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


Aluminum Maker Eyes Solar Industry

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 public housing to get $63M retrofit

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.

Approps panel worries about R&D redundancies at DOE’s Office of Science, ARPA-E

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.”

Pattern reverses as U.S. researchers flock to China

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”

California gets stimulus for solar power

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.

U.S. wind power growing fast but still lags

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 to use cap-and-trade funds to balance state budget

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.

Chu: Bill Key To Besting China In Clean Energy

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.

Udall seeks tax credits for ‘community solar’ projects

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.

19 Responses to 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

  1. Bob Wallace says:

    Aluminum is pretty soft – not very scratch resistant. Can’t see a bare polished aluminum holding up well in harsh environments.

    This might be a good place to use silicon dioxide spray to deposit a thin protective coat over the aluminum surface.

    The downside of silicon dioxide is that it is “breathable” which might allow for surface oxidation.

  2. paulm says:

    Here’s not so big a surprise that may be a big surprise…

    China set for shift from crude to gas
    Markets may be napping

    Aluminum smelters in Inner Mongolia are shifting to gas from crude, and power generators in eastern China have dumped oil for gas.

    After a tripling in consumption in the past decade, gas is set for a similar jump by 2020 to make up nearly 10 per cent of total energy use, from the present four per cent.

    State energy giant CNPC earlier this year revised up its China gas demand forecast in 2020 by half to 300 billion cubic metres, equivalent to three quarters of the amount of oil it now consumes.

  3. Francis says:

    Joe: I understand that one of the reasons that concentrated solar is moving more slowly than many of us would hope is a lack of water. But if anyone takes a look at a map of the southwest, there’s a huge body of (highly-saline and utterly filthy) water — the Salton Sea. I am virtually certain that the Salton Sea is unappropriated under California water law, which means that anyone can take the water if they want it.

    Do you know of any reason why the solar companies are not looking at the Imperial Valley as a preferred location for building concentrated solar?

  4. David Lewis says:

    I looked at the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System stats on NREL and found it is designed to produce 1,079,232 MWhr per year. The project has a loan guarantee of $1.37 billion. Taking this as the capital cost, this works out to $11,120 per available kW. Since the natural gas assist this design has raises the output to 31% compared to what I thought an unassisted plant might achieve in this location, i.e. 24%, I factored out this gas to come up with $15,000 per available kW solar.

    This is very expensive power, even if you cut the cost by 20%.

    Lester Brown appeared on NPR Science Friday recently and said the Areva nuclear plant in Finland is the “tombstone” project for the entire nuclear industry worldwide, and eliminated anything else you could say about the French nuclear industry, because of its cost overruns. I took Lester’s figure for what that plant will cost, $7.1 billion, divided by the size of the plant, 1600 MWe, took into account there is only 90% capacity factor for nuclear, and came up with $5000 or so per available installed kW.

    This is the problem I have with solar thermal advocates, almost all of whom dump on nuclear power as too expensive. Since when is $5000 per kW less than $15,000? Nuke plants are lasting 60 years, and the talk is that they can continue on for 80.

    James Hansen appeared in Australia recently giving a talk “After Copenhagen”. He answered a question he posed to himself: “why do I advocate nuclear?” He answered:

    “If we continue to pretend that renewables can do this whole job, I think we are not being fair to our children and grandchildren.”

  5. Steve H says:

    Well-written layman’s article spelling out why climate change deserves attention. Not perfect, but the main denier arguments are countered (albeit not necessarily as definitively as I think they should.) Comments are still filled with lots and lots of bad science. Perhaps even a few new ones for John Cook.

    [JR: It’s not bad. I may excerpt the mostly good parts.]

  6. Robert says:

    Absolutely nuclear should be on the table. The either/or debate among alternatives to fossil fuels no longer relates to reality. To replace coal et al as fast as we must, we need all the alternates to grow, as fast as we can make them grow. We are out of time.

  7. Mark Shapiro says:

    David Lewis — the Ivanpah project is 400 MW; assuming $1.37 billion total cost means $3.4/watt, which is about right for solar thermal. It’s expensive, but not terribly expensive.

    Jim Hansen is right that renewables can’t do the whole job. So remember that efficiency is even more important, and cost-effective, than renewables. And that simple conservation is more important yet.

  8. evnow says:

    David Lewis, one big problem with nuclear in terms of cost is the finance charge. What you quote is the overnight cost – not the real cost. Since nuclear take years and years to build and be finally operational – you have to spend a lot of money as finance charge before the first watt is generated.

    Ofcourse, nuke proponents always want to use 90% capaicity factor, whether that is needed or not. This makes sense only if they replace coal plants – not otherwise.

    I’d support nuke plants if and only if
    – They are Gen 4 and use current nuclear “waste”
    – They replace coal plants

  9. joe1347 says:

    If you cruise over to the the Applied Materials Web site, you’ll see quite a few job openings for solar cell scientists and engineers (in China – not America, of course). An interesting question to ask is just who is paying the salary of all of those technical types. Is it Applied Materials only – or is there a behind the scenes subsidy (from China)? Also, who is paying for all of the solar cell manufacturing and research equipment that Applied Materials is shipping over to China?

  10. David Lewis says:

    I actually don’t think it is appropriate to compare nuclear power with solar thermal, because solar thermal is not baseload power. But I see that solar thermal proponents claim semi baseload properties for the technology, and very many of them claim nuclear is too expensive to use, such as Joe Romm. Hence I do the math and see what it costs to come up with the power. If solar thermal is to become real baseload, the storage capacity will have to be increased to make the plants even more expensive, so as long as anyone wants to dream CSP can be baseload, as Joe does, they will have to endure comparisons to current low carbon baseload, i.e. nuclear.

    The NREL data on Ivanpah is here:

    The figure for the Finland plant is from Lester Brown, an anti nuclear guy who did nothing during his NPR appearance except dump on nuclear. I used his cost estimate which included the overruns he was talking about because I assumed he would be particularly unsympathetic to nuclear and include every cost he could think of, and that solar thermal proponents might actually accept data from a fellow solar thermal proponent.

    The figures I would use as reference for myself would be the ones from the Du and Parsons study that the 2009 update to the MIT The Future of Nuclear Power study deferred to, which are levelized to account for all factors. This data compared new nuclear to other baseload technologies, i.e. coal and gas. Al Gore referred to this MIT study in Our Choice, and he repeatedly described the people who came up with it as “the experts”. Gore cherry picked a quote which said that new nuclear was not competitive, but he ignored the context the quote came from.

    This MIT study concluded that new nuclear is competitive with new coal or gas if you add a $25 a tonne carbon tax, or if the cost of capital was the same, which would be the case if a few successful new builds of nuclear happened. The power would be produced for 8 – 9 cents kWhr. After the plant is paid for, and I think they used 20 years to pay it off, the thing exists for another 40 years putting out power much more cheaply. The current cost of nuclear power from the generating station near me in Washington state is 3.5 cents kWhr. People are talking about extending the life of these things out to 80 years.

    No other industry faces the possible prospect of, for instance, 200,000 demonstrators showing up as they did just before the Shoreham plant in NY state was about to produce its first kilowatt, who succeeded in convincing politicians that their best course of action was to throw the plant away and let the utility customers pay, in their bills, for the costs. Hence the risk premium on capital for nuclear.

    But for anti nukes to blithely claim that there is this mysterious risk premium, or that Wall Street has decided that nuclear technology is no good therefore nuclear is too expensive is preposterous, when anti nuclear people are responsible for creating the risk Wall Street sees.

    The anti nuclear movement predates the climate action movement, and it is important to realize that it is not the climate movement.

    Opposition to nuclear power rests on fear, not science. Most scientists support nuclear power, just as most scientists support action on climate.

    The US made up its mind before the real dangers of fossil fuel use were understood, and it time for people who understand that it is the fossil fuels that are the horror we once thought nuclear was to reexamine the nuclear issue. Let the anti nuclear people do what they want. People who want a solution for climate ought to think about whether the anti nuclear arguments are actually sound. I’ve found that they are not.

    I’ve been a climate activist for more than twenty years. I first called for stabilizing the composition of the atmosphere at the Changing Atmosphere conference in Toronto in 1988. I was the only voice there that dared to do that. Back then, calling for a solution, i.e. mere stabilization, was regarded as evidence you must be insane, due to the tremendous momentum behind the use of fossil fuels. I was also the only voice there who said the changes happening to the atmosphere could even be reversed.

    Still, at the time and for many years, I was agnostic on nuclear. James Hansen’s note that he was taking another look at the technology after he realized there was too much CO2 in the atmosphere impressed me, and I’ve been studying nuclear since then. I went as far as to visit an operating reactor where I discussed Three Mile Island with the operators, and I made sure I saw the supposedly large piles of waste sitting in casks in a back lot.

    My study of nuclear indicates that it will be part of any solution to climate. It is abundantly clear that this energy source could be a lot cheaper than it is if reasonable regulations were adopted to control its use rather than those which pretend that radiation from nuclear power is somehow orders of magnitude more dangerous than radiation we face every day from any number of sources.

    For instance, I was astonished to find that merely using natural gas exposes the user to 10 – 15 times the radiation dose that living next to a nuclear plant does. The Sierra Club today is promoting the use of even more radioactive natural gas, as the big new US discoveries are happening in formations such as the Marcellus Shale, which is low grade uranium ore. Radiation is ignored if it comes from natural gas, and it is regarded as the end of the world if it can be pinned on nuclear power, and as someone who is interested in seeing low carbon energy sources promoted, I simply do not understand why.

    I was amazed to find that the fastest growing source of radiation hazard in the US today is doctors performing non medically required imaging scans that they order to protect themselves from lawsuits. Yet anti nuclear people have been successfully casting nuclear plants as the problem, when what comes from them, even the Vermont Yankee “leaks”, is orders of magnitude lower.

  11. William T says:

    David Lewis – if people were as scared about the potential (likely) dangers of climate change as they are about the potential (but unlikely) dangers of nuclear accidents, then there would be huge demonstrations to shut down all coal plants immediately.

  12. paulm says:

    it really just does feel like humanity is being overwhelmed…

    Sellafield to be inspected by nuclear watchdog, says Gordon Brown

    Prime minister announces security probe at reprocessing plant as part of worldwide drive to stop spread of fissile materials

  13. David Lewis says:

    What a wonderful idea. Maybe I’ll live to see the day a climate movement 200,000 strong shows up outside every coal plant in the US demanding they all be shut down.

  14. Leif says:

    Joe: Ban “travesti” porn site.

  15. fj2 says:

    “Aluminum Maker Eyes Solar Industry,” seems to be the type of elegant solution to move things forward with maintenance of the reflective surface a valid concern.

    “Pattern reverses as U.S. researchers flock to China,” might indicate it will be a materials science revolution — perhaps driven by major advances and commercialization of nanotechnology — that will completely change the built environment and much of civilization as we know it even more so than the longtime ongoing electronics metamorphosis of mechanics rapidly changing into electronics including data and communications revolutions.

    Manhattan Project-scale dramatic materials science advancements could afford considerable opportunities in establishing local monopolies and economically high-margin industries coincidentally — but, not limited to — providing substantial solutions for the environmental crisis further the amplifying high commercial viability.

  16. mark says:

    “anti nuclear people are responsible for creating the risk Wall Street sees.”

    no, anti nuclear people do not create risk.

    The risk from nuclear reactors is from the radioactive, carcinogenic materials that they use and produce. Which are sitting in barrels all around the world. The disposal of which materials has never been figured out, after sixty years of thinking about it.

    Insurance companies will not insure nuclear operations. period. and that is not because of anti nuclear people.

    And right now, there is radioactive material leaking from pipes from a reactor in the Eastern US, which the reactor operators denied even existed.

  17. mike roddy says:

    Aluminum troughs may or may not be cheaper by avoiding the step of having to apply the reflective coating. The problem is that aluminum itself is very expensive compared to ferrous alloys. The light weight is not really an advantage, because foundation design is governed by wind loads, not dead loads.

    Besides, rectangular heliostats with high tech reflective coatings and efficient microprocessors appear to be cheaper than troughs. That’s why China jumped all over eSolar’s design, and bought 2,000 mgw. That will be built before the Ivanpah project, and I hope eSolar releases cost figures.

    David Lewis, 30% baseload for solar compared to 90% for nuclear does not translate into triple the per mgw cost. With an efficient grid, night time power will come from wind, which is cheap and available when it’s dark. I also don’t think you should trust quoted figures for nuclear- the San Antonio and Canada delivered costs ended up much higher than you quoted, north of $14 million per megawatt.

    I believe that solar is cheaper than nuclear right now, but the public needs better cost information about electricity generation. We have to piece together busbar costs from Lazard and eThree, and many of their figures come with codicils and guesses about the future.

    There are other issues. Nuclear is limited by uranium supply and construction infrastructure, meltdown insurance and waste storage, military security issues, and carbon costs that approach those of gas. Nuclear is a bad choice. Sun and wind power are unlimited if we can chop another 20-30% off the delivered cost, a very achievable goal.

  18. paulm says:

    mark, they are denying that the reactor exits!

    This is worth a watch….

    Bill Maher: The Environment Is The Ultimate Health Care Issue (VIDEO)

  19. paulm says:

    Why oh why do they say things like this…they are messing with the public. The world is melting….

    “I need to stress that the event in the Mertz area, and indeed most of the iceberg calving in Antarctica is a completely normal, expected activity for a stable ice sheet,” said Ted Scambos, a glaciologist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo.