes and reclaim the plutonium that can be used as new fuel. If we reprosess the spent fuel rods, the remaining "waste" that must be buried for a family of four for fifty years will fit in a pill bottle or a shot glass. Compare this to the scare stories you get from the nuclear hysterics who would have you believe that nuclear power plants generate mountains of nuclear waste that can be scattered all over the world. The total nuclear waste generated by all 103 nuclear plants in the U.S. over the last fifty years will fit in the volume of a typical high school gym (77,000 tons by weight so far). Does that sound like an enormous task? Or difficult to safeguard once it is stored a thousand feet inside of a mountain?

"Depleted Uranium" is nothing more than normal uranium from the ground that has be processed to remove most of the fissionable isotope U235. Hence, depleted uranium is almost pure U238. It is less radioative than normal uranium found everywhere in the crust of the earth. People eat about a microgram of natural uranium each day because it is in almost all food. A pound of uranium carried in your coat pocket is no more dangerous than a pound of iron. Only the U235 component of natural uranium can make bombs. U235 is about 0.7% of natural uranium. The rest is U238.

For info on depleted uranium used in weapons and other applications see the following links: du.htm

Anonymous said...

cost of sloar for an average consumer:

an excellent energy independence article about the ability of atlernative engery:

Anonymous said...

and the real truth about california's green:

James said...

Nuclear fission power *is* clean and economically viable and should be a part of a comprehensive plan until such time as nuclear fusion is viable.

However the door knob or shoe box of fuel rods per rate-payer does not tell the entire story. Additional costs include mining the ore to make the fuel. Reprocessing also makes radioactive and chemical waste. Nuclear power is more or less related to military nuclear programs, both of which have left many contaminated sites. Chernobyl had more than the direct local effects, and the effects continue. Nuclear power creates high, mid, and low level waste. When a power plant is eventually retired, much of the equipment is radioactive waste and I recall that the general plan it to bury the core in place under a concrete cap.

This does not all fit in a shoe box and saying so is not completely truthful.

Alon Levy said...

Jim: "no way that's absurd" isn't a very good rebuttal.

Anonymous said...

People who are blocking nuclear power are doing a great disservice tot he country. Around the world people realize this and are changing their tune, however the dems in america will have a hard time admitting they were wrong in bending to the will of the the faux environmentalists who as it turns out forced us to be even more indentured to the middle east while at the same time actually doing great environmental harm by burning more fossil fuel. California's green is a farce.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Nuclear Power:
We must begin planning for six new nuclear power plants, to be operational no later than two years from now. Don’t like this, or don’t think it’s a safe idea? Then you had better read this:

Nuclear Power Plant Safety and Pollution

If you think that nuclear energy is dangerous and causes radioactive pollution, guess again.

For instance, our power plants burn billions of tons of coal each year, and since this coal contains radioactive uranium and thorium, burning coal actually puts 2,000 tons of radioactivity into our atmosphere each and every single year! Don’t believe us? Then read this report by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

According to Bill Wattenburg, the Kyoto conference’s goals of reducing carbon-dioxide (CO₂) emissions can be met by closing down 2–4 coal-fired power plants (out of the hundreds in the US) and replacing them with nuclear power plants, while at the same time reducing total radioactive emissions. Given a typical coal-fired plant, producing 1000 megawatts, it burns 2.3 million tons of coal per year, produces 200,000 thousand tons of fly ash a year, 7.5 million tons of CO₂ per year, 200,000 tons of sulfur oxide, 25,000 tons of nitrous oxide, and 1000 tons of carbon-monoxide (CO).

Intel and Sun CEOs Propose Nuclear Plants—Here is some ammunition for them

Dr. Bill Wattenburg outlines several innovative, new ideas on how to produce more energy for California and reduce our energy rates.
Safety of shipping nuclear waste

Sandia National Labs has done extensive testing for the safety of the containers used to transport spent nuclear fuel, including slamming a locomotive into a cask at 80MPH and setting another one on fire.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure if this was an oversight by the author, but while Florida Power & Light is referenced as launching a "smart meter" program to save energy, it isn't mentioned that Northern California's PG&E already has the largest smart meter program in country.