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EARTH: The Sequel
The Race to Reinvent Energy and Stop Global Warming

by Fred Krupp and Miriam Horn (WW Norton 2008)


Thank you for sending me a copy of Earth: the Sequel. It is a good read. Fred Krupp is obviously thoughtful and well intended. Most amazingly, his thinking almost convinces me that a tradeable carbon cap may be a reasonable way to go. I say almost because I still think that we must free ourselves from burning hydrocarbons altogether. Krupp hedges around this reality, but it is clear that he understands that we desperately need non-carbon alternatives. I have clipped the following points out of Earth: the Sequel because they support my long held assertion that a non- liquid means to catch-and-release energy must be found: I submit that my proposal to utilize the proven potential of certain metallurgical phenomena has less downside than any of the carbon-based scenarios considered by Krupp.

In order to compete, such a catch-and-release energy system would need to achieve the energy density of liquid hydrocarbons. And it would need to accomplish the regenerative yield of a typical gasoline engine. Were such an energy catch-and-release system to allow off-the-grid power generation, then wind, solar and geo-thermal power generation in remote areas could provide vast resources.

I have clever friends in mind to help breathe life into this inorganic idea. I just need to figure out how to get them paid. Let me know if you run in someone eager to provide the five million dollars it would take to bring such an idea to life. I will demo my little car for them.

Charles Wehrenberg

Earth: the Sequel
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Incumbent companies control pipelines and transmission grids; the high cost of upgrading and connecting to the grid can strangle a start-up renewable energy plant.... Most important, policymakers are only just beginning to confront the huge hidden subsidy for fossil fuels: that no financial account is taken of the use of the atmosphere as a dumping ground for the pollutants that cause global warming.

“Distributed energy” erases the strategic advantage of big energy companies, says Andrew Beebe, president of Energy Innovations. “With solar, they can’t control the resource. That’s a real shift in power.”

– that is, if only 10% of that solar energy were converted to electricity – a square of land 100 miles on a side could produce enough electricity to power the entire United States.

Until such technologies are greatly improved, however, storage will remain a major impediment to widespread use of solar energy.

Though solar power is generally judged on the basis of whether it can beat the retail price of coal-generated electricity, the comparison misses the key point. The greatest value of solar power is that it is most productive when the weather is sunny and hot – precisely when consumer demand forces a utility to operate at full throttle.

Given all that, almost everyone in the industry agrees that when the price for peak watt falls to $1 and the storage problem is solved, solar-generated electricity will compete with coal-fired electricity virtually everywhere.

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Right now, Innovalight’s prototypes look like old-fashioned rolls of Kodak film, but by the end of 2009 the company aims to produce each year enough flexible solar material to generate 100 megawatts at the unimaginably cheap price of 30 cents a watt. In the space of five months in 2007, it pushed efficiencies from 2 percent to more than 9 percent....

The real magic comes from coupling the concentrators with the world’s highest efficiency solar cells. The cells don’t come from Silicon Valley, but from a big, old company, Boeing subsidiary Spectrolab, which for two decades has made the photovoltaics that power NASA satellites and lunar explorers. Spetrolab is now bringing that space technology back to Earth, developing “terrestrial applications” for its cells. In December 2006 it set a new world record of 40.7 percent efficiency, the highest ever achieved by any kind of solar cell.

According to Mill’s models, the price of electricity from a 700-megawatt plant with twenty hours of storage would fall to 7 cents per kilowatt-hour, which beats the cost of electricity produced by [solar] trough technology and is competitive with that generated by natural gas.

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THE OTHER MAJOR REMAINING OBSTACLE to large-scale centralized production of solar thermal electricity is effectively integrating it into the regional transmission grid. The first problem is access. The best sites for large-scale solar thermal plants are in the middle of nowhere, exactly where big transmission lines are not. Substantial new investment in the interstate transmission grid will be needed to bring the power generated by solar thermal plants from the desert to demand centers hundreds of miles away.

The second problem is cost. It is expensive to build major new transmission lines (more than $1 million per mile) and it is hard to earn a decent return on this kind of investment unless the line is used constantly. Because solar is intermittent and reaches maximum output only in peak sunlight conditions, a transmission line dedicated to serving solar thermal power plants will often sit idle or underused....

The third issue is reliability. Managers of regional transmission grids worry that too much unpredictable supply connected to their system will make maintaining the crucial balance between supply and demand impossible, especially since demand is already hard to predict....
Viable storage systems would help overcome many of these challenges.

(total US electricity generation in 2007 was about 4,000 terawatt-hours) In California, solar-energy systems covering a 30-by30 mile square could make 300 terawatt-hours, enough to supply the entire state’s needs....

Vinod Khosla estimates that to increase coal capacity enough to meet growing electricity demand would require a $20 billion investment in railroads. Investing that same money in a national grid, he argues, would provide greater stability.

Even switchgrass, a cutting-edge energy crop, is less than one- hundredth as efficient as the best solar cell. It converts just 0.3 percent of incoming solar energy into chemical energy: Spectrolab’s solar cells, by contrast, convert 42 percent. It also has ongoing needs for nutrients and requires all the work of growing, harvesting and processing. The amount of water demanded by biofuels production is immense, with most crops requiring about a thousand tons of water for each ton of biomass.

In a civilization as centered as ours on the automobile, however, and a global economy so dependent on transport, fluid fuels will necessarily play a crucial part. While there are many clean ways to make electricity, and while electricity may in the future become the prime power source for transport...there is simply no substitute for liquid fuels, which as currently produced inflict a heavy burden: the U.S. vehicle fleet pumps 1.3 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year, and $820 million in capital is exported every day for the oil needed to do so. The concentration of chemical energy in a gallon of diesel or gasoline and the ease of storing and delivering that energy are unmatched. As Caltech professor Nate Lewis says “You can take a $5 piece of hose and pump at a rate of 10 megawatts into your car. To move 10 megawatts of electricity, you need high voltage transmission lines. And the electricity won’t just sit there, like the gas, waiting for you to be ready to use it.”

At current average yields, according to biomolecular engineering professor Kyriacos Zygourakis of Rice University, replacing just 30 percent of the gasoline consumed in the United States with ethanol made from switchgrass would require 200 million acres, equivalent to about half the total cropland in the United States. [impasse]

In an August 2007 article in the journal Science, Renton Righelato of the World Land Trust and Dominick Spacklen of the University of Leeds calculated the amount of carbon released to the atmosphere when forest is cleared to plant crops for biofuels, then compared that to the amount of carbon saved by substituting those biofuels for gas and diesel. Even after thirty years, they concluded, the “up-front emissions cost” would exceed the emissions avoided by switching to alternate fuels. In fact preserving and restoring forests and grasslands would sequester up to nine times more carbon, while also preserving bio diversity and reducing nutrient runoff and soil erosion. If landowners could then sell those carbon offsets in a global market, many – especially in rain forest nations – would come out well ahead,...

CHOREN Industries, a German company, is building its first commercial plant in Freiberg, Germany, to produce diesel fuel from various agricultural and wood wastes, consuming seventy thousand tons of biomass annually and producing 4.5 million gallons of fuel;....

Under the right circumstances, however, the microscopic single-cell creatures [algae] turn out to be a dream feedstock for making liquid fuels. They are the fastest growing plants on earth – doubling their mass in a few hours... Most important, they are the world’s most efficient converters of carbon dioxide to oxygen and biomass... “It is photosynthetic life reduced to its essence,” says Ray Hobbs, who runs APS Future Fuels program.

But if half of all U.S. cars ran on diesel, as they do in europe, replacing all of it with soy diesel would require 1.5 billion acres of fertile land, three times the total cropland in the country. Algae could do it in 47 million acres, on land not suited for agriculture. And though they require huge amounts of water, they can tolerate waste water – and clean power plant emissions along the way.

“You need a way for people to make money. Forget Wisdom. We have to play off greed. A carbon cap will be the turning point. You can’t stack the deck against these scientists and innovators. Society has to stand with them. And utilities are nothing more than instruments of public policy.” [Ray Hobbs]

”The Aleutians, for instance, are a string of volcanic islands in the Pacific’s ring of fire that project westward toward Russia. They are a world-class geothermal resource far from major human settlements and power lines, but adjacent to the major international shipping lanes known as the Alaska Marine Highway. Geothermal powerplants there could be used to make hydrogen to power merchant vessels. [Gwen Holdmann]

While it costs 6 to 8 cents to generate a kilowatt-hour from new coal or nuclear plants, plus another 2 to 4 cents to move that power through the grid, saving that same kilowatt-hour cost just 3 to 4 cents. [25-50% post generation transmission cost]

The biggest arena of innovation may by “energy intelligence,” which in 2006 attracted more than $450 million in venture capital. The idea is to build the energy equivalent of the Internet: a sophisticated web that draws electricity from where it is abundant and sends it to where it is needed; such a system reduces the need to add new plants in order to meet peak demand requirements.

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The Volt [GM] is still in development, its battery remaining the biggest sticking point. But, says Robert Lutz, GM’s vice chairman for global development, “We would not be devoting the considerable investment in engineering if we weren’t confident that it could be done.”