State of U.S. Solar PV Industry

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) recently released its “Solar Photovoltaic Cell/Module Manufacturing Activities 2009” report, and the results demonstrate the rapidly evolving landscape of the U.S. solar PV manufacturing industry. In 2009, the industry reached a record high 1.3 peak gigawatts of shipments, the sixth-consecutive year of growth and a 30% increase from 2008. According to EIA, an influx of stimulus spending and a decrease in manufacturing costs largely contributed to this increase.

Domestic shipments increased 15% over the course of 2009 to 601,133 peak kilowatts, 47% of which went to commercial electricity generation. Installers, at 36% of the domestic market share, were the largest customer type, followed by wholesale distributors at 23%. The solar photovoltaic module/cell market made shipments to all 50 states, with California and New Jersey combining for 55% of all domestic shipments.

At 57%, imports accounted for more than half of total shipments for the third time in four years. The importation of 743,414 peak kilowatts, 95% of which were crystalline silicon cells and modules, represented a 27% increase from 2008. China (31.75%), Philippines (28.68%), and Mexico (17.83%) were the top importers. Japan had the furthest decline in U.S. imports, falling from 24.85% of total imports in 2008 to 11.32% in 2009.

Although import shipments constituted greater than half of total shipments in 2009, export numbers actually increased 47% from 2008. Buoyed by crystalline silicon cells and modules, exports surpassed domestic shipments for the first time since 2004. Germany dominated the U.S. solar industry export market in 2009 with 45.37% of total exports, followed by Italy (15.88%) and France (6.94%).

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India’s Clever Nuclear Power Programme

india-energy-nasaCounted among the fifteen countries currently building reactors and intently following the forty-five countries which intend to introduce fission to their energy portfolios soon, India may be positioning itself as the foremost purveyor of international nuclear growth. It would gain this position by emerging as one of the world’s largest customers for nuclear power plants while simultaneously injecting its own reactor technology – which Indian engineers have long been developing and could soon bring to market – as a potentially disruptive product in the energy industry.

Note that while the fallout of the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station in Japan is yet to be seen and difficult to predict, it is doubtful that emerging economies like India and China will alter their ambitious nuclear programs in its wake. In fact, the delay in new builds that may occur in more regulated markets like that of the United States (US) and Germany could further India’s leadership position. While the US takes pause to second-guess and triple-check the integrity of designs and plant locations, India will continue to build new generation reactors and commercialize environmentally-beneficial and highly-profitable energy technology.

India’s nuclear sector has enjoyed steady growth because of its Nuclear Power Programme (NPP): a multi-decade, three-stage schedule for meeting rapidly increasing electricity demand and liberating the nation from energy dependence.  In the first stage, the industry was jumpstarted with proven technology, Pressurized Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs), in order to equip domestic engineers with reactor-operation experience and to help meet the nation’s anticipated electricity needs. The second stage incorporates research, development, and deployment of Fast Breeder Reactors (FBRs).

India’s nuclear policy body, the Atomic Energy Commission, sought to develop breeder technology because it is capable of producing and reproducing the material necessary for fission reactions until nearly no material is left, and it does not need natural uranium – a resource which India lacks. In the long term, breeders could clean up after PHWRs by using their waste as fuel and eliminate the need for spent fuel storage. Finally, NPP’s third stage envisions another breeder design, called the Advanced Heavy Water Reactor (AHWR), which would primarily use thorium – India’s indigenous fuel. So, after about fifty years of deliberate and well-planned growth, the bustling economy could derive as much as a quarter of its electricity from a carbon-free, domestic resource.

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Critical Materials: Insights from the MIT Energy Conference

lithium ingots photo

Lithium - a critical element for energy? (Courtesy of Treehugger.com)

At the MIT Energy Conference last week, the energy was palpable – literally. The event, which annually attracts hundreds of energy professionals and students (including a number of AEL fellows and authors this year), brought to the table a refreshing mix of hard-nosed analysis, technical insight and unbridled enthusiasm about the challenges and opportunities for the world’s collective energy future.

One of these future challenges lies in the question of strategic materials for energy, which a panel of experts tackled on the second day of the conference. In the process of co-organizing this panel – along with two fellow teammates from the MIT Energy Club - I have grown increasingly aware of the issue of strategic materials and the important role they play in clean energy technologies.

The highlight of the panel was an introduction by MIT professor Robert L. Jaffe to the policy report on Critical Elements for Energy that was recently released jointly by the American Physical Society and the Materials Research Society. As the report describes, rare earth minerals, such as helium and lithium, are becoming increasingly relevant for energy solutions in the 21st century:

“A number of chemical elements that were once laboratory curiosities now figure prominently in new technologies like wind turbines, solar energy collectors, and electric cars. If widely deployed, such inventions have the capacity to transform the way we produce, transmit, store, or conserve energy.”

However, these materials are extremely scarce, unevenly distributed around the globe, and they rarely benefit from stable supply chains:

“The production complexities of elements primarily obtained as by-products create a difficult environment for planning and investment in these elements, as well as in the new technologies that require the unique attributes of the elements themselves. Large fluctuations in price can occur after joint-production options are saturated and before new supplies hit the market.”

The serious economic, environmental, and security-related challenges of these critical elements have yet to be met. In addition to stronger coordination within the US federal government and better information dissemination under the auspices of the US Geological Survey, Dr. Jaffe also advocated for a greater role for R&D:

“A focused federal research and development (R&D) program would enable the United States to both expand the availability of and reduce its dependence on ECEs [energy critical elements]. This federal R&D would be particularly critical to the competitiveness of small U.S. companies that are unable to engage in their own ECE basic research programs.”

Dr. Jaffe’s insights came alongside comments from Diana Bauer, who described the policy role of the US federal government from the perspective of the Department of Energy, as well as Terence Stewart, a trade law specialist who addressed the role of the WTO and international trade in managing critical elements. Finally, Alastair Neill, an executive from the private-sector firm Dacha Strategic Metals, explored the importance of rare earth elements and stressed the role of the private sector in addressing these issues in the long run.

As Bauer, Stewart and Neill shared their own perspectives on the topic, the utter complexity of the critical materials issue came into full view. In particular, the speakers reached a curious disagreement about China’s recent restrictions on rare earth exports, with Neill suggesting that China may actually have done the world a favor while Stewart criticized Beijing for going against its WTO obligations. And as Bauer described the conclusions from a recent DOE report on critical energy materials that she was recently involved in, it became clear that the proper role of the US government in tackling critical materials will turn out to be equally complex in the long run.

The panel at the MIT Energy Conference came as a stark reminder that the US cannot meet the emerging challenge of critical elements for energy without sustained involvement from the private sector, international organizations and the federal government. Much is at stake: our high-performance gas turbines, our hybrid cars, our wind turbines and our energy R&D laboratories all depend crucially on critical elements. This is not an issue we can afford to take lightly.

For more about the MIT Energy Conference, readers can also check out the AEL coverage by my colleague Daniel Goldfarb as well as the post by Tom Zeller on NYT’s DotEarth blog.

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David Cohen-Tanugi is a Policy Fellow in AEL’s New Energy Leaders Project.

Unburdening Our Soldiers With Energy Innovation

Providing soldiers with the newest, most advanced military systems has historically been a bipartisan issue, and provides an opportunity for cooperation on energy innovation funding in the near future. The Army’s recent report on how investments in energy innovation are making our soldiers more mobile and combat ready, only bolsters the argument:

“In a typical 72-hour mission in Afghanistan, U.S. Soldiers carry seven types of batteries, or 70 individual batteries in all adding almost 20 pounds that U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) scientists say can be reduced with advancements in battery technology research.”

The Army Research Laboratory’s scientists have been making progress on developing cheaper and lighter batteries to lower soldiers’ weight burden, a goal that could have significant impacts on the private sector as well. In February, ARL hosted a Battery Technology Industry day to showcase their efforts to the private industry. Seventeen of their projects, including one on higher voltage Lithium ion (Li-ion) battery chemistry, attracted significant interest from the private sector attendees. As part of their efforts, ARL is soliciting Cooperative Research and Development Agreements (CRADAs) from the private sector to leverage its relative strengths.

The Army’s efforts are the most recent example of the technological spillover that occurs form military investments in technological innovation. The impact of a major breakthrough in battery technologies would join the Internet and GPS as part of a long list of military funded technologies with vast economic impacts. Karen Laforme, an ARL program integrator, provides a perfect assessment of  the win, win nature of the efforts:

“We work with our industry partners whenever we can to advance technology in the military sector to support the Soldier in the field. We also understand the enormous opportunities or commercial markets and encourage companies to enter into licensing and cooperative agreements with ARL to adapt our technology to their products and bring these products to the market faster. The goal is to look for opportunities to leverage our technologies through partnerships with private industry. This creates a win-win situation for the Army and industry.”

For more information on the military’s energy related efforts see How Energy Fits into U.S. Military Posture by Andrew Schlossberg.

 

In the midst of the ongoing partial meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant, energy experts across the spectrum are urging caution and patience in considering the implications for nuclear energy in the United States and internationally.  In particular, many energy and climate change experts note that we should not so readily dismiss nuclear power as an option for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and meeting rising global energy demand.

International Energy Agency Chief Nobuo Tanaka:

“While I understand the public’s fear, I am concerned given the important role of nuclear power. I encourage patience until more information is gathered for a full review so we can learn the lessons,” he added… ”The cost of fighting against global warming will increase, that is sure,” he told Reuters. “I think it is very difficult (to fight global warming), even impossible, without using nuclear power.”

U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu:

“The president and the administration believe we have to be looking very, very closely at the events in Japan. We have to apply whatever lessons that can be and will be learned from what has happened and what is happening in Japan,” Chu explained. “Those lessons would then be applied to first look at our current existing fleet of reactors, to make sure that they can be used safely and… how as one proceeds forward, any lessons learned can be applied.

…”The administration believes we must rely on a diverse set of energy sources, including renewables like wind and solar, natural gas, clean coal and nuclear power,” Chu said before a House subcommittee. “The administration is committed to learning from Japan’s experience as we work to continue to strengthen America’s nuclear industry.”

Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Chairman of the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee:

“We have depended on nuclear power for many decades to meet much of our electricity needs, and I think we will continue to in the future,” said Bingaman, D-N.M. “And I do believe we can produce power safely. We’ve done that. We’ve done it for many decades.”

“Clearly we need to be sure that the design that we are using in our power plants is the very best and the safest design. And whatever changes we need to make to those designs or to the regulations of those plants we need to make. But I’m not persuaded that nuclear power should be deleted from the list of options that we look at.”

U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission:

Nuclear power plants built in the areas usually thought of as earthquake zones, such as the California coastline, have a surprisingly low risk of damage from those earthquakes. Why? They built anticipating a major quake… The NRC, the federal agency responsible for nuclear power safety, says the odds are in the public’s favor. “Operating nuclear power plants are safe,” the NRC said when it reported the new risk estimates.

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA):

Robert Engel, former IAEA inspector and Swiss nuclear engineer, told Reuters Sunday that a partial meltdown of a reactor “is not a disaster”… the current Japanese reactor crisis bear little similarity to the Soviet-era meltdown at Chernobyl, which came about through design flaws and human error before it spread a radioactive cloud across much of Europe and Asia 25 years ago.

Experts at the IAEA “aren’t planning for the next Chernobyl” says a mid-level Western diplomat familiar with how the organization works. “But nor do [they] think we are out of the woods yet. The reactors are still hot. But this situation has no relation to Chernobyl, even though I realize that in the popular lore, if you say ‘Chernobyl,’ it means ‘catastrophic meltdown.’”

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How Energy Fits into U.S. Military Posture

Soldiers wait as bundles of fuel are air delivered to Forward Operating Base Waza Kwah in Paktika province, Afghanistan, Jan. 30, 2011.

Source: energy.defense.gov | Soldiers wait as bundles of fuel are air delivered to Forward Operating Base Waza K'wah in Paktika province, Afghanistan, Jan. 30, 2011.

Last week, the services of the U.S. military (and the JCS) released their respective posture statements, which are unclassified summaries of the roles, missions, accomplishments, plans, and programs of each branch. Essentially, these statements combine to represent the state of the military as a whole.

In a reflection of an emerging consensus, each statement devotes a substantial portion to energy issues, acting as a benchmark for our military’s energy reform efforts. Combined with the launch of the DoD Operational Energy website, found here, these statements have contributed to an eventful week on the military energy front.

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With the most recent announcement that China is committed to peaking its total energy use by 2015, in addition to its energy and emissions intensity reduction goals, China’s ability to swallow the bitter pill of aggressive environmental policy seems unprecedented. Skeptics may ask, “But is it enough?” The answer from the Chinese perspective is that it’s much more than the world’s largest democracies are currently willing to do.

China has committed to an absolute energy consumption cap of 4 billion tons coal equivalent (tce) by 2015, a binding limit on energy use which has been included in the current draft of the 12th Five-Year Plan. Depending on how one determines China’s projected energy consumption, the 4 billion tce cap could be more or less than business-as-usual  for 2015. However, in this case, the fact that a cap is even being discussed – much less implemented - is more important than the actual number: the 2010 World Energy Outlook projected that Chinese energy consumption would increase by 75% between 2008 and 2035, thereby reaching approximately 5 billion tce.[1] That the world’s largest energy consumer, which is otherwise projected to contribute 36% of global growth in energy consumption over the next 25 years, could instate such a cap is actually quite meaningful.

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How to Deal with Coal in Federal Legislation

In his state of the Union address, President Obama set a goal of generating 80 percent of US electricity from “clean energy sources” by 2035. President Obama was using a very inclusive definition of “clean energy sources”, leaving coal without carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology as the big loser. Obama provided no details of how the country could achieve this goal but left it to Congress to work it out. Any new Federal legislation that comes out of this goal should recognize that electricity markets differ by state, and each state has its own body of laws, regulations, and administrative decisions that govern electricity regulation. A flexible approach from Congress will enable further regulatory innovation by states, dampen the effects of market failures, and allow states to allocate costs to meet their current situations and long-term priorities.

The President was indirectly acknowledging that there are only two ways to significantly reduce CO2 emissions from electricity generation: either reduce the amount of electricity generated by coal combustion or capture and sequester the CO2 emitted by coal-fired plants. Coal combustion for electricity generation is responsible for approximately 30 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Within the electricity sector, coal is responsible for more than 80 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. While the percentage of all U.S. electricity that is generated by coal has decreased over the past 15 years, the total amount of coal combusted by the electricity industry has actually increased by 4 percent from 1996 to 2009, peaking at a 16 percent increase as compared to 1996 in 2007. Coal use is currently widespread throughout the country but concentrated in a handful of states.   (more…)

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Screen shot 2011-03-07 at 6.17.33 PMLast week, with Congress in the midst of budget gridlock, the nation’s leading energy innovators gathered to showcase and discuss solutions to the world’s energy challenges. First in DC for the ARPA-E Innovation Summit, then in Boston for the MIT Energy Conference, we joined as many of the world’s leading minds reaffirmed an emerging consensus: to meet this global challenge we must drive rapid technological development to make clean energy cheap.

The ARPA-E Innovation Summit provided an opportunity for the young agency to share some of its accomplishments and make clear the opportunities provided by federal investment in high risk, high reward ventures. ARPA-E — which was originally signed into law under President Bush and funded  with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — has distributed $151 million dollars for projects “deemed too radical or too preliminary to attract much private financing.” Over a year later, six of those have leveraged $108 million in private finance, four times more private investment than the amount of tax payer dollars given to those companies.

Featuring keynote speakers Arnold Schwarzenegger, Secretary of the Navy Ray Maybus, Chairman of Bank of America Chad Holliday, Senator Lisa Murkowski, as well as Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, the conference provided a ringing endorsement from leaders of government and business alike (see the keynote addresses here).

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Rural Solar BoliviaIn the bone chilling cold of the high Bolivian Altiplano are numerous rural isolated villages. These villages have existed on subsistence agriculture and without electrification for centuries. In this region of the world, unique and innovative strategies to survive and cope with local circumstances are part of everyday life. With the help of hi-tech innovation in the developed world, developing nations like Bolivia can find innovative ways to pull themselves out of energy poverty.

As an example, the resilient inhabitants of Bolivia have been chewing coca leaves to combat altitude sickness for centuries; this age-old remedy is impossible to fully appreciate until you have personally been relieved of a splitting altitude induced headache. If visiting the Altiplano, you’re likely to finish chewing your coca leaves and look up to see your host pull out a cell phone that has been charged by a solar panel. While seemingly odd given the local circumstances, it shouldn’t be unexpected. In developing Bolivia, one of the poorest countries in South America, solar resources are abundant and 3 million of the country’s 10 million people live without electricity access. In fact, solar panels and solar water heaters are a relatively common site along the roadside in Bolivia and in rural villages.

So how is this still costly technology finding a foot hold in Bolivia? The developing world is more apt, in some cases, to find ingenious and efficient applications for technology. Imagine seeing someone charging their phone from a solar panel in New York City, it’s almost as odd as imagining a person chewing coca leaves as they climb the Empire State building. Yet the adage holds true, necessity and circumstance drive innovation, and developing countries aren’t short on necessity or challenging circumstances.

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