Increasing Number of Farms Switching to Solar Power

By: Ashley Robinson

Interest in solar energy is growing in Saskatchewan, according to SaskPower. SCOTT OLSON / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA

Farmers have always followed natural progression when it comes to technology.

“(Farmers aren’t) using horses to plow their fields anymore. Solar’s just kind of another step that allows them to be competitive and control the cost that’s a business expense,” said Nathan Jones, solar energy advisor with miEnergy.

Jones was at Canada’s Farm Progress Show last week to give presentations about farms switching to solar power. MiEnergy, a Saskatoon-based company, has been in the renewable energy industry for 15 years, first with geothermal and then expanding four years ago into solar energy.

Since entering the solar business, miEnergy has seen business steadily increase over the years — half of business now comes from farms, according to Jones.

Power bills for farms can be high since farmers are often operating both a business and living onsite. Jones said that with solar energy there is a large upfront cost but in the long run it pays off as the customer can control the cost of their power bill.

“You’re taking control of your power generation, which I think is empowering and allows a piece of mind knowing that (you’re) not going to be paying more every year for power,” he said.

This past year, SaskPower increased its rates by 8.5 per cent. With solar power, in the long run customers don’t have to worry about being affected by rate hikes Jones said.

According to SaskPower, interest in renewable energy sources has been growing. Recently the Crown corporation completed a series of stakeholder engagement surveys across the province.

“As we’ve seen in the growth of some of our (renewable energy) programs that we offer, there has been some definite interest from some of our farming customers across the province,” said Janson Anderson, director of customer programs with SaskPower.

SaskPower has two programs for solar power. The net metering program allows SaskPower customers the ability to offset their power consumption. The small power producer program allows customers to sell back the extra power they generate.

There are currently about 600 SaskPower customers who use the net metering program for solar energy. The small power producers program isn’t as popular, with only 20 clients currently using the system, though there has been rising interest.

Of note, SaskPower has found more interest in solar power from people in rural areas over those in urban areas.

“One of the reasons, probably, we’ve seen the numbers be a little bit higher in the rural scenarios is the lack of obstructions, the more available space, both installing for ground mount type solar as well as for rooftop solar scenarios,” Anderson said.

In rural areas people have an easier time positioning the solar energy system south to get the best maximum production. Rural residents also don’t have as many neighbours to deal with who create shade, which affects solar production.

SaskPower has been promoting alternative energy sources such as solar as part of its long-term goals to reduce power emissions by 2030 by about 40 per cent from 2005 levels.


New Technology will Enable Properties to Share Solar Energy

Dr. Mahmoud Dhimish’s research will mean low energy bills for consumers. Credit: University of Huddersfield

In the UK alone, some 1.5 million homes are equipped with solar panels, and it has been estimated that by 2020 the figure could soar to 10 million, with the prospect of lower energy bills for consumers and massive reductions in CO2 emissions. Now, a University of Huddersfield researcher is developing new technologies that could enable clusters of houses to share their solar energy, rather than simply exporting surplus electricity to the national grid. Also, new systems for fault detection will enable householders to monitor and maintain the efficiency of their panels.

Prize-winning PhD student Mahmoud Dhimish is spearheading the project, supervised by lecturers with expertise in high performance computing, engineering and electrical supply. The research is aided by a solar panel, or photovoltaic (PV) system that has been installed at the University by its School of Computing and Engineering.

“Currently, individual consumers generate electricity from their PV installations and if they are unable to use it, they export it to the network. PV outputs vary unpredictably – as do the electricity demands of each consumer – so supply and demand is difficult to match,” said Mahmoud Dhimish.

Therefore, his doctoral research – which has already led to a sequence of articles and presentations – is investigating the possibility of reducing the need to export unused energy to the grid by making use of “demand diversity” among adjacent dwellings.

A form of energy storage shared by the connected houses and the use of the ‘Internet of Things’ to monitor and manage their electricity demands will form part of the solution.

A major dimension of Mahmoud’s work is the development of a new algorithm that will enable the rapid detection of faults in PV installations. He has carried out pioneering work on the impact of micro-cracks in the performance of solar panels, using the facilities of the University of Huddersfield’s High Performance Computing Research Group to carry out his analysis.

The research could lead to the development of monitoring units operated directly by households or remotely via the Cloud.

Outputs describing the work have included the recent article Fault detection algorithm for grid-connected photovoltaic plants, in the journal Solar Energy. It is co-authored by Mahmoud Dhimish and his PhD supervisor Dr Violeta Homes, who is Subject Area Leader for Electronic and Electrical Engineering at the University of Huddersfield, where she leads the HPC Research Group.

Also supervising are Dr Bruce Mehrdadi, who is MSc Engineering Programme Leader, and lecturer Mark Dales, whose career has included 30 years in the electricity supply industry, and who took charge of the installation of the School of Computing and Engineering’s own solar panels.

Mahmoud Dhimish – who is Jordanian-Russian – earned awards that included a Chancellor’s Prize for his University of Huddersfield MSc in Electronic and Communication Engineering. He was immediately awarded a scholarship for his PhD research in renewable energy system. He has further co-authored articles awaiting publication and has also lectured on the subject to undergraduates.


Study Demonstrates a Better Way to Store Renewable Energy

Wind farms are a common source of renewable energy that needs to be stored. Credit: University of Arkansas

In an effort to find better ways to store renewable energy, physicists at the University of Arkansas, in collaboration with a scientist at the Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology, have shown that antiferroelectrics can provide high energy density. The findings may lead to storage devices that improve the efficiency of wind and solar power.

Because the production of renewable electricity may fluctuate from second to second, any device designed to store it must cope with constantly changing loads and still achieve high energy density relative to size. Batteries, supercapacitors and other technologies that can achieve high densities typically cannot react quickly enough to changing conditions. Traditional electrostatic capacitors can react quickly, but can’t hold enough energy for large-scale use.

U of A researchers Bin Xu, a research associate in the Department of Physics, and Laurent Bellaiche, Distinguished Professor of physics, along with Jorge Íñiguez at LIST, showed that antiferroelectrics may be able to achieve both goals. They published their findings in May in the journal Nature Communications.

Antiferroelectrics are materials in which adjacent dipoles – positive and negative charge centers separated by a very small space – are ordered in opposite direction of one another. Ferroelectric materials, by contrast, have adjacent dipoles ordered in the same direction.

Antiferroelectrics become ferroelectric with the application of a high enough electric field. By exploiting this characteristic, researchers predicted that high energy density and efficiency can be achieved in antiferroelectrics, in particular with the rare-earth substituted bismuth ferrite material used in this study. The paper explored improving the storage performance with further manipulation of the electric field. They were also able to create a model that explains the connection between energy density and the electric field, which points toward further research in the future.


Secretly Solar Roof

By: Elena Comelli

The solar panels can be designed to look like any type of construction material — terracotta, stone, cement or wood — in order to blend in with the building’s architecture.

Image Courtesy:

An Italian company is making photovoltaic roof tiles that perfectly mimic materials such as terracotta, stone and wood

In historic centres and buildings throughout Europe, obtaining permission to install a solar photovoltaic (PV) roof can be complicated. Aesthetic landscape constraints are often so strict that the limitations become prohibitive, unless the solar cells are invisible.

Hence, many have tried hiding or embedding solar roof panels in a material that resembles what is often used for roofing, stone paving or to clad blind walls. Elon Musk’s Tesla, for example, came up with a glass-layered shingle. Products like these are more or less invisible from the street—but from a certain height one can see the dark cells, an unacceptable idea in places such as the renowned Paris roofscape.

Now Dyaqua, a small family-owned company in Vicenza, Italy, has created a product called Invisible Solar, a PV roof tile unlike anything else on the market. And it has sparked an immediate boom.

Dyaqua inserts the PV cells inside a polymeric compound that mimics common building materials such as stone or wood so that the solar cells are completely invisible to the human eye.

“Since we started production a few months ago, we can’t keep up with orders, not only from Italy, but from France, Spain and the United States,” said Giovanni Quagliato, a Vicenza-born artist specialised in creating epoxy resin artwork, who discovered the secret to giving a totally natural look to polymeric compounds, while keeping them transparent to light.

The compound can be transformed to look like any building material, whether terracotta, stone, cement or wood. It is non-toxic and recyclable, built to withstand high static loads and resistant to atmospheric agents and chemical solvents. “It’s all about density: it has to be enough to fool the eye, but not too much, so as not to block the rays of the sun,” explained Quagliato. Years ago, he launched a production line of LED lights called Medea, based on the same technology. He then went on to create PV systems with his line Dyaqua, launched in collaboration with the Italian National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development (ENEA).

“The principle is the same: in the lamps, the light comes from the inside and must go outwards, while in PV tiles, the rays of the sun come from the outside and must penetrate the transparent material and reach the solar cells,” Quagliato explained. Applying this theory, however, was no easy task. Achieving the ideal concentration took years of hard work. The prototype’s efficiency was then tested by an independent scientific body. The tests confirmed an impressive performance of 70 peak watts per square meter, or about half the performance of a classic photovoltaic module.

Invisible Solar is available on the market for 7 euros per watt, against 1-2 euros per watt for standard PV modules. “You have to keep in mind that these are handcrafted products, designed specifically for historical centres: prices can often vary from 1 to 7 euros even for regular tiles and historic centre roof tiles,” Quagliato noted.

For now, Dyaqua survives on the production of LED lamps. The photovoltaic products are not financially sustainable, because they require an exorbitant amount of manual work. So far, there aren’t any machines capable of replacing the careful hand of man in applying different layers of resin at varying densities, both above and under the photovoltaic cells, with the right curvature for the perfect roof tile. The creation of flat surfaces resembling stone or cement is simpler, but it is still a delicate task that cannot compare to the industrial production of ordinary tiles or solar panels.

“To accelerate production and keep up with demand, we would have to invent machines that integrate or replace manual work,” said Quagliato. Only in this way can mass production be achieved, contributing to lower prices and increased product competitiveness with large producers, such as Tesla’s Solar Roof.

But Dyaqua lacks the funds to invest in a machine. Quagliato’s children, Matteo and Elisa, launched a crowdfunding campaign on IndieGoGo, attempting to raise USD 20,000 to pay for one. “Invisible Solar is my dream of a healthy world,” noted Matteo, “where technology has the natural appearance of our landscapes.”


Solar Paint Offers Endless Energy From Water Vapour

By: David Glanz

Researchers have developed a solar paint that can absorb water vapour and split it to generate hydrogen – the cleanest source of energy.

Video: Peter Clark

The paint contains a newly developed compound that acts like silica gel, which is used in sachets to absorb moisture and keep food, medicines and electronics fresh and dry.

But unlike silica gel, the new material, synthetic molybdenum-sulphide, also acts as a semi-conductor and catalyses the splitting of water atoms into hydrogen and oxygen.

RMIT lead researcher Dr Torben Daeneke said: “We found that mixing the compound with titanium oxide particles leads to a sunlight-absorbing paint that produces hydrogen fuel from solar energy and moist air.

“Titanium oxide is the white pigment that is already commonly used in wall paint, meaning that the simple addition of the new material can convert a brick wall into energy harvesting and fuel production real estate.

“Our new development has a big range of advantages,” he said. “There’s no need for clean or filtered water to feed the system. Any place that has water vapour in the air, even remote areas far from water, can produce fuel.”

His colleague, Distinguished Professor Kourosh Kalantar-zadeh, said hydrogen was the cleanest source of energy and could be used in fuel cells as well as conventional combustion engines as an alternative to fossil fuels.

“This system can also be used in very dry but hot climates near oceans. The sea water is evaporated by the hot sunlight and the vapour can then be absorbed to produce fuel.

“This is an extraordinary concept – making fuel from the sun and water vapour in the air.”

The research has been published as “Surface Water Dependent Properties of Sulfur Rich Molybdenum Sulphides – Electrolyteless Gas Phase Water Splitting” in ACS Nano, a journal of the American Chemical Society.