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China's Copenhagen Presence

As I write this, I happen to be sitting in Holland house, where the Dutch have been presenting a two-week-long round-the-clock program of climate-related panels, many of them about water, naturally. The scope and physical scale of what they're doing is almost unique at the Copenhagen climate conference, though just across the corridor Brazil has a similar presence, much of it devoted to agribusiness and cane ethanol production. That focus is not so surprising either. But what's really a little startling is China's nearby setup, a climate information center that in terms of physical scope and programmatic ambition is the equal of Holland's and Brazil's, and by the same token more impressive than anything any other country is doing here as part of the parallel or "side" meetings.

The COP15 climate conference basically has two parts, the negotiations among the nearly 200 countries that are party to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and a parallel exhibition and program of activities sponsored by non-governmental organizations. Physically, the two parts are co-located and inter-penetrate, though participants who obtained accreditation as members of NGOs are not invited to negotiations and cannot attend many of the events staged by or for state delegations. (The difficulties many NGO participants had obtaining access to the conference complex have been widely reported in the world press; as a person with NGO accreditation, I personally was unable to get into the conference complex on Monday, even though I was scheduled to participate in a panel that afternoon; and I got in on Tuesday only after standing in line for seven hours with many hundreds of other NGO people. Today I got right in as I now have the required badge, but the conference has stopped issuing any new NGO badges, whether one is pre-accredited or not, evidently because the numbers attached to state party delegations are greater than expected.)

But I digress. Here at the far back side of the conference complex, where state delegations have their offices and semi-official groupings such as Holland's and Brazil's have their set-ups as well, China has one of the most impressive exhibitions. At this moment, as I listen to Europeans talk about trans-boundary water cooperation, next door Mr. Ding Zhongli is delivering his "Presentation  on Critical Evaluation for Long-term Carbon Emissions Reduction by IPCC, G8, OECD, etc." On the racks outside the room where he's talking are glossy official publications with titles like "China's Fiscal Policy on Climate Change" and "Addressing Climate Change: China in Action," as well as an impressive packet from the Laboratory of Low Carbon Energy at Tsinghua University, the Beijing institution that's routinely described as the country's MIT.

Most pertinent of the publications on display, at a time when the U.S. and Chinese delegations are trading public jibes about who will be most to blame if this conference fails, is a one pager called "Developing the Energy and Climate Registry in China." The United States has been pressing China to accept international verification of their greenhouse gas emissions, but to judge from what China is showing and telling here, they're already doing that verification and don't need or want outside help.

 

The U.S. Copenhagen Presence

Speaking at 1:15 this afternoon in an open meeting, Senator John Kerry delivered what was billed as a report on the prospects for enactment of a U.S. bill limiting the country’s carbon emissions and establishing a carbon trading system. Because Kerry is well known to be the Obama administration's designated point man on climate, both domestically and internationally, the large meeting room slated for his talk--the Hans Christian Anderson room, as it happens--was filled to capacity well in advance of his remarks.

Kerry's speech turned out to be two-parts stemwinder, in which he forcefully preached to the converted about the absolute necessity of taking historic action on climate, two-parts an equally forceful re-statement of the administration's position on emissions verification and targets—and just one part about the prospects for U.S climate change legislation.

The stemwinder need not long detain us: Kerry remarked that difficult climate talks have been taking place for 17 years, with many ups and downs in domestic politics. He gently reminded his audience that the process began in Rio with the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which Bush 1 signed on behalf of the United States, and less gently of the unfortunate years of "delay, divide, deny" that ensued under Bush 2. Etc.

By way of putting the issues facing diplomats here in Copenhagen in context, Kerry pointed out that the United States has just adopted the most ambitious and expensive green energy development program in its history, that half the states in the country already are participating in regional greenhouse gas trading programs, and that some 1,000 U.S. cities have promised to bring their carbon emissions down in keeping with Kyoto (the 1997 protocol to the framework convention that the United States signed but then declined to ratify or implement). The EPA has just issued a finding that carbon dioxide is a pollutant, sending a message to Congress "that if it doesn't legislate, then we'll regulate." A climate and energy bill adopted by the House earlier this year for the first time sets an emissions target for the United States, and Kerry confidently expects the Senate to follow suit early next year.

However, Kerry said pointedly: he will not be able to persuade an Ohio legislator to enact a climate bill if that person's constituents worry about losing their jobs because countries like China and India refuse to make commitments that are independently verifiable. Thus, transparency is a "core issue" for the United States at Copenhagen. Further, he said, "every country that contributes significantly to the climate problem must commit to emissions targets." Admittedly, he continued, this will require developing countries to adopt growth paths that are different from those that brought the world's present-day advanced industrial countries from rags to riches. But having the luxury of "following our mistakes will be cold comfort if it leads to climate catastrophe," Kerry exhorted.

As for the advertised subject of his talk, Kerry conceded that the Senate battle will be tough. But he took comfort from the support that strong climate action is now getting-or so he claimed--from senators like South Carolina's Lindsay Graham and West Virginia's Robert Byrd, the Senate's senior member by far. Byrd, elected in 1959, was cosponsor with Chuck Hagel of the Senate resolution that forever killed any prospect of the United States' ratifying Kyoto. 

Copenhagen's Rich-Poor Rift

Yesterday's threatened walkout by the so-called Group of 77 countries was unsurprising and yet surprising. From the git-go, the fate of the Copenhagen climate conference obviously was going to depend on whether the gap dividing the United States from the most rapidly developing poor countries--China and India, notably--could be bridged, They want sharp emissions cuts by rich countries and a lot of financial assistance to promote green technologies, and they refuse to commit to emissions reductions targets, which the United States insists on.

What yesterday's eruption showed is that it's not by any means just China and India; it's the whole of the world's South.

The Group of 77, founded in the 1960s to advance the global South's economic agenda, played a highly vocal role in world politics in the 1960 and 1970s. In recent decades, it has hardly been heard from, however, though its membership has continued to grow, to 130. It now includes all of Latin America except Mexico, almost all of Africa, the South Asian countries including the big emitters China, India, and Indonesia, and most of the MIddle East.

How much will it take for the rich countries to satisfy the concerns of the poor? Perhaps more than most U.S. citizens will ever be able to fathom and accept. Yesterday, coincidentally, a daily conference newspaper published by the Copenhagen Post ran an article by Indian environmentalist Sunita Narain. Here's some of what she had to say: “The rich must reduce so that the poor can grow. This was the basis of the climate agreement the world reached in the first Earth Summit in 1992. This was the basis of the Kyoto Protocol.…But the world has never been serious about this agreement.…Industrialized countries are responsible for seven out of every 10 tons of carbon dioxide emitted in the atmosphere from the start of the industrial revolution.…Between 1980 and 2005, the total emissions of the United States were almost double that of China and more than seven times that of India. In per capita terms such injustice is even more unacceptable, indeed immoral.”

 

 

Handicapping Copenhagen

A large demonstration in downtown Copenhagen on Saturday--and the determined efficiency with which police rounded up and arrested a couple of hundred allgedly unruly activists--got most of the headlines over the weekend. Negotiators reportedly worked hard through the weekend, however, trying to narrow differences on a draft protocol before heads of state arrive later in the week for some last-minute head-bashing.

To follow developments closely in real time, the most useful Twitter feed that I've located so far is one posted and culled by France's Le Monde: you can ignore the introductory French at the top and go straight to the mostly English-language entry list.

For context, the Wall Street Journal has an excellent synoposis of who wants what at Copenhagen, while the Financial Times has pulled toghther data summarizing 2005 greenhouse gas emissions for key countries and players and reduction pledges they have made so far. The online version of the FT's Reducing Carbon Emissions: Government Pledges is somewhat dated but still worth consulting because it's so compact and nicely interactive. Some developments not enumerated in the current versions: Brazil's promise to get emissions down 36-39 percent by 2020, largely by means of reduced Amazon deforestation; China's plege to trim the nation's carbon intensity--CO2 per unit GDP--40-45 percent by 2020; the European Union's offer to hike its planned 2020 cut to 30 percent from 20 percent if other critical parties such as the United States, India, and China do enough.

Speaking of interactivity, a newly formed group called Climate Interactive has posted a thermometer-like climate scoreboard that tells you how Copenhagen negotiators are doing in terms of business-as-usual and carbon-reduction scenarios. (Current reading: the proposals on the table today will get the world's increase in temperature between now and 2100 down to only 3.9 degrees Celsisus from 4.8 degrees C, business-as-usual; the stated goal is to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees C.) For more qualitative measures of success, go to IEEE Spectrum’s What to Expect from Copenhagen Confab.

The Associated Press's Michael von Bülow did a nice job of summarizing where things stood in Copenhagen as weekend negotiations began. Stay tuned here for this week's developments.

 

Large California Geothermal Project Bites Dust

AltaRock Energy informed the U.S. Department of Energy on Friday, Dec. 11, that it is abandoning its major geothermal demonstration project at The Geysers, north of San Francisco. It already had disclosed in September that it was finding drilling into deep rock more difficult than expected, and last summer the company reacted defensively to reports that a similar project near Basel, Switzerland, had induced earthquakes. On Dec. 10, the day before the California announcement came the disclosure that the Basel project was being ditched. The technical leader of that project, meanwhile, faces judicial charges in Switzerland that he had proceeded with the drilling technique knowing of possible earthquake damage.

The techniques being developing in Switzerland and California involve fracturing bedrock, so that water can be circulated through the fissures to generate steam. AltaRock had obtained about $6 million from DOE for The Geysers project, and around $30 million venture capital from investors such as Google, Khosla Ventures, and Kleiner Perkins, according to a New York Times report.

These are not the only major green energy projects to go under in recent months. Earlier in the fall TRU Energy, a subsidiary of CLP in Hong Kong, announced it was writing off its whole investment in Solar Systems'  154-megawatt solar project in Mildura, Australia.  To be built at an estimated cost of 420 million Australian dollars, the installation was to consist of curved mirrors that would track the sun and focus light on high-efficiency photovoltaic material, to generate electricity. With a projected capacity factor of 20 percent, it would have produced 270,000 MWh of electricity per year, enough for about 45,000 homes.

The PV concentrator plant was not the only innovative solar project to be slated for Mildura, by the way. A town of about 30,000 people in norhwestern Victoria, with a semi-arid Mediterranean climate, Mildura may yet be home to a proposed solar tower, in which the upward convection of air would drive a turbine.

Or will that too turn out to be an exciting green energy idea that just doesn't quite cut it technically or economically?

 

 

 

IEEE-USA Blogs from Copenhagen

You can read about the action in and around the global climate conference, plus look at some nice photos being posted in real time, if you log into Congressional Fellow Thomas Lee's blogsite. Lee, who's been working in Washington for IEEE-USA, the volunteer-driven policy arm of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, has been writing about the challenges of covering such a huge, amorphous and fast-moving event, as well as the event itself. A recent post discusses the flap over a leaked "Danish draft" treaty that, according to England's left-leaning Guardian, would give developing countries a raw deal.

Cash for Caulkers

Inexplicably, President Obama prefers venture capitalist John Doerr's "cash for caulkers" to Bill Sweet's cash for (coal) clunkers, at least so far. In  a jobs speech delivered yesterday at the Brookings Institution in Washington, Obama said he might introduce a special home retrofit program, to supplement subsidies in the stimulus bill and make it still easier and cheaper for homeowners to make dwellings more energy-efficient and conserving. The Daily Show's John Stewart poked fun at him Monday night for saying he didn't want to "tip his hand," as if he were giving away a secret. Obama has mentioned the idea repeatedly all year, as Stewart observed, and the concept has got analytic attention in the press and on the air.

New R&D Funding for Batteries, Carbon Capture, and Fuels from CO2

The Department of Energy's Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA-E) is making available $100 million to support research on batteries for longer-range hybrid and electric cars, novel materials and processes for carbon capture from coal combustion, and what it somewhat misleadingly calls “electrofuels.” That third category refers to “the utilization of metabolic engineering and synthetic biological approaches for the efficient conversion of carbon dioxide to liquid transportation fuels.”

Utility Scale Photovoltaics

It’s long been my assumption that if PV ever achieves true economic competitiveness, it will be in a distributed mode--mounted on roofs or walls--where it saves users the cost of having electricity delivered to them. However, recent conversations with executives at two top players in the industry are making me wonder. There's been a "dramatic change in the attitude of utilities" toward centrally generated photovoltaic electricity, says Julie Blunden, vice president for public policy and communications with Sunpower. Mark Pinto, chief technology officer and senior vice president with Applied Materials, basically agrees with Blunden that a variety of factors associated with production scale and system costs are shifting interest markedly in favor of PV powerplants.

Applied Materials, a heavyweight supplier of tool-making equipment in the semiconductor and flat panel display industries, has emerged in the last five years as a major supplier to PV manufacturers as well. Its customers include Sunpower, which at present is the top U.S. photovoltaics maker, though it manufacturers all its cells in Philippines with a second plant soon to come in Malaysia. The Sunpower modules, which work to best effect when installed on the ground with trackers that keep them oriented to the sun, are currently assembled in China and Mexico, and soon will be made in the United States and Europe as well.

Both companies have vantage points that give them perspective and insight into broad solar industry developments.

Blunden says that Sunpower began to get a lot of visibility with construction of PV power plants in Europe during 2007 and 2008; combined installations totaled about 200 MW. In 2008, it won a contract to build a 250 MW plant—the California Valley Solar Ranch—for PG&E, following adoption by California of a Renewable Portfolio Standard. Earlier this year, when President Obama wanted to use a PV farm as the backdrop for some important technology policy announcements, it was a 25-MW plant that Sunpower had just built for Florida Power and Light than his aides picked for the photo-op.

Applied Materials, meanwhile, has made a nice business out of offering complete sets of tool-making equipment to aspiring makers of thin-film silicon sheets, in effect just about everything that's needed in the manufacturing process. Chris Eberspacher, CTO of the company's solar business group, describes what they provide as a "complete engineering and operations package,” which they encourage their clients to buy in a standardized form, though "alas, nobody does." Eberspacher and his colleagues have been sighing all the way to the bank. So far they have sold 15 of their SunFabs, at up to $200 million a pop, in Europe and Asia.

Though SunFab tools make films from a combination of amorphous and nanocrystalline silicon, the bigger part of Applied Materials' solar business is still tool-making geared to the traditional silicon wafer. But if interest is indeed shifting to central generation, the thin-film business seems destined to grow. Even though thin films generally have somewhat lower efficiencies than standard silicon, if they can be produced more cheaply and installed over larger areas at reasonable cost, then they can come out well ahead of the game.

According to Sunpower's Blunden, many kinds of economies have been driving down the costs of large-scale solar installations, starting with the ability of the industry--only recently acquired--to deliver large plants in just a year  or two. Not so long ago, she says, you couldn't get financing for a solar farm because banks had no idea how to evaluate them; now they do.

Ground-mounted systems, she observes, can be arranged to greater advantage than typically found in an existing home or commercial building. She says a PV system's capacity factor--the percentage of the time it's making as much electricity as it theoretically can—is perhaps 18 percent for a rooftop system but up to 30 percent for a ground-based system with trackers.

Then there are the usual economies of scale, including non-PV components, installation, and maintenance. To take the simplest case, says CTO Pinto of Applied Materials, if you want to put a module on your roof you have to bring in a special truck, with a driver and perhaps second technician. But that same truck and team could be out installing an entire farm at a pretty good clip, with no extra help. As PV materials costs are coming down below 20 cents per watt, Pinto observes sharply, the significance of peripheral costs like installation grows proportionately.

The European Union's Energy Institute recently predicted that photovoltaics will attain grid parity--competitiveness with other standard sources of electricity--by 2020. Eberspacher and Pinto consider that a reasonable guess. I remain skeptical, mainly because solar costs as measured by dollar per installed watt--the only metric I trust at this stage of the game--have not been coming down all that dramatically.

But hey, Applied Materials is the world's top supplier of tool-making equipment for integrated circuits, very likely the top supplier of equipment for flat panels, and is well on its way to being just as big in photovoltaics. I suppose it's remotely conceivable than they might be right and I may be wrong.

Carolina Energy Company to Shutter Coal Plants

Progress Energy announced yesterday, Dec. 1,  that it will close four coal-burning electric power plants in North Carolina, rather than to go to the expense of  equipping them with flue-gas desulfurization scrubbers. The decision was taken in response to a ruling of state regulators who ordered the company to prepare retirement plans for the plants, which have a combined generating capacity of 1,485 MW, unless it outfitted them with scrubbers. The four plants represent about 30 percent of Progress's North Carolina coal-generating capacity; it has cost the company about $2 billion to install pollution control equipment on the remaining plants, which have a combined capacity of 3,542 MW. That translates to a cost of about 50 U.S. cents per watt.

During the last few years, as an anti-coal movement has taken root in the United States and as corporate executives and shareholders have become more and more worried about the prospect of a penalty being put on carbon emissions, many dozens of coal generating projects have been cancelled across the country. But this week's decision by Progress Energy may represent the first major case of existing coal plants being decommissioned rather than improved.

“Coal-fueled generation will continue to be vital to our ability to meet customer electricity needs,” said Lloyd Yates, president and CEO of Progress Energy Carolinas, in the corporate press release. “But as environmental regulations continue to change, and as even more significant rule changes appear likely in the near future, the costs of retrofitting and operating these plants will increase dramatically. We believe this is the right decision for our customers, our state and our company.”

Partly to replace the coal generation, Progress plans to build a 950 MW natural gas fired plant in Wayne County, and a gas plant of about 600 MW near Wilmington. It's also looking at the possibility of obtaining about 150 MW from biomass such as wood waste, biomass being the states most plentiful renewable resource, according to the company.

Yesterday's announcement “sends a clear signal that coal is not the future,” the Environmental Defense Fund's Michael Regan told the Wilmington Star News. “Cleaner energy is part of the future,” said Reagan, who is EDF's climate and air policy director for the U.S. Southeast.

The announcement also sends a clear signal that natural gas is coming back, with estimated reserves way up and, and of wind's, possibly, starting to run into some cost limits. But is it also a signal that many energy companies will opt to shutter dirty coal plants, in anticipation of Federal carbon regulation? Not necessarily. The CEO of Progress Energy Carolinas explained to the New York Times that by closing the plants now, the company may be unable to get credit for reduced carbon emissions later, when a cap and trade system is introduced, and may therefore have to do even more to cut emissions.

 

 

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