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The Energy Transition is Here

Chris Nelder, Smart Planet
The economic foundations supporting fossil fuels investments are collapsing quickly, as the business case for renewables such as solar and wind finds a new center of balance.

I have waited a long time—decades, really—for a tipping point in the energy transition from fossil fuels to renewables beyond which there can be no turning back. Fresh evidence pertaining to many themes I have explored in this column over the past three years suggests that tipping point is finally here.

Oil and gas
Underlying the abundance hype over tight oil, tar sands and other "unconventional" sources of liquid fuel has been a dirty little secret: They’re expensive…

Coal and nuclear
When I wrote “Why baseload power is doomed” and "Regulation and the decline of coal power" in 2012, the suggestion that renewables might displace baseload power sources like coal and nuclear plants was generally received with ridicule. How could "intermittent" power sources with just a few percentage points of market share possibly hurt the deeply entrenched, reliable, fully amortized infrastructure of power generation?

But look where we are today…

Grid competition
Nuclear and coal plant retirements are being driven primarily by competition from lower-cost wind, solar, and natural gas generators, and by rising operational and maintenance costs. As more renewable power is added to the grid, the economics continue to worsen for utilities clinging to old fossil-fuel generating assets (a topic I have covered at length; for example, "Designing the grid for renewables," "The next big utility transformation," "Can the utility industry survive the energy transition?" "Adapt or die – private utilities and the distributed energy juggernaut" and "The unstoppable renewable grid")…

Environmental disasters
Faltering productivity, falling profits, poor economics and increasing competition from power plants running on free fuel aren’t the only problems facing the fossil-fuels complex. It has also been the locus of increasingly frequent environmental disasters…

No return
At this point you may think, "Well, this is all very interesting, Chris, but why should we believe we’ve reached some sort of tipping point in energy transition?"

To which I would say, ask yourself: Is any of this reversible?…
(28 February 2014)

IEA Report: Wind and Solar Can Carry Bulk of Energy Transformation

Jonathan Gifford , RenewEconomy
The International Energy Agency (IEA) has released a report concluding that integration of large amounts of renewable energy can be achieved by any country at only a small increase on whole-system costs, compared with the current fossil-fuel-heavy electricity systems.

Making the conclusion even more startling is the fact that the IEA used present-day costs for solar PV and wind, with the two most widely deployed renewable energy technologies set to provide the bulk of the generating capacity in these transformed electricity systems.

While renewable energy is often blamed for driving electricity prices up and having a costly destabilizing affect on electricity grids, the IEA says that integration of renewables into electricity grids and markets can be done so at little cost. For the first 5 percent to 10 percent of what it calls variable renewable energy (VRE, essentially wind and solar), the IEA says this poses no technical or economic challenges at all. Even for higher levels of up to 45 percent penetration, the reports says it would cost only 10 percent to 15 percent more than the status quo…
(3 March 2014)
Link to report page. Full report is behind a paywall.

The Economics of Grid Defection

Rocky Mountain Institute
Distributed electricity generation, especially solar PV, is rapidly spreading and getting much cheaper. Distributed electricity storage is doing the same, thanks largely to mass production of batteries for electric vehicles. Solar power is already starting to erode some utilities’ sales and revenues.

Download the Four Page Overview

But what happens when solar and batteries join forces? Together they can make the electric grid optional for many customers—without compromising reliability and increasingly at prices cheaper than utility retail electricity. Equipped with a solar-plus-battery system, customers can take or leave traditional utility service with what amounts to a “utility in a box.”

This “utility in a box” represents a fundamentally different challenge for utilities. Whereas other technologies, including solar PV and other distributed resources without storage, net metering, and energy efficiency still require some degree of grid dependence, solar-plus-batteries enable customers to cut the cord to their utility entirely.

Download the Full Report.
(25 February 2014)

Industry-funded report calls for changes to German energy policy

Vera Eckert , Reuters
Germany’s current policy of rapidly deploying renewable energy should be redesigned to prevent its industry from losing global market share because of high power costs, a report by international think-tank IHS said on Thursday. The research by IHS, a global research, analysis and specialist information group, was funded by companies in Germany’s chemical and oil and gas industries such as BASF , Bayer and Exxon Mobil and national business federations. One of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s most significant domestic policies, known as the Energiewende, has been to shift Europe’s biggest economy out of nuclear power and away from fossil fuels to a greater share of electricity from renewables…
(27 February 2014)

Coal Crunch Gives Impetus to India’s Solar Switch

Katy Dingle, AP
For six years in a row, India’s monopoly coal producer has missed its production targets, leading to chronic electricity shortages and sending power producers scrambling for pricier imports. But what looks like a looming crisis could turn out to be an almost accidental energy overhaul…
(28 February 2014)

Food and wastewater biogas to heat 5,200 New York homes

Tess Riley, Green Futures Magazine
The recently announced Newtown Creek Renewable Gas Demonstration Project aims to turn New York City (NYC)’s mounting food waste problem into a solution, diverting organic food waste from landfill and mixing it with wastewater sludge to increase biogas production.

Around 40% of the biogas by-product from the municipal wastewater treatment process carried out at the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant is currently reused, helping to power the facility’s operations. The new project will convert biogas from food waste and wastewater into pipeline-quality renewable natural gas that can also be used for residential or commercial purposes. The ultimate goal is to reclaim 100% of the biogas produced by the plant and convert it into power, meaning it will not contribute to the plant’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions…
(11 February 2014)

Report: Solar Paired With Storage Is a ‘Real, Near and Present’ Threat to Utilities

Stephen Lacey, Greentech Media
In October 2012, as Superstorm Sandy rocked the East Coast, 75 residents gathered in the Midtown Community School in Bayonne, New Jersey.

The elementary school was operating as an emergency shelter, giving people who were stuck in the severely flooded town a place to stay dry. But the school was much more than a shelter — it was an experiment in hybrid solar photovoltaics that may herald a coming structural change in the power sector.

Four years earlier, the local school district approached the New Jersey-based installer Advanced Solar Products, which had already developed a 272-kilowatt system for the Midtown school. The school district wanted to figure out how to allow the solar PV to operate during power outages when other systems were required to shut off. The company worked with SMA to modify a commercial inverter and tie it into the emergency diesel generator, allowing the generator to idle at low levels when the sun was shining.

The result was a steep drop in fuel consumption at a time when it was nearly impossible to make diesel deliveries to flood-stricken areas.

"The solar did what it was supposed to do. It worked exactly as planned," said Lyle Rawlings, president of Advanced Solar Products, in an interview.
(28 February 2014)
Link to report page. Full report is behind a paywall

Another Banner, Record-Breaking Year for U.S. Solar

Andrew Burger, Triple Pundit
A new report shows that 2013 was another banner, record-setting year for solar energy in the U.S., with 4,751 megawatts (MW) of new photovoltaic (PV) capacity installed–a year-over-year increase of 41 percent–with another 410 MW of concentrating solar power (CSP) coming online. A record 2,106 MW of solar power capacity was installed in the fourth quarter alone, amounting to 44 percent of the annual total. That bests the old quarterly record by 60 percent. As of year-end, there were more than 445,000 solar electric systems generating clean, renewable electrical power in the U.S. That amounts to more than 12,000 MW of PV and 918 MW of CSP capacity–enough for some 2.2 million average U.S. homes, according to the GTM Research-Solar Energy Industry Association’s (SEIA) “Solar Market Insight Year in Review 2013.” Solar accounted for 29 percent of all new electricity generation capacity added in 2013, second only to natural gas, which accounted for 46 percent. In the aggregate, 2013 statistics indicate that solar energy is on the cusp of going mainstream in the U.S., if it isn’t already there. A geographic breakdown of solar installations shows that this is indeed the case, but only in a few U.S. states.
(28 February 2014)
Link to infographic

Green planet teaser image via shutterstock. Reproduced at with permission.