Stories tagged solar power

Sun power: A new online mapping system tells you how strong the solar energy is where you live in Minnesota.
Sun power: A new online mapping system tells you how strong the solar energy is where you live in Minnesota.Courtesy Pujanak
Have you wondered how strong the sunshine is that falls near your home for solar power purposes? A team of University of Minnesota graduate students has mapped the solar suitability for locations all across the state. You can search it like a Google map and find out the power of the sunshine where you live.

Apr
13
2011

The new solar thermal array: And, yes, this was the largest photo I could find on short notice.
The new solar thermal array: And, yes, this was the largest photo I could find on short notice.Courtesy US Department of Energy
A couple of months ago, I noticed something happening on the roof of the RiverCentre, the big building across the street from the Science Museum. After noticing, however, I didn’t give it any more thought. This was for two reasons: because a couple of months ago it was approximately one billion degrees below zero here, and I didn’t want to stand outside looking at roofs any longer than I had to; and because I’m a firm believer that you shouldn’t stare too long at anything you aren’t certain about. Don’t believe me? Examples: the sun (it’ll burn your eyes), chimpanzees (they will literally tear you to pieces), and roadkill (it’s gross).

At any rate, it turned out that the goings-on on the RiverCentre roof would have been largely harmless to watch, and that they were a part of a big, interesting project that I hadn’t heard about—they were installing a large array of solar thermal panels.

Solar thermal panels, just as a reminder, aren’t exactly like the photovoltaic solar panels you might be thinking of. Unlike panels that use sunlight to produce electricity, solar thermal panels absorb the heat in sunlight (or solar radiation, if the distinction bugs you), and uses it to heat water.

So … the new solar array on the RiverCentre is a joint project between the RiverCentre itself, and St. Paul District Energy, another neighbor of the Science Museum, which supplies hot and cold water to buildings downtown for efficient heating and cooling. The array has 144 solar panels, altogether taking up about the area of half a football field, and they should be able to produce about 1 megawatt of power.

Now, compared to a 1,000-megawatt coal or nuclear power station, 1 measly megawatt probably doesn’t seem like much, but it’s nothing to sneeze at. A single megawatt is still approximately enough to power 1,000 homes. Sort of.

It depends on the average consumption of the homes in the area, which varies from region to region, but 1 megawatt is usually touted as the power consumed by 1000 homes. And, in any case, this is a little different, because it’s not feeding an electrical power grid, but a grid of heat energy for downtown—any extra heat that’s not used by the RiverCentre facilities will be fed back to District Energy, which will redistribute it around the city.

The new array is the largest of its kind in the Midwest, and, in addition to creating a local energy source (as opposed to buy coal or natural gas from somewhere else), it should reduce St. Paul’s carbon dioxide emissions by about 900,000 pounds annually—more or less the amount created by 90 vehicles in a year.

Again, 90 cars’ worth of CO2 may not seem like much, but it’s a start, and it’s kind of cool that that’s just from the panels on one building. And, with the help of a million and a half dollar stimulus from the Minnesota Office of Energy Security, a mix of solar thermal and photovoltaic solar panels are going to be installed on 10 more buildings along the Central Corridor. In addition to the new light rail line from St. Paul to Minneapolis, the Central Corridor is meant to be a showcase for a bunch of energy innovation projects. (Click that last link for a list of projects—there are a whole bunch.)

Pretty slick. (More info and links here.)

Mar
29
2011

It's a world leader in clean energy investment and clean coal research and development. Last year, it manufactured a third of the world's solar panels and wind turbines, and it's luring companies from all over the world to build factories there. It has recently made huge investments in clean energy education. But it's not America.

The green tide: Is green the new red?
The green tide: Is green the new red?Courtesy Jude Freeman

The country I'm describing is China. That's right--the world's newly-dubbed largest net emitter of greenhouse gasses. It isn't bound by reduction requirements under the Kyoto protocol, and its use of fossil fuels is powering a growing and booming economy. And yet, the Chinese are courting US companies with financial incentives to build clean tech factories and research centers in China. They're working to corner clean tech markets in California and South Africa. In fact, over the last three years, China has gone from controlling 2% of California's solar market to a whopping 46%--ousting its American competitors. And that's not all--the country has become a proving ground for clean coal with the guidance of US companies and researchers.

Oh, the terror: handouts from the Sun.
Oh, the terror: handouts from the Sun.Courtesy BrokenSphere

These companies hope to learn from their experiences testing clean coal tech in China, and bring that knowledge back to the US to transform our own polluting coal plants into next-generation powerhouses. So what's in it for the Chinese? They're quickly gaining lead on the cutting edge in green technology, making room for growth in the energy sector without increasing pollution or relying on foreign imports, and reaping economic benefits--and they foresee substantial economic benefits in the future, when they could be the major supplier of green technology and research to the world.

Given the US's slowing progress on clean technologies, what do you think this will mean for our future? Should we be trying to get on top of green tech research and development? Or is it best left to others? Or are those even the right questions--will we have the best success when we pool resources with other countries?

Why hasn't someone thought of this earlier? The Cincinnati Zoo has installed solar cells over about 800 spaces of its 1,000-car parking lot. The cells will generate enough electricity for about 20 percent of the zoo's power needs. And zoo visitors will return to cooler cars at the end of their visit.

This kid is contributing to alternative energy development: In his own way.
This kid is contributing to alternative energy development: In his own way.Courtesy jellywatson
I guess that the guy who invented the Super Soaker squirt gun is also kind of an all-around engineering genius. His company is currently developing a new kind of solar panel that converts heat (instead of light) into electricity. It could be a really big deal, or it could be slightly misplaced enthusiasm (see the "Bloom Box".)

In any case, read about it here. It's sort of exciting technology, and the inventor, Lonnie Johnson, has an interesting story.

Jul
15
2010

“…Welcome back, class. Please hand in your essays on the scientific fundamentals of phosphorus-driven eutrophication in the Gulf of Mexico, and note that our exam covering chapter eight, the Biogeochemistry of Acid Mine Drainage, will take place next Tuesday. Today we will be covering fluid bed catalytic oxidation, hazardous waste landfill leachates, and NIMBY. But, first, let’s take attendance: Bueller?... Bueller?... Bueller??”

Say what? “Nimby?” Girl, puh-lease! He just made that up… didn’t he??

It wasn’t long into my undergraduate stint as an Environmental Science major that I came across the word, “nimby.” Actually, it’s not a word at all. It’s an acronym, N.I.M.B.Y., standing for “Not In My BackYard,” that captures an important public attitude that affects environmental policymaking.

NIMBY explains many people’s attitude towards environmental policies, capturing sentiments like,

“That’s such a cool and important idea! As long as it’s not actually happening in my community, that is.”

“Whatever. I don’t care so long as I don’t have to see it everyday.”

NIMBY: Yuck.  Who wants to look out their bedroom window and see a mountain of trash?  Not these guys.
NIMBY: Yuck. Who wants to look out their bedroom window and see a mountain of trash? Not these guys.Courtesy The Voice of Eye

Think About It

Do you like having your trash removed from your home? Most everyone does. But, would you like having a landfill in your backyard? Almost nobody does. This is the classic example of NIMBY. Nearly everyone likes having their trash collected from their property and transported out of sight and smell, yet someone, somewhere has to live beside a mountain of trash. As long as we’re not the ones living across the street from the landfill, most of us are satisfied with this method of garbage disposal. The same idea goes for wastewater treatment facilities as well.

Another classic example is nuclear power. Some people support nuclear power as an inexpensive and “clean” alternative to fossil fuels like oil and natural gas. However, the construction, maintenance, and decommissioning of a nuclear power plant poses risks and creates radioactive waste. Whether or not you think the risks and waste production are acceptable consequences depends largely on your proximity to the plant and/or ultimate disposal site for the nuclear waste.

A recent example of NIMBY is occurring in California this summer as covered in Green, a New York Times blog. In a valley near Santa Clara, Martifer Renewables canceled their plan to build a hybrid solar power plant. Set on 640 acres of agricultural land, the plant was supposed to produce electricity by solar power during the day and biomass burning by night. How sweet is that?? A 24-hour source of renewable energy! The California utility PG&E thought it was a great idea too and signed a 20-year power purchase agreement for 106.8 megawatts, which became part of their energy portfolio. PG&E must obtain 20% of its electricity from renewable resources by December of this year and another 13% (for 33% total) by 2020, as mandated by California state energy goals. Now that the project is canceled, PG&E will have to look elsewhere for sources of renewable electricity or risk missing their mandated targets.

Regarding the canceled project, Martifer executive, Miguel Lobo, wrote in a June 17th letter that,

“We were not able at this time to resolve some of our issues regarding project economics and biomass supply amongst other things.”

What Lobo was likely referring to are the complaints of local residents and regulators who contested several aspects of the project. Chief amongst the complaints was the around-the-clock operation made possible by burning biomass. What exactly were they so excited about? Noise, waste, and air pollution – all realities of energy production, yet things we’d rather not experience ourselves. In short, NIMBY.

Alright, so what?

Now that I’ve opened your eyes to the existence of NIMBY, you might be wondering how it influences environmental policymaking. The easiest answer is that environmental policymakers seek to find a balance between the conflicting desires for new technology like this power plant and local opposition and the NIMBY attitude. Often both sides make compromises and projects move forward on a slightly different path than previously proposed. However, as in the California case of Martifer Renewables, occasionally a project is completely scrapped. Other times, the project proceeds as originally planned. Which of the outcomes occurs depends largely on the organization and influence of the local opposition. In turn, this often raises issues of environmental or eco-justice.

Clearly our modern society cannot exist without landfills or wastewater treatment facilities as smelly and unsightly as they may be. Whether or not nuclear or other renewable energy power plants are equally necessary today is debatable, but it’s not hard to imagine a future in which they will be. If no one agreed to have these facilities in their community, life as we know it would be very different. This begs the question: how do you think policymakers should balance the needs of society at large against the NIMBY attitude of locals?

Old-fashioned.  Now out of date?: Solar cells have been around for decades, but with low-efficiency and high manufacturing costs, they have yet to be adapted into our everyday life.  Could new interdisciplinary research by the University of Minnesota make solar power more efficient and affordable?
Old-fashioned. Now out of date?: Solar cells have been around for decades, but with low-efficiency and high manufacturing costs, they have yet to be adapted into our everyday life. Could new interdisciplinary research by the University of Minnesota make solar power more efficient and affordable?Courtesy Andrej Salov

This month University of Minnesota researchers have developed a technique to better capture solar energy using 'quantum dots,' a type of nanoparticle. Researcher William Tisdale said, while

“This work is a necessary but not sufficient step for building very high-efficiency solar cells. It provides a motivation for researchers to work on quantum dots and solar cells based on quantum dots.”

The technology could improve solar energy efficiency from 30 to 66 percent! That's incredible. Furthermore, the improvements may also cut manufacturing costs (and carbon footprints) by removing the need for high temperature processing. The ramifications for nanotechnology and clean energy abound.

Feb
01
2010

Yes, of course I'm in a tobacco field: You guys figured out what?! But how? Of course... with a virus! I'll meet you at the tobaccoratory!
Yes, of course I'm in a tobacco field: You guys figured out what?! But how? Of course... with a virus! I'll meet you at the tobaccoratory!Courtesy Lauras512
Yeah, I’ll tell you what it can’t do: it can’t get that stink out of my freakin’ mittens.

But, besides that, tobacco is an interesting plant, and useful for a lot more than giving us cancer and temporary good feelings. Currently, some scientists are thinking that tobacco might be able to give us electricity-producing solar panels too.

It all started one sunny afternoon, when two scientists were lying in an open patch in a tobacco field, holding hands and watching the occasional cloud drift by.

“Isn’t tobacco great?” asked the first scientist.

“Yes,” sighed the second. She had just woven a bracelet from tobacco leaves, and was feeling like there couldn’t be a better plant in the world.

“But, really,” the first continued. “It’s really great.”

“Yes…” said the second, wondering where her colleague was going with the thought.

“Like, it sits here all day, just being tobacco…” started the first scientist.

“Which is great,” interrupted the second scientist.

“Which is great,” agreed the first scientist. Then she went on. “And it’s so good at sitting here, absorbing the sun… I wonder… I wonder…”

“Wonder what?” asked the second scientist, propping herself up on one elbow to look at the other scientist.

“Well, I wonder if we couldn’t use tobacco’s sunlight-gathering abilities to make, you know, solar cells. For electricity.”

The first scientist let herself sink back on to the ground, brushing dirt from the arm of her white lab coat. “You’re drunk,” she said.

“No! Well… maybe a little,” admitted the first scientist. “But I think it could work. Tobacco has evolved to have its chromophores—its sunlight-gathering molecules…”

“I know what a chromophore is,” said the second scientist.

“To have its chromophores very efficiently spaced out in its cells,” the first scientist went on. “If we could just figure out a way to make tobacco produce more chromophores, we could extract them from the plant, and coat solar cells with them. It could be a cheap, environmentally friendly way to make solar panels!”

“But how are we going to entice tobacco to produce more chromophores? By asking politely?” pointed out the second scientist.

“Yeah…” The first scientist frowned. “Yeah, I suppose you’re right. Never mind.”

In the warm air of the sunny tobacco patch, the suggestion was soon forgotten, and the first scientist drifted off to sleep. The second scientist played with the new tobacco bracelet on her wrist, and wrinkled her nose as a gentle gust of wind blew dust through the surrounding plants. She sneezed.

“Wait a second!” The second scientist shook the first scientist awake, looking excited. “What if we infected the tobacco with a virus?”

“What?” asked the first scientist sleepily, having all but forgotten about the idea.

“We could engineer a tobacco virus that would cause the plants to make more chromophores!” She gestured at the field around them. “We could just spray it on the field, like… like… like a giant sneeze!”

The first scientist jerked upright and gripped the second scientist’s shoulders tightly, her expression so intense it was frightening. The green of the tobacco all around them reflected in her eyes, giving her a Bruce Banner-ish, pre-hulk out look. The second scientist shivered.

“You,” whispered the first scientist, “are… a… genius!”

And that’s pretty much how it all went down.

This sort of thing takes time, though, so we shouldn’t expect the big tobacco/solar power juggernaut to get off the couch any time soon. Tobacco’s natural chromophore arrangement makes chains of molecules that could be ideal for absorbing light on solar panels, but they haven’t been made to produce electric current just yet. Once that gets figured out, however, it could lead to cheaper solar cells, with some biodegradable components. (On the other hand, they would likely have a shorter lifespan than other types of solar panels, but, hey, who doesn’t like throwing stuff away now and again?)

Dec
06
2009

Eureka!: At last!  The world will be mine!
Eureka!: At last! The world will be mine!Courtesy Saperaud
Looking for a winter “project”? Why not invent something during your hibernation. You might make a million dollars! Or, in the case of an Amsterdam artist slash space engineer, who must enjoy a good laugh, you could invent a wacky mirror and convince the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences to give you 80,000 Euros for your amazing “scientific instrument”! Called the Cyclops Mirror, when you look through it, your right eye sees your left eye and vice versa. As you get closer your reflection turns into a single cycloptic eye. Cool. But 80,000 Euro cool? Haven’t I seen this at the House of Mirrors at the carnival?

For the more ambitious, you could invent something practical or even wacky and sell it online. For the environmentally friendly scientist, how about inventing a wooden cell phone? Too late. Check out this biodegradable wood phone that even has a camera. How about solar power technology? What soccer fan wouldn’t want a solar powered soccer ball shaped mini fan for those heated summer games. Or for those cold winter days, how about solar powered hat and mittens (I might have to get a set of these)!

Want to get rich quick in two ways? Invent some metal detector sandals and then go find some ancient treasures! Just strap on these groovy shoes and keep your hands free for carrying your treasure hoard. The detecting device strapped to your ankle is discretely hidden under your trousers so the neighbors don’t think you are on house arrest!
Treasure Island: If only Jim Hawkins had the handy new metal detector shoes, he wouldn't have ran into trouble with those pirates!
Treasure Island: If only Jim Hawkins had the handy new metal detector shoes, he wouldn't have ran into trouble with those pirates!Courtesy Wittkowsky

Check out these websites for more invention fun, get started on your next great creation and take over the world!

http://www.ideaconnection.com/new-inventions/
http://www.inventionreaction.com/
http://www.livescience.com/inventions/

Oct
23
2009

A solar home and a rainy day DC: This is the University of Minnesota's "ICON" solar home. Even beyond MN solidarity, ICON was one of my favorites. It ended up getting the top scores in the engineering and lighting competition, and 5th place over all.
A solar home and a rainy day DC: This is the University of Minnesota's "ICON" solar home. Even beyond MN solidarity, ICON was one of my favorites. It ended up getting the top scores in the engineering and lighting competition, and 5th place over all.Courtesy JGordon
Ahoy, Buzzketeers. Sorry, it’s been a few days since I’ve posted, but, see, I’ve been traveling… to the future.

By the way, I consider the east coast to be the future, because, you know, whatever time it is here… it’s an hour later there! I often call my friends in New York just to ask what I should expect in the next hour. “Loneliness,” they say.

But this weekend I too got to see the future with my own eyes. And I will tell you this: the weather is awful, but the houses are pretty sweet.

I attended the final two days of the Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon in Washington DC. Art did a post on the Decathlon last week, but here’s a quick refresher: the Solar Decathlon is an architecture, design and engineering challenge, sponsored by the US Department of Energy, in which colleges and universities from around the world (mostly from the United States) compete to build the best solar-powered home. The houses are judged in ten categories: architecture, engineering, market viability, lighting design, communications, comfort zone (temperature and humidity), hot water, appliances, home entertainment and net metering. The intention is to build a home excelling in those categories that gets all its energy (and more, sometimes) from the sun. The houses in this competition were all approximately 800 square feet, and designed accommodate one couple each.

Obtaining and using solar energy (through both photovoltaics, for turning light into electricity, and solar thermal, for gathering heat from solar radiation) is, of course, a major focus in the houses, but there was a lot more to the houses’ innovations than the arrays of solar panels. Everything is engineered to use as little electricity as possible, so windows are placed to get the maximum amount of light during the day, hot water is used to heat the house and (in the case of Minnesota’s house) dehumidify the air (see the picture and caption), and everything was carefully insulated according to the environment the house was designed for. In Arizona’s house, for instance, the windows on the southern wall were filled with water, which would absorb heat during the day, and radiate it back off during the cool night, while the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign insulated their home so thoroughly that they claim it could be heated with a handheld hair dryer. Many of the houses used energy so efficiently that they would—over the course of a full year—produce more energy than they used, and could feed the surplus electricity back into the grid, essentially selling it to the power company.
Team Germany's house took first place: I didn't get to go inside this one, but the outside was very... cubey. But, located even further east, Germany is far in the future, so naturally things would be a little different there.
Team Germany's house took first place: I didn't get to go inside this one, but the outside was very... cubey. But, located even further east, Germany is far in the future, so naturally things would be a little different there.Courtesy JGordon

I was able to get into 19 of the 20 houses (the line to the house that took first place, Germany’s, was just too long), and they were all quite nice. None of them had the feeling that I think is sometimes associated with “green” products—that is, that they won’t do whatever they’re supposed to do as well as the products we’re used to. The things that seemed “off” to me were design decisions that weren’t necessarily associated with energy use (I’m just not into wet bathrooms, I wouldn’t want an exterior door opening into my bedroom—that sort of thing). The problem I had with most of the houses was, ironically, that they were too nice.
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign: The second place house. Not a great picture. Imagine the rest as looking like this, but stretched into a rectangle. This was the only certified "passive house." Its insulation and air exchange system make the house extremely efficient to heat and cool.
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign: The second place house. Not a great picture. Imagine the rest as looking like this, but stretched into a rectangle. This was the only certified "passive house." Its insulation and air exchange system make the house extremely efficient to heat and cool.Courtesy JGordon

In ensuring that the houses would be both very energy efficient and very comfortable, almost all of the teams ended up with pretty expensive projects, even though the contest limited the houses to a footprint of about 800 square feet. This site lists estimates of construction costs of the homes, and as steep as they are, I’m not sure they’re totally accurate—maybe it was just gossip, but some of the architects were saying that a couple teams’ projects ran up to and over a million dollars, which doesn’t seem to be reflected on the Solar Decathlon’s official page. Only Rice University’s house, built for a lower income couple, was less than $200,000 dollars. Most of the homes cost several times that.
Team California walked away with 3rd place: A man wearing a garbage bag admires the elegant $450,000-$650,000 home from outside.
Team California walked away with 3rd place: A man wearing a garbage bag admires the elegant $450,000-$650,000 home from outside.Courtesy JGordon

I understand that these are prototype structures, and that their costs would be significantly reduced if they were mass produced, but even dropping $100,000 off a $600,000, 800 square foot house still leaves you with an awfully expensive house that most people (including the designers) would consider too small for an average family. The homes were built with particular markets in mind, and those markets were generally young, professional couples (with money) or retiring couples (with money), but if the point of the competition was to make progress in sustainable design… well, that doesn’t make much sense. Sustainable solar architecture has to be something that most of the people in the world could afford to take advantage of. Even if everybody in the world who could afford to buy a very small, half a million dollar solar powered house did, I don’t think it would make much difference to the planet’s consumption of non-renewable resources. It would be interesting to see family-sized solar homes built, or systems that could power an apartment complex… something like that. I’m sure the architects and engineers involved would be totally capable of that, but it wasn’t the nature of this competition.
ICON's desiccant dehumidifier: A chemical solution (basically road salt and water) sucks moisture out of the air as it passes through the clear tube. Heat from the solar thermal panels "recharges" the solution when it gets too saturated. Way more efficient than compressor dehumidifiers
ICON's desiccant dehumidifier: A chemical solution (basically road salt and water) sucks moisture out of the air as it passes through the clear tube. Heat from the solar thermal panels "recharges" the solution when it gets too saturated. Way more efficient than compressor dehumidifiersCourtesy JGordon

It was still all very cool, and it’s neat to see what people come up with when they aren’t really bound by the above practicalities. Maybe seeing new, innovative features in beautiful little luxury homes will get people excited about using them on a larger scale, or implementing them into their older houses.
The ICON home's solar array: On the far left are solar thermal panels, in the middle are regular photovoltaic panels, and on the right are glass photovoltaic panels that can absorb light from both sides. The latter form a wall for the mudroom, and part of the awning above the deck.
The ICON home's solar array: On the far left are solar thermal panels, in the middle are regular photovoltaic panels, and on the right are glass photovoltaic panels that can absorb light from both sides. The latter form a wall for the mudroom, and part of the awning above the deck.Courtesy JGordon

I’ll toss some pictures of the event up with this post, but then I need to get back to trying to adjust back to the present time. I mean, for most of y’all, it’s like 3:00. But for me it’s like 4:00. I’ve got to get out and buy some lottery tickets before this wears off.