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.


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.

The real story on solar — growth, not Solyndra

The Solar Energy Industries Association and GreenTech Media released their quartery report on solar development in the U.S. today, and the one word notably absent from all 22 pages of the executive summary was — wait for it — Solyndra.

The failed solar panel manufacturer did get a few mentions during the press conference that SEIA and GreenTech held to discuss the report this morning — I listened in on the event at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. — but mostly to point up how one failure in the industry has overshadowed its spectacular growth.

The photovoltaic side of the industry — solar panels or PV — had a recordbreaking third quarter, with 449.2 megawatts installed, a 39 percent increase over the second quarter and a whopping 140 percent increase over third quarter 2010. California accounted for 196.7 megawatts — or close to 44 percent — of the total.

Just for scale, the NextEra-GE Desert Sunlight project now under construction near Desert Center is 550 megawatts. When completed, it will provide enough power for 160,000 homes.

The third quarter figures put U.S. installations over 1 gigawatt for 2011, the first time the U.S. has passed the 1 gig milestone in a year — and growth is projected for the fourth quarter as well. The U.S. now has 3.1 gigs of PV solar connected to grids across the country, according to the report.

“It’s a good news story,” said Rhone Resch, president of SEIA. “(The U.S.) has  made a strategic investment in solar, and we are seeing it pay off, not only in solar installed but jobs created. We’re seeing it across all 50 states.”

What’s driving the growth, besides the 40 percent plunge in panel prices this year and the growth of third-party leasing agreements, has been a key government incentive, called the 1603 program, which allows solar and other renewable energy companies to take a cash grant instead of the 30 percent federal tax credit.  Passed as part of the federal stimulus, 1603 grants are only available for projects that are completed and connected to the grid, and as Resch and other solar officials said at the press conference, the program doesn’t represent extra money — it’s only a change in how the tax credit is taken.

The problem now is that 1603 is set to expire at the end of the year, and renewable companies and trade associations across the country are lobbying Congress hard to extend it for at least another year.

The main issue is that the tax credits in and of themselves don’t help solar companies finance their projects because they are hard to monetize — that is, companies that might invest in a project and use the credit, aren’t; banks still aren’t lending.

“Tax-based policy is not effective in a bad economy,” said Joe Desmond, a senior vice president for BrightSource Energy, the developer for the Ivanpah project and Rio Mesa, a solar tower project planned near Blythe. ”We have not fully recovered from the economic crisis. There’s an important role for 1603 to play. The program allows us to monetize tax equity, so the debt is lower-cost debt; the cost of construction is lower, the cost of energy to consumers is lower.”

Tony Clifford, CEO of Standard Solar, a company in Maryland, said his firm has grown from three employees in 2007 to 100 today, thanks in large part to 1603. If the program is not continued, he said, the company will probably not hire the 25-30 new employees currently in its plans for 2012.

And Clifford and Resch said, most of the 5,000 solar companies in the U.S. are small businesses, so cutting 1603 will hurt them.  About 100,000 people are currently employed in the solar industry, and if 1603 is continued, SEIA projects, it could help create another 37,000 jobs.

Cutting the program could also hurt U.S. competitiveness on a global scale, said Shayle Kann of GreenTech Media. The U.S. generally comes in around third, fourth or fifth in solar installations worldwide, he said.

“The magnitude of growth (in 2012) depends  on whether we will see an extension of 1603,” he said. “It’s a pivotal juncture where the U.S. market stands in regard to global markets. We could be No. 1 but we need the environment to be supportive politically and financially. We need to ramp up.”  

“Solyndra is a convenient excuse for people who don’t want to support renewable energy,” Resch concluded. “Solyndra was one company; you cannot hold an entire industry or a series of industries hostage for the failure of one company.”

I’m working on an article on the local impact of the 1603 program and its potential expiration, so stay tuned.

NextEra’s next solar plant will be PV

As it begins construction on its 250-megawatt Genesis solar thermal project east of the Coachella Valley, NextEra Energy has its second desert solar plant in the works.

The company has filed an application with the Bureau of Land Management for a 750-megawatt photovoltaic plant, called the McCoy Solar Energy Project, to be located 13 miles northwest of Blythe. The BLM filed a notice of the application in the Federal Register earlier this week, which means the official scoping period has begun, during which the agency collects public input on what issues it needs to look at for its official environmental impact report.  The deadline to submit comments to the agency for this round will be Sept. 28.

The available information on McCoy thus far is sketchy.  The project site includes 7,700 acres of public land and 470 acres of private land, which means the BLM will have to partner with Riverside County for the environmental impact report.  To connect to the grid, the project will need a 16-mile tie-line to connect with Southern California Edison’s Colorado River substation, and the right of way for that line will include both public and private land.

According to the company’s initial application, the McCoy project would generate enough electricity to power 225,000 homes. On the jobs front, NextEra estimates it about 600 jobs during peak construction and 13-20  for ongoing operation.

The fact that NextEra has chosen photovoltaic panels over solar thermal for this second project reflects the ongoing shift to PV for utility-scale solar plants — a trend driven by the plunging costs of panels and, hopefully, an easier permitting process.

NextEra had a difficult time permitting Genesis as solar thermal, primarily over water issues. Solar thermal requires a lot of water, and NextEra originally planned Genesis using the most water-intensive “wet cooling” technology, which led to long wrangles over whether the project would tap into the Colorado River aquifer. The BLM pushed back and the company had to change to more water-efficient “dry cooling” technology to get the project approved.

The tradeoff here is that while PV uses almost no water, it isn’t as reliable a power source as solar thermal, which uses heat from solar troughs to run steam turbines. The turbines create a smoother power flow compared to the spikier electricity coming from PV panels that convert sunlight directly to electricity.

While it is impossible to know at this point,  in the past, the BLM has held at least two public scoping meetings per project on the solar plants it has already approved in the Riverside East solar zone — one in the Coachella Valley, usually at UCR Palm Desert, and one in Blythe.  Given the Sept. 28 deadline, whatever’s going to happen will likely be happening soon.

I will be following up on this next week along with First Solar’s Desert Sunlight project to see how many valley residents have gotten call backs from the job fairs the company held almost three weeks ago.

Here’s hoping the Labor Day weekend will be followed by green jobs for some of the 1,200 valley job seekers who turned out at the Spotlight 29 Casino to apply for work on Desert Sunlight last month.

Solar increases property values

The idea that making a house more energy efficient, with or without solar panels, increases its value has been floating around in the anecdotal atmosphere for a while. Now researchers at the Ernest Orlando Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley have applied a small phalanx of figures and formulas to the issue and come up with good news for home owners and solar installers.

The researchers — Ben Hoen, Ryan Wiser, Peter Cappers and Mark Thayer — have produced a report thick with statistical jargon and formulas, but they do have a clear conclusion –

“California homes with PV (photovoltaic solar) systems have sold for a premium over comparable homes without PV systems,” “The effects range, on average, from approximately $3.9 to $6.4 per installed watt (DC) of PV, with most coalescing near $5.5/watt, which corresponds to a home sales price premium of approximately $17,000 for a relatively new 3,100 watt PV system (the averge size of PV systems in the study). These average sales price premiums appear to be comparable to the investment that homeowners have made to install PV systems in California, which from 2001 through 2009 averaged approximately $5/watt (DC), and homeowners with PV also benefit from electricity cost savings after PV system installation and prior to home sale.”

These findings come from an analysis of California home sales from 2000 to 2009, comparing sales of both existing and new homes with and without solar panels. If you read the actual report, you will find out how they filtered the data to make sure they were using comparable properties and the calculations they used — it looks pretty rigorous.

Some of the home sale data did come from Riverside, but as far as solar home sales, we came in with only 87 used in the study, versus 4,262 non-solar sales, compared to higher sales areas. Sacramento led the pack on solar home sales with 483 solar home sales versus 10,928 nonsolar.