Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Is it Time to Pull the Plug on Wind Energy? (Think Solar Thermal)

For the last decade I've told anyone who cared to listen that if they were talking renewables in the U.S., wind was the way to go. At least if you were a ratepayer, taxpayer or policymaker.
That may be about to change. Here's the headline story at cnet:

June 1, 2009
Nobel laureate: Wind is not the future

While the Obama administration has expressed increasing hopes that wind power will play a key role in America's future energy system, one of the world's leading scientists is ruling out the technology.

Jack Steinberger, the 1968 Nobel Prize winner in physics and director of CERN's particle-physics laboratory, spoke at a conference of Nobel laureates at the 350-year-old Royal Society in London last week.

His conclusion: "Wind is not the future," according to the London Times.

Jack Steinberger

Jack Steinberger (Credit: Nobelprize.org)

Steinberger says Europe should cancel its big wind plans and that solar energy is the future.

Historical resources in the energy-hungry world are being depleted, he said, predicting that fossil fuels, coal, and oil will be gone in 60 years. But the solution, he asserted, is not wind power.

The reason? Wind power still requires backup power when the wind isn't blowing, and that decreases its contribution to emissions reductions.

On the other hand, solar thermal power--where collectors concentrate sunlight using mirrors and lenses to produce electric power and heat--is already economical and can handle the storage problem, he said. The heat produced can be stored, enabling solar thermal plants to produce electricity during hours without sunlight.

Steinberger now wants funding for a big pilot project.

The idea is to link solar thermal power from Northern Africa to Europe via high-voltage undersea cables. The proposed 3- to 3.5-gigawatt power plant would cost an estimated $32 billion to build. Steinberger believes that 80 percent of Europe's energy needs could be met by solar thermal power plants in the Sahara by 2050....MORE

Although the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership has a lot of happy talk about cooperation between the southern European states and the Maghreb, some security experts wonder if the 80% goal is perhaps not wise. The United States doesn't face that problem.

There is another however. From the Washington Post:

June 7, 2009

Is Solar Power Dead in the Water?

Congress's rush to embrace solar power is having some unintended consequences. It will turn over a large chunk of federal land to private energy companies, and it may involve withdrawing billions of gallons of water from sensitive desert habitat.

By 2015, Congress wants the Interior and Energy Departments to place, on federal land, renewable energy projects that can generate at least 10,000 megawatts of electricity. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 has set off a frantic land grab as solar and wind energy companies rush to obtain permits for projects in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah.

As of mid-March, the Bureau of Land Management had received 158 applications for permits for solar power plants, covering more than one million acres of land -- an area larger than Rhode Island. Most of the proposed plants are located near the border of Arizona, California and Nevada. This area of the Mojave Desert seems perfect for solar power; it's hot and flat and vast. What the Mojave Desert doesn't have is water.

Most people think of solar power as the flat panels on a neighbor's roof that are used to heat water. This photovoltaic system directly converts the sun's waves into electricity. But so far, it's not commercially feasible. The power is costly and there's no juice at night, but utilities want cheap power 24/7. On the plus side, photovoltaic solar uses almost no water.

In contrast, most large solar power projects use a system called concentrating solar power, or CSP, that heats a fluid that boils water to turn a turbine. CSP, just like any thermal power plant, produces waste heat as a byproduct. In most cases, cooling towers release the heat to the atmosphere through evaporation, a process that uses gobs of water. In fact, CSP uses four times as much water as a natural gas plant and twice as much as a coal or nuclear plant....MORE

There has been a flurry of articles on CSP in the last week. Here's one from The Economist:

The other kind of solar power

Energy: Think of solar power, and you probably think of photovoltaic panels. But there is another way to make electricity from sunlight, which arguably has even brighter prospects

IN THE past few months BrightSource Energy, based in California, has signed the world’s two largest deals to build new solar-power capacity. The company will soon begin constructing the first in a series of 14 solar-power plants that will collectively supply more than 2.6 gigawatts (GW) of electricity—enough to serve about 1.8m homes. But to accomplish this feat BrightSource will not use photovoltaic cells, which generate electricity directly from sunlight and currently constitute the most common form of solar power. Instead, the company specialises in “concentrating solar-thermal technology” in which mirrors concentrate sunlight to produce heat. That heat is then used to create steam, which in turn drives a turbine to generate electricity.

Solar-thermal power stations have several advantages over solar-photovoltaic projects. They are typically built on a much larger scale, and historically their costs have been much lower. Compared with other renewable sources of energy, they are probably best able to match a utility’s electrical load, says Nathaniel Bullard of New Energy Finance, a research firm. They work best when it is hottest and demand is greatest. And the heat they generate can be stored, so the output of a solar-thermal plant does not fluctuate as wildly as that of a photovoltaic system. Moreover, since they use a turbine to generate electricity from heat, most solar-thermal plants can be easily and inexpensively supplemented with natural-gas boilers, enabling them to perform as reliably as a fossil-fuel power plant....MUCH MORE

Photos via The Economist.

A power of tower near Seville

Finally, an exerpt from Greenwire via the New York Times:

Brighter days seen for solar, next-gen biofuels

Big changes are afoot in the fledgling alternative-energyindustry.

As the sector recovers from the 2008 financial market meltdown, insiders look for next-generation biofuels and solar technologies to start joining mainstream energy markets, while wind power continues to lean heavily on government support.

"Grid parity" for photovoltaic technology is imminent, solar executives say, as prices slide and the industry devises marketing strategies to entice both large electric utilities and small-scale customers while slowly freeing itself of government subsidies.

Biofuel executives, meanwhile, speak of an inevitable turn from corn-based ethanol into more efficient cellulosic feedstocks like sugarcane, switchgrass, and wood waste -- all spurred by an infusion of capital from big oil companies and large timber and farming concerns.

Wind power developers, meanwhile, say their future depends on tax credits and other government efforts to encourage investment. Even as solar and biofuel players say they aim to cut production costs to be competitive at current energy prices, wind operators say their customers must accept higher utility bills to support the industry.

"The key is the regulators and customers need to be willing to pay the higher prices," First Wind's chief financial officer, Michael Metzner, told an investor gathering hosted here last week by Lazard Capital Markets. "What you're betting on is the increasing demand for renewable energy.">>>MORE