Scott Sklar

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Burning the Future

In Burning the Future: Coal in America, writer/director David Novack examines the explosive forces that have set in motion a groundswell of conflict between the coal industry and residents of West Virginia.

Burning The Future: Coal in America
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Renewable Energy Access
Wind /Solar variability
January 16, 2008

Q:The units commonly applied to renewable energy are WRONG!  It is wrong and tremendously misleading, albeit politically favorable to use PEAK POWER units to describe the capacity of energy conversion devices applied to diffuse and intermittent sources such as wind, solar, ocean etc. The units of Watts, kiloWatts, MegaWatts, and GigaWatts are units of POWER and for an intermittent and constantly varying source they are only instantaneous values.  Power units are for the most part only of value in sizing electrical hardware for peak capacity. These large and impressive numbers are no more meaningful that claiming "the enormous solar / wind array provides ZERO Gigawatts" for much of the time. To be meaningful, renewable energy must be described in time averaged ENERGY Units (it's renewable ENERGY, not renewable POWER).  So a solar array for example, might be able to provide 100 kWatts/hr when averaged over time.  An even better idea is to use kW-hr/Square Meter of whatever...

Rob L, NH




I sense your frustration, and agree on some points, but don't accept your premise fully. Water technologies are quite predictable, particularly tides, waves and ocean and river currents.  Most photovoltaics is measured by watts per square meter at noon. So I agree with your point that energy should be measured as an actual output not as a nameplate. Actually this holds true in conventional energy generation as well - most generators do not live up to their nameplate predictions.

But while wind and solar are intermittent, it is rather blown out of proportion (pun intended). Solar radiation for the concentrated solar plants in the Southwest are quite predictable, and the Solar One 64 MW concentrated solar plant, for instance, has been operational everyday since the generation facility came on line mid-2007.:   As for photovoltaics in non-desert settings, even on the cloudiest days I am generating a third of the electric "nameplate", so if I finance the system incorporating for that lowered output for a third of the year, then any extra power is 'gravy'. Sunlight is not as unpredictable as one might expect.

Wind always is tarred with this unpredictability label as well.

According to a recent article, “The varying nature of wind power means that it is harder to forecast than the fluctuations in electricity demand. Adding large quantities of wind power to power systems is therefore challenging. The results of a recent study coordinated by VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, an international collaboration within the International Energy Agency (IEA) has been published in a report entitled: Design and Operation of Power Systems with Large Amounts of Wind Power.” The report contains a summary of the wind power impact assessments performed in 11 countries. with assessments divided into three categories: 1. Additional costs arising from the balancing of wind power fluctuations, 2. Grid reinforcement needs due to wind power, 3. Capacity of wind power to replace other power plant capacity.

The bottom line of the study, “With wind power penetrations amounting to 10-20% of the gross electricity demand, the additional costs (per MWh of wind power) arising from the balancing of wind power fluctuations are estimated to range between 1-4 €/Mwh (US $1.46-$5.88/MWh). This is less than 10% of the long-term market value of electricity.”

Ken Westrick, CEO and cofounder of 3Tier (WA), tracks solar, wind and hydropower future capacity and performance for electric utilities. He says, “While it is true that wind is intermittent it doesn't mean it is unpredictable, nor that it is unreliable. With regard to unpredictability, even several days in advance energy forecasts that are much better than climatology or persistence are available with a state-of-the-art forecasting system. Errors of less than 20 percent of nameplate capacity can be achieved regularly and with multiple wind farms that are geographically dispersed, the grid impacts become even less of an issue. Regarding reliability, when averaged over a year a wind project is quite reliable with regard to capacity, with average annual capacity factors within 10 percent of a long term average, which is much better than many hydropower systems.”

In the January 4, 2008 RE Access article, “Keeping the Electrons Flowing” by John Dunlop, “In spite of that complexity, the wind turbine must perform those functions day in and day out. A wind turbine commonly is producing electricity up to 80% or 90% of the time” and further emphasizes performance, “. He goes on to state, “An owner receives no tax credit from the federal government until the turbine begins to operate, and then it only receives the credit based on the quantity of electricity produced-over a long period of time. Financial institutions, insurers, and project owners now depend on a continued flow of electrons from the wind turbine to justify their investments, which ultimately provide a reliable supply of electricity to power-hungry customers.”

Economics of all energy systems are based on MWh outputs (electricity generated by hours per year)– not nameplate capacity of the system. This is true for traditional thermal systems (coal, natural gas, nuclear, diesel) which have heat losses, more moving parts, and greater O&M downtimes that have to be catalogued, tracked, and incorporated. That’s what project financing due diligence is all about – pretty well sophisticated – and so far I haven’t heard much complaints from endusers using established technologies in mature projects.

Scott Sklar

April 2007 - Subsidies
April 18, 2006
EDITORS NOTE: Scott Sklar is a frequent contributor to the Question and Answer series on the largest renewable energy portal, www.RenewableEnergyAccess.com. We have selected the most relevant to Clean Energy First!. For the entire selection, please log on to their Web site. -

Q:Critics of renewable energy often cite the subsidies it requires to even come close to being cost effective with utility provided energy. How do you respond to such criticism? Specifically, can you quantify the subsidies that are provided to coal, natural gas and nuclear derived energy? Bob T. Charlotte, NC

A:There is no free market in energy in the United States, and in fact, we are one of the very few industrialized nations who subsidize our mature energy companies with mature energy technologies in mature energy markets.

Our government has directed billions of dollars of subsidies to the traditional energy industries, compiled by US General Accounting Office September 25, 2000 to The Honorable Tom Harkin Ranking Minority Member: Tax Incentives for Petroleum and Ethanol Fuels:  Estimates of Revenue Losses Over Time Dollars in millions Tax incentive Summed over years Adjusted to year 2000 dollars Petroleum industry Excess of percentage over cost depletion a 1968-2000 $81,679-$82,085 billion. Expensing of exploration and development costs a 1968-2000 42,855-54,580 billion.  Alternative (nonconventional) fuel production credit 1980-2000 8,411-10,542 billion.  Oil and gas exception from passive loss limitation 1988-2000 1,065 billion. Credit for enhanced oil recovery costs 1994-2000 482-1,002 billion. Expensing of tertiary injectants 1980-2000 330 million.

According to a 2003 US PIRG study on appropriations, federal government energy supply R&D expenditures from1948-1998 in federal appropriation for research and development expressed in 2003 dollars were: Nuclear energy $74 billion, Fossil fuels $30.9 billion,  Renewables $14.6 billion, and Energy efficiency $11.7 billion.

The Energy information Administration (EIA) issued a report in 1999, where, in summary form, federal FY 1999 subsidies as
federal support for all primary energy are nicely listed at:

But the recently-passed Energy Bill is the most illustrative. The Joint Committee on Taxation advises Congress the extent of subsidies they passed in a report dated July 27, 2005 (http://www.house.gov/jct/x-59-05.pdf) - and the Cliff Notes version of the $11.525 billion of energy subsidies: $2.822 billion went to the oil and gas industries. Of the $5.06 billion that went to the electric utility industries an additional $1.14 billion went to nuclear decommissioning and an additional 278 million went to 'new' nuclear facilities, and 1.612 billion went to clean coal.

Now energy efficiency received $1.284 billion, and $2,747 went to extend the renewable energy tax credits for 2 years.

My annotated list of tax subsidies I regularly handout to policymakers are:

Oil Royalties on Federal Lands (May 1998), High Bill: “Royalty In-Kind” fee rather than “World Price” fee causes US Treasury to lose $330 million per year and $1.65 billion over 5 years (How an Oil Industry favor Wound Up in a Tornado bill. The Washington post. (Juliet Eilperin) May 2, 1998 Page A6.)

$10 Billion in Subsidies that Fuel Global Warming(November 1997) Mining Reclamation deduction   $500 million/year Percentage depletion on oil, natural gas and coal  (Cut $10 Billion in Subsidies that Fuel Global Warming to Fund Energy Alternatives  and Economic Solutions. Friends of the Earth. November 1997. 12 pages.)         

$880 million/year on Capital Gains and Treatment on Coal Royalties, and
Oil Imports, TaxPayer Subsidies and the Petroleum Industry  (May 1995)  Independent Oil and Gas Producer Exemption from Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) plus 58% of all federal subsidies ($21.1 billion directly promote fossil fuels of which $7.7 billion are tax benefits ( Oil Imports, Taxpayer Subsidies and The Petroleum Industry. Citizen Action (Ed Rothchild) May 1995. 20 pages.)

Federal Energy Subsidies  (April 1993)  1989 dollars per year (low estimates) Tax Exempt Bonds for public power $1.14 billion and  Tax Exclusion for electric coops $403  million, Percentage Depletion: Oil & Gas $390  million, Gas and Oil Exemption: passive loss restrictions $135  million (Federal Energy Subsidies: Energy, Environmental and Fiscal Impacts. Alliance to Save Energy. (Douglas Koplow) April `1993.  91 pages)

Federal Energy Subsidies  (November 1992) Revenue Loss by Type:  FY’92 Tax Deferrals: $100 million ($20 million for expensing), Tertiary injectants and $80 million in working Interest in oil and gas properties). Income Reducing Measures  $870 million ($745 million in excess percentage over cost depletion exclusion and $125 million on interest waiver on state and local bonds relating to energy) (Federal Energy Subsidies: Direct and Indirect  interventions in Energy Markets. Energy Information Administration. Report # SR/EMEU/92-02)

Beyond the usual subsidies, I have not found revenue loss reports for the overseas oil refinery credit given to the oil companies so they have had favorable tax treatment to move their refineries overseas. How ironic now that Congress and the President lament that the oil industry then actually did move our oil refineries off shore. However in February 2006, the New York Times reported that the federal government is on the verge of one of the biggest giveaways of oil and gas in American history, worth an estimated $7 billion over five years. New projections, buried in the Interior Department's just published budget plan, anticipate that the government will let companies pump about $65 billion worth of oil and natural gas from federal territory over the next five years without paying any royalties to the government. Based on the administration figures, the government will give up more than $7 billion in payments between now and 2011.

Various experts say the subsidies range from 2-3 cents per kilowatt hour and around 50 cents per gallon of gasoline for direct subsidies, and that's not counting our military expenditures specifically directed toward protecting sea lanes for our oil tankers and the oil fields of our suppliers overseas.

So in response to your question on “how do I justify subsidies to clean energy?” – to compensate for the tens of billions of dollars of your taxes propping up older, polluting technologies. A sad situation, isn’t it?


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Programs and Tips

Energy Star is the national program that rates appliances and promotes energy savings activities. Experts at the US Environmental Protection Agency and US Department of Energy have also sorts of programs and tips. Here are three sites: