Solar Power + Sea Water = Sahara Forest

by Tina Casey

The folks over at Sahara Forest Project have just alerted the Twitterverse that their new pilot facility in Qatar is good to go, and since we’ve been following that project since 2008 we’ll jump at the chance to update you on its progress from high concept to working hardware.

Sahara Forest concept courtesy of Sahara Forest Project.
Renewable Energy. Solar Power. Reverse desertification. A new solar power plant in Qatar uses solar technology to cool the desert sand, remove some of the salt from seawater and grow salt tolerant plants in one of the hottest deserts in the world. Plenty of surplus solar power is created by the power plant which is then sold to local utility companies. Image courtesy of Sahara Forest Project.

The idea behind Sahara Forest dovetails with the solutions we saw on a recent technology tour of Israel (sponsored by the organization Kinetis), namely, when you have several problems going on at once, mash them up together and see what happens.

In this case we’re talking about too much salt, too much sun, and not enough soil and water for farming. Israel found the key to the solution in brackish aquifer water, and Sahara Forest has come up with its own twist.

The Sahara Forest Project

When Sahara Forest first came across CleanTechnica’s radar in 2008, we weighed in slightly over to the skeptical side, given the cost of solar power compared to other desert farming practices:

Of course, deserts can also produce lush vegetation using permaculture farming practices that are much cheaper to implement. But if countries are willing to invest in the Sahara Forest Project, more power to them—literally.

When we dropped in again in 2012 the idea of large scale solar powered greenhouses was beginning to gel, and right around this time last year we noticed that things were really starting to take off at the Qatar pilot plant:

Aside from the technology itself, one thing that stands out about the project is the speed with which it happened. Once all the agreements were signed, construction began early last year and was completed within a year.

The basic idea behind Sahara Forest is that solar power could be used to evaporate seawater for a freshwater source, and seawater could also pull double duty as a coolant for the greenhouses.

So far Sahara Forest has reported that its Qatar greenhouses are competitive with European yields, while using half the water of conventional greenhouses in the region.

Another key strategy is to use evaporative hedges to cool outdoor growing zones, and that has also proven effective. Together, both the indoor and outdoor cooling strategies enable the facility’s concentrated solar power plant to operate without cooling towers.

You can get many more details, including results from the algae operation, from the Qatar Pilot Plant Report.

The Qatar Sahara Forest Pilot Plant

Since last year, Sahara Forest and its partners have achieved their goals on the way to officially rolling out the facility to the public, and in particular to United Nations climate delegates.

The main hurdle was running the Qatar pilot plant through its paces during extreme summertime conditions.

With that under its belt, Sahara Forest is confident that the facility is fully functional and demonstrates the potential for ramping up to commercial scale while also contributing to a knowledge base for future enhancements. In addition to the farming operation itself, the Qatar plant also hosts R&D facilities for desert agriculture with a focus on algae and halophyte (salt loving plants) cultivation, alongside its seawater-cooled greenhouses and solar power plants.

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This article, New Math: Solar Power + Salt Water = Sahara Forest, is syndicated from Clean Technica and is posted here with permission.

About the Author

Renewable Energy. Solar Power. Tina CaseyTina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+

US Air Force completes biggest military Solar power installation

by Tina Casey.

It looks like the Air Force wins the week in terms of military renewable energy projects. The biggest military solar power plant in the US has just been completed at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona, a 16.4 megawatt installation that is expected to save about $500,000 in electricity costs yearly and provide about 35 percent of the base’s electricity needs.

Renewable Energy at Davis Monthan Air Force base
Renewable Energy. Solar PV powers Davis Monthan Air Force base.

If you’re keeping score at home, the new military solar power plant nudges the Air Force ahead of the Army, at least for now. Earlier this week, the Army Corps of Engineers and Energy Initiatives Task Force announced 15 contracts for military solar power, which is pretty impressive, but that was a preliminary step involving the formation of a pool of eligible bidders for future projects.

Chevron…There They Go Again

Now here’s something interesting. One of those 15 winning Army contracts went to Chevron Energy Solutions, which is also part of the public-private partnership that went into building the new solar power plant at Davis-Monthan AFB.

Chevron Energy Solutions is under the Chevron umbrella. Chevron recently made news for giving away free pizza coupons after a massive gas line explosion in Pennsylvania, but Chevron Energy Solutions has been running hard on the solar track with a focus on government and school facilities.

Another partner in the project is Macquarie Infrastructure Company, which also has fossil fuel interests along with a range of other infrastructure operations. Like Chevron it has diversified into renewable energy, through MIC Solar Energy Holdings.

A more familiar name in the solar business, SunEdison, constructed and will manage the new solar power plant under contract with MIC Solar.

For the record, the installation itself consists of 57,000 SunEdison MEMC Silvantis™ solar modules. They are mounted on single-axis trackers that pivot to take best advantage of the sun’s position throughout the day.

Davis-Monthan AFB solar array. Image courtesy of Tucson Sentinel
Renewable Energy at Davis-Monthan Air Force base. This solar array of 16.4MW will power up to 16,400 homes. Image courtesy: Tucson Sentinel

Also for the record, the project was financed by North American Development Bank, which was set up by the US and Mexico to develop infrastructure projects that benefit the environment along the border.

The new project enables Davis-Monthan to avoid about 17,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide, 11 metric tons of nitrogen oxides, and 17 metric tons of sulfur dioxide annually.

It was built under a power purchase agreement with no up-front cost to the Air Force, so no taxpayers were harmed in the making of this renewable energy project.

Air Force Solar Power

Now let’s take a look at how the new solar installation plays into the Davis-Monthan mission, which is this:

Deploy, employ, support, and sustain attack airpower in support of Combatant Commanders anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice. Train the finest attack pilots for the Combat Air Forces. Provide every member of Team D-M with responsive, tailored, mission-focused base support.


At first glance there’s not much of an overlap there, but now take a look at the Davis-Monthan vision:

A premier Fighter Wing comprised of resilient Warrior Airmen, armed with precise tools and training; powered by a culture of leadership and innovation; prepared to provide responsive combat airpower which exceeds Combatant Command expectations for excellence.

And here is a snippet from the base’s “Green in the Desert” program demonstrating how the culture of leadership and innovation dovetails with clean energy:

…the DM Energy Team has begun redeveloping the base’s strategy with high-tech solutions to meet Air Force wide mandates in four areas: new technology, strategic partnerships, energy awareness, and focus on the basics. With innovation and energy consciousness in every Airman’s life, we can meet the Air Force goal to “Think green, build green, and fly blue.”

It’s also worth noting that Davis-Monthan is one of those military facilities transitioning out of coal power and into renewable energy (Fort Drum in New York is another recent example).

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This article, US Air Force Scores Biggest Ever Military Solar Power Plant, is syndicated from Clean Technica and is posted here with permission.

About the Author

Renewable Energy. Tina CaseyTina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

Iowa: The #1 Solar Utility in America. Iowa? Kudos to Iowa!

by John Farrell.

It may be one of the oldest cooperative utilities in the country, but in the next six months, Farmers Electric Cooperative (FEC) of southeastern Iowa will be leading the nation in this 21st century energy source. Upon completion of a new solar array, the 640-member cooperative will have over 1,500 Watts of solar per customer on their system, nearly double the #2 utility. It’s also the most reliable utility in Iowa. How can a small, member-owned utility be “America’s Most Progressive Utility“?

Find out in this interview with FEC Manager Warren McKenna, recorded via Skype, on November 18, 2013.

Local Energy Rules podcast: Play in new window | Download | Embed

Flexibility

Unlike many small cooperative or municipal utilities, Farmers Electric Cooperative only buys 30% of its energy on long-term contracts. Instead, McKenna explains, they buy power on the spot market, using local power generation and demand management to avoid price spikes. This leaves them open to buying power from local generators, especially solar.

Creativity

FEC hasn’t limited itself to just one strategy for adding solar to the grid. In fact, they don’t even have net metering, the most common policy for connecting small-scale solar projects.

Instead, they have a feed-in tariff at pays 20¢ per kilowatt-hour (kWh) for solar energy, as long as it’s 25% or less of a customer’s own use. For solar energy produced that is between 25 and 100% of a customer’s monthly usage, customers still get 12.5¢ per kWh (the retail electricity rate for residential customers). Surplus generation is purchased by the utility at 6¢ per kWh.  Participating customers still buy all their electricity from the utility

FEC also has a 25 kW community solar project, selling shares to new customers in phase 2 for just $1.63 per Watt. Current participants can buy additional panels for $2 per Watt.

Finally, the cooperative has also commissioned a new 750 kW solar array which will sell power to the utility for its first 10 years, and the revert to cooperative ownership thereafter.

Participation

Since it’s a cooperative, technically every FEC member is an owner in a local solar project. But ignoring that for the moment, about 20% of the cooperative’s members either have their own solar array, own shares in the community solar project, or participate in the Green Power Project (a $3 per month green pricing program for purchasing local renewable energy).

Replicable?

The big question is, could your local utility do what Farmers Electric is doing?  If your utility happens to be locally owned, says McKenna. Cooperatives are often very open to comments from their members, and if not, you can run for the board.  Municipal utilities are overseen by elected officials, who are always looking for examples of strategies to increase local jobs, particularly from clean energy.

It’s inspiring to see what FEC has accomplished, regardless.  Most of the greenest utilities in the U.S. are among the largest, and Farmers Electric shows that you don’t have to be a big utility to do big things with locally owned renewable energy.

This is the 12th edition of Local Energy Rules, an ILSR podcast with Senior Researcher John Farrell that shares powerful stories of successful local renewable energy and exposes the policy and practical barriers to its expansion. Other than his immediate family, the audience is primarily researchers, grassroots organizers, and grasstops policy wonks who want vivid examples of how local renewable energy can power local economies.

It is published twice monthly, on 1st and 3rd Thursday.  Click to subscribe to the podcast: iTunes or RSS/XML

Sign up for new podcast notifications and weekly email updates from ILSR’s energy program!

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This article, The #1 Solar Utility Is In…Iowa?, is syndicated from Clean Technica and is posted here with permission.

About the Author

Renewable Energy. John Farrell.John Farrell directs the Energy Self-Reliant States and Communities program at ILSR and he focuses on energy policy developments that best expand the benefits of local ownership and dispersed generation of renewable energy. His latest paper, Democratizing the Electricity System, describes how to blast the roadblocks to distributed renewable energy generation, and how such small-scale renewable energy projects are the key to the biggest strides in renewable energy development.   Farrell also authored the landmark report Energy Self-Reliant States, which serves as the definitive energy atlas for the United States, detailing the state-by-state renewable electricity generation potential. Farrell regularly provides discussion and analysis of distributed renewable energy policy on his blog, Energy Self-Reliant States (energyselfreliantstates.org), and articles are regularly syndicated on Grist and Renewable Energy World.   John Farrell can also be found on Twitter @johnffarrell, or at jfarrell@ilsr.org.

Ergon Says Renewables And Batteries May Be Cheaper Than Grid

by Giles Parkinson

.

Originally published on RenewEconomy

Ergon Energy, which operates the sprawling, regional electricity network that covers 97 per cent of Queensland, has suggested that within the next decade renewables and battery storage will be cheaper for domestic consumers than grid power.

The operator of 160,000kms of power lines, and a million power poles, says it is moving away from the traditional “poles and wires” approach to investment, but it warns that current subsidies to the cost of centralised generation are delaying innovation and investment in new technologies and systems.

“Will we see a time in the next decade where renewables and battery storage will be cheaper than grid power for the domestic consumer?”  Ergon Energy chairman Malcolm Hall-Brown wrote in the company’s annual report. “Queensland’s current uniform tariff may delay some alternatives but innovation is definitely accelerating in the renewable market.”

The Queensland government spent $600 million in 2012/13 under its bridging the gap between the cost of delivering coal and gas fired generation to regional centres and what it charges consumers. That taxpayer-funded subsidy equates to $850 per customer.

Even with this cap on consumer bills, and the removal of the 44c/kWh feed in tariff,  Ergon Energy CEO Ian McLeod says increasing numbers of householders were looking to solar for certainty and control over costs.

“The network’s role is transitioning from a transporter of electricity to a market enabler, Our customers are increasingly becoming producers selling energy into the grid while changing their consumption behaviours to maximise their return on investment – 14% of households in regional Queensland now have solar,” he says in the report.

The Ergon Energy annual report came out on the same day as that of state-owned generator Stanwell Corp, which blamed the proliferation of rooftop solar for declining wholesale prices and causing it to run at a loss. It also came days after Energex, which looks after the network operations in south-east Queensland, blamed solar for making its economic model unsustainable.

The difference in tone in the reports of Ergon Energy and Energex could not have been more marked. Where Energex – and most other network operators in Australia for that matter, see only doom, Ergon Energy sees opportunity, in the same way as Vector in New Zealand.

“Like Bob Dylan’s immortal classic ‘The Times They Are a-Changin’ so is the purpose of the electricity distribution network,” McLeod writes in the annual report.

McLeod noted that capital investment and technology is now flowing downstream into the customer installations – away from traditional regulated infrastructure to unregulated solutions funded by customers or third parties.

“Alternative energy solutions will set a market-based benchmark in pricing as they become increasingly technically and commercially viable.

.ergon-household-use

“In this environment the network is no longer a monopoly as it delivers a single commodity that can and is already being supplied via other means. This change means our value proposition needs to shift to enable a strong market for energy, storage and demand management solutions, while still providing a safe, secure and reliable supply.”

McLeod recognised that half the cost of electricity in Queensland came from the investment in poles and wires, and the combined impact of higher prices, economic conditions, greater awareness of energy efficiency and the availability of technologies like solar had caused underlying and peak demand to fall significantly over the last three years.

Average household demand from the $12 billion grid that Ergon Energy operates fell 5 per cent in the past year alone, and by 15 per cent over four years, to 6,811kWh per household. Overall demand fell slightly, to 15,097GWh, but again was well below forecasts.

Ergon Energy says it has responded by cutting its spending program by $1.5 billion, has streamlined its workforce and had achieved significant peak demand reductions – and avoided infrastructure investment, through demand management and demand response mechanisms.

.ergon-solar-install

McLeod says Ergon Energy connected another 32,000 solar PV systems to the network, taking its total to 78,000 and the proportion of homes to 14 per cent. It now has 255MW on its network. Added to Energex total of 675MW, the 44MW of solar thermal to be added soon at Kogan Creek and additions in last two and coming months, that will take the state’s total to over 1GW.

McLeod says the rate of take-up of solar remains a challenge for the network operator, because “thin grids” are generally more vulnerable to voltage issues. “Historically, the network was not designed for electricity to flow intermittently in both directions,” he said.

Ergon was looking at technical solutions, but he noted the success of Magnetic Island, where the Solar City project had cut demand on the island by 16 per cent and deferred the need for a costly third submarine cable to the island by at least eight years. “The project demonstrated that a comprehensive community engagement program can drive real change to the benefit of customers, electricity utilities and the environment,” he said.

Ergon is also looking at electric Vehicles, which could create similar challenges to solar if sales of EVs suddenly escalated. It noted that a trial of using five Mitsubishi i-MiEVs in Townsville had shown that fuel costs were dramatically lower $4.81 per 100km vs. $11.54 for a petrol car), and had given valuable insight on appropriate tariffs to encourage charging at off-peak periods.

McLeod signalled that there was likely to be a change in tariffs, along the lines discussed in these pages,here, here, and here. “We see great opportunity in moving from charging largely based on the amount of electricity used to mechanisms that look at the capacity a customer requires from the network at any given time.”

The options include include mechanisms such as time-of-use tariffs, kVA denominated demand charges and critical peak pricing. Our aim is to spread the electricity load more evenly, manage growth in peak demand and avoid spending millions of dollars in asset augmentation or reinforcement; which would ultimately have been paid for by our customers.”

Despite Ergon Energy’s embrace of solar, new technologies, and new thinking, the annual report also revealed that it had invested little in renewables to meet the national renewable energy target.

It sourced only 7 per cent of its renewable energy obligations (Ergon also operates a retailer) through its own production, and bought renewable energy certificates to meet the remaining obligations. Most of these would have been bought from projects in other states. RenewEconomy has been told that Ergon Energy had been instructed not to invest in large-scale renewables (Queensland does not have any apart from the 20-turbine Windy Hill installation and some bagasse project, but has not been able to confirm that.

There was also surprisingly little renewable energy generation in remote areas not connected to the grid. Ergon used 712,658 gigajoules of diesel generation during the year, and only 671GJ – less than 0.1 per cent – from renewables.

.ergon-solar-domadgee

It says it is looking to increase its renewable capacity to defray the volatile diesel fuel prices and the environmental impacts. Interestingly, it is easier to defray fossil fuel costs in remote locations than on the main grid. A new 264kW solar PV system at Doomadgee (pictured) has been introduced without affecting stability and can be expanded to 2MW.

It is looking at increasing its wind generation on Thursday island, where two turbines supplement diesel, and it is still looking at options to replace its ageing geothermal power station at Birdsville.

While Ergon Energy’s attitude to the grid and new technology opportunities is welcome, and like a beacon in the smog in Australia, it is not entirely clear that it will be able to continue with this vision. The Queensland government has announced it wants to merge Ergon Energy and Energex and bring them under one management. Whether that single management structure reflects backward thinking or forward is not yet clear.

(Note: This story was corrected from first edition to say Windy Hill had 20 turbines, not four).

 

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This article, Ergon Says Renewables And Batteries May Be Cheaper Than Grid, is syndicated from Clean Technica and is posted here with permission.

 

About the Author

Giles Parkinson is the founding editor of RenewEconomy.com.au, an Australian-based website that provides news and analysis on cleantech, carbon, and climate issues. Giles is based in Sydney and is watching the (slow, but quickening) transformation of Australia’s energy grid with great interest.

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