Report on UNC’s “a Public Dialog on Renewable Energy Issues and Needs”

Report on UNC’s “a Public Dialog on Renewable Energy Issues and Needs”

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On Jan 14th, 2011 I attended the public forum “Putting Solar Energy in [its] Place: A Public Dialog on Renewable Energy Issues and Needs” at the Friday Center. For those interested in this type of thing, here are a couple of notes and impressions.

The forum consisted of a series of posters and displays in the atrium and a forum discussion.

The displays included awareness boosters on the subjects of energy facts and policy development, posters showing alternative energy technologies (cellulosic ethanol, landfill methane), energy conservation initiatives (climate action, ways to conserve, smart grid, improved solar thermal and chilled water, local incentive programs) and posters showcasing scientific work at UNC, Duke, NC State, Univ. of Florida). Of course NC Green Power, Progress and Duke Energy were represented. Duke showed off the Tesla roadster Electric Vehicle.

A couple of highlights for me included:

  1. it was shown that PV solar energy is now less expensive than nuclear energy production.
  2. There is an interesting initiative in Carrboro, which includes subsidized energy audits, short payback retrofits and a network of pre-qualified contractors and neighborhood energy savings competitions (with prizes).
  3. 3) There are interesting, extremely efficient, new photon absorbing materials being developed at UNC.
  4. 4) The new way of thinking to overcome the energy storage issue associated with PV solar is to store the energy not in batteries, but by storing it in liquids, using chemical reactions.

The forum discussion was preceded by short introductions by David Price (US Representative, D-NC), Joel Olsen (Managing Director O2Energies), Vikram Rao (Executive Director, Research Triangle Energy Consortium) and the forum chair Thomas J. Meyer (UNC professor of chemistry, director of the UNC Energy Frontier Research Center in Solar Fuels and Next Generation Photovoltaics). I will not summarize the speeches or the Q&A session, but herewith some factoids:

– The US is not doing well in the renewable energy race and is well behind China, Germany, Brazil and some provinces of Canada. The way to curb this is by means of appropriate incentives.

– The US used to be ahead in the PV solar market, which was due to the fact that marihuana growers were big users (off-grid, not traceable)!

– The US leads the developments of biomass, geothermal and nuclear.

– Most of the whole fleet of electricity plants in NC will have to be retired in the next 10 years. This offers a real opportunity and will provide lots of employment.

– On a sunny summer’s day, Germany now produces more than 35% of its domestic energy by means of solar panels. A positive aspect is that the grid did not need to be upgraded as electricity is generated locally.

– When the total “well-to-wheels” energy is considered, electric vehicles (EV) are 28% efficient as compared to 16% for internal combustion engines. Hence establishing a smart grid to enable EV’s and bringing down the cost of batteries is of extreme importance.

– The National Academy of Sciences reported at the conference earlier in the day that the actual price of gasoline, when the cost of national security is taken into account is $8-10/gallon!

– It is necessary to change energy policies to create a level playing field where renewable energy is given equal opportunity to fossil fuel energy sources. The current policies, which were created 50 years ago, give a great advantage to fossil fuels, because the tax payer is funding the infrastructures (electricity grid, pipelines), whereas renewables are not equally supported.