Renewable Energy
All things energy, from solar and wind power to efficiency and off-grid living.

Off-Grid Homesteading in Vermont

Off-Grid Vermont Homestead 

We always knew we wanted to homestead in Vermont.  We’ve lived other places, but none resonated as “our place” more than Vermont.  It’s the little things here, like the complete lack of billboards, that make the everyday scenery more magical.

We searched for land that we could afford and kept coming up short.  Like many young couples, we were impatient.  When we finally found our homestead, it was everything we’d ever dreamed.  Plenty of space to stretch out, a greenhouse, a pond and mature woodlands.  The main attraction was that it was well back from the road, but that meant something else…it was off the grid.

I know many people dream of moving off-grid, but that was never part of the plan.  We’re not tinkerers, and neither of us are mechanically inclined.  Our homesteading ambitions were more focused on gardening and time in nature, and we didn’t know the first thing about solar or wind power.

We were young and decided that there’s no time like the present to learn. Over the years we’ve learned a lot about managing our system, but for the most part, we’ve been surprised at just how much electricity a few panels can generate.  Even in Vermont, far to the north, we have more electricity than we can use nine months of the year.

Before we moved, we assumed we’d have to give up just about every electrical appliance we owned.  Now we’re actually buying “summer appliances” to make use of the free electricity we have so much of the year.  In truth, our off-grid home has more luxuries than our suburban home ever had.

The winter months are still hard.  The days are short, and it takes a long time for the solar panels to clear after snow and ice storms.  We’d be fine sitting by the fire reading a good book, but since we were so impatient to get onto land as soon as possible, we still need to make a living to pay for it.

With a little creativity, we’ve managed to work out ways to make a living off-grid without ever leaving our homestead.  Many of the ways we make income require a dependable internet connection, which means dependable power, which means we run the generator more than we’d like from December to February.

It's Been a Learning Process

So what is the hardest thing about transitioning to off-grid? For me, it’s admitting how little I know.  More often than not, when something breaks it’s a simple fix, but it can be time-consuming and frustrating to trace it down.  We blew a single fuse that shut down our electricity for days until we traced the problem.  One $20 trip to the hardware store later and our house was back up and running. 

Problems like that are hard to explain to our friends.  When your washing machine breaks, you can call a repair person.  They’re standardized, and there are repair manuals.  Every off-grid installation is a bit different, and it took us years to find a repair person that can help us when things are over our heads.  Solar companies these days have experience installing panels and setting up net metering systems, but once batteries are involved it’s hard to find someone willing to help.

We’ve been on our land for 6 years now, and we’re loving it.  For now, we’re working on reducing our expenses as much as possible so we can pay off our home before we hit 40.  We’re also planning for the long term.

A big part of our homesteading dream was to be able to produce all of our own food, or as close as we could get.  We’re willing to make exceptions for flour and salt, but beyond that our goal is to grow and forage just about everything.  We’re planning our root cellar now to be built this summer or next, and we’ve already planted an orchard with enough storage varieties to supply us with fruit all year.

Things just got a bit more complicated now that we have two young children, but this is the only life they’ve ever known.  They’ve never seen a television, and my not quite 3-year-old daughter can identify most the trees in our woods by their bark.  She’ll calmly sit and teach her baby doll all about mushrooms, and how to identify morels and chanterelles. 

This is the life we dreamed of when we were sitting behind desks at our corporate jobs, and 6 years into our journey, I can't imagine ever going back.  My “promising career” is shot, and my resume has a 6 year whole that I can only explain as “off living life.”  I wouldn’t trade that decision for anything.

Ashley lives in a solar and wind powered home in Vermont with her husband and two young children.  She writes about gardening, foraging, DIY and all things off-grid aPractical Self Reliance.  You can find pictures of her homestead adventures on Instagram, or follow along on Facebook or Twitter.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

3 Tips for Selling a Home with Solar Panels


More than one million homes in the United States currently have a solar PV system installed and are being powered by energy from the sun. If you live in one of these homes but need to relocate, check out these tips before selling your house to ensure that the sale goes more smoothly.

Understand the Details of Your Solar Purchase or Lease

On average, a solar energy system adds about $15,000 to a home's sale price. However, it's important to note that this increase in value typically only applies if the solar energy system has been purchased with cash or a loan. With leased solar energy systems and power purchase agreements (PPAs), selling the home becomes a bit messier because solar equipment is attached to the house, but it belongs to someone else (usually a solar company or other third-party). This can be a deterrent to some buyers, especially if they have to take on a contract that still has several years left on it.

Before putting your home on the market, review the details of your purchase or lease. If you purchased the system with a loan that still has a balance, you'll need to pay off the remainder. If you signed into a lease or a PPA, talk to the solar company and figure out what your options are. In most cases, you'll be required to either pay off the rest of the contract or find a buyer that's willing to assume it. However, some solar companies offer the option to move the system to your new residence, either at no cost or for a small fee.

It's a good idea to figure all the options that are available to you, and then decide which one makes the most sense for your particular situation.

Put together Resources for Potential Buyers

Once you have an understanding of the details of your solar purchase or lease, put together a folder of important information and resources that you can give to potential buyers. For example, if the system is leased, include an explanation of the lease payment, how much time is left on the contract, and the steps for transferring the lease. If the system is purchased, find out whether or not the warranties from the solar company will cover the second homeowner, and if so, for how many years.

Providing these resources will make the buyer feel informed and empowered to make a decision that is beneficial to them.

Choose Your Real Estate Agent Wisely

If you're using a real estate agent to sell your home, be sure that the agent you choose to work with understands the value that a solar energy system can bring to a home and knows how to market that value appropriately. It's not a bad idea to find a real estate agent who has already sold homes that have solar energy systems and knows what it takes to get the job done.

The more informed and experienced the real estate agent is when it comes to selling homes with solar systems, the higher the likelihood that you'll be able to sell your home with ease and get the most out of the value your solar energy system brings to the table.

Photo credit the American Advisors Group on Flickr

Sarah Hancock educates consumers about the workings of the solar industry to help people make decisions that benefit both their own interests and the environment. Connect with her on the Best Company Solar Blog and on Twitter.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Solar Pioneer Party


Although I was doing solar before solar was cool (started in 1990) I don't think I consider myself a solar pioneer as there were so many before me that inspired me and helped me but I got to spend a weekend in November at the Solar Pioneer party; hanging out with my heroes, my mentors, my colleagues. together we have made solar the wave of the Now instead of the wave of the future #SolarNow #GetEnergized #GoSolar #Empowered.

group photo

Photo by Jason Vetterli at the Real Good Solar Living Institute

That  weekend in November 2017  I spent two days flying to spend three days in Northern California with more than 300 of my friends, colleagues, and mentors at the third and final solar Pioneer Party. Most of them I knew personally or through reading Home Power magazine over the years or through being in the industry for more than 20 years myself.

By Tyler Kanczuzewski ----The documentary shares many of these common stories of how the solar pioneers devised elaborate Rube Goldberg-like machines to rig their car batteries to play their stereo systems or to power a single 12-watt light. Kerosene lanterns and candles were common lighting alternatives, but so were cats that could knock them down and start a fire. After various happy accidents, the pioneers learned about solar panels that were being used for industrial off-grid applications. They were expensive, but they weren’t noisy and smelly like diesel generators—and they weren’t a fire hazard with house cats either.

Other rural “off-gridders” began to hear about the magic of solar PV that used the sun’s energy to light their neighbors’ homes and play their music. To pay for their PV, many used the income they earned from an infamous agricultural business; you could say that solar spurred the modern marijuana industry as well.

Driven by the need for light and music, many of these same off-grid pioneers became solar entrepreneurs. They began calling up executives from Arco Solar, Solarex, Sharp and other early solar PV manufacturers and ordered solar panels to be shipped to rural California, the Southwest and the Midwest. In one hilariously described scene, solar executives couldn’t believe the $100,000 order that they’d received, so they put on their three-piece suits and drove up in a Porsche to Humboldt County to meet their new customers, who were dressed in jeans and T-shirts. Here is more from Tyler Kanczuzewski.


Tthe solar Pioneer party started when a relatively newcomer to the industry, Jeff Spies, realized what the history of solar was and that it needed to be documented and had the great idea of inviting the Pioneers to a get together to film interviews with them to create a documentary. That was the first Solar Pioneer party. Jeff and Jason Vetterli didn't realize how much work would be involved and it turned into a three-year project with the culmination in early November 2017 of a private showing to the solar Pioneers themselves. I missed the first Solar Pioneer party due to in being my dad’s memorial but made it to the second; where I was one who got to facilitate a round-table discussion and then I got to go the Third and Final Solar Pioneer party showcasing the film Solar Roots.

We started the weekend on Friday reconnecting with old friends and making new ones as people showed up at the KOA campground barn. As a relatively youngster I felt a bit awkward being around so many of the greats in the solar industry, truly some of the ones who started it all. What I love about the solar industry is people aren't afraid or are just open-hearted enough to share their experiences and knowledge to help grow the industry by helping our fellow solar addicts. As I volunteered at the coffee/tea cafe I got to interact with hundreds of my fellow solar people who, even the ones who didn’t know me, welcomed me in the techo babble of solar. Friday we had a taco truck pull up and by some miracle keep serving for over an hour the endless line of a couple hundred of hungry Solar Pioneers. The energy and excitement of the hundreds of conversations was in itself energizing!


Saturday started relatively early for me as I set up the coffee cafe and then went to the world debut of Solar Roots, the story of some of the Solar Pioneers of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. We got to see it on the big screen at the Noyo Theatre in Willits CA.  Walking into the theater in Willits California with probably 60% of the people who were in the movie were also in the theater was intensely awe inspiring. Seeing the movie I was expecting a standard talking head documentary but it turned out to be an emotional rollercoaster and extremely entertaining partially because I knew a lot of people in the film but there was enough people in there that I didn't know personally, I just knew of them. There will be some private viewings of the Solar Roots film it may be a awhile before the general public sees the film due to figuring copyright issues of music and pictures. But sign up here to find out The untold, colorful history of the birth of solar electricity


The Skunk train ride was optional and I originally didn’t book a ticket thinking I can always ride a train. Once it was explained that this train would be going through old growth redwoods I booked a ticket. I didn’t book the ticket in time to get the meal provided but thanks to the generosity of a fellow attendee who was on a special diet I was gifted her meal ticket. We had our picnic in an open air car.


Riding on the Skunk train, a 131-year-old train with all of its creaks and wheezes, visiting the huge redwoods was an experience I hope many can have. I spent the afternoon (over 4 hours) riding this train at a sedate pace over the hills and through the very rural forest seeing big trees, even moss covered trees, deer, deep ravines, creeks, seeing tremendous beauty deep within the forest from a comfortable seat with my feet up. There was sing alongs, there was drinks, there was intense conversations, there was relaxed conversations. Doing this was great but became a once in a lifetime experience due to my fellow passengers;  a few hundred fellow solar Pioneers and mentors.  


Spending the day on Sunday at Real Goods Solar Living Institute was a flashback as I read the Solar Sourcebook like it was my solar bible years ago and my first “large” solar module (a Kyocera 45 watt) was bought from Real Goods and powered my offgrid living for 18 years.

I am so glad that this film documented history but even more so that it lead to the 3 Solar Pioneer parties to allow people to get together for the soul (misspelled for a reason) purpose of storytelling, inspiration, and energizing each other. The guiding principle behind this non-commercial event was cultivating an environment that facilitates meaningful conversation and connection between solar pros new and old. Power to the People! Let's #GetEnergized #SolarNow

I look forward everyday to the interactions I have on my Living Off Grid, Really!?!? Facebook page and hope you will join the discussion there.

Stay energized, aur

Aur Beck has lived completely off-grid for over 35 years. He has traveled with his family through 24 states and 14,000 recorded miles by horse-drawn wagon. Aur is a presenter at The Climate Reality Project, a fellow addict at Oil Addicts Anonymous International  and a talk show co-host at WDBX Community Radio for Southern Illinois 91.1 FM. Find him on the Living Off Grid, Really!?!?Facebook page, and read all of Aur's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Cloudy Skies for Solar Incentives in the Bay State


Massachusetts’ new SMART program will lower incentives for new rooftop solar installations.

The Bay State has had its share of successes in the solar sector. First, a goal of 250 megawatts (MW) of solar was met in 2012, four years early. Now, Massachusetts has surpassed its most ambitious goal for solar energy three years ahead of schedule. The state reached 1,600 MW of installed solar energy capacity, enough to power over 260,000 homes. This achievement marks the success of initiatives lead by former Governor Deval Patrick, and continued by Governor Charlie Baker. Upon taking office in 2007, the former governor outlined a series of challenging goals for the state that at the time had only 3 MW of solar, not even enough to power a small town. The Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources (DOER) has finalized plans for the next generation of solar goals and incentives. Highlights have been the announcement of the eventual elimination of the Solar Renewable Energy Credit (SREC), and the unveiling of the next-generation comprehensive program, the Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target (SMART). While the past decade has seen a focus on providing optimal incentives for homeowners who go solar, it’s becoming clear that the next era of solar in Massachusetts will provide more benefits to large-scale utilities.

The successes of the past decade have been attributed to rebates, utility requirements and especially the generous SREC program. Net metering has paid solar homeowners thousands of dollars for excess electricity production that has supplied the grid with clean energy. The SREC program allows homeowners to sell commodities generated from their clean energy production to utilities looking to meet renewable energy standards. The value of these credits fluctuates based on market conditions. It has been a win for homeowners, with credits earning well over $1,000 per year for the typical solar residence.

Utility-scale solar has flourished, launching the state to 7th in the nation for total solar capacity. Roughly 15,000 jobs have been created in Massachusetts. Talk of doing away with SREC has put both the solar industry and prospective homeowners on edge. The consensus is that if DOER is doing away with popular incentives, they better replace them with something at least as generous if solar growth is to continue. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like that happened.

The headline from the debut of SMART is a call for doubling the installed capacity of solar in Massachusetts by adding 1,600 MW. That should be no problem given the record-low costs of photovoltaic equipment, installation and wholesale electricity prices at utility auctions. It appears that the overarching goal of the new SMART program is to provide long-term revenue certainty for utilities. For homeowners with rooftop solar, there’s no reason to worry. Options for future installers are undoubtedly less generous, but incentives will remain to a lesser extent. If you are already in either SREC I or SREC II, nothing changes and you will remain in the program for the remainder of your ten-year term. Starting in 2018, SREC will end for new installations. The incentives of the SMART program will immediately replace SREC for new installations only. Net metering will remain an option, along with the new option of on-bill crediting. According to Mark Durrenberger of The Energy Miser, the SMART program reduces cash incentives over ten years by about 45%. Acting fast to go solar makes all the difference now. Homeowners are likely to collect roughly $8,000 more in cash incentives if they go through with a qualifying home solar installation before March 31, 2018. Starting in April 2018, the SMART program will be the only option, and SREC will be gone.

Is There a Drawback?

One of the biggest drawbacks of SMART is the end of state incentives for homeowners who live within the territory of a municipal utility provider, rather than larger investor-owned utilities. If you are a municipal utility customer considering solar, you really want to do it now to save over $15,000 in combined incentives. Remember, SREC incentives are paid out over ten years but only for installations qualified before March 31, 2018.

For utility-scale solar, more profound changes have been made. Location-based incentives are meant to encourage solar growth in optimal environments, but may deter those in marginal areas from making the switch. The new block pricing and incentive limits also alarmed those in the utility-scale solar industry.

While the new SMART program was created with the intention of supporting continued growth, some prominent industry representatives have voiced their concerns over some provisions. The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) has encouraged DOER to make changes that will protect solar jobs in the state.

It remains to be seen kind of impact the change in the SMART program structure will have on the demand for solar panels in Massachusetts - it takes anywhere from three to six months to get rooftop solar from start to finish, and the program has set a the March 31, 2018 deadline to qualify for ten years of SREC incentives. The new SMART program does provide incentives for new solar installations, although homeowners will receive thousands of dollars less over a ten-year term.

It’s clear that the DOER had the utility companies in mind when they crafted the plan. The SEIA and other regional solar advocates are now pushing for net metering caps to be increased, along with other proposals aimed at keeping rooftop solar competitive. With 15,000 jobs and thousands of homeowners committed to the success of solar, it’s likely that the Baker Administration will consider the needs of the Massachusetts solar industry.

Additional reporting for this article provided by Justin Fischer.

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Top Technologies to Shrink your Home Energy Usage and Carbon Footprint


Reducing your carbon footprint and simultaneously saving money is easier than ever with the growth of energy-saving technologies. From LED light bulbs to devices that monitor your appliances to solar panel systems, there are many opportunities to put smart technologies to work saving you energy around your home and lowering your environmental impact each day.

Energy Efficiency Products

An inexpensive and simple way to cut your energy use at home is to use energy efficient products – products that use energy much more effectively and intelligently to accomplish everyday tasks. For example, by simply replacing traditional incandescent light bulbs with efficient LED bulbs around your home, you can dramatically cut your energy usage. LED bulbs use a fraction of the power that traditional bulbs use while providing quality lighting and lasting significantly longer.

Other efficient products like low-flow shower heads and smart power strips can also be installed around your home to reduce energy use from routine activities. A low-flow shower head reduces your water use, therefore lowering the energy consumption and costs associated with heating water. Smart power strips can sense when plugged-in devices are not in use and shut off those outlets to eliminate “vampire load,” the energy your appliances use when they are plugged in but not being directly used.

Smart Thermostats

One of the largest monthly expenses for homeowners is climate control. Keeping your home warm in the winter, cool in the summer, and generally comfortable 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for the whole year consumes tons of energy and contributes to a significant part of your home’s carbon footprint. Smart thermostats provide both fine control and hands-off services to help you reduce your energy use. Almost every smart thermostat can be controlled via a mobile app, making it possible for you raise or lower your home temperature from anywhere with an internet connection. With app functionality, you can “pre-heat” your home before you return after work or even turn off your system remotely to save money and energy. This remote access, among other features, lets you shave down your energy costs around heating and cooling.

Some products, like Nest’s Learning Thermostat, can even learn from your habits and customize your home climate scheduling. After a week of manually changing your thermostat to fit your lifestyle, the Learning Thermostat will begin automatically adjusting temperatures and taking opportunities when it knows you will be out of the house to turn off your climate system and save energy.

If you want to connect your smart thermostat to other smart devices in your home or even control it with your voice, a smart hub or speaker is a great option for your connected home network.

Energy Monitors

If you want to understand the inner workings of your home electricity use while simultaneously receiving suggestions for lowering your energy costs, energy monitors are an effective solution. By connecting your energy monitor to your electricity meter, you can get information about the energy use of individual appliances, real-time costs, and direct actions you can take to lower your home energy consumption.

Many energy monitors have mobile and web apps that allow you to see your energy usage from your laptop or smartphone. They can also notify you when an abnormal pattern of energy use is detected, and which appliance might be the culprit. Most importantly, a good energy monitor will provide suggestions and ideas about how to cut back on your home energy usage, helping you lower your carbon footprint while saving money on your electric bill.

Electric Vehicles and Chargers

One of the most impactful ways to reduce your carbon footprint is to drive an electric vehicle. A car that is powered by electricity produces fewer fossil fuel emissions, and will also cost you less money in the long run.

Driving electric means that you need to regularly charge your car. To make sure you’re never short on driving range, it may make sense to invest in an electric vehicle charging station, also known as an EVSE (electric vehicle supply equipment). With an electric vehicle charging station installed in your home, you can recharge your EV overnight, for both a lower price and environmental impact than a conventional gas station visit in a conventional gasoline-powered car.

Solar Energy Systems

The most effective and lasting way to shrink your home’s carbon footprint is to go solar. By installing a solar energy system on your house, you can begin producing free electricity right from the sun, the most abundant and reliable renewable energy resource we have.

On the EnergySage Solar Marketplace, you can solicit quotes from qualified, pre-vetted installers and compare them side by side. Our installers offer many types of solar installation, and can work with you to customize a perfect home solar solution to meet your energy needs, while cutting down drastically on your carbon footprint.

Vikram Aggarwal is the founder and chief executive of EnergySage, the online solar marketplace. EnergySage simplifies the process of researching and shopping for solar. By offering shoppers more choices and unprecedented levels of transparency, EnergySage allows consumers to select the solar installation quote that provides the best value for them, quickly and easily. Read all of Vikram's posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

How to Convince Your Community to Switch to Solar Power

Solar Panel In Beautiful Sunset 

Thanks to improvements in solar technology, significant reductions in cost and incentive programs, going solar is a feasible goal for many communities. Convincing your community that it’s a good idea can be a challenge in itself, though. Here are a few tips to help you get your neighbors and local businesses on board.

Scale Community Solar with Institutional Buyers

Solar energy could take on many different forms in your community. Individuals can place solar panels on their rooftops to power their homes. Community solar projects involve installing a group of solar panels that generate electricity for people in the area to use. If your utility offers solar, you may even be able to easily switch without installing anything.

Larger establishments such as businesses, schools, offices and government buildings consume a lot of energy and are often leaders of the community. That’s why it’s especially important to convince them to switch. If these organizations produce more energy than they need, they could even sell some of it back to the grid for consumers to use.

Form a Coalition

Convincing your community to go solar is a big undertaking, so forming a team of people to help you will go a long way. Seek out groups that may be interested, such as environmental advocates, energy industry workers or technology enthusiasts. Create your own organization or form a committee within an already-established group.

After you’ve begun building your team, hold meetings to develop plans. Do your best to make appearances at local events, contact the local paper about what you’re doing, and place flyers around town in order to spread awareness and attract more participants.

Your organization doesn’t have to be super formal. Just create something that will enable you to build some momentum behind your call for the community to go solar.

Focus on the Benefits

When people talk about climate change, they often focus on doom-and-gloom scenarios about the damage it could cause. While this approach has its advantages, you might want to focus more on the benefits of going solar — such as savings on energy bills and energy security — especially if people in your community aren’t completely convinced about climate change.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t mention solar’s environmental attributes. People usually want to take care of the planet whether they believe a scientific consensus or not.

You could also emphasize the financial benefits of going solar, especially when working with businesses. Although installing solar panels has some upfront costs, generating your own power will save you money on your electricity bills for the entire life of the system. They usually last for around 25 years.

A 3-kilowatt (kW) solar system will generate 450 kilowatt-hours (kWh) per month. Since the average U.S. household uses about 900 kWh of electricity per month, solar can cut electricity bills by around half. Taking advantage of federal and state government tax incentives can save even more.

Money Talks

Going solar can also help businesses make more money, because people will see them as environmentally responsible and have a higher opinion of them. Environmentally conscious shoppers will be more likely to patronize a green business and even be willing to spend more money. In fact, a recent study found that almost two-thirds of consumers said they would spend extra for products and services from green companies.

You can help encourage businesses to go solar by choosing to patronize greener businesses more often than those that aren’t focused on sustainability. Rewarding businesses for things like going solar will encourage other establishments to follow suit in order to grow their customer base. Get other people to do this as well, and you have a pretty powerful movement.

Today, going solar is easier and more beneficial than ever. Convincing your community to go solar can be difficult, but if you show people and businesses the benefits it provides, you may find you have a community full of enthusiastic participants.

Photo by Karsten Wurth

Bobbi Peterson is an environmental blogger who started the blog Living Life Green. Follow Bobbi on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

This New Charging Technology Could Change Energy as We Know It


It’s not an understatement to say that humanity’s future as a species depends in part on how we choose to generate, store and distribute energy. The march of technology is relentless, but a host of technologies — all the way from trifling consumer electronics to massive autonomous vehicles — are basically twiddling their thumbs while they wait for literal and figurative empowerment.

Our smartphones chain us to power outlets. Our vehicles either guzzle dead dinosaurs or make do with comically short drive times thanks to primitive batteries. And while companies have been teasing us with announcements of “breakthrough” battery technologies for years, a real sea change in the realm of energy still hasn’t shown its face.

Until now. If you don’t know the name John Goodenough, you probably should — he helped invent the venerable lithium-ion battery, which is the current standard for portable power. His new project is a brand-new type of battery — and it could change energy as we know it, and possibly even sooner than we’ve dared hope.

Wait — Whats Wrong With Our Current Batteries?

Lithium-ion batteries have served us well, but the demands of our other technologies have now far outstripped the current performance of li-ion batteries. When the Facebook application on your phone drains your battery even when you’re not actively using it, you know we’ve got work to do — on both the software and the hardware sides of the equation.

So what’s the problem with li-ion batteries? Actually, the limitations are manifold. They’re relatively expensive, they charge slowly and discharge quickly, they have relatively poor energy density and, if you needed more convincing, they’re prone to blowing up when consumer tech companies cut corners. Suffice it to say, we’re overdue for a battery revolution.

Goodenough has spent the last few years at Cockrell School alongside Maria Helena Braga, a senior research fellow. Together, they believe they’ve cracked the secret to making portable batteries with far greater longevity, a greater mindfulness toward user safety and faster recharge times. The implications could be staggering.

A Brand-New Type of Energy Storage

Goodenough and Braga claim their “solid-state” battery technology has three times the energy density of current-generation li-ion batteries.

Energy density lies at the heart of every battery’s usefulness — and its limitations. An electric vehicle with a battery on board has a driving range limited almost exclusively by the energy density of that battery. In smartphones, the amount of time it takes for your Instagram habit to send you running back to a power outlet is similarly hamstrung by your battery’s “appetite” for power.

Short version? Our batteries need to pack way more “oomph” into their svelte little packages before the rest of our technologies can really reach their full potentials. But what is a “solid-state” battery? And how is it different from our current batteries?

If you bought a new laptop in the last couple of years, there’s a very good chance it came equipped with a solid-state drive (SSD) for storage. Unlike hard drives, SSDs don’t have any moving parts. They can retrieve data far more quickly than the spinning “platters” on a regular hard drive, and can survive drops and shocks far more successfully.

Solid-state batteries borrow that concept and deliver several similar advantages. Ordinary li-ion batteries get their juice from electrolytes suspended in liquid form. The lithium ions, from which the battery takes its name, move through this liquid medium from the negative terminal, or anode, to the positive terminal, or cathode. Instead, solid-state batteries use electrolytes derived from, of all things, glass. Glass removes the risk of combustion from charging a battery too quickly, which should put an end to exploding smartphones. But that’s just the beginning of the applications.

A New Frontier for Energy

New battery technology powered by solid glass electrolytes might change our world. As we’ve discussed, a great deal of human activity relies on the generation, storage and transportation of energy — and these new batteries will make all three steps of that process easier, cheaper and safer.

For starters, Goodenough’s research team claims vastly improved lifecycles for their batteries — as many as 1,200 cycles. Compare that to li-ion batteries, many of which have languished in the shallow end of 500 cycles or so. These batteries will also be far cheaper to produce, which is a great thing for applications that require manufacturing at scale, like consumer electronics and electric vehicles.

Since they replace lithium with sodium, and because sodium is easy to derive from seawater, solid-state batteries are also easier on the planet and don’t require such a massive manufacturing footprint. With humanity’s mistreatment of the planet approaching biblical proportions, this comes not a moment too soon. For applications where electric motors enter the mix, the advantage of battery power is obvious: unlike other motors, servo motors don’t require gallons of fuel or reservoirs of fluid.

Lastly, glass electrolytes enjoy higher conductivity than our current technologies, meaning they can survive and perform in a far greater range of temperatures and environments than li-ion batteries. The latter tends to start panicking about 35 seconds after you leave your phone unattended on a hot dashboard.

Where Do We Go From Here?

We’ve said it a couple times and we’ll say it again even more assertively: Unlocking the secrets to cheaper and more efficient batteries will unleash a wave of innovation the likes of which we haven’t seen in a generation. We’ve mentioned vehicles and portable electronics, but consider also the benefit of home energy storage via high-density, solid-state batteries. Pair it with a solar array on your roof, and suddenly tens of millions of Americans declaring independence from the electric grid looks a little less like Elon Musk’s fever dream and a lot more like imminent reality.

If you’re not excited by all of this yet, you definitely should be. Braga and Goodenough are working toward patenting their battery inventions and will begin more serious testing alongside auto manufacturers and others in the near future. Your next iOS or Android phone won’t sport a battery powered by glass, but take heart: We’re now measuring the wait in years, instead of decades. 

Photos by Skitterphoto

Kayla Matthews writes and blogs about healthy living and has an especially strong passion for helping others increase their mental health and happiness by improving their daily productivity and positivity. To learn more about Kayla, you can follow her on  Google+Facebook  and  Twitter and check out her most recent posts oProductivity TheoryRead all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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