Navigant Research Blog

Futuristic Glass Spurs Solar Innovations

— January 31, 2014

First invented in the Bronze Age, 5,000 years or so ago, glass is such an integral part of modern life that we rarely give much thought as to how it performs or is produced.  Today, though, the development of novel forms of glass promises to bring high-tech, low-cost advances to a range of applications, including solar power.

Glass has many advantageous qualities and one major disadvantage: it’s brittle.  It shatters on impact.  We long ago mastered the art of molding glass into many different curves and fantastical shapes, but once it’s set, it’s set until you take a hammer to it.

That is changing, as researchers at McGill University in Montreal have adapted structural characteristics from the shells of mollusks to give glass new resilience and flexibility.  The scientists found that the extremely tough and bendable nacre, or mother-of-pearl, that coats the inner shells of the creatures is made up not of an unbroken surface, but of millions of microscopic components or “tablets.”  When the shell is bent or deformed, the cracks between the tablets allow it to bend, yet remain intact.  Think of blocks of sea ice floating on a moving water surface; they rise and fall and compress and spread, but the overall surface of the ice remains the same.

Fractured Yet Flexible

In the same way, the McGill researchers found that they can pre-crack glass with lasers to create a puzzle-piece design.  The resultant microfractures are filled with polyurethane, creating a material that is weak at the boundaries of the tiny fragments, but resilient as a whole.  Flexible glass.

The immediate applications envisioned include less breakable smartphones, for instance.  But advances in making glass more flexible, resilient, and versatile will likely have implications for solar power, as well.

When a technology is as commoditized as solar panels, with prices halving in just the last few years, the tendency is to think that innovation in the materials has reached an apex; the only further development needed is to squeeze more cost out of the manufacturing process.  Solar panels with next-generation glass, however, could help drive the Murphy’s Law process of price reductions in solar technology while also producing panels with a wider range of possible applications.  Crystalline silicon solar modules, which require the rigid protection provided by glass, are more efficient than amorphous silicon modules.  Amorphous silicon (often used in thin-film solar coatings) has the benefit, however, of being flexible, making it applicable in a host of environments where conventional glass is less robust.

Spray On, Not Tan

Developed at the University of South Florida in alliance with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and being commercialized under the mark SolarWindow by New Energy Technologies, a new glass with tiny transparent solar cells integrated is due to reach the market this year.  New Energy produces both flat glass for windows and structural glass walls and curtains for tall structures that have all the usual qualities of glass and also act as solar panels.  Made of organic polymers (thus grown, not manufactured), the transparent solar cells are the world’s smallest, the company says, measuring less than one-fourth the size of a grain of rice.  They are sprayed onto the glass in a novel process that does not require the high temperatures and vacuum chambers of other spray-on solar technologies.

Meanwhile, building off of NASA’s R&D on solar panels for deep space satellites, Entech Solar has developed a concentrating solar system called SolarVolt that uses tiny versions of Fresnel lenses – originally developed in the 19th century to focus the beams of lighthouses for many miles out to sea.  The miniature photovoltaic array has achieved a 20X concentration of the sun’s rays, enabling much smaller-sized systems per unit of energy captured.

These advances in the structure of glass, a 5-millenium-old invention, could help accelerate the solar revolution and bring closer the day when renewable energy is less expensive, by any measure, than fossil fuels.

 

Wearable, Solar Soldier Power Nears the Battlefield

— December 31, 2013

Seeking to solve one of the most intractable challenges of 21st century low-intensity warfare – supplying power to troops laden with electronic devices and deployed to remote battlefields – the U.S. Army is developing wearable solar panels that will be integrated into uniforms.

Today’s infantryman (or, rather, infantryperson) carries around a dozen pounds of batteries, according to Chris Hurley, battery development team leader at the U.S. Army’s Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center (CERDEC).  ”If we can cut down on the need for batteries, we’re saving fuel costs with the convoys that have to deliver these items to the field,” Hurley told Mashable.

More importantly, wearable solar could save lives: as documented in Navigant Research’s report, Renewable Energy for Military Applications, in forward operating theaters like Afghanistan, one of the most dangerous assignments is delivering fuel (and batteries) to soldiers in the field.

CERDEC is looking for other innovative, lightweight ways to provide what it calls “Soldier Power,” including kinetic energy.  Bionic Power, a Vancouver-based startup, has developed a knee brace that would capture the kinetic energy of a marching soldier and supply it to portable devices.  Called the PowerWalk M-Series, the brace could supply up to 12 watt-hours of electricity, enough to charge two or three smartphones.  The lightweight device would be another step forward for the technology movement examined in Navigant Research’s report, Energy Harvesting.

Last year Bionic Power announced that it has secured contracts with the Army, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the Canadian Department of Defense to test the PowerWalk.

Paging Tony Stark

The eventual goal, naturally, is an Iron Man-style exoskeleton that can collect its own energy, enhance the wearer’s physical capabilities, and supply data and communications from integrated devices.  Known as the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit, or TALOS, the superhero armor is being developed by universities and commercial labs under the direction of the Pentagon’s Special Operations Command.  TALOS was first announced by the perfectly named Admiral Bill McRaven, the commanding officer of the Special Ops branch, earlier this year.  It’s still somewhat theoretical – a prototype is not expected for at least 3 years – but it’s already spawning some potentially powerful innovations in materials research.

One of the most intriguing is a nanotech “liquid armor” that would morph on impact (i.e., when struck by a bullet) from a flexible fabric into an impenetrable shell.  “It transitions when you hit it hard,” Norman Wagner, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Delaware, told NPR. “These particles organize themselves quickly, locally in a way that they can’t flow anymore and they become like a solid.”

On the Runway

The military, of course, is not the only field interested in wearable solar and other futuristic forms of apparel.  The fashion world is forging ahead in this area as well.  The Wearable Solar project, launched by Christiaan Holland from the HAN University of Applied Sciences, in the Netherlands, collaborating with solar energy developers and fashion designer Pauline van Dongen, has produced a line of dresses with built-in solar cells.

“Wearable Solar is about integrating solar cells into fashion, so by augmenting a garment with solar cells the body can be an extra source of energy,” Van Dongen told the online fashion magazine Dezeen at the Wearable Futures conference, in London.

 

EVs Driving on Sunshine

— December 2, 2013

The renewable energy and automobile industries have traditionally operated in distinct, separate markets.  However, the future may see the increasing convergence of the two industries.  According to Navigant Research’s 2012 Energy & Environment Consumer Survey, 85% of consumers who are interested in purchasing an electric vehicle (EV) have either favorable or very favorable views toward solar energy.  The potential for overlap between the two industries is high, given the shared interests and values of their target customers.  Consumers that have solar panels installed on their roof likely have a garage where they could set up an EV charging station as well, and vice versa.

Interesting symbiotic relationships between the industries are already starting to emerge.  Envision Solar, for example, recently deployed the first and only fully autonomous, fully mobile, fully renewable, standalone solar EV charging station at the San Diego International Airport.  REC Solar has partnered with General Electric (GE) to distribute solar EV charging systems, and SolarCity has teamed up with Tesla Motors to conduct research on solar energy battery storage.

Cleaner Fuel = Cleaner Cars

Using renewable energy, such as solar, to charge EVs makes a huge difference in the total emissions of EVs, compared to traditional internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles.  The resurgent interest in EVs has drawn some attention and criticism to the issue of whether charging an EV with electricity that is largely derived from fossil fuels really derives any environmental benefits at all.  However, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), even with the 2012 electricity mix of the United States, which is predominantly generated from fossil fuels (37% coal, 30% natural gas, 19% nuclear, 12% renewables, remaining 2% petroleum and other gases), an electric car only emits about half the amount of carbon pollution per mile as the average new ICE vehicle.  In states with higher percentages of renewable energy generation, such as California, EVs emit only a quarter as much.  The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Beyond Tailpipe Emissions calculator allows users to input their zip code and type of EV to assess the level of greenhouse gas emissions their car releases based on the electricity generation mix in their area.

According to Navigant Research’s report, Solar and Electric Vehicle Cross-Marketing Strategies, approximately 250,000 homes are equipped with solar photovoltaic (PV) systems in the United States, and about 52,000 plug-in cars were sold in 2012 alone.  Combining solar energy with EVs not only presents a great market opportunity for both industries; it will demonstrably expand the economic and environmental benefits of EV ownership.

 

United Kingdom Throws a FIT over Solar

— November 5, 2013

In two recent blogs, I discussed the fervent debate taking place in the United States over the efforts of some utilities to change their net metering policies in ways that critics call a “tax” on solar, and provided details on how Germany’s aggressive promotion of renewables has resulted in dire financial consequences for German utilities and high rates for consumers.  Now, on to the United Kingdom, where sharp changes to the Feed-In Tariff (FIT) program during just 3 years have placed considerable stress on the marketplace.

The FIT went into effect in April 2010, offering 43.3 pence ($0.69) per kilowatt-hour (kWh) to individuals generating solar energy with less than 5 megawatts (MW) of capacity.  (Notably, those who had installed solar panels prior to the FIT program were ineligible, and continue, to this day, to receive just 9 pence per kWh.)  The new generation tariff was paid whether the homeowner used the electricity or not, and an additional 3.2 pence per kWh was paid for energy exported back to the grid (the export tariff).  The costs of the program are paid by the utilities, which spread them across the entire customer base for recovery.

Falling FIT

By late 2011, it was clear that solar take-up rates were greatly exceeding the plan’s original expectations, and the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) announced that it would cut generation tariffs by more than half, to 21 pence.  Lawsuits ensued, but by March of the following year, the cut was made.  Further cuts came in August of 2012, bringing the base rate down to 16 pence; and in the time since, the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets (Ofgem) has periodically lowered payments by a predetermined (and complicated) degression formula based on the rate of PV system deployment and the actual costs of solar panels.  As a consolation for the falling generation tariff, solar owners now receive 4.5 pence for exported kWh, rather than 3.2 pence – but the lower generation tariff is only good for 20 years, rather than for 25 years under the original scheme.

Rates Up, Installations Down

Partly as a result of the volatile policies, U.K. solar installations have slowed dramatically.  According to Ofgem data, nearly 470,000 small PV systems have been installed through the program.  But in the June, the monthly installment rate fell to just more than 6,000 systems, down from 14,500 per month 1 year ago.  About 1.7 gigawatts (GWs) of solar capacity have been installed through the program since its inception.

Solar advocates note that the program is still lucrative for homeowners, because the costs of the systems have also fallen sharply.  At the time of the last FIT cut, the Solar Trade Association in the United Kingdom said that PV system buyers still earn about a 9% return on their investment, and pointed out that electric rates were still rising.  Indeed, according to a recent report by DECC, electric rates across the United Kingdom have risen by nearly 50% since 2005 in real terms.

The FIT program in the United Kingdom was controversial and the abrupt policy changes have led directly to business failures, like the one described in this Dragon’s Den article.  But where the grumbling appears to have tapered off in the United Kingdom , ire over net metering policies in the U.S. is just hitting its stride.

Policies meant to drive usage of renewable energy must be sustainable (pun intended) for both customers and utilities.  In my next blog, I’ll discuss some of the proposals designed to align the longer-term climate goals of renewable integration with the nearer-term financial needs of utilities and consumers.

 

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