Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Latest from: CleanTechnica

Latest from: CleanTechnica

Link to CleanTechnica

At 50% Renewables, PG&E’s “Green Option” Looks to Offer Customers More Clean, Renewable Power

Posted: 25 Apr 2012 10:20 AM PDT

More than 50% of Pacific Gas and Electric’s (PG&E) now comes from renewable energy sources with greenhouse gas emissions of zero, but the pioneering power utility isn’t stopping there. PG&E yesterday announced it has requested California Public Utility Commission (CPUC) regulators for approval of its Green Option program.

Customers, public officials and environmental advocates have united in their call for PG&E and its peers in the California power sector to look for more ways to promote and foster renewable energy development and use and reduce their carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the company noted in a press release. “On behalf of our customers, PG&E is already one of the largest suppliers of renewable energy in the country,” said PG&E senior vice president and chief customer officer Helen Burt.

“We have heard from many of our customers, however, who want to do even more to support clean energy and the green economy. Our Green Option, backed by an independent third-party’s environmental certification, will give them that choice.”

Another Green Option for PG&E Customers

The San Francisco-based electric utility’s Green Option program entails it purchasing renewable energy certificates (RECs) “to match the portion of each participating electric customer’s energy that is not already covered by PG&E’s eligible renewable energy deliveries.”

RECs verify that the energy customers purchase comes from clean, renewable sources, such as wind farms and solar energy systems. Through the Green-e Energy program, PG&E will work with the SF-based non-profit Center for Resource Solutions to validate the voluntary RECs the utility purchases on behalf of customers who sign on to the program.

PG&E expects residential customers’ choosing to go for 100% renewable power by opting into the Green Option program will pay an additional $6 per month on average. Program participants can enter or leave the program at any time.

Joining with PG&E to help the program succeed are the cities of Berkeley, Carmel, Davis, Hayward, Napa and San Jose, all of which “plan to collaborate with PG&E to make the program a success.” Prominent environmental organizations are also lining up behind the program, which PG&E expects to launch in 2013 given CPUC approval.

“This program gives every PG&E customer an additional tool to help protect the environment by investing in clean sources of energy,” said Peter Miller, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “We’re delighted to see PG&E take leadership and create a consumer-driven program that’s a win-win for Californians and the environment.”

PG&E in 2010 reduced its CO2 emissions from electricity sales nearly 25% to 15.6 million metric tons, their lowest level since the electric utility began publicly reporting them in 2003.

PG&E’s CO2 emissions rate fell 23% to 445 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour of electricity delivered to its customers. That was 35% lower than the California average and just 1/3 the national average for electric utilities. PG&E's emissions rate takes into account emissions from both PG&E-owned power generation and power purchased from third parties, the company noted.

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SolarCity & Tesla Motors Team Up to Offer Off-Grid Living

Posted: 25 Apr 2012 10:00 AM PDT

SolarCity and Tesla have teamed up in an interesting new partnership. As we’ve saying, mixing solar panels with home batteries seems increasingly attractive with the prices of both dropping so fast. Now, this top solar power company and top (electric car)/battery company is offering a packaged deal that could get a lot more people off the grid. More from Gas2:

Tesla Motors Teams With SolarCity For Off-The-Grid Homes (via Gas 2.0)

Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors, has ensured that his company is more than just a car company. If anything, Tesla Motors is a battery company, selling its lithium-ion battery packs to the likes of Toyota, Daimler, and now SolarCity, installer of solar panels. The two companies have been working for…

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Ford to Recycle Money?

Posted: 25 Apr 2012 07:00 AM PDT

Ford (and some other car companies) have increasingly gotten into using recycled materials in their cars, but this is a surprising one — Ford may start recycling money, using old shredded cash that would otherwise go to the landfill or be burnt. Here’s more from Gas2:

Ford Looking To Add Shredded Money To List Of Recyclable Materials (via Gas 2.0)

As automakers continue to look for ways to make themselves more profitable and efficient, their interest in renewable materials has grown and grown. With many old petroleum-based standbys growing more expensive oil prices took off, car makers like Ford are looking to renewable alternatives. One alternative…

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Solar Energy Storage Pilot Project

Posted: 25 Apr 2012 04:30 AM PDT

solar panels sunlight

S&C Electric, a leading smart grid and energy storage company based out of Chicago, is starting work on a pilot project that will store solar energy using lithium-ion batteries. The £200,000 project will involve a 75kW lithium-ion battery system at an “eco-home project” in an undisclosed location.

“The average home uses around 1.5kW of electricity so the battery should provide power for around 50 homes in the development,” Andrew Jones, managing director for S&C Electric Europe, said. “The system can also control how you feed energy back to the grid. Without that control you would have to dig up the road and add cables to export the unused solar power.”

As energy storage costs (especially li-ion battery costs) drop, energy storage combined with increasingly cheap solar power becomes more and more attractive. I have the feeling this pilot project is the start of something big. Of course, S&C Electric is hopeful it is as well, but it is also pushing for increased policy support for energy storage to push this possibility forward.

“One of the challenges for energy storage is there are not the clear market signals for firms to invest in the technology and bring the costs down…. There needs to be a signal from policymakers to show storage firms the market will be there if they invest in bringing costs down.”

As we’ve written previously, there has been a push to get an energy storage act implemented in the U.S. If it were, the energy storage market would expand at a much faster rate and costs would come down more quickly (as they have for solar and wind power). However, as with anything energy related these days, grid lock in Congress is preventing anything good from happening at the moment.

Meanwhile, projects like the one above and like the new largest energy storage station in the world (a BYD project in China), keep the sector moving forward and keep providing us with optimistic news to pass on to you.

Image: solar panels & sun via Shutterstock

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Energy-Efficient Light Bulb Savings Calculator

Posted: 25 Apr 2012 04:00 AM PDT

energy efficient light bulb calculator

GE has launched a cool energy-efficient light bulb savings calculator on its GE Lighting website. The calculator, of course, only features GE light bulbs (6 of them) — would be great if someone created such a calculator/webpage for a larger selection, especially with some LED bulbs added in. Nonetheless, I think the main purpose this serves is showing people how much they can save by switching to more efficient bulbs. Playing with the calculator for a second, I think you are definitely pushed to go for the most efficient bulbs, since they clearly offer the most savings.

Anyway, take a stroll on over to the calculator to check it out yourself and be sure to share it with others, especially those less likely to already be aware of the financial savings that come from energy-efficient lighting.

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The Convenient Truth about Green Jobs

Posted: 25 Apr 2012 01:53 AM PDT


It's time to take back the narrative about clean energy.

Since the bankruptcy of a few high-profile clean energy companies, political opponents and media pundits have tried to label the entire industry a failure. This is a gross distortion of the on-the-ground reality — and it shows how disconnected people are from what's really happening in this sector.

The clean energy industry is extraordinarily diverse, ranging from small contractors to massive industrial manufacturers. Recognizing the local value these sectors provide, states around the country are putting policies in place to attract new businesses and large amounts of private capital. And it's working.

Massachusetts is the perfect example. After signing the Green Communities Act into law in 2008, the commonwealth has seen an explosion of new companies. There are now 64,000 people employed in Massachusetts' clean energy sector today.

I traveled to the commonwealth with Andrew Satter, our senior video producer at the Center for American Progress, and brought back this piece from the front lines of the clean energy economy.

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

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Ferrari Working on Green Hybrid

Posted: 25 Apr 2012 01:49 AM PDT

In addition to the sweet new high-speed trains from the crew at Ferrari that I just posted about, the Italian supercar company is working on a green(er) machine for individual or family use, as well. Here’s more info from Chris:

Video: Ferrari Previews V12 Hybrid-KERS System For Upcoming Supercar (via Gas 2.0)

For fans of performance cars, there is nothing in the world quite like a Ferrari. You don't even have to like cars at all to love the Ferrari, the epitome of European excess and luxury wrapped in a sleek supercar package. Yet unlike other European automakers, like Porsche, who has embraced hybrid…

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Ferrari’s Super Sweet Private High-Speed Rail Plans

Posted: 25 Apr 2012 01:39 AM PDT

I enthusiastically but briefly mentioned Ferrari’s new high-speed trains in our last transportation news roundup on Sunday. Nice to see Chris DeMorro of sister site Gas2 picked up the story in more detail and I can easily repost that — here it is:

Ferrari Trains Take To The Track In Italy (via Gas 2.0)

When I first read this story, I thought it was some kind of belated April Fools post. A Ferarri train you say? Seems impossible, impractical, unaffordable. Yet the Nuovo Trasporto Viaggiatori (NTV) is the first, and largest private high-speed rail line to open in Europe, and many rich and powerful…

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Cleanweb — Next Big Step for Cleantech?

Posted: 25 Apr 2012 01:31 AM PDT

Cleantech is mainly considered to be the hardware — solar panels, wind turbines, EVs, etc. However, there’s a growing push to increase cleantech’s impact through software, too — in particular, through what some are calling the cleanweb. Here’s more from sister site Ecopreeurist:

Why Cleanweb Will Beat Cleantech (via Ecopreneurist)

An excellent slideshow on the huge potential of cleanweb to scale clean technology and really make an impact with – reduced emissions, better lifestyles and a better, more powerful tomorrow. What is Cleanweb? According to Sunil Paul,who coined the term- CleanWeb" is a category of clean technology…

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The Gasoline-Free Future and How to Get There, If Ever

Posted: 24 Apr 2012 08:13 PM PDT

FFVs like the Ford Taurus ran on M85 (85 percent methanol, 15 percent gasoline) in 1996

Since I’ve been reporting on acceptable alternative fuels that smartly divert us from global dependence on nothing but fossil fuels, this recent news from MIT highlighting an auto industry perspective on the proposal for an Open Fuel Standard caught my eye. The spokesman, Toyota's Tom Stricker, discussed a number of relevant items, including consumer acceptance of flexible-fuel vehicles and the price, the engine that drives most transportation decisions.

What follows is the published MIT story, my emphasis (bold/underline) and comments added between block quotes:

“As gasoline prices continue to remain high, with the nationwide average jumping 19 cents a gallon in March, Americans and automakers alike are investing in alternatives. But what's the most effective way forward for the auto industry? Toyota's Tom Stricker gave his take on Wednesday, April 18, during an event at MIT co-sponsored by the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change and the MIT Energy Initiative.

“Stricker — the automaker's vice president for technical and regulatory affairs, and energy and environmental research — focused on a proposal up for debate in Washington: the Open Fuel Standard. The bill would require automakers to phase in cars capable of running on something other than just gasoline, beginning with 50 percent in model year 2014 and reaching 95 percent by model year 2018.

“While it does not dictate what cars should run on — natural gas, electric, hydrogen, biodiesel or a flexible fuel mix — Stricker made clear that at least in the short term the flexible fuel vehicles would be the only likely scenario to meet the mandate. Such flexible fuel mixes would consist of E85 and/or M85 fuels (85 percent ethanol or methanol, respectively, and 15 percent gasoline).”

Let’s steer clear of ethanol for right now, noting this dubious fuel alternative has completely upended the way corn was once a basic food worldwide, and read more from Nobel prize chemist, George Andrew Olah, who co-authored “Beyond Oil & Gas: The Methanol Economy.”

“Advocates of the proposed mandate have claimed that the flexible fuel vehicles would cost only about $100 more per vehicle, that the infrastructure needed to make the change exists, and that we can make them quickly.

“"We don't have to wait for the perfect technology. We can turn this around right now, at little to no cost," U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), a bill co-sponsor, said when the bill was introduced.

“But Stricker believes that to make a very robust vehicle it would cost much more. Showing a page from another automaker's owner's manual, it said that the vehicle may not run very well using the fuel mix in cold temperatures and if that's the case to fill up with gasoline.

"This is what you get when you pay $100 per vehicle for the system," Stricker said. "From Toyota's perspective, we don't want to put products out there that we don't think are robust and can operate problem-free under any conditions."

“Stricker estimated the industry-wide cost to be more like $2.5 billion to $5 billion a year to produce, considering the engineering required for adding methanol capability to current flexible-fueled vehicles and meeting future emissions standards.”

Granted, our government once provided subsidies to support the capital outlay of  automobile manufacturers making FFVs for California but the contribution was nowhere even close to the billion-dollar range.

“At that price, Stricker noted, "within about a year you have reached the total investment that the automotive industry has made in hydrogen fuel cell vehicles ever. And that's a vehicle that uses no petroleum, zero emissions. It's a lot of money and it takes away a lot of resources that could be used potentially more effectively."

“Along with the steep price tag, Stricker believes we don't have enough ethanol or the capacity to produce it at the levels we would need. He also said the timeline just doesn't match up — with the first requirements needing to be phased in for 2014 model vehicles, which Toyota and the rest of the industry finished the plans for a couple years ago.”

Of course nothing has been mentioned about methanol, the fuel used at the Indianapolis 500. Get information from the Methanol Institute.

“Lawmakers and advocates have said the main purpose of the mandate would be to give consumers choices at a time when gas prices are high and will continue to be volatile.

"As any driver who has recently filled up their tank knows, gas prices are simply unsustainable," said Open Fuel Standard bill co-sponsor U.S. Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), when the bill was introduced. "By requiring auto companies to convert their fleets to flex fuel vehicles, we will be giving consumers the choices they deserve."

“Consumers do seem to like the idea of renewable fuels, with 75 percent recently polled by the Renewable Fuels Association saying they would support requiring automakers to build cars to run on fuel sources other than oil. Whether or not consumers would actually buy renewable fuels for their cars is up for debate. Sticker said no — and brought evidence to back it up. Giving the example of Minnesota — the state with the most number of E85 stations and a significant number of flex fuel cars — Stricker's data showed that on average the use of E85 per flex fuel vehicle was only 10.3 gallons last year.”

Of note, there is no mention of M85 (85 percent methanol) here, which was regarded as a highly successful FFV program in California for 25 years until it was ended in 2005.

"This is what the real world has told us. Even when the vehicles are available, and the fuels are available, people don't buy it. And I think the reason is pretty simple. It's not a good deal for the customers." Stricker said. "It's still more expensive than gasoline, even with relatively high gasoline prices."

California’s former FFV champions might strongly disagree with this.

“What Americans are buying, and in record numbers, are hybrids. Last month, hybrid and electric vehicles saw their greatest share yet of the U.S. auto market. Toyota's Prius was the runaway bestseller, with the Toyota Camry hybrid coming in second.

Stricker sees these as a better deal, and said focusing on more-efficient vehicles is the number one thing automakers can do to reduce oil consumption and the greenhouse gases that go with it — rather than focusing on solutions that technology could make obsolete before they get implemented.

A lot of past plans, he noted, didn't pan out "because there wasn't much thought put into how to bridge that chasm between 'this is what I think I want in the future' and 'this is the bin of technology that I see available today'."

Judging from the history of the California FFV program, there was an abundance of available technology and contented drivers, even back in the 1990s.

In this era, we need to be more aggressive in demanding fueling alternatives that can blend with fossil fuels and the worldwide supply chain they support. This is really a critical issue. Gas and oil have been here such a long time, helping drive transportation technologies and infrastructures that would have otherwise been impossible. Fossil fuels might never be completely scratched from the lineup. Instead, the best term to keep in mind might be naturally occurring attrition.

Source: MIT News
Photo:  aldenjewell

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Harvard Crowd-Sources Organic Solar Cell Research Project

Posted: 24 Apr 2012 07:00 PM PDT

Harvard CEP project leading to low cost organic solar cellA crowd-sourced solar cell research initiative at Harvard University called the Clean Energy Project is about to get a big boost: the initiative, which has relied on a network of home and office personal computers,  is scheduled for a block of time on the Trestles supercomputer at the University of California, San Diego. The project is designed to help develop the next generation of low cost organic solar cells.

A supercomputer and crowd sourcing mashup

The supercomputer will enable CEP to leap over a number of less-than-ideal factors that can hobble distributed computer networks, including hardware compatibility, data transfer, and donor scheduling.

Despite the impediments, since its inception in 2010 CEP has already catalogued more than 6 million molecular motifs that could lead to the development of next-generation solar cells based on organic technology.

The molecules were submitted by a network of volunteers recruited through the World Community Grid, a project of IBM, which recently made headlines for an advanced energy research project to improve electric vehicle battery performance.

When the CEP database is available later this year, it will speed up the pace of organic solar cell development by enabling researchers to perform relatively inexpensive computer modeling to identify promising molecules; that is, molecules capable of absorbing the broadest possible spectrum of sunlight and convert it into usable energy.

Without the database, the characterization of organic molecules is a laborious, expensive undertaking.

Advantages of organic solar cells

Solar cells based on organic materials – basically, polymers or types of plastic – have a number of advantages over conventional silicon cells. They have the potential to cost far less, partly because the manufacturing process is relatively simple and energy-efficient. They use little or no toxic substances and their light weight, flexibility and transparency provide for a multitude of uses that are prohibitively expensive or impossible to achieve with silicon.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory, for example, has been working with the firm New Energy Technology to develop transparent solar cells that could be applied to window glass.

Dr. Alán Aspuru-Guzik, an associate professor at Harvard who leads the CEP initiative, explains the overall advantages of organic technology:

"Solar cells are environmentally friendly but still very expensive investments," said Aspuru-Guzik. "Highly engineered materials are needed, as well as novel designs for solar cells and fuel cells based on organic molecules, which often require compounds with very specific characteristics to efficiently capture and/or storage energy. To make them cost-competitive and more widely accessible, we need new, inexpensive materials that perform better than existing technologies."

The Trestles supercomputer

Like CEP, the Trestles supercomputer is also relatively new, having been deployed at UCal-Davis in February 2011. It is part of a nationwide system of open-access research called TeraGrid.

The name Trestles refers to the supercomputer's potential for use as a bridge to help data-intensive but modestly scaled research projects get to the next level.

According to U-Cal's press materials, Trestles debuted at #111 on the top 500 list of supercomputers.  It can run at a peak speed of 100 teraflop (one teraflop is equal to one trillion calculations per second).

Image: Some rights reserved by Patricia Drury.

Follow Tina Casey on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.


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Why “Passive Activities” May Be Clean Energy’s Biggest Hurdle

Posted: 24 Apr 2012 04:42 PM PDT

If you care about the future of the American renewable energy industry, you need to learn what the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) calls "passive activities."  Because these important rules mean that as long as the U.S. relies on the tax code to provide renewable energy incentives, renewable energy can only grow as fast as Wall Street tax equity and it will remain difficult to have locally-owned renewable energy projects.

The "passive activities" issue has to do with an important IRS determination to prevent wealthy people from creating more tax shelters.  The basic idea is that if you earn tax credits from investments that you don't "materially participate in" (e.g. investing in a wind farm) then you can only use those to offset taxes that you pay on the same kind of income (e.g. renting property). Both activities are considered "passive," because the rich person isn't the wind farm mechanic, nor are they typically the rental property superintendent.

In renewable energy, it means that the two major federal incentives — the Production Tax Credit and the Investment Tax Credit — can only be used to offset passive income tax liability. And since few Americans own rental property or have other passive income liability, it means few Americans can effectively invest in renewable energy projects and get these credits.

The rules on passive income taxes and credits can't be effectively changed because, as tax attorney Greg Jenner puts it, "it would be like pulling on the thread in a sweater. The passive loss rules are the primary defense in the tax code against tax shelters and once you start to unravel them, there will be no turning back."

Thus, using the tax code to boost renewable energy creates two major problems: artificially capping the renewable energy market and curtailing local ownership.

I outlined the first issue in December, in Federal Tax Credits Handcuff Clean Energy Development:

Since clean energy projects must rely on a limited set of tax equity partners and a limited-size tax equity market, when tax equity dries up, so do wind and solar projects.  The economic crisis of 2008 made the problem particularly evident, as the tax equity market shrank by 80 percent from 2007 to 2009.  Only the cash grant program saved the wind and solar industries from total collapse in the intervening years (2009-11), and the cash grant will likely expire at the end of 2011.  The following chart from a SEIA presentation illustrates [pdf] the problem, even though it was devised before the 1-year extension of the cash grant in 2010.


The problem of limited tax equity isn't just short term.  Marshal Salant, managing director of Citigroup Global Markets Inc., said in a recent interview: "There's more demand for tax equity to finance renewable energy projects than we will ever have in the way of supply."

Local ownership of renewable energy also suffers when incentives come through the tax code.

The logical entities like cooperatives, schools, or cities are ruled out because federal wind and solar incentives are for taxable entities, not these rooted community organizations. Instead, communities seeking local ownership have to either perform complex legal acrobatics to set up private corporations or sacrifice as much as half of the value of the tax incentives by forming a partnership with a tax equity partner. When community wind projects succeed, like with South Dakota Wind Partners, organizers admit that repeating the success is unlikely in light of the legal and financial complexities.

It's understandable in today's political climate that renewable energy boosters spend more time on keeping existing incentives alive, but if Americans hope to (someday) achieve a 100% clean energy future, they will need energy policy that's no longer handcuffed to the tax code.

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

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