Renewable Energy Big Pic: Part 2

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Renewable Energy Big Pic: Part 2 

Posted: 12 Dec 2012 07:26 PM PST

Continuing on from yesterday’s “Renewable Energy Big Pic” post, here’s Renewable Energy Big Pic: Part 2. As noted yesterday, this two-post series is basically a presentation I gave to a class of renewable energy graduate students this week. Enjoy this second part, and chime in below if anything interesting or useful comes to mind.

German Solar vs US Solar

As noted yesterday, German solar and US solar have both been growing at a fast pace for several years now, and the price of solar in both countries has been dropping steadily. However, looking at the solar power capacity of each country in a relative manner, Germany has over 21 times more solar installed per capita than the US (301.47 MW per million people compared to 13.973 MW per million people).

That’s not the only big difference between US and German solar, though. The price of solar power in the US is also a lot different than the price of solar power in Germany. We had an article back in June noting that installed solar power in Germany was at about $2.44/watt, while it was $4.44/watt in the US. The price of solar in both countries has dropped a bit since then, but the general difference remains.

And the difference exists across all solar power project sizes, as this Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) chart from November’s Tracking the Sun report shows:


So, why is solar so much cheaper in Germany?

A number of people have looked into the matter in a bit of depth. For example, CleanTechnica contributor John Farrell has produced a chart showing by how much the various costs of solar vary in the two countries, as part of his report on the matter, “Cut The Price Of Solar In Half By Cutting Red Tape.” Here’s that chart:


Here’s another chart on the split, this one from Berkeley Lab:


Some comments from Berkeley Lab: “[1] German installers reported average soft costs of $0.62/W in 2011, which is roughly $2.70/W lower than the average soft costs reported by U.S. installers… [2] Customer acquisition costs averaged just $0.07/W in Germany, or roughly $0.60/W lower than in the U.S.”

Soft costs, red tape, acquisition costs — this is where the party’s happening (or not). But now that we’ve nailed down where the price difference is occurring, how about a bit of reflection on why it’s occurring?

One noticeable cause, I think, is simply that Germany has a much more mature market. (Again, it has over 20 times more solar power installed per capita than the US.) As a market matures, competition increases, there are more economies of scale, and costs come down.

And… if we’re going to talk about creating greater market penetration, we have to look at what policies actually do so. For solar (and other clean energy technologies), nothing has worked better than the rather simple feed-in tariff. As John noted about a year ago, the large majority of the world’s solar power and wind power has come through feed-in tariffs:



Another very interesting factor worth noting is the negative effect subsidies can have on mature or maturing technologies. This is something one of the premier solar policy and finance experts in the world, Jigar Shah, focused on in an exclusive guest article for CleanTechnica a couple months ago. His article, “Are Subsidies Holding Back U.S. Solar Deployment?,” noted that solar subsidies in the US are manipulated by investors in order to get a higher return on investment. In other words, by claiming that solar systems cost more than they do, investors are able to gain more in tax credits.

Jigar noted that “solar is now cost-effective without subsidies for ideal customers in 300 utilities in 30 US states.” Thus, he advises that we cut the subsidies and watch the price of solar fall.

Another thing worth noting is that many people (including schools, government buildings, and nonprofit organizations) can’t take advantage of solar power subsidies in the US. So, it’s imperative that we not inflate the cost of solar for those potential customers with unnecessary subsidies.

I’m sure this is a controversial topic, and there’s a lot more detail to get into on that matter, but we’ll leave this summary at that for now.

Wind Subsidies

Wind power may be in a different boat, since it doesn’t lend itself to decentralized deployment as well as solar. While it is the cheapest option for new electricity in many places, pulling its subsidies or threatening to pull them has resulted in big “bust” years for US wind (and “boom” years right before those bust years). Here’s an Energy Information Administration chart on the matter:

However, I wonder what wind energy developers and investors would do if there was one day no hope of subsidies ever coming back. By bet it that they’d develop and invest a lot more than they do in non-subsidy years. If you’re missing a big tax credit one year but are hopeful it will be back the next year, why not wait it out and invest your capital in more supportive regions or countries in the meantime? (That’s probably what I’d do.)

Dirty Energy Subsidies

I don’t want to focus on this too much, since this is a post on renewable energy, not non-renewable energy (that’s catchy, isn’t it?). But the fact of the matter is, dirty energy sources have a huge bias fiscally because of the decades of massive subsidies they have been granted. This is a matter that I’ve tackled at length on a number of occasions. One key thing to note is that societal externalities (such as $500 billion a year in health costs from coal… in the US alone) are massive subsidies to the fossil fuel industries. But even beyond that, here are a couple charts from one of our Wind Power resource pages that indicate the completely imbalanced government subsidies for various energy sources:



Subsidies in first 15 years of various energy sources.

And our German writer Thomas Gerke passed this riddle on to me just before my presentation:

“What energy related number has a similar proportion:”


The answer:

“Government support for conventional and renewable energy between 1970-2012 in Germany in billion Euros:”


I’m sure the same is more or less true across the world. In my opinion, the key at this point with regards to subsides is that dirty energy subsidies need to finally be cut, for once and for all. And as part of that, pollution and other externalities need to be adequately priced. Of course, if this were done, fossil fuels would be considerably more expensive. But the fossil fuel industry is fighting such a change tooth and nail… and (so far) winning, for the most part.

Merit Order Effect

Another very interesting topic to cover when looking at the “renewable energy big picture” is the merit order effect.

For a more detailed look at this matter, check out the posts in the link above, but here’s a quick summary:

When utilities need more electricity, they buy it from competing electricity producers. Those producers make bids to offer up their electricity for purchase. To produce extra electricity, of course, coal power plants need to input more coal and natural gas power plants need to input more natural gas, which costs money. Wind and solar power producers, however, have the sun shining and the wind blowing for free. Nothing really needs to be done to take advantage of that, so the extra cost to send more electricity to the grid is essentially nil. That means that solar and wind project owners can bid down to $0 (or even lower in some instances, due to subsidies).


That has one rather huge effect: it drives down the price of electricity on the wholesale electricity market.

We’ve seen this happen in GermanyAustraliaTexas.


And plenty of other places.

I think something especially worth noting here is that solar power is often most abundant during peak power demand. Providing electricity during peak demand is typically more expensive. That’s been the case for so long that it almost seems engraved in stone. However, due to this symbiosis above (and the merit order effect) solar power is chopping off high peak power prices. Here are two graphs from Germany showing this happening:



Notably, in that second graph, you can see that the price of electricity is so low in the middle of the day that it’s practically as low as electricity in the middle of the night. Typically, middle of the day electricity should be very high. But, get enough solar on the grid, and the world turns upside down.

Here are a couple more images, these showing electricity production by energy source:



Unfortunately, as we’ve pointed out on a couple occasions, the wholesale electricity price reductions from the merit order effect (i.e. renewable energy) aren’t always passed on to consumers via reductions in the retail price of electricity.



One would hope that’s the exception rather than the norm.


While market penetration, economies of scale, and good policies are key components of a bright, clean energy future (as well as making the price of coal and natural gas more accurately line of with the true cost of coal and natural gas), technology advancements and breakthroughs aren’t bad, either. The good news is that we’ve got news on such advancements and breakthroughs pretty much every day. Here are some recent ones regarding wind turbines:

§ Gamechanging Vestas V164 Wind Turbine Continues Groundbreaking Development (8MW Wind Turbine!)

§ GE Developing New Wind Blades Made Of Fabric To Reduce Wind Energy Costs

Some regarding solar:

§ Solar-Cell Fabrics May Soon Be A Reality

§ Nano-Flowers Could Help Create Next-Gen Energy Storage & Solar Cells

§ Thin Film Solar Cell Degradation Prevented with New Method

§ Artificial Butterfly Wing Material To Improve Solar Panels

§ Rainbows From Nanotechnology To Improve Solar Cells

§ Biohybrid Solar Cell Breakthrough: Spinach Protein Combined with Silicon in New Way that Greatly Boosts Performance

§ New High-Efficiency Quantum Dot Solar Cells Developed

§ Bandgap Engineering Aims To Double Solar Cell Power Generation Using Nanowires

§ Color Vision At The Nanoscale, New Tool Developed To See In Color At The Nanoscale And Improve Solar-Energy Technology

§ Organic Solar Cell Efficiency Tripled Thanks To Nanostructure Sandwich

§ Ultra-Efficient Side-Illuminated Solar Cell Architecture Created By Researchers

§ New Solar Module Efficiency Record Set, 33.5% Efficiency
Black silicon is a particularly interesting one to me:

§ Black Silicon Solar Cell Efficiency Doubled

§ Black Silicon Solar Cell Efficiency Raised to 18.2% by NREL Scientists
As are solar windows:

§ Solar Cells for Windows Take Another Step Forward

§ Solar Power Generation from the Windows — See-Through Solar Cells from Sharp

§ Power-Generating Windows Offer New Horizons for Office Energy Efficiency

§ One Step Closer to Invisible Solar Cells in Our Windows


Energy Storage

One area where we really could use some breakthroughs is energy storage. Solar and wind’s biggest downsides are that they are not controllable… and sometimes not available.

It’s true (and quite underacknowledged) that the two energy sources is that they are very complementary:


Also, the sun is always shining somewhere and the wind is always blowing somewhere. With a well-connected and large grid, the issue of running out of electricity is minimized or even moot.


Image Credit: Thomas Gerke

Nonetheless, based on what we have today, cheaper energy storage could be a huge boost. It is probably the topic I’m most keen to see big news on every day. And a lot of top scientists and engineers are aware of that (not the bit about me, of course, but the bit about cheap energy storage’s huge potential). Here are a handful of companies working on what might be breakthrough energy storage technologies:

§ Ambri — liquid-metal batteries

§ Aquion — sodium-ion batteries

§ Eos — zinc-air batteries (from ground up)

§ Envia — high-capacity lithium-ion batteries

§ IBM — lithium-air batteries
I wouldn’t expect them all to achieve their aims, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if one of them led us forward into a new era of energy storage… and a new era of energy, in general.

Additionally, there are already some companies looking to bring home energy storage systems to mass market. For example, Panasonic. As stated yesterday,mass market production and market penetration themselves help tremendously to bring technology costs down. If Panasonic or others start producing mass market energy storage solutions, watch out.

Another potential energy storage solution is simply using the batteries in electric vehicles to help balance energy supply and demand.


Mass market electric cars are growing fast and seem to be the future. Cars sit parked, out of use, approximately 95% of the time. Their batteries could be of some use while parked. I’ve heard utility company CEOs talking enthusiastically about this. Though, I’ve also seen some convincing arguments against this idea taking off. We’ll see. I don’t think it will be a silver bullet, but it could be part of the solution. And, of course, if you’ve got solar power and a plug-in electric vehicle, you could already start using your battery a bit for non-vehicle purposes.

The Potential Is Huge (Renewable Energy Is Tremendously Abundant)


“Comparing finite and renewable planetary energy reserves (Terawatt?years). Total recoverable reserves are shown for the finite resources. Yearly potential is shown for the renewables.” (Source: Perez & Perez, 2009a)

I often start with this image in such presentations, but I’ve decided to end with it this time. This chart above shows that solar energy potential each year is several times more than the potential from finite energy reserves of any type of fossil fuel or nuclear power (and wind energy also has tremendous potential). Yes, forrenewable energy sourcesannual potential is represented, while it is only potential from finite energy reserves for the other energy sources.

To close, here are a couple videos on some of the things mentioned in this post and in Renewable Energy Big Pic: Part 1, as well as some things not covered in these posts:


Renewable Energy Big Pic: Part 2 (Including 19 Charts & Graphs) was originally published on: CleanTechnica


Tesla Motors Made Its First Profit Last Month

Posted: 12 Dec 2012 11:34 AM PST

Sometimes, projects or companies are not profitable for a long time, but if you truly believe in them, you may be willing to stick it out long enough to see things finally succeed.

Projects and companies that require large investments for payback that will accumulate years down the road can certainly make us nervous, and there are always many who think that the investments will never be regained.

I think we all know that Tesla Motors is one such company and has faced a lot of skepticism throughout the years. But the electric car pioneer just last week reported positive cash flow (the week before) for the first time in its history, something worth celebrating, and a good sign that Tesla has a bright future.

Here’s Founder & CEO Elon Musk’s Tweet:

Am happy to report that Tesla was narrowly cash flow positive last week. Continued improvement expected through year end.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 4, 2012

Source: Gas 2.0

Tesla Motors Made Its First Profit Last Month was originally published on: CleanTechnica


Softbank Plans To Obtain Solar Energy From Residential Rooftops

Posted: 12 Dec 2012 11:17 AM PST

Softbank Corporation is Japan’s Tokyo-based and third-largest cellphone carrier, but it has been getting into the energy game since theFukushima disaster really shook up its CEO. In September, it was announced that Softbank and Mitsui would team up to build the largest solar power plant in Japan. Now, Softbank has announced that it intends to install solar panels on the rooftops of 1,000 homes in order to take advantage of the country’sincentive program for clean energy.

Softbank is using Sharp and Suntech solar panels for this project, and it will sell the electricity generated by them to utility companies.

On the 21st of December, Softbank will start taking applications from homeowners in 31 prefectures to join this project.

The acquisition of solar energy from residential rooftops has the important benefit of using space that would otherwise not be utilized, rather than occupying additional land which would probably be needed by others in the future.


Softbank Plans To Obtain Solar Energy From Residential Rooftops was originally published on: CleanTechnica


$4 Million “Superwire” Could Blow The Offshore Wind Power Market Wide Open

Posted: 12 Dec 2012 10:53 AM PST

Researchers at the University of Houston have just won a new round of funding for a $4 million wind power project that is on track to solve a key wind energy transportation conundrum: how to use superconducting wire without running afoul of the magnetic field generated by wind turbines. The new grant of $900,000 from the Department of Energy comes on top of two earlier DOE grants totaling $3.1 million. If the project is a success, it will lead to the commercial production of low-cost superconducting wire for wind turbine generators, and that will open up the field for low-cost wind power, especially offshore wind turbines.


Superconductors and Magnetic Fields

Wire made of superconducting material can transport an electrical current with virtually no resistance, so it is far more efficient than conventional copper wire.

That would seem to make superconducting wire an ideal material for wind turbine generators, but the problem is that wind turbines kick up a magnetic field.

The field creates “flux lines” in the superconducting wires, resulting in significantly lower performance.

The University of Houston team, led by mechanical engineering professor Venkat “Selva” Selvamanickam, has the goal of developing a high-temperature superconducting wire that can achieve significant gains in efficiency despite the magnetic field, and compete with copper wire on cost.

The result will be a powerful but lightweight, low-maintenance, high-efficiency generator with a power rating of 10 megawatts or more, which would be ideal for use inoffshore wind turbines.


On Track for Low Cost Wind Power

So far, the three-year project has far outpaced expectations. The end goal is to achieve a 400% performance improvement in superconducting wire, with an interim goal of 50% by the end of 2012.

The team beat the interim goal by a wide margin, achieving a 65% gain by the end of September.

The pace of progress was apparently so promising that ARPA-E, the advanced energy research agency that administers the grant, accelerated the grant disbursement ahead of schedule.

That doesn’t exactly bode well for foes of wind power, who have been lobbying Congress to hold off on extending a key tax credit for wind power. Though the lack of an extension will put a severe crimp in local wind power projects, it might not have so great an effect on massively scaled, high-efficiency offshore projects developed with the help of advanced superconducting technology.

We Built This!

The University of Houston project is yet another example of public funding for beneficial technology that makes the leap from laboratory to general use through a collaboration with private sector partners.

For this project, UH has partnered with the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the companies SuperPower Inc. (UH’s Selva is also Chief Technology Advisor for SuperPower), Tai-Yang Research, and TECO-Westinghouse Motor Company.

Aside from leading to high-volume, low-cost wind power, the new superconducting wire could also be used to develop or improve other electromagnetic devices, such as the superconducting magnet energy storage system project already under way through another Department of Energy grant.

Image: Wire by oskay

Follow me on Twitter: @TinaMCasey

$4 Million “Superwire” Could Blow The Offshore Wind Power Market Wide Open was originally published on: CleanTechnica


UK Survey – More Would Invest In Solar If They Knew The Financial Benefits

Posted: 12 Dec 2012 04:10 AM PST

The real picture — solar PV power is a good venture to invest in, surveys predict. However, there isn’t much publicity of what may be the actual financial benefits, so many are left simply guessing what they could save… if they are even asked or ask themselves. And, apparently, the large majority of citizens don’t realize how much money they could save if they installed a solar power system on their roof.


Solar panels on UK home via Shutterstock

As per one recent survey, out of the 2000 Britons that were asked, the inference was that only 1/3 could answer the question correctly, showing that much more publicity is needed to propagate true information regarding “Returns On Investment” (ROI) for solar power system installations.

A spokesperson for Eco Experts, a UK solar panel price comparison website, said:

“If there was more publicity surrounding the financial benefits of solar energy, more people may be willing to invest.”

According to Eco Experts, a solar panel system offers a commendable 7% to 10% ROI, which is far more lucrative than High Street banks offer. Unfortunately, this figure falls third in the order of “acceptable rates,” according to the respondents. And of the respondents who thought 7% to 10% was an acceptable rate, about 50% thought solar offered far less than that.

Interestingly, it was seen that just a meagre 32% of respondents had come up with this correct response.

The chairman of the British Photovoltaic Association (BPVA), Mr. Reza Shaybani, said:

“There should be teamwork between the government and renewables industry. The government sets the policy and provides infrastructure, but they can’t do all the work for businesses.

“We have a huge problem in this country with our energy supply and bills.

“The reasons most people should be interested in solar photovoltaic is the generous ROI, it is true that feed-in-tariffs have dropped, but so has the cost of a panel, and installing it. People should also be looking to ensure they have secure supply of energy and of course renewable energy is so much better for the environment than using fossil fuels.

“People may be worried that we are in a recession and they don’t have the money to invest in solar panels, and that may well be, but the cost of energy will continue to rise and producing your own is the best way to protect yourself from that.”

As per the survey, the denizens of Bristol, London, and Manchester were most up to date with information about the ROI that photovoltaics offer, out of which 11% of the lot supposed that PV offered 0% to 2% ROI; 26% of them assumed that it offered 3% to 6% returns; and 10% of the respondents were highly hopeful and believed that they offered up to 20% of returns.

“Here we have a potential sixth of the market who are interested in an ROI of 7-10 percent but have no idea solar PV can provide it,” added the spokesman for The Eco Experts. “We also saw that more than 50% of people wanted an ROI of 11% or more. This is something that may well happen in the future as the cost of photovoltaics comes down and conventional energy bills increase.

“Again, if there was more publicity about this, we could well see more interest in the renewables market,” and a lot more solar power systems installed.

Source: PV-Magazine

UK Survey – More Would Invest In Solar If They Knew The Financial Benefits was originally published on: CleanTechnica


Clean Tech Of Another Sort: More Than 2.6 Million Acres Restored Via USDA Wetlands Reserve Program

Posted: 12 Dec 2012 03:47 AM PST

The sub-atomic properties of silicon and other semi-conductors; the workings of rare earth metal and alternative super magnets and energy storage systems; a diverse variety of new, nano engineered materials; genetically engineered algae and microorganisms — the clean tech world abounds in new scientific knowledge and applications.

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) this week announced a milestone in what can be considered clean tech of another sort. It’s a type of “clean tech” that produces all its own energy, recycles all of its own waste, and recycles externally input waste. And, in the process, it produces numerous and varied products and services. It comes as a package, one that’s evolved over the course of the Earth’s history. I’m talking about nature’s wetlands.


Created two decades ago, the USDA’s Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) “has restored more than 2.6 million acres of wetlands habitat across the U.S., creating prime wildlife habitat and helping the environment by holding and clean water,” the USDA announced in a Dec. 11 press release.

Restoring U.S. Wetlands

A voluntary program administered by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), WRP entails NRCS working with “landowners to protect, restore and enhance wetlands on private and tribal lands, a mission that helps rural and urban communities throughout the country by reducing flood damage, contributing to groundwater recharge and carbon sequestration, and providing recreational opportunities.”

The federal WRP initiative to support private landowners is well directed. 75% of US wetlands are on private lands, the USDA points out. The majority of WRP lands are located in five states: Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Florida, and California.

Through WRP, private landowners receive technical and financial assistance to help them restore and protect these diverse, productive, and essential ecosystems. To opt in to the program, landowners can choose to set aside property permanently or on 30-year easements while retaining ownership once the easement is in place.

Along with providing critical habitat for a diversity of flora and fauna that provide essential ecosystem services such as water and waste filtration, soil nutrient cycling, pollination, and carbon sequestration; wetlands “slow and store water, lowering the risk of flooding for nearby communities during hurricances and other severe weather events.”

“Wetlands are among the most biologically diverse ecosystems in the world,” USDA notes. “Rare and endangered wildlife, such as the Louisiana black bear, whooping crane, wood stork, bog turtle and other species, are thriving on WRP easement lands.”

US wetlands are threatened nonetheless. “Our nation has lost more than half of its historical 220 million acres of wetlands in the continental U.S.,” NRCS Acting Chief Jason Weller pointed out. “I am encouraged by farmers, ranchers and other private landowners who are dedicated to reversing this trend through the restoration and care of the wetlands on their property.”

WRP: A Social-Ecological Success Story

More than 11,000 landowners have participated in WRP since its inception 20 years ago. WRP “is best suited for frequently flooded agricultural lands, where restoration will maximize habitat for migratory birds and other wildlife, and improve water quality,” USDA explains.

Landowners qualifying for WRP are eligible for assistance in restoring wetlands “on the saturated and flooded portions of their property that are difficult to farm, focusing their agricultural effort on more productive soils.”

“The Wetlands Reserve Program is a great conservation tool, providing landowners a way to protect and restore wetland areas while making improvements to their properties—it is a win-win for the environment, the landowner and the community,” Weller stated.

Weller attributed the success of WRP to“strong partnerships and effective, science-based technical assistance,” as well as interest on the part of landowners.

WRP, he noted, draws on the expertise of NRCS technical specialists, who “work cooperatively with landowners, federal and state wildlife agencies, researchers and universities, conservation districts and non-governmental organizations to develop and implement effective hydrologic and vegetative restoration and management techniques.”

Image Credit: USDA Wetlands Reserve Program

Clean Tech Of Another Sort: More Than 2.6 Million Acres Restored Via USDA Wetlands Reserve Program was originally published on: CleanTechnica


Yingli Green Energy To Provide 288 MW Of Panels For China’s Golden Sun Program

Posted: 12 Dec 2012 03:30 AM PST

Yingli Green Energy, one of China’s top solar energy companies, has announced that it will provide 288 megawatts (MW) of solar panels for the country’s Gold Sun Program, which helps to boost solar energy standards in the emerging market country.


Image Credit: Solar Panels via aslysun/Shutterstock

Meanwhile, China’s Ministry of Finance, its Ministry of Science and Technology, and its National Energy Administration also announced, under the Golden Sun program, that a total of 2,835 MW worth of photovoltaic projects have been approved. It’s anticipated that, with today’s announcement, Yingli will provide around 10% of the panels for the new projects.

A Yingli official notes how important programs like Golden Sun have been on the Chinese solar market.

“As a world’s leading solar company with roots in China, we have been committed to developing our domestic market and have obtained a solid market position and a leading market share,” said Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Yingli Green Energy Liansheng Miao.

“The acceleration of the Golden Sun Program and the announcements of other incentive policies have clearly demonstrated China’s strong determination of promoting solar applications. With these policies in place, we believe that the China PV market will achieve a faster and healthier growth. We’ll continue to enhance our business activities in China and power more families and businesses with our high quality products.”

Source: PR Newswire