Category: Energy

Utility-scale solar costs diminished by half in the last five years



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Lawrence Berkeley National Labs has released a report on the state of utility-scale solar installations in the US. Just about everything in the report is remarkable for anyone who’s followed the solar market closely. Over the past five years, prices have dropped by half, while the capacity factors are approaching that of wind. As a result, the most recent installations are offering power at prices that are competitive with natural gas—not the cost of the plant and fuel, but the fuel alone…

One of the issues with utility-scale solar has been that some of the earlier plants were built outside the Southwest. This has meant less overall generation and a lower capacity factor, meaning that the panels are only producing power at a fraction of their maximal rate. Both of these raise the cost of the electricity generated. But installations in the Southwest have boomed to over 90 percent of the total installed hardware. This has capacity factors up and costs down. More recently, large projects have been getting more popular in the Southeast, which may change this dynamic in the future.

For now, the total capacity factor is about 27.5 percent of what the panels are rated for. But the best projects see capacity factors of 35 percent—similar to a typical windfarm in the US…

Regardless of the cause, the low costs have allowed power purchase agreements (PPAs) in the Southwest to reach unheard of levels: “Some of the most-recent PPAs in the Southwest have levelized PPA prices as low as (or even lower than) $40/MWh (in real 2014 dollars). At these low levels—which appear to be robust, given the strong response to recent utility solicitations—PV compares favorably to just the fuel costs (i.e., ignoring fixed capital costs) of natural gas-fired generation.”

For a technology that was recently one of the most expensive forms of electricity generation on the market, it’s a remarkable turnaround.

Two questions remain for consumers. (1) Who’s keeping an eye on the price-fiddling fixed in the DNA of most public utilities. Here in New Mexico, the crooks in charge of oversight and regulation – of fellow crooks – don’t provide much confidence in equitable pricing. (2) Rooftop solar will probably grow just as quickly as utility-scale solar. Or better. Those two classes of crooks mentioned in (1) will try to screw consumers with an added tax for the maintenance and infrastructure expansion they’ve previously taxed us for – over decades.

Good news in the UK — Renewable electricity overtakes coal

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Britain generated more of its electricity from renewable sources than from burning coal for the first time in the second quarter of 2015, as more wind and solar farms were built.

A record high of 25.3 per cent of the UK’s power came from wind, solar, biomass and hydro-electric sources in the three months to June, up from just 16.7 per cent in the same period the year before.

By contrast the share of electricity from Britain’s ageing fleet of coal-fired power stations fell to 20.5 per cent, down from 28.2 per cent a year previously…

The Department of Energy and Climate Change said the record share of renewable generation reflected not only more renewable capacity, such as the construction of big new offshore wind farms, but also “more favourable weather conditions for renewable generation”.

Biomass energy, which is also classed as renewable, also increased following the conversion of part of Drax, Britain’s biggest coal-fired power plant, to burn wood instead.

The drop in coal power also reflected the closure or temporary shutdown of other coal power stations and an increase in the UK’s carbon tax which made coal plants less profitable to run.

You don’t need an amplifier to hear the tears falling from the dark orbs that pass for eyes in the Koch Brothers. They cry for every penny of profit lost by their fossil fuel brotherhood of pollution.

Using solar energy in the dark is closer than you think

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In May, when Tesla Motors announced its new battery product to vast media buzz, the talk was all about people putting batteries in their solar-powered homes, and thereby becoming that much less reliant on the grid.

But there was always another and perhaps even bigger side of the story — the idea that very large scale batteries or battery packs could help out the grid itself by storing large amounts of solar energy for use in the evening or at night. The ultimate effect might be to displace electricity generated from coal or natural gas, and convert an inherently “intermittent” renewable energy source — solar — into a more constant one.

So is it happening? The answer seems to be yes — 2015 has seen several key announced, completed, or experimental grid-scale projects pairing batteries and solar photovoltaic panels….

Indeed, SolarCity — which is chaired by Tesla CEO Elon Musk — has just announced plans to bring precisely this combo to Hawaii, a state that continues to lead the way when it comes to the adoption of solar and batteries, thanks to its towering electricity costs, which are the highest in the nation.

SolarCity and the Kauaʻi Island Utility Cooperative jointly announced last week that they’ve entered into a solar power purchase agreement in which SolarCity will provide 20 years of power from a 52-megawatt-hour battery installation that will be able to send as many as 13 megawatts of electricity to the island’s grid. The battery will draw power from an accompanying solar array.

The biggest news is when the energy would be supplied: the evening. “What makes this exciting is basically that it’s dispatchable solar that will be available at night,” says Peter Rive, the chief technology officer of SolarCity. The system is slated to be running by the end of 2016, said Rive, and will likely use Tesla batteries for the energy storage component.

Once that happens, solar energy will be no longer confined to simply being used when the sun is shining, at least on Kaua’i. Rather, thanks to storage, its use will be shifted to other hours of the day — removing one reason that power plants have often been powered by various types of fossil fuels (on Kaua’i, diesel), which of course can burn at any hour…

There are other examples, similar approaches – not quite the same. To me that is extraneous. What counts is that folks are working at one more avenue to make solar power generation practical.

Walking one small step at a time towards freedom from fossil fuel.

EPA may be way underestimating landfill emissions

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Landfills may be emitting more methane than previously reported because the Environmental Protection Agency may be drastically underestimating how much garbage is being deposited in landfills across the US, according to a new Yale University study.

Banana peels, coffee grounds, plastic bottles and other detritus tossed in the garbage usually ends up in a landfill and emits methane as it decomposes.

Methane is a greenhouse gas up to 35 times as potent as carbon dioxide as a driver of climate change over the span of a century, and landfills are the United States’ third largest source of methane emissions, according to the EPA. The Obama administration is focusing on cutting methane emissions as part of its Climate Action Plan.

The study, published Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change, examined more than 1,200 solid waste landfills, including those that are open and those that are closed and no longer accepting waste.

Using previously unavailable data from individual landfills, the study found that in 2012, about 262 million metric tonnes of waste were deposited in landfills across the country, more than double the 122 million tonnes estimated by the EPA. The agency may be underestimating the amount of waste landing in landfills because small waste disposal facilities are not required to report how much refuse they accept.

What great reasons do our politicians offer for blocking requirements to report? Anyone?

The study also found that open landfills emit 91% of all landfill methane emissions, while closed landfills are 17% more efficient than open landfills at capturing methane so it does not escape into the atmosphere…

The study’s primary goal was to learn more about the efficiency of methane capture systems at landfills, which are more effective after a landfill stops accepting new waste…

…Atmospheric physicist Raymond Pierrehumbert, who is among the scientists who believe cutting methane should be less of a priority than cutting carbon dioxide to tackle climate change, said the study is useful in evaluating methane capture systems at landfills. But it primarily underscores that landfill gas should be used more widely as an energy source and that people should throw less in the trash, especially organic matter…

Conclusions across the board are consistent with good sense waste management. Produce less waste. Recycle and reuse where and when possible. Utilize methane produced by landfills to generate electricity or power useful machinery.

The range of solutions from the scientific side of the equation are already well known. Only Know-Nothing political barbarians dispute either the need for research or the goals.

Conservative climate-change deniers say the Pope is a Pagan

A leading group of climate change skeptics is concerned that paganism is creeping into the Catholic Church. That was the message delivered by Gene Koprowski, director of marketing at the Chicago-based Heartland Institute…

Just in case you wondered where the Koch Bros spend their buck$ outside the official Republican Party

The pope, who is visiting the United States this week, has called on policymakers to take action to control climate change and has criticized the excesses of free market capitalism. According to Koprowski, when Heartland staffers first began reading news stories about the pope speaking out on climate, they were “shocked that the pope was buying into this left-wing political craze that is global warming.” So in April, Heartland sent a delegation of climate skeptics to Rome to offer a “prebuttal” to a Vatican climate summit in an attempt to change the pope’s mind.

“When the Vatican leapt into the controversy on climate science, we were initially under the impression that His Holiness was a victim of bad advice from bad advisers,” Koprowski said Thursday. “There were people from the UN who were population control advocates. There were people from other left-wing groups who were advising the pontiff.”

But Koprowski said that after the pope released his landmark encyclical calling for action on climate change, he began to suspect that “something more may be afoot.”…Koprowski concluded: “I would say, contrary to some of the criticism, that this is not communism that has entered the church. It’s, rather, paganism.”

Pope Francis is accustomed to being red-baited. It’s a tactic common not only to rightwing nutballs; but, considered a useful tool by everyone from the CIA to Blue Dog Democrats.

The declaration of paganism is funnier. Folks may not know this; but, this is a common tool of confrontation in Eastern Europe. Used for years by the Catholic Church as part of agitprop – twinning paganism and any form of socialism. It’s especially rife in nations like Ukraine where there actually is a tradition of paganism in confrontation with the Catholic Church and Christianity.

If it’s crap – you can always count on it coming around again.

NASA says a warp drive looks more promising than ever

warp drive vehicle

The first steps towards interstellar travel have been taken, but the stars are very far away. Voyager 1 is about 17 light-hours distant from Earth and is traveling with a velocity of 0.006 percent of light speed, meaning it will take about 17,000 years to travel one light-year. Fortunately, the elusive “warp drive” now appears to be evolving past difficulties with new theoretical advances and a NASA test rig under development to measure artificially generated warping of space-time.

The warp drive broke away from being a wholly fictional concept in 1994, when physicist Miguel Alcubierre suggested that faster-than-light (FTL) travel was possible if you remained still on a flat piece of spacetime inside a warp bubble that was made to move at superluminal velocity. Rather like a magic carpet. The main idea here is that, although no material objects can travel faster than light, there is no known upper speed to the ability of spacetime itself to expand and contract. The only real hint we have is that the minimum velocity of spacetime expansion during the period of cosmological inflation was about 30 million billion times the speed of light.

The warp effect uses gravitational effects to compress the spacetime in front of a spacecraft, then expand the spacetime behind it. The bit of spacetime within the warp bubble is flat, so that the spacecraft would float at zero-g along the wave of compressed and expanded spacetime. The net effect is rather like surfing, where you are nearly stationary with respect to the wave, but are traveling with the speed of the wave. Whereas many of the theoretical studies consider a warp bubble moving at ten times the speed of light, there is no known limit to the potential speed…

This sounds too easy, and in many ways, it is. Thus far, all superluminal warp drives require negative energy and pressure to form and maintain the warp bubble. Matter consistent with such properties does not exist in classical physics. While in quantum mechanics there are certain possibilities for negative energy phenomena, they generally do not seem well suited to generate the required warp bubble.

An additional problem is that a great deal of negative energy is required to initiate a warp bubble. For Alcubierre’s original model, it would take more negative energy than the total mass of the Universe to equip a small spacecraft to travel at ten times light speed. Fortunately, refinements to the model have resulted in the energy requirements reducing to the mass equivalent of a few hundred kilograms of matter with negative energy. Mind you, we don’t know how to get that quantity either, but it feels a more likely prospect.

Lots of interesting reading, far-reaching speculation, in this article. A fun read. Reflect if you might on how this might read in a hundred years…or more?

Can President Kim end World Bank backing for coal-fired power?

Creeps like the Koch Bros. should be required to live downwind

In a closed meeting on Tuesday evening, the World Bank put before its executive directors a proposal to stop funding the development of new coal plants globally. Despite provisions that would grant exceptions to allow funding for a few rare coal plants, this proposal is a big step forward for an agency that has supported some of the world’s largest and dirtiest coal plants for years. It is also a key opportunity for World Bank President Dr Jim Yong Kim to lead the World Bank into a clean energy future.

Kim is already poised to be a leader in the fight to address climate disruption. Shortly after joining the World Bank as president one year ago this month, he commissioned a report that detailed the catastrophic effects the world would see if global temperatures rose by just four degrees Celsius. Since then, Kim has repeatedly called on countries around the world to take action now in order to avert such a crisis in the future.

Unfortunately, the World Bank’s actions haven’t lived up to Kim’s rhetoric. In the past five years alone, the bank has financed more than $5bn in carbon-intensive coal plants. Currently, it is considering financing a new coal power plant in Kosovo that would burn lignite coal – the dirtiest and most toxic form of coal available. This plant would be built in a country where, according to the World Bank’s own statistics, coal already kills 835 people every year.

…The tide at the World Bank may be turning. In his “climate action” speech last month, President Obama called for an end to public financing of dirty coal plants abroad. On the heels of that announcement, the World Bank released a draft energy strategy that would ban funding for new coal generation, with some rare exceptions. Although we would prefer to see the door closed on coal for good by eliminating even those loopholes, the bank’s new energy plan still marks real progress under Kim’s leadership.

Ending the financing of coal plants globally would also free up scarce public funds for investment in decentralized clean energy projects. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the only way the 1.3 billion people who still do not have access to electricity will be able to get it is through this type of off-grid, decentralized clean energy. Indeed, the IEA argues that to achieve universal electrification, the 70% of rural areas currently without power must be serviced with off-grid renewable energy…

Jim Yong Kim showed he was up to the test, but we’ll be watching closely to make sure this policy is backed up by real action.

Keep on rocking in the Free World!

Even if you get to wear thousand-dollar-suits and arrive at meetings in a Mercedes S-class chariot, confronting the fossil fuel flunkies ain’t ever anything more than a polite version of mud wrestling. And they control both the dirt and the gold.

Experiment sees neutrinos change — and, meanwhile, at the Ice Cube Observatory…

Click to enlargeIce Cube Collaboration

From where do these neutrinos come? The IceCube Neutrino Observatory near the South Pole of the Earth has begun to detect nearly invisible particles of very high energy. Although these rarely-interacting neutrinos pass through much of the Earth just before being detected, where they started remains a mystery. Pictured here is IceCube’s Antarctic lab accompanied by a cartoon depicting long strands of detectors frozen into the crystal clear ice below. Candidate origins for these cosmic neutrinos include the violent surroundings of supermassive black holes at the centers of distant galaxies, and tremendous stellar explosions culminating in supernovas and gamma ray bursts far across the universe. As IceCube detects increasingly more high energy neutrinos, correlations with known objects may resolve this cosmic conundrum — or we may never know.

Ursarodinia kicks off this week’s PAWS and CLAWS newsletter featuring the Ice Cube Observatory. Which reminded me that I’ve had the article below sitting in the hopper for a month. It’s very interesting to me – as is her find on the same topic. Time to offer up both together.

NOvA is on a quest to learn more about the abundant yet mysterious particles called neutrinos, which flit through ordinary matter as though it weren’t there. The first NOvA results, released…at the American Physical Society’s Division of Particles and Fields conference in Ann Arbor, Michigan, verify that the experiment’s massive particle detector — 50 feet tall, 50 feet wide and 200 feet long — is sitting in the sweet spot and detecting neutrinos fired from 500 miles away. Scientists have sorted through millions of cosmic ray strikes and zeroed in on neutrino interactions…

The neutrino beam generated at Fermilab passes through an underground near detector, which measures the beam’s neutrino composition before it leaves the Fermilab site. The particles then travel more than 500 miles straight through Earth, no tunnel required, oscillating (or changing types) along the way. About once per second, Fermilab’s accelerator sends trillions of neutrinos to Minnesota, but the elusive neutrinos interact so rarely that only a few will register at the far detector.

When a neutrino bumps into an atom in the NOvA detector, it releases a signature trail of particles and light depending on which type it is: an electron, muon or tau neutrino. The beam originating at Fermilab is made almost entirely of one type — muon neutrinos — and scientists can measure how many of those muon neutrinos disappear over their journey and reappear as electron neutrinos.

If oscillations did not occur, experimenters predicted they would see 201 muon neutrinos arrive at the NOvA far detector in the data collected; instead, they saw a mere 33, proof that the muon neutrinos were disappearing as they transformed into the two other flavors. Similarly, if oscillations did not occur, scientists expected to see only one electron neutrino appearance (due to background interactions). But the collaboration saw six such events, evidence that some of the missing muon neutrinos had turned into electron neutrinos…

Neutrinos are the most abundant massive particle in the universe but are still poorly understood. While researchers know that neutrinos come in three types, they don’t know which is the heaviest and which is the lightest. Figuring out this ordering — one of the goals of the NOvA experiment — would be a great litmus test for theories about how the neutrino gets its mass. While the famed Higgs boson helps explain how some particles obtain their masses, scientists don’t know yet how it is connected to neutrinos, if at all. The measurement of the neutrino mass hierarchy is also crucial information for neutrino experiments trying to see if the neutrino is its own antiparticle.

You know, I figure I’m good for another 10 or 20 years. I guess I could consider starting out, once again, on a new career. And that would be computational analysis in one or another scientific field – or multiple fields. My wife is already expert enough in some of the computing fields I’ve managed to avoid. We would be a helluva pair. But, we’re both happy at how we live here at Lot 4.

We get a fair piece of individual intellectual inquiry started through this blog and others – and more. It’s just a tempting thought and I figured I’d note it.

Thanks, Ursarodinia

Vegetation is essential for limiting city warming effects

Cities are well known hot spots – literally. The urban heat island effect has long been observed to raise the temperature of big cities by 1 to 3°C, a rise that is due to the presence of asphalt, concrete, buildings, and other so-called impervious surfaces disrupting the natural cooling effect provided by vegetation. According to a new NASA study that makes the first assessment of urbanization impacts for the entire continental United States, the presence of vegetation is an essential factor in limiting urban heating.

Impervious surfaces’ biggest effect is causing a difference in surface temperature between an urban area and surrounding vegetation. The researchers, who used multiple satellites’ observations of urban areas and their surroundings combined into a model, found that averaged over the continental United States, areas covered in part by impervious surfaces, be they downtowns, suburbs, or interstate roads, had a summer temperature 1.9°C higher than surrounding rural areas. In winter, the temperature difference was 1.5 °C higher in urban areas…

The study, published this month in Environmental Research Letters, also quantifies how plants within existing urban areas, along roads, in parks and in wooded neighborhoods, for example, regulate the urban heat effect…

The northeast I-95 corridor, Baltimore-Washington, Atlanta and the I-85 corridor in the southeast, and the major cities and roads of the Midwest and West Coast show the highest urban temperatures relative to their surrounding rural areas. Smaller cities have less pronounced increases in temperature compared to the surrounding areas. In cities like Phoenix built in the desert, the urban area actually has a cooling effect because of irrigated lawns and trees that wouldn’t be there without the city…

At the human level, a rise of 1°C can raise energy demands for air conditioning in the summer from 5 to 20 percent in the United States, according the Environmental Protection Agency. So even though 0.3°C may seem like a small difference, it still may have impact on energy use, said Bounoua, especially when urban heat island effects are exacerbated by global temperature rises due to climate change.

I grew up in a southern New England factory town. What changed it from being as much of an environmental disaster as most – was the struggles for Keynesian solutions like the CCC during the Great Depression included the transformation of vacant brownscapes into parks. Sufficiently done that the city began calling itself a park city. Every neighborhood acquired a little more life, more human friendliness, with the addition of a greenscape of grass and trees.

China passes new pollution law

Legislators have approved amendments to China’s 15-year-old air pollution law that grant the state new powers to punish offenders and create a legal framework to cap coal consumption, the Asian giant’s biggest source of smog.

The draft amendments were passed by 154 votes to 4, with five abstentions, Zhong Xuequan, spokesman for the National People’s Congress, China’s parliament, told a media briefing…

The ruling Communist Party has acknowledged the damage that decades of untrammeled economic growth have done to China’s skies, rivers and soil. It is now trying to equip its environmental inspection offices with greater powers and more resources to tackle persistent polluters and the local governments that protect them.

The amendments are expected to make local governments directly responsible for meeting environmental targets. They also ban firms from temporarily switching off polluting equipment during inspections and outlaw other behavior designed to distort emission readings.

Tong Weidong, vice-director of the NPC’s legal work committee, told the briefing the law would improve the way local authorities were assessed and allow them to draw up their own plans to meet environmental targets…

However, researchers said the changes do not go far enough and that the third reading of the bill should have been postponed until all its shortcomings had been resolved.

Sounds like another step forward. The article isn’t clear about household air pollution though broadly it sounds as if it is covered.

Like England in the period after WW2, half of China’s coal-generated air pollution comes from home fires for cooking and heating. These are almost always in the least efficient stoves for any purpose – regardless, there isn’t any way to bring them up to useful standard.

I’ve blogged earlier about efforts to bring NatGas into easy urban access and the last-mile problem will remain the greatest obstacle. That solution is what changed life in many American industrial cities as well as the UK in the fifteen years or so after the war. That change didn’t have to provide new pipelines or local access. We already had use of coal gas. The conversion only required a new orifice for each burner in every stove or furnace.

China’s cities will have to excavate.