Let the Sunshine In: A Solar Power Blog

November 26, 2014

The Joy of Solar… Infographics

In 2002 the Norwegian electronic music duo Röyksopp released their fourth single, “Remind Me.” To promote it, a French motion graphics studio named H5 was hired to produce a computer-animated music video, depicting a typical morning and workday of a young woman with a job in London’s Square Mile district (England’s equivalent to Wall Street). What’s unusual about the video, though, is not the use of animation, nor the “day in the life of an unremarkable person” concept, but the fact that the woman’s story is told exclusively through the use of infographics. These include (according to Wikipedia) “labeled close-ups of everyday objects, product lifecycles, schematic diagrams [and] charts,” as well as extraneous written commentary, such as “Like a car engine, the heart depends on electrical energy to start it and keep it beating regularly.” In other words, the video informs the viewer about every detail regarding the cartoon heroine and her day… except what’s going on in her mind and soul. This video – despite, or perhaps because of, its apparently satirical intent – has so far garnered nearly three million views on YouTube. What its success proves is that people really like infographics, to the point that they’re increasingly willing to receive much of their knowledge of the world from them, and even to view them as entertainment.

What do infographics have to do with solar? I will go out on a limb now and make the claim that the biggest challenge for the solar power industry today is not a technological one. (Yes, there’s the energy storage problem, but does anyone who’s not a diehard pessimist believe that, with all the innovative work now being done, a viable solution, or several, will not emerge soon?) The problem is not even marketing in the traditional meaning of the term. The challenge is rather to communicate to the public the dream of solar in a larger sense. People want to believe in solar and commit to it, but they think within a conceptual framework, obviously abetted by the fossil fuel industry, in which solar is simply “not doable.” So for a social transformation to take place, a new public awareness has to emerge. And any widely accepted information medium that can help create this awareness – certainly including infographics – should be welcomed.

Different solar organizations could make use of infographics for a number of purposes. A solar power corporation would naturally want to utilize them to make its website attractive and to obtain buy-in from consumers for the company’s products and services. A solar association might employ them as a way to enhance the public’s awareness of solar power and its viability. And advocacy groups might even find them handy as a way to influence lawmakers and other thought leaders to support or approve legislation and regulations favorable to the industry.

Some topics relating to solar power that would be ideal for the medium would be:

  • the technological basis of solar power (i.e., how it works),
  • a capsule history of solar from ancient times to the present day,
  • the challenges that the industry faces in the immediate future,
  • the affordability of solar,
  • how solar energy can power (practically) anything,
  • the reasons why solar is a legitimate substitute for fossil fuels.

If you belong to a solar organization seeking to incorporate infographics into your communications, there are a few simple rules for doing it right. Keep in mind that an infographic combines a utilitarian and an esthetic purpose, so it must be, more or less equally, both useful and attractive. Striking the proper balance can be a challenge, however. Making your infographic accurate and comprehensive while forfeiting visual appeal will result in dullness. But creating an overelaborate design at the expense of clarity and readability will render it useless. (The evocative term, “chartjunk,” was coined by statistician Edward Tufte to describe exactly this latter type of flawed illustration.)

Therefore, your infographic:

  • must be readable as well as viewable,
  • must contain no extraneous information (and must not omit necessary information),
  • must contain no excessively complex or distracting images,
  • must flow logically with, to the extent possible, a synergistic union of word and image.

A good example of an effective solar infographic is the one created by GE shown below, called “The Future of Solar.” (Note: the author of the present post has no relation to GE.)




It is a particularly well-worn cliché to include, as here, an image of the sun in a solar infographic, but the illustration redeems this somewhat by imaging its information as concentric circles, or “rays,” emanating from this sun – a simple and effective idea. The three circles are divided into “The Past,” “Recent Years” and “The Future,” each “ray” further clarified by tan boxes with white text. The circle closest to the sun shows the huge increase (nearly triple) in energy consumption during the latter half of the 20th Century, as well as the proportions in the mix, at the beginning of each decade, of fossil fuels, nuclear energy and renewables. The second circle shows the proportion to the whole of each type of energy source as of 2009, as well as the astonishing growth of solar in the early 21st Century. The third circle illustrates the United States’ energy goals for the year 2035, as well as demonstrating the means by which those goals might be achieved (in large part through solar). The text fonts throughout are on the small side and thus a bit hard to read, but the graphics make the data relationships perfectly clear. All in all, the infographic includes quite a bit of statistical information in a digestible, uncluttered manner, so is both pleasing to look at and informative.

No single information medium could ever be sufficient to make the public – which is often (deliberately) misinformed – understand the full truth about solar. But I believe a solar organization would be very short-sighted indeed not to include some well-made infographics in its media mix.


The Return of the Sunshine

Filed under: bitcoin,ecology,economy,Energy,environment,science,solar,solar power,technology — dylanfreak @ 11:29 am

I am publishing this post simply to note that, though I have not posted to this blog for quite a while, I intend to do so more often. Part of the reason that no posts have recently appeared is that I have been posting solar articles on other blogs, bypassing this one. The following are the titles, publications and links for articles pertaining to solar that were written by me but not previously posted here.

“Building Renewable Energy in the Developing World, Brick by BRICS” — Published 8/14/14 on Renewable Energy World — http://www.renewableenergyworld.com/rea/news/article/2014/08/building-renewable-energy-in-the-developing-world-brick-by-brics

“The Challenge of Integration: The New York Solar Summit Sheds Light on Solar in the State” — Published 6/12/14 on PV Solar Report for Sunible, Inc. — http://www.pvsolarreport.com/challenge-of-integration-at-new-york-solar-summit

“Happy Diamond Anniversary to the Solar Cell!” — Published 4/25/14 on Suniblog for Sunible, Inc. — http://sunible.com/blog/happy-diamond-anniversary-to-the-solar-cell

“Money from the Sun” – Published 3/1/14 on The Energy Collectivehttp://theenergycollective.com/dylanexpert/348016/money-sun

“Isn’t Solar Romantic?” — Published 2/14/14 on Suniblog for Sunible, Inc. – http://sunible.com/blog/isnt-solar-romantic


July 14, 2013

The Solar Monarch

Filed under: aviation,ecology,green,science,solar,solar power,Switzerland,technology — dylanfreak @ 2:49 pm


The historic, cross-country journey of the first plane to fly across the US without fuel, the Solar Impulse HB-SIA, ended safely at JFK airport on the night of Saturday, July 6. One would think that in a news cycle dominated by bad to disastrous news about violent, corrupt and ridiculous people, such an uplifting story would elicit near-universal acclaim, but some journalists wasted no time heaping ridicule upon the whole enterprise. The plane, they said, looked more like a toy than an aircraft — except that it seemed far less sturdy than the average toy. (Actually, they had a point there: some of the materials with which the plane is constructed are literally lighter than paper!) And how could anybody take seriously a plane whose cruising speed is 30 miles-per-hour and whose top speed is a mere 45 miles-per-hour? (The entire trip took almost 106 hours.) Yet the Swiss pilot of the craft — Andre Borschberg – even after a tear appeared in the fabric of the left wing, brought it down safely on the last leg of its continent-wide, two-month run. By fulfilling their goal of piloting across the U.S. the first solar-powered plane capable of flying by day and night, Borschberg and the co-founder of the Solar Impulse project, Bertrand Piccard, achieved a major technological triumph and, I would claim, a moral victory as well.

For me, the Solar Impulse is a thing of beauty. Its huge wingspan, as wide as a Boeing 747, makes it look like a majestic, prehistoric bird. Its batteries store all the energy its 12,000 solar cells have accumulated during the daylight hours to allow it to fly after sundown. So when it descends onto the runway of an airport at night, its lights glowing across its entire length (as in this YouTube video), it’s a sight to behold.

Piccard has claimed that solar powered planes could be commercially available “within five years,” while Borschberg emphasizes its non-aviation uses. (“All the partners who are involved with this project developed technologies not for the aviation world, but for their own customers,” Borschberg said.) I happen to side with M. Piccard on this, not M. Borschberg. Yes, this plane is much too slow and can carry too few people — exactly one — to be useful for the purposes of commercial aviation. (And HB-SIA is even now about to be retired in favor of a more ambitious prototype scheduled to make a round-the-world flight in 2015.) But the Wright Brothers’ rickety craft didn’t fly very fast or carry passengers, either. Yet it worked, and that unpromising beginning led to a planet entirely connected by air travel. Without a foundation there can be nothing to build on, and I want to believe that the Solar Impulse will one day be remembered as the foundation for all future solar-powered flights.

If that’s true, then this historic milestone hasn’t occurred a moment too soon. According to the EPA, 13 percent of all greenhouse gases come from transport-related sources: cars, trucks, etc. Jet fuel obviously represents a huge part of that 13 percent, so it’s clear that part of the challenge of saving the planet involves eliminating this source of pollution. It’s wildly unlikely, however, that people would be willing to forego flying and go back to international travel by boat. The Solar Impulse suggests the tantalizing possibility that pollution-free air travel may, in the not-too-distant future, become a reality.

Just as importantly, the flight of the Solar Impulse is a lovely metaphor for the rise of solar power itself. For scientific innovations to be politically viable, they must come to represent the Idea of the Future to people. The solar panel is a purely functional object. It’s not unattractive, but not particularly inspiring, either. But the Solar Impulse, as the automobile once was, is today’s Idea of the Future, the embodiment of the concept that the world can rise above the dangerous, polluted present if only everyone would embrace renewables. The aircraft’s success provides some hope in a world that can sometimes seem nearly hopeless.

March 20, 2010

Go Green Expo, New York City, Part I

The first day of the New York edition of Go Green Expo took place yesterday (3/19) and at the very least it demonstrated for me the extent to which green consciousness has permeated our culture. (This day was dedicated solely to businesses and the press and was not open to the public; Saturday and Sunday, the expo is open to everybody.) “The nation’s leading eco-focused, interactive green-living showcase,” as the press material describes it, housed in a gigantic space at Pier 92 in the far west side of Manhattan, contained areas devoted to Energy & Conservation, Home & Building, Travel & Transportation (including some very nifty-looking cars), Business & Electronics, Health & Beauty, Foods & Beverages — even a Kids Zone. “Go Green Expo focuses on going green without sacrifice [emphasis mine].” (I am a bit skeptical about that last part: assuming such a thing is desirable, is sustainability without sacrifice even possible, at this late date?)

Solar power was not slighted at this event. Walking in from the registration area, I came upon the booth for Mercury Solar Systems, which is headquartered in Port Chester, New York, but also has offices in Connecticut, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. and describes itself as “one of the leading solar integrators on the East Coast.” The man behind the counter, David Weiss, was a most upbeat fellow, very enthusiastic about his product. Asked how he got into the business of solar, Weiss said, “I wanted to sell a big-ticket product that was good for the earth and also fun to talk about, though for a while, I wasn’t sure what that product would be.” To the question of how he overcomes customer resistance to solar power, he cited what he considered the three main customer misconceptions:

  1. The Northeast is lousy for solar;
  2. The technology is too expensive;
  3. It looks ugly.

Weiss was happy to refute all of these assumptions (he thinks the Northeast is actually better for solar than Florida). He also refuted another argument buyers use to postpone installing the technology: that some amazing breakthrough in solar tech is just around the corner that will make it much cheaper and/or more efficient and that therefore they should hold off on buying solar until after this great event occurs.

“It’s not going to happen,” said Weiss. According to him, “in the last 20 years, solar energy has only gotten one or two per cent more efficient.” He said that the important things for the salesman to accomplish are to explain the rebates that are available through state legislation, and make people understand that there is no point in waiting. Asked when solar sales will start skyrocketing, he answered, “They’re skyrocketing now.”

Bill Wang of American Renewable Energy (ARE) (“one of the leading solar integrators on the East Coast,” as its brochure states) also believes that the main problem is educating the buyer — as well as government officials. To that end, he has been in touch with the mayor of Philadelphia to try to increase awareness of how the city can adopt solar power. The company sees itself as “a bridge between traditional ways and a renewable energy future.” To that end, he is willing to partner even with the fossil fuel industries, oil and coal, to try to get them to “come on board” the solar revolution. He predicts that by 2013, 22%, over one-fifth, of homes will be powered by some form of renewable energy. Asked why they are doing this, Mr. Wang said, “to benefit our children and grandchildren.”

An outfit called Solarrific had a booth containing all kinds of imaginative solar-powered (and dynamo-powered) gadgets. These included a stick light that changes color and a tile light, both designed to illuminate outdoor areas (such as a garden). There was a solar-powered battery recharger that worked with AA, D and 12-volt batteries. Most interesting was a solar-powered bug zapper that works both indoors and outdoors. (This seemed to me a good alternative to those aromatic flying insect killers that can only be safely used outdoors.) Other things Solarrific marketed included a solar water fountain kit, a combination cell-phone-charger, light and solar panel, and a solar caddypack.

A pleasant French fellow by the name of Patrick of Solar LED Innovations sold very elegant-looking solar-powered flashlights and tube lights, which doubled as cell-phone chargers. They were manufactured by employees hired from Handi-Crafters, a service whose clients are developmentally disabled. When I asked Patrick about the future of solar, he said that solar was now the most dynamic form of renewable energy. He pointed out the often-cited statistic that solar power use has been rising 50% annually, in effect doubling every two years. He said that solar is becoming more affordable and that new creative uses are being found for solar power all the time.

The last word of this post belongs to Bradford Rand, the President and CEO of Go Green Expo. When I asked him his opinion of the future of solar, he answered as follows:

The future of solar is omnipresent: a clean, sustainable, renewable energy source that will continue to grow through the 21st Century. It is an area of knowledge that will generate tremendous economic growth and a clean environment and help rid us of the curse of dirty energy.

March 13, 2010

Of Tasty Cars and Tasteless Politicians: A Tale of Two Energy Conventions

According to all the reports I’ve read on the MIT Energy Conference, held last weekend in Boston, it was really two conferences. Conference One proved that, with the right funding and the right minds to take advantage of it, tremendous things are being done (and even more can be done) in the field of clean energy research. Conference Two proved that, outside the golden world of green tech science, the same old climate change denying and sheer incompetence still reign in the less-than-golden world of public policy.

First the good news: the breakthroughs, real and potential, by MIT researchers, whose work on clean energy tech was praised by Barack Obama last fall, are truly impressive. One team is exploring the potential of particles called excitons, the mechanism for light emission in semiconductors. The goal would be to create thin-film, non-tracking solar cells with power efficiencies greater than 30%. Another team is exploring ways to replace expensive copper parts in solar thermophotovoltaic (STPV) systems with cheap plastic parts. The principle is that, as long as there is some kind of heat source, the cell can generate light, which in turn can generate energy even when the sun isn’t shining.

A third team is dealing with a related problem: energy storage, a major difficulty with intermittent energy sources, like wind and solar. Compared to 15% in Japan, only 2.5% of the capacity of the U.S. energy grid can now be stored. The solution that one scientist has proposed are gigantic liquid metal batteries (to be kept at temperatures of around 700 degrees Celsius) to act as “frequency regulators” that would keep energy flowing to consumers if power from the energy source is suddenly cut off. A fourth team is working on a cobalt phosphate catalyst that would split water into hydrogen and oxygen cheaply. If research is successful, three liters of water could conceivably power a home. This technology would be particularly useful for the developing world, where there is often little or no existing electricity-generating infrastructure.

But the star of the conference was unquestionably… Lola! Lola is a Formula 3 racing car, created by the University of Warwick, constructed entirely of renewables, including carrots, potato starch and flax, and fueled by… chocolate. Developed over 9 months at a cost of $200,000, it has a top speed of 135 mph and can go from zero to 60 in 2.5 seconds. Its engine runs on diesel, not gasoline, and can even run on fuel derived from chocolate factory waste and other vegetable-based oils. Its radiator even converts ozone back into oxygen, literally cleaning up the atmosphere as it runs.

In dramatic contrast to these encouraging — even astonishing — innovations is the decidedly uninspiring, indeed downright depressing state of national energy policy. Of course, we already knew that the facts were grim. But Nobuo Tanaka, who spoke at the conference in behalf of the International Energy Agency (IEA), brought us down even further with his statistics on the state of climate change and what is really needed to combat it. The multi-trillion dollar investment that is needed to stabilize the climate would require, according to Tanaka, the construction and deployment of:

  • 18 nuclear power plants
  • 17,000 wind turbines
  • At least 2 huge hydroelectric plants
  • 94 (I have no idea where he gets that precise number) new solar power plants per year between now and 2030.

And all that is only to maintain the projected target of 450 parts of carbon emissions per million in the atmosphere, which would nonetheless still raise the earth’s temperature 2 degrees Celsius. As I disagree with the viability or safety of nuclear power plants (see previous post), a lot more wind and solar generators than Tanaka’s estimate would be required to compensate. And many activists and others think that 350 parts per million is the only safe target. Yet Tanaka insists that the target of 450 per million is “science fiction” if this massive investment does not take place.

One  of the chief conference speakers was John Rowe, CEO of Exelon, the nation’s largest electric utility company and the owner of the biggest fleet of nuclear power plants in the U.S. He stated that pro-climate government regulation was “in my economic self-interest.” (This statement apparently makes more sense now than it would have a short while ago, since President Obama mysteriously decided recently that nuclear power is renewable energy.) Rowe emphasized that the government should establish and maintain a steady, consistent policy, and the American consumer should understand that there’s no free lunch: combating climate change is going to involve some personal cost. However, he rejected government regulation as a solution. Bringing out a chart of what he called 27 potential EPA regulations, he referred to it as a “train wreck” that would cost utilities billions of dollars and provide jobs only for lawyers.

He asserted that carbon pricing — either a carbon tax, or cap-and-trade (preferably the latter) — was the only way to fulfill the four goals of a viable energy policy:

  • Cleaner energy
  • Greater energy security
  • Job creation
  • Lowest possible cost.

Senator Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, who gave the closing keynote speech, brought back the latest news from the Beltway… and it was not good. In contrast to Rowe, he affirmed that clean tech could not be realized without a major shift in government policy, including new regulations. The chances of that happening soon in partisan Washington, however, said Bingaman, are slim. He perceived a pattern whereby the U.S. creates an innovation (e.g., the lithium ion battery) that somebody else then manufactures and profits from. His four-point program for a viable energy policy would be:

  • Support clean tech R&D;
  • Aggressively increase manufacturing capacity of clean energy;
  • Create a more favorable domestic market for clean energy;
  • Increase tax credits to bring the above goals to fruition.

The consensus of many of the experts of the conference seemed to be that our underachieving government was hardly the whole answer to the problem… but it could be doing a whole lot more.

To me, all this suggests two burning questions:

– Will our civic leaders ever emulate the intelligence, much less the creativity, of our clean tech scientists?

– And will today’s songwriters follow the example of the car-loving musicians of yesteryear and create hit songs about the new edible car? (Note: The title “Lola” is already taken.)

January 11, 2010

Space Is the Place, Part I

In my youth, practically everything having to do with outer space conveyed a glamour that nothing else quite matched. Astronauts were to me near-mythic beings, more heroic than soldiers or cowboys. (John Wayne, after all, never had to cope with zero gravity.) Outer space was the place — more than any foreign country or remote area on earth — where nearly any possibility could be imagined. On TV and video, I devoured just about everything that had to do with space, from epic visions like 2001: A Space Odyssey to fables such as ET: The Extra-Terrestrial to the sleaziest sci-fi dreck… much as wholesome meals and sugary junk tasted much the same to my hungry and undiscriminating palate.

So there is a sense of satisfaction for me, after absorbing so much fantasy, in the idea that one of the greatest real-life wonders of space is its potential to help save humanity from our energy emergency through space-based solar power (SBSP). Something like the concept of SBSP has existed, at least in fiction, since 1941, when Isaac Asimov published the short story Reason, which is set on a spaceship from which energy is beamed by sentient (and highly temperamental) robots to distant planets. In 1968, the notion was promoted from science fiction speculation to science theory by Peter Glaser. Many people, including the Department of Defense, have recently been taking SBSP very seriously indeed. Everybody’s talking solar… but why is it so important?

SBSP, if and when it is successfully implemented, might well solve many of humanity’s energy problems. The sun is the most constant and dependable source of energy on earth. In what appears to be the “darkness” of space, there is, in fact, no night: solar panels could receive sunlight 24 hours a day, with no interference from the atmosphere nor any obstruction through bad weather. All this, of course, does not mean that space solar power will or should replace terrestrial solar power. But if and when it becomes viable, it might well become the main energy source for many on this planet.

Three basic elements are necessary for a viable SBSP system:

1. a way to transform, in space, the energy from the sun into electrical energy and collect that energy;

2. a way to transmit this collected energy from space to earth;

3. a way to receive on the earth’s surface the energy from space and distribute it to users.

The good news is that much of the technology necessary for making SBSP a reality not only exists, but is actually quite commonplace. Commercial space satellites — the machines necessary to carry out the first element above — have been in existence since Telstar, launched way back in 1962. Photovoltaic (PV) cells for harnessing solar energy are of course in increasingly common use. (Even the International Space Station employs solar arrays, though strictly for its own use.) As for the second element, both microwaves and lasers have been proposed as the means to convey solar energy from space to earth; both these technologies are well advanced. For the third element above, rectangular antennas (called “rectennas“) are the most commonly proposed method of catching the energy from space on earth.

So what’s holding us back?

The most significant problem seems to be one of scale… and here is revealed the “profitability paradox” at the heart of the SBSP project. Simply put, to produce the sheer quantity of electrical power necessary to make the program affordable would seem to require devices of colossal size and complexity, both in space and on the ground. But the fact that the devices need to be so large and complex makes creating and assembling them deeply problematical… and potentially unprofitable.

It has been estimated that an adequate receiving antenna in space (which would, of course, be only one part of the entire satellite) would need to be a kilometer (over six-tenths of a mile, or about 11 football fields long) in diameter — which is almost two miles in circumference and over three-tenths of a square mile in area. How to get such a Godzilla of a device into orbit — and keep it functioning once it’s there — may be the biggest single challenge of SBSP technology. And then there’s the rectenna, an enormous structure in its own right, estimated at perhaps 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) wide and 14 kilometers (8.7 miles) long… though at least no one has to lug the damn thing into space. (Note: the dimensions above represent one theoretical estimate; Solaren, the California-based corporation, envisions a satellite array several miles across, while the Japanese space agency, JAXA, proposes a receiving station on earth that would “only” be 1.8 miles wide.)

[Continued in Part II]

January 3, 2010

The Good, the Bad and the Irrational

Now that we’ve finally left behind that unmourned year, 2009, the Internet seems to have arrived at a consensus on two seemingly contradictory premises vis-a-vis solar power. These are: a) last year was a very rough year for the industry, and b) the outlook in general for solar in 2010 and beyond is fair to excellent. In other words, if the battle of the solar industry with the fossil fuel giants could be compared to a prizefight, the round just ended has left the challenger seriously battered, but still standing and primed to charge out of his corner swinging when the bell rings again.

Predictably, in the aftermath of the financial collapse, the cleantech sector suffered a decline by just about any measure: sales, profitability, stock prices, even venture capital. Even so, the statistics can deceive. Investment was actually up significantly in 2009 from just two years ago and solar, among all the renewables industries, is the undisputed leader, pulling in $1.4 billion from investors (the second biggest was biofuels), more than a quarter of the whole renewables market. Most sources are predicting a good year for solar in 2010, or at least the beginnings of a recovery.

Strangely enough, one of the main problems with solar in 2009, according to one blogger, has been oil… or rather, people’s quite illogical perception of it. Very little oil goes towards creating electricity, he noted. Yet when oil prices decline, so does the demand for solar. How can this be?

For Americans, there seems to be some kind of psychological block when it comes to investing in new tech, so long as those good ol’ familiar fossil fuels can be had at bargain prices. And, despite all warnings, Americans have never really bought into the idea of resource depletion (never mind global warming). They cling, like primitive peoples, to the atavistic myth that oil and gas, like diamonds, are forever, unwilling to grasp that renewables will, sooner or later, become absolutely necessary. Call it the Palinolithic Effect.

So even though solar advocates, despite the economy, are standing at the crossroads of a major breakthrough for human sustainability (and survival), here comes stubborn human irrationality — like Eli Wallach‘s sinister Mexican outlaw — blocking our path. Paging Clint Eastwood!

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