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Just under a month ago, on an empty mountain plateau in Andalusia, the last of 600,000 parabolic mirrors were connected, and Andasol, the world's largest solar power station, become operational. It is, as it glints in the Spanish sun, a shining example – literally – of what renewable energy offers.

Big almost beyond belief, it is powerful, clean and looks unlike any power station you could ever imagine. Spread over terrain which covers the equivalent of 210 football pitches, there is nothing to see behind the security fences and drainage ditches but interminable lines of gleaming, eerily silent, parabolic mirrors. They gyrate simultaneously to follow the sun's path through the sky – for all the world like an enormous Star Wars android army awaiting orders from above to destroy the local populace.

The bleak, empty flatlands of the Guadix plateau, 30 miles from Granada, were chosen by the backers of Andasol, a joint venture by four German companies, as the location for their €350m (£293bn) investment because, at 1,100 metres above sea level, Guadix's atmosphere is clearer and less turbulent than lower altitudes. Purely because of that, it captures more solar energy than the entire Saudi Arabian peninsula.

Other plus points include an ample underground spring system, which supplies water for the turbines, as well as 2,000 hours of sunlight per annum. And if a conveniently close high-voltage power line was an indispensable factor, so too was the degree of local government support. For all these reasons, if solar power is going to work anywhere, it's going to work here. But there are clouds on the horizon.

When Rainer Kistner, Andasol's director, talks about business prospects, he can find little cause for celebration. The source of his woes are the so-called feed-in tariffs, the indirect government subsidy which acts as the financial lifeblood for renewable energy projects. They were slashed by half last week in the UK, and, Kistner fears, they face equally dismal prospects in Spain, too.

"In the future, we know that tariffs will go down. Dramatically," Kistner gloomily predicts. "It cannot affect existing power plants" – such as Andasol – "but the government has to give some sort of guarantee to the investors. It can't say it'll pay so many euros per kilowatt hour... for the next 25 years and two years later say 'Sorry, but we'll give you only half of this'."

Spanish and UK solar energy are not alone in facing an imminent crisis. Globally, renewable energy is on the retreat, to the point where last month the Ernst & Young accountancy firm warned that, should the eurozone debt crisis worsen, a climate funding gap of $45bn (£29bn) worldwide could emerge by 2015.

Even if government cuts do not deepen, which is unlikely, the Ernst & Young report claimed that a gap of $22.5bn on investment in renewable energy and subsidies is likely to emerge across 10 leading world economies in less than four years. Among them is the UK where the shortfall is estimated to be $5bn, while in Spain – effectively confirming Kistner's fears – it would be $6bn.

"Continuing economic uncertainty is pushing a low-carbon economy further out of reach," said Juan Costa Climent, Ernst & Young's global climate analyst. And the International Energy Agency's chief economist, Fatih Birol, warned recently in the Spanish newspaper El País that "renewable energies are going through a very difficult period. Countries are cutting subsidies to reduce the [public] deficit. And that is legitimate, but it will have long-term implications."

Andasol's Kistner recognises that renewal energy subsidies have been part of the political discussion on how to reduce Spain's deficit, but he points a finger at the "big electrical companies who would like to lay the blame on renewable energy companies for the increase in price. They've already reduced the tariff for photovoltaic solar energy. The Spanish government right now is nearly bankrupt. And we are living under laws from when the situation was healthy. Our plant should not be affected, but I'm worried about new projects. In a completely liberalised market, there would never be any chance for a new [electricity-producing] technology because the risks are too high."

The real victim of these cuts and the blame games between the electrical companies, as ever, is the environment. While countries such as Canada abandoned the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gas emissions last week, Andasol's production alone prevents nearly 500,000 tons of CO2 from being pumped into the atmosphere per annum. And while some media reports say Andasol's output of 150 megawatts is relatively modest, it still provides enough energy for a city of half a million inhabitants.

Part of the explanation for Andasol's high output is that, rather than using the better-known photovoltaic solar energy system, which directly creates electrical current, its linear solar concentrators in the mirrors absorb the heat. The heat is then transferred and thermally stored in some 30,000 tons of salt – heat which can keep the electricity-producing steam turbines turning for up to eight hours after sunset.

"The challenge for most renewable energy sources is that you have to provide electricity whenever the end- consumer needs it," says Kistner. "A photovoltaic solar power needs the sun, but if you want to watch a football game at 10pm or cook a meal you don't care about that. And storing electricity, rather than storing solar heat, like our power station does, is very expensive."

Given the relentless series of government cuts, it is hardly surprising that those companies still keen to invest in renewables are looking further afield. In North Africa, for example, an international venture called Desertec Industrial Initiative has recently announced plans for a Sahara-wide, €400bn solar energy project, starting in the region of Ouarzazzatte in Morocco in 2015.

Desertec's plans could produce 15 per cent of Europe's electricity by 2050, managing director Paul van Son told the news agency Reuters last month. Space – vital for thermal solar plants which could dwarf even somewhere like Andasol – is hardly lacking in the Sahara, either. According to Desertec, it receives as much solar energy in six hours as the entire world uses in a year. "It's interesting, and there are definitely locations that are better than here," Kistner says, "even if the huge political projects take a lot of time. Ultimately, in any case, there is no other choice but renewable energies."

However, Kistner says the companies behind Andasol are very nervous about future projects because of their concerns about the ebbing tide of government feed-in tariffs for renewables. While the cuts continue, those concerns can only increase.

 
Concentrating solar power moves up PDF Print E-mail
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When completed in 2008, the 5-MW Kimberlina concentrating solar power (CSP) plant became the first large-scale solar thermal project to come online in California in 20 years.

 

Since then a range of projects have been approved, started construction or been completed, spawning a new boom in CSP. But the Kimberlina plant is different: While developers have typically chosen parabolic troughs or power towers in the past, this project utilizes Compact Linear Fresnel Reflectors, or CLFR, a newer technology starting to gain ground.

A CLFR power plant uses flat mirrors to focus sunlight onto a central receiver tube and directly create superheated steam. Rather than use molten salt or oil as a working fluid, the technology simply uses water. A CLFR project is generally less expensive to build because it uses fewer receiver tubes, less land and less expensive mirrors than, say, parabolic toughs. (The 5-MW Kimberlina plant cost about $3 per watt to build – larger CLFR plants could be $2.50 per watt, about 20% less expensive than trough technology).

However, CLFR has not historically been the first choice of developers. The technology's most mature competitor, parabolic troughs, have been in operation for more than 20 years. Because CLFR is still somewhat new, investors have been less willing to back it.

But that's changing. The French energy company AREVA recently took over Kimberlina's developer, Ausra, bringing institutional credibility and a very strong performance guarantee. With more than 1,000 MW in the pipeline, and with the 5-MW Bakersfield project in operation for almost two years now, the company is building a track record that may make investors more comfortable.

 
3rd world pollution the biggest killer PDF Print E-mail
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If you are reading this article, you most likely have electricity and heat at home and never think of that fact as at all remarkable.

Yet more than two billion people - one in three people on our planet - have no access to modern energy to light and heat the dwellings in which they live. The obstacles to energy access are not technical.

We know how to build power systems, design modern cooking stoves, and meet energy demand efficiently. What is missing is a global commitment to move energy access up the political and development agendas.

Half of the world's population uses solid fuel - such as wood, charcoal, or dung - for cooking. According to the World Health Organization, 1.6 million women and children die each year as a result of indoor smoke inhalation, more than those who lose their lives to malaria.

Add the pollutant emissions from such stoves, together with the deforestation that results from using firewood, and you have several pressing global challenges that can be tackled at once by closing the energy gap.

2030 vision

Efforts to close this gap have so far been insufficient in scale and scope. However, a plan of action now exists, developed in recent months by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's Advisory Group on Energy and Climate Change (AGECC).

The group brings together top UN officials and business executives, including representatives from Edison International, Statoil, Suntech Holdings and Vattenfall.

Through this innovative public-private partnership, we analysed global energy access and recommended in our resulting report that the international community committed itself to universal access to modern energy services by 2030. The report also called for a 40% reduction in global energy intensity by 2030, which, if implemented, would reduce global energy intensity at approximately double the historical rate.

The AGECC is now working on how best to deliver on the plan. This was the focus of the group's last meeting, held in Mexico City in July. It was hosted by the Carlos Slim Foundation, which works in support of implementing the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in policy areas such as health, deforestation, and closing the digital divide.

Sharing the benefits

Mexico will be the location for key UN climate talks later this year, and the AGECC is interacting with the country's energy ministry to ensure a co-ordinated and effective approach.The financial implications of ensuring universal energy access are large, but not overwhelming when weighed against the enormous benefits.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that over the next two decades, ensuring universal access to electricity would require about 10% of total annual investment in the energy sector, which can be mobilised by the private sector.

Universal energy access is a new market opportunity, but one that needs the right support to thrive. Many clean technologies are already available, so we are not talking about investing billions in research. It is a question of transferring the technologies and adapting them to local conditions and needs.

But increasing energy access is not only about supplying better, more efficient cooking stoves or light bulbs. To promote economic development and growth, energy services must also work in the interest of creating wealth and jobs by providing power for businesses and improving healthcare, education and transportation.

In September, world leaders will meet at the UN to assess progress on the MDGs. While there is no goal on energy, it is central to meeting the other MDGs, especially those concerning poverty and hunger, universal education and environmental sustainability.

Governments alone will not be able to deal with all of these challenges. We need a firm commitment from all sides: private businesses, academia, civil society and international organisations and NGOs.

 
Solar reactors to create fuel PDF Print E-mail
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Solar-powered reactors can take carbon dioxide and turn it into carbon monoxide. The same reactors can also be used to turn water into hydrogen and oxygen.

The two can then be reacted together with a catalyst to form hydrocarbon fuels, in a technique known as the Fischer-Tropsch process.  

Fuels made in this way are sufficiently similar to those currently used in cars that major redesigns of engines and refuelling stations should not be necessary. If fuels can be made entirely from atmospheric carbon, running a car on that fuel would be carbon neutral.

One such machine, the Counter Rotating Ring Receiver Reactor Recuperator (CR5), created by a team of scientists at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico, captures carbon dioxide from power plant exhaust fumes. In the future, however, they hope to extract it directly from the air.

The system uses a giant parabolic mirror, which concentrates sunlight on to two chambers separated by spinning rings of cerium oxide. As the rings turn, the cerium oxide is heated to 1500C and releases oxygen into one of the chambers.

The oxygen is then pumped away. As the ring spins, the now de-oxidised cerium moves into the other chamber. Carbon dioxide is pumped in, and the deoxidised cerium steals one of the oxygen molecules, creating carbon monoxide and cerium oxide.

Another team, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich, uses a similar system, but with calcium oxide, zinc oxide and steam, which can create a stream of hydrogen and carbon monoxide. Their system can already use atmospheric carbon dioxide. At the moment the two reactors have problems.

The New Mexico team's system currently only works for a few seconds at a time, while the Swiss model runs at a mere 10 kilowatts. But both hope to improve reliability and yield.

Creating usable fuel from solar energy is a promising way of keeping the world's energy demands satisfied while minimising carbon emissions, Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution of Washington at Stanford University, California 

"This area holds out the promise for technologies that can produce large amounts of carbon-neutral power at affordable prices, which can be used where and when that power is needed," he says. "It is one of the few technology areas that could truly revolutionise our energy future."  

 
Big money into Solar PDF Print E-mail
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Nearly $2bn (£1.3bn) in loan guarantees will be given to two companies to kick-start the US solar energy industry, President Barack Obama has announced.

One of the firms, Abenoga Solar, says that it is planning to build the largest solar power plant in the world in Arizona.Mr Obama said the projects would provide more than 5,000 new jobs.The Arizona plant should power 70,000 homes and cut carbon dioxide emissions.

The money will come from government stimulus funds designed to boost the economy during the recession.Outlining the "Solana" project at Gila Bend near Phoenix, Abenoga said it would have an area of 1,900 acres, using thermal storage-equipped parabolic trough technology, with 280 MW of power output capacity.According to the company's website, 1,500 new jobs will be created during the plant's construction with 100 positions for staff to maintain it.'Aggressive'

The second company, Abound Solar Manufacturing, will manufacture state-of-the-art thin film solar panels, the first time anywhere that such technology has been used commercially.

Plants will be built in Colorado and Indiana, creating 2,000 construction jobs and 1,500 permanent jobs, the Associated Press reports.President Obama had promised during his election campaign for the White House to create manufacturing and construction jobs in the green power industry.

"We're going to to keep competing aggressively to make sure the jobs and industries of the future are taking root right here in America," he said on Saturday.The renewable energy industry in the US faces tough competition from developers in China.Mr Obama also acknowledged the loans would not be an instant solution.

 
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