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Energy and Global Warming News for December 17th: Worlds biggest wind farm advances; CEC approves ninth California solar project in four months; What does the future hold for concentrating PV?

World’s Biggest Wind Farm One Step Closer to Reality

Somewhere out there in Oregon, green job seekers are cheering. The world’s largest wind farm has just cleared another hurdle, with yesterday’s announcement by U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu that a partial guarantee for a $1.3 billion (yes, billion) loan has been finalized. The 845-megawatt behemoth, called the Caithness Shepherds Flat project, will be sited in eastern Oregon and bring hundreds of new construction jobs to the area.

Hundreds of Green Jobs for Oregon

The new wind farm is a project of Caithness Energy, LLC and GE Energy Financial Services, with GE also supplying 338 of its 2.5xl wind turbines, which are the next-generation version of its popular 1.5-MW model (and they’ll be made at a GE facility in the U.S, by the way). These particular turbines haven’t been used in North America yet, so that’s another first. The project is expected to put 400 people to work during construction, and then provide about 35 permanent positions.

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Millions of Megawatts of Clean Energy for the U.S.

CleanTechnica covered the new wind farm when it was first confirmed back in 2008, and the project is on track to meet its goal of completion in 2012. It’s big all right, but it’s almost a drop in the bucket compared to all the clean energy projects for which the U.S. Department of Energy has issued loan guarantees or other forms of support in just the last few years. So far there are sixteen projects totaling more than 37 million megawatt-hours, though that figure rather optimistically includes a 2,200 megawatt nuclear plant (good luck with that!).

Japan, Tunisia Forge Sustainable Business Partnership in the Sahara

This past weekend at the second annual Japan-Arab Economic Forum, the governments of Japan and Tunisia formally sealed a deal to collaborate on a sustainable business project that takes advantage of Tunisia’s ample solar resources. Together the two countries will be building a solar power plant in the Sahara desert, which is rapidly becoming a hot spot for some of the most innovative solar power projects in the world. This is an encouraging sign that Japan, like neighboring countries such as South Korea and China, is serious about expanding its involvement in sustainable business worldwide, and partnering with other countries to develop renewable energy projects.

Since January representatives of Japan and Tunisia have been making plans to collaborate on a five megawatt pilot solar project in the Sahara, with the goal of signing a memorandum of understanding at this year’s Japan-Arab Economic Forum. However this isn’t the first instance of Japan working with Saharan countries on solar-related sustainable business projects. Japanese universities have been partnering with their counterparts in Algeria on the Sahara Solar Breeder Project, which has set the ambitious goal of generating half the world’s electricity by the year 2050. The logic behind building big solar projects in the Sahara is simple: the Sahara Desert receives a huge amount of sunlight, and is situated relatively close to at least one major energy consuming region””Europe. It only makes sense to harness that power to help move humanity beyond fossil fuels.

Not only that, desert sand also contains silicon, an essential ingredient in the manufacture of solar panels. The Sahara Solar Breeder Project aims to start by building manufacturing plants that generate usable silicon from the Sahara’s sand, which will then be used in the construction of solar panels. These panels will help generate the energy needed to convert more sand into silicon, in a process that could theoretically continue to feed and build on itself for decades. If all goes well solar power projects throughout the Sahara could soon be using renewable energy to turn local resources into equipment for producing even more renewable electricity. It’s hard to think of a better model for sustainable business.

Developing solar energy in the Sahara and surrounding areas could help economies now largely dependent on oil exports adjust to a future no longer powered by fossil fuels. Historically, oil-dependent nations like Saudi Arabia have been some of the most vocal opponents of international climate agreements. If these countries come to see sustainable business projects as an opportunity for economic development, they may become less reluctant to sign onto a climate deal.

In the context of an international push to develop desert solar power on a massive scale, one more five megawatt solar project in Tunisia may not seem like a very big deal. However the process of converting the Sahara Desert into a major electricity producer is one that will take years or decades to complete, and will require skillful cooperation between the national governments of both developing and industrialized countries. The decision to pursue solar power at the Japan-Arab Economic Forum suggests Japan recognizes the importance of growing sustainable business in this region. The signing of an agreement to help Tunisia develop solar energy represents one more step toward a future in which sunlight powers much of the world’s energy needs

CEC Approves Ninth California Solar Project in Four Months!

California regulators have just approved yet another 650 MW of solar thermal power for the state.

The California Energy Commission (CEC) has voted to license the 500-MW Palen project and the 150-MW Rice project in Southern California, which now brings to nine the number of solar thermal power projects approved in the last four months.Altogether the solar projects comprise 4,142.5MW of solar thermal power to be added to the California grid and will provide more than 8,000 jobs in initial construction, and then more than 1,000 ongoing jobs in operations.

Both projects still require decisions in 2011 from the federal Bureau of Land Management, which approves the use of federal public lands, before they can proceed. The Rice project also requires approval from the Western Area Power Administration. But with the CEC approval before December 31st, they qualify for federal stimulus funds.

Both projects are solar thermal.Unlike solar PV, utility-scale solar thermal projects basically work the same way as traditional power plants: driven by steam-powered turbines, except using just the sun’s power to heat a liquid. (Instead of burning gas, coal or oil).

The more interesting and novel of the two is the brainchild of (literally) rocket scientists. The Rice Solar Energy Project about 40 miles northwest of Blythe in eastern Riverside County, has storage included, using molten salt, so that it will be able to keep sending solar power into the night.A large field of mirrors concentrates and focuses the sun’s energy onto a central receiver high up on a tower. Solar energy is captured and retained in the molten salt heat transfer fluid. That gets routed to heat exchangers to heat water and produce steam, which generates electricity in a conventional steam turbine cycle. The molten salt stores heat long after the sun goes down, so it can keep driving turbines after sunset.

The 500 MW Palen Solar Power Project is part owned by Chevron, making it a first for an oil company. It uses the solar parabolic trough to focus the radiation on a receiver tube located at the focal point of the parabola. A heat transfer fluid (HTF) is heated to high temperature (750 degrees Fahrenheit) as it circulates through the receiver tubes. The heated HTF is then piped through a series of heat exchangers where it releases its stored heat to generate high-pressure steam. The steam is then fed to a traditional steam turbine generator where electricity is produced.

The other seven projects the CEC approved in an unprecedented burst since August are Abengoa’s Mojave (250 MW), Beacon Solar (250 MW), Tessera Solar’s Calico Project (663.5 MW) Genesis Solar (250 MW), the (using the Stirling technology) Imperial Valley Solar (709 MW) Brightsource’s Ivanpah SEGS (370 MW), and the world’s largest solar thermal project: Blythe Solar Millennium (1,000 MW).

Recycling Program Enables Philippine Students to Pay Tuition with Trash

A non-profit private school, based in the Philippines, has launched a scholarship program to help lower income students afford a decent education by allowing them to pay school tuition fees with recyclables. WISHCRAFT, or ‘We Integrate Scholarship with the Collection of Recyclables and Frequently Generated Trash’, provides prospective students with the unique opportunity to bring in old plastic bags, empty soda cans, scrap metal, used shampoo bottles, and other recyclable items for discounts on their tuition fees. A young high school student in the program, Arvee Rose Abayabay, says, “It’s a good programme for the students because it helps us a lot, especially in paying our tuition fees”¦ The programme helps both students and the parents transform garbage into money for education while helping the environment.” Abayabay says she plans to go on to university to obtain a degree in nursing or food technology once she graduates high school this year. Elin Mondejar, the brainchild of WISHCRAFT, explains how the program works. “All students who bring in recyclables automatically get a credit equivalent discount on their school fees. The discount may be used by the student or donated to another student in need. There is really money in garbage, and the possibilities are endless. It makes students see garbage in a different light.” Its extremely inspiring to see young adults hustling in a way that is conducive both for their future and the environment in which they live. One can hope that similar programs are instituted in the United States, as it is becoming increasingly more difficult for young adults to pursue an education past high school.

The Big Question: What Does the Future Hold for Concentrating PV?

Considering the short term of one to three years, what technology advances may be expected in the CPV sector? What conversion efficiencies might be achieved and costs/kW installed reached? And what, if any, are the technical and investment barriers which must be overcome in order to achieve these forecasts?

In the next three years lowering manufacturing costs will be crucial to the CPV industry. As well as the gains from adopting best practises and economies of scale, part of the cost reductions will come from advances in cell manufacturing techniques to lower the amount of material required in each cell. Exploiting increasingly optimised bandgap combinations, either by metamorphic growth or by layer transfer techniques, will produce cells with higher fundamental efficiency limits.

Jeroen Haberland, CEO, Circadian Solar:

We expect the current trend of 1% annual increases in research cell efficiency, from the 2010 level of 42%, to continue, although advances in cells with more optimum bandgap combinations could deliver more significant increases.

Production cell efficiencies meanwhile will most likely continue to lag behind world record research cell efficiencies by 2%-3%. Overall system efficiencies are expected to rise to around 32% by 2013. This will be driven not just by cell efficiency increases, but also by the combination of high efficiency optics, optimal concentration factor, innovative thermal management, high accuracy solar tracking and through automated precision assembly too.

Commercially, the emphasis will increasingly be placed on levelised cost of electricity (LCOE), rather than just system efficiency and system price/watt, since LCOE is the key determining factor in commercial payback and return on investment.

The key barrier to investment is ‘bankability’ “” the requirement to guarantee to financiers the kWh energy yield from CPV systems over 25 years for a given investment in the plant. Without this, either the cost of finance will be very high, or there will be no finance. Publicly funded projects are one of the best/only ways to demonstrate bankability and well thought out incentives, such as feed-in tariffs, will be an important enabler for the industry to reach the economies of scale necessary to reduce system costs.

Carla Pihowich, Senior Director of Marketing, Amonix

The most important technology advances in CPV solar over the next three years will be performance improvements to III-V multi-junction cells and how they are integrated into CPV.

Amonix incorporated III-V multi-junction cells into our systems in 2007 leading to dramatic improvements in efficiency “” currently 39% at the cell level, which translates into 31% at the module level and 27% at the system level. At these levels of efficiency, CPV has by far the greatest efficiency of any solar technology. In addition, as we have done in the past, Amonix will deploy performance improvements over the next year that will lessen the gap between cell and system efficiency. In the years to come, we expect multi-junction production cell efficiencies will reach 42% or higher using current or new high-efficiency cell designs.

On the question of cost, we believe that CPV offers greater potential for cost reduction than conventional PV technologies such as single-crystal silicon and thin-film PV, which are nearing performance limitations that will make it difficult for them to drop below their current installed system costs. In contrast, the CPV performance advantage has plenty of headroom and can achieve continual reductions in the levelised cost of electricity (LCOE).

Achieving the cell and system efficiencies is not without its challenges “” cell performance must be effectively transferred to production environments, for example. But we believe these challenges can be managed. Bottom line, efficiency improvements combined with the future cost advantages of CPV over PV, the greater deployment flexibility “” and the advantage of using no water compared with CSP systems “” make CPV the best choice for utility-scale solar deployments in sunny and dry climates.

Nancy Hartsoch, Vice-President Sales and Marketing, SolFocus

In 2010 industry-leading CPV companies have become commercial, demonstrating scalable deployment, bankable products, and volume manufacturing. So what does lie ahead for CPV?

One way to describe CPV’s path over the next one to three years is that it will have a steep trajectory. CPV conversion efficiencies are on a steep upward path. System efficiencies of 26%+ today will continue to increase as CPV cell efficiencies move from 39% upwards to 45%.

Manufacturing costs for CPV systems are also on a steep trajectory, but going downward, as factories are ramped from manufacturing hundreds of kW to hundreds of MW per year. The upward efficiency trajectory combined with the rapidly declining manufacturing cost trajectory provides a very steep reduction in terms of the levelised cost of electricity (LCOE) for CPV in the upcoming three years.

In 2010 CPV won competitive bids around the world against other PV technologies because of its high energy yield resulting in a very strong value proposition, which will become even more commanding in the future. Bankability of the technology remains perhaps the biggest hurdle, however, this is rapidly changing through thorough due diligence on the technology and creative approaches to reduce the risk for developers.

Certification to industry standards for CPV combined with multiple years of on-sun performance and reliability data also contributes to the increasing adoption of CPV into large distributed and utility-scale projects around the globe.

With 150 MW forecast to be deployed in 2011, CPV has finally turned the corner on commercialisation and is moving forward into a market where its high energy yield with the largest energy output/MW installed has the potential to dramatically change the opportunity for the PV market. Add in the need for environmentally friendly technology and it provides an extremely low carbon footprint, along with low cost of energy, It becomes easy to forecast a major impact by CPV solar.

Andreas W. Bett, Deputey Director, Fraunhofer ISE

Concentrating PV and specifically HCPV technology is now ready to enter the market. I am aware this has already been said, but the difference is that there are now serious companies in the market.

They have set up production capacities which are in the two-digit MW range, and collectively the production capacity today is more than 150 MW. Two years ago it was less than 10 MW. This achievement is an important milestone for CPV and the first step to overcome their infancy.

In respect to technology advances, due to steady and continuous improvement for cells, optics and tracking CPV-system AC operating efficiency will eventually be 25% on an average. System efficiencies as high as 30% are possible, but it will take more than three years to achieve this goal. These high efficiencies, in combination with advancing along a steep learning curve, will lead to energy costs in the range of ‚¬0.10/kWh at sites with solar radiation of more than 2400 kWh/m²/year.

One has to take into consideration that for the moment the cost per installed kW is not an appropriate measure for CPV technology. This is simply because the corresponding rating standards for CPV are not yet established. Indeed, missing standards can be seen as one hurdle for CPV and a barrier for investors. Consequently, the financial side must learn more about CPV technology and the industry must teach and demonstrate reliability “” a major obstacle today for bankability.

At present CPV struggles not so much with technology, but with funding. However, this barrier will soon be overcome, for example if guarantees can be provided by the CPV companies.

It is then that the growth and the technology development speeds up, leading to still lower CPV costs.

Hansj¶rg Lerchenm¼ller, CEO and Founder, Concentrix Solar

Leading players in the CPV sector continue to surpass record module and system efficiencies, leveraging optical and electrical expertise to optimise output from the world’s highest efficiency III-V cells.CPV systems are typically twice as efficient as conventional PV systems, with current module efficiencies at 27% and expecting to break the remarkable 30% barrier in the near future.

At Soitec Concentrix we are currently working on the next generation of smart cell technology which is targeting cell efficiency of 50% — in turn leading to a system efficiency of more than 35%. Soitec’s patented Smart Cut„¢ technology, used for over a decade in the semiconductor industry, will provide crucial layer transfer expertise for the optimisation of the cell design.

The first results of the smart cell development programme will be available within the mentioned time period. In the long term, it will be integrated exclusively into Concentrix’ systems.

Prices for a full turnkey CPV power plant are today already below $4/watt and will go down to $3/watt in the coming years.Specific prices very much depend on size, the site of the power plant and timing. At the same time, it is well established that CPV technology provides some 40% to 50% more energy output than conventional PV and due to its use of dual-axis tracking, maintains a consistent, high output during periods of peak demand when energy prices are highest.

Given that we have already achieved a 27% module efficiency in production and that we have commercial plants of hundreds of kilowatts, we foresee no major roadblocks on performance reliability and cost for the CPV industry for driving down the levelised cost of electricity (LCOE) produced to reach grid parity levels.

Key issues from an investment point of view are a relatively quick return on investment and bankability. The scalability of CPV helps to address this “” due to the modularity of the technology, the project size can be adjusted to the financial capabilities of the investors/banks and also energy is produced as soon as the first tracker is installed, helping to reduce the time delay normally associated with utility-scale solar power plants.In terms of bankability, Soitec Concentrix have partnered with energy efficiency and sustainability company Johnson Controls, which will build, operate, maintain and provide lifecycle support for solar installations using Concentrix CPV technology.

The combination of the respective strengths of both companies will provide advantages, allowing the partners to accelerate and widen the successful installation of solar renewable energy utility-scale plants in high direct normal irradiation regions across the globe.

Eric J. Pail, Analyst, AltaTerra Research

Short-term advances in CPV systems will be mostly technical and focused on improving the cost/performance ratio. However, longer-term advances in market development may produce even greater economic value for the sector.

In the short term, high concentration PV (HCPV) systems will continue to see technology advancements in the efficiency of III-V multi-junction cells. Multi-junction cells are at the heart of high concentrating PV systems and are a key driver to reducing costs and increasing overall system efficiency. As a rule of thumb, for every percentage increase in multi-junction cell efficiency there is a 0.75%””0.8% increase in system efficiency.

Today, most HCPV systems use 38%””39% efficient multi-junction cells and have a system efficiency of between 24% and 35%. In 2011, multi-junction cell efficiencies are expected to rise to more than 40% and on to some 42% in 2012.

The increase in the number of multi-junction cell manufacturers and number of new cell technologies under development will help the CPV industry make steep efficiency improvements in the coming years.

Like any new technology, the CPV industry still faces the challenge of justifying financing from risk-averse financers in terms of ‘bankability’. In response, SolFocus, for example, has recently announced that Munich RE will offer an insurance policy to backstop SolFocus’s warranty. Meanwhile, Morgan Solar self-financed an initial 200 kW test project to demonstrate its technology. Certification standards “” particularly IEC 62108 “” are also helping to provide investors with assurance. As more and larger CPV projects come online and manufacturers take direct steps to address the issue, bankability should therefore become less of a problem.

In the long term, it is the distinctive character of concentrating PV that will lead to greater commercial uptake. With sites in very sunny regions that make use of tracking, pedestal mounting and other distinctive features of CPV installations, the industry will lower costs through volume and more effectively create economic value by focusing on customers that prize or require particular features.

Gridflex Proposes 300MW Energy Storage Project for Hawaii

Gridflex Energy, LLC — a developer of bulk energy storage projects providing support to renewable energy — has proposed a first-of-its-kind pumped storage hydroelectric project that would use the ocean as the lower of two reservoirs.

The 300 megawatt project, called the Lanai Pumped Storage Project, is intended to provide the electric grid in Hawaii with a solution to the challenge of absorbing a planned 400 megawatts of wind power within a grid that has only about 1,200 megawatts of peak demand.

In most pumped storage projects, two reservoirs are constructed. During times when energy is in lower demand, wind energy or simply lower-value energy can be used to pump water uphill. When power is needed during high demand periods, the water is released through turbines. The Lanai Pumped Storage Project would use the ocean as its lower reservoir, saving millions of dollars on construction. Special design features would be put into place to ensure a water-tight upper reservoir, corrosion resistance for equipment, and protection of marine organisms.While there are more than 35 pumped storage projects currently operating in the U.S., none of them use the ocean as its lower reservoir. According to Gridflex CEO Matthew Shapiro, “Everyone in Hawaii wants to use their abundant natural resources instead of relying on expensive imported oil. But the isolated grid makes absorbing a large amount of renewable energy a challenge. The Hawaiian Islands don’t have great opportunities for economical pumped storage in the most ideal locations. That’s why we introduced the seawater solution. It holds promise as a cost-effective project, on a large scale, in the right place.”

More specifically, the project will consist of a single artificial, lined reservoir, created by the construction of embankments, joined with the Pacific Ocean by approximately 11,650 feet of conduit. Maximum hydraulic head will be 1,790 feet. Equipment will consist of one 150 MW, one 100MW, and one 50 MW reversible pump-turbines, totaling 300 MW of generating capacity, with up to 100 MW of additional pumping capacity, for a total of 400 MW pumping capacity. Annual energy production is projected to be approximately 919,800 MWh. The project will propose to interconnect, via a new single-circuit 230 kV line approximately 6 miles in length, with a Hawaiian Electric Company AC-DC converter station that would be a part of the planned Interisland Cable Project

Government pushes solar power in six western states

The Obama administration on Thursday proposed special energy zones on public lands in six western states deemed good locations to build utility-scale facilities to produce electricity from solar power.

The Interior Department issued a draft environmental impact statement that looked at the effect of solar energy projects able to generate 20 megawatts of power in areas that have the highest solar potential and will do the least harm to the environment.“As stewards of our public lands, we must make sure that we are developing renewable energy in the right way and in the right places,” Salazar told reporters.

The western states targeted with 24 solar energy zones were Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Utah.Bob Abbey, who heads the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management, the agency that will review any specific solar projects, said the amount of electricity that could be generated by the sun on all BLM lands in the six states, including, the designated energy zones could total 24,000 megawatts over 20 years.

The department does not have an estimate for solar generation just on the designated energy zones.

“For years, the oil and gas industries have had an easy path for getting permits to drill on public lands. With today’s announcement, solar energy projects are now closer to a more predictable review and approval process for projects on public lands,” said Rhone Resch, president of Solar Energy Industries Association.

The proposal will be open for public comment for 90 days and the department expects to issue a final report during the fall of 2011, said Salazar.

The solar energy zones will help meet President Barack Obama’s goal to double the amount of U.S. electricity generated by renewable energy sources like solar, wind and geothermal.

The department’s energy zone proposal comes a day after the U.S. Senate approved extending a Treasury Department program through next year that gives companies a rebate equal to 30 percent of the cost of their solar or wind energy projects.

To be successful, Salazar said solar projects in the six western states will need access to transmission lines.

Federal regulators proposed last month reforms to make the U.S. electric grid more accessible to electricity generated by renewable energy sources, which should lower costs for consumers who want to buy clean power.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission proposed a rule requiring public utility transmission providers to allow renewable power producers to schedule their shipments of electricity over shorter time periods to better reflect the moment-to-moment changes in generation output by renewables.

Solar and wind power producers would be able to schedule transmission service in 15-minute intervals, instead of the current one-hour scheduling procedure.

U.S. Manufacturer Ships First Clean Energy Power Transformer

In a clean energy market that is being dominated by Chinese based manufacturers, the recent announcement by Efacec USA is positive notch in the United States quest for “industrial revival.”The company has announced it has successfully delivered its first 115 MVA/115 kV high capacity core-type transformer to a wind farm in New Mexico.Located in Georgia, Efacec USA’s new transformer plant is the definition of home-grown. The company spent US$120 million to build the facility and hire and train the workforce from the ground up to manufacturer transformers that are capable of powering a small town.

The state of the art plant, which produces both core- and shell-type transformers up to 1500 MVA and 525 kV, represents the first plant of its kind in North America.“We’re stepping into a new era, supplying utilities across America with the vital transformer technology that we are known for worldwide,” said Jorge Guerra, Efacec’s Executive Director of U.S. Business and Operations.