Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy New Year Everyone!

Make it a Clean & Green 2010

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Distributed Hydropower for Irrigation Districts

Irrigation districts can be found in nearly every state in the US. Operated, and often owned, like any other utility, irrigation districts provide water for crops, orchards, vineyards spread along the length of their maintained canals.

For many irrigation districts, electricity, primarily to power water pumps, is a significant cost--sometimes the second largest line item in their operating budgets, costing $1,000,000 or more every year.

Hydrovolts turbines can halve the cost of electricity in gravity-fed irrigation canals, providing a capital ROI to the districts of less than 5 years in Washington state. Because Washington State has the cheapest electricity in the entire US, the payback period in other states is even better. In California the expected capital ROI is 2-3 years.

These payback periods compare very well to other forms of distributed renewable energy generation--wind at 10+ years and solar at nearly 20. Plus, Hydrovolts turbines run continuously with the flow of the water; the power is neither intermittent nor variable.

One can think of an irrigation canal as a water terrace system, or a series of long shallow steps. Maintaining each "tread" at a specified height is very important to allow the pumps along the banks to have their intakes properly positioned, ensuring steady delivery of water to the fields.

The height in each tread of the canal is controlled by a check weir, the "riser" in this metaphorical water staircase. Each check weir has one or more adjustable sluice gates that control the flow of water from one canal section to the next. By raising or lowering the gate, the water behind (upstream from) the check weir can be kept to a specific level with great accuracy.

Just below the check weir the water is moving fast and has a lot of power. We have measured many flows in eastern Washington canals at greater than 10 knots (5 m/s) where even a small Hydrovolts turbine could generate 20kW, enough to run five 5 h.p. pumps. Many such locations would accommodate multiple turbines, as many as 6-10 in the larger canals.

A typical irrigation canal may stretch for 50-100 miles and typically has scores of check weirs. Each irrigation district is a potential customer for hundreds of turbines.

Many foreign countries also have extensive canals and irrigation systems well-suited to the Hydrovolts turbine.

There are many kinds of canals other than those in irrigation districts which could host turbines to create power. Transit canals, systems of locks, aqueducts and other fresh water supply systems could all be customers for new, distributed hydropower.

See also: Distributed hydropower for

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Moving Quickly on Trains

Even as the Eurostar has "fluffy" moisture problems, stranding people in the Chunnel for up to 16 hours, over in China people Saturday started taking trips on the fastest high-speed train in the world.

The new line is 664 miles long, connecting Guangzhou to Wuhan, and will eventually extend all the way to Beijing. Trains average 217 mph, faster even than France's TGV and Japan's Shinkansen.

Here in the United States high-speed rail remains a distant hope. It was 50 years ago that Japan started work on the original Tokaido Shinkansen high-speed train, at 130 mph slow by modern standards, but still faster then than anything built in the US since. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA, the "Stimulus Bill") allocated starting funding, but it won't get much built. Washington, New York, California and other states are fighting over scraps of it and asking for funding well beyond the $8B specifically allocated by ARRA. California voters approved a visionary project with a currently estimated cost of $45B.

Current European problems are somewhat anomalous. High speed trains have been operating for many years throughout Europe with few problems and heavy ridership. The system is extensive.

As as is implied by the color-coded segments of European high-speed trains, most passenger trips are of a few hundred miles rather than intercontinental. Trains don't replace airplane trips; they replace car trips because they are faster, cheaper, and more comfortable. Airline travel is increasingly unpleasant, and new security measures are likely to make it more so. In the high-travel transportation corridors especially trains are looking better and better:
...rail has several advantages that make it worth taking even if the terminal-to-terminal time is considerably longer than on air: less time on security lines; arrival in the city center, which is usually closer to where you want to go; electrical outlets!; and 3G internet as I travel.
I'd also add the obvious: you don't need to tuck your knees under your chin to fit in the seat, and you're pretty much free to get up and move around as much as you'd like.

The new Chinese line was built in 4 years. 42 more lines are planned by 2012.

Friday, December 25, 2009


Although we may not all share our beliefs or our faith, all of us take stock in this festive season of what has been and what we hope will be.

We remember those that we love, and those we have lost.

As the days grow longer again, let us take the spirit we hold in this season of light, and use it as our guide to a better future.

Your support and encouragement has made a difference as we have worked to pursue the vision of a world made better by what we make. More than one and half billion people today live without electricity, and many of them live on flowing water. Even a small turbine making 5kW can light a school and power its computers. It can keep a refrigerator of vaccines fresh and run medical equipment in a community clinic. It can charge batteries and operate a base station that allows once-isolated communities to communicate with the rest of the world. It can have a powerfully positive impact on the lives of more than a billion people.

Thank you to our friends for a great year. We look forward to working with you as we go forward.

Best wishes for a festive holiday season, and a prosperous and green year ahead.

From all of us at Hydrovolts, Chris, Burt, Brian & Chris.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Blowing Harder

Behold the recent trifecta of climate change denial know-nothingness.

First there was half-term Gov. Sarah Palin's screed, rushed into print without seeming benefit of any fact-checking by the WaPo. What will she write about next? The Large Hadron Collider and the mysteries of dark matter?

Next was Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) who, despite stiff competition for the title, can fairly lay claim to being the Most Embarrassing Member of the US Senate. Inhofe threatened for months to lead a "truth squad" to the Copenhagen Conference, but in the end showed up as a truthiness squad of ... himself, with no real plan, no meetings with delegates ... nothing. His aides cobbled together some reporters whom Inhofe addressed from the top of a staircase, inveighing against the "hoax" of global warming. Asked one reporter, “If there’s a hoax, then who’s putting on this hoax, and what’s the motive?” Inhofe responded that it was "perpetrated on the world by the UN" and sold to Americans "by the Hollywood elite." The European press, unlike many of its US counterparts, did not give such unsupported ravings equal time with the peer-reviewed findings of scientists. Said a reporter from Der Spiegel, "that's ridiculous. You're ridiculous."

Finally, we have Sean Hannity of Fox News in a momemt of unintentional lucidity during a bombastic exchange with former Education Secretary Bill Bennett on climate change and SwiftHack:
Why would a scientist -- and I have really not gotten a satisfactory answer from anybody -- why would scientists risk their careers and their reputations to lie and manipulate data if there wasn't some agenda? And if they are, and there is an agenda, what is it?
Here's a quick lesson in logic for Hannity called modus tollens:
If Scientists lie and manipulate data
Then Scientists have some agenda
Scientists do not have some agenda
Scientists do not lie and manipulate data
There is ample evidence to discredit the SwiftHack allegations for what they are--a smear campaign--but without even getting into those details, the whole notion fails any analysis of cui bono: to whom is the good, i.e. who benefits? It is easy to see how one side benefits: the constellation of carbon spewing industries, their funded "think" tanks, advocating pols and sycophantic press apologists. On the other side the scientists ... benefit how? No wonder Hannity cannot get "a satisfactory answer."

I'm no expert on climate change but, unlike the nincompoops quoted above, at least I can research sources and weigh competing viewpoints based on their logic, reasoning, veracity of sources, use of verifiable facts and appearance of conflicts of interest. Ultimately, however:
Most of us, most of the time, are like historian and blogger Josh Marshall: "The fact that the vast majority of people with specialized knowledge in the field think there's a problem is good enough for me," he wrote. "I can't be knowledgeable about everything. And I'm comfortable with the modern system in which the opinions of really knowledgeable people with expertise counts more in cases like this than people who know nothing at all."
If I had a medical condition I would seek the advice of doctors, not politicians or millionaire TV infotainers. I also wouldn't decide what to believe based on a poll. If the Earth doctors (climatologists) tell us in overwhelming numbers that the planet is ailing and intervention is necessary, why would we not trust them? They owe allegiance to their profession and to the truth, rather than, to paraphrase Upton Sinclair, to those who pay their salaries.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Distributed Hydropower for Resource Exploration

Hydrovolts turbines provide distributed generation from hydropower, a great benefit to those who live in remote areas where no grid exists to deliver centrally produced electricity. These people need a distributed, i.e. locally produced and used, energy generation technology which works when and where they need it, and is portable, rugged, and cost-effective.

Another example of an off-grid need for electricity is remote resource exploration, such as for mining. Almost all mining operations use quite a bit of water; feasibility of a particular mine site is dependent in part on the availability of a reliable water supply, generally from a natural watercourse such as a river. Consequently, such sites are well-suited for power generation using a Hydrovolts turbine.

The existing solution in almost all cases is a diesel generator. It has the advantage of providing steady power when and where needed, but has several serious drawbacks, including smell and noise, but most especially cost. In most remote locations the fuel must be brought in by truck, sometimes on very bad roads that can take days to navigate. In extreme cases, fuel must be flown in by helicopter. As a result, the effective cost of the generated electricity can be $1.00/kWh and up, compared to the average US retail price of $0.11/kWh, and less than $0.02/kWh from a Hydrovolts turbine.

Many companies engaged in resource exploration, including mining companies, are acutely sensitive to the needs and values of the communities in which they operate. Commonly such companies will build infrastructure (sometimes as part of their operations) which they will leave to community ownership upon project completion. According to one potential Hydrovolts customer, such infrastructure helps satisfy the "social license" companies crave to smooth the acceptance of their operations by local populations. In creating a "prideful and positive experience" they gain support of communities, reduce conflict and lower costs. Mining companies seek a social license when starting a new project or entering a new community not only because it is a best practice in sustainability, but because it increases the prospects for a successful project:
In 2003 Pierre Lassonde drew attention to the observation that “Without local community support, your project is going nowhere.” He described social license as “…the acceptance and belief by society, and specifically our local communities, in the value creation of our activities, such as we are allowed to access and extract mineral resources. … You don’t get your social licence by going to a government ministry and making an application or simply paying a fee. … It requires far more than money to truly become part of the communities in which you operate” (Lassonde 2003). A primary objective of gaining a Social License is to minimize project risk.
Hydrovolts turbines are an excellent choice for mining companies in the exploration phase of projects, as they are easily and rapidly deployed at modest cost. Hydrovolts turbines in larger numbers are also appropriate to the production phase, where they can save in overall capital costs as well as reduce costs during operation. Companies leaving the turbines behind for community would cement the social license and generate the goodwill and positive reputation that could aid in future projects. Creative partnering may also allow sharing the capital cost with NGOs or even the community itself.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Peak Buffalo

Yep, we'll never run out of oil as long as we keep drilling.

There were alternatives to buffalo too, but just not so obvious or acceptable to those who lives were defined by hunting buffalo.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

More Doctors Smoke Camels

Alan Leshner, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and executive publisher of the journal Science, wrote in the WaPo on-line (via):
Don't be fooled about climate science. In April, 1994 -- long after scientists had clearly demonstrated the addictive quality and devastating health impacts of cigarette smoking -- seven chief executives of major tobacco companies denied the evidence, swearing under oath that nicotine was not addictive. Now, the American public is again being subjected to those kinds of denials, this time about global climate change.
It is not surprising that corporate interests flack for their own financial advantage with no regard to anyone or anything else.

It is not surprising that mendacious pols write shabby op-ed pieces like the one to which this is a response.

It is not surprising that stenographic hacks publish them. (Kathleen Graham would be mortified.)

What is surprising is that so many find such people more credible than the thousands of scientists whose work has been subjected to decades of peer review and who have nothing to gain and everything to lose by the slightest misstep. Even when we've seen this movie before.

Did the tobacco companies pay the Camel-loving Doctors and Marlboro Men enough to compensate them for their shortened lives?

There is a big difference, however, between the paid tobacco shills and those gaining advantage (political, pecuniary or both) today--in the past they put their own future at risk; today they imperil it for everyone, for generations to come.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Clean Tech Open Video and Pictures

There were a lot of fun things about our week in San Francisco. Winning the National Sustainability Award at the Clean Tech Open (CTO) Gala. Being a finalist for Newpreneur of the Year competition. Seeing many old friends, and meeting new ones. Learning about many new companies doing exciting things. Especially cool was watching a professionally made video about Hydrovolts (as opposed to our home-made efforts):

Thanks to Dia North, Jonathon Angelini and the team at ExpertInABox for putting this together! (Also now on Youtube.)

Here are a few more pictures, from the Pacific Northwest region through the Gala in San Francisco:

Washington State Governor Christine Gregoire
with Department of Commerce head Rogers Weed,
Pacific Northwest CTO Co-Chair Byron McCann,
Events Chair Andy Braff, and the PNW Semifinalists

Pacific Northwest Clean Tech Open Sustainability Award
(l-r, Sustainability Chair Karl Unterschuetz, Hydrovolts' Brian Peithman,
Chris Leyerle and Burt Hamner, Andy Braff and Byron McCann)

Pacific Northwest Regional Finalists Award
(l-r, Andy Braff, LivinGreen Materials' Dr. Guozhong Cao,
Green Lite Motors' Buzz Hill and Tim Miller, CTO Executive Director Rex Northern,
Hydrovolts' Chris Leyerle, Burt Hamner and Brian Peithman, and Byron McCann)

Burt Hamner and Chris Leyerle demonstrate the
Hydrovolts Flipwing turbine at the CTO Gala

Burt Hamner addresses the CTO Gala audience

Chris Leyerle and Burt Hamner receive the CTO National
Sustainability Award from CTO Sustainability Chair Julia Hu
and Michael Closson of CTO Founding Partner Acterra

Finally, a reminder: if you can, please support the Clean Tech Open as it expands to the midwest and east coast next year by being a sponsor, a volunteer, or by making a donation. Thanks!

Links to recent media stories about Hydrovolts:

Globe Innovator
Triple Pundit
Renewable Energy World
Clean Tech Open Blog
News Blaze

There are many other sites that have reprinted these stories as well.

Monday, December 14, 2009

A Message from the Blue Man Group

I doubt supplemental oxygen will appear.

Is the climate changing? Well, 2009 is shaping up as the 5th hottest year on record. So obviously global warming is bunk:
How do we know this? Because, 2009 is only the 5th warmest year on record.

Don’t you see what that means?  1998 was warmer than 2009!  This means that, if anything, the earth is cooling. And it certainly is not warming.  If it was warming, wouldn’t each year be successively warmer? (Heck, wouldn’t each month be warmer?  Each day? Each hour?)

Seriously, there is a trend--the 11 hottest years on record have all occurred in the past 13 years. So much for the sunspot cycle.

h/t FDL

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Climate Walruses

Climate change deniers have been in full throat since the breaking of SwiftHack (often poorly and misleadingly named as "Climategate".) This supposed "scandal" is a calculated piece of propaganda, timed for maximum impact on the Copenhagen conference and transmorgified and regurgitated for brazenly craven reasons by the right-wing noise machine.

Their intellectual coherency, the relevancy of what they say... it reminds me of something I heard once...
"The time has come," the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things:
Of shoes--and ships--and sealing-wax--
Of cabbages--and kings--
And why the sea is boiling hot--
And whether pigs have wings."
You cannot relate such nonsense to anything real; it is all blather and pomposity masquerading as deep thinking. Fortunately, there are some who cut through the miasma of misdirection.

Our oceans are in serious trouble. US Representative Jay Inslee (D-WA) brought factual relevancy as well as some authentic passion to a hearing on the damage happening to them from climate change:

Rep. Inslee confessed to having "a little emotion" about the issue of the fisheries in the shallow Pacific coast waters and whether they could survive the growing acidification. This is the key part (about 4:03 in the video):
I want to ask: Is there anybody in this room, including the two witnesses, and my Republican colleagues, and my Democratic colleagues, and anybody in this room, who has information to suggest that the oceans are not becoming more acidic? Has anybody got information like that? Anybody? Has anybody got an explanation why the oceans are becoming more acidic, other than the fact that there is massive amounts of carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere? Has anybody got an explanation for that?


Lost in the sturm and drang about whether climate change is "real" are indisputable effects such as the encroaching death of our oceans due to radically increased carbon in the atmosphere.

The buffering long provided by the oceans is starting to fail.

The skeptical response usually falls back on the history of carbon concentrations in the atmosphere, arguing that carbon concentrations have been higher for much of geological time.

The objection that the carbon dioxide level was higher in past eons is specious. It's not that it has been higher, it's the rate at which it is changing which alarms. Given sufficient time species can adapt to changing temperatures, changing pH levels, or changing concentrations of atmospheric constituents.

Imagine the windshield on your car is covered in frost (this doesn't require much imagination around western Washington the past week or so!) One way to deice it would be to heat it up slowly with the car's defroster, which would slowly melt it away. Another way would be to pour warm water on it; you'd rid it of the ice in a trice, but the rate of temperature change would almost certainly break the glass. The glass ends up at the same temperature, but the rate makes all the difference.

The rapidity of the change in atmospheric carbon concentrations is breaking our oceans.

The concern trolls speak portentously about "junk science" and the supposed corruption of science to political ends. Their sincerity, however, rings hollow.
"I weep for you," the Walrus said:
"I deeply sympathize."
With sobs and tears he sorted out
Those of the largest size,
Holding his pocket-handkerchief
Before his streaming eyes. 
What do you think will become of the oysters if the climate walruses prevail?

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Our Energy Future

Interest is surging in nuclear power as a solution to our energy future. Why? Advocates argue that nuclear is clean energy, produces no carbon emissions in operation, makes continuous, firm power, and reduces our dependence on foreign oil.

Any currently plausible plan for commercial scale nuclear power relies on conventional uranium-fueled nuclear power plants (UFNPP) that use fission reactors. (Despite decades of research and advocacy for thorium-based and fusion reactors, they remain impractical.) The uranium, like oil, coal or gas, must be extracted from the earth, and is not replenished naturally in human time-scales.

Current nuclear technology cannot be described as renewable; but, given its supposed clean tech benefits, does that matter?

Replacing fossil fuels with nuclear would have an arguably positive effect on the environment by reducing carbon emissions, at least in operation. (The environmental impacts of uranimum mining, plant construction and waste disposal remain problematic.) The economic impacts are troubling, given the enormous cost of nuclear energy compared to all alternatives, and the enormous but nearly impossible-to-quantity costs of waste disposal.

There are other challenges [pdf]:
Nuclear energy must become dramatically more attractive to utilities, governments, and publics around the world. This would require reducing costs, preventing any substantial accident, avoiding terrorist sabotage, finding politically sustainable solutions to nuclear-waste management, and ensuring that nuclear energy does not contribute (and is not seen as contributing) to the spread of nuclear weapons to proliferating states or terrorist groups.
While these challenges are real, they can perhaps be solved given sufficient political skill and technical effort.

Uranium fuel supply, however, is a different kind of challenge.
If the United States were to sharply increase its use of nuclear power, from whence would the uranium fuel come? The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is sanguine, declaring in the announcement of its core study of uranium supply and demand (the "Red Book") that:
... new discoveries and re-evaluations of known conventional uranium resources will be adequate to supply nuclear energy needs for at least 100 years at present consumption level. Growing demand and higher prices have spurred greater investment in exploration and led to larger identified conventional uranium resources over the past two years.
But the present consumption level will almost certainly change, as the IAEA admits:
The demand picture is increasingly complex, with significant nuclear power builds underway in China, India, Korea, Japan and the Russian Federation, and phase-out programmes underway in several European countries. Yet the report notes that new builds along with plant life extensions should increase global installed nuclear capacity in the coming decades, thereby increasing demand for uranium. Projections for 2030 indicate a range of expected growth in demand from a low estimate of 38% to a high case of roughly 80%. Demand, however, is increasing, and will increase more sharply still if current discussions in the US Senate play out.
Thus, when considering only the currently projected increase in demand from this identified capacity growth, global supply might not last even 70 years. Climate change policy globally and partisan politics in the US will likely spur even more growth in UFNPPs and demand for uranium, shortening the timeline further.

A typical UFNPP in the US receives an NRC operating license for 40 years which is routinely renewed for an additional 20 years. To make the economics of nuclear power work, the plants need to operate for 60 years. With the long lag times to permit and build plants, however, the uranium supply will not be secure for the full lifetime of operation for plants yet to be built. This will, of course, have a major impact on the overall economics of any UFNPP project.

The supply of uranium is of two kinds. The IAEA, in its latest summary [pdf] writes of uranium:
Supply exceeded demand until 1990 when that relationship was reversed. The gap between newly mined and processed uranium (primary supply) and uranium requirements that developed after 1990 was filled by secondary supply including highly enriched uranium (HEU) from military stockpiles and inventory drawdown. In 2003, total demand was covered about equally by primary and secondary supply.
In other words, in 2003, only just over half of demand was met by new mining, with about 40% coming from previously mined but unused supply, and on re-purposing uranium originally part of weapons. (This so-called Megatons to Megawatts Program provides about 10% of US uranium supplies by the dismantling of former Soviet warheads. Would that there were more of this sort of swords-to-ploughshares program for weapons of all kinds throughout the world.) While energy security is rightly seen as an increasingly key part of national security, it is unlikely that the weapons stockpile will be cannibalized for its uranium to any great degree. At length, the secondary supply will become exhausted and the primary supply must increase to match demand.

The IAEA supply estimates are not beyond question. Michael Dittmar, a researcher at CERN in Switzerland believes the Red Book numbers are suspicious, if not wholly unreliable [pdf]:
Analysis shows that neither the 3.3 million tons of “assured” resources nor the 2.2 million tons of inferred resources are justified by the Red Book data and that the actual known exploitable resources are probably much smaller.
At The Oil Drum there is disagreement about short-term supply problems, but a recognition that the long-term picture is other than the IAEA picture would have it. Others see shortages of uranium by 2050.

One of the leading uranium consulting entities, Ux Consulting is cautious in its Uranium Market Outlook:
The market that we now find ourselves in is like no other in the history of uranium. Production is far below requirements, which are growing... Supply has become more concentrated, making the market more vulnerable to disruptions if there are any problems with a particular supply source. Another source of market vulnerability is the relatively low level of inventory held by buyers and sellers alike.
So far, this transition has been subject to considerable price volatility. The question is whether this volatility will continue. This will depend on the procurement, inventory, and investment decisions that are made in anticipation to and in reaction to the developing trends. Will governments get into the act, and how might this affect the future market? What other surprises may there be?
The global supply is not uniformly distributed, and any aggregate numbers mask the considerable differences in geographic concentration, economic feasibility and political availability. Much of the future increase in world-wide supply is thought to be coming from Kazakhstan and secondly from Africa and Canada. While the bulls see increased exploration and production making up for the inevitable decline of the secondary supply, the heterogeneous nature of the suppliers should give one pause.

The US supply situation is not favorable. Per the 2007 Red Book, annual uranium demand in the US was 22,890 tonnes. Domestic production, however, was barely 2,000 tonnes. The total identified uranium resource which is feasibly extractable in the US, assuming a resource price of less than $130/kg, is 339,000 tonnes. US domestic uranium supply, assuming 100% extraction, would last less than 15 years at current consumption rates.

Security concerns around nuclear power stem not just from keeping the materials and technologies away from the bad actors, but also on not becoming dependent on others for uranium supply. China, India and other countries are net importers of uranium to feed their ambitious and growing programs. The United States imports almost all of its uranium today, with about half coming from Canada and half from Russia. The gap between demand and supply will only grow as pressures mount to replace dirty coal plants with something else.

The United States continues to have a serious and potentially existential problem with its dependence on oil imports from foreign countries with capricious policies and despotic leaders. Decades in the making, this situation is the result of our failure to transition from an oil-based economy following the Hubbert's Peak in US oil production in the early 1970's. Instead of aggressively finding and adopting a different and indigenous energy source, we chose to become dependent on foreign suppliers.

Today our electricity generation has no significant reliance on foreign supply. An increased reliance on generating electricity by UFNPPs risks repeating the historic mistake of our reliance on foreign oil. What confidence do we have in our uranium supply in 2030? Or 2050? Is there a future risk of a uranium cartel akin to today's OPEC, composed of Kazakhstan, Russia, Niger and others indifferent, corrupted or even hostile to our interests? Perhaps we can rely on Canada and Australia to remain friendly and cooperative, but 40 years is a long time, and climate change will re-order the world in ways we cannot readily predict.

Can we afford to make the same mistake a second time? Nuclear power using uranium may be a brief stepping-stone on the journey to a secure energy future, but it is not the destination.