Infographic: US renewable energy consumption on the rise

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

Top green tech links for the week of 3/15

Once wireless foes ZigBee and Wi-Fi make up and agree to play nice for smart grid deployments (GreenTechMedia)

[sigh] Nissan Leaf electric car to cost $45K (Earth2Tech)

Frog foam can help make better bio-fuels and carbon capture (GreenBang)

Solar Ivy to grow on your house like, well, ivy? (Jetson Green)

Energy Secretary Steven Chu begins big energy efficiency push (Treehugger)

Good vibrations

If the Smart Grid is to be truly smart and deliver energy efficiency, it will have to rely on swarms of wireless sensors scattered across our work and living spaces, providing continuous feedback of our energy usage.

The problem is, even the tiny low-power sensors consume some power. And replacing a few hundred or even thousand batteries in our buildings every couple years is neither green nor realistic.

Enter energy-harvesting technology, which in theory will be able to capture slight vibrations, motion or other kinetic energy to keep the sensors humming. ZigBee, a low-power wireless sensor standard for home automation, will soon have its own energy-harvesting specification. And ZigBee is already factoring into the forthcoming Smart Grid standards big time, so problem solved, right?

The folks at the EnOcean Alliance say "not so fast," claiming they're way ahead of the energy-harvesting curve with their own technology. Looks like it's shaping into a fun standards Donnybrooker. Amy Westervelt at the Earth2Tech blog has a great rundown of the energy harvesting smackdown.

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.

UNH sets national precedent with major landfill gas project

UNH Thompson Hall - Photo credit: UNH Foundation, Inc.Congratulations to our friends and neighbors at the University of New Hampshire for becoming the first university in the nation to use landfill gas as its primary fuel source.
 
That gas is methane, which is produced naturally as garbage decays at landfills like Turnkey in Rochester, N.H., operated by UNH partner Waste Management Inc. UNHA 12.7-mile pipeline brings purified landfill gas from Waste Management's Turnkey Recycling and Environmental Enterprise (TREE) facility in Rochester to the University of New Hampshire campus in Durham, where it will provide up to 85 percent of the university's energy needs. Credit: Perry Smith, UNH Photographic Services. runs a plant at the landfill site to compress and purify methane collected from 300 extraction wells and miles of pipes. After processing, the gas travels through a 12.7-mile pipeline to the campus’s co-generation plant in Durham. Since 2006, the plant has used commercial natural gas to generate electricity and divert “waste heat” from the power generation to warm campus buildings. This week, the university declared the new system complete, meaning it is now turning on the landfill source. Up to 85 percent of the campus’s electricity and heat will come from the purified natural gas, according to the university.
 
Purified landfill gas replaces commercial natural gas in the University of New Hampshire's cogeneration plant. In operation since 2006, UNH's cogeneration plant captures waste heat normally lost during the production of electricity and uses this energy to heat campus buildings.Credit: Mike Ross, UNH Photographic Services.The total cost of the “EcoLine” project is $49 million, including the pipeline and processing plant. The university is going on record predicting a 10-year payback. To finance the project as well as additional sustainability projects, UNH will sell renewable energy certificates (RECs) and excess power.
 
“This massive project, more than four years in the making, will reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and stabilize our fuel source and costs,” UNH President Mark W. Huddleston said in a news release. “EcoLine showcases UNH’s fiscal and environmental responsibility and secures our leadership position in sustainability.”
 
With the help of EcoLine and RECs sales, UNH is pledging to cut its greenhouse emissions by 50 percent by 2020 and by 80 percent by 2050 with a carbon neutrality target of 2100.
 
As national policy makers ponder a nuclear energy renaissance and consumers sustain a heavy demand for petroleum, it’s wonderful to see this glorious pipe dream come true. Thank you, Waste Management, and thank you, UNH.

Cleantech links for 5-6-2009

- Thinking of going solar? First start with an energy self audit. Here's how (Scientific American)

- Ford is spending $550 million to retool one of its plants into a green car factory (CNET Planetary Gear)

- Is the EPA finally standing up to the corn ethanol lobby? The industry is having a conniption over new biofuel emission rules. (Earth2Tech)

- What do think of Volkswagen's new eco-friendly (or not?) print ad? Greenwash Index wants to know.

- The first LEED Platinum, true Zero Net Energy home in Vermont. (Jetson Green)

- We know the clean energy industry is engineering bacteria to produce better biofuels. But bacteria for better solar panels too?

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.

Kamen segues into LED lighting

Photo by: John Brandon Miller - New York TimesInventor Dean Kamen has taken his three-acre island off the grid by retrofitting the buildings and grounds with LED lighting – some in dazzling colors – to cut power consumption in half. What power he does still need comes from wind and solar. The catch? It wasn’t cheap. Check out the details and the slide show. 

Photo credit: John Brandon Miller, The New York Times

Greening the grid: Big Brother or big savings?

Greening the grid: big brother or big savings? Steve Hodgdon Beaupre & Co.Homeowners tend to cast a cold eye on their electric utilities, particularly when it’s time to pay the bill or when the power fails. So it’s no wonder that a new clean technology initiative from the utility industry called Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) has consumer advocates suspicious with some calling it a Big Brother-like intrusion into folks’ homes.

In a nutshell, AMI aims to help conserve energy by enabling two-way communications between the home and the utility through a wireless network of smart meters and smart devices in the home. Picture a smart air conditioner that the utility can turn down remotely when an over-extended power grid starts straining.

AMI will let consumers and utilities work together to conserve energy consumption in the home during peak energy demand periods. It will also let homeowners see when, how and why they’re sucking down kilowatts so that they can make smarter, greener lifestyle decisions. Consumers benefit by saving energy and getting discount rates for playing ball with the utilities. Utilities benefit by avoiding brown-outs and black-outs during demand response periods. 

Despite the obvious merits, it’s a potentially huge PR challenge that the utility industry has yet to take seriously, which is unfortunate because the critics are on the wrong side of the debate this time, IMO.

What’s not to like? Opponents claim it's a waste of ratepayer money that hasn't proven it will reduce electricity usage. They say that fluctuating time-of-day pricing will give utilities the opportunity to raise, not lower, prices. And they don’t like the idea of giving the power company the power to reach in and have their way with your home. Ratepayer advocates such as TURN, The Utility Reform Network, have already launched aggressive legal and political campaigns against the initiative in California and elsewhere.

As a skeptic who never likes to pass up an opportunity to stick it to The Man, I should be wary too. But homes and buildings are worse polluters and energy guzzlers than cars. And ever-growing energy demand, wars for oil and climate change are just a few good reasons for taking risks on new technologies that stand to conserve energy in homes. It will be interesting to see how well the utility industry can counter the ratepayer backlash and rally support for its new initiative.
{Disclosure: Beaupre client, Ember, makes wireless chips that enable AMI applications}
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UPDATE: Celeste LeCompte at GigaOM covers the issue from the home appliance perspective.
UPDATE: The Wall Street Journal also weighs in.

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