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The Future is Solar

Robert Rapier, The Oil Drum
Or more precisely, the future should be electric.

I have done a lot of research lately into various alternative diesel technologies as I was working on my renewable diesel chapter. One thing that became very clear to me is that the world will not be able to displace more than a fraction of our petroleum usage with biofuels. I already knew that this was the case with ethanol, but now I think this will be a general limitation for all liquid biofuels. Consider this sneak preview (still in draft form) from the book:

…The fundamental problem here is that photosynthesis is not very efficient. Consider the rapeseed oil yield above. Gilgamesh made a table that is basically the solar capture/conversion to oil from various crops. The gist is that only a few hundredths of a percent of the incoming solar energy gets converted into liquid fuels. Of course some did get converted into other biomass, which could be otherwise used for energy, but generally we get a very low capture of the sun’s energy for use as liquid fuels. (This exercise can still be proven by assuming the theoretical limit for photosynthesis. One must just make more assumptions and it is not as easy to follow for a general audience).

…let me clarify a few things.

1. I am not against biofuels. In certain situations, biofuels may be (and probably are) an appropriate solution to the problem. In fact, I continue to work on solutions to biofuel problems, and I wouldn’t waste my time doing this if I didn’t think there were some applications. My argument is that we won’t, as many people believe, displace large amounts of petroleum with biofuels. Presuming we can is presuming that technology that does not currently exist will inevitably be invented.

2. I am not against technology. I love technology – especially biotechnology. But I am well aware of the “technology will save us mentality.” Technology doesn’t always proceed as you think it should, and it doesn’t always respond to monetary incentives. If it did, cancer and AIDS would no longer be with us, and 40 years after the moon landing, a manned Mars expedition wouldn’t still be a distant dream.

3. This is not a new revelation for me. I have long believed that our future must be electric for at least 4 reasons. First, is the photosynthetic efficiency that I discussed. Second, internal combustion engines are notoriously inefficient relative to electric motors. Third, we have a lot of rooftops available that will not compete with arable land. And finally, electricity can be produced from a tremendous diversity of sources. Start with biomass, solar, wind, hydro, nuclear, natural gas, coal – all are easily converted into electricity. Contrast that with the uncertainty of a future based on cellulosic ethanol and algal biodiesel. …
(26 July 2007)

Is IBM going solar?

Neal Dikeman, Cleantech
Cleantech Blog has commented on the maturation of the solar sector for some time now. About a year ago, Cleantech Blog broke the story about Applied Material’s entry into the solar market with the San Francisco Chronicle. We have also written on solar concentrators, the coming of consolidation in the solar markets, inverter technology, and subsidy policy. And the fascinating look into the possible future of solar continues.

I had a chance recently to visit with one of the individuals responsible for IBM’s (NYSE:IBM) Big Green Innovations strategy – which has made a splash in the cleantech world over the last half year. We were talking on a range of topics, but one that piqued my interest was the description of IBM’s work in photovoltaics – and a few thoughts on where they were going. I did not ask, and he did not offer, any particulars on the work in progress, but he did make mention of a few points that I thought were well worth repeating:

  • IBM is expecting to be a player in the solar cell business – likely seeing commercial impact in the next 18 months to two years.
  • IBM is developing both advanced crystalline technologies and CIGS processes – relying on their semiconductor manufacturing expertise and nanotech research to make breakthroughs in controlling PV manufacturing processes.

  • You will not likely see IBM making branded modules – perhaps instead a cell production business strategy?
  • IBM sees the potential for very high efficiency multi-junction cells in foreseeable future.

…So whether it’s high efficiency multi-junction cells to compete in the concentrator market, or organic or CIGS cells for BIPV, or providing advanced silicon cells to enable a new group of entrants into the rooftop module market, or something new entirely – IBM bears watching in the solar sector.

Neal Dikeman is a founding partner at Jane Capital Partners LLC, a boutique merchant bank advising strategic investors and startups in cleantech. He is founding contributor of Cleantech Blog, a Contributing Author for Inside Greentech, and a Contributing Editor to Alt Energy Stocks.
(25 July 2007)

Taking the fossil out of fossil fuel

Phil Mckenna, New Scientist
..Over 1.5 billion cubic metres of natural gas were extracted in New York state last year, yet there remains a certain element of mystery about the stuff’s origins.

Conventional natural gas deposits are thermogenic, meaning they formed under intense heat and pressure hundreds of millions of years ago. McIntosh (pictured at work, below) is looking to see if the gas at this location is “biogenic”, created during the past 18,000 years by methane-making microbes, or methanogens.

“Ultimately, the goal is to understand how microbes make methane and how to speed up that process,” says McIntosh. “Biogenic gas is a huge energy resource that could potentially be renewable on a human timescale.”

Biogenic gas is a familiar by-product of methanogens that break down organic material in wetlands, landfills and the human digestive system, among other places. What McIntosh is looking for is natural gas that made by methanogens devouring carbon locked in deposits of black shale. Normally, the briny groundwater often associated with this type of shale would inhibit methanogens. However, studies suggest the vast release of fresh water at the end of last ice age may have diluted the groundwater in some deposits enough for methanogens to gain a foothold.

In 1993, researchers with the United States Geological Survey (USGS) reported pockets of biogenic gas across the US and predicted that 20 per cent of all known natural gas deposits worldwide were formed by microbes. Outside the US, deposits are now being tapped in Siberia, Australia, India and China, with additional accumulations believed to blanket continental shelves worldwide. “The distribution occurs from polar regions to the tropics, from sedimentary basins on land to offshore,” says Peter Warwick, a USGS researcher. ..
(20 Jul 2007)