Australia’s Solar Power Boom Could Almost Double Capacity in a Year, Analysts Say

Solar farm approvals and record rooftop installations expected to ‘turbo-boost’ production

Last month was the biggest January on record for rooftop installation of solar panals, according to RenewEconomy and SunWiz. Photograph: Lucy Hughes Jones/AAP

A record-breaking month of rooftop installations and a flood of large-scale solar farms could almost double Australia’s solar power capacity in a single year, industry analysts say.

A massive solar energy boom is being predicted for 2018, after an unprecedented number of industrial solar farms were approved by the New South Wales and Queensland governments last year.

Last month also became the biggest January on record for rooftop installations, according to the renewables website RenewEconomy and industry analysts SunWiz.

With 111MW of new panels, it saw a 69% rise compared with the same month last year and became one of the top five months ever – largely driven by low installation costs and a boost in commercial uptake.

At the same time, nearly 30 new industrial solar farms are scheduled to come on line.

NSW approved 10 solar farm projects last year – twice as many as the year before – and has approved another in 2018. Queensland currently has 18 large-scale projects under construction, which is the most in the country.

The new farms could be operational within the year, according to John Grimes, the chief executive of the Smart Energy Council.

“These solar farms can be built within a matter of weeks,” he said. “They’re really quick and simple.”

Together, the new large-scale projects could add between 2.5GW and 3.5GW to the national grid and rooftop installations could add another 1.3GW, according to the Smart Energy Council’s estimates. This would nearly double the nation’s solar energy capacity, currently 7GW, in a single year.

“The train tracks are about to converge,” Grimes said. “Rooftop installations and utilities are both booming and could turbo-boost the solar numbers overall.”

In Queensland, residential solar panels are already the state’s largest source of energy, producing more combined than the 1.7GW Gladstone power station. Just under a third (30%) of residential homes in the state have solar installed – the most in the country.

With the completion of the new solar farms, solar will provide 17% of the state’s energy. “We’ve turned the sunshine state into the solar state,” Queensland’s former energy minister Mark Bailey said in October.

In New South Wales, the planning minister, Anthony Roberts, said the 10 new solar farms would generate 1.2GW of energy and reduce carbon emissions by more than 2.5m tonnes – the equivalent of taking about 800,000 cars off the road.

In January this year, NSW announced another plant – the 170MW Finley plant in the Riverina – as did Queensland, the 120MW solar farm at Munna Creek.

Grimes said the solar boom “was only going to grow” in future.

“Solar is the cheapest way to generate electricity in the world – full stop,” he said. “It’s not unusual for grid pricing to be north of 20c per kilowatt hour in a majority of jurisdicitions. A solar array, at an average size for an average home, if you amortise the cost over 20 years, the effective rate is 5c per kilowatt hour. That’s called an economic no-brainer.”

He said the rush to install rooftop panels could have been sparked by January’s warm weather and rising energy prices.

“I think people are acutely aware of energy prices. People are running air conditioning and thinking, ‘hooley dooley I’m going to get a bill’.”

2017 saw a record 1.25GW of solar power added to the grid nationally, counting both large-scale solar farms and rooftop panels. The predicted rate of rooftop panels alone in 2018 is expected to be 1.3GW.


Researchers Blaze New Ground in Wireless Energy Generation

Researchers from Clemson’s Nanomaterials Institute (CNI) are one step closer to wirelessly powering the world using triboelectricity, a green energy source.

In March 2017, a group of physicists at CNI invented the ultra-simple triboelectric nanogenerator or U-TENG, a small device made of plastic and tape that generates electricity from motion and vibrations. When the two materials are brought together — through such actions as clapping the hands or tapping feet — they generate voltage that is detected by a wired, external circuit. Electrical energy, by way of the circuit, is then stored in a capacitor or a battery until it’s needed.

The W-TENG is 3-D printed out of a graphene-PLA nanofiber (A), creating the bottom electrode of the technology (B). A Teflon sheet is then added as the top electrode (C). Credit: Adv. Energy Mater. 2017, 1702736  Image:

Nine months later, in a paper published in the journal Advanced Energy Materials, the researchers reported that they had created a wireless TENG, called the W-TENG, which greatly expands the applications of the technology.   The W-TENG was engineered under the same premise as the U-TENG using materials that are so opposite in their affinity for electrons that they generate a voltage when brought in contact with each other.

In the W-TENG, plastic was swapped for a multipart fiber made of graphene — a single layer of graphite, or pencil lead — and a biodegradable polymer known as polylactic acid (PLA). PLA on its own is great for separating positive and negative charges, but not so great at conducting electricity, which is why the researchers paired it with graphene. Kapton tape, the electron-grabbing material of the U-TENG, was replaced with Teflon, a compound known for coating nonstick cooking pans.

“We use Teflon because it has a lot of fluorine groups that are highly electronegative, whereas the graphene-PLA is highly electropositive. That’s a good way to juxtapose and create high voltages,” said Ramakrishna Podila, corresponding author of the study and an assistant professor of physics at Clemson.

To obtain graphene, the researchers exposed its parent compound, graphite, to a high frequency sound wave. The sound wave acted as a sort of knife, slicing the “deck of cards” that is graphite into layer after layer of graphene. This process, called sonication, is how CNI is able to scale up production of graphene to meet the research and development demands of the W-TENG and other nanomaterial inventions in development.

After assembling the graphene-PLA fiber, the researchers pulled it into a 3-D printer and the W-TENG was born.   The end result is a device that generates a maximum of 3,000 volts — enough to power 25 standard electrical outlets or, on a grander scale, smart-tinted windows or a liquid crystal display (LCD) monitor. Because the voltage is so high, the W-TENG generates an electric field around itself that can be sensed wirelessly. Its electrical energy, too, can be stored wirelessly in capacitors and batteries.

“It cannot only give you energy, but you can use the electric field also as an actuated remote. For example, you can tap the W-TENG and use its electric field as a ‘button’ to open your garage door, or you could activate a security system — all without a battery, passively and wirelessly,” said Sai Sunil Mallineni, the first author of the study and a Ph.D. student in physics and astronomy.

The wireless applications of the W-TENG are abundant, extending into resource-limited settings, such as in outer space, the middle of the ocean or even the battlefield. As such, Podila says there is a definite philanthropic use for the team’s invention.

“Several developing countries require a lot of energy, though we may not have access to batteries or power outlets in such settings,” Podila said. “The W-TENG could be one of the cleaner ways of generating energy in these areas.”

The team of researchers, again led by Mallineni, is in the process of patenting the W-TENG through the Clemson University Research Foundation. Professor Apparao Rao, director of the Clemson Nanomaterials Institute, is also in talks with industrial partners to begin integrating the W-TENG into energy applications.

However, before industrial production, Podila said more research is being done to replace Teflon with a more environmentally friendly, electronegative material. A contender for the redesign is MXene, a two-dimensional inorganic compound that has the conductivity of a transition metal and the water-loving nature of alcohols like propanol. Yongchang Dong, another graduate student at CNI, led the work on demonstrating the MXene-TENG, which was published in a November 2017 article in the journal Nano Energy. Herbert Behlow and Sriparna Bhattacharya from CNI also contributed to these studies.

Will the W-TENG make an impact in the realm of alternative, renewable energies? Rao said it will come down to economics.

“We can only take it so far as scientists; the economics need to work out in order for the W-TENG to be successful,” Rao said.


This New Fuel Cell Could Turbocharge Renewable Power

A new type of ceramic fuel cell cranks out record amounts of power. S. Choi et al., Nature Energy 10.1038 (2018)

By: Robert F. Service

Fuel cells are far greener than gas-powered engines because they produce electricity without burning up the hydrogen (or other fuel) that powers them. But they’re often impractical on a commercial scale because they’re so much more expensive to make. Now, researchers report that by creating a fuel cell that can run at a midrange temperature, they’ve made an inexpensive, powerful version that could boost the prospects for plentiful green energy.

Most fuel cells run at temperatures too hot or too cool to make at a reasonable price. One class, the polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) cells that power cars and buses, run at about 100°C. Another class, the solid oxide fuel cells (SOFCs) that power backup generators for hospitals and other buildings, typically run at 1000°C. The lower temperature of PEM cells makes the essential chemical reactions sluggish, requiring the use of expensive metal catalysts, such as platinum, to speed them up. But the feverish temperatures of SOFCs means that even if they don’t need the pricy catalysts, they need to be built from expensive metal alloys that can handle the scorching operating temperatures.

So in recent years, fuel cell researchers have pursued a Goldilocks strategy, looking for midrange temperature fuel cells that operate at about 500°C. That’s warm enough for reactions to proceed quickly, but cool enough to allow them to be built from cheaper metals, such as stainless steel. Initially, scientists tried doing so with catalysts borrowed from SOFCs. The devices worked, but they generated just 200 milliwatts of power per square centimeter (mW/cm2) of electrode surface area, well behind the performance of PEM fuel cells and SOFCs. To make it commercially, such fuel cells would need to produce at least 500 mW/cm2, according to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

Two teams have gotten close. One group, led by Ryan O’Hayre, a materials scientist at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, reported last year in Science that it had produced an intermediate temperature fuel cell capable of producing 455 mW/cm2. Another group, led by Ji-Won Son, a materials chemist with the Korea Institute of Science and Technology in Seoul, reported last year in Nature Communications that it got a similar result at the ideal operating temperature of 500°C.

Now, a group led by Sossina Haile, a chemical engineer at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, has crossed the goal line. Haile and her colleagues figured out that one key problem was occurring as soon as the reaction started. Both PEM fuel cells and SOFCs, like batteries, have two electrodes separated by an ion-conducting electrolyte. At one electrode, fuel molecules are broken apart and stripped of negatively charged electrons, which pass through an external circuit to a second electrode. Meanwhile, positively charged ions ripped from the fuel molecules travel through the electrolyte to the second electrode where they recombine with the traveling electrons.

Haile discovered that the connection point between the first electrode—called an anode—and the electrolyte was weak, blocking protons from zipping through to the second electrode, or cathode. So Haile and colleagues added a thin but dense layer of catalyst material atop the bulk of their anode catalyst, creating an easier transition for protons to move into the electrolyte. The researchers also tweaked the composition of their ceramic electrodes to make them more stable in the presence of steam and carbon dioxide. As they report today in Nature Energy their devices produced nearly 550 mW/cm2 at 500°C. They were stable for hundreds of hours of operation with few signs of degradation.

O’Hayre says the new work is “a great contribution,” and calls the performance “impressive.” But he notes that there are still a few issues that need to be solved before these devices are ready for market. For starters, the current cells are small, just a few centimeters in diameter. Researchers would need to find a way to make much larger versions, which could be tricky. That’s because the dense coating on the anode was formed by a technique called pulsed laser deposition, which is difficult to do large-scale on a commercial assembly line.

Another challenge, adds David Tew, a program manager at DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy in Washington, D.C., is that the all-ceramic electrodes and electrolyte are extremely brittle, which could make them less durable for use in real-world conditions.

Haile doesn’t disagree with those concerns. But she says her team’s advance should encourage researchers to solve those problems. If they do, intermediate range fuel cells could transform renewable energy, because they can also be used to convert electricity—say from a wind turbine—into hydrogen and other fuels for storage, and later turn them back into electricity. That would solve renewable energy’s biggest challenge: storing energy when the sun isn’t shining and the wind is still. That’s a combination that even Goldilocks might say could be just right for the future of fuel cells.


There’s a New Job in the Solar Industry

Grazing sheep on solar farms can be a win-win for the energy and agricultural industries. (Molly A. Seltzer)

By: Molly A. Seltzer

On the east side of Kauai, a herd of sheep grazes in an unusual pasture. The low valley, flanked on either side by green mountains, is the site of a 13-megawatt solar farm, where some 300 hungry sheep prune the grasses that grow around 55,000 solar panels.

While this may seem like a surprising collaboration, it is a trend that has grown with the rise of utility scale solar development in agricultural areas across the country. Large solar installations are often found in rural areas, and many times, there are local farmers that raise animals nearby. One of the biggest and most expensive operational challenges solar farms face is controlling vegetation on the sites. Overgrown plants can create unwanted shade, compromising electricity production, or even become tangled in the wiring on the backside of the arrays.

A spokesperson for Duke Energy, one of the largest electric power holding companies in the United States, says, “Other than the lease of the land, vegetation management is the number one expense at our solar facilities.”

While mowing has historically been the go-to method for vegetation management, in recent years, grazing sheep have become another landscaping solution, and one that can be a win-win for the energy and agricultural industries.

The shepherd at the Kauai solar farm in Lihue, Daryl Kaneshiro, is a retired petrol worker and former Kauai council member. Kaneshiro grew up on the west side of the island, and ranching has been a part of his life for as long as he can remember. He grew up on his family’s poultry farm, and in 1998, began running cattle and sheep on his own 300 acres, now Omao Ranch Lands. In 2013, the solar developer MP2 leased a portion of his land to install a small 250-kilowatt solar array, and Kaneshiro was hired to maintain the grounds.

Kaneshiro first mowed and did weed whacking and other maintenance by hand. Then, in an effort to cut down on the manual maintenance, he tried fencing in sheep and moving them in rotations to strategically eat the vegetation. He now has close to 700 sheep in his herd and maintains three farms on the island. Kaneshiro serves as an agricultural consultant for a fourth, an AES solar and battery site, which is expected to become operational in late 2018. Grazing sheep on solar farms has become the primary source of revenue for his family, enabling them to continue to build the ranch, install a solar-powered aquaponics system, and lay the groundwork for a farm-to-table restaurant at the ranch.

This is not the only place where the energy and agricultural sectors have come together. While it is fairly uncommon for farmers to both receive land lease payments and secure the maintenance contract for a site, as Kaneshiro has, the solar and agricultural industries have been blooming side by side. Sheep have been seen grazing solar land from coast to coast, in Hawaii, California, Texas, New Jersey and New York. The partnership is particularly strong where utility scale solar—large farms usually over 20 acres—has been established.

The solar shepherd phenomenon is perhaps most notable in North Carolina, which has become a national hotbed for utility scale solar, ranking second in the country to California with over 3,700 megawatts of solar installed in nearly 7,000 installations. Companies such as Apple, Ikea, Corning and Dow have all developed solar farms in the state. With the explosion of solar farms comes a need for grounds maintenance.

Tonje Woxman Olsen co-founded Sun Raised Farms in 2012 to serve as a maintenance contractor for solar farms specifically. The company offers mowing, grazing and agricultural services, and manages a network of sheep farmers throughout the state that want to grow their flocks and serve these solar sites. (Given that each solar farm is built differently, with varied geographies, soil baselines, sizes and designs, some areas of the pasture might be better maintained by mowing than grazing, or vice versa.) Sun Raised Farms recently expanded outside of North Carolina, securing a contract for a 20-acre solar farm in Virginia. The company sees the benefit to local farmers as twofold: a place for them to graze sheep, which can then be sold for lamb, strengthening the domestic, pasture-raised lamb market, and direct income from the solar farm owners for performing quality maintenance services. The outfit now grazes sheep on 1,000 acres of solar pasture, which totals 250 megawatts of solar capacity.

A primary benefit to the solar shepherds is income diversification.

Shawn Hatley, owner of Blake’s Creek Ranch and The Naked Pig Meat Co. located in Oakboro, North Carolina is a member of the Sun Raised Farms network. He speaks about the importance of having multiple revenue sources in the agricultural industry today. According to a 2017 USDA report, 50 percent of farms in the United States generate less than $10,000 annually in sales. And 80 percent of farms make less than $100,000 each year in sales.

“The more enterprising, the more economically resilient a business is,” he says. “Historically, you could raise a family of four on a 100-acre farm with carpentry, crop, egg and cattle sales. On today’s farms, farmers may have crop rotation, but for our scale, farms need to have multiple enterprises to compete with large agricultural operations.”

The College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at North Carolina State University began integrating solar shepherding into its agricultural seminars in September 2016. Interest is growing and the university is now considering creating programs that focus exclusively on sheep grazing for solar farms.

Hatley sees his sheep as another crop, and the decision to raise sheep requires a significant investment, just as a new crop would. It could be up $500,000 to grow a flock of 1,000 ewes, between the initial capital investment and operational overhead over five years. But it is also another revenue stream. If all goes as planned, the grazing operation will be a means to make his business more resilient to the uncertainties of agricultural life: fluctuating commodity prices, input costs, crop output and extreme weather.

Solar shepherding is a real opportunity, Hatley thinks, when the ultimate goal is to make farming work financially.


How Can a Smart Household Aid in Economics of the Home?

By: Arindam Paul

Smart homes or the home automation technology has been on the scene for a long time now, and at present, it is increasingly gaining popularity in both residential and commercial spaces all across the globe. The primary reason behind this is rapid technological advancements that have made home automation technology and smart devices much more affordable and user-friendly.

A smart home essentially means a home having a centralized digital control system whereby one can control the functioning of all the electronic appliances and devices in his/her home. This includes your entertainment system (TV, stereo, etc.), cooling (fans and air conditioners) and lighting system, HVAC system, and security system. When all these devices are connected via a single digital home platform, you can control them from anywhere and even any part of the world with just a click on your smartphone or tablet.

Just imagine this – you enter a room, the fan and lights turn on, and when you leave the room, they automatically turn off! Wouldn’t it be nice to monitor the activities in and around your home, even when you are not present there? Wouldn’t it be great if you could keep a close tab on the activities of your children and their caretaker while you are away? Well, you can do all of this with home automation.

A smart home cannot just make a home energy efficient but also economically smart. By making your home ‘tech-savvy,’ it brings with it a host of advantages that help to a great extent in minimizing energy consumption while reducing the costs.

The foremost advantage of home automation is safety and security of your house. With smart security systems, you can not only monitor any suspicious activity going on in your home but also prevent mishaps like a house fire from an oven you forgot to turn off. With just a click on your smartphone, you can lock/unlock your doors, can communicate with your loved ones (children and elderly parents) while you are away, and so much more. Now, every time you go out, you don’t have to worry about locking the doors as automated door locks make it a point that whenever you leave your home, you can be assured of its safety. Needless to say, you save a lot of valuable time!

Another important advantage of home automation is energy efficiency. This technology allows you to set your devices in a way that they can automatically turn off when not in use. This includes your lights, fans, AC, refrigerators, cooking oven, etc. As you begin to use these appliances wisely, you are not just conserving energy, but at the same time, you are saving a lot of money. Your monthly electricity bill will be reduced to a considerable extent, and also you don’t have to spend additional fuel to get back home to check if you’ve turned off all the devices.

Home automation makes your life much more convenient and comfortable. You can control all your devices with voice commands or a click on your smartphone. You will no longer have to get up every time you want to adjust the speed of the fan or switch of the lights – your devices will automatically adjust themselves by learning your usage patterns and behaviors. For instance, you can set your thermostat or AC while you are away from home so that by the time you reach home, the ambient temperature inside is just the way you want it to be. This is not only convenient but also cost-effective. Studies suggest that people who used smart technology save around 10%-30% on their energy costs. In the long run, just imagine how much money intelligent home technologies could help you save!

Home automation is the future. It is the green way of living. As more and more households lean towards smart home technology, it will mean increased availability of our finite resources. Living in an age where the energy resources are on the verge of being exhausted, smart technologies have indeed become a necessity for humankind.


Author Bio:

Arindam Paul is a co-founder of Atomberg Technologies, a startup working towards creating unique energy efficient and tech savvy products. He is currently heading the Marketing and Long term strategy division at Atomberg and is aiming to disrupt the world of household appliances.

Prior to this he has experience of working as a management consultant at Cognizant. He did his undergraduate in chemical engineering from NIT Surat and MBA from IIM Indore.

Apart from this he loves reading non fiction, watching football, blogging and cooking.