R-Squared Energy Blog

Pure Energy

Overview of Electricity Storage Technology and India’s Renewable Energy Goals

There is a good overview in today’s Guardian regarding the status of affairs with respect to electricity storage technologies:

The challenge for green energy: how to store excess electricity

So with grid parity now looming, finding ways to store millions of watts of excess electricity for times when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine is the new Holy Grail. And there are signs that this goal — the day when large-scale energy storage becomes practical and cost-effective — might be within reach, as well. Some technologies that can store sizeable amounts of intermittent power are already deployed. Others, including at least a few with great promise, lie somewhere over the technological horizon.

I have used the “Holy Grail” term several times to describe cost effective storage of electricity. I have also given “energy storage” as an answer when people ask what we should be focusing more attention on. While this article is perhaps overly optimistic, it provides a good overview of what people are working on.

I also read a good article last night on renewable energy in India:

A Growing India Sets Goal to Harness Renewable Energy

Despite the deepening energy crisis, renewable energy, predominantly wind and biomass, make up 3 percent of India’s total electricity production. Solar energy is not even a fraction of that, though India receives abundant sunshine throughout the year.

But India hopes to move from near-zero to 20,000 megawatts of solar electricity by 2020, as part of the National Action Plan on Climate Change. Announced in June 2008, the plan is a structured response to combat global warming and part of a proposal India intends to pitch at a climate change summit in Copenhagen this December.

If there is one thing the world desperately needs, it is for India and China to embrace renewable energy as their economies grow. If they do not, I think their growth is going to encounter fierce economic resistance as their growing energy needs start to put serious pressure on oil prices.

July 19, 2009 Posted by | China, energy storage, India, oil prices, The Guardian | 51 Comments

The Potential of Jatropha

The previous post provided an introduction to Jatropha curcas, a tropical, oil-producing shrub. In this essay I want to get into why I believe there is great potential for jatropha to make an impact on the world’s energy supply. I will also explain the hurdles that need to be overcome.

Jatropha Curcas in India (Photo courtesy of Tree Oils India Limited.)

The Potential

Jatropha has many qualities that make it an attractive biofuel option. One, it is tolerant of dry conditions and marginal soils. This is a big plus, because it opens up areas for cultivation that would otherwise be unsuitable. The type of land with great potential is land that is being degraded, or turned into desert. Desertification is a significant problem worldwide, and occurs when dry land is overexploited. Think of the Dust Bowl in the 1930’s and you start to get a picture of how desertification impacts and threatens lives.

There are techniques for combating desertification. Plants that can grow on dry, marginal land have the potential to start providing a matrix for the soil to prevent the soil from being eroded by the wind. There are a number of candidate plants that can be used to combat desertification. However, there has to be adequate incentive to grow plants for combating desertification. I suppose the ideal plant would be one that can supply food while at the same time rehabilitating marginal soil. I am unaware of candidate plants in that category, but I presume some exist. A close second, however, would be a plant that can provide a quality fuel – and thus a cash crop – on marginal soil. Jatropha curcas is such a plant.

Comparison with Palm Oil

Where can jatropha be used in such a role? Have a look at the graphic below:

It is true that the African Oil Palm, from which palm oil is derived, is a much more prolific producer of oil than is jatropha. In fact, palm oil yields – as high as 5 metric tons per hectare – places the African Oil Palm as the world’s most productive lipid crop. But there are significant disadvantages/risks that go along with palm oil. First is the fact that the range of the African Oil Palm is a narrow band close to the equator (see the graphic above). While this is fine for countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand – where it has provided a valuable cash crop for farmers – it means that India and most of Africa is unsuitable for cultivation.

Of a more serious nature is that expansion of oil palm plantations – driven by biofuel mandates in Western countries – has led to a dramatic expansion in many tropical countries around the equator. In certain locations, expansion of oil palm cultivation has resulted in serious environmental damage as rain forest has been cleared to make room for new oil palm plantations. Deforestation in some countries has been severe, which negatively impacts sustainability criteria, because these tropical forests absorb carbon dioxide and help mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. Destruction of peat land in Indonesia for oil palm plantations has reportedly caused the country to become the world’s third highest emitter of greenhouse gases.

Because the range of jatropha is much greater, there is substantial potential to alleviate poverty throughout Africa, India, and many poor countries by providing a valuable cash crop for farmers. Further, it is unlikely to contribute to deforestation as more productive oil producers provide greater incentive to go that route. (Note: While the range is clearer greater than for palm oil, native jatropha is not frost resistant, which means the range shown in the figure above is overstated. The graphic indicates that jatropha could be grown in the Dallas area, and we certainly get hard freezes and frost here.)

Reality Check

The essay up until now may make jatropha sound like a real silver bullet for addressing fossil fuel dependence. Alas, there are no silver bullets. And in fact, the hype for jatropha has gotten out of hand. As I noted in the essay describing my trip to India, I found the present situation with jatropha to have been overhyped.

Jatropha has negatives just like every other energy source. First, it is toxic to humans and livestock. As pointed out in the previous essay, the Western Australian government banned jatropha as an undesirable, invasive species in 2006. Second, because it has not been domesticated, yields are highly variable and the fruits ripen over a broad time range. Third, it is labor intensive to gather the fruits and extract the oil. Finally, while it can be grown on marginal land, there has to be a logistical infrastructure in place to economically get it to the market. Much of the world’s marginal land lacks such an infrastucture. For instance, when I was in India last year, I saw great swaths of borderline desert land that might be used to grow jatropha. The problem is that it was all remote, with no infrastructure.

The answer to many of these concerns potentially lies in the fact that jatropha is still a wild plant. Selective breeding and/or genetic engineering likely have great potential to address many of these issues. Because the world is just now beginning to seriously experiment with jatropha, there is naturally a learning curve to climb. It may turn out that some of the issues are indeed insoluble, but I wouldn’t bet on it. What is needed is a serious, dedicated investigation into the genetics of jatropha, in conjunction with a major plant-breeding effort. We need some modern-day Luther Burbanks working on this problem. By doing so, jatropha may one day live up to the hype.

Additional Resources

There are numerous jatropha resources out there. Here is a sampling.

The Jatropha System

The site is quite a rich source of jatropha information, and if you are interested I would encourage you to explore it. It is devoted to the concept of providing renewable energy while creating new opportunities for farmers in poor nations

Jatropha Comes to Florida (3 minute video from Time Magazine)

Jatropha Potential for Haiti

Chhattisgarh plants 100 million jatropha saplings in 3 yrs

Mali’s Farmers Discover a Weed’s Potential Power

Toxic jatropha not magic biofuel crop, experts warn

Yield Per Hectare of Various Lipid Producers

UP to cultivate Jatropha for bio-diesel production

February 15, 2009 Posted by | biodiesel, green diesel, India, jatropha, palm oil, renewable diesel | 11 Comments

The Potential of Jatropha

The previous post provided an introduction to Jatropha curcas, a tropical, oil-producing shrub. In this essay I want to get into why I believe there is great potential for jatropha to make an impact on the world’s energy supply. I will also explain the hurdles that need to be overcome.

Jatropha Curcas in India (Photo courtesy of Tree Oils India Limited.)

The Potential

Jatropha has many qualities that make it an attractive biofuel option. One, it is tolerant of dry conditions and marginal soils. This is a big plus, because it opens up areas for cultivation that would otherwise be unsuitable. The type of land with great potential is land that is being degraded, or turned into desert. Desertification is a significant problem worldwide, and occurs when dry land is overexploited. Think of the Dust Bowl in the 1930’s and you start to get a picture of how desertification impacts and threatens lives.

There are techniques for combating desertification. Plants that can grow on dry, marginal land have the potential to start providing a matrix for the soil to prevent the soil from being eroded by the wind. There are a number of candidate plants that can be used to combat desertification. However, there has to be adequate incentive to grow plants for combating desertification. I suppose the ideal plant would be one that can supply food while at the same time rehabilitating marginal soil. I am unaware of candidate plants in that category, but I presume some exist. A close second, however, would be a plant that can provide a quality fuel – and thus a cash crop – on marginal soil. Jatropha curcas is such a plant.

Comparison with Palm Oil

Where can jatropha be used in such a role? Have a look at the graphic below:

It is true that the African Oil Palm, from which palm oil is derived, is a much more prolific producer of oil than is jatropha. In fact, palm oil yields – as high as 5 metric tons per hectare – places the African Oil Palm as the world’s most productive lipid crop. But there are significant disadvantages/risks that go along with palm oil. First is the fact that the range of the African Oil Palm is a narrow band close to the equator (see the graphic above). While this is fine for countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand – where it has provided a valuable cash crop for farmers – it means that India and most of Africa is unsuitable for cultivation.

Of a more serious nature is that expansion of oil palm plantations – driven by biofuel mandates in Western countries – has led to a dramatic expansion in many tropical countries around the equator. In certain locations, expansion of oil palm cultivation has resulted in serious environmental damage as rain forest has been cleared to make room for new oil palm plantations. Deforestation in some countries has been severe, which negatively impacts sustainability criteria, because these tropical forests absorb carbon dioxide and help mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. Destruction of peat land in Indonesia for oil palm plantations has reportedly caused the country to become the world’s third highest emitter of greenhouse gases.

Because the range of jatropha is much greater, there is substantial potential to alleviate poverty throughout Africa, India, and many poor countries by providing a valuable cash crop for farmers. Further, it is unlikely to contribute to deforestation as more productive oil producers provide greater incentive to go that route. (Note: While the range is clearer greater than for palm oil, native jatropha is not frost resistant, which means the range shown in the figure above is overstated. The graphic indicates that jatropha could be grown in the Dallas area, and we certainly get hard freezes and frost here.)

Reality Check

The essay up until now may make jatropha sound like a real silver bullet for addressing fossil fuel dependence. Alas, there are no silver bullets. And in fact, the hype for jatropha has gotten out of hand. As I noted in the essay describing my trip to India, I found the present situation with jatropha to have been overhyped.

Jatropha has negatives just like every other energy source. First, it is toxic to humans and livestock. As pointed out in the previous essay, the Western Australian government banned jatropha as an undesirable, invasive species in 2006. Second, because it has not been domesticated, yields are highly variable and the fruits ripen over a broad time range. Third, it is labor intensive to gather the fruits and extract the oil. Finally, while it can be grown on marginal land, there has to be a logistical infrastructure in place to economically get it to the market. Much of the world’s marginal land lacks such an infrastucture. For instance, when I was in India last year, I saw great swaths of borderline desert land that might be used to grow jatropha. The problem is that it was all remote, with no infrastructure.

The answer to many of these concerns potentially lies in the fact that jatropha is still a wild plant. Selective breeding and/or genetic engineering likely have great potential to address many of these issues. Because the world is just now beginning to seriously experiment with jatropha, there is naturally a learning curve to climb. It may turn out that some of the issues are indeed insoluble, but I wouldn’t bet on it. What is needed is a serious, dedicated investigation into the genetics of jatropha, in conjunction with a major plant-breeding effort. We need some modern-day Luther Burbanks working on this problem. By doing so, jatropha may one day live up to the hype.

Additional Resources

There are numerous jatropha resources out there. Here is a sampling.

The Jatropha System

The site is quite a rich source of jatropha information, and if you are interested I would encourage you to explore it. It is devoted to the concept of providing renewable energy while creating new opportunities for farmers in poor nations

Jatropha Comes to Florida (3 minute video from Time Magazine)

Jatropha Potential for Haiti

Chhattisgarh plants 100 million jatropha saplings in 3 yrs

Mali’s Farmers Discover a Weed’s Potential Power

Toxic jatropha not magic biofuel crop, experts warn

Yield Per Hectare of Various Lipid Producers

UP to cultivate Jatropha for bio-diesel production

February 15, 2009 Posted by | biodiesel, green diesel, India, jatropha, palm oil, renewable diesel | 11 Comments

Solar Rickshaws

During my trip to India back in March, I got to experience a variety of transportation options. One of those was the auto rickshaw. I commented at the time that the efficiency of the thing had to be incredible (the previous link says 82 mpg), as it was essentially an enclosed motorcycle. That’s me sitting in one below:


Sitting in an Auto Rickshaw

Having previously converted to natural gas, this already highly efficient mode of transportation is now going solar:

India’s humble rickshaw goes solar

NEW DELHI (AFP) – It’s been touted as a solution to urban India’s traffic woes, chronic pollution and fossil fuel dependence, as well as an escape from backbreaking human toil.

A state-of-the-art, solar powered version of the humble cycle-rickshaw promises to deliver on all this and more.

The “soleckshaw,” unveiled this month in New Delhi, is a motorised cycle rickshaw that can be pedalled normally or run on a 36-volt solar battery.

Three obvious questions come to mind: How far can it travel on a charge, how many miles a day do these guys typically drive, and how long does it take to fully recharge? Or, if I want to combine them, “If I started the day fully recharged, what percentage of my day is spent pedaling?” But I only saw the answer to one of these questions:

The fully-charged solar battery will power the rickshaw for 50 to 70 kilometres (30 to 42 miles). Used batteries can be deposited at a centralised solar-powered charging station and replaced for a nominal fee.

I suppose if they are changing batteries out as needed, then it is merely a question of cost and frequency of changing the batteries.

This seems to be a very good transportation option for short trips in densely populated areas.

October 15, 2008 Posted by | India, solar power | 54 Comments

Solar Rickshaws

During my trip to India back in March, I got to experience a variety of transportation options. One of those was the auto rickshaw. I commented at the time that the efficiency of the thing had to be incredible (the previous link says 82 mpg), as it was essentially an enclosed motorcycle. That’s me sitting in one below:


Sitting in an Auto Rickshaw

Having previously converted to natural gas, this already highly efficient mode of transportation is now going solar:

India’s humble rickshaw goes solar

NEW DELHI (AFP) – It’s been touted as a solution to urban India’s traffic woes, chronic pollution and fossil fuel dependence, as well as an escape from backbreaking human toil.

A state-of-the-art, solar powered version of the humble cycle-rickshaw promises to deliver on all this and more.

The “soleckshaw,” unveiled this month in New Delhi, is a motorised cycle rickshaw that can be pedalled normally or run on a 36-volt solar battery.

Three obvious questions come to mind: How far can it travel on a charge, how many miles a day do these guys typically drive, and how long does it take to fully recharge? Or, if I want to combine them, “If I started the day fully recharged, what percentage of my day is spent pedaling?” But I only saw the answer to one of these questions:

The fully-charged solar battery will power the rickshaw for 50 to 70 kilometres (30 to 42 miles). Used batteries can be deposited at a centralised solar-powered charging station and replaced for a nominal fee.

I suppose if they are changing batteries out as needed, then it is merely a question of cost and frequency of changing the batteries.

This seems to be a very good transportation option for short trips in densely populated areas.

October 15, 2008 Posted by | India, solar power | 20 Comments

Solar Rickshaws

During my trip to India back in March, I got to experience a variety of transportation options. One of those was the auto rickshaw. I commented at the time that the efficiency of the thing had to be incredible (the previous link says 82 mpg), as it was essentially an enclosed motorcycle. That’s me sitting in one below:


Sitting in an Auto Rickshaw

Having previously converted to natural gas, this already highly efficient mode of transportation is now going solar:

India’s humble rickshaw goes solar

NEW DELHI (AFP) – It’s been touted as a solution to urban India’s traffic woes, chronic pollution and fossil fuel dependence, as well as an escape from backbreaking human toil.

A state-of-the-art, solar powered version of the humble cycle-rickshaw promises to deliver on all this and more.

The “soleckshaw,” unveiled this month in New Delhi, is a motorised cycle rickshaw that can be pedalled normally or run on a 36-volt solar battery.

Three obvious questions come to mind: How far can it travel on a charge, how many miles a day do these guys typically drive, and how long does it take to fully recharge? Or, if I want to combine them, “If I started the day fully recharged, what percentage of my day is spent pedaling?” But I only saw the answer to one of these questions:

The fully-charged solar battery will power the rickshaw for 50 to 70 kilometres (30 to 42 miles). Used batteries can be deposited at a centralised solar-powered charging station and replaced for a nominal fee.

I suppose if they are changing batteries out as needed, then it is merely a question of cost and frequency of changing the batteries.

This seems to be a very good transportation option for short trips in densely populated areas.

October 15, 2008 Posted by | India, solar power | 93 Comments

Mumbai’s Deadly Trains

Given my recent trip to Mumbai – in which I took a trip on a very packed train – this story caught my attention:

Mumbai’s deadly trains claim a dozen daily

MUMBAI (AFP) – The death toll on Mumbai’s railways averages a dozen a day — more than a whole year on New York’s subway system, which has an average annual accidental death rate of eight.

In the first four months of this year, 1,146 commuters died and 1,395 were injured, railway police said.

Many of the victims had been hanging on the side of the packed trains, unable even to wedge themselves inside, and fell to their deaths after losing their grip, they said.

Last year’s total toll was 3,997 deaths and 4,307 injuries.

“We could enforce a limit on the number of people on a train but people still need to go to work. They’ll sit on the tracks and stop trains from moving,” Central Railways chief security commissioner BS Sidhu said.

A dozen a day? That is stunning to me. Now I know what my friend Kapil meant, when he asked if I wanted to ride the train there. His question was “Are you feeling adventurous?”

June 27, 2008 Posted by | India, mass transit, Mumbai | 8 Comments

Mumbai’s Deadly Trains

Given my recent trip to Mumbai – in which I took a trip on a very packed train – this story caught my attention:

Mumbai’s deadly trains claim a dozen daily

MUMBAI (AFP) – The death toll on Mumbai’s railways averages a dozen a day — more than a whole year on New York’s subway system, which has an average annual accidental death rate of eight.

In the first four months of this year, 1,146 commuters died and 1,395 were injured, railway police said.

Many of the victims had been hanging on the side of the packed trains, unable even to wedge themselves inside, and fell to their deaths after losing their grip, they said.

Last year’s total toll was 3,997 deaths and 4,307 injuries.

“We could enforce a limit on the number of people on a train but people still need to go to work. They’ll sit on the tracks and stop trains from moving,” Central Railways chief security commissioner BS Sidhu said.

A dozen a day? That is stunning to me. Now I know what my friend Kapil meant, when he asked if I wanted to ride the train there. His question was “Are you feeling adventurous?”

June 27, 2008 Posted by | India, mass transit, Mumbai | Comments Off on Mumbai’s Deadly Trains

A Footnote on Jatropha

Following my recent post on the energy situation in India, I received an e-mail from Sreenivas Ghatty, the founder and CEO of Tree Oils India. Sreenivas told me that I was correct that the jatropha situation in India has been overstated, and wanted to provide some facts on where jatropha stands. Sreenivas is involved in trying to establish a jatropha industry, and he wrote in part:

There are no large scale commercial plantations in India as of now. The plantation activity has commenced here and there during the last few years, but, it may take few more years before the commercial yields start. We have been focusing on research to improve yields and expect meaningful outcomes this year. Based on the results, we intend to expand plantation on our own and through contract farming in the next few years.

Jatropha is not panacea to feedstock problems. It has limitations and would fail under certain agro climatic conditions. There are other species such as Pongamia, Moringa, Madhuca and Neem which could perform well where Jatropha could fail. If right species and right plantation material are selected and the right agronomic practices are adopted, the results might be profitable, viable and sustainable to all the stakeholders.

He also provided some pictures from a jatropha plantation which were very interesting:



Jatropha Plantation in India (Photos courtesy of Tree Oils India Limited.)

Sreenivas also pointed me to an interview he had given on his biofuel activities:

The World is Green

His cites peak oil as a reason for becoming interested in this area:

Why BioFuels?

With peak oil approaching faster, alternative energy sources need to be developed. Biofuels are the cheapest and the most sustainable alternative and they can be produced and consumed locally by many people in small quantities. Alongside, there are also benefits to economy and environment.

And he doesn’t make outrageous claims regarding the costs:

What could be the price of fuel using these feed stocks?

Under the circumstances, it cannot be less than $2 per litre.

The bottom line is that jatropha and other non-edible oil plantations are being established, but 1). It’s going to take time; 2). The fuel that is produced may all be consumed locally.

April 13, 2008 Posted by | India, jatropha | Comments Off on A Footnote on Jatropha

A Footnote on Jatropha

Following my recent post on the energy situation in India, I received an e-mail from Sreenivas Ghatty, the founder and CEO of Tree Oils India. Sreenivas told me that I was correct that the jatropha situation in India has been overstated, and wanted to provide some facts on where jatropha stands. Sreenivas is involved in trying to establish a jatropha industry, and he wrote in part:

There are no large scale commercial plantations in India as of now. The plantation activity has commenced here and there during the last few years, but, it may take few more years before the commercial yields start. We have been focusing on research to improve yields and expect meaningful outcomes this year. Based on the results, we intend to expand plantation on our own and through contract farming in the next few years.

Jatropha is not panacea to feedstock problems. It has limitations and would fail under certain agro climatic conditions. There are other species such as Pongamia, Moringa, Madhuca and Neem which could perform well where Jatropha could fail. If right species and right plantation material are selected and the right agronomic practices are adopted, the results might be profitable, viable and sustainable to all the stakeholders.

He also provided some pictures from a jatropha plantation which were very interesting:



Jatropha Plantation in India (Photos courtesy of Tree Oils India Limited.)

Sreenivas also pointed me to an interview he had given on his biofuel activities:

The World is Green

His cites peak oil as a reason for becoming interested in this area:

Why BioFuels?

With peak oil approaching faster, alternative energy sources need to be developed. Biofuels are the cheapest and the most sustainable alternative and they can be produced and consumed locally by many people in small quantities. Alongside, there are also benefits to economy and environment.

And he doesn’t make outrageous claims regarding the costs:

What could be the price of fuel using these feed stocks?

Under the circumstances, it cannot be less than $2 per litre.

The bottom line is that jatropha and other non-edible oil plantations are being established, but 1). It’s going to take time; 2). The fuel that is produced may all be consumed locally.

April 13, 2008 Posted by | India, jatropha | 9 Comments