When European Union officials first discussed the idea of a massive solar power plant in the Sahara to provide power to all of Europe, many people took it as a thought experiment, a plan that was far too outlandish to ever come to pass. But now a band of alternative energy companies have announced the formation of a consortium dedicated to pushing the project ahead.
The Desertec Industrial Initiative (DII) aims to provide 15% of Europe’s electricity by 2050 or earlier via power lines stretching across the desert and Mediterranean sea. The German-led consortium was brought together by Munich Re, the world’s biggest reinsurer, and consists of some of country’s biggest engineering and power companies [The Guardian].
Forget those bulky rooftop solar panels–the hot new thing in solar energy could be rooftop shingles that convert sunlight into electricity, and that blend in seamlessly with the standard asphalt shingles that top most houses. Dow Chemical has announced that it will begin selling its Powerhouse Solar Shingles in limited quantities in 2010, with a full roll-out the following year.
Dow executive Jane Palmieri says the shingle incorporates a low-cost, thin-film photovoltaic cell device for capturing solar energy. Roofing contractors do not need specialized skills to install the product, she said. The cost was estimated by Palmieri at $27,000 for an array of solar shingles to offset 60 percent of a home’s power consumption [AP]. While that may seem pricey, it’s still far below the cost of an equivalent solar panel system.
When Chicago’s Sears Tower was completed in 1973 the 110-story building was the tallest in the world, and it offered a bold example of the human potential to build towards the clouds. Now, although the tower lost the title of tallest building to other skyscrapers in the 1990s, the tower hopes to dazzle the world anew with a fresh vision of urban architecture: The building will soon receive a $350 million environmental retrofit, with wind turbines, solar panels, and gardens all added to the building’s staggered rooftops.
The 5-year project would reduce the tower’s electricity use by 80 percent and save 24 million gallons of water a year, building owners and architects said…. “Our plans are very ambitious,” said John Huston of American Landmark Properties, who represents the building ownership. “Our plans to modernize and transform this icon will re-establish Sears Tower as a leader, a pioneer” [AP].
By 2016, the energy powering some California homes may come from solar panels orbiting the planet. California’s largest electric utility has announced plans to purchase energy from Solaren Corp., a startup company that hopes to launch the first commercial test of space solar power. Solaren would generate the power using solar panels in Earth orbit and convert it to radio-frequency transmissions that would be beamed down to a receiving station in Fresno…. From there, the energy would be converted into electricity and fed into [the] power grid [MSNBC].
The idea of space-based solar energy has been discussed for decades. It appeared in science fiction as far back as 1941 and later received serious study by NASA and the Pentagon. At times, it has been dismissed as fantasy [San Francisco Chronicle]. But the potential of a solar farm that can generate energy day and night, regardless of the weather, has been enticing enough to keep researchers working on the idea. Now, Solaren CEO Gary Spirnak says the technology is ready for prime time. “While a system of this scale and exact configuration has not been built, the underlying technology is very mature and is based on communications satellite technology,” he said [MSNBC].
The Kyoto Box, a $6 solar cooker made from cardboard, has won the Financial Times-sponsored Climate Change Challenge contest for innovative ways to decrease the human impact on the environment. Its capacity to not only cook food but also sterilize water could help three billion people reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. The Kenya-based Norwegian creator of the cooker, Jon Bøhmer, has been awarded $75,000 to put the idea into production.
Named after the United Nations’ Kyoto Protocol, the cooker is made from two cardboard boxes, one inside the other, with either paper or straw insulation placed in between; an acrylic cover on top lets in and traps sunlight. Black paint on the inner box, and silver foil on the outer one, help concentrate the heat. The trapped rays make the inside hot enough to cook casseroles, bake bread and boil water [CNN]. Covering the cooking pot with a transparent cover retains heat and water [BBC], and temperatures inside the pot can reach about 175 degrees Fahrenheit.
A microbial culture could be turned into a living energy storage system, researchers say, which could cheaply stockpile power from inconsistent solar and wind installations. Proponents of these alternative energy sources are investigating many different ways to store power for the inevitable moments when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. The intriguing new idea involves “feeding” surplus power to the microorganisms instead, which combine it with carbon dioxide to create methane. That could then be stored and burned when needed. The method is sustainable too, as the carbon is taken from the atmosphere, not released from long-term storage in oil or coal [New Scientist].
The researchers have determined that a single-celled microorganism, a type of archaea, uses electricity to convert carbon dioxide and water into methane. Sustainable energy expert Tom Curtis comments that the use of microorganisms, rather than conventional catalysts, is a plus. “There are no noble metals involved, so it should be very cheap,” he says. Of the energy put into the system as electricity, 80% was eventually recovered when the methane was burned – a fairly high efficiency. “You don’t get all the energy back, but that’s a problem with any form of energy storage,” says Curtis [New Scientist].
As global warming‘s effects become evident researchers have turned to geoengineering schemes that could slow the warming process, like a global “sunshade” produced by spraying sulfur aerosols into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight back into space. But a new study points out an (obvious in retrospect) drawback of that idea: It would seriously reduce the effectiveness of some solar energy facilities, which proponents hope would reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and thus prevent further global warming.
Researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration went back and examined data from 1991, when Mount Pinatubo erupted. The Philippine volcano ejected about 15 million metric tons of sulfur-dioxide–laden dust into the air, cooling the planet’s average temperature by about 0.6°C for nearly 2 years [ScienceNOW Daily News]. The researchers found that the eruption also reduced peak power output at a California solar-thermal plant by 20 percent. Solar thermal plants use arrays of mirrors to concentrate sunlight and turn it into a heat source for a conventional power plant; they are generally cheaper than traditional photovoltaic systems.
A previously secretive solar energy start-up has revealed the details of its cutting edge technology, and has declared itself as a major player in the new solar industry. The company, Solyndra, says it has orders for $1.2 billion worth of its solar panels over the next five years. It has raised more than $600 million and already has 500 employees. And it plans to construct a second, larger plant in [California] next year [San Jose Mercury News].
Solyndra makes solar photovoltaic systems, but its panels aren’t exactly the industry standard; where almost all others on the market look like a flat sheet of dark material, Solyndra’s panels resemble a row of long fluorescent light tubes, each an inch wide and an inch apart [VentureBeat]. The company says that by coating the tubes with thin-film voltaic cells, it has made more efficient solar energy collectors. “With a cylinder, we are collecting light from all angles, even collecting diffuse light,” says CEO Chris Gronet [Scientific American].