Tag Archives: green energy

Wind power.

Gov. Brown doubles-down on California’s already ambitious pledge — it will be carbon-neutral by 2045

Earlier this month, we were telling you how California’s pledge to generate 100% green energy for its grid by 2045 made it past the state’s Senate. All it needed to be enshrined into law was Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature. I’m very pleased to announce that Gov. Brown went above and beyond the signature of duty.

Wind power.

Image credits Peter Wiegel.

After approving the bill (on Monday), today Brown went on to issue an executive order by which he required the state to become carbon-neutral by 2045. The move essentially takes California’s pledge to the next level  — whereas, originally, the goal was to power the grid exclusively through renewable energy, the golden state now has to remove as much greenhouse gas as it pumps out in the atmosphere.

Brown’s green push

“The achievement of carbon neutrality will require both significant reductions in carbon pollution and removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, including sequestration in forests, soils, and other natural landscapes,” Brown’s executive order states.

The move definitely propels California to the forefront of decarbonization efforts. It is the second U.S. state to formally include such a pledge in its legislation (the first one was Hawaii). It’s also one of the most populous U.S. states and the most powerful economy in the world to embark on such a dramatic ecological campaign to date.

Still, that’s not to say it’s going to be a walk in the park. Although California has phased coal out of its statewide energy mix, it still draws massively on natural gas plants for its electricity needs. For it to have any chance of achieving the desired target by 2045, the state will need to draw heavily on wind, solar, geothermal, and hydroelectric power. Seeing as the state recently moved to close its last nuclear power plant, it’s unlikely atom-splitting will help power California.

On the other hand, it will also have to increase its energy capacity and design incentive schemes to improve energy efficiency at all levels — industrial, commercial, as well as residential.

The exact wording of the original bill also leaves officials a much-needed fallback space. It states that electricity production has to be zero-emissions so, in theory, it could use carbon capture technologies to still reach that goal should the state run into any problems decommissioning its natural gas plants. Despite leaving them some room to maneuver, the bill doesn’t leave officials any room to cheat — the bill specifically forbids California from increasing the carbon emissions of another state to get cheap energy.

So, for example, the state could buy power from a coal plant based in Nevada if that electricity had been supplied prior to the bill’s passing, but not from a new gas-powered source in Arizona.

Needless to say, it’s a mammoth undertaking from an economy larger than the UK‘s. Gov. Brown’s executive order only makes it that more ambitious. Pile the order’s express requirement that “all policies and programs undertaken to achieve carbon neutrality shall seek to improve air quality and support the health and economic resiliency of urban and rural communities, particularly low-income and disadvantaged communities,” on top, and you get a seemingly insurmountable task.

And yet, it feels like the right thing to do, doesn’t it?

Light Bulb.

Green living at home: a list of techs to hack your house into clean energy

Society as we know it today couldn’t exist without energy. If you boil everything down, energy directly translates to how much we can shape the world around us into the things we want and need — houses, food, warmth, ZMEScience.

Light Bulb.

Throughout our history, we got this energy by burning stuff — first it was food in our muscles, followed by firewood, and modern times dawned with the burning of fossil fuels, then atoms. This way of going about it wasn’t such an issue while humanity used a little energy overall and the environment could absorb both the byproducts and our limited ability to alter it.

But today we churn out a lot of energy. There has been a huge growth in the amount of energy we can bring to bear towards this goal of crafting a cozy world for ourselves, and our effects and emissions scale accordingly. Natural systems today are left weakened by millennia of human exploitation, and all over the world they’re buckling under the pressure we place on them today — which, according to our needs and energy generation potential, is greater than ever. These systems can’t come anywhere near scrubbing all the CO2 our pursuit of energy releases, and they can’t regenerate because we take out more and more from them.

We’re already seeing the effects in the shape of climate change and environmental breakdown. We’re living better than ever before — but doing so at the expense of everything else on the planet.

This needs to change

The matter of fact is that we can’t go back to how things were. The industrial revolution changed our society drastically, and it was made possible by an energy revolution. We need a lot of goods today, on a level only mass producing on assembly lines can supply. We simply can’t make enough medicine, clothes, or any other type of goods, by hand, for everyone. But hypothetically, even if we all decided to tighten the collective belt, forgo the comforts of modern life and go back to pre-industrial levels of energy use, we couldn’t do it. And food illustrates best why.

The sprawling cities of today depend on foodstuffs being shuttled in to feed their inhabitants. But without factories, we wouldn’t have any fuel or spare parts. Which means there will be no equipment to till soils, only oxen and plows, no pumps for irrigation, no industrial fertilizers — just good old fashioned back-breaking work. We could fish or hunt, but only with ships and tools you can build by hand and which don’t use engines. Considering how depleted natural stocks of game and fish are today, this way of doing things would probably net us fewer calories than we’d put into it.

Overall, de-industrialization would translate into an immense drop in food production. Going down this line of thought, we’d have no way to transport our limited food from farms to market beyond what a human or pack animal could carry, no cement to make proper roads, and only a limited capacity to quarry stone to build half-proper roads.

Dirt Road.

Pretty practicable. Until it rains.

It keeps going on like this.  So, could we do it? Back in 2009, Jon Bosak of TCLocal looked at one question:

“If New York State produced what it did a hundred years ago, before the arrival of gasoline- and diesel-fueled equipment, could it feed its present population?”

Apart from his own not-exactly-exact but still illustrative calculations, Bosak draws heavily on two papers published by J. Peters et al. in the journal Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems between 2006 and 2008. His conclusion can be best summed up as ‘no’, even when considering “that we still had substantially more arable land than we actually do now” and that “the vastly greater resources of animal power available a hundred years ago” would still be available today.

The first of Peters’ papers take a more thorough approach looking at how dietary choices impact the carrying capacity of New York State, finding that it could support around 30% of its current population with radical changes in diet, and just 21% of its current population on a “balanced diet” (which still requires significant changes in diet) with the full means available today. The second one reinforces the findings of the first in broad lines, while also showing that NYS could theoretically reduce the farm-to-consumer distance far below its current average of 1300 miles (2100 km), but fully supplying its population with food would still require shuttling goods over great distances — which, in the absence of mechanical means, may not be feasible since food tends to spoil.

That’s not taking into account how the lack of goods, electricity, running water, and a myriad of other things we take for granted but require constant power to operate would impact society, production, transport, and communications. People would eventually stabilize into agricultural groups in farms and some actually impressive cities, maybe. But no power — no internet, no phones so you can’t order takeout. Light switches would basically be stress relievers and there’d be no running water. At the same time, we know that a business as usual model basically takes us the same way, so we need to make some changes.

Now that we have our “why,” let’s look at the “how”.

Clean sources of power

The lion’s share of the problem lies in how we source that power. Much attention has been brought to fossil fuels and greenhouse emissions lately as the effects of climate change become more wide-spread and more pressing. But even if these resources weren’t as dirty as they are they would still be finite, meaning we’d have to shift away from them at one point or face those problems we’ve talked about earlier.

It’s on our governments to fully detach industry from fossil fuels. Other stuff like electric cars or wind farms fall on the shoulders of the industry. But there are things each of us can do to make the world a little bit greener, one tiny step at a time. Here’re a few of the going-ons in the field of renewable energy which could power home without burning anything.

Solar

Solar Panels.

Solar energy has gained huge popularity with domestic users because it scales down really well, it’s relatively cheap to install and easy to maintain. It can also generate a lot of power — if you want to get a rough estimate of how well solar would work for you, Google can help. Some countries also offer compensation for any extra energy that consumers pour into the grid, meaning you can make a little money on the side. It’s also ideal for the tiny anarchist in you — solar panels only need a bit of sun to churn out energy, meaning you can bolt some on your car or even carry them around with you and have power wherever it’s sunny.

Sounds good? I know. Here’s how you can incorporate solar in your home:

Among other things they dabble in, Tesla is a big promoter of solar energy. Since merging with SolarCity last year, it has announced that their Solar Roof will power your home with clean energy and be cheaper than the average roof. Musk says the company can deliver at a lower price because the current roofing supply chain is “incredibly inefficient”.

They’ve also made huge progress in battery technology, which would allow the system to store power whenever the sun shines and keep waste to a minimum.

“The roof would be integrated with Tesla’s house battery system, allowing the roof to store energy for a longer time,” Andrei wrote about the system last year.

An alternative to Tesla’s tech are the inconspicuous solar panels that startup Sistine Solar has developed. These panels can display whatever color or image you want — so you can install them on your roof to match the tiles or use them to display an ad or logo at your business. They bring the benefits of regular solar panels while keeping your advertising/decorating space unaffected.

Sistine Solar Roof.

Image credits Sistine Solar.

If your crib somehow lacks roofing, fret not. We’ve also talked with Solar Window CEO John Conklin about their proprietary coating which can turn windows and other transparent surfaces into power-producing panels — churning out energy even from ambient or artificial light. The product isn’t commercially available just yet, but Conklin wants it to be something everyone can use.

“SolarWindow doesn’t rely on direct sunlight like normal PV does. Any coated side of the two buildings will generate electricity even just from diffused light,” he said.

“We don’t want this to be something only for the rich and powerful,” John said. “[SolarWindow] works with natural or artificial light so it’s not just sunlight. All that light coming from your fixtures, for example, can be used to generate power.”

These windows can be installed at home to produce some power, but they truly shine on larger surfaces where they can capture a lot of light. Still, between them, these technologies could provide for all your energy needs at least during the sunny parts of the year.

Wind

Wind applications aren’t the best for small users because they usually cost a lot of money up front. They also usually require large blades and are relatively maintenance heavy, since there are a lot of moving parts. For these reasons, wind power is most often employed in medium-large scale applications, such as the Dutch’s iconic windmills to sprawling wind farms which can power whole cities.

Wind Farm.

Image via Imgur.

Still, they do have a number of advantages. For starters, wind can potentially work around the clock, unlike solar which is obviously limited to daylight hours. A turbine typically churns out more power than a single panel and wind works really well to complement solar in temperate areas or replace it altogether in cold or windy regions. However, because of their price tag wind generators would be more attractive to communities rather than individuals or families.

But if you have around US$23,000 burning a hole in your pocket, the Wind Tree will keep the lights burning with artistic grace — and very silently. One major advantage of the Tree over other wind-harvesting methods is that it can work with wind speeds as low as 2 m/s, so it will “be active more than 280 days of the year, with a predicted power output of 3.1 kW,” Andrei explained.

“The steel tree stands 11 m (36 ft) tall and measures 8 m (26 ft) in diameter and the operation is completely silent. New Wind also believe that the trees could be hooked up to buildings via the main switchboard or connected to the grid with an inverter,” he adds.

Spanish startup Vortex Bladeless have also demonstrated an “asparagus” turbine that turns oscillating movements into electrical energy. The company boasted that its Vortex Mini costs only half what a conventional turbine would, required little to no maintenance since there were few moving parts, and is totally silent. It also looks cool. While the Vortex is limited in how much power it can generate (30% less than conventional systems), it can function in average wind speeds of between 3-15 m/s.

Altaeros BAT.

Image credits (c) Altaeros.

If you dream of taking a merry band of friends and living it out off-grid, the Altaeros BAT (buoyant air turbine) might be just the focal point your little community will band together — primarily to charge their phones. This flying wind turbine is designed to float up into the more powerful winds at higher altitude (about 1,000 feet) for up to 18 months at a time, potentially allowing it to produce more power than its land-locked counterparts.

There are three reasons why I’d primarily suggest the Altaeros to a community rather than an individual consumer. The first is the fact that it can produce way more energy than one single family needs. Secondly, it was designed primarily with isolated communities and disaster relief in mind, and you can get a lot of utility out of this thing.

“Besides generating power, these floating power plants can provide data coverage, cell service and local weather data and can be deployed in harsh weather conditions, so they serve multiple purposes,” Tibi explained.

But there’s also a caveat. The Altaeros is basically a fancy blimp. I haven’t been able to find any definitive numbers on its price but it stands to reason that manufacturing and installing the Altaeros would be cheaper than a regular turbine. Here comes the third reason, however: with a regular turbine, you can plop it down and it will produce power for 15, 20, maybe 25 years with maintenance. The BAT, on the other hand, has a hard cap of 18 months after it needs to to be refilled with helium in the best case scenario, where there’s no damage or leaking. The price of helium, however, has been rising steadily, although this is always subject to change based on the market. Altogether, this means the BAT should cost less up front but produce a ‘more expensive’ kilowatt-hour as it has higher running and maintenance costs compared to regular turbines.

Heat

Heat (in the form of temperature) is annoying because nature never gets it just right — there’s either too much or too little of it and it’s always changing. So the issue of heat has to be approached from a few angles: heating (getting more heat), cooling (getting rid of heat), insulating (holding onto the heat you have) and transforming waste heat into other useful energy types.

Direct exchange geothermal heat pump.

A direct exchange (dx) geothermal heat pump, one type of home geothermal application.

Geothermal is an awesome way to cover both heating and, in the case of very hot reservoirs, energy generation. It basically consists of drilling pipes deep into the ground and pumping water through them, which will come back up nice and hot. This is probably the most conventional and widest-used heat-based method of energy generation, but it (usually) suffers from pretty big upfront costs (since digging the wells is expensive) and it’s highly dependent on local geology, so it may not be implementable everywhere. On the upside, it’s almost maintenance-free and will generate a lot of power to keep your home or greenhouse warm and supplied with ample bathwater throughout the year.

One really cool thing Paris-based architect Stéphane Malka did to insulate an old residential building in the French capital was to cover it in “parasitc cubes” made of wood. These were mounted onto the structure to create a beautiful, blocky, comb-like facade which was further decorated with plants. The wooden parasites reduced the total energy expenditure on heating to almost a quarter, from 190KWh/sq. meter to 45KWh/sq. meter. It also extended “useful space horizontally through openings in the exterior” to boot.

Icelandic turf house.

A cozy turf house.
Image via Jeff and Terry.

Icelandic turf house design also makes for very well insulated buildings. Although the huts were designed from the ground up to maximize insulation, since Iceland can be a dreadfully cold place, you probably live somewhere warmer so even a modest turfing of your house’s walls will help keep the cold out. On the bright side, this type of house is literally dirt-cheap so if you’ve ever planned on building a vacation home but never got the money together, now’s your chance.

Ok so now you have all this heat on your hands, what can you do with it? Well, you could use it to power your fridge. One team of researchers from the Department of Prime Mover Engineering at the Tokai University in Hiratsuka, Japan, have developed a thermoacoustic engine which harnesses waste heat to cool things down. This ‘sound wave refrigerator’ can turn waste heat from  270 degrees C (518 F) upward into loud sound waves at resonant frequencies to compress gasses, cooling them down to a maximum of -107.4 C (-161.3 F).

If you live in a place where the summers are really warm and you miss all that heat during the winter, you’ll be glad to find out that Swiss engineers have put together a way you can pickle heat. The method relies on a concentrated sodium hydroxide (NaOH) solution which releases a lot of heat when it comes in contact with water. So you tap into the compound’s stored chemical energy during the cold months, and when summer comes around you leave the (now watered down) solution out in the sun to dry.

“This substance can be stored for several months, even years, between uses. And tanks of the stuff can be shuttled wherever they’re needed.”

NaOH heat storage.

This is what the system looks like in the lab.
Image credits EMPA.

Effectively, this allows you to ‘store’ the sun’s energy as heat for use whenever you need it. Currently still in the prototype phase, EMPA (the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Testing and Research) is looking to create a compact version of the system for domestic use.

And in case your home is just too warm, a team of the engineers from Stanford University in Palo Alto has just the way to cool you down while expending zero energy — reflective roofs.

“[The team] placed a surface made up of seven layers alternating between silicon dioxide (SiO2) and hafnium dioxide (HfO2) onto a silicon wafer. At the very top, a thin silver coating was applied to act as a first line of reflection. The first four ultra thin layers of SiO2 and HfO2 reflect nearly all the rest of the energy that wasn’t reflected in the first place by the silver layer.” Tibi explained.

“Together, this stack reflects 97% of incoming radiation. The bottom three layers – two thicker SiO2 layers separated by a thick HfO2 layer – absorbed heat from below and radiated it.”

“When tested, even during full sunlight, the coating cooled surfaces below it by 5 degrees Celsius.”

You’ll be glad to hear that while not as effective, painting your roof white will also help alleviate a scorching day’s heat. Given that air conditioning accounts for 15% of all electricity consumed in the US, I’d say this is a pretty good place to start — cheap, simple, and huge stacking potential.

That’s our list of home energy improvements to keep an eye out for. Some of these are commercially available right now, others are almost there, and a few still need some polish. But if you’re looking to become energy self-sufficient and do your part in decarbonising our economies, they’re a good place to start.

Cali Road Sign.

As Trump alienates the US from the rest of the world, California Gov. takes up climate talks with China

In the wake of the US’s announced withdrawal from the Paris agreement, California Governor Jerry Brown met with Chinese President Xi Jinping this week to cement green Sino-American economic and technological cooperation.

Cali Road Sign.

“Where the grass is green and the energy is greener.”
Image credits Tobias Müller.

Five days ago, President Trump split the US in two different sides. While one half welcomes Trump’s announced withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, there’s also mutiny a’brewing all over the country following the commander in chief’s decision. The very same day as the president was holding his speech, some 12 US states joined together under the United States Climate Alliance, which has pledged to meet or exceed the targets set under the Paris agreement. The mayors of over 200 cities have joined in, and six more states have expressed an interest in joining.

And at the forefront of this resistance movement is California’s Governor Jerry Brown, a vocal critic of several of President Trump’s policies who, in keeping with his state’s green streak of clean energy and climate stewardship, has taken it up the mantle of reason and common sense by furthering US climate action. Earlier this week, Gov. Brown met with Chinese President Xi Jinping to strengthen ties on clean technology between China and California.

The Golden-Green state

While attending the 8th Clean Energy Ministerial (CEM8) in Beijing this week, Gov. Brown appeared alongside energy ministers from 24 countries and the EU. He reportedly signed several climate pacts with regional officials from the provinces of Jiangsu and Sichuan, met with several Chinese ministers, and hammered out a major agreement with the government to tighten Sino-Californian cooperation on renewable energy, zero-emission vehicles, and low-carbon cities. His delegation is scheduled to meet with some 75 more Chinese companies who have expressed an interest in working with California, so that list of partnerships is likely to grow longer still.

The impromptu climate envoy left no room for doubt in regards to his presence at the CEM8:

“The key to Paris was President Xi and President Obama meeting together,” the Los Angeles Times reports him saying earlier this week. “It’s up to President Xi to advance the ball. We want to stand behind him and make that possible.”

Brown’s presence made the polarizing effect climate change has in American culture glaringly apparent. Last Thursday, President Trump singled out China in his ‘leaving the Paris deal’ speech, blaming them for unfair play and conspiring to take away American jobs.

“They can do whatever they want in 13 years, not us,” he said. Which is of course not true.

And sadly it’s a gap that kept widening under the participants’ eyes, as Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s attendance to the Mission Innovation Ministerial on Tuesday and then at the CEM8 were marked by his advocating for the use of carbon capture, the benefits of fossil fuels, even going as far as to question the validity of climate science.

“I don’t even know why he’s there,” Orville Schell, director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society, said in reference to Perry. “This is like taking the Antichrist into the cathedral.”

On their part, Chinese officials made it abundantly clear in regards to who has their ear. While there have so far been no reports of President Xi meeting with Energy Secretary Rick Perry, officials welcomed Brown with the full might of their diplomatic protocol. Mr. Xi, joined by his top foreign policy officials, met Brown in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, where they had a closed-door meeting for 45 minutes and “discussed cap and trade and solar energy growth,” LA Times correspondent Jessica Meyers revealed in a tweet.

It is unusual for a Chinese president to meet with an American governor in such a formal setting in Beijing. Mr. Xi’s session with Mr. Brown was covered extensively by the government-controlled news media. The state broadcaster featured it as the second story on the evening news, after a segment on China’s ambitions in outer space,

A meeting between a Chinese president and a foreign governor in such a formal setting is very unusual, and as such Chinese state media reported on the encounter with a language usually reserved for visiting heads of state — lending a lot of weight behind the talks. The session was covered at length and was second only to a broadcast of China’s space program. And, while it did not mention the Paris accord or Mr. Trump, Gov. Brown said President Xi never criticized his American counterpart. The governor added that it was “very clear [President Xi] welcomes an increased role on the part of California” in China-US relations even though the state is, ultimately, a non-national government with limited power and wiggle room.

Still, Gov. Brown may be uniquely well-tailored to the task of mending US-Chinese relations according to Schell, who’s also a biographer of Brown. He has engaged with Chinese officials for some years now, and President Trump’s recent actions left a void both diplomatically as well as culturally with the Chinese, who hold good mannerisms and mutual respect in high regard.

“Trump blew everything up in the bilateral part of the climate relationship in Washington, which had become the keystone of the US-Sino relationship,” Schell says. “America is truly missing [from the world stage],” he adds.

“It’s an opportunity for the state of California to take up the slack where Washington has dropped the rope. [It’s] big enough, and brassy enough, and interesting enough to actually be able to pretend to act like a country.”

At the end of the day, however, California can lead the horse to water but not make it drink. No matter how strong its economy, the state doesn’t have the authority to direct foreign policy, have its own embassies, or make the same agreements as the federal government can. For all his work at mending America’s standing in the eyes of the world, Jerry Brown ultimately cannot make any official, binding agreements.

Atlanta.

Atlanta lawmakers commit the city to 100% renewable energy by 2035

Atlanta just became the US’s 27th, and Georgia’s first city to pledge to a 100% renewable energy goal, the Sierra Club grassroots environmental organization reports.

Atlanta.

By 2035, all these lights could be kept on by clean energy.

On Monday, Atlanta lawmakers unanimously approved a resolution introduced by city council member Kwanza Hall which aims to power the city entirely on renewable power by 2035. The resolution commits the city’s council to develop a plan of action to transition all of its buildings to clean energy sources by 2025, and for the entire city to make the switch a decade later.

“We know that moving to clean energy will create good jobs, clean up our air and water and lower our residents’ utility bills,” said Hall. “We never thought we’d be away from landline phones or desktop computers, but today we carry our smart phones around and they’re more powerful than anything we used to have. We have to set an ambitious goal or we’re never going to get there.”

The vote comes less than a month after Hall, who’s also a Democratic candidate for mayor, found himself in muddy waters for his skepticism regarding climate change.

“I got a question mark on the global warming thing,” he said at a forum last month, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. “I do believe in sustainability. I’m a science-minded person and I have a science background. But stuff is in the media too much. […] it’s hard for me to be convinced sometimes.”

One day after his remark, Hall released a statement clarifying his position on clean energy and his initial, unenthusiastically received comment.

“I did not articulate where I am coming from clearly, at all,” he said. “I believe in science, and the overwhelming scientific consensus that tells us that our planet is warming and it is caused by humans burning fossil fuels. What I’m not sold on is the politicization of big issues like climate change. A lot of it is senseless propaganda, and it comes from both sides.”

And I think Hall’s views on the topic are illustrative of the current state of discussions on climate talks. On the one hand, people see political and exclusive economic interests red-handedly churning the talks, clamping down on change. There’s a lot of demagoguery and outright lying on this one hand. They see censorship of science, of media, of national parks, on this one hand. Seriously, how low do you have to go before you feel the need to censor national parks?

On the other, however, they see regular folks, industry, scientists, taking a stand and demanding that facts, not ideology or greed, leads the way forward. If the March for Science can be used as a gauge — and I believe the people taking part proved they can — people are getting pretty fed up with the one hand, and very interested in shaking the other.

Which sits just fine with me.

The vote makes Atlanta the first Georgian city to commit to green energy, as well as the “biggest southern city” to do so, Sierra Club reports. Ted Terry, director of the Sierra Club’s Georgia Chapter, applauded the city for “answering the call” to action against climate change. However, he warns that this is just the starting point for the community and there’s still a lot of work to do before all of Atlanta goes green.

MIT develops new solar cells, 400 times more efficient and light enough to drape a soap bubble

An MIT research team has developed a new technology that will allow for the creation of lighter and thinner solar cells than ever before. While the team says there is still work to be done before making them commercially available, the panels already proved their efficacy in laboratory settings. They hope that their work will power the next generation of portable electronic devices.

To demonstrate just how thin and lightweight the cells are, the researchers draped a working cell on top of a soap bubble, without popping it.
Image credits Joel Jean and Anna Osherov / MIT

The key to the new approach is to create the solar cell, the substrate that supports it and the protective overcoating – all in one process, says MIT associate dean for innovation and Fariborz Maseeh Professor of Emerging Technology Vladimir Bulović. Unlike conventional solar-cell manufacturing processes, which employ harsh chemicals and high temperatures, this method only calls for a carrier material in a vacuumed solvent free environment at room temperature.

“We put our carrier in a vacuum system, then we deposit everything else on top of it, and then peel the whole thing off,” explains research assistant Annie Wang.

“The innovative step is the realization that you can grow the substrate at the same time as you grow the device,” Bulović says.

Bulović says that like most new inventions, it all sounds very simple once it’s been done. But actually developing the techniques to make the process work required years of effort.

The team used parylene, a common flexible polymer, as both the substrate and overcoating and an organic material known as DBP (for the light absorbing layer) to test their new method of production. The substrate and the cell itself were “grown” through vapor deposition techniques on a sheet carrier material, in this case glass. Because the substrate is build in-place and doesn’t need to be handled during fabrication, it’s not exposed to dust or other contaminants that plague solar cells’ performance either. After the construction process is complete, the parylene-DBP-parylene sandwich is lifted off the glass using a frame of flexible film.

While they used a glass carrier for their solar cells, co-author Joel Jean says “it could be something else. You could use almost any material,” since the processing takes place under such benign conditions. The substrate and solar cell could be deposited directly on fabric or paper, for example.

The end result is the thinnest and lightest complete solar cell ever made — just one-fiftieth of the thickness of a human hair, including the substrate and overcoating.

“If you breathe too hard, you might blow it away,” says doctoral student Joel Jean.

Showing off? Yea, a bit. The cell in this demonstration is not especially efficient because of it’s low weight — but it’s power-to-weight ratio is among the highest ever achieved. Where typical glass-covered modules peak out at around 15 watts of power per kilogram of weight, the new cells churn out 6 watts per gram, or 400 times more energy. In applications where weight is a limiting factor, such as spacecraft or on high-altitude, this gives them an undeniable edge.

“It could be so light that you don’t even know it’s there, on your shirt or on your notebook,” Bulović says. “These cells could simply be an add-on to existing structures.”

But the researchers acknowledge that their demo cell may be a tad too thin to be practical; luckily, they say that parylene films of up to 80 microns in thickness can be easily deposited using equipment commercially available today, without sacrificing the benefits of the in-line substrate formation.

Taking the concept from laboratory-scale work to a full manufacturable product with take time, the team says. But the sheer versatility and affordability this process lends to solar cells is unquestionable.

“We have a proof-of-concept that works,” Bulović says.

“How many miracles does it take to make it scalable? We think it’s a lot of hard work ahead, but likely no miracles needed.”

And others are also excited to see the technology brought from the lab in the “wild.”

“This demonstration by the MIT team is almost an order of magnitude thinner and lighter” than the previous record holder, says Max Shtein, associate professor of materials science and engineering, chemical engineering and applied physics at the University of Michigan. He was not involved in this work.

“It has tremendous implications for maximizing power-to-weight (important for aerospace applications, for example), and for the ability to simply laminate photovoltaic cells onto existing structures.”

“This is very high quality work,” Shtein adds, with a “creative concept, careful experimental set-up, very well written paper, and lots of good contextual information. The overall recipe is simple enough that I could see scale-up as possible.”

The full paper, titled “In situ vapor-deposited parylene substrates for ultra-thin, lightweight organic solar cells” has been published online in the journal Elsevier and is available here.

Green America: how to turn the power grid 100% eco friendly by 2050

Converting the power infrastructure to rely on clean, renewable energy seems like a daunting, expensive and some would say, unachievable task. But Mark Z. Jacobson, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford, and his colleagues, including U.C. Berkeley researcher Mark Delucchi, are the first to outline how each of the 50 states can achieve such a transition by 2050. The plan relies on technologies and methods currently available and calls for aggressive changes in the way power is produced, transmitted and used, with solutions and methods tailored individually for each of the 50 states.

Attainable 100% green energy in America? Dam.

“The main barriers are social, political and getting industries to change. One way to overcome the barriers is to inform people about what is possible,” said Jacobson. “By showing that it’s technologically and economically possible, this study could reduce the barriers to a large scale transformation.”

The team started by looking at the current energy demands under four categories per state: residential, commercial, industrial and transportation. They then extrapolated how these would change by 2050 under business-as-usual circumstances.

After getting a good idea of how much power is used and by whom, they analyzed how much fuel each sector uses and it’s source — fossil, nuclear or renewables — and calculated the total need for power should all these consumers switched to using electricity. In other words, how much power would be needed if all cars were electric, if homes used only electric heating and cooling systems, if industry relied only on electricity for their power needs.

I love the smell of voltage in the morning.
Imagie via: huffingtonpost.com

When we did this across all 50 states, we saw a 39 percent reduction in total end-use power demand by the year 2050,” Jacobson said. “About 6 percentage points of that is gained through efficiency improvements to infrastructure, but the bulk is the result of replacing current sources and uses of combustion energy with electricity.”

The next step was to look at the suppliers. The researchers focused on meeting each state’s power demands using only the renewable energies — wind, solar, geothermal, hydroelectric, and tiny amounts of tidal and wave — available to each state. They looked at each state’s sun exposure, and at the number of southern facing, non-shaded roofs that can house solar panels. They put together and used wind maps to find out if local and offshore turbines were an option. Thirteen states were also found to have economically-viable geothermal energy potential. No new power dams were proposed, but the plan aims to improve the efficiency of the ones already in usage.

The power ratios they propose for 2050’s America is this:

In their study they show how the shift towards renewables would stimulate the economy by creating jobs, reduce power-inefficiency across the board and directly impact our lives by improving the quality of the environment we live in. They estimate that this will save the lives of nearly 46.000 people who die prematurely due to pollution-associated conditions each year, reducing the country’s health system spending by US$ 600 bil. and carbon emission-associated costs by US$ 3.3 tril. in 2050.

“When you account for the health and climate costs — as well as the rising price of fossil fuels — wind, water and solar are half the cost of conventional systems,” Jacobson said. “A conversion of this scale would also create jobs, stabilize fuel prices, reduce pollution-related health problems and eliminate emissions from the United States. There is very little downside to a conversion, at least based on this science.”

The roadmaps they set out for each individual state aims to achieve 80% transition by 2030 and full conversion by 2050. But the team is optimistic in the nation’s ability to reach the goals, and show that several states are already well on their way: Washington state, for example, could perform the transition quite easily as it already draws 70% of its energy from hydroelectric sources. Wind and solar could fill most of the remaining power requirements. Iowa and South Dakota also generate nearly 30% of their electricity from wind turbines.

Wind farms in the United States, as of year-end 2009.
Image via: bls.gov

California, which was the focus of Jacobson’s second single-state roadmap to renewables after New York, has already adopted some of his group’s suggestions and has a plan to be 60 percent electrified by renewables by 2030.

The guys over at thesolutionsproject.org have put together a really handy application showing the proposed power mixes for each state in the USA, so a big shout-out to them for the effort and superb results (it has nice colours and it’s interactive. Sweet).

As Jacobson himself said, the biggest obstacles this plan has to overcome are social, political, and economic. Huge industry has huge inertia, and the changes proposed in this green plan would affect each and everyone of us in our day-to-day life.

But i feel that we, as humans, after becoming such a huge force on our home planet, being able to influence so much of our environment and the natural systems that were in place long before we showed up, have taken upon ourselves the responsibility for it’s well being. Jacobson’s plan gives us a way to do so while also making life better for ourselves. And i support it full-heartedly.

 

 

World’s 40th environment day: Denmark and Scotland pave the way

Yesterday marked the 40th Global Environment day, and this year’s theme was ‘Green economy’ – a sector in which, by far, Europe leads the way.

When it comes to green energy and reducing the impact industry has on the environment, Denmark and Scotland stand out, by far – just think about Samso, the world’s ‘greenest guinea pig’. Germany is also two steps ahead of the United States and other developed countries, and countries like Italy, Germany, Spain, the Czech Republic are making significant efforts in this direction.

Denmark: 35% renewable energy by 2020, 100% by 2050. Scotland: 100% by 2020

Denmark has some clear, and extremely ambitious plans: Denmark’s Parliament at the end of March passed legislation that established two of the most ambitious renewable energy targets of any nation: 35% by 2020 and 100% by 2050. Just think about it – in less than 10 years, they want to have a third of their energy from renewable sources, and in less than 40 years – all the energy should be renewable. Currently, wind energy amounts for almost a quarter of Denmark’s energy.

Scotland has even more ambitious plans: they easily surpassed their 31% target, and are well on pace to meet 100% electricity demands from renewable sources, and then continue to produce a surplus for export.

Paving the green way to renewable energy

Announcing the passage of this bill, Denmark’s Minister for Climate, Energy and Building (yeah, they have one) announced:

“Denmark will once again be the global leader in the transition to green energy. This will prepare us for a future with increasing prices for oil and coal. Moreover, it will create some of the jobs that we need so desperately, now and in the coming years.”

Scotland’s Environment Minister Stewart Stevenson struck a similar chord.

“The topic of this year’s World Environment Day could not be more apt for Scotland. The low carbon economy offers a huge opportunity for us, creating tens of thousands of jobs and reindustrializing our economy,” he stated. “As we create green jobs at home we are helping other countries develop renewable energy, and also tackling the devastating impact of climate change on the world’s poorest. It is a joined up vision we can be proud of and one which other countries should take note.”

He also detailed those statements, explaining just how big a difference this green strategy has made.

“The renewables industry already supports more than 11,000 jobs across Scotland and plans to install up to 10 Gigawatts of offshore wind generating capacity in Scottish waters are predicted to generate around £30 billion ($46.44 billion) of investment by 2020 and to directly employ up to 28,000 people…. The emerging wave and tidal energy industry, where up to 1.6 GW of capacity is planned for the Pentland Firth and Orkney Waters, is predicted to create several thousand more renewables jobs.”

Scotland has already granted granted licenses to develop offshore wind, wave and tidal energy farms with a total planned capacity of 11GW by 2020.

Via Clean Technica

Japan plans to make solar panels mandatory for all buildings

Japan shows us yet again that they are leading the world in terms of renewable energy, in taking a plan that would make solar panels mandatory for all buildings no later than 2030. The plan, expected to be unveiled at the upcoming G8 Summit in France, aims to show Japan’s resolve to encourage technological innovation and promote the wider use of renewable energy, the Nikkei daily said.

After the dramatic earthquake that struct Japan and the even more terrible tsunamis that followed and led to the situation at the Fukishima powerplant, Japan is running low on options for energy, which is probably the decisive reason why they are putting this plan into motion.

The huge installation of solar panels will bring a much needed grow in the amount of energy produced, and Japanese officials believe that this is possible because of the huge technological advances that will occur until 2030. Prime minister Naoto Kan is expected to announce Japan’s intention to continue operating nuclear plants after confirming their safety, the Nikkei said without citing sources.