If developers Hive Energy and Wirsol Energy get their way, the U.K.’s largest solar farm will go online in 2020. The Cleve Hill solar park would cover nearly 900 acres of farmland and operate with a capacity of 350 MW, enough to provide power for 110,000 households — if it’s approved by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, that is.
“The Cleve Hill solar park is a pioneering scheme that aims to optimize the technological developments in solar energy,” Hugh Brennan, Managing Director of Hive Energy, told The Guardian.
Because the government cut solar energy subsidies back in 2016, the best way to make a farm economically viable is to increase its size, according to the developers.
Cleve Hill would be the second subsidy-free solar farm built in the country since the subsidies have stopped. However, the other farm was an expansion of a previously built farm — Cleve Hill would be the first to be completely built after subsidies.
Some in the area are concerned about the scale of the new installation. Migrating birds use the mudflats and salt marshes of the area to rest, and conservationists, like those from the Kent Wildlife Trust, worry about the impact the U.K.’s largest solar farm could have on these species.
Others worry about the precedent these large farms are setting. “Government policy of excluding solar from clean power auctions is driving larger projects in a bid to get the economics to work,” a spokeswoman from the Solar Trade Association told The Guardian.
While many are all for renewable energy, they worry that smaller, community-based solar farms will be eclipsed as the need to make these farms economically viable forces builders to go bigger and bigger with their installations.
Even so, this initiative to build the U.K.’s largest solar farm is a sign that solar power might be able to continue to flourish even without government help, and it follows a trend in the U.K. of leaning more heavily on renewables. Wales has set a target to generate 70 percent of its energy from clean sources by 2030, and Scotland has an even more ambitious goal: 100 percent zero-carbon by 2020.
But these expanded smartphone functions have brought with them the need for us to find new ways to keep our cell phones charged. Recently, some have attempted to power smartphones through wireless power transmission or by capturing the kinetic energy of the user’s movements. Now, researchers have devised a method to charge cell phones with ambient light.
Scientists at Dracula Technologies, a French solar energy company, have developed “LAYER” technology — short for “Light As Your Energetic Response.” Essentially, LAYERs are thin, flexible solar cells that can be manufactured using an inkjet printer.
A Printed Charger
These cost-effective, foldable sheets are composed of a unique conductive plastic that can capture energy from both solar and artificial light — making this technology much more versatile than many of its predecessors. A LAYER could either be printed onto the electronic device itself, or a larger sheet could be fixed to something that might capture more light, such as a backpack. That object, then, would be hooked up to the device.
“You can imagine printing it on a t-shirt and using that to charge your phone,” Sadok Ben Dkhil, a materials physicist with Dracula Technologies, said in an interview with New Scientist.
These solar cells only take about an hour to print and can be customized in shape and color, or even transparent. While the researchers are still looking for ways to shorten the time it takes the solar cells to charge cell phones, they are confident that the technology is almost ready for real-world applications.
“In a few months’ time, we should be able to charge a smartphone,” Ben Dkhil said in the interview.
Greenhouse farming has existed since the 15th century, and the idea of growing plants in an area that could be environmentally controlled can be traced back to the Roman Empire. However, since modern greenhouses were introduced in the 17th century, not much has changed. Now, greenhouses are powered by electricity from the grid and their total food production ability has grown to more than 9 million acres, according to University of California, Santa Cruz environmental studies professor Michael Loik.
“It’s big and getting bigger,” Loik said in a press release, which announced a new solar greenhouse model developed by UCSC researchers Sue Carter and Glenn Alers. The new solar greenhouse technology could potentially reduce dependence on greenhouses from the grid which could potentially cut down on energy consumption and limit greenhouse gas emissions.
“We have demonstrated that ‘smart greenhouses’ can capture solar energy for electricity without reducing plant growth, which is pretty exciting,” Loik, the first author on a paper published in Earth’s Future, a journal of the American Geophysical Union, said in a UCSC press release.
These “smart greenhouses” use what’s called Wavelength-Selective Photovoltaic Systems (WSPVs) to grow plants and generate self-sustaining electricity for the greenhouses. These are outfitted with transparent, pink roof panels that are stained with a luminescent dye which absorbs light and captures energy in narrow photovoltaic (PV) strips. Loik asserted that WSPVs are less costly than traditional photovoltaic systems while generating electricity more efficiently.
A Renewable Energy Ecosystem
Greenhouses use electricity to power their various monitoring systems, fans, lights, and temperature control. The growing popularity of greenhouse farming has meant that more electricity has been used, which the UCSC team wants to reduce by allowing greenhouses to produce electricity using the same solar energy that the plants need. “If greenhouses generate electricity on site, that reduces the need for an outside source, which helps lower greenhouse gas emissions even more,” Loik said. “We’re moving toward self-sustaining greenhouses.”
The UCSC team has been grown their first crops of tomatoes and cucumbers, which are some of the top greenhouse-produced crops globally, using these pink, novel greenhouses. “Eighty percent of the plants weren’t affected, while 20 percent actually grew better under the magenta windows,” Loik explained.
It’s not difficult to imagine how this technology might fit into the self-sustaining systems that renewables like solar are creating. With the increased usage of PV systems in homes, not just solar farms, and advancing energy storage batteries, the “smart houses” of the future are separating from the grid.
Led by Richard Lunt, the Johansen Crosby Endowed Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science at MSU, the team created a transparent luminescent solar concentrator that could generate solar energy on any clear surface without affecting the view. In theory, it could be applied to cell phones, windows, buildings, and cars.
“Highly transparent solar cells represent the wave of the future for new solar applications,” said Lunt. “We analyzed their potential and show that by harvesting only invisible light, these devices can provide a similar electricity-generation potential as rooftop solar while providing additional functionality to enhance the efficiency of buildings, automobiles and mobile electronics.”
Currently, according to Lunt and his team, only 1.5 percent of electricity in the U.S. is generated by solar power. Transparent solar panels, however, could account for 40 percent of electricity, provided its used on the 5-7 billion square meters of glass surface in the country — something that’s unlikely to happen anytime soon.
Before they can even be considered, they need to be more efficient. Compared to solar panel’s 15 percent efficiency, transparent panels are only 5 percent efficient. Despite this, Lunt states that transparent panels are only about a third of the way into their full potential after five years’ research. Going forward, work will be done to improve the panel’s capabilities, though they’re not expected to outperform or replace the traditional solar panels we’ve become accustomed to.
“Ultimately, this technology offers a promising route to inexpensive, widespread solar adoption on small and large surfaces that were previously inaccessible,” added Lunt.
Puerto Rico’s largely devastated power grid is still far from a recovery, despite recent efforts by Tesla to supply the island with much-needed energy through a microgrid of solar panels and energy storage batteries. To this end, Puerto Rico’s Department of Economic Development and Commerce Secretary Manuel Laboy has proposed transforming the Caribbean island’s crippled energy infrastructure with the help of Elon Musk’s company.
According to Bloomberg, Laboy had supposedly been in talks with Tesla even before disaster struck Puerto Rico with Hurricane Maria. The plan would be to improve the island’s decades-old energy system — which has long been riddled with inefficiency leading to vulnerability — by setting up an ecosystem of micro-grids and regional grids powered by solar energy and Tesla’s Powerpack storage batteries. Musk had previously made similar comments, suggesting that Puerto Rico’s current state of post-disaster recovery could present an opportunity to fix its power grid.
The solution, Laboy told Bloomberg via phone interview, is privatization. While the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority will continue to manage energy transmission, generation would be left to a number of companies the government is considering partnerships with, including Sonnen GmbH, Arensis Corp. and Sunnova Energy Corp. Laboy said that it’ll be “highly probable” that the government ends up holding a competitive bidding process.
Experts are skeptical, however, about the economics of this new setup. They’ve argued that while it may prove beneficial to tax payers, the same may not be said for electricity workers in the long run. The initial funding, at least, could come from taking advantage of the unique opportunity Puerto Rico has to use federal funds meant for rebuilding to revamp the grid instead. “There is a fair chance that we can pull this off,” Laboy said.
Other experts are all for it: in an interview for CBS News, World Bank president Jim Yong Kim said the plan is “good news for the U.S.,” as “solar now is so inexpensive that it makes sense in the economic sense.” Musk, Kim said, “is about to usher in the next great revolution” in energy generation and storage, and it’ll be “a win-win situation for Puerto Rico.”
One of the most poignant displays of the island’s continued disarray? Now, three weeks after the storm has dissipated, more than 80 percent of the island is still without power. The storm damaged all facets of the power grid — how power is generated, how power is transmitted, and how power is distributed — making the process of repair far more challenging than on neighboring islands, New Scientist reports. Officials estimate that it could take months for citizens to get their electricity back, or even longer.
That is, unless Elon Musk steps in.
Prompted by a Twitter user, on October 5th, Musk noted that Tesla could get involved in restoring the island’s power. Notably, this power would be clean and renewable:
The Tesla team has done this for many smaller islands around the world, but there is no scalability limit, so it can be done for Puerto Rico too. Such a decision would be in the hands of the PR govt, PUC, any commercial stakeholders and, most importantly, the people of PR.
The two men recognized the great potential in the wake of Puerto Rico’s destruction. “Although in the short-term the object would be to bring power to the largest number of people, we shouldn’t sacrifice this opportunity to have an energy system that is resilient, modern, and can be at cutting edge on the global level,” Rossello said in a subsequent press conference.
A Shift In The Business
Neither Rossello nor Musk has provided much detail about what the plan would look like. But on smaller islands, Tesla has installed a microgrid, a distributed network of batteries and solar panels that operates independently of the standard electric grid. The solar panels collect energy when they can; the batteries store that energy for later use.
This kind of distributed system can bring electricity to those residents more quickly than repairing the traditional electrical grid. That’s clearly a good thing.
But could the shift away from traditional systems ultimately punish citizens?
Right now, the government-owned corporation Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) supplies power to all of the island. That power is generated primarily through burning petroleum, natural gas, and coal, which is imported. If more individual homes are outfitted with their own sources of power generation, they will become less reliant on PREPA. This trend is happening elsewhere in the United States, too, from New York to Arizona.
This shift could be financially more disruptive than straightforward privatization, in which government-owned utilities (power, waste management, water) are handed to private companies that run each part of the process. That is because privately owned companies are heavily regulated so that they don’t jack up prices and take advantage of consumers. But the combination of regulation and competing companies that answer to shareholders who want to turn a profit often means that consumers don’t see much difference in how much they pay for power; in some cases, individuals even pay less in privatized systems.
“There have been a lot of studies on the cost of electricity generation for public and private utilities. It makes no difference. There’s a wide range of results, with no real pattern as to whether public or private was better [for citizens],” John Donahue, the faculty chair of the Masters of Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, told Futurism.
“Musk’s pitch might be good news for rate payers, bad news for electricity workers.””
“As a customer in a privatized system, you can be confident there will be incentives in place,” Frank Wolak, an economics professor at Stanford University, told Futurism. But, he notes, there are downsides, too: “If you’re working in the privatized system, you won’t do as well. You could lose your job.”
To this end, a push towards individualized power generation could come with a similar trade-off for citizens, at least at first: they might pay less for electricity on a monthly basis, but those employed by the power company might lose their jobs.
“Musk’s pitch might be good news for rate payers, bad news for electricity workers. That’s probably the bottom line,” Donahue said.
Shifting to the microgrid also comes with new risks that weren’t present in the traditional power system. The solar panels and battery packs are expensive; users often need years to recoup their investment. Musk isn’t letting on how much he’s going to charge for Tesla’s systems, or who will be paying for it, but given Puerto Rico’s sizable debt, it might be a tough decision if the government uses an outsized portion of its recovery funds to restore power using Tesla’s tech.
It’s particularly knotty because the island will probably have to rebuild its traditional grid anyway. The batteries that store energy aren’t as efficient, and they need to give people access to electricity 24/7, Wolak said. So when the Sun isn’t shining, everyone will need backup power from the grid all at the same time. The supply and demand of electricity will fluctuate dramatically, causing a headache for the power company, which will need to generate that power only intermittently and can’t loop in to a larger grid due to Puerto Rico’s isolation.
“You hear people talk about how Denmark’s electricity is 80 percent renewable. But it’s interconnected with the rest of Europe. So they can install a lot of wind, but if the wind isn’t blowing [Denmark] gets electricity from other regions,” Wolak said. The same thing is happening in California, where natural gas powers homes to make up for solar’s down time. “Puerto Rico is an island. If there’s no sun or wind, there’s no transmission line to Miami.”
“It’s not going to be the lowest-cost way to get electricity back up.”
“[Installing a microgrid] would effectively amount to discarding a lot of capacity that’s already there,” Wolak said. “It’s not going to be the lowest-cost way to get electricity back up.” Moreover, installing a microgrid in a market of this size has never been done, Wolak said. And it’s a gamble to see if it will work — a politically palatable one, but a gamble nonetheless. “Everyone loves renewables. But this is not something that we have a proof of concept anywhere,” Wolak said. “Maybe it’s not the best time to do it for Puerto Rico as it’s trying to recover.”
Battery technology has essentially been the same over the past years, albeit with a bunch of improvements that increase battery capacity and prolong battery life. Lithium ion batteries remain the popular choice, and they’re found in all of today’s battery-powered mobile devices and in many electric cars. Soon, these batteries might also be powering your houses, thanks to the likes of Tesla and other startups that now sell these home batteries to utility providers.
According to a report by The Wall Street Journal, homes located in New York, California, Massachusetts, Hawaii, Vermont, Arizona, and in other states are working on new ways to make their electric grids battery-powered, an infrastructural switch which Ravi Manghani of GTM Research says is a “powerful need.” Without home batteries, the ability of utility companies to deliver power is in danger.
Utilities often have difficulty allocating excess power, particularly those on interstate markets where at certain times the price of electricity tends to dip into the negative. Usually, utilities resort to dumping excess electricity or paying others to take it. With the rise of solar power, the same issue happens. Energy generated by solar panels depend on certain conditions and, more often, generation doesn’t match the needs of homes.
In California and Arizona, the Journal reports, there’s lost of solar electricity during the day at cool times of the year and too little at night, when usage spikes. “This is not a long-term theoretical issue that might happen—this is now,” Marc Romito, Arizona Public Service director of customer technology, told the Journal. Home batteries are sorely needed.
In a Time of Need
There’s wisdom in keeping spare batteries at home, or in this case, keeping your home plugged into one. Particularly during times of disasters, home batteries can be really useful. When the grid is down, home batteries coupled with solar panels can provide much needed electricity, as was the case in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, where customers of Tesla and German battery-maker Sonen were able to keep their houses powered. Tesla has also, in fact, started shipping batteries to Puerto Rico, which has been largely without power since Hurricane Maria.
It’s this self-sustaining energy ecosystem that Tesla’s been working on thanks to their Powerwall and Powerpack batteries. Both work as electricity storage units, with the former designed for homes, while the latter is meant for utilities. Instead of relying on the grid, the home batteries like the Powerwall allow households to source out electricity, so to speak, following what some have called a “grid defection.” It’s enough to even power a small island.
The likes of Tesla, Sonen, and even Ikea in the U.K., are making this grid defection into a reality, in the U.S. and abroad. For example, both companies have partnered with Green Mountain Power in Vermont, which offers 2,000 home owners the chance to install a Powerwall for just $15 a month. Meanwhile, real-estate developer Mandalay Homes recently announced plans to build some 4,000 energy-efficient homes each with an 8-kilowatt-hour battery from Sonen — 2,900 of which would be built in Prescott, Arizona.
In short, as the market for electricity undergoes a radical shift thanks to the availability of renewable energy sources — especially the increasing popularity of cheaper solar home panels — power storage is becoming an important factor. Home batteries are the future.
Renewable energy is lighting up the United Kingdom. This year alone, it’s set all sort of records, using all types of measurements. Back in May, the U.K. National Grid said that solar energy met 24 percent of the nation’s electricity demand, setting a new record. Then, in July, renewables — solar, wind, and nuclear energy — teamed up to provide more electricity than coal and gas combined, setting yet another record.
Now, the U.K. government has said that almost a third of the country’s electricity during the second quarter (Q2) of 2017 came from renewable energy. “Renewables’ share of electricity generation was a record 29.8 percent in 2017 Q2, up 4.4 percentage points on the share in 2016 Q2, reflecting both increased wind capacity and wind speeds, as well as lower overall electricity generation,” according to a recent government report.
Powering the Future
Renewable energy didn’t get this popular overnight, clearly. The U.K. has been improving its renewable infrastructure for the past couple of years. The recent report noted that renewables’ overall capacity increased to 38.0 GW by the end of the first half of 2017. Much of this increase comes from onshore wind power plants, which produced 50 percent more energy over 2016’s Q2 figure, while offshore wind increased by 22 percent.
Emma Pinchbeck, director of industry at nonprofit RenewableUK, was, of course, delighted with these latest figures. “It’s terrific to see that nearly a third of the U.K.’s electricity is now being generated by renewables, with wind power leading the way,” she said, according to The Independent.
The appeal of renewables isn’t limited to clean energy and a cleaner environment. Equally promising is how renewables are improving people’s lives, which Pinchbeck also noted: “The U.K.’s renewable energy sector is an industrial success story, attracting investment, creating new jobs, and powering our economy.”
Hopefully, this success inspires more nations to follow the U.K.’s lead in embracing renewable energy.
Leading the world’s clean energy revolution are cheaper renewable sources — mostly solar and wind — and electric vehicles with their rechargeable batteries. Already, thanks to companies like Tesla, a certain kind of energy ecosystem can be created using these. The batteries of EVs can be used to supply power electric grids, for example.
But what if you can put solar and wind in a clean energy ecosystem that matches with your EV’s charging needs? That’s precisely what this giraffe-looking power station developed by Swedish company InnoVentum wants to achieve. Combining solar and wind helps stabilize energy production.
“The Giraffe 2.0 wind-solar power station is ready to charge anything from your e-vehicle to your home with wind and solar energy. It is comprised of a wooden structure supporting 24 solar modules as well as a wind turbine mounted at a 12 metre [sic] height,” the company says.
This stand-alone power station can produce about 38 kWh per day. Depending on annual wind speed and insolation levels, this translates to roughly 13.8 MWh (10,000 – 20,000 kWh). This can be used to charge EVs or to power a house, using 50-kW DC fast-chargers, or two level-2 connectors. It’s giraffe-like shape, which InnoVentum calls “smart angling” of solar panels, helps it get more hours of extra solar energy during the day.
As EV-charging infrastructure continues expansion, the Giraffe 2.0 introduces a solution that could make chargers more accessible, placing chargers where current networks can’t yet reach. Instead of paying for the cost of installing high-power charging stations, the Giraffe 2.0 presents a $66,000 (55,000-euro) alternative — a price that can be brought down by solar and wind incentives.
The US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratories have published a report stating that the cost of utility-scale solar has fallen 30 percent in the space of a year. The average price per watt-DC is now just $1.03 for fixed-tilt systems, and $1.11 for those which track the Sun’s movement, thus optimizing energy absorption angles.
This information is in line with the recent announcement that the targets set for utility-scale solar pricing by the SunShot initiative had already been met, despite their 2020 deadline. The falling cost of photovoltaic modules is being cited as the reason for these developments.
China — a country well ahead of the curve in solar technology — is responsible for the manufacture of a huge proportion of these modules. More are being produced than there is demand for, which means that importers in the US have been able to buy the hardware cheaply, which is reflected by the low cost of utility-scale solar.
The Next Step
For the last few years, solar panels have been getting more and more accessible for home use. Tesla’s oft-touted solar roofs seem poised to grow adoption even further.
However, it seems like we’re on the verge of seeing more utility companies make serious investments in solar energy. Earlier this month, Duke Energy Florida announced plans to spend $6 billion on solar infrastructure, rather than pour more money in nuclear energy.
Falling prices and more efficient hardware are making solar more viable than ever before. A study published in August suggested that 139 countries could receive all their power from renewable sources by 2050 — and in that scenario, it would be solar energy doing the heavy lifting.
Setting goals to reduce carbon emissions and then figuring out a way to achieve those goals is difficult for any country. Now, imagine doing that for not just one nation but 139 of them.
That’s the enormous task a team of researchers led by Stanford University environmental engineer Mark Jacobson decided to take on. He and his colleagues built a roadmap for 139 countries across the globe that would lead to them relying solely on renewable energy by 2050, and they’ve published that plan today in Joule.
The 139 countries weren’t picked arbitrarily. The researchers chose them because data on each was publicly available through the International Energy Agency. Combined, the chosen nations also produce more than 99 percent of worldwide carbon dioxide emissions.
To develop their roadmap, the researchers first analyzed each country. They looked at how much raw renewable energy resources each one has, and then they determined the number of wind, water, and solar energy generators needed for that country to reach 80 percent renewable energy dependence by 2030 and 100 percent by 2050.
The researchers also calculated the amount of land and rooftop area such power sources would require, as well as how a transition to renewables could reduce each nation’s energy demand and costs. Aside from the energy sector, the team also took into account the transportation, heating/cooling, industrial, and agriculture/fishing/forestry industries of each of the 139 countries while creating their roadmap.
“Aside from eliminating emissions and avoiding 1.5 degrees Celsius [2.7 degrees Fahrenheit] global warming and beginning the process of letting carbon dioxide drain from the Earth’s atmosphere, transitioning eliminates 4-7 million air pollution deaths each year and creates over 24 million long-term, full-time jobs by these plans,” Jacobson said in a press release.
“What is different between this study and other studies that have proposed solutions is that we are trying to examine not only the climate benefits of reducing carbon but also the air pollution benefits, job benefits, and cost benefits,” he added.
Benefits Beyond the Climate
As each of these 139 countries is unique, their paths to 100 percent renewable energy are necessarily unique as well. For instance, nations with greater land-to-population ratios, such as the U.S., the E.U., and China, have an easier path to renewable dependence and could achieve it at a faster rate than small but highly populated countries surrounded by oceans, such as Singapore.
For all countries, however, the goal is the same: 100 percent dependence on renewables.
According to the study, this transition would lessen worldwide energy consumption as renewables are more efficient than their fossil fuel-powered counterparts.
It would also result in the creation of 24 million long-term jobs, reduce the number of air pollution deaths by 4 to 7 million annually, and stabilize energy prices. The world could potentially save more than $20 trillion in health and climate costs each year.
And these 139 nations now know exactly what they need to do to reach this goal and all the benefits that come with it.
“Both individuals and governments can lead this change. Policymakers don’t usually want to commit to doing something unless there is some reasonable science that can show it is possible, and that is what we are trying to do,” Jacobson explained. “There are other scenarios. We are not saying that there is only one way we can do this, but having a scenario gives people direction.”
For co-author Mark Delucchi from the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, the study sends a very clear message: “Our findings suggest that the benefits are so great that we should accelerate the transition to wind, water, and solar, as fast as possible, by retiring fossil-fuel systems early wherever we can.”
Meanwhile, China has already cleared its goal of reaching a capacity of 105 GW by the end of 2020. The country has now attained 112.34 GW, and as such has tweaked its forecast for 2017, now predicting that this year’s installations will total between 40 and 45 GW when all is said and done.
On August 21, solar power facilities across the US faced a big test when the sun was eclipsed by the moon for several hours between Oregon and South Carolina. Despite the unavoidable disruption, it seems that current infrastructure was well equipped to handle the situation.
Solar Edge tracked solar energy generation from over 300,000 systems to produce the video below. It demonstrates that while the eclipse did cause interruptions, panels were able to resume harvesting energy not long after the event, with systems as far east as Idaho and Utah reporting high levels of production by the time the totality was over South Carolina.
The day of the eclipse was also a great success for the California Independent System Operator, which operates the state’s bulk electric power system. California has more solar energy capacity than all other states put together, but the heavens aligned without major issues. Mild weather that negated widespread need for air conditioning, and plenty of water in the reservoirs used for hydroelectric pumps, helped engineers maintain power supply with any major outages.
Over on the east coast, in North Carolina, the story was largely the same. Even when the eclipse was at its most dramatic, and 1,700 of the 2,500 megawatts available in peak conditions were blacked out, Duke Energy was still able to service its customers.
Next Time Around
Solar energy is getting more and more popular around the world, but adoption rates in the US are expected to see a sharp uptick when Tesla’s cheap, convenient roof panels become available to homeowners. If this comes to pass, it might spur some extra considerations for the eclipse in 2024.
This time, the states that rely most on solar energy managed to avoid any hiccups, thanks in no small part to the skilled engineers responsible for operating the system. It’s worth noting that Duke Energy had natural gas generators ready and waiting in case it couldn’t meet demand in North Carolina.
Keeping an alternative source of energy in reserve is essential for this kind of scenario — but natural gas generators might not be so palatable if the country has shifted even further toward solar energy in seven years’ time. Instead, Duke is researching large-scale battery technology that could store energy while the sun is being obstructed.
“Solar energy, by definition, is an intermittent form,” says Lio Handelsman, the vice president of marketing and product strategy and co-fonder of Solar Edge, to Futurism. “Think of our water. Imagine a situation where the water company has to pump from the ground exactly the amount of water that was being used in every faucet in the country — that would be a very tricky thing to do.”
Water companies use reservoirs and elevated towers to keep water in reserve, and batteries are the equivalent for solar energy. Now that solar panels are becoming more cost-effective and efficient, it’s crucial that similar improvements are made to battery technology.
Our ongoing transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy is good news for the planet, and for its population. However, figuring out how to handle periods when the sun, wind, and flowing water aren’t easily harnessed is essential if we want reliable access to electricity. We’re on the right path, but the more we depend on renewable energy, the greater the challenge.
It is no secret that this Monday, August 21st, there will be a total solar eclipse visible from a 112 km (70 mile) wide strip for thousands of miles across the United States. And outside of this area, a partial eclipse will still be visible. Millions are expected to come out for the event, some even planning to travel to sites where the total eclipse will be able to be seen. But will the eclipse be simply an incredible phenomenon that we might not witness again, or will it interfere with life on Earth? Specifically, with technology that relies on the sun to function? It seems it could: Eric Schmitt, vice president for operations at the California Independent System Operator (which is in charge of California’s electric grid) is preparing for a huge blow to its solar panels .
A Good Exercise
According to the New York Times, at its peak, the eclipse is expected to knock out over 5,600 megawatts’ worth of solar panels. This is a massive piece of the total 19,000 megawatts that currently provide California with 10% of its electricity. The plan for filling this deficit is to use additional power from hydroelectric sources and natural gas. An additional challenge will be faced after the eclipse when these solar grids will quickly spring back to life. Those operating the grid will have to quickly react by scaling back hydroelectric and gas power accordingly; a delicate dance between energy sources.
While this will be a challenge for those managing electric grids across the country, according to Randy Wheeless, a spokesperson for Duke Energy, “this is going to be a good exercise for us.” Solar power is becoming an increasingly dominant source of energy and so, while it might be strange to consider the impact of infrequent phenomena like eclipses, as solar energy rises in popularity, they are important considerations. Perhaps this event will inspire solar panel developers to incorporate such variables into future designs.
“We’ve been trying to get more efficiencies through solar arrays. That’s really the ‘holy grail,’” NASA’s acting administrator Robert M. Lightfoot Jr. tells Futurism. “You see, solar arrays are not very efficient.”
Typically, solar panels can only convert the Sun’s rays to electricity with an efficiency of about 25 percent. However, all kinds of attempts to improve this figure are underway, ranging from Japanese firm Kaneko’s record-breaking efforts earlier this year to a more recent research project out of Washington D.C. that pushed the upper boundary to 44.5 percent efficiency.
ROSA Rolls Out
NASA’s primary concern is advancing the capabilities of the ISS, as well as other off-world craft that need electricity while navigating space on exploratory missions. However, as Lightfoot notes, the advances made by this kind of research could have major benefits for those of us back on Earth.
“We did a flexible solar array recently with the last SpaceXlaunch. You give that to the military or anyone who lives in the middle of nowhere, roll it out, and you got power in a place where you didn’t have power,” he asserts.
Lightfoot is referring to the Roll Out Solar Array, better known as ROSA. The technology wraps a solar panel around a thin rod, forming a compact cylinder that’s easily stowed for launch and transport. When it’s time to deploy the panel, strain energy is used to unfurl it to full extension. The two-stage process only takes around 10 minutes.
ROSA was designed to make solar energy available even in the difficult conditions experienced by space explorers. The fact that it’s easy to transport and straightforward to deploy means it could have all kinds of applications on Earth, particularly in situations where hauling traditional solar panels around is not practical.
However, rolling out ROSA on existing satellites could offer up benefits to Earth dwellers, too. According to NASA, the technology’s improvements to performance could help satellites provide better service for things like GPS, weather forecasting, and satellite radio and television broadcasts.
ROSA underwent a week-long trial in June, after which it was jettisoned following unsuccessful retraction attempts. Based on the results of the experiment, NASA still has some work to do, but the agency may well be on their way to reaching the “holy grail” of highly efficient solar arrays.
Elgin Energy is the company behind a 13MW project in Perthshire that is currently Scotland’s largest solar farm, and the company is going to great lengths to ensure that the new build doesn’t interfere with the land’s current agricultural usage.
“Existing field boundaries will not be disturbed and mature hedgerows will provide generous screening for the site,” they wrote in a statement, according to BBC. All cabling for the project will be buried underground as well, allowing sheep to graze in and around the site.
The northeast of Scotland is well-suited for solar energy projects because it typically enjoys clear skies and long daylight hours. To take further advantage of these characteristics, Elgin Energy is also seeking planning permission for a 50MW farm near the city of Elgin.
A start date for the Moray build hasn’t yet been announced, but once completed, the amount of clean energy produced by the farm should help Scotland achieve its clean energy targets.
A Global Trend
Solar energy has reached a point where it’s both cost-effective and relatively straightforward to install. All over the world, the technology is being implemented on both the commercial and residential scale to help people meet their energy needs.
Last month, Indian Railways rolled out a train that’s topped with solar panels to provide power for its on-board lighting, fans, and other components, which is expected to save the company Rs41,000 crore ($6.31 billion) over the next decade.
The fight against climate change continues, and the city of Orlando has now pledged their support to the cause. The city council voted unanimously on Tuesday to push for a resolution that puts Orlando on track to run solely on renewable energy by 2050. Orlando joins 39 other cities — including San Diego, Atlanta, and Chicago — in adopting a 100 percent renewable energy goal.
The decision comes after the U.S. federal government opted to withdraw from the historic Paris Climate Agreement, which set carbon emission reduction goals to help stop human-made climate change. In the face of this lack of federal support, politicians on the local and state level have taken up the fight for a cleaner environment.
“This administration has decided not to honor our commitment to the Paris climate accord, but a lot of mayors around the country have picked up the reins to say if we’re not doing it at the federal level, it’s incumbent that we lead at the local level,” said Mayor Buddy Dyer after the resolution passed.
A Worldwide Appeal
In addition to the environmental implications of transitioning to renewables, the government of Orlando also recognized the economic benefits. Solar, in particular, has become very inexpensive.
“The power from the Sun is cheaper to produce electricity than the power from fossil fuels, including coal and even natural gas,” said Chris Castro, Orlando’s director of sustainability, following the vote. “What we want to do is maintain the affordability of our electricity rates. A lot of people think that just by going solar, it’s going to be more expensive, and that is not the case.”
The city is also keen on the job opportunities produced by renewable energy. Castro said that solar energy added 1,700 new jobs in Florida in 2016, growing 10 times faster than the state’s overall economy. Indeed, in the U.S. as a whole, renewables are providing more jobs than their fossil fuel counterparts and adding new jobs at a rate 17 times that of the overall economy.
Cities aren’t the only entities committing to clean energy targets. Various stateshave made their own pledges, with fourteen of those forming an alliance to keep the U.S. on track with the Paris climate accord’s targets. Nations beyond the U.S., including Scotland, Spain, the United Arab Emirates, and 47 others, have all set their own targets of 100 percent renewable energy generation between 2030 and 2050. These pledges are very welcome as our planet needs all the allies it can get in the fight for a cleaner environment.
Sometimes a clean energy innovation is on par with the standard version, so choosing between the two can be tough. When it comes to Tesla’s newest solar product, however, the choice is clear.
The first Tesla solar roofs have been installed, and they are beautiful. Ask the most high-profile owner of the roof: Elon Musk. On the Q2 August 2 earnings call for Tesla, Musk said that both he and Tesla CTO Jeffrey B. Straubel already have working solar roofs installed. He also provided unretouched photos of the installed solar tiles to showcase their aesthetic appeal.
After markets close on Wednesday, Tesla will release its second-quarter (Q2) earnings report for 2017. Tesla’s usual practice has been to conduct a conference call and Q&A with the company’s management team and investors after releasing quarterly reports. This is the plan for tonight at 5:30 PM ET (2:30 PM PT).
Tesla’s first quarter 2017 update back in May featured an overall increase in production and revenue. “Vehicle production in Q1 increased by 64% compared to a year ago, which enabled us to set new quarterly records of 25,051 deliveries and $2.7 billion in GAAP revenue,” the report read. The trend was expected to continue for Q2, including the decline in earnings per share.
Speculations about the company’s Q2 results from various sources are generally the same: consensus in Wall Street, as well as figures from independent firms like financial estimates crowdsourcing website Estimize, and Zacks Investment Research are consistent. Tesla’s expected to report a growth in revenue of around $2.548 billion to $2.599 billion. The company’s revenue has been growing over the past four quarters, almost always beating expectations, according to Electrek.
Earnings per share, on the other hand, are going to be on the decline: current estimates predict a loss of around $2 per share. Wall Street predicts a $1.94 per share for the quarter, Estimize counts a $1.81 loss per share, while Zacks puts it at $2 per share. For those wondering about the difference between revenue and earnings, earnings are counted after all deductibles (such as production costs, taxes, etc.) have been considered. Revenue is the profit from products sold.
The loss per share comes from investing heavily on Model 3 production and a decline in deliveries for Q2. Tesla’s already reported a total of 22,000 deliveries from April to May, down from a Q1 total of 25,000. The company claims that despite the decrease, it’s able to hit the low-end of its mid-year delivery target of 47,000 to 50,000 vehicles.
Updates: Solar Products, the Model 3, & More
Speaking of production, this Q2 report would be a significant one for Tesla, as it’s going to be the last one before Model 3 production and sales will be counted. As such, delivery numbers are expected to go up before the end of the year as Tesla works towards fulfilling the large number of pre-orders for the Model 3. Less than a week since its release, the low-cost electric vehicle has been receiving favorable reviews.
Indian Railways is decreasing their diesel consumption by rolling out a Diesel Electric Multiple Unit (DEMU) train with a solar-paneled roof. The panels will produce the power required by the fans, lights, and electronic display systems in passenger coaches. Any surplus energy can be stored in an onboard battery.
The train debuted in New Delhi, which is one of the most polluted cities in the world, on July 14, and the company plans to retrofit solar panels onto 24 more trains in the near future.
Indian Railways estimates that attaching solar panels to six coaches on a train could save as much as 21,000 liters of diesel every year. Not only would that be environmentally beneficial, it would also be economically wise.
The solar train initiative is symptomatic of two wider trends: India’s bid to become a greener nation and a worldwide stress on developing cleaner transportation.
India hopes to produce 60 percent of its energy from non-fossil fuel sources by 2027, and to that end, the nation has launched a series of projects to decrease its carbon footprint. India Coal, which produces 82 percent of the country’s coal, has closed 37 mines; the government has announced a plan to use only electric cars by 2030; and a 10 km2 (3.86 m2) solar power plant in Tamil Nadu broke the record for the largest solar farm in the world.
The trains are also one example of many ingenious methods engineers and scientists are using to decrease emissions in the transportation sector, which accounts for 14 percent of worldwide emissions.
A combination of individual innovations — such as trains that utilize solar energy — and national changes in energy policy will prove invaluable in our fight against global warming. Decreasing emissions worldwide is the goal, and while each of these initiatives may only be a drop in the ocean, when combined, they can make a world of difference.
The company’s impact on the solar industry extends to the individual level as well. Weeks after the company’s solar roof tiles went on sale in May, news broke that they would be out of stock well into 2018 due to demand exceeding supply. This is with good reason — Tesla’s solar roofs are cheaper than traditional solar panels, more aesthetically pleasing, and come with an “infinity warranty.”
More than simply building a better solar panel, however, Tesla is changing what it means to have a solar-powered home thanks to their revolutionary battery technology. “One of the game-changing events is going to be when battery technology becomes widely available for homeowners,” Sistine Solar co-founder Senthil Balasubramanian tells Futurism. “Tesla is getting closer and closer to that.”
A Powerful Battery
Traditionally, homes with solar panels are still connected to the electrical grid. Any extra electricity generated when the Sun is shining is sold to the utility company to power neighboring homes, and when the solar energy system isn’t producing electricity (for example, at night or when the weather is inclement), the homeowner simply draws power from their utility company.
These wall-mountable home batteries integrate seamlessly with Tesla’s solar roofs, giving users the ability to bank any surplus electricity generated by their system and use that energy instead of relying on the utility company when the Sun isn’t shining.
Right now, one Powerwall 2 battery can store 14 kWh of energy, a little less than half of what the average person in the U.S. uses daily, according to Business Insider. As many as 10 batteries can be used on one system to increase the storage capacity, but even with a maxed-out system, a homeowner would still be at risk of being without power if they were hit with a week of inclement weather. Additionally, while a homeowner could save money in the long run with a Powerwall system, the upfront cost is steep — $5,500 per Powerwall 2, plus installation fees.
Tesla is determined to bring this cost down and make their battery technology more widely available. They recently teamed up with Panasonic to begin mass-producing battery cells at their Nevada Gigafactory, which should help to lower costs. Additionally, the research team developing Tesla’s next-generation of battery cells found a way to double their lifetime four years ahead of schedule. This means that a one-time Powerwall 2 purchase could lead to decades of energy storage.
A Brighter Future
The impact of affordable, long-lasting, high-capacity battery technology will dramatically influence the future of solar power, according to Balasubramanian, who predicts that Americans will appreciate the low-cost and freedom afforded by Tesla’s all-in-one home energy system.
“All of the projections that we are making [about solar adoption] are based on status quo, which is solar pumping electricity into the grid. The moment people can go off grid anywhere in the country, that massively changes the equation,” he asserts.
The impact of widespread solar energy adoption will extend far beyond saving people money on their energy bill. Already, the solar industry is a major job creator, adding 50,000 new positions to the U.S. economy in 2016 — a rate 17 times faster than the rest of the economy. According to a report from the U.S. Department of Energy, if even 27 percent of the nation’s energy demand was met by solar by 2050, we could reduce water scarcity, prevent hundreds of billions of dollars of carbon-related damage to the environment, and dramatically lower healthcare costs.
As Balasubramanian notes, however, we won’t have to wait until 2050 to enjoy the benefits of a solar-powered future if Tesla has anything to say about it: “If three to five years from now, Tesla’s battery technology is widely available for every homeowner, everything could happen significantly sooner.”
In 1979, in the throes of the U.S. energy crisis, then President Jimmy Carter addressed the nation as he installed 32 solar panels designed to use the Sun’s energy to heat water. He told the country, “A generation from now, this solar heater can either be a curiosity, a museum piece, an example of a road not taken, or it can be just a small part of one of the greatest and most exciting adventures ever undertaken by the American people.”
Former President Carter’s vision for clean, renewable energy proved to be far ahead of his time.
While his successor, former President Ronald Reagan, had the panels removed, Carter and his family have continued their work toward ensuring that those 32 panels became a part of a much bigger story.
Carter leased 10 acres of land in his hometown of Plains, Georgia, to be used as a solar farm. This February, the solar development firm SolAmerica finally completed the project, which will have the capacity to meet more than half of the town’s energy needs.
This is, in essence, one action taken by one man…and it is powering half a town.
Then, in June of this year, the Carter family had 324 solar panels installed on the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, which will provide about seven percent of the library’s power.
The Power of People
“Distributed, clean energy generation is critical to meeting growing energy needs around the world while fighting the effects of climate change,” Carter said in a SolAmerica press release. “I am encouraged by the tremendous progress that solar and other clean energy solutions have made in recent years and expect those trends to continue.”
Carter’s continued activism in support of renewables showcases the importance of local and individual efforts to reduce humanity’s reliance on fossil fuels, even in the absence of strong national initiatives.
We, the people, have power.
The solar farm in Plains is expected to generate 1.3 MW of power per year, which is equal to burning about 3,600 tons of coal. Over time, that will prevent a sizable amount of greenhouse gases from being emitted into our atmosphere.
Many individuals, communities, and even states are joining with Carter in working toward shifting to clean energy sources. Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, has invested in developing technology and products that are making solar energy cheaper than ever before. The U.S. states of New York, California, and Washington have banded together to form the “United States Climate Alliance” after President Donald Trump announced the country would pull out of the Paris Climate Accord.
These are just a few examples of people and communities who are working towards a sustainable future. And their work is bearing fruit — the construction of coal power plants is declining worldwide, and a new report projects that the U.S. will exceed its Paris Accord goals despite the recent withdraw. Regardless of the opposition, people around the world are choosing to embark on exciting adventure to a bright, renewable (and clean) tomorrow.
In “Renewable Energy: What Cheap, Clean Energy Means for Global Utilities,” a report published Thursday by financial services firm Morgan Stanley, analysts confirm that renewable energy is fast becoming the cheapest option.
“Numerous key markets recently reached an inflection point where renewables have become the cheapest form of new power generation,” the report noted. “A dynamic we see spreading to nearly every country we cover by 2020.” The report continued:
By our forecasts, in most cases favorable renewables economics, rather than government policy, will be the primary driver of changes to utilities’ carbon emissions levels. For example, notwithstanding president Trump’s stated intention to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate accord, we expect the U.S. to exceed the Paris commitment of a 26-28% reduction in its 2005-level carbon emissions by 2020.
A Cheaper, Better Alternative
Indeed, the cost of renewables — particularly solar — has recently decreased significantly, with the price of solar panels dropping by 50 percent in just two years, according to the report. This certainly makes reaching the carbon emission limits set by the historic climate accord much easier, and the increased affordability is helping major polluters like India and China step up their renewable energy efforts.
The impact of renewable energy adoption extends beyond the environment — it also benefits the economy.
So, despite the U.S. officially withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement, the Morgan Stanley analysts believe that industries in the country will continue to see renewable energy as the more economically attractive and environmentally sound alternative to fossil fuels. Not even politics can stop this trend.
Solar energy is becoming much cheaper all over the world according to a GTM Researchstudy by solar analyst Ben Gallagher. He predicts that the price of constructing solar power technology will decrease by 4.4 percent each year, meaning that by 2022 the price of projects will have dropped by 27 percent. This decrease in cost is causing more countries to adopt solar power as a viable means of supplying energy.
Gallagher attributes the falling price to the globalization of the tools and resources needed to construct the systems — like the investors, labor cost, modules, and trackers — which has meant that “regional hardware pricing [has] been eroded by market forces,” he wrote in the study.
The leader in this global price decrease is India which, according to the report, can produce solar energy at 65 cents per watt. This is the lowest price of solar energy that the world has ever recorded, in any region.
Japan had the highest construction cost worldwide, although its costs are still falling overall, with each watt of energy costing around $2. The price of construction for Japan, therefore, is roughly double the U.S.’s $1.10 and the U.K.’s $1, which was the lowest priced solar power in western Europe.
Progression or Regression?
On one hand, a decrease in the price of solar energy — and that of other renewable sourceslike wind energy — is a positive, because environmentally friendly options are unlikely to be accepted into general use unless they are also economically attractive. The lower cost means that both the environment and society benefit mutually, and that we can maintain our current standard of living without relying on fuels that cause severe damage to the planet.
However, on the other hand, this decrease in the price of solar energy may not be as promising as it first seems, as it may be caused by unethically cutting corners during construction. Gallagher claims in the report that the high level of market competition has lead to suspicion that many of the new solar tech, in India particularly, “were hastily constructed using poor-quality components.” In addition, the low cost may be due to paying workers very little.
Mark Twain once wrote, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics” — we must be careful that we are not seduced by attractive figures without digging into the reasons and causes behind them. If we are to succeed in making the planet greener, we must ensure it is due to technological innovation rather than unethical manipulation of humans and poor construction.
Bent Christensen, who is responsible for cost projection for Siemens’s wind power division, has estimated that Europe’s offshore wind industry has reached a milestone three to four years ahead of schedule: achieving wind energy at €100 ($113) per megawatt hour (MWh). This means that offshore wind farms could be built without government subsidy because they are economically viable without additional support.
In wind energy, there has been a fast reduction in price over the last three years, falling 27 percent since 2014. According to a Lazard survey in 2016, this means that the energy source has become either cheaper or equal to coal-fired generators, nuclear reactors, and rooftop solar arrays.
Some even predict a further reduction in price — estimating that in the future it will be possible to deliver wind energy at €75 ($84) and €62 ($70) MWh. But this hopeful advancement depends on turbine, cable, and converter technology developing much further. Siemens Gamesa and MHI Vestas Offshore Wind plan to have such technology in place in time for the 2024-2025 North Sea project’s completion.
A Renewable Revolution
Wind power’s fall in price marks a major victory for renewable energy because it makes the power source attractive economically as well as environmentally, which is crucial for its widespread adoption. Other promising news that could advance the trend for adopting wind-power is Denmark providing all their power for a day using the source, and the development of record-breaking turbines capable of producing 216,000 kWh of energy in a 24 hour period.
It is unlikely that our world will use less power as populations increase and industry has to keep up. Therefore, in order to save our planet from pollution and the progression of climate change, we must tinker with the other side of the formula — making the energy we use cleaner and greener. Advances in wind and solar power, in particular, are especially promising, as they lay the path for renewables creating both individual and collective gain.
A new report shows that earlier this year, renewables broke energy records in the United States for the first time. The data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) Electric Power Monthly demonstrated that the monthly electricity generation from solar and wind sources made up 10 percent of the country’s total generation in the U.S. during the month of March.
The date from the EIA showed that around 8 percent of the total electricity generated during that month came from wind, and the other 2 percent was from solar sources, including residential and utility-scale solar panels. The EIA noted these two renewable sources are highly seasonal: wind generates increased in electricity during spring and solar output reaches its highest numbers in the summertime.
A team of researchers from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) has developed a paint that can be used to generate clean energy. The paint combines the titanium oxide already used in many wall paints with a new compound: synthetic molybdenum-sulphide. The latter acts a lot like the silica gel packaged with many consumer products to keep them free from damage by absorbing moisture.
According to a report on RMIT’s website, the material absorbs solar energy as well as moisture from the surrounding air. It can then split the water into hydrogen and oxygen, collecting the hydrogen for use in fuel cells or to power a vehicle. “[T]he simple addition of the new material can convert a brick wall into energy harvesting and fuel production real estate,” explained lead researcher Dr. Torben Daeneke.
The Future of Energy
Though the paint isn’t expected to be commercially viable within the next five years, Daeneke told Inverse he believes the end product will be cheap to produce. He also claims the paint would be effective in a variety of climates, from damp environments to hot and dry ones near large bodies of water: “Any place that has water vapor in the air, even remote areas far from water, can produce fuel.”
The paint could be used to cover areas that wouldn’t get enough sunlight to justify the placement of solar panels, maximizing the capability of any property to generate clean energy. Any surface that could be painted — a fence, a shed, a doghouse — could be transformed into an energy-producing structure.
When this new material finally makes its way to consumers, it’ll join the ever-growing list of innovative technologies that are moving humanity away from fossil fuels and toward a future of clean, renewable sources of energy.
It’s been just two weeks since the last time the United Kingdom set new records in renewable energy. However, last May 26’s record was just with solar energy, and this week’s is for a combination of all the U.K.’s renewable energy resources.
According to the National Grid’s Control Room, solar, wind, and nuclear power each supplied more electricity than coal and gas combined at 1 p.m. on Wednesday (June 7) — the first time such an event has occurred in the U.K. On the record-setting day, wind generated an estimated 9.5 gigawatts, nuclear power giving about 8.2 gigawatts, and solar contributing roughly 7.3 gigawatts. For reference, gas only provided some 7.2 gigawatts and coal did not generate any electricity at that time.
In another record, renewables such as wind, solar, biomass, and hydro also generated about 18.7 gigawatts combined. This was more than 50 percent of the nation’s total electricity demand, capable of powering about 13.5 million homes.
#Renewables (wind, solar, biomass, hydro) breaking another record at 1pm today providing 18.7 GW (50.7% of demand)
Although the record-breaking figures didn’t last long, it’s a sign of things to come. For one, it showed that renewable energy can sufficiently supply the electricity needs of a country — provided they be given the opportunity. Last Tuesday’s breakthrough was, indeed, because of a such an opportunity.
Aside from its economic benefits, the environmental consequences would be undeniable. Dependence on renewable energy entirely would mean little to no carbon emissions. For any nation, that’s definitely a huge step forward in reducing planet warming gasses in the ongoing fight to curb climate change.
Among the repercussions of the United States pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement could be continued reliance on coal-burning plants for American power needs. This comes despite recent efforts to do the opposite in several states. Setting aside the comparative expense of coal and the greenhouse gases produced by its use, are there any other arguments against using this fossil fuel?
Yes — the fact that continued reliance on coal will cost about 52,000 American lives per year, according to a recent study from the Michigan Technological University, published in the journal Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews. The researchers, Joshua Pearce and Emily Prehoda, calculated the number of deaths caused in past years by coal air pollution for every state. They then used those numbers to project future deaths caused by coal power plants at the rates they are used today.
As recent estimates from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that around 51,000 Americans work for the coal industry, the researchers argue that it kills more American per year than it employs.
This data seems to go against what U.S. President Donald Trump said when he justified withdrawing from the Paris climate deal in a press conference, framing it as the fulfillment of his “solemn duty to protect America and its citizens.”
A Safer, Solar Alternative
The study’s authors argue for increasing U.S. reliance on solar power as a way to keep Americans healthy. Solar power not only has the potential to save tens of thousands of lives every year, but it is also showing more promise of bringing jobs to the U.S. than coal is.
With several of the world’s nations, including Great Britain, Spain, China, the UAE, and India, already pushing for renewable energy sources and benefiting from it, it’s hard to understand why the U.S. remains intent on taking a different path. We’re all for pushing the country’s interests. But won’t moving away from coal and towards solar energy be a better way of accomplishing that?
The Tesla and SpaceX CEO tweeted an article posted by the World Economic Forum about India’s recent commitment to sell only electric cars in 13 years or sooner. Musk also noted, “It is already the largest market for solar power,” to highlight two separate efforts by India as it takes the fight against carbon emissions seriously. Both of these initiatives are indicative of the transformation India has recently been undergoing.
Those who’ve seen that Leonardo DiCaprio documentary on climate change might remember that bit during the actor’s interview with India’s energy minister. After DiCaprio pointed out that India’s among the leading contributor for climate-warming gasses, the minister made a reply that stumped the actor.
She said that before talking about India, one has to look at the more developed nations and how they are serious about cutting down on their carbon footprint. Besides, India lives with what it has, and it couldn’t afford the alternative energy at that time.
The Beatles may have well predicted the future for their mother country as the Sun now shines bright in the United Kingdom. According to the National Grid, almost 25 percent of Great Britain’s electricity demand was served by solar at midday Friday. The clean energy source generated 8.7 gigawatts, which is more than the previous record set on May 10, when solar generated 8.48 gigawatts.
“We now have significant volumes of renewable energy on the system, and as this trend continues, our ability to forecast these patterns is becoming more and more important,” Duncan Burt, who oversees the National Grid’s control room operations, told theIndependent.
“This is a colossal achievement … and sends a very positive message to the U.K. that solar has a strong place in the decarbonization of the U.K. energy sector,” Paul Barwell, chief executive of the Solar Trade Association, pointed out.
As Barwell noted, this marks the first time solar panels generated more electricity in the U.K. than nuclear plants. Natural gas and coal remain the country’s top suppliers of electricity, however.
Stacking up on Renewables
This milestone is obviously a win for renewables and a sign that nations are moving toward cleaner energy sources.
The steady rise of solar energy is made possible in part by the decrease in the cost of solar panels. At the same time, it doesn’t hurt that the solar industry is also providing jobs in places desperate for them, such as the U.S. As Hannah Martin, head of energy for Greenpeace UK, told theIndependent, “All around the world, solar power keeps beating new records as costs come down and power generation goes up. In the U.S., more people were employed in generating electricity from solar last year than from coal, oil, and gas combined.”
Solar panels have become increasingly inexpensive in the past months. However, while a number of large-scale energy producers are shifting towards solar power, there is still a lack of homes that have adopted the technology. In Australia, a place bathed in seemingly constant direct sunlight, price is still a major stumbling block for homeowners considering switching to solar. Things may be about to change, however, thanks to a new variety of solar tile developed by researchers from the University of Newcastle (UON).
Instead of the photovoltaics (PVs) that traditional panels use, UON’s Paul Dastoor and his team are testing printable solar tiles. “It’s completely different from a traditional solar cell. They tend to be large, heavy, encased in glass — tens of millimeters thick,” Dastoor told Mashable. “We’re printing them on plastic film that’s less than 0.1 of a millimeter thick.”
Currently, UON is one of only three sites that are testing printed solar. “We’ve put in the first 100 square metres of printed solar cells up on roofs, and now we’re testing that durability in real weather conditions,” Dastoor said. As soon as the performance and durability of these tiles are confirmed, it could easily go into market production.
Cheap and Fast
Dastoor and his team are excited about the potential these printed tiles have in influencing the wide-scale adoption of PVs, especially for homes. “The low-cost and speed at which this technology can be deployed is exciting, particularly in the current Australian energy context where we need to find solutions, and quickly, to reduce demand on base-load power,” he explained in UON feature article.
Just for reference, Tesla’s solar tiles — which Elon Musk promised to be cheaper than regular roofs — are priced at around US $235 per tile. Meanwhile, Dastoor’s printed solars can be sold at less than US$ 7.42 per tile, which is comparatively very cheap, “[W]e expect in a short period of time the energy we generate will be cheaper than that generated via coal-based fire stations,” Dastoor explained.
Of course, whether tiles are printed or created with traditional PVs, solar energy is currently a major leading renewable energy source. And, solar power is not only incredibly environmentally friendly — producing energy without harmful byproducts that contribute to climate change — it can also generate more energy than fossil fuels.
These panels use invisible mounting hardware and integrated front skirts to blend into your roof seamlessly for a cleaner, more streamlined look. This understated system was originally created by Zep Solar, which was acquired by SolarCity before Tesla acquired the whole package. Zep co-founder Daniel Flanigan now leads an engineering team at Tesla as Senior Director of Solar Systems Product Design.
The panels are also designed to integrate with the Tesla battery unit, the Powerwall, to create a sustainable energy ecosystem, which means that power from the panels can be stored for nighttime use. The Powerwall system also allows homes with these panels — as well as other Tesla solar tiles — to potentially be the only homes with power during grid outages. Production of these Panasonic modules, which “exceed industry standards for durability and lifespan,” is scheduled for this summer.
Now, with the intent of saving on power costs, the museum is switching to solar energy. According to communications director Brandon Robinson in an interview with WYMT, the project will save the museum at least $8,000 to $10,000 in energy costs on just one of their buildings alone.
“It is a little ironic,” Robinson said in the interview. “But you know, coal and solar and all the different energy sources work hand-in-hand. And, of course, coal is still king around here.”
Funding for the initiative was provided via a third party foundation, and the project will require the installation of 20 solar panels by Bluegrass Solar, costing around $17,000 to $20,000. Tre Sexton, who owns Bluegrass Solar, believes the investment will pay off within five to seven years.
Future of Solar Energy
Given how things are going in the field of renewable energy, it’s fair to say that the world’s long history with coal is coming to a close — especially with the advent of multiple renewable energy sources becoming more accessible and affordable to the public than ever before.
Perhaps the transition of this coal mining museum to solar energy will accomplish more than just cost cutting for the institution — for some, it may illustrate how we as a society are advancing towards a future of renewable energy.
Synlight is the largest collection of film projector spotlights ever assembled in one room, and scientists in Germany are turning them all on at once in the pursuit of efficient and renewable energy.
This experiment involving the world’s “largest artificial sun” is taking place in Jülich, a town located 30 kilometers (19 miles) west of Cologne, and it was designed by scientists from the German Aerospace Center (DLR). The device features 149 industrial-grade film projector spotlights, and each one boasts roughly 4,000 times the wattage of the average light bulb.
When this artificial sun is turned on, it generates light that’s 10,000 times as intense as natural sunlight on Earth. Swiveling the lamps and concentrating them on one spot can produce temperatures of around 3,500 degrees Celsius (6,332 degrees Fahrenheit), which is three times as hot as the heat generated by a blast furnace.
Let There be Light
Every day, a huge amount of energy hits the Earth in the form of light from our Sun. While we do already have ways to harness the Sun’s energy, such as through solar panels, much of it still remains untapped. Scientists hope their experiments with Synlight will illuminate ways to tap into that wasted energy.
The experiment is not without its risks and costs, however. “If you went in the room when it was switched on, you’d burn directly,” Bernard Hoffschmidt from the DLR told The Guardian. To avoid that, the experiment will take place inside a protective radiation chamber. This artificial sun consumes a vast amount of energy when powered up, as well — a four-hour operation eats up as much electricity as a four-person household would use in a year — so it is expensive.
This will all be worthwhile, however, if the Synlight experiment leads to more efficient and cleaner energy for the future. The first goal is to determine the optimal setup needed to use sunlight to power a reaction that produces hydrogen fuel — a potential clean fuel source for cars and airplanes. “We’d need billions of tonnes of hydrogen if we wanted to drive [airplanes] and cars on CO2-free fuel,” Hoffschmidt explained. “Climate change is speeding up so we need to speed up innovation.”
In the future, the facility may be used to test the durability of space travel parts when blasted by solar radiation, so not only could Synlight help us deal with our energy crisis here on Earth, it could help us explore worlds far beyond our own, too.
The discussion on climate has persisted for decades since we first discovered that there is a man-made influence on the environment. From then, many researchers have come together to finagle innovations that reduce our industrial carbon footprint. One such innovation is the molecular leaf.
Liang-shi Li at Indiana University and an international team of scientists discovered this novel way to recycle carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere. With the use of light or electricity, the molecule built by the team can convert the notorious Greenhouse Gas into carbon monoxide. The molecular leaf is the most efficient method of carbon reduction to date.
The carbon monoxide generated by this molecule could be reused as fuel. Burning carbon monoxide releases an abundance of energy as well as carbon dioxide. Because converting carbon dioxide back into carbon monoxide requires as much energy as is released by burning carbon monoxide, this potential cycle has been largely one way, leading to a build-up of carbon dioxide. The team’s work could lead to reducing this carbon dioxide build-up by making the conversion cycle more efficient and by harnessing solar power.
A Push Against Greenhouse Gases
The molecule’s nanographene structure has a dark color that absorbs large amounts of sunlight. The energy from the sunlight is then utilized by the molecule’s rhenium “engine” to produce carbon monoxide from carbon dioxide.
The molecular leaf would help us tackle the greenhouse gas effects of carbon dioxide. Since the industrial revolution, we have raised the levels of carbon dioxide from 280 parts per million to 400 parts per million in the last 150 years. Scientists agree that there is a 95 percent probability that human-produced greenhouse gases have increased the Earth’s temperature over the past 50 years.
While Li is glad that his innovation is efficient at tackling greenhouse gases, he hopes to improve the molecular leaf by producing one that can survive in a non-liquid form. The team is also looking for ways to replace the rhenium element with manganese, which is far more common and therefore much more affordable for reproduction. But even without these improvements, the molecular leaf could be powerful tool in the efforts to halt climate change.
The rise of the solar energy industry is astounding. Though virtually nothing in the early 2000s, the world’s solar capacity is now at 305 gigawatts. The countries taking the lead in this worldwide solar power surge are the United States and China, with the United Kingdom leading the rest of Europe.
In Europe, despite suffering setbacks due to cuts in government incentives for solar adoption, the U.K. managed to increase its solar capacity by 29 percent, with Germany following at 21 percent and France with 8.3 percent.
As the world faces the realities of climate change, with global temperatures hitting another all-time-high record in 2016, efforts to fight the climate problem are now more crucial than ever. One of the ways governments and various groups in the private sector can contribute to this fight is through the increased use of renewable energy sources, like solar energy.
“In order to meet the Paris [climate agreement] targets, it would be important if solar could continue its rapid growth,” explained James Watson, chief executive at SolarPower Europe. “The global solar industry is ready to do that and can even speed up.” To reach the goals of the agreement, half of the world’s energy must be generated from renewables by 2060.
Solar energy isn’t the only alternative source currently being explored and developed. Other efforts include harnessing wind energy, which just covered more than 50 percent of one U.S. power grid’s energy demands. Efforts are being undertaken to improve nuclear energy production, specifically research in sustainable fusion, as well as developments in solar fuel technology. With all of these efforts combined, humanity has a chance to stop or even reverse the damage done to the planet.
An alternative energy source with great potential is solar power. One variant of solar energy is solar fuel, which is produced by using sunlight to convert water or carbon dioxide into combustible chemicals. Because of the relative abundance of solar fuel components, it’s considered a desirable goal for clean-energy research. However, these reactions, such as producing hydrogen by splitting water, aren’t possible by using just sunlight. Materials to efficiently facilitate the process are necessary.
Scientists have been working on creating practical solar fuels by developing low-cost and efficient materials to serve as photoanodes. Photoanodes are similar to the anodes in a battery and activate the production of solar fuel by aiding the flow of Electrons during the process. Scientists from the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have successfully doubled the number of potential photoanodes in just two years.
Now, researchers led by Caltech’s John Gregoire and Berkeley Lab’s Jeffrey Neaton have developed a new, faster method to identify new materials to use as photoanodes, and they’ve found 12 promising candidates. They published their research in the online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Neaton, director for the Molecular Foundry at Berkeley Lab, said that the study advanced this field of research by not only providing an improved method to look for photoanodes, but also by giving researchers insight into the new photoanodes.
“What is particularly significant about this study, which combines experiment and theory, is that in addition to identifying several new compounds for solar fuel applications, we were also able to learn something new about the underlying electronic structure of the materials themselves,” Neaton said in a Caltech press release.
To discover these new photoanodes, the team combined computational and experimental approaches. A Materials Project database was mined for potentially useful compounds. Hundreds of theoretical calculations were performed using computational resources at the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC), together with software and expertise from the Molecular Foundry. Once the best candidates for photoanode activity were identified, it was time to test those materials in the laboratory.
The materials were simultaneously tested for anode activity under different conditions using high-throughput experimentation. This was the first time these kinds of experiments had been run this way, according to Gregoire.
“The key advance made by the team was to combine the best capabilities enabled by theory and supercomputers with novel high throughput experiments to generate scientific knowledge at an unprecedented rate,” Gregoire said in the press release.
They found that compounds with vanadium, oxygen, and a third element had highly tunable electronic structure that made them uniquely favorable for water oxidation.
“Importantly, we were able to explain the origin of their tunability, and identify several promising vanadate photoanode compounds,” Neaton said in the press release.
This research has provided us with more ways to make use of water — one of the world’s most abundant resource — as an energy source. As advancements like this allow us to develop renewable energy cheaply and more efficiently, governments, investors, and individuals alike will have more reasons to leave fossil fuels in the past.
For much of the 20th century, Telsa was simply the last name of a brilliant man who died penniless after living much of his life in the shadow of successful rival Thomas Edison. Now, the name is synonymous with innovation, excitement, and the future thanks primarily to the efforts of another brilliant man: Elon Musk.
Under the Tesla moniker, Musk and a group of Silicon Valley engineers set out in 2003 to prove to the world the benefits of electric cars. Five years later, they released their first model, and since then, the company has become the poster child for sustainability. With Musk at the helm, Tesla has expanded its focus from simply building the best electric car to paving the way for autonomous vehicles, solar power, and so much more.
Here are seven ways Tesla is changing, well, everything:
Building Better Electric Vehicles
You can’t talk about Tesla without talking about electric vehicles. The company’s very first model, the Tesla Roadster, was the first mass-produced, all-electric car to travel more than 320 kilometers (200 miles) on a single charge and the first highway legal one to use lithium-ion battery cells. It’s only gotten better from there.
Tesla’s Model S was the first fully electric sedan, and it earned the distinction of being the best selling plug-in electric car in the world in 2015 and 2016. Their forthcoming Model 3 is expected to put even more Teslas on the road, racking up hundreds of thousands of preorders shortly after it was announced. Even Tesla’s charging stations are better than the competition — its Supercharger network features more than 5,000 of the fastest charging stations in the world, giving Tesla drivers the ability to get back on the road quicker than any other electric vehicle.
Not only are their electric vehicles outperforming other EVs in terms of sales, driving range, and charging times, Teslas are outperforming their gas-guzzling counterparts in some ways, too. Just recently, the Model S P100D earned the distinction of being the fastest production car by accelerating from 0 to 97 km/h (0 to 60 mph) in 2.28 seconds. That’s the fastest production car, period — not just the fastest electric vehicle.
The company is building some of the highest-tech cars on the road, receiving top safety ratings, and even pushing the envelope with style (just check out those falcon wing doors on the Model X). That these cars are better for the environment ends up feeling like a really, really great bonus.
Increasing Vehicle Autonomy
By now, you’ve likely heard the statistic that 94 percent of vehicle collisions are caused by human error, resulting in thousands of deaths every year. No company has been making greater strides toward removing the human element from driving than Tesla.
A mere half-decade after the first Uber app was downloaded, ridesharing is already proving to be a major disruptor in the transportation market. This billion-dollar industry is poised to put taxi drivers out of business, so they couldn’t be happy to hear that Tesla plans to enter the market as well, but with an autonomous twist.
Sure, Lyft and Uber are already testing out autonomous vehicles for ridesharing purposes. However, their one-off, city-specific autonomy tests can’t compete with Tesla’s ability to make frequent adjustments to its Autopilot software thanks to the number of equipped vehicles already on the road. The company expects to reach Level 5 autonomy by the end of 2017, and once that happens, it’s looking to launch the Tesla Network.
This fleet of self-driving Teslas could be summoned via an app just like you would an Uber or Lyft driver, but if you’re going to take a chance on a driverless taxi, why wouldn’t you want it to be one from Tesla, the company at the forefront of the self-driving revolution? The benefits extend to Tesla owners as well, as the Network would give them a built-in way to monetize their new vehicles. “This would be something that would be a significant offset on the cost of ownership for a car,” Musk told Techcrunch back in August.
Making Solar Energy Sexy
Not content to simply reshape our roads, Tesla is also bringing residential energy into the future through its acquisition of SolarCity last year.
Compared to traditional solar panels, Tesla and SolarCity’s are attractive and available in multiple styles, ranging from slate to Tuscan, to help the energy-generating devices seamlessly blend into existing architecture. If you don’t want to worry about matching solar panels to your existing tile, though, Tesla also gives you the ability to have an entire solar roof. Either option is sure to remove “eyesore” from the vocabulary of any solar naysayers.
“I think there’s quite a radical difference between having solar panels on your roof that actually make your house look better versus ones that do not,” said Musk in a conference call. “I think it’s going to be a night-and-day difference.”
Designing Superior Batteries
Tesla’s attractive take on the traditional solar tile isn’t the only thing helping propel the company forward in the residential energy market. Its cutting-edge Powerwall and Powerpack energy storage systems are making those tiles worthwhile.
Introduced in October 2016, the Powerwall 2 system includes a 14 kWh lithium-ion battery pack, and it can be mounted on a wall or the ground, indoors or outdoor, adding to the aesthetic flexibility of Tesla’s residential solar energy systems. One Powerwall can store enough energy to power an entire two bedroom home for a whole day, and it can even be used in homes without a solar energy system, pulling energy from the electric grid when rates are lower and saving it for use during times with higher rates or a power outage.
While the Powerwall is designed for residential homes, the Powerpack system was created with utility and commercial vendors in mind. Each Powerpack contains 16 battery pods, and it can be used as a standalone system or combined with solar. The latest version, Powerpack 2, features the highest efficiency, highest power density utility-scale inverter available at the lowest cost. Telsa already built a massive 80 MWh Powerpack station for Southern California Edison and has plans for a number of other major collaborations in the near future.
If all goes according to Tesla’s plan, your home or business may never be without power again.
Creating 21st Century Jobs
Beyond making big money for its investors, some of whom expect the company to cross into the trillion dollar range in the next decade, Tesla is doing its part to share the wealth by creating much-needed jobs at home and abroad.
As of last year, Tesla only had 14,000 employees worldwide. When you consider that Musk believes the Nevada Gigafactory alone could end up employing 10,000 people, you get an idea of its growth trajectory and how it could be majorly responsible for training people in the clean energy industries of the future while keeping many jobs Stateside.
Leading By Example
Perhaps more than anything else, Tesla is changing the world by showing us that changing the world is possible. Musk is the closest thing the real world has to Tony Stark, and his work with Tesla is just the tip of the iceberg. He’s using his Boring Company to decrease traffic congestion by building a tunnel below the streets of Los Angeles, he’s revolutionizing space travel through SpaceX, and he’s even inspired the world to reimagine mass transit with his Hyperloop vision.
Musk has proven that a single person can still have a huge impact on the world around them. At a time when “big business” is often seen as the Goliath out to exploit the Davids of the world, Tesla is a welcome exception. It’s a multi-billion dollar company that seems more interested in building a better future than satisfying shareholders, and for that, we are grateful.
Space-based solar power has had a slow start, but the technology may finally take off in the next few decades. Since its inception, solar power has had a severe limitation as a renewable energy: it only works when the Sun is shining. This has restricted the areas where solar panels can be effectively used to sunnier, drier regions, such as California and Arizona. And even on cloudless days, the atmosphere itself absorbs some of the energy emitted by the Sun, cutting back the efficiency of solar energy. And let’s not forget that, even in the best of circumstances, Earth-bound solar panels are pointed away from the Sun half of the time, during the night.
So, for over half a decade, researchers from NASA and the Pentagon have dreamed of ways for solar panels to rise above these difficulties, and have come up with some plausible solutions. There have been several proposals for making extra-atmospheric solar panels a reality, many of which call for a spacecraft equipped with an array of mirrors to reflect sunlight into a power-conversion device. The collected energy could be beamed to Earth via a laser or microwave emitter. There are even ways to modulate the waves’ energy to protect any birds or planes that might wander into the beam’s path.
The energy from these space-based solar panels would not be limited by clouds, the atmosphere, or our night cycle. Additionally, because solar energy would be continuously absorbed, there would be no reason to store the energy for later use, a process which can cost up to 50 percent of the energy stored.
Proponents of this energy strategy argue that we have all the basic science necessary to design and deploy space-based solar panels, but opponents, like Tesla’s Elon Musk, counter that the upfront costs are too high. In 2012, Musk suggested to Popular Mechanics that we should “stab that thing in the heart.”
Getting off the Ground
As climate evidence continues to demonstrate, energy production has more costs to consider than simply the dollars and cents on the price tag. An efficient, renewable source of energy with a small carbon footprint and virtually no waste seems to attractive to ignore for many environmentally conscience individuals including Paul Jaffe, spacecraft engineer at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory.
Last March, Jaffe presented his plan for implementing space-based solar at the Department of Defense’s first-ever Diplomacy, Development, and Defense (D3) Innovation Summit Pitch Challenge. Out of 500 submissions, Jaffe’s plan for implementing space-based solar took home four of seven awards. Jaffe presented a plan that he said would have demo orbital power station capable of powering more than 150,000 homes in orbit within 10 years for $10 billion. Jaffe said that investment would pay off in the long run.
“Over time, things become more efficient. Wind and solar literally took decades to get competitive with carbon-based alternatives. I see similar potential here,” Jaffe said in an interview to Salon. “In many ways, the future of space solar rests less on scientists and engineers, and more on people who decide what they want to pay for.”
Jeffe is not the only one who sees promise in this strategy. Both Japan and China have plans for launching their own space solar stations in the next 25 to 30 years. In the United States, the private company Solaren Corp. is raising money for a design and demonstration phase. It has already drawn some lucrative interest, having been awarded a contract with major electric utility provider PG&E.
None of these projects will see energy returns for the next decade or more, and the average energy user can only hope this will be soon enough. Last year, the U.S. Energy Information Administration projected that world energy consumption will grow by almost 50 percent between 2012 and 2040.
Light streaming through windows can do a lot more than brighten up a room. Adding silicon nanoparticles to the glass could allow our windows to harvest energy while filling our homes with cheery rays of sunlight.
Researchers have been working for a while on ways to incorporate energy-harvesting technology into windows, and the latest breakthrough in the research is out of the University of Minnesota (UMN) and University of Milano-Bicocca where scientists have developed a technique to embed silicon nanoparticles into what they call luminescent solar concentrators (LSCs). Their system can trap the useful frequencies of light and direct them to the edges of the window where small solar cells can be used to capture the energy. This allows for very efficient absorption of light at various wavelengths.
In the past, this same result was achieved using complex nanostructures that contained toxic elements, like cadmium or lead, or rare ones, like indium. In contrast, silicon is non-toxic and naturally abundant in the environment. Even if it weren’t, the amount needed is very small. “Each particle is made up of less than two thousand silicon atoms. The powder is turned into an ink-like solution and then embedded into a polymer, either forming a sheet of flexible plastic material or coating a surface with a thin film,” Samantha Ehrenberg, a University of Minnesota mechanical Ph.D. student and co-author of the study, told UMN.
Silicon Saves the Day
Combining solar concentrators and solar cells is not new, but the addition of silicon nanoparticles into the equation is opening up new possibilities. The exceptional compatibility of the silicon nanoparticles’ optical features with the simple industrial process of producing the LSCs brings us so much closer to the possibility of affordable photovoltaic windows that can capture significant amounts of energy.
“This will make LSC-based photovoltaic windows a real technology for the building-integrated photovoltaic market without the potential limitations of other classes of nanoparticles based on relatively rare materials,” adds Francesco Meinardi, physics professor at the University of Milano-Bicocca and one of the first authors of the paper.
Windows that could collect solar energy would mean that sustainability didn’t have to take a backseat to aesthetics, which are a critical aspect of buildings in metropolitan areas. In LSC-based photovoltaic systems, the photovoltaic cells can be concealed in the window frame to blend seamlessly into the structure. This makes incorporating renewable technology into the construction easy, and given the number of skyscrapers in major urban areas, the tech could essentially convert entire cities into functional solar farms.
The article itself is something of an encomium for the president’s energy policy during the last eight years, but it succinctly argues a point that has already made headlines: namely, his belief that global technological advances and market forces—to say nothing of cultural and social shifts—have imparted an irreversible momentum to the trend toward clean energy.
“[T]he mounting economic and scientific evidence,” President Obama writes, “leave me confident that trends toward a clean-energy economy that have emerged during my presidency will continue and that the economic opportunity for our country to harness that trend will only grow.”
It’s an important argument, with far-reaching implications for the future, and it bears a closer examination.
A New Energy Economy
The president contends that CO2 and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by the energy sector have finally been “decoupled” from economic growth; in other words, that societies are no longer faced with the insupportable dilemma of having to accept economic decline and lower standards of living in order to reduce emissions. This economic reality has formed the greatest barrier to the self-imposition of limits on carbon emissions.
The use of fossil fuels has always been predicated on their cheapness and widespread availability—a low-cost means of fueling economic growth. But it seems now that emissions can remain flat while the global economy continues to grow, a historic turning-point in the economics of renewable energy. Fossil fuels will remain a cheap source of energy for a while yet; but they’re not inexhaustible, and access to them is vulnerable to the fickle winds of geopolitics, which makes them highly unattractive as a future energy source.
All of this serves to underscore the president’s point: ineluctable market forces are dictating the future energy economy, largely because technology is rewriting the terms of the equation.
Consider this: in the 20th Century, access to cheap fossil fuels was crucial to keep the wheels of industry spinning, to inject lifeblood into burgeoning economies, to power vehicle traffic and logistics, and to supply power to huge cities and rural communities alike. Now, it’s possible for a home to be almost entirely separate from the grid, powered by solar panels, and yet still have access to all the amenities associated with 21st Century living. So the trend has been from energy centralization to decentralization—a future without a vulnerable power grid, and without energy companies monopolizing access to power.
The attraction here is irresistible, and we can only expect further improvements and innovations as consumer demand for energy independence increases; falling prices for solar, battery, and electric car technology will also accelerate the evolution away from fossil fuels. At first, the new technologies—whether solar, wind, hydroelectric or tidal—will complement conventional sources of energy; but as investment increases and costs decrease, they will slowly supplant carbon-based energies and (hopefully) pave the way for a new energy economy of mixed renewable and fusion power by midcentury.
An International Effort
“It is good business and good economics to lead a technological revolution and define market trends,” President Obama writes in his article.
And the man’s got a point. It’s likely that energy—how to acquire it, produce it, manufacture it and do so as cheaply as possible—is going to be a major issue in the coming century; perhaps it will even be the defining issue. “[C]ountries and their businesses are moving forward,” the president observes, “seeking to reap benefits for their countries by being at the front of the clean-energy race.”
Nations like Germany and Costa Rica have already proven that it’s possible to run entirely on renewable energy, and we can expect more of the same in the coming decades.
So it makes sense for our country to lead in the 21st Century’s “Scramble for Energy.” With all its intellectual and financial capital, together with the sizable technological lead it already possesses, the United States is poised to become the Saudi Arabia of the new energy economy.
The president concludes his analysis on a hopeful note: “Prudent U.S. policy over the next several decades would prioritize, among other actions, decarbonizing the U.S. energy system, storing carbon and reducing emissions within U.S. lands, and reducing non-CO2 emissions.”
And it seems that, between current market forces and technological advances, this will largely be the case for the foreseeable future—irrespective of administrative policy in this or any other country.
When it comes to obtaining new energy, solar energy now costs less than fossil fuels, according to a report by the World Economic Forum (WEF). Data from Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) also show decreased prices, with the mean price of solar power in about 60 countries dropping to $1.65 million per megawatt, closely followed by wind at $1.66 million per megawatt.
Michael Drexler, Head of Long Term Investing, Infrastructure and Development at the World Economic Forum, found the downturn in prices to be an encouraging sign.
“Renewable energy has reached a tipping point—it now constitutes the best chance to reverse global warming. Solar and wind have just become very competitive, and costs continue to fall. It is not only a commercially viable option, but an outright compelling investment opportunity with long-term, stable, inflation-protected returns.”
The US Energy Information Administration estimated that roughly 9.5 gigawatts of solar capacity was added to the country’s grid, making it the year’s top energy source. More and more households and companies are also going solar, adding 1.7 gigawatts of installed capacity.
“Solar investment has gone from nothing…five years ago to quite a lot,” said Ethan Zindler, analyst for BNEF in an interview at Bloomberg.
Decreases in price could be attributed to a large number of factors, like falling installation and equipment costs, new business ideas, and a rise in cleaner energy policies. A noticeable upshot in investment for solar energy undoubtedly helped, with China putting in a whopping $103 billion—more than that of the US, the UK, and Japan combined. Though it’s still not up to the agreed $1 trillion at the Paris accords, we may well be on our way.
A Brighter Tomorrow
Incredible milestones have been set this year, particularly in developing countries. Energy company SolarPack closed a deal to offer solar power in Chile for just $29.1 per megawatt-hour, which is about 60% cheaper than using a new natural gas plant.
BNEF chairman Michael Liebrich believes in the future of greener energy sources. “Renewables are robustly entering the era of undercutting [fossil fuels].”
Of course, the use of dirty energy will not stop just because other forms are cheaper in some parts of the world, but the promise here lies in the gradual impact that reports like those the WEF and the BNEF make: that humanity is not doomed to use fossil fuels, and that cleaner, alternative energy sources are actually viable.
In the next decade or so, the price of solar energy is expected to fall to about half of what it costs to generate electricity from coal. And all these estimations reck nothing of the possibilities of futuristic energy sources that are still in research and development, and are yet far over the horizon. Nuclear fusion, for instance, would certainly change the rules of the game, though it is proving to be rather more difficult of attainment than previously thought; other conceivable power technology, such as space-based solar energy, are equally remote, though promising.
So this exciting new research, combined with more energy-efficient tech and dedicated government policies, will perhaps shift our path from a future of pollution and depleted resources, to one with fresh air, cleaner surroundings, and the promise of unlimited energy.
India may have the world’s largest solar plant, but Morocco is building a gigantic solar farm that could even power Europe. Dubbed as the Noor Ouarzazate Solar Complex (after the city near the place, nicknamed “the door to the desert”), this gigantic structure covers an area equivalent to about 200 football fields — roughly 1,400,000 sq m (15,000,000 sq ft) of desert.
The solar plant sits at the foot of the High Atlas mountains, 10 km (6 miles) away from Ouarzazate, where it’s exposed to around 330 days of pure sunshine. It has hundreds of mirrors, each about the size of a bus. These reflectors serve to focus energy from the sun onto synthetic oil flowing through a network of pipes. High-pressured water vapor, which powers a generator’s turbines, is produced using an oil super heated to about 350C (662F).
“It’s the same classic process used with fossil fuels, except that we are using the Sun’s heat as the source,” says Rachid Bayed of the Moroccan Agency for Solar Energy (Masen), which is behind the project’s implementation.
The Sun Shines on Solar Power
Morocco expects that by 2020 it will generate 14% of its energy from solar power, and aims to produce about 52% of its own energy by 2030 by relying more on wind and water power generation. Morocco hopes that it will soon export energy to Europe, as the European Union contributed 60% of the project’s budget.
Currently, the first phase of the Ouarzazate project called Noor 1 has exceeded the amount of energy expected to be produced. The plant continues to generate energy even after sunset, where surplus energy is stored in reservoirs of molten salts from sodium and potassium nitrate that can keep production going for three hours.
Images of India’s Kamuthi Solar Power Project have just been unveiled, giving people across the globe a look at the planet’s largest solar plant. The facility is equipped with 2.5 million individual solar panels across more than 10.36 square kilometers (4 square miles) in Kamuthi in Tamil Nadu, and construction on it was completed in just 8 months.
The plant adds 648 megawatts to the country’s current energy capacity and is capable of powering 150,000 homes. It is a huge step forward in India’s plans to make solar power accessible to more of its citizens. By 2022, the country hopes to produce solar power for 60 million homes — a goal aligned with the government’s vision to generate 40 percent of India’s power from non-fossil fuel sources by 2030.
With this new plant and its continued dedication to sustainable energy, India is expected to become the world’s third-biggest solar market by next year, trailing after China and the United States.
The End of Fossil Fuels
India’s is one of many nationwide initiatives to minimize, if not completely eliminate, the use of fossil fuels.
Chile’s efforts to produce renewable energy have already led to the country creating far more energy than its northern grid needs, driving the country’s energy cost down to nothing. In the same vein, the UK has made a commitment to completely eliminate use of coal by 2025, and in the past six months, they’ve managed to produce more electricity from solar energy than through their traditional coal plants. Meanwhile, Spain is hoping to become a leading country for sustainable energy by setting a goal to generate 100 percent of its power from renewable sources — it’s already able to produce enough energy from wind to power 29 million homes on a daily basis.
These pioneering nations are demonstrating the promise and viability of green energy options. As those options become even more accessible and economically viable, we’re sure to see other countries follow their good example.