Australian solar and geothermal cheaper than coal and nuclear within 15 years

According this this analysis, from New Energy World Network, within 15 years the cost of concentrating solar power will be less than the cost of “clean” coal, at least in Australia. The analysis is based on the rates of change in cost between the two energy sources. With the cost of coal increasing, relatively, and CSP decreasing, the cost lines eventually cross, leaving CSP cheaper.

In addition, the article mentions offhandedly that connecting the Queensland and South Australian electricity grids would “likely pay for itself quickly just in increased efficiencies brought to the existing grid.”

The average Australian household could pay up to 30 per cent more per year by 2025 for electricity generated from coal and nuclear power than from concentrating solar and hot dry rock geothermal power, according to clean energy organisation DESERTEC-Australia.

This idea illustrates the kind of synergies that we need to find throughout the energy economy.


(H/T to Benjamin Chambers for the link to the article.)

Fuel Cell Innovation Update

The week I started this blog in August 2008, there were [intlink id=”5″ type=”post” target=”_blank”]three major fuel-cell related discoveries[/intlink] making the rounds in the science magazines. Since then, there have been [intlink id=”7″ type=”post” target=”_blank”]new announcements every week[/intlink] of an [intlink id=”229″ type=”post” target=”_blank”]improved catalyst or membrane or electrolyte[/intlink]. As these discoveries mature into real products and enter the market, the option of using fuel cells for energy storage, both for homes as well as vehicles, will become more and more cost-effective.

Energy storage is potentially a big part of the zero-net energy house picture, and is certainly critical for the hydrogen automobile transition. I thought I’d highlight a few recent discoveries and advances in the world of fuel cells, the “energy storage of the future.”

  • Cheaper Fuel Cells with nanotubes instead of platinum:

    “Fuel cells haven’t been commercialized for larger-scale applications because platinum is too expensive,” says Liming Dai, a materials-engineering professor at the University of Dayton, in Ohio, who led the work. “For electrodes, you need a cheaper material that still has a high performance.”

  • A new catalyst could make ethanol fuel cells practical for portable gadgets

    The new catalyst, developed by researchers at Brookhaven National Laboratory, breaks the carbon bonds without high voltages, efficiently releasing enough electrons to produce electrical currents 100 times higher than those produced with other catalysts.

  • A new fuel cell uses a cheap nickel catalyst

    Now researchers in China have developed a fuel cell that uses a new membrane material to operate in alkaline conditions, eliminating the need for an expensive catalyst. The power output of the new prototype, which uses nickel as a catalyst, is still relatively low, but it provides a first demonstration of a potentially much less expensive fuel cell.

  • A novel low-temperature electrolyte could make solid-oxide fuel cells more practical

    Solid-oxide fuel cells are promising for next-generation power plants because they are more efficient than conventional generators, such as steam turbines, and they can use a greater variety of fuels than other fuel cells. They can generate electricity with gasoline, diesel, natural gas, and hydrogen, among other fuels. But the high temperatures required for efficient operation make solid-oxide fuel cells expensive and limit their applications.

Home-generated energy is sustainable, non-polluting, and carbon-free. As the price of energy generation continues to drop, it’s possible to imagine [intlink id=”329″ type=”post” target=”_blank”]the nation’s homes becoming the nation’s power plant[/intlink]. But that can’t happen until we have effective home-based energy storage.

Avoiding The Cliff Ahead

Uluwatu Temple, Bali (HDR)
A cliff in Bali (image by seanmcgrath, CC 2.0 licensed)

My green building and blogging colleague Barry Katz just had a post about James Howard Kunstler on his The Future Is Green Blog. Kunstler is one of the “dystopians” featured in a  New Yorker article last week. Kunstler is not sanguine about what the future is going to look like for us and our descendants. He thinks that not only is global warming likely to cause a disaster, but so is the current, or an upcoming, financial meltdown. Barry writes:

In his view, anything short of ending our dependence on cars for personal transportation is a doomed enterprise.

In his blog ClusterF**k nation, Kunstler writes:

I’ve been skeptical of the “stimulus” as sketched out so far, aimed at refurbishing the infrastructure of Happy Motoring. To me, this is the epitome of a campaign to sustain the unsustainable — since car-dependency is absolutely the last thing we need to shore up and promote.

Could the terrible things he predicts happen? In the New Yorker interview he provides as an example and a warning the famous fall of the Roman Empire – the city of Rome itself went from a population of over one million in 100 AD to less than 50,000 in a little over 400 years. And there certainly have been many other similar collapses in history – even in pre-Columbian North America there were multiple population collapses due to resource overuse (and genocide, but that’s another topic).

The difference today – at least we hope – is that we have some Cassandras – Al Gore, Kunstler, the IPCC, me and Barry Katz, among many others – warning us, and we have the means and opportunity to take the warning. The question is, do we have the will to put the pedal to the metal to address the problems? For me, I see that as doing the following, and doing it much faster than anyone is actually predicting is possible today:

  • Immediately stop wasting energy – this means getting our houses and commercial buildings more efficient, both new and existing ones; getting more efficient cars on the road
  • Build out utility scale renewable energy as fast as humanly possible
  • Develop and commercialize technologies for distributed energy generation (e.g., photovoltaic roof panels and paint, mini-wind turbines, ground source heat pumps) and get them cheap enough to deploy everywhere
  • Develop and commercialize technologies for distributed energy storage – effective energy storage is one of the key sticking points for my vision of zero net energy homes and for accelerating the decline of traditional power plants
  • Figure out a way, or several ways, to get some of the CO2 back out of the atmosphere – reforestation is a start (and can make a significant difference, according to this study)
  • Finally, make structural changes to the rules and incentives of life so people will work closer to where they live, will be able to take public transit in a reasonable way, choose to build highly efficient homes not because its the right thing to do, but because it’s the law, or there are other concrete benefits, and so that businesses will find it’s profitable to save the world – whether it’s through being more efficient themselves, or by helping the rest of us “do the right thing”

I call this blog “Keeping The Lights On” because I am optimistic that we’ll figure out how to have a decent life without CO2, that we’ll figure out how to keep the oceans from rising too much and losing too many species, and that civilization won’t collapse due to a financial crisis in the meantime. There are a lot of hurdles to be leapt to accomplish this, and many of them will be costly – but that means that someone’s going to make some money on them, so there will be incentives. And that’s the other half of the title – “Profitable Applications” – business can drive this transition, for profit. The big challenge is getting business ramped up fast enough to save our butts – I think it can happen, and even with the economy in its current sad state, we’re still seeing hopeful signs.

Well, that’s a couple of pages full of assertion and conjecture – I’d love to hear your thinking on this.

Zero Net Energy Homes – Part 1

Beautiful sunset (CC 2.0 license)
Beautiful sunset (photo by Santa Rosa OLD SKOOL, CC 2.0 license)

This is the first post in a series on zero-net energy homes. Over the course of the series I will be covering all aspects of this topic, from the technology and knowledge available today, to the changes needed in technology, building codes, trade skills, design approaches, and will to achieve the goal of all new homes eventually being zero net energy.

Definitions and feasibility

What is a “zero-net energy home?” Zero net energy homes generate as much energy as they use. Energy used = Energy Generated. The experience of thousands of “off the grid” home owners and those bleeding edge homeowners with big solar panel installations on their roofs show that zero-net energy homes are technically feasible today. For example, see this article on Amory Lovins’ home and office in Snowmass, CO.

We know how to build them. Unfortunately, for most homeowners, they are too expensive, because the energy generation side of the equation is too costly. There are three ways to address this problem.

  1. Reduce the cost of home-based energy generation, typically either solar or wind. That depends on technological improvements and manufacturing efficiencies by the solar panel companies, and they are busily doing their best to address this situation.
  2. Change the cost basis for comparison – energy generation is expensive compared to the cost of electricity from coal-fired plants, but a carbon tax on those plants would automatically make solar more competitive (and raise the cost of energy for all of us).
  3. Make the demand side of the equation – energy used – smaller. Reducing the energy used by half cuts the energy required by half, which cuts the cost by half. And typically reducing energy use has numerous other cost benefits, and often performance benefits as well.

Over the course of this series of articles, I’ll be looking at how both sides of the equation can be reduced, but the particular focus will be on getting the demand side down.

Privation is not the solution

One way to reduce the energy use of the home is simply to do less – for example, you can save a lot of hot water if you simply stop showering every other day. Other techniques are leave the heater off when it’s cold, or the AC off when it’s hot. There’s also sitting in the dark – lighting accounts for about 15% of home energy use. Strangely, most homeowners in the U.S. are unwilling to reduce their energy demand by cutting “services” in this way.

Therefore, we have to find ways to reduce energy usage while not cutting the “services” the home provides. We all need our showers, our lights, and our comfortable temperatures. The good news is that by making small changes in how homes are designed and built, typically at a very small increment to the cost of the home overall, we can build houses that use one half the energy or less, and often at a higher level of comfort and “service” than standard-built homes.

As we will see over the next few articles, we already have all the technology, and some people have the experience, to build “zero-net energy ready” houses cost effectively.

On the energy generation side, although there’s currently a premium to get to zero-net energy, over the next ten years this premium will go to zero. In fact, looking farther ahead, it may become cost-effective to get to positive-net energy – where the house is generating more energy than it needs! Such a change has world-changing implications – but we’ll cover that later in the series.

Coming up

Zero-net energy homes is a huge topic, and some of the areas we’ll be covering in future posts are:

  • Integrative design
  • Passive heating
  • Home energy storage
  • Zero-net energy for existing homes
  • Zero-net energy and LEED
  • Practical steps for finding a zero-net energy home builder
  • Examples of zero-net energy homes
  • Achieving a zero-net energy home cost-effectively
  • How the cost-benefit equation on zero-net energy homes is likely to change over the next five and ten years

As I get started on this series, I’d love to hear your comments and thoughts on what I’ve presented here, as well as other topics I should cover in future posts.

The Answer Is Blowing In The Wind

Windmill and old houses in Schipluiden
Old Windmill (image by waterwin, CC 2.0 license)

The results of this study on solutions to global warming, air pollution, and energy security, by Stanford professor Mark Z. Jacobson, are somewhat surprising, given the drumbeat from many areas on both nuclear and biofuels as necessary for the salvation of the world.

Jacobson analyzes 12 energy sources for their beneficial impact on global warming, air pollution, and energy security – the ten electricity sources are solar-photovoltaics (PV), concentrated solar power (CSP), wind, geothermal, hydroelectric, wave, tidal, nuclear, and coal with carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology; the two liquid fuel options are corn-ethanol (E85) and cellulosic-E85.

An article in Science Daily summarizes one of Jacobson’s conclusions:

Jacobson said that while some people are under the impression that wind and wave power are too variable to provide steady amounts of electricity, his research group has already shown in previous research that by properly coordinating the energy output from wind farms in different locations, the potential problem with variability can be overcome and a steady supply of baseline power delivered to users.

As the bottom line in the study, Jacobson writes:

In summary, the use of wind, CSP, geothermal, tidal, solar, wave, and hydroelectric to provide electricity for BEVs [battery electric vehicles] and HFCVs [hydrogen fuel cell vehicles] result in the most benefit and least impact among the options considered. Coal-CCS and nuclear provide less benefit with greater negative impacts. The biofuel options provide no certain benefit and result in significant negative impacts. Because sufficient clean natural resources (e.g., wind, sunlight, hot water, ocean energy, gravitational energy) exists to power all energy for the world, the results here suggest that the diversion of attention to the less efficient or non-efficient options represents an opportunity cost that delays solutions to climate and air pollution health problems.

Note that the study ranks the various energy alternatives without regard to cost. That’s going to be controversial. Jacobson says:

Costs are not examined since policy decisions should be based on the ability of a technology to address a problem rather than costs (e.g., the U.S. Clean Air Act Amendments of 1970 prohibit the use of cost as a basis for determining regulations required to meet air pollution standards) and because costs of new technologies will change over time, particularly as they are used on a large scale.

In the real world, costs do have a major impact, especially given that we do not have a Clean Air Act regarding carbon today. This is why it’s so important that the price/kW of solar panels, for example, is dropping and will continue to drop.

In fact, when you leave cost out of the equation, is it surprising which energy sources came out on top? Let me know your thoughts. – A New Biomimicry Resource and Social Networking Site

Spider silk has desirable technical properties that manmade materials cannot replicate yet
Spider silk has desirable technical properties that manmade materials cannot replicate yet

I just visited, [url corrected] a new resource and social site for people interested in understanding how nature has solved various design problems – such as energy conservation, water collection, and energy generation – and how we can use those solutions as inspiration for our own technology.

AskNature is a bio-inspiration website where innovators can learn from nature’s solutions, biologists can find a whole new audience for their research, students can be inspired through science, and collaborators from different disciplines can work together to create innovative, sustainable, bio-inspired designs.

Currently on their home page they link to articles on the three topics I mentioned above – conservation, water, and energy generation. The articles feature an overview of the topic and how nature has addressed it, an example organism that’s solved the problem in an interesting way, and then one or more technology solutions that are based on nature’s approach – often contrasted with technologies for the same problem that are not inspired by nature.

Nature solves problems for organisms using evolution, using millions of experiments over tremendous time to optimize the solution under the constraints of very low energy inputs, ability to build the solution from basic materials using a digital program (genes), and only generating waste that can be used by other organisms. When nature’s solutions can be repurposed to solve technological problems, those same constraints are additional benefits – reducing the energy required for the solution, making the process digital, and eliminating waste.

The site is a project of Janine BenyusBiomimicry Institute, a not-for-profit whose mission is to nurture and grow a global community of people who are learning from, emulating, and conserving life’s genius to create a healthier, more sustainable planet.

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