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Mexico Opens Its Grid to Competition

As part of a wider reform of its energy market, Mexico is privatizing its energy regulator and will begin allowing private companies to sell energy to, and add capacity to, its electricity grid. The country's president, Enrique Peña Nieto, enacted the laws (English summaries) on Monday, August 11th (Spanish pdf). Petroleum and electricity have been state monopolies in law since the 1917 constitution and in practice since the late 1930s, when Mexico succeeded in expropriating foreign energy firms' holdings.

The change in direction is in part a response to very poor productivity: Mexican industrial customers pay around 72 percent more than American counterparts for electricity, according to a Deloitte report (pdf).  PriceWaterhouseCoopers estimates that the Mexican grid has 18 percent transmission losses, over double the OECD average of seven percent (pdf).

The US-Mexico border sees only a small amount of electricity trading today, but this reform could be an opportunity for American firms with generation and transmission construction experience. Private companies already generate around one third of Mexico's electricity, but they must sell it to the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE), the national regulator and distributor of electricity. Under the new laws, they will be able to bid for access to the grid and compete for clients. In the long run, that should lead to lower prices.

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An Energy-Storing Wind Turbine Would Provide Power 24/7

Electricity is the perfect form of power in all respects but one. It can be produced and used in many different ways, and it can be transmitted easily, efficiently, and economically, even over long distances. However, it can be stored directly only at extremely high cost. With some clever engineering, however, we should be able to integrate energy storage with all the important modes of generation, particularly wind-generated power.

Right now, to store electricity affordably at grid-scale levels, you need to first convert it into some non-electrical form: kinetic energy (the basis for flywheels), gravitational potential (which underlies all pumped-hydro storage), chemical energy (the mechanism behind batteries), the potential energy of elastically strained material or compressed gas (as in compressed air energy storage), or pure heat. In each case, however, you lose a significant percentage of energy in converting it for storage and then recovering it later on.

What if instead you were to completely integrate the energy storage with the generation? Then you wouldn’t have to pay for the extra power-conversion equipment to put the electricity into storage and recover it, and you wouldn’t suffer the losses associated with this two-way conversion. One of the most attractive ideas, I believe, is to integrate storage with wind-generated power. I’ll come back to that in a minute.

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Tesla, Panasonic Team Up for "Giga" Battery Factory

Tesla Motors this week announced they’d inked a deal with battery-maker Panasonic for a proposed battery “gigafactory.” The electric car automaker also provided some substance to the rumors that the factory will be sited in Reno, Nev.

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Filling Up a Fuel-Cell Car With Hydrogen Gets One Step Closer

From construction materials to livestock to aeronautical engineering to ice cream, the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) keeps an annual tally of the weights and measures needed for industries throughout the nation’s economy. NIST’s Handbook 44 is like a Whole Earth Catalog for the durable and consumable goods sold in the United States, including gasoline—and now hydrogen.

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Green Mountain Power Goes Green, Saves Green

At a time when some forecasts for the future of electrical utilities see gloom—volatile fossil fuel prices hiking rates and killing profits while customers wean themselves from the grid in favor of renewables, distributed storage, and smart micro grids—it’s no surprise that some of the 3300 electric utilities in the United States have dug in their heels. Florida’s top electrical utilities, for instance, have reportedly strongly resisted the rise of solar power in the sun-drenched state.

Yet a few utilities are actively bucking the industry trend of rising rates and resistance to clean energy. In 2014 alone, for instance, Vermont’s top electric provider, Green Mountain Power (GMP), has announced a 2.46-percent rate cut while also receiving the advocacy group Vote Solar’s 2014 Solar Champion award—the only utility to be so honored.

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GE Claims Fuel Cell Breakthrough, Starts Pilot Production

General Electric has developed a way to convert natural gas using a combination of fuel cell and an engine, an approach it hopes will finally result in broad adoption of stationary fuel cells.

The industrial giant's research arm on Tuesday disclosed details on its solid-oxide fuel cell research efforts and said it has started a pilot line at a factory in upstate New York to manufacture the generators. As first reported here last year, GE has achieved relatively high efficiency by coupling two generators and hopes to bring down costs by using cheaper materials.

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Survey: Climate Experts Favor Retiring Coal, Keeping Nuclear

If you were the scientific advisor to a $200-billion venture capital fund that aims to limit global warming over the next 20 years, what investment would you recommend as having the single biggest impact? A survey of climate experts found that a majority listed the retirement of coal power—or the sequestering of their emissions—as the top priority for investment.

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Wind Farm Fires Far More Common Than Reported, Study Finds

Fires in wind turbines are happening ten times more often than they are reported, according to new research from Imperial College London, the University of Edinburgh and SP Technical Research Institute of Sweden.

The incidence of fire is still far less than in fossil fuel-based energy industries, such as oil and gas, which suffer thousands of fire accidents per year. The wind industry reports about 11 fires per year, but the researchers found there are more likely about 117 wind turbine fires annually across more than 200,000 turbines. For the wind industry, the fires are the second leading cause of accidents after blade failure.

Inside of the turbine’s nacelle, hydraulic oil and plastics share the same tight space as machinery and electrical wires. When there is overheating or faulty wiring it can catch fire. The nacelles are perched behind the turbines so high winds often fuel the flames.

Because the turbines are so tall and are often in remote areas, they are usually destroyed before the fire can be suppressed. In 90 percent of the cases, the fire leads to substantial downtime or a total loss of the wind turbine.

“Worryingly our report shows that fire may be a bigger problem than what is currently reported,” Guillermo Rein, from the department of mechanical engineering at Imperial College London, said in a statement. “Our research outlines a number of strategies that can be adopted by the industry to make these turbines safer and more fire resistant in the future."

The researchers looked at data from the past 30 years and found that fire accounted for 10 to 30 percent of the reported turbine accidents, with reports increasing. The leading cause of the fires was lightening strikes. That was followed by electrical malfunction, mechanical failure, and errors with maintenance.

One industry group, RenewableUK, welcomed the report overall but questioned the data sources used by the researchers. “Wind turbines are designed to international standards to meet mandatory health and safety standards including fire safety risks. State of the art monitoring systems ensure that the vast majority of turbine fires can be dealt with quickly and effectively,” Chris Streatfeild, director of health and safety for RenewableUK, said in a statement. “This is supported by an HSE-commissioned report in 2013, which concluded that the safety risks associated with wind turbines are well below all other comparable societal risks.”

Some of the strategies the researchers suggest to prevent ignition include passive fire protections, such as lightning protection systems and switching to non-combustible oils and insulating materials. Smoke alarms and fire suppression systems could also help minimize the extant of fire damage.

The researchers also plan to evaluate the frequency and impact of fire on solar panels in the future.

India Pledges $250 Million to Grid Improvements, Solar Power

India recently committed millions of dollars to solar power and grid improvements in an effort to provide electricity to more homes, according to Bloomberg.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government will spend 15 billion rupees (US$ 250 million) to increase solar power across the country and also to improve power delivery. Nearly 40 percent of India’s 1.2 billion people have no access to reliable electricity.

Two-thirds of the funds would go to various types of solar power projects. About $83 million would go to large solar power plants, and another $67 million would go towards 100,000 solar-powered irrigation pumps.

The investment in the pumps is just a fraction of the 26 million groundwater pumps that the Indian government wants to replace with more efficient solar-powered pumps. The power used for pumping irrigation water is also one of the largest strains on the Indian power grid. Earlier this year, Bloomberg reported the cost of 200 000 pumps would be $1.6 billion.

The government also recommitted to providing 24/7 power supply to all homes with an $83 million investment in feeder systems to bring electricity to rural areas. The program would mirror one that Modi instituted in its home state of Gujarat, according to Bloomberg.

In Gujarat, power feeder lines for farmers, which have substantial power needs, were separated from those that go to homes and villages. That allowed the state to provide more reliable electricity to most areas while also limiting the amount of subsidized power provided to farmers.

Some industry analysts question whether the budget allocation for this project would make a significant impact. Kameswara Rao, head of energy, utilities, and mining in India for PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP told Bloomberg that the funding needed to split off rural electricity supply was far larger than budgeted.

The efforts “are directionally correct but involve relatively small steps or lack specifics to support a meaningful improvement in the short-term,” credit rating agency Fitch Ratings said of the investment for India’s power sector. “There are entrenched structural issues affecting the performance of the power sector of India and the solution would require a sustained and disciplined policy focus.”

While India’s power sector suffers from an inadequate grid, there are also generation shortfalls that will not be helped by the funds committed to solar power and distribution upgrades. Fitch Ratings notes that there is a domestic shortfall for both coal and gas for power plants.

“The entire ecosystem of the power sector - from generation to distribution - needs to be strengthened,” Fitch analysts wrote.

Environmentalists were not pleased with the budget, calling for more distributed generation, rather than investment in large-scale solar plants and a continued reliance on coal that is fed into an inefficient grid.

"The steps on renewable energy and energy efficiency are not transformational,” Vinuta Gopal, head of climate and energy at Greenpeace India, told Reuters, “and the attempt to force fit coal production to clear the irrational power proposals is a signal that the reality of climate change has far from been recognized by this government.”


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