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Mining Big Data to Make a Point about Solar

When Australian activists conducted a spoof solar energy installation assessment for their climate change-doubting Prime Minister Tony Abbot's residence (“The Lodge”) last month, the intent may have been satirical, but the software they used is anything but. In fact, virtually simulating solar energy installations from afar has quietly become a commonplace in the solar industry, which is rapidly embracing big data. 

So-called “solar analytics” has in recent years gone from an internet-era curio to nearly a competitive necessity, says Murray Hogarth, sustainable energy blogger and director of community energy networks for the Australian company Wattwatchers.

“That sort of use of data to decide what the system should be before installation occurs—before anyone even goes to the site—is now widespread,” he says.

So in the case of Prime Minister Abbott—whose climate-change denial has earned him international opprobrium—Australian climate activist group 1 Million Women consulted with the Chinese PV company Suntech Power and Australian company Solar Analytics to virtually outfit The Lodge in Canberra with 81 PV panels.

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Construction Starts on World's Largest Post-Combustion Carbon Capture Project

Carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) has made more headlines over the years for steps back than for steps forward. There have been a number of high profile projects that have been shelved or scaled down; American Electric Power, for example, cancelled big plans for a US $668 million facility in West Virginia, and the flagship FutureGen plant has now taken the form of a much diminished retrofit in Meredosia, Illinois. So news that what will be the biggest post-combustion carbon capture plant in the world has actually started construction is quite the anomaly.

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How Much Energy Storage Do You Need to Back Up the London Array?

Storing electricity underwater in the form of compressed air is a tantalizing notion that could, if it works, help solve the intermittency problem of wind, solar, and other renewable sources. That “if” is a big one, though, because there are many details engineers have yet to nail down for underwater compressed-air energy storage (UW-CAES). One company that’s been trying to nail down those details is the Canadian start-up Hydrostor. I recently wrote about its plans to deploy the world’s first commercial UW-CAES system in Lake Ontario.

The Hydrostor system will use electricity from the Toronto Hydro power grid to run a compressor; the compressed air will then be stored in flexible energy bags submerged at a depth of about 80 meters. Later, the air will be run through a turbine when the energy is needed.

For all that effort, the system will be able to supply just a megawatt of electricity for up to three hours. Eventually, the company is aiming for a capacity of 20 to 30 megawatts that can be discharged over 10 to 20 hours. But a big wind or solar farm would require a lot more storage than that. How much? Well, the offshore wind farm known as the London Array has 175 turbines and an installed capacity of 630 megawatts. To compensate for a one-day lull would require up to 812,000 cubic meters of compressed air, according to an analysis by Maxim de Jong. He’s the design engineer and CEO of Thin Red Line Aerospace, which makes energy bags and also inflatable space structures. 

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How Far Can Crowd-funded Nuclear Fusion Go?

The inventors of a new, proprietary approach to purportedly low-cost nuclear fusion wrapped a largely successful crowd-funding campaign on 5 July. The campaign, which raised $180,279 of its $200,000 goal, will fund a next-generation experimental reactor with the aim of achieving a working device by 2020.

The so-called “Focus Fusion” device harnesses the alternate proton-boron nuclear fusion reaction—one that generates comparatively fewer neutrons than traditional multi-billion-dollar deuterium-tritium reactors. There are at least two other companies, in addition to the “Z-machine” at Sandia National Laboratory, pursuing similar avenues to the ultimate goal everyone in fusion research seeks: sustained, clean, and radiation-free fusion reactions that produce more energy than they consume.

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Networked Gadgets Waste 400 Terawatt-Hours of Energy Every Year

Your Xbox wastes a lot of energy—energy that could power the entire United Kingdom. Well, it's not just your Xbox, but your Xbox and my printer and your friend's television and 14 billion other networked electronic devices around the world. All told, those devices use an astonishing amount of energy, and in fact they waste a huge amount of it—enough to power the U.K. and then some. This is, obviously, not just a giant drain on our energy supplies but just as giant an opportunity to save.

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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.  

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