"Energy and Global Warming News for March 19th: Alcoa works to cut concentrated solar costs 20%; Largest efficiency overhaul in public housing history; U.S. researchers flock to China"
Alcoa, the aluminum giant, is testing a new type of solar technology that the company said it believed will lower the cost of renewable energy.
The company has replaced the glass in parabolic troughs with reflective aluminum and integrated the mirror into a single structure.
Parabolic troughs focus sunlight on liquid-filled receivers suspended over the mirrors to create steam that drives an electricity-generating turbine. Parabolic trough technology has been in modern use in solar power plants since the early 1980s, but Alcoa executives said they saw an opportunity to refine the technology and get a foothold in the rapidly expanding renewable energy market.
“If you go out and look behind large parabolic troughs, you’ll find an elaborate truss structure,” said Rick Winter, a technology executive with Alcoa. “From our understanding of aerospace structures, we said if we can modify the wing box design used in aircraft and integrate a parabolic reflector, it would give us a light and stiff structure that would fundamentally affect the cost equation.”
An airplane’s wing box is a unit that integrates support structures and anchors a wing.
“Using aluminum and a wing box design we’re able to create the parabolic curve that we want in the structure itself,” said Scott Kerns, a vice president and general manager at Alcoa. “We can make the skin conform more or less to the way we want to concentrate the light.”
Current solar troughs use glass mirrors that are formed in the shape of a parabola and then attached to a support structure made of aluminum or steel. The executives said they estimate that the all-aluminum Alcoa parabolic trough, which is being tested at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado, will cut the price of a solar field by 20 percent due to lower installation costs.
Boston Mayor Thomas Menino is set to introduce today the largest energy efficiency overhaul in the nation’s public housing history.
The $63 million project will renovate 4,300 apartments in 13 Boston Housing Authority developments to save electricity, water and millions of dollars. Toilets will be replaced with low-flow models, lights will be replaced with LEDs and compact fluorescents, and boilers will be upgraded to cut down on heating costs, among other improvements.
“It’s the nation’s largest public housing energy performance contract, right here in Boston,” Menino said. “I think it’s a win-win for everyone in the fact that it is energy efficient, and there is no cost to taxpayers because it is paid for with savings generated by improvements.”
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development will continue to pay the same amount for utility costs for the Boston housing units. The local housing authority is borrowing funds for the retrofits against the future payments. Ameresco, which is being contracted for the renovations, says the improvements will save taxpayers $7 million a year over the next 20 years.
The initiative will also focus on teaching residents of the housing units, who do not pay utility bills, how to save on energy. Officials hope that giving residents the authority to regulate heat in their own apartments will help cut down on costs. Previously, the heat was the same throughout the building, and some apartments simply left the windows open to cool down.
The upgrades are part of a larger, $238 million initiative to revamp public housing in the city.
House appropriators yesterday raised concerns about potential research redundancies within the Obama administration’s hefty $5.1 billion funding request for the Energy Department’s Office of Science and the $300 million request for the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E.
Lawmakers on the Energy and Water Development Subcommittee yesterday quizzed administration officials about the overlapping priorities among ARPA-E, the energy “innovation hubs” and the Energy Frontier Research Centers within the Office of Science.
“We don’t want redundancy, and we’re following the president’s lead in times of fiscal constraint,” said subcommittee Chairman Ed Pastor (D-Ariz.). “We want to make sure these programs are well-invested and meet the needs of the country at the same time as helping America keep its edge in science.”
Though Chinese researchers have historically moved to the United States to develop clean and renewable energy, more U.S. companies are now starting research operations in China, where the government’s focus on green technology has made the business climate more friendly to foreign high-tech firms.
Santa Clara, Calif.-based semiconductor firm Applied Materials Inc. recently built the company’s largest research labs in Xi’an, a city in northern China, and held its annual shareholders’ meeting there last week. The company’s products are used in solar panels, and the Chinese market is too big to ignore, said Mark Pinto, the company’s chief technology officer.
“We’re obviously not giving up on the U.S.,” Pinto said. “China needs more electricity. It’s as simple as that.”
Incoming green-technology firms are also attracted by substantial financial incentives and the glut of qualified engineers willing to work for a fraction of the salary sought by their U.S. counterparts. The Xi’an city government gave Applied Materials a 75-year land lease at a discount and offered to pay roughly 25 percent of the lab’s costs for five years, said Gang Zou, general manager of the site.
“Most of the graduate students in China are chasing this area,” said Xie Lina, a 26-year-old Applied Materials engineer, when asked whether China would play a significant role in the development of clean energy technology. “Of course, China will lead everything”
A northern California community said it was taking the unique step to use U.S. economic stimulus funds to build a 1-megawatt solar power facility.
Yolo County in northern California said it teamed with solar power company SunPower Corp. and Bank of America to work on the design and construction of a 1-megawatt solar power system.
The partners are financing the project in part through clean energy renewable energy bonds and energy conservation bonds available through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
Ray Groom, the Yolo County general services director, said his community has no out-of-pocket expenses for the facility. The project would save the community an estimated $8.8 million in energy costs over the next 25 years, he added.
The system uses plans developed by SunPower that lets solar panels track the movement of the sun, increasing the amount of sunlight captured by 25 percent over conventional panels.
Yolo County said the amount of harmful greenhouse gas emissions removed by the project is equal to removing more than 5,700 cars from California roads over the 30-year life cycle of the solar project.
Wind-generated electricity is growing rapidly in the United States but the pace still lags far behind that in China, the organizer of an industry conference in North Carolina said.
“With the right policies in place, we can see explosive growth … It’s a global footrace,” said Jeff Anthony, business development director of the American Wind Energy Association.
Although the United States has the largest amount of installed wind power capacity in the world, the wind power industry is “fighting to get on a level playing field” with other government-subsidized power-providers, Anthony told a conference of parts manufacturers, suppliers, wind project developers and economic development officers from around the southeastern United States.
“What the wind industry looks like in the U.S. in 10 years depends a lot on what comes out of Washington … Policy does drive the industry,” he told the conference in Greensboro, North Carolina.
A little more than 1.5 percent of power supplied in the United States is generated by wind, Anthony said.
“It’s an important part of how we generate electricity in the U.S. today. It’s still relatively small in terms of percentages, but it’s growing rapidly … Only in the last seven or eight years has the cost come down … The price of electricity from wind projects has stabilized.”
Last year, 10,000 megawatts of wind capacity were added to the grid, bringing the country’s total wind power capacity to 35,000 megawatts, Anthony said. Industry growth in 2009 was 39 percent, he said.
“China is currently growing at 100 percent. They are doubling the amount of wind power capacity in their country every year,” Anthony said.
To reach a goal set by the U.S. Department of Energy for 20 percent of the nation’s electricity to be generated by wind by 2030, “we will need 300,000 megawatts of power generated by wind turbines,” Anthony said. “So we’re one-tenth of the way there.”
Gov. Chris Christie has said he is taking $65 million from the state’s model cap-and-trade program to balance the state’s $29.3 billion budget, but he is getting pushback from Democrats in the state Legislature.
The money comes from quarterly carbon permit auctions held by the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, an alliance of 10 Eastern states from Maine to Maryland. The governor said he also is planning on taking all of the proceeds from the next three quarterly auctions in 2010.
“Next year, we plan on getting back to RGGI,” Christie said in a meeting at The Star-Ledger.
Bob Smith, chairman of the Legislature’s environment and energy committee, and a member of the appropriations committee, has vowed to fight the governor over the RGGI funds and the Clean Energy Fund, which the governor appropriated last month.
“The question that will come back to me and the other policymakers will be how can we justify raiding this fund when there are much better alternatives. We should continue for at least another year with higher income taxes on our wealthier residents,” said Smith, who is a vocal advocate for economic stimulus through green jobs.
The RGGI funds, like the $158 million in the Clean Energy Fund, were earmarked for use in a variety of energy efficiency and renewable-energy programs. In 2009, New Jersey’s RGGI proceeds were $67 million; of that, $22 million has been spent or committed for consumer-oriented programs.
In the absence of federal regulation governing greenhouse gas emissions, and the anticipation that rules are likely to be developed, many utilities and corporations around the country have adopted voluntary carbon credit schemes.
RGGI is the first mandatory regulatory program that requires power plant operators to buy permits for the carbon dioxide they emit. Groups of states in the Midwest and West are using RGGI as a model for developing similar auction systems, according to the Climate Registry, a nonprofit trade group.
RGGI has raised $582 million since it was launched in 2008. Most of the RGGI states have invested the majority of their auction proceeds into energy efficiency programs, except for New York.
“We had a blip, and $90 million sitting in a bank account was borrowed by the state for the budget last year,” Alexander Grannis, commissioner of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, said at a climate conference in New York City on Monday.
Passing a comprehensive climate and energy bill is crucial to ensuring that the United States doesn’t continue to lag behind China in the renewable energy race, Energy Secretary Steven Chu said today.
“The leadership in China has made it very clear that they see incredible opportunity for them,” Chu said. “The United States should sit up and take notice because we do have the best innovation to guide the investment and the thinking. That’s why it’s so important we get comprehensive energy and climate legislation.”
His comments, made in a conference call with reporters this afternoon, come on the heels of news that China has surpassed the United States as the biggest investor in renewable energy for the first time in at least five years, according to Bloomberg’s industry analyst group New Energy Finance.
Still, Chu insisted that regardless of the climate bill’s progress, his agency would continue to push for clean energy investments. “The idea is that, regardless of what happens, we are going to go forward using small businesses as one of the key cornerstones to getting our economy going again.”
Chu and Karen Mills of the Small Business Administration joined the call today with the heads of two small businesses in the renewable energy sector to announce a DOE report highlighting the clean energy investments that small businesses have been able to make because of the stimulus package.
Harrison Dillon, president and chief technology officer of Solazyme, a biofuels startup based in California, highlighted the fact that his company’s initiatives were not dependent on any climate bill incentives. “We built our economic model to show that we can make these fuels economically without a carbon tax,” Dillon said. “We felt that was important to show investors that our technology can stand alone without that.” He went on to say, though, that “some carbon pricing would accelerate a lot of things,” including the investment by large stakeholders in the utilities industry.
Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) wants to help homeowners pool their resources to buy solar energy systems that serve the multiple households.
He floated a bill Wednesday that would make jointly-owned projects – which are built on separate plots of neighborhood land – eligible for tax credits that are currently available for rooftop projects on individual households.
Under his plan, homeowners that help finance these “community solar” projects may claim the 30 percent tax credit on their share of the investment.