Tag Archives: Solar

Glimpsing the Future of Solar Energy

15 Sep

One thing I like about being a science writer, and about writing a book about renewable energy, is that I get to talk with (and learn from) some of the smartest people on the planet.

For example, this morning I spoke with Michael Strano, an associate professor of chemical engineering at MIT.  After a twenty minute phone call, I came away with nothing less than a glimpse into the future of solar energy.

Strano works with carbon nanotubes–tiny, microns-wide structures that can channel atomic and subatomic particles in ways that have all sorts of industrial and technological applications.  I was interested in Strano’s work on using carbon nanotubes to enhance the absorptive power and hence efficiency of solar cells.  The science is complex, but in a nutshell in involves using carbon nanotubes as antenna or funnels to attract and channel sunlight in concentrated form onto the semiconducting surface of a solar cell.

The implications of this research are far reaching.  One of the holy grails of solar PV research is figuring out ways to make solar cells more powerful and efficient without making them more expensive.  Some solutions involve using mirrors to concentrate sunlight onto PV panels or boilers.  Strano’s method does essentially the same thing, only without the need for expensive and delicate mirrors.

Carbon nanotubes are relatively easy and inexpensive to make.  Large companies like Bayer are not manufacturing them in bulk for all sorts of commercial purposes.  PV cells enhanced with carbon nanotubes are still a ways off, but if what Strano was telling me is accurate, they’re coming.  And they very might might blaze an entirely new path in solar PV development.

You can listen to my interview with Strano here.  And learn more about Strano’s research here.

Obama says no to Carter solar panels

14 Sep

A few months back I posted an editorial about whether Obama should put solar panels back on the White House roof.  A few days ago, Obama rebuffed Bill McKibben, an environmentalist who tried to persuade the President to put one of Jimmy Carter‘s original solar panels back up on the White House.  Read a NYTimes piece about it here.  Long story short, the pres, through a few-aids, said, “no thanks.”

This is the sort of story that will raise hay among environmentalists, among right-wing anti-environmentalists, among renewable energy advocates, and so forth.  But let’s be clear–it’s a non-story. Carter’s solar panel are more than 30 years old.  If Obama is going to go solar on the White House, he should (and hopefully would) go with a state-of-the art system–something that would highlight the latest in PV and/or thermal solar tech. It makes absolutely no sense for Obama to run with an antiquated technology.

Whether or not Obama should promote solar tech of any kind by sticking on the White House roof is another question.  But I hope the McKibben story doesn’t get blown out of proportion.

Solar on the White House

15 Jun

As oil continues to gush into the Gulf of Mexico and climate and clean energy legislation remains stalled in the Senate, President Obama has an opportunity to do more than criticize BP’s bumbling CEO, Tony Hayward, and lend lip service to the need for alternative energy.  He can put solar panels back on the White House roof.

That’s the thrust of a citizen action campaign called “Globama,” led by the solar energy company Sungevity, which has offered to donate and install a photovoltaic array on the White house at no cost to the Obamas or to taxpayers.  According to the campaign’s online petition, should President Obama take Sungevity up on its offer, “this achievement will be an important symbol to the world that the United States is committed to realizing that environmental and economic benefits of clean energy.”

So should the president go solar? Before deciding, Obama might consider what happened the last time one of his predecessors invested in solar energy.

As many readers will no doubt remember, in 1979 Jimmy Carter unveiled a thermal hot water solar system bolted to the White House roof.  “A generation from now,” the president told assembled reporters, “this solar heater can either be a curiosity, a museum piece, an example of a road not taken, or it can be a small part of one of the greatest and most exciting adventures ever undertaken by the American people—harnessing the power of the sun to enrich our lives as we move away from our crippling dependence on foreign oil.”

Roughly a generation on, Carter’s solar panels have in fact become a museum piece.  In 1986, then-president Ronald Reagan had the panels removed during routine White House roof maintenance and never bothered replacing them.  After languishing in federal storage for the better part of a decade, the system was donated to environmentally minded Unity College, in Maine, where they were mounted on the school’s cafeteria.  Today, one of the panels is on display at the Carter Presidential Library and Museum in Atlanta.

From one perspective, then, the story of Jimmy Carter’s adventures in solar energy reads like a cautionary tale.  Any president who puts some attention-grabbing, trendy technology on the roof of arguably the world’s most famous building is merely providing his successor the opportunity to score political points by tearing the thing down.

But there’s another side to the story—one that most readers may not recall.  For Carter in 1979, the solar panels were a symbolic gesture meant to garner support for his proposed $100 million “solar energy bank” initiative, with a goal of generating 20% of U.S. power from alternative energy sources by 2000. To fund the plan, Carter urged Congress to pass a “windfall profits” tax on the domestic oil industry and approve subsidies to encourage developers to install solar panels on new and existing buildings.

As a public relations stunt, the solar panels worked.  Stories and op/eds in the days following the rooftop press conference were largely supportive.  The few dissenting voices criticized Carter for not doing enough to encourage solar and other alternative sources of energy.  Such enthusiasm was characteristic of mounting interest in clean, renewable energy technologies since the onset of the energy crisis in 1973.  In April of 1979, just months before Carter’s solar plan went public, this newspaper reported on a study claiming that investing in solar energy would create as many as 3 million jobs by 1990.

In the end, the Iran hostage crisis scuttled both Carter’s bid for reelection and his plans for a solar-powered America.  Reagan’s landslide victory in 1980, his hands-off approach to energy policy (he tried, unsuccessfully, to dissolve the newly established Department of Energy) and falling oil and gas prices largely quashed public interest in solar energy.

So, given this recent history of solar panels on the White House, should Obama go that route?

In a word, yes.  With oil and gas prices hovering around mid-1970s levels (in today’s dollars), pervasive worry about climate change, and outrage over the BP oil spill, the time is ripe for Obama to throw the full weight of his support behind solar and other renewable energy technologies.  Unlike the politically motivated energy crisis of the 1970s, today’s energy challenges are all too real, and many people around the world seem ready to envision an energy future beyond fossil fuels.

To be sure, putting a solar array on the White House won’t solve our energy problems.  But it would be a potent symbol of the president’s commitment and willingness to support initiatives that will start us on a path toward clean, renewable power.  And given the fact that our many energy-related problems are here for the long haul, it won’t be so easy for Obama’s successor to rip the panels down.

Solar Climax

1 Apr

A renewable energy historical tidbit that probably amuses only me …

In 1891, a Baltimore inventor made the first commercial solar water heater in the U.S. He called it the “Climax.” He later came out with a new version called the “Improved Climax.”

Chances are we’re not going to see a solar energy product with that name again.

Colorado Research Trip Pics

26 Mar

Just got back from my Colorado research trip. Very successful. I met with scientists and researchers from the Rocky Mountain Institute, UC Boulder, Colorado State, SunDrop Biofuels, the Denver International Airport’s solar installations, and other places. I learned a lot, got great material, and took a lot of pictures …

Rocky Mountain Institute office in Boulder, CO

Notice the straight air ducts descending diagonally from the ceiling. They’re designed to channel air more efficiently than ducts with numerous twists and turns. The RMI building also features windows specially treated to trap solar heat and lots of natural lighting.

RMI’s non-water-flushing toilet.

SunDrop Biofuel’s solar collecting tower. Thousands of mirrors reflect sunlight onto a large plate that heats to around 1200 degrees C. The heat is used to turn a mixture of woodchips and chemicals into gas that’s then refined into gasoline and diesel.

A smart grid test station at Colorado State, in Fort Collins.

A large wind turbine barely visible through a dense snowstorm at the National Wind Technology Center.

A many-tubed apparatus at NREL’s wind-to-hydrogen project using solar and wind-generated electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen is stored and used in fuel cells and internal combustion engines.

Part of a wind turbine blade. These things are freaking huge. On the largest turbines, each blade is somewhere in the neighborhood of 80 feet long. So in terms of sheer length and width, a rotating large scale turbine is like a spinning football field.

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