A greener White House

As promised by Energy Secretary Chu and White House Council on Environmental Quality Sutley in 2010, the Obama administration is joining the legacy—alongside Presidents James Carter and George W. Bush—of using solar energy to power the White House.

The solar panels being installed on the White House are an important symbol of federal commitment to renewable energy. Even more important, however, is the administration’s greater commitment, which Juliet Eilperin reports as a pledge to generate 20% of the energy consumed by the federal government—including the militaryfrom renewable resources by 2020.

20% of federal energy use isn’t a huge number in global, or even national, terms. To put it in perspective, we consume about 4.4 million Gigawatt-hours each year in the US, while 20% of federal energy consumption only amounts to about 3 Gigawatt-hours. But every bit counts! Worthwhile progress is often piecemeal—and to cast it in more relatable terms: generating 3 Gigawatt-hours from another source would require, for example, over 3,200 pounds of coal. By getting that energy from the Sun, we spare the atmosphere more than 63,000 pounds of carbon dioxide.

The panels at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. only represent a small fraction of this overarching goal, but greening the White House is, in my opinion, wise both for both politics and aesthetics.

To the sun god!

Texas is doing it right

If the modern idea of the Good Life is an energy intensive one, life in Texas is the best. Environmental protection and enforcement can be spotty at the state regulatory level, but there’s no denying that Texas is paradisical for developing energy. Oil and natural gas are obvious heavyweights. Texas is a national leader in wind energy development, and has its fair share of jobs in coal, employing just over 2,200 in 2006. Most exciting of all, Texas is 8th in the country for solar power.

Our relationship with the Sun is a special one. It is also an opportunity. Whether in fossil form, biomass, or direct from the source, the Sun enables but does not dictate the purposes we create that make life worth living. Clearly Texas understands this.

Eventually, solar will overtake fossils fuels as they become more expensive to extract–whether by regulation, scarcity, or inaccessibility–answering not only the energy enthusiast’s call, but also the environmentalist’s. While the precautionary and proactionary principles seem dogmatically opposed at a theoretical level, being proactionary about solar and precautionary about the environment go hand in hand. The same resonates about wind power. But the wind only blows because the sun heats the air.

To the sun god!

jmk

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!

Cheers,

JMK

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.

Third year of triple-digit growth in US solar PV market

In the second quarter of 2012 the US installed 742 Megawatts of utility-scale solar PV, reports GTM Research. This growth is largely attributable to the new Agua Caliente, Mesquite, and Silver State solar plants, all of which were backed by federal loan guarantees. I would like to think this means we can put the Solyndra issue to rest. Loan guarantee programs help free up capital for important projects to which private investors suffering from Keynesian mass psychosis are reluctant to commit. Sure, they can be risky at times, like all investments, but developing renewable energy technology stands as perhaps the most salient hurdle to perpetuating our high standard of living, making our energy intensive lifestyles sustainable, and maintaining a healthy environment for our contemporaries, future generations, and non-humans. For we who champion progress as sustainable improvements in science, technology, and social organization, this is surely welcome news.

JM Kincaid

Solar in the southwest

The US Department of Energy and the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management have released the “Final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement” (FPEIS) for utility-scale solar energy operations on public lands in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, Utah, and New Mexico. This “solar roadmap” estimates we will be able to harness 23,700 megawatts from 285,000 acres of developed lands, enough to power 7 million US homes with renewable energy.

285,000 acres might sound substantial, but everything we do involves trade offs. Deciding to pursue one opportunity inherently means not pursuing another, hence the name opportunity cost. But 285,000 acres only make up one ten-thousandth of the United States’ total acreage, meaning that from one hundredth of one percent of our land we could supply power to 2.3% of our country’s population. Seems like a good trade off to me. To the sun god!

JM Kincaid

US solar installs

Welcome news from the editors at real clear energy, here’s one of their “charticles” tracking US solar installations. Megawatts of solar technology installed went from 100 MW in 2006 to 1000 MW in 2010! Of course that number must be qualified by the efficiency of solar tech, as the editors explain, but this is expected to improve over time. Will we see infinite linear progress in solar energy technology? No. But we can certainly get the cost per kWh down from Forbes’ calculation of 7.7 cents/kWh so that solar is cost competitive with other energy sources.

JM Kincaid

Dave Roberts on the future of solar

We had the pleasure of speaking with Dave as part of Bard CEP’s National Climate Seminar in the fall of 2011, his take is always interesting.

Here he interviews venture capitalist Michael Leibreich on the future of solar energy, part three of a three part interview.

Leibreich’s answer to Dave’s final question raises an interesting point about the way we think about interest/discounting rates, how we value the future relative to the present, and how we perceive the risks of investment versus the risks of non-investment. Achieving 80% renewables by 2050 would be expensive upfront and risky (depending on new technology is always risky), but perpetuating our fossil fuel use has its own risks (environmental, human health, etc) and is subject to unpredictable swings in fuel costs. As Dave points out, this debate could be one about economics, but it tends to verge on more philosophical questions about the risks and uncertainties that come with new technology, much in line with the proactionary-precautionary question raised by Steve Fuller and at CSID.

Cheers!

JM Kincaid

Justin Hall-Tipping on grid-free solar energy and nanotechnology

A colleague of mine from Bard CEP posted this TED Talk by Justin Hall-Tipping in reply to my post on Donald Sagoway’s liquid metal battery. Hall-Tipping presents on carbon nanotechnology and grid-free solar energy — a truly invigorating watch. It’s ingenuity and creativity of this kind that keeps my romanticizing primitivism in check. Cheers!

JM Kincaid

University of Florida’s record-setting graphene solar cells

While Sagoway is working on solar power’s storage problem at MIT, physicists in Gainsville, Florida, are working to improve the efficiency of graphene solar cells. Recently they were able to get 8.6% efficiency in converting light energy to electricity, a new record up from 2.9% with this particular technology. Below is a link to the University of Florida’s news bulletin that got me looking into this. Cheers!

Graphene solar cells

JM Kincaid

Sadoway’s liquid metal battery

The Sun’s energy contribution to the Earth is more than enough than what would be necessary to power the modern world. But there are two technological hurdles to solar society. On one hand, solar panels need to be more efficient. On the other, solar energy is intermittent and human demand is not, which means that we need good batteries to store solar power when its available. But so far, our batteries aren’t so good.

Donald Sadoway and a group at MIT are currently working to fix the latter problem with liquid metal battery technology. Sadoway’s presentation is so impressive I couldn’t not share it. Can his team find the missing link to alternative energy?

JM Kincaid