Energy and Global Warming News for December 16th: Senate approves clean tech tax break extensions; NASA releases global warming map; WikiLeaks cables show BP suffered devastating blowout in Azerbaijan

Note for new readers: Please post links and brief summaries of news stories related to climate and clean energy in the comments.Senate approves biofuel and clean tech tax break extensions

The US renewable energy and biofuel industries were celebrating yesterday after the Senate overwhelming approved plans to extend crucial green tax breaks and grant programmes. Senators voted 81 to 19 in favor of the controversial bi-partisan tax bill, which extends the Bush-era tax cuts supported by Republicans, but in return extends federal unemployment benefits for 13 months and provides a raft of incentives to clean energy projects.

In particular, the package includes extensions to the existing research and development tax credit, ethanol tax credit, biodiesel and renewable diesel tax credit, and energy efficient homes tax . Significantly, it also extends by one year the Treasury’s popular Section 1603 program, which offers large scale renewable energy projects and upfront cash grant to help cover construction costs in lieu of a 30 per cent tax break.

Rhone Resch, president and chief executive of the Solar Energy Industries Association, said the compromise deal would provide a major boost to the renewable energy sector. “Since its passage, the 1603 program has successfully created jobs and opportunity in all 50 states for construction workers, electricians, plumbers, contractors that have struggled during this difficult economic climate,” he said in a statement. “An extension will help the solar industry remain one of the fastest growing industries in America and create thousands of new careers.”


NASA releases global warming map

WikiLeaks cables show BP suffered devastating blowout in Azerbaijan

Striking resemblances between BP’s Gulf of Mexico disaster and a little-reported giant gas leak in Azerbaijan experienced by the UK firm 18 months beforehand have emerged from leaked US embassy cables. The cables reveal that some of BP’s partners in the gas field were upset that the company was so secretive about the incident that it even allegedly withheld information from them. They also say that BP was lucky that it was able to evacuate its 212 workers safely after the incident, which resulted in two fields being shut and output being cut by at least 500,000 barrels a day with production disrupted for months.

Other cables leaked tonight claim that the president of Azerbaijan accused BP of stealing $10bn of oil from his country and using “mild blackmail” to secure the rights to develop vast gas reserves in the Caspian Sea region.

WikiLeaks also released cables claiming that:

“¢ Senior figures in Thailand are concerned about the suitability of the crown prince to become king, citing rumours that he has lovers in several European capitals in addition to his wife and son in Thailand.

“¢ American energy firm Chevron was in discussions with Tehran about developing an Iraq-Iran cross-border oilfield, despite US sanctions against Iran.

The leaks came as the whistleblower site’s founder Julian Assange prepared for another night in jail ahead of tomorrow’s high court challenge to the decision to grant him £200,000 bail. Swedish authorities, who want to question Assange on allegations of sexual assault, believe he should remain in custody as he is a flight risk. On the Azerbaijan gas leak, acable reports for the first time that BP suffered a blowout in September 2008, as it did in the Gulf with devastating consequences in April, as well as the gas leak that the firm acknowledged at the time. “Due to the blowout of a gas-injection well there was ‘a lot of mud’ on the platform, which BP would analyze to help find the cause of the blowout and gas leak,” the cable said.

California air board to accept cap and trade program

Officials hail the program as flexible and sensitive to economic conditions. It would begin in 2012 by capping emissions from the 600 biggest industrial facilities. California regulators Thursday are expected to adopt the nation’s most comprehensive carbon trading regime, creating a market-based way to lower greenhouse gas emissions at a time when similar efforts have stalled in Congress.

The program is the centerpiece of the state’s 2006 global warming law, which aims to slash carbon dioxide and other planet-heating pollution to 1990 levels by 2020. That would amount to a 15% cut from today’s level. The cap-and-trade system “will help drive innovation, create more green jobs and clean up our air and environment,” said California Air Resources Board Chairwoman Mary D. Nichols, adding that it “provides flexibility” to industry and takes “into consideration the current economic climate.”

Under the state’s cap-and-trade plan, emissions from the 600 biggest industrial facilities, including cement manufacturers, electrical plants and oil refineries, would be capped in 2012, with that limit gradually decreasing over eight years in an effort to encourage energy efficiency and renewable sources of power. Companies would be granted “allowances” for each metric ton of greenhouse gas they emit, and they could trade unused allowances among themselves to cut costs.

Generous tariffs lure British farmers into raising solar arrays

Michael Eavis is not your average farmer, but this year he is following the herd. Spurred on by a new tariff that pays individuals to produce their own electricity and sell it to the nation’s grid, Eavis has installed 1,100 solar photovoltaic panels on the roof of his dairy barn. He calls it his “Mootel.”

“The panels will earn about £50,000 [$79,053] a year, so in 10 years we will have paid off the £500,000 [$790,398] we borrowed from the bank to build the array. Solar power is really clean — even more so than wind — and it is free. There is enough energy from the sun to power the whole world during the day,” he added.

Eavis is just one among a throng of people, including many farmers, who have leaped at the chance the tariff scheme offers both to make money and to get “greener.” In contrast to many other such schemes across Europe, the U.K. feed-in tariffs pay for all power produced, not just that exported to the grid. They also have the added attraction of being guaranteed for 25 years.

Wind power for Boston made in China

Goldwind USA and A-Power Energy Generation Systems are not the only big Chinese-owned wind energy companies setting up shop in this country. Sinovel, a state-owned company based in Beijing that is China’s largest wind turbine manufacturer, has signed a contract with the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority to provide a 1.5-megawatt wind turbine. The machine will provide electricity for a wastewater pumping station in the Charlestown neighborhood of Boston.

The turbine accounts for about half of the $4.7 million cost of the project, which is still in development and is being financed with money from the federal economic stimulus package. Sinovel, with a $6.5 billion line of credit from banks owned by the Chinese government, has said its goal was to become the world’s largest manufacturer of wind turbines by 2015. It also said it intended to eventually realize half of its sales beyond China’s borders.

Meanwhile, Ming Yang Wind Power Group, China’s fifth-largest wind turbine manufacturer, and its largest privately held wind power company, has opened a sales office in Dallas. Recently, the company raised $350 million in an initial public offering in New York, in a deal led by Morgan Stanley “” part of $6 billion being raised this year through initial public offerings by six Chinese wind turbine and wind farm companies.

Regulation is deficient in Canada’s oil sands

Reclamation in Canada’s oil sands is not keeping pace with rapid development and that could leave the public vulnerable to major financial burdens in years to come, a scientific panel said Wednesday. The study by Royal Society of Canada scientists, the latest report on the effects of the country’s multibillion-dollar oil sands sector, also concluded that governments and regulators are lagging world standards in their ability to oversee the industry and monitor its environmental impact.

“Current government of Alberta policy on financial security for reclamation liability leaves Alberta vulnerable to major financial risks, which are exacerbated by the current state of reclamation, which is not keeping pace with the rate of land disturbance,” the panel said in its report. Alberta’s oil sands are the largest source of crude outside Saudi Arabia, and are the target of billions of dollars of spending by the world’s oil industry. However, the environmental impact of the rush to develop the oil is under intense scrutiny by environmentalists and politicians.

The seven-member panel, chaired by Steve Hrudey, professor emeritus of analytical and environmental toxicology at the University of Alberta, pointed out uncertainty in the industry’s ability to reclaim wetlands, given current methods. It pointed out that technology to manage tailings ponds, the toxic byproducts of oil sands extraction, has improved over the past decade, despite recent incidents involving the deaths of hundreds of ducks that landed on a toxic pond.

Sungevity gets $15 million to go nationwide

In cubicles in Sungevity’s Oakland, California headquarters, employees are finessing residential solar bids — for homes in Colorado. The company, which has created software that lets its assemble and manage residential solar projects over the web, has to date concentrated on solar deals in California, Colorado and Arizona. Today, it is announcing a $15 million round of financing that will let it expand to the other solar markets in the U.S. while staying centralized, said founder Danny Kennedy. In 2011, it is looking at expanding internationally and rolling out a Spanish-language version of its service in the U.S.

Business, Kennedy adds, is booming. Installations, measured in terms of kilowatts, are up by a factor of ten this year, and the total number of installations are up 9x. The company booked 1 megawatt worth of solar deals in October alone. Its market share in California has grown from 0.4 percent to 2.9 percent. Like competitors SolarCity, SunRun and others, part of Sungevity’s explosive growth comes through solar leasing, which allows consumers to skip the down payment. More than 99 percent of the deals that were booked in One Megawatt October revolved around leases, he said.

Both SolarCity and Sungevity have exploited the power of software to reduce the cost of solar installation, which can still account for a third of a residential system. Sungevity’s software examines satellite imagery of a rooftop as well as data on the pitch of the roof, local solar radiation, and the angle of the roof toward the sun, among other factors, in order to concoct a bid on a project. The software has been fine-tuned over the past few years. Sungevity projects now are almost one kilowatt larger on average than they were 2.5 years ago.

Kenya’s largest energy provider receives $364 million for geothermal development

Under the agreement, the French Development Agency will loan KenGen roughly US$201.3 million to help finance the construction of the 140-megawatt Olkaria IV geothermal power plant. In turn, the European Investment Bank will loan US$153.2 million for the construction of a high-voltage substation and transmission lines from the new geothermal projects the utility is developing. The loans will help generate an additional 280-megawatts of geothermal power in Kenya. The East African state has become a geothermal hot-bed of late. The country has announced plans to increase its geothermal capacity from 1,300 MW to 4,000 MW by 2030. This has brought investors and finaciers to the table. Earlier this year the World Bank committed US$118 million to the development of Kenya’s geothermal industry. Currently Kenya relies predominantly on hydropower and wood fuel. With energy demand on the rise and only 20% of Kenyan’s with access to consistent electricity, the government needs to develop more reliable and envrionmentally conscious sources of energy, such as geothermal power. Kenya’s Finance Minister, Uburu Kenyatta said the development of these geothermal projects will help make this change. “We need to increase access of the households to the national grid electricity to improve the quality of life of our people. This will ensure that the use of firewood that destroys our forests will be drastically reduced.”

Huhne: Reforms to make low carbon ‘dominant’ force in UK energy mix

The government has today unveiled its plans for energy market reforms, predicting that the new package of measures will lead to a huge increase in investment for renewable, nuclear and carbon capture and storage (CCS) projects. However, the proposals stop short of providing precise details on the future price of carbon emissions

and the regulations governing fossil power plants that will ultimately by required by investors if they are to determine the economic feasibility of low carbon projects.

Energy and Climate Change Secretary Chris Huhne said the reforms would strengthen the economic case for investment in low carbon technologies to ensure that they become the “dominant” form of energy generation by 2030. He also predicted that the changes would lead to lower energy bills in the long term, compared to the continuation of the current market framework.

“The UK was first to put binding carbon reduction targets into law,” he said. “Now the coalition is taking the historic step of introducing, permanently, a level playing field for low carbon technologies in the UK’s electricity market… Low carbon technologies must be given the chance to become the dominant component in our electricity mix.” The reforms propose the introduction of four new measures, all designed to strengthen the investment case for low carbon technologies.

South Korea plans new energy self-sufficiency strategy

South Korea is hauling out new plans to increase its energy self-sufficiency next year by developing and investing in more overseas energy products to meet its rising demands. The Ministry of Knowledge Economy said it will raise its self-sufficiency ratio to 13 percent of total oil and gas imports, up from the current 10 percent, and import less crude oil for state reserves.

“We’ll continue to enlarge the state-run Korea National Oil Corp. next year via purchases of promising energy assets to help enhance the country’s energy self-sufficiency rate,” the ministry said in a statement. Korea National wants to up its crude oil and natural gas capacity from 200,000 barrels of oil equivalent a day to 300,000 barrels a day by 2012. To help make that goal a reality, one of Korea National’s overseas units is in the process of acquiring the Canadian assets of Hunt Oil Co. for the equivalent of $521.67 million.

South Korea also plans to expand its natural gas activities to include upstream operations like exploration, production and purchasing gas fields. The country hopes to export $40 billion a year of alternative and renewable energy by 2015, significantly higher than the $4.6 billion last year.