Wednesday, November 15, 2006

SunPower, PowerLight Merge

As a PowerLight employee, I can't talk about it. But here are some good links:

CleanTech Blog

Energy Blog

Renewable Energy Access


Monday, November 13, 2006

An Extraordinary Technology

A brief article in MIT's Technology Review Online discusses a fascinating new method for the conversion of biomass into hydrogen. Something like this, if it can scale out of the lab, could actually make the hydrogen economy work.

The technology involves spraying a fine mist of liquid biomass - such as vegetable oil or sugar water (!) over a metal catalyst at 800*C. The result is a stream of hydrogen, or, if the flow of oxygen is adjusted, syngas that can be converted to a liquid fuel, or feedstock for plastics.

Perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects is that the reaction itself provides the energy to maintain the catalyst at temperature; once the catalyst is heated initially, there is no need for fuel input, other than the feedstock itself.

There are stumbling blocks, of course. It's not clear the process will scale well (although it may not have to in order to be successful in many applications). Also, the rhodium used in the catalyst mixture is a very rare and expensive metal, which may not allow for widespread implementation (much as the use of platinum in PEM fuel cells has hobbled that technology).

Nontheless, it is heartening to hear of new ways to extract energy, particularly for transporation, from potentially low-quality biomass.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

The Midterms

I've been very happy to see the Democrats win Congress for many reasons. But what does it mean for renewable energy?

Well, it certainly can't hurt. Yet, I suspect that there won't be major national policy changes. On global warming, public opinion certainly seems to be lagging the science (Al Gore notwithstanding) and a real commitment to reduce GHG seems like a long shot without presidential leadership. I suspect that the ever-popular "effort" to "wean America from it's addiction to oil" will mostly take the form of ethanol subsidies to ADM, which will do little but raise the price of your Corn Flakes and allow GM to paint itself green (or yellow, if you like).

Maybe I'm just being a pessimist but at best, I think we will see a modest increase in funding for renewable energy R&D and perhaps extension of the federal tax credits for solar and biodiesel.

I should note here that the latter is not necessarily a good thing. Kumar Plocher, the president of Yokayo biofuels, makes a compelling case on his Fueled For Thought blog that biodiesel tax credits as currently implemented are hurting, not helping, the sale and promotion of biodiesel.

Anyhow, the most exciting national election result, from the standpoint of clean energy, is the refreshing replacement of arch-ecoenemy Richard Pombo (formerly of California District 11) by wind energy consultant Jerry McNerney. Pombo claims that global climate change is a myth, helped to gut the endangered species act, and advocated for drilling in ANWR amongst many other acts openly hostile to our continued healthy future on this planet. Pombo also was the co-chair of the House Energy Action Team (HEAT), a house committee that ostensibly advocates for alternative energy solutions. Thus, even if Mr. McNerney does nothing, it will be an environmental victory. Of course, one can hope that McNerney's expertise and background will give him some influence over his new colleagues.

On the level of California, the defeat of Prop 87 was a bummer. I held out hope that the general popularity of renewable energy (not to mention Clinton and Gore) would win out over the flood of oil money that funded the opposition. However, the oil companies managed to convince voters that it would hit them in their pocketbooks, and most people like to complain about high gas prices as it is.

Nonetheless, this will not impact the California Solar Initiative (CSI) and the rebate program that it funds. California is still on track to be the 3rd biggest PV market in the world, at least. So thankfully, it's defeat will not cripple the progress being made; it will, of course, slow things down.

Finally, of course Schwarzenegger swept Phil Angelides for governor. I am grateful to Schwarzenegger for his leadership in pushing for the CSI, the Millions Solar Roofs program, and the California Climate Change initiative. These are very good things. However, there is little daylight between Angelides and Schwarzenegger on these issues. I am concerned that Schwarzenegger, haven taken a sharp turn to the left in order to preserve his political viability, could just as easily veer right after this election. It seems that he's pretty solid on renewable energy since he seems to view it as good for business and for maintaining California's leadership position in technological innovation (which is true). However, on many other issues I just don't trust the guy. At least not until he starts running his Hummer fleet on biodiesel.

Overall, a great victory for Democrats in this election. I sincerely hope that the excitement and yearning for change that characterized these midterms carries over to a serious re-evaluation of and change in our energy policies, which are after all at the root of most of the serious problems we face as a nation.

Time will tell!

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Solar Power 2006 Wrap-Up

Solar Power 2006 came to an end today. I was on the show floor yesterday, mostly just walking around, checking things out, and asking questions.

The scene was very buttoned-down and corporate, with a distinct silicon-valley tech feel. In years past such a conference would always feature the big players, but you could count on a reasonable contingent of of wacky visionaries touting their wild, and woefully underfunded, concepts. There was very little of that this year, as it seems many of the wacky visionaries have hooked up with venture capital - and there seemed to be quite a few VC reps working the floor, as well.

In fact, if anything the show felt a lot like the dot-com days come again; a bit long on cash and short on sense.

There were a lot of really nice booths. Sharp's was two stories, with a live installation demonstration, MC'd by a perky young woman in a very short skirt. Q-Cells and Suntech -- two cell manufacturers who recently made splashy IPOs, one out of Germany and one out of China -- each set up sizable "lounges" filled with uncomfortable post-modern furniture. Evergreen, a US based cell manufacturer with a unique manufacturing technique, set up one of their string ribbon pullers (not operational). Satcon brought in their 500 kW inverter -- a beast of a unit, about half the size of a bus, as if to erase any doubt that solar power can be utility-scale.

The point of all this is just to say that this show really brought home that the solar industry is just that - an industry - and also a sometimes messy but always fascinating mash-up of widely divergent disciplines and people. For me, the really cool thing about the PV industry is that it there are so many odd, and fertile, intersections.

First of all, there is the matter of scale. At one end, there was a company promoting it's line of 15W - 35W portable power packs, slick little aluminum boxes with cells encapsulated on top and white LEDS in a line along the side, equipped with a DC output and built in batteries. On the other end, you've got stuff like that Satcon inverter; that's 4 orders of magnitude right there. Then you've got PowerLight putting in powerplants that require 22 of those inverters.

Also, there's the sheer variety of personalities and expertise rubbing elbows. I ran into PhDs working on nanotechnology semiconductors, contractors looking at roof racks, VC lawyers, German polymer scientists, new home builders, utility reps, policymakers, and vendors promoting not just what you might immediately expect but also everything from industrial robots to monitoring software to custom module fabrication in Shanghai (promising 1 week turn-around - unless it's a government holiday).

There were a few interesting new products that stood out, although I hesitate to call them products because they were really just prototypes.

On the cell side, XsunX was showing off their roll-to-roll amorphous silicon cells, produced at lab scale. Transparent cells, deposited on plastic film. Very cool but clearly not ready for prime time. Konarka had a booth but wasn't making a big splash. If Nanosolar had a presence, it was well hidden; for all the buzz they've generated they are still staying out of the limelight, continuing to raise gobs of venture capital for a product that does not appear to yet have manifested on the earthly plane.

What with the silicon shortage, concentrators were all over the place. The most interesting one came from a company with a most uninteresting name, Practical Instruments (don't worry, you can still call your solar company Sensible Tools). Anyhow, their module-integrated tracker was pretty neat. I think Energy Innovation's rooftop tracker is interesting too, however, they didn't bring it to the show. I'm not entirely convinced that these concepts which require little plastic gears to turn for 20+ years on a roof are really going to pan out. Roofs are hot, wet, dirty places full of nasty surprises and my feeling is that before long these little integrated trackers are going to get something stuck in 'em. There was also a company pitching this massive mirror-trough system that they claimed could go on a roof, and provide both electricity and process heat with 1500X concentration. I forget what they were called but it's bold, I'll give them that.

BIPV for new homes was low key. Sharp, Kyocera, and Open Energy had products on display, but not prominently. PowerLight didn't have any products on display, focusing instead on presenting videos and photos. GE Energy had one booth space at the show - other big players had at least 3 spaces - and I didn't even notice them (so much for "Ecomagination"). On that note, if “Beyond Petroleum” had a presence, I didn’t see it.

For the most part, however, I was actually a bit surprised at how little was new, given the amount of attention (and IPOs) in the PV world this last year. There's been incremental improvement but not a lot of breakthrough technology. It seems to me that there's a lot of room for improvement with regards to module construction and mounting hardware. All of the big buzz, supposedly crystalline-killing technologies printed onto plastic are barely out of the lab; and the innovative concentrating concepts seem to be poised to break into the market just in time for the polysilicon supply crunch to let up as manufacturing capacity comes on-line.

On that note, SunPower continues to rock. They had a very busy booth and unveiled a quite spectacular 315 W module, larger but not by much than competitor's modules in the 210W range. They seem to still have improvements up their sleeves, and have continue to demonstrate that high-efficiency moncrystalline cell technology is not going to be an easy benchmark to surpass as far as value and reliability.

So, to wrap up, it was quite an interesting show. While there were no blockbuster technologies, it was simply fascinating to circulate through the show, meet with old collegues, overhear conversations, check out ideas and see aspects of the industry that I'm not normally exposed to.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Changin' The Rules

So, as I mentioned previously, there are some pretty big changes in the works for the PV industry. In addition to the recent approval of a BIPV acceptance criteria, there are two other major shakeups in progress.

First, the adoption of a new incentive program in California is barrelling ahead.

On the large commercial side (systems over 100 kW), a Performance Based Incentive will be put into place starting January 1st. This is basically the European feed-in tariff model, with solar generation paid $0.39 / kWh. This was legislated in the California Solar Initiative (CSI) managed by the California Public Utilities Commission. It contains triggers that reduce the incentive amount based on the total rebate reservations in the system, so that as the industry grows the rebate shrinks. This seems like a good model, and hopefully will be as successful as the European and Japanese programs that it is based on.

For small commercial and residential retrofit, things don't change much. There is a declining incentive schedule, but it is still a capacity incentive, starting at $2.50 / Watt.

Where things get interesting is the New Solar Homes Partnership (NSHP). Unlike the other rebates, this is managed by the California Energy Commission. While still not fully defined, there is a draft guidebook. This program is for residential new construction, and it is still a "predicted" performance based incentive program with an up-front rebate computed based on system performance modeling.

Some of the issues that I identified earlier have been dealt with. Specifically, there is a provision for "flexible installation" where a blanket rebate can be taken for homes that fall within certain parameters. This reduces the problem with timing deals versus site planning.

One very interesting and positive aspect is that the PV incentives are linked to energy efficiency, allowing builders who implement energy efficient features (better than 30% lower consumption than already stringent Title 24 energy efficiency code requirements) to gain bigger rebates. Intriguingly, it also writes PV systems into Title 24 for the first time, treating them like any other energy-reducing measure.

Overall, however, the program is starting to look quite onerous, especially for BIPV. The way that data is gathered and BIPV is modeled, this technology is hit with a series of small performance penalties that don't exist in the real world. The resulting decrease in incentive is in effect an increase in cost. The program requires a series of inspections, both by the installer and a 3rd party - adding more cost. It will also eventually require testing to international (IEC) standards that are not currently part of the US certification process, something that will be unique to this market segment. Finally, there is fierce debate over a proposal that will require a unique module power rating system for this market segment.

The "dings" that BIPV takes are particularly problematic because many builders are unwilling to install solar, period, unless it is BIPV. By making BIPV more expensive, the simple and obvious end result is that less PV will be installed and the program goals are less likely to be met.

The intention is to protect the consumer, and ensure accurate system ratings, to which I say bravo. However, it seems to me that this is a poor choice of venue to tackle some of these issues.

The problem boils down to two things.

First, what is the acceptable deviation of an individual module from it's "nameplate rating"? As it currently stands, if you go out and buy a 200W module from company X, UL says that the module must have power within +/- 10% of that rating (or the tolerance on the nameplate - typically +/- 5% - whichever is less). It should be noted that PV manufacturers can readily hold tolerances within +/- 5%. So, according to UL, a 200W module that puts out 180W is perfectly OK.

The problem historically is that if you tested a whole bunch of modules, you would probably find that the "average" 200W +/- 10% module was more like a 190W +/- 5% module. You weren't likely to find any 220 W modules!

As buyers have wised up, this problem has diminished because they've insisted that the average power over some (large) sample meet nameplate specifications, while allowing for a reasonable tolerance.

The second issue, once you've defined how much power a module is expected to make under specific test conditions, is how much energy it will produce in real life. That's what people really care about. So, the question becomes how does one properly model PV system performance? This is quite complex, and as always, garbage in garbage out. The model may be properly designed but if the input parameters aren't collected in a well-defined, repeatable, and very well thought-out way there will be problems. Unfortunately, a lot of the testing protocols are effectively being defined in a committee process at the last minute; some of them simply have large inherent uncertainties; and many are fairly expensive and are not currently required. The CEC software model itself has not been publicly released, so no one has a had a chance to "test drive" it and see how well it predicts the performance of existing systems.

Attempting to implement back-door regulatory controls onto a relatively small subset of the global market, in order to steer the PV industry in a certain direction, is not a good idea in my opinion. There are other venues for this that, while slower, will make changes more uniform.

It should also be noted that in really competive markets, like Germany, manufacturers are guaranteeing very tight tolerances (such as -0% / +2.5%) on modules. This is not because of any government regulations but because consumers are educated and the PV manufacturers jockey to position their products in this manner. It seems to me that the issue will take care of itself as the California market heats up.

Nonetheless, changes are afoot at the national level as well. Currently, work is ongoing to "harmonize" the venerable UL 1703 PV Module standard with IEC 61215 and IEC 61646 . These latter standards are not just for safety, as is the case with the UL standard. They are also concerned with qualification and performance. That is, there is testing included which is designed to ensure that the modules perform as advertised, and will continue to perform for 20+ years. Performance will probably not be part of the scope ruled into 1703, but qualification probably will be.

In any event it makes sense to me that rather than requiring early adoption of IEC 61215 in a subset of California's market, that the CEC simply allow the changes of 1703 to take their course and then fill in gaps if required at that time. They will probably have to require a subset of the testing in 61215 just to gather performance data. This shouldn't be a problem for anyone. However, the full qualification sequence is expensive and time consuming.

The bottom line is that things are changing, and on the whole, in the right direction. However, the devil is in the details. Getting solar on new homes is far easier than retrofitting it later, and it would be a shame to see this powerful section of the market gummed up in red tape. Unfortunately, it seems as if that's a likely outcome under the current plan.

Solar Power 2006

Solar Power 2006 is this week in San Jose. I'll be down there tomorrow - should be interesting.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Tanzania pictures up!

TZ - 86, originally uploaded by windswimin.

I just got all of my pictures from Tanzania up on Flickr.

This one is from the solar training. I'm the white guy trying to avoid getting sunburned. I was co-teaching with Alex Mapunda, in the purple shirt, who is an auto electrican from Dar Es Salaam.

All photos are at

Saturday, October 07, 2006

An Important Milestone In Maintreaming Solar Electricity

Last Thursday, in Birmingham, Alabama, an important goal was reached in assuring the mainstream acceptance of solar power.

The accomplishment was the approval of new guidelines (called Acceptance Criteria or AC) by an organization called the International Code Council - Evaluation Services (ICC-ES). This document, AC 365, addresses the safety and performance of building-integrated photovoltaics (BIPV) as a roofing material.

Now, this is all very boring and technocratic. In the big picture, though, it is a huge signal that the PV industry is maturing. It is extraordinarily important that as BIPV is rolled out in ever larger amounts, that it performs the way people expect it to. If sub-par products are being installed, the inevitable failures could cripple the entire industry.

Back in the late '70s and early 80's, badly designed incentive programs resulted in a lot of poorly made solar thermal systems being installed. The subsequent failures set solar energy back 20 years. Given the current state of the world, this cannot be allowed to happen again.

Now before getting into the meat of this, a quick primer is in order here. BIPV are PV modules that are integrated into the building envelope. Thus, they must function as a building material as well as an energy conversion device. AC 365 covers BIPV that is integrated into clay and concrete tile or asphalt shingle roofs. That is, it covers the BIPV products used in most residential new construction. My favorite example (because I designed it) is PowerLight's SunTile.

This type of design is finding a favor among new home builders because the aesthetics are superb as compared to standard "rack and stack" PV systems, with the modules supported above the roof.

Despite builder's enthusiasm for the technology, it is often tempered with concern. Roof leaks are a huge liability for buiders and they seek assurance that the BIPV will be as effective a roofing material as the rest of the roof. Building departments are often even more skeptical. They require proof that these products will be safe in fires, windstorms, and hailstorms; that they won't break if someone walks on them or leak in heavy rains; and will be as durable as other roofing products.

This is where ICC-ES comes in. The International Code Council (ICC) is the semi-public body that writes what are known as model building codes - the International Building Code (IBC) being one example. Building departments then adopt these codes and they have the force of law in those jurisidications. The ICC itself is primarily made up of building code officials and the process of writing these codes is public (though not widely publicized).

ICC-ES deals with products which are not addressed by the building codes -- innovative products that, when local building officials are asked to approve, they scratch their heads. This has been the situation that BIPV installers have faced when trying to pull permits. It requires a lot of education of building officials on the issues, not least because many of the BIPV products on the market may not perform adequately as a roof. AC-365 specifically covers BIPV as a roofing material, and not electrical safety (which is already addressed by Underwriter's Laboratory requirements) or solar performance.

So when ICC-ES releases this draft criteria on January 1st, 2007, this means that there are a standard set of requirements that everyone can go by. Manufacturers can perfom testing, and if successful, obtain an Evaluation Report (ER) that proves to building officials and clients that they comply. This will significantly smooth the permitting process and facilitate the sale of these systems.

The release of this AC is the first step towards the eventual incorporation of BIPV requirements into the International Building Code. Hopefully, these requirements will be written into the 2009 IBC, which will have force of law in many jurisidictions in 2010. At that point, BIPV will be firmly established as a mainstream building material, on par with all other types of roofing.

On a more personal note, I am very happy to have been to be part of this precedant-setting process. I worked closely with ICC-ES staff in writing AC-365. While getting this acccomplished is clearly of great importance to my employer, I was also glad to see that one of our biggest competitors showed up at the meeting and spoke in support of the criteria.

Meanwhile, there are are couple of other very important regulatory issues being resolved at the moment. More on this in a future post.

Saturday, September 30, 2006


After a substantial hiatus, Heliotropic is back...

Well, 5 weeks in Tanzania. Quite an experience. When I get all the photos on flickr, they will be linked here...

My work with Engineers Without Borders was primarily to scope out the situation on the ground in terms of availability of PV and accessories, and also to provide training to villagers who will eventually be responsible for the care of a PV system we plan to install on the village dispensary (clinic).

From an energy perspective, I felt both hopeful and frustrated. Hopeful because Tanzanians have a real opportunity to implement a sustainable energy future, yet frustrated because these goals are elusive and just out of reach.

As I see it, most of the pieces are in place for a distributed, clean energy system - solar, wind, and micro hydro. The main thing that is needed is for distributors to extend their supply chains out further, and for ordinary people to have access to micro-credit. The technology exists and people are educated enough that training competent technicians should not be an issue.

The motto of SELCO in India - which has a model of setting up businesses to distribute micro-solar lighting systems - is that solar is expensive for the rich, but cheap for the poor. This seems to be true in Tanzania.

The energy intensity of Tanzania is low, even in urban areas, but especially in rural places. In Ngelenge, the village I worked in, people have very limited uses for electricity. Light is typically provided by kerosene, and some people buy dry cell batteries to power radios.

Kerosene and batteries are very expensive - more so than in the US. A simple PV system - enough for a couple of efficient lights and a radio - would readily pay for itself within a couple of years, yet could easily last more than 10 years.

In the cities, the vast majority of power is provided by hydro. Due to an ongoing drought, however, power is rationed nearly everywhere. So, diesel generators are common where there is grid power and these are used quite a lot.

Despite this, demand-side management doesn't seem to be a very high priority. In urban areas, it seems as if they could greatly alleviate the rotating blackout issue simply by switching to more efficient lights. CFLs are available, at least in Dar, yet are not common even in places one might expect them to be.

In addition, power quality is lousy. Every computer, photocopier, and A/C unit is plugged into small power conditioning devices to prevent them from getting fried. This adds a hidden cost for many end-users of electricity. Experience has shown that PV can be very useful for utilities, if located properly (near critical substations) to provide grid support at peak use times and thus prevent some power quality issues.

One piece of good news is that the government seems quite enthusiastic about PV. They've dropped the VAT (which at 20% is substantial) on PV imports and is working with Energy For Sustainable Development (ESD) and the National Microfinance Bank (NMB) to roll out PV systems throughout the country.

Our EWB chapter is hoping to leverage this as part of our project. The area we were working in has many PV projects, with equipment brought in and installed by European NGOs. Of course, they are all in various states of disrepair despite well-trained technicians. Why? It is very difficult and/or expensive to get parts. The supply chain just isn't there. So the projects fail.

Working with ESD, we hope to incentivize the extension of supply chains into the countryside. This is accomplished by stipulating in contracts to put in bigger systems (such as the village dispensary) that the winning bidder must set up a distribution center in a nearby town with the economy to support it. This would be a place where goods of equivalent value are sold, such as TVs and motorbikes. Also, such a contract would require the winning bidder to train local technicians.

So, many of the pieces are already in place. What is the role of US engineers in all of this? Rather than planning the installation, bringing in equipment from the States, and installing it, we prefer to utilize and reinforce the local resources. So as I see it, our role should be limited to helping NGEDEA - the local NGO - evaluate the bids, to provide expert oversight during the implementation process to make sure NGEDEA doesn't get ripped off, and training as needed. That's about it. Everything else can and should be handled by Tanzanians.

Meanwhile, the government is trying to make up for the hydropower shortfall by building a couple of coal plants. It seems to me that this is not the best call. On the other hand, that's a difficult thing to say coming from a place where I have power whenever I want to flick a switch and economy that isn't faltering due to a lack of reliable power.

There is a good model in the country for distributed generation, which is cell phones. The coverage is quite impressive and it is entirely private sector. They use pre-paid card system. A popular addition to many small street businesses is phone access - you pay per minute to use their phone.

This model is pushing telecom rapidy out into rural Tanzania, which is in the process of leapfrogging wired telephony. It seems natural that small-scale distributed energy should ride along with it. After all, people will need to charge their phones.

There's another aspect of PV that is perhaps less tangible, but extremely important. That is the feeling I got from rural people that one big reason they want to get PV is to for once, be on the leading edge of a trend instead of always getting the leavings from other societies; to get access to and knowledge about advanced technology.

In my trainings, people were incredibly grateful and enthusiastic aboout being taught about solar. They felt in the loop, empowered, with unique knowledge that they could share - and perhaps some day even get paid for (in the case of the technicians). Black market PV is available in Ngelenge, coming across form Malawi, and some people have spent a lot of money to get it. The simple act of doing some consumer education, to help people from getting ripped off, seemed quite worthwhile.

Meanwhile, as in the States, transportation energy is a huge issue. Again, Tanzania seems to be well positioned to transition itself to a more sustainable situation, economically and environmentally. Private vehicles are extremely rare, rather people mostly ride buses for longer distances and dala-dalas (small minibuses) in urban areas. Lots of people walk and ride bikes. Diesel powered vehicles are the norm; I saw very few gasoline-powered cars, even small ones.

Diesel, like kerosene, is extremely expensive - $6 / gallon in the city and more like $8 / gallon in the countryside.

Tanzania is an agricultural country with a tropical coastline and is well equipped to grow oil crops. With diesel prices where they are, biodiesel seems like a natural fit for their economy. Many people I spoke to were aware of, and interested in, biodiesel; yet no one was aware of any production, or plans for production. A ridiculous amount of Tanzania's GNP must go towards petroleum imports, to places that most Tanzanians are not too fond of (a legacy of Arab dominance of the slave trade, and more recently, the 1998 bombing of the US Embassy in Dar Es Salaam by Al Qaida). A solution is readily at hand. Is the probem a lack of awareness or know-how? A stranglehold on the fuel distribution networks (dominated by BP)? A lack of capital to start a new and unproven business? Perhaps all of the above...

In any event, I very much hope that in my work with EWB, beyond providing solar energy to a dispensary in one rural village, we will be able to implement a new model that empowers Tanzanians while rolling out clean electricity.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Visit to China

I just returned from a week in China. A couple of days in Shenzhen (via bus from Hong Kong) with a quick visit to Guangzhou, and a couple of days in Shanghai and environs (mostly, the latter). Since it was a business trip I can't really say anything about what I was up to specifically.

I can say that it was not what I expected. Shenzhen is a bustling metropolis. In addition to being a manufacturing hub - especially outlying areas - what I didn't know is that it's a popular destination for Hong Kong hipsters and other local tourists. Shenzhen attracts them with it's lower priced spas, clubs, restaurants, and golf courses. The night life is non-stop; I couldn't even come close to keeping up (might have had something to do with 18 hour work days).

Everything is new, roads, buildings, cars. Lots of cars by the way (GM, Volkswagen, and Toyota mainly). You still see people hauling things around on bicycles and scooters but cars, buses, and trucks dominate the traffic.

Even in areas far from the "scene", though, one fascinating thing is that everyone seems so young. Shenzhen is without a doubt a boom town. I am guessing that young people from all over China are attracted there for work. The streets, even in areas that can't be tourist attractions, feel like a college town -- people strolling, eating, laughing, talking, late into the night, all well under 30.

We also visited a global engineering firm with an office in Guangzhou. It was a beautiful building, with better equipped and organized labs than equivalent organizations in the US. It was bustling with engineers, scientists, technicians, managers, and support staff; all well educated, competent professionals; and again, 80% under 30 I would estimate.

We are encouraged here in the US to think of Shenzhen and places like it in China as areas where people are exploited and oppressed. No doubt, this exists. But the vibe on the street didn't track with this idea. People seemed awfully glad to be there. There was, if anything, a sense of hope, opportunity, and optimism. People seemed and acted more freely than anywhere I've seen in the US. Now of course I'm not talking about their ability to engage in political activities. I'm only discussing how it felt to intersect briefly with their daily lives.

Everything in Shenzhen is new. Shanghai is old. Well parts of it are old. Everything else is new. Shanghai central has a very noticeable post-colonial, Western influence.

Shanghai feels much less rambunctious than Shenzhen, more established. Hard to explain but it just feels older and more laid back even though it is very busy. I didn't spend much time in Shanghai except in my hotel bed, and one night out at a club, which was a bizarre experience involving a band fronted by 3 tiny Chinese women which performed uncannily good covers of Dr. Dre and Guns n' Roses (among others...)

We traveled from Shanghai, on a new highway, about 1 1/2 hours out into the countryside, and it was beautiful out there - rice farms, nice houses. A lot of new development out in the parks, condos that look like they were airlifted in from LA, world-class hotels.

This was in contrast to the highway from Shenzhen to Guangzhou -- also new, but through a gritty, grey megapolis dominated by belching smokestacks and abandoned looking (or were they half-built?) apartment complexes; punctuated by wide, lazy canals populated by massive self-propelled barges.

So there is another part of the story to China, but I didn't see it close-up. As part of my work, I did see several manufacturing plants. Of course, we are very selective about who we work with so they may not have been representative. But, they were top notch and working conditions were not very different from the US.

China is thinking big. I saw from the air (flying on one of China's new, Southwest airlines inspired domestic carriers) a project laid out in the countryside that encompassed perhaps 20 miles on a side, a series of concentric, 4 lane ring roads bisected by equally sized radial roads, each coming to an absurdly precise end at a farmer's field; the innermost ring surrounded a perfectly circular, enormous lake. Who knows what it was all about but it was planning on a scale I've never seen. If you build it, they will come, I guess.

So, to touch on energy. Obviously China is using a lot of energy now. The way it is growing, it will need much more in the future. Nothing new there. But I guess I saw a couple of positive things. Shenzhen has stopped issuing licenses for motorized scooters, to cut down air pollution (those 2-cycle engines are nasty). To me, this is indicative of a growing environmental awareness. Shanghai is advertising itself as the "solar city", and indeed, has a "100,000 solar roof" initiative. There is also some PV manufacturing in Shanghai. There are billboards advertising the Prius, and in fact I saw a couple on the road in China - one near Shenzhen, one near Shanghai. So one can hope that this development will be used as an opportunity to do some technological leapfrogging.

A couple other things. I don't think people would complain about exploitation if a company outsourced to Greece. Yet the general level of development and workplace conditions I saw in and around Athens (when I lived there) was significantly worse than what I saw in Shenzhen and Shanghai. I think that we hear a lot of propaganda about China. People are understandably upset about manufacturing jobs moving over there. Of course people are paid much less, but that doesn't necessarily mean they are exploited. The cost of living is also much less expensive. But anyhow, it sometimes seems like when China gets painted as being horrible to workers and the environment, that's to an extent a smokescreen for a protectionist agenda. Of course all is not peaches and roses in China, but again, there are a lot of places that we don't hear about which are similar. Finally, lest we forget, the US is hardly perfect on the "workers rights and environmental protection" scorecard.

Taken as a whole, what I would say is that as far as what I saw, China is well positioned to kick our butt. Their infrastructure is brand new and expanding; ours is disintegrating. Their educational system is producing highly educated, technically trained workers, who are rapidly gaining practical experience in the workplace. Our educational system is falling apart and it's rare that you find younger people with high levels of responsibility. China's manufacturing capabilities seem to be rapidly catching up to the US.

Finally, the food is really, really good. Just stay away from the water cockroaches and fermented tofu (take it from me).

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Tanzania Fundraising Drive!

Please click on the title to find out more about this project and how you can help make it a success!

CEC considers PBI for New Homes

The CEC is proposing a performance-based incentive (PBI) for PV on new homes. It's still in the works; their proposal is here.

Is this a good thing? There are some serious problems with their proposal...but first some background.

Currently, incentives in California are based strictly on installed system size, in $/Watt - a capacity rebate. The California Energy Commission (CEC) uses a method developed by PVUSA to "derate" the manufacturer's nameplate PV output (at Standard Test Conditions or STC -- test conditions convenient for quality control) to estimated field performance. This is referred to as the PVUSA Test Condition or PTC rating. The incentive is presently $2.80 / Watt (PTC) .

Capacity rebates have advantages and disadvantages. The main advantages are that they are straightforward to administer, highly predictable (the decline steadily with time), can be taken by any party in the transaction, and act immediately to defray upfront system cost. The disadvantage, of course, is that the goal of any incentive program is to reward kWh on the grid, not estimated installed capacity (kW). Systems can (and do) receive full incentives even if installed North facing or heavily shaded. Sometimes installers are unscrupulous; sometimes the customer just doesn't care and wants to put on a big PV array. Either way it's counterproductive.

PBIs deal with the problems of capacity rebates directly by paying the incentive based on actual or predicted system performance.

The most extreme example is feed-in tariffs used in Germany and Portugal, where renewable energy projects are simply paid per kWh generated like any other powerplant but at a significantly higher rate. Making sure the financials work in this structure requires fairly sophisticated performance modeling capabilities. These have been pushed back onto the project developers and 3rd party verification companies, typically hired by project financiers. Also the upfront cost is not defrayed, requiring bankers who are willing to lend to this kind of project. It works fine for big projects in Europe (banks seem more enlightened) but it seems onerous for small projects and difficult in the US.

The CEC has a pilot PBI program where performance is measured over three years and based on this performance, the project owner gets quarterly checks. This is a bit better in that it at least accelerates the payment schedule but still has many of the feed-in tariff issues. The CEC has abandoned this approach for the proposed new homes PBI in part because there is a "split incentive" problem in new homes development -- the developer pays the cost upfront, but the homeowner gets the benefit over time and has sole control over some things that affect performance, like planting trees and hosing the PV off periodically.

For new homes, the CEC is developing a modeling program where all the relevant parameters (specifics on the PV modules, system orientation, shading, etc.) is input, and annual kWh are predicted, for every individual system. From this the rebate is calculated and it is payed in a lump sum after an on-site audit. Another aspect is that the CEC wants to eventually implement advanced metering that would allow homeowners to utilize rate structures that favor solar - such as much higher utility rates during peak periods, when the meter is typically running backwards.

As long as their modeling is accurate this sounds great, right? Well, maybe for retrofits. There are some major issues in new home construction.

The problem is that working with builders, ideally you want to structure big deals for large developments -- hundreds of homes. These are constructed over several years. The builders want to lock in the PV price at the time the deal is signed, to control their risk. At that point in the cycle, roof plans and the orientation of each house is still up in the air. This makes the rebate amount for each house impossible to predict in advance. So, in turn it is impossible to lock in price. This is a major disincentive to builders to think big with solar and lock in deals for entire solar developments. Instead they are forced to negociate much smaller contracts at multiple phases in the development cycle. This is bad for everyone.

Installers in this market should be predicting and monitoring energy output from each system. By making that prediction, and making real time data available to homeowners, they are putting their money where their mouth is. So installers do already have an incentive to make sure the systems are installed in the best orientation possible, and to set customer expectations properly if a non-optimal orientation is unavoidable. One huge advantage of doing PV in new developments is the prospect of repeat sales to the builder. In turn the builders want repeat sales from the homeowners (they want to move them up to bigger homes within their developments). So, if homeowners start to complain about underperforming systems this is a bad thing.

Perhaps if installers were simply required to predict and monitor system performance the issues around poorly performing installs would take care of themselves.

In any event, I expect that there will be some push-back on the CEC with this program. It should be simplified and somehow, the rebates need to be made predictable. There are models where preferentially higher capacity rebates are given for systems in certain orientations, for instance.

As for the real-time pricing, the solar geek in me thinks this is extremely cool - but how can you predict the actual cashflow? If you underpredict you lose sales; overpredict and you have unhappy customers.

The bottom line is this. Remember that the people selling PV-equipped homes are not solar experts, and the potential buyers are not solar enthusiasts. There needs to be a straightfoward value proposition. The intent is to create more incentives for homeowners to demand PV systems; to achieve this the economics need to be predictable and salable.

Different rebates for every home based on sophisticated modeling software and complex real-time pricing structures are attractive to the CEC because it improves accuracy and makes better use of the incentive pool. It also justifies their employment of a bunch of PhDs - my main criticism of the CEC is that it strikes me as the ultimate ivory tower. No doubt, there are merits to the approach, but on the ground it seems as if this proposal just muddies the waters.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Energize America

The good folks over at Daily Kos have been working on a long term, strategic energy plan for America. It is a refreshing break from business as usual.

Read it.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Is Algal Biodiesel a Red Herring?

OK, just one more biodiesel post (it's not a biodiesel blog, I swear!)

Looking into all these issues around sustainable biodiesel, I wandered over to the Green Fuel Technologies website.

What I found made me say -- duh!

So...we know that it makes all sorts of sense to grow algae at powerplants - it cleans up emissions and captures CO2. Biodiesel people mostly assume that this oil-rich algae will be turned into biodiesel.

But no. It looks to like it is much easier to just harvest the algae, dry it out, and co-fire the plant with it...really easy with a coal plant; a bit more complicated with natural gas, but you can gasify algae and send that right on down into the turbine. Plus, the plants will get to take the credit for putting renewables on the grid, because biomass cofiring counts towards RPS requirements.

This is as opposed to selling the algae to someone who will transport it somewhere, extract the oil, and turn it into biodiesel - in which case they get no RPS credit.

So will these plants ever make more algae than they need and sell it into the biodiesel market? I did the math so you won't have to.

If the plant was burning 100% algae, it would in essence be a solar power plant.

NREL says you can get 1 quad (10^15 BTUs or 293x10^9 kWh) of biodiesel annually for every 780 square miles of land (hat tip to Mike Briggs). How much energy there is in the algae itself is not easy for me to find; to get biodiesel from algae you crush it (losing some biomass), you add some energy in the form of methanol and process heat and take some energy out in the form of glycerin.

But for hand-waving, let's use the NREL number and call that the energy yield for algae instead of biodiesel. This implies a production of 375 x 10^6 kWh per square mile.

A "typical" 400 MW combined cycle plant running at 80% capacity factor, 50% efficiency and a gasifier operating at 80% efficiency would use 7 x 10^9 kWh in fuel energy annually. It would require nearly 19 square miles of land area to grow that much algae. This is basically 30 acres per MW. For contrast, single axis PV tracking systems require about 6 acres / MW (here's an example). Now my numbers are probably +/- 50% because I use biodiesel yields a a proxy for algae yields. However you slice it, though, it's still a lot of space!

Bottom line, it is very unlikely that any power plant would grow any more than a fraction of it's fuel needs on site; and it certainly seems to make more sense to me that this algae would go right in as biomass fuel rather than being turned into biodiesel.

Now in the big picture, using algae as fuel in power plants is really cool, and is probably equally beneficial as turning it into biodiesel.

However, biodiesel advocates shouldn't pin their hopes on power plant grown algae. At least if my math is right and I'm not missing something.

Some thoughts on the California Renewable Fuel Standard

Biodiesel on my mind, lately!

Following in the footsteps of the Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) policy with regards to renewably generated electricity, comes what seems to be a groundswell of Renewable Fuel Standards (RFS) for biodiesel.

These are mandated, low blends - B2 or B5. Minnesota, Washington, and Iowa have passed RFS bills that include biodiesel. SB1675 is pending in California

Eric Bowen has gone deep on this.

I haven't seen much discussion, however, on whether this is a good thing or not. I have my doubts. So do others, and I have reproduced some key comments to the bill at the end of the post.

I wrote, in a post to the Biodiesel Council of California email listserve:


On the face of it, the bill supports biodiesel but I for one am quite ambivalent about these low-blend mandates.

As a practical matter they favor the least sustainably produced, lowest quality, and most highly subsidized biodiesel. In other words, this bill will incentivize the expansion of the biodiesel production capacity that we least want. Most probably, the biodiesel that the refineries will buy for blending will be imported from the Midwest and made from GMO soy.

Because of this it also runs against the grain of the California biofuels roadmap.

It's great that biodiesel is getting attention in the legislature but I urge caution in support of this bill, in it's present form.

The solar industry has had to withhold support or even lobby against "pro-solar" bills in the past written by well-meaning but uninformed legislators (or watered down by other lobbyists seeking to undermine the legislation).


RPS's have worked well for the renewable energy industry in part because they have "set-asides" for a certain amount of energy produced a particular way. For instance, most RPS bills have a 20% set aside for PV. This recognizes that although PV is more expensive than other renewable sources (like wind and central station solar thermal electric), it also has certain external benefits - namely, coincidence with peak load and the benefits of distributed generation (less T&D, substation upgrades, etc.)

I think the biggest issue with the current RFS is that it does not recognize that all biodiesel is not in fact created equal. It should assign different values according to the sustainability and other external benefits of the feedstock. It should also include R&D funding for sustainable feedstock development in California, and incentives for biodiesel production based on sustainable & local feedstocks.

It is too easy to let the perfect be the enemy of the good, so I'm not coming out against this bill. However, I would love to see it modified to take these issues (and the ones following) into consideration.

Other publicly posted comments to the bill:

I am the fuel buyer for BioFuel Oasis in Berkeley, a biodiesel retailer in the San Francisco Bay Area. While I am in favor of the use of responsibly produced biodiesel, I am troubled by any bill that mandates the use of biodiesel at this time. My fear is that we do not have enough consistent, reliable sources of biodiesel to meet a mandate. Biodiesel was not available to us during the week after Katrina hit because of increased demand in other states. If suppliers cannot find locally produced biodiesel they will have to import more expensive fuel from across the country, or worse, fuel made from oil crops that have displaced rainforests in places like Malaysia and Brazil.

While I believe that biofuels have an important role in the energy supply of the future, that role comes with limitations. There is not enough arable land to grow nearly enough biofuel to replace the amount of petroleum that we currently use. We have to look at the broad picture so that our mandates do not create worse problems than they solve. I believe that more emphasis should be placed on finding ways to reduce the amount of energy we use. This will result in both cleaner air and a reduction in our dependence on petroleum.
--Gretchen Zimmerman (04-27-06)

I am a biodiesel 99% user and have been since sept 05. I have had no issues with the fuel or my vehicle, other then it is old. I look forward to buying a new diesel when they are going to be sold in CA again. I support this bill in general but would liked to have seen this bill as part of a package of incentives to all biodiesel parties needed to meet the mandate. I want biodiesel use in CA to be a economic boon to the state not a additional drain of money to imports, be it OPEC or biodiesel plants in TX or CO. This mandate would require a minimum of 60million gallons of biodiesel to meet 2% mandate. We only produced 5 million this year. We do not have farmers here growing seed crops, what we do have for feed stock is waste grease, but 90% of that is going to cattle and hog feed not fuel. We need incentives to the rendering industry to look to biodiesel first as a sale then buy the co-product of glyercin to use in thier feed products. We need research happening in Davis and Fresno as to what seed crops will grow the best in the various farming locations in the state. This movement in the state has to to start with the feedstock and production incentives. It takes 2 years to get production facilities built in CA with the regulatory process as it is, in MN is takes 6months, Iowa 8months, IN 8 mos, from planning to production.
Please lets do this smart and plan the growth and development of this new industry. Yes a mandate creates demand for fuel and venture to fund it, but we need a plan for all the parts of the industry to be built at the same time, in the correct order. Thank You
--Kari Lemons (04-17-06)


Goin' To Tanzania!

It's official! My finance, Christianna, and I are off to Tanzania in mid-July with Engineers Without Borders.

The San Francisco Professionals chapter has been working with the people of Ngelenge, Tanzania for a couple of years now through a local NGO called NGEDEA. The goal: to improve water supply quality and quantity, agricultural productivity, and public health in rural southwestern Tanzania.

The project includes the construction of a dispensary (health clinic & birthing center), rehabilitating some old wells and drilling a new well, a water filtration technology assessment, an agricultural pilot project involving an appropriate technology solution for micro-irrigation, and an extensive health survey to help us measure the impact of the project on the community.

This is a really great project. The nearest health clinic is 7 km away and there is no transportation; women must walk or be carried there to give birth. The dispensary will alleviate this situation and serve not only Ngelenge, but surrounding villages which are significantly closer to Ngelenge than to the current clinic. The improvement in the water supply has obvious implications for people's health; the agriculture project will improve the economy and standard of living of the people there. NGEDEA, the local NGO, is grassroots. NGEDEA consists of Ngelenge villagers who are working to improve their community, as well as several people from the village who live in Tanzania's main city, Dar Es Salaam. EWB-SFP is also grassroots and volunteer run, and was invited to the community by NGEDEA. Our mission is to serve and empower NGEDEA by providing engineering and public health expertise. Working closely with NGEDEA helps greatly in assuring the sustainability of the project by ensuring that it is aligned with community needs and by having local people with a real stake in the project's success, and the resources to make sure the improvements remain functional. To the maximum extent possible, we buy our equipment and supplies in Tanzania, and hire people from the village to help implement the projects.

Part of the dispensary project is outfitting it with a solar lighting system, with an eye towards possible expansion to power a vaccine fridge. I am leading this project. The PV system will be simple, about 120 Wp, with a sealed battery and DC fluorescent lighting. This will be a huge improvement over the kerosene lanterns that are usually used for lighting these dispensaries.

The dispensary won't be ready for the full system this year, so this trip will focus on laying all the necessary groundwork - sourcing equipment and parts, a detailed site survey, and training. We will be bringing a small demonstration system to train some folks on PV fundamentals and maintenance.

My fiance is on the health team and will be carrying out the baseline health survey, not an engineering function but a critical component of the project nonetheless.

We are taking some extra time to see the sights, because once the project starts we expect to be very busy. It's pretty expensive to get to Tanzania but fairly cheap once you're there, so we wanted to take advantage of that.

In the next couple of weeks we will kick off a fundraising drive for the project. We (EWB-SFP) has raised some money, but not enough to cover all of our goals. Also, the volunteers have all paid out-of-pocket for airfare which is a pretty big hit, and it would make a big difference to defray some of those costs as well.

Please help out if you can. It is a great cause and there is no administrative overhead -- all donations go directly to the project. Donations in any amount are helpful and assistance in reaching out to more potential donors is also much appreciated! EWB-SFP has a Paypal link. Please select the "Tanzania" project from the pull down menu...the other projects are also great, but not immediately in need of funds!

If you would prefer to help Christianna & I out with the airfare directly, that would be very much appreciated. EWB-SFP isn't set up to route that kind of donation through to the volunteers at present, so it would not be tax-deductible. Please send me an email if you'd like to help in this way.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Bioenergy - Gettin' Some?

Bioenergy is receiving renewed attention in California with the release of the final California Bioenergy Action Plan.

Bioenergy, particularly when it comes to electrical generation, has gotten the short end of the stick. It just isn't sexy. PV is sexy (and full of sexy people, of course!) and so is wind. Guess where the money goes?

This action plan is a good start to rectifying that. Bioenergy is really important to our sustainable energy future because it can play a role that other renewables don't naturally lend themselves to - base load generation. Bioenergy plants are, for the most part, very similar to conventional combustion powerplants. They can run 24/7. You can bring them online or take them offline as needed. It's very valuable.

Bioenergy plants can also be small to take advantage of combined heat and power (CHP) and the benefits of distributed generation.

The Bioenergy Action Plan indicates that the technical potential of biomass, almost entirely from waste products, is 18% of total statewide energy consumption by 2017 - 60,000 GWh from 7100 MW of powerplant capacity. This is enormous. For perspective, the biggest PV powerplant in the world is 10 MW; a typical large coal or nuclear powerplant is about 1000 MW. In other words, waste biomass has the potential to avoid the construction of 7 nuclear powerplants in the next ten years - or more realistically for California, 24 natural gas fired plants.

The really great thing about this plan is that it strongly emphasizes sustainable feedstocks, primarily materials that are currently going to waste. Dedicated energy crops, in general, are less desirable - but not necessarily unsustainable, as some would argue.

The main complaint that I have about this report is that it does not mention, never mind support, sustainable feedstock development for biodiesel such as algae.

It does recommend support for development of Fischer-Tropsch diesel from waste biomass. This is all well and good, but I would argue that supporting sustainable biodiesel feedstocks is the quickest path to a sustainable, low emissions petrodiesel substitute, with the potential for major secondary benefits (also see this article).

One frequently heard argument against bioenergy is that it will literally steal food from the mouths of the poor by dedicating arable land to energy, instead of fuel. This assumes the use of dedicated energy crops on productive farmland.

First, it should be noted that a substantial amount of energy can be generated from waste products, as we've seen. This is also true of biofuels.

It also ignores the fact that dedicated energy crops can often be grown on land that is unsuitable for crop production, and even be part of remediation strategies that bring unproductive land back into agricultural use - such as where soils are contaminated with salt (a growing problem in California's central valley). Energy crops have even been proposed to remediate the effects of radioactive fallout.

Now it's clear that today, the majority of biodiesel and ethanol is produced from soybeans and corn respectively. This is not ideal, but it isn't stealing food from anyone. US overproduction of soy and corn due to subsidies results in "dumping" of agricultural products on the developing world at low prices, destroying local agriculture and promoting dependence on US food exports. Finding an increased domestic use for these crops actually works against this trend. In the long term, it's not sustainable to use corn and soy for fuel. However, it also will not be economical, so those who shoot down the possibility of biofuels solving our petroleum addiction based on the current feedstocks are tearing down a straw man.

Speaking of which, the other commonly leveled charge against biomass energy is that it may take more petroleum energy to grow and process it into fuel than the end product provides- most recently in the infamous Pimental / Patzek study in reference to ethanol and biodiesel. This has been widely refuted as bad science. NREL and UC Berkeley's EBAMM project are two respected peer-reviewed studies that have taken Pimental and Patzek out to the woodshed. Just for fun, check out where Patzek works, and who funds his research.

The biggest problem I see is the trend towards energy plantations (sugarcane and palm oil) in the developing world to feed the demand for biofuels in the developed world. This means tearing out rain forest and a continuation of the exploitative pattern so evident in the petroleum economy. This is all the more reason to accelerate R&D into sustainable domestic feedstocks, and make such activity uneconomical and irrelevant.

So. It looks like California is headed in the right direction as far as biofuels - and as goes California, often, so goes the nation. Hopefully state sustainable biodiesel advocates can get the CEC to pay more attention to sustainable feedstock R&D, and the perverse incentive created by the soybean lobby in the Federal biodiesel tax credit that provides double the tax credit for biodiesel made from "agricultural" (virgin soy) oil than from waste oil.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Why this blog?

Anyone who's found this blog is probably interested in energy issues, and familiar with the various types of renewable energy. There are plenty of blogs out there that keep up on the latest innovations in renewable energy; as well as the energy issues that face society.

My focus here is to provide more in the way of discussion and analysis of these issues. I work in the solar industry and give energy issues a lot of thought. I expect to explore various facets of the nascent green energy system from both a critical, and encouraging perspective.

Hope you find it valuable.