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Energy and Global Warming News for September 9th: China Skirts trade rules on clean energy; California close to approving 4,300 MW solar by year’s end

On Clean Energy, China Skirts Rules

Changsha and two adjacent cities are emerging as a center of clean energy manufacturing. They are churning out solar panels for the American and European markets, developing new equipment to manufacture the panels and branching into turbines that generate electricity from wind. By contrast, clean energy companies in the United States and Europe are struggling. Some have started cutting jobs and moving operations to China in ventures with local partners.

The booming Chinese clean energy sector, now more than a million jobs strong, is quickly coming to dominate the production of technologies essential to slowing global warming and other forms of air pollution. Such technologies are needed to assure adequate energy as the world’s population grows by nearly a third, to nine billion people by the middle of the century, while oil and coal reserves dwindle.

But much of China’s clean energy success lies in aggressive government policies that help this crucial export industry in ways most other governments do not. These measures risk breaking international rules to which China and almost all other nations subscribe, according to some trade experts interviewed by The New York Times.

A visit to one of Changsha’s newest success stories offers an example of the government’s methods. Hunan Sunzone Optoelectronics, a two-year-old company, makes solar panels and ships close to 95 percent of them to Europe. Now it is opening sales offices in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles in preparation for a push into the American market next February.

To help Sunzone, the municipal government transferred to the company 22 acres of valuable urban land close to downtown at a bargain-basement price. That reduced the company’s costs and greatly increased its worth and attractiveness to investors.

Meanwhile, a state bank is preparing to lend to the company at a low interest rate, and the provincial government is sweetening the deal by reimbursing the company for most of the interest payments, to help Sunzone double its production capacity.

Heavily subsidized land and loans for an exporter like Sunzone are the rule, not the exception, for clean energy businesses in Changsha and across China, Chinese executives said in interviews over the last three months.

But this kind of help violates World Trade Organization rules banning virtually all subsidies to exporters, and could be successfully challenged at the agency’s tribunals in Geneva, said Charlene Barshefsky, who was the United States trade representative during the second Clinton administration and negotiated the terms of China’s entry to the organization in 2001.

If the country with the subsidies fails to remove them, other countries can retaliate by imposing steep tariffs on imports from that country.

China Clean-Energy Aid to Draw U.S. Trade Complaint

The United Steelworkers union said it will file a trade complaint with the U.S. government against renewable-energy products from China, urging investigation of subsidies and preferences given by that nation.

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The case “reveals five major areas of protectionist and predatory practices utilized by the Chinese to develop their green sector at the expense of production and job creation here in the U.S.,” the American union said in a statement, indicating specifics will be provided later today.

The complaint that China is doing too much to help its companies expand their clean-energy sales contrasts with international efforts to encourage renewable energy and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions in order to curb global warming. Nations including the U.S. and China plan to meet in Cancun. Mexico at the end of November to renew climate-change talks. Legislation to limit carbon emissions and set requirements for the use of renewable energy have stalled in the U.S. Senate.

The union’s filing will be made to the U.S. Trade Representative’s office. The Obama administration will have 45 days to decide if it will investigate the petition under U.S. law.

Asia makes more than half the world’s wind and solar energy equipment and is widening its lead. China invested $34.5 billion in low-carbon energy technologies last year, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. The U.S. spent $18.6 billion.

China may spend about 5 trillion yuan ($738 billion) in the next decade developing cleaner sources of energy to reduce emissions from burning oil and coal, Jiang Bing, head of the National Energy Administration’s planning and development department, said in July.

Attractive Markets

Ernst & Young said this week that China overtook the U.S. for the first time to lead a quarterly index compiled by the accounting firm of the most attractive countries for renewable energy projects.

A U.S. Energy Department report released Aug. 4 found that a growing share of wind-turbine equipment is being supplied domestically, as companies from the U.S. and abroad seek to minimize transportation costs and currency risks. U.S. content increased to about 60 percent in 2009 from about 50 percent the previous year, the department found.

A wind turbine contains about 8,000 parts, and many of those may not be made in the U.S.

China-US collaboration on clean energy research

Chinese and US scientists will be collaborating on research into clean energy with millions of dollars in backing by the two nations, according to a US national laboratory.

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Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California said Wednesday it was part of a US team that will receive 25 million dollars during the next five years from a joint US-China Clean Energy Research Center.

The team, led by West Virginia University, will develop and test new technology for capturing and storing carbon gas considered a main culprit in climate change.

“We believe strongly that cooperation between the United States and China on clean coal and carbon capture and sequestration is critical to national security and global energy and environmental interests,” said Julio Friedmann, director of the carbon management program at the lab.

A second US team, headed by the University of Michigan, will get 25 million dollars in funding to improve technology for clean vehicles, according to the lab. Chinese research partners were to be announced in coming months.

California Energy Commission approves Abengoa Mojave Solar Project

State regulators on Wednesday unanimously cleared the Abengoa Mojave Solar Project for construction, pushing California closer to approving 4,300 megawatts of solar power by the end of the year.

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The 250-megawatt Abengoa project is one of nine solar proposals angling for the go-ahead from the California Energy Commission by the end of 2010, when federal stimulus funds expire.

The commission unanimously approved the 250-megawatt Beacon Solar Energy Project at the end of August and is likely to consider the 1,000-megawatt Blythe Solar Power Project next week.

The Abengoa project will be set up in San Bernardino County, on more than 1,700 acres of private land about 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles.

Construction, set to start in the fourth quarter of 2010, will be managed by a subsidiary of Abengoa Solar Inc., itself a subsidiary of Spanish giant Abengoa. In early July, President Obama announced a $1.45-billion federal loan guarantee for Abengoa to construct its 250-megawatt Solana project southwest of Phoenix.

Clean Energy Entrepreneurs Face More Obstacles in U.S.

With erect posture and clear gray eyes, Chuck Provini still looks like the Marine who graduated from the Naval Academy in 1969 and was repeatedly decorated for bravery in Vietnam.

He fumes at strangers who call him a traitor for agreeing to manufacture in Zhuzhou, China, a new solar panel production device that his company developed in the United States.

“I love my country,” said Mr. Provini, chief executive of 10-employee Natcore Technology in Red Bank, N.J. “It makes me crazy that I’ve got countries that want to do things with us, but not here.”

Mr. Provini acknowledges that further refinements are needed to the technology, which involves replacing a costly furnace in the manufacture of solar panels with a room-temperature process. But his experience in trying to commercialize it highlights the challenges that clean energy entrepreneurs face in the United States “” and the opportunities that await in China.

American venture capitalists are the main source of money for many clean energy start-ups because most commercial banks are leery of lending to businesses with no proven revenue. But venture capitalists are reluctant to make long-term financial commitments, Mr. Provini said, and want clear timetables for when they can get their money back with a profit.

A Regenerative Feat for Solar Cells

Leaves aren’t nearly as efficient as photovoltaic panels in harnessing the power of the sun. The typical plant captures just 3 to 6 percent of the sunlight available to it, compared with about 15 percent for the average solar panel. But when it comes to cost-efficiency, Mother Nature has mankind beat by a mile.

Patrick Gillooly/M.I.T.A solution with nanomaterials generated solar power while imitating the self-repairing qualities of plant cells.

Unlike silicon wafers, leaves require no manufacturing, just water, air, sunlight and a few common minerals to grow. And chloroplasts, the tiny engines within plant cells that drive the photosynthetic process, need no maintenance: in full sunlight, they break down and reassemble the proteins they use to convert carbon dioxide into sugar every 45 minutes or so.

This week, in one of several recent breakthroughs merging natural processes and solar technology, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology described the creation of solar cells just a few billionths of a meter wide that mimic this ability of plants’ chemical engines to self-repair and regenerate.

“We’re basically imitating tricks that nature has discovered over millions of years,” Michael Strano, a professor of chemical engineering who led the team behind the discovery, said in an M.I.T. news release.

Environmentalist Bill McKibben’s quest to bring solar panel to White House

Esteemed environmentalist launches PR stunt to get President Obama’s attention? Yep, we’re officially back from summer break. Goodbye flip-flops, hello political theater.

Bill McKibben, author of best-selling “The End of Nature” and an expert on global warming, is heading to Washington with one of the solar panels originally installed at the White House in 1979. His goal: to present it to Obama on Friday and urge him to reinstall it on the roof, therefore inspiring millions of like-minded citizens to go greener.

“When Michelle Obama put the garden in the White House, it was one of the things that caused seed sales to jump 30 percent,” McKibben told us. “We’d rather have a climate bill than solar panels on the roof, but we’re not going to get it this year. This is a way to help build visibility for the steps we need to take. In a way, it’s a reboot of 1979.”

To tout clean energy bona fides, President Jimmy Carter had 32 panels installed — which the Reagan administration took down and stowed away in a government warehouse. A professor at Maine’s Unity College later sought out the panels, which were installed on the school’s cafeteria roof. Now one of the 6-by-3-foot plates (they’re old but still work) is on its way to D.C.

McKibben, who’s organizing a huge environmental rally next month on 10/10/10, left Maine on Tuesday with stops in Boston, New York and Washington. He scored an appearance on David Letterman’s show last week — much wonkier than your typical late-night fare. Now he’s angling for a splashy photo op at the White House, although nothing is set yet. “We keep hearing, ‘We’ll see’ and ‘It’s complicated,’” he said. “Compared with the other things Obama has to do, it seems relatively easy. They can’t filibuster the roof.”

World’s Largest Wave Power Hub Goes Live

Ten miles off the Cornish town of Hayle, 180 feet below the sea, lies a 12 tonne four way plug which cost $64 million to build and install. Called the Wave Hub, it can have four 5MW marine power devices connected to it at any one time and is connected to the main national grid by a 15 mile length of cable.

Now, 5MW is peanuts compared to some of the projections for marine power installations; for example just up the coast it’s been estimated that the world’s largest tidal power generator could generate 187,000 MWh/year.

However permanent installation is not the aim of the Wave Hub. Rather, it’s all about providing a live scenario test bed for marine energy developers to come and test and tweak their inventions. If it just so happens it provides energy for 20,000 homes, then so much the better!

The first testers scheduled at the Wave Hub are New Jersey based Ocean Power Technologies, whose buoy based design is already live off the north coast of Spain. Their stint at the Wave Hub is to test out a new design which would see the buoys’ output increase by over three times.

Philadelphia To Recover Subway Trains’ Brake Forces In Huge Battery For Reuse/Resale

Having a battery could someday be compared to having gold mine. Take Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, for example. They’ going to use a huge battery and charge it from the subway’s braking trains. The energy recovered thus will either be sold back to the grid or reused for acceleration.

Viridity Energy, a smart-grid company, is behind the project, having received $900,000 from the Pennsylvania Energy Development Authority for the pilot program costing $1.5 million.

One of the “hottest” lines in Philadelphia, Market-Frankford,will benefit the system, for the moment. 1.5 MW of energy will be recovered in much the same fashion that hybrid/electric cars and locomotives recover their braking force — by reversing the motors to work as generators.

Joseph M. Casey, general manager of the transportation authority, says the system will provide measurable gains in energy efficiency and voltage stability in a critical mass transit corridor. Audrey Zibelman, president and CEO of Viridity Energy, says the goal is to improve the transit agency’s operational efficiency, reduce its carbon output and cut its costs.

A $500,000 saving in energy costs is estimated after the system will go online in the spring of 2011. Plans of further expanding it already exist, but their accomplishment only depends on the results of the pilot project. Anyway, theory says that if the regenerative braking system would be applied at all of the 33 substations, a cut of 40 percent would be possible.