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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

Japan Will Help Kenya Unlock Its Geothermal Potential

Kenya has some lofty goals when it comes to geothermal power. The African nation already has about 200 megawatts of installed geothermal capacity, but the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) has committed $18.4 million to help Kenya reach its goal of five gigawatts of geothermal capacity by 2020.

The target is lofty not only because it would be a 25-fold increase in less than seven years, but also because the country’s current peak demand is about 1.2 GW. But five gigawatts of geothermal is just the beginning for Kenya. The country’s government expects it will need about 20 GW of electricity by 2030. Currently, more than half of Kenya’s installed capacity comes from hydro.

JICA’s grant to the Geothermal Development Company will provide three years of assistance for capacity building, including training in exploration, engineering, negotiations, and use of geothermal resources.

It’s unclear how much the Japanese can actually accomplish for $18 million. Many have questioned whether the recent pledge of $7 billion by President Obama for African electricity needs is enough to make a dent in a continent where two-thirds of people don’t have access to the grid.

Kenya’s peak power demand has been growing by about 8 percent a year, according to Bloomberg, but it will have to expand at a far faster rate to meet the goals of the government. The country’s largest power producer, Kenya Power, is aiming to go from serving just over 2 million people today to about 20 million by 2020.

JICA’s assistance will help build geothermal plants in Menangai 1 and 2, Suswa, and other geothermal fields. According to AllAfrica, Kenya has almost all the rigs it needs to achieve its set target, but it needs properly trained crews to keep the rigs running continuously and to bring the cost down on running the wells. JICA is also supporting a hydropower project in Kenya and a transmission line. 

Although the bulk of international aid is going to large energy development projects, many rural regions in Africa could benefit from microgrids, such as the SharedSolar project out of Columbia University’s Earth Institute.

Many experts in renewable energy see the mobile phone revolution, which leapfrogged landlines in developing countries, as a model of how to bring power to billions that currently live without it. But costs remain an issue. Although prices are coming down for distributed solar, the price of batteries and metering for microgrids remains high.

Kenya does have a rural electrification plan [PDF] that calls for rooftop solar, but that option will only meet a small fraction of the country’s electricity goals. 

Photo: ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images

World's Biggest Offshore Wind Farm Switched On in Britain

Around a year and a half ago, the Walney wind farm in the Irish Sea started spinning and prepared to relish the title of being "biggest in the world." It ended up enjoying that status a bit longer than expected, but the London Array, off the coast of Kent, now leaves Walney and its 367 megawatts in the dust.

Some numbers: 175 turbines. 630 megawatts. Half a million homes. 100 square kilometers. 450 kilometers of offshore cabling.

In other words, it's pretty big. The speed at which these enormous projects are popping around in the waters around the U.K. is impressive, especially considering the ongoing difficulties with getting even a single offshore turbine up and running in the U.S. (Cape Wind might have one by next year! Maybe!) There are now around 20 distinct offshore wind farms around the U.K., generating enough power for 2.3 million homes; when all offshore turbines that are spinning, in construction, or planned are combined, they total 15 gigawatts of capacity—about a quarter of the entire U.S. onshore wind power capabilities.

The London Array, owned by DONG Energy, E.ON, and the U.A.E.'s Masdar, looks to keep it's world's-biggest title for a bit longer than Walney held out, thanks to its already massive size and a phase 2 plan to bring it up to a full gigawatt. And some of the other big projects underway in the region won't be able to compete with that sort of girth: West of Duddon Sands farm will get to 389 MW, for example, while the Gwynt y Mor farm off the coast of Wales will reach 576 MW.

According to some of the executives involved with the London Array, big really is better when it comes to offshore wind. "This project is also a real milestone on the path to cutting the cost of offshore wind," said Brent Cheshire, the U.K. country chairman for DONG Energy, at the inauguration. "As projects get even bigger and move further offshore, we must continue to harvest the advantages of scale to bring down the costs." The CEO for E.ON UK added that the aim is to reduce the cost of offshore wind by 40 percent within just a couple of years. In a country that is actually good at building these farms, there's no reason to doubt that they can get there.

Photo: London Array

Obama's $7 Billion for African Electricity

With respect to the US $7 billion U.S. program to help six African countries upgrade their electric power systems, which President Obama announced on Sunday during his trip to Africa, there are two questions that spring immediately to mind: First, though the United States is a very rich country and the presidency is a very powerful position, does Obama actually have the authority to just write a huge $7 billion check to support a cause he happens to like? And second, is a paltry $7 billion enough to really make a difference?

There answer to both questions is No.

First, none of the $7 billion consists of direct grants to African countries, and almost all of it consists of credit and credit guarantees, the biggest single chunk being up to $5 billion in Export-Import Bank export credits. Most of that money will not go to Africans at all, in fact, but to the big U.S. companies that get the work of supplying power plant and grid equipment to the Africans, starting with General Electric. None of that will be any surprise to students of the "give and take" of what goes by the name of international aid, which often involves more taking than giving.

Tellingly, perhaps, the White House fact sheet describing the $7 billion program twice refers to "new discoveries of vast reserves of oil and gas" in Africa, despite the apparent lack on any real connection between those discoveries and the program.

Second, $7 billion is not really very much money when one's talking about Africa, African electricity needs, or electric power in general. Two thirds of Africans lack grid access, and the total cost of getting them all on the grid often is estimated at $300 billion, according to the White House. "When it comes to building power plants, $7 billion isn't a lot of money," notes a reporter for Forbes.  "In Tanzania [for example], Japanese banks are financing a $414 million Sumitomo-built 240 [megawatt] gas-fired plant. While in Ghana the Chinese are building a 400 [MW] hydropower plant for more than $600 million." So, even if Obama were actually giving six African countries $7 billion outright, it could get used up pretty quickly without making much of a dent in the larger problem.

And then there's the painful truth that much of what ends up getting spent will be spent unwisely, or arguably so. To take just one category of new generation, large dams, serious questions are being raised about some of the big ones on the drawing boards or already under construction. Science writer Fred Pearce describes some of the biggest African hydropower projects in an article just posted on the Yale.360 website, among them:

  • the 6000-MW Grand Renaissance dam that Ethiopia is building on the Blue Nile near the Sudanese boarder, which may threaten Egyptian water supplies and aggravate geopolitical tensions
  • dam projects totaling 13 000-MW along the Zambezi River (the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe), despite an anticipated 10-15 percent decrease in rainfall in its catchment area, because of global warming
  • and, biggest of all, the series of flow-by dams being planned for the Congo, which could have a final capacity twice that of China's Three Gorges and, initially, send most of its output to South Africa, 3000 kilometers away.

Is it really a good idea to be planning a giant project in the world's most tragically messed up place, which will require power to be transmitted over immense distances through other difficult areas? Perhaps the best that can be said for Obama's Power Africa initiative is that the president is thinking small, really small.

Photo: Thomas Mukoya/REUTERS

Spanish Town Taps Sewage to Make Biofuel

In a beach town at the southern tip of Spain, researchers are trying to be the first to turn municipal wastewater into biofuel.

The pilot facility in Chiclana de la Frontera will use its wastewater and readily available sunlight to produce an algae-based biofuel and biogas. The US $15.7 million project, All-gas, received $9 million from the European Union.

Municipal wastewater treatment plants are often touted as a relatively untapped source of clean energy. The most common way to take advantage of otherwise wasted energy is to capture the gas produced in the anaerobic digestion process and use it to power some of the plant’s operations. But producing biofuels from municipal wastewater is a novel approach.

"Nobody has done the transformation from wastewater to biofuel, which is a sustainable approach," All-gas project leader Frank Rogalla told Reuters.

At its start, the process looks similar to traditional wastewater treatment. Contaminants are removed and then anaerobic bacteria feed on some of the waste while giving off gas, including carbon dioxide, which can be captured and used by the plant.

The next step is to add algae to the pools of wastewater and expose them to the plentiful sunlight found in the region. After reaching a critical mass, the algae are extracted to be processed for oil. The remaining algal biomass left behind can be used to make bio-methane, carbon dioxide and minerals, according to Aqualia, the company that owns the treatment facility.

Seven European partners are involved in the pilot project, which will last for five years. All-gas is part of an effort to meet the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive to increase transport biofuels from 2.4 to 10 percent by 2020. The EU is not alone. Dozens of startups, government research agencies across the globe, and nearly every large oil company are also working on algal biofuels.  

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Project Aims to Make Lake George World’s “Smartest Lake”

If President Thomas Jefferson were alive today, he might still describe Lake George as “without comparison, the most beautiful water I ever saw,” as he did in the late 18th century. But he wouldn’t be able to say with confidence that the New York icon is as healthy a body of water as it was over 200 years ago. 

To better understand and manage the dangers facing the 32-mile long lake that is known for its crystal clear waters, IBM, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) and The Fund for Lake George are launching a three-year, multi-million dollar project to turn Lake George into the smartest lake in the world

The Jefferson Project, which pays homage to the early president’s love of the upstate lake, will leverage advanced data analytics, data visualization, 3-D computer modeling and simulation, weather modeling and sensors to understand stressors on the body of water. Forty different sensing platforms will monitor 25 different variables, including water chemistry, currents and weather. 

Researchers from RPI have already identified some of the stressors in recent decades, including invasive species, rising levels of chlorophyll that are threatening water clarity and salt levels that have tripled in the last three decades from road salt runoff. But the new systems will allow researchers to build better circulation models for Lake George to understand how nutrients and contaminants are moving around the lake. 

“Lake George has a lot to teach us, if we look closely,” Rensselaer President Shirley Ann Jackson, said in a statement. "We are creating a global model for environmental research and protection of water resources.” 

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U.S. Climate Plan Covers the Bases

In a famous work of literary criticism, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin distinguished between writers who know one big thing (the hedgehogs) and those who know a great many little things (the foxes); he described Tolstoy as a fox who really wanted to be a hedgehog. If the late Berlin could take to the Sunday talk shows to discuss climate change, he might similarly describe President Obama as somebody who would prefer to do one big thing but, if he can't, will be reasonably content to do a great many small things.

Back in January In his State of the Union address, Obama said that if he could not get Congress to enact a cap-and-trade system to reduce carbon pollution—a system that would "set a price on carbon" and establish a level playing field for all comers with innovative clean technologies—then he would use his executive authority to do everything in his power to cut greenhouse gas emissions. In his speech earlier this week outlining the newly formulated U.S. Climate Action Plan, Obama did just that.

Arguably, the most important thing about Obama's climate speech was simply that he gave it, and that he delivered it in top form, sweating all the way through it in the midday sun. But the contents of the speech also were important and deserve to be summarized in some technical detail.

  • Under the heading of cutting carbon pollution, Obama's announcement of regulations for new and existing coal-fired plants was expected—it was indeed the main thing expected—but the way he pitched the decision to his audience and to Americans broadly was still notable: "Today, about 40 percent of America's carbon pollution comes from our power plants. But here's the thing: Right now, there are no Federal limits to the amount of carbon pollution that those plants can pump into our air. None. Zero.…So today, for the sake of our children, and the health and safety of all Americans, I'm directing the Environmental Protection Agency to put an end to the limitless dumping of carbon pollution from our power plants.…"

Also notable is the climate plan's rather prominent mention of methane, which accounts for 9 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. The plan says U.S. methane emissions have decreased 8 percent since 1990, and that to achieve further reductions, the administration will encourage wider use of methane digesters in the livestock sector, upgraded natural gas pipelines to prevent leakage, and reduced flaring at natural gas wellheads.

Obama squarely embraced rising U.S. production of oil and natural gas (as well as nuclear energy) but strongly hinted that the controversial Keystone pipeline may be blocked: Allowing it would require a finding that it is in the national interest he said, and "our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution."

  • Under the headings of green and clean tech, the President's goal is to issue permits for 10 gigawatts of renewables on publicly owned lands by the end of this year and another 10 GW by 2020; to have the Defense Department deploy another 10 GW of renewables; and make up to US $8 billion in Federal loan guarantees available for "a wide array of advanced fossil energy projects" aiming at "avoidance, reduction or sequestration of anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases," as the action plan puts it.
  • Under energy efficiency and standards, Obama boasted of the very stiff fuel efficiency requirements already set for light vehicles, said similar standards would now be developed for heavy vehicles, and said that evolving standards for appliances and Federal buildings would ultimately produce carbon savings equivalent to what the whole energy sector currently produces in a half year.
  • With respect to grid modernization, Obama put the emphasis not on resilience as such or on smart technologies but simply on building out transmission. He said he would sign a memo this month directing Federal agencies to streamline authorization of transmission projects. Separately, the plan notes that the Transportation Department is channeling $5.7 billion to the four regional transit agencies most affected by Hurricane Sandy (photo), but no mention is made of hardened electrical infrastructure. (An early smart grid enthusiast, Obama may feel he was burned by extravagant claims made early on.)
  • Under the heading of climate impact management, the action plan puts a lot of emphasis on nudging climate science in a practical direction. The 2014 Federal budget allocates $2.7 billion to the study of impacts, catastrophe modeling and development of emergency information and decision tools.
  • Last and arguably most importantly, Obama pledged to work toward the adoption of a universally binding climate action treaty that will be ambitious, inclusive and flexible. With respect to the developing countries, exempt from the greenhouse gas reduction requirements of the Kyoto Protocol, Obama said we cannot blame them for aspiring to our level of prosperity. But at the same time, he said, they also need to understand (and presumably be reminded) that they also are by and large the most vulnerable to the negative impacts of climate change.

Anticipating Obama's speech, pundits wondered whether he would mention diplomacy at all and whether he would see an opportunity in the much improved U.S. performance as a carbon cutter. Obama appears to have got the message and be on-message. Since 2006, he claimed in this week's speech, the United States has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by a larger quantity than any other country in the world. Though that assertion may not hold true in percentage terms, it's strong enough for the U.S. president to reclaim a position of leadership in international climate negotiations, which, he said, is his intention.

Assessing Obama's speech as a whole and the prospects for his climate action plan as a whole, there are those like Stanford law professor Michael Wara who take a skeptical view, comparing the president to students who promise great work but never quite deliver. I beg to differ. Obama seems to me to have formulated a comprehensive plan that he is largely in a position to implement on his own authority, and with that plan in his pocket, he unequivocally stated his intention to enter negotiations to bring the rest of the world along. Perhaps critics like Wara are looking for a single big "hedgehog" move. They would do well to consider more closely the aggregate benefits of the many fine-grained foxy maneuvers we saw announced this week.

Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

A Cheaper Option to Turn Carbon Dioxide Into Synthetic Fuel

Carbon capture and storage has been a political buzzword for years, even though it remains expensive and largely elusive on a commercial scale.

The first part of the equation, capturing carbon dioxide from power plants and other large emitters of carbon pollution, is the relatively easy part. The problem has been what to do with it. Injecting it underground is expensive, and turning it into fuel takes a lot of energy and often involves rare or toxic chemicals.

Researchers at the University of Delaware have taken a different approach, using an inexpensive catalyst that relies on electricity from solar energy to convert carbon dioxide (CO2) into carbon monoxide (CO) that can be used for a range of industrial applications, including liquid fuel.

Gold and silver have traditionally been used as the catalyst to convert CO2 into CO, but Joel Rosenthal, a chemist at the University of Delaware, found that the metal bismuth works just as well, if not better. “Despite its low cost, bismuth has been virtually ignored as a cathode material for CO2 electrolysis,” Rosenthal wrote in a study that appeared in the June 19 issue of the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

An ounce of bismuth is 2000 times cheaper than an ounce of gold and found in many places as a byproduct of refining lead, tin and copper, according to Rosenthal. “Most catalysts do not selectively make one compound when combined with carbon dioxide — they make a whole slew,” Rosenthal said in a press release. “Our goal was to develop a catalyst that was extremely selective in producing carbon monoxide and to power the reaction using solar energy.”

Carbon monoxide is a valuable commodity chemical, said Rosenthal. It is used to make hydrogen gas, but also in the production of synthetic petroleum, which researchers are developing across the globe. 

Cheaply converting CO2 to useful products that don’t require a lot of energy is an area of active research, especially as countries look to curb carbon emissions. Although the U.S. may never have a carbon tax, President Obama’s recently unveiled climate plan included provisions for the U.S. EPA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants, which will only increase the interest in CO2 conversion research. Obama’s plan included $8 billion in loan guarantees for advanced fossil energy technologies, including carbon capture.

There are also many other researchers and burgeoning companies trying to find low-cost, low-energy solutions to CO2 pollution. Skyonic, a company with a technology to turn CO2 into baking soda, recently raised $128 million in venture capital. Researchers at the University of Texas at Arlington are converting CO2 to liquid methanol using copper oxide nanowires and sunlight. Researchers at the University of Georgia have created a microorganism that feeds on CO2 and can then be manipulated to make chemicals for fuels or plastics.

But for every breakthrough, there is far more work that needs to be done. University of Delaware’s Rosenthal said there are at least a dozen issues his lab needs to follow up on, which they will pursue this summer.

Photo Credit: Edin/iStockphoto

Obama Delivers a Defining Speech on Climate Change

The best thing about President Obama's landmark speech about global warming today was that he delivered it in the hot sun, standing in front of a building at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., mopping his brow and upper lip frequently. The subliminal imagery was as trenchant as the words.

The worst thing about the speech was some of the advance work: No national network or cable channel showed the address in its entirety, despite its stated importance, and no complete transcript of the talk was readily available at the White House site or otherwise, before, during or immediately after its delivery.

This was unfortunate, because Obama gave a very fine speech indeed. Although it contained no major surprises, its comprehensiveness and meticulous attention to detail were impressive and even somehow moving. No doubt that is why, when Obama paused toward the end of the talk and said, simply, "That is my plan," the audience of Georgetown students spontaneously jumped to its feet and treated the president to a rousing standing ovation.

As expected, the heart of his speech was his announcement that the Environmental Protection Agency will take action to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, first from new coal-fired power plants, then from existing ones. Obama already had made it clear that if he could not obtain a carbon reduction bill from Congress, he would have EPA issue such regulations under authority of the Clean Air Act, as directed by a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision.

Obama's climate action plan also calls for accelerated development and deployment of clean energy technologies, including much more wind and solar generation on public lands; attention to energy-efficient buildings and appliances; tightening fuel efficiency standards for heavy vehicles; Federal funding for hardening infrastructure against climate-induced disasters; and, not least, renewed U.S. leadership in global climate diplomacy. The whole climate plan is summarized by a nicely prepared set of visuals, posted on the White House website.

In what was perhaps the strongest part of his speech, toward the end, Obama made it clear that global warming cannot be stopped from one moment to the next, and that the United States acting alone cannot slow climate change and avert its worst effects. He indicated that besides entering into a variety of bilateral and multilateral agreements with countries like India, China and Brazil, to promote adoption of clean tech and relatively low-carbon fossil fuels, the United States will play its part in seeking to negotiate a universally binding carbon reduction treaty. He compared the global situation to what happens when you apply the brakes to stop a car--you have to reckon that slowing down will take some time, before you can stop and then put the car in reverse.

Obama consistently talked about climate risk reduction in a down-to-earth way, calling upon his mostly young listeners to carry the message to a widening circle of activists, to "invest and divest" for the sake of a better future for their children and grandchildren. He said voters needed to communicate to politicians that climate change is a defining issue, and that politicians need to pay less attention to vested interests and more attention to posterity.

Perhaps the job of spreading the word is not quite as formidable as the president suggested. In a new public opinion poll released by Georgetown University on the eve of the talk, 87 percent of the respondents favored EPA action on carbon emissions—78 percent of Republicans and 94 percent of Democrats. It appears that the president, sensing a basic shift in opinion, decided to seize the moment and declare climate change an issue for the ages.

Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

DOE Opens New Smart Grid Integration Testing Facility

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) are launching a new user facility for testing utility-scale renewable energy grid integration.

The Energy Systems Integration Facility (ESIF) in Golden, Colo., already has its first industry partner, Advanced Energy Industries, whose aim is to build better performing solar power inverters. The US $135 million facility will test how technologies such as solar modules, wind turbines, electric vehicles, and smart appliances interact with each other and the grid. Wind and solar, for instance, can wreak havoc on the electrical grid because of their intermittency. The center should help accelerate the adoption of smart grid technologies across the grid, from generation and transmission, down to individual buildings.  

“This new facility will allow for an even stronger partnership with manufacturers, utilities and researchers to help integrate more clean, renewable energy into a smarter, more reliable and more resilient power grid,” Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said in a statement.

ESIF (pronounced ē-sif), which was four years in the making, has more than 15 labs, plus outdoor test beds that will allow companies and researchers to test products at real grid load levels. The labs cover technologies in four areas: electricity, thermal systems, fuel cell and electrochemical research and data analysis, and visualization. The latter includes a high-performance data center designed to be one of the most energy efficient in the world, with a power usage effectiveness of 1.06 or better. The data center will allow researchers to do large-scale modeling and simulation.

Advanced Energy Industries worked with the DOE on the Solar Energy Grid Integration Systems (SEGIS) project, which is aimed at bringing solar power more seamlessly onto the grid. Advanced Energy’s solar inverter allows for two-way power flows and utility communications at a lower levelized cost of energy than some other inverters.

Communicating with inverters will be increasingly important as solar penetration in the United States increases. In Germany, where there is far more solar PV, inverters are already required to help minimize negative effects on the grid by providing functions such as power ramping.

The inverter manufacturer will take advantage of ESIF’s megawatt-scale power-in-the-loop system; it can simulate different grid conditions, which will allow Advanced Energy to fine-tune the performance of its inverters and drive costs down further.

“ESIF will do something different. It will fill research gaps and provide a national focal point for systems-integration R&D,” Robert Shapard, chairman of the GridWise Alliance, a coalition of smart grid advocates, said in a statement. “ESIF will be one of a few facilities in the country capable of providing for the fully integrated field-testing of hardware and software technologies, enabling advanced visualization and simulation, establishing a virtual utility operations platform, and providing smart grid interoperability testing and validation.”

 

Photo Credit: Air Force/Science Faction/Corbis

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