US energy debate heats up as Solar Impulse plans trip

“US energy debate heats up as Solar Impulse plans trip”
Published April 20, 2016 |

“In many ways Phoenix, Arizona, would be a natural stop for a high-tech solar airplane like Solar Impulse because the sun influences many aspects of life in the desert city. But temperatures are rising in the state over disagreements on how to manage the growth of solar power.

Phoenix is one of four options for the next Solar Impulse landing. The others are Los Angeles, San Francisco and Vancouver. It would be a repeat visit for the Solar Impulse team, which stopped there while crossing the United States in 2013.

“The opportunity to be able to bring our airplane to the US, to do this flight across America, [is] something we’ve been dreaming about since the beginning of the project,” Solar Impulse’s co-founder André Borschberg told a group of graduating Arizona State University engineering students then. Continue reading “US energy debate heats up as Solar Impulse plans trip”

Graubünden dam incident ‘catastrophic’

The debate over energy sources in Switzerland has often focused on nuclear power, or how much solar or wind power should supply Swiss homes.  One energy source often mentioned as a reliable mainstay is hydroelectric power.  It is thought of as relatively clean, and abundant in the Swiss Alps.  Over the weekend though a problem at a hydroelectric dam in Graubünden led to thousands of dead fish, and a river saturated with sediment.  Officials are now reviewing what went wrong.  WRS’s Tony Ganzer reports.

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Just a few days after the technical malfunction at the Punt dal Gall dam, and a 6 kilometer stretch of the Spoel River through a national park was decimated, opinions seem to be aligned.

“As far as I understand it is really a catastrophic incident in the River Spoel.”

“The life in the whole river is completely wiped out, and it will take years, if ever, to restore this ecosystem.”

“It really is a disaster, you can say it like that.  It is an ecological disaster.”

Those are three voices from interest groups connected to this story.  We start with the last voice from Hans Lozza, spokesman for the Swiss National Park.

“At the beginning there was no water in the river bed, some of the animals [may have been killed] in that phase,” he says. “And later on, there was a spill with muddy water, and most of the fish in that river, and other animals in this river, had to die.”

Lozza says a glitch at the dam caused the river level to drop below a necessary minimum.  Then, ducts were opened releasing sediment and residual water into the river.

“I don’t know if this has happened before.  We didn’t hear of any such happening in other places.  It is terrible that this has happened in a national park,” Lozza says. “The question is why could this happen, and what do they do that this won’t happen again in a later time.”

Police and cantonal officials are investigating what happened at the dam, and whether changes to law or practice are warranted.

“We will see what the investigation will show—what really happened there,” says Michael Casanova, project head for energy and water policy at ProNatura.

“But normally we have say, the regulations for the use of water power are quite good in Switzerland, since we have quite a good law for the water protection.  But they are on an ecological minimum.”

Casanova says there could be more regulations in place in Switzerland, especially in regards to water levels in rivers, and the management of residual flows.

But he admits, even laws can’t prevent accidents.

“Probably with more regulations you would not have stopped a disaster, or a malfunction, or an incident, like that. But I would say eco-friendly regulations for the use of the water power would help to restore all these ecosystems in Switzerland that are now under the influence of the use of water power,” Casanova says.

Hydroelectric power is a major point of pride and power for the Swiss, and neighboring Austria.  Roger Pfammatter with the Swiss Association of Water Management says hydroelectric power makes up 55 percent of the total energy production in the country.

“Well of course there are impacts and risks with this technology, as with all other technologies as well,” Pfammatter says.  “We do a lot in Switzerland for fish passes, and other measures regarding reducing the environmental impacts of hydropower.”

Pfammatter thinks the overall balance, of power production, storage ability, and impact on the environment is best with hydroelectric power.

And he agrees with Casanova that more rules may not be the answer in the case of Punt dal Gall.

“This is just a major incident which can happen.  And it is really sad because in the particular case, a lot of engagement has been tried to improve the environmental quality of the river in the last 10 to 15 years, with quite good success,” Pfammatter remarks.

“And now, because of this incident, these results are gone.”

Update interview with Hans Lozza:

LOZZA: “The border comes down from that ridge here, which is called (Murteruz?), and this is the Swiss-Italian border and it’s at the same time this is the border between the Swiss National Park and the Parco dello Stelvio, which is an Italian park.”

GANZER: “Do I understand correctly that the River Spoel, the section that we’re concerned about here, is actually between two lakes?”

LOZZA: “That’s right.  We have up here the lake of Livigno.  The lake itself it’s on the Italian part.  The dam is exactly on the border, but the power company is Swiss, and is producing the energy for Switzerland.  And further down, 5 to 6 kilometers further down, there is a compensation basin.  From there they are pumping out the water into the upper lake.”

dam_The Swiss-Italian border, the Punt dal Gall dam (left)

GANZER: “Can you talk about kind of the plan for the water level at this point?  I assume it is going to take some time, many weeks, before the break-up is complete.”

LOZZA: “No, it is still quite cold.  At the moment we have around four below zero, and the water is always very low in April, but it has never been so low since the 1970s, and it might also be one of the causes for the disaster that happened last week.”

LOZZA: “That’s the place where the water comes out here.  When our rangers came here the river bed was completely dry on Saturday morning.  They informed the power company, and they opened the valve at the base of the dam and instead of water they had a big mud flow that came out.  But they didn’t stop it, they just let it go.  And that caused a flooding of mud over 5 to 6 kilometers distance, and this killed all the fish and other animals that lived in the river.”

LOZZA: “In the sediments in the lake there is no oxygen so the material that came out was really black and stinking, because there was a lot of organic material in there.  And now this has been brought away in the first floods they produced.  But for us, in the first morning we came here to see that it was really terrible.  Now maybe you don’t see a lot of that because there is water running, it’s a little flooding at the moment with around 3-4 cubic meters per second, but life is not back again.”

GANZER: “And this is on purpose, to start to begin recovery of the river bed?”

LOZZA: “Well on the one side to begin, and on the other hand also to bring the sediment away, because this material closes the ground so that the animals can’t circulate from the water to the ground and back.”

GANZER: “It’s dark, it looks almost like cement in its consistency.”

LOZZA: “Yeah that’s right.  Geologists talk about silt, so it’s not as fine, it’s not extremely fine, but it’s fine enough for close all the holes, to seal the ground, and that’s a problem.”

GANZER: “Do we know yet, or is it part of the investigation, why there was so much sediment built up behind that valve?”

LOZZA: “Well it’s normal that there is so much sediment in such a lake, because it is quite steep up there, and the lower the lake is down the more risk there is that there might be a collapse of those sediments in the lake.”

GANZER: “So if nothing is done, it’s likely that this would happen again?”

LOZZA: “We hope that this will not happen again in this form.  There should be a system that controls what really gets out into the river bed, and if there is just dirt coming that you can close it again.  But what they did this time is was they left it just a little bit open for three hours and this brought a lot of mud and nearly no water and this was the problem.”

GANZER: “It may look superficially like everything is okay, here at the river: we hear the water running, it looks to be functioning, but there is no life.  We see cloudy water, and that’s it.  We don’t see the tens of thousands of fish, we don’t see the birds, we don’t see much of anything except this running water.”

LOZZA: “Yeah, that’s the real pity, yes.”

Swiss MPs give ‘Cleantech’ energy proposal a clear ‘no’


Energy was the topic of the day in the National Council yesterday, with MPs staging an hours-long debate on the “Cleantech” Initiative from the Social Democrats. The initiative urges a quick expansion of renewable energy sources in the country by 2030, claiming also to create jobs. The debate was polarizing at times though the vote tally was indisputable: 111 to 68 advising voters say no. WRS’s Tony Ganzer has highlights from the debate.

The Social Democrats’ Cleantech initiative is being sold to voters on many fronts. It will mandate the percentage of Swiss power from renewable sources be 50 percent by 2030. It is a job creator, proponents say, and it will allow Switzerland to be energy independent, a point Social Democrat Eric Nussbaumer emphasized.

NUSSBAUMER: “Faster pace with the changes to renewable energy are necessary if our country wants to reduce dependency on gas and oil from Russia or OPEC states. Who doesn’t want to quicken this pace, will awaken anger during the next energy fight over gas shortages or oil prices.”

Part of this will be accomplished by increasing energy efficiency, but also through targeted subsidies, which drew much criticism from the political right. They think subsidies spoil a free market. Hans Killer is a Swiss People’s Party MP from Aargau.

KILLER. “There are enough examples all over Europe, where an extreme government influence and intervention for renewable production leads. Spain is the most powerful example for bad policy.”

Spain and Germany were strong into the photo-voltaic production markets, and other technologies. But many companies felt the pinch when the economic crisis began pressuring many sectors of the economy. Still, Social Democrat Margret Kiener-Nellen from Bern said Switzerland needs a wake up.

KIENER-NELLEN: “Switzerland is still stuck sleeping when it comes to renewable energy. The initiative—new jobs thanks to renewable energy—gives us a push. A push for new sustainable jobs.”

But some opposition has rested on the idea of changing renewable targets at all. Swiss People’s Party MP Christoph Blocher.

BLOCHER: “I would be happy if we could finally vote about this adventurous energy policy you’re exaggerating. Mr. Girod you laugh—but I heard you, you don’t know what a strategy is. You said you are bringing three strategies and you bring three goals!”

Blocher’s appearance awoke questions from other MPs, especially after he suggested other another lawmaker use a Duden dictionary to learn about strategies. Social Democrat Jacqueline Badran said the Duden isn’t the only book with answers. Blocher replied.

BLOCHER: “I thank you for the witty instruction. I advised him to go to the Duden so he wouldn’t have to go to such a complicated book. But I must say I have led companies my whole life with strategies. And with goals you can’t do it.”

The National Council’s Environment, Planning, and Energy Committee has pursued amendments to the Energy Act as a kind of indirect counter-proposal to the Social Democrats’ Initiative.

If changes to business incentives or renewable targets are made before an initiative, maybe the initiative will be dropped. Supporters are waiting to see what the Council of States says before deciding what to do.

Solar Impulse: Interview with Bertrand Piccard

Bertrand Piccard
Solar Impulse is in the air, and has been flying for 12 hours gathering solar energy from its 12,000 solar panels affixed to its massive wings.  Your humble correspondent had a few minutes with Bertrand Piccard, the lead of the Solar Impulse project and the first man to circumnavigate the Earth in a hot air balloon.  Here is my interview with Piccard, giving the latest. (as of 1800, 7June10.)

Continue reading “Solar Impulse: Interview with Bertrand Piccard”

Solar Plane Soars through the Night

Solar Impulse

UPDATE: The flight was postponed due to a transmitter failure.  The flight has been rescheduled for Wed, 07 July 10.  Weather permitting, this flight will conclude on the morning of 08 July.

This morning (8a, Thursday) will mark a milestone for the world’s largest, manned solar plane.  The Swiss-made Solar Impulse will be flown through the night using only power gathered from the sun.  This would be the first time a solar plane makes it through the night, and is a vital step toward the project’s ultimate aim of flying around the world using just solar power.   WRS’s Tony Ganzer will be covering the night flight and brings us this report.

Though solar planes and projects have been met with some skepticism, the industry is closely watching the crew of the Solar Impulse.  The team is hoping its solar-powered aircraft will become the first such manned plane to make it through the night with just stored solar power..

“It is not a challenge to fly with a solar airplane for hundreds of kilometers,” said Rudolf Voit-Nitschmann, a professor of airplane design at the University of Stuttgart.

“And the challenge for Solar Impulse—the first major milestone—is to show the airplane can fly the whole day and even the whole night.  This was not shown up till now with a manned airplane,” he added.

Voit-Nitschmann has been watching Solar Impulse closely, and is no stranger to solar planes.  In 2003 he broke an unofficial distance record with his own solar plane flying for more than 200 miles.  But this night flight is uncharted territory for this technology.

“The most challenging item is to get around the night; that means: to start up a plane during the day—you have solar energy available, to recharge your batteries, and then you can fly through the night, because of course during the night you don’t have any solar energy,” Nitschmann said.

Just as the night flight is a milestone, the Solar Impulse project itself has taken solar plane technology to its most modern and extreme edge.  In Solar Impulse’s 7-year history, it has developed and tested many technologies, like the effects of high altitude and cold on the solar panels to be affixed to the plane’s wings.

The plane itself is ground-breaking—its wing-span is 61 meters, or about half the length of the largest football pitches.  Put simply, the plane is a giant glider with solar-powered electric turbines, and is testing what engineers can do with available technology.

The project is spearheaded by Swiss adventurer Bertrand Piccard, the first man to go non-stop around the world in a hot air balloon.

“When you do something that no one has done before of course you are nervous, of course you are anxious,” Piccard said last year at his plane’s unveiling.  “The test will not be directly a big flight.  It will be an epic—first one meter off the ground, then two meters, then 10 meters, then 100 meters, then 1000 meters, then we will spend the night in the air, then we will cross the US, the Atlantic, and then around the world.”

In other words, the project is taking baby steps, and this night flight is one giant hurdle to overcome.

Rudolph Voit-Nitschmann at the University of Stuttgart is convinced Solar Impulse will probably not change everyday flight, but could influence technologies to come.

“People seeing, okay, if you can fly with an airplane around the world with solar energy why you do not do other things with solar energy?” Nitschmann said.

And this flight at night, is one flight closer to Solar Impulse’s ultimate goal to circle the Earth.

Part 3: Energy Lessons from Others?


All this week we’re looking at renewable energy in Arizona, and hearing how one world leader in the industry, Germany, is doing business.  Some observers see Arizona’s progress in the renewable energy game slow-going, motivated mostly by tax incentives for companies and customers to go “green.”  As KJZZ’s Tony Ganzer reports, the tax structure and policy in Europe is much more aggressive, but may not be the answer for Arizona.

Continue reading “Part 3: Energy Lessons from Others?”

Part 2: Germany’s Energy Attitudes

This morning we continue our series on renewable energy.  If you compiled a list of places in the world with a strong foothold in the renewable energy world, you may see Oregon listed for its solar manufacturing; or Spain and Germany for their favorable tax structures and emphasis on green technology.  But Arizona is not considered a leader, despite an abundant and obvious resource: the sun.  KJZZ’s Tony Ganzer traveled to Germany to find out why that country has made renewable energy a priority.

Continue reading “Part 2: Germany’s Energy Attitudes”