Navigant Research Blog

As Rail Congestion Crimps Coal Supplies, Calls for Expansion Grow Louder

— October 27, 2014

Even as power plant operators are warning of coal supply shortages come winter, the U.S. government has predicted that congestion on the nation’s railways is likely to get much worse in coming years.

Increased freight traffic traveling by rail – particularly crude oil from the Great Plains and grain from a bumper crop this year – has led to significant bottlenecks across the railway network, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said in a report issued in September.  Rail traffic has reached the levels last seen in 2007, before the global recession, and “recent trends in freight flows, if they continue as expected, may exacerbate congestion issues in communities, particularly along certain corridors,” the GAO concluded.

Sounding a more dire warning, Hunter Harrison, the CEO of Canadian Pacific, said during a recent analyst briefing that the entire North American railway system is headed toward a cliff.  “We’re quickly approaching a time where none of this works,” Harrison said, according to The Financial Times.  “We cannot continue to go down the road that we’re going down and be successful and not have gridlock beyond anything we’ve experienced before.”

On to Chicago, Slowly

Like a slow train spotted in the distance, this fall’s tie-up of train traffic has been anticipated for years.  The domestic oil & gas boom, centered in the Bakken formation in North Dakota, has had ripple effects across the upper Midwest, the Rocky Mountains, and the Pacific Northwest.  Chicago, where all seven of the Class I railroad companies have major yards, is one of the biggest bottlenecks.  Rail transport is relatively low-cost and emits less CO2 than shipping by plane or truck, but investment in rail infrastructure has been slow.  Producers and consumers of coal, in particular, have traditionally been trapped in exclusive contracts that give them little leverage in negotiations with rail providers.  In September, Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia introduced the Surface Transportation Board Reauthorization Act, which would increase the authority of the Surface Transportation Board, which regulates railroads, to force them to remedy service delays and justify rate hikes.  Lawmakers chided rail executives at a September 10 hearing in Washington for their failure to anticipate and keep up with increased demands on the railway system.

The problem is especially acute for mines in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin trying to ship coal to customers.  Big coal-burning utilities have already begun running coal plants at below capacity in order to conserve coal stocks.

Ship Gas, Not Coal

Some of this alarm is likely overstated; no one has suggested that coal plants are actually in danger of running out of fuel this winter.  And despite the transport constriction, the price of Powder River Basin coal remains stubbornly low; the price of a ton has dropped 8%, to $10.80, according to Bloomberg.  As a matter of national policy, it makes sense to reduce shipments of dirty coal by diesel-burning trains to supply aging power plants that are quickly becoming uneconomical anyway.  Meanwhile, tight coal supplies will inevitably lead to louder calls for other types of energy transport infrastructure: namely, natural gas pipelines.

There are good reasons to invest in expanding the nation’s railway infrastructure; shipping more coal is probably not one of them.

 

Automation Gives Manufacturers an Energy Boost

— October 17, 2014

According to the U.S. Manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index, a measure developed by financial research firm Markit, manufacturing activity in the United States in September reached its highest point in more than 4 years.  Factory employment, though still well below pre-2008 levels, reached its highest level since March 2012.

U.S. manufacturers are getting a boost from low energy costs, driven primarily by the bonanza of low-cost natural gas (and, to a lesser extent, by distributed renewables, often onsite at plants).  But what’s going on inside U.S. plants is equally important.  Increased energy efficiency, enabled by a revolution in process automation technology, is also helping U.S. manufacturers compete with manufacturers that enjoy low-cost labor in developing countries, particularly China.

Excess No Longer Success

Since peaking around 1999, the primary energy use in the U.S. manufacturing sector has declined steadily, according to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, from about 35 quadrillion BTUs annually to less than 31 quads.  Energy intensity – the BTUs used per dollar value of shipments – has declined even more dramatically.

The shift is coming as a shock to old-line factory managers unused to calculating energy as a key metric of efficiency and productivity.  “No one ever got fired for purchasing a pump or a machine that’s too big for the job,” said Fred Discenzo, manager of R&D at Rockwell Automation, at a recent energy management conference in Akron, Ohio.  In manufacturing, “excess capacity has always been the safe option.”

Rockwell is among an emerging segment of technology vendors that is trying to change that, through what it calls “the connected enterprise.”  What that means is connecting the factory floor to the C-suite with far greater visibility and immediacy than before.  Another name for this change might be “extreme granularity.”  In the near future, energy use will be measured not at the factory or line or machine level, but at the individual process level, per unit of production: how much energy did it take to make this widget or valve or bag of ice, and where in the process can that energy use be optimized?

The Next Revolution

Advances in factory-floor networks, wireless sensors, virtualization, and monitoring equipment are enabling these improvements in manufacturing efficiency, energy conservation, and quality control.  These twinned revolutions – cleaner, cheaper, more distributed energy coming into the plant and sophisticated automation technology reducing energy intensity inside the plant – will result in changes that have far-reaching implications for the manufacturing sector, and for the economy.  “The new era of manufacturing will be marked by highly agile, networked enterprises that use information and analytics as skillfully as they employ talent and machinery to deliver products and services to diverse global markets,” concluded a 2012 McKinsey study entitled Manufacturing the Future.

At 32% of total energy consumption, industry uses more energy than any other sector of the U.S. economy.  Manufacturers that adapt to the new realities of energy, by changing the ways in which they source and use electricity, will be more competitive on the global stage – and could help usher in the new economic upswing that politicians and analysts have been dreaming of for years.

 

Autonomous Vehicles Will Work Best Within Limits

— October 1, 2014

About the only way your next car has much chance of driving itself is if you live in a gated community or on a college campus where it won’t have to deal with too many variables like other traffic.  Just as voice recognition systems work best with limited vocabularies, autonomous vehicles will probably be limited to such constrained environments for the foreseeable future.  That’s the conclusion from the recent ITS World Congress 2014 in Detroit.  Increasing levels of vehicle automation were a major topic of discussion during the annual conference on intelligent transportation systems.

Google has been pushing the idea that self-driving vehicles will hit the road within the next 5 years.  Google had no official presence at the conference, but a lot of companies that build cars, parts, and infrastructure systems were there, and no one that I spoke with was in agreement with Google’s timing projections.  The general consensus is that we won’t see widespread use of full operating range autonomous vehicles until closer to 2030.

Not Street-Ready

That’s not to say that no one believes in automated driving; quite the opposite.  It’s just that in engineering circles, there’s a rule of thumb known as the 90/10 rule.  That is, 90% of the technical challenge of a project takes about 10% of the time and effort.  The last 10% takes the other 90% of the time.  In the realm of self-driving cars, we have just begun that last 10% phase, where the basic hardware elements are all worked out but a lot of software decisions have yet to be made in order for autonomous systems to be truly robust.

Much of the on-road development by Google and other companies has been occurring in places like California and Nevada, where environmental factors like snow and even rain are a rarity.  In order for autonomous vehicles to be both commercially and legally viable, they’ll have to work reliably under any weather and road conditions.

General Motors (GM), Volkswagen, and other automakers have been working on autonomous technology much longer than Google, and they understand these limitations.  When GM rolled out a two-seat self-driving pod car known as the Electric Networked-Vehicle, or EN-V, at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, program leader Dr. Chris Borroni-Bird acknowledged that, while this type of vehicle would eventually be an ideal way to deal with the congestion problems of megacities like New York, Shanghai, and Mumbai, the first feasible real-world applications were likely to be in restricted environments, such as campuses and gated communities.

Say Again

As powerful as computers have become, they still don’t deal with the nuances of the real world very well.  That’s why voice recognition systems still struggle to understand what should be simple natural language commands on a smartphone.  The most successful applications of the technology have been for tasks like medical transcription, with limited and specific word vocabularies and little ambient noise.  Similarly, automated vehicles function best in constrained spaces, such as buses over fixed routes or the aforementioned commuter pods.

Google hasn’t actually made any major breakthroughs in the technology that we know of.  It just jumped into field relatively recently, hiring many of the engineers and scientists that worked on the autonomous vehicles fielded by automakers in the DARPA Grand Challenge and Urban Challenge competitions of 2006 and 2007, and leveraging the cost declines of the required sensors.

Where Google has outdone the incumbents is getting the technology media to talk about their efforts – but that’s unlikely to put full-function self-driving cars into consumers’ hands any sooner.

 

In Colorado, a New Solar Model Takes Root

— September 26, 2014

A few years ago the Yampa Valley Electric Association, the rural cooperative that serves communities across northwest Colorado, including the Steamboat Springs ski resort, signed an agreement with a company called Clean Energy Collective to build a community solar garden in the valley.

Headquartered in Carbondale, Colorado, Clean Energy Collective (CEC) has helped pioneer the community solar model, in which individuals and businesses can buy shares in solar power generation facilities rather than owning or leasing the solar panels themselves.  Paul Spencer, the founder and CEO of the company, calls it “solar for the masses.”

CEC signs a power purchase agreement (PPA) with the incumbent utility then pre-sells solar generation capacity in the form of subscriptions and finances construction using the PPA and the subscriptions, essentially, as collateral.  Subscribers don’t necessarily get the actual power flowing from the solar array; those electrons go onto the local power grid and appear as renewable energy credits on the customers’ bills. CEC makes money by charging subscribers a slight mark-up over the cost of producing the power.

Under the Smokestacks

As a way of shifting away from the antiquated, centralized, and coal-dependent power grid, community is a powerful model.  Founded in 2010, CEC now has 45 facilities spread across 19 utilities in 9 states. Spencer expects the number of facilities to double by the end of 2015.

In the Yampa Valley, though, CEC had a problem.

Craig, about 40 miles west of Steamboat in the mesa country of far west Colorado, has always been a coal town.  Most of the solar customers would certainly be in Steamboat, at the eastern end of the valley. But land in Steamboat is not cheap, and CECs business model is based, in part, on building solar arrays without paying too much for the land. Proximity to customers was a lesser concern.

As it turned out, there was an ideal site in Craig – literally in the shadows of the Craig power station’s smokestacks. CEC quickly signed up enough people to take 30% of the solar power the garden would produce. That’s when the problem arose.

The land the solar garden was on was owned by the city of Craig, but the mineral rights were held by Tri-State Generation & Transmission, the operator of the Trapper Mine outside town.  Tri-State officials said the rights were unlikely to be exercised — but they declined to formally cede them.  What’s more, some city council members were against the idea in principle, believing that it was harmful to the interests of the coal industry.  Spooked by the mineral rights issue, the title company on the land deal washed its hands of the deal. For a time, it appeared that the solar garden was dead.

Bridging the Divide

Paul Spencer and Terry Carwile, the mayor of Craig, weren’t ready to give up. “We begged, borrowed, and stole,” Spencer told me, chuckling. “We had to find a way to work around the mineral rights issue, and the town helped us do that.”

By the fall of 2014, a new, more amenable title company had been found, the deal was back in place, and CEC had resumed signing up customers.  In coal country, a truce had set in.

“Solar is not the replacement for coal,” said Spencer. “It’s another power solution that helps build a low-carbon future. In some small way, this project is an initial way to bridge the divide between Craig and Steamboat – between the coal-producing world and the renewable energies of the future.”

 

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