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14 September 2013

Press Review 14-09-2013

This week started off with a turn of events for Syria, for the moment any direct military intervention from NATO members is adjourned sine die . Russia and its idiosyncratic President play the geopolitics chess masterfully, in face of NATO's reluctance and lack of strategy for North Africa and the Middle East. The risk of a rapid escalation seems put away, at least for now.

Later in the week come other important news, with the sad decease of Al Bartlett at age 90. A forewarn had already circulated of an impeding defeat against persisting illness, but we are now sure professor Bartlett won't lecture again on exponential growth. His writings and his famous hour long lecture where a great help when I started studying energy depletion issues. He had an outstanding gift to distil big issues into stark, short sentences. His most memorable quote: "sustainable growth is an oxymoron".

Below the fold, to watch or re-watch, the lecture that explains the root of most of our environmental problems.

Albert A. Bartlett: Ode to a Gentle Giant

I was planning to send a different email today--to talk about the new website we are developing, The Energy Xchange. But I learned last night that Al Bartlett, a long-time friend, advisor, and guiding light for ASPO-USA, had died over the weekend. The news did not come suddenly. Al had shared that a previous illness had reasserted itself and that he and his family were preparing for his passage.

Dr. Albert Allen Bartlett enjoyed 90 years of rich life on this earth; moreover, thousands of people have enjoyed and been touched by Al's life.

He is of course most widely known as a tireless, eloquent, and supremely caring voice for charting a sustainable path for humanity. With seemingly endless determination, he applied his training in math and physics and skills as a master teacher to focus attention on a simple but paramount idea--on a finite planet, "growth" is unsustainable. "Sustainable growth is an oxymoron", is how Al is sometimes quoted.[...]

The other major note of the week was the announcement of a new study on Energy matters by Stanford University; unlike the previous, this one is actually very worthy. There are two important points to take way, in first place the study confirms the relatively low EROEI of PV at this stage. It bears the question: how can PV provide electricity cheaper than the grid. This is probably telling more about the modern electricity supply system than PV itself.

The second important point to take from this article is the general adequacy of chemical based technologies for electricity storage. They may be useful to back up PV for the moment, but as PV technologies evolves this may stop being the case at some point. Chemical storage technologies where primarily motivated by mobility applications, with high density in mind. This study clearly shows that, when considering the full life cycle, mass or gravity storage are for now far more efficient options. As I have written in the past, chemical storage appears to need yet a leap of some sort to reach critical mass.
Science 2.0
Grid-Scale Batteries Work Well For Storing Solar Power, But Not Wind

A new paper adds evidence to that, noting that when the operation and construction of storage batteries are included, solar power numbers can work but wind cannot. [...]

A wide variety of technologies are being developed to address the lack of grid-scale storage. The authors of a new paper looked at several technologies, including five battery types – lead-acid, lithium-ion, sodium-sulfur, vanadium-redox and zinc-bromine.

"We looked at batteries and other promising technologies for storing solar and wind energy on the electrical grid," said Charles Barnhart, the lead author and a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford's Global Climate and Energy Project (GCEP). "Our primary goal was to calculate their overall energetic cost – that is, the total amount of fuel and electricity required to build and operate these storage technologies. We found that when you factor in the energetic costs, grid-scale batteries make sense for storing surplus solar energy, but not for wind" [...]

"Both wind turbines and photovoltaics deliver more energy than it takes to build and maintain them," said GCEP postdoctoral scholar Michael Dale, a co-author of the study. "However, our calculations showed that the overall energetic cost of wind turbines is much lower than conventional solar panels, which require lots of energy, primarily from fossil fuels, for processing silicon and fabricating other components." [...]

"Ideally, the energetic cost of curtailing a resource should at least equal the amount of energy it cost to store it," Dale said. "That's the case for photovoltaics, but for wind farms, the energetic cost of curtailment is much lower than it is for batteries. Therefore, it would actually be more energetically efficient to shut down a wind turbine than to store the surplus electricity it generates."
The apparent struggle of chemical technologies to keep up with the spread of small scale decentralised electricity generation is thus creating opportunities for more traditional, and simpler, storage means. Scaling down well known gravity or mass based storage might in the end provide the missing step for a decentralised grid.
IEEE Spectrum
Compressed Air Energy Storage Makes a Comeback
Martin LaMonica, 12-09-2013

Conventional compressed-air energy storage uses a compressor to pressurize air and pump it into underground geological formations. The two plants of this type currently in operation—one in McIntosh, Alabama, and the other in Huntorf, Germany—use salt caverns as storage tanks, pumping compressed air in at night, when energy demand is lowest. During the day, the air is released, heated with natural gas, and forced through a turbine to generate power. The appeal of this technology is that it’s relatively low cost and can store many kilowatt-hours of energy.

SustainX takes a different tack: it uses compressed air as the energy storage medium, but holds the air in large pipes, the same used in natural gas pipelines. That means utilities or even commercial customers could place a storage device in a range of industrial locations, rather than only where there’s an underground formation available. [...]

A key difference between SustainX's technique and conventional CAES technology is that the compression and expansion of air are done at near-constant temperature and the process doesn’t require natural gas. And unlike conventional batteries, this system can vary the amount of energy independent of the power output. In other words, you can expand the amount of energy it stores simply by installing bigger pipes. That's different from a battery designed to deliver, say, 1 megawatt for 2 hours. If you wanted four hours of storage, you'd have to buy another battery--a more expensive approach, the company says.
News on the growth of PV remain frequent in the press, showing that it won't be a few short sighted governments in Europe to stop it. This time is Brasil, tabling a further expansion of PV suppliers to the grid. In Brasil there are neither dreams of perfect liberalised markets; potential suppliers go on auction for long term contracts.
PV Magazine
Brazil welcomes solar to major energy auction
Vladimir Pekic, 12-09-2013

In a big win for PV producers in Brazil, the country's energy minister has pushed through a new decree allowing solar in the upcoming A-5 auction for electricity from new energy plants that will go online in 2018. [...]

Although solar was originally excluded from the upcoming A-5 auction for electricity from new energy plants that come online in five years’ time, Brazil’s Ministry of Mines and Energy (MME) modified legislation regulating the A-5 auction in order to allow the participation of solar and wind plants in the auction scheduled for Dec. 13. The change of heart was heralded by energy minister Edison Lobão in the last week of August, during his speech at the Brazil Windpower conference in Rio de Janeiro.

The dramatic change was formally announced in a new decree, details of which were published in state gazette Diário Oficial da União (DoU) on Sept. 11. Photovoltaic and thermal solar plants with installed capacities of at least 5 MW will be able to take part in the auction that will see suppliers signing 20-year contracts with distribution companies, according to the text of the new decree.
Gas shortages in gas land, odd but true. Is it simple consequence of bad management or a symptom of something else? Speculation is ripe but there's no tangible information to conclude further; a case to watch closely nonetheless.
Barents Observer
Gas shortage ignites protest in Murmansk
Atle Staalesen, 10-09-2013

Thousands of households lost their cooking heat and the eternal gas fire in front of the famous Alyesha war memorial silently died out as Murmansk Oblast experienced one of its most serious disruptions of gas supplies ever.

Regional Governor Marina Kovtun fully blames Murmanoblgaz, the main regional gas supplier, for the situation. According to Kovtun, the leadership of the company has displayed “a horrific disorderliness, complete lack of responsibility and unacceptable negligence” in its work. She argues that the company has not undertaken any modernization measures, but rather rather kept the system going “in the old way, without perspectives”.

Kovtun admits that she has received huge numbers of concerned letters and complains by locals hit by the shutdown. It was mostly the cities of Murmansk and Severomorsk, which were affected by the shortage, a press release from the regional administration reads.

Measures are now being taken to overcome the situation and the regional authorities have issued guarantees to other gas supplying companies for the needed deliveries. Murmansk is itself a key shareholder of Murmanoblgaz and now intends to demand an extraordinary shareholders assembly where the current company director Aleksandr Chernenko will be dismissed.
Interesting steps are being taken unilaterally by net exporting nations to stabilise currency markets. These promises by the BRICS resemble the automatic penalties on nations with a trade surplus proposed by John Keynes in his Bancor system; but with the difference of being voluntary. Time will tell the effectiveness of a measure that does not include the remainder global players, namely the large trade blocks on a trade deficit.
BRICS to commit $100 billion to FX fund, completion a way off
Lidia Kelly and Alessandra Prentice, 05-09-2013

The BRICS emerging economies will set up a $100 billion fund to steady currency markets, Russia's Vladimir Putin said on Thursday, but it looks unlikely to be in place soon enough to temper the effects of an expected pullback of U.S. monetary stimulus.

China, holder of the world's largest foreign exchange reserves, will contribute the bulk of the currency pool. But officials said it would not be functional for some time yet.

Cheap dollars that fueled a boom in Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa over the past decade have turned tail since Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, warned in May of a 'taper' in the U.S. bond-buying scheme.

"The initiative to establish a BRICS currency reserve pool is at its final stage," president Putin said in opening remarks to a meeting of BRICS leaders during a Group of 20 summit in Russia's second city, St. Petersburg. "Its capital volume has been agreed at $100 billion."
To close some thoughts on the recent scandal with the NSA. For someone coming from Computer Science the hint that standard encryption protocols may have intentionally introduced back doors is a complete game changer, it's an earthquake rocking the information technology world to its deepest foundations. Most computer users have no idea what SSL is, nor that it is supposed to protect all the sensible internet traffic, otherwise the consequences of these revelations could have been far more more reaching. In any case the cat is out of the box, a new dynamics towards open standards and services, disconnected from the US government and its acolyte software companies is already en marche.
Germans switch to national email providers after US scandal
Valentina Pop, 29-08-2013

German people are flocking to national email providers and demanding encryption services normally reserved for corporate security in the wake of the US spying scandal, German justice minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger told journalists in Berlin on Wednesday (28 August).

"German users have reacted to the NSA [the US' National Security Agency] scandal by switching to German email providers … and they are demanding encryption of their emails so far reserved to telecom companies. There is a great opportunity for private encryption," the minister said.

She claimed that "some 80 percent have done so" already.

A Liberal politician known for her outspoken statements, Schnarrenberger said she herself uses the government email encryption for her work-related communication, which represents the lion's share of her emails.
I have been searching for an alternative to GMail for a few months without success. A service with an interface with the same level of usability, but with secure transmission and above all, safe storage is yet to exist. Projects like Mailpile may well change that though.
Open Sourcers Pitch Secure Email in Dark Age of PRISM
Klint Finley, 26-08-2013

With the specter of government surveillance hanging over this post-PRISM world, people are beginning to wonder if the idea of secure email is complete nonsense.

Ever since the former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden leaked documents revealing the extent of the spy agency’s monitoring activities, many are convinced that email can never be completely safe from prying eyes, and some have even given it up entirely. In recent weeks, two services that promised to offer completely secure email — Lavabit and Silent Circle — have shutdown, apparently because they couldn’t stop the government from breaking their security.

But the reality is that email is an integral part of both our personal and professional lives — something that most of us can’t give up without alienating friends and family and ditching our day jobs. We have no choice but to find new ways making it safe. “E-mail is going to be with us for a long time,” says Bjarni Rúnar Einarsson, a software developer and member of the Icelandic Pirate Party. “We need to do what we can to make it more secure.”

Einarsson is doing his part with Mailpile, an open source web-based e-mail client that you can run on your own computer or in the cloud. With this creation, he hopes to make it easier for every day users to encrypt their mail — without giving up the sort of search tools they get from a service like Google’s Gmail. The team has already raised over $100,000 dollars on the crowdfunding site Indie GoGo to fund its future development.
Have a nice weekend.

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