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Articles by Kristina & Jason Makansi

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There are people who talk about reducing, reusing, and recycling — and then there’s Maren Engelmohr.

Engelmohr, a St. Louis architect with an impressive set of green credentials, her husband, and her two children are embarking on a year-long “waste diet,” and are challenging you (and me) to do the same:

The Waste Diet is a campaign to encourage people to reduce their Household landfill waste. Our household is committing ourselves to not sending any waste (or very minimal waste) to the landfill for the entire year of 2008. We are challenging every household in the country to try it for at least one day, one week, one month, or one year. Join us in our quest for less waste.

Do you know how much waste your household produces? I decided to measure ours and in one month alone, we sent over 240 lbs of waste to the landfill! I’m not so proud. We also generated over 100 lbs of recyclable waste including glass bottles, plastic, metal, aluminum, cardboard, etc at our local recyclers. Let us know how much waste you send to the landfill and what you are committing not to do in 2008 (click on “The Challenge” tab for more inf... Read more

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  • Storage helps the sun keep shining even on cloudy days

    New project and technology announcements have kept solar energy in the news lately. But, as with wind, the issues of intermittency and the grid still lurk in the shadows. Some still argue that intermittency isn't a problem, or that it can be solved without storage.

    In a new piece in the Arizona Daily Star, reporter Tom Beal talks about those issues. As we've previously argued here, here, and here, energy storage has a big role to play in enabling solar and wind to compete with the big boys -- coal, gas, and nuclear.

    The engineers that actually operate the grid on a minute-to-minute, day-to-day basis know that intermittency is a technological problem that must be solved one way or another if solar and wind are to generate more than a token percentage of our electricity. Storage needs its own day in the sun, and now that sun is in the limelight, maybe storage will finally get some respect as well.

    Full piece below the fold:

  • A strong and realistic energy policy is not dependent on any one fuel, technology, or supplier

    First a caveat: When it comes to electricity generation, I (Jason) am an agnostic. In other words, I try to evaluate energy sources on their own merits, from cradle to grave, and I try my best to keep ideology out of the analysis.

    When we're talking about our energy future, it is essential to look at the big picture. We should evaluate each fuel source -- its pros, cons, and its potential for the future -- in light of all the geopolitical, economic, and environmental challenges we face. We should develop a comprehensive plan that maximizes energy potential, minimizes risk, and makes room for new technological developments.

    There are two things we absolutely must not do:

    1. turn reactionary decisions based on short-term situations into long-term policy, and
    2. base our energy future on wishful thinking. Speaking of coal and CO2 sequestration ...

    Reactionary decision-making

    In the early 1970s, this country had about 12 percent of its generating capacity in natural gas-fired power stations. Then the OPEC embargoes hit, and we legislated against using natural gas in power stations (the Fuel Use Act of 1979). The gas share of electric generating capability dropped to around 7 percent.

    Then, after the Fuel Use Act was repealed in 1986, we went on a gas-fired power construction binge in the late 1990s. Today, we have more gas-fired generating capacity than we have coal-fired! However, because the price of gas is so high, those plants only account for about 12 percent of actual kilowatts generated. Hmmm ... 1970: 12 percent. 2007: 12 percent.

    Also in the '70s, we were on a path to replace a significant amount of coal capacity with nuclear. Then Three Mile Island occurred. All the planned nukes were canceled, and we were back to relying on coal. Not only that, but the economics of the Clean Air Act of 1990 encouraged utilities to switch to western coal, because even though it had less energy per unit weight (a lower-quality fuel than most eastern coal sources), it was low in sulfur and less expensive, even when transportation costs were factored in. Power plants representing tens of thousands of megawatts switched to western coal, because it was cheaper in the short-term (based on regulated utility economics) than adding sulfur dioxide scrubbers or other alternatives.

    So now we not only use much more coal, we use lower quality coal, with poorer efficiency, that emits more CO2.

    The result of all these jumps and starts is that despite some interesting cycles in the trend lines, our energy source mix today looks remarkably like it did forty years ago.

  • Beware the allure of liquefied natural gas

    Two years ago, one of us (Jason) was at an energy industry conference planning committee and he made the point that whether or not everyone around the table agreed on global warming, the issue was just about to break out and dominate the public conversation on energy. Because of global warming, he went on to say, getting a new coal-fired power station built was just a "prudency review waiting to happen." For those of you that remember, it was, in many ways, the prudency review process that killed the nuclear industry back in the 1980s.

    In the past several weeks, several announcements suggest that this situation has indeed come to pass. Here's what's going on: the Kansas Department of Health and Environment turned down a permit for 1400-MW of coal-fired power based on emissions of global warming gases. This is arguably the first time a coal plant has been denied for this reason. Let's repeat the state: Kansas. It's not California, Florida, New York,or Oregon. Kansas has historically been a coal-friendly state.

    Another story revealed that even in Montana, a coal-producing state (or at least one with significant coal reserves), coal plant permits are being fought by bipartisan coalitions, and that electric utilities concede that these groups are effective. In other reports that cross our desks regularly, we note that more than 10,000 MW of coal plants recently have been canceled or postponed around the country.

    No doubt many are of you are cheering! But there are trade-offs in all things -- especially in energy, environmental, and economic issues. As enthusiasm for coal wanes, it grows for nuclear, even among some that have fought tooth and nail against nuclear in the past. However, there's a problem. The fastest any nuclear plant can come online, given regulatory and financing hurdles, is around 2015. Meanwhile, electricity demand continues to grow. As much as the rewewables camp wants to believe it, solar and wind are not going to supply all or even most of the necessary power anytime soon. (We strongly believe in renewable energy, but also believe that we need energy storage to make it work on a scale that will be able to replace a significant amount of fossil fuels.) So what's going to replace coal as the dominant fuel for electricity production?