To all my bio-fuel supporting friends, sorry, but I still am not convinced that it is an effort we – as a society/economy – should pursue in a significant way (still good for niche areas though, as I have written before). A couple of recent studies have come to my attention which highlight some of the problems.
For those who support “big” biofuel for transportation needs in order to help blunt pollution & theoretical climate changes, solar power beats it out on a per-mile-driven basis. This is not too much of a surprise to me because the process of getting the sun’s energy into an electric vehicle is much simpler than the process of getting that same energy into a biofuel car.
Secondly, for those who are focused on health, the environment, and climate change, according to this study, producing large amounts of biofuels is probably bad for both. Theoretically, the best biofuels can do is make our existence carbon neutral. So even if we did convert 100% over to biofuels, negative health and environmental effects would still make it a bad strategy. Grain ethanol production in the U.S. also uses 40% percent of the corn crop that might otherwise be used to feed people. We have an obesity epidemic in the U.S. so maybe we do not need additional corn, but removing such a large chunk of the food supply does affect prices and limits what can be sent to areas of the world that do need emergency food supplies.
There is also the fact that solar power (and even wind power to a small extent) continues to make progress in efficiency gains. In essence, solar power has a much brighter future. By manipulating matter down the nanoscale, we can design solar panels with much higher efficiency in the future. It seems there is a new efficiency record about every other month. Just recently, researchers in Switzerland produced a thin film flexible polymer solar cell with a record efficiency of 20.4% (a record for that type of cell). On the more theoretical side of things, there are certain patterns of silicon or other solar cell material that will absorb more sunlight. A recent exercise in evolutionary computer algorithms produced some patterns that could be tried in the near future.
On the industrial/commercial side of things 1366 technologies (which I mentioned previously) is bucking the trend in the brutal solar panel market right now. They are scaling up their wafer-making process which uses molten silicon instead of silicon ingots. Their process could chop 50% off the cost of the silicon wafers that go into solar panels. This is great news, but it does not mean the price will come down that much for the end user. Remember that the biggest cost of getting solar power at your house is installation and regulations. The solar panels themselves are pretty cheap right now – historically speaking.
As far as installed capacity is trending – is it still upward, thanks in part to the U.S. Military. Check out this solar array at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. This is the second big array the military has constructed. The other one is at Nellis Air Force base. Is the military preparing for energy disruptions or just helping the environment out and gaining some good PR? I am not sure, but it makes me want to pursue my own solar power as well. It would be nice to have back-up if the grid ever goes down.
At the “usage” end of alternative energy, batteries continue to improve and get bigger when needed, but there is some trouble with one big name company. Car makers Toyota and BMW collaborating to develop lithium air baterries (as IBM has been working on as well). Safe lithium air batteries could dramatically extend the range of electric viehicles as mentioned previously here. Seeing big auto names behind to pursuit gives me optimism – because they have deep pockets. In other good news for EV enthusiasts, Oak Ridge National Laboratory Scientists have developed a new solid electrolyte for lithium batteries that is less flammable and could potentially store 5 times the energy. Unfortunately we will have to wait a while to see if this breakthrough is something economical and makes it into mass production. For storing electricity from the alternative energy grid, a new mammoth battery is going into operation in Texas. One of the main problems with alternative energy it its intermittent nature. It is good to see some large batteries being tested. This one in Texas will store electricity from wind farms.
Now the distressing news from the alternative energy and EV scene – Project Better Place is scaling back its ambitous plans. They are pulling the plug on battery changing stations in the U.S. and Australia in order to focus on turning a profit in Denmark and Israel. I could see some people crying foul or “conspiracy” seeing two CEOs getting sacked in the past few months – including the founder of the company, but the fact is that in the U.S. and Australia, drivers have longer distances to cover. Denmark and Israel make more sense. Plus, a start-up company needs to eventually make money. The investors who pumped over 800 million into the company are not going to wait around forever.
Have a nice Thursday! Meteorologist Justin Loew
This post was written by jloew on February 7, 2013