Grinnell College blown off course on campus wind energy project

The John H. T. Main Residence Hall on the Grinnell College campus. (Wikimedia)
The John H. T. Main Residence Hall on the Grinnell College campus. (Wikimedia)

Nick Fetty | October 28, 2014

Plans for a 5.1-megawatt wind farm on the Grinnell College campus have come to a halt after officials with the college and its utility provider were unable to reach an agreement.

Officials from Madison, Wisconsin-based Alliant Energy said that if the plans for the wind farm were to go through, Alliant would “have to curtail much of the project’s energy production” to accommodate for another wind energy developer which applied for an interconnection agreement before the private liberal arts college which serves approximately 1,721 students. The company, Optimum Energy, would have priority for generating and selling energy back to Alliant, according to Alliant Energy policy.

The Grinnell College Board of Trustees first approved of the plan in February 2011. The $13 million project consisted of a three turbine wind farm which was expected to provide the college with more than half of its energy consumption. Research by Grinnell College alumnus Mia Devine led to the 2007 installation of a wind turbine on the Conard Environmental Research Area, a 365-acre field station about 11 miles west of campus. The wind farm project was based off of similar projects at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa and Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.

The utility board will examine interconnection issues in an attempt to resurrect the plan but Grinnell College Environmental and Safety Coordinator Chris Bair thinks it is unlikely the project will move forward. Officials with the college have considered other energy alternatives such as solar panels and biogas.

UI alumnus returns to alma mater to talk climate change, energy alternatives

Approximately 150 attendees listened to Dr. James Hansen discuss climate change and alternative energy in the Iowa Memorial Union Main Ballroom on Thursday October 16, 2014. (Photo by Nick Fetty)
Approximately 150 attendees listened to Dr. James Hansen discuss climate change and alternative energy as part of the “Meeting the Renewable Energy Challenge” symposium at the Iowa Memorial Union Main Ballroom on Thursday October 16, 2014. (Photo by Nick Fetty)

Nick Fetty | October 17, 2014

Former director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and University of Iowa alumnus James Hansen returned to his alma mater Thursday night to discuss climate change and energy alternatives.

Hansen started his lecture by talking about his upbringing in rural western Iowa and being in high school during the time of Sputnik, a satellite launched into outer space by the Soviet Union in 1957. He went on to study at the University of Iowa where he earned his B.A. in physics and mathematics in 1963, an M.S. in astronomy in 1965, and finally a PhD in physics in 1967. This was at a time when world-renowned physicist James Van Allen was part of the UI faculty though Hansen said he was too nervous to study under Van Allen as an undergraduate.

“I was too shy and unconfident [that] I actually avoided specifically taking any courses under professor Van Allen,” Hansen said. “That’s a very bad strategy for students. You’re much better off sitting in the front row than in the back row.”

He eventually overcame his fears and worked closely with Van Allen during his graduate studies. Perhaps one of the biggest moments in Hansen’s career was when he gave an address to congress about the implications associated with climate change in 1988. This along with his broader field of work earned him the nickname “the Grandfather of Climate Change.” During his lecture Thursday night he emphasized that climate change is something that will most directly impact younger generations and as a grandfather himself he said this is a major concern.

“We’re putting young people in a situation where they have to look out for themselves because we’re [the older generations] not doing it,” he said.

Hansen also discussed the degradation and “irreversible effects” that climate change has caused on organic lifeforms such as monarch butterflies and coral reefs. Part of this can be attributed to carbon emissions which are disproportionately high in the United States compared to other countries.

“There’s also a moral issue here because the United States is responsible for more than a quarter of the excess of the human-made CO2 in the atmosphere even though our population is like 5 percent,” he said.

Hansen proposed implementing a fee to fossil fuel companies as a means to decrease carbon emissions.

“There are climate effects [and] those are paid by the victims, and the taxpayers, the government. Not by the fossil fuel companies,” he said. “So the solution is to add a price to fossil fuels. To collect a fee from the fossil fuel companies.”

Hansen also touched on the potential of nuclear energy as an alternative to fossil fuels.

“We have technology now that a nuclear reactor can shut down if there’s an anomaly like an earthquake so you can avoid the kind of problem that Fukushima had,” he said. “You can have a design that does not require power to keep the reactor cool in case of a shut down.”

The presentation was followed up by a question and answer session and the entire event was about two hours in length. Roughly 150 students, adults, and UI faculty attended the lecture which was the final part of the UI Public Policy Center’s “Meeting the Renewable Energy Challenge” series of events.


Respected climate scientist and UI alum to visit Iowa City Thursday

Climate scientist and UI alumnus Dr. James Hansen (Contributed photo)
Climate scientist and UI alumnus Dr. James Hansen (Contributed photo)
KC McGinnis | October 15, 2014

Longtime climate scientist and University of Iowa alumnus James Hansen will visit Iowa City for a lecture on Thursday, October 16.

Hansen, who currently serves at Columbia University’s Earth Institute as director of its Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions program, earned his doctorate in physics from the UI in 1967. He is regarded as one of the first to raise awareness of global warming as a man-made threat, laid out in his 1988 hearing before Congress in which he said he was “99 percent certain” that global warming could be attributed to greenhouse gases.

His lecture, titled “Speaking Truth to Power: Lessons from Iowa and Relevance to Global Climate Policies” will be held in the Main Lounge of the Iowa Memorial Union from 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday. The lecture is free and open to both students and the general public.

Hansen, who formerly served as Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, has spent decades studying human-induced climate change. He also specializes in identifying “greenwash,” deceptive marketing and PR strategies which give the appearance of eco-friendliness while in fact being merely aesthetic. His lecture, which is part of the UI Public Policy Center’s “Meeting the Renewable Energy Challenge” symposium, can also be streamed here.

University of Wyoming awarded $4.25M for wind energy research

Prong Horn Antelope graze near a wind energy operation outside of Casper, Wyoming. (Duke Energy/Flickr)
Prong Horn Antelope graze near a wind energy operation outside of Casper, Wyoming. (Duke Energy/Flickr)
Nick Fetty | October 2, 2014

The Department of Energy has awarded a $4.25 million grant to researchers at the University of Wyoming to study wind energy in the Cowboy State.

The researchers will examine wind farm modeling, transmission grid monitoring, and the economics derived from wind power. This project brings together researchers from six different departments: (1) mechanical engineering, (2) electrical and computer engineering, (3) atmospheric science, (4) economics and finance, (5) statistics, and (6) agriculture and applied economics. Researchers from Montana Tech of the University of Montana, Cornell University, and Western Ontario University will also assist with this project. Scientists from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory are also expected to contribute.

The research will focus on three specific areas: development of and optimization of wind plant performance, development of a measurement-based transmission grid modeling capability, and development of fully integrated economic models for more diverse and variable energy generation and transmission scenarios.

The three-year grant – which began in August – will be eligable for renewal when it expires in 2017. The University of Wyoming provided an additional $1 million for the research.

Robert Ettema – a professor of civil and architectural engineering at the University of Wyoming – is also a faculty member for the University of Iowa’s Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research.

The Department of Energy also recently awarded researchers at Iowa State University a $1 million grant to study the efficiency of taller wind turbines.

Report shows bright potential for solar energy by mid-century

The Nellis Solar Power Plant covers 140 acres in southern Nevada. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Nadine Y. Barclay)
The Nellis Solar Power Plant covers 140 acres in southern Nevada and ranks as the 2nd largest in North America. (Nadine Y. Barclay/Wikimedia)
Nick Fetty | September 30, 2014

Solar energy could become the world’s largest source of electricity by 2050 according to research by the International Energy Agency.

The IEA produced two reports (one for photovoltaic energy and one for thermal electricity) which lay out ways for solar photovoltaic (PV) systems to provide 16 percent of the world’s electricity consumption by 2050, while solar thermal electricity (STE) from concentrating solar power (CSP) plants would provide an additional 11 percent. Solar would replace fossil fuels are the largest supplier of electricity and could save an estimated 6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per year by 2050.

Solar technology has decreased in price in recent years and this trend must continue for the IEA to reach its goals. The potential of electricity production through PV systems has increased significantly since the 2010 report which predicted it would produce 11 percent of the world’s electricity consumption. The new report anticipates that solar will overtake fossil fuels as the top electricity supplier between 2025 and 2030.

It should be noted that these reports offer suggestions for improving solar energy usage based on current and projected trends and therefore are not meant to be forecasts.

In 2012, Iowa’s solar energy capacity was 1.2 MW compared to 5,133 MW from wind power. A report by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance projected that Iowa could produce 20 percent of its electricity consumption through solar panel use on rooftops and earlier this year the state’s largest solar array opened in Kalona.


Playful “professor” has the answers to UI energy questions

A footbridge across the Iowa River in Iowa City. (Adrianne Behning/Flickr)
A footbridge across the Iowa River in Iowa City. (Adrianne Behning/Flickr)

University of Iowa students, faculty and alumni have many questions about energy use at the UI and across the state, and a fictional professor may have the answers.

“Professor KW Therm,” an entertaining informational character played by faculty member Doug Litwiller, will give a presentation on “all things energy” Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at the UI Museum on Natural History. Litwiller, associate director of energy conservation for UI Facilities Management, will talk in layman’s terms about the UI’s energy use, and how to reduce household carbon footprints. He will answer questions specific to the University, like how much energy it uses and how much it costs, and basic questions about energy terminology.

Litwiller’s presentation reflects efforts by the University of Iowa to reach net-negative energy growth by 2020. The plan, announced by UI President Sally Mason in 2010, aims to reach this goal in part by increasing “student opportunities to learn and practice principles of sustainability.”

The presentation by “Professor Therm” is open to anyone in the community. Attendees are encouraged to bring their utility bills so Litwiller can explain what their energy costs mean.

USDA awards nearly $70M to farmers for alternative energy and energy efficiency upgrades

Nick Fetty | September 23, 2014
Wind and solar energy work side-by-side in Germany. (Wikimedia)
Wind and solar energy work side-by-side in Germany. (Wikimedia)

Farmers in Iowa will be able to take advantage of recently announced U.S. Department of Agriculture grants and loans aimed at promoting renewable energy and other energy efficiency measures.

The USDA has awarded $68 million for 540 different projects across the country, 50 of which are in Iowa. The funding was made available through the USDA Rural Development’s Rural Energy for America Program (REAP). Eligible projects include energy improvement projects as well as renewable energy systems such as solar, wind, renewable biomass (including anaerobic digesters), small hydroelectric, ocean energy, hydrogen, and geothermal.

“These loan guarantees and grants will have far-reaching impacts nationwide, particularly in the rural communities where these projects are located,” Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said in a press release. “Investing in renewable energy and energy efficiency will continue the unprecedented increase in home-grown energy sources and American energy independence we’ve seen in recent years. This is creating jobs, providing new economic opportunities and leading the way to a more secure energy future.”

The project also aims to create jobs, particularly for installation of solar panels and many of these positions are expected to be filled by military veterans. The job training program will begin at three military bases this fall and hopes to train approximately 50,000 by 2020.

An 18-page document identifies all of the individuals and businesses applying for funding through REAP.

Earlier this month, the USDA awarded $105 million to a California-based company that will study a way to “convert municipal solid waste into bio jet fuel.”