Energy and Global Warming News for September 14: Fourth hottest U.S. summer; “Frankensteins Yeast could spur bioenergy; Fuel made from water, sunlight, CO2; China needs to stop playing dirty on clean energy

Fourth Hottest Summer on Record for the United States in 2010

As September begins to bring cooler temperatures, Americans can look back objectively at the past summer (June-August). The above average temperatures in the contiguous states combined to make it the fourth warmest ever. Only seven of the lower 48 states had normal temperatures, and 29 were much above normal. This news is detailed in the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) State of the Climate report issued on September 8, 2010.

The Southeast experienced their warmest summer ever, the Central states had their third warmest, and the Northeast had their fourth warmest. The Pacific Western states experienced near-normal temperatures. The unusual warmth mostly dominated the eastern half of the country.

The following states set records for the warmest summer ever: Rhode Island, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama. Particular cities that set summer temperature records include the following: New York City (Central Park), Philadelphia, Trenton NJ, Wilmington DE, Tallahassee FL, and Asheville NC.

The hot summer also brought about abnormal precipitation trends for parts of the country. Heavy rainfall dominated the Upper Midwest, making up for the precipitation deficits of the first five months of the year. Wisconsin had its wettest summer on record, with 6.91 inches of rainfall above average. Other states in the top-ten wettest summers include Michigan and Iowa (third wettest), Illinois and Nebraska (sixth), South Dakota (ninth), and Minnesota (tenth).

“Frankenstein’s Yeast” Could Spur Biofuel

Researchers at the University of California have cobbled genes from a common fungus together with yeast, to create a powerful new critter that can chew its way through wood and other tough plants. The development is significant because it could lead to a cost effective means of producing biofuel without relying on food crops such as corn and soy.

One driving force behind U. Cal Berkeley’s research is the need to find alternatives to food crops for renewable biofuels. In conventional biofuel production, yeast breaks down plant sugars (in the form of glucose or sucrose) into alcohols. The challenge is to get the yeast to digest woody plants and waste material that can’t be used as human food. The U. Cal team is on to a solution by adding genes from the much-studied fungus Neurospora crassa, a form of bread mold. This fungus can digest cellulose (the hard stuff in plants) but can’t produce alcohol, so when you put it together with yeast you could make biofuel magic out of everything from corn stalks and weeds to waste paper and orange peels.

The other challenge is finding a cost-effective way to process woody plant matter into biofuel. Currently, so called cellulosic biofuels are made by deploying enzymes to convert cellulose into a form of plant sugar, which then must go through additional processing to yield the glucose that yeast can digest. By using the N. crassa/yeast combo, the U. Cal researchers believe that they can condense the process into a “one-pot” operation. As for the biofuel market, aside from ground vehicles the U.S. Navy and U. S. Air Force have already begun experimenting with jet biofuel, so the sky’s the limit.

Joule patents fuel made from water, sunlight and CO2

Most biofuels processes take multiple steps to convert plant matter into sugars. Joule claims to be the first company to patent a single-step, continuous process that doesn’t require a feedstock for fuel production. “Our vision since inception has been to overcome the limitations of biomass-based technologies, from feedstock costs and logistics to inefficient, energy-intensive processing,” Joule Unlimited president and CEO Bill Sims said in a statement.

According to its patent, Joule Unlimited combines two enzymes with cyanobacteria to create an organism that can create hydrocarbons or chemicals. Other companies, such as LS9 and Amyris, also use genetically engineered microbes to make biofuels but they are designed to make sugars which can then be turned into fuels.

The company is now testing its system to make diesel and ethanol in Texas where sunlight and waste CO2 are fed into its bioreactors. The organisms grow, the fuel is harvested, and the organisms are then recirculated back into the growing solution. Its bioreactors also control heat and light to optimize growth.

Joule plans to begin pilot production of diesel at the end of 2010 and open a commercial plant in 2012. Its pilot test for ethanol production show it can be produced at a rate of 10,000 gallons per acre per year.

Hoffa: China Needs to Stop Playing Dirty on Clean Energy

Millions of traditional American jobs have moved to China, and now China is thwarting our efforts to create new, renewable energy jobs to replace them.

China has a million people working in its clean energy industry. It makes half the world’s wind turbines, supplies half the world’s hydropower projects and fabricates three-quarters of the world’s compact fluorescent light bulbs.

Meanwhile, manufacturers of solar paneling and wind turbines are cutting jobs and closing factories in the United States.

China isn’t beating us fair and square. China is breaking the trade rules that the rest of the world follows in order to dominate production of clean energy. It’s killing our ability to create new jobs. And if it keeps up, China will replace our dependence on foreign oil with a dependence on foreign clean-energy technology.

The steelworkers say the Chinese government has spent hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidized loans and cheap land deals to promote their clean-energy industry illegally. China also breaks the rules by severely restricting the export of rare earth materials essential for renewable-energy technology. That forces foreign clean-energy manufacturers to move to China in order to get access to the rare earth.

It gets even worse. China sells its products overseas at artificially low prices. Every day, the Chinese government spends $1 billion a day on currency in order to make Chinese products more affordable to the rest of the world. Undervaluing the yuan makes U.S. exports more expensive — and difficult to sell — in China. That’s why Americans bought $18 billion more from China than we sold to them last month.

SoloPower Receives First UL Certification for Flexible Solar Panels

Solar panels for homes are generally hard, solid structures that require mounting. SoloPower, a company that makes thin-film solar panels, has broken the mold with durable flexible panels. The company has received the first every UL Certification for their flexible, CIGS modules.SoloPower’s UL certification was a first for the PV solar industry. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger praised the California based company for their achievement with their flexible, CIGS solar modules.

SoloPower’s thin-film modules were tested to the standard UL 1703, the safety standard for all PV module manufacturing. Their extremely thin, yet durable, solar strips not only passed the testing but also was pushed to meet more stringent internal standards for safety and effectiveness.

Dr. Rommel Noufi, Principal Scientist of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, was excited to see the company achieve the UL certification. The thin-film solar panels are an important step forward in enabling more homes to go solar. Thin-film panels are more light-weight and come at a lower cost than the typical rigid panels. The panles are being introduced to Europe and North America currently, with plans to expand as the need increases.

Mexico’s Push To Install 3,000 MW of Wind by 2014

Mexico’s nascent wind power industry is working to install up to 3,000 MW of wind power generation by 2014, six times more than the 500 MW currently online, according to industry participants.

While adding 2,500 MW in three years might be tough for such an immature market, Eduardo Centeno of the Mexican Wind Power Association agrees the feat is possible. “The government is launching a lot of economic incentives to make this happen,” he points out, adding that more will likely be introduced in future.

Such incentives include exemptions on equipment imports and schemes to lower a project’s depreciation and amortization costs over its first ten years. As the market comes together, some of Spain’s largest energy companies moving in. Iberia’s renewable energy giants Iberdrola, Acciona and Gamesa are leading the largest wind park initiative — the 2,000 MW Oaxaca juggernaut that is set to come online in approximately three years.

Another large undertaking is under way in Baja California where the Spanish electricity company Union Fenosa has teamed with US-based Sempra Energy to build two parks capable of generating 800 MW. However, their output will be siphoned across the border to California, not to Mexico’s grid. A slew of other smaller projects should add another 400 MW to the country’s power grid, observers say.

Efficiency record of 17.6% on flexible CIGS solar cell on plastic developed at EMPA

Flexible thin film solar cells on polymer film with a new record efficiency of 17.6% have been developed by the scientists at the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Material Science and Technology (EMPA). The conversion efficiency record has been independently certified by the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems (ISE) in Freiburg, Germany.

Lower thermal budget and roll-to-roll manufacturing of high efficiency flexible CIGS solar cells will pave the way for substantial reduction in production cost of next generation of solar modules produced on large industrial scale in future.

Scientists under the leadership of Dr. Ayodhya N. Tiwari at the Laboratory of Thin Film and Photovoltaics, EMPA in Switzerland have been developing thin film solar cells based on Cu(In,Ga)Se2 semiconductor material. The research group at EMPA working in close collaboration with FLISOM Company, has developed a process that resulted in a remarkably high 17.6% efficiency solar cell which is an independently certified highest efficiency record for any type of flexible solar cell on polymer film reported up to now.

Sludge to Electricity Shows Promise

Researchers at the University of Nevada, Reno say that an experiment to transform sewage sludge at a Reno-based treatment facility to electrical power is yielding positive results.

The process involves drying the sludge and gasifying it, thus using the gas for electricity production. The project can process 20 pounds of sludge per hour. The plant’s entire electrical power could potentially be supplied on-site by the process, say researchers working on the project.

The team of researchers custom built the processing machine in a lab at the University and brought it to the plant for testing. It uses a process with relatively low temperatures in a fluidized bed of sand and salts to economically produce the biomass fuel from the gooey sludge.

The solid fuel it produces will be analyzed for its suitability to be used for fuel through gasification, and the refrigerator-size demonstration unit will help researchers determine the optimum conditions for a commercial-sized operation.

Estimates, which will be further refined through the research, show that a full-scale system could potentially generate 25,000 kilowatt-hours per day to help power the local reclamation facility.

First Cross-Canada Electric Vehicle Trip Completed

A 1972 Volkswagen Beetle, converted to electric drive by the University of British Columbia Electric Car Club, has completed the first all-electric drive across mainland Canada. The 6,500 kilometer (4,039 mile) trip took two weeks, and was done without any accompanying support vehicles.

With an electricity cost of about $3 per 300 km, the entire trip only used about $65 worth of electricity. The vehicle’s batteries are able to be recharged in about 4 hours.

The vehicle uses lithium iron phosphate batteries for power storage and also has regenerative braking capability. Traveling at 50 kmh (31 mph) the vehicle has a range of 550 kilometers (341 miles), and it will travel 300 kilometers (186 miles) at 100 kmh (62 mph).