Green Energy Technology Breakthroughs

From smart grids to better solar panels, green energy technology is making gains that will help us build a brighter future.


| December 2009/January 2010



Green Energy Technology

Photovoltaic panels may not be a new idea in Green Energy Technology. They've been around for decades, but a range of new design improvements promises far greater efficiency and much lower costs.


PHOTO: AP/TED S. WARREN

Renewable energy technology is big news these days. More and more people recognize that developing less-polluting, greener energy sources is the key to tackling the problems of air and water pollution, declining oil and gas supplies, and rising greenhouse gas emissions. Because of this momentum, there have been a steady stream of new technological developments. On a number of fronts, work is underway that ultimately promises cleaner, more abundant, and more reliable sources of energy.

Some of the developments are filtering into the marketplace now, while others are years away from reaching their full potential. In the end, advances in energy technology will have widespread and positive effects on everyday life. Although no new technology will end our reliance on fossil fuels in the near future, collectively these developments represent a step forward. Consumers will benefit, and so will the environment. Here’s a big-picture look at five of the many developing technologies that have the potential to change how we use energy.

1. Less Expensive Solar Panels

Renewable energy sources accounted for about 9 percent of total U.S. electricity consumption in 2008, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). However, only about .02 percent of electricity came from solar energy in 2008, and that includes both solar thermal and photovoltaic (PV) technologies. While PV installations are increasing rapidly, there’s a long way to go before solar makes a significant contribution to our total electricity supply. However, that could change quickly. For one thing, federal incentives for producing energy have long favored fossil fuels, but now additional federal money is being used to support renewable energy. At the same time, new PV research is decreasing the cost of the technology and increasing the efficiency.

Generating electricity from solar power still costs more than generating power from fossil fuels. However, according to Solarbuzz, a solar research and consulting company, the gap is narrowing between the cost of generating solar energy at home and the price consumers pay for utility-generated electricity. A recent report from Solarbuzz shows that the average price of producing electricity from a residential-scale PV system is about 35 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh). That compares to an average price of 12 cents per kWh that consumers pay for electricity in the United States, according to the EIA. However, in a few U.S. locations, average electricity prices are already over 20 cents per kWh, and the research on ways to lower the cost of solar electricity is extremely promising. John Benner, manager of PV partnerships at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, says he expects PV costs to run head-to-head with utility power over the next five years.

Currently, most commercially available PV cells use crystalline silicon as a semiconductor to generate electricity. Another PV technology is manufacturing thin-film cells by depositing amorphous silicon on a variety of substrates. Of the two, crystalline silicon is more efficient, converting more of the energy potential of sunlight into electricity. But although amorphous silicon has about half the efficiency crystalline silicon, it uses 100 times less silicon to generate the same amount of electricity. The high-grade silicon required for solar cells is expensive, so processes that use less of it have real benefits.

Finding materials that can generate electricity more efficiently or at a lower cost than silicon is another significant area of new research. Several alternatives are already available, including thin-films produced with cadmium telluride (CdTe), and copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS). While promising, these non-silicon materials may be difficult to scale up to meet global demands for electricity without quickly depleting natural resources, according to a study reported in Environmental Science & Technology. Alternatively, the report says, researchers have identified 12 materials that could “meet or exceed” global electrical consumption. Nine of them have the potential to be much cheaper than crystalline silicon. Among them are copper sulfide, copper oxide and iron pyrite, which is “several orders of magnitude better than any alternative” on the basis of cost and abundance.

uncle red
12/15/2009 10:45:45 AM

Thin-film does exist and is less efficient IN LABORATORY CONDITIONS. In real-world conditions in Florida, where it is hot and frequently overcast, Flex-Light's panels (manufactured by Uni-Solar) are PRODUCING 10-15% MORE ELECTRICITY due to their dramatically improved heat tolerance, low-light sensitivity, and lower loss-of-production to shading. Combined with the Miami-Dade hurricane wind-load rating and building-integrated nature, thin-film is a very real solution for some homeowners and most commercial applications.


ryanhall27_2
12/11/2009 2:43:50 PM

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