Monday, August 19, 2013

Solar on a major roll

When I was doing the research for Elegant Technology, it pretty quickly dawned on me that converting a society designed to run on oil and other fossil fuels (mainly) into one that could be powered by renewables was a job that was WAY beyond even the comprehension of our most enlightened and concerned community activist types.  The reason was simple—building the fossil-fuel-powered infrastructure was the accomplishment of decades of incredibly hard work and pure genius by inventors, engineers, construction workers, etc. so replacing that infrastructure with something else meant the efforts of those same sorts of people times 10 (at least).  Figuring out reliable wind turbines, solar cells, smart grids was not hippy enterprise.  The energy mix could not be changed by drum circles, good karma, or crystal stroking because at its root, these were engineering problems.

Unfortunately in the 1980s, the really great engineers in USA were not available for such tasks.  Why?  Because most of them worked for the military-industrial complex devising ever more clever ways to kill our fellow humans. So my "solution" was that we redefine environmental protection and secure energy supplies as a defense issue and turn our defense industry into the engine for a green renewal.  Classic swords into plowshares thinking.  Many people thought this idea was so absurd, they believed I was attempting to be deliberately funny.  I am usually happy when folks find me amusing because comedy is very hard to do.  But this time, I felt miffed because I REALLY thought this was a superb idea and I was being as serious as a heart attack.

So I am happy to report of information slipping out that the military-industrial complex is indeed turning (some of) its attention to green issues.  And not surprisingly, some of the solutions dreamed up by the A-team engineers are pretty damn good.

Solar power to trump shale, helped by US military

By Ambrose Evans-Pritchard 14 Aug 2013

US marines go to war in Afghanistan with solar cells embedded in their rucksacks, efficient enough to recharge lithium-ion batteries for radios and greatly lighten loads.

Field patrols will soon have almost weightless solar blankets as well. These will be able to capture a once unthinkable 35pc of the sun's light as energy with thin membranes, a spin-off from technology used in satellites.

This new kit is a military imperative. Taliban ambushes of supply convoys are a major killer. The Pentagon says the cost of refueling forward bases is $400 a gallon.

The US Naval Air Weapons Station already relies on a 14 megawatt array of solar panels in California's Mojave desert for a thrid of its power. Pearl Harbour will soon follow as the Pentagon goes off-grid, better shielded from enemies.

The US Navy will derive half its energy supply from renewables by the end of this decade, according to a report entitled Enlisting the Sun: Powering the U.S. Military with Solar Energy, by the US solar industry (SEIA). It may be a stretch to say that the US Naval Research Laboratory is the vanguard of the world's green revolution, but not a big stretch.

"The US Defence Department is racing ahead. This could be like the semiconductor industry in 1980s where the military changed the game," said Jeremy Leggett, chairman of Solarcentury.

Nor is the Pentagon alone. Grant lists from the "SunShot Initiative" of the US Energy Department show that America's top research institutes are grappling with each of the key issues that have bedevilled solar energy for so long.

Los Alamos - home of the Manhattan Project - is working on smart grids and better ways to capture excess electricity produced in peak sunlight hours. The Argonne labs are working on thermal energy storage to overcome "intermittency", the curse of solar and wind.

Oak Ridge is testing coatings that increase durability of solar panels eightfold. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory is working on a CO2 power cycle that could achieve 90pc thermal efficiciency and does not require water, transforming the propects of desert solar.

The quest for renewables has quietly become a national endeavour of the world's paramount superpower, still home to 18 of the world's top 20 universities. The Japanese are no slouches either. They are spending $200m on a thermal storage project in Hokkaido using vanadium in electrolyte tanks. All this ferment will surely have consequences, though what and when is hard to predict.

The US Energy Department expects the cost of solar power to fall by 75pc between 2010 and 2020. By then average costs will have dropped to the $1 per watt for big solar farms, $1.25 for offices and $1.50 for homes, achieving the Holy Grail of grid parity with new coal and gas plants without further need for subsidies.

The current average in the US ranges from $5.30 for homes to as low as $2.50 for some utilities, though the figures are hotly disputed. Germany is further ahead, down to $2.25 to $2.50 even for homes. Broadly speaking, costs are down by a quarter over the past year due to the flood of cheap Chinese panels.

The Department expects a "nonlinear" surge in solar expansion once the key threshold is reached, "paving the way for rapid, large-scale adoption of solar electricity across the US", with solar providing 27pc of the country's power by the middle of the century. If so, solar may prove to be the bigger story than shale in the end.

"This could take off very fast and catch a lot of people by surprise. The oil and gas industry is starting to smell that renewables are really dangerous for them," said Mr Leggett.

Like all solar survivors, he has emotion invested in his dream, and the prospect of vindication is sweet. What is new is that big global banks are starting to agree. Earlier this year UBS published a report on the “unsubsidised solar revolution”, arguing that every rooftop in Italy, Spain and even Germany should have a solar cover based purely on hard economics.

"We believe the solar sector is at an inflection point," says Vishal Shah from Deutsche Bank. "It has passed the tipping point for grid parity in 10 major markets worldwide."

Deutsche Bank said the dramatic fall in the price of solar panels to between $0.60 and $0.70 per watt - lower than thought possible five years ago - has already rendered solar power competitive "without subsidies" in Japan, South Korea, Australia, Italy, Greece, Spain, Israel, South Africa, Chile, Southern California, Hawai and Chile - in some cases because electricity prices are ruinous. (Italy's solar is not efficient but electricity retails at $0.38 per kilowatt hour, compared with $0.15 in Germany and the UK).

These regions could be joined within three years by Thailand, Mexico, Argentina, Turkey and India, among others. Mr Shah said emerging markets are likely to embrace solar over the next decade for hard-headed commercial reasons, without the need for government subsidies. "Solar is now cheaper compared with diesel-based electricity generation in many markets such as India and Africa," he said.

This does not mean necessarily that Germany has benefited much from its head-long rush into solar, a decade too early for its own good. Households have been bled to subsidise the green dream. Around €100bn or more has been frittered away on costly feed-in tariffs. German investors have lost their shirts on a string of solar ventures that have gone bankrupt. The gains leaked out to copycat companies in China, able to undercut German rivals in their own market with cheap labour and giveaway credit.

Such are the perils of being a "first mover", a fate that Britain knows well. It is a reminder too that advances in solar technology do not easily translate into profits for solar companies. They are tearing each apart in cut-throat competition. Yet Germany surely did the rest us a favour by cracking photovoltaics at a crucial moment, and for that we have a debt of gratitude.

Whatever you think about that episode, it is now behind us. Solar technology is advancing on every front with the rush of history. A team at Oxford University is working on perovskite, a cheap and abundant material that may slash the costs of solar panels by 75pc to under $0.20 per watt. While normal silicon layers are 180 micrometres thick, perovskite can capture the same amount of sunlight with one micrometrr, according to MIT Technology Review.

In Australia, the University of New South Wales is probing a mix of screen-printing techniques and use of semiconductors that boost solar efficiency to 50pc. Labs in Wisconsin have found ways to undercut silicon with carbon nanotubes. That alone does not do much to lower the "soft costs" of solar installation, now the biggest barrier, but Germany's experience has shown that scale can work wonders.

The race is on: somebody, somewhere, is soon going to deliver grid parity with a clarity that silences all critics. Then we can all forget about subsidies for solar, and tax it instead, a future cash cow.

Goldman Sachs published a report last week entitled Time to renew interest in renewables?, a straw in the wind perhaps.

The message is to shun static - dare I say Luddite - assumptions about the limits of solar power. "Human ingenuity should not be underestimated," it said. Nor should the US military be underestimated. more
Kuttner on the advantages the Defense industry has when it come to large-scale planning.  We could extend those advantages to the whole country but that would mean utterly discrediting the millions infected with neoliberal economic thought.

Our Ministry of Planning

Robert Kuttner 08/18/2013

The New York Times had a terrific Sunday article on a new waste-to-energy technology that could convert massive quantities of trash into synthetic natural gas. This technology, from isn't perfect -- the product is still a carbon fuel. But unlike hydro-fracking, it doesn't destroy land and water supplies and it's a lot cleaner than oil or coal. Earlier versions of such waste-to-energy systems have divided environmentalists, both because they are still carbon and because they use very high temperature incineration, which is frowned upon by many green advocates even when it is clean.

That controversy is all grist for a different article, however. What stood out for me in the Times piece was the client of the new technology -- the U.S. Army. Next year, the producer, Sierra Energy, will be supplying waste-produced gas for a small military base in Monterrey, and, if all goes well, to larger installations.

In much of the rest of the world, renewable energy is advancing at a faster pace because national policy requires utilities to buy it. But here, it's the Army that's at the cutting edge. (When the Department of Energy backs green energy startups, the failures get the glare of Republican publicity, not the successes.)

When you think about it, ever since World War II our closet planning ministry, Keynesian purchaser of last resort, even laboratory for social innovation, has been the military.

It wasn't Al Gore who pioneered the Internet. It was DARPA, the military's advanced projects agency. America has a huge trade deficit, but one of the sectors where we're still a world leader is aircraft -- much of whose technological lead was financed by Pentagon purchases.

Within the executive branch, one of the recognized leaders on the issue of climate change and sea level rise is, not surprisingly, the Navy. Even during the Bush Administration with its preponderance of deniers in high places, the Navy insisted that climate change was both real and man-made, and devoted resources to it. Why does the Navy care? As I heard one of their climate change leaders quip, "For one thing, our bases tend to be at sea level."

In the case of energy policy, what's holding back innovation and domestic production is the absence of assured markets for startups. But in this anti-government, laissez-faire nation, the military gets a safe conduct pass to do something that no other branch of government is ideologically allowed to do -- commit the sin of economic planning.

Not only that, the military commits another sin against free markets. It commits social engineering. Once the military establishment decides to so something, it is something of a hierarchy. So when the Pentagon was ordered to desegregate and then to achieve genuine equality of racial opportunity, it was well ahead of the rest of the society.

I have a college classmate, retired Rear Admiral James A. Johnson, who was the first African American page in Congress, and who then turned to the Navy to pursue his medical career as a thoracic surgeon at a time when he could not get admitting privileges in civilian hospitals. (The military is taking a lot longer getting its policies on women right). But the military today is as thoroughly racially integrated institution as we have.

And speaking of the military medical system, because it and the VA system are socialistic, they deliver care far more cost-effectively than their profit-obsessed civilian counterparts. The military also has better and more comprehensive child care than civilian society. And its income distribution is far more equal than the rest of the economy. Top executives (4-star generals) make only about nine times the pay of buck privates, but that doesn't deter ambition to rise through the ranks. (When Gen. Wes Clark was briefly running for president, I pitched him on making all this something of a theme. He wouldn't touch it with a rake.)

Okay, so where am I going with this?

Point one: Right-wingers patriotically cut the military all kinds of slack for policies that are considered sins in the rest of the economy and the society. Maybe some of the planning strategies that work for the Army and Navy could be models for the rest of the society.

And, yes, I said some of the strategies. I know about hundred-dollar hammers and thousand-dollar toilet seats. A lot of Pentagon contracting is not a model for anything. But by the way, the billing practices in the commercial health-industrial-complex, home of the ten-dollar aspirin pill and $20,000 colonoscopy, would make even the Pentagon blush.

Point two: Instead of allowing only the military, which is bureaucratic and not entirely accountable, to define needed technologies and industries, why not have a civilian, democratic process for economic planning?

Point three: If universal good child care and high quality universal health care are good enough for GIs and their dependents, why not have it for every American?

Point four: The fact that we have to rely on the military to do stuff that is denied to civilian government sometimes makes the outcomes a little weird (see U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, flood control.)

It's also a little nerve-racking that an establishment that exists to make wars has some exemplary economic and social policies. We spend too much on armaments, not too little. The solution is not to give the Pentagon more money or power, much less to put the military in charge, as some other nations do. It's to learn and apply what the military does well. more
And this!!!  I have been interested in solar power since I saw my first PV cell in 1958.  But even I am shocked at what a game-changer affordable PV cells are.  Here is technology that can power your life and all you must do is put it out in the sun.  Wow!  Just freaking wow!

Two thirds of global solar PV has been installed in the last 2.5 years!

by VL Baker  AUG 15, 2013

Stephen Lacey at green tech media is bringing us these stunning statistics of the overwhelming growth of global solar.

If you want to understand why people so often compare deployment trends in solar photovoltaics (PV) to Moore's law in computing, consider this statistic: two-thirds of all solar PV capacity in place worldwide has been installed since January 2011.

Let's put that into perspective. It took nearly four decades to install 50 gigawatts of PV capacity worldwide. But in the last 2 1/2 years, the industry jumped from 50 gigawatts of PV capacity to just over 100 gigawatts. At the same time, global module prices have fallen 62 percent since January 2011.

Even more amazingly, the solar industry is on track to install another 100 gigawatts worldwide by 2015 -- nearly doubling solar capacity in the next 2 1/2 years.



These figures represent a sea change in the solar industry, and even more importantly, in the energy industry. The boom in distributed solar is underway. more

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