Tag Archives: power

Decommissioning coal-fired plants saved lives and improved crop yields in the US

A new study on the decommissioning of coal-fired power plants in the continental United States gauges the health and agricultural benefits it has generated for local communities.

Image credits Johannes Plenio.

Coal-fired power plants are, unsurprisingly, quite dirty. Coal burning is particularly problematic as it generates particulate matter and ozone (which together form smog) in the lower atmosphere. These compounds can affect the health of humans, wildlife, and plant life, and impact regional climate patterns by blocking incoming sunlight.

Jennifer Burney, Associate Professor of Environmental Science at the UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy, looked into the benefits associated with the decommissioning of such plants. Between 2005 and 2016, she estimates, such decommissions saved over 26,000 lives and in their immediate vicinities in the continental US and helped improve local crop yields.

Coal — still dirty

“We hear a lot about the overall greenhouse gas and economic impacts of the transition the U.S. has undergone in shifting from coal towards natural gas, but the smaller-scale decisions that make up this larger trend have really important local consequences,” Burney said.

“The unique contribution of this study is its scope and the ability to connect discrete technology changes — like an electric power unit being shut down — to local health, agriculture and regional climate impacts.”

The transition from coal towards natural gas has definitely helped reduce CO2 emissions overall, Burney explains, and has helped lower local pollution levels in hundreds of areas. In order to quantify these changes, she combined data on electricity generation from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with ground-level and satellite pollution measurements from the EPA and NASA to see how coal-fired plant decommissioning affected local chemistry. She also factored in county-level mortality rates and crop yields from the Centers for Disease Control and the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the same areas.

Between 2005 and 2016, she estimates that the loss of 26,610 lives and 570 million bushels of corn, soybeans, and wheat were avoided in the immediate vicinities of these decommissioned plants as a result of lower pollution levels. From this figure, she calculated that coal plants still left in operation in the US over the same timeframe contributed to 329,417 premature deaths and the loss of 10.2 billion bushels of the same crops (roughly half of a typical year’s worth of harvest in the US).

All this being said, however, gas-fired plants aren’t completely benign, Burney adds. Even new natural gas units are associated with increased levels of local pollution, but of a different make-up than that released by coal-fired plants.

“Policymakers often think about greenhouse gas emissions as a separate problem from air pollution, but the same processes that cause climate change also produce these aerosols, ozone, and other compounds that cause important damages,” Burney concludes.

“This study provides a more robust accounting for the full suite of emissions associated with electric power production. If we understand the real costs of things like coal better, and who is bearing those costs, it could potentially lead to more effective mitigation and formation of new coalitions of beneficiaries across sectors.”

The paper “The downstream air pollution impacts of the transition from coal to natural gas in the United States” has been published in the journal Nature Sustainability.

City of London.

London’s Square Mile to use 100% renewable energy by October

The City of London will draw on 100% renewable energy by the end of the year.

City of London.

City of London skyline.
Image credits Diliff / Wikimedia.

London’s famous “Square Mile” central district is going green — not in paint, but in spirit. Though not technically still a mile, as the district’s official bounds now enclose some 1.12 square miles, the major financial center will source 100% of its power from renewable sources starting this October, according to the City of London’s ruling body. The supply will come from solar panels installed on local buildings, further investments in larger solar and wind projects, and clean energy already in the grid.

The renewable mile

The City of London Corporation, the governing body of Square Mile (also colloquially known as the City of London), announced that it wants to draw only on renewable power from October 2018 onward. The City of London will install solar panels on the buildings it owns and will invest in installations such as wind and solar farms elsewhere in the UK.

Members of the City of London Corporation’s Policy and Resources Committee backed measures that would turn their own sites across London into electricity-producing units. They also signed off on investments in off-site renewable energy installations and backed the purchase of renewable energy already available in the grid. Some of the buildings the Corporation plans to turn into renewable-generation units include social housing across six London boroughs, 10 high-achieving academies, three wholesale markets, and 11,000 acres of green space including Hampstead Heath and Epping Forest. More than enough space for the City to develop clean energy for the city as a whole.

“Sourcing 100% renewable energy will make us cleaner and greener, reducing our grid reliance, and running some of our buildings on zero carbon electricity,” Catherine McGuinness, Chairman of the City of London Corporation’s Policy and Resources Committee, said in a statement.

“We are always looking at the environmental impact of our work and hope that we can be a beacon to other organisations to follow suit.”

The Greater London area has been struggling with pollution for the past few years. However, they’re also making important efforts to change — like adopting more electric vehicles and taxing polluting ones, creating more green spaces, and relying more heavily on clean energy. Electric taxis and buses are already zipping through the streets, and last December Shadiq Khan, the city’s mayor, announced plans to extend the Ultra-Low Emission Zone to include London-wide buses, coaches, and lorries, as well as expanding the Zone to include North and South circular roads for all vehicles.

Ivy Mike.

Functional hydrogen-boron fusion could be here “within the next decade”, powered by huge lasers

Viable fusion may be just around the corner, powered on by immensely powerful lasers. Even better, a newly technique requires no radioactive fuel and produces no toxic or radioactive waste.

Ivy Mike.

The hydrogen bomb is the only man-made device to date that successfully maintained fusion.
Image credits National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office.

One of the brightest burning dreams of sci-fi enthusiasts the world over is closer to reality than we’ve ever dared hope: sustainable fusion on Earth. Drawing on advances in high-power, high-intensity lasers, an international research team led by Heinrich Hora, Emeritus Professor of Theoretical Physics at UNSW Sydney, is close to bringing hydrogen-boron reactions to a reactor near you.

Energy from scratch

In a recent paper, Hora argues that the path to hydrogen-boron fusion is now viable and closer to implementation that other types of fusion we’re toying with — such as the deuterium-tritium fusion system being developed by the US National Ignition Facility (NIF) and the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor under construction in France.

Hydrogen-boron fusion has several very appealing properties which Hora believes puts it at a distinct advantage compared to other systems. For one, it relies on precise, rapid bursts from immensely powerful lasers to squish atoms together. This dramatically simplifies reactor construction and reaction maintenance. For comparison, its ‘competitors’ have to heat fuel to the temperatures of the Sun and then power massive magnets to contain this superhot plasma inside torus-shaped (doughnut-like) chambers.

Furthermore, hydrogen-boron fusion doesn’t release any neutrinos in its primary reaction — in other words, it’s not radioactive. It requires no radioactive fuel and produces no radioactive waste. And, unlike most other energy-generation methods which heat water as an intermediary media to spin turbines — such as fossil-fuel or nuclear — hydrogen-boron fusion releases energy directly into electricity.

All of this goody goodness comes at a price, however, which always kept them beyond our grasp. Hydrogen-boron fusion reactions require immense pressures and temperatures — they’re only comfortable upwards of 3 billion degrees Celsius or so, some 200 times hotter than the Sun’s core.

Back in the 1970s, Hora predicted that this fusion reaction should be feasible without the need for thermal equilibrium, i.e. in temperature conditions we can actually reach and maintain. We had nowhere near the technological basis needed to prove his theory back then, however.

Why not blast it with a laser?

Laser fusion reactor.

Image credits Hora et al., 2017, Lasers and Particles.

The dramatic advances we’ve made in laser technology over the last few decades are making the two-laser approach to the reaction Hora developed back then tangibly possible today.

Experiments recently performed around the world suggest that an ‘avalanche’ fusion reaction could be generated starting with bursts of a petawatt-scale laser pulse packing a quadrillion watts of power. If scientists could exploit this avalanche, Hora said, a breakthrough in proton-boron fusion was imminent.

“It is a most exciting thing to see these reactions confirmed in recent experiments and simulations,” he said.

“Not just because it proves some of my earlier theoretical work, but they have also measured the laser-initiated chain reaction to create one billion-fold higher energy output than predicted under thermal equilibrium conditions.”

Working together with 10 colleagues spread over six countries of the globe, Hora created a roadmap for the development of hydrogen-boron fusion based on his design. The document takes into account recent breakthroughs and points to the areas we still have to work on developing a functional reactor. The patent to the process belongs to HB11 Energy, an Australian-based spin-off company, which means it’s not open for everyone to experiment.

“If the next few years of research don’t uncover any major engineering hurdles, we could have a prototype reactor within a decade,” said Warren McKenzie, managing director of HB11.

“From an engineering perspective, our approach will be a much simpler project because the fuels and waste are safe, the reactor won’t need a heat exchanger and steam turbine generator, and the lasers we need can be bought off the shelf,” he added.

The paper “Road map to clean energy using laser beam ignition of boron-hydrogen fusion” has been published in the journal Laser and Particle Beams.

Wind vs coal.

Nobody is going to make coal great again, says Bloomberg New Energy Finance founder

With new technologies hitting the markets every day, renewables are becoming cheaper far faster than anyone anticipated. This trend puts clean energy in investors’ cross-hairs and spells the end of coal as the mainstay of power grids around the world.


Image via Pixabay.

Michael Liebreich, founder of the Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF), says clean energy will take the cream of future investments, leaving fossil fuels in the dust. In a presentation he held at the research group’s conference this Tuesday in London, Liebreich said emerging tech is making clean energy more economical than fossil fuels for utilities in many countries around the world. In light of this trend, he estimates that the clean energy sector will attract 86% of the $10.2 trillion likely to be invested in power generation by 2040.

BNEF first took shape as New Energy Finance, a data company focused on energy investment and carbon markets research based in the United Kingdom and was purchased by Bloomberg L.P. back in 2009. When the company first began collecting data in 2004, it could already spot a trend towards larger machines and installations in the wind energy sector, all designed to deliver more power to the grid. A trend that is continuing even today, with both Siemens and Vestas Wind Systems working on plans for huge turbines, with wingspans larger than that of the world’s biggest aircraft, the Airbus A380.

This trend also carries with it the promise of even greater cost-efficiency, so much so that offshore wind developers in Germany are promising electricity without subsidy for their upcoming projects.

“One of the reasons those offshore wind costs have come down to be competitive without subsidies is because these turbines are absolute monsters,” Liebreich said. “Imagine a turbine with a tip height that’s higher than The Shard.’’

The cost per unit of energy from photovoltaic solar panels is also continuing to drop, making them more and more competitive against fossil fuels. That’s why Liebreich predicts two “tipping points” in the future, which will make fossil-fuel-generated power increasingly unattractive from an economic point of view.

“The first is when new wind and solar become cheaper than anything else,” Liebreich said.

“At that point, anything you have to retire is likely to be replaced by wind and solar,” he added. “That tipping point is either here or almost here everywhere in the world.”

Wind vs coal.

Image credits Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

These tipping points won’t happen everywhere at the same time, and their exact dates aren’t set in stone; it’s a process. A slide from Liebreich’s presentation, however, shows we could expect Japan to reach this milestone (i.e. building a PV plant will become cheaper than building a coal-fired generator) in 2025, while India will pass it by 2030, but for wind power.

Further down the road, the second tipping point will come when running costs for coal or gas plants become higher than those of solar or wind. According to this chart published by BNEF, that point may arrive sometime in the middle of the next decade in both Germany and China.

Running costs clean vs coal.

Image credits Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

Energy prices vary quite considerably from country to country, so it’s difficult to make a precise estimation of when renewables will overtake fossil fuels in supplying power grids. Still, Liebreich is convinced that the economics of solar and wind are becoming attractive enough to overtake coal’s dominant position in the global power equation, no matter what incentives President Trump imposes on the US.

“This is going to happen,” Liebreich said, reffering to the transition to clean enery. “Coal is declining in the US. Nobody is going to make coal great again.”

Not the batteries you're looking for

Solid energy — how batteries power the world

If you can’t plug it in but need it powered, you better have a battery handy. Often overlooked, they keep our world in working order. But what are they? How do they work? And how come you can use a lemon to power a light bulb? Let’s find out.

Not the batteries you're looking for

Hint: one of these things is not a battery.
Image credits Tookapic / Pixabay.

Technology lets us do some pretty amazing stuff. Talking on the phone in the middle of nowhere, for example. Or reading these words even though I’ve just finished typing them, halfway across the world, a few seconds ago. You can whoosh through the sky in a chair, which probably drives birds green with envy. We’ve sent people and robots to outer space, a place that will freeze you, choke you, and give you the mother of all sunburns while you’re drifting along lazily because your legs aren’t any good there — all in complete safety. Doing all this eats up energy, however. A lot of energy.

Herein lies the issue. Because nature is sometimes annoying, you can’t carry around electricity like you can do with water — electricity either flows or doesn’t, you can’t fill up a bucket with it and use it later. Generators, on the other hand, don’t fit inside an iPhone, and strapping power-lines to a space shuttle kinda defeats its purpose. Thankfully, there’s a way you can carry power around with you.

Annoying when they run out in your mouse, thrown away more often than you can remember but making the world go round, let’s take a look at the unsung heroes of the modern day: batteries.

What batteries are made of

Electricity can’t be stored as such, but what you can do is transform it into another kind of energy and store that — which is exactly what batteries do. They store energy in chemical bonds and release it when needed as a flow of electricity.

It sounds complicated, but they’re actually surprisingly simple devices — you probably have the materials to build a (fairly weak) battery lying around your house. Batteries are formed from voltaic cells. Each is built using a positive negative electrode (cathode and anode), something to isolate the two (a separator), and something to bridge them — a conductive medium known as an electrolyte which gives ions a way to flow between the electrodes.

Zinc Battery Section

Image credits Mcy Jerry / Wikimedia.

The cathode is submerged in the electrolyte, forming what’s called a positive half-cell. The anode and electrolyte combo forms a negative half-cell. These half-cells don’t do much on their own, but their atoms very much want to mingle — which is exactly why you need a separator (we’ll get to that in a moment).

Today, most batteries you’re likely to see (with the exception of car batteries) are known as “dry”, meaning they use a paste electrolyte which is less likely to leak. While they maintain a more or less constant structure across the board, materials vary widely. Zinc/Carbon batteries are ubiquitous non-rechargeable batteries as they’re laughably cheap to manufacture. Zinc/Manganese Dioxide with a Potassium Hydroxide electrolyte is also commonly used mix as it offers a good price-weight-output ratio.

Nickel variants (with Cadmium or metal hydride cathodes) are common for rechargeable batteries as they can sustain a large number of cycles even if they’re limited in regards to energy density — metal hydride cathodes offer better output at the expense of cycle life. And of course, there’s the Lithium Ion variety used in your phone — these are more expensive to produce but they have solid output and low weight.

How batteries work

The electrolyte allows the two ends of the battery (the electrodes) to trade ions (charged atoms) in a Redox reaction. Cations ( + charged ions) migrate to the anode where they dump excess electrons, leading to an electron build-up at the anode over time.

Since all electrons hold the same electrical charge they generally don’t really like one another. So they do all they can to get as far away from their kind as possible. In a battery, the only place they can go and do that is the cathode. This buildup — electrons wanting to move from one point to another — creates an electrical potential in the battery.

They can’t, however, move freely about through the electrolyte. Electrons need either a carrier in the form of ions to shuttle them to the other end of the battery, or for the cathode and anode to touch to disperse in a short-circuit. Since no ion in its right mind wants to move towards a point of the same electrical charge and the separator keeps the two electrodes well, separated, all those electrons are just dying for a way to flow to the cathode.

Then you come in the picture to deliver them from anguish. When you socket the battery in a computer mouse, for example, you complete its electrical circuit by bridging the anode and cathode together — giving the electrons a way to flow.

This is electricity.

What batteries can’t do

The hook with chemically storing energy is that over time the cathode becomes depleted of ions, which are now all snugly bound on the outside of the anode. This is why batteries run out.

For some of them (called secondary charge or rechargeable batteries) this process can be reversed by pumping electricity back into the battery. These are built from materials that can store an electrical charge, and need to be charged before their first use. After use, the influx of electricity pushes cations ( + charged ions) towards the anode where they dump excess electrons, refreshing the electrodes.

Over time, they lose their ability to hold a charge. One thing to look out for in secondaries is bloating — exposing the battery to extreme temperatures, extreme temperature shifts, as well as overcharging (which overheats the battery), can make them bloat. If the seals break they start leaking acid. Not good. The lead-acid battery that runs your car is a rechargeable battery, for example.


Thankfully re-chargeable.
Image credits StockSnap / Pixabay.

Primary charge batteries, on the other hand, use materials that can generate a change. They can be used right after assembly and don’t require charging. In theory, you could re-charge them. However, the chemical reactions that power them are very hard to reverse so it’s usually not economically viable, however. It’s also r-e-a-l-l-y unsafe, since the casings aren’t able to take the much higher thermal strain. Manufacturers strongly recommend against trying to do so for good reason. Results vary from “a bit of charge” to “fire”, “acid leaks everywhere and fire”, to “fireball-belching, acid-spewing, boom“.

So don’t do that. Don’t.

Backyard power

There’s actually a lot of wiggle room in what materials can form a battery. A Magnesium/Copper/Lemon cell can reach a better output than run-of-the-mill batteries (1.6 volts compared to 1.5 volts). Potato batteries have even been suggested as a viable source of power for people living off-grid. As long as you have a type of acid and two different metals available, you can make a battery — though the output will vary quite wildly from system to system.

So grab an LED, some fruit, and go experiment. Maybe you’ll hit on the battery of the future

Atomic-sandwich material could make computers 100 times more energy efficient

A new material could pave the way for an entirely new generation of computers — one that packs in a lot more processing power while consuming only a fraction of the energy.

A false-colored electron microscopy image shows alternating lutetium (yellow) and iron (blue) atomic planes.
Image credits Emily Ryan and Megan Holtz / Cornell.

Known as a magnetoelectric multiferroic material, the new substance is made out of distinct atom-thick layers sandwiched together which shows magnetic and electrical properties at room temperature. The thin film is magnetically polarized, and this property can be flipped — the two states encoding the 1’s and 0’s that underpin our digital systems.

The researchers started with a thin, atomically-precise film of hexagonal lutetium iron oxide, or LuFeO3 — a material known to be ferroelectric, but not particularly magnetic. It’ consists of alternating layers of lutetium- and iron-oxide layers. Then, through a technique known as molecular-beam epitaxy, they “spray-painted” one extra monolayer of iron oxide for every 10 atomic repeats of the single-single monolayer pattern.

“We were essentially spray painting individual atoms of iron, lutetium and oxygen to achieve a new atomic structure that exhibits stronger magnetic properties,” said Darrell Schlom, a materials science and engineering professor at Cornell and senior author of a study.

The result was a new material that combines a phenomenon in lutetium oxide called “planar rumpling” with the magnetic properties of iron oxide to achieve multiferroic properties at room temperature. Heron explains that lutetium shows displacements on an atomic level called rumples. These can be moved around using an electric field and can shift the magnetic field of the neighboring iron oxide layer from positive to negative. So in essence, the team developed a material whose magnetic properties can be altered accurately with electricity — a “magnetoelectric multiferroic”.

“Before this work, there was only one other room-temperature multiferroic whose magnetic properties could be controlled by electricity,” said John Heron, assistant professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Michigan.

“That electrical control is what excites electronics makers, so this is a huge step forward.”

Room-temperature multiferroics require much less power to write on and read than the semiconductor-based systems we use today. And, if you cut the power, the data remains encoded. Combine these two properties and you get computers that use only brief pulses of energy to function instead of the constant flow required by our current computers — as little as 100 times less energy. So, needless to say, electronics experts are always on the lookout for new room-temperature multiferoics.

“Electronics are the fastest-growing consumer of energy worldwide,” said Ramamoorthy Ramesh, associate laboratory director for energy technologies at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

“Today, about 5 percent of our total global energy consumption is spent on electronics, and that’s projected to grow to 40-50 percent by 2030 if we continue at the current pace and if there are no major advances in the field that lead to lower energy consumption.”

Heron thinks that we’re still a ways off from a viable multiferroic, likely a few years off. But the team’s work brings the field of electronics closer to developing devices which can maintain high computing speeds while consuming less power. If the industry will keep following Moore’s law — which predicts that the computing power of integrated circuits will double every year — such advances will be vital. Moore has been right since the 1960, but silicon-chip technology may be reaching its limits — whatever happens, we may not be able to power it for very long.

The full paper “Atomically engineered ferroic layers yield a room-temperature magnetoelectric multiferroic” has been published in the journal Nature.


Cooking nuclear waste into glass and ceramic materials could provide safe, efficient containment

Containing radioactive waste in glass and other ceramic materials might be the key to protect people — and the environment — from their harmful effects.

Image via Pexels / Public Domain.

Nuclear power is awesome. Splitting the atom can yield huge amounts of energy for no greenhouse gas emissions. The downside, however, is that you’re left with piles of radioactive by-product (waste) that is really, really harmful for people, animals, plants, pretty much everything. The good news is that radioactivity naturally decays over time — usually a few million years.

The bad news is that the waste is chemically mobile in water (it gets carried around by rain or rivers) and in air — so you have to keep it well isolated and locked up until that time passes. Which is quite a hassle. The way we go about it now is geological disposal — a fancy way of saying “we bury it really deep” — in disused mines, ocean floor disposal, or (planned) specialized deep-storage.

Rutgers University researcher and assistant professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering Ashutosh Goel thinks he’s found a better way to go about it, by immobilizing radioactive waste in glass and ceramic materials. Goel is the principal investigator (PI) or co-PI for six glass or glass-related waste containment projects. His work may help to one-day safely dispose of highly radioactive waste, now stored at commercial nuclear power plants.

“Glass is a perfect material for immobilizing the radioactive wastes with excellent chemical durability,” said Goel.

One of his projects involves mass-producing apatite glasses to immobilize iodine-129 atoms in a chemically-stable form. This isotope of iodine has a half-life of 15.7 million years and is highly mobile in water and air according to the EPA. Exposure to iodine-129 affects the thyroid gland and increases the risk of cancer. Another one of his projects developed a way to synthesize apatite minerals from silver iodide particles. Goel is also studying how to capture sodium and aluminum atoms from highly radioactive wastes in borosilicate glasses which resist crystallization.

Containing waste in glass might provide us with a safe way to dispose of them in the future. And it will look like this.
Image credits Albert Kruger / U.S. Department of Energy.

Among Goel’s major founders is the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), which currently oversees one of the most wide-scale nuclear cleanup programs in the world, following the U.S.’s 45 year-long nuclear weapon development and production program. This project once included 16 major facilities throughout Idaho, Nevada, South Carolina, Tennessee and Washington state, according to the DOE. The site in Washington state, Hanford, is one of the biggest clean-up challenges the department faces. This complex manufactured more than 20 million pieces of uranium metal fuel, processing around 110,000 tons of fuel from nine reactors on the Columbia River.

Around 56 million gallons of radioactive waste from the Hanford plants went to underground storage in 177 tanks. It’s estimated that 67 of these tanks — more than a third — have leaked part of the waste, the DOE says. In 1989, clean-up efforts started at the site. The liquids have been pumped out of the tanks, leaving behind mostly-dry waste. Work began on a radioactive liquid waste treatment plant in 1999, which is nearing completion.

“What we’re talking about here is highly complex, multicomponent radioactive waste which contains almost everything in the periodic table,” Goel said. “What we’re focusing on is underground and has to be immobilized.”

The DOE hopes to start churning out radioactive-waste-glass by 2022 or 2023 at Hanford, Goel said.

“The implications of our research will be much more visible by that time.”

“[The process] depends on its [the waste material’s] composition, how complex it is and what it contains,” Goel added. “If we know the chemical composition of the nuclear waste coming out from those plants, we can definitely work on it.”

The full paper “Can radioactive waste be immobilized in glass for millions of years?” is still awaiting publication. Materials provided by Rutgers University can be found here.

The combined capacity of the renewable energy sector overtakes that of coal

An International Energy Agency report says global renewable-to-electricity capacity has overtaken coal, with the potential to supply up to 31% of the world’s energy.

Image credits Renan Deuter / Pixabay.

There was a huge boom of renewable energy in 2015, with some 153 GW (gigawatts) of new capacity installed. Renewable sources collectively accounted for more than half the global increase in power capacity. Much of this growth (40%) came from China‘s expansion of solar and offshore wind energy. The numbers presented by the IEA are quite impressive — the report says that half a million new solar panels were installed every day this year, and two turbines were installed every hour in China.

With this push, renewable energy capacity has overcome that of coal with 1,985 GW (about 31% of global power capacity) compared to 1,951 GW, the IEA said. Which is just swell.

But it’s important to note that the report looks at power capacity rather than output, so it’s a question of how much power could be produced, not how much is actually being churned out. That number is still significantly lower than coal, with renewables supplying roughly 23% of global production, compared to 40% from coal. Renewables, for the most part, are intermittent — they can’t produce at their full capacity all the time. These plants need winds or sunshine, but coal can be burned around the clock.

Still, it’s a historic development.

“We are witnessing a transformation of global power markets led by renewables,” said IEA’s Executive Director Fatih Birol.

All this increase was made possible by “impressive” cost reductions for onshore wind and solar, which would have been “unthinkable just five years ago”. The IEA expects this trend to continue, prompting the agency to increase its forecasted renewable capacity increase for the future. They expect an extra 825 GW to be built by 2021, a 13% increase on their forecast one year ago. This should bring renewables’ share in the global electricity balance to 28% by 2021, “rapidly closing the gap with coal” the IEA said. Generation from renewables is expected to exceed 7600 TWh by that year — equivalent to the total electricity generation of the United States and the European Union put together today.

Solar and wind are expected to be the main areas of growth, and the IEA expects they will account for three-quarters of new capacity. Hydro, which is now one of the largest sources of renewable energy, will continue to grow but at a slower rate than before. Some 61% of installed renewable capacity and 71% of renewable power output came from hydroelectric sources, according to the IEA. Wind power accounted for 15% of renewable output, bioenergy 8%, and solar 4%.

4% of output, 100% of the bling.
Ivanpah Solar Power Plant. Image credits Gregg Tavares / Flickr.

Governments will have an important part to play as well, as the renewable sector’s growth needs “policies aimed at enhancing energy security and sustainability” to keep its momentum. The report mentions decisions to provide financial incentives for using renewable power as a factor in this year’s growth, such as the extended tax credits in US. China, India, and Mexico have also introduced policy which has helped expand the sector.

“Growth is anticipated to be increasingly concentrated in emerging and developing economies, with Asia taking the centre stage,” Birol added. “In the next five years, the People’s Republic of China and India alone will account for almost half of global renewable capacity additions.”

The report says that while renewables are taking on a much bigger role than previously expected, there’s still room for more. Besides electricity production, renewables haven’t made much progress. In transport and heating “renewables penetration […] remains slow”, the report says. To limit climate change, stronger decarbonisation rates are needed which means we’ll have to work on bringing renewables “in all three sectors: power, transport, and heat”.

Iceland drilling project close to plugging into the Mid-Atlantic ridge

A new geothermal drilling project in Iceland could produce ten times as much power as regular wells by tapping into the molten mantle of the planet.

Image credits IDDP.

While it may not look like it on the surface (especially now that fall is in full swing), the Earth is a very hot ball of space rock. Dig just a few kilometers under the surface, and you’ll hit temperatures high enough to make water boil. Dig deeper and at about 10 to 70 km (6 to 43 miles), depending on the kind of crust, you’ll find yourself in a place hot enough for rocks to stay molten all the time — the mantle. This is the stuff on which tectonic plates float on. This is where all the volcanoes in the world draw their lava from. And, ultimately, this is where all geothermal plants draw power from.

The hottest hole in the world

A new Icelandic project began on the 12th of August with the aim of supercharging geothermal energy production by drilling a 5 km (3.1 mile) deep hole in the Reykjanes area, southwest Iceland. This would bypass a thick layer of rocks (which aren’t very good thermal conductors) and allow engineers to draw power directly from magma systems that power the area’s lively subsurface volcanism. This may very well become the hottest hole in the world, with estimates placing temperatures anywhere between 400 and 1,000 degrees Celsius.

Called the Iceland Deep Drilling Project (IDDP), the goal is to drill all the way down to a landward extension of the Mid-Atlantic ridge — a major fissure between Earth’s tectonic plates — says Albert Albertsson, assistant director of HS Orka, an Icelandic geothermal energy company involved in the project. Here, magma heats water under the ocean’s floor. Pressures are incredibly high, around 200 atmospheres, which means that the researchers and companies behind the project will likely find the water as “supercritical steam”. It’s neither a liquid nor a gaseous state, sharing properties of both — but most importantly, it can store much more energy than either of those states.

“People have drilled into hard rock at this depth, but never before into a fluid system like this,” says Albertsson.

Albertsson said they’re expecting to find the land version of black smokers, underwater springs that run hot enough to dissolve metals such as gold or silver.

“If they can get supercritical steam in deep boreholes, that will make an order of magnitude difference to the amount of geothermal energy the wells can produce,” Arnar Guðmundsson from Invest in Iceland, a government agency that promotes energy development, told New Scientist.

The project’s idea of tapping sub-surface magma came back in 2009 when the IDDP (then drilling a conventional well) accidentally drilled into a molten rock reservoir about 2 km (1.25 miles). Just to see how much energy it could generate, the team poured water down the hole — and ended up producing 30 megawatts of power.

If this attempt is successful and proves to be more sustainable than the 2009 experiment, we could see a huge increase in geothermal energy output in areas with active volcanism, such as Japan or California. The drilling should be done by the end of the year, and in the following months, we’ll get to see just how much power it can churn out.

The project was short-lived, seeing as it was only ever set up as an experiment, but the team is hoping this new attempt will be more sustainable.

But before you get too excited, for now, this is all purely theoretical – we need to actually get the new well up and running first. The hole should be drilled by the end of the year, and in the months that follow, we’ll get an idea of how much electricity such a set-up can generate.


The U.S. plans to build the most advanced fusion reactor ever

The US government has put its weight behind efforts to create an economically viable fusion reactor, endorsing a new category of designs that could become the most efficient and viable yet.

Test cell of the NSTX-U.
Image credits Elle Starkman / PPPL Office of Communications.

Re-creating the atom fusing processes that sustain the sun on Earth has long been one of the holy grails of modern physics. Hydrogen fusion has been powering out Sun for the past 4.5 billion years now, and it’s still going strong — a machine that could safely and stably harvest these processes would offer humanity safe, clean, and virtually endless energy.

But, at the risk of stating the obvious, making a star isn’t easy. Physicists have seen some progress in this field, but a viable fusion reactor still remains out of their grasp. We’re inching forward, however, and in an effort to promote progress the US government has just backed plans for physicists to build a new kind of nuclear fusion device that could be the most efficient design yet.

Harnessing the atom…again

Our nuclear plants today rely on nuclear fission — the splitting of an atom into tinier atoms and neutrons — to produce energy, and they’re really good at it. Per unit of mass, nuclear fission releases millions of times more energy than coal-burning. The downside is that you have to deal with the resulting radioactive waste, which is really costly and really hard to get right.

But merging atoms, in nuclear fusion, produces no radioactive waste. If you heat up the nuclei of two lighter atoms to a high enough temperature, they merge into a heavier one releasing massive amounts of energy, with the only reaction product being the fused atom. It’s an incredibly efficient process, one that sustains all the stars in the Universe, our sun included.

So there’s understandably a lot of interest into taking that process, scaling it down, and harvesting it to power our lives. Physicists have been trying to do just that for the past 60 years and still haven’t succeeded, a testament to how hard it can be to put “a star in a jar.” The biggest issue, as you might have guessed, is that stars are incredibly hot.

While fission can be performed at temperatures just a few hundred degrees Celsius, fusion takes place at star-core temperatures of several millions of degrees. And because our would-be reactors have to jump-start the reaction from scratch, they need to generate temperatures in excess of that. A successful reactor should be able to resist at least 100 million degrees Celsius. Which is a lot.

“During the process of nuclear fusion, atoms’ electrons are separated from their nuclei, thereby creating a super-hot cloud of electrons and ions (the nuclei minus their electrons) known as plasma,” Daniel Oberhaus said for the Motherboard.

“The problem with this energy-rich plasma is figuring out how to contain it, since it exists at extremely high temperatures (up to 150 million degrees Celsius, or 10 times the temperature at the Sun’s core). Any material you can find on Earth isn’t going to make a very good jar.”

So what scientists usually do to keep the plasma from vaporizing the device is to contain it through the use of magnetic fields. So far, the closest anyone’s gotten to sustainable fusion is a team of physicists at the Wendelstein 7-X stellarator in Greifswald, Germany, and researchers at China’s Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) – both of which have been trying to hold onto the super-heated plasma that results from the fusion reaction.

The German device managed to heat hydrogen gas to 80 million degrees Celsius and sustain a cloud of hydrogen plasma for a quarter of a second last year. That doesn’t sound like a lot but it was a huge milestone in the world of physics. Back in February, the Chinese team reported that it successfully generated hydrogen plasma at 49.999 million degrees Celsius, and held onto it for 102 seconds. Neither of these devices has proved that fusion can produce energy — just that it is possible in a controlled environment.

Physicists at the US Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) think that progress has been so slow because we’ve been working with the wrong jar. They plan to redesign the fusion reactor to incorporate better materials and a more efficient shape — instead of using the traditional tokamak to contain the plasma in a doughnut-like shape, they suggest employing spherical tokamaks, more akin to a cored apple. The team writes that this spherical design halves the size of the hole in the doughnut, meaning we can use much lower energy magnetic fields to keep the plasma in place.

Traditional tokamak.
Image credits Matthias W. Hirsch / Wikimedia.

The smaller hole could also allow for the production of tritium – a rare isotope of hydrogen – which can fuse with another isotope of hydrogen, called deuterium, to produce fusion reactions.

They’ve also set their sights on replacing the huge copper magnets employed in today tokamak designs with high-temperature superconducting magnets that are far more efficient because electricity can flow through them with zero resistance.

To save development time, the team will be applying these improvements to two existing spherical tokamaks – UK’s Mega Ampere Spherical Tokamak (MAST), which is in the final stages of construction, and the PPPL’s National Spherical Torus Experiment Upgrade (NSTX-U), which came online last year.

“We are opening up new options for future plants,” one of the researchers behind the study, NSTX-U program director Jonathan Menard, said in a statement.

“[These facilities] will push the physics frontier, expand our knowledge of high temperature plasmas, and, if successful, lay the scientific foundation for fusion development paths based on more compact designs,” added PPPL director Stewart Prager.

Right now, all we can do is wait and see the results. But if this works, we’ll be one step closer to creating stars right here on Earth — then plugging them right into the grid to power our smartphones.

The full paper titled “Fusion nuclear science facilities and pilot plants based on the spherical tokamak” has been published in Nuclear Fusion.

Why the first, tiny offshore wind farm in the U.S. is a huge step forward

The U.S. has finally begun following Europe’s example in green energy with the country’s first offshore wind project, the Block Island Wind Farm, completed last week. While relatively tiny, the farm marks the start of a new American industry, and will feed power into New England’s electric grid.

Image credits Phil Hollman.

It has only five turbines and can power an estimated 17,000 homes — which isn’t much for a power plant of this type. But the inconspicuous Block Island Wind Farm is a U.S-first, and many hope that its example will lead to the creation of a new, cleaner energy industry in the country.

We’ve seen several European countries invest heavily in off-shore wind farms over the past few years, and for good reasons. Installing the turbines offshore is more expensive, but they can harvest the energy of the sea’s strong, steady winds. This means they can produce more power, and produce it more reliably, than their land-locked counterparts. There’s also the advantage of taking the turbines away from populated areas, limiting noise pollution and the risk of accidents.

But the U.S. never got its hands on a piece of this very profitable pie. While European countries were installing these machines by the thousands, proposals in the U.S. faltered due to a lack of expertise in the field (which drove installation costs up), opposition from locals who didn’t want their view of the ocean ruined by the turbines, and a murky legislation about the use of seafloor.

“People have been talking about offshore wind for decades in the United States, and I’ve seen the reaction — eyes roll,” said Jeffrey Grybowski in an interview on Block Island. “The attitude was, ‘It’s not going to happen; you guys can’t do it.’”

Jeffrey Grybowski, CEO of Deepwater Wind of Providence, R.I., has now proved that they can. With backing from the political leadership of Rhode Island, which took up the torch for this newly born industry ahead of bigger states like New York of Massachusetts, the company set up the Block Island Wind Farm.

They’ve also been helped by improving legislative conditions — starting from a law passed by Congress in 2005 and signed by President George W. Bush, the Obama administration has been clarifying the ground rules for off-shore turbine farms. They’ve also been leasing out large patches of ocean floor for wind-power development, so there are nearly two dozen such projects currently in development — setting the stage for the United States to dramatically expand on offshore wind.

Even at state level governments have begun making big pushes towards renewable power, driven by a growing sense of urgency regarding climate change. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York set a goal of drawing 50 percent of the state’s power from renewables by 2030, and the state will probably need large offshore wind farms to help achieve that. Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts also signed a bill ordering the state’s utilities to develop contracts with offshore wind farms for an immense amount of power — 50 times the expected output of the Block Island Wind Farm. Other states, too, are looking to cash in on wind power and the Department of Energy believes that many thousands of these turbines could one day circle the United States coastline.

Right now, the focus in on the Northeast. There are a lot of power-hungry cities here so energy sells well, but there’s fierce opposition to building new power plants on land — thankfully, its coastlines have some of the world’s fiercest winds and the water stays relatively shallow for miles off shore so turbines can be installed where they won’t be seen from the beaches.

The Unites States might also have to profit from the extensive expertise others have on offshore wind turbines. The technology has been proved in Europe, with each turbine now costing up to $30 million to build, install and connect to the power grid. It’s a billion dollar industry, and the companies that install them have developed accordingly. Where European nations once used to promote wind farm by agreeing to sell the power at a premium price, they now use competitive bidding to drive down the cost of the projects. While installation will still be pricier than in Europe because local companies don’t have the technical base and the same know-how, the U.S. will still save a lot of money off of these falling costs — the Block Island turbines were built overseas by a division of General Electric and were installed by a ship from Norway, brought over at a cost of millions of dollars, with help from an American vessel.

The hude Fred Olsen Windcarrier helped install the turbines.
Image credits kees torn / Flickr.

However, if the plans laid down right now follow through, the costs will fall dramatically as domestic industry groups scale up to meet the demand. For the Block Island project, a company in Houma, La., won the contract to build the metal foundations in the water, and several Gulf Coast businesses specialized in offshore oil structures see wind power in the Northeast as a potential new market.

A future being decided right now, with the 5-strong Block Island Wind Farm sending a clear message: the U.S. can be powered without choking our air with smog.

“I do believe that starting small has made sense,” said Bryan Martin, Deepwater Wind’s chairman and D. E. Shaw’s head of United States private equity investment. “I would say that the next projects are going to be substantially bigger.”

Initial financing for the $300 million project came from the D. E. Shaw Group, a big investment firm based in Manhattan. The turbines are locked for now, but they will be turned on sometime in October and after a few weeks of testing and fine-tuning, America’s first offshore wind farm will begin pumping power into the New England electric grid.



Chernobyl is to become the world’s largest solar power plant

The Ukranian government plans to turn Chernobyl, the site of the world’s most famous nuclear meltdown, into a sprawling solar power plant — the largest in the world.

Image credits publicdomainpictures

Since the meltdown on April 26, 1986, no one’s been able to find any good uses for Chernobyl. A 1,600 square mile area was drenched in radiation and deemed an “exclusion zone,” so everyone was evacuated after the clean-up efforts were concluded and the plant was sealed in its ubiquitous sarcophagus. The buildings, goods, and infrastructure in the area were abandoned so fast that the city looks like time froze there 30 years ago — albeit with a Falloutesque look. Since we left, nature took over, and for the most part, is thriving in our absence (though the microbes that decompose dead organic matter seem to be having a hard time living here.)

In a recent interview, however, Ukraine’s ecology minister Ostap Semerak said that the government is negotiating with two US investment firms and four Canadian energy companies to develop Chernobyl’s solar potential. The area is uniquely suited for the purpose — the land is extremely cheap, much of the required infrastructure, such as roads are already built. Even better, the power lines that served the old 4GW reactor are still useable.

“The Chernobyl site has really good potential for renewable energy,” said Ukraine’s environment minister Ostap Semerak during an interview in London. “We already have high-voltage transmission lines that were previously used for the nuclear stations, the land is very cheap and we have many people trained to work at power plants. We have normal European priorities, which means having the best standards with the environment and clean energy ambitions.”

PVTech reports that Ukraine is pushing for a 1GW solar plant built in a 6-month construction cycle. This would make it the world’s largest plant of the type if built today — similar plants are in development today in Egipt, India or China among others — but none have been completed yet. A 1GW solar project – based upon a global market price of $1-1.5/W for large scale development – would cost between $1 and $1.5 billion dollars. The short time-frame for construction would require significantly more resources to be deployed to complete the project on time, however.

But that might not be a problem. The European Bank for Reconstruction & Development has expressed an interest in supporting the project, “so long as there are viable investment proposals and all other environmental matters and risks can be addressed to the bank’s satisfaction.” One issue that still hasn’t been considered is what constraints will be imposed on the workers. How much exposure will be considered “safe” for them? Will they have to wear radioactive suits while they work? And how will this translate into building costs? These issues will have to be settled to everyone’s satisfaction before work can commence.

Hopefully, they will. There’s something close to poetic justice in turning the site of probably the worst industrial accident in human history into a solar power plant, one of the safest and cleanest energy production technologies we have.


First solar-powered boat to cross the Atlantic embarks on historical journey

The Solar Voyager — a small, autonomous solar-powered boat — is braving the winds and waves of the Atlantic Ocean to show the power of green energy. The craft left Boston harbor on June 1st and is expected to land in Portugal in October.

Image via inhabitat

Back in 2013, engineers Christopher Sam Soon and Isaac Penny started building a solar-powered boat powerful enough to brave the world’s oceans on its own from scratch. They’re not the first to try this — Wave Glider had been launched just a year before, relying on waves to power it forward on its journey. But Wave glider was funded by California based Liquid Robotics, while Soon and Penny had no such help. The duo designed and built the craft by themselves, working on the project in their spare time after work. Anyone can build a ship like they did, Penny said.

“Only Liquid Robotics can build a Wave Glider, but anyone can do what we did. We don’t even have a garage!” laughed Penny.

Solar Voyager’s photovoltaic panels can churn out 7 kilowatt hours (kWh) of energy every day in summer and 3 kWh in winter. The ship was built from aluminum, which the engineers chose over the usual “glass reinforced plastic” used in other autonomous crafts for its better resilience. On the flip-side, the metal also makes the craft heavier and thus more energy consuming, but the team hopes it will help it survive the harsh open ocean. Just to make sure though, the engineers monitor their little boat through the Iridium satellite network, and can receive updated data every 15 minutes.

“Durability is the obvious problem, but there isn’t an obvious solution,” Penny told techcrunch. “Designing something that runs for a day is one thing — designing something that will run for months in such harsh conditions with no one there to fix it is different.”

Image via inhabitat

So why did they do it? To show the world that solar energy isn’t just an alternative — often times it’s the best solution.

“We always think about solar as this alternative energy thing, but you just couldn’t do this with fossil fuels – you couldn’t build something that will run forever,” Penny said.

“Whether it’s long endurance drones, or data gathering for maritime security, or monitoring wildlife preserves – solar isn’t just an alternative form of energy, it’s the best solution. It brings something to the table that nothing else has.”

The engineers are now looking for a boat owner in Portugal who can help them collect the Solar Voyager once it makes its journey. If you want to cheer the little ship onward, you can check on the Solar Voyager and see its current position here.

The price of solar keeps falling, Dubai received the lowest ever asking bid for energy

A few days ago, India’s Energy Minister Piyush Goyal announced that solar energy became cheaper to produce than coal-powered, costing roughly 6 US cents/kWh. Now, it’s become even cheaper: the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA) received the lowest ever asking price for solar energy, at 2.9 cents/kWh.

Image via flickr user the_dead_pixel

Image via flickr user the_dead_pixel

“Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA) has received 5 bids from international organisations for the third phase of the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park,” said HE Saeed Mohammed AlTayer, MD & CEO of DEWA. “The lowest recorded bid at the opening of the envelopes was US 2.99 cents per kilowatt hour. The next step in the bidding process will review the technical and commercial aspects of the bids to select the best one.”

In the U.S., utility-scale solar projects churned out energy for an average price of US$ 0.05/kWh, factoring in subsidies and incentives, in 2014. Since then, there has been a huge drop in production costs: in 2015, Dubai signed a deal for a fixed US$ 0.058/kWh over 25 years. Austin, Texas, saw a total of almost 1,300 MW of energy in bids of under US$ 0.04/kWh last summer, and this month Enel Green agreed to sell power to Mexico and Morroco at US$ 0.036 and US$ 0.03 per kilowatt-hour respectively. In under sixteen months, the price of solar has dropped down to half — even lower when you consider that these bids aren’t subsidized.

Image via energy.gov.

Image via energy.gov.

The Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy reported that in November 2015, four years into the decade-long SunShot Initiative, the solar industry is about 70% of the way to achieving the target cost of US$ 0.06/kWh for utility-scale PV (based on 2010 baseline figures.) A cost target that will make solar-generated power be fully cost-competitive with traditional energy sources, they believe.

Now, a consortium led by Abdul Latif Jameel of Saudi Arabia, Fotowatio Renewable Ventures (FRV) of Spain, and Masdar of the UAE said they could produce solar energy at an even lower price of US$ 0.029 cents/kWh unsubsidized — the lowest asking price for solar in the world.

“The consortium’s 2.99$c/kWh bid is 18% lower than the 3.65$c/kWh bid submitted by JinkoSolar of China, and also drastically undercut the 3.95$c/kWh tariff submitted by an Acwa Power-First Solar consortium,” writes Ian Clover of PV-Magazine. “The two other bids were for 4.382$c/kWh – submitted by U.K./French firm Engie ad Japan’S Marubeni – and 4.482$c/kWh, submitted by a consortium comprised of France’s EDF and Qatar’s Nebras.”

As the biggest expense for solar power plants is the initial construction costs, some speculate that Masdar had access to financing through the wealthy emirate of Abu Dhabi that commercial banks, the primary source of capital for his competitors, couldn’t match in cost. Dr. Moritz Borgmann, a partner at clean energy advisory company Apricum, believes that Jinko Solar, whose bid stood at $0.0365/kWh, and Acwa Power, at US$0.0395/kWh, were more realistic in their bids.

[button url=”http://understandsolar.com/signup/?lead_source=zmescience&tracking_code=dubai_solar” postid=”” style=”btn-success” size=”btn-lg” target=”_blank” fullwidth=”true”]Find out how much solar energy costs in your area[/button]

Even so, that’s a massive drop in price. And although Dubai is probably the sunniest place I can think of right now, we can expect solar to get cheaper, across the board, as time goes by; Ramez Naam, author of “How Cheap can Solar Get?” said:

“If solar electricity continues its current learning rate, by the time solar capacity triples to 600GW (by 2020 or 2021, as a rough estimate), we should see unsubsidized solar prices of roughly 4.5 c / kwh for very sunny places (the US southwest, the Middle East, Australia, parts of India, parts of Latin America), ranging up to 6.5 c / kwh for more moderately sunny areas (almost all of India, large swaths of the US and China, southern and central Europe, almost all of Latin America).”

“And beyond that, by the time solar scale has doubled 4 more times, to the equivalent of 16% of today’s electricity demand (and somewhat less of future demand), we should see solar at 3 cents per kwh in the sunniest areas, and 4.5 cents per kwh in moderately sunny areas.”

This is how one French power plant produces electricity using cheese

The town of Albertville in southeastern France has begun using cheese to generate electricity. Their power plant, build in the Savoie region, uses a byproduct of the local Beaufort cheese manufacturies as the base for its biogas power generation system.

Ahhh, cheese. Truly, a tragically under-appreciated food. Is there any meal it cannot make wholesome with its creamy bliss? Is there anything that cheese cannot do? The answer to the last one is most likely “yes” but the French seem set on turning it into a definite “no.” Not content with enjoying cheese only with their crackers and wine, the people of Albertville in France have now found a way to include dairy in their power grid.

Beaufort cheese.
Image via telegraph

The dairy plant, opened in October last year, uses the skimmed whey left over from the process of making Beaufort cheese. Mixing it with cultures of bacteria, the whey is left to ferment, producing a mixture of methane and carbon dioxide — in essence, biogas. The gas is then fed through an engine that heats water to 90 degrees Celsius, and the steam used to generate electricity.

“Whey is our fuel,” said François Decker of Valbio, the company that designed and built the cheesy station.

“It’s quite simply the same as the ingredient in natural yogurt.”

The plant will produce about 2.8 million kilowatt-hours (kWh) per year, enough electricity to supply a community of 1,500 people, Mr Decker told Le Parisien newspaper.

This isn’t Valbio’s first cheese-to-power station, but it is one of the largest. The company built its first prototype plant 10 years ago to be used by a cheese-making abbey where monks have kept this trade since the 12th century. About 20 other small-scale plants have been built in France, other European countries and Canada. More units are planned in Australia, Italy, Brazil and Uruguay.

Cream, the other by-product of Beaufort cheese-making is also reused for ricotta and serac cheese, butter, and protein powder.

UK set to unveil the world’s largest floating solar array

The largest floating solar array in the world is to be unveiled later this month, on the Queen Elizabeth II reservoir, at Walton-on-Thames. The array is estimated to generate almost 6 million kWh in its maiden year of operations. The energy will be used to power London’s water treatment plants.

Ennoviga Solar and Lightsource Renewable Energy workers are busy getting the largest floating solar array ever built ready for its big unveiling, scheduled early March this year. The £6m (US$8.5m) project was commissioned by Thames Water five years ago, as part of the company’s pledge towards a more sustainable business model — their goal is to supply 33% of their energy requirements from clean sources by 2020.

Once completed, the 6.3 MW array will be the largest floating solar park in Europe, and the second-largest in the world.
Image via pv-magazine.

“Over the last five years we have successfully completed ground and roof installations of all shapes and sizes, but this project has some obvious differences and has presented our team with a set of fresh challenges to overcome,” said Lightsource CEO Nick Boyle.

Thames Water has already set-up 41 other solar-panel sites which cover 12.5% of their needs. But the company knew it had to go big to reach such a hefty goal — and with the Queen Elizabeth II reservoir array they went full out.

The QEII array consists of 23,000 solar photovoltaic panels perched atop 61,000 floating platforms, with everything held tidy in place by 177 anchors. The final structure covers roughly 128.3 hectares in size (or ~6% of the reservoir’s surface) with a perimeter of 4.3km. It has a projected capacity of 6.3 MW, able to generate around 5.8 million kWh during the first year of its operation. All this power will help provide clean drinking water to a populace of close to 10 million people in greater London and the south-east of England, a huge and often unrecognized drain on electricity, rather than nearby homes.

Officials noted that floating arrays have several advantages over their land-lubber counterparts. Firstly, they’re cheaper to build, as panels can be constructed on individual platforms and then attached to the main structure and anchored. They use space that would otherwise just go to waste and is dirt-cheap compared to regular dirt — and as a bonus, that land remains free to use for other resources. But most importantly, the water body’s cooling effect reduces maintenance hours and costs for the panels, meaning more power at a lower price.

The floating array uses a mounting system developed by Ciel et Terre, which has been pivotal in providing floating technology that has brought buoyancy to a relatively new section of the solar industry.

“This is our largest project outside of Japan and the first one with European bank financing, proving that our technology is not only suitable for water utilities, but has also been recognized as bankable in Europe as well as Asia,” said Ciel et Terre international business development director Eva Pauly.

In the case of the QEII project, the array also shields the water from the sun reducing algae growth, a problem that reservoir staff has had to deal with before.

The array’s record however will be overtaken by other projects already under construction (such as Japan’s massive array that will be completed in 2018.) But officials wish them the best of luck, noting they are proud to be leading the way and hope others will be inspired by what they have created.

“This will be the biggest floating solar farm in the world for a time – others are under construction,” said Angus Berry, energy manager for Thames Water, which owns the site. “We are leading the way, but we hope that others will follow, in the UK and abroad.”

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.

Less burns for more sunshine: renewable and fossil fuel technology integration sounds like a beach-goer’s dream

There have been many technological advances lately in the field of green, renewable energy, and a significant increase in awareness and implementation of these methods in everyday life. Their capacity to generate power rivals those of fossil fuels, and the reduced operating costs and environmental strain make them an attractive option in many parts of the world.

Widespread implementation of renewables however has proven to be economically-challenging, in part due to the fact that our current infrastructure is tailored to suit fossil (especially coal) burning power plants.

One promising solution to this is a technology known as solar-thermal energy. Solar-thermal plants harness solar energy to generate either heat or electricity, and when coupled with a cost-effective thermal storage strategy, they can deliver baseload electricity through the existing power grid. Unfortunately, to be an economically attractive option, solar-thermal energy generation requires rather large installs, at tens of megawatts of capacity, which can be quite expensive.

Gemsolar Power Plant in Sevillia, Spain. The tower houses molten salt, serving as a thermal “battery”.
Image via www.ise.fraunhofer.de

A new approach seeks to solve both the economically-demanding process of replacing existing power plants with new ones, and address the ever-more-pressing issue of greenhouse gas emissions: integrating solar-thermal technology into existing fossil fuel power plants.

Instead of trying to completely replace what’s already up and running, this strategy provides time for a gradual shift in the power supply and gives the engineers running the plants a chance to familiarize themselves with the technological changes while giving them a safety net to fall onto should something go awry. A study published in the journal Nature has shown that this “bridge” approach between the two sources of power would be cost-effective and ecologically-friendly.

The authors demonstrate that these so called “solar-aided” plants can achieve highly efficient ratios of solar-to-electric conversion, without running into issues that limit other solar power plants.

Their analysis finds that by heating transfer fluids to a benchmark 400 degrees Celsius using solar energy, fossil fuel consumption can be reduced between 28 to 57 percent in powerplants that use a specific type of heat-engine, based on the Rankine cycle – where heat is converted into mechanical work in order to produce electricity. That’s half of the coal, and half of the emissions.

By reducing fossil fuel combustion, integrating solar-thermal power into existing power plants can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. To achieve this, the power plants should be operated in a “fuel-saving” mode, where their thermal storage can be used to make up for times when the solar intensity is low or in order to continue to supply electricity during peak demand hours, such as right after sunset.

And best of all, this reduction in fossil fuel use can be obtained with minimal changes to the plant.

Ivanpath solar-thermal installation, that ran into a bit of a pickle recently. Solar-aided power plants can fall-on their fossil fuel back-up systems in cases such as this.
Image via breakingenergy.com

The study also revealed that retrofitting existing power plants in this manner is actually a better way of mitigating greenhouse gas emissions than carbon capture and storage. Integration of solar-thermal energy generation technology is cheaper, and it eliminates the need for reservoirs to contain concentrated, pressurized carbon dioxide.

The integration strategy has already been tested in a few locations with promising results. Experience obtained with utilizing this method has allowed for a more modular version of the solar-thermal technology to be developed. Now, it is also more adaptable to local conditions, enabling deployment at sites with constraints such as limited land. A modular approach is also more attractive because smaller plants enable more access to finance and will create more resiliency.

Solar-thermal integration into classic power plants would allow us to ween-off fossil and transition into renewables in a more strategic manner.  Solar-aided plants have already proven themselves to be more cost-effective than solar-thermal and fossil fuel plants. However, few of them have been built so far – less than a tenth of all installed solar-power capacity worldwide.

As the legislative policies stand, these types of solar-aided plants do not receive the same incentives that are provided to pure solar-thermal power plants. However, there are clearly myriad benefits for running solar-aided plants, and the authors hope that policymakers will acknowledge and address this reality.


A Position of Power alters the Voice in a Way that transmits Who’s in Charge to Others

Inspired by Margaret Thatcher’s formidable political skills, researchers in the US sought to understand how a position of power changes a person’s voice, and how this in turn affects their relation with other people. Indeed, being in power alters the acoustic properties of the voice and those tuning in can pick up cues that tell them who’s really in charge.

Speaking with power


Credit: Christopher Witt

“Our findings suggest that whether it’s parents attempting to assert authority over unruly children, haggling between a car salesman and customer, or negotiations between heads of states, the sound of the voices involved may profoundly determine the outcome of those interactions,” says psychological scientist and lead researcher Sei Jin Ko of San Diego State University.

Margaret Thatcher had one of the most easily recognizable voices in modern history, yet she used to sound different prior to becoming elected. Under the guidance of legendary actor Laurence Olivier, Thatcher took lessons at the Royal National Theatre to help her change her pitch. Tape recordings of speeches made before and after receiving her training show a marked difference. When these are played through an electronic pitch analyser, it emerges that she achieved a reduction in pitch of 46 Hz, a figure which is almost half the average difference in pitch between male and female voices. But why did she went through all this? My guess is that it wasn’t enough for her to be a powerful person – inwardly. She had to act and assert her position through her voice; something politicians, most of all, are innately aware of.

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Ko and colleagues wanted to find out how voices vary with power and how people become influenced by these cues. In the first part of the experiment, the team recorded 161 college students while they read out loud a text. This was to determine their baseline acoustics. Then, participants were randomly assigned to play a specific role in a negotiation. Students assigned to a “high” rank were told to go into the negotiation imagining that they either had a strong alternative offer, valuable inside information, or high status in the workplace, or they were asked to recall an experience in which they had power before the negotiation started. Low-rank students, on the other hand, were told to imagine they had either a weak offer, no inside information, or low workplace status, or they were asked to recall an experience in which they lacked power.

The participants were then asked to read a second text, only this time each of them had to imagine they were leading off a negotiation with their adversary. Because the text was the same for all participants, the only thing that varied was their pitch. When the two recordings were compared, the researchers found that the voices of students assigned to high-power roles tended to go up in pitch, become more monotone (less variable in pitch), and become more variable in loudness than the voices of students assigned low-power roles.

“Amazingly, power affected our participants’ voices in almost the exact same way that Thatcher’s voice changed after her vocal training,” says Adam Galinsky of Columbia Business School.

In the second part of the experiment, a separate group of college students was asked to listen to recordings from the initial experiment and assert which of the two voices belonged to the person in charge.  Listeners ranked speakers who had been assigned to the high-rank group as more likely to engage in high-power behaviors, and they were able to categorize whether a speaker had high or low rank with considerable accuracy. The listeners shared that they believed voices higher in pitch and variable in loudness were more indicative of  high-power behaviors.

“These findings suggest that listeners are quite perceptive to these subtle variations in vocal cues and they use these cues to decide who is in charge,” says Galinsky.

Findings appeared in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Future cars could be partially powered by their bodywork

Parts of the car’s bodywork could double up as it’s batter in a not so far away future; at least that’s what the people involved in the 3.4 million project believe. They are working on a prototype that can store and discharge electrical energy; the material is also light and very hard.

Ultimately, this will not only double the battery, but it will make cars lighter, more compact and more energy efficient, allowing drivers to travel longer distances without having to recharge. Furthermore, the material could also be used in different fields, such as mobile phones or computers, so they wouldn’t need a separate battery.

“We are really excited about the potential of this new technology. We think the car of the future could be drawing power from its roof, its bonnet or even the door, thanks to our new composite material. Even the Sat Nav could be powered by its own casing. The future applications for this material don’t stop there – you might have a mobile phone that is as thin as a credit card because it no longer needs a bulky battery, or a laptop that can draw energy from its casing so it can run for a longer time without recharging. We’re at the first stage of this project and there is a long way to go, but we think our composite material shows real promise.”, said The project co-ordinator, Dr Emile Greenhalgh, from the Department of Aeronautics at Imperial College London

You can find a demonstration and additional details here.