Renewables industry calls for clarity on post-2020 energy targets

Industry welcomes secretary of state’s support, but urges government to clarify what energy targets it wants to see through to 2030

Green technologies for Orkney : World's Largest Tidal Power Turbine Is Unveiled

A tidal energy turbine in Invergordon, Scotland, in 2010. The renewable energy industry wants clarity on government plans for a 2030 green energy target. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

The renewables energy industry has again called on the government to urgently clarify its plans for low-carbon energy development after 2020, following the release of a controversial submission to the EU, which argues the bloc should abandon specific renewable energy targets post-2020.

Energy and climate change secretary Ed Davey yesterday responded to Guardian reports on the document by insisting the government remained “100 per cent committed” to the renewable energy sector and the UK’s 2020 renewable energy targets.

But he argued that after 2020 it would be more effective for nations to set broader clean energy targets that allow them to deploy their own mix of low-carbon technologies, including renewable energy, nuclear, and carbon capture and storage plants.

“The UK is one of a number of countries that believe any new targets should be technology-neutral, leaving member states free to determine the most cost-effective energy mix to get the best deal for consumers,” he wrote.

“Our communication to the commission explicitly states the UK is not in any way against renewables – far from it. Renewables will play a key role in the future UK energy mix, helping to reduce import dependency and meet our carbon targets.”

A spokesman for trade association RenewableUK said the group was encouraged by Davey’s vocal commitment to the sector, but again urged ministers to provide further clarity on its plans for low-carbon energy development post-2020.

The EU submission, which has been published on the DECC website after being leaked to the Guardian, clearly hints the UK would like to see non-technology specific clean energy targets adopted for 2030. But with it also acknowledging that it “would welcome a discussion of the pros and cons of such an approach in due course” it seems unlikely new EU targets will be finalised in the near future.

“We have been calling for clarity on proposed electricity market reforms and long-term investment plans for a very long time,” said a RenewableUK spokesman. “So we would reiterate we need that clarity if we are to drive the long-term investment needed to meet our carbon targets.

“We have seen that wind energy companies are ready to invest, but they want that short- and long-term clarity if they are to seal the deal, particularly given the long payback period for these types of project… Targets are helpful as they ensure everyone stays on course; otherwise, you just end up with aspirations that are too vague.”

In addition, green groups accused the government of attempting to fudge clean energy targets for 2030, after the document stated “the UK government’s analysis suggests that for the UK to meet its 2050 targets cost-effectively, the electricity sector will need to decarbonise during the 2030s”.

Critics argued that any target which allows for decarbonisation “during the 2030s” would represent a major watering down of targets recommended by the independent Committee on Climate Change, which has called for electricity generation to be “almost entirely decarbonised by 2030”.

A DECC spokesman insisted there was “no contradiction” between the government’s position and the committee’s recommendations, which set out a number of different paths for decarbonisation of the electricity sector around 2030.

However, Joss Garman, senior campaigner for Greenpeace UK, said the document and the suggestion that the electricity sector may not be decarbonised until 2039 indicated the government was attempting to give itself space for a slower transition towards low-carbon energy sources.

“Ministers appear to have caved in to fierce lobbying by companies such as British Gas and Shell, which have been fighting to keep the UK hooked on expensive, imported and highly polluting gas to power our economy,” he said, noting the document also confirms the government’s proposed emissions performance standard will allow for the continued construction of new gas-fired power plants in the short term.

“If the coalition doesn’t change course we’ll pay the price in jobs and investment. The likes of Siemens, General Electric and Mitsubishi are looking to invest huge sums in UK manufacturing to capitalise on our immense renewable energy potential, but by shifting the energy goalposts at the behest of big polluters ministers are sending the message that Britain isn’t open for clean-tech business.”

The Guardian

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UK opposes 2030 renewable energy target

Fledgling green industries could be hit as document reveals move to put nuclear power on equal footing with renewable energy

Wind Farm

UK’s renewable energy sector has already suffered a series of blows with Tory MPs attacking subsidies, including those for wind farms. Photograph: Haydn West / Rex Features

The UK government wants nuclear power to be given parity with renewables in Europe, in a move that would significantly boost atomic energy in Britain but downgrade investment in renewable generation, according to a leaked document seen by the Guardian.

The move would in effect remove the most important prop from the beleaguered renewable energy sector – the Europe-wide targets stipulating that a proportion of each member state’s energy must come from renewable sources.

That target should be scrapped when its current phase – requiring member states to generate 20% of energy from renewables – runs out in 2020, according to a secret submission to the European commission.

“The UK envisages multiple low-carbon technologies: renewables, nuclear and carbon capture and storage, all competing freely against each other in the years to come … For this reason, we cannot support a 2030 renewables target,” it reads.

But the document calls for “some type of target for 2030”, which a government adviser told the Guardian is likely to be a target for low-carbon energy. This would include nuclear alongside renewables and so far unproven technology for capturing and storing carbon dioxide underground.

The issue of giving nuclear parity with renewables is likely to be controversial for the energy secretary, Ed Davey, as the Liberal Democrat party’s official position is “no to nuclear”.

Industry experts and green groups said that nuclear power and the fledgling renewables industry would not compete on a level playing field, because nuclear technology has benefited from more than six decades of public subsidy, while renewable power has had its support slashed.

The UK’s renewable energy sector has already suffered a series of blows, with an anti-renewables backlash whipped up by right-leaning thinktanks and Tory MPs, more than 100 of whom sent a letter to the prime minister attacking renewables and calling on him to cut subsidies from onshore wind farms. Many wind turbine manufacturers have expressed concern over the effect of this on their prospective multibillion-pound investments in the UK.

Meanwhile, the gas industry has been lobbying heavily, arguing that gas offers a cheap alternative to renewables, despite being a fossil fuel.

Removing the targets could spell disaster in particular for new forms of renewables such as wave and tidal power, which had been tipped as areas in which the UK could lead the world.

Ruth Davis, of Greenpeace, warned that the government’s stance would threaten jobs. “Many companies have already put their investments in UK renewables projects on hold, as they lose confidence in the government’s domestic energy policies,” she said. “By opposing a European renewables target, the UK is signalling that it would prefer business as usual in its own energy sector to a German-style green industrial revolution.”

Davis added that the moves to boost nuclear power would backfire, and be a gift to the gas industry. “Including carbon capture and storage and nuclear power in the target would enable the big six energy companies to retain their current stranglehold on our power sector, building whatever kind of power generation most suits their business models. It will lock in public subsidies to nuclear generation and make us more dependent on expensive imported gas.”

Many of the potential jobs in nuclear generation in the UK, spearheaded by the French company EDF, are likely to go to French experts, as their nuclear industry is much bigger.

Claude Turmes, the Green MEP who was the European parliament draftsman for the original renewable energy directive, warned that the UK government’s stance would imperil efforts to tackle climate change. He said: “Low carbon targets are a Trojan horse, pushed by the nuclear industry and its proxies, to give a boost to ailing nuclear power. Nuclear is already more expensive than a number of renewable energy sources and by 2020 will be more expensive than offshore wind power, for which there is a huge potential in the UK.

“It is hard to understand why the UK government wants to waste its energy on this expensive French technology, when it could be focusing on maximising the potential of home-grown renewable energy technologies, which would create thousands of jobs in the UK.”

Davey said the UK was at the forefront of climate policy in Europe, arguing for the EU’s target of cutting emissions by 20% by 2020 to be toughened to 30%. He said: “I am strongly committed to making the case in Europe for a 30% emissions reduction target. Stepping up our ambition on emissions reduction makes sense for energy policy, it makes sense in terms of green growth and jobs, and now we know it makes sense financially, because it would put us on the most cost-effective pathway to our 2050 target.”

The Guardian

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Solar power firms in Mojave desert feel glare of tribes and environmentalists

Presence of horned toads and desert tortoises are holding up production at multimillion-dollar sites in California

Solar power

A massive solar power site in California, where Native American tribes have filed six lawsuits against companies. Photograph: Proehl Studios/Corbis

Of the many projects commissioned by the Obama administration to showcase its commitment to renewable energy, few are as grandly futuristic as the multibillion-dollar solar power projects under construction across broad swaths of desert on the California-Arizona border.

But at least two developments, including the $1bn, 250-megawatt Genesis Solar near Blythe in the lower Colorado river valley and the Solar Millennium project, are beset with lengthy construction delays, while others are facing legal challenges lodged by environmental groups and Native American groups who fear damage to the desert ecology as well as to ancient rock art and other sacred heritage sites.

Out on the stony desert floor, Native Americans say, are sites of special spiritual significance, specifically involving the flat-tailed horned toad and the desert tortoise.

“This is where the horny toad lives,” explains Alfredo Figueroa, a small, energetic man and a solo figure of opposition who could have sprung from the pages of a Carlos Castaneda novel, pointing to several small burrows. Figueroa is standing several hundred metres into the site of Solar Millennium, a project backed by the Cologne-based Solar Millennium AG. The firm, which has solar projects stretching from Israel to the US, was last month placed in the hands of German administrators and its assets listed for disposal.

Figueroa is delighted with the news. “Of all the creatures, the horny toad is the most sacred to us because he’s at the centre of the Aztec sun calendar,” he says. “And the tortoise also, who represents Mother Earth. They can’t survive here if the developers level the land, because they need hills to burrow into.”

Figueroa, 78, a Chemehuevi Indian and historian with La Cuna de Aztlán Sacred Sites Protection Circle, has become one of the most vocal critics of the solar programme and expresses some unusually bold claims as to the significance of this valley: he claims it is the birthplace of the Aztec and Mayan systems of belief. He points out the depictions of a toad and a tortoise on a facsimile of the Codex Borgia, one of a handful of divinatory manuscripts written before the Spanish conquest.

On a survey of the 2,400-hectare site Figueroa points out a giant geoglyph, an earth carving he says represents Kokopelli, a fertility deity often depicted as a humpbacked flute player with antenna-like protrusions on his head. Kokopelli, he says, will surely be disturbed if the development here resumes.

The area is known for giant geoglyphs, believed by some to date back 10,000 years. Gesturing towards the mountains, he also describes Cihuacoatl – a pregnant serpent woman – he sees shaped in the rock formations. All of this, he says, amounts to why government-fast-tracked solar programmes in the valley, where temperatures can reach 54C, should be abandoned. It is a matter of their very survival.

“We are traditional people – the people of the cosmic tradition,” Figueroa explains. “The Europeans came and did a big number on us. They tried to destroy us. But they were not able to destroy our traditions, and it’s because of our traditions and our mythology that we’ve been able to survive. If we’d blended in with the Wasps – the white Anglo-Saxon Protestants – we’d have been lost long ago.”

At the Genesis Solar site, 20 miles west, Florida-based NextEra has begun to develop an 810-hectare site. The brackets that will hold the reflecting mirrors stand like sentinels. Backed by a $825m department of energy loan, Genesis Solar is planned as a centrepiece of the administration’s renewable energy programme, with enough generating capacity to power 187,500 homes.

But local Native American groups collectively known as the Colorado River Indian Tribes are demanding that 80 hectares of the development be abandoned after prehistoric grinding stones were found on a layer of ashes they say is evidence of a cremation site “too sacred to disturb”.

NextEra rejects the claim, arguing that while Native American artefacts have been found, “no determination” has been made that they come from a village or prehistoric site. “At the request of the Native American tribes we have not tested the ashes, so to suggest this is a cremation site is incorrect,” says the NextEra spokesman, Steve Stengel.

The company says that attempts to sue it by lawyers representing the La Cuna group – which is not federally recognised as a Native American tribe – have already been dismissed. But it warns that losing a 10th of the site over any of these claims could make it uneconomic to proceed.

Critics of the solar programme say problems stem from hasty planning and lack of local consultation – claims denied by bureau of land management (BLM) officials. John Kalish, spokesman for the department in Palm Springs, says: “All the projects were thoroughly analysed and assessed for their impact on cultural and biological resources. As part of that process we developed agreements with the tribes to deal with any potential conflicts.”

But tribal leaders say damage to their sacred sites is inevitable. They have filed suits against six sites, including Ivanpah, a $2.2bn Google-backed project in the Mojave desert which will be the largest solar plant when it comes online in 2014.

BrightSource, operator of Ivanpah, says that claims that hundreds of square miles of desert will be scraped flat, destroying sensitive habitat, are exaggerated. The company calculates that if all 11 plants approved by the California energy commission are built, they would cover only 66 square miles, 0.26% of the Mojave desert’s 25,000 square miles.

The company says it has spent $22m to help the desert tortoises with breeding and nursery programmes, fencing and, at certain times, 100 biologists employed to patrol the site. In addition, BrightSource plans to spend up to $34m to meet federal and state mitigation obligations. The tortoises are not short of attention: one early survey found just 17 across the entire site.

The rush to establish new solar projects has led to reports of a gold rush mentality with some desert areas said to be experiencing a 10- to 20-fold gain in land values.

In others, there are suspicions that the solar business is a rigged game in which projects affiliated to power companies are given the green light more readily. “Land deals are being done but unless you can get connected there is no deal,” says Vinson Johnson, a real estate agent in Twentynine Palms, a city in nearby San Bernardino county, California.

None of this impresses tribal leaders, who argue that the land around Blythe was theirs until their numbers shrank and it came under federal control. “It was reservation land until it was reduced,” says Figueroa. “They didn’t even contact us. So we filed a lawsuit.”

One alternative to using BLM land, he says, would be to use areas that have already been disturbed, such as farmland, abandoned military airfields or the huge testing ranges that dot the south-western deserts.

Figueroa is sceptical of the suggestion that accepting solar would be a greater good. “How much is Mother Earth worth?” he says, sharply.

“Yes, it is good to make use of the sun but not when it comes to disturbing sacred sites, pristine desert, the turtles or the horny toad. We were placed here to be guardians of harmonious equilibrium and we have a mission to ensure the sites are preserved for future generations. We cannot allow them to destroy us.”

The Guardian

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New York’s Solar Balance Sheet

Solar panels atop the roof of the New York Power Authority in White Plains.
Suzanne DeChillo/The New York TimesSolar panels atop the roof of the New York Power Authority in White Plains.

Despite uncertainties in the solar energy market, New York officials should support the “steady and measured growth” of solar power in the state as part of a balanced renewable energy strategy, a new report recommends.

The report, by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, known as Nyserda, evaluated the costs and benefits of pursuing the growth of solar to an installed capacity of 5,000 megawatts by the year 2025, from around 110 megawatts now. Yet because of variables like the cost of photovoltaic technology and the future availability of federal tax credits for solar investment, the authors found it hard to estimate how much solar would really cost.

The financial scenarios vary widely. It could cost New York State ratepayers anywhere from $300 million to $9 billion to install solar power between 2013 and 2049. The report said that under the most likely conditions, the cost would be about $3 billion and the installations would increase electric bills by up to 3 percent in any given year. In other words, the costs exceed the benefits.

Nevertheless, the report, which was mandated by the StateLegislature to guide New York State in its pursuit of renewable power to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and create jobs, recommended that the state continue policies that support solar, “given the many potential benefits that PV has to offer and the long-term potential for lower-cost PV technology.”

Such policies include investing in research, removing red tape for installation permits and providing sales tax exemptions.

The New York Times

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Tidal power harnessed to light and heat the huge Deep aquarium in Hull

The Humber estuary’s tidal stream will power a 20m platform’s hidden turbine – and Treasury secretary Danny Alexander should glimpse it on a visit to Hull this week

A tidal stream power generator in the river Humber

Big museum, little generator, happy fish. Neptune Renewable Energy’s Proteus moored off The Deep. Photograph: Sean Spencer/Hull News & Pictures

The gradual development of tidal generating power, which has the advantage of generating less controversy than wind turbines, has taken another step forward in the Humber estuary.

A floating turbine platform is being commissioned this week which will supply electricity to The Deep in Hull, the dramatic, jaggedly-shaped aquarium which is very definitely worth a day out.

The yellow Neptune Proteus device is moored 60 metres offshore with buoyancy tanks sustaining fascinating gadgetry which is explained in detail on Neptune Renewable Energy‘s website. The Deep is the company’s first customer and ideal as for an eye-catching demonstration of how the fledgling system works.

Potentially, similar small but efficient units could be sited in areas of regular and reliable tidal streams, generating power as the water flows one way and then the other during the lunar cycle. The north is well-provided with such places, especially in estuaries; although a maritime version of the turbine controversy is easy to imagine if large numbers of them were to appear.

That’s for the future. Meanwhile, the Proteus will keep the lights and heating on at The Deep from April, after five years of research. Neptune hope to prove the system’s merits in reliability as well as cost: 3,500 fish depend on everything going smoothly in their display tanks.

Nigel Petrie, chairman of Neptune Renewable Energy, which is based in Hull and North Ferriby, says:

The development of the Neptune Proteus has paved the way for the design of our production model, arrays of which will provide a dedicated supply of clean power to major industries located on the Humber estuary and other suitable British locations. Supplying power to our first customer, The Deep, presents us with a great opportunity to raise the profile of our technology and of the potential for tidal stream power generation to make a significant contribution to meeting both commercial and domestic electricity demands.

In spite of the recession, the Humber remains the scene of much technological innovation and its docks, from Hull round to Immingham and Grimsby via Goole, have retained their place as the UK’s largest port. The combination of suitable tide and seabed conditions with potential customers onshore add to its appeal as a testbed for maritime renewable energy, which could, at the most optimistic estimates, provide 20 percent of current UK electricity needs.

The secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, will be in Hull on Friday to launch the Humber local economic partnership’s new forum, and tour the regeneration of Alexandra dock into the new Green Port Hull, which Siemens has chosen as the base for offshore wind turbine development.

Let’s hope his hosts point out the Proteus to him. He could have one just off Whitehall in the Thames.

The Guardian

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Japanese Developers Find Growing Interest in Homes With Solar Panels

TOKYO — When new trends in apartment living emerge, they often take hold quickly in fad-conscious Japan. That is what happened with “solar apartments,” residential buildings that have solar panels on their roofs. Now, such buildings are being aggressively promoted by some Japanese developers.

People here are enamored of new homes and apartments, and so are developers, who find them profitable — about two-thirds of houses and apartments bought and sold here are new.

Interest in solar apartments grew after the March 11 earthquake last year. The aftermath, which included a meltdown at one nuclear power plant after a tsunami struck and the shuttering of others, periodically deprived Japanese households of electricity. There were many calls for greater reliance on renewable forms of energy, including solar.

“Whenever the conditions allow, we want all our new apartments fitted with solar panels,” said Toshiya Kitagawa, executive officer at Takara Leben, a midsize apartment developer in Tokyo.

The company’s first solar apartment went on sale last June, in the city of Wako in Saitama Prefecture, near Tokyo, and sold almost instantly, according to the company. Takara Leben — like its rivals Sankei Building and Daikyo, which have developed similar projects recently — had conceived the solar-apartment idea before the earthquake. But the disaster “gave a big boost” to sales of the 112 units, Mr. Kitagawa said. The price tags were ¥30 million to ¥38 million, or roughly $350,000 to $470,000.

The company was so happy with the results that it now has five projects in the pipeline, two to be completed this spring.

Sankei Building, another midsize developer, had also set out to build a solar apartment in 2010 in Musashino, a popular suburban residential district of Tokyo. Last June, the company announced its sales to great acclaim. “They sold out quite instantaneously,” said Yukari Sasaki, the managing officer who heads the residential development department at Sankei in Tokyo. “People’s awareness for natural energy and disaster readiness has been greatly enhanced” after the earthquake.

Each apartment’s solar system comes with control panels and a display that compares energy generation and use on a month-to-month and year-to-year basis. The apartments also have batteries that kick in when grid-supplied energy is cut in emergencies. Sankei Building has three new solar apartment buildings in the works.

There is another reason midsize developers favor solar apartments. They tend to build on the outskirts of Tokyo, while their bigger rivals, like Mitsui Fudosan, Mitsubishi Estate and Sumitomo Realty, have an edge in developing inner-city high rises in prime locations. (Procuring land in a good location is a matter of business clout.) But high-rises are generally unsuitable for solar apartments, because they require expansive roof space relative to the number of units.

“The building shouldn’t be taller than five to six stories,” said Ms. Sasaki of Sankei Building. “You end up with too little roof space per housing unit.”

Sankei Building and Takara Lebel assigned six solar panels to each unit. “That’s the minimum, given the need to generate enough solar power to each household,” Mr. Kitagawa said.

An expensive lot in the city center that could fit a 30- to 40-story structure is a poor choice for solar panels. Besides, “You want to be clear of tall buildings in the surrounding areas, which could compromise full exposure to sun you need to have,” said Hiroshi Iwamoto, sales manager for Takaka Leben’s solar apartments in Yokohama.

According to Takara Leben, the six panels per household for most of its apartments in Tokyo and Yokohama will be enough to cut electricity bills 56 percent in a typical household of four, based on a simulation conducted by the Tokyo Electric Power. According to the company’s math, the energy bill falls to ¥6,150 a month on average from ¥14,035 — to about $75 from $170.

Hiromu Sato, 37, an owner and a resident of Takara Leben’s solar condominium in Wako, said he did not necessarily believe the electric company’s calculations when he was considering buying an apartment.

“I thought that figure was kind of hype,” he said. But he found the savings warranted the claim. “I am quite comfortable saying we are saving in excess of ¥10,000 a month, compared to the bill we used to pay” at the last apartment he and his wife shared, which was considerably smaller than the 70-square-meter, or 750-square-foot, unit they now own.

He is happy with his ¥37 million purchase, particularly since the price was not appreciably higher than comparable non-solar apartments. Proponents hope affordability will make solar, once the province of homeowners who are very well off, more broadly popular.

The New York Times

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Wrexham leads Europe’s solar charge

The town moves into the renewable energy premier league after installing 30,000 locally made panels on 3,000 council homes

A worker fits solar panels to a roof of a council house in Wrexham , Wales

A worker fits solar panels to a roof of a council house in Wrexham, Wales. Photograph: Paul Thomas/Getty Images

Wrexham – average sunshine: three hours a day for four months of the year – has joined Sacramento in California, desert city Abu Dhabi and Freiburg in Germany as a new solar power centre.

The north Walian town, which has had one of Europe’s largest solar panel factories since 2005, employing around 1,000 people, moves into the renewable energy premier league this month after installing 30,000 panels made in the town on 3,000 of its council homes. This year it will fit six schools and several public buildings with a further 90kW of solar power.

Scaffolding was bought in from all over Cheshire and north Wales to complete Europe’s biggest social housing solar scheme by 4 March, the cut-off date which allowed installations to earn the higher government solar incentive (assuming a government appeal in the courts fails). “They have been going up like mushrooms. Everyone got them, even my auntie,” said Jackie Downward, a resident of Hullah Lane, Wrexham who had eight panels installed on the roof of her pebble-dashed 1960s semi.

“I’ve never taken an interest in green things before. Some people say they look ugly but most say they wouldn’t mind them. I only heard of one couple who said they wouldn’t have them on their roof. In the end, it’s money off your bills and jobs so it has to be worth it,” she said.

In what council chiefs say was a “sensible” investment, Wrexham last year borrowed nearly £28m for the 5MW scheme to equip one in three of its properties with panels made by Japanese company Sharp, which has a solar module factory on the edge of the town. Tenants, who pay on average around £70 a week to rent their homes, can expect £200-300 a year off their bills from the electricity they generate and the council will make over £1m a year profit from feed-in tariffs, the government’s solar incentive scheme. The money will increase Wrexham’s housing budget by nearly 10%, and will be invested back in public housing.

In a riposte to critics who dismissed solar as a technology only for the wealthy, the town – which has some of Britain’s most deprived estates – expects its investment to lift people out of fuel poverty, benefit its schools and old people, and reduce carbon emissions by 3,000 tonnes a year. Sharp says it has invested £43m in its Wrexham solar plant and that 132 people worked nearly six months to install the panels on council homes.

The investment should also lift Wrexham to near the top of the UK league table for emission reductions. By 2020 it expects a 70% cut on 2005 figures – way above central government targets and possibly the most by any British borough.

But while it may be one of the only towns in Britain to have boosted its economy with solar, it has been hard hit by the government’s decision before Christmas to halve solar incentives]. As a direct result, solar panel manufacturers, including Sharp, have had to lay off people, and Wrexham’s expected income from the panels will drop.

“We were never doing this for the money. Our intention was always to reduce emissions. We will still make a profit but it will take longer,” said a council spokeswoman.

The halving of the 43p incentive for solar installations is expected to hit the solar industry hard. The fledgling industry, which employs 30,000, says it is “facing ruin” after the energy minister, Greg Barker, further slashed incentives for people investing after July 2012. Installations completed by July will continue to get the 21p incentive, but after that could drop to 13p and may only be available to people who have insulated their homes to a certain level.

Explosive growth in solar panel installations on homes, schools and fields in the UK over the past 22 months saw the green energy source pass the symbolic milestone of 1,000MW last month.

“It showed very clearly that people were desperate to get out of the clutches of the big six energy companies, which hate the idea of people generating their own electricity. There goes a small industry which has invested hundreds of millions of pounds,” said Daniel Green of solar energy company Homesun.

“This is the steady strangulation of a successful industry. First it was by stealth, now it’s blatant. This company alone had 330,000 applications for solar in 18 months. There must have been millions of people across Britain who were interested in installing it and in generating their own electricity,” said Green

“The industry has taken a massive knock The government is preparing to kill off the industry altogether,” said Jed Rowbottom, director of Burnley-based solar company Solarlec.

But Jeremy Leggett, chair of Solar Century, said the solar would not be crushed. “The government does not want anything to impinge on the prospect of centralised power from the big six electricity companies. But well before 2020 solar will be cheaper than nuclear or gas. It’s not the end of the industry but of our opportunity in Britain to grow a domestic industry that could compete with those in Germany and elsewhere. It will explode again, but it will not be British.”

Since the feed-in tariff scheme was launched by the Labour administration in April 2010 the amount of solar has grown by over 40 times. There was just 26MW of solar before the scheme.

The Guardian

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Banyan: Old king coal

Asian growth will remain fuelled by coal, which is worrying for the planet

“OUR civilisation”, wrote George Orwell over 70 years ago, “is founded on coal.” Unlike Europe’s, Asia’s still is. In 2010, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), a think-tank, coal accounted for just one-fifth of primary energy supply in the OECD countries. But, in the world as a whole, coal accounted for almost half of the increase in energy use from 2000-10. Coal, says Edward Cunningham of Boston University, is experiencing an “historically incredible” resurgence, and may even overtake oil as a fuel by 2025. There is plenty of it and, compared with rival fuels, it is cheap. And often dirty.

Asia has been responsible for over two-thirds of the growth in global energy demand over the past two decades. As, above all, China and India race towards prosperity, they will burn coal in huge volumes. The resulting emissions of carbon dioxide will be among the biggest hurdles in the way of a global agreement on limiting climate change.

China leads the world in coal production and consumption. It mines over 3 billion tonnes of coal a year, three times more than the next-biggest producer (America), and yet last year overtook Japan to become the world’s biggest coal importer. Over four-fifths of China’s electricity comes from coal-fired power plants. Burning coal is a big cause of the severe air pollution afflicting parts of China, and, through waste from coal-washing and underground leakage, of contaminated water and degraded soil.

China is working hard to develop other sources of energy and to lessen the “energy intensity” of its growth (the energy needed per extra unit of GDP). It is already much the world’s biggest user of hydroelectric power, has almost as many new nuclear-power plants planned as the rest of the world put together, and is expanding solar and wind energy. But, according to projections by McKinsey, a consultancy, even taking all this into account, China is still likely to consume 4.4 billion tonnes of coal in 2030, when its carbon emissions are expected to have increased from 6.8 billion tonnes of carbon-dioxide equivalent in 2005 to 15 billion tonnes. Of these nearly 40% will come from power generation.

McKinsey outlines a strategy for making deep cuts in both coal consumption and carbon emissions. It seems optimistic. Mr Cunningham argues that the fragmented structure of Chinese mining, with myriad small producers, “makes it much harder for the central government to formulate and implement a sweeping reform.” Coal output has been increasing fast at home; imports are readily available from the world’s two biggest exporters, Australia and Indonesia, and Mongolia is developing the world’s largest untapped coal deposit just over the border. It is hard to argue with a report produced this week by GK Dragonomics, a Beijing-based research outfit, which concluded that “China will remain a highly coal-dependent economy for decades.”

Where China leads, India lumbers behind, also burning an awful lot of coal, and hungry for more electric power. Some 70% of its electricity comes from coal. The national grid has expanded hugely in recent years. But it still leaves about 300m people without a connection. In projections of increased energy demand over the next 25 years, India is second only to China.

Like China, it is ploughing resources into nuclear power, oil-and-gas exploration and imports, and renewable energy. Like China, too, however, India finds coal the obvious option. It is something it has plenty of—already the world’s third-largest producer, it has the world’s fifth-biggest coal reserves. But it cannot exploit them fast enough to meet demand. In fact, output has not increased for two years. Coal India, the state monopoly, blames the difficulty of securing mining permits. So India may soon become the world’s biggest coal importer.

On current trends, as estimated by McKinsey, India’s carbon emissions will increase by about two-and-a-half times by 2030, by which time its power industry alone will account for about one-tenth of the total rise in global emissions. Like China’s government, India’s points out that, per head, its people will still be producing far less carbon dioxide than Americans or Australians (though China is rapidly catching up with some European countries in pollution per person). And, in India’s case, total emissions (at 5 billion–6.5 billion tonnes) will remain well below China’s.

Coal-demand projections for both India and China were not much affected by the disaster last March at the Fukushima nuclear-power plant in Japan. The two giant countries announced reviews of their own nuclear programmes but are unlikely to scale them back. Elsewhere, however, heightened awareness of the risks of nuclear power has given coal another boost. In Japan itself, plans to increase nuclear generation from 30% of the total pre-Fukushima to 50% by 2030 are being re-examined. Coal already accounts for about 27%.

Two degrees of panic

Across Asia, from Bangladesh to the Philippines, the drive for more coal-fired power seems unstoppable. Renewable energy sources such as wind and solar generation do not offer affordable electricity on a big enough scale. Production of natural gas, which emits less carbon, will boom but not supplant coal.

So attention is focused on mitigating the harm coal power will do. Efforts to curb emissions from fossil-fuel power stations by “carbon capture and storage” are still no more than a good idea yet to be realised. Technologies to make generation cleaner and more efficient are available, however. But, as the IEA noted understatedly in a report last year, they “are not as widely deployed as they should be.” And, as the same agency has also argued, time is running out to limit emissions to levels that might keep the global temperature rise to 2°C this century. On today’s plans, it estimates, that rise will already be locked in by existing buildings and facilities, such as power plants, by 2017. The rise of Asia has costs, as well as benefits.

The Economist

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Energy storage: Packing some power

Energy technology: Better ways of storing energy are needed if electricity systems are to become cleaner and more efficient

SUMMER in Texas last year was the hottest on record. Demand for power spiked as air conditioners hummed across the state. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the state grid operator, only narrowly avoided having to impose rolling blackouts. To do so, it had to buy all the electricity it could find on the spot market, in some cases paying an eye-watering 30 times the normal price.

On paper at least, ERCOT ought to have had plenty of power. In 2010 it reported 84,400 megawatts (MW) of total generation capacity, well over last summer’s peak demand of 68,294MW. In theory, this is enough to produce some 740 billion kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity a year—more than double the 319 billion kWh that ERCOT’s customers actually demanded during 2010. In electricity generation, however, aggregates and averages carry little weight. One problem is that wind energy accounted for 9,500MW of ERCOT’s total capacity, and the wind does not blow all the time. It tends to be strongest at night, when demand is low. Moreover, power firms are required by regulators to maintain a safety margin over total estimated demand—of 13.75%, in ERCOT’s case—in order to ensure reliable supply.

If only it were easier for ERCOT and other utilities to store excess energy, such as that produced by wind turbines at night, for later use at peak times. Such “time shifting” would compensate for the intermittent nature of wind and solar power, making them more attractive and easier to integrate into the grid. Energy storage also allows “peak shaving”. By tapping stored energy rather than firing up standby generators, utilities can save money by avoiding expensive spot-market purchases.

Surely the answer is to use giant batteries? Although batteries can deliver power for short periods, and can smooth out the bumps as different sources of power are switched on and off, they cannot provide “grid scale” performance, storing and discharging energy at high rates (hundreds of megawatts) and in really large quantities (thousands of megawatt hours). So other technologies are needed—and growing demand, driven chiefly by wider use of intermittent renewable-energy sources, is sparking plenty of new ideas.

It’s got potential

The most widely used form of bulk-energy storage is currently pumped-storage hydropower (PSH), which uses the simple combination of water and gravity to capture off-peak power and release it at times of high demand. Pumped-hydro facilities typically take advantage of natural topography, and are built around two reservoirs at different heights. Off-peak electricity is used to pump water from the lower to the higher reservoir, turning electrical energy into gravitational potential energy. When power is needed, water is released back down to the lower reservoir, spinning a turbine and generating electricity along the way. PSH accounts for more than 99% of bulk storage capacity worldwide: around 127,000MW, according to the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), the research arm of America’s power utilities.

Yet despite its dominance, traditional PSH has limited capacity for expansion. The kind of sites needed for such systems are few and far between. As a result, several firms are devising new forms of PSH.

One ambitious idea (pictured above) is the Green Power Island concept devised by Gottlieb Paludan, a Danish architecture firm, together with researchers at the Technical University of Denmark. This involves building artificial islands with wind turbines and a deep central reservoir. When the wind blows, the energy is used to pump water out of the reservoir into the sea. When power is needed, seawater is allowed to flow back into the reservoir, driving turbines to produce electricity.

Gravity Power, a start-up based in California, has devised a system that relies on two water-filled shafts, one wider than the other, which are connected at both ends. Water is pumped down through the smaller shaft to raise a piston in the larger shaft. When demand peaks, the piston is allowed to sink back down the main shaft, forcing water through a generator to create electricity. The system’s relatively compact nature means it can be installed close to areas of high demand, and extra modules can be added when more capacity is needed, says Tom Mason, the firm’s boss.

Gravity Power’s subterranean hydropower

Another company looking to harness the potential of gravity is Advanced Rail Energy Storage (ARES), based in Santa Monica, California. Its system uses modified railway cars on a specially built track. Off-peak electricity is used to pull the cars to the top of a hill. When energy is needed, the cars are released, and as they run back down the track their motion drives a generator. Like PSH, the ARES system requires specific topography. But William Peitzke, the firm’s boss, says ARES delivers more power for the same height differential. He also says it is more efficient, with a round-trip efficiency—the ratio of energy out to energy in—of more than 85%, compared with 70-75% for PSH. A demonstration system is being built in California, and should become operational in 2013.

The second-biggest form of bulk-energy storage, though it is dwarfed by PSH, is compressed-air energy storage (CAES). This involves compressing air and storing it in large repositories, such as underground salt caverns. During peak hours the air is released to drive a turbine. There are only two commercial CAES plants in operation: one in Huntorf, Germany, and the other in McIntosh, Alabama. The big drawback of CAES is its inefficiency. According to RWE, a German utility, the Huntorf plant is only 42% efficient, and the one in Alabama is only slightly better. The problem is that air heats up when pressurised and cools down when expanded. In existing CAES systems energy is lost as heat during compression, and the air must then be reheated before expansion. The energy to do this usually comes from natural gas, reducing efficiency and increasing greenhouse-gas emissions.

As with hydro storage, efforts are under way to adapt the basic concept of CAES to make it more efficient and easier to install. RWE is working with GE, an industrial conglomerate, and others to commercialise a compressed-air system that captures the heat produced during compression, stores it, and then reapplies it during the expansion process, eliminating the need for additional sources of heat. Having proven the theoretical feasibility of this concept, the partners must now overcome the technical hurdles, which include developing pumps to compress air to 70 times atmospheric pressure, and ceramic materials to store heat at up to 600°C. The aim is to start building a 90MW demonstration plant in Strasfurt, Germany, in 2013, says Peter Moser, the head of RWE’s research arm.

Several smaller outfits are also developing more efficient forms of CAES. SustainX, a company spun out of Dartmouth University’s engineering school and supported by America’s Department of Energy (DOE) and GE, among others, has developed what it calls “isothermal CAES”, which removes heat from the compressed air by injecting water vapour. The water absorbs the heat and is then stored and reapplied to the air during the expansion process. And rather than relying on salt caverns, SustainX uses standard steel pipes to store the compressed air, allowing its systems to be installed wherever they are needed. The firm has built a 40 kilowatt demonstration plant and is partnering with AES, a utility, to build a 1-2MW system. General Compression, a Massachusetts-based company also backed by the DOE, has developed an isothermal CAES system focused on providing support to wind farms. With the backing of ConocoPhillips, an energy giant, it is building a 2MW demonstration plant in Texas.

Another way to store energy is in the form of heat. That is the approach taken by Isentropic, a company based in Cambridge, England, with a system it calls pumped heat electricity storage (PHES), which uses argon gas to transfer heat between two vast tanks filled with gravel. Incoming energy drives a heat pump, compressing and heating the argon and creating a temperature differential between the two tanks, with one at 500°C and the other at -160°C. During periods of high demand, the heat pump runs in reverse as a heat engine, expanding and cooling the argon and generating electricity. Isentropic says its system has an efficiency of 72-80%, depending on size.

BrightSource Energy, an energy company based in Oakland, California, has signed a deal with Southern California Edison, a utility, to implement a system that stores energy in molten salt. BrightSource generates electricity using an approach called concentrated solar power, in which computer-controlled mirrors, known as heliostats, focus the sun’s heat to boil water and turn a steam turbine. But this approach works only while the sun is shining. The storage system, called SolarPLUS, uses a heat exchanger to transfer some of the heat captured by the heliostats to the molten salt. It is then run back through the heat exchanger to drive the steam turbine when needed. This allows BrightSource’s plants to deliver energy even after dark, and gives utilities and grid operators more flexibility than solar power usually provides. BrightSource is planning to equip three of its plants with SolarPLUS.

Changing the rules

Time-shifting would compensate for the intermittent nature of wind and solar power.

The potential market is huge: according to Pike Research, a market-research firm, $122 billion will be invested in energy-storage projects between 2011 and 2021. It predicts that the bulk of this spending will go towards new forms of CAES. Green-minded governments and regulators are taking a closer interest in the technology. California has passed a law requiring utilities to consider storage in their plans. Germany’s environment ministry last year proposed a project to assess technology developments and funding needs for energy storage. And the British government’s “low-carbon networks” fund is being used to build some demonstration projects.

Yet large-scale deployment of bulk storage systems will require regulatory as well as technical progress. Storage systems do not fit neatly into regulatory frameworks that distinguish between power providers and grid operators, since they can be used by both. Their ability to take power off the grid, store it, and then release it later creates “potential problems for current tariff, billing and metering approaches,” notes the EPRI in a recent report. Nor is it clear whether power companies will be allowed to pass on the cost of storage facilities to their customers. But given the technology’s potential to make power grids cleaner and more reliable, it seems likely that changes to the rules are in store.

The Economist

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Support for wind energy remains strong

Any suggestion that investment in UK wind energy is ‘grinding to a halt’ does not chime with reality

wind turbines

Wind turbines in a field of corn. Photograph: Graeme Robertson

In a series of articles this week, you reported on some of the challenges faced by the wind energy industry (The wind war, 27 February-March 1). This did an excellent job of highlighting what the UK stands to lose – in terms of investment, jobs and energy security – if we don’t overcome these challenges and grasp the reins of this new industrial revolution. However, in places it also injected some uncertainty over the future of this crucial industry which does not chime with reality.

In particular, your front page subheading on 27 February wrongly stated: “Investment in wind energy grinds to a halt as companies doubt political will.” This year the UK has already benefited from hundreds of millions of pounds of investment pledged by multinational companies planning to create jobs across the country. Since January, Samsung has announced a £100m project in Scotland to develop its new offshore turbine at Fife Energy Park, which will employ up to 500 people. The wind turbine manufacturer Vestas has submitted a planning application to build a factory at Sheerness, Kent, which could create 2,000 jobs. Siemens wants to build a wind turbine factory in Hull, creating 700 jobs directly, and many more in the supply chain, when it opens. Samsung has also agreed a multimillion-pound deal to design and manufacture gearboxes for the new turbine. No “grinding to a halt” there.

You also stated that there are “concerns over the government’s commitment to wind energy”. The opposite is true. Although the industry is not complacent about recent backbench opposition, last month a No 10 spokesman said: “We need a low carbon infrastructure and onshore wind is a cost effective and valuable part of the diverse energy mix.” And this was backed up by deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg.

In another article, you stated that “Turbines bring millions for rich landowners” and reported how the Prince of Wales would benefit from leases for offshore wind farms. Well, there are community-owned windfarms such as the Fintry Renewable Energy Enterprise near Stirling, where villagers earn tens of thousands of pounds for community projects.

Local people who host wind farms also reap financial benefits. The wind industry stipulates that communities must receive at least £1,000 per megawatt per year of wind energy installed. These benefit funds are handed over to local people so that they can decide how to spend that money. This is how residents in Burton Latimer, Northamptonshire, were able to afford solar panels for a sheltered housing scheme, children’s books for the local library, and energy-efficient glazing for a health centre. That’s why, as you reported with a new opinion poll, “a large majority of the public (60%) remains firmly in favour of wind energy”.

The Guardian

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