August 1 News: Solar Firms See Uptick in Demand; The Future of Clean Energy

A round-up of climate and energy news. Please post other stories below.

Solar firms busier as demand increases

The trees that cover Ruppert Cos.’ 600-acre nursery in Laytonsville now share a small parcel of land with 988 deep metallic blue solar panels that will supply power to the landscaper’s five-building headquarters.

The company began construction on a new, eco-conscious campus three years ago and the $1 million solar field, a third of which is financed by a federal tax credit, promises to erase its $35,000 annual electric bill.

The company exemplifies what industry observers have described as an increase in the number of business and homeowners who have embraced solar energy as the price of technology comes down and installers reform their business models to allay steep up-front costs.

President Craig Ruppert said the company has hung its shingle in several locations across Montgomery County since 1977, but for the first time the economics of building green offices proved favorable to its bottom line.

“Was it thought about [in the past]? Maybe a little bit. Was it seriously incorporated into plans? No,” Ruppert said. “The economics weren’t as compelling 10 years ago. The cost of electricity has gone up. The cost of gas has gone up. So I think economics is driving our gradual migration toward going green.”

What’s Next for Clean Energy

This past weekend, I attended the Aspen Institute’s Clean Energy Roundtable, an annual gathering of business, political and policy leaders working in clean energy. Inspired by the many insights and ideas presented, here are my thoughts on the state of clean energy today and what lies ahead.

First the good news. Prices of key clean energy technologies are plummeting, bringing many technologies such as distributed solar and energy storage closer and closer to mass deployment. The cost of solar panels today is about 20% below that of a year ago. And it should continue dropping for the forseeable future. In other words, the performance/price ratio is improving exponentially, like computer chips if not quite as fast and for different reasons, cost economies for the most part as opposed to breakthrough technologies. The main driver of the plummeting costs is volume and successful efforts by the Chinese government to vertically integrate the Chinese solar industry — that now supplies over half of the world’s solar panels. (In advanced thin films, costs per watt are also coming down.) Even more dramatic price drops are occurring in battery storage across a range of chemistries with prices halving in the the last year. Plummeting prices that translate to rising performance are good news for developers, electric car-makers and the global industry at large.

The story is more complicated, however, in the United States, where we are in what might be described as the best and worst of times. This past year saw torrid growth in solar deployment in the US with solar capacity doubling; wind installations also grew and wind is now a very competitive source of power. Solar — already competitive with subsidies — will be competitive without them in several years. That is the good news. The bad news is that solar generation still supplies only .2 percent of US electricity and, what’s more, growth has been driven by the 1603 provision in the tax law that allows tax credits to be redeemed for cash. This provision expires on December 31 this year. Since the financial crisis, tax credits deals to build everything from affordable housing to energy have exceeded the relatively thin pool of capital from investors seeking to shelter profits. That means tax credits absent the 1603 provision can be worthless. With extension of Section 1603 uncertain, the solar industry may face significant challenges beginning this winter.

As crews remove one giant oil glob, more tar mats could be exposed during storm season

During hurricane season, with storms thrashing about, the Gulf of Mexico is like a washtub.

Wave action intensifies and sands shift, uncovering more and more tar mats just off Alabama’s shores.

Those who work along the coast say they know the presence of tar mats left by the BP oil spill last year is heavy because tarballs continue to float ashore every day.

And that’s heightened with the activity of rough seas.

About a week ago, a 1,500-foot by 30-foot tar mat as much as 18-inches thick “exposed itself” just west of Little Lagoon Pass just off the water’s edge, according to Grant Brown, spokesman for Gulf Shores.

Work to remove the gooey mass started almost immediately, but was stalled because of recent rains. Crews are expected to return to work Sunday and continue for about another week.

Even near shore tar mats, like that one, are difficult to locate, and officials don’t know exactly how many sit along the state’s coastline.

Texas Gulf oysters suffer in drought just as Louisiana and Mississippi productivity drops

Tracy Woody heaved a hemp bag filled with oysters across the deck of his boat and began inspecting his catch. One shell after another was empty.

It’s virtually official, Woody said: the third-worst drought in state history has killed any hope that Texas oysters would make up for the severe losses in Mississippi and Louisiana, where the shellfish suffered from last year’s oil spill and this year’s massive flooding.

There’s no way,” said Woody, a fifth-generation oyster fisherman who says he has never seen conditions this bad.

Oysters are a $217 million industry on the Gulf Coast. Louisiana and Texas account for 70 percent of the eastern species found in the Gulf and along the East Coast. Pessimism about the harvest this season is growing, even though experts won’t offer a specific projection.

This year, the drought has made the water in Texas’ Galveston Bay, where most of the state’s oysters are harvested, so salty that predators and disease are thriving. Conditions are so dire, the deadly “dermo” parasite has been found in two reefs where it’s never been seen before.

Latest Out of Tailpipes: Electricity With Exhaust

EVEN the most efficient of modern cars has a wasteful streak: only about a quarter of the energy contained in the fuel the engine burns is converted to motion. Much of the lost energy flows out of the tailpipe in the form of hot exhaust gases, researchers at General Motors say.

As proposals for E.P.A. fuel economy standards of more than 50 miles per gallon are floated in Washington, it is little wonder that automakers are ratcheting up the search for simple and cost-effective ways to squeeze every last bit of energy from available petroleum fuels.

So far, the quest to directly recapture energy from engine heat has yielded few practical results, but recent improvements in the performance of thermoelectric materials — semiconductors that can transform heat into electricity — may soon change that.

Improvements in the energy-conversion efficiencies of thermoelectric materials — perhaps most familiar as the devices that heat and chill the seats available in many new cars — along with rises in their effective operating temperatures, has led the Energy Department to help finance research programs. BMW, Ford and G.M. are each working to determine if this technology can be a cost-effective way to recapture some of the energy that would otherwise be wasted in the engine’s hot exhaust.

If thermoelectric-based energy recovery proves worthwhile, it could improve a car’s fuel economy by as much as 5 to 10 percent, according to Greg Meisner, a staff researcher at G.M.

US Chamber ramps up push for oil sands pipeline

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce rolled out an initiative Friday to build support for U.S.-Canada energy ties, especially a controversial proposed pipeline that would link Canada’s oil sands projects to Gulf Coast refineries.

The new Partnership to Fuel America arrives as environmental groups are placing political pressure on the Obama administration not to OK TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which needs State Department approval to cross the border.

The new partnership will be “comprised of American businesses and industries that understand the need for more energy in the United States and believe that Canada’s significant resources can help achieve that goal,” according to the Chamber’s Institute for 21st Century Energy.

Keystone supporters call the Alberta-to-Texas pipeline vital to boosting U.S. energy security by expanding imports from Alberta’s massive oil sands projects.

The House approved GOP-backed legislation Monday — with 47 Democratic votes — that would require the Obama administration to make a decision on the project by Nov. 1.

Nobel Prize Winner Pursues Clean-Tech Leadership With Thinning Wallet

There’s something about Energy Secretary Steven Chu’s laugh, something that may hint at what — he hopes — a scientist can achieve in the age of deficits.

It is a kind of self-effacing chuckle that doesn’t condescend, though his credentials would back that. Nor is it wistful, even though the new Congress has assaulted his energy agenda and the climate science behind it.

Perhaps it reflects the magnitude of what he is trying to accomplish: the evolution of an aging energy infrastructure into one that can make the United States a leader in a vital global industry. In an interview with ClimateWire, he said he’ll have to do it by using DOE’s thinning wallet as a catalyst for the technology breakthroughs that only the private sector can pull off.

Gone are the days of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, when DOE had $34 billion to plow into smart grid and clean energy projects that, it was hoped, would give the United States a foothold in world energy markets.

“The Recovery Act spent a lot of time on those things because, for very good reason, these are big projects, and jobs,” he said in a recent interview with ClimateWire.

History’s normal rate of species disappearance is accelerating, scientists say

Biologist E.O. Wilson once pondered whether many of our fellow living things were doomed once evolution gave rise to an intelligent, technological creature that also happened to be a rapacious carnivore, fiercely territorial and prone to short-term thinking.

We humans can be so destructive that some scientists believe we’ve now triggered a mass extinction – one that in several hundred years will rival the that killed the dinosaurs.

In some places, a mass extinction is already under way. Haiti, a “” for plant and animal diversity, may be closest to .

The shows the living world went through five previous spasms of extinction in the last 500 million years.

There’s plenty of evidence that the sixth mass extinction has begun, said biologist Stuart Pimm, chair of conservation ecology at Duke University.

“We are clearly living in an era where we’re driving to extinction 100 to 10,000 times faster than they should be going extinct,” he said.

There’s a wide range in those numbers because the shows just a fraction of what lived in the past, and scientists don’t know exactly how many species exist today.

The Whole Town’s Gone Solar – Potential Model Communities in Fukuyama and Onomichi, Japan

In Hiroshima Prefecture, both the city of Fukuyama and the private sector are pushing forward with a futuristic “Eco Town.”  In the midst of interest in natural sources of energy, following the nuclear incident in TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, an attempt is being made to acquire and market local “know-how” as quickly as possible to other prefectures in order to stimulate regional revitalization.

According to the prefecture, several public and private organizations are involved in the joint venture in both Fukuyama City and Onomichi City, including the ship-building company Tsuneishi Holdings Corporation, Chugoku Electric Power, and Okayama Prefectural University. Tsuneishi Holdings Corporation’s main branch in the Fukushima City suburb Numakuma and the suburb Urasaki of the adjacent town Onomichi have been designated as model communities. Following installation of solar panels in its factories, Tsuneishi will then target residential areas in the two communities in cooperation with those already living in company housing.

Solar panels are to be connected to electric cars to store energy, and both are then transported to each resident’s home. Energy loss during that time is investigated in order to construct a no-loss system. This information will also be used as PR material for environmental education and study.  The aim is to positively attract inspection agencies of other prefectures, and also to increase tourism in the area.

Biodiesel Production Getting More Efficient, Using Less Fossil Fuel

One knock against biodiesel has been the relatively large amount of fossil fuel required to produce it. That’s aside from the contentious issue of using arable land to grow crops for fuel, especially food crops. However, a new study of the energy lifecycle of soybean biodiesel reveals a significant improvement in efficiency over the past 20 years or so. Together with the growing use of nonfood feedstocks, the boost in efficiency could make biodiesel production a more sustainable source of energy over the long term.

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