The key word for the cleantech (or alternative energy) world is momentum.
Market conditions change, as do consumer attitudes and expectations. If alternative energy concepts fail to live up to their hype, public support could fade along with political will and policies that enable growth.
Cleantech startups are trying to reach people who are asking ‘What can I do to accelerate changes in energy?’
The formula is relatively straight forward. Consumers buy things so they need to be low cost and easy to use. And moving beyond criticisms of trying to buy or consume ourselves into a greener planet, start ups have to evolve around one of two categories products and services to survive. Today we’ll look briefly at products in home and local power generation.
Local power generation is an area that should see solid growth in the years ahead. Producing 10-20% of our own electricity needs could go a long way in reducing emissions and demand on our electrical grid.
Small scale wind and solar systems are ideal for homes, schools, factories and office buildings looking to reduce their demand on the energy grid.
If you had an opportunity to sit down and interview Thomas Edison, what would you ask him? That’s a similar position I found myself in at the recent NanoTX’08 conference in Dallas, TX. I asked Stanford Ovshinsky, founder of Energy Conversion Devices and Ovshinsky Innovations to sit down with me after he gave a keynote where we discussed, among other things, his plans for a 1 Gigawatt solar power plant that would produce electricity more cheaply than a coal fired plant.
A Toyota dealership in Austin, TX sent out an email on 10/21/08 to it’s Prius list promoting the 2010 Toyota Plug-in Hybrid, asking for a refundable deposit.
To quote from the email, “The approximate release of the redesigned 2010 PLUG IN PRIUS is the last quarter of 2009.”
What’s more interesting is the mention of solar panels on the roof:
“The 2010 Plug In Prius will get approximately 40 miles to a charge without using any gas. Solar panels on the roof and our Hybrid technology for longer trips.”
Because of the small surface area, the solar panels will not be able to generate much electricity. They may be used to power a small exhaust fan which could be used during hot summer days. To quote an anonymous source cited in the International Herald Tribune, “It’s more of a symbolic gesture.”
Most energy analysts see solar energy (via thermal, traditional photovoltaics and thin film) at the beginning of its commercial growth curve. Yet there is still much that we do not know about the fundamentals of solar energy conversions that can produce electricity, heat, hydrogen and synthetic fuels. Developing a 21st century roadmap for the future of solar energy requires us to first recognize the need for funding basic research in science and then explore the disruptive potential of breakthroughs in applied engineering.
Funding basic and applied research in Solar Photoconversion
The US Department of Energy’s Center for Revolutionary Solar Photoconversion is launching 12 novel solar research projects totaling more than $1.1 million in its inaugural round of research and development funding.
CRSP, the newest research center of the Colorado Renewable Energy Collaboratory, is dedicated to the basic and applied research necessary to create revolutionary new solar energy technologies as well as education and training opportunities.
According to NREL Senior Research Fellow and CRSP Scientific Director Arthur Nozik, the 12 CRSP projects “represent the leading edge of research into both new ways to generate electricity and liquid and gaseous fuels directly from the sun and improving our approaches toward these goals.”
The 12 selected solar projects are:
- Integrated Electrical and Optical Characterization of Silicon Thin Films – NREL and CSM, $99,818
- Redox-Tunable Polymers for OPV active layers – NREL and CSU, $100,000
- Group IV Nanowire Photovoltaics – Colorado School of Mines, $100,000
- InVitro Evolution of RNA-Inorganic Catalysts for the Conversion of CO2 to Alcohols – CU, $100,000
University of South Florida researchers have developed the tiniest solar cells ever built. The solar cells provide power to the team’s microeletromechanical system (MEMS) used to detect chemicals in lakes. The sensing device includes 20 tiny solar cells each about a quarter the size of a lowercase “o” in a standard 12-point font. [Sample MEMS image shown is NOT actual device]
Why is it important to the future of energy?
In the future we will need ways to power tiny sensors that detect changes in the world based on light, chemicals, temperature, noise, motion, et al. Micro power systems integrated into sensors are a foundation piece to ‘smart infrastructure’ used in applications ranging from energy, to security and environmental detection systems. Sensors embedded into everyday objects, as well as natural and built environments are likely to change the world in the next 50 years, as much as microprocessors changed our lives over the last 50 years.
The assembled device is also important for the future of ‘organic’ (carbon-based) solar cells that differ from traditional ‘silicon’ solar panels printed on glass substrates. Organic solar cells can be suspended in liquids and assembled using low cost ‘ink jet’ printers and, in theory, ‘printed’ on any surface. So we can imagine turning a rooftop or parking lots surface into a light collecting material.
What to watch: An Energy Roadmap for Micro power and Sensors
This fabrication could be significant for micro (millionth of meter) and nanoscale (billionth of meter) energy systems powered by light. The technique might also accelerate development of organic solar cells. But there will be competition from other viable power sources, with better energy densities, including nanoscale designed batteries, fuel cells and piezoelectric devices that convert motion into electrical pulses.
The Solar industry is growing up and going global. Now materials giant Dow Corning is investing $3 billion into basic materials for traditional photovoltaics and thin film solar.
The Chemistry side of Solar The full potential of solar energy depends on our ability to make big advances in materials science.
How quickly solar can grow depends on our ability to design nanoscale structures that maximize the conversion of photons into electricity, photons into heat, or photons into hydrogen. And how many utilities and consumers take the leap!
So when we see 'Big Chemistry' companies get involved in the solar industry materials market, that should be a signal of growth (and growth pains) ahead!
Dow goes Greenby Being Black Dow Corning Corporation has announced several billion dollars of investment to provide critical materials to the fast-growing solar technology industry for both glass based solar and carbon based thin film.
Dow Corning and its Hemlock Semiconductor joint venture will begin manufacturing high purity monosilane, a key specialty gas used to manufacture thin-film solar cells and liquid crystal displays (LCDs). Combined with the new $1.2 billion build up at a Clarksville, Tennesee facility and the $1 billion expanded monosilane plant in Hemlock, Michigan operations may add up to 34,000 metric tons of polysilicon capacity for the fast-growing solar industry. Construction of both the Michigan expansion and the new Tennessee site will begin immediately.
Many people will say that pursuing aspace-based solar powerenergy campaign is too ambitious, that there are more immediate solutions to get us through our economic/energy crisis until a time when spaced-aged, science fiction-inspired future tech can be safely explored further. They might say that we already have a head start with nuclear, oil and coal, as well as other greener alternatives like wind, water and Earthbound solar. They would be dead wrong.The truth is...
Thin film solar is a low cost alternative to traditional glass based solar panels. 'Thin film' photovoltaic cells can be inkjet printed onto plastic sheets via a 'roll to roll' machine. These long plastic sheets can then be integrated into building materials like commercial and residential rooftops.
Startups are now scaling up production volumes, but the first phase of commercial growth for thin film depends on strategic partnerships with rooftop materials and construction companies.
ECD Ovonics transforming 'Rust Belt' to a 'Green Belt' Thin-film solar is a new energy technology platform that can be produced at low cost in many regions around the world. American energy visionaries imagine transforming the industrial Midwest 'Rust Belt' into a manufacturing hub for new cleantech materials.
Now Michigan-based ECD Ovonics has signed a contract with Carlisle Construction Materials to provide its Uni-Solar thin film for use in commercial roofing systems. The agreement is good news for Michigan economic developers. ECD is the world's leading producer of thin film solar, and has had previous partnerships with Italian steel and metal materials company Marcegaglia which expects to introduce the low cost, durable thin film solar metal roofing products to the market in 2010.
Researchers at US Los Alamos National Laboratory (LLNL) have confirmed a unique energy phenomena known as 'carrier multiplication' via nanoscale sized semiconductor crystals that could improve the efficiency of solar cells by squeezing more energy out of inbound photons.
Traditional solar cells absorb a photon of light that releases an electron to generate an electrical current. Any excess energy from the photon reaction is wasted as heat or vibration. The notion of 'carrier multiplciation' rests on the idea that we can get multiple electrons released from a single photon by forcing electrons into a more confined space.
Carrier multiplication was observed several years ago, but has been criticized as a phantom phenomena via a process known as 'photoionization'. But now a research team led by Victor Klimov has confirmed that semiconductor crystals designed at the nanoscale (billionth of a meter) can channel this excess photon energy into a group of tightly packed electrons, leading to a more efficient solar cell.
The team did not release statements about commercialization or scalable efficiencies. “Researchers still have a lot of work to do,” Klimov cautioned. “One important challenge is to figure out how to design a material in which the energetic cost to create an extra electron can approach the limit defined by a semiconductor band gap. Such a material could raise the fundamental power conversion limit of a solar cell from 31 percent to above 40 percent.”
The Financial Times has obtained a draft copy of the International Energy Agency annual World Energy Outlook. The Paris-based IEA is a highly regarded information agency on the global energy sector. The report, which will be officially released next month, states that the world’s largest oil fields have a natural annual rate of output decline is 9.1 per cent. This suggests that the world will struggle to add capacity against such a steep decline. [We will not know IEA’s official figures until November 12th, but the issue of new capacity growth should not be dismissed.]
Peak Production, not Supply
Peak oil relates to extraction, production and new capacity, not total supplies. Even though oil is a finite resource, we are not ‘running out of oil’ – especially around non-conventional hydrocarbon resources. The real concern relates to our ability to increase production to meet growing global demand. The real question is how much can we ‘add’ in new capacity, at what cost and how quickly.
The central element of this story from the IEA, and a key concept to peak oil production, is the ‘rate of decline’ of existing oil field output. The Financial Time reports from the IEA draft “…as they (oil fields) mature it is the single most important determinant of the amount of new capacity that will need to be built globally to meet demand”.
Who is going to add new capacity?
The big question is – where will the oil come from? Forget about claims of ‘known or proven reserves’, there is plenty of oil in the ground. We must ask ourselves which countries and companies can bring massive amounts of oil online at a reasonable cost. This is where things look more uncertain.
Richard Heinberg writes with the Energy Bulletin: “This (9% decline) is a stunning figure. Considering regular crude oil only, this means that 6.825 million barrels a day of new production capacity must come on line each year just to keep up with the aggregate natural decline rate in existing oilfields. That’s a new Saudi Arabia every 18 months.”
The efforts to reduce carbon emissions and increase the use of reliable power generation of renewable fuels will determine the future of the electric grid, as was reported by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation. But solar and wind will have to overcome some fundamental challenges before they are accepted by large utilities.
“As we consider our energy future, it becomes increasingly clear that our success in reducing carbon emissions and realizing energy independence will hinge on our ability to provide reliable, clean, electricity where and when it is needed,” states Rick Sergal, President and CEO of the NERC.
The Middle Eastern city of Dubai is in the process of creating the region’s largest photovoltaic manufacturing plant.
A recent article in Dubai’s Khaleej Times discusses the city’s plans to create a photovoltaic manufacturing plant. The plant, made by Solar Technologies FZE, will be 93,000 square meters, and able to produce solar panels of 5.7 square meters, making it the largest solar panel manufacturing plant in the Middle East.
The plant will generate 130 megawatts of power annually and will go into production in the last quarter of 2010.
Solar Technologies FZE CEO Dilip Rahulan states, “The mission of Solar Technologies is to accelerate the adoption of solar photovoltaic by rapidly expanding the manufacturing capacity and significantly reducing the cost of solar modules through innovations and manufacturing excellence.”
Why is this important to the future?
The building of the solar panel manufacturing plant is just one of the results of Dubai’s newest program, Green Dubai 2008. It also includes the green building initiative to be used in all buildings from now on as well as advances in sustainable development.
Managing director and CEO, Saeed Mohammed Al Tayer, says “We have explored alternative energies, namely wind power, solar power, and tidal power- we are conducting a feasibility study for other cheaper proven sources of energy.” Dubai’s city-wide initiative to create a green environment is the first in this part of the world.