Monday, November 14, 2011

Gold Rush of Subsidies in Clean Energy

Two recent NYT articles stirred up my thoughts about community-owned distributed generation:

(1)"A Gold Rush of Subsidies in Clean Energy"
Role of subsidies on ROI?
One example described is  NRG Energy  's ( quick overview here) 250 MW California Solar Farm:

-$1.6 Billion -cost vs.  $1.4 Billion in subsidies (ranging from property tax exemption, to ITC credits, to above market electricity price)
-ROI for equity investors:  25% (company says 'mid-teens'), for low-risk, 25-year investment
-PPA with PG&E (detals private but Booz Allen prepared estimate)

Can 100kW projects get this ROI?

"A Town Creates Its Own Department Store"
A small NY town has a 'community store' (for-profit, 600 shareholders @$100 per share, cap 100 shares, uses 'intrastate' securities filing), why not community power? 
(Note:  Unlike  'crowd-sourced', 0% financing or customer-subscriber/solar garden models, this project has diverse, local ownership model)

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Biogas + China-US cooperation - post in China Focus

Here my latest post I submitted in UC Berkeley's China Focus:

Jim Rothstein  
While Chinese manufacturers frequently express desire for greater access to Western technology, Western companies say they worry about the IP implications.   One common suggestion  is for China and the US to jointly develop new IP, especially in alternative energy or emerging technologies.   The logic goes something like this: US excels in R&D, while China can implement projects quickly and for lower cost.  The result then is faster RD&D (research, development and demonstration and ultimately commercialization)  then either could do alone - and we all benefit.
One candidate for this approach is joint project between a large commercial dairy in rural Jinshan, near Shanghai,  and a consortium of start-up Utah companies with strong ties to academic research.  Although the agreement, called the Jinshan Clean Energy Project,  is wrapped in much political language promising jobs and ecological benefits - which will need to be evaluated - the 3 phase project calls for joint investment to recover biogas from animal manure and to develop the commercial processes to convert it into a syngas and ultimately diesel fuel.
Normally, anaerobic digestion, a natural process using bacteria without oxygen, is used to convert relatively small amounts of household/small farm animal/plant waste into a slurry and biogas (a mixture of methane, CO2, H2S, water) for cooking or electricity generation.  However, as China (and much of the developing world) joins the developed world's fondness for high per capita consumption of animal protein, especially in the form of beef or dairy, animal processing becomes centralized with the associated environmental and waste concerns.
The Jinshan project is one of several technical efforts, in China  (GE and ShenyangGE and Henan) and elsewhere, to scale and industrialize anaerobic digestion to work at a commercial, rather than household, level.   So this project seeks to create large quantities of biogas (in a 3-4 story tower) from the dairy, purify it and then, with novel catalysts/technologies developed by universities and licensed to 4 Utah companies known as Utah Clean Energy Alliance, covert it to a syngas and finally liquid diesel fuel, tweaking a well-known Fisher-Tropsch process.
Jinshan District will provide $1 million dollars in funding, to be matched by NSF.  If successful, commercial manufacturing will be done in China.  The four Utah companies are: Cosmas (catalysts), Andigen (the AD chamber), Anaerobic Technologies (purification), Ceramatec (syngas equipment)

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Toward Community Solar?

California may be moving toward simplifying community ownership and benefits from a PV solar power.   Netmetering works great if PV is on your own roof and you sell the excess power to the grid.   The next step, virtual netmetering, allows the financial benefits of power sales to be shared by several, such as by reducing tenants's utility bills; i.e. netmetering across several meters.   

But what about sharing the benefits from sales of PV on the ground?   Or sales of power from PV on someone else's roof - a church or community center (because your own roof is under a tree or otherwise unusable)?

California Senate bill (CA SB 843 , here, good article  )
if enacted,  would open up a new range of options to finance and benefit from PV solar in a neighborhood or community - even if the PV is not on your property.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Beyond Corn Ethanol: Bioproducts from 'Garbage'

Though algae has great promise to secrete oils or be biomass itself,  algae always seems to about “five years away,” according to Dr. William J. Orts of USDA’s agriculture research service  in Albany, CA who spoke at UC Davis Energy Institute this past week.

Seemingly to prove his point, one of the large oil companies has been running a TV advertisement, featurng a middle-aged researcher:

“It is was 1975 and my professor at Berkeley asked if I wanted to change the world.   I said sure.  And he said, ‘Let's grow some algae’.”

Dr Orts talk, “Agriculturally Derived Biofuels and Bioproducts: Going Beyond Corn Ethanol” began with corn ethanol summary: Though it is in production now, enjoys a $0.51 per gallon subsidy  and “we know how to do it,”   it suffers from several drawbacks, including a bad carbon footprint when all the fertilizer use and transportation is factored in.  Ethanol is also corrosive, so can not be put into pipelines, and there is not enough of it to make a real dent in US demand for transportation fuels.

Much research is now focused on second generation biofuels.  Energy crops are “very hot now”, he said, for example switchgrass.    Dr. Orts outlined the basic line of attack on cellulosic biomass (think: harder to degrade corn or rice stalks, not the corn) by pointing out that  we should learn from anything that ‘eats wood’, from fungus to cows.  

Like algae, it is not so easy.   Whereas corn starch breaks down with just 2-3 enzymes, heavy cellulosic materials can need 16.  The goal for many researchers is finding the right “3-in-1” kind of sauce with the right genetic-modified material and optimized enzymes to seek out and attack the chemical and biological weaknesses of cellulose.

But Dr. Ortis then turned to one of his favorite approaches which can work now:  garbage.  Garbage, or municipal solid waste ( MSW), is about 40% cellulosic.    MSW - the waste,  plastic bottles and all - can be sorted,  ‘cooked’ in the right environment  (temperature, enzymes, etc) to yield biofuel (ethanol) or biogas (ex: natural gas) or even paper for paper plates.  (There are hopes of this new bioproducts industry will even replace petroleum  in the manufacture of man-made  fibers, polymers or even the medicines that we have become so used to. )

The city of Salinas is planning   a project with uses pre-treatment and sorting MSW.   The equipment then “cooks” it and  creates ethanol.   It avoids the landfills completely.  And, it can be done now.