Energy Storage: The Holy Grail

A 2 MW battery at the AES Huntington Beach power plant. (Photo: Lauren Sommer)

Energy storage is something we’ve come to take for granted in everyday life. Our cell phones, iPods, cars and computers all depend on batteries. But storing large amounts of energy for the electric grid is another matter entirely. It’s a technical challenge that has yet to be met–but will need to be for the coming age of renewable energy.

California’s grid is designed to deliver electricity on a real-time basis. Every four seconds, the grid operators at the California Independent System Operator (ISO) have to ensure that the energy supply meets the demand in the state, something that’s known as “balancing” the grid (you can see today’s electricity forecast on the ISO site). As a result, they coordinate the one piece of the system that they have control over: the power plants. Continue reading

Creating Power from Both Light and Heat

A key component of new solar panel technology being tested at Stanford. (Photo: Nick Melosh)

In a kind of cruel paradox, heat has always been the enemy of solar panels.  At higher temperatures, photovoltaic cells become less efficient, which is problematic in an industry where efficiency is the name of the game. That heat also represents wasted energy.

Today, researchers at Stanford University announced that they may have helped solve that problem. Nick Melosh of Stanford’s Materials Science & Engineering department set out to make use of the wasted heat. He and his colleagues created a solar cell technology that uses both light and heat to generate electricity. It’s called “photon-enhanced thermionic emission” (or PETE for short). “This is the first time that a process has been reported that can use the heat and the photons together harmoniously,” says Melosh. Continue reading

Coal, Soot and A Mighty Wind

This week in climate news: coal dollars in California, soot in the air, and wind in the desert.

1. Big Coal Donates to Fiorina Campaign

Republican Senate candidate Carly Fiorina received $63,000 in donations  from out-of-state coal mining interests. About a third of that money is from Murray Energy Corporation in Ohio, the largest privately owned coal producer in the U.S. Continue reading

The Biggest Solar Project in the World

It’s just outside Phoenix. No, it’s in the Mojave. Wait, no, it’s in San Benito County.

A solar-thermal array uses mirrors to concentrate sunlight. (Image: BrightSource Energy)

On a media call this week in which executives and investors from the solar industry stumped for extensions to key federal incentives, I heard Fred Morse of Abengoa Solar say that the company’s Solana project in Gila Bend, Arizona, will be, as described on the project website, “the world’s largest solar plant.” Later that same day, an email came in from Oakland-based BrightSource Energy, (not in response) touting its Ivanpah project as “the largest solar project in the world.” Similar terms have been used to describe Solargen’s proposed 4,700-acre photovoltaic array in San Benito County. Continue reading

The Next Frontier: Artificial Photosynthesis

The ultimate model for clean fuels? (Photo: KQED QUEST)

Amidst all the fretting over the development of solar and wind technology, it hasn’t been lost on some scientists that there are organisms on the planet that have already cracked the renewable energy code: plants.

Photosynthesis is a highly efficient way of converting sunlight to fuel. So why not try to copy them?

Continue reading

Intersolar Chair: CA Losing Solar Race

Despite frequent pronouncements by the outgoing governor of the Golden State, the chair of the giant solar industry expo that winds up in San Francisco today says “California and the US are losing badly in the global race” for solar energy deployment.

Eicke Weber of Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems made the comment on KQED’s Forum program this morning, during an hour devoted to solar energy prospects.

Weber said that California will represent a tiny fraction of the world’s growth in photovoltaics this year; just 200 of the 10,000 megawatts that he projects will be installed globally. California remains ahead of all other states in the deployment of solar panels. Weber’s forecast for California still represents two thirds of his projected total for the US. That’s “far below what could be expected from a country that’s as rich and sunshine-filled as the United States,” added Weber.

Chinese suppliers had a high profile at this week's solar expo in San Francisco (Photo: Craig Miller)

The global face of solar was impossible to miss at the Intersolar conference at San Francisco’s Moscone Center. Three levels of exhibition space were crammed with industry exhibits. To get there, attendees had to jostle for space on the escalators. Though this was billed as the “North American” conference (following an even bigger one in Europe), the halls included major product exhibits from China, Germany, Spain, South Korea, and other nations. Organizers told the trade publication Solar Industry that they booked 30% more exhibitors than last year for the expo.

While speakers at the conference were calling for more government support for solar and other renewable energy sources, state officials in California were going to the mat to save what’s already in place here. On Wednesday attorney general/gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown said he is suing key players in the mortgage markets, in an effort to save the vaunted PACE program, which finances residential solar projects through property tax assessments. The announcement came even as the California Public Utilities Commission said it was suspending some solar incentive programs for schools and community organizations, after being overwhelmed with applications.

During the Forum discussion, Weber was sometimes at loggerheads with a former colleague from UC Berkeley, where Weber taught for more than 20 years. Weber predicted that rooftop solar could be cost-competitive with fossil fuels within seven years. But Severin Borenstein, who co-directs the Energy Institute at Berkeley, said he considered that forecast to be “at the very optimistic end of the range.”

Borenstein said he was not surprised that the PACE program is in trouble. He said that from the outset, mortgage lenders had been queasy about the program because when properties end up in foreclosure, the banks could find themselves second or third in line for their money, behind counties that finance the PACE energy upgrades.

Solar Heats Up In San Francisco

The solar industry has descended on the Moscone Center in downtown San Francisco this week. Organizers of the third annual Intersolar North America Conference and Expo expect more than 20,000 attendees.

After a period of explosive growth, the current economic downturn has tested the mettle of solar businesses. Demand for products has declined and panels are sitting on shelves in Europe.

It’s expected that the industry will pick back up as individual states, such as California, and some countries, continue working toward renewable energy goals. As Climate Watch and KQED’s Quest science unit have highlighted in recent reports, California has set a goal for utilities to get a third of their electricity from clean sources by 2020.

But to put that in perspective, Germany, a world leader in solar production, hopes to reach 100% by 2050. And the recent move to cut subsidies notwithstanding, Germany might be on track to reach that goal. At the opening session of Intersolar today, Hans Josef Fell, who helped start a photovoltaic revolution in Germany and is a member of the German parliament, says it is that national commitment that has made the difference. Rooftop solar in Germany, for example, covers nearly 20% of single-family homes and, according to Fell, nearly 60% of multi-family homes and businesses have solar on the roof. During the current economic crisis, Fell says, renewable energy has been the biggest job driver in Germany.

Discussion of large-scale solar opportunities took up a big chunk of the first day at Intersolar. Market analysts, utilities and developers gathered on the dais to discuss ways to help “big solar” grow bigger, especially in California. The take-away: the biggest obstacle is not finding land or overcoming a slow permitting process, but updating transmission lines. A representative from SunPower Corporation said interconnection with the grid and more capacity are among the biggest obstacles to moving forward with medium and large-scale solar projects.

Later this week, attendees at Intersolar take up urban renewable projects and the ins and outs of doing solar business in California. The conference continues through Thursday.

In the (Climate) News

We know there’s a lot happening out there.  In case you missed them, here are a few recent climate stories that have been on our radar this week.

1.  Charges against “Climategate” scientists dismissed for the third time
Another independent review of British researchers in the “Climategate” scandal came to the same conclusion of previous investigations: The researchers did not manipulate their data. However, the review does fault the researchers for being less-than-forthcoming with their data at times, and for being  lax in response to critics.
(Read more at the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, and

2. Utility giant PG&E opposes AB 32 blocker
CEO Peter Darbee released a statement in opposition of Proposition 23 saying that “…unchecked climate change could cost California’s economy alone tens of billions of dollars a year in losses to agriculture, tourism, and other sectors.”  Prop 23, which qualified for the Nov. 2 ballot last month, would suspend AB 32 until unemployment falls to 5.5 percent for four straight quarters.
(Read more at the The Sacramento Bee and

3. Federal funding for carbon capture and storage research
This week the Department of Energy announced approximately $67 million for ten projects designed to develop technology for CO2 capture and storage from coal power plants, a strategy considered central to reducing global CO2 emissions.  Menlo Park-based Membrane Technology and Research, Inc. is slated to receive almost $15 million of the funds.
(Read more at The New York Times Green blog.)

5. Cloud seeding could make things wetter
Spraying seawater into clouds to combat global warming could yield wetter seasons, a Stanford study found.  The analysis used computer simulations of the global climate system with increased CO2 levels and more reflective clouds over all of the world’s oceans. Researchers said they were surprised by the findings because previous computer simulations have found that using geoengineering to whiten clouds and decrease solar radiation could make the Earth drier, not wetter.

Chistopher Penalosa is a Climate Watch intern.

A Clean Energy Plan in a Messy Situation


A plan to help homeowners afford solar panels and other energy-efficient appliances is in limbo. In 2008 California was the first state to pass legislation enabling  PACE (Property Assessed Clean Energy) programs, which provide loans for property owners to buy expensive energy-saving devices. The Obama Administration has supported the plan, granting millions of dollars in stimulus funds for the programs. Cities and counties, once their states have given them the go-ahead, set up programs that issue bonds for the appliances. The homeowners then repay the loans through add-ons to their property taxes.

That’s the heart of the problem, according to letters sent by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to lenders in May. When homeowners default, usually tax assessments take priority over the mortgage when the debts are repaid. But the federal mortgage backers warn in their letters that “an energy-related lien may not be senior to any mortgage.” (from the Freddie Mac letter (PDF); the Fannie Mae letter (PDF) has slightly different wording). The news has thrown lenders into a state of confusion.

According to articles in Grist and a blog post in the New York Times, now cities (including San Francisco) are suspending their PACE programs, and solar installation companies are losing work–and laying off workers.

The first PACE bond in the country was issued in Berkeley, in January 2009. Since then San Francisco, Sonoma County, and Yucaipa, among other cities and counties in the state have begun PACE programs. San Diego and LA have plans in the works. But without more clarity from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac on if they will back mortgages given to homeowners who have taken advantage of PACE, it’s unclear if the programs will continue.

Postcard from Prudhoe Bay

Caribou in a field at Prudhoe Bay (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

The only way to drive to the Arctic Ocean from Toolik Station, or really, any place else in Alaska, is to take the Dalton Highway north until it ends in Prudhoe Bay.  I thought the Haul Road was bumpy from Fairbanks to Toolik, but taking it the additional 140 miles from Toolik Field Station to Prudhoe Bay took things to a whole new level.  It’s the kind of drive where you have to be careful not to touch your face, because the van is bumping along so wildly, you’ll likely poke your eyeball out. Which is particularly challenging when you also need to be vigilantly swatting mosquitoes the size of hummingbirds.

Very few people actually live in Prudhoe Bay, but at any given moment it is home to thousands of workers working 12 hours shifts, two weeks on, two weeks off, at the country’s largest oil field.   It’s basically a gigantic work site, operated by BP.  The airport and general store are down the road a bit in the settlement of Deadhorse.  And there’s no other way to say it — Prudhoe Bay comes across as one depressing place.

Equipment at the edge of the Arctic Ocean in Prudhoe Bay (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

We made the four-hour journey there last Tuesday, arriving  just after 4pm. The temperature was in the 30’s, but the wind made it feel much colder.  Gray clouds hung low and close to the ground.  Massive oil rigs and processing facilities dominate the landscape in Prudhoe, along with modular unit-type buildings used as living quarters, and parking lots full of trucks.  Everything was covered in gray mud.  The sky was gray, the icy water was gray, the mud-coated buildings were gray, and even the ocean sand dunes and the marshy landscape around the facilities were a muted, grayish brown.  Someone in our group described the scene as “post-apocalyptic,” and another mentioned the movie Blade Runner.  Looking around at the trash-strewn landscape, the huge trucks caked with dirt, and, in one spot, the massive pipes belching flames, I was reminded of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, The Road.

Muskoxen at Prudhoe Bay (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

To actually access the Arctic Ocean, which was our group’s true mission, we had to pass through a BP checkpoint.  And to be able to do that, we had to be on a company-sanctioned tour, which consisted mainly of driving around looking at buildings and equipment, with a nice but not-very-chatty security guard.  But a true highlight was just a few minutes into the bus ride when we encountered a group of wild muskoxen. (Another highlight was the BP promotional video we were forced to watch before we boarded the bus.) Then we headed to a rocky beach, where three brave souls took a full-body plunge into the 29 degree waters of the Arctic Ocean.  The  chunks of ice floating on the surface were enough to deter me from even wading in at all.

In addition to all the headlines about the Gulf disaster, BP has also been drawing attention over developments here in Prudhoe Bay.   According to a recent article in The New York Times, the company plans to start drilling this fall at a new site about three miles off the shore at Prudhoe Bay, despite Obama’s moratorium on new offshore drilling projects.  By building an artificial island in the shallow waters, BP has acquired an “onshore” designation for the controversial project, the article explains.  This graphic from the Times illustrates how the proposed drilling would work.

Our tour guide didn’t discuss the Liberty project, and when we called ahead about our visit, a BP spokesperson said that no one would be available to talk with us.  So, after our tour, we warmed up with some hot chocolate, and then we took our cold selves back to Toolik Field Station with lots of new questions and not many answers.

A typical truck in Prudhoe Bay (Photo: Gretchen Weber)