How Obama and McCain voted on environmental issues in 2007

How did Barack Obama and John McCain vote on environmental and clean energy issues in 2007?

By Glenn Maltais

According to the League of Conservation Voters (LCV), Obama did OK, McCain, not so much.

Even though both presidential candidates are rigorously touting their environmental credentials, when it comes to walking the talk, the difference between Barack Obama and John McCain appears to be significant.

The national environmental scorecard, a ranking system that evaluates individual U.S. legislators based on their votes on environmental issues, highlighted 15 key votes last year–all of which senator McCain missed, resulting in a 0% score.

It is not uncommon for Presidential candidates to suffer from absenteeism during hectic election campaigns, or to miss roll call votes while being away from Washington for prolonged periods. Nevertheless, Obama managed to only miss four environmental votes, resulting in a 67% score – not great – but a whole lot better than 0%.

As scored by the LCV, McCain’s lifetime average is 24%, well below Obama’s 86%. Granted, this is not the greatest of comparisons, considering McCain has been in the Senate for a few decades, and Obama, a few years…but still, 24%? Not cool.

Out of the 15 votes where McCain chose to be elsewhere, the one that upset environmental groups the most occurred when an important piece of legislation fell one “yes” vote short of passage. The legislation involved tax incentives for renewable energy (set to expire December 31st, 2008) and repealed unnecessary tax breaks for the oil and gas industries.

Unfortunately, when it comes to what is arguably two the most important issues of our time, energy and the environment, McCain’s “straight talk express” may sound like it’s headed for greener pastures, but it appears to be circling the current administration’s big oil wagons. And, that leaves many environmentalists and those striving to usher in a new [clean, domestic] energy era, seeing red.

Betting on a hot market for syngas

Turning scrap metal and debris into energy may help U.S. ease its reliance on oil

By Robert Gavin Globe Staff / August 25, 2008

NEW BEDFORD – Take a rusting, hulking pile of scrap metal, add a few tons of construction debris, and what do you get?

In the case of Ze-gen Inc., a new source of energy.

Ze-gen, founded four years ago, is using the unappetizing conglomeration to make fuel for power plants.

Borrowing technology from the steel industry, the company turns scrap metal into a 2,800-degree metal bath and injects construction debris deep into the bubbling cauldron. The process produces a clean-burning , or syngas, that can replace natural gas or fuel oil.

Ze-gen has been proving its technology and the quality of syngas over the past year, operating a demonstration plant here that digests about a ton of debris an hour. The company is now considering several sites, primarily in the Northeast, to develop a commercial facility that could eventually process as much as 30 tons an hour and produce enough gas to fuel a plant that could power 20,000 homes.

It expects to begin commercial production at the end of next year.

“We’re solving two problems,” said Bill Davis, Ze-gen’s chief executive. “We’re eliminating wastes that would end up in a landfill and reducing fossil fuels.”

Ze-gen is one of many companies across the nation using gasification technologies to convert plant, wood, and other organic wastes – known as biomass – into syngas. Some like, Ze-gen, are simply making syngas, which has the same chemical components, carbon and hydrogen, as fossil fuels. Others, like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology spinoff InEnTec LLC, of Bend, Ore., are condensing it into liquid to make ethanol.

InEnTec uses municipal solid waste as feed stock and a technology known as plasma gasification, initially developed at MIT several years ago to destroy hazardous materials. The technology essentially creates an artificial bolt of lightning that vaporizes materials. InEnTec applied the method to solid waste, producing a syngas, then introducing a catalyst to change the gas into liquid, which can be blended with gasoline.

InEnTec and a partner, Fulcrum BioEnergy Inc. of California, recently said they plan to break ground on a $120 million plant near Reno, Nev., by the end of the year, and begin commercial production of ethanol in 2010. The plant will process 90,000 tons of waste annually to produce 10.5 million gallons of ethanol. Including tipping fees (the charge for taking the waste), the company projects making ethanol for about $1 a gallon, said Dan Cohn, a cofounder of InEnTec and senior research scientist at MIT.

“Gasification has a lot of potential because the technology is well established and can process a very wide range of feed stocks,” Cohn said. “It has the greatest potential when you can process waste.”

Gasification, which uses heat to turn solids into gas, is indeed a well-established technology. Before the invention of the electric light, many cities and towns had plants that converted coal to gas for street lamps. With oil and natural gas prices soaring, coal gasification has gained new interest, but is controversial because coal gas produces high amounts of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse emission that contributes to global warming.

Using biomass as a feed stock is considered more environmentally friendly because plants and trees can be regrown to absorb carbon dioxide created by burning syngas. In addition, keeping waste out of landfills reduces an even more potent greenhouse gas, methane, which is released during decomposition.

Reducing solid waste was a key consideration in the founding of Ze-gen. Davis said more than 300 million tons of waste end up in US landfills every year, about 15 percent of it wood waste from construction. Ze-gen’s idea: Tap the waste’s energy potential.

The company’s engineers determined that channel induction furnaces used in the steel industry provided an energy-efficient way to turn construction debris into a high-quality, clean syngas. The electricity used for the furnace offsets about 15 percent of the energy produced by the syngas, Davis said.

The construction debris is first ground up, then injected deep into the molten metal with ceramic cylinders, much like dipping forks into a fondue pot. The intense heat converts the debris to gas. Heavy metals, such as lead from paint, settle to the bottom of the bath while other contaminants are trapped in crust of silica, known as slag, that forms on top.

Ze-gen raised about $8 million from investors to build the demonstration plant at a New Bedford waste-transfer station. The next step is to find industrial partners to put the gas to work. Syngas is difficult and expensive to transport, so Ze-gen’s plan is to build production facilities near users such as power and cogeneration plants at large factories. Cogeneration produces steam as well as electricity.

Several large companies have expressed interest, Davis said. He estimates the company could make syngas for about 75 percent of the current price of natural gas on commodities markets, and less than half that of fuel oil. Tipping fees for taking the waste could further lower the cost, he said.

Cracking the secrets of ice

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
July 24, 2008

Sandia researchers successfully image ice using scanningice imaging tunneling microscope

Sandia’s Konrad Thürmer (shown here) and Norm Bartelt pushed the boundaries of scanning tunneling microscopy (STM) to image ice – a material believed to be unsuitable for STM because of its insulating nature. (Photo by Randy Wong)

LIVERMORE, C.A. — Taking images of ice a few nanometers thick as it forms bulk ice was supposed to be impossible. A scanning tunneling microscope (STM) shouldn’t work with ice because STMs create images by relying on conducting current, which runs contrary to one of ice’s basic properties—insulation.

But that – successfully using an STM to image ice – is precisely what Sandia National Laboratories physicists Norm Bartelt and Konrad Thürmer did.

“How water interacts with solids is extremely important,” says Bartelt. He points to the design of fuel cells and water purification systems as two areas that could benefit from new STM information. “Getting direct information is difficult, so imaging how small ice crystals grow on solid surfaces is an important advance. This is solid information that allows basic theories to be verified. This was our goal—to provide unambiguous information.”

Ice Cubes or Snowflakes?
Bartelt’s and Thürmer’s research was motivated by Sandia colleague Peter Feibelman’s theoretical research in water–solid interactions. In 2002, Feibelman had a major breakthrough in interpreting water–solid interactions. His research explained why an initial layer of water molecules lies flat on the precious metal ruthenium.

The ice-growth images answer a fundamental mystery about ice: snowflakes form in the classic six-sided symmetrical shape, but at low temperatures, ice grows in a cubic form. This phenomenon is something that has puzzled scientists for 60 years.

What Bartelt and Thürmer discovered was that when an ice film is extremely thin, measuring an average of about one nanometer thick, the water molecules form small, tabular islands of crystalline ice. Once the thickness reaches four or five nanometers, the ice islands join together and start to form a continuous film. In a recent Physical Review B paper, the researchers showed that cubic ice forms when the ice crystals merge. Because of a mismatch in the atomic step heights of the platinum substrate relative to ice, the coalescence often creates screw dislocations in the ice. Further growth occurs by water molecules attaching to the steps that spiral around screw dislocations, creating cubic ice in the process.

Pushing the Boundaries of STM
The STM is a notoriously finicky piece of scientific equipment, and working with ice only increased the difficulty. An STM functions by positioning a sharp, needle-like tip near the sample and then allowing a tiny electrical current to flow across the gap. As the tip of the STM is scanned across the sample surface, the voltage required to position the scanner is used to form an image of the sample.

“Typically, an STM only works if the substrate is conductive,” says Bartelt. Through persistence and patience, Thürmer learned that to image ice, one needs a current smaller than had previously been tried — in fact, three orders of magnitude smaller than what is normally used.

It was Thürmer’s intuitive decision to change the STM’s parameters, namely those for voltage and current, that made imaging ice crystals feasible. Basically, Thürmer found the sweet spot where none was believed to have existed.

The STM was developed in 1981 and earned its inventors, Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohr, a Nobel Prize for physics in 1986. “The discovery caused a rebirth of surface science and completely changed the field, but until now, people had not been able to apply it to ice,” says Bartelt. “The fact that we can apply these same methods to ice is very exciting.”

STM experiments don’t always work. “Because you are trying to get atomic resolution, a few atoms on the apex of the tip can completely throw off the experiment,” says Bartelt. “If you are not getting an image, you don’t know if your tip is bad or you are choosing the wrong parameters.”

In fact, the two physicists never expected that they could image thick ice films; they were hoping for a few molecules. Thürmer explains that even after he began imaging thicker ice films, he didn’t trust the results. Instead, he thought they were just misleading electronic artifacts.

Because Thürmer only expected to see films a few molecules thick, he had the STM tip set too close; it was shaving off the top of the films. “For about a month, we thought the films were not really as high as they seemed. We thought the insulating quality of ice made them appear to be higher,” he explains. “I increased the voltage, and the ice appeared to really pop out. Still, I thought it was just the same electronic artifact.”

However, the researchers could not come up with another explanation for why the films appeared so high. Thürmer then purposely grew very thick films and reversed the polarity on the STM, which resulted in an ice carving that proved the thickness was, in fact, real.

The two Sandians are not resting on their initial success; in fact, the two physicists say they are working to build on their breakthrough. Future experiments include putting salts on an ice crystal to see how salts change the crystal’s growth and depositing molecules that react with water, such as atomic oxygen, to determine the exact point on the surface where water dissociates.

“Our ability to image these ice films opens the door to a multitude of exciting new experiments,” says Thürmer.


Sandia is a multiprogram laboratory operated by Sandia Corporation, a Lockheed Martin company, for the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration. With main facilities in Albuquerque, N.M., and Livermore, Calif., Sandia has major R&D responsibilities in national security, energy and environmental technologies, and economic competitiveness.

Farmer turns to fruit tree to power tractors

By Rich PhillipsThe jatropha tree contains golf-ball-sized fruit that can be made into biodiesel.
CNN

LABELLE, Florida (CNN) — Bryan Beer, a citrus grower in southwestern Florida, sees himself as a bit of a pioneer. He’s not digging for gold. It’s more like he’s planting for oil.

The jatropha tree contains golf-ball-sized fruit that can be made into biodiesel.

He is planting a jatropha tree, a plant that can produce diesel fuel and could one day power a 747. His plans are a little less ambitious; he just wants to plant enough to run his tractors.

“Any kind of relief or help we can get from a cheaper source of oil could impact the agricultural industry tremendously throughout the country, throughout the world,” said Beer, whose family has been growing citrus for decades.

Jatropha means “doctor food.” It originated in South America, where it was once used for medicinal purposes. There are three seeds within the golf-ball-sized fruit. When pressed, its oil can be used as fuel in any standard diesel engine with zero processing, experts say.

Sound like a pipe dream? It’s not.

It’s being taken very seriously by companies all over the world, including the Chrysler motor company and Air New Zealand. The airline is planning a test flight in November in Auckland in which jatropha biodiesel will be mixed with diesel fuel.

This is what has farmers, scientists and engineers excited.

“It is a superior oil,” said Roy Beckford, an agricultural scientist with the University of Florida.

Air New Zealand says the quality and quantity of the product may be so good that the airline could run the test flight without having to mix the jatropha biofuel with any normal aviation fuel.

Beckford said countries like China, India and Brazil have planted millions of acres of jatropha, but the United States has yet to make that sort of investment.

“We are way, way behind these people,” he said. “But certainly we have the ability, and we have shown that over and over again that we can beat people on technology and applying that technology.”

Beckford has been experimenting to see how the tree grows best. He says jatropha can be grown in soil that is not suitable for most food crops.

“Even under harsh drought conditions with minimal amount of water or moisture, it will survive,” he said.

Jatropha is being tested in nurseries and farms, primarily in Florida and Hawaii, to see if it can be used as a viable alternative biofuel nationwide. Caribbean nations have used jatropha for years as biofuel and a home-made medicine to treat constipation and inflammation, Beckford said.

He says jatropha would probably never be the main biodiesel crop but should be added into the mix of biodiesel crops. “It think it’s going to be part of the equation.”

Beckford’s research is done on a small patch of land in Fort Myers, Florida, where 176 seedlings were planted last year. Some are fertilized; some are not. Some are exposed to insects, and some plants are scattered around the foundation of an old home.

Beckford showed how the jatropha plant thrived right in the middle of the foundation, within the dirt and rocks.

He and his researchers believe that U.S. technology will aid in the growth of the trees. Currently, each tree yields only about two gallons of oil a year.

“In the next four or five years, I think we’ll increase not only the fruits per jatropha tree, but we’ll also increase the amount of oil in each of those seeds,” Beckford said.

Right now, biodiesel is a growing industry but hasn’t made an appreciable dent on the global dependence on heavy crude oil, from which diesel fuel is processed.

The National Biodiesel Board says that less than 1 percent of the 60 billion gallons of diesel fuel used each year comes from biodiesel, most of it produced from soybeans, animal fats and recycled oil. But, the board says, the 20 million gallons of diesel fuel saved from these alternative fuels was the equivalent of eliminating the emissions from 700,000 cars.

Some consumer groups say it’s unrealistic to think that biofuel will replace oil totally. Experts also say the potential savings here may be offset by higher prices somewhere else as farmers use their more crop land to experiment with alternative fuel crops.

“There are implications to dedicating more and more crop land to fuel production rather than food production,” said Tyson Clocum of the consumer watchdog group Public Citizen. “That comes in the form of tighter supplies for food production, and that leads to higher prices.”

Beer says he’s not looking to abandon his family’s citrus business. LaBelle Grove Management has been around for more than 40 years. He’s currently farming 30 acres of jatropha, compared to 2,500 acres of citrus.

Beer is trying to figure out how he’s going to afford to put diesel in his heavy equipment. He has four tractors that each run on 120 gallons a day.

“We have to have these machines running. If we don’t have these machines running and we don’t have diesel fuel, we don’t produce our crops,” he said.

So, for now, Beer is taking a stab at growing his own fuel. Jatropha won’t be a replacement crop for him, but it may help him fill up his tractor.

“To be a better America, we are going to have to have a secondary source besides oil,” he said.

Grass is greener in biofuel future

By Jessica Daly Stephen Long amid Miscanthus stalks found to outperform other biofuel sources.
as published via CNN

LONDON, England (CNN) — Researchers in the United States are buoyed by the results of a study which has determined that a giant grass could help the country to meet its steep biofuel targets.

Stephen Long amid Miscanthus stalks found to outperform other biofuel sources.

After successful long-term trials in Europe, a three-year field study of Miscanthus x giganteus by the University of Illinois has revealed that it outperforms traditional biofuel sources, producing more than twice the ethanol per acre than corn or switchgrass, using a quarter of the space.

Crop sciences professor and study leader Dr. Stephen Long told CNN that while there probably isn’t one magic bullet to fix our climate woes, Miscanthus — also known as elephant grass — promises to be one of five or six options that could help the U.S. to reach its target of replacing 30 percent of gasoline use with biofuels by 2030.

“I think it’s important in the biofuels debate that we don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. The idea we use the sun’s energy to grow plants and then make fuels from those plants is essentially a good one,” Dr. Long said.

“It’s been tainted by the fact that the easy way to do it is to just use food crops, but society needs to realize there are big opportunities beyond food crops and beyond the use of crop land.”

Don’t Miss

Miscanthus, for instance, is able to grow on land too marginal for crop production, so it doesn’t have to compete with land for food crops. It also doesn’t require major input or fertilization after planting and once established will yield for around 15 years.

Yet even with the success of these trials in the U.S. and the earlier European ones, it could be years before the full potential of Miscanthus is realized.

This is due in part to the fact that it’s much more complex to make cellulosic ethanol — ethanol made from non-food plants — than it is to turn simple food starches found in corn or wheat into ethanol.

In the United Kingdom, Miscanthus is recognized by the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs as an energy crop and it’s currently being used to co-fire the Drax power station in England’s Yorkshire.

Even still, Dr. Geraint Evans from the UK’s National Non-Food Crops Centre said rather than plants like Miscanthus, wheat grain will be used to meet the UK target of replacing five percent of fuel with renewable sources by 2010.

“Miscanthus has the potential to be more efficient, producing between 4,000 and 7,000 liters of fuel per hectare, whereas ethanol made from wheat grain makes about 1900 liters per hectare.”

“Wheat grain-derived ethanol is what we can do today with the technology we have available today. The technology to use Miscanthus is not yet commercially available,” Dr. Evans told CNN.

In addition to the technical hitch, Dr. Evans said a further downside is that even though Miscanthus is a low maintenance crop, it can be costly to plant compared to wheat or rapeseed canola and the first yield wouldn’t occur for at least three years.

In an effort to overcome some of the challenges, Dr. Long now intends to turn his attention to experimenting with the wild Miscanthus used in the U.S. trial.

And if the sort of improvements made to corn in the last 50 years are any indication, Miscanthus could be well be used to fuel the future in a matter of years.

Electric bikes provide greener commute

NEW YORK (AP) — When Honora Wolfe and her husband moved tEd Poor rides an eZee Quando II electric bike to work in New York City.o the outskirts of Boulder, Colorado, she wanted an environmentally friendly way to commute to her job as a bookshop owner in the city.

Ed Poor rides an eZee Quando II electric bike to work in New York City.

Wolfe, 60, found her solution about a month ago: an electric bicycle. It gets her to work quickly, is easy on her arthritis and is better for the environment than a car.

“I’m not out to win any races,” she said. “I want to get a little fresh air and exercise, and cut my carbon footprint, and spend less money on gas. And where I live, I can ride my bike seven months out of the year.”

The surging cost of gasoline and a desire for a greener commute are turning more people to electric bikes as an unconventional form of transportation. They function like a typical two-wheeler but with a battery-powered assist, and bike dealers, riders and experts say they are flying off the racks.

Official sales figures are hard to pin down, but the Gluskin-Townley Group, which does market research for the National Bicycle Dealers Association, estimates 10,000 electric bikes were sold in the U.S. in 2007, up from 6,000 in 2006.

Bert Cebular, who owns the electric bike and scooter dealership NYCeWheels in New York, said his sales are up about 50 percent so far this year over last. Amazon.com Inc. says sales of electric bikes surged more than 6,000 percent in July from a year earlier, in part because of its expanded offerings.

“The electric bikes are the next big thing,” said Frank Jamerson, a former General Motors Corp. executive turned electric vehicle guru.

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They’re even more popular in Europe, where Sophie Nenner, who opened a Paris bike store in 2005, says motorists boxed in by traffic jams are looking for an alternative for short journeys that doesn’t involve navigating overcrowded transport systems.

Industry associations estimate 89,000 electric bikes were sold in the Netherlands last year, while 60,000 power-assisted bikes were sold in Germany.

The principle behind electric bikes is akin to that behind hybrid cars: Combine the conventional technology — in this case, old-fashioned pedaling — with a battery-powered motor.

The net result is a vehicle that rides a bit like a scooter, with some legwork required. Most models have a motorcycle-like throttle that gives a boost while going up hills or accelerating from a stop. On some models, the motor kicks in automatically and adjusts its torque based on how hard the rider pedals.

Although regulations vary by state, federal law classifies electric bikes as bicycles, and no license or registration is required as long as they don’t go faster than 20 mph and their power doesn’t exceed 750 watts.

Price largely determines weight, quality and battery type. A few hundred dollars gets you an IZIP mountain bike from Amazon with a heavy lead-acid battery. For $1,400, you can buy a 250-watt folding bike powered by a more-powerful, longer-lasting nickel-metal hydride battery like those in a camera or a Toyota Prius. At the high end, $2,525 buys an extra-light 350-watt model sporting a lightweight lithium-ion battery similar to a laptop’s. Most models can go at least 20 miles before plugging in to recharge.

Joe Conforti, a commercial film director from New York, uses a four-year-old model designed by former auto titan Lee Iacocca in the 1990s for running errands or getting to social occasions.

“It’s really nice,” said Conforti, who is eagerly looking to upgrade to a newer, more powerful ride. “If you’ve got a date, you go to meet friends — you go out on a (conventional) bike, you’re gonna sweat up. You go out in an electric bike, it’s great it’s terrific, you’re not gonna sweat up and you ride home fine.”

Bike dealers said the growing demand goes beyond just the uptick in gas prices, but also because of word of mouth. Cebular said business at his store and on his Web site has been booming.

“Fifty percent of that increase is probably because of gas prices, and the rest is that there’s just more bikes out there,” said Cebular, who has run his shop on Manhattan’s Upper East Side for seven years.

Improved technology also has made electric bikes more popular, Cebular said.

“When I started, there was only one bike that had a nickel-metal hydride battery — everything else was lead-acid and was 80 or 90 pounds,” he said. “That’s a huge improvement.”

Jay Townley, a partner at Gluskin-Townley, said the latest electric bikes are sleeker, better looking and hide their often-clunky batteries better than ever. That goes a long way to attract baby boomers and other mainstream customers.

“The new designs that we’ve seen in the marketplace are going to inure to the benefit of the electric bike companies,” he said.

Ultra Motor, an England-based electric bike and scooter company, is betting big that it can capitalize on what it seems as a growing market for attractive-looking two-wheelers designed specifically for U.S. commuters. The company on Tuesday unveiled its “A2B” model, a slick, low-riding electric bike.

Ultra Motor took a conventional bicycle and redesigned it with fatter wheels, a lower center of gravity and a thick shaft designed to hide the lithium-ion battery inside, U.S. Chief Executive Chris Deyo said. The result is a cross between a motorcycle and a mountain bike.

The company already has signed up 75 dealers nationwide to sell the $2,500 bike starting next month.

“A year ago, when you mentioned the word electric bike, people looked at you and they really weren’t sure what it was,” Deyo said. “Today, what we’re finding is we’re actually having dealers call us seeking an electric bike to meet the demand.”

Jamerson, the former GM executive who has become a staunch advocate for electric transportation, believes this is only the beginning for electric bikes. He retired from GM in 1993 after helping develop the company’s EV1 electric car, and he’s been an avid follower of alternative transportation ever since.

The EV1 project, though widely seen as a spectacular failure, helped convince Jamerson of the value of electric transportation. Given soaring fuel prices and thinning patience with foreign dependence on oil, Americans are ready to embrace electric vehicles, he said.

“Did you know there are 70 million electric bikes on the road today in China, and they are selling at the rate of 2.6 million electric bikes a year?” he said. “The public at large needs to understand that it is the right thing to do to move to electric transportation, and electric bikes and electric scooters will allow you to do that, to get that familiarity.”

As for Wolfe, she could not be happier with her bike, a 48-pound mountain bike with a lithium-ion-powered assist made by California-based IZIP. A self-described “tree-hugger for decades,” she drives her Honda Insight hybrid car or rides the bus when she’s not using her bike to get to work.

It’s part of her own personal campaign to reduce her carbon footprint. She also powers her home with help from a set of rooftop solar panels, and a geothermal furnace heats and cools it.

The furnace, she adds, even heats her water. Just one more way to reduce emissions, she said.

“Even my 92-year-old mother has a Prius,” she said. “So I come by my green credentials genetically.”

Solution to high energy costs could lie underground

Sandia’s Georgianne Peek aids Iowa with compressed air energy storage project

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Sandia National Laboratories News Release: researcher Georgianne Peek thinks a possible solution to high energy costs lies underground. And it’s not coal or oil.
Researchers Steve Bauer and Georgianne Peak
Sandia researchers Steve Bauer
and Georgianne Peek look at equipment that will be used to analyze core samples from the potential Iowa aquifer compressed air energy storage site. The data will provide necessary fundamental information used for the design and performance of the underground air storage vessel. (Photo by Chris Burroughs)

It’s compressed air energy storage (CAES).

“Until recently energy has been relatively inexpensive. But now prices are rising dramatically, and we need solutions,” Peek says. “CAES and other storage technologies are not the only answer to our energy needs, but they can be an important part of the solution.”

CAES facilities function like big batteries. Electric motors drive compressors that compress air into an underground geologic formation during off-peak electric use times like evenings and weekends. Then, when electricity is needed most during high-demand times, the precompressed air is used in modified combustion turbines to generate electricity. Natural gas or other fossil fuels are still required to run the turbines, but the process is more efficient. This method uses up to 50 percent less natural gas than standard electricity production.

While the concept of compressed air energy storage is more than 30 years old, only two such plants exist — a 17-year-old facility in McIntosh, Ala., located about 40 miles north of Mobile, and a 30-year-old plant in Germany, both in caverns in salt domes. A third is being developed near Des Moines, Iowa, in an aquifer. In addition, the Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM) and several other U.S. utilities are considering CAES to help mitigate potential problems associated with the high penetrations of wind generation in their systems.

Sandia is a National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) laboratory.

Iowa project management

Sandia is currently managing DOE money to support the design of the Iowa facility, called the Iowa Stored Energy Park (ISEP). Peek is the project manager. Developers include more than 100 municipal utilities in Iowa, Minnesota, and the Dakotas.

ISEP will be a nominal 268 megawatt/13,400 megawatts per hour CAES plant with about 50 hours of storage. It will utilize the abundant wind generation already in Iowa to charge the plant. When ISEP is up and running, it could account for 20 percent of the energy used in a year at a typical municipal Iowa utility and could save cities and their utilities as much as $5 million each year in purchased energy.

Compressor illustrationPeek says the Iowa project is pretty far along and is expected to be operational by 2012.

“One of the most important tasks that has to be done before a CAES facility can be built is to find a geologic formation that will support it,” Peek says. “ISEP developers are 95 percent sure that they have the right formation, based on the seismic testing at the site, computer modeling, and data from a sister formation.”


Sandia to study core samples

This summer multiple core samples from the potential Iowa aquifer CAES site will be taken and sent to Sandia for analysis by a team led by Steve Bauer. The analysis will include collection and assessment of the geologic, hydrologic, and rock physics data in the geomechanics laboratory. The data will provide necessary fundamental information used for the design and performance of the underground air storage vessel.

In 2000 Bauer did similar analysis of rock mechanics of a limestone mine in Norton, Ohio, that was being studied for a potential CAES facility. That project is still under development.

PNM analyzes CAES

Peek says that PNM is also studying the application of CAES in its New Mexico service territory to help manage its current renewable energy portfolio and foster the growth of renewable energy sources.

“Wind often blows at night,” she says. “As electricity is produced at night from the wind farms, it could be stored and eventually make its way into PNM’s transmission lines during periods of higher need.”

CAES technology development can trace its roots to the early 1960s when evaluation of gas turbine technology for power production began. The technology gained momentum during the next decade due to its promising fuel efficiency and response capabilities to provide load-following and peaking power support.

Now utilities are starting to tie CAES technology to wind power — first with the Iowa plant and soon with possible facilities through the nation, Peek says.

“The wind blows in some areas when electricity is not needed or where the transmission system can’t accept all of the energy,” she says. “Storage enables delivery of the off-peak energy that has been saved in storage to be delivered when it is needed most or has the highest value. Thus, more renewable energy can be delivered than might be possible without storage.”


Sandia is a multiprogram laboratory operated by Sandia Corporation, a Lockheed Martin company, for the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration. With main facilities in Albuquerque, N.M., and Livermore, Calif., Sandia has major R&D responsibilities in national security, energy and environmental technologies, and economic competitiveness.

Sandia news media contact: Chris Burroughs, 505-844-0948, coburro@sandia.gov