Energy payback of solar (PV) panels

Does the production of solar panels require more energy than the panels will produce in their lifetime?  That’s a question you may hear now and again, especially when talking to those who aren’t really on board with this whole clean energy idea.  So, time to set the record straight.  There’s a great article over at Care2.com that addresses just this subject.  The bottom line is that depending on what technology of panel you’re talking about, the energy payback point (they’ve produced as much energy as it took to manufacture the panel) is from one to four years.  Check out the full link above if you want all the details.

Low(er) cost solar

The cost of solar/PV energy production continues its sharp decline…with the latest advancement being a California company named RSI that has found a way to produce large thin film PV modules at about one third less cost than current technology.  This cost target wasn’t expected to be reached by the industry until 2017…and RSI plans to deliver modules in 2014.  The industry is seeing lots of steps like this in both energy production and storage…things are changing fast and that bodes well for our future and the future of this planet…the big question is how quickly clean energy can be implemented and CO2 emissions eliminated…

via CleanTechnica

Apple’s Data Centers 100% powered by renewable energy

Apple has reached a cool milestone…their data centers, historically facilities of massive power consumption, are now powered by 100% renewable energy!  It has accomplished this by building large solar arrays, building a fuel cell power plant, and also purchasing renewable energy credits from its energy suppliers.  It’s not just good for the environment…the more a company can rely on already-installed solar panels, the more predicable (and lower) operating costs become over the life of those panels.  It just makes good business sense, if you can afford the initial investment.

Abu Dhabi now home to the world’s largest Concentrated Solar Power Plant

shams-1-21-537x331The world’s largest concentrated solar power plant has been switched on in Abu Dhabi recently.  At a cost of about $600 million, it covers almost a square mile and will generate enough electricity to power around 20,000 homes.

Read more at inhabitat.

Don’t expect this ‘world’s largest’ title to last though.  California will soon be home to some mega-plants, each powering around 100,000 homes (though not expected to be operational until 2016).

Small-scale investing in solar

Interested in investing in solar, but at a smaller level than some multi-megawatt facility?  Then check out Mosaic.  I’m not affiliated with them and am not a current investor, but it’s a neat business model that I thought I’d pass along.  They treat your investment like a loan, to fund smaller scale solar energy projects.  Most projects listed are returning 4.5%, so it’s not some get rich quick scheme, but not a bad investment all in all.

Continual drop in solar energy prices – grid parity

Solar electricity is moving ever closer to grid parity, meaning the cost is comparable to existing grid supplies (coal, gas, etc).  This is a pretty significant milestone, as politics have failed (and will continue to do so) in substantially reducing CO2 emissions…but if solar becomes less expensive than fossil fuel electricity, market forces will take over where governments have failed.  A project in Spain recently achieved grid parity with a group of fourteen rooftop solar panel arrays, and in the US, a project by First Solar is producing at less cost than coal.  I think we’re moving into a new electricity marketplace, where people are going to start asking why we’re not looking at solar to cut costs, rather than asking why we should pay *more* for solar, as has been the case in past years.  I wouldn’t expect your utility bill to decrease though, as the gradual decommissioning of fossil fuel plants is not going to be cheap.  But, a big win for the environment – if we can move quickly enough on this.

Also in solar energy news, the world’s largest solar thermal plant, being built in California, recently passed a big test proving that it’s ready to enter commercial service.  Solar thermal technology is significant as the thermal energy it collects can be stored to provide energy when there’s a shortage of sunlight (cloudy days, or at night).

Solar power news

The solar power industry continues to make some big advances, in the labs at least.  First up, scientists were able to make silicon crystals at a much lower temperature using liquid metal (read more here)…this has the potential to substantially lower the cost of solar panels, eventually.

A study published in the Environmental Science and Technology journal attempted to answer the question, what is more efficient at transforming solar energy into miles driven in a car – solar (PV) panels, or biofuels?  PV panels handily bested biofuels in this comparison.  Considering future demands for food with a growing planetary population, and given this new information, it seems that we should be more focused on growing food to eat rather than to be converted into liquid fuel for cars.

Last but certainly not least is some cool technology from Wysips, a transparent solar panel!  Well it’s 90% transparent, but really, at that point who’s going to notice.  Sure, it doesn’t produce as much electricity as a conventional PV panel…but it DOES make otherwise unproductive surfaces a valuable part of a building’s energy supply, with no architectural or visible impact.  Imagine a skyscraper using this on their windows, for example.  Or, in the example at the link above, imagine the glass on your iPhone recharging the phone itself when outdoors.

Coolest solar panel ever

I have no idea of this rotating, conical solar panel(?) from V3Solar lives up to their marketing hype (which you can hear in the embedded video below), but it’s far and away the coolest looking photovoltaic system I’ve ever seen. The inner conical section rotates inside of a fixed transparent shell, which in itself seems like a concern…it takes energy to overcome the friction of rotating this 12 hours a day (they say it uses 1A and floats on magnets), but it does seem like a plausible way of addressing efficiency, through optimization of the angle and improved cooling of the cells. Another neat part of this is that, since it’s rotating, the DC produced by the cells is converted to AC by nature of this rotating motion and the junction between that and the fixed base…it should be a simpler conversion process, in theory (which might improve efficiency further).

They claim this produces more than 20 times the electricity of a flat panel with the same area of PV cells, though I didn’t see information on the orientation of that flat panel.

Read more over at Gizmag.

Deaths by energy source

Forbes has an interesting article looking at the health effects of different energy sources, more specifically, the number of (human) deaths per unit of energy produced.  For all the publicity nuclear energy accidents get, it’s worth noting that the mortality rate from nuclear energy is about 90 deaths per tkWhr (trillion kilowatt hour of energy produced), while coal is 170,000 deaths per tkWhr!  To be fair, that coal rate is the global average and the US is much better than that (mainly because of existing pollution controls)…but even then, it’s a whopping 15,000 deaths per tkWhr.  The complete list:

Energy Source               Mortality Rate (deaths/trillionkWhr)

Coal – global average         170,000    (50% global electricity)

Coal – China                         280,000   (75% China’s electricity)

Coal – U.S.                               15,000    (44% U.S. electricity)

Oil                                               36,000    (36% of energy, 8% of electricity)

Natural Gas                                4,000    (20% global electricity)

Biofuel/Biomass                    24,000    (21% global energy)

Solar (rooftop)                              440    (< 1% global electricity)

Wind                                                 150    (~ 1% global electricity)

Hydro – global average          1,400    (15% global electricity)

Nuclear – global average            90    (17%  global electricity w/Chern&Fukush)

You can read more over at Forbes.com.

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