Japan’s Rapid Residential Solar Power Growth

kristy Greentech

Japan’s Rapid Residential Solar Power Growth

Posted: 05 Apr 2012 07:14 AM PDT

We’ve written about many (if not all) of the topics below in the past year or so. But this is a great little summary of the rapid solar growth occurring in Japan at the moment, from the Marketing Director of Kyocera Solar Corporation (a leading solar panel company), and I figured it was worth a share, so here it is (I’ve just pulled out what I think are the key sections):

Even before the 11 March 2011 disasters, the domestic solar market was experiencing high growth, with more than 1GW of domestic shipments of solar power equipment for residential, industrial, commercial and utility-scale installations in fiscal year 2011; up almost 160% from the year before.

Aided by the restart of the national subsidy program for residential solar power in January 2009, and a feed-in tariff program that was also started in November of the same year, which purchases excess energy at 42 Yen/kWh for installations smaller than 10kW*2, it is expected that up through the end of March 2012 more than one million homes in Japan will have installed solar power. Furthermore, it is anticipated that the number of installations will continue to increase annually by roughly 12% in the coming years.

Still, following the March disasters, the Japanese government quickly moved to support renewable energies passing a revamped feed-in tariff (FiT) bill which is slated to go into effect 1 July, 2012, and will purchase not only excess power, but all power generated by solar installations over 10kW. The purchase price per kilowatt and length of the new FiT are still undecided, but favorable conditions would be certain to further stimulate the solar market and adoption of renewable energies.

… there is a growing trend toward energy self-sufficiency on a local and individual level. The number of applications for residential-use solar subsidies ballooned to 215,178 in the period from April 2011 to January 2012, up 140% from the previous year. Following the March disasters, solar companies have also come up with new solutions to meet these energy needs. One such example is Kyocera’s all-in-one energy management system (EMS) which combines a solar power generating system with a lithium-ion battery storage unit. This technology not only provides back-up energy in the event of a blackout or natural disaster, but can also help lower consumption from the grid during peak hours by efficiently controlling energy use from solar power, the battery unit and the grid.

“Schematic of energy use flow using Kyocera’s solar power generating system & energy management system with Nichicon’s power storage unit.”

By 2020, it is believed that 70% of new homes will come equipped with solar power, thus allowing more and more people to generate their own clean energy.

Aside from residential solar, commercial and utility-scale solar are also booming in Japan — read a bit more on that via the link below.

Source: Solar Novus

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BMW’s Coolest Car Yet? Electric i8 Roadster (i8 Spyder)

Posted: 05 Apr 2012 07:00 AM PDT

BMW has unveiled a wicked concept electric car, the i8 Spyder (tons of pictures below). It’s easily the coolest BMW I’ve ever seen. Jo Borras covered it on the day of its unveiling on sister site Gas2, but the fact that BMW unveiled this beauty on April 1 had Jo concerned the i8 Spyder might just be another elaborate April Fools’ Day joke. It seems it was not, since BMW’s still got it on its i8 cars page. Let’s hope BMW isn’t just slow to reveal that it was a joke. Here’s more form BMW on the i8 Spyder:

BMW i proudly introduces the BMW i8 Concept Spyder. The combination of intelligent, lightweight design and cutting edge BMW eDrive technology imbues this new model with genuine sports car performance, yet its fuel consumption is no greater than that of a small car….

The BMW i8 Concept Spyder is powered by the groundbreaking BMW eDrive technology, consisting of an agile BMW electric motor, innovative battery technology and an intelligent engine management system, coupled with a TwinPower Turbo combustion engine. In a show of unmatched coordination – and due to the car’s minimised weight – this two-seated, open-top sports car reaches a combined system output of up to 260 kW (354 hp) while using no more than 3 litres of fuel at 100 km*.

The BMW i8 Concept Spyder proves that you should never underestimate the potential of electricity.
(*European test cycle)

And here’s Jo’s post from April 1, quite a fun read:

BMW Trots Out Sexxxy New i8 Roadster (via Gas 2.0)

Are you there, God? It’s me, Jo. I know we don’t always see eye-to-eye on things, but I’d like to thing that (in the main) we’re good. I still believe that, despite the fact that they don’t run 52 Formula 1 races each year and that whole thing with the French girl (which, really, I didn’…

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SOLarchitect Helps You Design Your Own Rooftop Solar Power System

Posted: 05 Apr 2012 06:51 AM PDT

“Disneyland could offset 108 trees a year with just a small system near their main entrance, but they have so much more flat roof space for solar! It’s a green world after all…just use your imagination…”

It’s easy to get a quote for a rooftop solar power system from a local solar installer. Some even use ”aerial photography and satellite images to generate a rendering of a solar photovoltaic system, installation costs, and potential savings,” as former CleanTechnica editor Ariel Schwartz notes over on Fast Company. But a solar startup out of New Orleans is taking us one step further with software to help us design our own rooftop solar power systems!

“The Playboy Mansion could save $4,904 each year with solar panels.”

More from Ariel: SOLarchitect, a New Orleans startup, just scored $50,000 during a New Orleans Entrepreneur Week competition for its product: a web application that lets users put virtual solar panels on their homes and automatically calculate energy savings and tax credits.

What’s in it for SOLarcitect? Well, if you like what you see, SOLarchitect will direct you to three local contractor bidding to put a solar power system on your roof. If you go with one of them, SOLarchitect gets a cut for its services.

“The startup was part of the 2012 IDEAxcelerator, a New Orleans-based accelerator for local startups that helped participants with business plans and mentoring for six months.”

As you can see if you visit the SOLarchitect site, it’s still in “coming soon” mode. But it’s got news, behind-the-scenes photos, and a bunch of demo images created using its software on Facebook. Here are a few more of those:

“Brad Pitt’s Make it Right houses have solar panels already, but there’s sometimes room for more…this house can save another $457 a year with 14 more panels!”

“Newt Gingrich can comfortably offset about 46,386 lbs. of CO2 annually by putting solar panels on his headquarters in Washington, D.C. “GOP” = Green & Overly Progressive!”

“President Obama could offset 87 barrels of oil a year by installing solar panels on the White House. Freeing the U.S. from our dependence on foreign oil should begin right here…”

What do you think? Is SOLarchitect going to rock the solar industry? I think it really could — this is fun, addictive, convenient, and make going solar so much more accessible and natural than anything else I’ve seen! I’m excited about it.

Source: Co.Exist

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Copenhagen Wheel (Pictures & Video)

Posted: 05 Apr 2012 06:30 AM PDT

We’ve somehow never covered the Copenhagen Wheel here on CleanTechnica — don’t ask me how that’s possible (I’ve written about it somewhere, but no idea which website that was at the moment). Luckily, Jo Borras recently covered this sweet-as-cherry-pie bike ‘wheel’ (which was created by a group of MIT innovators) over on Gas2, with a new not-so-new video on it. Learn a bit about the Copenhagen Wheel via this repost:

Riding the Copenhagen Wheel (w/ video) (via Gas 2.0)

We’ve written a number of articles covering hybrid-electric bicycles over the years – and every one of them has a comment by some clown reader that asks about the Copenhagen Wheel. As well they should! Developed by the young brainiacs at MIT, the Copenhagen Wheel is, essentially, a bolt-on item…

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UK Company Likes Its Energy Naked

Posted: 05 Apr 2012 05:50 AM PDT

A cleantech start-up out of the UK, Naked Energy, has created a technology that’s a little over my head, but that looks quite cool.

Basically, one of the key challenges of solar photovoltaics (PV) is that their efficiency drops if they get too hot. Naked Energy, in response, has created a hybrid solar PV and thermal panel that it claims improves efficiency at high temperatures by 50% or so.

“By efficiently drawing heat away from the solar panel for space heating, hot water, de-salination and cooling the photovoltaic cells are maintained at an optimum operating temperature,” the company writes. “This results in significantly higher electrical output than standard photovoltaic panels.”

“Both energy outputs are optimized replacing the need for two separate conventional panels (PV and Thermal), dramatically reducing installation time and cost whilst maximizing useable installation area.”

The general term for these is PVT (photovoltaic thermal) solar. Naked Energy’s specific product is called Virtu™.

So, how hot do normal PV panels have to get before their efficiency starts getting hit? Apparently, just 25ºC, above which they start losing about half a percent of their efficiency for every extra degree. And these panels can reach as high as 70-80ºC!

How does Naked Energy’s technology transfer heat away from the PV cells while making it available for heating water? The solar PV cells are stuck inside a vacuum enclosed by glass (see image above).

“The vacuum tubes have low thermal losses and will produce abundant hot water / heat regardless of being installed in hot or cold climates. The annual yield depends on the application, local climatic conditions and quantity of panels installed.”

The company is also working on some thermal-only tubes for very hot climates. “For installations requiring high temperatures for thermally driven cooling or heat storage we are producing matching ‘thermal only’ vacuum tubes, which will be able to produce significantly higher temperatures.”

These PVT panels are still being evaluated, by Imperial College London, and results will be published in 2012.

As always in such cases, it’s hard to know at such an early stage if the improved efficiencies offset the added costs of production enough to make this new technology a commercially competitive option (for the targeted market). We’ll see. For now, it certainly looks like an innovative and logical way to deal with a common PV efficiency problem.

Source: Naked Energy

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Solar Policy Can Change When Solar Hits Grid Parity by a Decade

Posted: 05 Apr 2012 05:24 AM PDT

In their excellent interactive graphic, Bloomberg Energy Finance calls solar grid parity (when electricity from solar costs less than grid power) the “golden goal.” It’s an excellent illustration of how the right energy policy can help a nation go gold on solar or wallow in metallurgical obscurity. In the case of the U.S., it may mean delaying grid parity by eight years.

In the screenshot below, countries in purple have reached the golden goal in 2012, based on the quality of their solar resource and the cost of grid electricity, as well as a 6% expected return on investment for solar developers. (Note to Bloomberg graphic designers — countries meeting the golden goal could be colored gold).

By 2020, the universe of countries has expanded significantly, and includes the United States.*

*But this picture isn’t accurate, because the type of solar policy influences investors’ expected rate of return and solar policies vary significantly across countries. In Germany, their feed-in tariff policy offers long-term, fixed-price contracts for solar. This certainty and policy transparency means lower risk and investors accept a modest 6% return on investment.

In the U.S., however, there is high uncertainty.

Incentives for renewable energy have a habit of expiring based on the vagaries of federal and states legislatures. Incentives come in the form of tax credits, leaving developers dependent on a fluctuating market for tax equity partners to “monetize” the credits. This higher risk means solar developers want higher returns (more like 10% than 6%). (I wrote about this in a report last fall).

The 4% higher expected rate of return means another eight years of waiting for the golden goal, delaying solar grid parity in the U.S. from 2020 to 2028.

This highlights a huge irony in U.S. energy policy. There’s a strong bias toward “market-based” policy (auctions, renewable energy credit markets, etc), on the assumption that cutthroat competition to deliver solar will give ratepayers the best deal. But the high risk to developers means an expectation of higher returns, so that the winning bids are likely higher than could be proffered in a low risk environment.

High risk means Americans will pay more for solar than their international counterparts. It probably explains why Germans — with a decade of low-risk under their feed-in tariff — are installing solar for [nearly] half the cost in America. It undermines the opportunity for local ownership, a key tool for spreading the economic rewards of and political support for solar power.

Reaching the golden goal is inevitable, but a country’s time of arrival depends heavily on its choice of solar policy.

This piece was originally published at the Energy Self Reliant States blog and re-printed with permission.

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U.S. Airports are Sitting on a Biofuel Goldmine

Posted: 05 Apr 2012 05:19 AM PDT

According to a new report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, airports could become a significant source of biomass for biofuels. The key takeaway from the report, Airports Offer Unrealized Potential for Alternative Energy Production, is that the typical airport environment is already managed to include wide swaths of grasslands, and to preclude wildlife (think Canada geese) that compromises flight safety.

Why grow biofuel crops at airports?
One main obstacle to introducing biofuels in the mass market is the risk that a significant increase in acreage for biofuel crops will destroy habitats and impinge on land needed for food production. A sustainable national biofuel policy will have to exploit marginal lands and environments that are already built or managed, and airports fit the bill. A similar approach to sustainable wind farm siting has been studied by The Nature Conservancy, which determined that wind energy production can be increased significantly in the U.S. without necessarily threatening important wildlife habitats, simply by focusing construction on pre-developed locations.

Biofuels and rural communities
The USDA has a rural economic development mission that dovetails with biofuel production in general, and airport biofuel potential in particular. As explained by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack:

“Converting airport grasslands to biofuel, solar or wind production not only provides more environmentally-sound alternative energy sources for our country, but may also increase revenue for airports and reduce the local abundance of potentially hazardous wildlife to aircraft. Such efforts may be particularly beneficial for rural economic development, as many rural airport properties contain expansive grasslands that potentially could be converted to biofuel crops or other renewable energy sources.”

Airports as alternative energy power stations
In addition to biofuel crop potential, airports and U.S. Air Force bases are also emerging as important sites for solar installations and for geothermal energy, too. Recent Air Force and Army funding for solar research will help step up those…efforts in the future. Meanwhile, the USDA is continuing its research on biofuel crop production in combination with wildlife management at airports in different regions of the U.S.

Image: Some rights reserved by Mr. Mystery

Follow Tina Casey on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.

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Saab May Reincarnate as EV Maker

Posted: 05 Apr 2012 04:00 AM PDT

I can’t lie — I was never a fan of Saab. But I know many folks are/were. One such fan would be Chris DeMorro, editor of sister site Gas2. So, he seems quite happy at the prospect of Saab reincarnating as an electric vehicle (EV) company. And, to be honest, I am too — the more EV makers, the better! Here’s more on the possibility of that from Chris (with perhaps the prettiest Saab I’ve ever seen pictured at the top):

Could Saab Come Back As An EV Maker? (via Gas 2.0)

My first car was a 200,000-mile Mercury mini-van. When that died, my parents helped me buy a Saab 900 Turbo. That car was fast, fun, and safe, saving my life in not one, but two accidents. So I was sad to hear that the Swedish automaker was finally closing down for good. Or is it? A Chinese-Japanese…

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Atomic Chemistry: From Green Research Labs and Climate Science to Supply Chains

Posted: 05 Apr 2012 03:51 AM PDT

Advances in technology and the application of atomic chemistry are adding up to a leap forward in the environmental sciences and engineering, as well as the way natural resources are being consumed and used throughout the supply chains of a growing range of industry and commerce.

Once practically affordable only for the world’s leading and largest research institutions, sophisticated chemical ‘analyzers’ the size of a common home workbench are able to identify and very precisely measure chemical isotopes at the atomic scale on-the-fly, and they are now being used by a wide and growing range of commercial and non-profit enterprises around the world– from food and agriculture industry players and environmental organizations to oil & gas companies and water and power utilities.

Their use is advancing understanding of the origin and complex cycling of fundamental chemical elements on earth, as well as enabling organizations to verify and authenticate the origin and source of almost any substance, material or product that contains carbon, hydrogen and oxygen– the building blocks of life on earth, as well as track them as they make their way from source to market and end use.

Picarro’s Stable Isotope, Cavity Ring Spectrometer Technology

From its home base in Santa Clara, California, Picarro is at the leading edge of this ‘step change’ in atomic and isotope chemistry. Backed by venture capital, the start-up designs, develops and manufactures portable cavity ring spectrometers that from almost miniscule samples can identify and measure the ratios of different chemical elements and their stable isotopic forms: C-12 and C-13 for carbon, hydrogen and deuterium, N-14 and N-15 for nitrogen and O-16, O-17 and O-18 for oxygen. Even more impressively, they can do this on-the-fly, even from a moving vehicle.

Akin to fingerprints, these atomic-level, stable isotopic chemical “signatures” can be used to pinpoint the geographic origin and source of almost any substance that contains carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and/or oxygen– from air, apples, bananas, cocoa, corn, trees or fish to water, oil and natural gas, Picarro director of business development Iain Green told Clean Technica.

Originally requiring some rather bulky equipment and prohibitively expensive for most organizations, Picarro’s cavity ring spectrometers are the size of a common home workbench, and they can process samples for around $1 each, Green said.

Once used almost exclusively in the world’s leading and largest scientific research labs, their significantly reduced size and cost is leading a growing number of industrial and commercial organizations to purchase and put them to use in a growing variety of applications.

An Expanding Range of Applicaitons

Understanding and learning how to use chemical isotope analysis and its cavity ring spectrometry technology is part and parcel of Picarro’s business development efforts. The company is engaged in an increasingly diverse range of projects, from verifying the location of grapes grown in California vineyards and crops grown from GMO seeds in Canada to determining the origin of West African cocoa, timber from Indonesian and Malaysian palm oil properties and the source, location and chemical composition of leaks in PG&E (Pacific Gas & Electric) natural gas transmission lines.

Picarro’s cavity ring spectrometers were originally, and still are, employed in addressing some of the world’s most vexing environmental issues, including those to do with atmospheric, ocean and climate science, hydrology and water resource management, and understanding the carbon, nitrogen and oxygen cycles. That range of applications is now expanding from the physical to the natural sciences, and from basic academic research to helping solve real-world problems in the industrial and commercial spheres, Green related.

For instance, Picarro’s working with GMO seed companies in Canada to identify and geographically track the location, and hence use, of their products on farms across Canada’s farm belt. California wine growers are employing Picarro’s stable isotope analyzers to authenticate exactly where the grapes used to make specific bottles of wine were grown.

Isotope Analysis, Fair Trade & Human Rights

They’re also increasingly being used to tackle issues related to Fair Trade and human rights, such as verifying the origin and tracking smuggled shipments of coacoa from the Ivory Coast across the border into Ghana and beyond, into the supply chains of the world’s major producers and distributors of chocolate. Indonesian and palm oil plantation owners have contacted Picarro regarding using its technology to verify and track the origin of timber.

As Green explained, “Any plant anywhere in the world is photosynthesizing…[and taking up] different isotopic ratios” of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. In addition to the most common form of the hydrogen atom, a slightly heavier form, deuterium, is also found on Earth.

“The relative percentage of these two isotopes differs in different parts of the world.” The same is true for the most common, naturally occurring carbon isotope, C-12, and its less common isotope, C-13. Both hydrogen and carbon exist in rarer, radioactive forms, tritium and C-14, respectively, the former produced in nuclear power plants and the latter used in radioactive dating of samples that contain organic material.

The economic significance and implications associated with verifying the origin and source of ingredients and materials, and their environmental impact, is only going to increase in coming years, Green and Picarro believe. And recently living, or live, organic material isn’t the only class of substances Picarro’s technology is being used to analyze.

Economic Implications

PG&E (Pacific Gas & Electric) has outfitted one of its Toyota Prius field vehicles with a mobile version of Picarro’s cavity ring spectrometer workbench. Rather than having employees walk miles and miles of natural gas transmission lines with a wand-like device to sniff out and verify natural gas leaks, PG&E staff can now drive along these transmission lines and do so at a fraction of the cost.

Stable chemical isotope analysis is also playing a critical role in establishing the source, origin, resulting responsibility, and liability for oil and gas leaks. One university researcher is using it to track the ingestion and spread of oil from BP’s Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig blowout through the marine food web, Green recounted.

One actively pursued application in the European Union (EU) is using isotope analyzers to detect the use of illegal herbicides and pesticides in agriculture. Illegal herbicides and pesticides manufactured in China are being smuggled into the EU via Baltic Sea area ports.

“This raises questions as to how to determine whether a farmer is using an approved pesticide,” Green explained. Using Picarro’s technology “can tell you whether a synthetic pesticide has been made in Asia or Europe, for example.”

Along a related vein is the use of chemical isotope analysis in the fast growing renewable resource chemical industry. Whether it’s developing chemicals for agriculture, food, industry or medicine, companies involved in these fields are increasingly turning to natural, renewable sources to develop new products that are environmentally benign and whose use is more sustainable from economic, social and environmental perspectives, Green continued.

Isotope Analysis and Renewable Resource Chemicals and Materials

Coca-Cola, for example, is using Picarro’s cavity ring technology to ensure the integrity of the renewable resource plastic it’s helping develop and using in its bottles. “We sell the analyzers and the companies carry out their own analyses,” Green added. “It pays for itself in a few thousand samples; literally about $1 a sample,” and that includes power costs.

What does Picarro see out on the horizon in terms of the application of isotope analysis and the use of its cavity ring technology? “In time, more and more people are going to have to look beyond food labels,” Green said. “We suspect legislation will go beyond current requirements, which require more bar coding, to include more labeling.

“We expect to see more interest from the food, agriculture and natural resource industries, as well as the renewable resource industry, which has been growing at double digit rates for the past ten years. And they don’t have a reliable test for their supply chain integrity.”

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UK Emissions Dropped 7% in 2011

Posted: 04 Apr 2012 04:17 PM PDT

It was recently announced that UK greenhouse gas emissions dropped 7% in 2011. “In 2011, UK emissions of the basket of six greenhouse gases covered by the Kyoto Protocol were provisionally estimated to be 549.3 million tonnes carbon dioxide equivalent,” the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change noted. “This was 7.0 per cent lower than the 2010 figure of 590.4 million tonnes.”

This was partly due to reduced energy demand (especially from warmer weather) and partly from increased low-carbon electricity generation.

Here are some more statistics from the DECC:

§ Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the main greenhouse gas, accounting for about 84 per cent of total UK greenhouse gas emissions in 2010, the latest year for which final results are available. In 2011, UK net emissions of carbon dioxide were provisionally estimated to be 456.3 million tonnes (Mt). This was 8.0 per cent lower than the 2010 figure of 495.8 Mt.

§ Between 2010 and 2011, there were decreases in CO2 emissions from most of the main sectors. The provisional estimates show decreases in emissions of 22.0 per cent (19.1 Mt) from the residential sector, 6.1 per cent (11.8 Mt) from the energy supply sector, and 8.0 per cent (6.0 Mt) from the business sector. Emissions from the transport sector were down by 1.4 per cent (1.7 Mt) since 2010. All these sectoral breakdowns are based on the source of the emissions, as opposed to where the end-user activity occurred. Emissions related to electricity generation are therefore attributed to power stations, the source of these emissions, rather than homes and businesses where electricity is used.

The DECC notes that nuclear electricity generation increased in 2011, and renewable energy did as well, up from 7.5% of electricity production in 2010 to 9.5% in 2011, a 35% increase. In total, 34.8 terrawatt Hours (TWh) of electricity was produced from renewables in 2011. Wind increased 54.5%, offshore wind increased 68%, and hydro increased 58%.

Sources: UK DECC & Business Green
Images: UK onshore wind turbines courtesy shutterstock & offshore wind turbines courtesy Wessex Archaeology/flickr

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Greece 2050 Green Energy Roadmap Key to Its Economic Recovery, Country Says

Posted: 04 Apr 2012 03:52 PM PDT

Greece is confident that its considerable green energy goals and roadmap will lead it out of its economic troubles. Those plans, which include a €20-billion solar power initiative, are also supposed to lead it to 100% green electricity by 2050.

Greece Wants to Become Major Solar Energy Player
Lucas Papademos, who was speaking at a renewable energy and infrastructure development summit in Athens yesterday, said that he wants the country to become the EU’s largest exporter of green energy. Its Project Helios initiative is a big part of that, and is supposed to bring Greek solar energy from 206 MW of capacity in 2010 to 2.2 GW (2,200 MW) of capacity by 2020 to 10 GW (10,000) MW of capacity by 2050.

Through this plan, Greece hopes to bring in €20 billion of investment and become a net solar power exporter.

“No other OECD country has reduced its deficit by so much so quickly. But fiscal harmonization isn’t enough for development. The energy sector gives Greece an opportunity to become a hub for the European Union and third countries,” Papademos said.

“The Helios project represents viable development and it will enable Greece to become the largest exporter in the EU of clean energy.”

Greece Renewable Energy Plan
In addition to Papademos’ speech on these matters, Greece’s Energy and Climate Change Minister, George Papakonstantinou, launched a 2050 energy roadmap draft yesterday which should help get Greece to 80% emissions cuts by 2050 (an EU target).

The plan shows that under a ‘moderate’ scenario Greece would cut emissions 40% by 2050 (on 2005 levels), but that more progressive policies would lead to a 60-70% cut, with 85-100% of electricity coming from renewable energy sources by that point. Renewable penetration as a whole would reach 60-70% as use of biofuels would increase 31-34% (a bit less than use of renewable energy sources for electricity).

Image: Athens Academy by Egui_ published under a CC license Some rights reserved

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Chevy Volt Sales Way Up — March Its Strongest Sales Month to Date

Posted: 04 Apr 2012 02:36 PM PDT

After a short bit of trouble this Winter as numerous members of the GOP and conservative media attacked GM’s Chevy Volt, the Volt has bounced back with force. “The Volt had its strongest sales month to date in March, with sales of more than 2,000 vehicles. Sales nearly doubled from January to February and that trend continued into March,” GM wrote yesterday.

News that Chevy Volt drivers could use California’s HOV lanes, an attractive leasing option in California, a strong pro-Volt (nearly 100% Volt) policy a GE, and some myth-busting and very pro-Volt talk on FOX News all probably helped the Volt along in March. I’m curious to see what the coming months bring.

Last month was a great month for clean cars in general. As noted yesterday, the Prius hit an all-time US sales record in March, as did the Camry Hybrid. ”More plug-ins in total were sold last month than in any month since December 2010, when the Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Volt–the first two mass produced electric cars of the modern era–went on sale,” Green Car Reports notes.

February Volt sales were at 1,023, while March sales reached 2,289.

Nissan Leaf sales increased from 478 to 579 for the same time period, and its 2012 sales at the end of March were 1,733, more than three times the 2011 figure of 452.

What’s the bottom line? As gas prices increase and people see more and more stories about clean cars such as the Volt, Leaf, and Prius, sales are rising. That’s good news for the owners who will benefit from these cleaner and more efficient cars, for those of us who would rather not die of heart and lung cancer, and for those of us who like living in a world with a livable climate and want our descendants to have the same opportunity.

Image Credit: GM

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Trade-in the 20th Century Electric Grid, Don’t Trade-off Local Energy

Posted: 04 Apr 2012 02:09 PM PDT

In a New York Times SundayReview piece last month – Drawing the Line at Power Lines – Elisabeth Rosenthal suggested that our desire for clean energy will require significant tradeoffs:

There are pipelines, trains, trucks and high-voltage transmission lines. None of them are pretty, and all have environmental drawbacks. But if you want to drive your cars, heat your homes and watch TV, you will have to choose among these unpalatable options…

Perhaps the answer is simply that in an increasingly crowded powered-on world, we’re all going to have to accept that Governor Cuomo’s so-called energy highway is likely to traverse our backyard.

I disagree.

The future of American electricity policy is not about tradeoffs, but rather a chance to trade-in an obsolete, centralized paradigm for a local, clean energy future. Utilities would have us believe that new high-voltage transmission lines are necessary to get more wind and solar power. But the truth is that the American electricity industry refuses to embrace the fundamentally different nature of renewable energy: its ubiquity means that Americans can produce energy near where they use it, in an economically competitive manner, and at a community scale.

The 20th century electricity system was centrally controlled and centrally-owned, a necessary evil when coal, gas, and nuclear power plants had significant economies of scale and required enormous capital investments. The supply lines for these power plants were equally large, connecting far-off mines, oil and gas fields via rail and pipeline to these remote power plants, and big transmission lines in turn carried the electricity from these power plants to big urban centers.

An electricity system primarily powered by wind and solar is fundamentally different. Turbines and panels are always right at the fuel source, whether on a rural farm or an urban rooftop. And because their scale is substantially more amenable to community ownership, renewable energy can be built near to and provide economic benefits to the communities it powers.

The fundamental shift means Americans should trade-in an obsolete model of centralized energy generation for one that matches and builds support for the local energy opportunity.

Local ownership and its economic benefits should play a significant role. For example, researchers in Germany recently surveyed local support for expanding wind energy production, comparing two towns with nearby wind farms. When the local turbines were absentee-owned, 60 percent of residents were opposed to more local wind power. Opposition dropped by 45 percentage points when the wind farm was locally owned. It’s no different from the fight over the Badger-Coulee transmission line in Western Wisconsin, where locals have raised hell knowing that they will be asked to pay as much as $5 billion for new transmission lines that will earn utilities an 11% (or greater) return with questionable local economic benefit.

Locally owned wind power is in short supply, however, because federal and state energy policy make it extremely difficult. Community ownership could be best achieved through cooperatives, schools, or cities, but federal wind incentives are for taxable entities, not these rooted community organizations. Furthermore, federal tax credits require wind power project participants to have “passive income” from investments, ruling out the vast majority of Americans. When community wind projects succeed, like the South Dakota Wind Partners, organizers admit that repeating the success is unlikely in light of the legal and financial complexities.

Community-scaled wind and solar projects also struggle against an electricity system stacked against small-scale or “distributed” generation. A recent study in Minnesota, for example, suggested that the state could meet its entire 25% by 2025 renewable energy standard with distributed renewable energy projects connected to existing electric grid infrastructure. Incumbent utilities have focused on transmission instead, likely because new power lines (and not maximizing existing infrastructure) earns them a statutory 11-13% rate of return.

This myopic focus on big infrastructure may prove doubly expensive as the cost of solar power falls rapidly. Within 10 years, one-third of Americans could install solar on their own rooftop and get electricity for less than their utility charges, without any additional power lines. But under the current electricity policy, these same Americans will likely be paying a few dollars each month for new utility-conceived high-voltage transmission lines even as they increasingly produce their own local, clean energy.

The future of American energy policy is not a tradeoff between new clean energy and new transmission. Rather, it’s an opportunity to trade-in an obsolete, centralized model of development for the alternative — a democratized energy system where Americans can be producers and owners of their energy future.

This post originally appeared on Energy Self-Reliant States, a resource of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

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Buying Bulbs Based on Lumens

Posted: 04 Apr 2012 01:50 PM PDT

Since the first screw base and socket bulbs were made in 1882, lamps have been purchased based on wattage used. Fast-forward 130 years and there is a new metric for light bulbs — “lumens.” Lumens are a measurement of the amount of light produced. This makes a lot of sense since we buy things based on how much of it we get. When buying milk, we buy it by the volume (gallons). So, why should light be any different?

In addition to the new labels telling us how bright light bulbs are, there is some other important information, such as:

§ Estimated yearly energy cost

§ Lifespan of the bulb

§ Light appearance (warm to cool)

§ Energy used

So, the next challenge is to learn what lumens to use around the house. Here is a rule of thumb:

§ To replace a 100-watt incandescent bulb, look for a bulb that gives you about 1600 lumens. If you want something dimmer, go for fewer lumens; if you prefer brighter light, look for more lumens.

§ Replace a 75W bulb with an energy-saving bulb that gives you about 1100 lumens.

§ Replace a 60W bulb with an energy-saving bulb that gives you about 800 lumens.

§ Replace a 40W bulb with an energy-saving bulb that gives you about 450 lumens.

To find out more information about how the right lighting choices can save you money via the US Department of Energy (DOE).

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Business Energy Use Infographic

Posted: 04 Apr 2012 12:57 PM PDT

Ecova, which we noted the other day won a 2012 ENERGY STAR Sustained Excellence Award and has a long history of ENERGY STAR recognition, recently created a cool infographic (below) with some pretty interesting — and even shocking — facts about commercial and industry energy use.

One of the things that stands out to me is that utility expenses are the third-biggest budget item, yet almost 30% of companies’ energy use is wasted through controllable inefficiencies! WOW.

The good news, at least, is that energy intensity has been declining, dropping 8% from 2009 to 2011.

For more than what is in the infographic, Ecova has also released a white paper on business energy use trends. The company has quite the data set, so it’s got a lot to offer. From the page linked above:

We process and analyze energy expenses for more than 700 of the country’s largest enterprises, and we have detailed insight into over 25,000 MW of U.S. electricity demand. To the data from nearly a billion electronic transactions a day flowing across our system, Ecova adds external data such as sophisticated procurement, weather, client portfolio, and business productivity numbers to create a complete picture of energy consumption and costs for 5.5 percent of total industrial and commercial U.S. electric load; more than nearly any utility in the United States.

Here’s the infographic with some of Ecova’s key findings (view larger by holding down ‘ctrl’ or ‘command’ and clicking the ‘+’ button):

Here’s more on Ecova, and why it’s creating white papers and infographics on this important issue:

Ecova is the total energy and sustainability management company whose sole purpose is to see more, save more and sustain more for our clients. Using insights based on consumption, cost and carbon footprint data spanning thousands of utilities, hundreds of thousands of business sites and millions of households, we provide fully managed, technology-optimized solutions for saving resources, which in turn increase returns, lower risks, and enhance reputations.

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