Tag Archives: solar energy

What I Learned Writing a Chapter About Solar Energy

22 Sep
On 140 acres of unused land on Nellis Air Forc...

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So I just finished a draft of a chapter on solar energy.  Which is good.  Always good to come to the nominal end of a chunk of the book, even if it still needs polishing.

The process of diving into the world of solar energy and figuring out how to write about it was interesting. Tiring, frightening, overwhelming and sometimes tedious, too.  But always interesting.  Going in, I had a decent understanding of the basics–how solar cells work, that large solar farms were popping up around the world, that advances in solar tech were making daily headlines.  What I didn’t know was how much of what I heard about was substantial, and how much was marketing/PR bluster.  I also knew very little about the long, complicated history of solar energy.  Like most non-experts (and even many solar insiders, probably), I assumed that the solar technologies in vogue today began in the 1970s.  I was only about three or four centuries off.

Now, after 5 months of immersing myself in the history, technology, politics, and economics of solar energy, I think I’ve learned a thing or two about where solar’s been, where it is, and where it’s going.  Here’s how I put it near the end of the chapter …

If the history of solar energy innovation teaches us anything, it’s that even the most ingenious, well-designed schemes for producing cheap, reliable power from the sun face daunting roadblocks on the road to commercial success.  Yet that same history also shows us that a legacy of solar innovation marred by failed plans and dashed dreams has done little to discourage a new generation of 21st century solar pioneers from taking up the mantle and forging ahead.  If anything, new solar technologies (or, more accurately, new variations on old ideas) have mushroomed at an astonishing pace.  While I was researching this book, hardly a day went by without coming across headlines touting a new breakthrough in solar panel efficiency or the construction of “The World’s Largest Solar Farm” (of which, apparently, there are dozens).

Not that headlines tell the whole story.  After all, one goal of this book is to look beyond the headlines to get a clearer sense of what’s happening on the ground and in the lab.  After visiting working solar farms and commercial-scale solar panel factories; having visited pilot concentrating solar plants and meeting with researchers experimenting on the outer edges of solar innovation; after months spent delving into the history of solar engineering—I come away having learned a few things.

First, that the ultimate success of solar energy—the “solar revolution” that so many green activists envision—is no more assured of happening today than it was a century and a half ago when August Mouchot’s solar motor turned heads at the Paris World’s Fair.  In a world where energy consumption—driven by exploding populations and economies in China, India, and elsewhere in the developing world—is growing exponentially, solar energy, for all of its triumphs in recent years, still plays a very, very small role in meeting the planet’s demand for useable power.  And there is very little evidence that even most the astonishing advances in solar cell efficiency and power (or concentrating solar power or any other solar technology) will be able to meet a sizeable percentage of this demand. This reality is important to keep in mind when reading breathless articles in the popular press about the latest breakthrough that will supposedly change the world as we know it.[1] Because we’re in the midst of a breathtaking revolution in information technology, we’ve come to expect (and even gotten accustomed to) new technologies that appear out of nowhere and, like magic, change forever how we communicate, socialize, and even think and see the world around us.  But in the world of energy, there are no equivalents to Google or the iPad.  Unlike software and more like the auto industry, the world of energy is a complex mesh of infrastructure (oil and gas pipelines, railroads for coal transport, electricity transmission lines and so on—the vast majority of which has been built by and is geared toward fossil fuel industries), local and federal government policy, and powerful, multinational energy companies whose influence extends into virtually every sector of the global economy.  In short, solar energy, like all renewable energy technologies, will have to struggle uphill to blossom in a way that everyone I interviewed for this chapter hopes will one day happen.

And yet …

… the story of solar energy doesn’t end there.  Because the second big lesson I learned is that judging a technology or industry based only on what it isn’t, or on what it has yet to accomplish, can lead to some misguided and just plain wrong conclusions.  Compare the energy output of the world’s solar farm to that of the world’s coal-fired power plants and, yes, solar seems puny.  But consider solar technology today in contrast to where it stood only thirty years ago, when Jimmy Carter unveiled his White House solar panels, and a different story takes shape.  We may not yet live in a world where thin-film solar panels shingle every roof, or where vast solar farms have begun to displace coal-fired power plants, but the potential and widespread desire for those high-tech dreams to become reality has never been greater.  Again, in the world of renewable energy, no one technology or idea or grand vision is a sure bet.  But seen through the lens of history, and from the perspective of the dozens of scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs I spoke with (and thousands more around the world), solar is on a roll the likes of which would have seemed utterly fantastic only a few decades ago.

[1]For example, I found an article published in Popular Science in 2007 hyperventilating over Nanosolar’s then-groundbreaking “PowerSheet” technology—basically semiconducting nano-ink printed on thin, flexible metal sheets.  Dan Kammen, founding director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at UC Berkeley, is quoted as saying that “You’ve talking about printing rolls of the stuff—printing it on the roofs of 18-wheeler trailer, printing it on garages, printing it where you want.”  Several years on, have you ever seen or heard or a solar-powered 18-wheeler?  Neither have I.  And it’s most likely not because PowerSheet solar panels don’t work as advertised.  It’s more a matter of the complexity of integrating solar panels with something like a truck.

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Chapter Excerpt: Aubrey Eneas and the Birth of Solar Steam Power

3 Aug

In the winter of 1901, tourists enjoying the luxurious weather and swanky resort hotels of southern California were intrigued by a handbill widely distributed throughout Pasadena, Altadena and nearby towns.  “Visit the Ostrich Farm—100 Gigantic Birds,” the bill proclaimed in bold typeface above a black and white photo of the long-necked, prehistoric-looking creatures.  The farm, owned and operated by transplanted British entrepreneur Edwin Cawston, was the only one of its kind in the United States and a well-established attraction in the early decades of the 20th century.  Cawston had started out, in the mid 1880s, with 50 ostriches imported from Africa.  By the second decade of the new century, more than 1000 birds roamed the grounds.  Visitors, most of whom had never seen a live ostrich, paid to gawk at and feed the awkward birds, while farm hands entertained the crowds by riding the exotic creatures bare-back .  The Cawston farm was also well known in the fashion industry for its prize-wining ostrich feathers, then in high demand for women’s hats and feather boas.  Plucked once every nine months and dyed a rainbow of alluring colors, Cawston’s feathers achieved international fame when they won first prize at the Paris World’s Fair in 1900.

Beyond the farm’s usual attractions, however, the 1901 ad featured an extra enticement—a giant, concentrating solar motor, “the only machine of its kind in the world in daily operation,” according to the handbill, on display for no extra charge. Like the Parisians who’d marveled at solar pioneer Augustin Mouchot’s industrious sun machine at the Paris World’s Fair in 1878, the crowds that flocked to Cawston’s ostrich farm were astonished by the contraption on display—an 8300-pound monstrosity that, similar to Mouchot’s motor, featured a conical reflector consisting of more than 1700 mirrors focusing sunlight onto a long cylindrical boiler at its center.  Even Mouchot, though, would have marveled at the new motor’s towering size.  The mirrored cone had more than 700 feet of surface and measured 35 feet across at its wide end, easily doubling the reflecting capacity of Mouchot’s largest machine.  The apparatus was hitched to a track running the length of a vertical, lightweight steel tower that allowed a clock mechanism to keep the mirror angled toward the sun throughout the day.  What was most astonishing for inhabitants of arid southern California, though, was that the motor, running on nothing more than sunbeams, pumped more than 1400 gallons of water per minute, transforming the normally dry, dusty farm into a lush garden overflowing with colorful, fragrant flowers.  Drawing newspaper reporters from across the country, the device achieved national fame, including being featured on collectable cards inside packs of Wills’s Cigarettes.

The celebrated solar machine was the work of Aubrey Eneas, like Cawston a native Englishman who’d relocated to the United States to seek his fortune.  An inventor and engineer based in Boston, Eneas drew inspiration from the work of fellow immigrant John Ericsson, the famous Swiss-born engineer whose design for the ironclad steam-powered battleship The Monitor was widely credited for swinging the tide of the American Civil War to the Union side.  Like Mouchot, Ericsson believed that the industrial revolution would soon founder for lack of coal, and also like his French contemporary saw solar power as an intriguing, more sustainable alternative.  Although Ericsson’s experiments with solar motors powered by both steam and hot air never advanced beyond the prototype stage, his efforts sparked the imaginations of other American inventors, including Aubrey Eneas, who founded the Solar Motor Company of Boston in 1892.  From his base in the coal-rich east, Eneas saw opportunity in the arid deserts of the American southwest, where a growing need for steam-powered irrigation and lack of easily accessible (and therefore cheap) coal presented a seemingly ripe opportunity for solar power.  After experimenting briefly with an Ericsson-like device using a parabolic, trough-shaped reflector that had the detriment of heating only one side of the boiler, Eneas adopted Mouchot’s conical reflector design to heat the boiler more evenly and efficiently, producing a greater volume of steam.  By chopping off the bottom end of the cone and making the side more upright, Eneas increased the amount of sunlight heating the boiler, raising an average temperature of 1000 degrees Fahrenheit—more than enough, by Eneas’ calculations, to produce steam at industrial levels.

Although the machine Eneas put on display at Cawston’s farm was successful, it was only the first step in an ambitious campaign to entrench solar energy as a leading source of power in the American southwest.  Building on his triumph at the farm, in 1903 Eneas relocated the Solar Motor Company from Boston to Los Angeles and began aggressively marketing his machine throughout the region.  Before long, Eneas made his first sale, to Arizona rancher Alexander Chandler.  A startlingly handsome man with an impressive, Franz-Joseph style sideburns and moustache, Chandler had made his living as a veterinarian, with a thriving practice in Detroit.  But from a young age, growing up in Quebec, Canada, Chandler had dreamed of cattle ranching in the mythic American West.  When, in 1887, a post for a veterinary surgeon opened in the Arizona territory, Chandler jumped at the opportunity.  Pursuing his dream, Chandler soon began buying hundreds of acres of land to establish the Chandler Ranch south of Phoenix.  Recognizing that irrigating his land would cost a fortune in imported coal to pump water up from the low-lying Salt River, Chandler was open to alternatives.  Eneas’s celebrated solar engine seemed the perfect fit.  Although the upfront cost of $2160 was steep at a time when the average yearly family income was around $700, Chandler saw the benefits of a device that, once up and running, would soon pay for itself by obviating the need for expensive coal.  As soon as it was installed, in the scorching summer of 1903, the solar engine began to pay off, pumping thousands of gallons onto Chandler’s sun-baked land.

After centuries of unrealized dreams and false starts, it seemed, solar energy’s day had finally come.  Until, a week later, when it came crashing down—literally.  The great bulk and spacious reflective surface area that made Eneas’s machine so powerful was also its greatest weakness.  The massive but delicate device was vulnerable to high winds and other inclement weather, and during a windstorm the part holding the boiler erect gave way, sending the heavy tube crashing down onto the mirrored cone.  Smashed into thousands of shiny, jagged pieces, the reflector was damaged beyond repair.  Although Chandler was undaunted and had the machine rebuilt, the incident spelled the beginning of the end for Eneas’s solar dreams.  The few other machines he sold met similar fates—one destroyed by a “dust devil” (a mini-tornado common in Arizona), the other by a hailstorm.  His reputation ruined by the weather-related disasters and unable to secure more funding from his East Coast backers, Eneas left the solar power business and dropped out of the history of solar energy.


Nothing Really New Under the Sun

22 Jun

Leonardo's solar mirror notes

I’ve spent the last few weeks digging into the long, strange history of solar energy. We humans are the best tool makers this planet has ever seen, and we’re also the most arrogant. Because we always believe (or like to believe) that stuff we invent today is brand, spanking new. But of course it’s not. Not really. Everything comes from somewhere. So, for example, some of the most cutting edge solar power plants use a combination of mirrors and PV solar cells to generate electricity or, in some cases, to make biofuel. It’s cool, cutting edge stuff. But the use of “burning mirrors” dates back at least to the ancient Greeks, who fashioned curved mirrors of polished brass to light ceremonial fires in their temples.  Famous figures such as Leonardo da Vinci and Roger Bacon experimented with using mirrors to light fires and melt metal, as well as lesser known scientists such as Athanasius Kircher (a 17th century German Jesuit priest) and German mechanic Peter Hoesen, who successfully built a parabolic mirror ten feet in diameter.

I’ve found two excellent books on the history of solar energy–Frank Kryza’s The Power of Light: The Epic Story of Man’s Quest to Harness The Sun, and A Golden Thread: 2500 Years of Solar Architecture and Technology, by Ken Butti and John Perlin.  I highly recommend these books for anyone interested in learning more about how solar energy technology has evolved over the centuries.

Solar Umbrellas

20 Aug

Cool article in MIT Tech Review on thin sheets of printed solar cells used to coat umbrellas that can then provide power for cell phones, laptops, etc.

Read the article here.

Yet another example of how alt energy is making small but intriguing inroads into daily life.

The more I think about it, the more I realize that to really get renewable energy, you have to think both globally and locally. The big energy companies and government centers are leading the way. But there’s just as much if not more renewable energy innovation happening in small start ups and small towns.

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