- 5 States with Most Solar & Wind Energy Had Smallest increase in Electricity Prices 2005-2010
- Increasing Wind Energy in Germany Pricing Out Natural Gas Plants
- Solar Cell with 114% External Quantum Efficiency
- DOE Weatherization Assistance Cuts Energy Bills, Lowers Usage for 600,000 Low-Income Homes
- Floating, Desalinating Solar Cucumbers — Yum!
- Renewable Energy Standard Lies — The Next Big Thing?
- Concentrating Solar Power Much More Valuable at Higher Solar Penetration Levels
- Google Investing $94 Million More in Solar Power
- Cleantech Consumer Product News
- Kenya Looking for a Geothermal Boom
Posted: 20 Dec 2011 07:39 AM PST
This is, clearly, not a definitive analysis showing that renewable energy such as wind and solar lower electricity rates (or make them increase more slowly), but it is a pretty darn good argument in their favor! And it is also a great piece to share with anyone who thinks renewable energy raises the cost of electricity. Add in the health benefits, job creation benefits, grid security benefits, and environmental benefits and my hunch is that any analysis on the matter would tell us, “Hey, it’s about time we put the Big money into renewable energy!” (More on wind costs and solar costs (.. and solar costs) you might want to take a look at.)
The health, environmental, and direct job creation benefits of renewable energy vs. traditional forms of power generation are widely accepted. All other things being equal, it would be a foregone conclusion that renewable energy should be chosen over other types of generation. Of course, all other things are not equal. To understand the total impact of integrating renewables into an electricity supply mix, the value of any benefits must be carefully weighed against the costs that may arise from choosing renewables.
ClearSky Advisors has conducted a significant amount of research into the costs and benefits of renewable generation and our analysis has consistently shown that renewables are an attractive alternative to traditional forms of power generation. Unfortunately, this analysis typically requires dozens of spreadsheets and produces complex findings that are challenging to communicate to those outside the industry.
The purpose of this article is to offer a simple, high-level analysis — based on solid data provided by the U.S. Energy Information Administration — that can help put the cost impacts of renewables in perspective. Specifically, it looks at retail electricity price increases across the U.S. and asks how states that have incorporated a high volume of wind and solar PV compare with those that have not.
Increasing Costs of Electricity
Between 2005-2010, 49 out of 50 U.S. states experienced an increase in their average cost per watt for electricity. On average over the five years, retail electricity costs in the U.S. increased by 4.1 percent annually. In real dollars, the average cost/kWh increased by a total of 1.8¢ from 2005-2010. This is a substantial increase that points to the rising costs of producing and distributing energy, regardless of the generating technologies used.
How Do States with High Volumes of Solar and Wind Compare?
Despite the fact that electricity costs are rising across the U.S., there is a widely held perception that adding wind and solar PV generating capacity results in undue costs to ratepayers. To frame the ratepayer impact of utilizing renewable energy technologies, we compared retail electricity price increases in the five states with the highest capacity of solar PV and wind with both the U.S. average and the five states with the lowest capacity of solar PV and wind. The results challenge the prevailing perception that renewable generation is expensive to ratepayers.
Note: The top five states were chosen because they accounted for over 50 percent of installed wind and solar PV volume by the end of 2010; the bottom five states were the only states to have each installed less than 1 MW of cumulative solar PV and wind capacity through 2010.
Over the past five years, ratepayers in jurisdictions with high uptakes of wind and solar PV have experienced below-average price increases for retail electricity. In fact, the five states with the largest capacities of wind and solar PV saw an average increase in cost/kWh that was not only significantly less than the U.S. average, but also less than the five states with the lowest adoption of solar PV and wind. As the graph illustrates, this statement is true whether cost increases are judged as growth rates or as real dollar figures.
Obviously, to provide a comprehensive analysis of the costs and benefits of various types of electricity generation, there are many other factors and datasets that need to be considered.
Nonetheless, the findings presented here show quite clearly that states with high volumes of wind and solar PV have seen well below average cost increases. When this fact is considered in conjunction with the various health, environmental, energy security, and job creation benefits of renewable forms of generation, it helps to form a compelling argument in their favor. The next time someone tells you that they would support renewable energy if the costs weren't so high, share these findings with them and see if their perspective changes.
Posted: 20 Dec 2011 06:53 AM PST
Renewable energy critics are convinced that Germany is going to see skyrocketing electricity prices due to it dropping both coal and nuclear. Well, anyone who looks at the long-term economics of all these options knows that clean, renewable energy is a winner (don’t be a hater, it’s just how it is). Now, natural gas is the newly adored fossil fuel, due to its relatively cheap prices right now (many claim it’s the cheapest electricity option these days), and it’s less-several environmental costs (compared to coal). But something I’ve been writing for quite awhile now is that wind is cheaper than natural gas in many (perhaps most) locations. Recent news out of Germany confirms that is the case there.
Due to surging wind power capacity in northern Germany (and its low price), Statkraft AS is looking to possibly shut down two gas-fired power plants totaling 1 gigawatt (yes, GW) of capacity.
Increased wind power capacity in the region has led to the gas power plants operating for a few hundred hours a year, from 1000-2000 a year previously.
Source: Bloomberg (via friendly CleanTechnica reader)
Northern Germany wind turbines via shutterstock
Posted: 20 Dec 2011 06:36 AM PST
Scientists at National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) reported “the first solar cell that produces a photocurrent that has an external quantum efficiency greater than 100 percent when photoexcited with photons from the high energy region of the solar spectrum” at the end of last week. Promising news. More from NREL:
The external quantum efficiency for photocurrent, usually expressed as a percentage, is the number of electrons flowing per second in the external circuit of a solar cell divided by the number of photons per second of a specific energy (or wavelength) that enter the solar cell. None of the solar cells to date exhibit external photocurrent quantum efficiencies above 100 percent at any wavelength in the solar spectrum.
The external quantum efficiency reached a peak value of 114 percent. The newly reported work marks a promising step toward developing Next Generation Solar Cells for both solar electricity and solar fuels that will be competitive with, or perhaps less costly than, energy from fossil or nuclear fuels.
Multiple Exciton Generation is key to making it possible
A paper on the breakthrough appears in the Dec. 16 issue of Science Magazine. Titled "Peak External Photocurrent Quantum Efficiency Exceeding 100 percent via MEG in a Quantum Dot Solar Cell," it is co-authored by NREL scientists Octavi E. Semonin, Joseph M. Luther, Sukgeun Choi, Hsiang-Yu Chen, Jianbo Gao, Arthur J. Nozikand Matthew C. Beard. The research was supported by the Center for Advanced Solar Photophysics, an Energy Frontier Research Center funded by the DOE Office of Science, Office of Basic Energy Sciences. Semonin and Nozik are also affiliated with the University of Colorado at Boulder.
The mechanism for producing a quantum efficiency above 100 percent with solar photons is based on a process called Multiple Exciton Generation (MEG), whereby a single absorbed photon of appropriately high energy can produce more than one electron-hole pair per absorbed photon.
NREL scientist Arthur J. Nozik first predicted in a 2001 publication that MEG would be more efficient in semiconductor quantum dots than in bulk semiconductors. Quantum dots are tiny crystals of semiconductor, with sizes in the nanometer (nm) range of 1-20 nm, where 1 nm equals one-billionth of a meter. At this small size, semiconductors exhibit dramatic effects because of quantum physics, such as:
Quantum dots, by confining charge carriers within their tiny volumes, can harvest excess energy that otherwise would be lost as heat – and therefore greatly increase the efficiency of converting photons into usable free energy.
The researchers achieved the 114 percent external quantum efficiency with a layered cell consisting of antireflection-coated glass with a thin layer of a transparent conductor, a nanostructured zinc oxide layer, a quantum dot layer of lead selenide treated with ethanedithol and hydrazine, and a thin layer of gold for the top electrode.
In a 2006 publication, NREL scientists Mark Hanna and Arthur J. Nozik showed that ideal MEG in solar cells based on quantum dots could increase the theoretical thermodynamic power conversion efficiency of solar cells by about 35 percent relative to today's conventional solar cells. Furthermore, the fabrication of Quantum Dot Solar Cells is also amenable to inexpensive, high-throughput roll-to-roll manufacturing.
Such potentially highly efficient cells, coupled with their low cost per unit area, are called Third (or Next) Generation Solar Cells. Present day commercial photovoltaic solar cells are based on bulk semiconductors, such as silicon, cadmium telluride, or copper indium gallium (di)selenide; or on multi-junction tandem cells drawn from the third and fifth (and also in some cases fourth) columns of the Periodic Table of Elements. All of these cells are referred to as First- or Second-Generation Solar Cells.
First experiment to show 100-percent-plus in operating solar cells
MEG, also referred to as Carrier Multiplication (CM), was first demonstrated experimentally in colloidal solutions of quantum dots in 2004 by Richard Schaller and Victor Klimov of the DOE's Los Alamos National Laboratory. Since then, many researchers around the world, including teams at NREL, have confirmed MEG in many different semiconductor quantum dots. However, nearly all of these positive MEG results, with a few exceptions, were based on ultrafast time-resolved spectroscopic measurements of isolated quantum dots dispersed as particles in liquid colloidal solutions.
The new results published in Science by the NREL research team is the first report of MEG manifested as an external photocurrent quantum yield greater than 100 percent measured in operating quantum dot solar cells at low light intensity; these cells showed significant power conversion efficiencies (defined as the total power generated divided by the input power) as high as 4.5 percent with simulated sunlight. While these solar cells are un-optimized and thus exhibit relatively low power conversion efficiency (which is a product of the photocurrent and photovoltage), the demonstration of MEG in the photocurrent of a solar cell has important implications because it opens new and unexplored approaches to improve solar cell efficiencies.
Another important aspect of the new results is that they agree with the previous time-resolved spectroscopic measurements of MEG and hence validate these earlier MEG results. Excellent agreement follows when the external quantum efficiency is corrected for the number of photons that are actually absorbed in the photoactive regions of the cell. In this case, the determined quantum yield is called the internal quantum efficiency. The internal quantum efficiency is greater than the external quantum efficiency because a significant fraction of the incident photons are lost through reflection and absorption in non-photocurrent producing regions of the cell. A peak internal quantum yield of 130% was found taking these reflection and absorption losses into account.
NREL is the U.S. Department of Energy’s primary national laboratory for renewable energy and energy efficiency research and development. NREL is operated for DOE by the Alliance for Sustainable Energy, LLC.
Visit NREL online at www.nrel.gov
Solar cell image via shutterstock
Posted: 20 Dec 2011 06:13 AM PST
More than 600,000 low-income US homes across the US and its territories have been “weatherized” and made more energy efficient thanks to the Dept. of Energy’s Weatherization Assistance Program and financial support from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act , Dept. of Energy (DOE) Secretary Steven Chu announced in a joint conference call with Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton Dec. 15. The milestone was reached three months ahead of an end of March, 2012 program schedule and includes weatherization of more than 125,000 multi-family homes, according to DOE’s news release.
The program’s aim is to create community jobs, conserve energy and reduce home utility bills and it’s doing just that – in less time than originally projected. Weatherization program improvements made so far- upgrading insulation, air-sealing and installing more efficient heating and cooling systems – reduces energy consumption for low-income families up to 35%, which will yield a savings of more than $400 on heating and cooling bills in the first year alone. In total, it’s estimated that weatherization of the 600,000 homes will save low-income residents more than $320 million in energy costs in just the first year.
“Today the Department of Energy marks a major milestone: we have weatherized more than 600,000 low-income homes and put thousands of people to work through the Recovery Act,” Secretary Chu said during the conference call.
“Across America, DOE’s successful Weatherization Assistance Program has increased the demand for energy-saving products and services, created thousands of skilled jobs, and helped families to reduce energy waste and save money.”
Clean Energy Triple Whammy
Realization of the Weather Assistance Program’s goals yields significant economic and environmental benefits, the DOE points out. The financial system remains fragile and gains in job creation have been hard to come by since the 2008-2009 recession ended, while the spiraling costs of continuing to increase our greenhouse gas emission becomes more evident almost every day.
The Weatherization Assistance Program addresses both these challenges. Weatherizing low-income homes has created jobs here at home that cannot be outsourced for many of the tradespeople – carpenters, electricians, etc. – hardest hit by the housing crash. It also results in significant reductions in the amount low-income citizens pay for essential energy services.
On top of these are the environmental benefits. Buildings account for nearly 40% of US energy consumption and carbon emissions. The energy efficiency and conservation upgrades realized through the Weatherization Assistance program’s retrofits reduces energy use and reduces carbon emissions.
US Homes & Buildings Energy Efficiency/Conservation Initiatives
The DOE’s efforts to conserve energy and make US residential, commercial and industrial buildings more energy efficient is ongoing. The DOE outlines its ongoing initiatives, which include:
The Better Buildings Neighborhood Program is working with hundreds of neighborhoods across the country to promote energy efficiency upgrades in homes and buildings. The partners are making it easier for homes and business owners to access energy efficiency experts and complete building upgrades while supporting a growing energy improvement workforce.
With the Better Buildings Challenge, sixty major companies, universities, hospitals, retailers and cities and states are stepping up to upgrade 1.6 billion square feet of commercial and industrial space by 2020, and organizations have committed nearly $2 billion of private capital to finance energy efficient projects.
The Home Energy Score pilot program offers homeowners straightforward, reliable information about their homes’ energy efficiency. Under this voluntary program, trained and certified contractors use a standardized assessment tool developed by DOE to quickly evaluate a home and generate useful, actionable information for homeowners or prospective home buyers.
The Department of Energy is developing voluntary Workforce Guidelines for Home Energy Upgrades, a comprehensive set of guidelines for workers in the residential energy efficiency industry. The guidelines help build and expand the skills of the workforce, ensuring the quality of the work performed, while laying the foundation for a more robust worker certification and training program nationwide.
And to improve access to financing, the Department of Housing and Urban Development has stepped in and launched the PowerSaver pilot program, partnering with eighteen national, regional and local lenders to offer qualified borrowers low-cost loans to make energy-saving improvements to their homes. These PowerSaver loans offer homeowners up to $25,000 to make energy-efficient improvements of their choice, including the installation of insulation, duct sealing, replacement doors and windows, HVAC systems, water heaters, solar panels, and geothermal systems.
DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy invests in clean energy technologies that strengthen the economy, protect the environment, and reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil. Learn more about DOE’s effort to enable low-income families to permanently reduce their energy bills by making their homes more energy efficient.
Posted: 20 Dec 2011 05:47 AM PST
Okay, they’re not actual cucumbers, as you might have guessed, but they’re pretty awesome looking. Water desalination, salt production, and perhaps even the creation of reef-like habitats for marine life — what’s not to love about these concept solar cucumbers? Anyway, on to the full sustainablog repost:
Floating, Desalinating “Solar Cucumbers” Could Be the Future of Water Purification (via sustainablog)
Posted: 20 Dec 2011 05:33 AM PST
This post was originally published on Climate Progress and has been reposted with permission.
by Stephen Lacey and Richard Caperton
The truth can be very inconvenient. With real-world experience and numerous non-partisan research organizations showing over and over again that state-level renewable energy targets have not substantially driven up electricity rates, clean energy opponents are simply creating their own numbers.
The latest gusher of lies comes from Americans for Tax Reform's Grover Norquist, who just ran an op-ed in Politico co-authored with his colleague Patrick Gleason. The piece is laughable — until you realize how much power Norquist has over ideologues determined to stop any effort to promote renewable energy or address climate change.
Let's start with their first assertion:
That's a scary number. But it's also totally meaningless. The problem is that these states had higher rates before they ever put the RES in place.
There are two pieces to answering this false assertion. First, renewable energy opponents like to pretend that the only thing that influences electric rates is the cost of energy. But this is only a small part of the whole picture.
In fact, things like customer density, average monthly usage by each customer, and the age of a utility's distribution grid all play a huge part in determining electric rates. In 1995, researchers from MIT and the Analysis Group identified 14 reasons why a California utility's rates would vary from the national average. The picture since then has only gotten more complicated, with massive restructuring of the electric utility industry, including "deregulation."
The more important metric is how much electric rates have changed in states with standards versus states without. Norquist and Gleason would like you to believe that states with clear standards see rapidly increasing electric rates, but it's simply not true. In fact, the data shows that the presence of a state-level renewable energy standard has a virtually zero statistically-significant impact on how much electric rates changed from 2000 to 2010:
Although states with RES's had a little more variability in how much their rates changed, there's no clear evidence that the mere presence of an RES led to a bigger rate increase. From a statistics perspective, we can be 95% confident that the average impact of a state RES on electric rate changes is somewhere between 1.1 percent less and 9.7 percent more than in states without an RES.
And, it's worth looking at some specific examples. For example, Hawaii had the biggest change in electric rates, but this was mostly due to the fact that much of their power generation is fueled with oil, so their fossil fuel imports are responsible for rate increases. And, Maryland is the second biggest change, but this is probably because of the well-publicized rate increases associated with deregulation in that state.
This real-world experience isn't going to sway the most determined anti-clean energy crusaders. Norquist and Gleason tout figures from the free-market, pro-deregulation Beacon Hill Institute, which published some pretty bold projections about future price increases:
By contrast the well-respected, non-partisan Energy Information Administration recently modeled the impact of national Renewable Energy Standard and found that it would leave GDP growth virtually unchanged. Under an 80% clean energy standard by 2035, GDP would grow at 2.67% — just a .02 percent change from the baseline 2.69%
Meanwhile, the experiences from states around the country show exactly the opposite that what Norquist, Gleason and the Beacon Hill Institute claim:
Could we see some future price increases in certain areas of the country? Absolutely. But the wholesale assertion that these standards are driving up electricity rates and decreasing economic productivity is blatantly false.
Of course, these claims are being made by the same type of ideologues who said that the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative would drive up rates 90% — only to have an independent consultancy find that the cap and trade program saved ratepayers in the Northeast $1.1 billion and created $1.6 billion economic value.
Richard Caperton is director of clean energy investments for the Center for American Progress. Stephen Lacey is a writer with Climate Progress.
Posted: 20 Dec 2011 05:22 AM PST
This post was originally published on Climate Progress and has been reposted with permission.
With the cost of solar photovoltaic projects declining steadily and cost reductions in concentrating solar power (CSP) projects falling at a slower pace, some are calling 2011 the year that PV killed CSP. In the last year and a half, roughly 3,000 MW of CSP projects in the U.S. have been converted to PV.
In the short term, PV seems to have won the day. But that may not always be the case. A new analysis from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory explores how the value of CSP increases with a higher penetration of solar on the grid, making the technology an important enabler of solar PV.
At a 10%-15% solar penetration, say NREL researchers, the value of CSP (with storage) increases by 1.6 – 4 cents due to better dispatchability, a reduction in curtailment (i.e. having to shut down a solar or wind plant because it's easier ramp a fossil plant up and down), and increased capacity. The chart below shows how a combination of PV and CSP with storage can substantially reduce curtailment of solar plants, thus making bringing the cost of energy down:
Recognizing the need to increase the value of their product, CSP developers have been integrating more storage. Leading U.S. developer BrightSource announced in November that it would add molten salt storage to three of its power tower projects in the U.S., calling it "the largest storage deal in the world." Along with molten salt storage technologies, AREVA solar is integrating CSP into gas and coal plants, thus increasing the efficiency of existing infrastructure.
Here's how the NREL researchers described the value of ancillary services from CSP plants when coupled with storage:
In other words, the simplistic attention to lower-cost PV ignores the important benefits that a "firm" technology like CSP can bring to the grid, thus enabling more variable technologies.
As Keely Wachs of BrightSource points out: "not all CSP technologies are created equal. While some projects have moved from PV to CSP, other CSP technologies are doing very well. Power Tower technologies are thriving as evinced by BrightSource and SolarReserve projects being built, and that at more than 2400 MW, BrightSource has one of the largest solar pipelines in the US."
There are about 1,200 MW of CSP projects underway in the U.S. today.
So don't rule out CSP. While some investors have been delaying or abandoning CSP plants in favor of PV, that doesn't tell the whole story.
Posted: 20 Dec 2011 05:12 AM PST
Google has been a clean energy leader for a long time (see my post on 7 of Google’s top clean energy investments from earlier this year for more on that). While it dropped a major solar R&D initiative recently, it seemed it did so in order to put more of its resources into clean energy deployment projects. That theory is holding true with an announcement today that it has invested $94 million into four solar photovoltaic (PV) projects currently being built close to Sacramento, California by Recurrent Energy.
Google’s Total Clean Energy Investments
In total, Google announced that its portfolio of clean energy investments has now reached $915 million. “We've already committed to providing funding this year to help more than 10,000 homeowners install solar PV panels on their rooftops,” Google noted. “But this investment represents our first investment in the U.S. in larger scale solar PV power plants that generate energy for the grid—instead of on individual rooftops.”
In total, Google’s new investments have a total installed power capacity of 88 megawatts (MW), “equivalent to the electricity consumed by more than 13,000 homes.”
Google really got into clean energy projects this year, investing $880 million into them since January. Aside from solar, it is a clear wind energy leader and has invested a ton of money into an offshore transmission project, or superhighway, for offshore wind (see the post linked at the top for more on that).
Google Investing in Solar Because It’s a Good Investment
Other than Google, Recurrent Energy and KKR are investing in these projects.
As we’ve noted soooo many times here on CleanTechnica, investment in solar isn’t just an environmentally friendly gesture any more — it’s a clear economic and financial winner.
“We believe investing in the renewable energy sector makes business sense and hope clean energy projects continue to attract new sources of capital to help the world move towards a more sustainable energy future,” Axel Martinez, Assistant Treasurer of Google Treasury, noted in the announcement.
Guess What Sacramento Municipal Utility District Has?
The Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) is where the projects are being built. Any guess what it has going for it?
If you guessed “a feed-in tariff,” you got it!
“SMUD recently created a feed-in tariff program (FIT) to help green the grid for Sacramento-area residents. We're excited that these projects are the first to be built under the program,” Martinez made sure to mention, hopefully stimulating more such programs across the country.
I’m 100% sure Google isn’t done investing in clean energy, and I’m actually curious to see if its 2012 investments end up trumping its 2011 investments. Kudos to Google! And keep the news coming.
Google Going Solar photo via H2SO4
Posted: 19 Dec 2011 03:06 PM PST
1. SolarWindows achieve “speed and scale-up” breakthrough. We’ve written about New Energy Technologies’ SolarWindow technology a few times here on CleanTechnica, most recently at the end of September. The most recent news from the company is that it has “successfully fabricated its latest working window prototype using a faster, rapid scale-up process for applying solution-based coatings,” as the company noted on Monday. Going on: “The prospect of rapidly scaling up the size of SolarWindow™ while applying the Company's electricity-generating coatings onto glass at faster speeds, are important technical advancements in New Energy's drive to aggressively advance the world's first-of-its-kind technology towards commercial launch.”
2. Ford introduces 100+ MPGe vehicle. Ford announced a new “gasoline-free 2012 Focus Electric, expected to be the first five-passenger electric vehicle with a 100 miles per gallon equivalent (MPGe)” on Wednesday.
3. GE electric vehicle charging station — WattStation — now available on Amazon. “GE Energy (NYSE: GE) has reached an agreement with Amazon.com to sell its award-winning GE WattStationTMWall Mount electric vehicle (EV) charger directly to U.S. consumers through the online retailer's popular website,” GE announced on Tuesday.
4. Electric vehicle charging equipment sales to hit $4.3 billion worldwide by 2017. “Sales of electric vehicles are expected to accelerate strongly over the next few years, and along with them will come rapid growth in deployment of charging equipment for the vehicles,” Pike Research noted on Tuesday. “Two years from now, more than 80 different models of plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs) will be found on roadways across the globe, and by 2017, more than 5.1 million PEVs will be sold globally.”
5. Solar power replacing dirty & dangerous kerosene lamps in Ethiopia.
Peter Sinclair’s comedic comments on the video/story above: “These infuriating, insolent third world villagers somehow have found a way to generate their own electricity, pump water, become self sufficient, improve education, and build community – without sending warriors to kill their neighbors. Clearly someone has not gotten the fear-and-scarcity memo.”
Posted: 19 Dec 2011 02:54 PM PST
This post was originally published on ecomagination.com and has been republished with permission.
"GDC Strikes Steam in Menengai," exclaims the cover of this spring's issue of Steam, the magazine of Kenya's Geothermal Development Company. A column of steam spurts high into a deep blue sky in the cover photo—the geothermal industry's equivalent of the black column that spurts from a successful oil well.
But steam is even more valuable than oil, at least to Kenya, which aims to produce 5,000 megawatts of power from geothermal energy by 2030.
"Power from geothermal is a sure means of improving our people's way of life," says Stephen Kalonzo Nusyoka, the Vice President of Kenya.
Geothermal is the only alternative energy source that is currently cost-competitive with fossil fuels [Editor's note: that's highly debatable -- see this wind power page and this solar power article and this solar power page. -ZS]. One analysis even says that geothermal is cheaper to produce: 3.6 cents per kilowatt-hour as compared to 5.5 cents per kilowatt-hour for coal.
However, that analysis does not account for two things: the cost of financing geothermal projects and the cost of exploration—actually finding the steam. In Kenya, and across the world, both costs can be high. But a cadre of determined individuals are working to overcome those challenges and unlock what they believe will be the engine of economic growth for East Africa.
UNREALIZED POTENTIAL AND NEW TECHNOLOGIES
Kenya is the epicenter of geothermal energy development in the region. It is estimated to have 7,000 – 10,000 megawatts of geothermal potential, and it is currently Africa's largest geothermal producer with 210 megawatts of capacity. This production comes from the Olkaria field, where development began back in the 1950s. "It takes a long time to develop a virgin geothermal field," says Daniel Saitet, an engineer for KenGen, the energy company that manages the Olkaria field.
In fact, Olkaria I, the first geothermal power plant in all of Africa, took 30 years to develop. One of the primary reasons for the slow pace of development was the long negotiation process to secure the large funding required to build the actual plant.
But Dr. Silas Masinde Simiyu, the head of Kenya's Geothermal Development Company, believes that new technologies have made it possible to develop geothermal on a much more aggressive timescale, and to lower the risk for investors. In particular, he is enthusiastic about wellhead generators, which allow early generation of power before a conventional power plant is built.
A geothermal power plant works by tapping hot water from underground to turn steam turbines, or to heat another liquid to turn those steam turbines. A wellhead generator sits on top of a geothermal well, and the steam from the well runs a small turbine.
Wellhead generators allow an energy developer to start receiving revenue as early as 12 months after a well is drilled. They also reduce the risk for any investor in a large-scale power plant.
"If I want to generate wells for 50 megawatts, I can wait nine years for the power plant to come online. Or, I can ramp it up step by step, so that over the nine years, I will raise some revenue, and then use that to do further drilling in that field," says Dr. Simiyu.
FINANCING GEOTHERMAL DEVELOPMENT
New technologies, such as wellhead generators, can bring a revenue stream after a geothermal well is drilled successfully. But the upfront costs of drilling are still significant: It costs between $4 – 5 million to drill one well. For the industry to advance, it's imperative to reduce the risk of geothermal exploration.
Kenya is tackling the exploration challenge through its Geothermal Development Corporation, a state-owned company that was created in 2008 for the specific purpose of accelerating the development of geothermal in Kenya. Thus far, GDC has drilled four wells at Menengai, is exploring another site called Silali, and is building a training institute for geothermal near Menengai.
"It is necessary for the government to take on this risk of exploration and development," says Dr. Meseret Zemedkun, Project Manager of the Africa Rift Geothermal Development Facility. "And it's necessary for the private sector to come in and make public-private partnerships to generate the power."
Some energy industry insiders are skeptical of whether Kenya has the ability to line up the private funding it needs to meet its geothermal targets. The country has called for $20 billion in investment to reach its goal of 5,000 megawatts of geothermal power by 2030.
Designing and negotiating project finance for a conventional power plant is difficult, given the high capital investment and many involved parties (from the developer to the government, the power provider, and to the company actually generating the energy). A geothermal power plant will be even more difficult, since it's a newer energy source and financial institutions have little or no experience with geothermal.
A STEAM-POWERED FUTURE FOR EAST AFRICA
Other countries in the region are watching Kenya's approach to developing its geothermal resources with great interest. If geothermal's exploration and financing challenges can be surmounted, East Africa has the potential to become the global leader in the production of the cheapest renewable energy source. Access to such low-cost energy supplies could spur economic growth and reduce poverty across the region.
At least that is the hope of the African Rift Geothermal Development Facility, a UN-funded mechanism that aims to help six countries in East Africa (Kenya, Uganda, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Tanzania) develop their geothermal resources.
The facility, known as ArGEO and funded with about $18 million from the UN's Global Environment Fund, became operational in 2010. It aims to provide technical assistance to participating countries that will help them reduce the risk of geothermal exploration, and create a clear regulatory framework for the industry. "We are fully steaming ahead," says Dr. Zemedkun, ArGEO's project manager. "In the next five years, I hope to see 500 megawatts minimum power generation in the region, excluding Kenya. If you include Kenya, it should be 1,000 megawatts of power generation. If we don't think big, we won't make it happen."
In September, ArGEO convened a meeting of the region's six energy ministers in Kenya to raise awareness and give them the opportunity to visit some of Kenya's geothermal power plants.
Kenya has the potential to become the geothermal powerhouse of Africa, to kickstart its economy into middle-income status, and to set an example for the rest of the region. The stakes are high, and the risks are undeniable. But "it's getting very, very exciting," says Dr. Simiyu. "We are on course. We are succeeding."
Click here for an interview with Project Manager Dr. Meseret Teklemariam Zemedkun of ArGEO.
Photography by Siegfried Modola
Stephanie Hanson is the Director of Policy and Outreach at One Acre Fund. From 2006 to 2009, she covered Africa and Latin America for CFR.org, the website of the Council on Foreign Relations. In 2008, she won a News and Documentary Emmy for Crisis Guide: Darfur.
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