Much Better Solar Photovoltaics On the Way

Startup Enphase Energy of Petaluma, CA, is now making its first micro-inverters.  The small inverters can be bolted to the racking under each of an installation’s solar panel to convert DC power into AC for each panel individually. The company claims that the devices will increase a PV system’s efficiency by 5 to 25 percent and decrease the cost of solar power.

Enphase has already teamed with various distributors and partners, including solar module manufacturer Suntech Power Holdings and installer Akeena Solar, to bring its device to customers.  The micro-inverters can be used on residential, commercial, or even utility-scale photovoltaic systems.

There’s much more to solar power than black glassy panels glistening on rooftops.  Perhaps more important now that installations and real world testing is well underway and understood is the inverter performance that convert DC power created by the solar panels into grid-ready AC power.

Currently all the panels in a rooftop photovoltaic system are connected to one large inverter mounted on the side of a house from which the AC power is off loaded to the house or grid.  This is being done as solar panels are wired together in series, and their combined high-voltage DC power is fed to the inverter. From that current flow the inverter’s logic circuit optimizes the total current and voltage levels. But if one panel’s current drops, it becomes the limit of the overall output of the system.

SolarPanel Microinverter by Enphase
SolarPanel Microinverter
by Enphase

Leesa Lee, director of marketing at Enphase points out the problem, “Something as simple as a leaf blowing over a module, or dust or debris or shade on one module, will affect the entire array of all those modules that are connected in series.”  Think bird poop and all the other things falling out of the sky as major problems, but mostly canceling the equality of each panel, that forces production to the least efficient module.  It’s a bigger problem than many realize.

But Enphase’s micro-inverters individually optimize the voltage-current levels at each panel. That uses the most power from each panel and then adds the panels together, increasing the system’s efficiency. “Any problem on a module is limited to that module alone,” Lee says. In addition, the equipment cost for micro-inverters is about 15 percent less than the cost for a traditional system, she says, because expensive DC components, such as signal combiners and disconnects, can be replaced with off-the-shelf AC parts.

Enphase Micro Inverter Points. Click image for a larger view.
Enphase Micro Inverter Points

The problem has been known for decades so the concept of small inverters has been around for more than a decade, but there have been technical challenges to making practical devices. Enphase’s Senior Director for Systems, Mary Dargatz says,  “One of the biggest stumbling blocks to micro-inverter technologies in the past has been conversion efficiency.” So, Enphase has converted many analog parts in the circuits to digital to make the inverter smaller without sacrificing efficiency. The conversion efficiency of an individual micro-inverter is 95.5 percent, on par with efficiencies of traditional large inverters, which range from 94 to 96 percent.

Seems odd, doesn’t it?  The most costly part of a system is hooked up in a 40 year old design that cuts down on the output.  It’s a habit from the 1960s when inverters were very expensive.  Now with micro-inverters on can add to a system without making the inverter, the second most expensive part obsolete. It may be that the micro inverters can be used to upgrade older systems as well.  Enphase offers a long list of downloads to assist owners and installers with analyzing and assessing how the new micro inverter can be used. Its well worth looking over.

Going partway in an attempt to address a broader voltage range, National Semiconductor is making a power-optimizing module for individual panels.  The device only has the logic circuit for optimizing current and voltage levels–it doesn’t do the DC-to-AC power conversion.  What it offers in conversion efficiency looks to be meant for existing installations.

Enphase uses its AC output and ease of connection to offer another service to backup the sale.  The full kit would allow a consumer to send data in for analysis and receive reports via the Internet.  Beyond that, the potential exists for rationing power, if the situation allows, to divide one’s output say for use in the home and for sale.

It all makes for a much more practical implementation of solar arrays with photovoltaic collector panels.  A drop in panel costs, now a drop in inverter cost and a simpler installation should help get home and small commercial arrays more deeply down into the economy where more people can afford the investment.  That more mass market, which should reduce prices as well.

Which brings us to what might be the most important advantage of all.  With the Enphase micro-inverter one can start small and add modules or panels as the budget (or incentives) allow.  Now that’s a path to help build more market, too.  Growth looks good for photovoltaic.

Here is the original post: New Energy and Fuel

Can Government Make a Disaster From Nothing at All?

IHS Global Insight of Massachusetts under a contract from the American Petroleum Institute has rolled out its report about the consequences of a Federal takeover of the regulations from states overseeing the oil and gas well finishing process called “hydraulic fracturing.”

Before we start, hydraulic fracturing is packing water, some solvents, and strong sand and special chemicals into the rocks thousands of feet down so that oil and gas can flow back out.  It’s a kind of miniature, slow motion cracking of the rocks much further out from the little well hole.  One could also call it an explosion, but it takes hours, running into days to build up the pressure, to get some cracking and pack the sand into the fissures.  It turns a little hole into solid rock into a hole in lots of little rocks.

It’s just critical to keep this technology in use and further development.

Hydraulic fracturing has a 50 year history beginning with quite simple pressure buildups to today’s highly sophisticated multi directional wells in rocks that only a half decade or so ago were considered hopeless repositories of petroleum.  Today, using hydraulic fracturing a well or even a set of wells can release huge quantities of natural gas.  This can easily be seen in the natural gas price at the home meter to fertilizer for food and investments in even more production.  In the coming months more technology is coming and is being blended with technology that looks into the earth to guide where more effort should be applied.

All that, the potential and the world’s lowest prices of natural gas for Americans are at risk from a disaster of rearranging (and adding) regulations.  The Federal proposal is so bad that the amazing situation of business preferring a single regulatory framework over 50 regulations from the states is not preferable.  Yup, government can make a disaster from nothing at all, which isn’t amazing at all.

The matter is a fully Democrat sponsored attempt to place regulations of the Safe Drinking Water Act thousands of feet down below any source of water for human use.  The bills, a House version and the Senate versions are very similar, which cautions one to realize this is a concerted attempt to subvert the existing framework of petroleum operations and regulations into a whole new field of bureaucratic interference.

Just to make things worse, the Feds propose not to unify regulations; they want to ADD a Federal layer.  IHS Global Insight’s study, “Measuring the Economics and Energy Impacts of Proposals to Regulate Hydraulic Fracturing,” predicts the number of new U.S. wells drilled would plummet 20.5 percent in the first five-year period.  That would potentially reduce natural gas production by about 10 percent from 2008 levels by 2014, a mere 5 years out.

Remember the last marginal buyer’s impact on prices?  Carving off 10% of supply isn’t going to be cheap for heating homes, running business and industry or generating electricity.  Someone is passing put stupidal capsules in D.C.

There are problems, to be sure. In the fight last month the Ground Water Protection Council released a study that finding regulation of oil and gas field activities, including hydraulic fracturing, is best accomplished at the state level where regional and local conditions are best understood and where state regulators are on hand to conduct inspections and oversee specific operations like well construction, testing and plugging.

The Ground Water study is an excellent piece to grasp what’s been going on and raises the issue about why the Feds are digging here for more power anyway.  The history and background discussed go far to understand the process and that a few states are behind.

Is it serious?  If you live over a leaking well it is, but those aren’t so common as many would have us believe.  What is an issue is the control and enforcement of the law on the books.  Some states do lack enough oversight.  Arguments over who is to pay for control and cleanup is usually in the domain of lawyers consuming time and often more money than the clean up.  Drives people nuts, understandably, but is more regulation and economic costs the answers to the problems?

Today in the U.S., where over 95 percent of wells are routinely treated using fracturing, the impact of eliminating hydraulic fracturing on production would be “permanent and severe,” the IHS report notes.  The production slippage would be significant.  Part of the new regulations is to restrict the types of materials used to fracture rock.  You and I both know better than to think any Congressperson(s) can better decide what’s appropriate to use.  But IHS has figured that the proposed regulations would impact gas production falling 4.4 trillion cubic feet or 22 percent, while oil production could slip 400,000 barrels per day or 8 percent.  These are major numbers, tearing out more than the marginal buyers, driving prices to unpredictable new highs.

API President Jack Gerard said, “More than one million wells have been completed using this technology. Unnecessary regulation of this practice would only hurt the nation’s energy security and threaten our economy.”  That’s public relations nicety comment.

In raw numbers the study found elimination of the use of hydraulic fracturing would be catastrophic to the development of American natural gas and oil, with a 79 percent drop in well completions, resulting in a 45 percent reduction in natural gas production and a 17 percent reduction in oil production by 2014.  Those are real American jobs.

Everyone world wide would be affected.  Today the U.S. is a very small importer of natural gas.  The proposed bill would certainly change that forcing the U.S. into the world natural gas market in a big way.  No one, other than some special interests, injured parties frustrated at state responsiveness and a raft of natural gas exporters stands to gain.  And the last ones to benefit would be the injured Americans, anyway.  Just imagine the resentment of the world at the U.S closing in even more production.  This is a way past being a stupid proposal.

But in the end the IHS report is a model, but it’s formed up from real numbers from a solid historical database asking trends from the elimination of components.  Not a particularly complex or difficult problem. “When 95% of current wells could not be drilled the impact would be” isn’t real hard to grasp.  Debating over even double digit errors still leaves the economy in a huge disaster.

The geothermal folks better wake up on this too.  Hydraulic fracturing is going to become important in the geothermal field soon.

So I have to ask myself, what are the side effects from stupidal capsules? Sleeping better, better vigor and health, ah, making more money?  There’s a motive in there begging for a journalist’s investigation.  It won’t happen, it’s too incredible to believe to start with, but it is a proposed bill.  Yup, government can make a disaster from nothing at all.  Just pass around some campaign money and stupidal capsules.


Here is the original: New Energy and Fuel

A New Way to Drill For Geothermal Energy

Potter Drilling has launched the next phase of research into their technique for drilling to hot rock for geothermal heat energy.  With financial backing from Google getting the science past early work using air, Potter has crossed the development threshold to draw more funding.

The new drilling technique that uses superheated steam instead of air is being tested this year.  The technique relies on superheated steam to drill through the hard crystalline rocks that contain geothermal heat. The method for generating the superheated steam was developed by Oxford Catalysts, based in the UK. Dave Wardle, business development director for Instant Steam technology at Oxford Catalysts, said current drilling techniques are laborious and use rotating drill bits to cut through the rock.  “With crystalline rock you wear out the drill bits very fast,’ he said. ‘This new technology provides a chemical way of cutting rock at reasonably fast speed. There are no moving parts.”

The system works with a catalyst developed by Oxford Catalysts and a special drilling tool designed by Potter Drilling. The “Instant Steam” catalyst is contained inside the drill head, which is attached to a flexible coiled pipe. Wardle explained that when peroxide and methanol are piped into the catalyst bed, the catalyst carries out a combustion reaction and produces 800º C steam.  That’s hot.

When the steam contacts the rock surfaces it causes the rock crystalline grains to expand. As the grains expand, micro-fractures occur in the rock and small particles, called spalls, are ejected.  According to Oxford Catalysts Potter Drilling is not the first company to use spallation drilling technology.  Using air, spallation drilling was used commercially between the 1940s and 1960s for ore mining and was adapted to geothermal drilling by the US Department of Energy in the 1970s.  Air spallation drilling demonstrated impressive drilling performance, producing 8 inch to 12 inch boreholes to depths of 1,100 feet at rates faster than 50 feet per hour in solid granite.

The Potter drilling process starts by applying a high-intensity fluid stream to a rock surface to expand the crystalline grains within the rock. When the grains expand, micro-fractures occur in the rock and small particles called spalls are ejected. The process is accelerated by several factors including inherent stress in the rock formation.

Potter Drilling Process Steps.  Click image for the largest view.Potter Drilling Process Steps. Click image for the largest view.

Using steam and fluids allows much deeper drilling, with Potter expecting to get to as much as 30,000 feet, a depth that would allow exploiting geothermal extraction across much of the U.S.

Using fluids and heat pose three other advantages.  The borehole is much more stable, the rock particles and chips can be carried out from extreme depths, and adding the heat greatly improves the early work using air in faster drilling speeds.

Potter and its financial backers believe this technology could be the key to furthering power generation from geothermal energy, which currently only generates 10,000MW around the world.  It’s sure to turn heads in the petroleum and deep rock mining world as well.

Going for geothermal heat in the absence of hot subsurface water as is most common now, is being called engineered geothermal systems or “EGS.”  Potter’s point is this is different to other forms of geothermal power because EGS power plants can be developed anywhere that hot impermeable rock exists below ground.  But you have to bring your own water.  I might suggest that water or gases could be used to move the heat from depth, especially if the water is lost downhole.

Stuart Haszeldine, an expert from Edinburgh University’s School of Geosciences offers that many consider geothermal energy a renewable source and electricity produced from it would have a relatively low carbon footprint, saying, “The carbon cost is the drilling of the hole, but these holes last for many decades.”

Haszeldine expects that electricity produced from geothermal energy plants have the potential to be on a similar cost level to coal-fired power plants.

The EGS concept, originally know as Hot Dry Rock, was pioneered and patented in the early 1970s at Los Alamos National Laboratory by Potter Drilling cofounder Bob Potter and his coworkers.  EGS is one of the few sources of renewable energy with the promise of solving the increasing global demand for energy while addressing climate-change issues—and doing so for a price that is competitive with coal. The graphic that follows is from the Potter page explaining EGS with a Flashplayer and a small video from Google explaining the potential of EGS.

Engineered Geothermal System Diagram From Potter Drilling.  CLick image for a larger view.Engineered Geothermal System Diagram From Potter Drilling. CLick image for a larger view.

The EGS being man-made may be developed anywhere that hot impermeable rock exists.  That opens up a great deal of territory to low cost heat energy extraction.  Worthy of note is that the drilling issue and the technologies downhole are the matters of interest.  Binary systems for withdrawing the heat are in operation now with development work under way for more and better types of systems.  The electrical generation would be standard, with models chosen by energy availability.

Geothermal remains a slowly developing field, but is getting pushed by smart private investors such as Google who is funding Potter.  The geothermal resource is huge, a relatively simple concept to explain and lacks the sexiness of much of the technology that is in development for alternative energy sources.  Its also energy extraction, not a fuel so can go straight to grid so allowing more electrification.  Its also should be quite low cost an important matter for getting and keeping the economy moving and growing.

This is a good field.  It lacks the sexiness, but when the full details are known, it should be the “cash cow” investors dream about.  Thanks, Google.  Go Potter go!

Original post: New Energy and Fuel

Oil Consumption Impacted More by Price than Deteriorating Economic Conditions

The fall in oil consumption was most dramatic following the escalating price of crude oil to $145.16 per barrel on July 14, 2008 then at any other point over the last several years. Price elasticity, a key concept in Economics 101, which measures the impact of price change to changes in unit volume sold, is helpful in determining which products have readily available substitutes or which, like oil are inelastic with no real substitutes.

As illustrated by Benjamin Graham and David Dodd in their book Security Analysis, 1940 edition, during the 1930’s the economy had a dramatic impact on spending and consumption particularly on discretionary items such as travel. In one illustration, the change in demand was most pronounced in railroad revenues where tickets purchased for railroad travel, declined 51% from 1929 to 1993 as measured by gross receipts for the railroad industry. Over this same period, spending on the consumer staples (inelastic demand), such as electricity encountered a decline of only 9%.

While almost everyone would agree that the current economic climate is one of the most challenging since the 1930’s, a quick review of oil consumption over the last several years illustrates that demand has not significantly contracted, suggesting driving habits only changed when prices escalated to over $100 per barrel. Oil consumption dropped only 4.9% from January 2008 through January 2009.

Figure 1 Oil Consumption Oil

As seen from Figure 1, the sharp drop in oil consumption in September 2008 of 8.3% appears as an aberration when measured over the whole year. The fact there are no real substitutes for oil in the transportation industry illustrates two important points: 1) structural changes to driving patterns are required to see appreciable changes to oil consumption and 2) how vulnerable we are as a nation with no readily available substitutes for oil in the transportation systems.

Figure 2 Oil Demand in China and India Wood Prices

With China and India undergoing significant structural changes as they rapidly migrate towards motor vehicles for transportation suggests the demand for oil should continue to grow relatively unabated. Until the price of oil climbs back over $100 per barrel, we will not see the structural changes necessary to develop alternatives to oil in the transportation market.

The bottom line: energy and in particular, oil has not experienced a dramatic drop in demand during 2008 suggesting driving patterns were influenced more by the price of oil then the struggling economy. We must begin to shift emphasis to alternative energies such as solar as well as hybrids and electric vehicles.

Here is the original: Green Econometrics