Apr 292014
 

solar farms[Editor’s note: This post, by Scott Thill, originally appeared on SolarEnergy.net.]

Consolidating precious natural resources in a warming world is a must. Which is why literal solar farms make sense — and maybe dollars — to Stanford scientists recently researching a colocation approach for simultaneously creating solar power and biofuels. It’s a simple idea, really: Grow some agave plants beneath vast solar farms across Earth’s increasingly arid regions, and voila! You’ve got a potential agritech solution for decreasing lethal emissions, and perhaps a reliable source of domestic fuel.

More microcosmically, the solar sector could reduce its water footprint by relying instead more heavily on agave, and what Stanford’s colocation announcement called “other biofuel crops,” to capture runoff and moisture to keep our photovoltaic panels cleaner in inhospitable climates. It sounds good on paper; specifically, the new issue of Environmental Science & Technology wherein Stanford’s scientists explain their collocated energy concept.

“It could be a win-win situation,” said Stanford postdoc Sujith Ravi in a press release. “Water is already limited in many areas and could be a major constraint in the future. This approach could allow us to produce energy and agriculture with the same water.”

Ravi and Stanford earth science professors David Lobell and Chris Field sound like they have their hearts and minds in the right place. But the science and math are eventually where this battle for the next generation of energy will be fought and won, and the numbers on biofuels are crunching more complicated these days. A recent study published in the journal Nature Climate Change argued that transforming corn into ethanol (“and other biofuels”) degrades soil carbon and releases more greenhouse gas than gas itself. “It’s final,” Forbes wrote, “corn ethanol is of no use.”

“Unlike corn or other grains, most of the agave plant can be converted to ethanol,” Ravi explained in the Stanford announcement. “Of course, creative solutions don’t always work in the real world, but this one at least seems worthy of much more exploration,” added Lobell, perhaps not forcefully enough.

Because although the colocation approach is a brilliant idea, water is growing quite scarce and biofuels emissions, whether from corn or agave, are what we need to be moving away from, not toward. Maybe we should just skip that stage and just grow agave to keep the solar farms company.

Solar farm photo courtesy of Stanford News Service.

The post Turning Solar Farms into Actual Farms, Too appeared first on Solar Power.

Mar 312014
 

This month’s roundup of leading solar innovations and breakthroughs in solar technology highlights two innovations at established solar equipment and module manufacturers that have real near-term potential to boost sunlight conversion efficiencies for crystalline solar cells – with albeit incremental gains. Also explored is a new record efficiency for an organic PV cell.

Merlin works his crystalline magic

Developer: GT Advanced Technologies

How it works: PV manufacturing equipment supplier GT Advanced Technologies in mid-March announced a new “flexible grid” metallization and interconnect technology targeted at solar cell producers. Marketed under the name “Merlin,” the production line add-on can be integrated into existing solar cell manufacturing lines, enabling producers to replace the traditional three silver bus bars on solar cells with thinner grid fingers. This produces less shading on a solar cell – meaning that more sunlight can be absorbed by the active crystalline-silicon semiconductor material and converted into electricity.

What it promises: According to GT, the manufacturing technology has the potential to cut expensive silicon paste used in the production of crystalline solar cells by up to 80 percent. It also can eliminate the need for cell stringing and tabbing machines used to produce modules – further reducing manufacturing costs. Eliminating shading has the potential to improve the efficiency of conventional crystalline PV cells. The New Hampshire-based company claims that modules made from cells relying on its Merlin technology will be more reliable and durable because the new flexible grid structure is more resistant to cell cracking.

merlin cell

Commercial arrival: In an investor presentation on the technology, GT said a pilot manufacturing line equipped with Merlin went online in the second half of last year. It expects to receive certification for its first Merlin-equipped commercial manufacturing line in the second half of this year at an undisclosed location, with commercial activity commencing in 2015. Given GT’s long track record of introducing new PV manufacturing technologies for conventional crystalline silicon cells, Merlin’s chances for commercial magic are good.

Back-contact solar cells

Developers: Trina Solar Ltd. and the Australian National University (ANU)

How it works: Researchers from Chinese crystalline silicon producer Trina Solar and ANU’s Centre for Sustainable Energy Systems have developed a so-called interdigitated back-contact (IBC) silicon solar cell capable of converting an impressive 24.4 percent of sunlight into electricity. IBC cells are a type of rear-contact solar cell that achieves higher efficiency by putting both contacts on the back of the cell, thus eliminating shading.

What it promises: If successfully transferred from the laboratory into commercial production, this could mean that a larger percentage of higher-efficiency solar cells will become available – since Trina is one of the world’s largest PV manufacturers.

Commercial arrival: Trina says it is developing a commercial version of its IBC cell in addition to a new module made of these cells. A 22-percent efficient IBC cell from Trina already is available in commercial modules. Trina’s press release on the innovation did not predict the precise market launch for the higher-efficiency version. It stated, however, “Though it is currently in laboratory scale, the new solar cell will soon be ready for industrialized mass production.”

Record-efficiency organic PV

Developers: VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, IMEC International, Fraunhofer ISE, Imperial College, Corning SAS and others

IMEC solar cellHow it works: Funded by a grant from the European Union, Belgian research institute IMEC International in March presented its laboratory-scale organic solar cell with a sunlight conversion efficiency of 8.4 percent – a record for this type of solar cell. IMEC achieved the record efficiency by stacking three layers of active semiconductor materials that boosted the potential sunlight absorption spectrum. IMEC’s approach does not use fullerenes, which are the most common acceptor material in organic PV cells – which, however, aren’t common at all.

What it promises: IMEC’s laboratory achievement is a signal that perhaps organic PV cells shouldn’t be completely ignored in the wake of several commercial failures in recent years – which were in part the result of the technology’s disappointing, low single-digit efficiencies. IMEC is a member of the EU-funded ArtESun collaborative effort to develop high efficiency organic solar cells capable of converting more than 15 percent of sunlight into electricity, along with roll-to-roll manufacturing equipment for this flexible solar cell.

Commercial arrival: Although an impressive collection of research institutes and companies are collaborating on this project, the reality is that organic PV cells remain far away from commercial relevance – even if very limited commercial sales of such cells already have occurred.

The post Solar Innovation, March 2014: Real-time Efforts to Boost Solar Efficiency Rates appeared first on Solar Power.

Feb 282014
 

solar bike chargerAnother month, another slew of solar innovations! This month, while we’re continuing our ongoing “solar everywhere” theme of explore the many places where solar can go beyond the roof, we’re also seeing an emerging trend: electric vehicles of all kinds. While not specifically solar-powered in most cases, it is only the tiniest of leaps to get from an electric vehicle to a solar-powered electric vehicle. So bear with us: Although it seems like we’re straying from our self-imposed mission, this is how the pieces all come together.

Solar bike charger: To start off our roundup and underline our point, let’s look at the new Spark solar charging station (pictured above at left) designed by electric-bike manufacturer Xkuty. Inhabitat reports that the Spark recharging station “doubles as a parking unit and it adapts to almost any environment — it can be easily integrated into houses, buildings and shared spaces.” Sadly, at this point the Xkuty One e-bike — and it’s fancy new charger — are only for sale in Europe.

solar-bikeFord’s electric bike: The Ford Motor Company is also getting into the electric bike game, showing of the new Ford Supercruiser electric bike. Created by Pedego Electric Bikes and licensed and branded by Ford, the Supercruiser is a seven-speed e-bike with a 600-watt motor that goes up to 20 miles per hour, and can carry you between 15-30 miles per charge, depending on your size and how much you pedal. As cool as it looks and as great as it sounds, the price tag will likely give you pause: According to ElectricBikeReview.com, the Supercruiser will set you back $3,595. That’s enough to get you a a down payment and eight months of a lease on a Nissan Leaf — or just about the sweetest non-electric bike you can imagine.

electric snow sledThe Electric Snow-Sled: Speaking of sweet rides, Gas2 writes about the MTT-136 an electric sled that doubles as so much more:

The MTT is seen throughout much of the demo video connected to a sled-type platform pulling along its passengers at an undefined, but adequate looking pace. As fun as this looks, what I find more intriguing are the multitude of other uses Martel has found for his invention. The MTT-136 is seen operating on dry land as well as snow, opening up a plethora of additional uses. He pulls logs, goes down stairs, cuts through knee deep snow and pushes a car (a Pontiac Montana in neutral on snow) to show what his creation can do.

Although the MTT-136 is still seeking funders to move it to production, it looks cool and hyper-practical, particularly given the snow that has steadily dumped on most of the country this winter.

kenguru EVThe Wheelchair-friendly Electric Car: Over at Grist, Holly Richmond points us to the The Kenguru, a very small electric vehicle designed specifically for people in wheelchairs. Originally conceived of by a Hungarian engineer, the Kenguru found a second home — and, more importantly, investors — in Texas, and is going into production this year. Richmond writes: “The EV’s sticker price is about $25,000, but thanks to mobility and clean energy tax incentives, buyers may not have to pay nearly that much. The cars, which are even smaller than a Smart Car, are made in America, feature LED lights, and can go up to 25 miles per hour (they’re designed for local use, with an estimated range of 60 miles). Batteries power two 2-kW motors in the back, and the Kenguru takes about eight hours to charge.”

solar healthcare suitcaseSolar-Powered Healthcare Kit: We’ve seen a number of solar-powered tools aimed at the developing world, all of which promise to make great strides in improving quality of life and potentially helping to improve the environment in those regions. Ecopreneurist tells the story of the Solar Suitcase, a healthcare kit that aims to provide more reliable light for hospitals and field medical workers where lights are either currently lacking or too intermittent to be reliable. The Suitcase, built by the nonprofit WE CARE Solar, includes 40 to 80 watts of solar panels, a lead-acid battery, medical-quality LED lights, a universal cell phone charger, a battery charger for double- or triple-A batteries, outlets for up to 12 DC devices, and the maternity unit comes with a fetal heartrate monitor. So far, WE CARE has distributed 300 Suitcases to 25 countries, but is seeking donations to provide more units to the Phillippines, Nepal and Tanzania.

traffic robotThe Congolese Solar-Powered Traffic Robot: Let’s file this under “you just couldn’t make this up:” The capital of Congo, Kinshasa, has installed two giant solar-powered robots to serve in lieu of traffic police, directing cars, bikes and pedestrians, using embedded cameras to identify and later fine any drivers that ignore the laws. Commenting on the impact the robots have had so far, one Congolese driver told CCTV Africa, “As a motorcyclist I’m very happy with the robot’s work. Because when the traffic police control the cars here there’s still a lot of traffic. But since the robot arrived, we see truly that the commuters are respectful.”

traffic robot 2

The post Solar Everywhere: Electric Bikes, Sleds and Cars, the Solar Robot & More appeared first on Solar Power.

Feb 282014
 

solar bike chargerAnother month, another slew of solar innovations! This month, while we’re continuing our ongoing “solar everywhere” theme of explore the many places where solar can go beyond the roof, we’re also seeing an emerging trend: electric vehicles of all kinds. While not specifically solar-powered in most cases, it is only the tiniest of leaps to get from an electric vehicle to a solar-powered electric vehicle. So bear with us: Although it seems like we’re straying from our self-imposed mission, this is how the pieces all come together.

Solar bike charger: To start off our roundup and underline our point, let’s look at the new Spark solar charging station (pictured above at left) designed by electric-bike manufacturer Xkuty. Inhabitat reports that the Spark recharging station “doubles as a parking unit and it adapts to almost any environment — it can be easily integrated into houses, buildings and shared spaces.” Sadly, at this point the Xkuty One e-bike — and it’s fancy new charger — are only for sale in Europe.

solar-bikeFord’s electric bike: The Ford Motor Company is also getting into the electric bike game, showing of the new Ford Supercruiser electric bike. Created by Pedego Electric Bikes and licensed and branded by Ford, the Supercruiser is a seven-speed e-bike with a 600-watt motor that goes up to 20 miles per hour, and can carry you between 15-30 miles per charge, depending on your size and how much you pedal. As cool as it looks and as great as it sounds, the price tag will likely give you pause: According to ElectricBikeReview.com, the Supercruiser will set you back $3,595. That’s enough to get you a a down payment and eight months of a lease on a Nissan Leaf — or just about the sweetest non-electric bike you can imagine.

electric snow sledThe Electric Snow-Sled: Speaking of sweet rides, Gas2 writes about the MTT-136 an electric sled that doubles as so much more:

The MTT is seen throughout much of the demo video connected to a sled-type platform pulling along its passengers at an undefined, but adequate looking pace. As fun as this looks, what I find more intriguing are the multitude of other uses Martel has found for his invention. The MTT-136 is seen operating on dry land as well as snow, opening up a plethora of additional uses. He pulls logs, goes down stairs, cuts through knee deep snow and pushes a car (a Pontiac Montana in neutral on snow) to show what his creation can do.

Although the MTT-136 is still seeking funders to move it to production, it looks cool and hyper-practical, particularly given the snow that has steadily dumped on most of the country this winter.

kenguru EVThe Wheelchair-friendly Electric Car: Over at Grist, Holly Richmond points us to the The Kenguru, a very small electric vehicle designed specifically for people in wheelchairs. Originally conceived of by a Hungarian engineer, the Kenguru found a second home — and, more importantly, investors — in Texas, and is going into production this year. Richmond writes: “The EV’s sticker price is about $25,000, but thanks to mobility and clean energy tax incentives, buyers may not have to pay nearly that much. The cars, which are even smaller than a Smart Car, are made in America, feature LED lights, and can go up to 25 miles per hour (they’re designed for local use, with an estimated range of 60 miles). Batteries power two 2-kW motors in the back, and the Kenguru takes about eight hours to charge.”

solar healthcare suitcaseSolar-Powered Healthcare Kit: We’ve seen a number of solar-powered tools aimed at the developing world, all of which promise to make great strides in improving quality of life and potentially helping to improve the environment in those regions. Ecopreneurist tells the story of the Solar Suitcase, a healthcare kit that aims to provide more reliable light for hospitals and field medical workers where lights are either currently lacking or too intermittent to be reliable. The Suitcase, built by the nonprofit WE CARE Solar, includes 40 to 80 watts of solar panels, a lead-acid battery, medical-quality LED lights, a universal cell phone charger, a battery charger for double- or triple-A batteries, outlets for up to 12 DC devices, and the maternity unit comes with a fetal heartrate monitor. So far, WE CARE has distributed 300 Suitcases to 25 countries, but is seeking donations to provide more units to the Phillippines, Nepal and Tanzania.

traffic robotThe Congolese Solar-Powered Traffic Robot: Let’s file this under “you just couldn’t make this up:” The capital of Congo, Kinshasa, has installed two giant solar-powered robots to serve in lieu of traffic police, directing cars, bikes and pedestrians, using embedded cameras to identify and later fine any drivers that ignore the laws. Commenting on the impact the robots have had so far, one Congolese driver told CCTV Africa, “As a motorcyclist I’m very happy with the robot’s work. Because when the traffic police control the cars here there’s still a lot of traffic. But since the robot arrived, we see truly that the commuters are respectful.”

traffic robot 2

The post Solar Everywhere: Electric Bikes, Sleds and Cars, the Solar Robot & More appeared first on Solar Power.

Jan 312014
 

The start of the new year certainly brought us a fresh crop of solar innovations — as always in our monthly “Solar Everywhere” series, we look at where solar is popping up beyond the roof.

We’ve got a broad array of findings this month, so let’s start small and work our way up.

First: A solar street bench. As part of the city of Boston’s overarching Complete Streets initiative, which aims to make city life more efficient, people-friendly and green, the city just two benches with solar panels included, which can be used to charge mobile phones while people sit and rest.

 

solar soldiers

 

Solar soldiers: Writing in Forbes, Navigant Research points us to trends in solarizing soldiers, allowing fighting forces to carry solar panels instead of a dozen pounds of batteries. Among the products are two that bear acronym-friendly names that would only exist in the military: the Rucksack Enhanced Portable Power System (REPPS) — pictured at right — a portable solar power source, and the Soldier Worn Integrated Power Equipment System (SWIPES), a wearable charging system.

 

 

solar roof tileSolar roof tiles: OK, so this doesn’t fit our mandate of looking only at solar freed from the roof, but it’s pretty neat nonetheless. Via Inhabitat, a look at Swedish company SolTech, which has created the SolTech system, using glass roof tiples to heat or even power a house. Frida Jeppsson writes, “The tiles are installed on top of a black nylon canvas, under which air slots are mounted. The black colour absorbs heat from the sun and the air starts to circulate. The hot air is then used to heat up water, which is connected to the house’s heating system via an accumulator. The beauty of the system is that it cuts energy costs throughout the year, during dark winter days as well as night time, due to its capacity to store heat in the isolating layers of air under the canvas.” They look quite pretty, as well!

 

solar ELF bikeSolar-powered trike: The ELF is a solar egg of a bike, a three-wheeled pedal machine created by Organic Transit, it combines the best parts of a car and a bike, and it’s powered by the sun (and your feet). With a hard shell and an electric pedal-assist engine, the ELF aims to make it impossible to resist biking — you could commute in style with minimal effort an sweat, or you could push your giant egg across town and glow with pride at your eco-lifestyle (and a fine sheen of sweat). Either way, at $5000 to start, the ELF isn’t for the faint of heart or weak of leg, but it’s a fine-looking machine.

 

140131-solar-everywhere-5The solarest bridge in the world: Move over, London Bridge, there’s a new landmark on the Thames: The Blackfriars Bridge features 4,400 solar panels and can generate up to half the electricity needed for the Blackfriars train station. Writes BusinessGreen: “First Capital Connect, which runs Blackfriars, expects the panels to cut the stations’ carbon emissions by an estimated 511 tonnes a year, further reducing the carbon footprint of its train routes to the south east of England…. The bridge will also act as a major advertisement for London’s efforts to become a sustainable city, with tourists and workers viewing the panels as they enter the capital.”

 

Solar drought solutions: Finally and biggest-ly, with California in the throes of an epic drought, The Guardian offers a look at solar-powered desalination, which could potentially solve one of California’s most pressing problems: chronic shortages of water for either state residents or the state’s ag land (which feed much of the nation). Oliver Balch writes:

WaterFX’s solution comes in the unlikely shape of a vast bank of parabolic mirrors and an advanced “multi-effect” evaporating unit. The Aqua4 system offers a renewable method of desalinating briny water, which, if its developers prove right, could put California “on a path to water independence”.

How does it work? Unlike conventional desalination, which uses a high-pressure reverse osmosis system that forces salt and other solids through a membrane, WaterFX cleans water through use of a 400-kilowatt solar “trough” – hence the mirrors. This concentrated solar still collects the sun’s energy, which heats a pipe containing natural oil, providing heat for the subsequent distillation process.”

And that wraps up our small-to-big rundown of solar innovation for the month. With the Super Bowl coming up in just two days, we will be curious to see if solar makes an appearance — for instance, when is SolarCity going to run a SuperBowl ad?

The post Solar Everywhere, Jan. 2014: Solar Soldiers, Bridges & More appeared first on Solar Power.

Dec 312013
 

It’s the end of the year, and the news cycle slows down significantly as the year winds down. But even though the news is stocked full of year-end lists, there have also been a good number of interesting solar tidbits — enough to flesh out one last Solar Everywhere for 2013. Read on to see how we’re winding the year down with solar in unexpected place.

solar smokersSolar for smokers: Leave it to France to use solar power to help with the problem of smoking bans. Over at the Energy Collective, Boyd Arnold writes about how the French government is helping smokers cope with a ban on indoor smoking: outdoor solar parasols. Boyd writes: “Their solar-powered parasols create heat from the solar power for those under the parasol, and absorbs the cigarettes. This dual function provides a seamless integration of solar innovation while catering to the needs of smokers and government policy.” The parasols also relieve restaurants and bars of the need to rely on gas-powered heaters to keep smokers warm during the winter months.

solar tentSolar tents: In the first — and sillier — of two stories this month about solar-powered habitats, Inhabitat points us to Bang Bang Tents, which are designed to help make festival-going or car-camping a little more electrified. The four-person tents “come equipped with a solar panel that can be slid into a pouch on the exterior of the tent. The 5W solar panel trickle charges a lithium battery bank that has a USB charging adapter and can charge most low voltage devices. Use the solar panel and battery backup to charge cameras, phones, or computers or use them to run speakers and LED lights.” At £249.95 (US$415), they’re not cheap, but would certainly help you stand out at the campground.

solar shelterSolar shelters: We often say that solar is a force for good in the world — but usually that’s because solar homeowers save money and reduce their emissions. IKEA, however, has developed flat-pack, solar-powered shelters for use by refugees. The shelters are everything you’d expect from IKEA: quickly assembled, spacious, cleanly designed — and are also powered by the sun. After six months of lobbying, IKEA has gotten the Lebanese government toapprove a test run of the shelters for refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war and suffering in the intense Lebanese winter.

solar lights 1Solar lights overseas: Putting the sun to work at night is in some ways the holy grail of the solar boom, since it means the development of affordable, reliable battery technologies. One of the earliest places that solar batteries have taken off is in the solar lights market, and two companies this month helped bring light to regions that desperately needed it. First, the Estonian nonprofit Andakidz sent a team of engineers to the Philippines to provide solar lights to villages devastated and left powerless first by an earthquake and then three weeks later by Typhoon Haiyan.

solar lights 2Second, Panasonic has committed to sending 100,000 of the company’s solar lanterns to regions without electricity, and engaged the public and 11 artists from around the world to design paper solar lantern covers as a way of spreading the word about how solar can help meet some of people’s most basic needs.

solar scooter chargerSolar scooters: Solar Tribune offers us a brief glimpse at a new solar-powered charging station for electric scooters, from Current Motor, a Michigan-based scooter manufacturer. The company’s Super Scooters can run for 50 miles on a charge, and are then recharged in about six hours by a solar-powered charging station.

ugly solar outfitSolar clothing: Last but certainly not least, Grist points us to a new fashion item that incorporate solar panels into the design, for better or worse. The new prototype Wearable Solar outfits, are the result of a collaboration between Dutch professor Christiaan Holland, fashion designer Pauline van Dongen and solar expert Gert Jan Jongerden. Grist’s Holly Richmond explains that the outfits are supposed to be able to charge a phone in two hours of wearing, but nails the description: “Unfortunately, the clothes are — how do we say this nicely? — really ugly.”

Here’s looking ahead to a solar-filled 2014 — thanks for reading!

The post Solar Everywhere, Dec. 2013: Refugee Shelters, Ugly Dresses & More appeared first on Solar Power.

Dec 032013
 

sunsaluter photoThis inspiring story is making the rounds on the internet this week: Eden Full, a 21-year-old junior at MIT, who has long been a solar innovator, gets a profile on Mashable for her creation of a low-cost way to greatly improve solar panel performance.

Full’s Sunsaluter (pictured at left) is a solar-tracking device that makes it easy for people in the developing world to get as much as 40 percent more power out of their solar panels.

Using an old soda bottle and the ages-old principle of water clock, Full has created a cheap solar-tracker that moves the panel to follow the sun over the course of the day, dramatically improving the amount of electricity it can generate.

From the Mashable profile:

At first glance, Eden Full may seem like a typical Princeton undergrad, but she’s far from typical. The 21-year-old is a Thiel Fellow and inventor of The SunSaluter, a solar panel that pivots to face the sun without requiring a motor. Full didn’t set out to radicalize the way the developing world sources power — she was a self-proclaimed “solar enthusiast” by the age of 10. But her ingenuity and a tip from someone at an international science fair led her to optimize solar energy, so a solar panel produces up to 40% more electricity. And all it takes is gravity and some soda bottles.

Below is a short video interview with Full, highlighting the impact her work has had, and likely will continue to have as her company expands its reach in the developing world.

Sunsaluter photo CC-licensed by TEDxYouth@SanDiego.

The post A Simple, Low-Cost Way to Boost Solar Panel Performance by 40% appeared first on Solar Power.