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Electric Car Price Wars Heat Up

General Motors announced on Tuesday it will shave US $5000 off the price of its 2014 Chevrolet Volt, a drop of 13 percent.

The move comes after Nissan cut the price by similar margins for its all-electric Leaf earlier this year, and Ford did the same for its Focus Electric. The Volt could cost as little as $27 495 after federal tax incentives.

The lower costs are due in part to manufacturing efficiencies, Don Johnson, U.S. vice president of Chevrolet sales and service, said in a statement. “We have made great strides in reducing costs as we gain experience with electric vehicles and their components,” he said. “In fact, the Volt has seen an increase in battery range and the addition of creature comforts.”

It may be seen as a pricing war between electric vehicles (EVs), but all of the electric and plug-in hybrids are competing with higher fuel economy internal combustion engines, efficient diesel, and hybrids offerings and steady gas prices just below $4 per gallon in much of the United States.

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UK Launches Europe’s Largest Energy Storage Trial

The largest European energy storage trial is underway in the United Kingdom. The project, which brings together S&C Electric, Samsung SDI, and Younicos, will deploy a 6-megawatt/10 megawatt-hour lithium-ion battery at a primary substation in Bedfordshire to assess the cost effectiveness of energy storage as part of the UK’s Carbon Plan.

The companies claim the storage could save more than US $9 million compared to traditional upgrades, such as replacing lines and transformers. Unlike many other regions, the UK’s deregulated utility market is incentivized towards low-carbon operations in which they are rewarded for better utilization of their existing assets, rather than just adding hard assets onto the networks.

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How Significant Is Methane Leakage?

Over the past six to eight years, the United States has registered quite dramatic decreases in greenhouse gas emissions, putting the country on track to meet its 2009 Copenhagen pledge (though not its 1997 Kyoto Protocol commitment, which it repudiated). The decreases have primarily been the result of energy companies switching from coal-fired electricity generation to natural gas—partly a spontaneous market reaction to very low U.S. gas prices, and partly a reaction to ever-tightening Federal regulation of coal emissions.

But what if those decreases were only apparent because leakage of methane from gas production, distribution, and use has overinflated the supposed benefits of switching from coal to gas? On average, burning gas rather than coal to make electricity cuts carbon dioxide emissions by about 50 percent; the alleged decline in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions since about 2006 is largely based on that assumption. But methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2—up to two orders of magnitude, or 100-times, more potent. So if there's a lot of methane leakage, the benefits of switching to gas could be nil, and U.S. claims about making big progress in cutting emissions could be wrong.

Several major studies aimed at addressing this key issue are underway. Perhaps the most ambitious in scope is one being conducted by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) in conjunction with 85 academic researchers and natural gas companies. The results of the EDF methane leakage study are to be released next year in peer-reviewed science journals. The study covers production, processing, long-distance distribution, local distribution, and the transportation sector.

A preliminary paper on methane leakage by leaders of the EDF study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that if the Environmental Protection Agency's well-to-city leakage estimate of 2.4 percent is about right, then there is indeed a net benefit from switching to gas. In fact, any leakage rate below 3.2 percent will yield a net benefit, say the EDF authors. But it is important to emphasize—you could say crucial—that the issue here is not merely whether switching from coal to gas produces a benefit; the issue is whether it produces a huge climate benefit, as is generally believed.

If the net effect on greenhouse gas emissions of switching from coal to gas is merely modest, then other factors might tip the balance against gas in a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis: factors such as water impacts of fracking (total water resources, drinking water), ramifications for local communities (traffic congestion, air pollution, property values), and long-term investments in other sources of clean energy (from renewables like wind and solar to nuclear energy). This week, Electrité de France (another EDF!) announced it was terminating nuclear work in the United States because of competition from rock-bottom natural gas prices.

The Environmental Defense Fund's methane leakage study is not the only important one underway. A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency assessment of hydraulic fracturing, also due out next year, may address the question of leakage, according to Anthony R Ingraffea, an engineering professor at Cornell. Writing in the New York Times on Monday, Ingraffea said early drafts of an Energy Department study "suggest that there are huge problems finding enough water for fracturing future wells."

Taking those studies into account, 2014 looks to be shaping up as the year in which we Americans learn whether we're good guys or not such good guys in the global greenhouse gas reduction drama.

Photo: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

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


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