EarthTechling http://earthtechling.com Sat, 16 May 2015 02:20:02 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.2.2 Rush for Tesla Batteries Shifts Storage Paradigmhttp://earthtechling.com/2015/05/rush-for-tesla-batteries-shifts-storage-paradigm/ http://earthtechling.com/2015/05/rush-for-tesla-batteries-shifts-storage-paradigm/#comments Thu, 14 May 2015 13:30:59 +0000 http://earthtechling.com/?p=145948 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?http://earthtechling.com/2015/05/could-controlled-fusion-usher-in-a-new-era-of-clean-energy/ http://earthtechling.com/2015/05/could-controlled-fusion-usher-in-a-new-era-of-clean-energy/#comments Mon, 04 May 2015 13:10:04 +0000 http://earthtechling.com/?p=145836 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.
resultant_field

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.

dynomak

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 http://www.katmizouni.com/blog/.

Sources:

  • 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.
  • http://www.iter.org/proj#history
  • http://www.iter.org/proj#itermission
  • http://www.iter.org/proj/iterandbeyond
  • 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 Goodnesshttp://earthtechling.com/2015/05/community-solar-spreading-the-pv-goodness/ http://earthtechling.com/2015/05/community-solar-spreading-the-pv-goodness/#comments Sun, 03 May 2015 14:30:08 +0000 http://earthtechling.com/?p=145919 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 Behindhttp://earthtechling.com/2015/04/china-solar-power-surges/ http://earthtechling.com/2015/04/china-solar-power-surges/#comments Sun, 26 Apr 2015 15:06:27 +0000 http://earthtechling.com/?p=145901 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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Putting a Price on Carbon: A Tough, But Necessary, Nut to Crackhttp://earthtechling.com/2015/04/putting-a-price-on-carbon-a-tough-but-necessary-nut-to-crack/ http://earthtechling.com/2015/04/putting-a-price-on-carbon-a-tough-but-necessary-nut-to-crack/#comments Sun, 19 Apr 2015 13:29:45 +0000 http://earthtechling.com/?p=145880 Carbon dioxide exacts a cost, that much we know. It’s when we try to take the logical next step – putting a price on carbon – that things get complicated.

The issue is in the news as the province of Ontario moves to join what Clean Energy Canada calls “North America’s largest cap and trade alliance,” the one between Ontario’s Canadian neighbor Quebec and the state of California.

Ontario Green Car

image via Government of Ontario

If you’re not familiar with how a cap and trade scheme works, conceptually, it’s pretty simple: Government sets a limit on the total amount of carbon emissions allowed, requires polluters to possess “allowances” for their emissions, sets up a market through which polluters can sell or trade those allowances, and then gradually pushes the emissions limit downward.

Cap and trade’s big conceptual selling point is that it heads toward a certain target, squeezing emissions out of the economy, but gives economic players the freedom to find their own unique way. Polluters that innovate or otherwise reduce emissions can bank them for future use, or sell them to polluters that weren’t able to meet their limits.  Meanwhile, revenues raised by auctioning allowances can help fund things like renewable energy and energy efficiency R&D, providing tools that polluters can then use to meet the declining emissions thresholds.

Europe has led the way in cap and trade, with the EU Emissions Trading System – commonly referred to as EU ETS – that kicked off in 2005. But the first decade in operation has exposed how difficult it can be to get a cap and trade system to work effectively. As Climate Central’s John Upton recently wrote:

Europe’s carbon pollution-pricing program, which is the biggest in the world, was formed to help curb greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere — but it was created before its economy unexpectedly tanked. When the economy crashed in 2008, demand for energy fell with it, and that has meant that European industry has needed fewer carbon pollution allowances to operate under a business-as-usual scenario than had been anticipated. The glut of allowances that has resulted is keeping allowance prices and revenue low, and it is limiting the effects of the emissions trading system on global pollution levels.

Europe is reforming its market to get supply and demand in better balance, and Ontario is getting plenty of advice on how to make its alliance with Quebec and California function smoothly. One of the questions that will need to be answered is what will be done with the money raised; that’s become a key issue in California, where cap and trade, now in its third year of operation, appears to be working well.

Ontario will also have to decide which segments of the economy are covered by the system (typically, very small players aren’t) and who will have to buy emissions and who might get them free of charge (in Quebec, “trade vulnerable” sectors don’t pay).

It’s these complexities that lead many people to suggest a carbon tax, applied across the board, would be a better way of “putting a price on carbon” than cap and trade. As cleantech venture capitalist Tom Rand wrote this week, referring to British Columbia’s carbon tax:

B.C.’s carbon tax is simple, transparent – and works. Carbon is priced at the source – gas pump, electrical power plant. The cost percolates through the economy. The money raised lowers corporate and income tax. Since its inception in 2008, emissions are down nearly 20 per cent compared to the rest of Canada, while economic growth has been slightly higher. There’s good reason the Economist called it “a winner” that “woos skeptics.”

Alas, it’s the very transparency of the carbon tax – which makes it an easy target for opportunistic politicians to attack – that can make it difficult to implement (or hang on to). Still, a recent U.S. poll out of Stanford University found big support for a carbon tax in general, and even bigger support for a system that promised to be “revenue neutral” by refunding the money raised back to the people. As the Carbon Tax Center wrote:

Both [poll] questions insinuated that “companies” would pay the tax, which may have shaded the outcomes in favor of the tax. Nevertheless, the takeaway is unmistakable: the idea of taxing carbon pollution and distributing the revenues fairly has gained tremendous public acceptability.

Despite that, there’s no currently viable attempt to do a carbon tax here in the United States. Instead, cap-and-trade looks like the best bet to spread “pricing carbon” beyond California (and the limited RGGI program in the Northeast for power plants).

The next state to adopt a system could be Washington, where Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee is trying to get a bill through the state legislature that would apply to big polluters, those that emit more than 25,000 metric tons of carbon per year. The money raised would be spent on “transportation projects, education, housing assistance programs, a sales tax rebate to low-income persons, a business and occupation tax credit for certain energy-intensive industries, and rural economic assistance programs,” according to a legislative report.

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All Signs Point to Solar Power Juggernaut Rolling Onhttp://earthtechling.com/2015/04/all-signs-point-to-solar-power-juggernaut-rolling-on/ http://earthtechling.com/2015/04/all-signs-point-to-solar-power-juggernaut-rolling-on/#comments Sun, 12 Apr 2015 16:30:59 +0000 http://earthtechling.com/?p=145868 It’s not a contest. Renewable energy is no zero-sum game (or doesn’t have to be, at least), and according to the experts, all of it and then some will be needed to keep global temperatures from rising beyond safe levels. Still, it’s hard not to view the growth of the two leading non-hydro renewable energy technologies – wind and solar – in relation to each other.

We reported recently that wind grew quickly in 2014, but solar had itself a very good year as well. And there are signs that it could be in for even more rapid growth.

first solar GE

First Solar panels installed at utility-scale site (image via First Solar)

According to the respected “Global Trends In Renewable Energy 2015” report from the Frankfurt School-UNEP Collaborating Centre for Climate & Sustainable Energy Finance, the world poured $270.2 billion into renewable energy in 2014, and more than half the total – $149.6 billion – went into solar.

It was the fifth year in a row that solar investment topped wind, and what made solar’s dominance all the more remarkable is that it is dramatically less expensive than it used to be. So each one of those billions of dollars was buying more solar than it used to.

Last year, 46 gigawatts of solar PV was installed around the world, a record. In the U.S., the number was also a record, 6.2 GW of PV, a 30 percent increase over 2013, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association and GTM Research. With 767 megawatts of new concentrating solar power thrown into the mix, U.S. solar capacity climbed past the 20 GW mark.

Going forward, solar could have several advantages over wind.

First, there’s solar’s versatility. Wind works best at very large scale, and nearly all ($92.4 billion) of the $99.5 billion invested in wind in 2014 went into building big wind farms. Solar can do big, but it can also do small. In 2014, $62.8 billion went into building utility-scale solar, while $73.5 billion went into small projects.

In addition, solar can flourish in places where wind struggles – amid the hustle-and-bustle of humanity, in and around cities and towns. For instance, a study published last month in Nature Climate Change estimated that in California, the “built environment” alone could house enough solar to “meet the state of California’s energy consumptive demand three to five times over.” Essentially there is enough roof space that, were it covered with solar panels, this area alone would generate 3 to 5 times more energy than the state consumes!

Solar is also popular. In a new survey, U.S. homeowners were asked to name three forms of energy they felt were important to the country’s future, and more named solar (50 percent) than any other form of energy. Another report from solar leads generator SolarLeadFactory showed that this growing interest is coming from places you’d least expect it.

Lastly, there’s price. While solar has plummeted in price in recent years (it’s cheaper than power from the utility in many US states), there are indications it could become even cheaper. Way cheaper. The German think tank Agora Energiewende believes that in Europe, solar could fall to 4-6 cents/kilowatt-hour by 2025 and 2-4 cents/kWh by 2050.

“Plans for future power supply systems should therefore be revised worldwide,” remarked Dr. Patrick Graichen, director of the Agora Energiewende. “Until now, most of them only anticipate a small share of solar power in the mix. In view of the extremely favorable costs, solar power will on the contrary play a prominent role, together with wind energy – also, and most importantly, as a cheap way of contributing to international climate protection.”

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Wind Surged in 2014, But Can It Keep Up the Pace?http://earthtechling.com/2015/04/wind-surged-in-2014-but-can-it-keep-up-the-pace/ http://earthtechling.com/2015/04/wind-surged-in-2014-but-can-it-keep-up-the-pace/#comments Wed, 08 Apr 2015 16:43:38 +0000 http://earthtechling.com/?p=145857 Is wind power coming on fast enough to help shift the world off fossil-fuel-generated electricity before temperatures get too high? Depends on how you look at it.

In 2014, Asia, Europe and North America – the usual suspects when it comes to wind power– had solid-to-great installation years. Meanwhile, Latin American (namely, Brazil) became a big-time player for the first time, and it all added up to a solid year for global wind.

All told, 51.5 gigawatts (GW) was installed in 2014, the first time the world cracked 50 GW in a single year, and cumulative global capacity now stands at 369.6 GW, according to the Global Wind Energy Council’s just-released Annual Market Update.

2014 installations

Peering at these numbers through the lens of climate change and the imperative to move beyond gas and coal in the electricity sector (oil in the transportation sector is another challenge), a couple of fuzzy pictures emerge.

First: Wind is doing better than the International Energy Agency — the big dog when it comes to analyzing and forecasting the world energy direction – had imagined. As Meister Consultants Group noted recently, growth has outstripped all but Greenpeace’s “Energy Revolution” projection.

With solar also outstripping the old mainline forecasts, renewables have been taking a bite out of fossil fuels as a share of global energy generation. According to Energy Collective columnist Jesse Jenkins:

The share of renewable electricity (excluding large hydropower) in the global electricity mix ticked upwards from 8.5 percent in 2013 to 9.1 percent in 2014…. The growth of renewables was enough to push fossil energy’s share of the mix down by 1.2 percentage points, according to data compiled by Jessica Lovering, a senior energy analyst at the Breakthrough Institute, from International Energy Agency (IEA) and UNEP/BNEF reports. That follows a 2 percent decline in fossil energy’s share from 2012 to 2013.

That’s the good news.

But last year’s record wind growth amounted to a 16 percent increase, and that’s actually slower than wind’s annual growth rate of 22.7 percent over the past ten years. Which is to say, the wind curve is flattening a bit. That’s what tends to happen as the base grows larger. And that worries the Global Wind Energy Council:

So what does this all mean for markets going forward? It means a period of sustained growth, but with unspectacular numbers, at least as far as we can see now. After slipping just below our Global Wind Energy Outlook (GWEO) Moderate Scenario at the end of 2013, due to 2014’s spectacular growth we are back on track with the GWEO Advanced Scenario for 2014, and will no doubt be for 2015 and perhaps 2016 as well. After that, it becomes more difficult.

With China continuing to go gangbusters, Brazil pushing the Latin American sector, and Europe “steady,” the big wild card might well be the United States. Continued Republican strength in Washington could spell trouble.

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