Storing Solar Energy: A great idea caught on contested ground

Adding energy storage to sites with rooftop solar power generation offers a range of potential benefits. A battery can help smooth out solar’s inherently variable supply of power to the local grid, and even keep buildings powered during blackouts. Consequently, power-conversion innovators are developing a host of new products designed to reduce the cost and improve the efficiency of integrated solar-storage systems.

Some analysts project a boom in the co-location of solar and energy storage. GTM Research, for example, foresees that co-located PV and storage will grow from $42 million in 2014 to more than $1 billion by 2018. However, the market is moving slower than it might thanks to a little-discussed regulatory roadblock in the United States.

According to Vic Shao, CEO for the Santa Clara, California-based energy storage startup Green Charge Networks, tightly integrating storage with photovoltaics in some key states—including Hawaii and California—runs afoul of the “net metering” rules by which PV owners earn lucrative retail rates for the surplus power they feed to the grid. Adding storage can disqualify solar systems for net metering, in which utilities can pay their owners wholesale power rates that are several times lower than retail. “That is obviously a pretty big problem for anybody considering solar. That could kill a lot of projects,” says Shao. Continue reading

Advertisements

Low-Carbon Fuel Rules

California is about to add to its record of leadership on clean energy policy with its innovative Low-Carbon Fuel Standard that goes into effect January 1. We highlight the program and its likely impact on alternative energy sources for transportation today at MIT TechReview.com in “Low-Carbon Fuel Rules”. As the tagline states, “California is about to implement a standard to boost cleaner fuels and punish the rest.”

One point is that California’s LCFS may not deliver the knock-out blow to Canada’s carbon-intensive tarsands that many climate change activists continue to hope for. Gasoline and diesel fuel refined from the tarsands’ asphaltine bitumen may escape being banned if its producers emphasize energy efficiency according to UC Davis’ Daniel Sperling.

Another observation I’ll be following up is the cohesiveness of the biotech industry. In the face of regulatory innovations such as the LCFS that would disadvantage corn ethanol production and advantage cash-hungry innovators developing more carbon-smart advanced biofuels, the latter seem to be quietly defending the status quo.

Then there’s the California standard’s nuanced approach to diesel, which is not addressed in the TechReview piece but which Carbon-Nation spotlighted last summer. The short take is that the LCFS mandates separate and equal reductions in the carbon footprint of the gasoline and diesel fuels sold in California. That approach eliminates the possibility that diesel use will be incentivized as an alternative to gasoline. The reason? California regulators believe that even today’s ‘clean diesels’ release more than their share of soot, which is a major cause of premature mortality and also a potential contributor to climate change in its own right.

We explore the climate challenge and opportunity posed by soot in the September issue of Discover magazine. See “The Easiest Way to Fight Global Warming?”

add to del.icio.us : Add to Blinkslist : add to furl : Digg it : add to ma.gnolia : Stumble It! : add to simpy : seed the vine : : : TailRank

Toyota’s Secret: The Clean Air Act of 1970

masatami-takimoto-credit-toyotaHow many automotive engineering leaders from Detroit or Stuttgart would identify the U.S. Clean Air Act Amendments of 1970 as the inspiration of their engineering career? Yet that’s exactly what Masatami Takimoto did when I spoke with the Toyota executive vice president responsible for R&D and powertrain engineering earlier this month at the Geneva Motor Show.

Since Takimoto retires in June, I asked him to identify the most exciting chapter of his 39-year career with Toyota. His reply brought a smile: “You’re familiar with the Muskie law?,” asked Takimoto. I’d been asked the same question five years earlier, in Tokyo, while interviewing Takehisa Yaegashi (revered within Toyota as ‘the father of the hybrid’) for a cover story on hybrid vehicles for MIT’s Technology Review.

Thanks to Yaegashi I knew that it was Senator Ed Muskie of Maine who drove through the 1970 amendments to the U.S. air pollution law. And I knew that Muskie’s law, which required the federal government to set tailpipe emissions standards,  had inspired a lot more at Toyota than pollution-eating catalytic converters: Toyota’s engineers also began experimenting with new propulsion concepts such as the battery-powered electrical vehicle that produce inherently less pollution.

Continue reading

Big Footprints Next to Carbon’s

nejm-logoThe U.S. carbon footprint looms large as Washington prepares to finally begin, in earnest, a shift away from fossil fuels under a new President promising international action to, “roll back the specter of a warming planet,” as Agence France Presse highlighted in its reporting of Obama’s inaugural address. Debate is already raging, for example, around whether President Obama will allow California and other states to ratchet up the fuel efficiency improvements automakers must make in the years to come.

But research published yesterday in the New England Journal of Medicine provides a needed reminder that burning less fossil fuels can also directly reduce mortality from air pollution, as reported yesterday by CNN’s health desk. (Carbon-Nation readers will recall that the network’s sci/tech/environment desk is currently unavailable, having been eliminated by CNN last month.)

Continue reading

Major Automakers Spurred by California’s Higher Expectations

Honda execs John Mendel and Yasunari Seki relaunch the Insight hybrid in DetroitMajor automakers such as Honda and Chrysler are realizing that it’s time to throw away the old game plan and chart a new one around the sale of smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles. Ironically, some of the most direct evidence of this changed thinking lies buried at the end of an otherwise apologistic report on the U.S. auto industry’s troubles in the L.A. Times earlier this week.

The story reports on a likely forthcoming waiver from President Obama’s EPA effectively allowing states to demand better fuel economy than the federal CAFE standard. After declaring this a “nightmare scenario for automakers,” the article delivers desperate quotes from General Motors and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers — the trade group that fought (unsuccessfully) to block California’s standards in court. A GM spokesperson sets the tone, saying that subjecting a depressed industry to these tough standards is like asking a cancer patient to, “finish chemo and then go run the Boston Marathon.”

Here’s an alternative bedside analogy that looks to a deeper cancer: Setting lower standards than the European Union and China are already phasing in is reminiscent of the fatalistic approach to cancer treatment in which doctors hid from their patients the full extent of their sickness.

Continue reading

Will Obama Get EPA Off the Road?

President Obama’s first move for clean tech could simply be getting the federal government out of the way in one area where the states are already poised to move aggressively: fuel economy. Candidate Obama promised to do as much on the campaign trail and yesterday Lisa Jackson, his nominee for EPA administrator, provided some hope that he will follow through in office.

Jackson, formerly New Jersey’s top environmental regulator, pledged in a Senate confirmation hearing yesterday that she would “immediately revisit” whether to allow states to set CO2 emissions limits on automobiles.

The CO2 tailpipe standards at issue were set by California in 2004 and subsequently adopted by 18 other states, which are more stringent than the tightened Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards approved by Congress in December 2007. Federal courts rejected auto industry challenges against the tougher state standards, but the Bush EPA rode to the rescue by denying California (and by extension its partner states) a federal waiver needed to implement the rules.

Jackson, if confirmed by the Senate, will thus have the power to immediately take an obstructionist EPA off the road. This could have a significant impact on technology development, given that minimal innovation is required to meet the tightened CAFE standards.

Jackson’s pledge to reconsider the state emissions waiver is an “early challenge for automakers” as Obama takes office next week, according to business journal Automotive News:

Automakers and their allies oppose state-by-state regulation of greenhouse gases. They say such rules are an indirect attempt to regulate fuel economy, which is a federal responsibility. They also say state rules would add costs and create market chaos, especially for dealers near borders with states that don’t have their own rules.

Natural Resources Defense Council vehicles policy director Roland Hwang suggested recently in a provocative report that automakers could solve such problems itself: “The obvious solution to all of the automaker concerns — including their desire for a uniform national standard — is to adopt California’s [greenhouse gas] standards nationwide.”

Hwang analyzed fuel economy projections in business plans that GM and Ford Motor submitted to Congress last month during their pursuit of a federal loan package. (His analysis excludes Chrysler, whose business plan was short on fuel economy details.) He concludes that GM and Ford could comply with the  California standards with little to no effort:

All three companies state that they will at least comply with future federal fuel economy (“CAFE”) standards. This analysis demonstrates that GM and Ford are now positioned also to comply with the more stringent California greenhouse gas standards if they were extended to apply nationwide. (my emphasis)

Postscript: Jackson’s home state of New Jersey just joined the list of states implementing California’s Zero Emissions Vehicle (ZEV) program, according to the Daily Record of Parsippany, NJ. The ZEV program was declared dead along with the battery-electric vehicle by the award-winning 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car?. In fact, the program helped drive hybrid vehicles onto car lots across the country and will likely accelerate future adoption of plug-in hybrids and battery-electrics according to my ZEV report in IEEE Spectrum magazine.

add to del.icio.us : Add to Blinkslist : add to furl : Digg it : add to ma.gnolia : Stumble It! : add to simpy : seed the vine : : : TailRank

This post was created for the Technology Review guest blog: Insights, opinions and analysis of the latest in emerging technologies

California Counts the Ways to Decarbonate

Governor Schwarzenegger Takes on the FedsTrying to track California’s developments in climate change policy is a full-time job these days. Carbon-Nation has followed the state’s efforts to drive the electrification of the automobile, but this is but a scratch at the surface. California’s initiatives also include: incentives for renewable energy, taxes on high-carbon fuels, tough vehicle fuel economy standards (in the absence of real leadership from Washington), and, in partnership with other western states and British Columbia, a regional cap-and-trade system that should ratchet down industrial emissions of greenhouse gases.

This broad frontal attack on climate complacency is helping to change the politics of climate change across the U.S. and Canada. It is also driving innovation. Today, California’s Air Resources Board reviews an innovative report from its Global Warming Economic and Technology Advancement Advisory Committee that lays out no less than 55 opportunities to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The proposals span the realms of finance, transportation, industry, commerce, residential energy use, electricity and natural gas, agriculture, forestry and water policy.

Let no one say that its too late to stop climate change.

add to del.icio.us : Add to Blinkslist : add to furl : Digg it : add to ma.gnolia : Stumble It! : add to simpy : seed the vine : : : TailRank