Politics Renewable Energy

Thank You Steven Chu

I like it when I understand things. The universe feels like a little safer place, even if I realize feeling secure is only a state of mind. And when I watched Steven Chu talk on the Daily Show the other night, I felt safer. Not like a warm security blanket kind of safe. More like a “Hey, if stuff hits the fan, we’ll probably be able to figure it out” kind of safe.

How many times have you looked at a government official and said “Hey, they seem pretty bright!”? How about “What a great sense of humor and perspective for the situation we’re in.”? How many times have you honestly said in the past 8, 16, 20 or 28 years have you really looked at a government official and said “Hey, I bet he has science and the earth’s best interest ahead of a corporation that is whispering in his ear.”? Not too many at all.

I’m not saying that there have been scores of corrupt politicians in the past Presidents’ cabinets, because there haven’t; the people advising the President are often capable and well tempered in their decision making. I’m also not saying Steven Chu will be completely successful in the political arena, as it’s a very different world from what he’s used to. It’s just so damn refreshing to see such an accomplished scientist in a position to influence legislation, all the while weighing facts and data instead of political usefulness and opinion. Give me more politicians like him and I’ll start to feel that the government has turned a corner.

So thank you, Steven Chu. You’ve restored my hope that we can get some more renewable energy initiatives moving instead of just talked about in this country. You’ve restored my hope that renewables might be able to help pull our country out of a recession. And from what I know about you and your plans, you’ve only just begun.

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Steven Chu
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Also the requisite thank you to Comedy Central and Jon Stewart for interviewing him. Without you, I’d only get biased news from biased news sources 🙂

Economics Renewable Energy Supply Chain

Cheaper than Coal?

My friend Cherish over at Faraday’s Cage is where you put your Schroedinger’s Cat sent me an article on solar power approaching the cost of coal (generated electricity). It’s a great article and it quotes Ray Kurzweil so I’m automatically a fan. However, I have no doubt in my mind that it WILL hit this price point (~$1/watt), it’s just a question of when.

The real thing I want to touch on and get responses to is: What happens when solar energy is cheaper than coal?

Coal is dumb

I think there will be gradual uptake by the large energy companies (most already have dipped a toe in the shallow end for solar power). Even large scale consumers will start to put renewable energy on their balance sheets, assuming it is cheaper. But then what? Business as usual? Am I allowed to keep my lights on all night, even if it is silly to do so? I’m confident that not only will solar be cheaper than coal, but over the long term, it will be MUCH cheaper because you get more lifetime out of a panel or a solar thermal system than you do with a lump of coal. So will prices go down from the power company? I’m not so sure about that one as I’m guessing they’ll want to pass their “investment costs” down to the consumers.

Another facet to this idea is whether or not consumers will start to take on the burden of their own energy generation. Will there be a deficit in the north and a surplus in the south? Will there be a grid efficient enough to transfer this energy transcontinentally? Will there ever be a storage mechanism that is feasible for all of the energy we could potentially harvest from the sun (I just heard about this idea and thought it was really cool)? Or is the individual power generation scheme doomed to fail because there is still an energy broker in the middle (the power company) for all those times when the sun isn’t shining (and the wind isn’t blowing if that becomes a more efficient source of power also).

If power consumption continues to get cheaper and everyone adopts a renewable stance on it, will the environment actually improve? Will there be as much focus on conservation, both in reducing power needed in devices and total consumption per capita (reducing our individual “carbon footprint”)? Will the cheap energy of the future fuel the next boom and pull us out of the doldrums of this dumb recession?

So many questions. So so many and we still haven’t even found out if we CAN make it cheaper than coal yet (cautiously optimistic here). Renewable energy will be translating to big money for some people over the next ten years and that means lots of conflict. What do you think will happen when/if solar becomes cheaper than coal?

Politics Renewable Energy

Frank Jackson Pushing For Renewable Energy In Europe

A quick note to share what I heard this morning on NPR and thought is relevant to…well…me really. But you too if you live in Cleveland and are interested in renewable energy.

Frank Jackson, mayor of Cleveland, is in Germany this week, drumming up business to move to the US, specifically Cleveland and most specifically, in renewable energy. This is great news for the region because it could help bring back some manufacturing jobs (especially skilled manufacturing, as required by solar). Aside from more reasonable wages the US can offer  to businesses thanks to the recession we’re currently in, Jackson is pushing the research capabilities at Case Western Reserve University and other local schools. He is also citing Cleveland’s strong infrastructure that could be critical to moving product within this country by rail, truck or plane. Add to that the cultural amenities of the region and it starts to look like many of the reasons I moved back here. The trip was financed by the Cleveland Foundation, a great local charity that pushes for more development in the region.

So far, I have seen news that IBC Solar is planning to move their US headquarters to Cleveland, after rejecting California and NJ.  However, a deciding factor will be if Ohio pushes for using renewables to provide some portion of power to utility customers, as many other states have started mandating. Remember, simple solar panels are not the only options here; solar concentrators and wind power are on the menu also, with wind being a very likely candidate due to great northern winters reducing the amount of total sunlight and the potential of strong winds on Lake Erie.

While I remain cautiously optimistic about the potential of more renewable energy moving to Cleveland, I think that it is wonderful that Frank Jackson is out pushing for better development of this industry in Cleveland; I hope these efforts will continue here and will be pushed as a national agenda by the new administration. Are you in Cleveland? Interested in renewable energy? Let me know in the comments section or shoot me an email.

Economics Engineering Life Politics Renewable Energy

Welcome President Obama! Now let’s get crackin’ on renewable energy.

I wrote last week about Barack Obama further laying out his plans for renewable energy. He states in that video that he plans to invest $15 Billion or more in renewable energy each year. My question is, what can we start doing now? In order for him and the renewable energy community to hit the ground running on Jan 20th, we need to start planning some actions for the new administrations (with or without funding).

  1. Education — Without a new crop of able young engineers, we won’t get far. So how do you get involved in helping to make this a reality? Follow my volunteer idea and go to middle- and high-schools and share what it’s like to be an engineer with young people. Even better, I recently found out that I was right in thinking I was not original…there are many programs in place to allow engineers to easily reach out to their communities. The one I am currently considering is the New Faces of Engineering Road Show, hosted by the Cleveland Engineering Society. They travel to schools and promote engineering and science to young students, basically the exact thing I wanted to do.
  2. Conserve — The best way that individuals can help on a daily basis is to conserve, in general. Use less utilities (turn off your lights, turn down your heat), recycle your recyclables, carpool to work
  3. Stay involved — This year has shown young people actually can make a difference in elections and in general. This is due to the extreme influence of social media and how it connects people online and throughout the world. Now use that power to go out and influence individuals and corporations that a green economy will benefit all Americans (and the world).
  4. Consider alternative and renewable energiesBlack silicon or not, photovoltaic (PV) cells are still expensive. However, there are simpler methods, such as corn stoves, which have lower environmental impact and are definitely renewable year after year.
  5. Keep them honest — No matter how good their stump speeches are nor how honest they may seem, absolute power corrupts absolutely. While the checks and balances were put in place by our forefathers to keep our branches of government watching one another, the true power in oversight will come from civilian oversight. This has been further enabled by the internet in recent years and we must insist that our newly elected government officials do not take advantage of their positions for personal or nepotistic gain.
  6. Join the fight — Sure, there will be more political battles, notably with oil barons not wanting to relinquish their grasp on easy profits; but the real battle is with innovation and design challenges. Use online resources to go out and educate yourself on analog electronics. The biggest challenges will be won by the groups with the most resources. If we want a future filled with solar and wind generated power, go out and learn how to make that a reality by studying the basics.
  7. Start something — Been studying this stuff for so long that you think you have a great idea on improving an existing system (the power grid, anyone?) or developing a disruptive renewable energy technology? Go for it. In order for the green revolution to begin, America (and the rest of the world) needs entrepreneurs to step up to the plate and take risks in order to develop these emerging technologies. Do you prefer the less technical side of engineering? Pair up with the entrepreneurs. Technically minded people are just as important to take the time to introduce the new technology to the rest of the world.

Good luck President Obama. You have a huge challenge ahead of you, a huge wreckage behind you and a huge nation standing and waiting for you to wave the green flag. Let’s all try and toe the line as soon as we can.

Economics Renewable Energy

The Renewable Energy Singularity

It’s gonna happen. Some day.

Some day, we (as the human race) will reach a point–or a singularity–where it will be more economically viable to create renewable energy than to harvest oil or coal out of the ground; there won’t be any going back. We started toeing that line a few months ago. Oil just about crossed the $150 mark before dropping way back, thanks to the possibility of recession. Now that we’re back into cheap oil land, we will probably suffer a setback on developing newer more efficient energy solutions (not even necessarily renewable ones). But once we cross that threshold where renewable energy is cheaper than hydrocarbon based energy, the world can only change for the better.

Let’s look at things that will accelerate the pace at which we (are forced to) develop new energy technologies:

  1. We run out of oil — Whoops! Can that really happen? You’re darn skippy it can happen. And will happen, if growth continues as it had for the past few years. China and India are waking up as new middle class citizens and they are thirsty for oil. There were only so many dinosaurs and other critters that are now our oil supplies.
  2. The oil that is left is REALLY hard to get to — Recently Cuba found out they have one of the largest oil reserves in the world just off their coast. Too bad it’s a mile or more under the ocean. That’s a lot of water to get through just to get at the oil. It’s even tougher if you have primitive oil companies trying to get at that oil. If the price of oil is high enough there’s likely to be someone crazy enough to go get it, but that might raise the price even more.
  3. The oil and coal the US imports is no longer available — The main reason would be “conflict” a.k.a. War. We make Iran or other friends of OPEC angry enough and they might decide to stop sending us 55 gallon drums of crude (that’s just how they measure it…not ship it, right?).
  4. We can’t afford it anymore — Since we’ve been sending China our money for a long time, they are sitting on some significantly larger piles of cash (in US dollars, thank you very much). If it comes down to an eBay style bidding war, the bigger pile is going to win. Even bidding at the last moment won’t help!

OK, so we’ve decided what might get us into this mess. But what else can get us out of this mess? It’s pretty clear that the next US presidential administration will have some serious sway over how renewable energies are governed and encouraged. If they read, or better yet employ the author of “Hot, Flat and Crowded” — Thomas Friedman, then they will have a level headed economist with some great ideas on their side. More important than one man or even one administration is a multi-point plan of attack for reducing the cost of renewable energy.

Remember, the thing we’re concentrating on is that point where it’s more cost efficient to harvest renewable sources than to dig up carbon based sources. In theory, this makes a lot of sense. Sunshine is definitely free, even if it is harder to come by in the great north. Wind is prevalent just about everywhere, just look at Kansas. But until the infrastructure and the methods are in place, all of these elements won’t contribute to our renewable energy solution, they will just sit useless until everybody jumps on board. Let’s look at a list of hurdles we will have to pass in order to make renewable energy, and more importantly energy independence, a reality:

  1. Efficiently storing energy– From what I’ve seen so far, this will probably be done by splitting H20 into hydrogen and oxygen. While I don’t like the idea of liquid or gaseous hydrogen sitting in my car, basement, etc, I would hope material technologies catch up so catastrophic events aren’t as often as we might think. Unless some game changing technology such as batteries or super capacitors comes and proves it can store energy better than electrolysis, then splitting molecules will be the way to go.
  2. A newer and better power grid — This is one whopper of a problem. You know how you hate going to Best Buy to purchase a 10 ft length of cable because the one coming out of your wall won’t reach your TV? You know how they totally overcharge you because those are their high margin products? Well even if there was NO margin, imagine how expensive it would be to run one wire all the way across the United States. Now imagine criss-crossing those wires across every town and city across the United States. Oh and those really huge amounts of cable? Well, let’s make them out of copper, which is currently at some all time price highs right now. A better routed and controlled power grid is a good first step to increasing the efficiency of power transport. But until we as a country begin to revamp the aging infrastructure of this country, renewable energy will not be a reality for locally generated power sold to the masses or at a central power station system where excess power can be put on the grid at any time it is available.
  3. Bringing in the big boys — Like it or not, the big energy companies need to be a part of it. Until BP or Chevron can continue to make the profits they are making with oil, then there will be problems.  I’m not saying that the king cannot be dethroned (ahem, GM), but I think that if the big boys are in on the action, they will be less likely to lobby the government for oil and maybe even turn their interest towards lobbying for renewables. Who wouldn’t want to get free energy (solar)? All you do is plop down the infrastructure and collect those deliciously free solar rays.  On another note about the big boys, I am happy to say that they have started recognizing some of the potential in renewable energy, although it is unlikely that they will be turning in their oil rigs for solar panels anytime in the next few years. Oil rigs are expensive!
  4. Progressive tax credit reforms — Again, this is likely to hinge on the upcoming election and ensuing presidency but in the event that point 3 does not go through and oil companies continue to lobby for hydrocarbon use, tax credits will be needed so individuals are encouraged to buy their own wind, solar and geothermal systems.  Sure, the lowered costs help, but until there is governmental push, it’ll be slower adoption on the part of big business.
  5. Finding replacements for current solutions — I once visited the GE Aviation facility in Cincinnati and I can tell you, that facility is HUGE. It must be miles of offices and test bays completely dedicated to producing engines that run on jet fuel. Until THEY decide to switch over and try new methods of propulsion, having an abundance of hydrogen might not do them (or us) any good. The end products (in this case engines) require jet fuel and until they require something other than jet fuel (and therefore drive the demand down and the impetus to go find and sell more of it down), then the cost of renewables will remain high by association (because there will be less demand for it).

As much as we wish it was, making cheaper solar panels isn’t the only solution to reducing costs of renewable energy. There are many different aspects that feed into making renewable energy a final solution for the human race. If you can think of more milestones we’ll have to reach before this vision becomes a reality, please post them in the comments.

Renewable Energy

Is black silicon the way to make cheaper solar power?

I came across an article today talking about how black silicon will revolutionize solar power. The idea developed at Harvard (and now at a company called SiOnyx) is basically to blast the surface of a silicon wafer with a high intensity laser for a very short interval. This short time “melts” the silicon and when it comes back together it has a structure allows the structure of the silicon to absorb more light. They also utilize a new type of doping, (doping is insertion of low quantities of specific elements, such as phosphorus, into silicon in order to change the properties of the silicon. Depending on the type of dopant the silicon may want to release an electron or absorb one); the laser process likely allows better penetration of the dopants into the silicon, which usually are accelerated into the silicon with HUGE magnets. There aren’t specifics about the entire process, but as you can see in the picture below, the silicon seems to stretch upwards creating cones of silicon. I would guess that the process is similar to carbon nano-tubes where they also use a laser to blast the carbon. It also makes sense that the process would work for silicon given the similar structure between carbon and silicon.

Courtesy of SiOnyx

Again, I don’t know the specifics of how the final product works better, but my guess would be that the cones are much better and capturing light, due to the higher surface area. When the light hits these more sensitive nodules, the energy “knocks” an electron loose (just as in regular PV cells), which then contributes to the overall current coming from the cell. Also of note is how the dopants shift the sensitivity of the silicon to a lower wavelength. In this case, it is shifting it down into the red and infrared regions of the spectrum, which allows for more energy to be absorbed by silicon, as opposed to reflected. This also is the namesake characteristic of this technology, because in theory “black” silicon would absorb all light (as opposed to a theoretically worthless “white” silicon that would reflect all light). The higher amount of cells hit by light (due to more surface area) and the greater sensitivity to low wavelength light such as infrared (which our bodies interpret as “heat”) gives this new silicon a much higher overall absorption and translation into usable electrical energy.

I like this idea because it lets existing solar facilities be transformed easily into solar cell facilities. This new capacity could then be absorbed by local micro-factories, putting the solar arrays together and hopefully driving the cost to the consumer down. As more and more fabrication facilities are shut down due to a possible recession, they could quickly be modified to start outputting less complicated solar cells in higher volumes. The SiOnyx equipment would provide the final processing necessary to have the higher efficiency panels.

I only know what I have read online, but I like what I have seen thus far (plus I tend to trust researchers from Harvard more than just some schlub off the street). It seems feasible in the short term and has much broader appeal and use than ideas like “dancing to save the world“. Check out the above article and if you have any thoughts, please leave them in the comments.

Analog Electronics Politics Renewable Energy Supply Chain

Solar Automation and Micro-Factories

I have a friend who alerted me to a company out in New Mexico known as Solar Automation. They don’t make solar panels; rather, they make the equipment to make solar panel arrays. However, what I find most intriguing about the company is their concept of Micro-Factories. In the case of Solar Automation, the basic idea is that a small team of people are capable of creating solar arrays by soldering the tiny wires with non-lead solder. This same concept could be expanded to many other applications, including mechanical or auto assembly, textiles, food preparation (already done at caterers, really).

Although it exists on a slightly larger scale, China epitomizes the Micro-Factory model. They have large labor pools using simple equipment to make incrementally more complex equipment. One example might be a board house that hand assembles and solders through-hole part boards. This could instead be done in a large facility with automation on expensive equipment. However, the cost for the equipment would likely mandate a large overall throughput for the factory in order to justify the cost of the equipment. Conversely, a smaller hand soldering operation could easily scale the number of people required to make an order of boards. As for energy savings, there can be higher efficiency with a laborer using a low wattage soldering iron as compared to heating lamps or continuously heating a wave solder machine.

The pivotal point in this argument is whether or not the end product requires increasing complexity in the machines that construct it. Solar is a good example. The panels themselves are not particularly complex, mostly they are tons and tons of PN junctions that convert incident light into flowing electrons. However, the chemicals and the semiconductor processing equipment is very complex.

So what are the benefits of Micro-Factories?

  1. Local workforce – With the exception of a privileged few (non-whiners), no one will contend that the US and the world economy is hitting some tough times. Local jobs are outsourced or cut outright. Mom and pop shop workers are now greeters at WalMart. Why not instead allow lower education workers have a job creating something useful for society and the environment, rather than peddling trinkets made 6000 miles away? Added bonus: Your workers do not have to travel from far away to work, thereby cutting down on costs and emissions.
  2. Simple training – Training is not cheap. If you ask people at Samsung, I was training for roughly a year and a half to do my job (and promptly left for a new one). It takes times to get into the swing of things at companies, no matter the task. Why not make the task simpler? The Solar Automation takes a complicated end process and allows simple training to quickly begin.
  3. Built in quality control (eyes) – While this would hinge on the enthusiasm of the workers (and therefore dependent on myriad other factors), it’s a fact that most computers do not notice something innately wrong with a process. Most people will notice if a solar panel is discolored or if a wire is hanging off where it’s supposed to be connected. Until the day when computers are smarter than humans (and cheaper), people will implement a natural form of quality control.

What are the drawbacks, you ask?

  1. If you give a mouse a cookie (cutter job), he’s going to want benefits – My own views about benefits and healthcare aside, it’s a fact that people expect some form of benefits, most easily represented in business as overhead. It expands beyond healthcare and such (think tables and chairs and other things that people expect from jobs), so you might have to label the job as “an alternative workplace” where compensation is higher (in the event you don’t want to/have to provide benefits). Doesn’t mean you can’t have a productive workplace though.
  2. In the solar example, there are still high material costs (the actual solar cells), so the margins will be squeezed. In general, assembly jobs are meant to be high volume, low margin endeavors, so there are risks when material costs rise; doubly so if your revenues are stagnant (because of contracts or otherwise).
  3. Sometimes it’s still cheaper to ship repetitive jobs overseas or automate a process. That’s all there is to it.

Micro-Factories could be a great way to increase employment, mobilize a stagnant workforce and help cut down on emmissions. I would highly suggest you check out the Solar Automation page and leave comments on other places you have seen similar ideas implemented.

Renewable Energy

Intel And IBM Get Solar Exposure

This is a very exciting time for renewable energy, as we all know. I wanted to re-post this story I saw on digg mostly because I’m always excited to see more people entering the market. And when the big name players enter the market, that’s even better. This is the economies of scale I mention in my article on powering a house with DC power.

Now let’s step back a minute here. $50 million dollars isn’t that much. I know that sounds absurd, but I used to work in a fab that cost $5B (maybe, could be more by the end). I am not familiar with the actual processing of solar cells, but I know that any kind of silicon is not cheap. But that’s why we need more and more big players to get in on it.

I think that in this case, Intel and Big Blue (IBM) are doing it somewhat selfishly and cautiously. Like I said, they’re really just dipping a toe in with the $50M, but maybe they will use the tech for some of their own power generation.

Overall though, I could not be happier to see some corporate conglomerates trying to take over and suck money from us consumers. The more people in the market and the more competition that exists, the lower the pricing. I say, in this case the more corporations, the better!!!

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