EarthTechling Tue, 28 Jul 2015 16:18:35 +0000 en-US hourly 1 History Made as Electric Aircraft Crosses English Channel Thu, 23 Jul 2015 13:30:43 +0000 airbus_efan

It’s inspiring to think that no matter how much we achieve as a technological species, there will always be more firsts for the record books.

On July 10th, a whole new page was added, as two French pilots successfully completed the English Channel crossing in a light, entirely battery-powered aircraft.

Since brothers Orville and Wilbur got their Wright Flyer off the ground at Kitty Hawk in 1903, the world of aviation has enjoyed over a century of spirited competition. Go further. Get there first. Get there faster. And, especially more recently, get there more efficiently. The channel crossing is an important milestone in aviation, and the French aviators followed in the footsteps of Louis Bleriot, who was the first to achieve the feat via a powered, heavier-than-air craft in 1909. In retracing his historical path, they made history of their own.

The first pilot, Hugues Duval, flew from Calais to Dover and back again – approximately twenty miles each way – in a two-engine, one-seater Cri-cri aircraft. Because he lacked authorization to take off at Calais, he was initially towed by a traditional aircraft before making the solo crossing. The 220-pound Cri-cri was able to reach a speed of 90 miles an hour during his flight.

An Airbus E-Fan piloted by Didier Esteyne was quick to follow Duval, taking off several hours later. Esteyne took off under his own power from the English town of Lydd and crossed the Channel to land in Calais. He flew at an altitude of 3500 ft – certainly not the 30,000 feet cruising altitude of a commercial airliner, but plenty high enough to get the job done.

Airbus showed off its E-Fan to audiences at the Farnborough International Airshow in July of 2014, getting the idea of electric flight into the media spotlight. The model that made the crossing sported an updated lithium-ion battery system, to enable the longer flight time necessary for the journey. The new batteries are heavier than the original lithium-polymer cells, so Airbus lightened the craft, including swapping out the controllers that translate the batteries’ power from direct current to the alternating current needed by the two propeller motors. By necessity, the E-Fan that crossed the English channel was lighter, more efficient, and better than its predecessor. Competition drives innovation!

The Electric-Powered Airplane

Electric-powered light planes have wonderful potential for use as pilot-training vehicles or for short-range regional flights. Besides the huge ecological advantage of producing zero CO2 emissions, the battery-powered planes are also very quiet. This means they could potentially fly during hours when traditional planes would be grounded due to noise restrictions.

It’s true that the current state of battery technology means that electric planes are held back by a limited flight range and weight capacity. But when you look at the leaps that have occurred between 1909’s state-of-the-art airline technology and the trans-oceanic airliners currently crisscrossing our skies, it’s hard not to imagine electric-powered planes getting bigger and faster. And better.

Photo Credit: via Flickr under a Creative Commons License


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White House Initiative Brings More Solar Power to Low-Income Communities Tue, 14 Jul 2015 13:30:45 +0000 Obama_White_House_Initiative


Lower income Americans pay more for energy as a percentage of their total income than more affluent residents, but they’re generally in a bad position to implement renewable, long-term cost-saving solutions. This week, the Obama administration announced a new energy initiative to remove some of the barriers and increase access to solar power for low-and moderate-income Americans.

President Obama’s 2013 Climate Action Plan originally called for 100 megawatts (MW) of renewable energy to be installed in federally-subsidized housing by 2020. With commitments already in place today for 185MW, the new initiative triples this goal to 300MW. Beyond that, the administration aims to improve access to renewable energy for all low- and middle-income communities.

Solar panels take up space and require a substantial capital investment up front, two things that many small businesses and lower-income neighborhoods are short on. While the cost of solar installations continues to drop, the investment is still a significant one that many families can’t afford. Besides the cost, approximately 50% of American households and businesses find themselves in physical circumstances that make a move to solar power difficult: they’re either renters or have residences with little to no roof real estate, like condos and row-homes.

To address these obstacles, the US Department of Energy has launched the National Community Solar Partnership as a means of expanding access to community and shared solar power for low- and middle-income communities. This partnership will improve communication between government, solar energy companies, financial institutions, and non-profit organizations, allowing them to better work together towards the common goal of bringing renewable energy to new markets. Collaborative research between these groups will improve the technology both in size and cost, expanding access for builders and homeowners. The administration also plans to make more loans available for renewable energy projects, taking away the hurdle of the up-front costs.

Commitments are piling up from both the public and private sectors to install solar and renewable energy, including community solar installations, in low-income areas. From public housing authorities to energy companies to NASCAR, many players have shown enthusiasm in contributing to the goal. Taken together, their commitments translate to 260 new projects that will benefit the communities they’re planned for.

Not satisfied with simply facilitating solar projects, the Obama administration is also setting a very important goal with this initiative: they plan to make the renewable energy workforce the most inclusive and diverse workforce in the country. As solar power becomes more accessible, the number of jobs available in the field is increasing at a rate 10 times the national average. There’s a need for skilled workers in the field, and the government plans to invest in job training and education. The Solar Ready Vets program is already in place to train about 200 active military personnel in installation of solar energy systems, and other recruitment and training programs will target minority and low-income communities.

Via White and

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force Photo/Senior Airman Brian Ybarbo via Flickr under Creative Commons License

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From Coal to the Cloud: Google “Upcycles” Defunct Power Plant Into its Newest Data Center Wed, 08 Jul 2015 13:30:49 +0000 Anyone with scissors, thread, and access to a craft website can upcycle old t-shirts into tote bags, but it takes a multinational corporation like Google to upcycle a decommissioned coal power plant into a data center.


Widows Creek Fossil Plant – originally posted to Flickr by TVA Web Team

The Widows Creek Fossil Plant in northeast Alabama, currently run by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) electrical utility, is scheduled to shut down operations in October 2015. Google plans to take over a portion of the site in early 2016, repurposing existing infrastructure to support a brand new, energy-efficient, $600 million data center.

Google won’t be retrofitting the abandoned plant itself; the data center will be built nearby, on a 360-acre permanent easement on TVA’s land. But building so close to the old plant means the data center will have access to the web of high-voltage electrical transmission lines already in place. Given the power needs of even the most efficient data center, having those lines ready is valuable. Of course, the Widows Creek decision isn’t solely an economic one. Building on this site is exactly in line with Google’s carbon-neutral philosophy and green reputation.

There’s powerful symbolism in transforming an old dirty coal-burning plant into a new, gleaming, green-powered data center, and that isn’t lost on Google’s executives. Gary Demasi, Director of Data Center Energy and Location Strategy for Google, said in the initial announcement that “The idea of repurposing a former coal generating site and powering our new facility with renewable energy – especially reliable, affordable energy that we can count on 24/7 with the existing infrastructure in place – was attractive.” It’s a smart move. The plant emits 2 million pounds of pollutants a year. Replacing it with a “green” data center makes Google look like a hero, even if it was scheduled for shutdown anyway, and the new data center will be on a different area of the property. Google is being green here, but looking even greener.

Google has maintained carbon neutrality since 2007 by increasing the energy efficiency of its data centers and getting power from renewable sources when possible. As of 2013, they were running their operations off of 35% renewable sources. That means that they’re stuck with purchasing carbon offsets to keep their footprint at zero, but they’re very committed to their goal of eventually being 100% renewable-powered. Google already has investments in solar arrays and wind farms in the United States and Germany, and they’ve made an arrangement to increase the amount of green energy on TVA’s grid by supporting local renewable energy local projects. TVA itself has already been slowly phasing out coal and diversifying its power generation, including hydroelectric, solar, wind, and nuclear power. With Google encouraging more investment in local renewable energy, we can expect to see the makeup of the local energy profile change even more. Out with the old and in with the new, one data center, one power plant, one improvement project at a time.

Image Credit: TVA Web Team via Flickr under a Creative Commons license

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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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