Matthew Engel

Science and Technology Advocate

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Meeting with New York State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli

February 19th, 2010 · No Comments

On Thursday, February 11th I was privileged to meet NYS Comptroller Tom DiNapoli and his birthday party and 2010 fundraiser. I was invited to the event my Jim McAsey, of CWA 1104 to speak on behalf of graduate students at Stony Brook University. The event was very crowded and filled with local politicians, their staff, regional business leaders, and organized labor union executives. Specifically, we were there to speak to the Comptroller about our experience negotiating a contract with the Research Foundation of the SUNY. He was very supportive, and I look forward to staying in touch with him and the other representatives I met that evening.

Westri Stalder, Tom DiNapoli and Matthew Engel

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BNL to Install 32 MW Solar Power Plant on Site

January 19th, 2010 · No Comments

In early September 2009, I was privileged to attend an information session at Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL)  regarding the proposed 32 MegaWatt (MW) solar power plant to be installed on site. The presentation was given my Timothy M. Green, Natural Resource Manager of the Environmental Protection Division and consisted of an overview of the BP (British Petroleum) Solar Project. The plan is to build the largest solar power plant ever in NY on Long Island, and would involve collaboration with the Long Island Power Authority (LIPA), BNL, and BP while following Governor Patterson’s 45 by 15 plan.  The Governor’s policy calls for 45% of NY State’s energy to be generated by renewable sources and improved energy efficiency. This is a great shift forward, if in fact it can be implemented.

Solar Electric Generation Facility Competes with Oil-Fired Power Plants

Patterson’s call to create this solar power plant as part of his 45 by 15 plan is an excellent moderate goal for several reasons, but a poorer long term goal. This is a positive short term goal because the construction of a solar power plant in the tri-state area will serve to demonstrate feasibility of solar power generation on a large scale to New Yorkers, educate consumers about the capabilities of this technology, provide a testing ground for BNL photovoltaic researchers, and raise awareness about solar energy to the general public. Also, it is extremely important to note that this plant will be operated, managed and connected to the grid by LIPA – a non-profit NY State electric utility company. They are responsible for distributing electricity to all Long Island residents, though LIPA does not currently own any electric generation assets. LIPA functions by outsourcing distribution and transmission line maintenance to NationalGrid. The construction of this new plant is different from the current model, in which the oil-fired power plants in this region are operated and managed solely by National Grid without a single other power company existing in the region to compete and drive down prices. Therefore, the solar power electric generation facility which will not be owned by National Grid represents the first source of competition for electric utilities in this region.

Weakness of Large Scale Solar Power Plants Compared to Small, Locally Owned Solar Powered Electric Generation Facilities

However, the weakness in creating large scale solar power plants for electricity production for individual and commercial usage is that it is unsustainable. In the future, if we were to build enough new solar power production plants to sustain the Long Island region we would require much more land than is available for new development (data forthing). The alternative solution is too construct individual ‘power plants’ at the end user’s location by installing photovoltaic (PV) arrays at the actual site of energy consumption – another words, install solar panels at home or work. This would (1) marginalize the environmental impact and reduce development costs by eliminating the need to tear down trees and build plants on empty land; and (2) increase efficiency and reduce costs by eliminating electricity lost during long-distance transmission from the power plant to the consumer.

Environmental Impact and Research Component

In September of ’09, it was announced that this facility would be producing 50MW. In the last 4 months, the total power output has been reduced roughly 30% to 35MW, which takes a significant amount of benefit out of the proposed advantages of this project. Upon questioning, the representatives of this project stated that one major advantage of this plant over smaller, locally owned PV systems would be savings due to the “economies of scale”. A 30% reduction in power output and probably panel construction lowers this benefit. During the meeting with LIPA and BNL representatives it was states that LIPA wanted “to provide more green energy to [their] customers”. They solicited a proposal for large scale power plant construction and received many offers. The audience at this talk received some information on the technical specifications of this operation as well as alot of ‘greenwashing’. Greenwashing is the act of stating rhetoric in order to improve public image. However, in this case, the greenwashing is being backed by significant action so some rhetoric is in order, such as “we must diversify our energy resources to increase security”. No offense, but adding 32MW to the grid is not going to do much to reduce dependence on foreign oil. It is really just a first step.

The plant will cost $220m and the panels will be manufactured by BP in the USA. BP is seeking a ROI over 20yr, the length of its contract with DOE. The panels will be standard crystalline PV modules and will take up 200 acres. Total acreage of the lab is 5,625 acres. By optimizing space, the laboratory was able to reduce the standard 8-10 acres/MW to 5 acres/MW. This will be achieved by closely packing the panels with 18.5ft of spacing apart to gain maximum efficiency without causing loss due to shadowing. Construction would occur right in the middle of the lab. The arrays would be interdispersed with smaller step-up transformers (converting DC->AC power) sprinkled throughout the plant. A final step-up facility will be used to bring the voltage to 69kV in order to be compatible with voltage already along the grid. The electricity produced would not be for the lab and the Department of Energy will continue to own the land. If approved, construction will begin in Spring 2010 and go online May 2011. While the facility would create jobs by requiring 200 people for construction, it will only require 2 people to manage the plant. There are no moving parts.

Research and Commercial PV Array Specifications and Location

Approximately 10 acres of this plant will be dedicated towards a research array which would produce 1-2MW of power for the lab. These panels will be used to study battery storage systems, the effects of local climate on PV modules, and how fluctuations in the grid impact output. The 37MW plant should be capable of producing 40m kWhrs/yr. These panels are projected to last up to 40 years, It will require 500,000 gallons of water/yr just to wash the panels.

Other locations on the BNL site were considered. A dispersed system along roadways was ruled out since it would be difficult and inefficient to connect these panels. The goal is to direct energy from the PV arrays to the LIPA substation – and a disparate chain of panels would require more voltage and pipeline to link the arrays. During peaks hours LIPA will be able to reduce the load of its current grid and avoid 1.2m metric tonnes of carbon dioxide. For reference, 2000 acres of 75 yr old trees sequester 2.2 thousand cubic tonnes of carbin dioxide. I did not realize that trees sequester most of their carbon while growing – a good excuse to plant more!

Summary and Conclusions

In summary, this is an inspirational and practical project that I believe will seriously benefit the regional economy and environment. However, I still fail to understand why the 200 acres of PV arrays were not built on rooftops. Considering the average house uses 5,256 Kw-hours/year then this 40million kW plant should be capable of powering ~7,160 homes. If each home takes up 0.5 acres then we would have ~3,600 acres available to build panels. Therefore the 7,160 homes which are being powered by this lone plant could potentially produce much more power combined if they were equipped with their own PV systems. Some further calculations – assuming each home is 0.5 acres, but only has 0.25 acres os usable area for panels then this reduce our total acreage available to 1,800 acres. Assuming BNL’s factor of 5 acres/MW then 7,160 homes could be capable of producing 360 MW. This is 10x the power of the current plant. Therefore, the government should seriously consider investing in PV systems for the individual homeowner, rather than municipal utilities in order to account for increased efficiencies.

Additional Information

How Many Solar Panels Do I Need to Power my House?
New Project Developments
BP Long Island Solar Farm – Environmental Review
enXco Eastern Long Island Solar Project – 17MW of Solar Energy to be constructed on Suffolk county Public Land

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NY State Senator Kenneth LaValle Meeting

August 6th, 2009 · No Comments

Today was a very unique and special day – I was privledged to meet State Senator Kenneth LaValle in his home office in the First District of NY State. Senator LaValle (wiki) has been in office since 1977 and is responsible for representing the residents of Eastern Suffolk County, NY. He has contributed greatly to the development of Stony Brook University which I attend, and the new modern stadium bears his name. Today I was speaking to him about some of the important issues graduate students are facing at the university which affect daily life. Specifically the issues effecting Research Assistants who perform the work in the labs under the tutelage of a professor. The Senator was very passionate about higher education and concerned about the economic situation families are facing today with the mounting costs associated with attending college.

Jim, Senator LaValle, Kasia, and Myself

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DOE Secretary Chu Visits BNL: Slides and Video

April 10th, 2009 · No Comments

U.S. D.O.E.

Secretary Chu has two sides to his talk. The first half focuses on the funding benefits of the Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The second, is more interesting and describes the environmental impact of America’s petrochemical energy usage. Secretary Chu’s hope is that the development of new technologies arising from these investments will change the fundamental way we impact the world and our environment.

A streaming video can be found here on the bottom of this webpage.

The full presentation was uploaded onto the BNL website, and I have a copy of it here. Below, I will share some of the slides which I thought were most critical and relevant; as each could warrant a full discussion unto itself. One of Chu’s goals was to establish the idea that our world is changing. Many peoples are not prone to understanding these types of changes, or how they will affect society. However, it is important not to ignore them but study them and try and calculate how they will impact humanity. One may ask ‘Will these changes be beneficial or detrimental? Can we alter their course, can man control them? Are these changes to our world caused by man, or a byproduct of our society?’ Chu establishes three ‘myths’ which are commonly thought to be true, and present evidence to combat each myth. They are:

  1. The wealth of a country is proportional to the energy it uses and its carbon footprint.
  2. Energy efficiency and CO2 reductions are not affordable.
  3. We have all the technology we need to solve the energy problem. It is only a matter of political will.

The graph above shows the development index of many nations in the world including the U.S., Japan, France, Netherlands, Germany, Israel etc. in proportion to their energy consumption. From here, we can see that many developed nations all across the world are able to maintain a high standard of living while having much lower energy consumption per person. Therefore, in America we have the potential to maintain or even raise our standard of living while lowering our energy consumption – this data shows that it can be done.

Here we see the energy consumption in the United States per person in kWh compared to the energy consumption in California per person. It is obvious, there is a drastic difference between the two. The average person in California uses much less energy than the average person in the U.S. Even while the per capita GDP in California doubled, its energy consumption remained flat. This was due to greater energy efficiency practices, that we could learn from. These practices would reduce our dependence on foreign oil and help reduce pollutin emissions.

I will post this now, but continue updating it over the weekend. Enjoy, and best wishes.


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Energy Secretary Steven Chu Visits Brookhaven National Laboratory

April 5th, 2009 · No Comments

Announces $150 Billion Investment Over 10 Years in Clean and Renewable Energy Research

March 23, 2009

Today I am proud to witness history. I am proud of my country, and excited about the new direction it will be taking us. As Secretary of Energy Steven Chu made his very first visit to a national laboratory since taking office, I was lucky enough to be sitting in the audience during the presentation at BNL (Brookhaven National Laboratory). His visit was accompanied by a major announcement regarding massive new investments in funding for clean and renewable energy research and experimentation as per the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. This will have a large impact on our economy in both the near and short term. Secretary Chu’s talk was both bright and funny, serious and sobering, uplifting and inspiring. He showed many examples of global climate change- examples where increases of just a few degrees could completely alter the natrual landscape, ruining ecosystems for many of its inhabitants. He talked about the history of the Department of Energy and of Brookhaven, and our role in the nation’s energy plan. As I sat in Berkner Hall, taking notes during the talk I was quickly becoming extremely excited and inspired. Right now I feel as if something big is coming, and that real change in this field will happen during my lifetime. Here, I share my personal notes with you from the meeting.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act

“Science for the 21st century”
As Representative Tim Bishop began the introductions, Secretary Chu sheepishly fixed his tie off stage. Still visible to the audience, this small gesture was enough for me to realize that yes, indeed this politician of monstrous importance was truly human, and a modest one at that. A renowned thinker, a Noble Prize winner, and importantly a scientist- Chu actually grew up on Long Island. Living in Garden City, NY from age 3-18 Secretary Chu actually admits never made it to Stony Brook University during that time- but as he acknowledged “I am here now”.

Secretary Chu speaking at Brookhaven National Laboratory

“This is an exciting time to be in science”

The Secretary described the stimulus bill as a method of moving the nation forward and putting people to work. This step moving forward “underscores the President’s wisdom”, demonstrating his understanding of the dire need for research, investment, and implementation of fundamental technologies in the energy sector. This will be accomplished by a pledge to double the budget for the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Science over the next ten years. Specifically, the Office of Science will receive at least $1.2 billion thru the act. Secretary Chu’s main points were:

  • $15 billion per Year for Clean and Renewable Energy Research
  • Permanent Tax Credit for Cleantech Research and Experimentation
  • $277 million of Competetive Grants to be awarded by the Energy Fronteir Research Center

Important details of the Act and how they affect the DOE can be found here. Jeff Sherwood of at DOE headquarters has published a concise and accurate description of the specific investments and funded projects in a press release here.

This will include $90 million to support PhD and grad students in the sciences, creating thousands of new jobs. Chu’s presentation really started to snowball now as he began describing the prestigious history of the DOE, commenting on human environmental impact and importantly- energy consumption. He begain describing the prestigious history of the Department of Energy which has funded 88 Noble Prize Winners, research at over 300 universities and 17 national laboratories.

Secretary Chu Tours the STAR Detector

It is the largest funding source of physical science in the world. He begins reminiscing about the high energy physics research days of yore, which are incredibly fascinating. He describe the work of famous physicists, many of who worked simulaneously at AT&T Bell Labs while Chu was there, on world changing projects such as the transister: the fundamental unit of every modern electrical device. The problem was that the current state of the art, vacuum tubes, would burn out after one year. With the advent of quantum mechanics, a solid state replacement known as the transister was invented. One of his more humorous remarks targeted the NSLS II, now under construction. As the former Director of Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory, Secretary Chu expressed concern when he was admiring the specs of NSLS-II, that perhaps we would provide a friendly rivalry for our west coast neighbor. Now, as Secretary of Energy, Chu must leave these competing interests aside and come to the east coast and promote our accomplishments, and he did so happily and gracefully.

Tomorrow I shall continue my report of the Secretary’s visit to BNL with more details. Thanks for reading and enjoy!

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Yankees Land Mark Teixeira

December 23rd, 2008 · No Comments

December 23, 2008

Today the Yankees landed first baseman Mark Teixeira luring him from the Angels, during this lucrative trade season. The 28-year-old switch-hitter found a new home after Super Agent Scott Boras brokered the eight-year contract worth approximately $180 million.

This is great news, as some protection was needed for Yankee’s slugger Alex Rodriguez. Alex is coming off another nice year batting .302 with 33 doubles. In addition, the Yankees have added infamous starting pitchers C.C. Sabathia (lefty) and A. J. Burnett to their rotation. Next year in the new stadium will be amazing and indeed, they do have fine taste.

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