TIME Innovation

Could This Be Solar Energy’s Big Moment?

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Solar power has been on an upswing in the U.S., with usage now standing at six times’ its 2010 rate and the cost of solar installations since 2010 down 60 %. Analysts predict a 29% rise in solar installations in the U.S. by the end of 2014 alone.

This could be solar power’s moment. What’s uncertain is how much of that market growth the U.S. will be able to capitalize on. Currently, almost half of the world’s solar panel production takes place in China, while the U.S. only counts for only 5%.

Investors like Elon Musk, whose solar power company Solar City bought the panel maker Silevo to help drive down costs, hopes to change that imbalance by ramping up manufacturing in the U.S.

TIME energy

Why Hawaii Wants Liquefied Natural Gas From the Mainland

The Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority (NELHA)
The Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority (NELHA) administers the Hawaii Ocean Science and Technology Park (HOST Park). John S Lander—Getty Images

The Aloha state needs to say goodbye to its reliance on petrol and coal, but isn't quite ready to say hello to renewables

The Hawaiian archipelago is among the most isolated places on earth—it’s farther away from a major landmass than any other island chain on the planet. Lacking substantial indigenous fossil fuel resources, any nuclear power sector, or a robust renewables sector, the state is forced to import almost all of the energy it consumes in the form of petroleum and coal, which are easier to transport than other fossil fuels.

As oil prices have climbed in recent years, electricity prices in Hawaii are now between three and fives times higher than average electricity prices on the mainland. Hawaiians hope to change that with liquefied natural gas.

“These islands may soon be able to diversify their energy sources to include natural gas, because relatively low natural gas prices and new shipping technology may allow these islands to import liquefied natural gas (LNG),” writes Energy Information Administration Analyst Allan McFarland. With the development of standardized refrigerated shipping containers, Hawaiian utilities hope to import more LNG to the islands and push the price of electricity down.

But with its sunshine, Pacific breezes, and copious geothermal activity, the Aloha State seems like the perfect place to develop renewable energy resources — especially as fossil fuel resources are so scarce. So why is Hawaii hoping to import more LNG from the mainland instead of developing renewables?

The truth is, Hawaii is investing heavily in renewables. In 2008, the state legislature mandated that 40% of the electricity generated in the archipelago come from renewable sources by 2030. As a result, substantial investments have been made in solar, wind and biomass energy technologies, and with energy efficiency measures added to the mix, the state hopes to meet 70% of its energy needs from clean sources by 2030.

But the geography of the archipelago makes harnessing that energy uniquely difficult. Because the islands run on small electrical grids, rather than the massive regional systems that connect disparate parts of the U.S., the intermittency of wind and solar power—that is, their tendency to vary dramatically from one day to the next—is especially problematic.

Power plants that ramp up production to pick up the slack during lulls, or so-called “load-following” natural gas plants, could help, but “It’s hard to say whether load-following plants would be sufficient,” McFarland tells TIME. Scientists and policymakers hope energy storage technologies that can store excess energy produced on a sunny day to be deployed on a cloudy one might make a contribution. “Improved battery technologies would certainly help,” he said.

But until battery technology catches up, policymakers must rely on LNG to take a bite out of Hawaiian electricity prices — and, in the process, help the islands transition away from expensive petroleum and coal imports.

TIME energy

Amid Federal Safety Push, North Dakota Considers New Energy Regulations

Rail Delays
An oil-tank train with crude oil from the Bakken shale fields of North Dakota travels near Staples, Minn., on April 15, 2014 Mike Cronin—AP

Can a state at the center of the oil boom regulate the industry that propelled it to prosperity?

After multiple derailments of tank cars carrying crude oil, the federal government is weighing new rules to bolster the safety of trains transporting flammable material. But the safety push could run into trouble in North Dakota, the state at the heart of the oil boom and the source of much of the crude sliding along the nation’s rails.

As the shale-oil boom accelerated in recent years, a series of derailments have raised questions about the safety of oil trains. In July 2013, a 74-car train carrying crude oil crashed in a small Quebec town, killing 47. Four months later, broken tracks led to a derailment in Alabama; a month after that, 20 cars of crude exploded after a collision outside Casselton, N.D., forcing residents to evacuate. In April, 17 tanks derailed near downtown Lynchburg, Va., sending a plume of fire spitting into the air outside a children’s museum.

Late last month, the U.S. Department of Transportation released a series of proposals to safeguard oil cars traveling from the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota to refineries around the country, often more than a thousand miles away. Among the proposals were phasing out tank cars that have proven vulnerable to explosions, imposing speed restrictions, and requiring trains to notify local first responders as they pass through states.

“Safety is our top priority,” said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx of the department’s proposal, which he called the “most significant progress yet in developing and enforcing new rules to ensure that all flammable liquids, including Bakken crude and ethanol, are transported safely.”

But in North Dakota, such liquid has been the lifeblood of a surging economy. Since the advent of new technology that helped companies tap the Bakken formation, North Dakota has enjoyed a massive energy boom. The unemployment rate has dropped to 2.7%, the lowest in the nation. Incomes are rising. And a sparsely populated state sprawled across the harsh northern prairie is suddenly adding well-paying jobs faster than it can fill them. As the U.S. economy slumped into recession and struggled to fight through a sluggish recovery, North Dakota was a rare bright spot on a bleak economic horizon.

Which may be why Foxx’s comments didn’t go down so well in the state. Last week, when he and U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz attended an energy policy summit in the state capital of Bismarck, Governor Jack Dalrymple jumped on the perceived criticism, asking why Bakken crude has been singled out in federal studies.

“The risk level is higher than we’ve seen in other parts of the country,” Foxx said, according to local reports. “We’ve got to raise our game on safety.”

But it is a matter of dispute whether shale oil from the Bakken is more volatile than traditional oil, and thus prone to explosion. As Washington considers new regulations, the state is undertaking its own study of whether and how companies should treat oil at the wellheads before transporting it.

In the coming weeks, the North Dakota Industrial Commission will hold public hearings to solicit input about the possibility of new requirements, says Alison Ritter, a spokeswoman for the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources. The session will be just the second public hearings on energy in the past three years.

It is unclear whether the state is prepared to effectively regulate the very industry that propelled it to prosperity.

The Industrial Commission is composed of three of the state’s top elected officials: Governor Jack Dalrymple, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, and Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring. All are Republicans.

Dalrymple has been a friend of oil and gas concerns. His 2012 election victory was aided by $287,965 from the oil and gas industry, a total that surpasses than any other industry, according to data compiled by the National Institute on Money in State Politics. The governor’s office did not directly return multiple requests for comment.

Lynn Helms, the state’s top oil and gas regulator, has industry ties of his own. The director of the Department of Mineral Resources, Helms spent years working for energy firms before taking a job with the Industrial Commission in 1998. This is not uncommon, but critics say it raises questions of whether the regulator should also hold responsibility for promoting oil production.

“How can you regulate an industry, and make sure they’re following all the rules and safeguards on Mondays,” says Kenton Onstad, a Democratic representative in the North Dakota legislature, “and then on Tuesday go out and promote it? It should be either one or the other.”

New requirements for treating crude at the well sites could be costly for the energy businesses that operate in the Bakken. Industry groups say the formation’s crude has no unique dangers and should not be subject to special regulations. The North Dakota Petroleum Council, an industry group, paid engineering and chemical analysis firms about $400,000 to produce a report on the characteristics of Bakken crude. The study determined it did not pose any greater risk for rail transport than other types of crude or transportation fuels. “All of this data does not support the speculation that Bakken crude is more volatile or flammable,” said NDPC vice president Kari Cutting.

Ritter said the Industrial Commission would be expected to issue a decision within 30 days of the public hearing. “The goal,” she says, “is to make crude as safe as possible for transport.”

TIME sustainability

Giant Floating Duck Proposed to Bring Green Energy to Copenhagen

Energy Duck: A submission to the 2014 Land Art Generator Initiative Copenhagen design competition by artists Hareth Pochee, Adam Khan, Louis Leger and Patrick Fryer. Courtesy Land Art Generator Initiative

The unique structure could theoretically provide the environmentally conscious city with solar energy and hydropower

Here’s an idea for energy sustainability that’s not mere quackery: A team of British designers and artists have proposed a floating tourist attraction that would gather solar energy in Copenhagen Harbor as the Danish city works to become carbon-neutral by the year 2025.

The 12-story-high structure just happens to also be in the shape of a giant sea duck.

Built from lightweight steel and covered in solar panels, the “energy duck” would by day collect the sun’s rays and by night bask the harbor in LED lights that change color in rhythm with the hydro turbines inside it, according to blog designboom.

Visitors wouldn’t just be able to admire the light show from a distance, they’d be able to board the energy duck and see the inner workings for themselves.

The supersized bird was developed by artists and designers Hareth Pochee, Adam Khan, Louis Leger, and Patrick Fryer as part of a competition run by the Land Art Generator Initiative, a project that aims to integrate art with sustainable design to come up with alternative energy solutions.

It’s just a concept, of course, but let’s hope this plan doesn’t go a-fowl.

 

TIME Germany

Germany Now Produces 28.5% of Energy from Renewables

Wind Turbines
Wind turbines stand on June 17, 2014 near Wernitz, Germany. Sean Gallup—Getty Images

The country’s Energiewende energy transition has crossed another milestone

Germany set a new record on green energy in the first half of 2014, by producing 28.5% of its energy entirely from renewable sources, according to a report released Tuesday by the energy trade association BDEW.

The industrial powerhouse of Europe, Germany is undergoing a massive shift in the way it produces energy as it attempts to become a country powered almost entirely by solar, wind, hydro and biomass energy sources. In the first half of 2014, wind generation in Germany increased 21.4% while solar grew by 27.3%.

The state-subsidized transition to renewables, known as Energiewende, has not been without high costs. Energy prices are among the highest in Europe and greenhouse gas emissions have actually increased in the near term as Germany’s post-Fukushima drawdown of nuclear power has led to an increase in the use of coal to make up for lost production.

TIME Environment

Only 1/3 of Americans ‘Willing’ to Change Behavior for Environment

As Michael Grunwald noted in his piece on TIME’s recent energy poll, Americans lag far behind other nations in their willingness to help the environment. Here, only 33% of Americans say they “strongly agree” they would modify their behavior to reduce their carbon footprint, compared to 43% of people from other countries.

Americans Take Less Responsibility For Clean Energy

 

For more stories on the New Energy Reality, click here.

TIME Germany

Poll: Only Germans Think They Are Helping to Fix Global Warming

Germany Debates Its Energy Future
Wind turbines stand behind a solar power park on October 30, 2013 near Werder, Germany. Sean Gallup—Getty Images

Germans have a pretty high opinion of themselves when it comes to environmental stewardship, according to a recent TIME poll, but their pride might be a little premature.

From among six large countries surveyed in a recent TIME poll, only Germany sees itself as more a part of the solution to global warming (60%) than part of the problem (40%). Only in Germany did the majority of poll respondents report that their country has a “mostly” or “somewhat positive” role in combating global warming.

The TIME poll surveyed 3,505 online respondents between May 10 and May 22 from the Germany, the United States, Brazil, Turkey, India and South Korea, with an equal number of respondents in each country. The margin of error in the survey is 1.8%.

Despite their environmentalist pride, Germans are not optimistic about the ability of the world as a whole to change its polluting ways—just 19% of Germans think the planet can reduce carbon emissions by 80% by 2050, compared to 37% of respondents overall.

The Germans’ pride likely stems from Energiewende, or “energy transition,” Germany’s closely-followed effort to ramp up energy production from renewable sources. The country has indeed significantly increased solar and wind power, and the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy in April found Germany to be the most energy-efficient major economy on earth. Germany hit a new record around noon on a day in May this year, producing 74% of its electricity needs from renewable sources.

The problem is that, while solar power plants may be super-effective power producers at noon on a sunny day, without scalable energy-storage technologies they aren’t so effective producing power for other times—when it’s dark, for example. Because Energiewende has been accompanied by a rapid move away from nuclear power following the Fukushima disaster Germany has had to make up its energy deficit by increasing its reliance on coal for the first time in years. German CO2 emissions have actually been rising over past three years.

The country is continuing to perfect and expand its renewable energy portfolio and may one day succeed in cutting back again on its coal habit. For the time being though German perceptions aren’t quite in line with the reality.

TIME energy

Obama Approves Sonic Cannons to Map Atlantic for Offshore Oil and Gas

Offshore drilling in the Atlantic is up for debate
The Atlantic offshore territory has been off limits to U.S. oil drilling, but that could change Brasil2 via Getty Images

Over environmental objections, the Obama Administration moves forward with exploration that could yield new domestic oil and gas sources

The Obama administration reopened part of the Eastern seaboard Friday to offshore oil and gas exploration, promising to boost job creation in the energy sector while at the same time fueling the fears of environmental groups.

The U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) estimates that 4.72 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 37.51 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas lies beneath the coast from Florida to Maine. The recent decision allows exploration from Florida to Delaware and could create thousands of new jobs supporting expanded energy infrastructure along the East Coast.

“Offshore energy exploration and production in the Atlantic could bring new jobs and higher revenues to states and local communities, while adding to our country’s capabilities as an energy superpower,” American Petroleum Institute upstream director Erik Milito said in a statement.

Environmentalists worry about damage to shorelines, and to the tourist industry. They also worry about the safety of ocean wildlife. The exploration will initially be conducted via seismic surveys that use sonic cannons to locate oil and gas deposits beneath the ocean floor. The cannons emit sound waves louder than a jet engine every ten seconds for weeks at a time.

“We’re definitely concerned,” Hamilton Davis, energy and climate change director for the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, told TIME. “The exploration activities lead in the direction of actual development of oil and gas, and from our perspective as a coastal organization that worries about our environmental ecological landscape as well as our [tourism] economy, the oil and gas industry certainly doesn’t seem to fit into that equation. Just the impacts from exploration activities on marine wildlife I think would give most people pause… You’re talking about hundreds of thousands of animals that will be negatively impacted as a consequence of these activities.”

BOEM said it approved the seismic surveys with the environment in mind. “After thoroughly reviewing the analysis, coordinating with Federal agencies and considering extensive public input, the bureau has identified a path forward that addresses the need to update the nearly four-decade-old data in the region while protecting marine life and cultural sites,” said Acting BOEM Director Walter D. Cruickshank in a statement.

Sonic cannons are already used in the western Gulf of Mexico and off the coast of Alaska, but many constituents and elected officials in the newly opened East Coast territory have expressed their concerns about the testing and eventual drilling. Congressional officials from Florida, including Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Orlando, and Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, signed a letter to President Obama opposing the decision.

“Expanding unnecessary drilling offshore simply puts too much at risk. Florida has more coastline than any other state in the continental United States and its beaches and marine resources support the local economy across the state,” the letter states.

The area to be mapped is in federal waters, not under the jurisdiction of state law. Energy companies will apply for drilling leases in 2018, when current congressional limits expire.

 

TIME energy

New Poll Shows Americans Won’t Give Up Their Cars

Stuck in Traffic
Cars stuck in traffic. Maureen Sullivan—Getty Images

Our car-crazy culture lags behind global competitors in using public transportation

Gas prices are high, roads are clogged and driving alone is worse for the planet. But Americans still prefer to commute in their air-conditioned cocoons.

A new global survey conducted for TIME on attitudes toward energy reveals that Americans are more reluctant than international counterparts to ditch their cars for public transportation.

Only 16% of Americans prefer using public transportation to get to work, compared with 41% of respondents overall in the poll, which compared U.S. attitudes toward energy and conservation with those in Brazil, Germany, India, South Korea and Turkey. Just 8% of U.S. respondents said they always take public transit instead of a personal vehicle, sharply below the overall total of 27%.

Americans’ reluctance to ditch their cars may be a symptom of their overall disinclination to take steps to reduce their carbon footprint. One in three U.S. respondents said they were willing to change their behavior in their name of conservation, 10 percentage points below the overall average and ahead of only South Korea.

Or it may stem from our long-running love affair with the automobile. A full 79% of respondents from the U.S. said they rely on their car for transportation, about double the overall average of 39%. (Germans were the second biggest gearheads, with 47% relying on cars to get around.) Just 9% of Americans said they lean most heavily on trains, metro systems or public buses.

The survey was conducted among 3,505 online respondents equally divided between the U.S., Brazil, Germany, Turkey, India and South Korea. Polling was conducted from May 10 to May 22. The overall margin of error overall in the survey is 1.8%.

TIME energy

Poll: Men and Women Think Differently About Energy

Energy Power Lines
Getty Images

A new global survey for TIME shows how attitudes toward conservation may be guided by gender

More women than men worldwide say energy conservation is a “very important” issue, while men report greater personal concern about global warming, according to the results of a new global energy survey conducted for TIME.

The survey polled online respondents in six countries—the U.S., Germany, India, Turkey, Brazil and South Korea—on their attitudes toward energy. It revealed that conservation habits and perspectives about energy challenges differ along gender lines, and not always in the ways you might expect.

Nearly 70% of women said energy conservation was a vital issue, compared with less than 50% of men. At the same, 65% of males reported that global warming was a very important issue to them, far outpacing the 37% of females who said the same.

The survey suggests that women are more leery of nuclear power (by a 48% to 40% margin), slightly more convinced the earth is warming (60% to 56%) and more likely to report high degrees of concern over rising sea levels, pollution and gas prices. By a couple of percentage points, women also took a more favorable stand on the oil-and-gas industry’s role in the issue.

Men, on the other hand, were more likely to say that rich nations should take the lead in the fight to reduce emissions (50% to 46%), and more likely to lay blame for the global warming crisis at the feet of the United States (45% to 38%), which has long held the ignominious title of the world’s largest carbon emitter.

The sexes were also split in their assessment of their home country’s role in the climate crisis. Sixty-three percent of women say their nation is part of the problem, compared with 54% of men. Men were more likely to say their country was part of the solution, by a 46% to 37% margin.

The survey was conducted among 3,505 online respondents equally divided between the U.S., Brazil, Germany, Turkey, India and South Korea. Polling was conducted from May 10 to May 22. The overall margin of error overall in the survey is 1.8%.

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