- China-US Solar Trade War Has Complex Arguments
- Solar Backup Myth
- 40,000 Cycles — Nanotechnology Catapults Battery Technology Forward, Once Again
- 3D Solar Panels from MIT
- Thank You
- Walmart and ECOtality Advance EV Infrastructure
- Greenpeace Report Lays Out Who’s Holding Back Climate Change Treaty, Green Global Economy
Posted: 24 Nov 2011 03:09 PM PST
As a homeowner who has benefited from cheap solar panels from China, I am torn by the recent moves here to slap a tariff on Chinese solar imports, because of course green jobs here will help the US economy, and normally I lean towards buying local and keeping jobs here at home. (And only if we develop a constituency for clean energy to match that for dirty energy will we get the political support for clean energy that is essential for the long term future of civilization.)
But. Cheap solar now – currently made in China – already has the potential for benefits that go far beyond jobs today.
On the one hand, we should all be thankful that at least one nation is investing bigtime in producing carbonfree energy, as the Chinese government is, now. The world will have a safer climate future because of the intelligence of the current Chinese government. That that heavy subsidizing of solar results in cheaper solar around the world truly is a benefit to humanity: see China Won’t Ape US on Carbon: Disastrous.
We need solar to get to grid parity, and what the Chinese government is doing will do more to get it there than anything our now completely dysfunctional government could do in the foreseeable future: it can barely keep the lights on in congress.
On the other hand, like many Californians, I am also the past beneficiary of the local green jobs boom in the 33% renewable by 2020 state, having easily securing the sort of job in solar that would be hard to come by in other industries. I know first hand how much the US needs a nationwide green “gold rush” of new jobs in solar domestically like this.
Of course, on one hand: cheap Chinese solar means China benefits economically from its solar policy of government support and protection. We don’t. (But we could. We could supply our own government support, as we did with nuclear, oil, and coal.)
On the other hand, the US itself also earns money from exporting polysilicon, the raw material from which PV solar panels are made, as Renewable Energy World’s Steve Leone points out in an excellent piece on the complexity of this issue. More Chinese solar panels result in more US jobs, at least in raw material exports. (What an irony that a developed nation like the US is now a raw material supplier to what was only recently a developing nation.)
China has become the world leader in highly automated cell and module production. But it’s leading manufacturer, China’s Suntech sources half its polysilicon from outside China, and 30% of that comes from the US.
And China sees the world as a level playing field of intertwined green energy destinies, and feels threatened by US solar competition. Suntech – which has a manufacturing plant in Arizona – sees price competition from the US as well, and from thin film manufacturers like First Solar, not just polysilicon-based solar competitors.
"We're in a hyper competitive environment," Andrew Beebe, Chief Commercial Officer for Suntech, told Leone. "The cost leader here is a US company, First Solar. It's not due to one country or another; it's due to the extraordinary rush of companies that has taken place over the last couple of years, and it's led to an oversupply of capacity. It's been a great time to be a customer of solar, but the inevitable ramification of that is not everyone is going to make it."
Adding to the intertwined fates of China and the US on solar trade policy is the fact that one of the factors in China’s success in cutting solar pricing is partly due to US policy. The Obama administration had set a goal to reduce solar prices to $1 a watt by 2014, invested in the DOE programs of subsidies and incentives needed to achieve it, and is on track to get to that goal.
But Obama policy led in turn to the the Chinese government increasing investment in its own solar plants to supply the targets (along with meeting the EU targets – as well meeting its own much more demanding renewable policies: see China Even Beats US to Cap and Trade.) China is good at mass production on the scale needed to make things cheaper globally. China has invested billions in solar loans and cossets its manufacturers with support that the US can only dream of.
So, on the one hand, the US just cannot compete with China on price.
On the other hand, the tragic losses of the price war have resulted in some incredible deals for homeowners. US solar manufacturer Evergreen, which recently went bankrupt trying to compete in this price war is now auctioning off its assets in a liquidation sale that led to some incredible deals in solar panels for a lucky few in the US, at just 54 cents a watt. Some homeowners will be the lucky beneficiaries of that liquidation – and the climate will benefit.
The many stakes in this new trade war on solar are complicated. I’m sure you can add yet more layers to this complex argument on both sides.
Posted: 24 Nov 2011 09:52 AM PST
MYTH #1: Solar Power Isn’t Green When It Requires Backup Gas Power Plants:
Solar opponents often argue that solar power plants create the need for additional power plants. The first problem I noticed with this argument is that the installation of additional electricity generation capacity does not create the need for more electricity.
That is illogical. If you were to cancel the construction of a solar power plant, then this means that electricity would have to come from another power plant, and that is likely a natural gas one. The natural gas power plant would have to operate and burn gas 24 hours per day.
If the solar power plant was installed, then that same natural gas plant would back it up at night, and would operate only a fraction of the time, and, hence, burn a fraction of the gas that it normally would.
During the day, when solar irradiance fluctuates, a relatively small (compared to an entire day of backup) amount of energy storage (batteries are an example) could back up the solar power plant with the excess energy stored from sunny periods.
MYTH #2: Such people argue that the natural gas generators required are unable to scale electricity generation up or down when solar power production decreases or increases, respectively. Therefore, they have to stay on all the time.
Note that while some power plants can take hours to start (especially coal and nuclear plants), modern gas peaking plants can start in 10-15 and hydro generators can start almost instantaneously.
The solution to the problem above, nonetheless, is pretty simple — set up an hour (or even less) of energy storage that the solar panels would keep charged, and if it becomes cloudy, the battery will back up the solar power plant by providing electricity for up to an hour, which is plenty of time for the natural gas or hydro power plant to start.
One hour of energy storage is inexpensive and the energy storage would act as a buffer for solar power. Another characteristic about solar panels that complements that is they already generate DC, so no AC to DC conversion is required to charge the batteries.
Photo Credit: SolarShop
Posted: 24 Nov 2011 09:39 AM PST
Yi Cui, a Stanford University professor of materials science and engineering, has led researchers to yet another breakthrough in battery technology, but this time, it is not lithium-ion.
For those that don’t already know, electric vehicles need batteries with a low cost and a long lifespan, and solar and wind power plants can benefit significantly from batteries like that as well. Storing solar and wind power for later use not only facilitates selling it at any time of day with no backup generators, but it eliminates reliability issues and fluctuations in electricity generation.
Stanford University researchers have demonstrated a battery technology that is able to retain 83% of it’s charge after 40,000 cycles. (1 cycle is 1 charge and 1 discharge.) Lead acid batteries only last a few hundred cycles, and lithium-ion 1,000.
Please note that the cycle life of batteries is not the same as their shelf life. Some batteries, such as li-ion self-degrade even when not being used. Lithium-ion batteries would last 19 years if they did not self-degrade, due to the fact that they have a cycle life of 1,000 cycles, assuming that they are cycled once per week.
This new battery technology is similar to lithium-ion batteries but can use either sodium or potassium ions instead of lithium ions. Sodium and potassium are much more abundant and cheaper than lithium.
What the researchers did was start with a pigment called “Prussian Blue,” which is a compound of iron and cyanide, and they replaced half of the iron with copper, then they manufactured crystalline nanoparticles of the compound. Then they coated it on a cloth resembling carbon substrate. Then, finally, they submerge it in an electrolyte solution called potassium nitrate.
The electrodes exhibited 99% efficiency. “You want the voltage you put in during charging and the voltage you take out during discharge to be same,” Cui says. “Compared to any other battery material, this is absolutely the best.”
This does have a drawback for weight-sensitive applications such as electric vehicles, though: this has an energy density of only 60 mAh per gram. Apart from that, this is definitely a technology I want to keep an eye on. Power plants are not weight-sensitive.
Posted: 24 Nov 2011 09:24 AM PST
I’ve covered some of the groundbreaking work of MIT’s Jeffrey Grossman in the past (in particular, a thermo-chemical approach to solar power and energy storage). But I don’t think we’ve covered this yet — Grossman and some students of his at MIT are working on 3D solar structures that can create almost as much electricity on a cloudy day as on a sunny day. Here’s more from ABC’s “This Could Be BIG” (yes, I’m a little jealous that this guy has a camera crew and production team to follow him around and talk to such cleantech researchers, but at least they are doing it!):
Posted: 24 Nov 2011 07:20 AM PST
Thank You to our awesome, intelligent readers. You all have no idea how happy you make us…. I’m super thankful that we can work together to create positive change in this world.
I also want to give a big thank you to our tremendous CleanTechnica writers and team. I’m humbled and inspired by each of them, and so thankful they (you, if you’re one of them) work here on CleanTechnica.
Thank You image via woodleywonderworks
Posted: 24 Nov 2011 07:06 AM PST
If you’ve been following our Cleantech Project Stories, you’ll know that ECOtality has been working on its EV network with eco-conscious companies like Ikea. ECOtality has brought out the big guns now, expanding the reach of its EV Project by partnering with Walmart, the world’s biggest corporation, to bring its Blink Pedestal electric vehicle (EV) charging stations to 10 stores throughout California, Oregon, and Washington. Blink Pedestal charging stations are designed for commercial and public locations. They are classified as Level 2, or 240 volt AC input, charging stations.
The EV Project is a publicly- and privately-funded campaign that acts as a large-scale test run for life with EV’s. The project’s goals include creating an EV infrastructure to support approximately 8,300 electric vehicles (pre-qualified Chevy Volts and Nissan LEAFs), as well as funding the installation of 14,000 electric chargers to commercial and residential locations in the United States. Its ultimate goal is to "take the lessons learned from the deployment of these first 8,300 EVs, and the charging infrastructure supporting them, to enable the streamlined deployment of the next 5,000,000 EVs."
The partnership with Walmart may raise eyebrows and cries of "Greenwashing!" to those who haven’t been following its progress in environmental sustainability. Ever since former-CEO Lee Scott’s "Twenty First Century Leadership" speech in 2005, the company has labored intensively to change the way it handles its global supply chain and environmental impact. Mr. Scott set Walmart’s environmental goals to include being supplied 100 percent by renewable energy, creating zero waste, and selling products that sustain resources and the environment. According to Scott’s speech, being green and being profitable are not mutually exclusive. Michael Duke, Walmart’s current CEO, seems to be committed to these goals; check out Walmart’s 2010 sustainability report to read its version.
Walmart’s impact on the environment still needs further study. Some argue that it is expanding too quickly for its environmental efforts to make a positive impact. What is certain is that the corporation is a polarizing entity, but it’s possible that the partnership with ECOtality will bode well for the development of EV infrastructure. At the very least, Walmart’s inclusion in the project will bring EV exposure beyond early adopters, thanks to the big box chain’s ubiquity and its steady stream of more than 100 million customers a week. We’ll leave its labor practices for another article.
Posted: 24 Nov 2011 06:08 AM PST
Steel industry giant Arcellor-Mittal, chemicals industry leader BASF, mining giant BHP Billiton, the US energy industry’s Koch, South Africa’s electric utility Eskom – the leaders of these giant multinational companies, along with others, literally spend “the equivalent of the GDP of entire nations to block progress on climate legislation and ensure that fossil fuel and nuclear subsidies continue to give unfair advantage to dirty energy, above the safe, clean renewable energy future the public demands.”
So states Greenpeace International executive director Kumi Naidoo in the foreword to the environmental rights organization’s “Who’s holding us back? How carbon-intensive industry is preventing effective climate change legislation?”
In the report, Greenpeace lays out how “a handful of carbon-intensive companies who stand to benefit from inaction have been holding us back, and the politicians who choose to act on their behalf,” documenting the means and methods they’re using to do so.
With climate change treaty negotiators from 194 nations around the world about to meet in Durban, South Africa for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s (UNFCCC) 17th Conference of Parties (COP 17), the report’s release is timely to say the least.
It comes at the tail end of a year in which record-breaking damages have been suffered by communities and countries around the world due to extreme weather events and a ‘business as usual’ approach to energy and economic development.
A Conspiracy of Dunces
Adding insult to injury, a second release of stolen emails from climate researchers by parties unknown and still at large – the so-called ‘Climategate 2′ – comes just as COP 17 is about to begin, an eerie, somewhat disturbing coincidence, as the first batch was released in 2009 to coincide with COP 15 in Copenhagen. The smear campaign continues.
The leaders of some large US corporations and multinationals, particularly in the energy, mining and power industries, adamantly oppose governmental efforts to cap greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and implement consistent, proactive and long-term climate change and renewable energy action plans. They’ve displayed a great amount of creativity and have been more than willing to dig into their deep pockets to disparage, denigrate and derail any such thing from happening.
It’s become increasingly clear just how shrewd and devious these organizations and their media minions can be when it comes to influencing and manipulating public opinion, not to mention co-opt political leaders in the US and around the world. That’s not surprising; they’re the best money can buy.
These are ‘investments’ that have generated returns far, far higher than investing in their businesses. Down through the years, their spending on lobbying, financing campaigns of political candidates and influencing local elections has been returned many, many times over.
Nonetheless, the broad public refuses to be swayed. The results of public opinion polls in the US have consistently shown broad public support for renewable energy and clean technology, yet our political leadership at the federal level is unable to act.
It’s in this area that the issues of energy, the economy, the environment, and the overall health and sustainability of democratic societies overlap with trends in US politics and government. The Occupy Wall Street and associated movements that have sprung up and persist around the country are clear testimony to the increasingly strong disconnect many, particularly the younger generation, feel when it comes to politics, government and economic opportunity.
A Glimmer of Hope
Nonetheless, there is “a glimmer of hope on the horizon,” Naidoo writes. The best scientists around the world continue work individually and in collaboration to further our understanding of the human effects on climate change and how we may best mitigate and adapt to it. The renewable energy and clean technology industries continue to develop and grow. “Despite the massive odds against it, renewable energy has doubled each year over the past decade,” he notes.
More than 2 million people worldwide are employed in renewable energy jobs. In the US, more people are employed in the sector than in the coal industry. Renewable energy investment reached a record $243 billion in 2010 despite all the economic and financial system turmoil that’s occurred. That’s expected to exceed $3 trillion in the next decade, Greenpeace points out.
As Naidoo states, it’s not a question of lacking the technology, or the money. It’s certainly not a lack of pressing need and urgency. It’s a question of political will. And broad swathes of people in countries around the world are increasingly being spurred to action, to participate and have their voices heard at the highest levels of government, industry and commerce. That certainly is cause for hope, not only economically, not only for life in all its profusion on this planet, but in terms of keeping broad-based democratic systems of government alive and well
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