"Energy and Global Warming News for February 1st: The world’s biggest green energy projects; Cleantech is Silicon Valley’s next great wave of innovation"
Solar Thermal Power, Mojave Desert, 354 MW
The U.S. government, desperate to add jobs to a feeble economy, is looking skyward for help: to the wind and the sun.
“We should put more Americans to work building clean energy facilities,” Obama said to applause during his State of the Union address Wednesday. Solar and wind power projects tend to appeal to politicians on both sides of the aisle. They are clean and domestic sources of power, and thanks to this government largesse, they are growing fast.
The American Wind Energy Association reported last week that in 2009 the nation’s wind power grew 39%, and that it has grown by 39% annually for the past five years. It’s a similar story with other technologies, like solar power, and abroad, where generous government subsidies in Europe and huge government-backed projects in India and China are fueling growth.
Of the top 10 largest renewable energy projects in the world, five were completed in the last two years.
That’s the good news for renewable advocates. The bad news: Renewable energy remains a stubbornly small percentage of both the United States’ and the world’s energy portfolio. In the U.S., renewable power is about 10% of the electricity mix–subtract hydroelectric power and we’re down to just 3%. Worldwide, the share of energy from renewables is closer to 20%, with just 3% from non-hydro.
The reason, of course, is that renewable power is expensive. Even a stiff breeze or blazing sunshine doesn’t pack the same energy punch as a lump of coal or a nuclear fuel rod, and it isn’t always sunny or windy. While a nuclear reactor will produce nearly 95% of its peak capacity, a wind farm’s output will typically be 20% to 40% of its peak and a solar farm about 10% to 20%, depending on location.
The world’s biggest wind farm, the Roscoe Wind Farm in Texas, has a maximum capacity of 782 megawatts. A nuclear plant with the same capacity would power 600,000 homes; given the fickle nature of wind, Roscoe will only produce enough to power 200,000 typical American homes.
But renewable plants are getting ever bigger, especially in China, where plans are on a scale far beyond anything contemplated in the rest of the world. The U.S. now has three of the 10 biggest projects in the world, but it will very soon lose the crown for largest wind project and largest solar project to China.
This month China announced it would build a 2,000 MW solar thermal project, five times bigger than the current largest one, California’s Solar Energy Generating System. China is in the midst of building a wind corridor that could grow to a staggering 20,000MW, 25 times the size of Texas’ Roscoe Wind Farm. And last fall China announced a plan to build a 2,000 MW solar photovoltaic farm, 33 times bigger than the world’s largest today, a 60 MW farm in Spain.
Big projects can be tricky to navigate in the U.S. Though economies of scale help to reduce the cost per watt of bigger projects, bigger projects are riskier. “From the developer’s perspective, bigger is better,” says Ethan Zindler, an analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance. “But from the utility’s perspective and the financier’s perspective, that’s not always the case.”
Another problem in the U.S. right now is that projects need to get up and running before government subsidies run out, and smaller projects are easier to complete. For example, at the end of this year a provision that allows developers to get a cash grant for 30% of the construction cost of certain projects is scheduled to expire.
Also, permitting and licensing bigger projects can be more difficult. There’s a rash of proposals for geothermal power plants rated at a relatively modest 49.9 MW, says Karl Gawell, executive director of the Geothermal Energy Association, because permitting is easier for plants under 50 MW.
This kind of thing irks Obama. “They’re making serious investments in clean energy because they want those jobs,” he said of countries like Germany, which have more generous and stable renewable energy subsidies that make projects easier to finance. “Well, I do not accept second place for the United States of America.”
He may have no choice, but maybe Obama can take heart in the fact that China’s two big solar farms will use U.S. technology. The big photovoltaic farm will use panels built by Arizona’s First Solar and the solar thermal farm will use technology developed by California’s eSolar.
You can find a slideshow of all the biggest facilities at Forbes.com. Below is Roscoe Wind Farm, West Texas, 782 MW.
U.S. commercial production of natural gas from ice-like structures under permafrost and the ocean floor could begin before 2025 if research and development hurdles are addressed first, the National Research Council says in a new report.
Methane hydrates — natural gas trapped inside ice-like crystals — could significantly contribute to the nation’s energy mix. Some estimates peg hydrate reserves at two orders of magnitude larger than conventional U.S. gas reserves, but the resource is difficult to extract and is unstable with pressure or temperature changes.
But the Energy Department is making progress toward quantifying reserves and overcoming technical extraction challenges, the NRC said.
“DOE’s program and programs in the national and international research community provide increasing confidence from a technical standpoint that some commercial production of methane from methane hydrate could be achieved in the United States before 2025,” said Charles Paull, a senior scientist at Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute and chairman of the committee that wrote the report.
“With global energy demand projected to increase, unconventional resources such as methane hydrate become important to consider as part of the future U.S. energy portfolio and could help provide more energy security for the United States.”
DOE’s methane research program was established in 2000 and reauthorized by a broad 2005 energy policy law. Since 2001, the program has spent about $76 million on field projects in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska to improve hydrate exploration methods, quantify resources and evaluate challenges to production.
But more work needs to be done, according to the NRS report, which was required by the original 2000 law.
“Research on methane hydrate to date has not revealed technical challenges that the committee believes are insurmountable in the goal to achieve commercial production of methane from methane hydrate in an economically and environmentally feasible manner,” the report says.
Specifically, the report calls for production tests and appraisal and mitigation of environmental and geohazard issues related to production. The production tests should include well completions with appropriate production technologies, be conducted over the long term to demonstrate potential commercial production rates and establish initial conditions and determine formation response to production, the report says.
Appraisal and mitigation research should assess industry experience with conventional oil and gas production in areas where methane hydrates occur and studies to specifically address potential geohazards associated with methane production from hydrates.
The research program should also attempt to quantify the resource by conducting pilot seismic surveys, improving understanding of properties of sediments containing methane hydrates and considering development of new geophysical techniques.
The report also calls for investigation of the processes involved in transmission of methane from below the seafloor or permafrost to the surface and the fate of the released methane.
“The coming decade will prove pivotal as various nations attempt to make the transition from successful basic research and development programs to full-scale production of methane from methane hydrate in commercially supported operations,” the report says.
Leaders of methane hydrate research programs at DOE and the U.S. Geological Survey have noted similar hurdles to commercialization. At a congressional hearing last summer, they called for more research to ensure the resource is economically and technically viable.
And Ray Boswell, a senior management and technology adviser at DOE’s National Energy Technology Laboratory, later wrote in the journal Science that the instability of hydrates in the face of pressure or temperature changes and the physical barriers of the Arctic and deep-water settings have kept hydrates out of mainstream energy exploration.
“Solving these issues would provide a new and potentially vast global resource to meet mid- and long-term energy demands,” he wrote
Silicon Valley earned its name and first great fortune as the cradle of the computer age. Then it built a launching pad for the Internet age. Now the valley has assumed a leading role in the global competition to develop renewable energy and other clean, green technologies.
Cleantech is poised to be the valley’s third great wave of innovation “” not just the next big thing, but perhaps the biggest thing ever. Confronting the peril of greenhouse gases and climate change happens to be a multi-trillion-dollar business opportunity.
“Energy is the biggest opportunity Silicon Valley has ever seen,” declared T.J. Rodgers, the founder of Cypress Semiconductor and chairman of SunPower, a leading maker of photovoltaic panels to produce solar energy.
How big? Consider that the sum of America’s yearly utility bills, one component of the nation’s overall energy costs, exceeds $1 trillion “” or nearly triple the annual global revenues of the semiconductor industry. The solar and wind energy markets, which totaled about $80 billion in 2008, are projected to nearly triple in size in 10 years, employing 2.6 million people worldwide, according to Clean Edge, a cleantech research group.
Leading venture capitalist John Doerr of Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers muses that Silicon Valley may someday be called Solar Valley, given that dozens of solar companies that have sprung up here in recent years.
More than half the operators of power plants and other critical infrastructure say in a new study that their computer networks have been infiltrated by sophisticated adversaries.
In many cases, foreign governments are suspected.
The findings were announced in a survey released yesterday that offers a rare public look at the damage computer criminals can do to vital institutions such as power grids, water and sewage systems, and oil and gas companies. Manipulating the computer systems can cause power outages, floods, sewage spills, and oil leaks.
The report was based on a survey completed by 600 executives and technology managers from infrastructure operators in 14 countries.
The report was prepared by McAfee Inc., which makes security software, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, which analyzed the data and conducted additional interviews. The respondents aren’t named, and specifics aren’t given about what happened in the attacks.
The report was released as concerns grow about state-sponsored hacking and threats to critical infrastructure.
In November, CBS’s “60 Minutes” said several Brazilian power outages were caused by hackers, a report Brazilian officials have played down. In April, US government officials said spies hacked into the US electric grid and left behind computer programs that could disrupt service. The intrusions were discovered after electric companies gave the government permission to audit their systems.
In the new report, 54 percent of respondents acknowledged that they had been hit by “stealthy infiltration” of their networks.
In such break-ins, criminals can plant malicious software to steal files, spy on e-mails, and even remotely control equipment inside a utility.
Britain plans to expand its feed-in tariff system for small renewable power generation, such as solar panels and small wind turbines, to include the world’s first incentive scheme for renewable heat.
The Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) said on Monday the scheme for renewable heat would start in April 2011 following the introduction of feed-in tariffs for small power generation in April this year.
The feed-in tariff systems are similar to those that have propelled solar power and wind farm growth in Germany or Spain.
The government hopes feed-in tariffs will bring about a significant increase in locally produced green energy, helping to cut greenhouse gas emissions, while securing energy supply.
“They (the schemes) should see a real growth in the UK in the renewable sector,” said Andrew Lee, managing director of Sharp Corp’s solar unit in Britain.
“Previously the UK lagged behind the rest of Europe,” he said, adding only about 1 percent of about 5,000 solar panels Sharp makes each day in Wales were installed in the country.
DECC calculated small scale renewable installations could meet 2 percent of UK electricity demand in 2020, helping raise the green power’s total share in the country’s overall generation to about 30 percent from 5.5 percent at present.
Britain’s small wind sector has already been booming in the run-up to the scheme’s introduction, with many rural homes, farms and small businesses putting up turbines in yards to counter higher energy prices and blackouts.
Householders and communities that install low carbon electricity technology such as solar photovoltaic (pv) panels and wind turbines up to 5 megawatts will be paid for the electricity they generate, even if they use it themselves.
They will get a further payment for electricity they feed into the grid. The scheme will also apply to installations commissioned since July 2008 when the policy was announced.
The International Monetary Fund is working on proposals for a multibillion dollar “green fund” to help countries tap funds to deal with the effects of climate change, the head of the institution said on Saturday.
IMF Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn told the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, that developing countries would need financial help to tackle climate change while rich nations have taken on higher debt in reaction to the global financial crisis.
Global talks on a new climate change pact have mostly looked to industrial powers to help finance efforts by developing countries to deal with climate change.
In remarks in Davos that were published on the IMF website, Strauss-Kahn said the world needed to “think outside the box and come up with innovative ways to provide the money.”
He said the IMF would begin discussions with central banks and finance ministers on whether such a fund was possible.
Strauss-Kahn said resources for the fund, “which could climb to $100 billion a year,” could be raised through an allocation to IMF member countries of IMF special drawing rights, or SDRs.
SDRs are international reserve assets and the fund’s unit of account. They are disbursed in proportion to each member’s IMF quota, or subscription, and can be exchanged for hard currency such as U.S. dollars, yen, euros or pounds.
Last year IMF member countries agreed to issue $250 billion worth of SDRs to boost global liquidity at a time countries’ foreign exchange reserves were being depleted by the financial crisis.
The possibility that U.S. manufacturers are lagging behind Chinese workers in clean energy innovation prompted one Democratic lawmaker this weekend to issue an historic call to action.
Rep. Steve Israel, co-chairman of the House’s Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition (SEEC), tweeted on Sunday:
China now leads world in clean tech. Time for a Sputnik program to reclaim leadership.
Israel’s line about Sputnik refers to the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union, beginning in the late 1950s.
The USSR launched Sputnik, the first satellite to orbit Earth, in 1957, to the surprise of most Americans. That touched off a serious, informal competition between the two political powers spanning about two decades — and peaking with NASA’s successful landing on the Moon in the late 1960s.
Consequently, Israel hopes the United States will challenge China’s dominance in the clean energy field through a similar, informal research campaign.
Whether his fellow lawmakers share his fervor, however, is another issue entirely. While President Barack Obama has long touted clean energy reforms as a means of job creation, lawmakers have yet to send a substantial clean energy bill to his desk.
The SEC voted yesterday to encourage companies to disclose climate change-associated risks to their investors. It was a party-line decision, supported by the panel’s three Democrats and opposed by two Republican members. Megan called it “deeply silly … in conditions of radical uncertainty, such disclosures could as easily be misleading as useful.”
But regardless of party politics or the long-term impact of climate change, there are solid business reasons for corporations to get serious about green technology, as President Obama underlined in his State of the Union address.
Obama’s comments hinted at just how far the U.S. has fallen behind the world’s leading innovators in sustainable energy: “The nation that leads the clean energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy. And America must be that nation.”
Today that nation is China. A recent New Yorker article described how, over the course of a decade, China has morphed from environmentally recalcitrant polluter to environmentally innovative polluter. China still produces more greenhouse gases than any other nation, but it also produces more wind turbines and solar panels. Its newest coal-powered plants are now some of the cleanest and most efficient in the world, thanks to a top-down approach of government incentives and regulations. China strengthened its corporate environmental disclosure standards two years ago for reasons similar to the SEC’s — to allow investors to factor climate realities into their risk assessment.
We may not know the exact impact climate change will have on individual businesses, but we do know that our climate — and our legislative and regulatory systems along with it — is changing. If companies begin to acknowledge these changes, investors will be motivated to seek out innovative approaches to these realities. The result would be the actualization of an Obama talking point that drew applause from both sides of the aisle: More green jobs in the U.S. economy.
President Barack Obama on Friday morning ordered federal agencies to sharply cut their greenhouse gas emissions over the next decade even as Democratic efforts to impose nationwide limits face big hurdles on Capitol Hill.
Obama said the federal government will reduce its overall emissions by 28 percent by 2020. The pledge stems from an executive order issued in October that requires federal agencies to undertake a range of pollution-reduction and energy-efficiency measures.
The White House noted that the federal government is the largest energy consumer in the U.S. economy, and that the emissions curbs announced Friday will help save up to $11 billion in energy costs through 2020. The curbs will be tantamount to taking 17 million cars off the road for a year, the White House said.
The curbs allow the White House to show progress on climate change even as legislation to impose nationwide emissions curbs remains an uncertain bet in 2010.
“As the largest energy consumer in the United States, we have a responsibility to American citizens to reduce our energy use and become more efficient,” Obama said in a prepared statement. “Our goal is to lower costs, reduce pollution and shift federal energy expenses away from oil and toward local, clean energy.”
A White House Council on Environmental Quality official previewed the action last week. The government-wide target rolls together the goals of 35 federal agencies that pledged various cuts under last year’s executive order.
Agencies will reach the targets with actions such as increased use of hybrid vehicles for their fleets and the use of more renewable energy, such as solar power, the White House said.
The White House also vowed that progress toward the goal will be reported online annually.