Energy Blog: World of Tomorrow-2025: Warmer, Higher Sea Level, Fusion Power

solar flaresIn a Climate Changed World: Chapter 1 – By Andy Silber
July 17th, 2025
Richland, WA

We’re all just sitting here waiting for the President. Not in person of course. Too busy with the Greenland ice dam or the crisis in Bangladesh or something. I think she just didn’t want to come out here in July, when it’s 110 F. Or maybe it’s the leaky tanks of radioactive waste left over from building the A-bombs. Whatever, she’s not really here. But she’s going to throw a virtual switch to start the world’s first commercial fusion reactor. Even though we were confident that it would work, we still fired it up last night just to be sure. Zpinch containmentHer people insisted on that: the President didn’t want to press the pretend button and have nothing happen, or worse have it explode. People hear fusion and they think H-bomb. After 75 years of hope, sweat and money, once we figured out how to make the standing wave plasma reactor work, it only took us 4 years and unlimited resources to go from the lab to a 100 megawatt plant. I guess waiting another 20 minutes isn’t going to make much difference.

[see author’s note at end][Read Chapter 2]

Ever since the South Greenland ice sheet collapsed into the North Atlantic in 2023, dealing with the climate catastrophe, as everyone now calls it, has been an all hands on deck fight. The climate deniers disappeared just like those who opposed the US entering WWII vanished after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The Tsunami on Wall Street and on the Capitol steps was a wakeup call that could not be ignored. The water receded somewhat, but the rate of sea level increased 10-fold from the increased melting in Greenland and Antarctica caused by the higher sea levels. It’s not clear if we can build dikes fast enough.

What is clear is that if the Greenland ice sheet continues to fall into the sea, every coastal city will be under water. New Orleans was a challenge before, but now it’s abandoned by all but those that would rather die than leave. Since the Army Corps gave up on trying to maintain the dikes in face of increasing sea levels, it won’t be long until the Gulf claims the Big Easy.

arctic_temperature_trendSo we’re building the Greenland ice dam: the world’s largest ice maker. A thousand miles of pipes carrying ice cold refrigerant across the glaciers, freezing the melting ice, rather than letting it lubricate the glaciers and helping the flow to the sea. The heat will be pumped into the deep ocean, hopefully not creating other problems. This won’t solve the problem, just buy us time, which is what we need. This will take an enormous amount of energy. So far, that’s come from an undersea line from Iceland, where vast amounts of hydro and geothermal energy are available. That’s been fine for construction and some early trials, but not the full system. That’s where we come in. We have a second fusion unit ready to ship there tomorrow, once the President makes her damn speech.

 

Politicians! For decades we techies begged and pleaded for action. Half of the politicians said “I not qualified to comment”, but then didn’t listen to those that were. The other half would say how important reducing carbon emissions is, but then do little.

Well, the collapse of the ice sheet changed that, but I suspect too little, too late. On the one-year anniversary of the start of the collapse, the politicians signed the Tuvalu treat, named after a country that no longer exists. All coal plants to be shuttered by 2030; gasoline to be gone by 2035 (replaced with biofuels and electric cars); introduction of a worldwide carbon tax; research on ways to remove carbon from the atmosphere and oceans; and some money to help poor countries adapt, but not much.

Solar, wind, geothermal and storage can meet most of our needs, but there’s no question that fusion will help. Our reactor can go into an existing coal plant and replace the boilers, but keep most everything else unchanged. We’ll create combined de-salinization/deuterium extraction/fusion power plants that will supply the world with all of the fuel we will ever need. There’s enough deuterium in our oceans to meet our current power needs for 10 times longer than the universe has been around.

But there’s more than just powering the ice dams and replacing coal plants. There are some people around, seem like government types but they won’t say, that we’re been told to give complete access. I’m not sure why the extra access, because the Tuvalu treaty requires us to license our technology. For all I know, they’ve already setup an alternative supply chain and are about to push their own button. The more the merrier.

Here she finally comes:

Fusion Elements“A source of energy first envisioned a century ago, one that powers our sun and every star in the sky that we see; one that has been pursued for three-quarters of a century, becomes real today. In our existential battle to undo the harm we’ve done to our home, we have a powerful new ally. A source of power that is clean, safe, and without end. A new age, to stand along with stone and bronze and industrial, begins today. With the pressing of this button, I have the honor of opening the fusion age.”

With that, she throws the switch and the plasma is ignited; the standing wave generated; the deuterium-tritium fuel pellets injected; the nuclei collide and become Helium and emit energy; the heat creates steam; the steam drives a turbine and generates electricity. The waste heat will be used in the plant next door creating glass blocks out of waste left over from the nuclear bomb projects. Whether it’s enough, only time will tell.

I’m trying something different than my previous blog posts here. Rather than describing current technologies or policy questions or what I think we should do, here I’m delving into speculative fiction: what do I think might be in store for us if we continue on our current path. This is definitely not a best case scenario, but I don’t believe it’s the worst case either. On a scale of 1 (your grandchildren are going to live in a world that resembles “The Road” ) and 10 (Technology will save the day and it’s not too late), I’d probably give this a … now that would be a spoiler. 

I’m writing this in installments in the spirit of Dickens and Bradbury’s “The Martian Chronicles”. Unlike them, I’m not a great writer, so I don’t expect to win a Nobel, Pulitzer, Hugo or a Newbery. But maybe this will be made into a mini-series on SyFy. Also, for fans of classic science fiction, I’ve thrown in some references or out-right theft. 

I hope you enjoy the first piece of fiction that I’ve written that wasn’t assigned in school. – Andy Silber

Energy Blog: Comments on the Proposed Cherry Point Coal Terminal

By Andy Silber

These are the comments I’m sending to the Environmental Impact Statement Scoping process (comments@eisgatewaypacificwa.gov) about the proposed coal export terminal at Cherry Point. I strongly believe that stopping coal exports through Washington State is our most important environmental struggle.  

I believe strongly that the scope of the EIS for the Cherry Point Coal Terminal needs to include all environmental and health impacts that will be the result of building this facility. The reason is simple; this permit process is the only mechanism for most of the social costs of this activity to be considered by the public:

If not you, who?

If not now, when?

 

Let me propose a Reductio ad absurdum. Let’s say the budget negotiations in DC break down, and someone in the Department of Energy has an idea that saves the federal government billions of dollars, plus we make billions of dollars by selling waste, nuclear waste. The plan is to stop treating nuclear waste at the Hanford Reservation and pour it into train cars, ship down the Columbia Gorge and then head north through Tacoma and Seattle to a state-of-the-art shipping terminal at Cherry Point. There the waste will be carefully loaded into ships. These ships will ply the waters of the Salish Sea and the Pacific Ocean, heading to North Korea. What the Koreans do with this plutonium-rich waste is not our concern, since they’re willing to pay good money for it. There’s a pretty good chance they’ll make a nuclear bomb, but is that more important than the dozens of good jobs created building the terminal? Then maybe they’ll sell this bomb to Iran, but that’s not our fault. This scenario assumes that the federal government has completely failed in its responsibilities to protect our health and welfare.  I think we can all agree that any proposal to build a shipping terminal for nuclear waste would consider what is being shipped, the risks and impacts along the rail and sea routes and how that material would be used when it finally arrived at its destination, especially if no one else was asking those questions in a public forum.

In the case of the coal terminal, there will be tons of toxic coal dust flying off the trains in populated areas. The impacted cities have no authority over those trains, only you do. If you don’t protect these people, then our democratic process has broken down.  Our federal government and the worldwide community of nations have failed to create a structure to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. This forum is the only place for the climate impact of burning this coal to be asked and answered. If not you, no one; if not now, never.

The Cherry Point terminal will enable the burning of millions of tons of coal that currently isn’t being burnt. This will be the port’s most significant environmental impact. To have an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that doesn’t include this impact, would be like having a murder trial that discussed the defendant’s childhood and work life, but ignored the murder. Here are some questions and answers about why the climate impact must be considered in the EIS:

If this terminal isn’t built, might a terminal be built elsewhere and the coal burnt anyway? Maybe, but in Oregon, California and British Columbia there are people organized to fight coal exports for the same reason we’re fighting this one. Every coal export terminal should have to factor in the climate impact. Cherry Point is a good place to set that precedent.

Might the coal come from other countries anyway? Maybe, but since the US has the world’s largest coal reserves (22.6% of proven reserves), if we can keep that coal in the ground, it will have a significant impact on world prices of coal. Currently the US exports relatively little coal (we’re 4th behind Australia, Indonesia and Russia). By reducing supply, the price increases and demand shrinks. Already solar and wind are competitive with coal power. The last thing we want to do is reverse that trend.

Isn’t the EIS designed to look at local impacts? Then consider the local impacts of burning this coal in China or India. Consider how it will impact water resources as our winter snow becomes flooding rain. Consider how mercury and other pollution from faraway furnaces impacts our air quality. There are no other countries with large reserves of coal that aren’t significant exporters, so if we can keep ports off of the west coast of North America, this coal will likely stay in the ground and China and India will move even more quickly to alternatives like wind and solar.  China already has the world’s largest fleet of wind turbines. If this port isn’t built it is likely that the world’s consumption of coal will be lower.

Should the EIS consider the impact of this port in places outside of Washington State? For this question I’ll return to the Reductio ad absurdum: if an action in Washington State followed a predictable path to a nuclear bomb in North Korea that was sold to Iran and detonated in Tel Aviv, should we have stopped it? This port will raise sea levels worldwide, leading to dislocation and famine. We have responsibility for the impact of our actions, regardless of where they happen. I try and teach my son that he is responsible for his actions, regardless of what other people do. We can’t stop China from mining their coal to burn in their power plants. But we sure as hell can refuse to sell them more.

 

Energy Blog: Sustainable Tourism in Tanzania

By Andy Silber

Ecotourism in Tanzania

I’m just back from a 2 week safari in Tanzania with my extended family. My mother, 2 brothers and our families made up half of an armada of Toyota Land Cruisers driving across the national parks of northern Tanzania. Safari is the Swahili word for long journey and anything that starts and ends with a 20-hour plane flight with a seven-year old counts. The first safari was in 1836 led by William Cornwallis Harris, though our trek was a bit shorter than his. Both trips did include shooting the animals, though our group didn’t eat what we shot, only shared the video and photos via Facebook and YouTube.

I used to think of ecotourism as a modern invention, but now I understand that the safari is the original ecotourism. We witnessed the tail end of the great migration of well over a million wildebeests, plus zebras and antelope. This migration is supported by an enormous amount of protected land: about one-quarter of Tanzania and 8% of Kenya. The land is not protected just because the people there love wilderness and animals; it’s protected because the safaris are the cornerstone of their economies. Whether it’s the high fees the government collects (about $50 US per person per day in Tanzania) or the overpriced trinkets we buy from the Maasai or the countless jobs as guides, cooks, and other support services, these parks bring a level of relative prosperity to a wide swath of the population in a sustainable fashion.

A good example of the jobs created is the driver/guides in our tour. These 5 men are well trained, fluent in English, and can spot a jaguar sleeping in a tree while driving a Land Cruiser down a bumpy dirt road at 40 km/h. They also provided us with a fairly honest view of the situation in Tanzania, which I greatly appreciated. These are good middle-class jobs, which pay enough for them to send their kids to a good private school (the government schools are thought to be pretty worthless).

The pressures to develop the land are enormous. There are tales of gold and other mineral deposits inside the parks. Corruption is common place and the people in power know that any mineral development in the area includes kickbacks to them. The Chinese are interested in investing in mining to feed their industrial development. Without the safaris it is hard to imagine that the land would remain protected and the great migration continue.

It was also interesting to see the small things at the lodges. Of the 5 places we stayed, 3 were seriously off-the-grid. Water was from a well (except in one case where the well came up dry the water is trucked in). Leaky toilets were commonplace and blamed on bad plumbing made in China (one lodge had high quality Spanish toilets). Four out of five establishments heated water primarily with solar power (the 5th used wood). One disappointment was that there was very little solar photovoltaic, instead the lodges relied on diesel generators. The power demands were kept quite low: mainly lighting and the recharging of a large number of cameras and cell phones. I was surprised at how many of these lodges had limited WiFi, though the speeds where slow and spotty.

I’m not saying that these tours have no impact. There’s the fuel to fly half-way around the world, and gas for the trucks and generators. Still, it’s hard to imagine how such a beautiful, unique and critical habitat would be protected otherwise. And seeing these animals in their natural setting has an impact on those of us viewing it that is incalculable, especially for the 13 kids on our trip.

Energy Blog: The Lorax: I Speak for Myself

By Andy Silber

The Lorax: I speak for myself

The book that is often cited for awakening the environmental movement was Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring. It’s publication in 1962 (a year before I was born) is given credit for the banning of DDT and the passage of the clean air and clean water acts. But for those of us born in the 1960s, the book that opened our eyes to the need to protect the world around us was a book of poetry and art: The Lorax. So when I learned that there was a plan to make a full length CGI movie of The Lorax I was interested, but concerned that Dr. Seuss’s wit and powerful message would be lost. I finally took my son to see the movie at the Admiral Theater this week.

The movie covers the story from the book: a boy visiting the Once-ler to learn what had happened to the trees. The Once-ler tells the story of how he cut down all of the truffula trees to make Thneeds, something everyone needs. His factory pollutes the air and the water while his super Ax-Hacker cuts down the trees four at a time. The animals leave, as the land is no longer able to support them. While all this is happening, the Lorax, a whinny, old man, impotently “speaks for the trees” and warns the Once-ler that his actions are destroying the ecosystem. Eventually the Once-ler, who is not practicing sustainable forestry, cuts down the last tree. His factory shuts down and he lives alone with his remorse among the devastation he wrought. The story ends hopefully with the Once-ler giving the boy the last truffula-tree seed and telling him that

Unless someone like you…cares a whole awful lot…nothing is going to get better…It’s not.”

The movie tells this story, staying true to the original version, including its strong message of anti-consumerism. The movie also expands this story. We learn about the boy, the town he lives in, and his effort to plant and protect the truffula seed. The Thneeds are gone, but now people buy bottled air the way many buy bottled water today. The movie opens to the O’Hare Air delivery guy happily driving around town delivering bottles of air. No plants grow in this town: not a tree, bush or blade of grass.

One thing that struck me is how the world as imagined by Dr. Seuss that seemed so other worldly now seems mundane in the context of a modern animated movie. The Seussian view of the world has so influenced my generation that it has somewhat lost its power to delight. Not surprising is that most of Dr. Seuss’s poetry is missing. It’s hard to maintain that for 90 minutes; the best I can recall was less than a minute on Moonlighting.

The most interesting part of the movie isn’t from the book. The climax has the boy, his inspiration (a pretty and passive girl) and his grandmother trying to plant the truffula tree in the center of town. The man who made his fortune selling air knows that this is a risk to his business model and rallies the town against this “dirty” tree. The parallels to the climate change “debate” and the role of Exxon et al. in spreading misinformation is obvious. The climax is when the O’Hare Airdelivery guy speaks up. Knowing that his job is at stake, he comes out in favor of planting the tree. This turns the tide in favor of protecting the tree.

It reminded me of the Upton Sinclair quote that “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!” (Thanks Jon). In the real world, we’ve had many of these moments: for instance, in 1997 the CEO of British Petroleum spoke about the need of action on Climate Change. Soon after that Shell Oil came out as a believer in human-caused climate change. Still, the sowers of unreasonable doubt have strengthened their position in DC since then.

Back to The Lorax (the movie). Even more than the book, it ends on a note of hope. The Lorax returns to hug the Once-ler while he waters his small truffula trees. Sure, it’s a Hollywood ending. And it’s up to “someone like you…(who) cares a whole awful lot” to bring this kind of ending to the challenges we face in the real world.

 

 

Energy Blog: Why I Take the Bus: It’s Safer, Creates Community, Provides Quality Time

By Andy Silber

Why I’m taking the bus

I’m starting this blog entry as I ride the bus back from my new job at Microsoft. My new commute has gotten me thinking about transportation in King County. Usually it’s pretty obvious whether or not I’m going to take the bus or drive to work. Sometimes there has been a good bus route and expensive parking (downtown/U-district) and in other cases there was an easy drive with free parking and no good bus options (e.g. Kent from West Seattle). The one exception was when I worked in Lynwood, when the options were a bad bus commute or bad driving with free parking.

At Microsoft my option was a soul-sucking drive and free parking or two express buses and an only slightly longer commute time. I also factored in the carbon emissions and the cost of driving. The fact that I’m typing this on the bus tells you where I landed. What tipped my decision was that the 545 I take from downtown to Redmond runs so often that you never need to wait more than a few minutes for a bus. That, and the soul-sucking nature of the drive. Also an NPR pledge drive was upcoming, which really made the prospect of driving inconceivable. But this also has me thinking about some other issues about taking transit here.

Induced Demand and dedicated right-of-ways

My two buses (the 21X and 545) have lots in common: they run often at rush hour and they’re packed. The fact that they both run often is critical to my decision not to drive. If you have to change buses and they only run every 20 minutes, a bad day might mean an extra 40 minutes getting home.

Induced demand is the traffic version of “If you build it, they will come”. It’s usually discussed in the context of roads and that you can’t build your way out of congestion. But what is less discussed is how it can work for transit. Imagine a route with a bus that runs every 30 minutes and is somewhat crowded. If there are sufficient numbers of people going where that bus is going, most will say that the bus doesn’t run often enough, so they drive. If you add more buses, some people will decide that the bus is convenient enough. This is even more critical if you need to take two buses. Imagine a system where every bus ran every 5 minutes. You wouldn’t care much that it took two, since you would never have to wait for a bus or check the schedule.

The other issue is dedicated transit corridors. Several of the reasons that my bus commute isn’t much longer than driving are the dedicated right-of-ways on the West Seattle bridge, 3rd Ave. downtown and westbound SR520. Still, my bus spent 20 minutes today fighting it’s way out of downtown because sometimes the buses have trouble making the right turn from 3rd Ave. onto Columbia.

Orca card

Another thing that can slow the buses is when someone pays cash, which is common at the stop I use in the morning. It takes on average about 20-30 seconds to pay. The regular commuters all pay with an Orca pass, which takes basically no time at all. How much does this fumbling for change cost? Let’s say a sitting bus costs $100 an hour; that’s for the driver’s time, the value of an idle asset (the bus) and the value of the time of everyone sitting in the bus (that’s valuing their time at less than minimum wage if the bus is full). So a minute of time is worth $1.67. The cost of paying $2.75 is about $0.80, counting only the time everyone is sitting and waiting. We have a perfectly good solution to this, the Orca card. So why isn’t everyone using it?

For those who don’t know, the Orca card is a debit card that all of our region’s transit agencies are using. I think it works great and many employers (including Microsoft) provide one to every employee for free. They come in two flavors:

  • A pass for unlimited rides up to a certain cost depending on the type of pass you buy
  • A purse that holds money like a standard debit card and the cost of your bus/boat/train ride is subtracted from your account.

The Orca Pass saves you money if you take the bus more than 18 roundtrips a month. If you ride less than that, you’re better off buying individual tickets or an Orca purse. If you use the Orca card as a purse you don’t save any money vs. pouring change into the fare box, it’s just more convenient. We have created no incentives to get an Orca purse other than convenience and a weak incentive to get a pass. For comparison Boston’s equivalent, the CarlieCard, gives a 15% discount when used as a purse and you break even on a pass if you ride transit for only 14 days a month.

There is a reason to create a strong incentive to buy Orca cards beyond keeping the buses moving. People who have passes are more likely to take transit. Should I drive from my house to the Junction, where there’s free parking, or take the bus? If I have a pass, I might take the bus. If I have to spend $5 round trip, I’ll drive. If someone occasionally takes the bus, they’re not going to buy a pass. But once they have a pass, they are much more likely to move from being an occasional bus rider to a regular bus rider. The same with a purse: If they have $20 in their Orca card, they’re more likely to take the bus. We need to increase the incentives for everyone to participate in the Orca card program.

Here’s an out-of-the-box idea: how about a property tax assessment to pay to get an Orca card for every resident in Seattle. The cost for a business is about $200 a year, but I’m guessing the city could get a volume discount.

Safety

One of the reasons to take the bus that people don’t think about is safety. I’ve often heard people cite personal safety as one of the reasons they don’t take the bus. But statistics actually argue the opposite. Taking the bus is over 10 times safer than driving. An attack on the bus gets lots of news, because it is so rare. A fatal car accident is only news if it ties up traffic.

Community

One of the things I like to do is take the bus with my son. It’s quality time for us to talk or read. When I’m driving he often wants me to look at something, which is generally a bad idea. On the bus, it’s perfect.

I’ve met lots of my neighbors on the bus. This morning I chatted with a neighbor who I rarely talk with other than on the bus. I can’t tell you how often I’m at an event and someone recognizes me from the 21.

Why drivers should support transit

As I sit in a crowded bus, I wonder how we can fund more transit. Looking at a broader view of how to manage our limited resource of road space, I think drivers should pay more to support transit for their own selfish reasons. I have as much right to put my car on the road as John R. Public (you can guess what the R stands for). But by choosing to take the bus, I improve his commute. This is just another variant of the tragedy of the commons, where the road takes the place of the cow pasture. How much is he willing to pay to improve his own commute? Part of the funds from the SR520 toll will be to support transit in that corridor. That is in the best interest of drivers, as well as those who sit in the buses. Someone needs to quantify how much each dollar of transit support speeds the commute for those left in their cars for whatever reason. That would help us gain more support for transit via tolls, or at least weaken the arguments of those who want to end all support for transit.

Why do you take the bus (or rail)? I’d love to hear in the comments section. I promise to read all responses while sitting on the bus.

 

Energy Blog: Superheroes Without Cape: NW Energy Group Ponders Efficiency, Grids

by Andy Silber

Not All Superheroes Wear a Cape:

Energy Wonks in Seattle for NWEC’s Fall Conference

Thirty years ago a group of intrepid energy wonks realized the solution to our energy needs was not building a bunch of expensive nuclear power plants, but to aggressively capture the cost effective energy-efficiency measures available at a fraction of the cost, risk and environmental impact. These champions of truth, justice and the Northwest way continue their struggle. Few know them: they do their work in the meeting spaces of government commissions, utility boardrooms and wherever sound energy policy is being made. Sometimes they even do their work in the meeting rooms of a downtown Seattle Red Lion Inn. This band of super-wonks is known as The NW Energy Coalition, and I attended their meeting last week. Here are some of my thoughts.

A view from inside the regulatory process

The first panel of the conference consisted of members of the regulatory commissions for Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana. In addition, there were enough members of the Montana commission in the crowd to meet quorum as well as many other present and past regulators. These commissions are very reactive organizations; they review the plans of the utilities and the comments by groups like the Northwest Energy Coalition and give thumbs up or down. The primary question before them is whether a cost (like investing in energy efficiency or building a new power plant) can be included in rate calculations and what rates a utility can charge its customers. They spoke about their goal to keep costs low and how energy efficiency is the best way for utilities to meet the demands of their customers.

I asked them whether they could internalize the impact of carbon emissions by requiring the utilities to include a high carbon cost for the purpose of planning, since the federal government hasn’t acted. This would change the behavior of the utilities without imposing a politically difficult tax or cap-and-trade system. They all agreed that it was proper for the utilities to include a carbon cost based on expected federal action, but not to internalize environmental costs. In other words, as the probability of federal action decreases so will the assumed cost by northwest utilities. All of the regulators felt that dealing with climate change was someone else’s problem.

Commissioner Jeffery Gotz read the law that governs the Washington State Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC) and it clearly allows them to factor in environmental concerns. And they commonly do. For instance, an Integrated Resource Plan that didn’t consider salmon habitat in dam operations would be rejected.  For some reason the continued survival of salmon is an appropriate concern for the UTC (as it should be), but the survival of human civilization is Someone Else’s Problem.

This discussion also made it clear that continued pressure in DC to create a carbon cost is important, even if it fails. The higher the probability (even if we’re moving from 0 to 20% likelihood) impacts the decisions of organizations across the country.

Transmission 

Both of the regular readers of my blog know that I’d be interested in a panel titled “West by Northwest Energy, transmission and ecosystem challenges”. I’m still convinced that any serious effort in shutting down significant numbers of coal plants will require a modern (i.e. HVDC) grid that is planned and paid for at the federal level. The discussion of the panel focused almost entirely on projects inside the northwest, with a brief mention of upgrading our connection to southern California and the Tres Amigos project, which allows power to be exchanged between the 3 US grids (East, West, Texas). Without more transmission that connects the Northwest to the rest of the country we’ll be seeing more occasions where wind turbines are turned off  to keep us from producing more power than the region can use. If we don’t figure out a way to take advantage of the wind farms we’ve built, it’s unlikely that more will be constructed.

I asked the panel about building a national green superhighway for electricity. The response by Tom Darin of the American Wind Energy Association was interesting. He said that there had been discussions of this idea, but it didn’t go anywhere. Instead the focus was on energy efficiency (which should be a higher priority) and local/regional renewable production and transmission planning. AWEA did not oppose a national grid and no arguments were put forward against it. It is just that inertia ways heavily against tackling this problem at a national level.

If our goal is to continue operating our existing fleet of coal plants while meeting increased electricity demand due to population increases and everyone having more gadgets (aka load growth) then this is a good plan. In other words, we’re following a path that’s bad (i.e. efficiency and local renewables), because it’s a lot better than the alternative (i.e. build more coal plants). Unfortunately, this plan still leads to unacceptable emissions of carbon dioxide. We need a plan that allows us to meet our energy needs while decommissioning all of the nation’s coal powered plants. As I’ve written about already, this is possible with current technology as long as we take a national view, rather than a local one. Unfortunately, national transmission planning is also “Someone Else’s Problem”.

Safeco Field

Now here is a counter example. We were given a tour of Safeco Field and their green initiatives by Scott Jenkins, VP Ballpark Operations. Here is someone who looked at the problem of energy and resource consumption at Safeco and said “This is my problem”. Since 2005 recycling rates have gone from 12 to 81%.  Energy Use Intensity (EUI) has dropped 25% over the same period. This was not done by any heroic effort, but just by someone accepting that it was his problem and working with everyone throughout the organization to make lots of little changes.  The improvements at Safeco weren’t expensive: to the contrary they’ve saved the Mariners about $300,000 per year, or almost enough for a relief pitcher.

In addition to the work greening Safeco, the Mariners are part of the Green Sports Alliance, which works to repeat the successes there at other sports venues. By raising awareness of how easy recycling and energy conservation are to sports fans, these issues move more into the mainstream, aiding adoption of these efforts everywhere.

I believe that what has happened, and is still happening, at Safeco is the model we need to stop the climate catastrophe; everyone saying “This is my problem” and doing whatever they can to solve it.  I don’t mean to be hard on the regulators who aren’t requiring utilities to consider climate change in their planning or renewable energy advocates who focus on local concerns rather than global ones. These jobs are hard enough without taking on the burden of the whole world. But we all need to ask ourselves, “If not me, who. If not now, when”.

Energy Blog: Coal Export Ports Dumbest Thing We Can Do

Why building coal export ports in Washington is about the dumbest thing we could do

By Andy Silber

There are two proposals to build coal-export terminals in Washington: one in Longview and the other just north of Bellingham. Building these terminals is akin to building a road through a wilderness area to a bridge you just torn down. Washingtonians didn’t pass I-937 (the initiative that requires utilities to increase their use of renewable resources) so that we could export more coal to China. Our state legislature didn’t pass SB6001 (a law that prevents the building of new coal plants in Washington) so that we could keep the price of coal low for export. We enacted these laws so that the coal stays in the ground. As far as our atmosphere is concerned it doesn’t matter where the coal is burned. The idea of increasing our electricity rates (because coal is cheap, if you don’t count that it’s killing us) so that we can export coal to China so that they can sell more cheap stuff to us is totally nuts.

The world has been unable to pass a climate treaty that limits the emissions of greenhouse gases. The US never even ratified Kyoto. And that sucks. Despite that, we’ve made significant progress domestically:

  • Seattle and hundreds of other cities of signed on to the Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, committing those cities to meeting the Kyoto targets.
  • Most proposals to build new coal plants have died
  • Some older, dirtier and less efficient coal plants have been shuttered rather than being brought into compliance with clean air regulations
  • We’ve gotten commitments to switch some power plants away from coal in the future, including Washington’s only coal-fired power plant in Centralia
  • The wind and solar industries have seen remarkable growth
  • 2008 and 2009 both saw significant decreases in CO2 emission for the US. This was certainly partially due to the recession, but some of the changes are likely to be permanent (e.g. shuttering old coal plants)

We’re starting to get our own house in order, slower than we need to but the direction is good. The problem is that China is building a huge number of coal plants. Even though China has enormous deposits of coal, they can’t mine it fast enough. So they’ve gone shopping. Since the largest reserves of coal are found in the US (30% of proven coal reserves) it’s our coal that they want to buy. So if the US stops mining coal that limits how much damage can be caused by China burning coal. They’ll run out a lot sooner. Also, if China doesn’t have access to enough coal, they’ll have to stop building new plants.

If the US stays out of the international coal market the price of coal will go up (simple supply and demand). This will discourage the building of new plants and encourage the upgrading of existing plants to make them as efficient as possible. It will also encourage the construction of renewables and conservation/efficiency. We can’t force the Chinese to restrict their emissions of CO2, but we sure as hell don’t have to help them cook the world by selling them coal.

Some make the case for building these ports by talking about the jobs created. That argument makes no sense to me. No one talks about how the war on drugs hurts farmers in Columbia just trying to make a living selling coca. When we limit where strip clubs are located, what about the living-wage jobs that are killed? Should we encourage kids to drink more soda, since it will create jobs treating their diabetes and obesity? Jobs created doing a damaging activity are no boon to society. And exporting coal is certainly more damaging than a strip club.

So what can we do about it?

First off, don’t build the ports. We work with our federal, state and local elected officials to stop the construction of these exporter centers of death. We pursue every possible legal angle to tie these projects up for as many years as possible. We fight to include the climate impact of these ports in the environmental impact statements (EIS). Since coal burned in China is a significant source of air pollution in the US that should also be included in the EIS.

Secondly, we hit the rail lines. These enormous trains will be carrying toxic material through our neighborhoods. If a pickup carrying leaves needs to cover its load, it’s pretty obvious that a train carrying toxic dust needs to be covered. We work to pass legislation that requires the trains carrying coal to cover their loads.  There are legitimate health and environmental reasons to require this, but it also increases costs, and everything we do that increases costs makes it less likely that these projects will move forward.

Most importantly we organize. The Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal: Washington project is now working on coal exports. There’s a meeting at the UW campus on November 16th that isn’t a bad place to start.

Energy Blog: NW Wind Power – Too Much of a Good Thing?

By Andy Silber

Too Much of a Good Thing?

The Challenges of Wind Development in the Northwest

It was recently reported that the Northwest power grid operators (primarily the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA)) plan to instruct wind farm operators to turn their turbines off occasionally this spring, because our grid can’t handle all of the power. Why are we turning off wind farms now and not shutting down Washington’s only coal power plant until 2025?

We often hear that the problem with wind power is that it is an “intermittent” source: the turbines generate electricity when the wind blows, not when the demand is high. This is also true of solar, but it’s less of a problem because it is more predictable (they tend to generate more electricity during the day than at night) and that power generation is high when demand is high. This is especially true in areas where solar energy is plentiful and the peak demand is caused by air conditioning, like LA and Phoenix.

What we don’t often hear about is the intermittency of hydro. Most of us imagine a dam holding back water, waiting until we need it. The truth is a bit more complicated. I’ll take Seattle City Light’s (SCL) situation as an example. SCL has 4 main dams, 3 on the Skagit River (Gorge, Diablo and Ross) and the Boundary project on the Pend Oreille River in Northeast Washington. For 3 of these dams, the amount of water flowing into the “lake” behind the dam in a given day is about equal to the amount of water flowing out of the lake that day: there is very little storage. SCL does turn most of the generators down at night, saving the water for the time of day when demand is highest. The other complication is the salmon in the Skagit River. The salmon runs are very healthy on the Skagit, in part because of SCL’s salmon first policy in running the hydro facilities. The output of the most downstream dam (Gorge) is relatively constant when the salmon are in the river, because that leads to healthy salmon runs. Ross Dam and Lake are the exception. Ross can hold enough water to run for months. So the level of Ross Lake is lowered during the late winter, waiting for the spring run-off. When that happens Ross Dam is turned way down. There’s still enough water from the melting snow nearby to keep Diablo and Gorge producing a lot power.  Meanwhile on the Pend Oreille, the Boundary dam is producing huge amounts of electricity. Even with Ross producing much less energy that it can, our other dams produce more than we need during the spring melt.

The same thing is happening with all of the dams and rivers across the region, including the big federal dams that make up the BPA. There are very few big lakes like Ross that can store much water. In a wet year, like we’re having right now, the wholesale price of electricity plummets for months. We can export some of that power to California via the Pacific DC intertie (which was built as a federal project, not a state or private one), but not all of it. The key to operating the Northwest Grid during the spring run-off is to reduce generation. One way to do that is “spill” water over the dams (i.e. pass water over the top of the dam, rather than through the turbine/generators). This does happen, but it mixes air into the water, which is bad for the fish. Another way is to take a few big plants off-line for awhile. For instance, at the moment the only nuclear plant in Washington State is down for re-fueling.

So when the wind starts blowing in the spring, the grid operators get nervous. The amount of electricity being put into the grid must exactly equal the amount being used. If the dams are already as low as they can go given the constraints of flood control and fish habitat and the Pacific Intertie is at capacity and everything else that can be turned down already has been, they’re in a pickle. Wind operators have an extra inducement to sell their power; they only get their federal production tax credits if they sell the power. They can sell the power at a negative price and still make some money. That actually happens; the wholesale price of electricity can go negative. If you have a power plant that you can’t turn down you need a place for that electricity to go and if needed, you’ll pay someone to take it.

If you’ve been reading my blog much, you know what the solution is: a National HVDC Grid. If we had a larger market to sell into, those wind turbines could be replacing power produced with natural gas or coal outside of our region. Basically there is no transmission capacity heading east from Seattle that connects to the big loads in Chicago and points east. We could also be buying wind power from the plains during our peak winter loads.

For Seattleites this would have another advantage. Our electricity rates our subsidized by selling excess power on the wholesale market: high wholesale prices are actually good for Seattle. A big part of the reason our rates have gone up recently is that the recession has depressed electricity demand and prices, so we aren’t making as much as we usually do selling power. Since our costs are fixed, ratepayers make up the difference. If during the spring, when we have the most excess power, we could sell power at $60/Mhr, rather than the $20/Mhr that is currently typical, the result would be lower rates. Also our dams could help smooth the ups and downs of wind power across the country, if we had the transmission capacity.

The Pacific Intertie lowers the cost of electricity both here and in California. We just need to build a network of transmission lines so that we can keep the wind turbines generating electricity here and turn off the coal plants across the country.

Energy Blog: What Does Earth Day Mean?

By Andy Silber

What does Earth Day mean?

Pardon my rambling; I just have some thoughts on the environmental movement on the 41st anniversary of Earth Day that I want to share with you. There’s a homework assignment at the end. Don’t worry, only the fate of our civilization depends on the answers. You will be graded.

In many ways the movement has come a long way: rivers don’t catch on fire; the manufacture of ozone depleting chemicals have been stopped; coal plants are often required to use the “Best available control technology” to reduce air pollution; CAFE standards were implemented to improve gas millage. Most companies at least pretend to be “Green” and some actually take it seriously. Google is investing in renewable energy and GM and Nissan are building electric powered cars. Teaching about the environment is now part of most schools’ curriculum and recycling is common in many places. So we have accomplished much. Give yourselves a pat on the back.

The early days were about collective action such as the Clean Water Act (passed in 1972) and the Clean Air Act (passed in 1970). The last major new law passed was ratification of the Montreal Protocol to deal with Ozone depleting gases, which was negotiated and signed by George Herbert Walker Bush. There have been updates to the Clean Air and Water Acts and tightening of CAFE standards and other tweaks, but no new major initiatives. This would be acceptable if there were no big environmental challenges remaining. Obviously that is not the case. So far Congress has taken no action to deal with climate change. To the contrary, the moderate first steps the Obama administration is taking under the authority of the Clean Air Act are under constant threat by Congress. Read more

Energy Blog: Smart Grids & True Energy Efficiencies

By Andy Silber

A Tale of Two Talks: Smart Grid and Reinventing Fire

In the last week I’ve attended two talks: a breakfast meeting hosted by the Washington Green Tech Alliance on the Smart Grid and a talk by Amory Lovins founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute on their Reinventing Fire plan. These talks reminded me of the opening of one of Dickens great novels (great as in big), not because one of them was bad, but because they had very different approaches. The smart grid talk got into the weeds and details and challenges in rolling out new technology covering a small part of the electrical system with a timescale of about 5 years. The Reinventing Fire talk was a grand plan covering how the entire electrical and transportation systems could change over the next 40 years. They did have some things in common:

  • The both lasted about 90 minutes, with time for questions
  • They were well attended by an interested audience that asked good questions
  • They left one feeling hopefully about the exciting things that are happening and what’s possible if we only try

Smart Grid

A group crowded into the conference room of a downtown investment firm, sharing coffee and pastries. For $25 I thought we might get something other than baked goods, but I wasn’t there for the food, but the topic. The panel included a manager for a big firm working on the all aspects of the grid to the CEO of a start-up only working on a Smart Grid application.

One nice thing about the panel is that they are all local.

When considering the challenges of a Smart Grid, it’s good to start with a definition. If you get 3 people in a room who are working on Smart Grid, you’ll probably get 3 definitions, but there are a few things everyone agrees with:

  • It is not JUST a Smart Meter or Advanced Metering Infrastructure. Randy Berry said “The dumbest thing you can do is just install a Smart Meter”.
  • Communication is a key component
  • It enables customers to use less power during peak times and more power when the system can easily delivery it (e.g. at night when a wind farm is producing and the demand is otherwise low)
  • It also provides value to the utility that is not obvious to the customer (e.g. monitoring the voltage at the house, allowing the utility to more efficiently deliver energy)

Some people are just talking about the grid from the customer to the utility. Others include HVDC power lines connecting windfarms to distant cities.

Some applications are very obvious, but aren’t happening yet, because the utility and your appliances don’t communicate.

  • Only defrost your freezer in the middle of the night
  • Electric hot water heaters setting the thermostat high (e.g. 160° F) in the middle of the night, changing to standard heating (120° F) during times of higher demand.

These applications require the kind of communications that has been standard in the IT industry for decades. But with a few exceptions, the technology used in distributing electricity would all look familiar to Tesla. So the challenge of the Smart Grid is to apply already commercialized technology and concepts in a very conservative field.

One interesting thing that the panel agreed about is the standard tech-startup model of

  1. start a company
  2. develop a technology
  3. build a customer base
  4. go IPO
  5. get rich

doesn’t work because the customer is usually the utilities, which won’t buy from a small guy. They’re too risk adverse and don’t trust something that hasn’t been proven. So the model in this space is

  1. start a company
  2. develop a technology
  3. get bought by a big player (e.g. GE/Alstom/Siemens)
  4. don’t get rich, but you do OK

And the big boys are buying. Michael from Alstom talked about several recent acquisitions that Alston has made, where they figured it was faster to buy a company that helped them compete than develop the technology in-house.

Jim Holbery represented the only startup on the panel. He’s working on applying IT concepts to the grid, attaching data along with the electricity. Currently if you want to buy “Green Power”, your only option is to buy Renewable Energy Certificates (aka Green Tags) which perform accounting magic to separate the greenness from the power and sell them to different people. GridMobility’s idea is to actually track where the power came from and sell you real green power. To be honest, given the mixed up nature of the grid, it’s like mixing organic and non-organic berries in a bucket and trying to separate out the organic ones at the store and just sell you those. His hope is to partner with the big players like Alstom.

The one thing that I found disappointing about the panel (and the field) is that it was all about the retail/local grid. If you’ve been reading my posts, it’s pretty obvious that I think the most important element that we need to develop is long-distance transmission that can efficiently bring in utility scale renewables to the distant customers who live where there isn’t nearby renewable resources. This was not a topic that any of the panelists are working on. The Smart Grid that we discussed saves little energy, but does help shift consumption to better times. This helps reduce blackouts and effectively integrate intermittent renewables like wind power, which are good and important, but insufficient on their own. Integrating renewables isn’t very valuable if you live where there aren’t renewable resources.

Reinventing Fire: A Talk by Amory Lovins

First off, if you don’t know who Amory Lovins is, shame on you. He may look like Frank Oz,

but he’s a superhero to me. He basically invented the idea was energy efficiency with the publication of Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken?” in Foreign Affairs, 1976. He founded the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), which he calls a “Think and Do Tank” and does amazing work. Maybe I just like him because he’s also a physicist. Maybe because his most famous quote involves beer, “All people want is cold beer and hot showers.”

His talk covered the RMI’s Reinventing Fire concept. This program has the modest goal of driving the consumption of oil and coal to zero by 2050. They believe that this is possible while reducing the consumption of natural gas and building no new nuclear plants. He claims that this can happen driven by corporations trying to maximize their profits with only small actions by the government. He assumes that there will not be a carbon tax or cap and trade or any other effort by the government to internalize the cost of carbon.

As always, Amory’s focus is on using energy more efficiently. One example he talked about was the Hyper Car concept. By making cars out of advanced materials the weight of a car can be reduced by more than half, reducing the fuel consumption. A lighter car needs a smaller engine, saving more weight and more fuel. This also makes electric cars cheaper, since the largest cost is the battery and a light car won’t need as many to go a given distance. This allows electric cars to go mainstream sooner, encouraging more research on advanced batteries that further reduce costs and increase range. By 2050 cars can be using so little liquid fuel it’s fairly easy to supply that with biofuels (not corn ethanol, which received applause from the audience). The interesting thing was he gave lots of examples where car companies are currently working on bringing these concepts to the market in the next few years, including a factory in Moses Lake that will be building material for BMW.

He also talked about using roads more efficiently, more efficient pumps and motors, and lots of other topics. The basic story was repeated over and over. We waste a lot of energy. Once we cut out the waste, it’s easy to clean up what remains. And we can do this while improving the economy and everyone still gets cold beer and hot showers.

The presentation was only about 30 minutes, followed by some questions from Seattle’s Denis Hayes and the audience. In true Lovins style he covered a lot of territory and it was basically whetting our appetite for when it comes out in book form or to go to their web site and read more. His view is optimistic, but it’s backed up with real analysis and the assumptions he’s making are not unreasonable.

While the case he made for drastic increases in efficiency was fairly persuasive, he didn’t explain how renewable energy would replace existing coal plants without significant government action. Personally, I think that unless we institute some kind of preference for renewable energy (e.g. carbon tax, cap and trade, renewable energy standard), coal plants built in 1980 will still be operating in 2050. He also made reference to how abundant wind energy is, but I don’t believe that we’ll capture that without significant government investments in a national HVDC grid.

Lot’s of reasons to hope. Now get out their and conserve energy!!!