Navigant Research Blog

Muni Leading the Way on Electric Vehicles

— April 23, 2009

While Toyota is given much of the credit for today’s market for hybrid electric vehicles, public transit agencies deserve equal acclaim for advancing the technology. They could also play in encouraging consumers in the future to buy plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) by offering free vehicle charging.

For every Prius that you see driving in the HOV lane, there’s at least another hybrid-electric or all-electric bus shuttling dozens of people to work. City and regional muni systems have embraced hybrid electric buses because of their ability to capture energy from regenerative braking. This enables them to reduce their fuel consumption (often diesel) in urban areas where air quality is a priority.

The federal government is supporting municipal agencies’ pioneering work in the use of electric and alternative fuel vehicles to the tune of $300 million. Some of this Recovery Act money will be used to set up vehicle charging stations and test converted plug-in hybrid vehicles.

PHEVs and all-electrics are well suited to vehicles that travel short distances and are refueled (or in this case recharged) in a central location, like transit agency staff who work around airports or travel short distances, like everyone’s favorite, the ticket writers of the parking authority.

Park and ride locations that add charging stations could provide a double benefit — getting more people on public transit, and eliminating fossil fuels from the commute to and from the parking lots. Public transit agencies in Ann Arbor and Portland are among those already considering adding charging stations. This would enable the entire commute — possibly of 100 miles — to be completed without direct burning of fossil fuels.

When vehicle to grid technology becomes commercialized, park and ride lots could save money and provide free parking. Plug-in expert Andy Frank of the University of California at Davis looked at the economics around BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) lots in the San Francisco Area and found that charging batteries off peak (like in the morning hours, and then drawing some of the energy back at peak times) would more than pay for the cost of the energy itself.

Frank said BART buys its energy in bulk two to three years in advance and always overpays for access to energy at peak times because it needs to keep the electric trains running. Tapping into vehicles as needed would allow BART to be more conservative in its energy purchases, saving the agency up to $4 million per year, according to Frank. When extra power is produced but not required, it would then be given to the vehicles for free as payback for access to the batteries.

It will take years to get to this point as battery technology is still unproven for frequent discharging of energy to the grid, and the technology for managing upstream electricity isn’t there yet. When vehicle to grid becomes a consumer application, thanks in part may need to be given to muni.

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Sugar Cane Could Sweeten Ethanol Mix

— April 17, 2009

The government is considering raising the allowable mixture of ethanol in gasoline to 15 percent for two reasons: to meet stated goals for consumption of the biofuel, and to aid the agriculture industry.

Ethanol prices have fluctuated wildly, mostly in response to petroleum prices since a fair amount of petroleum is required to produce and transport it. The ethanol processing industry went into freefall as production dropped and facilities were shuttered when gasoline prices dipped. Raising the limit to 15 percent would boost the price of ethanol (and possibly corn as well), which would be acceptable to most folks unless the price of gasoline skyrockets again, and then we’re back in the same boat.

All of this wild swinging back and forth isn’t good for farmers, investors, or the environment. But when you consider the greenhouse gas emissions, sugar cane is a better choice until cellulosic ethanol is widely available. Sugar cane reduces GHGs by approximately 90 percent when compared with gasoline according to the Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association ; corn ethanol saves about 20 percent.

The group recently sent a letter to the California Air Resources Board, claiming that the organization’s methodology for estimating carbon intensity was outdated and did not account for the reduction of the field burning of sugar cane or the cogeneration of electricity from heat. The group says that adding sugar cane ethanol to gasoline could enable the combined fuel to meet the state’s proposed low carbon fuel standard.

Sugar cane growers are also dealing with the impact of low prices due to decreased demand. The southeastern United States has favorable conditions for growing sugar cane, and the labor and technical expertise to make it happen if demand can be stabilized.

Also, if the government is serious about climate change and national security, filling up those millions of flex-fuel vehicles that primarily fill up with gasoline makes sense, certainly with government-owned vehicles. Lifting the U.S. tariff on imported ethanol (54 cents per gallon) would also reduce the demand for (and in theory the price of) oil. When you consider all of the social costs and risks of importing oil from less-than-friendly countries, Brazilian ethanol looks like a bargain.

If a carbon cap is put into place, we should see demand for biofuels that would expand the markets for both corn and sugar cane ethanol. The economics against oil would be much less desirable, making ethanol seem like a bargain. The big picture is ethanol versus oil, not sugar versus corn versus cellulose.

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So Much Promise for Ocean Energy, But So Little Time (and Money)

— April 17, 2009

The Global Marine Renewable Energy Conference that took place at the Carnegie Hall of Science in Washington, DC on April 15 and 16 provided a snapshot of an industry that has been hyped by the media over the past few months, but which has a long way to go before delivering clean, renewable power to grids in the U.S. or other parts of the world.

The emerging sector of marine renewables – also often referred to as ocean power or hydrokinetic technologies – consists of at least five types of power generation opportunities: wave energy; tidal currents, ocean currents such as the Gulf Stream, ocean thermal (where energy can be generated between the different temperatures of water at the surface and deep below the ocean’s surface) and a new class of river hydrokinetic devices that do not rely upon environmentally suspect dams to produce power.

This was the second conference organized by the Ocean Renewable Energy Coalition (OREC), and attendance was similar to last year’s first conference in New York City: roughly 300 people. As Ron Smith, CEO of Verdant Power, one of the leading U.S. pioneers in tidal and river hydrokinetic energy systems pointed out, what was most noticeable at this year’s event was who was not in the room: the investment community.

“Let’s get real,” Smith admonished the audience. proclaiming that without near-term significant investment from the private sector, this promising source of renewable power might miss the boat. He echoed the most popular refrain at the conference: “We need to get these devices into the water.” On the cusp of commercialization with more than 100 firms from around the world sporting dozens upon dozens of radically different technology designs, the marine renewables sector is not only being stymied by the economic downturn, but in the U.S. in particular, also by a quagmire of regulatory uncertainty.

Some of the uncertainty showed signs of abating, as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the Minerals Management Service (MMS) resolved a long-standing jurisdictional battle over lead regulatory authority over wave and other ocean power sources sited on the Outer Continental Shelf, a zone that begins three miles from U.S. shores. While a step in the right direction, the jury is still out on how accommodating U.S. regulators, as well as concerned environmental NGOs, will be.

Europe, particularly the U.K., Ireland and Portugal, is currently the best place to develop projects. Subsidy schemes there, as well as government-funded test facilities and streamlined permitting processes, will likely allow Europe to be the focal point of commercialization efforts in the near-term.

That said, the best positioned firm in the world appears to be Ocean Power Technologies of Pennington, New Jersey, the only company in this entire sector to have raised $140 million in two IPOs, one in Europe in 2003 and then another in the U.S. , well before the current market meltdown.

The two leading marine renewable options are wave and tidal. Wave is far more abundant, as it could be found on any western shore, while tidal is far more site specific. However, tidal is currently more cost effective since the power density of the resource is higher, and site development is typically closer to shore, reducing transmission and interconnection costs.

Just how much power will these sources provide by 2013? The next four to five years are critical, as small demos of 1 to 5 MW move forward, setting the stage for larger projects ranging from 100 all the way up to some projects on the drawing boards of to over 8,000 MW, a tidal barrage project – an older tidal technology first developed in the 1960s — in the Severn Estuary in the U.K. South Korea will actually emerge as the global leader of this entire sector in terms of installed capacity due to over 2,000 MW of this same tidal barrage technology expected to come online within the next five years.

Look for Pike Research’s forecasts in this sector to be released by the end of April. Profiles of some of the best bet companies and technologies will be featured, as well as assessments of the best global market opportunities in the near and long term.

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Carbon Cap Provides Alternative to RPS

— April 13, 2009

The legislation being considered in Congress that establishes a national carbon cap and trade system as well as a renewable portfolio standard is likely to be passed in some form. These two regulations may seem redundant as one of most direct methods of lowering greenhouse gas emissions is to switch to clean energy. However, a carbon cap will further enhance the use of distributed renewable energy and create additional jobs.

An RPS will require utilities to increase their consumption of wind and solar energy, but most of that will be in the form of large scale projects, such as concentrated solar and wind farms with hundreds of turbines. Utilities will help to get these projects built by signing power purchase agreements. Utilities will also compete for access to existing renewable power sources and enable customers to sell excess power to the grid.

A carbon cap adds two advantages. It emphasizes energy efficiency, which will be a boon for energy management consultants and smart grid companies looking to squeeze every watt of power from existing generation, which will create lots of white collar jobs. Also, unlike an RPS, which is aimed at utilities, a carbon cap assigns a direct cost on fossil fuel energy to large consumers of energy, providing more of an incentive to invest in distributed energy.

Corporations have been slow to address their carbon footprints, with less than 20 percent saying they are even tracking carbon emissions. Corporations are by nature risk averse, and since the price of a carbon credit has not been established and energy prices are expected to rise, many companies will want to own power plants themselves. Also, the availability renewable power is not guaranteed.

The potential of carbon caps to create jobs is the focus of a new ad campaign from the Environmental Defense Action Fund. The tv, web, and print spots will highlight unemployed steel workers who hope to find jobs manufacturing wind turbines. The combination of an RPS and a carbon cap could create more manufacturing jobs in small towns — as long as they can be competitive with the price of materials from China.

Distributed energy projects have the added benefit of creating more jobs for blue collar installers in urban and suburban locations. Utility-scale renewable projects require a lot of space, which generally puts them outside highly populated areas where real estate is at a premium. PV installations and small turbines can fit on rooftops or beside existing businesses without require substantial real estate. Distributed energy also cuts carbon by reducing energy losses from transmission. The energy produced next door won’t suffer the same losses as power that comes from hundreds of miles away.

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