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Summer Reading (Energy Edition)

China's solar takeover, the ambiguous climate benefits of EVs, and more

3 min read

You won't be staying on top of energy and green tech if you just read that rag IEEE Spectrum, even if it is the preferred magazine of engineers in telecommunications, computing, software, electronics, and power.

This month Technology Review, MIT's glorified alumni magazine, has an excellent article about Suntech and its founder and CEO, Zhengrong Shi, otherwise known as China's sun king. You know the general story in outline: How China's low-cost and aggressive solar manufacturers have pretty much seized the world market, taking advantage of ultra-generous subsidies in Spain and Germany that were intended to favor domestic manufacturers. But even so you may find arresting some of the numbers Tech Reviews trots out.

China's photovoltaic production capacity in 2001 was 2 MW; today it is 4 GW--two thousand times larger. Suntech's capacity went from 10 MW in 2002 to 1 GW now. 

Three years ago, U.S. solar manufacturers were suppling 43 percent of the PV panels qualifying for California rebates, China just 2 percent. Today China's supplying 42 percent of them, Americans 15 percent.

If you want to know in more detail just how the Çhinese have done that, Tech Review's profile of Sun King Shi is well worth reading. But skip the solar commentary on p. 14, with the ridiculous spin it puts on PV costs. The author argues that solar is now nearing grid parity because generating costs are merely twice as high as wholesale electricity and wind costs, under optimal solar conditions. Merely?

This month's Scientific American has a feature--really a two page infographic--titled "the dirty truth about plug-in hybrids." The article usefully focuses attention on the fact that hybrid and electric cars will be climate-friendly only to the extent the electricity they draw from the grid is generated by low-carbon means. Relying on a Department of Energy study, it charts, by U.S. region,  how much of the additional electricity for hybrids and EVs would likely come from fossil fuels versus zero-carbon sources like hydro, wind, and nuclear.

But how reliable is that DOE study? SciAm doesn't cast a critical eye on it, or even explain its methodology and assumptions. On the face of it, some of the results look weird and dubious, to say the least. The magazine's chart has two thirds of the electricity New York would supply to hybrids coming from oil. But who burns oil to make electricity? Oil-generated power represents a trivial fraction of the U.S. supply mix. The chart has 100 percent of Texas's additional electricity coming from natural gas. But Texas is the state that's been building out wind the most aggressively (hence the Pickens plan). None of that power for Texas's electric cars is going to come from wind?

And what about long-term electricity demand in general? What assumptions are DOE and SciAm making about the price the Federal government is going to put on carbon, and how that will affect power prices?

As long as you're mulling those issues and leafing through Scientific American, you might want to also consult its take on unconventional natural gas and water. Mostly it retreads what IEEE Spectrum and Tech Review published earlier this year, but Mark Fishetti does has some interesting additional detail about just how contaminants can get into groundwater from bore holes. Even better, go to the Worldwatch website and download Beneath the Surface, A Survey of Environmental Risks from Shale Gas Development. The report, a joint effort by Mark Zoback of Stanford University, Bradford Copithorne of the Environmental Defense Fund, and Worldwatch's Saya Kitasei, finds that the likelihood of contaminants from deep shale boreholes getting into the groundwater layers much closer to the surface is extremely small. But it also concludes that faulty borehole construction can lead to gas leakage into surface water. Stricter regulation and more honest discussion of environmental risks will be essential if shalegas is to live up to its full potential, say the authors.

In the July Scientific American, take a look too at Jane Braxton Littlle's article about how wastewater is being recycled in California to produce geothermal electricity. It's a nice description and analysis of how recycling municipal waste water neatly solved two problems, a shortage of aquifer water at a major geothermal site misnamed The Geysers, and a need for cheaper wastewater treatment. Just one issue here: Both in a box and in the text the article says the innovation neatly solves three problems, though only two are clearly spelled out.

Nothing of course will shake Scientific American's reputation  as the world's leading science magazine for the general educated reader. But you'd think they could look at their sources a littlle more critically, and count to three in a fashion that the general educated reader can follow.

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