Inhabitat’s Week in Green: solar-powered planes, bamboo bikes and mud houses

One of America’s most innovative solar power plants officially opened in the Mojave Desert this past week, and it’s expected to provide enough energy to power nearly 90,000 homes. The Mojave Solar Project is a concentrated solar plant that uses parabolic troughs to create steam, which produces energy when passed through a turbine generator. In other renewable energy news, the folks at Solight have developed a compact solar-powered lantern that provides off-grid light to communities that lack electricity. The flat-pack, LED lantern was inspired by the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, and it’s designed to replace kerosene lanterns. Swiss aviators Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg are preparing for the first-ever flight around the world in a solar-powered aircraft. With the flight, the two pilots hope to gain broad support for solar energy. On the green transportation front, self-driving cars are widely believed to represent the future of transportation, but scientists at NASA are already looking further into the future. NASA and Nissan are partnering to research how autonomous vehicles could be used not only here on Earth, but also in space. And in Mexico, a company has produced a bamboo bicycle that generates energy as you pedal around town. The BambooTec bike captures and converts the kinetic energy into electricity, using that energy to charge mobile devices. Best of all, the designs are simple enough to be built by hand.

President Barack Obama has no more campaigns to run, so is he finally ready to get tough on the environment? Obama didn’t make any promises in his State of the Union address last week, but he did acknowledge that climate change is the biggest threat we face. In other environmental news, a new report released by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization says that climate change is threatening global food diversity and could cause crop extinctions. A new photo gallery produced by NASA shows just how much climate change is transforming the planet. The 300 photos and satellite images show everything from receding glaciers to shrinking lakes and disappearing forests.

In preparation for increasingly powerful storms that are brought on at least in part by climate change, New York City is taking small steps to implement storm-resilient green infrastructure in lower Manhattan. In other Big Apple news, NYC’s largest wind turbine was recently erected in Brooklyn. The 160-foot-tall turbine is expected to generate up to 100 kilowatts of clean energy for a recycling center in Sunset Park. And in a quest to learn about the many edible plants that surround us, Inhabitat caught up with “Wildman” Steve Brill for a foraging tutorial in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Watch the video to see which medicinal plants, nuts and even edible flowers are hiding in plain sight in your local park.

In another example of nature-inspired ingenuity, designer Massimo Moretti has developed a way to create 3D-printed mud houses, and he hopes to use the technology to produce affordable housing from one of the planet’s most abundant resources. A new 12,000-square-foot mansion in China was recently 3D-printed from recycled stone and construction waste. The printer used to build the house was 20 feet high, and spans 4,000 feet. In other green architecture news, Dutch design firm MVRDV won its bid to design a twisting, hourglass-shaped skyscraper in Vienna. The tower’s unique shape will decrease the effect of shadows on surrounding buildings, and it will connect the building with the plaza below. Norwegian architecture firm Snøhetta has been tapped to design the new Le Monde headquarters in Paris. One of the most distinctive new buildings to be unveiled this past week was the Amethyst Hotel, a tower that resembles an enormous amethyst cathedral geode. The shimmering hotel will be built — where else? — on the man-made Ocean Flower Island in China.

Courtesy: Inhabitat via

Amazon Invests In 150MW Indiana Wind Farm To Power Its Data Centers

By: Frederic Lardinois

Image: Alexey Stiop/Shutterstock

Amazon today announced that it is working with the Pattern Energy Group to construct and operate a 150 megawatt wind farm in Benton County, Indiana.

The new wind farm will go online in about a year and the expectation is that it will supply at least 500,000 megawatt hours of wind power annually. That’s enough to power about 46,000 U.S. homes, but the “Amazon Web Services Wind Farm (Fowler Ridge)” — that’s the full name of what was previously called the “Fowler Ridge IV Wind Project” — will only be used to power Amazon’s AWS data centers. Amazon is not disclosing the financial details of this project, but Pattern Energy notes that this is a 13-year agreement.

As Amazon announced last November, its long-term goal is “to achieve 100 percent renewable energy usage for the global AWS infrastructure footprint.” That’s a noble goal, but given that there is no date associated with these plans, it’s a bit hard to hold Amazon accountable for it. For now, Amazon offers its users three carbon-neutral regions: US West (Oregon), EU (Frankfurt) and its AWS GovCloud.

“Amazon Web Services Wind Farm (Fowler Ridge) will bring a new source of clean energy to the electric grid where we currently operate a large number of datacenters and have ongoing expansion plans to support our growing customer base,” said Jerry Hunter, Vice President of Infrastructure at Amazon Web Services, in today’s announcement. “This [power purchase agreement] helps to increase the renewable energy used to power our infrastructure in the US and is one of many sustainability activities and renewable energy projects for powering our datacenters that we currently have in the works.”

While Google has made various wind energy investments over the last few years, this is Amazon’s first (or at least the first one it is publicly talking about).


Hawaii’s Solar Push Strains the Grid

Kauai’s utility takes a second stab at battery storage as solar heads toward 80 percent of peak power.

By Peter Fairley

The prospect of cheaper, petroleum-free power has lured the Kauai Island Utility Cooperative (KIUC) to quintuple utility-scale solar capacity over the past year, building two 12-megawatt photovoltaic arrays. These facilities are the biggest and a significant contributor to the island’s 78-megawatt peak power supply. When the second plant comes online this summer, peak solar output on Kauai will approach 80 percent of power generation on some days, according to Brad Rockwell, the utility’s power supply manager.

Shipping containers full of lithium batteries will stabilize Kauai’s grid when passing clouds interrupt power flows from the island’s newest solar farm.

That puts Kauai on the leading edge of solar power penetration, and KIUC has bruises to show for it. Power fluctuations from a first large plant installed in 2012 have already largely burned out the big batteries installed to keep solar from destabilizing the island’s grid.

Now KIUC is taking a second try with batteries and hoping energy storage technology has progressed sufficiently to keep the same problems from recurring. The new system, installed beside the solar farm nearing completion on Kauai’s northeast shore, is one of the first commercial installations of grid-scale lithium-ion batteries manufactured by the French battery giant SAFT.

The intermittent nature of renewable energy sources like solar power presents a range of challenges to utilities, depending on their grid’s size and design. Kauai’s difficulty is most acute when clouds drift over a solar plant. That can slash a plant’s power output by 70 to 80 percent in less than a minute. If the plant is providing a substantial share of the grid’s power, that rapid power loss can cause the frequency of the grid’s alternating current to drop well below 60 hertz, damaging customer equipment or even causing a blackout.

Kauai’s first energy storage system, at the six-megawatt photovoltaic plant at Port Allen on Kauai’s west side, was designed to mitigate such “frequency droops” by releasing stored power when output crashed. But when the plant went live in December 2012, Rockwell and his engineers quickly discovered that, as Rockwell puts it, the battery is “just not what it was cracked up to be.”

The solar plant in Anahola is nearing completion.

The $2 million system, designed and manufactured by Xtreme Power of Lyle, Texas, has plenty of muscle, releasing up to 4.5 megawatts in quick bursts. What it lacks is stamina. Frequency droops occurred more often than KIUC had expected, and on partly cloudy days the battery quickly ran out of energy.

Running down the charge day after day, meanwhile, degraded the batteries’ energy capacity. While Xtreme Power called them “advanced” lead-acid batteries because they initially packed more energy and power than their predecessors, they suffer from the same sensitivity to repeated cycling long associated with lead-acid batteries. The Xtreme Power system was designed to last eight years, but two years in it has “very little” capacity left, according to KIUC.

As a result, KIUC has had to ask more of its diesel and gasoline-fired generators, improving their ability to ramp up during frequency droops. The heavy ramping puts wear on the machines, increases air pollution, and negates some of the petroleum savings promised by the solar plants. “I think we have lost a couple of percentage points on efficiency over the last year,” Rockwell says. “The maintenance impacts are yet to be seen.”

A bigger battery and better software controls might have delivered better results from Xtreme Power’s lead-acid batteries, says John Jung, CEO of Greensmith, a storage systems provider based in Emeryville, California. But the problems KIUC encountered were shared by other Xtreme Power clients, and Xtreme Power declared bankruptcy in January 2014. The Berlin-based energy storage firm Younicos bought the company three months later, minus the battery manufacturing assets.

Lithium-ion batteries, which KIUC is pinning hopes on now, endure cycling better than lead-acid batteries. John Cox, KIUC’s engineering manager, says SAFT’s lithium-ion batteries are rated for four to six times as many full charge-discharge cycles as Xtreme Power’s.

Patches of clouds drifted over Anahola earlier this month when I visited the site of KIUC’s next solar plant, where eight 22-foot-long shipping containers full of SAFT’s batteries were already in place beside the plant’s 57,000-plus photovoltaic panels.

SAFT’s $7 million system can deliver six megawatts of power continuously and up to 12 megawatts in short bursts—equal to the Anahola array’s peak output. And SAFT claims it can absorb up to 4.5 megawatts continuously.

Recharging should be fast enough to keep the battery operating throughout every day with power fluctuations of no more than 1.2 megawatts per minute, according to Jim McDowall, business development manager for SAFT’s Connecticut-based subsidiary SAFT America.

McDowall is especially confident about the Anahola installation, which  has extra energy storage capacity at KIUC’s insistence. This extra capacity is unlikely to go to waste, he and Rockwell say. It will enable the Anahola battery to arrest some of the frequency drooping caused by Kauai’s other solar farms, easing the strain on KIUC’s conventional generators. Extra storage capacity at Anahola could also help Rockwell manage a new problem that he expects to confront before the end of this year: excess solar power generation.

After Anahola comes online, Rockwell expects Kauai to see days when clear skies result in solar generation beyond what KIUC’s grid can carry. Instead of throwing away the excess, McDowall says, KIUC could use the Anahola battery storage system to absorb it and then release that power after the sun goes down.


Credit: Photos by Peter Fairley | MIT Technology Review

India’s Suzlon Energy Announces $3.7 Billion Wind, Solar Power Investment Plan

By: Smiti Mittal
India’s largest wind energy equipment maker is continuing with efforts to take full advantage of the changing regulatory and financial environment in the country.

Image Credit: Suzlon Energy

The company has announced a fresh plan to invest $3.7 billion to develop 3 GW wind energy capacity in Gujarat. The announcement was made by the company Chairman Tulsi Tanti at the Vibrant Gujarat Global investors summit.

The planned 3 GW capacity will include 2 GW onshore wind energy capacity, 500 MW offshore wind energy capacity (possibly the first offshore wind energy project in India), and 500 MW solar power capacity.

The company plans to market its wind and solar energy projects to industries which are looking to purchase electricity from the open market and at competitive rates.

Suzlon Energy remains that biggest integrated wind energy player in the Indian market, and earlier this year announced their intentions to enter the solar power market using the same model as it has adopted for the wind energy market.

The company had announced similar investment plan for the state of Madhya Pradesh earlier this year. It plans to invest $2.5 billion over the next few years to develop 2 GW wind energy capacity.

The company had been grappling with severe debt-related problems over the last few years, but is now optimistic about the future. The Indian government has re-introduced incentives to the wind energy sector and has increased the capacity addition targets.

The company currently has $1.2 billion of debt on its books, but plans to reduce it by half by March this year. Through an elaborate corporate debt restructuring exercise the company hopes to become debt-free over the next three years.

The Ministry of New and Renewable Energy now eyes 10 GW wind energy capacity addition every year over the next five years. During its best years the Indian wind energy market saw about 3 GW added annually.

Suzlon Energy currently operates a wind energy portfolio of 8.5 GW which is equivalent to 37% of India’s total wind energy capacity and 25% of India’s total renewable energy capacity.



In Wisconsin, Nation’s First Net-Zero Energy Health Complex

In 2009, the Department of Energy announced the launch of the Hospital Energy Alliance, an industry-led partnership to get hospitals on board with energy efficiency and renewables.

We’re seeing the results as more hospitals make announcements like this: a 6.3 megawatt solar system just turned on at New Jersey’s CentraState Medical Center – one of the largest distributed energy systems outside of utilities.

KDC Solar owns and installed the system and sells the power to the hospital. There are 21,408 ground-mounted solar panels on 26 acres of land. It’s providing electricity to a medical center that serves 14,000 inpatients and 250,000 outpatient visits a year.

In Wisconsin, Gundersen Health System – a network of hospitals, medical clinics and nursing homes – announced they are producing more energy than they consume – the first net-zero energy health system in the US.

They are doing this through a combination of energy sources: biogas from three local farms; methane from a local landfill; wood chips from local suppliers; solar installed on a parking lot; geothermal; and wind from two local projects.

Energy consumption is down 40%, saving $2 million a year, and they earn another $2 million by selling the electricity and manure byproducts of biogas production.

“We did not set out to be the greenest health system, we set out to make the air better for our patients to breathe, control our rising energy costs and help our local economy. We believe we have made more progress on all three than anyone else in the country,” says CEO Jeff Thompson.

He notes that hospitals typically consume 2.5 times more energy than commercial buildings, and Wisconsin has one of the most energy-intensive climates in the nation.  They reached these goals even while they built two new hospitals. The cost: $30 million of its own money and $11 million in state and federal grants.

Waste reduction is another big goal in a system that relies on disposal items like syringes and sample cups – 5.9 million tons a year. Hazardous and pharmaceutical waste is down 40%, food waste by 70%, and styrofoam is gone.

Since Hurricane Sandy, when hospitals were flooded and even the sickest patients had to be evacuated, hospitals are on the front lines to protect themselves from severe weather events.  About 200 hospitals use cogeneration and many are developing microgrids. St. Luke’s Hospital in Pennsylvania is pioneering a “farm to hospital” model.