Here is good technical overview of the Bloom Box from Green Chip Review. I’d would agree that the “Box” is not an energy game changer, but potentially a slightly more efficient and greener way to convert natural gas into electricity. If it gains traction and gets rolled out in scale, it is likely to peak in tandem with the world wide peak of natural gas.
Category Archives: Energy Efficiency
The Obama administration has recently received three letters or petitions regarding energy policy. As with any policy position they are shaped by the world views of the men and women who authored them.
Dr. James Hansen is head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and a leading global climate change researcher. It is not surprising that his proposal revolves around a tax policy aimed at decarbonizing the American economy and reducing greenhouse gases.
Edward Mazria is an architect and creator of the 2030 Challenge, a voluntary pledge that all new buildings and major building renovation be constructed to a carbon-neutral (using no fossil fuel GHG emitting energy to operate) standard by 2030. Mazria’s proposal is centered on achieving building energy efficiency goals rewarded with lower mortgage rates in the case of residential construction and by accelerated depreciation in the case of commercial construction. If enacted, it claims to both create millions of jobs and reduce carbon emissions.
Richard Heinberg is senior fellow at the Post Carbon Institute and the author of The Party’s Over – Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies, Powerdown – Options and Actions for a Post – Carbon World, and the Oil Depletion Protocol. Heinberg and the other authors of Post Carbon Institute’s “Real New Deal” marry the imperatives of climate change and the peaking and ultimate depletion of our fossil fuel resources into a comprehensive plan to transition the U.S. to a new energy economy.
All three proposals are valid and merit serious review, but only the Post Carbon Institute’s proposal offers a comprehensive view of the challenges we must face. As such, the Hansen and Mazria proposals are important subsets of what needs to be a much larger solution.
THE HANSEN PROPOSAL
Hansen sent an open letter to Barack and Michelle Obama. Here are some relevant excerpts from the letter:
A rising carbon price is essential to “decarbonize” the economy, i.e., to move the nation toward the era beyond fossil fuels. The most effective way to achieve this is a carbon tax (on oil, gas, and coal) at the well-head or port of entry. The tax will then appropriately affect all products and activities that use fossil fuels.
The public will support the tax if it is returned to them, equal shares on a per capita basis (half shares for children up to a maximum of two child-shares per family), deposited monthly in bank accounts. No large bureaucracy is needed. A person reducing his carbon footprint more than average makes money. A person with large cars and a big house will pay a tax much higher than the dividend. Not one cent goes to Washington. No lobbyists will be supported. Unlike cap-and-trade, no millionaires would be made at the expense of the public.
A carbon tax is honest, clear and effective. It will increase energy prices, but low and middle income people, especially, will find ways to reduce carbon emissions so as to come out ahead. The rate of infrastructure replacement, thus economic activity, can be modulated by how fast the carbon tax rate increases. Effects will permeate society. Food requiring lots of carbon emissions to produce and transport will become more expensive and vice versa, encouraging support of nearby farms as opposed to imports from half way around the world.
THE 2030 CHALLENGE STIMULUS PLAN
A Two-Year, Nine-Million-Job Investment Proposal
“The road to energy independence, economic recovery and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions runs through the Building Sector.” – Edward Mazria
The 2030 Challenge Stimulus plan is a two year investment commitment to create 9 million jobs overall and 4-million jobs in the construction sector. It is a jobs growth and carbon reduction plan rolled into one. In the residential sector it trades low interest rate loans off against investments to increase building energy efficiency. For an existing home, the interest rate provided would be a function of renovating that home to some level below the existing energy code requirements in exchange for a lower mortgage rate.
Mortgage Interest Rate (subject to market conditions) 2030 Challenge Energy Reduction
4.0% 30% below code
3.5% 50% below code
2.5% 75% below code
2.0% Carbon neutral
For example, a homeowner with a current $272,300 mortgage with equity of $12,000, would have a mortgage balance of $260,300. At an interest rate of 6%, the current monthly mortgage payment would be $1633. If this homeowner wants to qualify for the 2.5% interest rate, they will need to renovate their home to use 75% less energy than that required by code, immediately creating jobs and putting construction teams back to work.
The cost of renovation would be approximately $51,250, which includes a solar system, which would qualify for a $7000 tax credit. The cost of the renovation, minus the tax credit, would be added to the mortgage balance, so that the new mortgage is now $304,550. However, because of the significantly lower 2.5% interest rate, the new mortgage payment is just $1203, a savings of $430 per month. With the additional monthly savings on energy bills of approximately $145, this homeowner would save a total of $575 per month.
Because building construction historically represents about 10% of GDP, Mazria thinks that the private building sector may be the key to reviving the U.S. economy. He proposes that $96-billion be invested annually for the next two years in mortgage interest rate buy-downs and accelerated depreciation for commercial buildings. As a result, Mazria claims that with a participation of only 5.8% of homes and 3.1% of commercial buildings the program would generate 9-million jobs and $1-trillion in private sector spending, and pay for itself in the form of increased tax revenue.
In addition to the economic claims, Mazria calculates that over the five year period, the proposal would reduce CO2 emissions by 504 million metric tons and energy consumption by 6.47 Quadrillion Btu.
Even at a participation of only 5.8% (over 4-million) of homes, Mazria’s proposal may have a scaling problem, as the country finds itself lacking the architectural, engineering, and code verification talent to transform that many homes in the proposed time-frame. Conceptually however, this is a beautifully conceived plan and deserves serious attention.
POST CARBON INSTITUTE
The Real New Deal
Energy Scarcity and the Path to Energy, Economic, and Environmental Recovery
“The energy transition cannot be accomplished in four years or eight… What can and must be accomplished in a single administration is the essential change of direction.”
The Post Carbon Institute [PCI] argues that the current economic crisis provides the opportunity and potentially the political will to make a significant down payment on the transition to a renewable energy economy that would otherwise be inconceivable. In fact if we don’t act now, the current crisis may just merge with “peak oil” and the effects of climate change to create a decades long global state of emergency.
PCI outlines a comprehensive program comprising five different solution sets.
- A massive and immediate shift to renewable energy (Hansen’s proposal fits here)
- The electrification of our transportation system
- The transformation to a “smart” electrical grid
- The de-carbonization and localization of our food production and delivery system
- The retrofit of our building stock for energy efficiency and distributed power generation. (Mazria’s proposal fits here)
Since the cost of such a transition spread over 20 years would be in the order of $4.5-trillion the authors admit that given the current financial meltdown, private capital will not be forthcoming and deficit spending by the government along with significant policy changes will be required to launch the transition. To direct policy, the authors recommend creating “an Energy Transition Office, tied to no existing agency, specifically tasked with tracking and managing the transition and with helping existing agencies work together toward the common goal”.
The authors do not underestimate the enormous and unprecedented scope of their proposal. Aside from avoiding or mitigating the devastating impacts of peak oil and climate change the potential benefits are enormous and would include:
- eliminating the need to police oil exporting areas of the world, saving billions of dollars a year in military expenditures
- saving billions per year by creating a food system that substantially reduces obesity, cancer, and asthma
- helping to create and foster skilled, self-reliant and resilient communities
Although the plan as presented merely serves to outline the possible solutions and the scope of the problems we face, what sets it apart is it all-embracing view of the resource depletion and environmental perils we must resolve to survive.
Thoughts About a New Energy Economy
Calls for the transition to a new energy economy typically come from three main quarters. All three are valid, but only one sees the forest for trees.
The national security quarter recognizes that we depend too much on imports from countries and regions that are either unstable and/or hostile to our national interests. This argument for action plays well with the right, but does not recognize the environmental threat of global warming or greater economic peril of peak oil. Although it forms the basis of an argument for an energy transition, it can equally be used to justify a more robust military policy.
The climate change quarter is currently dominant in the minds of the public and with policy makers. It sees great peril and human suffering in the coming decades but doesn’t recognize that the peak oil is imminent and will soon take center stage. The economic devastation of peak oil will likely be additive to the current debt crisis and put global warming on the back burner. Ironically, the advent of peak oil will greatly reduce carbon emissions and mitigate the effects of global warming but the decline in oil supply alone will not be sufficient to drive atmospheric CO2 levels back to 350 PPM.
Peak oil is lesser known. There is a peak oil caucus in congress, but there is little political will to take action in a county where nearly half the population believes in the battle cry of “drill baby drill”. Unlike the effects of global warming which will be slow and indirect in coming, the effects of peak oil will be as sudden as the collapse of the World Trade Center and Lehman Brothers. More shock and awe than a slow rising of the tides. It will touch every corner of our economy with a combination of price shocks and shortages. It will leave us with one chance and one chance only to transform our energy infrastructure to solar, wind, and geothermal using what remains of our rapidly depleting fossil fuel resources.
As I look to the future, I see three possible courses of action:
Option one is that we recognize the problem of resource depletion and take action well in advance of the anticipated world wide peak in oil production. Since peaking is imminent and the transition will take approximately two decades, unfortunately the ship has already sailed on option one. Looking back we will someday wish we had paid much more attention to Jimmy Carter.
With the election of Obama, option two is already in play, and we have begin to take some action based on fears of climate change and for reasons of national security. However, our current actions are no where near sufficient to avoid extreme hardship. The ship of state is on a collision course with the iceberg and we have only just given the order to reduce speed. Our collision with destiny is now unavoidable and the question now is whether there will be a sufficient number of life boats. In addition, just as we need it the most, we lack sufficient capital to make the transition in the face of the global financial meltdown. This is not just another severe business cycle, this is the beginning of the realignment of the the post WWII global financial system and the end of American economic dominance. It is likely that peak oil will become evident just as the dollar loses its status as the world’s reserve currency and as a nation we may then be unable to fund the energy transition with either public or private funds. Essentially bankrupt and losing our grip on global influence and power the country may lurch to the right in a desperate attempt to reclaim global dominance.
Option three is to maintain a posture of “drill baby drill denial” in spite of reality. At this point the country may resort to engaging in “resource wars” to claim the world’s remaining oil reserves and to protect the American “way of life”. This would be a policy doomed to failure and assured of increasing human misery. It would also be a policy that will put us at risk of missing our only window to transition away from fossil fuels. Call this the Mad Max policy.
My hope is that we’ll stick with option two and muddle through to a new and sustainable energy economy. It promises to be extremely painful and disruptive decade or two of transition, but in the end we will find ourselves in a much healthier relationship with our environment and possibly with each other.
I live in the geographical middle of Colorado at about 9,000 feet elevation. It is a location that is rich in solar and wind energy, and since the wind blows strongest during the winter months, a hybrid wind and solar PV system made the most economic sense for a home energy system. What I didn’t realize is that one of the biggest obstacles to small residential wind turbine systems is the lack of zoning regulations. So when I contacted the local county planning and building departments to discuss my plans, I quickly found out that they just didn’t know how to handle a request for wind turbine. There was nothing written in their zoning ordinances to deal with a wind turbine.
Zoning ordinances are based on legal principle of “police power”, which is the power of counties, townships, and cities to regulate in order to promote the health, morals, safety, and general welfare of the community. The problem is that there are nearly 40,000 counties, townships, and cities in the U.S. and all of them at some time will have to decide how to regulate wind turbines.
The first obstacle will be height. In nearly every residential zone in America, structures are limited to 35 ft in height. This 35 foot height limitation is based on firefighting limitations from the early 1900’s, but has now taken on a life of it’s own and governs the scale of residential development. Since wind turbines need to be at least 20 feet above surrounding building and trees, a 35 foot height limitation is a non-starter. Where I live in the Colorado Rockies, most residential users would need 65 to 85 foot towers just to get sufficiently above the aspen and ponderosa pine tree canopies.
If a 35 foot height limitation is imposed for wind turbines, a larger tower would require a “special use” or “conditional use” permit. This typically requires a public hearing process that can potentially cost homeowners thousands of dollars in legal fees and may take several months. A simple variance process would leave the homeowner wanting to install a wind turbine at the mercy of his neighbors. Any one of which could veto the project without reasonable cause.
Zoning ordinances are subject to local politics, and the politics of regulating wind turbines within residential zones is all about their perceived impact on property values. That perception is based on attitudes about a wind turbines visual and acoustic impact combined with the cost of electricity. At 12¢/kWh, a wind turbine might be considered an eyesore. At 50¢/kWh it suddenly becomes an object of beauty, quietly drawing free energy from a gentle breeze. As utility rates continue to increase, wind turbines will transition in perception from potential property value degraders to property value enhancers and the right to access air flows will trump ascetics.
However, for the time being, the politics of zoning will keep wind turbines out of higher density suburban developments and probably limit their use to lot size densities of one acre or more.
Back home in the middle of Colorado, I’ve been working with the county on formulating a workable ordinance for wind turbines that treads the eye of the political needle. A copy of the draft is attached here.
I’ll let you know how it turns out.
Conventional, easy-to-get natural gas in the U.S. has already peaked and natural gas from all sources will peak in North America around 2010 and globally between 2030 and 2035.
Dr. Michael Smith, Energy Files Ltd., 2004“
The North American outlook for natural gas production is not good. Mexican production has been in decline since 1999. U.S. production has been in a plateau for some time. All the big finds have been tapped and are in decline. Currently, we are bringing new wells online at a maddening pace just to keep our domestic production flat. And the new wells are declining at rates as high as 80% in the first year. The size of the new finds is also diminishing. Over the past decade, the amount of gas found per foot drilled has declined by 50%.
Dale Allen Pfeiffer, The Natural Gas Cliff, October 2005
Since natural gas is used to heat over 60% of the homes in America and in about 70% of new homes, its important to know how it gets to our homes and how fragile natural gas is as a source of both direct heating energy and as an indirect source of electrical generation for cooling.
Natural gas consists mostly of methane. Conventional natural gas is found in underground formations of porous rock, and conventional, easy sources of NG in the U.S. peaked in 1973. To keep up with demand, we are now frantically drilling and keeping our supply heads above water with a combination of shale gas, tight gas(from non-porous rock formations), deep gas (from wells over 15,000 feet in depth), sub-sea gas, and coalbed methane gas. These “unconventional” sources all require more risk and capital for extraction. Nearly 20% of U.S. demand is filled with imports from Canada through our existing pipeline system and to a much lessor extent via imports of liquid natural gas (LNG) from Trinidad and Tobago.
Natural gas gets to our homes through a complex system of pipes or “lines”. Gathering lines connect drill rig production areas to natural gas processing or refining plants which separate out natural gas liquids, water, carbon dioxide, sulfur, and inert gases such as helium which would reduce the energy value of the gas. The refined gas is then piped into a 280-thousand mile North American transmission network. This network consists of 20 to 42-inch diameter pipes with compressor “boost stations” located about 75-miles apart to maintain sufficient working pressure.
Local distribution companies tap into to this network, providing a storage buffer, and metering the gas through a system of more than one million miles of mains and smaller trunk lines that bring gas to our homes.
Much of the soil in the Great Plains is little more than a sponge into which we must pour hydrocarbon-based [natural gas] fertilizers in order to produce crops.
Dale Allen Pfeiffer, Eating Fossil Fuels, 2004
Looming Natural Gas Shortages
No one knows how and exactly when shortages will occur, but shortages are inevitable, even in the context of exploiting new arctic natural gas sources and the building of a massive LNG (liquid natural gas) infrastructure. Both of these sources will take years to develop and to have an impact and will require billions of dollars in capital expenditures. LNG is our best hope of avoiding severe shortages, but dependence on LNG will thrust us into the international gas market, forcing us to compete for Middle Eastern and Russia gas with Europe and the emerging economies of India and China, at prices two to three times what we pay today. By the time arctic gas and imported LNG become available in meaningful quantities, we will have already begun a steady and irreversible decline in our current North American sources of production.
A few years ago people looked at L.N.G. as a solution to North America’s gas needs. But
today we see that there is less L.N.G. around than people expected, and there is more
competition for that L.N.G. from markets that are willing to pay more than the United States.
Nikos Tsafos, analyst with PFC Energy, 2008
At first higher prices will cause demand destruction in the industrial sector and manufacturers will convert to other energy sources like coal or move production to locations in the world where natural gas is still plentiful. Eventually, because modern agriculture is heavily dependent on fertilizer, and natural gas in the primary fertilizer feedstock, we may be faced with the dilemma of either heating our homes or putting food on the table.
Just as we will be forced to find new ways to configure and power a personal transportation system, we will have to find new ways (or revert to old ways) to moderate the internal environments of our homes. The equivalent of 500 HP forced air furnaces lumbering away in the basements of our poorly constructed and insulated homes will no longer be sustainable in a world of rapidly depleting fossil fuel supplies. In many ways the inertia of transforming over 100 million existing homes will be more difficult than transforming our transportation system and onus and urgency for change will fall on the homeowner.
There are about 2,000 drilling rigs in the U.S. That’s one rig for every 150,000 people, an
increasingly dicey formula. Last winter we Americans collectively consumed more than 2 trillion cubic-feet of natural gas each month, one-fourth of it from the Rockies. Due to accelerating decline rates in older fields, we now need to replace with new drilling one-third of the gas we used the year before. Charlie calls this the “depletion treadmill,” and he is chained to it. If guys like Charlie stopped working for a year, you’d have to turn a few things off, big things like, say, New York and Ohio. – Peak Oil Review 8/25/08
I received an email this morning from Scot Horst , who chairs the LEED Steering Committee. He describes the behind the scenes narrative that has been going on since work began on LEED 2009.
Person A: “Global warming doesn’t give us much time.”
Person B: “But we can’t address much of anything, let alone global warming, if we’re only dealing with a small fraction of the entire built environment. We need to get everyone involved.”
Person A: “Yes, but why get them involved in a system that doesn’t take them far enough to save us from ourselves? We need our buildings to be restorative.”
Person B: “LEED can’t save us from ourselves. LEED, as a tool, can engage the market in transformation. That transformation is about people. It is not about LEED credits.”
Person A: “You’re missing the point. We have to be tougher. We have to go beyond.”
Person B: “No, you’re missing the point. We have to find ways to engage a market that has never thought about these issues before.”
Persons A and B: “Let’s find a way to do both.
”This is an engaging and very important narrative and perhaps the most important point for me is that LEED is a “tool” that helps to raise consciousness and “engage the market in transformation.” My personal view is that we must “go beyond” and that much of what we currently do in the green building movement, however well intentioned, is nothing more than rearranging the deck chairs on the titanic. The global warming mentioned in Horst’s narrative has provided the catalyst for both LEED and Architecture 2030, but focusing solely on warming misses the point. Warming is a symptom and not a cause. It has prompted us to take some action, but not to “go beyond”. As a premise for action it has been useful, but is easily attacked on it’s “scientific validity”. It is one of the canaries in the coal mine, but there has been is very little discussion of the coal mine. We need to expand the narrative and take a broader view.
Taking a page out of ecological economics, once you picture the built environment as a mere subset of our closed ecosystem, then your conceptual framework regarding sustainable building is forever changed. It means you have to accept that there are limits, and that we are not going to be able to grow forever. It implies the built environment must have some optimal size and level of consumption relative to the larger ecosystem. It means you cannot grow beyond that optimum without threatening man’s survival within that ecosystem. Out of this stream of thought flows a list of very troubling questions?
- How do we stop growing?
- What are the limits? What is optimal?
- Does climate change tell us they have already been exceeded?
- Do we face a kind of built environment armageddon when fossil fuel production peaks and begins to decline?
- Is a zero energy standard imperative now?
- What do we do? How do we do it?
Our very survival depends on how and when these questions are answered. LEED does not provide the answers, but it does help us to prepare.