‘I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of
power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out
before we tackle that.’ Thomas Edison made
that strong proclamation to Henry Ford in 1931.
Edison’s confidence most likely stemmed from the fact that our sun is responsible for
the propagation of life in addition to the vast majority of
available energy on earth. (The most notable sub-surface exceptions
being the energy potential of nuclear and geothermal which each
come with their slew of challenges)
Wind is a “by-product” of the sun, created by the diurnal (day
& night) effect of warming and cooling. Fossil fuels are simply
what their name suggests – the fossilized remains of living
organisms. Coal was the flora that photosynthesized the sun’s
power; oil, natural gas, tar sands (collectively petrochemicals)
the fauna. In short, the sun is responsible for the life and
lifestyles here on earth both directly and indirectly.
If you believe that humans will be most effective by mimicking
universal biological patterns and are already “regressing” in
that direction (as I strongly do) this begs the question…What is
the most direct way to sustainably harness the power of the sun? I
assert that the two means that are most effective are (i) passive
solar design and (ii) photovoltaic electricity production.
This Future Fiction piece was cross-posted from the
TechnoTraveller, the Tokyo company that was making furor on the
stock markets for the last months has recalled all of its 12
million Electro-suits after a teenager was found dead in a Tokyo
park. The unfortunate youngster’s solar electro-suit, while powering his
laptop, cell phone, iZune and Thermo-sweater malfunctioned and
directed all the sun-powered energy to the Thermo-sweater. Built-in
feedback systems that should have prevented such an event did not
work appropriately and the Thermo-sweater function will from now on
be disabled in the product, a TechnoTraveller spokesperson declared
in a company press bulletin.
The company’s hot selling item was the driving force behind
TechnoTraveller’s dethroning of Google as Wall Street’s darling
finding a need for cheap power on the road to fuel all electronic
portable devices and warming people in cold climates by using
high-efficient solar fuel cells weaved into a suit. TechnoTraveller
stocks plummeted by more than 55%. The press bulletin further
stated that although the recall will decrease profits and losing
the Thermo-sweater feature will impact sales, there is no need for
panic by shareholders and the future of solar clothing is still
looking bright. The Tokyo coroner performing the autopsy is still
trying to establish whether the cause of death was sixth-degree
burns or electrocution.
“It’s just a math problem.” – Google CEO Eric Schmidt
Google is thinking big, again! The company that was founded to ‘organize all the world’s information’ is now focusing its attention on energy. Google’s Cleantech Movement plans to “eliminate all utility fossil fuel dependence and 50 percent of automobile fossil fuel dependence by 2030.”
So far, the company has already invested $45M in wind, solar, and geothermal energy, with tidal and wave power as next in line. This will not only save consumers and America money, one of Google’s motivations, it will also protect the Earth’s environment, reason number two, which is “all part of not being evil (Source: Stefanie Olsen/CNET). In other words, not only is funding alternative energy helpful for its monetary benefits, it helps the environment and gives Google a positive image in the public eye. It will also benefit Google’s energy guzzling servers, whose life-force is the precious commodity of electricity, thus saving the company money.
Schmidt believes that better energy efficiency will lead to more savings. And moving from fossil fuels to renewable, alternative energies will also cost less in the long-term. As an example, while it may indeed cost a hefty amount to make the switch, once in place, the ‘U.S. would save 97% of $2.17 trillion in energy spending over the next 22 years.’ Google’s renovation of its own buildings to cut carbon emissions, installed solar and power monitoring equipment, and is already saving money each year. Restructuring the U.S. power grid, currently with a 9 percent efficiency loss, could also make the country’s energy more efficient and thus, save more money.
Are Computer Servers 21st century ‘energy guzzlers’?
While Google should be lauded for its progressive view on energy efficiency, it also has an intrinsic self-interest in cheap electricity. Google’s new server farm to be built on the banks of the Columbia River in Oregon, called The Dalles data center, will need an estimated 103 megawatts of electricity to run, ‘enough to power 82,000 homes, or a city the size of Tacoma, Washington – via Roughtype
While The Dalles center will not be up and running until 2011, Google’s multitude of other server farms also require large amounts of electricity. Cheaper electricity will allow Google to save money powering their farms, as well as allow further expansion.
What is behind Google’s real motivations? Not being Evil, or Green is Good
an architectural and automotive glass manufacturer, recently
unveiled a new prototype glass product that could provide some big
energy gains when integrated into the homebuilding process. The
windows of your house may soon actually supply energy via
passive solar gains instead of leak it.
The vacuum-insulated glass (VIG) panel consists of two glass
panes, one of which is covered in low-e coating.
When vacuum sealed together, the panel effectively eliminates both
convection and conduction of heat. The most impressive aspect of
the product is its potential level of insulation (or R-value). The
higher the R-value, the better the insulation. Most low-e glass
comes in between R-2 and R-4, but this revolutionary glass promises
a whopping R-12 to R-15 rating – the equivalent insulation of your
home’s exterior walls.
Mac Rumours who first discovered the patent application:
The most interesting technique described by Apple … is the
integration of the solar panels behind the actual LCD screen of a portable device. The solar panel
would absorb ambient light that passes through the LCD screen of the device. ... If successfully
implemented, Apple’s iPhone, iPod and laptops, could require no
outward changes in design to add solar power.
As the price of both iPhone components and photovoltaic
(PV) cells comes down steadily, this will add to the appeal of the
increasingly coveted device, especially in resource-strapped areas
as rising oil prices gradually push up the cost of manufacturing,
transportation and electricity.
Adding solar cells beneath LCD screens
is such an elegant no-brainer that it’s difficult to imagine a
period in the near future when all mobile phones/computers
aren’t forced to integrate solar. The main plausible
alternative I can see is the prevalence of small plug-in PV power
stations (either based at home, mounted on the car or worn) that
can directly or indirectly charge mobile devices. But even then,
just knowing that your device can charge autonomously still seems
Because they are investing in the future design of catalysts!
And their strategy is to innovate at the nanoscale.
The Beginning of Nano
Physicist Richard Feynman is often credited with launching the
‘nanoscale’ era of engineering with his famous lecture ‘Plenty of
Room at the Bottom’ at Caltech in 1959. Feynman
described our future ability to manipulate individual atoms and
eventually create complex mechanical structures made of the
Fifty years after Feynman’s lecture, researchers and startups
are making significant progress in designing nanoscale structured
materials that will have an enormous impact on all aspects of the
energy industry from production, to storage to end use
What is disruptive about catalysts?
Simply put, catalysts help us get more output with less energy
input. Catalysts speed up the reaction of photo-, chemical and
electrochemical changes in everything from batteries, fuel cells,
and solar cells, to the refining of coal, gasoline, diesel, and
natural gas, and the production of hydrogen and biofuels. Catalysts
also help to reduce the energy required to create plastics,
biomaterials, pharmaceuticals, and fertilizer.
The rules of the energy industry game are being re-written by
companies designing synthetic metal and carbon-based catalysts that
change our notions of what is possible in the years ahead. Other
companies are attempting to harness, or mimic, naturally occurring
bio-catalysts that gracefully manipulate energy in all living
things from algae/bacteria to plants to human beings.
Catalysts are the silent work horses of our modern world but you
seldom, if ever, hear or see the word mentioned in mainstream
conversations about energy. Yet they hold the key to unlocking
human potential without draining the planet’s resources. Catalysts
can help realize the vision of a world powered by cheap, abundant,
clean energy. (Continued)
What if we could print low cost solar panels on pieces of plastic and integrate this energy collecting material into buildings, infrastructure and product casings?
This is the future of thin film solar.
While traditional (rigid silicon substrate) solar panels are a relatively mature platform, we have not yet hit our stride in advancing the efficiencies of thin film solar.
Thin-film, or organic solar is attractive because it is low cost, flexible and can be integrated into existing materials and products. These systems can also be designed to tap broader sections of the light spectrum. Relatively low efficiencies mean that thin film solar will never be capable of providing a majority of our energy needs, but it is certainly part of a broader strategy of new distributed power generation.
Before we start asking when we might see thin film on the shelves at Home Depot or integrated into familiar product designs, the first step is to understand why thin film is different from traditional solar.
The following five video clips help to describe the future potential of thin film solar.
Nanosolar (Palo Alto-San Jose, CA) has long been considered a leading innovator in the field of organic photovoltaics or thin film solar.
In recent years forward-looking architects and designers have been pushing out the leading edge of advanced energy systems for built environments. Along the way they have created a new marketplace for integrated energy solutions with lower costs and improved performance. Their efforts have been supported by the growing list of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified buildings.
On Tuesday, Proximity Hotel in Greensboro, NC, became the first hotel to be awarded the LEED Platinum certification by the U.S. Green Building Council. LEED is the USGBC’s rating system for designing and constructing the world’s greenest, most energy efficient, and high performing buildings.
Opened in late 2007, the Proximity (videos) was designed to use 40% less energy and 30% less water than comparable hotels. It along with the adjacent Print Works Bistro are the first hotel and first restaurant to obtain the USGBC’s top level certification.
“When we started the design process four years ago, I would have never believed that we could use 41% less energy and 33% less water without one iota of compromise in comfort or luxury and with minimal additional construction costs,” says Dennis Quaintance, the CEO and CDO (Chief Design Officer) of builder Quaintance-Weaver “It just goes to show what a determined team can accomplish if they use common sense and get a little bit of help from the sun.”
The US manufacturing base appears to be more than capable of expanding production of a very promising form of solar technology that can be integrated into building materials like rooftops.
Thin film solar (right side of roof image) based on plastic material foundations are less efficient than traditional glass-based photovoltaic panels (leftside of image), but they are much cheaper and more durable. By layering, or ‘printing’, thin film solar modules into common building and rooftop materials we can generate solar power onsite even on cloudy days.
While large utilities look to solar thermal and traditional glass based solar panels to produce large amounts of electricity, building designers and consumers are waiting for plastic based thin film solar that can be integrated into rooftops without the risk (and design issues) associated with fragile and bulky glass units.
We have covered a number of stories (below) on thin film solar startups in the US who are building megawatt scale thin film production plants in the next 18 months.
Now EPV SOLAR has announced that its new 30,000 square foot, 20 MW production facility in Robbinsville, NJ, is producing and shipping production quantities of its thin-film amorphous silicon solar modules. EPV already operates a 30 MW plant in Senftenberg, Germany.
The next step for thin film producers will be to expand partnerships with building materials and construction firms able to get products to market. Last month Michigan-based ECD Ovonic solar subsidiary Uni-Solar has signed a multi-year agreement with an Italian steel and metal materials company to build solar rooftop materials used in onsite power generation. Marcegaglia expects to introduce the low cost, durable thin film.
While it is too early to expect thin film solar panels on the shelves of Home Depot and Lowes, that day might be much closer than you think!
Michigan-based ECD Ovonic solar subsidiary Uni-Solar has signed a multi-year agreement with an Italian steel and metal materials company to build solar rooftop materials used in onsite power generation. Marcegaglia expects to introduce the low cost, durable thin film solar metal roofing products to the market in 2010. [Image shown from Spain factory installation]
Why is this important to the future of energy?
Energy entrepreneurs are thinking beyond power generation via large, expensive centralized power plants. The alternative is expanding the world’s capacity for ‘distributed power generation’ based on low cost solar, micro-wind, fuel cells, and micro turbines. These systems could soon provide a small percentage of power generation, but enough to reduce demand on power plants during ‘peak power demand’ periods, and lower our threat of grid failure by storing and producing energy at the local level. Why not tap square footage of rooftops?
Thin film solar based on plastic substrates are less efficient than traditional glass-based photovoltaic panels, but they are much cheaper and more durable. By layering, or ‘printing’, thin film solar modules onto rooftop materials we can bring solar power to buildings around the world at a low cost.
Call it a man bites dog story for the clean energy era. German solar cell manufacturer SolarWorld recently made a bid for Opel, GM’s European car company.
Not that Opel was for sale. But it does show that at least one solar manufacturer is looking for a way to make a solar powered car.
What This Means for the Future of Energy
SolarWorld Chairman Frank H. Asbeck insists the offer is in good faith. SolarWorld is betting that GM is in bad enough shape that they’d have to sell off assets, such as European brands, making an easier entry into the automotive market for SolarWorld than having to create a car company from scratch.
More importantly, it shows that the electric vehicle market is up for grabs. SolarWorld wanted to buy a car manufacturer so that they could get a leg up on bringing an electric vehicle to market; then, they could sell the solar panels that could be used to charge it up. One solar installer consulted for the reality of solar panels powering an electric vehicle quoted an installation costing $12,000 to $15,000 to be adequate to charge up a typical electric vehicle.
Could this be a signal that cleantech could lead the way in many business deals in the future? What’s next, a bid from First Solar for Chrysler?
Lucky for us the sun is a wonderful source of clean energy. Its
rays can be harnessed and transformed into electricity using
semi-conductor-based solar cells that power homes, buildings, and
even transportation. Researchers have spent decades trying to
refine this process.
Recently, MIT researchers have made a
significant mark in this endeavor. Associate Professor Marc A.
Baldo, leader of the project, and a team of four graduate students
of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science,
have constructed a cost-efficient solar concentrator device based
on a failed 1970s model that uses glass and dye. In practical
terms, the concentrator device is a high-efficiency window.
Currently, solar concentrators on the market track the sun’s
rays using large mobile mirrors that are both expensive to arrange
and to maintain. Furthermore, Baldo explains, the solar cells that
house these concentrators must be cooled, thus the entire assembly
Baldo’s new solar concentrator increases the amount of usable
energy by a factor of 40, all while cutting costs by reducing the
amount of solar cell, which because its base is silicon is rather
The device consists of glass coated with a mixture of relatively
inexpensive dyes that absorbs the light and re-emits it on a new
wavelength into the glass to be collected by the solar cells, which
are located on the edges of the glass.
Baldo says the 1970s model failed in two ways: the collected
light was absorbed before it reached the edges of the glass and the
dyes were unstable.
Using optical techniques developed for lasers and other diodes,
the MIT engineers found the perfect ratio
of dyes that would allow the light that is absorbed and emitted to
travel a longer distance before reaching the solar cells.