Cloudy days for solar thermal

by Drew Thornley
"$2.2 billion California project generates 40% of expected electricity"

This past weekend’s Wall Street Journal has some unsurprising news about solar-thermal technology. Excerpts to follow, but, in short: It’s very expensive to build, it doesn’t deliver nearly the amount of projected power, and it kills birds:

The $2.2 billion Ivanpah solar power project in California’s Mojave Desert is supposed to be generating more than a million megawatt-hours of electricity each year. But 15 months after starting up, the plant is producing just 40% of that, according to data from the U.S. Energy Department.

Built by BrightSource Energy Inc. and operated by NRG Energy Inc., Ivanpah has been advertised as more reliable than a traditional solar panel farm, in part, because it more closely resembles conventional power plants that burn coal or natural gas. NRG co-owns the plant with Google Inc. and other investors.

Turns out, there is a lot more to go wrong with the new technology. Replacing broken equipment and learning better ways to operate the complex assortment of machinery has stalled Ivanpah’s ability to reach full potential, said Randy Hickok, a senior vice president at NRG.

One big miscalculation was that the power plant requires far more steam to run smoothly and efficiently than originally thought, according to a document filed with the California Energy Commission. Instead of ramping up the plant each day before sunrise by burning one hour’s worth of natural gas to generate steam, Ivanpah needs more than four times that much help from fossil fuels to get the plant humming every morning. Another unexpected problem: not enough sun. Weather predictions for the area underestimated the amount of cloud cover that has blanketed Ivanpah since it went into service in 2013.

Ivanpah isn’t the only new solar-thermal project struggling to energize the grid. A large mirror-powered plant built in Arizona almost two years ago by Abengoa SA of Spain has also had its share of hiccups. Designed to deliver a million megawatt hours of power annually, the plant is putting out roughly half that, federal data show.

Solar-thermal developers including Abengoa and BrightSource continue to build new plants in South Africa, Chile and China. But Lucas Davis, an economics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, says it is unlikely more U.S. projects will gain traction as utilities opt for cheaper solar farms that use panels.

“I don’t expect a lot of solar thermal to get built. It’s just too expensive,” he said.

American solar farms generate nearly 16 million megawatt-hours of electricity each year. That satisfies less than 1% of U.S. electricity demand, but six times the amount of power that solar-thermal plants currently produce. And the vast arrays of solar panels that blanket the ground cost roughly half as much to build as new mirror-powered plants, according to the U.S. Energy Department.

Electricity prices from new solar farms average around 5 cents a kilowatt-hour, according to GTM Research, which tracks renewable energy markets. That compares with between 12 and 25 cents a kilowatt-hour for electricity generated by the Ivanpah power plant, state and federal data show.

The Ivanpah plant was delayed several months and had millions of dollars in cost overruns because of wildlife protections for the endangered Desert Tortoise. Once built, U.S. government biologists found the plant’s superheated mirrors were killing birds. In April, biologists working for the state estimated that 3,500 birds died at Ivanpah in the span of a year, many of them burned alive while flying through a part of the solar installment where air temperatures can reach 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

Detroit Auto Show: The (Niche) Future of Electrics

by Henry Payne

Detroit –
The Detroit Auto Show showcased more green cars than ever this January, even as American demand for hybrid-electrics shrank to below three percent of market in 2014. Driven by President Obama’s 54.5-by-2025 mpg mandate as well as state mandates (most significantly in California, which requires 15 percent of vehicle sales to be EVs by 2025), automakers continue to produce electric vehicles as a compliance measure — and for positive press.
But as customers remain cold to electrics, the Detroit Show was evidence that the future of EVs – despite Obama’s Utopian dreams — lies in niche markets like performance sports cars and big utility trucks.

To be sure, Tesla CEO Elon Musk is determined to prove that EVs can appeal to a mass market. Like his idol Henry Ford and his Model T, Musk is determined to bring a game-changing, $30,000, 200-mile range electric vehicle to market. Just as millions of Model Ts on the road stimulated oil infrastructure, the $30K EV could similarly jump-start charging-station infrastructure. His promised, 200-mile range Model 3, however, failed to show in Detroit.

Instead, Chevy beat him to the punch with its 200-mile range Chevy Bolt (not to be confused with the poor-selling plugin Volt). Every auto executive I spoke with, however, believes that the 200-mile EV isn’t a game-changer — but another way to earn federal mpg credits.

So what is the future of EVs? Consider the $150,000-plus Acura NSX supercar at the show, which promises 550-horsepower and neck-snapping, sub-3 second 0-60 dashes from its plug-in electric-twin turbo V-6 powertrain. No mention of saving the planet.

Or consider Bob Lutz’s (the founder of the Volt in his GM days) latest venture with VIA Motors: Converted, electric pickup trucks marketed to large company fleets.

Targeting customers like Time Warner Cable (13,000 service trucks) and Verizon (38,000), VIA promises that companies will make up the $50,000-per vehicle conversion costs in gas savings. Plus, utility truck routes are predictable — making it easier to recharge vehicles overnight (as well as use them onsite to recharge equipment).

VIA has already begun converting Chevy Silverados with a goal of selling 3,000 vehicles this year, said VIA President Alan Perriton here.

Still, the business model is built on an uncertain foundation: Gas must be over three dollars per gallon long term; the feds must subsidize each truck purchase with a $7,500 EV credit; and corporations like VIA customer Duke Energy must have “sustainable business goals” like EV set-asides.

Detroit Show: Musk warns of auto-induced warming crisis as city shivers

by Henry Payne

Detroit –
Outside the North American International Auto Show this month, temperatures were a bone-chilling nine degrees when electric vehicle entrepreneur and Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk took the stage to declare that human-induced global warming was a threat to mankind.

“I think we’re really going to regret the amount of carbon we’re putting into the atmosphere,” said Musk, chastising the auto industry for its failure to head off environmental armageddon by producing more EVs.

No one in the packed room of journalists pointed out that the entrepreneur was wearing no clothes. No one noted the irony that the earth hasn’t warmed in two decades. Or that the single-digit cold wave had created a genuine crisis for Detroit’s homeless in a city that can’t afford enough shelters.

We’re not doing Tesla “as a way to get rich,” Musk said. Musk wants a carbon tax — he says we’re pumping it into the atmosphere and we’re all paying. “The potential harm to the climate is really much, much greater than it was before” because of fracking, the solar-power investor added.

Many in the auto industry admire Musk, founder of the first credible auto startup in decades — even as they profess confusion over his methods.  But he seems a thoroughly modern businessman in the Obama age. Build a credible product — then use the government to handicap your competitors.

The Emperor Has No Clothes, Detroit edition

by Henry Payne

Detroit –
Hans Christian Anderson, meet Barack Obama. Has there been a better modern staging of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” than the president’s visit to Ford’s Wayne Assembly Plant Wednesday?

Selected to demonstrate the wisdom of Emperor – er, President — Obama’s taxpayer subsidies for building hybrid and fuel-efficient cars, the plant was inconveniently closed for lack of demand. In 2014, SUVs and light trucks have dominated U.S. sales.

But Obama gave his speech in the closed plant anyway, hoping no one noticed. “A century since Henry Ford introduced the moving assembly line, you’re reinventing it — one production line for gas, electric, hybrid, plug-in vehicles,” said Obama before pivoting to more general remarks celebrating his auto bailout of five years ago — a rehash of 2012 campaign speeches.

Pity Ford CEO Mark Fields (how do you turn down a presidential visit?), who had to show off one of the least productive facilities in an otherwise healthy Ford empire. Fields tried to paper over the White House’s awkward choice of plant by importing profitable vehicles from other facilities like the Ford F-150 pickup and Ford Mustang as a backdrop for the president’s remarks. “I wanted to come here to Michigan because this state proves no matter how tough times get, Americans are tougher,” Obama told an audience of 750. “Plus, I wanted to see the new Mustang.”

But the Mustang isn’t built in Wayne. It’s built miles away in Flat Rock, Michigan. And the F-150 is built nearby in Dearborn. Both are profitable. Both are selling like hotcakes. But those plants don’t fit Obama’s green narrative.

The president also caused whiplash by taking credit for America’s carbon energy boom (a development he has scoffed at) and cheering low gas prices (“It’s helping to save drivers about a buck-ten a gallon”) — just two months after applauding higher gas prices abroad to fight global warming.

“When you (want to make gasoline cheaper), those economies are very inefficient in how they use energy, and they generate more pollution,” he told a student audience in Burma.

After his speech at the warming-fighting plant, Obama stepped out into a brutal, 8-degree January day, as Detroit endures another harsh winter. More evidence that reality is not cooperating with his narrative. The emperor must be shivering.

As Gas Prices Drop, Obama Scolds Americans to Buy Fuel Sippers

by Henry Payne

Detroit –
Ever the nanny-in-chief, President Obama is lecturing Americans to ignore low gas prices and buy his preferred small cars.

 “I would strongly advise American consumers to continue to think about how you save money at the pump because it is good for the environment, it’s good for family pocketbooks, and if you go back to old habits and suddenly gas is back at $3.50, you are going to not be real happy,” Obama said in an exclusive telephone interview with the Detroit News’ Dave Shepardson on the eve of his visit to a Detroit auto plant Wednesday.

Obama has been embarrassed by the fact that the plant — one of eleven Ford plants to split $6 billion in federal dollars to build hybrid and fuel efficient cars — has been shut down due to lack of demand.

Yet, rather than accept consumer preference for more SUVs — and help America’s oil and gas industry to produce even more oil to keep prices low — the president has turned scold. Despite the boom in oil fracking that has helped dive prices below $2 a gallon, Obama continues to tilt at his global-warming windmills and fight oil expansion.

Cheap oil would not just benefit consumers but also the Detroit automakers that Obama claims to support. The Big Three make far more money selling Ford F150 trucks and Jeep Grand Cherokee SUVs than they do hybrid-electric Ford C-Maxes or electric Fiat 500s.

“We have to be smart about our energy policy,” Obama told the News.

So the White House ideologue will speak at an idled plant Wednesday. An emperor with no clothes insisting that Americans buy its unpopular products. He’s smarter than us, you see.

Obama to Tout Economic Policies . . . at Idle Green-Car Plant

by Henry Payne

Detroit –
On Wednesday, Barack Obama will launch his pre–State of the Union, economic-victory tour at Ford’s Michigan Assembly plant in order to showcase the fuel-efficient, hybrid-electric cars produced there. The Obama administration claims such vehicles are the transportation of the future and Michigan Assembly was one of eleven Ford plants that shared $6 billion in federal retooling funds to make the fuel-sipping (but coal-fired electricity dependent) vehicles.

Trouble is, the factory will be shut down when Obama visits, due to a lack of demand for its green products, the compact Ford Focus and hybrid C-Max.

The White House says Obama’s speech at the plant will highlight “the workers in the resurgent American automotive and manufacturing sector . . . and the decision to save the auto industry and the over one million jobs that went with it.”

But with gas prices below $2 a gallon and demand for SUVs surging, those workers aren’t making Obama-preferred vehicles at Michigan Assembly. Sales for the Focus and C-Max were down 6.4 and 21.6 percent respectively in 2014. “We are seeing buying decisions swaying more toward SUVs,” a Ford spokesperson tells the Detroit News. “Dealers don’t need the (small car) inventory.”

Indeed, workers are laboring around the clock to churn out more of the big trucks despised by Washington greens. Trucks like the F150 pickup at Ford’s nearby Rouge assembly. Or the Jeep Grand Cherokee — the sport ute that saved Chrysler — at Detroit’s Jefferson assembly plant, where workers are on a three-shift 24-hour schedule to meet demand.

President Obama will tout the billions in tax dollars spent on plants like Michigan Assembly to fight global warming. But those tax dollars might be better spent at Detroit area warming shelters — overstuffed with homeless seeking refuge from this week’s bone-chilling, eight-degree Fahrenheit cold snap.

The Phony Automakers-Have-Neglected-Safety Narrative

by Henry Payne

Call 2014 the Year of the Phony Media Narrative. The Increased-Cop-Shootings Narrative (not true according to Bureau of Justice stats). The Increase-in-Campus-Rapes Narrative (debunked, same BOJ). The Planet-in-Crisis Narrative.

Add the Automakers-Have-Neglected-Safety Narrative to the list.

“The G.M. crisis has prompted concern in Washington that carmakers have become lax on safety, combative with regulators and insensitive to consumers,” declared a New York Times Page One story December 30 (“Auto Industry Galvanized After Record Recall Year“), culminating a rash of media stories. True enough, GM’s ignition switch crisis led a record year of over 60 million auto recalls this year.

But how to reconcile that record with the fact that traffic fatalities are at a record low? Just 1.1 fatalities per 100 million vehicles miles traveled in 2013, according to the latest federal stats. That’s a 25 percent drop since 2004 and a 75 percent drop since 1970.

Industry insiders say that the high number of recalls are largely a response to media headlines and government scrutiny, not lax safety procedures. Automakers want to reassure customers. The same pattern followed the highly publicized Ford-Firestone tread separation debacle in 2000. Faced with hysteria among government regulators, tort lawyers, and their Washington media megaphone — call it the Washington-Torts-Media Complex — automaker recalls cover mostly minor, non-safety issues (errant sun visors, for example) in order to stay in front of overzealous government regulators and circling trial lawyers.

Though the GM ignition case rightly drew headlines for its related fatalities, GM CEO Mary Barra repeatedly stated that it was an anomaly. She has a case. Indeed, the vehicle at the center of “Switchgate,” the 2007 Chevy Cobalt, had been recalled twice before. The Chevy Silverado pickup was recalled four times in 2007 alone. So much for a culture of cover-up.

Yet the narrative persists in a Washington hothouse where reporters are constantly fed by money-chasing trial lawyers and their Democratic political puppets. Most of these scandals are baseless — take , for example, the infamous Toyota “instant acceleration” that consumed newscasts in 2010. A subsequent NASA study found the charge of electronic accelerator malfunction baseless. The primary cause? Human error.

Yet, here is the Times in its A1 piece sourcing Sean Kane of Safety Research and Strategies, a trial lawyer-funded “safety advocate” who, in 2010, helped rig a Toyota to accelerate out of control for a sham ABC news report. “The only way we are going to get the recall rates to go up is to force the companies to do more,” Kane tells the Times.

As with the Al Sharpton-led killer-cops narrative, if media outlets did more to expose hucksters, there might be less hysteria — and fewer recalls.

While Homeless in Detroit Freeze, White House Spends on Global Warming

by Henry Payne

Detroit -
Area shelters are bursting at the seams thanks to record-low November temperatures.

Meanwhile, a White House task force is proposing to spend up to $100 billion – not on helping the homeless survive another brutal winter — but on global warming “preparedness and resilience,” including $6 billion for Midwestern states to combat rising temperatures.

This week’s arctic blast sent temperatures in Detroit to lows not seen since 1880, according to the National Weather Service.

“The record low for this date was 11 degrees set in 1880,” said meteorologist Rachel Kulik Tuesday. Normal daily temperatures are between 34 and 48 degrees. The bone-chilling weather followed record-setting cold weather last winter — and 19 years of global cooling.

“We’ve been seeing record numbers,” said Kathy Goodrich, the director of the Macomb Warming Center and Ray of Hope Day Center, of the influx on homeless to her shelters as temps have plummeted. “Last year on our opening night, we had 97 people, and this year, we had 119 people.”

Yet, the Obama administration will divert more taxpayer money to ivory-tower academics to study global-warming mitigation at universities like Michigan State, which recently received a grant from the EPA.

This month President Obama unilaterally declared — with Communist China appropriately enough — that the U.S. would cut emissions a crippling 26 to 28 percent over the next decade, forcing more misery on Midwesterners by shuttering coal plants and hiking electricity rates. During the Great Recession, the U.S. saw carbon emissions decrease by 7 percent with devastating effects on Michigan’s economy.