Saturday, January 30, 2010

Riding the Rails

Amtrak Cascades at Portland's Union Station
I choose public transit. Not always, but as much as I can.

Late last summer I had a 1:00 Friday meeting with a seed-stage venture fund in Vancouver, BC. By car it's about 110 miles up I-5 to the border crossing at Blaine, and another 30 miles further on BC Provincial highway 99.

It's a tedious drive. Scenery punctuates monotony infrequently.

I took the train instead. The timing works well--there's a 7:40 a.m. departure from Seattle's King Street station getting into Vancouver somewhat before noon. A pleasant bus ride for another $2.50 brought me within a block and a half of the downtown office for my meeting. Afterward, I visited an old friend over some Granville Island IPAs and was back to the station in time for the 5:45 back to Seattle. The beautiful evening provided pleasing views across the water towards Vancouver Island and the Olympic Peninsula, bathed in the soft sunset hues of an early autumn evening, and dotted with boaters seizing an early start to a long weekend laze. Outside the opposite windows was a dense metal caravan of single-occupant vehicles snailing their way out of town to the nightly bottleneck at the tunnel under the Fraser River.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Broad Agreement on Supporting Hydrokinetic Power

Hydrovolts CEO Burt Hamner was one of several leaders to testify yesterday before the Washington State House Technology, Energy & Communications (TEC) Committee on HB 2869 [pdf]. The bill would provide "an investment cost recovery incentive for hydrokinetic energy" as we reported last week.

Organizations that frequently stake out opposing positions were united in their support. It's rare that utilities, business advocacy groups and environmental groups all agree, but it happened in Olympia as Puget Sound Energy, The Association of Washington Business and Climate Solutions all spoke in favor.

Members of the TEC appeared broadly supportive of the measure. If all goes well, HB 2869 will be reported out of the committee next week, and will be sent on to the House Ways and Means Committee.

Contact your state legislators and ask them to support HB 2869, and please forward this message to other supporters of renewable energy and ask for their support as well.

UPDATE: fixed typo

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Electricity in the Developing World

The need for electricity throughout the developing world is immense and will continue to grow. Unlike in the industrialized countries, much of the developing world does not have large centralized power plants and transmission lines to carry that power to widely-spread users. Nor are they likely to ever have such a system:
Building out the power grid can be prohibitively expensive, which is why in many countries, like Haiti, less than three quarters of the population have grid access. Pike Research’s Clint Wheelock says just for the transmission portion alone it can cost at least $500,000 per mile. And that’s without the distribution portion and any kind of the grid intelligence (smart grid) that is getting all of the investment this year.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Planets Don't Lie, People Do

"Well, who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?"
--Chico Marx, Duck Soup

There are several kinds of opponents of a meaningful response to the threat of climate change. But the prize for intellectual dishonesty goes to those who, with unwitting hilarity, suggest we ignore evidence in front of our faces in favor of their insistent fiction.

There's plenty of evidence that comes straight from the Earth:
One can argue for hours whether this year was warmer or colder than last... [but] it doesn't matter. We should be reading the earth, not thermometers. The earth is clearly warming, and sea level is clearly rising.
The physical evidence can be measured, and generally has been measured over decades or centuries. Look at sea level rise, antarctic ice sheet collapse, retreat of glaciers, permafrost melting, ocean acidification, or any number of other indicators that don't require settling an interminable shouting match over temperature trends.

Skeptics confuse weather with climate, blather about putative "global cooling", mount endless ad hominem attacks against scientists, pretend to be authoritative, distort economic effects, strew red herrings, and cling tenaciously to comfortable fantasies. To believe such charlatans is to choose delusion.

If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck...

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Hydrovolts Turbine - V

Work is well along on the full-size Hydrovolts Flipwing demonstration unit shown in the video made by King5 news last week. More pictures:

Hydrovolts Flipwing Turbine demonstration unit under construction

The box-like structure is hermetically sealed, and will provide buoyancy, allowing the turbine to float in the water.

Hydrovolts Flipwing Turbine demonstration unit under construction

The flotation end cap has not been attached to this end.

Hydrovolts Flipwing Turbine demonstration unit under construction

The four rings at the corners of the frames will be used to tow the unit through the water at carefully regulated speeds, simulating the performance of the turbine when fixed in position in a watercourse flowing at those same speeds. The data will be used for further power optimization.

Hydrovolts Flipwing Turbine demonstration unit under construction

Temporary struts and cords hold some of the Flipwing blades up or open to show how they will move in position when in a water current. The middle and bottom blades are shown flipped open.

Tow tests are scheduled for this week.

More video of various turbine tests can be found on the Hydrovolts YouTube channel.

Learn more about the Hydrovolts Flipwing turbine on our web site or other posts in this blog.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Washington Production Incentives for Hydrokinetic Power

Under HB 2869 canals in Washington State could generate renewable energy from Hydrovolts turbines with a capital payback of less than 2 years

Representative John McCoy, Chair of the Washington House Technology, Energy & Communications (TEC) Committee has introduced HB 2869 [pdf], to provide "an investment cost recovery incentive for hydrokinetic energy." Similar incentives are currently only available for electricity generation from solar and wind.

The bill would amend the language of RCW 82.16.110-120 to add a hydrokinetic energy system manufactured in Washington State to the list of sources of "customer-generated electricity" that qualify for the incentive program. According to the bill, a "hydrokinetic energy system" means
a device that generates electricity from waves or directly from the flow of water in ocean currents, tides, inland waterways, nonfish-bearing canals, or irrigation districts, that does not require the impoundment or diversion of water. [emphasis added]
The proposed hydrokinetic incentives are $0.15/kWh for hydrokinetic energy systems, and increasing to $0.36/kWh if manufactured in Washington State. Since the maximum benefit per installing customer is $5,000 per year; the impact on utilities will be relatively minor for several years at least.

The benefit to customers would be significant, accelerating the typical capital payback period from a Hydrovolts turbine from 4 years to less than 2.

These incentives would be available until June 30, 2020, the same as from other sources, unless extended.

The bill has been referred to the TEC Committee, and a public hearing is scheduled for January 27. The legislature in Olympia has an extremely heavy lift ahead of it to bridge a multi-billion dollar budget gap, which means many other worthy bills will struggle for attention. This bill is one that merits consideration and enactment, since its budget cost is de minimus and the benefits in stimulating clean technology, sustainability and job creation are compelling.

Please contact your state legislators and urge support for this worthy legislation, and forward this message to other supporters of renewable energy and ask for their support as well.

UPDATE: fixed wacky formatting issues

Monday, January 18, 2010

Hydrovolts Featured on Seattle's KING 5 TV

Local NBC affiliate KING 5 television broadcast a 2-minute piece on Hydrovolts during this evening's newscast:

Environmental reporter Gary Chittim interviewed Hydrovolts CEO and Co-founder Burt Hamner Thursday in Ballard. As seen in the video, Burt manually turns the Company's small prototype to show how the spinning rotor can make power, in this case to light a conventional 60-watt bulb. Laughs Burt, "I feel like a trained seal!" In the water the turbine spins continuously, and power output is much more stable.

Hydrovolts Director of Engineering Brian Peithman is also shown with the small prototype during an in-water test from last summer. With the larger demonstration unit Burt explains the Flipwing's blade configuration which allows it to spin underwater. Hydrovolts advisor and UW Professor Bruce Adee shows the test tank that he and some of his students used for measurement and performance validation.

Hydrovolts CEO Burt Hamner crouches to check the hinge mechanism
of one of the Flipwing rotor blades. Steady Flux principal Brian Bloudek
and Hydrovolts Director of Engineering Brian Peithman look on.

The demonstration unit is being built under contract with Steady Flux, and will undergo initial in-water tests within the week.

More video of various turbine tests can be found on the Hydrovolts YouTube channel.

Learn more about the Hydrovolts Flipwing turbine on our web site or other posts in this blog.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Crocodile Tears

The battle is joined on Senator Lisa Murkowski's shameful attempt to gut the Clean Air Act:
Senior Democrats including the bill's co-author Barbara Boxer quickly rallied to support the EPA, issuing a letter criticising Murkowski's amendment. " Debating policy choices regarding the appropriate response to unchecked climate change is fair, and the Senate will continue to evaluate the best tools for addressing greenhouse gas emissions," the letter said. "But repealing an endangerment finding based upon years of work by America's scientists and public health experts is not appropriate."

Said Murkowski:
I do not believe, and I don't believe that most of my colleagues in the Senate believe, that the EPA is the entity that is the best suited to develop climate change policy for this country. I'm trying to get a time-out. I'm trying to allow the legislative process to proceed. I'm hopeful that we'll be able to have a vote that will allow for that discussion.
If she's serious, it's welcome news. Senator, can we put you down as a Republican who will not filibuster an attempt to have that discussion? Perhaps you can persuade some of your GOP colleagues to do the same, and engage in a good-faith effort to pass legislation? It's worth recalling that the only reason the EPA has taken this step is the bellicose intransigence on this issue by your party. Lead, follow, or get out of the way.

Those of us not in the Senate can email them quickly and urge action, rather than delay. And here's a really easy email form you can use to send a letter to the editor of all of your local and selected national press. Please write--senators need to hear from more than the lobbyists:
In related news, US Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue waded into the row yesterday, hinting that the business group may sue the EPA over its decision. "It is simple to say we will not stand still and let the endangerment finding, as narrow as it was intended to be, stand," Donohue told reporters.
That the USCOC is not a general "business group" is amply shown by how selective it is in the commerce interests it represents. Recent defections and outright deception suggest it has become captive of narrow, parochial interests that represent not US businesses or international businesses but the views of a dirty minority. The unpopularity of their stance has made them thin-skinned and defensive. The Chamber is an anachronism; businesses that will help create a better future want action on climate change.

Senators need to start listening to the voters.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Hammer Into Anvil

The EPA is prepared to use a blunt instrument to do something about climate change. It's crude, but effective: with the hammer in hand and the will to start swinging, the Obama Administration has got the attention of the anvil. No surprise, it doesn't like it.

Rather than do its part to help mutually forge a law between them, some members of Congress would rather destroy the tool:
At first it seemed like simply one bad idea from Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). But now we know the real story—a tangled web of public officials, polluter lobbyists, and efforts to gut the Clean Air Act.
And every day it seems we’re learning more—more about the revolving door between the Bush administration and polluter lobbyists; more about their influence with senators and their staffers; and more about who’s really pulling the strings on efforts to block climate action—Big Oil’s MVP, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.). [emphasis in original]
This is a direct response by last month's decision by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to use its authority to regulate carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions. Said EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson:
Business leaders, security experts, government officials, concerned citizens and the United States Supreme Court have called for enduring, pragmatic solutions to reduce the greenhouse gas pollution that is causing climate change. This continues our work towards clean energy reform that will cut GHGs and reduce the dependence on foreign oil that threatens our national security and our economy.
The EPA decision built off the Supreme Court ruling of April 2007, opposed by the then EPA of the Bush Administration.

The use of industry lobbyists to write legislation is not new, but this is a truly brazen and transparently corrupt effort.
Why would a senator from Alaska, called the poster state for global warming, put polluters’ interests ahead of her home state’s climate concerns? In the current campaign cycle, Sen. Murkowski is Congress’ #1 recipient of electric utilities’ money and the #4 recipient of Big Oil money. And Greenpeace is now calling for an investigation of Murkowski’s lobbyist ties.
Despite this week’s revelations, Senators Inhofe & Murkowski could still try to bring to the floor their amendment to gut the Clean Air Act. Your senators need to hear from you. Email your senators right now and ask them to stop this polluter-fueled push to undercut the EPA’s efforts to protect people, wildlife, and our natural resources from the worst effects of global warming.

Monday, January 11, 2010


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

One of the requirements of the Clean Tech Open business plan competition was a detailed sustainability section in the business plan. Hydrovolts won the Sustainability Award both at the regional level and national level in the competition.

Sustainability is not just in the product or the process of making it, but also in the broader impact on all stakeholders, including investors, employees, vendors and the communities in which each operate. A key part of sustainability is also in communicating to stakeholders and working collaboratively to share best practices as broadly as possible.

In that spirit we are pleased to make the award-winning sustainability portion of our business plan available for review and, we hope, inspire others in their sustainability efforts.

Download the PDF here.

We welcome comments, questions and suggestions on how to make it better.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Missing the Forest for the Trees

The usual suspects are reiterating the usual ignorant bunk about how recent cold weather, particularly in Europe, somehow disproves climate change. It's not true of course.

First, there is the tiresomely repeated fallacy of confusing weather with climate. We expect it to be cold in January; it's winter you know.

Second, some of the wingnuts just lie about it.

Third, it's not as if it's cold everywhere. When you look at the whole world, it's actually warmer than normal overall (via):

Finally, the trend is much clearer if you literally look at the 10,000-foot view. Temperature data in the layers just above the surface tell a pretty clear story. It's getting hot in here.

Then there is the change in atmospheric carbon and what it's doing to the oceans.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Handmaiden's Tail

U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced Wednesday (1/6) that the US Department of the Interior was at the end of acting as a “handmaiden” to the US fossil fuel industry.

The Department will henceforward use more “balance” between the pecuniary desires of industry and environmental concerns when granting leases on public lands. He insisted that a more stringent review process requiring site visits by federal land managers would not result in diminished production of oil and gas, but only more responsible practices:
The difference is in the prior administration the oil and gas industry essentially were the kings of the world. ... The previous administration’s “anywhere, anyhow” policy on oil and gas development ran afoul of communities, carved up the landscape and fueled costly conflicts that created uncertainty for investors and industry. We need a fresh look--from inside the federal government and from outside--at how we can better manage Americans’ energy resources.
Salazar said that Interior would no longer be a “candy store” for the petroleum industry.

Predictably, there was whining from Jack Gerard, chief mouthpiece and president of the American Petroleum Institute:
Interior Secretary Salazar has taken steps to further delay and limit American energy resources for all Americans.
This is clearly not true, both from the sustained encouragement of renewable energy and even from the issuance of oil and gases leases in the millions of acres. Replied Salazar:
Wrong. In the prior administration the oil and gas industry essentially were the kings of the world. Whatever they wanted to happen, happened. The agency was essentially the handmaiden of the industry... I expect the shrill nature of criticisms from the oil and gas industry.
It's great to have something closer to a responsible energy policy after years of the sugar-crazed pandemonium in the candy store. Salazar's general approach as Secretary has been a welcome break from the enabling of the Bush Administration. If the rumors of Salazar quitting to run for Governor of Colorado were true, it would be a great loss for energy and environmental sanity. Fortunately, it appears they are not.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Peak Oil Refuted

We will never run out of oil.

This according to Peter Davies, Chief Economist at BP. Why?
...ideas of peak oil supply are not true. Doomsayers have exaggerated the issue. The bell-shaped curve of production over time does not apply to the world's oil resources.
Because the rules don't apply to oil! Apparently you just can't use up all of the stuff, even if it is in finite supply and even if, as he admits, "a barrel can only be produced once."

The reason of course is faith in technology and markets. Davies believes that as long as demand doesn't slacken, the economic benefit of increased production and the marvels of ever-better (and ever more feasible) extraction technology imply that there will always be supply to meet any demand:
Those who believe in peak oil tend to believe that technology and economics don't matter, and I think this is false. The application of technology, the innovation of new technology and economic forces especially mean that recoverable oil resources can increase. If there is a peak in oil, it will come from the demand side.
Well, of course technology and economics matter, but then, so does geology.

Future technological advances and oil selling for $500 per barrel have a high likelihood of allowing more production from reserves not currently feasible. But so what? They won't, as Davies laughably asserts, increase "oil resources." There is only so much oil in the ground, and no amount of money or technological innovation will create more to meet relentlessly and arbitrarily increasing demand. It's a bit like Peak Buffalo.

Perhaps Davies misunderstands the concept of peak oil. (This is not unlikely given his antiquated economist's viewpoint that EROEI is "meaningless.") It is not about using up the last drop. Instead, we pass (or have passed) the point where the easy oil has been had, and what remains is increasingly hard to find, hard to reach, poor quality, in smaller concentrations and, critically, enormously expensive. The limits of technology are pushed and the economics become infeasible, but the driver is geology--there's a finite amount of oil, only a fraction of which will ever be plausibly produced and used. The idea that future technology will enable a never-ending cornucopia is absurd. Moon rocks can be obtained using technology, but no one will ever bring them to Earth to make a garden wall.

Peak oil will not be caused by demand. Slackening of demand will occur, but as demand destruction, a symptom of soaring prices caused by shrinking production at escalating cost.

I found Davies' rationalizations in a piece from Emirates Business 24/7 (via). The author, one Nadim Kawach, clearly also a true believer in a permanent Age of Oil, dismisses claims of any eventual peak:
...such scenarios have been refuted by most oil producers, mainly the Arab countries on the grounds their region actually contains much more oil, which could be extracted by advanced technology in the future.
Can more oil be produced in future? Quite possibly. At endlessly affordable cost? Unlikely. Peak oil refuted? Only if you believe in magic ponies.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Hydropower Kinds

More than a billion people get their electricity from hydropower. Worldwide, hydropower produces 675,000MW, 24% of all electricity generation. In the Unites States there are about 2,000 hydropower plants which together supply about 10% of all electricity to the grid. Here in Washington State nearly 70% of electricity comes from hydropower. Despite the attention given to wind and solar energy, hydropower remains the dominant source of all renewable energy in the US.

Hydropower has many advantages--it is renewable, has relatively low carbon impact, and is fully dispatchable, i.e it can be turned on and off quickly whenever needed. So why aren't we hearing more about hydropower? Why aren't we building more of it?

Hydropower, at least in its conventional form, does have disadvantages, particularly the use conflicts. Water is an increasingly precious resource, and water for hydropower is sometimes water not available for agriculture or for fish migration. Hydropower dams create reservoirs that flood villages and archaelogical sites. It changes the character of rivers, destroying fish runs, limiting recreation and changing the very nature of the river.

However, there is more than one kind of hydropower.

Grand Coulee Dam

Conventional hydropower entails the creation of a pressure differential or head of water, typically by using a dam to create a reservoir and releasing the water through turbines at the bottom. Because of the enormous costs and lengthy site-specific permitting necessary to design and construct the dam, this kind of hydropower is almost always built at a very large scale and requires a major river with significant water flow. Well-known examples include the Hoover Dam, the Grand Coulee Dam, and China's Three Gorges Dam.

Low Head Hydro

Low-head hydropower is produced from a relatively small pressure differential compared to the high-head of big hydroelectric dams. The term is somewhat imprecise as there is no accepted definition of "small" and low-head hydro systems may or may not include a dam. Those without a dam instead employ a penstock, a pipe that diverts water from its source and runs it downhill through a turbine before discharging back into the watercourse.

Run-of-river Hydro

Run-of-river hydropower is another term that encompasses several different approaches--the common element is that they rely primarily on locations that have sufficient water flow (and usually elevation drop) so that reservoirs of water are not needed. Systems that use a penstock can be called both run-of-river and low-head hydro. Companies like British Columbia's Plutonic Power build these inherently site-specific systems. There is generally no dam, although some refer to locations like Washington's Chief Joseph Dam as run-of-river because the reservoir behind the dam does not store "large amounts" of water.

conventional water wheel

Hydrokinetic hydropower (the approach used by Hydrovolts) entails merely placing turbines in flowing water, and avoids any modification to the watercourse like dams and weirs or diversions like penstocks. Old-fashioned waterwheels are the original hydrokinetic devices (although with a mill pond to create a waterfall they might more accurately be called low-head hydro or run-of-river hydro). The power is produced by the force of the flowing water on the turbine rotor; no head of water is required.

Hydro Green Energy is another company producing such devices, although at a larger scale, using permanent installations and only in the outflows of existing dams.

Micro-hydro refers to hydropower of whatever kind that produces small amounts of power (again variously defined), and may mean low-head, run-of-river, or hydrokinetic devices.

Other hydropower terms are specific to the location. Wave energy refers to a different class of devices for making power from waves in the ocean or on large lakes. Tidal energy uses hydro devices (often hydrokinetic) to make power from tidal flows. Ocean currents such as the Gulf Stream can be harnessed using hydrokinetic devices as well.

The Hydrovolts turbine is a true hydrokinetic device. It could also be termed run-of-river because it doesn't need a reservoir or dam to operate.  It can also be used as a low-head hydro device in irrigation canals next to a weir or other check structure. It is micro-hydro because it is designed for small scale, distributed power generation of 5-25kW in a typical flow.

Regardless of how one chooses to name it, the Hydrovolts approach avoids the problems that have prevented more widespread adoption of additional hydropower generation. Because it uses no dams or reservoirs, there is little impact on other users of the water in the flow. Without dams, fish and boats can continue to navigate freely. Water can be pumped as needed for irrigation.

Hydrokinetic hydropower--renewable, abundant, low impact, fish-friendly, no greenhouse gas emissions--let's build more!