Bioenergy, Grid Scale, Solar

Pushing “carbon-free” transport for jobs, solar

A simulation of the carbon-free transportation of the future was presented at Applied Materials’ Silicon Valley research campus during the US-China Clean Energy Forum (Feb. 13), showing how battery-operated vehicles connected into the electrical grid utilize energy generated by the company’s parking lot-based solar array/2MW solar plant.

A simulation of the carbon-free transportation of the future was presented at Applied Materials’ Silicon Valley research campus during the US-China Clean Energy Forum (Feb. 13), showing how battery-operated vehicles connected into the electrical grid utilize energy generated by the company’s parking lot-based solar array/2MW solar plant. Leaders from both nations were on hand to look at ways to increase collaboration on renewable energy and alternative fuel projects to improve the environment and promote energy security.

The US-China Clean Energy Forum is a high-level, private-sector-led forum focused on addressing how the US and China can cooperate on clean energy technologies and alternative fuels. The Forum includes experts in energy, finance, and public policy who are cooperating to identify priorities and explore solutions in three broad topical areas: energy conservation and efficiency, environmental protection and renewable energy. Applied Materials is a charter supporter of the Forum.

Among the highlights of this event was an opportunity to showcase additional uses for solar energy. “What we’re advocating is that solar can be a robust and important part of the general energy supply to the grid,” Joseph Pon, VP of corporate affairs at Applied, told PV World. “We’re not just demonstrating the cars and the solar panels — we’re also demonstrating smart grid technology and different types of metering technologies, because integrating solar energy into the grid is a sophisticated operation that will involve electronics and Silicon Valley skills to pull off.”

The solution will be no single silver-bullet answer, but rather the result of a number of countries and technologies working together to deal with the issue of greenhouse gases, noted Norm Mineta, former Department of Transportation Secretary and now vice-chairman of Hill & Knowlton, an agency assisting the US-China Clean Energy Forum. “Going back to the beginnings of high-tech, no one is in a position to pick winners and losers. You’ve got to let the marketplace determine what that [the solution] will be,” he said. It’s up to governmental agencies not to set specifications, he added, but rather set performance standards, and then let people decide how technology fits into the grid or network.

Mineta noted that the US-China Clean Energy Forum is a way of getting two economies together to think about where we are going in the future. He likened the group’s efforts to his work in Congress, particularly with fellow Congressmen Jim Blanchard (D-MI) and Jim Jeffords (I-VT) when they co-authored the Wind Energy Systems Act in 1978, which enabled nationwide creation of wind farms. “People thought we were more hot air than we were part of the beginning of an industry,” said Mineta. And at this event, “all these companies and people are trying to scratch out new territory. No one knows if it’s the right answer — but I think in conjunction with a lot of efforts by a lot of people, it will give us the kind of results that we’re all looking for.”

Mike Splinter, president and CEO of Applied Materials, put into perspective the challenges that brought the group representing the US and China together, noting that the two nations are the two biggest emitters of greenhouse gases: 70M tons of CO2 a day into the air and 30M tons of CO2/day acidifying the oceans. Solving this problem is a social challenge as well as a huge engineering and science problem, Splinter said, and this combination needs the great science minds of the world and the political and social entities of the world together to solve it. “Because of that, this is going to be the next huge generation of new jobs — much like computers and the internet were in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and into the 2000s,” he said. “For the next 20-30 years, transforming how we make energy will be an equally great job creator. When you have change, you have new ideas, you have new job growth.”

One way to tackle the environmental challenges that face society is electrifying transportation, because it is the big user of oil. There are roughly 250 million automobiles on US roads today, and in 20 years, China will have more than that (and that doesn’t count how many will be in other regions, e.g., India), Splinter noted. “To do things the same way we’ve done them in the past, I don’t think is viable,” he said. One answer is to electrify transportation, while at the same time cleaning up electricity. “Solar is the most viable — it’s long-lasting, a free fuel, no moving parts, and a clean source of electricity,” he said.

Investment in scaling up solar energy is necessary to drive down the cost and make it comparable to the rate base of electricity, Splinter emphasized (adding that Applied Materials has spent hundreds of millions of dollars a year to seek ways to make solar cost-effective, building on its history in scaling up IC manufacturing). “If we’re able to do that, there are hundreds of gigawatts available to be deployed in a relatively short period of time,” he said. He looked ahead to a “zone of inflection” in the next ~5 years, when electricity generated from renewable sources “is essentially, at least on a forward-pricing basis, equal to that cost of electricity generated by fossil fuel sources.”

Activities supporting clean energy in Europe are encouraging, Splinter said. “In the US, we now see as much as $60B in President Obama’s stimulus package being aimed at renewable energy sources,” he noted, and “that couldn’t be more exciting. In addition, the package also boosts R&D funds spent on renewable energy on the order of ~5×. “These two developments are going to have a huge impact in the US.”

Splinter’s takeaway message to the diverse group assembled: think beyond the long-term goals established by both the US and Chinese governments (20% renewable energy by 2020 for the US, and ~15% by 2020 for China). Instead of focusing on a 10-year time horizon, he encouraged all to look at the challenge the way the semiconductor industry has paced itself for decades. The IC industry used Moore’s Law (doubling the number of transistors in a specific area every 18-24 months) to stimulate an urgency of action that involved R&D centers worldwide working at “breakneck pace.” Setting milestones that have to be met on a daily, monthly, and yearly basis is the best way to create urgency and establish a progressive policy, he asserted.

“We need to bring the best science from both countries and the best technology and the best manufacturing resources,” he stated. “It’s that kind of cooperation that I hope this meeting today kicks off. We have a problem that is so necessary to solve and one that is incredibly urgent — let’s put the urgency behind it and find a way to indicate that to all the people in the world.” — Debra Vogler, senior technical editor, PV World