The History of Clean Energy Research

The focus on innovation in Obama’s State of the Union marks a new highpoint for clean energy R&D advocacy. In the coming months,politicians and policy makers will likely align around proposals toencourage everything from basic research to putting solar panels on ourroofs and hybrids in our garages. It is easy, in such an environment, to forget the barren stretch of time between the oil crisis inducedrenewable energy craze of the 1970s and the present day. During thistime, funding dried up, programs were cut, and renewable energy research and deployment was forced to go abroad or wither in an apathetic United States.

Politicians, policymakers and enthusiasts talk about ways that new programs will help America race past its competitors as it did in the space race, but there is not enough attention on how the oldprograms died and what was the full impact of their disappearance. There are important lessons to learn, the biggest of which is thatinconsistency in policy can be crippling to research. While proponentsof clean and renewable technologies should welcome the renewed interestand funding, it is important that they learn from the past and focus oncreating a support system that is not only robust but also provides some assurances of long-term commitments.

Most of the renewableenergy technologies today owe their existence to research done in theUnited States over the last century. Many of the key technologies inmodern windmills, including the variable speed drives and specialcomposites used to make the blades, were developed here. Domesticresearch in semiconductors and other materials in American universitiesand national and private labs led to the birth of photovoltaics. Thisresearch was driven by a select group of dedicated programs. Prof.William Paul’s group at Harvard, Prof. Hellmut Fritzsche’s group at U.Chicago, and Prof. Richard Bube’s group at Stanford were all examples of such labs that contributed important discoveries to photovoltaictechnology. Given the resources to target renewable energy research,they were able to attract the brightest minds and give these scientiststhe experience in the field required to make them true experts.

But scientists need paychecks, and when programs in photovoltaics losttheir funding, the individuals in these labs were forced torespecialize. Not only did their work get put on hold, but they were not able to attract and train the next generation of scientists to continue their legacy. As Paul, Fritzsche and Bube near retirement, some oftheir combined expertise in the field of photovoltaics will undoubtedlybe lost.

Research teams of this caliber take time to create.Throwing a billion dollars at renewable energy research tomorrow willgenerate a mob of scientists willing to delve into the topic, but itmight take years before they gain the level of collective expertiseestablished in some of these labs. Continuity is essential to maintain a core of scientists that are true experts in the field and can lead newresearch initiatives. Even low but consistent levels of funding allowsuch cores to survive. An excess of funding might be wasteful if it goes to groups not capable of such high level work.

As America debates renewable energy policy, it should remember that research cannot thrive in a fickle funding environment driven by the mood swings of congress.In the last decade, America began to understand the massive researchinitiative it will require to maintain international competitiveness,reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and restabilize the environment.The original America COMPETES Act, passed under President Bush in 2007,was a strong first step toward creating a well-trained group of American scientists to lead this initiative. However, momentum has only justbegun to build and if funding is cut then much of the progress made over the last few years will be wasted.

Thankfully, the America COMPETES Re-authorization act was passed in the final days of the lame duck congress and finally signed into law. However, the appropriations committees of the next Congress willdetermine the actual amount of funding to be allotted for researchinitiatives. COMPETES was already reduced from $84 to $43 billion in order to pass the Senate, and the finalamount appropriated could be much lower. This is particularly true with a new wave of Senators and Congressmen coming to Washington to cutspending. If America wants to see the volume and caliber of researchthat brought us these technologies in the first place (and propelled uspast the Soviet Union during the Sputnik crisis), we must allow theseresearch groups to form and collective expertise in these fields tobuild. While our support for research yields exciting discoveries today, we are also preparing the ground for the greater discoveries oftomorrow. We must take care not to falter in our commitment to thesegroups as we did before or we will forego the greatest rewards of theirwork.

By Tucker Willsie | Originally published at Americans for Energy Leadership

Tucker Willsie is a Contributor in AEL’s New Energy Leaders Project and his work will be regularly featured on the website. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of AEL.

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United States, Australia Partner to Make Solar Energy Cheap

The United States and Australia have inked a new partnership to pursuejoint solar energy research designed to make solar energy cheap enoughto compete with fossil fuels.

The Sydney Morning Herald reports:

Prime Minister Julia Gillard and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton madethe announcement in Melbourne on Sunday, with the Australian governmentset to commit up to $50 million towards the program.

Ms Gillard said the aim was to make solar power as cheap as conventional energy sources.

"One of the greatest barriers to a broader commercial take up of solar power is its cost and that is specifically what this joint researchinitiative will address," Ms Gillard told reporters.

"The jointproject with the United States is part of an aggressive effort to bringthe sales price of solar technology down by two to four times."

Ms Clinton said the program aimed to make solar power competitive with conventional energy sources by 2015.

The price had dropped by 50 per cent in the past three years but there was more work to be done, she said.

"Under this initiative our two governments will share both the costs and thebenefits of research and development which will speed up innovation,"she said.

Secretary Clinton also pledged a $500,000grant from the U.S. State Department to support a global survey toidentify opportunities to reuse carbon dioxide emitted by power plantand industrial processes, headed up by the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute, a recently established research center co-funded by the Australian government.

world_solar_irradiation.jpgSolar Powerhouse? Solar irradiation in Australia is among the highest in the world, asthis color-coded map from NASA illustrates (darker red areas have themost incoming solar energy). Source: The Age/Reuters

Australia, with perhaps the greatest solar energy potential in the world, has anobvious interest in pursuing affordable, scalable solar power solutions, and has also maintained several long-standing solar research efforts.Can the two new partners accelerate efforts to make solar energy cheap?

By Jesse Jenkins, originally at the Breakthrough Institute


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Should We Borrow from the Future to Pay for Clean Energy Innovation Today?

Here’s an interesting argument from our friends across the pond at the UK-focused Political Climate blog, making the case that despite rising deficit concerns andausterity measures in the UK and elsewhere, borrowing from the futuremay still actually be an appropriate way to pay for clean energyinnovation today:

Against this background, it may sound madto argue for more public borrowing in order to pay for investments inlow carbon technologies and infrastructure, but that is what I am goingto do in this post.

Let’s start with the rationale. … Thestarting point is that in advanced economies successive generations tend to get better off over time. For example, at the depths of the 1930sdepression Keynes observed that despite the general gloom, he wasconfident that 100 years in the future, people might be eight timesbetter off in real terms. And indeed average GDP per capita in the UK is now already about 5 times what it was in the 1930s. By extension, wewould normally expect future generations to be better off than us in GDP terms.

… [Furthermore, if] we in this generation mitigateclimate change, we will allow future generations to have a higherstandard of living than they would have if we did nothing. We are veryslowly beginning to do this, with policies being introduced to encourage us to invest less in conventional capital (e.g. fossil fuel powerstations) and more in investments that effectively maintain naturalcapital (like renewable energy).

At the moment we are paying forthese more expensive investments through reduced consumption, in theform of higher energy bills. If instead we were to borrow a certainamount of money from future generations (who will have to repay throughtheir taxes) and use this money to pay the extra cost of renewables,carbon capture and storage and so on, then the theory says it should be possible to make both our generation and future generations better off. …

Political Climate‘s team makes thepoint that long-term government financing rather than bank loans is theright way to do this kind of borrowing, with fifty-year terms forgovernment bonds that can be paid back over time by (now richer) futuregenerations.

Here in the United States, we financed much of the electrification, irrigation, and development of the American West (andthe Tennessee Valley in the southeast) through precisely this kind oflong-term government-backed borrowing. The hydroelectric dams andreservoirs, power lines and irrigation systems, clean and affordableenergy, productive farms, and burgeoning new cities that resulted fromthese debt-financed investments paid off many times over, makinggenerations living today far better off than if this debt hadn’t beenincurred.

A similar case could be made for innovationinvestments as well, since the benefits of new, innovative products andtechnologies — be it better clean energy technologies or pharmaceutical drugs — will accrue most to those living in future times, who canharvest the rewards of today’s investment in research and innovation.

This also brings to mind the old idea of a capital budget for nation governments

Thought provoking piece at least. What do you think, dear reader? Despiterising national debts, would national governments be wise to borrowtoday to fund investments in infrastructure, clean energy, andinnovation to be enjoyed by — and paid back by — a richer, morewell-off generation tomorrow?

Originally posted at the Breakthrough Institute

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China Building “Solar Valley City” to Advance Solar Industry

China is building an ambitious "Solar Valley City" as a new nationalcenter for manufacturing, research and development, education, andtourism around solar energy technologies. as part of the Chinesegovernment and industry’s efforts to promote clean energy technology and grow the nation’s global market share (see video below beginning at 10seconds).

Solar Valley City is located in Dezhou, ShandongProvince, where I visited last month as part of a delegation fromStanford University, and it is unlike any city you’ve seen before. Thecity houses over 100 solar enterprises including major firms like HiminSolar Energy Group Ltd, the world’s largest manufacturing base ofsolar thermal products, and Ecco Solar Group. According to reports, around 800,000 people in Dezhou are employed in the solar industry, orone in three people of working age.

"China’s solar thermal industry and Himin’s complete industrial chainare examples for the rest of the world. That sounds brash, but it’strue," said Himin’s CEO Huan Ming in 2009, now one of China’s richestmen. Himin specializes in solar thermal technology, producing over twice the annual sales of all solar thermal systems in the UnitedStates, and it is quickly expanding into solar photovoltaics and othertechnologies.

Himin’s portion of Solar Valley comprises nearly 1000 acres, where the company is currently constructing itsmanufacturing center, research and development center, education andtraining center, apartment complexes, and more. These facilities willhost the 4th International Solar Cities Congress this year and boast agiant "solar architecture"hotel.

The Chinese government has offered substantial support for the project, including preferential tax benefits and othersupporting policies, although the specifics are largely unknown. "Themunicipal government attaches great importance to the development ofgreen energy," said the County Level Inspector of Dezhou People’s Congress.

Solar Valley City has similarities to China’s new "Electricity Valley" in the city of Baoding, which has consciously modeleditself after Silicon Valley. The city has transformed itself from anautomobile and textile town into one of the fastest growing hubs of wind and solar energy equipment in China, housing nearly 200 renewableenergy companies.

Overall, this project is yet one more exampleof how China is moving rapidly to lead the global clean energy industrywhile the United States falls behind. China is already the world’s largest manufacturer of solar panels and wind turbines, and it ispoised to lead in advanced batteries, high-speed rail, hybrid andelectric vehicles, nuclear, and advanced coal technology.

As mycolleagues and I documented in our "Rising Tigers, Sleeping Giant" report last year, China and other Asiannations will out-invest the United States in the clean energy sectorsector by over three to one over the next five years, a finding that was recently confirmed by a large Pew report, "Who’s Winning the Clean Energy Race?" As a group of ten U.S. Senators recently wrote in a letter to Senators Kerry, Graham, and Lieberman:

"We know that other countries, in particular China, have already started to vie for leadership in the new clean energy economy. China has alreadybecome the world’s leading manufacturer of wind turbines and solarpanels. This is a contest that America cannot afford to lose. Ournation’s economic future depends both on our global competitiveness andaccess to reliable energy sources. We must not allow our nation tobecome dependent on foreign clean energy industries or squander theopportunity to compete successfully in the global clean energymarketplace."

What will it take for the United States to lead the global clean energy industry? Find out more in my article, "Winning the Clean Energy Race: A New Strategy for American Leadership," and check out the full list of recommendations in our report.

Image: Our Stanford "China Energy Systems" class delegation visitingChina’s Solar Valley City (I’m in the front row, fourth one from left)

Cross-posted from Americans for Energy Leadership


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CBS News Reports on China’s Clean Energy Lead

Originally Posted at Breakthrough Institute

The CBS Evening News has profiled the U.S. position in the global clean energy race for a segment called, "Where America Stands,"and unsurprisingly, America stands behind China and other nations indeveloping and producing the technologies that will underpin thetremendous growth of the global clean energy sector over the comingdecades.

CBS correspondent Celia Hatton reports, "China isthe country cashing in on the green revolution." The video echoes thefindings of a recent report on clean tech competitiveness byBreakthrough Institute and the Information Technology and InnovationFoundation, "Rising Tigers, Sleeping Giant,"which notes that other countries have surpassed the United States inthe production of virtually all clean energy technologies, from solarand wind, to nuclear and high-speed rail.

Hatton reportsthat China also dominates manufacturing in other "eco-products" likeelectric bikes, solar hot water heaters, and electric vehicles.

What should the United States do to stay in the game?

Some have arguedthat all the United States needs to do to stay competitive is to put aprice on carbon, and wait for the market to do its magic. But CBS takesa closer look at what’s needed to compete: "In the long-term, expertssay U.S. government policies should build on America’s strengths:technological innovation and highly efficient manufacturing to competewith China’s unbeatable wages." Investing in clean technology researchand development is particularly critical since other countries,including China, are moving quickly to close the innovation gap with the United States.

Without such investments, the new clean energy technologies may not just be manufactured in China, but invented there, too.

You can view the full video below:


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Bill Gates Wants Clean, Cheap Energy Fast

BillGates wants clean, cheap energy more than he wants to pick the next 50years worth of presidents, even more than he wants a miracle vaccine.
At least that’s how he ranked his number one wish while describingclimate change as the world’s greatest challenge to a rapt audience atthe TED conference last week. Just weeks after lending his voice to a growing "innovation consensus" by writing on his blog, Gates Notes, that innovation, not just insulation, must be the focus if we are serious about "getting to zero," Gates’ TED speech expanded on what we need to get there:

"Weneed energy miracles. The microprocessor and internet are miracles.This is a case where we have to drive and get the miracle in a shorttimeline."

Gates emphasized the need for an energymiracle portfolio that includes carbon capture and storage and nuclearas well as wind and solar. According to CNN’s coverage of the conference(the video is not posted yet), Gates showed particular interest in thepotential for nuclear waste reprocessing as a source of clean, cheapenergy.

He also set 2050 as the deadline for reducingcarbon emissions to zero and outlined a tight innovation and deploymenttimeline: 20 years to innovate, 20 years to deploy.

The GatesFoundation typically invests its resources in issues related to publichealth and poverty, not climate change and energy, which is why Gates’unprecedented speech could be a game changer for two important reasons.

The first is that Gates has come to realize that the reducingthe carbon intensity of energy is the only feasible way to achieve azero-carbon world. In an article about Gates’ talk for AlterNet, Alex Steffen explains that Gates presented the following equation to explain how he arrived at this conclusion.

CO2 = Population x Services x Energy x Carbon

Steffendubs this the "Gates Climate Equation," though regular readers of thisblog will also recognize it as a simplification of the Kaya Identity,which looks like this:

Carbon emissions = Population x Per capita wealth x Energy intensity of the economy x Carbon intensity of energy

Whatever you call it, the conclusion is the same: in a world with increasing population that values greater economic growth, reducing carbon emissions means fueling development with clean energythat is cheaper than incumbent fossil fuels. As Gates has written,energy efficiency can help, but getting to zero carbon will requiremajor innovation if we want abundant carbon-neutral energy.

Thesecond reason why Gates’ opinions are so poignant, is that he defines aclear need for investment in clean technology innovation, notablyasserting that current technologies are not sufficient despite Al Gore,the main flag-bearer of the phrase, "We have all the technology weneed," being in attendance.

According to Gates:

"Allthe batteries we make now could store less than 10 minutes of all theenergy [in the world…So, in fact, we need a big breakthrough here.Something that’s going to be of a factor of 100 better than what wehave now."

As a respected innovator andphilanthropist, Gates’ opinions may help drive home an aspect of theclimate change/clean tech debate that is often underappreciated, or atleast, easily overlooked: scale.

We have grappled with the scaleof both the climate challenge and the energy challenge via our writingand admittedly, they both seem overwhelming. But while Gatesacknowledges that the solutions are complicated – clean technologyinnovation and implementation will not be easy, especially in such ashort time frame – the ultimate goal to overcome both challenges isclear: make clean energy cheap, and fast.

Originally posted at the Breakthrough Institute

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DIY Solar Part 2: Choosing A System

Last week we started talking about DIY solar and covering the topicsthat will help you decide if you can do solar yourself. There areplenty of different systems that can fit your solar needs. Let’s coverthe three most popular systems.

Grid Tied Solar
This is the easiest and most popular way to get started in solar power.These systems simply tie into your existing home power system and theutility grid. If your array generates more energy than you use, theenergy is sold back to the power grid and creates a credit for you. Theadvantages of these systems are the relative simplicity and lowerinitial cost. A system like this typically requires a few panels, somewiring boxes and disconnects, and an inverter. The inverter convertsthe electricity from your panels to power that your home and the gridcan use.

Thissystem also requires an interconnection agreement with the localutility. This outlines just how the connection to the grid should bemade and what the inspection schedule is. It is generally advisable toget your power company involved early on for a grid-tied system. Sincethere are often incentives and rebates in place from the state and theutility, it’s well worth the call.Advantages of a Grid-Tied System
* Initial Cost: The upfront cost of purchasing a system that wouldprovide for a home’s entire electrical needs can be very high. Withvariable climate and weather conditions across the globe, the use ofoff-grid systems requires expensive batteries. Off-grid systemsgenerally require a secondary power source, such as a gas generator, toprovide backup power which adds significant cost to the system. Gridtied systems are much cheaper than off grid.

* Operating Cost:The maintenance cost of grid-tied systems is very low. Solar panelsroutinely have 20-25 year warranties and some of the panels created inthe 1950’s as part of NASA’s space program are still operational.Batteries associated with off-grid systems require regular maintenanceand have a much shorter life than the panels. Backup generators alsorequire significant maintenance and access to a cheap and reliable fuelsource.

* Reliability: Grid-tied systems are relatively simpleand can have virtually no ‘down time’ where the customer will bewithout electricity. The increased complexity of battery and generatorbackup systems often leads to significant down time and can befrustrating to a home owner. Often poor weather that leads to littleenergy collected from the sun also means decreased battery andgenerator performance.

* Flexibility: Having an alternativeenergy source AND a utility source means you can design your system tomeet whatever needs you have now and still have the flexibility to add solar panels later. It also allows you to change your system parameters to meet your different needs in the future.

Disadvantages of a Grid-Tied System

* No Backup Power: Most grid-tied inverters are programmed to shut downwhen the grid shuts down to precent power from the panels going intothe grid and potentially harming utility workers.

Grid Tied with Battery Backup
Thesesystems are very useful in areas with frequent power failures. Providedthere is ample sunshine, these systems give the customer more autonomy,while still providing a backup system in the utility grid.

Advantages of Grid-Tied with Battery Back-up Systems:

* Backup Power: with proper system design, they provide continuouspower to the customer regardless of utility availability or weatherconditions.

* Power Management: these systems make it easier to manage your power consumption, production, and storage.

* Power Pricing: Depending on the utility company’s policy, the cost ofthe batteries can sometimes make up for the rate ‘gap’, meaning it isworthwhile to store the excess electricity you produce as opposed toselling it back to the utility.

Disadvantages of Grid-Tied with Battery Back-up Systems:

* Complex: increased system complexity means more components to install and tie together.

* Cost: adding batteries and their components can nearly double the cost of a system.

* Maintenance: batteries require regular fluid check, corrosion cleaning, and replacement every 5-10 years.

* Efficiency: batteries are usually about 80-90% efficient meaning you may be losing 10-20% of the power you generate.

* Environmental issues: The manufacturing and disposal of batteriesinvolves chemicals and metals that most eco-minded consumers wouldrather avoid.

Off Grid Solar Power Systems
For reliablepower in remote locations, often these systems are the only choice.They generally consist of a battery bank, a charge controller, aninverter and a solar array. Many systems require a secondary powersource such as a gas generator.

Advantages of Off Grid Solar Power Systems:

* Remote Use: these systems are great for cabins or cottages that don’thave a utility nearby. The cost of a system is usually far less thanrunning power lines into the property.
* Independent: Maybe best reason of all, the user is not dependent on an outside entity for the power needs.
* Power Management: Since you generate, store, and use all your own power you can optimize your usage.

Disadvantages of Off Grid Solar Power Systems:

* Complex: increased system complexity means more components to install and tie together.
* Backup: most people will want a backup generator in case of inclement weather, which can cause additional headaches.
* Cost: adding batteries and their components can nearly double the cost of a system.
* Maintenance: batteries require regular fluid check, corrosion cleaning, and replacement every 5-10 years.
* Efficiency: batteries are usually about 80-90% efficient meaning you may be losing 10-20% of the power you generate.
* Environmental issues: The manufacturing and disposal of batteriesinvolves chemicals and metals that most eco-minded consumers wouldrather avoid.

Next up we’ll talk about the fun part: installation.

KrissBergethon is a writer and solar professional from Colorado. He livesoff grid with his wife. Check out his website for more information at Solar Garden Lights.


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Chinese Region Slated to be Emerging Technology Powerhouse

Originally posted at the Breakthrough Institute

A recent RAND Review provides a slew of recommendationsto help China expand the Tianjin Binhai New Area (TBNA) and turn itinto a driver of economic progress. As a result of an enormous stimuluspackage (second only to that of the U.S.) with significant allocationsfor "indigenous innovation" in science and technology, China mayalready be well on its way to taking those suggestions to heart,particularly in the clean energy sector.

Tianjin Binhai New Area(TBNA), located in China’s Bohai Rim region, has been a strong centerfor modern industry and manufacturing. But in 2006, the Chinesegovernment mandated that TBNA become the next "regional engine foreconomic growth." To that end, the area has been the beneficiary ofsignificant government support aimed at making the area the country’snext "economic powerhouse" and orienting it towards leadership inproviding solutions to national problems: among them, rising energydemand.

According to RAND:

"The goal of TBNAis to present an alternative to the traditional industrial economy,offering China a model of sustainable development and eco-friendlyindustry. Innovation in science and technology lies at the core of thisvision of economic and environmental development."

Inthe report, RAND offers TBNA guidance in its endeavor to meet China’sgrowing technology needs, both domestically and internationally, byrecommending that it pursue seven emerging technologies including cheapsolar energy and electric-hybrid vehicles.

In terms ofsolar energy, in particular, China may already be well ahead of thelearning curve. RAND believes TBNA should become the research,development, and manufacturing center of second and third generationsolar technology with a short-term focus on the global export marketand a long-term eye for its domestic market. China, however, is alreadythe world’s leading solar power manufacturer and its leadingphotovoltaic (PV) provider, Suntech, is on track to be the secondlargest provider in the world after America’s First Solar. Furthermore,China has the largest solar manufacturing capacity in the world,responsible for about a third of global capacity. It is expected tolead the world in cell capacity in the coming years.

Just this week, the Chinese government inked a deal with First Solar to install a 2GW PV power plant, the world’s largest, in the Mongolian Desert.

RANDalso recommends that TBNA work to make these solar energy systems cheapand accessible to developing and undeveloped countries. Given theprogress China has already made in the solar sector and the governmentsupport that TBNA is receiving, it is well-positioned to follow throughon this crucially important suggestion.

Government support forTBNA is not occurring in isolation. Instead, it is just a part of alarge-scale effort, backed by money from China’s $586 billion (RMB4trillion) stimulus plan, to strengthen its national science andtechnology programs by emphasizing "indigenous innovation."

Aspart of China’s 15-year Medium- and Long-Term National Plan for Scienceand Technology Development (2006-2020), technological innovation isreceiving $23 billion as a result of the stimulus package and cleanenergy innovation is a program priority. According to a Chinese Academyof Science report on the future of innovation in China:

"[A]new technological and industrial revolution centered on green energy,artificial intelligence, and sustainable development is most likely totake place in the next 10 to 20 years. China must prepare itself forthe new revolution in order to build a well-off society and realiseChina’s modernisation."

In the wake of aninternational economic crisis that has left developed nations like theU.S. struggling, China is thriving. And government support ofinnovation, as in the case of TBNA, is fueling China’s success. AsDenis Simon, a Pennsylvania State University professor and China expertnotes:

"The Chinese are hoping to catch that[technological innovation] wave. That’s part of their stimulus packagethinking, that as the world comes out of this downturn, with it willcome a whole wave of new innovations probably built around new energy,new materials. The Chinese want to make sure that they’re at theforefront of this and aren’t laggards."

On theclean energy front, China’s clean energy investment plans, as well asits recent solar partnership with U.S. makes it out to be anything buta "laggard." Instead, China’s ability to rebound from economic crisisby turning its stimulus funding into an innovation opportunity will notonly position it to lead the clean energy race, but also prepare theway for China to become the world’s next leader in scientific andtechnological innovation.


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DOE smacks down Space Solar to Fund Hot Parking Lots

(by Tyler Burton, crossposted from the Breakthrough Institute blog)

TheARPA-E initiative is a project of the Department of Energy, its purposeis to fund "high-risk, high-payoff transformational R&D … thatcan enhance the economic and energy security of the United Statesthrough reductions of imports of energy from foreign sources, etc."(more here)

Funded with money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act,one would think that ARPA-E, being a semantic cousin of the Pentagon’swell-known DARPA division, famous for its assisted walking suits,robotic espionage dragonflys and, of course, the internet, would have aslew of strange projects on their roster. However, one scientist, whoserejected space based solar program requested a modest $2 milliondollars for further testing, feels the DOE’s selection process was abit lopsided.

SeniorBreakthrough Fellow and Professor Emeritus of Physics at NYU, MartinHoffert, has long made the case for space-based solar power as analternative to earth-moored models. Up beyond the filters of pollutionand the limits of daylight, the sun’s energy is nearly constant andundiffused. Using solar panels affixed to a satellite or, say, theInternational Space Station, the idea would be to beam the energy backto terrestrial sources in the form of microwaves or some otherheretofore undiscovered method.

Hoffert even has the PR effort down pat, as he explains in a segment for Clean Skies TV:"We’ve spent a fortune on the International Space Station, and peopleare still saying, ‘What have we got from it?’ Well, we could probablybeam power from the International Space Station to various locationsalong its ground track, including some in developing countries thathave no prospect of getting energy."

Now that certainly sounds"transformational"; and for $2 million dollars it’s a no-brainer,right? But out of the 3500 applications the ARPA-E program received,only 40 – 60 (roughly 1.1%) will receive funding of between $3 to $5million dollars. While Hoffert’s program got the snub, in the approvedpile is a project that aims to capture the heat trapped in asphaltparking lots and other paved surfaces via a series of tubes filled withwater.

On his Dot Earth blog, NY Times science reporter, AndyRevkin, asks the $2 million dollar question: "Which project strikes youas more ‘transformational’?"

Solaren gets the nod from PG&E, Hoffert gets the snub…

Notonly is Hoffert’s query more transformational, it is also supported bybig industry. When news broke this April that California’s biggestenergy utility, PG&E, had signed on with Solaren, a manufacturer ofsolar cells, to potentially capture and beam back to earth 200megawatts of electricity from solar power stations orbiting the earth,can you guess who wasn’t too surprised to hear the news?

PG&Ehave contributed no money to the project as of yet, but have promisedto buy the energy back from Solaren at an undisclosed, but roughlyequivalent rate to the current market prices of other renewables.

"Solarenwould generate the power using solar panels in Earth orbit and convertit to radio-frequency transmissions that would be beamed down to areceiving station in Fresno, PG&E said. From there, the energywould be converted into electricity and fed into PG&E’s powergrid." (via MSNBC)

TheSolaren plan puts together some more of the specifics about how theyplan to get the satellites into space via private deployment vehicles,which makes sense given that most of its employees are former aerospaceengineers, but it makes no mention of using methods other than thosethat Hoffert and his son, through their company, Versatility Energy,have long pioneered to beam the wattage back to terra firma.

Soit would seem that with a major utility taking the time to put itspublic stamp of commitment upon a technology, that the development ofthe above-mentioned "undiscovered methods" would merit at least acouple million dollars study in the meantime, particularly if theresults might further the adoption of a potentially limitless resource.Then again, maybe ARPA-E’s focus is on something a bit more pedestrian.



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Is the Silicon Valley of Clean Energy Growing in China?

How Baoding, China became the world’s first "carbon positive" city.

(by Tyler Burton, crossposted from The Breakthrough Blog)

100 miles southwest of Beijing, a green revolution is underway; and it began, as Peter Ford of the Christian Science Monitor reports, with a "bad case of smelly fish".

Yu Qun (pictured)had only recently been elected mayor of Baoding, China when fish in theregion’s largest lake began to die by the thousands. In his mind, thiscould only be the direct result of pollution from the several hundredfactories which lined the river’s banks. So Mr. Yu took a drastic but,in the long run, incredibly fortuitous step: he closed the factories.

Thismove cost his city large points at first with the Central Government.His annual economic growth was down almost two percentage points; butMr. Yu had a plan:

"Polluting first and cleaning uplater is very expensive," says the boyish-looking mayor, a formercollege math teacher. "So we chose renewable energy to replacetraditional industry."

In three years, Yu has transformedBaoding from an automobile and textile town into the fastest-growinghub of solar, wind, and biomass energy-equipmentmakers in China.Baoding now has the highest growth rate of any city in Hebei Province.Its "Electricity Valley" industrial cluster – consciously modeled onSilicon Valley – has quadrupled its business.

Ofcourse, Mr. Yu met large resistance at first. Many officials in theprovincial and central governments thought he was "impractical", that"renewable energy was 30 or 40 years away…" (Sound familiar?) But Yupersisted, and his persistence paid off.

Such has beenthe success of his perseverance, and of the advantages that Baodingoffered new "green-tech" investors, that the city now houses nearly 200renewable energy companies. One of them makes blades for wind farms inTexas. Another is providing the solar panels for the largest solarpower station in the world, in Portugal.

"New energy has becomea pillar industry in our city," the mayor says. Within two years, heforecasts, it will have overtaken the auto and textile sectors as themost important mainstay of the local economy.

And what’s goodfor Baoding may be good for the world. By one reckoning, the city isthe world’s first to go "carbon positive": The carbon saved annuallyworldwide through the use of equipment made here outweighs the city’sown emissions.

As America struggles to retool its agingmanufacturing sector, perhaps one city’s success at sloughing off itsown burden of pollution can offer inspiration. A word to city plannersfar and wide: we might do well to look towards our own pragmatic Mr.Yu’s. If we dare to make bold choices with a slant towards the future,what can we accomplish in 3 years?


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Breakthroughs Essential to Fully Meet Nation’s Energy Challenges

Today, the U.S. Department of Energy announced $377 million in funding to establish 46 Energy Frontier Research Centers(EFRCs) pursuing potentially path-breaking basic and translationalresearch at the cutting-edge of clean energy innovation. Of thisfunding, $277 comes from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act(ARRA, otherwise known as the stimulus package) and $100 million comesfrom the DOE’s FY2009 budget. The funding will be sustained over thenext five years, with the DOE committing $100 million of its budget tothe research centers each year.

“Meeting the challenge to reduceour dependence on imported oil and curtail greenhouse gas emissionswill require significant scientific advances,” said Energy SecretarySteven Chu as he announced the new funding for EFRCs. “These centerswill mobilize the enormous talents and skills of our nation’sscientific workforce in pursuit of the breakthroughs that are essentialto expand the use of clean and renewable energy.”

The majorityof EFRCs are based in universities, with several harnessing the skillsand resources of the national laboratories, and just three awarded tonon-profit organizations and private corporations. Over the course ofthe program, these centers will employ over 1,800 people in researchinto four primary realms: Renewable and Carbon-Neutral Energy (including Solar Energy Utilization, Advanced Nuclear Energy Systems, Biofuels, and Geological Sequestration of CO2); Energy Efficiency (Clean and Efficient Combustion, Solid State Lighting, Superconductivity); Energy Storage (Hydrogen Research, Electrical Energy Storage); and Crosscutting Science (Catalysis, Materials under Extreme Environments).

A few examples of the research this funding will support include (full list here):

  • ColumbiaUniversity will focus on achieving higher sunlight-to-electricityconversion efficiencies from thin film solar photovoltaics.
  • CornellUniversity will focus on advanced battery chemistry and design thatcould enable affordable electric vehicles or mass on-grid energy storage
  • University of Texas-Austin will focus on advanced materials used in energy storage technologies.
  • Purdue University will focus on improved conversion of biomass to energy, fuels or chemicals.

Tobe sure, this funding should be celebrated – this research is crucialto developing the scientific foundation for breakthrough energytechnologies. It is a great (small) step. But the time has long sincecome to fully invest in our nation’s innovators and the cutting-edgeresearch essential to both improve today’s clean energy technologiesand to achieve breakthroughs that pave the way for the transformationalenergy technologies of tomorrow. Both forms of support are necessary tomake clean energy cheap.

Unfortunately, total U.S. spending onenergy research, development and deployment is in a sorry state. Inoted yesterday that the entire budget for ARPA-e (a newly fundedgovernment agency centered on high-risk, high-reward energy research)is less than talk show personality Rush Limbaugh’s latest contract. In total the U.S. government spent about $4 billion on energy research in 2007 (the same as the Navy’s phone billthat year by the way). That figure is thankfully up somewhat, with thisnew infusion of innovation investment in the stimulus and PresidentObama’s FY 2009 budget, but still just barely tops $5 billion. Incontrast, the United States spends over $30 billion annually to pursuecures to deadly diseases and improve human health through the NationalInstitutes of Health – evidence of the scale of a true national innovation priority.

Whilespending on energy research is expected to be higher this year than inrecent years (in large part due to the stimulus), we need a sustainedcommitment to clean energy that reflects the scale of our mountingenergy and climate challenge. The Waxman-Markey climate and energybill, currently promoted as the next driver of a clean energy economy,would invest only about $1.2 billionannually in energy research and development and roughly $10 billion inthe clean energy sector as a whole – less than 0.1 percent of U.S. GDP.In contrast, South Korea is investing a full 2 percent of its GDP inclean technologies, and China is planning to invest $44-66 billionannually to build their own modern clean energy industries andinfrastructure. We must inspire and empower our nation’s youth tobecome the next generation of energy innovatorsby fully funding President Obama’s RE-ENERGYSE initiative, and we mustbuild and expand upon this new funding for Energy Frontier ResearchCenters as just the first launching pad into the next frontiers ofclean energy deployment.

Cross-posted at The Breakthrough Institute


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Will America Lose the Clean Energy Race?

“Will America lose the clean-energy race?”

That’s the question my Breakthrough Institute colleague Teryn Norris and I raise in an op ed featured in today’s San Francisco Chronicle.

You can also read an extended version at the Huffington Post.

With China, South Korea and Japanall moving aggressively to corner the burgeoning global clean energymarket, Asian competitors may dominate the clean energy sector ifCongress doesn’t act now to strengthen the Waxman-Markey bill with muchlarger investments in our own clean energy economy and fully supportPresident Obama’s energy education initiative, Teryn and I argue.

Last week, over 100 organizations joined the Breakthrough Institute in urging the Senate to fund Obama’s RE-ENERGYSE initiative,which would develop thousands of highly-skilled clean energy workersand new energy education programs around the country. The Senate ispoised to cut the program to $0 from Obama’s $115 million request at atime with the U.S. is severely lagging in energy science and technologyeducation.

Read the RE-ENERGYSE letter press release and the New York Times Dot Earth coverage.

Monday’s op-ed comes one year after Breakthrough proposed a similar National Energy Education Act, calling foran effort on par with the original National Defense Education Act of1958, which invested billions each year to train and empower the younggeneration that won the space race and invented the technologies thatcatapulted the U.S. and the world into the Information Age.

It also comes two weeks after the Washington Post reported that “Asian Nations Could Outpace U.S. in Developing Clean Energy.”

BreakthroughInstitute is planning to release a full report on the USA-Asia cleanenergy race within the next few weeks, so stay tuned.

As President Obama put it in his Congressional address in February:

“Weknow the country that harnesses the power of clean, renewable energywill lead the 21st century. And yet it is China that has launched thelargest effort in history to make their economy energy efficient… Newplug-in hybrids roll off our assembly lines, but they will run onbatteries made in Korea. Well I do not accept a future where the jobsand industries of tomorrow take root beyond our borders — and I knowyou don’t either. It is time for America to lead again.”

President Obama is right. However, as Teryn and I warn in today’s op ed:

“IfAmerica does not take immediate action to bridge its energy educationgap – and if we fail to make substantially larger investments in ourown clean-energy economy – we will effectively cede the clean-energyrace to Asia. A decade from now, we may still find the burgeoningclean-energy economy promised by Obama and Democratic leaders. It willsimply be headquartered in China.”

You can read the extended version of the op ed below…

"Will America lose the clean-energy race?"

This is an expanded version of an op-ed originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle on July 27, 2009, by Teryn Norris and Jesse Jenkins .

Fortyyears ago last week, the Apollo 11 mission touched down on the surfaceof the moon, and the U.S. won the space race. As we celebrate thishistoric moment, we are reminded that today America faces a new globalcompetition that will have far greater implications for the future ofour nation and the world: the clean energy race.

While Congress debates climate and energy legislation, Asian challengers are moving rapidlyto win the clean energy race. China alone is reportedly investing$440-660 billion in its clean energy industries over 10 years. SouthKorea is investing a full two percent of its GDP in a "Green New Deal"to expand their share in cleantech markets. And Japan is redoublingdirect incentives for solar power, aiming for a 20-fold expansion ininstalled solar energy by 2020.

In contrast, the United States would invest only about $1.2 billionannually in energy research and development and roughly $10 billion inthe clean energy sector as a whole under the Waxman-Markey bill — lessthan 0.1 percent of U.S. GDP. This funding level is so low that a groupof 34 Nobel Laureates recently submitted a letterto President Obama decrying the lack of investment and calling on thepresident to uphold his promise to invest $15 billion annually in cleanenergy R&D — fifteen times the current level in Waxman-Markey.

TheU.S. is not only investing far less in our clean energy industries thanAsian nations, but also falling behind in energy science and technologyeducation. Only 15 percent of undergraduate degrees earned in the U.S.each year are in science, technology, math, and engineering (STEM)areas compared to 50 percent in China, according to the NationalScience Foundation — all at a time when nearly half of our currentenergy workforce is expected to retire over the next decade.

This spring, the Obama administration proposed an initiativedesigned to bridge this dangerous energy education gap by inspiring andeducating thousands of young Americans to pursue careers in cleanenergy. The program, called RE-ENERGYSE(REgaining our ENERGY Science and Engineering Edge), would fund newundergraduate and graduate energy curriculum and train up to 8,500highly educated young scientists and engineers in the clean energyfield by 2015 alone. Technical training and K-12 funding would supporthundreds of programs nationwide to train thousands more technicallyskilled clean energy workers.

As President Obama announced in April,"The nation that leads the world in 21st century clean energy will bethe nation that leads in the 21st century global economy…[RE-ENERGYSE] will prepare a generation of Americans to meet thisgenerational challenge."

Unfortunately, the U.S. Senate and House recently rejectedthe Obama administration’s energy education proposal, with the Senatecutting the program from $115 million to $0 and the House appropriatingonly $7 million.

If the U.S. had responded to the Soviet launchof Sputnik the way today’s Congress is responding to the Asian energychallenge, America would not only have lost the space race, we wouldhave been left behind in the technologies and industries that fueled ahalf-century of economic progress.

Indeed, the U.S. simplycould not have won the space race without major federal investments intargeted education programs. Spurred on by the Soviet launch ofSputnik, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act in 1958,committing billions of dollars to equip a generation to confront theSoviet challenge. These investments developed the human capitalnecessary to put a man on the moon and invent the technologies thatcatapulted our world into the Information Age, from microchips andtelecommunications to personal computing and the Internet.

Last week, a group of over 100 universities, student groups, and professional associations submitted a letterto each member of the Senate urging full support of RE-ENERGYSE."America is in danger of losing its global competitiveness and theclean energy race without substantial new investments in science,technology, math, and engineering education," they wrote."RE-ENERGYSE… will train America’s future energy workforce,accelerate our transition to a prosperous clean energy economy, andensure that we lead the world’s burgeoning clean technology industries."

Towin today’s clean-energy race, the United States must respond with thesame vigorous commitment to education and innovation that won the spacerace four decades ago. Congress should begin by strengtheningRE-ENERGYSE to the full $115 million requested and pass energylegislation that invests $30 billion to $50 billion annually inlow-carbon energy, including the $15 billion in energy R&D calledfor by our nation’s top scientists.

If America does not takeimmediate action to bridge its energy education gap — and if we failto make substantially larger investments in our own clean energyeconomy — we will effectively cede the clean energy race to Asia.Forty years from today, we may still find the burgeoning clean energyeconomy promised by President Obama and Democratic leaders. It willsimply be headquartered in China.

Teryn Norris and Jesse Jenkins are Project Director and Director of Energy & Climate Policy at the Breakthrough Institute. They are co-authors of the National Energy Education Act proposal.


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Japan Plans to Make Solar Energy Cheap

Motivatedin part by its loss of dominance in the solar energy industry, Japanhas recently announced a new national project for the widespreaddeployment of solar PV technologies in order to drive the price ofsolar energy toward that of conventional energy sources. In short,Japan plans to make solar energy cheap.

In a speech laying outthe his strategy for Japan to lead the world in a "low carbonrevolution", Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso announcedhis vision for Japan to be "the number one solar power in the world."He also recognized that the principle barrier to widespread adoption of
solar energy was its high price:

Howdo we become number one in the world in terms of solar powergeneration? In order to achieve this, we must put an end to thefollowing vicious cycle: costs are high because of lack of demand, anddemand remains stagnant due to high costs. Above all else, I think astrong political will to create ‘demand through policies,’ is necessary.

Inorder to cut this vicious cycle, Japan has proposed to make solarenergy cheap through a combination of energy innovation and governmentpolicies to spur demand-a straightforward and effective approach todrive both economies of scale and potentially transformativeinnovation. Prime Minister Aso has set a goal of increasing installedsolar capacity by 20 times its current level by 2020, and 40 times by2030.

The government is investing$30 billion over 5 years in energy research and development in order todevelop new, innovative technologies and to improve existingtechnologies over the short-term. This includes using new materials andstructures that may significantly improve solar cell efficiencies, witha goal of improving generating efficiency by over 40 percent andachieving a generating cost of only ¥7/kWh (7 cents/kWh) by 2030, closeto the cost of conventional energy sources.

On the demandside, Japan will enact three particular policies that couldsubstantially reduce the costs of solar energy by driving demand, whichin turn gives private firms the confidence to capture economies ofscale and invest their own funds in additional R&D and innovation.First, the government has reinstateda solar PV installation subsidy that it suspended in 2005, causing itto lose solar market dominance to Germany and Spain. The new subsidyof 70,000 ¥/kW ($749/kW) of equipment is expected to enlist 84,000 newapplications for PV systems over the next year. Second, the governmentis providing a $980 million subsidyto deploy solar photovoltaic systems on the roofs of all 32,000 publicelementary, junior high, and high schools nationwide by 2020. Lastly,the government has proposed a new feed-in tarifffor solar electricity production that, if enacted, is expected todramatically increase solar energy adoption. The "new purchasingsystem", announced by Prime Minister Aso, would require electriccompanies to purchase solar power at about twice the current(voluntary) price, or close to ¥50/kWh (50 cents/kWh). The feed-intariff will likely be designed to gradually decrease as the cost of PVsystems falls, in order to provide pressure for continued privatesector innovation and cost reductions.

As the U.S. Congressdebates cap and trade legislation to slightly increase the price offossil fuel energy, the government of Japan has focused its efforts, asenergy experts have argued is necessary, on making solar energycheaper, in real, absolute terms.

Japan’s ambitious plans forsolar energy are yet another indication that without a more vigorouscommitment to innovation and direct investment in clean energydeployment, the U.S. may lose the clean energy race to its East Asian competitors, as the Breakthrough Institute and others have recently warned.

By Devon Swezey, Breakthrough Generation Fellow


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New Report Calls for a Fresh Approach to Climate Policy

By Leigh Ewbank. Originally posted at Breakthrough Generation

Ajoint London School of Economics / University of Oxford reportpublished today presents a new approach to post-Kyoto climate changepolicy. The report, How to Get Climate Policy Back on Course,coincides with this week’s G8 summit and Major Economies Forum onEnergy and Climate, and calls on policy makers to abandon the failedKyoto-style framework and instead focus directly on decarbonizingglobal energy systems.

The new report builds on Professor Gwyn Prins’ and Professor Steve Rayner’s influential critique of the Kyoto Protocol, The Wrong Trousers: Radically Rethinking Climate Policy, and adds further weight to calls to scrap Kyoto.

How to Get Climate Policy Back on Courseexplains that the rise in the carbon intensity of the global economysince 2001 has occurred alongside efforts to limit carbonemissions—most notably the Kyoto Protocol and the EU emissions tradingscheme. This correlation highlights the failure of emissions-centricpolicy. The report’s coordinating author Professor Gwyn Prins warns adherents of the Kyoto-style approach:

‘Inthe real world, indicators are moving stubbornly in the wrongdirection. The world has been re-carbonising, not de-carbonising. Theevidence is that the Kyoto Protocol and its underlying approach havehad and are having no meaningful effect whatsoever.’

Toovercome ineffective climate policy, Prins and his coauthors recommendpolicy makers adopt the ‘Direct Kaya Approach’. This approach would aimto reduce the carbon intensity of an economy through increasing energyefficiency and deploying low-carbon technologies. According toco-author, Professor Steve Rayner of Oxford University, this approachhas the advantage of historical precedent:

‘The worldhas centuries of experience in decarbonising its energy supply andJapan has led the world in policy-driven improvements in energyefficiency. These are the models to which we ought to be looking.’

Thereport cites Japan’s recently approved ‘Mamizu’ climate strategy as theworld’s first based on the Direct Kaya Approach. Japan’s emissionsreduction target of 15% below 2005 levels by 2020 represents a 33%reduction in the carbon intensity of Japan’s economy—quite a targetconsidering that Japan is already one of the most efficient economies.In sharp contrast to the Waxman-Markey bill, Japan’s target will be metthrough increased energy efficiency and deployment of clean technology,not through the use of dubious ‘offsets’.

Overall, the report underscores the need to adopt a new framework foran international agreement on climate change. The BreakthroughInstitute’s Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus have called for massive global investmentin new clean energy technology to replace the deeply flawed Kyoto-styleframework. Targets for investment in renewable energy research,development and deployment, and a multilateral agreement for technologytransfer and cooperation among the world’s largest emitters could formthe basis of a new framework. Such policies can enhance thedecarbonization model proposed in the Prins report.


‘Howto Get Climate Policy Back on Course’ was coordinated by Professor GwynPrins and drew on the expertise of leading research institutes inEurope, North America and Asia.


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