Posted: 12 Feb 2012 09:00 AM PST
Clearly undeterred by the GOP’s ongoing effort to cut federal support for clean energy, the Obama Administration has just announced a new $150 million round of funding for cutting-edge research into solar, wind, geothermal, bio-based energy and ocean power along with dozens of other categories related to renewable energy and energy efficiency. The funds are coming through the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), an agency is modeled after DARPA, the legendary Department of Defense research program that developed the Internet. If ARPA-E can come anywhere near that accomplishment, it looks like the U.S. is in for more than a little change in the fossil fuel status quo.
New clean energy tech trumps fossil fuel era
ARPA-E’s funding announcement is still in the draft stage but it calls specifically for advanced energy projects that have real-world applications with "the potential to be disruptive in the marketplace."
If you're wondering what that means, the draft announcement provides the example of the Model T Ford. Until the Model T came around, automotive technology was progressing incrementally, in an uneasy co-existence with carriage manufacturing. That could have lasted for generations, but the Model T blew up the transportation marketplace and brought the horse and buggy era to a rapid halt – not necessarily by making a leap in automotive technology per se, but by transforming the production and marketing side.
Sub in "fossil fuels" for "carriage," and that's the direction we're heading in.
ARPA-E primes the pot
ARPA-E was established in the Department of Energy by Congress in 2007 with the mission of kick-starting research leading directly to new tech breakthroughs with strong potential for commercial production, but it was not funded until 2009, when Recovery Act funding became available under the Obama Administration. So far in its short existence, ARPA-E has pumped about $500 million into more than 180 projects.
Renewable energy that skips the middleman
One of the more promising areas of research is the agency's electrofuels program, which deals with the production of liquid fuels by harnessing the metabolic processes of living microorganisms. Electrofuels basically skip the steps involved in converting fossils or biomass to fuel. ARPA-E is already funding about a dozen projects in this area, and it has just started to solicit a new round. The Department of Defense is also working on some projects of its own involving microbial fuel cells.
Many routes to a new energy future
Electrofuels are just the tip of the iceberg, though. With the new $150 million funding package, ARPA-E is casting a wide net. In addition to renewable fuel technologies, the draft announcement seeks projects relating to water purification, energy-efficient lighting technology and building materials, energy storage, traffic management including self-driving vehicles, and transformative designs for all types of vehicles including aircraft, automobiles, ships, trains, and vehicles powered by human energy.
The beginning of the end for fossil fuels
The agency is even open to looking at breakthrough improvements in conventional power generation including nuclear technologies, as well as new ways to combine old and new energy technologies.
However, as far as fossil fuels go any new research will only delay the inevitable. In the draft announcement, ARPA-E essentially positions its mission as one of preparing the
nation for a soft landing as we reach the end of the era of relatively cheap fossil fuels:
"Although the United States possesses significant quantities of some hydrocarbon resources, others are already insufficient to meet domestic demand, and even those resources that are plentiful are finite and will eventually be depleted. Today the United States imports some 9 million barrels of oil per day, roughly half the country's total need, at a cost of nearly $1 billion per day and accounting for over a third of the US trade deficit. Both coal and natural gas exports from the United States to developing economies will increase price pressures on these vital resources."
In this context it's not surprising that fossil fuel industry leaders such as the Koch brothers are reported to have pledged $500 million to thwarting President Obama's re-election bid – coincidentally or not, the same amount that ARPA-E has already spent on nurturing new energy industries.
Follow Tina Casey on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.
Posted: 12 Feb 2012 08:43 AM PST
Research and analysis of solar PV manufacturing costs and international trade flows shows that Chinese silicon solar PV manufacturers have only a slight cost advantage on their US counterparts, and that excludes transportation costs, the effect of inflation rate differentials and other factors. Furthermore, the extraordinary rise in Chinese exports of silicon solar PV cells and panels to the US could only be sustained with the support of massive government subsidies, according to a US DOE National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) presentation.
The results provide additional evidence in support of SolarWorld America’s and the Coalition for American Solar Manufacturing’s (CASM) international trade petitions against Chinese silicon solar PV manufacturers and Chinese government subsidies, asserts SolarWorld America’s president Gordon Brinser.
"This analysis from the renewable-energy research arm of the U.S. government corroborates our view that an export drive sponsored by the Chinese government is improperly intervening in the U.S. market," Brinser stated in a news release.
Silicon Solar PV : An Analysis of US-China Trade Flows and Competitiveness
Entitled, “Solar PV Manufacturing Cost Analysis: U.S. Competitiveness in a Global Industry,” the NREL analysis highlights the extraordinary rise in Chinese exports of silicon solar PV cells and modules to the US, as well as the effects massive oversupply and extraordinary price declines have had on US silicon solar PV manufacturers over the past decade.
It’s “massive government subsidies" that spur Chinese manufacturers to export about 95% of domestic production. That’s resulted in Chinese manufacturers capturing a 55% share of the global market in relatively short order, according to CASM and SolarWorld.
Global shipments of solar PV cells and modules increased at a 53% constant annual growth rate (CAGR) from 2000-2010, according to the Oct. 2011 research, which was conducted for NREL by Alan Goodrich, Ted James and Micheal Woodhouse of Stanford University’s Precourt Institute for Energy. While the market share of China/Taiwan manufacturers rose from less than 2% to 54% constant annual growth rate (CAGR) during this period, the market share of US manufacturers fell from 30% to 7%, a 115% CAGR decline.
Recent Surge in Chinese Silicon PV Imports
China’s exports of silicon solar PV have increased sharply in recent years, according to SolarWorld and CASM’s October trade petition filings, in which they assert China’s been illegally dumping silicon solar PV cells and panels in the US market, and that China’s been illegally subsidizing manufacturers and encouraging maximizing exports with the specific intention of wiping out competition in the US and other key solar energy markets.
As far back as 2009, a high-level Chinese solar industry executive even went on public record in a New York Times’ article stating that Suntech was dumping silicon PV panels in the US and that the Chinese government and state-controlled banks were pursuing a predatory manufacturing and export policy as part of its five-year national strategic plan.
Chinese imports accelerated further through 2011, ramping up yet again in the wake of CASM’s filings. Chinese silicon solar PV producers more than doubled their exports of crystalline silicon solar cells and modules in advance of potential U.S. government duties on those imports, according to an evaluation of PIERS’ reports, which are based on US Customs and Border Protection Automated Manifest System data.
"This significant increase in imports demonstrates that the Chinese know they have violated U.S. and international trade rules and are trying to evade the consequences," SolarWorld Americas’ Brinser stated. http://www.americansolarmanufacturing.org/news-releases/01-25-12-casm-surge.htm
That the Commerce Dept. did. Based on information provided by CASM and data provided by Chinese silicon solar PV manufacturers Suntech and Trina Solar as part of its investigation, the Commerce Dept.’s International Trade Administration (ITA) on Jan. 27 issued a preliminary determination that “critical circumstances exist for imports of solar cells from the PRC for Suntech, Trina, and all other producers or exporters.”
The preliminary determination paves the way for countervailing duties on Chinese imports to be imposed at estimated preliminary subsidy rates 90 days prior to a preliminary subsidies determination published in the Federal Register. Final determinations on anti-dumping and countervailing duties are expected in late March.
Devastating Effect on US Manufacturers Now Spreading Upstream
The sharp rise in Chinese silicon PV imports has had a dramatic effect on US manufacturers of silicon solar PV, as well as manufacturers in other WTO member countries. At least 12 US manufacturers have laid off employees, shut down plants or filed for bankruptcy during the past two years, CASM notes.
The supply glut and precipitous price decline is also affecting thin-film solar PV manufacturers, as well as crystalline silicon PV producers. Last week, news broke that Arizona-based thin-film market leader First Solar plans to idle half its production at its factory in Germany, which would put some 1,200 employees on a part-time schedule.
Falling prices and oversupply are also spreading upstream, pressuring margins of producers of polysilicon, the raw material used to manufacture mono- and multi-crystalline silicon solar PV wafers, cells and panels.
Sanyo Electric Co. Ltd. just announced it will close its relatively small, aging silicon solar wafer plant in Carson, California, laying off some 140 workers in the process, as it prepares to start up production at a new plant in Malaysia. That’s just one of a growing number of cutbacks and closures recently announced by silicon producers.
Assuring Fair Trade and a Viable Industry Long-Term
SolarWorld and CASM’s trade petitions aren’t intended to hamstring or eliminate competition in the US and global solar industry, rather they’re intended to redress illegal international trade programs and practices that will help assure the longer term viability of the industry, according to Brinser.
China’s alleged violations of agreed upon WTO rules governing international trade have become a priority on President Obama’s national agenda. In his recent State of the Union address, the President announced the formation of an inter-agency task force tasked with investigating international trade violations. He also unveiled “Blueprint for an America Built to Last,” a policy proposal aimed at revitalizing US manufacturing and job creation focused on scaling up clean energy production capacity in the US.
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