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.


Getting the renewable energy mix right

I was out at Desert Mirage High School in Thermal on Wednesday, talking with students in the school’s green tech career academy about what I do as an energy and green tech reporter — ask people a lot of questions about very technical things and try to turn it all into plain English.

Most of the students said they want to work in a green tech or engineering field, so I also spoke about the importance of good communication skills and the inestimable value of being able to write clear, grammatical sentences (old school, I know, but it’s something I’m actually rather passionate about).

One of the students asked me what I thought the best form of renewable energy is, and I stopped for a second. Being a reporter, one always stops when anyone asks you what you think the best of anything is, because one cannot appear to be biased or endorsing one thing over another.

Luckily in this case, it was not a problem. What I said, in essence, is that , with renewable energy it isn’t a matter of better or worse, but rather how the different forms fit together and complement each other.  We need them all.  The wind blows best at night — so we can have renewable energy on the grid ready to go in the wee hours and early morning.  Then photovoltaic, rooftop solar comes on in the morning and peaks in the afternoon for daytime use.

Geothermal can fill in the gaps, it is 24/7 baseline power. Solar thermal technology also has the potential to fill in the intermittent gaps created by wind and rooftop. While big solar thermal projects, such as BrightSource Energy’s Ivanpah plant, have major environmental impacts and have been difficult to perimit, their technology — using solar energy to heat fluids and run a traditional generator — provides a more reliable power source than rooftop solar.

If you add storage to the picture — and it’s coming, in the foreseeable future — you have the possibility of a grid that can, at least in theory, run almost entirely on clean, renewable sources with the inevitable economies of scale and lower prices.

This is, at least in part, the argument that some advocates are now making as California develops a renewable energy portfolio that will provide 33 percent of the state’s power by 2020. The utilities have largely loaded up on cheaper photovoltaic projects that by their very nature mean we will need some kind of fossil fuel backup to balance the intermittency of solar.

More reliable forms of renewables, such as solar thermal, are more expensive, but cost alone should not be the only factor considered.

Which brings me to BrightSource. Even as the company’s Rio Mesa project looks shaky – possibly losing a power purchase agreement to sell half the power from the plant and facing millions in mitigation costs to offset environmental impacts — investors have given the company a vote of confidence in the form of $80 million in new equity funding.

In a press release issued today, company executives announced a list of new investors –

Alstom, a global leader in the world of power generation, and VantagePoint Capital Partners lead the round. Additional investors include DFJ, CalSTRS, DBL Investors, Goldman Sachs, Chevron Technology Ventures and BP Ventures among others.

The company now has $615 million in equity funding.

Alstom is a French energy multinational and VantagePoint is a major player in clean tech investments. That major fossil fuel companies such as Chevron and BP want in also speaks volumes.

The bottom line is, every form of energy, whether fossil fuel or renewable, has some kind of environmental impact; that is the unavoidable trade-off we make for the power.

Figuring out the best value and right balance of renewables going forward will be a complex process, involving careful thought and calibration of lots of competing and conflicting factors.  Hopefully, some of the students I spoke with today will help find the solutions.

And they’ll be able to write about it in clear, grammatical sentences.

Solar thermal fights back; FedEx expands its electric fleet

Every day, 5,000 times more energy shines down on the Earth from the sun than it takes to power the entire world.

That enlightening factoid comes to us today from the solar industry’s newest trade group, the Concentrating Solar Power Alliance. CSP, as it is called in the industry, is what most of us call solar thermal — where panels or troughs collect or concentrate heat from the sun, which is then used to heat a liquid, create steam and run a generator.

Large-scale solar thermal projects have had a tough time in the past year, what with the pressure from falling photovoltaic panel prices and permitting challenges related to how much water they use.

In the Riverside East solar zone, the public land east of the Coachella Valley, three of the first four fast-track projects were originally solar thermal — Solar Millennium’s Blythe and Palen projects and NextEra Energy’s Genesis project.  As most local readers are aware, both Blythe and Palen are now on hold, presumably being retooled as PV plants by their new owner, solarhybrid.

Only the 250-megawatt Genesis project, now under construction, has remained solar thermal, and NextEra’s next project planned for the region, the 750-megawatt McCoy plant, is PV.

BrightSource, one of the three solar thermal companies behind the new organization, also has a local solar thermal project in the works, the 750-megawatt Rio Mesa plant on private land near Blythe.

Making the world a little more welcoming to solar thermal is where the new group comes in, building on the efforts of a new international organization, the World Solar Thermal Electricity Association. Both groups are clearly aimed at promoting the benefits of solar thermal technology to energy markets. 

While more expensive upfront, the alliance says that solar thermal plants are much more reliable than PV projects and produce power that can be stored to match peak energy demands.  Another plus, they can keep operating even when the sun is not shining. 

Solar thermal also produces more construction and permanent jobs than PV plants.  A 2006 study commissioned by the U.S. National Renewable Energy Lab for the Department of Energy found that a 100 megawatt solar thermal plant creates more than $600 million in impact to gross state output, ten times that of a fossil fuel plant due to the local content and job creation.

With PV clearly the technology of choice right now, and panel prices continuing to move toward grid parity — it will be interesting to see  how CSPA will market itself and its projects.

In other breaking green tech news today, Smith Electric Vehicles of Kansas City, Mo.,  unveiled a new all-electric truck that FedEx will be adding to its fleet throughout the rest of the year.

FedEx put its first all-electric vehicles on the road in Los Angeles in March 2010.

The new FedEx electric vehicles will have a range of 100 miles on a single charge.










The new trucks will have a range of about 100 miles on a single charge, which makes them ideal for urban delivery routes.  Don’t know if we’ll see any in the valley, but hats off to FedEx for its ongoing efforts.

Solar is good for U.S. trade

Today sees a new report from GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association about solar’s role in U.S. global trade, and the results are encouraging.

The headline here is that in 2010 the U.S. was a net exporter of solar energy products to the tune of $1.9 billion.

The breakdown on 2010 figures:

U.S. solar had a positive trade balance with China, with figures running from $247 million to $540 million.

The U.S. has become a major expoerter of polysilicon, the basic material needed to make crystalline silicon solar panels — the most common type. In 2010, we sent $2.5 billion worth of polysilicon overseas.

Our second biggest expoert is manufacturing equipment for photovoltaic panels, where our sales were $1.4 billion.

The catch in all this is that our biggest import was PV modules, where we spent $2.4 billion. In other words, it looks like we’re exporting the basic materials and machines and then buying back finished products.

Finally, on the domestic front,  GTM and SEIA calculated solar installations in the U.S. generated about $6 billion in business, with about $4.4 billion staying in the U.S.  On a micro level, what that means is that for every dollar spent on a solar installation in the U.S. last year, 75 cents stayed here.

The breakdown by technology:

– $3.6 billion from photovoltaic

– $419 million from solar thermal, also called concentrating solar

– $400 million from solar heating and cooling.

Hopefully more of those dollars will be spent in the Coachella Valley and eastern Riverside County if and when large-scale solar projects begin construction in the Riverside East solar zone between Joshua Tree National Park and Blythe. Smaller, micro-grid projects–50 megawatts or less–are also in the valley’s future.