Burying the Pot of Black Gold in Los Angeles for Good

 

It is no surprise that oil is the lifeblood of the City of Los Angeles and its surrounding municipalities. But what is not known by many, even its residents, is the abundant amount of oil that sits below their feet. Though most of the oil consumed in the US are from imports, oil production was a productive and is still an ongoing industry in the greater Los Angeles region.

In 1892, two oil businessmen, Edward Doheny and Charles A. Canfield first struck black gold about 4 miles of the City’s Central Business District. This became the Los Angeles City Oil Field. From there, oil fields of all sizes manifested across the region. By the 1920’s, 1930’s, oil production in the region reached its peak, producing as much as 27 million barrels of oil per year. Some of the major oil fields in the region still in operation today are the Los Angeles City Oil Field, Inglewood Oil Field, Long Beach/Signal Hill Oil Field and Santa Fe Springs Oil Field. The latter three are situated further away from the densely populated areas. The region naturally grew in population and diversified in economy, but the drilling continued. Today, the oil fields are hidden behind sleepy neighborhoods, shrouded in vegetation, disguised as monuments adjacent to buildings or  tightly wrapped by metal fencing. The region is still producing about $3 billion worth of oil annually.

However, the proximity of these and many other oil fields to urban life through the years has subjected many residents to adverse health and environmental impacts. Residents near the Inglewood Oil Field have experienced noxious fumes, noise pollution and higher rates of asthma and lung cancers. The residents near this oil field are predominantly African American, which has triggered cries for environmental justice. Soil and groundwater contamination and soil subsidence from water withdrawal are one of many environmental hazards resulting from the oil drilling. According to NASA, land around the Long Beach Oil Field subsided nearly 9 meters before fluid injection was implemented to offset the problem. In recent years, lawsuits brought forth by citizens, local governments and advocacy groups, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, Community Health Councils, Inc. and the desire for space to develop much needed housing and public facilities are putting an end to the industry.

As of early 2012, the Los Angeles Oil Field is closing down to make way for an affordable housing project. Capping of the oil wells has begun and completion date of the housing project is slated for mid 2014. After a lengthy battle in the courts, production at the Inglewood Oil Field will be greatly limited in operation size, monitored and assessed for local health and environmental impacts. A sustainable residential community is replacing the Santa Fe Springs Oil Field. Construction of homes is in progress. Many of the completed units are already occupied. While this oil field still has a dozen of active oil wells, they are enclosed by block walls and vigilantly monitored by the State of California and City of Santa Fe Springs. Many other oil fields are now defunct and abandoned; the equipment still standing as if frozen in time. Slowly, the oil industry in Los Angeles is becoming another page in the region’s history books.

Photo credit: consrv.ca.gov/dog/photo_gallery/drilling_rigs/Pages/photo_01.aspx

Fine-Tuning Energy Consumption Through Ultracapacitors

Along with growing public interest in alternative energy resources, research and development in electric storage technologies may also hold the key to an energy efficient future.  For instance, electric double-layered capacitors, otherwise known as ultracapacitors, are playing an essential role in powering everything from small electronic devices to full-sized automobiles, allowing for fine-tuned precision in the use of the world’s limited energy supply.

The novel design of ultracapacitors gives them many advantages over conventional batteries.  Their most notable feature is that they store energy through an electostatic field rather than through chemical reactions, which allows them to charge and discharge energy at a faster rate than batteries do.  Whereas batteries tend to lose storage capacity over time, ultracapacitors can handle significantly more wear and tear in the absence of chemical reactions.  Ultracapaictors can go through 1000 times the amount of charge/discharge cycles that conventional batteries can, and often outlive the devices they’re meant to power.  In addition, they can function within a wide range of temperatures (up to -40C and +50C), and are composed of non-toxic ingredients that make them more environmentally friendly to dispose of than lead-acid or lithium-ion batteries.

What this means in practice is that ultracapacitors are ideal for accepting and/or delivering sudden surges of energy with little to no maintenance during their long life cycle.  Such is the case with ultracapacitors used in regenerative braking systems found in today’s hybrid vehicles, which transform a car’s forward motion into additional electricity when the brakes are used.  Ultracapacitors are also being utilized in this manner within smart-grid systems to absorb short circuits, provide critical backup power during outages, and to ensure uninterrupted communication to and from the grid during peak hours.

Currently, the majority (70%) of ultracapaictors are found in small electronic devices with low power applications, such as cell phones, digital cameras, and televisions.  However, they are also beginning to serve a larger role in alternative energy production through optimizing solar power storage and windmill pitch power.   Ultracapacitors have a better performance record than chemical batteries when it comes to delivering reliable power boosts that maximize the output of wind turbines; they are also able to function in extreme temperature conditions.  These qualities make ultracapacitors ideal candidates for alternative energy projects located places such as the scorching Mojave Desert, where the Alta Wind Energy Center (AWEC) and the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (ISEGS)–one of the largest solar installations to date–are located.

Although ultracapacitors have been in development since the 1960’s, recent innovations in storage capacity and charging time have made them a more cost-effective technology capable of trumping conventional batteries in various applications.  For instance, in 2006, researchers at MIT’s Laboratory for Electromagnetic and Electronic Systems (LEES) developed carbon nanotube structures that increase the surface area of the ultracapacitor’s electrodes, which in turn increases it’s capacitance, or the amount of electric charge that it can store.    

Despite these advancements, advantages, and various applications, today’s ultracapacitors still face one major limitation:  their energy storage density.  While the researchers at MIT are confident that ultracapiactors will have the same energy storage density as chemical batteries sometime in the future, current ultracapiactors can only store approximately 5% of the energy that comparable lithium-ion batteries can, making them unsuitable for applications that require prolonged use.

Although ultracapacitors in the near future will more than likely not be replacing conventional batteries as a whole, they can still work in the present to prolong the life of conventional batteries, saving valuable resources that would go into replacement and maintenance costs.  For instance, they are currently used in conjunction with lithium-ion batteries found in electric vehicles (EVs) to provide the sudden bursts of power needed for acceleration.

Yet within the span of decades, it’s possible that the lucrative promise of ultracapacitors may replace lithium-ion batteries in EVs altogether, in that they provide EVs with the fast charging time needed to compete with standard petroleum vehicles at the gas pump.

Overall, the advantages of ultracapacitors far outweigh their costs and shortcomings.  They optimize and fit nearly into already existing infrastructure, require little maintenance, and function for long periods of time with minimal environmental side effects.  This makes them a viable alternative to other energy-related investments, such as hydrogen and ethanol fuel, which require extensive resources to produce, and/or new technological infrastructure to function.

Photo Credit: flickr.com/photos/bre/443733645/

Seaweed Could Be New Form of Biofuel

The slimy ocean strands that tangle onto your body while swimming may have a new purpose.  Researchers are turning towards kelp and seaweed as a viable fuel option in replacing biofuel made from crops.  The new form of biofuel would provide a solution to alleviate over-farming and protect freshwater sources.

Crops for biofuel have long been controversial and opinions are siding more frequently with the practice being a bad idea.  Farming as a fuel option puts stress on the land as scarcity of an area competes for farming purposes.  But, the practice also raises already high commodity prices, putting more of a strain on lower income communities.  According to a release by the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS), “U.S. and European policy to increase the production of biofuel could lead to almost 200,000 deaths in poorer countries.”  A staggering statistic that proves a need for change goes beyond the land.

Researches see great potential for kelp and seaweed as a means for biofuel.  The marine plant grows in abundance, is not generally a food source, doesn’t need freshwater to grow and doesn’t take up land space, making it a worthwhile solution to research.  Just like crops, the carbohydrates in seaweed tissue can be converted into fuel.  There are three ways conversion can be accomplished; pyrolysis, which is a process of burning to create oil, fermentation with bacteria to create ethanol and through anaerobic digestion which produces methane.  However, unlike crops, seaweed relies on water’s buoyancy, allowing the plant to skip lignin production.  A woody compound that allows land plants to stand up against gravity’s pull, lignin resists degradation, “a key obstacle in bringing terrestrial biofuels […] to the market.”  Since seaweed doesn’t produce lignin, the plant can be more easily converted to fuel.

Teams working on the project acknowledge that there are a few obstacles that must be addressed.  One such opposition is cultivation over harvesting wild seaweed.  Harvesting from the wild would compromise sustainability of the practice.  Michele Stanley of the Scottish Association of Marine Sciences, said cultivation of the sea plants would be supported.  Another factor is cost.  At this time, seaweed farming is not considered economical.  According to the Technical Research Center on Seaweed in Pleubian, France, oil prices would need to rise to at least $300 a barrel before the practice could be considered feasible.  Timing could also produce some shortages.  Statistics found harvesting at different times of the year effects carbohydrate levels.  Kelp and seaweed would need to be harvested in July, when carbohydrate levels are at their highest, in order to “ensure optimal sugar release for biofuel production.”

Despite problems that must be addressed, researchers are already planning for the future of biofuel.  The current proposal is to grow kelp and seaweed forests anchored by flexible material, allowing the plants to naturally move with the waves.  Norwegian company, Seaweed Energy Solutions AS, has already developed a device for growing kelp and seaweed on the ocean floor.  The design allows a single kelp sheet to be anchored in one area, eliminating rope tangles other designs are prone to.  Founder of the company, Pal Bakken, said the design allows for a simpler and cheaper way of harvesting seaweed, and could make deep water cultivation possible.

For now, seaweed farming is still an innovation of the future.  But, with oil prices continually rising, the future may be closer than what we think.

Photo Credit:  lib.noaa.gov/retiredsites/korea/wildstock_enhancement/ecosystem.htm

Google’s Investment in Clean Energy

Google has invested $280 million to aid private homeowners in installing rooftop solar panels. With the investment from Google, SolarCity, a solar panel installation company, will be able to offer solar panels to homeowners for no money upfront; in exchange, customers will pay a set price for the energy generated by the solar system. The investment in SolarCity is Google’s most substantial investment in clean energy to date. Joel Conkling, a member of Google’s Green Business Operations, noted that being environmentally conscious is of great importance to the company and that by investing in solar energy, the company can “put our capital to work in a way that is very important to the founders and to Google.”

In addition to receiving federal and local renewable energy tax credits, Google will make money from the investment by charging SolarCity interest. Google will get a federal tax credit for $84 million, which accounts for 30% of all solar projects. The company can also utilize something called accelerated depreciation, which will allow Google to write off the solar projects for the total value in the year they were installed. Google will also make a substantial sum off of the interest it will be charging SolarCity, although neither company has commented on the exact amount.

By collaborating with SolarCity, Google is helping to make solar energy more affordable for homeowners. Rooftop solar panels typically range from between $25,000 to $30,000. The $280 million Google has invested in SolarCity could help create between 7,000 and 9,000 solar projects over the next 18 months. SolarCity will use the money from Google to pay the costs of installation and maintenance. The customers will be in charge of paying monthly for the energy generated from the solar system.

SolarCity, which was founded in 2006, has lease options and other power agreements available for its customers, allowing homeowners to save thousands of dollars when purchasing a solar system. The company has said that of the 15,000 projects that have been completed or are in progress, 80% have utilized a leasing system instead of paying upfront.

The company estimates that at the end of 2010, home solar panels were capable of generating 74 megawatts of electricity, which is enough to power 74,000 average homes in California. California is the most popular place for solar panels due to incentives offered by the state, in addition to the state’s abundant sunshine. SolarCity also offers installations in Arizona, Colorado, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Washington, D.C. The ideal house for a solar panel installation will have a south facing roof that is not covered from the sun by trees or anything other type of blockage.

Electricity prices are not currently rising in the same way that gasoline prices are, but they are expected to slowly rise over the next few years. The installation of a rooftop solar system will allow consumers to be somewhat exempt from the rising cost of electricity.

Google’s investment in solar energy is not the company’s first step toward clean energy and lower carbon emissions. Google’s collaboration with SolarCity will be the company’s seventh investment in clean energy, bringing the total amount Google has spent on renewable energy sources to more than $680 million. In addition to solar energy projects in California and Germany, the company has also invested in several wind farms across the country. Google has also been involved in electric vehicle programs and recently installed 70 electric charging stations. Larry Page, the co-founder of the company, has also announced that he one day hopes that the company’s operations will produce no greenhouse gas emissions.  By taking such a vested interest in renewable energy and operations, Google is paving the other for other large corporations to follow the lead in creating a cleaner, more sustainable future.

Photo Credit: climate.nasa.gov

Japan Considers Solar Power In Light of Nuclear Crisis

Japan’s government indicated that it will be scratching an earlier plan to boost nuclear power, and replacing it with new renewable energy goals that perhaps focus on solar power, according to reports. Speculations abound over how Japan will manage to revamp its energy infrastructure after Fukushima, in light of the undeniable risks of nuclear power.

The nuclear crisis at Japan’s Fukushima power plant, where an earthquake and tsunami led to catastrophic release of radioactive material, has raised questions around the globe about the safety of such power generation. All are facing the same question: How can we transition out of the nuclear age and towards an era of safe, renewable energy?

Goldman Sachs estimated that the solar panels Japan would need would cost at least $150 billion. It’s a difficult and expensive decision for the disaster-stricken country, but it is essential for a future free of nuclear energy risks.

Japan’s original plan was to build nine more nuclear plants by 2020, producing 108 gigawatts of electricity. Replacing all that power generation with solar panels would be a cost-heavy goal, but it would encourage solar technology development.

Meanwhile, Solar Frontier recently opened their Kunitomi factory in Miyazaki, Japan. It is claimed to be the largest thin-film solar cell plant in the world.

The factory will start with raw materials and fully produce finished modules on a grand scale. The factory is considered state-of-the-art because it combines high capacity with automated processes and is bolstered by continued developing research. Its level of efficiency and scale is unprecedented and it offers hope for Japan as the nation reels from the worst nuclear meltdown since Chernobyl.

“The opening of our factory in the world’s largest class signals great promise for Solar Frontier and this confirms our next generation thin-film technology as globally competitive. I hope this can be one of the bright rays of hope as Japan recovers from the devastation of the Great East Japan Earthquake,” said Shigeya Kato, Chairman, at the opening ceremony of the new factory, according to the company’s website.

Japan’s government is strategically planning the logistics of their switch to renewable energy.

A group of Diet members (Japan’s Congress) calling itself Energy Shift Japan, had its first meeting on April 26 to discuss reinvention of the country’s energy policy. According to Hiroyuki Arai, a New Renaissance party member in the Upper House, the discussion should bring in drastic changes.

“We need a remake, including a switch in direction, rather than a ‘review’ of the country’s nuclear power policy and administration of energy measures,” he said, as reported by Japanese news source Asahi Shimbun.

The members of the group all agree that Japan must turn to renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power, as well as assess lifestyle changes and risks of nuclear energy.

But a transition to solar energy is not just a necessary in Japan. The rest of the world is eager to jump onto the solar bandwagon as it becomes clear that a nuclear-powered world holds frightening risks.

On April 26, 2011, the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, protestors took to the streets across Europe to denounce the nuclear age. They held banners and yelled statements like “Chernobyl, Fukushima, never again!”

Germany’s Biblis nuclear plant was temporarily shut down as part of the government’s temporary and partial halt of nuclear energy production since the Fukushima nuclear disaster. But around 10,000 protestors showed up to demand the plant’s permanent shutdown.

There is hope in sight for this desired future, especially with signs that the solar industry is truly burgeoning. Solar companies are expanding their presence and developing their technology, no doubt assisted by changing global attitudes about the need for safe and clean energy.

Photo Credit: blogs.worldwatch.org

Increased Investments in Green Technology

Cleantech Group LLC, a San Francisco based consulting firm, has reported that venture capitalists have invested 2.57 billion dollars world-wide in the first quarter in the green technology sector, an increase of 31% from the first quarter of last year and a 52% increase from previous quarter.  This is the highest investment in this sector since 2008, and Cleantech Group is estimating that this sector will have a record year overall in terms of funding.

Rising oil prices are making a significant impact on the amount of investments into clean energy and green technology.  Investors are gaining confidence in the US market, although investments have dropped significantly in the UK, down to only nine secured deals this year.

Most of the 2.57 billion was invested into solar technology, drawing a total of $641 million in capital.  A majority of those funds went to BrightSource Energy INC, a developer of solar energy fields.  Behind solar energy, companies that focused on developing electric vehicles came in second with $311 million, with $150 million of that drawn by Fisker Automotive, an automotive company that specializes in designing and creating luxury plug-in hybrid vehicles.

Investors are beginning to lean more towards fewer but bigger later-stage deals in reputable companies, rather than making small investments in start-up companies. In turn, these investments are allowing established green technology companies to expand and move ahead in large-scale productions.  Barry Cinnamon, CEO of Westinghouse Solar, notes that venture firms are still exploring what will work and what won’t in green technology. The numbers indicate a recognition among investors that green technology is staying and growing.

Photo Credit: teeic.anl.gov