Towards a Cleaner Future: Denmark’s Wind Power

wind-power-660Denmark made a recent and very positive announcement. According to Denmark’s Energy Association, wind power is now the cheapest source of energy, beating coal, fossil fuels, and natural gas. What’s more, the government agency claims that by 2016, the electricity whipped up by its newest turbines will be half the price of conventional means. The announcement came in the last week of July, and is raising hopes for clean energy around the world.

For years, wind and solar have been achieving grid parity with fossil fuels in many places around the world, meaning they are just as cheap. But even without the tax breaks, declining manufacturing costs and growing scale have rendered wind power just as cheap as natural gas in many states in the gas-rich US. And as Deutsche Bank analyst Vishal Shah claims, this is the “beginning of the grid parity era” for solar, worldwide.

solar_array1As he explains it, demand is being driven by “sustainable” markets – meaning the US, China, and regions outside of Europe – with Japan leading the way with an estimated 7 GW annual demand:

Solar is currently competitive without subsidies in 10+ major markets globally, and has the potential to achieve competitiveness in 10-20 additional markets over the next 3 years.

China, which plans to add 10 GW of solar capacity this year alone, only added “in the 2-3 GW range” during the first half of 2013, which would suggest a vast expansion is coming in the second half of the year. Emerging markets are likely to adopt unsubsidized policy models to promote solar growth, especially if new low-cost capital becomes available in concert with policy support to reduce costs.

denmark_windBut Denmark is blowing past grid parity and towards a scenario in which clean energy is actually much, much cheaper. According to analysts, when its two massive offshore wind farms come online, they’ll be the nation’s most inexpensive energy source by a wide margin. As Yale 360, an environmental policy group centered at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, explains:

Electricity from two new onshore wind power facilities set to begin operating in 2016 will cost around 5 euro cents per kilowatt-hour. Wind power would remain the cheapest energy option even if interest rates on wind power projects were to increase by 10 percent, the report found.

This is good news for a nation that’s hoping to get 50 percent of its power from wind turbines by 2050. Right now, the nation already boasts an impressive clean energy mix of 43 percent. And Rasmus Peterson, Denmark’s energy minister, said at a press conference:

Wind power today is cheaper than other forms of energy, not least because of a big commitment and professionalism in the field. This is true for researchers, companies and politicians. We need a long-term and stable energy policy to ensure that renewable energy, both today and in the future, is the obvious choice.

airpollution1Importantly, the DEA’s analysis did not factor in the health and environmental costs of burning fossil fuels—which are considerable—and instead looked directly at the market forces in the country. Natural gas and coal are much more expensive in Denmark than it is in the US, which helps make wind such an economic bargain, and the nation has explicitly pursued wind power for decades.

But improving technology, falling costs, and the strong, consistently blowing offshore winds that will turn the new turbines are making the case for wind power rock solid. At the end of July, it was revealed that Germany gets a full 28.5 percent of its energy needs with clean sources. Now Denmark is proving that running your nation on clean energy can be cheaper anyone thought possible, even ten years ago.

Sources: motherboard.vice.com, renewableenergyworld.com, e360.yale.edu

 

Powered by the Sun: The “Energy Duck”

Magnificent CME Erupts on the Sun - August 31Part of the challenge of paving the way towards a future where solar power is able to meet our energy needs is finding ways to integrate it into our daily lives. Basically, until such time as efficiency limits, storage and intermittency problems are truly overcome, one of the best ways to do this is to place photovoltaic arrays where the demand is highest and to get creative with how they collect it.

For example, a group of British artists have conceptualized a giant solar harvesting floating duck as part of the 2014 Land Art Generator Initiative Copenhagen design competition. Dubbed “Energy Duck”, the giant structure has been designed not only to generate clean electricity for the local residents of Copenhagen, but to also provide a unique visitor center. In short, it comes renewable energy with a cautionary message about the effects of Climate Change.

energyduckInspired by the arctic eider duck, Energy Duck not only hopes to offer a unique renewable energy source, but also highlight the impact that climate change has had on the local population and breeding habitats of the eider duck in recent years. As its creators – Hareth Pochee, Adam Khan, Louis Leger and Patrick Fryer – explained:

Energy Duck is an entertaining iconic sculpture, a renewable energy generator, a habitable tourist destination and a celebration of local wildlife.

Covered in photovoltaic panels, the Energy Duck is designed to harvest solar energy from every inch of its exterior shell. Solar cells mounted around the base are also positioned to take advantage of the sun’s rays being reflected off the water’s surface. Additionally, the facility features hydro turbines which use water pressure to provide stored energy to the grid after sunset and during the evening.

https://i0.wp.com/images.gizmag.com/gallery_lrg/energyduck-2.jpgAll of this helps the Energy Duck overcome the all-important issue of intermittency. By being able to generate energy around the clock, the Duck is not dependent on the sun shining in order to continue operating and providing power. As the team explained:

When stored energy needs to be delivered, the duck is flooded through one or more hydro turbines to generate electricity, which is transmitted to the national grid by the same route as the PV panel-generated electricity. Solar energy is later used to pump the water back out of the duck, and buoyancy brings it to the surface. The floating height of the duck indicates the relative cost of electricity as a function of city-wide use: as demand peaks the duck sinks.

Inside the giant Energy Duck, visitors can get a unique look into the working mechanics of the hydro turbines, watching as the water levels rise and fall. Sunlight also filters through small spaces between the exterior solar panels, providing a kaleidoscope-like view of Copenhagen. However, another interesting feature about the Energy Duck is its environmental message.

energyduck-5So while people are visiting the interior and taking note of the impressive technology, they will also be getting a lesson in why it is important. And really, the inherent message of the concept is really very appropriate. A clean, renewable, alternative energy source designed to look like, and inspired by, one of the many creatures that is endangered because of humanity’s dependence on unclean fuels.

Now if we could just design a land-roving solar farm in the shape of a polar bear!

Sources: gizmag.com, inhabitat.com

The Future of Disaster Relief: The Ecos PowerCube

EcosPowerCube-640x353One of the greatest challenges to humanitarian aid and disaster relief is the task of getting services to where they needed the most. Whether it’s hurricanes, earthquakes, mudslides, or wildfires; getting electricity, water, and other utilities up and running again is a tough task. And with every moment that these services are not available, people are likely to die and humanitarian crises ensue.

However, Ecosphere Technologies – a diversified water engineering and environmental services company – believes it’s designed a solution in the form of their new PowerCube. This self-contained, mobile apparatus is designed to deliver solar power to off-grid areas along with water purification facilities and WiFi base stations — all in a single package that is the size of a shipping container.

https://i2.wp.com/www.extremetech.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/disaster-lg-1.jpgThe Ecos PowerCube will be available in three sizes that are designed to fit into 10-foot, 20-foot, and 40-foot shipping containers. The largest models will be capable of generating up to 15kW of power, which will be parceled between providing electrical hook-ups, water treatment and internet access. And they will also serve as temporary shelters, providing temporary sleeping quarters or medical stations.

What is especially innovative about the design is the use of fold-out solar panels, which allow for significant power generation without compromising on the handy space-saving form. Deployed, the Cube is able to maximize its solar-absorbing surface area; but packed up, its small enough to fit into a shipping container and be deployed around the world. However, the design also comes with its share of drawbacks.

powercube-howFirst, there’s the apparent lack of batteries, which means the Cubes will only be able to provide power while the sun is shining. This is crucial since time is often of the essence in disaster areas, with windows for treating wounds and rescuing the buried and trapped lasting typically less than three days. Second, the 15kW generator is rather meager compared to what a diesel generator can produce – between 600kW and 1.7MW.

This means, in essence, that some twenty or so PowerCubes would have to be shipping to a disaster area to equal the electrical capacity of a single large diesel generator. And the intermittency problem is certainly an issue for the time being, unless they are prepared to equip them with high-capacity batteries that can quickly absorb and hold a charge (some graphene or integrated Li-ion batteries should do it).

https://i1.wp.com/www.extremetech.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/military-lg-2.jpgIn the meantime, it is still a crafty idea, and one which has serious potential. Not only do disaster areas need on-site water distribution – shipping it in can be difficult and time consuming – but internet access is also very useful to rescue crews that need up-to-date information, updates, and the ability to coordinate their rescue efforts. And military installations could certainly use the inventions, as they would cut down on fuel consumption.

Still, refinements will need to be made before this is a one-fit solution problem of what to do about disaster relief and fostering development in densely populated areas of the world where things like water-treatment, electricity, and internet access is not readily available.

Source: extremetech.com, ecospheretech.com

Powered by the Sun: Solar City and Silevo

solar2Elon Musk is at it again, this time with clean, renewable energy. Just yesterday, he announced that Solar City (the solar installation company that he chairs) plans to acquire a startup called Silevo. This producer of high-efficiency panels was acquired for $200 million (plus up to $150 million more if the company meets certain goals), and Musk now plans to build a huge factory to produce their panels as part of a strategy that will make solar power “way cheaper” than power from fossil fuels.

Solar City is one of the country’s largest and fastest-growing solar installers, largely as a result of its innovative business model. Conceived by Musk as another cost-reducing gesture, the company allows homeowners and businesses to avoid any up-front cost. If its plans pan out, it will also become a major manufacturer of solar panels, with by far the largest factory in the U.S.

https://i2.wp.com/images.fastcompany.com/upload/620-most-innovative-companies-solar-city.jpgThe acquisition makes sense given that Silevo’s technology has the potential to reduce the cost of installing solar panels, Solar City’s main business. But the decision to build a huge factory in the U.S. seems daring – especially given the recent failures of other U.S.-based solar manufacturers in the face of competition from Asia. Ultimately, however, Solar City may have little choice, since it needs to find ways to reduce costs to keep growing.

Silevo produces solar panels that are roughly 15 to 20 percent more efficient than conventional ones thanks to the use of thin films of silicon – which increase efficiency by helping electrons flow more freely out of the material – and copper rather than silver electrodes to save costs. Higher efficiency can yield big savings on installation costs, which often exceed the cost of the panels themselves, because fewer panels are needed to generate a given amount of power.

http://gigaom2.files.wordpress.com/2011/10/silevo-single-buss-bar-cell.jpgSilevo isn’t the only company to produce high-efficiency solar cells. A version made by Panasonic is just as efficient, and SunPower makes ones that are significantly more so. But Silevo claims that its panels could be made as cheaply as conventional ones if they could scale their production capacity up from their current 32 megawatts to the factory Musk has planned, which is expected to produce 1,000 megawatts or more.

The factory plan mirrors an idea Musk introduced at one of his other companies, Tesla Motors, which is building a huge “gigafactory” that he says will reduce the cost of batteries for electric cars. The proposed plant would have more lithium-ion battery capacity than all current factories combined. And combined with Musk’s release of the patents, which he hopes will speed development, it is clear Musk has both eyes on making clean technology cheaper.

Not sure, but I think it’s fair to say Musk just became my hero! Not only is he all about the development of grand ideas, he is clearly willing to sacrifice profit and a monopolistic grasp on technologies in order to see them come to fruition.

Source: technologyreview.com

Powered by the Sun: Solar-Powered Roads

solar_roadsCurrently, there are nearly 30,000 square kilometers (18,000 square miles) of roads in the United States. And by some estimates, there are also as many as 2 billion parking spaces. That works out to some 50,000 square kilometers (31,000 square miles) of usable surface that is just soaking up sun all day long. So why not put it to use generating solar power? That’s the question a entrepreneurial couple named Scott and Julie Brusaw asked themselves, and then proceeded to launch a solar startup named Solar Roadways to see it through.

Their concept for a solar road surface has the potential to produce more renewable energy than the entire country uses. In fact, they’ve actually already developed a working prototype that’s been installed in a parking lot, and they’re now crowdsourcing funds in order to tweak the design and move towards production. Once completed, they hope to re-pave the country with custom, glass-covered solar panels that are strong enough to drive on while generating enough power to perform a range of functions.

solar_roads1These include providing lighting through a series of LEDs that make road lines and signs that help reduce nighttime accidents. Embedded heating elements also melt ice and snow and are ideal for winter conditions. The surface could also be used to charge electric vehicles as oppose to fossil fuels, and future technology could even allow for charging whilst driving via mutual induction panels. Amazingly, the team also found that car headlights can produce energy in the panels, so cars driving around at night would be producing some electricity.

Since 2006, Solar Roadways has designed and developed hexagonal glass solar panels studded with LED lights that could be installed on a variety of surfaces such as roads, pavements and playgrounds. These panels would more than pay for themselves and would benefit both businesses and homeowners as the energy generated from driveways and parking lots could be used to power buildings, and any excess can be sold back to the grid.

solar_roads3A glass surface may sound fragile, but the prototypes have been extensively tested and were found to be able to easily withstand cars, fully loaded trucks, and even 250,000-pound oil drilling equipment. The textured surface means it isn’t slippery, and since it can self-power small heaters inside to melt ice in winter, it’s supposedly safer than an ordinary road. As Scott Brusaw put it:

You first mention glass, people think of your kitchen window. But think of bulletproof glass or bomb resistant glass. You can make it any way you want. Basically bulletproof glass is several sheets of tempered glass laminated together. That’s what we have, only our glass is a half inch thick, and tempered, and laminated.

Recycled materials can also be used to produce the panels; the prototypes were constructed using 10% recycled glass. All of the panels will be wired up, so faults can be easily detected and repaired. They team have also designed a place to stash power cables, called “Cable Corridors”, which would allow easy access by utility workers. Furthermore, they also believe that these corridors could be used to house fiber optic cables for high-speed internet.

solar_roads2Obviously, this project isn’t going to be cheap, but Solar Roadways has already surpassed their goal of raising $1 million on their indiegogo page (they have managed to raise a total of $1,265,994 as of this articles publication). With this money, they will now be able to hire engineers, make final modifications, and move from prototype to production. They hope to begin installing projects at the end of the year, but a significantly larger amount of money would be required if they were to try to cover all the roads in the US!

However, given the increasing demand for solar technology and the numerous ways it can help to reduce our impact on the environment, it would not be surprising to see companies similar to Solar Roadways emerge in the next few years. It would also not be surprising to see a great deal of towns, municipalities and entire countries to start investing in the technology in the near future to meet their existing and projected power needs. After all, what is better than cheap, abundant, and renewable energy that pretty much provides itself?

For more info, check out Solar Roadways website and their Indiegogo campaign page. Though they have already surpassed their goal of $1 startup dollars, there is still five days to donate, if you feel inclined. And be sure check out their promotional video below:

Sources: iflscience.com, fastcoexist.com, solarroadways.com, indiegogo.com

The Future of Solar: The Space-Based Solar Farm

space-solar-headThe nation of Japan has long been regarded as being at the forefront of emerging technology. And when it comes to solar energy, they are nothing if not far-sighted and innovative. Whereas most nations are looking at building ground-based solar farms in the next few years, the Japanese are looking at the construction of vast Lunar and space-based solar projects that would take place over the course of the next few decades.

The latest proposal comes from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), which recently unveiled a series of pilot projects which, if successful, should culminate in a 1-gigawatt space-based solar power generator within just 25 years. Relying on two massive orbital mirrors that are articulated to dynamically bounce sunlight onto a solar panel-studded satellite, the energy harvested would then be beamed wirelessly to Earth using microwaves, collected Earth-side by rectifying antennas at sea, and then passed on to land.

lunaringJAXA has long been the world’s biggest booster of space-based solar power technology, making significant investments in research and rallying international support for early test projects. And in this respect, they are joined by private industries such as the Shimizu Corporation, a Japanese construction firm that recently proposed building a massive array of solar cells on the moon – aka. the “Lunar Ring” – that could beam up to 13,000 terawatts (roughly two-thirds of global power consumption) to Earth around the clock.

Considering that Japan has over 120 million residents packed onto an island that is roughly the size of Montana, this far-sighted tendency should not come as a surprise.  And even before the Fukushima disaster took place, Japan knew it needed to look to alternative sources of electricity if it was going to meet future demands. And considering the possibilities offered by space-based solar power, it should also come as no surprise that Japan – which has very few natural resources – would look skyward for the answer.

solar_array1Beyond Japan, solar power is considered the of front runner of alternative energy, at least until s fusion power comes of age. But Until such time as a fusion reaction can be triggered that produces substantially more energy than is required to initiate it, solar will remain the only green technology that could even theoretically provide for our global power demands. And in this respect, going into space is seen as the only way of circumventing the problems associated with it.

Despite solar power being in incredible abundance – the Earth’s deserts absorb more energy in a day than the human race uses in an entire year – the issue of harnessing that power and getting it to where it is needed remain as stumbling blocks. Setting up vast arrays in the Earth’s deserts would certainly deal with the former, but transmitting it to the urban centers of the world (which are far removed from it’s deserts) would be both expensive and impractical.

space-based-solarpowerLuckily, putting arrays into orbit solves both of these issues. Above the Earth’s atmosphere, they would avoid most forms of wear, the ground-based day/night cycle, and all occluding weather formations. And assuming the mirrors themselves are able to reorient to be perpetually aimed at the sun (or have mirrors to reflect the light onto them), the more optimistic estimates say that a well-designed space array could bring in more than 40 times the energy of a conventional one.

The only remaining issue lies in beaming all that energy back to Earth. Though space-based arrays can easily collect more power above the atmosphere than below it, that fact becomes meaningless if the gain is immediately lost to inefficiency during transmission. For some time, lasers were assumed to be the best solution, but more recent studies point to microwaves as the most viable solution. While lasers can be effectively aimed, they quickly lose focus when traveling through atmosphere.

spaceX_solararrayHowever, this and other plans involving space-based solar arrays (and a Space Elevator, for that matter) assume that certain advances over the next 20 years or so – ranging from light-weight materials to increased solar efficiency. By far the biggest challenge though, or the one that looks to be giving the least ground to researchers, is power transmission. With an estimated final mass of 10,000 tonnes, a gigawatt space solar array will require significant work from other scientists to improve things like the cost-per-kilogram of launch to orbit.

It currently costs around $20,000 to place a kilogram (2.2lbs) into geostationary orbit (GSO), and about half that for low-Earth orbit (LEO). Luckily, a number of recent developments have been encouraging, such as SpaceX’s most recent tests of their Falcon 9R reusable rocket system or NASA’s proposed Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV). These and similar proposals are due to bring the costs of sending materials into orbit down significantly – Elon Musk hopes to bring it down to $1100 per kilogram.

So while much still needs to happen to make SBSP and other major undertakings a reality, the trends are encouraging, and few of their estimates for research timelines seem all that pie-eyed or optimistic anymore.

Sources: extremetech.com, (2)

Powered by the Sun: Mirrored Solar Dishes

sun_magneticfieldIn the race to develop alternative energy sources, solar power is the undeniable top contender. In addition to being infinitely renewable So much sunlight hits the Earth each day that the world’s entire electricity needs could be met by harvesting only 2% of the solar energy in the Sahara Desert. Of course, this goal has remained elusive due to the problem of costs – both in the manufacture of solar panels and the installation therefor.

But researchers at IBM think they’re one step closer to making solar universally accessible with a low-cost system that can concentrate the sunlight by 2,000 times. The system uses a dish covered in mirrors to aim sunlight in a small area, and which follows the sun throughout the day to catch the most light. Other concentrated solar power systems do the same thing, but a typical system only converts around 20% of the incoming light to usable energy, while this one can convert 80%.

Inline_solardishThis not only ensures a much larger yield, but also makes the energy it harvests cheap. Bruno Michel, the manager for advanced thermal packaging at IBM Research, believes the design could be three-times cheaper than “comparable” systems. Officially, the estimate he provides claim that the cost per kilowatt hour will work out to less than 10 cents, which works out to 0.01 cents per watt (significantly cheaper than the $0.74 per watt of standard solar).

But as he explains, using simple materials also helps:

The reflective material we use for the mirror facets are similar to that of potato chip bags. The reinforced concrete is also similar to what is being used to build bridges around the world. So outside of the receiver, which contains the photovoltaic chips, we are using standard materials.

A few small high-tech parts will be built in Switzerland (where the prototype is currently being produced). but the main parts of the equipment could easily be built locally, wherever it’s being used. It’s especially well-suited for sunny areas that happen to be dry. As the system runs, it can use excess heat that would normally be wasted to desalinate water. Hence, a large installation could provide not only abundant electricity, but clean drinking water for an entire town.

inline-i-solar-02A combined system of this kind could be an incredible boon to economies in parts of the world that are surrounded by deserts, such as North Africa or Mongolia. But given the increasing risk of worldwide droughts caused by Climate Change, it may also become a necessity in the developed world. Here, such dishes could not only provide clean energy that would reduce our carbon footprint, but also process water for agricultural use, thus combating the problem on two fronts.

IBM researchers are currently working with partners at Airlight Energy, ETH-Zurich, and Interstate University of Applied Sciences Buchs NTB to finish building a large prototype, which they anticipate will be ready by the end of this summer. After testing, they hope to start production at scale within 18 months. Combined with many, many other plans to make panels cheaper and more effective, we can expect to be seeing countless options for solar appearing in the near future.

And if recent years are any indication, we can expect solar usage to double before the year is out.

Sources: fastcoexist.com