Thursday, January 10, 2013

Solar plods forward

In theory, anyone blessed with an oil boom should immediately start thinking about what the new-found wealth should be spent on.  Unfortunately, since the temptations of materialism are virtually infinite, altogether too many oil nouveau riche opt for the Beverly Hillbillies solution by demonstrating their primitive ways out by the cement pond.  However, those who like the idea of being rich and intend to stay that way for many generations would immediately start figuring out how to make their oil windfall last beyond the life of the oil fields.

Actually, this is a pretty obvious solution.  Oil is natural capital.  The income from extracting this capital should be invested in harvesting energy income.  Turn that short-term income into something nearly perpetual.  This SEEMS to be what is happening in Qatar.  And since they have both significant oil income and land being blasted by solar energy, this conversion to a long-term income stream is mostly a matter of investing in some smarts.

Solar power sparks innovation in oil-rich Qatar

Brigitte Osterath  31.12.2012

Sunshine is abundant in Qatar. All that untapped solar power could create a new energy economy in this oil-rich nation. Researchers are already testing solar-powered cooling systems and water desalination plants.

Researcher Nesrin Ozalp slides on a pair of big, black, UV resistant sunglasses and enters her lab in the research facility at Texas A&M University in Qatar's capital city Doha. In the center of the room bright rays of light beam from what looks like a baking over. It's Ozalp's solar simulator.

"It generates high-temperature radiation that is exactly like the solar energy, which we need for our experiments," she told DW.

A dirty business

Ozalp is an associate professor with the university's mechanical engineering program. She is developing a reactor to utilize solar power. But this system isn't intended as a power source for machines. She uses the concentrated solar energy to break down natural gas into its two components: carbon and hydrogen.

Natural gas is an extremely valuable commodity that can be burned to heat homes or fuel cars. So it may seem odd that Ozalp is destroying it. But, she explains, on the global markets for chemicals, hydrogen and carbon are in high demand.

Several million tons of carbon are produced worldwide every year in the form of carbon black - very fine carbon particles. Among other things, carbon black is used to make car tyres, conveyor belts, printer inks, and batteries.

"Carbon is one of the most commonly used commodities in the industry," Ozalp says.

Carbon can be produced without solar energy, but the process is quite dirty. Mineral oil is partially combusted at very high temperatures. The result is not only carbon, but also a series of harmful byproducts like carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and sulfur compounds.

The production of hydrogen is also harmful to the environment. Most hydrogen is made by reacting steam with coal or natural gas, which are not renewable resources. The byproduct here in CO2.

A clean solution

Nesrin Ozalp's research is focussing on how to make the process cleaner. "We take natural gas and we use concentrated solar energy to directly breakt it down into its components. There is no other byproduct," she says.

Natural gas flows into a metal box - the reactor - which has a single pane of glass. The solar beam, or concentrated natural light, enters the reactor through the glass and heats it up.

As a result, natural gas is split into carbon and hydrogen which are blown out of the reactor. The solid carbon can be filtered out of the hydrogen flow. Natural gas is still used at this point, but Ozalp explains that this is just a temporary solution until researchers come up with an even greener process.

"It is much more reasonable to move from a fossil fuel economy to a renewable energy economy one step at a time," she explains. "It is like a child trying to crawl first before taking its first step."

Solar stadiums and water sanitation

The state of Qatar seems to take a more ambitious view. Plans for a huge polysilicon production factory are already underway. The plant is intended to fill an expected spike in demand for silica for solar panels in the future. One way the panels will be used is to power air conditioning systems when the Gulf state hosts the Football World Cup in 2022. The plan is that all stadiums will be equipped with new solar systems.

There is also research underway on solar-powered water desalination plants. Nadia Amar Aboul Hosn of the Qatar Sustainability Network told DW that Qatar has almost no fresh water and is completely dependent on the desalination of sea water. It's a process that uses a lot of energy.

Using a process called reverse osmosis, large pumps press sea water through very fine pores, so that the salt stays behind. The pumps are energy intensive and it can be expensive to power them. At the moment, most machinery relies on fossil fuel. But Aboul Hosn says the sun may offer an endless supply of energy for water desalination.

Early Days

"The Qatar Environmental and Energy Research Institute is undertaking a pilot project for solar energy desalination, where we generate electricity with solar energy and at the same time do solar desalination," Aboul Hosn told DW. "In a few years, when this technology is truly developed, it will save Qatar 75 percent of the energy used in desalination."

However, like so many plans concerning renewables in Qatar, solar air conditioning and solar desalination are still in the early stages of development. There are some serious challenges ahead. The sunny Gulf state seems to be the perfect place to install solar panels. But solar panels tend to malfunction in high temperatures and the dusty conditions may cause problems as well. But with investment increasing, the researchers remain hopeful. more
Meanwhile, here in Minnesota we are still making a fuss over a 2 MW solar array.  That's the output of one decent-sized wind turbine, folks.  And while I am happy we are still making some progress on the solar front, this is pretty damn pathetic.

Minnesota's largest solar installation begins producing electricity

Article by: DAVID SHAFFER , Star Tribune  January 6, 2013

A new system built near Slayton, Minn., with more than 7,000 solar panels is part of the boom in solar installations in Minnesota and across the United States.

The largest solar-electric generator in Minnesota has flipped on the switch -- the latest sign of a banner year for solar installations.

Renewable power developer Ecos Energy said 7,040 solar panels outside of Slayton, Minn., began producing power Friday after being connected to Xcel Energy's distribution system. The solar array is the largest in the state, with 2 megawatts of output, the equivalent of the power used by 250 homes.

The project has 32 rows of solar panels covering an area the size of 7 1/2 football fields on what once was a cornfield.

"There was no celebration, but it is nice to get these things running," said Chris Little, director of development for Ecos Energy, based in Minneapolis.

Solar installations are up dramatically in Minnesota and across the United States. In Minnesota, twice as much solar capacity was installed in 2012 compared with the prior year, as more than 250 projects, large and small, went online, state data shows.

That list doesn't include the Slayton project, which came online in 2013. It does include the solar array atop the Bloomington Ikea store completed in August. Ikea briefly held the state record for the biggest solar generator, at 1 megawatt, and now slips to No. 2.

Across the country, new solar installations through the third quarter already were ahead of 2011's, thanks partly to a steady drop in solar panel prices, according to a GTM Research report for the Solar Energy Industries Association.

"We expect business to grow considerably in 2013 and 2014," said Doug Fredrickson, vice president of operations for Blattner Energy, which constructed the Slayton project. "The indicators are really strong. The technology is improving, and the price of panels is going down -- you can hardly keep up with the reductions."

Blattner Energy, based in Avon, Minn., is a sister company to D.H. Blattner & Sons Inc., a contractor that helped James J. Hill build the Great Northern Railroad a century ago. It began building wind farms in the 1990s and utility-scale solar projects two years ago.

Lynn Hinkle, policy director for the Minnesota Solar Energy Industries Association, said the group is pushing for special, higher rates on solar power sold to utilities. The pricing aims to recognize that solar projects save utilities money by avoiding transmission-line investments and expensive power purchases on hot, sunny days, Hinkle said.

"That would help scale up the installation of solar," he said.

Ecos Energy deliberately sited its array near Buffalo Ridge in southwest Minnesota, an area with more than 70 wind farms. Xcel, the Minneapolis-based utility, intends to study whether daytime-only solar power and nearby wind farms' intermittent generation can complement each other. Wind often is strongest at night. Xcel spokeswoman Patti Nystuen said that a year's worth of data will be needed to conduct the analysis.

Xcel will purchase the power under a 20-year agreement whose terms have not been disclosed. Regulatory filings say the Slayton project cost about $7 million, with $2 million from Xcel's Renewable Development Fund. The state-mandated fund gets its money from utility ratepayers.

Ecos Energy built eight solar projects in the Midwest last year, including Slayton, Little said.

The company is majority owned by New York City-based Allco Renewable Energy. Ecos formerly was called Outland Renewable Energy and had been a sister company of Canby, Minn.-based Outland Energy Services, which was founded by Minnesota farmers to operate wind farms. Outland Energy was acquired in November by Duke Energy of Charlotte, N.C.

Though the Slayton project is Minnesota's largest, its output pales in comparison with solar installations being built in California. Last week, MidAmerican Solar, a unit of Warren Buffett-led Berkshire Hathaway, announced it would purchase the world's largest planned solar development, with an output of 579 megawatts, in southern California. NextEra Energy is planning a 250-megawatt concentrated solar project near Blythe, Calif., for which Blattner Energy is the construction manager.

In Minnesota, Xcel's separate Solar Rewards program helped installers add 3.7 megawatts (be still my heart!) of solar power this year, up 150 percent from 2011, the utility said. That program subsidizes smaller installations for homes and businesses.

Nystuen said Xcel will continue to "explore the potential benefits of solar" and anticipates requesting proposals for development fund grants for systems of up to 1 megawatt. Those projects, she said, likely would not involve selling power to the grid. more