EarthTechling Fri, 05 Jun 2015 16:45:17 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Leading US Solar Power City in 2014 May Shock You Thu, 04 Jun 2015 13:30:33 +0000 It wasn’t Honolulu, or Los Angeles, or Austin, or Phoenix or San Jose. No, the U.S. city that installed more solar power than any other in 2014 was …

Indianapolis Motor Speedway Solar

Part of the 9-megawatt solar array at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Photo provided by Indianapolis Motor Speedway.


Yep. Indianapolis added a whopping 51 megawatts of solar capacity in 2014. San Diego was next with 42 MW added, followed by Los Angeles (38 MW) and Denver (33 MW). The data comes from the 2015 and 2014 Shining Cities reports from Environment America.

Cumulatively, LA has more solar than any U.S. city, with 170 MW installed as of the end of 2014, followed by San Diego (149 MW), Phoenix (115 MW), then –there it is again – Indianapolis (107 MW), with San Jose (105 MW) rounding out the Top 5.

California cities as solar trendsetters isn’t a surprise. Phoenix, vast and sunny, makes sense, too. But what in the world is Indianapolis doing on the cumulative list, and topping everyone in 2014 installations?

Nearly all of the city’s solar is the result of a voluntary program offered several years ago by the local utility company, Indianapolis Power & Light, which has nearly a half-million customers in and around Indiana’s capital city. In 2010, regulators approved a feed-in tariff – the same sort of device Germany used to become the solar superpower it is today – that guaranteed 24 cents per kilowatt-hour to solar facilities between 20 and 100 kilowatts in size, and 20 cents/kWh for bigger installation. The rates are in effect for 15 years.

That’s why you won’t see house after house with solar panels on the roofs in Indianapolis – but you will see a bunch of really big solar farms.

Maywood solar

Maywood solar farm on Superfund site in Indianapolis, Photo provided by Hanwha Q Cells.

For instance, there’s the 10.86 MW (DC) Maywood Solar Farm, 43 acres of PV on the Reilly Tar & Chemical Superfund site. This is a great example of the potential to put contaminated land to good use, something the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is promoting with its RE-Powering America’s Land Initiative. (See the EPA’s Project Tracking Matrix (PDF) to learn about similar projects.)

At Indianapolis International Airport, two phases of solar construction have yielded 22.2 MW (17.5 MW AC) of PV. That makes it the largest airport-based solar farm in the world.

Another one: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a sprawling 1,000-acre campus, used 68 acres of under utilized land to build a 9-MW solar farm.

As to whether Indianapolis can maintain its lofty standing, prospects aren’t great. Indianapolis Power & Light cut off the feed-in tariff when it had booked enough projects to add up to 1 percent of the utility’s customer load, or about 100 MW, and pretty much all of that seems to have been built. Indiana does have a solid net metering policy covering investor-owned utilities like IPL, which should help encourage some solar adoption at smaller scales, but that probably won’t be enough to hold off Sunbelt cities as they pile on more solar in the coming years.

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Free Solar Power in California: Thanks, Cap-and-Trade! Wed, 03 Jun 2015 15:20:48 +0000 California’s cap-and-trade program brings in money when carbon allowances are auctioned.  A lot of money – about $1.49 billion in the current fiscal year alone, the state said last week. The law requires that “the state invest at least 10 percent of the auction proceeds within the most disadvantaged communities and at least 25 percent of the proceeds be invested to benefit these communities.”

And that’s why Roy Rivera, a disabled man who lives on a fixed income in Sacramento, now has solar on his roof – and more than 1,600 similarly low-income households will as well.

GRID Alternatives Installation

California officials with Roy Rivera, proud owner of a new rooftop solar power system. Photo from GRID Alternatives.

That’s how many rooftop systems are expected to be installed through the state’s Low-Income Weatherization Program, which is funded with money from the cap and trade program.

Rivera figures to save more than $800 in the first year the 2.5-kilowatt system is in operation.

“We hope the savings will help defray some of my medical costs,” Rivera said in a news release put out to highlight the program. “When you have a budget like ours, which is stretched just about as far as you can go, it makes a big difference.”

GRID Alternatives is the nonprofit that does these solar deployments. Taking advantage of corporate support, training programs and donations, they get their work done pretty cheaply: The San Francisco Chronicle reported that the low-income solar PV program will cost $14.7 million; with the state expecting 5.5 megawatts of solar from it, that’s well under the typical $5/watt cost of getting a system installed.

Meanwhile, GRID Alternatives is helping overcome one of the great ironies of the solar revolution in this country: As the group’s communication manager said last fall, “the people who need it most have the least access to it.” Buying a system is tough for those with low incomes, not only because of the cost, but also because the chief incentive is in the form of a tax credit that favors those with big tax liabilities. Leasing can be challenging due to credit requirements, and yields lower benefits.

California, far and away the U.S. solar leader, has used other programs to try to bridge the solar divide.

For several years, legislation required the California Solar Initiative to spend at least a tenth of its funding on helping low-income folks get solar, and that got a lot of solar on roofs. The CSI rebates are winding down now, but the Single Family Affordable Solar Housing program received $108 million to continue with fully subsidized systems for the very poor and highly subsidized systems for other low-income Californians, running through 2021. Once again, GRID Alternatives is helping make that happen.

Interestingly, a study released earlier this year by Vanderbilt University and Sandia Labs researchers found that the CSI program might have done better to use more of its funds on low-income deployments. Those researchers found that the CSI’s standard incentives probably weren’t key to driving new installations – peer effects had a bigger impact, they said.

The researchers “explored the impact of scaling up a small existing CSI program that gives solar systems to low-income families for little or no cost,” a Vanderbilt news release explained. “They determined that an optimal program of this type could result in significantly greater adoption compared to the incentive approach. In addition, they found that its relative advantage increased at higher budget levels.”

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Akon’s ‘Solar Academy’ Aims to Light Up Africa Tue, 26 May 2015 13:30:09 +0000 There are some who argue that Africa needs fossil-fuel-generated power in order to boost standards of living and end the deprivation that afflicts too many. Just can’t do without it. But Akon is taking a different approach in rural areas of the sun-blessed continent. 

"SolarGIS-Solar-map-Africa-and-Middle-East-en" by SolarGIS © 2011 GeoModel Solar s.r.o.. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Africa’s excellent solar resource is shown in this map by SolarGIS © 2011 GeoModel Solar s.r.o.. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The Senegalese-American recording artist just ratcheted up efforts begun more than a year ago with his Akon Lighting Africa initiative, announcing the launch of a new “Solar Academy” for the continent.

“This professional training center of excellence is a first on the continent and targets future African entrepreneurs, engineers and technicians,” Akon Lighting Africa announced. “It will open its doors this summer in Bamako, Mali, and welcome any Africans wanting to help develop the use of solar power.”

Some 600 million Africans are without electricity, and the early response to Akon Lighting Africa’s efforts has been enthusiastic.

“In less than one year, thanks to a private-public partnership model and a well-established network of partners (including SOLEKTRA INT, CHINA JIANGSU INTERNATIONAL, SUMEC and NARI), a wide range of quality solar solutions, including street lamps, domestic and individual kits, have been installed in 11 African countries,” the organization said.

image via International Institute for Sustainable Development

Akon speaking at the Second Annual Sustainable Energy for All Forum, May 20, 2015. (Image via the International Institute for Sustainable Development)

As cool and empowering as this project is, it’s clear that a lot more is going to need to be done to help Africa and other developing areas of the world steer a sustainable path on the way to economic progress.

The Solar Academy announcement was made as part of the second United Nationals Sustainable Energy for All (SE4ALL) forum. Launched in 2011, this is a drive to achieve universal access to modern energy services while doubling both the rate of improvement in energy efficiency and the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix by 2030.

A new progress report showed that movement toward “reducing global primary energy intensity over the tracking period was substantial, though still only two-thirds of the pace needed to reach the SE4ALL objective,” and that “the growth of renewable energy final consumption continued to accelerate in recent years, but to achieve the SE4ALL objective, the rate of progress will need to increase over 50 percent.

It’ll take more money to hit targets, the report said – not the current $400 billion, but more on the order of $1.25 trillion.

“Commitments already made under the SE4All initiative, by the European Union, Germany and the United States, are set to help developing countries provide energy access to their underserved citizens, but will fall short of universal access,” the UN said.

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Rush for Tesla Batteries Shifts Storage Paradigm Thu, 14 May 2015 13:30:59 +0000 Yeah, you might say that Tesla’s big battery announcement went over pretty well. Within days of introducing the Powerwall and Powerpack – attractive units, but more importantly, less expensive than expected – the company had booked $800 million in reservations.

Image snipped from Tesla's April 30 battery announcement.

Image snipped from Tesla’s April 30 battery announcement.

And no matter what you think about the immediate usefulness of the Tesla Energy batteries, the enthusiastic reaction should serve to propel advancement in producing better and cheaper energy storage options, and that will only help encourage more renewable energy to be deployed.

Tesla revealed reservation figures as part of its quarterly earnings call a week after the battery announcement, saying it took around 38,000 reservations for the 7-kilowatt-hour and 10-kWh Powerwalls, intended for home and small business use, and about 2,500 reservations for the 100-kilowatt Powerpacks.

Here’s the thing about the Powerpacks, though: Elon Musk said the typical order was for at least 10 units (they can be installed together to increase storage capacity), so as Bloomberg calculated, the reservations in sum could represent 2.5 gigawatt-hours of energy storage.

Tesla Powerpack unit.

Tesla Powerpack unit.

To put that in perspective, California gave the energy-storage market a big boost in late 2013 when it mandated that the state’s investor-owned utilities bring on 1.3 gigawatts of energy storage by early next decade. Yes, that’s gigawatts (power output) not gigawatt-hours (stored energy). But if we assume the Powerpack has output commensurate with the Powerwall (2 kw continuous, 3.3 kW peak), those Powerpack reservations could total 825 megawatts of power. That’s huge given where the market has been.

In a way, the success of the Powerpack isn’t a surprise; at this point, it probably makes more sense than the Powerwall.

The Powerwall, at around $350/kWh for the battery alone, is well priced, but the Powerpack is an even better bargain at $250/kWh. And the fact is, at this point, big companies and utilities are better positioned to take advantage of energy storage.

Battery storage has an exciting future for residential use, but the price is still fairly expensive and most people don’t have the kind of time-of-use rate plans that might make load-shifting economic. This is especially true for those who have a home solar system and a solid net metering program where they live.

The equation, right now, appears to be better for bigger customers who can trim hefty peak-demand charges with storage. And utilities could use the Powerpack to meet their own storage needs, whether mandated or not.

That said, SolarCity is talking about the Powerwall as a tool that could pay off for both utilities and homeowners. The idea is that a big pool of home batteries could offer a valuable grid service to utilities, who could then cut homeowners in on a portion of that value stream. We’ll see how that plays out.

What we know with certainty is that there’s now wide recognition of the possibilities with energy storage, excitement even. Yes, there are legitimate questions as to how – perhaps even whether – the early adopters will realize economic gain from their Tesla Energy batteries. But a corner appears to have been turned, there’s no question about that.

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Could Controlled-Fusion Usher in a New Era of Clean Energy? Mon, 04 May 2015 13:10:04 +0000 The_Sun_in_extreme_ultraviolet

Today six governments are involved in the planning and construction of what could be called “the largest international scientific undertaking in history”. Their purpose: to usher in a new era of clean, abundant energy. University of Washington scientists may be even closer.

Fusion is theoretically well understood from the study of thermonuclear reactions and conditions that power the Sun. Under extremely high temperatures and pressure, hydrogen atoms are forced to overcome their electrical repulsion and fuse together, thereby releasing energy. Although the construction of such a device on Earth might not have been economically feasible in the past, according to scientists from the University of Washington we may today be at the edge of a new fusion era.

Controlled fusion is every person’s dream with its promises of clean energy that neither releases carbon dioxide gases, like fossil fuel alternatives, nor dangerous radioactive by-products, such as in the case of fission reactors.

The world-changing repercussions of controlled fusion were acknowledged at the Geneva summit of November 1986, where American President Reagan and Soviet General Secretary of State Gorbachev agreed that controlled fusion should be “the widest practical development of international cooperation in obtaining (fusion energy), which is essentially inexhaustible, for the benefit of mankind.” Indeed: the fuel for controlled fusion consists of hydrogen atoms (deuterium & tritium), which can be mainly extracted and produced from an unlimited supply of water (H2O). The impact of such a device in the contexts of economy, environmentalism and the development of third-world countries seem almost too good to be true.

The difficulties of building a controlled fusion reactor require the development of a technology that would emulate the high pressure and temperature conditions of the Sun. Put simply: stripping hydrogen atoms of their electrons to creating an ionized gas called plasma. Because of the high-temperature levels involved, magnetic confinement is seen as the most efficient option to construct a controlled fusion reactor, since any other material would not withstand the high temperature of the plasma.

Due to electromagnetic forces, charged particles spiral around magnetic field lines, which are generated by the electromagnets of a reactor. To optimize the efficiency of such a device, plasma must be kept away as much as possible from the walls of a reactor, which is tricky for three main reasons.

  • First, if the magnetic field intersects with the walls, high-energy particles (following the course of the magnetic field) will also hit these walls. This phenomenon is known as “end-loss”.
  • Second, if charged particles collide with one another, or if the magnetic field isn’t homogeneous, then the plasma will get off course and possibly collide with the reactor walls.
  • And Third, the instability of plasma can disrupt the magnetic field, cause sporadic waves, and change the course of charged particles, therefore allowing contact between the walls and the plasma.

Figure 1: A tokamak requires a net magnetic field that follows the shape of its torus to confine the plasma to the reactor. In order to achieve this, electromagnets and superconducting coils must be placed correctly on the device.

These problems make magnetic confinement extremely challenging to physicists and engineers. In the 1950’s, however, Soviet physicists Andrei Sakharov and Igor Tamm designed a device named the tokamak (tокамак with the Russian alphabet). Today, its doughnut-shape is seen as the most efficient configuration to confine hot plasma and induce fusion with magnetic fields.

Following the sophisticated design of the tokamak, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) was born after the Geneva Convention of 1986.

Figure 2. The ITER reactor compared to the size of an average man, circled in red.

Figure 2. The ITER reactor compared to the size of an average man, circled in red.

Using the principles of tokamak design, the ITER’s objectives are to construct a gigantic controlled fusion reactor in Southern France to develop “fusion energy for peaceful purposes”.

Due to the enormous costs involved–around 50 billion US dollars–international collaboration is necessary. Today six governments (the European Union, the U.S., Russia, India, China and Korea) are involved in the planning and construction of what can be called “the largest international undertaking of history”. To account for the unpredictable nature of plasma and optimize fusion output, the size of the ITER reactor is roughly 30 m tall and weighs 23,000 tons.


Figure 3: A simplified scheme of the dynomak

Despite the huge costs and wide international collaboration of ITER, the actual fusion of hydrogen is only scheduled to begin in 2027, which is why the University of Washington’s research appears so promising. Introduced by Professor Thomas Jarboe and his doctoral student Derek Sutherland, their nuclear fusion reactor, called the dynomak, follows the principles of the tokamak by ensuring that plasma is confined by a magnetic field for a period of time long enough to allow for the fusion of helium to occur. But rather than rely on expensive superconducting coils like ITER, the dynomak uses a self-sustaining approach that heats plasma continuously to achieve the required high fusion temperatures. This means that plasma is always maintained at these high temperatures. In the dynomak’s case, heat generated from fusion would first be converted to mechanical energy in the same way that a typical power reactor generates electricity– as a turbine spins by coolant heated by the dynomak.

The project estimates the concept overnight capital cost to be around $2.7 billion, about 15 times more economical than the projected costs of ITER. Furthermore, the design offers a 40%-efficiency (similar to the electrical output of a coal-fired plant), which once again, is a lot more efficient than the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor– about five times more to be exact.

So who knows… An idealized era where harnessing the Sun’s power simply involves copying what it’s been doing for the past 4.6 billions of years may just be around the corner.

Dr. Kat Mizouni is a Ph.D. physicist and freelance writer working on her first novel. She has a passion for international travel, astrophysics, horseback riding, Star Wars and heels, not necessarily in that order. She blogs routinely at


  • Michelle Ma, UW Fusion Reactor Concept Could be Cheaper than Coal, October 2014, UW News.
  • R. S. Pease, Towards a Controlled Nuclear Fusion Reactor, IAEA BULLETIN- VOL.20, NO.6, p. 9.
  • Robert W. Conn, An East-West Hunt for Fusion Energy: Costly, Complex Engineering Is Best Done as Joint Effort, Los Angeles Times, August 18th 1986
  • Fedja Kadribasic, Stanford University Paper submitted for Professor Laughlin’s Introduction to Nuclear Energy course, 2013.
  • Derek Sutherland, UW, Dynomak Reactor System, EPR conference, August 2014.
  • Derek Sutherland, The dynomak: An Advanced Spheromak Reactor Concept with Imposed-Dynamo Current Drive and Next-Generation Nuclear Power Technologies, Fusion Engineering and Design, 89 (2014) 412-425, (abstract)].


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Community Solar Spreading the PV Goodness Sun, 03 May 2015 14:30:08 +0000 The story of rooftop solar power in recent years is one of challenges conquered. Panels too pricey? Scaled up production (in China, mainly) took care of that. System capital costs still too high? New finance models, like leasing, came to the rescue.

The next big challenge to fall by the wayside might be in making solar available to the millions of people and businesses who don’t have a rooftop of their own for a system.

A community solar project taking shape in Colorado this spring. Image via SunShare.

A community solar project taking shape in Colorado this spring. Image via SunShare.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory just released a report that found massive potential for shared solar, aka “community solar” or “solar gardens.”

Shared solar can be done a lot of different ways, but one common model is for a developer to build a project in a good location – a sunny open lot, for example. Local residents are then invited to subscribe to a portion of the project, paying a relatively cheap and stable price for credits that offset their electricity use on their monthly utility bill.

NREL said just shy of half of all households can’t do solar, either because they don’t own the building they live in or their roof isn’t right for solar. It’s a similar situation for businesses. But:

By opening the market to these customers, shared solar could represent 32%–49% of the distributed PV market in 2020, thereby leading to growing cumulative PV deployment growth in 2015–2020 of 5.5–11.0 GW, and representing $8.2–$16.3 billion of cumulative investment.

As of the beginning of this year, the U.S. had 18.3 gigawatts of operating PV (residential, utility-scale, you name it) – so a whole new market of 5-11 GW over the five years would be huge.

 Estimated PV market potential of onsite and shared solar distributed PV capacity. Image via NREL.

Estimated PV market potential of onsite and shared solar distributed PV capacity. Image via NREL.

What will it take to make this happen? A regulatory mechanism – “virtual net metering” or a set valuation or “tariff” for solar – is a top prerequisite, allowing the typical benefits of distributed solar to be shared. Some states and localities have such regulations in place, many don’t, and the rules are rarely the same from place to place. That makes it hard for business models that can drive big growth to develop, so regulatory standardization is one thing community solar will need in order to reach its potential.

But when the road is opened to solar, folks will drive down it. In Colorado, the first state to enact pro-community solar legislation, there “are 14 operating solar gardens in the service area of Xcel Energy, Colorado’s largest electric utility, with 530 customers participating and 98 percent of the gardens’ capacity sold,” according to the Denver Post.

Big Solar has noticed; late last year, First Solar invested in the Colorado community-solar developer Clean Energy Collective, and more recently NRG Renew agreed to finance five solar gardens that SunShare is doing in Colorado.

But what about utilities, famously antsy about distributed solar? Well, community solar can be a cost-effective way to appease customer demand for more solar, keeping the utility in the game with their customers in a way rooftop doesn’t. At an industry conference in San Diego late last year, Julia Hamm, president and CEO of the Solar Electric Power Association, said interest was growing. “We have 500 utility members and there isn’t one of them who isn’t interested in community solar,” she said.

Which doesn’t mean utilities will always be perfectly aligned with solar advocates on the gritty details of community solar. Xcel, for instance, has embraced community solar in Minnesota in addition to Colorado, but the utility is raising hackles by pushing to limit Minnesota corporate projects that cluster together 1-megawatt arrays, the size limit in the program. Even so, “If the large clusters of projects are excluded, Xcel said it still expects about 80 MW of solar gardens would be developed by the end of 2016,” the Star-Tribune reported.

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China Solar Power Surges: Leaves Entire World Behind Sun, 26 Apr 2015 15:06:27 +0000 China issued an update on its solar progress this week and made every other solar-seeking country around the world feel kind of pathetic.

The National Energy Board said 5.04 GW was installed in the first quarter of 2015. To put that in perspective, China’s three-month total was just a gigawatt shy of what the U.S. installed in all of 2014 – and it was a good year for the Americans, their best ever. And as an Australia-based renewable energy website noted, 5.04 GW is “an amount the Australian government has said would be impossible to install within five years.”

Solar Power

image via Shutterstock

China is now at 33.12 GW. If it hits the official 2015 target of 17.8 GW, China this year will soar past Germany – at 38.2 GW but expected to add only around 2 GW in 2015 – and claim the top spot in global solar. In its 2011-15 five-year plan for solar, China had been aiming to get to 35 GW by the end of this year, but it now appears likely to land as much as 10 GW above that figure.

The surge in the first quarter of the year puts to rest any doubt about the Chinese solar market, which had surprisingly fallen short of a 2014 target of 14 GW by more than 3 GW.

What’s driving solar growth in China? While in the United States and other Western countries the discussion centers on climate change, China has a motivations that are perhaps less abstract: Domestic installations support its vast solar manufacturing capacity and fossil fuel-generation is a major factor in its desperate pollution problems.

China also simply needs more power, which isn’t the case in most Western countries. In the U.S., solar (and wind) might replace conventional generation; in China, solar (and wind) translate to building fewer new coal-fired plants.

Still, Americans looking at this picture shouldn’t feel too badly about the progress their own country is making. In a white paper, Bloomberg New Energy Finance noted that U.S. “CO2 emissions from the power sector should drop to their lowest level in 1994.”

Wind and solar will just about evenly split 18 GW in new installations in 2015, according to the BNEF forecast. Solar’s 9.1 GW will be another record, while wind’s 8.9 GW will be its third-best year ever. And then there’s this:

It will be a record year for coal retirements in the US with 23 GW forecast to come offline. That represents no less than 7% of all current US coal capacity. A confluence of factors is driving the change, including lower priced natural gas, new standards on mercury emissions, and the old age of many coal-fired units.

The one potentially scary aspect of that BNEF paper: the growing prominence of natural gas in the U.S. energy portfolio.

The power sector will burn more natural gas in 2015 than ever before… Gas burn will rise to back-fill lost generation from retiring coal; but also, remarkably low gas prices have boosted burn totals by allowing efficient gas turbines to undercut the cost of coal-fired electricity.

Natural gas is far cleaner than coal, but it’s hardly clean, and it’s hardly a long-term climate change solution. The Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan is better than no plan at all, but as presently drafted, leaves the door open to even more gas growth. As the Union of Concerned Scientists wrote last month:

The EPA’s draft proposal underestimates the role of renewables and energy efficiency can play in cutting carbon emissions cost-effectively. Instead, the EPA’s framework encourages a greater reliance on natural gas.

The point being, the Clean Power Plan alone won’t set the U.S. on a truly clean energy path. For that, well, have you heard about the putting a price on carbon?

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