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NASA Launches Carbon-Tracking Satellite

It's been a rough birthing process for NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) satellite program, which promises global tracking of carbon dioxide entering and leaving the atmosphere at ground level. Five years ago the first OCO fell into the Antarctic Ocean and sank, trapped inside the nose cone of a Taurus XL launch vehicle that failed to separate during launch. The angst deepened yesterday when NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) scrubbed a first attempt to launch a twin of the lost $280-million satellite, OCO-2, after sensors spotted trouble with the launch pad's water-flood vibration-damping system less than a minute before ignition.

But this morning OCO's troubles became history. At 2:56 a.m. PDT a Delta II rocket carrying the OCO-2 satellite roared off the pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. According to JPL, the OCO separated from the Delta II's second stage 56 minutes later and settled into an initial 690-kilometer-high orbit. If all goes well it will maneuver into a final 705-km orbit over the next month, putting it at the head of an international multi-satellite constellation of Earth-observing satellites known as the A-Train.

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Energy Department Backs Cape Wind With $150 Million Loan Guarantee

The U.S. Department of Energy announced today the conditional approval of a US $150 million loan guarantee for the most famous offshore wind farm that isn't, Cape Wind. Though this likely doesn't change the details of Cape Wind's progress toward real, in-the-water spinning turbines, it certainly signals the Obama administration's commitment to helping launch the offshore wind industry in the United States.

Cape Wind will eventually feature 130 turbines, each with a 3.6 megawatt capacity for a total of 468 MW, spinning in the shoals between Cape Cod and Nantucket in the U.S. northeast. It would be capable of powering about three quarters of all of Cape Cod's electricity needs. The project has been hounded for well more than a decade now by legal battle after legal battle, which many boil down to a few very rich people getting upset that their view might be "ruined." But each battle has ended with Cape Wind the victor, and theoretically the permitting and wrangling should be largely behind it.

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California, Texas Hit New Records for Renewables on the Grid

California Independent System Operator (Cal ISO) announced in March that the state hit a record of 3926 megawatts (MW) of utility-scale solar energy on its system. The next day, it broke its own record with just over 4 gigawatts of solar power generation.

Now, that record has been broken again. Cal ISO recorded 4767 MW of utility-scale solar on June 1. And it’s not just one-off days that are seeing substantial growth in renewable energy on California’s grid.

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Thin-film Solar Cells Freed From Toxic Processing

Cadmium chloride is filthy stuff. Its cadmium ions are extremely toxic, causing heart disease, kidney disorders, and a host of other health problems. One accidental spill of the water-soluble compound can wipe out fish from a river. So it is both unfortunate and ironic that cadmium chloride should be essential for manufacturing a promising source of clean energy: thin-film cadmium telluride solar cells.

Researchers at the University of Liverpool in the United Kingdom have now discovered that the cadmium chloride can be replaced with magnesium chloride, a benign and extremely cheap alternative that could help to cut the cost and environmental impact of thin-film photovoltaics. Magnesium chloride is extracted from seawater, and is used as a low-temperature de-icer for roads or as a coagulant to make tofu. And at roughly US $1 per kilogram in bulk, it is hundreds of times cheaper than cadmium chloride.

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UK Approves World's Largest Offshore Wind Farm

The United Kingdom’s Department for Energy and Climate Change approved the East Anglia ONE offshore wind farm last week, paving the way for the construction of the world’s largest wind farm.

The approximately 240 turbines would have an installed capacity of 1,200 megawatts, more than double the size of the London Array, the largest offshore wind farm currently in existence. That group of turbines has an installed capacity of 630 megawatts.

China has become the world’s largest wind market, with more than 14 gigawatts installed in 2013, according to Pew Charitable Trusts. But the UK still leads the the world in offshore installations. Nearly half of new offshore capacity in 2013 was installed in the UK, according to North American Windpower. Globally, 13 offshore wind projects added a total of 1,720 megawatts in 2013. (As we reported here, 2013 was a banner year for renewables across the board.)

In the next few years, the UK could see increasing company in building offshore wind farms. The European Union has committed €4 million to the Offshore Wind Power Development project in India, which aims to lay the groundwork for offshore development there.

Offshore wind farms may also finally be moving forward in the US, particularly on the East Coast. Even the Cape Wind project, which has been subject to a long legal battle, could begin construction sometime this year.

Japan is also moving forward to tap its offshore wind capacity. Last year, it installed an experimental floating turbine, which would be necessary because the drop off in the continental shelf around Japan makes the waters surrounding its islands mostly too deep for traditional turbine technology.

The East Anglia ONE array, located about 45 kilometers from the Suffolk coast, would have up to four undersea DC cables that would connect onshore with National Grid’s transmission network. National Grid is also planning for another eight cable ducts that could be used for two future East Anglia projects. The project is owned by ScottishPower Renewables and Vattenfall.

East Anglia ONE's more than 200 turbines, covering roughly 300 square kilometers, would create enough energy for about 820,000 British households. The turbines are approved to be up to 200 meters tall.

The world’s largest offshore wind turbine is currently Alstom’s 6-megawatt Haliade turbine that spins off the coast of Belgium. The blades stretch more than 73 meters and the turbine sits more than 100 meters above the sea. But higher-capacity offshore turbines are already in testing, so the title could soon transfer to another turbine.

East Anglia is expected to begin onshore construction in 2016 and offshore installation in 2017. The array could be completed by 2020.  

Electricity From Heat Could Power Electronics

A thermoelectric generator could make army tanks and family minivans more fuel efficient by turning waste heat into electricity, and open up a variety of other uses, says the company that’s developing the generators.

GMZ Energy of Waltham, Mass., says it has demonstrated a module that produces 200 watts of electricity from the heat coming off a diesel-powered tank, a step toward building systems that will produce a kilowatt from such tanks. With the effort involved in transporting fuel to a battle site, diesel can cost the U.S. military upwards of $10.50 per liter ($40 per gallon). So using that fuel more efficiently will save the Department of Defense significant amounts of money, says Scott Rackey, GMZ’s vice president of business development.

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Renewables Up, Nuclear Flat in French Energy Plan

After months of negotiation, the French government has unveiled a long-awaited energy plan that is remarkably true to its election promises. The legislation's cornerstone is the one-third reduction in the role of nuclear power that President François Hollande proposed on the campaign trail in 2012.
Under the plan, nuclear's share of the nation's power generation is to drop from 75 percent to 50 percent by 2025, as renewable energy's role rises from 15 percent today to 40 percent to make up the difference. That is a dramatic statement for France, which is the world's second largest generator of nuclear energy, after the United States. France has a globally-competitive nuclear industry led by state-owned utility Electricité de France (EDF) and nuclear technology and services giant Areva.
When Spectrum reported on Hollande's promise last year, a plan was said to be just months away. And as discussions dragged on, doubts about Hollande's resolve grew. Discontent over the energy debate contributed to a breakdown this spring of the coalition between Hollande's Socialists and France's staunchly antinuclear Greens.
To get the job done, Hollande sacked his environment minister and appointed Socialist party heavyweight Ségolène Royal—a former presidential candidate and Hollande's ex-wife. Her plan is short on details in some key areas, including mechanisms for effecting a nuclear-to-renewables shift. A new nuclear electricity tax is expected to finance the installation of renewables, for example, but details remain to be defined.
That lack of specificity leaves France's nuclear critics non-plussed. “Nothing in the law guarantees that Hollande’s promise to lower the proportion of nuclear to 50 percent in 2025 will be kept... Politicians haven’t provided any means to shake off the shackles of nuclear," according to a statement by Greenpeace France quoted in Bloomberg's report on the plan.
In fact, Royal's plan merely caps the current level of nuclear power generated by Paris-based EDF. If renewable output and total electricity generation rises, the government could deliver its promised drop in the proportion of nuclear without shuttering a single reactor.
Royal's plan does call for a 50-percent cut in total energy consumption by 2050, but it aims to do that by cutting fossil fuel use in buildings and vehicles. One of the proposed avenues for accomplishing that is accelerating the adoption of electric vehicles. The government plan calls for rebates and tax breaks worth up to €10,000 ($14,600) per electric vehicle, and for sharply increased use of EVs in government fleets.
It will take a lot of electricity to charge up lots of extra EVs.

U.S. Will Auction Massive Tract for Offshore Wind Development

There are still no offshore wind farms in U.S. waters. That sentence is the backdrop to all the long-running machinations involved with getting an important industry off the ground, but it is clear that the government is doing what it can to change that seemingly static state of affairs. In the latest news, the Department of the Interior announced another auction of offshore real estate for wind development, significantly increasing the overall available area. This latest parcel is about the size of Rhode Island.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell joined Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick on Tuesday to announce the impending auction of more than 3,000 square kilometers (742,000 acres). The area, which will be divided into four separate parcels, dwarfs the 920 square kilometers of U.S. water rights that had previously been auctioned off for this purpose. Those previous auctions raised more than $5 million, and as several offshore projects get closer and closer to construction one would imagine that the new auctions will generate significant interest as well.

Looking at the map of the new area might set off some alarm bells simply because Nantucket is in the picture, but it shouldn't raise any of the same problems as Cape Wind. That project will sit in the shoals between Nantucket and Cape Cod, a location that precipitated the inane viewshed arguments that have plagued it for almost 15 years now. The new area up for auction is south of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard, and by a significant enough distance to avoid issues related to ruining prized vistas.

So how big is 3000 square kilometers when it comes to wind development? The London Array, currently the world's biggest offshore wind farm at 630 megawatts (with the eventual goal of 1 gigawatt), sits on a 100-square-kilometer area. That means if companies managed to develop all of the new area (not likely, of course), there is at least a potential to install enough turbines to generate 18 000 megawatts. That's enough to power, say, Finland. Or Chile. Or Kazakhstan.

Of course, just putting the area up for auction says nothing about when we'll see turbines spinning in the water. That could still be somewhere between five and infinity years away. For now, though, there will be a 60-day public comment period during which companies must inform the Interior Department of an intention to participate in the auction. A sale will probably take place toward the end of the summer, after which the first stages of development could start moving ahead.

For years now, wind power proponents have been hoping that once that first farm makes it into the water, it will start a cascade of development for offshore wind. As we wait for that first domino to fall—maybe Cape Wind, maybe Block Island, maybe a dark horse—it's good to see that the government is helping to set up all the dominos that will follow it.

A Cotton Powered Future for EVs?

A Japanese battery maker and a Japanese auto racing team have announced a collaboration to develop an electric car battery, whose promised performance certainly raises an eyebrow. The battery maker’s claims — faster charge times, greater capacity, longer range, greater number of charge-discharge cycles and less volatility than conventional lithium-ion EV batteries — perch the technology at the moment somewhere between “breakthrough” and “too good to be true.”

PowerJapan Plus, whose recent announcement video cites ten years’ lab development of its battery, has to date remained guarded about its proprietary technology. The company’s webpage about the “Ryden Dual Carbon Battery” states that it uses both a carbon anode and carbon cathode made from modified cotton fibers. (Ryden is a homophone of “Raijin,” a Shinto god of lightning, thunder, and storms.)

Not yet revealed is the detailed chemistry of the cathode, anode and electrolyte and how they might work together — and how this unique design might also yield such a powerful battery for EVs. (Though technical specs are still scarce, one fact that may have gotten lost in translation in English-language press coverage to date is the word “organic.” Some reporters have seized on the Ryden’s “organic cotton” composition, implying the cotton fibers in the anode and cathode were grown in a pesticide-free or pesticide-reduced field. We suspect the word “organic” in the present context instead means carbon-based, as in “organic chemistry.”)

Last month, PowerJapan Plus unveiled its Ryden battery to some media fanfare—albeit quizzical fanfare—for the many unanswered questions that remain about the technology. Readers are certainly prudent to remain cautious about Power Japan Plus until more details are known, and third-party verification of their claims are offered up. We’ve been down this road before, such as in 2007 and 2008 when ultracapacitor maker EEStor first made waves about an allegedly revolutionary energy storage technology that never quite materialized.

This month, the Japanese Le Mans auto racing team, Team Taisan, has announced its partnership with PowerJapan Plus to develop Ryden batteries for an electric vehicle it hopes to race with one day. The first stop on that road, they say, is a Ryden-powered electric go-kart that is now slated to start test driving in August. In the PJP-Taisan announcement video, Taisan team owner Yatsune Chiba says it had previously tried to race Tesla electric cars but had difficulties with its batteries overheating.

“We have faced a number of issues with electric vehicle batteries up until now,” says Chiba in the accompanying press announcement. “The Ryden battery from Power Japan Plus is the solution we have been searching for. We will first develop a battery capable of withstanding the rigorous demands of racing, before advancing the technology for use in commercial applications.”

And we will be watching, like fans at the start of a big race, curious to see more and not quite certain yet whom to root for.

Amid Blackouts, India's New Leader Vows 24-7 Power for All

Blackouts this week in New Delhi and surrounding states are providing a dramatic backdrop for a bold promise by India's new prime minister, Narendra Modi, whose Hindu nationalist party swept to power in a landslide election last month. As a scorching heatwave drove power consumption beyond the grid's capacity, Modi's government vowed to deliver "round-the-clock power for all by 2022," reports the Wall Street Journal.

That will be an awesome task. Nearly one-quarter of India's 1.26 billion citizens lack grid access. And India's utilities have struggled to keep up with demand from those who are connected. Power cuts are frequent.

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