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Energy Voices: Insights on the future of fuel and power

Monitor staff and guest contributors offer a mix of news, analysis, and commentary on energy and resource issues emerging across the globe.

Solar panels line the roof of Ikea's Brooklyn store, in New York. 'Soft costs' account for 50 to 70 percent of the total cost of a rooftop solar system in the US today. (Mark Lennihan/AP/File)

Can US solar energy compete with Germany's low prices?

By Koben Calhoun and Jesse MorrisGuest bloggers / 12.07.13

A recent Deutsche Bank report projects global newly installed photovoltaic (PV) capacity will reach 50 GW annually in 2014, a roughly 50-percent increase over anticipated new installed capacity during 2013. Germany’s been the longtime undisputed champion of solar deployment, with 35.2 GW of installed capacity as of November 1, though the installation pace lead has shifted in 2013 to Japan. But the U.S. is accelerating—and is expected to install 4.4 GW of solar this year, about the same absolute amount as the Japanese and more than the Germans.

This growth is impressive, but if the U.S. is to transition to the low-carbon, resilient, and sustainable electricity system of the future outlined in RMI’s Reinventing Fire, we need to install four times more solar capacity annually than we’re currently doing, for the next forty-odd years, with most of the installs coming in the distributed market (residential and commercial rooftops). If we’re going to do that, we need to make distributed solar cheaper, and do so quickly. 

PV soft costs now dominate the equation

Between 2008 and 2012, the price of sub-10-kilowatt (mainly residential) rooftop systems decreased 37 percent. However, over 80 percent of that cost decline is attributed to decreasing solar PV module costs. With module and other hardware prices expected to level off in the coming years (and in the near term, actually increase), further market growth will be highly dependent on additional reductions in the remaining “Balance of System” costs, otherwise known as “soft costs.”  ( Continue… )

A BP executive explains the different layers of rock, sand and salt deep under the ocean's floor at BP headquarters in Houston. Although ultra-deep water drilling is expensive, BP and other oil companies are pushing farther and deeper into the Gulf of Mexico. (Pat Sullivan/AP/File)

Energy firms push deeper, farther offshore in search of oil

By Nick CumminghamGuest blogger / 12.06.13

Major oil companies continue an aggressive push into deeper water as the memory of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout recedes. Spurred on by consistently high prices for crude oil, the decline of conventional oil fields, and the advent of new drilling technologies, companies like BP plan bigger investments in offshore oil in the coming years.

BP is still not out of the woods in terms of its legal liabilities stemming from the 2010 disaster, but they are pushing into deeper waters. In August 2013 BP began appraising its Tiber field, a “giant” oil field that could hold between 4 to 6 billion barrels of oil. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) estimates that the Gulf of Mexico holds 48 billion barrels of undiscovered technically recoverable oil reserves.

But at 35,000 feet, the field is more than twice as deep as the Macondo well. The high pressure and temperatures makes drilling in the Lower Tertiary extremely difficult and costly. BP is investing big in its “Project 20K,” named for technologies that need to be developed that can withstand 20,000 pounds of pressure per square inch at 350 degrees Fahrenheit – pressure and temperatures that occur at such drilling depths. (Related article: Louisiana Loses ‘Millions’ in Oil Extraction Tax Glitch( Continue… )

Blades rotate on a wind turbine on Stetson Mountain in Maine. The wind Production Tax Credit, or PTC, was due to expire at the end of 2012 but was extended for an additional year as part of last December’s 'fiscal cliff' deal. (Robert F. Bukaty/AP/File)

Wind energy tax credit: Is it worth the money?

By Geoffrey StylesGuest blogger / 12.06.13

If It’s December It Must Be PTC Time, Again

With the end of the year fast approaching, the US wind power industry faces yet another scheduled expiration of federal tax credits for new wind turbines. The wind Production Tax Credit, or PTC, was due to expire at the end of 2012 but was extended for an additional year as part of last December’s “fiscal cliff” deal. There are no signs yet of a similar reprieve this year.

With the PTC and other energy-related “tax expenditures” subject to Congressional negotiations on tax reform, this might truly be its last hurrah in its current form. It is high time for this overly generous subsidy to be “sunsetted”, and if it’s replaced with a smarter policy emphasizing innovation, the outcome could be beneficial for taxpayers, the environment, and even the US wind energy industry.

Too Big To Last

In its 20-year history, minus a few year-long expirations in the past, the PTC has promoted tremendous growth in the US wind industry, from under 2,000 MW of installed wind capacity in 1992 to over 60,000 MW as of today. For most of its tenure, the PTC did exactly what it was intended to do: reward developers for generating increasing amounts of renewable electricity for the grid at a rate tied to inflation.  ( Continue… )

People gather in front of the Ukrainian cabinet of ministers building during a rally to support EU integration in Kiev, Ukriane Thursday. In October, the IMF warned Ukraine that its energy sector, linked strongly to Russia, was in desperate need of reform. (Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters)

Amid Ukraine protests, energy sector tilts toward Russia

By Daniel J. GraeberGuest blogger / 12.05.13

Ukrainian energy company Naftogaz said it agreed with Russian gas giant Gazprom to defer payments for winter gas supplies until early 2014. With Ukraine embroiled in protests, and Europe making headway on energy diversification strategies, the move signals a tilt by Kiev back to its former Kremlin patrons.

Naftogaz Chief Executive Officer Yevgeny Bakulin said his company agreed with Gazprom to hold off on settling natural gas debts for imports since October in order to cope with "problems and issues" in the region.

Ukraine racked up millions of dollars in debt to Gazprom for natural gas deliveries during the summer. The Naftogaz director said the government's priority at the time was ongoing pro-EU protest in Kiev not its debt to Russia. (Related article: This Week in Energy: Landmark EU-Ukraine Agreement Officially Dead

Ukrainian legislators in November suspended efforts to sign free trade and association agreements with the European Union, sparking major protests in Kiev. Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, who survived a no-confidence vote Tuesday, said the agreement with the EU was suspended because of "a significant reduction in trade with the Russian Federation," which he said hurt the Ukrainian economy.  ( Continue… )

President Obama tours solar panels at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, Nev. Mr. Obama has ordered the federal government to rely on wind, solar, and other renewable sources for 20 percent of its energy use by 2020. (Charles Dharapak/AP/File)

Obama wants to clean up Washington ... energy

By Staff writer / 12.05.13

President Obama wants to see more clean energy in Washington. 

The president boosted targets for renewable energy use by the Federal Government in a memo issued Thursday to civilian and military agencies. Frustrated by a gridlocked Congress, Mr. Obama has leveraged executive powers to implement a climate change plan he outlined in June. The administration's efforts to promote renewables have found strong opposition by backers of fossil fuels, who say a transition to clean energy undermines economic growth and the stability of the electrical grid.

The latest order builds on progress in clean energy by the federal government, the country's largest energy consumer. It is part of the government's broader effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reliance on foreign energy sources.

"In order to create a clean energy economy that will increase our Nation's prosperity, promote energy security, combat climate change, protect the interests of taxpayers, and safeguard the health of our environment, the Federal Government must lead by example," Obama wrote in Thursday's memo.  ( Continue… )

The logo for Tesla Motors is shown at the company headquarters in San Carlos, Calif. Tesla Motors has teamed with SolarCity, a solar-energy company, to back up commercial solar systems with the electric carmaker's advanced lithium-ion batteries. (Robert Galbraith/Reuters/File)

Tesla Motors batteries aren't just for electric cars anymore

By Staff writer / 12.05.13

Tesla Motors, the company that has jolted the electric car industry, is looking to change the way we power business.

The California-based firm has teamed with SolarCity, a solar-energy company, to back up commercial solar systems with the electric carmaker's advanced lithium-ion batteries. The system, called DemandLogic, debuted Thursday and is initially available only in parts of California, Massachusetts, and Connecticut.

The project is a convergence of two clean-energy giants on an issue that has long hampered the spread of renewable electricity.

The sun doesn't always shine, the wind doesn't always blow, and it's costly to store either of those renewable sources. That's why most residential and commercial solar systems simply feed electricity back into the grid, rendering them useless if the wider grid fails.  ( Continue… )

The illuminated Greek Parliament building is reflected on a rain-soaked pavement as a couple wait to cross a street in Athens. The decision by the Greek government to grant passage to the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline was more about economic development rather than energy security, Cunningham writes. (Petros Giannakouris/AP/File)

Greece OKs major natural gas pipeline to Europe

By Nick CunninghamGuest blogger / 12.04.13

The Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) cleared an important hurdle on December 2nd when the Greek Parliament ratified a host agreement to allow access through Greek territory. The move was important for the pipeline, keeping the project on track to begin construction in 2015.

TAP will carry natural gas from the resource-rich Caspian basin in Azerbaijan to Western Europe. First, the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP) will take the gas from Azerbaijan through Georgia and Turkey. TAP will pick up from there, carrying the gas through Greece, Albania and under the Adriatic, then terminating in Italy. An estimated 16 billion cubic meters (bcm) of natural gas will be piped from the Shah Deniz, one of the largest gas fields in the world. Of that total, the pipeline will deliver 6 bcm to Turkey, and the remaining 10 bcm to markets Europe. (Related article: New Study Finds Higher Methane Emissions from Fracking)

The construction of TAP will bring a conclusion to the political jockeying over the “Southern Corridor.” The European Union relies on Russia for 34% of its natural gas imports, and with Russia showing a fondness for cutting off gas supplies when it wants to prove a point, the EU for years has sought supply diversity. This led European policymakers to push for a pipeline from the Caspian, originally in the form of the Nabucco pipeline, which would have run through Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, and terminating in Austria.  ( Continue… )

Iran's Minister of Petroleum Bijan Namdar Zangeneh, center, speaks to journalists prior to the start of a meeting of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, OPEC, at their headquarters in Vienna. OPEC will keep its oil production target at 30 million barrels a day for the first half of 2014, the cartel announced Wednesday. (Ronald Zak/AP/File)

OPEC holds steady on oil despite big changes in energy

By Staff writer / 12.04.13

Oil is pouring out of shale rock in the United States. Saudi production is booming. Iran may be on its way back to the global oil market.

But the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) is staying the course, for now at least. 

OPEC will keep its oil production target at 30 million barrels a day for the first half of 2014, the 12-member cartel announced at a meeting in Vienna Wednesday. Nevertheless, if supply continues to rise in countries like the US, Canada, Iraq, and Iran, the cartel may have to rethink its strategy.   

Oil prices remain historically high, and the world's leading oil producers would prefer to keep it that way. Maintaining current production levels, the cartel said Wednesday, will help meet growing demand from developing countries and fuel economic recoveries underway in the US and Europe.  ( Continue… )

A coal power plant is pictured near the western town of Neurath, Germany. Germany and other countries are dealing with what is called 'loop flow' – when the renewables aren't performing, either because the wind has dropped or the sun has set, fossil fuels plants have to be activated. (Ina Fassbender/Reuters/File)

Is energy dragging Europe down?

By Llewellyn KingGuest blogger / 12.03.13

Europe, at present the world's largest market and largest economic bloc, is in decline and living standards are in danger. That was the sober message at an energy conference here, delivered by a battery of speakers from across eastern Europe.

The narrative is that energy is what is dragging Europe down – not low birthrates and pervasive social-safety networks, but increasing dependence on expensive energy imports and hopelessly tangled markets.

Although delegates gathered to discuss the particular problems of eastern Europe, many had comments about the energy dependence across Europe; its labyrinthine regulations in nearly all 28 countries, its inability to form capital for large projects like nuclear, and governments intruding into the market.(Related article: New Study Finds Higher Methane Emissions from Fracking)

The result is a patchwork of contradictions, counterproductive regulations, political fiats and multiple objectives that leave Europeans paying more for energy than they need to and failing to develop indigenous sources, such as their own shale gas deposits in Ukraine and Poland. It also leaves countries dependent on capricious and expensive gas from Russia, unsure of whether they can build needed electric generating plant in the future and poorly interconnected, sometimes by both gas pipelines and electric lines.  ( Continue… )

An oil sands mining operation north of Fort McMurray, Alberta, is shown. Alberta’s share of Canada’s oil production is expected to grow substantially over time. (Todd Korol/Reuters/File)

Behind the scenes at Canada's oil sands

By Robert RapierGuest blogger / 12.02.13


I spent the first week of November in the heart of the Athabasca oil sands around Fort McMurray, Alberta. I was there as a guest of the Canadian government, which hosts annual tours for small groups of journalists and energy analysts. In the previous two articles, I covered some of the environmental issues arising from the development of the oil sands.

In Oil Sands and the Environment – Part I I discussed greenhouse gas emissions, impacts on wildlife, and I touched upon water usage. I also detailed some of the work of Pembina Institute (PI), which is working to improve the environmental conditions as the oil sands are developed. In Oil Sands and the Environment – Part II I covered the tailings ponds, water consumption, impacts to water quality, and impacts to indigenous people.

Today I want to discuss the actual process of converting the oil sands into oil. Some may feel that this should have been the first article I wrote, but because the development of the oil sands is environmentally controversial on many fronts, I thought it was important to go over environmental issues first before discussing the process. I think that if I had covered the process first, most of the comments and questions would have been about the environmental issues.  ( Continue… )

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