Tag Archives: Energy

Blue skies open for solar innovation

The solar power industry has enjoyed an innovation boom over the last decade or so, with accelerating production capacity and matching price drops. Last year, the industry added some 133 gigawatts (GW) of capacity worldwide, which is almost 19 percent of the previously installed 710 GW of capacity. One GW of power equals the output of 3.125 million solar photovoltaic (PV) panels, according to the US Department of Energy.

Such leaps in global capacity reflect the fact that commercial solar panels are approaching 20 percent efficiency which is near the theoretical limits. What is more, manufacturers are consolidating production methods and creating standards that make it easier to share suppliers.

With such progress alight, it might seem like a time for blue-sky nanomaterials researchers to entrust their promising discoveries to tech transfer professionals and move on to the next theoretical challenge. But physicist Sajeev John of the University of Toronto, one of many materials scientists with a promising new solar cell trick up his sleeve, says, “I wouldn’t say I’m knocking on the door of existing industry. I want to keep the IP [intellectual property] and develop it, rather than just license it to existing solar cell companies.”

John and other researchers are betting that the nanomaterials they are developing, including reimagined silicon photonic crystals and organic photovoltaic materials, are different enough, and valuable enough, to merit new industrial production infrastructure.

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The next step on the energy ladder

Sandwip Island in southern Bangladesh almost has it all. It sits in the estuary of the Meghna River, which washes the island with rich, fertile silt, while plentiful sunlight helps coconuts, mangoes and pineapples to grow. It was once home to pirates but now thrives on honest trade. The main downside is that none of the 350,000 people living on the island have a connection to the national grid.

For years, only the wealthier Sandwip residents could generate electricity, by buying small diesel generators. About a decade ago, Bangladesh began promoting solar home systems (SHSs): small, stand-alone, rooftop photovoltaic devices that can reach poorer households. But power generation on an individual scale has drawbacks. There is a limited supply of subsidized diesel, so generators cannot be on all day, and they are noisy, polluting and have high maintenance costs owing to the low-quality fuel that is often used. And a typical SHS provides a maximum output of just 500 watts — enough for a few light bulbs and a mobile-phone charger, but too little for a hand blender or water pump.

To thrive, small enterprises need dependable electricity around the clock. So in the absence of the national grid, Sandwip went for the next best thing: a hybrid solar–diesel minigrid.

Read the rest of this feature in Nature Outlook’s Energy Transition issue: [html] [pdf].

Emission Permission

Mexico kicked off 2017 with a 20 percent spike in gasoline prices, driven in part by the phasing out of subsidies. Some consumers set fires at gas stations—a response that highlights the backlash countries can face as they stop subsidizing carbon-based fuels and start encouraging climate-friendly alternatives. Now the Mexican government and stock market are experimenting with a gentler tool for discouraging carbon emissions: cap-and-trade. Mexico, which in 2012 passed the developing world’s first climate law, is well placed to set an example for other developing economies looking to shrink their carbon footprints.
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How a New Middleman Might Help Balance Electricity Grids

A few years ago almost two thousand bold households on the Danish island of Bornholm joined a surge pricing experiment run by their electricity utility. It was supposed to empower the utility and consumers with a simple, direct market (“The Smartest, Greenest Grid,” IEEE Spectrum, April 2013).

The EU-funded project, called EcoGrid, won widespread buy-in from residents, who could also earn small payoffs when they reduced demand.  Yet researchers reported last year that they could reduce demand by only 1.2 percent of peak load, despite early predictions of up to 20-percent reductions for so-called virtual power plants. The market model was missing something. Continue reading How a New Middleman Might Help Balance Electricity Grids