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The end of the U.S. ethanol tariff

John Mathews, The Globalist
Against all expectations, the U.S. Congress refused to extend the 54-cents-per-gallon tariff levied against imported ethanol, opening up the American market to imports as of January 1, 2012. The geopolitical impacts of this decision promise to be profound, argues John Mathews in this new report from The Globalist Research Center.

he U.S. Congress surprisingly refused to extend the 54-cents-per-gallon tariff levied against imported ethanol, which has opened the U.S. market to imports. At the same time, Congress refused to extend the complementary production tax credit of 46 cents per gallon, which had been provided to U.S. producers for three decades. These changes complement the tariff elimination enacted by Brazil in 2010. Suddenly, there is a hemispheric free market in ethanol.

Now that a hemispheric free market in ethanol has been created, Brazil’s powerful national competitive advantages will kick in.

The commentary on this momentous decision has so far focused on the impact on Iowa corn farmers and the big commodity traders like Archer Daniels Midland (ADM). It is undeniable that there will be some rethinking in the U.S. Midwest of planting strategies, now that corn no longer attracts the subsidies that were running at around $6 billion for the past year. The diversion of corn from foodstuffs markets to ethanol production, which had been so widely condemned, may now be moderated — to the relief of food consumers everywhere.
(6 January 2012)
Suggested by the author.

Building a better suntrap

The Economist
A novel approach to solar power may help to improve its efficiency

TO MAKE electricity from sunlight you can convert it directly, using a photovoltaic cell. Or you can use the heat of that sunlight to boil water, and then drive a turbine with the resulting steam. These are both established technologies. But there is, in principle, a third way: use heat directly, without steam or turbines. In this case, unlike a standard solar cell (which is sensitive to some frequencies of light, but not others), almost all of the incident energy is available for conversion. Yet unlike the boiling-water method, no messy mechanical processes are involved. Once set up, such a system could run with the minimum of attention.

Unfortunately, devices that turn sunlight into heat and then into electricity in this way do not get much warmer than boiling water when they are exposed to direct, unconcentrated sunlight. The reason is that at temperatures significantly higher than this the laws of thermodynamics dictate that they shed heat as fast as they absorb it. That has proved problematic, because a direct converter of this sort needs to reach 700°C to become properly efficient, and that is impossible without using special (and expensive) parabolic mirrors to concentrate the incident light.

Peter Bermel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his colleagues, however, think they have found a way round this difficulty. As they describe in Nanoscale Research Letters, they have invented a way of concentrating the energy in the sun’s rays without the need for mirrors. It is, quite literally, a suntrap.
(Dec 31 2011)

Storehouses for Solar Energy Can Step In When the Sun Goes Down

Matthew L. Wald, New York Times
If solar energy is eventually going to matter — that is, generate a significant portion of the nation’s electricity — the industry must overcome a major stumbling block, experts say: finding a way to store it for use when the sun isn’t shining.

That challenge seems to be creating an opening for a different form of power, solar thermal, which makes electricity by using the sun’s heat to boil water. The water can be used to heat salt that stores the energy until later, when the sun dips and households power up their appliances and air-conditioning at peak demand hours in the summer.

Two California companies are planning to deploy the storage technology: SolarReserve, which is building a plant in the Nevada desert scheduled to start up next year, and BrightSource, which plans three plants in California that would begin operating in 2016 and 2017. Together, the four projects will be capable of powering tens of thousand of households throughout a summer evening.

Whether the technology will be widely adopted remains to be seen, but companies like Google, Chevron and Good Energies are investing in it, and the utilities NV Energy and Southern California Edison have signed long-term contracts to buy power from these radically different new power plants.

One crucial role of the plants will be complementing solar panels, which produce electricity directly from sunlight. When the panels ramp down at dusk or on cloudy days, the plants will crank up, drawing on the stored thermal energy.

That job will become more important if photovoltaic panels, which have plunged in price lately, become even cheaper and sprout on millions of rooftops. As the grid starts depending more heavily on solar panels or wind turbines, it will need other energy sources that can step in quickly to balance the system — preferably ones classified as renewable.
(2 January 2012)