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Federal Water Tap, August 29: Odds of Colorado River Shortage Drop Slightly in New Forecast

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The Rundown

The lower Colorado River Basin is still looking at roughly a 50/50 chance of a shortage declaration as soon as 2018. A federal judge will soon decide whether to block construction of an oil pipeline that crosses the Missouri River. President Obama tours the Louisiana flood zone and designates a new national monument in Maine. The shale energy boom cuts farmland enrolled in a federal conservation program. The EPA is cleaning up groundwater at a New York Superfund site. Upcoming meetings on water infrastructure resilience, energy corridors, and drought in the Southeast. And finally, the Bureau of Reclamation asks for help in keeping rodents from burrowing into earthen dams, canals, and levees.

“A solution is being pursued through a prize competition because we find ourselves often wondering if someone, somewhere, may know a better way of detecting internal erosion in embankments than the methods we currently use.” — The Bureau of Reclamation wants new methods for capturing rodents that like to nest in its facilities.

By the Numbers

$US 120 million: Federal assistance so far for individuals in Louisiana affected by the recent floods. The money is for groceries, home repairs, and hotel stays for those with severely damaged homes. President Obama toured the region on August 23. (White House)

87,500 acres: Size of Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, which strengthens forest and water protection in northern Maine. The monument spans both banks of the East Branch of the Penobscot River. As with any national monument designation, an action that does not need approval from Congress, the move drew criticism. Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican, opposed the designation, citing a lack of local support. (White House)

$US 14.5 million: Cost to clean up groundwater contamination from volatile organic compounds at a well in Broome County, New York. The well was formerly used for public drinking water. Now, it is a Superfund site. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

News Briefs

Colorado River Shortage Forecast Updated
Water levels in Lake Mead have a 48 percent chance of dropping below 1,075 feet in elevation in 2018 and a 60 percent chance in 2019, according to a Bureau of Reclamation analysis. Dropping below that threshold would result in the first-ever mandatory water restrictions in the lower basin.

A concerted conservation effort helped avert a shortage declaration for next year, and it reduced the risk of a future shortage. But only slightly. In April the odds of a 2018 shortage were 56 percent.

Ruling Expected Soon in Tribe’s Oil Pipeline Challenge
A federal judge will decide by September 9 whether to block the construction of a $US 3.8 billion oil pipeline, the Associated Press reports.

The Dakota Access pipeline would deliver crude oil from North Dakota to Illinois. The legal challenge was brought by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, which objects to the pipeline’s route. Approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the route crosses beneath the Missouri River upstream of the tribe’s drinking water intake.

Studies and Reports

Shale Boom Reduces Farmland in Conservation Program
Farm acreage enrolled in a federal conservation program declined 32 percent between 2007 and 2013 in counties above shale oil and gas basins, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. Enrollment declined 22 percent in non-shale areas, indicating that royalty payments from natural gas and oil production encouraged farmers to remove land from the Conservation Reserve Program. The program pays farmers not to cultivate land that is prone to erosion, protects drinking water, or provides wildlife habitat. Hydrocarbon production pays more.

Rodent Removal
It’s a question that would tickle the curiosity of Bill Murray’s greenskeeper character from the movie Caddyshack: how to keep rodents from burrowing into earthen dams, levees, and canals. The burrows can destabilize the water-retaining structures, putting them at risk of failure.

The Bureau of Reclamation wants help with the problem, and it is announcing a $US 20,000 prize competition. Proposed solutions must meet eight technical requirements, including not killing the animal. Sorry, would-be Spacklers: dynamite not allowed.

Reservoirs, Fish, and Mercury
Reservoirs increase mercury in fish tissue compared to natural lakes, according to U.S. Geological Survey research. The amount of mercury varies depending on how the reservoir is operated, where it is located, and its age. Mercury accumulates in fish, making them dangerous to eat, especially for children.

Less Groundwater Feeding Arizona River
Groundwater can provide a year-round water supply to rivers, called base flow. That is, unless so much groundwater is pumped that the water table declines. The U.S. Geological Survey found that base flow from groundwater to the San Pedro River, in southern Arizona, is decreasing. Pinpointing the cause, however, is not addressed in the report.

Kalamazoo River Clean Up
Federal and state agencies presented their final plan for removing PCBs from the Kalamazoo River. The contamination is a legacy of the paper mills that operated in the mid-20th century. The plan does not relate to the July 2010 oil pipeline spill in the Kalamazoo River. That incident occurred upstream of the PCB cleanup site.

On the Radar

Southeastern Drought Webinar
Though a wet August is washing away the most severe patches of drought, the inland Southeast is still registering a rainfall deficit this year. On Monday, August 29 (today), at 1 p.m. Eastern, the National Integrated Drought Information System and Auburn University will hold a webinar on the drought in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint basin of Alabama, Florida, and Georgia.

To register email Eric Reutebuch,

EPA Drinking Water Strategy
Earlier this year, after high-profile lead and chemical contamination cases in Flint, Michigan and other communities, the EPA announced that it would develop a new strategy to protect drinking water. A committee that advises the agency on local government issues will hold two teleconferences to gather input from city, county, state, and tribal officials. The meetings will take place on September 7 and September 21 and will inform the committee’s recommendations on the drinking water strategy.

Energy Corridors
Federal agencies will hold public hearings to help determine the best routes in the American West to site oil and gas pipelines and electricity transmission lines. Reviews for Arizona, California, and Nevada begin in September. Follow the link for dates and times.

National Infrastructure Advisory Council Meeting
The council, which advises the White House and the Department of Homeland Security on infrastructure matters, will meet in Arlington, Virginia, on September 16. Members will discuss and vote on recommendations for water utility resilience to natural disaster and cyberattack.

Federal Water Tap is a weekly digest spotting trends in U.S. government water policy. To get more water news, follow Circle of Blue on Twitter and sign up for our newsletter.

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Groundwater Shared by Countries Is Knowledge Void

Rice fields in the Mekong Delta, near Can Tho, Vietnam. An increase in groundwater irrigation in the region could affect groundwater availability across national borders. Photo © J. Carl Ganter / Circle of BlueRice fields in the Mekong Delta, near Can Tho, Vietnam. An increase in groundwater irrigation in the region could affect groundwater availability across national borders. Photo © J. Carl Ganter / Circle of Blue

Management of transboundary aquifers is on the United Nations agenda this fall.

Rice fields in the Mekong Delta, near Can Tho, Vietnam. An increase in groundwater irrigation in the region could affect groundwater availability across national borders. Photo © J. Carl Ganter / Circle of Blue

Rice fields in the Mekong Delta, near Can Tho, Vietnam. An increase in groundwater irrigation in the region could affect groundwater availability across national borders. Photo © J. Carl Ganter / Circle of Blue

By Brett Walton, Circle of Blue

The Mekong River Delta is under immense pressure. Upstream, a cascade of dams in China trap water and silt, the building blocks of delta life. Downstream, demand for irrigation water is rising in the world’s rice bowl.

A tough task for any country, managing the delta’s water problems come with an extra degree of difficulty for Cambodia and Vietnam — water use in one country influences water availability in the other.

The ties between the two countries, however, are not solely about surface water. The Mekong Delta sits atop a groundwater system that cross the political border. Pump too much here and water levels drop way over there, where the national flag is of a different stripe and color. The Mekong River declines too, because the aquifer is an underground drip feed to the river.

In effect, the groundwater resource is shared, especially by farmers in both countries. But management is not. And that omission is a source of budding concern.

In a study published earlier this year, Stanford University researchers found that if irrigated land in Cambodia continues to expand at current rates — a 10 percent increase per year, mostly irrigated by groundwater — the aquifer in neighboring Vietnam will be drawn down and Mekong River flows will be weakened. Such a scenario could cause the land surface to sink, worsen arsenic contamination, and threaten domestic water supplies in the dry season for 1.5 million people who use shallow wells. Laura Erban, a study author who is now a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency hydrologist, called an irrigation expansion in Cambodia a potential “international hazard” for transboundary water resources.

“We’re concerned about arsenic pollution. We’re concerned about cross-boundary conflict over drawing down groundwater levels,” Erban told Circle of Blue.

The Mekong Delta is but one example of a worldwide water management challenge. Despite more than a decade of technical and political attention at the highest international level, countries have made little progress in developing agreements to coordinate the oversight of groundwater resources that cross political borders. Without such agreements water managers operate with blinders on, and risk damaging or polluting aquifers that sustain farms and cities, rivers and ecosystems.

Worse, experts say that scientific understanding of the roughly 600 transboundary aquifers and groundwater bodies — which underlie nearly every country — is so poor that even identifying the basins most vulnerable to conflict, contamination, or depletion is comes down to an educated guess.

“A lack of data and knowledge makes it hard to answer the question,” Gabriel Eckstein, a Texas A&M University professor who studies water law, told Circle of Blue.

Thanks to satellite measurements and intensifying public scrutiny in recent years, the perilous condition of a majority of the world’s largest aquifers has been sketched in greater detail than ever before. The cross-border consequences of groundwater pumping are less often part of the picture. Transboundary aquifers, however, are set to reemerge in the debate. This fall, three years after the topic was last on the agenda, the United Nations General Assembly will discuss principles for managing these basins. Talk will likely focus on two areas: cooperation and data.

Filling the Management Void

Researchers often compare the legal codes and scientific knowledge of transboundary aquifers with those of shared rivers. For rivers, there is a mature and developed body of law, including a United Nations convention that became legally binding in August 2014 for the 36 countries that have ratified it. In the 20th century alone more than 145 river basin treaties were signed, many of them sophisticated measures that allocate water, coordinate reservoir operations, monitor water flows, or account for pollution. “River treaties are serious and complex arrangements for management,” Eckstein said.

The world of transboundary aquifers is much more constrained. Eckstein, a leading legal expert, could count fewer than 10 formal and informal agreements worldwide. Two agreements in northern Africa, for the Nubian and Northwest Sahara aquifers, facilitate the sharing of data. An agreement signed in 2015 between Jordan and Saudi Arabia prohibits groundwater use in a “protected area” of the Al-Sag/Al-Disi Aquifer, the first agreement of its kind. An agreement on the Guarani Aquifer has been signed but not yet ratified by the four countries that overlie it.

Only one aquifer, the Genevese, shared by France and Switzerland, can be considered a true management agreement, according to Eckstein. The agreement, signed in 2007, sets an annual limit on water pumping, which is governed by a joint French-Swiss commission that has the authority to monitor water withdrawals and aquifer levels.

Observers give several reasons for the slow progress in developing similar agreements elsewhere. First, groundwater moves gradually through rock and soil, which means problems set in motion today may not reveal themselves for a decade or more. Aquifers are also famously complex systems, not a pool of underground water, but a network of interconnected, saturated sediments. No two are alike.

Second, according to Raya Stephan, an international water law consultant, is the fact that politics tends to lag behind science.

“When working with technicians and scientists, it does not seem complicated,” Stephan told Circle of Blue. “They are ready to share information and work together. But when you get to the political story, it is still difficult for politicians to understand that it is in their interest to cooperate with their neighbor.”

Data Is the Missing Foundation

Of the hundreds of groundwater basins without a management agreement, how many ought to negotiate one? That is an open and important question that cannot be answered without a better understanding of the resource, says Neno Kukuric, director of the International Groundwater Resources Assessment Center (IGRAC).

“We don’t know how many agreements are needed because we don’t know the situation underground in many places,” Kukuric told Circle of Blue. If an aquifer is in an unpopulated area or not at risk of pollution, then it might only need to be monitored rather than formally managed. Even then, the countries will need to coordinate a monitoring program.

Understanding these distinctions is a goal of IGRAC, a research center under the United Nations umbrella. IGRAC publishes the definitive global map of transboundary aquifers.

The map project has come a long way. The first version, published in 2009, “was just circles” that represented aquifers, Kukuric recalled. “Now we have delineated boundaries,” he says.

IGRAC's transboundary aquifer map shows that nearly every country shares a groundwater basin with a neighbor. For an interactive version of the map, click here.

IGRAC’s transboundary aquifer map shows that nearly every country shares a groundwater basin with a neighbor. For an interactive version of the map, click here.

Those boundaries are constantly being revised. The 2009 map showed 279 aquifer “circles.” In the 2015 update, the number had grown to 366 aquifers and 226 groundwater bodies, an administrative term used by the European Union for basins within Europe.

Many of the characteristics of these aquifers — how water moves within the rock layers, how much water is pumped, where it is recharged, the chemistry — are essential for management but unknown to researchers. Erban called her study in the Mekong, which relied on satellite data to gauge irrigated area, a “first effort” but acknowledged that “we have really weak understanding right now” of the underground hydrology and patterns of water use.

Even a political boundary as carefully scrutinized as the Mexico-United States border can be a black box for groundwater knowledge. Researchers do not have a firm grasp of exactly how many aquifers cross the border. Some studies claim eight, while others identify as many as 36. It does not help that there is no internationally recognized standard for defining aquifer boundaries.

In a paper published in January, Eckstein and his colleagues took a different approach. They surveyed existing data and assigned a confidence measure to the candidate Mexico-U.S. aquifers. They found reasonable confidence that 16 aquifers span the border; some confidence for eight, and limited confidence for 12. The exercise confirmed the need to coordinate research, monitoring, and scientific analysis and to standardize geological definitions of aquifers. Transboundary groundwater between two countries is a “conceptual and institutional void,” they stated in the paper.

The uncertainty is due in large part to scientific methods that are not in alignment. Sharon Megdal and Chris Scott saw that first hand. Megdal and Scott are professors at the University of Arizona and members of a binational research team that completed a hydrological assessment of two aquifers along the border of Arizona and Sonora, a Mexican state.

Before the assessment began, researchers from both sides had to harmonize their mapping techniques: confirming that this rock layer is part of the aquifer and that rock layer is not. Otherwise the maps would be disjointed, like a road that buckled during an earthquake. Driving on such a road is nearly impossible and forecasting hydrological changes with such a skewed map has the same chance of success. Getting the definitions in sync required significant deliberation, Megdal recalled.

For Scott, the process underscored how distant a goal management is, when science is at such a rudimentary stage. “It’s a complicated jigsaw puzzle,” he told Circle of Blue. “And we’re not even talking about [management] agreements. We’re just talking about assessment.”

Bringing Parties Together

The United Nations is the most prominent organization advocating for groundwater cooperation. As for rivers, the UN has been instrumental in lifting transboundary aquifers onto the global agenda. IGRAC is involved in a number of data collection, monitoring, and governance projects, from the Balkans to Southern Africa and Central Asia.

“We build trust through common activities,” Kukuric said. “Then the next step is to build a collaborative mechanism.” In the Balkans that mechanism was a committee with representatives of each country. The group spent two years completing studies and assessments of the region’s karst aquifers. “We’re very pleased with the success,” Kukuric said.

The UN is also active in the legal sphere. In 2002, the International Law Commission, a branch of the organization that develops international legal norms, began working on transboundary aquifers. By 2008 the commission had drafted 19 articles on management and monitoring of shared groundwater.

The articles, however, remain in draft form. The General Assembly discussed them in 2011 and again in 2013. Now the articles are back on the agenda.

Stephan, who helped write the draft articles as a consultant with the ILC, said that governments are less likely to want a legally binding convention for aquifers as there is for shared rivers. The process of negotiating and ratifying a convention is arduous. An alternative is for the articles to become internationally recognized guidelines through gradual acceptance and incorporation into bilateral agreements. The UN Human Rights Declaration, Stephan notes, achieved its moral and legal force in this way.

Eckstein also says not to expect any groundbreaking developments in Manhattan this fall. International groundwater law is still too new and, unlike river treaties, there are few legal precedents to establish firm legal guidance.

“There is so little experience with how to manage an aquifer in a transboundary context that most nations would probably be hesitant to commit to any definitive rules,” Eckstein said.

Instead, the countries will do what they have done in the past: discuss the articles and sign a resolution that urges governments to pay attention to the principles and incorporate them, when possible, into local agreements. “That would give [the governments] more time to consider the norms articulated in the draft articles, and maybe even test drive some of them in short-term arrangements with neighboring countries,” Eckstein explained.

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The Stream, August 29: World Water Week Begins In Stockholm


The Global Rundown

World Water Week commenced Sunday in Stockholm, where scientists called for improvements in rainwater management to reduce hunger in Africa. Mexico’s environmental prosecuting agency defended its actions following revelations about a contaminated water leak at the country’s largest gold mine. India’s Supreme Court will begin hearings this week on a dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu over water supplies in the Cauvery River Basin. Human rights groups are focusing attention on the fate of indigenous communities displaced to preserve the environment. Newly elected members of parliament in Australia’s Northern Territory have voiced support for a moratorium on fracking there. Environmentalists in Turkey say a major new bridge will damage forests and water supplies.

“Large parts of the world are struggling to adapt to a drier reality, but challenges are especially dire in Africa’s drylands. Africa’s climate is its Achilles Heel.” –Malin Falkenmark, senior scientific advisor to the Stockholm International Water Institute, calling for better management of rainwater to achieve food security in Africa under the Sustainable Development Goals. Falkenmark and other scientists spoke on the first day of World Water Week, which kicked off in Stockholm Sunday and continues throughout the week. Join Circle of Blue and SIWI Tuesday, August 30 for a global interactive broadcast to explore how droughts, floods, and other water problems are stranding assets in the energy, mining, and agricultural industries. (World Water Week)


By The Numbers

5 administrative proceedings Number Mexico’s environmental prosecuting agency said it has completed since 2013 in relation to the Penasquito gold mine, the country’s largest. The agency was recently accused of neglecting its duty when a news investigation last week uncovered that a leak of contaminated water at the mine was not reported to the public. Reuters

$22.4 billion Estimated economic worth of developing the shale gas resources in Australia’s Northern Territory over the next 20 years. Residents, however, largely voted representatives of the Labor Party into office during the territory’s parliamentary election on Saturday. The party has proposed a moratorium on fracking for shale gas pending more information about the environmental risks. Reuters

1.4 kilometers Length of the $3 billion Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge that opened Friday across the Bosphorus Strait near Istanbul. The bridge has faced opposition from conservationists who say it will lead to more construction, destroying forests and contaminating water supplies. Reuters

Science, Studies, And Reports

Researchers and human rights activists are calling attention to the growing plight of indigenous communities that have been displaced by national parks and nature reserves in the name of conservation. Even as governments crack down on hunting in protected areas, they are at times allowing mining and other development to occur. Guardian

On The Radar

India’s Supreme Court will begin hearings September 2 on a water dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Under an agreement between the two states, Karnataka is required to send a specific amount of water from the Cauvery River Basin downstream to Tamil Nadu, but officials say drought conditions have made it impossible for them to make the full delivery. Times of India

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Enel Plans Hundreds of Miles of Fiber as Part of a Nationwide Smart Meter Rollout in Italy

Enel Open Fiber signed its first agreement in August to lay fiber to homes across Venice starting in September.

Enel launched its Open Fiber group earlier this year to coincide with coming smart meter upgrades across Italy through 2020. The company will invest $2.8 billion to build out the fiber network as part of a broader plan to deploy 33 million advanced meters.

“Enel is taking a novel approach for a first-tier utility. Capitalizing on the service visit required to replace its aging first generation meter fleet, to install the infrastructure to provide fiber-to-the-home, which lowers installation costs for both to an estimated €110 ($123) per household,” said Ben Kellison, director of grid research for GTM Research.

The energy giant said it will open the network to all operators. However, Reuters reported that Telcom Italia is building it own high-speed broadband network, which could put Enel and Telecom Italia into competition.

Enel announced earlier this year it aims to cover more than 220 cities, including large municipalities and remote towns. Although Enel will not become an internet provider directly, its fiber could boost the prospects for providers competing against Telecom Italia. Enel has said it only wants to be responsible for building and maintaining the network.

The fiber rollout helps Enel diversify its revenue. Energy companies across the world are considering similar moves — whether that’s adding fiber as they roll trucks to install new meters, or connecting LED streetlights using the smart meter network as a backbone.

Enel was an early mover on smart meters 15 years ago as it installed digital meters to cut down on theft. Smart meters have advanced considerably in performance and cost since that time. And the fiber is a fraction of the thickness it was more than a decade ago, so Enel says it will (mostly) not have to dig up streets to install the technology.

The utility is expected to announce the meter design and provider in September.

In Venice, the network will consist of 300 miles of underground wires and 300 miles of overhead network. Enel expects to have half complete by next fall and 80 percent complete by mid-2018. The network will support speed up to 1 gigabit per second, the same speed of Google Fiber. 

Other utilities have made similar investments. Chattanooga EPB, the municipal utility for the city in Tennessee, provides fiber internet service to its customers and one of the most reliable smart grids in the nation. Customers outside the utility’s service territory have been asking for EPB’s internet service, but a court recently ruled the utility could only serve customers within its territory.


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US Installed Microgrid Capacity to Grow 115% and Reach 4.3GW Over the Next 5 Years

A shift away from single-entity owned and operated projects is greatly improving microgrid project economics in the U.S. microgrid market. In its newly released report, U.S. Microgrids 2016: Market Drivers, Analysis and Forecast, GTM Research provides an analysis of customer drivers and emerging ownership models, and detailed segmentations of the current market to arrive at future market expectations to 2020.

A key driver of recent growth for the U.S. microgrid market, multi-stakeholder ownership models, arose from a surge in regulated utility interest to co-develop microgrids as a “non-wires” alternative to capital infrastructure investments. “These new models can significantly reduce the capex and O&M burden on end customers. At the same time, strategically located, dispatchable generation becomes very attractive to regulated utilities targeting congestion relief and substation peak demand reduction,” said Omar Saadeh, senior analyst in the grid edge division, and author of this report.

More than two-thirds of currently installed microgrids are owned by end customers, and among end customers, the military is both the current and expected leader, accounting for 32 percent of expected annual capacity in 2020. A key feature of the multi-stakeholder ownership model is its ability to provide stacked value propositions to accommodate the objectives of end-customers. Planned military development of microgrids is partly responsible for another trend in the microgrid market — boosting use of renewable fuel types, which is expected to double from 2016 to 2020.

FIGURE: Operational Microgrid Capacity by End-User Type, Q3 2016

Source: GTM Research

“A broader affinity for socialization of energy delivery is creating an upward swing in microgrid adoption,” said Saadeh. GTM Research’s new report breaks down the various components of this key trend. As Saadeh further elaborated, “While microgrids have historically focused on behind-the-meter benefits for end customers, recent ownership trends suggest a very different future.”

Find out more about our quarterly updates on the microgrid market.

To get all of our reports on the grid edge, learn how to become a member of our Grid Edge Executive Council.


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Could Solar Thermal Help Replace Britain’s Controversial Nuclear Project, Hinkley Point C?

Doubts over a massive new nuclear plant in the United Kingdom have sparked debate over renewable alternatives — including the possibility of importing solar thermal power from north Africa. 

Analysts at The Energy Research Partnership (ERP), a think tank and advisory body, said solar thermal “would count” as one of a handful of firm low-carbon energy supplies capable of taking the place of a proposed nuclear plant whose future is now uncertain. 

Following years of negotiations between the U.K. government and developer EDF Energy, the 3.2-gigawatt nuclear plant, Hinkley Point C, was about to get the final go-ahead last month. But officials pulled back at the last minute, announcing a further review lasting until early autumn.

According to press reports, the government is now looking for ways to shut down the project in an artful way.

The Hinkley Point C project, largely crafted under the stewardship of the pre-Brexit government led by David Cameron, has attracted significant criticism for its cost. 

Most of the GBP £18 billion (USD $24 billion) capital cost of the plant would be borne by EDF and its Chinese project partner, China General Nuclear Power Corporation. But the deal brokered by Cameron’s team would lock consumers into overly high power prices, critics say. 

The plant would be entitled to sell electricity at £92.50 ($122.18) per megawatt-hour for 35 years. That is around twice the current wholesale price for energy in the U.K. and would add about £10 ($13) a year to electricity bills across the country.

The prospect of Hinkley Point C being shelved has led observers to explore renewables as an alternative. The nuclear power plant was scheduled to deliver 7 percent of the U.K.’s energy needs and help the country meet its carbon reduction targets.

Following the approval’s reversal last month, several sources have noted that solar and wind power are on course to deliver energy at much lower cost than nuclear by the time Hinkley Point C is scheduled to come on-line in 2025.

Some are advocating concentrating solar power, or solar thermal, as a way to help fill the gap.

London-based Nur Energie already has a project, called TuNur, that is semi-permitted, with an interconnection point in Italy and the potential to start construction in 2018 and deliver power by 2020.   

“An indicative power-purchase agreement has been agreed with one of the big six U.K. utilities for the purchase and distribution of the first 500 megawatts of capacity from the project,” said Kevin Sara, Nur Energie CEO. 

“Several investment funds are ready to step in if the U.K. government offers a suitable contract for difference. We have worked with Imperial College and other expert consultants who have confirmed that sufficient transmission capacity is in place to move the power.”

Sara said the risk of bringing solar energy from Tunisia, where the project is planned, is roughly the same as importing gas from Algeria, which already forms part of the U.K. energy mix, and no more volatile than relying on Russian gas or uranium supplies from Niger.

“We are targeting a landed price that would be competitive against offshore wind and new nuclear,” said Sara.

“TuNur will deliver dispatchable power ensuring delivery only at times of high demand and thus highest market price, thus minimizing the total subsidy cost to the U.K. and differentiating it from offshore wind and new nuclear.”

The U.K. government’s own estimates are that the cost of onshore wind and large-scale solar will have dropped to between £50 and £75 ($66 and $99) per megawatt-hour by the middle of the next decade.

And according to a report by the Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit, a nonprofit organization, “replacing all Hinkley electricity with additional offshore wind farms would cut the average household bill by £10 to £20 per year.” 

The problem, according to ERP, is that replacing nuclear with offshore wind would require a prohibitive amount of energy storage. 

“In a report published last year, ERP demonstrated that it is essential to develop new firm low-carbon capacity to meet the de-carbonization targets,” said Andy Boston, head of the analysis team at the firm. “The work demonstrated that without this, variable renewables like wind and PV would need an unfeasibly large amount of long-term storage to effectively utilize their output to displace unabated fossil [fuel].”

The study found 80 percent of U.K. of electricity could in theory be de-carbonized with about 70 gigawatts each of wind and PV, but this would require 1.5 terawatt-hours a year of storage, which is about 50 times the current pumped storage capability in the country.

“The role of electricity storage is never likely to be one of firming up renewables to the point where they can be considered baseload,” predicted Boston.

In its analysis, ERP said new nuclear is needed because government support is lacking for two other low-carbon base-load capacity contenders — biomass and fossil fuel with carbon capture and storage.

The study did not consider bringing in concentrated solar power, with thermal storage, from north Africa. However, “CSP would fall into the same category as firm low-carbon supply, so yes, it would count,” said the organization.


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Fraunhofer Tests a New Underwater Energy Storage Concept

The Fraunhofer Institute is planning to test a new storage concept in a German lake before the end of this year. The storage idea, which involves placing hollow concrete globes on sea or lake beds, resembles an underwater balloon technology already developed by Ontario, Canada-based Hydrostor. In reality, the two concepts are quite different, however.

While Hydrostor’s balloons use water pressure to deliver a novel form of compressed air energy storage (CAES), the Fraunhofer project, called StEnSEA (Stored Energy in the Sea), is essentially a variant of pumped hydro.

“Instead of a lower and upper reservoir, the system uses a pressure tank as a lower reservoir placed on the seabed at 600 to 800 meters,” said Matthias Puchta, head of the Department of Energy Storage Systems within the Fraunhofer’s energy process engineering division. “The water column above the entrance of the concrete sphere acts as an upper reservoir, without severe ecological and visible impact.”

The idea is the brainchild of physicists Dr. Horst Schmidt-Böcking and Dr. Gerhard Luther, and is expected to have a similar efficiency to conventional pumped hydro plants.

It is designed to use materials and system components that are relatively inexpensive, so costs should be in the same range as traditional pumped hydro.

“Because the pressure difference between the inside and the outside of the sphere almost stays constant, alternating loads to the sphere are small,” Puchta said. “Hence concrete can be used as pressure tank material, which is also heavy enough to safely install the sphere on the seabed without anchors.”

Depending on the number of hours of operation a year, Fraunhofer estimates a 400-megawatt subsea storage farm could deliver a levelized cost of storage of between €40 to €200 ($50 to $230 U.S.) per megawatt-hour.

This compares to an unsubsidized levelized cost of storage of between $188 and $274 per megawatt-hour for traditional pumped hydro, as calculated by Lazard.

A worldwide survey had identified potential StEnSEA sites with a cumulative storage capacity of around 817 terawatt-hours, Puchta said.

The StEnSEA concept is being developed by Fraunhofer in association with Hochtief, a construction company that has assembled a 1:10-scale sphere for testing at 100 meters of depth in a pilot funded by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy.

If the test is successful, Fraunhofer intends to move to a pre-commercial pilot within three to five years, followed by full commercialization.

In the meantime, Hydrostor’s underwater CAES-based technology is also moving quickly toward commercial viability.

Curtis VanWalleghem, Hydrostor’s CEO, told GTM the company would be announcing a new commercial contract and various partnerships in early September. “We will begin marketing the technology as commercially ready this fall,” he said.

Hydrostor finished assembling a demonstration system eight months ago, delivering energy to the grid via local distribution company Toronto Hydro. It has already signed up one commercial customer, a water and electricity provider on the island of Aruba in the Caribbean.

Hydrostor’s technology, which like StEnSEA uses mostly off-the-shelf components, is a good fit for long-duration, grid-scale applications requiring upward of 10 megawatt-hours of storage close to deep water or caverns, said VanWalleghem.

It has no emissions, net positive environmental impacts and can last more than 30 years with unlimited cycling, he claimed.

StEnSEA requires deep water and all its mechanical parts are located at depth within the dome. Hydrostor’s compressor, air turbine and other major components were all designed to be onshore and connected to the balloons by a drilled airline.

“The two technologies are fundamentally different,” VanWalleghem said.

Although VanWalleghem would not disclose figures for the levelized cost of storage, he said: “Hydrostor is less than half the capital cost of lithium-ion batteries on a turnkey project basis, and lasts more than three times as long.”

However, CAES companies have long claimed superior cost and performance — and have not lived up to their hype. Will an underwater approach bring a different outcome?


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Drought-Hardy Yards Could Ease Californian Heat Waves

As drought-stricken residents of Los Angeles’s hottest neighborhoods replace thirsty lawns with native plants, pavers and bare soil, new research has shown how their local climates could begin tipping back in the direction of their desert-like origins.

In a region beset this year by drought and powerful heat waves, the widespread adoption of drought-proof landscaping is expected to bring warmer days — and much cooler nights. Overall, experts say the changes would help to protect residents from heat waves, which are being made worse by global warming.

Preparing a drought-friendly yard in Los Angeles.
Credit: Steve & Michelle Gerdes/Flickr

California, naturally prone to drought, is enduring the fifth year of a historically bad one. Droughts are projected to intensify in California as temperatures rise, reducing mountain snowpacks and soil moisture and potentially altering weather patterns.

To cut water use, utilities and agencies have been helping Californians swap out their lawns for drought-hardy native landscapes. The L.A. Department of Water and Power says more than 24,000 of its water customers have worked to make the switch since 2009.

“You can see the beginnings of some real change in landscaping practices,” said Alex Hall, a professor at UCLA who studies regional and global climate change.


Done at a large enough scale, University of Southern California research published in Geographical Research Letters this month shows how the landscaping changes could affect the weather.

Worsening heat waves are among the clearest and deadliest effects of climate change. The research focused on July temperatures, when heat waves in southern California can be oppressive, taking their heaviest tolls on the elderly, the sick and the poor.

“We were interested in understanding these impacts on a summer month,” said George Ban-Weiss, who researches relationships between local and global climate and who led the new study. “One of our concerns is the health consequences of extreme heat, so we wanted to be sure to study a hot baseline period.”

Using models, Ban-Weiss and a colleague found that replacing lawns and grassy parks with native bushes and other drought-hardy landscapes would increase daytime temperatures throughout the metropolitan area by 1.3°F on average. That’s largely because irrigation water acts like sweat, cooling down landscapes.

The study helps to inform a ‘what if’ thought experiment, in which a future L.A. morphs back toward its original state, free of irrigation, driven by worsening Western droughts.

The findings may also be relevant to other cities where soils are wettened during summer more by sprinklers and hoses than by rainfall.

In the suburban San Fernando Valley, where temperatures are among the highest, and where the natural environment was described in the 1880s as resembling that of a desert, daytime temperatures were projected to rise the most — by 3.4°F.

That would seem to be bad news. Greenhouse gas pollution has warmed the planet’s surface nearly 2°F on average, and natural weather cycles have caused the West to warm faster than most other places in recent decades. Compounding the problem is the urban heat island effect, with concrete causing L.A. and other cities to warm faster than rural regions.

Summertime temperatures in Los Angeles since the 1940s.
Credit: NOAA

But there was a nocturnal twist to the findings.

“If you stop irrigating, you’re making the system go back to the arid system that it really is,” said Abigail Swann, a University of Washington ecoclimate researcher. “If you’ve spent any time in arid places, you know that they cool very quickly at night and they also heat very quickly during the day.”

At night, the modeling projected a cooling effect from the changing landscapes that would be exceed the daytime warming effect. Across L.A., nighttime lows were projected to fall by an average of nearly 6°F if irrigation suddenly ended.

That’s a key finding, because nighttime lows help people recover daily even as heat waves persist. From a public health perspective, the findings point to a “net positive,” said Patrick Kinney, a professor who directs Columbia University’s climate and health program.

“It’s generally thought that nighttime minimum temperatures are more important for health risks than daytime highs during extreme heat events,” Kinney said.

Most of the water used in Los Angeles is piped in from other counties and regions, and most of that is used to water lawns and gardens. The new findings show that cutting back on irrigation in the low-rainfall metropolis could do more than just save water and the energy needed to transport it — it could save lives.



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One Glorious Map Shows the Future of Animal Migrations

The natural world is under siege by climate change. Rising temperatures are pushing plants and animals outside their current range. To keep pace with climate change, species will need a path to follow northward or up in elevation, minimally interrupted by human development.

This map shows that path (well, paths actually) in the most beautiful way possible.

A map showing the different pathways wildlife could use to migrate northward or higher in elevation as the climate warms.
Credit: The Nature Conservancy

It uses the dreamy Earth wind map for inspiration. But rather than using temperature, wind and sea level pressure data, Dan Majka, a web developer at The Nature Conservancy, used data from two studies to show all the feasible paths that mammals, birds and amphibians can use to find their way to a more suitable climate as their habitat becomes too hot.

The map doesn’t show specific species (you’re not going to be able to find the grizzly bear path, for example), but rather shows the general patterns scientists expect animals to follow as the world warms.

The visualization is stunning, but also hopeful. It shows that despite the challenges of climate change and increased urbanization, there are still pathways for the natural world to deal with those threats.

Zoomed out, it’s clear that the Appalachians are a crucial funnel for climate-induced migration. They’re smack dab in one of the most developed parts of the country and represent some of the last wild land in the eastern U.S.

“Much of the land outside of the mountain range is developed or in agriculture,” Brad McRae, an ecologist with the Nature Conservancy, said. “So as species ranges shift north, the Appalachians are providing some of the least-developed routes for movement. They also provide some climate relief due to their high elevation.”

Amphibians — represented by yellow lines — are likely to migrate westward out of the Amazon as the world warms.
Credit: The Nature Conservancy

Those high elevation lands will take on added importance and zooming in on the map only reinforces that reality. In South America, there’s a bright swath of yellow moving west out of the Amazon basin to higher elevations. In the Catskills of upstate New York, it’s the same story.

Beyond high elevations, zooming in anywhere on the map gives a glimpse into not just the geography of where and how species will move to beat the heat, but where humans live, work and grow things. New York may be the most populous city in the U.S. but it’s a veritable ghost town when it comes to animal migrations spurred by rising temperatures.

New York City is a relatively quiet spot on the climate migration corridor but the Catskills located northwest of the city will be an important climate migration pathway for wildlife.
Credit: The Nature Conservancy

According to one of the studies on which the map is based, only 2 percent of natural areas east of the Mississippi are connected in a way that allows species to migrate north or up in elevation. Because of the dismal state of connectivity, a small increase in conserved land could provide major benefits in the region.

National Parks are the lynch pins of wild land out West and could be part of a future solution in the East to ensure species can handle climate change. The recently dedicated Maine North Woods National Monument is a step in that direction, but more land will be needed if plants and animals are going to find new homes.


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Investors not thrilled with offers to buy Homer City coal plant

The plant is made up of: Unit 1 (620 MW), Unit 2 (614 MW) and Unit 3 (650 MW). It is located at Indiana, Pa., about 60 miles east of Pittsburgh


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