One of the great efficiency opportunities for the next century is based on the convergence of information and energy flows. The notion of a 'smart grid' is a more reliable and efficient energy web based on the integration of software, sensors and energy storage.
And for those homes with 'Smart Meters' or Smart Devices, solutions are coming online quickly. Google has now thrown its hat into the ring around the basic idea: 'if you can measure it, you can improve it'. The Google Power Meter is a software tool integrated into smart meters that helps consumers better understand how they use energy in order to reduce their costs and consumption. Google is a big name, in an expanding space of 'smart energy' startups, like Sentilla and REGEN, who are trying to build demand in the residential market.
Related Smart Grid posts on The Energy Roadmap.com
What if we could print low cost solar panels on pieces of plastic and integrate this energy collecting material into buildings, infrastructure and product casings?
This is the future of thin film solar.
While traditional (rigid silicon substrate) solar panels are a relatively mature platform, we have not yet hit our stride in advancing the efficiencies of thin film solar.
Thin-film, or organic solar is attractive because it is low cost, flexible and can be integrated into existing materials and products. These systems can also be designed to tap broader sections of the light spectrum. Relatively low efficiencies mean that thin film solar will never be capable of providing a majority of our energy needs, but it is certainly part of a broader strategy of new distributed power generation.
Before we start asking when we might see thin film on the shelves at Home Depot or integrated into familiar product designs, the first step is to understand why thin film is different from traditional solar.
The following five video clips help to describe the future potential of thin film solar.
Nanosolar (Palo Alto-San Jose, CA) has long been considered a leading innovator in the field of organic photovoltaics or thin film solar.
In recent years advocates of plug-in hybrid and battery electric vehicles have argued ‘the infrastructure for electric cars exists. We only need to plug in our cars at night while nobody is using the electricity.’ This was the source of their disdain for the other electron energy carrier hydrogen. Why waste time on building something new, when it already exists?
It turns out that this observation of our electricity grid was only a snapshot of reality, not the description of a future-ready system for supporting electric vehicles. The world’s electric grids are not ready to support commercial vehicle fleets. And now auto makers like Renault are leading efforts to rally utility grid operators, energy storage companies and entrepreneurs to prepare for the electrification of the global auto fleet.
France’s EDF & Renault creating the future
Business Week is reporting on a pledge by French President Nicolas Sarkozy at the Paris Auto Show to dedicate 400 million euros ($549 million) in state support for the development of electric and hybrid cars.
The funds are likely to be packaged with a major agreement between Renault and France’s utility EDF to jointly develop the infrastructure needed to recharge electric vehicles, allowing Renault to deliver vehicles in 2011. (The French government owns 85 percent of EDF and 15 percent of Renault.)
GDF is already the owner of the world’s biggest corporate fleet of electric vehicles and has an obvious stake in developing a “smart” charging stations.
Meanwhile Business Week confirms that Renault-Nissan is to establish infrastructure in Israel, Denmark, Portugal, the U.S. state of Tennessee and the Kanagawa Prefecture in Japan, with production plans for electric cars from 2011.
Are electric recharge stations the best path?
Futurist Jamais Cascio has been quoted as saying ‘The road to hell is paved with short-term distractions.” And as someone who has followed the hype cycle of transportation propulsion systems I wonder if a strategy based solely on batteries and electricity could be that? A short-term distraction.
The future of vehicle fueling infrastructure might actually be more complicated than just plugging in. Why should we hedge our bets with powering electric vehicles around other electrons carrier systems like fuel cells and capacitors? (Continue)
Thin-film- solar startup XsunX, Inc. is moving forward on building out
its 25 megawatt thin film photovoltaic (TFPV) solar module
manufacturing plant in Oregon. A recent company press release describes the companies efforts to align material resources with low cost manufacturing process for its 90,000 square foot facility. The company expects to begin commercial production in early 2009.
Last week we reported on the opening of the first 1 Gigawatt capacity thin film solar plant operated by Konarka. (Konarka image shown) XsunX now appears to be on track to add to real production capacity for the thin film solar market.
Energy forecasters believe that growth of thin film solar could soon surge around its advantages over traditional glass-based solar panels.
While thin film’s performance (by energy conversion efficiency) is lower than traditional solar panels, it has a cost advantages per-watt because of its lower materials and manufacturing ‘roll to roll’ costs. Thin film can also be integrated into more products and building materials, and sold over retail shelves at Home Depot, Walmart and Tesco.
If XsunX and Konarka (Image) stay on course, soon solar panels will be produced on the same types of ‘reels’ that spit out newspapers using inkjet printing processes.
How might storing electricity in the form of solid hydrogen change the future landscape of energy? We believe it could change the performance of mobile power, lower the cost of renewable energy production, and change the nature of refueling your car by ‘swapping out’ boxes of fuel.
Hydrogen & Electricity = ‘Hydricity’
Electricity powers the future. Look beyond the transportation sector of liquid fuels, and most devices and machines run on electrons. Today, we understand the important role of electricity in our world, and tomorrow we might understand its sister companion – hydrogen.
Hydrogen might be the most misunderstood and misrepresented piece of the future energy landscape. Devotees often overstate it as the savior of Planet Earth, and staunch critics underestimate its short term challenges for longer term potential in energy systems and materials science.
A ‘Hydrogen economy’ is an economy driven by electricity. The hydrogen is merely a way of storing electron power via chemical bonds of hydrogen. So hydrogen and electricity are one in the same thing. Ballard Power Founder Geoffrey Ballad has coined the phrase ‘hydricity’ to help people understand the balance of these electrons carriers.
Fuel cells capture energy released when coated membranes strip apart those hydrogen-hydrogen bonds and merge it with oxygen to get water. This is a much more efficient (and cleaner) process when compared to blowing up carbon-hydrogen bonds via combustion. But it is also harder and more expensive (at least today!).
Advances in Hydrogen Storage
The two challenges for hydrogen are production and storage. For now we’ll focus on an emerging platform for high density, low cost and safe storage systems based on ‘solid’ hydrogen.
News from Argonne National Laboratory on ‘crystal sponges’
Most energy analysts see solar energy (via thermal, traditional photovoltaics and thin film) at the beginning of its commercial growth curve. Yet there is still much that we do not know about the fundamentals of solar energy conversions that can produce electricity, heat, hydrogen and synthetic fuels. Developing a 21st century roadmap for the future of solar energy requires us to first recognize the need for funding basic research in science and then explore the disruptive potential of breakthroughs in applied engineering.
Funding basic and applied research in Solar Photoconversion
The US Department of Energy’s Center for Revolutionary Solar Photoconversion is launching 12 novel solar research projects totaling more than $1.1 million in its inaugural round of research and development funding.
CRSP, the newest research center of the Colorado Renewable Energy Collaboratory, is dedicated to the basic and applied research necessary to create revolutionary new solar energy technologies as well as education and training opportunities.
According to NREL Senior Research Fellow and CRSP Scientific Director Arthur Nozik, the 12 CRSP projects “represent the leading edge of research into both new ways to generate electricity and liquid and gaseous fuels directly from the sun and improving our approaches toward these goals.”
The 12 selected solar projects are:
- Integrated Electrical and Optical Characterization of Silicon Thin Films – NREL and CSM, $99,818
- Redox-Tunable Polymers for OPV active layers – NREL and CSU, $100,000
- Group IV Nanowire Photovoltaics – Colorado School of Mines, $100,000
- InVitro Evolution of RNA-Inorganic Catalysts for the Conversion of CO2 to Alcohols – CU, $100,000
“Our lights may be on, but systemically, the risks associated with relying on an often overtaxed grid grow in size, scale and complexity every day.”
What if our greatest energy dependency challenge was not related to the global flow of oil, but the one way flow of electricity coming from distant power plants to our wall sockets?
The world runs on electricity. Demand for electron power in emerging economies is often 3-4 times greater than demand for oil. Because the old model of the electricity grid does not seem adequate in meeting the new demands of the 21st century, many energy pundits argue that access to electricity is the world’s biggest strategic energy issue.
Realizing the ‘Smart Grid’ Vision
The conversation about electricity infrastructure is likely to change very soon as governments and the private sector build out the vision of a smarter, electricity web that is infinitely more reliable, robust and profitable.
‘The electric industry is poised to make the transformation from a centralized, producer-controlled network to one that is less centralized and more consumer-interactive. The move to a smarter grid promises to change the industry’s entire business model and its relationship with all stakeholders, involving and affecting utilities, regulators, energy service providers, technology and automation vendors and all consumers of electric power.‘
A Smart Grid means many things. At The Energy Roadmap.com we believe that the most disruptive elements are software,sensors & storage. The good news is that these three systems might finally be reaching a tipping point in cost and performance that allows us to turn the ‘smart grid’ vision into a reality. While this US DOE Guide might not be the definitive guide to the future of smart grid systems, it is certainly a step forward in helping to spread the meme and outline the fundamentals!
Today, the lights are still out for nearly a half million people in Houston, Texas- the ‘energy capital of the world’.
Business Week is reporting that ”...13 days since Hurricane Ike ripped through Texas, and nearly one-quarter of the residents of the fourth-largest U.S. city still don’t have electricity.” (Reporting by Christopher Palmeria)
Is the problem electricity production?
No. The power plants are fine.
The problem is the wires. The grid itself
The network is too vast to repair quickly in the fall out of Hurricane Ike.
The problem is storage.
We have no viable way of storing vast amounts of electricity at the local level.
The solution? Making energy storage a priority and create systems that support a local ‘Electron Reserve’.
What are the big energy lessons from Hurricane Ike?
The modern architecture for electricity grids is antiquated and fragile. Central power plants connected to home wall sockets need to be re-invented around software and storage.
Lesson #1 – Don’t assume the lights will always be on!
Today we just assume that the electricity will always be there. But only five years ago we assumed that the cheap oil would always be there. But how vulnerable is the stream of electrons?
In the US and Europe national electricity grids are aging and in much worse shape than most people might recognize. The current grid structure is highly vulnerable to overloads, bottlenecks and events that can shut down major sections of the grid. And over the next twenty years energy grids will be forced to carry more electricity, not less.
Intel’s investment arm announced its first major solar investment in China with a $20 million equity investment in solar maker Trony Solar.
Solar’s Roadmap: Lowering Manufacturing Costs
The solar industry must pursue two simultaneous paths. Researchers must continue to expand efficiencies, while manufacturing engineers figure out ways to scale production and drop costs.
Intel has mastered manufacturing and specialty materials development in the semiconductor world, and its involvement in solar is welcome by most industry advocates. In June 2008 Intel spun-off SpectraWatt to manufacture PV (photovoltaic) cells for solar panels with $50 million in funding from Intel Capital and other investors. In July, Intel Capital led funding for a German thin-film solar company Sulfurcell with $35 million to expand production capacity. Intel has also invested in specialty chemicals maker Voltaix which is also working with XsunX solar startup.
Researchers have demonstrated the highest efficiency to date of a lower cost method of converting sunlight into electricity patterned around photosynthesis.
Alternatives to silicon solar cells
There are many ways to make solar cells that capture light and produce electricity. One alternative to expensive traditional, but expensive, silicon based solar cells is known as dye-sensitized solar cells (DSCs) that use lower cost light collecting compounds to improve performance. These systems can be used in flexible thin film solar cells.
Low cost solar cells
Swiss Resseachers developed the Gratzel cell, or dye sensitized, in the early 1990s in an effort to mimic the basic photoelectochemical process of photosynthesis. Dye Sensitized Solar Cells use cheap titanium dioxide (TiO2 ) particles coated with a dye to absorb a wide range of wavelengths given off by sunlight. University of Washington researchers have described the structure as ‘popcorn’ solar cells (Image).
The core problem of these solar cells is that the material breaks down rapidly after being exposed to sunlight. But last month Chinese and Swiss researchers reported the highest efficiency to date (9.6-10.0%) using thin film of titanium dioxide (TiO2) solar cell that retained over 90% of the initial performance after 1000 hours of full sunlight soaking at 60 °C. In September Michael Gratzel’s group reported 11.3% efficiency.
If researchers can continue to overcome the basic performance barriers, dye sensitized solar cells could lead to an era of lower cost solar energy. There are a few notable commercial applications. Earlier we posted a story of solar startup Konarka’s plan to open a 1 gigawatt manufacturing plant in 2009.
Research teams from Spain’s IMDEA Nanoscience and the University of Hamburg have developed a hybrid material using nanoparticles (quantum dots) and carbon nanotubes in an effort to create more efficient light emitting diodes and solar cells.
Why is this important to the future of energy?
While most energy analysts expect to see tremendous growth in solar based energy (thermal, photovoltaics, thin film), there is still much we do not yet know about photoconversion. It could be another decade or two before we feel the disruptive potential of commercializing nanoscale structured energy devices that offer unprecedented performance at a low cost.
European researchers have now developed a solar system tapping the electrical and light gathering properties of carbon nanotubes with quantum dots exhibit outstanding optical properties compared to organic dyes, and carbon nanotubes.