Monday, November 28, 2011

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Latest from: CleanTechnica

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America’s Energy Future a Battle Between Entrenched Utilities and Clean, Local Power

Posted: 28 Nov 2011 02:32 PM PST

This post originally appeared on Energy Self-Reliant States, a resource of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s New Rules Project.

While Americans transition their electricity system to the 21st century, they should ask this question: Does it make sense to pursue strategies such as accelerating the development of new high-voltage power lines that reinforce an outdated paradigm of electricity delivery, or should scarce energy dollars be spent on adding new, clean, local energy to the grid in the most cost-effective manner?

Fossil fuel power lends itself to centralized power systems, requiring long supply lines (rail or pipeline) to provide a constant supply of fuel and significant economies of scale in thermal energy production. These supply lines and huge power plants require enormous concentrations of capital, concentrating not only power generation but control of the grid. This explains the 20th century electricity system.

Renewable energy is fundamentally different. Wind, solar, and geothermal are available everywhere and are so broadly commercially viable that 31 states could meet their entire electricity need with in-state renewable energy resources. It’s also modular, with large-scale wind and solar power plants made up of smaller increments of 2 megawatts (wind) or 250 Watts (solar). There are much more modest economies of scale for both wind and solar, no long supply lines, and much smaller capital requirements for cost-effective power generation. Thus, renewable energy lends itself to a decentralized system of power generation and ownership.

Mixing the 20th-century centralized paradigm with the 21st century renewable energy paradigm can be an exercise in futility.

The challenge is technical and political.

Technically, large quantities of renewable energy are incompatible with big coal and nuclear power plants that can’t adjust their output to accommodate more wind and solar. For example, traditional large-scale thermal power plants operate effectively only at high capacity. They can’t scale their production rapidly to adjust to fluctuations in demand, so utilities tend to be careful to build only enough “baseload” capacity to fulfill the minimum level of demand. More adjustable natural gas and diesel generators provide the rapid-response power necessary to meet hour-to-hour and minute-to-minute changes in grid needs. Simply put, a clean energy grid needs more flexible power plants and fewer baseload ones.

The Germans, with their sights set on a 100% renewable energy grid, have already confronted this problem. In a report by their renewable energy agency, they note that:

Clearly, on many days in the year, no traditional base load power plants – those that run year-round – will be needed at all. This will be the case if the feed-in from renewables is particularly high and consumption particularly low. The traditional base load power plants will have to be shut down completely at these times. If the residual load then increases again, i.e. if electricity generation from renewable energies drops, and/or the demand for electricity rises, power plants which can provide regular energy fast from a standstill will be needed. But that is exactly what base load power plants cannot achieve. Nuclear power plants for example have a technically mandated minimum down time of approx. 15 to 24 hours, and it takes up to 2 days to get them up and running again.

Simply put, a clean energy grid is technically incompatible with a grid management strategy that prioritizes always-on, baseload power from fossil fuel and nuclear plants.  It’s like mixing typewriters and iPads. The following graphic provides a nice illustration of the necessary paradigm shift.

In a way, this vision is not a radical departure. Inflexible generation is still the priority, but in the new paradigm, your “always-on” power sources are variable. On top of that, flexible energy sources are stacked (including energy storage and demand-side management). For greater detail on the technical and economic components of this shift, see our report on Democratizing the Electricity System released in mid-2011.

But the transition to a clean energy future is not just technical, it’s political. With electricity consumption relatively flat, achieving clean energy goals rapidly will mean curtailing output from existing fossil fuel power plants. It becomes a battle between the established financial interest of utilities and clean energy producers. That’s because incumbent utilities own coal and nuclear plants and find it more financially attractive to operate them than to buy power from independent wind and solar producers. Maximizing clean energy production means a transformation in the technology powering the grid but also the entities who control the grid.

This battle is already underway (Anne Butterfield, Daily Camera):

 Coal doesn’t just present financial uncertainties, it also hampers clean energy. Wind plants selling power to Xcel in Colorado have seen more of their power curtailed for the sake of coal (which cannot ramp up and down for renewable sources the way that natural gas or hydro can). Since Xcel makes its return on its coal plants and not on wind plants owned by others, it will often run their coal when forced to choose.

Xcel’s cost of wind curtailment has jumped by 30-fold in the past 3-4 years, a hike in which customers pay twice — once for the wind contract and again for the coal when it displaces the wind.

The prioritization of renewable energy, developed in a decentralized fashion, will undermine the traditional utility financial model. Thousands of megawatts of distributed wind and solar can be added to the existing grid, near cities and towns where electricity is used, and at a minimum of expense. For utilities dependent on building power plants and power lines to make a return on investment, the new, decentralized, low-infrastructure electricity system is anathema.

To re-use our analogy of the technical problems, what’s happening is the typewriter industry is using its vast resources to kill the iPad, only this time the typewriters have guns.

Utilities have responded by clamping down where they can, limiting access to the grid for independent power producers and attempting to corner the market on clean energy added to their grid system. Allowing them to do so will undermine the progress on clean energy, as utilities will wastefully cram inherently decentralized renewable energy production into an outdated centralized power paradigm. They will overbuild infrastructure to make the best return and they will also limit the dispersion of economic benefits from clean energy.

There’s a need for urgency, because decisions made now in the utility planning process can be on the balance sheet for 50 years or more. Is it really time to be building new coal plants that we’ll have to pay for until 2061 when solar is likely to be cheaper than any other power source by 2020?

America’s clean energy future requires a paradigm shift in the utility system and there’s no time to waste.  The technical challenges are significant but surmountable, and, already, leading countries like Germany are finding the solutions. The political challenges must also be confronted, and all it takes is action.

Americans can tell policymakers that they want a future dominated by clean energy, rather than existing utilities. They can advocate for opening data on the utility distribution system to allow more distributed energy development, as the California Public Utilities Commission has required. They can advocate for sensible incentives for renewable energy that broaden the opportunities for ownership, as the cash grant program has done. And they can support CLEAN Contracts or feed-in tariffs that require utilities to connect and contract with distributed renewable energy producers.

Renewable energy has opened the door to a democratized electricity system and Americans need to reach out and grasp it.

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The Motocompo Returns? No! Honda Debuts the Electric MOTOR COMPO

Posted: 28 Nov 2011 12:44 PM PST

The Prozza’s Gone Electric!

Posted: 28 Nov 2011 12:40 PM PST

Lowes to Carry Electron-Stimulated Luminescence Light Bulbs

Posted: 28 Nov 2011 12:37 PM PST

ESL

Vu1 Corporation, a manufacturer of mercury-free, energy-efficient lighting technology recently announced that Lowes would carry the R30 Electron Stimulated Luminescence light bulb. The bulb is a direct replacement for the 65-watt incandescent flood bulb found in many recessed lighting fixtures.

Unlike compact florescent lights, the ESL is mercury-free, allowing for easy disposal and clean-up if damaged. According to the company: ”ESL technology creates the same light quality as an incandescent but is up to 70% more energy efficient and lasts up to 11,000 hours.”

The ESL light bulbs will be available on lowes.com starting December 1st and in retail stores in February 2012. It will retail for approximately $14.98.

Photo: Vu1 Corporation

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China Solar Price Projections vs Actual Price Drops

Posted: 28 Nov 2011 08:27 AM PST

Greentech Media shared an interesting graph last week. It shows the analysts’ solar price decline projections compared to what actually happened. The chart, below, obviously shows that Chinese crystalline silicon solar module prices have dropped faster than anyone projected they would.

dropping cost of chinese solar modules

click to enlarge

The key points here are that analysts are not fortune tellers, and prices were expected to drop the past few years but not nearly as much as they did.

Of course, some non-Chinese solar companies are claiming this is due to unfair and illegal Chinese subsidies and policies, whereas China is asserting the rapidly falling cost of silicon is due to unfair and illegal U.S. subsidies and policies (and it is the low cost of silicon that has driven down the price of their solar cells and modules).

Source: Greentech Media

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Denmark: 100% Renewable Energy by 2050 (100% Clean Electricity by 2035)

Posted: 28 Nov 2011 07:52 AM PST

Upcoming Canadian Cleantech Conferences Look to Move Solar, Biofuels Forward

Posted: 28 Nov 2011 07:09 AM PST

solar power ontario canada

With 2011 winding down, both the Canadian solar and biofuels sectors are having their annual conferences within the next two weeks, to take stalk of the past year and move forward for 2012.

The Canadian Solar Industry Association (CanSIA), coming off a proposal in October for the upcoming Canadian Federal budget, is having its conference at the Metro Convention Centre in Toronto, Ontario December 5-6.

One topic that industry participants will be mulling over during the two-day conference includes global market trends in supply and demand for the solar industry. Currently, the solar industry is one of the top renewable energy industries. However, trade wars between China and the US, and economic concerns within Europe, are adding some downward pressure on the industry.

Other topics that will be discussed in various sessions include:

  • the market for solar thermal power, as some of the subsidies for solar thermal have dried up in Canada;
  • opportunities for growth outside of Ontario, which is Canada’s largest solar market;
  • how federal and provincial policies can benefit the overall Canadian industry;
  • the future for solar in Ontario after October’s provincial election, where Dalton McGinty’s Liberals won a minority government, easing some fears among some solar industry people (solar would have been hit hard if Tim Hudak’s Progressive Conservatives had won).

Also on tap at the CanSIA’s conference is discussions on whether or not Ontario’s solar industry can avoid the pitfalls and deploying solutions of some feed-in tariff programs.

Canadian Renewable Fuels Association Takes the “Pragmatic Path” for Conference

While the Canadian solar industry basks in the sunlight of late fall in Ontario, the Canadian biofuels industry will hit right in the heartland of Canada’s oil industry — Calgary, Alberta — from November 28 to November 30.

Being held at the Westin Hotel, the Canadian Renewable Fuels Association (CRFA) is holding its eighth annual conference.

The CRFA is looking to take a “pragmatic approach” to a sustainable economy in moving forward with the energy relationship between oil and renewable fuels.

"Too often, we find that others seek to pit the oil and gas industry against renewable fuels – and vice versa. Too often we see these industries compete for the favour of the public or government policymakers. In reality, there is a sound basis for a strong partnership," said Jim Grey, Chairman of the Canadian Renewable Fuels Association on its website.

Topics that will grab some attention include a presentation on cellulosic ethanol, important considering that a report in October said the US will have some challenges to meet their renewable fuels standards. Paul Kelley, Vice President of Iogen Corporation will be discussing how his company is a leader in cellulosic ethanol and how others can boost their potential.

Other sessions will discuss how biofuels can move forward, including sessions on:

  • making transportation safe for biofuels (especially after the derailment of ethanol rail containers in Illinois this past September);
  • the ongoing debate of food versus fuel;
  • using feed stocks for biofuels;
  • potential markets for biofuels in aviation.

Potentially the most intriguing session in the conference is called "Finding The Balance for Transport Fuels." It includes a range of panelists from different areas, including: Ted Stoner, Vice President of the Canadian Petroleum Products Institute; Tim Haig of the Canadian Renewable Fuels association; Jesse Row of the Canadian environmental economic think tank Pembina Institute; and Adam Gagnon, a former manager of Climate Change Central.

While Canada continues to lag behind other cleantech giants, including China, Europe, and the US, these two upcoming conferences in two renewable energy sectors in Canada are important for moving forward with key strategies for a sustainable economy.

Photo Credit by AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike by Canadian Youth Climate Coalition

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Optical Solar Furnace Expected to Slash Cost of Solar Panels

Posted: 28 Nov 2011 06:56 AM PST

Lawn-mounted solar panels.

A new type of furnace that was recently tested by the United States Department of Energy is expected to slash the cost of solar power, due to the fact that it enables manufacturers to more precisely and uniformly focus both infrared rays (heat) and visible light onto the silicon wafers that are used to manufacture solar cells, and this is expected to improve reliability and reduce the cost of the manufacturing process of solar cells.

This invention is called an Optical Cavity Furnace. The technology is taking advantage of the fact that light can be concentrated onto small areas far more precisely than anything else.

The U.S DOE is responsible for this new technology and is working with the NREL to prepare it for commercialization. They plan to build an industrial scale version of this invention that produces 1,200 solar cells per hour.

This is important to increasing the adoption of solar panels as a power source, as the up-front cost of solar panels turns most people off (even though they’d probably save thousands of dollars in the long term).

Some people believe that advancing electricity generation technology (of whatever kind) is the only solution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Others believe that what solar requires is better government policies and alternate deployment methods. Both are important, but it’s clear that technological advancements such as these do play a significant role.

Conclusion

Technological breakthroughs such as the one mentioned at the top help to solidify the argument that solar panels deserve research and development more than any electricity generation technology, because no other power generators have shown as much promise nor progressed as much for many years as solar. I will certainly keep my eye on this and try to update you on what comes of it.

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h/t Thinkprogress | photo via Spanginator

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Cleantech Policy Round-Up (10 Stories)

Posted: 28 Nov 2011 04:56 AM PST

Time for another round-up. This one’s on some of the top cleantech policy stories I’ve seen around in the past week or so.

clean energy

1. Spain Now Allowing Net Metering for Small Power Plants!

“Spain’s government passed a decree [last] Friday designed to make it easier for small power plants to connect to the grid and pave the way for their operators to become self-sufficient,” Reuters reports. “Government spokesman Jose Blanco told a weekly news conference the measure was aimed at renewable energy sources, particularly photovoltaic (PV) panels, which convert sunlight into electricity.”

2. U.S. Could Save Over $80 Billion in Lower Energy Costs by Switching to Clean, Safe, Renewable Energy

“Titled Toward a Sustainable Future for the U.S. Power Sector: Beyond Business as Usual 2011′ and available online at  http://www.CivilSocietyInstitute.org/synapsereport, the new Synapse/CSI report outlines a realistic transition to a cleaner energy future that would result in a net savings of $83 billion over the next 40 years,” a recent news release reports. “The Synapse report also details other major benefits, including:  the avoidance of tens of thousands of premature deaths due to pollution; the creation of hundreds of thousands of new jobs; sharp cuts in carbon pollution; and significant cuts in water consumption for power production.”

3. U.S. Puts $112 Million in Energy-Efficient Transit

“The U.S. Transportation Department is sending $112 million to projects across the country to help build energy-efficient transit vehicles and facilities,” Reuters reports. “The money, intended to create environment-friendly transportation options as well as construction jobs, will be shared among 46 projects.”

4. Climate Change More Important than Financial Crisis to Europeans

“Europeans are more concerned about climate change today than in 2009 and they believe that fighting climate change can boost the economy and create jobs,” Vestas (a job-creating wind turbine company) reports. “ Between 2009 and 2011, the share of citizens who feel that climate change is the most serious problem has increased from 17% to 20%. Also, EU citizens believe that the seriousness of climate change has increased compared to two years ago.” (The only issue Europeans were more concerned about was “poverty, hunger and lack of drinking water,” which is quite clearly tied to climate change anyway.)

5. Regional Cap-&-Trade Creating Economic Growth in Northeastern U.S.

“A regional cap-and-trade program launched in the northeastern U.S. three years ago has saved customers nearly $1.1 billion on electricity bills, helped create 16,000 jobs, and has retained more than $765 million in local economies by reducing the demand for fossil fuels, according to a new analysis,” Yale e360 nicely summarizes. “While the future of the so-called Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) remains in jeopardy — with New Jersey planning to drop out and other states also considering leaving — the study by the Boston-based Analysis Group finds that the project has had real benefits for the ten participating states.”

6. EPA Clean Air Rules Boost Economy, Create Jobs

“A new study details the positive impacts on the economy and job creation resulting from companies' investments in emission control technology in response to new air pollution rules from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA),” a news release last week states. “The report, "New Jobs – Cleaner Air Part II: An investment in American Businesses and American Jobs," released today by Ceres in collaboration with the Institute of Clean Air Companies (ICAC), highlights specific case studies of companies involved in building a fleet of modern power plants.”

"As Congress continues to debate how best to create jobs, we already know one area that is poised for more jobs – the utility sector. As companies invest in upgrades to their older, less efficient power plants to comply with EPA air pollution rules, jobs will be created at supplier’s manufacturing centers all the way down the supply chain to the actual construction sites," said Ceres president, Mindy Lubber. "Hands down, clean air is a good thing and putting these air pollution rules into effect at a time when new jobs and economic growth are desperately needed is the right thing to do."

7. Energy Efficiency Creates Jobs, and How

“For many years, ACEEE has done analyses and written reports on the role of energy efficiency in creating jobs,” ACEEE reports. “[Our new] fact sheet seeks to de-mystify how net job impacts should be estimated, and demonstrate how investments in cost-effective energy efficiency improvements can yield a net positive benefit for the nation's overall employment.”

8. U.S. Supports Revenue-Neutral Carbon Tax!

“A majority of Americans across the political spectrum support policies that reduce carbon emissions, including a revenue-neutral carbon tax, according to a new survey by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication,” Yale e360 reports.

In a survey conducted between Oct. 20 and Nov. 6, 65 percent of respondents said they would support a revenue-neutral carbon tax to help "create jobs and decrease pollution" — including 51 percent of those identifying themselves as Republicans, 69 percent of independents, and 77 percent of Democrats. Sixty percent said they would support a $10-per-ton carbon tax if the money was spent reducing federal income taxes. That support continued even when respondents were told the carbon tax would "slightly increase the cost of many things you buy, including food, clothing, and electricity." Support for the tax dipped to 49 percent if the revenue was instead returned to each family as an annual check, and to just 44 percent if it was spent paying down the national debt. Sixty-nine percent said they oppose federal subsidies for the fossil fuel industry, while 54 percent opposed ethanol subsidies.

9. Bill Gates Urges U.S. to Triple Its Investment in Cleantech

Bill Gates wants the U.S. to triple its cleantech investments to $16 billion a year, noting that we’re lagging behind China, France, and Canada in this arena. Writing in the journal Science last Friday he mentioned a report by the American Energy Innovation Council and said the extra money could come from cuts in investments and subsidies to well-established energy industries. Sounds good to me (and the majority of the U.S.)!

10. China Probing U.S. Renewable Energy Support

The potential solar trade war heated up on Friday as China announced that it was investigating government policy and subsidy support for renewable energy in the U.S. “The announcement by the Commerce Ministry also comes after China’s solar industry association said on Tuesday that Chinese solar companies may ask Beijing to launch an anti-dumping and subsidy probe into imports of U.S. polysilicon, the raw material used to make solar cells,” Reuters reports.

Renewable energy image via shutterstock

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Forget Fracking, Vitamin B12 Could Make Fuel Cells Cheaper

Posted: 28 Nov 2011 04:55 AM PST

vitamin B12 could replace platinum catalyst for cheaper fuel cellsVitamin B12 could replace platinum as a catalyst in fuel cells, and that could lead to a new generation of emission free, low cost hydrogen fuel cells for cars and other vehicles. Aside from helping to reduce the use of petroleum-fueled vehicles, cheaper fuel cells could also help ease some of the pressure to drill for more natural gas. Natural gas is emerging as a low-emission alternative fuel for vehicles, but given the environmental risks and community disruption caused by fracking (a method of drilling that involves pumping chemicals underground), natural gas is not the kind of long term, sustainable solution that fuel cells have the potential to offer.

The Search for Low Cost Fuel Cells

Part of the reason why fuel cells for vehicles are so expensive is that platinum has been the material of choice for spurring the reaction that generates electricity. Platinum is a highly efficient catalyst but it is also highly expense, so the hunt has been on to find cheaper alternatives.

The Vitamin B12 Solution

According to writer Ross McLaren at the Royal Chemical Society, a team of researchers from the Institute of Atomic and Molecular Science in  Taipei have developed a catalyst that uses one of the cheapest and most abundant materials on Earth, carbon. They loaded it up with vitamin B12 and found that, while not as efficient as platinum, the carbon-B12 combination performed well enough to show some promise. In other words, don’t hold your breath – a high performance B12 fuel cell could be years away – but the research is heading in the right direction.

Vitamin B12 – No, Really

If the B12 angle sounds like a come-on, guess again. Vitamin B12 is becoming an important tool in the sustainability toolkit, one example being its development as a booster for bacteria-based pollution cleanups involving toxic chemicals like TCE and perc.

Other Roads to Low Cost Fuel Cells

Aside from developing cheaper catalysts, the search for low cost  fuel cells is taking many paths. A team at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory is using nanocrystals of titanium dioxide (basically, white paint) to help lower the cost of producing hydrogen from water, and Oxford University is looking into formic acid, an organic acid found in bee and ant venom, to create miniature pocket-sized fuel cells.

About that Fracking…

As for fracking, the practice has been linked to contamination in drinking water wells, but until now it was largely confined to remote underpopulated areas and nobody paid much attention beyond the affected communities. Now due to rising demand for natural gas it is intruding into more densely populated states including Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey, where water supplies for millions are at stake.

Image Credit: Vitamins, Some rights reserved by bradley j.

Follow on Twitter: @TinaMCasey

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