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Improving Solar Permitting — New Solution Makes It Quicker, Easier, & Much Cheaper




A PR company friend reached out recently to see if I was interested in talking with someone at a company that was working on improving the solar permitting process across the US. Knowing that solar permitting is one of the big chunks of rooftop solar “soft costs,” which are abnormally high in the US, I thought “well, this could be a bit useful” and agreed to the interview. I didn’t expect it to be especially interesting or groundbreaking, though. After all, the permitting process is highly decentralized and it’s the kind of stereotypical bureaucratic process that drives people nuts. As it turned out, however, what I was in store for was really exciting.

This new CleanTech Talk interview was with Amber D’Ottavio, Vice President of Product Management at Accela. While many of us have been asking, “How can we make solar permitting much faster, easier, and cheaper in the United States?,” NREL and Accela were getting to work making it happen. Someone apparently said, “We can make an app for that!”

I know, I know — another simple app isn’t going to solve the problem. But this isn’t just a simple app popping out of a co-working space in Silicon Valley, Austin, or Brooklyn. This is a truly exciting development, as I learned talking with Amber. I will summarize a bit further down below the podcast, but best is to listen to Amber talk about it all on CleanTech Talk.

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First of all, it’s important to know that Accela has a long, successful history providing cloud-based solutions for governments across the US. The company has the relationships and track record to open doors and make things happen. Amber herself has worked with thousands of different local and state government agencies.

Additionally, Accela partnered with the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL), which had done the earlier legwork on this, to launch SolarAPP+ (Solar Automated Permit Processing Plus). Naturally, being connected to NREL means you’ve got a nice scientific team backing you, or giving you a big boost or head start to get rolling.

Thirdly, Accela has been working closely with Tesla to identify pain points, bottlenecks, and solar installer needs in order to make the app as effective and efficient as possible.

The result: the Accela crew and their partners (NREL, Tesla, etc.) have been able to bring solar permitting processes that have been taking 2–8 weeks down to a matter of minutes.

What does this mean in terms of costs? Well, in some early work on this, Accela found that it could bring solar permitting costs down from $500 to $2500 in certain jurisdictions in California to $50 to $100.

“The software-as-a-service (SaaS) solution will be rolled out to 1,500 agencies at launch and made available at no cost to Accela’s current state and local customers and transform permitting timelines from an average of two weeks to instantaneous,” a press release published today states. Though, Amber clarified that not all of these agencies have rolled out the app by this point — they just all have it available to them now. CleanTechnica will get updates from them in the coming months and years as more jurisdictions put SolarPP+ into play.

Some of the initial places Accela is working to get SolarAPP+ launched include Charlotte County, Florida; Clark County, Nevada; the State of Oregon; and San Diego, California.

“Agencies across the country are increasingly looking for ways to speed up solar permitting to support local jobs, drive economic growth, and protect the environment,” said Tom Nieto, Chief Operating Officer at Accela. “We’re excited about partnering with NREL on this project, which aligns perfectly with our mission to deliver innovative SaaS solutions to improve efficiency, increase citizen engagement, and build thriving and resilient communities, for today and for the future.”

Accela recognizes that it takes a complex ecosystem of government leaders, citizens, local businesses and technology partners to create smart cities,” said Dr. Jeffrey J. Cook, NREL’s SolarAPP+ Project Lead. “By integrating SolarAPP+, they’re demonstrating a commitment to providing cities and counties of all sizes with solutions to rebalance permitting workload and thereby unlock the immense economic opportunity available with home solar energy.”

“We’re excited to have an easy-to-use solution for our community that improves user experience for residents and agency staff alike through an instantaneous solar permitting process,” said Carla Blackwell, Director of Development Services at Pima County. “By leveraging SolarAPP+, our agency has been able to save valuable time, money, and human resources to process roughly 250 permits per month in the region.”

For much more, including some commentary regarding Amber’s experience working with Tesla and various government jurisdictions on how to create an ideal app for solar permitting, listen to the podcast.

Related story: Elon Musk Explains Why Tesla Solar Power Is So Cheap — CleanTechnica Exclusive

If you’d like to order Tesla solar and get a $100 discount, feel free to use my referral code:

Or not.

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Autonomous Electric Tractors From ZTractor Launching In 2021




Largely due to the leadership, presence, and success of Tesla, electric vehicles have achieved a much more prominent position in the automotive industry than they have ever enjoyed. They have also been featured in far more media than they were just ten years ago. This year, quite a few non-Tesla electric vehicles are coming on the scene as well.

There are also some intriguing possibilities for electric vehicles outside of personal transportation, such as electric tractors for the agricultural industry. Electric tractors present some tantalizing opportunities — mostly by not utilizing fossil fuels and loud diesel engines that generate a great deal of noxious air pollution.

Electric tractors are in the first phase of commercial development: one might say the most exciting stage because of all the technological and environmental possibilities. Bakur Kvezereli, Ztractor‘s founder, agreed to answer some questions about their new models for CleanTechnica.

Who is the target audience for an all-electric autonomous tractor?

Globally, our primary users are farmers who are growing vegetables, pulses, berries, and grapes. In the US we suspect to find our early-adopters in California, Oregon, Washington, and Missouri, due largely to their commitment to sustainable farming and agriculture workforce crisis. Additionally, we have very loyal prospect buyers in Norway, the Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland, and Germany who are waiting for their own Ztractor for several months.

Local and regional government organizations, especially air quality and agriculture boards, are also good targets for us because members see the value in automating and decarbonizing agriculture to benefit their communities. Additionally, we are looking at European dealers as a target for downstream sales.

Worldwide, we are working with third parties who are investing in emission reduction in agriculture including Central Coast Community Energy, who provides grants to customers and are dedicated to electrifying their tractors, and Mitacs, a Canadian organization dedicated to solving business problems with innovation.

Are there multiple models and what are the prices or price range?

Ztractor has three unique models in the manufacturing pipeline to service a variety of farms. 

The Bearcub 24 tractor is the smallest and most compact of Ztractor’s offerings, and the model is geared toward smaller organic farms. It can work with at least 130 crops, the most popular being vegetables, berries, and grapes. The Bearcub works with 75 implements like the disc harrow, vegetable seeder, mulch layer, and precision sprayer, to name a few. Additionally, the tractor comes equipped with an adjustable chassis system and a 3-point hitch, travels up to 10 mph, and has a PTO that supports all category-1 implements. This model excels in working in vineyards and orchards, because of the ability it has to spray the grapes unmanned, limiting unnecessary chemical exposure. 

Image credit: Stefan Marji

The Mars 45 tractor is a great fit for all size farms, and can be used nationwide on at least 250 crops, such as beans, root vegetables, and potatoes. It is more heavy-duty than the Bearcub model and can work with 150 various tractor implements like a rotary tiller, moldboard plow, and chisel.

The SuperPilot 125 is our largest and most heavy-duty tractor and is made specifically for large acre farms. The tractor works with 50 implements, including a cultivator, disc bedder, and 12-row planter, to name a few. The tractor has the ability to work 80 crops, including wheat, corn, soy, and rice.

The BearCub model will sell averaging at $42,000 (price subject to change)  including data processing, computer vision features, any other software products or narrow niches for different tasks. However, Ztractor is currently conducting ongoing research to determine the most competitive market price for the farming communities and there is not a set cost in place yet for any of the models.

Would an owner/operator run an electric autonomous tractor remotely on a laptop, desktop, tablet, or phone?

Farmers can use either a tablet or computer to set field boundaries and operate the all-electric tractor without physically driving, but operators must stay within five miles or less of the site. Farmers can set field boundaries, directions, and implement instructions by utilizing Ztractor’s maps network, and all tractors have Level 2 autonomy capabilities. The advanced safety features with 67 sensors, six cameras, and GPS, the 100% electric Bearcub-24 model collects real-time ag data while operating in the field. Its IoT framework and machine learning algorithm interprets the data, which leads to higher efficiency and increased yield.

How long can one of the company’s electric tractors operate on a full charge and how long does it take to recharge?

Early model Ztractors charged in about four hours. However, we are in the process of upgrading our battery to shorten charging time by half. Because the batteries differ in size in each tractor model, the operation period differs as well. Our smallest tractor, the Bearcub, typically uses a 24 kWh battery and typically can offer about 8 hours of usage on one charge. Our medium-sized model, the Mars, can typically farm for 10 hours, depending on the soil type and implement. Lastly, the SuperPilot offers 12 hours on one charge. We expect to adjust battery sizes as technology improves and prices come down.

Does each tractor have onboard sensors and software to make sure it does not run into or over anything?

Yes, each tractor has optics and sensors to prevent collisions. With 67 sensors, six cameras, and GPS, at an average operation speed of 3 mph it is extremely safe to operate Ztractors in off-road farm areas. 

Do any of the electric tractors have AI so they learn as they work in the fields?

The tractors are equipped with seven core features that make up a machine learning functionality that allows the tractor to learn from the data it retrieves. Unlike other autonomous technologies, the tractor learns from normal operations instead of specifically driving tractors for data collection before or after filed operations. We program it to learn the space and prevent itself from running into anything, making it smarter. There is also a human filter to this learning as well. Farmers set up zones and choose the trajectories in which they want their tractor to work using satellites and aerial photos of fields.

All models collect real-time agricultural data feeds into our application software. This application uses an IoT framework and a machine-learning algorithm to help farmers gain better insight into their crops and save time and money. 

Eventually, could they be fully automated so they could operate without constant human supervision and guidance?

Ztractors run at level 2 autonomy or partial driving automation. Because of this, the operator must be present within five miles of the tractor. Though we cannot make any promises on this aspect of technology today, we are optimistic that as we deploy more tractors and build upon the machine learning and data collection components, the level of autonomy will increase.

What is the use life of an electric tractor and its batteries?

We can confidently say the Ztractors could last 15+ years with the right care and maintenance.This is especially true if owners replace the batteries after their 8-year lifespan.

Are repair costs lower for an electric tractor because their technology is simpler than a gas or diesel-powered tractor?

Not only are maintenance and repair costs lower but farmers also save considerably on insurance, fuel, and labor costs. 

Are any of the company’s tractors available for purchase now or are any being used in agriculture at the moment?

Ztractors will be distributed worldwide this year and will be available in both the US and Europe. The company is also working to generate buzz in farming communities in the US. The recent billboard campaign near the University of Missouri has generated extensive consumer and farmers community interest. 

Ztractor is also doing extensive field research and testing in local farms in California, where the company is headquartered. Some testing sites include orchard nurseries and vegetable farms. Ztractors have performed well in these pilot programs. 

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The Sky’s Limit — CO2 Pollution Shrinking The Stratosphere




Humans’ combustion of fossil fuels is shrinking the stratosphere — the layer of air above the troposphere, in which we all live — illustrating the expansive nature of human impact on the planet and potentially affecting satellites and radio communications, new research shows.

The study, published in Environmental Research Letters, found increased carbon dioxide in the troposphere (0–20 km above sea level) has squeezed the stratosphere (20–60 km above sea level) by 400 meters, essentially 1%, since at least the 1980s when satellite data was first gathered.

Without major emissions cuts, the researchers found, the stratosphere could be reduced by an additional kilometer in just 60 years. “It is shocking,” Juan Añel, a member of the research team from the University of Vigo, Ourense in Spain, told the Guardian. “This proves we are messing with the atmosphere up to 60 kilometres.”

Source: The Guardian

Originally published by Nexus Media

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Suncor & ATCO’s New Hydrogen Project Is More Fossil Fuel Hydrogen Hype




Two major players in Alberta’s oil and gas industry announced a new hydrogen project recently. There was much rejoicing from people who think it’s a great step forward. The details say otherwise.

Suncor is one of the last remaining oil and gas majors in Alberta’s oil sands. It’s a vertically integrated oil and gas company, with extraction, refineries, and the Petro-Canada downstream retail outlets, having acquired Canada’s national oil and gas company in 2009. Its 2019 revenues of $38.4 billion plummeted to a $24.7 billion in 2020, the lowest since before the acquisition. ATCO is a group of companies with several divisions including structures and logistics, utilities, energy infrastructure, retail energy, transportation, and commercial real estate. ATCO’s yellow-striped temporary structures are a fixture on western Canadian construction and extraction sites.

These are both companies with long histories in Alberta and in Canada. This isn’t a story of them being bad companies, but merely doing what all fossil fuel-oriented companies are trying to do in this rapidly transforming world, stay relevant, keep operating and maximize the transfer of public money to their shareholders.

Full disclosure: I assisted Suncor with an IT transformation that was part of their jobless recovery strategy a few years ago upon returning from my global roles with the major technology company I used to work for, and was headhunted by ATCO for the position of Director of Innovation for their energy infrastructure division, but wasn’t considered a good fit.

So what’s the project? Well, to start with, it’s not really a project, it’s a “potential project” per the press releases. There is no commitment on their part to build anything, merely to do some joint early-stage engineering and discussions. As a result, all of the numbers associated with this effort are at best speculative, and there are rather large outstanding questions.

Its intended site is near Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta, about 30 kilometers north east of Edmonton, Alberta’s capital. The target production of hydrogen is more than 300,000 tonnes a year. For our purposes, we’ll use the round number.

Map of Canada showing Alberta covered in pollution registry sites

Fort Saskatchewan is roughly in the geographic center of that masse of polluted sites in Alberta being monitored under the National Pollutant Release Inventory (NPRI)

This isn’t green hydrogen. The project would use steam reformation to strip hydrogen from natural gas. As pointed out in previous articles on the challenges of fossil-fuel sourced hydrogen, that produces 8-12 times the mass of CO2 as of created hydrogen. For our purposes, we’ll assume that they are going to only produce 8 times the mass, although this is unlikely.

The creation of 300,000 tons of hydrogen will create a minimum of 2.4 million tons of CO2 annually. The intent is to make this “blue hydrogen” with carbon capture and sequestration. While it is possible to capture all flue emissions of CO2, that’s not typically what happens. As the Pembina Institute reports, the typical range is 80% to 90% of emissions captured. The Suncor and ATCO press releases are silent on both the 2.4+ million tons of CO2 created and the reality that at least 240,000 tons of it, 80% of the mass of created hydrogen, will never be captured or sequestered. Let’s assume that they capture 2.1 million tons of CO2 annually.

It’s worth asking a question about this. What would the natural gas emit if it were simply burned? It takes 4.5 normal cubic meters of natural gas to produce a kilogram of hydrogen, per an NREL report. A little math tells us the 300,000 tons of hydrogen will require 1,350,000,000 cubic meters of gas. A cubic meter of natural gas, when burned, produces 1.86 kilograms of CO2, so that natural gas would produce about 2.5 million tons of CO2, slightly more than the best possible case for the hydrogen process. Of course, just leaving the natural gas in the ground saves that 2.4 to 2.5 million tons of CO2 entirely. Let’s consider this a wash.

What do they intend to do with the CO2? Well, in theory they are going to bury the 80% to 90% that they manage to sequester. The hydrogen site is being built in the vicinity of the one carbon capture and sequestration program running in the province of Alberta, the Quest facility just outside of Fort Saskatchewan. That CCS facility takes CO2 captured from the existing hydrogen creation at the Shell Scotford Upgrader and sequesters it, about a million tons a year.

It was built and is operated with federal and provincial money, $865 million CAD of it, or about US$710 million. They claim that if it were built today, it would cost about 30% less. Once again, let’s assume that these numbers are correct, giving them the benefit of the doubt. That means about US$500 million to build a facility that captures a million tons a year. In turn that means that capture more than double that per year would cost about US$1.1 billion or $1.3 billion CAD to build the facility. As a note, the Quest facility is running out of capacity, so it’s not like they are going to expand it. This is part of the problem with millions and billions of tons of CO2: we don’t have nearly enough places to shove it.

As a note, Paul Martin, whose article on hydrogen in CleanTechnica is very worth reading, cites a total cost of $1.3 billion for Quest plus $50 million per year operations, so once again I’m being as generous to Suncor and ATCO as it is possible to be. For those interested in a broad discussion of hydrogen between Paul Martin and myself, we recorded one with the Project Save the World team yesterday.

Just as with Quest, Suncor and ATCO are not offering to pay for this themselves.

“… could be operational as early as 2028, provided that it has the required regulatory and fiscal support to render it economic”

The regulatory support is guaranteed. It’s in Alberta and the regulatory structures there are optimized to giving the oil and gas industry whatever they need. The fiscal support is unfortunately likely. Canada’s federal government has committed $1.5 billion to its hydrogen strategy, and has a history of giving far too much money to Canada’s fossil fuel industry. In addition to the $2.5-$3.5 billion in annual fossil fuel subsidies that Canada hasn’t eliminated since committing to do so in 2009, Canada also provided a billion CAD for orphaned well cleanup in Alberta, part of $18 billion in support for Canada’s oil and gas sector during COVID-19. And Alberta has been throwing money at the oil and gas industry, which has responded by shedding jobs, closing up shop and leaving the province.

Yes, Suncor and ATCO are looking for almost $1.3 billion for this effort, and have a good chance of getting it. This press release about their early efforts is part of their lobbying push.

But the hydrogen must be being used for something good, right? After all, it’s hydrogen, so by definition it’s green. Well, no.

Chart of hydrogen use per year

Hydrogen demand per year, courtesy of IEA

As I pointed out recently, 55% of all hydrogen manufactured today is used in petroleum refineries, and that’s exactly what the majority of this hydrogen is intended for, the Suncor Edmonton Refinery 30 kilometers away, which I have the odd pleasure of clear memories of, having spent a few weeks fixing a troubled project for a client whose head offices were across the road from it over a decade ago now. Fun fact: that client actually employed the ice road truckers made semi-famous by the reality tv show.

“65% of the output would be used in refining processes and cogeneration of steam and electricity at the Suncor Edmonton Refinery, reducing refinery emissions by 60%.”

As pointed out earlier, just burning the natural gas would have the same CO2 emissions as in theory burning hydrogen here, so that’s an odd claim to make. Given the laws of thermodynamics, it’s unlikely to be a wash. The claim of reducing refinery emissions is a suspect. And hydrogen doesn’t burn in the same generation systems as natural gas without substantial engineering, so there are undoubtedly significant dollars that are going to be asked of the federal and provincial governments to make the refinery less polluting.

As a note, all of the refinery emissions are separate from the roughly 70 million tons of CO2 emitted from SAGD extraction and initial processing I estimated recently. This brand new 2.4 million tons of CO2 is on top of that.

Of course, this is all in aid of an industry that’s in its death throes. When Equinor is projecting peak oil by 2027-2028, Goldman Sachs is projecting 2026, the most expensive oil on the planet will be off the market first. And that includes Alberta’s oil sands. This attempt to make it slightly less high carbon will simply make it more expensive, even with federal and provincial billions thrown at it. It’s a waste of money and no taxpayer dollars should be considered for it.

Imagine US$1.1 billion going to wind and solar in the province instead. It could build an 800 MW wind farm that would produce about 2.6 TWh of electricity a year, nicely dropping Alberta’s grid emissions. Similar results would occur with solar. But this just means more oil and gas emissions.

It’s worth asking what the other 35% of the hydrogen would be used for.

“… approximately 20% of the output could be used in the Alberta natural gas distribution system, also further reducing emissions.”

That sounds good, doesn’t it? Well, no. The amount projected for hydrogen injection into natural gas lines is only 0.06% of the annual amount of natural gas extracted in Alberta. That’s so far from material that it’s not even a rounding error.

As for the other 15%, I suspect various greenwashing efforts like hydrogen fueling stations for cars and trucks with the hope of chasing the failed dream of fuel cell road transportation.

With some luck, the federal government will resist lobbying efforts to throw billions more at the fossil fuel industry in Canada, and instead support actual green hydrogen initiatives like Quebec’s. But the history of Canada’s recent decades is billions for oil and gas, and scraps for the rest.

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“An 8th-Grader Could Have Hacked” The Koch-Owned Colonial Pipeline




Colonial pipeline operators began restarting operations Wednesday evening but said it would take “several days” for the supply chain to return and warned some markets could continue experiencing “service interruptions.” The mass panic caused by gasoline shortages and spiking prices across the East Coast — nearly 7 in 10 gas stations in North Carolina, and about half in Virginia and South Carolina, were out of gas Wednesday evening, according to GasBuddy — highlighted the vulnerability of aging U.S. energy infrastructure unable to handle 21st-century threats, even those known about far in advance.

Founded as a joint venture by nine oil companies 59 years ago, Koch Industries currently owns the largest stake in the company.

An outside audit of the Colonial Pipeline’s cyberattack defenses, delivered to the company more than three years ago, described “atrocious” information management practices and “a patchwork of poorly connected and secured systems,” its author told the AP. “We found glaring deficiencies and big problems,” said Robert F. Smallwood, whose firm prepared an 89-page report after a six-month audit. “I mean, an eighth-grader could have hacked into that system.” Colonial Pipeline operators have been seeking to hire a cybersecurity manager for more than a month, with 32 applicants on LinkedIn.

Restart: PoliticoWashington Post $, CNBCReutersNPRNew York Times $, NBCWall Street Journal $, Axios; Gas prices: AxiosThe Guardian; Koch ownership: CNN; Cybersecurity failure: APNew York Times $, Utility Dive; Job Opening: ReutersAl Jazeera

Originally published by Nexus Media.

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