Wednesday, December 31, 2008


Yep, I'm still here! Between the "holiday season", work demands, and the various unbidden excitements of the economy--global, local and personal--I have found no time to write as I would otherwise have liked, about many things. This hasn't stopped me from collecting a lot of good stuff which I intend to organize and trickle out in the next few weeks, although I have learned that it is pointless to wait until some future point "when things are less crazy" because that time never comes.

Looking back at my efforts in this space I realize that, as a relatively new blogger, I still have much to learn and there are many things I want to change and, ideally, improve.

In the meantime, please accept my thanks for reading and ocassionally commenting on these disparate tidbits and screeds. I especially wish to thank those of you that have subscribed; you give me encouragement to continue posting and some relief that I am not merely talking to myself as if in some delusional reverie.

I take comfort in the lengthening of the days and the promise of Spring's rebirth. This year I also await a political rebirth and cautiously hope also for a rebirth of a deeply reflective and self-aware consciousness. We cannot continue uncritically on a path of unsustainable existence.

John Michael Greer wrote another fine piece today, cautioning against a naive belief in some kind of manifest destiny stemming from the comforting but irrational notion that history has a purpose, an evolutionary arc that leads us ever onward to an improved human condition. It doesn't.
Thus there’s a fine irony in the insistence by so many people these days that evolution will shortly relieve us of the necessity to deal with the consequences of our own mistakes, and get history back on track to their imagined goal. They’re right that the historical changes under way now are evolutionary in nature; their mistake lies in thinking, to put the matter perhaps a bit too harshly, that evolution is some sort of cosmic tooth fairy who can be counted on to leave a shiny new future under the modern world’s pillow to replace one rotted away by three centuries of extravagant living.
We have been living in extravagant times. It's been quite a ball, but the clock approaches midnight not just on the day or the year, but in a much deeper, perhaps even epochal way. Yes, the sun will come up tomorrow, but will we still be dressed in finery, riding in splendid coaches and enjoying delicacies imported from afar?

Peak oil. Peak resources generally. Instability in Greece and Thailand. Wealth destruction. The fecklessness of the Splurge. Species extinction. Ice caps and glaciers melting. Carbon beyond the tipping point. The Doomers are in full throat. Was Malthus right after all? Will food riots and wars over water be the theme of this century?

There is much work ahead of us, and despair is not an option. While I work on some small efforts to create technology that may help I know it will take much more than that, and not just the making of new contraptions better suited to the coming age. We need to not just act, but also to think and to believe differently. We are past the point where incrementalism is much help; evolution will take too long. More importantly, our vast, complicated, and interconnected society has blinded us to the necessity of doing ourselves. Do not think you can continue on as you have been, and somehow, someday, somewhere, someone will invent a wonderous technology, galvanize a movement or discover something--anything!--that will let us exhale and go back to whatever it was we are doing. The calvary isn't coming, or rather, we are the calvary. It's time to ride. Are you with us?

If you are on Twitter please consider following me @cleyerle. You can also find me on Facebook, LinkedIn and Plaxo. Ping me should you ever be in the area and we can have some nice sludgy coffee together; I enjoy meeting and learning from new people.

May the coming year bring you strength of heart, clarity of vision, confidence of purpose, power of imagination, stamina of perseverance, and resourcefulness in every meaning of the word.

Yes we can. Yes we must. Yes we will.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Questions on Public Transit

James Fallows has an interesting post on the Beijing Metro. The growth, both current and planned is astounding.

How can they afford it?

How can they afford not to?

These are basically the same questions we should be asking ourselves and our leaders in this country about public transit.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Energy Efficiency for Buildings

Ted Kulongoski, Governor of Oregon, plans to send the Oregon legislature a bill next month which would require disclosure of the energy use and greenhouse gas emissions of all buildings for sale in the state. Homes would be covered starting in 2010 with businesses following in 2011.

Home builders are predictably sceptical:
Jon Chandler, chief executive of the Oregon Homebuilders Association, called mandatory certificates “silly.” “It’s an educational tool,” Mr. Chandler said. “It doesn’t do anything for energy efficiency one way or another.”
Really? The disclosure of the energy use of furnaces, water heaters, and appliances has certainly had an educational effect, but armed with that education consumers increasingly demanded more efficient models, and manufacturers focused their efforts on meeting that demand. Most consumers no longer even consider an appliance that lacks an Energy Star label. The result has been an overall increase in energy efficiency--40% for refrigerators since 2001--exactly the result intended and the result which Jon Chandler appears to believe won't happen with buildings.

Energy Star was expanded to also include new homes in 1995, but I don't believe that this is widely known. Energy Star ratings on homes certainly aren't widely used--my wife and I bought our home a year ago, and we looked at several new homes. Not one had any hint of Energy Star or other efficiency information, except on the appliances. Like most, we bought with little idea what the monthly energy costs would be.

The reluctance of home builders stems, as ever, from their cost. It costs something to do the energy analysis of a building and get an Energy Star (or other) rating. It likely costs more still to make the design, materials, and other decisions necessary to garner a good rating. Such costs may decrease over time as the building industry gains familiarity with good energy designs and realizes economies of scale in implementing them. Meanwhile, the overall trend of rising energy costs is impelling consumers towards more energy efficient purchases. A higher purchase price can be justified if it entails longer-term operating cost savings. This is clearly happening right now with cars.

Astute businesses don't wait for government mandates before addressing evolving customer preferences. This is true for car companies, and it will soon become true of builders as well. Why wait until your costs are higher and competitors are eating your lunch? Chandler tacitly acknowledges this truth when he admits:
We’re gearing up for the mandate. We’d like to position ourselves to do the contracting work.
Indeed. Why not make money from giving customers what they want? Be a leader! Our future energy economy will require massive investment in renewable energy, smart grid technology, distributed electrical generation and energy efficiency. The trend is clear--voluntary systems like Energy Star, Portland's nonprofit Earth Advantage, and programs in California and Minnesota will likely give way to required disclosures such as those in the UK.

Promoting energy efficiency is a critical part of an overall energy policy, and one of the most cost-effective. Utilities already subsidize everything from refrigerators and furnaces to windows and insulation. Homeowners can get an energy audit, which are generally available for free in most areas, and are offered by energy utilities, local governments and educational institutions, especially those that have related vocational programs. It's time for the building industry to get more proactive in both building and bragging about their energy efficient products.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Distributed Generation

In the developed parts of the world we are all quite familiar with centralized electricity generation. Megawatts of high-voltage electrical power are created by large coal, gas, nuclear, or other installations and sent over the transmission grid to areas of large demand where it is transformed to lower voltage and distributed to individual homes and businesses.

The alternative is distributed or point-of-use energy generation. Water wheels have been used for thousands of years to create mechanical energy for grinding grain, sawing lumber, and pumping water for drinking or irrigation. Windmills have been used similarly. These and other technologies are still in use in much of the developing world today, along with distributed power from less sustainable sources like diesel generators.

Distributed and point-of-use generation have advantages and disadvantages over centralized power generation. Centralized generation requires an electrical grid, which is both costly and difficult to create since it demands an enormous right-of-way footprint. Our current electrical grid was developed higgledy-piggledy over time and increasingly reveals its growing decrepitude. It is less suitable to the many of the new forms of generation, especially variable renewable energy, like wind, which now comprises 40% of all new generation in the United States.

Restructuring our energy economy is a monumental, but critically needed undertaking. Promoting greater energy efficiency, developing utility-scale renewable energy generation and creation of a new, smart, electrical grid are important certainly, but getting less visibility is the rediscovery and resurgence of distributed energy, especially that based on sustainable sources. Distributed renewable energy generation has a huge potential market where there is no electrical grid, primarily in the developing world, but also in off-grid locations such as remote communities, military and offshore marine uses, and isolated scientific or other installations.

Distributed renewable energy generation will also often make sense even alongside centralized generation and grid distribution for several reasons:
  • Operating cost: where there is no fuel expense the operating cost of distributed energy can be very low, limited only to maintenance and financing. Where excess is generated, it can be reverse-metered and make money.
  • Environment: as the likelihood of the introducing some carbon tax or cap-and-trade system grows, a carbon-neutral solution gains appeal.
  • Security and independence: locally produced and used power is not as subject to disruptions from foreign fuel supplies, labor unrest, hostile state or terrorist action.
There are many distributed generation approaches, both new and re-imagined from older ideas. Apart from small solar and small wind, which are quite widely recognized and have decades of recent installations, there are some intriguing others:

The ones that capture human power are especially tantalizing, since they appear at first to be free and nearly limitless from something otherwise wasted. However, I can't help but wonder if we were drawing energy from all our kinetic activities all day long, wouldn't we get rather hungry? No free lunch (or breakfast or dinner) means that the operating costs are just hidden in another way. Energy that comes from nature, however, be it flowing water, waves, solar, etc. does not require any significant input of human productivity to generate on a day-to-day basis. This is why we're so bullish on in-stream hydrokinetic power, and started our company Hydrovolts to make a product to harvest it.

The biggest disadvantage of distributed energy generation is capital cost. Economies of scale have largely favored centralized generation; to be cost-effective, distributed energy generation solutions must be simple, mass-produced, easily transported and require minimal installation time and expertise. Lots of companies, including ours, are seeking to create just these kinds of products.

The current political and economic debate rightfully focuses on building the energy infrastructure that will both create a current economic stimulus and to lay a foundation for future growth and prosperity. President-elect Obama, as well as many think-tanks, institutes, and progressives--call them the Obama Ohana--cheer large-scale and large-dollar solutions for enormous renewable energy projects and massive smart grid building. I support these, but a similar impetus should also be given to partially decentralizing energy generation. A federal investment bank providing grants and loan guarantees, like a clean energy bank modeled on the very successful Ex-Im Bank, would be a powerful and cost-effective measure to nurture good ideas into the next generation of businesses to solve our nation's energy needs, rebuild our industrial base, and create jobs.

Not all big problems need big solutions. In an era when "too big to fail" should imply too big to exist, it's time to start thinking and acting locally.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

6 Principles of a Coherent Energy Policy

Excellent piece in Scientific American this morning by Shirley Ann Jackson, vice chair of the U.S. Council on Competitiveness, and co-chair of its Energy Security, Innovation and Sustainability Initiative. Her (too brief) article outlines some great principles and suggests some specific elements of an action plan on energy for consideration by the Obama team in the first 100 days.

The U.S. can no longer afford merely to tinker with alternative energy or to focus on a single energy source. We certainly cannot drill our way out of this problem. A comprehensive energy plan would adhere to six principles: ensure redundancy of supply and diversity of source; support well-functioning energy markets; invest in sound infrastructure for energy generation, transmission and distribution; provide for environmental sustainability and energy conservation based on full life-cycle costs; offer consistent regulation and transparent price signals; and link each energy source to its optimal sector of use.
Bravo. Replace "tinkering" with policy. Recognize that "drill, baby, drill" is not a solution. Address both supply and demand of energy in equal measure. End the privatization of profit and the socialization of costs and losses. So much of this has been anathema to the free-booting carpetbaggers of the Bush years, and their wilful obstruction has helped spawn the current crisis and has elevated the costs and risks enormously. It's past time for taking realistic, long-term approaches to our environmental, financial and energy future. Yes we will.

Some of the specific suggestions Jackson add include:

  • An executive order mandating that the federal government purchase products and services that meet the highest energy-efficiency standards.
  • Establish a $200-billion “clean energy” bank, modeled on the U.S. Export-Import Bank and Overseas Private Investment Corporation.
  • Triple the federal investment in basic and applied energy research and development.
  • Create public-­private partnerships, finance start-up companies and support existing small and medium-size clean energy businesses.
  • End inequitable subsidies between different energy sources, equalizing competition.
  • Establish a consistent federal investment framework for all energy options and require a full life-cycle analysis.
  • Create a the smart grid, enabling significant expansion of alternative energy supplies.

These are all good ideas and fit with the kinds of plans Obama has been mentioning on the campaign trail. The price tag will be large, but compared to the $335B dispensed (so far) under the Splurge, relatively affordable. The overriding need, of course, is to have a balanced energy policy, rather than an ad hoc grab-bag of handouts to friends and favored industries. Despite the significant cost at least we will be buying something of value. The public has given a mandate for bold action, and obstructionists will only cement their own marginalization.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Grays Harbor Ocean Energy Company

The Grays Harbor Ocean Energy Company (GHOEC) has filed applications for preliminary Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) permits for hydrokinetic power at seven sites in six US states.

These filings are starting to get more visibility and comment and several people have asked us for more information on what we are doing, what our plans are, and why we are taking this approach. We have also upset a few people, primarily over two things: for not having engaged in more advance consultation, and for (some fear) having some kind of nefarious agenda.

In this post I will strive to provide some explanatory background along with more information about our plans and intentions. Your comments and constructive criticisms are welcome; please comment on this post or send email to


My business partner Burt Hamner and I founded GHOEC a year ago initially to pursue utility-scale ocean energy near Grays Harbor County in Washington State. Burt earlier had directed a feasibility study (12MB PDF) for Tacoma Power in Puget Sound's Tacoma Narrows to assess the viability and feasibility of tidal power. The study's conclusion is that tidal power in Tacoma Narrows would not be feasible for a decade or longer, and Tacoma Power sensibly declined to proceed further.

Although the study's result was disappointing--we had hoped to proceed with a demonstration project there--the need for renewable energy persists, so we looked at where to go next, and, as a result formed two companies, Hydrovolts and GHOEC. Hydrovolts seeks to take the concept of utility scale tidal turbines and build them much smaller--at kilowatt scale--for distributed and point-of-use generation. GHOEC sought to find solutions other than tidal power for large-scale renewable energy generation in Washington State.

During the assessment for Tacoma Power it became clear that the outer coast of Washington State has very strong wave and wind resources, and few were exploring them. Natural Currents LLC received a preliminary permit for tidal energy in Willapa Bay in March 2007 (P-12729) and Finavera Rewnewables continues to pursue wave energy in Makah Bay, having received the nation's first (and so far only) commercial operating license from FERC. (FERC permits and comments can be found here.) GHOEC filed an application for a preliminary FERC permit on 10/28/07 to assess the ocean energy potential near Grays Harbor; given the potential of the resource, we were surprised that no one else had previously done this.

Interestingly, AquaEnergy (later bought by Finavera) earlier looked at offshore energy in Grays Harbor, but discontinued their efforts because the ocean was too deep for their particular wave device. This may be the origin of the idea that the Washington coast is too deep for ocean energy devices in general; as we talked to various renewable energy people and companies we kept hearing that the ocean of Washington State was "too deep." However, the ocean current on the Pacific Coast moves south-to-north, and the Columbia River discharges at least a million tons of sediment into that current every year. So, while the outer continental shelf (OCS) is very narrow off California and much of Oregon, it gets quite large from near the mouth of the Columbia and to the north. 10 miles from shore the ocean is only about 150 feet deep, meaning that there is a very large area suitable for many kinds of marine renewable energy devices, and offshore wind turbines of the largest size could be placed far enough out to perhaps entirely mitigate concerns about views and noise.

The FERC Role

The FERC issued our preliminary permit P-13058 on 7/30/08. (Press Release.) This preliminary permit gives us the right to assess the potential for wave power at the two sites detailed in the application and described in detail on our web site. It does not permit the placement of anything in the water; that can only occur under a FERC pilot or operating license, and only after acquiring many other permits from the various local, state and federal authorities. What the FERC permit and FERC process do, however, is provide a detailed framework for proceeding. It removes ambiguity on what is required and ensures formal involvement of all stakeholders, including environmentalists, fishers and crabbers, local officials, tribes, property owners, and others. The FERC system also grants the first applicant for a hydropower site priority development rights. Says the FERC:
Section 4(f) of the Federal Power Act authorizes the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to issue preliminary permits for the purpose of enabling prospective applicants for a hydropower license [covers wave power but not wind power] to secure the data and perform the acts required by FPA section 9.3 which in turn sets forth the material that must accompany an application for license. The purpose of a preliminary permit is to preserve the right of the permit holder to have the first priority in applying for a license for the project that is being studied. Because a permit is issued only to allow the permit holder to investigate the feasibility of a project while the permittee conducts investigations and secures necessary data to determine the feasibility of the proposed project and to prepare a license application, it grants no land-disturbing or other property rights.
We are very interested in offshore wind, and the wind off Washington State is amongst the best in the world for generating wind energy. Wind is not much mentioned in any of our FERC permit applications for a very simple reason: FERC has no jurisdiction over offshore wind on the OCS or anywhere else. In our application for the Grays Harbor demonstration project we had originally included information on our plans to test wind energy using a single turbine; the FERC sent the application back and requested we remove all references to this. The FERC didn't even want to hear about it. In our newest applications there is also only passing mention of wind energy, and this is based on our experience in filing applications with FERC according to their rules and requirements.

The Minerals Management Service Role

Historically, Minerals Management Service (MMS) of the Department of the Interior has overseen the leasing of federal lands (and waters) for resource extraction. It grants leases through a competitive auction for everything from oil and gas drilling to metals and mineral mining. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 (PDF) also gave the MMS jurisdiction over renewable energy projects on the OCS. The MMS and the FERC have been negotiating how to cooperate on offshore renewable energy projects ever since. They had publicly announced their intention to sign a MOU, but there is still no completed agreement. MMS completed the comment period on their proposed rules in September and has indicated that they will release final rules before the end of the year (now only weeks away.)

I posted earlier about FERC asserting jurisdiction over hydrokinetic projects on the OCS and the state of affairs between the two agencies. There are excellent summaries of the inter-agency squabble here and here. Final resolution by mutual agreement may yet happen, but intervention by Congress or adjudication by courts is looking more and more likely.

The GHOEC Approach

We believe our energy future requires offshore renewable generation from wind and wave. The best places to do these kinds of energy projects is farther out, beyond the limit of state waters--10-15 miles from shore.

The GHOEC technology solution for ocean renewable energy includes a mobile jackup platform that supports wave energy and wind turbines. The MMS does not yet have a process or rules to pursue energy projects on the OCS. When FERC asserted jurisdiction on hydropower projects on the OCS they provided a way to proceed. The Company therefore applied for FERC preliminary permits to assess wave energy from the sites identified. If the FERC issues preliminary permits the Company will proceed with site studies. The results of the studies, local consultations, partnering discussions and other factors will guide GHOEC in its decision of whether or not to proceed with the next phase of FERC permitting. We expect that resolution will be achieved on the issues between the FERC and the MMS and expect to pursue whatever applicable rules and procedures established by MMS, just as we will comply with those of all other authorities at every governmental level.

We are not hiding our interest in pursuing offshore wind or engaged in some kind of devious Trojan horse activity. Formal applications and responses to FERC are done according to their rules; we strive to present the full and accurate picture of what we are doing and planning on our web site. We also encourage interested or concerned parties to submit comments to FERC or directly to us. Commenting on the FERC applications is easy--when you have the docket number of the application go to FERC Online and follow the directions.

Finally, all of this is still at a very preliminary stage and many things could change as we go forward. We have not selected any particular wave or wind technology and recognize that considerable work lies ahead in figuring which, if any, would be suitable. Those alluded to in the applications or on our web site are provisional; any proposed solution will require careful and competent study in many areas, including suitability for any particular site.
We do like the three-legged jackup platform, adapted by Offshore Wind Power Systems of Texas from use in the Gulf of Mexico oil and gas industry. There are many advantages to this platform, including:
  • There are no cables/wires underwater which threaten whales
  • It has a smaller ocean floor footprint than cable systems
  • It can be placed/removed in as little as a single day
  • There is no driving of piles and thus none of the noise that pile-driving causes
  • The structures are simple enough that they can be manufactured locally using facilities that exist in any marine industry in any reasonably-sized port.
  • The core design withstands force 5 hurricanes and 60-foot swells

There are, of course, also many questions, which is why more studies need to happen before this or anything else is put in the water. Our approach is to proceed deliberately, following the rules, and doing the work of careful assessment and study using qualified experts and the insight and knowledge of local groups. If at any point it becomes clear that any project under consideration cannot be made viable, feasible, and environmentally compatible we will stop. Bookmark the page, print it out, memorialize this how you want. It is a commitment on our part.


The first that many local authorities and stakeholders learned of our plans was by a notice from a federal agency or a piece in the news. That is not what we wanted, and we are sincerely sorry for the shock and for any offense.

Just as with our removal of most mentions of wind turbines in our applications to the FERC, so to with our consultations: we acted based on our experience with the application for the project in Grays Harbor. Burt wrote an open letter explaining how we were surprised by the pace of the process:

I wish to extend my apologies for surprising state and local officials and organizations in the states where we have proposed projects. The FERC acted on our applications faster than I think it has ever acted for any applicant before, and, frankly, it caught it us off guard. We have not had time to contact the political, energy and ocean leaders in our project areas.

We applied for the preliminary FERC permit for the Grays Harbor project on October 28, 2007. The FERC opened the application for public comment five months later, and issued the permit on July 30, 2007, nine months after we applied. The seven recent permit applications were applied for on October 21, 2008 and the FERC opened them for public comment on November 28, 2008, a mere five weeks later. We simply did not expect (and did not have advance notice) that seven applications would all be opened for comment so quickly. Naively, we assumed that we could begin that process in January rather than during the holiday season, and be fully engaged prior to the FERC's action. We were clearly wrong to assume this and regret the negative impression of our intentions it has created. Burt wrote:
We have been preparing to contact the officials in the states affected by our applications in January and February, after the holidays and the Presidential transition and the new Federal agency heads are in place. I personally called FERC and asked them to open the public comment period in January or February, because opening it in December is rather unfair to the public - the holiday season is a big distraction and I don't think the public and agencies really get a "normal" 60-day comment period if it opens on November 28. A proposal for offshore energy development of course greatly concerns state and local officials and the affected public and interest groups. We have great experience in stakeholder consultation and the permitting processes and we like the FERC system, unlike almost every other developer, because it requires and directs an extensive consultation process with every stakeholder. We will follow that process and contact state and local leadership in our site areas beginning in January 2008. We have already contacted a few key people in each state. We look forward to receiving "official" comments on our applications to FERC during the 60-day period, and of course we want any feedback at any time to help us understand local concerns and learn how we can advance this tremendous opportunity in open partnership and collaboration.
Again, we welcome your comments, either directly to us or to FERC (use the docket number of the application and go to FERC Online.)