The Electree+, A Solar-Powered, Induction Charging Bonsai Tree Hits Kickstarter

Induction charging seems ready for its time in the spotlight, with the Nexus 4, Droid DNA and Lumia 920 all shipping with wireless charging based on the Qi standard built-in. Now a concept design that offers solar-powered wireless charging cleverly hidden inside a futuristic looking bonsai tree hopes to become a reality with the help of Kickstarter.

The electree+ began life as a concept by French designer Vivien Muller, which he originally unveiled in 2008. Then, three years later, Muller tried to bring the device to market, kicking off pre-orders for the device beginning at $370. She was aiming for 400 pre-sales, but the device eventually shipped to just a small group of 200 pre-order customers.

Now, the electree+ has been redesigned to maximize its solar efficiency, and to be manufactured in the USA at much larger volume, and for less money. The redesigned electree+ boasts a 14,000mAh internal battery, which when fully charged can fill an iPhone 5 up to and over nine times. It features 27 solar panels at the tips of branches, which are adjustable to capture maximum light. It requires 36 hours in sunlight to build up a full charge, but it also only needs around 4 hours to build up enough juice to fully recharge your standard smartphone.

Other features, like an optional built-in- NFC chip, mean that it can trigger an action when a smartphone is placed on its surface, in order to put it into dock mood or manage smart home connected devices, like light fixtures and curtains. It also has changeable faceplates, if you’re feeling bored by a particular color. Plus, the electree+ is environmentally friendly, since it’s just sipping sunlight to deliver charges to your devices.

The electree+ has two USB ports, including one designed for devices with lower power requirements like smartphones, and one for tablets which feature faster charging powers. As mentioned, because it uses Qi, it’ll work out of the box with the Nexus 4 and other smartphones with Qi inductive charging coils built-in, but it should also work with iPhones so long as they have a wireless charging case.

Pre-orders begin at $199, depending on what kind of options you want, and the team behind the redesigned electree+ wants to hit at least 1,000 pre-sales, or a total funding amount of $200,000 in order to go to production. It’s an ambitious project, but unlike with a lot of products on Kickstarter, this is one that’s actually been made and shipped, so hopefully the team stands a better chance than most of hitting their May 2013 target ship date.


California Schools Are Going Solar

139 kW carport solar system at Curtner Elementary School in Milpitas | Photo: Chevron Energy Solutions

California‘s schools are leading the way to the state’s solar future, generating electrical power while saving on costs and helping educate their students about the importance of renewables. That’s according to a report released today by Environment California.

The report, Making the Grade with Clean Energy (PDF), surveys 18 California school districts spanning the state from Red Bluff to Chula Vista, and describes the nearly 200 solar projects those districts have installed on school grounds. Averaging more than 300 kilowatts in capacity, each project reduces public schools’ formidable energy expenses — which, in California, rivals the amount schools have to spend on books and supplies.

“California school districts are adding a fourth “r” to the building blocks of education: reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmetic and renewables,” Michelle Kinman, clean energy advocate with Environment California Research & Policy Center and author of the report, said in a press release. “Schools all across California are saving significant dollars by going solar, and helping reduce air pollution.”

The report was released today in a press event at L.A. Unified‘s South Region High School #9 in South Gate, home to a 244-kilowatt solar carport system covering the school’s parking lot. L.A. Unified is the largest of the 18 districts profiled in the report, serving more than 600,000 students, and the district has a solar plan to match its size. With 27 solar projects in place and an additional 60 in the works, L.A. Unified will be generating as much as 42 megawatts of solar power, saving up to $800,000 on the district’s monthly electric bills.

The report surveys the kinds of applications to which each school puts its solar panels. Shaded parking spaces seem immensely popular among the schools surveyed. Only one of the schools surveyed, Sweetwater Union High School District in San Diego County, was found to have installed a solar thermal system for heating water — certainly a technology that bears further consideration by school districts.

The report concludes with a list of recommendations for policies that will help school districts across the state keep up the solar momentum, including raising net metering caps higher than the current one megawatt and five percent of a utility’s demand; expanding feed-in tariff programs; streamlining permitting and other regulatory processes to make it easier for schools to install solar systems; and maintaining and expanding current incentive programs.


Romania to Produce More Solar than Nuclear Power in 2016

BUCHAREST – Solar power will eclipse nuclear energy in 2016 in Romania if investment in photovoltaic plants continues at the current pace, official figures released on Monday showed.

“We expect the installed capacity of solar plants to reach 50 to 100 MW at the end of 2012, 500 to 1,000 MW at the end of 2013 and to top 1,500 MW in 2016,” an official of the national energy regulator (ANRE), Zoltan Nagy, told a solar power conference.

The two reactors of Romania’s sole nuclear power plant in Cernavoda produce together around 1,400 MW, accounting for 18 percent of the country’s energy needs.

Romania plans to build two more reactors at Cernavoda but has so far failed to find investors willing to come up with the requisite 4.0 billion euros ($5.0 billion).

After a strong increase in wind-power projects over the past two years, Romania is now witnessing a surge in investments in solar energy.

The South Korean group Samsung is currently looking at two potential locations in southwestern Romania to set up plants with a forecast capacity of 45 megawatts.

“The share of renewable energy in Romania accounts for 8.0 to 9.0 percent,” ANRE president Nicolae Havrilet noted, before stressing that the target was to top 20 percent in 2020.

“With wind farms having reached the top limit, solar power now offers the best investment opportunities,” he added.

A May 2012 survey by Ernst&Young cited by PV Romania, a website specializing in solar power, says Romania is the sixth most attractive European country for investment in solar power.


Rice Unveils Super-Efficient Solar-Energy Technology

‘Solar steam’ so effective it can make steam from icy cold water

HOUSTON — (Nov. 19, 2012) — Rice University scientists have unveiled a revolutionary new technology that uses nanoparticles to convert solar energy directly into steam. The new “solar steam” method from Rice’s Laboratory for Nanophotonics (LANP) is so effective it can even produce steam from icy cold water.

Details of the solar steam method were published online today in ACS Nano. The technology has an overall energy efficiency of 24 percent. Photovoltaic solar panels, by comparison, typically have an overall energy efficiency around 15 percent. However, the inventors of solar steam said they expect the first uses of the new technology will not be for electricity generation but rather for sanitation and water purification in developing countries.

“This is about a lot more than electricity,” said LANP Director Naomi Halas, the lead scientist on the project. “With this technology, we are beginning to think about solar thermal power in a completely different way.”

The efficiency of solar steam is due to the light-capturing nanoparticles that convert sunlight into heat. When submerged in water and exposed to sunlight, the particles heat up so quickly they instantly vaporize water and create steam. Halas said the solar steam’s overall energy efficiency can probably be increased as the technology is refined.

“We’re going from heating water on the macro scale to heating it at the nanoscale,” Halas said. “Our particles are very small — even smaller than a wavelength of light — which means they have an extremely small surface area to dissipate heat. This intense heating allows us to generate steam locally, right at the surface of the particle, and the idea of generating steam locally is really counterintuitive.”

To show just how counterintuitive, Rice graduate student Oara Neumann videotaped a solar steam demonstration in which a test tube of water containing light-activated nanoparticles was submerged into a bath of ice water. Using a lens to concentrate sunlight onto the near-freezing mixture in the tube, Neumann showed she could create steam from nearly frozen water.

Steam is one of the world’s most-used industrial fluids. About 90 percent of electricity is produced from steam, and steam is also used to sterilize medical waste and surgical instruments, to prepare food and to purify water.

Most industrial steam is produced in large boilers, and Halas said solar steam’s efficiency could allow steam to become economical on a much smaller scale.

People in developing countries will be among the first to see the benefits of solar steam. Rice engineering undergraduates have already created a solar steam-powered autoclave that’s capable of sterilizing medical and dental instruments at clinics that lack electricity. Halas also won a Grand Challenges grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to create an ultra-small-scale system for treating human waste in areas without sewer systems or electricity.

“Solar steam is remarkable because of its efficiency,” said Neumann, the lead co-author on the paper. “It does not require acres of mirrors or solar panels. In fact, the footprint can be very small. For example, the light window in our demonstration autoclave was just a few square centimeters.”

Another potential use could be in powering hybrid air-conditioning and heating systems that run off of sunlight during the day and electricity at night. Halas, Neumann and colleagues have also conducted distillation experiments and found that solar steam is about two-and-a-half times more efficient than existing distillation columns.

Halas, the Stanley C. Moore Professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering, professor of physics, professor of chemistry and professor of biomedical engineering, is one of the world’s most-cited chemists. Her lab specializes in creating and studying light-activated particles. One of her creations, gold nanoshells, is the subject of several clinical trials for cancer treatment.

For the cancer treatment technology and many other applications, Halas’ team chooses particles that interact with just a few wavelengths of light. For the solar steam project, Halas and Neumann set out to design a particle that would interact with the widest possible spectrum of sunlight energy. Their new nanoparticles are activated by both visible sunlight and shorter wavelengths that humans cannot see.

“We’re not changing any of the laws of thermodynamics,” Halas said. “We’re just boiling water in a radically different way.”

Paper co-authors include Jared Day, graduate student; Alexander Urban, postdoctoral researcher; Surbhi Lal, research scientist and LANP executive director; and Peter Nordlander, professor of physics and astronomy and of electrical and computer engineering. The research was supported by the Welch Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.


Arizona School First to Run Entirely on Renewable Energy

A rural elementary school in Arizona offers a lesson in grid independence – albeit small, it is the first in the US to run entirely on renewable energy.

Five wind turbines and 100 solar panels supply the school’s electricity.

The Star Charter School, located in rural Arizona about 30 miles from Flagstaff, serves 130 students pre-school through eighth grade. It is sited close to a major Navajo reservation.

When it opened in 2001 in a former junkyard with no access to public power, and in a community with high unemployment and high drop-out rates, it set out to become a model for small community schools.

Instead of searching for a way to pay for power lines and a water system, the founders drew on their Navajo heritage to create an almost entirely self-sustaining campus. Thus the name STAR (Service to All Relations) and its emphasis on Navajo traditions of community: self-reliance and caring for the environment through green building and clean energy.

37 kilowatts of solar and wind power the school, including its state-of-the-art media lab and an electric well system that waters the orchards and garden, which are cultivated using Navajo practices.

As you might imagine, solar technology is a big part of the curriculum. Students study real-time energy use of computers and lights, evaporative cooling systems and refrigerators.

STAR partners with Northern Arizona University to collect information about the school’s water, air and soil quality, and to offering mentoring in science and engineering.

In April, the school was one of 78 across the country to be recognized by the US Department of Education‘s first-ever Green Ribbon Award. The recognition is for schools that “exercise a comprehensive approach to creating green environments through reducing environmental impact, promoting health, and ensuring a high-quality environmental and outdoor education to prepare students.”

“California school districts are adding a fourth “r” to the building blocks of education: reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmetic and renewables,” says Michelle Kinman, from the Environment California Research & Policy Center and author of the report. The most popular place for solar seems be on covered parking spaces and systems tend to be around 300 kW, almost all solar PV.

School districts across the country are finding value in green building and renewables, lowering their energy costs and giving them much more room in the budgets for education.