Energywise iconEnergywise

No Joke: Extending Solar's Lease on Life

A notorious economics joke has optimistic implications for solar energy and its decades-long dreams of matching the cost of the electricity now flowing on power grids -- the vaunted grid parity that is most renewable energy advocates' image of the singularity that will free us from climate change and the anti-democratic effects of centralized power. In the joke an economist, physicist and chemist are stranded, starving, on a remote island when a can of soup washes ashore. The physicist proposes smashing it open with a rock, and the chemist wants to build a fire, heat the can and blast it open. The economist offers a simpler solution: “Let’s assume," he says, "that we have a can opener."

The joke isn't the work of a frustrated, underfunded physical scientist, but rather the Nobel-prize winning American economist Paul Samuelson. His joke provides an admission: Economists rely on a bevy of assumptions about people and their tools to reduce a complex world to dollars-and-cents and those assumptions can be wrong, rendering economic theories and projections of limited practical value. Solar advocates have begun to argue that its time for economists to reassess an assumption underpinning cost estimates for power from photovoltaics: the expected lifetime of a solar panel.

Accelerated-aging tests of solar panels installed a decade ago with 20-year lifetime warranties predict that 90% will still be operating at the 30-year point according to this BBC report on research by Heinz Ossenbrink at the EU Energy Institute. Ken Zweibel, director of George Washington University's Solar Institute, tells me he's betting that panels produced today warranted for 30 years will be working decades longer--albeit at roughly 30% lower power output. "My belief is that it will be 60 years," says Zweibel. 

If researchers such as Zweibel and Ossenbrink are right, the up-front cost of producing and installing photovoltaics today should be amortized over a longer useful lifetime, and a much larger number of kilowatt-hours of power generation. That will lower the estimated cost per kilowatt-hour. Combined with remarkable reductions in manufacturing costs achieved in recent years -- a 40% reduction since just the middle of last year according to authors from Applied Materials writing last month in Photovoltaics World magazine -- Ossenbrink predicts that solar will hit grid-parity across Europe within a decade.

That would be one heck of a can opener.

Climategate Is Dead, Long Live Climategate

The British House of Commons's Science and Technology Committee has issued a report largely clearing the East Anglia Research Unit and its suspended director, Phil Jones, of scientific wrong-doing. Though the development has been widely noted in the elite European press, from France's Le Monde to Britain's Independent, it's received less attention in the U.S. Press. That's regrettable, as the so-called "Climategate" scandal has had the greater impact on American public opinion.

To quote from The Independent's report, the Commons committee found no evidence that Jones had "deliberately withheld or manipulated data in order to support the idea that global warming was real and that it was influenced by human activities." Further, it found nothing "to suggest that the hallowed peer review process had been subverted by Professor Jones, and no reason to question the scientific consensus that global warming is happening and that it is influenced by human activities." In the committee's own words, the "scientific reputation" of Jones and the CRU is "intact."

The report  did take East Anglia to task for withholding information in response to Freedom of Information requests, but it put more of the blame on the university than on the climate unit or Jones, who it said had been "scapegoated" to some extent. It recommended that climate researchers be more open with data and methods in the future.

The parliamentary inquiry prompted by the hacked East Anglia e-mails is but one of several, and so the House of Commons report is not the last word or necessarily the most authoritative word in this matter. But it is surely the most high-level of the inquiries, and so on the face of it, the committee's report should lay Climategate to rest. But will it?

Actually, no. First of all, too much damage has been done by disclosure of messages in which all too many climate researchers are revealed to be suffering from a bunker mentality. If they're supposedly so confident of their assertions, why are they so defensive? Not for a long time will press or public be quite so ready to just accept the word of England's Hadley Center or the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change--and there will be all the more skepticism because of the IPCC's accursed Himalayan glacier errors.

Second, at a time the world is emerging from a recession that almost turned into a great depression, people are looking for reasons to put jobs and prosperity ahead of potentially costly carbon reduction measures. No wonder prospects for U.S. climate legislation are now being declared dead, despite Obama's huge health care victory. And no wonder oil companies are spearheading a California ballot initiative to suspend implementation of its 2006 climate law until until state unemployment drops below 5.5 percent for four consecutive quarters (from above 12 percent at present).

If the initiative wins the support of most California voters--and why wouldn't it?--that will further cement the state's growing reputation for being absolutely ungovernable. Will it also show that serious government action on climate is unachievable?

Nuclear Aesthetics versus Green Aesthetics

In a major victory for local environmentalists and a setback for the nuclear industry, on Friday the New York State Department of Energy Conservation ruled that the aging Indian Point nuclear power plant just north of New York City violates clean water rules and must be equipped with cooling towers, if it is to continue to operate. The plant, which was built in the early 1970s and supplies almost a third of the city's electricity, relies on a once-through cooling system, taking water from the Hudson River and returning it to the river.

The numbers do give pause: The two operating Indian Point reactors take in 9.5 billion liters of water a day, "or more than twice the average daily water consumption of all of New York City"  and then pump it back into the Hudson "20 or 30 degrees hotter," as The New York Times reported this weekend. The state ruled that the cooling system kills too many fish, and consumes and contaminates too much water, to warrant renewal of the reactors' 20-year operating licenses in a few years' time. By common consent; no such cooling system would be approved for a new plant today; installation of the cooling towers commonly (though mistakenly) associated with images of nuclear power would cost an estimated $1.1 billion.

More is at stake here, however, than the usual tradeoff between environmental protection and business competitiveness. Indian Point is located at a lovely little bend in the Hudson, just across from a spectacular state park, and just down-river from West Point and Storm King (where, by the way, the contemporary environmental movement got its start in a battle over a dam proposal). Right now, consisting basically just of two domed reactors, Indian Point's presence is discreet and unobtrusive. But it's hard to imagine its being equipped with huge cooling towers without its turning into an eyesore in what is one of the nation's most lovely and historic sites.

That scenario is a reminder of an element in the debates over our energy futures that is rarely stated and discussed, but which is arguably much more important than it may seem. There are a lot of people around the world who consider wind turbines a visual blight, not very different from the electrical transmission towers that are always so  controversial. Consider now that if the Indian Point electricity going to New York all had to be generated by wind, perhaps 200-500 huge turbines would have to be put somewhere. I personally find wind farms to be consistently stirring and beautiful, so I'm not one to prefer nuclear on aesthetic grounds. But solar? If it ever turns out to be competitive at grid scale, the alternative to a compact nuclear plant would nondescript photovoltaic farms that cover gigantic areas. I don't know about you, cherished reader, but here my aesthetic preferences are in principle decidedly on the side of nuclear.

That's assuming, however, that beautiful and historic spots on major rivers do not have to be sullied with looming cooling towers.  The New York State decision, coming on top of Vermont's decision to not renew the license for an old reactor in that state, further calls into question the notion that we are going to see a net increase in nuclear-generated electricity in the near future. President Obama's decision to give loan guarantees for a new nuclear plant in Georgia may be the beginning of a successful effort to prevent the share of U.S. energy produced by reactors from dropping sharply, but it may be not much more than that.

BP Closes Another Solar Manufacturing Plant

BP has announced it is closing its solar manufacturing operations in Frederick, Maryland, north of Washington, D.C. The striking thing about the news is that it's a mere local story, with the focus on the 320 workers who lose their jobs. The national press has ignored it, as have the specialized news sites and blogs that specialize in solar energy and green tech. 

BP acquired the Frederick plant in 1998 when it bought Amoco. A mere dozen years ago, believe it or not, that little factory was the largest or one of the largest photovoltaics manufacturing operations in the world. BP's acquisition of it seems to have partly or even largely inspired the company's decision to start styling itself as the world's largest solar manufacturer, to adopt an image of the sun as its corporate logo, and to launch a high-profile ad campaign in which it said it was moving "beyond petroleum." A mere two years later, as Spectrum pointed out a while back, it ditched production of the next-generation thin-film photovoltaic panels it had been developing, abandoning a key effort to finally make solar cells widely affordable--and raising doubts as to whether it would be moving beyond petroleum any time soon. Today, BP is not high on the list of the world's top photovoltaics makers.

BP will continue to employ about 100 people in research, sales and project development in Frederick, but the main foci of its solar development efforts are joint ventures in Bangalore, India, and Xian, China. Generally it has got out of producing PV materials, leaving that to subcontractors, and concentrates on integrating and selling systems.

United States Finally Tightens Auto Fuel Efficiency Standards

The Obama administration promised to tighten U.S. automotive fuel efficiency standards almost immediately after taking office, as reported here, and today, following the customary process of policy formulation, comment and review, it did so. Equally important, the Environmental Protection Agency for the first time sets standards for vehicular carbon emissions--a move generally welcomed by the auto industry, which does not want to see states adopt a variety of carbon standards piecemeal, in California's footsteps. That would require them to develop and market different cars to suit the varying state requirements.

The new rules require automakers to improve fleet fuel efficiency and cut carbon emissions by about 5 percent per year, starting with the 2012 model year. By 2016, the required average fleet fuel efficiency will be an estimated 34.1 mpg (or 6.9 liters per 100 kilometers,  with some variance, depending on the degree carbon cuts are achieved by improving efficiency or by other means. If better efficiencies yielded all the carbon reductions, average fleet performance in 2016 will be 35.5mpg (6.6 l/100 km).

Efforts to tighten fuel efficiency standards have been stymied in the United States for decades, an embarrassing situation for liberals inasmuch as Democratic Party representatives of auto manufacturing strategy and the Big Labor lobby have sometimes been more at fault than Republicans. Obama has cut through that particular Gordian knot, and his EPA will soon take action to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from stationary sources as well. It is an open question, however, whether he will be able to corral auto and coal state Democrats to enact meaningful national legislation on energy and climate.

Elastic Edges Could Balance Out Loads Along Wind Turbine Blades

Wind turbine blades can measure up to 60 meters long, and in strong wind gusts will flex five meters or more. Because wind gusts can be very localized, though, long turbine blades sometimes experience loads of very different amounts along those 60 meters. Researchers at the Riso National Laboratory for Sustainable Energy at the Technical University of Denmark have created a maneuverable elastic flap that could attach to the blades and help control those loads to increase output.

By moving the flap in relation to the turbine blade using a pneumatic control system and sensors to determine wind speed and direction, the loads along the length of the blade can be balanced. Aside from the simple variability of wind speed there are also localized effects at wind farms due to turbulence from surrounding turbines. "It is these local influences which we hope our design will help mitigate," said Helge Aagaard Madsen, one of the project's researchers.

So far, the system has been tested on a small scale in a wind tunnel, but the researchers say it will soon be ready to scale up to a full size prototype.

"A further bonus of our design is that the moulded rubber trailing edge gives us a sharp edge which produces less noise and greater output," Madsen said. Most blades now are built as two pieces and fitted together, after which the edge's thickness is ground down.

The noise and turbulence produced by nearby wind turbines is always an issue in maximizing output of a wind farm, and reducing the loads using this type of flap system is only one way engineers are trying to mitigate those effects. A recent paper in the journal Renewable Energy attempts to optimize wind farm design with an algorithm for siting the turbines.

These types of efficiency measures, although individually probably without enormous effects on wind turbine and wind farm output, will undoubtedly help as wind power scales up around the world. After all, the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory now estimates that the country has an overall capacity to generate 37 million gigawatt-hours of electricity annually from wind power, an amount that dwarfs the total U.S. energy consumption.

Image via Riso National Laboratory for Sustainable Energy.

U.S. Power System Security

A theoretical paper by a Chinese graduate student and professor about the vulnerability of electric power systems like those in the United States to cascading failure has drawn attention in the U.S. press and prompted testimony to U.S. Congress. The paper,  "Cascade-Based Attack Vulnerability on the U.S. Power Grid," compares "the effects of two different attacks for the network robustness against cascading failures, i.e., removal by either the descending or ascending orders of the loads." It concludes counterintuitively that  that "the attack on the nodes with the lowest loads is more harmful than the attack on the ones with the highest loads."

The Chinese authors have said that their work is a theoretical exercise that just happens to model a U.S. electrical subsystem because good data is available for such a system. But because the word "attack" appears in the headline--and no doubt because there is a high level of paranoia in the United States about the country's economic and even military vulnerability to China--the article has been interpreted in some quarters as evidence the People's Republic is actually positioning itself to mount an assault on the U.S. power system.

Concerns about the fragility of the U.S. electrical grids are nothing new, and with the advent of more complex smart grids, there are well-founded worries that power system vulnerability could become greater, at least in the short run. "Although researchers have spent considerable time on smart-grid cybersecurity issues, major problems remain unsolved," a recent article in the IEEE Security &  Privacy  magazine reported. In a study issued last fall by the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the mounds of additional data generated in smart grids were deemed immensely helpful to grid operators and stakeholders--but also to people who could use it with ill will, as Earth2Tech's Katie Fehrenbacher put it.

To the extent grids are vulnerable to cyber intrusion, they would seem to be as vulnerable to malicious foreign attackers as to home-grown vandals. But is there realistic reason to fear such foreign attacks, and specifically a Chinese one?

As is well known, China is by far the biggest holder of U.S. national debt, and its economy is critically dependent on exports to the United States. At last tally, it owned $740 billion in U.S. Treasury securities, and it was exporting $24.7 billion in goods to the United States each month, running a positive trade balance of more than $20 billion--roughly $250 billion per year.

Under the circumstances, it's hard to imagine how it would be in China's interest to sorely disrupt the U.S. economy. The only scenario in which economic warfare would make sense would be one of all-out military warfare, say over Taiwan. But if the two countries were at war, disruption of the U.S. power grid would be the least of America's problems.

Russia, however, may be another matter. Criminal hacking is big business there and has global scope. Several years ago, when a local dispute in Estonia pitted ethnic Russians against Estonian nationals, seriously disruptive cyber attacks were mounted against the small Baltic country from sources in Russia. The culprits may have been members of the Russian intelligence services, ultra-nationalists, or just malicious hackers--and it's not reassuring that the outside world has no sure way of knowing which.

Suppose there were a military confrontation between Russia and Europe over the sovereignty of Ukraine, and suppose Russia wished to discourage the United States from coming to Europe's help. Might a cyber attack on the U.S. grid seem a tempting way of sending a shot across the U.S. bow?

The Economist's Climate Assessment

The March 20-26 issue of the The Economist, the British business-oriented weekly, is devoted to "spin, science, and climate change," as its cover puts it. The major element in the report is a comprehensive evaluation of climate science (pp. 83-86), which lays out the basics and takes up all the major lines of criticism, putting each in perspective. Though not short at nearly 4,000 words, it is the best concise treatment of the subject for a general audience that I've seen. Its conclusion: "The fact that the uncertainties allow you to construct a relatively benign future does not allow you to ignore futures in which climate change is large, and in some of which it is very dangerous indeed."

The issue is still available on some newsstands, and is well worth the U.S. price of $7. Its contents is available online only to subscribers.

The magazine also contains a long opening editorial (13) about climate science and policy, and a news report (32) discussing prospects for U.S. climate legislation. Here I have some serious quibbles. If you're one of those readers who regularly tells me I've drunk the cool-aid, I'd suggest you stop reading right now. But if you're the type of reader who has taken the time and trouble to not only learn the fundamentals of climate science but also to worry about the details of climate and energy policy, then you might want to read on.

Why is there so much confusion about climate science and policy? As The Economist sees it, "The problem lies not with the science itself, but with the way the science has been used by politicians to imply certainty when, as often with science, no certainty exists."

That's not how I see it. I'd say the problem is that scientists, policymakers, and politicians haven't been talking enough, and therefore have not come up with a coherent and convincing explanation of what climate policy can and should accomplish. If we can't actually stop global warming, what do we achieve by merely slowing it? How much and how fast do we need to slow it, and how much will we have to pay to do that? What ill effects of climate change can we avoid by cutting greenhouse gas emissions, and what effects will we be stuck with no matter what we do?

Nobody ever lost money underestimating the intelligence of the general public, as the saying goes, and maybe that's why I'm not rich. For I cling to the myopic view that the public is perfectly capable of understanding the following points: (1) Greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are rapidly climbing and are higher than they have been in any post-glacial era since humans started to walk the earth; (2) we are already in uncharted waters and are sailing more deeply into those waters all the time; (3) we need to turn around and go back as fast as we can, without making our situation even more risky or rendering our vessel unseaworthy in the process.

The Economist and its news writers are surely right that U.S. climate legislation will be a pale shadow of what once was hoped for. But with the enactment of health legislation this week, prospects for a climate bill are enormously enhanced. They will be evaluated in a post soon to come.

Building Better Solar Cells, at Robot Speed

Testing out new types of solar cells at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory's Process Development and Integration Lab used to involve multiple rooms, numerous pieces of equipment and any number of possible sources of error or accident. Enter a robot.

The lab now has several robotic bays that have automated the process of making new solar cells with varying base components, streamlining the process to an extreme degree. It's also a lot faster than it used to be. According to a story posted on the NREL website:

"How much faster? The robot working with silicon can build a semi-conductor on a six-inch-square plate of glass, plastic or flexible metal in about 35 minutes. It pivots and dishes like a point guard, sifts like a master chef, analyzes like a forensics expert and does it all while maintaining a vacuum seal on the entire process."

There are other robots as well, with two of them specializing in different materials. One uses Copper Indium Gallium diSelenide (CIGS) and another that has yet to be brought online uses cadmium-telluride.

The ongoing goal of improving solar cells is to bring their cost into a range that would be competitive with traditional power generation sources. Solar technology companies working toward that goal will now be able to use the NREL robot army to rapidly speed up testing of new materials and formulas for their cells. A big part of that cost equation is raising the percentage of the sun's energy hitting the cell that can be converted into electricity. Several years ago at NREL, researchers set a record by achieving 40.8 percent efficiency; most rooftop solar cells come in at around 11 or 12 percent.

"The system was designed to allow us to do things we could not do before, such as get a better look at impurities and the quality of materials, the different layers that compose the CIGS cell," said Miguel Contreras, a senior scientist at NREL. "It's helping us understand better what is limiting our efficiencies, as well as learning how to improve industrial productivity."

Images via NREL.

Hydrogen Economy II

After  President George W. Bush unveiled early in his first term a vision of a hydrogen economy--a vision that momentarily "killed" visions of an electric car--it did fot take long for the truth to sink in that it would decades at the least before motor vehicles would generally run on fuel cells fueled by hydrogen. So it came as rather a surprise to see, reading an account by a German Russia expert of a September 2006 meeting with Vladimir Putin, the following: "The age of oil will one day draw to a close. How is Russia preparing for the time after cheap oil, or indeed, after oil? Putin offers an optimistic perspective: 'We are working on hydrogen energy. In the medium term we will invest massively.' " So reports Michael Stuermer, in Putin and the Rise of Russia.

What did Putin have in mind? Was he still clinging to something like Bush's vision, well after most Americans had tossed it onto the dustbin of history?

Now comes a report from Siemens that it is working with the Russian National Research Nuclear University to develop turbines that would run on hydrogen. Siemens does not underestimate the challenges: "The idea of combusting hydrogen with oxygen to obtain water and extract a large amount of energy with zero environmental pollution is still a long way off at the moment. The production of pure oxygen is too costly and the combustion temperatures of 3,200 degrees Celsius are too high for the turbine blading used in the power plants. Natural gas, which burns at approximately 1,950 degrees Celsius, already requires air cooling of the blading. Siemens CT in Munich is therefore also conducting research intoheat-resistant ceramics for use in turbines."

Evidently that vision will be a long time comng too--if ever indeed it's realized--but it too is an interesting one.

Advertisement

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the EnergyWise newsletter and get biweekly news on the power & energy industry, green technology, and conservation delivered directly to your inbox.

Advertisement
Load More