Monday, October 1, 2012

Cleantech News from CleanTechnica

Cleantech News from CleanTechnica

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Nominations Open for $250,000 Multimedia Clean Energy Prizes

Posted: 30 Sep 2012 02:10 PM PDT

 

The $250,000 Energy Visions Prize (EVP) competition is a contest that rewards “innovative software and video makers who advance clean energy solutions.”

There has been growing national interest in the competition, so the prize sponsor, the American Clean Skies Foundation (ACSF), recently announced that the submission deadline has been extended until December 14, 2012.


 
Here’s are the details on what entry consists of:

“Eligible entries of film, videos, and mobile or web-based apps must show how to:
1. End America's unsustainable dependence on oil from foreign sources
2. Generate and distribute cleaner electricity; or
3. Bridge political and geographic divides on energy policy”

Members from the clean tech industry, film festival leaders, and commercial agencies, among others, are encouraged to participate by nominating potential entrants for up to $40,000 in prize money per work.

For more information or to become involved in the prize please visit their website here.

Source: Energy Visions Prize


The True Cost of Electricity Calculated

Posted: 30 Sep 2012 01:59 PM PDT

 
Wind power and solar power from new power plants in Europe is significantly cheaper than electricity from fossil fuel or nuclear power plants when you factor in health and environmental damage, according to a new report.

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The ‘true’ cost of electricity can be a difficult thing to calculate because of all the subsidies, taxes, and duties that the power sources receive, and that’s not even factoring in the impact these power sources have on human health, ecosystems, and free environmental ‘services’.

So in a recent study, researchers from Green Budget Germany (GBG) took a closer look at these hidden costs, in order to get a better idea of electricity’s true cost. Their new research calculated the health and environmental expenses related to various currently-available energy sources.

According to that research, the cheapest energy sources in the world currently are wind power and solar power. “One kilowatt hour (kWh) of electricity produced by wind power stations on the coast or in the countryside costs an average of 0.07 euro (about $0.09).”


 
“New solar energy plants in central and southern Europe produce electricity for an average of 0.14 euro per kWh. In Germany, the cost is about 0.18 euro when using rooftop solar panels, while in southern European solar parks it costs about 0.10 euro per kWh.”

The report makes the point that electricity that is produced from new coal plants is twice as expensive as wind power, and around the same cost as solar power. This combination of increasing energy costs and continued innovation in clean energy technology will, by 2020, make wind power and solar power the cheapest way to produce electricity by far, according to the GBG.

Using fossil fuels to generate electricity results in pollutants that lead to high economic costs — in particular, greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, according to the GBG report. As another example, the particulate pollution from coal power plants has been proven to regularly lead to respiratory disease. When a child develops a respiratory disease from this choice of power source, then it incurs high medical costs that are subsequently paid for by the government or the child’s family, and that’s not even including an effect this disease has on quality of life.

“An extensive 2006 study by Nicholas Stern, the former chief economist of the World Bank, also estimated high costs from the consequences of using fossil fuels. By the end of the century, it said the bill would total over 5 trillion euros ($6.4 trillion).”

It is coal power plants that are the most destructive to the environment, based on the research done by Barbara Breitschopf from the Fraunhofer Institute. “Power plant operators currently pay only a small portion of these costs as part of the so-called CO2 certificate. European citizens are currently paying about 0.09 euros per kWh for health and environmental damages by generating electricity from coal.

While wind power is considered to have a very limited effect on the environment, the production of photovoltaic cells for solar power currently does have some negative effect on the environment. To produce solar modules, a large amount of electricity is needed, which leads to higher emissions — this results in an extra cost of 0.01 cent per kWh.

Nuclear energy costs, predictably, much more than other sources because of the truly massive costs of disasters like Fukushima and Chernobyl.

The report continues:

Calculating the cost of nuclear energy is more difficult. A newly constructed nuclear power plant raises the average cost to about 0.20 euros per kWh, according to the California Energy Commission. By contrast, old, written off plants in Germany produce electricity at a bargain rate of 0.02 or 0.03 euros per kWh.

However, other risks not covered by power plants operators affect the total cost of nuclear energy, such as the chance of a nuclear accident. It’s estimated that Fukushima and Chernobyl have cost many hundreds of billions of euros, and that society has paid most of the damages.

GBG’s Bettina Meyer has analyzed studies on these external costs in her recent report. She estimates that additional risks raise the cost of nuclear energy to between 0.11 and 0.34 euros per kWh. If these costs were added to electricity costs, a kWh of electricity generated by a new nuclear power plant would cost between 0.31 and 0.54 euros and, if produced by an old plant, between 0.13 and 0.36 euros.

Source: DW
Image Credits: Wind Scotland via Wikimedia Commons


New Efficiency Record for Photovoltaic Cells Set, Jump in Efficiency Thanks to Heterojunction Technology

Posted: 30 Sep 2012 03:28 AM PDT

 
A new solar photovoltaic conversion efficiency record for solar cells made of amorphous and monocrystalline silicon of 21.4% was recently set, thanks to the innovations of researchers at EPFL’s Institute of Microengineering in Neuchatel. The research team, led by professor Christophe Ballif, director of the Photovoltaics Laboratory (PVlab), recently presented their work at the European Photovoltaic Solar Energy Conference and Exhibition that just happened in Frankfurt.

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Thin-film solar cells are the specialization of the PVlab, and for the past few years they have been working on “hybrid technologies, better known as heterojunction technologies,” these are “hybrids” designed to enhance the performance of solar captors. “We apply an infinitesimal layer — one hundredth of a micron — of amorphous silicon on both sides of a crystalline silicon wafer,” says Christophe Ballif. The structure of this ‘sandwich’ helps to contribute to the sensors’ effectiveness.

In order for this to work efficiently, the interface that’s between the two different types of silicon needs to be optimized.


 
“Antoine Descoeudres managed to achieve this feat together with Stephaan DeWolf and their colleagues. They chose the commonest — and therefore cheapest — crystalline cell (called ‘p-doped silicon’), took care of its preparation and improved the process of application of amorphous silicon. They obtained a 21.4% conversion efficiency, which had never been achieved before with such type of substrates: nowadays, the best quality monocrystalline cells only attain an energy conversion efficiency of 18-19% at best. In addition, the measured open-circuit voltage was 726 mV, which constitutes a first-time accomplishment as well. Last but not least, they broke the 22% efficiency barrier on a less common substrate.”

This process, which has been validated by the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems (ISE) in Germany, will be published by the IEEE Journal of Photovoltaics.

According to the researchers, commercializing these innovations and bringing them to the market will still be a few years off. However, the research was financed in part by Roth & Rau Switzerland, whose parent company, Meyer Burger, is already beginning the commercialization of the machines that will be used to assemble this type of heterojunction sensors.

“Within three to five years, we expect to reach a production cost of $100 per square meter of sensors, estimates Stefaan DeWolf. In Switzerland, with the conversion efficiency achieved, such a surface will be able to produce between 200 and 300 kWh of electricity per year. ”

Source: Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne
Image Credits: Solar Cell via Wikimedia Commons


$50 Million for Clean Energy, Energy & Water Efficiency via California County’s Residential PACE Program

Posted: 30 Sep 2012 03:23 AM PDT

 
In today’s lean economic times, more and more homeowners across the US are looking for ways to produce, as well as consume, clean, renewable energy, as well as boost water and energy efficiency. Municipal and state Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) programs are proving to be an efficient, effective means of enabling them to do so.

In California, Sept. 27, the Western Riverside Council of Governments (WRCOG) announced that $40 million in home energy retrofits have been financed via its HERO (Home Energy Renovation Opportunity) Program, which was launched in December 2011.


 

 

Pace of California PACE Picks Up

The pace of HERO applications and approvals has been picking up as word of the program has spread.

“The rapid expansion of the HERO Financing Program shows us that this is the right program at the right time for western Riverside County residents,” said City of Calimesa Council Member Jim Hyatt, who also chairs WRCOG. “Homeowners are ready to make these investments, and convenient access to affordable financing encourages them to make their properties more energy and water efficient.”

Half of the $50 million in approvals have come since July alone, according to WRCOG’s press release. HERO investments totaling $325 million are forecast to create as many as 4,000 green jobs and save some 15 million kilowatt-hours (kWh) in homeowners’ energy usage and associated energy bills, as well as helping the local area, region, and state conserve and better manage its water resources.

Driving Local Green Job Growth Higher

With nearly 400 local contractors registered to help homeowners apply for and carry out HERO projects, the county’s residential PACE program essentially creates "a one-stop approach to energy efficiency upgrades for consumers." Many are finding they gain a competitive advantage by being able to offer HERO financing assistance and project work, according to WRCOG.

“HERO financing has been a huge part of the growth my business has seen over the past few months. After years of having customers make upgrades only when absolutely necessary, I have been pleasantly surprised to see homeowners coming out of the woodwork to make the changes they have long dreamed about,” commented Synergy Companies’ Glen Rusche.

“I have hired more employees since registering with HERO,” added Ameristar Windows’ Michael Lewis. “People seem to be jumping at the chance to make their homes more comfortable now that they can access affordable financing to pay for the improvements.”

Innovation in Clean Energy Finance as well as Technology

Innovation in finance as well as technology is needed to drive the US economy toward a low-carbon, sustainable-energy, and resource-efficient future. California’s been leading the way forward, and that’s the case when it comes to residential and commercial PACE programs. California recently announced the nation’s first state-wide and the nation’s largest PACE Program, one in which 14 counties and 126 cities are participating.

WRCOG’s HERO Program is based on the principles set out in AB811, "which allows property owners to pay for permanentlay affixed energy and water efficient products and renewable energy systems over time through their property taxes."

Municipal bonds are issued and loans made from banks participating in HERO and other PACE programs to finance residential clean energy, energy efficiency, and water efficiency projects. To repay them, homeowners agree to pay more in property taxes over varying periods of time, from 5 to 20 years, with interest payments tax deductible. The payments can be transferred if the home is sold before all payments have been made.

Significantly, the HERO Program doesn’t add to local governments’ spending. Renovate America funds and manages Western Riverside’s HERO Program. It offers a "turnkey system" that enables local governments that "makes the financing process seamless and allows the HERO Program to run with no general fund impact."


Moms Going Solar Update — Data In!

Posted: 30 Sep 2012 03:20 AM PDT

 
Here’s an update from the nice ladies over at Moms Going Solar:

We're giving back to the grid! This chart from our electric utility Southern California Edison shows our average daily net usage of -9 kWh.  We even produced more than we needed on the 5th, which was a cloudy day.

Since connecting it on the 30th of last month, our photovoltaic solar system is producing about 24 to 26 kWh of electricity per day. This is plenty to power our home and return a bit to the grid to help our neighbors use cleaner energy sources.

Do you know how many kWh you use on a daily basis? Take a look at your bill and then get a free iQuote to see how you can save natural resources and money.

We're getting all this for about $65 per month. Exciting!


Misinformation Has Big Psychological Advantages… Unfortunately

Posted: 30 Sep 2012 03:11 AM PDT

 
It would be great if all we had to do as bloggers was write on what’s happening in the world of cleantech, the practical problems we face, and how to solve them. Unfortunately, we have to spend a lot of time trying to inform people on issues they’ve been misinformed about. There’s a lot of misinformation (intentional and not) out there. There’s big money on the energy technologies of the past, and transitioning to a clean energy economy threatens some very rich and powerful people.

On this topic of misinformation, Desmog Blog recently had a very interesting post on a new study on the psychology of misinformation. Here’s the full post:



Psychological Study Reveals Why Misinformation Is So Effective (via Desmogblog)

An intriguing new study released last week in Psychological Science in the Public Interest reveals why people are more apt to believe false information being fed to them by the media and politicians. According to the team of psychological scientists working on the study, led by Stephan Lewandowsky…




Decades of Federal Government Support Spurred Natural Gas Boom

Posted: 30 Sep 2012 03:04 AM PDT

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

Love it or hate it, there's no denying that the U.S. is in the midst of a shale gas boom. Armed with a horizontal drilling technique that allows companies to access natural gas trapped in shale formations, the industry's production has surged and prices have fallen to historic lows.

Supporters often hail shale gas as a miracle of the free market — a product of enterprising risk-takers who commercialized fracking techniques without government help.

Except that's not entirely true.

If we look at the history of how horizontal drilling techniques were commercialized, we find a strong base of government support through R&D, mapping techniques, cost-sharing programs, and billions of dollars in tax credits. The Breakthrough Institute wrote a report on this support last year showing how decades of federal support helped businesses pioneer and commercialize new, risky drilling techniques.

The Associated Press published a follow-up story this week on the history of government support in shale gas. It illustrates the importance of federal assistance for new energy technologies. Along with establishing a tax credit for drillers in 1980 that amounted to $10 billion through 2002, the Department of Energy provided crucial technical assistance during times of failure:

"There's no point in mincing words. Some people thought it was stupid," said Dan Steward, a geologist who began working with the Texas natural gas firm Mitchell Energy in 1981. Steward estimated that in the early years, "probably 90 percent of the people" in the firm didn't believe shale gas would be profitable.

"Did I know it was going to work? Hell no," Steward added.

In 1975, the Department of Energy began funding research into fracking and horizontal drilling, where wells go down and then sideways for thousands of feet. But it took more than 20 years to perfect the process.

Alex Crawley, a former Department of Energy employee, recalled that some early tests were spectacular — in a bad way.

A test of fracking explosives in Morgantown, W.Va., "blew the pipe out of the well about 600 feet high" in the 1970s, Crawley said. Luckily, no one was killed. He added that a 1975 test well in Wyoming "produced a lot of water."

Steward recalled that Mitchell Energy didn't even cover the cost of fracking on shale tests until the 36th well was drilled.

"There's not a lot of companies that would stay with something this long. Most companies would have given up," he said, crediting founder George Mitchell as a visionary who also got support from the government at key points.

"The government has to be involved, to some degree, with new technologies," Steward said.

This is a hugely important message that we need to keep in mind today. Ever since the bankruptcy of a few clean energy companies that received loan guarantees — most famously Solyndra — some politicians and conservative organizations have called for an end to all government support for clean energy. Some are even calling for an end to the Department of Energy all together. (Oddly enough, many of these opponents fight for preserving billions of dollars in permanent tax credits for the oil and gas industry).
 

 
Whether they've truly fooled themselves or they're just blatantly lying, these hypocritical free-marketeers are trying to convince Americans that government investments in clean energy are unique. In fact, all energy technologies — nuclear, coal, oil, and gas — have received generous federal support in order to bring them to scale.

According to an analysis from DBL Investors, federal support for oil and gas was five times greater than federal support for renewables during the first 15 years of available subsidies. The support for nuclear was more than 10 times greater than renewables.

There is a legitimate debate to be had about the extent of government support and the types of mechanisms we should use to deploy and commercialize new technologies. But there shouldn't be a debate on whether that support should exist at all.


BrightSource Corrects Numerous LA Times Mistake Regarding Solar Energy

Posted: 30 Sep 2012 02:58 AM PDT

 
Last week, the LA Times ran a horrible piece on solar power plants in California. There was a particular focus on the BrightSource Energy solar project known as Ivanpah. Herman Trabish of Greentech Media posted a good point-by-point response from BrightSource. The piece is called BrightSource Energy Versus LA Times. Here’s that post in full:

This was the headline: “Taxpayers, ratepayers will fund California solar plants; A new breed of prospectors — banks, insurers, utility companies — are receiving billions in subsidies while taxpayer and ratepayers are paying most of the costs. Critics say it’s a rip-off.” The front-page Los Angeles Times (LAT) story last week raised questions about the economics of the newest generation of concentrating solar power (CSP) plants.

Because its Ivanpah solar power tower project got special attention, BrightSource Energy (BSE) responded.

LAT: "The cost for decades to come will also be borne by ratepayers."

BSE: "Ratepayers have always funded power plants — whether coal, nuclear, natural gas, hydro, biomass, wind or solar."
 

 
LAT: "Confidential agreements between solar developers and utilities lock in power prices two to four times the cost of conventional electricity," the paper reported. According to Stanford University economist and California electricity market authority Frank Wolak, the state’s renewable energy strategy "could boost electricity rates ten percent to 20 percent" or even "by 50 percent."

BSE: A 2012 California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) report highlighted how "the falling cost of renewable energy is leading to cost-competitive prices for utilities," BSE responded. "In 2020, the total statewide electricity expenditures of achieving a 33 percent RPS is projected to be 10.2 percent higher compared to an all-gas scenario [and] if California makes no further investments in renewable energy, this analysis projects that average electricity costs per kilowatt-hour will rise by 16.7 percent in 2020."

LAT: Critics of CSP solar power towers told the Times that "solar entrepreneurs are getting too much government money." San Diego-based electrical engineer and power plant consultant Bill Powers called them "a huge waste of money" and "an old fashioned ripoff."

BSE: Governments always use incentives to encourage the development of domestic energy resources, BSE replied, including "direct subsidies, tax breaks, market support, technology demonstration programs, research and development (R&D) programs, procurement mandates, information generation and dissemination, technology transfer, directed purchases, and government‐funded regulations."

The biggest beneficiaries of federal energy incentives over the last 60 years, BSE added, have been oil and gas, with almost 60 percent ($490 billion). Coal got 12 percent ($104 billion). Wind, solar and geothermal got about 10 percent ($81 billion).

LAT: "The incentives allow solar developers to reap annual returns on their investments of 8 percent to 12 percent, as much as tripling their money in a decade. In some cases the returns could go as high as 17 percent," the Times reported, drawing in "banks and Wall Street."

BSE: "Subsidies reduce the cost to build a power plant, which in turn lowers the cost of electricity that must be charged to pay for it," BSE said. In California, "renewable energy is procured through a competitive process, and subsidies are reflected in the bid prices. They do not line the pockets of banks, insurers and utility companies."

LAT: "To make such projects economically attractive for developers, the government created a mix of federal loan guarantees, grants and tax incentives," the Times reported. "Taken together, the incentives can provide solar companies with more than half a project’s costs in cash, with the remainder covered by the federally guaranteed loans." And, it also said, "the low-interest, government-guaranteed loans — more than $16 billion for renewable energy projects so far — pay up to 80 percent of a project’s construction costs."

BSE: "Lower interest rates (as a result of available loan guarantees) translate to lower energy rates in the same way a low-interest mortgage reduces a homeowner's monthly payment."

LAT: "The $2.2-billion Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System is being built by Oakland-based BrightSource Energy Inc.," the Times reported. "The Ivanpah plant was made possible by government-backed loans at low rates — 4 percent to 4.2 percent. BrightSource and its corporate investors will receive about $600 million in federal grants once the plant starts producing."

BSE: "Government-backed loans are paid back with interest to taxpayers, making the loans an investment, not a subsidy. [And] insurance and performance guarantees are required for all power plants to protect ratepayers if something goes wrong. Without those protections, a power plant — renewable or fossil — could not be financed and constructed." The bulk of the upfront money provided to BSE "will be used to repay a portion of the guaranteed loanwith interest," it said.

LAT: "The California Public Utilities Commission, which approves all rate agreements, won’t disclose the rate for Ivanpah," reported the Times. But outside experts, it said, "estimate that Ivanpah power is priced at $90 to $130 per megawatt hour — three to four times the cost of electricity in the state last year. BrightSource declined to specify the price but said it was in line with the PUC’s recommended renewable rate of $129 per megawatt-hour."

BSE: "The returns earned on renewable project investments are comparable to the returns earned on other large infrastructure projects of similar size with similar risk profiles. No more, no less," BSE responded. "California utilities don't earn profits on fuel costs, such as natural gas. Instead, they are passed through to ratepayers without a markup. Natural gas is a commodity, its price is volatile and it is projected to increase over time. In contrast, once a solar plant is constructed, the fuel — sun — is free as long as the plant operates."


$20/Ton Carbon Tax Could Reduce US Deficit by $1.2 Trillion in 10 Years

Posted: 30 Sep 2012 02:47 AM PDT

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

Over the last year, there's been increasing talk in Washington political circles — including conservative ones — about how to use a carbon tax as a deficit reduction tool. However, with an election season in full swing and a large number of Congressional Republicans campaigning against climate action, the current likelihood of getting a price on carbon is officially zero.

In theory, if Obama gets re-elected in November, there could be an opportunity to pass a carbon tax as part of a deficit reduction plan. With Bush-era tax cuts set to expire and Republicans talking a big fiscal game, Obama might have some leverage to play hardball with Congress and push for carbon pricing as part of a larger package.

It's a long shot. But a new report from the Congressional Research Service released this week illustrates why it's such an enticing prospect. According to the CRS analysis, a modest carbon tax of $20 per ton that rises 5.6 percent annually could cut the projected 10-year deficit by 50 percent — from $2.3 trillion down to $1.1 trillion.

The CRS report models two scenarios — one based on current law (the blue bar below) and one based on an alternative scenario (gray bar below) that assumes a much greater increase in the deficit due to extension of tax cuts and the avoidance of automatic spending cuts through the Budget Control Act. While the two scenarios vary widely, they show that a price on carbon starting in 2013 could fill in a sizable chunk of the federal budget gap:

Here's how CRS explained the two scenarios:

The possible contribution of a carbon tax to deficit reduction would depend on the magnitude and scope of the carbon tax, various market factors and assumptions about the size of the deficit. In August 2012, CBO released updated budget projections for fiscal years 2012 to 2022. Under current law, CBO estimated the 10-year budget deficit at $2.3 trillion, or 1.1% of GDP. However, using an alternative fiscal scenario, CBO's projected a larger deficit—$10.0 trillion, or 4.9% of GDP.

Enacting the carbon tax options discussed in the previous section could reduce future budget deficits. As illustrated in Figure 4, a $20/mtCO2 price on carbon (increasing by 5.6% annually) would have a considerable impact on budget deficits using CBO's August 2012 baseline projection.

  • The 10-year budget deficit could be reduced from $2.3 trillion to $1.1 trillion, or from 1.1% to 0.5% of GDP.
  • Overall, a $20/mtCO2 price on carbon would reduce the 10-year budget deficit by more than 50%.
  • Under CBO's alternative fiscal scenario, the same carbon tax would have a smaller impact on budget deficits.
  • The deficit would be reduced from $10.0 trillion to $8.8 trillion, or from 4.9% to 4.4% of GDP.
  • Overall, a $20/mtCO2 price on carbon would reduce the 10-year budget deficit by about 12%.

In the first year alone, CRS estimates that a $20 per ton carbon tax could generate $90 billion.
 

 
But here's the catch: As the analysis points out, not all revenues from a carbon tax would go toward deficit reduction. Some revenues might need to be "recycled" back to groups of people that would disproportionately bear the costs of a carbon price; some might be offset by lowering the payroll tax; some might go back to industry to help companies invest in new technologies and make a low-carbon transition; and some might go into government clean energy deployment programs.

There are many possibilities that policymakers and economists need to consider. So simply saying that a carbon tax would reduce the deficit by specific amount doesn't show the full picture. Still, this report offers a framework showing that a modest price on global warming pollution would be a significant revenue generator — and thus a possible bargaining chip in future conversations on deficit reduction.

The political climate for a carbon tax is not good. But polls show that Americans support such a policy by a fairly wide margin. According to a George Mason University poll from April, 61 percent of Americans say they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who supports a "revenue neutral" tax on fossil fuels that would be used to reduce federal income taxes. That's not the same as reducing the deficit, but it shows support for using a carbon tax to make changes to fiscal policy.

That same poll showed that 75 of Americans broadly support regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant.


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