Energy and Global Warming News for July 19: The incredible shrinking solar cell; Wind farms generating energy and jobs in Iowa; Simple efficiency measures could slash UK emissions up to a third

The incredible shrinking solar cell

The next generation of solar cells will be small. About the size of lint. But the anticipated impact: That’s huge.

Some of these emerging electricity-generating cells could be embedded in windows without obscuring the view. Engineers envision incorporating slightly larger ones into resins that would be molded onto the tops of cars or maybe the roofs of buildings. One team of materials scientists is developing microcells that could be rubber-stamped by the millions onto a yard of fabric. When such cells shrink in size “” but not efficiency “” it becomes hard to imagine what they couldn’t electrify.

“The idea is to develop ubiquitous solar power,” says Greg Nielson of Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque. Foldable and moldable modules crammed full of photovoltaic cells could directly power devices or recharge batteries. “You can imagine putting them onto every surface,” he says. “Your cell phone, laptop, backpack, tent “” whatever.”


… Most photovoltaic devices today are crafted from rigid wafers of costly silicon. At 20 micrometers thick, Sandia’s little cells are less than 10 percent as chunky as the ones used in conventional photo­voltaic devices. “And because ours are not just thin, but small laterally, we can do interesting tricks with them optically,” Nielson says. For instance, his group has begun studding minute refractive lenses into glass or plastic plates. Each lens concentrates sunlight onto a solar cell, nearly as small as a pinpoint, that sits directly below.

Silicon is needed only at the focal point of each lens, further diminishing the required quantity to about 1 percent of what’s needed per unit of light-collecting area with commercial photovoltaics. “So silicon is no longer the dominant cost, but a negligible one,” Nielson says….

“Right now the solar industry is kind of in a race to bring costs down to $1 per watt,” Nielson says. “From our cost models, it looks like we can get well below that with high-volume production.” But that’s a ways off, he concedes, since his team has only just begun networking individual glitter cells to make coordinated modules.

Government incentives give solar energy a boost

Back in March, Shelley Cohen and Mike Gala sent out a request to contractors to submit proposals on their project: to have solar panels installed on the roof of their colonial home in the District. Four companies responded, but one stood out: Astrum Solar.

“We were looking for the most comprehensive proposal and that’s what we found with Astrum,” said Cohen, a renewable energy project developer at Ameresco. “Astrum offered a full turnkey [approach]. They do the interconnection, the install and take care of the energy credits.”

Last week, Astrum Solar, which is based in Annapolis Junction, completed the installation of an 11.96 kilowatt system on the couple’s 1,100-square-foot house — the largest residential system in D.C. The company says the 52 photovoltaic panels should generate 13,754 kilowatt hours of electricity a year, meeting 75 to 85 percent of the home’s electricity needs.

The Cohen and Gala project is one of 500 installations Astrum has slated for completion this year, according to the company’s president, Vadim Polikov. “The solar market is incredibly vibrant and exciting,” he said. “The market, especially in the U.S., has probably tripled in size just about every year.”

Photos Reveal Receding Himalaya Glaciers

“There’s a lot of people who either don’t understand climate change that well and the effects that it’s having, or they want to deny the effect it’s having. These pictures are worth a thousand words. We haven’t done anything to them except print them.”

David Breashears, a senior fellow with the Center on U.S.-China Relations, referred to the exhibition, “Rivers of Ice: Vanishing Glaciers of the Greater Himalaya,” which opened this week at the Asia Society in Manhattan. Mr. Breashears is best known for directing the Imax film, “Everest.” In the exhibition, pictures taken as early as 1899 are placed alongside recreations by Mr. Breashears, who photographed the same places from precisely the same vantage, beginning in 2007.

One of the earlier photographers whose trail Mr. Breashears followed was George Leigh Mallory, the man behind the famous response to the question, Why keep climbing? “Because it’s there.”

Is the Tide Turning on Deforestation?

For decades, logging has eaten away at the Brazilian Amazon, often called the “earth’s lungs” for its ability to generate vast amounts of oxygen through photosynthesis. Experts estimate that roughly 20 percent of the rain forest has been destroyed, with much of it turned into ranchland or farms. Other primeval forests around the world, from Indonesia to Cameroon, are similarly threatened.

Now signs are growing that international efforts to clamp down on illegal logging and strengthen timber harvesting regulations are succeeding in slowing the destruction of these forests.

In Brazil in particular, an overhaul of logging laws and a new zeal in enforcement have led to a significant drop not only in illegal logging but also in overall deforestation rates in the Amazon, according to satellite data from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research.

Bob Walker, a professor of geography at Michigan State University and an expert on deforestation in the Amazon, witnessed the crackdown on illegal logging during a recent trip into an area of once-rampant deforestation — Brazil’s so-called soy highway, where large swaths of forest have been transformed into soybean fields in recent decades.

Alaskan glacier detaches itself from seafloor, goes rogue

An Alaskan glacier has lost its footing with the seafloor and is floating in the ocean, new first-of-their-kind observations show.

The observations have implications for predicting the sea level rise that could accompany global warming and the melting of glaciers around the world.

Glaciers are huge rivers of ice formed when snow and ice accumulate over hundreds and thousands of years. They are found at the Earth’s poles and in some mountain ranges. These icy rivers move slowly over time, some eventually dumping ice chunks into the sea, a process known as calving “” a leading source of additional water for the world’s oceans.

“It’s like a big conveyor belt pushing the ice out to the sea,” said glaciologist and team member Shad O’Neel of the U.S. Geological Survey in Anchorage, Alaska.

Some glaciers are what are called “grounded,” meaning they rest on the ocean floor, while others float on top of the ocean waters as they run into the sea.

Wind Farms Generating Energy and Jobs in Iowa

In Cedar Rapids, hundreds of workers have found employment with Clipper Turbine Works, one of many forward-looking companies found these days in Iowa’s “Wind Belt.” Clipper has emerged from what was the faint memory of the heavy manufacturing business, which up until recently had been shifting overseas. Those who once worked with manufacturers of printing presses and coal trucks are being reborn in this new economy and its need for clean energy.

In recent years, public perception of wind-generated power has shifted from a research and development project to a realistic source of electricity. Iowa has taken advantage of this new growth and is now seen as one of the national leaders in wind energy.

But how has this industry become such a mainstay in Iowa, and how have corporations taken advantage of new opportunities?

Companies have flocked to Iowa to establish plants that would, in effect, supply the Wind Belt with turbines and jobs. One of these companies is TPI Composites, which built a plant in Newton in 2009 and has already tripled their staff to over 500. According to spokeswoman Marcia Scott, TPI’s Newton plant is contracted to produce turbine blades for GE Energy. GE then distributes the finished turbines throughout the country.

Virginia makes pitch for offshore winds project

Virginia is making the case to the federal government that it’s a great place to put offshore wind turbines to the test with a $60 million to $80 million demonstration center.

The state made the pitch this week to the U.S. Department of Energy, which is considering proposals to develop a center where wind turbines would undergo engineering and operational tests. The proposed Virginia test location is in the Hampton Roads area.

While offshore winds have been used widely and for many years in Northern Europe, the U.S. this year approved its first offshore wind farm, in Massachusetts. Besides lagging in technology and manufacturing facilities, the U.S. wind industry will face different climate conditions.

The demonstration project would place fixed offshore wind turbines in three locations in shallow to intermediate waters. They would be located at the Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-Tunnel, near the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel and near the Chesapeake Light in waters off the bay’s entrance.

Scientists Estimate Impact of Temperature Change on Environment

If global temperatures rise, fueled by carbon-dioxide emissions, there will be long-term consequences in rainfall, crop production and wildfires, according to a new report issued Friday by the National Research Council, a nonprofit group that provides science-policy advice to the government.

Friday’s report, put out by a panel of scientists from government agencies and academic institutions, attempts to quantify the potential impact of temperature change on the environment. Carbon dioxide is the dominant gas linked to climate change and is known to linger in the environment. Not all scientists agree that man-made emissions are fueling a warming of the climate, but many are concerned about what carbon-dioxide output now could mean into the future.

The report estimates that for every one degree increase in global temperature, rainfall would rise or fall 5% to 10%, in different regions around the world, corn crops would be reduced by that same amount and the amount of area burned by wildfires will increase two to fourfold.

In order to stabilize the amount of carbon in the environment, emissions need to be reduced more than 80% from peak levels, the group calculates. But even if the level was stabilized today, global temperature likely would increase by roughly two degrees from the carbon dioxide already in existence, according to Susan Solomon, chairwoman of the committee that wrote the report and a senior scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Iraq War Veterans Join Environmentalists in the Oiled Gulf of Mexico

Robin Eckstein has a closer relationship than most of us to the long supply chains that brings oil from the well to the wheel. In 2007 she was an Army truck driver in Iraq, shipping fuel from Baghdad International Airport to the forward bases of American operations. The U.S. military is an oil-thirsty machine, and it was the job of troops in logistics, like Eckstein, to keep the occupation fueled. That meant driving miles every day in a fuel convoy through some of the most dangerous streets in the world.

“Every day when we left the airport, I was thinking, time to roll the dice,” she said. “Would it be insurgents, an IED, something else? We were just a big, slow, vulnerable target.”

To Eckstein””who made it home OK from her tour in Iraq””the epiphany was inevitable. If gas was still cheap in America it was in part because the U.S. military was paying to keep some level of stability in the Middle East. Oil had its hidden costs for the U.S., costs that weren’t factored into the price of gas””one of which was the blood of young American soldiers. “It all really resonated with me,” the 33-year-old said. “Why weren’t we doing things in a more efficient way?”

Energy Secretary Emerges to Take a Commanding Role in Effort to Corral Well

Energy Secretary Steven Chu may hold a Nobel Prize in physics, but he has no training in geology, seismology or oil well technology. Nevertheless, he has stepped in repeatedly to take command of the effort to contain BP’s runaway well, often ordering company officials to take steps they might not have taken on their own.

In early May, he suggested using gamma ray imaging to determine the condition of the well’s blowout preventer, a move no one at the company had considered.

A few weeks later, he overruled some BP officials and ordered the company to stop the “top kill” effort, citing “very, very grave concerns” that it could backfire.

He insisted in late June that a tighter cap be installed on the leaking riser. And on Tuesday, over the strenuous objections of top BP officials, he ordered a 24-hour delay in plans to conduct a pressure test on the well, saying that more safety precautions and analysis were necessary.

N.J. firms pouring billions into wind, solar ventures

Investors chasing high returns like to get in early on the next big thing. For some pioneering firms in New Jersey, that means multimillion dollar bets on clean energy.

From Short Hills to Princeton, public and private companies are committing their own capital, or that of large investors, to building wind and solar farms and developing other types of renewable power, as well as smart-grid and energy-storage technologies.

Despite the worldwide recession, total venture capital and private equity investment in clean energy went up 24 percent in the first quarter of 2010, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

In the past nine years, venture capital investment has grown from $350 million to more than $2 billion. The numbers are even larger when they include public market investment, corporate mergers and acquisitions and other types of investors.

“We continue to anticipate $180 to $200 billion in new investment in clean energy this year,” said Michael Liebreich, chief executive of Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

Global temperatures rise to record levels

The world is enduring the hottest year on record, according to a US national weather analysis, causing droughts worldwide and a concern for US farmers counting on another bumper year.

For the first six months of the year, 2010 has been warmer than the first half of 1998, the previous record holder, by 0.03 degree Fahrenheit, said Jay Lawrimore, chief of climate analysis at the federal National Climatic Data Center.Period of a El Nino weather pattern is being blamed for the hot temperatures globally.”We had an El Nino episode in the early part of the year that’s now faded but that has contributed to the warmth not only in equatorial Pacific but also contributed to anomalously warm global temperatures as well,” Lawrimore said.

Abnormally warm temperatures have been registered in large parts of Canada, Africa, tropical oceans and parts of the Middle East.Don’t let politics drive a nuclear-waste decisionTHINGS MOVE slowly in the realm of nuclear waste disposal. In 1982, the government claimed ownership of the nation’s wastes and vowed to dispose of them in a central location. In 1987, it designated Yucca Mountain as that location. In 2002, the Energy Department deemed Yucca Mountain suitable, and Congress voted its approval.

But in January, President Obama declared that this was the one place America could not look to put its wastes.

The plan for a nuclear waste repository on Yucca Mountain is not dead yet, however. A three-judge Nuclear Regulatory Commission panel ruled last month that the Obama administration could not withdraw the application to license the Nevada site to store the nation’s wastes. “Given the stated purposes of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act and the detailed structure of that legislation,” the ruling read, “it would be illogical to allow DOE to withdraw the application without any examination of the merits . . . . .” The legislation does not give the energy secretary “the discretion to substitute his policy for the one established by Congress,” it read.

Nations to seek clean energy cooperation

Energy ministers or senior officials from 21 nations are gathering in Washington, DC Monday for a two-day meeting aimed at finding ways to work together on clean energy amid an impasse in drafting a new climate change treaty.

The US Energy Department said the meeting will feature announcements of joint initiatives among the major economies, who together account for 80 percent of the world’s gross domestic product.

US President Barack Obama’s administration has made creation of green jobs a top priority.

Major economies have been at loggerheads over the shape of the next climate treaty, with developed nations seeking binding commitments from emerging economies such as China to cut carbon emissions blamed for global warming.

Clean energy has been considered one area of common interest. Obama signed a five-year, 150 million-dollar plan during a trip to China last year for the world’s two biggest polluters to collaborate on developing electric cars and clean coal.

“The development of clean energy and energy-efficient technologies could spur the greatest economic opportunity of the 21st century,” US Commerce Secretary Gary Locke said at the White House on Friday.

Britain trails China in dash to low-carbon economy, warns Tim Yeo

Britain and other western countries are in danger of being left behind by China which is investing “furiously” in low carbon technology, aiming to profit from tough climate change targets in the next 20 years, a leading Tory warns today.

Tim Yeo, the chairman of the Commons energy and climate change select committee, says China may deliberately be acting the “bad guy” to divert attention from preparations for a low carbon economy.

China faced international criticism last year for scuppering the Copenhagen climate change talks after Wen Jiabao, the prime minister, declined to attend the negotiations. Mark Lynas, a witness to the negotiations, accused the Chinese of wrecking the talks by insisting on an “awful” deal so western leaders would be blamed.

In a new book on climate change — Green Gold: The Case for Raising our Game on Climate Change — Yeo says the west needs to be careful about depicting China as the world’s bªte noir. China insisted at Copenhagen that an 80% cut in greenhouse gases emissions by 2050 should be taken out of the agreement.

Waste Britain: UK’s emissions could be cut at flick of a switch

Simple measures such as turning electrical appliances off at the mains and installing energy-efficient lightbulbs could slash the UK’s carbon dioxide emissions by about 40 megatonnes a year, or up to one third, according to new research which says that cutting electricity consumption is up to 60 per cent more effective than previously thought. Such basic lifestyle changes would be the equivalent of removing about 10 large gas-fired power stations from operation.

The calculations, which come from the highly regarded Grantham Institute for Climate Change at Imperial College London, suggest that the Government has vastly underestimated the potential savings from encouraging people to use less electricity.

Adam Hawkes, a visiting fellow at the Grantham Institute, told The Independent on Sunday yesterday that the Government misjudged potential greenhouse gas savings because it failed to allow for the fact that different types of power stations emitted different amounts of CO2. “The Government uses average emissions rates, but when you do have a small change in demand, it’s the power stations that have a higher carbon intensity such as coal and gas that respond. So it’s the emissions rates of those power stations that you should use to calculate how much you’d save [if you used less electricity], rather than an average that includes nuclear and wind power stations.”

Brazil vows to continue clean energy push at summit

Brazil hopes to demonstrate its commitment to renewable energy, which currently provides half the country’s power, at a clean energy summit in Washington this week, Energy Minister Marcio Zimmermann said Saturday.

“Brazil is committed to continuing its renewable energy grid and our plans for 2019 and 2030 maintain that characteristic,” Zimmermann told AFP in an interview.

Energy ministers or senior officials from 21 major economies — who together account for 80 percent of the world’s gross domestic product — will gather Monday and Tuesday in Washington at the initiative President Barack Obama’s administration, which has made the creation of green jobs a top priority.

Brazil can “share its experience because there are many developing countries in South America and Africa that have the same resources and conditions as us, and can exploit them in the same manner,” Zimmermann said.

More than 80 percent of Brazil’s electric power comes from hydroelectric technology, and the country is also a leader in bioethanol production using cane sugar.

Environmental groups however continue to protest Brazil’s approach to water use, arguing that the country should build smaller hydroelectric plants, rather than giant facilities that require unnatural flooding.

Most vulnerable nations pledge climate action

Six countries seen as most threatened by rising sea levels have vowed to cut their carbon emissions as a gesture of their commitment to fight global warming, the Maldivian government said Monday.

The countries, mostly low-lying nations, met over the weekend in the Maldives ahead of a UN climate change meeting in Mexico and pledged to drastically cut their emissions while pressing others to follow suit.

“Antigua and Barbuda, Costa Rica, Ethiopia, the Maldives, the Marshall Islands and Samoa all pledged to slash greenhouse gas emissions and pursue green growth and development,” the government said in a statement.

The Maldives, which wants to be carbon-neutral by 2020, is one of the most vulnerable countries to a rise in sea levels because its low-lying islands and atolls would be submerged.

Ethiopia hopes to be carbon neutral by 2025, while the Marshall Islands has pledged to cut emissions by 40 percent by 2020, and Antigua and Barbuda by 25 percent. Costa Rica plans to go carbon neutral by 2021.

Being carbon neutral means offsetting emissions against other measures that help to reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

U.S. House Said to Consider Reducing Ethanol Subsidy

The U.S. House Ways and Means Committee has proposed reducing the tax credit that helps support the ethanol industry by 20 percent to cut spending, according to two people familiar with the matter.

Refiners and blenders would receive 36 cents for every gallon of ethanol blended into gasoline, down from the 45 cents they currently pocket, said the people, who declined to be identified because the proposal hasn’t been made public. The tax credit expires this year and the committee is proposing to extend it a year.

Reducing the credit was a way to compromise with members of the committee who didn’t want to extend the incentives, the people said, and it could be attached to a legislative package for so-called green jobs within the next three weeks. The bill would also extend the 54-cent tariff slapped on Brazilian imports for one year.

Obama to launch ocean initiative

President Obama on Monday is set to create a national stewardship policy for America’s oceans and Great Lakes, including a type of zoning that could dramatically rebalance the way government regulates offshore drilling, fishing and other marine activities.

The policy would not create new regulations or immediately alter drilling plans or fisheries management. But White House documents and senior administration officials suggest it would strengthen conservation and ecosystem protection.

The initiative culminates more than a year of work by a federal Ocean Policy Task Force, which Obama established last year. After the task force releases its final recommendations, the president is expected to sign an executive order directing federal agencies to adopt and implement them.