Massachusetts is one of top 10 states for solar energy: Report

Posted on March 16th, 2017 in solar by Spencer R.



The future of solar energy in Massachusetts is looking bright.

The Commonwealth has the second highest amount of solar industry jobs in the country and is in the top 10 for solar energy-producing states, according to a new report.

Solar energy has been expanding across the country; 2016 saw a 97 percent growth in the U.S. solar market, Solar Energy Industries Association’s (SEIA) year-in-review data showed.

Massachusetts in particular played a big role. In total, Massachusetts has more than 14,500 solar jobs. That’s second only to California, which has long been a leader in clean energy. Despite that, Massachusetts has the highest ratio of solar jobs to the size of its overall workforce.

The solar infrastructure here, from solar farms to panels on the roofs of homes, can generate 1,487 megawatts of energy — enough to power about 244,000 homes by the sun alone.

Over the next five years, according to SEIA, Massachusetts could add more than 2,000 more megawatts of solar energy to that existing infrastructure.

What is it about the Commonwealth that is spurring more solar?

Abigail Ross Hopper, president and CEO of SEIA, said it has to do with state policies — like the bill Gov. Charlie Baker signed last April that lifted the cap on solar energy net metering.

“Net metering is basically a system where, if you put solar on your home and generate electricity from those solar panels, whatever you don’t use, you put back on the grid, and you get reimbursed for that,” Hopper said. “That policy in Massachusetts has really allowed solar to develop.”

Which means more energy generated means more money earned.

Hopper also said solar is not a “niche industry,” but something the average consumer can take part in. The more people buy solar technology, the cheaper it becomes. Although the more energy generated could also decrease the value of the energy.

If you aren’t able to add solar to your building — whether it's commercial or residential real estate — there are other ways to get plugged in. Massachusetts has a total of 64.4 megawatts of “community solar” installed, more than 40 of which were added in 2016.

Community solar, Hopper said, works similar to community supported agriculture in that a person buys a share of a solar farm to get the benefits without having to devote land or a rooftop to the project.

Hopper said that this has become a big part of the Massachusetts solar market; Boston’s TD Garden connected to community solar recently.

Though some have expressed concern that clean energy initiatives could falter under the Trump Administration — and under Scott Pruitt, the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency, who has ties to the fossil fuel industry — Hopper is confident that the sun will continue to shine on solar, especially in Massachusetts.

“One of the great parts about U.S. energy policy is that it’s really divided between states and the federal level,” she said. “You have great leaders in the Commonwealth who have expressed an interest and desire to continue strong policies to grow solar in Massachusetts.”


Google’s New Tool Says Nearly 80 Percent of Roofs Are Sunny Enough for Solar Panels

Posted on March 16th, 2017 in solar by Spencer R.



If you’ve ever thought about getting solar panels on your house but worried about whether it was worth it, Google may now have just the thing to help you decide.

In a new expansion of its Project Sunroof, the company has built 3-D models of rooftops in all 50 states, looked at the trees around people’s homes, considered the local weather, and figured out how much energy each house or building can generate if its owners plunk down for some panels.

Top among the findings is that nearly 80 percent of all buildings the team modeled are “technically viable” for solar panels, meaning they catch enough rays each year to make generating electricity feasible. That sounds pretty good, and a post on Google’s blog goes on to highlight the rooftop-solar potential for several cities. Houston comes out on top, with as much as 18,940 gigawatt-hours of free energy from the sun just waiting to be generated each year (Google says that a gigawatt-hour translates to about a year’s supply of electricity for 90 homes).

Sunroof lets you search for your house, suggests how large a solar array you might consider putting on your roof, and estimates how much energy it will generate—as well as how much it would cost to lease or buy the panels.

It’s a handy tool, and comes at a good time. Solar has been growing quickly in the U.S., with installations nearly doubling over the course of 2016. But most of that is on the utility scale—residential installations grew just 19 percent last year, mostly because demand is drying up in big state markets like California.

The Los Angeles Times today quoted several officials in the industry as being optimistic that growth will continue nationwide. But the Solar Energy Industries Association suggests that the top five state markets, which accounted for 70 percent of the country’s newly installed residential solar in 2016, all figure to see slowdowns. That probably won’t be made up for by emerging markets in states like Texas, Utah, and South Carolina, according to SEIA’s latest report.

It seems unlikely that Project Sunroof will make a big difference in these trends, especially as policies that made rooftop systems more attractive to consumers, like net metering, are in danger of disappearing. But the SEIA report said one reason things are slowing down is that solar installers have had difficulty “reaching customers outside of the early adopters.” Given the immense reach of the company that developed it, Sunroof’s new tool might be able to help with that, at least.


Could This Be the Most Efficient Solar Panel Ever?

Posted on March 16th, 2017 in solar by Spencer R.



Solar panels have been around for a while now, but the materials they’re made from make them incapable of converting more than about a quarter of the sun’s energy into usable electricity. According to MIT calculations, an average house in sunny Arizona still needs about 574 square feet of solar panels (assuming about 15 percent efficiency) to meet its daily energy needs. In chilly and gray-wintered Vermont, the same house would need 861 square feet. That’s a lot of paneling.



That’s why MIT researchers have been experimenting with an entirely new process for converting sunlight—one that takes advantage of extremely high temperatures to raise efficiency. If it works on a large scale, we could be seeing wildly more efficient solar panels in coming years, potentially changing the game for solar energy.

“With our research, we are trying to address the fundamental limitations of photovoltaic energy conversion,” says David Bierman, one of the researchers leading the project.


The technology turns sunlight into heat, then converts the heat back into light. The process uses a light concentrator of sorts called an “absorber-emitter,” with an absorbing layer of solid black carbon nanotubes that turn sunlight into heat. When temperatures reach 1,000 degrees Celsius or so (as hot as lava from many volcanoes, just to give you an idea), an emitting layer, made from photonic crystal, sends the energy back as the kind of light that the solar cell can use.

An optical filter reflects away all the light particles that cannot be used, a process called “photon recycling.” This increases the efficiency dramatically, making the cells as much as twice as efficient as the current standard.


Fittingly, the technology is nicknamed “hot solar cells.” The cells were recently named one of MIT Technology Review's “10 Breakthrough Technologies of 2017.” Editors at the publication have been compiling this list annually since 2002. This year, the technologies, from brain implants to self-driving trucks to cameras capable of taking 360-degree selfies, "will affect the economy and our politics, improve medicine, or influence our culture," according to MIT Technology Review. "Some are unfolding now; others will take a decade or more to develop," the editors say. "But you should know about all of them right now."

The technology is superior to standard solar cells on a very basic level. The semiconductor material of standard cells, which is almost always silicon, generally only captures light from the violet to red spectrum. This means that the rest of the sunlight spectrum is lost. Because of this fundamental problem, solar cells can only convert about a third of sunlight energy into electricity. This upper boundary, the maximum theoretical efficiency of a solar cell, is called the Shockley-Queisser limit. Solar panels made for home use generally convert far less than the Shockley-Queisser limit, as the most efficient materials are still extremely expensive. But with the hot solar cells, this limit, in place for more than 50 years, could be history.


At this point, researchers have only a prototype. It could be a decade or more before we see these hot solar cells on the market. Right now, the materials are so expensive it would be difficult to turn the cells into panels of the size needed for commercial use.


“We will need to solve a whole range of issues related to scaling-up the device to actually generate powers that are useful solutions for people and their problems,” Bierman says.


Bierman, and his colleagues on the project, Andrej Lenert, Ivan Celanovic, Marin Soljacic, Walker Chan and Evelyn N. Wang, are optimistic they can overcome these limits. They also hope to figure out how to store extra heat for later use. That could mean clean energy on the cloudiest of winter days. Even in Vermont. 


Tesla's solar energy plant in Hawaii flips the 'on' switch

Posted on March 15th, 2017 in solar by Spencer R.



Even before Elon Musk engineered Tesla's acquisition of SolarCity, the two companies were collaborating.

SolarCity was already controlled by Musk, who believes its solar-energy business can be reinforced and complemented by Tesla's energy-storage business.

Last year, Tesla announced a joint project with SolarCity to install a large battery farm and solar array in Hawaii.


That project is now complete, and ready to provide electricity to a Hawaiian utility.

Tesla, SolarCity, and partner Kauai Island Utility Cooperative unveiled the completed solar and energy-storage facility last week, reports the Silicon Valley Business Journal.

The facility will be able to provide solar power to KIUC on demand, 24 hours a day, Tesla CTO JB Straubel said during the opening ceremony.

The array of solar panels and energy-storage battery packs occupies 50 acres of land owned by Grove Farm Co., near KIUC's Kapaia power station.

It includes nearly 55,000 individual solar panels, and 272 Tesla Powerpack lithium-ion battery packs.

Those packs have 52 megawatt-hours of storage capacity, and can discharge up to 13 megawatts of power to the grid.


The Tesla and SolarCity-developed installation will bring KIUC up to 40 percent renewable-energy use.

KIUC has a 20-year agreement to purchase electricity from the project at 13.9 cents per kilowatt-hour.

It also has a deal with infrastructure company AES for a similar solar-and-energy-storage project on Kauai's southern shore, including a 28-megawatt solar array.


KIUC hopes at least some of that renewable energy will be used to charge electric cars.

It and another Hawaiian utility—Hawaiian Electric Co.—recently launched limited-time rebates of up to $10,000 on the 2017 Nissan Leaf.

KIUC's interest in renewable energy and electric cars is likely at least partly influenced by its island area of operations.


Because they are isolated from the mainland and sources of fossil fuels, renewable energy can be a more attractive option for islands.


That's because the cost of importing coal or oil to fuel power plants or vehicles can make fossil fuels vastly more expensive for populations who are cut off from the mainland.


Madison finance committee recommends resolution aiming for total renewable energy use

Posted on March 15th, 2017 in environment by Spencer R.



Madison’s finance committee unanimously recommends committing up to $250,000 for a consultant that would help the city find ways to use more renewable energy sources and emit fewer carbon emissions.

The goal is to achieve 100 percent renewable energy and net-zero greenhouse gas emissions using a plan developed by a third-party expert. Madison’s 2017 capital budget already includes $750,000 for sustainability improvements, including renewable energy installations and energy efficiency upgrades.

“It is a moral issue,” Ald. Zach Wood, District 8, said. “It is a public health issue, and we are so close to actually taking some meaningful action on it.”


The finance committee's approval of the resolution follows the Sustainable Madison Committee's recommendation in December and hinges on the City Council's final approval.

Net-zero energy occurs when the total amount of energy used by a building on an annual basis is roughly equal to the amount of renewable energy created on the site. Likewise, carbon neutrality refers to achieving a balanced amount of carbon released with the same amount offset by another renewable energy source.

Jeanne Hoffman, the city's facilities and sustainability manager, said the request for proposal would help the city analyze the decisions it makes in terms of energy use.

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“We already know in terms of city operations where our greenhouse gas emissions are coming from. We are tracking our energy. We are tracking our fuels,” Hoffman said. “It’s a decision of how aggressive we want to change our city operations from one that has carbon emissions in the types of fuels that we use to emissions that don’t have greenhouse gas emissions.”

The resolution calls for city staff to develop a plan by January 2018 that would include target dates to meet goals, interim milestones, budget estimates and estimated financial impacts.

Sustainable Madison Committee chair Raj Shukla said the resolution sprang from an energy work plan the City Council approved last June.

“It’s setting ambitious goals, mandating that the city government take the lead on those goals and providing resources to figure out how to do that and … setting up a constant process of evaluation,” Shukla said of the new resolution.

The original energy work plan was influenced by Madison Gas & Electric’s fixed fee hikes that began in 2015, RePower Madison Campaign Director Mitch Brey said. RePower Madison is a citizen group focused on energy planning.

“It’s promising to see Madison declare it’s intent get off of fossil fuels and go 100 percent renewable,” Brey said. “This local leadership is extremely important to ensure a healthy and prosperous community.”


Australia’s 100% Renewable Energy Grid

Posted on March 14th, 2017 in environment by Spencer R.



Australia is posed to build an electricity network with 100 percent renewable energy, that is both affordable and secure, and that utilizes existing technology. The Australian National University has published a study detailing how a zero-emissions grid would work. The grid would rely on wind and solar technology, but the innovation comes from the pumped hydro storage, which would support the network. A move like this would eliminate the need for coal and gas power.

As many aging coal-fired power stations close (on which 2/3 of Australia’s electricity relies) demand for new types of energy is spiking. Professor Andrew Blakers at the ANU believes that wind and solar energy could be that replacement. The short-term off-river pumped hydro energy storage (STORES) utilizes reservoirs at different altitudes to both store and generate power. This system would provide Australia with a cheap, stable, zero-emissions network that can support a larger share of renewable energy.

The details of the report estimate that wind and solar energy would contribute 90 percent of total annual electricity. Hydroelectricity and biomass sources would supplement the remaining 10 percent. This energy mix is based on the widely-spread wind and energy sources, and leverages the different weather system available in Australia. The pumped hydro storage system is the mechanism by which supply and demand will be managed, as these weather systems are notoriously unreliable at providing the appropriate amount of energy at any given time. The hydro-pump can store the energy produced during peak generation hours, and then distribute it as needed.

The publication by the ANU follows the announcement by EnergyAustralia (a private electricity generation company) last week that it will begin research into an off-river pumped hydro venture, to be located at the top of South Australia’s Spencer Gulf. As it stands, the majority of Australian land is not near a river to appropriately utilize hydro power, which is why this source has been largely ignored. However, the researchers at ANU are finding thousands of sites across north Queensland, down the Great Dividing Range, across South Australia, Tasmania, and Western Australia that are potential locations for the system. The hydro-pump stations do not need a river to be operational, making them much more feasible.

According to the study, this system would see energy costs drop from $93 per megawatt hour as it was in 2016 to $75 per megawatt hour by the 2020s. The government’s Renewable Energy Agency has invested $450,000 into the research, but acceptance across the board does not seem likely yet. Lack of bipartisan support for these types of energy projects and research could hinder the implementation of such a system in Australia any time soon.

However, we need not trust the ANU’s numbers alone. A recent report published by Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) supports the case for the shift to renewable energy. The report shows that the Levelized Cost of Energy (LCoE) to build new ultra-supercritical coal-fired power is much more expensive than that to build new wind, solar, and combined-cycle gas infrastructure. The coal-fired power is anywhere from $34 to over $100/MWH more expensive than the aforementioned alternatives.

This is extremely important to Australia, as many coal-fired stations will reach their operating life-span within the next 15 years. They will have to close regardless of any environment or emissions-based concerns.


Component supplier for Apple pledges to go big on renewable energy

Posted on March 14th, 2017 in environment by Spencer R.



Apple has announced that Ibiden, a Japanese component supplier, has pledged to power all its Apple manufacturing with 100 percent renewable energy.

In a news release on Wednesday, Apple described Ibiden as manufacturing products that helped "bring together the integrated circuitry and chip packages in Apple devices."

Ibiden is set to invest in over 20 renewable energy sites, including a floating solar photovoltaic facility, Apple said.


Apple is making a concerted effort to become a leader in sustainability. The tech giant says that in 2015, 93 percent of its energy came from renewable sources, while more than 99 percent of the paper used in its packaging is either sustainable or recycled.

"We're proud to partner with suppliers like Ibiden who recognize that renewable energy investments are good for the environment and good for business," Lisa Jackson, Apple's vice president for Environment, Policy and Social Initiatives, said in a statement.

"As we continue our push to power our global operations with 100 percent renewable energy, it is more important than ever that we help our manufacturing partners make the same transition to cleaner sources, and set an example for other companies to follow," Jackson added.


Chemists create molecular 'leaf' that collects and stores solar power without solar panels

Posted on March 10th, 2017 in solar by Spencer R.



An international team of scientists led by Liang-shi Li at Indiana University has achieved a new milestone in the quest to recycle carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere into carbon-neutral fuels and others materials.

The chemists have engineered a molecule that uses light or electricity to convert the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide -- a carbon-neutral fuel source -- more efficiently than any other method of "carbon reduction."

The process is reported in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

"If you can create an efficient enough molecule for this reaction, it will produce energy that is free and storable in the form of fuels," said Li, associate professor in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences' Department of Chemistry. "This study is a major leap in that direction."

Burning fuel -- such as carbon monoxide -- produces carbon dioxide and releases energy. Turning carbon dioxide back into fuel requires at least the same amount of energy. A major goal among scientists has been decreasing the excess energy needed.

This is exactly what Li's molecule achieves: requiring the least amount of energy reported thus far to drive the formation of carbon monoxide. The molecule -- a nanographene-rhenium complex connected via an organic compound known as bipyridine -- triggers a highly efficient reaction that converts carbon dioxide to carbon monoxide.

The ability to efficiently and exclusively create carbon monoxide is significant due to the molecule's versatility.

"Carbon monoxide is an important raw material in a lot of industrial processes," Li said. "It's also a way to store energy as a carbon-neutral fuel since you're not putting any more carbon back into the atmosphere than you already removed. You're simply re-releasing the solar power you used to make it."

The secret to the molecule's efficiency is nanographene -- a nanometer-scale piece of graphite, a common form of carbon (i.e. the black "lead" in pencils) -- because the material's dark color absorbs a large amount of sunlight.

Li said that bipyridine-metal complexes have long been studied to reduce carbon dioxide to carbon monoxide with sunlight. But these molecules can use only a tiny sliver of the light in sunlight, primarily in the ultraviolet range, which is invisible to the naked eye. In contrast, the molecule developed at IU takes advantage of the light-absorbing power of nanographene to create a reaction that uses sunlight in the wavelength up to 600 nanometers -- a large portion of the visible light spectrum.

Essentially, Li said, the molecule acts as a two-part system: a nanographene "energy collector" that absorbs energy from sunlight and an atomic rhenium "engine" that produces carbon monoxide. The energy collector drives a flow of electrons to the rhenium atom, which repeatedly binds and converts the normally stable carbon dioxide to carbon monoxide.

The idea to link nanographene to the metal arose from Li's earlier efforts to create a more efficient solar cell with the carbon-based material. "We asked ourselves: Could we cut out the middle man -- solar cells -- and use the light-absorbing quality of nanographene alone to drive the reaction?" he said.

Next, Li plans to make the molecule more powerful, including making it last longer and survive in a non-liquid form, since solid catalysts are easier to use in the real world. He is also working to replace the rhenium atom in the molecule -- a rare element -- with manganese, a more common and less expensive metal.


Oklahoma City convention center may go with solar energy

Posted on March 10th, 2017 in solar by Spencer R.



Mayor Mick Cornett asked the MAPS 3 convention center architect to determine what it would cost to study the feasibility of installing rooftop solar above the 200,000-square-foot exhibit hall.

The exhibit hall roof provides a vast area that could be utilized for producing solar energy.

Convention centers in cities including Anaheim, Portland, Las Vegas and Houston defray energy costs with solar installations.

"Clearly this is the trend," said Ward 2 Councilman Ed Shadid.

Energy efficiency and sustainability are selling points for convention centers around the country.

LEED, an acronym for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is administered by the U.S. Green Building Council.

The council says LEED-certified buildings are "resource efficient," conserving water and energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions while saving money. 

The George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston promotes its LEED Silver certification and sustainability initiatives.

Here's a quote from Luther Villagomez, the chief operating officer of convention facilities and services in Houston:

“Meeting planners and trade show executives that plan green meetings increasingly want to do business with convention centers that are environmentally responsible."

Searching Google for "convention center LEED" turns up links promoting energy efficiency of convention centers in Los Angeles; Austin; Denver; Portland, Ore.; Raleigh, N.C.; Irving, Texas, and other cities.


Hydropower: Switzerland's massive source of renewable energy

Posted on March 10th, 2017 in hydro by Spencer R.



With its snow kissed peaks and fresh alpine air, Switzerland is one of Europe's most scenic countries. It is also home to a lot of hydropower.

According to the Swiss Federal Office of Energy (SFOE), hydropower accounts for roughly 56 percent of its domestic electricity production.

As such, the SFOE describes hydropower as being "Switzerland's most important domestic source of renewable energy."

At the Hydraulic Constructions Laboratory (LCH) in Lausanne, researchers are looking to hone and optimize hydropower facilities.

"This Laboratory was created in parallel with the development of water infrastructure in Switzerland – mainly (the) construction of dams, but also of course hydropower," Anton Schleiss, head of the LCH and president of the International Commission on Large Dams, told CNBC's Sustainable Energy.

A great deal of emphasis is placed on the maintenance of hydropower facilities.

"Rehabilitation is very important for our structures related to hydropower and flood protection," the LCH's Giovanni de Cesare, said.

"These infrastructures are ageing and we have to rehabilitate regarding security, energy production, and also ecological rehabilitation," he added.

Given the scale of many hydropower facilities, their impact can be considerable, whether it be the displacement of local people or damage to wildlife.

As such, sympathetic design needs to be considered.

"When we build a dam, this becomes an obstacle for fish migration, therefore we have to install a fish pass which allows the fish to migrate freely and reproduce in the upstream rivers," de Cesare said.