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Dollar-a-Watt Solar March 1, 2009

Posted by OldGuy in Alternatives, solar.
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This week, First Solar, Inc announced tests for thin-film photovoltaic panels that dropped the cost per watt generated below $1 per watt.  When First Solar began operation in 2004, they were manufacturing panels at $3 per watt.

First Solar, of Tempe, Arizona, is using cadmium telluride (CdTe) technology and needs to get the costs below 65 cents if the installed costs make it beneficial to be installed commercially. Solar panels generally cost $4.81 per watt in commercial quantities.  (The lowest thin film module price commercially available is $3.57 per watt in a 60 watt module.)

Unfortunately, a Popular Mechanics review suggests this technology can’t scale up fast enough or easily enough to make much of an impact on national energy needs.  CdTe raw materials are difficult to extract and require a great amount of energy to convert into a usable crystalline form.

Cyrus Wadia, a researcher with Univerity of California – Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, warns that

“Even if the solar cell market were to grow at 56 percent a year for the next 10 years—slightly higher than the rapid growth of the past year — photovoltaics would still only account for about 2.5 percent of global electricity”

Wadia admits First Solar is capable of producing small quantities of solar cells,  “But as soon as they have to start rolling out terawatts, that’s where I believe they will reach some limitations.”

And “even if the solar cell market were to grow at 56 percent a year for the next 10 years—slightly higher than the rapid growth of the past year—photovoltaics would still only account for about 2.5 percent of global electricity.”


popular mechanics
First Solar Press Release
Solarbuzz Module Prices, Feb 09


NASA Data Could Boost Wind Production December 9, 2008

Posted by OldGuy in Wind Power.
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NASA has a long history of spinning off cool technology for non-NASA purposes.  Coatings, insulation materials, safety improvements, and Tang.

Recently, NASA released the results of their QuikScat satellite.  QuikScat was launched in 1999 and uses a microwave radar instrument named SeaWinds to track the speed, direction and power of winds near the ocean surface. Data are also used to predict storms and enhance the accuracy of weather forecasts. Those results reveal ocean areas where winds could produce energy.

Wind energy has the potential to provide 10 to 15 percent of future world energy requirements, according to Paul Dimotakis, chief technologist at JPL. If ocean areas with high winds were tapped for wind energy, they could potentially harvest up to 500 to 800 watts of wind power per square meter, according to Liu’s research. Dimotakis notes that while this is less than peak solar power, which is about 1000 watts per square meter on Earth’s surface when the sky is clear and the sun is overhead at equatorial locations, the average solar power at Earth’s mid-latitudes under clear-sky conditions is less than a third of that. Wind power can be converted to electricity more efficiently than solar power and at a lower cost per watt of electricity produced.

Ocean wind farms have less environmental impact than onshore wind farms, whose noise tends to disturb sensitive wildlife in their immediate area. Also, winds are generally stronger over the ocean than on land because there is less friction over water to slow the winds down — there are no hills or mountains to block the wind’s path.

Areas with large-scale, high wind power potential also can be found in regions of the mid-latitudes of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, where winter storms normally track.

source:  NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab

Arctic Methane Threatens Environment December 5, 2008

Posted by OldGuy in Methane.
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In a previous post, I told you about methane hydrates, chunks of methane buried under the ocean.  The issue there is that if the methane is mined the wrong way – if it is exposed to the open air – it will sublimate direct to a gas and accelerate global warming.

This week, NatureNews reported that methane being released into the atmosphere as the arctic tundra begins to freeze.  It seems that when the tundra melted this summer, microbes in the groung got active and built up pockets of methane in the ground.  Now that the ground is freezing, the surface is contracting and the methane is being released.

In other words, when the area warmed up more than normal this summer, more methane than normal was created.  And then when it froze, the methane was released.

All we need now is a way to capture and processes that methane into fuel!

Carbon Sequestration Moves Forward November 23, 2008

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Montana’s Big Sky Regional Carbon Sequestration Partnership got a boost this week from the Department of Energy, which agreed to pay $67M toward the project’s $130.6M cost.  The project will store more than 2 million tons of carbon dioxide some 11,000 feet underground.

In earlier studies funded by the partnership, it was estimated that the area could potentially yield more than 3,000 billion metric tons in potential storage capacity.

This is the seventh commercial-scale carbon storage award given so far by the DOE.

source:  ClimateBiz.com

Onsite Energy Generation November 23, 2008

Posted by OldGuy in Alternatives.
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Should your company generate at least a portion of its own energy needs?  Ryan Schuchard thinks so.

In an article for ClimateBiz.com, he looks past the recent drop in oil prices to the likelihood that prices will rebound in the next decade, and now is a great time to make the investments, when demand for the equipment is down.

In some regions, the cost of generating onsite renewable energy is already beating electricity bought from the grid. This “grid parity” is currently happening in places like California, Hawaii and Japan, where electricity costs are high and renewable resources are abundant. By 2012, Australia and Italy will likely achieve grid parity, and by 2015 much more of the United States will as well.

The costs can be covered in part with “Feed-in tariffs,” which require utilities to connect small, onsite renewable projects to the grid and pay their generators for surplus energy generated.  There are options for funding in the carbon markets for carbon-offset projects.

Partnerships are also a good option to consider.  A company could help fund generation devices on a partner’s facility and share the results, with excess returning to the grid.

I’ve heard of projects where the waste heat from manufacturing (in that case, a brewery) is used to drive steam turbines to generate electricity and then provide supplemental heating for an adjoining company.

Schuchard also mentions the value being able to stablize your operating costs by generating your own power.  “Investing in onsite renewable energy generation can insulate your company from the shocks, scarcity, and rising prices of energy.”

Wind Turbine Efficiencies Offered November 10, 2008

Posted by OldGuy in energy conservation, Wind Power.
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Virginia-based Catch the Wind has an innovative solution for improving wind turbine efficiency— laser beams. The company’s fiber-optic laser system gives turbines up to 20 extra seconds to adjust to changes in gusts and wind direction. That may not sound like much, but Catch the Wind claims that its system can improve turbine output by 10 percent.

source:  cleantechnica.com

Catch the Wind, Inc is based in Manassas, VA

Quiet Wind Turbine Released November 10, 2008

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One of the problems  with locating wind turbines in urban areas is that they tend to be noisy.  The constant whipping the air is a disturbance to close neighbors. Cascade Engineering has introduced a version of the house turbine designed to minimize noise without disturbing neighbors. Looking a little like a new-age whirlygig, the SWIFT turbine cuts the noise level to 35 decibels while reducing vibrations.

The company says the turbine can generate 1.5 KW with 14 mile per hour winds and approximately 2,000 KWh each year. The unit costs $10,000 (less than the average per-watt cost of solar panels). Depending on the cost of installation, conventional electricity costs, wind speeds, and incentives, the SWIFT could pay for itself in as little as three years.

Note:  this unit is currently only available in the Northeast US, Great Lakes States, and Western Canada.

For more information, click here.

Efficiency is the key October 13, 2008

Posted by OldGuy in energy conservation.
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Most of the talk in energy policy these days is about creating new sources of energy.  However, I hearken back to the Carter 70s, where the mantra was conservation.  We were unsophisticated back then.  Insulation was two inches thick, and solar heat meant water barrels or flagstones behind double-pane glass.  We’ve learned a lot since then, but have failed to implement what we know.

At the 2008 Clinton Global Institute Annual Meeting, Andrew Winston, Founder, Winston Eco-Strategies, led a session on Energy & Climate Change – Ending Energy Waste.

At the begining of the seminar, he made a statement about energy waste:

One of my favorite (statistics) is all that energy that goes into those data centers, those big server farms that are powering all of the technology we have today about 3 or 4-percent that goes in the door is used to actually process some data. Some people tell me that’s a high number. The rest is lost to cooling, duplication, all sorts of things. So there is this opportunity for orders of magnitude and change in how we do things. This is the easy stuff.”

He quotes Amery Eleven as saying these ideas are “not the low hanging fruit, but the fruit on the ground.”  This stuff ought to be easy.  He tells the story of UPS, which now has a system where they now say they don’t take left turns, because they found they were spending too much time and fuel waiting to turn left, and programmed their routes in right-hand circles.

To make the point, Diana Farrell from the McKinsey Global Institute said that the discussion on reducing carbon emissions has had positive economic consequences.  She says that “about 1/3 of the opportunity to abate CO2 is in things that are, if you like, negative costs.”  With a little bit of up-front capital, many of these things can achieve positive rates of economic return, even as they reduce carbon emissions.  She says there are already viable technologies that are commercial available that could cut 150-percent of US energy use.  And if the up-front capital could be found, it’s likely to see an Internal Rate of Return of 17% on the investment – a 6-year payback.

Bill McDonough, a world-renowned designer and architect, then brought up the fact that 40% of the energy used is for buildings, because “you can’t start applying renewables to an inefficient thing,” and that “intelligent design is the best way to conserve.”  SImple things, like white rooftops (like at all WalMart stores) and skylights.

This is of course more important for the developing world, like China and India and the Middle East, but also important for us, trying to dig out of an economic crisis caused by old thinking about problems.  These are great ideas.

Note:  A transcript of the session is available from the CGI website.

Better Batteries for Low-Emission Autos October 8, 2008

Posted by OldGuy in battery efficiency.
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One of the biggest problems in moving toward electric or hybrid autos is the ability to generate and store the electricity.  Gasoline is reasonably efficient in creating power from a given volume of source material.  Nothing* is more efficient in safely generating the kinds of speed and endurance needed to propel our autos and trucks down the highways and across the country.

But that doesn’t mean we’ve given up on electric as a transportation mode.  Trains have overcome the challenge, to a degree.  Although they burn diesel, it is to fire the on-board electric generators.  You need electric power to effectively link multiple drive engines, and the diesel – electric combination is effective at moving large quantity of goods long distances at acceptable speeds efficiently.

And that’s the basis of our hybrid passenger autos.  The gasoline-powered drive engine also generates electricity, which is used for cruising or slow stop and go driving.  The long pole has been battery efficiency.

Exxon/Mobil has announced improvements in the Lithium-Ion (LIon) batteries that boost the storage efficiencies.  LI-on batteries are generally more sensitive to heat and will degrade performance in high-heat environments, like the auto.

The improvement from Exxon/Mobil is a separator film that is used between the cathode and anode inside the battery.  The thinner the separator, the easier the charge moves between the poles, but thin films tend to break down/wear out quickly.  This new film is super-thin but with increased durability for thousands of charge/discharge cycles.

Batteries using this new separator are smaller and lighter for the same energy output, meaning the vehicles carrying them can be lighter and more efficient.

It’s not a total solution, but is a positive step toward the desired end goal of efficient electric vehicles.


*Nuclear is more efficient, but the safety considerations preclude its widespread use for passenger cars.  The risks are just too great.

Solar Updraft for Energy Production September 13, 2008

Posted by OldGuy in solar, Wind Power.
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There’s an interesting but still untried approach that combines solar power and wind power.

The principle of Solar Updraft is that a solar collector is laid down across an open field, such as a desert wasteland.  In the center is a tall hollow tower.  The result is an updraft inside the tower.  If one or more wind turbines is placed inside the tower, the constant wind can generate a steady stream of electrical energy, with virtually no carbon footprint once the tower is finished construction.  (Carbon payback on construction is generally 2-3 years.)

Some have suggested the collector field can be fitted with solar storage mechanisms, such as tubes of liquid, which heat during the day and generate a secondary heat source after the sun has gone down.

Unfortunately, most of the concepts involve very tall towers.  A prototype plant with a 200 meter-tall  tower built in Manzanares, Spain in the early eighties, and was operated successfully for several years.  However, a production plant was never constructed, in part because the finished tower will be almost a mile high (1.5km) and 280 meters wide.  And it will take a large amount of land, as currently designed.  The prototype plant included a 44,000-m² collector; the production unit uses a 37 square km collector field.

Of course, you don’t need to leave the collector field empty.  The solar tower proposed for Nambia includes a design to use that collector field as a greenhouse.

It’s an interesting concept.  I’m a little concerned about how they would construct a tower that is nearly 5 times taller than the Eiffel Tower (325 m).  It would be twice as tall as the world’s tallest building, the Burj Dubai in downtown Dubai (still under construction), which will be 688m (160 floors) when finished.

The expected power output – 400MW of energy – is impressive, but I wonder whether it might be better to stick with more, smaller towers, even if they generate less  energy each.