Monday, March 31, 2008

One Expert says "10 more years of Solar R&D required"

This article isn't live on the net yet, but here's a sneak preview. Not that there's a hurry. If what this scientist is saying is true, we can chill another decade or so before installing solar en mass to replace fossil fuel sources. Kind of maddening, but good news if 10 years means 10 years. I don't think we're in a fusion power situation where despite breakthroughs the energy payoff is always 50 years away. Not to mention, cold fusion ...

New Orleans - Despite oil prices that hover around $100 a barrel, it may take at least 10 or more years of intensive research and development to reduce the cost of solar energy to levels competitive with petroleum, according to an authority on the topic.

Solar can potentially provide all the electricity and fuel we need to power the planet, Harry Gray, Ph.D., scheduled to speak here today at the 235th national meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS). His presentation, Powering the Planet with Solar Energy, is part of a special symposium arranged by Bruce Bursten, Ph.D., president of the ACS, the world's largest scientific society celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Beckman Scholars Program.

"The Holy Grail of solar research is to use sunlight efficiently and directly to split water into its elemental constituents, hydrogen and oxygen, and then use the hydrogen as a clean fuel," Gray said.

In his talk at the ACS Presidential Symposium, Gray cited the vast potential of solar energy, noting that more energy from sunlight strikes the Earth in one hour than all of the energy consumed on the planet in one year.

The single biggest challenge, Gray said, is reducing costs so that a large-scale shift away from coal, natural gas and other non-renewable sources of electricity makes economic sense. Gray estimated the average cost of photovoltaic energy at 35 to 50 cents per kilowatt-hour. By comparison, other sources are considerably less expensive, with coal and natural gas hovering around 5-6 cents per kilowatt-hour.

Because of its other advantages, being clean and renewable, for instance, solar energy need not match the cost of conventional energy sources, Gray indicated. The breakthrough for solar energy probably will come when scientists reduce the costs of photovoltaic energy to about 10 cents per kilowatt-hour, he added. "Once it reaches that level, large numbers of consumers will start to buy in, driving the per-kilowatt price down even further. I believe we are at least ten years away from photovoltaics being competitive with more traditional forms of energy."

Major challenges include developing cheap solar cells that work without deterioration and reducing the amounts of toxic materials used in the manufacture of these cells. But producing low cost photovoltaics is only a step in the right direction. Chemists also need to focus on the generation of clean fuels at costs that can compete with oil and coal.

Sunday, March 30, 2008


Imagine Masdar. This video provides a compelling, dreamy look at this zero carbon, zero waste, renewably powered city. Much like the science newsreels from the fifties that imagined the future in luxurious, automated, labor-saving terms. And while the skeptic in you may whisper that it's a little too dreamy, you know that current realities come from, at least in part, the dreams and visions of the past.

But beyond the epic task of creating from scratch a city that is wholly sustainable, what is perhaps more exciting is that this bold, positive vision comes from the Middle East. A place many Westerners view as a hotbed of sullen, reactionary groupthink.
So what if Masdar is the opening shot of a Middle East that leapfrogs past the West, past India and China, past everyone, to take us beyond classic capitalism to a natural capitalism based on an updated reckoning of our use of resources ? What if, instead of dragging up the rear, we find the Middle East drawing us to the future?

Masdar is a layered vision worth imagining.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Net Metering for Gross Profit

Net metering is good. With net metering, someone with a rooftop solar panel producing more power than they use gets credit on their utility bill for the surplus sent to the grid. This is key to inducing people to produce power at their place.

Net metering needs to be everywhere and it needs to be easy. Thirty five states currently allow net metering, and it is required with the passage of the 2005 Energy Act.

In Texas this week, the Public Utility Commission held off on enacting net metering regulations because of public concern that the rules being considered wouldn't really promote net metering. Take some time to get the rules right, but get net metering out there.

The rules should make it easy to net meter at your house. If special meters and disconnects are needed, the utility should provide them cheerfully, without cost, to the on-site power producer (distribute those costs across all users, maybe). If utilities are reluctant to implement, fearing they'll lose revenue if they're not the ones making the power, create pricing mechanisms where utilities profit by re-selling home-grown power. (You'd think utilities could find a way to make money when others are funding the added power plants, especially if those plants make peak use power).

Given the manifold benefits of distributed energy, we need net metering to be easy and profitable for both utility companies and the new power producers.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Tier 4 Now

Someone told me this week that Tier 4 is here. The more stringent emissions standard for off-road vehicles (including, importantly, construction equipment) begins phasing in this year and is fully in place by 2011. According to Cummins, a big producer of the engines, Tier 4 "represents a 90 percent reduction in particulate matter (PM), and a 50 percent reduction in emissions of Nitrogen Oxide (NOx)" over the current Tier 3 standard. Tier 4 also begins to address sulfur content in diesel.

The phase in period allows industry time to incorporate: replacing equipment at the end of its service life, or developing the experience and training to maintain the new engines. A noisy, messy corner of the motive world will become significantly quieter and cleaner in the next four years.

Monday, March 24, 2008

New Glass Kicks Ass

Sorry if I offended any reader with this clearly butch, tough guy language, but there's a new development on the glass front that has me all worked up. In another year or so there will be a type of glass entering the market that will make buildings, from an insulation perspective, behave as if they don't have any windows. Ginormous energy and money savings await those who begin installing these windows on new buildings, or replacing their old windows.

These things could play a major part in a classic pincer maneuver on old energy use as renewables put pressure on coal plants from one side, while super-efficient materials dramatically reduce new buildings' energy requirements.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Yippie yi Ohhh - Renewables as Calvary

Those WSJ Enviro Capital guys are nailing it again, this time spotting a trend that's surfacing all around the country, and particularly out west. The short story is that because planners are not getting any consistent signals, let alone clear leadership, from Washington, they are making their own plans. And they are looking to Renewables to increasingly power their regions when more carbonaceous forms of power (coal, gas, cow farts) may start to bear additional costs in the form of carbon taxes. This is a great sign that the general public is getting it, even if the current administration is asleep at the wheel. And who knows, maybe it's the nature of Washington itself to lag on this stuff. Who can say that despite their forward looking words and pledges, O'McClinton would/could really deliver intelligent new energy policy for the USA? Government can only do so much, and what it does, it often does wrong or too late. The mass move to renewables looks like it's going to be one revolution that's truly driven by "We the People."

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Go Go Solar Gadget

You know, it's going to get pretty gadgety pretty fast. As a business category that depends on recurring technical innovation, renewable energy, is starting to look a lot like the computer and internet space. As it moves from remote Texas mega-farms to our own back yards and roofs, and then to our own clothes and bodies, its going to get caught up in the personnel technology section covered by folks like Walt Mossberg and David Pogue at NYT. Green tech is already a news staple at popular gadget sites like Gizmodo and Engadget. Tell me this new Solar Gateway from Xantrex, announced today, doesn't sound more like a PC than a piece of renewable energy equipment ... from the product site:

Product Features
  • Can monitor a network consisting of up to 20 single phase GT inverters
  • Wi-Fi/Ethernet module with 10/100 Base-T or 802.11 b/g
  • Can be configured to send energy and alarm reports via email
  • Graphical interactive solar monitoring software
  • Embedded web page for configuring the Gateway and upgrading inverter firmware 16 megabytes of storage

Monday, March 17, 2008

Water Power

A little over a year ago, Verdant Power put its first turbine in New York City's East River. If grown to its design scale of 300 turbines, this project would bring 10 megawatts on-line, enough to power 8,000 homes.

The turbines use the movement of water in oceans and rivers, and can even operate in both directions to take advantage of tides coming in and going out.

If you're near an ocean, a river, even a man-made channel, Verdant wants to know if your water can make energy. They ask you to complete a survey to help them assess the water's potential.

What do they need?
  • 30 feet of water

  • 4 knots average water speed

  • 5 acres

If you just want to see the "dive-through" animated video, go here.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

$110 Gas = Bzillions of New Green Tech Investment Bucks

A recent MarketWatch article reports that money for new renewables is coming in in record amounts. It's why every time I top off my tank and feel the pain in the pocket, I also give thanks for there is literally a silver lining in the pain of unprecedented high gasoline prices. No need to harp on Al Gore's climate message, when it's coming down to pure dollars and cents. If the world is saved in the process of swapping out dirty old energy sources for shiny new ones, then that's a double bonus !!!

The piece ends with this sweet prediction for progressive-minded greedy bastards everywhere:

A McKinsey Global Institute report presented at the summit says that major investments over the next decade in energy productivity -- the level of output achieved from the energy consumed -- could earn double-digit rates of return for investors.

I see the greening of Gordon Gecko.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

The Near Term Future is Here

GM and Toyota recently opined that the fuel cell powered vehicle is not a near term solution. This is good. This says less about the viability of fuel cells (they were never a near term solution, anyway, were they?) than that the near term solutions are getting nearer and more real.

As GM Vice President Bob Lutz asks, "If we get lithium-ion to 300 miles, then ... Why do you need fuel cells?"

The near term solution is the all-electric or the plug-in hybrid electric vehicle. The vehicle technology is here. The energy infrastructure (the electrical grid) is here. The near term future is here.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Ain't No Oil Price High Enough

Holy Moly Batman, we're over a $104 dollars a barrel. Historically adjusted for inflation, this is the most oil has ever cost in the world ... in the history of mankind ... in the history of history. Of course, it's still much less than a good malbec.

Anyway, as the NYT reports today, this price sure is stirring up a lot of action, both on the good side (renewables R&D) and the evil sides (Exxon pledged greatly increased exploration and development of new oil resources today ... cause it would be worth it !)

Despite the pain this blogger feels at the pump, if this is what it takes to get us: a Tesla, an Aptera, a Volt and the Automotive X Prize, then I say, standing proudly on my own carrier deck of justice, "Bring it On !!!" How about $200 a barrel? How about a million bucks? Then we could call oil a collectible, or make jewelry out of it, and drive our cars and economy with wind, sun or nuclear-boosted electrons instead.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Charging Employees

Charging employees. To be more specific, waiting until plug-ins are available so he can let employees charge their PHEVs from solar panels at work. What a perquisite, gassing up for free at your place of employment. Here's a reader's letter to USA Today, telling us what he intends to do:

Consider solar recharge

Robert Myers - Columbia, Mo.

USA TODAY's story on plug-in hybrid electric cars raises a number of good points about the tradeoff in pollution.

But the article fails to mention an approach that has many plug-in hybrid advocates excited — using solar panels in the parking lots of companies or other institutions to charge the cars during the day while the owner is working. No battery storage for the solar panels is needed because the cars are providing the batteries. This approach is quiet, less polluting than coal and would allow employers to become part of the energy solution.

I plan to offer solar charging for my employees as soon as the technology is available.

Posted at 12:10 AM/ET, February 29, 2008