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Posts Tagged ‘renewable energy’

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

The same day this week that The New York Times published an extensive report by correspondent Keith Bradsher on China’s massive subsidies for renewable energy companies, Ernst & Young released a study showing that, not surprisingly, China has overtaken the United States as the most attractive place for green tech investment.

“China’s steady rise to pole position has been underpinned by strong and consistent government support for renewable energy,” Ben Warren, Ernst & Young’s environment and energy infrastructure advisory leader, said in a statement. “This, together with substantial commitment from industry and the sheer scale of its natural resources, means that its position as top spot for renewable energy investment is well merited.”

Some of that government support may violate World Trade Organization rules. On Thursday, an American union, the United Steelworkers, filed an unfair trade complaint against China with the Office of the United States Trade Representative.

But the Ernst & Young report points to failures on the part of the U.S. government to take action that would attract green investors.

For one thing, Congress has so far failed to establish a national Renewable Energy Standard that would require the country’s utilities to obtain a certain percentage of electricity from non-carbon-emitting sources.

Also, a federal tax subsidy program that is spurring construction of big solar power plants expires at the end of the year and legislation to extend the incentives is languishing in Congress.

“Although the United States remains a highly attractive location for investors in renewable energy, it is clear that recent events have eased momentum,” said Warren. “The U.S. market continues to have significant potential but requires consistent legislative support to provide investors with the long-term confidence they need.”

China, in contrast, “aims to reach an installed capacity of 300GW [gigawatts] of hydro, 70GW of nuclear, 100GW of wind, and 20GW of solar capacity by 2020,” according to the Ernst & Young study.

Reports by the U.S. Energy Information Agency provide a glimpse of the green imbalance of trade between the two countries. The figures from 2008 — apparently the latest available from the government — show that fewer than 1 percent of U.S.-made solar modules were shipped to China while nearly 23 percent of Chinese-made photovoltaic modules were exported to the U.S.

Since then, Chinese imports have risen dramatically. At the end of 2009, for instance, Chinese firms supplied about half the California solar market alone, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, a consulting firm.

What China is not exporting, of course, is green jobs.

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photo: U.S. Navy

In The New York Times on Tuesday, I write about Navy Secretary Ray Mabus’ plans to green the Navy and Marine Corps and help build a market for new technologies:

Want to stimulate demand for renewable energy? Send in the Marines.

That was Navy Secretary Ray Mabus’s message on Monday when he outlined plans to slash the Navy and Marine Corps’ dependence on fossil fuels during an appearance on Monday evening at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club.

“We use in the Navy and Marine Corps almost 1 percent of the energy that America uses,” Mr. Mabus said. “If we can get energy from different places and from different sources, you can flip the line from ‘Field of Dreams’ — If the Navy comes, they will build it. If we provide the market, then I think you’ll begin to see the infrastructure being built.”

“Within 10 years, the United States Navy will get one half of all its energy needs, both afloat and onshore, from non-fossil fuel sources,” he added. “America and the Navy rely too much on fossil fuels. It makes the military, in this case our Navy and Marine Corps, far too vulnerable to some sort of disruption.”

Reaching those renewable energy goals will be a gargantuan challenge. The Navy operates 290 ships, 3,700 aircraft, 50,000 non-combat vehicles and owns 75,200 buildings on 3.3 million acres of land.

Last year the Navy launched its first electric hybrid ship, the Makin Island, an amphibious assault vessel that some have dubbed the Prius of the seas. On its maiden voyage from a shipyard in Pascagoula, Miss., to its home base in San Diego, the Makin Island saved $2 million in fuel costs, Mr. Mabus said.

“In terms of our fleet, we have most of ships we’re going to have in 2020 so we know what we have to do to change that,” he said in a conversation with Greg Dalton, a Commonwealth Club executive. “We can do things like retrofit ships with hybrid drives. Mainly it’s changing the fuels.”

Two days after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in April, a Navy pilot flew an F/A-18 Hornet fighter jet powered by a biofuel blend made from the seeds of camelina sativa, an inedible plant.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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Could we really be as dependent on fossil fuels in 2034 as we are today? In The New York TImes on Friday, I write about a projection from energy consultants Black & Veatch that sees fossil fuels continuing to play a dominant role in the United States a quarter century from now:

A quarter century from now the United States’ reliance on fossil fuels will have declined only marginally, according to a projection from Black & Veatch, the engineering and energy consulting firm.

In 2034, a mix of coal, natural gas and other fossil fuels will supply 68 percent of the nation’s energy needs, compared to 76 percent today. The share of energy production from renewable sources, including solar and wind, in 2034 will rise to 13 percent from 5 percent. Nuclear power will supply only 2 percent more electricity than it does in 2010, the firm said.

Those numbers were part of a presentation that Black & Veatch made to utility executives and other clients in Sacramento this week and which Mark Griffith, a managing director at the company, shared with The Times.

“We’re not assuming that greenhouse gas legislation leads to a immediate shutdown of all coal plants, nor does it lead to going directly to natural gas or renewables,” said Mr. Griffith.

However, Mr. Griffith acknowledged that a number of factors remain in flux that could change those dynamics, including the final shape of a cap-and-trade system – if one is implemented – and whether the United States imposes a requirement that all states obtain a percentage of their electricity from renewable sources.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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IMG_1214

photo: Todd Woody

Can a state that gets 95 percent of its electricity from coal-fired power plants go green? The Natural Resources Defense Council thinks so. In a report released this week, the environmental group lays out how Indiana can become the California of the Midwest when it comes to renewable energy. As I write in The New York Times on Friday:

Coal-dependent Indiana could become one of the nation’s greenest states by tapping rural resources to generate renewable energy, according to a new report issued by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The Hoosier State now obtains 95 percent of its electricity from plants running on coal — largely imported from Wyoming and elsewhere — but it could profit as an exporter of wind energy and machinery, the report said.

“Indiana has some of the best wind potential in the eastern U.S. and has a competitive advantage as a wind producer over most other states because of its location,” said the report’s author, Martin R. Cohen, said during a conference call on Wednesday.

Mr. Cohen noted that while the wind blows stronger in states like North Dakota and Nebraska, Indiana already has the transmission system in place to bring wind-generated electricity to eastern cities.

If Indiana increased wind energy production to 4,500 megawatts from its current 530 megawatts, it would create thousands of jobs and attract turbine manufacturers, according to the report. An owner of a 500-acre farm could earn $30,000 a year from leasing land for wind turbines, Mr. Cohen estimated.

Farmers also could profit, the report said, if Indiana starts harvesting corn stalks, wheat stalks and soybean residue and uses the biomass either for power production or to make ethanol.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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Stirling Energy Systems Solar One project

image: Tessera Solar

In a feature published in today’s New York Times, I look at a water war breaking out in the desert Southwest over plans to build dozens of large-scale solar power projects on hundreds of thousands of acres of land:

AMARGOSA VALLEY, Nev. — In a rural corner of Nevada reeling from the recession, a bit of salvation seemed to arrive last year. A German developer, Solar Millennium, announced plans to build two large solar farms here that would harness the sun to generate electricity, creating hundreds of jobs.

But then things got messy. The company revealed that its preferred method of cooling the power plants would consume 1.3 billion gallons of water a year, about 20 percent of this desert valley’s available water.

Now Solar Millennium finds itself in the midst of a new-age version of a Western water war. The public is divided, pitting some people who hope to make money selling water rights to the company against others concerned about the project’s impact on the community and the environment.

“I’m worried about my well and the wells of my neighbors,” George Tucker, a retired chemical engineer, said on a blazing afternoon.

Here is an inconvenient truth about renewable energy: It can sometimes demand a huge amount of water. Many of the proposed solutions to the nation’s energy problems, from certain types of solar farms to biofuel refineries to cleaner coal plants, could consume billions of gallons of water every year.

“When push comes to shove, water could become the real throttle on renewable energy,” said Michael E. Webber, an assistant professor at the University of Texas in Austin who studies the relationship between energy and water.

Conflicts over water could shape the future of many energy technologies. The most water-efficient renewable technologies are not necessarily the most economical, but water shortages could give them a competitive edge.

In California, solar developers have already been forced to switch to less water-intensive technologies when local officials have refused to turn on the tap. Other big solar projects are mired in disputes with state regulators over water consumption.

To date, the flashpoint for such conflicts has been the Southwest, where dozens of multibillion-dollar solar power plants are planned for thousands of acres of desert. While most forms of energy production consume water, its availability is especially limited in the sunny areas that are otherwise well suited for solar farms.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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clean-edge-report

Worldwide revenues from the solar photovoltaic, wind and biofuels industries jumped 53% in 2008 to $116 billion and is on track to grow to $325 billion by 2018, according to a report released Tuesday by West Coast market research firm Clean Edge.

Last year’s boom, however, is unlikely to be repeated in 2009, given the global financial crisis. Signs of the slowdown were apparent last year as new global investment in green energy grew by a paltry 4.7% to $155 billion, compared to a 60% rise between 2006 and 2007. In the United States, however, venture capital investments in green tech grew 22% last year to $3.3 billion, representing 12% of all VC investments, according to figures compiled by research firm New Energy Finance.

“2009 is a year to get through,” said report author Ron Pernick during a conference call.

Of course, growth projections for renewable energy are inherently speculative. Green energy investment is strongly dependent on government policy and what the Obama administration gives today in the form of billions in subsidies and incentives a successor can take away. And then there are calamities like the extent of the meltdown of the global economy that few foresaw even a year ago.

The wind industry accounted for a third of renewable energy revenues in 2008, becoming a $50 billion business. Clean Edge projects that employment in the wind and solar industries will grow from a combined 600,000 jobs in 2008 to 2.7 million by 2018.

“As the market transitions to low-carbon fuel and electricity sources, conservation and efficiency efforts, and the deployment of a smart, 21st century grid, we believe clean energy offers one of the greatest opportunities for both local and global economies to compete and thrive,” wrote Pernick and co-authors Joel Makower and Clint Wilder.

They identified as growth areas smart grid technologies, energy storage for wind and solar farms, the Eastern Eureopean market,  power grid infrastructure and micro power grids that provide electricity to self-contained facilities or areas.

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cpuc-rps-report

California quadrupled the amount of renewable energy it installed in 2008 over the previous year, according to a report released Wednesday by the state’s Public Utilities Commission.

The 500 megawatts of green electricity brought online last year represents 60% of all renewable energy generation built since 2002, when California mandated that the state’s investor-owned utilities obtain 20% of their power from renewable sources by 2010. In November, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed an executive order raising the Renewable Portfolio Standard, or RPS, to 33% by 2020.

“Clearly, 2008 was a turning point for the RPS program and contracted projects are beginning to deliver in large numbers,” the California Public Utilities Commission report stated.

The CPUC in 2008 approved projects that would generate 2,812 megawatts of renewable energy for California’s Big Three utilities – PG&E (PCG), Southern California Edison (EIX) and San Diego Gas & Electric (SRE). Impressive numbers but the utilities have acknowledged they are unlikely to meet their renewable energy targets by the 2010 deadline because it takes years to get solar and wind projects online and some will inevitably fail. For instance, the financial crisis has raised questions about just how many of the Big Solar power plants the utilities are relying on will actually get built, though the $787 billion stimulus packaged signed into law Tuesday by President Barack Obama has brightened the solar industry’s prospects.

California increasingly is depending on solar energy to meet its commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions under the state’s landmark 2006 global warming law. According to regulators, utilities received 30% more bids for solar power projects in 2008 than in the previous year while wind farm proposals dropped by half and “very few” geothermal tenders were filed.

The fact that utilities received 24,000 megawatts’ worth of renewable energy bids last year (more than enough, if built, to meet the 33% renewable energy target) speaks to the frothy state of the market. But before solar power plants and other green energy projects can go online they face years-long and often contentious environmental reviews, while a lack of transmission lines to bring all this electricity from the desert to coastal cities remains the green elephant in the room.

Meanwhile, regulators are reviewing a policy change that would seem to undercut the state’s goal of encouraging utilities to generate more renewable energy. On March 12 Feb. 20,the California Public Utilities Commission will consider whether to allow utilities to buy so-called tradable renewable energy credits, or TRECs, from other entities  to meet their green electricity mandates. Such credits are associated with the electricity generated by wind farms, solar power plants and other projects and can be bought and sold. In other words, if a utility finds itself falling short of its renewable energy goals – or just doesn’t want to spend the money procuring green power – it could buy TRECs on the open market.

Green Wombat is awaiting a reply from the utilities commission on whether California utilities could purchase TRECs generated by out-of-state projects – which, of course, would do nothing to reduce the state’s own greenhouse gas emissions.  UPDATE: CPUC spokeswoman Terrie Prosper says that utilities will be able to buy out-of-state TRECs as long as they meet California’s eligibility requirements.

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