There’s promising news from the front on efforts to produce fuels through artificial photosynthesis. A new study shows that nearly 90 percent of the electrons generated by a hybrid material designed to store solar energy in hydrogen are being stored in the target hydrogen molecules.
Interfacing the semiconductor gallium phosphide with a cobaloxime catalyst provides an inexpensive photocathode for bionic leaves that produce energy-dense fuels from nothing more than sunlight, water and carbon dioxide.
Credit: Image courtesy of DOE/Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
There’s promising news from the front on efforts to produce fuels through artificial photosynthesis. A new study by Berkeley Lab researchers at the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP) shows that nearly 90 percent of the electrons generated by a hybrid material designed to store solar energy in hydrogen are being stored in the target hydrogen molecules.
Gary Moore, a chemist and principal investigator with Berkeley Lab’s Physical Biosciences Division, led an efficiency analysis study of a unique photocathode material he and his research group have developed for catalyzing the production of hydrogen fuel from sunlight. This material, a hybrid formed from interfacing the semiconductor gallium phosphide with a molecular hydrogen-producing cobaloxime catalyst, has the potential to address one of the major challenges in the use of artificial photosynthesis to make renewable solar fuels.
“Ultimately the renewable energy problem is really a storage problem,” Moore says. “Given the intermittent availability of sunlight, we need a way of using the sun all night long. Storing solar energy in the chemical bonds of a fuel also provides the large power densities that are essential to modern transport systems. We’ve shown that our approach of coupling the absorption of visible light with the production of hydrogen in a single material puts photoexcited electrons where we need them to be, stored in chemical bonds.”
Moore is the corresponding author of a paper describing this research in the journal Physical Chemistry Chemical Physics titled “Energetics and efficiency analysis of a cobaloxime-modified semiconductor under simulated air mass 1.5 illumination.” Co-authors are Alexandra Krawicz and Diana Cedeno.
Bionic leaves that produce energy-dense fuels from nothing more than sunlight, water and atmosphere-warming carbon dioxide, with no byproducts other than oxygen, represent an ideal sustainable energy alternative to fossil fuels. However, realizing this artificial photosynthesis ideal will require a number of technological breakthroughs including high performance photocathodes that can catalyze fuel production from sunlight alone.
Last year, Moore and his research group at JCAP took an important step towards the photocathode goal with their gallium phosphide/cobaloxime hybrid. Gallium phosphide is an absorber of visible light, which enables it to produce significantly higher photocurrents than semiconductors that only absorb ultraviolet light. The cobaloxime catalyst is also Earth-abundant, meaning it is a relatively inexpensive replacement for the highly expensive precious metal catalysts, such as platinum, currently used in many solar-fuel generator prototypes.
“The novelty of our approach is the use of molecular catalytic components interfaced with visible-light absorbing semiconductors,” Moore says. “This creates opportunities to use discrete three-dimensional environments for directly photoactivating the multi-electron and multi-proton chemistry associated with the production of hydrogen and other fuels.”
The efficiency analysis performed by Moore and his colleagues also confirmed that the light-absorber component of their photocathode is a major bottleneck to obtaining higher current densities. Their results showed that of the total number of solar photons striking the hybrid-semiconductor surface, measured over the entire wavelength range of the solar spectrum (from 200 to 4,000 nanometers) only 1.5-percent gave rise to a photocurrent.
“This tells us that the use of light absorbers with improved spectral coverage of the sun is a good start to achieving further performance gains, but it is likely we will also have to develop faster and more efficient catalysts as well as new attachment chemistries. Our modular assembly method provides a viable strategy to testing promising combinations of new materials,” Moore says.
“Efficiency is not the only consideration that should go into evaluating materials for applications in solar-fuel generator technologies. Along with the durability and feasible scalability of components, the selectivity of photoactivating a targeted reaction is also critical. This is where molecular approaches offer significant opportunities, especially in catalyzing complex chemical transformations such as the reduction of carbon dioxide.”
Alexandra Krawicz, Diana Cedeno, Gary F. Moore. Energetics and Efficiency Analysis of a Cobaloxime-Modified Semiconductor at Simulated Air Mass 1.5 Illumination.Physical Chemistry Chemical Physics, 2014; DOI:10.1039/C4CP00495G
DOE/Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. “Promising news for producing fuels through artificial photosynthesis.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 7 March 2014. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/03/140307133631.htm>.
Mar. 6, 2014 — Flocks of birds manage to navigate through difficult environments by individuals having predispositions to favor the left- or right-hand side. Researchers flew the budgerigars down a tunnel where… full story
Well blow us over, Mount Rushmore State! Scores of landowners in South Dakota are banding together in an attempt to build a one-gigawatt wind farm, which would be spread over thousands of acres of farmland.
With over 80 landowners ready to dedicate nearly 20,000 acres to one of South Dakota’s largest wind projects, Dakota Power Community Wind is ready to begin the research phase of the operation.
“Our board has approved the purchase of [a meteorological] tower to kick off the research collection phase,” said Paul Shubeck, Dakota Power Community Wind board chairman. “We need to collect two to three years of data before construction can begin.” …
The 20,000 acres of farmland currently signed up for the project are sufficient to support a 300-megawatt windfarm, according to company officials. That would still be the largest single windfarm in South Dakota and would add nearly 50% to the state’s wind production.
Project leaders are now working to get more landowners on board. If built as envisioned, the sprawling wind farm would produce more than three times as much electricity as the natural gas–burning Deer Creek Station, which became the state’s most powerful fossil-fuel power plant when it began operating in 2012.
Even though Obama embraces nuclear reactors as part of his “all-of-the-above” solution to weaning the nation off imported oil and gas, the world may already be on the brink of phasing out this dangerous energy source. In the two years following Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster, nuclear energy use underwent record declines, capping two decades of shrinking market share.
Fracking is a bridge to nowhere
Will our fossil-fueled economy make humans go the way of the dinosaurs?
There are plenty of reasons to think so. Coal, oil, and gas continue to account for 87 percent of global energy consumption despite scientific consensus that drastic change is essential for avoiding a climate catastrophe.
“When our children’s children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did,” he proclaimed. So, we’d better heed one of Barack Obama’s most memorable declarations in his State of the Union address:
But wait. Will he be able to say that to his own grandkids?
Moments earlier, Obama cheered the fact that our country is back to producing more oil at home than it imports for the first time in two decades. And he boasted about his efforts to expedite the construction of power plants that will run on fracked natural gas, eliciting the sound of one hand clapping from the assembled lawmakers.
Accordingly, investors who can stomach the extreme volatility of investing in the wind and solar industries are being richly rewarded. Solar stocks skyrocketed in 2013, far outperforming benchmarks like the S&P 500 Index. Shares in many solar companies have risen by more than 200 percent in the past 12 months.
And everyone will benefit from alternative energy’s real return on investment — cheaper power, vast reductions in pollution, and the potential to rein in climate change.
Even though Obama embraces nuclear reactors as part of his “all-of-the-above” solution to weaning the nation off imported oil and gas, the world may already be on the brink of phasing out this dangerous energy source. In the two years following Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster, nuclear energy use underwent record declines, capping two decades of shrinking market share.
Nuclear reactors now generate only 10 percent of the planet’s power, down from 17 percent in 1993, according to a global team of experts.
Can the Energi and other innovations enable us to reverse course in time? Not if our nation and the world stick with Obama’s all-of-the-above policy.
“If he actually took climate change seriously, he’d understand that more oil means higher temperatures,” said 350.org founder Bill McKibben.”That’s just how physics works.”
Emily Schwartz Greco is the managing editor of OtherWords, a non-profit national editorial service run by the Institute for Policy Studies. OtherWords.org
Full disclosure: The author owns small-scale investments in companies engaged in solar, wind, and other alternative energy industries.
Submitters Website: http://www.otherwords.org
William A. Collins, a former mayor of Norwalk, Connecticut, founded Minuteman Media in 1998. In 2010, the Institute for Policy Studies took over its management and Minuteman Media was renamed OtherWords. OtherWords distributes commentary and cartoons aimed at amplifying progressive analysis in the national conversation. It empowers readers to become more engaged citizens.
Last year’s decision to close the San Onofre nuclear power plant in Southern California has created a challenge for utilities and utility regulators: How best to replace the facility’s 2,200 megawatts of generating capacity?
The region’s utility is pushing for more fossil fuel power. Environmentalists want a cleaner solution — and the state’s thriving cleantech sector says it could provide just that.
The California Public Utilities Commission is due next month to consider allowing construction of a natural gas–fired plant near the Mexican border. The commission had rejected the plant a year ago, but it’s being reconsidered as part of a mixture of renewable and fossil fuel projects that could help meet the state’s electricity needs in the wake of the San Onofre closure.
Environmentalists and neighbors of proposed new gas plants have been pleading with commissioners for months to reject such proposals. They want more solar, wind, and efficiency to help fill the gap left by lost nuclear power. A clear majority of Southern Californians agree, according to a poll conducted last year.
“There’s all sorts of capacity for clean energy that will be able to take up the slack,” Solana Beach Deputy Mayor Lesa Heebner told La Jolla Patch. “It’s not in [San Diego Gas & Electric's] financial plan to have solar rooftops in their portfolio as a generator, because they can’t control it.”
And now the state’s cleantech leaders are joining the fight, saying, “We got this.” Here are highlights from a letter that a coalition of renewable energy investors, companies, and industry groups sent to Gov. Jerry Brown (D) this week:
State agencies analyzing how to replace power for the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS), a 100% carbon-free facility, are considering allowing new fossil fuel plants to be built for a large part of that power. We believe this would be a step backwards for climate, clean tech and the California economy.
Replacing SONGS with new natural gas would be a missed opportunity to showcase the clean technologies coming out of California, which are fully capable of solving this decrease in generation capacity without using fossil fuels. Through renewables, energy efficiency, demand response and other smart grid technologies, California can meet all its future energy needs with clean resources.
We say, “Have at it, cleantech.” Here’s hoping that Brown and other officials come to see it the same way.
Jan. 23, 2014 — In 2009, a borehole drilled at Krafla, northeast Iceland, as part of the Icelandic Deep Drilling Project (IDDP), unexpectedly penetrated into magma (molten rock) at only 2100 meters depth, with a temperature of 900-1000 C. The borehole, IDDP-1, was the first in a series of wells being drilled by the IDDP in Iceland in the search for high-temperature geothermal resources.
The January 2014 issue of the international journalGeothermics is dedicated to scientific and engineering results arising from that unusual occurrence. This issue is edited by Wilfred Elders, a professor emeritus of geology at the University of California, Riverside, who also co-authored three of the research papers in the special issue with Icelandic colleagues.
“Drilling into magma is a very rare occurrence anywhere in the world and this is only the second known instance, the first one, in 2007, being in Hawaii,” Elders said. “The IDDP, in cooperation with Iceland’s National Power Company, the operator of the Krafla geothermal power plant, decided to investigate the hole further and bear part of the substantial costs involved.”
Accordingly, a steel casing, perforated in the bottom section closest to the magma, was cemented into the well. The hole was then allowed to heat slowly and eventually allowed to flow superheated steam for the next two years, until July 2012, when it was closed down in order to replace some of the surface equipment.
“In the future, the success of this drilling and research project could lead to a revolution in the energy efficiency of high-temperature geothermal areas worldwide,” Elders said.
He added that several important milestones were achieved in this project: despite some difficulties, the project was able to drill down into the molten magma and control it; it was possible to set steel casing in the bottom of the hole; allowing the hole to blow superheated, high-pressure steam for months at temperatures exceeding 450 C, created a world record for geothermal heat (this well was the hottest in the world and one of the most powerful); steam from the IDDP-1 well could be fed directly into the existing power plant at Krafla; and the IDDP-1 demonstrated that a high-enthalpy geothermal system could be successfully utilized.
“Essentially, the IDDP-1 created the world’s first magma-enhanced geothermal system,” Elders said. “This unique engineered geothermal system is the world’s first to supply heat directly from a molten magma.”
Elders explained that in various parts of the world so-called enhanced or engineered geothermal systems are being created by pumping cold water into hot dry rocks at 4-5 kilometers depths. The heated water is pumped up again as hot water or steam from production wells. In recent decades, considerable effort has been invested in Europe, Australia, the United States, and Japan, with uneven, and typically poor, results.
“Although the IDDP-1 hole had to be shut in, the aim now is to repair the well or to drill a new similar hole,” Elders said. “The experiment at Krafla suffered various setbacks that tried personnel and equipment throughout. However, the process itself was very instructive, and, apart from scientific articles published in Geothermics, comprehensive reports on practical lessons learned are nearing completion.”
The IDDP is a collaboration of three energy companies — HS Energy Ltd., National Power Company and Reykjavik Energy — and a government agency, the National Energy Authority of Iceland. It will drill the next borehole, IDDP-2, in southwest Iceland at Reykjanes in 2014-2015. From the onset, international collaboration has been important to the project, and in particular a consortium of U.S. scientists, coordinated by Elders, has been very active, authoring several research papers in the special issue ofGeothermics.
Recently, a new pipeline started pumping fracked natural gas from the Marcellus Shale to Manhattan. It’s a critical reminder of the importance of infrastructure in determining our energy future — and of how lopsided our infrastructure policy is.
Burdensome regulations governing infrastructure are hampering renewable energy expansion, while natural gas is facing no such obstacles. If renewable energy is going to make up any significant portion of our nation’s electricity needs, we need to change our energy infrastructure regulations. And the time to make those changes is now.
Coal-fired power plants are retiring, leaving a demand for new electricity generation. The two most likely power sources to fill that void are renewable energy and natural gas. But right now, the competition between these two sources is not happening on a level playing field.
Building out infrastructure is critical to the growth of both of these power generation sources. But it takes a lot longer to put up transmission lines, which link remote wind and solar farms to population centers, than it does to build natural gas pipelines. And therein lies the problem.
From 2001 to 2010, the U.S. built roughly 13,000 miles of new interstate natural gas pipelines compared to just 748 miles of interstate high-voltage transmission lines. This gigantic mismatch is in part due to the fact that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission lacks the authority to site transmission lines, but does have the ability to site pipelines. So FERC can approve a pipeline route, while a patchwork of local and regional regulators with competing interests must all agree on where an electric transmission line should be built. One broken link in that long and fragile chain of approvals can quash an entire project.
These regulations have real-world consequences. Take for example the Zephyr Power Transmission Project. This line, proposed in 2011, would take power from what could be the largest wind farm in the nation and perhaps the world, the Pathfinder Zephyr Wind project in Wyoming, and deliver it to Las Vegas, where it would be used and distributed to other cities in the Southwest.
This wind farm is expected to generate between 2,000 and 3,000 megawatts of inexpensive, renewable energy — enough to power a million homes. But the Zephyr line, which will take three years to build once approved, was proposed in 2011 and won’t be out of the regulatory weeds and ready to begin construction until 2017. That’s an almost comical six years of permitting and review. The process could go longer – six years is just what they’re expecting. And at any point, it could be rejected.
Natural gas pipelines, on the other hand, are getting fast-tracked, ensuring that gas is getting into our electricity system quickly. While the previously mentioned gas pipeline serving Manhattan will be used for heating, its size makes it a good example. The U.S. Energy Information Administration called it one of the biggest infrastructure expansions in the Northeast in decades. Here’s the kicker: Spectra Energy, the owner and operator of the pipeline, applied for a permit with FERC on Dec. 20, 2010. That’s less than three years from a formal proposal to bringing natural gas to Manhattan.
To give utility-scale renewable energy a chance to take advantage of the gap in electricity demand left by retiring coal-fired generation, we must change how we approve transmission lines. Congress should give FERC the authority to site transmission lines the way it can site natural gas pipelines. Without this kind of change, transmission will be doomed to a snail’s pace of production, leaving renewable electricity to wallow in nothing more than its potential.
In the EIA’s recently released 2014 Annual Energy Outlook, it predicts that natural gas will overtake coalas a fuel source for electricity generation by 2035, with each supplying about one third of our overall needs. Meanwhile, it predicts that renewable generation will increase from last year’s 12 percent to just 16 percent by 2040.
If we want to see renewable energy reach its true potential, we must make a change. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) recently proposed such a shift in his state, pushing for faster approval of new power lines. If implemented, the approval timeline for some in-state transmission lines will be compressed from four years to 10 months.
In this new year, I hope Congress will do a similar thing on a national scale and resolve to level the playing field when it comes to regulating our energy infrastructure.
Jaafar Rizvi is a former grassroots organizer who now consults for renewable energy and infrastructure companies.
Jan. 8, 2014 — A team of Harvard scientists and engineers has demonstrated a new type of battery that could fundamentally transform the way electricity is stored on the grid, making power from renewable energy sources such as wind and solar far more economical and reliable.
The novel battery technology is reported in a paper published in Nature on January 9. Under the OPEN 2012 program, the Harvard team received funding from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) to develop the innovative grid-scale battery and plans to work with ARPA-E to catalyze further technological and market breakthroughs over the next several years.
The paper reports a metal-free flow battery that relies on the electrochemistry of naturally abundant, inexpensive, small organic (carbon-based) molecules called quinones, which are similar to molecules that store energy in plants and animals.
The mismatch between the availability of intermittent wind or sunshine and the variability of demand is the biggest obstacle to getting a large fraction of our electricity from renewable sources. A cost-effective means of storing large amounts of electrical energy could solve this problem.
The battery was designed, built, and tested in the laboratory of Michael J. Aziz, Gene and Tracy Sykes Professor of Materials and Energy Technologies at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). Roy G. Gordon, Thomas Dudley Cabot Professor of Chemistry and Professor of Materials Science, led the work on the synthesis and chemical screening of molecules. Alán Aspuru-Guzik, Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, used his pioneering high-throughput molecular screening methods to calculate the properties of more than 10,000 quinone molecules in search of the best candidates for the battery.
Flow batteries store energy in chemical fluids contained in external tanks — as with fuel cells — instead of within the battery container itself. The two main components — the electrochemical conversion hardware through which the fluids are flowed (which sets the peak power capacity), and the chemical storage tanks (which set the energy capacity) — may be independently sized. Thus the amount of energy that can be stored is limited only by the size of the tanks. The design permits larger amounts of energy to be stored at lower cost than with traditional batteries.
By contrast, in solid-electrode batteries, such as those commonly found in cars and mobile devices, the power conversion hardware and energy capacity are packaged together in one unit and cannot be decoupled. Consequently they can maintain peak discharge power for less than an hour before being drained, and are therefore ill suited to store intermittent renewables.
“Our studies indicate that one to two days’ worth of storage is required for making solar and wind dispatchable through the electrical grid,” said Aziz.
To store 50 hours of energy from a 1-megawatt power capacity wind turbine (50 megawatt-hours), for example, a possible solution would be to buy traditional batteries with 50 megawatt-hours of energy storage, but they’d come with 50 megawatts of power capacity. Paying for 50 megawatts of power capacity when only 1 megawatt is necessary makes little economic sense.
For this reason, a growing number of engineers have focused their attention on flow battery technology. But until now, flow batteries have relied on chemicals that are expensive or difficult to maintain, driving up the energy storage costs.
The active components of electrolytes in most flow batteries have been metals. Vanadium is used in the most commercially advanced flow battery technology now in development, but its cost sets a rather high floor on the cost per kilowatt-hour at any scale. Other flow batteries contain precious metal electrocatalysts such as the platinum used in fuel cells.
The new flow battery developed by the Harvard team already performs as well as vanadium flow batteries, with chemicals that are significantly less expensive, and with no precious metal electrocatalyst.
“The whole world of electricity storage has been using metal ions in various charge states but there is a limited number that you can put into solution and use to store energy, and none of them can economically store massive amounts of renewable energy,” Gordon said. “With organic molecules, we introduce a vast new set of possibilities. Some of them will be terrible and some will be really good. With these quinones we have the first ones that look really good.”
Aspuru-Guzik noted that the project is very well aligned with the White House Materials Genome Initiative. “This project illustrates what the synergy of high-throughput quantum chemistry and experimental insight can do,” he said. “In a very quick time period, our team honed in to the right molecule. Computational screening, together with experimentation, can lead to discovery of new materials in many application domains.”
Quinones are abundant in crude oil as well as in green plants. The molecule that the Harvard team used in its first quinone-based flow battery is almost identical to one found in rhubarb. The quinones are dissolved in water, which prevents them from catching fire.
To back up a commercial wind turbine, a large storage tank would be needed, possibly located in a below-grade basement, said co-lead author Michael Marshak, a postdoctoral fellow at SEAS and in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology. Or if you had a whole field of turbines or large solar farm, you could imagine a few very large storage tanks.
The same technology could also have applications at the consumer level, Marshak said. “Imagine a device the size of a home heating oil tank sitting in your basement. It would store a day’s worth of sunshine from the solar panels on the roof of your house, potentially providing enough to power your household from late afternoon, through the night, into the next morning, without burning any fossil fuels.”
“The Harvard team’s results published in Nature demonstrate an early, yet important technical achievement that could be critical in furthering the development of grid-scale batteries,” said ARPA-E Program Director John Lemmon. “The project team’s result is an excellent example of how a small amount of catalytic funding from ARPA-E can help build the foundation to hopefully turn scientific discoveries into low-cost, early-stage energy technologies.”
Team leader Aziz said the next steps in the project will be to further test and optimize the system that has been demonstrated on the bench top and bring it toward a commercial scale. “So far, we’ve seen no sign of degradation after more than 100 cycles, but commercial applications require thousands of cycles,” he said. He also expects to achieve significant improvements in the underlying chemistry of the battery system. “I think the chemistry we have right now might be the best that’s out there for stationary storage and quite possibly cheap enough to make it in the marketplace,” he said. “But we have ideas that could lead to huge improvements.”
By the end of the three-year development period, Connecticut-based Sustainable Innovations, LLC, a collaborator on the project, expects to deploy demonstration versions of the organic flow battery contained in a unit the size of a horse trailer. The portable, scaled-up storage system could be hooked up to solar panels on the roof of a commercial building, and electricity from the solar panels could either directly supply the needs of the building or go into storage and come out of storage when there’s a need. Sustainable Innovations anticipates playing a key role in the product’s commercialization by leveraging its ultra-low cost electrochemical cell design and system architecture already under development for energy storage applications.
“You could theoretically put this on any node on the grid,” Aziz said. “If the market price fluctuates enough, you could put a storage device there and buy electricity to store it when the price is low and then sell it back when the price is high. In addition, you might be able to avoid the permitting and gas supply problems of having to build a gas-fired power plant just to meet the occasional needs of a growing peak demand.”
This technology could also provide very useful backup for off-grid rooftop solar panels — an important advantage considering some 20 percent of the world’s population does not have access to a power distribution network.
William Hogan, Raymond Plank Professor of Global Energy Policy at Harvard Kennedy School, and one of the world’s foremost experts on electricity markets, is helping the team explore the economic drivers for the technology.
Trent M. Molter, President and CEO of Sustainable Innovations, LLC, provides expertise on implementing the Harvard team’s technology into commercial electrochemical systems.
“The intermittent renewables storage problem is the biggest barrier to getting most of our power from the sun and the wind,” Aziz said. “A safe and economical flow battery could play a huge role in our transition off fossil fuels to renewable electricity. I’m excited that we have a good shot at it.”
In addition to Aziz, Marshak, Aspuru-Guzik, and Gordon, the co-lead author of the Nature paper was Brian Huskinson, a graduate student with Aziz; coauthors included research associate Changwon Suh and postdoctoral researcher Süleyman Er in Aspuru-Guzik’s group; Michael Gerhardt, a graduate student with Aziz; Cooper Galvin, a Pomona College undergraduate; and Xudong Chen, a postdoctoral fellow in Gordon’s group.
This work was supported in part by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Project Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, the National Science Foundation (NSF) Extreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment (OCI-1053575), an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, and the Fellowships for Young Energy Scientists program of the Foundation for Fundamental Research on Matter, which is part of the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO).
Note: Materials may be edited for content and length. For further information, please contact the source cited above.
Brian Huskinson, Michael P. Marshak, Changwon Suh, Süleyman Er, Michael R. Gerhardt, Cooper J. Galvin, Xudong Chen, Alán Aspuru-Guzik, Roy G. Gordon, Michael J. Aziz.A metal-free organic–inorganic aqueous flow battery. Nature, 2014; 505 (7482): 195 DOI:10.1038/nature12909
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Bob Osemlak is one resourceful guy. The Toronto-area retiree lost power for almost all of Dec. 21, but he just hooked up his Prius to his home appliances (easy peasy, right?!) and powered his furnace, lights, fridge — even his TV. Sadly, this eliminates the beloved “Guess we better eat all the ice cream now” line, but other than that, cool!
Even though Osemlak used the Prius battery for nine hours, the hybrid’s power only went down by less than one bar (or about a gallon of gas). Osemlak conserved the battery by switching back and forth between the furnace and the other appliances. And it didn’t hurt that he prepared in advance:
Osemlak prepared for the outage by installing an outlet on his furnace. He then ran a cord through the basement to his hybrid electric car.
But maybe don’t imitate him:
He spoke to his experience as a mechanic and warned others not to try using their car as a generator.
“I’ve been an aircraft technician for over 50 years, and I’ve also worked on cars,” he said.
Hundreds of thousands of birds and bats are killed by wind turbines in the U.S. each year, including some protected species such as the golden eagle and the Indiana bat. That’s only a small fraction of thehundreds of millions killed by buildings, pesticides, fossil-fuel power plants, and other human causes, but it’s still worrying — especially as wind power is experiencing record growth.
Both the wind industry and the federal government have been under intense public scrutiny over the issue in recent weeks. In late November, the Obama administration fined Duke Energy Renewables $1 million for illegally killing birds, the first time a wind company has been prosecuted under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
Then, just two weeks later, the administrationannounced a controversial new rule that will allow energy companies to get 30-year permits for non-intentional eagle deaths at wind farms. The feds emphasize that the new rule requires additional conservation measures, but it still angered many conservationists.
The pressure is now on for wind energy companies to reduce bird and bat mortality. Lindsay North, outreach manager for the American Wind Energy Association, which lobbies for the industry, says wind developers are committed to “doing our best to try to have the lowest impact on birds.”
The industry is collaborating with wildlife researchers on promising technologies and approaches that are already being field-tested, and on some experimental and even far-fetched ideas that could help reduce mortality in the long term.
“I am very optimistic we can make significant progress,” said biologist Taber Allison, director of research at the American Wind Wildlife Institute, a nonprofit partnership of wind companies, scientists, and environmental organizations such as the National Audubon Society and the Sierra Club.
Here are eight things the industry is trying or considering in an effort to reduce bird and bat mortality.
1. Smarter siting
It’s all about location, location, location. The No. 1 way to prevent bird deaths is to do a better job choosing sites for wind energy development, said raptor researcher Richard Gerhardt: “It’s an issue of where you put the turbines.”
Federal wildlife officials, working with the industry, finalized more specific, stricter siting practices this year, as part of the same changes that allowed the 30-year permits for eagle deaths. In particular, federal officials are worried about the placement of wind farms in golden eagle habitat out West, and the new permitting process takes those concerns into account. When they are focused on their prey, golden eagles, which are protected under three federal laws, are especially vulnerable to turbines.
“Certainly as an industry we believe not every site is equal and not every site should be developed,” said John Anderson, director of siting policy for AWEA. “It starts with desktop analysis of where the risk lies,” he said. “But you can’t assess risks without on-the-ground boots analysis.”
It would be difficult for wind developers to avoid eagle territory altogether. “The eagles love to fly where the wind is high and strong and they can soar over open country,” said Frank B. Isaacs, golden eagle project manager for the Oregon Eagle Foundation. “And it is exactly the same places they want to put these wind farms.”
But wind companies can at least avoid eagles’ and hawks’ migratory routes and known flight paths. For instance, wind farms could be set back from cliffs and sloping hills where eagles use an updraft to soar, Isaacs said.
The industry is also turning to radar technology that could detect when eagles and other birds are approaching. Turbines could be slowed or shut down when the radar, along with employees monitoring the horizon, determine birds are within a certain zone.
Some radar systems are proving to be better than others at telling an eagle from a crow (or a swarm of insects), said Anderson. But live testing has shown that the more-refined radar technology can reduce the risk to large species, according to Allison, including protected birds such as whooping cranes, condors, and eagles.
This kind of early-warning radar technology has been deployed at wind farms along the Texas Gulf coast during the spring migration of songbirds. Some wind companies in the area are also watching for meteorological conditions that might suggest when songbirds are in migration, and conditions such as low visibility, when the songbirds might fly lower and thus closer to the turbines.
3. GPS tracking
Thus far there have been no reported California condor deaths caused by wind turbines. And at least one company is trying to ensure the endangered birds can coexist with the growing wind energy presence in the state.
Many of the 230 California condors flying in the wild are fitted with GPS transmitters, so Terra-Gen, one of the top wind developers in the country, uses a high-frequency receiver to track the condors near its California facilities.
“They are listening, if you will, for condors,” Allison said. “If they pick up a signal and it gets within this space, the company can say, ‘We’ll shut down this string of turbines.’”
4. Ultrasonic acoustics
Most birds killed by wind turbines die because they get hit by spinning blades. Many bats seem to die for a different, even gorier reason: the lower wind pressure near the blades causes their lungs to explode. Because birds and bats react differently to turbines, scientists are pursuing different methods to protect them.
“There are two things that appear to be the most promising” when it comes to reducing bat deaths, said Chris Hein, wind energy program coordinator with Bat Conservation International.
The first of those is ultrasonic acoustic determent. Bat Conservation International has been collaborating with Deaton Engineering to design ultrasonic “boom boxes” that emit continuous high-frequency sounds, from 10 kHz to 100 kHz, intended to confuse bats’ echolocation to the point that they avoid the area.
“It essentially jams their radar, making it difficult to perceive sonar,” Hein said. “That creates a disorientating atmosphere, and they don’t want to be associated with that airspace. It doesn’t harm the bat in any way. It would be like going into an extremely bright room that is so bright we wouldn’t be able to navigate or see well.”
Study results on this kind of technology have been largely inconclusive so far, but Hein believes that’s because of the inconsistency of the devices that have been used to date. There are encouraging signs, he said. Tests of some ultrasonic acoustic equipment have found that it can halve the number of fatalities for certain species of bats.
“We still have a long way to go with that technology,” Hein said. For one thing, it needs to be refined to work better in rain and high wind.
But he’s hopeful that recent advances could lead to commercially deployable devices.
5. Leaving turbines off when wind speeds are low
The second strategy that has been shown to help reduce bat deaths is waiting longer to turn on the turbines, until wind speeds are higher. “Bats like to travel in very low-wind conditions,” Hein said.
According to the only published study on the subject, leaving the turbines dormant until wind speed reaches 5.5 meters per second reduced bat mortality by nearly 60 percent compared with normally operating turbines. The industry standard is to have blades start spinning when wind hits 3.5 to 4 meters per second.
The question is whether this method is economically feasible. Anderson said the industry is “in the process” of evaluating this strategy.
“It does come at a cost to the electric company,” Hein said. “But some of the early research shows the loss of revenue is not that much.”
This strategy is currently being employed at wind farms in the Midwest and East Coast within the habitat range of the Indiana bat, a medium-sized, mouse-eared bat listed as endangered since 1967.
6. Painting turbines different colors
Some research has shown that migratory tree bats are attracted to turbines, but the reason isn’t known, Allison said. One study found that they may associate the turbines with a body of water.
Another theory is that bats approach the turbines in pursuit of prey. A study conducted in England suggested that simply changing the color of wind turbines to hues less attractive to insects could reduce the number of bugs that congregate around the turbines, which could in turn reduce bat deaths.
Ultimately, understanding why bats keep coming to turbines will be key in finding ways to keep them safe.
7. Designing new turbine shapes
Earlier designs were found to attract roosting birds, which would perch and nest inside the turbines’ lattice-style structures, but newer designs discourage roosting.
A jet-engine-inspired design, called the FloDesign turbine, marks a distinct departure from traditional turbine design, with blades encased in a larger structure. Because it would be more visible, Allison believes it could pose less of a threat to birds.
8. Strike detection
If a turbine could recognize when it has been hit by a bird, it could potentially slow itself down or shut off to minimize the risk to other birds in the area.
A collaborative research effort between Oregon State University and Mesalands Community College in New Mexico is looking into this idea. Researchers are currently using tennis balls to mimic bird strikes.
The research could lead to commercial strike-detection equipment, said Jim Morgan, director of the North American Wind Research and Training Center at Mesalands. “If it works, it could be helpful for offshore wind,” said Allison.
Morgan is hopeful that the research at Mesalands and elsewhere will eventually lead to a notable reduction in bird and bat mortality. “Man is good at solving problems when someone is willing to invest in the science,” he said.
Reducing wind development’s impact on endangered species and other wildlife would help the industry avoid problems with the federal government and boost wind power’s public image.
Allison believes there is also another motive: “They want to do it because they are conservation-mined, too. Many people in the wind industry work in the industry because they believe they’re doing something to reduce the impacts of climate change, which many believe is the single biggest threat.”
Roger Drouin is a freelance journalist who covers environmental issues. When he’s not reporting or writing, he is out getting almost lost in the woods. He blogs atrogersoutdoorblog.com.
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At night, brightly lit office buildings are depressing — you know that either people are working too hard, or the building is wasting energy. Dutch mechanical engineer Chintan Shah looked at streetlights and saw a similar problem. Why light a path if no one’s walking or biking there? (Sorry, turtles. Guess you don’t count.)
[J]ust keeping the city lights on costs Europe, alone, over 10 billion Euros each year and is responsible for more than 40 percent of a government’s energy usage. That’s 40 million tons of CO2 emissions generated through sources such as coal plants and wide-scale burning of other fossil fuels, which gives new meaning to the concept of “light pollution.”
So Shah’s company, Tvilight (think “Twilight” with a Count Dracula accent), created a retrofit for streetlights to dim them when people aren’t around and restore full brightness once a motion sensor is tripped. For the past two years, neighborhoods in Ireland and Holland have been implementing the system, and now it could be coming to Los Angeles (as well as parts of Germany and Canada).
What about safety, you ask? Good question. The system is adjustable so that streetlights in vast abandoned parking lots could dim up to 70 percent when no one’s around, but those in busy areas like intersections might only dim by 30 percent. And if snow or other inclement weather confuses things, the default is no dimming at all. Check it out (and keep us posted, L.A.):