Tag Archives: DOE

Elon Musk’s Guide to the Galaxy

Over the past month, I’ve had the distinct privilege and opportunity to attend two of Elon Musk’s keynote presentations where he discussed his vision for a sustainable energy future, electric vehicle technology, and humanity’s multi-planetary quest.  As a way of background, Elon Musk is considered to be a modern day visionary, inventor, and innovator, and he is often compared to legendary inventors such as Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison, Richard Branson, and Steve Jobs.  Elon Musk founded and runs companies such as PayPal, Tesla Motors, SpaceX, and SolarCity [1].


Elon Musk and DOE Secretary Steven Chu speaking at 2013 ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit, Washington, D.C. – 2.26.13

Photo: Michael Belfiore

The first keynote speech I attended was on February 26, 2013 in Washington, D.C. while attending the 2013 ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit.  This particular conference brings together some of the brightest energy minds in the world to discuss energy policy, energy technology innovation, energy security, and funding opportunities and successes through the ARPA-E program [2].

Mr. Musk’s presentation focused primarily on the process he went through to secure a low-interest $465 million loan through the Department of Energy’s Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing (ATVM) Program [3].  The ATVM program was authorized by President Bush in 2007 under the Energy Independence and Security Act and later appropriated in the Fall of 2008.  The ATVM was already authorized and funded before President Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) stimulus program was enacted in 2009.  The ATVM program was geared towards helping the private sector accelerate the advancement and production of alternative fuel technology vehicles such as hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs), plug-in hybrids electric vehicles (PHEVs), and full electric vehicles (EVs) in order to reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil.

Mr. Musk was joined by Secretary of Energy Steven Chu on stage for the keynote session.  It was interesting to learn that both General Motors and Chrysler were both ineligible to apply for the ATVM program since both companies were going through bankruptcy proceedings at that time.  The two largest loans that were approved under the ATVM program went to Ford ($5.9 billion) and Nissan ($1.6 billion) to accelerate the development of their advanced vehicle technology platforms.  As Secretary Chu pointed out during the session, the most attractive piece of Tesla Motors’ application for an ATVM loan was that the company is vertically integrated and all of Tesla’s vehicle components and systems are designed and built here in America.  According to Secretary Chu, Tesla designs and builds everything from their battery systems, electric drive trains, suspension systems, chassis, and even the test and evaluation equipment to ensure that the vehicle is performing optimally.

The major announcement that Mr. Musk revealed during the session is that the production and sales of Tesla’s new Model S electric sedan was going so well that Tesla will be repaying their ATVM loan within 5 years instead of 10 years, which is in half the time than what was stipulated under the ATVM program terms.  Mr. Musk ended the session by reminding the audience that the DOE’s efforts to fund and support advanced energy technology research and development have produced many major successes similar to Tesla.  He pointed out that these successes all too often go overlooked due to the failure and over politicization of Solyndra.


Tesla and SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk, speaking at SXSW 2013 – 3.9.13

(Credit: Daniel Terdiman/CNET)

The second and most recent keynote address I attended was during SXSW Interactive in Austin on March 9, 2013.  Mr. Musk touched on the challenges of running multiple companies at the same time and cautioned entrepreneurs to not make the same mistakes that he has made.  When Musk was asked what was the biggest mistake and lesson he’s learned so far about being an entrepreneur and innovator, he explained to the audience that he has learned the hard way that you can’t hire someone simply because they are the smartest person available to do the job.  Musk said that you have to hire someone who is capable of doing the job and who also has their heart in the right place and a personality that you can easily get along with.

Musk also discussed his SolarCity venture and how the company is providing cheap solar power to customers who previously could not afford it through a full service community solar-based business model.  He also went into detail on SpaceX’s recent successful test launch of their new vertical take-off and landing vehicle (VTVL) called the Grasshopper.  SpaceX is taking a private sector approach to space flight by focusing on fully recoverable rockets in an effort to minimize the cost of each launch and mission.  SpaceX recently completed a successful text launch and docking mission to the International Space Station (ISS).  NASA subsequently awarded SpaceX a 10-mission contract to deliver supplies to (ISS).  Musk believes that humanity will be a multi-planetary species in the very near future due to private sector innovation and efforts like SpaceX.  Musk concluded the keynote session by saying, “I’d like to die on Mars, just not on impact.” [4]


[1] http://elonmusk.com/

[2] http://www.arpae-summit.com/

[3] http://www.teslamotors.com/blog/clearing-air-our-doe-loan

[4] http://news.cnet.com/8301-14013_3-57573439/elon-musk-at-sxsw-id-like-to-die-on-mars-just-not-on-impact/


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Why U.S.A needs investment in Enhanced Oil Recovery technology for energy security?

In general, crude oil production from oil reservoirs can include up to three distinct phases: primary, secondary and tertiary (or enhanced) recovery. During the primary recovery of crude oil, the oil is produced because of reservoir energy as the pressure thousands of feet below the surface is high enough to push the oil to the surface. Typically only about 5-20% of a reservoir’s original oil in place is typically produced during primary recovery.
However, with much of the easy-to-produce oil already recovered from domestic oil-fields, producers have attempted several tertiary, or enhanced oil recovery techniques that offer prospects for ultimately producing a total of 60% or more of the original oil in place. Many of EOR technologies are still in their developmental phase with many successful laboratory studies already conducted. Enhanced oil recovery methods can be classified into three major categories:  thermal, miscible gas and chemical.[1]
While a Mature Hydrocarbon Province, the U.S. Still Has 400 Billion Barrels of Undeveloped Technically Recoverable Oil Resource. Undeveloped domestic oil resources still in the ground (in-place) total 1,124 billion barrels. Of this large in-place resource, 400 billon barrels is estimated to be technically recoverable. This resource includes undiscovered oil, “stranded” light oil amenable to CO2-EOR technologies, unconventional oil (deep heavy oil and oil sands) and new petroleum concepts (residual oil in reservoir transition zones). [3] The good thing about CO2-EOR technologies is that CO2 is pumped in ground to displace oil out from the underground. That is not totally eliminating GHG emissions but reduces them by as much as 24 percent. It is like making money out of carbon capture and storage today. [4]
In view of the world-wide shortage of petroleum and the fact that almost 50% to 60% of the original oil in place is left in the reservoirs at the end of secondary recovery, the importance of enhanced oil recovery methods to produce additional oil can hardly be overstated. U.S leads the world in the EOR technology. As the leader in EOR technology, the U.S. oil industry faces the challenge of further applying this technology towards economically producing the more costly remaining domestic oil resources. While pursuing this remaining domestic oil resource base poses considerable economic risk and technical challenge to producers, developing the technical capability and infrastructure necessary to exploit this resource reduces our dependence on foreign energy sources and helps our domestic energy industry maintain worldwide technical leadership. [2]
(1) ‘Mechanisms of Surfactant Enhanced oil Recovery in Oil-Wet Fractured Carbonate Reservoirs’. Doctoral thesis presented to the faculty of chemical engineering at University of Houston. By Bhargaw Adibhatla.
(2) ‘Technology’, Chapter 3 of Hard Truths. A report submitted to the secretary of energy by National Petroleum Council.
(3) Undeveloped Domestic Oil Resources Provide Foundation For Increasing U.S. Oil Supply. An analysis by Advanced Resources International, Arlington, VA, for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy.


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Obama’s Nuclear Plan

The Obama administration this week unveiled its plan to “jumpstart”  the U.S. nuclear power industry by awarding U.S. government financing for nuclear reactors.

Under the plan, the Department of Energy will provide $8.33 billion in loan guarantees to Southern Company for the construction and operation of two new nuclear reactors in Georgia, which will generate approximately 2200 megawatt hours of electricity annually, once the plants are up and running.  (source) It’s enough energy to power 550,000 homes (says the POTUS).  This is a strong step toward increased nuclear energy production after 30-year hiatus.  It suggests that  U.S. policymakers finally acknowledge the need for more nuclear power resources, despite environmental opposition and the major financial investments.

Yet at the same time, the Obama administration has pulled the plug on an important component to the equation for successful nuclear plant construction: where to store increased nuclear waste.

For more than decade the federal government has been working to create a nuclear waste storage site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. But that plan has been bogged down in political wrangling, thanks in large part to opposition from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid as well as decision by the Obama administration in 2009 to de-fund the project. (source) The FY 2011 federal budget scraps all funding for the project, despite billions already spent.  The DOE budget explains: “The Administration has determined that Yucca Mountain, Nevada, is not a workable option for a nuclear waste repository and will discontinue its program to construct a repository at the mountain in 2010.”

It seems disingenuous to hail a decision to award loan guarantees for nuclear plant construction and at the same time, completely rule out a location for radioactive waste storage that’s been years in the making at the cost of billions.

Of course, I’m counting chickens before they are hatched.  It could take another decade for these two reactors to actually come online, thanks to the construction and regulatory requirements of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.  It was the Bush administration that originally signed 2005 energy law that created the DOE’s loan guarantee program. In that time, the agency has received dozens of applications, but no grants have been awarded for nuclear plant construction.  The Wall Street Journal reported that DOE received 21 applications in 2008 for more than $121 Billion in loans. (The program is currently funded at about $18 Billion). What’s remarkable is that if all 21 applications were approved and the subsequent plants were online tomorrow, it could increase energy production by up to 33 percent.

I applaud the push to increase energy output, particularly if nuclear reactors can generate large amounts of electricity without the nasty emissions.  However, President Obama needs to be consistent in his push for cleaner energy – that includes funding the mechanism for storing nuclear waste in spite of the NIMBY lobby.


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Will we not make a difference?

Energy in Nature and Society is a book by Vaclav Smil on general energetic of complex systems, and at the end of the chapter on environmental consequences, he stated:

“that future limits on human energy use may arise, not from the resource shortage but from the necessity to keep these cycles compatible with the long-term habitability of the biosphere.”

From his book, I learned that the earth could provide us plenty fossil fuels to support our current lifestyle comfortably through out the 21st century, but if we continue the way we are polluting the atmosphere, the climate may not make it.

It seems like that more people are realizing this; with the growing effort in reducing carbon emission world wide, one would only expect that the trend would show the same.  More people are cutting their energy consumption, supporting renewable energies, and improving their car & appliance efficiencies.  Even big events such as Super Bowl and Winter Olympic are also putting in effort to reduce their carbon emission.  However, the latest forecast from EIA doesn’t seem to match this trend. Its forecast on energy consumption up to 2035 remains steady growth similar to the growth since 1980, and carbon emission remains to grow.

As we can see that there is a drastic drop in energy consumption around 2008, and corresponding to this, the US carbon emission dropped 6.3% in 2009.  The poor economy was the main explanation for this drop, but a growing effort to reduce fuel consumption nation wide could also have caused this drop. It’s strange that the EIA forecast does not follow this down slope but predicts the consumption to go back up and continue increase at similar rate as the past 30 years. Then, how will this impact the climate be if the forecast is accurate? Will we not make a difference? Or, is this a way to encourage the consumer continue their previous lifestyle and consume more energy?

The report did mention a rapid growth in sales of unconventional vehicle  technologies, but somehow it doesn’t seem to change the transportation consumption forecast much.

” such as flex-fuel, hybrid, and diesel vehicles, as well as slower growth in sales of new light trucks. Sales of hybrid vehicles, including plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs), increase from 2.6 percent of new LDV sales in 2008 to 24.6 percent in 2035. PHEV sales grow rapidly as a result of the EIEA2008 tax credits, increasing to about 90,000 vehicles annually in 2015. In 2035, PHEVs account for 2.6 percent of new LDV sales and 1.7 percent of the total LDV stock.”

The effort to help reduce energy consumption by the current administration is very strong.  I have linked a conference video of Secretary Chu addressing the loan from the US government to Nissan to build electrical cars, and the US EPA & DOE are working together on energy efficiency program the State Energy Efficiency (SEE) Action Network.

Secretary Chu lays out a roadmap for how the U.S. can lead the world in making the clean vehicles we need at the 2010 Washington Auto Show. He also announced that the Department of Energy had closed on a $1.4 billion loan to Nissan to build the all-electric LEAF in Tennessee and create up to 1,300 American jobs.”

I’m no energy expert, but I found EIA’s latest forecast report misleading. Even though we are not running out of fossil fuels any time soon, we have passed the limit for long-term habitability of the biosphere. So much effort and money have been contributed to starting a new sustainable future, and the old fossil fuel based economy will eventually be supported by renewable energies. I’m looking forward to see an energy and carbon emission forecast that shows this trend.


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Retrofitting Coal Power

I got lucky last fall. Together with a friend I toured what many consider America’s most important power plant to see the future of coal. But it turns out: There is nothing to see, really. Long pipes connect the colossal Mountaineer Power Plant on the Ohio River to a structure four stories tall made of metal beams and aluminum tubes. Three hundred feet further down the road a pump station sits listlessly under the winter sky, two pipes disappear in the ground. That’s it. Nothing is moving. But energy companies and politicians along with environmentalists the world over are watching closely what’s happening in New Haven, West Virginia.

Here the United States government and American Electric Power, America’s biggest provider of electricity, are developing a technology that attaches to a coal plant, filters carbon dioxide out of the power plant’s emissions and stores the gas directly underground. Their goal: Pioneering a process that reduces CO2 emissions, which significantly contribute to manmade global warming, and thus creating a future for the most abundant energy resource in the US. The pilot project is the first of it’s kind in the world. It got under way in September and the Department of Energy just announced that it would fund its expansion with $334 million dollars.

The importance of the project becomes clear when we consider the role coal plays in the US economy – and in climate change science. America generates nearly 50 percent of it’s electricity with coal and is home to the lion share of the world’s known coal reserves, some 27 percent. At the same time, the fuel is responsible for 80 percent of all CO2 emissions in the power sector and a big reason why the United States, a country with less than 5 percent of the world’s population, produces more than 20 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions.

Enter carbon capture and sequestration, as the technology at the 30-year-old Moutaineer plant is called. Or CCS for short. Essentially it consists of a chemical factory and two deep wells, AEP engineer Gary Spitznogle told me. “In the factory smoke that has been diverted from the plant’s chimney is mixed with a chilled ammonia-based chemical. Once the mixture is heated, the carbon dioxide separates itself and is pumped nearly two miles into the earth under a protective layer of sandstone,” explains Spitznogle. There the liquid CO2 displaces saltwater from fine pores in a layer of dolomite and stays put, theoretically of tens of thousands of years.

At the moment AEP is operating a small-scale validation of the technology together with the French company Alstom, which captures less than 2 percent of the CO2 emitted by the power plant. But with the financial assistance of the federal government, equivalent to half the cost of the projects next phase, AEP plans to scale-up the project until 2015. At that point the CCS project is supposed to capture 90 percent of the carbon dioxide from 235 megawatt of the plant’s 1,300 megawatt capacity. With the help of of CCS technology AEP, America’s biggest emitter of CO2, could eliminate all CO2 emissions by retrofitting their fleet of existing coal plants by 2025, says the company’s CEO Mike Morris.

But whether or not those long-term goals are achievable, remains to be seen. From the power generator’s perspective lowering the operating cost is the first priority. CCS is only cost-effective for AEP if the technology consumes 20 percent of the electricity generated in the plant or less – currently the test unit is using 35 percent. At this price coal power could easily cost as much as or more than nuclear or solar power. Project risk analyses also list geological shifts, earthquakes and contamination of water supplies as potential complications, according to the New York Times, all of which worry residents. Most importantly though, in order to move the CO2 emitted by all 600 US coal-plant to places where the gas could be stored underground, a giant national pipeline network would have to be constructed. Many regions of US have little to no storage capacity.

That’s why advocates of renewable energy think CCS the wrong investment. David Holtz, executive Director of Progress Michigan, an environmental group, told the New York Times CCS resembled a methadone cure for addiction. He argues the industry would do better to go cold turkey. “There is no evidence that burying carbon dioxide in the earth is a better strategy than aggressively pursuing alternatives that clearly are better for the environment and will in the long-run be less costly.”

Power generators like AEP disagree and are eager to see the New Haven CCS project supply evidence of coal’s cleaner future. The rest of the world will be watching too.


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