Category Archives: Energy

Inviting all students: Sustainable Engineers Association Conference @ University of Toronto

This Saturday, Nicolas Morgan (our co-founder and the original author of this blog) will be speaking at the 3rd Annual Sustainable Engineers Association (SEA) Sustainability Conference at U of T’s Hart House.

The conference is designed to bring together students of ALL disciplines who are passionate about sustainable development.

It seems like a good opportunity to refine a final year engineering project, or learn about what’s going on in industry/ government to consider career options. If you’re of the entrepreneurial bent, there’s a panel on that which may be of interest too.

The theme of the conference? Overcoming obstacles in sustainability. Nic will be on a panel discussing the future of energy; other key themes include transportation and public policy.

Here’s a run-down of the pertinent details:

Date: February 2nd, 2013, at 9 AM
Location: Hart House Great Hall. See the Hart House Website for directions.
Registration: $10 deposit via credit card, will be refunded to you in full only after checking in at the conference reception desk.

Breakfast and lunch will be provided.
Dress code: Business Casual

To register and for more conference details visit: http://sustainable-engineers.org/seac/.

2013.01_Sustainable Engineers Association

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Electricity Prices Go Up Regardless

Ontario will be having an election this October, and the Green Energy Act is being raised as an issue.  I’ve decided to write this post before I know what different candidates are saying, because I’m not trying to favour one side or the other so much as discuss a point of view.

To start, I’ve heard people criticize the Green Energy Act on the basis that it will increase people’s electricity bills. It will.  But what that objection implies is that somehow, electricity prices would stay the same otherwise.  This is false.  Electricity rates are going up, period.

Why?  For starters, coal, oil and natural gas are all getting more expensive to mine or extract, and consumption for all three is increasing rapidly in China, India and other high-growth economies.  Demand for electricity is increasing in general, and where populations are growing it’s increasing even faster. In Ontario, our generation and distribution infrastructure is old, inefficient and in need of significant and expensive upgrades.  This means that it is getting more and more expensive just to keep things going at current levels, ignoring the fact that we’re already at the very edge of rolling blackouts every summer.  Added to that, some sort of cost for carbon emissions is starting to look inevitable (regardless of your opinion on global warming, that’s just political reality right now), and our current infrastructure still relies too heavily on coal.  I could go on, but you get the point.

NASA Satellite Images of the 2003 blackout in the North Eastern US and Ontario

The 2003 Blackout - The most dramatic recent example of how fragile our power grid can be.

To emphasize: No matter what we do, the price of electricity is going to go up. So, if you’re going to pay more, what would you like to buy with those extra dollars? There are many options, but here are two:

Option # 1: Invest minimally, keep electricity costs low (for now)

Some people will argue that we should spend and invest as little as possible, and our goal should be to keep electricity rates as low as possible now.  This means we don’t focus on any of the serious upgrades we badly need, and we keep importing extremely expensive power when we can’t generate enough in the summer.  This scenario assumes we don’t have to shut down any of the nuclear power plants, and we keep all of our current coal plants running. Electricity costs will still go up, but in the next few years, the increases will probably be slower. Once the growing costs of nuclear power plant maintenance, carbon taxes, rising fossil fuel prices and the long term health costs to the people living downwind from coal fired stations start to add up, things can easily very expensive, very quickly. In the long term, we’ll pay much more, and we’ll get little more than the status quo to show for it.  (And remember, all of the GTA and an overwhelming majority of the people in Ontario live downwind from Nanticoke, literally the most polluting coal plant in the Western Hemisphere.)

Option #2: Invest in a long term energy plan, stabilize and possibly reduce prices over the long term

The other alternative is to invest.  Reasonable people can disagree on the best way to invest, or even if that is a better course of action, and the Green Energy Act is absolutely not the only model for investing in a better energy future for Ontario.

With the Green Energy Act, we are paying more for electricity than we would otherwise. The extra money is used for several things: extensive upgrades to Ontario’s electrical distribution and generation infrastructure, aggressive efficiency and power reduction targets, and direct stimulation of renewable energy development via feed-in tariffs. Feed-in tariffs are controversial. They have been a disaster for Spain and Italy, but have had astonishing results in Germany and Japan.  The Ontario Green Energy Act was built with a specific set of long term goals in mind: job creation; increasing our clean energy supply; steadily lowering the price of renewable energy in Ontario by growing the market; eliminating coal-fired power plants; and, broadly speaking, avoiding instability in supplies and electricity price shocks, thereby keeping long term electricity costs low.

I can’t say if the all of the goals set out in Green Energy Act will be reached, and I certainly can’t say if it’s the best way to reach these goals.  But the goals seem worth trying to reach, and so far things seem to be working well. Unlike Spain or Italy, the OPA and the province have shown they can react quickly to make changes as needed in a timely and reasonably transparent manner. The uncertainty over the future of the Act is preventing a few companies from moving here or investing too much in Ontario operations, but in general, we’re seeing a fast growing solar energy sector.

Personally, I’d want to see strong evidence that the act wasn’t working, or that the added cost to electricity was having a clear negative effect on the province before I could be convinced it should be repealed.  Even then, there would need to be an alternate plan for our energy future, with clear goals and a way to reach them. It’s my opinion, but I strongly believe that doing nothing and focusing on the short term price of electricity without considering the bigger picture will be a bad strategy in the long run.

Relevant reading:

The International Energy Agency’s (IEA’s) World Energy Outlook 2010 Fact Sheet

OPA’s Q4 2010 Progress Report on Electricity Supply


Environmentalists: a new challenge to utility-scale solar?

I’d really like to hear what you think of the Sierra Club’s decision to sue the California Energy Commission over its approval of the 663.5 MW Calico solar thermal project in San Bernandino Country, California. One of the largest environmental NGOs coming up against a renewable energy project – seems hard to believe, no?

The lawsuit, filed December 30, 2010, charges that the CEC rushed the environmental review of Calico without fully considering the impacts on rare plant and wildlife species (such as the protected desert tortoise plodding along below), and without identifying adequate mitigation measures.

Photo: Desert tortoise roaming the Calico site.  Photo from BLM biological assessment, courtesy of the Mojave Desert Blog.

I suppose the suit isn’t as big of a shock – outspoken criticism of siting solar projects on undisturbed land emerged well before, and previous projects were blocked for similar reasons.  After BrightSource Energy announced its Ivanpah project, for example, the California Wildlands Conservancy responded by introducing legislation to ban renewable energy development on more than a million acres of the Mojave Desert – incidentally some of the land closest to transmission lines and the huge Southern California market.

(Governor Schwarzenegger then countered “If we cannot put solar power plants in the Mojave Desert, I don’t know where the hell we can put it [them].”)

As a card-carrying environmentalist whose also convinced of the need for large-scale, rapid renewable energy deployment, I admit this lawsuit has left me a bit conflicted: if climate change is a real, pressing, and to many, a livelihood-threatening phenomenon, which I believe it is, should there be special consideration of the  environmental impacts of renewable energy developments in the siting process? By special consideration, I mean in this case – allowing projects to be constructed on public BLM land, and giving developers permission to relocate protected species?

The answer from certain environmentalists has been a clear No – developers should exhaust the widely available rooftops and already-disturbed land before they move on to pristine desert. Some point to the fact that transmitting electricity from solar farms in the desert is inefficient – 10 to 15% of the electricity generated can be lost en route to urban markets. Desert ecosystems in SoCal are unique, irreplaceable, and highly fragile – no place for ‘industrialized solar farms’, it’s argued.

On the other side, Michael Kanellos, editor-in-chief of the popular cleantech news site Greentech Media, was vocal in his disagreement with the Sierra Club, titling his recent editorial on the decision, “Dear Environmental Community: Please Shut Up.” In Michael’s defense, he thinks the risks have been duly analyzed, and emphasizes that renewable energy generation has a zero sum relationship with fossil fuel generation – “Circumscribing solar and wind farms leads to only one thing: more natural gas, coal and nuclear plants”.

So, where do I stand? I think the best available technologies should be deployed at a scale that will meaningfully reduce GHGs. In doing this, some landscape changes are inevitable. But projects shouldn’t be developed in a way that will cause significant and irrevocable harm to the land or to species. For this reason, I actually think the Sierra’s lawsuit could be a good thing – in the best case, it would allow a closer look at the environmental impacts of all proposed solar projects in the SoCal deserts (from my count of the CEC’s website, there are over 3,500 MW proposed), and it would allow careful weighing of what changes are permissible.  As the NYT’s Green Blog notes, casinos, strip malls and subdivisions have permanently changed the SoCal deserts. There are better and worse reasons to alter these desert ecosystems.

Efforts such as Ivanpah’s tortoise monitoring program, and NREL’s study on how to restore habitat shaded by solar panels seem promising of mitigating harmful changes. There’s room for lots more.

Relatedly: I had said I’d earlier to post slides from an SPI presentation made by Jimmy Nelson, a University of California Berkeley PhD candidate, on the environmental benefits of CPV (the type of solar panel that will be deployed at many of the utility-scale projects discussed above). Here they are:

Quantifying the Environmental Impact of CPV

Nelson’s work, which relies on a sophisticated model called the SWITCH model (what that stands for is in the pres.), calculates that CPV’s higher efficiencies mean less water is used and less land is disturbed to generate the same amount of power.  CPV’s energy and GHG payback times are also under half those of conventional solar panels.

An Update:

On February 9, 2011, more than a dozen U.S. environmental NGOs wrote a letter to President Obama urging for a comprehensive, upfront process for siting, planning, and monitoring the environmental impact of renewable energy projects. The letter followed Obama’s State of the Union Address, made on January 25, 2011, during which he announced a target of producing 80% of U.S. electricity from clean energy sources by 2035.

What we took home from SPI 2010: optimism for CPV’s next 3 years, 263 really interesting contacts..oh, and some bedbug bites

Last week was my first SPI.  I had been to academic conferences before, notably the American Association of Geographers annual meeting, where I was amazed at 7,000 to 8,000-thick crowds, but at this year’s SPI 28,000 bodies jostled along the corridors of the LA Convention Centre’s three trade show halls, snapping endless amounts of photos with the latest DSLRs, even pulling out self-lighting magnifying glasses (a good thing the Sun Simba is v. difficult to reverse engineer), and taking pages and pages of glossy brochures from people like me, on guard in front of our respective booths.

After the daily pilgrimages to and from the convention centre, the pre-, post-, and during-conference sessions, and the long lines leading up to Starbucks’ counter – what do you take home from a massive and intense event like this? Although I’m a vegetarian, I can imagine it’s a bit like digesting the full burger, animal fries, and milkshake combo from the In & Out Burger, where John Paul insisted we go upon arriving at LAX.

(Photo courtesy of SPI’s Flickr set)

So, after a week back home in Toronto, here are three things that I took home from SPI:

1. A greater certainty that, after a series of false starts and overpromises, the number and scale of concentrating PV deployments will soon pick up. Dr. Sarah Kurtz, a Principal Scientist at NREL and probably the person most capable of an objective evaluation of the technology, said that moves by the established CPV players – Amonix, SolFocus, and Concentrix – past testing to real production, combined with an emerging appetite for utility-scale projects from governments and utilities, point to a growth opportunity for concentrating panels.  Spire’s announcement of 42.3% efficient III-V cells and increasing silicon processing costs also support a degree of optimism for CPV.

As Dr. Kurtz said, however, sustained growth will hinge on field performance: proof of long-term reliability is a must for project bankability. Of course, any new technology needs to demonstrate performance and reliability before widespread market adoption, but in the case of energy technologies, where even small projects can cost a few million dollars, the challenge of gathering the initial data to support large-scale developments results in a bit of a catch-22.

Bankability is the core of our efforts right now, and what we hope our self-funded 2 MW project in the City of Lancaster will achieve.

2. The importance of good government programs. SPI may be an international conference, as its name states, but the locales printed on attendees’ nametags matched up pretty well with the places with the most supportive or effective government solar energy programs. We encountered a number of friendly names and faces from Ontario – including from the Ontario Power Authority, Endura Energy, Helios Solar, and the University of Toronto.  Other well-represented locales included California (of course); New Jersey; and Germany.  On that note, let’s hope Proposition 23 isn’t repealed.

3. Remembering why you’re there. Next to speaking with several very engaging people with very interesting projects, I most enjoyed a presentation during the first day’s CPV session, made by a PhD candidate at the University of California Berkeley.  With his permission, I’m hoping to post his slides soon.  Berkeley’s Renewable and Appropriate Energy Lab used their SWITCH model (stands for ‘Solar and Wind Integration with Transmission and Conventional generation on an Hourly Basis’) to evaluate the environmental impacts of CPV versus conventional PV and fossil fuel generation technologies.  CPV panels – namely the SolFocus and Amonix panels studied – came out with less of an impact on all fronts analyzed:

  1. The energy payback time for concentrating panels is a quarter that of conventional PV panels (0.6 and 0.7 years for SolFocus and Amonix modules, respectively, versus 2.2 – 2.7 for Silicon panels)
  2. The greenhouse gases emitted from producing each kWh of CPV module is a half to a quarter that of Silicon panels (20 and 12 tons of CO2 equivalent for SolFocus and Amonix, respectively, versus 45 tons for Silicon panels).
  3. The water demands of module washing are 1.2 to 2.5 times less than other PV technologies (largely because of the efficiency).

We’re looking into doing a lifecycle analysis of the Sun Simba , which use different materials and manufacturing processes than SolFocus and Amonix.

The CPV industry still has challenges though: the areas where concentrating panels perform best are often deserts with fragile ecosystems.  A question discussed in the session was how do you secure large, expensive systems, without fencing off and essentially fragmenting parcels of desert?  I’ve been reading up on this issue on the Mojave Desert Blog here.

About the bedbugs – I’m not going to name the hotel here, because it was honestly only one room, only one night, and they dealt with it, but two of my colleagues were unfortunate victims of the current epidemic across North America.  Perhaps some of the bright minds that we met at the conference could be applied to solving this problem – it may be the post-SPI optimist in me speaking, but it seems like most of the technologies and minds are already there to solve the energy crisis.

Sun, Sun Simbas, and Morgan Solar Staff

Today we were testing Sun Simba panels that will be installed tomorrow at an external test site.  Below are 3 photos showing one of the panels (fresh off the assembly line) being installed on the tracker.  For the 4th photo, it took some effort but we managed to get everyone together for a staff shot.

We’ll post more photos from the day, and from the test site once it’s up and running, on our Flickr stream.

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Book Release: Tom Rand’s “Kick the Fossil Fuel Habit”

Tom Rand, Cleantech lead at the MaRS Discovery District – also engineer, entrepreneur, philosopher, and venture capitalist – has just released a new book detailing 10 (already existing) clean technologies that can enable a 100% shift to renewable energy by 2050.  The first chapter of his book? Dedicated to solar.

10 Clean Technologies to Save our World

Several Morgan Solar employees will be going to see Tom, who’s been a big support to us, speak at the book launch, held at the MaRS auditorium on April 15th, from 6 – 7:30 PM.

Tom has also made a video promoting the book.  It shows his clear and approachable style, sums up some key points about the clean technologies he focuses on in the book, and it’s pretty funny too.

* If you pick up a copy of the book, which is big, square and has stunning photographs of clean tech examples from around the world – clearly marketed as a coffee table book, you’ll see us mentioned on page 24: “Morgan Solar uses an injection-molded Plexiglas optic, instead of a lens, to guide sunlight onto the cell.  Morgan’s power could be far cheaper than coal.”

Developing a Solar Farm Questions

Lately I’ve received quite a few questions regarding the development of a solar farm in emails and in comments on this blog, mainly from the comments in this post and a few others.  I’m happy to do my best to answer, but I’m not an expert – so grains of salt people.  (Big grains of salt.)  To keep the post from getting too long, I’ll answer the direct questions today and follow up with additional details and other things to consider in my next post.

Also, since this seems to be an interesting topic, I’ve made a “Solar Farms” category, so if you want to just see my posts related to solar farms, select that from the Categories drop down menu on the right.

So, questions:

Can I recommend a good book on the subject?

I don’t think a good book exists, and don’t think one will for a while yet.  Three reasons:

  1. Most of the knowledge that would make for a GOOD book is very new and the people who really have it can make more money by being among a select group of experts.
  2. The issues are very regional.  Someone who is an expert in California would lack a knowledge of what’s what in Florida for example.
  3. This is still an emerging market and industry, so the knowledge needed is changing and evolving all the time, so anything writen down (including this blog post) will be out of date fairly quickly.

In lieu of a good book, there are some websites, conferences, webinars and other resources (many of them free) that are available, and some strategies that you can employ.  If you’re serious about laying out many millions for a serious solar farm, I would partner with or hire an engineer.  I’ll go into more detail in my next post.

Several people have asked if their local climate (Maine, New Zealand, Northern Ontario etc) has enough sun to justify a solar farm.

Sadly, right now, solar is still too expensive for most projects in regions where electricity isn’t VERY expensive, and where no subsidies exist.

I’ve talked about this a little in this post, but you need to basically get your hands on solar resource data (also called Insolation).  Most governments track this and make it public, Natural Resources Canada (NR-CAN) and NREL in the US provide this data, and I’ll bet most other countries do too.  If you need very highly regional data, there are consultants you can pay for reports or solar test equipment you can buy to do tests.

Short version however, and I’ve said this before, the amount of sunlight does not matter as much as the cost of electricity.  If electricity is expensive or otherwise unavailable, then yes, develop solar.  The people who have to do their homework are the majority in the middle who have moderately high (and ever increasing) electricity costs, and need to evaluate.  There, kWh/m2/year data is available, and you need to get to a useful cost per watt value for your solar farm.  From there it’s a quick bit of math to figure out the rest.

I’ve talked about pricing out solar panels before, and make a few additional comments in my next post.

Have I heard of municipal push back on solar farm development?

Yes, absolutely, and for many reasons.  This can be a real show stopper, and as I said in my previous post, the specific local reasons can be surprising.  (Endangered species protection, retention of valuable food producing land for farming, reflections distracting pilots during take off and landing… you name it.  Do your homework.)

In my next post I’ll try to expand on what I would want to know before seriously investing time and energy in a solar farm project, resources that are useful (and some that are indispensible) and other tips and advise I’ve heard from people.  If you’re reading this and I don’t answer your question here, let me know.  I’ll try to update these posts to keep them relevant.