A Bridge to the Future of Energy: The European Super-Grid

As we move farther into the twenty-first century, we are making notable progress toward utilizing new sources of energy, moving away from our dependence on fossil fuels.  We’ve designed electric cars that are viable competitors with traditional cars, and hydrogen-powered cars are just around the corner.  
We need to be thinking big, though, in terms of renewable sources of power, such as wind and solar.  Instead of each state vying for itself in developing, transmitting, and using these renewable sources, we need to think about how we can transfer the energy across state lines and across the country in a much more efficient way than we transfer electricity now.
In terms of innovation and sharing renewable power, Europe has the right idea.  The European Union (EU) plans to build a super-grid, a system that will connect much of Europe’s renewable sources of energy.
To indicate that this idea is indeed going forward, several of the leaders in Europe signed the Northsea Countries Offshore Grid Initiative Memorandum of Understanding in December of 2010.  Those who have signed this document indicate that they share a common goal of becoming a more sustainable economy, understand the amount of investment involved, will facilitate the creation of offshore and onshore grids, and will together tackle barriers to the system’s development.  Specific countries involved are Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and the U.K.
The benefit of such a system of sharing will be that each region’s renewable energy will be available for others to use.  So, the wind power generated in the waters surrounding the U.K. could be transferred to other countries to use; likewise, the solar power generated in France could be shared with its neighbors.
The super-grid will be set up like any electricity sharing system, with cables, routers, and switching stations.  However, it will use new technology to transfer the energy more efficiently over long distances. AC (alternating current) power is how we usually transfer and use electricity.  But AC power loses much of its charge when it travels long distances.   So, the super-grid would use HVDC (high voltage direct current) cables to transfer the power long distances.
The process would look like this: energy would be harvested from a wind farm in AC form.  Then, it will be transferred to a super-node, which is basically an energy collection station.  This super-node would convert the AC power to DC (direct current) power, which is able to travel great distances much more efficiently than AC power.  Using HVDC cables, the energy will be transferred to its destination, and then converted back to AC form in order to be used by consumers.
The idea is innovative and vast in scope, but the European Commissioner himself said, it is “not a dream.”  The U.K. already has 2.45 GW (gigawatts) of interconnector cables available, with plans to increase that number to 6.5 in order to link it to the rest of Europe.
One obstacle that the EU must still overcome is who will be responsible for the operations and upkeep of the grid.  One possibility is the “merchant model,” which allows private companies to own specific parts of the grid’s infrastructure.  Another option could be that each country is responsible for the parts of the grid within its borders.  In either of these instances, certain groups could possess a great deal of influence over each other by having control of a part of the grid, which is probably not ideal.  However, if companies were allowed to own and operate parts of the grid, their interest in capital would hopefully fuel their levels of responsibility for its upkeep.
In any case, the fact that such a large group of diverse people is coming together to find real solutions to real environmental problems should be an inspiration to the U.S.  By following the European super-grid model, we could provide clean energy for our entire country and solidify our commitment to a sustainable future.

Malaysian SCORE Renewable Energy Project Generating Controversy

The debate continues over recent Malaysian developments in the state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo. Borneo is the third largest island in the world, and is located north of Australia and south of the Malaysian mainland. It is divided among the three countries of Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. The Malaysian states are Sarawak and Sabah in the north, and cover about 26% of the island. Indonesia owns most of the island, and Brunei has only about one percent. The largest city is Kuching in the Malaysian state of Sarawak.

Borneo is most known on a global scale for its ancient rain forests, its biodiversity, its eco-tourism, and more recently, its strife between modern development and indigenous peoples’ rights. As with most histories between the colonized and the colonizers, this past is also mired with conflict, segregation, and bloodshed. The timeline of struggle between the “bumiputera” or indigenous people, and “non-bumiputera” or non-indigenous people, begins as early as 1517 with the arrival of Ferdinand Magellan and continues to this very moment with the Malaysian plans to develop the Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy, simply known as SCORE.

According to the SCORE website, this project, planned to reach fruition in 2030, promises to “generate vast economic, business and employment opportunities, and will also lead to the development of infrastructure, utilities, and social amenities” (sarawakscoe.com.my). SCORE is one of five regional development corridors currently being built throughout Malaysia, and claims that it will transform Sarawak into a developed state at the time of its completion in 2030. 

Supporters of SCORE highlight the promises this development offers for the future. If SCORE develops as planned, then Sarawak will enjoy:

  • 175,000 permanent jobs by 2020
  • an increase of rural electricity from its current 60% availability to 95% availability by 2012
  • resettlement for its nomadic population, with privileges such as land, housing, water, education, health services, roaming entitlements, and life expectancy beyond 39 years old

Although SCORE rhetoric claims environmental integrity and an improved quality of life, opponents suggest that this development will only sustain the history of corruption and conflict in Sarawak. Clare Rewcastle Brown, sister-in-law of former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, has been organizing street protests in the UK and Canada to call into question Chief Minister of Malaysia Abdul Taib’s string of corruption and “deprivation of his people’s humanity,” (malaysiansmustknowthetruth.blogspot.com). Although Ms. Rewcastle Brown is a British citizen, she was born in Sarawak and has successfully mobilized interest despite limited media and broadband access in Borneo through her Sarawak Report blog and Radio Free Sarawak. The movement, consisting now of millions of Malaysians, unites under one common goal, and that is “to stop the plunder of [Sarawak’s] natural resources, the pillage of its awesome rain forests, the rape of its unique tribes by loggers emboldened by decades of lax and greedy governance by Taib and his team.” 

The Borneo Project, a United States-based organization with ties to the Sarawak Indigenous Lawyer’s Alliance, has also organized to protect indigenous rights and their connection to the rain forests as their home. Judith Mayer of The Borneo Project and the Earth Island Journal points out that, “Taib himself has personally profited immensely from the destruction of the Borneo rainforest through logging and palm oil plantations, [while] Sarawak’s indigenous communities have lost their land, their source of livelihood, and have been increasingly marginalized,” (borneoproject.org). 

Will the SCORE even out for the indigenous people and for the land and forests upon which they depend? Thus far, no adult dialogue between the supporters and the opposition has occurred. In fact, an official SCORE blog site from May 30, 2011, states rather bluntly that, “we would be happy to report on the opposition’s response to this development, and to relate the opposition’s own plans regarding energy, and economic growth. Unfortunately, because the opposition is too busy being immature, no one knows what those plans are,” (sarawakreports.org/2011/05/30/score-expands-and-the-opposition-can-only-oppose/). The victory and the loss have yet to unfold.

California Renewable Energy Bill Signed by Governor

On Tuesday, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a law requiring 33 percent of California’s energy to be derived from renewable sources, including windmills and solar panels, by 2020. The law marks a 13 percent raise from the state’s current law, which mandates that California consumes 20 percent alternative energy by 2010, a goal the state has yet to meet.

The new law, signed within just four months of Brown’s inauguration, has been a long time coming for the California governor, who is no stranger to tough environmental regulations. During Brown’s first term as California’s governor in the 1970s, he was criticized for pushing for renewable energy amid a society preoccupied with oil drilling.
All public and private utilities must meet the 33 percent goal in a three-phase program. The existing 20 percent goal has been pushed back to the end of 2013, then companies ideally must sell 25 percent renewable power by the end of 2016, and finally draw 33 percent of their energy from renewable sources by the end of 2020. In response to concerns regarding the cost of renewable energy and the high cost of electricity in California, the California Public Utilities Commission plans to place caps on how much utility companies can spend on renewable energy. Prices for solar energy are expected to decline as its demand, popularity, and production increases, and the US Department of Energy expects solar energy prices to compete with other energy prices by 2020.
Brown signed the law in a solar-paneled factory owned by San Jose-based SunPower Corp. in Milpitas, Calif., where he spoke to a large crowd about the bill’s goal to not only increase air quality and bring thousands of new jobs to California, but also to revive and stimulate existing industries. “There are people who think we can drill our way to happiness and prosperity,” the governor said. “Instead of just taking oil from thousands of miles away, we’re taking the sun and converting it.”
The new law has given green energy companies, including SunPower, hope and the confidence to build wind farms and invest in renewable power plants. SunPower expects to build a 250 megawatt solar power plant in San Luis Obispo County, powering 60,000 homes and creating 100 jobs, with $1.2 billion federally-funded dollars. US Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu dedicated the funds to SunPower at the signing on April 12. The Department of Energy has also dedicated 1.6 billion dollars to Oakland-based BrightSource Energy Inc. so that the company can build a large solar power plant in the Mojave Desert, a project that would power 85,000 homes and employ 1,000 people.
The mandate, referred to as a renewable portfolio standard, also requires that utility companies source some of their renewable energy from local plants near customers, with energy panels installed on rooftops. Federal, state, and private investments in alternative energy in California could push the state back to its former position as the country’s leader in green technology and energy. Texas, home of the United States’ largest wind farm, currently leads the country in green energy production.
The law is one of the most aggressive and ambitious renewable energy initiatives in the country. Officials hope that the law will push and enable large investors to meet the short-term 20 percent goal. So far, the closest any company has come is Southern California Edison, which sources 19.4 percent renewable energy. San Francisco-based Pacific Gas & Electric, the state’s largest utility provider, sells 17.7 percent renewable energy.
The new law will take effect in roughly three months. In his signing letter to the state legislature, Gov. Brown stated that he wants to see California reach even higher renewable energy goals, saying that “With the amount of renewable resources coming on-line, and prices dropping, I think 40%, at reasonable cost, is well within our grasp in the near future.”

Photo credit: dfg.ca.gov/habcon/energy

Native Americans Turn to Renewable Energy

November 2, 2010

As the economic benefits of renewable energy become more and more apparent, it’s beginning to look as if some of the most marginalized communities within the United States could soon reap the benefits of harnessing the wind and sun for power.  Increasingly, Native American nations are seeing renewable energy as a viable development that could help bring them out of economic malaise.  With a little help from the federal government, tribal lands across the country could be energy independent renewable powerhouses. 

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates that around 10% of US renewable energy resources are located on lands belonging to Native tribes.  Yet ironically, many tribes are now even more dependent on fossil fuels than most of the rest of the country.  General poverty and a lack of economic opportunities has forced tribes like the Navajo Nation to take advantage of one of the few natural resources their lands have in abundance: coal.  An astonishing one third of the income of the Navajo Nations is provided by the coal industry, with important coal mines and several coal electricity-generating plants being located on Navajo lands. 

Yet dependence on coal comes with health and environmental costs: two of the Navajo Nation’s coal plants are among the top four emitters of dangerous nitrogen oxide pollutants in the country.  Coal has also taken a toll on the water supply of the Navajos’ arid tribal lands.  Coal mined on the reservation is converted to a watery slurry for ease of transport to the nearest power plant, and this practice has significantly lowered local aquifer levels.  Increasingly residents of the Navajo Nation are seeing coal as a fuel with benefits that may not be worth the associated costs. 

Add to that the fact that fossil fuel reserves on Navajo and other tribal lands are running out, and renewable energy looks even more attractive.  Income from the coal industry has declined at least fifteen percent in recent years for the Navajos—leading to fears that for better or worse, coal is on its way out.  In this year’s Navajo presidential election, candidates are for the first time talking seriously about making a concerted shift to clean energy sources like wind and solar power.

Other tribes are already well on their way to developing renewable resources.  The Campo Kumeyaay Nation in southern California derives about fifty percent of its income from a fifty megawatt wind farm on its tribal lands.  Residents of the reservation are now looking at building a larger wind farm with three times the power generating capacity of the existing one.  Meanwhile the biggest Native-owned radio station in the United States—now runs on completely renewable energy.  Located on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, KILI-FM radio is powered by wind turbines that are part of the Pine Ridge Reservation’s effort to shift to clean energy sources. 

Yet while residents of many reservations are ready to see wind and solar energy take off on their lands, the federal government may hold the ultimate power to make these projects a success.  By making it easier for tribal nations to take advantage of federal tax credits, Congress could facilitate a large-scale transition to clean energy on Native lands.  The Indian Energy and Promotion Parity Act, introduced in the Senate this year by Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND) would seek to accomplish this goal by eliminating restrictions that now prevent tribal governments from taking advantage of tax credits available to businesses. 

If such efforts succeed, they could ensure tribal communities a place near the front of the clean energy economy.  Tribes that have exported fossil fuel energy to the rest of the country for decades could become energy exporters of a different type, generating clean, renewable electricity both for their own use and for purchase by nearby states.  In such a way could some of the most economically disadvantaged communities in the United States harvest the benefits of an economy powered by renewable industries and clean energy jobs. 

Photo credit: Wolfgang Staudt

United Steelworkers Claim China Unfairly Subsidizing Clean Energy Industries

[img_assist|nid=193009|title=|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=259|height=194]Sept. 9, 2010 (GreenAnswers) – The United Steelworkers union filed a complaint with the Obama administration Thursday morning alleging that China is in violation of trade agreements due to its support of its domestic clean energy industries.

The USW, the largest industrial labor union in the U.S., is accusing China of illegally propping up local clean energy industries through policies such as subsidies, cheap loans, land grants, and tax credits, in violation of World Trade Organization rules. These policies, the USW and many trade experts allege, result in making China’s exports in the clean energy industry much less expensive than foreign competitors.

In its petition, the USW has asked the Obama administration to begin talks with the Chinese over these policies and to take the matter to the WTO if the issues are not resolved.

Retaliatory trade action would not be new to the Obama administration, which has already imposed high tariffs on tire imports from China, as well as on a number of other specific items, such as steel wire. These retaliatory actions have all been in response to perceived unfair trade policies inside China.

[img_assist|nid=193008|title=|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=250|height=118]The Obama administration will have 45 days to accept or deny the USW’s complaint, placing the timing of any decision just before the midterm elections.

While Obama has stressed the importance of a strong domestic clean energy industry, relatively little progress has been made on that front. In contrast, China currently has more than one million workers employed in clean energy industries.

Largest Wind Farm and First Major Solar Plant to be Constructed in Russia

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A windmill in the Russian Murmansk region.

July 30 (GreenAnswers) — Only days after ground was broken on the largest wind farm in the United States, Russia announced its plans to construct the largest wind farm in that country. The plant will be located in Yeisk, a coastal city on the Sea of Azov. The wind farm will initially generate 50 MW, with it’s capacity eventually reaching 100 MW per year. In comparison, the new wind farm in California aims to eventually produce 3 GW of energy.

The Russian wind project, announced by the state-owned news agency RIA-Novosti, is in line with President Medvedev’s recent attempts to diversify the Russian energy industry, which is primarily focused on oil and gas exports. A combination of private and public investors are putting $200 million into the Yeisk project.

The Rostovteploelektroproekt company, which is working on the project, has estimated (with a quintessentially Russian metaphor) that the energy produced by the new wind farm will be enough to “bake 17.6 trillion loaves of bread” per year.

Russia also announced its plans this week to build the country’s first major solar plant. To be located in Kislovodsk, a city in the North Caucasus region, the solar plant will eventually produce 13 MW of energy and will cost $100 million to construct.

These announcements come at the same time that Russia is suffering through one of its worst droughts and related heat waves on record. On Thursday, temperatures in Moscow reached a record 102 degrees, and some have estimated that as much as one-fifth of the country’s wheat crop has already been lost to drought.

More information on the Yeisk wind project.

Photo credit.

Illinois Lawmakers Add ‘Tire Incineration’ to Green Energy Bill

[img_assist|nid=141598|title=|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=199|height=274]In a move that would shock even the most cynical government observer, the Illinois legislature is poised to add the “burning of tires” to a list of renewable energy programs eligible for clean energy credits. This special treatment for tire incineration is the result of measures put forth by Rep. David Miller (D), who just happens to represent the district where the state’s sole tire incinerator is located. That incinerator, Geneva Energy, is located in Ford Heights, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the United States, where more than 95 percent of the population is black and half live in poverty.

The measure, if passed, will allow Geneva Energy to earn valuable green energy credits in return for their burning of tires, a process which releases deadly pollutants, such as benzene, butadiene and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Of course, the intent of the original legislation was to reward and encourage the production of renewable energy, such as wind and solar. In Illinois, energy companies must get at least 10 percent of their electricity from green sources by 2015 and 25 percent by 2025.

While millions of old tires must be disposed of each year, better alternatives to incineration include shredding them for reuse in asphalt, playground cushioning, and athletic tracks, among other things.

Rep. Miller, who is currently running for state comptroller, has recently removed his name from the bill after a lobbying effort by the Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC) focused attention on this legislated loop-hole. “This is the sort of cynical legislative maneuvering that makes people question the credibility of our elected officials,” ELPC head Howard Learner stated. “Burning tires is not clean, renewable energy by any credible definition.”