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The Who’s Who of Renewable Failures

Energy can neither be created nor destroyed. Its demand with humans will never be lost, from toasters to rollercoasters. But energy technologies and companies prove much more mortal. I cover some of the struggling technologies in another article.

In the green fuel sector, the failure of certain companies can be a political bomb. Solyndra, the first profile, is a dirty word nowadays. An observer of the fall of Fisker, our second profile, was most worried about the fallout to other electric vehicles (EVs).

And then some believe that, at least in popular energies, we should allow failure to weed out the losers.

Let’s take a look at some of the newsworthy crashes in renewable energy business and what they told us.

 

Failure: Solyndra

Tech: CIGs Solar Thin Film

Leaders: Brian Harrison, CEO & Bill Stover, CFO

Lifetime: 2005-2011

Solyndra is the elephant in the room. It’s usually the first example anti-renewable critics take up, and for an obvious reason. It received a $535 million loan as part of the stimulus, which aided green tech.

It started in 2005, received aid in 2009, and got visited by Pres. Obama. The controversy in hindsight was whether the rifts were starting to appear early on.

There are a few guesses at why it failed.

The leadership lacked people familiar with utilities who made reckless decisions after getting their government grant.

The CEO’s lawyer Miles Ehrlich blames China for making their competitor technology, traditional silicon solar cells, cheaper. While Bill Bathe, chief executive of U.S. Energy Services, sees it as something inherent to the age of the industry.

“There used to be 50 car companies in this country, but very few survived,” said Bathe to the Los Angeles Times. “For consumers, this is an exciting time, but for investors, this is still a very high-risk stage. You may hit a home run or be part of the experiment that delivers no payout.”

Others see it as intrinsic to the tubular design of their product, which may allow wind to pass through and snow fall off, but has other disadvantages.

“It was really a stupid idea when you got down to it,” Brad Ives, Vice Chancellor of UNC Chapel Hill’s Finance and Administration office, said. “The key thing with solar cells is you want the most surface area exposed to the sun. And with the cylinder, you weren’t directly gathering the sun because it was wrapped around a pipe, you had to have a mirror to reflect the sun. Rolling stuff out flat and making it cheaply was a lot better.”

Or maybe it failed spectacularly because it wasn’t allowed to fail before. The presidential administration wanted it to be a representative success, and the DoE extended a loan in late 2010. (More about these developments at The Washington Post during and after the fall.)

The good news for solar industry overall is that Solyndra was unusual. In technology and business certainly, in politics perhaps, but the verdicts differ. The FBI’s four-year investigation puts blame primarily on the company, no individuals named or charges brought. But others suspect more foul play from politicians.

“The actions of certain Solyndra officials were, at best, reckless and irresponsible or, at worst, an orchestrated effort to knowingly and intentionally deceive and mislead the Department,” the Office of Inspector General said.

Solyndra’s fall may reflect some of the issues with so-called cutting-edge technology, in conception and deployment. It may reflect the fault in ignoring the possibility of natural failure of these technologies. The FBI report and others point more towards human failures: greed and deceit.

 

Fisker

Tech: Electric cars

Leaders: Henrik Fisker and Niedzwiecki

Lifetime: 2007-2011

This political talking point at one point has a $529 million loan and Leonardo Di Caprio going for it. The loan fortunately went down to $192 million after failing checkpoint deliveries and producing its first car in Finland, not the US.

Fisker’s fatal flaw was its manufacturing. To keep costs down, they wanted to use “off-the-shelf” parts in its cars. But this cobbling together meant reliance upon and forced adaptation to its suppliers.

This is the opposite of the more successful approach of Tesla. Tesla breeds research, development, and patents from within. Sometimes they even sell it off.

What did the failure look like? A horrible review by Consumer Reports. An embarrassingly public fire and subsequent recall of a cooling fan. Seeing battery-supplier A123 fall away. Filing for bankruptcy.

But compare it to one of its suppliers, A123, maker of lithium phosphate batteries originally for electric cars. Solyndra 2.0, some where calling it when it too went bankrupt.

“There was accompany called A123 that everybody thought was incredible, it was poised to go public and it collapsed right at the end after having several hundred million dollars put into it,” said Ives. “A123 ended up being a cost issue with some technical problem. The batteries weren’t quite as good as they thought they were going to be and they cost too much.”

So what saved it?

Chinese company Wanxiang Group bought A123 but passed on Fisker. The company now also provides batteries to utilities and power plants. These deals are in California as well as Japan, China, and Spain. They are rebuilding their car batteries too, more in hybrids now.

An extensive review of its rebound can be found on Slate.

A123 was able to repurpose its technology and continue to take advantage of environmental limits.

Even without its leadership, Fisker’s business model and design was not worth saving.

 

Failure: KiOR

Tech: Biofuel

Leader: Vinod Khosla

Lifespan: 2007-2014

This company was its billionaire owner’s part in a “war on coal.” It created “biocrude” mostly from wood. Even former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice believed in Khosla’s dream, joining the board (but doing little else) from 2011 to 2013.

The Washington Post even considers Khosla “one of the gods of high-tech venture capital.”

Let’s start with the science. Their key was “catalytic cracking” to break down wood and make cellusolic biofuel, meaning from inedible parts of plants. This is straight hydrocarbons, foreign from ethanol.

But when KiOR went public, possible yield was greatly overstated—and before fuel was being made. The CEO at the time warned management, and left.

Multiple people on the inside grew concerned, unlike with Solyndra. However, they were not heard. The CEO in 2011 was one, and left from being ignored. A hired engineer filed a whistleblower complaint, which was dismissed. Even the chemical engineer who had brought catalytic cracking to Khosla knew something was wrong.

“Vinod is a very visionary man,” O’Connor said about Khosla to Fortune Magazine. “Maybe too visionary.”

Combined with yields a third of promised, there were technical problems in the factory. Neither issue was resolved. Unable to find a buyer, KiOR closed.

Biofuels have not been doing well in the US. The valley of death between startup and commercialization has claimed far more than investors and even the EPA have expected. Oil prices at a low and less-than-friendly environmental policies do not help.

Some, like Fortune Magazine, see this failure rooted in Khosla’s ego. The governor of Mississippi, where the factory was located, sees their bankruptcy claims as near criminal. A class action lawsuit** does charge it as criminal.

Lack of transparency seems to have been the real killer here, for whatever reasons. One may also fault the very investment in biofuels. Whether this industry itself will continue is a question up in the air.

 

Failure: Peabody Energy

Tech: Coal

Leaders: Glenn L. Kellow, CEO and president

Lifetime: 1883-2016

This failure is a little different. The company is over a hundred years old, and filed for bankruptcy two weeks ago. It isn’t just a coal company—it’s America’s top coal company.

A quarter of coal companies in the US are currently in bankruptcy. The next-best filed for bankruptcy earlier this year.

Peabody Energy says they will continue to operate and then rebound*, which worries many about continued pollution for cents per carbon ton emitted. But their problems—natural gas competition, green energy regulations, and a weaker Chinese market—don’t look temporary.

There are more articles at Desmog and The Washington Post about the company’s failure. But it seems indicative of a larger failure: the failure of a fuel.

Somehow, the coal industry did not see change coming. And it is unable to adapt the way natural gas and petroleum companies have. It is too dirty, and too old.

 

Solyndra, Fisker, and KiOR were failures, but their industries will probably go on. Peabody’s failure is the symbol of a dying giant. It may be hard as an investor to find the right bet in the renewables field, but the field itself will continue to grow. Business learn from scandals and closings and the clean fuel industry evolves.

Waste What: My Own Personal Landfill

We all know what trash is like- ugly, smelly, and dirty. So why on earth would I chose to carry it around with me for a day?

The minute we dump garbage into a trashcan, we are helping to creating a physical landfill. Out of sight, out of mind, right? This doesn’t have to be the case.

By carrying around my garbage for a day, I hoped to become more conscious of my waste habits. Follow along with my journal entries to discover just what exactly we throw into the can and where that trash can go.

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7:30am: First things first, I need to find my mobile trash can. Luckily I’m able to put this grocery bag into reuse.

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8:30am: I just created my first waste for the day. The remnants of breakfast- a banana peel and yogurt container!

9:00am: So I realized the banana peel smells, and I get to carry around that with me too. Cool.

12:50pm: After eating a salad for lunch, I now have my second source of waste for the day. I wasn’t hungry enough to finish the whole thing, so I have now added a plastic take-out box and soggy lettuce leaves to the bin.

2:15pm: Someone just asked me why I’m carrying around an old banana, as they preceded to crinkle their nose in my general direction. Looks like I’ve become a trash can too.

My personal mobile trash can

4:10pm: Documenting my most recent trash update. I did a little bit of cleaning in my pantry, so an old cereal box and two granola bar boxes are now being carried with me.

4:45pm: Went to Sugarland and got gelato, so a small plastic bowl and spoon is added to my bag. I actually accidentally tossed this into the trash can, so fishing it back out got me a few weird looks. I never realized that throwing trash away is such compulsive behavior. We really don’t give our waste habits a second thought

6:30pm:  I was starving for dinner, so no food waste here. Luckily the restaurant will be washing their bowl, cup, and silverware for reuse. Unfortunately they did print a receipt, so that was added to the bag.

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9:00pm: Status update- just finished off a gallon of lemonade!

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11:15pm: Just did some homework, so I’ve added old scrap paper and a mechanical pencil. I’ve concluded that this should be all of the trash I will be generating for the day. At least I hope so, otherwise I might need another bag soon. Let’s see how this breaks down:

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The best way to manage trash is as follows: reduce, reuse, recycle or compost, create energy, and finally, landfill.

When considering their own habits, consumers should recognize that reducing consumption is the best way to manage their waste. Landfilling should be the last possible option consumers should consider.

The first pile to the far left includes materials that should be sorted and composted- the banana peel, salad, and organic nut bar. The salad container should then be recycled, and the bar’s packaging sent to the second pile.

This second pile includes trash that can be used in a waste-to-energy facility- old paper, bags, etc. However, this trash would first be sorted by the facility. They would ensure no harmful plastics and other materials that would create unsafe air pollution are used in generation.

The final pile includes broken down cardboard boxes, a gallon jug, yogurt container, and magazine. These items should be recycled so their materials can be put into further use.

 

 

Duke Energy Learns From Drought: Increasing Water Efficiency in NC

Cowan's Ford Hydro Station created Lake Norman and generates electricity for Duke Energy.
Cowan’s Ford Hydro Station created Lake Norman and generates electricity for Duke Energy. (Photo via Duke Energy)

When you hear about a power outage, what causes spring to mind? Maybe a thunderstorm during the summer, possibly an ice storm in the winter months. In these cases damaged power lines likely prevented electricity from getting to your home. You may not have thought about how a lack of water could prevent your electricity from ever being generated.

Many don’t realize that water plays a vital role in generating electricity. On average, more water is used to generate your home’s electricity than you use to shower, flush the toilet, and do other daily tasks.

As the largest electric power holding company in the U.S., Duke Energy uses billions of gallons of water every year. Below, we’ll learn more about how Duke uses water and how it is working to conserve water in your state.

 

How much water does Duke Energy use every year?

According to Duke Energy spokesperson Randy Wheeless, Duke withdrew 6,250 billion gallons of water in 2015 and consumed 79 billion gallons of that.

Water withdrawn is water taken out of a reservoir. Most of this water, over 98%, is returned to the source. Water consumed is the amount of water removed and not returned due to evaporation. Water consumed decreased from 93 billion gallons in 2014.

What is this water used for?

Most of Duke’s water use comes from cooling its power plants. Duke’s thermal generation plants convert heat energy to electricity. Such systems generate heat during the electricity-making process and must be cooled to remain functional.

What is Duke doing that reduces the amount of water withdrawn?

Duke has recently retired many old coal power plants and replaced them with natural gas plants.

“When they do that, when they switch from these older coal plants to these newer natural gas plants, they are implicitly switching what type of cooling system they use,” says Dr. Jordan Kern, a research assistant professor at UNC who studies energy and water.

Most natural gas plants generate some of their electricity directly from force created by combustion, rather than relying entirely on steam processes like most coal plants. This means that natural gas plants have less need for cooling than coal plants.

Gas fired plants use about 50 percent less water for cooling than a similar coal plant, according to Wheeless. “As we retire coal plants and replace with natural gas, our overall consumption goes down,” Wheeless says.

Why is it important for Duke to be able to function with less water?

At 800,000 people and counting, Charlotte’s 8.4 percent growth rate poses a risk for Duke. With growing municipalities competing for water and demanding more energy, Duke needs to be able to generate electricity with less water available.

Though Duke’s cooling systems return most of the water to the basin, coal and nuclear plants could be at risk because they require so much withdrawn water. Duke has two major nuclear plants near Charlotte in the Catawba River basin.

“If you’re sucking up a lot of water through a straw and then returning 97% of it back downstream, you still have to have it there in the first place in order to operate the power plants,” says Kern.

Kern says that Duke, like many utilities, is increasingly susceptible to water shortages. “Part of that’s climate, part of that’s growth in that part of the state.”

As climate change continues, scientists expect more extreme weather patterns. This includes more severe droughts.

During the 2007 and 2008 drought, Duke had to make major changes to its energy mix. This included reducing hydroelectric generation by 67% at some points during the drought.

Kern says that the drought was a wake-up call for Duke and that since then the utility has improved on collaborating with municipalities to better manage water. “Compared to many water systems and utilities, I think that group has been pretty progressive in terms of accounting for climate change and uncertainty in the availability of water in the future,”he says.

 

The Clean Job Hunt

“What will you be doing after graduation?”

It’s inevitable question dreaded by college seniors all over the world.

With a job in clean-technology and renewable energy, you could be:

  • traveling internationally to manage the finances of energy companies
  • meeting with stakeholders to manage policy agendas
  • researching new technologies
  • helping to finance a solar project
  • creating innovative ways to use social media to bolster support for wind power

These are just a few of the things that Carolina students have had the opportunity to do in the clean-tech sector.

Sound cool?  Here’s what these students and recent grads had to say about landing their clean-tech jobs:

 


 

Jenna Koester

“Upward mobility. Make sure you understand what the trajectory is for you at a company before you sign on.”

 

 

 


 

Bianca Gartner

 

Bianca Gartner

“A willingness to work and try anything – that’s really what will get you places.”

 

 

 


 

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Charlie Egan

“You want to have a skill–something you’re good at–that makes you attractive to companies. “

 


 

Megan Neligan_Jobs article

 

Megan Neligan

“What you do today really does translate into your career and helps grow your network in the future.”

 


 

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Ellie Hartye

“Being honest is the best form of communication–not being afraid to admit your confusions and mistakes because you and your boss grow as a result.”

 

 


 

Interviews have been edited for brevity.

DoD and Environment Q&A with NC House Representative John Szoka

North Carolina House Representative John Szoka is a retired Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Army. He spent 20 years in the military, and continues to serve his country now as a member of the NC General Assembly.
Szoka is a supporter of renewable energy. Check out what he had to say about environmental issues, the Department of Defense, renewable energy and climate change.

What got you to notice and care about the environmental movement?

When I was a kid growing up in Cleveland, steel manufacturing was huge. The Cuyahoga River was by a factory downtown, and a homeless man nearby was standing on a little wooden bridge over it. He dropped his cigarette butt in the river, and the river caught fire. The fire unfortunately killed that gentleman, and then burned for two days.

Also as a kid, my uncle and I would go out to the forest and he would talk about the trees and how the acid rain from all the coal fired plants was killing the forest.

So as a little kid, it makes kind of an impression and it’s like, “What the heck is this all about?! This can’t be good, are we doing this on purpose?”

Then flash forward to when I got out of the Army. Actually I didn’t become an environmentalist through the Army because usually the environmental regulations restricted the areas where we could train, so I didn’t really like that.

But I guess I got into it a little more after I was elected because I thought I knew what renewable energy was. But I didn’t really. I just had these preconceived notions. By self education essentially I realized that it was something I needed to be involved in just because too many of my compatriots were not taking the time to learn the ins and outs of it all. So you know, you can’t be an expert on everything, but this is one of the things that I decided to become more of an expert on.


“You can’t be an expert on everything, but this is one of the things that I decided to become more of an expert on.”

 


 

Did the military have anything to do with your passion for renewable energy?

The military tie is definitely there. One time when I was in the Corps on active duty, the rest of the guys were out on a training exercise but I stayed back, there was a general and myself. And there was a hurricane that went through the Saint Thomas Virgin Islands, and everything lost power, and it was a real mess – this was back in ninety-something. So basically all the support that came from the Army flew through Fort Bragg. We were sending so many energy generators and power units, stuff that I didn’t even know existed in the Army let alone anywhere in the world. So we were doing that for a week straight, and so we started having discussions about, like, what would happen if we ran out of power here? What would this do, how would that be? They were just delirious two-in-the-morning conversations until the next plane came in, but even back then it really got me thinking about our over-reliance on the conventional grid.

And then jump to when I get elected and now I’m thinking about those same kinds of conversations. We’re so dependent on the grid and we’re so dependent on all these power generation plants, that, you know, what if someone took them out?

So It’s never one thing that makes someone decide to do something, it’s usually a series of of things where eventually a light bulb in your head turns on and you say “Hey, I need to do whatever.” So for me it was becoming aware that the environment was important as a kid, then – throughout my Army career – being sensitive to the environmental effects it had on training, and then this incident with the hurricane. And you know, just with an over-reliance on the grid and an over-reliance on computers and everything – this just seems like the natural way to go.

What do you think about the relationship between the DoE and DoD?
Do you agree with the proposed ban on their collaboration?

Let’s back up a little bit and take a look at the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense’s relationship over the years. You know, it’s been a very close relationship, and some would argue that the DOE exists primarily because of the military. A large portion of what they do, to my understanding, is in nuclear power and things like that where there’s this very close relationship between nuclear power and nuclear weapons right now, so I think putting in a prohibition from the two talking to one another isn’t really smart.

I don’t really know what the major motivation to keep two major agencies from talking to one-another is. At face value it doesn’t seem like it makes a whole lot of sense to me.

Do you think that the national security argument for renewable energy is the military’s only argument?

No, I don’t think that’s the only argument. I mean, the DoD is the largest consumer of energy in the world. Which means that the biggest part of their budget every year is for energy. So, in terms of saving money, I would do anything I could to save taxpayers money, and reduce that bill. So it’s not just a “hug a tree kiss a unicorn” kind of thing, there’s real dollars and cents savings in this for the military which should translate to savings for the taxpayers. So the energy security part is certainly important, but the money part is definitely there too.

Here’s the question that lawmakers and the public has to answer: right now energy is cheap, but is it always gonna stay like that? If it isn’t, how do we keep total energy costs down in the future if the price of petroleum based products rises? And for me, the answer to that is simple: renewable energy.


“For me, the answer is simple: renewable energy.”

 


 

What are your thoughts on global warming?

I don’t dispute that there may be global warming, what I take issue with is that it’s due to humans. And my argument for that is the geological history of the Earth. We’ve been through ice ages; we’ve been through humid periods. There’s a lot of things that affect the atmosphere and the climate, so to pick out a couple-hundred-year period and to say that that shows a trend? With me being a math guy – no it doesn’t. Not when you have a five-billion-year history, or if you’re a fundamental Christian, six thousand years. See my point there? I have not yet been convinced that global warming is man-made.

[Editor’s note: There is a strong scientific consensus that the Earth is warming and that people are extremely likely to be the cause.]

How do you respond to reports of increased carbon emissions since the Industrial Revolution?

Personally, I don’t use global warming as any type of argument for my support of renewables. I’m about free markets and just the military aspect as well as common sense.

There’s nobody that’s been able to show me enough statistical evidence that is consistent and goes back more than fifty years that lends credence to the fact that what they’re saying is true. I just haven’t seen it, and if something exists, I’d love to see it.


 

“I don’t use global warming as any type of argument for my support of renewables.”

 


 

What’s one thing that you would change about how this country deals with the discussions about renewable energy?

If I could change one thing, I would just want people to get beyond their own talking points and do some critical thinking…on every issue…instead of just rushing to conclusions based on limited knowledge. There should be more well-rounded and informed conversations instead of just blind arguments.

Could We Be Breathing China’s Polluted Air?

At the end of last year, Beijing issued its most severe air pollution warning for only the second time in history. Dangerously high levels of smog, the polluted mixture of smoke and fog, persisted in the city for over five days.

Beijing and neighboring regions were forced to enter a state known as ‘Red Alert.’ Schools were canceled, cars were kept off the roads, and many factories were asked to pause production.

Since the incident, China has received a lot of pressure from European countries and the U.S. to improve the country’s air quality.

So why does the U.S. care about China’s air quality?

The answer, according to Dr. Uma Shankar, a researcher of intercontinental air transportation at UNC-Chapel Hill, is really quite simple.

“It is true that domestic sources of emissions are the primary cause of air pollution in the United States,” says Shankar. “But like many countries, the U.S. is a heavy importer and exporter of air pollution.”

In Chapel Hill, Shankar works on creating models for ozone and other air particles on the regional and global scale. She also studies the benefits of global greenhouse gas reduction.

Shankar says that air pollution moves across regional and international borders at an incredibly fast rate. Such transport of air pollution greatly impacts the U.S.’s ability to maintain and regulate air quality standards domestically.

“There is no such thing as our air or their air,” says Shankar. “There is only the air and what other countries do impacts us very much.”

Shankar says that many large-scale experiments have shown that pollution originating thousands of miles away can be observed in the air that people breathe due to atmospheric behavior.

She says air is typically carried in the south-west direction toward the earth’s upper atmosphere and then lowered back down through the push of air from above. This process is sometimes referred to as the Warm Conveyor Belt.

Where does the pollution come from? China?

Shankar says there are no primary culprits of polluted air exported into the United States.

“Yes, some countries emit considerably more greenhouse gas than others,” says Shankar. “But air is constantly moving from one region to another, from one country to another, and from one continent to another.”

She says that it would be very difficult to identify where exactly our pollution is coming from.

“Ozone tracer studies have shown transport from North America to Northern Europe,” says Shankar. “There is also empirical evidence of intercontinental transport of air pollution from China to the Midwest in the United States.”

She believes that the sheer complexity and unpredictability of the atmosphere will prevent researchers from ever knowing exactly where pollution in a certain region originated from.

“The air that we are breathing right now comes from not just our near neighbors like Canada and Mexico,” says Shankar. “It can come from countries in Africa, Europe, and Asia as well.”

What exactly is polluted air and what does it do?

Air with any combination of pollutants such as ozone, dust, soot, and sulfate can be classified as polluted air. When these pollutants are found abundantly enough, they can pose a serious threat to public health and the environment.

“The human health impacts of ozone and particulate matter such as dust, soot and sulfate are well established now,” says Shankar. “When inhaled, they can lead to lung cancer and other respiratory diseases.”

Dr. Jared Bowden, another researcher of air pollution at UNC Chapel Hill, says that particulate matter, especially soot is the most dangerous.

Soot, also commonly known as black carbon, comes from combustion inside diesel-powered vehicles and the burning of organic matter. Bowden says it is also one of the most easily transported types of particulate matter.

Yuqiang Zhang, a Ph.D. student at UNC Chapel Hill agrees and adds that all polluted air is harmful.

“Some may be harmful to human health while others may be harmful to the environment,” says Zhang. “It’s very scary. The incident in China last year has shown the world just how terrifying air pollution can be.”

Some pollutants like carbon dioxide have long term environmental impacts where as others such as ozone have immediate human health impacts.

What can be done?

“This is a billion dollar question!” says Shankar.

Many differing opinions exist about the best course of action for tackling air pollution. However, experts seem to agree that stricter regulation across the world will be absolutely essential.

Both Shankar and Bowden agree that international cooperative efforts are needed to insure good global air quality. They also agree that international policy changes must be implemented intercontinentally first and then expanded.

“Targeting only a few countries will allow us to see what works,” says Shankar. “It will be easier to expand it once we prove its effectiveness on the small scale.”

Zhang believes that countries need to realize that improvement needs to take place globally and not simply within their nation.

“The reduction of air pollutants in one country can and will bring benefits for the air pollution in other countries,” says Zhang. “Simply changing policy within one specific country will not be enough in the long run.”

When asked about the specifics behind potential international policy, Shankar said existing agreements to cap carbon emissions could be extended to pollutants such as ozone and particulate matter.

Opinion: The faces of solar

Is solar really just for the rich?

As the popularity of rooftop solar circulates through states like California, it can be hard to resist the idea that renewable energy is just for the most educated and wealthy American people. In North Carolina, it is a rarity at all to see rooftop solar, let alone on the rooftops of those who are financially struggling.

Over my spring break in Los Angeles, CA, I have confronted the fact that solar can seriously benefit lower-income families, not just the rich. 

What if there was a way that we could lower the bills of low-income families significantly through volunteerism?

This is what 301(c)3 non-profit GRID Alternatives, a subsidiary of Solarcorp under Americorp, is doing by providing solar panels for low income families across the US at no cost to the homeowner.

How do I know? I installed the panels myself with the help of GRID’s amazing team and 11 other UNC students.

California operates under a feed-in tariff, where an individual can earn payment for the energy produced by their solar panels at a higher rate for a set period of time. In 2008, GRID was chosen as  the statewide program manager for its $162 million Single-family Affordable Solar Homes (SASH) incentive program.

The SASH program is the first in the country to provide significant rebates for solar energy for low income housing, directing 10 percent of California Solar Initiative funds to be set aside for programs assisting low-income households in accessing solar technology.

What this means is in California, solar has to be inclusive, and the government funds projects that work towards this goal. That’s where GRID comes in.

There are some requirements to get no-cost solar: you must live in a state determined low-income neighborhood, be within a certain income bracket, own and live in the home, and have a nice, sturdy roof. Once all those boxes are checked, you are then on the list for getting solar panels that can reduce your monthly electricity bill by over 50 percent. In many cases, an electricity bill reduction can mean a world of difference.

The people who benefit from GRID go beyond just the people that receive solar. The solar industry is a booming one in California that creates many jobs that require experience and training. I think all of us have gotten rejected from a job for not having enough experience. But how are you supposed to get experience without a job?

GRID is also working to close this chicken-and-egg situation through volunteerism. GRID installs all of its solar panels using volunteers, including veterans, who can then use this experience to apply for jobs in the for-profit solar industry.

In North Carolina, the 35 percent tax credit for investment in renewables died at the end of 2015. This tax credit led to a boom in solar investments in the state, and continued investments in solar could have led to job opportunities across the rural-urban divide. Without this tax credit, renewables in North Carolina faces serious trouble as the incentive to invest no longer exists.

Not only have renewables struggled in North Carolina, but individuals as well. Electricity bills in North Carolina are 9.35 percent higher than the national average and low-income families often have to choose between electricity and food in the winter months because of high oil prices. And while solar may not be the perfect option year-round, the savings that these families can earn could literally save their lives.

So who are the faces of solar? As for me, they are Maria Gonzales, the woman who will save $300 off her energy bill every month due to the solar GRID installed on her roof over UNC’s spring break. They are the faces of the men and women I worked side by side with who started as volunteers and are now paid members of GRID’s training force.

Will we stand behind the myth of solar only being for the wealthy, or will we take leaps towards energy equality? Will we take advantage of the opportunities that solar presents, not only for people who have solar themselves but the jobs it creates?

North Carolina: it’s your move.

Winners of the 2016 Energy Olympics

Wind turbines in Freiburg, Germany. Photo credit: Rachel Crump
Wind turbines in Freiburg, Germany. Photo credit: Rachel Crump

It’s anybody’s game at this year’s summer Olympics in Brazil. The fastest, strongest, and hardest working teams will prevail. But when it comes to renewable energy development, which country is the real winner?

The best policies, dedication to future goals, and percent renewable energy production show who will come home with a medal. See which country stands on the podium and takes the gold when it comes to production of clean energy.

Solar  Energy

Gold- Germany

Years ago, the German government paved the way for Germany to sweep the competition in solar energy. The government’s choice to subsidize solar power through a feed-in tariff mechanism has resulted in wide participation in the solar market.

“One of the motivating factors is their fear of nuclear power,” said David Salvesen, a Research Associate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

This summer he led a group of students through Germany to study sustainable energy.

“Following the disasters in Fukishima and Chernobyl they redoubled their efforts to move away from nuclear and they moved their efforts towards renewables,” he said.

Salvesen said that Germany’s financial model is another reason they have been so successful.

Silver- China

China is taking a different approach than Germany. China has erected large solar farms, instead of small scale solar installations. Predictions for the 2020 Olympics show that China could take the gold, with plans to generate up to 200 gigawatts by then.

Bronze- Japan

Japan comes sliding into third by getting bonus points for creative ways to incorporate solar. They needed to get creative because they do not have nearly as much available land as China.

Floating solar islands are Japan’s solution to staying committed to renewable energy. Japan is the country to watch, with a goal of reaching 100 percent energy by renewables by 2040.

Wind Energy

Gold- Denmark

Leading the race in wind energy is this small country located between the North Sea and the Baltic Sea. Denmark just set the world record for highest percentage of energy through wind power. More than 40% of the country’s energy supply is attributed to wind.

“There are multiple reasons and perspectives of why and how Denmark has been so successful in the wind energy development.” said Silvestra Valčiukaité, the president of Energy Crossroads, a non-profit in Denmark that promotes sustainable energy.

“Denmark serves as a great example of how it historically tackled energy security issues and how it became a first mover in the industry,” Valčiukaité said. “Of course, favorable political and economic conditions and being first in a market helped to establish different companies in the supply chain.”

Silver- China

China over took the whole EU for total installed wind capacity. They receive the silver medal because the percentage of their power generated by wind is not as high as Denmark.

The market for wind power in China continues to grow with policies that have piqued interest from investors.

Bronze- Germany

Once again, Germany’s financial model for renewable energy has allowed it to succeed. Even without government subsidies, wind energy is the cheapest source of energy in Germany.

“The cost of wind energy is very competitive and it is expected to come down enormously in the next few years,” said Andreas Von Schoenberg, who owns an environmental consulting firm in Berlin, Germany.

 

Geothermal Energy

Gold- Kenya

Kenya steals the top spot in a tight race with silver medalist Iceland for production of geothermal energy. Not only does geothermal account for 51 percent of Kenya’s energy capacity, but the country continues to development geothermal. Kenya’s gold medal also comes from them setting the path for renewable energy in developing countries.

Silver- Iceland

25 percent of Iceland’s energy production comes from geothermal power. Even swimming pools in Iceland can be heated with geothermal energy.

Iceland’s geographical location makes heating a challenge that geothermal has conquered. They harness the power of volcanoes for heating and cooling and for electricity.

Bronze- The Philippines

The government in the Philippines plans to double generation of geothermal energy within the next decade. Geothermal provides 27 percent of the country’s total electricity production. There is lots of potential for sources of geothermal in the Philippines that still needs to be tapped into.

 

A Fierce Competition

The financial and political decisions that a country’s government makes impact its success of renewable energy. Northern Europe may have a head start, but other countries are following their example.

Renewable energy technology continues to change each year. When the 2020 Summer Olympics meet in Tokyo, will a new leader emerge?

Dope or Nope? Nuclear energy as alternative fuel

You probably don’t often think about nuclear energy, but maybe it’s time to take a deeper look.

Nuclear energy has been a controversial topic since its creation in the 1950s (think: Fukushima). But it now generates nearly 20 percent of the U.S’s total energy production, and will likely keep growing.

The important question now is: should the nuclear industry continue expanding?

Answering this question is tough, but in order to do so both sides of the argument must be examined. Is nuclear energy “dope” and a promising source for energy in the future? Or should the U.S. say “nope” and stop pushing nuclear altogether?

 

Dope! Keep nuclear coming

  1. Relatively small carbon emissions

Yep, nuclear plants can produce energy without emitting greenhouse gases. That’s a pretty big deal considering the pressure on countries all over the world to reduce carbon emissions. The only problem is lifecycle emissions.

While the production of energy itself is “green,” the steps involved in making nuclear plants aren’t. The Nuclear Energy Institute recognizes that the process of creating nuclear emits pollution in various stages. However, nearly all other forms of renewable energy generate emissions during their life cycles too.

The International Panel on Climate Change, known as IPCC, conducted a study of lifecycle emissions for all types of energy. They found that nuclear emissions are on par with lifecycle emissions from renewables, and are much less than fossil fuels. This indicates that nuclear energy could become a major replacement for traditional fossil fuels.

However, nuclear engineer and associate professor Nam Dinh of North Carolina State University favors an “all of the above” approach.

“By itself, nuclear energy cannot replace fossil fuels,” he said. “Other renewable energy technologies have become increasingly affordable and should be pursued aggressively. However, wind and solar have their limitations.”

 

  1. Ability to generate huge amounts of energy

 One of the biggest criticisms of renewables is their inability to generate large quantities of energy. But this is not the case with nuclear.

Nuclear power is fueled by an element called uranium. A single pellet of uranium, slightly bigger than a pencil eraser, is the energy equivalent to a ton of coal. This translates to 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas.

Further, a typical nuclear power plant generates enough energy to power 723,000 homes each year. Comparatively, over 14,000 tons of coal would have to be burned to produce that same amount of energy.

That’s a lot of carbon emissions. Nuclear prevents that unnecessary pollution from coal while generating far more energy.

 

  1. Reliable energy source

Nuclear power is the most reliable fuel source available. Its capacity factor, the ratio of actual power generated to maximum amount possible, is 91 percent. This is by far the highest of all energy sources.

Nuclear plants are also able to generate energy 24/7 for 18 to 24 months without interruption. This makes nuclear an important source that isn’t subject to fluctuations in price as much as oil or gas. It also means that nuclear can provide energy during times when energy demand and prices are high.

Dinh sees great reliability in the industry as a whole, beyond just the power capabilities of nuclear itself.

“As the operating experience accumulates, the technology becomes more reliable, and advanced designs emerge, the new plants are even more resilient to hazards or human errors,” he said.

 

Nope! Shut down nuclear ASAP

  1. Effects on the environment

 Nuclear power requires the mining of uranium, a non-renewable radioactive resource. Radioactivity is not to be taken lightly. As we’ve seen with disasters like Fukushima, nuclear radiation can be catastrophic to the environment and human lives.

Monika Kondura is an Environment and Ecology professor at UNC-Chapel Hill. She said that the release of radioactive radiation into the environment remains toxic for thousands of years.

“The radiation released into the environment would be associated with the loss of biodiversity and all the ecological benefits, and most importantly, with major detrimental effects on human health,” she said.

Studies have shown that radiation from the nuclear meltdown at Fukushima has been devastating to surrounding areas. Timothy Mousseau, a professor at the Univeristy of South Carolina, conducted a study on the effects of radiation on birds.

Mousseau and his team found the bird populations they were studying were 30 percent lower than expected. This is double the loss that was observed in a similar study conducted following the aftermath of Chernobyl.

A nuclear meltdown like Fukushima forces us to stop and consider the risks when investing in nuclear technology. While safety precautions have been improved since this accident, future breakdowns are never out of the question.

 

  1. Disposal of toxic waste

When determining how long a radioactive isotope will linger in the environment, scientists look at half-life. Half-life is the time it takes for the concentration of an isotope to fall to half its original value. The problem with nuclear power is that uranium has a half-life of millions of years.

This long half-life creates a lot of problems when it comes to disposing of toxic waste properly. Currently, radioactive waste from nuclear plants is stored in large cylinders lined with steel and filled with concrete and water. These canisters are kept on-site at nuclear plants.

Dihn said that this type of disposal method meets protection requirements. He’s also hopeful that better techniques will be available in the future.

“Future technology may bring better or stronger and more resilient materials for use as containment,” he said.

Other methods involve burial of waste, which presents other issues. Tunnels have been dug deep beneath earth’s surface to bury waste. Various countries also used ocean floor disposal, until its ban in 1993.

Both methods of burial bring up serious concerns with regard to the environment and possible leeching of waste. And the long half-life of uranium clearly makes the disposal process of nuclear waste even trickier.

 

  1. Large consumption of fresh water

Consumption of freshwater, or evaporation, can be a big deterrent of nuclear energy.

Nuclear uses once-through and wet-recirculating methods for cooling systems. Once-through cooling takes water from a nearby source, runs it through pipes, and then discharges it back into the source. This is problematic because of thermal pollution’s effect on local ecosystems.

Wet-recirculating is similar to once-through, but involves circulating water through the plant a second time before discharging it. This can consume even more water than once-through because more water is lost as steam. It can also harm ecosystems through thermal pollution.

Most importantly, in comparison to other fuel sources, nuclear consumes the most water. Nuclear even uses more than coal, despite coal’s reputation of consuming enormous amounts of freshwater.

Earth’s population and energy demand are growing exponentially, which makes freshwater resources increasingly valuable. So an energy resource that takes water from human mouths is another factor to consider when planning for the future.

 

So, what are you trying to say?

Clearly there are valid arguments for each side of nuclear energy, and the world will never agree which is right. What’s important is that nuclear energy hasn’t been ruled out as a source of alternative energy. Therefore, staying informed about future research and development is critical, because nuclear could be an energy game-changer.

Where the Wind Blows – Onshore vs. Offshore Wind Energy

A group Alstom's ECO 100 wind turbines.
Source: Alstom 2010 (NREL)

As long as the wind blows, it is sure to be part of the energy conversation.

The wind industry has proven itself as a key player in providing energy to the public.

If the industry is going to continue growing, new infrastructure will be needed to deliver electricity from turbines to consumers.

The question is, which technology makes more economic sense to develop–onshore or offshore?

Is Onshore on Target?

Traditionally onshore turbines have dominated the wind market, with the first turbine constructed in the late 1800’s.

Pros

  • People are familiar with onshore wind. We can point to many examples around the world of how successful onshore wind can be. Denmark is receiving over 40 percent of their electricity from wind and 75 percent of that comes from onshore turbines.
  • The infrastructure necessary to transmit electricity from onshore turbines is considerably less expensive than that of offshore. Onshore wind is also competitive in the greater renewable market, as it is the cheapest form currently available.
  • Onshore turbine production could act as a boost to local economies. If turbines are installed closer to their manufacturing sites, their value is likely to stay closer.
  • There would be less emissions from transporting wind structures if they are installed closer to the manufacturing site.
GE 1.5 MW wind turbines at the Grand Ridge Wind Energy Center in Lasalle County, Illinois.
Source: Invenergy LLC 2008 (NREL)

Cons

  • Onshore wind speeds are more unpredictable than offshore. Because turbines are optimized at a specific speed, they could lose efficiency if wind is too slow or too fast.
  • Similarly, onshore wind direction changes much more often. Turbines must be facing the direction of the wind to operate efficiently. Advances in technology have led to new turbines that have some ability to pivot towards the wind.
  • There are people – climate deniers, big oil executives, etc. – who are against the growth of onshore wind. Some think it’s an eyesore or noise pollution, others think it endangers birds. There is little evidence supporting these claims, but public buy-in is key to the success of the onshore wind industry.

Misinformation can even make its way into reputable sources from the government, as Dr. John Bane explains, professor and head of the Carolina Ocean Observations Laboratory at UNC-Chapel Hill said.

“I can show you something on one of the federal organization          websites that is just flat wrong, in a couple of ways,” Bane said. “And this leads to  people reading that and thinking, ‘Oh, well this is on a federal website, it must be the truth.’”

He said opinions and inaccuracies can affect how people vote, both in the public and the legislature.

Is Offshore the Reliable Option?

Offshore wind technology is much less developed than its predecessor. It was first implemented almost a century later than onshore. The first offshore wind project went into effect in the early 1990’s near Denmark.

Pros

  • Offshore wind turbines are tend to be more efficient than onshore because wind speed and direction are more consistent. Conceivably, less turbines are needed to provide the same amount of electricity as onshore turbines.
  • Offshore wind is just that – offshore. The “not in my back yard” argument can’t be used if you can’t even see the turbines.
  • Similarly, some see onshore wind farms as threatening farm or other private land. Offshore wind does not interfere with land use.
  • Offshore wind could benefit a marine ecosystem in which it is constructed. Some studies suggest that offshore wind farms protect sea life by restricting access to certain waters and increasing artificial habitats.
December 8, 2009 - Horns Rev 2 Offshore Wind Farm, Installation of Siemens 2.3 MW Offshore Wind Turbines, North Sea, Denmark. (Photo from Siemens AG)
A wind project in the North Sea near Denmark. Source: Siemens AG 2009 (NREL)

Cons

  • The technology necessary to transmit energy from turbines in a body of water is expensive. This could change as the industry matures, but this makes it hard to justify offshore over onshore.

Dr. Harvey Seim, a professor and chairman of the department of marine sciences at UNC-Chapel Hill, said the investment in offshore is worth it–decisions should factor in long time scales.

“In the long term, I think offshore wind is a lot more robust an         investment. I think the wind field is likely to be more reliable and predictable. It certainly has a greater energy density, a significantly higher energy density,” said Dr. Seim. “But there is a big capital investment that has to be factored in to all that. However, if it’s managed properly, it should be recouped by the facility over the long term.”

  • Offshore turbines endure more wear and tear from wind and waves than onshore. This brings up operation and maintenance costs, further distancing the price from onshore.
  • Because offshore turbines are harder to get to, it could take longer to fix problems and restore them to function properly.
  • Renewable energy cooperatives allow small town citizens to be stakeholders in new development. This leads to local economic benefits, especially to rural areas. It is currently not feasible for a small town to finance an offshore farm.

So, who wins?

It’s hard to say what’s on the horizon for wind energy given fast paced nature of the industry. Because the offshore wind industry is relatively immature, the capital cost and operation and maintenance are very expensive for a new project.