Pushing green energy ceilings — wind and solar hitting new highs

The sun is setting in the Coachella Valley as I type this, but somewhere on the other side of the world, I feel certain, it is shining and possibly there’s a solar panel there converting the sunlight to electricity and reducing the carbon emissions that fossil fuel power would have generated.

The spread of solar around the world is part of the story contained in figures from the European Photovoltaic Industry Association.  As of 2012, the world had a bit more than 101 gigawatts of PV running around, producing the same amount of power as 16 coal or nuclear plants of 1 gigawatt each, while reducing carbon emissions by 53 million tons.

Of those 101 GW, just shy of 30 GW were installed last year, about the same as 2011, the EPIA said. What’s more important, the geographic spread of PV installations is expanding.

Thirteen gigawatts of solar are now outside Europe, compared to 8 GW in 2011, the EPIA reported. Germany is still the world leader, with 7.6 GW, while China has 3-5-4.5 GW and the U.S. has 3.2 GW. Another report from Greentech Media projects growing solar markets, about 3 GW, in Africa and Middle East in the next two years.

Meanwhile, wind energy is also hitting new highs in terms of how much power it supplies in different states, according to Pete Danko writing on the Earth Techling website.

From midnight Monday to midnight Tuesday, three wind farms in eastern Washington pumped out 16,593 megawatt-hours of power, or about 23.5 percent of the power Puget Sound Energy needed for its 1.1 million customers. Danko writes:

While wind power rises and falls with the varying wind speed – obviously – Puget Sound said its three wind farms are providing at least some power two-thirds of the time and on average are supplying about 10 percent of the power its customers use.

Texas is also breaking records on wind production. The state leads the nation in wind installations over al,l and at 7:08 p.m. on Feb. 9, those turbines were spinning away, producing 9,481 megawatts of power, 10 percent over the previous record of 8,667 MW.

The Feb. 9 high mark represents 28 percent of the load on the state’s power system.

Meanwhile in Colorado, Xcel Energy reported that wind power accounted for 16 percent of the 35.9 million megawatt hours of electricity it sold in 2012.

The missing link to drive those numbers even higher is, of course, storage. California may be taking a step toward new green energy ceilings to break with a recent decision from the state’s Public Utilities Commission ordering Southern California Edison to add 50 MW of grid storage over the next eight years.

Writing about the order on Greentech Media, Jeff St. John notes it’s a relatively small amount of storage, but provides a signal that the state is serious about integrating wind and solar power onto the grid by the 2020 deadline for reaching the state’s renewable energy goal of 33 percent.

In the context of total energy production, in the U.S. or worldwide, all these new benchmarks may be relatively small, but they reflect a vision and momentum that will continue to push renewable energy ceilings higher and higher.


Will green mind share lead to green market share?

A couple interesting year-end articles popped up today that speak to the issue of Americans’ acceptance of renewable energy and its prospects for replacing fossil fuels going forward.

First, on Forbes.com, environmental and green tech writer Todd Woody writes on the findings of a Dow Jones-Factiva study of mentions of renewable energy and green technology in major media over the past 10 years. Exactly which major media we are talking about — U.S., global, print, broadcast, online — is not made clear.

Solar energy, for example, went from 3,984 mentions in 2002 to  41,651 mentions this past year, a 950 percent jump.

The rest of the list –

Biomass: 2002 mentions — 4,874; 2012 mentions –39,824, a 720 percent increase

Wind power: 2002 mentions — 8,568; 2012 mentions — 61,554, a 620 percent increase

Geothermal: 2002 mentions — 861; 2012 mentions –4,529, a 420 percent increase

The point, Woody said, is that while renewables may lag in market share, they are making progress in mind share.

At the bottom of the page, you will also find a terrific photo gallery of 30 energy trailblazers all under 30 years old — for example, 20-year-old Eden Full, who is developing a solar tracking and water filtration system for developing countries and is now testing it out in Uganda.

Eden Full, 20

Robert Conrad, 23, turned down Ph.D programs to work on a machine vision system that crunches data to help detect hawks, eagles and other birds near wind turbines.

Russell Conard, 23

Now that’s a young man we need at the Coachella Valley iHub!

 Meanwhile, on Greentech Media, Herman K. Trabish reports on a computer study from the University of Delaware showing that the U.S. could meet 99 percent of its power needs from renewable sources by 2030 at no increased costs.

With storage, according to report co-author Cory Budischak, ‘we can run an electric system that today would meet a need of 72 gigawatts 99.9 percent of the time, using 17 gigawatts of solar, 68 gigawatts of offshore wind, and 115 gigawatts of inland wind.’”

The issue of reliability — keeping the lights on — is covered by a combination of storage, geographic distribution and the sheer abundance of free sun and wind energy. Basically, if you’ve got enough wind and solar installations across the country, the wind will always be blowing and sun shining in enough places to produce the needed power, as Trabish writes:

“So much free fuel from renewables would be available across the geographically dispersed 72 gigawatt . . . grid region that it would not only almost eliminate the need for natural gas reserves, but would also keep the power price low and minimize the need for incurring the cost of battery storage.”

Which is all to say, as we go into the new year, if the mind share is there — including the creativity and passion of our best and brightest young innovators – the market share will follow.

The U.S. solar market: mixed views

GreenTech Media held its Solar Market Insight Conference Monday and Tuesday in San Francisco, bringing together major players in residential, commercial and utility-scale solar to track the trends in the U.S. solar market at present and going forward.

Many of the panels and presentations are still available online for techno-geeks like me who couldn’t make to SF.

The GreenTech outlook is decidedly mixed – the residential solar market will continue booming through the end of the year, but could slow in 2013 and beyond.

– U.S. solar installations are expected to hit 3.2 gigawatts this year, a 71 percent spike over the 1.9 gigawatts installed in 2011. Next year growth could slow, with installations projected to grow to 3.9 megawatts, or about 22 percent.

– Solar leasing companies continue to claim an increasing slice of the residential market.  In California, leased residential systems accounted for 10 percent of residential installation; as of the second quarter of the year, they now make up more than 70 percent. In Arizona, the figure is more than 80 percent.

– On the utility-scale side — projects 50 megawatts and up — the picture is more complicated. Shayle Kann, GreenTech’s vice president of research, reported that the U.S. has about 2.2 gigawatts of utility-scale projects in operation, with another 4 gigs in construction and close to 6 more gigawatts in the pipeline for 2016-17.

The question is how many of the projects not in construction or in earlier stages of development will make it.

“If you don’t have a PPA, it’s harder and harder to find one,” Kann said, referring to power purchase agreements developers negotiate to sell power to utilities, which are critical to getting a project financed.

The trend is toward smaller-scale projects and much lower prices being offered on PPAs, he said. 9.7 gigawatts in the pipeline. Only utilties in states with renewable energy portfolios, such as the 33 percent mandate in California, are showing any appetite for large projects, Kann said.

– One issue hanging over both residential and utility scale is the sunsetting of the 30 percent federal investment tax credit at the end of 2016. The credit has been key to the growth of solar leasing and utility-scale financing — it draws in investors that need a healthy income tax credit.

As it stands now, at the end of 2016, it will go down to 10 percent and especially for utility scale solar, that prospective drop is already having an impact as developers look at the timelines for big projects.

These trends could have significant effects for solar development in eastern Riverside County, for projects on public and private land.

Can NextEra Energy get the 1,000-megawatt Blythe project – which it bought from the bankrupt Solar Trust of America — repermitted, financed and in construction by the end of 2016? Ditto BrightSource Energy and the 500-megawatt Palen project it bought from Solar Trust, along with its Sonoran West project, one of the two contracts the California Public Utilities Commission approved last week.

BrightSource officials have said they don’t expect Sonoran to come online till 2017, and they have no definite timeline for Palen.

The Coachella Valley, and surrounding areas, have looked to large solar projects as a source of good jobs for the region’s still struggling construction workers. The federal guidelines for solar development in the 148,000-acre Riverside East solar zone, between Joshua Tree National Park and Blythe, envisions 80 percent of the area covered with projects.

Whether any of that will pencil out now appears uncertain.

Environmental advocates have always argued that for solar, smaller rooftop and community projects are the better play, and the market may just prove them right.


Local solar installers react to tariffs on Chinese panels

GreenTech Media was the first to break the news on Tuesday that the U.S. Commerce Department has issued a split decision in the case charging China with unfairly subsidizing its solar manufacturers. Or at least, GTM’s email blast on the news was the first to reach me. 

The story in a nutshell — The Commerce Department ruled that government-subsidized Chinese solar manufacturers have been dumping cheap panels in the U.S. market, putting American solar companies at a disadvantage. But, rather than slappingthe Chinese with substantial tariffs — 20 percent or more –  Commerce is imposing small tariffs ranging from 2.9 percent to 4.73 percent.

Still, higher tariffs could be on the way, as Tuesday’s decision is apparently only the first part of the process, called the margin finding. Shayle Kann, GreenTech’s managing director of solar research, said, “There will ultimately be an additional finding in the anti-dumping case, and that margin (if found) will be stacked on top of the margin found today. So in the end, tariffs are likely to be higher than the relatively small numbers announced today.”

Those higher tariffs could be announced in May.

Eric Wesoff, GreenTech analyst, predicts the decision will help both smaller, marginal solar manufacturers in the U.S., as well as major players such as First Solar and SunPower. But he writes:

“The downstream solar ecosystem of installers and financiers like SolarCity, SunRun, Sungevity and Clean Power Finance will suffer with higher prices and a corresponding sag in demand.”

I talked with a handful of the Coachella Valley’s solar companies and most, but not all, agreed with Wesoff.

Vincent Battaglia, CEO of Renova Energy in Palm Desert, said as long as the tariff remains low, the impact should be minimal.

“The higher the tax would have been, the more it would have affected downstream integrators,” he said. “We’re the bottom of food chain. It would have hurt job creation. It would have had a very crippling effect.”

At HelioPower, also in Palm Desert, residential sales manager Matt McPherson said his company has tried to cushion itself from any tariffs  by buying its panels from distributors rather than directly from Chinese manufacturers.

But whether that effort will work will depend on where the impact of the tariffs hits — at the distrubutor or the installer level — and who will pay the difference, he said.  

Nate Otto at Hot Purple Energy in Palm Springs said the best protection for installers and customers is to buy American-made panels.

“We have American-made products that are near the price” of Chinese, he said. “The companies are getting very creative with their products. We’ve noticed a lot of people are very happy that we have a majority of American-made products.”

Otto’s concern was that a decision with high tariffs could have sparked a trade war, with the Chinese retaliating with high tariffs on the American-made silicon chips it buys to make its panels.

Jerry Gugino, founder of Potere Solar in Rancho Mirage, has a different take. He thinks the tariff will provide some much-needed leveling of the playing field for American manufacturers. Before opening Potere, Gugino had plans to open a factory to build solar panels in the Coachella Valley, with the goal of creating up to 125 jobs.

But he found that he couldn’t compete with the Chinese on labor costs, and he also ran into high start-up costs to get the panels UL-certified for sale in the U.S.

“We can make panels just as good as the Chinese,” he said. “The tariff may raise the price of panels a little bit, but  the reward is that we’re bringing back jobs.”

In another piece, published Monday, Wesoff concluded that whatever the outcome of the case, it won’t matter. Chinese companies, expecting the tariffs, have already started reorganizing their businesses, working around the fees by setting up regional manufacturing facilities in other countries.

The U.S. might lose solar jobs, he said, but more from the expiration of the Treasury Department 1603 cash grant program than competition from cheap Chinese panels.

State of the Union — the green preview

The emails from green and clean energy groups are flying in fast and furious this morning in advance of President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address. And the message from them all is that clean-green tech is good for the economy and creates jobs.

A sampling –

The Natural Resources Defense Council’s president Frances Beinecke has issued her own Environmental State of the Union.

The questions she think policy makers should be asking are:

“Is America’s air getting safer to breathe than it was a year ago? Are we building the wind farms and solar plants that put Americans to work and curb pollution at the same time? Do we have a plan to encourage fuel efficient technologies that allow cars to go farther on a tank of gas?

“Looking ahead, the question becomes: will our leaders seize opportunities to protect our families from polluters and build a cleaner energy system for America?”

The key point of her piece is –

“The coming year will be filled with campaign-fueled debates about jobs and the recession. Clean energy can deliver what both parties are looking for: greater prosperity and market growth.

“Let’s abandon once and for all the false choice of pitting economic progress and environmental protection. The two actually go hand-in-hand.”

In the meantime, the Pew Environment Group has banded together with about 200 businesses and clean energy groups to promote energy efficiency through co-generation — capturing the heat from power generation and using it for heating or to produce more energy. The group has paid for full-page ads in three of the top inside-the-Beltway publications — The Hill, Politico and Roll Call — timed for SOTU.

The ad reads:

“Each year, America’s utilities and factories send enough heat up their chimneys to power all of Japan. But with existing, proven technologies, we can harness that wasted energy, dramatically cut electricity costs, and make our manufacturers more competitive.

 “According to Oak Ridge National Laboratory, significantly increasing our industrial energy efficiency would spur more than $200 billion in new private investment in the U.S. and create up to 1,000,000 jobs. Harness the heat to create new jobs and make our country more competitive.”

Then, from the American Wind Energy Association,  an industry trade group, a press release announcing –

“Several media outlets are reporting that President Obama will mention wind power and manufacturing jobs in his State of the Union address this evening, including reports that Bryan Ritterby of American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) member company Energetx Composites of Holland, MI will be First Lady Michelle Obama’s guest for the speech.”

 The AWEA is lobbying hard to get the wind industry’s major federal incentive, the production tax credit, extended beyond its planned expiration date at the end of 2012.  The PTC, as it is referred to, gives renewable energy companies a 2.2 cent credit per kilowatt hour for the first 10 years of an installation’s generation.

“A recent report by Navigant Consulting finds that if Congress allows the PTC for wind to expire, jobs in the wind industry will be cut in half, meaning a loss of 37,000 American jobs and a one third cut to American wind manufacturing jobs, while private investment in the industry would drop by nearly two thirds. And Navigant found that these job losses will begin now and accelerate with each month the PTC nears the expiration deadline. Meanwhile, extending the PTC will allow the wind industry to grow to almost 100,000 American jobs in just four years and stay on track toward supporting 500,000 American jobs by 2030.”

The good news here is, with the spread of wind power to more conservative states  such as Texas and Iowa, AWEA is seeing growing bipartisan support for an extension, which makes it more likely that a PTC law could make it through Congress even with election year politics raging.

Finally, while not directly SOTU-related, but certainly relevant, Greentech Media has done a quick rundown on the energy policies of GOP frontrunners Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich.

Both basically are all about supporting domestic oil and natural gas development, cutting environmental regulations and redirecting federal support for renewable energy development — loan guarantees — into basic research.

Romney comes out slightly ahead in so far as he actually acknowledges the human role in climate change, though he says he’s not sure of the extent, while Gingrich’s most recent pronouncement on the issue is that he believes we don’t know if human carbon emissions are part of the picture.

And Gingrich offers the intriguing ideas of funding renewable energy research from gas and oil royalties and changing the Environmental Protection Agency into the Environmental Solutions Agency “that would use incentives and work cooperatively with local government and industry to achieve better environmental outcomes while considering the impact of federal environmental policies on job creation and the cost of energy.”