Archives for category: Solar

You can access the full IPCC Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation here.



PETALUMA, Calif. — Solar panels have sprouted on countless rooftops, carports and fields in Northern California. Now, several start-up companies see potential for solar panels that float on water.

Already, 144 solar panels sit atop pontoons moored on a three-acre irrigation pond surrounded by vineyards in Petaluma in Sonoma County. Some 35 miles to the north, in the heart of the Napa Valley, another array of 994 solar panels covers the surface of a pond at the Far Niente Winery.

“Vineyard land in this part of the Napa Valley runs somewhere between $200,000 and $300,000 an acre,” said Larry Maguire, Far Niente’s chief executive. “We wanted to go solar but we didn’t want to pull out vines.”

The company that installed the two arrays, SPG Solar of Novato, Calif., as well as Sunengy of Australia and Solaris Synergy of Israel, are among the companies trying to develop a market for solar panels on agricultural and mining ponds, hydroelectric reservoirs and canals. While it is a niche market, it is potentially a large one globally. The solar panel aqua farms have drawn interest from municipal water agencies, farmers and mining companies enticed by the prospect of finding a new use for — and new revenue from — their liquid assets, solar executives said.

Sunengy, for example, is courting markets in developing countries that are plagued by electricity shortages but have abundant water resources and intense sunshine, according to Philip Connor, the company’s co-founder and chief technology officer.

Chris Robine, SPG Solar’s chief executive, said he had heard from potential customers as far away as India, Australia and the Middle East. When your land is precious, he said, “There’s a great benefit in that you have clean power coming from solar, and it doesn’t take up resources for farming or mining.”

Sunengy, based in Sydney, said it had signed a deal with Tata Power, India’s largest private utility, to build a small pilot project on a hydroelectric reservoir near Mumbai. Solaris Synergy, meanwhile, said it planned to float a solar array on a reservoir in the south of France in a trial with the French utility EDF.

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WATT BY WATT West-facing windows automatically tint blue in the midafternoon at the Research Support Facility in Golden, Colo.

GOLDEN, Colo. — The west-facing windows by Jim Duffield’s desk started automatically tinting blue at 2:50 p.m. on a recent Friday as the midwinter sun settled low over the Rocky Mountain foothills.

Around his plant-strewn work cubicle, low whirring air sounds emanated from speakers in the floor, meant to mimic the whoosh of conventional heating and air-conditioning systems, neither of which his 222,000-square-foot office building has, or needs, even here at 5,300 feet elevation. The generic white noise of pretend ductwork is purely for background and workplace psychology — managers found that workers needed something more than silence.

Meanwhile, the photovoltaic roof array was beating a retreat in the fading, low-angled light. It had until 1:35 p.m. been producing more electricity than the building could use — a three-hour energy budget surplus — interrupted only around noon by a passing cloud formation.

For Mr. Duffield, 62, it was just another day in what was designed, in painstaking detail, to be the largest net-zero energy office building in the nation. He’s still adjusting, six months after he and 800 engineers and managers and support staff from the National Renewable Energy Lab moved in to the $64 million building, which the federal agency has offered up as a template for how to do affordable, super-energy-efficient construction.

“It’s sort of a wonderland,” said Mr. Duffield, an administrative support worker, as the window shading system reached maximum.

Most office buildings are divorced, in a way, from their surroundings. Each day in the mechanical trenches of heating, cooling and data processing is much the same as another but for the cost of paying for the energy used.

The energy lab’s Research Support Facility building is more like a mirror, or perhaps a sponge, to its surroundings. From the light-bending window louvers that cast rays up into the interior office spaces, to the giant concrete maze in the sub-basement for holding and storing radiant heat, every day is completely different.

This is the story of one randomly selected day in the still-new building’s life: Jan. 28, 2011.

It was mostly sunny, above-average temperatures peaking in the mid-60s, light winds from the west-northwest. The sun rose at 7:12 a.m.

By that moment, the central computer was already hard at work, tracking every watt in and out, seeking, always, the balance of zero net use over 24 hours — a goal that managers say probably won’t be attainable until early next year, when the third wing of the project and a parking complex are completed.

With daylight, the building’s pulse quickened. The photovoltaic panels kicked in with electricity at 7:20 a.m.

As employees began arriving, electricity use — from cellphone chargers to elevators — began to increase. Total demand, including the 65-watt maximum budget per workspace for all uses, lighting to computing, peaked at 9:40 a.m.

Meanwhile, the basement data center, which handles processing needs for the 300-acre campus, was in full swing, peaking in electricity use at 10:10 a.m., as e-mail and research spreadsheets began firing through the circuitry.

For Mr. Duffield and his co-workers, that was a good-news bad-news moment: The data center is by far the biggest energy user in the complex, but also one of its biggest producers of heat, which is captured and used to warm the rest of the building. If there is a secret clubhouse for the world’s energy and efficiency geeks, it probably looks and feels just about like this.

“Nothing in this building was built the way it usually is,” said Jerry Blocher, a senior project manager at Haselden Construction, the general contractor for the project.

The backdrop to everything here is that office buildings are, to people like Mr. Blocher, the unpicked fruit of energy conservation. Commercial buildings use about 18 percent of the nation’s total energy each year, and many of those buildings, especially in years past, were designed with barely a thought to energy savings, let alone zero net use.

The answer at the research energy laboratory, a unit of the federal Department of Energy, is not gee-whiz science. There is no giant, expensive solar array that could mask a multitude of traditional design sins, but rather a rethinking of everything, down to the smallest elements, all aligned in a watt-by-watt march toward a new kind of building.

Managers even pride themselves on the fact that hardly anything in their building, at least in its individual component pieces, is really new.

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About this talk

How can architects build a new world of sustainable beauty? By learning from nature. At TEDSalon in London, Michael Pawlyn describes three habits of nature that could transform architecture and society: radical resource efficiency, closed loops, and drawing energy from the sun.

About Michael Pawlyn

Michael Pawlyn takes cues from nature to make new, sustainable architectural environments. Full bio and more links

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With Valentine’s Day approaching, the search for an eco-conscious gift is on many people’s mind.  Portable electronic devices become more prevalent everyday and the attachment some people have to their devices borders on addiction.  So what better gift for the junkie in your life than a virtually limitless free supply of juice, you know, electricity.

The amount of solar energy that reaches the Earth in one hour, every hour, 24 times a day, is roughly equivalent to the energy consumed by the entire planet in one year.  When looking into devices that use solar energy to charge portable electronics like an iPod, iPhone or other portable electronic item, it is necessary to establish what factors are important and compare them.  In the light of day there are really just two broad factors to consider.  First is the charging device practical: lightweight, sturdy, convenient to use.  Second, and perhaps more importantly, is the planet better off over the lifetime of the charging device: do you receive more energy from the charging device than it took to create it, don’t forget to include the emissions from production.

Slapping photovoltaics (PV) onto a device is all it takes for some companies to call it green.  Without knowing the production history of the device it is impossible to determine if using the device will be a net gain for green or a net loss.  In a vast oversimplification, if it takes 100 units of energy to produce the charging device and you get 80 units of energy over the lifetime of the device then even without considering the emissions from the original energy, perhaps it was from coal, and not considering the materials that may end up in a landfill, simple math shows a net green loss of 20 units.  A company that uses green as a marketing ploy is better than one that does not.  Best of all is a company that uses green in their marketing because they are truly green and they understand the triple bottom line.  The triple bottom line is the consideration of environment, economics, and social equity, not just considering one factor at the expense of the others.

Part one of this article introduces the use of solar energy for charging portable electronics in the urban jungle and beyond.  Part two touches on the inclusion of a battery and finds one company walking the talk.

The inclusion of a battery in a charging device adds to the environmental cost as batteries have a limited lifespan.  Devices without a battery must charge directly and limit mobility during charging.  Charging times vary from device to device but understand that it may take up to two days of direct sun to reach a full charge.  Depending on use and proximity to other energy sources, this may be less than convenient and even a deal breaker for some.  The inclusion of a battery allows the device to store a charge that can be expended later.  The ability to connect to multiple devices extends the useful life of a charger beyond the life of one portable electronic item.

Searching Amazon for “solar charger” brings up a diverse list of products including the Premium Solar Charger by XTG Technology and the ReVIVE Series Solar ReStore by Accessory Genie or possibly Accessory Power.  These two products appear to be identical except for branding which indicates that the product is made by a third party and resold under a variety of brands.  This hides the producer of the product behind a wall of resellers and insulates them from scrutiny.  One website, of the two resellers, is even coming soon.  The green glow desired from making this purchase is beginning to turn a confusing shade of brown.  Is there a company out there that is proud of their product and the manufacturing footprint of it?

Enter Solio by Better Energy Systems (BES).  BES appears to walk the talk.  The Solio website has a page dedicated to “Environmental Benefits” which mentions Solio recycling and battery recycling.  The third and second to last bullet points, buried entirely too deep, read:

“Solio is intended to achieve a net energy benefit over its lifetime. To reach this goal, energies needed for raw materials and production have been minimized.”
“Better Energy Systems, makers of Solio, has planted trees in a bio-diverse sustainable forest to offset the carbon dioxide produced in the manufacture of Solio.”

The next step beyond offsetting the carbon produced during manufacturing is to produce clean energy for manufacturing.  Since the business of BES is clean energy, it doesn’t seem too much to ask to take this next step.

Has a great company or product been overlooked?  As a consumer would you like companies to tell you more about themselves and the production of their products?  Please take a moment to share your experience with solar chargers and help us all move toward a greener tomorrow.

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Pyrite, also known as fool’s gold, was the stuff of heartbreak for many a gold miner. Mimicking the look of the precious gold they were after, Pyrite was considered  essentially worthless.  But for the solar energy industry, Pyrite just may turn into a pot of gold.

Researchers at the University of California Irvine are working towards using the plentiful mineral to create a solar receptive film at a cost far lower than that of using rare earth minerals.

“With alternative energy and climate change issues, we’re always in a race against time,” said lead researcher Matt Law. “With some insight and a little bit of luck, we could find a good solution with something that’s now disposed of as useless garbage.”

Commercial solar cells require expensive and possibly toxic materials such as cadmium telluride and silicon as the core of a solar cell, and often those materials come from China. Alternatively, pyrite is cheap and ubiquitous.

The concept isn’t new. German researchers laid the foundation for using pyrite as a solar receptor back in the 1980′s and 90′s. There wasn’t too much interest then, and financing for continued research was hard to find.

And further research is needed if there is any real chance of pyrite rolling out as a commercial substitute for cadmium or silicon. One major challenge is pyrite has a low voltage potential due to microscopic pits in the mineral’s surface that “trap” electrons and reduce conductivity.

As with many a potential solution to our unsustainable energy economy, getting it out of the lab and into commercial use is “a lot more difficult than people seem to think,” says Shyam Mehta, a solar industry analyst with GTM Research.

But the current research is about meeting that challange:

“Our goal is to use modern tools, new synthetic approaches, mathematical models, and a multi-disciplinary research team to fix pyrite’s low voltage,” Law said.

Currently, the research is founded by a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation’s solar initiative.

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The San Francisco Giants are one of the first teams in the country to play in a stadium partially powered by renewable energy.

After a big-league game, pro sports locker rooms are usually strewn with discarded athletic tape, wet towels, and dirty uniforms, with little regard for cleanliness or order. So Willie Jenks, visiting clubhouse manager for the Cleveland Indians, was impressed last year when he saw Chicago White Sox ace Mark Buehrle actually chide a teammate for absent-mindedly tossing a plastic bottle into the garbage can instead of a nearby recycling bin.

“What are you doing?” Jenks remembers Buehrle saying. “You’re right, my bad,” the teammate replied, moving the bottle to the correct spot. “From that point on,” Jenks says, “I saw him continuously put it in the recycle bin.”

Jenks can claim credit for the new convert. He makes a point of pulling plastic bottles out of the trash in front of the visiting players, and Buehrle obviously noticed. “You know if you throw that in the garbage, Willie’s going to reach in and pull it out,” the pitcher told his errant teammate. “So why not just put it in the recycle bin?”

A small victory, to be sure, but it’s the opportunity to teach those small lessons and change attitudes that drove NRDC senior scientist Allen Hershkowitz to begin working with Major League Baseball and other sports leagues. Hershkowitz, who has spent his career figuring out ways to combat the rising tide of trash generated by our consumer culture, is the force behind big-league efforts to educate players and fans, make team operations greener, and build more energy efficient stadiums.

When Game 1 of the World Series starts tonight in San Francisco’s AT&T Park, the hometown Giants will take the field in a stadium that boasts solar panels (installed in advance of 2007’s All-Star Game) and was recognized in April for energy efficiency and sustainability by the U.S. Green Building Council. Their opponents, the Texas Rangers, regularly recycle everything from infield grass clippings to cardboard and office paper, according to

Hershkowitz, whose previous efforts include greening the Academy Awards and getting the executive branch of the federal government to commit to using 20 percent post-consumer recycled paper, started working with baseball and other sports leagues on greening efforts in 2003 at the urging of NRDC Trustee Robert Redford.

The latest result is a 38-page report produced by NRDC and the Bonneville Environmental Foundation, which encourages the use of solar power at big-league arenas and stadiums and serves as a how-to guide. The commissioners of the five major professional sports leagues — MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League Soccer — distributed the report to their teams in September.

“Sports has an unparalleled impact on the lives of billions of people,” Hershkowitz says, and represents a new way to reach groups that might not usually be inclined toward environmental awareness. “We have to have a cultural shift as well as an economic shift. It’s a culturally meaningful initiative.”

And it’s making a visible difference that sports fans can see when cheering on their favorite teams. Seven sports venues, including Cleveland’s Progressive Field, Boston’s Fenway Park, and the Staples Center in Los Angeles, now have solar arrays. Leagues post green tips on their websites and play public service announcements before games. Stadiums and arenas have adopted recycling efforts and installed waterless urinals.

Fans may not head to the ballpark with the environment in mind, but over time, Hershkowitz and his allies in the commissioners’ offices hope the message will sink in. “When you have (all these teams) saying, ‘Yeah, we have to do something about renewable energy,’ I think it’s a very important statement on our need to address ecological issues,” Hershkowitz says.

Awareness is one of the main goals even when it comes to installing solar panels. Solar power can’t meet all — or even a majority — of the energy demand at most stadiums. But seeing those gleaming arrays collecting power from the sun can get fans’ attention.

“The education is really what we’re after here in Cleveland,” said Brad Mohr, assistant director of ballpark operations for the Indians, who were the first American League team to utilize solar power in June 2007. “It’s a demonstration piece. This entire place would have to be literally covered in solar panels for us to make a reasonable dent to our electric bill.”

Mohr joked that the Indians wisely installed their solar pavilion next to an all-you-can-eat concession stand. As would-be diners wait in long lines for their grub, they’re greeted by a presentation that provides the history of the project, displays real-time energy production, and offers advice about how fans can get involved.

“We have thousands of people literally forced to watch that presentation while they’re waiting for their food,” Mohr joked. “Pretty sneaky, huh? Lunch and learn. The great thing is, they’re actually asking these questions during games.”

The solar energy guide for major league teams also offers in-depth tips for how stadiums and arenas can cut into the 72 percent of energy they currently derive from fossil fuels. To help cut costs, the guide includes a breakdown for tax incentives and other measures by geographic region.

“It’s great that it’s specific by marketplace, by subsidies, and funding that is out there,” said Scott Jenkins, the vice president of ballpark operations for Seattle’s Safeco Field. He said the stadium has saved more than $1 million dollars in recycling and gas costs through greening efforts. “It’s a great statement to say that this is something we should be doing.”

Jenks, the Cleveland clubhouse manager, is a perfect example of how those statements can make a difference. Only a few years ago, he didn’t even recycle at home. But seeing the changes at his ballpark — the Indians started locker room recycling in 2009 and began composting this season — has made him vocal about the environment in front of visiting players.

“There have been players that have said, ‘Why don’t we do this at our ballpark?'” Jenks said. “‘We should be doing it at our clubhouse.’ It’s a learned behavior.”

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U.S. Stadiums Go Solar: Major Pro Sports Leagues Move Together Toward Renewable Energy  >>

Coinciding with its push for more renewable energy development, the executive branch of the US federal government has decided to install solar panels on the White House. This is a quarter century after President Reagan took down the previous solar panels installed by his predecessor, President Carter. The Obama Administration will install new solar panels as a way of promoting its clean energy program.

Solar panels were originally installed at the White House in 1979 following several oil crises. The OPEC oil embargo of 1973 created a severe gasoline shortage in the United States and sent prices through the roof. The embargo was in response to the United States support of Israel during the Yom Kippur War. Then there was a second oil crisis in 1979 in the wake of the Iranian Revolution. Declines in production in Iran were offset by increases in production of other OPEC nations, but widespread panic ensued, which sent prices higher than would be normally expected.

These oil crises in the 1970’s exposed the weakness of the United States’ foreign oil dependency. Jimmy Carter set up solar panels on the White House to encourage the nation to become energy independent through the use of domestic renewable resources. However, they were later dismantled by Ronald Reagan who, after the oil crisis had subsided, felt they were unnecessary.

Now the current administration is set to reinstall the solar panels next spring. They will provide hot water and a small amount electricity to the White House residence.

This executive decision was announced by US Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, who stated, “As we move toward a clean-energy economy, the White House will lead by example… This project reflects President Obama’s strong commitment to U.S. leadership in solar energy and the jobs it will create at home.”

The decision was also influenced in part by efforts from activist Bill McKibben, who led a caravan from Maine to Washington, carrying one of the solar panels originally installed by the Carter Administration. McKibben, an outspoken environmental advocate, was galvanized to act by the US Congress’ inability to pass the recently failed climate bill. Lacking legislative action, he decided to take meaningful symbolic action. Bringing solar power back to the White House is about as symbolic as it gets.

McKibben believes that the reason the legislation failed was because of a lack of public enthusiasm. He also believes that strengthening the environmental movement in the US is necessary in the face of this political defeat. “The point of all these panels, of course, is not that we’re going to solve climate change one roof at a time,” McKibben writes. “The point is that they help build the movement that we allowed to wither away.”

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For more information on Bill McKibben’s efforts  >>

Listen to McKibben on NPR a few weeks before the caravan  >>