To sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov, the saddest aspect of life is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom. Today, scientific and technological advances in renewable energy are coming fast and furious. And yet, the naysayers continue to put thumbs down on the nascent low-carbon economy. Maybe it's time for them to wise up.
Back in 1931 Thomas Edison remarked: "I'd put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don't have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that."
Edison, the great American innovator responsible for the incandescent light bulb and our electric grid, understood the enormous potential of sunlight. Indeed, according to the U.N. Development Program, more energy from sunlight hits the Earth in one hour than the entire globe uses in a year.
Yet solar power has struggled as an energy source and today supplies only about one-hundredth of one percent of America's electricity and just over one-tenth of a percent of the world's. The sticking points have been how to efficiently convert sunlight energy into electricity and how to deal with its intermittency.
Major technological advances have increased efficiencies and reduced costs of converting solar energy into electricity, mostly through the development of new materials and coatings (e.g., thin films of silicon) that shed electrons when hit by photons (see "Solar Panel Makers Are Developing Neater and Cleaner Products," International Herald Tribune, July 22, 2008).
The intermittency problem has been more difficult -- for obvious reasons. Suppose you need to run your refrigerator or air conditioner at night or on a cloudy day. You need electricity but there's no sunlight; what do you do -- just wait for the sun? Not likely.
Some argue that such issues will prevent renewable sources like solar and wind from supplying major portions of our electricity needs. Others counter that storing excess energy produced by solar cells when it is sunny could smooth out the supply during times when the sun's not shining.
But storage solutions to date have been expensive, clunky, and inefficient -- so much so that talk about "smarter" grids designed to maximize intermittent electricity sources sans storage is all the rage among scientists. (See here, here and here.)
Cutting-Edge Technology Could Change How We Get Electricity
MIT researchers Daniel Nocera and Matthew Kanan may have just shifted the discussion. They've developed what appears to be an amazingly straightforward process that can convert electricity into easily stored chemical energy that can be later converted back to electricity -- probably most efficiently using a fuel cell. This is achieved by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen, then later recombining the two elements to form water and energy which can be converted into electricity.
The idea of storing electrical energy by splitting water into its component parts is not new. The electrolysis of water, for instance -- the process of running an electric current through water -- has been around since about 1800. The problem is that electrolysis processes currently available require large inputs of energy and/or relatively rare and expensive materials to act as catalysts. By comparison, green plants routinely split water into its elements during photosynthesis without the need for large driving potentials or exotic catalysts.
Nocera and Kanan's breakthrough is the development of a water-splitting process that mimics photosynthesis -- it does not require large energy inputs, uses readily abundant materials as catalysts, and works at room temperature in a neutral pH. More work is needed to integrate the process into photovoltaic systems, but this discovery could revolutionize how electricity gets to our homes ... what grid?
Other Exciting, New Findings: Faster, Cooler, Cheaper Fuel Cells
Another exciting finding just out may go a long way toward solving inefficiencies of fuel-cell technology. This discovery describes a new material made of two layered compounds with very different crystal structures. The result is an increase in fuel-cell ionic activity up to 8 orders of magnitude more compared to traditional materials. Plus, the enhancements are achieved at near-room temperatures as opposed to the typical fuel-cell technology temperature of 700 degrees Celsius.
A third new study involves the use of an air electrode that would minimize costs and limitations of today's best performing electrodes. This material may make fuel cells and batteries last longer and reduce their cost.
Technology Fixes for Coal?
Meanwhile on the "old tech" front, researchers and industry continue testing different carbon capture systems to reduce the carbon burden of burning coal (see related GreenGrok post). Beijing is bringing online a pilot plant that uses post combustion capture (PCC). PCC technologies pull carbon dioxide (CO2) out of the air after coal is burned to produce electricity and therein lies its potential.
Pilot tests are assessing the technical and commercial viability of whether PCC can be used to retrofit existing coal-fired plants. If so, PCC could reduce CO2 pollution from coal-based power plants, meaning we wouldn't have to scrap them. Beijing's plant is expected to remove 3,000 tons of CO2 per year -- a fraction of the planet's total carbon load. China, one of the world's largest coal producers along with Australia and the United States, has much incentive to find solutions that neutralize coal's contribution to global warming.
Funding Technological Solutions and Renewable Energy En Vogue?
In addition to these technological advances, funding for renewable solutions appears to be on the rise -- or at least getting a lot of ink. In the United States, for instance, despite the government's pullout of the Future Gen project, other CCS pilot projects appear to be in the pipeline.
And just last week, the energy department announced the funding of $36 million to further develop "new and cost-effective technologies for the capture of carbon dioxide" from existing coal plants (which supply about half of the nation's electricity).
Big Wind Projects Gaining Speed (and Seed Money)
And if big capitalist investments hold a sort of crystal ball for the future, the recent moves by T. Boone Pickens and now Colorado billionaire Philip Anschutz suggest the winds of change are blowing in support of wind power. Pickens is backing a $10 billion wind farm in the Texas panhandle. Anschutz's wind project aims to supply power to Southern California, Las Vegas, and Phoenix from a 2,000-megawatt, 100,000-acre wind farm in Wyoming. Another project a bit further along is being developed Down Under. Australia plans to build the Southern Hemisphere's largest wind farm. The farm would host some 252 turbines at a construction cost of $1.2 billion.
Innovation and entrepreneurship can change our lives in revolutionary and unexpected ways. Reflect for a moment on the technological advances that have occurred over just the past 20 years -- computers, the Net, mobile phones, medicines, genetics. Many of us now believe we are on the threshold of a new era -- an era fueled by low-carbon technologies instead of fossil fuels. The naysayers insist it won't happen and oppose policies that would hasten the change. Maybe it's time the naysayers got wise to a new powerful future.
Dr. Bill Chameides is the dean of Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment. He blogs regularly at www.thegreengrok.com.