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Peru Will Provide Solar Power to Half a Million Poor Households

Peru recently launched a new program that aims to bring solar power to more than two million of its rural residents who currently lack access to the grid.

The National Photovoltaic Household Electrification Program has already started its first phase, which installed 1,601 solar panels in 126 communities in Contumaza, a province in the northeastern region of Cajamarca, according to the Latin American Herald Tribune.

“This program is aimed at the poorest people, those who lack access to electric lighting and still use oil lamps, spending their own resources to pay for fuels that harm their health,” said Jorge Merino, Peru’s Energy and Mining Minister.

The program will install 12 500 solar photovoltaic systems to be shared among 500 000 households at a cost of about $200 million over the next five years. United Nation’s Development Program, Peru’s ministry of energy and mines, and the Global Environment Facility will supervise the project, according to PV Tech.

The need for electricity is substantial in Peru, especially in rural areas. Nearly half of more than 24 million Peruvians live in poverty, and one-third of the population lacks access to the electric grid.

Currently, most of the rural solar installations are in homes of people with financial means, according to a World Bank report [PDF] from 2010. But for poor communities, the cost of extending the grid to remote, high-altitude regions can be extremely costly, making solar PV and microgrids more appealing.

According to the report, most households that would use a solar PV system now use car batteries or dry cell batteries to run small appliances and candles and kerosene for lighting.

The project hopes to create a network of small business—like those now supplying kerosene— that will sell, maintain, and operate the PV systems, according to a brief for the UNDP.

Residents will still require some sort of storage for the solar power for when the sun isn’t shining. There could also be an opportunity to form community microgrids in remote areas that connect solar panels with other energy sources (which might not always be clean), such as what EarthSpark International has piloted in Haiti.

Peru’s solar program is part of a larger plan to bring regular electricity access to 95 percent of its residents. The country plans to spend about $3 billion on new electricity generation, according to SolarReviews, including one gigawatt of hydropower, 800 megawatts of gas-diesel, and another 300 megawatts of other renewable energy.

 

Photo: Julia Manzerova/Flickr

Germany's Largest Offshore Windfarm Hits a Snag

Developers of Germany's first commercial offshore wind farm, located in the North Sea off the famous resort island of Bockum, have run up against a bigger than expected stumbling block: Unexploded ordnance from the Second World War. The explosives on the ocean floor are impeding completion of the connections between the turbines and their intended electricity customers on land.

The 400-million-euro Riffgat project, built by the local utility EWE in cooperation with Enova, will consist of thirty 3.6 megawatt Siemens windmills, each 150 meters high and having a rotor diameter of 120 meters. With a total capacity of 108 MW, the farm is expected to supply about 120 000 customers.

As described in a recent issue of Germany's Die Zeit, although about half the turbines have now been installed, builders are running into problems completing transmission connections on the ocean floor because of unexploded World War II munitions that have to be cleared. (Die Zeit is the country's leading general-interest publication of commentary and analysis.) The problem is not wholly unexpected, to be sure: Workers had to remove roughly 2.7 million metric tons of unexploded ordnance while installing the towers themselves. In total, according to Die Zeit, there are an estimated 1.6 million metric tons of hand grenades, bombs, and artillery shells lying on the ocean floor in Germany's national waters.

Could Die Zeit, a liberal-minded organ of opinion, be exaggerating the problem—or the utility minimizing it? The Riffgat project website included a fair representation of press coverage, including the death of a British diver, killed by a sinking block of construction concrete. But it does not include Die Zeit's article.

photo: EWE

China's New Solar Price

A decade ago, when IEEE Spectrum was preparing a special issue on China's tech revolution, a colleague sitting in an airplane heard somebody behind her exclaim, "But what's the China price?" What he was asking, like everybody in business then and since, was what the Chinese were charging for products in his particular line.

Since Saturday, when the European Union settled a solar trade dispute with China on terms favorable to the People's Republic, we at least seem to know, more or less, what the global floor price for photovoltaics will be in the near future: 56 euro cents per installed watt of photovoltaic cell, or roughly US $0.75/W.

The EU settlement of a trade complaint brought by European PV manufacturers led by Germany's SolarWorld does not impose sanctions or tariffs on China. It does not satisfy the complainants and is seen as weak—typical of Europe's failures to advance its global interests with sufficient resolve. But that's geopolitics, which is a story for another day.

What's of interest here is the settlement's setting of a solar price that's well below the one-dollar-per-watt mark, often considered the breakeven point for PV market competitiveness. It will "allow Chinese companies to export to the EU up to 7 gigawatts per year of solar products without paying duties, provided that the price is no less than 56 cents per watt," as the Financial Times put it in its report. That is, Chinese producers will be permitted to collectively export 7 GW of solar cells to Europe each year—an amount equal to more than half of Europe's solar market—without incurring trade penalties. ("A trade deal with the European Union gives China 60% of the EU's solar-panel market," concludes a video interview on the Wall Street Journal site.)

The 7-GW ceiling on Chinese PV exports to EU states is essentially voluntary: Any exporters exceeding that limit will pay tariffs averaging 47.6 percent, as of August 6. That would seem to almost guarantee that Chinese exporters will not sell to Europeans at a price below 56 euro cents per watt. And, as Europe represents such a large fraction of the global solar market, the global PV floor price will be approximately the same.

In the short run, however, the effect of the European settlement may be that the Chinese will dump PV cells in the U.S. market at an even lower price. That is the opinion of Keith Bradsher, China correspondent for the New York Times, who previously did outstanding reporting about the crisis in the U.S. auto industry and the festering troubles of Detroit.

Photo: William Hong/Reuters

 

Wind Now Cost Competitive With Coal in India

In India, the expiration of some federal incentives for renewable energy last year has not put a damper on the outlook for wind and solar power.

Wind power is now cost competitive with new coal-fired generation in India, according to a report from HSBC [pdf]. Falling costs are just one reason for the increased interest in wind. For the first time, India has identified water as a scare natural resource in its most recent five-year plan. Nearly 90 percent of India’s industrial water demand comes from thermal power plants, according to the HSBC report.

The appeal of some renewables, such as wind and solar photovoltaic, is that they use far less water than coal, nuclear, or natural gas power plants. Across the globe, water stress is growing within the energy industry and power plants have to partially shut down when there isn’t enough water for cooling. In India, water shortages just before monsoon season in 2012 forced hydro generation and thermal power plants to partially close.

India needs all the power it can get. Last July, a sweeping power outage left about 700 million people without power. Outages are a daily occurrence in India, although usually not at that scale, because of a dearth of generation coupled with an outdated grid. The Central Electricity Authority estimates India has a peak deficit of 12 gigawatts.

The latest five-year plan calls for a doubling of renewable energy from the previous plan, including 15 gigawatts of wind, 10 gigawatts of solar, 2 gigawatts of small hydro and nearly 3 gigawatts of biomass. Individual Indian states have also instituted solar and wind installation targets.

Although there was some uncertainty in the renewable industry as federal incentives expired in 2012, many key wind states have raised the feed-in tariff for wind in the past year. The tariff, however, is still lower than the tariffs for new coal capacity, according to HSBC.

Solar is likely not far behind wind. The report estimates that solar could be at parity with coal in India as soon as 2016. Unlike the United States, India does not have abundant gas reserves, so the switch to gas-fired power plants from coal is unlikely on a large scale.  

Solar power, however, is already cheaper than diesel generators, which power everything from homes to businesses to cell towers. The India government has mandated that 75 percent of the nation’s cell towers have to run on renewables by 2020, and mobile companies are looking at everything from solar to fuel cells to replace dirty diesel generators.

Wind and solar look more attractive with every passing year in India, but more work needs to be done on the grid infrastructure that connects new generation to the homes and businesses that need it. HSBC notes that many state utilities don’t have the money to invest in new transmission lines without which, new wind generation can't come online.

Smaller microgrids might help in area that aren’t currently served effectively by a utility. The Indian Tower and Infrastructure Providers Association already has pilot projects in place that will help it understand how telecoms could power their own cell towers using renewables, then sell additional power back to local villages.

 

Photo: Santosh Verma/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Collision Between Water and Energy Is Underway, and Worsening

When a heat wave spread across the Midwest in the summer of 2012, the Powerton coal plant in central Illinois had to temporarily shut down a generator when its water supply became too warm to effectively cool the plant.

Although 2012 was a year of severe drought in the U.S., the problems seen at various coal, nuclear, and hydropower facilities last summer are  only likely to increase in coming years unless the power sector quickly changes its way of doing business, according to a new study from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) [PDF]. The problem is that the power sector is not known for moving quickly. 

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Minnesota Nuclear Plant Upgrade Is $267 Million Over Budget

After being shut down for four months, Minnesota’s Monticello nuclear power plant will restart this week with an additional 71 megawatts of capacity, a 12 percent power uprate. The increased costs, however, will far outstrip the additional percentage of power production.

The project, which included maintenance, upgrades and the uprate, was budgeted at $320 million. But Monticello has cost overruns of about 83 percent, or $267 million, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

The plant's owner, Xcel Energy, has not released the final cost to the public, claiming that the figures are trade secrets. But state regulators do know the costs, which will be passed on to Xcel’s customers. The company told the Star Tribune it would release details on the cost and why the project went so over budget in the future.

Monticello is hardly the first nuclear power plant to suffer a massive cost increase. In three southern U.S. states, Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina, customers are paying billions for reactors that aren’t yet producing power, according to Mark Cooper of the Vermont Law School Institute for Energy and the Environment. And elsewhere in Georgia, Southern Company reportedly spent at least $737 million more than it originally slated for two new nuclear reactors it is adding to a facility along the Savannah River.

Nuclear power comprises about 20 percent of electricity production in the U.S., and much of that fleet is aging. Existing reactors are an important base load of power for some utilities, especially as there is increasing regulatory pressure to close old, dirty coal-fired power plants. But the nuclear plant inventory is aging too, and of the country’s more than 100 reactors, 73 have received approval to operate until they are 60 years old.

Regulators and plant operators are wading into uncharted waters in measuring, monitoring and modeling key components of the aging reactors. Researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, for instance, are developing acoustic modeling tools that can identify cracks or corrosion. In Monticello, which is less than an hour from the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, part of the cost increase, according to the Star Tribune, was that additional engineering problems surfaced once the upgrades were underway. 

Besides high costs and uncertainty about the lifespan of reactors, other forces are at work too that could sideline upgrades for existing nuclear. Xcel Energy cancelled plans for a similar uprate to another nuclear power plant it operates in Minnesota because of a decline in power demand, according to Nuclear Street. Electricity use in the U.S. has more or less flat-lined in recent years, partially because of the recession but also due to a larger trend of energy efficiency measures. That's fortunate, because the public's appetite for nuclear power, never large, has only gotten smaller since Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear accident in March 2011.

Fortunate too, is the availability of cheap natural gas, which has also made gas-fired power plants an attractive option for utilities that need to build new capacity or replace older plants. The majority of new generation being installed in the U.S. is gas. Another benefit of gas, compared to coal or nuclear, is that it can ramp up or down quickly to balance out intermittent renewable energy sources such as wind or solar. Still, natural gas can't be the whole answer for Xcel Energy. A 2007 Minnesota law requires it to produce 31.5 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020.

 

Photo: John Doman/The St. Paul Pioneer Press/AP Photo

Can Wastewater Injection from Fracking Cause Earthquakes?

Hydraulic fracturing to release gas or oil trapped deep underground in shale rock is of course highly contested. In environmental circles and on the political left, indeed, the "politically correct" view seems to be that fracking is just as bad as nuclear energy, however much each might contribute to energy security or greenhouse gas reduction. The wider mainstream view—and this is the attitude explicitly embraced by the Obama administration—is that fracking can be good if properly regulated to minimize negative effects on the environment, especially on water. That position may be complicated, however, by results of  new study appearing Friday in Science, which strongly suggest that wastewater injection in fracking operations can significantly aggravate earthquake risks.

The study, led by Nicholas van der Elst of Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, finds that a severe Chilean earthquake on 27 February 2010 triggered, less than a day later, a significant earthquake in Prague, Oklahoma, where there was a set of water injection wells. Unusual seismic activity continued near Prague for almost two years until late November 2011, when an earthquake destroyed 14 homes and injured two people, according to a Lamont-Doherty press release. Then, in April 2012, a major earthquake in Sumatra triggered yet another earthquake near the Prague wells, where injection continues.

The Science article builds on an earlier study that appeared in Geology last March, in which a team of Lamont Doherty scientists hypothesized that high-pressure injection of water in a seismically active area could cause a known fault to "jump." “When you overpressure the fault, you reduce the stress that’s pinning the fault into place and that’s when earthquakes happen,” said Heather Savage, a co-author of both the older and newer reports.

Besides affecting Prague, the Chilean quake also is believed to have set off a temblor in Trinidad, Colorado, where suspicions about water injection and seismicity already had attracted the attention of the U.S. Geolorgic Survey. Japan's devastating earthquake of March 2011 is thought to have triggered a temblor in the West Texas town of Snyder, where high-pressure water injection was taking place.

The van der Elst research in Science appears together with other articles about how human activity may be affecting earthquake risks.

 

Photo: John Leeman/The Earth Institute, Columbia University

Netherlands Builds Nationwide EV Fast-Charging Network

Range anxiety is real for electric vehicle (EV) drivers. But it will soon be a thing of the past for EV owners in the Netherlands.

Fastned, a Dutch electric vehicle charging network company, has chosen ABB to provide more than 200 DC fast-charging stations that will blanket the country of more than 16 million people. The chargers will all be within 50 kilometers of each other.

It is not surprising that Fastned chose ABB to provide the charging stations, since the Fastend founders worked at a Dutch EV charging company called Epyon B.V., which was acquired by ABB in 2011.

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North China Pollution Cuts Life Expectancy by More than Five Years

As a 67-year-old American man, I can expect to live another 11 years; our talent for denial being what it is, this is something I don't dwell on much. But if you were to tell me that  because of some newly identified factor I can actually only expect to live half that long, I can guarantee this would get my attention.

It was from this perspective—admittedly not a completely logical one—that I digested the widely reported news yesterday that air pollution in northern China has cut life expectancy for the residents of that region by five and a half years. My first reaction was: Wow, that's a lot of years. Upon further sober reflection, my second reaction was: Wow, that's a lot of years.

The new estimate of China's air pollution toll, which is almost entirely attributable to combustion of coal, mainly in electricity generation but also for heating, comes from scholars at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Tsingua University and Peking University in Beijing, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. It appears this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study compares mortality among the 500 million people living in North China in the 1990s with those in the rest of the country and finds that differences are attributable almost entirely to respiratory ailments caused or aggravated by air pollution.

The gravity of the problem is of course nothing new. Credible estimates going back two decades have put the annual death toll from air pollution in China as high as a million. In the severely afflicted cities of the Northeast, communities have started to take drastic measures to protect their children, and the better off talk of emigrating--a new kind of brain drain.

Nevertheless, the new estimate of five-plus years reduced life expectancy is singularly attention-getting and is sure to circulate in China, however much the authorities try to minimize it. More than ever their attention will focus on how to reconcile jobs creation with public health by harnessing clean tech more effectively.

Contextualizing Conergy's Solar Failure

The announced insolvency of Germany's Conergy at the end of last week came as an unwelcome reminder that the bloodletting in photovoltaics is still not completely over. Conergy, though not a really major player in the current industry, was one of the early pioneers and a well-known name to insiders. So the inability of its executives to find new investors at the eleventh hour testifies to continuing unease about where and when the world PV market will settle down. Photovoltaic module prices have shown signs of strengthening since the spring—remember: higher prices are good for producers and essential to the survival of many—but it is too soon to tell whether they are on their way to stabilizing at a more sustainable level.

The whole field of photovoltaics has a long way to go, to judge from International Energy Agency statistics on renewables highlighted in the current issue of Spectrum. Though all sources of renewable energy now account for nearly 20 percent of world electricity generation, almost three quarters of that comes from hydropower. Wind makes up barely 10 percent of the renewables share (about 2 percent of total world generation), and solar for perhaps 1.5 percent of renewables and less than a half percent of the total.

In terms of hard numbers, solar generated 74 terawatt-hours in 2011; total world energy generation in 2011 was greater than 20,000 TWh. Seen in that context, and thinking of the pain Conergy's 1200 employees, its leaders and its investors must be experiencing, this blogger is reminded of the words spoken by Rick to his beloved Ilsa in the closing scene of Casablanca: "It doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you'll understand that… Here's looking at you, kid."

Photo: Michael Urban/dapd/AP Photo

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