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Clean Solar Coming Thanks to Chemistry Breakthrough

[fa icon="calendar'] Apr 29, 2014 9:00:26 AM / by Carol Pierson Holding

By Carol Pierson Holding

Last Friday, chemists at the University of Wisconsin published an article in the academictrain station journal Science Magazine in which Dr. Tehshik Yoon and co-authors, Danielle Schultz, Juana Du and Kazimer Skubi, describe how they successfully harnessed light to produce a controlled chemical reaction.

Yoon and his team were looking for a solution to manufacturing pharmaceuticals without the toxic by-products generated in current processes, heat and UV. Natural light can power reactions that heat and ultra-violet light cannot, but past approaches have been too inefficient to be sustainable.

The next potential breakthrough? Paraphrasing Yoon, “Plants do the same thing during photosynthesis: absorb light, release high-energy electrons, and use those electrons to bond water and carbon dioxide into sugars. That reaction is the basis of essentially all of agriculture and all food chains.”

Yoon is echoing Giacomo Luigi Ciamician, an Italian chemist working at the end of the last century. In a paper he presented in 1912 at the 8th International Congress on Applied Chemistry, Ciamician used vivid imagery to predict that natural light would one day supplant fossil fuels as the primary energy source:

"On the arid lands there will spring up industrial colonies without smoke and without smokestacks; forests of glass tubes will extend over the plains and glass buildings will rise everywhere; inside of these will take place the photochemical processes that hitherto have been the guarded secret of the plants, but that will have been mastered by human industry which will know how to make them bear even more abundant fruit than nature, for nature is not in a hurry and mankind is. And if in a distant future the supply of coal becomes completely exhausted, civilization will not be checked by that, for life and civilization will continue as long as the sun shines!"

Ciamician’s vision was so compelling that he was nominated nine times for a Nobel Prize, but its execution so daunting that scientists considered it infeasible. Over the years, it’s been the holy grail in photochemistry, but so difficult that despite breakthroughs along the way, chemists had all but given up. Now the next critical step has been reached, and we can hope again.

Like the early days of the auto, when there roads were not paved and difficult to navigate in a car, when engines blew up and repair people were not plentiful, before gas stations populated every corner, solar energy is still primitive. Solar panel materials are  famously toxic. Roof fires happen often enough to scare away homeowners. Solar companies are uneasy about disclosing their toxicity, and the one large PV provider who did have an Extended Producer Responsibility program, First Solar, dropped it after three years. So we think of solar panels as a transition technology, like the Ford Model T, and put up with them because in them we see the future: solar panels are our bridge to Ciamician’s ultimate future.

Light provides energy without waste or danger for all of nature, a process we are closer now to imitating. Let’s just hope the timetable for the next discovery doesn’t take another 100 years. We just don’t have that kind of time.

Image courtesy of Remko van Dokkum via Flickr CC.


Carol Pierson HoldingCarol Pierson Holding writes on environmental issues and social responsibility for policy and news publications, including the Carnegie Council's Policy Innovations, Harvard Business Review, San Francisco Chronicle, India Time, The Huffington Post and many other web sites. Her articles on corporate social responsibility can be found on CSRHub.com, a website that provides sustainability ratings data on 8,900+ companies worldwide. Carol holds degrees from Smith College and Harvard University.

CSRHub provides access to corporate social responsibility and sustainability ratings and information on 8,900+ companies from 135 industries in 102 countries. By aggregating and normalizing the information from 300+ data sources, CSRHub has created a broad, consistent rating system and a searchable database that links millions of rating elements back to their source. Managers, researchers and activists use CSRHub to benchmark company performance, learn how stakeholders evaluate company CSR practices and seek ways to change the world.

 

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[fa icon="comment"] 0 Comments posted in CSR, Danielle Schultz, First Solar, Giacomo Luigi Ciamician, Juana Du, Kazimer Skubi, Tehshik Yoon, Uncategorized, photochemistry, solar energy, sustainability, Carol Pierson Holding, CSRHub, SRI

Shift Happens

[fa icon="calendar'] Jan 7, 2014 9:54:06 AM / by Carol Pierson Holding

By Carol Pierson Holding

When I heard in late December that Bill McKibben had written another article for Rollingsolar Stone, I was thrilled. His July 2012 piece for that publication — “Global Warming’s Terrifying Math” — started a firestorm. McKibben had determined that the public was losing interest in battling climate change because there was no clear enemy. With no titanic force to battle, consumers had no one to blame but themselves, and that notion was driving away supporters. Then McKibben’s article identified the fossil fuel companies as the once and future evil, and because of horrors such as the Exxon Valdez and BP’s Gulf Oil Spill, they were bad guys we already loved to hate.

McKibben gave us our powerful, venal villains. But a perfect story needs a hero too. McKibben’s article’s title, “Obama and Climate Change: The Real Story,” made it seem like that hero might be Obama.

But McKibbens’ article turned out to be an indictment, using Obama’s own words to brand him the President who has done more harm to the environment than even his predecessor, former oil man George W. Bush:

“Here's Obama speaking in Cushing, Oklahoma, last year…It is to energy what Mitt Romney's secretly taped talk about the 47 percent was to inequality. Except that Obama was out in public, boasting for all the world to hear:

‘Over the last three years, I've directed my administration to open up millions of acres for gas and oil exploration across 23 different states. We're opening up more than 75 percent of our potential oil resources offshore. We've quad­rupled the number of operating rigs to a record high. We've added enough new oil and gas pipeline to encircle the Earth, and then some. . . . In fact, the problem . . . is that we're actually producing so much oil and gas . . . that we don't have enough pipeline capacity to transport all of it where it needs to go.’”

With Obama so squarely reduced to a fossil fuel promoter, is there any good news anywhere about climate change as we enter 2014?

I had high hopes reading USA Today’s energy reporter Wendy Koch ‘s “Technology Can Halt Climate Change.” Koch starts by comparing global warming to the 1890s horse manure crisis. That crisis was solved when a “shift happened” — the automobile was adopted virtually overnight. Koch offers examples of possible solutions to climate change now in the works: high-altitude wind kites, "plug and play" nuclear reactors, giant synthetic trees to absorb carbon dioxide, sulfate aerosols to cool the planet, hydrogen fuel-cell car and mass market hybrids.

None of these potential solutions carries even the remotest possibility of quick, widespread adoption.

But amidst all the gloom, there is one old idea that just last week seemed to be everywhere again, Ms. Koch’s technology predictions aside: that much maligned force of nature, solar.

Everyone  prefers a transition strategy to one that disrupts our lives or limits our choices. The electric car that has a reasonable range has been one such strategy. Tesla, the first car to do that, runs on enormous batteries that have to be replaced every seven years at a cost of $20,000. Such a drawback for buyers seems to cry out for a solar solution, but it’s impossible to run a car on today’s solar panels. Toyota’s panels generate only enough to run a car’s ventilation system.

Tesla’s founder Elon Musk also founded SolarCity so naturally the companies collaborated on a solution. Rather than working on better solar panels for cars, SolarCity uses Tesla’s batteries first in refrigerator-sized units for commercial buildings, and eventually in smaller batteries for home solar applications, solving the problem of what happens when the sun isn’t shining.

Ironically, Ford has the hottest idea for a solar-powered car. As reported in MIT Technology Review, its self-driving C-Max Energi plug-in hybrid will recharge from solar panels atop a carport roof equipped with a special flat lens. The lens will concentrate enough solar energy to recharge the car in six hours and store it in batteries made by SunPower.

Mash it all together — driverless cars developed by Google (a version of which was recently built for $4,000 by one of Time Magazine’s Influential Teens), solar powered carports, battery technology developed for the electric car applied to buildings (could power plants be next?), distributed energy produced by better roof panels and batteries for local storage — and you start to get excited again. It’s not a single hero but a collaboration that comes closest to pushing the shift.

Finally, as reported on the front page of Saturday’s New York Times,  “Solar Power Craze on Wall St. Propels Start-Up,” referring to SolarCity.  So on top of the technology, the hot entrepreneurs, the brainiac kids and the eagerness to collaborate, the money is there too. Now that’s some shift happening!

Photo courtesy of DRAMOS19 via Flickr cc.


Carol Pierson HoldingCarol Pierson Holding writes on environmental issues and social responsibility for policy and news publications, including the Carnegie Council's Policy Innovations, Harvard Business Review, San Francisco Chronicle, India Time, The Huffington Post and many other web sites. Her articles on corporate social responsibility can be found on CSRHub.com, a website that provides sustainability ratings data on 8,900+ companies worldwide. Carol holds degrees from Smith College and Harvard University.

CSRHub provides access to corporate social responsibility and sustainability ratings and information on 8,900+ companies from 135 industries in 104 countries. By aggregating and normalizing the information from 300+ data sources, CSRHub has created a broad, consistent rating system and a searchable database that links millions of rating elements back to their source. Managers, researchers and activists use CSRHub to benchmark company performance, learn how stakeholders evaluate company CSR practices and seek ways to change the world.

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[fa icon="comment"] 2 Comments posted in climate change, Exxon Valdez, Ford C-Max Energi, giant synthetic trees to absorb carbon dioxide, Wendy Koch, Uncategorized, "plug and play" nuclear reactors, Rolling Stone, solar energy, Tesla, SolarCity, Bill McKibben, BP Gulf Oil Spill, Carol Pierson Holding, carport solar, driverless cars, high-altitude wind kites, hydrogen fuel-cell car, oil and gas exploration, solar battery storage, sulfate aerosols to cool the planet

Lawmakers Overturn an Ill-intentioned Solar Project

[fa icon="calendar'] Jun 7, 2011 11:21:06 AM / by Carol Pierson Holding

By Carol Pierson Holding

5170389892_56a508e7fb Solar energy is such a great idea in concept. It's not surprising that when a New York City businessman planned the world’s largest solar array in Washington state, it gained popular support as well as federal backing. It seemed that the U.S. would finally lead the way in alternative energy by example. That’s why it hurt so much when it turned out the project was more about making money than producing viable, solar energy at scale.

This story is about how legislative wrangling stopped it from going forward. 

For those who missed the original story: New York City timber baron John M. Rudy owns 46,000 acres of land at the base of the Cascade Mountains. Since Rudy’s timber has been made worthless by the closing of local lumber processing plants, his company, American Forestry, decided to develop the land, starting with the Teanaway Solar Reserve, cutting down 900 acres of trees to do so.

Even if you didn’t have to cut down all those trees, a quick look at a few solar maps makes it clear that Teanaway is not where you would choose to locate an economically viable solar farm. Plus Teanaway gets over twice the amount of rain of neighboring Ellensburg, where an earlier solar experiment was so disappointing that it won’t be expanding.

So how did TSR make the numbers work? The Federal Stimulus Bill covered 1/3 of construction costs and state subsidies in the form of credits to utilities for buying from renewable energy sources.

And still the numbers didn’t work. So TSR petitioned the Washington State legislature for double the original state subsidy, believing that no legislator in his or her right mind would vote against solar energy in this environmentally crazy place. An influential lobbying firm, Strategies 360, exerted even more pressure, touting environmental leadership for Washington State and jobs too. Soon nearly every state politician was a strong supporter. The State House voted 91 to 3 in favor of the bill.

The bill then went to the State Senate, whose members couldn’t say no to the “largest solar farm in the world”, especially after Governor Christine Gregoire announced her vision for Washington to be the national leader in the creation of green energy.

So the Senate, understanding the flaws in the project, added two amendments to essentially kill the bill. Playing TSR’s own trump card, the promise of more jobs, the Senate’s first amendment required that TSR manufacture its solar panels in Kittitas County, where Teanaway is located. The second amendment demanded that all TSR power go to Washington residents, depriving TSR of a far more attractive market: California. Why is California more attractive? Because in Washington State there is an over supply of energy.

That’s right, an over supply. The state’s abundant hydropower gives Washington over 90% of the energy it needs. Since hydropower is the cheapest form of renewable, the alternative energy market is tough to crack. On the other side of the equation, power demand in Washington has held steady despite population gains because residents feel strongly about energy conservation.

The culture in the Pacific Northwest tends to favor the environment -- even over power. What the East Coast robber barons did not take into account when planning their solar coup was the overwhelming natural beauty of Teanaway -- even where the forests have been logged. Perhaps members of the State Senate knew the area or have friends there who extolled its magnificence or could envision what it was like from topographical maps that show lakes and rivers and ridges. We may never know exactly what happened with the TRS project, only that, as with climate change, nature has lot of interesting ways to exert its influence.


Carol Pierson Holding is a writer and an environmentalist; her articles on CSR can be found on her website.

Inset photo courtesy of International Rivers.

 

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[fa icon="comment"] 1 Comment posted in corporate social responsibility, CSR, sustainability ratings, Teanaway, Teanaway Solar Reserve, Uncategorized, solar energy, sustainability, Carol Pierson Holding, CSRHub, solar panels, Washington state

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