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Most everyone is raving about the recent record warmth, which is understandable, just remember that it can come with some negative consequences as well. Due to the persistent warmth, the maple syrup harvest will likely be quite poor this year. Growers of fruit trees here in Wisconsin and other parts of the country could experience a poor growing season if we end up with some hard frost later this month or in April. The problem is that the cherry trees (and probably some apple trees as well) are getting buds and might flower early. The flowers are highly susceptible to frost. If the buds or blossoms are killed off by frost, some crops could be decimated. Recent research has also shown a negative effect on some animals. Butterfly populations in the Rocky Mountain states have declined in recent years because of an earlier start to the growing season.
It seems they have the same problem that we might encounter this year. When mountain flowers bloom too early, they can be killed by a hard frost. Then when the butterflies hatch, they do not have as much food to support their life cycle. There is another negative aspect of current heat waves which I won’t recap here but you can find in this past blog post.
So continue to enjoy the warm weather but remember that from a natural perspective, it would be much better if our current warm spell was producing high temps around 45 or 50, instead of 60s and 70s. Speaking of 70s, we will probably not have 70s in most of the area again until this weekend. High temperatures today and tomorrow will likely be in the mid to upper 60s. This is still warm enough to potentially break some records, it will just not feel as much like Summer. The record high in Wausau today is 65 and the record high tomorrow is 68. Right now I am forecast highs of 66 and 68 respectively.
It will feel a lot more like Summer again over the weekend, not only becuase high temps will likely reach the low to mid 70s, but because the humidity will be rising as well. The increasing dewpoints will lead to a chance of widely scattered showers and thunderstorms from Saturday all the way through the middle of next week, but it should not be enough rain (or last long enough) on any particular day to ruin your outdoor plans. We should break some record high temps on Saturday and Sunday but on Monday it will be iffy as the record is 73. Here are the records highs that were broken yesterday with the old record in parentheses.
- Wisconsin Rapids 77 (72)
- Wausau 75 (67)
- Stevens Point 75 (67)
- Marshfield 75 (65)
- Merrill 72 (65)
- Antigo 72 (64)
- Rhinelander 71 (62)
Earlier this week I was mentioning how efficiency gains do not always translate into a better environment and less pollution, because as energy becomes cheaper we tend to use more of it…a lot more. As we mature further into the information age, I think efficiency gains will produce more positive results because we won’t have as much need to move large masses of product and people around the globe.
Therefore, it is a good sign that solar power continues to get cheaper by the day. Some would say a lot of it has to do with a glut of solar panels on the market and/or subsidy support from the Chinese government, but there is also a lot of technological innovation going on. It might take a while for green energy technologies to have an impact on pollution levels but we are moving in the right direction rather fast.
A recent study has suggested that technological advances should allow manufacturers to bring the price of solar panels (and solar generated electricity) down to levels comparable with coal before the end of this decade. This was not considered remotely possible just 5 or 10 years ago, but that is how far we have advanced.
Several companies are making this happen with different approaches. One method involves using less silicon to make the panels.
Current manufacturing for silicon solar panels wastes a lot of silicon. Ampulse is using a new vapor deposition method to create thin silicon cells from the “bottom up” and Twin Creeks has developed a way to “peel” thin layers of silicon off of bulk silicon (ingots/blocks). I have not seen any numbers as to the efficiency of the related products but they should become available soon as these two companies license their methods to other producers. If the thin silicon wafers work as promised, solar panels could come down in price to 50 cents per watt or less.
Other more speculative research has involved the use of silicon nanoshells to absorb more light from the sun, thus making solar panels more efficient. Also, computer simulations at MIT have shown the potential for precisely manufactured metamaterials that have ridges and valleys on their surface could absorb more wavelengths of light. In the realm of solar thermal power, a company called Halotechnics is developing newer materials that will allow thermal plants to operate at a higher temperature. This would increase the efficiency solar thermal plants which are already more efficient than photovoltaics.
In other great news, Solar Frontier is dramatically expanding its operations in Japan. They of course have basically shut down their nuclear power plants and are looking for alternatives. Hopefully solar power will fill more of the need going forward. Also, UCLA scientists have just broken a world record efficiency at 10.6% for cheap-to-produce tandem solar cells.
In not so good news, Abound Solar is starting to lay off employees and First Solar is talking about not opening some of its new manufacturing facilites. It is a tough marketplace and not all companies will thrive.
The most disturbing news in solar energy is that installation and permitting costs continue to be stubbornly high. At least some web-centric entrepreneurs are trying to reduce some of these costs. Even company Eight19 is battling against government permitting and installation costs in trying to sell very cheap thin film solar panels in developing countries. I would expect someone to have come up with a cheaper way to install solar panels by now, but I suppose it quite often involves work on steep roofs and this can be complicated. As far as permitting goes, it is almost unconscionable that governments are getting in the way of solar adoption. If they want more alternative energy, they should keep their bureaucrats and regulations under control.
Have a nice Thursday! Meteorologists Justin Loew.
This post was written by jloew on March 15, 2012