It was recently brought to my attention that the electricity used to run and host our two websites (anywheresolartech.com and pnsenergy.com) is offset 200% by wind energy! That means that Fat Cow, our website host, compensates for twice the electricity it takes to run their business and our websites.
They don’t personally produce that much power with wind mills outside their office but for any electricity they use, they purchase RECs (Renewable Energy Credits) as a “Green Power Partner” of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. By doing so, they prevent the release of 999 metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year.
Fat Cow is committed to supporting clean energy and they also stress responsible environmental behavior in and out of the office and we are proud to be associated with this forward thinking company.
For those who were disappointed we weren’t talking about real cows.
While routinely searching the web for interesting energy stories I came across a headline stating that an investment shift will lead to the algae biofuel market increasing 43.1% annually over the short term. This is great news, I think…wait, I actually have no idea what impact the algae biodiesel market has on our search for alternative fuels. With that said, it is about time to learn a little bit about biofuels and biodiesel as an alternative to petroleum fuels. Considering that algae garnered my initial interest I focused on the fuel that can be created from this seemingly unimportant pond scum.
Algae could be powering our diesel engines in the near future.
According to HowStuffWorks.com, “biodiesel is an alternative or additive to standard diesel fuel that is made from biological ingredients instead of petroleum (or crude oil).” In the case of algae, the oil is extracted from the plant through a process called transesterification. “In this process, the fat or oil is first purified and then reacted with an alcohol, usually methanol (CH3OH) or ethanol (CH3CH2OH) in the presence of a catalyst such as potassium hydroxide (KOH) or sodium hydroxide (NaOH). When this happens, the triacylglycerol is transformed to form esters and glycerol. The esters that remain are what we then call biodiesel.”
Ok, enough technical talk for today. Here is a list of the most interesting things I discovered about biodiesel.
- History – Rudolf Diesel envisioned vegetable oil as a fuel source for his engine in the early 1900’s. He actually demonstrated his peanut oil powered engine at the World Exhibition in Paris, France. Henry Ford also expected his Model T to run off ethanol, a corn oil.
- Algae as a fuel source was first explored in 1978 under President Jimmy Carter.
Biodiesel created from soybean is one of the more popular biofuels today
- Biodiesel can be created from a variety of natural sources, including soybeans, flax, mustard, rapeseed, sunflower, palm, hemp, jatropha, pennycress, algae, animal fats, and waste vegetable oil.
- One acre of algae can produce 100,000 gallons of oil per year – HowStuffWorks.com states that “a 100-acre algae biodiesel plant could potentially produce 10 million gallons of biodiesel in a single year. Experts estimate it will take 140 billion gallons of biodiesel per year to completely replace petroleum-based products. To reach this goal, algae biodiesel companies would need about 95 million acres of land to build biodiesel plants.” In comparison , with other biodiesel (corn or soy) we would need billions of acres to replace petroleum.
- Creating biofuel from algae also reduces carbon dioxide pollution. Algae consumes carbon dioxide during the biodiesel production process leading to algae biodiesel manufacturers building their plants near energy manufacturing plants that release a lot of carbon dioxide.
- Alternative Biodiesel – Can coffee grounds be processed as a biofuel? According to researchers at the University of Nevada-Reno, coffee grounds can contain up to 20% oil. After some processing, the oil from these grounds meet the standards set by the ASTM International(American Society for Testing and Materials) for biodiesel. They estimated that if all the waste grounds generated by the world’s coffee drinkers were gather and reprocessed, the yield would amount to 2.9 million gallons of diesel fuel each year.
- In addition to biodiesel, algae can be used to produce hydrogen and biomass, two other fuel sources. It can also be used as nutrient rich food source, a fertilizer, a stabilizing agent, and a pollution control substance.
Doesn’t look the best but gets the job done
- U.S biodiesel production is growing rapidly – From 28 million gallons in 2004 to 245 billion gallons in 2006. The study that grabbed my interest came from SBI that expects algae biofuels to see market growth of 43.1% annually.
For more information on algae biodiesel I would recommend visiting the How Stuff Works comprehensive guide on all things biodiesel – How Algae Biodiesel Works.
Also, check out this nice video from the U.S. Department of Energy:
A tiny strip of thin film powers this calculator.
Thin-film solar technology has been around for quite some time and most of us have benefited from it’s use. Thin-film is most commonly used to power small hand-held calculators and watches and is created by depositing a number of thin layers of photovoltaic material onto a solar wafer. More recently, thin-film PV has become available in larger module form and is being used for building integrated installations (like this) and vehicle charging systems. Thin-film PV has grown in popularity due to its sleek look and light weight, which reduces the cost of installation and allows solar installations in areas not traditionally suited for large solar panels.
- From 2004 to 2009 shipments of thin-film PV grew from 68 MW to 2 GW.
- The market share for thin-film decreased to 11% in 2011. Down from 18% in 2009.
- Thin-film solar panel sales reached $4.53 billion in 2010 but are expected to drop to $2.9 billion in 2012.
This decline in thin-film solar panel sales is due in part to the dramatic price drops in crystalline PV technology (the main alternative to thin film) the past few years. The price advantage thin-film panels held over crystalline technology is no longer relevant and the fact the crystalline PV panels are generally more efficient have given them the recent edge over thin-film technology.
– Headquartered in Tempe, Arizona. They posted their second-ever loss in Q1 2012 and they also recently closed down their Germany factory and fired 30% of their workforce. First Solar anticipates producing 1500 to 1800 megawatts this year. (Green Tech Media
– Headquartered in San Jose, California. This company has an ink-based solar technology that won the Innovation of the Year Award from Popular Science in 2007. They have recently secured funding to pursue the development of large scale solar systems that will cost no more per watt than conventional electricity and they have passed critical milestones to meet that goal by 2015 – a promising report. (Clean Technica
Solar manufacturers had a tough time staying afloat in 2011. Chinese solar companies were accused of dumping solar panels in the U.S. at lower prices than the cost of manufacturing and in turn forced many manufacturers to file for bankruptcy or close down plants/cut their workforce. The most newsworthy of this bunch was Solyndra but other manufacturers closed down as well, including Evergreen Solar, Energy Conversion Devices, and SpectraWatt.
This does not bode well, especially for thin-film manufacturers, who are struggling to keep up with price drops and efficiency increases. However, all is not lost. According to GTM Research
” Venture capital investment into thin film in Q4 2011 and Q1 2012 combined to reach nearly $300 million. Solar Frontier continues to ramp up its GW-scale CIGS facility. Tokyo Electron bought Oerlikon Solar for $275 million, affirming long-term faith in the thin-film silicon manufacturing space. With CdTe, GE continues to invest heavily in Primestar, and First Solar still intends to open new capacity in Vietnam and Mesa, Arizona.”
It seems that if a handful of thin-film manufacturers can weather the current storm then they can hopefully restore some life to the industry by continuing to create innovation solar panels that push the limits of size, weight, cost, and efficiency.
“First Solar Struggles Amid Decline of Thin-Film Solar Market”
” Thin Film 2012-2016: Technologies, Markets and Strategies for Survival”
“Thin Film CIGS and CdTe Photovoltaic Technologies”
5.6 KW Uni-Solar system in Heillbronn, Germany (Photo Courtesy of Rheinzink GmbH & Co.)
Concentrated Solar Power, or CSP, is the process of generating electricity by using the heat from sunlight to push a steam turbine that is connected to an electric generator. There are different ways to go about this but one of the most eye catching methods is the “power tower.” A tall tower is constructed in the middle of a field of mirrors, or more specifically, a field of heliostats. Heliostats are mirrors that track the path of the sun and reflect the light towards the power tower (which then turns that light/heat into electricity using steam turbines).
To learn more about how CSP works, watch this great video from Top Gear as they visit one the world’s first solar power tower.
In more recent news, the soon-to-be largest CSP plant has reached the halfway point of construction. The 370 Mega-Watt Ivanpah Concentrating Solar Power Plant is located in the Mojave Desert in California. Once completed, it will generate enough electricity to power more than 140,000 California homes and businesses.
The Ivanpah project will provide $400 million in local and state tax revenues, and produce $650 million in wages, over its first 30-year life. (Source: REVE)
Look for more CSP plants popping up in the near future. It is one of the more promising methods of producing sustainable electricity considering there is plenty of ideal space for these plants in generally inhospitable , sunny, desert environments.
Our Top 5 Solar Installations:
(Disclaimer – Not all of these installs are recent but they’re new discoveries for us)
- One of the largest privately owned solar systems belongs to one of my favorite private companies – The Sierra Nevada Brewing Company. Sierra Nevada produces around 40% of their own energy with this solar installation. All in all, their solar systems include over 10,000 individual panels! Source: Government Technology
In 2008 Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. completed construction on one of the largest private solar arrays in the United States. Courtesy of Sierra Nevada
- The work has started on the world’s largest photovoltaic array (it will also claim the title of world’s largest solar bridge). The Blackfriars Bridge, in the heart of London, will be the home of 4,400 solar panels with the ability to create 900 MWh of electricity per year. (Source: Clean Technica)
The world’s largest solar bridge Is halfway complete. 900MWh per year!
- The New York Jets adopt solar with a massive solar array atop their practice facility. 3000 panels from Yingli Solar have been installed and will provide 750,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year. (Source: CNet)
The N.Y. Jets go green with this massive solar installation at their practice facility.
- A solar waterfall could be powering the next Olympics in Rio De Janeiro. Ok, this project is still in the design phase but if completed it would be an amazing structure. (Source: RAFAA Architecture and Design)
This ambitious project would produce electricity with solar panels during the day and water turbines at night.
- And finally, what’s not to love about this solar install? (Source: Dwell)
Students from Appalachian State designed this solar array to double as an outdoor living area. They entered this solar array in the U.S. Department of Energy 2011 Solar Decathlon.
For your viewing pleasure I will combine two things I greatly enjoy: Beer and the Environment. When breweries make it a priority to reduce their impact on the environment and try to give back, only great things can happen. Here are a select few that are doing just that; enjoy, and feel free to suggest other breweries that are making a difference (I know there are many more out there).
- 1000 square feet of solar thermal collectors. The collectors produce around 2500 therms per year and Central Waters will save between $1.4 and $1.5 million over the life of the system.
Solar Thermal Collectors at Central Waters Brewery
- The brewery also uses a radiant floor heating system and more energy efficient lighting systems
- They also work with local farmers in order to recycle the grain used in the brewing process. The spent grain is taken by the farmers and used as feed for livestock, and also as a compost.
- In February 2012, Brewery Vivant was honored with the first Silver LEED certification awarded to a microbrewery in the U.S. and also published their first sustainability report. (triplepundit.com)
- The brewery offsets 100 percent of its energy usage through purchasing renewable energy credits (RECs)
- They choose to deliver their beer in aluminum cans. Cans protect the beer from light, oxygen, and other factors that could negatively affect the taste. Cans are also easier to transport and are more easily recycled (54% of aluminum cans are recycled in the US, vs 36% of glass bottles being recycled).
- Very aggressive economic, social, and environmental goals that put them on the fast track to being a leader in the microbrewery industry. Some of those goals include:
- Zero waste to landfill
- 50% of food inputs from within 250 miles and 25% of beer inputs from 250 miles
- 10% onsite renewable energy generation
- Employee profit sharing program
- They completed what is now one of the largest privately owned solar installations in the country in December of 2008. They currently have a carport array that has a potential output of 503 kW DC and they also have a rooftop array that produces an additional 1.42 Megawatts DC. They also have an array on the daycare facility that has a potential capacity of 5.18 kW DC and another array on the rail facility that can produce 14 kW DC. All-in-all, the solar systems at Sierra Nevada are capable of producing 1.94 Megawatts DC. (Sierra Nevada Environmental Stewardship)
- Sierra Nevada also produced another first when they installed hydrogen fuel cells in 2005, the first brewing operation in the United States to do so. This system consists of four 300 kW fuel cell energy units that can produce 1.2 Megawatts DC when combined. You can check out their real time power production here.
Fuel Cells at the Sierra Nevada Brewery
- Sierra Nevada implements many other energy efficiency and sustainable practices including:
- Ultra efficient lighting system and the use of daylighting
- The recycling of waste heat
- They divert 99.6% of solid waste from the landfill with a goal to reach 100%
- HotRot Composting System – providing compost for their hop field, restaurant garden, and employee garden area.
- Use homegrown ingredients in beer and restaurant.
- Transportation – They utilize a hybrid electric local route truck, constructed a rail car unloading facility near their plant to reduce the negative impact of transportation, and also utilize the spent vegetable oil from their taproom and restaurant to power their biodiesel transportation fleet.