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How Bad Is PV Panel Performance?

In an area so suffused with well-intentioned idealism, perhaps it is good to be reminded that the solar business is after all a business. In any new industry that has been grown by leaps and bounds, taking a high toll on the weaker and less advantaged players, there is bound to be corner cutting and cost shaving. The photovoltaics industry, it seems, is no exception.

At the beginning of this year, an article in the trade publication PVTech that said that "quality issues threaten to give solar a black eye" drew just one comment, despite its examples of projects gone wrong and evidence from testing organizations indicating that defect rates were rising sharply. But reader response may have been so weak only because the problem was already widely recognized in the trade. Two months before, when RenewableEnergyWorld.com ran a piece by Ucilia Wang about a possible rise of poorly made PV modules, it drew 43 comments. An article in yesterday's New York Times about anxiety over defective PV panels has attracted 64 comments so far.

Naturally one wonders how much flammable material those commenting have been adding to the fire. My personal expectation was that at least one-third, perhaps even-two thirds, of the comments might say something like this: "Four years ago I bought a rooftop PV system from so-and-so, which was supposed to generate most of my home's electricity for twenty years and pay for itself in ten. Already it has degraded to the point where it's producing hardly any power at all, and I'm being told that if I want to buy a replacement system from a highly reputable supplier like Sanyo/Panasonic, Sunpower, LG, or Solar World, I will have to cough up twice what I paid originally."

So it was quite a surprise to discover upon scanning the reactions to the three articles to find that not a single one of the 108 comments complained of a bad personal experience with PV. That strongly suggests, to me anyway, that the concern about rising defect rates in the PV panel business—though obviously a serious matter—may be somewhat overblown.

This is not to say that among the comments all is peaches and cream. Among those reacting to the articles, it is widely taken for granted that we are indeed seeing a quite acute quality control problem in solar manufacturing. Readers are quick to blame shoddy Chinese manufacturing, test organizations that are allegedly in bed with their clients, warranties that become dead letters when those issuing them go out of business, and Walmart-style economizing on the part of customers. "You get what you pay for," is a common refrain.

Says one engineer with 14 years in PV: " Put my dirty fingers on every part of the process from weighing 'rock' through to stuffing the box. There are many corners that can be cut and many are. Whenever you replace precision tooling with low cost labor and SPC [statistical process control] with guesswork there's going to be problems. Ditto when customer stinginess makes them tone-deaf to quality statements."

At the same time, a number of other comments from suppliers claim they never have seen any problem in their personal part of the business. "We have been installing solar since 2007 and have never had a solar module fail. Ever. Not one." "I have been a PV installer since 1998 and I have never had a module failure."

Whatever the big picture turns out to be when industry analysts have developed reliable, comprehensive statistics, the immediate lessons for consumers are clear enough: Find out who makes the PV material going into your modules; ask a lot of questions about how panels are put together and how they will be installed; make sure your warranty says what you think it says, and that it will somehow survive the company you're signing with. Don't be penny wise but pound foolish.

Photo: Imaginechina via AP Images

Restructuring and Retrenchment in Nuclear Fuels

In 2000, the United States agreed with Russia to get rid of 34 tons of weapons-grade plutonium. To that end, it embarked on construction of a large plant at Savannah River, S.C.,where the plutonium would be mixed with uranium to make so-called mixed oxide fuel (MOX), suitable for use in nuclear power plants. Buried in the president's fiscal 2014 budget request is a line sharply cutting funding for the Savannah River MOX plant, which "may be tantamount to killing it," a former National Nuclear Security Administration official told Arms Control Today.

The Obama administration is telling Russia that its commitment to disposing of the excess plutonium is not at issue as such. The United States may for example opt instead to mix the plutonium with high-level reactor wastes and ultimately put it in a geological repository. In any event, real money is at stake: The anticipated total cost of the MOX facility under construction has ballooned from $4.8 billion to $7.7 billion, and the expected commissioning of the plant has slid from 2016 to 2019.

In a project of this scope, many factors obviously are in play, and the administration has not to our knowledge disclosed in detail why it is reconsidering the plant. But one of the more important factors, surely, is the projected value of the MOX itself, which in turn is a function of long term uranium prices—there would be no point in completing the plant and then making the MOX, as opposed to just dumping the plutonium, if uranium will be dirt-cheap as far ahead as one can see.

So, from that point of view, the fate of the MOX plant is but one indicator of retrenchment in the global nuclear fuels market, post-Fukushima. Last Friday, the operator of the only American-owned uranium enrichment plant in the United States announced that its sprawling Paducah, Kentucky, facility will close for good next month (see photo). The decision is no surprise as such, as the plant employs highly inefficient and obsolete gaseous diffusion technology, invented during the Manhattan Project years. But in a booming world market for nuclear fuels, even a relic like this might have hung on longer.

Three years ago, a state-of-the-art centrifuge enrichment plant in Eunice, N.M., started operations, though it is is only partially built. (Eventually it will have enough capacity to supply about half the reactors in the United States at any one time.) It is being built and operated by Urenco USA, the North American branch of the European enrichment consortium. But the consortium, which has been the world leader in enrichment for many decades, is itself for sale. Its co-owners—basically the British and Dutch governments, and two top German utilities—each for its own complicated reasons, wants out.

Urenco is, to be sure, still highly profitable. "Besides fuel, Urenco’s centrifuges spin off fairly good money: revenue of €1.6 billion (about $2.1 billion last year), yielding earnings of €402 million, for a profit margin of 25 percent," The New York Times reported this week. "And its order book stands at €18 billion, which translates to at least 10 years of steady work. Analysts estimate Urenco’s market value at about €10 billion." But the Japanese nuclear shut-down, which, the Times went on to note, has reduced global demand for nuclear fuels by close to 10 percent, plus Germany's planned nuclear exit, have cast a pall that now stretches to New Mexico, Kentucky, and South Carolina.

photo: USEC

Better Place Turns Out to Be Not Better Enough

Better Place's bankruptcy filing this last weekend is a blow not merely to the company itself and its influential backers, but to the vision of an electrified automotive future. This is because Better Place had what seemed an extremely persuasive business model and a sensible plan for developing the plan in the marketplace. It offered potential customers the opportunity to buy cars with electric batteries that could be swapped out in minutes at stations, rather than having to go through the long tedious process of recharging them when on the road, and the option of paying for electric energy on a per-use basis rather than having to buy an expensive battery pack up front. The system was to be rolled out first and tested in Denmark and Israel—small, well-defined, and tech-savvy markets.

The vision, propounded by the company's founding CEO and inspirational figure, Shai Agassi, had won support from major investors like GE, UBS, Morgan Chase, VantagePoint Venture Partners and Lazard Asset Management, among others. Renault's equally charismatic CEO Carlos Ghosn equipped the company's Fluence Z.E. sedans with the Better Place system, making it an important part of the Renault's four-billion-euro electric vehicle strategy. So the Better Place backrunptcy is a big blow to Ghosn and Renault too, though the French car company denies that of course.

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Google Acquires Airborne Wind Power Company Makani

Makani Power, long one of the leaders in the growing field of airborne wind energy, now has a very large and rich parent. A statement on the company's website announced yesterday that Google would acquire Makani for an undisclosed amount; Google—or more specifically, Google.org, the company's philanthropic arm—had previously backed Makani to the tune of US $15 million.

Makani makes a kite-like wind energy device, essentially a fixed wing with small turbines on board. The wing is tethered to the ground and flies in vertical circles to generate power, which is sent back down the tether to the ground, where it could be sent on to the grid. In its statement, Makani wrote that "the timing couldn't be better, as we completed the first ever autonomous all-modes flight with our Wing 7 prototype last week." The video below shows that full test sped up five times.

Airborne wind power takes advantage of the fact that wind speeds are higher and more consistent as one gains altitude. Makani's current design would fly at around 500 meters; going even higher could garner even more energy. The recently-tested prototype is rated at 30 kilowatts capacity, but the company is on record as wanting to build a 600-kw wing that would have a wingspan of 92 feet. Google's money could potentially move that goal closer, quicker.

The purchase also may allay concerns about the loss, last fall, of Makani's founder and primary engineering pioneer, Corwin Hardham. Hardham, only 38 at the time, passed away unexpectedly at his desk. When I met him only a month or so earlier, he excitedly told me about plans to use even the 92-foot, 600-kw turbine as a mere starting point on the way to 5 megawatts.

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Is Obama Delivering on Environmental Policy?

Strikingly different views of Obama's environmental record—and of environmental politics generally—have been appearing in the general press. At one extreme the president is portrayed as ineffectual because he lacks an activist base. At the other extreme are commentators who find him strikingly effective, the strength of grassroots activism being held as almost irrelevant.

Case in point: In a widely discussed article that appeared in The New Yorker in April, Nicholas Lemann bemoaned a drift toward inside-the-beltway bargaining on the part of  the top U.S. environmental organizations and their leaders, as compared to the glorious early days of the environmental movement when mass mobilization led to enactment of landmark clean air and water legislation. Lemann, a former dean of Columbia Journalism School and the author of well regarded books on a wide range of subjects, treated the failure of environmentalists to obtain a cap-and-trade carbon reduction bill as Exhibit A in what he considered their ineffectiveness as compared with forty years ago.

In a diametrically opposed assessment, journalist Jonathan Chait argued in a recent issue of New York magazine that environmental activism is less relevant today because it is less needed. By using a variety of regulatory authorities and instruments, notably the Environmental Protection Agency that Nixon created in response to grassroots pressure, Obama has been able to make himself in effect "the environmental president." Especially noteworthy in Chait's view have been the president's much more demanding long-term automotive fuel efficiency standards, the big boost given to clean and green tech by the 2009 stimulus bill, and plans in progress to regulate carbon under authority of the Clean Air Act and Amendments, as directed by a seminal U.S. Supreme Court decision.

Having argued here more than once that Obama has been pursuing a "stealth climate policy," I am somewhat more in sympathy with Chait's position than Lemann's. Lemann understates the extent of current environmental activism—he makes no mention of Bill McKibbon's 350.org or of the many local groups that have made it virtually impossible to build a new coal-fired plant in the United States—and he puts too much emphasis on the failed cap-and-trade bill. Chait, to be sure, does not always state or contextualize Obama's achievements quite rightly. He overstates the president's success in stimulating cuts in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, which actually began under his predecessor (and so far are largely the effect of factors for which neither president should do much bragging, notably the overall economic slowdown), and he exaggerates the significance of the toothless carbon reduction pledge the United States and other countries made at the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference.

Indeed, Obama's promise to cut emissions 17 percent by 2020 is widely seen as drastically inadequate and certainly, Chait's paeans notwithstanding, is not "the brass ring of the environmental movement." Broadly speaking, environmental leaders and the climate science community consider much more aggressive action urgently needed.

A scathing critique of current U.S. and global climate commitments came earlier this year, compliments of science historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, writing in the winter of issue Daedalus, the journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Taking what they call "a view from the future," Oreskes and Conway described how "the collapse of western civilization" began even as we speak. Their modus operandi was to proceed smoothly from seemingly implausible events like North's Carolina's 2012 Sea Level Rise Denial Bill and the 2010 heat wave and fires that killed an estimated 50 000 people in Russia to an enumeration of not yet occurred and yet all too plausible future events, among them: an unprecedented heat wave in summer 2041 that destroyed crops around the world, leading to "riots in virtually every major city"; the 2042 International Aerosol Injection Climate Engineering Project, which backfires badly; the appearance of the so-called Sagan feedback effect, which leads to an abrupt doubling of warming; the ensuing disintegration of the West Antarctica and Greenland ice sheets; and finally, with sharpy rising waters, the displacement of an estimated 1.5 billion people, and the disappearance of 60-70 percent of Earth's species. "The human populations of Australia and Africa, or course, were wiped out."

One thing Lemann, Chait and the rest of us can probably agree on is this: In his first term, Obama aggressively used his executive authority to discourage greenhouse gas emissions, without talking about it. This year, with the first State of the Union Address of his second term, he is saying he will continue to use that executive authority, making no bones about it. The real issue is whether that is enough.

Photo: Volkswagen's XL1. Credit: Volkswagen

Too Tall for Steel: Engineers Look to Concrete to Take Wind Turbine Design to New Heights

Switching from steel to concrete somehow feels like a step backward, technologically speaking, but researchers at Iowa State University think doing so could aid in building ever-bigger wind turbine towers. Led by engineering professor Sri Sritharan, a group is using ultra-high performance concrete to build turbines that could soar past the 80 or so meters that steel has maxed out at.

Steel towers are the standard in the wind industry, but building 100-meter towers—needed to get better wind currents—becomes extremely expensive and logistically difficult. Sritharan's group is working on a couple of ideas using concrete that would allow a degree of modularity—instead of one big piece for the tower, panels attached to columns or pre-assembled "cells" could allow for towers of varying heights and would be easier to manage and transport.

So far, these designs have shown promise in load testing. Full-scale segments of the towers easily withstood the 100 000 pounds of operational load, and still performed well at much higher loads. Along with the modularity, concrete would increase the operational lifetime of a tower, from 20 years to as many as 40. And at even a mere 20 meters higher, turbines could take advantage of higher wind speeds.

To be clear, there are some concrete towers already out on the market. Acciona Windpower, for example, has a 3-megawatt turbine that can be installed using an 80-meter steel tower or a concrete version of varying heights. The concrete tower can get as high as 120 meters, and is also assembled in five or six sections. The vast majority of towers out there, though, are steel, and the Iowa State designs provide new methods of construction and assembly.

Of course, changing from steel to concrete carries some environmental questions: concrete contains cement, the production of which yields some serious carbon dioxide emissions. Like, five-percent-of-global-emissions serious. Steel production also emits CO2, though not on the same level; I asked Dr. Sritharan about this, and he said that he and a student have so far done only a limited analysis of the issue.

"The steel tower is likely to have less overall environmental impact if [a] duration of 20 years is used," he wrote in an e-mail. "However, the concrete tower can last longer as its design is not governed by fatigue." If the concrete tower lasts 40 years instead of 20, the overall environmental impact is likely smaller than that of the steel tower. "We definitely need to do more work in this area," he said.

The wind industry in general has long been interested in going both bigger and higher. Using concrete won't yield the 500-meter turbine, and it won't suddenly produce 10-megawatt behemoths, but it's a potentially useful step in those directions.

Photo: Iowa State University/Sri Sritharan

Global CO2 Concentration Reaches 400 Parts Per Million

Last Thursday, global atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, as measured atop Hawaii's Mauna Loa volcano, reached 400 parts per million. The good news is that most educated people now have a sense of what that means—which would not have been the case 10 years ago. The bad news is that the world is more confused than ever regarding what to do about it.

Since humans started pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere in large quantities with the beginning of the industrial revolution in the mid-1700s, CO2 concentrations have increased about 50 percent. To put it another way, today's CO2 concentrations are about 50 percent higher than at their interglacial peaks, going back at least 800 000 years, as estimated from the longest Antarctic ice core. And they are climbing at the highest rates in measured time. Two-thirds of the increase in industrial times has taken place in just the last half century, since Charles Keeling set up instruments on Mauna Loa to measure CO2 in the late 1950s.

“The last time in the Earth’s history when we saw similar levels of CO2 in the atmosphere was probably about 4.5 million years ago when the world was warmer on average by three or four degrees Celsius than it is today,” Professor Sir Brian Hoskins, director of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change at Imperial College London, told the Financial Times. “There was no permanent ice sheet on Greenland, sea levels were much higher, and the world was a very different place.”

“If you’re looking to stave off climate perturbations that I don’t believe our culture is ready to adapt to, then significant reductions in CO2 emissions have to occur right away,” Mark Pagani, a Yale geochemist and paleoclimatologist, told The New York Times. “I feel like the time to do something was yesterday.”

There's the rub. Metaphorically speaking, the day before yesterday saw the conclusion of the Rio Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992 and the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol 1997, whereupon many of the leading industrial countries did start making serious efforts to cut their greenhouse gas emissions. But the United States opted out of that process, and rapidly industrialized countries like China and India were not required to join in. Then, yesterday, with the global financial meltdown and near-depression, the whole world took a timeout on climate policy. Traumatic events like the U.S. heat wave last summer and Hurricane Sandy last fall continued to deliver rude reminders of what climate change could mean. But with major economies still struggling to get moving again, much of the public remained unready to get—and certainly unready to act on—the message.

What now? Is it not time for the United States, which seems at last to be getting over the economic hump, to get into the game of climate diplomacy in a serious way?

Photo: Mauna Loa Observatory, by Chris Stewart/AP Photo

Iowa Utility to Build Another Gigawatt of Wind Power by 2015

Texas and California are the two biggest states in the country by population, and second and third by area. So it's no surprise they're one-two on the installed wind power state ranking list. But what's Iowa—26th biggest by area and 30th by population—doing there at third place?

Iowa, already impressive in its wind power progress, continues its march into the energy future with one of it's two main utilities announcing plans to build US $1.9 billion worth of new turbines by 2015. MidAmerican Energy says the project's 656 new turbines will generate hundreds of millions of dollars in property tax revenues and will arrive at zero extra expense to utility customers. In fact, after only a few years of operation, ratepayers will see a decrease in electricity bills thanks to the 1050 megawatts of new wind.

That full gigawatt of power joins more than 5 GW already installed in the Hawkeye State through the end of 2012, and would add about 1.5 percent to the total installed capacity in the U.S. And though Iowa may be smaller than Texas and California by just about any measure that doesn't include corn production, in 2012 it led the way in percentage of electricity generation from wind, at 24.5 percent. According to Iowa's own wind industry group, the installed capacity is enough for about 1.1 million homes; guess how many households the state even has. Yup, just over 1.2 million.

So what gives? Some of it is grandfathered in at this point, with a historically strong wind industry in the region leading residents to welcome the sight of wind energy towers instead of resent them. And yes, there is a lot of wind to go around: 26th in size, but seventh in total wind resource, with an enormous 570 000 potential megawatts floating in the first 100 meters off the ground. But interestingly, state policies aren't really pushing the rotors of wind power in Iowa: While the state does have a renewable energy portfolio standard, it sets a weak goal, in terms of megawatts rather than a percentage. California, by contrast, requires itself to have 33 percent of electricity from renewables by 2020; Iowa's now-ancient standard (passed in 1983) calls for 105 MW from renewables divided between the two main utilities. The state passed that mark long ago.

Whatever the reason, the $1.9 billion in new turbines suggests Iowa isn't ready to slow down, even though now it can essentially power every home in the state with just those spinning blades.

Photo: JG Photography/Alamy 

How Valuable is Concentrating Solar Power to the Grid?

The Ivanpah solar plant in the Mojave Desert marches ever closer to its official opening this summer. That plant, a huge concentrating solar power (CSP) facility using mirrors aimed at central towers, will join others in Spain, Abu Dhabi, and elsewhere. So there's a sizeable capacity potential for CSP, but is the technology worth it? When Ivanpah and a number of other plants were designed or suggested, photovoltaic prices hadn't dropped off the map just yet, so the economics of building plants that concentrated light seemed reasonable. That has since changed and PV is incredibly cheap, and the actual value CSP provides has yet to really be quantified. A recent analysis from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) tries to do that—specifically in California, though the methodology can certainly be used elsewhere.

The basic answer is that CSP is very valuable to the grid, especially when it is capable of providing "operating reserves," or short-term extra capacity in times of high demand or failures in other parts of the grid. The value is essentially based on how much fossil fuel-based generation can be avoided through the use of CSP; the NREL researchers compared a baseline scenario to photovoltaics, CSP alone, and CSP with operating reserves. CSP beats out the baseline scenario by about US $6 per megawatt-hour, and by $12 per MWh over PV.

By using operating reserves, though, those differences increase fairly dramatically: CSP wins in that case by $22 per MWh over baseload and $29 per MWh over PV. Interestingly, running CSP plants with operating reserves would mean a shift in standard practice: generally, these plants are run at full capacity whenever the sun shines, but to provide operating reserves would mean running at only partial capacity some of the time and then ramping up when needed.

This analysis was conducted solely for the California grid, and was based on the state's renewable energy portfolio standard calling for 33 percent of electricity from renewables by 2020. The same method, though, could be extended to other regions as well. And quantifying CSP's value may help it continue to grow, given some recent struggles; BrightSource Energy, the Ivanpah plant's developer, has shelved a full gigawatt of further CSP plans this year alone thanks to cost and other issues. PV is cheap these days, but can't incorporate storage using molten salts or other ideas the way CSP can, and clearly doesn't add value to the overall grid the way CSP does. To really scale up renewables we will need both in huge amounts, but understanding CSP's value is an important step toward its expansion.

Photo: BrightSource Energy

Japan's Utilities Suffer Staggering Losses

Eurotechnology Japan noted in a recent e-mail circular that Japan's ten major electricity operators were deeply in the red for the year ending 31 March—the second year in a row that the utilities took such a hit. Their combined 2012-13 losses came to US $15 billion, almost exactly the same as the year before. In its annual report for the fiscal year that ended 31 March 2011 (three weeks after the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe), Tepco had to report a $10 billion loss—nearly all as a direct result of the accident. In the next fiscal year, says the e-mail alert, all but one of the country's nuclear operators were affected by the shutdown of Japan's reactors and the urgent need to replace nuclear electricity with power generated from imported natural gas. "Currently all Japanese regional electricity operators, except Hokuriku Electric Power Company and Okinawa Electric Power Company show net losses." As a result, the country as a whole has seen its trade balance slip into the red, despite its position as an exporter to the world.

Japan need not have found itself in such dire straights following an event like Fukushima, an author of the Eurotechnology Japan report told Britain's Economist magazine. Although the country has great potential in renewables--from rooftop solar to offshore wind and geothermal energy--Japan's utilities have arbitrarily sought to limit the share of renewables in electricity production to 1 percent, an unspoken rule, said Gerhard Fasol. Though officials now are talking of boosting that share to 15-25 percent, actually getting that done will surely require a battle royal with vested interests.

Meanwhile, Fukushima has been a huge blow to nuclear manufacturers everywhere, Japan's first and foremost. So it was big news for them and something of a breakthrough last week when Turkey announced it would purchase a huge, 4.5 Gigawatt atomic power plant complex from an international group led by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries at an estimated price of more than $20 billion. Though Mitsubishi will have the role of prime contractor, the actual technology will be provided mainly by France's Areva—its first big nuclear sale since Fukushima as well.

Many financial details of the deal remain unresolved, and the deal cannot be considered fully done until they are worked out. Evidently Turkey will take a large capital stake in the project, but most costs will be carried by the international contractors, who will be repaid out of revenues from the plant's electricity sales. The issue of just how much risk will be shifted to investors is key, given the jittery financial climate for nuclear power post-Fukushima. In the case of an earlier 4.5-GW nuclear power complex commissioned by Turkey (the nation's first such deal), Russia's nuclear supplier assumed all the risk.

Photo: The third and fourth reactors buildings at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, as seen from the air on Feb. 20, 2013.
Credit: The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images

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