Gates is doubling his investment in cutting-edge renewable technology initiatives to $2 billion over the next five years.
The fossil fuel industry is inflating a ‘carbon bubble’ based on risky demand & price assumptions.Already under current climate policy settings, companies risk wasting over $1 trillion over the next decade. If the policy settings are ratcheted up to reflect a 2 degrees target then the amount at risk rise dramatically to $20 trillion plus.
Did you know that your money could be at risk too?
An interesting video commissioned by Carbon Tracker and produced by Bee Environmental Communications, explains why dirty Fossil Energy is becoming increasingly risky business for investors and the world alike.
One interesting development of the commercial solar industry boom that is currently under way in the U.S. is the numbers of professional investors getting involved with the sector. Over 60 percent of investors will invest in commercial solar and a staggering 83 percent of investors will make investment in solar a priority in the next five years, with one in five already having made commercial solar investment a priority in the same timeframe.
The findings are revealed today in the “2015 Solar Investment Index” from financial services firm Wiser Capital, which commissioned accredited research firm OnePoll to poll the views of corporate investors across the United States.
“We have known the demand for mid-scale solar investment was growing in the U.S and it’s clear the boom has in fact already begun,” said Nathan Homan, Executive Director, Wiser Capital. “We are certain that investment in solar for commercial businesses will soon be a mainstream venture because investors have new tools and resources at their disposal streamlining and clarifying the process.”
Confidence is high that solar energy will give a strong return on investment with 63 percent of corporate investors anticipating a high return. The movement in the market from major companies like Google, Apple and Telsa has added a sense of urgency for 46 percent of investors and adds to the finding that solar investment will soon be mainstream.
What’s been the Problem with Investment so Far?
The main obstacle holding back solar investment was the lack of standardization and policy among 46 percent of corporate investors. Difficulty accurately assessing the various risks of a solar investment has held 43 percent back. Almost one in three (31%) investors found it challenging to ascertain the viability of solar projects as individual investments.
“It has always been a notoriously difficult sector for investors to assess risk and prove investments viable without incurring incredibly high administrative costs,” Homan continued. “With our technology finally unlocking this new market segment, we are excited to see sustained and aggressive growth in the solar industry across the country.”
The Index found that 69 percent of investors would be more likely to invest in solar this year if there was an easier and standardized way to assess risk for a project, with another 54 percent likely to invest this year if there was an easier way to find solar partners.
Wiser’s technology and platform helps investors automate the transaction process for small and medium scale commercial projects. Its key features provide independent and interactive solar analytics, investment grade financial modeling, a risk rating system and a Wiser Solar Asset Rating (WSAR) Score. This score enables investors to calculate bankability and risk, reduce time and effort and provide standardization, transparency and education.
A Conversation with Hiroshi Amano
In 1879, Thomas Edison invented the light bulb. For nearly a hundred years, the incandescent bulb—which worked mainly by electricity passing through a filament and heating it to incandescent temperatures in a glass globe—lit up the world. It was effective in terms of turning night into daylight, but most inefficient in virtually every other way. It used, indeed wasted, a lot of electricity, generated heat, and had to be thrown away once it burned out in a relatively short time. Along came the next phase—fluorescent lights, with their own set of problems. But scientists continued working and eventually came up with the process of electroluminescence, and in turn light-emitting diodes or LEDs.
For nearly three decades, though, there were only two types of LEDs—red and green. The third vital color, if they were to be combined into a bulb that emitted white light, was blue. And for nearly four decades, this eluded scientists. Until one day, following years of effort, three extraordinary Japanese scientists stumbled on the way to make blue. For their efforts, last year, all three were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics. One of them was Hiroshi Amano, a professor at Nagoya University located on Japan’s Pacific Coast.
World Policy Journal editor and publisher David A. Andelman spoke to him for a Conversation on his epic breakthrough and his astonishing work that comes next—and could lead to another Nobel Prize.
WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: I’d like to talk to you a bit about how you and your colleagues effectively enabled the creation of the light-emitting diode (LED), which is really the greatest single advance, in many ways, of energy conservation. To start, can you share how the LED differs from traditional light bulbs, and how you came to make this discovery?
HIROSHI AMANO: The LED is a fourth generation artificial lighting system. The first one was the wire or frame based on conduction. The second one was incandescent. The third is the fluorescent lamp. But the problem is that the florescent lamp needs a vacuum and also has a glass tube, which is very fragile. So the LED is the fourth generation, which is based on the solid state and the quantum mechanics based lighting system. It is very tough and very efficient—indeed the most efficient lighting system.
WPJ: And what I especially found interesting is that basically you need three colors to arrive at the LED light. You need red, green, and then blue. It was very easy to get the red and the green, but it was the blue that you discovered—that took 30 or 40 years to do— that really enabled this?
AMANO: You are right. For red and green it is not so difficult because the crystals that emit red light and green light are relatively easy to grow, but the crystals that can emit blue light are quite different and very difficult to grow. That is why it took a long, long time to realize the blue-light emitting diode.
WPJ: So how were you able to arrive at that?
AMANO: Semi-conductor physicists already knew which crystals could emit blue light, but the problem was that growing single crystals is very difficult.
WPJ: How did you do that?
AMANO: Today’s blue emitting diode is based on gallium nitride. To grow the gallium nitride by direct reaction of gallium and nitride, we need very high pressure—over 45,000 atmospheres—and very high temperatures. Then we need to use the chemical reaction to reduce the pressure and the temperature. We have to use the different crystals as the substratum wafer to grow the LED structure. So the sapphire is one of the best candidates for the substrata, but the problem is that the periodicity between the atom arrangement of the sapphire and the gallium nitride is quite different—16 percent different. So many people tried to grow single crystals but failed, and for a long, long time. In general, the semi-conductor physicists tried to grow crystals at high temperatures, but in our case we did it at low temperatures. That’s why we succeeded.
WPJ: I understand in a lab you have controlled conditions or you can replicate all sorts of interesting conditions that are very difficult on an assembly line. How did it get from that point to the point where we can have a very simple LED light? How did you get from that to an ability to manufacture that on a mass scale worldwide?
AMANO: We succeeded in mass production because we realized the low temperature phosphor technique to grow high quality crystals, and also we succeeded in realizing the p-type gallium nitride. Before us, many people tried to replicate LEDs based on gallium nitride, but no one succeeded in the p-type nitride. We, however, succeeded in the p-type gallium nitride.
WPJ: We now have in the United States virtually universal adoption of the LED, and many other areas of the world as well. One member of the Nobel Prize committee pointed out that a quarter of all electricity produced in the world is devoted to illumination. So could you venture a guess as to how much energy your discovery is saving the planet?
AMANO: Take Japan’s case. Maybe by 2020 about 70 percent of the general lighting can be replaced by the LED lighting system by which we can save about 7 percent of the total electricity in Japan. Maybe in the world the trend is a bit slower. In the case of the United States, by year 2030, about 70 percent of the general lighting can be replaced by LED lighting and about 7 percent of electricity saved by LED lighting systems.
WPJ: Japan is trying to move away from nuclear energy and toward conventional or new types of energy. Might this help in this process because less electricity will be necessary for lighting?
AMANO: In Japan, before 2011, about 30 percent of the electricity was generated by nuclear power plants, but today all of the nuclear plant production has stopped. So we have to find the way to obtain the 30 percent. About 7 percent can be saved by LED lighting, so we have to search for another 23 percent in savings.
WPJ: The other issue that’s interesting about LED use is that they are so much cooler than incandescent lighting. And for those concerned about our warming planet, might replacing incandescent light bulbs all over the world with LEDs effectively contribute to lowering, or at least slowing, some of the heating at the surface of our planet?
AMANO: You are right that the incandescent lamp emits infrared radiation, but I’m not sure how much it affects global warming systems. In Japan, there is another opinion. For example, in the Hokkaido area it’s very cold, and it snows. In the traffic systems, if the traffic signals are covered with snow, in the case of LED light signal systems, there is no heating, or the heating is very small, so they cannot melt the snow. So we have to find another route.
WPJ: Now it also seems that because less electricity is required to power an LED than an incandescent light, there are so many parts of the planet, especially the more remote regions of the world, where the need to generate the larger quantitates of electricity to power a village lit with incandescent lights is being replaced by a far smaller energy generating need. So might we then be able to light up hitherto darkened regions of our planet where this might not have been possible before?
AMANO: Yes. That’s a very important point. In the case of LEDs, by combination of solar cells and batteries, we can provide very simple lighting without electrical generation. For example, I met with the Minister of Education of Mongolia, where they still live without houses—they are nomads. Now they can provide very simple lighting tools by combining solar cells, batteries, and the LED lighting systems, which provide the students, or children, with a lighting system. So the children can read a book, or study, even at night.
WPJ: What motivated you to develop this whole system? Was it purely scientific curiosity? Or was it a sense of the needs of our planet? How did his happen?
AMANO: When I was young, my interests were purely scientific. However, now my interests, or my motivation, are how I can contribute to the planet, or to the people living on the planet.
WPJ: So you think that the scientific community in general has a responsibility to commit to work on addressing these threats to our planet, or the prospects of improving it. What role do you think science should play in making mankind better?
AMANO: In my case, I can contribute to the energy saving, or energy efficiency, issues. Maybe I can also contribute not only LEDs but also the other devices such as power devices or solar cells, and I do believe I can provide much more efficient devices or solar cells in the future.
WPJ: So your next work is in the solar cell area. The research you’re beginning now is the backside of the LED—how to generate the electricity needed to power the LED.
AMANO: My interests now are not only LEDs, but also the solar cells and also the power device, for example the inverter or converter. The solar cells generate Direct Current (DC); we use Alternate Current (AC) in homes. We have to change the electricity from DC to AC. So we use an inverter circuit system and also a converter circuit system—effectively a switching transistor. If you considered an electric vehicle, the batteries are DC, but the motor is AC because of the high efficiency generated compared to the DC motors. We have to change the electricity from DC to AC, so we need an inverter system. And we use the power transistor. Efficiency is still high—95 percent—but 5 percent is lost.
WPJ: Do you think you can get to that last 5 percent?
AMANO: Yes, the last 5 percent we can reduce to 0.5 percent by using the new materials system.
WPJ: What kind of materials?
AMANO: That’s the gallium nitride and the silicone carbide.
WPJ: Oh so very similar to the materials that go into your LEDs then?
AMANO: Right. We are also now concentrating on fabricating new power transistors based on gallium nitride and silicone carbide.
WPJ: That’s what your research deals with now. And that will be your next advance. Now let’s go back to the LEDs. You said last year that about half of the blue LEDs in the world are manufactured in China and that energy conservation efforts can be enhanced by cooperation between the research of Japanese universities and China’s production capability. So how do you see these global efforts going forward and developing? Should Japan and China lead the way in all of this?
AMANO: In China, the factory size is much, much bigger than in Japan. I think that the collaboration with Japan’s ideas, or the universities, and China’s manufacturing capabilities will help LEDs penetrate the global marketplace much faster.
WPJ: So basically Japan has some extraordinary people like you who are great scientists and inventors, developers of new and great techniques, and China can take those and develop them for the world more effectively on a massive scale. Are you happy that Japan is taking this kind of leadership in the scientific area?
AMANO: We are very proud of providing the ideas or technology to people who are trying to fabricate these devices or who try to realize our ideas.
WPJ: How long do you think before your new devices will be ready to take their place beside the LED to make important changes in society? What is a realistic timeframe to expect in the future going forward for this type of transformation?
AMANO: In the case of our blue LEDs it took about 30 years from the start of our studies to then contribute to the energy savings. A long time is necessary to realize the idea.
WPJ: So is three decades a reasonable period? Is this what we can expect as the norm from, say, the scientific laboratory to the factory to the consumer in this day and age? Or do you think such a process can, and should, be accelerated given all of the needs of the world in terms of conservation and our energy needs?
AMANO: In the case of blue LEDs, there were many candidates. But a long time was necessary to understand which was the best candidate. There were many competitions until we finally found the best solution.
WPJ: I would like to conclude by asking you about what aspect of your work holds for you the greatest hope for the future of people on our planet?
AMANO: The health of the people, because we are now trying to fabricate LEDs by which we can clean up the water or clean up the air. More so, other people are trying to use LEDs for purifying for food.
WPJ: So these are new applications for the LED other than lighting a room. Indeed, the LED has already changed so much in the world. By replacing sodium lights with LEDs, the whole tone of major cities is being changed—the lighting so much more sharp, bright, and realistic than under the sodium lights. In short, it has changed the lives of so many people. Are you moved by that? Are you pleased you’ve affected so many lives so positively?
AMANO: I am very proud, but I’m not the only person to contribute to this. Many people have contributed to realizing the LED’s applications, so I owe much to the people who are trying to develop LED’s technology.
WPJ: Well that’s very modest of you, Professor Amano, but without you, they would have nothing to work with. I congratulate you and celebrate you, as do we all here.
AMANO: Thank you so much.
This article was first published in the Summer 2015 Issue of World Policy Journal, “Climate’s Cliff” and is reposted with permission. (Subscribe to World Policy Journal here) [Cartoon courtesy of Jeff Danziger]
Driven by environmental problems, a growing auto industry, and a big policy push, China’s advanced energy storage market will be worth $8.7 billion in 2025, more than quadrupling from the current $1.7 billion, according to Lux Research.
Transport applications will dominate with $7.4 billion, or 85% share of the revenues. Stationary applications will earn $1.3 billion. Overall, revenues will grow slower than volumes on account of continually falling battery and systems prices.
Transport applications will take an 85% share, or $7.4 billion, as pollution and policy drive the market for electric vehicles, Lux Research says
“Besides understanding the market dynamics and producing cost-competitive products, most players in these markets will require strong partnerships to succeed,” said Lilia Xie, Lux Research Associate and lead author of the report titled, “Clearing the Haze: Demystifying Energy Storage Opportunities in China.”
“Early leaders such as BYD will try their best to hold onto their positions but the diversification of the market will gradually create promising opportunities for those who operate with patience and savvy,” she added.
The authors of the report studied China’s growing energy storage market in the backdrop of drivers such as environmental pollution, the push toward renewables, and government incentives. Among their findings:
- While transportation leads, stationary is a growth driver. Total demand for energy storage will grow to 31 GWh per year in 2025, with transportation again the dominant player. Transportation’s share of the market will grow to 29 GWh; the stationary market, at 2.3 GWh, is smaller but grows at a faster 30% CAGR.
- Growth of NEVs cools. After a spike in sales of new energy vehicles (NEV) in 2014, China will settle to a more leisurely pace of growth, mainly on account of inadequate charging infrastructure. Still, the market will grow at a 19% CAGR, reaching 500,000 units in 2025, across passenger and heavy vehicles.
- Renewables will drive stationary storage. Growth in China’s stationary storage will follow from an aggressive deployment of renewables. China leads the world in installed capacity of renewables, with plans for much more. In addition, preliminary policy developments suggest the electricity sector will implement pricing reforms, encouraging efficiency-boosting technologies including grid storage.
The report, titled “Clearing the Haze: Demystifying Energy Storage Opportunities in China,” is part of the Lux Research Energy Storage Intelligence service.
Renewable energy accounted for 9.8% of total domestic energy consumption in 2014. This marks the highest renewable energy share since the 1930s, when wood was a much larger contributor to domestic energy supply.
Renewable energy use grew an average of 5% per year over 2001-2014 from its most recent low in 2001. The increase over the past 14 years was in part because of growing use of wind, solar, and biofuels. Wind energy grew from 70 trillion Btu in 2001 to more than 1,700 trillion Btu in 2014. During the same period, solar energy (solar thermal and photovoltaic) grew from 64 trillion Btu to 427 trillion Btu, and the use of biomass for the production of biofuels grew from 253 trillion Btu to 2,068 trillion Btu. Hydroelectricity was the largest source of renewable energy in 2014, but hydro consumption has decreased from higher levels in the mid-to-late 1990s. Wood remained the second-largest renewable energy source, with recent growth driven in part by demand for wood pellets.
In 2014, slightly more than half of all renewable energy was used to generate electricity. Within the electric power sector, renewable energy accounted for 13% of energy consumed, higher than its consumption share in any other sector.
The industrial sector used 24% of the nation’s renewable energy in 2014. Nearly all of that renewable energy was biomass, which included wood, waste, and biofuels used in manufacturing processes as well as in the production of heat and power. The production of biofuels results in energy losses and co-products, which are also included in industrial consumption of renewables.
About 13% of the renewable energy used in the United States is now consumed in the transportation sector, which experienced the largest percentage growth in renewable consumption from 2001 to 2014. The growing demand for liquid biofuels, including both ethanol and biodiesel, pushed renewables to nearly 5% of the sector’s energy consumption in 2014.
A greater use of wood for home heating and steadily growing installation of solar systems are the main contributors to increasing renewable energy consumption in residential buildings and, to a lesser extent, in commercial buildings.
The “Today in Energy” brief was originally posted on EIA’s website. Principal contributor to the report is Mary Joyce.
According to the latest U.S. Energy Storage Monitor, a quarterly report from GTM Research and the Energy Storage Association (ESA), the United States deployed 5.8 megawatts of energy storage in the first quarter of the year. That’s up 16 percent over the first quarter of 2014.
Seventy-two percent of the nation’s recently deployed capacity was in front of the meter across six storage systems. The remaining 28 percent was behind the meter at residential, commercial, education, nonprofit and military sites. Behind-the-meter storage had a record first quarter and is trending upward in terms of total share of deployments. In fact, GTM Research forecasts that U.S. behind-the-meter storage sales will surpass front-of-meter storage sales by 2018.
Storage is a unique distributed energy resource because it can behave both as load and supply on the grid as needed, which can enable it to deliver more than just end-customer benefits. As of the first quarter of this year, GTM Research identified 11 different programs or pilot deployments using behind-the-meter storage for grid or wholesale market services, the largest of which is the more than 150 megawatts of behind-the-meter energy storage that is being procured by Southern California Edison as part of its local capacity requirement (LCR) program.
Ravi Manghani, senior energy storage analyst and lead author of the report, notes that despite technological, regulatory and market barriers, grid-service storage pilot projects and procurements are just starting to get off the ground and will fuel the growth of the behind-the-meter market segment.
“Companies are seeing dynamic opportunities in energy storage,” said Matt Roberts, executive director of ESA. “Wholesale solutions have fueled the market in recent years, but behind-the-meter applications for storage are quickly accelerating.”
“With year-over-year growth in the first quarter, the U.S. energy storage market is on pace for a record-breaking 2015,” said Shayle Kann, senior vice president at GTM Research.
GTM Research expects the U.S. to deploy 220 megawatts of energy storage in 2015, 11 percent of which will be behind the meter.
An innovative solution for homeowners looking to save energy and significantly reduce their utility bill is hitting the market for the first time in many areas throughout the United States. Developed at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory with funding from the EPA and the U.S. Department of Energy among others, the new technology, called Aeroseal, provides an easy and effective way to seal leaky air ducts.
According to recent reports, leaky ducts are the primary source of energy loss in 85 percent or more of existing residential homes. Sealing those leaks is typically the single most effective thing homeowners can do to reduce energy consumption.
Aeroseal works by sealing duct leaks from the inside of the duct system. Applied as an aerosol mist, the non-toxic spray travels throughout the interior of the ductwork attaching itself to the edge of the leaks, then bonding to other sealant particles until the hole is sealed. According to Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory studies, the process is 95 percent effective at sealing air duct leaks.
“Unlike traditional duct sealing methods such as tape or mastic, aeroseal works from the inside of the ductwork to locate and seal leaks. This makes it possible, for the first time, to seal all the leaks, including those hidden behind walls, under insulation or other hard to find and access locations,” said Neal Walsh, senior vice president at Aeroseal LLC. According to the company, average homeowners can save $250 to $850 each year on their home energy bill by using this innovative approach to duct sealing.
Developed At Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Aerosol-Based Duct Sealing Changing The Rules On How To Best Reduce Home Energy Use
In their 2009 report Unlocking Energy Efficiency in the U.S. Economy, research firm McKinsey and Company ranked duct sealing as the single most effective thing most homeowners can do to reduce home energy consumption – about 5X more effective than upgrading windows; 30X more than insulating walls.
“It’s estimate that the average home loses 30% of heated and cooled air through duct leaks,” said Walsh. “Since the majority of ductwork in existing homes is inaccessible for manual sealing, there was no viable solution to the problem…until now.”
JMD Corporation recently purchased the exclusive rights to the duct sealing technology and formed Aeroseal LLC, a company focused exclusively on promoting Aeroseal technology. As a result, the duct sealing solution is being made available for the first time to many homeowners across the United States. Since being introduced on the market, Aeroseal technology has won a number of prestigious awards including the DOE Energy 100” award from the U.S. Department of Energy and The Best of What’s New award from Popular Science Magazine.
Key Findings Include Energy Efficiency Action Lags Intent, Hispanics More Open to Embracing Energy Efficiency Measures
New national market research conducted with 1,345 homeowners about their attitudes toward energy efficiency points to significant opportunity for electric and gas utilities and energy efficiency programs to improve the way they engage customers about energy efficiency.
“Across the country, the seeds have been planted about the importance of energy efficiency,” says Rob Niccolai of KSV, the marketing firm that commissioned the research. “But, in general, utilities are doing a poor job translating that sentiment into consumer action.
“Utilities might take a lesson from Home Depot and Lowes. These national retailers figured out how to tap Americans’ passion for their homes and their willingness to undertake DIY projects.
“Utilities should do the same for energy efficiency,” advises Niccolai. “Energy efficiency needs to be repositioned to matter like home improvement matters. A solid start might be to use the phrase ‘home efficiency’ rather than ‘energy efficiency’.” Niccolai is a principal and client group director at KSV, which has honed its energy efficiency marketing expertise with utilities and energy efficiency programs like National Grid, Mass Save and Efficiency Vermont.
According to the research findings, nearly 60% of homeowners report that they enjoy taking on home improvement and DIY projects, yet fewer than half (46%) made an energy efficiency improvement in the past year. Moreover, less than 10% rate their homes as very efficient, yet 63% want a more efficient home.
KSV polled 1,345 homeowners across five regions of the country and across diverse demographic segments (age, income, gender, marital status, ethnicity, presence of children, household size, educational level) during two weeks in January and one week in February 2015. KSV developed the survey questions and Qualtrics, an online survey firm, fielded the survey. KSV analyzed all the data.
Language nuances are just one of many findings of the statistically significant national research. Others include:
Energy Efficiency Action Lags Intent
Almost 86% of responding homeowners believe the world will be better off because of energy efficiency, 82% believe energy efficiency can help America’s energy independence, and 72% believe energy efficiency can reduce emissions and delay climate change.
Yet less than half of those surveyed (46%) invested in an energy efficiency measure last year, and only 18.7% participated in a utility-sponsored energy efficiency program.
KSV’s research suggests that with better understanding of energy efficiency comes more engagement and participation.
Although 61% of those polled cannot confidently explain a kilowatt-hour; of those who can, almost four-fifths (79%) feel somewhat or very knowledgeable about the different measures they could take to increase the energy efficiency in their homes.
The research uncovered significant differences in energy efficiency attitudes among ethnic groups. “If you want to meet your utility’s energy efficiency goals, ‘Habla Español’,” says KSV’s Niccolai.
Forty-two percent of Hispanics and 40% of African Americans say they are very interested in making their homes more energy efficient. Conversely, only 25% of Caucasians make the same claim.
Children in the Home Matter
Interest in energy efficiency also varied by the presence of children in the home. Homeowners with children are more inclined toward energy efficiency measures than homeowners without children, 69.3% compared to 59.6%. Moreover, people without children deem their homes inefficient, participate in energy efficiency programs less (60% have not participated), and claim the least familiarity with energy efficiency programs.
Fully 85% of homeowners want a rich, in-depth display of energy consumption and 52% of homeowners say they would change their energy consumption behavior with better visualization.
Also, homeowners place greater value when they play an active role in saving energy (by turning off lights, washing clothes with cold water, etc.), rather than when they play only a passive role, letting energy efficient appliances and smart technology do the work. That suggests that utilities promote both simple conservation measures and more elaborate energy efficiency measures together.
Solar Soars, SmarTech Hesitation
Finally, the nationwide research explored homeowner attitudes toward renewables and smart technology.
The research strongly suggests that utilities talk up their renewable energy investments. Nearly three-fourths (73%) of homeowners say their satisfaction with their utility would increase if the utility were to offer energy sourced solely from renewables.
And interest is solar is soaring. Respondents report five times the interest in solar compared to 12 months ago. Curiously, 21% of respondents reported that solar would reduce their energy use. Apparently they conflate energy efficiency benefits with energy generation technology.
It may be 93 million miles away, but the power of the sun is so strong you can feel it when you walk outside. The sun provides energy that is cheap, clean, and nearly everywhere human beings live and work. What’s more, the potential of solar power has excited some of the brightest minds in American history.
“We are like tenant farmers chopping down the fence around our house for fuel when we should be using Nature’s inexhaustible sources of energy – sun, wind, and tide … I’d put my money on the Sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that”
– Thomas Edison
Thomas Edison spoke those words to Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone way back in 1931. If those names sound familiar, it’s because those three men are often credited with creating modern America. Edison, of course, brought marvels such as electricity and incandescent lightbulbs to the masses. Ford leveraged the moving assembly line and used it to bring the automobile to America’s burgeoning middle class. And Firestone’s rubber technology helped keep early electric lightbulbs from bursting into flames and cars from careening wildly off the road.
For their efforts, Edison, Ford, and Firestone made millions of dollars around the turn of the 20th century. Nearly 100 years later, however, the idea of widespread solar energy use that excited those inventors so much still seems like part of a far-off future, with the companies that focus on bringing solar “out of the shadows,” still toiling in virtual anonymity.
Even so, the cost of electricity-producing solar panels is dropping and their efficiency is skyrocketing, making it possible to generate real, usable power at a relatively low cost. This is great news for DIY enthusiasts.
Start Small and Take it With You
The companies making solar gadgets for mass consumption have, in general, started small. In the early 1980s Sanyo – an early leader in the development of amorphous solar cells – was among the first to offer a solar calculator (although we had to wait until 1984 for the Sanyo CX 2570 to hit the U.S. market). Another Japanese electronics firm, Casio, followed with its own solar calculators, and introduced solar watches as well. Today, both of those items have been replaced by smartphones that pack serious, multi-core computer processors with power needs well beyond a tiny strip of silicon solar cells. But that doesn’t mean you can’t harness the power of the sun to charge those phones.
With little more than a tin of mints and a few supplies from a local electronics store, it’s possible to build a solar-powered USB phone charger that fits in your pocket, allowing on-the-go phone charging. A tiny DIY solar device can charge a phone during a quiet picnic at the park or in a crowded airport terminal with no free power outlet.
You can find detailed plans to build a portable pocket phone charger on sites like Make andInstructables, with material costs ranging between $20 and $30 for a “minty charger,” and just $90 for a more substantial unit, which packs a bigger battery that can keep USB devices running strong for days.
These small, solar-powered USB chargers may seem like a great accessory to have on hand – and it’s tempting to think about taking one on an outdoor adventure. Unfortunately, these handmade gadgets could quickly lead to a damaged phone or GPS unit since they offer no protection from the rain, mud, or bugs that you often encounter when venturing off the grid.
Luckily, one intrepid DIY-er has already thought of an inexpensive and effective solution to protect electronics against the elements. This version houses the entire solar-powered USB charger inside a waterproof food storage container. It’s a straightforward, clever solution to the problem, and could help protect a device when packing it into a bag or backpack as well. According to its original developer, the waterproof option adds about $4 to the price of your homemade solar phone charger.
The Versatility of Solar
Now that you’ve used solar power to conquer Facebook commenting (or juice up a navigation device) it’s time to head home – but heading home doesn’t mean leaving solar power behind.
Roof-mounted solar panels help power a number of homes from coast to coast. And with the cost of solar quickly dropping, as well as a rapidly expanding pool of state and federal incentive programs aimed at making solar power more affordable, the number of home solar installations is bound to increase in the coming years. The panels are, for the most part, used to generate electricity, and can help cut down on energy costs by supplying “free” electricity to appliances that run all day. But while generating electricity is what most of us assume solar power is for, it isn’t limited to that one purpose.
At its peak, sunlight can deliver more than 1000 watt-hours of energy per square meter and over 160 watts/meter averaged out over a 24-hour day.1 All that energy creates heat we can harness to help warm up a home. All you need, according to one solar DIY-er, is a wooden backing, a heavy-duty plastic covering (or tarp), 100 feet of drain hose, expanding foam, and some glue and fasteners to build a four-by-eight-foot air heater box. The solar air heater box works by taking in cool air, then routing it through the drain hose. As the air moves through the hose, the nearly 3,000 watts of solar energy (collected by the plywood heater box) warms it during peak daylight.
According to its makers (who have published more detailed construction plans on Instructables), the heater box is about as efficient as two small space heaters when at its best. Unlike those two space heaters, the DIY solar air heater box won’t use a penny’s worth of electricity and is safe enough to leave running all day long – a practice that’s not advisable for a conventional electric space heater.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, a solar-powered air cooler can keep a space cool. This DIY solar-powered air cooler uses a standard five-gallon shop bucket, a window screen, a computer fan, and a few other bits and pieces from an aquarium to create a constant flow of crisp, cool air.
The solar air cooler operates on the principles of evaporative cooling, which is different from the way conventional air conditioners operate with compressors and condensers. Basically, the cooler adds water vapor to the air entering the bucket by forcing water held in the sponge-like material to absorb the energy in the warm air. As the water evaporates, the energy (and, therefore, heat) leaves the air colder than when it entered.
Granted, a five-gallon bucket cooler like the one shown won’t replace a conventional air conditioner, but it will help keep a tent, cabin, or even studio apartment a few degrees cooler – and that’s really the essence of DIY solar projects.
Everything Under the Sun
There are a ton of DIY solar projects and tutorials on the Internet, and really anything that uses electricity to operate has the potential to be powered by the sun. While some of the do-it-yourself types may stick to small-scale projects, others have conquered the unthinkable.
Nigerian student Segun Oyeyiola fashioned a 100 percent electric wind-, and solar-powered Volkswagen Beetle from all junk parts.2 Oyeyiola’s parents initially discouraged the venture, but he has big hopes for the project. The construction of a solar-powered electric car in a country where gas companies have been accused of violent acts in the name of oil is nothing short of brave.3
Taking the first steps toward homemade solar-powered devices can be rewarding and fun. Small-scale or not, DIY solar can bring us a few steps closer to the clean, free future of alternative power that Thomas Edison and Henry Ford dreamed about way back in 1931.
BY JO BORRAS
Showing strong growth in all market sectors, Vermont more than doubled its amount of installed solar capacity in 2014, according to the recently-released U.S. Solar Market Insight 2014 Year in Review. What’s more, Vermont was one of only four states nationwide to have 100 percent of its new electrical capacity come from solar energy.
In 2014, Vermont added 38 megawatts (MW) of solar electric capacity, bringing its total to 70 MW. That’s enough clean, affordable energy to power nearly 7,500 homes. The report went on to point out that Vermont’s biggest solar gains came in utility-scale installations, but commercial and residential installations showed strong increases, as well. Of the new capacity added, 27 MW were utility scale, 6 MW were residential and 4 MW were commercial. Together, these installations represented a $76 million investment across Vermont – a 63 percent increase over the year before.
“Gov. Peter Shumlin and Vermont’s legislative leaders should be applauded for their ongoing commitment to the state’s clean energy future,” said Rhone Resch, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA). “As evidenced by this report, their efforts are paying big dividends for the state’s economy and environment. During Gov. Shumlin’s administration, solar prices in Vermont have dropped by more than 60 percent, while his latest plan, an ambitious Energy Innovation Program, is likely to serve as a model for other states to follow. We congratulate Gov. Shumlin for laying out an agenda for a clean energy economy which focuses on jobs, affordability, renewable energy and quality of life for all Vermonters.”
Today, there are more than 70 solar companies at work throughout the value chain in Vermont, employing 1,000 people. Notable Vermont solar projects include:
- PSEG Essex Solar Energy Center was completed in 2014 by developer Juwi Solar Inc. This photovoltaic (PV) project has the capacity to generate 3.9 MW of electricity– enough to power more than 700 Vermont homes.
- At 3 MW, SunGen1 in Sharon is among the largest solar installations in Vermont. Completed by Talmage Solar Engineering, this PV project has enough electric capacity to power more than 500 homes.
In addition to a growing commercial sector, the Vermont residential market also showed gains last year, with installed system prices dropping by 8 percent – and down a total of 49 percent since 2010. Nationwide, the U.S. residential market added 1.2 GW of installed capacity in 2014, marking the first time that this growing sector surpassed 1 GW of clean, affordable solar. Residential also continues to be the fastest-growing market segment in the U.S., with 2014 marking three consecutive years of greater than 50 percent annual growth.
“Today, the U.S. solar industry employs 174,000 Americans nationwide – more than tech giants Apple, Google, Facebook and Twitter combined – and pumps nearly $18 billion a year into our economy,” Resch added. “This remarkable growth is due, in large part, to smart and effective public policies, such as the solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC), Net Energy Metering (NEM) and Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS). By any measurement, these policies are paying huge dividends for both the U.S. and Vermont economies, as well as for our environment.”