Category Archives: Sustainable Energy

Booming Solar

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Sustainable energy is currently the most rapidly expanding form of energy in the United States. The same is true here in Arkansas. Whereas we are not well set for wind as our neighbors are to the west, solar panels (PV) that generate electricity are effective, and getting cheaper by the day. Solar arrays now cost less than half of what they cost just 10 years ago.

The price is now so low as to be competitive with more conventional power sources such as coal and natural gas, and infinitely cleaner. Current solar capacity (as of 2015) is 20.1 megawatts (MW.) This is an unbelievable 640 % increase over all PV power installed up through 2014. The new power installed in 2015 is dominated by utility scale power, 15.4 MW. Commercial industries and businesses installed 0.24 MW and the residential sector 0.46 MW. This represents a 56 million dollar investment in clean energy and jobs.

Solar power has come of age, not just for people wanting a little power for an off-grid cabin in the woods, but residents tied to the grid, industries, and especially power companies. One real advantage of solar power is its scalability. If a power company needs to expand their energy supply a small amount, they can add a small solar field. If they need a lot of power, they install a bigger field. No alternative has this scalability. You just can’t build a (cost effective) small coal or nuclear plant. Not even natural gas fired turbines are as scalable.

The L’Oreal plant in North Little Rock will install several thousand PV panels, about 1 MW’s worth. In March 2016 a private-public consortium consisting of two Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corporations, and Aerojet Rocketdyne will install a 12 MW solar field near East Camden. The largest install this year will be an 81 MW solar farm to be installed by Entergy near Stuttgart.

Generally installs of home solar arrays are booming also. Most cost effective for the consumer is a grid-tied net metered array. This system allows the home owner to remain connected to the grid in addition to the solar panels. When the sun shines the panels provide energy to the house, but when the sun is not shining, the home can draw power from the grid just like any other home.

PV systems can be sized to provide all or any fraction of the power needed for the home. If a particular array actually produces more energy than can be consumed in a given month, the law allows the excess to be carried over to a month when energy is needed.

The consumers gain is however the power companies loss, and they don’t like it. They lose profits by not selling as much electricity and even worse net metering threatens the vertically integrated structure of the business. They are the power generators, the wholesalers, the distributors and the retailers, and they want to keep it that way. Other states, notably Arizona and Oklahoma, have instituted additional fees for home solar which will severely limit the development of truly distributed clean energy.

The Public Service Commission here in Arkansas is empowered by law to set rates and rate structures of electric utilities. Over the next year they will be conducting studies to determine if changes are needed (read additional costs to home solar users.) The utilities will be arguing that they have to claw back their profits to remain in business. Stay tuned.

The Future of Power

We are now at what appears to be the dawn of an energy transition. It will take a couple of generations to accomplish but it will happen. The transition is from an energy economy based on burning fossil fuels to clean sustainable electric energy generation from wind turbines and solar. We will transition from a few large power plants to a much more diffuse collections of wind farms, solar farms, and even more dispersed home solar photovoltaic arrays, all connect to a robustly interconnected transcontinental grid.

The technology exists and is operating on a small scale now but to bring in the future much will need to be done to strengthen, expand, and interconnect our electrical infrastructure. There are several drivers for the technological revolution. Fossil fuels are in limited supply, global warming is real, and large power plants are ideal targets for terrorism, an unfortunate reality in today’s world.

Fossil fuels are in limited supply so we continue to form alliances with despotic regimes and fight wars for access to oil. Even with the advent of new drilling technologies such as hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, we still need to import well over half of the crude oil we use in this country. Coal may be abundant here but it’s extraction and utilization has many negative consequences. The new energy economy can end this vicious entanglement, and produce energy in ways that are much, much cleaner.

Global warming is real and a real threat to all life on the planet. Not only is it getting hotter, but it is getting hotter faster. Although the global climate has changes over geologic time, we are driving changes to the climate at rates that in the past have lead to severe die-offs. Although we may survive without reversing global warming, it will be in a world with drastically reduced biological diversity. Producing our energy cleanly and renewably is the only realistic approach to reversing the dangers inherent in global warming.

Global economic inequity breeds despair, anger and, rightly or wrongly, attempts at retribution against the “haves” by the “have-nots.” Terrorism is a reality around the world, not just the near east and north Africa, but everywhere. An attack on a single large power plant could not only darken the the night, but threaten the well being and lives of hundreds of thousands of people in a single stroke. Widely distributed energy resources such as wind and solar coupled with a robust and redundant grid make that kind of threat essentially nonexistent.

The development of the new energy economy will not come with out costs, but the benefits of a sustainable energy future , and more stable ecological and political climate will far out way those costs. The process of developing, constructing, and maintaining the new energy infrastructure will provide jobs. The future energy economy will require a degree of technical expertise that generates well paying jobs the continue into the future and can’t be exported.

The upward arc of civilization is marked by our level of cooperation. The more we work together and the more of us that work together the more likely will be a bright, clean, and stable future.

Go Solar

The amount of solar energy available to the United States is overwhelming. With today’s Photovoltaic technology, 16 per cent efficient PV panels, the total energy needs of the country could be met using a land area of only 8,000 square miles. This is an incredibly small area compared to the 3.8 million square miles of total land area. All the solar panels we need to power the country could fit in a fraction of Elko County in Northeast Nevada.

Just imagine, miners don’t need to die underground to extract coal. Mountain tops don’t need to be blown off and pushed into valleys to get at a coal seam. We wouldn’t need to worry about whether fracking wastes pollute our ground water, or bust up the foundations of homes to access natural gas. We don’t need parking lots full of high level radioactive waste from nuclear power plants. Yes, you read that right. Our only plan for the storage of high level radioactive wastes, hot for tens of thousands of years, is to store the waste in concrete containers around the sites of nuclear plants.

The health of the public would be improved and incidentally the cost of healthcare lowered as we no longer would have have all the untoward things in the air that cause problems. Not burning any fossil fuels means less lung irritants such as fine particulates. Less heavy metals that cause nerve damage, less acid rain, less ozone, and the list goes on and on.

Rather than produce all the energy in a fraction of one county in Nevada, we could spread it out to the individual states. The US uses a total of about 4 trillion kWh per year. Closer to home, Arkansas uses about 50 billion kWh per year. To meet that need we would only use about 100 square miles, less than a tenth of the area of Arkansas County in the southeast part of the state. Or let’s make each county generate their share. For Pope County we need a scant 2 square miles out of 831. It’s easy to see that we have plenty of free, sustainable sunlight and the land foot print needed is not even an issue. We will also need to upgrade our transmission network, but still that’s doable. The real fly in the ointment is storage.

The aforementioned calculations of land area needed are for full power, 24/7 year around, assuming we have storage for when the sun doesn’t shine due to time of day, season or weather. This a problem but not an insurmountable one. Elon Musk, the manufacturer of the Tesla electric car, and Space X reusable rockets is building a huge battery factory in Sparks, Nevada. The battery factory will occupy a building covering an area equal to 95 football fields.

The factory will be powered exclusively by solar electric power, with energy to spare. The batteries built in this factory are lithium based and are intended for his fleet of electric cars, but it shows that really large scale production of all aspects of sustainable energy are not just something in the distant future but are close at hand.

State Support for Sustainable Energy

The data are in and the numbers are crunched. 2015 is officially the hottest year for the planet in recorded history. Last year raced past the previous hottest year, 2014. In fact the 10 hottest years on record have occurred since 1998.

The science is clear, the heating is due in the main to burning fossil fuels. Governments around the world are developing strategies to decarbonize their economies. Here in the United States we have federal various tax credits which lower the cost for both individuals and businesses to be less reliant on fossil fuel combustion. Purchase tax credits are available for energy efficiency and sustainable energy production. Also, production tax credits for wind produced energy are available.

Variable levels of subsidization from the states for both purchase and production of sustainable energy is also available. These can come as purchase savings: income tax credits, income tax deductions, sales tax rebates, and cash rebates. Production of sustainable energy, for example solar photovoltaic systems or wind turbines are subsidized by feed-in tariffs or net metering. Levels of support also vary by sector such as homeowners, coops, or for profit businesses.

California is generally recognized as the nation’s leader in clean renewable energy because they have committed to a renewable portfolio of 50% by 2030. This means they expect 50% of energy production in the state to come from renewable energy. Their success thus far is driven by a combination of all the above, credits for efficiency, the purchase of equipment, and for energy produced.

An example of a production subsidy is a feed-in tariff. This is a rate structure for electricity where the producer of clean energy, say a homeowner with solar panels, signs a long term contract to produce energy to the grid at a premium price. In Michigan the average cost of electricity is about 11 cents a kilowatt hour (kWh). Producers with a feed-in tariff are paid 24 cents a kWh. Payback times at this rate could be less than five years!

Here in Arkansas we are about in the middle of the pack, renewable energy support-wise. There is essentially no state purchase support, but net metering provides some assistance for the production of clean, carbon free energy. Net metered systems in Arkansas use bidirectional meters. When the sun shines and production is in excess of consumption the meter runs backwards, at the same rate as it runs forwards when consuming energy. There no additional access charge or fee for net metered systems. What this means is that the home producer is paid retail cost for the power sent to the grid.

Less valuable but still of some help are net metered systems where the producer is only paid the power company’s avoided cost, the wholesale rate. This doesn’t reward the expense of providing clean power to the grid as the avoided cost is the cost of the oldest, cheapest, and usually coal fired power production. Nevada recently downgraded their net metered systems to pay only the wholesale price for production, rather than the retail price.

Only two states, Tennessee and South Dakota, have no production support for distributed clean energy.

Solar Based Solar Energy

A major drawback of most if not all sustainable sources of energy is the matter of intermittency. Power can’t be generated by wind turbines if the wind doesn’t blow, and solar panels don’t generate power when the sun doesn’t shine.

There are three ways to deal with this. One is to simply expect to use power when it is available. This is impractical for homes or hospitals or industries where power is necessary 24/7, but it is conceivable that certain industries could run their industrial processes when power is available. Sources such as wind and solar are intermittent, but reliably so. A major problem with this strategy is that expensive equipment can’t be used for sizable amounts of time, making the industry less efficient and therefore less competitive.

The obvious solution is energy storage for leveling the availability of power, and there are a number of different strategies. Pairing energy sources to level access to power may be possible in some cases. In some areas the wind blows more at night. This could be combined with daytime solar PV. Actually this is already occurring to some degree via our electrical grid that utilizes both wind and solar inputs.

The holy grail of sustainable but intermittent energy is inexpensive grid scale battery storage. This is a major forefront of sustainable energy research today. Some Japanese researchers are taking another tack however. What if you could find a place to put solar panels where the sun always shines, with no shadows or clouds, just sunlight 24/7. No problem, just head out into space about 20,000 miles. Solar panels are already hard at work powering hundreds, even thousands of satellites and of course the international space station.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has a 25 year plan to develop gigawatt scale solar panels in space and then beam that energy back to earth. For perspective the average nuclear power plant produces a little less than a gigawatt. The two reactors at Arkansas Nuclear one combined output is about 1.8 Gigawatts.

This will be a BIG project. To produce that kind of power requires an array of solar panels that weigh on the order of 10,000 tonnes and covers an area of a couple square miles, but this is the easy part. Getting that power back to earth is the really tricky part of the plan. The idea is to beam the power back from space via microwaves. Satellites in geosynchronous orbit would point a sending device towards an earthbound antenna which would absorb the microwave power, then convert it to electrical energy that could be sent to grid along with all the other energy sources.

We use microwave ovens to heat up cold cup of coffee, but in this application the power is sent only a few inches, not tens of thousands of miles. Microwaves are sent long distances in the form of radar, but the relative power level is extremely low. To beam relevant amounts of power tens of thousands of miles is the real challenge.

So far testing has only involved sending kilowatts of energy over a fraction of that distance. Stay tuned.

RIP David Bowie 1947-2016

pv2

Alternative Energy Alternatives

So you want to be green, or at least greener, when it comes to your electricity use. There are a welter of options available. Here in Arkansas we are not blessed with sufficient wind resources to make homeowner wind very cost effective, so going green means solar photovoltaic systems (solar PV) are the best game going. But with this restriction there are still several different approaches to decarbonize your electricity.

In remote areas without grid connections, the only reasonable green electricity is with a solar PV system and batteries. The batteries are necessary not only to tide you over for when the sun doesn’t shine but also to stabilize the power to your home or cabin. Imagine on an otherwise sunny day a solar array is providing nicely for the home, but a cloud passes over. This would temporarily reduce the current, possibly to the point of damaging electronics, Hence batteries are essential. Just how many batteries needed is a function of how long will the sun not keep up with demand. On occasion in this area we can go for a week or two without much sun due to rain and clouds. The point is that this is the most expensive option due to the costs associated with the batteries.

Much more practical are so called “grid tied” solar arrays which essentially use the electrical grid as a battery. If you buy electricity from Entergy, SWEPCO, or AVEC for example, and you add solar panels to your home, the power company is your battery. When the sun shines your meter will slow down or actually run backwards sending power to the grid. At night or on rainy or cloudy days power is drawn back from the grid. Because Arkansas is a net metering state, when producing you are paid the same price as when you buy. Depending on how many panels you have you can replace some or all of your electrical needs. Currently costs are such that the payback period is about half the rated lifetime of the panels. You will recoup your initial investment in about a dozen years, and the panels will continue to produce for at least that many years to come.

All homes don’t have access to the southern sky on their property due to shading from trees or the terrain. That said you can still participate via community solar farms. The first community solar farm has begun near Little Rock. A developer is constructing a solar farm tied to Entergy’s grid. Any Entergy customer can basically buy a piece of the solar production. The buyer has their own meter which is aggregated with their home meter, just as if the solar panels were on their roof. Entergy deducts any power costs produced by the solar panels from the power costs at the home. The cost for this approach is somewhat higher as because of the costs for site development and land acquisition.

Yet one more option exists to green up your electricity. The green power costs for the aforementioned approaches all require some significant start up costs. Another alternative is to buy “green tickets” or participate in the purchase of Renewable Energy Credits. There are companies that will for a nominal charge on top of your actual electric bill, buy green energy. The additional charge is used to buy power from green sources and send that electricity to the grid, which offsets electricity from fossil fueled sources. Basically you are subsidizing clean energy. You don’t own any equipment but your dollars go to green the environment.

Energy Subsidies

A significant argument against sustainable energy supplies such as wind and solar is that they are not cost competitive with fossil fuels without significant subsidies in the form of tax breaks. It is true that there are various subsidies that favor clean energy. Wind energy producers get a production tax credit and purchasers of solar energy production equipment get a purchase tax credit. There are even purchase credits for buying hybrid vehicles because of their greater energy efficiency.

The argument of course is that sustainable energy sources are the future and giving them a leg up with the competition moves us more in the direction of where we know the future is. Of equal importance is that these clean energy sources don’t contribute to the release of pollutants that impact our health and the stability of the planet’s climate.

If a level playing field is desired however, consideration must be made of the subsidies afforded the fossil fuel industries. And they are significant. Tax deductions abound.

Tax deductions to the oil and gas industry are given to lower the cost of intangible drilling costs. These deductions are for the costs associated with the development of the drilling site. The costs cannot be recovered if the well produces no oil or gas. The purpose was to lower the risk to investors and constitutes a considerable subsidy to wildcatters. Basically the tax payers take the risk but the oil and gas companies take the profits.

The depletion allowance is an especially sweet deal. It is a tax deduction based on the idea that exploiting a finite resource is costly because it goes away. The more successful one is at production, the less one has left to produce. This subsidizes the oil, gas, and coal industries by hastening the exploitation of limited resources. Tax payers assist the industry in profiting from exploiting a resource. Keep in mind that there is no depletion associated with extraction of energy from wind and solar resources.

Tax deductions for accelerated write-off of the expenses are afforded to the oil and gas industries, with respect to the costs of exploration for these resources. Tax payer money is used to assist these industries to find the resources from which they profit.

The arguments in favor of this corporate socialism is that if we lower the costs of exploration for and production of the energy sources, then we all benefit from lower costs; that is, the purchase prices for the fuels. This is more of the old trickle down economics.

The subsidies cited above are for tangible, direct costs. There are other costs born by taxpayers known as externalities. These include but are not limited to health care costs to individuals, insurers, and federal and state programs to help ameliorate these health costs. There also are indirect costs born by taxpayers for environmental degradation. Abandoned coal mines and spoils, polluted drill sites, and structural damage due to hydraulic fracturing all create costs born by tax payers. Finally there are near incalculable costs due to global climate change.

If we are to remove subsidies from clean, sustainable energy sources we need to do the same for those non-renewable, dirty industries. Then and only then will we truly level the playing field.

World Wide Wind

We will at some point cease to produce electrical energy by burning fossil fuels, either (sooner) because we realize the harmful effects of using the atmosphere as a toilet, or (later) because we simply use them all up. These fuels can be replaced with sustainable sources, principally wind and solar. Where are we now and where are we going?

In the United States we currently get 13 per cent of our electrical power from renewables. The majority of that from hydropower, followed by wind biomass and solar power as a distant fourth. There seems to be limited potential for growth in hydropower or biomass but the sky the limit for wind and solar, assuming that the issue of intermittency can be overcome.

Although we have no national policy for the country, president Obama has mandated that the federal government get 20% of its electrical energy from renewables by 2020. Various states have renewable portfolios that range from trivial to ambitious: The old south, a couple of coal states in the Appalachians, a few midwest to rocky mountain states have none. Hawaii has the most ambitious, with a target of 40% by 2030.

Internationally, it’s a mixed bag. Mountainous Costa Rica, with a population of about 5 million, gets from 90 to 100% of its electrical energy from renewables, mainly hydro and geothermal. Similarly Norway with twice the population of Costa Rica produces very close to 100% of their electric power from hydropower plants.

Because of availability of cheap electric power they have developed energy intensive industries such as the production high grade Silicon for solar cells. Interestingly a focus of World War II was on Norway. Germany invaded Norway to gain access to energy intensive production of heavy water for their experimental nuclear reactor program.

The real potential for expansion of renewable power is in the wind, especially in countries with lots of coastline. At one point last week, Denmark was producing 140 % of its electrical energy, exporting the excess to Sweden and Germany. Their current average wind produced electricity is approaching 40%, and they are still building out.

Germany is an interesting study. They have a vigorous low carbon energy transition plan (Energiewende.) Their target is an astounding 80% renewable by 2050! They are currently installing wind and solar PV faster than anybody on the planet. Currently they are around 27% with very little hydropower, twice the US average.

The biggest player of course is China. They are the current world leader in carbon emissions, having surpassed the US a few years ago. China’s air pollution problems are legendary. Smog from from eastern China can be tracked across the pacific to our west coast. They recognize they have a problem and are aggressively addressing it by moving away from fossil fuels and toward efficiency and renewables. In 2014 they installed three quarters of the new solar capacity on the planet.

tesla battery

Batteries for the Future – Now

A recent Op-Ed in the New York Times (about food) gave a hat tip to the Sierra Club and their Beyond Coal campaign – an effort to close all coal fired power plants by 2030. The point of the piece was the necessity of activism and organizing around a particular issue.

Since the inception of the program in 2010, no new coal plants have been built and 188 closed or planned to close in the near term. Currently just of under 40% of the electric generation capacity in the United States comes from burning coal, but the number is falling – replaced by natural gas plants and a mix of wind and solar.

As long as intermittent energy, wind and solar, constitute a small fraction of the total electric supply, grid operators can balance the load as needed by reducing power from the coal plants. But what about when the coal plants are gone? What do we do when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing?

There is no doubt that there is enough solar in the Southwestern US or wind the Midwest to power the nation, but storage and transmission is a controlling factor to the use of these clean sources of energy. Tea party types are resisting transmission lines on the basis of property rights and governments in conservative states are making small scale renewable energy less attractive to protect their power companies’ turf.

When one thinks of energy storage, explicitly electrical energy, batteries are it. Enter Elon Musk, billionaire entrepreneur and builder of the Tesla Electric car. More important than the electric car are the batteries that power them, at least that is what Mr. Musk thinks. He has recently gone into the battery market, not only for his cars, but for stationary applications. He introduced a 10 kWh battery that can be used for a myriad of applications.

For a home owner this means “behind the meter” storage. Obviously off the grid folks rely on batteries but even grid-tied homes can utilize storage for weathering storms when the grid goes down. Folks with grid-tied renewable energy systems can utilize storage. Some power companies have time of use metering, that is the cost of power varies as to when it is used. If a home owner has a storage capacity, S/he can chose to sell power back to the grid when the price is higher. Even without a renewable energy supply, home owners with storage can charge batteries during the night when rates are lower, then sell power back to the grid during the day, making a profit in the exchange.

Utility scale storage can be beneficial right now. Battery storage can be added incrementally to defer transmission and distribution line upgrades as demand grows. Batteries can be used to back up temporary shortages due to short term power plant outages. Not to get too far down in the weeds on these issues, suffice it to say the Batteries will play a huge part in the future of clean energy supplies.

This something we should all strive for. We will get away from burning stuff for power, and batteries will make this more practical.

Sustainability and Jobs

Our new attorney general, Leslie Rutledge, was off to Washington recently to testify against the EPA clean power plan. As part of the plan Arkansas will be required to reduce our carbon emissions by 44 % over the coming decades. This will be achieved by burning less coal, thus cleaning the air and reducing climate forcing. From her press release:

“Arkansas is uniquely positioned on this topic because of our rich natural heritage. In the Natural State, we place a high value on clean air and clean water as we protect our state for future generations, and as Attorney General, I will not sit idly by while this administration pushes policy objectives that will ultimately hurt job growth and Arkansas’s ability to compete across the country and the globe.”

Installing solar panels

Installing solar panels

It is odd that she opposes a plan which will do exactly what she favors; that is, clean the air and water and protect our state for future generations. One can only assume from her statement that she thinks that we will have fewer jobs and be less competitive by burning less coal. But is that the case?

If one assumes that much of the energy not produced by by burning coal is replaced by sustainable energy sources such as wind and solar, what is the tradeoff on jobs? Or how about jobs created by avoiding the need for energy in the first place? How many jobs are there in becoming more efficient?

wind turbine blade

wind turbine blade

There are currently about 174,000 jobs in the coal industry including mining, transportation and power plant work. Compare that to about 172,000 jobs in the solar industry – fabrication, sales, installation and maintenance. An important comparison is the jobs per power produced. The solar power in the United States represents only 0.7 % of installed capacity where as coal power is at about 40 %. If we divide jobs by installed capacity, solar wins hands down – about 10 times as many jobs in solar compared to coal when capacity factor is considered.

The comparison for wind and jobs is similar. There are about 100,000 jobs in wind, and with about 6 % of the capacity, wind produces 5 times as many jobs as coal. Both wind and solar are expanding rapidly, where as coal jobs are declining.
It is difficult to calculate the number of jobs in efficiency which replaces energy production. That said, efficiency is estimated to produce about 4 times as many jobs to avoid burning coal as coal jobs.

It seems fairly clear that renewable energy and efficiency produce 4 to 10 times as many jobs as coal. If our attorney general is concerned about jobs she should have gone to the house hearing to endorse the clean power plan, rather than oppose it.

One final factor should be mentioned. There are no fuel costs for renewables and efficiency, but Arkansans pay in excess of 650 million dollars a year to import coal from Wyoming. Renewables such as solar and wind would keep those millions of dollars here. That’s money which will remain in the Arkansas economy and make us more, not less competitive.