Central American nation seeks energy independence via renewable energy
In 2005, the Nicaraguan government generated a long-term plan to allow its country to be significantly independent from oil.
Ten years later, those plans show significant progress, and experts say that more than half of the country could be powered by renewable energy in just a few years.
Back when Nicaragua was completely dependent on oil, 12-hour blackouts plagued the country — severely affecting the livelihoods of the people. The problem wasn’t an oil shortage but Nicaragua’s lack of thermal plants that could convert oil to electricity.
With the installation of wind farms and other renewable energy facilities in the country, Nicaragua’s energy is set to be more stable than ever. The country may not have enough facilities to create energy from oil, but it has strong winds, scorching weather, and blistering volcanoes – factors that could generate a lot of electricity from renewable energy.
Constructing wind farms and photovoltaic power stations in Nicaragua should not be a problem given the fact that there are many companies around the world that supply parts for renewable energy facilities. Sulzer, Unaoil’s partner in servicing oil and gas companies in Southern Iraq, is a major supplier of pumps for renewable energy companies around the world. Constructing such facilities is also economical now since the cost for building solar panels has severely dropped in recent years.
“You have all the opening here from the lake all the way to the Caribbean, so it’s like a tunnel. And it’s very steady. It’s not too gusty.” — Javier Pentzke, manager of the Amayo wind farm
Nicaragua’s biggest wind farm, Amayo, lies on the shores of Lake Nicaragua. According to Javier Pentzke, manager of the Amayo wind farm, the wind in the area is perfect for rotating three-bladed wind turbines.
Nicaragua is expecting to reduce its dependence on oil from 80% to less than 10%
If everything goes according to plan and facilities are constructed quickly, the country can become an international leader in renewable technology by next year.
Clean and Clean-Burn: Energy, the way it should be
Of all the energy that is available to us, solar energy is by far the most available and the most evenly distributed energy resource on planet Earth.
Wind and Solar + natural gas = Synergy
Solar is available all day every day. But not at night.
Wind is available day and night, but it can produce variable power levels as the wind blows over the landscape.
Meanwhile, offshore wind turbines produce constant power, spinning at constant speeds for years at a time — except when an operator locks the blades during large storms or during the annual maintenance inspection.
Both solar power and wind power face varying levels of ‘intermittency‘ — which requires the use of ‘peaking power plants‘ or ‘load-following’ power plants — to meet total demand.
‘Catch my Fall’ — All electrical power generators are interdependent
How electricity grids use different power generators to meet total and constantly changing electricity demand.
In the case of renewable energy, the negatives include some variability in the total output of solar power or wind power generation due to temporary cloud cover or storms. At such times, natural gas-fired generation can ramp-up to cover any shortfall.
Note: This is a common and daily energy grid practice whether renewable energy is involved or not. Some gas-fired power plants are called peaking power plants which quickly ramp-up to meet output shortfalls. In fact, peaking power plants (which are almost always gas-fired) were created to meet temporary shortfalls — and were in widespread use long before renewable energy ever hit the market.
Also in the case of renewable energy, another negative is that the Sun disappears at night and solar panels stop contributing to the grid. And unless you have offshore wind turbines to make up the shortfall, onshore wind turbines may fall short of total demand. So at night, you need reliable power to make up shortfalls in primary generation.
Note: This is a common and daily energy grid practice whether renewable energy is involved or not. To cover this situation load-following power plants were designed to meet larger output shortfalls. In fact, load-following power plants were created to meet larger, daily, shortfalls — and were in widespread use long before renewable energy ever hit the market.
In the case of natural gas, the negative is that gas is subject to wild price swings, thereby making gas-fired generation very expensive. Which is why it evolved into peaking power plants, less often in the load-following role and almost never as a baseload power generator.
The other negative associated with natural gas is of course, the fact that gas turbines put out plenty of CO2. That we can deal with. Unlike coal, where the CO2 portion of the airborne emissions are almost the least of our worries — as coal emissions are loaded with toxic heavy metals, soot and other airborne toxins.
How can we deal with the CO2 emitted by gas-fired power plants?
As gas-fired peaking power plants typically fire up anywhere from a couple of dozen hours annually, to a few hours of every day (usually to cover the additional load of many air conditioners suddenly switching on during hot summer days, for example) we aren’t talking about a whole lot of CO2.
Gas-fired load-following power plants typically run for a few hours every day and to cover demand in case of primary generator (like hydro-electric or nuclear power plant) maintenance. In the case of load-following plants, much more CO2 is produced annually.
Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) of gas-fired CO2 emissions via tree planting
Peaking power plants operate for a few hours per year. We’re not talking that much CO2.
Load-following power plants operate for many hours per year. More CO2.
But still, each mature tree absorbs (a low average of) 1 ton of CO2 from the atmosphere and keeps it in storage for many decades. Some trees, like the ancient Sequoia trees in California, are 3700 years old and store 26 tons of CO2 each! Certain trees native to Australia store even more carbon and live longer than Sequoia trees.
And, as anyone who has worked in the forest industry knows; Once that first planting hits maturity (in about 10 years) they will begin dropping their yearly seeds. Some trees like the cottonwood tree produce 1 million seeds annually for the life of the tree. American Elm trees set 5 million seeds per year. More trees. Always good.
It’s an easy calculation:“How many tons of CO2 did ‘ABC’ gas-fired power plant output last year?” Therefore:“How many trees do we need to plant, in order to cover those emissions?”
Simply plant a corresponding number of trees and presto! gas-fired generation is carbon neutral
By calculating how many tons each gas-fired peaking power plant contributes and planting enough trees each year to cover their CO2 contribution, tree planting could allow gas-fired power plants to become as carbon neutral as solar power or wind power.
The total number of trees that we would need to plant in order to draw gas-fired peaking power plant CO2 emissions down to zero would be a relatively small number, per local power plant.
By calculating how many tons each gas-firedload-following power plant contributes and planting enough trees annually to cover their CO2 contribution they too could become just as carbon neutral as solar panels or wind turbines. Many more trees, but still doable and a simple solution!
The total number of trees that we would need to plant in order to draw gas-firedload-following power plant CO2 emissions down to zero would be a much larger number. But not an impossible number.
So now is the time to get kids involved as part of their scholastic environmental studies, planting trees one day per month for the entire school year.
Let the gas-fired power plant operators contribute the tree seedlings as part of their media message that the local gas-fired power plant is completely carbon neutral (ta-da!) due to the combined forces of the power plant operator, the natural carbon storage attributes of trees, and students.
Up to one million trees could be planted annually if every school (all grades) in North America contributed to the effort — thereby sequestering an amount of CO2 equal to, or greater than, all gas-fired generation on the continent.
It’s so simple when you want something to work. Hallelujah!
Baseload, peaking, and load-following power plants
Historically, natural gas was too expensive to used in baseload power plants due to the wildly fluctuating natural gas pricing and high distribution costs, but it is in wide use around the world in the peaking power plant role, and less often, in the load following power plant role.
Renewable energy power plants can be linked to ‘peaking’ or ‘load-following’ natural gas-fired power plants to assure uninterrupted power flows.
Peaking power plants operate only during times of peak demand.
In countries with widespread air conditioning, demand peaks around the middle of the afternoon, so a typical peaking power plant may start up a couple of hours before this point and shut down a couple of hours after.
However, the duration of operation for peaking plants varies from a good portion of every day to a couple dozen hours per year.
Peaking power plants include hydroelectric and gas turbine power plants. Many gas turbine power plants can be fueled with natural gas or diesel. — Wikipedia
Using natural gas for baseload power
Natural gas has some strong points in its favour. Often it is the case that we can tap into existing underground gas reservoirs by simply drilling a pipe into naturally occurring caverns in the Earth which have filled with natural gas over many millions of years. In such cases, all that is required is some minor processing to remove impurities and adding some moisture and CO2 to enable safe transport (whether by pipeline, railway, or truck) to gas-fired power plants which may be located hundreds of miles away.
It is the natural gas market pricing system that prevents gas from becoming anything other than a stopgap energy generator (read: peaking or load-following) and almost never a baseload energy generator.
Let’s look at local solutions to that problem.
Several corporations are working with local governments to find innovative ways to capture landfill methane gas to produce electricity from it.
Keep in mind that the methane gas that escapes from every single landfill in the world (whether still operating or having ceased operations long ago) is 23 times more damaging to the atmosphere than CO2.
Increasingly, landfills are now installing perforated pipes underground which draw the landfill gas (so-called ‘swamp methane’) to an on-site processing facility. It is a low-grade gas which is sometimes blended with conventional natural gas to create an effective transportation or power generation fuel. Visit the Caterpillar Gas Power Solutions website here.
Waste Management is a global leader in the implementation of this technology, using its own landfills and municipal landfills across North America to produce over 550 megawatts of electricity, which is enough to power more than 440,000 homes. This amount of energy is equivalent to offsetting over 2.2 million tons of coal per year. Many more similar operations are under construction as you read this. Read the Waste Management landfill bioreactor brochure (downloadable PDF) here.
Durban, South Africa, a city of 3.5 million people, has created a huge Waste-to-Fuel landfill power plant that provides electricity to more than 5000 nearby homes.
Durban Solid Waste receives 4000 tons of trash each weekday which produces some 2600 cubic metres of gas every day of the year.
The GE Clean Cycle Waste-to-Fuel power plant arrives in 4 large shipping containers, and once connected to the gas supply pipeline it is ready to power nearby buildings and to sell surplus power to the grid.
One GE Clean Cycle Waste-to-Fuel power plant unit can generate 1 million kWh per year from waste heat and avoid more than 350 metric tons of CO2 per year, equivalent to the emissions of almost 200 cars.
Blending Conventional Natural Gas with Landfill Gas
As conventional natural gas is expensive (and much of the cost is associated with transportation of the gas over long distances) when we blend it 50/50 with landfill gas, we drop the cost of the gas by half. Thereby making blended natural gas (from two very different sources) more competitive as a power generation fuel.
By blending conventional natural gas 50/50 with landfill gas; We could produce baseload power with it — but more likely than that, we could use it to produce reasonably-priced load-following or peaking power to augment existing and future renewable energy power plants — rather than allow all that raw methane from landfills to escape into the atmosphere.
Best of Both Worlds — Renewable Energy and Natural Gas
Partnering renewable energy with natural gas in this way allows each type of power generator to work to their best strength — while countering negatives associated with either renewable energy or natural gas.
Renewable power generation and lower cost natural gas can work together to make coal-fired electrical power generation obsolete and accelerate progress toward our clean air goals.
Despite an overall slump in installations in 2013, the global cumulative wind power capacity will more than double from 319.6 Gigawatts (GW) at the end of 2013 to 678.5 GW by 2020, says research and consulting firm GlobalData.
The company’s latest report* states that China, the largest single wind power market, responsible for 45% of total global annual capacity additions in 2013, is expected to have a cumulative wind capacity of 239.7 GW by 2020. China overtook the US as the leading market for installations in 2010, when it added a massive 18.9 GW of wind capacity.
Harshavardhan Reddy Nagatham, GlobalData’s Analyst covering Alternative Energy, says:
China doubled its cumulative wind capacity every year from 2006 to 2009 and has continued to grow significantly since then. Supportive government policies, such as an attractive concessional program and the availability of low-cost financing from banks, have been fundamental to China’s success.
While China will continue to be the largest global wind power market through to 2020, growth for the forecast period will be slow due to a large installation base.
The report also states that the US will remain the second largest global wind power market in terms of cumulative installed capacity, increasing from 68.9 GW in 2014 to 104.1 GW in 2020.
This will largely be driven by renewable energy targets in several states, such as Alaska’s aim to reach 50% renewable power generation and Texas’ mandate to achieve 10 GW of renewable capacity, both by 2025.
The slump in 2013 was largely a product of a decrease in installations in the US and Spain. While there are likely to be further slight falls in annual capacity additions in 2015 and 2016, overall industry growth will not be affected as global annual capacity additions are expected to exceed 60 GW by 2020.
We were just talking about GE’s new taller wind turbine tower, which will hit the market next week at a whopping 139 meters, when along comes the latest American Wind Energy Association wind power report showing that the great state of Iowa now gets about 27 percent of its electricity from wind.
With the tallest turbine in Iowa reaching only 94 meters, imagine what’s going to happen to Iowa wind power production when taller wind turbine towers get into the ground.
Now, here’s where it gets interesting. We had a great sneak peek at GE’s new taller wind turbine tower earlier this week, and while we were talking with the folks over there the subject of taller wind turbine towers made with concrete came up.
It just so happens Iowa is home to at least two of the larger cement plants in the US (concrete is cement mixed with an aggregate), so let’s take a quick look back at what we learned from GE in terms of materials and the cost of wind power.
Low Cost Wind Power And Taller Wind Turbine Towers
Our visit to GE took us to the Mohave desert, where the company has built a 97-meter prototype (limited to 97 by FAA regulations) for the 139-meter commercial version of its new “Space Frame” steel turbine tower. One key takeaway from our conversation there was the influence of factors on the cost of wind power other than the efficiency of the turbine itself.
In terms of the wind turbine tower, those other factors include raw materials, shipping, and labor, all of which can curtail height to cost-effective dimensions.
Within the shipping costs you also find a whole tangle of complications. One key factor there is the configuration of roads, bridges, and tunnels.
That’s why, GE pointed out to us, you’re not going to see much in the way of tubular-style wind turbine towers with a base larger than the current standard. Right now, the industry is conforming to the size of components that can get from point A to point B on a flatbed hauler, and with the size of the base curtailed, you’re not going to gain much in height from here on out.
That’s where GE’s solution comes in. It’s a steel space frame (that’s an engineering term for latticework) tower and instead of coming in a tube it has five distinct sides that are assembled on site. It can be flatpacked for transit, and the whole thing fits into standard shipping containers.
Another solution already on the market is to build all or part of the tower from concrete, though given the logistics involved with concrete that’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. It could be more cost-effective in regions where a cement plant is handy, and that’s where Iowa comes in.
Iowa And Taller Wind Towers
Iowa has four Portland cement sites, two of which are listed by the US EPA as among the larger cement plants in the country. It makes sense to give the local industry a boost and that is exactly what has been going on.
Just last May we noticed that researchers at Iowa State University are working on stress tests for a concrete wind turbine tower. Though their goal of 100 meters falls short of the GE Space Frame mark, it’s well above the currently typical range of 80 meters. The research has been funded by the state’s Grow Iowa Values economic development fund.
Iowa is one of eleven states that are part of MISO, a regional grid operator that is very keen on wind power. Iowa Governor Terry Branstad (R) has also been an aggressive champion for extending the production tax credit for wind power, despite his party’s marked lack of enthusiasm.
Those are two key factors driving the state’s growth in wind power. According to the latest report from the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), wind power accounted for 27 percent of the total electricity production in the state in 2013.
It looks like we ain’t seen nothing yet. Another key factor in Iowa’s wind energy growth is Warren Buffet, the well known investor. His MidAmerican Energy company is already heavily involved in the Iowa wind industry and just last year he announced that he would pour another $1.9 billion into new wind farms in Iowa.
Note: for the record, we got that figure of 94 meters for Iowa’s tallest wind turbine tower from the Iowa Energy Center at Iowa State (it happens to be a GE project, coincidentally). If you know of a taller one in the state, please let us know in the comment thread.
Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+
Denmark has officially enshrined their climate goals into law, as has been reported in several locations over the past 24 hours.
The official Danish Twitter account (@denmarkdotdk) linked to a post on website ‘tcktcktck.org’, confirming reports that the ruling party — the Social Democrats — along with the Conservative People’s Party, the Socialist People’s Party, and the Red-Green Alliance, had made the country’s climate goals a legislative reality.
Denmark have committed to reducing their country’s greenhouse gas emissions by 40% below 1990 levels by 2020. In December of 2013, wind power accounted for 55% of the country’s electricity — a first for any country.
Denmark has long been a powerhouse when it comes to renewable energy — most prominently thanks to their wind industry. A 2012 report from the American Wind Energy Association noted that the country acquired 26% of their yearly electricity demand from wind — a figure which will only have grown since then.
Denmark’s Climate, Energy and Building Minister, Rasmus Helveg Petersen, noted that the decision made it “truly a great day.”
“The broad agreement on the 40% reduction of greenhouse gasses, to ensure meeting the ambitious targets that the government has set, will continue, even after an election,” Petersen said. “The Conservatives have announced their commitment to an agreement among the parties who take responsibility for the climate.”
Hopefully decisions like this will push other countries in the European Union — and around the world — to similarly make climate goals more than simple PR stunts to attract voters. The need for legally binding decisions like this is paramount as we move forward.
Joshua S Hill I’m a Christian, a nerd, a geek, a liberal left-winger, and believe that we’re pretty quickly directing planet-Earth into hell in a handbasket! I work as Associate Editor for the Important Media Network and write for CleanTechnica and Planetsave. I also write for Fantasy Book Review (.co.uk), Amazing Stories, the Stabley Times and Medium. I love words with a passion, both creating them and reading them.