Solar panels for all, precautionary or proactionary?

I think Crane and Kennedy have a point here – relying on solar energy, specifically putting solar paneling on residential roofs, are a good way to reduce the risk of relying on an antiquated electrical grid system that’s highly vulnerable to storms and natural disasters (like Sandy). The traditional grid, knitted together by a bucolic web of wooden poles and copper wires, leaves society exposed should part of its fragile infrastructure fail.

So, switching to residential, distributive solar can be seen a precautionary move — it’s too risky to keep depending on a grid that falls apart if power lines go down with a tree limb. Independent, “off-grid” home power systems would strengthen each link of the social chain mail so that when nature throws us a curve ball we aren’t left in the dark for days or weeks on end. For the risk-averse, these are worthy concerns. Not to mention that solar energy doesn’t carry the bouquet of environmental and human health risks that accompany the extreme ways that we extract fossil fuels these days (horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, deep water drilling for oil, and mountaintop removal mining for coal).

Often we’ll hear opponents of renewables frame alternative energy as being too risky. The wind and sun are intermitted, the technology is inefficient, and the costs are uncompetitive — or so they say. But with better battery technology, dramatic improvements in solar cell efficiency, and expectations of lower home installation costs these arguments against renewables won’t hold water in public for much longer. Soon, in fact, this framing will probably reverse itself and renewables will be understood as safe, sensible, and reliable, while fossil fuels will be seen as dangerous, costly, and anachronistic.

But should we understand support for solar energy as precautionary or proactionary?

On one hand,  using residential and distributive solar power is a precautionary move away from the risks of depending on fossil fuels and the outmoded electrical grid. In this sense, the switch to solar is less about the goodness of solar energy in particular, but rather about the consequence of mitigating the risks of fossil fuel use. To put it another way, to precautionary supporters of solar, it’s likely that any alternative energy source would be satisfactory since the shift is more about getting away from the risks of fossil fuels than it is about shifting to a particular kind of renewable energy.

On the other hand, proactionary supporters of solar might emphasize the goodness of solar energy itself over and above its consequence of replacing fossil fuels alone. Solar energy is good not simply because we need to mitigate the risks of fossil fuel use, but because solar energy represents progress. Fossil fuels remind us of primitive industrialism, while solar power speaks to our progressive refinement toward symbiosis with each other and the environment. Indeed, for proactionaries to put such immense trust in new solar technology despite its relative nascence is somewhat risky, but switching to solar is a matter of moral obligation; it is our duty to ourselves, to future generations, and to the non-human to make the change.

So, should we be proactionary or precautionary about solar power? I’m not convinced we have to choose — I support solar technology for precautionary and proactionary purposes. I am deeply concerned with mitigating the risks of our continued reliance on fossil fuels because they are inherently finite, unsustainable, environmentally damaging to extract, and pose threats to human health during development and when burned. Simultaneously, I believe that our relationship with the Sun is a special one and that it makes sense on ethical, axiological, and existential levels that the source of life should also be the source of high quality living.

Today, our visions of the Good Life are intimately intertwined with energy. High quality living means energy intensive living (with the exception of a few rogue primitivists out there). So the progressive challenge is making such a lifestyle sustainable. Progress, in this sense, is sustainability. But solar energy is not all about progress in the long-term. It’s also about human and environmental safety in the short-term.

Usually we find ourselves in a conundrum when it comes to the precautionary v. proactionary distinction: either we accept some risk as the price of progress, or we sacrifice some progress in order to mitigate risk. The difficulty arises when people make divergent value judgments about the proper balance of risk and progress — and also when we assume that the two routes are mutually exclusive.

Solar energy technology, however, defeats the idea that we can only reduce risk at the cost of progress. Making the gradual switch to solar constitutes progress toward sustainability and reduces the risks of using fossil fuels. We can be proactionary and precautionary at the same timeNow that’s progress.



Ultra-thin high-efficiency organic solar cells from Princeton

Fresh out of a first round of experiments at Princeton’s NanoStructure Laboratory, Dr. Steven Chou and Dr. Wei Ding released this report on the progress of their “plasmonic cavity with subwavelength hole-array” solar cell (PlaCSH). Using 30 nanometer-thick gold mesh instead of the indium-tin-oxide (ITO) layer that photovoltaic solar cells usually make use of, the Princeton team has managed to make PlaCSH solar cells 175% more efficient than traditional PV technology.

The gold nano-mesh is more efficient in several ways, thinking about the life cycle of solar cells. Indeed, gold is a rare metal (one that’s ever-increasing in value) but actually ends up being more cost effective than continuing to use the indium-tin-oxide compound we’ve been using thus far. Gold itself may not be cheap, but we’re talking about nano scale technology here — a nanometer, measuring in at one billionth of a meter, is usually used to scale dimensions at the atomic level. We use micrometers (a mere millionth of a meter) to measure human hair, just to give you an idea of how thin these gold nano-mesh layers are — the gold nano-mesh just doesn’t require that much material, especially considering the efficiency of Dr. Chou’s invented nanofabrication method. Price is a real measure of real resources, so getting the cost of manufacturing these solar cells down makes sense from an environmental sustainability perspective too, not just economic practicality.

Most importantly, however, the PlaCSH solar cells lose far less energy to reflection than traditional PV cells. Once light energy passes through the nano-mesh, it’s incredibly difficult for it to escape. The points in the nano-mesh through which light would usually be reflected back out are actually smaller than the photons themselves, so these otherwise rogue photons stick around to lend us their energy after all. The PlaCSH cells are significantly more efficient under cloud-cover, too, for those concerned with intermittency.

This innovative technology has the potential to revolutionize the solar energy industry and loosen the grip of fossil fuel dependency. Once the upfront costs of solar cells become competitive with the overall costs of fossil fuel production, it will make more economic sense to invest in solar technology over natural gas, e.g., because the pay-back period will be much shorter. The solar energy route offers reasonable (and decreasing) upfront costs and little to no maintenance costs — and, most obviously, we have more solar energy than we know what to do with. We may have to mine the gold to produce the nano-mesh, so it’s not totally benign, but it’s far less invasive than, say, Mountaintop Removal Mining.

Here to another step toward our sustainable energy future!



PS – This article by Grant Brunner of ExtremeTech has some nice diagrams depicting the way PlaCSH solar cells work in comparison to traditional ITO PV.

Sierra Leonean prodigy comes to MIT

Last night I came across this MyScienceAcademy gem featuring Kelvin Doe, a 15 year-old Sierra Leonean who is nothing short of an engineering, mechanical, and technological prodigy. For years this kid (and I use the term “kid” loosely when referring to such a fine mind) has been rooting through “dust bins” in his neighborhood to scavenge old electrical components that he has used to construct his own radio station, where he goes by the performer name DJ Focus.

A radio station may sound small at first, but this is a community where electricity is available for maybe an hour each week. From discarded materials Kelvin engineered his own batteries, electrical circuitry, broadcasting apparatus, and audio equipment, all for two reasons: 1) So that he could play fantastic music for his friends and family. Everyone should listen to this song by Bobby Fala, which DJ Focus endorsed and played over his station — Fala has now also made it to SoundCloud, largely I bet, because of Kelvin’s success and publicity. And 2) So that the community could use his radio station as a forum for public political discourse – a chance for the unheard to find their soapbox, a place for issues on the ground to find their voice.

Without question, Kelvin’s enthusiasm, passion, genius, and focus are an inspiration. Imagine if more teenagers shared Kelvin’s clarity of thought, his drive and his heart, his sense of commitment to community and to improving the lives of his friends and loved ones. Hopefully, with help of non-profit programs like Global Minimum Inc: Innovate Salone, the group that discovered Kelvin, more youthful brilliance will show itself.

Kelvin’s story gives us all reason to be optimistic about humanity’s future. What’s he’s done is truly astounding — and if he continues to receive the support he needs, I bet this radio station and his trip to MIT won’t be the last time this young man makes headlines — particularly if he starts working on something like sustainable energy technology, improving batteries and energy efficiency, or developing small-scale alternatives to traditional electrical grids (though admittedly, he’ll probably come up with better ideas all his own). I wouldn’t put anything past him.

To Kelvin! Cheers!

JM Kincaid

A prognosis of T. Boone Picken’s LNG vehicle future

I stumbled across this piece by Alan Krupnick this morning while browsing Real Clear Energy (one of my stops along my daily morning news adventure). Essentially, he offers us an evaluation of the state of play for T. Boone Picken’s vision of a LNG vehicle future. The prognosis, by Krupnick’s account, is still to uncertain to call, but I think we can make something of it.

Liquid Natural Gas is cheaper than gasoline or diesel because of its newly accessible abundance via hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, but it also has drawbacks. The vehicles themselves are more expensive than gasoline or hybrid alternatives (e.g. – Honda’s new LNG Civic as compared to its gasoline and hybrid counterparts) so the payback point takes longer to reach through savings on fuel costs alone. Of course there are subsidy programs that could bring down the cost, but they expired in 2010, and the prospect of getting Congress to agree on much of anything is, well…bleak, let’s say.

LNG vehicles also have significantly shorter range than gasoline or hybrid alternatives — and that’s before mentioning that LNG fuel tanks can take up to 50% more space than gasoline tanks or hybrid batteries, and even with severely reduced cargo or passenger space they still have shorter ranges (LNG: 218 miles per tank v. Gas: 383 mpt v. Hybrid: 504 mpt [looking again at different models of the Civic]). So, given the space issue, it may make more sense to focus on using LNG in large trucks, vans, and buses. But forecasts of the costs of maintenance are unclear, so fleets of LNG vehicles will have to struggle with uncertainty on that front for some time.

Finally, there is the question of infrastructure for LNG vehicles, which Krupnick frames as a ‘chicken or the egg’ conundrum. Infrastructure developers want there to be plenty of LNG vehicles on the road before taking on big projects, but consumers want infrastructure to be in place before they’ll be willing to take the risk of buying a non-gasoline or non-hybrid vehicle. Perhaps this gap can be bridged through commercial cooperation, where prospective LNG truck fleet purchasers coordinate with infrastructure developers to start building refueling stations in strategic locations along pre-established routes. Maybe if LNG starts showing up at Love’s or Buc-ee’s it’ll start making more sense for people to make the change (the same applies for electric vehicle plug-in stations, or even hydrogen powered vehicles), but until that happens most will probably see it as too risky, especially considering the reduced range of LNG vehicles.

Of course, there are still plenty of concerns worth raising about how we get our natural gas these days (fracking), the actual economic ripples of the industry, and the climate change/air pollution impacts of carbon dioxide and methane emissions associated with natural gas production. But T. Boone Pickens is convinced that LNG should be the future of transportation and Krupnick nods toward optimism, despite citing “uncertainties” about the environmental dimensions of such a transition.

So ask yourself — what is the real issue at hand? Cheap energy? Energy security? Environmental stewardship? Climate change mitigation? Energy independence? Economic growth?

At its core this represents one of the latest technological stabs at perpetuating our energy intensive standard of living while attempting to accommodate other competing values — but for all that it’s worth, we’re still talking about a short-term fix. And it’s one with many uncertainties surrounding it. Switching from oil to natural gas, at best, is like a first stitch in mending a deep wound. It may stop the bleeding a little, but we’re still lost in the woods if sustainable energy is our goal. Natural gas is, in many ways, desireable, questionable, risky, and perhaps inevitable (though not in some cases re: Longmont, Boulder, Yellow Springs, Broadview Heights, Meyers Lake, Cincinnati & the State of Ohio), so if we are going to use it, we ought to use it as best we can to pave the way for or to buy us time until sustainable, renewable energy technologies become competitive. In the meantime, I would still recommend going the Hybrid route or carpooling if you must drive — and even further, consider alternatives to personal automobiles like walking, biking, or public transit. Of course this isn’t always feasible, practical, or compatible with our established ways of life (especially living in places like North Central Texas) but small steps eventually traverse the world. We must, in this case and many others, take Ghandi’s advice and be the change we wish to see.


JM Kincaid

Science Progress publicizes study of beliefs about hydraulic fracturing for natural gas

As a follow up to the Science Progress article I co-authored with Dr. Adam Briggle earlier this July, we have written another short piece that again explains the subject of our study, Technology and Society: Fracking Ideology, and requests reader participation. You can find the article linked here and above.