Saturday, March 29, 2014

Solar's growing promise

There are NO reasonable arguments against the proposition that in order for humanity to survive on this planet, we must stop consuming the stored energy capital found in the earth and design a society that can live off of the energy income that beams from the sun.  Of course, that is not to say that this transition will be easy, cheap, or quick.  But it is beginning to look like the basics are in place.

The key to this possibility is the enormous advantage we have because we understand electricity pretty well.  Considering it was 1832 when Faraday first explained electromagnetic generation and we didn't see the first central power station until 1881, the idea that we could power our societies with anything other than fire is very recent.  And the idea that we could economically convert sunlight directly to electricity is just now happening.  Because humanity has learned how to make cheap PV cells, more solar has been installed in the U.S. in the last 18 months than in the 30 years prior.

So even though we have a long way to go, there is really good news to report.  Direct conversion of sunlight to electricity is now cheap enough to go head-to-head with our least expensive fires.  Folks like Dean Baker are beginning to realize that wars over fuels may soon become an embarrassing footnote in human history.  Yet as SolarCity's growing problems remind us, the habits of living off the earth's energy capital do not disappear overnight.

Solar energy now same price as conventional power in Germany, Italy, Spain - report

March 26, 2014

Solar energy now costs the same as conventionally generated electricity in Germany, Italy and Spain, a report has revealed. The research has warned, however, that high installation costs are impeding other countries from achieving grid parity.

An analysis by consulting firm Eclareon, carried out on behalf of an international group of sustainable energy interests has revealed the extent to which solar energy has integrated into the energy market. Gone are the days when electricity produced through solar panels cost significantly more that conventionally-generated power, as Italy, Spain and Germany have reached energy parity.

However, the study’s analysts said that poor regulation in Spain could hinder further progress. Madrid recently introduced regulations that make it illegal for people to consume the electricity they produce through their own solar panels.

“In countries such as Italy and Germany, both at grid parity and with proper regulation, PV systems (photovoltaic system) for self-consumption represent a viable, cost-effective, and sustainable power generation alternative,” said David Pérez, partner at Eclareon in charge of the study.

As part of the study, researchers looked at a standard 30 kilowatt solar power system and assessed its“leveled cost of energy” (LCOE). The LCOE accounts for all of the factors that contribute to the overall cost of electricity, such as: installation, maintenance, depreciation and investment.

Eclareon looked at the LCOE of solar energy in Brazil, Chile, France, Germany, Italy, Mexico and Spain. It found that across the board the LCOE had dropped over the last few years, although less dramatically in countries with a well-established solar infrastructure like Italy, Germany and Spain. Progress in Brazil, Chile and Mexico is still impeded by high installation costs.

Germany has blazed the trail for green energy in Europe after deciding to decommission all of its nuclear power plants, following the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe in Japan 2011. Back in 2012 Germany’s solar power plants produced a record 22 gigawatts of power, meeting around 50 percent of the nation’s power quota.

"Never before anywhere has a country produced as much photovoltaic electricity. Germany came close to the 20 gigawatt (GW) mark a few times in recent weeks. But this was the first time we made it over,"Norbert Allnoch told Reuters news agency.

The German government has come in the firing line for abandoning nuclear energy because it has had to open more coal plants to compensate for the energy shortfall. At present, energy generated from renewable sources accounts for about 25 percent of the German power grid, up from 7 percent in 2000. The German government has plans to increase this figure to 40-45 percent by the year 2025. more

What the Tough-Talking Weaners Ignore

Europe Doesn’t Need America’s Fracked Gas

by DEAN BAKER  MARCH 25, 2014

In the wake of the Russian take over of Crimea, there have been a number of calls for weaning Europe from dependence on Russian natural gas. Some have suggested that Europe would abandon environmental restrictions on drilling for oil and gas to increase domestic production. To help, the U.S. would continue to massively increase production of oil and gas as well as its capacity to liquefy natural gas and transport it to Europe.

The weaners seem to have the impression that this is yet another case in which the United States has to come to the rescue of those weak Europeans. After all, while we were drilling everywhere, the Europeans were fiddling around with wind and solar energy, all the while making themselves vulnerable to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s machinations.

Reality-based fans of arithmetic see matters differently. The reality is that Europe, especially Germany, has done a huge amount over the last two decades to reduce its consumption of fossil fuels, including natural gas, from Russia. The reduction in fossil fuel use swamps the impact of the drill-everywhere strategy in the United States.

If Europe had not been aggressively pushing to reduce its energy use, there is no way that gas from Russia could be replaced by domestically fracked gas or imports from elsewhere. In addition, Europe’s efforts to reduce fuel consumption have the advantage of slowing global warming.

According to the Energy Information Agency, Germany’s conservation measures have had the effect of reducing its energy intensity of production (the amount of energy used per dollar of GDP) by roughly 30 percent over the last two decades. While the United States has seen a comparable percentage reduction in its energy intensity, its energy intensity of production is still far higher than Germany’s. In fact, the current level of energy intensity in the United States is higher than the energy intensity of Germany’s economy in 1991. If Germany were as energy inefficient as the U.S., it would need over 50 percent more energy to meet its needs.

In addition, Germany now generates almost a quarter of its energy from renewable energy sources. The vast majority of this energy comes from wind and solar, with hydropower counting for less than a quarter.

If Germany and other European Union countries had not been aggressively promoting conservation and alternative energy sources, the price of Russia’s natural gas would probably be close to twice its current levels. The demand for natural gas would be far higher; the only countervailing factor would be the extent to which dirtier energy sources such as coal might have been used instead.

The idea that the United States can fill any significant portion of Europe’s need for natural gas with fracked gas and that this gas could available anytime soon, as hypothesized by some pundits, is simply not realistic. The amount of gas that the European Union imports from Russia is more than half of total U.S. production. It would take an enormous ramping up of natural gas production in the United States to be able to export any substantial amount to the EU without shortages leading to sharp jumps in price in the United States.

That seems unlikely even if we decided to ignore all environmental considerations. Many of the new fields already have declining production, so it would take a huge increase in drilling to fill the gap and add capacity to allow for large-scale exports to the EU.

In addition, we would have to increase our ability to liquefy and export natural gas. This can be done, but it takes time and money. One industry source put the full cost of constructing an export facility at $30 billion. This is money that could be recovered only through many years of exporting large volumes of natural gas. And these facilities would take years to build. Even in an optimistic scenario, large volumes of liquefied natural gas would probably not be heading to Europe until the end of the decade.

If the goal is to reduce demand for Russian natural gas, the most cost-effective way is to do much more of what Germany and, to a lesser extent, the rest of the EU is already doing: promote conservation and mass transit and further subsidize the cost of installing solar and wind energy. That might not sound as hard-nosed as drilling everywhere, polluting groundwater and exposing people to the dangers of transporting a highly explosive fuel, but it is the solution that makes the most economic sense.

The EU model also has the advantage of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and slowing global warming. This is an issue that the tough talkers seem to go out of their way to ignore, but ignoring it will not make global warming go away.

In 30 years, when hundreds of millions of people are suffering from the damage caused by global warming, the tough talkers may want to be able to tell their children and grandchildren about the time they stood up to Putin with their drill-everywhere strategy. The rest of us might prefer to be able to tell future generations about what we did to ensure that we passed along a habitable planet. more

SolarCity Says California Utilities Are 'Throwing Up Roadblocks' On Installing Batteries

ROB WILE  MAR. 25, 2014

Elon Musk and his cousin Lyndon Rive have previously warned utilities that they must adapt to growing pressures for renewables or face existential declines.

Now their firm, SolarCity, is coming forward with statistics they say show that the utilities are, at best, completely befuddled by the challenge and, at worst, may actively be throwing up obstacles along the path to connecting solar customers to the grid.

So far, of the 100 customers who've had units installed at their homes since they went on sale at the end of 2011, just 12 have been hooked into their local grid, SolarCity said. The firm now has a backlog of 500 applications for connections, and has had to stop adding to their queue.

"We're trying to drive down the road, but there’s a roadblock," said SolarCity spokesman Will Craven. "We're not going to drive through a roadblock — we're just waiting for roadblocks to be removed."

If certain steps in the installation process are not completed within a given period, SolarCity said, the customer must resubmit his or her application with a new $800 fee. SolarCity is calling this "illegal," arguing the fee itself violates a California statute governing enhancements to distributed solar.

For many customers, the delays have dragged on for years.

"It's not only arbitrary but punitive," Craven told Business Insider. "We try to be a good partner. We wanted to give utilities the benefit of doubt in the first year — it's a new technology, we wanted to collaborate on how to go about this. But as time has gone on, we realized we may not have a good-faith partner."

The most stubborn utility, Craven said, has been Southern California Edison, which is seeking to charge a $2,900 net metering fee on top of other costs it is seeking. That figure approaches a quarter of the cost of the total system cost, according to SolarCity.

The other major California utilities — Pacific Gas and Electric and San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) — are charging only $600 for the net metering cost. SolarCity said it's willing to eat the amount of $600 for now, but is rejecting the $2,900 figure.

In a statement, Southern California Edison said it is "working to address many of the complex issues raised by emerging technologies, including the additional costs of these interconnections."

Pacific Gas and Electric acknowledged there may have been some delays, but said they would have mostly been customer-specific. It also said it was fully committed to integrating new technologies, and has connected eight residential solar systems to the grid.

"We have been actively working with every customer as quickly as we can," Steve Malnight, Vice President of Customer Energy Solutions at PG&E, told us by phone recently.

SDG&E said SolarCity has submitted just two completed applications, and that it is awaiting a third.

SolarCity counters that SDG&E has, like the other firms, continually changed its requirements.

"It was only when SDG&E notified us that they were considering charging our customers a monthly standby charge that things ground to a halt — we didn’t want to burden our customers with a charge they hadn’t considered, and that we didn’t believe was legal in the first place," Craven said in a follow-up email to Business Insider. But he saidSolarCity would continue to work with SDG&E toward hooking up more customers.

California just approved a mandate that utilities must install 1,325 megawatts' worth of electricity storage capacity by the end of 2020. Craven said it is thus even more inexplicable that there are "roadblocks."

Joel Eddins, who with his wife and three children live in San Bernardino County, near Los Angeles, said he's been waiting since August 2012 — when he purchased his battery unit — to get his system connected by Southern California Edison.

"They’re not very helpful — they just don’t care," Eddins said. "It's like when a kid rides a city bus — if he jumped out in front and the driver decided they didn't feel like picking the person up. I feel like I'm being treated like that as adult."

Eddins sent a photo to illustrate the almost comically absurd situation he faces. Southern California Edison has installed two different meters (left) on the side of his house, in addition to his regular home meter, as part of their grid-connection process.

The California Public Utilities Commission directed Business Insider to comments made by its president, Michael R. Peevey, at a recent panel he sat on with Musk and Rive. Peevey expressed sympathy with SolarCity's case.

Craven said the commission should make a final ruling in the coming weeks on net metering costs and application fees. more

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