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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Latest aviation biofuel PR stunt

The search for renewable sources for aviation fuel continues. First it was coconut and babassu nut oil for a Virgin Atlantic 747, and this week it was jatropha oil on an Air New Zealand flight Tuesday.

This time, the biofuel was 50% of the mix (with jet fuel), unlike the 20% in the Virgin stunt. The jatropha crop is also promising because it can be grown places that other crops cannot, particularly sunny arid areas like the African continent, with 5 million hectares predicted to be planted by 2010, and acrages growing by 1-2 million hectares every year. As such, it seems more scalable than the earlier test.

However, the US alone uses about 20 billion gallons of jet fuel a year (nearly 60 million gallons a day). It may be that only algae-based biofuels will scale up well enough to have a meaningful impact on US consumption of jet fuel.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Bah humbug

From Australia’s Courier & Mail on Christmas Eve:
SCIENTISTS have warned that Christmas lights are bad for the planet due to huge electricity waste and urged people to get energy efficient festive bulbs.

CSIRO researchers said householders should know that each bulb turned on in the name of Christmas will increase emissions of greenhouse gases.

Dr Glenn Platt, who leads research on energy demand, said Australia got 80 per cent of its electricity by burning coal which pumps harmful emissions into the atmosphere.

He said: "Energy efficient bulbs, such as LEDs, and putting your Christmas lights on a timer are two very easy ways to minimise the amount of electricity you use to power your lights."
Reader reaction was vocal (243 postings thus far) and fairly harsh:
Dear CSIRO, RE: fairy lights and the harm to planet EARTH..ABSOLUTE BOLLOCKS! For gods sake use my tax dollars on something real, or pack up all your wrong forcasts and .........thank goodness for censorship. ..

Posted by: Graham Keech of Brisbane 9:05pm December 25, 2008
At the West household, our Christmas lights have been on a timer since we moved to San José in 2002. (In our house before that, there wasn’t a good place to put the timer).

This Christmas, we’ve started to see LED lights in our suburban neighborhood. We have been considering converting to LED lights: the incandescents burn out and as with other incandescents, waste a lot of energy due to heat. We held off because we assumed they were too expensive.

However, Amazon has a 17’ string of LED lights for $30 (marked down after Christmas to $7-$20). They conform to standard lengths and are even designed to look like C7 Christmas bulbs. Not surprisingly, LED lights are prominent among all the Christmas lights being sold by Amazon this season. Clearly it’s a growth industry.

To me, this suggests that the idea of publicizing LED lights is timely, but the way it was expressed (as often is the case with scientists’ public policy opinions) could have been more tactful. It also doesn’t help that the comments were made by a government employee, and thus smacked of a government mandate to some people.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Ethanol reform: too good to be true

My predicition of good news on the ethanol front proved premature, as Barack Obama has nominated Tom Vilsack, governor of Iowa, to be his agriculture secretary. Vilsack (like every other politician in Iowa or who even set foot in Iowa) worships the false god of corn-based ethanol.

Time magazine does a good job of analyzing the Vilsack appointment against the growing evidence of ethanol madness. Michael Grunwald professes optimism in that Vilsack is a corn-barrel moderate (rather than hawk), but I think he’s just giving the new president the benefit of the doubt. Time will tell, even if Time cannot.

Friday, December 12, 2008

At end to ethanol madness

Much has been made of that the Energy secretary-designate, Steven Chu, is a Nobel Laureate — a relatively rare qualification for a cabinet secretary. Apparently he would be the first one with an earned Nobel (as opposed to the Peace prize, which is an overtly political award).

A few have noted that Chu’s current job, as head of the Lawrence Berkeley Labs, includes a significant program on EE/RE.

The Domestic Fuel website concludes:
Dr. Chu has been heavily involved in biofuels research to find alternative and more efficient feedstocks for ethanol and biodiesel production. At a 25x’25 Renewable Energy Summit earlier this year in Omaha, Chu said, “We should look at corn as a transitional crop,” but within five to 10 years he expects scientific discoveries and refining processes could improve enough to move grasses, woody substances and waste to the head of the line for making fuels.
US News is more conclusive:
At a talk this summer in Nevada, Chu said, "In the first eight months of a new research program, we have developed ways to separate out cellulose, and we have already made a yeast [that] makes a gasolinelike fuel. Already within eight months, we are working on diesel and jet replacement fuels. We need to work with making this really scalable so it will outperform the yeast we have to today." (One potential disagreement with Obama: Chu has criticized corn-based ethanol, which Obama has strongly supported in the Senate and in the campaign.)
[Harris cartoon]The energy budget for corn-based ethanol is questionable, while the economics are not: it can’t survive without subsidies.

The case for celluosic ethanol (thus far) seems much more economically feasible, but it’s unclear whether President Obama (let alone Congress) will be able to stop buying votes with farm state subsidies.

Cartoon Credit: Science Cartoons Plus by S. Harris

Thursday, December 11, 2008

A peek inside NREL

Wednesday night was the 5th (ever) meeting of the Silicon Valley Photovoltaics Society. It was recommended to me by a friend in the industry, and I’m glad I went.

The topic was what the National Renewable Energy Laboratory does, and our speaker flew out from Golden, Colorado to give our talk (and make SV visits). The speaker was John Benner, whose business card says “Manager, PV Industry Partnerships, National Center for Photovoltaics.” He covered a lot in 45 minutes, and the slides will eventually be posted, so I’ll just cover the NREL highlights, both from the talk and talking afterwards.

John joined the Solar Energy Research Institute in 1978, soon after its founding in 1977. (The NREL name came in 1991). NREL is one of 36 FFRDCs ( Federally Funded Research and Development Center), in this case operated by Midwest Research Institute and Batelle.

NREL gets about $250m of its $300m budget from the DOE’s EERE division. EERE has a budget of about $1.8b, because it funds EE/RE efforts at other DOE labs like Sandia, Oakridge and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Within NREL, photovoltaics are about 25% of the budget. Other major initiatives include biofuels, wind, and building energy efficiency.

NREL supplies research on basic technologies and also helps firms work on their own technologies. For example, a major issue is system reliability: NREL does research on accelerated testing, it does failure analysis for industry, but it’s up to industry to decide how to fix its own reliability problems.

NREL also provides funds to help firms commercialize technologies, both with its PV incubator (for those with proof of concept) and its new pre-incubator program. A wide range of firms have been funded, including Nanosolar, SoloPower, CaliSolar, SolFocus, and Skyline.

Flipping slides rapidly, Benner highlighted specific technology issues: wafer silicon (cutting wafer thickness by 50+%), film silicon, CdTE, organic PV as well as major cross-cutting issues (such as inverter failure). I typed furiously, but if I typed them right, the PV budget number were
  • 23% crystalline silicon
  • 18% concentrating PV
  • 7% next generation
  • 7% thin film CIGS
  • 5% thin film CdTE
  • 4% organic PV
  • 2% building integrated PV
  • 1% dye sensitized
  • 28% crosscutting, that covers multiple absorbent technologies.
The funding of DOE solar energy programs peaked in 1981, and then languished until 2006, when the Bush administration unveiled the Solar America Initiative, doubling funding in one year. Attendees are hoping for dramatic growth in RE funding under the new administration. (Obama was expected to announce that his new Energy secretary will be Steven Chu, director of the Lawrence Berkeley Lab, another FFRDC run for DOE.)

However, as Benner pointed out, the US story is now a private investment story, with $200m of annual government funding of PV dwarfed by $3b in private investment. The Federal role is strategically important (what else would he say?) but it’s not dominant.

Benner mentioned that NREL works with 70 of the 120 US companies that it knows of that do any sort of research or product development in PV, including some one- and two-person companies (that outsource almost everything). It also works closely with universities, including five universities on its board: MIT, Stanford, and three Colorado engineering schools (Boulder, CSU, CSM).

I’m hard pressed to think of another national lab that works so closely with industry on technologies being built and sold by industry to the commercial market. It seems to me (from this brief external perspective) that the NREL model has been “bring us your technologies and we’ll help you develop and fix them” while the other DOE labs have been more “here’s our cool technology, why don’t you license it.” Certainly the commercialization differences bear further investigation.

Update Dec. 17: Benner’s slides are now posted to the SVPVS website.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Tesla praying for its own bailout

Tesla delivered their 100th car Tuesday, of 1200 cars on their backlog. The (presold) delivery took place at their Menlo Park dealership to a minor celebrity best known for standing next to Oprah.

However, the big news is that Tesla is seeking $350 million in low interest loans to develop its (currently on hold) plans for a mass market ($58k) four-door sedan. The parallels to the bailout of the Detroit three are unavoidable.

Despite such parallels, CEO Elon Musk rejects the analogy. As KCBS radio summarized
Tesla needs government capital, but the federal loan the electric car manufacturer wants to use to finance production on a battery-powered sedan does not come from the auto industry bailout now being debated in Congress.

The San Carlos-based company is awaiting a $350 million loan from the Department of Energy under a program Congress approved last year to encourage the development of energy- efficient vehicles.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk said that money would finance a plant in San Jose where the Model S—to be priced just under $60,000—will be developed.

He was quick to clarify the money would go towards future development rather than existing day-to-day operating costs, a crucial difference between the DOE program and the bailout of the Big Three.
So it’s coming from a different pot of money, and (perhaps) the plan predated the recent collapse of demand for consumer durables.

Certainly the Tesla funding is more consonant with existing DOE policy to encourage alternative fuel vehicles, rather than the recent tendency of Washington politicians to offer (as both left and right deride it) a “bridge loan to nowhere.”