Author Archives: Megan Geuss

Orkney Islands routes are front-runners for first commercial electric flights

By | October 18, 2018
Eight-seater two-engine propellor plane on a runway.

Enlarge / A Britten Norman Islander plane, similar to the kind used in the Orkney Islands to shuttle people short distances. (credit: Britten Norman)

Up in the remote northeast of Scotland, residents of the Orkney Islands use small island-hopping aircraft to commute around the archipelago. The longest flight in the area is 15 minutes, traveling 33 miles from the city of Kirkwall to the island of North Ronaldsay. The shortest flight takes an average of 80 seconds to travel 1.7 miles between the islands of Westray and Papa Westray. That flight holds the Guinness World Record as the shortest commercial flight route in the world.

Now, Scottish airline Loganair and aircraft modifier Cranfield Aerospace Solutions are working together in the hopes of turning the Orkney Islands’ 10 inter-island routes all-electric, perhaps even establishing the world’s first all-electric commercial flight routes.

Electric planes are still something of a pipe-dream for environmentalists and technologists. Jet fuel is extremely energy-dense compared to batteries, and flight requires a lot of energy at little additional weight. Electric flight startups are either developing hybrid battery/jet-fuel planes or banking on the continuous improvement of batteries to make their visions viable years down the road. While the most optimistic see the advent of lithium-air batteries and engine efficiency improvement as a path to commercial electric flight, others have focused on decarbonizing jet-fuel synthesis.

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New 100-mile electric van matches diesel vans on price, Workhorse says

By | October 17, 2018
Electric truck by Workhorse

Enlarge / Workhorse’s new truck starts initial production this week. (credit: Workhorse)

Electric-vehicle maker Workhorse announced today that it has begun initial production of a 100-mile range electric delivery truck called the NGEN-1000. The truck is meant to replace diesel-powered delivery trucks, but this vehicle weighs less than half of what a comparable internal combustion van usually weighs.

In a press release, Workhorse said that it “believes this weight reduction, coupled with the 100-mile range, will have cost-savings implications that will make the EV alternative to traditional fleet delivery vehicles all the more appealing.”

Workhorse CEO Stephen S. Burns added that the van would have “an off-the-lot cost on par with traditional fuel delivery vehicles, and substantial savings from there.”

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Tesla buys 210-acre site for factory in Shanghai

By | October 17, 2018
A Tesla charging station in Beijing

Enlarge / A Tesla car is charging at a Tesla electric vehicle charging station in front of Baolong building on July 15, 2018 in Beijing, China. (credit: Photo by VCG / Getty Images)

On Wednesday, Tesla announced that it had purchased a 210-acre site in Shanghai, China, where it will begin building a second battery and auto factory.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Robin Ren, Tesla’s vice president of worldwide sales, attended a signing ceremony in Shanghai today, stating, “Securing this site in Shanghai, Tesla’s first Gigafactory outside of the United States, is an important milestone for what will be our next advanced, sustainably developed manufacturing site.”

A Shanghai government website tracking major land purchases in the city detailed a purchase in the eastern Lingang district for about $140 million, which likely reflects Tesla’s latest acquisition.

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Trump’s coal rescue is getting more complicated

By | October 16, 2018
Uncovered coal trains

Enlarge / An eastbound Norfolk Southern Corp. unit coal train passes through Waddy, Kentucky. (credit: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

According to four people who spoke to Politico on conditions of anonymity, the Trump administration’s plan to bail out coal and nuclear plants has hit a speed bump within the White House itself.

The most recent plan from the Department of Energy (DOE) involved invoking the Defense Production Act of 1950, a wartime rule that allows the president to incentivize and prioritize purchases from American industries that are considered vital to national security.

Another potential plan involved invoking Section 202(c) of the Federal Power Act to mandate that struggling coal and nuclear plants stay open either through compulsory purchases by grid managers or through subsidies. FirstEnergy, a power corporation whose coal and nuclear units are under Chapter 11 bankruptcy, petitioned the DOE to use this power in April.

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New Jersey wants to know why Florida is exempt from Trump’s offshore drilling plans

By | October 14, 2018
An offshore oil rig

Enlarge / Oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico. There are nearly 5,000 functioning oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico and 27,000 abandoned wells. (credit: Dave Walsh/VW Pics/UIG via Getty Images)

This week, New Jersey’s attorney general sued the US Department of the Interior (DOI) for failing to comply with a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request seeking more information about why the DOI exempted Florida from offshore oil drilling lease auctions but not any other state.

The drama started earlier this year when Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke moved to open more than 90 percent of federal offshore land to lease by oil and gas companies for oil drilling. State waters extend three miles offshore, at which point federal control over the waters and sea bed underneath it begin. This means that states don’t always have a lot of control over whether there’s an offshore oil drilling rig 3.1 miles offshore and beyond.

But some states contend that they should have more say in whether the federal government leases out its waters to offshore oil drilling because the states bear the economic brunt of any oil spills that happen. (The Deepwater Horizon rig, for example, was 41 miles off the coast of Louisiana.) For that reason, Democratic and Republican governors alike, from 10 of the states near newly opened federal waters, have opposed the Trump administration’s efforts to open up their offshore areas.

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Five graphics from Google show how carbon-intensive its data centers really are

By | October 11, 2018
Solar panels on Google rooftop

Enlarge / Solar panels sit on the roof of Google headquarters in Mountain View. (credit: Kimberly White/Corbis via Getty Images)

Google has long been a carbon-neutral company in a theoretical sense. That is, even when it’s physically impossible for Google’s data centers and offices to consume renewable energy, the company offsets that “dirty” energy with “clean” energy purchases at other times and locations.

The problem is, this does not make Google carbon-neutral in a practical sense, because the company still needs polluting energy sources to keep functioning. In a new report (PDF), Google has acknowledged this limitation and offered a few interesting graphics showing how much carbon-free energy its data centers actually consume.

The report is interesting not just because Google is the largest corporate buyer of renewable energy in the world but also because it shows Google is heading off criticism that has been lobbed at all kinds of corporate buyers of renewable energy, including major players like Facebook and Apple. That is, if you’re “offsetting” your carbon emissions by paying a wind farm owner for energy that’s created at 2am on land that’s 3,000 miles from your data center or factory, how much good have you really done?

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Australia doesn’t care to break its coal habit in the face of climate change

By | October 10, 2018
Article intro image

Enlarge / Coking coal. (credit: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Earlier this week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a dire warning about climate change: unless governments of the world coordinate to implement multiple long-term changes, we risk overshooting the 2°C warming scenario that countries strived to target in the Paris Agreement. This would lead to ecosystem damage, increasingly dramatic heat waves and previously-irregular weather patterns in different regions, and subsequent health impacts for humans.

Retiring coal-fired power plants is a significant action that could limit our race toward an unstable future. But Australia’s officials don’t quite care. According to The Guardian, the country’s deputy prime minister, Michael McCormack, said that Australia would “‘absolutely’ continue to use and exploit its coal reserves, despite the IPCC’s dire warnings the world has just 12 years to avoid climate-change catastrophe.”

McCormack also reportedly said that Australia would not change its coal policies “just because somebody might suggest that some sort of report is the way we need to follow and everything that we should do.”

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Why would Exxon donate $1 million to a carbon tax initiative?

By | October 9, 2018
Article intro image

Enlarge / MIDLAND, Tex. – JANUARY 20: A pumpjack sits on the outskirts of town at dawn in the Permian Basin oil field on January 21, 2016 in the oil town of Midland, Texas. (credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

On Wednesday, The Wall Street Journal reported that ExxonMobil had committed $1 million to a Republican-led carbon tax initiative called Americans for Carbon Dividends (AFCD). The story is a bit surprising on its face: it seems counterintuitive that an oil company would want to give money to an initiative that would tax its (considerable) carbon contribution. The other surprising factor is that some Republicans, who have traditionally resisted both climate policy and tax increases, are advocating for both.

But dig a little deeper and the story isn’t terribly surprising. For ExxonMobil’s part, the company has been fighting an image battle in recent years: it’s facing significant lawsuits alleging that its scientists knew about climate change for decades and actively misled investors about it through advertisements and other public denials. Consequently, Exxon has made choices in recent years to reflect a more “eco-conscious” oil company, pledging to reduce methane emissions by 15 percent by 2020, for example.

Furthermore, Exxon’s $1 million commitment is a drop in the company’s considerable bucket. The donation to AFCD is just 0.00027 percent of ExxonMobil’s $366 billion market capitalization, suggesting it isn’t reflective of any serious change of course for the company. Additionally, that donation will be split up into two payments of $500,000, so the burden is even less significant.

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European offshore wind giant buys US‘ most successful offshore wind company

By | October 8, 2018
Several offshore wind turbines.

Enlarge / Gode wind farm off the coast of Germany. (credit: Ørsted)

One of the biggest offshore wind developers in Europe, a Danish company called Ørsted, purchased US offshore wind developer Deepwater Wind on Monday. The move suggests confidence in an expanding US offshore wind industry.

There are more than 15 gigawatts (GW) of offshore wind in Europe, with more capacity being added every year.
But in the US, only one commercial offshore wind installation currently generates power: Deepwater Wind’s 30 megawatts (MW) pilot project off Block Island, Rhode Island. Still, the Atlantic Coast is seen as fertile ground for an expanding offshore wind industry, as the coastal area is near huge population centers with strong, reliable ocean breezes.

Consequently, contracts for bigger offshore wind installations off Massachusetts and New York have been signed in the previous year. But Ørsted had trouble landing some of these bigger contracts, according to The Wall Street Journal. Despite the Danish company’s experience, Deepwater Wind had more success wooing local governments and US-based utilities. With Ørsted’s purchase of Deepwater Wind, the European engineering firm hopes to take advantage of Deepwater’s ability to close US deals. The US company has a project off the coast of Long Island and a second project off the coast of Rhode Island in development.

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Are super-cheap solar fields in the Middle East just loss-leaders?

By | October 8, 2018
Solar panels in a row in the desert

Enlarge / An illustration of what will become the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park (Phase III). (credit: Acciona)

In recent years, massive solar projects proposed for the Middle East have grabbed headlines with extremely low prices. Developers have announced agreements to sell their solar energy for as low as 2.34¢ per kilowatt-hour (kWh)—lower than the US’ lowest prices and much lower than the average 6¢ per kilowatt-hour that the US lauded last September.

A team of researchers from Khalifa University of Science and Technology in Abu Dhabi, UAE, and the Arctic Renewable Energy Center in Tromsø, Norway, attempted to find out whether these prices were real, simply heavily subsidized by local governments, or loss-leaders for developers looking to make splashy headlines and secure more valuable contracts down the road.

What they learned was that the numbers posted in four of the most recent Middle East solar projects were likely real, with some reasonable help from favorable government policies. Still, the numbers seem real for the region; not all cost reductions are likely to transfer to other parts of the world.

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Energy Department proposes funding for Ohio’s first offshore wind project

By | October 6, 2018
Turbines in the distance at a beach.

Enlarge / A simulated image of turbines in the distance out on Lake Erie. They are very tiny and in the middle left section of the horizon. Notably, this simulation is used to show that the turbines will hardly be a blight on Ohio’s beach views. (credit: Lake Erie Energy Development Corporation)

An energy development group has been working for years to put together Ohio’s first offshore wind project. That might sound odd for a state so far from the sea, but the benefits of offshore wind (strong, consistent gusts and relative proximity to major population centers) translate to wind turbines that are placed in freshwater, too. Consequently, an area eight miles off Ohio’s Lake Erie coastline is slated to see six new 3.45 megawatt (MW) turbines as part of a 20.7MW pilot installation.

On Thursday, the Department of Energy (DOE) issued an Environmental Assessment stating that proceeding with the plan would not cause any “impact to the human environment.” In an additional finding published by the DOE this week, the department added that it did not believe that the offshore wind project would cause significant damage to migratory birds, either. Finally, the DOE proposed an unspecified amount of funding for the project, which will be the first freshwater offshore wind project in the US and one of the first offshore wind projects overall.

The DOE’s conclusions are good news for the Lake Erie Energy Development Corporation (LEEDCo) and Norwegian investor Fred Olsen Renewables (FOR), which will help develop the “Icebreaker” project, as the turbine installation has been called. Interestingly, the turbines will be secured to the lake using a “Mono Bucket” foundation, with a suction-based design that’s similar to what’s been used on offshore oil-drilling platforms in the North Sea. The design, LEEDCo says, uses “the best and lowest-cost technology for sites 25 meters and less.”

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Company that sucks CO2 from air announces a new methane-producing plant

By | October 4, 2018
Giant intake pipes for air capture

Enlarge / Air capture at Climeworks’ Troia, Italy, plant. (credit: Climeworks)

It’s been a banner week for hydrocarbons made from waste gases. Earlier this week, a company announced that it had delivered 4,000 gallons of jet fuel made from steel-plant waste gases to Virgin Atlantic. Now, Swiss company Climeworks has announced the opening of a new plant in Italy that will collect carbon dioxide (CO2) from ambient air and pair it with renewably-made hydrogen (H2) to make methane fuel that would add little or no COto the atmosphere.

The plant in Troia, Italy, was completed in July and went into operation this week as part of a research program funded by the European Union.

This will be Climeworks’ third carbon-capture plant. The first captured carbon out of ambient air using a filter of base amines that would bind with more acidic CO2. The captured carbon was sent to a greenhouse to speed plant growth. The second was based in Iceland at a geothermal plant that released some volcanic CO2. Climeworks’ small plant captures that carbon and injects it back into the ground, where mineral reactions help the CO2 bind with basalt, essentially storing the gas as a rock.

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It’s been 5 years since Elon Musk proposed a Hyperloop design

By | October 3, 2018
A new hyperloop capusle

Enlarge / Hyperloop Transportation Technologies’ new passenger capsule. (credit: Hyperloop Transportation Technologies)

In August 2013, SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk published a white paper detailing a “Hyperloop,” a super-fast passenger train that would overcome the usual friction by levitating above its track on air-bearings, in an enclosed low-pressure tube. In the five years since, advancements have been incremental—a few interesting engineering choices have been swamped by announcements of feasibility studies for routes between populated cities.

Back in 2013, Musk declined to start a Hyperloop company himself (although he has not hesitated to start companies since then, perhaps suggesting that the extra work load was not the limiting factor). Instead, he made his work open to any startups that might want to tackle the challenge, and started a contest series for engineering students to run their own test pods.

Two startups have since dominated the scene: Virgin Hyperloop One, which recently enjoyed a significant investment from Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, and Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT), which began as a collaboration among 800 engineers, designers, and other interested parties.

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Tonight a Virgin Atlantic 747 will fly on fuel made from industrial waste gas

By | October 2, 2018

PNNL

A little after 7pm ET tonight, a Virgin Atlantic 747 will take off from Orlando, Florida, bound for London’s Gatwick airport. This flight will be the first to use a blend of jet fuel and fuel made from industrial waste gas from a steel mill in China. This waste-gas fuel will displace some of the petroleum-based jet fuel that usually fills up a commercial jet’s tanks.

The company that makes the alternative fuel blend, LanzaTech, says third-party estimates show its fuels reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by more than 70 percent compared to burning the same amount of jet fuel.

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California amends rules to push vehicles toward hydrogen, electricity, biofuel

By | September 30, 2018
Electric car being charged

Enlarge / Detail of the plug of an electric car being charged (credit: Getty Images)

On Friday, California’s Air Resources Board (CARB) announced that it would tighten restrictions on transportation fuels in the state in the hopes of spurring adoption of electric, hydrogen, and biofuel-based cars, trucks, buses, and even planes.

Since 2011, CARB has had a Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) on the books that requires a 10 percent reduction in “carbon intensity” for all fuels sold in California by 2020. Carbon intensity for fuels takes into account lifecycle carbon emissions, including any emissions created processing oil into gasoline, processing feedstock into ethanol, or transporting a fuel from a refinery to the point of sale.

With CARB’s decision on Friday, the lifecycle emissions for transportation fuels needs to drop by 20 percent by 2030.

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International Energy Agency predicts wind will dominate Europe’s grid by 2027

By | September 28, 2018
A view of wind turbines from the coast

Enlarge / Scroby Sands offshore wind farm, Caister, Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, England. (credit: Photo by: Geography Photos/UIG via Getty Images)

This week, the executive director of the International Energy Agency (IEA) told the Global Wind Summit that wind energy was likely to become Europe’s dominant energy source by 2027 and that it would grow from there.

Today, roughly 25 percent of the European Union’s power currently comes from nuclear sources, with coal and gas each delivering a little above 20 percent. Wind constitutes 10 percent of the European Union’s energy mix.

But by 2027, IEA’s forecasts (PDF) put wind just beating all other electricity sources with a 23-percent share of the energy mix. “Other Renewables” like biomass plants contribute a little over 20 percent, gas adds 20 percent, nuclear contributes just a little below 20 percent, and coal declines to just over 10 percent. Solar energy contributes about six or seven percent in the IEA’s 2027 scenario.

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Dept. of Justice cracks down on another multimillion dollar biofuel fraudster

By | September 27, 2018
Samples of biodiesel in jars

Enlarge / Samples of biodiesel sit on a pump on March 22, 2013 in San Francisco, California. (credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

A company called NGL Crude Logistics reportedly generated and sold 36 million fraudulent renewable-energy credits by processing and re-processing the same barrels of biodiesel.

In a press release today, the Department of Justice said that it had reached a settlement with NGL over its fraudulent activity. NGL will be compelled to pay a $25 million fine and buy back $10 million in fraudulent credits.

Those credits are called Renewable Identification Numbers, or RINs. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires that fuel producers in the US either blend a certain amount of biofuel into their primary fossil-fuel-based product or, in certain cases, fuel producers can purchase RINs in lieu of that blending.

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Vote results: Construction will continue on Vogtle nuclear power plant

By | September 27, 2018
reactor under construction

Construction at the Vogtle nuclear power plant. (credit: Southern Company)

The four owners of the new additions to the Vogtle nuclear power plant in Georgia agreed on Thursday that construction on the two additional reactors can go forward. The agreement was made despite growing opposition among some local lawmakers and at least one community-owned utility.

The decision throws yet another lifeline to the US’ weak nuclear industry. After reactor maker Westinghouse went bankrupt last year, the futures of the reactor additions at Vogtle and its sister plant Summer in South Carolina were anything but certain. Indeed, construction on the Summer plant was abandoned due to dramatic cost overruns.

Vogtle has experienced the same dramatic cost overruns as Summer, but it survived due to political will from Georgia Public Service Commission, as well as the fact that the reactor build-out was slightly further along in its construction than Summer.

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Panasonic completing 3 new cell production lines at Tesla’s Gigafactory

By | September 26, 2018
A car has wheels, tires, and a frame, but nothing else. It's terrifying.

Enlarge / An automobile chassis sits on display inside a Tesla Motors Inc. store in Munich, Germany, on Monday, March 30, 2015. (credit: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

In a Tuesday interview with Bloomberg, the head of Panasonic’s Automotive Division said that the company was on track to complete an additional three battery-cell production lines at Tesla’s Nevada Gigafactory before the end of this year. That puts the expansion ahead of schedule for completion.

Panasonic is a joint owner of the Gigafactory. The company provides the “2170” battery cells that go into a Model 3 battery pack. Tesla packages those cells to complete the pack.

In the interview, Panasonic automotive executive Yoshio Ito told Bloomberg that “the bottleneck for Model 3 production has been our batteries.”

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A good announcement and a bad announcement for two nuclear-energy startups

By | September 26, 2018
A mock-up of a small modular reactor plant

Enlarge / Mockup of the NuScale energy plant slated for development outside of Idaho Falls, ID. (credit: NuScale Power)

The benefits of nuclear energy—dispatchable power with zero emissions (excluding emissions from uranium mining)—are desperately needed in a world facing climate change. The disadvantages of nuclear energy are also great. The old light-water reactors that serve America’s grid today create nuclear waste that’s politically impossible to dispose of. Nuclear plants with traditional reactors are also extremely expensive to build and difficult to permit.

For these reasons, many nuclear hopefuls have looked to advanced nuclear technology. Several startups have popped up, promising to make either the waste problem or the expense problem go away.

This week, two advanced nuclear-technology startups have announced major news, both good and bad for the future of advanced nuclear technology.

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