Let the Sunshine In: A Solar Power Blog

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.)

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February 18, 2010

Britannia Still Rules… in Solar

President Obama has lately been busy advocating the comeback (after over thirty-five years!) of nuclear power plant construction, a policy wrongheaded in every respect – for our ecology, for our economy, even for our safety and that of our children and grandchildren. Instead of claiming to meet the climate change challenge by employing discredited “solutions” from the past, our cousins across the pond have, much more wisely, been looking to the future. The British government is doing what some mainland European governments (particularly Germany) are already doing and what governments everywhere should be doing: motivating people to use energy in a more sustainable way.

Following up on a policy it first made public in July 2009, the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) recently announced the amounts of a new tariff, effective April 1, to help persuade their citizens to change their source of electricity from fossil fuels to renewables. This plan, called the Clean Energy Cashback, or the Feed-In Tariff (FIT), will provide families who invest in renewable energy systems – solar, wind, hydro or biomass – with a deal unprecedented in the UK’s history.

Not only would UK consumers be paid for any excess energy their homes contribute to the local grid, they would receive cash from the government for energy they use themselves. Participating households would receive a credit of 41.3 pence per kilowatt-hour (equivalent to about $.65), about four times the market value of the electricity, and would get a bonus 3 pence ($.05) for every kilowatt-hour exported back into the grid. In other words, householders can earn money as well as save it. The annual benefit in electricity savings would be equivalent to about $220 and the reward itself would come to about $1400. The amount would be adjusted over time for inflation. And it’s all tax-free, too.

Ed Miliband, the secretary of DECC, was quoted as saying, “The guarantee of getting an income, on top of saving on energy bills, will be an incentive to householders and communities wanting to make the move to low-carbon living.” One British family, the Colquhouns, spent the equivalent of $19,200 on their solar panel system and under the new policy, at a return of more than 8%, can expect to break even in less than 12 years. (The rate and duration of the tariff depends on the type of energy used and other factors.)

The policy is in line with the UK’s target of generating 15% of all energy from renewable sources by 2020. The government predicts that, by 2020, 2% of all electricity demand will be met by such small-scale renewable installations. The UK currently generates 5.5% of all its electricity from renewable sources, as opposed to 2% in the U.S.

The British public seems to have embraced the idea. According to one survey, 71% of UK homeowners said that they would think about installing a low-carbon system if they were paid enough. One of the side benefits of the situation is that some households that install renewable energy systems like solar may see the value of their homes rise: the houses themselves would generate energy income. Small-scale energy generators would also provide protection against rising fossil fuel prices. The construction industry is positively ecstatic: it is predicting a $42 billion dollar windfall (and lots of jobs) from new and retrofitted solar systems.

However, the policy has also met with considerable criticism on both the Right and the Left. Environmental groups object to it on the grounds that it doesn’t go far enough, because the tariff is too small. (The government claims that, since these incentives will be funded by a small annual extra charge to those who do not take part in the plan, it could not make the tariff higher because that would be unfair to non-participating households.) Dave Timms, of Friends of the Earth, was quoted as saying: “Ministers have been far too timid with a policy that could make a significant contribution to cutting emissions and boosting energy security.” Meanwhile, in a bizarre contrast to the situation in the United States, with its fanatical right-wing climate skeptics, UK Conservatives (“Tories”) have not only jumped on the FIT bandwagon, but have declared the policy “long overdue” and accused the current Labour government of “lacking ambition”!

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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