Wind Energy, Clean Coal, & Replicants - the Direct Energy Buzz for March 2016

Wind Energy, Clean Coal, & Replicants – the Direct Energy Buzz for March 2016

In this month’s Direct Energy Buzz, we’ll help you live brighter by digging a little deeper into a few energy and technology stories that might have found their way into your social media news feed. Specifically, we’ll discuss a wind energy news story with a confusing spin, find out what happened to clean coal, and finally offer a geeky wink at the coming robot revolution.

Wind Energy, Clean Coal, & Replicants - the Direct Energy Buzz for March 2016

Wind Energy: The Trouble with Spin

Last year, the headline Wind Power Generates 140% of Denmark’s Electricity Demand started appearing on Facebook news feeds. The story was posted by the The Guardian on July 10, 2015. Now, 140% is impressive for wind energy generation, no matter where you are. By comparison, on December 20, 2015, wind power in West Texas set an all-time high for wind production and provided 45% of the state’s total electric load for 17 hours.

Wind Energy, Clean Coal, & Replicants - the Direct Energy Buzz for March 2016
A glimpse at a wind energy farm off the coast of Denmark

Certainly, The Guardian’s headline was designed to give wind energy a lot of spin, especially in the UK because the British government had announced it was ending subsidies for wind power. In the US, however, the story’s presence on social media has been prompting confusion about US wind power. 45% isn’t a whole lot is it? Not even half, in fact. This is embarrassing. Why is Denmark making more with their wind?

You might be asking, “How and why are these articles about wind generation from last year relevant to this year? Well, how about we look some the actual wattage numbers?

  • Denmark’s wind farms have a capacity of 4.8 Gigawatts (GW). The actual energy demand on July 10, 2015 was 3.2 GW. Wind power provided 3.8 GW of energy, and 1.03 GW was exported.
  • Texas wind farm capacity is about 15.8 GW. Texas energy demand for December 20, 2015 was about 29.2 GW (nearly ten times that of Denmark). Texas wind supplied 13.9 GW of that demand (nearly 4 times the amount Denmark generated).

Hence, Denmark’s wind capacity would put it at a respectable fourth place compared to other US states generating wind power. The BIG Danish difference is that 1.271 GW comes from offshore wind turbines. Currently, the US is only just now building its first experimental offshore wind farm.

The Status of Clean Coal

Wind Energy, Clean Coal, & Replicants - the Direct Energy Buzz for March 2016
Coal has long been a centerpiece of the US electricity market.

Clean coal, or carbon sequestration as it is also known, has been the coal industry’s answer to controlling greenhouse gasses, especially carbon dioxide (CO2). The goal of the technology is the capture CO2 emissions and other particulates from coal generation smokestacks and convert the emissions into useful products. Not only can the CO2 be stored in the ground, but the gas can also be used for enhanced oil recovery (EOR) to force out more oil or gas out from existing wells. But for the past few years, Clean Coal’s high costs has been running into hundreds of millions of dollars.

Even with grants and partial funding from the US Department of Energy’s Clean Coal Power Initiative (sometimes helping with nearly 50% of a project’s cost), these CO2 capture projects stalled or were cancelled owing to regulatory uncertainty, low natural gas prices, and the continuing cost decline for renewable energy. Add to that the plummeting price of oil this past year which reduced the profit potential for EOR usage in older oilfields. On the whole, the financial outlook for clean coal has been dreary.

The bright spot so far is that the technology works. Even most cancelled projects showed reasonably high success rates. In Canada this past January. Boundary Dam’s No. 3 power generating unit and carbon dioxide collection system worked according to plan, capturing 84,976 tons of carbon dioxide and hitting a 99% efficiency.

Refinancing has kept a few US projects alive. The Texas Clean Energy Project is a 400 megawatt (mW) coal gasification plant designed to trap CO2 for EOR and other products will start construction soon having concluded agreements with Canadian and Chinese construction and engineers companies.

The Kemper Project near Meridian, MS is a 582 mW plant that will capture 3.5 million tons of CO2 per year for EOR. Plant construction costs are $6.49 billion, nearly double the original estimate, meaning the plant has been dogged with repaying millions in tax credits and construction delays. Financial aid from a development agreement with the state-owned Chinese coal and energy company, Shenhua, kept Kemper afloat, but it’s two years behind schedule. It’s now expected to begin operations later this year.

Going Batty Over Androids?

Wind Energy, Clean Coal, & Replicants - the Direct Energy Buzz for March 2016
Our future will either reflect the work of Isaac Asimov or Philip K. Dick. I hope we choose correctly.

For many geeks, 2016 has been the tongue in cheek harbinger of the Robot Revolution. Ridley Scott’s neo-noir film Blade Runner takes place in 2019. A group of illegal androids (called “Replicants”) are led by a military-grade replicant, Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer). Batty’s inception date is January 8, 2016. Other androids in the group also have incept dates in 2016, so birthday greetings for the Replicants popped up everywhere on social media (at least it did with my circle of nerdy friends).

What makes this slightly eerie is that Boston Dynamics debuted video of its new Atlas robot February 23, 2016. a bipedal robot that could navigate and self-right itself, Atlas looks much like C-3PO’s ungainly cousin. But what if you could wrap that clunky metal frame in something soft, squishy, and potentially responsive to tactile stimuli?

In fact, researchers at Cornell university recently developed an electroluminescent “skin” that can bend and stretch. They combined this skin with a soft locomotive robot to create a crawling robot that changes color. Apart from applications for health care and communication, it’s fun to note that the hyper-elastic light-emitting capacitor (HLEC) material in the skin could be used to provide input for a web of tactile sensors.

Of course, development of “Replicant” androids is decades away – we hope.

All the same, I’d like to say for the record right now that I welcome our robot overlords.


Vernon Trollinger is a writer with a background in home improvement, electronics, fiction writing, and archaeology. He now writes about green energy technology, home energy efficiency, the natural gas industry, and the electrical grid.

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