Fossil Fuels Just Lost the Race Against Renewables

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The race for renewable energy has passed a turning point. The world is now adding more capacity for renewable power each year than coal, natural gas, and oil combined. And there’s no going back.

The shift occurred in 2013, when the world added 143 gigawatts ∫ of renewable electricity capacity, compared with 141 gigawatts in new plants that burn fossil fuels, according to an analysis presented Tuesday at the Bloomberg New Energy Finance annual summit in New York. The shift will continue to accelerate, and by 2030 more than four times as much renewable capacity will be added.

“The electricity system is shifting to clean,” Michael Liebreich, founder of BNEF, said in his keynote address. “Despite the change in oil and gas prices there is going to be a substantial buildout of renewable energy that is likely to be an order of magnitude larger than the buildout of coal and gas.”

The Beginning of the End

Power generation capacity additions (GW)

The price of wind and solar power continues to plummet, and is now on par or cheaper than grid electricity in many areas of the world. Solar, the newest major source of energy in the mix, makes up less than 1 percent of the electricity market today but will be the world’s biggest single source by 2050, according to the International Energy Agency.

The question is no longer if the world will transition to cleaner energy, but how long it will take. In the chart below, BNEF forecasts the billions of dollars that need to be invested each year in order to avoid the most severe consequences of climate change, represented by a benchmark increase of more than 2 degrees Celsius.

The blue lines are what’s needed, in billions; the red lines show what’s actually being spent. Since the financial crisis, funding has fallen well short of the target, according to BNEF.

Investment Needed to Minimize Climate Change

Citation: Randall, T. (2015, April 14). Fossil Fuels Just Lost the Race Against Renewables. Retrieved April 14, 2015, from http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-04-14/fossil-fuels-just-lost-the-race-against-renewables

Clean Energy Revolution Is Ahead of Schedule

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The most important piece of news on the energy front isn’t the plunge in oil prices, but the progress that is being made in battery technology. A new study in Nature Climate Change, by Bjorn Nykvist and Mans Nilsson of the Stockholm Environment Institute, shows that electric vehicle batteries have been getting cheaper much faster than expected. From 2007 to 2011, average battery costs for battery-powered electric vehicles fell by about 14 percent a year. For the leading electric vehicle makers, Tesla and Nissan, costs fell by 8 percent a year. This astounding decline puts battery costs right around the level that the International Energy Agency predicted they would reach in 2020. We are six years ahead of the curve. It’s a bit hard to read, but here is the graph from the paper:

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This puts the electric vehicle industry at a very interesting inflection point. Back in 2011, McKinsey & Co. made a chart showing which kind of vehicle would be the most economical at various prices for gasoline and batteries:

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Looking at this graph, we can see the incredible progress made just since 2011. Battery prices per kilowatt-hour have fallen from about $550 when the graph was made to about $450 now. For Tesla and Nissan, the gray rectangle (which represents current prices) is even farther to the left, to about the $300 range, where the economics really starts to change and battery-powered vehicles become feasible.

But in the past year, the price of gasoline has fallen as well, and is now in the $2.50 range even in expensive markets. A glut of oil, and a possible thaw in U.S.-Iran relations, have moved the gray rectangle down into the dark blue area where internal combustion engines reign supreme.

Still, if battery prices keep falling, the gray rectangle will keep moving to the left. The Swedish researchers believe that Tesla’s new factories will be able to achieve the 30 percent cost reduction the company promises, simply from economies of scale and incremental improvements in the manufacturing process. That, combined with a rebound in gas prices to the $3 range, would be enough to make battery-powered vehicles an economic alternative to internal combustion vehicles in most regions.

But this isn’t the only piece of good energy news. Investment in renewable energy is powering ahead.

The United Nations Environment Programme recently released a report showing that global investment in renewable energy, which had dipped a bit between 2011 and 2013, rebounded in 2014 to a near all-time high of $270 billion. But the report also notes that since renewable costs — especially solar costs — are falling so fast, the amount of renewable energy capacity added in 2014 was easily an all-time high. China, the U.S. and Japan are leading the way in renewable investment. Renewables went from 8.5 percent to 9.1 percent of global electricity generation just in 2014.

That’s still fairly slow in an absolute sense. Adding 0.6 percentage point a year to the renewable share would mean the point where renewables take half of the electricity market wouldn’t come until after 2080. But as solar costs fall, we can expect that shift to accelerate. In particular, forecasts are for solar to become the cheapest source of energy — at least when the sun is shining — in many parts of the world in the 2020s.

Each of these trends — cheaper batteries and cheaper solar electricity — is good on its own, and on the margin will help to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, with all the geopolitical drawbacks and climate harm they entail. But together, the two cost trends will add up to nothing less than a revolution in the way humankind interacts with the planet and powers civilization.

You see, the two trends reinforce each other. Cheaper batteries mean that cars can switch from gasoline to the electrical grid. But currently, much of the grid is powered by coal. With cheap solar replacing coal at a rapid clip, that will be less and less of an issue. As for solar, its main drawback is intermittency. But with battery costs dropping, innovative manufacturers such as Tesla will be able to make cheap batteries for home electricity use, allowing solar power to run your house 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

So instead of thinking of solar and batteries as two independent things, we should think of them as one single unified technology package. Solar-plus-batteries is set to begin a dramatic transformation of human civilization. The transformation has already begun, but will really pick up steam during the next decade. That is great news, because cheap energy powers our economy, and because clean energy will help stop climate change.

Of course, skeptics and opponents of the renewable revolution continue to downplay these remarkable developments. The takeoff of solar-plus-batteries has only begun to ramp up the exponential curve, and market shares are still small. But it has begun, and it doesn’t look like we’re going back.

Citation: Smith, N. (2015, April 8). Clean Energy Revolution Is Ahead of Schedule. Retrieved April 8, 2015, from http://www.bloombergview.com/articles/2015-04-08/clean-energy-revolution-is-way-ahead-of-schedule

Prime Minister Modi Commits to Clean Environment by Doubling India’s Coal Tax

The world’s third-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases will raise the duty on coal to 200 rupees ($3.2) a ton, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said in his budget speech for the year starting April 1. Photographer: Kuni Takahashi/Bloomberg

The world’s third-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases will raise the duty on coal to 200 rupees ($3.2) a ton, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said in his budget speech for the year starting April 1. Photographer: Kuni Takahashi/Bloomberg

India will double the tax on coal production and promote electric vehicles and renewable-energy projects to balance out emissions from coal-fired power plants.

The world’s third-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases will raise the duty on coal to 200 rupees ($3.2) a ton, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said in his budget speech for the year starting April 1. The money will be used to promote clean energy, he said, indicating India’s commitment to fight global warming.

“With regard to coal, there’s a need to find a balance between taxing pollution and the price of power,” Jaitley said. “I intend to start on that journey too.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, which swept to power in May, has set itself unprecedented targets for clean energy and has increased taxes on use of fossil fuels such as coal and petroleum amid mounting international pressure to curb emissions.

The higher tax on coal will encourage investments in washeries and upgrading plants to increase fuel efficiencies, said Kameswara Rao, who oversees energy, utilities and mining at PwC India.

Cheap Coal

Coal fires about 60 percent of India’s electricity generation capacity and is among the cheapest sources of power in the country. The higher tax will lead to an increase of as much as 0.06 rupees in coal costs for every kilowatt hour of electricity, Rao said.

“As the Paris convention approaches, these steps will show the government is serious about climate change,” said Debasish Mishra, a senior director at Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu India Pvt. in Mumbai. “We have to take care of the environment, and at the same time use fossil fuel to make sure we have energy at a reasonable cost for our growth. It’s not an either or situation.”

Countries attending the 21st international conference on climate change in Paris at the end of this year will aim to reach an agreement on greenhouse-gas reduction. While the U.S. and China, the world’s two biggest polluting nations, announced an accord in November to control their emissions, India has avoided making any specific commitments, said Bharat Bhushan Agrawal, an analyst with Bloomberg New Energy Finance in New Delhi. India wants to prioritize economic development, which will entail investments in new coal-generation capacity along with renewable energy, he said.

India plans to add 175 gigawatts of renewable-generation capacity by 2022, including 100 gigawatts from solar. That will help more than double the share of renewables in the mix of fuel it consumes from the current 6 percent, Piyush Goyal, the minister for coal, power and renewable energy, said in November.

Goyal is working to meet Modi’s promise of providing electricity to all. About one-third of India’s 1.25 billion people don’t have access to electricity, which deprives them of basic health and education facilities. Frequent blackouts cripple its industrial output and add to the cost of production.

India is gradually ending subsidies on fuels and has levied taxes on gasoline and diesel to fund new roads.

Citation: Singh, R. (2015, February 28). Modi Commits to Clean Environment by Doubling India’s Coal Tax. Retrieved March 1, 2015, from http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-02-28/modi-commits-to-clean-environment-by-doubling-india-s-coal-tax

 

Solar Panels Floating on Water Will Power Japan’s Homes

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Nowadays, bodies of water aren’t necessarily something to build around—they’re something to build on. They sport not just landfills and man-made beaches but also, in a nascent global trend, massive solar power plants.

Clean energy companies are turning to lakes, wetlands, ponds, and canals as building grounds for sunlight-slurping photovoltaic panels. So far, floating solar structures have been announced in, among other countries, the United Kingdom, Australia, India, and Italy.

The biggest floating plant, in terms of output, will soon be placed atop the reservoir of Japan’s Yamakura Dam in Chiba prefecture, just east of Tokyo. When completed in March 2016, it will cover 180,000 square meters, hold 50,000 photovoltaic solar panels, and power nearly 5,000 households. It will also offset nearly 8,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually. (Since the EPA estimates a typical car releases 4.7 tons of CO2 annually, that’s about 1,700 cars’ worth of emissions.)

The Yamakura Dam project is a collaboration by Kyocera (a Kyoto-headquartered electronics manufacturer), Ciel et Terre (a French company that designs, finances, and operates photovoltaic installations), and Century Tokyo Leasing Corporation.

So, why build solar panels on water instead of just building them on land? Placing the panels on a lake or reservoir frees up surrounding land for agricultural use, conservation, or other development. With these benefits, though, come challenges.

Solar Enters New Territory

“Overall, this is a very interesting idea. If successful, it will bring a huge impact,” says Yang Yang, a professor of engineering at the University of California, Los Angeles who specializes in photovoltaic solar panels. “However, I do have concerns of its safety against storms and other natural disasters, not to mention corrosion.”

Unlike a solar installation on the ground or mounted on a rooftop, floating solar energy plants present relatively new difficulties. For one thing, everything needs to be waterproofed, including the panels and wiring. Plus, a giant, artificial contraption can’t just be dropped into a local water supply without certain precautions, such as adherence to regulations on water quality—a relevant concern, particularly if the structure starts to weather away.

“That is one reason we chose Ciel et Terre’s floating platforms, which are 100 percent recyclable and made of high-density polyethylene that can withstand ultraviolet rays and corrosion,” says Ichiro Ikeda, general manager of Kyocera’s solar energy marketing division.

Another obstacle? Japan’s omnipresent threat of natural disasters. In addition to typhoons, the country is a global hot spot for earthquakes, landslides, and tidal waves.

The planned floating solar array for Japan would sit atop the Yamakura Dam, east of Tokyo.

The planned floating solar array for Japan would sit atop the Yamakura Dam, east of Tokyo.

To make sure the platforms could withstand the whims of Mother Nature, Ciel et Terre’s research and development team brought in the big guns: a wind tunnel at Onera, the French aerospace lab. The company’s patented Hydrelio system—those polyethylene “frames” that cradle the solar panels—was subjected to very high wind conditions that matched hurricane speeds. The system resisted winds of up to 118 miles per hour.

Why Japan Could Be the Perfect Spot

Given its weather, why build floating solar panels in the storm-filled, Ring of Fire-hugging Land of the Rising Sun? The reason: Many nations could benefit from floating solar power. And Japan is their poster child.

The largely mountainous archipelago of Japan suffers from a lack of usable land, meaning there’s less room for anything to be built, let alone a large-scale solar plant. However, the nation is rich in reservoirs, since it has a sprawling rice industry to irrigate, so more solar energy companies in Japan are favoring liquid over land for construction sites. Suddenly, inaccessible terrain becomes accessible.

Kyocera’s Ikeda says available land in Japan is especially hard to come by these days, as the number of ground-based solar plants in the country has skyrocketed in the past few years.

But, he added, “the country has many reservoirs for agricultural and flood-control purposes. There is great potential in carrying out solar power generation on these water surfaces.”

In Japan’s case, Ciel et Terre says that the region’s frequent seismic fits aren’t cause for concern, either. In fact, they illustrate another benefit that floating solar panels have over their terrestrial counterparts, the company says.

“Earthquakes have no impacts on the floating photovoltaic system, which has no foundation and an adequate anchoring system that ensures its stability,” says Eva Pauly, international business manager at Ciel et Terre. “That’s a big advantage in a country like Japan.”

Solar’s Potential Ecological Impact

Floating solar panel manufacturers hope their creations replace more controversial energy sources.

“Japan needs new, independent, renewable energy sources after the Fukushima disaster,” says Pauly. “The country needs more independent sources of electricity after shutting down the nuclear power and relying heavily on imported liquid gas.”

This up-and-coming aquatic alternative impacts organisms living in the water, though. The structure stymies sunlight penetration, slowly making the water cooler and darker. This can halt algae growth, for example, which Ciel et Terre project manager Lise Mesnager says “could be either positive or negative.” If there’s too much algae in the water, the shadow-casting floating panels might be beneficial; if the water harbors endangered species, they could harm them.

“It is really important for the operator to have a good idea of what kind of species can be found in the water body,” Mesnager says.

Since companies must follow local environmental rules, these solar plants are usually in the center of the water, away from banks rich with flora and fauna. Plus, companies might prefer building in man-made reservoirs instead of natural ones, as the chances of harming the area’s biodiversity are smaller.

Could the Future Include Salt Water?

More than three-quarters of our planet is ocean, which might present alternative energy companies a blank canvas on which to dot more buoyant energy farms. But moving floating panels to the open sea is still in the future. Kyocera’s Ikeda says it would bring up a whole new realm of issues, from waves to changing water levels, which could lead to damage and disrupted operations.

Ciel et Terre is experimenting with salt water-friendly systems in Thailand, but ocean-based plants might be impractical, as offshore installations are costly, and it’s more logical to produce electricity closer to where it’ll be used.

For now, companies are aiming to build floating energy sources that conserve limited space, are cheaper than solar panels on terra firma, and are, above all, efficient. Ciel et Terre says that since its frames keep Kyocera’s solar panels cool, the floating plant could generate up to 20 percent more energy than a typical ground system does.

The Yamakura Dam project might be the world’s biggest floating solar plant, but it wasn’t the first-and it almost certainly won’t be the last.

Citation: Lufkin, B. (2015, January 15). Solar Panels Floating on Water Will Power Japan’s Homes. Retrieved February 13, 2015, from http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/energy/2015/01/150116-floating-solar-power-japan-yamakura/

8 Solar Trends to Follow in 2015

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Every quarter, GTM Research’s solar analysts compile the most important data and findings from the past three months.  The most important charts from the Q4 2014 Solar Executive Briefing covering pricing, installations, financing, policy and business models follow.

1. The new China solar tariff decision may drive panel prices below 65 cents per watt this year.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Commerce filed its preliminary review of the import tariffs on Chinese cells into the U.S. The review called for tariffs on Chinese cells to be reduced, and assuming the final decision doesn’t stray too far from the review, GTM Research expects U.S. module prices to fall to 64 cents per watt this year.

2. High-efficiency module technologies are gaining steam.

According to GTM Research’s Shyam Mehta, the shift is “driven by the increased value proposition of high efficiency relative to module costs, an end-market mix shift toward rooftop applications, and reduced all-in costs for high-efficiency products.”

3. The megawatt-scale solar operations and maintenance (O&M) market still looks like the Wild West.

Dozens of companies are fighting for market share in the operations and maintenance market, from inverter and module manufacturers to developers and EPCs (engineering, procurement and construction). Everyone wants a piece of the O&M (Operations & Maintenance) pie.

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4. Grid integration is becoming an increasing focus for inverter manufacturers.

Inverter manufacturers are beginning to design solutions to help alleviate some of the integration challenges facing utilities. The chart below highlights a few markets with high PV penetration relative to electricity generating capacity.

5. Net energy metering is becoming popular outside of the U.S.

Net energy metering has helped grow distributed generation PV markets in the United States, and other countries have started to take notice. GTM Research’s Adam James highlights a few NEM (Net Energy Metering) proposals across three continents that aren’t North America.

6. More than 4 gigawatts of utility-scale solar have been procured outside of RPS requirements in the past twelve months.

GTM Research’s Cory Honeyman attributes the success of projects outside RPS (Renewable Portfolio Standard) guidelines to utility-scale PV’s competitiveness with natural-gas alternatives.

7. Best-in-class residential solar will be installed for less than $3 per watt this year.

The largest cost difference between best-in-class installers and the rest of the market comes from labor and supply chain savings.

8. Loans are the hottest thing in U.S. residential solar.

As reported last year, the market share for residential solar leases peaked in 2014 as loans have emerged and shifted the market back toward direct ownership. Solar Analyst Nicole Litvak developed a taxonomy of companies offering residential solar loans in the U.S.

 

Citation: Munsel, M. (2015, January 22). The Most Important Trends in Solar 8 Charts. Retrieved January 25, 2015, from http://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/The-Most-Important-Trends-in-Solar-in-8-Charts

Lower Austria’s New Year Resolution: 100 Percent of Electricity from Renewable Energy by 2015

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Lower Austria Minister for Energy Dr. Stephan Pernkopf stated that “We want to achieve this goal together.”

This year, the province of Lower Austria wants to become powered  by 100% renewables, that is, by water, wind, biomass and solar power.

“Power saving is important because every kilowatt hour saved must not be generated. The more people support the energy movement in Lower Austria, the faster we will reach our goal, ” said Lower Austria Minister for Energy Dr. Stephan Pernkopf.

Dr. Herbert Greisberger, Managing Director of Energy and Environment Agency Northeast, adds, “Even small resolutions have big impacts, even if it is simply avoiding standby power, using less television, or exchanging a light bulb for LEDs.”

Thousands of Lower Austrian citizens are already active, and not just in the electricity sector. Many have upgraded the energy efficiency of their homes, are using solar thermal energy for heating water, and have installed solar PV or biomass systems for space heating. Citizens can visit the Power Saving Family website to learn how to generate energy efficiently, to see samples of projects in their own region, and to see in real time the amount of power being generated in Lower Austria by various renewable sources at www.energiebewegung.at/.  Whoever resolves today to save power today wins twice tomorrow. Citizens who support the goal by saving energy have a chance to win various incentives, such as high efficiency LED lights. Details (in German) are at : www.energiebewegung.at/stromsparvorsatz2015/.

Citation: Maier, J. (2014, December 30). 100 Percent of Electricity from Renewable Energy. Retrieved from http://www.noe.gv.at/Presse/Pressedienst/Pressearchiv/115027_Energie-.html

Africa’s Largest Solar Farm is Fully Operational

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The Jasper solar farm, located near Kimberley in South Africa, is now the continent’s largest solar power project. Construction was completed in October, and it is now fully operational. With a rated capacity of 96 megawatts, Jasper will produce about 180,000 megawatt-hours of clean energy annually for South African residents, enough to power up to 80,000 homes.

What makes this even better is that Japser won’t stay the biggest solar project for long. In the same area, in South-Africa, near the 75-megawatt Lesedi project that came online last May, a 100-megawatt concentrated solar thermal power (CSP) project called Redstone is also under construction.

Look at that scale. The Jasper Project generated about 1 million man-hours of paid work during construction, peaking at over 800 on-site construction jobs.

South Africa has a goal of having 18 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2030, so projects like this are definitely steps in the right direction. If there’s one thing that South Africa has lots of, it’s sunlight!

45% of the total project value was spent on “local content” to help increase the positive economic impact on the area.

The project was developed by a consortium consisting of Solar Reserve, the Kensani Group (an experienced empowerment investment player in South Africa), and Intikon Energy (a South African developer of renewable energy projects).

Financing came from local and international sources, including Google and the Public Investment Corporation (PIC), Intikon Energy, Kensani Capital Investments, the PEACE Humansrus Community Trust, and Solar Reserve with Rand Merchant Bank.

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Citation: Richard, M. (2014, December 17). Africa’s largest solar farm (325,480 PV modules) is now fully operational! Retrieved December 20, 2014, from http://www.solarreserve.com/what-we-do/pv-development/jasper/