Thursday, September 6, 2012

Cleantech News from CleanTechnica

Cleantech News from CleanTechnica

Link to CleanTechnica

Solar Jobs Booming 10x Faster than National Average

Posted: 05 Sep 2012 12:45 PM PDT


Source: Rooftop Revolution on Facebook

CEO of Nation’s Largest Power Company Gives a Thumbs-Up to Obama on Energy

Posted: 05 Sep 2012 12:19 PM PDT

On the eve of the Democratic National Convention, Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers went on CNN and made a straightforward case for the reelection of President Obama, at least in terms of energy policy. Charlotte-based Duke Energy might not yet be a household name outside of its home base in the south, but its recent $32 billion merger with Progress Energy has made it the largest electric utility in the U.S. So, when Jim Rogers talks about energy policy, it’s worth a listen.

Jim Rogers of Duke Energy supports Obama

4 Years of Progress on Energy

Rogers appeared as one of the guests on Soledad O’Brien’s “Starting Points” show on Monday, and started off his part of the conversation by making a common-sense observation about the difference between running a business and running a country:

… as a CEO, you have to balance interest of your shareholders as well as your customers. But being a President of the United States, you have to balance many stakeholders’ interest and come up with the right solution and get the balance right between the role of business and the role of government.”

This stakeholder view of public governance dovetails neatly with President Obama’s “all of the above” energy policy.

Rogers cites the Administration’s continued support for natural gas and nuclear power as positive developments for his industry. He also includes improvements in energy efficiency and energy diversity on the list, and that’s where things get interesting:

“My view is that we built power plants for 40 years and we need clarity in terms of the road forward. I believe eventually there will be regulation of carbon in this country. I think it’s critical in the long term to have the smallest emissions footprint possible when you generate electricity.”

The Road Forward for U.S. Energy

If you want to see what Rogers sees along the road forward, a look at some of Duke Energy’s initiatives over the past few years provides a pretty clear picture.

Rogers hints that an all but exclusive focus on building new centralized power plants is not necessarily the way forward, and in fact Duke Energy has been one of the early promoters of distributed solar power.

Aside from advancing its interests in conventional fuels, Duke Energy has been investing in wind farms and it has launched itself into a “sister cities” field research partnership with China on new energy technologies including solar power, smart grid technology, energy efficiency, and battery storage.

The company also recently partnered with Siemens and Ford in an electric vehicle infrastructure research project sponsored by the Department of Energy.

Carbon capture by algae is another area that Duke is exploring. Its East Bend coal-fired power plant is serving as the proving ground for a system that will feed captured carbon dioxide to algae, which can then be used for animal feed or biofuel production.

In a similarly ambitious project, Duke Energy has partnered with Google and Duke University to convert hog waste to natural gas for generating electricity.

The company’s merger with Progress Energy was also partly motivated by the bottom line benefits of getting more use out of Duke’s existing pumped storage hydroelectric resources (unlike conventional hydro dams on rivers, a pumped storage facility recycles the same water from one reservoir to another).

As for Progress itself, before its merger with Duke, the company was already making a name for itself in sustainability initiatives, including the promotion of offshore wind power.

The New Energy Road Runs Straight through Charlotte

Though an open discussion of carbon regulation and climate change is not part of the political conversation in this election cycle, when you layer all of Duke’s activities onto Rogers’s promotion of Charlotte as an international hub for energy innovation and new green jobs, you can see it’s no accident that the Democratic National Committee decided to locate the Democratic National Convention in that city.

It’s a clever way of calling attention to the success of President Obama’s energy initiatives without getting sidetracked into specious arguments. In this regard, it’s instructive to look at some comments by another guest on Soledad O’Brien’s show, U.S. Representative Jason Chaffetz (R, Utah).

In contrast to Rogers, who really did talk about new changes in the U.S. energy landscape, Chaffetz said “we need a total new direction” but only offered up approval of yet another oil pipeline as an example.

Follow me on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.

Image: Power plant. Some rights reserved by bilbord99.

SolarCity Expands Arizona Operations

Posted: 05 Sep 2012 12:10 PM PDT

SolarCity, one of the top solar energy providers in the U.S., recently expanded its Arizona operations.

The company has opened a new operations center in Prescott Valley, while opening a second operations center in Phoenix.

SolarCity Zipcar image via Kevin Krejcki

The service centers will give increased services to larger home and commercial builders.

SolarCity, since launching its Arizona operations in 2008, has increased to five operation centers. It now employs 180 people in the state.

Officials from both Arizona and SolarCity were pleased with the announcement.

"Arizona invests in sustainable energy alternatives as they directly impact the lives of our residents and the state's economy with the creation of jobs," said Leisa Brug, energy policy advisor to Governor Janice Brewer.

"We welcome SolarCity's expansion in the state, as it supports our goal of making Arizona the leader in solar power generation," she said.

"SolarCity is keeping up with the rising demand for affordable solar in Arizona without sacrificing on customer service," said Albert Laird, SolarCity's Regional Vice President of Arizona.

"The two new operations centers will help us better serve both existing and new customers in Arizona."

Arizona now is third in the U.S. for total solar photovoltaic (PV) installation capacity, as solar energy production from 2010-2011 advanced an amazing 333%.

Source: SolarCity

Mom Going Solar: Could It Really Be This Easy?

Posted: 05 Sep 2012 11:49 AM PDT

Fun post from Michelle of Moms Going Solar on just how easy it is to go solar and save tons of money (with some minor formatting changes):

Andrea and I started this blog to document our experience vetting photovoltaic solar leasing companies and installers, and to subsequently share our experience with the installation and interconnection. Well, and I'm being very honest, it couldn't have been e a s i e r! My road to becoming powered by the sun was so hassle free!!

Sungevity kept me apprised of a few changes to the original plans (due to fire code, they had to downsize my system a little bit), the installation company New Energy Construction (NEC) installed my system in two days without incident and while I was on vacation (but my husband was here to coordinate with them), and the county and utility inspections happened within three weeks of installation.

From start to finish, the process took about 5-6 months, but probably less than one working day of effort on my part in that entire timeframe.

I am IMPRESSED and looking forward to sitting back and enjoying tracking the kWh produced by my system: Day 1 = 21 kWh, but we had a hazy afternoon, and Day 2 = 24 kwH! And the system actually looks good on my roof! Now to get the rest of our new house in shape: painting, adding a deck, etc… I hope it's all as easy as installing this solar system!

~ Michelle

Biggest Offshore Wind Farm in the World Planned in Scotland

Posted: 05 Sep 2012 08:41 AM PDT

The biggest offshore wind farm in the world is on the verge of being built off the northern Scottish coast. Once built, it will be capable of powering 40% of the homes in Scotland.


For a price of £4.5 billion, the complex located off Caithness will contain 339 turbines covering a total of 300 square kilometres, and have a generation capacity of 1.5 gigawatts. That will make it 50% larger than the London Array located off Kent.

“The renewable industry has hailed it as a watershed moment but warned these new deep water farms might only be fully realised if the government provides policy stability by pushing through its proposed Energy Bill.”

The wind farm is being put together by Moray Offshore Renewables, which is a joint venture between the Spanish oil company Repsol, and part of the Portuguese power group EDP.

“We estimate that the project will be capable of supplying the electricity needs of 800,000 to 1m households … Each year this development could save between 3.5m and 4.5m tonnes of carbon dioxide compared with coal fired generation, and between 1.5m and 2m tonnes of carbon dioxide compared with gas fired generation,” Dan Finch, the project manager is quoted as saying.

Plans for an additional 4.5 gigawatts of offshore wind energy are expected to enter into the development process this year, with a total of 18 gigawatts planned to become operational during the next eight years.

“The Moray Firth wind farm, which will be given significant subsidies, compares with the 1-gigawatt at the London Array, which is currently in the construction phase, and compares with the largest British coal-fired plant, Drax in northern Yorkshire of 4 gigawatts, and the planned new EDF nuclear reactors at Hinkley Point in Somerset with a combined output of 3.2 gigawatts and a bill of at least £10bn.”

Source: The Guardian
Image Credits: Windmills via Wikimedia Commons

Will Robot Trackers Reduce the Costs of Solar?

Posted: 05 Sep 2012 08:34 AM PDT

Sunflowers, and many other plants, have evolved their own natural tracking systems enabling them to follow the sun’s trajectory throughout the day in order to maximize their absorption of sunlight… and thus, survive and proliferate.

Applying this concept to photovoltaics with mechanical solar trackers is not by any means something new. By using solar trackers, a solar panel can receive a performance boost of as much as 40%.

According to Wikipedia, at least 85% of commercial PV installations greater than 1 MW, from 2009 to 2012, have used solar trackers. However, conventional solar tracking systems are expensive to run and not feasible in the most home installations.

Instead of costly controllers and rotators on every single solar panel, QBotix in California has designed a robot that does all the heavy lifting:

"Just like a physician goes to one patient to the next to monitor health, the SolBot goes on one tracker to the next and is able to monitor everything about that tracker," explains Wasiq Bokhari, the CEO of QBotix, in an interview with CNET News.

Image credit: QBotix

Two SolBots alternate between adjusting the solar panels to face the sun and charging in a self-powered docking station. They can together manage up to 200 solar panels, roughly the equivalent to a solar system with a combined capacity of 300 kW. Adding more robots to the team can easily be implemented for larger solar systems.

"The benefit we provide is that, without any cost difference, the project owners can generate 8 to 15 percent more energy compared to single-axis tracking systems and 30 to 40 percent more energy than fixed-mount systems," Bokhari told Bloomberg.

A single-axis tracking system usually costs somewhere between 35 to 45 cents a watt, as opposed to the SolBots, which only are a few cents a watt in operating costs each.

The company has successfully completed a nine-month trial of their prototype "to show that the system indeed has the cost and reliability benefits that we talk about," and will be starting to sell their next-gen SolBot already this September.

QBotix Inc. has said that it can cut the cost of energy from solar farms by as much as 20 percent. Their technology does hold a lot of promise, but if they are able to reduce the solar panel costs by this amount, it almost seems too good to be true. It will be interesting to follow QBotix in the coming months.

Toshiba, Hitachi, and Others to Invest $1.53 Billion on Wind Power

Posted: 05 Sep 2012 08:22 AM PDT

Toshiba Corporation, Hitachi Zosen Corporation, JFE Steel Corporation, Sumitomo Electric Industries Ltd, Toa Corp, and Toyo Construction Co Ltd. are expected to invest 120 billion yen, or $1.53 billion, setting up offshore wind turbines in the near future. This is part of a massive 300-MW wind farm.

Offshore Wind Farm Turbine (Thames Estuary)

The cost mentioned above translates into $5.10 USD per watt of installed wind power generation capacity.

This is relatively small compared to the cost of a residential solar setup, which is ~$7 per watt, but it does not include electricity transmission costs or the profit of power companies, so, unfortunately, end users of electricity usually don’t get to enjoy the power plant quantity discounts caused by economies of scale.

Potential sites for the project include areas off the coast of the Kyushu region in southern  Japan. Funds will be raised through special-purpose and project financing, according to Nikkei.

The Japanese government hopes to begin building more offshore wind farms and eventually catch up to the offshore wind development progress of European countries such as the United Kingdom.

The government believes that it can eventually build up to 1,600 GW of offshore wind power generation capacity. This can power an average of 160 million homes, assuming an average capacity factor of 30% (533 million if the turbines generated as much as their nameplate capacity).

It isn’t that Japan is going to build 1,600 GW any time soon — this is a very long-term projection. Japan’s population in 2011 was 127.8 million. The population and power demand of Japan would have to grow substantially for it to require 1,600 GW of wind power.

Source: Reuters
Photo Credit: phault on Flickr

1,300 GW of Wind Power in Ethiopia, Chinese Study Finds

Posted: 05 Sep 2012 08:15 AM PDT

The winds of change (as in dollars and cents) are blowing through Ethiopia, according to a Chinese government-funded study. HydroChina International Engineering Company (HCIE) is reporting that Ethiopia is home to more than 1,300 GW of wind energy. Chinese companies are in the hunt, with a 51-megawatt plant near Adama, in central Ethiopia, already finished and more planned.

As for the plant in Adama: “China Exim Bank provided 85% of the $117 million project cost in the form of a loan, with the remainder coming from the Ethiopian government,” according to New Energy News.

Source: New Energy News
Image: Galyna Andrushko via Shutterstock

Two of the World’s Leading Solar Manufacturers Become Unlikely Collaborators

Posted: 05 Sep 2012 08:12 AM PDT

Two competing companies – Suntech Power and Hanwha Solar — have joined forces with the University of New South Wales in Australia under the banner of a collaborative research agreement to better understand a new processing technology being pioneers by the university whereby tiny metal contact regions can be “self-patterned” into a solar cell’s electric insulator.

"Currently closely-spaced small-area metal contact regions in an insulating layer can only be formed by deliberately patterning the holes with a laser scanning over the surface, which is quite slow," says Dr Alison Lennon, a senior lecturer from the School of Photovoltaics and Renewable Energy Engineering (SPREE).

"Other methods, such as aerosol and ink-jet printing, have been explored, however currently these methods are currently too slow and have not been able to demonstrate the required patterning reliability."

Hanwha Solar Rooftop On-Grid Project Within Factory

Lennon and her PhD students are investigating a new approach to automate and speed up the patterning using aluminium anodisation, an already well-understood process by which a chemical coating is formed on a metal surface to protect against corrosion.

"When you anodise aluminium you can create a porous insulating layer," says Lennon. "This means we can effectively turn an aluminium layer on a silicon solar cell into a dielectric layer with lots of little holes, which is exactly what we want."

Using this technique, the UNSW team have made prototypes, and they are now working on understanding how the metal contacts form so that they can improve the efficiency of each cell, and how to refine the technique so it can work on a larger, competitive industrial scale.

"We need to make the process robust, with predictable high efficiencies for manufacturers, and we need to make it cost-effective," says Lennon.

Lennon, who helped broker the collaborative research agreement, says this is an example of two companies realising they can achieve more as partners than as competitors, and says their support could open the door for faster commercialisation.

"Both Hanwha and Suntech operate high-volume solar manufacturing plants, and both are within the top 10 silicon solar cell manufacturers in the world. So if we can demonstrate the viability of this technology, we are both in a position to move the technology into manufacture relatively quickly," noted Dr Paul Basore and Dr Renate Egan, the Advanced R&D Directors for Hanwha Solar and Suntech Power, respectively.

Source: University of New South Wales
Image Source: Hanwha SolarOne

Improving the Efficiency at the Heart of the Wind Farm

Posted: 05 Sep 2012 07:49 AM PDT

A wind farm is subject to many influences, but maybe it’s biggest challenge is itself. When the wind hits that first turbine, all is well, but the wind coming out the other side of said turbine is a mess of whorls, large and small, which flow on to the next turbine in the row and the next and…. In fact, the turbines in the subsequent rows deliver up to 40 percent less power than those in the first.

Two recently published articles in the journal Boundary-Layer Meteorology look at the problems wind farms cause for themselves, and how it could be possible to rectify the issues.

Study #1, Trying a New Layout

The first study was co-written by Yu-Ting Wu, a PhD student at EPFL's Wind Engineering and Renewable Energy Laboratory (WIRE), and Fernando Porté-Agel, also at WIRE.

"One important factor for designing a wind farm is its layout, or how the turbines are positioned relative to each other," says Yu-Ting Wu.

Wu compared the results from a numerical simulation of the wind through a wind farm to wind tunnel experiments, focusing specifically on where the wind turbines were placed within the wind farm. He found that simply changing the wind farm from a square grid can increase the total efficiency of the wind farm, giving the wind more time to recover after it has passed through the first wind turbine.

Finding the perfect setup, however, is a lot of trouble.

“You have to remember that layout is relative, and changes with the wind direction," says Wu.

If the wind is blowing from the south, two turbines may be one behind the other. If it comes in from the east, they’re all of a sudden right beside one another.


Study #2, Warmer is Better

The second article, involving Porté-Agel and colleagues from the University of Minnesota, looked at the role atmospheric stability plays on a wind farm’s power output. For their experiments, the researchers turned on the floor heating in their wind tunnel to study the effects of convection on the wake behind a turbine.

They found that despite the increased turbulence that occurs on hot days, the flow behind the wind turbine actually recovers faster than in less turbulent nocturnal winds.

This means that on hot days the second row of turbines would not lose as much efficiency as they might during the night. According to the authors, the stronger turbulence surrounding the turbine wake draws in more forward momentum, which leads to faster recovery of the flow.

Source: Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne
Image Source: Brooke Raymond

More Highways for Cyclists in Bike-Friendly Copenhagen

Posted: 05 Sep 2012 07:37 AM PDT


Bike Miles — to the Moon and Back, Every Day

“750,000 miles daily, enough to make it to the moon and back” — there is some serious collective biking in Copenhagen. Yes, it takes place every day. Biking, seriously, is simply part of life. All the excuses we find everyday in our lives to jump into our car instead of go foot or bike don’t hold for the Danes. They know better. They aren’t bought and sold by the illusion of comfort. Their lifestyles are sophistically developed into a reality of living happily on the open road.

Every day in Copenhagen, life in a parallel reality is vibrantly alive. Taking responsibility, all the while enjoying freedom, and impacting health care in the most positive of ways. With Danes one finds a culture proactive in keeping their own good health, along with protecting planetary health. These are all parts of the same wheel of life — and it is a bicycle wheel.

In fact, a new bicycle superhighway in and around Copenhagen is projected to save the city’s health care system about $60 million a year.

Essential Elemental Forces

Bicycles [with their riders] are essential elemental forces for these Northern Europeans. This is not a country of people seeking others to do for them — they are strong and willing to do for themselves. Beautiful beliefs of travel are supported by local governments, as NPR reports: “city officials want even more people to commute, and over longer distances. So a network of 26 new bike routes, dubbed ‘the cycling superhighway,’ is being built to link the surrounding suburbs to Copenhagen.”

Lars Gaardhoj, an official with the Copenhagen capital region, says the routes will be straight and direct. “It will be very fast for people who use their bike…. So now the bike is going to challenge the car.”

Sometimes, with differences in cultures, the left is the right and the right is the left. However, in this case, “both right and left-leaning politicians regularly ride bikes to work, it has bilateral support,” NPR’s Eleanor Beardsley writes. That seems not simply as a completely different culture than ours, but a more vibrant planet of kindness and composure.

I believe many of us in the US want to catch up to such a considerate culture, and enjoy super bike highways. To bike seriously in this country can be somewhat of a thin line between being a bike lover, a bike activist, and considering the possibility of a death or injury wish. I do not mean to say as avid cyclists we want to be hurt. It is just hard to avoid it with the difficult structure of urban terrains (especially in my state of Florida).

Supporting the Needs of Bikers

NPR reporter Eleanor Beardsley rides in one of the new bike lanes in Copenhagen. Photo rights belong to Eleanor Beardsley.

While we chug along, though, Copenhagen keeps innovating: “Several innovations are being tested, like ‘green wave’ technology, which times traffic lights to suit bikers. If you maintain a certain pace, you can ride all the way through into the city without stopping. There are also footrests with bars to lean on at traffic lights, and a bike pump every mile in case you have a flat.”

Now, I do love trains and would be simply ecstatic to have trains included more in our transit system, as they are in all of Europe. However, for Soulva Jensen, an older woman in Denmark, biking prevails even in lieu of trains. “83-year-old Soulva Jensen is using the highway to visit her daughter in a neighboring town. ‘The trains are too much trouble at the moment, so I thought it was easier to take the bike,’ she says.”

“Once the highway network is completed, an estimated 15,000 additional people will switch from driving to biking. And that, say officials, will have a direct impact on the environment, public health and finances. The bike highway alone is expected to save Copenhagen’s health care system some $60 million a year.”

It is simply a different consciousness, a very empowered one at that.

280-MW Kenyan Geothermal Project for 2014

Posted: 05 Sep 2012 06:53 AM PDT

The Olkaria geothermal project should be completed by 2014 and generate 280 MW of electricity for Kenya. The nearly one-billion-dollar project is owned by the Kenya Electricity Generating Company, but 280 MW is not the full potential of the site. The Olkaria complex has a geothermal potential of 560 MW, according to a research study.


Kenya currently produces about 13 percent of its electricity from geothermal, which is 150 MW. Adding 280 MW will be a real boon, because hydroelectric is one of the country’s main energy sources, but during times of drought, the electricity output wanes significantly. (Kenya Electricity Generating Company, or KenGen, wants to generate about half of its electricity from geothermal by 2018.)

Geothermal is relatively stable, so it should be quite beneficial when the new plant is finished. Kenya’s total geothermal potential has been estimated at 7,000 MW. 5,000 MW of geothermal by 2030 has been identified as a goal by one source.

Obviously, any country that can develop stable and independent energy sources stands a good chance of growing its national economy in a constructive manner. Real estate development based on the extra electricity is an obvious offshoot. About 60% of Kenya’s economy is tied to tourism, so development of clean energy sources is an excellent way to protect the natural resources that draw many foreign visitors each year. There were nearly 1.1 million in 2010.

Kenya’s population is about 41 million, with a growth rate of approximately 2.7%. Per capita income tripled from 1975 to 2006.

Image Credit: Chris 73 / Wikimedia Commons

Cost of Coal Power Zooms in Midwest

Posted: 05 Sep 2012 06:47 AM PDT

The massive new Prairie State coal-fired power plant is coming on line in Illinois, and dozens of communities in Midwest states that own shares in the facility are in for a bad dose of sticker shock. According to an article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the cost of electricity from the plant will be a great deal more than planners expected. Adding insult to injury, some communities in the Midwest are enjoying rate decreases, including one village that just signed an agreement to get its electricity from 100% renewable sources.

price of coal power set to go up

It Takes a Village to Get Renewable Power

As reported by Chi-an Chang of Wilmette Patch, the Illinois villages of Kenilworth and Wilmette joined together last June in a purchasing agreement for renewable power. The agreement is in the form of renewable energy certificates from the energy services company mc2.

Kenilworth voters authorized the entire village to go in for the 100% renewable energy option offered by mc2 . Ratepayers there will fork out 4.11 cents per kilowatt hour, which is about 45 percent less than they previously paid under their former provider’s summer rates.

In Wilmette, ratepayers will pay 4.035 for a mix of sources that includes only seven percent renewable energy, but individuals can opt into the 100 percent plan for a small extra charge.


Coal Power Will Cost More…

Meanwhile, communities that committed to buying power from Prairie State are already seeing their rates go up. For example, Jeffrey Tomich of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has reported that bills for residents of the Chicago suburb Batavia are going up $8 to $21 per month due to the new plant.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg, according to a new report called The Prairie State Coal Plant: The Reality vs. the Promise, which predicts “higher utility bills for 2.5 million ratepayers in eight states and billions of dollars in fiscal fallout” from the new plant.

The report was produced by a group called the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, which makes no bones about its mission:

“The Institute's mission is to accelerate the United States' transition to a diverse, sustainable and profitable energy economy and to reduce the nation's dependence on coal and other non-renewable energy resources.”

Be that as it may, IEEFA’s basic findings are sourced from Prairie State’s own figures (the facility was originally developed by industry giant Peabody Energy, which sold 95 percent of its interest in 2007).

Evidently, one factor unforeseen by planners was competition from a significant drop in natural gas prices. Back in 2007, Prairie State predicted that electricity from the plant would be competitive at a wholesale price of $41 per megawatt hour, but the IEEFA lists current market prices at an already slightly lower mark of $40.

Making the math even worse, by 2010 Prairie State had to revise its own figure up to $57, far above the current market price cited by IEEFA.

…While the Price of Renewable Energy Drops

Could it get any worse? Well, yes. The IEEFA report also notes that the original projection of $41 was based partly on the use of an adjacent coal mine and a nearby ash disposal facility, neither of which will actually be available for as long as originally planned.

Combined with other factors, IEEFA predicts that the wholesale cost of power from Prairie State could go far above even the plant’s revised figure of $57, ending up in the neighborhood of $80.

For what it’s worth, local officials seem to be hoping that the price of natural gas will eventually hit a rising cycle, which will put everyone in the same boat of high energy prices.

On the other hand, evidently Prairie State’s planners also seemed to have overlooked the potential for rapid advances in renewable energy technology to grow the renewable energy market, to the point where competition from natural gas may soon be irrelevant.

Wind power alone accounted for a whopping 32 percent of new energy capacity added to the national grid last year, thanks largely to a federal tax incentiveNon-hydro renewable energy as a whole has almost doubled under the Obama Administration.

Planners also anticipated that Prairie State’s generation of constant baseload power would undercut any serious competition from intermittent sources (namely, wind and solar), but new advances in energy storage, energy efficiency, and smart grid technologies are going to make that issue irrelevant, too.

Look for the price of renewable energy to drop even more as new cutting-edge technologies come into the market with an assist from President Obama’s Sunshot Initiative and a raft of other federally supported programs.

In the context of competition from both natural gas and renewable sources, some energy industry watchers have predicted that Prairie State will be the last gasp for new coal power generation in the U.S. So far it looks like they’re on the mark.

Image: Coal. Some rights reserved by weak_hope.

Follow me on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.

Guidebook on Small-Scale Renewable Energy Systems

Posted: 05 Sep 2012 04:00 AM PDT

by Joel Haskard

Big things can happen with small-scale renewable energy systems. We caught up with Eric Buchanan at the U of M West Central Research & Outreach Center in Morris to learn more about what these systems have to offer residents and businesses.

Joel Haskard: What do you hope to accomplish with this guidebook?

Eric Buchanan: About 40% of total energy use in the U.S. is in buildings. Small-scale renewable energy systems are well suited to address this area of energy use, but there is a lack of unbiased performance and cost data for such systems. Most people that install renewable energy systems do not invest in monitoring equipment due to the extra cost, and information about how the systems work is usually either very technical for researchers or too general to be of much use when making purchase decisions. The main objective of the guidebook is to fill in this knowledge gap by explaining the technical details of how renewable energy systems work in a way that—hopefully—anyone can understand.

Joel: What are some key pieces that you hope people learn from this guidebook?

Eric: I hope people get a thorough understanding of how renewable energy systems work and a better understanding of system details that might affect their decisions. Here's an overview of the guidebook's contents:Download the guidebook

  1. The guidebook covers solar PV and thermal systems, small wind systems, and geothermal systems (ground and air source heat pumps).
  2. The guidebook also includes performance data from five solar energy systems that can be toured in the Morris, MN area, and information about free web-based modeling systems that can be used to predict the performance of proposed energy systems.
  3. The guidebook also includes a list of consumer guidelines for each type of energy system for potential consumers to consider before making a purchase, and a list of good websites for more specific information.
  4. Finally, the guidebook includes a general discussion of renewable energy and why it will be an important part of our energy future.


Joel: I learned a lot about the materials in solar panels and how the units function. As you were doing your research, did you find anything that surprised you?

Eric: I think the biggest surprise was how far behind the rest of the world the U.S. is with regards to renewable energy. For example, Germany has almost half of the world's solar PV energy installed, but the solar resource in Germany is about equivalent to Alaska. Also, China is such a huge manufacturer of and market for renewable energy systems that our future options in this area will probably be dictated by what China is doing today. Their choices today will lead to the least expensive products tomorrow.

I was also surprised at the lack of monitoring equipment in renewable energy systems. The lack of actual performance data makes it difficult for system designers and installers to predict the performance of proposed systems. Installers often only have a crude guess at how much energy will actually be generated and, therefore, how much money will be saved. This situation is getting better, however.

Joel: Any final thoughts for folks thinking about solar for their home or business?

Eric: Without incentives, solar PV is still more expensive than electricity from any utility company in Minnesota and solar thermal can't really compete with natural gas at current prices. Simple payback periods are in the 10 to 20 year range, again, without incentives. I know that sounds bleak, but I think solar has a bright future.

First, there are incentives which make solar competitive now. Second, prices are dropping rapidly and technology is improving. Third, there are no fossil fuel resources in Minnesota, but there are excellent solar and wind resources. Local renewable energy systems keep more energy dollars in the state, lessen the load on transmission infrastructure, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, there are several companies manufacturing solar and wind energy products in Minnesota creating local jobs. Finally, purchasing a solar energy system locks in future fuel costs at ZERO! This can not be said about any fossil fuel source – even with fracking, natural gas prices will almost certainly go up. So, renewable energy systems almost always do have a payback period after which energy costs are zero. It just may be longer than desired. After all, what is the payback period of a fossil fuel energy system?

There are also a lot of intangibles like energy security, environmental benefits, a more reliable grid with distributed generation, and a sense of self-reliance. Fossil fuel resources are finite and, therefore, not sustainable indefinitely. Renewable energy is the only long term, sustainable solution for the planet and being an early adopter helps support the industry and infrastructure that will eventually make it the most economical solution as well. In Germany, the electricity rates during peak times have actually gone down because of the large amount of solar energy on the grid. Solar panels produce the most during sunny conditions which also lead to the peak rates due to the high air conditioning load. In other words, since solar energy is available when it is needed most, the peak rates have gone down. This means everyone is paying less for their electricity at peak times even if they didn't install solar panels themselves!

Finally, meat used to be preserved with salt until electrical refrigeration was developed. People didn't switch to refrigeration because it was cheaper than salt (it wasn't), they switched because it was better. I think a similar situation exists with renewable energy today and if we start putting a monetary value on some of the intangible benefits, renewable energy is the best choice.

To learn more, visit their website or download the guidebook today!

UK Solar Pension Fund to Offer Healthy Returns, Free Solar for Social Housing

Posted: 05 Sep 2012 03:35 AM PDT

CleanTechnica’s been reporting on investors’ increasing comfort level and investments – both direct and indirect — in the still fast-growing solar, wind, and renewable energy sectors. Along those lines, UK-based BusinessGreen on Aug. 31 reported that London-based Goldfield Partners has launched what’s thought to be the UK’s first pension fund dedicated to financing the purchase, installation, and maintenance of residential solar power systems for social housing residents.

What stands to make Goldfield Partners’ proposed ₤50 million ($79 million) Solar Green Energy Fund unit trust appealing to investors are stable, inflation-adjusted returns as high as 8%. Returns are based on investors benefiting from the UK’s solar feed-in tariff (FiT), which UK retail investors haven’t been able to participate in directly up to this point in time.

What stands to make it very appealing for those living in government-supported housing is that the solar photovoltaic (PV) systems will be installed for free.


Bringing Solar Power to the Masses

Goldfield Partners is "very confident" it will meet the Solar Green Energy Fund’s initial ₤50 million subscription target by June 2013. The company already has contracts with residential solar PV systems installers in place for the entire amount.

“We hope to fund a lot more free solar… for people who may not have been able to afford the equipment in the first place,” Goldfield Partners’ chief executive David Gammond told BusinessGreen. "If we can raise the [£50m] we would definitely expect the fund would get bigger.”

Certainly, there are challenges and pitfalls peculiar and generic for any investor looking to put capital to work in the still up-and-coming renewable energy sectors, but doing so makes good business sense for institutional investors in several significant ways — not only in terms of long-term investment returns and performance, but in terms of social and environmental responsibility.

Moreover, the renewable energy sector, and investors, could benefit greatly if government representatives, regulators, and banking, finance and accounting industry associations tweaked tax and accounting rules and regulations to provide equal opportunity for solar, wind, and other renewable energy project developers to take advantage of a wider range of investment vehicles, such as master limited partnerships and accelerated depreciation schedules — advantages oil & gas companies and project developers have been taking advantage of for decades.

Underpinning and supporting all this is federal and state energy policy. The same is true for any government in any country looking to renewable energy as a socially and environmentally responsible engine for economic growth and development.

Goldfield Partners’ Gammond acknowledged that changes in the UK’s FiT would force Solar Green Energy Fund management to reassess the economics of its social housing solar power systems projects. “We’ve worked hard to get a good price for equipment and installation and with social housing there are economies of scale as you do the whole street at once,” he was quoted as saying. “But if the feed-in tariffs change dramatically, we would have to look again at the price of equipment.”

Here in the US, Pres. Obama and his administration have worked and fought hard and steadfastly to erect a mutually reinforcing and proactive framework for an energy policy that moves us more boldly towards a cleaner, more sustainable energy ecosystem and economy driven by new renewable energy systems and technology.

He’s been met with fierce, very well-funded opposition by those who would like to see federal energy policy remain in the hands of oil, gas, and nuclear industry interests. Those forces are only ramping up their spending and public relations campaigns. This November our votes will determine which road we head down. Get out, have your voice heard, and vote for candidates that envision a cleaner, healthier, and more sustainable economy and future for all.

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