State of the (Energy) Union 2011

The SOTU speech has been delivered, analyzed and already overtaken by the latest news – from Egypt, movie awards, tea parties et al.

The word “energy” came up nine times during the speech, and details were light.  Here are the nine instances, with some context:

“We’ll invest in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology — (applause) — an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people.”

“Already, we’re seeing the promise of renewable energy. Robert and Gary Allen are brothers who run a small Michigan roofing company. After September 11th, they volunteered their best roofers to help repair the Pentagon. But half of their factory went unused, and the recession hit them hard. Today, with the help of a government loan, that empty space is being used to manufacture solar shingles that are being sold all across the country. In Robert’s words, “We reinvented ourselves.”

That’s what Americans have done for over 200 years: reinvented ourselves. And to spur on more success stories like the Allen Brothers, we’ve begun to reinvent our energy policy. We’re not just handing out money. We’re issuing a challenge. We’re telling America’s scientists and engineers that if they assemble teams of the best minds in their fields, and focus on the hardest problems in clean energy, we’ll fund the Apollo projects of our time.”

[The realists take on all this:  The problem is not one of science or engineering, it is economics and a system tilted in favor of current practices.  The issue is one of deeply embedded conservatism and the reluctance of any (US) government to change that.  We know how to build solar PV and solar thermal systems, we know about wind farms, we know how to construct energy efficient buildings and we especially know that conservation is the cheapest clean energy.  What we seemingly can’t do is to implement these technologies on a large scale, or to change our mindset.

The uncomfortable reality is that for every energy efficient start-up in the US, there seems to be an exit to another country – see my UPDATE at the end of the entry]

“At the California Institute of Technology, they’re developing a way to turn sunlight and water into fuel for our cars. At Oak Ridge National Laboratory, they’re using supercomputers to get a lot more power out of our nuclear facilities. With more research and incentives, we can break our dependence on oil with biofuels, and become the first country to have a million electric vehicles on the road by 2015. (Applause.)

We need to get behind this innovation. And to help pay for it, I’m asking Congress to eliminate the billions in taxpayer dollars we currently give to oil companies. (Applause.) I don’t know if — I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but they’re doing just fine on their own. (Laughter.) So instead of subsidizing yesterday’s energy, let’s invest in tomorrow’s.”

[Did you notice the speaker, John Boehner, sit firmly on his hands, and NOT join the laughter at that line?  And maybe Boehner and his mates have a point; “a report by the World Economic Forum puts America at 68th in the world for the effectiveness of its public-sector spending.  (The Economist, Jan 29, 2011).  That probably explains why there is nothing little visible for all those bail-out dollars, with the exception of nice bonuses for our banking friends.]

“Now, clean energy breakthroughs will only translate into clean energy jobs if businesses know there will be a market for what they’re selling. So tonight, I challenge you to join me in setting a new goal: By 2035, 80 percent of America’s electricity will come from clean energy sources.” (Applause.)

[which of course includes clean nuclear, clean coal and clean natural gas….ah – here it comes:…]

“Some folks want wind and solar. Others want nuclear, clean coal and natural gas. To meet this goal, we will need them all — and I urge Democrats and Republicans to work together to make it happen. (Applause.)”

“We should have no illusions about the work ahead of us. Reforming our schools, changing the way we use energy, reducing our deficit — none of this will be easy. All of it will take time. And it will be harder because we will argue about everything. The costs. The details. The letter of every law.”

[Driven hard by the lobby groups who want things to stay the same.  You have noticed that there is no more talk of a national energy policy or a comprehensive energy bill, so elections do have results. ]

But can things stay the same?

Here in Greentech Media we have the recurring argument about “peak oil”:

“The United States continues to slumber while a catastrophe lies in wait. Increasing numbers of analysts and policymakers are warning of another super price spike for oil and the likelihood of “peak oil” more generally.

Peak oil is the point at which global oil production reaches a maximum and then declines. The speed of the decline is a key unknown and if it is relatively fast, the results could be truly dire for economies around the world.”

Whether peak oil is here or not is hardly the question, it will happen pretty soon.

And our friends north of the border have issues of their own.  This article is another illustration that the ideas are already there, and have been proven years ago.

This passive house was built in Saskatchewan in 1976 and then promptly forgotten.  And it proves that the technology needed to build highly energy efficient houses exists.  So maybe you don’t like the look of the Canadian house, what about this apartment block in Switzerland , or the bamboo shaded house in France ?

Bern - Switzerland


Still not happy?  You can build very conservative houses and still gain “passive” standards. What is missing is the roll-out.  And without a coherent government (and industry) policy the roll-out will remain patchy at best.

To bring all this back to what I do day by day:

“At the heart of the Passivhaus standard are two requirements:

Every building must pass a blower-door test demonstrating exceptional airtightness. The Passivhaus airtightness standard (0.6 air changes per hour at a pressurization of 50 pascals (AC/h@cardou7.dreamhosters.com50pa) makes the Canadian R-2000 standard (1.5 AC/h 50pa) look lax by comparison.

[…and makes the current standard that we aim for look right off the chart at approx 4.5AC/h@cardou7.dreamhosters.com50pa – with many houses, even of recent construction, reading 2 to 4 times that leakage when we run the blower door.]

Every building must consume no more than 15 kilowatt-hours of energy per square meter of floor area. While [the Canadian] R-2000 and most other green building standards govern only energy used for heating and cooling, the Passivhaus standard applies to all energy — including lights, appliances, entertainment and hot water heating.”

Bottom line: Despite a good speech, there is an awfully long way to go.


From the NYT, Keith Bradsher, January 14, 2001:

“Aided by at least $43 million in assistance from the government of Massachusetts and an innovative solar energy technology, Evergreen Solar emerged in the last three years as the third-largest maker of solar panels in the United States.

But now the company is closing its main American factory, laying off the 800 workers [from the Devens, MA site] by the end of March and shifting production to a joint venture with a Chinese company in central China. Evergreen cited the much higher government support available in China.”

The realist has no words…..

Picture credit: Matthew Cavanaugh for The New York Times


OK – not fair to always point out how much more needs to be done.  Here are a couple of good news items.  The really good news is that there is movement on the energy front, we will get there, even if it’s going slower than some of us would like…

Power-One Quietly Reaches 2nd Place in Inverter Market – from ninth place to second place market position in two years.

“Power-One (Nasdaq: PWER) is the quiet runner-up in the global photovoltaic inverter market.  The firm’s bread and butter is the small commercial sector with installation sizes in the 10 kilowatt to 50 kilowatt range, although it has moved to larger-scale sizes in the 500 megawatt range for utility-grade installations….Power-One held a ribbon-cutting for a manufacturing facility in Phoenix, Arizona that will potentially create over 350 jobs”

Source: Power-One

Citibank backs residential solar

“In a vote of confidence for SolarCity and residential solar, Citi (NYSE: C), a global financial services firm, just announced a new fund to finance $40 million in residential solar projects in 2011. This is the first collaboration between SolarCity and Citi, and Citi’s first investment in residential solar power. It is, however, the twelfth fund that SolarCity has received for this purpose.

According to Lyndon Rive, SolarCity‘s CEO, these funds tend to come in clusters, and to that point, Ben Cook, VP of Project Finance, said that he sees this as “the first of many funds we will do together.” He went on to say, “Citi has consistently put its money where its mouth is when it comes to advancing clean power use, [and is now] extending that contribution to residential solar.”

SolarCity will use the new fund to provide solar leases to homeowners to install solar panels on their homes. SolarCity has more than 10,000 projects completed or underway in the U.S. including more than 7,000 SolarLease customers. The company has raised project financing to fund more than $700 million in solar installations.

The VC-funded firm just recently surpassed the 1,000-employee mark.”

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