Archive for the ‘Solar Power’ Category

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

Via WikiMedia Commons

Via WikiMedia Commons

Rumor has it that North America may be energy independent within a few years.

Alternative energy sources like wind, solar, and biomass are contributing ever greater amounts to the nation’s energy bank. And the country’s traditional oil and gas industry is booming as it hasn’t in decades. Where the U.S. had become an energy mendicant, relying on unstable (and occasionally unsavory) sources overseas, the country is set to be a net energy exporter and will soon overtake Saudi Arabia as the globe’s top oil producer. Energy independence is a good thing. Weaning ourselves from middle Eastern oil reserves will bring market stability and reduce the temptation to secure our oil and gas supplies by force of arms.

But supplying the bulk of our own energy needs domestically presents challenges of its own.  Wind and solar electricity has to make its way from place where it is generated to consumers who might be thousands of miles away. The national grid is being upgraded but is not yet up to that task. Moving all the new oil and gas that’s flowing out of the various bonanzas around the country presents a whole separate category of problems. Quite aside from the environmental toll presented by hell-for-leather production in, say North Dakota or Alberta, just moving the stuff around the country safely and efficiently is a herculean task.

We generally think of oil and gas as flowing through pipelines. The Keystone Pipeline, which would bring tar sand oil from Alberta is a political flash point. Lots of people are questioning its safety, and for good reason. Exxon’s burst pipeline in Arkansas  and PG&E’s fiery pipeline failure in San Bruno are still fresh in the public mind.

But pipelines are not the only way oil gets around the country. Increasingly, it’s making its way to market by rail. And that’s proving to be a bit of a train wreck in its own right. Last month, the town of Casselton, ND had to be evacuated after a mile-long train carrying crude oil slammed into another train, resulting in thunderous explosions and a searing plume of toxic smoke. ABC tells us that this was the third accident in six months involving trains carrying North Dakota crude oil. In July, a train of 72 carloads of crude oil in Quebec derailed and burst into flames, killing  almost 50 people.

Coal, too, is being increasingly transported by train in the face of growing opposition.

It’s naive to think we don’t need the energy we’re pulling out of the ground with such new-found vigor. It’s also naive to think we could stop it being distributed around the country. But we shouldn’t think that energy independence is an unalloyed good. It presents a whole slew of problems of its own.

The Panels Are Transparent But the Practices Are Not

Photo by Phil Champion. Some rights reserved.

Photo by Phil Champion. Some rights reserved.

The solar power industry gets a lot of love for being a sustainable, creative, efficient alternative energy source – and rightly so. Once the manufacturing of the panels is complete, the upkeep is relatively cheap and the things are built to endure the weather and last a long time (save for the occasional defective panel). But what about the manufacturing process? The idea that solar panels are being mass produced using only sustainable energy and materials is a paradisal paradox and, sadly, too good to be true (the solar industry is an industry, after all).

Yes, the crafting of these solar panels often involves toxic materials and unstable gases, and the process with which they are made is not getting any cleaner. The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, a group that oversees environmental conditions involved in manufacturing solar panels, publishes an annual “solar scorecard” which ranks solar manufacturing companies based on factors like emissions transparency, use of conflict minerals, C2C recycling, etc. This year’s scorecard was published last week, and based on their criteria, it looks link Trina, Yingli, and Sunpower came in on top, with scores of 77, 75, and 69 respectively (out of 100, presumably). Seven companies tied for last place (with a score of 5), including manufacturing giant Westinghouse.

Mother Jones points out, however, that transparency has  become a huge issue in this arena. Apparently only 35% of the industry responded to the SVTC survey, compared to last year’s 51%, and many of the companies gave very little to no useful information about their business practices. As SVTC executive director Sheila Davis points out, “If they are not providing the information, we have to assume the worst.” But with crude oil prices on a steep rise again, the solar industry seems primed for rapid expansion, and these are the kinds of kinks that should probably be worked out before the next big solar boom.

Storing Renewable Energy: Is It All In the Spin?

via Wikimedia Commons

via Wikimedia Commons

We’ve been discussing the double edged sword that is nuclear power and what role it should play in reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. The reason nuclear power keeps climbing out of its crypt, no matter how many stakes seem to be driven though its heart, is that other alternatives to dirty fuels like coal have been hobbled by a major flaw: even the most vocal proponents of wind and solar energy agree that energy storage is renewables’ Achilles heel. No doubt, windmills churning away in the breeze produce electricity, as do banks of solar panels in the Tucson sun. The problem is what happens on those hot still nights when turbines are stilled, the panels are dark, and you really, really want to turn on the air conditioning. The beauty of carbon energy and nuclear energy is that they can be relied on to provide electricity all the time, not just when the weather is cooperative.

All sorts of solutions have been proposed to the problem of storing the electricity from wind and solar generators so it can be used when it isn’t being generated. Good old reliable lead acid batteries like the one under the hood of your car predate the Civil War and are hardly models of efficiency (and are made up of lead and, uh, acid). Water pressure storage, thermal storage, and a host of other means of keeping electricity handy have been put forth to solve the conundrum posed by solar cells’ uselessness at night and wind turbines’ fickleness in the doldrums.

One solution that has been proposed but proven more technically tricky than expected, is a variant of a toy you may have had in your toy box – the top. Flywheels, in the form of gyroscopes, have been used for years as stabilizers. More recently they have been put to use to store energy. A flywheel spinning at high speed (and I do mean high speed) can store energy for use on demand. The trouble has been that the technology involved in using flywheels as a form of mechanical battery is complex, expensive, and heavy, principally because of the ridiculously high RPMs required to produce a usable amount of electricity. As a result, flywheel batteries have been largely confined to service as backup power supplies for hospitals and emergency services that require steady, reliable power delivery. But those flywheels are intended to supplement existing electricity as uninterruptible power supplies rather than long-term storage. In an effort to advance the state of the art in flywheel batteries, the federal government gave a $43 million loan guarantee to Beacon Power, but that company went on to join Solyndra in the bankrupt alternative energy graveyard.

Now a new venture is raising money for a new flywheel technology. Appropriately for such an undertaking, it’s turned to Kickstarter for funding. Inventor Bill Gray has come up with something he calls the Velkess. It is not a Nordic god from a Wagner opera, but an acronym for VEry Large Kinetic Energy Storage System.

Gray has high hopes for his new machine, which he claims avoids many of the problems that have stood in the way of previous flywheel batteries: exacting tolerances, the wobbling and stresses produced by rapid rotation, and the possible catastrophic failure of the ceramic or high tensile steel of traditional wheels. Gray’s new flywheel is made of common fiberglass, and designed to be more flexible and forgiving than prior iterations. Gray claims his machine could store electricity for one tenth the cost of the units Beacon was proposing.  His company is aiming first at the residential and small commercial market and then expanding out into the utility-scale market. This is the reverse of previous attempts to build out flywheel technology which usually started large and hoped to go small.

There is probably no silver bullet to reining in greenhouse gases. Combating global climate change will take a much broader armory than the traditional fuels we have relied on in the past. Maybe, just maybe, these grown up spinning toys will prove an important component.

Solar Foundation Breaks Down Solar Jobs by State

Photo by Walmart Coporate. Some rights reserved.

Photo by Walmart Coporate. Some rights reserved.

Despite a lot of skepticism from the political right over whether or not President Obama’s push for “green jobs” represents a sustainable source of employment, new data over at Treehugger (and courtesy of The Solar Foundation) shows that there may yet be hope for a flourishing “green” economy. According to the Solar Foundation’s study, America now has more solar power jobs than coal mining jobs (for the first time ever!). There are now 119,000 solar employees in the country, and that figure is up by 13.2% from last year. However, as may be somewhat predictable, the concentration of those jobs is anything but uniform across the 50 states. Alaska, for instance, only has 80 solar workers, while California has over 43,000 (which represents over one third of the total figure, yowza!). And then of course coal mining has been something of an industry in decline domestically (as it appears to be the world over)… but still, this is an exciting prospect for the future of energy in the U.S.

The Solar Foundation data is also very cool and easy to read, and also features an interactive map that breaks down solar stats by state and job sector, among other factors. Go check it out!

Solar’s Continued Growth

Solar panels in the Mojave Desert. Photo by Shayan (USA). Some rights reserved.

Well, it might have been the hottest summer ever. And besides those of us at Knowledge Mosaic (and pretty much everybody else in the area) who enjoyed Seattle’s 48 rain-free days, who else has enjoyed the summer’s strange weather? You guessed it, the solar industry.

The Solar Energy Industries Association reports that 742 megawatts of capacity were installed in the second quarter of this year, more than double the 343 megawatts installed in the first quarter last year. Solar reached a milestone in California, where combined utility-scale generation reached one gigawatt, as much as a large nuclear or coal-fired plant. Around the country, the 5.7 gigawatts of solar capacity can power one million homes.

More enormous solar installations are under construction. BrightSource Energy is building a plant in the Mojave Desert in the California desert near Nevada (whose pictures in New York Times Magazine you should really check out) that will generate 392 megawatts of power; Northern California’s dominant utility agreed to buy power from a 100-megawatt plant in Henrietta, California, giving that project’s plans a boost.

In addition to utility-scale solar, rooftop solar generates power for residential and commercial use. In California, rooftops generated another gigawatt of power around the state. A New York Times article reporting on another Solar Energy Industries Association study highlights national chain stores’ use of solar in their often-sprawling stores. Walmart, Costco, Kohl’s, and Ikea are among the top users of rooftop solar nationally, far ahead of manufacturers like GM. Walmart, for example, has 150 solar installations with plans to make that number 1,000 in eight years. Inexpensive photovoltaic systems as well as third-party financing strategies have made solar investment easier for big retailers.

Massachusetts Whooshes Ahead With Wind and Other Renewables


Photo by Oast House Archive. Some rights reserved.

Following in its own footsteps, Massachusetts again made moves to advance the use of renewables such as wind and solar in the Bay State. Late last week ML Strategies (a consulting affiliate of law firm Mintz Levin) wrote in depth about Massachusetts Governor Patrick signing into law Senate Bill 2395, An Act relative to competitively priced electricity in the Commonwealth. The bill aims toprotect Massachusetts ratepayers while providing greater reliability and energy independence for all residents of the Commonwealth,” according to a press release from the Governor’s office, through the use of expanded incentives and opportunities for renewable energy companies.

Specifically, the bill:

  • Extends long-term contracts between the utilities and renewable energy companies;
  • Raises the cap on net metering, allowing customers to run their meters backwards and sell power back to the distribution company for credits;
  • Allows for long term contracts as an incentive for companies that purchase coal-fired power plants, and transition them to gas-fired generators, so long as they agree to completely remediate the site;
  • Enables more municipalities to install solar panels on community landfills;
  • Requires electric companies to file for rate cases every five years and gas companies to file every ten years;
  • Requires EEA’s agencies to complete a number of studies to analyze further steps in energy efficiency as well as the exploration of other renewable energy sources;
  • Establishes a three-year energy efficiency rebate pilot program for the five largest gas and electric users in each service territory;
  • And more! For more details, don’t forget to check out ML Strategies’ overview.

Sun for All, and All for Sun

The Sun

Photo by Alan Murray Welsh. Some rights reserved.

On Tuesday, the Department of the Interior and the Department of Energy released the Final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement for a massive solar energy development initiative covering areas in six states. While the final approved land area constitutes only 40% of the land that was originally considered, it still represents a significant potential area for fast-tracked developments. This map shows the Solar Energy Zone locations and the availability of surrounding land under the program. Environmental concerns and the potential for expansion of zones or additional projects helped to shape the final zone map. The draft version of the Solar PEIS and the Mineral Potential Reports are also available.

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