Infographic: US renewable energy consumption on the rise

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

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

Can Google save the planet?

Yes, yes it can, if it can do for a malfunctioning ecosystem a fraction of what it’s done for information.
 
The search giant just invested in an ambitious wind energy backbone for the eastern seaboard. Atlantic Wind Connection aims to collect 6,000 megawatts of offshore wind – enough to serve nearly 2 million households –and deliver it to transmission nodes from New Jersey to Virginia. This project would act as a “superhighway for clean energy,” eliminating the need for every wind farm to string its own lines to shore. This is Google’s second major investment in wind, following investments in solar and geothermal.
 
Keeping its own house in order, Google has pledged to become carbon neutral. As part of that initiative, it has built energy-efficient data centers, installed solar installations at its offices, and purchased carbon offsets for emissions it can’t prevent. On the demand side, the company has created the Google PowerMeter to help consumers reduce their energy use. Oh, and for what it’s worth, the company uses 200 goats to mow an overgrown field at its Mountain View, Calif., headquarters.

The goats are clever, but what’s really important about Google is its uncanny ability to execute. Google wasn’t the first search engine, but it was the first to actually find what you were looking for. That prompted the world to rebrand the generic verb search (look it up).

Google is the company that put a chink in the armor of the Microsoft Office juggernaut with Google Docs. This is the company that lets you fly to anyplace on their planet (Google Earth) without a plane ticket (you might want to lower your window shades). Then there’s that kooky little site that plays videos.

What’s next? Google Earth Engine will analyze satellite imagery to monitor changes in forest coverage and other environmental bellwethers. Then there are the cars that drive themselves, and the TV that’s also the Internet.
 
Can Google save the planet? CleanSpeak Google is good. (Google is maybe too good sometimes, at things like managing personal data their servers pick up along the way.) Given Google’s feats, it was heartening to see Google’s wind investment news last week, especially after a withering review in the Boston Globe of the nation’s first offshore wind farm, Cape Wind, which is threatening to come in at $2.5 billion, or 2.5 times the original price estimate. Plenty of other wind projects are also facing strong opposition over cost, use of open land, wildlife impacts, noise and esthetics.
 
Google is not perfect. Other companies rank higher on greenest company lists, but do you see Dell saving the world? Is HP putting the Dead Sea Scrolls online?

I don’t really know if Google can save the world. I do know the planet isn’t out of the woods yet, and harvesting wind energy on a continental scale would sure be a nice start.

 

Cuttyhunk says 'YIMBY' to wind power

Unlike the new NIMBYs, selectmen in the town encompassing Massachusetts’ Cuttyhunk Island say they will support a wind farm off their shores, a position directly at odds with many of their neighbors to the immediate east on Martha’s Vineyard.
 
Residents seem to back the decision:
 
“I don’t think you can just say, ‘Not in my backyard,’ and expect that will be OK,’’ said resident Nina Brodeur. “If I had my preference, I’d choose not to see them. But I understand the needs of the state, and if it’s not in my backyard, it would have to be in somebody else’s. We can’t close our eyes and think we’re more special than anyone else.’’
 
At issue is Cape Wind, the embattled wind farm proposed for Nantucket Sound. Opponents say the landmark project will be a blight on the horizon and ruin a historic Native American site. The project also help Cuttyhunk residents, as part of Massachusetts’ poorest community, pay their utilities:
 
“I think the wind farm is a great idea,’’ said George Isabel, 59, who has lived on Cuttyhunk since 1968 and serves as police chief and harbor master. “People here can’t afford to turn on their air conditioners or electric heat. Something has to give, because it’s hard to survive. There could be big benefits for us.’’ (Source: Boston Globe) 

Maine may be next for offshore wind. The state just announced three offshore wind test sites.

A couple other developments in the wind arena:

Endangered bat concerns stall another wind farm

A West Virginia judge just halted progress of an Appalachian ridgeline wind farm because the developer failed to account for endangered Indiana bats on the property. Developers don’t have to prove that nobats will die in the project, just that the damage – presumably from construction, displacement and/or turbine blades – is minimized. That means potentially years of surveying, planning and permits. Plaintiffs in the case said the project would kill 6,746 bats of all kinds annually. Source: New York Times.
 
Report: Turbines are annoying, perhaps, but not sickening
 
An expert panel issued a report this month questioning the validity of wind-turbine syndrome, the constellation of symptoms – including sleep problems, headaches, dizziness, anxiety, ringing in the ears – sometimes associated with turbine noise.
 
“There is no evidence that the audible or sub-audible sounds emitted by wind turbines
have any direct adverse physiological effects,” says the report, prepared by a multidisciplinary panel of medical doctors, audiologists, and acoustical professionals for the American and Canadian wind energy industry associations. The 85-page document does admit that turbine noise can be annoying.
 
“An annoyance factor to wind turbine sounds undoubtedly exists, to which there is a great deal of individual variability. Stress has multiple causes and is additive. Associated stress from annoyance, exacerbated by the rhetoric, fears, and negative publicity generated by the wind turbine controversy, may contribute to the reported symptoms described by some people living near rural wind turbines.”
 

Source: Wind Energy

 

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.”

 

Wind power and one African boy's astonishing story

I’ll keep this wind energy post as short as my last one was long. I’m speechless and inspired by the story I just read of a self-educated African boy from Malawi who in 2002 cobbled together bike parts, gum tree wood, an old shock absorber and other junk to bring the first sparks of electric power to his village. Fourteen-year-old William Kamkwamba of Masitala had spent so much time tinkering and dump-picking in preparing his wind turbine that his neighbors thought he was smoking pot. But when he scaled the rickety 16-foot tower and sparked up a car light bulb, he became a village sensation. He has since created the village’s first water supply and irrigation system. Read the BBC article. There’s a video, too. And a book.

Wind energy's huge opportunity ... and its challenges

I see so many windmill blades I feel like Don Quixote. There are at least five windmills – turbines we call them now, since they’re only milling electrons – within a 20-minute bike ride of my doorstep. These devices hint at the appeal, promise and challenges of wind power as a major energy source for the country and the world.
 
A trio of turbine towers spikes the farmland just up the road in Eliot, Maine. Although the proud owners expect an eventual payback, are receiving tax credits, and are putting a few kilowatts back into the grid, their motives are largely ecological: In the first month, John Sullivan’s 2.4-kilowatt[1] turbine “saved 120.4 pounds of CO2 from going in the air.” That’s the amount he figures a coal-powered plant would have pumped out making that electricity.
 
Unfortunately, the next town over, Kittery, is dismantling the 50-kilowatt turbine it erected in 2008 and returning it to the manufacturer for a refund, citing “underperformance” of the project. Trees and buildings created turbulence no one had accounted for, and the tower was producing only 15 percent of its projected power.
 
But there’s more hope back in Eliot. East of the farms, on the banks of the Piscataqua River, deep sea engineer Ben Brickett has been developing a turbine that turns in a breeze as gentle as 2 mph. That’s big, because low-wind days are the bane of traditional turbines. Called a variable force generator, Brickett’s invention converts wind directly into electricity, bypassing the conventional gearbox. Unlike other turbines, he says, it also manages to produce power in proportion to the wind speed, up to 60 mph. His company, Blue Water Concepts, is deep into prototype testing and is attracting interest from academia and manufacturing partners.
 
These are just a few small examples of how the Unites States has come to be the world leader in wind power with the fastest-growing capacity.
 
A mighty wind
The U.S. wind energy industry installed a record-breaking 8,500 megawatts of new wind-generation capacity last year, enough to serve more than 2 million homes, according to the American Wind Energy Association. That brought the country’s total capacity up to 23,500 megawatts and pumped $17 billion into the economy. The new projects accounted for roughly 42 percent of the entire new power-producing capacity added in 2008. It was like taking more than 7 million cars off the road.
 
The country has more than enough wind resources to reach a 20-percent wind energy contribution to the US elecrtricity supply by 2030, according to a DOE report. We’re currently at 4 percent for wind, biomass, geothermal, solar, and miscellaneous sources combined.
 
As this DOE map shows, the best wind is on the coasts and in the plains states. Texas leads the country with the most installed wind-based capacity by a wide margin, followed by Iowa, California, Minnesota and Washington.
 
Without losing sight of our tremendous progress, to follow is a list of obstacles impeding even more robust wind development. Anyone promoting wind, whether a new turbine design or 500-megawatt wind farm, needs to consider these obstacles as they set out on their crusade.
 
Infrastructure
The country needs transmission systems that can shuttle power from rural wind farms to urban centers as well as load balancing installations that enable regions to consume a mix of generation sources.
 
Aesthetics
Green, in addition to being good, is fashionable. So your neighbor may never be more welcoming of the sight of a windmill, or fleet of them, on your roof or farm. That said, there’s plenty of resistance. The $900 million Cape Wind project slated for Nantucket, Mass., has dragged on in permitting, politics and litigation since 2001. Viewshed impact is high on opponents’ list of concerns. So why not site wind farms on sparsely populated land? That’s not so simple either, as a Wyoming farmer is finding out.
 
Ecology
Ten thousand birds, including 80 golden eagles, die every year at a California wind farm near San Francisco, according to a study by the local community development agency. Wind proponents blame that carnage an unlikely convergence of factors, including bad siting and older turbine technology. On average, they say, wind power’s avian toll is extremely low.
 
Noise
No doubt about it, windmills make noise. But the key questions include: How loud? Is the sound of whooshing blades a bad noise? How far away are you? How fast is the wind blowing? Wind proponents put windmill noise in the decibel range of household background noise or the sound of trees and leaves rustling on a blustery day.
 
Taxes
The government (i.e., taxpayers) has begun issuing $500 million in grants to spur wind energy development as part of the economic recovery package. They’re a double-edged sword for people worrying about personal and national debt.
 
Foreign Investments
One company with Spanish DNA has received more than half of that $500 million grant money, says the Environmental News Service. Too many reports like this won’t sit well with the public.
 
The communications strategy
So what does this all mean for the inventor or company promoting wind? The good news is there’s abundant popular support and a persuasive case for wind and other renewable energy sources. Yet, as with any complex technology that needs to go in someone’s backyard, there is bound to be wariness, if not opposition, to siting proposals.
 
Consequently, any development effort requires a solid communications plan born out of this strategy:
 
  1. Identify all the potential benefits of a project, not just those in your market segment or locale. Include the benefits of wind to the planet.
  2. Talking points promoting your project are just a start. You need data, and there is plenty of it out there. As you can see by the links in this blog, the American Wind Energy Association is a great place to start.
  3. Develop content up front that documents all of the benefits. Main audiences include the public, planners and regulators.
  4. Connect with advocacy organizations, politicians, utilities, business groups, landowners, conservationists and educators who are likely to favor your project.
  5. Anticipate all potential concerns and prepare to address them squarely. Avoid defensiveness or reactivity. Listen and talk rather than argue. Some skeptics just need to be informed.
  6. Depending on what you’re proposing, you could end up with a lot of energized opposition. Make sure you have the arms, legs and content to swiftly and effectively address the concerns.
  7. If you believe in your project, stay the course.
 
Some helpful resources from the American Wind Energy Association:
 
Handbook for permitting small wind turbines:
 
Talking points on the benefits of wind energy.
 
Handbook for commercial scale siting.
 
Wind power outlook for 2009


[1] A 5kW turbine is sufficient on average to power a home. Variables include wind speed, turbine height, terrain and home energy usage, according to the American Wind Energy Association.

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.

An unlikely love story: Alaska and renewable energy

Agree with it or not, Sarah Palin’s hymn to the oil industry, “drill baby drill” was one of the 2009 election’s catchiest mantras. Surprising to find, then, that Palin is a fan of renewable energy, according to a recent New York Times report. Furthermore, Alaska, the second-largest oil producing state after Texas, is fertile ground for renewable energy. Fuel prices there are high. Strong winds support a growing wind power industry. Palin wants 50 percent of the state’s electricity to come from hydro power by 2025.

This doesn’t actually jibe with Alaska’s image as the oil and gas industry’s treasured love child, but there’s more to this story than irony. It speaks to why renewable energy’s time might actually have arrived. For real, this time, and not like the giant renewable energy head fake of the 1970s.

That was the era when the Gulf oil states started flicking the spigot on and off according to how many tricked out 747s the Saudi royal family needed, or how mad they were at Washington over U.S. Middle East policy. Gas efficient cars went mainstream. The first roof-mounted solar arrays appeared. Utilities invested in fuel cell development. Jimmy Carter put solar panels on the White House roof. Schools and other public buildings were designed using passive solar heating and cooling techniques. Then the price of sweet crude dropped into the cellar, Ronald Reagan ripped out the White House solar panels, and the renewable energy industry turned back into a hippie pipe dream.

So renewable energy is hot again, but why won’t it suffer the same fate it did when bell bottoms were in style? After all, we live in a market economy. No matter how good an idea renewable energy is, the market still favors fossil fuels. When the price of oil falls, the power that renewable energy sources produce is too expensive to compete. 

The difference between now and the ‘70s is that the oil’s cost dynamics are changing permanently. China, India, and a host of developing economies are competing with the U.S. in international oil markets. Barring a complete collapse of those countries’ industrialization programs, that competition will keep oil prices at steadily higher levels. Also, the era of cheaply extracted oil is waning. An increasingly large percentage of oil reserves are hard to get out of the ground, and the prices will reflect the greater effort and new technology to bring it to market.

Rural Alaska is a laboratory for this dynamic. Market forces, acting through the price of shipping and the per-gallon price of the fuel, conspire to make fuel-generated electricity outrageously expensive in rural Alaska - five to ten times higher than in the lower 48. If the price of oil were lower, the market might be able to absorb the high delivery costs. But the price isn’t low enough, and here’s betting that it never will be. That means the local market conditions in rural Alaska will permanently favor renewables. “Despite high installation costs and the need for cold-weather engineering,” the Times reported, “wind turbines can often produce power at a lower cost than diesel generators by eliminating the need for fuel.”

How long before the base price of oil rises enough to make wind and solar the economic choice in rural Wyoming, the Dakotas, Texas, California, etc.? A long time off, maybe. But the fact that it is already happening in Alaska is not an isolated fluke. It’s the first sign that the economic case for renewable energy is growing strong enough to endure the next temporary decline in oil prices.

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