solar subsidies

Attacks Against Solar, Wind Keep Coming, SEIA Fights Back

solar subsidiesEarlier this month The Energy Information Administration (EIA) released a narrowly focussed report on certain subsidies to the energy industry at the behest of Reps. Fred Upton (R), Chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce Ed Whitfield (R), Chairman of its Subcommittee on Energy and Power. Conservatives pounced on the bait claiming that renewable energy received more subsidies than other energy sources, but the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) has poked holes in their logic.

In its executive summary the report cautions: “The scope of the present report is limited to direct federal financial interventions and subsidies that are provided by the federal government.” It goes on to say: “Given its scope, the report does not encompass all subsidies beneficial to energy sector activities (see text entitled ‘Not All Subsidies Impacting the Energy Sector Are Included in this Report’), which should be kept in mind when comparing this report to other studies that may use narrower or more expansive inclusion criteria.”


MIT, Stanford researchers develop new kind of tandem solar cell

perovskiteResearchers at MIT and Stanford University have developed a new kind of solar cell that combines two different layers of sunlight-absorbing material in order to harvest a broader range of the sun’s energy. The development could lead to photovoltaic cells that are more efficient than those currently used in solar-power installations, the researchers say.

The new cell uses a layer of silicon — which forms the basis for most of today’s solar panels — but adds a semi-transparent layer of a material called perovskite, which can absorb higher-energy particles of light. Unlike an earlier “tandem” solar cell reported by members of the same team earlier this year — in which the two layers were physically stacked, but each had its own separate electrical connections — the new version has both layers connected together as a single device that needs only one control circuit.

The new findings are reported in the journal Applied Physics Letters by MIT graduate student Jonathan Mailoa; associate professor of mechanical engineering Tonio Buonassisi; Colin Bailie and Michael McGehee at Stanford; and four others.

“Different layers absorb different portions of the sunlight,” Mailoa explains. In the earlier tandem solar cell, the two layers of photovoltaic material could be operated independently of each other and required their own wiring and control circuits, allowing each cell to be tuned independently for optimal performance.

By contrast, the new combined version should be much simpler to make and install, Mailoa says. “It has advantages in terms of simplicity, because it looks and operates just like a single silicon cell,” he says, with only a single electrical control circuit needed.

One tradeoff is that the current produced is limited by the capacity of the lesser of the two layers. Electrical current, Buonassisi explains, can be thought of as analogous to the volume of water passing through a pipe, which is limited by the diameter of the pipe: If you connect two lengths of pipe of different diameters, one after the other, “the amount of water is limited by the narrowest pipe,” he says. Combining two solar cell layers in series has the same limiting effect on current.

To address that limitation, the team aims to match the current output of the two layers as precisely as possible. In this proof-of-concept solar cell, this means the total power output is about the same as that of conventional solar cells; the team is now working to optimize that output.

Perovskites have been studied for potential electronic uses including solar cells, but this is the first time they have been successfully paired with silicon cells in this configuration, a feat that posed numerous technical challenges. Now the team is focusing on increasing the power efficiency — the percentage of sunlight’s energy that gets converted to electricity — that is possible from the combined cell. In this initial version, the efficiency is 13.7 percent, but the researchers say they have identified low-cost ways of improving this to about 30 percent — a substantial improvement over today’s commercial silicon-based solar cells — and they say this technology could ultimately achieve a power efficiency of more than 35 percent.

They will also explore how to easily manufacture the new type of device, but Buonassisi says that should be relatively straightforward, since the materials lend themselves to being made through methods very similar to conventional silicon-cell manufacturing.

One hurdle is making the material durable enough to be commercially viable: The perovskite material degrades quickly in open air, so it either needs to be modified to improve its inherent durability or encapsulated to prevent exposure to air — without adding significantly to manufacturing costs and without degrading performance.

This exact formulation may not turn out to be the most advantageous for better solar cells, Buonassisi says, but is one of several pathways worth exploring. “Our job at this point is to provide options to the world,” he says. “The market will select among them.”

“I think this work is very significant,” says Martin Green, a professor at the University of New South Wales, in Australia, who was not connected with this research. “The work is important in establishing a proof-of-concept and will stimulate higher efficiencies with this approach. … It’s an excellent starting point for further work in this area.”

The research team also included Eric Johlin PhD ’14 and postdoc Austin Akey at MIT, and Eric Hoke and William Nguyen of Stanford. It was supported by the Bay Area Photovoltaic Consortium and the U.S. Department of Energy.


koch brothers attack on solar

Koch-backed group says Georgia solar policies cost more

koch brothers attack on solarA group backed by the Koch brothers is arguing a proposed constitutional amendment that would change Florida solar energy regulations will lead the Sunshine State down a dark path.

Americans For Prosperity Florida says a petition being circulated by solar advocates Floridians for Solar Choice is the wrong move for the state, and will result in higher costs and decreased competition.

The proposal needs nearly 700,000 signatures to get on the 2016 ballot, allowing voters to decide on an amendment that would change current Florida law that says customers can only buy electricity from a utility. If the amendment is approved, customers could buy electricity from solar installers and not just utility companies. We’ve written about it before here.



Harrop: The sun is rising globally on solar panels

residential-solarOn the average sunny day, Germany’s huge energy grid gets 40 percent of its power from the sun. Guess what happened one recent morning when the sun went into eclipse. Nothing.

Or close to nothing. When the moon hid the sun for a few hours, the backup natural gas and coal plants switched on. The price of electricity rose briefly. That was it. Solar again showed itself to be a reliable energy source under a tough challenge.

Back in the United States, meanwhile, electric companies and various fossil fuel interests are fighting the American public’s growing passion for rooftop solar panels. They’re also doing battle with state laws requiring utilities to get a certain percentage of their power from renewable sources.

Oil, gas and coal lobbyists, fed by Koch brother checks, are backing a campaign by utilities to slap fees on solar panels. Their target is net metering — the system whereby homes and businesses with solar panels sell their excess electricity back to the grid.


energy production data

University of Utah student technology illuminates impacts of solar power

energy production dataThe University of Utah unveiled student-made technology Monday that university students and officials hope will open eyes to the potential of solar power and other renewable energy systems.

While celebrating the university’s solar system installed last year, University of Utah graduate Tom Melburn introduced the final product of a project he has spearheaded since 2011 to create a tool that sheds light on the energy-saving impacts and environmental benefits of solar power, which he said will hopefully inspire others to adopt more sustainable practices and attitudes.

“The cost benefit of installing solar panels on the short-term may not make the most economic sense, but it does on the long-term,” Melburn said. “So (this tool) should ultimately make it more desirable for people to adopt renewable, sustainable energy.”


George Schultz

A Reagan approach to climate change – The Washington Post

George SchultzThe trend of disappearing summer sea ice in the Arctic is clear even though there is always some variability from year to year. Severe winter weather underscores the importance of keeping track of significant trends. Here are the numbers, according to Julienne Stroeve, of the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo., as reported in the Economist in February:

“Between 1953 and 2014, the average area of the Arctic sea ice shrank by 48,000 square kilometers a year.”

“Between 1979 and 2014, it shrank by 87,000 square kilometers a year.”

“Between 1996 and 2014, the rate rose to 148,000 square kilometers.”

The accelerating rate is explained in part by the fact that ice reflects sunlight but water, which is darker, absorbs it. So as water replaces ice, more heat is retained. Heat transported from lower latitudes could also be part of the explanation.



Renewables Curtailment: What We Can Learn From Grid Operations in California and the Midwest

SmartGridAmerica’s electric grid is undergoing rapid metamorphosis as wind and solar become a significant part of the system: Half of all new generation capacity added in 2014 was from renewables. Nearly 7 gigawatts of solar were installedin 2014 to reach just under 20 gigawatts of cumulative capacity, and 4.7 gigawatts of wind were installed in 2014, pushing total onshore capacity over 64 gigawatts.

But this renewables influx is entering a system designed for very different resources. As low-cost wind and solar evolve to provide more and more electricity, grid operations, power markets and financial structures must evolve along with them.

Some organized markets already have begun transitioning, and while these varied changes reflect different market conditions, the results are similar: increases revenue stability and lower risk for developers. Comparing how contracts and markets are evolving in two parts of the country, California and the Midwest, sheds light on changes that will be necessary as renewables begin to form the core of our electricity mix.


lousiana solar

What’s the Problem with Louisiana Solar Incentives?

lousiana solarSince the Obama administration took office, solar net energy metering in Louisiana has grown 180 percent on an average annual basis. So what’s the problem?

The answer is that Louisiana solar incentives are welfarefor the state’s wealthy, according to a Louisiana Public Services Commission report (PDF). It was drafted by Louisiana State University professor David Dismukes, an economist with “extensive experience in all aspects of the natural gas industry.” Dismukes admits in its early pages that net metering’s exponential growth ballooned state tax incentives to an average of $23 million a year since 2009, which led to “concerns raised by utilities” about breached capacity limits while filing complaints with the LPSC, who in turn decided to revisit its NEM policy.

Hence, Dismukes’ report, which notes that it was unable to acquire “detailed hourly information…from the LPSC-jurisdictional utilities” it was charged with studying. Maybe this is why the study doesn’t appear anywhere on the LPSC’s official news page, which hasn’t been updated since last year — and barely updated at that.

There are a few variables to factor into LPSC and Dismukes’ study, which offers “no explicit policy recommendations” other than the “noncontroversial” suggestion that “at its earliest opportunity the Commission adopt a standardized reporting format for utilities to provide solar NEM information on an annual basis.” One variable is that, as Wikipedia elegantly puts it, “Louisiana’s petroleum and gas industry, as well as its subsidiary industries such as transport and refining, have dominated Louisiana’s economy since the 1940s.” Another is Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal’s recent budget, which targeted the state’s generous solar incentives for rollback while blaming its $1.6 billion shortfall on cratering oil prices. Considering that claim was demolished by one of only two economists in charge of revenue projections for Louisiana’s state government, and that Jindal has received more than a cool million dollars in donations from the petroleum and gas industry — which Jindal saved billions last year by signing a bill killing off environmental lawsuits — and suddenly $23 million a year for solar net energy metering subsidies starts looking like serious chump change.

“Solar energy is a permanent part of the electrical grid, and it’s time that an unbiased assessment is conducted of how it fits into our existing infrastructure,” Gulf States Renewable Energy Industries Association president Tucker Crawford said last year, explaining that Dismukes’ “direct conflict of interest and blatant bias” toward the natural gas industry should have disqualified him from consideration by LPSC. “This study is a distortion of the truth, an assault on consumer energy choice and property rights by the monopoly utilities and certain allies on the Commission,” GSREIA added this month in a pretty thorough takedown, after Dismukes’ study finally arrived “several months overdue.”

But you don’t really need GSREIA’s detailed rebuttal, or even Dismukes’ wonky 115-page study itself, to see the greater power struggle at play in Louisiana, which was once sued by the U.S. government for ownership of its rich oil and gas deposits in the Gulf of Mexico. Tectonic energy infrastructure shifts, in this case from oil to solar, are messy but necessary, and there’s no way to stop them — which is why Dismukes’ only explicit policy recommendation is that the LPSC starts demanding better reporting standards from the utilities when it comes to net metering. The Alliance for Affordable Energy had the best headline on the flame war: “Pro-Utility Consultant Inadvertently Writes Pro-Solar Report.” Once AAE “corrected” Dismukes’ tardy study — “which mistakenly applied the state tax credit as a cost in the analysis” rather than a benefit to customers, which it is “in all cases of utility electric rate treatment” — the “direct conflict of interest” GSREIA complained of became harder to ignore.

“At no time ever, have these tax credits been added to the rate as a cost to customers,” AAE added, mentioning that it’s releasing a white paper in April to “clear up the confusion” of Dismukes’ “math-olympics.” Until then, it’s safe to say that even if Dismukes’ number-crunching survives the controversy, $23 million a year for a net metering subsidy is a drop in Louisiana’s bucket compared to the hundred of billions it annually generates in gross state product. LPSC could have saved the state money by not paying for Dismukes’ study in the first place.


Solar-Powered Plane Attempting a Trip Around the World

Solar_Impulse_2There is no shortage of initiatives aimed at raising awareness of the importance of reducing air pollution and stopping global warming around the world, and the latest involves something that has never been done before – a trip around the world in a solar-powered electric airplane.

The Solar Impulse 2 is a solar-powered plane designed and developed by Swiss aeronaut Bertrand Piccard in collaboration with a team of engineers. The SI2 took off from the Al Bateen Executive Airport in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, in a bid to complete the first journey around the world in an airplane without using a single drop of fuel.

Solar Impulse 2 was piloted by André Borschberg, the co-founder of Solar Impulse, during the first leg of this historic journey, from Abu Dhabi to Muscat, the capital of Oman, where it landed after about 12 hours. It was a 215-mile flight, which makes it one of the shortest legs of the 21 000-mile journey, that is expected to be completed in around five months. After it landed in Muscat, the controls of the plane were taken over by Bertrand Piccard, who then embarked on a flight to Ahmedabad, India, 912 and 13 hours later, traveling at an average speed of 115 mph. Some of the next legs of this trip will include stops in Myanmar, China, and the United States. The project is backed by Google, Omega, Toyota, as well as Prince Albert of Monaco and British tycoon Richard Branson.

Although quite large, the Solar Impulse 2 is pretty lightweight. It only weighs in at about 5,000 pounds, thanks to the fact that it is made out of carbon fiber, an extremely lightweight material. It has a 236-foot wingspan, which is longer than the wingspan of a Boeing 747, with a total of 17,248 solar cells installed on the wings. They generate electricity for the lithium-ion batteries with a total capacity of 165 kilowatt-hours, which power four electric motors that deliver a combined output 17 horsepower. The pilots said that during the day, the plane will travel at around 28,000-30,000 miles, and a little lower at night, for increased energy efficiency.

It’s a single-seat plane, with a pretty tight cockpit, where the pilots will have to stay for hours at a time, and try to stay focused at all times. In order to keep themselves from falling asleep, they will wear goggles that will emit visual warnings to wake them up from time to time.

The main goal of this ambitious project is to promote green air travel and prove that fuel-less planes can be a viable alternative to conventional airplanes that are pretty noisy and highly polluting. Although no one should expect that planes like the Solar Impulse 2 will replace conventional aircraft in the near future, it presents a pretty good example for what airplanes could look like further down the road, and it should help convince the world that solar power can be considered a reliable source of energy that can be applied in air travel. What do you think? Is the Solar Impulse 2 just a novel experiment and sensational story… or is its record-breaking accomplishment a solar industry game-changer?


georgetown texas is going 100% renewable

Georgetown to go 100% renewable energy, first in state, city says

georgetown texas is going 100% renewableGeorgetown says it plans to be the first city in Texas entirely powered by renewable energy.

The city’s electrical utility is planning to announce Wednesday that it is signing a deal with solar developer SunEdison for 150 megawatts of solar power beginning in 2016.

Combined with a 2014 deal with wind developer EDF, the city of 54,000 north of Austin says it now has enough renewable power under contract to cover its customers’ entire electricity needs.

As wind and solar farms proliferate around the United States, communities have slowly begun to commit to all-renewable power deals in what have been billed as a response to residents’ concern over the impact of carbon emissions on global warming.

Solar Impulse 2

Solar plane lands in India on world record attempt

Solar Impulse 2A solar-powered aircraft arrived safely in India late Tuesday on the second leg of its attempted record-setting flight around the world.

The Solar Impulse 2 craft landed at Ahmadabad airport in India’s Gujarat state 16 hours after departing from Muscat, Oman, 910 miles away.

The plane, powered solely by solar energy, was to remain at the airport before continuing on to Varanasi in northern India on Saturday.

Bertrand Piccard, one of two Swiss pilots on board, was at the controls for the flight leg ending in Ahmadabad. He and Andre Borschberg were taking turns piloting the craft during the 21,700-mile journey.



Google’s plan to prioritize facts ticks off climate deniers

Google addresses climate deniersAs the internet becomes a greater part of our lives, and information travels more quickly, it’s become easier for people to stumble onto inaccurate info, and for that info to take hold and spread. Consider, for example, the anti-vaccinationmovement, or the “birthers.” And also, of course, climate denial.

Websites proffering misinformation and farfetched conspiracy theories on global warming are just as easy for the casual googler to pull up as, say, an article about the latest IPCC report. (Try googling “Is climate change real?” or something along those lines, then go ahead and cry.)

But that might change. Last month, Google scientists outlined new research on an algorithm to rank websites according to their trustworthiness. Lily Hay Newman explains the project in Slate:


Solar Power Faces Uncertain Future in the U.S.

Visitors check out First Solar's array of photovoltaic panels outside of San Luis Obispo, California.
Visitors check out First Solar’s array of photovoltaic panels outside of San Luis Obispo, California.

Dear EarthTalk: What’s going to happen to the U.S. solar industry when the federal solar investment tax credit expires next year?                                 — Victoria Chase, Washington, DC

In the U.S., a new solar project was installed every three minutes in 2014, and jobs in the solar industry rose from 15,000 employees in 2005 to nearly 174,000 today. This substantial growth is in large part thanks to the Energy Policy Act of 2005’s 30 percent Investment Tax Credit (ITC) for commercial and residential solar energy systems. In 2007, after only one year of implementation, the ITC led to the doubling of installed solar electric capacity. In 2008, Congress passed an eight-year extension of the ITC, allowing solar to become the fastest growing energy source in the U.S. Solar has also become much more affordable: The average installed cost per watt has dropped from around $7.50 in 2009 to $2.89 in 2013.


Solar-Powered Plane Begins Its Journey Around the World


THE FIVE-MONTH JOURNEY of a  single-seat, solar-powered plane around the planet got off to a successful start this morning, when Solar Impulse 2touched down in Oman after a 13-hour flight from Abu Dhabi.

“The flight went really well, everything went as planned,” says a team spokesperson. It’s an auspicious start, but a small step (about 270 miles) on the 20,000-mile journey that will take about 500 hours of flying time. Pilot André Borschberg flew the first leg, his partner Bertrand Piccard will take off next.
The 5,000-pound, zero-emission plane has a wingspan longer than that of the Boeing 747. Solar panels covering the aircraft’s wings and fuselage charge up four extra-efficient batteries, which power the 17.4-horsepower motors. That’s enough juice to move the plane at 20 to 90 mph, a speed closer to that of a professional cyclist than your typical gas-powered plane.