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Second Commercial Breakthrough for Large-Scale Solar

The announcement this week by Warren Buffet's MidAmerican Energy Holdings that it will make a $2 billion investment in First Solar's Topaz 550-MW solar farm represents a second significant market breakthrough for photovoltaics. Barely more than a week ago Solar City announced it would proceed with a far-reaching program to equip military residences around the country with PV arrays, even though it had been unable to secure a hoped-for Federal loan guarantee in the wake of the Solyndra bankruptcy. Similarly, Buffet's investment in Topaz enables First Solar to move ahead confidently with the project, even though it too failed to obtain a hoped-for Federal loan guarantee.

First Solar, the innovative maker of a low-cost, thin-film PV material, has been in some turmoil this year, suffering--like so many other companies in the same position--from brutal competition from Chinese manufacturers of generic polysilicon cells. To be competitive even under more normal business circumstances, First Solar's arrays require a lot of inexpensive land that gets a lot of all-day, round-the-year sunlight. (What is more, a long-standing policy of refusing to talk to the press under any circumstances may not have helped First Solar retain the confidence of investors this year.)

First Solar had obtained Federal loan guarantees for three other large projects but had been unable to get one for Topaz, a sprawling solar farm it already has started to build in California's San Luis Obispo county. Buffets's MidAmerican will take ownership of the project, which First Solar will continue to build and eventually operate.

MidAmerican, a unit of Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway, has broad holdings in utilities and energy, but Topaz is its first foray into solar generation.

 

 

 

Reports Highlight Need for Tougher Cybersecurity, Centralized Transmission Planning

Two recent reports, one issued by the Federal government's General Accounting Office (GAO), the other by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, emphasize the desirability of stronger central planning in guaranteeing the cybersecurity of U.S. power systems. The MIT report, additionally, calls for a stronger Federal role in cross-state transmission planning--though, let it be said, the most recent national energy act already gave the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) enhanced authority to bolster key transmission corridors, and there is evidence of transmission actually getting built when the task is properly addressed.

The GAO report, surveying cybersecurity programs in eight Federal departments, finds their respective efforts to be uneven: typically, the scope of cybersecurity is not well defined, personnel and training requirements are inconsistent, departments lack specific milestones to be met, and yet departmental efforts are often duplicative and redundant. The report calls for tighter planning within the departments and more coordination among them.

The MIT report goes a step further, suggesting that a single Federal organization be made responsible for cybersecurity in all Federal departments and agencies. At the same time, if such authority is given to some organization such as the Department of Homeland Security, the extent of its powers to regulate distribution systems will have to be defined and ways found of guaranteeing individual citizens' privacy, the report says.

Other MIT recommendations include: introduction of time-of-day pricing where advanced meters have been deployed, to enhance efficiency and conservation and to bring down consumer costs; funding of more research on topics such as computational tools for bulk power transmission, transmission planning methods, and models for consumer response; and compilation of results and lessons from initial smart grid demonstrations, such as those funded by the 2009 U.S. stimulus bill, and from other indicators of utility performance and costs.

Such topics are the bread and butter of the Smart Grid eNewsletter that IEEE launched at the beginning of this year.

China Climate Shift?

As the closing week of the Durban climate talks begins, China has caused a stir signaling that it might be willing to agree on a comprehensive agreement involving mandatory emissions cuts or targets. Until now, China's refusal to countenance any concrete objective--save improving the energy efficiency and carbon intensity of its economy over time--has been considered the main stumbling block to an agreement.

China's chief negotiator stated a handful of conditions for the country's joining in an agreement, prominent among them continued financing of green energy projects in developing countries by parties in rich countries. Possibly the specter of an impasse at Durban having a negative impact on carbon markets, discussed in a previous post, partly motivated China's change of position.

It's not easy to get an exact fix on China's attitude about climate policy. Earlier this year I was critical of those too willing to give China a pass. Yet a dozen years ago, when I spent a week in Beijing discussing climate change with government officials and academics, I was surprised how knowledgeable and open to ideas they were. If only because air pollution is such an obvious dire problem in China, everybody I talked with seem receptive to the idea of reducing fossil fuel emissions in principle.

Another element in China's thinking surely is water. On a subsequent trip to China, several years later, when visiting a big new dam on the upper Yellow River, I was startled to learn that the river itself was so drastically low it was not always making it all the way to its ocean outlet. The river's headwaters were shrinking because of long-term drought in the Gobi Dessert; dust storms were frequent and ubiquitous.

Last year, a Pew survey found that 70 percent of Chinese were willing to pay more for energy if that would help address global warming, versus just 38 percent in the United States.

It would be interesting to hear from readers who have had recent conversations or relevant experiences in China.

Clean Coal Mirage?

Turn on your television in the United States and tune to just about any newscast, and you are almost sure to encounter an industry-sponsored ad touting the benefits of "clean coal." And yet the reality of clean coal continues to recede. The latest reverse was the decision last month by an Illinois utility, Ameren, to pull out of the major U.S. demonstration project, dubbed FutureGen 2.0. The retreat by Ameren, which was to host the project at an oid oil-fired plant, leaves us awaiting word from partners Babcock & Wilcox and Air Liquide as to whether they will proceed with the project, with DOE.

The U.S. government has had an ambivalent on-again, off-again relationship with the project from its inception. First suggested by a White House energy advisory panel in the Clinton years, FutureGen got going during George W. Bush's  administration, only to be cancelled before Bush left office; Obama's DOE resuscitated the project, reconceptualizing it as a test of oxyfuel rather than IGCC technology. (Readers wanting the whole checkered history can easily find it by searching on FutureGen in Spectrum's website.) Oxyfuel involves removing nitrogen from air and burning fossil fuel in an atmosphere of almost pure oxygen, which facilitates separation and capture of carbon dioxide.

Another cloud hanging over FutureGen is the scarcity of detailed reporting from the one major oxyfuel test project to have been performed to date, at Vattenfall's Schwarze Pumpe plant in eastern Germany. Vattenfall's reticence suggests either that the plant has not been a resounding success, or that European utilities have generally lost confidence in the clean coal vision. Another major demonstration project, slated for Scottish Power's Longannet coal station, also is teetering.

European promoters of carbon capture and storage have been finding it much harder than expected to win public acceptance of actual storage plans. A positive development, on the other hand, has been the start of carbon dioxide injection into a sandstone formation near Decatur, Ill. If in the end FutureGen ever goes forward, could this be where its capture carbon ends up?

 

U.S. Trade Commission Finds Against Chinese Solar Exporters

The seven solar suitors who filed a trade complaint against China in late October, complaining that subsidized  photovoltaic panels were being "dumped" at unfair prices in the U.S. market, causing material damage to U.S. PV producers, prevailed in the first round yesterday. The six-member U.S. International Trade Commission determined unanimously that there is a reasonable indication that "U.S. industry is materially injured by reason of imports of crystalline silicon photovoltaic cells and modules from China that are allegedly subsidized and sold in the United States at less than fair value."

Reacting to the announcement, a spokesperson for SolarWorld, the lead complainant among the seven solar manufacturers, observed that the commission had three options in voting: no harm, a threat of harm, or actual harm. Because all six commissioners found actual harm, SolarWorld told The New York Times, it was “the highest possible outcome we could get in this admittedly incremental milestone.”

Yesterday's preliminary ruling, according to Matthew Wald of the Times, could directly result in higher tariffs being imposed on Chinese PV exporters of 5-250 percent. Next the trade commission will determine, in roughly two months time, whether China's solar exports also have been subsidized. A ruling in favor of the U.S. industry could result in additional tariffs of 100 percent.

In principle that issue would seem to be a no-brainer. But what's meant here by subsidization? All solar manufacturing and all solar installation is subsidized to some extent or another; so does the trade commission have to determine that Chinese manufacturers and exporters are somehow subsidized more excessively than their competitors in the United States, or will any finding of subsidization result in penalties? You tell me.

In a recent post about what appears to be the first-ever large-scale solar project to proceed "without government help," I invited readers to consider whether that claim should be taken literally. One reader promptly pointed out that as the project involved installation of solar arrays on housing for military personnel, perhaps the military itself was requiring such installation and covering any added costs. Good point. There's also the obvious question of whether, at least in some of the 33 states where the arrays are to be installed, the provider will be eligible for state installation or electricity production subsidies.

Durban Climate Conference: Do We Need a Supercommittee?

A highly noted student of foreign relations, following the U.S. debacle in Vietnam, wrote a book with the rather odd  title: "The Irony of Vietnam: The System Worked." Something of the same might be said of the famous--or, if you prefer, notorious--Kyoto Protocol. The industrial countries that promised toward the end of the 1990s to cut their emissions by a total of 5-6 percent by 2012 have in fact largely succeeded in doing so, and that's no mean accomplishment. Yet their reductions have been swamped by soaring emissions by the very rapidly developing countries, notably China, which are exempted from mandatory reductions in Kyoto.

Nobody really knows what to do about that, diplomatically or otherwise. And so, as the nations of the world gathered this week for the latest annual climate conference, expectations could hardly have been lower. In principle the top item on the agenda would be to negotiate new reduction targets for a second Kyoto compliance period, running to 2020. But given the radical differences between the United States and China, nobody expects that to happen.

An immediate fear this week is that if Kyoto becomes in effect a dead letter, what will happen to the carbon trading systems that have developed under the aegis of Kyoto--the carbon-offset system, linked to the so-called Clean Development Mechanism, which enables those emitting excessively in the industrial countries to invest offset money in green energy projects in the developing world; and the European Trading System, which in practice is closely linked to the CDM. Reputedly, a very large fraction of the money going into the CDM comes out of the ETS.

Even if these fears are essentially exaggerated and groundless, their very existence could have an adverse impact on markets. "It's like somebody waving an empty gun around in a coffee shop," the director of the Climate Markets & Investment Association told the Financial Times yesterday. "It scares off customers even if there are no bullets."

If anything big comes out of Durban, it''s likely to originate in hallway conversation, not the plenary negotiating sessions. In the runup to last year's conference in Cancun, there emerged a group of important developing countries--a group somewhat more inclusive than the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China). A still larger version of the group could include not just South Africa and Argentina, but Mexico, Turkey, Indonesia, and so on. Perhaps a group of that kind could somehow bridge the gap between the very big, very rapidly developing countries like China and India, on the one hand, and the United States, on the other.

Some have suggested the answer might lie in direct bilateral talks between the United States and China. But even if those two countries could agree on anything, wouldn't all the important countries left out of the discussion regard the outcome with suspicion and resentment?

Maybe a better model is the Congressional Supercommittee--six U.S Democrats and six Republicans--who were supposed to agree on big budget balancing measures, or drastic spending cuts would result. What's generally referred to as the super-failure of that committee means that there will be sharp cuts in defense spending, which almost everybody recognizes as necessary but nobody wants to take responsibility for. So: create a global committee consisting of three China-like countries and three U.S.-like countries. If it fails--which it almost certainly would--then mandatory carbon emission targets result for  all!

Large Solar Project Proceeds on a Commercial Basis

For years I've been saying that no big photovoltaic project ever goes forward without big government subsidies. So as far as I'm concerned it's big news that SolarCity's Solar Strong project--to outfit military residences around the country with PV arrays, at an estimated cost of up to $1 billion--has obtained private financing for the project without a Federal government guarantee.

SolarCity originally hoped and expected the Department of Energy to guarantee 80 percent of the $344 million it needed to borrow to fund the initial phase of the project. But in the wake of the Solyndra debacle, DOE announced it could not get the requisite paperwork done in time to meet a mandated deadline. But today Bank of America's Merrill Lynch announced it would put up $350 for the project, with no guarantee.

So, the big solar project appears to be going forward--"without any government help," as the San Jose Mercury News trenchantly put it.

If "without any government help" happens to mean anything other than without any government help, we will be grateful if some alert reader will immediately correct the record. Otherwise it would seem that for the first time, anywhere in the world, a large solar project is proceeding without public subsidy.

SolarCity's plan is to outfit as many as 120,000 military homes with solar arrays in 33 states. The combined solar megawattage may come to 300 MW, about the capacity of a standard coal or natural gas generating plant--not small by any standard. The first installations already are taking place at the Pearl Harbor base in Hawaii. The next are expected in states with relatively high electricity prices.

Settlement in U.K. Sheds Little Light on Wind Turbine Noise Issues

A couple in the United Kingdom has settled a lawsuit against wind farm owners claiming their lives were severely disrupted by the noise from the nearby turbines. The terms of the settlement are "strictly confidential," according to the Telegraph, meaning that this case won't provide much insight into the ongoing issues surrounding wind turbine noise.

The couple, who lived on a farm in Deeping St. Nicholas, about 100 miles north of London, complained of an "unbearable hum" from the turbines installed in 2006. They were seeking damages and compensation for their home and farm that they said lowered dramatically in value due to the noise. The settlement terms will remain sealed.

Noise complaints have dogged wind developers in a number of locations over the years, with conflicting data on exactly how loud turbines can be and how damaging the noise is to human health. A study commissioned by the American Wind Energy Association found no problems with noise, but groups opposed to wind power such as the Industrial Wind Action Group are vehement in their claims of noise-related problems.

One independent study by the Department of Energy published in December 2009 concluded that property values are unaffected nearby turbines for reasons including noise. A Minnesota Department of Health report, also from 2009, noted that decibel restrictions overlook some low-frequency noise from turbines that can affect people, especially indoors while sleeping.

Generally, it seems the noise issues don't travel past about half a mile or so, so simply building wind farms a bit away from residences might negate these issues from cropping up. Of course, that isn't always possible, especially in densely populated countries, so it seems unlikely that turbine noise complains will disappear any time soon.

(Image via Dave Rogers/Flickr)

 

A Superconducting Surge Protector for the Grid

Nearly a quarter of a century ago a new class of superconductors--the so-called high-temperature superconductors--was announced to great fanfare at a New York City physics meeting. The new superonductors lost all electrical resistance at temperatures obtainable with liquid hydrogen or liquid nitrogen; before long, scientists predicted, more tinkering would yield materials that superonducted at room temperatures. And soon too, the evolving new materials would find wide applications in power systems, as transmission cable and in transformers, turbines, and motors.

As it happens, two decades later we have remarkably little to show for all that. Room-temperature superconducting materials have not been discovered or invented, and power applications have been few and far between. A few lengths of superconducting cable have been placed in service in operating systems, with a number of new projects announced this year, and the U.S. Navy has built a succession of motors for ships. But the materials have not found wide application, and most major power system components--notably transformers and turbines--continue to be made from conventional materials.

An exception is the fault current limiter (FCL), a device that does pretty much what it says: Constrain surge currents in the grid. There are two kinds: reactive FCLs, consisting essentially of inductive coils; and resistive. In the reactive FCL, use of superconductor allows for a smaller core, but the superconducting property of the conductor otherwise makes no contribution to the operation of the device. (Two such devices were described in IEEE Spectrum feature articles, in the 1990s.) In the resistive FCL, however, the superconducting property is crucial.

Earlier this month, three leading companies in superconductor applications--France's Nexans, Germany's Siemens, and American Superconductor (AMSC)--put a prototype device through its paces at Powertech's laboratories near Vancouver, British Columbia. The device "passed all tests to validate its performance," says Jack McCall, managing director, superconducting power systems, AMSC. That is to say, in the jargon of the trade, it was "qualified."

The new superconducting resistive fault current limiter, unlike reactive precursors, is designed for use at transmission system voltages (64 kV and above), not just distribution voltages. A length of superconducting cable is wired in parallel to a resistive or reactive element, depending on what the situation requires. When a surge current enters the superconductor, it turns resistive and acts as a very fast switch, shunting the current to the parallel element.

What's next? The three companies would like to find a utility to help it build a working prototype that would be tested in an operational situation.

Meanwhile, a project AMSC has with Con Edison in New York City to install a device connecting an old and new substation appears to be getting back on track. The idea was to develop and install superconducting cables that would connect substations in a much tighter mesh, so that if stations or feeder cables fail, power can be instantly rerouted. Delayed because the originally intended project tanked with the economy, a new project now has been identified, and so the project is going forward again, says McCall.

 

Million-Tonne Carbon Sequestration Project Begins in Illinois

The Midwest Geological Sequestration Consortium (MGSC) has begun injecting carbon dioxide into a sandstone formation under Decatur, Illinois, as part of one of the country's first large-scale carbon sequestration projects.

The project, which is run by the Illinois State Geological Survey -- part of the Prairie Research Institute at the University of Illinois -- will inject one million tonnes of CO2 over the next three years into a rock formation that lies 7,000 feet beneath the surface. They say there are several layers of shale above the CO2 injection zone that will keep the injected gas in place permanently. The Mt. Simon sandstone has a CO2 storage capacity of somewhere between 11 billion and 151 billion metric tonnes. The CO2 is being captured from a plant producing ethanol.

This project is part of a Department of Energy-funded initiative known as the Regional Carbon Sequestration Partnerships. According to a press release from the MGSC, DOE office of Fossil Energy COO Chuck McConnell said:

"Establishing long-term, environmentally safe and secure underground CO2 storage is a critical component in achieving successful commercial deployment of carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) technology. This injection test project by MGSC, as well as those undertaken by other FE regional partnerships, are helping confirm the great potential and viability of permanent geologic storage as an important option in climate change mitigation strategies."

The ongoing efforts toward carbon capture and sequestration remain a controversial topic, especially as high-profile projects continue to bow out due to overwhelming costs. Most recently, the Longannet CCS project in Scotland was cancelled, and in the U.S. a major project in West Virginia also bit the dust. Whether these DOE projects aimed at confirming the feasibility of sequestration help push the field along remains to be seen.

(Image of sandstone thickness in Illinois basin via MGSC)

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