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Coal Ash Disaster Turns Capitalists into Socialists (Again)

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

Commentary:

Coal ash is what’s left after coal is burned. It’s a toxic stew containing heavy metals including arsenic, lead and mercury.  For many years Duke Energy has mixed coal ash with water and pumped this cocktail from coal fired power plants into huge open pits. In February, one of the sludge pits located in North Carolina began releasing millions of gallons of toxic coal ash into the Dan River, a source of public drinking water for thousands of people.

coal-ash-spill.jpeg3-1280x960

 Photo and article: http://www.salon.com/2014/02/26/north_carolina_might_finally_crack_down_on_duke_energy_after_disastrous_coal_ash_spill/

Duke Energy spent millions over the years to keep government from properly regulating their waste products.  For all those decades the stockholders and upper management of Duke energy have profited from this arrangement. Now that the inevitable has occurred, clean up effort will take years and cost a billion dollars. Millions more will have to be spent to correct the improper disposal problems that Duke Energy has practiced for decades.

Lynn Good CEO

Safely storing coal ash should have been a cost of doing business for Duke Energy all along, but they have deferred that cost to boost their profits. Now Duke Energy’s president and CEO, Lynn Good, thinks taxpayers should bear the cleanup costs. She said, “Ash pond closure has been a plan for very long time. And because that ash was created over decades for the generation of electricity, we do believe that ash pond disposal costs are ultimately a part of our cost structure.” She believes the burden of this clean up should be shared by everyone equally.  (Corporate socialism? Again?)

Corporation are legally obligated to maximize profits for their shareholders. This would be fine if they were also legally obligated to paid the full cost of doing business without cutting corners. Cleaning up toxic spills is far more expensive than preventing themand regulations to enforce safe disposal are less expensive in the long run. But asking the victims of their environmental crimes to pay for cleaning up their mess and fixing their problem should not be an option.

(See also: http://www.politicususa.com/2014/03/14/republican-hypocrites-force-nc-taxpayers-pay-duke-energys-toxic-coal-ash-dumping.html )

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A Word About My Free Rooftop Solar

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

Let me tell you about my free rooftop solar energy system which I recently had installed.

Solar panel installation

I’ve wanted solar energy for a long time, mostly because my wife and I are concerned about the global warming. We didn’t convert years ago because of the high cost and slow rate of return on the initial investment.  We live in Northern New Jersey which has considerably less sunlight than, say, Arizona. When I first looked into it, solar panels were far less efficient than they are today so the cost/benefit  for us couldn’t be justified.

 Now  we are retired and improved solar panels have really lowered investment recovery times, but we may want to downsize or relocate in the next few years. We  don’t want a solar energy project that won’t be paid off before we sell.

The solution for us was one of the new solar energy lease program that installs and maintains the entire system for free over a period of years. The solar panels send power  directly to the power grid in an arrangement with the utility companies know as “net metering”.  The solar electricity generated is deducted by the utility company from the power that I use.  When we generate more power than we use the utility company gives us a credit. On months when we use more power than we generate we apply the accumulated credits and pay for any difference.  

There is a catch, of course. The company who owns the system on our roof also owns the electricity it generates. We pay them for the solar electricity that we use, power which the original utility company no longer supplies. In effect, the solar energy company becomes our energy provider.  For the use of our roof the solar company sells us this electricity at a discounted rate.  In our case we paid nothing for the system, we will pay nothing for its maintenance over the next 20 years and we will save on our electricity bill each month.  Our solar electric rate is structured to increase the amount we will save each year over time relative to our current provider. We were told that over twenty years we should save about eighteen-thousand dollars by switching to solar through this lease program.   

The real beneficiary in all this is the environment. Over the course of one month we prevent over a quarter ton of carbon from entering the atmosphere.  That’s three tons a year or sixty tons over the next twenty years.  Through conservation measures our electric use is already half what a typical  homeowner uses, so most people would save even more on carbon emissions.  If everyone on our block had rooftop solar the atmosphere would be spared well over 3,000 tons of carbon a year.   

How did we pick a solar energy company? I would like to say we shopped and compared, but  it didn’t happen that way. I stopped to talk with a person offering information on rooftop solar at a kiosk in Home Depot. This lead me to invite a sales representative from Rooftop Diagnostic to come to our home.  The representative explained how the lease option worked and confirmed that our house was a candidate for a solar based on our homes orientation and the amount of sunlight it gets. Rooftop Diagnostics only designs, installs and maintains the system for a company called Enphase Energy and neither of these two companies are affiliated with Home Depot. 

Under a net metering arrangement homeowners are not allowed to produce more power than they use.  This means that rooftop solar installations can’t be designed to produce more than 100% of the homeowners average annual energy use. The initial electricity rate the solar company charges is somewhat negotiable, but it should be at or slightly below what the utility company charges now. Under our Enphase Energy contract our initial electric rate will increase by 3.5% per year, which they say is half of the historic rate increase for our current energy provider. That might sound like a lot, but the inflation rate over the past 10 years is 2.3%, so inflation alone accounts for most of the increase. In our specific case, our energy charge would start at about $36.00 per month and it will end up about $67.00 per month in twenty years. The power utilities also charges a delivery service charge each month based on energy use. Since about 96% of our electricity will come from the electricity generated on our roof, our delivery service charge will be 96% less per month as well.  Also, while our current electric rates vary seasonally, our solar energy rates remain the same each month. 

After I first met with the solar representative, I searched the internet for more information to comparison shop, but didn’t find what I was looking for.  I wanted a database listing companies that provide solar leasing options but there are none at present.  A lot of companies on the internet offer solar instillations but important details are lacking. Unfortunately, internet information about  solar electric companies is not as organized as is information about the sham alternative energy retailers that “compete”  to sell you lower electric rates.  These companies are wholesale purchasers of electricity who offer crazy gimmicks and low introductory rates to get you to buy power from them.  It is a dog and pony show masquerading as a competitive energy market, but the only real competition the utility companies face is from the nascent “distributed energy” alternatives such as rooftop solar and wind power systems.  Even though these true alternative energy sources are a tiny fraction of the energy market, the big utility companies are already organizing to protect their business model and market shares. If you think you might be interested in a rooftop solar system, to buy or lease, it would be wise to act soon because the current financial incentives will disappear if the energy industry has its way.  

[PS: If you live in New Jersey and already have a rooftop system from Rooftop Diagnostics, they will pay you a referral fee for any new customers you refer to them. Other companies might offer similar incentives,so if you are thinking about getting a system, check with friends and family members who might benefit from this incentive program. To be clear, I am not soliciting referrals and I have no pecuniary motivation in writing this post.]

Solar Success Generating Friction With Utility Companies

The rapid growth of rooftop solar in the US has caught the attention of electric utilities companies who now see distributed power as a threat to their business model.  In the past ten years the number of rooftop solar instillations taking advantage of net metering (explained below) has grown 60 fold to cover over 300,000 homes nationwide.  The following graph from the U.S. Energy Information Administration depicts the growth of rooftop solar. The full EIA report can be viewed here: http://www.eia.gov/electricity/monthly/update/?scr=email

Res_Net_Meter_small

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Annual Electric Power Industry Report (Form EIA-861)

While the number of homes with rooftop solar is still less than 1% of all residential customers, the trend suggests this mix will rapidly change in the coming years. At present, all but four states have passed laws permitting net metering incentives for homeowners. California presently leads the nation in the number of homes with rooftop and other home based power generation. The next graph shows how net metering  instillations are distributed among the states.

 Participation_Rates_small

 Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Annual Electric Power Industry Report (Form EIA-861)

 The economics behind the jump in solar instillations is largely influenced by an 80% decline in the cost of solar panels over the last 10 years and by the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which requires all public utilities to offer net metering to customers upon request.

Net metering allows consumers to directly subtract the kilowatts they generate from the kilowatts they use at the retail rate they pay for electricity. If they generate slightly more electricity than they use they are credited and can carry over that positive balance for a time so they can use it to  offset periods where they use more power than they generate. Additionally, net metering requires that rooftop solar systems may not be designed to generate more power than the average use for a given home. In other words, a rooftop solar system cannot be used to generate more power than the homeowner typically uses in a year. The exact details of how net metering works varies from state to state, but the concept is the same.

The problem, as framed by the energy companies, is that they are buying back electricity from customers at the same retail rate that they are selling it rather than buying it at the wholesale rate they pay power generation companies. The marginal difference between the wholesale rate and retail rate includes the expenses associated with transmission, distribution and maintenance of the electrical infrastructure (in addition to the utility company’s administrative expenses and profits). They claim that rooftop solar customers are no longer contributing their fair share towards these essential costs, shifting this burden to the utility companies and their non-solar customers. In their view, the per/customer cost of maintaining the power system will rise as the number of non-solar customers fall. Additionally, grid operators say they face additional costs associated with modifying the distribution system that allows electricity to flow both directions.

Solar and renewable energy advocates say the energy companies arguments are specious and disingenuous. They say that the utility companies their real agenda from the beginning has been to preserve their profits and basic business model.

 In a recent article by EE News’s Climate Wire, Bryan Miller of the Alliance for Solar Choice is quoted as saying the alleged cost burden for upgrading the utility grid for two way transmissions isn’t true because solar companies are already paying for any legitimate circuit upgrades needed to connect solar customers to the grid. He also pointed out that the peak hours of solar generated power corresponds with periods of peak demand.  This relives transmission congestion which saves money utility companies money.  Peak shaving more than offsets grid interconnection costs, according the Mr. Miller.

Other advocates have pointed out other value added savings for utility companies.  Distributed generation by rooftop solar customers reduces line transmission losses.  According to one source, in California, the largest solar market, distributed generation is cutting transmission losses by up to six-percent.  Because solar generation peaks during  peak demand periods, utility companies need to buy less electricity on the spot markets at higher wholesale prices.  Additionally, customer based solar instillations improve the renewable energy mix for utilities relieving them of costs related to meeting federal guidelines for improved efficiency and greater use of renewable energy over time.  On balance, advocates claim that rooftop solar delivers more value than it uses while utility companies argue that government grants and tax breaks offering up front incentives for solar conversion are better than ongoing rate-based incentives.

The net metering debate in California could set a precedent for the rest of the nation.  In a recent article published by Greentech Solar, both sides in the net metering debate seem to be coming together in a bill ( AB 327 ) that would modify net metering for future rooftop solar customers. In the case of California, the net metering regulations passed in that state were set to expire. Also, a provision in the law specified that the net metering would not be available to customers once the total of distributed generation reached 5% of the utilities total electricity.  The agreement that is emerging would keep in place the net metering arrangement for those who already have it and preserve their rate structure. It would also remove the 5% cap on the net metering arrangements, but establish a different rate structure for new net metering customers going forward. If passed, AB 327 would require the California Board of Public Utilities to come up with a new  rate structure that is more acceptable to the energy utility companies.  The bill states that after January of 2017:

 […] all new eligible customer-generators shall be subject to the standard contract or tariff developed by the commission and any rules, terms, and rates developed pursuant to subdivision (b) of this section, and shall not be eligible to receive net energy metering pursuant to Section 2827. There shall be no limitation on the number of new eligible customer-generators entitled to receive service pursuant to the standard contract or tariff after January 1, 2017″.

Early adaptors of rooftop solar or other consumer based energy generation systems are likely to have an financial advantage over those who come later. In general, net metering based on retail energy rates is considered an incentive program to encourage development of solar, wind and other renewable energy sources. The upfront conversion expenses for consumers will remain substantial in the near term. Government grants, tax breaks and current net metering structures are designed to overcome these barriers. Just how much value distributed solar energy has for utilities is still an open question complicated by the fact that laws and regulations vary from state to state. Advocacy groups are needed in every state to balance the interests of consumers and environmentalists against the interests of the big utility corporations.

Correctional note of 9/6/2013: The emerging agreement on California’s AB327 bill would keep the net metering rate structure in place, not eliminate it as I mistakenly stated prior to this update.  Also, a few technical corrections were made to the net metering paragraph.

Where is News of Fukushima Radiation Impact?

DATA DRIVEN VIEWPOINT: Sometimes the big news stories can only be seen by the shadows that they cast.  You would think that it would be easy to find copious updates on the radiation impact Fukushima is having on the fishing industry, US food production, global radiation distribution, etc. You would be mistaken. The relatively large amount of media coverage the Fukushima disaster initially generated has diminished to the point of near silence.  Maybe my own internet search skills are to blame, but even having to run a search on Fukushima’s radioactive legacy for North America is an warning sign to which journalists and the media should be paying attention. There was this month (November, 2012) a scientific study published regarding the release of radiation from Japan, but its focus is primarily on how tracing  the travel of radionuclides gives insight into atmospheric air circulation in the Northern Hemisphere.

I would be interested in learning more about what the US and Canadian governments are doing to monitor radiation levels, track distribution rates and study how it may or may not be impacting our food supply. If any of you reading this comes across such information, please post links here to the comments section below.  If you search but can’t find information, that is news worth also, so please comment about your efforts also.  Thank you.

Science of The Total Environment

Volume 438, 1 November 2012, Pages 80–85
Cover image

Tracking the complete revolution of surface westerlies over Northern Hemisphere using radionuclides emitted from Fukushima

  • a Department of Applied Physics, University of Huelva, Huelva, Spain
  • b Korea Ocean Research and Development Institute, Ansan 426–744, South Korea
  • c Korea Ocean Research and Development Institute, Uljin 767–813, South Korea
  • d Department of Environmental Marine Science, Hanyang University, Ansan, 426–791, South Korea
  • e Department of Geology, Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan, USA

View full text


Abstract

Massive amounts of anthropogenic radionuclides were released from the nuclear reactors located in Fukushima (northeastern Japan) between 12 and 16 March 2011 following the earthquake and tsunami. Ground level air radioactivity was monitored around the globe immediately after the Fukushima accident. This global effort provided a unique opportunity to trace the surface air mass movement at different sites in the Northern Hemisphere. Based on surface air radioactivity measurements around the globe and the air mass backward trajectory analysis of the Fukushima radioactive plume at various places in the Northern Hemisphere by employing the Hybrid Single-Particle Lagrangian Integrated Trajectory model, we show for the first time, that the uninterrupted complete revolution of the mid-latitude Surface Westerlies took place in less than 21 days, with an average zonal velocity of > 60 km/h. The position and circulation time scale of Surface Westerlies are of wide interest to a large number of global researchers including meteorologists, atmospheric researchers and global climate modellers.

Highlights

► Evidence of the South Korea contamination with released radiocesium from Fukushima. ► Field samples and air mass analysis were utilized to elucidate the transport of those radionuclides. ► Characterization of the air mass movements at different sites at the Earth’s surface. ► Verification of the uninterrupted complete revolution of the artificial radionuclides released in Fukushima. ► Quantification of the velocity of the artificial radionuclides released in Fukushima.