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Uncertain Outlook for Concentrated Photovoltaics

A report issued recently by CPV Today says that the levelized cost of electricity from concentrated photovoltaics "could fall as low" as 8 cents per kilowatthour in 2015, from 26 cents/kWh currently. Installation costs of highly concentrating PV--that is to say, CPV's average capital costs--"are set" to fall 49 percent to $2.47/W in 2015 from $4.84/W today.

What stands out in these industry-friendly formulations is the use of phrases like "could" and "set to." Even in this almost avowedly optimistic assessment, current CPV generating costs are a great deal higher than average electricity costs today and are almost sure to remain significantly higher five years from how. Compared with wind energy, solar's closest competitor, CPV installation costs will be at least 20 percent higher five years from now than wind capital costs are today.

The outlook for CPV is of particular interest because concentrating PV is sometimes considered closer to commercial competitiveness than standard PV, especially in relatively large plants that produce electricity for the grid. The CPV Today report mentions, in this connection, a 59 MW plant being built in Taiwan.

An alternative to CPV is thermal solar, in which for example an oil is warmed by parabolic mirrors and the heat is transferred to a molten salt in tanks, where steam is generated to drive turbines. Physics Nobelist Robert Laughlin has been giving talks in which he touts that solar technology, mentioning a plant in southern Spain (Andasol, above). But there too, Laughlin concedes, generating costs are at present about 30 cents/kWh, about five times average electricity costs.

Why Is This Man Smirking?

During the last five years or so, the Putin-Medvedev regime has repeatedly forced the big oil companies to renegotiate major development contracts on terms more favorable to Russia. The government's modus operandi, whether the situation pertained to the Sakhalin 2 field in East Siberia or the even more challenging Shtokman fields in Russia's northern waters, has been to bring environmental complaints against the partner companies, saying in effect that the multinationals have to pay Russia more to compensate for unforeseen damages. Though such complaints have not been wholly dismissed by industry experts and the world press, it's generally been taken for granted that Putin's environmental complaints--like his punitive use of tax law to eliminate rival power centers--have been a mere cover for his true political and economic objectives.

As Spectrum editor Sandra Upson put it in a news analysis several years ago, "The government’s environmental concerns may be genuine: Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund have raised strong objections to the damage inflicted on [Sakhalin]  island as a result of the energy companies’ operations. However, if the Russian government is challenging the companies’ environmental permits. . .solely to rework contracts to include Gazprom (as most analysts believe), the government is threatening the sanctity of all business relationships that bring in outside companies and capital."

As Upson explained, oil contracts with multinationals generally had been made on the basis that Russia would cover initial development costs but only start collecting revenues when oil production started. That meant, as the Putin-Medvedev government saw it, that the multinationals had little incentive to constrain development costs. Then too, there was Putin's basic determination, articulated in a kind of doctoral dissertation he wrote before becoming the country's leader, to take full national control of the country's mineral resources and use them to power its economic recovery and the reconstruction of a mighty Russian state.

Russia is overwhelmingly the dominant supplier of natural gas to Europe, and a major supplier of oil as well. It aspires to build out pipelines to Northeast Asia, and even become of significant supplier of liquefied natural gas to the Americas.

The decisive turning point in relations between the Russian state and the big oil companies was the arrest in late 2003 of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the country's top oil tycoon, who had started to act as if he were operating in a liberal democracy with competitive party politics and a prevailing rule of law. Khodorkovsky was funding opposition parties, threatening to challenge Putin for the presidency, negotiating international pipeline contracts without consulting Putin's people, and even thinking of selling a big stake in Yukos to Exxon or Shell. In the past decade, as some outside experts saw it, Khodorkovsky had made Yukos Russia's best-run company, and so he saw not reason why he should not be allowed to collect his just rewards.

 All those factors evidently contributed to Putin's decision to have Khodorkovsky locked up and to throw away the key. The arrest sent an unmistakable message to the general public that nobody in Russia was safe, not even the country's richest and most successful person. And it told the multinational oil companies that they had better watch their steps. Relations with the companies soon deteriorated to the point where, some years later, the British CEO of BP's joint venture in Russia--TNK-BP--announced he was moving out of Russia to an undisclosed location, citing a long campaign of legal harrassment by Russian authorities. From the end of July to the beginning of December 2008, Robert Dudley continued to run TNK-BP from a secret location, until the venture's Russian shareholders and BP agreed to replace him.

What an outrageous way to treat a fine upstanding company like BP, right? Well, actually, the arrest of Khodorkovsky and Putin's hard line on multinational oil development always went down well with Russians: with reason, men like the Yukos CEO were seen as robber barons, who had acquired their industrial empires for a fraction of their real worth; with some reason, the multinationals were seen as arrogant, accustomed to getting their way in relations with weak developing countries.

Outside Russia all that looked rather differently, of course, But now, in the wake of BP's Gulf of Mexico catastrophe, does one really need to ask why Putin is smirking?



Growing Expert-Public Rift on Climate Change

In the last week, just as the U.S. National Research Council issued a long-awaited trinity of blue-ribbon climate studies, the New York Times happened to report that growing skepticism about climate change, its causes, and its gravity is not merely a North American phenomenon. In fact,  that skepticism has grown just as fast during the last two years in England and Germany, where public opinion has been strongly alarmist about global warming for close to two decades.

A survey in February by the BBC found that only 26 percent of Britons believed that 'climate change is happening and is now established as largely man-made,' down from 41 percent in November 2009," wrote the Times's Elizabeth Rosenthal. "A poll conducted for the German magazine Der Spiegel found that 42 percent of Germans feared global warming, down from 62 percent four years earlier."

Yet, according to studies released by the NRC, "a strong, credible body of scientific evidence shows that climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks." Among them, specifies the first report on advancing climate science:  "rising sea levels, increases in intense rainfall events, decreases in snow cover and sea ice, more frequent and intense heat waves, increases in wildfires, longer growing seasons, and ocean acidification." Additional warming in this century, "on top of the 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit already observed over the last 100 years," could be as high as 11.5 degrees F or 6.4 degrees Celsius.

All that has been the climate science consensus for close to a decade, and so why are publics increasingly resisting calls for action? Could it be that many people are beginning to suspect that it may be cheaper to adapt to climate change than to prevent it? If so, a second of the NRC reports, on climate adaptation, addresses that preference.

"Even if emissions of greenhouse gases were substantially reduced now," says the report, "climate would continue to change for some time to come" and so "potential consequences for humans and ecosystems are significant." The report calls on the U.S. Federal government to "provide technical and scientific resources that are currently lacking at the local or regional scale" and to provide "incentives for local and state authorities to begin adaptation planning." The report praises New York City for being early to plan for climate change, highlights a heatwave early warning system that Philadelphia put into place several years ago, and focuses attention on Alaskan towns that already are having to be relocated because of greater erosion and flooding, reduced sea ice, and permafrost thawing. 

It would be interesting to know, given those circumstances, what exactly Sarah Palin thinks should be done to limit the magnitude of climate change, the subject of the third NRC report. (As governor, Palin did useful work to advance the cause of natural gas, but did anybody think to ask her during the presidential campaign about the effects of climate change in Alaska, where they are so dramatically evident?) 

The third report says that the United States should adopt a budget for greenhouse gas emissions., 2012-2050, and develop "policy mechanisms durable enough to persist for decades but flexible enough to adapt to new information and understanding." In its write-up of the report, the Times suggested, somewhat misleadingly, that the report implicitly endorses the Obama administration's goals and the energy & climate  bill it's trying to get through Congress. The NRC report does in fact endorse Obama's long-term goals, but it is quite critical of two major elements of the American Power Act: its proposal to give away some emission allowances for free, rather than auction them; and its sectorial rather than economy-wide approach to cap-and-trade.



Integrating Wind: Western U.S. Could Be 30 Percent Wind-Powered

The United States government wants 20 percent of all electricity generation to come from wind power by 2030. This would most likely require about 25 percent wind power in the western portion of the country, and a new report from the Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that such goals are truly within our reach.

In the Western Wind and Solar Integration Study the NREL showed that it is even doable to get 30 percent of power from wind along with 5 percent from solar, given a few practical changes to the system. Notably, though, there is little need for substantial new transmission line projects to get at least to a 20 percent penetration with wind:

"Up to 20% renewable penetration could be achieved with little or no new long distance, interstate transmission additions, assuming full utilization of existing transmission capacity."

This is a significant finding, given that transmission is the biggest obstacle to jumping head first into the largest of renewable energy projects. For example, T. Boone Pickens abandoned his plan for a giant wind farm in the Texas panhandle because of the expense associated with bringing that electricity where it needed to go. When about two or three percent of our electricity is lost along transmission lines around the country, keeping generation close to its final destination is a key factor in maximizing wind's potential.

According to some estimates, wind power only remains economically viable when it has to travel no more than 500 miles to get where it's going. This is because high voltage power lines are not cheap: by one count, the transmission infrastructure needed in order to get 20 percent of power from all renewable sources by 2024 would cost $100 billion. When individual projects are examined, that lofty price tag almost seems too small; one 3,000-mile transmission project between North Dakota and load centers like Chicago, dubbed the Green Power Express, will cost between $10 and $12 billion on its own.

With the efficiency losses and the economic hits required in order to build up the transmission architecture, NREL's contention that little new infrastructure is needed is a welcome sigh of relief. in a press release on the NREL report, American Wind Energy Association president Denise Bode said the feasibility of large-scale wind adoption is clearly feasible.

"Now the only question is whether Congress and the Administration will step up and enact the policies - particularly a strong Renewable Electricity Standard and robust transmission legislation - that will allow us to get there," she said.

Photos via NREL

Facing Our Flow with BP's Live Spill-Cam

Click image, then hit play (persistently) for live streamFor a look in the mirror that could inspire a car-free weekend, BP has made available a livestream feed of its uncontrolled oil spill over 5000-feet below the Gulf of Mexico's increasingly oily surface. [You'll need to hit play several times to get a peek at this very popular feed.]

Government agencies and industry engineers have been viewing this feed for two weeks. BP made it accessible today to gasoline consumers and shareholders of the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem at the urging of Ed Markey, chair of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming and an advocate of fossil fuel-free energy and transportation.

Just how much of the oil our cars and trucks need is instead spilling out of the Deepwater Horizon's crippled riser? BP and the Unified Command directing the spill response have stuck for weeks with an admittedly imprecise estimate of 5,000 barrels per day (bpd), while independent scientists analyzing earlier video imagery argued for a number of 20,000-100,000 bpd. BP's explanation for the discrepancy is the large amount of natural gas exiting the riser (about half of the plume, says BP) and distortion of the riser, whose diameter is now 30% wider than its pre-accident dimension of 19.5 inches.

We may get a better number tomorrow, when a panel of federal scientists is mandated to report their best estimate.

The new federal figure may, however, be outdated by early next week when BP plans to attempt its most invasive intervention to stem the leak. As I report in MIT Technology Review today, their 'top kill' method could stanch the flow altogether, or break it wide open.

Senate Energy Bill

Two weeks ago Senators Kerry and Lieberman unveiled the American Power Act, essentially the Senate version of a climate bill that the House passed mid-2009. Since Obama’s election and before, climate legislation handicapping has fluctuated wildly: initially, with Republicans like Arizona’s McCain and South Carolina’s Graham co-sponsoring cap-and-trade bills, prompt enactment of a bill to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions was considered a virtual sure thing; then, with the onslaught of the Great Recession, the edging of more urgent issues to the top of the legislative agenda,  and the defection first of McCain and then of Graham, a pundit consensus formed that climate legislation had little or no chance of getting through the Senate this year; but most recently, with Obama’s major victories on health reform and financial regulation, it’s beginning to look after all like he may manage to get anything big he cares about greatly.
Easily the most important factor favoring Senate  passage of the American Power Act is the wide support the bill has garnered in the U.S. business community. Membership in American Businesses for Clean Energy, the main organization representing firms that favor national climate legislation, has grown from barely 750 toward the end of last year to more than 6,000 today.
Boeing, General Electric, IBM, and United Technologies are among the businesses participating in that organization and others, such as the We Can Lead Campaign and the U.S. Climate Action Network. Last year Apple Computer dropped out of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce because of unhappiness about the chamber's obstructionist climate stance, and leaders of energy companies such as Duke, Exelon, NRG, and Shell are backing Kerry-Lieberman four-square.
Yet winning corporate support for climate legislation and courting Republican moderates has come at the cost of many compromises, and not a few are wondering whether those costs have been too high. The main point of the American Power Act is to “put a price on carbon”—that is, to penalize emission of carbon dioxide. But is that price high enough to be meaningful? Does its value exceed the costs paid to get it?
Among the provisions riling some environmentalists, and not just environmentalists:
--its boost in Federal guarantees for new nuclear reactor projects to $54 billion: a “bailout” in the making, rail the libertarian Alliance for Generational Equality and the Cato Institute
--its billions of dollars to support carbon capture and sequestration: a delusion, says Robert Bryce of the market-oriented Manhattan Institute
--donation of free emission permits to coal-burning utilities: a gratuitous lock-in of coal-fired power, at a time when gas and wind represent much more attractive alternatives, says Christopher Flavin of Worldwatch
--promotion of interstate electricity transmission corridors to facilitate transmission of Plains-states wind to consumers east and west: not necessarily transparent enough to guarantee that those who benefit pay the costs, say Timothy Fagan of PSEG
In its totality, the American Power Act comes to an unsightly 987 pages, and thus resembles earlier comprehensive energy bills that came into disrepute because they began to look like Christmas trees for spoiled kids.
The essential point of the bill is to create a nationwide carbon trading system, with emission permits starting at $12/ton carbon, and rising to no higher than $25/ton, so as to help make the country cut its carbon emissions 17 percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050.
But can any target for a year 40 years away have any real political meaning? And is the 17 percent target for 2020, which after all will only get the United States back to its 1990 emissions level (the baseline for Kyoto Protocol cuts), ambitious enough?  Is a $25/t  price high enough to stimulate needed technologies like carbon capture and integrated coal gasification? Why are coal-burning utilities and heavy industry getting such cheap rides, and aren’t the oil and transportation justified in complaining about that?
Such considerations suggest it might be better to put the power and climate bill on the back burner, take care of more pressing business first, and return to Congress next year with a 5-page carbon-tax bill that penalizes electric power, transportation, and heavy industry equally.
The conventional wisdom has always been that cap-and-trade is the only path politically viable. But opponents of climate legislation already have dubbed the power act cap-and-tax. Under the circumstances, why not just go straight for the tax?

Germany Leads Again in Solar Growth

The 2009 solar round-up from the (American) Solar Energy Industries Association reports that additions to U.S. capacity (both photovoltaic and thermal) came to 481 MW, up 37 percent from 2008, bringing cumulative capacity to nearly 24 GW. Even so, the United States trailed world leader Germany by a large margin, as well as other siginificantly smaller countries. Germany's 2009 installations totaled 3,800 MW, Italy's 700 MW, and Japan's 484 MW. The tiny Czech Republic installed 411 MW of solar, putting it in fifth place, just behind the United States.

The United States remains world leader in concentrated solar power, however, with 432 MW installed.

Perhaps the most significant development in 2009, as reported by SEIA, was a sharp drop on PV module prices, from $3.50-4.00 per watt in mid-2008 to $1.85-2.25  last year. Considering that modules generally amount to about half the total PV system cost, that would seem to imply that photovoltaic installation costs are now about half what they were in the early part of this decade--big news indeed, if it holds.

SEIA credits much of the 2009 U.S. growth to the U.S. stimulus bill, which eliminated a ceiling on residential thermal reimbursements and replaced tax credits with grants. "Solar equipment manufacturers have been awarded $600 million in manufacturing tax credits under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act [of 2009], representing investments in new and upgraded factories of more than $2 billion."

State and local incentives also improved. Of the 30 states with renewable energy standards, 18 now have solar "carve-outs"--specific targets for solar, within overall renewable targets--and 5 provide extra credits for solar or distributed generation. So-called property-assessment clean energy financing (PACE) has become increasingly popular among municipalities, Berkeley, California having taken the lead.

Some sore solar points unmentioned in the SEIA report:

--the decision by the leading maker of PV manufacturing equipment to site a major research lab not in the United States but in Xian, China

--the closing of a little factory in Maryland whose acquisition probably inspired BP to declare it was moving beyond petroleum

 As we all are all too vividly aware, BP not only has failed to move beyond oil, it's mired in it, along with growing portions of the Gulf Coast.



Downsizing Nuclear: Difficulties With Big Plants Spur Interest in Mini Reactors

By now, we've all heard plenty about the "nuclear renaissance," or revival, or whatever it's being called. The Obama administration wants $54 billion in loan guarantees to build new reactors, and various states around the country are ramping up efforts to overturn moratoria and bring in those government dollars. It remains unclear, though, if the relatively sudden momentum will actually yield a bevy of new reactors, or if it will be stopped in its tracks.

In Georgia, where the first of those loan guarantees was headed, a judge ruled that the certification process for the new reactors was illegal, setting back the construction process. An attempt in the Illinois legislature to overturn a longstanding moratorium on new nuclear construction in the industry's flagship state failed to make it past the House. Earlier similar attempts in a number of states, including Minnesota, Hawaii and Kentucky, have also run aground. Perhaps appetites for decade-long construction and costs that routinely jump up by the billion are thinner than they appeared.

Some companies, though, have an alternative to the large-scale, 1,200 megawatt-and-up monsters that are running into such opposition. The small modular reactor, delivering only 25 MW of power for eight or 10 years before being replaced, could come before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for approval this year. The output will be enough to power about 20,000 homes.

Hyperion Power Generation is one such company, having revealed last year the design for its Hyperion Power Module. Using a liquid metal cooling design (specifically, lead-bismuth eutectic), the 1.5 meter wide and 2.5 meter high reactor would be shipped to customers fully sealed, and shipped back in the same state a decade later, not requiring any refueling or storing of nuclear waste. Of course, if they really start delivering on the reported 150-plus purchase agreements already in place, that means a whole lot of nuclear material being shipped around the country, even in small and supposedly sealed amounts.

Other nuclear players are also reportedly getting in on the act, from french company Areva to Toshiba and its subsidiary Westinghouse. The small reactors, intended for hard-to-reach locales, military bases, factories or anything else that might not get connected to the traditional power grid easily, will come with substantially reduced price tags compared to traditional nuclear projects. Instead of, say, a $3 billion estimate that likely gets bumped up by a factor of two or three by the time it is completed, Hyperion will ask $50 million.

Even if the immense construction difficulties that big nuclear runs into may not be in play, the regulatory hurdles companies must leap are largely the same. The NRC licensing process can take years, and concerns over leaking material and the potential for terrorism remain in spite of company assurances. And environmentalists who feel that the many billions spent on nuclear power would be better directed toward adoption of renewable energy sources like wind and solar likely won't find comfort in the small nuclear designs. After all, even if they do come in at $50 million, 150 of those comes out to $7.5 billion and the electricity output of about three big nuclear reactors. Progress?

Photo via Hyperion Power Generation

One Million Chernobyl Fatalities?

A new book claims that almost one million people died between 1986 and 2004 from exposure to Chernobyl accident radiation. The claim, based mainly on a survey of scholarly literature in Slavic languages, is orders of magnitude higher than the most authoritative previous estimates. Yet the book is published by the New York Academy of Sciences, which says that earlier estimates "have largely downplayed or ignored many of the findings in the Eastern European scientific literature and consequently have erred by not including these assessments."

The book, "Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment," is by Alexey Yablokov of the Center for Russian Environmental Policy in Moscow and Vassily and Alexey Nesterenko of the Institute of Radiation Safety in Minsk.

Global assessments made ten years after the accident and reported at an IAEA conference in 1996 estimated that in the long run, the toll from Chernobyl in terms of premature or "excess" deaths would come to about 8,650. But because the number of "background" cancer deaths in the population most severely affected--the 600,000-800,000 involved in clean-up operations--would come to 825,000, most of the excess cancer deaths would  be "hard to detect epidemiologically," said Elizabeth Cardis, probably the world's leading expert on the subject.

Cardis's detailed predictions were discussed in an IEEE Spectrum article that appeared in November 1996, reporting on the IAEA conference. Though that article is not available online, the general picture it presents remains largely valid, according to the most recent update of Cardis's analysis. Thyroid cancer incidence among children was found to be much higher than models would have predicted, but leukemia incidence was lower. Mortality and mobility associated with psychological stress might exceed casualties attributable to radiation exposure.

In 2005, the Chernobyl Forum a consortium of global health agencies and governmental organizations, including the IAEA and World Health Organization--put the death toll at about 4,000. That still makes Chernobyl the worst industrial accident in history. As such the consequences of the accident are not to be minimized or trivialized, but bear in mind that hundreds of thousands of people die yearly from exposure to emissions from coal-fired power plants.

I have not seen the new book and am not predisposed to give much credence to its claims. Any such treatment of Chernobyl health effects would have to somehow rigorously distinguish consequences of the accident from consequences of the general public health catastrophe that has engulfed Russia and some of the Soviet successor states in recent decades. I draw attention to the book here mainly, as said, because it carries the imprimatur of the New York Academy.

Strained MIT Climate Friendship

A feature story in yesterday's Boston Globe depicts an increasingly strained friendship between Richard Lindzen and Kerry Emanuel--the former well known as one of the leading U.S. climate change skeptics, the latter best known for his pre-Katrina prediction that fierce hurricanes would become more frequent. When Emanual first joined Lindzen at MIT, Lindzen (left) was a registered Democrat  and Emanuel a Reagan voter. Emanuel in the meantime has come around to the view that there's a growing risk of catastrophic climate change: "None of the evidence is perfect, but it all points in one direction," Emanuel (depicted in the postage-stamp photo on the contents page) told the Globe. Lindzen took a jab at Emanuel at last year's Heartland Institute conference, saying he and fellow alarmists take the position they do because it "just makes their lives easier," presumably in terms of research funding and peer pressure. Emanuel has accused Lindzen of endorsing dishonest science.

The two men reportedly still have a collegial relationship but are not vacationing together with their families in France these days or inviting each other to dinner.



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