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Thoughts from Intersolar 2012

By Guest Blogger Charles Waitman

I spent a day at Intersolar North America in San Francisco, considered by some to be North America’s premier exhibition and conference for the solar industry.  My career, to date has been in the oil industry.  This was my second Intersolar conference.  These are my observations.

PV dominated the conference.

Mark Pinto of Applied Materials gave an excellent presentation.  He forecasts that innovation will support continued growth in the rate of PV installation.  Dr. Pinto forecasts a 20 to 20% growth rate in annual solar installations, with annual installations reaching 250 GW/yr  and installed capacity reaching perhaps 800 to 900 GW by 2020.  He described total installed cost approaching $4/w today.  As an interesting perspective the installed cost of 250 GW, at $4/w, is about one third of worldwide expenditures for oil.  Other interesting perspectives, at the level of 800 to 900 GW, PV solar would represent 15% of worldwide generating capacity, 5 or 6% of annual generation, and a little less than 1% of energy use.   The US Energy Information Administration’s 2011 forecast (International Energy Outlook 2011) differs sharply from Dr. Pinto’s.  EIA forecasts a 16% annual growth rate for solar capacity (16% first derivative vs 20 to 30% second derivative for those of you who love calculus) from 2008 to 2020 with a 2020 capacity of 86 GW.  Pinto sees panel costs dropping below $1/watt.  Balance of system costs are coming down as well, but the progress here is slow.

I talked briefly with a representative of the EV Group about their non-reflective coatings.  The marketing strategy has been increased efficiency.  From my perspective the most significant benefit of these coatings might be expedited permitting since glare is a common concern.

I listened to several presentations at the PV Energy World Stage.  California Assembly member Skinner and Arthur O’Donnell of the CPUC reported on the California a legislative mandate to introduce storage with as yet unspecified physical requirements in 2015 and 2020.  The remaining presentations caused my head to spin thinking about load and generation profiles, distributed vs central generation, smart grid requirement – or perhaps things will just balance out.  However, the point that registered clearly in my mind is that $4/w for the installation isn’t the cost of PV in a very large scale and mature setting.  Storage, transmission, resources for load balancing, etc. will be big cost centers when we reach the point that PV power from the roof top impacts more than the firing rate of a peaking turbine.

What I didn’t see was discussion of end of life issues for panels and batteries.  While these issues are later (as in sooner or later), nickel, cadmium, lithium, magnesium, cobalt, tellurium, indium, selenium shouldn’t accumulate in stockpiles and permiate into the ground and water.  Everything has an end of life.  Disposal (or hopefully recycle) isn’t exciting, it is often expensive, it is hard to enforce.  PV isn’t the first promise of an almost infinite supply of clean energy.   Real thinking and robust policy regarding end of life issues should accompany the technological development that is proceeding at such a furious pace.

I am almost in the PV camp (a big deal for an oil industry guy).  PV is bigger than I thought, growth is faster than I thought (EIA is also a few years behind), and it will be a major part (as in Coal or Oil or Gas not domestic hot water) of the energy balance.  Balancing cost (including changes to the grid, and storage) and environmental impact (end of life) of PV against shale gas (abundant and likely cheap but faces groundwater issues) and combined cycle generation (pretty cheap and pretty clean but still a large source of greenhouse gas) will be no small challenge.

 

Chuck Waitman has extensive experience, within the oil industry, with synthetic fuels, refining, hydrogen production, cogeneration, energy procurement, energy contracts, and energy conservation.  For the last 5 years he has worked on implementation of California AB-32, the California Global Warming Solutions Act.  He presently consults on issues related to energy and greenhouse gas management.

 

Is Ethanol’s Carbon Footprint Bad? It Depends.

In the cleantech and carbon worlds, the carbon footprint of ethanol, whether from corn or sugar feedstocks and fermentation processes, or enzymatic or thermochemical cellulosic sources, is always good fodder (or perhaps, “fuel”) for debate.

And depending on which process and which study you personally ascribe to, the answer on how carbon clean ethanol looks depends. In most debates centering on corn fermentation, for example, the studies cite a range from say, 20 to 30% less carbon intensive than gasoline, to 20 or 30% more. This begs one very big question in my mind, what’s the difference? How does the same ethanol in my car have a possible carbon footprint range that wide?

The true answer lies in the ground we walk on. When I started to read a few of the studies and articles about them, an interesting fact emerges, the difference depends in large part on which land gets counted. Most of ethanol’s carbon footprint falls into one of several categories, in roughly ascending order (depending on the source and process), the fuel used to make it, the fuel used to grow the feedstock, the carbon content of the fuel itself, and the lost carbon not sequestered in the vegetation that would have been on the land used to grow the feedstock.

The last one, land use change, is the bugaboo. For example, if you assume that all the land used to produce the ethanol feedstock is already in production, you tend to find a carbon footprint at the low end of the range, since there is little net reduction in the carbon sink, and ethanol looks pretty good. If you assume that all the land used to produce the ethanol feedstock came from forests that had been chopped down, or marginal land that produces very low yields, you tend to find a carbon footprint at the high end of the range, and ethanol looks bad. Thought about another way, ethanol made from corn or sugar that displaces human or animal food production is likely to be relatively greenhouse gas friendly comparedd to ethanol made from corn or sugar that comes from new land put into production just for ethanol. The same logic applies to cellulosic ethanol sources, though not quite to the same degree. Interesting conundrum.

As usual, the devil’s in the details, and people tend to use the case that best addresses their agenda. Personally, I’m buying all my ethanol from land that is already in production, so my carbon footprint must be good. The rest of you can buy the OTHER ethanol with all the bad carbon footprint.

Neal Dikeman is a founding partner at Jane Capital Partners LLC, a boutique merchant bank advising strategic investors and startups in cleantech. He is founding contributor of Cleantech Blog, a Contributing Editor to Alt Energy Stocks, Chairman of Cleantech.org, and a blogger for CNET’s Greentech blog.

Honeymooning in Costa Rica – The Home of Carbon Neutrality

I’m taking this week off for my honeymoon in Costa Rica. I think it’s quite an appropriate place to take a honeymoon if you work in the effort to fight global warming – as I’ve stated before, we are working on a venture to use software to cut the cost and increase the transparency of carbon offsets.

Among its initiatives to drive its ecotourism and lead the world – Costa Rica is working to become the first carbon neutral nation.

I had a chance to listen recently to a presentation by Bob Epstein, the founder of E2, which is connected with the National Resources Defense Council – on Costa Rica’s efforts. By the way, if you are an executive seriously interested in the enviroment – joining E2 should be a priority.

The NRDC and E2 have also done some work laying out how that path to carbon neutrality would look. Their core arguments and primary recommendations are fascinating when you think of applying the concept of carbon neutrality on a national scale beyond a small case study like Costa Rica.

Beyond the continued reforestation which makes up a significant reduction in Costa Rica’s greenhouse gas footprint, The NRDC proposal emphasized four areas of needed progress:

  • “Increasing energy efficiency
  • Raising fuel economy and promoting plug-in hybrids
  • Encouraging productions of biofuels and biomass for electricity
  • Improving public transport”

The press release and full report is available here.

Neal Dikeman is a founding partner at Jane Capital Partners LLC, a boutique merchant bank advising strategic investors and startups in cleantech. He is founding contributor of Cleantech Blog, a Contributing Author for Inside Greentech, and a Contributing Editor to Alt Energy Stocks.