California’s aggressive energy rules require its utilities to hit an ambitious target: 20 percent of their electricity should come from renewable sources by the end of this year. They’re not going to make it. But because of the drive for renewables, they are close to building some of the biggest solar power projects in the country—including one that would be the biggest ever.
The Beacon Solar Energy Project received the seal of approval from the California Energy Commission (CEC) this week. Beacon will be a 250-megawatt plant built north of Los Angeles near Mojave, California, and would cover more than 2,000 acres.
Beacon is solar thermal: Rather than converting sunlight to electricity through photovoltaic cells, solar thermal projects use mirrors to concentrate the heat of the sun, creating steam to turn turbines.
California hasn’t issued a license for this kind of big “solar thermal” power plant in about 20 years. But in the coming months, the energy commission will vote on eight other, large-scale solar projects that the state needs to meet its renewable energy goals. [San Francisco Chronicle]
After mashing up rock and algae chunks known as stromatolites, researchers have found a new type of chlorophyll, the pigment in plants that takes in light and provides energy for photosynthesis. Unlike its known cousins, this chlorophyll uses infrared light–that’s a surprise to some researchers, who doubted that lower frequency infrared had enough energy to split water for photosynthesis’s oxygen-creation.
“Nobody thought that oxygen-generating organisms were capable of using infrared light… ,” says Samuel Beale, a molecular biologist at Brown University whose work centers in part on chlorophylls [but who was not involved with the study]. “I think what they found here is a new modification of chlorophyll that shows the flexibility of photosynthetic organisms to use whatever light is available.” [Scientific American]
The goal: 80 days, 18,000 miles, no emissions.
Yesterday, the Zero Race electric car world tour began in front of the United Nations Palace in Geneva, Switzerland. Four teams–from Australia, Switzerland, Germany, and South Korea–won’t actually race one another to cross a finish line. Instead, spectators and experts will determine the winner based on reliability, energy efficiency, safety, design, and practicality, as the tour is meant to show the feasibility of electric vehicles.
The race organizer Louis Palmer won the European Solar Prize after driving a solar-powered vehicle around the world in 2008. He says in a press release that the “race” is against climate change and disappearing fuel.
“Petrol is running out, and the climate crisis is coming… and we are all running against time.” [Zero Race]
Last year, when DISCOVER covered the FutureGen carbon capture and storage (CCS) project as one of our top 100 stories of 2009, we noted the nickname some opponents had bestowed on the big-budget experiment: “NeverGen.” That moniker feels even more appropriate now, as the Department of Energy has changed plans and now says it will overhaul the FutureGen idea and build it in a totally different way.
The FutureGen scheme called for building a new CCS demonstration coal plant in Mattoon, Illinois, about 180 miles south of Chicago. The Bush Administration quashed FutureGen because of its hefty budget, but President Obama revived the project with $1 billion in stimulus funding. Now, though, the government says it wants to retrofit an existing power plant across the state in a town called Meredosia rather than build a new one from scratch.
In the new design, the plant would be fed pure oxygen and burn coal, and the exhaust gas would consist of almost pure carbon dioxide. That carbon dioxide would then be piped 170 miles east to Mattoon and injected underground, possibly along with contributions from an ethanol plant in Decatur, Ill., and other industrial plants along the way [The New York Times].
Earlier this month, we described the successful flight of Solar Impulse, a manned solar plane that flew for over 26 hours before a safe landing in Switzerland. Now comes news of another feat of solar-powered derring-do. Currently circling above Arizona, a British-built unmanned solar plane dubbed the Zephyr has now flown for a record-breaking seven days straight. Zephyr’s developer, the defense company QinetiQ, hopes the plane can stay aloft and double its own record for a total of fourteen days.
With a 74-foot wingspan, this latest version of the Zephyr is fifty percent bigger than its predecessors. Its designers hope that the plane will one day find use both for military reconnaissance and also for scientific research. Without a payload, it weights about 110 pounds. Says project manager Jon Saltmarsh:
“Zephyr is basically the first ‘eternal aircraft.’… The launch was absolutely beautiful; it was just so smooth,” said Mr Saltmarsh. “We had five people lift it above their heads, start running and it just lifted away into the sky.” [BBC]
Success for Solar Impulse: This morning the solar-powered plane touched down in Switzerland after more than 26 hours in the sky—including flying overnight on battery power.
As we noted yesterday, this was by far the most ambitious test of adventurer Bertrand Piccard’s experimental aircraft, which is covered by 12,000 solar cells. Swiss pilot André Borschberg had to decide last night whether those cells had absorbed enough battery power during the day to coast through the night, and he managed to do it.
“I’ve been a pilot for 40 years now, but this flight has been the most incredible one of my flying career,” Mr. Borschberg said as he landed, according to a statement from the organizers of the project. “Just sitting there and watching the battery charge level rise and rise thanks to the sun. I have just flown more than 26 hours without using a drop of fuel and without causing any pollution” [The New York Times].
As I write this, a plane powered by the sun is flying somewhere over Europe, undertaking its most ambitious test flight yet.
When we last left the Solar Impulse back in April, the experimental aircraft had flown a two-hour test to prove it was flight-worthy. Today, the pilot in the plane, which weighs about as much as a car and is covered in 12,000 solar cells, will try to stay aloft for 24 hours, even cruising along during the nighttime hours.
“The goal of the project is to have a solar-powered plane flying day and night without fuel,” said team co-founder Bertrand Piccard, adding that this test flight – the third major step after its first ‘flea hop’ and an extended flight earlier this year – will demonstrate whether the ultimate plan is feasible: to fly the plane around the world. “This flight is crucial for the credibility of the project” [AP].
A new type of solar cell using “quantum dots” may double the theoretical efficiency of current solar cells–allowing a panel to convert around 60 percent of the sun’s energy that it laps up into electricity. The research on these new cells appeared Friday in Science.
Current silicon-based solar cells lose about 80 percent of the sun’s energy they take in. It’s an inherent flaw: even working at their theoretical ideal, these cells would still lose 70 percent.
We can blame the sun’s diversely energized photons for this inefficiency. Silicon cells can only purposefully harvest photons with just the right amount energy. When they strike the cell, photons with just enough juice will prod an electron into motion (and create an electric current). An overly energized photon will excite the electrons to no purpose; the electrons will just quickly give off that photon’s energy as heat.
In two steps, this project, funded in part by the Department of Energy, salvages these “hot electrons.”
“There are a few steps needed to create what I call this ‘ultimate solar cell,’” says [Xiaoyang] Zhu, professor of chemistry and director of the Center for Materials Chemistry. “First, the cooling rate of hot electrons needs to be slowed down. Second, we need to be able to grab those hot electrons and use them quickly before they lose all of their energy.” [University of Texas at Austin]
Can Kevin Costner’s centrifuge–a device to separate oil from water at up to 200 gallons per minute–clean up the Deep Horizon spill? We reported on Costner’s clean-up gadget back in May when he convinced the Coast Guard and BP to test his technology, and now comes news that BP has ordered 32 of Costner’s devices to try out in the Gulf.
It sure makes for easy reporting; Costner’s handsome mug is certainly more appealing than oil-soaked sea life. But what are the actual chances that the actor’s device will work? Costner seems to recognize how implausible it all sounds:
“It may seem an unlikely scenario that I am the one delivering this technology in this moment in time,” Kevin Costner said (see ABC video below) in a congressional committee meeting. “But from where I’m sitting, it’s equally inconceivable that these machines are not already in place.” [CNN]
As described in last week’s testimony before the House Committee on Science and Technology, Costner bought the patent for the basic technology behind his centrifuge 15 years ago and has since spent $20 million to develop it with the company he founded, Ocean Therapy Solutions. BP will test the V20 model, a version that has about a five square foot base, weighs around 4,500 lbs, and costs (according to The Los Angeles Times) $500,000.
Lately we’ve been covering the doings of DARPA, the Defense Department’s mad scientist wing that conducts kooky scavenger hunts and loses hypersonic gliders. But today the focus is on the Advanced Research Project Agency-Energy (ARPA-E)—an agency President Obama created last year to foster research on creative alternative energy projects rather than futuristic weaponry. ARPA-E, which is part of the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, announced this week grants totaling $106 million.
The first of the three groups of projects funded by the ARPA-E uses microorganisms to create liquid fuels.
Most of the leading fourth-generation biofuel companies that utilize bio-chemical approaches are modifying the genetic structure of the organism to transform a sugar substrate and secrete either pure “drop in” fuels like diesel, gasoline, or jet fuel, or gasoline substitutes like ethanol or biobutanol [Greentech Media].
The microorganisms in the liquid-fuel experiments need electricity to produce fuel, but many of the researchers are devising ways to use solar energy as the power source so the projects can use renewable fuels to create renewable fuels.