A new solar power system is easy to add to a roof, and performs its own safety checks.
By Kevin Bullis
Ordinarily, installing and connecting a new array of rooftop solar panels takes days, weeks, or even months because the hardware is complex and various permits are needed. Yesterday, on a frigid day in Charlestown, Massachusetts, researchers completed the process in about an hour.
Homeowners can install the system themselves, by gluing it to a rooftop. The permitting is handled by a combination of electronic sensors and software that communicates with local jurisdictions and utilities.
Installation and permit-related expenses currently account for more than half of the overall cost of a new solar power setup. “By simplifying the system so that it’s like installing an appliance, we envision that the soft cost will be virtually eliminated,” says Christian Hoepfner, director of the Fraunhofer Center for Sustainable Energy Systems, which developed the system. Doing so would lower the cost of a typical residential solar installation from $22,000 to as little as $7,500, he says.
“It’s impressive to see how quickly the installation went up,” Fouad Dagher, manager of new products and services at the utility National Grid, said after the demonstration. “It makes it easier for consumers and utilities.”
Solar power can be dangerous if not installed properly. Heavy components may be blown off a roof if not secured properly, and solar panels can produce potentially deadly voltages if not properly grounded, and every wire protected.
The Fraunhofer system uses light, flexible solar panels encased in durable plastics. The panels can be securely attached to a shingled roof via an adhesive backing that anchors the panels even in winds up to 110 miles per hour.
The solar panels use electrical equipment, developed by the startup VoltServer, that breaks DC power into discrete, addressed packets, something like the data packets sent over the Internet. If one of these packets fails to reach its destination—for example, if someone were to touch a damaged wire, the current is instantly cut off, preventing injury—a feat demonstrated by a brave EnerVolt employee at the Charlestown demonstration when he purposely touched an exposed wire on the new solar installation.
The whole system is connected to the grid via a plug similar those used for fast-charging electric cars, which can handle high voltages safely.
Once plugged in, the system performs several tests to ensure it’s safe. Hoepfner says the software probably does the job more consistently than inspectors would. Test information would be sent to the local utility for approval over the Web.
While all the hardware exists now, and will go on sale soon, the automated permitting still needs work. Fraunhofer had preapproved the system with the authorities, who’d had inspected the process ahead of time. Commercialization will require developing new standards for solar power systems.
Homes will also need preinstalled outlets designed for solar panels, similar to the high voltage dryer connections in new homes. For now, installing the outlet will require a trained electrician, though it can be done in just a couple of minutes via a device that can be quickly attached to a meter.
Meanwhile, testing is ongoing to make sure the adhesive will keep the solar panels anchored in very hot weather. Because the panels are flush with the roof, rather than mounted on racks that allow air to flow under them, they get hotter than conventional panels, which also lowers the amount of power they can produce.
If you’re a cyclist, you know the anxiety that comes with running out of water in the middle of a bike ride — the last thing you want is dehydration when you’re miles away from home. Design student Kristof Retezàr may just set your mind at ease, though. He recently developed Fontus, a bike-mounted device that uses solar power to convert air moisture into water for your drinking bottle. The key is its use of thermoelectric cooling. Solar panels generate electricity that cools the top of the device, where air comes in as you ride; as the moisture condenses, it drips water into a bottle below. The bottom stays warm, but that only accelerates the condensation process above.
This is a design exercise at the moment, but Retezàr is looking at both crowdfunding and investors to turn this into a shipping product. It won’t need much refinement to be both cheap and effective, at least. The Fontus prototype cost less than $40 to make, and it actually works best when conditions are at their worst — it produces half a liter (17 fluid ounces) of water in an hour when subjected to hot and humid air. That may not be completely satisfying if you’re extremely thirsty, but it should be enough to tide you over until your next rest stop.
by Paul Lilly
Every so often, you hear about a major tech company making strides in going green and/or leaving a smaller carbon footprint. This time it’s Acer America, which today announced an initiative to provide clean energy for its U.S.-based operations. Acer claims it purchased enough green power to offset 100 percent of its carbon emissions from electricity at all U.S. facilities — more than 27 million kilowatt-hours of green power in the form of renewable energy credits (RECs) in all.
On top of the its renewable energy purchase, Acer America has also become an EPA Green Power Partner and is now included in the Green Power Leadership Club, as well as listed on the 100 percent Green Power Users and Top 30 Tech & Telecom partner ranking lists.
“EPA is excited to welcome Acer America Corporation as a Green Power Partner and congratulates them on their No. 24 ranking on our Top 30 Tech & Telecom list of the largest green power users,” said Melissa Klein, communications director of EPA’s Green Power Partnership. “By opting to purchase renewable energy, Acer America Corporation is helping to grow the nation’s clean energy economy and reducing harmful carbon pollution. The company’s impressive commitment to use 100 percent green power serves as an example of leadership for others to follow.”
RECs are used by thousands of U.S. and Canadian organizations as a way to track and trade green power in North America. The RECs that Acer purchased are sourced from a blend of renewable energy types including wind power and biomass — they’ll reduce emissions from Acer’s U.S. facilities through the end of 2015.
By: Leon Kaye
With seven of the world’s fastest growing economies located in Africa, it should not be a surprise that the continent’s energy demands will only surge in the coming decade. Hence plenty of opportunities exist for clean energy companies as investors worldwide realize Africa, with all of its risks, is a booming market. To that end, California-based Solar Reserve, together with numerous partners, has completed and launched the Jasper PV Project in South Africa.
Built in South Africa’s Northern Cape Province, the Jasper solar power plant is now the largest of its kind on the African continent. The consortium that led the development of the Jasper facility included the Kensani Group, Intikon Energy, Rand Merchant Bank and Google. Incidentally, the Jasper plant is Google’s first clean energy investment within Africa.
Located near the diamond mining center of Kimberley, the 96 megawatt plant and its 325,000 photovoltaic modules will provide enough energy for approximately 80,000 homes. The Jasper plant is also important as a step toward South Africa’s renewable energy goals. The country of 53 million basks under bountiful sun and withstands plenty of wind, but renewables still have not come close to being fully exploited. South Africans also endure blackouts on a regular basis, and energy shortages have long been the bane of conducting business in Africa’s second largest economy.
To that end, Solar Reserve claims the project serves as an example of how to boost employment in South Africa, where unemployment has long hovered around 25 percent. According a company press release, the Jasper plant provided 1 million man-hours of construction work and 800 on-site construction jobs. Construction of the plant was also largely a local endeavor, and about 60 percent of the materials used were procured from black businesses as mandated under South Africa’s black empowerment law. Under the power purchase agreement Jasper has with the national electricity company, Eskom, the project will set aside a percentage of revenues for local economic and job development projects in the Northern Cape region.
Conceived in 2011, the Jasper power plant started construction in October 2013, and with last month’s completion, finished two months ahead of schedule. South Africa still suffers from economic inequality, high crime and a complex regulatory environment, but successful projects like that of Jasper show that South Africa, and the rest of the continent continuing on north, offers plenty of business opportunities in sectors that immediately may not come to mind.
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