Energy and Environmental News for April 22: Charging electric cars in a low-carbon way; Solar power to the people; New energy powers up lobbying

Charging Up Electric Car Batteries in Environmentally-Friendly Way

Electromobility makes sense only if car batteries are charged using electricity from renewable energy sources. But the supply of green electricity is not always adequate. An intelligent charging station can help, by adapting the recharging times to suit energy supply and network capacity. Germany aims to have one million electric vehicles — powered by energy from renewable sources -on the road by 2020. And, within ten years, the German environment ministry expects “green electricity” to make up 30 percent of all power consumed.

Arithmetically speaking, it would be possible to achieve CO2-neutral electromobility. But, in reality, it is a difficult goal to attain. As more and more solar and wind energy is incorporated in the power grid, the proportion of electricity that cannot be controlled by simply pressing a button is on the increase. In addition, there is a growing risk that the rising number of electric vehicles will trigger extreme surges in demand during rush hour.

“What we need is a smart grid that carries information in addition to power,” says Dominik Noeren of the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems ISE. The structure of the grid has to change from a push system based on energy demand to a pull system based on production output. In Noeren’s opinion, “electric cars are best equipped to meet this challenge.” Introduced in large numbers, they have the capacity to store a lot of energy. On average, a car is parked for at least 20 hours out of 24. That is more than enough time to recharge them when the wind picks up or the demand for electricity is low.

Developed by Fraunhofer researchers, the “smart” charging station is a device that enables electric vehicles to recharge when the system load is low and the share of energy from renewable resources is high. In this way, load peaks can be avoided and the contribution of solar and wind power fully exploited. “For us, it is important that end consumers are completely free to decide when they want to recharge. We do not want them to suffer any disadvantages from the controlled recharging of their vehicles’ batteries,” Noeren emphasizes. That’s why he favors electricity rates that adapt to the prevailing situation in the power grid — ones that are more expensive in periods of peak demand and particularly cheap when there is a surfeit of renewable energy.

Solar Power to the People, With a Lot of Public Help

IT’S Earth Day, and among the many activities planned for students at the Lagunitas school campus, about 30 miles north of San Francisco, is a field trip to visit a solar power installation, where they will learn how photovoltaic technology converts the sun’s energy to electricity.

But they won’t need permission slips from their parents to leave the school grounds, as the system sits on a sunny spot next to the school’s soccer field.

In operation since 2008, the system provides about 70 percent of the school’s annual electric needs and will save more than $100,000 on its energy bills over the next 15 years.

Installing it cost the school nothing. In a business arrangement becoming common for solar projects like this, the project developer, Solar Power Partners, installed, owns and operates the system. It then sells power back to the school through a long-term power purchase agreement.

Retaining ownership lets the developer and its investors take advantage of federal tax incentives and California state subsidies, which in turn allow them to compete on price with the local utility.

Government incentives to private industries are nothing new. In 1917, the federal government offered a tax credit to a young oil industry to encourage exploration and drilling, opening up an industry that transformed our economy, while creating thousands of new companies and many more jobs. Today’s solar power proponents hope generous federal and state incentives, along with creative business models like power purchase agreements, will provide the same result.

Photovoltaic technology has been around since the 1950s. It was originally used to power sites far off the utility grid. The market for building solar electric systems on homes and commercial properties, however, really took off when the federal Energy Policy Act of 2005 raised the investment tax credit for solar projects to 30 percent. Almost all of these systems remain connected to the utility grid, so the customer, like the Lagunitas school, can still buy power from the utility when its solar energy system does not meet its demands. And when they generate a surplus, they can put power back on the grid and receive a credit on their utility bill.

New energy powers up lobbying

Alternative energy used to be just a speed bump on K Street.

In 1998, the entire sector spent only $2.4 million lobbying the federal government, compared with $142 million spent by the oil and gas, electrical utilities and mining industries, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks political spending.

A little more than a decade later, the advocacy class for wind, solar, ethanol and a host of other alternative and renewable energy sources is growing exponentially “” much as the sector hopes its market share will in the coming decades. In 2009, alternative energy spent $30 million on lobbying, 12 times its 1998 amount.

The prospects of action on a major energy bill “” with billions set aside for research and development of new, cleaner fuels “” is a major reason for that. “The industry realizes it needs to have a larger political presence and has responded with increased lobbying expenditures,” said Dave Levinthal, a center spokesman.

But the speed of expansion is eye-popping.

Until 2008, the American Wind Energy Association spent less than $1 million a year on lobbyists “” and most years less than $500,000. In 2009, it spent nearly $5 million on lobbying, almost triple its 2008 outlay.

Similarly, the Solar Energy Industries Association increased its 2007 expenditures of $630,000 to more than $1.6 million in 2009.

Monique Hanis, director of communications for SEIA, said there are several reasons for SEIA’s increased presence in Washington. Among them is getting help in delivering solar-powered electricity to customers and, ultimately, breaking up old energy’s market dominance. “We need a level playing field to compete, and that comes back to policy,” Hanis said.

With the growth of the solar energy industry, SEIA’s membership has expanded, giving the organization a larger budget and the freedom to hire more lobbyists to work on a wider range of policy issues. The group exercised that new muscle in 2008 when it won extension of the Solar Investment Tax Credit for another eight years.

White House to provide $452M for retrofits

Twenty-five states, local governments and nonprofits will split $452 million to retrofit energy-inefficient homes and office buildings, Vice President Joe Biden will announce this afternoon.

The money comes as part of the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which President Obama signed into law 16 months ago. The stimulus package earmarked roughly $80 billion for clean-energy and energy-efficiency projects.

The so-called “Retrofit Ramp-Up” funding commitments to be announced today at the White House will help the 25 states, local governments and nonprofits swap out building insulation, windows and lights, among other things. Grantees will offer building owners low- or no-interest loans for retrofits that may be repaid through property tax or utility bills.

The Energy Department will use the program’s financing and retrofit models to develop best-practice guides that other cities could adopt. Replicating such efforts nationally could save homes and businesses about $100 million in utility bills annually, as well as leverage about $2.8 billion in from the private sector and create about 30,000 jobs during the next three years, administration officials claim.

“This investment in some of the most innovative energy-efficiency projects across the country will not only help homeowners and businesses make cost-cutting retrofit improvements but create jobs right here in America,” Biden notes in prepared remarks.

The 25 grantees and their grant amounts: Austin, Texas ($10 million); Boulder County, Colo. ($25 million); Camden, N.J. ($5 million); Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning ($25 million); Greater Cincinnati Energy Alliance ($17 million); Greensboro, N.C. ($5 million); Indianapolis ($10 million); Kansas City, Mo. ($20 million); Los Angeles County, Calif. ($30 million); Lowell, Mass. ($5 million); state of Maine ($30 million); state of Maryland ($20 million); state of Michigan ($30 million); state of Missouri ($5 million); Omaha, Neb. ($10 million); state of New Hampshire ($10 million); New York State Research and Development Authority ($40 million); Philadelphia ($25 million); Phoenix ($25 million); Portland, Ore. ($20 million); San Antonio ($10 million); Seattle ($20 million); Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance ($20 million); Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority ($15 million); and Wisconsin Energy Conservation Corp. ($20 million).

Commercial and residential buildings consume about 40 percent of the nation’s energy and account for about 40 percent of its carbon dioxide emissions, according to DOE. Existing building retrofit technologies could slash residential buildings’ energy use by 40 percent and associated greenhouse gas emissions by up to 160 million metric tons annually.

Edging Back to Nuclear Power

FOR the first time since the 1970s, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has announced a step that it once took routinely: appointing an inspector for a new reactor construction project.

With 17 applications in hand from companies that want to build 26 reactors, the agency is likely to name a lot more inspectors; it also expects five more applicants in the next few years.

Is this the long-awaited renaissance of the nuclear construction business, after years of being moribund?

Certainly, some crucial ingredients are falling into place. Nuclear power provides 70 percent of the nation’s carbon-free electricity, important at a time when environmentalists track carbon in the atmosphere the way baby boomers check their cholesterol levels. And while Congress has not agreed on setting a price on carbon emissions, important people say we need more low-carbon power. President Obama said in his State of the Union address that it was time to build “a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country,” and his budget plan would triple the pool of loan guarantees available for construction, to $57.5 billion.

Near Augusta, Ga., where the Southern Company opened its Vogtle 1 and 2 reactors in 1987 and 1989, workers have cleared away storage sheds and are preparing a site for construction of units 3 and 4. Vogtle received the first loan guarantees, $8.3 billion, under a program enacted in 2005; the five years that have passed are an indication of the pace of the renaissance.

Yet, undeniably, there is progress. Parts have been ordered from as far away as Italy and Japan, and there are stirrings in the supply chain here, suggesting that, while the United States can no longer manufacture all the key components, it can at least contribute to a global system. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has approved the Vogtle site, and a legion of its engineers and those at Westinghouse, the designer, are hashing out details before a new kind of license can be issued “” one that will allow cookie-cutter copies of the reactor around the country. Generic approvals for other designs are at various stages.

Boosters of nuclear power want to repeat the 1970s, with dozens of orders a year; Senator Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, has called for building 100 plants, which would more than double existing capacity, just as the United States did from 1970 to 1990. And there appears to be bipartisan support for new reactors.

Some longtime opponents, like Representative Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, said they still do not like the technology but would hold their noses and take a package that included some of what they want. Mr. Markey, who with Representative Henry A. Waxman, Democrat of California, wrote the climate bill that passed the House last year, has been an implacable critic of the industry for decades. But if support for new reactors is the price of getting Senate agreement to a carbon cap, he said in an interview, he would negotiate over that.