July 30, 2012 |
by Silvio Marcacci
The forecast for renewable energy in California, already America’s strongest solar market, just keeps getting brighter.
Renewable energy represented 20.6 percent of the electricity mix from the state’s three biggest utilities at the end of 2011, up from 17 percent in 2010. While slightly off the 20 percent renewables by 2010 goal set in 2002, the jump suggests the state may reach its ambitious 33 percent by 2020 renewable portfolio standard.
But a wider look at the state reveals it’s not just the state’s big three utilities that are boosting renewables. A new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists found that the thirteen biggest utilities in California, representing 87 percent of all retail electricity sold in the state, generated 30 percent of their electricity from renewables and large-scale hydropower in 2010.
While renewables are growing fast across California, solar power is set to grow exponentially in the Golden State. PG&E, the state’s largest utility expects solar to jump from one percent of its total renewable portfolio to a staggering 40 percent by 2020.
“We’re about to see solar on a project scale larger than almost anywhere in the world,” said Aaron Johnson of PG&E. “There’s no way to get from here to there (33 percent RPS) without solar.” A similar jump is expected in Southern California Edison’s territory, which forecasts solar to grow from six percent of its total renewable mix to 40 percent by 2020.
But even as more and more solar comes online, the state’s grid operator is proving it can handle the intermittent electricity supply. CalISO set a new solar generation peak of 978 megawatts (MW) earlier this week, a significant mark considering daily peak demand during the summer season is around 33,000 MW.
These individual marks are impressive, for sure, but California’s ultimate solar potential could be much, much brighter. 12 utility-scale solar photovoltaic (PV) plants with a 2,200MW capacity are currently under construction in the state, and a staggering 62 PV plants with 11,600 MW of capacity are under development.
With so many renewable energy projects in flux due to inconsistent and uncertain incentive policies, California stands as a model for states and the federal government to demonstrate the massive impact an ambitious and steady set of renewable energy policies can have on the economy and environment.
California flag image via Shutterstock
Reprinted with permission from Cleantechnica
by Peter Asmus
Recently I had the chance to tour the Island of Alcatraz, once the site of one of America’s most famous prisons. The prison was closed in 1963 due to the high cost of maintenance in such a remote location, but it remains a top tourist destination.
My justification for this junket was an invitation from Princeton Power Systems, a smart inverter company based in Princeton, New Jersey, whose technology forms the backbone of a microgrid installed on Alcatraz with the help of federal government stimulus and which began operation earlier this year.
An inverter converts direct current (DC) from generation sources to alternating current (AC), at the voltage and frequency required by utility distribution companies (i.e., 60 hertz). Recent advances in inverters for solar photovoltaics (PV) and small wind turbines are setting the stage for a viable microgrid market to evolve. New inverters allow for safe islanding – i.e., the creation of small distribution systems cut off from the larger power grid. When connected to the larger grid, inverters enable distributed renewable resources, such as solar PV, to continue to operate when the larger grid goes down, thus avoiding the feeder fault concerns associated with synchronous generators, which may take 2, 5, or even 10 seconds to respond to a grid outage. (Pike Research’s new report, Inverters for Renewable Energy Applications, forecasts that the total inverter market will surpass $4 billion in global revenues by 2018.)
In the case of Alcatraz, access to Pacific Gas & Electric’s electric grid was severed several years ago when a ship’s anchor accidentally cut the transmission line from mainland San Francisco. As a result, diesel generators were installed to provide on-site power. However, as the price of diesel began to climb, and the cost of solar PV fell, developing a state-of-the-art microgrid appeared attractive.
On the day I visited, unfortunately, none of the nearly 1,000 highly efficient SunPower solar panels were working because a switch had failed. So the entire island was still running on diesel generation, with back-up being provided by banks of lead acid batteries. Of course, that’s the beauty of a microgrid: a diversity of resources can run together or serve as back-up to each other.
I learned a lot about the nitty-gritty issues of trying to build a microgrid on a windswept island. For one, construction of the microgrid was delayed several times due to regulations protecting bird breeding activities, which limited the use of light and sound during a three-week period. Along with these environmental factors come the quirks associated with preserving historical artifacts, which include rusting (and useless) water and fuel pipes as well as a hole in the roof.
The most persistent issue facing the microgrid, though, revolves around the birds. Though naturalists initially worried that the solar PV panels that cover the roof would scare away birds, gulls have actually found them quite appealing. In fact, they sometimes nest under the panels. Unfortunately, they tend to leave behind their waste, which degrades performance and requires an ongoing, and messy, maintenance task. Kept clean, the solar PV panels can meet the entire island’s power supply, even during San Francisco’s famous fog, which reduces potential output by more than half.
Beyond the Alcatraz project, Princeton Power Systems has three other microgrids up and running in San Diego, Texas and Missouri. The company offers 10 kilowatt and 100 kilowatt versions of its “DR Inverter,” which accepts four connections to and from power loads (two AC and two DC). The inverter is designed to sell stored solar energy into the burgeoning U.S. market for demand response revenue streams being authorized by grid operators in response to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s Order 745. Funded in part by the Department of Energy, PPS’s technology aims to make solar PV more competitive by capturing new revenue streams. The firm was in San Francisco at the Intersolar North America conference to showcase this new commercial product.Peter Asmus is an analyst at Pike Research specializing in renewable energy.
by Jeff McIntire-Strasburg
Imagine you couldn’t simply flip a switch to produce light after dark. What would that keep you from doing? Reading? Writing? Depending on your lifestyle, there are probably many activities that would be limited. Now imagine you could get the light for these activities… but doing so might make you sick. Would that be an acceptable trade-off?
Those have traditionally been the options for 1.5 – 2 billion people around the world who don’t have access to electric lighting: either stop productive activity after dark, or use technologies like kerosene lamps or wood fires. Sound mostly like an inconvenience? Again, think of all the things you do after dark because you have access to light and electricity, and then consider the quality of life you’d experience without those things. According to the United Nations Development Program, improved lighting doesn’t just result in more comfort and convenience, but also a 30 percent increase in income, and better health. Lights are weapons again poverty.
That’s why technologies like solar-powered LED lights are so important. While we first-worlders might consider such items cool gadgets that might be useful on a camping trip, these devices give people in the developed world quick, useful access to light. The sun’s energy is readily available, and the LED bulbs ensure that that energy, once gathered, is used as efficiently as possible.
A number of social enterprises have focused their efforts on bringing such technology to the developing world, and distributing it in a manner that creates economic opportunities for the world’s poor. Here are just a few of them:
- d.light: With a global focus, d.light’s line of solar-powered LED lights can provide 4-12 hours of light on a full day’s charge. The company’s most recent product, the S1, also has AC charging capacity. (via Andrea Learned at G+)
- Flexiway: This company’s Solar Muscle light not only has two settings and can produce up to 8 hours of light, but also can be connected to more Solar Muscles to create bigger lighting sources when needed.
- Nokero: This Denver-based company’s solar-powered light bulb isn’t really a bulb in the strictest sense, but a flexible housing for a small solar panel and four LEDs. We took an in-depth look at this company two years ago; you can also find out more about their work in the video above.
- LumenAID: We’ve also covered these inflatable solar-powered LEDs. Developed at Columbia University, LumenAID’s lights are easily transportable and lightweight. They’re also now available for pre-ordering.
- ToughStuff: This company has created a modular line of products that can interconnect, so a customer can use them for light, or for phone charging or even powering a radio.
No doubt this is just a handful of the companies doing innovative work on this front; if you know of others, share them with us.
Photo by Anton Fomkin/flickr/Creative Commons
Reprinted with permission from Sustainablog
By Stan Cox
The U.S. has long used more energy for air conditioning than all other nations combined. But as demand increases in the world’s warmer regions, global energy consumption for air conditioning is expected to continue to rise dramatically and could have a major impact on climate change.
The world is warming, incomes are rising, and smaller families are living in larger houses in hotter places. One result is a booming market for air conditioning — world sales in 2011 were up 13 percent over 2010, and that growth is expected to accelerate in coming decades.
By my very rough estimate, residential, commercial, and industrial air conditioning worldwide consumes at least one trillion kilowatt-hours of electricity annually. Vehicle air conditioners in the United States alone use 7 to 10 billion gallons of gasoline annually. And thanks largely to demand in warmer regions, it is possible that world consumption of energy for cooling could explode tenfold by 2050, giving climate change an unwelcome dose of extra momentum.
The United States has long consumed more energy each year for air conditioning than the rest of the world combined. In fact, we use more electricity for cooling than the entire continent of Africa, home to a billion people, consumes for all purposes. Between 1993 and 2005, with summers growing hotter and homes larger, energy consumed by residential air conditioning in the U.S. doubled, and it leaped another 20 percent by 2010. The climate impact of air conditioning our buildings and vehicles is now that of almost half a billion metric tons of carbon dioxide per year.
Yet with other nations following our lead, America’s century-long reign as the world cooling champion is coming to an end. And if global consumption for cooling grows as projected to 10 trillion kilowatt-hours per year — equal to half of the world’s entire electricity supply today — the climate forecast will be grim indeed.
Because it is so deeply dependent on high-energy cooling, the United States is not very well positioned to call on other countries to exercise restraint for the sake of our common atmosphere. But we can warn the world of what it stands to lose if it follows our path, and that would mean making clear what we ourselves have lost during the age of air conditioning. For example, with less exposure to heat, our bodies can fail to acclimatize physiologically to summer conditions, while we develop a mental dependence on cooling. Community cohesion also has been ruptured, as neighborhoods that on warm summer evenings were once filled with people mingling are now silent — save for the whirring of air-conditioning units. A half-century of construction on the model of refrigerated cooling has left us with homes and offices in which natural ventilation often is either impossible or ineffective. The result is that the same cooling technology that can save lives during brief, intense heat waves is helping undermine our health at most other times.
The time window for debating the benefits and costs of air conditioning on a global scale is narrowing — once a country goes down the air-conditioned path, it is very hard to change course.
China is already sprinting forward and is expected to surpass the United States as the world’s biggest user of electricity for air conditioning by 2020. Consider this: The number of U.S. homes equipped with air conditioning rose from 64 to 100 million between 1993 and 2009, whereas 50 million air-conditioning units were sold in China in 2010 alone. And it is projected that the number of air-conditioned vehicles in China will reach 100 million in 2015, having more than doubled in just five years.
As urban China, Japan, and South Korea approach the air-conditioning saturation point, the greatest demand growth in the post-2020 world is expected to occur elsewhere, most prominently in South and Southeast Asia. India will predominate — already, about 40 percent of all electricity consumption in the city of Mumbai goes for air conditioning. The Middle East is already heavily climate-controlled, but growth is expected to continue there as well. Within 15 years, Saudi Arabia could actually be consuming more oil than it exports, due largely to air conditioning. And with summers warming, the United States and Mexico will continue increasing their heavy consumption of cool.
Countries are already struggling to keep up with peak power demand in hot weather. This summer, India is seeing a shortfall of 17 gigawatts, with residential electricity shut off for 16 hours per day in some areas. China is falling short by 30 to 40 gigawatts, resulting in energy rationing and factory closings.
In most countries, the bulk of electricity that runs air conditioners in homes and businesses is generated from fossil fuels, most prominently coal. In contrast, a large share of space heating in cooler climates is done by directly burning fuels — usually natural gas, other gases, or oil, all of which have somewhat smaller carbon emissions than coal. That, together with the energy losses involved in generation and transmission of electric power, means that on average, an air conditioner causes more greenhouse emissions when pushing heat out of a house than does a furnace when putting the same quantity of heat into a house.
Based on projected increases in population, income, and temperatures around the world, Morna Isaac and Detlef van Vuuren of the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency predict that in a warming world, the increase in emissions from air conditioning will be faster than the decline in emissions from heating; as a result, the combined greenhouse impact of heating and cooling will begin rising soon after 2020 and then shoot up fast through the end of the century.
Refrigerants — fluids that absorb and release heat efficiently at the right temperatures — are the key to air conditioning and refrigeration, but they can also be serious troublemakers when released into the atmosphere. Refrigerants such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that harm the stratospheric ozone layer are being phased out under the 1989 Montreal Protocol; however, most ozone-friendlier substitutes are, like CFCs, powerful greenhouse gases.
Most prominent worldwide in the new generation of refrigerants are compounds known as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). They have a smaller climate-warming potential than do the ozone-depleting compounds they are replacing, but they still have hundreds to thousands of times the greenhouse potency of carbon dioxide (on a pound-for-pound basis, that is; carbon dioxide is released in vastly larger quantities and has a larger total impact.) Rapid growth in air conditioning threatens to swamp out the marginal climate benefits of replacing current refrigerants with HFCs.
According to a recent forecast by Guus Velders of the Netherlands’ National Institute for Public Health and the Environment and his colleagues, refrigerants that accumulate in the atmosphere between now and 2050 (increasingly HFCs, mostly from refrigeration and air conditioning) will add another 14 to 27 percent to the increased warming caused by all human-generated carbon dioxide emissions. Recent years, therefore, have seen a research stampede to find refrigerants with lighter greenhouse potential. Several promising candidates have been discarded on the basis of flammability, toxicity, ozone depletion, or other problems. None of the remaining prospects is ideal in all respects.
One important consideration is efficiency. A refrigerant that has smaller direct greenhouse potential than those currently in use but that exchanges heat less efficiently — causing an air conditioner to consume more energy for the same amount of cooling — could have a larger total climate impact.
Isaac and Van Vuuren predict that even if demand for air conditioning is satisfied with successively more efficient generations of equipment, global electricity consumption for home cooling will still rise eightfold by 2050, which is not much better than the tenfold increase that would occur without efficiency improvements. A similar dominance of growth over efficiency has prevailed in the United States. From 1993 to 2005, energy efficiency of air-conditioning equipment improved by almost 30 percent, but household energy consumption for air conditioning doubled.
There is hope that renewable energy could satisfy a growing share of air-conditioning demand, but there is little inspiration to be drawn from the U.S. experience. Here, renewable electricity production from wind, solar, biomass, and geothermal sources could expand to five times its current production (an increase that the Environmental Protection Agency does not expect to be achieved until 2030) and still not cover the nation’s air-conditioning demand, let alone other needs. Today, worldwide renewable production is estimated at about 750 billion kilowatt hours, which, I estimate, covers about three-fourths of current global air-conditioning demand. The International Energy Agency predicts that renewable generation will expand to six times its current output by 2050. But even if that is achieved, renewable sources will still be satisfying only three-fourths of air-conditioning demand.
Each supply-side option has its own problems. Attempts to catch up with cooling demand by expanding hydroelectric power generation have caused serious ecological disruption and displacement of many millions of rural people in India, China, Brazil, and other countries. And we see hints that proliferation of air conditioning will provide an incentive to revive and expand nuclear power. Last month, in the face of strong opposition from the public, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda announced that his government was ending the moratorium on nuclear energy generation that had been in place since the tsunami disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in 2011. Noda acknowledged that the timing of the restart of two reactors in western Japan was no accident; the additional power will be needed to satisfy the summer surge in air conditioner use.
In thinking about global demand for cooling, two key questions emerge. Is it fair to expect people in Mumbai to go without air conditioning when so many in Miami use it freely? And if not, can the world find ways to adapt to warmer temperatures that are fair to all and do not depend on the unsupportable growth of air conditioning?
Currently, efforts to develop low-energy methods for warm climates are in progress on every continent. Passive cooling projects in China, India, Egypt, Iran, Namibia, and other countries combine traditional technologies — like wind towers and water evaporation — with newly designed, ventilation-friendly architectural features. Solar adsorption air conditioning performs a magician’s trick, using only the heat of the sun to cool the indoor air, but so far it is not very affordable or adaptable to home use. Meanwhile in India and elsewhere, cooling is being achieved solely with air pumped from underground tunnels.
But non-refrigerated climate control, especially in hot climates, cannot consistently achieve comfort that satisfies the industrial definition; in other words, it doesn’t produce the kind of cool, still, dry air that prompts many Americans to wear sweaters at work in July. A shift toward natural cooling will mean relying on humans’ well-proven capacity to adapt to variable conditions. Studies in the tropics have found, for example, that office workers are well satisfied with natural ventilation and warmer temperatures, if they have not already been conditioned by air conditioning.
Whatever course the world follows in adapting to a hotter planet — universal high-efficiency air conditioning; tighter construction; all-out pursuit of renewable, hydroelectric, or nuclear energy; or rebuilding and retrofitting entire societies for non-refrigerated cooling — the cost in both money and physical resources will be staggering. Deciding on the best strategy, and soon, will be crucial.
Photo by Joe Shlabotnik/flickr/Creative Commons
Reprinted with permission from Yale Environment 360
by Brittany Gibson
The Supreme Court (SCOTUS) and its role in the everyday lives of the America people has been on full display as the justices declined to hear the appeals case challenging the authority of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). (Oh, and there was something about healthcare.)
What’s really on stage in the former case is the contrast between Congressional policymaking and the distinct authority of the FERC. The Commission is driving innovation through relatively discreet policymaking that is developing new markets for the cleantech space, despite roadblocks and partisan wrangling in the U.S. Congress.
The strategic wielding of policy instruments, whether regulations, taxes, or subsidies, can encourage markets, and for cleantech technologies from solar to advanced batteries can change their value proposition dramatically. The German feed-in-tariffs (FITs) – which were recently cut – developed one of the most robust markets for solar photovoltaics (PV) in the world; their success is likely to help PV reach grid parity in the next several years. Conversely, subsidies in japan are just starting to kick off.
What’s unique about the United States’ approach is the long demonstrated preference for business-based market advances, rather than mandate-based advances (e.g., the European Union’s renewable energy directives). The FERC’s role, and perhaps more accurately, that of chairman Jon Wellinghoff (as Forbes has rightly pointed out) is to open markets to competition and provide market parameters that reward technological innovation. As a result, select segments of the power industry in the United States are undergoing dramatic changes through mechanisms like real-time pricing and pay-for-performance compensation. While subsidies and government support aren’t completely absent in the U.S., these more discreet policy changes are enlivening the cleantech industry in more subtle ways.
Here is a highlight of recent developments that have resulted from the FERC’s regulatory authority:
- The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) set a new wind power generation record, as wind supplied 17.64 percent of the system’s load. (See FERC Order 888.)
- Advanced batteries such lithium-ion chemistries are being deployed to provide frequency regulation services through lucrative business models – this AES Energy Storage project at Laurel Mountain Wind Farm is one of the largest installations in the U.S. (See FERC Order 755.)
- Energy efficiency is now counted as a viable generation resource and compensated as such through demand response programs. Viridity Energy and others have spearheaded viable business models based on saving consumers energy.
The global cleantech industry is one still dependent on policy direction; but discretion is often the best policy.Brittany Gibson, a research analyst at Pike Research, concentrates on cleantech public policy and regulatory issues.
by Tina Casey
JinkoSolar is going to provide the solar cells for a new 5.75 megawatt solar array that will be built on the site of a former landfill in Canton, Massachusetts. The site had been derelict for more than 20 years, and struggling towns and cities across the U.S. might want to take a look at Canton to see how solar power could help them generate new revenue from abandoned properties.
Clean Energy from Brown Fields
The Canton site is just the tip of the solar iceberg. The U.S. EPA has identified a whopping 14 million acres of abandoned industrial sites (aka brownfields) and Superfund sites that could be put to use generating solar power or wind power.
It’s part of a program called Re-Powering America’s Land, which the Obama Administration rolled out back in 2010.
The initiative gives you a sustainability three-for-one. Aside from generating renewable energy and potentially bringing some revenue into depressed areas, Re-Powering America’s Land is designed to clean up and repurpose local eyesores, and create new green jobs in local communities.
From Landfill to Solar Power
The 15-acre Canton site will be constructed by Gemma Renewable Power. Once completed it will generate revenue for the city to the tune of $16.3 million, representing lease of the property and sale of the electricity.
One interesting aspect of the project is JinkoSolar’s use of a ground-mounted system for the array’s 19,844 solar panels. This kind of “non-invasive” mounting system is needed to reduce the risk of subsurface disruptions that could weaken the integrity of the landfill cap.
It’s also interesting to note that Canton officials considered other options for use of the site. The solar array won out partly because it offered the highest return with a relatively low investment. The fact that it will be up and running within the year is also a plus
Photo by JD Hancock/flickr/Creative Commons
Reprinted with permission from Cleantechnica
A vivid example of how wind technology has advanced over the years is the repowering of the world's first wind turbines in Altamont Pass, California. The first phase is now complete.
"The old ones would shut down if the winds got too strong, and then they'd fall down and hit the wires and start grass fires. These spin slower than the old ones, and they are very quiet," John Jackson, a local cattle rancher, told San Jose Mercury News.
First developed in the 1970s, on 50,000 acres leased from cattle ranchers, it looks quite different today. Easily visible from the road, Altamont has been many peoples' first view of a wind farm.
In 2010, an agreement was negotiated between environmental groups, the state, and NextEra to update the outdated, inefficient turbines which were killing as many as 4300 birds a year, a third of which were protected raptors such as golden eagles. The Altamont Pass lies on a major migratory route and is an important breeding area.
Under the agreement, NextEra will replace 2,400 turbines and shut down all the old ones by 2015. Originally, there were 4000 turbines, which are now 30 years old. The company also agreed to erect new turbines in less environmentally sensitive locations.
Those 2400 turbines are being replaced with just 100 huge state-of-the-art turbines, each 430-feet tall, higher than a redwood. Each 2.3 megawatt wind turbine, built by Siemens, produces power for about 650 homes.
Also, at least six miles of transmission lines and eight miles of road are being removed, returning the land to a more natural state.
At the event celebrating the end of the first phase, talk was about the expiring the federal production tax credit for utility-scale wind, saying "future projects are already grinding to a halt because the credit is crucial to making wind power cost-competitive with such energy sources as solar and natural gas," says Mercury News.
"If the PTC isn't extended you'll see very little, if any, development in 2013. That is a fact," Steve Stengel, director of communications for NextEra, told Mercury News.
California now gets about 5 percent of its electricity from wind, according to the California Wind Energy Association.
Photo by get directly down/flickr/Creative Commons
Reprinted with permission from SustainableBusiness.com
By Marc Gunther
A planned carbon capture and storage plant in West Texas is being billed as the “cleanest coal plant in the world.” But can the $3 billion project help move the global power industry toward the elusive goal of low-carbon electricity, or is it just another way of perpetuating fossil fuels?
As mayor of Dallas from 2002 to 2007, Laura Miller helped lead the charge against a utility company called TXU that wanted to build 11 coal-fired power plants in Texas. Miller and her allies, including the Environmental Defense Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council, stopped the coal plants, and in 2007 TXU was sold to two private-equity firms that promised to steer the company onto a greener path. Their story inspired a documentary film produced and narrated by Robert Redford that showcased Miller, as one magazine writer put it, as a “tough, smart and camera-friendly environmental heroine.”
Today, Miller, 53, who was a newspaper reporter before entering politics, again finds herself in the thick of a big Texas story about coal. This time, she’s trying to get a coal plant built — one that she says would be “the cleanest coal plant in the world.” As director of Texas projects for Summit Power, a Seattle-based energy firm, Miller has spent three years working on behalf of the Texas Clean Energy Project, an unusual $3 billion power facility that would capture carbon dioxide emissions and produce oil as well as coal.
Coal is, of course, the bane of climate-change activists. But Miller has secured the tacit support of environmentalists, including her old allies at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), for the Texas coal plant. They say the plant could help move the global power industry toward a goal that has proven elusive: low-carbon electricity made from coal.
“With 300 years of coal in the ground, the United States needs to find out how to use it in a clean way,” Miller says. “This will raise the bar on all the other coal plants being built. It’s just a matter of spending the extra money to make something that was once dirty become clean.”
John Thompson, the director of fossil transition for the nonprofit Clean Air Task Force, agrees. “This is a globally significant project,” he says. “Carbon capture and storage is so important that I don’t think we can avert the worst aspects of climate change without its wide-scale adoption.”
That may well be true, but the prospects for clean coal remain uncertain at best. To understand why, it’s important to distinguish between carbon capture and storage (CCS) and what the coal industry and some electric utilities tout as “clean coal.” The industry uses the phrase to describe state-of-the-art pulverized-coal plants, which crush coal into a fine powder before it is burned; these plants emit fewer conventional pollutants (sulfur dioxide, particulates and mercury) than older plants, but they are big emitters of CO2. The average U.S. plant emits 2,249 pounds of CO2 for every megawatt hour (MWh) of electricity it generates, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Capturing and storing CO2 could reduce those emissions dramatically, but it’s expensive.
Summit Power’s Texas project is planned for a 600-acre plot of land in the ghost town of Penwell, near Midland-Odessa in west Texas. (The site was previously a finalist for the U.S. Department of Energy’s ill-fated FutureGen clean-coal plant.) The company intends to build a 400-megawatt power plant that would all but eliminate conventional pollutants and capture 90 percent of its CO2 emissions, according to Eric Redman, the company president. He says CO2 emissions would amount to about 200 pounds per MWh, making the Texas plant far more climate-friendly than even the best combined-cycle natural-gas plants, which emit about 850 to 1,000 pounds per MWh.
The technologies to accomplish this are well established. “There’s no breakthrough here,” Redman says. Coal can be “gasified” using a thermo-chemical process that strips it of pollutants including sulfur and mercury and separates virtually all of the CO2. This produces a flammable low-carbon synthetic gas, or syngas. (“A gasifier is like a refinery for coal,” Redman says.) The syngas is then burned to make electricity, and the captured CO2 is compressed into a semi-liquid. Compressed CO2 can be sold for enhanced oil recovery (EOR) in the oil-rich Permian Basin, where the project is located — just a mile from a 3,000-mile network of pipelines dedicated to CO2.
The potential transformation of CO2 from a greenhouse gas pollutant into an asset is one reason why the Department of Energy awarded the plant $450 million in grants. “If I’m venting CO2 from a plant, and I can use it as a product and not as a waste stream, I’m going to do it all day long,” says Charles McConnell, assistant secretary for fossil energy at the DOE. Texas has used CO2 to extract oil from hard-to-reach underground formations for decades, but most of it is piped in from elsewhere — Mississippi, New Mexico and Colorado — and natural supplies are limited.
What’s most innovative about the Texas plant, in fact, is a business model that depends on three major revenue streams, buttressed by the government grants and more than $1 billion in potential tax benefits realizable over a 10-year period. One source of income is the sale of CO2, for which demand is growing briskly in the oil patch. A second source of revenue, according to Summit, will be sales of urea fertilizer, which will be produced from syngas not burned for power.
Finally, the plant will sell electricity, although only about 200 MW of the plant’s 400MW capacity will flow into the grid; the rest will be used to power the project’s operations, including the urea plant and CO2 compressors. Summit has contracted to sell the electricity to the city of San Antonio, the CO2 to an oil company called Whiting Petroleum (among others), and the fertilizer to an unnamed buyer. It also intends to sell carbon credits, potentially in California’s regulated carbon market.
Despite all this, the plant is not yet fully financed, and its prospects are uncertain. RBS Securities, a unit of the Royal Bank of Scotland, has been hired by Summit to raise money; its offering says that “an estimated $700 million of additional equity and $300 million of debt” will be needed to complete construction. Most of that is now lined up, Redman says, but the company still needs a lead equity investor. Construction is expected to take three to four years.
Howard Herzog, an expert on carbon capture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), says the Summit project could help move the industry closer to low-carbon coal. But, he says, carbon capture and storage will require either government subsidies or carbon regulation to compete with conventional coal or natural gas plants. “Ultimately, if you’re going to see CCS in the market, you're going to have to some kind regulatory forcing,” Herzog says.
Maybe the most remarkable thing about the Summit plan is that it sailed through the Texas regulatory process with no opposition, at a time when groups including the Sierra Club were running hard-hitting campaigns to shut down existing plants and stop new ones. To be sure, none of the environmental groups has formally endorsed the plant. Bruce Nilles, director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal initiative, said activists have more important battles to fight. “We’re not against demonstrating new technology,” he noted. More enthusiastic is David Frederick, an environmental lawyer who has worked for the Sierra Club and agreed to represent Summit Power in its effort to obtain an air permit. Why? By email, Frederick replied: “There is a Saudi Arabia of coal in the US, and, in the fullness of time, folks might use it. The Summit plant, if successful, would offer an incredibly low-CO2 way to use it.”
There’s another big reason why environmentalists favor efforts to develop carbon capture: China, and its vast reserves of coal. “If no other country in the world existed other than China, it would warrant the development of CCS [carbon capture and storage],” says David Hawkins, director of climate programs at NRDC. Jim Marston, who leads EDF’s Texas office and directs its national energy program, told me: “We probably don’t need coal plants in the U.S. But China and India are likely to build coal plants, and we need to demonstrate that there is much lower carbon technology out there at an affordable cost. In fact, we ought to develop that technology and sell it to them.”
Summit’s Texas project is one of three big coal plants under development in the U.S. that intend to capture carbon and use it to recover oil. Tenaska, a Nebraska-based energy company, wants to build a 600-MW plant near Sweetwater, Texas, that uses a post-combustion capture process to cut CO2 emissions by 85 to 90 percent. In Kemper, Mississippi, construction has begun on the Southern Co.’s 582-MW plant that will use coal gasification to reduce its emissions by about 65 percent. The Sierra Club has opposed those plants, citing water issues in Texas and land use, cost and pollution issues in Mississippi. Meanwhile, China, Canada, the Netherlands and the UK are developing their own large-scale CCS-EOR projects, according to an MIT CCS database.
If all these projects pan out, carbon-capture proponents contend, “clean coal” could emerge as a climate-friendly source of base-load electric power. Meantime, vast reserves of domestic oil in places like the Permian Basin could be unlocked by the newly produced CO2, easing pressures to drill in pristine areas like Alaska.
“It’s the beginning of a new industry,” says John Thompson of the Clean Air Task Force. “As soon as these projects go online, everything that’s in operation seems obsolete. These are game-changers.”
Reprinted with permission from Yale Environment 360
Rising water temperatures and a reduction in river flows have caused declining production at some thermoelectric power plants in the U.S. and Europe, a trend that will likely continue for decades to come as the planet warms, according to a new study. Writing in the journal Nature Climate Change, researchers estimate that the generating capacity at U.S. nuclear and coal-fired plants — which rely on consistent volumes of water flow at particular temperatures to cool overheated turbines — will fall 4 to 16 percent from 2031 to 2060 as a consequence of climate change. In Europe, scientists predict, production will drop 6 to 19 percent due to a lack of cooling water. According to the study, “extreme” drops in power generation caused by near or total plant shutdowns will triple during that time period. In the U.S., thermoelectric plants account for more than 90 percent of electricity generation. “This study suggests that our reliance on thermal cooling is something that we’re going to have to revisit,” said Dennis Lettenmaier, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Washington and co-author of the study.
Photo by Kenneth Lu/flickr/Creative Commons
Reprinted with permission from Yale Environment 360
by Dexter Gauntlett
Economics, politics, grid constraints, and a fair amount of luck have set in motion an awkward relationship between the natural gas and cleantech industries that could be characterized as “frenemies with benefits.” My colleagues Kerry-Ann Adamson and Mackinnon Lawrence have already shared their views on this complex dynamic, and their outlooks are relatively optimistic. But make no mistake, this could turn into a trainwreck in a moment’s notice.
Low-cost natural gas has been the energy story of 2011 and 2012. Indeed, low-cost shale gas procured using previously unconventional methods such as fracking has fundamentally changed the energy landscape for both renewables and competing fossil fuels. Today natural gas is trading at less than $2 MBTU, compared to a height of $14 in late 2005 – in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Politicians are increasingly pushing for a “low-carbon” energy standard so that natural gas can be included with renewables. Natural gas companies and industry associations are claiming they can tap 100 years of natural gas at today’s low prices. Natural gas is contributing significantly to meager U.S. economic growth.
This is where things get awkward.
The U.S. wind (and to a lesser extent, solar) power industry is in a very tight spot because its production tax credits are set to expire at the end of this year. Wind can compete with natural gas at $4-$5 gas – but not $2. Wind industry advocates must increasingly accept the reality that, as wind represents a higher percentage of our energy mix, grid operators are increasingly facing pressure to “firm up” capacity that can swing from hundreds of megawatts down to zero in 15 minutes or less. Increasingly utilities, developers, and natural gas supporters are eager to point out that natural gas is well suited for this “ramping” role.
At the political level, the U.S. wind industry, already on the defensive with the looming expiration of the production tax credits at the end of this year, may be trying to show some support for natural gas as a quid pro quo to entice swing-state Congressional representatives to commit to a longer extension of the tax credits that are critical to the U.S. market. At the recent Future Energy Conference in Portland, Oregon, the director of sales for Vestas said that to date, wind and natural gas have been intentionally ignoring each other – but now he is getting phone calls from developers who want to respond to utility RFPs with a combination of both resources, which Vestas welcomes.
That could turn a competitive relationship into a cooperative one. For years, in the seemingly zero-sum political energy arena, wind and natural gas have been sworn enemies. When gas was at its price peak, wind had a field day; but with gas now its historic lows it appears the tables have turned. One complicating factor is that fracking poses extremely serious environmental risks – and the wind industry does not necessarily want to be seen actively promoting it – let alone be associated with the baggage that comes with it.
To complicate things more – few have dared to even question the figures that the natural gas industry proclaims. What if 100 year gas is more like 11? Bringing on huge amounts of gas will require major infrastructure and storage upgrades – how will that affect the final cost to ratepayers? What if natural gas faces growing NIMBY issues that delay drilling, reduce supply, and prices shoot up? The natural gas train has left the station, but how far it gets, and to what extent it positively or negatively impacts renewables, remains to be seen.
Dexter Gauntlett is a research analyst at Pike Research with a focus on global renewable energy markets.