Sunday, June 3, 2012

Latest from: CleanTechnica

Latest from: CleanTechnica

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EU Pulls an €80B Fast One; Natural Gas to be Eligible for Renewable Energy Subsidies

Posted: 03 Jun 2012 09:58 AM PDT


The power and influence of fossil fuel dollar over politicians and political processes never ceases to amaze. In the latest illustration of just how much sway the fossil fuel lobby has over governments around the world, the European Union (EU) is likely to divert €80 billion of funds earmarked specifically for development of innovative renewable energy sources to the development of natural gas power plants.

The U.K.’s The Guardian broke the news, basing its report on the contents of a secret document that it had seen. Ironically, the switch takes place just as EU representatives to the UN Rio+20 conference are pressing emerging market and other nations to drastically reduce, if not eliminate, fossil fuel subsidies.

Rapid growth of natural gas fracturing, “fracking,” in the US has led countries around the world to consider making use of the new drilling technology despite persistent concerns about its environmental and geological effects, the quantities of water involved and its effects on water supplies in particular. The International Energy Agency (IEA) last week released a report that predicted “a golden age for gas,” forecasting that unconventional natural gas supplies, mostly from shale gas deposits, will triple by 2036, The Guardian noted in its report.

A Major Victory for Europe’s Fossil Fuel Lobby

Natural gas prices have dropped sharply and held at low levels for several years now, pressuring and prompting closer examination of the practices of some highly leveraged shale gas fracking players, including Chesapeake Energy. That’s prompted concerns that low natural gas prices would crowd out cleaner, truly renewable energy alternatives at a time when global CO2 and greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise despite best efforts to date to reduce them.

The EU governments fast one is a clear victory for the European natural gas lobby, according to The Guardian. “The insertion of gas energy as a low-carbon energy into an EU programme follows more [than] 18 months of intensive lobbying by the European gas industry, which is attempting to rebrand itself as a green alternative to nuclear and coal, and as lower cost than renewable forms of power such as wind and sun.”

Following a tried-and-true fossil fuel industry lobbying script, the natural gas lobby has been relentlessly touting estimates of shale and unconventional natural gas reserves that will almost certainly prove to be much higher than anything that’s actually produced. Independent analyses raise serious doubts about industry projections.

Already approved by EU member states, the document seen by The Guardian sets out an energy policy strategy dubbed Horizon 2020, which is touted as “a €80 billion programme for research and innovation for the years 2014 to 2020.

“Of the funds available, more than €30 billion are supposed to ‘address the major concerns shared by all Europeans such as climate change, developing sustainable transport and mobility, making renewable energy more affordable, ensuring food safety and security, or coping with the challenge of an aging population.’”

Then again, these funds could just as well be given to an already highly profitable, well-established and heavily subsidized fossil fuel industry. This in Europe of all places. It seems that the EU’s public representatives aren’t as immune to the influence of petro-dollars and the fossil fuel industry lobby as may have seemed to be the case.

“The Horizon 2020 project is likely to result in several billions of spending on R&D between 2014 and 2020, the significance of the changes goes much further, according to Brussels experts,” The Guardian writes.

“The changes show that the gas industry has succeeded in its aim of having gas considered a low-carbon fuel, at least in some parts of the European Commission – and this is likely to be disastrous for the renewables industry, as well as having massive implications for greenhouse gas emissions and the fight against climate change.”

Silkmoth Inspires New Attack on Bomb Detection

Posted: 03 Jun 2012 07:31 AM PDT

moth inspires new explosives sensor

With a name like Bombyx mori, the silkmoth would seem to be tailor made for bomb detection, and a team of researchers in Europe has set out to prove just that. Taking a cue from the moth’s highly evolved antennae, the team created a sensor made up of almost half a million nanoscale tubes, which they claim could achieve a 1,000-fold improvement over current TNT detectors.

Bombs, Bees and Moths

Previously in CleanTechnica we’ve reported on the military’s interest in bomb-detecting bees, so the leap to moths is not much of a stretch. The big difference here is that the bee research involves the potential for deploying actual bees like bomb sniffing dogs, while the silkmoth project is a classic example of biomimicry.

How to Mimic a Silkmoth

The silkmoth came to the researchers’ attention because, like many animals, it possesses a sense of smell that can detect molecules in the air at levels far below those recorded by current technology.

The moth’s antennas are about one millimeter long, feathered out with microcopic sensilla (sensory organs) which result in a considerable increase in surface area.

In imitation of this structure, the new sensor is based on a cantilever (a long spine) made of silicon, about 200 microns long and 30 microns wide. The canitlever holds almost half a million vertically arranged  titanium dioxide nanotubes.

Titanium dioxide is a common whitening substance used in paint and toothpaste, and it is emerging as an important material in pollution control.

Alcoa, for example, is marketing a titanium dioxide-based coating that enables buildings to “eat” smog, and the company Pureti is developing a similar concept for smog-eating roads.

“Moth” stacks up to bomb sniffing dog

When vibrated, the device will react with a specific resonance if molecules of TNT are present.

According to the team’s press materials, the device can detect concentrations of TNT (trinitrotoluene) at about 800 molecules per per 1015 molecules of air, which puts its performance on par with trained bomb-sniffing dogs, with the advantage of not having to be cleaned up after.

In addition to TNT, the sensor could also be adapted to detect other explosives as well as airborne pollutants.

So far the testing has occured within laboratory conditions, though. The next step in the research is to create a ruggedized version that can perform in field conditions.

Note: The research team is from the Nanomatériaux pour Systèmes sous Sollicitations Extrêmes" unit (CNRS / Institut Franco-Allemand de Recherches de Saint-Louis), in collaboration with the Laboratoire des Matériaux, Surfaces et Procédés pour la Catalyse (CNRS / Université de Strasbourg).

Image: Some rights reserved by woodleywonderworks.

Follow me on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.


Suzlon’s Bold Bid to Invest $3B in Mexico Wind Farms

Posted: 03 Jun 2012 05:42 AM PDT

Photo courtesy: Suzlon

The world’s fifth-largest wind turbine manufacturer, India’s Suzlon Energy is making bold bids to expand its business even as it scrambles to raise the funds necessary to meet this year’s bond redemptions. Next for Suzlon in terms of international expansion: Mexico.

Suzlon’s CEO for Latin America Erik Winter Petersen announced a plan to invest some $3 billion in wind energy projects in Mexico’s Baja California and Oaxaca regions, according to a Mexico Today report.

Mexico’s wind energy capacity is growing rapidly as the national and regional governments have been focusing on fostering renewable energy and clean technology development and adoption as a means of generating jobs and economic growth, as well as conserving the natural environment and resources. Mexico’s national parliament passed a climate change law earlier this year, and wind energy plays a significant role in Mexico’s National Renewable Energy Strategy.

Mexico Emerging as Wind Power Growth Leader

Mexico had just 3MW of wind energy capacity in 2005; it’s expected to total 2,000MW by the end of 2012. The Mexican government forecasts that will double to 4GW by 2015 and triple to 8GW by 2020. Achieving 2012′s goal would make Mexico the world’s fastest growing wind power market.

Baja California and Oaxaca are prime locations when it comes to Mexican wind energy project sites. Eighteen of Mexico’s 27 wind power installations are located in Oaxaca alone, with major international wind turbine and wind power project developers, including Acciona, Gamesa and Vestas having announced investments in the two Pacific coast regions.

Suzlon has yet to invest in any projects in Mexico, but that’s set to change drastically given the announcement.

Mexico’s onshore wind capacity has been estimated at 71GW, and the federal government believes that wind power can meet 30% of its electricity needs, according to a Recharge news report. Suzlon and other wind energy developers keen on investing in Mexico face challenges in realizing their ambitions, as does the Mexican government, however.

Suzlon will need to compete against other bidders in wind farm project tenders held by the federal government. Government administrative procedures also need to be streamlined to better promote private investments, as in the procedures regarding issuance of power purchase agreements (PPAs), Petersen told Recharge.

Then there’s the issue of transmission capacity and grid interconnections, a problem that’s held up construction and constrained more efficient use of intermittent wind-generated electricity on electricity grids. A plan’s been put forward that entails wind farm project developers sharing the cost of building them.

Suzlon’s Financial Challenges

Suzlon and other wind energy industry leaders face significant financial challenges even as they embark on major international business development efforts as well. Suzlon has posted losses for three years running now, and it’s been scrambling to avoid a bond default.

The company faces a $358 million convertible bond redemption June 12, with another coming due in October. Fortunately for Suzlon, a group of around 20 banks have thrown the company a lifeline, having pledged to loan it as much as $300 million.

Carrying nearly $2.1 billion in debt on its books as of end March, management still has more to do to assure the company’s ongoing viability, though. It intends to continue trying to sell non-core assets, as well as raising more capital through the bond or equity markets.

Germany to Expand Power Grid — Great for Renewables?

Posted: 03 Jun 2012 02:14 AM PDT


Last Thursday, the German federal grid regulatory agency — the Bundesnetzagentur — handed a draft for a plan to extend the German power grid to the federal goverment. The content of the plan was especially anticipated by the wind industry, which currently suffers the most from the insufficient power grid infrastructure. A frustrating bottleneck situation that already forces wind power producers in northern Germany to disconnect wind turbines from the grid on windy days in order to ensure grid stability.

The now presented draft of the so called “grid development plan” calls for the expansion of the power grid in order to allow an increasing amount of wind power from offshore and onshore wind to be fed into the grid and provide renewable electricity to industrial centers and households alike. One important part of the plan is the retrofitting of 4,400 km of the existing power lines by 2022. But at the core of the proposal lies the construction of four massive new direct current power lines stretching from northern Germany all the way down to the south with a total length of 3,800 km. This will be a investment will be in the tens of billions of euros over the next 10 years, which is an absolute necessity according to the government.

It should be noted that this plan was drafted in close cooperation with the 4 huge grid operators under the guiding principles of a scenario framework which was developed by the regulatory agency in 2011. The draft will now enter the political process for further discussion and possible changes.

An Important Step Forward or a Step in the Wrong Direction?

While it is obvious that the power grid has to be adapted and expanded for the radically changing patterns of power productions and consumption that Germany is heading for, this particular plan is highly controversial. Many renewable energy experts did already question the fundamental assumptions of the scenario framework that is the basis of this plan back in 2011. The criticsm back then was that the government does not take into account the true development of renewable energy sources and their decentralized application mainly by citizens and communities. And this is a development that has highly increasing momentum since all German states now have their own very ambitious goals for 2020-2030.

Some of the retrofitting and expansions definitely make sense, but the underlying mindset of the draft seems fundamentally flawed. It’s a clear sign of the current struggle between centralization and decentralization. Between the notion that the current fossil and nuclear power corporations are the natural suppliers of renewable energy on the one side, and the efficient use of local renewable energy resources by a huge number of small and medium power producers on the other.

Outdated Mindset = Bad Economics

It’s easy to show that this logic is fundamentally flawed, because it’s founded in the world view that wind power has to be produced in the north because coastal areas are windier. Why is that notion wrong when it sounds so true at first?

There is no doubt that renewable energy potentials are higher at some places and lower at others. But that doesn’t mean that the slightly lower potentials can’t and shouldn’t be exploited. Today, wind power can be produced profitably almost everywhere in Germany. That’s possible due to modern wind turbine designs optimized for low-wind conditions and the removal of arbitary restrictions by state governments.

Don’t get me wrong, wind power is more efficent in the north. There is no doubt that the very same wind turbine produces more electricity at the coast compared to the Bavarian forrests. The average hours of production at full capacity (the capacity factor) can actually be 30-50% higher at the coast. But the critical question is: Is the capacity factor all that important for a renewable energy system? 

In the opinion of most renewable energy experts, the answer is no. Because, for local consumers and local independent utilites, it doesn’t matter that much if electricity produced from wind costs 30-50€ per MWh at the coast or 50-70€ per MWh in Bavaria. In both cases the electricity generated from wind is significantly cheaper than the cost of electricity from the power grid which stands at 110-140€ per MWh (before taxes & fees). And in the latter case, Bavaria benefits in other ways from producing its own electricity.

While I am happy for the necessary improvements for removing bottleneck situations in the power grid, I am bewildered by the level of ignorance on the side of the government coalition which doesn’t even talk about smart grids as it discusses changes to the power gird during the next decades. It also does not take into account that the situation in the states has changed dramatically and that the driving force of renewable energy is not centralized offshore wind, but decentralized investments by local individuals, businesses, and utilities.

In the words of a press release by Eurosolar, the European Association for Renewable Energy:
“Now it’s up to the states to demand the necessary changes.”

As I wrote this post: 17.8 GW of solar and 9.2 GW wind, as well as approximately 3 GW of hydropower and 3.5 GW from biogas produced about 60% of the total electricity demand at 1 pm here in Germany.

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