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In Solar Shakeout, Focus Shifting to Big-Name Players

In the wake of highly publicized solar bankruptcies and amid expectations that the shakeout will continue to claim victims, attention has been shifting to the big North American and European players that were dominating the news cycle before Chinese companies began capturing so much of the action.

The last weeks produced particularly complex and unsettling news for First Solar, the maker of a thin-film photovoltaic material that was the pace-setter in driving down installation costs for several years running. First there was the abrupt and unexplained replacement of the company's CEO following by a drubbing in the stock market, then better-than-expected third-quarter results, a surge in stock prices, only to be followed by another dive in share values.

Two months earlier, Germany's Q-Cells--the country’s biggest PV manufacturer (photo above, Berlin quarters)--took an even worse drubbing, After reporting nearly 400 million euros in losses for the first half of the year and predicting losses of close to 1 billion euros for the year as a whole, Q-Cells said it would lay off half its German employees and radically restructure. It's no wonder under the circumstances that the U.S. subsidiary of Germany's Solar World, another top PV maker, recently led seven solar firms in bringing a trade complaint against China.

As low-cost Chinese sellers of basic polysilicon PV cells continue to put brutal pressure on everybody else, and as cash-strapped governments begin to pare solar subsidies, the question will be in the coming year whether the industry's traditional stalwarts can weather the storm.

With End of Incentives Looming, Race on to Cut Wind Power Costs

At the American Wind Energy Association's Offshore Wind Expo taking place in Baltimore earlier in October, I asked Liz Salerno, AWEA's director of industry data and analysis, what her group's focus was in the coming months. Without hesitation she noted the importance of the Production Tax Credit, the incentive that gives a 2.2 cents-per-kilowatt-hour bonus to companies producing wind energy. The PTC is set to expire at the end of 2012, and the wind industry is lobbying hard for its extension. The renewable energy source, they say, is not yet ready to stand on its own and compete with more entrenched power sources like coal.

There is a push not only from industry but also environmentalists and some politicians -- like the Governors' Wind Energy Coalition -- to help keep wind competitive. But in the meantime, there is substantial work going on to try and bring wind's costs down into coal's range even without government support. To start with, Iowa State University's Wind Energy Manufacturing Laboratory has expressed a goal of bringing wind energy down to six cents per kilowatt-hour -- well in the range of fossil fuels -- by 2020. Among other projects, they're working on ways to ensure the huge turbine blades are made completely smooth, as any imperfections would lower the blade's efficiency and therefore raise costs of producing the power.

Elsewhere, the government entity Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy, or ARPA-E, is funding a project looking into an aerodynamic technology called circulation control to improve turbine blades' efficiency. Accordingly to ARPA-E, "unlike fixed airfoils, which must be laboriously manufactured to high precision, an effective blown wing can be generated from a slotted extruded pipe that can be domestically manufactured at a fraction of the cost."

And these are just a couple of examples. For a supposedly "mature" technology, wind power most likely has significant room for efficiency -- and therefore cost -- improvements. For the moment, the Production Tax Credit is important to keep wind power moving, but as technology improves in the future it may do just fine on its own.

(Image via sbwoodside)

ConocoPhillips Energy Prize Goes to High-Altitude Wind System

Oil giant ConocoPhillips has awarded its $125,000 energy prize to a tethered, high-altitude wind power device by Adam Rein and Ben Glass, of Altaeros Energies. The device -- basically a horizontal-axis wind turbine floating with a helium-filled shroud -- can be rapidly deployed from a single shipping container in emergency situations. It flies at up to 2,000 feet above the ground, where wind is both stronger and more consistent.

The concept of tethered wind systems has its advantages, including the wind speed increase at higher altitudes as well as a potential lack of some of the location-based issues that arise with standard wind turbines. Instead of 400-foot-tall turbines that raise NIMBY problems, a thin tether holding a turbine aloft thousands of feet in the air could be nearly invisible. As the Energy Prize web site noted, the Altaeros concept might be useful in remote locations where building up traditional energy infrastructure isn't possible.

There are other designs following this idea as well. As a video here at Spectrum showed, a kite-based system could also provide high-altitude power without the traditional wind infrastructure. There is even a group called the Airborne Wind Energy Consortium for the nascent industry; they have several member companies designing different types of airborne wind devices. The Consortium quotes noted climate scientist Ken Caldeira on the incredible potential of high-altitude wind energy:

"There is enough energy in high-altitude winds to power civilization 100 times over. Sooner or later, we're going to learn to harness that vast resource and use it to run civilization."

(Image of another high-altitude wind device via Magenn Power)

Germany's Self-Contradictory Climate Attitudes

Germany with the UK has led the world in taking aggressive action on climate policy, cutting its greenhouse gas emissions since 1990 considerably more than the Kyoto Protocol required. (U.S. emissions, though dropping in the last decade, still are much higher than in 1990.) But now, as the going is getting rougher, German voters and opinion leaders seem confused about who is to blame and what to do.

Articles appearing the current issue of Die Zeit, probably the country most-read and most influential newspaper of political opinion and commentary, provide a couple of examples. In one, an interview with the leader of Germany's Green Party, Die Zeit aggressively asks what purpose the party still serves, now that the government has decided to ditch nuclear energy--one of the Green Party's main demands from the time of its birth three decades ago. And what's to differentiate it now from the Social Democratic Party, asks Die Zeit, a paper that tends to be aligned with the social-democratic center (with liberalism, in American political terms.).

What differentiates it, its leader Cem Oezdemir answers sharply, is that it does not automatically support any major development project just because it might create jobs, the way the socialists do. The Greens are squarely focused on long-term sustainability, Oezdemir claims, in a way no other German party is.

What's striking about that exchange is that, despite its pointedness, Die Zeit did not ask how Oezdemir and the Greens feel about the near-certain  prospect of Germany's greenhouse gas emissions rising sharply, as a result of the "atomic exit."

Instead, Die Zeit addresses that question in a separate interview to the German federal government's Minister of the Environment  Jochen Flasbarth, as if the poor outlook for greenhouse gas reduction were the government's fault. (Until Fukushima, the governing conservative coalition sought to negotiate "an exit from the nuclear exit.") Categorically, Die Zeit takes Flasbarth to task for refusing to concede that the country's 2020 greenhouse gas reduction goals are now unachievable.

Admittedly, Flasbarth's answer is lame: "It's time you accepted and understood emissions trading. Whatever excess emissions we generate will be saved elsewhere in Europe." But what's most striking here, as in the interview with Oezdemir, is what Die Zeit did not ask. What is Germany, whose climate record on the whole is exemplary, do do about countries whose records are woefully deficient? Should it impose sanctions on a country like Canada, whose emissions are far, far higher than in 1990 and now wishes to develop its oil sands willy nilly, and export its product to the United States, whose record also leaves a lot to be desired?

Merkel is personally close to Obama, and the current German government is not going to rock relations with its North American friends. But it would have been interesting to know what the Green Party leader had to say. Oezdemir (photo) was the first German of Turkish descent to be elected to parliament, and he makes it crystal clear in the interview with Die Zeit that his goal is to get his party into a governing coalition government. A decade ago he had to retreat from the leadership after the disclosure that he had pocketed frequent flier miles accumulated in the course of public business. But he has climbed back and now appears to be firmly in the saddle.

Solar Seven Sue China over Trade Violations

Today, Oct. 19, seven U.S. makers of PV panels filed a complaint with the government against China, asserting that its manufacturers have been selling their product in the United States for less than half its manufacturing cost. They are demanding that the U.S. government impose tariffs on Chinese photovoltaic imports of at least 100 percent. Under U.S. trade rules, the Commerce Department is required to respond.

The complaint is long overdue. Though its effect if successful--which is far from assured--would be to drive up solar prices in the United States, Chinese PV manufacturers have been dipping doubly, collecting generous subsidies both from their own government and from the countries where they sell their product.

According to a fine analytic report in today's New York Times, China accounts for three quarters of world PV production and exports 95 percent of it, much of it to the United States. Its low-cost exports have driven the cost of installing PV capacity to as low as $1.20 per Watt, according to the Times, contributing to the recent failure of three U.S. companies, layoffs and cutbacks at others, and difficulties for all makers of closely competing green technology.

The complaint filed today was led by Solar World Industries America, the U.S. subsidiary of a leading German PV manufacturer. (The homepage of Germany's Solar World has Larry Hagman, of "Dallas" fame, inviting his German fans to uncouple from the grid by becoming self-producers of energy.)  China's aggressive entry into the world solar market has probably caused even more distress in Germany than in the United States: The Federal Republic's solar subsidies have been especially generous, and initially, its companies were leading the way in photovoltaics. Yet there has been little support in Germany for pursuing trade complaints against China because the Federal Republic is so very trade-dependent.

The European trade association Eurosolar has advocated addressing the China threat by tightening environmental and production quality standards, as written into member countries' feed-in tariff laws. The European business press and business lobbies, alternatively, have proposed slashing back the feed-in tariffs, which they see as too generous to begin with.

The U.S. Solar Energy Industries Association filed a statement on the impending solar seven trade complaint that can be characterized as balanced or just wishy-washy. Without either supporting or opposing the complaint, the association said the industry as a whole benefited from open and fair trade.

The reason it will be difficult for the solar seven to have success with their complaint is that the United States, like a great many other industrial countries, also subsidizes solar manufacturing. Though its subsidies are less numerous and comprehensive than China's, and though China has not always reciprocated by paying out subsidies to foreign manufacturers exporting green technology to the People's Republic, the ubiquity of subsidies makes such complaints a legal quagmire.

Ultimately, the problem of Chinese double dipping will not be resolved without aggressive diplomacy at the highest levels.

End of Energy Policy (2)

Looking at the over of the most recent New York Review of Books, the rather high-brow publication read mainly by academics and academic wannabes, you might trip over the headline, "Energy: Friend or Foe?" It looks more like something you'd expect to see in a London tabloid, or maybe a cheap sci-fi thriller. Actually the reference is to a review article by William D. Nordhaus of Yale University, an economist well known as an expert on the costs and benefits of alternative climate policy approaches.

My first assumption was the the headline was the work of an over-zealous editor (somebody, that is, like me), but No: the question is a literal rendition of Nordhaus's own first sentence.

His point is that while modern life would be inconceivable without ample energy, in recent decades its production and consumption has also come to be seen as a menace, because of all its sundry negative effects on the environment and public health, first and foremost the accumulation of greenhouse gases steadily aggravating the risks of dangerous climate change.

Taking his cues from Michael J. Graetz of Columbia University, a top expert on tax law, and a National Research Council report, "The Hidden Costs of Energy," Nordhaus argues that U.S. energy policy since 1973 has consistently failed because U.S. political leaders always shy away from the one essential thing, which is to make basic energy prices fully reflect social costs. (The shortcomings of U.S. energy policy have been especially glaring of late, I recently argued here.)

Drawing on figures from the NRC report, Nordhaus that if prices reflected those costs, coal-generated electricity would cost on average 70 percent more, natural gas used for heating 42 percent more, and oil in transportation 25 percent more.

Nordhaus is far from the first to make that point, of course. Perhaps the more interesting and provocative part of his article draws on his own research, which has shown that the world market for oil is almost perfect from an economist's point of view: Any change in the price for any kind of oil any place in the world is almost immediately and fully reflected in the global price.

It follows, he argues, that gasoline prices in the United States have nothing to do whatsoever with how large a fraction of their oil Americans import. The prices depend exclusively on the global price of oil. His conclusion is that "oil policy should focus on world production and consumption and not on the portion we import, and should focus as well on the externalities from our consumption  the [social costs] in the form of pollution and global warming."

That argument deserves serious consideration. Those consulting the print article should not be put off, early on, by a rather hilarious error: The average American, it said in the hard copy, consumes the equivalent of 40 million tons of  coal per year. Whether it was an over-zealous editor or Nordhaus himself who committed that blooper, it's been corrected online. The intended number is 40 tons per year. 

Radar Systems A Solution to Wind Power's Bird and Bat Problem?

A common concern with wind farms is that they can kill birds and bats flying through. The most high profile example is the Altamont Pass farm in California, where golden eagles and other species have had trouble navigating the tightly packed turbines. A company called DeTect, though, thinks they have a way to mitigate wind energy's impacts on birds and bats.

The Merlin Avian Radar System plants a radar transmitter in the midst of a wind farm, and looks out for migratory birds that might be passing through. If it sees some and determines they might fly into the midst of the turbines, it can automatically shut down the turbines in question to allow the birds' safe passage. A couple of these systems are already up and running, at wind farms in Texas (pictured).

The system has a range of 2-6 miles, meaning if a group of migratory birds are on their way, there should be ample time to shut down the wind farm until they're through (it takes less than one minute to get them down below 1 RPM, and five minutes to get them all off completely). I spoke with Helen Lewis, a company representative, at the American Wind Energy Association's Offshore Wind Expo going on in Baltimore yesterday, and she told me that their systems can also simply be connected to bird deterrent devices, like noise or light generators, to keep the birds from flying in to dangerous areas in the first place.

One problem with this idea, of course, is simply that some wind farm operators may not want to shut down the turbines every time a few birds fly into their midst. But if there are spots where bird issues might prevent a wind facility from going up in the first place, this type of system could allow it to move forward with a promise that it will be used as intended.

This short animation gives a good idea of how the system is meant to work:

This seems like a great idea, but it remains to be seen whether it gains any real traction among wind developers. The bird problem is certainly something worth trying to mitigate, but it is important to keep it in perspective: some experts say as many as one billion birds are killed every year from collisions with buildings, far, far outstripping any effects wind farms might have.

(Image and animation via DeTect)

Virgin Atlantic Looks to Biofuels to Halve Carbon Emissions on Some Flights

Virgin Atlantic Airways hopes that within two to three years its planes will start flying some of their long haul routes on a fuel with only half the carbon emissions of standard jet fuel.

Richard Branson's airline announced a partnership with LanzaTech, a company based in New Zealand that takes waste gases from various industrial facilities and converts them into usable fuels. The end result, theoretically, is a jet fuel that Virgin Atlantic will use on routes between London and Delhi, Shanghai, and elsewhere, with half the carbon footprint they have now.

According to Branson, in a press release:

"This partnership to produce a next generation, low-carbon aviation fuel is a major step towards radically reducing our carbon footprint, and we are excited about the savings that this technology could help us achieve....This new technology is scalable, sustainable and can be commercially produced at a cost comparable to conventional jet fuel."

Virgin Atlantic is not the first to try such schemes. Last year, we wrote here about a British Airways plan for a waste-to-jet fuel plant, and many other airlines have started to move toward biofuels as well. Of course, the standard environmental and food security arguments still surround using plants as a fuel source; the Virgin Atlantic and LanzaTech plan has the advantage of converting industrial waste gases into fuel, instead of converting food crops into biofuel production. The 50 percent carbon emissions reduction estimated here would far outstrip that of traditional biofuels, as many analyses have suggested little to no emissions savings when corn or other plants are used.

And the need to draw down emissions from air travel is indisputable. Aviation contributes an astonishing 2 to 3 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions. Any chance to cut this percentage is worth a shot.

(Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Major UK Carbon Capture and Sequestration Project on Thin Ice

The Guardian reported yesterday that a major carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) project planned in Scotland may soon bite the dust. The project, slated for the Longannet coal power station, to the northeast of Edinburgh, has been heavily supported by the government, but apparently the price tag might be too high in current economic and political conditions.

The Longannet station (pictured), owned by ScottishPower, has a massive generating capacity of more than 2300 megawatts. The idea was to capture some of the CO2 emissions and bury them under the North Sea. The collapse of this project might not bode well for the United Kingdom's CCS goals, though some officials said that this was just one project and others will still follow.

According to a recent report from the UK-based Carbon Capture and Storage Association, the government has said it will back three further projects after Longannet, due to go into operation by 2018. But even before this potential problem arose, the report noted:

"The investment case for CCS remains uncertain due to the absence of a firm timetable and a clear roadmap for how these demonstrations will enable and form part of a large scale deployment of CCS in the UK."

The report also notes that most likely 20 to 30 gigawatts of CCS-fitted power plants will have to be in operation by 2030 to meet emissions targets and a growing energy demand. If the Longannet project is any indicator, such targets seem unlikely at this point. And if this sounds familiar, the United States has not fared much better on CCS to this point. There is the ongoing nonexistence of FutureGen, as well as the recent shutdown of a CCS project at a plant in West Virginia. Attitudes remain somewhat split about whether CCS will actually prove cost-effective—and just plain effective—enough to help draw down CO2 emissions, and high profile failures or postponements such as these do little to clear the picture.

(Image via Brian Smith/Flickr)

Carbon Wedges and Carbon Wedgies

To clarify: a carbon wedgie is what Mallorcan tennis great Rafael Nadal suffers when he practices too long in the hot Mediterranean sun and his shorts get sweaty and creep up and in.

A carbon wedge is what you get when you want to avoid emitting 1 gigaton of carbon per year that you otherwise would emit 50 years from now if the world follows a business as usual path.

The wedges model, invented seven years ago by Robert Socolow and Stephen W. Pacala of Princeton University has been far and away the most influential and popular tool used in discussions of long-term climate policy. Besides providing handy reference points for back-of-the-envelope calculations, it has spun off a nice board game suitable for introducing children and grandchildren to all the fun of preventing global extinction.

Responding to what apparently was an inaccurate blog post suggesting Socolow now regretted his invention, the Princeton energy expert has published an article reaffirming his faith in the wedges tool and updating it. Because of delays in introducing effective climate policies worldwide, Socolow says it would now take nine rather seven carbon mitigation wedges to keep the human race from emitting more carbon 50 years from now than it emits today.

Socolow takes the occasion to deliver some thoughts about mitigation of climate acrimony. He says he wishes advocates of strong action had conceded that news about climate change is unwelcome, that today's climate science is incomplete, and that any suggested "solution" carries some risk. On the first point, for example, he seems to think that action advocates have suggested that if we just go green, we'll all be living once again in the best of all possible worlds.

Those considering Socolow's points—and they're well worth considering—may differ about the details. But everybody will welcome the thrust of what he’s aiming at: how to get discussion of climate science and climate policy onto a better plain, so that some people don't get a kind of carbon wedgie every time they hear talk of human-induced climate change.

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