Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Latest from: CleanTechnica

Latest from: CleanTechnica

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Gold Could Help Advance Fuel-Cell Technology

Posted: 21 Mar 2012 07:16 AM PDT

Here’s another article on a recent university study I recently ran across that could help the progress of cleantech — in this case, fuel-cell technology. The article is reposted from Brown University’s newsroom.

nanofuel cell

Midas touch on the nanoscale Gold atoms create orderly places for iron and platinum atoms, then retreat to the periphery of the fuel cell, where they scrub carbon monoxide from fuel reactions. The tighter organization and cleaner reactions extend the cell's performance life. Credit: Sun Lab/Brown University

Chemists at Brown University have created a triple-headed metallic nanoparticle that reportedly performs better and lasts longer than any other nanoparticle catalyst studied in fuel-cell reactions. The key is the addition of gold: It yields a more uniform crystal structure while removing carbon monoxide from the reaction. Results published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Advances in fuel-cell technology have been stymied by the inadequacy of metals studied as catalysts. The drawback to platinum, other than cost, is that it absorbs carbon monoxide in reactions involving fuel cells powered by organic materials like formic acid. A more recently tested metal, palladium, breaks down over time.

Now chemists at Brown University have created a triple-headed metallic nanoparticle that they say outperforms and outlasts all others at the anode end in formic-acid fuel-cell reactions. In a paper published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, the researchers report a 4-nanometer iron-platinum-gold nanoparticle (FePtAu), with a tetragonal crystal structure, generates higher current per unit of mass than any other nanoparticle catalyst tested. Moreover, the trimetallic nanoparticle at Brown performs nearly as well after 13 hours as it did at the start. By contrast, another nanoparticle assembly tested under identical conditions lost nearly 90 percent of its performance in just one-quarter of the time.

"We've developed a formic acid fuel-cell catalyst that is the best to have been created and tested so far," said Shouheng Sun, chemistry professor at Brown and corresponding author on the paper. "It has good durability as well as good activity."

Gold plays key roles in the reaction. First, it acts as a community organizer of sorts, leading the iron and platinum atoms into neat, uniform layers within the nanoparticle. The gold atoms then exit the stage, binding to the outer surface of the nanoparticle assembly. Gold is effective at ordering the iron and platinum atoms because the gold atoms create extra space within the nanoparticle sphere at the outset. When the gold atoms diffuse from the space upon heating, they create more room for the iron and platinum atoms to assemble themselves. Gold creates the crystallization chemists want in the nanoparticle assembly at lower temperature.

Gold also removes carbon monoxide (CO) from the reaction by catalyzing its oxidation. Carbon monoxide, other than being dangerous to breathe, binds well to iron and platinum atoms, gumming up the reaction. By essentially scrubbing it from the reaction, gold improves the performance of the iron-platinum catalyst. The team decided to try gold after reading in the literature that gold nanoparticles were effective at oxidizing carbon monoxide — so effective, in fact, that gold nanoparticles had been incorporated into the helmets of Japanese firefighters. Indeed, the Brown team's triple-headed metallic nanoparticles worked just as well at removing CO in the oxidation of formic acid, although it is unclear specifically why.

The authors also highlight the importance of creating an ordered crystal structure for the nanoparticle catalyst. Gold helps researchers get a crystal structure called “face-centered-tetragonal,” a four-sided shape in which iron and platinum atoms essentially are forced to occupy specific positions in the structure, creating more order. By imposing atomic order, the iron and platinum layers bind more tightly in the structure, thus making the assembly more stable and durable, essential to better-performing and longer-lasting catalysts.

In experiments, the FePtAu catalyst reached 2809.9 mA/mg Pt (mass-activity, or current generated per milligram of platinum), "which is the highest among all NP (nanoparticle) catalysts ever reported," the Brown researchers write. After 13 hours, the FePtAu nanoparticle has a mass activity of 2600mA/mg Pt, or 93 percent of its original performance value. In comparison, the scientists write, the well-received platinum-bismuth nanoparticle has a mass activity of about 1720mA/mg Pt under identical experiments, and is four times less active when measured for durability.

The researchers note that other metals may be substituted for gold in the nanoparticle catalyst to improve the catalyst's performance and durability.

"This communication presents a new structure-control strategy to tune and optimize nanoparticle catalysis for fuel oxidations," the researchers write.

Sen Zhang, a third-year graduate student in Sun's lab, helped with the nanoparticle design and synthesis. Shaojun Guo, a postdoctoral fellow in Sun's lab performed electrochemical oxidation experiments. Huiyuan Zhu, a second-year graduate student in Sun's lab, synthesized the FePt nanoparticles and ran control experiments. The other contributing author is Dong Su from the Center for Functional Nanomaterials at Brookhaven National Laboratory, who analyzed the structure of the nanoparticle catalyst using the advanced electron microscopy facilities there.

The U.S. Department of Energy and the Exxon Mobil Corporation funded the research.

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Dye-Sensitized Solar Cells with Carbon Nanotube Thin Films Cut Dye-Sensitized Solar Cell Costs

Posted: 21 Mar 2012 06:59 AM PDT

As far as I’m aware, we haven’t written about dye-sensitized solar cells in years. But I ran across this article below on a potential breakthrough in the dye-sensitized solar cell arena and thought it might interest you all. Here’s the full article, from ResearchSEA:

Dye-sensitized solar cells that use carbon nanotube thin films as transparent electrodes offer significant cost savings

dye sensitized solar cell reduce solar costs

Carbon nanotube electrodes. The use of carbon nanotubes has a significant cost advantage. However, in earlier designs (left), the carbon nanotubes degraded through chemical processes (e-: electrons, I3-: ions in the liquid). Using a thin protective layer of titanium oxide now stabilizes the nanotubes (right), increasing the performance of these cells. Copyright : 2011 AIP

Solar energy is one of the most promising forms of renewable energy, but the high cost of conventional solar cells has so far limited its popularity. To increase the competitiveness of solar energy, scientists have turned to the development of dye-sensitized solar cells — solar cells that use low-cost organic dyes and titanium dioxide (TiO2) nanoparticles in place of expensive semiconductor and rare earth elements to absorb sunlight. Zhaohong Huang at the A*STAR Institute of Materials Research and Engineering and co-workers1 have now reduced the cost of dye-sensitized solar cells even further by replacing indium tin oxide (ITO) — the standard material for transparent electrodes — with carbon nanotubes.

A typical dye-sensitized solar cell comprises a porous layer of TiO2 nanoparticles immersed in an organic dye. The dye absorbs the sunlight and converts the energy into electricity, which flows into the TiO2 nanoparticles. The sun-facing side of the solar cell is usually covered with a transparent electrode that carries the charge carriers away from the TiO2 and out of the solar cell. "Unfortunately, ITO electrodes are brittle and crack easily," says Huang. "They are also expensive and could incur up to 60% of the total cost of the dye-sensitized solar cell."

Huang and his team therefore replaced the ITO electrode with a thin film of carbon nanotubes. Carbon nanotubes conduct electricity and are almost transparent, flexible and strong, which make them the ideal material for transparent electrodes. The only drawback is that photo-generated charge carriers in the nanotube may recombine with ions in the dye, which reduces the power conversion efficiency of the solar cell.

To overcome this problem, Huang and his team placed a TiO2 thin film in between the carbon nanotube thin film and the porous layer. They found that the performance of dye-sensitized solar cells with TiO2 thin film was significantly better than those without. However, they also found that the solar conversion efficiency of their new dye-sensitized solar cells was only 1.8%, which is lower than that of conventional solar cells using ITO electrodes. This is due to the higher electrical resistances and reduced optical transparency of the carbon nanotube films, which limits the amount of sunlight entering the cell.

"We are now studying different ways to enhance the conductivity and transparency of the films," says Huang. "Furthermore, we are planning to replace the bottom platinum electrode with carbon nanotube thin film to reduce the cost of dye-sensitized solar cells further."

If successful, the results could have a great impact on the cost and stability of dye-sensitized solar cells.

The A*STAR-affiliated researchers contributing to this research are from the Institute of Materials Research and Engineering and the Singapore Institute of Manufacturing Technology

Associated links

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China Dumping Loads of Cash into Clean Energy, but Not Only…

Posted: 21 Mar 2012 06:47 AM PDT

solar energy investment china

Jiuquan, “a ‘prefecture-level city’ in the westernmost part of the Gansu province in China,” now has 6 GW (6,000 MW) of wind power capacity (approximately enough to power the entire UK). By 2015, the city intends to triple that wind power capacity, and it plans to increase capacity to 40 GW by 2020. As part of this, the world’s biggest wind farm may soon be in Jiuquan.

China, as a whole, is building a mind-blowing 36 wind turbines a day, on average. The Gansu region (and the city of Jiuquan, in particular) is a core wind development area. I think the growth is really hard to even imagine.

Even faster renewable energy growth is expected from 2020 to 2030, when the region will be installing much more solar power.

China’s Dirty Energy Side

I am one of countless global citizens who are thankful for China’s surging clean energy investments. But I’m also one who thinks you need to keep in mind the “everything is relative” adage. China isn’t only pumping billions and billions into clean energy — it’s also pumping billions and billions into dirty energy.

China is now the world’s biggest CO2 emitter (nevermind that many of its emissions come from factories pumping out products for more developed countries). Aside from the 36 or so wind turbines it is building per day, it’s also building 400 MW worth of coal-fired power every three days. Yikes!

Jonathan Watts of the UK’s Guardian writes: “If environmental damage were fully factored into the state’s account books, China’s economic growth rate would probably be halved, Wang Yuqing – the former deputy director of the state environmental protection ministry – warned this week. He estimated environmental damage last year at about 2.5tn yuan (£250bn), or 5-6% of China’s GDP.”

China Shifting to Clean Energy (Slowly)

Jiuquan is representative of a (slow) switch away from dirty energy and towards clean energy, though. Jiuquan was once an oil rich area, China’s oil fountain. But oil production peaked there long ago, and it has shifted its focus to wind now. “Investments in wind and solar are now more than 40bn yuan a year in the region, he said, compared to about 1bn yuan for oil and coal combined.”

In the long term, aside from the threats of dirty energy, there just isn’t a lot of it compared to renewable energy sources.

“By 2030, I think China will get half its energy from renewable resources and Jiuquan will be famous around the world,” Wu Shengxue, director of Jiuquan’s reform and development department, says. ”People here are going to be rich.”

In this region, average urban incomes have approximately tripled since the year 2000. They are expected to be higher than the national average by 2015.

Despite this rapid growth of clean energy, coal also marches on. It actually increased its share of China’s national energy supply to a staggering 72% last year. Looks like China is, to an optimist, going the “2 steps forward, one step back” route.

On a positive note, as Susan wrote a couple weeks ago, China is looking to put a cap on coal use by 2015.

Source: Guardian
Image: wind turbine, solar panels, and Asia courtesy shutterstock

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Financing Complete for Hawaii’s Largest Wind Farm

Posted: 21 Mar 2012 06:09 AM PDT

First Wind announced yesterday that financing is now complete for its 69-megawatt Kawailoa Wind project in Hawaii. This wind project is the largest in the state and will be located on Kamehameha Schools' Kawailoa Plantation lands on Oahu's North Shore.

location of hawaii's largest wind power project

On the North Shore of Oahu Island, Hawaii

As reported previously here on CleanTechnica, construction of the Kawailoa Wind project began in December and is expected to be completed by the end of 2012.

“A subsidiary of First Wind closed a $220 million non-recourse construction and term loan and $16 million in letters of credit for the Kawailoa project,” First Wind wrote yesterday. “Union Bank served as Administrative Agent and Joint Lead Arranger. Other Joint Lead Arrangers include Bayern LB, Rabobank and Siemens Financial Services. CIBC and CoBank also participated in the financing.”

Once complete, the 30-turbine wind project will generate enough power for up to roughly 14,500 homes on the island, approximately equal to 5% of Oahu's annual electrical demand.

Source: First Wind
Image: North Shore of Oahu Island, Hawaii courtesy shutterstock

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Thomas Edison: For 100% Renewable Energy, Especially Solar

Posted: 21 Mar 2012 05:49 AM PDT

thomas edison clean energy

This image and quote above popped onto my email yesterday. Many of you have probably seen it before. But it’s a brilliant one, so even if you have, I think it’s worth another read and share.

Thomas Edison was way ahead of his time, and was clearly a fan of the 100% renewable energy idea (a true possibility), and especially tapping into our insanely abundant supply of solar energy.

Share the image and quote if you like it (and the pages linked above that back it up).


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Solar Increasingly Attractive to Large Investors, Now ‘Bankable’ — Thanks, Solar Loan Guarantee Program

Posted: 21 Mar 2012 05:39 AM PDT

With panel prices hitting record lows and performance of projects steadily improving, solar photovoltaics have become increasingly attractive to large investors. Investment in solar has surged to unprecedented levels due to interest from large Wall Street banks, investors like Warren Buffett, and technology firms like Google.

In 2011, the solar PV industry brought in $93 billion in revenues globally, raising $8 billion in corporate equity and debt. That's a 12% increase over 2010, according to NPD Solarbuzz.

In the U.S., the value of solar PV installations grew from $5 billion in 2010 to $8.4 billion in 2011, according to analysis from GTM Research. Much of that increase came from the installation of large projects. Last year, there were 28 individual projects that amounted to more than 10 MW a piece, up from only two in 2009.

Two major factors drove this surge in U.S. investment. One was the 1603 grant program, which replaced tax credits, thus making it easier and cheaper to finance projects. Congress allowed that incentive to expire at the end of last year.

The other was the loan guarantee program, a tool that became politicized after the high-profile bankruptcy of the solar manufacturer Solyndra and the failure of a few other clean energy companies. Although the loan guarantee program is expected to cost taxpayers $2 billion less than originally budgeted for, some political leaders have latched onto these bankruptcies and falsely claimed that they hurt clean energy investment.

Trying to match his party's huffing and puffing over Solyndra on the campaign trail this winter, Republican Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney bizarrely claimed the loan guarantee program stalled investments in solar: "instead of encouraging solar development, the Obama administration hurt it."

Actually, the U.S. solar industry grew 109% last year — with a record 61,000 systems installed around the country.

And yesterday, Congressman Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, released a report claiming that the loan guarantee program "robbed taxpayers of genuine investment toward renewable energy."

Again, experience in the field — particularly in solar, which has been a major focus of Congressional attacks — simply doesn't back up that conclusion. Not only did the loan guarantee directly help developers attract private capital for first-of-a-kind solar projects during the economic downturn, it also had an indirect impact on others.

For example, the due diligence process helped bring in a $1 billion investment from Bank of America for the largest residential solar project in the history of the U.S. The CEO of the solar company deploying the project said that without the due diligence process that helped attract private lenders "we would not have been able to make the economics of this project work."

The same goes for the 550-MW Topaz project, a thin-film solar field being built in central California. The company originally building the project, First Solar, couldn't secure a loan guarantee after moving through the approval process. But just two months later, the company was able to entice Warren Buffett's MidAmerican Energy to invest in the $2.4 billion project.

"This is a vote for renewable energy. It is not a bet," said MidAmerican CEO Greg Abel.

When MidAmerican issued a bond last month in order to finance the project, it was oversubscribed by $400 million. One analyst said the interest from investors "illustrates the deep and attractive source of financing available in the bond market to fund the construction of renewable-energy projects."

But this is a relatively new and growing phenomenon. As project developers told Business Week in a recent profile of U.S. solar investment, the loan guarantee program was an important driver in getting the industry to where it is today:

In 2009, solar technology was so unfamiliar that few banks would back projects that required billions in upfront investment and wouldn't begin producing revenue for years, Klepper said. The biggest financiers for the industry that year were Madrid- based Santander, HSH Nordbank AG of Hamburg and Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria SA of Bilbao, Spain, New Energy Finance said.

That year, the U.S. Energy Department began funding a program to guarantee loans for solar farms and other renewable energy projects that supported almost $35 billion in financing before winding down in September.

The government's endorsement assuaged investors' concerns and built up a bigger community of people who understand how to make money from solar deals, said Arno Harris, chief executive officer of Sharp Corp.'s renewable power development unit Recurrent Energy.

"Solar is now bankable," Harris said. "When solar was perceived as more risky it required a premium," and now it's "becoming part of a much broader capital market."

One need only look at the returns for these long-term, stable investments to see why interest is surging. Investors want bonds that are as safe as Treasuries, but that offer a higher return. With the boost that the stimulus package provided solar through the financial collapse, large-scale projects have become more attractive to a more diverse range of financiers. Again from Business Week:

"After tax, you're looking at returns in the 10 percent to 15 percent range" for solar projects, said Dan Reicher, executive director of Stanford University's center for energy policy and finance in California. "The beauty of solar is once you make the capital investment, you've got free fuel and very low operating costs."

The long-term nature of solar power-purchase deals make them similar to some bonds. And because a solar farm is a tangible asset, these investments also function much like those for infrastructure projects, with cash flows comparable to toll roads, bridges or pipelines, said Stefan Heck, a director at McKinsey & Co. in New York who leads their clean-tech work.

Since the "scandal" over the Solyndra loan guarantee hasn't materialized, Darrell Issa and others are now making the preposterous claim that the program hurt investment in renewables. Clearly, he hasn't talked to investors or people representing the business community.

Once again, there's an enormous disconnect between what's actually happening on the ground in clean energy and political perceptions in Washington.

This article was originally published on Climate Progress and has been reposted with permission.

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If the Whole U.S. Followed in California’s Footsteps

Posted: 21 Mar 2012 05:27 AM PDT

This is a great guest post by Rebecca Friendly of the Center for American Progress, via Climate Progress. Enjoy!

california state houseby Rebecca Friendly

California, a state that's historically been at the cutting edge of environmental and climate policies, continues to take bold steps in order to address climate change.

Climate studies and projections indicate that California will be hit hard by climate change, losing a great deal of its snow pack (a vital source of freshwater), and experiencing at least one meter of sea level rise by 2100. With the most advanced climate plan of any state, California is taking these threats very seriously (see "Study Confirms Optimal Climate Strategy: Deploy, Deploy, Deploy, Research and Develop, Deploy, Deploy, Deploy").

What if the rest of the country were as motivated as California? The answer: we'd definitely be one of the leading countries in leading the fight against climate change.

California-based author Mark Hertsgaard recently wrote an eye-opening piece for Yale Environment 360 asking that question. He highlights the various mechanisms California has implemented, including aggressive greenhouse gas reduction goals, vehicle emission standards, and renewable energy targets.

In fact, if the rest of the United States had done what California has over the past 40 years, the world might be well on the way to slowing climate change. For in that case, the U.S. today, like California, might be consuming the same amount of energy as it did 40 years ago….  What's more, the international community might have had a better chance of reaching a deal at the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009, because the U.S. might have embraced rather than shunned the goal of 80 percent emissions reductions by 2050.

As we move through this vapid period in America's national clean energy strategy, it's important to remember what California has done in recent years.

Through bold and innovative policies, California state officials are working to reduce pollution, protect the health of residents, and stabilize climate change — all while attempting to transition to an economy where sustainability is profitable. Hertsgaard's column shows that such an economy is already taking shape due to the bipartisan Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 (AB 32) under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the continuity of climate policy under Gov. Brown.

The passage of AB 32 in 2006 signaled the state's commitment to green policies and long-term progressive thinking over partisanship. It established the first-ever mandatory reporting guidelines for global warming pollution, and set a limit for carbon, requiring the state to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions down to 1990 levels by 2020 and cut them by 80 percent by 2050. To accomplish these goals, the state was to establish a price for carbon, a low-carbon fuel standard, create energy efficiency standards, and create a statewide renewable electricity standard of 33% by 2020.

This January, the California Air Resources Board approved a sweeping package of progressive automobile standards known as the California clean car rules. These policies are an important first step in the larger goal of bringing state emissions back to 1990 levels by 2020.  This package will increase the number of low-pollution and zero emission vehicles available to consumers by 15% by 2025. Half a million of these cars are expected to be fuel cell or electric powered.  This new package is estimated to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 52 million tons a year by 2025.

California utilities are also pushing forward to meet the statewide renewable electricity standard. While there are still a number of integration challenges that need to be dealt with, the state has maintained its leadership in solar deployment thanks to the Million Solar Roofs program and the installation of large-scale concentrating solar power plants.

In August of this year, California will also follow up on its AB 32 mandates by holding its first auction of emission allowances under its carbon cap-and-trade program. Under this program the allowable emissions for each individual sector will be capped at 90 percent of the previous year's emissions. Corporations that don't utilize all of their allotted emission allowances will be able to auction their remaining allowance to companies that go over their limit. Governor Jerry Brown projects that these auctions will earn over $500 million in extra revenue each year.

So what drives this holistic, unprecedented range of investments? Hertsgaard writes about the culture that contributes to such aggressive action in the state:

Matt Rodriquez, the state's Secretary for Environmental Protection, said he believed it is partly because many Californians, including policymakers, came to the state in the first place "because of its natural beauty and resources" and thus want them protected. The continuity between the climate policies of governors Brown and Schwarzenegger illustrates how the environment is less of a partisan issue in California; Republican and Democratic politicians alike understand that voters value green policies more than party labels. "Even though there may be a variety of political viewpoints, we share the goal of preserving our agricultural land, our forest lands, maintaining a good quality of water, and preserving the California way of life," explained Rodriquez.

Of course, climate change isn't just a California issue. Even if the state continues on this path, the lack of action elsewhere will continue to make the problem worse. If we want to truly combat the problem, we need to follow California's lead on a broader scale.

Rebecca Friendly is a special assistant in the California office of the Center for American Progress.

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U.S. Army Gets Its First Solar-Powered Microgrid

Posted: 21 Mar 2012 05:07 AM PDT

Army's TARDEC center getsolar microgrid, alternative fuel labs

Solar power and wind power are in store for TARDEC, the Army’s state-of-the-art vehicle research center in Michigan. TARDEC will be the first Army installation to use a solar powered microgrid, designed to win energy security for two of TARDEC’s laboratories, which will be able to run off grid in case of power outages. The microgrid, set for installation this spring, will include wind power, fuel cells and other energy sources, as well as a mobile solar generator and charging station for hybrid electric vehicles.

Energy security for everyone

The installation moves the Army further along its Net Zero goal of enabling its facilities to use only as much energy as they can produce on site. Part of the Army’s Net Zero initiative involves sharing information with the civilian sector, so lessons learned from operating the microgrid will help enable commercial facilities and communities to develop locally sourced energy, too.

TARDEC’s new microgrid

The microgrid was designed to power TARDEC’s (that stands for Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center, by the way) two System Integration Laboratories as well as parking lot lights. The grid’s designers anticipate that at least part of the time, the microgrid will generate excess power that can be used elsewhere in the sprawling TARDEC complex.

TARDEC and the new energy future

Under the Obama Administration TARDEC has accelerated its work on fuel efficient vehicles such as the diesel-electric hybrid vehicle it showcased at the North American International Auto Show in 2010. That’s just a taste of things to come — in 2009 TARDEC broke ground on a research laboratory in its sprawling complex, called the Ground Systems Power and Energy Laboratory. Set to open on April 11, the lab will focus squarely on alternative energy and energy efficiency with the help of partners in the private sector and academia.

State-of-the-art vehicle energy research

The new facility actually contains eight individual laboratories to allow for tests in controlled environmental conditions including temperature, humidity and wind. One lab is dedicated to advanced energy storage development, and there are also labs dedicated to fuel cells and vehicle electrical systems.

Of particular note is the lab dedicated to hybrid electric power trains. Waste energy from some of the equipment used in the lab can be captured through regenerative systems and used to power other equipment.

Oh, the irony

Against this backdrop of the the Army’s full-on pursuit of energy security and alternative energy, the past few days have witnessed yet another round of alternative energy bashing from certain federal legislators, including at least one Tweet that is more worthy of a middle school tease than an adult conversation about federal energy policy. Whatever happened to Support Our Troops?

Image: X-ray of the sun, courtesy of NASA.

Follow Tina Casey on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.

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German Policy Could Make Solar in America “Wunderbar”

Posted: 20 Mar 2012 04:22 PM PDT

The Germans are debating significant revisions to their landmark renewable energy policy, and instead of declaring the death of the German solar market, Americans should focus on why solar still costs so much on this side of the Atlantic.

After a significant step down this month, revisions to the German feed-in tariff will require utilities to buy electricity from solar projects 10 kilowatts or smaller for 19.5 euro cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh) on a 20-year contract. Larger projects (over 1 megawatt) will get just 13.5 euro cents per kWh. Using insolation data for Munich, these prices translate to installed costs of approximately $2.24 and $1.55 per Watt, respectively.

For comparison, in the U.S. in the 3rd quarter of 2011, the average installed cost of solar was $5.20 per Watt, with residential-scale projects costing $6.40 per Watt.

What would German installation costs mean for the U.S. solar market, where sunshine is 29% (in the cast of Minneapolis) to 70% (Los Angeles) more abundant? Americans could buy solar on long-term contracts — with no subsidies — for 18.6 cents per kWh in Minneapolis, and just 15.4 cents in Los Angeles. Factor in the federal 30% solar tax credit and Minneapolitans could get solar for 14.3 cents per kWh, Los Angelenos for 11.8 cents.

Already, the trajectory of solar costs and electricity prices suggests that 100 million Americans will be able to get cheaper electricity from their rooftops than from their utility in the next decade (see ILSR's new report — Rooftop Revolution: Changing Everything with Cost-Effective Local Solar).

But if Americans could install solar at the same price as the Germans, 47 million Americans in the nation's largest cities would be at solar grid parity — without subsidies — right now. By 2015, assuming no change in the cost of solar and a modest 2% per year inflation in retail electricity prices, 100 million Americans in major cities could beat grid prices with rooftop solar.

Yes, Germany is cutting their solar contract prices. But this is in a market that installed 7,000 megawatts of solar per year in the past two years — 20 times the U.S. pace on a per capita basis. And it is doing it at half the cost (or better). That's the benefit of a decade of consistent renewable energy policy — the feed-in tariff — that provides a low-risk, long-term contract for solar project owners. Compare that to America's hodge-podge of fifty individual state policies, stacked on top of federal incentives that can only be used by businesses with big tax liability (or their Wall Street partners).

The irony is that Americans point to Germany and say, "they pay too much for electricity," while a majority of Germans continue to say, "we're willing to pay more for clean power," because they can (and do) own it. In fact, over half of Germany's renewable energy capacity is locally owned, multiplying the economic benefits of their renewable energy policy and reinforcing political support for clean energy (while support for clean energy has declined in the U.S.).

Quite a few folks have decried the price cuts to the German solar feed-in tariff as "the end is nigh," but especially in comparison to American solar policy, it's more appropriate to declare, "mission accomplished."

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

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Could a Biplane Bring Back Commercial Supersonic Travel?

Posted: 20 Mar 2012 04:08 PM PDT

Ever since the Concorde was retired from service at the end of 2003, we haven’t had commercial supersonic travel available, but researchers who have been studying the problems of supersonic travel believe they may have found the answer — a biplane.

Qiqi Wang, an assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, believes that, in principle, a biplane may solve many of the problems the Concorde suffered from, including the amount of fuel needed, limited seating, and the ever annoying sonic boom that comes when an object reaches Mach 1, or supersonic flight.

"The sonic boom is really the shock waves created by the supersonic airplanes, propagated to the ground," Wang says. "It's like hearing gunfire. It's so annoying that supersonic jets were not allowed to fly over land."

Conceptual drawing of a supersonic biplane.

Working with Rui Hu, a postdoc in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and Antony Jameson, a professor of engineering at Stanford University, Wang has shown, using a computer model, that a modified biplane could in fact significantly lessen the drag on the plane when compared to a single-wing aircraft traveling at supersonic speeds, which Wang believes would mean the plane would require less fuel to fly and would produce a smaller sonic boom.

"If you think about it, when you take off, not only do you have to carry the passengers, but also the fuel, and if you can reduce the fuel burn, you can reduce how much fuel you need to carry, which in turn reduces the size of the structure you need to carry the fuel," Wang says. "It's kind of a chain reaction."

Wang designed a jet with two wings — one positioned above the other — based on an idea by German engineer Adolf Busemann, who came up with a biplane design in the 1950s that essentially eliminates the shock waves when traveling at supersonic speeds. However, Wang’s specific design had one significant flaw — the design would have worked wonderfully at supersonic speeds, but it would not actually ever be able to reach those speeds due to the wing design.

To address this issue, Wang worked with his colleagues to design a computer model to simulate the performance of the biplane design. They then smoothed out the inner surface of each wing slightly, creating a wider channel through which air could flow, and then bumped out the top edge of the higher wing and the bottom edge of the lower wing.

When they ran their simulations again, they found that this conceptual plane was able to fly at supersonic speeds with half the drag of conventional supersonic jets — like the Concorde — and would actually be able to reach those speeds.

Next on their to-do list is to create a three-dimensional model that will allow them to account for other factors that affect flight.

Source: MIT
Image Source: Christine Daniloff/MIT News, based on an original drawing courtesy of Obayashi laboratory, Tohoku University

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Chinese Solar Cells & Panels Get Low U.S. Tariff, & U.S. Solar Energy Industries Association Responds

Posted: 20 Mar 2012 02:25 PM PDT

solar tariff china us

Quite predictably, the U.S. Department of Commerce today announced that it has found that the Chinese government has awarded its solar companies subsidies that are too strong for international trade rules. However, they were essentially found to be much less in violation of trade rules than expected. Imported solar cells and solar panels from China will get hit with tariffs ranging from 2.9% to 4.37%, not nearly as large as many solar companies and analysts were predicting.

Investors actually starting pouring money back into leading Chinese solar companies after the announcement, since they had assumed the tariffs would be higher. Shares in some companies rose as much as 14%.

"Today's preliminary determination by the Department of Commerce imposing low tariffs on imported solar cells and modules is a relatively positive outcome for the U.S. solar industry and its 100,000 employees," said the leading opponent to the trade case, president of Coalition for Affordable Solar Energy Jigar Shah. “However, tariffs large or small will hurt American jobs and prolong our world's reliance on fossil fuels. Fortunately, this decision will not significantly raise solar prices in the United States….”

If you’ve missed the whole back-story, a coalition of solar panel manufacturers led by SolarWorld filed the trade complaint, but a large number of U.S. solar installers and developers (led by Jigar Shah) were opposed to this challenge, since they feared it would raise the price of solar panels, which have dropped a ton in the past year.

The low tariffs find China guilty, of over-subsidizing its solar goods, but much less guilty than most presumed.

Note that the investigation isn’t complete and this is only a preliminary ruling.

Additionally, the Department of Commerce still needs to issue a ruling on a perhaps more serious matter of whether or not China was dumping solar products in the U.S. If found guilty of dumping, it can be expected that higher anti-dumping duties will be implemented.

Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) Weighs In

SEIA has largely stayed out of discussions about the trade dispute. Logical, given that it represents installers, developers, AND manufacturers. It’s statement today stayed neutral about the decision, but unveiled some proactive efforts to tackle international trade issues. Here’s most of its statement:

The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) today announced a new initiative to facilitate global and regional dialogues on trade and competitiveness and the role of government in encouraging development of the global solar energy industry.

Over the past year, SEIA has held a series of dialogues with several leading national solar trade associations regarding potential collaboration on and resolution of trade issues before they result in action before trade remedy bodies.  SEIA is also collaborating with the Chinese Renewable Energy Industries Association (CREIA) and other Asia-Pacific based trade associations on the development of a formal Solar Dialogue within the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC).

The initial goals of these dialogues are to:

  • Promote WTO-acceptable trade in solar energy goods, while taking into account the unique and important role of governments in the development of the solar energy industry;
  • Ensure that global innovation, scaling, and economic development occur; and
  • Create a collaborative framework for preventing trade conflict in the solar industry and resolving it constructively if conflict does arise.

The announcement came as the Department of Commerce (DOC) ruled to impose countervailing duties on the import of Chinese PV modules into the U.S. market.

"SEIA is supportive of a rules-based process for resolving trade disputes in the solar industry and the Department of Commerce's investigation is certainly part of that process," said Rhone Resch, president and CEO of SEIA. "It is important to note that this is a preliminary determination and the antidumping decision will be rendered in May. If the tariffs remain at these levels, we do not think that this will have a material impact on the U.S. market.”

Resch added, “But the trade action against Chinese imports is indicative of a growing trend of trade conflict in the global solar energy industry that threatens to curtail the rapid growth we have seen in this market – both in the U.S. and abroad. Governments and industry must recognize that while trade remedy proceedings such as antidumping and countervailing duty investigations are an important part of the global trade rules, so too are collaboration and negotiations. This is why SEIA is taking a proactive lead to create a dialogue with several leading national solar trade associations and governments from around the world."

Solar panels & money image by shutterstock

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