Monday, November 28, 2005

BP to Create BP Alternative Energy Business Unit

BP has announced that it plans to double its investment in alternative and renewable energies to create a new low-carbon power business with the growth potential to deliver revenues of around $6 billion a year within the next decade. Building on the success of BP Solar business unit, which expects to hit revenues of $1 billion in 2008, BP Alternative Energy will manage an investment program in solar, wind, hydrogen and combined cycle gas turbine (CCGT) power generation, which could amount to $8 billion over the next ten years. Readers will note that within this $8 billion are included investments in natural gas power generation which as a fossil fuel is not in my opinion a form of alternative energy and also investment in hydrogen which is a carrier of energy rather than a source. It should also be noted that the vast majority of BP's approximately $15 billion annual investment budget will remain focussed on oil and gas projects, which currently offer much higher returns.

BP chief executive Lord Browne said "We are now at a point where we have sufficient new technologies and sound commercial opportunities within our reach to build a significant and sustainable business in alternative and renewable energy."

Browne said the first phase of investment would total some $1.8 billion over the next three years, spread in broadly equal proportions between solar, wind, hydrogen and CCGT power generation.

Investment in solar over the next three years is planned to boost BP's leading position as a leading manufacturer and supplier of photovoltaic systems. In a field where technology improvements and higher productivity are causing costs to decline, BP currently has 10 percent of the global market which is growing at 30 percent a year, faster than any other form of renewable energy.

BP currently has more than 100 megawatts of solar manufacturing capacity in the US, Spain, India and Australia, with a plan to double its capacity before the end of next year. BP recently signed a strategic joint venture to access China's expanding solar market and provide local manufacturing capacity and is exploring similar opportunities elsewhere in the region.

"As the pricing of carbon develops through trading schemes and other initiatives, the market will grow rapidly as low-emission technologies displace less clean forms of power generation."

Investment projected for wind represents a significant step up in this area of power generation for BP. The company currently runs two wind farms alongside existing oil plants in the Netherlands. It also owns industrial land in open, high-wind regions of the US, away from residential areas, providing the possibility to build the first large-scale US wind farm generating up to 200 megawatts in 2007. The company has identified enough US sites to accommodate wind turbines with a total capacity of 2,000 megawatts.

Projected investment in CCGT will be spent mainly in the US where the company already has significant co-generation capacity and is currently finalizing plans for a new $400 million scheme at one of its major plants that will deliver 100 megawatts of power to the plant, and 420 megawatts to the local electricity grid.

BP's move is at odds with the views of some in the oil industry, including the world's largest private oil and gas firm, Exxon Mobil, which argues renewables are a poor use of investors' funds.

BP Alternative Energy Website

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Hurricane Wilma Power Outages Boost Solar Power in Florida

Florida Solar Energy Center

South Florida's Sun-Sentinel newspaper reports that Florida resident Pam Wall was able to relax while the rest of her neighbors were cloaked in darkness after Hurricane Wilma struck. The Fort Lauderdale resident still had all her modern conveniences -- working lights, TV, hairdryer, coffee pot and refrigerator -- all thanks to solar power.

Two solar-powered panels attached to the homemade sailboat docked in her back yard enabled Wall and her husband to enjoy all the noise-free, stress-free power they wanted while they waited almost three weeks for electricity to be restored to their house.

"We just lived on the boat and all the power we needed was from our solar panels," she said. "We didn't worry about fuel."

Wall is one of a small number of South Floridians who found solar power to be an effective alternative during times of disaster. The group's ranks are expected to grow, industry officials say, as residents realize how vulnerable they are to power outages and gas shortages each hurricane season. Also, new tax credits that go into affect on the first of January allow homeowners and businesses to deduct 30 percent of the cost of a solar-power system from their taxes, for a total credit of up to $2,000, according to the Energy Policy Act of 2005.

Instead of buying a gas generator this year in preparation for hurricane season, Dan Fieldman of Jupiter bought two solar panels for $683. After Wilma knocked out the electrical grid, he laid the panels out on his lawn, hooked them up to a car battery, attached a few small appliances and watched the World Series on TV as he checked his email.

"It was dead silent, it didn't stink up the place and I didn't have to worry about buying gas," he said. "I had a little color television and a laptop and a refrigerator. It was great."

There are drawbacks. Solar power is more expensive than regular electricity, needs sunshine to work and can be more difficult to set up.

Nonetheless, local governments are also getting in on the action, using solar-powered traffic signals and lights to make roads safer during outages. The city of Coral Springs used seven solar signals after the storm, and officials found them so successful they have ordered another four despite their hefty price tag of $10,000 each.

"They worked out wonderfully," said Police Chief Duncan Foster. "They have proved themselves in the man-hours we saved directing traffic. We didn't have to put an officer in those intersections and risk their safety."

Florida Solar Energy Center in Brevard, Florida

Jim Fenton, director of the Florida Solar Energy Center, the largest state-supported renewable energy research institute in the United States and a branch of the University of Central Florida, wants to take things a step further and lobby the state to install mobile solar-power systems at local schools that serve as hurricane shelters. That way, he said, the schools can save money on their energy bill during the year, have power if electricity is knocked out, and send out the mobile system after a storm if it is needed elsewhere.

For most, however, the advantage of solar energy during this year's outage was simply a surprise benefit to something they originally did for economic, environmental or practical reasons.

Tim Williamson, a Hollywood resident and pastor of Hollywood Hills Alliance Church, had a solar water heater installed at his home five years ago to save about $30 a month on his energy bill. It was such a luxury to have warm water after Wilma, he now says he would consider hooking up other solar-power systems.

"We were taking nice hot showers when everyone else was taking cold ones," Williamson said.

The main reason more people don't have a solar-power home is simple. It's pricey.

Diane Marshall of Key Largo spent about $24,000 to set up her solar-power home, which also purifies its own water and won her the 2005 "Green Building" Award from The Council for Sustainable Florida.

As a result, while there are tens of thousands of people with solar water heaters in the state, there are only a few hundred who have solar electric systems that power their homes, estimated Jim Dunlop, an engineer with the Florida Solar Energy Center.

Even with all that expense, there are technical challenges associated with using solar power during an outage, experts explain.

First off, there are two kinds of solar power: solar electric and solar thermal.

Solar-electric systems, also known as photovoltaic systems, use silicon cells on a solar panel to convert the sun's energy into direct current electricity. An inverter turns this electricity into power most appliances can use.

But to work at night and during periods of cloudiness, solar-electric homes need to incorporate a battery system that stores the solar power generated during daylight. Otherwise, they only work when the sun is shining.

Some choose to forgo such battery systems because they cost about 25 percent more, Dunlop said.

Solar water heaters, an example of a solar-thermal system, work much more simply by using the sun's energy to directly heat water. But they also have their quirks. For example, homeowners need to make sure they have a solar-powered water pump -- not an electric one -- as part of their solar water heater if they want hot water during a prolonged blackout.

Julie Joyce of Fort Lauderdale learned this the hard way when she lost hot water a few days after Wilma because her pump was electric. Two weeks into the outage, Joyce paid a company $640 to install a solar pump.

"Ahh, it was wonderful," she said, recalling her first hot shower, saying the price was worth it. "It's up there forever now."

Another concern: solar panels must be installed correctly so the panels don't fly off in a storm or become damaged.

Bone, the owner of a solar home on No Name Key, said the panels on his house did fine in the hurricane, but he has seen some homes where they have not. He said there are two ways to mount panels on roofs -- flush or, as was common in the 1980s before Hurricane Andrew, tilted to the south for maximum sun exposure. Tilted panels have a greater chance of catching wind and tearing off, he said. Most modern installations must meet strict building codes that certify they can withstand hurricane force winds.

Despite such drawbacks, those who have tried solar power say it is easy to get hooked on the silent, abundant energy source -- both during an outage and after.

"If I ever redo my house, I would put solar panels everywhere," said Wall, the solar sailboat owner. "You can use it all the time, not just during a hurricane."

Full Sun-Sentinel Article

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Sunday, November 27, 2005

Ecovillages, Watching TV, Saving Water and Changing Energy Consumption

One of the aims of the Alternative Energy Blog is to go beyond reporting the opening of the latest windfarm and explore our existing energy culture and how this culture can be changed. While the recent UK television series "No Waste Like Home" went into the homes of families which used several times the energy of the "average" family, the recent episode of the documentary series "30 days" from American documentary maker Morgan Spurlock (of "Supersize Me" fame) approached the issue by taking two "ravenous consumers of fossil fuels" and making them go cold turkey by taking them off-grid by living on the Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, a commune "committed to radical environmental sustainability" in rural northeastern Missouri.

This approach was in my opinion a limited success. While it may have made for reasonably diverting television with one participant saying they couldn't live without their hair products and the other adopting the name "Meato" when challenged by the community's vegan diet it seemed to achieve only limited change in the participants with vague commitments to installing low energy lightbulbs and trying to use public transport more. The programme failed to challenge their belief that "oil isn't going to run out any time soon" or even provide any reasons to change other than the effects of diesel pollution in one Californian port town. So while recycling their "humanure" and running a car on discarded vegetable oil (which regular readers will know is NOT a scalable solution) may have been curiosities, there were few "take aways" for either the participants or the viewers. For me this was where "No Waste Like Home" succeeded by actually engaging the participants in their everyday environment and presenting them with both a "radical" and "practical" change to their energy usage from which both they and the viewers could learn from.

The Interflush

A different BBC television series "Dragons' Den" highlighted for me another issue. The series in which entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to "elite business experts" saw the inventor of the Interflush pitch his ideas to the panel of "business experts". The invention itself promises radical water savings "an unbeatable 47%" from a device which retails for around $30. Unfortunately a combination of a distinct vagueness on predicted sales figures and less than polished presentation skills meant there were no offers of investment. An affirmative answer by the inventor to the question "do you see yourself as more of an eco-warrior than an entrepreneur?" from the panel ended his chances. He was mocked for trying (and failing) to sell his invention to water companies who make money from selling more water. Yet isn't there something wrong when the world faces serious energy problems and oil, gas, electricity and water companies make bigger profits when people consume more. It is interesting therefore that energy giant BP in their latest marketing campaign asks "Do you know how big your carbon footprint is?". While the debate will continue as to just how green BP really is (the fact remains almost all their profits come from oil and gas) this campaign is getting people to think about their energy use which is definitely a good thing. Thinking about energy has to been a mainstream concern for all of us and our culture needs to change to reflect this. I'm interested in how readers think we should be creating this culture change.

Interview with 30 days show participant Vito Summa

Dancing Rabbit's response to 30 days

note: the "Off the Grid" episode of 30 days was first broadcast on July 13th on the FX Network and November 24th on More4 in the UK.