Can flywheels keep the California grid up next summer?

Where the Saudi oil production numbers are potentially influential and very bad, this story is potentiall influential and very promising.
A company in the Boston area, Beacon Power, is running trial systems for the grids of New York and California that use flywheels to balance out the fluctuations of supply and demand in the grid. Today, when peak demand strains the grid, the network sends a signal to a power plants with idle capacity to start producing. This is costly and polluting, since power plants are cheapest to run and least polluting when they are producing at a steady level. The flywheel system can respond faster — seconds instead of minutes — and doesn’t add pollution.
If the six-month pilots of scale model systems in New York and California go well, the company will be able to sell their first production-scale systems next year, perhaps in time to spare the grid in air conditioning systems. The company, which started by selling backup power for telecom, and went public in 2000 right before the bottom fell out of that market, has retooled to sell to the electric grid. They’ve been losing $2-3 million per quarter, and have working capital of $8.5 million. Here’s hoping the technology, timing and investment banks all work out to get this technology on line.
One piece of information I haven’t yet been able to find — how much C02 and other polution is due to the marginal use of natural gas plants to cover spikes in electricity demand. If the role of spare power was filled by flywheels instead of power plants, how much would emissions be reduced?
Found the story in the Renewable Energy Access blog, pointing to this MIT tech review article on Thursday.

California’s greenhouse bill, results this month?

California’s greenhouse gas bill promises to cap state emissions at 1990 levels by 2020. The bill would impose mandatory reporting and a “cap-and-trade” system. This vision is far ahead of US national policy which is to shut eyes tightly while headed for the cliff.
The legislature is pushing to get the bill done before a recess at the end of August. A hearing is expected in the Senate Appropriations committee in two weeks.
It sounds like the bill outlines the goals, and delegates the implementation rules to a task force. The current squabbling surrounds who will have the power to write the implementation rules. The original bill gives the power to the California Air Resource Board, while the Governor wants to give that power to a board appointed by the governor.
Backers of the bill include the
Union of Concerned Scientists They have a Climate Choices very polished site with action alerts, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Environmental Defense. These sites all have action alerts, press a button to support the bill.

Smart meters in Northern California

On July 20, California’s energy regulators approved a program to roll out smart meters to 9 million gas and electric household customers. These meters report electricity consumption on an hourly basis. This enables PG&E to set pricing that varies by season and time of the day, rewarding customers who shift energy use to off-peak periods. The peak pricing program will start out on a voluntary basis, and the full rollout is expected to take five year.
So far, the only source I’ve found for this is the PG&E press release, which was picked up by a number of newspapers and trade publications, and the PG&E earnings call.
The he said/she said coverage found an industry watchdog group that is skeptical that the increased rates to pay for the capital costs of the program will pay for benefits in conservation, and concerned that the program does nothing to decrease overall demand. It seems logical that giving consumers feedback and differential pricing will shift demand off peak. Thipilot programwith 100 households in Oregon shows the successful shift of demand away from peak hours.
Jesse Berst, the former IT analyst who’s now covering energy cautions that smart metering technology is changing, and buyers should watch out for total cost of ownership and standards support. I haven’t yet found information about who is supplying the meters to PG&E.

Why isn’t Saudi oil production decline headline news

More confirming reports are out that Saudi oil production has been down for a couple of months, while their orders of new drilling rigs have been going through the roof. A completely unscientific poll of my reasonably well-informed friends and acquaintances reveals that nobody has heard of this. This isn’t proof of peak production, but it seems rather ominous. This series seems at least as worthy of headline attention and anticipation as the federal reserve interest rates and George Bush’s poll numbers.

Great CEO blogging from John Mackey

Journalist Michael Pollan and Whole Foods CEO John Mackey are having a wonderful public dialog about the organic supermarket chain living up to its values. The first Whole Foods response to the Omnivore’s Dilemma was good — it acknowledged Pollan’s critique, and provided substantive information about Whole Foods’ role in the growth of organic food, and some decent information about Whole Foods support for local agriculture. But it also read like it was written by 10 people in 30 drafts, with old-school marketing folk giving it a few good swipes with the marketing-speak polishing rag. It didn’t acknowldge room for improvement — it focused on defending Whole Foods history and policies. The bit about animal treatment standards sounded particularly phoney and substance-free.
Pollan wrote back with a respectful letter, re-asserting some of his criticisms about local suppliers and the treatment of animials in the name of shared values, and encouraging Whole Foods to use its power to lead. Mackey’s latest response to Pollan’s letter is much better in substance and in tone. Whole Foods is making substantive changes in response to Pollan’s critique. Mackey acknowledges that it has been hard for them to find suppliers who treat animals well. So Whole Foods hired someone to be in charge of sourcing meat from farms with better standards. They have also created a financing arm to supply low-cost credit to farmers who want to supply Whole Foods. Mackey also acknowledges that the move to regional distribution has lost some suppliers, and Whole Foods is increasing the charter for individual stores to buy locally.
Mackey’s letter also sounds more human, and more like a manager taking responsibility for his business. This is what Mackey says in response to the report that some Bay area farmers stopped selling to Whole Foods. “Whole Foods Market would like to try working again with any of the Bay Area farmers you know who are unhappy with Whole Foods Market and no longer sell to us. Please encourage them to contact our Northern California and Pacific Northwest Produce Director, Karen Christensen, at 415-307-5337 about selling directly into our stores again. You’ve also got my e-mail address. Please encourage those farmers to contact me directly via e-mail (but don’t give my e-mail address out to anyone else, please) if they don’t want to talk to Karen. I want to talk to them. Thanks.”
In the second letter, Mackey answers the question about sourcing food internationally in terms of values. The first letter described the long distance sourcing policy as simple response to customer demand. Customers want asparagus in December, so we need to supply them. The second letter explains that organic food production offers farmers in poor countries better income, healthier working conditions without toxic pesticides, and improves soil degraded by non-organic market agriculture. One might disagree with the result on balance — the costs of subsidized transport, vs. the benefits of organic agriculture around the world — but the answer has integrity.
Mackey still doesn’t answer Pollan’s question — what is the share of local food in dollars, not just in number of farms. You’d expect to see a larger number of local farms, but that doesn’t say anything about the proportion of food they offer.
Overall, though, this is a great example of blogs supporting meaningful public dialog, and, if Whole Foods does what they say, using the conversation to make the world a bit better.

Whole Foods responds to Michael Pollan

Whole Foods CEO John Mackey blogs an extended blog defenseto Michael Pollan’s critique of Whole Foods “industrial organic” model. The response is partly satisfying; it’s a good example of a business using blogging to participate in a public conversation about it’s business; and Whole Foods could go much further to use blog openness to be better corporate citizen.
The strongest part of John Mackey’s post is his explanation of Whole Foods support for local agriculture. With statistics about support for local farms, information about the decentralized purchashing practices of local and regional stores, and a history of Whole Foods’ role in reviving local farming with organic agriculture, Mackey makes a strong case against the accusation that Whole Foods is too big these days to support small local farms. The statistics about the declining use of pesticides and artificial fertilizers in some regions were particularly inspiring.
The defense of animal raising practices is less strong. Mackey cites one big organic dairy that Whole Foods doesn’t buy from because of it’s factory farming, and another big organic dairy that has improved it’s practices; but he doesn’t name names, and therefore doesn’t do a good job of rebutting Pollan’s specific critiques of the practices of brands found the Whole Foods shelves.
Mackey justifies shipping organic produce half way around the world because customers demand the products. This is a fine explanation for Whole Foods shareholders, but a non-answer for constituences who want agriculture to be sustainable. On the other hand, Whole Foods marks the origin of its produce, so US customers who don’t want to buy products from Chile and New Zealand con’t have to. This puts Whole Foods on a continuum of ethical choices; do you want to buy more local when you can, or do you want to avoid businesses that have anything to do with global transport of food.
It’s a fine thing that Mackey and his executives used the blog podium to publicly explain Whole Foods practices. The post was open to comments, and the conversation around the post was discoverable with Technorati or other blog search tools. Michael Pollan responded to Mackey’s post in a NY Times column republished on his blog, and moderated his tone in response to Mackey’s letter, encouraging Whole Foods to do what’s in it’s power to live up to its stated philosophy instead of using the philosophy as an empty marketing slogan.
Whole Foods could do even better to communicate its day-to-day efforts on behalf of local and sustainable food by blogging more; by having divisional and regional managers blog about what they’re doing. More information about Whole Foods day-to-day execution of their practices would help build their reputation where they deserve it, and make it harder to obfuscate in areas like energy use and animal farming.
One good thing about following the blog debate was finding some interesting blogs about local food, including Small Farms and Saute Wednesday, the blog by the editor of a newspaper about sustainable food in the San Francisco bay area.

Saudi oil production is down — what does it mean?

Economist James Hamilton and commentors examines the possibilitie. Is it high inventory, like the Saudi’s say? Hamilton doesn’t buy it. Are the Saudi’s trying to keep prices high? Is there a distribution bottleneck? Or Saudi Arabia closer to the bottom of the barrell — is the quality of newly pumped oil so low these days that refineries can’t handle it? Can they just not pump any more?
If it’s the latter, then this story is the equivalent of the assassination of the archduke of Sarajevo for our time. Here’s hoping that’s not the case.

Solar ferry on SF Bay – efficiency is easy

A hybrid solar/diesel ferry made by an Australian company called “Solar Sailor” has been chosen to shuttle visitors to the Alcatraz national park. The ferry is twice as fuel-efficient as typical diesel ferries. They cost about $5 million, or about twice as much as traditional ferries. The vendor says that the system would save $6 million over the 15 year life span of the vehicle, so 7 year payback period, not counting the value of reduced pollution and noise.
This is the first hybrid ferry in use in the US, ever. Meanwhile, it costs $5-10k to retrofit a Prius to get 100mpg. Today, the plugin hybrid technology is costly enough to be more of a status symbol than a cost-savings (if plugin hybrids displace some sportscars as status symbols, it’s a non-problem). Putting the technology in production will help it get cheaper. It’s possible to get more energy-efficient by a factor of lots, the question is how long we have for the transition.

Socially acceptable peak oil

I was chitchatting with a fellow at a party who keeps up with middle east news by reading English versions of local papers. The conversation turned to Saudi Arabia’s support for militant islam. I mentioned as a by-the-way that Saudi Arabia is the single largest source of oil in the world, the government is the only authorized source of reserve numbers, they have incentive to lie. Meanwhile, career oil engineers have reverse-engineered the Saudi reserve figures and believe that Saudi production has peaked. He hadn’t heard this. All in a calm, neutral tone appropriate for chips and beer.