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Coming to Grips With the Sun

August 1, 2014

It’s not well understood how the Sun affects the Earth.

We count the number of sun spots, measure the sun’s irradiance and the size of solar storms.

We do know that the size of solar storms has been linked to auroras and damage to electrical systems.

The largest known geomagnetic storm occurred in1859. Known as the Carrington Event, the storm was nearly three times as intense as the most recent severe geomagnetic storm.

The Carrington storm took 17 hours, 40 minutes to reach the Earth, and it produced auroras seen around the world. It also damaged telegraph stations in the United States and England.

A geomagnetic storm in 1989 caused the grid in Quebec, Canada to fail.

There is also a high degree of certainty that the number of sun spots affects the climate, though the exact mechanism is still a matter of scientific study.

There was a period, known as the Maunder Minimum, when there were virtually no sun spots. For over a hundred years temperatures on Earth were very low, resulting in the Little Ice Age.

Sun Spot chart from NASA

Sun Spot chart from NASA

 

Sun spots occur in an eleven-year cycle, and the most recent cycle, #24, has been the weakest of the recent past.

There’s been considerable speculation about the next sun spot cycle. Will Cycle 25 have even fewer sunspots? And does this indicate a new minimum that may affect the Earth’s climate?

Chart of sun spot cycle 24 from NASA

Chart of sun spot cycle 24 from NASA

On July 18, the LA Times headline read, “Suddenly, the sun is eerily quiet: Where did the sunspots go?”

The Times was not alone.

The Daily Mail, “Why has the sun gone quiet? Scientists baffled as sun spots disappear during peak period of solar activity.”

And the Register, “The Sun took a day off last week and made NO SUNSPOTS.”

While these headlines have no real scientific meaning, they highlight that there is much we don’t know about the sun.

Headlines about our weather, such as the Polar Vortex, also have no scientific meaning, but highlight there is much we don’t know about the climate.

Herschel’s linking the price of wheat to the sun, the Carrington Event and other interesting events of modern history, are vividly described in the book: The Sun Kings,The Unexpected Tragedy of Richard Carrington & the Tale of How Modern Astronomy Began, by Stuart Clark.

Book Cover, The Sun Kings by Stuart Clark

Book Cover, The Sun Kings by Stuart Clark

How the sun affects the Earth is an important question.

A Carrington Event could, for example, shut down the grid in North America for months, and possibly for over a year. People living in cities, such as New York and Chicago, as well as the other 200 million people living across the northern United States and southern Canada would be without electricity. Could our society survive?

And would another solar minimum cause another Little Ice Age? Is the sun the real source of climate change?

Svensmark, a Danish scientist, has developed an hypothesis that explains how solar storms could affect the Earth’s climate.

Most people see the sun without really seeing it, and take it for granted.

Isn’t it time to take the sun more seriously?

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Assessing the Risk of Disaster

July 29, 2014

People joke about sun spots as though they were irrelevant to the Earth and our daily lives.

But they aren’t the benign oddity that people assume.

Thought needs to be given to how sun spots may affect the Earth and our very existence.
For example: In 2012 The United States and Canada, and probably Europe, missed by a hair’s breadth, an event that probably would have destroyed their civilizations.

A bit of history is in order.

In 1859, there was a solar storm, the Carrington Event, that had a significant effect on the Earth. Auroras could be seen streaming as far south as Guatemala and, in the southern hemisphere, as far north as Ecuador. Telegraph operations were severely damaged in the United Sates and England, and at least one telegraph operator was injured.

The telegraph was the only major widespread use of electricity in the mid-19th century; a far different situation than exists today.

Today, the use of electricity is widespread, with transmission and distribution lines spread across North America and Europe.

Image os Sun from NASA

Image of Sun from NASA

Two recent solar storms, less than half the size of the Carrington Event, occurred in 1921 and in 1989. The 1989 event caused the grid in Quebec, Canada to fail.

A report by Homeland Security said, “GICs (Ground Induced Currents) can overload the grid, causing severe voltage regulation problems and, potentially, widespread power outages. Moreover, GICs can cause intense internal heating in extra-high-voltage (EHV) transformers, putting them at risk of failure.”

And, there are “300 EHV transformers in the United States” that are at risk.

Recently a physicist, Pete Riley, estimated that there was a 12% chance that a Carrington sized solar storm could hit the Earth in the next ten years.

He made this estimate after a Carrington sized storm in 2012 missed the Earth because the eruption was in the wrong position on the sun.

“If the eruption had occurred only one week earlier, Earth would have been in the line of fire,” said Daniel Baker, professor of atmospheric and space physics at the University of Colorado.

A 12% chance is a significantly high probability.

On the other hand, it also means there is almost a 90% chance that a Carrington sized storm won’t happen.

Human nature might be inclined to ignore the threat when there is a 90% chance it won’t happen.

But there is the question of how much risk is involved.

Placing a $10 bet at the casino, when there is a 90% chance of losing, isn’t particularly risky.

But if you were betting your life, the 90% chance of losing would loom large.

Are we taking the possibility of a Carrington sized storm seriously enough, when it could destroy our civilization?

That’s the issue.

There are only a small number of manufacturers, perhaps fewer than a half dozen, in the United States that have the capability of building EHV transformers.

It could require several months to build such a unit, which is the size of a small house. Some units are unique to their particular location, and transformers this large are very difficult to transport.

Over 200 million Americans, stretching from Seattle to New York City, could be without electricity for over a year if several EHV transformers were damaged.

Civil society would likely break down when there was no food or water, and when other services, such as elevators, TV, radio or cell phones, were unavailable.

The House of Representatives held hearings on this issue on June 18, 2013. Some work is being done to address the issue, but probably not enough if the 12% probability is right.

Recently a single phase transformer was built and successfully installed to determine whether such transformers could be used, in sets of three, to replace a 3-phase EHV transformer. Their smaller size would also make them easier to transport and install.

Such an approach, if successful, raises the possibility of building a few hundred such units to be stationed at strategic locations around the country, where they could be quickly installed to replace damaged EHV transformers.

Or, a number of 3-phase EHV transformers could be built and kept near units that might be damaged in a Carrington Event.

With more research, it might be possible to determine how EHV transformers could be protected from induced currents.

Actually, little is being done beyond that which has been mentioned here.

Billions of dollars would be required to build replacement transformers. And money would be needed to do the research required to develop alternate strategies, or to more accurately establish the probability of such an event occurring.

A 12% probability of a Carrington Event occurring sometime in the next ten years represents too great a risk to do nothing.

At this point, we are betting our lives that the sun will behave.

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New Natural Gas Opportunities

July 25, 2014

Recent headlines showed Electro-Motive Diesel (EMD) losing the race for cleaner diesel locomotive engines to GE(1). (See note 1 for disclaimer.)

Caterpillar had purchased the Electro-Motive Diesel (EMD) business in 2010 that had previously been owned by General Motors, as the Electro-Motive Division.

New regulations, coming into effect January 1, 2015, will see GE with a diesel engine meeting the new regulations, while EMD locomotives may not be able to.

This raises an interesting situation for EMD, saying it will focus on foreign sales while still developing its Tier 4 offering.

But does EMD have another option, that, while not immediately available, could leap-frog GE?

While locomotives only use 7% of the diesel fuel consumed in the United States, they still represent an opportunity for using liquefied natural gas (LNG).

The first thought that comes to mind, is to replace diesel fuel with LNG while still using diesel engines.

But why not use gas turbines?

The use of gas turbines in locomotives has a long history, which was well documented in a series of articles in Turbomachinery International(2).

Several railroads are currently exploring the use of LNG for existing diesel locomotives. By one estimate, it would cost between $600,000 and $1 million to convert a diesel locomotive to using natural gas, though this may include the LNG tanker as shown in the accompanying picture.

Picture from Canadian National Railway Company

Picture from Canadian National Railway Company

A new diesel-electric locomotive costs around $2.5 million.

So, why not build new gas turbine-electric locomotives that use LNG?

Current diesel-electric locomotives use a 4,400 HP generator. The electricity produced by the generator is routed to traction motors that actually drive the train.

GE has more or less ceded the lower HP gas turbine market to others, including Solar Turbines Incorporated, a Caterpillar company. Looking at published GE spec sheets, it seems as though GE is focused on the power generation market, and larger pipeline and related markets, with 15,000 HP being among the lowest ratings published. However, GE’s LM500 marine gas turbine, rated 6,000 HP, might be suitable.

Solar Turbines, on the other hand, has a number of gas turbines rated around 4,000 HP.

GE would probably oppose switching from diesel-electric to gas turbines, as GE’s highly successful locomotives are built around diesel-generators, that are said to be able to meet the new exhaust standards.

It would be an interesting strategic move by Caterpillar to promote Solar Turbine’s gas turbines for powering locomotives.

Marrying Solar Turbine’s, gas turbines to locomotives that use LNG, would be a strategic end run around GE.

There are around 24,000 Class 1 locomotives in the United States. By focusing on one major railroad, such as Union Pacific, EMD could develop a market for around 8,000 gas turbine powered locomotives.

Most companies involved with transportation, including Caterpillar, are developing diesel engines that can run on LNG, so it’s not entirely clear which route — gas turbines or diesel — EMD will take.

While it’s very possible that railroads will eventually adopt LNG because of its lower cost, with diesel fuel representing as much as 25% of overall expenses, adopting gas turbines is more problematic.

To me, the more important thought is how fracking has created new opportunities.

While the idea of using gas turbines in locomotives is speculative, it’s clear that low-cost natural gas, as the result of fracking, is creating new opportunities and changing the industrial landscape.

 

  1. Notes:
    All of the information contained in this article is from published sources, and does not draw upon unpublished sources from either General Electric or Caterpillar. It should be noted, that while an employee of General Electric, I had a close relationship with the locomotive and turbine businesses.
  2. Articles by Ivan Rice in Turbomachinery International at http://www.turbomachinerymag.com/blog/content/how-rising-fuel-costs-forced-retirement-frame-3-and-5-units-us-locomotives

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Meaningless LCOEs

July 22, 2014

Proponents of renewables, such as wind and solar, frequently use Levelized Cost of Electricity (LCOE) to demonstrate that wind and solar can generate electricity as inexpensively as coal or natural gas power plants.

The unsuspecting person could easily assume this is correct, since both the Energy Information Administration (EIA) and National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) publish LCOEs that support that view.

Unfortunately, LCOEs can be misleading, and those published by EIA and NREL fit that category. They can also be irrelevant.

LCOE Calculator From Open EI at NREL Web Site

LCOE Calculator From Open EI at NREL Web Site

 

For example, with respect to wind generated-electricity: The EIA uses a capacity factor of 35%, which is higher than the actual 32% average for all US wind farms. This results in a lower LCOE for wind. NREL uses a capacity factor of 38% which is even more incorrect.

Both EIA and NREL use a thirty year expected life for wind and solar installations, which is probably greater than will actually occur. A 25 year life for wind and solar would be more likely, and, in the case of wind, there is some indication that life could be less than 20 years.

A 30 year life results in a lower LCOE than the probable 25 year life of these installations.

There are other assumptions that also result in lower LCOEs for wind and solar, and higher LCOEs for natural gas and coal-fired power plants.

Natural gas and coal-fired power plants have lives of 40 or 60 years, so that assuming these plants have a life of 30 years results in higher LCOEs than warranted.

And the EIA goes further, by adding a charge for CO2 emissions for the LCOE of coal-fired power plants.

These obvious differences result in LCOEs that distort the truth.

Even more importantly, the LCOEs for wind and solar are incompatible with those for natural gas and coal-fired power plants. It’s like comparing peanuts with oranges.

Both wind and solar are intermittent and unreliable, so they have less value than steady, reliable generation from natural gas and coal-fired power plants.

For wind, it’s like going to the faucet to turn on the water, but only getting water one-third of the time.

Or, in the case of both water and solar, it’s like trying to ride a bicycle that only has one wheel. It doesn’t work.

Or, another analogy for solar: Having a car that can only run during daylight hours wouldn’t be very useful during the winter months, especially in Alaska.

The cheapest electricity in the world is of no use, if it isn’t available 24/7, year round.

Even if the LCOEs for wind and solar were less than those for natural gas and coal-fired power plants, they aren’t comparable.

There’s an important caveat when comparing wind and solar with natural gas and coal-fired power plants for use on islands, such as Hawaii, Tahiti and all the other small islands around the world that don’t have access to grid power from the mainland.

Proponents of wind and solar use Hawaii and other islands as examples for supporting wind and solar in the rest of the United States.

Few small islands have natural gas, oil or coal as naturally occurring resources, and must import expensive fossil fuels to run power plants, frequently diesel generators.

LCOEs are irrelevant in these situations, where wind and solar can displace very expensive oil, coal or natural gas imports. Using wind and solar on these islands is purely a matter of which combination of wind, solar and fossil fuel generators can most effectively reduce the importing of very expensive oil, diesel fuel or LNG.

Interjecting how islands make use of wind and solar into a discussion of power generation in the United Sates, other than Hawaii, is a distortion of the facts.

As described above, LCOEs can be manipulated to distort the economics.

Most importantly, comparing LCOEs of wind and solar with those of natural gas combined cycle (NGCC) and coal-fired power plants is meaningless, because only NGCC and coal-fired power plants, ignoring nuclear for the moment, can produce electricity 24/7, year round.

LCOEs can be useful, but not to compare wind and solar with NGCC and coal-fired power plants.

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Save The Grid

July 18, 2014

There is a cancer eating away at the grid, and it goes by the name, PV rooftop solar.

The spread of this disease is facilitated by renewable portfolio standards (RPS), where states require utilities to increase their sale of electricity from renewable sources.

Net-metering accelerates the spread of the disease by forcing utilities to pay owners of PV rooftop solar systems more for electricity than it’s worth.

There is a cure, but poorly informed legislatures are avoiding it.

It’s also a very simple cure, analogous to penicillin in the fight against bacterial diseases: It’s called, eliminating subsidies.

Without subsidies, the disease will die out, by cutting off the life blood of new PV rooftop solar installations.

PV Rooftop Solar Installation Photo by D. Dears

PV Rooftop Solar Installation Photo by D. Dears

Germany has shown how the disease can cause the death of electric utilities and the grid. While German utilities are still alive, they are in intensive care.

The CEO’s of German utilities have called for measures that would put them on life support, a demand charge added to customer’s bills to cover the cost of maintaing the power generation facilities needed to supply electricity when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow.

This near death condition has been caused by highly destructive feed-in tariffs, i.e., net-metering on steroids, resulting in the rapid spread of PV solar cancer cells.

Thirty-three states in the United States have enacted RPS laws requiring each utility to sell an increasingly large proportion of electricity from renewable sources. The disease, except in California, is still in its infancy stages, since RPS requirements in most states are still only around 2%.

But, the states’ RPS requirements will increase rapidly by 2025, only ten years from now, when RPS laws will require that 25% to 33% of electricity come from renewables.

Net metering requires utilities to pay homeowners with PV solar systems an inflated price for any excess electricity their rooftop systems produce. Typically the utility must pay homeowners between 11 and 16 cents per kilowatt hour (kwh) for the electricity the utility could generate for 5 cents per kWh.

Utilities must make up this increased cost by raising prices to customers that don’t have PV solar installations. The utility must be able to pay for maintaining transmission and distribution systems, for which most PV solar homeowners get a free ride.

In addition, the utility is deprived of the revenue from these homeowners. While this lost revenue is still a relatively small amount, it will increase as the cancer spreads and more people install subsidized PV solar systems.

This lack of revenue will hollow out the utility system until utilities are unprofitable, and unable to continue generating electricity for those who don’t have PV solar systems.

Saving the grid is important, for several reasons.

People who live in cities are unable, for the most part, to install PV solar systems, and must get electricity from the grid.

Wind farms need the grid to bring electricity to where it can be used: Without the grid, energy from wind is impossible.

Industries need the grid for low-cost electricity. Without the grid they must install far more costly generation equipment.

Even those with PV solar systems need the grid to get electricity when the sun doesn’t shine, at night or on cloudy days.

In short, the grid is indispensable.

As is true with all cancers, catching it at an early stage improves the possibility of killing it.

The PV rooftop solar cancer can be killed by eliminating subsidies for PV solar installations, eliminating RPS that fosters the disease, and net metering that sustains it.

Now is the time to save the grid.

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Electric Vehicle Update

July 15, 2014

At the end of the first half of 2014, the sales figures for PHEVs and EVs are available, and they aren’t particularly good.

The sale of PHEVs for the first 6 months of 2014, versus the same period for 2013, increased from 18,355 to 29,122 vehicles, a 59% increase.

The sale of EVs increased from 22,712 to 25,844 vehicles, a 14% increase.

2014 6-Month Sales

  PHEVs (Includes Extended Range Vehicles)

Battery Powered EVs

Monthly Totals

January

2,934

2,971

5,905

February 

3,721

3,324

7,045

March 

4,594

4,578

9,172

April 

4,718

4,187

8,905

May

6,651

5,802

12,453

June

6,511

4,982

11,493

TOTAL

29,129

25,844

54,973

Total sales of PHEVs and EVs in the first half, were only 54,973 in 2014 versus 41,047 in 2013.

At this pace, PHEV and EV sales will never reach Obama’s 2011 target of one million by 2015.

Volt and Leaf

Volt and Leaf

What may be the most interesting conclusion from this data, comes from comparing PHEV and EV sales:

Total PHEV sales, 2011 through the first half of 2014, were 124,392 vehicles.

Total EV sales, for the same period, were 97,153.

The fact that EV sales approach those of PHEVs, when PHEVs were to be the most customer friendly, i.e., lower price and no range anxiety, seems remarkable.

What conclusions can be drawn from this observation?

I suspect that this sales data reflects the market segment of people who are intent on buying electric vehicles.

This group includes:

  • First adopters
  • Radical environmentalists, especially those who believe that CO2 causes global warming
  • Status seekers

These types would be sufficiently affluent, or environmentally motivated, to buy the more expensive EV rather than the PHEV.

The apparent fact that ordinary people aren’t attracted to PHEVs could indicate that the total market for PHEVs and EVs is rather small, and limited to the market segment identified above.

If this is true, it bodes poorly for the future of electric vehicles, in general.

Further reinforcing this possible conclusion, is that the sale of Hybrid vehicles, that have the cachet of being environmentally friendly, with a price tag that most people can afford, and a reasonable pay-back period from gasoline savings, are doing very well.

Annual sales of Hybrids are approaching 500,000 vehicles per year.

The billions being spent by governments on tax-payer funded rebates, may also be affecting buying decisions, so that without them, sales of PHEVs and EVs would be even lower.

There was movie a few years ago, “Who Killed the Electric Car?”

It may turn out it wasn’t GM, but the market place that killed the electric car … and will kill it again if government stops supporting it.

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CHP Creates More Energy Confusion

July 11, 2014

Combined Heat and Power (CHP) is mentioned in the EPA’s proposal to cut CO2 emissions 30%, as a possible approach for achieving improved energy efficiency.

But how does CHP improve energy efficiency, and if so by how much.

Some radical environmental organizations, such as Greenpeace, claim that CHP has en efficiency of over 90%. Greenpeace makes this claim in its plan, the Energy [R]evolution, which is riddled with hype and misinformation.

Greenpeace, and other radical environmentalists, claim that using exhaust steam from turbines, to heat homes and businesses, will dramatically improve thermal efficiency.

The use of CHP is prevalent in Europe where people live in close proximity to power plants, and the steam can be piped to their homes and businesses. For example, in Denmark, Finland and the Netherlands, CHP accounts for over 30% of total generating capacity. The EU’s 2004 Cogeneration Directive required member states to promote CHP.

Conditions favorable to CHP are seldom present in the United States, though some cities, such as New York, have used CHP.

A claim of 90% efficiency is important, since traditional coal-fired power plants have a thermal efficiency of around 33%, a simple cycle gas turbine around 45%, and a natural gas combined cycle power plants around 65%.

Large steam turbine and generator

Large steam turbine and generator

Achieving a 90% thermal efficiency would, obviously, be highly beneficial.

The claim that CHP achieves an efficiency of over 90% is, however, bogus.

The mistake arises when people assign the same value to the heat, extracted in exhaust steam from a turbine, with the electricity produced by the power plant. The exhaust steam has low heat content and therefore less value than the electricity produced by the power plant.

Under the second law of thermodynamics, the exhaust steam can do less work.

The EPA also made the same mistake on its web site by arriving at an efficiency of 75% for a hypothetical plant, valuing electricity and low temperature steam equally.

The best analogy is one suggested by the former editor of Power Magazine:

An automobile’s engine using gasoline has considerable horsepower and also heats water in the engine’s cooling system. The hot water is then used to heat passengers during the winter. While this takes advantage of the heat in the water, the water doesn’t have the power to drive the automobile. Gasoline has high energy density, while hot water has a low energy density. Using the hot water for heating the car does not increase the engines efficiency.

Low temperature steam has some value, but not a value that is equal to electricity.

CHP was in vogue in the United States during the first part of the twentieth century, before the grid supplied low-cost electricity to manufacturing plants. These plants installed CHP to generate electricity for the plant and to supply steam for the plant’s various processes, including heating the plant. After the grid was in place and cheap electricity was available from the grid, these CHP plants fell out of favor.

CHP is still used where there is a need for large amounts of steam, such as in chemical plants and refineries.

The use of centralized power generation in the United States remains the most efficient method for generating and distributing electricity at the lowest cost. Distributed generation, such as with PV solar and CHP, is more costly.

However, Greenpeace and other radical environmental organizations promote CHP.

The Obama administration has established a target of adding 40,000 MW of CHP generation by 2020, and states are likely to adopt CHP as part of their plans to comply with the EPA’s proposed regulations for cutting CO2 30%, under the mistaken idea that it significantly improves energy efficiency.

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