Archive for December 29th, 2010

Little Yeastie Beastie Looms Large in New Biofuel Market

researchers develop new biofuel yeast that can consume two kinds of sugar at onceHeaded up by the University of Illinois, a research team has developed a new strain of yeast that can feast on two very different types of plant sugar at the same time. The new breakthrough could lead to far more cost-effective operations for producing biofuel from woody non-food crops. The result would be cheaper biofuels that could compete head to head with conventional petroleum products on the market, and that would be, er…somewhat ironic, given that the research is supported by The Energy Biosciences Institute, which is funded by the oil company BP. Small world, eh?

The Small World of Biofuels

The Energy Biosciences Institute was kickstarted by BP to the tune of a $500 million, ten-year grant. It includes more than 300 faculty and researchers from the University of Illinois, UC Berkeley and the adjacent Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, a 320-acre “Energy Farm” in Illinois and the new Helios Building in Berkeley. EBI predates the Gulf oil spill by about three years but if the name rings a bell with you, it could be in connection with that widely-reported study of the natural degradation of the Gulf oil plume by scientists from Lawrence Berkeley.

Two Yeasts for the Price of One

Now, about that yeast breakthrough. In conventional biofuel production, plant sugars are broken down into ethanol by pretty much the same yeast that’s been around for hundreds of years in bakeries and breweries. This yeast is great at consuming sugar in the “soft” form of glucose. However, it stinks at consuming sugar in the “hard” form of xylose, which comes from leaves and other woody parts of a plant. The researchers, including a team from Seoul National University, managed to tweak the yeast into converting xylose 20 times more efficiently, while at the same time it’s still hard at work converting a precursor of glucose called cellobiose.

The Crowded World of Biofuels

The new yeast makes it possible to eliminate costly processing steps, and combine two different fermentations into one. It’s an important boost for lowering the cost of woody biofuels, which are facing stiff competition from other nonfood sources, including seaweed, microalgae, the bacteria E. coli, and even sewage.

Image: Yeast by Treehouse 1977 on

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Scotland on Track to Meet the ‘World’s Most Ambitious’ Renewable Energy Targets

According to a recently released report, Scotland is on track to meet its ambitious renewable energy goal of generating 80 percent of its electricity from renewable energy sources by 2020. In the report, Energy Trends, it was revealed that 27 percent of the electricity in 2009 was generated using renewable energy sources. The Scottish government has projected that share of renewable energy sources in power generation would increase to 31 percent in 2011.

Scotland’s renewable energy targets are the most ambitious in the world. While the renewable energy targets set by the European Union is 20 percent by 2020, Scotland has a target of generating 80 percent of its electricity from renewable energy sources by 2020. It also aims at generating all of its electricity from green energy sources by 2025.

Scotland has also announced aggressive carbon emission reduction targets. While the EU continued the deliberations of extending it emission reduction targets from 20 percent to 30 percent by 2020, the Scottish government announced a goal of cutting its carbon emissions’ output by 42 percent by 2020.

The increasing contribution of renewable energy sources in power generation in Scotland can be attributed to the vast resources it is gifted with and to the Scottish government’s support for innovative ideas in cleantech and pro-clean energy policies. The total estimated wind energy resources are about 25 GW and the Scottish government has unveiled several polices to ensure sustained growth of green energy infrastructure.

Among the most notable projects were the installation of floating lily-shaped solar panels in the Clyde river and the subsidies offered to commuters who return used cooking oils for conversion to biofuels to be used in city buses. The Scottish government has been offering subsidies to home and business owners to install rooftop solar panels and wind turbines.

The future for a green Scotland looks highly promising. A study conducted by an independent engineering consultant presented various future scenarios for the Scottish energy sector. The most optimistic scenario among those possibilities predicted that by 2030 Scotland would be able to generate 143 percent of its electricity. This would enable Scotland to export power to England and even mainland Europe. The least optimistic or ‘business as usual’ scenario would see Scotland get 50 percent of its power from renewable energy sources by 2020 which would further increase to 75 to 80 percent by 2030.

Experts believe that such ambitious goals would require massive infusion of capital. At least some help seems to be coming Scotland’s way. The David Cameron government released long stuck funds for building large-scale renewable energy power plants in Scotland. The funds worth £200 million which were released in May 2010 were blocked by the preceding Labor government.

Hopefully, the Scottish plans would inspire other countries as well, especially the European Union, to invest in developing renewable energy resources into long-lasting and sustainable infrastructure which would help economies to expand and nations to prosper.

Image: United Nations Photo at Flickr/ CC

Follow Mridul Chadha at Twitter and Facebook

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Buffett’s MidAmerican Orders 258 Siemens Wind Turbines
12/29/2010 – MidAmerican
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My Top 10 Energy Related Stories of 2010

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Here are my choices for the Top 10 energy related stories of 2010. I can’t remember having such a difficult time squeezing this list down to 10 stories, because there were many important energy stories for 2010. It was hard to cut some of them from the Top 10; so hard that I almost did a Top 15. But I made some difficult choices, and offer my views on the 10 most important energy stories of 2010. Previously I listed a link to Platt’s survey of the Top 10 oil stories of 2010, but my list covers more than just oil.

Reviewing my list of Top 10 Energy Related Stories of 2009, I see that I made three predictions. Those predictions were:

  • China’s moves are going to continue to make waves
  • There will be more delays (and excuses) from those attempting to produce fuel from algae and cellulose
  • There will be little relief from oil prices.

Given that total energy demand from China surpassed that of the U.S. in 2010 (five years earlier than expected), the EPA twice rolled back cellulosic ethanol mandates (and there are still no functioning commercial plants), and we are closing the year with oil above $90 per barrel, I would say I nailed all of those.

For this year’s list, don’t get too hung up on the relative rankings. They are mostly subjective, but I think we would have fairly broad agreement on the top story.

1. Deepwater Horizon Accident

On April 20, 2010 the BP-owned Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded, killing 11 men working on the rig and injuring 17 others. Because of the depth of the rig, there was no easy way to cap it and it gushed oil until it was finally capped three months later on July 15th. In the interim, the leak released almost 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, making it the largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry. In fact, not only was this my top energy story of the year, according to a poll of AP writers and editors it was the top news story period.

2. The Deepwater Horizon Fallout

While the accident itself was the biggest story, there was much fallout from the incident that will continue to be felt for years. Just three weeks before the incident, President Obama had proposed to open up vast new areas off the Atlantic coast, the eastern Gulf of Mexico, and the north coast of Alaska. Governor Schwarzeneggar was pushing for offshore oil drilling near Santa Barbara County. There was a great deal of momentum that promised to greatly expand the areas available for offshore production. In the wake of the disaster, the debate shifted sharply. President Obama canceled a planned August offshore drilling lease sale in the Western Gulf and off the coast of Virginia, citing that his “eyes had been opened” to the risks of offshore drilling. The administration also put a temporary deepwater drilling ban in place until additional safety reviews could take place. Governor Schwarzeneggar dropped his plans, citing the spill as evidence that offshore drilling still poses too great a risk.

But there were far-reaching impacts in other areas. BP began to sell off assets, raising $10 billion to pay claims of those impacted by the spill. BP CEO Tony Hayward — after a series of gaffes — stepped down from the helm of BP. Around the area affected by the spill, people lost jobs, particularly in the fishing and tourism industries. The long-term environmental impact remains uncertain, with some groups claiming the area has recovered, and others stating that it will be years before the full environmental impact can be determined.

3. China Becomes World’s Top Energy Consumer

For more than a century, the United States has been the world’s top consumer of energy. In 2010, China surpassed the U.S. in total energy consumption. If not for the Deepwater Horizon accident, this would have easily been my #1 story. As I said last year, I believe that China will be the single-biggest driver of oil prices over at least the next 5-10 years.

4. Matt Simmons Dies

On October 8th, I came into my office to the shocking news that Matt Simmons, Peak Oil guru and author of the book Twilight in the Desert, had died. Matt was an important voice on the topic of peak oil, preaching about the dangers of peak oil everywhere he went. I discussed the impact that Matt’s book had on me here. Were it not for his tragic passing, the energy world would now be discussing the results of the famous Simmons-Tierney bet, which would have been settled following the last day of 2010. Tierney just discussed the results of the bet in a New York Times column: Economic Optimism? Yes, I’ll Take That Bet.

5. Oil Prices Back Above $90

One of my predictions for this year was that there would be little relief from oil prices, and that this would make economic recovery from the recession very difficult. Indeed, oil prices traded for most of the year in the $75-$85 range, but by year end broke above $90.

6. Ethanol

Ethanol policy was in the news all year long. There was a long and contentious debate on extension of the ethanol tax credits and import tariffs, but the ethanol industry once more got what they wanted when their tax credits and protective tariffs were extended for another year. The EPA made a decision that E15 could be used in newer vehicles, but it isn’t expected to have much impact as few retailers seem willing to risk the legal exposure of someone putting E15 into the wrong car and damaging it. Cellulosic ethanol mandates were twice rolled back during the year when projected production fell far short of the mandate. The initial mandate called for 100 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol in 2010, but actual qualifying production year to date has been zero.

7. Electric Cars Start Rolling Off Assembly Lines

Electric cars were a hot news item throughout 2010. By year’s end, both the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf began to be delivered to customers. At $41,000 and $33,000 respectively, it will be interesting to see whether the market embraces these cars.

8. Russian Crude Output Climbs

Russian crude oil output continued its post-Soviet climb, eclipsing last year’s record production rate. Production for 2010 for crude oil plus condensate was just under 10 million barrels per day. Other countries that were in the news during the year for either increasing output or having very good prospects were Columbia, Iraq, and Uganda. At the other end of the spectrum was Venezuela, where mismanagement has continued to run their oil industry into the ground. While the Venezuelan government has denied the problems, the recent release of the Wikileaks diplomatic cables detailed their troubles.

9. Militaries Acknowledge Peak Oil Threat

There were two major military-related stories on peak oil in 2010. First, the US Joint Forces Command issued a report (story here) that warned of the potential for a 10 million barrel per day shortfall of oil by 2015. Then, in late summer a study on peak oil by a German military think tank was leaked on the Internet. I reported on the translated highlights, which included warnings of the potential for regional shortages, market failures, and a shift in political power toward those capable of exporting oil.

Part of the U.S. military’s response to the threat of Peak Oil has been to carry out a number of initiatives around biofuels and improved energy efficiency. In an interview with Tom Hicks, who is the Deputy Assistant Secretary to the Navy for Energy (Link to: Part I, Part II, Part III), he explained that the intent was that by 2012 the navy would put a carrier strike group in local operations entirely on alternative fuels and then in 2016 deploy that strike group on all alternative fuels. By 2020, the goal is that 50% of all of the Navy’s energy consumption will come from alternative sources.

10. The IEA Recognized Peak Oil

In their World Energy Outlook 2010, the International Energy Agency stated that it was possible that conventional oil “never regains its all-time peak of 70 million barrels per day reached in 2006.” However, they did not foresee this as a problem, as they believe natural gas, deep water drilling, and oil sands will avert a supply crunch.

Predictions for 2011

As for predictions for 2011′s top stories, I believe high oil prices will continue to put a strain on the economies of oil-importing nations. I expect that we will see oil prices once again head above $100 per barrel, although I expect the annual average for 2011 to be below $100 because of sluggish economies. I also expect that the bills are going to start coming due for some of the high profile ‘next generation’ biofuel producers, and that we will see bankruptcies from some of the companies I have discussed in this column. Some of them — probably most of them — do not have a sustainable business model, and the length of time they will be able to avoid bankruptcy is going to be solely dependent on how much cash they can manage to get infused into their operations.

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Maine Residents Get $6,000 to Store Wind as Slow Heating

A collaboration between a wind company and a thermal energy storage company will cut Maine heating bills in half and show the way to a national model for how renewable power can cut dependence on oil.

Oil heats 80% of all homes in Maine. To encourage Maine homeowners to reduce their high exposure to peak oil and climate-changing fossil fuel, the collaborative Highland Wind project proposed by local wind developer Independence Wind will offer any participating Maine household a $6,000 “wind for oil” grant to green the grid, according to Maine Public Broadcasting Network.

The money would fund the purchase of an Electric Thermal Storage (ETS) “off-peak heating” unit from the local thermal energy storage company Steffes, which is partnering with Independence Wind to store the off-peak electricity the wind farm will produce at night. However, participants could spend the grant money on any renewable energy or efficiency investment.

The Steffes ETS units are an ideal match with wind power storage. They use lower-cost off-peak electric power to heat dense ceramic bricks which are stored in a specially insulated cabinet.  This heat is then available for use throughout the 24 hour day for home heating. Space-age insulation keeps the exterior from heating above 160 degrees F, and enough is stored inside the units to provide 24 hours of gradual warmth on demand.  Both Central Maine Power and Bangor Hydro offer deeply discounted ETS rates for the delivery of this off-peak power.

In return for the storage, Highland Wind will supply wind electricity to Highland residents at a discounted cost which will be equivalent to about $1.15 per gallon of oil, well below the current $3.00 per gallon price in the area for heating oil. Their 39 turbines will produce approximately 325 million kilowatt hours of electricity per year, which is equal to the combined production of all the hydro dams on the main stem of the Penobscot River and represents the amount of electricity used by about 44,000 Maine households.

But what is a great wind power project without its haters? To appease the local clean energy hate group, the 48 turbine project was reduced by 25% by removing 9 turbines in closest proximity to the Appalachian Trail and the Bigelow Preserve, so that the remaining 39 turbines will be more than eight miles from any likely viewpoints. This makes the turbines appear less than a half inch tall as seen from viewpoints along the trail. They also reduced new access roads by more than 30%, and will be providing $750,000 for land conservation.

“We have been meeting with representatives of the Trail community for more than two years in connection with this project, and the removal of these particular turbines were always their first concern,” said Rob Gardiner, president of Independence Wind.

“We felt that this is the right compromise between the pressing need to build good projects which substitute renewable power for fossil fuels and the concerns of those who believed the original project would harm the recreational experience on the Trail and at Bigelow.”

“We’re really excited about this idea, ” said Angus King, a former Governor of Maine, and one of the principals of Independence Wind, a partner in the development of the project.”Maine is one of the most oil dependent states in the country and a huge portion of this oil is used to heat homes. We want to demonstrate here that we can replace that oil–not a drop of which comes from within Maine–with locally produced wind power which can be supplied at a long-term predictable price. This is better for the environment and is an insurance policy against the constant rise in oil prices.”

The local jobs aspect doesn’t look too bad either. The project is estimated to cost over $210 million, most of which will go directly into the Maine economy through engineering, environmental, construction, and related jobs. At the peak of construction, the project will bring over 300 jobs to the local region during the construction period. In addition, every year, the project will pay more than $500,000 in state, local, and county taxes.

The green jobs have already begun, according to Patrick Graham, Director of Renewable Energy Services at the engineering firm James Sewall.

He says that at least six Maine companies have been involved in the development of the Highland Wind permit applications, including numerous environmental scientists, engineers, soil scientists and other professionals. “At Sewall, projects like Highland Wind help support teams of engineers, project managers and technicians for up to two years at a time” he said.

This is the second project to pair off-peak night time wind power and Steffes ETS units to store distributed off-peak electricity. The first was earlier this year.

Image: Deby Dixon

Related stories:
Is Distributed Thermal Storage Next?
100% Wind-Powered Island off Maine

Susan Kraemer@Twitter

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A few turbine installations in northeastern Wisconsin

RENEW’s executive director Michael Vickerman did more than attend the Packer’s victory over the New York Giants last Sunday. He also toured a few of the area’s turbine installations.Turbines in the 129 megawatt Forward Wind Project, near Brownsville, stand behind a Christmas-decorated home.

A rural cemetary frames the two tubrines of We Energies in the Town of Byron, just south of Fond du Lac.
The Menasha Corporation gets electricity from five Wisconsin-built turbines next to one of the company’s packaging facilities.

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Top 10 Technology Flops of 2010

Top 10 Technology Flops of 2010
It’s been a great year for technology innovations. Social networking has reached beyond the consumer sect into the business world, and the iPad changed the PC industry forever. Apple and Google continue to battle it out in the market and the courtroom, and Facebook wants to revolutionize messaging.
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Top 10 Technology Flops of 2010

Top 10 Technology Flops of 2010
It’s been a great year for technology innovations. Social networking has reached beyond the consumer sect into the business world, and the iPad changed the PC industry forever. Apple and Google continue to battle it out in the market and the courtroom, and Facebook wants to revolutionize messaging.
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REDCOM’s 2010 Year in Softswitch Review
REDCOM Laboratories, manufacturer of digital and IP-enabled telecommunications systems and softswitches, has a lot to be proud of looking back on its accomplishments in 2010.
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REDCOM’s 2010 Year in Softswitch Review
REDCOM Laboratories, manufacturer of digital and IP-enabled telecommunications systems and softswitches, has a lot to be proud of looking back on its accomplishments in 2010.
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Behind-the-scenes at Times Square 2011 and Live New Year’s Eve Event Coverage
Behind-the-scenes at Times Square 2011 and Live New Year’s Eve Event Coverage
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Amazon’s best Christmas seller: Third Generation Kindle
Internet retail giant, announced in a press release that the third-generation Kindle has surpassed “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Book 7)” in popularity. According to the company, on its peak day, Nov. 29, customers ordered more than 13.7 million items worldwide across all product categories. It came to precisely 158 items per second-a world record.
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Olympic filmmaker Bud Greenspan dies at 84 in NYC
The filmmaker, whose riveting tales soared as triumphantly as the men and women he chronicled for more than six decades, died Saturday at his home in New York City of complications from Parkinson’s disease, companion Nancy Beffa said. He was 84.
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Pope lunches with poor, denounces church attacks
Also joining the pope and his guests were 250 nuns, seminarians and priests of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity order, which runs soup kitchens around Rome.
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