Univ of Florida’s record-setting grahene solar cells

While Sagoway is working on solar power’s storage problem, physicists in Gainsville, Florida, are working to improve the efficiency of graphene solar cells. Recently they were able to get 8.6% efficiency in converting light energy to electricity, a new record up from 2.9% with this particular technology. Below is a link to the University of Florida’s news bulletin that got me looking into this. Cheers!

Graphene solar cells

JM Kincaid

Sagoway’s liquid metal battery

The Sun’s energy contribution to the Earth is more than enough than what would be necessary to power the modern world. But there are two technological hurdles to our solar societies. On one hand, solar panels need to be more efficient. On the other, solar energy is intermittent and human demand is not, which means that we need good batteries to store solar power when its available. But so far, our batteries aren’t so good.

Donald Sagoway and a group at MIT are currently working to fix the latter problem with liquid metal battery technology. Sagoway’s presentation is so impressive I couldn’t not share it. Can his team find the missing link to alternative energy?

Nuclear energy, a climate change solution?

 Last week I was fortunate to see a preview of Pandora’s Promise, a documentary on nuclear energy coming out in 2013, followed by a discussion with the filmaker, Robert Stone. His film looks at various scientists and environmentalists who have recently accepted nuclear power as a viable answer to climate change and increasing world energy demand. Prior to this event, I had done some reading on new nuclear technologies in the peer-reviewed literature that shook my worldview. 

There are many reasons to be anti-nuclear power: we don’t know what to do with the waste, nuclear weapon proliferation is too risky, meltdowns are too real, it’s too expensive… For years, these claims convinced me that nuclear was not the way to go, not even worth considering. But then I thought about the relative risks of nuclear. When considered next to renewables, it is hard to see nuclear as clean or safe, but what about fossil fuels?

Thermal energy (oil, coal and gas) currently makes up most of the world’s base-load electricity. These resources fit the bill for large-scale generation: plentiful, dependable and cheap. I’m a big believer in the potential of renewable energy, but we have yet to rely on it for our base-load energy supply. This will require breakthroughs in battery and energy storage technologies, or enormous smart-grid infrastructure like green power superhighways. Is large-scale development of these technologies really viable for both developed and developing countries in the short-term?

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Growing certainty of link between hydrofracking and earthquakes in the US

I was shocked last August when my friend told me that an earthquake shook his office building in Dutchess County, NY. It was yet another strange event to place alongside hurricane Irene and the blizzard in October. The earthquake made me think of something- have you ever considered the possibility of a link between earthquakes and oil and gas extraction? Well, it turns out that the US Geological Survey has. According to a recent study, mid-continent earthquake occurrence (magnitude 3 and greater) increased six-fold between 2001 and 2011 compared to the 20th century average. The report almost certainly link this increase to anthropogenic causes, pointing to changes in extraction method, ie. the use of hydrofracking. We don’t have too much information now, so keep your eye out for the proceeding full report.

Here’s the abstract of the report.

Here’s the article from the New York Times.

Upstate New York Has a Surprisingly Strong Solar Energy Industry

By Matt Buccelli

Those of us who grew up around or currently live in the Hudson River Valley know that it has a lot of wonderful things to offer, from beautiful natural scenery to engaging cultural activities and its close proximity to New York City.   Did you know it also has a leading solar industry cluster?

It’s counterintuitive to think of anywhere in the warm again, cold again, sometimes gorgeous sometimes dreary Northeast as being a leader in solar power, something that by definition requires… well, the sun to shine.  If anyone has ever seen upstate New York in November they know exactly what I’m talking about.

Yet beyond even fairly sizeable installations by local homeowners (7 MW of installed capacity in 2011), and strong utility support (Central Hudson Gas & Electric has been a leader in promoting solar in the region), the Hudson Valley-area solar industry benefits far more from more generic economic assets  – strong infrastructure, a location more or less in the center of the huge Northeastern supply chain, a highly skilled workforce (the region that regrettably produced Jersey Shore’s Snooki still holds college degrees at a rate far above the national average) – than anything else.   All of these factors allow businesses making a variety of parts, from photovoltaic (PV) power systems and inverters to thin-film and building-integrated PV (solar panels embedded in the roof or façade of a building), to flourish.  In September, a Chinese solar company announced that it was establishing its global headquarters at a former IBM campus in East Fishkill, of all places.

Aside from giving supporters of clean energy from upstate New York an opportunity to beat our collective chests, the broader lesson here is that as renewable energy grows, it can provide an opportunity for regions all over the map to take advantage.  Upstate New York may have nowhere near the sun or the space to build a massive utility-scale solar plant, as is now happening in parts of the Southwest.  But we can use our built-in economic advantages to get our piece of the pie, which is really what succeeding in this or any economy is all about.  The bigger solar and other clean technology sectors get, the more opportunities there will be for locations all over the country to share in the riches.

This isn’t just about global warming – in fact it doesn’t have to be at all.  People who want to see a strong economic recovery should support the advancement of an industry with huge growth potential, and the promise of creating good jobs that can’t be outsourced in regions large and small.  Renewable energy in America is in its infancy; with a true commitment to its future, it will only take off further.

A Bright Future in Solar/Photovoltaics (Hudson Valley Economic Development Corporation)

Was Hubbert all wrong??

By Libby Murphy

Perhaps the world is not at Peak Oil. We may still have a long way to go. That is the good and bad news of Bloomberg’s recent article titled Everything You Know About Peak Oil is Wrong.

            In college I took a seminar called “Oil”. We studied all aspects of the stuff- from the geology to the politics. We learned how John D. Rockefeller set the standards for modern capitalism through his ruthless pursuit of developing the world’s largest oil company. We spent a while studying the idea of Peak Oil.  At the time it was still a somewhat little known theory outside of the industry but has since entered the general lexicon.

        In the 1950’s, Marion King Hubbert first introduced the idea that fossil fuel production follows the shape of a bell curve. Production starts out small and then increases as demand and technology develops until it hits a peak and declines. Using this theory he correctly predicted US oil production to peak around 1970. The theory was extrapolated by Colin Cambpell who predicted a world oil production peak around 2008-2010. This estimate has been a topic of much debate. Around the time of expected peak, many regions, including the US, did witness a telling sign of Peak Oil known as the Bumpy Plateau. See, the curve of oil production does not always follow a smooth peak but rather a period of jagged ups and downs. This is thanks to the inverse relationship between demand and price: when prices go up, demand goes down, which spurs prices to drop again and demand to then increase. The cycle continues.

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Tidal in the news again

–From GOOD Magazine–

“Tidal and wave power do carry some environmental concerns: Early projects are studying how turbines affect fish, for instance. But because these projects live under the water, they could avoid complaints like those that dogged the offshore Cape Wind project about ruining scenic vistas. The East River project has been running turbines on and off as part of a pilot project for years, and New Yorkers, a grumbly bunch, have yet to kick up a major fuss. Most people driving over the Queensboro bridge and gazing down at the river probably never guessed that a power station lies quietly beneath the water.”

It wouldn’t surprise me to see these “environmental concerns” surrounding tidal begin to disappear as people become more acquainted with it.  Many who imagine getting power from the motion of the ocean imagine the infrastructure as being something akin to a wind turbine in the water – this isn’t true.  While there are many different turbine models, most don’t pose a danger to fish because the turbine blades spin faster than the water surrounding them, which creates a force directing fish away from, not toward, the turbine.

Either way it’s great to see tidal power continuing to get its due – with people realizing that the lack of visibility is also a huge and understated benefit.

The Next Generation of Renewable Energy May Be Created Under Water (GOOD)