Thursday, September 06, 2007

Energyville - energy options for a city of 3.9 million for the next 30 years

Energyville is another simulation game allowing players to qualitatively explore tradeoffs in the choices we make for our energy system.

In the game, you need to ensure the energy needs (not just electricity, but also transport and heating) for a city of 3.9 million people, with a 2030 time horizon. And of course, you need to keep citizens prosperous and minimise impact to the environment.

This game is a bit more crude than Electrocity. This should not matter much, since simulation games are about rough approximations. The learning cycle for Energyville is much faster, and play much easier, but at the expense of the higher resolution offered by Electrocity.

If you have 5 minutes, try Energyville. If you can spare half an hour, go for Electrocity.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Electrocity - a highly addictive game for students young and old

Via WattWatt we learn about a new game with the name Electrocity offered by genesis energy in New Zealand.

You can become the mayor of a city of 10,000 people with 30 plots of land, on which you can build power plants, factories, amusement parks and so on. You start with a capital of 400, and play 150 turns to develop your city.

Looking at the completed cities players have built, some have ended up with huge wealth, and a large and happy population, while preserving the environment. But beware, it's not trivial the first times to play and not go bankrupt.

While the underlying assumptions of such game will always remain open for debate, Electrocity does a good job teaching its players that development is a balancing exercise between capital resources, # citizens, happiness of citizens, taxation rate, economic development, electricity supply and environmental performance. It's an education tool, not a simulation. Put in the words of its makers:

ElectroCity was developed to increase public awareness – particularly among students – of the basic "common knowledge" of these topics. That is, the general terms and concepts of the industry and the dilemmas that go along with them. Our goal is not to provide students with a sophisticated understanding of the controversies in the various energy debates. Rather, our goal is to spark an interest and lay an unbiased foundation for later learning.


Thursday, July 05, 2007

Eat less oil

Interested in eating less oil? In this VideoNation/Hidden Driver report, animator Molly Schwartz keeps track of how many miles your food travels from field to fork. A short video (3 minutes) showing with some clear messages how much energy is used for growing, harvesting, transporting, preserving and cooking food.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Are cities sustainable?

IEEE Spectrum's special issue on Megacities
Cities need to import the materials, food and energy they consume, and have a footprint which is much larger than the area they occupy. For example, Tokyo's footprint is 60% larger than all productive land available in Japan.

Paradoxically, because of their concentration, cities offer a potential to rething transport, eliminate cars, use cogeneration, recycling and remanufacturing. Compact enclosed dwellings near a place of work can be heated efficiently. But we're not yet using cities in this manner.

Cities' inefficient design, combined with the relatively higher incomes of urbanites increase the footprint of the urban environment well beyond what it could be.

The perfect city could very well be sustainable. Since 3 decades, Paolo Soleri is promoting the concept of the lean linear city, which aims to combine quality of life with a low footprint.

In China, where major greenfield cities are mushrooming, the concept of a sustainable city design is being developed with the city of Dongtan, a new urban development which will eventually be home to half a million people.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

UK's White paper on energy - is it enough to lead the world?

The UK Government has published its new white paper on energy. As a progressive country leading the fight against climate change and a paradigm shift towards sustainable energy, it's worth having a look at the concrete measures proposed.

Typical for this kind of roadmap, a wide range of measures in various stages of development and covering all sectors is listed. A few highlights.

Energy saving, whether in industry, services, households, transport or the public sector is the first frontier. Interestingly, reduction targets are phrased in terms of carbon rather than energy saved, which makes sense: when including renewable energy flows, there is plenty of energy to go around, and its carbon emissions in use become the limiting factor.

More worrying are the words on renewable energy, where the EU now has a 20% commitment by 2020. UK, as a major EU member, and one of its most progressive ones on sustainable energy, states a 20% renewable electricity target as an aspiration. Regarding the 2 other renewable energy sectors:

  • a 5% renewable fuel target in transport by 2010, with an intention to go beyond after 'if the conditions are right'
  • a plan for biomass-based renewable heat

These actions on renewable energy look moderate for UK, which is naturally endowed on renewable energy sources. If UK already falls short on the EU's 20% target, we can be much more pessimistic on other countries.

Finally, careful words on nuclear energy, but a statement that without it, the 2050 60% carbon reduction target can only be met with more difficulties, at higher cost and more risks in terms of security of supply.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Is sustainable energy policy sustainable?

Or a bubble about to burst?

Sustainable policy requires a.o. sound economics, political commitment, consideration on technical development, while taking into account possible reactions of market actors affected.

Ifenergy comments about the explosion in venture capital finance for energy technology startups, speculating on money flowing into shaky startups which may lead to an alternative energy bubble.

Another case is wind energy. Ambitious policies have created an industry employing 40,000 in Germany. But now that onshore opportunities have been largely exhausted, this industry is pressured to go rapidly offshore, with relatively unproven technology. The quick ramp in turbine size is almost beyond precedent compared to other engineering technologies. Hopefully, there will be no future price to pay.

Investment into renewable energy has developed into a large global market - we can find many posts citing 11-12 digit figures for annual turnover of this industry. But equally, large subsidy flows accompany market development. These subsidies are usually presented as 'a few percent of the household electricity bill', and much smaller than the support for conventional energy (carbon fuels and nuclear), and hence declared reasonable. However, compared to its contribution, renewable energy receives much larger support than conventional energy. How will citizens react if the expected learning investments would not materialise, and renewable energy pushes up the electricial energy bill?

Learning effects may come to the rescue. Historically, renewable energy technologies have demonstrated a 15-20% cost reduction for each doubling of cumulative output.  But costs still need to go down a factor 2-3 to be competitive with conventional generation. At the current market size of more than 50 B$ annually, the learning investment to double cumulative output a couple of times to achieve a factor 2 cost reduction represents a daunting figure.

Energy prices and externalities may come to the rescue. If energy prices continue to rise, and the cost of carbon is fully taken into account in energy prices, renewable energy may not need much cost reduction to become competitive. This seems an assumption embedded in many roadmap scenarios.

Time will tell, but it appears that sustainable energy policies could benefit from basic engineering considerations in the scaling up of systems, as well as economic consideration on learning effects towards mass deployment. Sequencing the right policies at the right time, while timely phasing out policies that have run their course deserves more attention.

All the discussion about an energy revolution is a bit reminiscent of the 'new economy' before the dot-com bubble burst in 2002.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Scaling up

Sustainable energy is a numbers game with many zeroes. Many experiments are possible in a laboratory, or as a small pilot, but to make a difference, these technologies needs to be scaled up many orders of magnitude. gives a sense of these dimensions through an interactive map showing how much time it takes for various nations to emit a 1000 tonnes of CO2. Your visit to the site will also be measured in terms of global CO2 emissions.

Another site measures time in terms of barrels of oil. Chevron's Will you join us campaign. During the time of writing this simple post, the world consumed a million barrels of oil, and a few 100,000 tonnes of CO2 have been emitted.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Yet another ocean energy concept

Creativity seems to know no boundaries while inventing concepts to harness ocean power. Recently at Leonardo ENERGY, we devoted a short eBook to this. Hereby another concept from a Finnish company (see AW-Energy Oy).

From the energy blogs

After Gutenberg reports on a new plastic solar cell approaching the 8% efficiency barrier for this technology. The challenge will be for the solar cell to match the lifetime of the equipment and buildings in which it will be integrated, or to make it easily replaceable.

Still with Gutenberg, a new joint venture on electric vehicles of Nissan with NEC is announced, but considering the size of the investment, the project is more an experiment or public-relations exercise than ground-breaking.

From the Energy Blog, the Fuel Cell Volt introduced by GM at the Shanghai auto show has it all, fuel cell, battery pack, plug-in option, but no mentioning of price.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Energy Unit Calculators

Energy units range from the very small to the very large. And different industries account for energy in different ways. Hereby an overview of the most important convertors on energy and other units:

Voluntary Carbon Offsets - still a long way to go | Leonardo ENERGY

Stories mushroom of individuals and organisations offsetting their carbon emissions by purchasing credits. With increasing demand for carbon offsets, several dozens of companies now offer such credits [1]. Prices vary, but typically you can go carbon-free for a price of 5 to 10 $/tonne CO2. A typical European with a carbon footprint of 10 tonne could go carbon-neutral for less than 100$.

Proponents of these schemes argue that offsets allow addressing climate change at the lowest cost to society. In addition, they serve as an education tool, making people aware of how much pollution they cause.

Opponents are worried about environmental integrity of the schemes, and prefer offsets being used as a last resort, after other options have been exhausted. A proposal for a Gold Standard on offsets by the Carbon Trusts comments in the same vein [2].

A price of 5-10$/tCO2 is well under the price of the EU's Emission Trading Scheme [3], where currently allowances for 2008-2009 are traded at 18 euro/tonne. According to IEA, plenty of carbon reduction opportunities are available at a price below 25 $/tonne.

It appears that personal/organisational carbon offsets have a bright future, but there are lots of conditions to be fulfilled:

  1. First exhaust other options for reducing direct & indirect emissions [2]
  2. Schemes need to be real, permanent, verifiable and truly additional, not planting 'a sapling for $2, not water it, not fertilize it, and figure out how much carbon dioxide it would absorb over 50 years' [1]
  3. The cost of the offset, minus the cost of running the scheme, needs to be invested into a project which produces an equivalent amount of carbon credits over its lifetime as the offsets being granted for its investment amount - a trivial proposition, but at present conspicuous in its absence for most current schemes.

A voluntary carbon market could be a great instrument to deliver low-cost carbon reductions, but government, or consumer organisations need to get involved to set the rules and provide a quality label for premium carbon offset providers.


[1] San Francisco Chronicle, April 15: Paying to absolve the sin of emissions

[2] Carbon Offsets: Greening or Greenwash?

[3] The EU Emission Trading Scheme - a play in 4 acts

[4] Energy Technology Perspectives - Towards a Sustainable Energy Future

RENREN - Unique experiences on RES put together | Leonardo ENERGY

A few regions in Austria, Germany, UK, Sweden and Iceland put together a network of best practices on renewable energy. Considering the geographical scope, they can cover most technologies, from emerging ocean power over geothermal & biomass to proven wind technologies.

Except for a single short article on EurActiv, there's almost no information regarding the network on the web, despite involvement of Commission Piebalgs and local politicians in the launch event. Looks like a mere public relations event.

RENREN - Unique experiences on RES put together Leonardo ENERGY

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Build your own alternative fuel vehicle

A popular class at Santa Rosa Junior College, California

At Santa Rosa Junior College in Petaluma, California, mechanics and do-it-yourself environmentalists are learning how to convert a standard car into an alternative fuel vehicle running on ethanol, vegetable oil, or electricity. The class was created two years ago by diesel truck mechanic Mark Armstrong and has quickly grown in popularity. The maximum number of forty students filled the class soon after registration opened this year and another forty had to be turned away.

Mark Armstrong teaches his students a wide variety of skills; for example how to solder and braze so that they are able to assemble an ethanol converter from dozens of copper pieces. In other sessions, students are taught such things as how to install a filter for purifying the vegetable oil or a heat exchanger that brings the vegetable oil to the correct temperature to enable the fuel injectors to work efficiently. Converting a car to run on electricity requires the most extensive alteration since additional room has to be created for fifteen battery packs, which usually involves reconfiguring the suspension.


Article 'Alternative fuels class flooded' in The Press Democrat

Friday, February 09, 2007

My car is saving the food in the freezer

A car and emergency power supply all in one

The more we rely on electric power, the more vulnerable we become when there is a grid power outage. Is that an argument against the development of electric cars? ‘We won’t even be able to recharge our car batteries during a power outage,’ critics say.

A small California-based company, AC Propulsion, has turned this potential disadvantage into an advantage. It has developed battery systems for cars that can be charged by plugging into the house mains as well as delivering electricity back to the house. That would make it possible to run lights, the freezer and even electric heaters off the energy stored in the car.

And if these battery systems are used in a plug-in hybrid vehicle, they can be paired with the car’s gasoline engine to recharge the batteries. So you will still be able to drive if necessary during, or immediately after, a power outage.


Article 'Electric Cars: What Happens When the Power's Out?' in the MIT Technology Review

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The need for a master plan

Gaining public acceptance for climate change mitigation efforts

We presently do not have a proven tool that quantifies the environmental impact of various electricity generation systems. And without it, we cannot take well-founded decisions concerning our energy future. That is one of the conclusions in the paper Environmental Effects of Electricity Generation by The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) (see former post). Current discussions about the Severn barrage (see former post) and the construction of a wind park on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland (see article in the Sunday Times) illustrate in practice how urgently such a tool is needed.

These cases also show that such a decision tool alone will not be enough to guarantee that we are taking the best available measures to mitigate climate change. There is also a need for a European structure in which such a decision tool can be applied.

Emotional resistance

As the IET paper makes clear, the environmental impact of renewable energy is not zero. If we want to apply renewable energy generation on a scale comparable to fossil fuels, what ever form it takes will have a significant impact in terms of aesthetics, land use, and the eco-system. Consequently, renewable energy projects will continue to face increasing ‘Not-In-My-Backyard’ resistance at the same time they are gaining in their contribution to global energy needs. An undeniable, tangible effect in someone's backyard today will always have greater personal impact than a global, complex phenomenon that occurs over the course of a century or more.

Countering such resistance can be accomplished in two ways. The first is elevating the emotional rhetoric ever higher to dramatize climate change as leading directly to the end of world (see former post). The second one is more durable but also more difficult: use rational arguments that stand like a rock. Make sure that the complex global phenomenon is as clear to people as the nose on your face, and propose a mix of solutions that is undeniably the best we can do. The former is what Al Gore did in the movie An Inconvenient Truth – at least in its best moments, since the movie was not completely free of over-dramatization either. Unfortunately, Gore keeps surprisingly silent about solutions.

Searching for the best available solutions

Regarding the Severn barrage, an answer to the following questions might go a long way towards convincing local populations, bird watchers, and other environmentalists: Have all other measures for reducing CO2 emissions been considered? Are there no effective measures available at a lower price? Will building the barrage actually lead to a net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions or will it only be used to increase energy consumption? Presently, there is no clear answer to these questions. The UK government needs to be able to state unequivocally that ‘We are making maximum efforts to stimulate energy efficiency, since this “fourth fuel” has the least environmental impact. We have thoroughly investigated which of the possible measures will have the least financial, environmental, and social cost in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, including the Severn barrage. With this barrage, we will be able to close down 2,000 MW of coal-fired power plants, leading to a CO2 reduction of x tons a year.’ In short, building this barrage should be part of a master plan — preferably pan-European — that can be explained and proven to the general public that it is the best available solution for mitigating climate change.

Complex market mechanisms

The idea of a master plan with executive power, however, contradicts the philosophy of a liberalized market.

If the UK government acted strictly along the lines of the liberalized energy market, it

  • Could force the market to reduce greenhouse gas emissions
  • Should leave it completely up to the market how to achieve these reductions
  • Should of not grant a permit to build the Severn barrage, since that would affect state-protected nature reserves

In short, it would ask the impossible of the various market players and stakeholders, since the dilemma of local versus global impact would not be solved.

The third way is to design a master plan that indicates the measures with the least financial, environmental, social cost, but to leave its execution to the market. That is to set up market mechanisms that work in such a way that the least cost for the market players coincides with the least cost for society. Those mechanisms however are virtually guaranteed to be highly complex, so complex in fact that it will be difficult to gain the support of a broad public. Have you ever tried to explain the Emission Trading Scheme (ETS) or the green certificates system to laymen? Moreover, there is no guarantee that those mechanisms will function as desired, as proved by the failure of the ETS (see blog post EU emissions trading scrutinized). And as the Severn case illustrates, it is very difficult to incorporate all required considerations (up to and including eco-diversity and local tourism) into such market mechanisms.

Making the solutions as clear as the problem

Thanks to missionaries like Al Gore, the broad public is today convinced that climate change is real. But before people will be willing to undertake the efforts necessary to mitigate the effects, they will need the assurance that those efforts are part of a clear, generally acknowledged master plan, for which all available measures have been investigated and the options with the least cost to society clearly identified. As long as there is no such plan implemented, some people will keep on reasoning that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, and decisions like the one on the Severn barrage will be impossible to take in a satisfying manner for all parties concerned.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Finding good sites for wind turbines is not so easy

Wind farms in England and Wales are failing to generate the predicted amount of electricity

A study by the Renewable Energy Foundation shows that England and Wales are not windy enough to generate electricity at the rates projected for them. Government targets are based on wind farms running at 30% of capacity. But most farms in England and Wales are generating only around 25%. The two poorest performers have rates of no more than 7.7% and 8.8% respectively.

In the UK, only the wind farms in Scotland and those on the Orkney and Shetland isles run above 30% of capacity. But those sites face other problems. They are far from the main consuming areas, so significant amounts of electrical power are lost in transmission. Moreover, they are often located in ecologically sensitive areas. One example is the projected wind farm on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer-Hebrides. The site is controversial since it is located near important bird sanctuaries (see article in the Sunday Times).

This illustrates how difficult it has become to find acceptable sites for wind farms in Europe. The Renewable Energy Foundation has concluded that the most effective sites for wind energy are off-shore near major cities.


Article on

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

HAPPY NEW (and sustainable) YEAR!

A historic turn?

The only way to detect historic events in your own life-time is to live to be well beyond 100. We may not be that fortunate (from an academic point of view), but it seems reasonable to assume that the publication of the Stern-Review late 2006 was a significant milestone on the road to a sustainable world. An event that may be regarded as historic in creating an understanding of the climate problem, an awareness of the opportunities and a political platform for action.

Understanding the problem

The magnitude of the climate change, in terms of the effects, the speed of the change and the inevitability was made perfectly clear (see figure), but also that it is possible to pull the brakes.

(click image to enlarge)

It became clear that no region of the world will be un-touched, though some will be hit harder. Those that may enjoy a brief period of perceived improvements in climate may have to face more frequent storms and flooding later. In short - there is no escape!

The opportunities

The most hopeful part of the Stern-Review is when it declares that a fairly small investment (1% of the world GDP) will enable us to avoid a huge recession with loss of some 20% of the world GDP (not to mention loss of lifes and land). This is extremely important because the debate has up till now tacitly assumed that the Business-as-usual, BAU, alternative did not have any negative impact on the economy. One could say that we have compared the future with the past instead of comparing two different futures.

Even more important and hopeful is when the review declares that the economies that first understand the challenges will be the winners in the new industrial setting to produce, install and use climate-friendly, low-carbon products. They will be the suppliers to a huge and growing world-market, estimated to be at least 500 Billion USD a year worldwide.

The political platform

The Review has generally been positively received and forms the starting point for several international actions both in the EU and in G8, which is very appropriate since it puts heavy emphasis on the need for international co-operation. Nevertheless it is possible to detect some different attitudes in the reception

1. The denial, which is no surprise since there is an entire industry to deny the need for a change. There have also been some lame attempts to say that there are more important problems than climate change to tackle. A strange attitude since e.g. water supply that is mentioned is one of the problems that is aggravated with climate change. There have also been attempts to attack the economic analysis on the ground of comparing long-term effects. A sort of standard discussion, which however that review has studied in great detail. This criticism seems rather to be liturgics than serious.

2. The hope (and declaration) of a quick technology fix. Mostly expressed as a wish for more (and new types of) nuclear power and of Carbon Capture and Storage, CCS-technology. These technologies should quickly and with little disturbance just kick-in and save us from all evil. Often expressed in editorial articles in major newspapers affiliated to political parties. In the same papers there is often expressed a worry that the new reports are proclaiming doomsday and are scaring people. A legitimate reaction that people may either overreact or block themselves away from the problems.

The reaction could also be interpreted as a nostalgic wish for yesterday and a hope that there will be saviour for a life-style that is hard to question and harder to depart from.

3. Retarding. Business-associations react more positively but are asking for some more time to adjust themselves and especially not to be the only or the main loser of the game. There will certainly be a difference between branches. Some will lose, some will lose more but some will gain.

4. Repressive acceptance, which is probably what most of us are feeling. "Yes we understand, but what should I do, when should I do it and how much?". We may easily understand that week-end shopping-trips across Europe even at cheap flight-prices are not a sustainable idea, but how about driving for a pick-nick at the sea-side?

5. Take the action-road, and accept that small steps in the beginning are OK. We may have to understand that quality life-style and quantity is not compatible. We may have to ask ourselves the question Kofi Annan put when he has read the Stern-Review: As Climate Changes - Can we?

After all it would be natural for anyone of us to go through all these stages in a process to cope with reality and come to a conclusion. But as they say: "Today is the first day in the rest of our life" - So let us start now!

A Happy New Year - Your first in the new sustainable era!