Yes, Another Post on Fracking

Well it’s been a while, but now that I’m out of college and moving on to a new phase of my life, I’ve got some time to get back at blogging.

You know, these days ANYONE that finds out that I have an interest in energy goes straight to one group of topics – shale oil, shale gas, and fracking. When I got into future energy systems, all the talk was about solar and fuel cells – wind was sometimes looked as the “bad guy” in the renewable energy business.

But now no one’s interested in talking about any of that. Solar and wind have taken a complete backseat in public discussion. If the energy industry was a high school, natural gas would be the lucrative prom king that everyone loves to talk about – the cool kids  love him and the nerds wish they could be him. I mean heck, fracking even got a movie deal with Matt Damon!

I obviously understand why people are so interested in the debate surround natural gas – the amount of money at stake makes everyone drool. In fact, there may be some good that will come of this whole frenzy (other than the tangible impacts of the fuel). I love to hear all these bankers who are suddenly experts in energy and are suddenly pitching the financing of hydrofracturing as a more environmentally friendly option to oil and coal to the general public. I heard a banker friend of mine the other day say “You know, the fact that we’re backing natural gas means that our ecosystem is less susceptible to the dangers of other fossil fuels.” Yes, there is truth to that statement, but the more interesting part to me is – since when did you care about “our ecosystem”?

Anyways, it’s good to see people involved with the whole energy debate and I’m glad that public attention has shifted to the nuances of the issue rather than just “Oh man, we’re facing a global energy crisis!” I hope this attention will also be there when progress is made in some long-term developments in renewable energy as well. But then again, it’s all a consequence of the money at play!


World’s First Thorium Power Plant

India’s been trying to make use of its massive Thorium reserves for years, and it looks like it’s really on to something!

Check out this article:

A 300 MWe test plant?! Talk about one hell of a test! Hopefully the construction goes smoothly; so far very few details have been released, but it’s great to see progress on this topic. The lower temperature thorium reactors significantly reduce the risk of severe accidents since the fuel sources are not volatile if power is lost.

I’m sure other generators will be keeping an eye on this development. I’m very interested to know what the response will be from – the US has 25% of the world’s thorium reserves and hasn’t budged on nuclear plants in decades. Maybe it’s time to think beyond uranium America?

Clean Electricity from Trash?

During a recent browsing session, I  came across this article on plasma gasification from the NY Times (I should really switch to the WSJ but the search function on NYT is just too good). Incidentally, my friend Christine asked me about it as well so I decided to get writing!

In case you don’t have the time to read the article (or are too lazy like most) here’s a quick summary: Machines have been developed that take in waste, break down the chemical bonds, filter out particular classes of materials, and produce a gas similar to natural gas that can be used for electricity generation.

Now, this is awesome right?! Take a bunch of trash, throw it into this next-gen system and voila! Electricity! Let’s just dump all our trash into these systems and power our houses right?! Well… not so much. Here’s why:

1) The electricity that is generated from these systems is “enough to run the system”. That’s the most important aspect of this news – we must categorize it was waste management as opposed to power generation. Too often to do we approach systems and see that they have some electricity converting abilities without realizing the energy required to run the system itself. These plasma gasification machines are power-hungry, and consume just as much as they spit out in this case.

2) For those of you thinking “well let’s put in more trash and get more out”, that isn’t really an option because of the machine power needs. And, perhaps more importantly, the systems still produce up to “half the nitrogen oxides” of incineration techniques – yes that’s a great improvement in terms of dealing with waste, but a step back from the perspective of electricity generation.

3) The article rightly points out that this is not a better alternative to recycling or composting, but rather an improvement over waste incineration. With many states looking to make fast transitions to “cleaner” alternatives, policy makers may be too quick to jump at this opportunity instead of pursuing more sustainable options.

That being said, I don’t want to discredit the process by any means! In terms of waste management, this looks like a great option going forward, especially with the ability to process some dangerous chemicals. The self-sustaining aspect is also something the waste management industry could benefit from big time. These machines are meant to deal with waste, and I’d much rather have them in place than stuffing the ground with trash, or shipping waste around. However, it’s important to separate waste energy for the purpose of electricity generation vs. waste energy for waste management.

So, clean source of electricity? Not so much. Renewable energy credits? Eh… that’s a grey area I don’t think we should enter with this. Awesome alternative to burning solid waste and hazardous materials? Absolutely. 

America Commercializes Wave Energy

I recently came across this New York Time’s article on the first commercial wave energy harvesting license  in Oregon and a few things caught my attention:

1) These 10 generators can power 1000 homes! That’s impressive!

2) I’m interested to know more about how consistent the power generation is and whether transmission can be cost-effective.

3) The money being poured into this research comes from a state-funded non-profit specific to Oregon. It would be great to see other states follow suit, if they haven’t already, in exploring this option – with many states possessing phenomenal coastal resources, a lot is banking on this first experience.

4) The article quotes one of the project leaders, noting that “wave technology is so new, compared to, say, wind energy, that the designs are like a curiosity shop”. With all the stress on how renewables are so young and untested, it’s funny to see wind as the old guy in the room for once!

What are your thoughts on wave energy?

For Free… or PTC? That is the Question

I like to dream.

I enjoy the thoughts of battling alien monkeys and flying in ships made of sunflowers. I even relish the dreams in which I wake up to find that I am still dreaming. So, when I woke up last Friday from a dream of the US Congress passing an extension to the PTC, I knew I needed to get some thoughts out of my head.

One of the biggest questions on the mind of environmental policy makers, and, apparently, a 22-year old intern at GE who recently started a blog, can be boiled down to a simple Shakespearean offering: “For Free… or PTC?”  OK, well maybe I didn’t jot down Shakespeare’s quote perfect from English class, but the question is at the crux of renewable energy policy in the US. This is my attempt to make some sense of what has become an unnecessarily convoluted debate.

The Production Tax Credit (PTC) is a federal tax credit for the production of electricity from renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, geothermal (and even anaerobic digestion!) For example, the PTC gives a site 2.2 cents/kwh for electricity produced via wind turbines. Started as part of the Energy Policy Act of 1992, the PTC has been extended many times over the past 20 years, with notable gaps in between for which it was allowed to expire. These gaps, however brief, have lead to what is called a “boom-and-bust” cycle for the renewable sector. The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), which has lobbied extensively on this issue, published a recent report featuring the following chart for the wind energy sector over the past decade:

Wind Sector Boom-and-Bust Cycle

The key aspect of this cycle is that in the years for which the PTC is upheld, the annual installed wind capacity skyrockets. That is, not only is their repeated demand for the technology, but that demand is increasing each year. This growth in the industry is natural growth, not ramped up by expanding a subsidy. Put in a different way, without any increases in subsidy, the industry is still able to produce an increase in installation rates.

To people who say that we shouldn’t pass the PTC because it will comfortably prop up the renewables industry with benefits and safeguards: you couldn’t be further from the truth. What do you think engineers are doing in the drawing room, designing turbines with lower capacity factors? Do you think solar manufacturers are trying to find materials with lower absorption coefficients and higher cost? Without consistent cash flow, it becomes very difficult for large companies to invest in research and for small companies to find traction with investors. Unlike conventional power sources, renewable energy is young and has immense potential to grow into a dominant player in the market. You don’t deprive your child of milk in a growth spurt to toughen them up do you?

If you google PTC extension you’ll be able to find more than enough articles, government statements, pictures of Sarah Palin lookalikes, blog posts, and videos about how it’s time to make the right move. Despite all this positive media, for me the most entertaining/infuriating remarks are the anonymous comments found at the bottom of these pages. One of them reads:

Before we give wind credits…go back and bring programs and credits back for things like windows, doors, and insulation. This too, will create jobs…and help conserve energy. Not to mention, the home improvement people will have jobs, the big boxes will have customers, and the window and door manufacturers will employe people.

Uh… what? That’s your argument against investing in our country’s energy future? The home improvement industry?! I wonder about 1) how the two could possibly be mutually exclusive, 2) the required credit structure for the government to gives home improvement incentives, and 3) whether this guy posts the same comment on every blog.

Honestly, I’m not surprised that the PTC was able to find its way into my dreams given that I’m spending the majority of my days at Renewable Energy HQ. Since last Friday, I started keeping a tally of the number of times the PTC has been mentioned by someone at work. The count is at 24.

I do think that Congress will follow President Obama’s push to extend the PTC till 2016, but when? The urgency of the matter could not be more tangible. The delay in government action is forcing the renewables industry to lose thousands of installations. With some big companies facing such declining demand, jobs are always in danger. I believe Congress will get the message sooner than later and then we’ll be able to put this mess all behind us. And this time, there will be no bust to follow the boom.

But then again, I like to dream.

The Debate on Solar Tariffs

Tariffs on solar panels made in China were announced by the Obama administration in May of this year and were met with strong opposition. The primary rationale behind these tariffs, ranging from 31% to above 200% for non-compliant manufacturers, was to protect domestic markets from China “dumping” their panels at low costs. The Chinese government was quick to respond to such allegations by accusing the US of unfairly promoting domestic solar manufacturers.

With the continued demise of American manufacturers that the government was apparently trying to protect, the solar tariff does not seem to have accomplished very much. Many Chinese firms were properly equipped to absorb the increased costs from the tariff. In fact, some Chinese suppliers explored the option of outsourcing the panel production to neighbouring Taiwan! Oh the irony.

The policy itself is interesting – a few questions that result:

  • Are the effects of the tariffs meant to be evaluated over a longer period? If “dumping” is not a financially sustainable strategy, which it wouldn’t seem to be, the tariff would decrease the time span for which such activity could be maintained.
  • What about the benefits to installers of solar projects? These consistent panel price reductions could be the key difference in making a project financially viable. Energy efficiency and implementation programs are definitely not happy to be kept away from lower cost panels.
  • What is the administration trying to accomplish? Is the ultimate goal to promote renewable energy as a solution to climate change, energy independence, or growth in the manufacturing sector? If it is the former, then this tariff is a grave mistake by attempting to curtail the  industry’s rapid expansion. However, if a future energy scenario mandates complete independence, the danger of allowing China to own a monopoly on the industry is troublesome. Could this result in a similar situation to OPEC?

The fear of Chinese global solar dominance has many policy makers worried. What is the best course of action?

Solar iPhone Charger – Future for America?

I recently blogged about American thin-film manufacturers being put out of business due to the inability to match severe cost drops in c-Si modules from Chinese competitors. So if America can’t compete on PV modules, are there better areas for American solar companies to explore?

Ascent Solar, another Colorado based company, focuses on solar products instead of modules. With a variety of innovative products already on the market, Ascent’s most recent product seems poised to generate much interest from consumers. A thin-film CIGS solar iPhone Case-come-Charger named EnerPlex looks to solve the often encountered issue of limited battery life on smartphones. The key differentiator for Ascent’s product is the incorporation of thin-film technology which allows significant reductions in size/weight while enabling a flexible design.

The case has an auxiliary battery integrated which is charged by the CIGS film. According to Ascent’s website, this battery can then add:

Standby Time: up to 170 hours
Internet Surfing: up to 3.5 hours
Wi-Fi: up to 5.6 hours
Audio Play: up to 19 hours
Video Play: up to 5.6 hours

 The case itself features a chic design which should appeal to iPhone enthusiasts – and with a price point of $68 the case may have more success than some previous attempts. Check out a video demo of the product here.

This trend to push towards smarter products with technological advantages may gain traction in the solar business. If other American manufacturers start to fall off the map, this may be the only market in which American solar companies can compete.