Military’s Mobile Solar Systems

The U.S. military has been instrumental in developing new technology, helping it develop so that it can be adopted by the private and consumer markets. The military has geared up another project that allows for large scale mobile solar energy systems.

As traditional energy costs and the military’s need for energy continue to rise solar technology for remote locations has become an interesting prospect brought on by SunDial Capital Partners.

Founded in 2009, SunDial created a mobile solar energy unit specific for on the move military operations and operations in remote locations. These units come in 20-foot long containers that are packed with 120 photovoltaic panels that can be set up into a fully functional solar field within 2 hours. Once unpacked, the container itself can then be used as a field operations facility.

A single unit can produce 28.8 kW of power and charge 64 storage batteries stored in the container’s floor so that the power can be used in the container at night. If the battery power begins to dwindle, a diesel generator kicks in to provide power until the sun comes up and the panels begin producing power causing the generator to shut off.

Though the military recognizes climate change as a potential threat to national security, right now, the military is imploring these renewable energy projects as a tactical move. With the ability to pick up and go within a few hours, remote areas that were previously unsuitable because of the diesel fuel needed to be transported can now be accessed. Relying almost completely on renewable energy decreases the need for costly and dangerous convoys for fuel. Self-sufficiency improves reliability, mobility, and most importantly, safety for our troops.

The idea of a mobile solar unit can apply to more contexts than just military. Anyone hoping to operate off the grid could benefit from this solar/battery/diesel hybrid system–from disaster relief efforts and rural electrification to powering outdoor concert events. With the military known for taking technologies out of their testing phases and proving viability, any private sector skeptics will be able to see applications of these hybrid systems and apply them to their specific needs.

Net Metering: Doubling California’s Solar Energy Goal

The California net metering battle has come to an end–til 2015 at least–and will raise California’s maximum roof-top solar capacity from the current 2,400 megawatts to about 5,200 megawatts.

The state Public Utilities Commission (PUC) voted on Thursday to make a technical tweak in the way it calculates how many electricity rate payers can participate in the net metering program. This tweak includes residential, commercial, and government buildings whose excess solar power gets sent back to the grid, giving the solar user a lower bill.

In the simplest terms, net metering enables solar users to get credit for the electricity generated by their solar system when their overall usage is low (i.e. when you’re not home during the day). This credit can then be used towards their bill when they’re using electricity but their solar is not generating (at night, when the sun’s not shining).

The daytime solar generation – nighttime usage = a lower bill.

Net metering gives solar owners an element of predictability. Based on the credits received for the solar contributed to the grid, a homeowner can project the savings they’ll incur over the life of their solar system (25+ years).

The net metering issue has been under scrutiny recently as the PUC was gearing up to vote on how to calculate a cap on net metering eligibility. Consumers and utilities opposed to net metering argued expanding the program would create unfair subsidies for wealthy people who can afford to install solar in the first place and shifting costs to non-solar customers who either can’t afford solar or don’t want it.

A 3-year-old PUC study estimated the amount paid by non-solar customers to be $140 million annually to cover the net metering program for their solar owning neighbors. But a more recent study done by Berkeley energy consultant, R. Thomas Beach, concludes that the benefits of using solar (decreasing fossil fuel dependence, decreased carbon dioxide emissions) outweigh the subsidy costs.

Net metering is a very important driver of residential solar adoption. As it is, California’s solar industry employs more then 25,000 workers and provides a clean, renewable source of energy to homes and businesses.

After the extension of the net metering program, PUC  President Michael Peevy announced, “Today’s decision ensures that the solar industry will continue to thrive for years to come, and we are fully committed to developing a long-term solution that secures the industry in California.”

Solar Moving Forward Despite Low Subsidies

Despite relatively low subsidies, especially in comparison to the subsidies awarded to other energy sources, solar has been making it’s way as a valuable source of energy .

Incentives Graph

Graph Used From Baker Report and Think Progress .

The federal government provides incentives for every major energy production market and they exist to bridge the “chasm” between early adopters (about 16%) of a certain market and the majority adopters (about 84%). Crossing the chasm doesn’t necessarily mean all companies in the industry succeed, but that the industry itself succeeds. To get from initial adoption to full scale implementation, federal incentives support new energy resources on average for 30 years, including market control for oil, pipeline availability for natural gas, and dams for hydropower. Incentives provide economies of scale in a long term scenario that offer stability during the adoption process with gradual reductions in incentives as the industry matures.

Solar is at the chasm where continued government incentives are critical in assisting the jump between adoption phases. As it is, incentives for solar have been small compared to fossil fuels, according to a report by the Baker Center, “federal investment in solar technologies has been modest in a long-term histroical context relative to other energy technologies”. But, the incentives solar has received have really aided the industry. The growth of solar over the past two years has come with the federal investment tax credit and state renewable energy standards set in place. In addition to the decreasing PV prices, there’s been a 77% growth in the last 5 years.

This growth is spurring innovation, which in itself stimulates growth. Growth means more opportunity for jobs–the Baker Report estimating between 200,000 and 430,000 direct, indirect, and induced jobs coming from the solar industry by 2020. There are already 100,000 Americans working in the solar industry. To top it off, solar provides more jobs per megawatt hour than any other energy industry.

Solar has huge potential in the U.S. Rooftop solar alone could provide 20% of America’s energy needs, which would help decrease impacts of price and supply vulnerabilities from fossil fuel supplies. Solar could be an important addition to the American energy portfolio, but continuing incentives will be a crucial factor in perpetuating this.

Incentives are used to move an industry up the adoption curve. Solar has come this far despite relatively low subsidies; imagine what it could accomplish if the federal government channeled incentives usually given to the fossil fuel industry into solar.

Through the Looking Glass: Our Renewable Energy Future

2011 was a boom year for renewable energy in the United States. According to the SEIA, the solar industry alone installed a record 1,855 megawatts of PV in 2011; double the previous year’s record of 887 megawatts. Wind’s success must also be noted growing 31% with 6.8 gigawatts connected to the grid from new turbines.

These installation numbers aren’t necessarily indicative of the future of renewable energy, however. In reality, there aren’t enough new renewable projects being contracted to keep pace with the installation progress we’re seeing now. In fact, the construction we’re seeing today is a result of power purchase agreements (PPAs) signed several years ago (as it takes between two and five years to complete them). Now the flow of new PPAs being signed has slowed dramatically, and new renewable projects will inevitably crawl to a halt in the next half of the decade.

There are a few reasons this is happening, one notable one being this is an election year and no one wants to appear too extreme (though the thought of Newt Gingrich getting extreme on renewable energy makes me laugh out loud). But the huge obstacle renewable energy is facing right now is natural gas and the unnaturally low prices fracking has been able to achieve. Even though the cost of solar and wind has dropped (and is the lowest it’s ever been), historically low natural gas prices make it appear as though the gap between fossil fuels and renewables is much larger than it actually is.

Policy makers don’t want to choose anything other than gas that could increase costs to rate payers, putting renewable energy advocates in a bit of a predicament–vehemently opposing natural gas in favor of renewables makes it seem like they support increased costs for the rate payers.

An article in Forbes suggests proponents for renewables should embrace natural gas because of its affordability and its clean(ish) nature (its less polluting than coal) instead of trying to argue against it. Though I think this is the route energy will ultimately take, I don’t think it’s the best course of action.

Natural gas costs aren’t sustainable, and they will inevitably rise. Relying on natural gas only perpetuates our society’s fossil fuel driven mind set and won’t help to drive down the costs of renewable energy to something rate payers across the board find attractive.

We need to achieve a clean source of energy that’s sustainable in terms of both supply and cost. Renewable energy contracts and power purchase agreements need to pick up speed lest our clean energy future gets muddled by natural gas.

Renewable Energy Fact Sheet

It’s fairly easy to make renewable energy look like a pipe dream, and misguided attacks on clean energy is doing just that: making renewables look too costly, too sporadic; not merited because it’s not competitive with fossil fuels, or that it won’t create jobs.

These petty strikes against the renewable energy industry don’t even remotely mesh with what we know is true about clean energy, and Think Progress recently published an article pointing out what you really need to know about the value of renewable energy.

1. Clean energy is competitive with other types of energy: Renewable energy is affordable now. Not tomorrow, not next year. Now. Even with the price of natural gas being inordinately low, these cheap prices are unsustainable, like any nonrenewable resource,  supplies will dwindle, and prices will rise. But renewable is staying competitive: with the help of bigger turbines, and increased reliability, some wind developers are signing power-purchase agreements in the 3 cents a kilowatt-hour range, which is far cheaper than any other new power source. The same industry maturity is occurring in solar with California solar developers signing contracts for power costing less than that of a natural gas plant.

2. Clean energy creates more jobs than fossil fuels: Renewable energy job creation outstrips fossil fuels 3 to 1. Not only does the renewable energy sector create more jobs, they create better jobs: twice as many medium to high credentialed jobs are being created in the clean energy economy with wages being about 13% higher, and almost half of these jobs employ workers with less than a four year college degree. Aside from these facts, the clean energy industry is actually growing by a rate of 8.3% which is more than can be said about the overall economy.

3. Clean energy improves grid reliability: Yes, it’s true that if the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining then power isn’t going to be generated. But, that doesn’t mean that renewable energy isn’t a viable option for large scale power production. For instance, predictability of wind power would be easier to manage if there was more of it and energy could be delivered without interruption to the grid. Any additional costs for backup generation would be small (less than 10%) and would have little to no effect on consumer power costs.

4. Fossil Fuels have gotten 75 times more subsidies than clean energy: From 1994-2009 the fossil fuel industry received $446.96 billion in subsidies where as in that same time frame renewable energy received $5.93 billion. A study showed that in the early years of the fossil fuel industry, oil and gas producers received federal subsidies making up one half of a percent of the budget. This amount may seem small, but compare that with the one tenth of a percent of federal spending that’s used for renewables. If more subsidies were dedicated to renewable energy instead of the fossil fuel industry, clean energy would become even more cost effective than it is now.

Renewable energy could be an engine for economic growth and a pathway into a sustainable future, but false information that undervalues its potential could really set up road blocks. It’s important to realize the merit behind renewable energy, not only is it affordable and cost effective, but we can make it reliable on a large scale while creating jobs and with more investments from the federal government, we can more forward into a clean energy future.

The Urgency For Innovation

Innovation is an interesting word. It means introducing something new or different. Depending on what side of the political line you live on, innovation will most likely mean something drastically different than on the other side of the line.

To some, innovation means unconventional gas, tar sands, oil shale. These people most likely believe global warming is a myth, and may even be under the impression that Obama is pushing a “phony theology” on the American people.

On the other hand, innovation means finding new sources of clean, sustainable forms of energy. This group is most likely concerned with maintaining finite resources and keeping atmospheric greenhouse gas levels at bay.

Of course, depending on what side you’re standing on, the other seems to be in the wrong, but in either case the word “innovation” is becoming a source of contention. At present one innovation Obama is being assaulted over is research on algae-based biofuels.

Algae-based biofuels are like any other biofuel whose energy is made from biological carbon fixation. Unlike some biofuels, like bioethanol, which needs a lot of prime land space, algal fuels grow quickly and thrive in any type of water from seawater to sewage. A recent study by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory reports that the use of algal-biofuels could replace as much as 17% of U.S. oil imports. With exorbitantly high oil prices and energy security looming, it seems the natural progression of innovation is to invest money into researching the plausibility of algal fuels. Unfortunately, now Republican’s are launching an attack on this “goofy gas”, touting Obama’s $14 million offer towards “weird” algal fuel research.

While the cost of renewable energy (wind, solar, biofuels) is dropping, the technology to improve extraction of fossil fuels is improving. Now, instead of retiring oil fields or strip mined mountains, we’re able to suck every last drop of oil from the ground and dig for every last kernel of coal. Necessity fuels innovation. And right now the urgency to make a drastic shift to a non-fossil fuel based society doesn’t exist.

Even if there was urgency to switch from conventional sources of oil to renewables, supplies of tar sands still exist and are considered innovative enough to some, leaving clean energy pushed to the side once more. The fact the clean energy isn’t being associated with the need to deter the impacts of climate change–not to mention that climate change isn’t being mentioned at all–isn’t putting enough weight on how important clean, renewable energy is to our future.

In the past, necessity has spurred innovation. Right now we’re not forced to come up with an energy source on the fly, but at the same time that seems to be deminishing research of potential [innovative] fuel sources outside of fossil fuels. Somehow, we need to create an urgency to switch from fossil fuels to renewable resources, investing money into all sources, no matter how “weird” they may be.

Will Congress Give Renewable Energy The Support It Needs?

Between innovative technologies and years of subsidies, the cost of wind and solar power has dropped dramatically–almost to the point where these industries are close to delivering cleaner electricity at prices competitive to fossil fuel generated power.

It’s important to note, though the renewable energy industry is close to offering competitive rates, they’re not there yet and wind and solar companies are telling congress they can’t be truly competitive without a few more years of government support. With Obama giving their efforts a boost by proposing a package of tax credits for renewable power and manufacturers, you would think we’d be well on our way to aiding these industries.

Unfortunately, there is little enthusiasm for renewable energy subsidies in Washington. Concerns about the overall deficit and tax payer’s losses on the Solyndra debacle have marred images of pouring billions into the renewable energy industry.

The wind and solar industries argue that there is less risk with the tax breaks they are seeking–tax credits wouldn’t be handed out willy nilly, but taken only by businesses that are already up and running–leaving taxpayers less likely being stuck subsidizing a drowning company. These tax breaks would create jobs while increasing domestically produced, clean energy. The renewable energy industry isn’t hiding the fact without new breaks, they will be forced to scale back production and eliminate jobs in an already starved economy.

Federal incentives have helped renewable energy use to almost double, said Obama while at Buckley Air Force Base in Colorado in an effort to support clean energy projects as a way to help foster energy independence and employment. A one year extension of the 1603 tax grant (a program which allows renewable energy companies to get 30% of the cost of a new project back as a cash grant once completed), would create 37,000 solar jobs in 2012, according to EuPD Research.

Lobbyists for both the wind and solar industry are pushing for tax breaks to be passed quickly, and are trying to tack on an extension of the payroll tax cut as well (taxes paid by employees and self employed lowered from 6.2% to 4.2%), as it is coming to an end in February.

Of course it’s all up in the air what Congress will actually decide. It may end up that Republicans will use the recently postponed Keystone XL oil pipeline as a bargaining chip to approve the renewable energy credits. Which would be crafty, and most likely not appreciated by the renewable energy sector and environmentalists alike, but that’s a different story.

As it is, oil’s been subsidized for almost a century, getting $41 billion annually, with renewables ranging about $6 billion–and trust me that has not been going on for a century. It’s time to stop sinking money into a fuel supply that’s diminishing, and focus on tax breaks to increase renewable energy that will lessen our foreign fuel dependence, bring manufacturing back to the states, create jobs, and focus on getting energy from a source that’s not environmentally destructive.

Though support for subsidies is dwindling, it’s important that energy tax breaks be granted to wind and solar companies to even the playing field between renewable energy and fossil fuels. Until it is, renewable energy won’t make any headway.