A Message from the Director: Passing the Torch

This is my last director’s column.  After 7 years of newsletters and 23 years at the helm of the Schatz lab, I’ll be entering the faculty early retirement program in mid-August and passing the torch on to Arne Jacobson who will become the lab’s director.

We’re fortunate to have Arne stepping in.  He was one of the first grad students to work at the lab; his master’s thesis concerned work with the electrolyzer at the Schatz Solar Hydrogen Project.  He went on to earn his Ph.D. at the Energy and Resources Group at UC Berkeley and now is my colleague in the Environmental Resources Engineering department.  Arne’s long time connection with the lab, his service as co-director for five years, and his strong leadership skills will serve us well for many years to come.  And starting next issue, you’ll get to read his thoughts in this space.

Meanwhile, I’m not going away.  Working here is way too interesting and fun to stop now.  During the five years of my early retirement program, I’ll be known as the Founding Director and share leadership duties with Arne.  I look forward to being busy and involved; maybe I’ll even have a chance to get back into the lab and turn a wrench or two.

In this issue of our newsletter, Peter Alstone and Meg Harper keep us up to date on summer activities in Kenya as part of the Lighting Africa project and Richard Engel writes a tribute to our benefactor Mr. Schatz on the 100th anniversary of his birth.  Jim Zoellick describes a project with local partners to plan for an electric vehicle infrastructure in Humboldt County, Allison Oakland describes our continuing effort to bring fuel cell topics into science education with a teacher workshop, and Greg Chapman describes progress in upgrading our hydrogen fueling station to 700 bar operation.

I’m writing this on the summer solstice as the sun shines its warmth and light on our hemisphere.  I want to thank all you faithful readers and send a fond farewell.  It’s been a joy and a privilege to communicate with you through this column; let’s all keep working to improve the health of our beautiful planet.  Goodbye, thank you, and best wishes.
—Peter—

Wind Energy in Humboldt County

Harlock Hill Wind Farm

The wind farm on Bear River Ridge would look similar to this wind farm in the United Kingdom. (Photo credit Andrew Smith.)

For the past two years, SERC has conducted a renewable energy planning study through the California Energy Commission’s Renewable Energy Secure Communities (RESCO) program (see recent RESCO post).  Together with our project partners the Redwood Coast Energy Authority and the Pacific Gas & Electric Company, we’ve taken a comprehensive look at the potential for local renewable energy in Humboldt County.

Here is what we learned.

  • We have the resources to supply most, if not all, of our energy needs with renewable sources.
  • No single resource is sufficient on its own; we must simultaneously develop multiple resources.
  • The most practical resources in order of increasing cost are energy efficiency, wind, small hydro, biomass, wave, and solar.

One thing that stands out in these conclusions is that wind power is the most cost effective of the renewable energy generation technologies.  That’s of particular interest because, right now, people in Humboldt County are engaged in a debate over a proposed wind power development project on Bear River Ridge, about 5 miles south of Ferndale (see map below).  ShellWind has proposed building a 50 MW wind farm on the ridge by installing 25 turbines and an associated substation.

Bear River Ridge wind energy project map

ShellWind has been working on this project for several years and is nearing the end of the feasibility phase of the project.  They have collected wind data, conducted environmental studies, including bird and bat surveys, and held public meetings.  Details can be found on Humboldt County’s web site, http://co.humboldt.ca.us/planning/bear-river/default.asp.

On the plus side, the wind farm would produce enough renewable electricity to power 22,000 Humboldt County homes, and generate 10% of our countywide electricity.  It would create local jobs and generate local revenues.  It would directly displace the burning of natural gas at PG&E’s Humboldt Bay Power Plant.  The project would increase our local energy security, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and increase our local air quality.

But a wind farm is a substantial civil project, requiring a large capital investment and involving industrial-scale construction activities.  Naturally, people are concerned about the potential negative impacts of the project.  The debate has become heated, with pro and con editorials and letters in local papers and discussions on local radio.  At a recent Ferndale City Council meeting, ShellWind made a presentation and attracted an overflow crowd, with strong opinions being expressed.  SERC also attended and director Peter Lehman made a presentation, “Facts About Wind Power,” at the meeting.  You can find Peter’s presentation at: http://www.schatzlab.org/docs/Lehman-Facts_About_Wind_Power_2012-01-05.pdf.

The range of concern reflects the diverse composition of our community.  Some are worried about the impacts of construction on local tourism and quality of life; some are concerned over the impacts to the local environment; some are bothered by the aesthetic impact of tall turbines on the scenic, coastal landscape; and some are simply opposed to a multi-national oil company doing business in Humboldt County.  Adding to the general tumult, there has been some misinformation circulating about this project and wind in general.  In addition to appearing on radio programs, writing editorials, and our Ferndale presentation, we’ve published a web page to address some of these topics and present relevant facts: http://www.schatzlab.org/projects/policyanalysis/wind/.

We’ve considered these facts and debated the pros and cons here at SERC.  We believe the benefits outweigh the consequences so we’ve gone on record in favor of the project.  Of all the renewable resources we might develop locally, wind is the easiest to accomplish at scale, as well as the most cost effective.  ShellWind expects to make a profit from the sale of wind electricity—without government subsidies—and is prepared to invest $125 million to complete this project.  It is hard to imagine how Humboldt County would raise funds of that magnitude otherwise.

We feel that saying no to this wind project would be missing a rare opportunity to implement the RESCO vision and put Humboldt County on a path toward a sustainable and secure energy supply.  At the same time, we recognize that the concerns being raised by the local community are real and need to be addressed.  We’re working with both sides—ShellWind and local citizens—to try and see this project through.

Being on the front lines of renewable energy development and being in the middle of a sometimes intense, politically charged debate has been a new and challenging experience for SERC.  Our mission has always been to promote clean and renewable energy.  We’re finding out what that really means.

A Message from the Director

Peter Lehman

Peter Lehman, SERC Director

The past couple of months have been an exciting time at the lab.  As Colin Sheppard reports in his article about wind energy in Humboldt County, SERC—and I personally—have been caught up in an intense and politically charged debate about ShellWind’s proposed 50 MW wind farm on Bear River Ridge.  Though our work in renewable energy has always had political overtones, never before have we been thrust into the political limelight.  It’s been an eye-opener for me.

In many ways, ShellWind’s proposal to build the wind farm seems like a no-brainer.  When complete, it will mean a substantial increase in renewable energy generation in Humboldt County and it will make us more energy secure.  It will mean local economic development and jobs.  It will reduce greenhouse gases.  Who could be against that?

It turns out many people can.  The citizens of Ferndale and Petrolia have come out in force to oppose the project.  As Colin notes, they have objected to the road building, the environmental impacts, the disruptive nature of big turbines in their pastoral country, and doing business with a large, multi-national corporation that they don’t trust.  Editorials have appeared in our local paper entitled, “I don’t want ShellWind in my backyard,” and “NIMBY and proud of it.”  Because we’ve written and spoken in favor of the project, some have called us out for “attacking” local citizens and their interests.  It’s an unfamiliar situation for me personally and for the lab.

The good news is that we’ve been able to start a civil dialogue with some of the project’s opponents that I hope will allow cooler heads to prevail.  But how this will play out is anyone’s guess.  We’ll keep you informed in subsequent newsletters.

In other, calmer news, Andrea Alstone reports on progress in upgrading our hydrogen station so that we can achieve 700 bar refueling.  That will mean we can drive our Toyota fuel cell car to the Bay Area, refuel at the AC Transit or Berkeley station, and drive home.  Since we travel to the Bay Area frequently, this will be the first long distance fuel cell commute in the world.  Richard Engel reports on our efforts to take our hydrogen/fuel cell curriculum to a national audience through an NSF grant.  Finally, Jim Zoellick reports on our RESCO project that is coming to fruition with the publication of our strategic renewable energy plan for Humboldt County.

Last newsletter, written in December, I wrote about the sunniest fall and early winter ever.  Now our more usual winter weather has returned with a vengeance.  It’s pouring as I write this and flood warnings are posted.  As everything here in Humboldt turns electric green, I wish you some refreshing spring rain and flowers to come.

SERC Debuts New Lab: “This Is the Future”

SERC Building Dedication

HSU President Rollin Richmond addresses the opening day crowd. (Photo credit Kellie Jo Brown)

An effort years in the making came to full fruition on the sunny, breezy morning of September 2, when the Schatz Energy Research Center opened the doors of its new laboratory to the public. Dignitaries including Congressman Mike Thompson and HSU President Rollin Richmond opened the ceremony, speaking to a cheering crowd outside the lab. “Right here you have it all,” said Congressman Thompson. “You have education, you have innovation, and you have renewable energy… This is the future.”

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A Message from the Director

Peter Lehman

Peter Lehman, SERC Director

I just returned from the Photovoltaic Specialists’ Conference in Seattle; it was the 50th year anniversary of the conference. The first PVSC that I attended was in 1987 when Charles Chamberlin and I reported on PV module tests in Humboldt County.

What a difference! The conference is now huge, with thousands of attendees, and the PV industry is mature and sophisticated. Total worldwide installations of PVs have now reached 40 GW and as one speaker reported, if PV growth stays on the historical path that it has maintained for the last 30 years, total installed PVs will reach 1000 GW by 2020. At that level, PVs will contribute about 10-15% of the world’s total electricity generation. That’s amazing and heartening progress.

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A Message From the Director

Peter Lehman

Peter Lehman, SERC Director

This is the first director’s column written in my new office in our new Schatz lab. It’s just wonderful to be in this modern, well-designed building that will certainly increase our productivity and has already made us proud. You can read about some of the details and see a picture in the building update in this issue.

But while the Schatz Center has been upgraded, the U.S. hydrogen and fuel cell technology program has fallen from sight. Energy Secretary Steven Chu has suggested that the hydrogen program be zeroed out in the next DOE budget. There is plenty of funding for battery research and plug-in hybrids, but not a penny for fuel cell vehicles. Secretary Chu tried to do this in last year’s budget cycle but was rebuffed by a strong coalition of legislators who insisted that the funding be restored.

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