Tag Archives: solar power

Sun-powered generator makes liquid fuel out of thin air

Solar concentrators mounted on the university’s rooftop raise the temperature inside reaction chambers to thousands of degrees to turn CO2 into syngas, and later into kerosene or methanol. Credit: ETH Zurich.

Researchers from Switzerland have devised a method that simultaneously captures CO2 from the atmosphere and turns it into synthetic fuel, which can later be refined into methanol or kerosene. The entire process is powered by solar energy and, since the input carbon is extracted from the air, the fuel is essentially net-zero carbon neutral.

Although solving our climate emergency requires transitioning away from fossil fuel towards a 100% renewable energy system, this transition cannot happen overnight. The challenge is to minimize carbon emissions as much as possible during this critical transition period because the effects of CO2 buildup today will keep having an effect long into the future. Even if we miraculously stop burning all fossil fuels tomorrow, the damage done so far cannot be undue as greenhouse gases can remain stable in the atmosphere for decades, perhaps even centuries.

It’s likely we’ll be using fossil fuels for decades to come, especially in transportation. So, researchers at ETH Zurich have devised a single coherent system that addresses this need for sustainable liquid fuels.

In one box, the system first captures carbon dioxide and water vapor from the air at ambient temperature. The two ingredients are then sent to a second reactor where they’re converted into carbon monoxide and hydrogen using a similar heating/cooling cycle to that employed in the first step. The mix of carbon monoxide and molecular hydrogen is known as “syngas”. Finally, this syngas is introduced to another reaction chamber where it reacts in the presence of a copper-based catalyst, changing phase from gas to liquid and forming methanol or kerosene, depending on the concentration of each reactant.

Throughout the entire time, these reactions are powered by electricity and heat generated by solar panels and solar concentrators, respectively.

During a day of operation, the experimental setup produced 100 liters of syngas, which was processed into about half a decilitre (0.05 liters) of pure methanol. That may sound like a disappointingly low yield, however, this is merely a proof of concept rig and the researchers are confident they can considerably improve the efficiency from 5.6% currently to over 20%.

“The energy efficiency is still too low. To date, the highest efficiency value that we measured for the solar reactor is 5.6 percent. Although this value is a world record for solar thermochemical splitting, it is not good enough. Substantial process optimization is still required,” said Aldo Steinfeld, first author of the new study and Professor of Renewable Energy Carriers at ETH Zurich.

The resulting liquid fuel is carbon neutral because solar energy is used in its production and it releases only as much CO2 as was previously extracted from the air during combustion.

“The solar fuel production chain’s life-​cycle assessment indicates 80 percent avoidance of greenhouse gas emissions with respect to fossil jet fuel and approaching 100 percent, or zero emissions, when construction materials (e.g. steel, glass) are manufactured using renewable energy,” Steinfeld added.

The findings were reported in the journal Nature.

Solar is set to become “the king” of electricity markets, says the International Energy Agency

Led by solar power, renewable energy could account for 80% of the growth in electricity generation over the next decade, according to a report by the International Energy Agency (IEA). It’s now consistently cheaper to generate electricity from the sun than by burning coal or natural gas in most countries, IEA said.

Credit Flickr Minoru

Maturing technologies and policies have significantly reduced the cost of solar power investments, making photovoltaic cells one of the cheapest sources of electricity. These energy systems can be used not only in large-scale solar parks but also in homes or businesses across the world.

In its annual report, the EIA presented three scenarios for the future development of global energy markets, which have been disturbed by the coronavirus pandemic. The prospect for non-conventional renewable energy goes from strong to spectacular, with solar leading the way. Meanwhile, fossil fuels face a precarious future.

The IEA, an intergovernmental organization, said electricity costs from large-scale solar photovoltaic installations have fallen from roughly 38 cents per kilowatt-hour in 2010, to a global average of 6.8 cents per kilowatt-hour last year. This means solar could become “the new king” of the world’s electricity markets, IEA head Fatih Birol said.

One of the scenarios explored by the report involves bringing the pandemic under control and global energy returning to its previous levels by early 2023. If this happens, the number of solar power systems would grow rapidly, increasing solar capacity by about 12% a year until 2030. This would lead to renewables meeting 80% of the growth in global electricity generation over the same period, overtaking coal by 2025 as the primary means of producing electricity. Even in a scenario in which the pandemic continues, affecting the economy and the energy demand, solar power still remains a cost-effective choice.

Solar performed even better in the “Sustainable Development” scenario. This would imply a surge in clean energy policies and investment that puts the world on track to reach the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. If this happens, the combined share of solar and wind rises from 8% globally in 2019 to almost 30% in 2030.

The IEA called governments and investors to step up their clean energy efforts to achieve an even larger growth in renewables. In fact, some governments have included environmental goals as part of their coronavirus recovery plans. Even oil companies such as BP and Shell have unveiled shifts towards low-carbon energy.

While solar seems to have a bright future, coal has a dark one, according to IEA’s report. The lower economic activity and electricity demand due to the pandemic have caused a “structural fall in global coal demand”, with the IEA expecting 275 gigawatts of coal-fired capacity to be retired by 2025. That’s 13% of total coal capacity of last year.

“The rise of renewables, combined with cheap natural gas and coal phase-out policies, means that coal demand in advanced economies drops by almost half to 2030,” the report said. Growth in coal use in developing economies in Asia is much lower than previously expected and is not enough to offset declines elsewhere.

solar-panel-on-the-roof

What are the pros and cons of solar energy? Here’s everything you need to know

solar-panel-on-the-roof

Image: Flickr

Using solar energy to meet your power demands doesn’t just make you more environmentally friendly — in many parts of the world, it may actually save you money as well. It’s a win-win situation, but only if you’re in it for long-run. Of course, the viability also depends on where you live, since how much energy your panels can harvest and consequently save you money depends on constantly changing factors such as time of day, season and weather, as well as geographic traits such as climate and latitude.

With this in mind, consider these pros and cons of solar energy before making a purchase.

Pro: Solar is Renewable and Clean Energy

Solar power systems still generate some emissions and pollution during their manufacturing process. However, during their operation, solar panels do not generate additional greenhouse gases that warm the atmosphere. Once your solar power system is set up, you can live comfortably knowing that your home isn’t making a negative impact on the environment. This means that overall, solar is a much cleaner alternative to conventional sources of energy.

Solar power is also renewable, meaning it will never run out. Fossil fuels like coal and oil, on the other hand, are depletable. In the case of oil, at least, experts forecast it will run out in a couple of decades. By hopping over to solar, you’re hastening society’s transition towards renewable energy.

Pro: You Can Save a Lot of Money

This is one of the main advantages. When you use solar energy, you rely less on utilities to give you electricity. Consequently, your monthly bills go down, and you can even earn a credit on your statement. Electricity companies also pay customers for using panels for the extra energy they don’t use in a month, so you make money (in some countries, at least).

According to a report by the North Carolina Clean Energy Technology Center, backed by the SunShot Initiative, a fully financed solar PV system costs less than the energy purchased from a residential customer’s local utility in 42 of the 50 largest cities in the United States.

Figure 1: Ranking of 50 Largest Cities Based On Where Solar Offers Best Financial Value. Source: Going Solar in America (report)

Figure 1: Ranking of 50 Largest Cities Based On Where Solar Offers Best Financial Value. Source: Going Solar in America (report)

Pro: Improves the Value of Your Home

According to recent studies, a property’s value increases after solar is installed, as many people would love to move into a solar-powered home without actually going through the hassle of installing a solar power system. Know this, it’s a lot easier to make the decision of investing in solar knowing that you can actually turn a profit if you choose to move to a different town.

Pro: They’re Quieter than a Heartbeat

Solar panels make no noise whatsoever since they don’t contain any moving parts unless you order a PV array with a rotational axis that follows the sun throughout the daytime. Even then, however, the noise and nuisance are barely noticeable.

Another alternative energy source, wind turbines, might make noise because it is like a large fan blowing in your backyard. This is partly the reason why wind turbines are mostly located near farms or other remote locations because there aren’t many residences nearby to complain about the noise.

Pro: Solar Energy is Accessible in Remote Areas

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The cost of installing and maintaining solar energy panels is high in the beginning, but for areas that aren’t able to receive electricity the traditional way, adding these can be a huge benefit. Some areas are remote and off the grid, so electric companies cannot add a grid matrix to install electricity. These areas use the solar power so that they might use devices such as a microwave, washer and dryer, and the Internet. In some states, it’s debatable whether or not solar can beat the grid in terms of cost, but as far as remote off-grid locations are concerned, solar almost always beats a diesel or gas-fired generator.

Con: They may be Expensive to Install

While you save money by using less electricity, you spend a lot of money upfront buying solar panels. The bigger your energy needs, the more your cost is, and you can spend tens of thousands of dollars. The government can give you credits for adding solar panels, on the bright side. And some providers are actually offering interesting ways to fund your PV installation, so you don’t need to invest a massive initial capital to get going. Depending on where you live and your payment plan, your energy savings could equal your monthly payment. Also, thanks to advances in energy conversion and manufacturing, solar panels are cheaper than ever. According to Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the median cost of a residential solar project fell from $12 per watt in 1998 to $4.70 per watt in 2013. EnergySage reports that the average cost of a 5-kilowatt rooftop system in the third quarter of 2014, before incentives, was as low as $3.70 per watt. In 2018, most homeowners are paying between $2.71 and $3.57 per watt to install solar. As you can see, solar energy is becoming cheaper year after year.

Using the U.S, average for system size at 6 kW (6,000 watts), solar system costs will range from $11,380 to $14,990 (after tax credits). For some, it makes sense to install now, for others perhaps you have to wait. Check out the calculator below to learn where you fit.

Here’s how much a solar power system will set you back on average in the following states:

Note that these are power system prices after the 30% federal tax cut for solar is applied. The price include cost of solar panel, storage, and installation. Source: Energy Sage / Solar Pricing Table 2018.

Con: It Might Not Work so Well in Your Area

solar-energy-pros-cons-map-solar-concentration

Areas closer to the equator have far greater potential for producing solar electricity than those closer to the poles, and areas with consistent sun have greater solar potential then areas that are frequently overcast. Luckily, most of the United States has a great potential for solar energy, as you can see in this map of global solar radiation from the United Nations Environment Programme. For the absolute best solar resources in the United States, think southwest.

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New Mexico and Arizona are red hot with solar potential, and California, Nevada, Texas, Utah, and Colorado also have large areas highly favorable for PV development. If you live in one of these states, consider this point as a “pro” on your checklist. Also, another point you should consider is air pollution. Using solar power, you disconnect from the grid, thus generating less demand which is generally met by coal power plants. In effects, this ultimately reduces pollution. But if you’re living in a polluted area in the first places, you’ll experience poorer performance than otherwise because black carbons spewed by power plants combine to form haze and smog. These greatly reduce the amount of available sunlight by blocking the sun. In 1985, Atsumu Ohmura discovered that the amount of sunshine on Earth had dimmed by 10% between the 1960′s and 1980′s.  In addition, over the past 50 years, the average sunlight reduction was 3% per decade.

Con: Your roof might not be big enough

The more energy you use, the more space is required in order to host more solar panels. Solar panels are great because you can install them on your home’s rooftop, without the need for any additional space (apart for the batteries in a garage, for instance). However, if you’re really burning a lot of energy, the rooftop might not be enough.

Con: It’s Weather Dependent

Solar energy works during cloud and rainy days but its efficiency drops significantly. Just a few cloudy or rainy days could have a noticeable effect on your energy bill’s bottom line. Most importantly, solar energy cannot be collected during the night, which forces you to install batteries to store energy.

Con: Storing Solar Energy Costs a Lot (for now)

You use solar energy during the night hours thanks to batteries charged during the day. These batteries run from a few hundred dollars to over $1,500 and weigh from 60 to 420 pounds. You also require a place to store them that will not get wet and damage the battery, as well as buy accessories such as a cord and replaceable cells, which you’ll have to replace every 15 to 20 years. Consider, however, that now we have Tesla batteries! The list price for a new 13.5-kilowatt-hour (kWh) Tesla Powerwall 2.0 battery, which offers twice the storage capacity of the original Powerwall, is $5,900. Supporting hardware adds another $700 to the equipment costs, bringing the total to $6,600. Installation can add anywhere from $2,000 to $8,000 to the final bill.

Because Tesla Powerwalls aren’t available to the mass market yet, you’ll have to settle for other commercially available alternatives. In 2018, solar batteries range from $5,000 to $7,000 and from $400 dollars per kilowatt hour (kWh) to $750/kWh, cost of installation and additional equipment not included.

Credit: Pixabay.

How exactly do solar panels work?

Credit: Pixabay.

Image in public domain

If you told the average person only thirty years ago that black panels left in the sun would generate copious amounts of electricity for homes and businesses, the likeliest reaction would have been a condescending grin. Luckily the technology to capture energy from the sun — which shines enough light on Earth’s surface in an hour to power the whole world’s energy for an entire year — has improved immensely, to the point that for many homeowners it’s cheaper to install solar panels on their rooftop than to use the grid.

The first solar cell was constructed by Charles Fritts in the 1880s and had a conversion efficiency of just 1% — hardly enough to be useful. Today, however, the most efficient commercially available solar panels on the market have efficiency ratings as high as 22.5%, while the majority of panels range from 12% to 16% efficiency rating. However, solar efficiency can climb to rated efficiencies as high as 46%, in the case of multi-junction photovoltaic (PV) cells that pick up energy from multiple different spectra.

If all this sounds somewhat familiar, it’s because plants have been harnessing energy from the sun for hundreds of millions of years — there’s nothing new about how solar energy works, we are just using it in a different way. Plants convert the sun’s energy into chemical energy, whereas solar cells produce electricity. This leads us to an important question: how do solar panels work?

Solar panels ABC

Solar panels generate electricity when photons knock electrons off from the material. In fact, a solar panel is comprised of an array of smaller units called photovoltaic cells, which are the things that actually convert solar energy into electricity. The typical solar panel is additionally comprised of a metal frame, a glass casing, and various wiring to allow current to flow from the silicon cells. Because solar panels generate direct current, an inverter is also required to allow you to use the electricity in your home.

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Physics-wise, solar power is predicated on the photovoltaic effect (photo meaning “light” and voltaic meaning “electricity”), in which two dissimilar materials in close contact produce an electrical voltage when struck by light or other radiant energy. In solar energy, the materials belong to a class called semiconductors — neither conductors nor electrical insulators that allow electrons to flow under certain conditions. The most common semiconductor used in the solar industry is silicon.

Semiconductors can be one of two types: P and N. Every solar cell sandwiches two of these semiconductors, one layer of P-type and one layer of N-type (which looks a lot like a battery).

P-type semiconductors tend to pick up a small positive charge while N-type ones have a negative charge. Typically, the semiconducting material is riddled with impurities that make them more susceptible to donating or accepting electrons because crystals such as silicon or germanium do not usually allow electrons to move freely from atom to atom. It’s all very similar to how one of the battery’s electrodes has a negative voltage with respect to the other, but applied in a different context.

It’s the P-N junction where electrons are free to cross from one side to the other, but not in the opposite direction. Imagine a hill — electrons can easily go down the hill (to the N side), but can’t climb it (to the P side).

Each photon with enough energy will normally free exactly one electron, causing a ‘hole’ to form. The electric field will then cause the electron to migrate to the N side and the hole to the P side.

This happens when an electron is lifted up to an excited state by consuming energy received from the incoming light. Were it not for a junction-forming material, the free electrons would have eventually fallen back to the ground state.  And because the electrons are only allowed to flow in a single direction — from N-type to P-type — the photovoltaic effect produces a direct current.  This current, together with the cell’s voltage, defines the power (or wattage) that the solar cell can produce.

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The future

According to the International Energy Association (IEA), photovoltaic solar power grew faster than any other energy source in 2016. The organization estimates that more solar capacity will be added in the next four years than any other type of renewable energy, including wind and hydropower.

Much of this demand comes from China, which is expected to add 40% of the world’s new solar panels between now and 2022, despite having already surpassed its solar power target for 2020. Along with developments in other countries, such as India, Japan, and the US, the IEA estimates that by 2022 the world will triple its PV cumulative capacity to 880 GW. This is equivalent to half the global capacity in coal power, which has taken 80 years to build. This also means that in the next five years, about 70,000 new solar panels will be installed every hour – enough to cover 1,000 soccer pitches every day.

Credit: Renovagen.

Roll-out solar panels that unfurl like a carpet electrify tiny British island

An island off the coast of Cardiff now gets electricity from an unconventional mat. These flexible solar panels can be unrolled like a carpet from a trailer and can start pumping out electricity in under two minutes.

Credit: Renovagen.

Credit: Renovagen.

This innovative concept is called the Rapid Roll system and this instance was the first long-term deployment of this ‘solar carpet’ anywhere in the UK. The tiny island of Flat Holm — a wildlife haven and important breeding ground — proved to be an excellent test site for such a technology. Renovagen, the company behind Rapid Roll, envisions their product being deployed in situations where portable power is urgently needed such as in the wake of natural disasters. The military might also find it useful to unfurl solar panels wherever power is required.

Thinking outside the box

John Hingley, the managing director of Renovagen, first came up with the idea for a solar mat while he traveling five years ago. The engineer was inspired by the mobile solar devices he came across during his trips and eventually realized that scaling this concept could be made easier by rolling the solar panels. Luckily, flexible solar panels that can bend without power loss or damage have become far more accessible in the meantime.

Credit: Renovagen.

Credit: Renovagen.

Since they’re rollable, you can fit a much larger power capacity into an enclosure than rigid solar panels. A 4×4 trailer can fit enough rolled panels to power a 120-bed mobile clinic or desalinate 25,000 liters of seawater per day. The deployment strikingly takes only two minutes. A much larger version rolls out solar power from a shipping container in less than an hour for 300 kW of power. According to Hingley, the same container can fit 10 times more power output in rolled panels than traditional rigid panels.

Aerial photo of Flat Holm island. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Aerial photo of Flat Holm island. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

While Flat Holm doesn’t really have any permanent residents, Cardiff Council enlisted Renovagen to supply power to the island because it still sees hundreds of visitors yearly who come here for the wildlife. There’s a lighthouse, a few shacks, and a pub of course. Until recently, the island got its electricity from some conventional solar panels and a diesel generator. Seeing how this is a wildlife haven, the Council found it fitting to find a more sustainable source.

“We are delighted to have completed our deployment of Rapid Roll solar power systems to Flat Holm Island and Lamby Way,” said Hingley. “We have been able to demonstrate the outstanding mobility and robustness of the Rapid Roll system on Flat Holm. This was achieved via delivery of the unit to a beach by landing craft, through repositioning hundreds of meters away and full deployment of the solar field – all in only one hour.”

Dust solar panel.

Dusty solar panels slash power output by over 35%, study reveales

Grit and grime can cut solar panels’ output by more than 35% in certain areas of the globe, a new paper reports.

Dusty Window.

Image via Pixabay.

Cleanliness may be next to godliness, but more to the point, it’s just good business. That’s according to the results of a new study led by Duke University professor of engineering Michael Bergin, who looked at the impact dust and other types of air pollutants have on the output of solar panels. The findings show that the accumulation of airborne particles (both in the shape of dust and anthropic pollution) on solar cells can grind their output down by more than 25% in certain regions. The most affected countries are also those who are investing most heavily in solar energy, such as China, India, and countries in the Arabian Peninsula.

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Dusty

Working with researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology-Gandhinagar (IITGN) and the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Bergin measured the drop in power output in IITGN’s solar panels over time, as they built up dust and dirt.

“My colleagues in India were showing off some of their rooftop solar installations, and I was blown away by how dirty the panels were,” professor Bergin said.

“I thought the dirt had to affect their efficiencies, but there weren’t any studies out there estimating the losses. So we put together a comprehensive model to do just that.”

The numbers showed that cleaning the panels after a few weeks of getting dirty would lead to a 50% increase in their efficiency. The team also sampled the grime layer to see what it was made of. Analysis revealed that some 92% of particles were regular, run of the mill dust, with the rest being composed of anthropic-sourced carbon and ion pollutants. The latter, despite making up only 8% of the whole, are much more powerful at blocking sunlight that natural dust. All in all, the team estimates, human contribution in solar cell energy loss roughly equal to that of natural pollutants. Anthropic particles are also smaller and stickier, making them difficult to clean off, and potentially posing a risk for the panels’ proper functioning.

“You might think you could just clean the solar panels more often, but the more you clean them, the higher your risk of damaging them.”

Dirt and grime aren’t the only things slashing solar efficiency, however. To assess the part atmosphere-borne particles play in blocking sunlight from reaching the cells, the team worked with Drew Shindell, professor of climate sciences at Duke and an expert in using the NASA GISS Global Climate Model. Starting from the model, which accounts for airborne-particle reflection of incoming solar energy, he could estimate how much light they would prevent from reaching the panels. The NASA model also estimates the amount of particulate matter deposited on surfaces worldwide, offering a handy avenue for the team to calculate how much sunlight would be blocked by accumulated dust and pollution.

Dust solar panel.

Professor Michael Bergin (left) Indian Institute of Technology-Gandhinagar colleague Chinmay Ghoroi (right) next to that university’s extremely dusty solar panel array.
Image credits Bergin et al., 2017.

Finally, Bergin drew on his previous research of analyzing how pollutants are discoloring India’s Taj Mahal to put together a model that describes how much sunlight gets blocked by different compositions of solar panel dust and pollution buildup. This model can be used to estimate the total loss of solar energy output in any part of the world.

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For example, the US has relatively little dust and sees only small reductions in power due to dusty build-ups. By contrast, more arid regions such as the Arabian Peninsula, Northern India, and Eastern China can see heavy losses: 17% to 25% or even more, if cleaning is only performed on a monthly basis. For one cleaning per every two months, losses can jump to 25%, even edging over 35%. These numbers can certainly be influenced by local or regional factors which the paper can’t foresee. A nearby building site, for example, would create a large quantity of airborne and deposited particles for a solar array.

The composition also matters, and its effects vary from place to place. The Arabian Peninsula, the team writes, loses much more output to dust than to anthropic pollutants. Some regions of China and of India, however, see more losses due to the latter.

“China is already looking at tens of billions of dollars being lost each year, with more than 80 percent of that coming from losses due to pollution,” said Bergin. “With the explosion of renewables taking place in China and their recent commitment to expanding their solar power capacity, that number is only going to go up.”

“We always knew these pollutants were bad for human health and climate change, but now we’ve shown how bad they are for solar energy as well,” he added. “It’s yet another reason for policymakers worldwide to adopt emissions controls.”

The paper “Large Reductions in Solar Energy Production Due to Dust and Particulate Air Pollution” has been published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters.

Elon Musk.

Give Elon 10,000 sq miles and he’ll give you a fully solar-powered US

We’d only need 10,000 square miles to power the US entirely on solar energy, and one mile square to store all that power, Elon Musk estimates. That’s a pretty small area of otherwise inexpensive real-estate to give up for clean, cheap power.

Elon Musk.

Image credits Flickr / OnInnovation.

There’s been a lot of talk in the US under the latest administration about putting coal and oil back at the economy’s helm, a tough blow to us who’re still hoping the goals set in Paris will be achieved. But while the top-down order is to promote fossil fuels, there are a lot of people out there still working on a cleaner future.

One such man is Elon Musk. Currently, the US grid only draws on about 15% renewable power, but Musk has laid down a feasible plan which would see the US fully powered by solar energy. Speaking at National Governors Association meeting this week, he talked about how little room a power-plant capable of supplying the whole country would take: 10,000 square miles. Plus one for the batteries.

“If you wanted to power the entire United States with solar panels, it would take a fairly small corner of Nevada or Texas or Utah; you only need about 100 miles by 100 miles of solar panels to power the entire United States,” he said.

“The batteries you need to store the energy, so you have 24/7 power, is 1 mile by 1 mile. One square-mile.”

Solar just makes sense when you’re talking about powering a whole country, he adds, because it simply scales up really well. The sun is essentially a giant fusion reactor floating above our heads, churning out more free energy than we’d know what to do with. He plans to use both rooftop solar — like the ones Tesla is producing — dispersed around cities throughout the US, as well as concentrated utility-scale solar panels to tap into all that energy.

It will take work and time to set up all the installations and develop the necessary infrastructure, Musk says, and in the meantime, we’ll likely need to rely on transitional power (wind, hydro, geothermal and nuclear) to keep the lights on while we make the transition. Musk also believes we should encourage local solar power as much as possible, to limit the number of power lines that will need to be laid.

Watch the entire speech below. Musk comes in at ~26:00.

UK slaps massive 800% tax increase for rooftop solar panels

The US isn’t the only developed country backtracking on environmental development: the UK recently announced a new law that will bring a devastating tax increase on solar energy. As it has become so common in recent months, the government said it’s a good thing which will help development, but provided no explanation as to how it will help anything.

A row of houses sporting solar houses. Image credits: Christine Westerback.

Although it is still a leader in European solar power generation, the UK is making huge strides in the opposite direction. The country’s solar industry already lost 12,000 jobs last year and there has been an 85 percent reduction in the deployment of rooftop solar schemes, largely due to political intervention: the government drastically cut incentives for householders to fit solar panels and ended subsidies for large-scale “solar farms”. Now, they’re taking things even further, announcing that schools and businesses who haven’t been paying taxes for solar energy will now have to pay, and those who have been paying will pay 8 times more. To make things even peachier, the tax increase doesn’t apply to private schools, for a reason that has not been disclosed.

Needless to say, reactions have been highly critical of this move. The speech of Chancellor Philip Hammond on the 2017 budget barely even mentioned renewable energy, although he did emphasize a promise to help the oil and gas industry “maximise exploitation” of the remaining reserves in the North Sea.

“This is slightly less than helpful for the British solar industry,” the Solar Trade Association’s Leonie Greene told The Independent, in a very British fashion. “It’s absurd. Energy tax policy is going in the opposite direction to how we know energy needs to change and how it’s changing. What he is doing is advantaging old technology and disadvantaging new ones. It’s nonsensical.”

Despite pleas from the industry, schools, businesses, and the public sector, the government refused to back down on this. They specifically mentioned that this will be beneficial for schools but again, did not mention how. A petition with over 200,000 signatures from a school in London will be delivered to England’s Treasury Department today, but expectations are minimal

This is extremely ironic because according to the government’s own figures, solar is expected to become the cheapest form of electricity generation sometime in the 2020s. It’s like the UK just decided to shoot itself in the leg — and this won’t only affect the businesses (especially small businesses), schools, and farms with solar panels, it will also affect average consumers, driving the price of electricity up by a notch. Leonie Greene adds:

“That is crazy because it is the cheapest and most popular source of energy. What that means is consumers are paying more. We are taking away the competitive pressure solar has put on other technologies. We need something to change for the solar industry. We are just trying to get a level playing field with fossil fuels.”

In a normal world, where politicians are unbiased and simply want the best for their citizens, they should be offering great support for renewable energy — especially in the UK. The country is going through a severe pollution crisis. The situation is so bad that the UK has been taken to court twice and lost, being ordered by the supreme court to take action against climate change. Yet not only are they withdrawing subsidies and support for renewable energy, they’re actually making it harder for renewables to complete against fossil fuels. Just like in the US, the government hangs on to the oil and gas pipedream, ignoring both the environmental and economic reality: renewables are getting cheaper, and fast. Fossil fuels may be the past, they may be a big part of the present, but they’re certainly not the future. Installing new renewables is already cheaper than fossil fuels.

James Thornton, chief executive of ClientEarth, the NGO that sued the UK and won, declared:

“Despite being ordered twice by the courts to take urgent steps to tackle the country’s air pollution crisis, it seems the Treasury has still not grasped the urgency of the situation,” he said. “We fear that Government plans [on air pollution], which are due out next month, may well fall short of what is needed.”

His fears — to say the least — seem rational. With Brexit right around the corner, the government seems set to scrape several of the EU regulations and give into the fossil fuel lobby. Although not as vocal and not as absurd as the Trump government, there are clear similarities to be drawn.

China is building a huge solar plant at Chernobyl

When one door closes, another one opens.

Image credits: D. Markosian: One Day in the Life of Chernobyl, VOA News.

A new sun might emerge from the ashes of a nuclear winter. Well, that’s probably pushing the metaphor a bit too much, but there is a bit of truth there, as two Chinese companies are trying to make the best of a bad situation and have started work on a giant solar plant in the abandoned Chernobyl area.

“There will be remarkable social benefits and economic ones as we try to renovate the once damaged area with green and renewable energy,” said Shu Hua, the chairman of GCL System Integration Technology (GCL-SI), one of the firms tasked with the project.

Chinese companies have a long history of reconditioning contaminated land and fitting it with renewable energy, though Chernobyl is a special task. The reactor itself is due to be covered by a $1.6 billion steel-clad arch, and is surrounded by a 2,600 square km (1,000 square mile) exclusion zone of forest and marshland.

So far, the exact location hasn’t yet been revealed, but according to Reuters, the project has already passed several preliminary regulation checks.

“Ukraine has passed a law allowing the site to be developed for agriculture and other things, so that means (the radiation) is under control,” said the manager, who did not want to give his name because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

China is taking strides to become the world’s leader in renewables with 43 gigawatts of capacity by the end of last year. It is also the world’s top manufacturer, with 72% of the world’s solar power components being produced in China in 2015.

 

2006 National Climate March, “Buddhists for Creative Change” banner, photo by Akuppa John Wigham, flickr C.C.

Fighting climate change with inner change: a case for heightened spiritual awareness

2006 National Climate March, “Buddhists for Creative Change” banner, photo by Akuppa John Wigham, flickr C.C.

2006 National Climate March, “Buddhists for Creative Change” banner, photo by Akuppa John Wigham, flickr C.C.

Man-made climate change is knocking on our doors. Scratch that — it’s banging! In the face of unprecedented heat waves, droughts, and extreme weather events, the world has banded together to limit global warming under no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, per the Paris Agreement signed last year. This landmark agreement is, perhaps, the single most important pact we’ve ever vowed to keep in the fight to preserve biodiversity, human values, and a predictable climate for us all.

Words do not equal action, however, and we have a lot to prove before skepticism makes room for hopeful optimism. Right now, more than 10,000 delegates, statesmen, journalists, and civil society are presented in Marrakech, Morocco for COP22 — the successor to the Paris Agreement — where the action plan for the terms signed to much fanfare are expected to be hammered out.

During such times, maybe it’s worth taking a step back to consider how we got in this situation in the first place. The Industrial Revolution shifted progress into high gear and almost overnight humanity found the means and energy to make larger leaps than ever though possible. What previously took 100 man-hours to make could now be completed in mere minutes with mechanical precision.

With each turn of the gear, our prosperity and wealth grew to startling heights. It would be naive to think, however, that there wouldn’t be a price to pay: pollution, extinctions, and climate change that threatens to undo all the good that came out of burning coal and oil like there’s no tomorrow.

We can forgive our ignorance during these early first baby steps, but in the face of mounting evidence there is no excuse for inaction. Yet, something is clearly pulling us down — it’s ourselves.

Tackling climate change is a very complex problem and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Technology like new clean renewable sources of power or artificial intelligence has its part to play, so does state and non-state action. But by overly focusing on externalities, we run at risk of missing the forest for the trees, says Joachim Golo Pilz, the director of the World Renewable Spiritual Trust’s Solar Research Institute and project lead for India One.

“We are here to meditate and share our experience in renewable energy and to inspire people to look more deeply into climate change issues,” Pilz told me, shortly after a talk in the Green Zone of COP22. 

“We believe we should be with those climate conferences and inspire people that a change in the world has to be supported by a change in ourselves. If we don’t change our attitudes and awareness on the inside, it will be very difficult to change the world on the outside. The inner world, our mind, and the outer world are very, very strongly interconnected.”

The India One CST plant nearly completion. Credit: India One.

The India One CST plant nearing completion. Credit: India One.

Pilz’s flagship project, an experiment in solar thermal energy generation called India One, will see 770 newly developed 60 m2 parabolic dishes concentrating solar thermal power near the Shantivan Campus of the Brahma Kumaris. The plant will generate enough heat and power (1 MW) for a campus of 25,000 people, and is considered a milestone for decentralized and clean power generation in India. The thermal plant is expected to come online very soon. “By the end of the year, we hope to push the button and start generating electricity!” Pilz told me.

The India One site also acts as a training center for concentrated solar thermal power to enable local organizations to replicate the project at a larger or smaller scale in their local communities.

Drone footage of the India One site. Credit: India One.

Drone footage of the India One site. Credit: India One.

‘What happens on the inside and what happens on the outside — these are inseparable’

“Most of the people here are very strongly intellectually orientated,” Piltz said, speaking about the busy folks making their ways along the crowded corridors of COP22. “They look into tech, they look into science, they look into funding, they look into strategy — nobody looks much into the heart; the emotions and the feelings. This is an area which is not really looked into and people separate what happens on the inside and what happens on the outside.”

“We believe they are actually inseparable because I live in this world and through my consciousness and awareness, and subsequently through my actions, I create and shape this world. So if I change my consciousness and awareness, I also shape the world in a different world,” he added.

These might seem like odd statements to make when speaking about climate change, which is essentially a complex scientific phenomenon. However, this time around, climate change is caused by humans and their actions, and Piltz is right saying that awareness or thought shapes these actions. Ignorance and lack of action, just as well. By bridging the pragmatic with the idealistic, his organization is building projects with a people-first, do no harm approach, and setting an example in doing so.

Golo Pilz. Credit: India One

Golo Pilz. Credit: India One

“People are aware that in the next coming years we dramatically have to change and increase our pledge, and foremost we have to implement them. We have to see if humanity can organize such a momentum and such a unity because for such steps to be taken you need also unity among all stakeholders. But at the moment most countries have their own agenda, some want old technology to continue because they benefit from such a system, others want new technology and many are in between.”

“Many are already suffering from climate change. Islands are disappearing, in Africa the rivers are falling dry, in India we had this year the heat record with 51 degrees C, America had seven years drought in California — so, there are many signs, very big warning signs that people are already suffering under climate change. We have to see if humanity is really able to steer around that. What we feel as a spiritual organization is it’s very important that we understand that these problems we see in the outer world are all connected to problems in the inner world. For example, I read a report recently in America every year 35,000 people are dying by guns, so I’m asking myself why we have so much violence in families or in society? Why we have so much suffering among people? Either people are suffering in relation with their families, or people are suffering from hunger, or poverty, or these problems. Why are all these problems there and we aren’t able to find an answer? Because our inner world and outer world are very strongly connected and linked. Our soul is empty inside, we’re consuming too much — we’re trying to compensate. We’re looking to the outside world for solutions, and we lost our inner peace and our inner connection to the supreme and divine light, and then we’re wondering that the world comes into a bad shape.”

No one knows how to solve climate change, really. Sure, the obvious solution is to stop emitting all the greenhouse gases, but that’s besides the point. The point is how do you convince billions of stakeholders that this is a global issues that deserves their immediate attention and requires urgent action. In the past decade, we’ve seen great momentum building-up — a momentum that might one day transition society to 100% renewable energy and advert potentially catastrophic global warming — but today we’re not doing nearly enough. To build this giant snowball, we need engineers, scientists, lawyers, artists, journalists, parents and grandparents to each pitch in — and this requires great awareness because the task at hand is by no means trivial. And maybe looking inwards, not outwards, as Pilz suggests, might help us go a long way.

“We believe that this process [solving climate change] will happen automatically because light always will spread its way and will chase the darkness away,” Pilz said.

100MW Ningxia Shizuishan Solar Power Plant—China.

China will build the world’s biggest solar farm: 6 million panels amounting to 2GW, stretched over 7,000 city blocks

100MW Ningxia Shizuishan Solar Power Plant—China.

100MW Ningxia Shizuishan Solar Power Plant—China.

California will soon no longer be home to the largest solar power plants in the world after China will complete a 2 GW solar farm in the Ningxia region. According to Bloomberg, the power plant will be huge by current standards surpassing anything that came before it by a long shot. Owned and operated by China’s biggest private investment group, once completed the solar farm will cover 4,607 hectares and supply 2GW of power. That’s more than Thailand’s entire photovoltaics capacity in 2015 or nearly as much as Canada’s.

The China Minsheng New Energy Investment Co. will invest $2.34 billion in the plant that will see 6 million solar panels installed in the Ningxia region of the country’s northwest. The Ningxia region is host to a slew of renewable energy projects, including wind farms. According to a cooperation agreement between CMIP New Energy and the Ningxia autonomous government, CMIP will invest CNY 100 billion ($16.1 billion) in five areas, including solar PV plants, in the next three to five years. The plan is to ultimately install 12 gigawatts of power capacity. For comparison, the United Kingdom will barely complete 11 GW of installed solar at the end of 2016.

The new Ningxia plant will be the coronation of China’s long-running and ambitious plan to transition to 20% renewable energy by 2020. Investment soared from $39 billion to $111 billion in just five years, while electric capacity for solar power grew 168-fold and wind power quadrupled. China is not only the world’s largest solar power producer but also leads the pack in wind energy. 

Unlike previous massive solar infrastructure works in China, however, this is a completely private project.

“Such a gigantic plant shows that China is actively supporting clean energy and it can serve as the kind of landmark that private companies can use to demonstrate to their shareholders that they have the ability to do such projects,” said Wang Haisheng, executive general manager of the equity division at Ping An Securities Co. “But it will also increase their risks given the size.”

Since June, 380 megawatts out of the planned 2,000 megawatts of capacity have been connected to the grid already. Since construction began, solar panel cost averaged 3.85 yuan a watt but have now fallen 12 percent to 3.4 yuan a watt, meaning the project might end up costing less than initially planned.

There are also many challenges that Minsheng needs to face going forward. The scale of renewable energy adoption in China has been huge, but the grid infrastructure hasn’t kept up and many panels and wind turbines have to sit idle.  This is called “curtailment,” which means power grids do not use renewable power even when wind and solar power plants are capable of producing it. Close to 10 percent of solar capacity remained untapped during the first half of 2015, while around 15 percent of wind power was wasted throughout the year.  In Ningxia things are even worse as about 20 percent of solar power sat unused. Hopefully, as China adds solar panels by the millions, it will also upgrade its grid to stay in tune.

Important: the y-axis is logarithmic so the apparent linear development describes an exponential growth in solar installation and drop in price.

These TWO charts are enough to understand why solar power is the future of energy

We’ve explained previously why renewable energy is getting cheaper all the time, but if you found it challenging to spot the patterns among all those figures and numbers, the following charts will make everything much clearer.

Important: the y-axis is logarithmic so the apparent linear development describes an exponential growth in solar installation and drop in price.

Important: the y-axis is logarithmic so the apparent linear development describes an exponential growth in solar installation and drop in price.

The first was shared by Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) Chairman Michael Liebreich back in April during BNEF’s annual conference called “In Search of the Miraculous.” What we’re looking at is the solar panel cost per installed Watt (red) versus the scale of deployment or installed solar capacity in MegaWatt (MW) plotted over the last forty years.

Since 1975, the cost of solar has dropped 150-fold while installed solar capacity has jumped 115,000-fold. Granted, there was a lot of ground to cover and picking the low hanging fruit was pretty easy up until a decade ago. But the momentum solar has gathered doesn’t seem to show any signs of slowing down soon. So, there’s reason to believe that these two curves can follow the same trend lines for a couple of years still until the improvements gradually become incremental, instead of exponential. Here’s where the second graph comes in.

chart-solar-energy

Credit: BNEF

The graph above illustrates a learning rate which basically means that for every doubling in the scale of the solar industry, the price of solar modules has dropped roughly 26 percent. “The chart is arguably the most important chart in energy markets. It describes a pattern so consistent, and so powerful, that industries set their clocks by it,” reads BNEF’s New Energy Outlook report from June, 2016.

In 2015, 30 million Americans enjoyed solar power cheaper than the grid. Also in the US, solar power is cheaper than fossil fuels even without subsidies in many states while coal, gas or oil receive subsidies worth $452 billion each year across G20 states. Earlier this month, Chile signed a deal for a new solar plant for 2.91$c/kWh — that’s the cheapest unsubsidized power plant in the world so far.

Many thanks to ThinkProgress‘ Dr. Joe Romm for digging these charts.

 

cheapest solar plant

Chile just signed the cheapest unsubsidized power in the world at ¢2.91/kWh.

cheapest solar plant

Credit: evwind.es

Solarpack Corp. Tecnologica, a firm from Spain, won an auction for a 120 megawatts solar power plant at a cost of $29.10 per megawatt-hour. There are absolutely no subsidies which means this is the cheapest power plant in the world.

Previously, Dubai’s Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA) accepted a 2.99$c/kWh bid for an 800-megawatt plant. At the time this was the lowest asking bid for energy ever but the auction in Chile just beat it by 0.08 cents per kilowatt-hour.

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Just so you get an idea of these figures, residential electricity in the United States sales for roughly 12 cents per kilowatt-hour, at the end consumer. As part of this current deal, families and business owners in Chile will see their electricity bill fall by 20 and 25 percent, respectively, from 2021.

Already, Chile is a global leader in solar energy and, by far, the most important solar energy producer in South America. Over 1,000 megawatts of solar panels have been installed so far, another 2,000 are in construction and projects totaling 11,000 megawatts have RCA (environmental) permits, meaning they’re good to go. In fact, Chile’s solar energy boomed so fast that it’s transmission lines haven’t kept up and consequently solar energy traded for zero for 113 days through April this year. To government plans to add 3,000 kilometers of new transmission lines to solve this issue by 2017.

“With this auction, we can confirm that we are on the right path” said Chile’s President Michelle Bachelet during a press conference. “This is good news for Chileans’ pockets, for the environment and also for the economy.”

The auction in Chile completed last Wednesday is the biggest electricity supply contract in the nation’s history. Of course, it certainly helped that the plant will be located in the Atacama desert, also known as the driest place on Earth but also the most solar abundant. As such, not everyone will be able to catch this sort of deal, but it’s a testimony of how far solar has come. Just imagine at the same auction, a participant bid a price twice as high for a coal plant, Think Progress reported.

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Solar energy: unstoppable because it’s progress

In 2015, 30 million Americans enjoyed solar power cheaper than the grid. Also in the US, solar power is cheaper than fossil fuels even without subsidies in many states while coal, gas or oil receive subsidies worth $452 billion each year across G20 states. This accelerated trend is pushed by both residential and businesses. The residential solar market grew 66 percent year-over-year and, for the first time in history, eclipsed the 2-gigawatt mark in 2015. In the same year, the US passed the 20 GW milestone after 1,393 megawatts of PV were installed in its last quarter.

“The unsubsidized electricity cost from industrial-scale solar PV in the most favorable locations is now well below $40 per megawatt-hour and could very easily be below $20 per megawatt-hour by 2020. Compared to other new sources of supply, this would be the cheapest electricity on the planet,” said Harvard’s David Keith, a researcher who works the interface between climate science, energy technology, and public policy.

Dubai to start building world’s biggest concentrated solar power plant

Dubai loves to take things to the superlative, and the city isn’t toying around this time either. The Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA) just revealed plans to build a massive solar power concentrated array that would generate a whopping 1,000 megawatts (MW) – almost twice as much as the current record holder, the Noor-Ouarzazate complex in Morocco.

The Dubai Electricity and Water Authority recently announced their plan for a massive 1,000-megawatt concentrated solar power plant. Image via Dubai Electricity and Water Authority Facebook.

Dubai, like most of the country, was built on oil money, but the city wants to claw (or buy) its way to the renewable market as well, tapping into another resource they have plenty of – the Sun. The first stage of the concentrated solar power (CSP) plant aims to produce 200 MW in April 2021, the Dubai Water and Electricity Authority said.

“This project is going to be the biggest CSP plant worldwide,” said DEWA chief Saeed al-Tayer.

Concentrated solar systems generate solar power by using mirrors or lenses to concentrate a large area of sunlight, or solar thermal energy, onto a small area. The solar energy then creates steam which in turn generates electricity, unlike photovoltaic solar panels which generate electricity directly. Concentrated solar arrays have a few advantages over photovoltaics, the most significant one being that energy can be stored in the form of heat, and therefore the system can also generate electricity during the night, way after the sun has gone down.

We still don’t have all the information about the design of this ambitious project, but Al Tayer said that there will be “several thousand” heliostats to reflect radiation to a tower.

Unlike their other oil-rich neighbor Abu Dhabi, Dubai has a dwindling reserve of crude oil so they are trying to diversify their assets as soon as possible. Dubai has been taking significant steps to green up their energy supply. The Dubai Clean Energy Strategy 2050 aims to generate 75% of energy through clean, renewable sources. The intermediate goal is to provide energy from 61 percent natural gas, 25 percent solar power, 7 percent “clean coal,” and 7 percent nuclear power by 2030.

Enlightening Facts about Solar Energy You Should Know

Solar energy powers virtually all biological processes. Without the sun, there would be no life and no electricity from solar panels either. It’s only fitting that today we cover in detail the main facts about solar energy everyone should know.

Introduction

Throughout history, the Sun has been at the center of religious cults, an object of mystery, reverence, fascination, sometimes fear. This sphere of atomic fire has captured our imagination for ages, being associated with godhood, glory, and imposed itself as a central point that we use to define our universe — someone important has the Sun rising and setting on him, we measure other stars’ luminosity and mass relative to it, and if you don’t make hay while it shines you might miss out on your place in the Sun.

Image via ppswest

Symbols and myths tied to our golden star abound, and it’s easy to see why: all life on Earth literally, and figuratively, revolves around the Sun — including us. Mythos aside, we’ve come to a point in our capability and know-how where we can more directly, and efficiently, harness its power to keep our civilization running. And it’s a lot of energy.

The most massive single source of energy within humanity’s grasp at the moment, this star’s power output dwarfs anything and everything we’ve been able to come up with and makes our most advanced reactors look like old and leaky batteries held together by duct tape.

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Solar energy facts in a nutshell

Solar energy is an umbrella term used to refer to the light and heat a star releases. It’s renewable and for all intents and purposes an endless source of power, producing energy for billions of years to come — as estimates place the sun in the middle of its life cycle. The only true limitation of solar energy is that it cannot be used at night and the amount of sunlight that is received on earth depends on location, time of day, time of year, and weather conditions. But if you’re not convinced yet, let’s talk after you read more facts about solar energy.

sun-life-cycle

Credit: NASA

What makes solar energy great

1. It’s an insanely huge amount of power

The Earth gets an estimated 174 Petawatts (10 to the order of 15 watts) of incoming solar radiation in the upper atmosphere. About 30% is reflected back to space and the rest is absorbed by oceans, clouds and land masses, meaning our planet receives ~ 122 petawatts of energy daily.

Extreme UV and X-rays are produced (at left of wavelength range shown) but comprise very small amounts of the Sun’s total output power.
Image via wikipedia

For comparison, an average laptop uses about 10 watts of energy per hour of functioning, meaning that you could power 12,200,000,000,000,000 14-15 inch laptops for one hour each day using just the sun. That’s twelve quadrillion and two hundred trillion laptops.

I don’t think we even have that many laptops.

If solar is 20% efficient at turning solar energy into power, we’d only need to cover a land area about the size of Spain to power the entire Earth renewably in 2030. The squares in this map show how much surface area we’d need to cover with solar panel to meet the ENTIRE world’s energy needs. Credit: Land Art Generator Initiative.

2. And it’s everywhere

Probably the best thing about solar energy is that it’s completely free, as we don’t have to make any effort to produce it. The second best is that it’s also abundant and squeaky clean: wherever the sun shines, the heat and light that radiate from it can be converted into energy using proper technology, including photo-voltaic, solar heating, artificial photosynthesis, solar architecture and solar thermal electricity, even using it to boost traditional fosil-fuel plants works.

Solar panels are virtually maintenance free since their batteries require no water or other regular maintenance and will last for years. It is noise pollution free, has no moving parts and does not require any additional fuel, other than sunlight, to produce power. Once solar panels are installed, there are no recurring costs, and in some places, it’s so efficient it’s cheaper than supplying from the power grid.

During an eclipse over the Western U.S. on October 23, 2014, utility-generated solar power production plunged (1:45 p.m.-4:30 p.m.), before returning to a typical late-afternoon pattern.
However, the sheer quantity of energy produced by solar power in the Western US grid dwarfs other renewables even during the eclipse.
Image via breakingenergy

3. We’re already using it – indirectly

All life needs energy to exist. We need to eat or we die, and just as we do, the animals in our farms have to be fed. The plants that we use as fodder rely on the Sun’s light to create sugars out of inorganic compounds and water.

“We know that already!” our readers cry out, “but we could grow plants a different way, in artificial LED-lighted farms. We’d power them with fossil fuels, or wind turbines if we’re in a particularly green mood!”

Only no, we couldn’t. The plastic we would use to insulate our LED’s cables, or to build our farms and turbines, the coal we’d burn to power them, they could not exist without the Sun – they’re remnants of ancient life, transformed under the earth, but that life used solar energy to grow. Wind formation also relies heavily on the pressure imbalances caused by sunlight. The waves generated by these winds would disappear as well.

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Ultimately, almost all the energy that enters Earth’s system can be traced back to the Sun. Sure there is some radioactive decay and geothermal energy in the mix but on its own, our planet simply does not have the quantity of decaying elements or the stores of heat required to power its phenomena and the life teeming on it for so long. Without our star and the energetic imbalances it causes, the whole system would grind to a halt.

4. And in some places, we’re doing it right!

Nestled at the edge of the Mojave Desert, right by the mountains  80 miles east of Palm Springs, lies the world’s biggest solar farm. Here, the Desert Sunlight Solar Farm uses its 8 million PV cells to harness sunlight 300 days a year. While the first U.S. solar plant, built in 1982, generated 1 megawatt of electricity, Desert Sunlight generates 550 megawatts. Together with the neighboring Solar Farm – which produces roughly the same amount of power –  the two offset emissions equivalent to taking 130,000 cars off the road while providing 340,000 homes with clean energy.

The massive Desert Sunlight Solar Farm.
Image via cleantechies

5. But we should start harvesting it more

Some of the earliest industrial uses of solar power were the drying of mud bricks – that the ancient Egyptians used extensively in masonry – alongside evaporation used to obtain salt from brine. It was a very efficient way for them to make the bricks, but it was an appallingly wasteful and inefficient process from the standpoint of energy harvesting.

Sun baking bricks can be one of the oldest methods of harvesting solar power, along with evaporation.
Image via wikipedia

Modern technologies allow us to capture up to half of the sunlight’s energy that hits the solar panel, and there is a myriad of other improvements upon this technology, each with its particular benefits.

We’ve made great strides in renewable energy production, solar power included. Back in 2009, Al Gore had the right of it when he said that solving climate change with renewable energy constitutes the “single biggest business opportunity in history.” From 2010 to 2013, the amount of solar photovoltaic systems installed in the US jumped more than 485%. By 2014, the United States had more than 480,000 total solar systems installed, which produced up to 13,400 megawatts (MW). To put that into perspective, it’s enough to power nearly 2.4 million US households.

It’s not just consumers looking into solar energy facts, either. Politicians have started incorporating solar power into their “sales pitch.” The commercial world is beginning to see the light too, so to speak. Many businesses and companies have installed solar energy systems to improve their efficiency and lower their total operating costs. The installed capacity of photovoltaic systems in the US commercial sector grew from about 2,000 megawatts in 2010 to well over 6,000 megawatts in 2013.

But we’re not progressing fast enough, as most of the science community has been warning us for some time now. Though solar energy is used on a wide scale, it only provides a small fraction of the world’s energy supply. It can be adapted to a wide field of applications including electricity, evaporation, biomass, heating water and buildings and even for transport, but the large initial investment is one of the primary reasons why solar energy is still not used on a wide scale all over the world. And we may have to pay a dreadful price in the future for not phasing out greenhouse gas-emitting plants.

6. People think it’s expensive, but it’s already cheaper than the grid for 30 million Americans

Remember how at point #2 I said that solar energy can cost less overall than supplying from centralized plants? Rooftop solar is now cheaper than grid electricity for 30 million people living in 6 cities, ZME Science reported. What’s spectacular too is that solar energy was cheaper even without government subsidies, which means that it is fully competitive with conventional energy. When you also factor in the government subsidies (which may or may not last in the long term), there are 42 cities that have reached solar parity. Early results suggest that nearly 150 million Americans––33% more than a simple parity analysis reveals––will live in a city where a solar investment––without subsidies––pays back over 25 years by 2021.

It’s all the more extraordinary when you remember how expensive solar energy or solar panels, in general, were just a decade ago. Rising efficiency and increased demands have driven cost down tremendously. Solar panels may have been the reserve of the rich and eco-friendly in the past, but not anymore. Actually, if you live in an area with the right amount of sunlight (the US has plenty, for instance), you might actually lose money in the long-run. Moreover, it will only get cheaper. Forecasts say global solar demand will grow by as much as 30% in 2015 over 2014 numbers, reaching 57 GW. Who knows how cheap solar energy will become ten years from now.

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The power the Sun puts out has been enough to take this planet from a desolate wasteland, to the first amino acids, through to the earliest cells.

It shone down on the Earth as its atmosphere was being enriched with oxygen, lit the waters for the earliest fish and showed the way for their first timid steps on land. It heated the dinosaurs throughout their rise and fall, and shone on the fur of the mammals that followed.

We’ve sacrificed to it, prayed to it, made it our symbol of hope, and maybe it’s only appropriate that we now place our hope of a brighter future in its light, using all we’ve learned since we first lit a fire to make it animate.

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San Francisco just became the first big US city to require solar panels on new buildings

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously passed legislation that obligates all new constructions shorter than 10 floors to install solar panels or solar water heaters on top of both new residential and commercial buildings.

“By increasing our use of solar power, San Francisco is once again leading the nation in the fight against climate change and the reduction of our reliance on fossil fuels,” said Supervisor Scott Wiener, who put forth the legislation, in a statement. “Activating underutilized roof space is a smart and efficient way to promote the use of solar energy and improve our environment.”

“Painted Ladies” near Alamo Square, San Francisco, California. Photo by King of Hearts.

San Francisco is famous for its foggy days. As it’s surrounded by water on three sides, inland heat tends to draw cool ocean air across the city, shrouding it in fog. But contrary to popular belief, solar panels do work in the fog, because some of the light can reach the panels. There’s even a small advantage, as the fog keeps panels relatively cool, which improves their efficiency. Overall, SF compares well with other cities in the sunny state of California, and it’s definitely one of the cities where solar panels are worth installing.

Renewable energy has developed significantly in California, with the state being required to obtain at least 33% of electricity from renewable sources other than large hydro. In 2014, solar provided 4.2% of the state’s energy, while wind chipped in at 8.1% and geothermal came in with 6.1%, for a total that’s under 20%. But with measures like these, California’s green energy will certainly develop.

The new rules don’t go into effect until January 1, 2017. The legislators also introduced a backup possibility for people who don’t want solar panels on their buildings: installing a garden or green area on top of the building, instead of the solar array.

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.

Morocco set to launch the world’s largest solar plan

Morocco is poised to become a solar superpower, as they revealed plans for the largest concentrated solar power plant, powered by the Saharan sun. The plant will go online by 2020.

Image via Genesis Morocco.

The good thing when you have vast portions of desert is that you can use them to generate solar power, without actually losing useful land. The Noor Solar Project, being built just outside the Saharan city of Ouarzazate, will power about half of the country’s energy, while also incorporating hydro and wind energy systems. But what makes it really special is that this array will be able to generate energy even after the Sun has gone down.

Noor will be a concentrated solar plant; it has a huge system of mirrors which will reflect sunlight and heat to a small area, allowing the Sun’s energy to heat up a solution that can be heated with water at a later time, without losing much energy. This is quite significant, because it deals with the problem of availability – photovoltaics only offer energy when the sun is shining. This particular solution is a synthetic thermal oil blend that will be heated to 393 degrees Celsius by the concentrated sunlight. After it is properly heated, it will move on to a heat tank containing molten sands that can store it for three hours with minimal energy loss – and small losses afterwards.

It will cover 2500 hectares (6178 acres) with 500,000 crescent-shaped solar mirrors located in 800 rows. Each mirror will be 12 meters high set on different tiers to maximize the solar input. They will move automatically after the Sun to reflect every last ray of sunlight

Ironically, this laudable project emerged from a lack of resources. Because unlike other African countries, Morocco doesn’t have significant oil reserves, they were forced to find other alternatives – and renewable energy was the solution.

“We are not an oil producer. We import 94 percent of our energy as fossil fuels from abroad and that has big consequences for our state budget,” Minister Delegate in Charge of Environment – Minister of Energy, Mining, Water and Environment of Morocco – Hakima el-Haite told Arthur Nelson over at The Guardian. “We also used to subsidise fossil fuels which have a heavy cost, so when we heard about the potential of solar energy, we thought; why not?”

If only other countries could learn from this… It’s about time all that desert land was put to good use.

india airport

Indian airport is the first in the world 100% powered by renewable energy

India is one of the most polluted countries in the world, but for what it’s worth local authorities acknowledge this and are trying to balance their energy mix, currently heavily reliant on fossil fuel. More than 90% of India’s energy needs are met by coal, oil and gas. In all this ocean of dirt, particles and toxic fumes, the Cochin International Airport (CIAL) shines like jewel – the first international airport in the world that is 100% served by solar energy.

india airport

Right next to the runways lies a 45 acre facility (25 football fields) where 46,000 solar panels harvest energy from the sun to meet the needs of a bustling airport. Each year, CIAL welcomes 6.8 million passengers through its terminals.

India airport

The project saves both money and offsets emissions – about 300,000 tons of CO2 will be avoided over 25 years or the equivalent of three million trees!

[ALSO READ] Forget Beijing, New Delhi has the world’s filthiest air

CIAL first started its mammoth project with a meager 100 kWp solar PV Plant on the roof top of the Arrival Terminal Block. Today, the solar system array – scattered across terminal roofs and the ground alike – delivers 1.1 MW of power.

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India is also planning on building the world’s largest solar farm  in Madhya Pradesh which should generate a stunning 750 mega-watt (MW) of solar power. To get an idea, the current world’s largest solar plant housed in California generates only 391 mega-watt (MW).

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It’s always refreshing to hear about news like this, especially coming from India which is in desperate need of reforming its energy mix. Right now, the country is generating energy in an overly unsustainable manner, but Indians are always resourceful. Last year, India became the third country in history to send a probe in Mars’ orbit, all at just 11% of the cost of a similar US probe (Maven). The entire project also took only 14 months from the first outline on a whiteboard to mission launch. Just like the Chinese, India (I hope) is burning fast so it can catch up, then switch to more sustainable practices which have a smaller return in the short run, but far better on the long run. Or maybe that’s just wishful thinking.

So, how about petitioning your local airport to do the same? In 2011, 3.2bn passengers went through the world’s top 100 airports.

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.