13 Brilliant Energy Breakthroughs of 2013

by Guest Contributor Kiley Kroh.

Originally published on ThinkProgress.

While the news about climate change seems to get worse every day, the rapidly improving technology, declining costs, and increasing accessibility of clean energy are the true bright spots in the march towards a zero-carbon future. 2013 had more clean energy milestones than we could fit on one page, but here are thirteen of the key breakthroughs that happened this year.

1. Using salt to keep producing solar power even when the sun goes down. Helped along by the Department of Energy’s loan program, Solana’s massive 280 megawatt (MW) solar plant came online in Arizona this October, with one unique distinction: the plant will use a ‘salt battery’ that will allow it to keep generating electricity even when the sun isn’t shining. Not only is this a first for the United States in terms of thermal energy storage, the Solana plant is also the largest in the world to use to use parabolic trough mirrors to concentrate solar energy.

2. Electric vehicle batteries that can also power buildings.

Nissan Leaf shows Vehicle to Grid technology testing
Nissan’s groundbreaking ‘Vehicle-To-Building‘ technology will enable companies to regulate electricity by tapping into EV’s plugged into their parking areas. Image Credit: Nissan Leaf via Shutterstock.

Nissan’s groundbreaking ‘Vehicle-To-Building‘ technology will enable companies to regulate their electricity needs by tapping into EV’s plugged into their garages during times of peak demand. Then, when demand is low, electricity flows back to the vehicles, ensuring they’re charged for the drive home. With Nissan’s system, up to six electric vehicles can be plugged into a building at one time. As more forms renewable energy is added to the grid, storage innovations like this will help them all work together to provide reliable power.

3. The next generation of wind turbines is a game changer. May of 2013 brought the arrival of GE’s Brilliant line of wind turbines, which bring two technologies within the turbines to address storage and intermittency concerns. An “industrial internet” communicates with grid operators, to predict wind availability and power needs, and to optimally position the turbine. Grid-scale batteries built into the turbines store power when the wind is blowing but the electricity isn’t needed — then feed it into the grid as demand comes along, smoothing out fluctuations in electricity supply. It’s a more efficient solution to demand peaks than fossil fuel plants, making it attractive even from a purely business aspect. Fifty-nine of the turbines are headed for Michigan, and two more will arrive in Texas.

4. Solar electricity hits grid parity with coal. A single solar photovoltaic (PV) cell cost $76.67 per watt back in 1977, then fell off a cliff. Bloomberg Energy Finance forecast the price would reach $0.74 per watt in 2013 and as of the first quarter of this year, they were actually selling for $0.64 per watt. That cuts down on solar’s installation costs — and since the sunlight is free, lower installation costs mean lower electricity prices. And in 2013, they hit grid parity with coal: in February, a southwestern utility, agreed to purchase electricity from a New Mexico solar project for less than the going rate for a new coal plant. Unsubsidized solar power reached grid parity in countries such as Italy and India. And solar installations have boomed worldwide and here in America, as the lower module costs have drivendown installation prices.

5. Advancing renewable energy from ocean waves. With the nation’s first commercial, grid-connected underwater tidal turbine successfully generating renewable energy off the coast of Maine for a year, the Ocean Renewable Power Company (ORPC) has its sights set on big growth. The project has invested more than $21 million into the Maine economy and an environmental assessment in March found no detrimental impact on the marine environment. With help from the Department of Energy, the project is set to deploy two more devices in 2014. In November, ORPC was chosen to manage a wave-energy conversion project in remote Yakutat, Alaska. And a Japanese delegation visited the project this year as the country seeks to produce 30 percent of its total power offshore by 2030.

6. Harnessing ocean waves to produce fresh water.

This year saw the announcement of Carnegie Wave Energy’s upcoming desalination plant near Perth, Australia. It will use the company’s underwater buoy technology to harness ocean wave force to pressurize the water, cutting out the fossil-fuel-powered electric pumps that usually force water through the membrane in the desalination process. The resulting system — “a world first” — will be carbon-free, and efficient in terms of both energy and cost. Plan details were completed in October, the manufacturing contract was awarded in November, and when it’s done, the plant will supply 55 billion litters of fresh drinking water per year.

7. Ultra-thin solar cells that break efficiency records. Conversion efficiency is the amount of light hitting the solar cell that’s actually changed into electricity, and it’s typically 18.7 percent and 24 percent. But Alta Devices, a Silicon Valley solar manufacturer, set a new record of 30.8 percent conversion efficiency this year. Its method is more expensive, but the result is a durable and extremely thin solar cell that can generate a lot of electricity from a small surface area. That makes Alta’s cells perfect for small and portable electronic devices like smartphones and tablets, and the company is in discussions to apply them to mobile phones, smoke detectors, door alarms, computer watches, remote controls, and more.

8. Batteries that are safer, lighter, and store more power. Abundant and cost-effective storage technology will be crucial for a clean energy economy — no where more so than with electric cars. But right now batteries don’t always hold enough charge to power automobiles for extended periods, and they add significantly to bulk and cost. But at the start of 2013, researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory successfully demonstrated a new lithium-ion battery technology that can store far more power in a much smaller size, and that’s safer and less prone to shorts. They used nanotechnology to create an electrolyte that’s solid, ultra-thin, and porous, and they also combined the approach with lithium-sulfur battery technology, which could further enhance cost-effectiveness.

9. New age offshore wind turbines that float. Offshore areas are prime real estate for wind farms, but standard turbines require lots of construction and are limited to waters 60 meters deep or less. But Statoil, the Norwegian-based oil and gas company, began work this year on a hub of floating wind turbines off the coast of Scotland. The turbines merely require a few cables to keep them anchored, and can be placed in water up to 700 meters. That could vastly expand the amount of economically practical offshore wind power. The hub off Scotland will be the largest floating wind farm in the world — and two floating turbines are planned off the coast of Fukushima, Japan, along with the world’s first floating electrical substation.

10. Cutting electricity bills with direct current power.

New USB technology
New USB technology will be able to deliver 100 watts of power, spreading DC power to more low voltage personal electronics.

Alternating current (AC), rather than direct current (DC) is the dominant standard for electricity use. But DC current has its own advantages: its cheap, efficient, works better with solar panels and wind turbines, and doesn’t require adapters that waste energy as heat. Facebook, JPMorgan, Sprint, Boeing, and Bank of America have all built datacenters that rely on DC power, since DC-powered datacenters are 20 percent more efficient, cost 30 percent less, and require 25 to 40 percent less floorspace. On the residential level, new USB technology will soon be able to deliver 100 watts of power, spreading DC power to ever more low voltage personal electronics, and saving homes in efficiency costs in their electricity bill.

11. Commercial production of clean energy from plant waste is finally here. Ethanol derived from corn, once held up as a climate-friendly alternative to gasoline, is under increasing fire. Many experts believe it drives up food prices, and studies disagree on whether it actually releases any less carbon dioxide when its full life cycle is accounted for. Cellulosic biofuels, promise to get around those hurdles, and 2013 may be when the industry finally turned the corner. INOES Bio’s cellulosic ethanol plant in Florida and KiOR’s cellulosic plant in Mississippi began commercial production this year. Two more cellulosic plants are headed for Iowa, and yet another’s being constructed in Kansas. The industry says 2014′s proposed cellulosic fuel mandate of 17 million gallons will be easily met.

12. Innovative financing bringing clean energy to more people. In DC, the first ever property-assessed clean energy (PACE) project allows investments in efficiency and renewables to be repaid through a special tax levied on the property, which lowers the risk for owners. Crowdfunding for clean energy projects made major strides bringing decentralized renewable energy to more people — particularly the world’s poor — and Solar Mosaic is pioneering crowdfunding to pool community investments in solar in the United States. California figured out how to allow customers who aren’t property owners or who don’t have a suitable roof for solar — that’s 75 percent of the state — to nonetheless purchase up to 100 percent clean energy for their home or business. Minnesota advanced its community solar gardens program, modeled after Colorado’s successful initiative. And Washington, DC voted to bring in virtual net metering, which allows people to buy a portion of a larger solar or wind project, and then have their portion of the electricity sold or credited back to the grid on their behalf, reducing the bill.

13. Wind power is now competitive with fossil fuels. “We’re now seeing power agreements being signed with wind farms at as low as $25 per megawatt-hour,” Stephen Byrd, Morgan Stanley’s Head of North American Equity Research for Power & Utilities and Clean Energy, told the Columbia Energy Symposium in late November. Byrd explained that wind’s ongoing variable costs are negligible, which means an owner can bring down the cost of power purchase agreements by spreading the up-front investment over as many units as possible. As a result, larger wind farms in the Midwest are confronting coal plants in the Powder River Basin with “fairly vicious competition.” And even without the production tax credit, wind can still undercut many natural gas plants. A clear sign of its viability, wind power currently meets 25 percent of Iowa’s energy needs and is projected to reach a whopping 50 percent by 2018.

This article, 13 Huge Clean Energy Breakthroughs Of 2013, is syndicated from Clean Technica and is posted here with permission.

10 Top Cleantech and Environment Stories From September

by David L Roberts


Image Credit: Solar panel, wind turbine & globe via Shutterstock

Here’s my latest monthly report of the “Top 10” most compelling non-CleanTechnica clean energy and environment-related news stories encountered last month. These articles may have an impact on your business, your life, and the world we live in. Or, at the very least, might surprise you about what’s going on.

Over a thousand articles were reviewed across various energy platforms, 30+ were found to be of particular interest and are available in my newsletter upon request. The 10 most interesting to me are shown here, most important posted last.

10. Here’s a report of renewable energy platforms for 2011 and 2012, highlighting the top wind and solar companies and the top consuming countries. In summary, renewables are entering a 5-year period of essential innovation, consolidation, and bankruptcies. Late bond payments and defaults on $8.4B in debt abound for recent Chinese leaders: Suntech, LDK, GCL, ZK and Yingli.

9. GlobalData reports that renewable energy sources will account for 20% of the global energy mix by 2030, with natural gas rapidly transitioning, but with solar thermal being the predominant renewable.

8. A study of the 6000 power plants in the US reports that the “50 dirtiest” produce 33% of US GHG emissions, but only 16% of the electricity. They account for 2% of the global GHG total and, if they were a country, would produce more than Canada, Germany, and North Korea. They are located in coal-lobbying states of Alabama, Missouri, Texas, and Georgia.

7. There’s more scientific evidence that manmade contributions to global warming are responsible for many recent extreme weather events. The report states that as GHG emissions and global temps increase, agricultural yields will decline; storm severity will worsen, producing flooding; droughts will extend; and forest fire burning acreage will increase. Germany’s Environment Minister claims humans are the primary cause of global warming.

6. New “leaked” report from climate watchdog IPCC, challenges the direct relationship between atmospheric CO2 and global temperature warming. Whereas CO2 levels have increased 1997-2012, global temps (they say) have risen at a quarter of the rate predicted in 2007, leading to a renewed debate about climate change correlations. Stay tuned, as this could be huge!

5. According to Climate Central, the current amount of climate warming CO2 in the atmosphere has already “locked in” over 4 feet of rising tides along US coastlines by 2100. This will displace over 3 million folks in over 300 communities, most notably Florida, Texas, and the East Coast.

4. Giant Honeywell, a Fortune 100 Co, introduces interface software that enables partner organizations to integrate their energy management (EMS) programs with Honeywell’s Wi-Fi thermostats. Not to be outdone, French energy giant Schneider delves into the home EMS market with its “Wiser” line of hardware and software. Both are principally for the home EMS market with adaptability to smartphones, tablets, or computer.

3. Energy management (EMS) programs that are widely adopted across Europe and the US are finally taking hold in China. Their first formal program is being piloted in industrial Dezhou City between the Dezhou Energy Conservation Center, 52 Chinese industrial companies and the Institute of Industrial Productivity (IIP) — a global company based in DC.

2. Surprisingly, the oil & gas industry accounted for 49% of all the investments in CO2 mitigation technologies 2000-2012. Of the $336B total invested, it breaks out this way: O&G invested $165B ($84B is for shale gas alone), private industry $91B, and the federal govt $79B.


1. The largest fossil fuel company, Exxon/Mobil, admits that global warming is real, that fossil fuels are the main cause, and that society must shift to renewable power sources. Embedded chart shows progression of GHG pollution thru 2100, suggesting we have already reached the point of safe “stabilization.”


Keep your eyes open — and nostrils closed — for developments on this discovery by researchers in Australia. The Mediterranean legume — Biserrula — when fed to livestock, is shown to reduce methane flatulence in livestock by 90%. This is important because livestock are estimated by some researchers to contribute at least 51% of the worlds’ GHG emissions.

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This article, 10 Top Cleantech & Environment Stories From September, is syndicated from Clean Technica and is posted here with permission.

About the Author

David L Roberts is a marketing consultant to renewable energy startups.

U.S. Fuel Subsidies Chart

Image courtesy of Cleantechnica.com
Image courtesy of Cleantechnica.com

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Loading the Climate Dice — MY COMMENT

by John Brian Shannon


It’s always a treat when the world’s leading economist writes a column about the environment — which happens to be one of my favourite topics.

But why is an economist writing about “the great Midwestern drought” presently scorching many of the United States? And, what does economics have in common with the weather, climate and climate-change anyway?

Everything, as it turns out.

Professor of Economics Paul Krugman comments, “This drought has already sent corn prices to their highest level ever.”

Just for the record, corn does not exist in its own universe. If corn prices are at record levels you can bet that other crops are at or near, record highs too. Think of corn as the bellwether for other crops in America. Where corn trends, others follow.

Lack of rainwater to fill creeks, rivers, lakes and even to help restore underground aquifer levels, combined with weeks of relentless heat, define a drought condition.

Corn, a major crop grown in the United States, is used in many different ways. One, low-grade corn called maize is used to feed livestock, and millions of tons of it are produced and consumed each year. Cattle like the taste, its filling and its high sugar levels provide them with plenty of energy, or if they don’t expend enough energy, they eventually turn into nicely-marbled tenderloin. Mmmm…

Two, corn is widely available for consumers and is a tasty summer treat fresh from the field, or it can be frozen or canned.

Three, it is increasingly used by the petroleum industry as a fuel-feedstock. Over six billion litres of ethanol fuel was produced from U.S. corn last year. Not only that, some plastics are manufactured from corn cellulose, for example, many plastic soda-pop bottles are manufactured with 5% corn bio-content.

The thing about corn — it requires huge volumes of water, fertilizer and lots of sunshine. Water must come from the sky to supplement the always insufficient water available on the ground or underground. When it doesn’t get the water it needs, it quickly punishes farmers by dying within a week. End of crop.

Thousands, or even millions of acres of corn which had received months of hard work and expense – all gone within one week.

At that point, thousands of farmers face the end of their year and there is little for them to do except fill out their crop-insurance claim forms, praying they get an amount equal to 49% – 66% of their planned crop gross-revenue.

Which has a downstream effect on the economy, obviously.

If, in the space of one week and at about halfway through the year, you were suddenly forced to accept only about half of your total yearly pay — would your spending patterns change for the balance of the year?

This is how climate-change affects the well-being of a nation and by extension, the world, as Prof. Krugman rightly points out, “If [the drought] continues, it could cause a global food crisis, because the U.S. heartland is still the world’s breadbasket.”

But its not climate-change unless it happens again and again. True fact. One bad year, does not a climate-change make.

Professor Krugman cites a research paper by the world-renowned NASA scientist, Dr. James Hansen, “As documented in a new paper by Dr. Hansen and others, cold summers by historical standards still happen, but rarely, while hot summers have in fact become roughly twice as prevalent. And 9 of the 10 hottest years on record have occurred since 2000.”

Imagine that. Perhaps the climate-deniers can continue to obfuscate for another ten years the growing body of evidence which proves global warming is real. What they might not be able to explain away are the increasing billions of dollars of losses in the U.S. agriculture economy and in other nations which possess highly-accurate crop monitoring systems — including impressive ag-satellite technology it must be said!.

With the many technological achievements including improved crop species, more effective fertilizers/pesticides and astronomically better land management practices, why are our ag-related losses increasing over recent years? Surely we should be facing lower losses with the greater productivity afforded us by employing the latest technologies.

Its time for an economics team to step up and provide this answer, for there will be no fooling accurate ag-statistics and to-the-penny ag-accounting practices. Where is the U.S. Department of Agriculture team dedicated to plotting each year’s crop losses (whether a fully-failed crop, or only partially-damaged by drought) into 2010-equivalent dollars and presenting it to the President for his consideration — and to the media for their informed commentary?

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; “The Market is the perfect, self-correcting machine. It will get to the heart of every matter connected to it.” Though we may not always like what it says, if we choose to listen it can teach us much.

The market informs us about every step along the path of production for every crop and manufactured product. America’s ag-economy has been state-of-the-art for some time now and there is not a cent which is not fully accounted-for. The only unaccounted-for losses these days are climate-related. And almost everyone seems afraid to step up and say so.

John Brian Shannon writes about green energy, sustainable development and economics from British Columbia, Canada. His articles appear in the Arabian Gazette, EcoPoint Asia, EnergyBoom, the Huffington Post, the United Nations Development Programme – and other quality publications.

John believes it is important to assist all levels of government and the business community to find sustainable ways forward for industry and consumers.

Check out his personal blog at: http://johnbrianshannon.com

Check out his economics blog at: https://jbsnews.wordpress.com

Follow John on Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/#!/JBSCanada