Audi to Introduce Solar Roofs, Improve Fuel Efficiency and EV Range

Thin-film solar cells in panoramic glass roofs of Audi models: Audi and Alta Devices, a subsidiary of the Chinese solar-cell specialist, Hanergy, are working together on this development project. With this cooperation, the partners aim to generate solar energy to increase the range of electric vehicles.
Photo courtesy Audi AG.

Audi today announced a plan to increase the range of the company’s electric vehicles by generating onboard solar energy using thin-film solar cells. Audi and its partner, California-based Alta Devices, a subsidiary of the Chinese solar-cell specialist Hanergy, are taking an incremental approach and will first integrate Alta’s efficient, thin, and flexible mobile power technology into panoramic glass roofs. A prototype is expected by the end of this year.

Recognizing that drivers demand maximum range from their electric vehicles, and also responding to ever more stringent fuel economy requirements around the globe, Audi and other vehicle manufacturers are going to great lengths to maximize every opportunity to increase overall efficiency as well as replace liquid fuels with electricity. Consistent with this effort, Audi’s next step after integrating solar into glass panels will be to cover almost the entire roof with solar cells.

By generating onboard and clean renewable power for systems such as air-conditioning and seat heaters, the solar cells will reduce the demand on an all-electric vehicle’s main battery, thereby providing a longer range for driving. But solar cells also can improve fuel efficiency in mild-hybrid vehicles by making the gasoline or diesel engine’s output more fully available for moving the vehicle instead of producing electricity for in-cabin use. Eventually, Audi and Alta envision solar energy directly charging a fully-electric vehicle’s main battery. “That would be a milestone along the way to achieving sustainable, emission-free mobility,” said Bernd Martens, Audi’s Board of Management Member for Procurement.

The partnership with premier automaker Audi is a high-profile opportunity for Alta, holder of multiple world records for energy conversion efficiency. “This partnership with Audi is Alta Devices’ first cooperation with a high-end auto brand. By combining Alta’s continuing breakthroughs in solar technology and Audi’s drive toward a sustainable mobility of the future, we will shape the solar car of the future,” said Alta CEO Ding Jian.

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Advanced Transportation Projects Receive Federal Investment

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Vehicle Technologies Office this week announced $13.4 million in investments to support five new cost-shared, community-based projects focused on energy efficient mobility systems. Funding will go to support research and development related to connected and autonomous vehicles, alternative fuel vehicles, and infrastructure including natural gas, propane, biofuels, hydrogen, and electricity.

The specific winners are:

  • Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (Troy, New York), which will receive $2 million to evaluate changes in freight demand patterns that reduce energy use, incorporate energy efficient technologies and practices into freight logistics, and publish lessons learned.
  • Pecan Street Inc. (Austin, Texas), which will receive $1 million to pilot “last mile” electric bus services. The project includes a feasibility assessment of new technologies such as autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles and dynamic app-driven re-routing.
  • City of Seattle Department of Transportation (Seattle, Washington), which will receive $1.9 million to accelerate the use of EVs in shared mobility applications in four major U.S. markets and establish best practices for all U.S. metro regions.

In addition, two community partner projects focusing on alternative fuels will also receive funding:

  • Center for Transportation and the Environment (Atlanta, Georgia) and its partners will receive $4.6 million to accelerate the deployment of alternative fuel vehicles and infrastructure throughout the southeastern United States.
  • Metropolitan Energy Center, Inc. (Kansas City, Missouri) and its partners will receive $3.8 million to accelerate the deployment of alternative fuel vehicles, as well as supporting infrastructure, through community-based partnerships throughout Missouri, Kansas, and Colorado.

One of the Vehicle Technologies Office’s areas of focus is energy efficient mobility systems. Energy efficient mobility systems includes efforts to identify and support technologies and innovations that “encourage a maximum-mobility, minimum-energy future in which transportation systems may be automated, connected, electric, and/or shared (ACES).”

According to independent third-party evaluations of the DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy’s R&D portfolio that has been evaluated to date, taxpayer investment of $12 billion has yielded an estimated net economic benefit of more than $230 billion, with an overall annual return on investment of more than 20 percent.

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Debate Flares Over Electric Grid Fuel Supplies

Graph showing PJM Cleared ICAP by Delivery Year
Data source: PJM Interconnection

In a thinly-veiled swipe at renewable energy resources, Energy Secretary Rick Perry is reportedly ordering a study to determine whether the proliferation of renewables is threatening grid reliability by causing baseload (i.e., coal) resources to retire prematurely. The target of the report is not renewables, per se, but rather the compensation scheme for wholesale power in restructured markets around the country, and whether these markets are over or under-compensating various resources and therefore resulting in a sub-optimal fuel mix.

The subjects of generator compensation and fuel diversity are hotly contested in the energy world, as new (and renewable) resources such as wind, solar, and storage seek to compete with traditional resources such as gas, coal, and even nuclear. These new resources, which are favored by regulators in many states (including Perry’s home state of Texas), to date have generally complemented the existing resource mix and grid operators have been able to balance increasing quantities of intermittent resources; while industry insiders have debated the merits and value of various resource types, for the most part these arguments have taken place outside of the spotlight.

Now, though, with the new administration’s efforts to support coal power, along with nuclear operators loudly arguing their plants are being under-compensated and threatening shutdowns in New York, Illinois, and Ohio, and also as wind and solar generation reach ever higher levels of penetration and threaten to upend the historical pricing and production models in states such as California and Hawaii, the fight for the future of the grid is bursting into the headlines.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission next month will be holding a technical conference, during which Commission staff seeks to discuss long-term expectations regarding the relative roles of wholesale markets and state policies in the Eastern RTOs/ISOs in shaping the quantity and composition of resources needed to cost-effectively meet future reliability and operational needs.

Testimony for the technical conference will be forthcoming, but in the meantime the nation’s largest electrical grid, PJM Interconnection, has issued a report concluding that today’s resource profile “is both reliable and diverse,” and that not only does a more diverse grid not threaten reliability, “[t]he expected near-term resource portfolio is among the highest-performing portfolios and is well equipped to provide the generator reliability attributes.”

As the resource mix moves in the direction of less coal and nuclear generation, according to PJM, generator reliability attributes of frequency response, reactive capability, and fuel assurance decrease, but flexibility and ramping attributes increase. With regard to solar capacity, PJM concludes that this resource cannot feasibly exceed 20 percent of the mix due to unavailability at night. That said, assuming other nighttime resources, PJM “could maintain reliability with unprecedented levels of wind and solar.”

As for the grid’s reliance on individual fuels, PJM advises that heavy reliance on any one fuel type may negatively impact resilience. For example, gas plants can generally be relied upon to serve up to 86 percent of demand, but risks include interruptions in fuel deliverability in extreme conditions such as a polar vortex; for coal plants, operational risks include coal piles freezing or an inability to replenish coal supplies in extreme conditions.

The resource mix within PJM has become more evenly balanced in recent years. In 2005, coal and nuclear resources generated 91 percent of the electricity on the PJM system. Over time, policy initiatives, technology improvements, and economics spurred a shift from coal to natural gas and renewable generation. From 2010 to 2016 in PJM, coal-fired units made up 79 percent of the megawatts retired, and natural gas and renewables made up 87 percent of new megawatts placed in service. PJM’s installed capacity in 2016 consisted of 33 percent coal, 33 percent natural gas, 18 percent nuclear, and 6 percent renewables (including hydro).

Without identifying the optimal resource mix, PJM concludes that “there are resource blends between the most diverse and the least diverse portfolios which provide the most generator reliability attributes.”

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California Energy Regulator to Federal Climate Experts: “You’re Hired!”

Photo of CPUC President Michael Picker in front of United States EPA.
CPUC President Michael Picker inviting federal energy and climate employees to work in California.

In response to the White House budget that would decimate the ranks of federal employees working to mitigate climate change, the president of the California Public Utilities Commission, Michael Picker, this week greeted workers arriving at the headquarters of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy announcing that California welcomes their talents.

“On climate action, there’s a dark cloud hanging over Washington right now,” said CPUC President Picker. “If climate scientists and experts want the opportunity to continue doing important work for the good of our planet, my message is simple: Come West, California is hiring.”

The CPUC, the California Air Resources Board, and the California Energy Commission are currently hiring dozens of new staff for positions working on climate change, renewable energy, air quality, and clean energy research and development – among many other opportunities.

The budget released this week by the White House proposes to eliminate 50 programs and $2.6 billion from the EPA’s budget, a 31 percent reduction. The cuts would be achieved in large part by eliminating efforts related to climate change, such as the Clean Power Plan, and trimming initiatives to related to air and water quality. If enacted, 19 percent of the EPA’s workforce would be eliminated. The total loss at the EPA alone would be approximately 3,200 jobs.

“Literally and figuratively, this is a scorched earth budget that represents an all out assault on clean air, water, and land,” said Gina McCarthy, EPA administrator during the final years of the Obama administration. “You can’t put ‘America First’ when you put the health of its people and its country last.”

The Department of Energy’s cuts, which under any other administration would be considered draconian, are relatively tame at $1.7 billion, or 5.6 percent. DOE programs on the chopping block include:

  • Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy
  • Office of Nuclear Energy
  • Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability
  • Fossil Energy Research and Development Program
  • Weatherization Assistance Program and State Energy Program
  • Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) plus guarantee programs, greenhouse gas reducing technologies, and advanced vehicle programs

Meanwhile, California continues to advance aggressive efforts to decarbonize. For example, the state is on track for its regulated electric utilities to obtain 50 percent of their energy sales from renewable resources by 2030. Legislation signed into law just a few months ago requires statewide greenhouse gas emissions to be 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. Other state initiatives include aggressive requirements and goals related to distributed energy resources (including renewable energy), electric vehicles, and electric vehicle charging infrastructure.

Picker’s visit to the federal agencies in Washington this week is a reminder of California Governor Jerry Brown’s comment on the occasion of signing the “50 by ’30” legislation into law: “Climate skeptics don’t quite get it. They are in political Pluto, and we have to bring them back to Earth, where the rest of us live.”

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General Motors Vehicles Lose Weight, Gain Efficiency

General Motors is reducing its environmental footprint by shaving an average of 350 pounds from each of ten recently launched Buick, GMC, Chevrolet and Cadillac vehicles. The annual carbon emissions avoided from this weight loss is about equal to saving 28 million gallons of fuel, according to a statement issued by the company.

“We start with an understanding of the most important attributes to the customer, be it performance, EV range, interior space, towing capacity or fuel economy,” said Charlie Klein, GM executive director, global CO2 strategy, energy, mass and aerodynamics. “Then, we work to find the right mix of materials to deliver on that promise and exceed their expectations.”

General Motors explains that the company’s “Efficient Fundamentals” strategy includes advancing powertrain technologies, optimizing components and vehicle systems, improving aerodynamics, and lightweighting – reducing vehicle mass to achieve better performance overall without compromising safety or quality.

Photo of 2017 Chevy Volt
2017 Chevy Volt

For example, the 2017 Chevrolet Volt is 250 pounds lighter than the first generation model, which contributed to its 30 percent increase in range. The Chevrolet Cruze also lost 250 pounds, giving customers even better fuel economy and increased interior space. Improvements in size, content, structure and chassis delivered a loss of 700 pounds in the GMC Acadia. And the Buick LaCrosse, which is longer and wider than its predecessor, is now 300 pounds lighter thanks to advanced materials such as press-hardened, high-strength steels that also provide customers with efficiency and more responsive handling.

When it comes to lightweighting, General Motors points out that there is no single solution. The company may use composites for sports cars like the Chevrolet Corvette where power-to-weight ratio is paramount. When a blend of strength and low mass is required, for example on chassis components, corrosion-resistant aluminum is the solution. Meanwhile, ultra high-strength steel allows for some parts to be made of thinner gauges without sacrificing strength. GM also employs a mix of new manufacturing joining techniques, such as the world’s first aluminum-to-steel resistance spot welding.

Another way in which General Motors reduces emissions is by engaging its supply chain. According to a statement issued by GM, last year the company asked about 200 of its suppliers to disclose their energy use and carbon emission data to CDP, a global nonprofit that drives sustainable economies, in return for which GM offered resources to help. The 70 percent of invited companies that responded saved a cumulative $23 billion and reduced carbon emissions in total by 90 million metric tons, which is equivalent to:

Graphic showing greenhouse gas equivalencies.
Data calculated with United States Environmental Protection Agency’s Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator.

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Cheap Natural Gas Provides Temporary Dip In Residential Electricity Prices

Countering a slow but sustained climb, data released this week by the U.S. Energy Information Administration shows that residential electricity prices for the first half of 2016 fell 0.7%, to a national average of 12.4 cents per kWh. Over the past five years, nominal residential prices have increased an average of 1.9% annually, about the same rate as overall inflation.

Graph showing U.S. residential electricity prices

The key factor driving prices down this year is the low price of natural gas, the fuel that many power plants burn to produce electricity. Over the first six months of 2016, the weighted average cost of natural gas delivered to electricity generators was $2.58 per million Btu, 28% lower than in the first half of 2015 and down substantially from 2014.

Chart showing price of natural gas for electric power generation

Some regions are experiencing larger drops than others, though this is at least partly a reflection of prices being particularly high in those areas prior to this year’s decline:

Graph showing average residential electricity prices by census division (1H-2015 to 1H-2016)In New England, for example, where energy prices increased substantially from 2013 to 2014, prices in June of 2016 were 6% lower than in January of 2016. Prices in New England today are lower due to a sustained low price of natural gas nationally, combined with increased gas deliverability to a region that previously was constrained. Key pipeline projects that came online to serve that part of the country in late 2015 or early 2016 include:

  • The Rockies Express Pipline (REX) reversal project had added westbound capacity to flow natural gas to the Midwest in 2014. In late 2015, Texas Eastern Transmission Company’s (Tetco) OPEN project added 550 million cubic feet per day (MMcf/d) of pipeline takeaway capacity out of Ohio.
  • Columbia Gas Pipeline’s East Side Expansion, a 310 MMcf/d project that flows natural gas produced in Pennsylvania to Mid-Atlantic markets.
  • Tennessee Gas Pipeline’s Broad Run Flexibility Project, a 590 MMcf/d project originating in West Virginia that moves natural gas to the Gulf Coast states.
  • Tetco’s Uniontown-to-Gas City project flows up to 425 MMcf/d of natural gas produced in the Marcellus region to Indiana.
  • Williams Transcontinental Pipeline’s Leidy Southeast project provides additional capacity to take Marcellus natural gas to Transco’s mainline, which extends from Texas to New York. From there, the natural gas serves Mid-Atlantic market areas as well as the Gulf Coast.

Map of Gas Pipelines in New England

Notwithstanding the increase in pipeline capacity, the Energy Information Administration projects the national average delivered cost of natural gas in the last six months of 2016 will be 27% higher than the average cost in the first six months of the year. Residential electricity prices, in turn, are expected to increase by about 3% in 2017.

Graph showing projected retail price of electricity in residential sector 2015 to 2017.

The 2017 projection is supported by the following graph, which shows current options and futures prices placing the lower and upper bounds for the 95% confidence interval for December 2016 contracts at $2.25/MMBtu and $4.51/MMBtu, respectively. According to the Energy Information Administration, the 2017 forecast Henry Hub average is $2.87/MMBtu (compared to $2.58/MMBtu for the first half of 2016).
Graph showing Henry Hub prices, 2015 to 2017.

Another factor causing retail prices (as opposed to wholesale prices) to rise is the increased costs utilities are passing on to customers to maintain, update, and secure their grids. Can anything be done to avoid or mitigate these price increases? One approach would be to reduce demand for electricity through energy efficiency, demand response, and behind-the-meter generation such as solar power. All else being equal, these practices should cause the price to fall due to a lower quantity of electricity demanded. Paradoxically, however, reduced demand for grid power could actually increase the price for those remaining on the grid because of a smaller pool of kWh over which the utility can spread fixed costs. Regulators in regulated and vertically-integrated states are taking a variety of approaches to this dilemma, as demonstrated by proceedings in states including (but not limited to) Nevada, New York, California, Massachusetts, Maryland, and Minnesota.

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Major EV and Solar Semiconductor Supplier Acquired by Infineon

IFX_LOGO_RGBInfineon Technologies, Europe’s biggest chipmaker by revenue, is demonstrating its expectations of continued strong growth in electric vehicles (EVs), solar panels, and the Internet of Things (IoT) by purchasing Cree’s Wolfspeed Power subsidiary for $850 million. Wolfspeed specializes in power electronics used in a wide range of key components such as inverters. With this transaction, Infineon is showing that it intends to remain the industry leader for the technologies not only of today, but also of tomorrow.

Headquartered in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, 28-year-old Wolfspeed employs more than 550 highly-skilled workers across ten locations on three continents. The company, which holds (or has pending) more than 1,800 patents, promotes its hardware as providing greater power density and better efficiency than alternatives such as silicon. Power density and efficiency are particularly critical factors in high-voltage energy-intensive applications such as electric vehicles and solar panels.

Photo of Wolfspeed SiC Planar MOSFET
Wolfspeed SiC Power Semiconductor

Frank Plastina, Wolfspeed CEO, said: “By joining the Infineon team, Wolfspeed will now have all the advantages of a global company in our sector, including the ability to leverage Infineon’s market reach and infrastructure. With Infineon’s complementary culture and additional investment, we’ll be better positioned to unlock the potential of our portfolio and our people.”

Infineon ranks No. 69 in the Automotive News list of the 100 largest global suppliers with estimated worldwide sales to automakers of $2.8 billion in 2015.

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New Announcements from “Current, powered by GE”

In October I wrote about the introduction of “Current, powered by GE,” the new venture launched by General Electric. Current seeks to use lighting infrastructure to connect the physical and digital worlds to reduce energy costs, enable intelligent environments, and optimize energy efficiency.

One example of the company’s Intelligent Cities initiative is providing useful and realtime information to pedestrians and their devices, as demonstrated in the following short video.

Recently, Current and partners including JPMorgan Chase, Hilton Worldwide, and Hospital Corporation of America held an event at the New York Stock Exchange where they discussed early and notable achievements such as JPMorgan Chase placing the world’s largest single-order LED installation for approximately 5,000 branches covering 25 million square feet to reduce energy usage by more than 50%.

In addition to the obvious efficiency and safety benefits LED lighting offers, Current is now bringing cities a new level of safety by partnering with SST, Inc., to embed the ShotSpotter gunshot detection technology into GE’s intelligent LED street lights. According to the companies:

Through its proprietary acoustic sensors and enterprise-grade software, ShotSpotter detects and locates gunfire in real time. Alerts are then broadcast to 9-1-1 dispatch centers, patrol cars and even smart phones, with the precise location, number of rounds fired, multiple or single shooters and other valuable situational intelligence. These alerts enable first responders to get on scene quickly and safely in order to aid victims, collect evidence and quickly apprehend offenders.

ShotSpotter is just one element of Current by GE’s Intelligent Cities solution, which also offers features such as:

  • Pedestrian detection for optimized crosswalk utilization;
  • Bicycle detection;
  • Incident and collision detection (to more quickly alert EMS);
  • Traffic monitoring;
  • Work zone monitoring; and
  • Environmental monitoring and analysis.

To accelerate adoption of intelligent infrastructure within cities, Current announced a commercial agreement with Intel to partner on Intelligent City proposals and opportunities. Current’s intelligent streetlamps will also be built using the Intel® IoT Platform, an edge to cloud reference architecture with hardware and software building blocks from Intel. The Intel products will process large and evolving data loads quickly with the reliability and flexibility demanded by cities today.

Commenting on the new and valuable services that smart infrastructure can offer, Current’s President and CEO Maryrose Sylvester said:

Populations in cities around the world are growing exponentially, and forward-looking municipal leaders are turning to digital technologies to improve the economic and environmental health of their cities. Through our collaboration with Intel we will accelerate the development of intelligent technologies to help cities pull and access data in ways they haven’t before to solve challenges and create new opportunities for both city workers and residents.

The following video summarizes a pilot program Current is operating in San Diego:

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Southern Company to Acquire Distributed Infrastructure Developer PowerSecure International, Inc.

Southern Company Logo

PowerSecure Logo

Southern Company, one of the largest electricity producers in America with more than 46,000 MW of generating capacity and 4.4 million customers, and North Carolina-based PowerSecure International, Inc., a company specializing in distributed energy resources and related technology, last week announced approval of a definitive merger agreement through which Southern will acquire PowerSecure for approximately $431 million (an 80% premium over the company’s prior-day close).

What makes this transaction particularly interesting is that the companies’ own announcement acknowledges that PowerSecure’s key technologies related to distributed energy resources “typically receive highest demand largely in markets outside of the Southeast [Southern’s sole market], where distributed infrastructure investments tend to provide greater customer value.” While there are multiple reasons this is the case, nonetheless the company’s CEO, Tom Fanning, is on record expressing enthusiasm in responding to certain customer interests, saying “If somebody wants to buy distributed generation, I want to sell it to ’em. I’m completely happy to do that.”

PowerSecure’s smart grid products and services relate to interactive distributed generation, energy efficiency, and utility infrastructure; customers include electric utilities as well as industrial, institutional, and commercial end-users. Specific capabilities PowerSecure’s technology enable include the ability to:

  • Forecast electricity demand and electronically deploy the systems to deliver more efficient and environmentally friendly power at peak power times;
  • Provide utilities with dedicated electric power generation capacity to utilize for demand response purposes; and
  • Provide customers with dependable standby power.

PowerSecure’s distributed generation technology helps utilities manage various types of resources, including solar power, and the company also provides other services ranging from LED lighting to transmission and distribution infrastructure maintenance and construction services, as well as engineering and regulatory consulting services.

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Green Bonds Expected to Skyrocket in 2016

Moody’s reported this week that the global issuance of green bonds in 2016 could surpass $50 billion “by a significant margin.” Merely meeting the $50 billion threshold would mark a nearly 20% increase over the $42.5 billion issued 2015, which itself was the best year for green bonds since they were introduced in 2007.

Just like regular bonds, a green bond is a financial instrument through which the investor lends the issuer money, and the issuer promises to repay the investor the principal, plus interest, at an agreed time. Green bonds are not necessarily different from regular bonds with regard to their yield or tax treatment (indeed, the creditworthiness of a green bond issuer can be as variable as that of any other bond issuer).

Instead, green bonds’ distinctive feature is that the proceeds can be allocated only to projects related to environmental sustainability. To help define a qualifying investment, the International Capital Markets Association developed a set of “Green Bond Principles,” which recognize several broad categories of potentially eligible projects, including, but not limited to, the following:

  • Renewable energy;
  • Energy efficiency (including efficient buildings);
  • Sustainable waste management;
  • Sustainable land use (including sustainable forestry and agriculture);
  • Biodiversity conservation;
  • Clean transportation;
  • Sustainable water management (including clean and/or drinking water); and
  • Climate change adaptation.

Green bonds benefit issuers by enabling them to set themselves apart from others in the bond market. The bonds benefit investors by enabling them to target their investment to assets with specific environmental and societal attributes.

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