Butterfly Flaps Its Wings, Could Spark Solar Energy Progress

By: Tina Casey

From the wonderful world of biomimicry comes a solar energy breakthrough based on the posture at rest of a small butterfly called the Cabbage White. Who knew that voguing is still a thing? Apparently, this stylin’ butterfly forms a uniquely angled “V” with its wings, which according to new research from the UK’s University of Exeter indicates a new pathway for developing lighter, more efficient solar energy harvesting systems.

Photo credit: Cabbage White butterfly by Piyush Rai via (creative commons license).

Butterflies & Solar Energy

To get why the new Exeter solar energy research is significant, let’s take a step back and consider that butterfly wings are powerful examples of Mother Nature’s engineering skills. Here’s the rundown according to the Exeter team:

Butterfly wings are in fact surprisingly complex as butterflies not only have pairs of wings that are effectively linked in flight (and overlap at rest) but the scale cells on their wings also show dramatically different morphologies and orientations. Further, these scale cells can exist as complex overlapping layers therefore potentially conferring complex overall optical properties on the whole wing…

The key to powering all this sophisticated equipment is solar energy. Butterflies need to heat up their flight muscles before they can go fluttering around. They do it by Continue Reading »


Japan’s Abandoned Golf Courses Are Being Transformed Into Solar Power Farms

By: Amanda Froelich

An abandoned and bankrupt golf course is being transformed into a solar power station by the Kyocera Corporation.

Last week, the business announced it would turn the former golf course in Kyoto into a 23-megawatt solar farm; the artist’s rendition is shown above.

Once the solar power farm is finished and online (in 2017), it will generate enough electricity to power 8,100 homes. 

But the Kyocera Corporation has no intention of  stopping there: it aims to join with several other companies and build a second 92-megawatt solar plant on a golf course that was never completed in Kagoshima Prefecture.

As the Independent shares, there are plenty of golf courses than can be converted in the future. In the 1990’s, Japan experienced a sudden “golf boom,” and ended up constructing more than 2,000 new courses in just a few years. But since the fad has passed (some might say as quickly as it started), many golf courses have gone bankrupt and now hundreds exist – abandoned – across the countryside.

Thankfully, golf courses are the perfect place to build solar farms. The wide-open spaces receive plenty of sun making them prime real estate for the installation of solar panels.

Perhaps other countries will also follow suit with this innovative way of re-purposing abandoned golf courses. Because many courses shut down in the US during the 2008 recession, cities in Florida, Utah, Kansas, and Minnesota are discussing ideas for turning many of those into solar power stations as well. It seems the owners recognize the potential for selling to energy companies and are looking to put their abandoned courses to good use.



India solar power investment could surpass coal by 2019-20 – Deutsche Bank

By Tom Kenning

Deutsche Bank raised its forecasts for solar capacity additions to 34GW by 2020, up 240% from its previous 14GW projection. Image: Deutsche Bank

Investment in solar power in India could surpass investment in coal by 2019-20, with US$35 billion already committed by global players, according to a Deutsche Bank report.

The report ‘India 2020: Utilities & renewables’ said the focus on solar would be driven by prime minister Narendra Modi’s ambitious target of deploying 100GW of solar capacity in the country by 2022.

The report stated: “Private sector interest is decisively moving towards solar from coal power, and we foresee numerous opportunities of fund-raising, yieldco structuring and M&A activity.”

Furthermore, Deutsche Bank raised its forecasts for solar capacity additions to 34GW by 2020, up 240% from its previous 14GW projection. Therefore, by 2020 annual solar power capacity additions could also surpass those in coal power projects, which are slowing down.

Research suggested that solar could significantly impact on day power rates, with generation peaks between 9am and 6pm. This could reduce coal requirement by around 8% by 2020 and result in significant savings of approximately US$17 billion per year.

The report said solar has to be “an inherent part” of the expansion strategies of local independent power producers’ (IPPs) as renewable energy obligations become more enforced and as the price of producing power from coal rises.

It also forecast that domestic manufacturers are unlikely to be benefitted as the majority of PV cells are still likely to be imported “given the small scale of domestic PV industry”.

Meanwhile, state governments are seen to be putting in the necessary frameworks to achieve the 100GW target, which has attracted interest from domestic companies as well as global players including utilities, renewable energy giants and private equity firms.

The report stated: “Solar fundamentals are becoming compelling in India, and investments are bound to grow dramatically, in our view. But there are numerous challenges which still need to be addressed.”

The main risks cited included dealing with the challenges of higher penetration, transmission constraints and integration of diurnal power into the grid, along with a lack of peak-load management capability.

A further risk is a lack of enforcement of Renewable Energy Purchase Obligations (RPOs), because state distribution companies are weak financially and have little incentive to take on more solar energy.

Others issues include: financing, land acquisition, limited domestic manufacturing, and reliability of baseline data.

Importantly, however, solar tariffs have dropped 60% in four years from INR 14.90 per kWh in 2010 to INR 5.75 per kWh in 2015. Deutsche Bank said this is almost at parity with other conventional power sources.

Meanwhile market expectations are that solar equipment prices could drop a further 30-40% due to technological and efficiency improvements.

Tarun Kapoor, joint secretary of the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) said: “By next year, solar installations will overtake those for wind by several-fold.”

Finally, one of the main findings of the report was that India could become one of the largest renewable energy producers in the world by 2022.

Referring to the huge 100GW by 2022 solar target the report said: “Technically this is achievable – if administrators are willing to put enough support behind it. Realistically, challenges of weak financials of distribution companies and grid constraints need to be addressed.”

India had 4.5GW of solar installed as of end of June this year, according to Deutsche bank.



New Material Combines Photons for Big Solar Energy Gains

By Graham Templeton

An innovative new approach to solar energy from University of California Riverside could dramatically increase the amount of light available to contemporary solar panel designs. Rather than widening the absorption spectrum of the solar panels themselves, this new study looked at taking currently inaccessible infra-red light and turning it into visible light. They hope that by directing this newly fabricated light onto conventional solar panels, the efficiency of solar power could be greatly improved, for an affordable price.

Infrared light currently passes straight through most silicon solar cell technologies, representing a substantial inefficiency in generating electricity from sunlight. Much of solar research has worked to directly convert infrared light to electricity, but such technologies change the transistor design, and thus the manufacturing process for solar panels. Their impacts tend to be limited by cost concerns, more than anything else.

These researchers chose to accept the absorptive abilities of current silicon transistors, and instead looked to make the light conform to the panels. They created an all-new hybrid material that takes two photons of 980-nanometer infrared light shone onto it and “up converts” them into one photon of 550-nanometer orange/yellow light. This photon has almost double the energy of the originals and, more importantly, it exists in a form that existing solar panels can absorb.

By changing the incoming sunlight into silicon’s favorite for absorption, the material could improve solar panel efficiency by as much as 30%. And while the costs of the material itself are not yet known, there is huge potential in offering such large improvements without the need to completely reinvent the transistor manufacturing process.

This hybrid material combines two things: an inorganic layer with semiconductor nanoparticles — this absorbs the infrared light, but isn’t capable of directly passing it into the electricity generating process. Instead, the light moves on to the organic phase of the material, which takes these long-wavelength photons and combines them. The resulting, lower-wavelength photons can move on to be absorbed by the transistors of the solar panel as normal, just as though it has been that color upon first arrival.

The overall costs of solar power lie much more in installation, maintenance, and land use costs than in the panels themselves; adding a new layer of this IR-capturing material would certainly increase panel costs, but could still improve the affordability of solar power. Infrared radiation accounts for an enormous amount of the energy in direct sunlight, and it is currently being missed by every solar panel outside of a research laboratory.

In general, this sort of research into the manipulation of light could allow a wider rollout of solar power around the world. Plenty of raw energy is falling on highly clouded days, but the distribution of that energy through the spectrum is different, and harder for modern solar panels to turn into power. Infrared radiation moves through and overcast sky quite well, however; if its energy could be added to that of the cloud-filtered visible light, solar might start to make good financial sense in less sunny areas than Texas and California.

The ability to accurately convert photons between wavelengths could have a wide range of applications, from medical imaging to optical data storage, but none is so direct as solar power. Energy will be one of the defining issues of the next few decades, and while some all-new tech revolution may end up saving the day, evolutionary steps like this one will be needed to sustain the world until that day comes.




The Big Energy Debate that Solar Power has Finally Won

The cost of solar panels has dropped from $150/watt in 1970 to 60 cents/watt today.

By: Terry Tamminen

For nearly half a century, homeowners and utilities have mounted solar panels on rooftops and in massive generation projects in the desert. Much of that was only made economical because of tax breaks and subsidies, such as California’s Solar Initiative (CSI)—or the Million Solar Roof Initiative, as it is often called—and the federal Investment Tax Credit (ITC), which paid for as much as 50 percent of the costs. But solar is no longer a charity case. It’s now grown up to out-compete conventional energy generation in many ways.

Mario Anzuoni | Reuters Technicians install solar panels on a house in Mission Viejo, Calif.

Not only has the cost of solar panels dropped from $150/watt in 1970 to 60 cents/watt today, the industry that was jump-started by the early incentive programs also resulted in a dramatic drop in the “balance of system” costs—design, installation, electrical connections, etc. The installed cost of solar in 2007, when the CSI began, was nearly $10/watt of generating capacity. Today it’s down to just over $5/watt for residential and about $4/watt for utility-scale projects.

Expressed another way, the average cost in the U.S. of generating energy from the sun is about $130/megawatt hour compared to coal-fired generation at $147 and conventional natural gas generation at $128. Solar, installed where the energy is used, is also more efficient than large centralized generation, where electrons must travel many miles over transmission lines, losing more than 6 percent of the energy along the way, meaning the effect of every megawatt of solar is greater to the nation’s energy supply than conventional systems.

Since 2007, Californians installed nearly 2,000 megawatts of solar, equal to two nuclear power plants (which turned out to be a very good thing for the state’s energy grid when leaks in the San Onofre nuclear power plant forced it to shut down in 2013).

Solar created jobs throughout the recent recession. In 2007, OCR Roofing in Sacramento, California, employed more than 100 people in traditional roofing jobs. The recession hit OCR and the entire housing industry hard, but instead of laying off workers as others did, OCR trained its staff to install solar on rooftops and actually grew the business. In 2009, Peterson Dean bought the company and became one of the largest privately owned solar and roofing companies in the nation.

Today, in California alone, there are more than 1,800 businesses serving various parts of the solar supply chain, employing over 50,000 workers.

“Solar is the only clean energy source that just about anyone can install and manage for themselves.”

Perhaps the biggest trend that points to a second wave for solar just beginning is the way that projects are financed.

For decades, a homeowner faced an upfront cost of $20,000 or more and a payback period of a decade for commensurate savings on energy bills. SolarCity, SunRun and other companies like them have changed that model to be more like buying a car. You can still pay for the whole thing at once, but now you can lease the system and pay as you go instead, locking in a fixed rate for your energy over time that is far lower than normal utility rates.

Some SolarCity customers are adding battery backup systems that keeps a home or business operating during blackouts and will one day allow them to drop off the grid altogether. In places that have what is called “time variant pricing”—customers pay more for electricity during the peak demand times of day and less at night when demand is lower—batteries can store cheap grid energy at night and dispatch it back to the utility during the day at a profit, while keeping the lights and air conditioner running on the solar power coming from the rooftop.

Which brings me to another driver for solar—rising electricity rates. The drought in the western U.S. means fewer kilowatts generated by our once mighty hydroelectric dams and reservoirs. To make up the difference, utilities build fossil-fueled “peaker” plants that are more expensive to operate because they’re used only when demand is highest (imagine if you owned a car but had to buy another one to drive only when the weather was hot). This trend isn’t limited to North America. The drought in Brazil is impacting its hydropower, too, and coupled with new net metering laws (allowing the sale of excess solar energy to the local utility), its nascent solar industry is poised for rapid California-style growth.

Wind, biomass, geothermal and waste-to-energy plants are also enjoying an upswing in demand, especially as utilities work to comply with state laws that require a growing percentage of power to come from such renewables. But solar is the only clean energy source that just about anyone can install and manage for themselves, at a cost that now competes with—even out-competes—conventional energy generation sources.