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Archive for the ‘renewable energy’ Category

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

More good news on the renewable energy front Monday: The cost of onshore wind power has dropped to record lows, and in some regions is competitive with electricity generated by coal-fired plants, according to a survey by Bloomberg New Energy Finance, a market research firm.

“The latest edition of our Wind Turbine Price Index shows wind continuing to become a competitive source of large-scale power,” Michael Liebreich, Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s chief executive, said in a statement.

“For the past few years, wind turbine costs went up due to rising demand around the world and the increasing price of steel,” he added. “Behind the scenes, wind manufacturers were reducing their costs, and now we are seeing just how cheap wind energy can be when overcapacity in the supply chain works its way through to developers.”

Driving the trend are falling prices for wind turbines, which have dropped to their lowest level since 2005, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

Bloomberg said it based its analysis on a review of wind turbine contracts provided by 28 turbine buyers in 28 markets across the world. Those contacts represent nearly 7,000 megawatts’ worth of turbines.

Of course, that’s not necessarily good news for turbine manufacturers in the short term. But it makes wind energy more competitive over the long run. Over the past year the industry in the United States, for instance, has seen the wind taken out of its sails as demand has fallen due to the economy and natural gas prices have plummeted.

According to Bloomberg, contracts signed in late 2010 for turbines to be delivered in the first half of this year this year fell 7 percent from 2009 to an average of $1.33 million a megawatt. That’s a 19 percent decline since 2007.

In some regions of Brazil, Mexico, Sweden, and the United States, the cost of electricity generated by wind farms is on par with coal-fired power, the report said. In those areas, the cost of wind-generated electricity is $68 per megawatt-hour compared to $67 a megawatt-hour for coal power and $56 per megawatt-hour for natural gas.

Meanwhile on Monday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced that the federal government would grant $50.5 million over five years to spur offshore wind farm developments on the East Coast.

The money will go toward developing offshore wind technology and removing market barrier to building coastal wind farms.

 

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I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

Earlier this week, I wrote about the green evolution in California regarding electric cars. Well, when it comes to solar energy, it’s starting to look more like a revolution.

This week, utility Southern California Edison asked regulators to approve 20-year contracts to buy 250 megawatts of electricity from 20 small-scale photovoltaic farms.

Nothing especially newsworthy about that until you start reading through the document submitted to the California Public Utilities Commission (hat tip to Adam Browning of the Vote Solar Initiative). Turns out that in response to its request for bids, Southern California Edison received offers in excess of 2,500 megawatts.

In other words, there’s a whole lotta solar companies out there eager to generate carbon-free electricity.

And willing to do it relatively cheaply. Southern California Edison noted in its submission letter that the 20 projects — which will generate between 5 and 20 megawatts — will produce electricity at a cost below what utility industry wonks call the “market price referent.” The MPR, as they call it, represents the levelized cost over 20 years of a combined cycle gas turbine like those typically found in natural gas power plants in the Golden State.

So in plain English, the developers of these solar farms have told the utility that they can produce electricity cheaper than a fossil fuel power plant.

The increasing competitiveness of photovoltaic power is a reflection of the steep drop in solar modules prices in recent years, thanks in large part to the rapid expansion of manufacturing capacity by Chinese solar companies. But solar modules themselves typically represent just half the cost of a project, so the growing competitiveness of solar energy probably also is due to developers’ increased efficiency at building power plants and cutting other costs.

It was notable that a homegrown technology, concentrating photovoltaics, is among those 20 contracts that came in below the market price referent. Amonix, a Southern California company, will supply the technology for four power plants. The company’s concentrating photovoltaics panels boost electricity production by using plastic lens to focus sunlight on highly efficient solar cells.

The conventional wisdom until recently was the technology was still just too expensive to be commercialized. Guess not.

As Vote Solar’s blog put it, “That’s a lot of solar, at a good price.”

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I wrote this story for Reuters, where it first appeared on November 30, 2010.

A subsidiary of NRG Energy on Tuesday said it will invest up to $450 million in a 250-megawatt photovoltaic power plant to be built by Silicon Valley’s SunPower on the central California coast.

The New Jersey-based power provider, which operates a fleet of fossil fuel and nuclear plants, has emerged as significant investor in solar projects.

In October, NRG agreed to invest $300 million in BrightSource Energy’s 370-megawatt Ivanpah solar thermal power plant now under construction in the Mojave Desert in Southern California. The company has also struck a partnership with eSolar, a Pasadena, Calif., startup, to build solar power plants in the desert Southwest. And NRG owns a 20-megawatt photovoltaic farm in Blythe, Calif., and has other solar projects under development in Arizona, California and New Mexico.

In the deal with SunPower, NRG Solar will take ownership of the California Valley Solar Ranch in San Luis Obispo County and responsibility for financing the project. SunPower said on Tuesday that it is seeking a federal loan guarantee to build the solar farm and has received a draft term sheet from the United States Department of Energy.

SunPower, a solar power plant developer and one of the U.S.’ largest manufacturers of photovoltaic modules, will build and operate the San Luis Obispo project. The company, based in San Jose, Calif., has a 25-year contract to sell the electricity generated by California Valley Solar Ranch to utility PG&E. Construction is set to begin next year and when the project is completed in 2013 it will produce enough electricity to power about 100,000 homes, according to the company.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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I wrote this story for Reuters, where it first appeared on November 26, 2010.

In an effort that could help avoid conflicts between wind energy developers and environmentalists, the United States Department of the Interior this week released a map that identifies breeding densities of the imperiled sage-grouse in 11 Western states.

The chicken-sized bird with a white breast and a plumage of brown, black and white feathers is dependent on a sage-brush habitat that also is favored by developers of wind farms in high-wind areas of the Western United States.

“This map and initiative will help advance our collaborative efforts with states and stakeholders to develop smart policy to enhance the sustainability of our sage-grouse populations,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a statement.  “The final map will give Interior a strong foundation to identify land uses that do not compromise areas that are so critical to the greater sage-grouse.”

Development of all kinds has taken a toll on the ground-dwelling sage-grouse and environmental groups petitioned the federal government to put the bird on the endangered species list. In March, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that protection of the sage-grouse was warranted but that the bird would not be listed due to the need to protect other species first.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Todd Woody

In the New York Times on Wednesday, I follow up my story on solar power plants and desert tortoises:

In an article in The New York Times on Wednesday, I write about how the fortunes of big solar power plants in the desert Southwest can hinge on the way developers handle imperiled wildlife in the path of their projects.

The protected desert tortoise has become the totemic animal for environmentalists fighting to ensure that the huge solar farms don’t eliminate essential habitat for the long-lived reptile and other wildlife, like the bighorn sheep and flat-tailed horned lizard.

The tortoise has been in decline for decades, and the rampant changing of the desert — including the development of casinos, strip malls and subdivisions, and designation of off-road recreational vehicle areas — took its toll long before construction began late last month on the Ivanpah solar power plant, the first large-scale solar thermal project to be break ground in the United States in 20 years.

Still, the solar farms will industrialize the desert on an unparalleled scale. The seven projects already licensed in California will cover 42 square miles with immense mirror arrays.

But as much as some biologists fear that the need to generate electricity without carbon dioxide emissions will harm the desert tortoise, the projects offer an opportunity for intensive research on the critter. That’s because regulations require solar developers to monitor tortoises for three years after they are relocated.

“Certainly the monitoring of the translocated desert tortoises will yield useful research information on the ability of desert tortoises to adapt to new surroundings,” Larry LaPré, a wildlife biologist with the United States Bureau of Land Management, said in an e-mail.

Such data is critical. While environmental regulations and efforts by developers like BrightSource Energy, the builder of the Ivanpah project in Southern California, are tailored to remove the tortoise from harm’s way during construction, the survival of the animals depends on how well they adjust to their new homes.

The track record on tortoise relocations is not encouraging. In 2008, more than 700 tortoises were moved from the Fort Irwin military installation in Southern California so the base could expand. Nearly half the relocated tortoises died within two years from, among other things, predation by coyotes and ravens, according to state records.

Biologists I met recently at the Ivanpah power plant site were far more optimistic about the relocation of 23 tortoises found in the project’s first phase.

“The tortoises at Fort Irwin were moved a lot further than these, and there also was a big problem with predators there,” Peter Woodman, a biologist who worked on the military project, explained as he stood by a holding pen where the Ivanpah tortoises will live until they are moved next spring.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Todd Woody

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

If you want a birds-eye view of the future of power, scramble up to the roof of a 562,089-square-foot warehouse in Ontario, a city that sits in the smoggy heart of Southern California’s Inland Empire east of Los Angeles.

On a roof the size of several football fields, workers are busy installing 11,591 solar panels that will generate 2.55 megawatts of electricity. Across the street is another massive warehouse blanketed in photovoltaic panels. Beyond that lie two more warehouses with solar arrays under construction.

Warehouses themselves use relatively little electricity, so owners lease their roofs to utility Southern California Edison, which own the solar arrays and feeds the power they produce into the grid. Over the next five years, the utility will install 250 megawatts worth of photovoltaic panels on big commercial rooftops and buy an additional 250 megawatts from solar developers that will build and operate warehouse arrays. At peak output, those solar arrays will generate as much electricity as a mid-sized fossil-fuel power plant.

“In the Inland Empire you’ve got big buildings and good sun,” Rudy Perez, manager of the utility’s solar rooftop program, said as we stood on the top of the warehouse where solar panels covered the roof as far as the eye could see.

He noted that the number of applications from solar developers to connect rooftop photovoltaic projects to the grid has tripled in the past six months alone.

“It’s one thing when you have one building in an area with a big solar array, another when you have five,” said Perez. “As you get into the higher and higher numbers, that’s where you really need smart grid technology.”

That’s because the rise of renewable energy and electric cars will vastly complicate how the power grid operates.

“We could literally have more change in the system in the next 10 years than we’ve had in the last 100 years,” Theodore F. Craver, Jr., chief executive of the utility’s parent company, Edison International, said in an interview after meeting with executives from French utility giant EDF. The French had come to Los Angeles to learn about Southern California Edison’s smart grid efforts.

In the current, mostly analog grid, the distribution of electricity is fairly straightforward. A utility or another company builds a fossil-fuel-powered plant and flips the switch. For the next 30 years or more, electricity flows into high-voltage transmission lines hour after hour, day after day.

The transmission lines carry the electricity to a distribution system where transformers “step down” the power to a lower voltage and then send it to homes and businesses. And though technological improvements have been made over the decades to the grid, it remains essentially a one-way system. And while storms and accidents can bring down power lines and blackouts can occur when demand soars on a hot day and electricity generation can’t keep up, power flows 24/7 from a natural gas or coal-fired plant.

Now consider the challenges posed by intermittent sources of electricity like solar and wind, not to mention the prospect of thousands of cars plugging into the grid at once to recharge their batteries.

“A rolling cloud can cut electrical output by 80 percent in a just few seconds,” says Perez. “That’s one reason why we have to be smart about where we put [solar].”

And why it’s necessary to build a digitalized grid that deploys software, sensors, and other hardware to monitor and manage electricity distribution and troubleshoot problems.

Instead of relying on dozens of big power plants, the smart grid of the future will increasingly tap thousands or millions of individual rooftop power plants and wind turbines. It will need to collect information about their electricity output and balance the flow of electricity throughout the grid — to ensure that a neighborhood doesn’t go dark because a large cloud is hovering over the solar array atop the local Costco.

“As we start to replace more of the generation with different technologies, we are altering the physics of the system,” said Pedro Pizarro, Southern California Edison’s executive vice president of power operations.

This drizzly October morning is a case in point. A ceiling of gray clouds hangs over the four Ontario warehouses that altogether would be generating some 7.59 megawatts if the sun were shining at peak intensity. So the smart grid also needs to be able to forecast the weather and know, say, that for the next few days electricity production is going to fall in one area while it might rise another, sun-splashed one.

“There’s new technologies that allow for much precise control of the grid,” Perez said. “One of the concerns would be that the intermittency of one of these buildings causes problem for our customers.”

Down the coast at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), researchers have built what looks like a mirrored hemispherical bowl that scans the skies and snaps two photos a minute to predict when clouds will form over the campus’ one-megawatt worth of solar panels that are installed at seven locations.

“We do a 3-D characterization of all clouds on the horizon every 30 seconds,” Byron Washom, director of strategic energy initiatives at UCSD, said at a solar conference in October. “And then in the next second we note its vector, its speed, its height, its opacity and we characterize it.”

“So we actually begin to forecast what type of cloud is going to intersect where the sun is,” added Washom. “We know where it is at all times in the sky [in relation to] each individual panel on campus.”

He said the scientists’ goal is to be able to use the machines, which cost $12,000 apiece and have a range of one kilometer (0.62 miles), to do hourly forecasts with 90 percent accuracy.

“So a capital investment of less than $1 million could bring this to the Southern California rooftop market if we crack the science,” said Washom, referring to the concentration of warehouses in places such as Ontario.

Another smart grid strategy is to store energy generated by solar arrays in batteries and feed power to the grid when renewable energy production falls or demand spikes.

Washom showed a picture of a device that looks like the back end of a DVD player. The Sanyo lithium ion battery can store 1.5-kilowatt hours of electricity. UCSD plans to stack them like servers in a data center so it can store 1.5 megawatts of electricity produced by campus solar arrays.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, SolarCity, a solar panel installer, and electric carmaker Tesla Motors have received a $1.8 million state grant for a pilot project that will put lithium ion car batteries in half a dozen homes with rooftop solar arrays.

The Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD), meanwhile, plans to install lithium ion batteries in 15 residences as part of its smart solar homes program. The utility will also put two 500-kilowatt batteries near substations to test energy storage on a larger scale.

Such systems are expensive but if the price eventually falls, utilities would be able to use them to release power to the grid when, say, a one of Washom’s cloud-forecasting devices predicts electricity production will fall off. (SMUD also will deploy 70 solar stations to help it forecast weather conditions that could affect electricity production, according to Mark Rawson, the utility’s project manager for advanced, renewable and distributed generation.)

So will the smart grid and increasing production of rooftop solar and other renewable energy spell the end of big centralized power stations and the multibillion-dollar transmission infrastructure? Will the future bring some sort of Ecotopian nirvana where power is put in the hands of the people (or at least on their rooftops)?

Not anytime soon, according to Pizarro of Southern California Edison, barring technological breakthroughs that dramatically reduce the cost of photovoltaic power.

“Right now solar is increasing but it’s not overwhelming the system,” says Pizarro, noting that rooftop photovoltaics remain a tiny percentage of the overall power supply even in places like California, where utilities must obtain a third of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020.

Still, renewable energy “has the potential to reduce the generation from central stations,” Pizarro said. “It’s a question of how much and how soon.”

The other wild card is the price of oil and natural gas, notes Craver, Edison’s chief executive. When the cost of natural gas — the dominant energy source in California — rises, renewable energy becomes more attractive. When natural gas prices plunge, as they have over the past couple of years, installing solar becomes far more expensive in relative terms.

At last month’s solar conference, SMUD’s Rawson said his utility currently relies on photovoltaics, or PV, for less than one percent of its electricity generation. But that will likely change dramatically in the years ahead, he says, as the smart grid evolves to handle the widespread distribution of solar power.

“We’re trying to change PV from something that is tolerated by the utility to something that is controlled by the utility,” he said.

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photo: Todd Woody

In a follow up to my story in Friday’s New York Times on the beginning of a solar building boom in the desert Southwest, I take a look at California regulators’ approval of the seventh Big Solar farm in two months, the 663.5-megawatt Calico project:

In an article in Friday’s paper, I write about the solar thermal power plant building boom now under way in California’s Mojave Desert. The looming expiration of crucial federal financial support for the multibillion-dollar projects, though, could turn the boom to bust.

But that hasn’t deterred California regulators, who on Thursday approved the seventh large-scale solar thermal farm since late August.

After years of painstaking environmental review, the California Energy Commission has been green-lighting the massive solar power plants at warp speed so developers can break ground before year’s end and qualify for a government cash grant that covers 30 percent of the cost of construction.

The latest approval goes to Tessera Solar’s Calico project, to be built in the San Bernardino County desert in Southern California. Originally proposed to generate 850 megawatts -– at peak output, that’s close to the production of a nuclear power plant -– the project was whittled down to 663.5 megawatts to lessen the impact on wildlife like the desert tortoise and the bighorn sheep.

It’s difficult to appreciate the sheer scale of even the smaller version of the Calico project until you’ve seen Tessera’s Suncatcher solar dishes on the ground. A few years ago I had the opportunity to visit a prototype six-dish Suncatcher solar farm at the Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico.

Resembling a giant mirrored satellite receiver, each Suncatcher stands 40 feet tall and 38 feet wide with a Stirling engine suspended on an arm over the center of the dish. As the dish tracks the sun, its mirrors concentrate sunlight on the hydrogen gas-filled heat engine. As the superheated gas expands, it drives pistons, which generates 25 kilowatts of electricity.

Now imagine planting 26,540 Suncatchers on 4,613 acres of federal land for the Calico project. Tessera, based in Houston, has also received approval for a 709-megawatt solar power plant to be built in California near the Mexico border. That will require the installation of 28,360 Suncatchers.

“These desert solar projects will provide clean power for our schools, homes, and businesses while reducing fossil fuel consumption, creating local jobs, and reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that threaten California’s economy and environment,” Anthony Eggert, a member of the California Energy Commission, said in a statement on Thursday.

The cost to build the two projects will exceed $4.6 billion, according to Tessera, and it’s highly unlikely that they’ll go online unless the company receives federal loan guarantees that allow developers to borrow up to 80 percent of construction costs on favorable terms. That program expires next September, and Tessera needs to start putting steel into the ground by the end of the year to qualify for the cash grant program.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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