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More Casualties in Solar Crunch

Not so very long ago British Petroleum was styling itself as the world's largest solar manufacturer and promising to take us "beyond petroleum." It made that claim on the basis of having acquired a small Maryland photovoltaics maker that happened to be the world's largest PV producer. This week, BP closed down what was a left of that operation, saying it could not find a way of making money in solar.

Such are the ravages wrought by the calamitous entry into the world solar market of highly subsidized, low-labor-cost Chinese manufacturers. Another and more telling victim was Germany's Solar Millennium, which had got the world's attention with some very large utility-scale projects, based on innovative thermal technology projects, notably Blythe in California. At the end of the summer Solar Millennium announced it was redesigning the 1-gigawatt Blythe plant to be based on PV panel technology, suspending work on the project, and turning down a Department of Energy loan guarantee because the company felt DOE's terms were too restrictive. Now, this week, Solar Millennium filed for bankruptcy, its stock price plunging.

Blythe, which is to be the world's largest solar plant,  was perhaps the most high-profile of U.S. utility-scale solar projects, and had gone through a number of design changes to accommodate environmental and water-management concerns. Now Solar Millennium is in the market to sell its solar order book, which exceeds 2 GW in aggregate projected capacity. Its prospects should be reasonably good, as smart investors like Warren Buffett have entered the solar market, snapping up bargains. Earlier this week, as Forbes reported, "Google and leveraged buyout giant KKR agreed to acquire four solar power plants under construction by Recurrent Energy."

In all, there have been eight major solar bankruptcies since the summer, most recently--besides Solar Millennium--Evergreen Solar and SpectraWatt. Not just because of the embarrassing Solyndra insolvency, the politics and policies of fostering alternative energy is sure to be on the presidential campaign agenda in the coming year.



Wind Ramps: DOE Pushes Research on Wind Power Forecasting

A ramp event, in the lexicon of wind speeds and wind energy, refers to a drastic shift -- either up or down -- in the speed of wind in a given location over a short period of time. These changes make for difficult periods for a wind farm, as it can vary the output of the turbines and affect the grid's power levels quite dramatically. To learn how to better predict ramp events, the DOE is funding a research project run by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory along with AWS Truepower called WindSENSE.

As a LLNL press release says, better prediction of ramp events can allow control room operators of wind farms to better schedule the turbines and allow the grid to remain more stable in the face of rapidly shifting conditions.

"Our work identified important weather variables associated with ramp events," said Chandrika Kamath, the LLNL's project leader. "This information could be used by the schedulers to reduce the number of data streams they need to monitor when they schedule wind energy on the power grid."

To assess conditions that might help predict ramp events, the team monitored the Tehachapi Pass wind energy area in California and the Columbia Basin area in Washington and Oregon. They found that certain sensors and measurements could improve the wind speed forecasts, but so far only by a few hours ahead at most. Still, given that ramp events involve changes in output of a wind farm by 50 percent and more in only one hour, such forecasting improvements are needed.

According to a 2010 report from another National Laboratory, at Argonne, this is an area that needs substantially more research as wind power continues to be integrated into the grid. According to the report:

"Ramp event detection is a problem that has emerged fairly recently, as signified by the fact that it has no established standards, including definitions, forecasting methods, and evaluation metrics. Furthermore, the few existing methodologies report results that tend to be unreliable and of low accuracy. These observations indicate that the field is wide open to research that pushes beyond the current state of the art."

(Image of Tehachapi Pass wind energy area via LoraxV/Flickr)

Russia Admitted to WTO--Energy Issues Fudged?

Russia was admitted last week to the World Trade Organization after some 18 years of agonizing negotiations--the longest such talks, according to a French newspaper, that have ever attended an application by a country for membership in an international organization.

The WTO decision is expected to bring Russia significant economic benefits--estimated by some at an additional percentage point of GDP growth in the years to come. At such, the move represents a significant victory for the Putin government at a time it's under unprecedented domestic political pressure.

What is curious about the outcome--or so it seems to me--is that the main issues that had held up Russian membership seem to have been swept under the carpet. Europe has been acutely concerned about the security of vitally needed natural gas supplies from Russia, on the on hand, while Russia has sought access to European downstream energy markets, on the other. European exclusion from Russia's highly monopolized and state-controlled energy markets has equally been at issue.

Michael Stuermer, author of an insightful book about Putin,  captured the basic conflicts of interest admirably some years back: “The EU, particularly EU President Barroso and German chancellor Angela Merkel, want an agreed legal framework to facilitate two-way investment, while the Kremlin wants assets swaps. Europe wants openness, Russia wants control…The Europeans negotiate on rules, the Russians on deals.” Thus, “Brussels cannot accept the Russian approach to reciprocity without compromising its free-market principles and its norms of industrial governance.” As for Russia, WTO chief Pascal Lamy once concluded that the gas monopoly issue was a “red line” that Putin would never cross. As maintenance of Russia’s Eurasian gas monopoly has been a fundamental operating principle of the Putin-Medvedev regime, it seemed inconceivable that the regime would ever agree to give up that principle.

According to WTO's summary of the agreement with Russia, language concerning energy is confined to the principle that the Russian state may continue to regulate its domestic oil and gas markets as it sees fit: "Producers and distributors of natural gas in the Russian Federation would operate on the basis of normal commercial considerations, based on recovery of costs and profit. The Russian Federation would continue to regulate price supplies to households and other non-commercial users, based on domestic social policy considerations."

That would seem to say that Russia can do pretty much what many other countries do: operate its home energy markets along competitive lines in principle, while seeing to it that consumers get oil and gas at affordable prices. As for the intractable issues that were holding up membership--security of European energy supplies, mutual access of investors to markets--nothing!

Or have I missed something in the fine print?


U.S. Weather Extremes Are Charted

It's been a year in the United States in which weather excesses have turned into the new normal: a record number of temperature extremes and record amounts of snowfall and rainfall, not to mention drought, flooding, and wildfire. The specifics, including their health implications, are charted in online applications that the Natural Resources Defense Council recently posted.

The general patterns of extreme drought and snowfall will be familiar to any American watching TV this year: prolonged cattle-killing dryness in Texas; prevalent wildfires in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona; record-setting blizzards not only across the northern stretches of the country but also (for the second year in a row) in the Mid-Atlantic states and even Southeast; and very heavy rains all over the place--even southernmost Texas.

In all, summarizes the NRDC, "there were at least 2,941 monthly weather records broken by extreme events that struck [U.S.] communities," with climate change "increasing the risk of record-breaking weather events."

Separately, NRDC charts climate-related health threats: A map showing the average number of extreme heat days, 2000-2009, permits users to click on a state "for information on climate-health threats, actions being taken to prepare communities, and what you can do." For assistance in interpreting such data, the NRDC provides its take on the climate basics. For top-level expert analysis with an attitude, you won't do better.

For disinterested commentary if there is such a thing, go somewhere else!

Solar Shakeout Continues, But End May Be in Sight

The solar shakeout continues, as the stakes rise. Yesterday China announced new tariffs would be imposed on imports of higher-end cars made in the United States, in what appears to be payback for the anti-dumping tariffs the United States has been imposing on solar imports from China. Tellingly, the Chinese automobile tariffs are expected to especially affect cars manufactured in the United States by Germany's Mercedes and BMW; the solar lawsuit that is leading to higher U.S. tariffs was filed by the U.S subsidiary of a German photovoltaics manufacturer.

A vicious cycle of retaliatory anti-dumping tariffs obviously is not good for the world economy, but it may be good for the U.S. and European photovoltaics industry. China's competitive edge may be somewhat blunted in the coming year, somewhat making up for declining solar subsidies in many of the advanced industrial and fast-industrializing countries. Meanwhile, however, retrenchment and consolidation continues to shake the solar industry.

Mergers and acquisitions have been particularly heated in solar services, notes GigaOm's estimable Katie Fehrenbacher in a recent post. Examples have included the purchase of SunEdison by MEMC Electronic Materials and of Energy Reommerce by National Semiconductor; Spain-based solar developer Fotowatio is buying most assets of SunEdison competitor MMA Renewables.

Another trend in solar is the growing dominance of really big energy players in the ownership and operation of grid-scale projects, as detailed by Fehrenbacher's GigaOm colleague Ucilia Wang. Duke Energy, NRG Energy and--most recently--Warren Buffett's MidAmerican Energy Holdings are among those that have made major acquisitions. "During a recession, the biggest companies end up making most of the capital-intensive plays," comments Wang. That's why "solar service startups like SunEdison and San Francisco-based MMA Renewables just couldn’t survive on their own" in a difficult market.

First Solar, one of the highest flying U.S. PV manufacturers in recent years, continues to be hard hit by the combination of Chinese competition in generic polysilicon and declining governmental subsidies worldwide. The company, having just executed an emergency change of leadership, has just issued another earnings warning and announced a second restructuring in less than two months. Two and three years ago, First Solar was getting huge attention because of its claims to be producing thin-film PV material at close to $1 per installed Watt, feeding speculation that photovoltaics might be subject to some kind of Moore's Law. It remains the world's largest solar company in terms of market cap. But its stocks have taken a terrible beating, trading now at less than a fifth the price obtained at the beginning of the year. In its latest attempt to get ahead of the curve, the company laid off 100 employees--60 of them in R&D, which does not seem a good sign.

The company's interim CEO Mike Ahearn says the company is now targeting unsubsidized solar markets. That sounds good on paper. But what unsubsidized solar markets is he talking about? I haven't heard of any.

Canada's Kyoto Withdrawal

Canada is well known to be radically out of step with its Kyoto carbon reduction commitment, and so Ottawa's announcement yesterday that it would withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol was not a huge surprise. Since the adoption of the protocol in the late 1990s, there has been a widening chasm between what Canada promised to do and the development of Alberta tarsands, in which the future prosperity of the country would seem to be at stake. Of course the global economic meltdown in 2008 also took its toll, prompting Canadian citizens--like citizens everywhere in the advanced industrial countries--to down-prioritize their concerns about the environment.

Even so, Canada's decision to withdraw from Kyoto is important and eye-opening for two reasons. First, with Canada out, the United States no longer stands isolated as the only country in the world to be thumbing its nose a Kyoto; it now has company, albeit somewhat dubious company. Second,  the logic behind Canada's decision to withdraw from Kyoto is enlightening.

Under the Kyoto Protocol, which requires participating industrial countries to make specified emissions cuts by 2012 from 1990 levels, determinations of compliance will be made in 2014, when countries' greenhouse gas emissions inventories for 2012 are complete. Countries out of compliance will be required to purchase emissions credits to cover the amount their emissions exceed targets.

At present, Canada's emissions are about 30 percent higher than they are supposed to be, and next year's are sure to be even higher than that. So, by the government's reckoning, if Canada stayed in the protocol, it may be required to purchase emissions credits in the amount of $14 billion in 2014-15. A study cited in today's Toronto Globe and Mail puts the number at $19 billion.

The Kyoto Protocol allows for withdrawal, but with one year's advance notice for the withdrawal to take effect. So yesterday's announced withdrawal by Canada positions the country to be out by the end of next year, the year of inventory reckoning. It bears noting, however, that all the other participating industrial countries will face that reckoning, at just the time Durban requires them to reach agreement on a universally binding carbon reduction agreement. Emissions credits that out-of-compliance countries will be required to buy in 2014-15 will be a rich source of funds for green-tech offsets in developing countries, giving those countries an incentive to get with and stick with the global greenhouse gas reduction program.

Wind Energy Tax Credit Expiration Would Yield Job Losses, Big Cuts in Capacity

The Production Tax Credit allows wind energy producers to take a 30 percent tax cut on the investment. It is currently set to expire in 2012, and the industry is pushing hard to extend it. A new report commissioned by the American Wind Energy Association -- and conducted by consulting firm Navigant -- suggests large deficits in wind energy-related jobs, installed capacity, and related carbon dioxide emissions if the PTC is allowed to expire.

The report, which compared scenarios with an extension through 2016 and without, found that expiration of the credit would cut wind-related jobs from 78,000 in 2012 all the way to 41,000 in 2013. The extension scenario, meanwhile, yielded a slight drop in 2013 on the way up to 95,000 jobs in 2016.

Denise Bode, CEO of AWEA, said in a press release: "American manufacturing jobs are coming back, with tens of thousands of new jobs from wind power. But these jobs could vanish if Congress allows the Production Tax Credit to expire, in effect enacting a targeted tax increase, and sending our jobs to foreign countries. Congress must act now to keep this American manufacturing success story going."

Aside from the jobs, installed wind capacity would obviously suffer as well. After an estimated 8 gigawatts are installed in 2012, that would drop to below 2 GW in 2013. The total installed between 2011 and 2016 would be 28.8 GW, compared with 49 GW with the extension of the PTC. The extension would as a result help reduce CO2 emissions by 170 million tons over the expiration scenario.

There is movement in Congress to try and extend the credit. The eloquently named American Renewable Energy Production Tax Credit Extension Act of 2011 is currently in the House ways and means committee, and has 39 co-sponsors, including 11 Republicans. The PTC has been around since 1992, and it seems clear that when up against more entrenched energy sources, wind power still needs the help to survive and thrive.

(Image via NREL)

"Viagra Shot for Carbon Markets"?

A "viagra shot for carbon markets" is how the Financial Times characterized the outcome of the Durban climate conference, which ended yesterday, in a headline that ran across the upper right of its front page today. Having previously aired concerns that a Durban flop might undermine the world's shaky carbon trading systems, and with them green-technology offsets in developing countries, the paper evidently was seeking to put the best face on a mediocre result.

The basis for the FT's take on the conference is this: In return for agreeing to extend the Kyoto commitment period (but apparently without being very specific about what that means), Europe obtained a general pledge to work toward reaching, no later than 2015, a universally binding agreement containing carbon cuts and targets. But that pledge--in contrast to the "supercommittee" mechanism established earlier this year during the U.S. budget crisis--contains no explicit penalties if agreement is not reached by 2015. A meaningful outcome will depend on how much diplomatic power Europe can wield in the next years--and what penalties it can impose on the recalcitrant big carbon emitters if they refuse to get serious.

From that point of view, if you are among those who consider it important to reach a binding world agreement to guard against the risks associated with ongoing climate change, perhaps the really promising development of the last week was what happened in Europe itself, not in South Africa: Of the European Union's 27 members, 26 agreed on treaty revisions that will impose greater fiscal discipline and enable more effective joint fiscal policy. That agreement, which left the UK on the sidelines, has been universally interpreted as a major milestone in the direction of making the EU an entity that can act as a state not only in monetary and now fiscal affairs, but ultimately in diplomatic and military matters as well.

That said, the world coalition consisting basically of Europe and the small countries most immediately threatened by climate change remains weak and outnumbered by those that consider aggressive carbon reduction a threat to economic growth. The smart money is betting, accordingly, that Europe will fail. “The reality is that there is no more agreement on the future of the climate talks than there was when negotiators first convened two weeks ago," Michael A. Levi of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations told The New York Times. “Europe will continue to insist on a full-blown legally binding agreement; China and India will continue to oppose one; and the United States, while leaving the door open to an agreement that is binding for all, will continue to be unenthusiastic as well. These positions are largely rooted in incompatible views of the future, and there is no reason to believe that more talking will change them.”

Comparing how the results of the Durban conference with the reception the Copenhagen Accord got two years, the contrast is telling. Within hours of the time the Copenhagen agreement was reached, every major environmental organization in the world posted its interpretation of the accord; it was leading news in all the world's major newspapers the next day. Today, the websites maintained by the major environmental organizations were mostly silent about Durban (though NRDC's was an exception). The Durban outcome got no mention whatsoever on the front page of The New York Times.

Canada, Kyoto, and Crude

In the maneuvering this week in Durban, which is surely only a prelude to more serious negotiations that will take place over the next two-three years, Europe has been sharply demanding a follow-on agreement to Kyoto that will include mandatory emissions cuts or targets, China and the United States have cautiously edged toward the position that they may be open to such an agreement in principle--both seem wary of Europe's growing global clout at the world's Number One economic power, and leery of being cast in the coming years as climate policy pariahs. A small number of secondary players, Canada and Russia among them, have been tending to oppose the very idea of an agreement containing mandatory provisions.

The position of Canada, normally a high-minded team player in world affairs, is singular. Not only is it playing an obstructionist role in global climate emissions, it also is arguably the world's most flagrant violator of Kyoto commitments. Canada's annual greenhouse gas emissions, which were supposed to be cut per-Kyoto to 558 megatons by next year instead will be well over 700 megatons. The main reason for that vast discrepancy between intention and result? The boom in Alberta oil sands, which has made the province "the hottest place in Canada for job, investment, and growth," as Peter Fairley notes in the current issue of Technology Review.

Fairley's article has some useful take-home nuggets, among them:

--because extraction of sub-surface bitumen requires steam obtained generally from gas-fired plants, carbon dioxide emissions are much higher in oil sands operations than in regular oil drilling; in one operation Fairley visits and describes in detail, about 45 kilograms of carbon dioxide are emitted for every barrel of bitumen obtained

--accordingly, the "steam to barrel ratio" is an important measure of oil sand extraction efficiency, and of its climate cost; at three barrels of steam per barrel of oil in a typical current operation, it's shown little or no improvement since the late 1980s and may even have deteriorated

--what's the significance of Canada's oil sands bitumen for its neighbor to the south? already the United States imports twice as much oil from Canada--and twice as much from Mexico and Venezuela--as from Saudi Arabia

Yes, that's right: The United States imports four times as much oil from countries in the Americas as it does from Saudi Arabia

As long as you're rushing out to the newsstand to buy Fairley's article, you'll want to look at two other very nice features in the current issue of Technology Review: a photo essay describing in detail how Better Place's battery replacement system for EVs will work; and a long photo essay depicting miscellaneous large-scale renewable energy and rare earth mining projects in California's Mojave,ed

How Much Wind Energy is Available in the Jet Streams?

We’ve noted before the ongoing efforts to harness high-altitude wind power. Generally, though, the designs currently being tested and deployed on small scales don't fly high enough to take advantage of the most consistent and impressive of wind forces, the jet streams. Some scientists have touted these very high altitude wind energy sources – between 7 and 16 kilometers above the surface – as shockingly plentiful; one paper in 2009 said it contained about 100 times the total global energy demand.

A new paper, though, published last week in a journal called Earth System Dynamics, throws a bit of cold water on the jet stream as an energy source. Axel Kleidon and colleagues from the Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry in Germany found instead a “peak potential for electricity production of 4.5 [terawatts].” The global energy use is in the vicinity of 17 TW per year, so we’ve clearly come down a bit from those earlier estimates.

The new paper explains why the high jet stream extractable power estimates may have been wrong:

“The contradiction originates from the erroneous assumption that the high wind speeds of the jet streams result from a strong power source. It is well known in meterology that jet streams reflect quasi-geostrophic flow, that is, the high wind speeds result from the near absence of friction and not from a strong power source.”

Not only that, but actually extracting the energy from the jet streams would result in significant alterations to the climate, the researchers wrote. This is due to an “increase of heat transport across the jet streams in the upper atmosphere,” and results could be catastrophic. As first author Lee Miller said in a press release: “Such a disruption of jet stream flow would slow down the entire climate system…. This results in drastic changes in temperature and weather.”

This all sounds dire enough, but it is notable that no one is currently prepared to extract terawatts of power from 10 miles up in the air. Schemes to actually do so would be amazingly expensive and technically challenging, as macro-engineering projects generally are. Still, some research is going forward on how to do it, as it should – any and all renewable energy ideas deserve a fair shot at the moment.

(Image of one of many airborne turbine designs via James Provost/Wikimedia Commons)


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