Infographic: US renewable energy consumption on the rise

Today's GoFigure infographic looks at renewable energy consumption in the United States.

Solar: We need it cheap, but we want it American

If you want a quick lesson on the funhouse mirror that is the world of solar energy economics, look no further than the trade complaint against the Chinese solar industry filed with the Obama Administration by the American solar industry.  china industry graphic

Seven U.S. solar panel manufacturers claim the Chinese government and solar industry are dumping cut-price solar panels in the American market. Dumping claims are as common as flies in international trade, but dumping solar panels has larger implications than dumping consumer electronics or agricultural products. The U.S. needs a domestic solar manufacturing industry. We can’t trade energy dependency on one imported commodity – oil – for dependency on imported solar panels. At the same time, the U.S. also needs market-rate solar power. As this case shows, those two are mutually exclusive as the game is being played right now. Here’s the basic economic and political arithmetic that makes solar such a hairball:


1.) Solar energy = Too expensive

2.) Cheaper solar panels = Cheaper solar power

3.) Chinese solar panel prices < American solar panel prices

4.) Chinese solar panels = Cheaper solar power

5.) Chinese solar panels ≠ America solar manufacturing jobs


Different people will identify different root causes of this problem, and most of them go right back to China. I tend to agree up to a point. The Chinese government’s solar policies – stated and implicit – will lead to Chinese dominance of solar markets on every continent they care to play in. The Chinese, recognizing solar energy’s long-term importance, are developing a deep solar manufacturing base in their country. They offer capital equipment financing, land and facility leases for little or nothing. Like it or not, they’re writing the rules of the game. We encountered the same thing with Japan in the 1980s when the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) targeted key industries for Japanese dominance. They bent trade policies and funneled money toward companies to further their goals, and succeeded in areas like cars and consumer electronics.

The problem isn’t that China is stacking the deck, it’s that the U.S. won’t even sit at the table. With its traditional skepticism toward government economic planning, the U.S. has no integrated government-industry policy to build a solar manufacturing base. So we’re not going to get one, and if we think we are, then we’re delusional. The Chinese are writing the rules of the game and they’re winning by making long-term investments in a manufacturing infrastructure. The U.S. has to do the same. We can’t compete if we’re not in the game, and right now we’re playing checkers while everyone else is playing chess.

Global investors pour money into green energy

Global investors pour money into green energy; CleanSpeak Beaupre Clean Technology PracticeNothing like cool, refreshing facts to support the desperate hope for a renewable energy revolution.

New investment in green energy was up nearly one-third globally in 2010 to a record US$211 billion. That’s 32 percent above the 2009 level and more than five times that of 2004, says the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Other facts from UNEP’s new report:

  • Wind farms in China and rooftop solar panels in Europe were key drivers in the investment increase.
  • China was the world leader in “financial new investment” – i.e., investment in utility-scale renewable projects and equity capital for renewable energy companies. The nation's tally was US$48.9 billion, up 28 percent this year.
  • Developing economies (which invested US$72 billion this year) overtook developed ones (US$70 billion) in financial new investment. 
  • Investments in small distributed capacity, e.g., rooftop solar, rose 132 percent in Germany to US$34 billion.
  • Costs for renewable technologies are falling.
  • Wind dominated financial new investment in large-scale renewable energy. 
  • Biggest percentage jumps in overall investment were in small-scale projects, up 91 percent to US$60 billion, and in government funded R&D, up 121 percent to US$5.3 billion.

"The finance industry is still recovering from the recent financial crisis," Udo Steffens, president of the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management, said in a UNEP news release. "The fact that the industry remains heavily committed to renewables demonstrates its strong belief in the prospects of sustainable energy investments."

So there’s hope. And now facts.

More here

Carbon negative, cactus positive, and other hopes for a solar future

Carbon negative, cactus positive, and other hopes for a solar future - CleanSpeak Blog Mike McGrailI found myself sympathizing with former Gov. Schwarzenegger frustrations when I came across an article about the push to build solar energy facilities in the sun-drenched deserts of southwestern California.
The issue that got Schwarzenegger upset was a delay in permitting solar energy facilities in the Mohave desert region due to the presence of endangered species, the Mohave ground squirrel among them. Who would have guessed that solar power, the fair-haired child of the environmental movement, actually has an environmental price tag? Yes, those acres of sleek, shiny solar panels, which emit no carbon-laden smoke or radioactive steam as they diligently turn sunlight into wattage, can actually harm their host environments. The two poles of the California debate can be summarized thusly from press coverage:
Gov. Terminator: “I’m trying to clean up the environment and wean us off coal and imported oil, and you’re talking to me about freakin’ squirrels?”
Donna Charpied (Mohave desert resident and organic farmer): “Squirrels rock. You’re not screwing up my environment to clean up your mess.”
Caricaturing aside, it’s easy to see the legitimate points on both sides. Renewable energy is a huge part of our future – but not our whole future. Biodiversity and resource consumption have to weigh in the environmental equation as we seek alternatives to fossil fuels. For instance, conventional solar plants use tons of water per hour – between 500 and 1,100 gallons per megawatt hour – for cooling. Water is not a casual topic among people who live in deserts. Diverting huge amounts of it to solar plants can seriously stress local environments.
Part of the solution to disturbing vast tracts of desert landscape is mounting solar panels on already developed urban property. The roofs of warehouses and industrial facilities are the most frequently mentioned locations, and they doubtless have a role in closing the renewables versus carbon fuels gap. But think of it. How big is a coal-fired power plant? Really big, because it takes a lot of “big” to produce a lot of electricity. We aren’t going to replace that kind of output with solar panels on roofs alone. We need utility-scale solar facilities, and like it or not that means making environmental trade-offs to make long-term gains.
Wider use of solar technologies like concentrated photovoltaic (CPV) and dry cooling can shrink a solar facility’s physical footprint and eliminate its water consumption. Technology can’t however, shrink solar facilities down to nothing, or magically pop them onto a site without disrupting local species. Energy production, renewable or otherwise, has a price. It might cost money, or water, or land, or species displacement, but it’s going to cost. Wind, solar, biomass and biofuels are a better long-term energy solution than fossil fuels, but we have to get Zen about the fact that they’re going to consume resources. Differently from fossil fuels, and at a different cost to the environment, but they’re going to consume. Solar and wind farms take up a lot of land, as do the new power lines for carrying energy to market. Wind turbine blades will inevitably kill some birds and bats.
Complex problems seldom have simple solutions, and developing a new energy economy is about as complex as it gets. As a society, if we want the benefits that renewable energy sources offer then we have to expect to pay for them, if not in CO2 emissions then maybe in squirrels and desert vistas. The trick is using all the technology tricks we have in our bag to keep the price as low as possible.

'Salt' plant and Duke study make solar outlook brighter

In Northern New England, where I live, the sun exists only in rumor and faint memory for weeks at a time. So when sustainable energy advocates talk solar, I think of my late-February pallor and mentally check out of the discussion. Long nights, short days of limited sun. Wind for my region maybe, but solar?
Well, yes, actually. Two news items that filtered through the excellent Inhabitat blog recently give hope to anyone who thinks the sun could help wean us off fossil fuels. The first comes from Sicily, where the energy company Enel recently fired up “Archimede” the world’s first utility-scale molten salt power plant. Archimede uses mirror concentrators to super-heat a molten salt solution circulating through a pipe array. The heat pipes power boilers that create steam to drive electrical turbines. The key to this system is that it can store energy for nights and cloudy days, much like the solar thermal systems I blogged about a while back. The combination of sodium nitrates and potassium salts in the system can accumulate heat for extended periods. That ability to ride out nights and cloudy days makes thermal solar more practical for sun-deprived areas like mine. Photovoltaic solar, the more widely known solar technology,  generates electricity directly from the sun’s rays instead of through turbines. It’s  most often associated with places like the American Southwest, which have weeks on end of uninterrupted sunshine.
But photovoltaic’s geographical limitations were never a technology problem, they were an economic problem. Solar panels work as well on a sunny New England day as they do on a sunny day anywhere else. They just didn’t work often enough to make them economically feasible because solar panels are expensive. Maybe not for much longer, though. Researchers at Duke University just released a study that says solar energy is now cheaper than nuclear energy, partly because the cost of panels is dropping. When it drops enough, it will be economically feasible to mount solar panels on rooftops to power air conditioners during hot summer days, or heat during clear, sunny winter days to reduce oil and coal consumption.
Now if I could just do something about that late February pallor …

SAGE's re-imagining of windows will help save $300 billion in energy

This morning Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Steven Chu – joined by Senators Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar – announced $100+ million in DOE funding and IRS green manufacturing tax credits for our client SAGE Electrochromics.
These funds will help SAGE establish a new 250,000 sq. ft. facility in Faribault, Minnesota used to manufacture energy-saving, electronically tintable dynamic glass that  makes buildings more energy efficient and creates hundreds of new, skilled, green manufacturing jobs.
While hundreds of buildings have already installed SageGlass windows, this new government funding will enable the company to mass produce its glass and bring this energy saving technology to the world.
Secretary Chu has repeatedly said the biggest gains in decreasing this country’s energy bill, the amount of carbon dioxide and our dependency on foreign oil will come from energy efficiency and conservation in
SAGE Electrochromics' SageGlass

SAGE Electrochromics' SageGlass
Courtesy photo

the next 20 years. SageGlass is a leading example of an energy efficiency technology.
SageGlass products transform windows from an energy liability to an energy source. The potential for energy savings is significant because energy loss through windows accounts for about 30% of heating and cooling energy. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), electrochromic windows like those produced by SAGE can save one-eighth of all the energy used by U.S. buildings each year. This is equivalent to about 5% of the nation’s energy budget. This translates into savings of approximately $300 billion over the next 20 years.
That’s not chump change.
SAGE focused on something each of us experiences every day – glass – and re-imagined it, transforming glass into something innovative that helps make the world a better place and America more competitive.
This is a great example of how something seemingly mundane like a window can become highly transformational.

Getting off the grid and into green biz: one man's story

Dave BontaDave Bonta hasn’t paid an electric bill in 12 years. He has no heating bill, either.
That’s because he kicked his 40 kilowatt/hr electricity habit in the 1990s and used solar electricity to fill the gap. “I learned to live on less,” he told an audience at RiverRun bookstore the other night. “Surprise, I made it to one kilowatt. It wasn’t hard.... It’s kind of nice to think we can throw our electric bills away. It’s kind of empowering.”
To reduce his power usage, Bonta – who has since co-authored the “The New Solar Home” and created the USA Solar Store chain – replaced light bulbs, got an energy-efficient washing machine, switched from a vacuum cleaner to a broom, and tossed the electric toothbrushes. USA Solar Store - - Dave Bonta“Anything that could be done with human power we did.” Even the press he used in his printing business was human-powered. He pedaled it.
Once he’d shrunk his energy footprint, he installed a small-scale solar electricity system in his rustic Vermont home. Printing customers immediately peppered him with questions about his set-up. That’s when the light bulb went off. He could sell this stuff, along with the know-how. Which is exactly what USA Solar Stores do, and the chain now has 27 stores in 11 states. It’s “about to grow like wildfire,” he says earnestly.
Bonta models his stores after the crunchy old Gateway stores, where the PCs were displayed on barnboard tables and salespeople didn’t bug you till you had a question. At USA Solar Stores, you can get anything from a conversation to a compact fluorescent light bulb to a full-fledged solar electricity setup. Or you can come in, look and leave. No worries. In any case, Bonta’s team is eager to address what he calls the three solar bogey men: expense, viability, aesthetics.
Bogey Man #1: Solar electricity is too expensive. Bonta will look at your current electric bill, figure in current incentives, find ways to reduce your demand, and show you how long it will take to pay off your gear. Even if the incentives disappear, he says, it’s still a good deal. The joy of sticking it to the man? Priceless.
Bogey Man #2: It doesn’t work too well. Wrong, he says.There’s a myth that if you wait, solar technology will get less expensive and super technology will come along. “The way it is now is pretty good. The technology is there, and the only thing missing is people who will try it.”
Bogey Man #3: It’s ugly. No, Bonta says, solar is becoming increasingly “building integrated” – where it’s embedded in your roof, not tacked on like an afterthought. And you don’t need it on your house at all. Bonta’s panels are on his shed, which gets better light anyway. The homes in his book are of jaw-dropping beauty.

Bonta is a softspoken guy. Although he has the conviction of a preacher, he has the slickness of, well, the guy who melted down in his first speech to the Rotary. But in the bookstore, once he warmed up you could tell he will not be denied: “Everything we can do to get our country on a sustainable path, we’re going to do.” If not, he says, generations will hold us accountable for the demise of the world’s ecology. “We can either explain it to them from a wheelchair, or fix it now.”


Solar in a bottle is the practical alternative for wind and sun poor states

Did you ever expect to find cutting-edge renewable energy technology in your grammar school lunch box? Right there, next to your PB&J and a slightly bruised apple most likely sat a thermos bottle of milk or soup. That bottle worked on the same basic principle as solar thermal technology, the most practical renewable energy source for regions without the right weather to support today’s marquee renewables – wind power and solar photovoltaic. Which would be much of the continental U.S.
Unlike photovoltaic and wind systems, solar thermal systems can store energy for use at night or on cloudy, windless days. Photo thermal systems are like huge thermos bottles that use sunlight to super-heat highly concentrated salt solutions. Insulated “bottles” trap the heat. When the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine, the trapped heat can generate steam to produce electricity or heat water to warm homes and businesses. Spain is starting work on a large-scale solar thermal plant for its Seville province in 2010.
Regions like New England, the Mid Atlantic and the Pacific Northwest could go Spain one better by combining solar thermal, wind and photovoltaic in one super-renewable energy system. We here in New England get wind, but not the steady, predicable wind that makes the Great Plains states ideal for wind power. We get sun, but not enough for large-scale solar, like the Southwest. So here’s an idea for the renewable-poor states. Build wind turbine farms for when the wind blows. Build photovoltaic arrays for when the sun shines. But don’t hook them up directly to the grid, use them to generate and store heat in solar thermal systems to match energy production with energy demand. What do you think? Practical, or a crackpot idea?

Meet the new NIMBYs

All good people support renewable energy, right?
It depends.
As the country gets serious about solar, wind and other renewables, and the government steps in with subsidies, parties that traditionally fell in line on eco issues are increasingly squaring off.

Cape Cod's oldest windmill dates from the 1600s and is located in West Yarmouth

The Nature Conservancy, for example, describes how a 7,900-acre wind farm in Kansas brought in 20 miles of roads, 100 towers, transmission lines and a substation, threatening habitats for endangered birds and devouring a big chunk of the country’s disappearing prairie. The organization warns that new energy development will occupy nearly 80,000 square miles of land by 2030 – larger than Minnesota. One state director’s job is seen as mostly “reforming wind power.”
Rural Nevada got a shocker when it learned that two large solar farms, in addition to creating hundreds of jobs, would need 1.3 billion gallons of water per year, or about 20 percent of the desert valley’s supply (via New York Times).
Water plays a huge, underpublicized role in solar and many other forms of energy production, prompting one analyst to introduce an ominous new eco buzzword: “water footprint.”
Water plays a different role in Cape Wind off Massachusetts, potentially the country’s first offshore wind farm, which last week was threatened by a move to place Nantucket Sound on the National Register of Historic Places. “The identity and culture of the indigenous Wampanoag (Native Americans) are inextricably linked to Nantucket Sound,” according to a Massachusetts Historical Commission opinion.

CNET sums it all up perfectly, saying, a “new breed of NIMBY (not in my backyard) is emerging: opponents of wind or solar installations who generally support renewable energy, just as long as they are built somewhere else.”


A wisp of hope for American renewable energy wafts in on the climate & energy bill as China emerges

Solar panels in ChinaCap-and-trade, clean energy standards, cash for clunkers and smart grids are the headline grabbers and fight-starters in the climate and energy bill. These stars of the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 aren’t, however, going to save the U.S. from also-ran status in the renewable energy economy. Nothing in those provisions – or at least nothing obvious – confronts the very real possibility of China emerging as the superpower of renewable energy in the short term. Out of the limelight, in the bill’s back roads and side streets, lie the gems of hope for America’s future as a player in renewable energy, providing the U.S. can weather the Chinese onslaught. And it’s going to be a hummer of an onslaught.

The Chinese government is going after the top spot in renewable energy with a vengeance, and by employing their unique brew of free market talk and authoritarian action, they’re probably going to get it. If that makes you queasy, it should. The U.S., already a secondary player in renewable energy behind China and the European Union, is staring at yet another possibility of its energy future being tied to a foreign nation. Specifically, a foreign nation that’s also holding much of America’s debt.

There’s plenty afoot to bear out that pessimistic view. China has targeted wind and solar, the two most promising renewable technologies of the moment. The Chinese government has already created the world’s largest domestic wind power market, and they’re using it as a base to conquer the international export market for wind turbines. Using its success in textiles, food processing, electronics and consumer goods as a model, China has erected mazes of regulations specifically aimed at screwing foreign companies out of Chinese business. That gives Chinese companies a chance to flourish without competition on their home turf, subsidizing their push into export markets.

Having flashbacks to the Japan Inc. of the 1980s? The gradual demise of GM, Ford and Chrysler at the hands of Toyota and Honda? Well this is worse. Unlike democratic Japan, China doesn’t even pretend to play by free market rules. The New York Times reported last week that companies who built manufacturing plants inside China to satisfy domestic content requirements were aced out of the turbine market when the government outlawed turbines of less than 1,000 KW capacity. With tactics like that, it won’t be long before Chinese companies are the Honda and Toyota of the renewable energy industry. Next step, a wind farm near you. And solar is next on the agenda.

Even if China didn’t have a head start in renewable energy technology production, the U.S. wouldn’t be able to compete in volume manufacturing of renewable energy products any more than it could in apparel or consumer goods. China has a lower cost structure based on indentured servitude wages and light regulatory burdens. The U.S.’s winning game is not volume manufacturing of wind turbines or anything else. It’s innovation.

That brings us back to the climate and energy bill. There is $190 billion in the bill to fund renewable energy research. From the Apollo program to the Internet, the U.S. government has proven itself a great engine of new technology. That is the real secret weapon in the American renewable energy arsenal – a constant stream of new and better ideas.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT); technology and sustainabilityThe U.S. is the Saudi Arabia of innovation. No country has a better record of new technology development than this one. American universities and research institutes still attract the world’s best minds. The bill calls for establishing national centers of excellence in renewable energy technology across the country. Massachusetts took a similar approach in the 1980s under Gov. Michael Dukakis, funding centers of excellence in biotechnology, photovoltaics, nanotechnology and micro processing. Supplementing its disproportionately large share of world-class universities, the centers of excellence helped keep Massachusetts a technology leader. North Carolina had similar success with Research Triangle Park, which isn’t a center of excellence per se, but shows how government can effectively prime the private research pump.

China is gearing up to produce today’s state-of-the-art wind and solar technology. Let them. There is plenty of profit in developing tomorrow’s state of the art. Today’s solar and wind technology, for example, isn’t all that efficient. Most solar cells convert only 30 percent of the light that hits them into electricity. Wind turbines can’t turn light breezes into energy. There are no technologies for large-scale energy storage to even out the production peaks and valleys that make wind and solar unreliable in much of the world. Here’s betting the answers to those conundrums are going to come out of American laboratories.
A post script: Lest there seem to be a smack of jingoism in this post, I’ll say for the record that I’m all for China turning into a renewable energy superpower. The country is industrializing at a breakneck pace, creating a gargantuan demand for energy. Burning coal and oil to satisfy the demands of 1.3 million consumers portends a dismal future for the environment. Every wind turbine in the Gobi Desert or the South China Sea is an investment in a better world for everyone. As an American and a believer in democratic principles, I’d still like to think that we have a better way of developing a renewable energy economy than China. But as a father and potential grandfather, here’s hoping that both countries get there one way or the other.

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