A Match made in Heaven: Solar power and Water desalination

by John Brian Shannon

The nations of the Persian Gulf and Arabian Gulf are blessed to have access to unfathomable amounts of sunlight and salt water. With growing populations and scarce water reserves, governments, public or privately-held power companies and water utilities can capitalize on these national assets — when the economics work.

Even when the economics don’t work, human beings still need water! Growing cities need water for domestic use and industry needs water to produce the goods that we buy, or that they export.

The question for Oman is; How much of Oman’s oil and gas is burning up at desal plants — instead of being exported to add to Oman’s GDP?

In previous decades, the power-hungry desalination plants widely-used throughout the Middle East were powered by electricity created from burning vast amounts of fossil fuel. The economics barely worked when the oil prices were low – but now, with oil once more approaching $100. per barrel, they are costing a king’s ransom to operate. Even oil-rich kingdoms are feeling the pinch nowadays.

A cogent case can be made for adopting alternative energy to power existing and future desalination plants – thereby allowing that oil and gas to be sold at export instead of being burned up. Why burn your money?

At $96.80/barrel for oil (April 2/13) and the natural gas price passing $4.08/MMBtu (April 2/13) the annual fuel cost to produce electricity with fossil fuel is unimaginably high. Really, you don’t want to know.

Fossil fuel exports power the economies of rapidly growing Middle East and North Africa (MENA) nations. Each barrel of oil burned for local desal operations, is one less barrel contributing to the national GDP. A similar situation is at play with regards to natural gas in Oman and the other GCC nations.

Modern solar power plants, such as Masdar’s Shams 1 solar power plant can produce 100 megawatts of clean power for 30-years or more, powered only by sunshine. These modern electrical energy power plants are powerful enough to run; (1) a desalination plant, with enough energy surplus to run (2) a nearby town, or (3) a rural areaor, perhaps all three!

There are two basic types of solar power;

  • Photovoltaic solar, properly called ‘PV-solar’ or ‘PV-solar modules’. The solar panels only produce power when the Sun is shining. Which is fine, because the highest electrical demand occurs during daylight hours.
  • Thermal solar, known as ‘Concentrated Solar Power’ or ‘CSP’ produce power 24 hours a day, by storing excess daytime heat in liquids such as molten salt or oil, to run a steam turbine/electricity generator.

PV-solar (panels) have increased efficiency from their 1980’s-era, 11% efficiency rating — to today’s +33% efficiency rating units. Panels with much higher efficiency ratings (perhaps as high as 100%) will hit the market within 20-years. And through all this, PV-solar panel prices have been falling dramatically, to the point that PV-solar utility-scale power plants are now price-competitive with other kinds of power – assuming similar subsidy levels are in place.

Solar Bonus

As PV-efficiency continues to increase through the next few years, just as it has been doing thus far, PV-solar ‘scaling up’ will be very easy. For example, solar panels are size-standardized, so simply unbolting the ‘old’ 11% efficiency panels and replacing them with the ‘new’ 22% efficiency panels, effectively doubles the power output of the solar power plant — practically overnight! (e.g.; 100 MW to 200 MW)

A few years later, when PV-efficiency increases, those (by then) ‘old’ 22% panels can be replaced with ‘new’ 45% efficiency panels – thereby doubling (again!) the total output of the solar power plant. The ‘old’ solar panels will still work fine, and they can be sold to developing nations, or traded-in against the cost of the new panels, just the same way you would trade your old car for a new one.

In fact, PV-solar power now costs less than comparable coal-fired power — and that’s not factoring in the costly ‘externalities’ of coal-fired electrical power generation, which range from huge water usage by coal-fired power plants, to toxic airborne emissions, to adverse health effects on citizens – which prematurely killed 1.2 million people in 2007-2010, in China alone!

PV-solar power now costs less than comparable coal-fired power

CSP solar technology has advanced remarkably and several different designs have proven themselves viable in Spain, the United States and the UAE, although CSP costs are still high when compared to PV-solar and conventional power. This is changing as CSP production ramps up around the world. The one great advantage of CSP solar, is that these power plants produce power 24-hours per day, 365-days per year – and, no harmful emissions.

“Holding nearly half of the world’s renewable energy potential, the Middle East and North Africa are poised for unprecedented growth in renewable energy.” — Masdar

Masdar’s Shams 1 Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) 100 megawatt power plant near Abu Dhabi. image courtesy: Masdar

“The inauguration of Shams 1 is a breakthrough for renewable energy development in the Middle East. With the demand for energy rising exponentially, the region is undergoing a major transformation in how it generates electricity. In fact, the Middle East is poised for major investments in renewables, and Shams 1 proves the economic and environmental advantage of deploying large-scale solar projects.” — His Excellency Dr. Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, CEO of Masdar. (Read Masdar Shams 1 Press Release here)

It’s safe to say that MENA nations should be planning a long-term switch to solar energy, starting with PV-solar now, and CSP solar starting within the next ten years.

Financing these new, pollution-free power plants could be assisted by GCC government investment (sovereign wealth funds) financed through increased oil and gas exports – as oil and gas will be ‘freed-up’ for sale to international buyers.

It must be said that in areas of the country that make the switch from fossil fuel to solar, the cost of externalities will fall and residents will notice better health and enhanced ‘quality of life’ due to lower airborne emission levels and governments will notice lower health care costs. Not to mention plenty of clean, low-cost water for citizens and industry.


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Why are Environmentalists excited about the Natural Gas boom?

Why are Environmentalists excited about the Natural Gas boom? | 18/03/13
by John Brian Shannon John Brian Shannon

Mirror, mirror, on the wall, which is the cleanest fossil fuel of all?

You guessed it! Natural gas is the cleanest fossil fuel – and by significant margins as data from the Environmental Protection Agency illustrates in the chart below.

Fossil Fuel Emission Levels in pounds per billion Btu of energy input. Source: EPA Natural Gas Issues and Trends 1998
Fossil Fuel Emission Levels in pounds per billion Btu of energy input. Source: EPA Natural Gas Issues and Trends 1998

Natural gas, as the cleanest of the fossil fuels, can be used in many ways to help reduce the emission of pollutants into the atmosphere.

Burning natural gas in the place of other fossil fuels emits fewer harmful pollutants, and an increased reliance on natural gas can potentially reduce the emissions of many of the most harmful pollutants. — naturalgas.org

After investigating the externalities associated with conventional sources of energy and cognizant of their commitments towards clean air, many nations have begun to embrace natural gas as a stepping stone towards a cleaner energy future.

In the U.S.A., as far back as 2003 when coal supplied more than 50% of America’s electrical power, coal-fired plants have been retired more quickly than new ones have come online. By 2012, coal supplied only 38% of U.S. electricity.

Nine gigawatts of U.S. coal-fired power generation was shut-down in 2012 alone, and replaced by an almost equal amount of natural gas power generation. Emission levels from those comparably-sized replacement natural gas power plants are less than half of those retired coal-fired plants!

Many more U.S. coal-fired power plants are scheduled for complete shutdown, or conversion to natural gas over the next few years totalling 35 GigaWatts (GW) according to the experts.

Chart courtesy of the U.S. Energy Information Administration — shows carbon emissions dropping as a result of switching from coal to natural gas,  2005-2012.

U.S. Carbon Emissions by Sector. Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration
U.S. Carbon Emissions by Sector. Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration

Carbon emissions of all end-use Sectors have decreased since 2005 in the United States.

The largest reductions appear to be due to the Electric Power and Transportation sector’s emissions, followed by the Industrial, Residential and Commercial sectors.

[Of all sectors] “the largest reduction to carbon emissions is due to coal-to-natural gas ‘fuels switching’ and construction of higher efficiency power plants. 

Expansion of renewable power, overwhelmingly due to expanded wind power, has been the second largest factor to reduced Power Sector carbon emissions.” – theenergycollective.com

Many expert studies show CO2 emissions dropping as a result of the combined effects of many countries switching from coal to natural gas and/or renewables, 1990-2100.

Chart depicts probable CO2 levels, depending on the choices we make. Image courtesy of Royal Dutch Shell 'New Lens Scenarios'
Chart depicts probable CO2 levels, depending on the energy choices we make. Image courtesy of Royal Dutch Shell ‘New Lens Scenarios’

The change-up to renewable energy will vary by country as OECD nations continue to take the lead in renewable energy between now and 2100. Even so, total worldwide emissions will drop dramatically and the switch from coal to natural gas is one big step towards a cleaner environment.

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How to Buy a Car and get Free Fuel

by John Brian Shannon

What if you could buy a car and (except for the normal taxes, insurance, maintenance and parking stall fees, etc.) you could drive it around for free? What I’m talking about is fuel, which for most people is a major cost these days.

Steve: In Los Angeles, the gas price is hovering around $4.00 per gallon. At that price, ‘Steve’ uses about $21.00 of gas (5.3 gallons) to travel 96 miles every weekday. He is likely to spend $106. per week in mixed driving, totalling about $425. per month.

The question is; What would ‘Steve’ rather do with $5100. per year?

If you want an easy way to calculate vehicle fuel costs, miles per dollar (MPD) works as good as anything – and for this hypothetical SUV it costs about $0.22 per mile to drive in mixed traffic. (Maintenance, taxes, registration, parking, etc.… not included in these figures.)

Suzy: HerHybrid Prius also does a lot of stop and go city driving. Her EPA sticker says she should get 48 MPG city driving and 45 MPG highway driving. At $4.00 per gallon for gas, she uses $8.00 of gas (2 gallons) to travel 96 miles. Her cost per mile? Suzy’s Prius costs about $0.08 per mile to drive in mixed traffic. (Maintenance, taxes, registration, parking, etc.… not included in these figures.)

Ken: He drives a Nissan LEAF, which doesn’t even have a gas tank — because it is an electric vehicle, but the EPA sticker on the car when it was new advertised an equivalent of 95 MPG, which is expressed as 95 MPG-e.

Scenario A) If Ken charges his car’s battery pack at home, he pays for the electricity to charge it resulting in an electricity cost of $0.04 per mile. Depending on how Ken drives and his electricity rate, each $1.00 of stored electricity could get him up to 25 miles.

Scenario B) If Ken uses the many available and free fast-chargers placed around the city to recharge his EV battery pack, he doesn’t pay anything per mile — as most 30 minute fast-chargers for electric vehicles are free to use in the U.S.A. In which case, his cost is $0.00 per mile. Buy the car, drive it for free! (Maintenance, taxes, registration, parking, etc.… not included in these figures.)

It may interest you to know that there are over 11,500 EV chargers in the U.S.A. as of Jan 2013, with more are being added every month. They are easily located via smartphone app and are conveniently located in almost every U.S. city.

Now, what to do with that extra $5100. each and every year?

These numbers are hypothetical examples, your costs and/or savings will be determined by your city’s gas prices and your vehicle mileage. Your electricity rate only matters if you choose to charge your EV at home — instead of at a 30 minute fast-charging station, where you can fully charge it for free!

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Wind Power: Healthy and Growing!

Wind Power: Healthy and Growing! | 04/02/13
by John Brian Shannon John Brian Shannon

Global wind power growing at an exponential rate

For example, China has now installed more wind turbines than any other country. China began 2011 with 41.5 gigawatts of installed wind power capacity and is adding more wind turbines to their grid almost daily.

And by 2015 (one year ahead of schedule) China’s citizens will enjoy 100 gigawatts of clean, wind powered electricity. Wind power surpassed nuclear energy in 2012, to become China’s 3rd largest source of electrical power.

By 2020, they plan to have 200 gigawatts of wind power, which will displace many billions of tons of airborne emissions from coal-fired power plants.


The United States is second with 47 gigawatts of wind power capacity (at the end of 2011) and must add 305 gigawatts of wind power by 2030 to reach the goals set out in the U.S. Department of Energy 2008 report 20% Wind Energy by 2030 (downloadable PDF) which predicted that wind power could meet 20% of all U.S. electricity demand by 2020.

The use of wind power in the United States has expanded quickly over the last several years. Construction of new wind power generation capacity in the fourth quarter of 2012 totaled 8,380 megawatts (MW) bringing the cumulative installed capacity to 60,007 MW.[1]

This capacity is exceeded only by China.[2] For the 12 months from November 2011 to October 2012, the electricity produced from wind power in the United States amounted to 137 terawatt-hours, or 3.4% of all generated electrical energy.[3]

The United States produced enough electricity from wind in the 12 months [prior to] November 2012 to power over 11 million US households annually[4] or meet the total energy demands of Poland.

The U.S. wind industry generates tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars of economic activity.[9]

Wind projects boost local tax bases, and revitalize the economy of rural communities by providing a steady income-stream to farmers with wind turbines on their land. – Wikipedia


Wind energy has grown exponentially in the last decade, with an average increase of 29.7%/year. At an exponential growth of 29.7%, the U.S. would obtain 20% from wind by 2020. — Image courtesy of Wikipedia

If you think that only large countries can use the wind to create clean and fuel-free electrical energy, read: Denmark Sets Goal of 100% Renewable Energy by 2050. Denmark has proven to the world that when citizens back government efforts towards sustainable energy — the transition to 100% green energy is possible. The Danes are making it look easy.

It is time to harness that wind and produce clean electricity from it, create jobs and make profit by it, while enjoying the benefits of clean air as more wind farms displace fossil-fuel power plants!

The following information is courtesy of Wikipedia, click to read here:

Complementary power

Solar power tends to be complementary to wind. On daily to weekly timescales, high pressure areas tend to bring clear skies and low surface winds, whereas low pressure areas tend to be windier and cloudier. On seasonal timescales, solar energy peaks in summer, whereas in many areas wind energy is lower in summer and higher in winter.[nb 3][95]

Thus the intermittencies of wind and solar power tend to cancel each other somewhat.

In 2007 the Institute for Solar Energy Supply Technology of the University of Kassel pilot-tested a combined power plant linking solar, wind, biogas and hydrostorage to provide load-following power around the clock and throughout the year, entirely from renewable sources.[96] 

Pumped-storage hydroelectricity or other forms of grid energy storage can store energy developed by high-wind periods and release it when needed.[103]

Cost trends

Wind power has low ongoing costs, but a moderate capital cost. The marginal cost of wind energy once a plant is constructed is usually less than 1-cent per kW·h.[113] This cost has reduced as wind turbine technology improved.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory projects that the levelized cost of wind power in the U.S. will decline about 25% from 2012 to 2030.[112]