Developing nations may leap-frog old-school power lines.
By: Matthew Phelan
Confronting the threats posed by climate change will require transitioning to renewable energy. Thankfully, access to decentralized power systems — including a projected 72 million solar-powered homes — will expand access to electricity more cheaply and more sustainably than past estimates, industry analysts say.
It’s been over a century since the first electric grids went online and utility companies still can’t get power to about 14 percent of the world’s population. But a new report by analysts working for Bloomberg New Energy Finance argues that decentralized systems, including those powered by renewables, could and should close the gap in an environmentally sustainable way. In fact, they estimate that the total industry investment required to achieve this is approximately $372 billion dollars less than recent assessments by the the International Energy Agency.
The BNEF group’s head researcher, Itamar Orlandi, writes that the IEA “appears to assume costs well above those we already see in the market.”
About $162 billion is currently likely to be spent on expanding energy access, according to Orlandi, with about $191 million needed to close the gap to universal access.
The Benefits of Decentralized Energy Systems
In significant ways this is the kind of report that’s mainly meant for government policy makers and decision makers at major investment institutions. But the report’s emphasis on decentralized energy grids aligns with the United Nations’ High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development — which is finishing its annual meeting sometime later this week.
The director of the UN’s Industrial Development Organization, Li Yong, set the tone with a statement late last month reiterating a similar agenda on the path toward 2030.
Specifically, Yong called on nations to “move towards decentralized energy systems which entail decentralized energy generation and storage, as well as community involvement.” To get us there, he pushed for “funding options to enable investment for low-carbon infrastructure and the deployment of leap-frogging technologies.” Lastly, he reemphasized the UN’s commitment to a “leave no one behind” energy policy for 2030.
Here’s how Orlandi and his fellow analysts foresee this shaking out: Energy companies, they say, will focus their efforts on the last handful of places where traditional, old-school grid extensions remain economically viable until sometime around the mid-2020s. It now costs somewhere between $266 and $2100 to connect a single household to the pre-existing energy grid, they estimate, but that cost doesn’t pay itself back quickly enough in communities with modest power demands. Roughly, 892 million people currently live on less than $5.50 per day with very modest electrical power demands.
What that means is that certain renewable energy options whose price-per-kilowatt-hour would not really be competitive in certain affluent, energy intensive areas (i.e. certain home solar systems or community level microgrids) can and do suddenly become more cost effective option elsewhere. After that, the report anticipates that a confluence of emerging trends will make the renewable transition even more likely in the years to come: ongoing improvements in energy-efficient appliances, cheaper component parts, more established renewable energy supply chains, and new economies of scale in the home solar market.
“Of the 238 million new households to get electricity between now and 2030,” Orlandi writes, “72 million will use solar home systems and 34 million will benefit from microgrids.”
These are very pleasant prognostications. Hopefully they come true.
Photos via: Bloomberg New Energy Finance , Neil Cummings / Flickr
By: Greer Russell
In response to the population decline of pollinating insects, such as wild bees and monarch butterflies, researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory are investigating ways to use “pollinator-friendly solar power.”
By studying solar energy facilities with pollinator habitats on site, researchers hope to rehabilitate pollinator populations that play a crucial role in the national and global agricultural industries. Loss of such species could devastate crop production, costs and nutrition on a global scale.
Though small, insects are at least partially responsible for pollinating nearly 75 percent of all crops world-wide consumed by humans in their daily diet. As man-made environmental stressors – including pesticides and land development – have increased, insect pollinators have lost habitats and species have declined significantly.
However, a team of Argonne researchers has been examining the potential benefits of establishing pollinator habitat at utility-scale solar energy (USSE) facilities to conserve pollinators and restore the ecosystem they provide. Looking at over 2,800 existing and planned USSE facilities in the contiguous United States, researchers in Argonne’s Environmental Science (EVS) division have found that the area around solar panels could provide an ideal location for the plants that attract pollinators.
Often filled with gravel or turf grass, this land otherwise goes unused. Research has shown that in some locations these grounds offer a perfect place to establish native plant species, such as prairie grass or wildflowers, which are prevalent pollinator habitats, in hopes of encouraging steady population growth.
Helping to conserve declining pollinator populations, EVS researchers Lee Walston, Heidi Hartmann, Shruti Khadka Mishra and Ihor Hlohowskyj, along with National Renewable Energy Laboratory researchers James McCall and Jordan Macknick believe that growing pollinator habitat around solar sites will also help improve the sustainability of solar energy development in agricultural regions. By increasing the ability of pollinators to pollinate adjacent agricultural fields, solar-sited pollinator habitat may boost farmer’s crop yields and make solar farms a more welcome neighbor to agricultural farms.
The researchers examined whether solar-sited pollinator habitat could benefit agriculture in a recent study published in Environmental Science & Technology. The study found over 3,500 square kilometers of agricultural land near existing and planned USSE facilities that could benefit. Walston believes this method of rehabilitation could help reinstate the declining pollinator population with few subsequent side effects.
“Solar-sited pollinator habitat can help optimize the land-use efficiency of solar energy developments, while not compromising solar panel efficiency,” he said.
“We’re also looking into whether the high upfront costs for seed mixes and establishing the pollinator habitats will be offset by lower facility maintenance costs,” added Hartmann.
This – along with widening appreciation among community members and local governments for the pollinators’ role in agricultural production – may persuade solar developers to make the switch.
Walston and Hartmann looked at three example crop types to measure the agricultural benefits of increased pollinator habitat. These crops – soybeans, almonds and cranberries – depend on insect pollinators for their annual crop yields. If all existing and planned solar facilities near these crop types included pollinator habitat and increased yield by just one percent, crop values could rise $1.75 million, $4 million and $233,000 for soybeans, almonds and cranberries, respectively.
Walston and Hartmann’s research is the first to quantitatively support agricultural benefits of adding pollinator habitat at solar facilities. Next, said Hartmann, the team will begin fieldwork that measures the type and numbers of native pollinators in areas surrounding USSE facilities.
This study provides even more opportunities for investigating the environmental benefits of pollinator habitat, such as water conservation, land management and carbon dioxide reduction.
With more states recognizing the need to address pollinator population declines through legislation, more solar facilities are making the switch to pollinator-friendly areas. Argonne’s very own state of Illinois recently passed a “Pollinator-Friendly Solar Energy Bill” at the end of May, joining states like Maryland and Minnesota, which have made similar legislative progress toward a more “landscape compatible” future.
The publication is titled “Examining the Potential for Agricultural Benefits of Pollinator Habitat at Utility-Scale Solar Facilities in the United States.”
With the Ford government ending green energy contracts, major companies may pull back and leave room for smaller businesses and projects
By: Jennifer Bielman
Forget government power-generation contracts: Renewable energy’s future in Southwestern Ontario is in your backyard, on rooftop solar panels and in your driveway, a London producer says.
Weeks after Ontario’s new Progressive Conservative government moved to halt more than 700 green energy contracts signed by the former Liberal government – including more than 200 in Southwestern Ontario – Dennis German of London-based German Solar said the era of provincial feed-in tariff contracts is over, but that doesn’t mean the renewable energy industry is going with it.
“The wave for solar energy in this province is going to be from the grassroots level,” he wrote in an interview by email.
“Anyone can build a solar array in their backyard. Solar energy is the most democratic form of energy we have access to.”
Southwestern Ontario looms large in green energy, home to the province’s largest wind farms and many of its solar energy installations. But the new Doug Ford government, trying to rein in electricity costs, pulled the plug on scores of several large and scores of small energy contracts in the region.
But solar projects don’t need to be multimillion-dollar developments, German said. They can be small, designed to supply power to single households or businesses.
German, who had several of his projects with London Hydro axed when the government cancelled the contracts last month, said he’s looking at next steps for his company.
He said German Solar’s expertise in so-called net metering – the ability for households or businesses to generate and store electricity to use at anytime, not just when it’s produced – is going to be key to its future.
And even though the Ford government has backed off rebates for electric vehicle buyers, there’s also room for growth when it comes to electric vehicle charging stations, German said.
The place where the new government’s actions will hit hardest, analysts say, is large-scale or foreign investment in the industry – the kind that was attracted to Ontario by the promise of subsidies and lucrative procurement deals.
“There’s going to be an investment freeze,” said energy industry analyst Tom Adams. “There’s clearly new sovereign risk in the green energy investment space.”
Backing out of so many contracts so quickly might shake investor confidence or make companies think twice before they dive into a project with the province, energy or otherwise, said Pembina Institute clean economy managing director Sara Hastings-Simon.
“It’s that question of whether the government is going to sort of pull the rug out from under investors,” she said. “You will see investors who have concerns, and it will be harder to find investment, and investors that are willing to invest might demand much higher returns.”
Hastings-Simon said the previous Liberal government and its focus on green energy procurement – an often-criticized policy that saw the province signing costly, long-term deals with producers – played a big role in setting the agenda and promoting the industry in Ontario.
“I wouldn’t downplay the role in helping to catalyze those opportunities,” Hastings-Simon said. “It gets people interested. . . . What we see time and time again, very often there’s some action and some investment from the public sector in helping to catalyze new markets.”
And though government subsidies are a thing of the past, there’s a chance for the industry to make inroads in markets eclipsed by the pursuit of provincial procurement deals, German said.
It might even give smaller renewable energy companies more room to compete if the uncertainty chills investment and action in the market by major multinational players.
“I see private industry looking to renewable energy as a solution to their energy needs,” German said in an email. “Despite what is being said politically, renewable energy — namely solar photovoltaic energy — is now cost competitive with traditional forms of energy.”
Photovoltaic energy is a clean, renewable and economical source of energy that can help reduce consumption of fossil fuels to mitigate global warming. It provides energy off-grid to remote communities with no electricity or as part of a hybrid energy generation system.
Most people without access to electricity live in regions with very good or excellent solar conditions but must pay a disproportionate amount of their income for energy. In Europe, rural, mountainous and remote regions make a significant contribution to the economy. These regions require a low carbon, cost-effective system to support smart grids capable of reducing the development gap between them and urban areas.
The Horizon 2020 SUNINBOX project has addressed these challenges and developed a standalone, easy-to-install, photovoltaic generator where all the equipment is configured in the factory ready for use as a portable ‘plug and play’ system. “All the component parts necessary for generating electricity, like electronic systems, battery packs and the solar tracker can be packed into a standard 20-ft shipping container for easy transportability,” says project coordinator Sergio Hernández-Bazan.
Follow the Sun
Currently, SUNINBOX possesses an inverter power capability of up to 90 Kilo-volt-amperes (kVA) to change direct current, DC, power from the lithium ferro-phosphate battery system into conventional mains alternating current, AC, for operating electric lights, electrical devices and so on. “The mixed configuration allows optimal management of the solar resource, both for direct consumption and storage,” explains Hernández-Bazan.
Project partners employed a highly innovative telescopic solar tracker to orientate the solar panels towards the sun. According to Hernández-Bazan: “A geolocation system allows the tracker to position and deploy the entire photovoltaic field semi-automatically according to its location. This takes less than 10 minutes and the system is ready for use in less than 30 minutes.”
A Cheaper, Cleaner Alternative
Researchers developed SUNINBOX with two types of markets in mind. The first is rural areas in southern Europe with high levels of solar radiation and large numbers of farms employing irrigation. “With regards to irrigation, energy represents around 40 % of total water costs, so water use, and energy costs cannot be considered independently. SUNINBOX therefore represents a realistic alternative for increasing energy use efficiency for irrigation,” Hernández-Bazan claims.
The second market for the device is remote smart energy grids and rural electrification projects in Africa and Latin America. Here SUNINBOX’s portable system can supply power to support local development in areas where solar radiation is very high, but accessibility to the local electricity grid is difficult. To date, energy in such areas is obtained using diesel generators, but now SUNINBOX can lower the cost of energy while producing no carbon dioxide. “In Africa, the cost of energy with our system is EUR 0.3 /kWh compared to more than EUR 0.5 /kWh using diesel generators,” points out Hernández-Bazan.
The SUNINBOX system guarantees a continuous supply of electricity along with low operating and maintenance costs via a highly efficient portable PV system. The system is 35-45 % more efficient than its competitors, thanks to the solar tracker, which reduces payback period.
Hernández-Bazan concludes: “It is the best option for NGO projects, which need cost-effective, reliable equipment for refugee camps, areas hit by natural disasters, or anyone who has difficulty accessing an electricity grid and/or wants to reduce their carbon footprint.” In addition, SUNINBOX will benefit installation companies, as well as companies in general dedicated to the photovoltaic sector.
EDMONTON—A five-year study led by Northern Alberta Institute of Technology’s (NAIT) Alternative Energy Technology program found that the impact of snowfall only results in three per cent loss of solar energy.
Tim Matthews, technologist in charge of the NAIT study, said previous predictions expected as much as a 20 per cent loss in energy production due to accumulating snow.
Instead, the study found that the tilt of solar panels has a bigger impact than the amount of snowfall. According to Matthews, accumulating dirt and dust on panels can affect the production loss more than snow.
“We had no idea,” says Matthews. “Obviously, we were overestimating dramatically.”
The reference array snow study was launched in 2012 in collaboration with the City of Edmonton and Solar Energy Society of Alberta. Twelve solar modules were installed on the rooftop of Shaw Theatre at NAIT campus, to measure the impact of snow on the system and how the tilt of each panel affects energy production.
Matthews says the real loss in production was much smaller than predicted, and the annual performance loss of three per cent was the “worst case” recorded at the lowest tilt — 14 degrees. In Edmonton, he found solar panels also perform best when they face south.
“The shallower the tilt, the more snow it’s going to hold,” says Matthews. “As we got higher, there was less and less snow.”
Matthews notes that 75 per cent of Edmonton solar energy production comes from the summer months — which already makes sunshine over the winter months less significant.
“We’re only talking about the 25 per cent slice of pie to begin with,” says Matthews.
This makes clearing out the snow from solar panels in winter simply not worth the effort.
Instead, the tilt of the panels determines the production outcome.
Matthews said the angle of solar panels should usually correspond to the city’s latitude, therefore Edmonton’s optimal angle would be around 53 degrees.
“We can’t buy racking at that angle,” says Matthews. “For our fixed system in Alberta, the non-variable tilt would be 45 degrees, because we can buy inexpensive racking to go with that.”
Even still, there’s very few buildings in Edmonton that can accommodate a 45 degree angle, says Matthews.
Since solar panels don’t do well on steep rooftops, in shadow, or when facing north here in Edmonton, Matthews says, they’re not always a practical solution, and when it comes to economics, solar energy is still only an emerging industry in an otherwise fossil-fuel dominant environment.
Yet Matthews is hoping the study will contribute to making renewable energy more accessible and doable in the future.
“None of us expect the energy prices to stay as low as they are 20 years from now,” says Matthews. “As energy prices go up, solar panels may become more and more viable.”
Surprisingly, Albertans have been very excited about solar energy, adds Matthews.
“You tell someone they’ve got a large commercial building and they want to defer some of their energy costs,” says Matthews. “Solar is attractive, but will that work?”
So far, the study results sparked a growing interest among major building companies, photovoltaic installers, and even other institutions. Matthew notes that he gets anywhere between two to 20 inquiries per week.
“Every little bit of learning and understanding goes a long way to make it more practical and accepting,” says Matthews. “We feel that we’ve contributed.”
The study results will be available to general public at the NAIT Alternative Energy program’s website in September.