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Preliminary Estimate Says 2008 Was Solar Boom Year

According to a report just out from Navigant Consulting, last yearâ''s PV shipments, at 5.4 GW, were up 78 percent from 2007. If confirmed by further analysis, the industryâ''s performance ran strongly counter to the general economic downturn, and photovoltaics seem to be taking off. But there are two major reasons for caution. One is uncertainty in the numbers themselves (estimates of 2007 shipments have varied from 2.8 to 3.43 GW). The other is that with about 1 GW of PV stuck in inventory, and incentives being pared back in the two countries mainly driving demand, last yearâ''s PV sharp uptick could turn out to be an aberration.

Last year, says Navigant, Germany and Span accounted for close to four fifths of PV purchases. But both countries are modifying the generous feed-in tariff laws that have driven demand. Spainâ''s 44 cent/kWh subsidy produced results faster than expected but by the same token proved much too costly; itâ''s being cut to 34 cents/kWh for small rooftop installations and 32 cents/kWh for all others.

Also of interest in the Navigant report are changes in the rankings of top ten PV producers. Sharp, after holding the number one position for years, has dropped to third place. Germanyâ''s Q-Cells is now Number One, and the California company Suntech Number Two. Arizonaâ''s First Solar, which has made headlines with its dramatic claims about manufacturing cost reductions for its thin-film cells, is fourth.

Fate of Major U.S. Carbon Capture Project Still in Doubt

In what seems like the economistâ''s equivalent of confusing metric and British units, a government audit has disclosed that the Federal governmentâ''s estimate of how much it would cost to build a major experimental power plant was off by $500 million because it confused constant (inflation-adjusted) with unadjusted dollars. The error produced an inflated estimate of the plantâ''s total cost that contributed to the Bush Administrationâ''s decision to cancel the plant last year, leaving the United States without a major carbon capture & storage (CC&S) project. The project, FutureGen, would generate electricity using coal gasification technology, with carbon dioxide separated from other waste streams and sequestered in some kind of quasi-permanent repository.

Energy Secretary Chu has told reporters that even with the error corrected, because of other factors, the total cost of the plant may still be too high. According to The Washington Postâ''s account, he said that if the plant costs more than $2 billion, that will be a serious problem because the country needs to explore a portfolio of affordable CC&S options. So, while the death of FutureGen may have been somewhat exaggerated, the same goes for its prospective resurrection.

5 Megawatts-a-Pop and Prepped for High Seas Action

Here's a shot of the prototype of REpower System's 5-megawatt (MW) offshore wind turbine, which has been generating power since 2004 in Brunsbÿttel near the mouth of the Elbe River on Germany's North Sea. I stopped to see the original REpower 5M last week while reporting an upcoming feature for IEEE Spectrum and clocked the turbine's 126-meter diameter rotor swinging at 11 rpm, nearly full speed. The 5M marks an awesome juxtaposition, with the 120-meter high turbine (hub height) towering over Brunsbÿttel's spongy marshland, chemical complexes and a nuclear power plant.

The 5M is creating buzz these days after RWE Innogy, the renewable energy subsidiary of German utility RWE, signed a deal to install 250 of them over the next five years. At a total value of â'¬2 billion it is the biggest deal yet for offshore wind. It also cements plans for RWE's Nordsee 1 wind farm, which could be Germany's first worldscale offshore farm if the first 30 5Ms are installed in 2011 as planned. Nordsee 1, about 50 kilometers offshore, could ultimately grow to 1000 MW -- the same scale as large coal and nuclear-fueled thermal power plants.

REpower's-5M-prototype-in-Brunsbuttel

Heartland Conference Provides Window on Climate Debate

This time last year, a meeting in New York sponsored by the Heartland Institute provided a nice preview of the arguments climate change skeptics would be highlighting in the coming year, and of the star scientists they would rely on to put the strongest face on their arguments. This yearâ''s meeting, which opened last night in NYC, does the sameâ''and the upshot is a little startling. Last year I came away with the distinct impression that climate skepticism still had a lot of life in it. This year the impression, to judge from todayâ''s report by Andrew Revkin in The New York Times, is the opposite.

A notable development in the last year, Revkin notes, was the decision by ExxonMobil to stop funding climate skepticism, including the Heartland Institute and its conferences. But the shift in mood doesnâ''t stop there. The most noted and active of the climate skepticsâ''S. Fred Singer, Richard S. Lindzen, Russell Seitz, and John H. Christyâ''all are warning their fellow skeptics not to carry their arguments too far. Singer, for example, is reminding them that carbon dioxide is indeed indisputably a greenhouse gas, and that humans certainly are partly responsible for measured increased in CO2 in the atmosphere. Lindzen, probably the best qualitfied atmospheric scientist among the skeptics, warned them against trying to attribute recent temperature changes exclusively to solar cycles.

With skeptics like this, climate change skeptics might ask, who needs alarmists?

Bye Bye Yucca?

As noted by energy reporter Matthew A. Wald in todayâ''s New York Times, the Obama budget contains no funding for the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, which sounds like its death knell. The decision, consistent with a campaign promise that Obama made, arguably owes much more to politics than to science or technology. Nevada, home of the repository that would be built at the former nuclear weapons testing area, is prominently represented in Congress by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Even more importantly, Nevada emerged somewhat improbably in recent years as a red-blue battleground state, guaranteeing that many a serious candidate for national office would promise to terminate plans for the repository (though McCain did not).

Five years ago, a Federal judge ruled that to be certified for construction and operation, the nuclear spent fuel stored at Yucca Mountain would have to be proved safe for a million years. On the face of it, this is a ridiculous standard: hardly anything can be â''provedâ'' safe for a million years; and one would think, after perhaps 625,000 years, that we would learn a thing or two about storing nuclear wastesâ''and that if they wereâ''t safe at Yucca, well then, weâ''d move them somewhere else.

But to negate that judgeâ''s ruling, the president and Congress would have to pass a law setting a different standard. That plainly is not going to happen. The result will be, as Wald spells out today, an avalanche of litigation, and many more years of arduous negotiation and planning, starting once again from Go.

An amusing but essentially wrong-headed commentary in the liberal e-zine Slate calls this the one decision of Obamaâ''s that will have an impact for a million years. Timothy Noah argues that in making the decision, Obama is saying essentially that the answer to the nuclear waste problem is not to create any more nuclear waste. Thatâ''s not what Obama is saying. He was cautiously but firmly and consistently pro-nuclear throughout his campaign. Noah also deems untenable the current system of storing wastes temporarily on-site in water pools and then transferring the spent fuel to dry casks. Wald has argued persuasively in Scientific American (March 2003) that the system, though far from ideal, is tenable as long as we need use it.

Senate Environmentalist Holds Up Key Science Appointments over Cuba

Itâ''s really just a curiosity but does provide a glimpse of how things work. Talking Points Memo, the liberal news and blogging operation, has a story this week saying that New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez, an advocate of action to address climate change, is threatening to hold up two key Obama appointments over unrelated Cuba policy. Though a solid liberal, Menendez takes a hard line on Cuba and is troubled by some provisions in the presidentâ''s spending bill that could signal a softening of policy toward the post-Fidel Castro regime. As a result, heâ''s threatening to put a temporary block on Senate action to confirm Obamaâ''s science adviser and the appointee to become head of NOAAâ''along with Steven Chu, Obamaâ''s energy secretary, they are the two most eminent people nominated for top presidential positions.

Cap and Trade or Carbon Tax?

In his address before Congress last night President Obama called on â''Congress to send me legislation that places a market-based cap on carbon pollution and drives the production of more renewable energy in America.â'' The question is, will a cap and trade system deliver the desired result better than a straight carbon tax?

A debate held last October at Columbia University between Yvo de Boer, the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and Jeffrey Sachs, director of Columbiaâ''s Earth Institute, sheds some light on the subject.

De Boer argues the merits of the Kyoto Protocol, which set limits on greenhouse gas emissions for signatory developing countries and led to the European Unionâ''s carbon emission trading system. Central to this cap and trade scheme is the Clean Development Mechanism. The CDM allows companies in developing countries that exceed their carbon caps to purchase offsetting CDM certificates. These certificates finance clean technology projects in developing countries.

De Boer reports that there are now 1170 registered clean development mechanism projects in 49 developing countries. He notes, however, that he is not â''blindâ'' to the challenges that the CDM faces, including the sometimes-questionable â''additionalityâ'' of CDM projects. Many argue that these projects would have gone ahead without outside investment and that the CDM is no more than a cheap way for developing countries to buy their way out of carbon compliance.

De Boer believes that carbon cap and trade and the CDM, though imperfect, are worthy works in progress. And he does not oppose a complementary set of carbon taxes. "We need a set of tools to spur both private and public money flows," he says. "Climate change is a global problem and we will need all the tools at our disposal."

Sachs argues that market-based mechanisms like cap and trade have not demonstrated that they can turn the trajectory of carbon emissions as â''sharply and dramatically as we need to do it.â'' The CDM, says Sachs, â''is unfortunately a very small marginal tool that isnâ''t going to really change the broad framework of how energy is produced and technology distributed.â'' He also fundamentally dislikes cap and trade because he believes it encourages the continued deployment of questionable, risky financial instruments. â''I am not so keen on sending our best and brightest off to do more financial market engineeringâ'' for the carbon markets, he says. â''I think the meltdown shows how we took a generation of brilliant young people and put them to tasks that donâ''t solve problems.â''

Sachs believes that a carbon tax is much easier to administer than a cap and trade scheme. â''There are just a few places we get carbon from and by taxing upstreamâ''at the refinery or the wellheadâ''you reach a carbon price for the whole economy,â'' he says. Cap and trade systems on the other hand, require monitoring the compliance of hundreds of thousands of enterprises, which, Sachs suggests, keeps a lot of regulators, attorneys, and auditors busy but has questionable impact on carbon emissions.

Unlike a cap and trade system that thrives on price volatility, a carbon tax will put a floor on the price of carbon. A more certain price for carbon encourages long-term investment in clean technologies, says Sachs. While Wall Streetâ''s financial engineers make money from cap and trade, a carbon tax allows real engineers to figure out ways to get CO2 under control. But Sachs isnâ''t holding his breath waiting for Congress to act on his suggestion. â''The US is neurotic when it comes to taxes,â'' he says.

Indonesian Biomass Burning Rivals Amazon

Itâ''s no secret that Amazonian forest burning is a significant cause of global warming, both because the size of a huge carbon sink is reduced and because of direct emissions from the burning itself. Whatâ''s much less appreciated is that Indonesiaâ''s emissions from biomass burning are of the same order, though somewhat smaller than Africaâ''s. Indonesiaâ''s annual rate of deforestation, at an alarming 3.4 percent, is only slightly smaller than Brazilâ''s.

An article published this weekend by Nature Geoscience takes a shot at better specifying Indonesiaâ''s record of biomass burning since the 1960s. It explains the spikes in the record in terms of rainfall fluctuation, demographic and social-economic trends on the countryâ''s biggest islands, and policy. It suggests some significant policy implications.

Because satellite data were lacking before the mid-1990s, the authors rely on visibility records from regional airports to construct an index of biomass combustion. They identify two major fire episodes, in 1997-98 and 2006, and two minors ones, in 2002 and 2004. A unique element in Indonesian fires is that the bulk of the emissions result from burning of peat soils for as long as four months at a time. But the ignition of fires has been closely associated with patterns of human migration and agricultural expansion, and with related policy initiatives. For example, the rate of deforestation has climbed sharply in recent decades on Kalimantan, as industrial agriculture and forestry displaced subsistence farming, creating vulnerabilities: â''Peatlands drained under Mega Rice Project of the 1990sâ'¿were the single biggest contributor to emissions across all of Indonesia during the 1997 fire event.â''

Regional workings of the ocean and atmosphere are almost equally important. Not only the famed El Nino-Southern Oscillation (ENSO), whereby the western Pacific dries when Peru floods, but also the Indian Ocean Dipole play an important role. (The dipole involves unusual cooling of sea surface temperatures in the southeastern equatorial Indian Ocean and warming of temperatures in the western equatorial Indian Ocean.) In the relatively severe 2006 and 1994 events both ENSO and the dipole were operative, but in the less severe 2002 event only ENSO.

â''It is therefore important,â'' the authors conclude, â''that sea surface temperature anomalies over both the Pacific and Indian Oceans be monitored in preventing and mitigating future fire eventsâ'¿Such mitigation measures are particularly important under a changing climate, given the possibility of more persistent El Nino-like conditions, reduced rainfall over Indonesiaâ''s main burning regions and a positive feedback between reduced soil moisture and reduced precipitation in Indonesia.â''

PV Watch 2

T-Solar Global, a leading Spanish manufacturer, will soon mass-produce the worldâ''s largest PV modules, using the trademarked SunFab thin film supplied by Applied Materials, the nanotech company in Santa Clara, Calif. T-Solar says it expects to produce the equivalent of 45 MW of the 5.7-square-meter modules per year. The company already has 28 power stations in Spain with a combined peak capacity of 143 MW, enough to generate 200 GWh/year and power about 60,000 homes.

On the other side of the pond, Konarka Technolgoies has secured $5 million to help finance a production facility in New Bedford, Mass., where it will produce Konarka Power Plastic. Konarka has been a recognized leader in organic PV since early in this decade; the efficiency claims itâ''s made for its materials have stood up relatively well to critical scrutiny. Its New Bedford factory is being housed in a building once occupied by Polaroidâ''s flagship manufacturing facility.

A Green Lining in Economic Clouds

With the latest alarming reports of drastic economic downturns in Japan and Europe, perhaps we may take some comfort in the fact that carbon emissions are dropping sharply too, which may make it possible to achieve medium-term targets that would have been considered unreachable a year or two ago. According to reports by Point Carbon and New Energy Finance, the prices of carbon emission permits have dropped to the lowest levels seen in the second phase of the European trading scheme; total European emissions were down about 3 percent from the year before. Emissions from steel and cement production were down 9 percent, and those from electricity generation dropped 2 percent.

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