Over the last few years, people have asked me several times why electric car manufacturers aren’t putting solar panels on their cars to charge the battery. It sounds like a logical thing to do, isn’t it? I always argued there might be two good reasons for car builders to shy away from this idea. First of all the surface area for solar cells on a car is limited and their orientation not ideal, hence a low energy production could be expected. Secondly, solar panels are not cheap. Pardon me, they were not cheap. Nowadays they are. And hence… things have changed lately.
While Trump performed a piece of first-class alternative facts-stuffed theatre in Washington to announce he retreats the U.S. from the Paris Agreement, industry leaders from around the world discussed the latest innovations in solar technology at the Intersolar Europe summit in Munich last week. It is there that Chinese inverter* manufacturer Sungrow announced exciting plans for a new floating solar farm on a lake in the South of China. With an installed capacity of 140 MegaWatt, it will be the largest floating solar farm in the world, a record currently held by another farm of Sungrow that was opened earlier this year.
In case you didn’t notice it yet: solar power is booming. Last week saw another milestone, with Morocco opening its Ouarzazate [wa-za-zat] concentrated solar power utility. Being the largest utility of its kind in the world, the town Ouarzazate — known from movies and TV shows like Lawrence of Arabia and Game of Thrones— kicks off what could become a revolution in solar power. It’s the first step of Morocco’s King Mohammed VI’s dream to turn his country in a renewable energy hub.
In contrast with photovoltaic solar power technology, concentrated solar power (CSP) is less known. This is how it works. Big parabolic mirrors focus the sun’s rays onto tubes filled with a fluid that heats up and transports the heat towards a central hub where it creates steam to drive a turbine. That way the solar energy is used to generate electricity.
What is so particularly interesting about this technology is that it can be combined with temporary energy storage. During the day, part of the hot fluid is used to heat up molten salt stored in large tanks. Those stay warm hours after sunset to keep the turbine running during the evening. The technology is very promising for countries with a lot of sun hours — in fact so promising that the International Energy Agency estimates that by 2050 11% of world’s electricity will come from CSP.
The first phase that opened last Thursday provides 160 MegaWatts of what will become a total 580MW by 2018 when the construction will be finished. The 35 soccer fields big plant powers 650 thousand people and avoids 240 thousand tons of CO2 emissions every year, the equivalent of 80 000 cars.
It is the proof that Morocco takes its climate pledge in Paris in December last year very seriously. By 2020 it aims to get 42% of its electricity generation from renewables, by 2030 it wants to have its CO2 emissions 32% below the business-as-usual scenario. And of course they want to make a good impression, being the host of this year’s climate summit.
The project has its price tag of course. Nearly 4 billion US dollar has been invested, half of which comes from German investment bank KfW, the European Investment Bank and the World Bank. Climate Investment Funds (CIF) calculated that for every 1 GigaWatt additional solar power installed, electricity production costs could fall by 3%. “Morocco is showing real leadership and bringing the cost of the technology down in the process.” told a manager of CIF to the Guardian. Keep up the good work Morocco!
Japan relied on nuclear energy to feed its energy hungry industry and population for many years. With 50 nuclear reactors, atomic energy provided 28% of its electricity needs. Everything changed after the Fukushima Dai-Ichi accident in the wake of the 2011 devastating earthquake and tsunami. After significant release of radioactive material in the environment and the evacuation of a zone around the power plant of 630 km², Japan’s government decided to take out all its other nuclear plants out of operation under huge public pressure.
Withdrawing one of their major energy sources meant they had to look for alternatives. The country started to import fossil fuels on a massive scale. Nearly 90% of the electricity is now generated based on natural gas, oil and coal. Japan suddenly became the biggest importer of LNG (liquid natural gas) and second importer of coal, after China. The move undid all the greenhouse gas reduction efforts of the last decade. Recently some nuclear reactors have started up again, after safety upgrades imposed by the government. Due to the heavy public resistance, it is unlikely that Japan will turn back to nuclear power and its original emission reduction ambitions soon. Luckily, there is another option: renewables.
There is one big problem with Japan though: it is so small. Land is precious on the mountainous island, which doesn’t leave much room for large scale solar or wind projects.
Electronics company Kyocera has come up with a good compromise: build floating solar farms on large water reservoirs. With 50 000 panels, their latest project on the Yamakura dam reservoir would be good for 13.7 MegaWatt — enough to power nearly 5000 households. It’s not the first of its kind, but when finished it will be the biggest one in electricity production.
Water and electricity are not best friends, so the electrical equipment needs to be sealed carefully. On the other hand, a floating solar farm doesn’t need the heavy steel frames as on land.
cover photo by aotaro
Technology firm Google is here with another innovative project. Have you been thinking whether installing solar panels on your rooftop is a good idea, what it could cost or save you? Based on the Google Maps data and 3D-models, project Sunroof calculates how well your rooftop is suited for photovoltaic panels. It takes into account shadows cast by nearby buildings and trees, brings in the positions of the sun over the course of the year and takes into account historical cloud and temperature patterns.
When your rooftop is the perfect place to install solar panels, it will be painted golden on the map, the less it is suited the more the colour shifts to deep purple. By providing your energy consumption data, the tool is able to compute your energy bill savings for various financing plans such as leasing, buying or taking a loan. It helps you connect with solar providers in the neighborhood if you’re convinced solar is the way to go.
Unfortunately, the tool only operates in a few locations at the moment: Boston, San Fransisco Bay Area and Fresno. The developer team is working on the expansion of the tool, but you probably need to have some patience before it becomes available at your hometown if you’re not living in the US. But after all, the project’s slogan goes Mapping the planet’s solar potential, one roof at a time. But for sure, the project will make the step to solar smaller again for everyone willing to make the shift to renewables.
Last week, Pilot Andre Borschberg settled an impressive world record for longest distance bridged with a manned solar-powered plane when he landed in Hawaii after a flight of 120 hours from Nagoya, a stunning 8200 km. The SolarImpulse is a single-seater plane covered with 17000 photovoltaic cells which drive the elecric motors and charge the lithium-ion batteries.
“Now you can fly longer with no fuel than you can with fuel. So, what Andre has done is not only a historic first for aviation, it’s a historic first for renewable energies. And this is why we are doing this project.” Mr Piccard (the co-founder of the project) told reporters after the touch down in Kalaeloa airport, Hawaii.
Having started in Abu Dhabi in the beginning of March, the team aims to complete a round-the world tour this summer. The aim of the tour is to prove the world what clean technology, in particular solar technology, can do already today. There is no direct large scale application possible of solar driven commercial airplanes.