The big missing piece to the wind-solar puzzle is….

April 15, 2008

SolveClimateThis file is from the Open Clip Art Library, which released it explicitly into the public domain, using the Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication: A massive energy storage system that can guarantee uninterrupted power delivery. Meaning: clean electricity all the time, even when the winds aren’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining. And now there’s a battery unit being produced in Japan that claims it can provide just that. They’re called sodium-sulfur systems. And they offer a way to store power from the sun and wind, and then dispatch it to the grid when demand is greatest.

It’s welcome news if they can pull it off. Because without that missing piece, solar and wind will continue to play second fiddle to fossil fuels. Bloomberg has the full story on the sodium-sulfur batteries — and their Japanese maker too, NGK Insulators Ltd.

In Japan, the NAS storage units — as NGK calls them — have been a hit. They’re used at over 30 sites already, totaling 28 megawatts. But in the US they’re still an anomaly with just two customers. American Electric Company is one of them. The coal giant has been testing a 1.2 megawatt NAS system since mid-2006 but not in connection with renewables at all. And Xcel Energy is the other. It will be the first American utility to use NAS for wind energy storage beginning in October, when it starts testing a one-megawatt system in Minnesota….

First global solar index, from Melvin and Company

April 11, 2008

Solar corona photo by NASASolar Daily: MAC Indexing has announced the introduction of the MAC Global Solar Energy Index, the first index to independently track the rapidly growing solar energy sector. Dow Jones will publish the Index, which was developed and is maintained by MAC Indexes, an affiliate of Melvin and Company that specializes in clean energy equity research and index development. The MAC Global Solar Energy Index has been licensed to Claymore Advisors, LLC, which anticipates launching the first solar power exchange-traded fund (ETF) on the NYSE-Arca under the symbol “TAN” in April (

“The creation of the MAC Global Solar Energy Index recognizes the growth of the solar sector and its maturing in terms of investment depth,” said Christopher C. Melvin, Jr. Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Melvin and Co. “Solar continues to be one of the fastest growing sectors within the clean-tech industry with a recent 47% annual growth rate and an expected 40% continued growth in the next few years.” A global portfolio of 25 leading solar companies with a combined market capitalization of nearly $100 billion comprise the index. The average market capitalization of the stocks in the Index is approximately $3.8 billion and the median is approximately $1.2 billion….

The Index is designed to track companies within the following business segments of the solar power industry: solar power equipment producers; suppliers of materials or services to solar equipment producers; companies that derive a significant portion of their business, measured by the methodology set forth below, from solar power system installation, integration or finance; and companies that specialize in selling electricity derived from solar power …

Deutsche Bank makes a bold statement about electric cars in the US

April 9, 2008

Old-fashioned lead-acid battery, \"Shaddack,\" Wikimedia Three Deutsche Bank analysts took a hard look at Project Better Place’s business plan for an electric-car recharging grid in Israel and Denmark, and they drew this unexpected conclusion: The electric car scheme is viable in America, too. The assumption that it would make a cost-effective investment only in tiny nations with sky-high taxes and outrageous prices at the pump is dead wrong. How do they know?

Because Deutsche Bank crunched the numbers and found this. It will cost no more than seven cents to drive one mile under the Project Better Place scheme, including battery and electricity costs. Compare that with 24 cents per mile in Europe in a gas-powered car, and 15 to 20 cents per mile in America. Hence this conclusion: From checking the Project Better Place business model, we are concluding that a pure electric car should not cost any more than a diesel- or a gasoline-powered car, and in most countries its operating costs should actually be lower….

Crystalline solar cell market grew 39 percent in 2007, says Gartner

April 7, 2008

PVTech : The crystalline silicon solar cell market had another robust year, according to figures from Gartner, Inc. The sector saw revenues increase 39 percent in 2007 compared with 2006, resulting in a 42 percent CAGR from 2004 through 2007. Ongoing demand in 2008 is expected with solar silicon consumption expected to exceed that of electronic semiconductor consumption for the first time, Gartner sai.

Crystalline silicon solar cell leaders were able to secure silicon material sufficiently for strong growth in 2007, though short supply actually hampered growth rates. Gartner noted that Q-Cells took the number one slot for the first time as Sharp and other Japanese manufacturers struggled to secure polysilicon supplies. Q-Cells now holds 17.2 percent of the market with revenues climbing 70 percent in 2007 compared to 2006…

Scientists fabricate non-cryogenic superconducting material

March 21, 2008

The chemical structure of silaneThis could be huge. Imagine the ability to transmit power from remote solar and wind sites without huge powerlines. From Next Energy News: A new breakthrough superconducting material fabricated by a Canadian-German team has been made out of a silicon-hydrogen compound and does not require cooling. The implications of the discovery are enormous and could transform the way people live by cutting power usage from everything from refrigeration to cell phones.

Instead of super-cooling the material, as is necessary for conventional superconductors, the new material is instead super-compressed. The researchers claim that the new material could sidestep the cooling requirement, thereby enabling superconducting wires that work at room temperature.

“If you put hydrogen compounds under enough pressure, you can get superconductivity,” said professor John Tse of the University of Saskatchewan. “These new superconductors can be operated at higher temperatures, perhaps without a refrigerant.”

He performed the theoretical work with doctoral candidate Yansun Yao. The experimental confirmation was performed by researcher Mikhail Eremets at the Max Plank Institute in Germany.

The new family of superconductors are based on a hydrogen compound called “silane,” which is the silicon analog of methane–combining a single silicon atom with four hydrogen atoms to form a molecular hydride. (Methane is a single carbon atom with four hydrogens).

Researchers have speculated for years that hydrogen under enough pressure would superconduct at room temperature, but have been unable to achieve the necessary conditions (hydrogen is the most difficult element to compress). The Canadian and German researchers attributed their success to adding hydrogen to a compound with silicon that reduced the amount of compression needed to achieve superconductivity.

Tse’s team is currently using the Canadian Light Source synchrotron to characterize the high pressure structures of silane and other hydrides as potential superconducting materials for industrial applications as well as a storage mechanism for hydrogen fuel cells….

The chemical structure of silane,  SiH4, “Jrockley,” from Wikimedia Commons

Toward cheaper, robust solar cells, using organic dye

March 14, 2008

Polycrystalline silicon wafer, from Q-Cells. Photo by George Slickers, Wikimedia CommonsTechnology Review: Cheap and easy-to-make dye-sensitized solar cells are still in the early stages of commercial production. Meanwhile, their inventor, Michael Gratzel, is working on more advanced versions of them. In a paper published in the online edition of Angewandte Chemie, Gratzel, a chemistry professor at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland, presents a version of dye-sensitized cells that could be more robust and even cheaper to make than current versions.Dye-sensitized solar cells consist of titanium oxide nanocrystals that are coated with light-absorbing dye molecules and immersed in an electrolyte solution, which is sandwiched between two glass plates or embedded in plastic. Light striking the dye frees electrons and creates “holes”–the areas of positive charge that result when electrons are lost. The semiconducting titanium dioxide particles collect the electrons and transfer them to an external circuit, producing an electric current.

These solar cells are cheaper to make than conventional silicon photovoltaic panels. In principle, they could be used to make power-generating windows and building facades, and they could even be incorporated into clothing. (See “Window Power” and “Solar Cells for Cheap.”) A Lowell, MA-based company called Konarka is manufacturing dye-sensitized solar cells in a limited quantity. But the technology still has room for improvement.

In existing versions of the solar cells, the electrolyte solution uses organic solvents. When the solar cells reach high temperatures, the solvent can evaporate and start to leak out. Researchers are now looking at a type of material that may make a better electrolyte: ionic liquids, which are currently used as industrial solvents. These liquids do not evaporate at solar-cell operating temperatures. “Ionic liquids are less volatile and more robust,” says Bruce Parkinson, a chemistry professor at Colorado State University.

New dyes are also being investigated. In commercial cells, the dyes are made of the precious metal ruthenium. But researchers have recently started to consider organic molecules as an alternative. “Organic dyes will become important because they can be cheaply made,” Gratzel says. In the long run, they might also be more abundant than ruthenium.

In the recent paper, Gratzel and his colleagues describe making a dye-sensitized solar cell that combines these two material advances. In their prototype cell, they use an ionic liquid as the electrolyte and a dye based on the organic compound indoline. The solar cells convert light to electricity with an efficiency of 7.2 percent. Ruthenium-based dyes get efficiencies of about 11 percent, says Gerald Meyer, a chemistry professor at Johns Hopkins University. But, he says, “to my knowledge, these are the highest efficiencies with organic [dyes].”

. In a dye-sensitized solar cell, electrons go to the titanium dioxide layer, while the holes go to the electrolyte. This separates the charges so that they do not recombine and reduce the current generated by the cell. Keeping the charges separated is the challenge with organic dyes. Gratzel and his colleagues attach long hydrocarbon chains to one end of the indoline-based dye molecule. These hydrocarbon chains, which do not conduct electrons, act as barriers between the titanium dioxide layer and the electrolyte. “It is like a molecular insulator that stops electrons from coming out and recombining with the positive charges in the ionic liquid,” Gratzel says.With this charge barrier in place, the researchers can make the titanium dioxide layer thinner. That shortens the distance that the electrons have to travel to get to the external circuit, increasing the cell’s efficiency.

Parkinson cautions, though, that work on organic-dye solar cells is still at a very early stage. Going from a laboratory prototype to a commercial module typically reduces efficiencies significantly. To capture a larger share of the solar-power market, dye-sensitized solar cells will require some more improvements. “We really need a breakthrough to get up to 15 percent efficiency in the lab,” Parkinson says.

Clean Energy Trends 2008

March 14, 2008

Clean Energy Trends 2008Joel Makower’s blog: The latest annual edition of Clean Energy Trends has just been published. My colleagues and I at Clean Edge have identified five key trends affecting clean-energy markets and produced our annual forecast of markets for four clean-energy technologies. And, working with our partners at New Energy Finance, we’ve analyzed the investment trends of the past year.As we point out in the free, downloadable report, 2007 was a very strong year for clean energy technologies, with no signs of a slowdown in 2008. That said, with all of the uncertainties facing the economy, there are some potential speed bumps. One of the biggest is whether and how U.S. policies will extend the production tax credits for wind and solar, both of which are expiring at the end of the year. If these credits aren’t extended before they expire, we could see the growth of solar, wind, and other renewables come to a standstill in the U.S., much as markets for wind power did at the end of 2006, when those credits expired for several months. During that period, the wind market simply flatlined. According to research by Navigant Consulting, more than 100,000 jobs within the solar and wind industry are in jeopardy, if the same thing happens again.

The problem is that Congress, in its infinite wisdom, seems to have an appetite to extend tax credits for only two years. That’s not long enough to do the long-term planning that any emerging industry needs to scale up.Critics of clean energy like to point out that without subsidies and regulation, clean-energy sources would never be getting a foothold in the market. But that misses an important and critical point: all energy technologies are subsidized – some to the tune of billions of dollars a year. What would happen to oil and gas prices if those industries had to do away with federal subsidies and tax credits (not to mention the costs of fighting wars in oil-rich countries).

The five trends we cover in this year’s Trends report cover electric cars (how all of the action seems to be from smaller players, not the major automotive companies); sustainable cities (the emergence of new, fossil-fuel, carbon-neutral cities – in the Middle East, of all places); wind (how the U.S. market is being driven by foreign companies); geothermal energy (it is experiencing a global renaissance, particularly as large, utility-scale projects); and shipping (the new push to create cleaner oceangoing transport, including putting sails on freighters).

You can download the free report here.