U.S. Federal Buildings Brace For Deep Energy Retrofits


Beth Buczynski for Earthtechling

Actions speak louder than words. At long last, solar panels are returning to the White House–a symbolic endorsement of renewable energy if nothing else. At the same time, a National Deep Energy Retrofits program (NDER) is poised for implementation in federal buildings around the country. Congressional bickering aside, our revenue strapped government can’t deny that efficiency goes a long way when money is tight…something they’ve been telling the rest of us for years.

NDER is a collaboration of the General Services Administration (GSA), the nation’s largest public real estate organization, and the Federal Energy Management Program (FEMP). It aims to speed up deep energy retrofits on federal properties, putting the U.S. in a better position to meet its energy-use-reduction targets (yeah, we have those!).


Image via US Gov.

The GSA manages more than 7,000 properties that provide workspace for some 1.2 million federal employees. The magnitude represents massive challenges as well as big opportunities. Unsurprisingly, federal buildings are allowed almost zero budget for energy efficient upgrades. But there has been progress. In the past few years, “the energy savings on GSA retrofit projects have more than doubled, from 18 percent to 39 percent, with a few projects surpassing 60 percent,” writes Cara Carmichael for

Moving forward, the organization is working to implement a greater number of energy savings performance contracts (ESPCs). In simple terms, an ESPC is a partnership between a Federal agency and an energy service company. The company performs an energy audit on the federal building in question, identifying improvements that will have the biggest impact on consumption. The company then designs the project, arranges funding, and guarantees that the improvements will generate energy cost savings sufficient to pay for the project over the term of the contract, which can be up to 25 years. After the contract ends, all additional cost savings accrue to the agency. In essence, an ESPC allows a property with no budget to finance improvement in advance using the eventual savings from said improvements.

But ESPCs alone won’t turn take our government from energy hog to energy saver. “Approximately 1/3 of energy use is driven by occupant behavior, which is a big opportunity for ESCOs and GSA alike,” explains Carmichael. “While ESCOs can install the submetering equipment and train operators and occupants, it is uncommon for the ESCOs to remain deeply involved with the operation of the building. Occupant energy-reduction programs require ongoing engagement to overcome staff turnover, maintain momentum, and align the incentives.”



September 13, 2013 |

White House To Finally Get Solar Panels

rooftop-solar-installationHow many years ago was it promised that the White House would have solar panels installed on the roof? Three that seemed more like twelve. The disappointments that resulted from the unfulfilled promise were great and not at all necessary. How hard is it to get a small number of them on the roof of the White House?

Offers were made to provide the technology and installation for free, and they were ignored. Finally, the installation appears to be happening, according to the Washington Post. It’s hard to tell if this great news or just sort of a buzz kill drawn out over what seemed like a less than magical drought.

The premise behind having them installed back in the 1970s by then President Jimmy Carter was simple enough and that was the main appeal. If the number one house in America could be powered by solar, at least partly, then many members of the public might come to see they could use them too. They didn’t last too long though, because the center of American culture was a little more fossil-fuel oriented, or a lot more. Ronald Reagan was elected and he ordered the solar panels to be taken down.

They weren’t hurting anything, except our unquestioning reliance on coal and petroleum products, but Reagan didn’t like them. So, flash forward several decades, and it seemed like it was a slam dunk that new solar panels should be quickly added to the White House roof. This view only seemed sensible considering the 2008 Obama campaign was presented as an urgent activism to restore hope to the country. The spirit of it was change in the form of new policies that were supposed to give power back to the people, and remove it from the huge corporations and lobbyists that had become far too dominant.

In the end, we got more rhetoric than action, as we might have expected. That it took so long to complete a fairly simple project, only has underscored that action has been on the short side in some aspects of the current two-term administration. Speeches made about climate change might been a little more credible if the commitment to greening the White House had been stronger.

Image Credit: Matt H. Wade

White House To Finally Get Solar Panels was originally published on: CleanTechnica.

August 15, 2013 |

HyRef Technology Revolutionizes Renewable Energy Forecasting

IBM has long been known for building some of the world’s most powerful supercomputers, but what happens when it applies advanced modeling to solving the intermittency of renewable energy?

The answer, it turns out, is “Hybrid Renewable Energy Forecasting” (HyRef). This new technology, already online in China, is able to produce accurate local weather and renewable energy forecasts as far as one month in advance, down to 15-minute increments.

The HyRef technology combines advanced power and weather computer modeling, sophisticated cloud imaging, sky-facing cameras, and on-site sensors to accurately predict solar power and wind energy output and increase the amount of renewable electricity flowing onto grids across the world.

HyRef forecast system


Crowded Field In Renewable Energy Forecasting Race

HyRef joins an increasingly crowded field of innovative technologies seeking to accurately predict the output of renewable energy resources. The National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) pioneered wind energy forecasting in 2010 with a system that saved Midwestern US utility Xcel Energy millions with three-day ahead forecasts.

NCAR is also working on a two-year plan to predict sudden changes in wind speed from severe weather events and predict output for small-scale solar energy systems, as well as a three-year project to create technology that creates three-day solar energy forecasts at 15-minute increments.

Other research initiatives have been launched to better understand how siting turbines affects wind farms and their energy output, as well as how variable renewable electricity can be better integrated into our energy system by grid operators, but results from those initiatives are years away.

More Sophisticated Analysis Than Ever Before

While the technology race to forecast renewable energy output may be crowded, HyRef seems to have pulled ahead on two counts: the ability to forecast weather further out than any competitor, and the power of the technology in action.

HyRef system capability

“Applying analytics and harnessing big data will allow utilities to tackle the intermittent nature of renewable energy and forecast power production from solar and wind in a way that has never been done before,” said Brad Gammons of IBM. “We have developed an intelligent system that combines weather and power forecasting to increase system availability and optimize power grid performance.”

Improving weather-renewables forecasting is an important imperative for the clean energy transition. The misalignment between actual renewables output and system demand stretches from up to 4 hours daily for wind to up to 1.25 hours daily for solar, according to Navigant Research, and matching renewable supply to demand could be worth up to $733 million globally.

10% Increase In Renewables Output

No other system, even those in development, have promised or delivered more than a 36-hour forecast. But HyRef can predict local weather forecasts for individual wind turbines within a wind farm and solar systems up to one-month in advance – nearly ten times the length of NCAR’s forecasts.

This long-term outlook gives grid operators unprecedented ability to plan ahead and integrate the maximum amount of clean electricity onto the grid without worrying about intermittency or forcing curtailment.

HyRef renewable energy forecast

China’s State Grid Jibei Electricity Power Company Limited (SG-JBEPC) has already begun using HyRef in phase one of the 670-megawatt (MW) capacity Zhangbei wind-solar energy facility. By combining on-site energy storage with HyRef forecasts, the utility will be able to increase renewable electricity integration 10% – enough to power more than 14,000 homes compared to previous output.

Applications Beyond Renewable-Grid Integration

HyRef could revolutionize how grid operators and power developers look at renewable energy intermittency. But beyond solving intermittency challenges, HyRef may eventually help renewable energy developers find the best locations to build new projects. HyRef builds upon an IBM-Vestas project that has used big data analytics to site wind turbines based on petabytes worth of data to improve generation output and reduce maintenance and operational costs.

“Utilities around the world are employing a host of strategies to integrate new renewable energy resources into their operating systems,” said Vice Admiral Dennis McGinn of the American Council on Renewable Energy. “The weather modeling and forecasting data generate from HyRef will significantly improve this process and put us one step closer to maximizing the full potential of renewable resources.”

Check out the video below for more information about how HyRef works:


HyRef Technology Revolutionizes Renewable Energy Forecasting was originally published on: CleanTechnica.


August 14, 2013 |

Solar — $1.20/Watt In Europe (Unsubsidized), & Much More Solar $ Fun


We’re in the midst of a massive cleantech revolution. Solar power is beginning to disrupt the hell out of the power industry. Electric vehicles are on the verge of putting gasmobiles to sleep. Wind power is already one of the cheapest options for new electricity generation in the world — if not the cheapest. The movement is exciting to watch. And, in a decade or so, we might need to change our name from CleanTechnica to Your Life. The solar revolution is certainly one of the more exciting things to watch. Below is some solar number fun that should get your blood pumping. Full disclosure: much of the legwork for this piece was done by one of our excellent readers — we’ll just call him CleanTechnica advisor #1.

Low Solar Prices Around the World

EU solar without subsidies as low as $1.20/watt: Deutsche Bank has reported that about ⅓ of small- to mid-sized solar installations in the EU are now going in without subsidies. Furthermore, “Multi-megawatt projects were being built south of Rome for €90c/W,” as RenewEconomy notes. “This was delivering electricity costs (LCOE – with 80 per cent self consumption) of around €80/MWh (€8c/kWh).” That’s about $1.20/W and 10–11¢/kWh.

UK solar down to $1.59/watt: The UK’s largest solar far, a new 34-megawatt solar farm near Leicestershire in the English Midlands, is said to cost just over one pound a watt ($1.59/W). That’s about 20% less than the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change number for large-scale solar in 2012.

Spain unsubsidized solar down to $1.47/watt: A completely unsubsidized 250 MW solar farm being developed in the northwestern region of Cádiz, Spain, is reportedly going to come in at €275 million, which would be about €1.1/watt or $1.47/watt.

Germany’s average solar PV price at $2.08/watt (unsubsidized): The Photovoltaik-Preisindex from has the average solar power system price in Germany (including utility, commercial, and residential solar PV system) at €1.56 ($2.08) in July. The lowest price it hit on that index was €1.50, or $2.00/watt, in February.

India solar farm comes in at $1.52/watt: Shifting over to India, the price is not all that different from the UK and Spain. A 100-megawatt solar farm in the Ramanathapuram district of Tamil Nadu is supposed to cost ₹920 billion ($15.16 million at the moment), which would be about $1.52/watt.

Australia getting/giving rooftop solar for as low as $1.90(USD)/watt for residential solar (before subsidies): Since I’ve used USD above, I’m using it here, too. Solar Choice’s July Solar PV Price Index indicates a before-subsidy low of AUD$2.06/watt (USD$1.90/watt) for residential solar. After relevant feed-in tariffs, the low is AUD$1.38/watt (USD$1.27/watt). The AUD$2.06/watt low was in both Western Australia and Tasmania. The after-subsidy low of AUD$1.38/watt was in Western Australia (Perth). After incentives, the average price of residential solar down under was AUD$1.76/watt (USD$1.62/watt) in July. Impressive.

Translating To ¢/kWh, And The US Situation

The $/watt numbers are interesting, but what we often want to know is actually ¢/kWh. That helps us compare to our electricity bills and to other types of power plants. To do a location-based comparison, we also need a solar insolation map. Given that the largest number of our readers are American (as well as the two of us writing this article), we’ve decided to focus on the US in this section.

solar insolation US

Using 20-year, 5% financing, the EIA’s 1c/kWh projection for fixed O&M (no subsidies), and the US solar insolation map above, we get these numbers:

$1.20/W =

  • 7.3¢ per kWh in Zone 5 (4.2 solar hours, 17.5% capacity — Northeast/Midwest)
  • 5.8¢ per kWh in Zone 2 (5.5 solar hours, 23% capacity — Southwest)

$1.50/W =

  • 8.3¢ per kWh in Zone 5
  • 7¢ per kWh in Zone 2

$2.00/W =

  • 11.4¢ per kWh in Zone 5
  • 9.9¢ per kWh in Zone 2

To put that into better perspective, the average price of electricity in the US was 11.8¢ per kWh in May, according to the EIA. (And, assuming 3% inflation, the 20-year average cost of electricity would be 16¢ per kWh.)

  • In New York, the average price of residential electricity was 18.3¢ per kWh.
  • In Illinois, it was 10.5¢ per kWh.
  • In Michigan, it was 14.2¢ per kWh.
  • In Florida (which is in Zone 4 of that solar insolation map), it was 11.3¢ per kWh.
  • In California (which is mostly in Zone 3, but partly in Zones 1, 2, and 4), it was 15.8¢ per kWh.
  • In Texas (which is mostly in Zone 3, but partly in Zone 2), it was 11.2¢ per kWh.

In other words, the average price of residential electricity in the above states (and the US on average) is considerably higher than solar at $1.50/watt or even $2.00/watt over 20 years, and the case would get even better if you included the rising electricity prices that are projected by basically everyone in the industry. (For non-residential electricity prices or prices for other states, check out the full EIA spreadsheet.)

Basically, when we could get to Australia’s or Europe’s solar price level, solar will blow up across the US even more so than is happening today.

What are the best US solar prices we’ve seen?

We’ve seen 5.8¢ per kWh in New Mexico after federal and state solar incentives, and about 10.8¢ per kWh before those incentives. Across all sectors, New Mexico retail electricity was 8.8¢ per kWh in May. In the residential sector, it was was 11.2¢ per kWh; in the commercial sector, it was was 9.2¢ per kWh; and in the industrial sector, it was 6.1¢ per kWh.

We’ve seen 6.9¢ per kWh in Palo Alto, California, after federal solar incentives, and about 9.9¢ per kWh before those incentives. Or, in a slight variation on those numbers, John Farrell writes: “the city of Palo Alto is buying subsidized electricity at 7¢, with an unsubsidized cost of 12¢ per kWh. For most residential electricity customers, this is still better than their marginal electricity price, which is between 13¢ and 17¢ per kWh. So Palo Alto, with relatively high rates and abundant sunshine, has already reached ‘Unsubsidized Solar Parity’.” (Notably, Palo Alto has seriously streamlined the “putting solar panels on your roof” process, and the city government has committed to purchasing 100% renewable electricity.)

I’m sure there are many more stories like these. The costs for many projects aren’t often revealed publicly. Notably, however, those two examples above are for large solar power plants. Still, in Q1 of 2013, US residential solar system prices were seen for less than $3.00/W. That would be less than 14.8¢ per kWh in a Zone 2 region, beating the 20-year average price of residential electricity (with 3% inflation) in all Zone 2 states (Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Texas would be 15.9¢ per kWh; Utah would be 15.7¢ per kWh; Nevada would be 16¢ per kWh; and California would be 16.6¢ per kWh).

And, to be honest, your solar panels should last well over 20 years, even well over 30 years, and after a 20-year payoff the electricity becomes essentially free.

Ah, EIA Projections…

So, just to give a sense for how behind the times, the EIA can be, it is projecting US solar will be 13¢ per kWh in 2018, even using 30-year solar system lifespans.

To reiterate, Palo Alto got a solar farm for a cost of 9.9¢–12¢ per kWh (before subsidies) through a 30-year PPA, and New Mexico got one for 10.8¢ per kWh (before subsidies) through a 25-year PPA … 5 years before 2018.

Be cautious whose solar price projections you use.

Solar — $1.20/Watt In Europe (Unsubsidized), & Much More Solar $ Fun was originally published on: CleanTechnica.

August 12, 2013 |

Interns Help Create Solutions For Clean Energy Challenges


by National Renewable Energy Laboratory on Earthtechling

They travel far and wide, from all corners of the country. They come from a diverse set of backgrounds, and they have very different plans for their futures. But the 54 student interns at the Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) this summer all have something in common — a thirst for knowledge and a desire to apply what they have learned in school to real-world science in a state-of-the-art laboratory environment.

Each summer, students make their way to NREL’s facilities in Golden, Colorado, seeking an opportunity to work side by side with top researchers investigating the solutions to our energy challenges.

“Students get to take their knowledge from school and apply it in a national laboratory environment,” said NREL Education Program Coordinator Linda Lung. “The students are contributing members of these research teams. It’s an invaluable experience for both the interns and their mentors.”

Interns Follow a Variety of Paths to NREL

For summer intern Adam Atia, life in Colorado is a very different experience. Atia, born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, took the train to City College of New York each day while he sought his undergraduate degree in environmental engineering and earth systems science.

As an intern in NREL’s Transportation and Hydrogen Systems Center, Atia is testing vehicle efficiencies and emissions. His primary objective for the summer was to get an infrared spectrometer up and running, which would supplement the lab’s current emissions analysis data and allow researchers to analyze a wider spectrum of emissions for a variety of fuel sources.

“This internship has been a great way to cap off my undergraduate degree with a different perspective on my work,” Atia said. “My focus in school has been on air quality. The time I have spent in the lab at NREL has given me a chance to look air quality issues specifically from a transportation perspective. I am hoping to focus my future studies on renewable energy and sustainability while still applying my knowledge in air quality. This has been a great step toward that goal.”

On the flip side, intern Jonah Richard grew up in Corinth, Vermont, a town with no stoplights and only one paved road. That road led Richard to Bard College, a small liberal arts college in upstate New York, where he recently completed his undergraduate studies in physics.

Richard chose to spend the summer at NREL’s Chemical and Materials Sciences Center, investigating third-generation solar cells, which are still in early stages of development. He is also looking into potential applications of carbon nanotubes in photovoltaics and has found the work rewarding.

“I’d worked with fuel cells and carbon nanotubes ain the past, but had never worked with photovoltaics, and it was a great opportunity to come here to use what I’ve learned on a different application,” Richard said. “The facilities are amazing at NREL. Coming from a small liberal arts college that doesn’t have a lot of hands-on research labs, it has been a fantastic experience to be able to work in an environment like this.”

NREL intern Erin Brahm builds electrodes to be used for hydrogen research at NREL's hydrogen lab. (image via NREL)NREL intern Erin Brahm builds electrodes to be used for hydrogen research at NREL’s hydrogen lab. (image via NREL)

Coincidentally, despite their different backgrounds, both Atia and Richard are headed to Columbia University in New York City in the fall. Atia will be working toward a graduate degree in earth and environmental engineering while Richard continues his studies toward advanced degrees in chemical engineering and physics.

For summer intern Rachel Welch, the knowledge and experience gained through her internship is beneficial as she investigates options for her future. Welch, a native of Galesburg, Illinois, will be returning this fall to Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, to finish her undergraduate degree in chemistry.

While at NREL, Rachel is involved in research on thin-film solar cells at NREL’s Chemical and Materials Science Center. Her efforts are focused on investigating new materials for solar cells and the best options for applying these materials to thin-film photovoltaics.

“It’s been a really great opportunity for me,” Welch said. “The materials we are looking at are comparable to existing materials but are new to this application, so there is very little study of them. The work we are doing is important and challenging. Doing this work has been a great way to dip my toes into materials science along with my chemistry background to see if I might want to pursue that further in the future.”

NREL Researchers Provide Important Mentorship

Nurturing the next generation of scientists and engineers is a priority for the Energy Department’s Office of Science and NREL.

“This internship program is a critical pathway for encouraging these students to pursue the next level of excellence,” Lung said. “These students will someday be the scientists and engineers that advance the work we’ve begun here today, and we will be depending on them to continue our efforts toward a sustainable energy future.”

To that end, each student intern is assigned a mentor from NREL’s research community who guides and advises the students through their research and their collaboration within their teams. The students say their mentors are critical to their success.

“My mentor has really been great and has always been available to help when I need it,” Richard said. “The mentors here really value us as scientists and as a part of their teams, even though we are undergrads. To get to collaborate with them and the research teams on such a high level is a tremendous learning opportunity.”

The mentors enjoy the chance to work with such a talented group of young scientists and engineers and often find that they get as much out of the program as they give.

“I am invigorated by the passion that the interns have for learning and the enthusiasm they apply to their research,” said NREL Scientist Todd Deutsch, a former intern in the program and now mentor to summer intern Erin Brahm. “These interns are fully on board with NREL’s mission, and they can’t wait to get started on their projects and make meaningful contributions.”

While these mentors enjoy working with the interns and the personal satisfaction it brings, they also clearly understand how the intern program helps ensure that their research continues as we pursue solutions to our energy challenges.

“The internship program at NREL advances our mission by exposing motivated students to scientific challenges related to sustainable energy technologies at an early stage in their career,” said NREL Senior Scientist Jeff Blackburn, mentor to Richard. “These students then serve as ambassadors to our mission by starting discussions, research projects, and other programs at their universities. One energetic intern will inspire many others, helping to grow the pool of scientists needed to address our demanding global energy needs.”

Returning Interns Dig in Deep on Projects

For some interns, one summer at NREL is not enough, and they return for a second time, allowing them to dig in deeper on research topics they started the year before.

Erin Brahm has been an intern in NREL’s Hydrogen Program for the past two summers. Brahm, a native of Huntsville, Alabama, recently graduated with a degree in chemistry and mathematics from Sewanee: The University of the South and is heading to the University of California, Berkeley, this fall to pursue a Ph.D. in chemistry.

Brahm has been investigating research topics around hydrogen production from water using renewable electrolysis. Her work is focused on developing treatment processes to stabilize the semiconductors used in electrolysis, and she has enjoyed the chance to be able to explore this technology extensively.

“I’ve been an intern at NREL for the last two summers, and my research on this technology made me realize that this was the field I wanted to pursue as a career,” Brahm said. “So I am back again this year, and I chose my graduate school program based on being able to continue research in this area.”

Brahm has parlayed her experience as an intern at NREL into a clear direction for what she wants to do with her future.

“This internship program is really special because we each get a project that we see through from start to finish,” Brahm said. “We are doing real science and get to experience the entire process. Everyone here is so focused and dedicated to their research, and it’s fascinating to see all of the different disciplines and paths that are being studied to solve our energy challenges. It is an inspiring and amazing place to be.”

Adam Nelessen spends his time at NREL’s National Wind Technology Center just outside of Boulder working with the Offshore Wind and Ocean Power Group. Like Brahm, he jumped at the opportunity to be able to return to NREL for a second summer to continue his research. The Flagstaff, Arizona, native and recent mechanical engineering graduate of Northern Arizona University is on his way to Georgia Tech in Atlanta this fall to pursue a master’s degree in aerospace engineering.

Nelessen has been developing a computer modeling tool for wave energy research that will allow for the replication of the performance of wave energy devices operating in realistic conditions. This modeling tool will be important as wave energy begins to be looked at more closely as a viable alternative energy resource.

“It’s been an exciting opportunity because this is such a young industry and it has little in the way of standards for what the devices are going to look like,” Nelessen said. “As these devices come closer to commercial development, the need for good modeling tools is going to be increasingly important. I’ve really enjoyed the unique challenge of getting to do work as an intern in a new area where I feel that I can have a real impact.”

As a returning intern, Nelessen feels strongly that the lessons learned and hands-on experience gained at NREL will serve him well in the future.

“The continuity of being able to investigate this technology for such an extended period of time has been a great opportunity, because this summer I was able to jump right in and hit the ground running,” Nelessen said. “The work I will be doing in graduate school will look similar to what I’ve done here at NREL, so the experience I have had is going to apply quite well.”

NREL-icon Author credit goes to David Glickson.

August 9, 2013 |
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