Electricity’s Carbon Footprint in U.S. Shrinks

For two years in a row, carbon emissions from electric power plants in the U.S. fell by about 5 percent each year — the first time in more than 40 years of recordkeeping that emissions have fallen so dramatically over two consecutive years, according to U.S. Department of Energy data. Overall, carbon dioxide emissions from energy use by Americans fell 1.7 percent last year, part of a decade-long slide in the carbon footprint of energy in the U.S.

The main reason is that Americans are using more renewable energy than ever before, and power plants, buildings and appliances have become more energy efficient, according to the DOE.

— source climatecentral.org

Renewable Energy Investments Set a Record in 2015

Global investments in renewable energy, including wind and solar, hit a world record in 2015.

The world collectively spent nearly $286 billion on renewable energy development in 2015. The investment comes following an unprecedented worldwide boom in renewables in 2014 that suggested some countries are shifting dramatically toward low-carbon energy. Rising investments are in part being driven by the falling cost of solar and wind farm construction.

Yet even more investment is needed to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Low and no-carbon energy sources are a major part of the solution outlined in the Paris climate agreement struck last year to keep global warming within 2°C (3.6°F) of pre-industrial temperatures.

Renewable energy investments, excluding large hydroelectric projects, jumped 5 percent last year, leaping over the previous investment record of $278.5 billion set in 2011. The findings were published in an annual report published on Thursday by the UN Environment Programme, the Frankfurt School and Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

The money put into renewables was more than double the $130 billion that spent on fossil fuel power plants. Developing countries led the renewable charge. China, India, Brazil and other developing countries put $156 billion into renewables last year, a 19 percent increase over 2014.

Much of that came from China, which put $103 billion into renewable energy, up 17 percent over 2014 and making China the global leader when it comes to renewable investments.

Installations of solar and wind power generation facilities broke a global record for a second year in a row, hitting 118 gigawatts in 2015 — enough renewable energy to power more than 88 million homes. About 94 gigawatts were built in 2014.

“Although 2015 was a landmark year with the signing of the Paris agreement, the good news about renewables uptake is still not nearly enough to stabilize emissions below the 2°C trajectory,” Eric Usher, chief of the UN Environment Programme Finance Initiative, said.

Solar, wind and other low-carbon electricity sources have prevented 1.5 gigatons of greenhouse gases from being emitted per year over the past decade compared to a global electric power system running mostly on fossil fuels, he said.

To reach the 2°C goal, annual emissions need to be cut an additional 10 gigatons by 2020.

That’s a huge challenge, Usher said, because many coal-fired power plants currently in use are built to last 40 years or more, and many have 20 or more years of life left in them, making it unlikely utilities will shut them down anytime soon.

“Despite ambitious signals from COP21 in Paris and the growing capacity of new installed renewable energy, there is still a long way to go,” Frankfurt School President Udo Steffens said, referring to the Paris climate negotiations. “Coal-fired power stations and other conventional power plants have long lifetimes. Without further policy interventions, climate-altering emissions of carbon dioxide will increase for at least another decade.”

The wave of investments in renewables is striking because plummeting oil and natural gas prices since 2014 should make power plants running on fossil fuels more attractive to investors, he said.

“However, commitments made by all nations at the Paris climate summit in December, echoing statements from last year’s G7 summit, require a very low or no-carbon energy system,” Steffens said.

The renewables investment record also shows that the transition toward the goal of reducing global reliance on coal and other fossil fuels is well underway mainly because investments in wind, solar and other renewables are now more than double investments in power plants running on fossil fuels, the report says.

— source climatecentral.org

India unveils the world’s largest solar power plant

The facility in Kamuthi, Tamil Nadu, has a capacity of 648 MW and covers an area of 10 sq km.

This makes it the largest solar power plant at a single location, taking the title from the Topaz Solar Farm in California, which has a capacity of 550 MW.

The solar plant, built in an impressive eight months and funded by the Adani Group, is cleaned every day by a robotic system, charged by its own solar panels.

— source aljazeera.com

Adani may be green washing his fossil fuel connection and whitewashing his black money

Renewables Poised for Rapid Growth Worldwide

About 500,000 solar panels are installed each day worldwide. In China, two wind turbines are built every hour.

Those statistics are laid out in a new International Energy Agency report cataloguing the rise of renewable energy, which is expected to be the source of about 28 percent of the world’s electricity by 2021 — up from 23 percent last year.

More wind, solar and other renewable electricity generating capacity was built last year than coal — the first time in history that renewables have overtaken coal in new power plant additions worldwide, the agency said in its report, released Tuesday.

About 70 percent of all investment in electric power generation worldwide flowed to renewables, totaling $288 billion last year. Those investments represent a 1.5 percent dip from 2014 because the cost of building solar farms and wind turbines is falling, the report says.

“2015 was a record year for renewables,” said IEA renewable energy division chief Paolo Frankl, adding that 153 gigawatts of new renewable power generating capacity were built last year — about the same as all the power plants in Canada combined.

Global renewable electricity generating capacity is expected to grow 42 percent by 2021, according to the report. The agency previously expected renewables to grow about 36.5 percent during that time.

Rapid growth in renewables is critical for countries to meet their emissions-cutting obligations under the Paris Climate Agreement, which aims to keep the globe from warming more than 2°C (3.6°F) over pre-industrial levels. Climate policies, such as the Clean Power Plan in the U.S., are expected to speed up the adoption of renewables worldwide as older coal-fired power plants are retired in favor of cleaner-burning natural gas and renewables, such as wind and solar.

Continued rapid growth in renewables is also expected to be fueled partly by a sharp drop in costs. The cost of onshore wind turbines is expected to drop 15 percent between today and 2021, and the cost of solar photovoltaic panels is expected to fall 25 percent.

A Bloomberg New Energy Finance analysis published Tuesday shows the drop in costs for renewables will also mean a drop in renewables investments even as the pace of solar and wind farm construction increases.

The investment downturn may usher in a new era for renewables in which developers are able to build more wind and solar capacity for less money as prices fall, BNEF chief editor Angus McCrone and BNEF advisory board chairman Michael Liebreich wrote in the analysis

But the analysis paints a less bullish picture for renewables investments after a sharp nine-month decline.

Global clean energy investments in the third quarter of 2016 were down 43 percent from the same period last year. Investments are down overall partly because U.S. clean energy investments fell 19 percent in the first three quarters of 2016, the analysis shows.

“The slip in investment in the U.S. reflects, ironically, the effect of good news,” the analysis says. “The five-year extension of the production tax credit for wind and investment tax credit for solar, agreed by Congress last December, provides security for investors, but it also means that there is less urgency actually to get ahead and finance projects this year, as opposed to next year or the year after.”

For renewables to grow rapidly as the IEA expects over the next five years, climate policies favoring wind, solar and other clean energy sources needs to stay in place so renewables can compete with the falling cost of fossil fuels, Frankl said.

Most wind and solar growth is expected in China and the U.S., followed by Brazil, India, Japan and the European Union, where renewables-friendly policies are driving fast adoption of renewables.

Renewables are expected to grow by about 60 percent in China over the next five years, in part because wind power helps the Chinese government shut down coal-fired power plants that are causing much of the country’s air pollution.

“In Southeast Asia, growing electricity demand, increasing fossil fuel imports and air pollution concerns remain important drivers for renewable targets and policies, which are expected to bring increased diversification in the energy mix,” the report says.

— source climatecentral.org

Renewable gains, won by people’s power, face corporate threat

In 2000, renewable energy made up just 6.3% of Germany’s electricity. By last year, it had risen to 31%.

Cloudy Germany became a leading innovator in solar energy. It did so not by subsidising large power utility companies, but by mobilising hundreds of thousands into energy cooperatives. The two legs of this democratic energy transition are Germany’s commitment to phase out nuclear power and its feed-in tariffs, which allowed small renewable energy producers to sell their electricity.

Both policies were fruits of the environmental movement. Now, the feed-in tariffs are under attack by the right-wing Angela Merkel government, which wants to hand over renewable energy to large corporations.

The anti-nuclear leg of the renewable energy transition came out of protest. It was born out of a struggle against a nuclear power plant begun in the early 1970s.

By the time the plant’s construction was stopped in 1977, the anti-nuclear movement had organised a 10-month occupation by 20,000-30,000 people at the construction site. The victory sparked similar protests across the country.

The anti-nuclear movement further consolidated anti-nuclear power sentiment. Its ranks were swelled by various nuclear disasters around the world.

In particular, the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear meltdown directly impacted Germans by showering them with nuclear fallout. By 1989, the movement effectively stopped construction of new commercial nuclear power stations. Protests continued focusing on nuclear waste storage sites and the transport of spent nuclear fuel.

When the Green Party, founded by the anti-nuclear movement in 1980, came into power in coalition with the Social Democratic Party in 1998, it passed a law ending nuclear energy by 2022.

Even after losing power in the Bundestag (Germany’s legislative branch) in 2005 to Merkel’s pro-nuclear Christian Democratic Union Party, the anti-nuclear movement successfully fought off attempts at weakening the nuclear phase out.

In the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, the anti-nuclear movement achieved electoral victories that forced Merkel to reverse her rescindment of the nuclear phase out law, to be completed by 2022.

The second pillar, the feed-in tariffs, was a response to the question: “If not nuclear then what?” The answer was the renewable energy movement.

The feed-in law of 1990 and 2000 came directly out the movement and its experiments with renewable energy. The 1990 feed-in law came out of the various “independent think tanks” established by the anti-nuclear movement that was now forming the renewable energy movement.

The feed-in law allowed renewable energy producers to sell excess electricity to the grid at a percentage of the retail price. It directly challenged the power utilities by displacing electricity produced by their nuclear and coal-fired plants with renewable energy.

Craig Morris of the Energiewende blog said that “innovation doesn’t come from those with established assets”, because they have little incentive to undermine their assets at hand (i.e. conventional coal and nuclear power plants) by investing in competing innovative technologies. Change must come from outside.

The real breakthrough in feed-in tariffs came with the SPD-Green ruling coalition. In addition to providing fixed low interest rate loans for renewable technology investment, it further empowered the renewable energy movement by setting a fixed 20 year feed-in price (in 2000) for renewable energy, based not on a portion of the retail price but on the higher cost of investment.

It was a direct lesson from the early renewable energy installations: increase demand by decreasing risk with a steady source of income and lower the price of renewable technology (especially solar) by exploiting economies of scale from greater demand.

Yet, to view the feed-in tariffs as the drivers of Germany’s renewable energy transition is to ignore the movement that created it and put it into practice. Even before it was profitable, the renewable energy movement was building policy and technical expertise through its independent institutes, organising energy cooperatives to crowdfund renewable energy projects.

The feed-in tariffs were implemented so successfully because grassroots groups such as the Association for the Promotion of Energy and Solar (FESA) existed to help villages and communities invest in renewable projects.

The great success of the renewable energy movement threatens the big power utility companies that are based on nuclear and coal-fired power plants. So the Merkel government is transitioning from feed-in tariffs, which allowed everyone to be an energy producer, to a quota-based auction system that advantages large-scale renewable energy projects.

This allows the power utility companies to enter a renewable energy market they long neglected to protect their conventional power plants. With the quota-based auction system, producing renewable energy means investing in a risky and expensive bidding process.

It is clear that to wrest renewable energy from the hands of the power companies and return it to the hands of people will involve a fight with the Merkel government. Ultimately, energy democracy, like all democracy, cannot be given by vested interests in power. It must be fought for and won, as Germany’s environmental movements have been doing.

— source greenleft.org.au By Dae-Han Song

Electricity generated with water, salt and a three-atoms-thick membrane

Researchers at EPFL’s Laboratory of Nanoscale Biology have developed an osmotic power generation system that delivers never-before-seen yields. Their innovation lies in a three atoms thick membrane used to separate the two fluids. The results of their research have been published in Nature.

The concept is fairly simple. A semipermeable membrane separates two fluids with different salt concentrations. Salt ions travel through the membrane until the salt concentrations in the two fluids reach equilibrium. That phenomenon is precisely osmosis.

If the system is used with seawater and fresh water, salt ions in the seawater pass through the membrane into the fresh water until both fluids have the same salt concentration. And since an ion is simply an atom with an electrical charge, the movement of the salt ions can be harnessed to generate electricity.

EPFL’s system consists of two liquid-filled compartments separated by a thin membrane made of molybdenum disulfide. The membrane has a tiny hole, or nanopore, through which seawater ions pass into the fresh water until the two fluids’ salt concentrations are equal. As the ions pass through the nanopore, their electrons are transferred to an electrode – which is what is used to generate an electric current.

Thanks to its properties the membrane allows positively-charged ions to pass through, while pushing away most of the negatively-charged ones. That creates voltage between the two liquids as one builds up a positive charge and the other a negative charge. This voltage is what causes the current generated by the transfer of ions to flow.

What sets EPFL’s system apart is its membrane. In these types of systems, the current increases with a thinner membrane. And EPFL’s membrane is just a few atoms thick. The material it is made of – molybdenum disulfide – is ideal for generating an osmotic current.

Powering 50’000 energy-saving light bulbs with 1m2 membrane

The potential of the new system is huge. According to their calculations, a 1m² membrane with 30% of its surface covered by nanopores should be able to produce 1MW of electricity – or enough to power 50,000 standard energy-saving light bulbs. And since molybdenum disulfide (MoS2) is easily found in nature or can be grown by chemical vapor deposition, the system could feasibly be ramped up for large-scale power generation. The major challenge in scaling-up this process is finding out how to make relatively uniform pores.

— source phys.org

Sun-Petrol – how solar energy can be transformed into fuel

The sun is a clean and inexhaustible source of energy, with the potential to provide a sustainable answer to all future energy supply demands. There’s just one outstanding problem: the sun doesn’t always shine and its energy is hard to store. For the first time, researchers at the Paul Scherrer Institute PSI and the ETH Zurich have unveiled a chemical process that uses the sun’s thermal energy to convert carbon dioxide and water directly into high-energy fuels: a procedure developed on the basis of a new material combination of cerium oxide and rhodium. This discovery marks a significant step towards the chemical storage of solar energy. The researchers published their findings in the research journal Energy and Environmental Science.

The sun’s energy is already being harnessed in various ways: whilst photovoltaic cells convert sun light into electricity, solar thermal installations use the vast thermal energy of the sun for purposes such as heating fluids to a high temperature. Solar thermal power plants involve the large-scale implementation of this second method: using thousands of mirrors, the sun light is focused on a boiler in which steam is produced either directly or via a heat exchanger at temperatures exceeding 500 °C. Turbines then convert thermal energy into electricity.

Researchers at the Paul Scherrer Institute PSI and the ETH Zurich have collaborated to develop a ground-breaking alternative to this approach. The new procedure uses the sun’s thermal energy to convert carbon dioxide and water directly into synthetic fuel.

“This allows solar energy to be stored in the form of chemical bonds,” explains Ivo Alxneit, chemist at the PSI’s Solar Technology Laboratory. “It’s easier than storing electricity.” The new approach is based on a similar principle to that used by solar power plants.“ Alxneit and his colleagues use heat in order to trigger certain chemical processes that only take place at very high temperatures above 1000 °C. Advances in solar technology will soon enable such temperatures to be achieved using sun light..

Producing fuel with solar heat

Alxneit’s research is based on the principle of the thermo-chemical cycle, a term comprising both the cyclical process of chemical conversion and the heat energy required for it—referred to by experts as thermal energy. Ten years ago, researchers had already demonstrated the possibility of converting low-energy substances such as water and the waste product carbon dioxide into energy-rich materials such as hydrogen and carbon monoxide.

This works in the presence of certain materials such as cerium oxide, a combination of the metal cerium with oxygen. When subjected to very high temperatures above 1500 °C, cerium oxide loses some oxygen atoms. At lower temperatures, this reduced material is keen to re-acquire oxygen atoms. If water and carbon dioxide molecules are directed over such an activated surface, they release oxygen atoms (chemical symbol: O). Water (H2O) is converted into hydrogen (H2), and carbon dioxide (CO2) turns into carbon monoxide (CO), whilst the cerium re-oxidizes itself in the process, establishing the preconditions for the cerium oxide cycle to begin all over again.

The hydrogen and carbon monoxide created in this process can be used to produce fuel: specifically, gaseous or fluid hydrocarbons such as methane, petrol and diesel. Such fuels may be used directly but can also be stored in tanks or fed into the natural gas grid.

One process instead of two

Up to now, this type of fuel production required a second, separate process: the so-called Fischer-Tropsch Synthesis, developed in 1925. The European research consortium SOLAR-JET recently proposed a combination of a thermo-chemical cycle and the Fischer-Tropsch procedure.

However, as Alxneit explains: “although this basically solves the storage problem, considerable technical effort is necessary to carry out a Fischer-Tropsch Synthesis.” In addition to a solar installation, a second industrial-scale technical plant is required.

Direct production of solar fuel now possible

By developing a material that allows the direct production of fuel within one process, the new approach developed by Ivo Alxneit and his colleagues dispenses with the Fischer-Tropsch procedure and hence also with the second step. This was accomplished by adding small amounts of rhodium to the cerium oxide. Rhodium is a catalyst that enables certain chemical reactions. It has been known for some time that rhodium permits reactions with hydrogen, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide.

“The catalyst is a pivotal research topic for the production of these solar fuels,” says Alxneit. His PhD-candidate at the PSI Fangjian Lin emphasizes: “it was a huge challenge to control the extreme conditions necessary for these chemical reactions and develop a catalyst material capable of withstanding an activation process at 1500 °C.“ During the cooling process, for example, the extremely small rhodium islands on the material surface must not be allowed to disappear or increase in size since they are essential to the anticipated catalytic process. The resulting fuels are either used or stored and the cyclical process begins again once the cerium oxide is re-activated.

Using various standard methods of structure and gas analysis, researchers working in laboratories at the PSI and the ETH in Zurich examined the cerium-rhodium compound, explored how well the reduction of the cerium oxide works and how successful methane production was. “So far, our combined process only delivers small amounts of directly usable fuel,” concludes Alxneit.. “But we have shown that our idea works and it’s taken us from the realms of science fiction to reality.”

Successful tests in high performance oven

During their experiments, researchers kept things simple by using a high performance oven at the ETH in place of solar energy. “In the test phase, the actual source of thermal energy is immaterial,” explains Matthäus Rothensteiner, PhD-candidate at the PSI and the ETH Zurich whose area of responsibility included these tests.

Jeroen van Bokhoven, head of the PSI’s Laboratory for Catalysis and Sustainable Chemistry and Professor for Heterogeneous Catalysis at the ETH Zurich adds: “These tests enabled us to gain valuable insights into the catalyst’s long-term stability. Our high performance oven allowed us to carry out 59 cycles in quick succession. Our material has comfortably survived its first endurance test.” Having shown that their procedure is feasible in principle, researchers can now devote themselves to its optimization.

— source alphagalileo.org