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.


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.)

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”!

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