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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.

 

 

Suppression of Climate Dissent

The disclosure of messages among climate scientists has provided evidence, as the Wall Street Journal put it in an editorial, of "coordinated efforts by leading climatologists to fit the data to their conclusions while attempting to silence and discredit their critics." In the press, climate skeptics like James Delingpole of England's Telegraph have reacted with glee. Even those normally sympathetic to the mainstream climate scientists like Andrew Revkin of the New York Times concede that the messages raise questions about the quality of some research and the behavior of specific scientists.

Given that hundreds of messages and documents are at issue, I leave it to the reader to assess each point on its merits. For now let me just say this. Having covered energy and climate for close to twenty years, I know that climate scientists seeking to engage and arouse the public have sometimes tried to marginalize those who do not go along with the mainstream view of what the situation requires. For example, without naming names, there was a pioneering climate modeler who was discouraged from testifying to Congress because he did not agree that global warming was necessarily "dangerous." When I was profiling him, a long-time colleague of his tried to dissuade me from mentioning his non-alarmist view of things--advice that I naturally ignored.

The problem as I see it is simple. Scientists and technologists have a habit of thinking that certain policies follow logically and inescapably--that is to say scientifically--from their scientific findings. But policy choices always involve economic trade-offs, competing interests, and personal values. Scientists and policy analysts clarify those trade-offs, but when it comes to actually making a choice, the technologist is no different from every other citizen. It's this mistaken notion that a certain policy must follow from a finding that prompts some scientists to discourage dissent and filter out the noise from findings so as to "not confuse the public."

Climate skeptics, let it be said, often fall prey to a mirror-image temptation. Thinking too that policy must follow from science, they feel called upon to refute the science because they don't like the direction policy recommendations are headed. Rather than debate and rebut specific policy recommendations, which are always open to challenge, they try to chip away at the foundations of climate science, which in fact are rock-solid.

 

 

Tata and Berkeley Frigid to MDI's Air Cars

Indian carmaker Tata Motors is voicing concerns about the range and durability of the compressed-air powered minicar technology critically analyzed in IEEE Spectrum this month (see "Deflating the Air Car"). Tata Motors invested in French air car developer Motor Development International (MDI) in early 2007, but yesterday Mumbai-based news source DNA reported that Tata sees ongoing issues with MDI's technology.

Tata already sells vehicles that run on gasoline, compressed natural gas, and liquid petroleum gas and is launching a battery-powered sedan in Europe. However, Tata Motors' vice-president for engineering systems S Ravishankar apparently told DNA Money that the company's efforts to add air-powered cars to its fleet are hung up by range limitations:

"Air is not a fuel, it is just an energy carrier. So a tank full of air does not have the same energy as a tank full of CNG. Any vehicle using only compressed air to run would face problems of range."

When asked whether this means that "the 'Air Car' project off?," Ravishankar declined to comment. Instead, Ravishankar added that excessive cooling of the air car's pneumatic engine is also presenting a challenge.

Spectrum's analysis of the thermodynamics of MDI's AirPod concluded that the minicar is not energy efficient relative to electric vehicles, and unlikely to deliver on its promised 200-kilometer-plus range. New York Times columnist Jim Motavalli pour further cold water on pneumatic propulsion last week, reporting on a UC Berkeley report on the poor efficiency of pneumatic vehicles.

MDI, for its part, continues to talk up the AirPod's imminent commercialization, and has forged what may be the firm's first university partnership since an unsatisfying collaboration with France's prestigious École des Mines de Paris (which deflated ambitious range claims for an early version of MDI's technology). Switzerland's ArcInfo reports this week that an MDI partner in Reconvilier will commence manufacturing of the AirPod "from March" and the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne will fund a doctoral student to help boost the efficiency of MDI's air compressor stations.

The vapor thickens!

Image caption: Air France and KLM agreed to test a dozen AirPods starting in Spring 2009 but still await delivery from MDI.

Cash for (Coal) Clunkers

Preparing a recent talk for the New England section of IEEE's Power and Energy Society ("How Can We Best Achieve Deep Cuts in Carbon Emissions?"), a lightbulb lit up over my head: Instead of encouraging energy companies to switch from coal to low-carbon or zero-carbon energy sources such as nuclear fission, natural gas, or wind by imposing a carbon trading system or a carbon tax, why not just pay them to switch? The dirtiest U.S. coal plants, besides being responsible for about two fifths of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, are also blamed for about 10,000 premature fatalities each year. Admittedly, the thought of bribing parties to stop causing early deaths may stick in the craw a bit. But if that's the most effective way of getting the job done, hey, why not?

There's a very deeply ingrained notion that the United States just can't afford to shut down half its coal plants because the country's coal is so plentiful and cheap. But that's wrong. The comparison I've often made is to the feelings one has about a very good, very cheap, and very reliable car that also happens to be very old—one of the classic great cars, like the 1951 Plymouth or the Dodge Dart of the 1960s and the Oldsmobile Omega of the Seventies and Eighties. Consumers hung on to those cars because they were so inexpensive to maintain and operate. But was a 1951 Plymouth, with no seatbelts, catalytic converter or electronic diagnostics, still a great car in 1981? Obviously not. And nor are the country’s dirtiest coal plants, which are churning out electricity using technology that's not too different from what it was generations ago, good plants today.

You think you can't afford to replace that dirty and unsafe old car; but actually you can easily afford to. You just need a little nudge.

So that's why, contemplating the difficulties the United States has had agreeing on a carbon trading system or carbon tax, it occurred to me that it might just be easier to pay utilities to pour concrete into their aging coal plants the same way we just paid consumers to disable their car clunkers. After all, the cash for clunkers program gave the economy a distinct little boost, and quite a few families ended up with better cars that were smaller, more fuel-efficient, and less polluting.

Of course there was always the sour puss who called cash for clunkers a clunker of a concept, ourselves included. Maybe you're in trouble when you have to call upon Jeffrey Sachs, the Columbia Earth Institute's controversial leader, when you need to be brought back down to earth. Writing in the current issue of Scientific American, Sachs argues that the car program was a clunker of a climate policy: He reckons the cost of each metric ton of carbon saved at about $140--seven or eight times the level at which carbon has been trading.

That's a compelling argument. But remember: Cutting carbon was not the only reason or even the main reason for cashing in car clunkers; and nor would cutting carbon be the only compelling reason to cash in coal clunkers. 

 

Angry Mermaid

Taking their cue from the famous mermaid in Copenhagen's harbor, and anticipating the global climate meeting that will convene in Copenhagen in December, a handful of European environmentalist and corporate watchdog groups have established a mock award to "recognize the perverse role of corporate lobbyists, and highlight those business groups and companies that have made the greatest effort to sabotage the climate talks and other climate measures."

The prize brings to mind a recent blog post in which I complained about the excessive role that corporate lobbying has come to play in U.S. climate policy. As the post was widely misconstrued as an attack on nuclear energy or natural gas, which I favor, let me take this occasion to clarify my position: My gripe is exclusively with legislative strategy that tries to make good things happen by giving incentives to particular industrial sectors; my view, widely shared by economists and conservative political writers like David Brooks of the New York Times, is that policy should confine itself to penalizing carbon-intense energy sources. (To the extent that I part ways with people like Brooks it's over the degree of penalizing; my personal view is that the carbon penalty should be draconian.)

In singling out ads placed by the natural gas industry for attention, I may have been slightly unfair to the natural gas industry. After all, the industry has valid points to make about the role gas can play as a bridge from fossil fuels to greener energy. For example, as Robert F. Kennedy also has noted, a lot of gas-fired generation currently lies idle most of the time and could, with appropriate rule changes, replace coal generation without new plants having to be built. In the final analysis, however, the natural gas industry is indeed hoping that it will benefit from special incentives in the upcoming U.S. climate bill and it has been lobbying Congress to that end.

This is how Rod Lowman, president and CEO of the American Natural Gas Association, put it in an interview when asked about gas language in the Kerry-Boxer climate bill:  "It is definitely a beginning point. In our discussions with staff and senators, everyone agrees that this is a natural gas title with language there as a placeholder to start discussions about taking advantage of lower-carbon natural gas to generate power. The placeholder outlines the direction to take in helping to incentivize the use of natural gas to generate power, and it talks about appropriations of funds to make that happen."

To echo language favored presidents from Nixon to Obama, let me be clear: As long as nuclear energy, solar energy and wind are benefitting from special incentives in climate and energy legislation, there's indeed nothing wrong with the natural gas industry's getting such incentives too; what I object to is anybody's getting incentives.

 

 

 

Very Bad News on Climate Front

Not long ago it was our distinct pleasure to transmit a piece of rare good news from the climate front, the discovery by British researchers that microorganisms living in Antarctic waters are taking up a small but significant amount of atmospheric carbon. Now comes the bad news, and unfortunately it's a lot worse--evidence that our oceans' ability to absorb carbon may be dropping sharply.

It's been long known from direct measurements that the seven seas are sopping up a large fraction of the carbon dioxide that humans are pumping into the atmosphere. Scientists have worried that the fraction might drop as atmospheric levels rise and the oceans become saturated. Now comes a report, published this week in Nature and reproduced on the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory's website, saying that even though the oceans are continuing to absorb ever larger quantities of carbon dioxide, the fraction of human emissions they've taken up may have dropped by as much as 10 percent since 2000.

 

"The study reconstructs the accumulation of industrial carbon in the oceans year by year, from 1765 to 2008," explains the Earth Institute’s Kevin Krajick, in a lucid press release. "[Lamont Doherty's Samar] Khatiwala and his colleagues found that uptake rose sharply in the 1950s, as the oceans tried to keep pace with the growth of carbon dioxide emissions worldwide. Emissions continued to grow, and by 2000, reached such a pitch that the oceans have since absorbed a declining overall percentage, even though they absorb more each year in absolute tonnage. Today, the oceans hold about 150 billion tons of industrial carbon, the researchers estimate--a third more than in the mid-1990s."

Khatiwala and his co-researchers developed techniques to infer quantities of industrial carbon in the oceans, working backwards from contemporary levels, and sought to identify the locations of its uptake and its sub-sea transport. They estimate that about 40 percent of the carbon dioxide absorbed by the oceans is taken up in frigid waters near Antarctica, to be carried northwards by ocean currents.

At the uppermost part of the globe, ironically, waters are under-calcified because of freshwater from melting ice streaming into them. A report in this week's Science (appearing tomorrow, Nov. 20) finds that in 2008, in the words of its abstract, “surface waters were undersaturated with respect to aragonite, a relatively soluble form of calcium carbonate found in plankton and invertebrates.” This effect was expected but is showing up about a decade earlier than predicted. It endangers marine organisms that depend on water saturated with calcium carbonate to build their shells and skeletons.

 

 

South Korea Emerges as Global Player in Nuclear

It's been obvious for a long time that South Korea is the Sweden of Northeast Asia--a modest-size country that is so high-tech-savvy and business-smart that it consistently punches way above its weight. But it still comes as a surprise that a Korean nuclear construction group is entering the ring to slug it out with France's Areva and a GE-Hitachi team for a reactor construction contract in the United Arab Emirates, as the Wall Street Journal reports. The group, led by Korea Electric Power Co., includes Samsung and Hyundai, as well as Japan's Toshiba-Westinghouse. With six reactors under construction, Korea plans to build a dozen more by 2030.

China to Build Wind Turbine Plant in United States

China's A-Power Energy Generation Systems, together with its North American partner the U.S. Renenewable Energy Group, have reportedly announced their intention to build a wind turbine factory in the United States. This is the second such announcement from a Chinese green tech company this week. Earlier, China's Suntech disclosed that it will be the first Chinese solar manufacturer to build a PV factory in the States.

A-Power Energy and U.S. Renewable came under attack a couple of weeks ago when Charles Schumer, the very powerful Democratic Senator from New York, criticized their plan to draw on U.S. stimulus money to build a $1.5 billion wind farm in Texas.

 

 

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