Clean and Green Investment Forum — Summary

The following guest post is from Jonathan Callahan, a PhD chemist currently working as a data management / information access consultant. Jonathan writes on energy issues and data management at

On June 6 and 7, I attended Opal Financial’s Clean and Green Investment Forum. I was invited to take part in a panel on “Green Energy in Emerging and Frontier Markets”. The forum brought together clean tech entrepreneurs and investors as well as a few academics and analysts and proved very stimulating. The overall vibe was one of optimism and opportunity — we’re talking entrepreneurs and investors here. This post will discuss presentations in the following categories:

  • Government policies and private investment
  • Utilities and grids
  • Electric vehicles
  • Batteries and fuel cells
  • Biomass and algae
  • Wind
  • Solar

Disclaimer — Opal Financial paid my airfare and hotel room and waived the conference fee.

Government policies and private investment

Several speakers addressed the importance of government policy action in supporting the adoption of renewable energy during their talks.

The keynote speech was given by Suedeen Kelly, who served three terms as FERC commissioner under Bush and Obama. Kelly emphasized how energy is different from other markets in that it is highly regulated by the government. She foresees significant action on the energy policy front but admits that change can be slow. Kelly described the Federal government’s role as providing the 3 M’s: Money in the form of grants and tax credits; Markets where the government is a large buyer of renewables; and Mandates ranging from open data requirements for public utilities to energy efficiency requirements in government agencies.

Patty Hargreaves described Ontario’s 2009 Green Energy Act (GEA) which aims to position Ontario as a leader in the adoption of renewable energy and the creation of clean tech jobs. Important features include a generous feed in tariff (20 years at 8x market rate) which has resulted in the creation of 15,000 jobs in the local solar industry. Also found in the GEA are simplified regulations for installation of solar panels as well as the closure of all coal fired plants by 2014. (By comparison, Washington state residential incentives amount to $0.54/KWh (7x Seattle retail) until 2020 for systems with Washington sourced components. Washington also plans to phase out coal by 2025.)

Ed Trello said “These are exciting and scary times for utility executives.” He described our aging energy infrastructure and suggested that $1 Trillion in capital will need to be spent on new generating capacity in the coming decades. Utility executives are unsure of what role renewables will (must?) play as there is no national energy plan. The US still has lots of coal and natural gas and these are the safe bets for many executives. (I’ll add my voice to those complaining about the lack of any Federal Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) or of any national policies aimed at decoupling utility revenue from electricity sales.)

Other speakers emphasized the importance of tax incentives and RPS in jump starting the US renewables market. Unfortunately, these are implemented primarily at the state and local level resulting in around 1900 financially separate electricity markets in the US. (Check out the DSIRE database.) Investors in energy technology have a difficult time penciling out returns with all this complexity, especially given the temporal nature of credits, rebates and RPS. All of these are subject to change every election cycle.

A few speakers described how venture capital has been slow to move into the renewables space as rates of return are perceived to be low despite the fact that the energy market in the US is a multi-Trillion dollar market. Clean tech is capital intensive and slow moving. It’s hard to imagine Google- or Facebook-like returns when manufacturing solar panels is a lowest-cost commodity market and returns on utility grade systems are subject to regulation.

Several institutional investors, on the other hand, described seeing increasing demand for “green” investment choices in retirement plans. Large net worth family funds are also seeking out green investments as a younger generation takes the reigns and demands alternatives to their parents’ investment choices. With limited investment options, some fund managers seem to see today’s green investments as “getting in early” on what they suspect will be a much broader generational shift in investor sentiment.

Utilities and grids

Based on what I heard from several speakers it seems like focusing on utilities and their electric grid is an excellent place to look for significant efficiency gains.

Lanny Sinkin of Solar San Antonio described how CPS Energy, the nations largest publicly owned utility, did an about face on conservation when they hired a new, younger director a few years back. (There’s that generational issue again.) Instead of lobbying for a new nuclear reactor, the utility now promotes energy conservation and distributed generation with wind and solar projects.

John Loporto of Power Tagging described their technology for sending packets of metadata around on the grid itself, making it easier to know how to reroute during outages and where voltage dips occur. Currently the grid operates near ~120 Volts in order to guarantee that ~110 V is available to each household. By knowing where additional voltage regulators are needed, utilities can reduce operating voltage throughout the grid to ~110 V resulting in a 6% efficiency gain. (Impressive!)

Another speaker talked about investment opportunities for fast-response, grid-scale storage — big batteries. He sees a whole new field of “digital electricity management” emerging and suggested that security concerns may push the development of “micro-grids”.

“Smart grids” didn’t get that much play at this conference even though a couple of people did mention the need to tread very lightly with respect to demand side management. For 100 years, utilities have been intensely focused on customer expectations of reliability and any whiff of intermittency goes against everything they stand for.

Clearly, there is a lot of work and a lot of opportunity for engineers and investors working at the utility and grid level.

Electric vehicles

As is already evident, Peak Oil will affect transportation much more severely than other sectors of the economy as it accounts for a large percentage of the energy used for transportation (95% in the US). The presentations on vehicles showed that steady progress is being made but cost is still a significant barrier to widespread adoption.

Ed Baxter described a new electric vehicle from China, the Zotye electric SUV, that he claims will do a much better job of meeting consumer expectations than current offerings. Marketing material claims it can travel up to 250 miles on a charge. The car should appear in the US sometime in 2012 with a 3 year/36,000 mile warranty as well as a 185,000 mile warranty on the batteries all for $30K. He expects 3 million EVs to be sold by 2015. (No wonder he’s investing in this!)

At a lower price point Mark Frohnmayer of Arcimoto presented their commuter vehicle which is designed to get a single person across town and back without getting wet. As a three-wheeled motorcycle it cuts a lot of corners compared to a real car but he is trying to design a “sustainable vehicle” for the sweet spot that meets perhaps 80% of driving needs — a single person traveling moderate distances without much stuff. Even though these vehicles will be hand built in Eugene, Oregon (of course) he expects to be able to sell them for under $20K.

Obviously Arcimoto is targeting a niche market but how low could the price get with a real manufacturing process and economies of scale? In the face of increasing fuel costs could an inexpensive enclosed electric 3-wheeler find a market among middle class commuters? I think the answer is a definite ‘maybe’. Both presenters agreed that EVs’ current role will be mainly as an extra vehicle for urban driving, not as a replacement vehicle. But urban driving accounts for a lot of miles!

Batteries and fuel cells

On the battery front we heard mostly about fuel cells though Phil Roberts of Ionex Energy Storage mentioned that lithium-ion battery costs are coming down and that graphene-enhanced lithim-ion batteries are moving out of the lab and into production and will dramatically improve charge-time, energy density and cycle life. One of the major uses for grid-scale battery systems is to store and even out the intermittent power coming from wind and solar. As battery technology improves, the viability of intermittent power sources will also improve as we learn to shape power on both the production and demand side.

Fuel cell presenters included folks from the California Fuel Cell Partnership, BTI/Fuel Cells 2000, UTC and First Element Energy.

I have not paid much attention to fuel cells recently after their failure to prove competitive in powering electric vehicles. I was surprised to find out that fuel cells are currently a $1 billion market (85 MW shipped in 2010) that is expected to grow to $5 billion by 2016. There are many different fuel cells with many different operating characteristics for different niche markets but they all offer high reliability, quiet operation and long operational periods. That’s why the military buys them. And telecom has been an early adopter of fuel cells for backup power. (Perhaps nuclear power plants should be required to have fuel cell backup power.)

It turns out there is one area of transportation where micro-fuel cells have caught on but it was a total surprise to me — fork lifts. Apparently, productivity is increased by longer run times and consistent voltage in cold storage. Recharge is only 2-3 minutes which means you no longer need the battery room, the recharge station or the guys manning either of these. Walmart sees an IRR (Internal Rate of Return) of 20% on capital spent on fuel cell forklifts.

Biomass and algae

Of the various sources of renewable energy, biomass is the one we hear the least about, probably because it doesn’t involve high tech innovation. Americans are fanatical about high tech solutions even when low tech solutions are more easily available. (We’ve all heard the US space pen vs. Russian pencil joke.) In northern Europe biomass is more in the forefront. The thing to remember about biomass is that it is baseload as opposed to intermittent wind and solar sources. This means that generators fed by biomass or biogas from animal waste digestors can operate when wholesale prices are high thus earning a higher rate of return on investment.

James Johnston of the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy described how regulations in densely populated Europe de-incentivise landfills which thus increases the demand for incineration of waste. By comparison, Carey King of UT Austin stated that 50% of all municipal waste in the US is landfilled. He also described the animal waste resource as 1 billion tons annually — enough to generate over 50 Gigawatt hours of electricity per year (2% of US demand). (I wonder how much of that waste is currently used for fertilizer.) In my own talk on International Energy Trends I presented charts using EIA electricity data that clearly showed the importance of biofuels in some European countries. Figure 1), for example, shows the renewables trends and current state of German electric generation. Despite rapid growth in wind and solar, biomass still accounts for about half of renewable generating capacity.

Figure 1) German renewables trends and current sources of electric generation.

Algae was the other big biomass theme. Several speakers made the case for algae based biofuels with the following list of reasons (I’m just reporting here, not vetting them):

  • algae is 25-50% lipids by weight
  • algae produces more lipids per acre than soy or canola
  • algae uses 1/7 the water of soy
  • algae’s proteins are often more valuable than the biodiesel generated
  • refinery costs are lower

Jonathan Trent of NASA Ames had perhaps the most interesting talk in which he described the OMEGA project. Thinking outside the box, his group looked at California’s 2 billion gallons of wastewater per year (water + fertilizer) and algae’s prolific growth rates and determined that the only impediment to large scale algae farms was the cost of land. But moving the algae farms to floating pens just offshore solves that problem along with the need to stir the algae and dissipate the heat generated. Given that much of the world’s population lives in coastal cities without adequate sewage treatment, this idea may have legs.


Wind advocates at the conference reinforced the notion that the cost of wind is rapidly approaching grid parity in many locations.

Mark Crowdis of Think Energy described how “large wind” is growing in Europe and China and how capacity factors in the US have increased from 30% in 2003 to 50% today as turbines get both larger and lighter. Another speaker described how wind farm capital costs have come down because of low priced generators from China and how wind power was approaching grid parity in many parts of the world including the Windy City (aka Chicago). Ward Lenz of North Carolina’s Dept. of Commerce described their efforts to promote offshore wind turbines in part as a jobs measure — wind energy creates many more permanent jobs than nuclear, for example. In a recession, the jobs angle helps policy makers stand up to utility interests.

Corwin Hardham of Makani Power gave a presentation describing his tethered “Airborne Wind Turbine” system. It’s basically a small remote controlled plane that can act as a tethered kite once airborne and carve out a large path at high altitude with a fraction of the materials and weight of a typical wind turbine. It’s a very clever idea for Megawatt scale power generation and their site has some lovely animations of the basic concepts.

One of the reasons a conference like this one is interesting is that you can have conversations with the wind folks and then the battery folks and then the smart grid folks to get a glimpse of what the end-to-end system might look like. As inventors and investors of course they are all optimistic about the opportunities. And they left even a skeptic like myself quite impressed with the possibilities.


The various panelists discussing solar energy were perhaps the most confident in the future cost effectiveness and global scope of their solution. And more than one pointed out the equally distributed nature of sunlight and the universal scalability of the solar solution from utility deployments down to Bangladeshi off-grid households.

Suvee Charma of Solaria Corporation described ongoing cost efficiencies in producing crystalline silicon panels. They have actually gained ground on supposedly cheaper thin film products in recent years and he suggested they are headed below $1/Watt in the near future. Modularity is one of solar PV’s greatest strengths because the manufacturing process is identical for both residential and industrial applications. Other speakers concurred with the < 1$/Watt figure and said that installation was now a greater expense than the panels themselves.

In the session on Residential Solar, Tom Faust of Redwood Renewables and Marc Irvin of Sungevity talked about the hurdles to adoption in the US including primarily financing and, especially among women, aesthetics. They see residential solar as a very young and vigorous market right now (100% growth in 2010) with the potential to grow into a multi-trillion dollar industry. Lanny Sinkin described how San Antonio has worked with local credit unions to provide financing for residential solar that brings the cost down to $35/month and how this has resulted in the installation of $2.5 million worth of residential solar in Bexar county with the resulting boost in jobs.

Indeed, the distributed nature of residential solar generation and the blue collar jobs it creates may be one of its biggest appeals.


I have tried to give a meaningful recap of what I found to be a very stimulating forum. In the interests of space I have not covered every forum, skipping important topics like green construction and utility scale solar thermal. What is presented above reflects my own personal interests more than the quality or content of the presentations.

I have included the names of speakers and their companies when I wrote them down not in order to promote them but rather as a resource for any further investigation or fact checking readers may wish to perform. This was, after all, an investment forum and one would expect to hear only the rosiest of scenarios.

Nevertheless, I came away impressed with the amount of human energy and potential sources of capital that are poised to address energy issues. The key themes I came away with were:

  1. Implementing solutions at the institutional level is very challenging.
  2. Societal perceptions are very important but we are currently experiencing a generational shift in those perceptions.
  3. Job creation needs to be an integrated part of any energy solution.
  4. Solar panel prices will continue to come down.
  5. Energy solutions may occur at a much more local level than we have previously imagined.

Perhaps “Power to the People” is more than just a metaphor.

Thanks for the informative post. I am skeptical about most claims but am still harboring some optimism.

Skeptical is good, treeman. Unless energy opportunities have been proven, utility choices, however, are constrained by law to what is therefore fundable. Space Solar Power is a great example of a choice utilities should have but cannot make. From this weeks' Space News:

Green Power from NASA

How did it happen that the smartest organization on the planet, that left tracks on the Moon, that by remote control digs through and analyzes strata on Mars and wings through the rings of Saturn, stands tacitly with doubters, unpersuadables and in-for-the-profit corporations regarding climate change? NASA’s energy policy is not much different from that of operators of foreign flagged and U.S. steamers that ply the oceans, powered by burning bunker oil, which paradoxically may be the richest of oils in chemical content. ...

After conducting extensive study of solar power satellites decades ago, that have the potential to beam power to Earth 24 hours a day, and after acknowledging the feasibility of the concept, why did NASA stop short of at least a demonstration system, so that commercial enterprises could take over as they have with communications satellites?

Solar Power Satellites were a TOD thread a few weeks ago.

I think at the time of the NASA studies it was not nearly economical. So they did not build a prototype. Now what is taking the Japanese Space agency so long to do their prototype today is a better question.

The Space Based power cost model dictates launching solar panels for less than $100/kg. The space shuttle costs $10,000/kg. SpaceX is down to $1,000/kg, not bad but we still need another 10x reduction in costs.

Current technologies can get us there, we just need the political will. Prying loose the lobbyists grip on DC is our biggest problem.

National Renewable Portfolio Standard. Even George W Bush called for an national RPS at last years wind conference in Houston.

National Renewable Portfolio Standard.
National Renewable Portfolio Standard.
National Renewable Portfolio Standard. National Renewable Portfolio Standard.
National Renewable Portfolio Standard.
National Renewable Portfolio Standard. National Renewable Portfolio Standard.
National Renewable Portfolio Standard.

Is there an echo in here?

Regarding grid efficiency:

Currently the grid operates near ~120 Volts in order to guarantee that ~110 V is available to each household. By knowing where additional voltage regulators are needed, utilities can reduce operating voltage throughout the grid to ~110 V resulting in a 6% efficiency gain.

I would require some elaboration on this, as higher voltages usually result in higher efficiencies. It comes down to volts*amps=watts. Reducing voltage doesn't reduce watts consumed; it only ups the amperage, in most cases increasing losses via resistance. Maybe I'm missing something. Some sort of load balancing act perhaps?

BTW: The grid operates at much higher voltages than ~120. It only gets stepped down to 120 at residential/light commercial transformers, and only in the US (with perhaps a few other exceptions). Just a minor point.

Thanks for the post, Joules!

update: OK, I went and looked a bit; found this:

Voltage Conservation, Cellular Big Issues for Grid in 2011

One of the next big opportunities in smart grid will revolve around curing substation blindness.

Reducing voltages on transmission lines by 6 percent to 8 percent with the help of networking could result in power savings of 4 percent to 6 percent “all day long, 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” said Mark Munday, CEO of Elster Solutions, the advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) giant, in an interview.

Nationwide, voltage reductions like this could add up to gigawatt-hours of saved electricity. Voltage conservation technology and intelligent distribution equipment, additionally, could reduce transformer overload and highlight maintenance issues before they spill over into full-blown disasters. Utilities could even begin to switch to smaller, less expensive transformers. Lower capital budgets -- and lower bills -- could follow. Toronto Hydro has already installed voltage conservation equipment....

....To get around the problem, utilities crank up voltage. Smart metering, however, can feed precise information back to the utility on current consumption patterns. Ideally, then, information will let utilities operate with a better, but also thinner, buffer...

...--Utilities will begin to gravitate toward putting some of their smart grid infrastructure on public celullar networks. To date, most utilities have elected to build their own networks rather than run meter or other communications on cellular or WiMax networks.

More layers of complexity, more brittleness, more costs; I still can't see the following gains in efficiency of the overall system, just more ways to extract capital, or a way to manage brownout episodes. Applying this technology to small/micro/distributed grids may be beneficial, but we're a long way (and a lot of $$) from that.

grid weenies ....

Voltage control like this has a bunch of trade-offs that are increasingly difficult to evaluate. Reducing voltage would reduce power drawn more in the past with just resistive loads like resistance heaters and incandescent light bulbs. Lower voltage means lower current drawn. However this is changing. First, induction motors in refrigerators and air conditioners don't work this way. If you reduce the voltage a bit on a loaded motor, it will draw more current to keep turning the load at the same speed. Increased current in it's wires means it runs hotter to produce the same output power. This also means lower efficiency because of more heat generated. This is why fridges and A/C can be damaged by too low voltage i.e. <105 volts. Now with CFL and LED lamps, the same thing happens, the electronics keeps the load (fluorescent tube or LED) power constant by drawing more current as the voltage is lowered. I suspect the same thing happens with the new inverter type of A/C compressors. Every TV that I've seen in the past couple decades has a switching power supply that does the same thing too. No reduced power consumption. But more line loss because of higher current, therefore more I2R loss, in the distribution lines.

There have been plenty of studies in the past that evaluated using voltage control (lower the voltage to lower the utilities peak power drawn from the generating plant) as a way to shave peaks during peak time of the day. Many conflicting results all depending on the mix of load types.

"Reducing voltage would reduce power drawn more in the past with just resistive loads like resistance heaters"

And since the heater is on because you want heat, reducing the heat output per unit time keeps it on longer. No gain there.

The inverters make AC into DC, then switch it back to AC at some other frequency. They will pull as much power as they need, and as P = I * E, if E goes down, I goes up. No gain there.

The notion doesn't work as well as it used to in the days when most of the electric load was lightbulbs and toasters. (And the toaster would just stay on longer to toast the bread.)

If the utility company drops the voltage, the power supplies on computer equipment will automatically step up the amperage to compensate. This can be really bad if there are network server farms on the grid, because a big server farm can draw as much power as a small steel mill. The increased amperage can overload the distribution system and trip the circuit breakers.

A lot of other equipment operates less efficiently at lower voltages, and will compensate by operating longer hours at higher power levels.

I don't think they really thought the concept of lowering the voltage through all that well. It only works if there is a lot of dumb equipment on the grid, and there is less and less dumb equipment on it all the time.

I agree completely. Yet, when I worked at the rural electric co-op and talked to others in the industry, from Elster (mentioned in the original post) to other professionals, it was like a edict from the Bible that reducing voltage reduced power.

I couldn't get them to understand how today's equipment worked! Yet, these are the people pushing the "Smart Grid"!

In answer to all of the posters above.

I didn't hear anyone suggest reducing voltage at the outlet below 110 V. My understanding of the problem is this: Utilities need to maintain local, substation level grids at ~ 120 V because they don't have detailed information of the loads at the very local level and they don't know when and where additional load will come on line. If they keep the local grids at 120 V they can guarantee that the outlet voltage will always be 110 V even in the face of surprise loads. By making the grid "smarter" about the local load profiles, they can shave off some of that 120 V and still guarantee 110 V at your outlet.

I know there are a lot of readers here with electrical knowledge. (I have a little myself.) But I am somewhat surprised at how willing people are to assume that utilities and companies supplying don't understand the basics of electrical transmission and changing loads. I would assume they know a lot about these. It would be nice to see a comment from someone currently working in this domain.


I guess I'm not on the same page grid, Jon. Grid voltages, transmission and distribution, are held well into the kilo-volt range. The only place 120/240 volts exists is near/at the point of use, the "secondary customer", including residential...


Electricity is transmitted at high voltages (110 kV or above) to reduce the energy lost in long distance transmission....

...Today, transmission-level voltages are usually considered to be 110 kV and above. Lower voltages such as 66 kV and 33 kV are usually considered subtransmission voltages but are occasionally used on long lines with light loads. Voltages less than 33 kV are usually used for distribution. Voltages above 230 kV are considered extra high voltage and require different designs compared to equipment used at lower voltages....

...and I still haven't seen it explained how reducing voltages increases efficiency without some form of load control. We're still stuck with kilowatts (KvA). Perhaps what's being discussed is load control via smart transformers.

Our local grid (the one I'm not connected to) recently increased the distribution voltage from 4Kv to 13Kv (IIRC) to increase capacity and efficiency....and, whoops!, someone screwed up, failing to change out some (dumb) residential transformers. When they restored the grid to these people, POOF! They fried virtually everything in these homes.

Thanks for that information Ghung. That chart is perhaps the best explanation of the overall grid I've seen.

Conservation Volltage Regulation (CVR) applies only to the "last-mile" for the secondary customers in the chart. Googling on "Conservation Voltage Regulation" I see a couple of companies working on this. Seattle area MicroPlanet has a great explanation on one of their pages:

What Is CVR?


In the US, regulations require that voltage be made available to consumers at 120V +/- 5% - which yields a range of 126V to 114V (European Standards: 230V +/- 10%). On any feeder line, especially those over three miles long, voltage on the line gradually decreases as the cumulative load (number of customers) on the line increases. This is called "line drop." Because of line drop, power must be transmitted at a high enough voltage that the last house on the end of the line gets at least 114V. Consequently, power is often transmitted from the substation at 126V. US homes receive an average of 122.5V, with approximately 90% of homes and businesses receiving more voltage than they need.

CVR lowers the voltage at which electrical power is delivered and yields on average, a 1% energy savings for each 1% in voltage reduction down to 114V. With MicroPlanet CVR technology it is now far less expensive to save energy at the point of consumption, than it is to increase the capacity of the grid or create additional generation from power plants.

Additional Benefits of CVR

Most electrical equipment, including air conditioning, refrigeration, appliances and lighting is designed to operate most efficiently at 114V. If power is delivered at a voltage higher than 114V, energy is wasted. Higher than necessary voltage also shortens the useful life of many types of equipment, since the excess energy is dissipated as heat.

Delivering voltages at the optimal levels reduces consumption, improves service quality and extends the life of equipment. Utilities save energy and lower operating costs. By reducing the need to generate additional energy at power plants, CVR also helps to lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Electricity Consumption Changes Based on Location

With the same behavior or usage levels, an electrical bill can be considerably higher for a business or home if they receive voltage higher than 114V due to being close to a substation.

That looks like a sales brochure instead of an engineering explanation.

Most modern equipment will show little efficiency difference across the 120±6-volts range. Resistive heating has been regulated by thermostat "forever", and will draw the same average wattage (by varying the duty cycle) irrespective of the voltage. Refrigeration will come very close. Electronic equipment including LED bulbs has regulated power supplies nowadays, which will also draw more current at a lower voltage. In both cases, the same wattage at a lower voltage means more current, and more loss in the line.

The major exception would seem to be incandescent light bulbs but even that is an illusion. The light output goes roughly as the 3.4 power of the voltage, so if one drops the voltage by 10%, from the top of the range to the bottom, light decreases by about 34%, which is rather drastic. The customer may well compensate by using the next-size-up light bulb - 100W instead of 75W would almost but not quite do it. That would increase power consumption around 18% drawing more current, and again increasing the line losses. (But this is a second-order or knock-on effect, so we can ignore it, right? After all, it's the noisily paraded good intentions that count.)

In reality, RMG is right that the system would be more efficient at 240 volts but we're stuck with history. And it might well be more efficient if shoots towards the top of the 120±6 range rather than the bottom, though that too might have side effects.

I'm guessing this nonsense caught on because some theoretician looked at Ohm's Law, E=IR, and had no clue that there might be overcompensating knock-on effects, and someone else said, gee, I can use this to persuade ignorant managers to buy more stuff. But then again, this is par for the course in the "green" world these days, theoreticians promoting poorly conceived wand-waving schemes that often prove impracticable, ineffective, or even counterproductive, at the social or scientific level or both.

You're absolutely right! As soon as I saw this quote "If power is delivered at a voltage higher than 114V, energy is wasted." I knew the person writing it didn't have a clue. It sounds just like these "devices" you can make to use the "wasted" power out from your car alternator to electrolyze water and use the hydrogen to run your car. There's no actual understanding of how these things work together in the real world. Almost any kind of device today, from A/C with either induction or inverter compressor to heater to fridge to TV to computer will draw the same average power over a range of voltage.

Your last paragraph describes the situation perfectly.

This statement "Currently the grid operates near ~120 Volts in order to guarantee that ~110 V is available to each household. By knowing where additional voltage regulators are needed, utilities can reduce operating voltage throughout the grid to ~110 V resulting in a 6% efficiency gain." is complete BS. Saying that just by reducing the voltage to 110 where it is now higher gives a 6% efficiency gain is BS!

PaulS and augjohnson. I appreciate the knowledgeable skepticism. That is what I come to TOD for and why I wanted to air some of these ideas out here.

But I'll continue playing the optimist even though I have no personal expertise regarding CVR. Would either of you care to care to explain what is wrong with the following technical presentation from a 2009, BPA sponsored Utility Energy Efficiency Summit?

Conservation Voltage Regulation

This page also has a nice collection of referenced articles with positions both for and against voltage regulation as an efficiency measure.

I'm not trying to be pollyanna here in continuing this conversation. But I see plenty of evidence from utility professionals that CVR is one of the tools they are spending millions of dollars to evaluate. It's hard for me to write off as "BS" a technical solution that is currently being deployed and evaluated by non-profit utilities.


The PDF is too long to do more than skim for now. It's filled with assertions. Much of the data seem to be old enough not to reflect modern (< 10 yrs old) device power supplies; in part they're shooting at a disappearing target. The "conservation" power law range of 0.5 to 1.5 is at least suggestive, since 1.5 might be obtained with the most ancient (and utterly un-"smart") sorts of loads (such as tube TVs back in the 1970s, or resistive entryway heaters having no thermostats, or inductively ballasted streetlights, all of which are gone or going away.)

There's also the little matter of confounding factors. They also did power factor correction (listed as "capacitors" on page 10), and load-balancing of the two sides of the feeders; if those things were bad enough to begin with, it can be reasonably (and genuinely) important to fix them.

Bottom line, though, is you increase line losses as you decrease voltage, for the same wattage. Period. (For ancient stuff, "the same wattage" may not apply, but that's the disappearing target.) That's an ironclad result of Ohm's law, and there's no arguing about it except possibly in the most absurdly contrived circumstances. At the extreme, it's also why normally we run only low-power appliances on 12 volts - otherwise the quantity of copper becomes absurd. (But it's confusing, as per what I said about incandescents. In the immediate term, drop the voltage and those draw less with an exponent of about 1.6, but in the longer term people will notice the dimness and put in bigger ones until they're back to what they prefer. Aging of the population will help that along a little, too. This is a bit like long-term versus short-term elasticity in economics, another concept wishful thinkers sometimes refuse to grasp.)

Ever fewer appliances are of the sort that draw significantly less power as voltage is cut (which might eventually affect grid stability - if everything had a properly functioning switching supply or induction-motor controller, you cut power draw ever so slightly by raising the voltage, since that cuts the (small) line loss.) If any appliances are working significantly better at 114V than at 120V, then there's a need for their makers and the electrical utility industry to have a long chat and decide on a nationwide nominal voltage everyone should shoot for, rather than have assorted theoreticians shooting for different targets based on devil's mixtures of science and mythology. I can imagine us carrying this to absurdity, by first getting most utilities to re-standardize on 114V instead of 120V, and then some genius says, gee whiz, let's rinse and repeat even better, go to 108V - then to 102V, and so on down the line.

IOW the voltage reduction itself is farcical on its face even without need of studies or papers, giving a dubious one-shot result, and giving it in a manner that compromises standardization and thereby might even hamper future conservation a bit (a pesky second-order effect of the sort that eager geniuses suffering from messiah complexes like to ignore.) A permanent voltage cut simply leads to everything being designed around the lower voltage, with its greater line losses. Much better to standardize on 120 volts simply because that's where most everyone is at, and tighten the tolerance downward from 5% if there's a good case for it, rather than confuse everything by forcing designers to chase moving targets.

Assuming that some devices draw constant power, if you lower the voltage by 5% you are going to increase the current by 5%. Since line losses are proportional to current squared times resistance of the transmission line, a 5% increase in current results in a 10% increase in power losses. You need to look at all the devices and how they behave after a drop in voltage.

Yes, you do. Still, in the end, the permanent voltage reduction makes no sense, regardless, because there will be a rebound as appliances (even any constant-resistance types that are left) are redesigned for the lower voltage. After a much longer time, of course, new or retrofitted building wiring may be made heavier to compensate for the losses. So it's just a game, where extra wiring losses will be incurred for decades, followed by a phase where extra deadweight copper costs are incurred forever.

Jon, I've written something. It's longer and more detailed than what PaulS wrote, but basically says the same thing. It's not that well written, I just quickly responded to what I saw in the presentation. If you want, I can email it to you or I can go ahead and post it.

Every thing mentioned in this “Conservation Voltage Optimization” scheme except lowering the voltage to 110 is actually something that should be done to reduce the losses in the distribution system. All of these will provide a benefit for the utility. Power quality will be improved. Not one will reduce billed energy usage by the consumer. I think someone decided to add a bit of the handwaving that PaulS mentioned, the waving hand is holding a paintbrush full of Green paint. Maybe they decided to jump on the Greenwashing bandwagon.

I know that the Rural Electric Co-op I worked for was always under tremendous pressure from the consumers who were always complaining about their electric bills and our rates. I see this as a way the the utility can add some fluff to a normal system upgrade that they can use to tell the consumers “we're doing something for you” and get the state corporation commission off their back for a little longer.

PaulS and augjohnson,

Thanks so much for the detailed responses. Again, this is why I come to TOD. I'll be attending a public Washington State Energy Strategy meeting next Tuesday and the comments you have provided may come in handy if I hear any too-rosy predictions about CVR.

augjohnson -- Why not append your comments to this thread. It will make it easier for me and anyone else to find in the future.

OK, here's my rough notes:

Page 8 – They show that they calculated Customer Energy Saved from this formula

= dE / dV x dV x Substation Annual kWh

E is probably the energy the customer used? It doesn't make sense. They are assuming that the voltage reduction squared is directly influencing the energy reduction! Where's the proof of this?

Why are they not just measuring the energy saved instead of the formula with a V2 in it? I'm guessing this comes from using the formula Power =V2/R. A few tests would show a difference, if there was one. There's a lot of “theoretical” in here, no measurement. I see that they continue to do all these "calculations" for the so called Energy saved. PaulS's Hand Waving? The data from the utilities records will never be clean enough to prove this over a year, the noise will be much larger than the supposed “savings” of 2.07% for the consumer. Also, doesn't anyone know about significant figures?

The second part of this page shows where the real improvements came from. These things were also done to improve the distribution system. Each of these makes very definite improvements.

Feeder load balance by phase – Make sure that the loads on the three phases of the feeder from the substation are equal. This makes the substation feeder transformer run cooler/with less loss. Systems get out of balance over time if single-phase loads are added/removed without keeping up on the balancing.

Feeder Power Factor – If you notice on page 10, capacitors were added as part of the CVR “experience”. This improved the power factors on the feeders and also contributed in two ways to lower losses. It again reduced the strain on the substation feeder transformer and it also reduced the line loss by reducing the current on the feeders.

Feeder Line Drop – Again referenced on page 10, they re-conductored the feeders, that means they increased the size of the wire to reduce the voltage drop. Better voltage at the end of the line. Another efficiency increase.

Page 9 – They say “Constant Power Load includes Resistive Heating and some Air Conditioning”. Constant power in what way? Resistive heating will, on the short term drop the power on lower voltage. Only “some” air conditioning? That's because A/C behaves the way that I and RMG said. Lower the voltage and the current goes up. Constant power. Sure feels like definitions are being played with. Also rather old stuff, modern equipment acts very differently with it's good switching power supplies..

Every one of the things on page 20 will improve efficiency and improve the voltage regulation and quality at the customer. Every distribution company should do these things, there are a lot of them that haven't done these in decades.

As you see from the list of articles that you provided, it's something that is of debatable use. I actually have read that paper in #2, about 6 years ago. It covers the things that PaulS and I mention. Some of the others are mentioning using capacitors to raise and lower the voltage. Well, that's a side effect of using capacitors to optimize the power factor on the line, there will be lowest loss when the power factor is highest. You are using the capacitive reactance of the capacitor to counter the inductive reactance of the motors and other inductive loads/transformers on the power line. This keeps the voltage and current on the line in phase.

Every thing mentioned in this “Conservation Voltage Optimization” scheme except lowering the voltage to 110 is actually something that should be done to reduce the losses in the distribution system. All of these will provide a benefit for the utility. Power quality will be improved. Not one will reduce billed energy usage by the consumer. I think someone decided to add a bit of the handwaving that PaulS mentioned, the waving hand is holding a paintbrush full of Green paint. Maybe they decided to jump on the Greenwashing bandwagon.

I know that the Rural Electric Co-op I worked for was always under tremendous pressure from the consumers who were always complaining about their electric bills and our rates. I see this as a way the the utility can add some fluff to a normal system upgrade that they can use to tell the consumers “we're doing something for you” and get the state corporation commission off their back for a little longer.

That's about it. Everything they did is of some value, with the exception that it's blindingly obvious that it's a bit wasteful in all but the very short run to reduce the voltage permanently, though it might possibly be ever so slightly helpful to regulate it more tightly. (Quite the opposite, 240V would have been better as RMG said, but, history.) The handy thing about electricity is that the physics is fairly "simple", so if one does the math properly one can feel reasonably confident about small savings that, empirically, will often be lost in the noise. Big savings, if any, will have to come from elsewhere, such as replacing old inefficient power plants and power-consuming equipment; that will not come free. (Smaller but measurable savings might come from such things as damping down the competition for ever-brighter outdoor lighting and directing it where it's needed instead of into the sky.)

I think we can categorise this whole CVR exercise as an "operational improvement" - it will, as pointed out here, make incremental improvements to, and eliminate some minor losses from, the grid. From that point of view, it is up to the utilities to decide if it is worth doing, to reduce the parasitic losses in their systems.

But no one should be kidding themselves that this is an any way a game changer of any sort.

A quick note on resistive loads - there are still plenty of them - domestic water heaters first and foremost, and baseboard electric heating, particularly in places with lots if cheap hydro, like the PNW, BC, Quebec. In the southern sun states, not so much! Again, up to each utility to work out if this is worth the effort. they may be better off to getr people onto ductless mini split heat pumps instead of baseboard, and to heat pump water heaters, or even the very simple but effective change that you can see here from the three element water heater as promoted by Hydro-Quebec. If everyone had those, that would likely solve more voltage problems than the CVR equipment

There will be other examples of incremental efficiency improvements to the grid, and these should be evaluated, and implemented where appropriate, same as any business tweaks its operations. But the greenwashing is unneccessary - often it is to shed the image if utilities as being stuffy, conservative entities - which they typically are - and, to some extent, should be. Like health care, police, or the fire dept, delivering electricity is a serious business - it does not need excessive "marketing" and "PR" to be done properly, it just needs to be done properly.

This comment pertains to the whole foregoing discussion of CVR, not to Paul's comment, which happens to contain the last mention of CVR at the time of my posting. In particular it pertains to the use of Ohm's Law in reasoning about how power systems work. There seems to be an assumption that electric resistance is a simple invariant concept. But resistance is temperature dependent, and heat is generated within *all* functioning electrical equipment from the smallest computer chip to the largest electric power generator. For all electric conductors the ohmic resistance depends on temperature. Typically for metallic conductors the resistance increases with increasing temperature, and for semiconductors the resistance decreases (and quite dramatically). These resistance changes must be accounted for in any reasoning about how things electrical actually work over time.

I am a supervising senior distribution engineer at a 5M meter IOU who did a training presentation on distribution voltage profiles to an internal audience of about 100 about 1.5 weeks ago. The CVR pdf appears to run together the effects of system upgrades necessary to implement CVR (without violating voltage tariffs), with CVR itself. If implemented as usually discussed, 'simply' turning the delivered voltage down, CVR actually reduces energy efficiency but provides some curtailment effect for loads which are not constant power over time (as discussed, some temperature-controlled resistive loads are constant power from a utility average perspective). CVR also reduces capital efficiency, since currents are higher, reducing how much load can be placed on existing facilities without overload. I had to laugh when I saw the "max feeder voltage drop of 3.3% or less." Yes if you spend enough capital to do that you will reduce losses. ANSI standard allows 7.5%. In practice I've seen 25%. This doesn't mean that CVR doesn't have a big following among futuristic types in the utility world. I will say that it doesn't usually include people who have spent very much of their career dealing with customer voltage complaints or individual circuit voltage settings/profiles. I think this issue is going to get clarified a lot by the voltage data from smart revenue meters.

P.S. over time utilization voltages have drifted UP, not down. 110 to 115 to 120V. Very little utilization equipment actually likes the bottom end of the utilization range.

yah its crap.

Actually its a matter of matching impedances for maximum power transfer. This is well understood ohms law and nothing new. You want higher voltages so that when you attach your home transformer you do not load the line down. True you can have voltage drops within the same building if the line is too long. This is just heating the wires. But this is not happening in most houses unless your name is Al Gore, which I would suspect has a more industrial 3 phase power system( higher voltages).

Looking at their other products, they may have started by making equipment to boost brownout voltages to normal.

I think the problem is not the electrical utilities, it is the casual observers (especially politicians) who don't understand the electrical system.

The power companies sell power in kilowatt-hours. The casual observers don't realize that kilowatt-hours = 1000 * volts * amps * hours. If you try to reduce the number of kilowatt-hours the consumers can get by reducing the volts they get, the consumers can still get the kilowatt-hours they want by increasing the amps and/or the hours. The equipment they use will do this for them by increasing the amps and/or the hours automatically. The consumers don't have to do anything.

The real solution is to increase the price the power companies charge per kilowatt-hour. The consumers will then want to consume fewer kilowatt hours, and program their equipment to do this for them automatically. You don't have to touch the voltage, the customers will reprogram the equipment themselves.

In reality, the electrical supply would be more efficient at 240 volts, but in North America Thomas Edison sold the public in the idea that it was too dangerous. Tesla had it right, 240 VAC is the way to go. (Pet peeve of mine).

Pet peeve of mine: Most utilities don't want customers to reduce their consumption. While consumption has dropped or leveled off in recent years, the utilities debt obligations have remained the same, causing utilities to raise their rates and reward higher consumption. Beyond the base rate, in our area, the more you use, the lower per KWH rate you pay.

Most utilities don't want customers to reduce their consumption.

This issue is hugely important and one where a national policy would help tremendously. And it has a specific name -- decoupling:

In public utility regulation, decoupling refers to the disassociation of a utility's profits from its sales of the energy commodity. Instead, a rate of return is aligned with meeting revenue targets, and rates are trued up or down to meet the target at the end of the adjustment period. This makes the utility indifferent to selling less product and improves the ability of energy efficiency and distributed generation to operate within the utility environment.


To date, conservation has been embraced primarily in Public Utility Districts (PUDs) in places like Seattle and San Antonio where there are no shareholders and no shareholder lobbyists.

On the issue of decoupling there is a lot of room for improved policy at every level of government.

Of course, if the utility is decoupled and it doesn't matter what it sells, it need not provide much of anything, including reliability. The knock-on consequences will likely include big-city folks being angry at constantly getting stuck for hours in trains or elevators (or feeling too afraid to dare to use them), and folks in general being angry that they can no longer rely on, say, refrigerators. Look for a lot of diesel generators, as in Pakistan, in places that go that route.

Of course, if the utility is decoupled and it doesn't matter what it sells, it need not provide much of anything, including reliability.

This is not true. The utility's job is to provide reliable provision of service. The customer pays a fee for service, which is completely separate to the commodity charge for whatever is being provided. If the utility does not provide service, it is in breach of contract with the affected customers, and there are well established contract terms and provisions for this sort of thing (force majeure, etc).

Since the utility (the delivery network) is the monopoly component, that is the part that gets government regulated. The utility gives up the opportunity for variable/unlimited profit in return for a lower but guaranteed profit margin. This is what most state/provincial Public Utilities Commissions are all about, and, when properly done, this system can work quite well.

In a completely decoupled system, it is up the to customer to decide where/who they buy the commodity from, and the utility just delivers it consider them to be the Fedex for your online purchases. So you have a market of electricity generators, and the customer can decide who they buy from, what terms etc.

In fact, we already have a functional example of a decoupled system - your internet service provider. You pay a basic fee for the connection and basic service, and more for a higher speed/bandwidth connection, but beyond that, the amount of content you use is independent of them. If you want to use pay per view internet sites, you can do so, and that is nothing to do with your ISP.

There is no real reason that electricity cannot be provided/sold in the same manner - they key is decoupling the transmission/distribution from the generation - something the electricity industry has traditionally resisted.

In fact, we already have a functional example of a decoupled system...

And there's a rub. The internet services I've seen are considerably less reliable than the electricity or the landline phone. More like the dodgy cell phone. Decoupling seems to lead to all sorts of gaming, which is why in some cases you don't have to induce companies to do it. (One of the many forms is what I've called ski-hill economics - sell as many lift tickets as possible for lift capacity you don't actually have.)

Hmm, my internet service has been fault free for four years - the only times I haven;t had it is during power outages, which I get about 3 times a year!

This is where the regulation part comes in - the electricity service providers, being a monopoly, and an essential service, have to provide a certain level of reliability, otherwise they should then lose their licence to operate. Excessively unreliable electricity is not only costly, it can be unsafe.
I think this can be, and is, managed appropriately. ISP's do not have to meet such standards, and neither is there any safety aspect, so they could game the system a bit more.

Having worked in the ski industry, I can tell you that effective lift capacity, for most resorts, is only approached on about ten days a year, and at many, not at all. Those are also the only ten days of the year when the resort actually makes a profit on mountain operations (as opposed to food and beverage, retail, real estate etc). Still, I have actually seen the case where a ski hill had to stop selling tickets because they had reached capacity - of their water supply and sewage plant - not their new $20m gondola! Another 500 people the next day would have seen the plant overflow into the alpine stream, in the national park, and led to immediate and indefinite closure! So, for the first time ever, they had to put up a "field full" sign!

We then did a top to bottom water efficiency retrofit project over the summer, dropping the per skier water use by 30%, saved them a bunch of money on operations, and Parks Canada were so impressed they finally approved their long standing application to use some water for snowmaking, which allows for earlier opening and later closing. Who says demand side management can't work!

Decoupling in California: More Than Two. Decades of Broad Support and Success

California: California was the first state to adopt decoupling. The Electric Rate Adjustment Mechanism was in place from 1982 until the California Public Utilities Commission began restructing the electric sector in 1996. After a disasterous experience with deregulation, the California legislature mandated a return to decoupling in 2001 California Act Chapter 8.2

I am confused. How does raising rates encourage higher consumption?

Sorry for the confusion. During the real estate boom the utility made a lot of upgrades to the system (many necessary) to accommodate new construction. When the real estate boom in our area crashed, projected growth stopped and a large number of customers either didn't materialize or were foreclosed. The remaining customers either cut back or were forced to by economic conditions. As a not-for-profit co-op (EMC), the utility is forced to balance it's books and make it's payments; any shortfall must be made up. Hence the rate increase. Note: a few years ago, customers (members, really) got a check/credit at the end of most years.

Part two: When the rates increased, the customers using over 15,000 KWH saw less of an increase beyond 15,000 (rate drops to 6.33 cents from 12.35 cents).

It's really been a good outfit, even if I don't buy their dirty (mostly coal) power. I noticed that they've adjusted the rates for folks using less than 2000 KWH/month to parity with those who use more. It used to be a bit higher. And they've been promoting solar farms, getting alot of complaints about it; spoiling the view and all that.

Beyond the base rate, in our area, the more you use, the lower per KWH rate you pay.

Ghung, you must love the air quality that results from that policy in your part of the world!

In my part of the world, we have the opposite - a conservation rate structure (and clean air). Any kWh not used in BC can be exported to California where it is worth much more.

BC Hydro Residential Conservation Rate;

effective April 1, 2010, residential customers pay 6.27 cents per kWh for the first 1,350 kWh they use over a two-month billing period. Above that amount, customers pay 8.78 cents per kWh for the balance of the electricity used during the billing period.

This rate structure is designed to encourage conservation and is referred to as a "stepped rate". The first portion is called Step 1 and the amount above that is called Step 2.

The major "conservation" achieved here is to get people to use other energy sources for space heating.

"Ghung, you must love the air quality that results from that policy in your part of the world!"

Most of our air quality problems result from coal fired plants in the TN Valley (TVA), making power for the eastern metroplexes. Our air quality index is often worse than places like Atlanta and Charlotte, especially this time of year.

"The major "conservation" achieved here is to get people to use other energy sources for space heating."

Our local utility has had ongoing incentives for the 'all electric' home for quite a while. Clean, Green Electricity! The only other options are oil and propane, unless like me, you use passive/active solar and wood. The all electric folks have been getting hit hard lately, especially the ones with heat pumps this past winter.

Ah, yes, and long before greenery and greenwashing, that was the all electric Gold Medallion Home [PDF, lower right corner], powered by, ta-daa: Reddy Kilowatt...

Yes, marketing of things that don;t need to be marketed has been around for a long time.

I like Reddy Kilowatt though - I think he is due for a comeback, maybe even a movie deal in thses days of using every and comic book character.
In all seriousness, there is nothing wrong with an all electric house - these days it can be much more energy efficient than an electric +gas house, and likely safer, too.

An interesting little paragraph at the bottom of that 1962 newspaper page

"Teddy" Roosevelt was the first President to ride in an automobile,
fifty years ago this summer, he rode through Hartford, Conn., in a
purple-lined Columbia "Electric Victoria."

First to ride in a plane, too (in St Louis in 1910)

There you go - first presidential ride in a car was in an EV! Quite the visionary that Teddy guy - wonder what he'd think of todays crop of politicians?

Hartford was the home of the Columbia car company. Their EV's got 40 miles on a charge, with the top speed a very civilised 15mph! One of their Ev's set a record by doing Boston to NY (250 miles) in 23 hours - not bad for including recharging time, and a 15mph top speed.

That's a great article!

I'll steal your comment for my EV history, if that's ok with you.

Be my guest.

This little anecdote also shows that the Presidential tradition of visiting car plants, and promoting them, and car making jobs, is old hat!

Would be interesting to try to find a photo of Teddy in that car.

There is some history if the Columbia car company here, you could probably find more with a little digging.

One of the original partners was a fellow by the name of Hiram Maxim - of Maxim machine gun fame. He invented the gun silencer, using the same principles he developed in creating muffler for gasoline engines!

Interestingly, they were partnered with a battery company called Exide - who did better there!

That's great!

Here we go:

While it was President William McKinley who first rode in a motorcar (a Stanly Steamer in 1899), it was President Theodore Roosevelt that was the first to do it publicly, with full guarded accompaniment. On August 22, 1902, while on a campaign tour, he rode in a Columbia Electric Victoria Phaeton. The car had a maximum speed of 13 miles per hour which meant that the police guards could not keep up on foot. The solution was to put the police on bicycles. So that day in Hartford, Connecticut the presidential motorcade was born.

So, the first ever presidential motorcade usd an electric vehicle and secret service guys on bikes - it doesn't get much more renewable than that.

That was in 1902, not 1912, so the paper got it wrong. Anyway, next year will be 110 yrs - maybe Obama should do a commemorative repeat of the exercise!

Hear, hear!

Barack my man, are you reading this thread?

In 1899, William McKinley was the first president to ride in a motorcar, a steam carriage made by F.O. Stanley. Though Grover Cleveland was president when Frank Duryea made the first American gas powered motor vehicle, he never rode in it, and it was not until President Warren G. Harding’s inaugural that a sitting president rode in a vehicle to an important event... (great photos)

...William Howard Taft transformed the White House stables into a garage, allotted $25,000.00 for the purchase of vehicles, and hired George H. Robinson to be the first presidential chauffeur. Besides becoming president, Taft was the former Governor-General of the Philippines, Secretary of War, and eventual Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court. Taft was the first president to own a car at the White House, and the first president to throw out the pitch to begin the professional baseball season. His first purchase for the White House fleet was a White Steamer, followed by two Pierce Arrows and finally a Baker Electric Runabout, which became a favorite of Mrs. Woodrow Wilson.

....but it didn't take long before Presidents (or their SS handlers) decided that bigger is better...

...The Secret Service required the armoring due to an assassination attempt on Roosevelt in 1933, which killed the Mayor of Chicago. Roosevelt also used several armored Packard Limousines and two V16 Cadillac Limousines dubbed Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth.

Cadillac Series 452
Manufacturer Cadillac
Production 1930 (1930)-1937 (1937)
Successor Cadillac Series 90
Configuration 45° V-16 with 5-bearing crankshaft[1]
Displacement 452 cu in (7,410 cc)[1]
Cylinder bore 3 in (76 mm)[1]
Piston stroke 4 in (100 mm)[1]
Valvetrain OHV[1]
Compression ratio 5.3:1[1]
Fuel system 2 single barrel carburetors[1]
Fuel type gasoline
Oil system wet sump[1]
Cooling system water cooled[1]
Power output 165 hp (123 kW) between 3200 and 3400 rpm (1930)[1]

Would be interesting to try to find a photo of Teddy in that car.

Here ya go!


In 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt rode in a Pope-made electric
automobile. Surrounding him are policmen on chainless bicycles.
Albert Pope bet on electrics as the vehicle engine of the future, and lost.

Perhaps their time is yet to come. Electric engines seem to work pretty well in trains, trolleys and electric bicycles, SUVs, not so much...

The motors are fine for SUV's.. it's the storage, as ever. But even so, this 2002 model still beats much of what's touted coming out now. WHO KILLED the NIMH battery? -(Testimonial #3 out of 57.. and several have 2 or 3 Rav4ev's in the family)

RAV4 EV - White 2002. We bought out a lease at 41k miles in 2005. Power comes from our roof-mounted 4.8kW PV solar PV system. Have seen Range over 120 miles. Our "second car" is a battery-assisted bicycle and a regular bike, and our "third car" is a membership in City CarShare.


And don;t forget the Rav -4 "Long Ranger"

The real solution is to increase the price the power companies charge per kilowatt-hour. The consumers will then want to consume fewer kilowatt hours, and program their equipment to do this for them automatically. You don't have to touch the voltage, the customers will reprogram the equipment themselves.

It is my understanding that part of the idea of the "Smart Grid" is that the utility company will have some level of control of when and how often a residential or commercial customers equipment operates, and this is where they will see any real savings by doing load control.
But most consumers fight this idea that the utility can control their thermostat on their furnace/AC or when their refrigerator, water heater, run - etc... I think most of us would rather find a way to go "Off Line" rather than give this level of control to some remote utility person.

The so called "smart grid" will enable this, eventually, but it will be up to the user to decide if they want to.

A version of this exists in industrial power use with interupptible rates, where the customer can agree, on request of the utility, to shed load for re-sale of the electricity - and get a cut of the resale amount. In some cases it is better for the mine to close for the day and pay its workers to have the day off, as it is making more money from the electricity resales!

if your facility is such that you can give control of the load management to the utility, so they don;t even have to ask, they just do, then they will pay you more for that, and use your load shedding first - good for business IF you have such discretionary load.

The thing is, you don;t need the smart grid for a homeowner to do this. The information about power loads/peak prices etc can be communicated via internet (or a smartphone) to the homeowner, and they can decide how to program appliances to game the system, and the utility would offer a couple of standard plans.

the thing is though, for all this effort, unless you are in a high peak price environment like southern California, the $ savings would only be $10's per month - hardly worth all that tech and complexity.

The simple programmable thermostats for heating (and possibly refrigeration) , and some simple tricks for water heaters, like this one, can do 80% of the job for 20% of the cost.

There are 60M households in the U.S. with a thermostat for space heating/cooling who don't have a programmable. DOE estimates the average savings of switching at $180/yr (payback in a few months). The U.S. public is largely devoid of any physical energy sense whatever, which is why leaving energy efficiency to the market doesn't work.

The 'smart grid's' major implication over the amortization period of smart meters is the laying-off of meter readers. Demand response has been in place, and easily expanded at the retail level for decades. This is mostly hype designed to allow the replacement of O&M by capital for rate-regulated utilities.

The U.S. public is largely devoid of any physical energy sense whatever

That's basically true, but might be a bit harsh. Basically, individual consumers have a lot to deal with, and energy is one small thing among many. Business has economies of scale - they can hire an energy manager, or some such, who specializes in dealing with this.

In the long term, Demand Response can be built into household equipment at the point of sale, with automated default settings that consumers basically never have to deal with. This will be especially important for EVs (and their variations, like PHEVs and EREVs).

We offset voltage drop, and vary voltage with load by doing things like turning on/off capacitors, using load-tap-changing substation transformers, and voltage regulators (with line-drop-compensation controls), and varying distributed generator power factor. Only an extremely underloaded distribution system (like that found in most houses) can maintain decent voltage without voltage-control equipment.

"The overall vibe was one of optimism and opportunity..."

These people are living in a world of fantasy. The world is living beyond its means (governments, consumers running doing massive borrowing...) and this situation won't continue much longer. People are suddenly going to find themselves much poorer. Governments won't have the money and will to provide "money, markets, mandates" to make these clean, green investors rich. So the question is how many of these ideas are viable in a world without government incentives and where the world is much poorer.

A few, but not many. Which ones?

I certainly agree that the current subsidies for green power are unsustainable. What is particularily infuriating is that the Ontario government is still offering 20 year solar pv contracts at 80.2 cents per kwh despite the significant drop in the price of panels. Other countries such as Germany have been ramping down their feed in tarifs for solar pv.

Besides that the feed-in tariffs in Ontario are currently too high given the prices for PV-modules and systems:

Keep in mind, that the feed in-tariffs are paid by the rate payers and not by the tax-payers.
So, feed-in tariffs do create more tax-income (thanks to the taxed income of renewable industry employees, sales tax, business tax etc.).
In addition feed-in tariffs do lower the dependence on imported fuels (trade deficit) and lower wholesale electricity prices:
(German industries, which consume large amounts of electricity, are excluded from paying into the feed-in-tariff pot. So they directly benefit from the lowered electricity prices.)

My take on the Ontario feed-in tariffs is that they are not just about providing electricity and reducing import dependence. In large part they are about spinning up a new, local, solar industries and creating jobs. The feed-in tariffs in Ontario and Washington state are much higher for locally sourced components than for imported components.

As jobs bills go, I'd much rather see big dollars spent on building up a solar industry than on massive highway projects.

Ontario is already being challenged on the local content requirement because it violates free trade agreements. The jobs that have been created are not sustainable unless there is an endless stream of new contracts with the high FIT. It is extremely unlikely we could become an exporter of solar pv equipment unless this too is subsidized. It isn't as if companies in Ontario have developed solar pv technology that no one else has -- we are simply using technology developed elsewhere. I'm sure the early introduction of solar pv FIT in Germany enabled German companies to develop their own solar pv expertise, but in Ontario we got into this game far too late to generate the same benefit. Even in Germany, sales of locally manufactured equipment is being impacted by the importation of cheaper solar panels from Asia.

I agree that spending on massive highway projects is a waste of money. The province recently announced a major highway upgrade in the east end of Ottawa and with peak oil this will likely prove to be a poor investment. I also believe though that trying to establish a solar pv industry in Ontario is a waste of money.

Strong local content requirements can hurt the (international) search for more efficient products. So if the customer has to choose between Chinese panels at $1.50 per watt, and local ones at $4.00 per watt, and the rules make worthwhile for him to choose the local ones, what incentive does the local manufacturer have to reduce their cost/price? Done right subsidies can help infant industries get started, but done wrongly they can become a crutch for inefficient producers.

In a world that is much poorer in energy we will see factories powered by solar (CSP or PV) that operate only when the sun shines. They will be staffed by workers that live in the factory dormitory as there is no low cost transportation for a daily commute. Much like the textile mills of New England in the late 1800s. They will be located in sunny places like California and Arizona. Solar will be worth it as long as there is a profit to be made. Or are you planning to spin and weave your own cloths?

Some Machine-oriented factories like Textiles might just migrate back to Run of River power, which has a much more consistent power profile (well, it does when it does, ie, not in droughts and typhoons) while it has other downsides.. The Maine Coast had many companies running off 'Tide Mills' as well. You could pretty much clock your meals to them, tho' it might get a bit off-kilter every few weeks.. and you could go into extra shifts when you had big orders to complete. God I pray for a return of textile and other such factories coming back to Maine!

I could see the potential for a growth in 'Solar Factories' with heat-processes that time well with the working day. Baking and other Food Processing comes to mind, and yes, this would likely only happen in places like Phoenix where you've got a pretty good chance for Sun every day. Of course a number of washing businesses could take advantage of solar heat far more as well.

"Or are you planning to spin and weave your own cloths?"

Not yet, but somebody is. There is already a steady cottage industry in home Woven, Spun and Sewn Clothing, and with the access to several generations of modestly powered Sewing and Knitting machines, etc, and a lot of unemployment, and then the BUY LOCAL campaigning, don't be surprised to see a great deal of growth in those trades.

For me, I've got a growing folder of designs of Wood and Metal products I can manufacture, from Tools to Housewares to Toys, many of which are already fairly appealing, since their equivalents at the stores are frequently made of junk, and everyone knows it. Who wouldn't like a version in Solid Oak with real Brass Screws.. not just for show, but that too, but to know that the damn thing is actually solid and even repairable? I'm enjoying designing these for extreme simplicity, in order to require the least amount of labor and materials, and be items I can keep creating with hand or power tools well into my later years.. one of many backup plans.

Wind power in the upper Midwest where water is abundant could lead to reindustrialization. The water transport (Mississippi, Ohio, Missouri) is still there leading to almost anywhere.

Do you have a website? There are lots of people who would like to buy real solid products.

Thanks for asking, I appreciate it.

So far, I've just been building the prototypes, sketching additional versions and variations, and looking at this as a contingency plan.. but it seems reasonable to git 'er going and turn the idea into reality.

I do have a website, but it is for my work as a cameraman. Currently, just has links to a couple demo reels.


I think factories will migrate to places where there is cheap power which is on 24/7, not overpopulated, overpriced, water deficient, electricity importing places like California.

They will go to places like Brazil and Northern Canada where there is abundant cheap hydroelectric power. Once Norway's oil and gas run out and Norwegian oil workers are out of work, businesses will notice that 99% of Norway's electricity supply is hydroelectric.

I wouldn't be surprised if Fort McMurray, Alberta exceeds 1 million population by the end of the century. In addition to needing workers for the oil sands themselves, which will be one of the few sources of oil left by the end of the century, the oil sands plants are capable of generating large surpluses of nearly-free electricity as a by-product of their operations. A large industrial complex is likely to grow up around them to take advantage of it.

Who said that the grid will disappear when businesses install PV systems on their roofs?

Interconnected PV mainly lowers the load on the grid when demand reaches its peak. It doesn't have to replace efficiency, hydro, interconnected onshore and offshore windfarms, biomass, geothermal etc.

There's apparently a lot of money to be made in hosting such conferences. I just returned from Boston where I attended the "Clean Tech Conference and Expo," which is part of "Tech Connect" and runs parallel to "Nano Tech" and "Micro Tech." I suspect many of the same folks you saw were presenters at this conference as well. I also saw the same enthusiasm and optimism, as did I also see at the ARPA-e Expo in February.

Thanks for the write up though - I will be making a few posts on my blog regarding my takeaways from the Clean Tech Conference and Expo.

There's apparently a lot of money to be made in hosting such conferences.

Absolutely correct. And the "guest speakers" are in it for the money too. It's about rhetoric and soothing noises. They are the bandits and the carbuncles on meaningful actions.

Electric cars are not the answer!
When are these people going to shake off their auto addicted vision?
Here are some facts which just came out on electric cars:

1)NY Times studied energy usage while driving gas vs electric cars
The gas powered Nissan Altima produced about 90 lbs of greenhouse
emissions vs the electric Nissan Leaf which produced 63.6 lbs
As usual this is ONLY counting energy costs to drive NOT the
lifecycle costs of materials to manufacture and ship a $30K car,
paving costs of 6 lane highways to drive it on, ambulance costs
for the 30,000 annual auto deaths and hundreds of thousands of auto injuries, traffic courts, traffic cops etc etc etc
2)Sweden which aggressively promoted electric and non gas powered
cars actually INCREASED their greenhouse emissions! :-(

The Green Revolution Backfires: Sweden’s Lesson for Real Sustainability
by Firmin DeBrabander

What if electric cars made pollution worse, not better? What if they increased greenhouse gas emissions instead of decreasing them? Preposterous you say? Well, consider what’s happened in Sweden.

Through generous subsidies, Sweden aggressively pushed its citizens to trade in their cars for energy efficient replacements (hybrids, clean diesel vehicles, cars that run on ethanol). Sweden has been so successful in this initiative that it leads the world in per capita sales of ‘green cars.’ To everyone’s surprise, however, greenhouse gas emissions from Sweden’s transportation sector are up.

Electric shuttles, vans, buses and bikes as part of a truly
Green public transit system could work.
But this would mean public transit which of course, despite
its obvious social utility in terms of reducing energy usage,
greenhouse emissions, land usage and providing mobility to the 30% (and growing for economic reasons)of people who cannot drive,
does not make as much $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$.

What does seem like a sustainable mass consumer niche for electric vehicles is electric bikes.
I was just at the Clearwater Hudson River Revival Music Festival
and they had some very impressive electric bikes including a folding e-bike for only $1100 which could be taken on most public
transit. (all Public transit in the NYC area allows folding bikes at all times)

But electric cars for the masses?
It is utter folly to subsidize it as it will not really save
energy, greenhouse emissions, green spaces lost to endless asphalt, or highway carnage.

2)Sweden which aggressively promoted electric and non gas powered
cars actually INCREASED their greenhouse emissions! :-(

Your source doesn't actually say anything about electric cars in Sweden. It says "hybrids, clean diesel vehicles, cars that run on ethanol." (Your source also lacks a source itself.)

Not that electric cars won't just be a bad thing if we run them off coal, but clearly the idea of them being green is that they will run off solar and wind. I tend to see folks who are adopting EVs now as trying to do a good thing, and often actually doing so. For example, the guy with a Leaf for whom I just helped install a solar system. OTOH, I do fear that in the future, late adopters will go EV purely because of high gas prices and won't install the solar.

I am also somehow rather skeptical that the the 100-mile range Nissan Leaf is going to drive further exurban development.

Aside from those nitpicks I generally agree with you. Best hopes for fewer people driving cars, and those that do driving solar powered ones. With any luck the thermodynamics of batteries and renewable energy will impose that without too much pain.

"With any luck the thermodynamics of batteries and renewable energy will impose that without too much pain."

Exactly what are these limits? I have been a registered user here on The Oil Drum for 5 years, and in only that amount of time seen limits that were given as "set by thermodynamics" shot past and exceeded repeatedly. This indicates that a lot of folks attribute to thermodynamics limits that were actually created by lack of knowledge and weak design.

The bigger issue is economics, as always, and on this I think we are all in agreement: Post oil energy will in so many ways cost more to produce, as long as relatively cheap oil and gas are available.

That calculation soon goes out the window however if we assume (as most true peakers do) that oil and gas in indeed getting more difficult to find and extract, and the EROEI of oil and gas is only going to go up in the future. By contrast, the EROEI of renewables should go down (with one caveat, which we will get to in a moment), meaning the two lines (EROEI of fossil fuels vs. EROEI of renewables) will cross, making the renewables the economic choice. In some places this is already happening.

The remaining caveat mentioned above is rare earth and strategic minerals: Many renewable energy alternatives require rare earth metals and minerals, and many of those are already climbing in price. The renewable industry is in direct competition with the consumer electronics market and the defense industries of the nations of the world for these minerals. These are not weak competitors to be up against. This is why the materials science people are looking so hard for ways to reduce the quantity of raw materials needed in renewable energy production (reduced metals in batteries, solar cells, etc. Mineral and metals availability will become critical for the renewable energy industry and for the world.

Of course, it seems the world has decided against concentrating mirror solar technology, the one tried and true method of solar power production which has proven to work year on year on year, and against thermal storage and geo-thermal, methods that again are low on consumption of minerals in construction, and based on tried and true technology. The old rule of technology still seems to apply: Never use the simple easy way when far more complicated and expensive means are still to be developed.


Neither wind turbines nor EVs require rare earths.

While they don't need rare earths, many of the existing designs - any that use permanent magnets - do use rare earths.
Some of the wind turbines use large perm. magn generators as this allows them to be direct drive

This will change as the rare earths get more expensive and/or hoarded by China.

Well, maybe there will be substitution.

At present rare earths make for the 'best' room-temperature magnets, and direct drive is an advantage. But it's possible that better magnetic materials will be invented. We seem to be seeing quite a lot of that recently (inventing better materials, that is) - like the PNNL/Vor-X graphene-mixed battery that Jon linked to.

This (i.e. since about 1990) seems to be a new golden age for materials science. Some of the innovations seem really basic, too -- like the idea of continuous casting of silicon wafer for solar cells, which eliminates the waste and time incurred in cutting slices off ingots. Instant 50% cost reduction, if it gets out of the lab.

Back on topic, a sufficiently large, sufficiently sustained price rise will mean that the rare earth mines outside China that were mothballed when they found they couldn't compete with China's lack of safety and environmental regulation, will start up again; and that other operations, which now treat rare earth compounds as a nuisance waste product, will find them to be a new source of revenue. I expect that new sources of supply will sprout all over the show, after prices have been high long enough. That will limit the price increase and reduce the incentive for substitution.

after prices have been high long enough.

Some forward thinking required here. If prices are high for long enough, would there be consequences either positive, negative or both?
What do you think needs to be maintained for the blockquoted statement to come true? Is it possible? If so would there also be consequences?

It is possible that better materials be invented, but short of a complete revolution on how we build permanent magnets, rare-earths will continue being used at the best ones. It is possible that there is a complete revolution at the future...

There is one huge caveat there tough, magnetic machines may not need the best magnets.

I expect that new sources of supply will sprout all over the show, after prices have been high long enough. That will limit the price increase and reduce the incentive for substitution.

They are trying to reopen a rare-earths mine in California, but the project is supposed to take a decade? A lot of economic damage may be inflicted in the meantime. We used to have raging arguments about Uranium supply, will there be a serious shortage? There clearly is enough potential supply (seawater even, at a price one can still afford for power generation), but the issue of whether the plants for production from lower grade ores will be built in time always looms. That of course requires that future beancounters are sufficiently confident of predictions of future price rises are good enough to risk money on.

Some of the wind turbines use large perm. magn generators as this allows them to be direct drive

Besides that most wind turbines use gearboxes (to reduce generator size) - even the largest manufacturer of direct drive wind turbines (Enercon) does not use any permanent magnets!

There's simply no technical or economical need for permanent magnets in wind turbines.

California is opening a rare earths mine.

While they don't need rare earths, many of the existing designs - any that use permanent magnets - do use rare earths.

Interestingly enough, the "rare earths" in question aren't actually rare:

"Neodymium magnets, invented in the 1980s, are the strongest and most affordable type of rare-earth magnet."[1]

"Although neodymium is classed as a "rare earth", it is no rarer than cobalt, nickel, and copper are, and is widely distributed in the Earth's crust."[2]

"Largest rare-earth metal mine in US back open for business"[3]

Correct, as my chemistry professor said, "rare earths aren't rare." They're only rare in the sense that they are extremely similar chemically; so separating them from each other is difficult, and in the early days it was almost prohibitively tough and expensive.

Interestingly, the American Solar Energy Society takes a somewhat dimmer view of how easy rare earth metals will be to obtain, and just how "rare" these minerals and metals are.

We are not talking run of the mill molybdenum or chromium here, but minerals so obscure that most non technicians have never even heard of them.

Praseodymium, which is given as an ingrediant in magnets and batteries, Neodymium of course, but Dysprosium? We are leaving aside the more common (but by no means common) materials for the new age of thin film solar sells, consisting of Indium, Gallium and Tellurium. Some of these minerals are traded on such small, exclusive exchanges (at least until recently) that no one knew who really was doing the trading. Many people thought that something like "Europium" had to be a made up name just to fleece investors.

Again, if we only expected high growth rates in the renewable energy industry to be major and growing consumers of these metals that would be one thing: But the growth in consumer electronics, speciality smart phones, tablet computers and the like, are beginning to find a market worldwide. And every nation has a military that is trying hard to modernize, having now seen the effect applied science can have on military power. Even what are now regarded as relatively common minerals (nickel, cadmium, chromium for instance) will feel the demand side pressure.

I am normally the bright and sunny one here on the Drum, but in this instance I see a real problem looming. And I have not even touched on environmental issues in regard to the massive extracttion of these minerals. I cannot find an easy way to sugar coat this problem. I don't think it will stop solar energy development (and solar at the end of the day really is the only method of energy production which breaks out of the depletion chase), or other green technology developments, but I do see it as a major hurdle. It really is a 'golden age" for materials scientists who can help us around this tough problem.


My estimation is that the "rare earth's shortages" issue is way overblown. "Rare earths" is simply a chemists catagorization from a century ago, not a modern description of availability. Agreed China's actions may cause some short-term disruption in the markets, but that'll settle out. China didn't win the market share it has by having the only resources, but by having the cheapest mining.

Many of those elements are not rare earths. Indium and gallium are in are in the aluminum column; tellurium is with sulfur.

Consumption of any of the listed elements for miniature consumer gadgets will be negligible compared to consumption for many tens of thousands of square km of solar panels or a million wind turbines (which is what it would take to make a substantial dent in global energy supply) or even for electric cars. But, fortunately, there are alternatives.

CIGS solar cells are not indispensable (a good thing because it appears highly unlikely there will be thousands of square km of them), since there's lots of silicon in the world, plus research and pilot production aimed at using that silicon more efficiently. Neodymium-iron-boron magnets might be nice for some wind turbines, but again are not indispensable. And most likely there will be a lot of futzing with batteries - battery technology has tended to revolve around miniature gadgets for a very long time now, so we need not expect it to be optimal as-is (or nearly so) for car-scale or utility-scale batteries. And yes there will be demand pressures, but so what's new about that?

The materials scientists do indeed have their work cut out for them.


"With any luck the thermodynamics of batteries and renewable energy will impose that without too much pain."

Exactly what are these limits? I have [in 5 years] seen limits that were given as "set by thermodynamics" shot past and exceeded repeatedly.

Which is why I mentioned luck. ;-)

...the EROEI of oil and gas is only going to go up in the future. By contrast, the EROEI of renewables should go down ... meaning the two lines (EROEI of fossil fuels vs. EROEI of renewables) will cross, making the renewables the economic choice.

I've had the same thought. The thing that gives me pause on this front is the complexity issue and the 'Leibigs Minimum' issues that might face renewable energy industries. There's no guarantee these industries can survive a collapse in the overall EROEI of civilization if they are still account for only a fraction of energy production. And that gets into factors that aren't reducible to thermodynamics, such as culture and policy.

While I generally agree with you, the fact that Sweden's greenhouse gases increased doesn't mean much unless we actually know what changes occurred in miles traveled and whether or not that had anything to do with electric vehicles.

Regardless, as you say, we still have the entire energy intensive infrastructure in place with EVs. Even if many of these vehicles got their power from Solar PV, that just means that it will be even more difficult for PV and other renewable sources to cut into the current and growing needs for electric vehicles. Even if additional PV made up for the additional demand, we would still be faced with a growth in coal based electricity.

Of course, suggesting that cities could be radically different and people should be enabled to get most of their transportation from feet, bikes, buses, and light rail is a losing proposition in our car dependent and worshiping society.

I'd suggest that it's less a matter of worship than of simple practicality. Even in the US, some do find it optimal to use "feet, bikes, buses, or light rail" for some trips. However, where I am, and as I've said before, a considerable preponderance (not all) tend to be college students, plus a smattering of scruffy superannuated Sixties types (who stand out like sore thumbs against the often well-coiffed students), plus some who appear visually to be poor, plus some downtown commuters and a few others. Like it or not, outside of just the right places in a few megacities that's the starting point.

One social/political burden the radical suggestion carries is that it brings into the picture a much larger number of people who don't find those modes to be optimal. Worship need not be a factor - more relevant may be prodigious wastage of time, the considerable hassle of bringing kids along, an added risk of being assaulted (note that the cost of just one day in the hospital - which, whether the insurance coverage is good or bad, is not free and will be paid by someone - will cover years of driving), lack of peace and privacy in cramped thin-walled apartments, and so on. (Another burden is that one doesn't wave a wand and get everything rebuilt in a snap and for free.)

Expect it to be difficult to convince people, at any scale large enough to care about, to take that sort of step down - just because some well-heeled jet-set politicians or academics say so from on high for no reason ordinary folks actually understand. Please remember that many in the USA are here expressly because they or their ancestors were immiserated in one way or another by capricious and arbitrary decrees from on high, so they might prove less submissive than, say, docile Europeans who seem lately to have forgotten completely about such things.

I am operating under the assumption that for many trips it will soon be financially "practical" to adopt transportation options other than traveling long distances in a low occupancy 4,000 lb. vehicle.

Personally, I make no effort to convince people they should walk, bike or take mass transit. My only goal is to make it a little easier for anyone who's curious to understand that it will soon be much, much more expensive to drive a typical car long distances. It's up to them to decide what to do with this information.

The price signal works quite well at modifying behavior without me saying anything.

"The price signal works quite well at modifying behavior without me saying anything."

Exactly. People will receive that signal and decide what to do. And they will probably not decide in sufficiently uniform lockstep to satisfy the more puritanical moralizers - academic notions of what they ought to do will probably figure into their decisions only marginally, and possibly even negatively. It's also not helpful that some of the stridently held oughts are partly incompatible. Push people into densified cities, and transport food and supplies accordingly; no, push people out into villages and farmettes. Ummm... we'll see.

Unfortunately, the same price signal seems to have the opposite effect on most (US) politicians, whose blood pressure seems to rise in lock-step with fuel prices!

I see that as a sort of indicator lamp, telling us in no uncertain terms that they have indeed received the signal. An upward price signal is normally expected to call for enlarging the quantity supplied, and shrinking the quantity consumed, until things match up again - and nothing in economics posits that anyone has to like this process. Since the politicians play a supervisory role, they have a rather free hand about which side to intervene on.

I would expect them to make pious noises about the environment and/or shrill noises about "corporations" if that is their bent - and then, regardless, to intervene on whatever they think is the supply side (possibly very quietly, possibly shouting "drill, baby, drill"), simply because that is the easiest response, and it does not call for the discarding costly investments (e.g. freeways/motorways) that are not at the end of their service lives. Hence that blood-pressure response and various bills about environmental permits. The USA is not the only one in such a boat; we seem to have the Germans making pious, unctuous noises about CO2, but responding to the nuclear panic by burning more coal or having someone else burn it for them.

it will soon be much, much more expensive to drive a typical car long distances.

It's easy to stay with a personal vehicle if desired. On can move move to a Prius (60% less fuel), then a Volt (90-100% less fuel).

A Nissan Leaf will get you 100 miles - that's enough for commuting, and covers 90% of all miles driven in the US.

Fuel prices won't change our current car-centered paradigm.

Nick, not disagreeing with what you say, but that doesn't mean Jon's point is not valid. For the long distance travel to not be expensive you can't have a typical car, you have to have a hybrid, and that is more expensive. Or you go to a really small car which can match the Prius hwy economy.

I do agree that fuel prices won't dramatically change the car centred society, until they are about 3-4x what they are today. That is going on Europe where they are 2x and it is still a car centric society, though less extreme than here.

fuel prices won't dramatically change the car centred society, until they are about 3-4x what they are today.

An EREV like the Volt only needs 10% as much fuel - that can come from ethanol easily enough.

Fuel prices won't change our current car-centered paradigm.

Of course prices will change the current paradigm but perhaps in less catastrophic ways than some imagine. I didn't mean to imply that prices would end that paradigm overnight.

To see change all you have to do is look at housing prices in different areas. I don't have the numbers I but have read several respectable articles stating that houses far from employment and mass transit have shown greater declines than those that require less commuting. Meanwhile, big apartment blocks are currently being built left and right in the walkable, bikeable, mass-transit served neighborhoods of Seattle.

Just check out the new apartments that just opened up across the street from a light rail station: The Station at Othello Park. This is what they say on their Ditch Your Car page:

Cars can be handy, but when you’re living at the light rail, you just might not need one. And you can save a bundle. Punch in the numbers below to see how much you’ll keep in your pocket.

But just in case, we’ll have a Zip Car handy should you ever need a set of wheels. And if you’ve got a bike, we’ll keep it safe — with plenty of bike racks and storage to go around.

Use this handy-dandy calculator to find out just how much green you will save by going green living car-free!

If that's not a sign of "change" I don't know what is!


It's a change, but the link leaves a big question about who can afford it. As far as I can tell there's not a clue about the rental or purchase price for the apartments. That's usually a very bad sign - as they say, if you have to ask, you can't afford it. It suggests that they come at a premium that could pay for several cars. It all seems more and more like the European pattern, with the highly affluent enjoying subsidized transportation in the city proper, while the regular people live in the outskirts and pay through the nose in taxes to support the subsidy (and maybe even pay heavy motorway tolls on top.)

What needs to be a part of this is a tax, a developer charge, per condo, or sq ft, or something, that goes to pay (part of) the cost of the transit service. The value of these developments is significantly increased by the presence of the transit system, so I have no problem with some of that increase going to the transit system, rather then the developer's pockets.

There are a few other tools that the city can use to prevent your scenario from playing out - zoning, affordable housing requirements, limits on unit size, all sorts of things. The key is to actually make sure that not all the stuff that gets built is high end. You want the barista at Starbucks to be able to afford to live there too. The developers will kick and scream, but if that's what they have to do to get their approvals, that's what they'll do.

a tax, a developer charge, per condo,...some of that increase going to the transit system, rather then the developer's pockets.

That will increase the prices of the units.

zoning, limits on unit size

Those won't help the overall price per sq foot.

affordable housing requirements

That's not going to change the overall picture much. We just had a housing bubble - we're not going to see a lot of new construction.

That will increase the prices of the units.
Not really - they developer sells them for as much as the buyers are willing to pay, regardless of what the various cost components are, and people will pay more to be near transit. If part of the price is going to a transit fund, this situation supports the building of more transit - without it, the developers have nothing special.

Those won't help the overall price per sq foot.

Sure it does, though over price/sq.ft is not the only measure, it's also the price, period that is a factor. "high end" units are always larger ones, in Vancouver we had a situation where all the developers were building larger, luxury units chasing the same market - wealthy overseas buyers. There was no "starter" product for local first time buyers, even the head of the Vancouver developers association acknowledged they had made this mistake - even though they had fought tooth and nail against the city trying to put in requirements for them to do just that.

For first time buyers, even a lower price/sq.ft is useless if all the units are 1000+sq.ft - the end result is the same - you can't afford it. However, smaller, less luxurious units tend not to attract the high end buyers, more the people that want to live in them, (or rent them to someone else to live in), and so some of the heat goes out of the market for those. Same reason as you don;t see many "subcompact" luxury cars - those who are willing to pay for luxury, are also willing to pay for size.

We just had a housing bubble - we're not going to see a lot of new construction.

That's quite likely. But the patterns of what does get built will be different, as there are less speculative buyers, and more of the actual buyers will want to live in what they buy. In Vancouver it's a bi-modal market - big and expensive for overseas buyers, smaller and spartan/affordable for locals.

That will increase the prices of the units. Not really - they developer sells them for as much as the buyers are willing to pay

The market is the most important factor, but if you increase developer costs it has an impact: higher prices or fewer units built.

more later...

The market is the most important factor, but if you increase developer costs it has an impact: higher prices or fewer units built.

Not necessarily - they key thing is that the development charges are paying for something that is both useful and valued for the site being developed.

if you put on a DCC so that you can build a new library on the other side of town, then yes, the developer sees higher costs and no benefit/resale value improvement, and possibly less units will get built. Also, possibly, they will build cheaper units. A few years ago, when I lived in Calgary, theer was a building boom going (before the property boom really hit) and prices for labour and materials were rising fast. The builders/developers response was to start downspecing their units/houses wherever possible. so cheaper flooring, countertops etc were going in, cheap or no landscaping etc. It was a strange kind of deflation of house "quality" for a while.

On the other hand, when the DCC is payign for something that is useful and adds value to the lot, then that is a different story. The simplest example is water and sewer service. The developer could, in theory, build a house on a lot without connecting, have rainwater collection, and a septic field, but in reality, they can;t. Without city waterand sewer, all you have is a piece of dirt. The connection of water and sewer turns a piece of dirt into a housing lot, and adds tremendous value - far more than the DCC.

Similarly for houses that are close to a rail station, school, shopping centre etc - it all makes for good "location" - which is what adds value. If you were a condo developer and had a choice of pay a DCC of $20k per unit,( or some per capita equivalent, or something) to build within walking distance of a train station, or save the $20k and build within walking distance of nothing in particular, which way would you go?

Not only is there nothing wrong with charging DCC's for building service capacity, it is essential to do so. Otherwise either the capacity never gets built, or the costs are included in the general tax base and paid for by people who have either already paid for that capacity, or never can;t derive any benefit from it (e.g. existing residents paying for a sewer capacity expansion to service a new area - they are already serviced so derive no benefit from the expansion)

Naturally, developers want all the costs put into annual taxes, and most existing residents want the expansion costs put into DCC's. Building a train in an existing area is a bit of both, and should be paid for accordingly. The train is what facilitates the high density construction, so there is nothing wrong with levying a train DCC on new construction along the line The developers can always develop somewhere else, but if you are building high density, why would you?

That all makes sense - it is possible to not subsidize new construction.

I suspect PaulS was really thinking of the long-term picture: affluent people living in high priced Transit Oriented Development and using transit that gets operational subsidies.

That's what strikes me about speculation about the impact of fuel prices on urban development: the impact of fuel prices is pretty small compared to the differentials in housing prices between urban cores and exurbs: "drive till you qualify" is alive and well.

several respectable articles stating that houses far from employment and mass transit have shown greater declines than those that require less commuting.

These articles are confusing the effects of the housing boom & bust with the effects of increased fuel costs.

The boom & bust occurred primarily in newer exurban neighborhoods, where there was new construction.

Now, higher fuel costs are drawing attention to the high cost of time & stress that commuting demands...

The better evidence is that the resumption of building is heavily weighted towards 5 or more unit dwellings and units in neighborhoods closer to urban centers. But building is still quite dead in farther flung counties. Some developers are converting their outlying land inventory to solar power projects.

I'd be curious to see the data.

The overall level of new construction is very, very low. We just had a housing bubble - we're not going to see a lot of new construction for a while.

Housing starts at seasonally adjusted annual rates:
                   Total            1 unit          5 or more
2010 May             580               460               108
2011 May             560               419               134

Housing permits at seasonally adjusted annual rates:
                   Total            1 unit     2 to 4     5 or more
2010 May             582               435        20            127
2011 May             612               405        17            190

Yes, I can see an increase in permits for "5 or more" in May.

On the other hand, that's an increase of only 63k units (even assuming it's not just a one-time blip in the data). Single family construction is still twice as large as multi-unit, and the overall number is still small by historical standards.

Amen, Orbit7er.

It's fascinating to watch the continuing denial of the raw Physics 101 of automobiles. The fuel source is irrelevant. Making and moving complex 3,000-pound objects that sit idle 95 percent of their lives is wildly, radically stupid and unsustainable.

But cars-first living is required for maintaining capitalism, so on we go, hurtling toward the cliff-dive...

Making and moving complex 3,000-pound objects that sit idle 95 percent of their lives is wildly, radically stupid and unsustainable.

Not really. An EV uses very little power - roughly .3kWh per mile. That's comparable to electric trains, and human powered bikes (if you take everything into account).

Light vehicles are 99% recycled - they're very sustainable.

I know I am splitting hairs with you here, but one problem is that the current Ev's can hardly be described as "light", in comparison to their ICE counterparts.

The Leaf weighs 3400lbs - that is a lot of mass for the electric system to haul around.
I still think that GM was closer to the mark with the original EV-1 - it was a two seater, and had a world record drag coefficient of 0.19. It looked weird, of course, but you could tweak that today for only a small loss of aero efficiency.

The lead acid version was 3100 lbs, 16kWh, and got 60miles/charge.
The NiMH version had 26kWh, weight 2900 lbs and got up to 160 miles, though 100-140 was more normal.

How much better would this exact car be with a current technology battery pack and electric driveline?

My guess would be 2700lbs for 24kWh, and almost 200 miles. I'm sure that would sell.

The original Honda Insight was aimed precisely at the economy, very high MPG market, and it failed to sell. Spectacularly.

Yeah, but when?

A number of factors play heavily on it.

From 2000-2006. Gas prices rose in 2006 but sales didn't rise.

Honda replaced it with a 5-seater, and that has sold respectably. Still, it's much cheaper than a Prius, and isn't selling nearly as well - sales were well below Honda's expectations.

The US market isn't really that focused on low price - small cars are selling better, but their average price is quite high, as people are buying all the options they can.

There is no question the original insight was a sales failure. But up until 2005, the Prius was not that hot a seller either, especially in the US.

But consider that Smart has sold more than 50,000 two seaters in the US and Canada in the last three years - there is clearly a niche there, though many people are turned off by the styling and shape of the smart.

If Honda dusted off the design, updated the look a little, and put in a lithium battery pack they would have a sprightly hybrid, or go make it a full EV.
or go half way, and make a Volt style series hybrid using the 660cc, 63 hp engines they use in their Kei cars in Japan.

I am firmly of the opinion that if someone were to come out with a small, (two seater) EV or EREV, that sold for under $15k, it would sell. It does not have to be fully loaded, it just has to be able to be plugged in and get Volt style electric range. They may not sell boatloads of them, but they would sell.
Also do a pickup version of it too - they have been two seaters since the year dot, and seem to sell well.
since Honda has already done all the work on the original Insight, and has access to all the other bits they need, this could be done, and then sold around the world, not just the US.

I think the reason they don;t is that they have positioned themselves as a "premium" brand, and don;t want to become known for another econobox, like the original, 52 hp Civic was;

Light vehicles are not road-worthy in the suburbanized, sprawling, high-speed United States. Putting people in golf carts going 50 mph would triple the present crash-death rate. And people know that. It takes a certain amount of body-mass to render high-speed automobiles tolerably safe. Indeed, that's the main reason MPG hasn't improved more in recent years. The makers have spent most of the engine efficiency gains making autos that are heavier and safer while holding MPG steady.

Meanwhile, you are proving my point about willful ignorance of physics. The amount of electricity spent in operating an "EV" (read: coal/nuke car) is hardly the whole story, and going around citing it is simply a form of dishonesty. How much electricity is lost in transmission from the generation site to the plug? When and how are we going to build a new electrical grid that could conceivably facilitate 200 million "EVs"? How much energy would it take to build and maintain that?

Then there's this:

To be fair, he wasn't talking about golf carts. Ordinary cars, even PU's and SUV's are classified as "light vehicles" by the US government. Nick's point is to distinguish them from things like buses and trains, which are certainly "heavy vehicle".

That said, it doesn't mean a vehicle has to be "heavy" to be crashworthy and safe. F1 and Indycars are very light, and their drivers regularly walk away from 150mph crashes. A Smart car satisfies all the crash requirements and weighs a trifling 1600 lbs. So a 2000-2500lb EV is quite doable - it just won;t be a big car, that's all.

How much electricity is lost in transmission from the generation site to the plug?

You should learn to use Google, it's very helpful for finding answer to these questions, and then you would be better informed and wouldn't have to ask them in the first place. From the US EIA's Electric Power Annual, you can look at the summary table for supply and disposition which shows that all "losses and unaccounted for", which includes transmission losses, amounted to 261 out of 4003TWh generated, or about 6.5%. This percentage has been very consitsent over the years.

So, there's your baseline, but for EV,s that are charged at night, when the system is at half load, the losses are 1/4 of that, or abut 1.5% (since you seem to be interested in physics, Google "ohm's law" to learn why this is so). Given that nighttime is also when wind generation is typically greatest, adding the EV load at night actually supports the build out of wind power.

And since there is plenty of spare capacity at night, virtually no new grid, or even generating plants, are needed for quite some time.

Total generating capacity is just over 1 TW (from same EIA report). Total generation is 4000TWh, for a 46% capacity factor, so clearly there is a lot sitting around unused for a lot of the time. If we assume that at night, it is at 50% capacity, and we can take it up to 75% capacity (still less than daytime demand), then we can have 250GW of EV charging going on. Given that an EV draws 4kW to do an 8hr charge, that can charge 62 million EV's, or about one third of the US vehicle fleet of 200million - not bad for capacity that we already have.

And not all vehicles charge fully every night, so you could probably get up to 100m connected. So the vehicle problem is half solved without adding anything to the grid. That's a pretty good start I'd say.

Average daily miles per car in the US is about 30 for about 10kWhs, so really the grid can handle electrification of most of the fleet.

How much electricity is lost in transmission from the generation site to the plug?

It all depends on how far away from the plug you have placed your solar array...


On June 6 and 7, I attended Opal Financial’s Clean and Green Investment Forum. I was invited to take part in a panel on “Green Energy in Emerging and Frontier Markets”. The forum brought together clean tech entrepreneurs and investors as well as a few academics and analysts and proved very stimulating. The overall vibe was one of optimism and opportunity — we’re talking entrepreneurs and investors here.

Thank you Jonathan for your work, I confess, that I too, am occasionally hit by a wave of giddy optimism... then I go take a look at the data on and reality slaps me hard in the face and manages to bring me back to gloomy earth again >;^)

Oh, and nowadays, every time I see or hear the term Green Energy, it elicits from me a response similar to the one I get when I hear fingernails being dragged across an old chalk board... It really gives me the willies!

Even plants respond poorly to it.



Thanks for this summary. It sounds like this is almost the ultimate optimist/anti-doomers conference!

And that is a good thing as we must always have some optimists around - all doomers makes dull day.

A few comments on your points;

Investors in energy technology have a difficult time penciling out returns with all this complexity, especially given the temporal nature of credits, rebates and RPS. All of these are subject to change every election cycle.

I think the importance of this statement cannot be underestimated. In addition to all the normal risks investors face in developing/marketing new technology, you have this additional risk, that you simply wouldn't have if your were developing a new type of mousetrap.

A change in government can wipe out your investment very quickly. Building a solar panel plant in Ontario right now is taking a bet on the existing government surviving, as the conservative opposition has said they will end the (ridiculously high) feed in tariffs. In Australia, the new NSW state government is in the process of trying to cancel existing solar FIT agreements set up by the previous government.

this sort of thing leads renewable investors to heavily favour short term projects. A biomass plant that has a 10yr payback - at current FIT rates - is far from a sure bet.

On the topic of biomass, until 2008, biomass was the leading (non hydro) renewable in the US, and accounts for 1.35% of total electricity production. Much of this is in cogen plants at pulp and sawmills, but there are quite a few stand alone biomass power stations too.

In looking at the usage of CHP in the US (EIA data) biomass is, and has been for the last decade, the single largest fuel for CHP plants, just edging out natural gas.

So biomass is being used here, but, as you say, it is not sexy, and is mostly out of sight and out of mind.

Biomass to liquids is far sexier, and has attracted lots of $ from VC's and governments, and to date, unlike biomass to electricity, is yet to turn a single dollar of profit.

On that Chinese car, the Zotye. did they say that they had previously announced in 2007 and 2009 that they were going to bring it to market here "next year"? They have never offered any proof to back up their mileage claims, and, according to this auto info site the sticker price has gone up to $35k, and the battery is no longer warranted for the time.

Given that there is a non-zero possibility of a battery breakthrough rendering any current EV's obsolete, putting money into this EV maker is more gambling than investing. Serious investing needs serious facts/evidence - Zotye has been seriously short of those.

Finally, I am surprised there was nothing about geothermal or solar thermal. These are two technologies where the availability of low cost Organic Rankine Cycle systems can free them from the shackles of having to use large and expensive steam systems. There is real potential for improvement here, though they have to compete with ever reducing PV prices.

I do agree that there is much scope for energy (and especially electricity) innovations at the local level. This could be of particular benefit to rural communities, which have far more renewable potential per capita than the cities do (and far more co-operation potential too). For them, energy independence is a possibility.

Yes, it's a shame about the Zotye as i was looking forward to driving a car that defied physics ;)

Great to hear from you Paul.

I agree it was very nice to be surrounded by optimists for a change. Yes, some of them are wearing rose colored glasses. And, No, no one there proposed their solution would solve the world's energy problems. But there is plenty of potential for some inventors and investors, some communities, perhaps some entire nations to do well in an all-electric, all renewables future. (And yes, there will be plenty of pain and anguish and starvation and mayhem in other parts of the world -- just like there is now.)

As for geothermal and solar thermal, that was my omission, not the conference organizers'. The post had gotten long enough with the existing topics.

I'm glad to have your input debunking the Zotye. I didn't have time to do due diligence on any of the presentations from the forum and thought the collected wisdom at TOD would do a much better job than I ever could.

All in all, the forum left me optimistic that there is still lots of room for innovation on all fronts concerning efficiency gains and production from renewables. As energy prices go up I expect the pace of innovation and adoption will only increase.


Hi Jon,

The Zotye thing is just another in a (ever growing) list of announcements about electric cars that have not been followed up by substance. EEstor being the most obvious, but there are others. And when it is in China, and you can;t get proof of what they are saying, well, caveat emptor...

But for the larger picture, I think you have summed it up pretty well;

there is still lots of room for innovation on all fronts concerning efficiency gains and production from renewables. As energy prices go up I expect the pace of innovation and adoption will only increase.

As long as we don;t have a crash that is!

Thanks Joules and Jonathan, I enjoyed the post and the good info. Don’t mind the curmudgeons, they can’t help themselves and they often make valid points.

The decreasing cost of green energy is really encouraging particularly given the rising costs of oil and the problems with fossil fuels in general. Very soon China should start importing massive quantities of coal and that should drive coal prices through the roof as well. It will be interesting to see how high the price of that fracking gas becomes once the price reflects costs and not market over supply issues.

I am a little bothered by all the focus on the smart power grid, when the present need seems to be completion of the current grid. Here in Washington state we supposedly shut down wind farms in May because the damns were producing too much power and there is apparently no way to move the electricity elsewhere. I doubt very much a theoretical 6% gain in efficiency is worth waiting for.

The decreasing cost of green energy?

Is that why we subsidize it to the tune of 1 billion Pounds a years>

What has this achieved so far?

Of the 3402MW of installed capacity yesterday it produced 6,375MWh of a possible 40,824MWh

UK used 848,708MWh.

The UK would have to build 60 times as much wind power to produce 50% the electricity it used yesterday from wind.

Guess nothing sums up the education system better than the fact millions of people think that renewable energy will do it for us.

Meh, everything is subsidized these days. I can think of much worse things to spend that money on.

Every wind and solar installation is a bit less atomic and coal use. I think that's worth the price, along with healthcare and libraries. They don't turn a profit either.


Has it occurred to you that if we spend one billion on wind subsidies(false profits for foreign wind turbine manufacturers) that money is gone and cannot now be spent on schools or healthcare?

There are too many people today who have zero comprehension of the limitations of government spending, Greece is going bust because it spent more than it would raise in taxes. Currently the UK is spending £148 billion a year more than the taxes collected.

Spain is close to the top of the list for renewable energy, it is also close to the top of the list for the next country which will need a bail out. Stupid government is stupid in all areas and high energy costs compared to China will bring countries down.

By 2020 wind power will cost close to 5 billion in subsidies, what the hell is the point of bankrupting this country when China burns more and more coal, gas and oil?

Do you think their co2 stays over China?

The net result of all of this will be, people buying more cheap Chinese goods because the things produced in the UK will cost too much, you can then say goodbye to any decent health service and pensions because there simply will not be the money to pay for them.

Do you think their co2 stays over China?

What's your point?
China is not only more efficient than the West, it also installed MORE wind power last year than Europe and the US COMBINED!
And China installed 5 times more solar hot water capacity than Europe and the US combined:

By the way, has your computer and many of your other consumer goods not been produced in China? And if not - how did you write your embarrassing post?

Has it occurred to you, that if we collected an equivalent monies worth of the negative externalities created through burning fossil fuels, that money would more than pay for £1 billion of subsidies for renewable energy? These hidden subsidies are far far greater than the subsidies that go towards renewable energy. It wouldn't even need to pay for subsidies, since renewable energy would then not only be competitive with unsustainable sources, but cheaper.

China is following the western model of "don't give a **** about anything but the bottom line. And if the net cost to society is greater than your profit, hey that is someone else's problem."

China is killing the planet, why shouldn't we? You do understand this argument is madness don't you? We should do what is right, because it is the right thing to do.

But now we are in trouble. We ignored the true costs for too long, handed over so much power and capital to China things are now in their hands rather than those of the western wealthy industrialists. I hope they see more sense and make better choices than our elite did. Before that happened we should have linked any imports with a basic level of human rights and environmental protection to the same level we expect in our own backyard. But that would have cut into our own profits and reduced our ability to consume vastly more than our fair share of finite resources.


I do not make the rules, the cold hard fact is people faced with two identical products will buy the cheaper one. If further costs are added in the UK then people will simply buy even less UK produced goods and more from China.

How does this help what you want to achieve, are you for banning imports of Chinese goods?

I already do not buy anything from there if I can.

I am not in favour of banning Chinese goods. I am in favour of human rights and environmental protection. I favour charging a tariff on goods not produced in a way that protect the environment and in a way that infringes on peoples human rights. The level of the tariff would be at the level that increases the price of the good, to one produced by somewhere that doesn't commit human rights violations and egregious damage to the environment. As the level of abuse declines so would the tariff. This would put goods on an equal footing without having to resort to some of the more rapacious aspects of profit at any cost.

This would have been a great policy for western countries to take up before giving up so much power, but greed blinds. Now with the decline of economic power in the west, together with the huge debt burden, China could tell the west to do one, and continue doing whatever they want. We helped create a monster, and now it is out of our control.

Yes tariffs could be imposed on a country for not having a minimum wage, health care, state pension etc.

But how would you quantify human rights and what penalty would you impose. China imprisons people without trail for up to two years i believe.

I would argue for no trade with any country that is not a democracy, if every free country did that, then the despots would fall as quickly as Egypt's Mubarak.

I think free people do not care very much that they buy goods from countries that torture and imprison people.

But how would you quantify human rights and what penalty would you impose. China imprisons people without trail for up to two years i believe.

Indeed, we are, literally, putting a price on human rights, and probably not a high one. For the tariff to be effective, it must make enough people not buy the goods in question that the producing country will change - how likely, really is that? The only times change has happened is when there has ben a con sumer boycott, e.g. Nike and its shoes a decade or so ago.

The tariff literally allows the government of the importing country to profit, at the expense of its own citizens, from human rights abuses happening elsewhere - does that sound right?

The importing country should decide whether to allow the imports at all, and if it does, it is up the the customers to then decide if they will buy them. The fact that people

I would argue for no trade with any country that is not a democracy, if every free country did that, then the despots would fall as quickly as Egypt's Mubarak.

As long as all the importing countries agreed on this, then yes. If there was a buying boycott on all oil that did not come from democratic countries - i.e. almost all of OPEC - those countries would be in trouble fast. We in the western countries would have to make do with less oil, but they would have to make do with zero oil export money. It would be very interesting to see who would blink first.

Jaz and Paul,
The price could indeed be a high one. That is the point in it after all. It should be at a rate that either makes it cheaper just to pay people a humane wage and not destroy their local environment, or such that it becomes as cheap, probably cheaper considering the shorter shipping distances, to produce at home. It would indeed be very difficult to analyse out all negative externalities and apply the correct charge to each, but we could try! It doesn't have to be perfect right away, but just ignoring these problems as we currently do can hardly be the optimal societal outcome.

So yes, it would allow a profit from human rights abuses, but give an incentive to reduce those abuses at the same time. Your interpretation, while fair, should bear in mind both of those things are better than encouraging human rights abuses as we currently do, with no upside to local jobs or government revenue.

I don't understand why you think it is at the expense of citizens of the importing country. Citizens from the importing country would pay more for goods produced in such ways, but the extra is collected as tax revenue, so the effect here is neutral, and makes locally produced goods comparatively more competitive.

I'm not sure a full boycott of any non democracies would work for a couple of reasons.
Firstly it is hard to boycott a monopoly, which China basically has on many goods now, at least in the short term.
Secondly, it seems like a stretch to me to call either the UK, who's politicians get voted in on policies that are then completely changed and implemented with no mandate, and USA, who is completely controlled through the corrupt revolving door between the government, the corporations and the agencies supposed to regulate them - democracies.


On your last point, they are democracies, the reason they are not very good democracies is due to the ordinary people.

Most people spend more time watching their football team or watching soaps then finding out what their elected politicians are doing. Laws get pasted in parliament and more ordinary people are against many of them, but they vote these same politicians back in because they did not bother to see what laws they passed over the last 5 years.

I agree completely. If one country imposes clean air standards and another does not the factories and jobs will just move to the place that is cheaper to operate in.

It has occurred to me that the subsidies that we spend on Oil and Gas (and many other expendable, UNrenewable things), like the LiHeap money that keeps some of my Neighboring Northerners from freezing in the wintertime IS money that's just plain gone once the fuel is burned, but when they spend it on Insulation, on Solar Heat and on Windpower, then my neighbors stand a chance to keep their homes warm more cheaply, and there are sources feeding the grid that don't hang on perpetual imports.


I have no problem with grants for double glazing, loft insulation, more efficient boilers, solar hot water heating. This money would go to ordinary people and not another multinational corporation.
Many oil companies have renewable branches just to get government subsidies.

Often the most efficient fridges, washing machines cookers etc are more expensive, my idea is to have a lower VAT for the the more efficient models. The lest efficient would have much higher VAT tax, this would help a huge amount. My cooker has triple glazed doors and you can touch the glass after cooking roast for two hours and it is just warm, but I paid more tax to buy it than a cheaper brand.

The most environmental electricity is the stuff you do not have to produce.

Well, it is true that PV and wind are getting cheaper and it is good news that PV should get down to less that $1 per watt. I am more concerned about the trillions wasted on war (defense). And what good will it be to have a balanced budget on a dead planet? Not that PV, Wind, etc. will necessarily prevent that but what other alternatives do you have on offer today? And, of course, I am not saying we should try to "save" our current lifestyle. These things must be combined with a complete reorganization of the way we work, play, shop, and transport ourselves.

I would say that the way we build our houses and the size of those houses should be the biggest priority and should be where most of the money goes. On the other hand, cost reductions in wind and solar are closely related to increases in production. So, perhaps there is a lot of waste for now but the hope is that it will pay off to the point where minimal subsidies will be required.

jaz, my argument above is focused on the fact that fossil fuel prices will soon skyrocket, barring recession induced demand reduction. Subsidies should soon be unnecessary even without a carbon tax. Your argument is based on refusing to look into the future.


Electricity is produced by coal and gas, so what price do you think gas and coal will be in 2015? Now you will be able to work out if offshore wind will be cheaper.

This is a good report and does discuss the costs of electricity production by source and future cost scenarios.

Onshore wind is £94Kw/h which is £5Kw/h less than Nuclear(costs of decommissioning are included and priced on experience)

Offshore wind is between £157 and £186Kw/h and is far higher than Nuclear, the cost of nuclear power is relatively immune to the cost of oil just as wind power is.

The price of CCGT is £80kw/h this includes build costs and cost of gas and cost of CO2 tax per tonne, the cost of gas would have to be 3 times higher, to be more expensive than offshore wind, which is where most wind is being built in UK.

So are you sure I am refusing to look into the future?

Hi Jaz,

Onshore wind is £94Kw/h which is £5Kw/h less than Nuclear(costs of decommissioning are included and priced on experience)

A few corrections to your numbers.

(1) The unit of "cost of energy" is (money)/(unit of energy),
so [£]/[kWh] or [$]/[J].
(2) Also, it's £94/MWh (megawatt! not kilowatt. That's one thousand times cheaper!!)

I understand that was a typo. But more to the point:

I'm not sure where DECC gets their figures from but £94/MWh is definitely not the cost of onshore wind electricity. That's the price the state decided to pay on a bad location, resulting in fat profits (and research investment) for lots of people and companies. In Spain the price paid to utilities producing from wind in an OK site is around £70/MWh ... and they've been making loads of money.

With installation prices around €1m/MW, producing at 20% capacity, you're producing at full capacity for 1752h each year. So a 1MW turbine is banking in (£70/MWh)x(1MW)x(1752h) = £122.8k/year.

So in 10 years your 1MW turbine has produced £1.2 million, in an OK site. If you have a proper windy site, your turbine pays off in 7 years (energy goes as the cube of the wind (v^3), so marginally better speed means lots more energy). After that you have another 10 to 14 years of pure profit!

This is an industry that has been displaying 17% EBIT margins before the crisis ... like a software startup rather than a mature industrial company. Give the industry some time to mature, automate, cut the fat, humble down, refine the technology, see Chinese and Korean competitors explode ... and you'll see projects making profits at £40/MWh.

EBIT margins would only be a useful indicator if a comparison was made with similar businesses with similar debt levels and terms.

The linked case appears to show net interest margins, a better but still flawed indictor, at less than half of EBIT.

But returns on capital are a better way to judge the profitability of businesses than P&L based ratios.

Guess nothing sums up the education system better than the fact millions of people think that renewable energy will do it for us.

Actually and apparently the Brits think that spending the equivalent of 42,000 MW of new wind power on its military every single year is doing it for them...

If the UK were to direct its military budget on wind power for only 4 years it would be 100% wind powered in 4 years. Not to mention having created thousands of jobs, having reduced its fuel imports, having reduced its trade deficit, having reduced its emissions etc.

China is already starting to import massive quantities of coal, and that is already driving prices up. Fortunately for them, there are massive quantities of coal available nearby in Australia, Indonesia, and Russia, and that coal is for sale at the right price.

China also has massive shale gas deposits which will no doubt be developed in the near future. Protesters will the thrown in prison, as usual.

Washington state lacks the high voltage transmission lines to get its surplus power to California. This is more California's problem than Washington's. Solving it is going to require extracting the money from California's consumers and taxpayers, which they don't appear to be keen on.

You left Oregon out. The transmission lines have to go through there as well.

The other issue is the big hydro surplus is seasonal. So you would build an expensive line, and nine months of the year it would be unneeded. The three months there is power to feed it do not correspond to the peak demand in CA. Lastly, the Californians have been fighting desperately to stop a short new power line construction that would bring power in from the Mohave. (google 'sunrise powerlink') The shrieking hysteria that would follow the announcement of a plan to build a thousand miles of powerline would be fearsome to contemplate. And Oregon is no better. Cutting a path across their state from which they would derive no benefit would be opposed as well.

Screaming about vista's is the luxury of the rich, we will see how the attitude changes as energy limitations really begin to bite. Recognizing that Washington state's excess energy supply is currently due to seasonal variation, this will not be the case after 10 more years of building wind capacity. Further, almost every third article about increasing wind and solar mentions inadequate power distribution systems and most are not talking about the grid required to address local resource inadequacies due to cloud cover or windless days.

As for inexpensive coal, which, (like oil) must materialize to enable continued Chinese expansion, why is it not produced now if so much money is to be made? China produces about half the worlds coal at about 3000 Mt/yr increasing at 8%/yr. Chinese Gov. predicts a production peak in 2015. 240 Mt/yr would be a lot of new production for export, given total world exports are a little over twice this amount (about 100 Mt/yr is already going to China). Prices are going to rocket much faster than oil assuming China's economy doesn't tank. My opinion, China tanks.'s_Republic_of_China

China is already starting to import massive quantities of coal, and that is already driving prices up.

Besides that China produces consumer goods for the entire world and the Chinese still consume four times less electricity per capita than the US.

2008 China installed 70.5% of all solar hot water capacity and the US only installed 1.3% of all hot water capacity:

2010 China installed 18.9 GW of wind power while the US only installed about 5 GW of wind power:

Maybe, but they use ~2.5 times the energy per dollar of GDP.

maybe, but that is because their economy is dominated by low value manufacturing. The US has exported the cheap manufacturing there, retains the expensive (=high value) manufacturing, and has massive GDP contributions from health care, insurance, banking etc. Whether or not these all produce "real" wealth is another matter, but it all counts to GDP, so there is a lot of "fluff" GDP to spread the energy consumption over.

I think it is pretty clear that most energy used in China produces something, while much of the energy use in US is used for peoples comfort(heating) and convenience (driving). It is only because Chinese people do not have these luxuries, and their wages are so low, that they can afford to manufacture at such cheap prices, so their GDP is low in $ terms.

I do suspect that the marginal $GDP per energy use is much better than the US.

Neither per capita or per $GDP is an ideal measure, but looking at just one of them does not give the full picture.

The US has exported the cheap manufacturing there, retains the expensive (=high value) manufacturing

Have you seen data on this, and it's relationship to energy inputs?

As best I can tell, Chinese energy consumption is indeed pretty inefficient. A prime example: using diesel to power factories.

Further, I don't know why hard goods are more valuable than services.

Actually, a better way of saying this is that most manufacturing of consumer goods has moved offshore (mostly China) and domestic manufacturing is more focused on industrial goods.

I haven't looked for studies etc to back this up, but you can see the evidence in any retail store from Wal Mart to Home Depot

In the industrial/commercial world, it is a different story - if you are buying pumps, valves, bulldozers, gas turbines, air compressors, CNC milling machines etc etc there is a much greater likelihood they are made here. And it not, from somewhere other than China - Germany, Japan, S. Korea.

The electrician at my ski resort had observed the price difference between consumer electric stuff and industrial grade was between five and ten to one - industrial grade has to be better quality of course, and usually it was made here. Since everyone has had an experience with a cheap made in China widget breaking, there is a strong perception in industry that Chinese industrial equipment is of lesser quality, so few people are willing to bet their business and/or life on it.

Also, the Chinese are masters of high volume, low cost production - this fits the profile of consumer goods - where quality is not such a key criteria,a and there is great potential to expand market volumes. Industrial goods are much lower volume, or even custom built, and quality is paramount - this is where their manufacturing has not been so good. Every story I have heard about companies getting stuff made in China is the same - you have to watch the QC like a hawk. In the industrial world, where a faulty piece of equipment can have serious consequences (think the BOP of the oil well last year), many companies are unwilling to add extra risk by using Chinese made stuff.

I think the same can still be said of cars. It took Japan, and S. Korea, in particular, decades to improve their quality enough to cast off the cheap and nasty image. Chinese and Indian cars will face the same challenge, but some people will still accept nasty if it s cheap enough!

It will be interesting to see how the balance of manufacturing (consumer v capital goods) changes both here and China in the future - some consumer goods manufacturing is returning here - even for the most innocuous things;’s-factories-running-out-of-power/

most manufacturing of consumer goods has moved offshore (mostly China)

I think I'd like to see the evidence/numbers for that. True, consumer electronics aren't made in the US, but the majority of car and car parts are.

you can see the evidence in any retail store from Wal Mart to Home Depot

In a connected world, you expect to see imports in your local store. Think about it - how much of the stuff in your local store is made in your province/state? That doesn't tell you much about the balance of trade: if you go to the next country over, how much stuff in their local stores will be made in the US?

In the industrial/commercial world, it is a different story

Interesting. Fits with what I've seen.

some consumer goods manufacturing is returning here

Yes, I've seen a little evidence for that. I think the dollar is more important than fuel costs.

I think I'd like to see the evidence/numbers for that. True, consumer electronics aren't made in the US, but the majority of car and car parts are.

Well, I did say the "chinese quality phobia" applies to cars, so that is why we aren't seeing imports of those. BUt it is more than just consumer electronics. Look at shoes, clothes, almost any plastic ware, kitchen ware, white goods, glassware, plumbing tapware, light bulbs, wooden furniture, sporting goods (the last Cdn hockey stick mfr has moved production to China!) etc.

Small, commodity items are prime candidates for chinese production. For a plastic widget, (or even a die-cast metal one) in theory, once you get the moulds right, you just crank em out, and china will underbid almost anyone else.

But, the larger, the more complex and the smaller the production volumes, the less advantage they have and the more you have to spend on QC per item. It quickly gets to the point where china can;t compete. Extreme example would be commercial aircraft. Would any amount of QC result in a Chinese made aircraft that Americans would be willing to fly in on domestic US routes?

chjina is catching up, and when they make any large complex thing they study it very carefully, and see if they can carry on making it themselves. A fellow I met at a wastewater convention years ago (an equipment supplier who had worked in China) summed it up very well. He said you can sell anything to them - once. then they will take it apart, reverse engineer it and start making it themselves, and one or two years later will be competing against you on your home turf!.

Also, in a commercial environment, my estimate is that people are prepared to spend about 5x as many company $ on something as they are if it their own money. They will order a set of "Crescent" wrenches even though they would not buy them for themselves, or the best air compressor, when they buy a Harbour Freight one for themselves, and so on. So in those situations, the more expensive domestically made stuff is still affordable. And, if it is some piece of production/revenue related equipment that gets bought once, the initial price is not always the determining factor.

But in the consumer market, where you are tempting someone to buy something that they don't actually need, being cheap enough that it is not a big deal is very important.

Yes, I've seen a little evidence for that. I think the dollar is more important than fuel costs.
i think it's a combination of dollar, energy, and management/QC. I have heard of a few companies that have had so much trouble with QC that they gave it away for that reason alone. The more you are trying to improve/adapt your product, the harder it becomes. If you are just making drywall screws, they will be the same in two decades as they are now, so it's worth the investment. but for prototyping machine parts, different story. Also, the affordability of CNC milling machines is such that everyone in the world is using virtually the same equipment. So low volume CNC part costs little more to make in Michigan than what it does in Guangzhou - but a die cast part is a different story.

An analogy I heard is that of restaurants - good restaurants do more/most (though not all ) of the prep themselves,and are doing specialist meals in lower volumes. A McDonalds brings in everything pre-prepped (patties pressed, lettuce shredded, fries cut and pre-cooked, etc). The 5 to one rule still applies here. Someone may be happy to take someone else out for a $30 per head lunch on the company card, but for themselves and their wife/kids, it will be a $6 lunch at a McDonalds or (hopefully) a sandwich shop.

The problem is, not everyone can be management, and the medium paying non-management jobs are dissappearing. There are still some high paying blue collar jobs - the welders, indiustrial gasfitters etc, but they are fewer in number. So there are less people with discretionary income to spend, and discretionary spending has been the icing on the US economic cake for the last decade. There will simply be less of it going forward - which will actually mean less sales of cheap Chinese consumer goods, though it may be trouble for the remaining domestic makers of (durable) consumer goods.

That all seems to make sense, and is great info.

And yet...I'd love to see some numbers....

BLS stats say that overall US manufacturing is still 50% larger than 30 years ago - I'd love to see how that breaks down. Maybe I have to mine BLS data...

China is already starting to import massive quantities of coal, and that is already driving prices up.

China is already the world's second-largest coal importer, but it is the world's largest coal producer by a very large margin (nearly three times the production of the second largest, the good old U.S. of A.).

Australia and Indonesia are the two largest coal exporters (again by a large margin: Australia substantially more than twice, and Indonesia almost exactly twice as much as the third place exporter, Russia). But the combined total production of Australia and Indonesia amounts to only about 20% of China's consumption of coal. Between 2007 and 2009 China's consumption of coal increased by about 7%. That's over one third of Australia's total production. Australia cannot substantially increase its current coal production. The coal is there, but the workers are not, the capital is not, and I doubt if there is political support for a significant increase in coal production. Indonesia probably has a shortage of capital too. I don't know about workers or politics there.

The published evidence suggests China is close to peak coal production (that's why it is becoming a major importer), and unless Chinese coal usage drops the amounts available for other importers will drop. Japan is currently the second largest coal importer, but I can't see the Japanese winning in a bidding war for coal against China.

In India, the world's third largest producer, the coal ministry projects a coal supply shortfall of up to 142mmt in FY12. That is roughly half of Indonesia's 2009 exports.

Peak coal, anyone?

I'm not buying the peak coal argument. There is an awful lot of coal in the world, in various countries, and if the price is right it will move to China. The real question is, "How much are the Chinese willing to pay?"

How much does it cost to move a ton of coal from the US to China?

The US has enough coal for 30 years even with a factor of two increase in use over that period. But with exports to China when will we run out? Kinda export land model in reverse. Maybe we should think of coal as a strategic reserve and not export any.

Alaska probably has between 2T and 5T tons of coal.

I hope we don't use it, but we're not going to run out of coal.

OTOH, I suspect China could easily run into peak coal production problems. Just because the coal is there doesn't mean it can be extracted and transported quickly enough - both western China and Australia are having serious problems with the infrastructure to move coal.

I wonder whether the application of robotics wouldn't make additional deposits of coal economic?

Temperature, noxious gases, flooding, low clearances, etc., wouldn't necessarily be a problem for the robots. And if they are cut off by a collapse in the mine, they can just power down until the rescue robots arrive.

Some mining operations already use tele-operated mining robots. They are run from three control centers located around the planet so that the operators are always working on first shift.

Sadly the Chinese have figured out how to do it withou going to expensive robotics. Last time I saw the stats they were killing an average of 15 miners a week. Just one of the advantages of having excess population I suppose.

Nick what units are you using? 2T? 2 trillion tons of coal?

No, he didn't say trillion when he mean billion. The USGS estimates that Alaska has about 5 trillion tonnes of coal, which is more than the 4 trillion tonnes it estimates the lower 48 states have. Not only that, but most of Alaska's resources are extremely low sulfur coal.

I know about some other areas which also have unbelievably large coal resources that nobody except a few geologists know about, so I'm not too concerned about the world running out of coal - as long as people are willing to pay enough money for it.

It is not reserves that matter but flow rate.

The flow rate depends on the number of power shovels and dump trucks you have. Or, in China, the number of guys with pickaxes and buckets.

You only need to see the skyline of Tianjan (fourth largest city in China, 13 million+) to know that the "pickaxes and buckets" remark is outdated. Everywhere you look, large (huge) construction cranes building an incredible forest of skyscrapers that would look at home in the downtown of any modern city. Better revise your notions of China as a competitor fairly soon....

Actually, I have been in China and seen the myriad construction cranes. Yes, I know that they are not as manual labor oriented in the past - however, I found it interesting that they use bamboo scafolding to construct skyscrapers.

But I'm in Canada, not the US, and we view them more as a customer than a competitor. We have a lot of the natural resources that they need, including quite large amounts of coal.

The "pickaxes and buckets" are in no way mutually exclusive with "huge construction cranes". China is still in a strange transitional state...

I'm less worried about the mining bottleneck, and more worried about the rail, port and water shipping bottlenecks.

Solar and Wind are not renewable. The energy from solar and from wind is of course renewable but the devices used to capture the energy of the sun and wind is not renewable. Nor are they green or sustainable.

An oak tree is renewable. A horse is renewable. They reproduce themselves. The human-made equipment used to capture solar energy or wind energy is not renewable. There is considerable fossil fuel energy embedded in this equipment. The many components used in devices to capture solar energy, wind energy, tidal energy and biomass energy – aluminum, glass, copper, rare metals, petroleum in many forms to name a few – are fossil fuel dependent.

Wind used by sailing ships and old style “dutch” wind machines is renewable and sustainable.
From: Energy in the Real World with pictures of proof.

There is considerable fossil fuel energy embedded in this equipment.

There's not much energy embedded, really - for wind it's about 6 months output. And, it's mostly electricity, which can easily come from wind or nuclear.

The many components used in devices to capture solar energy, wind energy, tidal energy and biomass energy – aluminum, glass, copper, rare metals, petroleum in many forms to name a few – are fossil fuel dependent.

Nah. Their production does use some FF at the moment, but that's hardly essential.

One traditional way to produce aluminum is with hydro power.

Yes EROEI is critical. If it is 1.0 or less then you are correct it is not sustainable. If it is 3.0 or higher than it is sustainable. No need to argue about the exact cutoff between 1.0 and 3.0

My understanding is that wind has a EROEI of greater than 3.0 Solar PV may not be above 3.0 There seems to be great debate on exactly what EROEI solar PV has.

My understanding is that a well built solar panel is essentially a "rock that generates electricity". I'm sure output from many panels has decayed significantly over the years but one does hear stories of the occasional "panel that won't die" generating to spec after 20 or even 30 years.

If we can figure out how to reliably build panels like this then the EROEI is sure to be well above 1.0.

I have three of these, which have been in continuous use since shortly after their manufacture date (October, 1994).


I test the output of my panels every few years. As of last fall, all three are still producing more than their 75 watt rating. I'm sure that they paid back their embedded energy long ago. I have 35 PV panels, Siemens, BP, Kyocera, all with full time jobs, and have yet to have a single failure. Not included in this count are two small panels on my solar fence chargers, both have nearly 20 years of almost continuous use, both functioning as designed, even after multiple lightning strikes requiring repairs on the chargers that they power.

Those who would question the reliability, longevity or energy payback of PV clearly haven't lived with PV.

My understanding is that wind has a EROEI of greater than 3.0 Solar PV may not be above 3.0 There seems to be great debate on exactly what EROEI solar PV has.

It's not that big a mystery. Once you understand money represents energy, as of 2008, average EROI for the US economy is about 10 (i.e., about $1.4 trillion going for energy in a $14 trillion economy).

With some qualifications, you can use $$ to figure EROI. Then you can calculate the average cost per kwh for all energy forms, which turns out to be around 14 cents (this depends on the heat rate you use).

So, roughly speaking, if you can produce electricity at 14 cents per kwh, your EROI is about 10. It is not too hard to build a PV system that will produce kwh for less than 28 cents (ignoring obvious subsidies like tax credits and rebates), which would be EROI 5.

I think a detailed EROI analysis would show that car batteries charged with PV is already cheaper fuel than gasoline. The reason we're not going more rapidly in this direction is infrastructure cost to get there.

Interesting post. It's very interesting that your method comes up with an EROEI of 5 for PV, since a lot of other methods have come up with numbers that seem to average around there, ranging from 1.5 to 8 or so. Still...

With some qualifications, you can use $$ to figure EROI

I'd say there are many qualifications. Money doesn't represent energy. Money represents social power. If money represented energy then you could pay corn to be your food. Instead, you pay another human to give you corn because you don't have it, and that represents a transfer of social power.

I always feel the need point this out when people use the 'price-as-proxy' theory of EROEI. It's fine as a 'reality check' but I don't think it can be considered precise.

I agree.

I think money would turn out to be terribly imprecise as a proxy for energy.

Too many factors push prices around, and the residual effect of extremely cheap FF's have made many processes look advantageous because their embodied energy may have been price discounted far beyond even their actual quantity. Look at how many truckers have skewed their numbers to try to avoid charging for fuel price changes, in order not to lose customers..


Great summary. Thanks for doing a great job at summing up each point in a clear, and short fashion.


You're welcome and thank you for the kind words. It makes the effort of putting together a post worth while.


Your post (including links and replies to comments) is very useful.


The thing to remember about biomass is that it is baseload as opposed to intermittent wind and solar sources. This means that generators fed by biomass or biogas from animal waste digestors can operate when wholesale prices are high thus earning a higher rate of return on investment.

Until grid connected solar generation gets to a fairly high percentage, it already generates at the perfect time to help peaks, no storage needed. Beyond that, solar-thermal generation with thermal storage is far more sensible than bio-mass unless the available bio-mass is free, pre-dried and already highly concentrated (e.g. sawmill waste).

let's put your extract back into the context it was written, and see if that changes anything;

In northern Europe biomass is more in the forefront. The thing to remember about biomass is that it is baseload as opposed to intermittent wind and solar sources. This means that generators fed by biomass or biogas from animal waste digestors can operate when wholesale prices are high thus earning a higher rate of return on investment.

There is not a lot of reliable winter sun in Scandinavia, so I would really question whether solar thermal is more sensible than storable biomass for things like winter CHP. The forests grow at predictable rates, and the handling and storage of wood fuel is well organised there (Sweden). Biomass CHP plants have almost completely displaced the use of heating oil (something yet to happen in eastern Can/US).

I am yet to hear of a single commercial CSP plant in Sweden, or even Canada, or anywhere that there is a significant winter heating load. However, all these temperate places are great for growing forests. Wood, after all, is concentrated, stored, solar energy, just without the high tech.

Solar thermal is a better solution for meeting summer loads in hot climates - which are also not so great for growing forests.

[Several sources] The Swedish energy end use in 2007 (numbers for 2007 are used since general statistics for 2008 are not yet available) was 404 TWh. ... [Link provided] Data are uncertain, but studies indicate that 25-30% of the biomass supply to the district heating systems in 1997 was based on imported fuels [4]

It appears that a) Sweden does an excellent job of incentivising bio-fuel use through selective taxes. b) Sweden has a happy history of using central district heating plants for domestic heating needs. c) Cheap natural gas appears to not be in any way a competitor for the Swedish energy market.

I might suggest that, as an alternative to importing biomass for burning, Sweden might do well to build perhaps 10 GW of continuous solar thermal generation with thermal storage in Tunisia or Algeria or Morocco, and push the power into the bottom of the EU grid, likely enabling the extraction of a comparable amount from the top of the grid. Perhaps also some grid reinforcing on the continent... ?

In N. America, with a Natural Gas infrastructure which delivers to every home and business and much greater distances from forests to customers, we'd be wiser to devise bio-mass gassification plants and pipe the resulting gas out to customers.

Sweden has indeed done an unprecedented job of incentivising biomass and discouraging oil use. They correctly identified that, if needed, it is better to import biomass from Canada than oil from the ME or gas from Russia.

Now, much of this bioenergy is created and used at sawmills/pulp mills, but there is still a good portion used for electricity and heating.
They were also fortunate to have lots of CHP plants that could be easily converted from oil to biomass, and that is what they have done.

It seems that pellets are the only biomass they import, and that is about 400,000t of the 2mt they use each year - you can see all the stats here;

I should add that the 2m tons of pellets is a gross energy of 11TWh, so you can see how much bioenergy is not pellets, and just how small the pellet imports are - most of the larger plants (>2MW) burn chips directly - much cheaper.

As for the solar project, c'mon, lets be practical here. That would be the world';s largest solar thermal project to date, in an unstable part of the world (where one of those countries just had a revolution), would require a cross Med sea link that does not exist, and then to wheel the power through no less than four intermediate countries, all to supply energy to a country with a population just larger than BC. That sure is a lot of work, and risk, and creating a lot of jobs outside your own economy, and becoming more dependent on energy imports, not less. Why on earth would the Swedish government choose that instead of doing bioenergy at home?

All the governments want to create the energy, and jobs at home. Look at what Ontario has done - the world's largest solar pv plant in Sarnia - would have been more productive to build it in the Nevada desert, and wheel the power back, but what are the chances of them doing that? Germany should have put all its panels on roof tops in Spain, and wheel the power back, but how reliable/secure would that energy supply be? Everyone wants the made at home solution.

I think Sweden has done very well to try and solve their own energy issues - doing a scheme like that in the north african desert has many risk factors involved. Far easier just to import pellets made from BC beetle killed wood - we won;t be running out of that anytime soon!


That's not to say that CSP in N Africa wouldn't be a great idea. Heck, N Africa could benefit enormously just for their own internal consumption. That would help it's direct neighbors (and the world) by freeing up resources for other's use.

A modest level of exports (as the French do with their electrical exports) would be very, very welcome.

I think CSP in Africa is a great idea, but if I was the Swedish government I would not be betting the winter heat for my country on it!

It is up to the North African countries to start that process, there is clearly a market for the product, and the Euro countries will be happy to burn less Russian gas.

I should correct myself in my previius post - there IS a link from Spain to Morocco, and currently Mortocco is an importer from Spain! Though they hop to change this;

So, I wish the African countries well - it could be a great export industry for them.

CSP clearly has great potential, but the high cost must be brought down before it will be widely implemented. I don;t quite understand why the CSP developers are obsessed with storage, when it is not needed. What is needed is to get kWh out the door, as cheap as possible. Currently, PV has them beat, and is still getting cheaper.

Better for Sweden to import hydroelectric power from Norway or nuclear power from Finland instead of PV power from Africa.

And why do any of these exclude any others?

Price and Availability will rule the day, and Nuclear (And Hydro) are going to have a tough time expanding much in the coming years.

Jon, was there any mention at all here about natural gas for transportation?

This seems like an area that is ripe for some more innovation, though any players are betting on a government assisted rollout of refueling stations. Still seems alike a better bet than hydrogen though.

Fuel cell capital expense is still a major barrier. 85MW worldwide is nothing. I am glad another niche market is opening for them. I suspect Wal-Mart's numbers are after tax incentives and rebates, however.

Batteries are not within 10 years of being competitve for grid storage unless they exist for other reasons (cars?).

Animal waste is actually generally better quality fertilizer AFTER being digested to remove biogas. This is not a tradeoff. CAFO's should be required to install digesters for air and water quality reasons as well as energy.

Biogas (methane) and biodiesel from photosynthetic algae would be a magic bullet for carbon emissions if it could be implemented feasibly and cost-effectively.

Wind's major problem is market structure. Right now our incentive models are rewarding bankers and manufacturers and have to have enough gravy in them to drive developers, who will then be allowed to charge market rates for subsidized sunk capital for the life of the equipment. Price is well above cost. Direct federal investment in wind, ala hydro, is the right model for this resource IMO. Right now, consumers and taxpayers are losing. Wind also faces major challenges to its next great leap forward, since turbine size growth is constrained by construction and transportation.

Solar PV costs are dropping. While mfg costs are/will continue to drop, installation costs now need to become more cost-competitive. Tiny residential DG is not the socially cost-effective way of doing this. Wasting open land, and driving transmission demand isn't, either. Warehouse/retail roofs allow big enough projects (megawatt scale) for efficiency of scale in installation, while allowing installation in load dominated areas and eliminating most distribution and transmission upgrade needs. The industry has not yet been driven by installation cost-efficiency yet, and most installation companies tend to be clowns (I strongly support DG PV, my father's electrical contracting company has done 4 installs, and I have reviewed 100's of applications as a utility engineering supervisor).

I commented on smart grid and CVR above. Greater demand side efficiency and demand response, as well as smart grid initiatives have major long-term protential, but most current smart grid hype is just that.

Ben, thanks for your comments, good to get the view from the electrical engineer!

I particularly like your comment about smart meters and regulated utilities. It is a perverse structure they operate under, where having employees do something is regarded as a parasitic cost, but replacing them with equipment allows them to make a ROI on the capital investment! It is the same in the regulated water utilities too.

With wind (or even solar) , I have always though what might be good incentive structure would be to allow the developer to write off 100% of the capital cost in the first year, instead of depreciating over a decade or whatever the rate is for wind turbines. This offsets the high initial cost. and the gov will get it back through taxes on production/profits over the 30 yr life, and this doesn't require actually paying out subsidies etc to the developers.

What is the utilities position on the customer side DG these days, be it PV, AD, small hydro, or even NG engines/CHP? I would agree there are many opportunities to relieve T or (more likely) D constraints, but the utilities have hardly been champions of DG projects.

Interesting also your take on the smart grid hype - it seems to be a slick pr effort to justify lots of equipment that someone in the utility can analyse data from- if they don;t have enough people doing that already! Again, for the regulated ones, more capital = more ROI, so that is no surprise they are all over it, even though there is no clear definition of what a "smart" grid actually is, and what will be really different on the grid (not customer) side compared to today. Would it make any difference in the way you operate?




I also wanted to express my thanks for your comments. Your perspective as a utility insider is invaluable.

And I love the idea of mandating digesters at CAFOs. Getting enviros and neighbors on board should be a piece of cake. And with the right incentives, getting the CAFO owners on board should be possible. Where applicable, utilities would be able to use this generation to help meet their renewable portfolio standards.

It sounds like a political win-win-win.


Wind's major problem is market structure. Right now our incentive models are rewarding bankers and manufacturers and have to have enough gravy in them to drive developers, who will then be allowed to charge market rates for subsidized sunk capital for the life of the equipment. Price is well above cost.

Could you expand on that? Do you feel investors are getting an excessively sweet deal, while consumers are getting charged too much?

turbine size growth is constrained by construction and transportation.

So you feel that the industry is going to have a hard time getting above, say, 5MW turbines? I'm told that several turbine technology developers are developing prototypes of 10 MW capacity, and American Superconductor claims their design will easily scale to 20 MW: