A Note From The Fuel Cell Research Front

Methanol fuel cell.
Methanol fuel cell. Image via Wikipedia

I plan to do an in-depth post or series on fuel cells soon, because there is so much breakthrough work going on in this research area. Fuel cells are interesting on so many fronts – for example, they’re probably the best way to use the hydrogen generated by Daniel Nocera’s new hydrogen splitting method, announced in mid-August. And just since August, researchers have announced big improvements or cost reductions in every component of the fuel cell – membrane, catalyst, and electrodes.

This latest story from Technology Review covers a new membrane improvement for methanol fuel cells. As the article points out, methanol fuel cells have some key benefits compared to hydrogen cells, in particular that methanol is a liquid at normal temperatures, but they also have technical challenges. Paula Hammond and her team are addressing one of these:

In her lab at MIT, chemical-engineering professor Paula Hammond pinches a sliver of what looks like thick Saran wrap between tweezers. Though it appears un­remarkable, this polymer membrane can significantly increase the power output of a methanol fuel cell, which could make that technology suitable as a lighter, longer-­lasting, and more environmentally friendly alternative to batteries in consumer electronics such as cell phones and laptops.

Do you have questions about fuel cells that you’d like me to find answers to as I research my upcoming series? Let me know in the comments.

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30-fold Increase In Solar Energy By 2016 – Moore’s Law, Anyone?

Solar Power International Logo
Solar Power International Logo

The opening keynotes at the Solar Power International trade show last week were eye-opening. (See the Tuesday Keynotes video on this page – Resch at 20 minutes, Hamm at 37 minutes.)

Rhone Resch of the Solar Energy Industries Association first told the story of getting the investment tax credit for solar renewed – 17 failed votes before it finally passed with the Paulson Bailout bill. He then outlined the benefits to the solar industry of the ITC – stability for solar energy businesses, creation of thousands of new business opportunities due to the remove of the residential solar cap, and a return to leadership of the US in solar. “Solar energy is going to create 440k new jobs, 1.2 million new solar installations, and 28 gigawatts of new capacity – enough to power seven million homes throughout the U.S.”

To achieve the 28 gigawatts of new solar electric generation capacity predicted by Resch in the next eight years, Julia Hamm of the Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA) threw down a challenge to the attendees. The industry must “be bold, be innovative, be strategic.” In particular, she outlined four key policy guidelines the industry must embrace to achieve this goal.

Utility Ownership of Solar Power Projects

The utility and solar industries must collaborate to find program structures, such as utility ownership of distributed photovoltaics, that provide a winning scenario for both industries, as well as for customers at large. The solar industry can utilize this new market segment as a buffer until home and small business owners are back on more solid financial footing.

Increased Utility Engagement in Solar Markets

The utility and solar industries must work together to get more utilities engaged, starting by increasing the solar knowledge base of utility employees, from top executives down to distribution engineers. We must move beyond having ninety seven percent of all grid-connected solar installations in just 10 utilities’ service territories.

Greased Wheels

The utility and solar industries must work in partnership with regulators and investors to push for approval and funding of new transmission projects and the development of smart grid configurations to expedite the timeframe in which new utility-scale and distributed solar projects can come on line and provide maximum value.

Development of Innovative Approaches

By working in collaboration, the utility and solar industries can make great strides towards modernizing today’s electricity infrastructure and offering customers affordable and clean power. But the status quo will not cut it. We need bold new ideas developed in tandem for the mutual benefit of both industries, and society at large.

(A press release version of this challenge is here.)

The 28 gigawatt figure represents an increase in solar capacity of more than thirty fold between 2009 and 2016. This is approximately three times the estimated amount of generation predicted to come online as a result of existing renewable portfolio standards and policies in states with existing solar carve outs.

However, not only does 30-fold growth far outstrip most predictions for solar energy capacity in the next eight years, it has another interesting property. It corresponds to a “Moore’s Law-type” of growth, with a doubling period of about every 18 months. This is the first time I’ve heard a solar energy organization step up to a prediction of a Moore’s Law-type growth rate. And it means that in 18 years, if the doubling rate stays constant, solar would be responsible for over 400 gigawatts of capacity, or just about equal to our current energy usage in the U.S. Solar could be providing nearly 100 percent of our energy by 2026, or even more if our overall energy usage goes down due to efficiency, as is possible given California’s example.

And if our solar capacity keeps on doubling every year and half after that? What will we do with all that energy? Your comments welcome, of course!

Sahara Forest Project: An Awesome Example of Mega-Integrative Design

The Sahara Forest project will use seawater and solar power to grow food in greenhouses across the desert. Photograph: Exploration Architecture
The Sahara Forest project will use seawater and solar power to grow food in greenhouses across the desert. Photograph: Exploration Architecture

The Sahara Forest project represents integrative design at a huge scale. (Integrative design combines multiple design improvements to get an overall improvement that’s bigger than the sum of its components.) As it says on the the Sahara Forest project home page:

The project combines two proven technologies in a new way to create multiple benefits: producing large amounts of renewable energy, food and water as well as reversing desertification.

The two technologies are the Seawater Greenhouse, invented by Charlie Paton, and a concentrating solar energy generation capability. The synergies arise in several ways – the energy generation provides the power to run fans to work the greenhouse, while the greenhouse creates excess fresh water for cleaning the mirrors of the generator, for example. The team that’s come together to create the project also represents some interesting synergies:

An inventor – Charlie Paton, creator of the Seawater Greenhouse; an architect – Michael Pawlyn of Exploration Architecture, previously of Grimshaw and the lead architect on the iconic Eden Project; an engineer – Bill Watts of Max Fordham & Partners, an engineering firm that focuses on energy efficient systems for the built environment.

The Sahara Forest post at Treehugger features a long interesting response in the comments by Pawlyn in response to questions raised by other commenters.

This is one of several projects I’ve read about recently that combine energy generation via visible light with use of the excess heat to achieve much higher solar energy conversion efficiencies. For example, this report in Science Daily last year about a prototype PV/Thermal system that was projected to capture 80% of the energy. While it complicates the mechanicals of the system, it certainly seems to make sense to take advantage of the heat created as a side effect of PV energy collection, especially since the PV cells work better – are more efficient – at lower temperatures. The heat needs to be removed anyway!

So far neither the project’s website or news reports about the project have many details about its progress or funding, but it’s definitely something to keep an eye on.

Amory Lovins in Portola Valley

Amory Lovins
Amory Lovins. Image via Wikipedia

(Sorry for the dearth of posts recently – family events, as well as me having a cold have impacted my ability to put two words together effectively.)

On Monday I got to see my hero Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute address a large crowd at the inaugural address in a new series of Green Speakers in Portola Valley, CA. The talks are in honor of their new, very sustainable Portola Valley Community Center. (They are hoping to be the first LEED Platinum-certified community center in the country.)

Lovins’ talk covered much of the same ground as his Stanford address in September 2007 on Energy Efficiency In Buildings (part 1, part 2). In particular, he presented as examples his home in the Rockies, the Davis energy efficient homes built in the late 80’s and some buildings in Thailand, built in the 90’s. These are great examples, but he’s used them quite a bit, and seems not to have updated his examples recently.

One of my tasks – to get back to my core purpose in this blog of illustrating “profitable applications of green energy (including efficiency) using integrative design” – for the next few months is to find up-to-date examples of the application of Lovin’s and RMI’s ideas and theories and list them here.

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Expanding Options In Solar Energy and Electric Cars

Mission Peak (L), Mount Allison (C) and Monume...
Mission Peak in Fremont, CA. Image via Wikipedia

A roundup of a few stories that came out this week that I found particularly interesting.

  • Solyndra, a startup in Fremont, CA (just down the street from my office), is using a new form factor for thin film solar cells:

    Unlike conventional solar panels, which are made of flat solar cells, the new panels comprise rows of cylindrical solar cells made of a thin film of semiconductor material. The material is made of copper, indium, gallium, and selenium. To make the cells, the company deposits the semiconductor material on a glass tube. That’s then encapsulated within another glass tube with electrical connections that resemble those on fluorescent lightbulbs. The new shape allows the system to absorb more light over the course of a day than conventional solar panels do, and therefore generate more power.

    Not only do they not need trackers, but because they are mounted with space between each tube, they aren’t susceptible to wind and they can collect light reflected off the building’s roof and ambient light coming in obliquely.

    What I like about this story is that it shows that there’s still a lot more innovation to be done in all areas of alternative energy design – yesterday I saw another report about a new fuel cell membrane made of a cheap material instead of platinum, and there’s practically a new wind energy device every week. They’re not all going to be winners, but it’s the kind of design ferment that’s going to lead to big cost and practicality improvements in every area.

  • The EPA provides an interactive analysis (using Google Earth) of marginal and contaminated land that could be used for renewable energy farms – wind and/or solar:

    According to the EPA, many lands tracked by the agency, such as large Superfund sites, and mining sites offer thousands of acres of land, and may be situated in areas where the presence of wind and solar structures are less likely to be met with aesthetic, and therefore political, opposition.

    One stumbling block for a massive transition to solar power in the U.S. has been the land use question. I’m not saying we want to build our power on contaminated lands, but it’s interesting to see this as an option.

    Via CleanTechnica.com

  • Renault commits to electric vehicles. Saying that:

    “EVs are a necessity because hybrids cannot deliver the level of gasoline use and emissions reductions that governments and customers are demanding of automakers”

    Renault unveiled two zero-emission concept cars at the Paris autoshow Mondiale de l’Automobile, both of which are pure electric. The cars have a range of 160-200 kilometers (95-120 miles) and are designed for day-to-day use and short weekend trips, “not vacations” as Renault admits.

    Renault is committing to EVs because they believe that’s the only they’ll be able to deliver the gasoline economy and emissions reductions being demanded by both the market and governments.

These stories caught my eye as not just “more of the same” this week. What green energy stories got your interest up recently?

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What’s My Car’s CO2 Footprint In Units of Newly Planted Trees?

Nurse log, spruce or fir, central Colorado, wi...
Image via Wikipedia

Did you ever wonder what reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 1 million metric tons means in everyday terms? The EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator can help you understand just that.

It can be difficult to visualize what a “metric ton of carbon dioxide” really is. This calculator will translate rather difficult to understand statements into more commonplace terms, such as “is
equivalent to avoiding the carbon dioxide emissions of X number of cars annually.”

For example, one passenger car emits about 5.5 tons of CO2 in a year, and that’s equivalent to the CO2 produced through the energy use of about 1/2 a home in a year, or the CO2 sequestered by 141 tree seedlings grown for ten years. That’s a lot of trees!

If you’re interested in more in-depth calculations on how forests take up CO2, this paper (PDF) by J. Doyne Farmer, a professor at the Santa Fe Institute, discusses the Forest Guardians, now the Wild Earth Guardians, CO2 carbon offset calculation.

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Great Summary Of The Green Goodness Of The Bailout

Image via Wikipedia

In this post, the ecopreneur details the silver lining of the hurricane cloud that is the bailout bill.

No news was bigger than the $18 billion package for renewable energy that was slipped into the $700 billion Wall Street financial bailout (H.R. 1424, the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008)

In particular, the future of a number of large projects was contingent on the renewal of the investment tax credit, such as the PG&E 550MW solar farm. Now, with the ITC safe for eight years, those projects can go ahead.

What are your feelings about the bailout and its effects on the solution to the climate crisis and energy security? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

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How Much Sun Is There Really?

Solar power systems installed in the areas def...
Image via Wikipedia

Do you ever wonder about that claim that the energy flux of sunshine on the Earth is 10,000 times the projected energy use of civilization? Well, I do. I decided to drill down a bit into this number, to find out what the real bottom line potential of solar energy is. There are a lot of caveats to that number:

  • 3/4 of the Earth’s surface is ocean, so the energy flux on land, right off, is on 2,500 times the projected energy use of civilization. I’m not saying we can’t collect solar energy off the ocean, but to the layperson, “Earth’s surface” means “land surface,” and that should be clarified
  • The sun’s energy is not just going to waste as it hits the Earth – it drives climate, for example. Most importantly, it drives photosynthesis. How much of the sunlight dropping on the earth used for photosynthesis? Interesting question.
  • The amount of solar energy hitting one square meter at noon is about one kilowatt, which is a handy metric to remember
  • For a roof-mounted solar photovoltaic system today, you can expect to get 20% or less efficiency – meaning that you need 5 square meters for one kilowatt

But, as it turns out, there’s actually a cool map (shown above) that shows not only where the sun shines across the Earth on average, but also provides a visual clue about how much area it would take to provide all the energy demand of the entire world using solar power. The map is presented in this paper from Matthias Loster, and has been shown in various places around the web.

Solar power systems installed in the areas defined by the dark disks could provide a little more than the world’s current total primary energy demand (assuming a conversion efficiency of 8%, [and for the year 2006]).

Now all we have to do is string some (big) wires over to those desert-y places with the big black dots, and we’re made in the shade … er… sun.

By the way, while researching this post, I came across one from Robert Rapier at R-Squared Energy blog, focusing on the insolation just in the United States, and comparing it to Germany’s. Interesting reading.

What questions do you have about solar energy and its potential either in the US or around the world? Let me know what you’re wondering about in the comments section and I’ll do some more research.

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Running Some Numbers On Rooftop Solar Energy in 2018

Solar power systems installed in the areas def...
Solar power systems covering the areas defined by the dark disks could provide more than the world total primary energy demand in 2006 (assuming a conversion efficiency of 8%). Image from Wikipedia.

I recently asked physicist Richard Muller whether he thought the price-performance of solar electricity generation would follow a Moore’s Law-type curve. He said that this would not occur due to improving the efficiency of solar collection, as the current levels of efficiency – 20-40% – are reasonably high. However, he added

“I do expect the price to drop by a factor of 10, so we will have lots of solar.”

Well, in the nature of things, there’s definitely a limit to how much energy a solar PV collector can get from a square meter of sunlight. (There’s about 1kw of energy in a square meter – as I learned in Physics For Future Presidents, by Professor Muller – so we can expect to get 400 watts or less.) The amount of this energy per square meter we can collect will go up, but asymptotically approach (at best) the physical limits.

On the other hand, I’d argue that the cost of collecting it can go down a nearly unlimited amount – certainly multiple orders of magnitude. So what will solar PV look like in 2018 – ten years from now?

Continue reading “Running Some Numbers On Rooftop Solar Energy in 2018”