Solar electricity from discarded car batteries

MIT researchers have developed a simple procedure for making a promising type of solar cell using lead recovered from discarded lead-acid car batteries — a practice that could benefit both the environment and human health. As new lead-free car batteries come into use, old batteries would be sent to the solar industry rather than to landfills. And if production of this new, high-efficiency, low-cost solar cell takes off — as many experts think it will — manufacturers’ increased demand for lead could be met without additional lead mining and smelting.

Laboratory experiments confirm that solar cells made with recycled lead work just as well as those made with high-purity, commercially available starting materials. Battery recycling could thus support production of these novel solar cells while researchers work to replace the lead with a more benign but equally effective material.

Much attention in the solar community is now focused on an emerging class of crystalline photovoltaic materials called perovskites. The reasons are clear: The starting ingredients are abundant and easily processed at low temperatures, and the fabricated solar cells can be thin, lightweight, and flexible — ideal for applying to windows, building facades, and more. And they promise to be highly efficient.

Unlike most advanced solar technologies, perovskites are rapidly fulfilling that promise. “When perovskite-based solar cells first came out, they were a few percent efficient,” says Angela Belcher…Professor in biological engineering and materials science and engineering at MIT. “Then they were 6 percent efficient, then 15 percent, and then 20 percent. It was really fun to watch the efficiencies skyrocket over the course of a couple years.” Perovskite solar cells demonstrated in research labs may soon be as efficient as today’s commercial silicon-based solar cells, which have achieved current efficiencies only after many decades of intensive research and development.

Research groups are now working to scale up their laboratory prototypes and to make them less susceptible to degradation when exposed to moisture. But one concern persists: The most efficient perovskite solar cells all contain lead…

Recognizing the promise of this technology and the difficulty of replacing the lead in it, in 2013 the MIT researchers proposed an alternative. “We thought, what if we got our lead from another source?” Belcher recalls. One possibility would be discarded lead-acid car batteries. Today, old car batteries are recycled, with most of the lead used to produce new batteries. But battery technology is changing rapidly, and the future will likely bring new, more efficient options. At that point, the 250 million lead-acid batteries in U.S. cars today will become waste — and that could cause environmental problems.

According to Belcher, recovering lead from a lead-acid battery and turning it into a perovskite solar cell involves “a very, very simple procedure”…The simple procedure for recovering and processing the lead and making a solar cell could easily be scaled up and commercialized. But Belcher and Paula Hammond knew that solar cell manufacturers would have a question: Is there any penalty for using recycled materials instead of high-quality lead iodide purchased from a chemical company?

To answer that question, the researchers decided to make some solar cells using recycled materials and some using commercially available materials and then compare the performance of the two versions. They don’t claim to be experts at making perovskite solar cells optimized for maximum efficiency. But if the cells they made using the two starting materials performed equally well, then “people who are skilled in fine-tuning these solar cells to get 20 percent efficiencies would be able to use our material and get the same efficiencies,” Belcher reasoned.

The researchers began by evaluating the light-harvesting capability of the perovskite thin films made from car batteries and from high-purity commercial lead iodide. In a variety of tests, the films displayed the same nanocrystalline structure and identical light-absorption capability. Indeed, the films’ ability to absorb light at different wavelengths was the same.

They then tested solar cells they had fabricated from the two types of perovskite and found that their photovoltaic performance was similar…

Based on their results, Belcher and Hammond concluded that recycled lead could be integrated into any type of process that researchers are using to fabricate perovskite-based solar cells — and indeed to make other types of lead-containing solar cells, light-emitting diodes, piezoelectric devices, and more.

Long term, the approach continues be to find an effective, nontoxic replacement for the lead. Belcher and Hammond continue those studies. Meanwhile, their work has the potential of aiding in recycling toxic materials. RTFA for technical detail.

Photo essay – World’s largest solar farm


Click to enlargeMarcelo del Pozo/Reuters

Spain has made renewable energy a top priority. The government has paid over $76 billion in subsidies for clean energy projects since 1998.

And the investment has paid off: 42% of Spain’s electricity came from renewable sources in 2013, according to the country’s grid operator. The majority comes from wind power, but solar provided 13% of the country’s energy and is increasingly becoming a bigger part of the pie…

❝Spain is also home to the largest solar farm in the world, Andasol.

Here’s how Spain’s largest solar farm works — and why it could be a model for the future of energy around the world.

Click through to the article here. Lovely photos of the world’s largest solar farm.

Human waste is a wasted potential source of energy


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A concept that needn’t be limited to the Third World

Gas produced by decaying human waste is a potentially major source of energy that could provide electricity for millions of homes while improving sanitary conditions in developing countries…

Biogas is produced when bacteria break down human feces. And it would be worth the equivalent of $9.5 billion in non-renewable natural gas, the United Nations Institute for Water, Environment and Health said on Tuesday.

Residues from treated waste could yield two million tons a year of “solid” fuel worldwide that could reduce charcoal use and the number of trees being felled, which would help in global warming reduction efforts…

In low-income countries, the use of biogas could finance development

Almost a billion people around the world do not have access to toilets, about 60 percent of them in India, and have to relieve themselves outdoors…

If their waste was collected and used to produce biogas, it could generate electricity for 10 million to 18 million households and be worth $200 million to $376 million per year…

Bringing toilets to so many areas also will improve hygiene and public health in these countries. Poor sanitation is to blame for 10 percent of illnesses in developing countries, the researchers said.

“Challenges are many, but clearly there is a compelling, multi-dimensional financial case to be made for deriving energy from waste,” said Chris Metcalfe, one of the authors of the study.

Many states have a few biogas facilities constructed over bulging landfills. I’ve blogged before about at least one gigantic dairy farm that powers all its trucks with biogas from cow manure. Also another source readily available in India, for example. More important, though nations like the United States are generations away from projects like these suggested making economic sense for us – with some of the cheapest natural gas in the world – the cost of transporting natgas to India and Africa makes the concept of human-origins of biogas more than sensible. It becomes affordable.

Second-use battery storage unit designed for regional grid connection

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As electric cars come towards the end of their life, they create a set of problems that you simply don’t get with petrol cars – namely, getting rid of the batteries. Automotive giant Daimler is doing its bit to tackle the problem by partnering with The Mobility House, GETEC and Remondis to create a 13-megawatt battery storage unit out of second-life battery systems from electric and plug-in hybrid cars.

…Daimler provides its electric vehicle customers with a 10 year battery life guarantee, but reports that there’s still a good deal of life in the cells beyond this point…The company estimates that such batteries should offer at least another 10 years of usefulness when employed in stationary storage systems, which are said to be key in helping to level out dips in the energy supply coming from renewable sources like wind farms and solar power stations.

This is a role that’s partially played by fossil-fuel power plants at the moment, so Daimler says the battery system will help to “speed up the energy revolution and eliminates the cost of expanding the grid and building new power plants.”

The battery storage unit will be connected to the grid in early 2016.

I guess this is taking Elon Musk’s secondary use of his electric car batteries a step further, eh.

Good news in the UK — Renewable electricity overtakes coal

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Britain generated more of its electricity from renewable sources than from burning coal for the first time in the second quarter of 2015, as more wind and solar farms were built.

A record high of 25.3 per cent of the UK’s power came from wind, solar, biomass and hydro-electric sources in the three months to June, up from just 16.7 per cent in the same period the year before.

By contrast the share of electricity from Britain’s ageing fleet of coal-fired power stations fell to 20.5 per cent, down from 28.2 per cent a year previously…

The Department of Energy and Climate Change said the record share of renewable generation reflected not only more renewable capacity, such as the construction of big new offshore wind farms, but also “more favourable weather conditions for renewable generation”.

Biomass energy, which is also classed as renewable, also increased following the conversion of part of Drax, Britain’s biggest coal-fired power plant, to burn wood instead.

The drop in coal power also reflected the closure or temporary shutdown of other coal power stations and an increase in the UK’s carbon tax which made coal plants less profitable to run.

You don’t need an amplifier to hear the tears falling from the dark orbs that pass for eyes in the Koch Brothers. They cry for every penny of profit lost by their fossil fuel brotherhood of pollution.

First nuclear reactor restarted – in Sendai – since Fukushima meltdown


Beginning of the end

A Japanese utility company said Tuesday it restarted a nuclear reactor, the first to do so since the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown in 2011.

“We hereby announce that as of today, Sendai Nuclear Power Unit No.1 has extracted control rods from the reactor and started up at 10:30 a.m.,” Kyushu Electric Power Co. said…”We see this startup as one of the important steps on restart process of the nuclear reactor.”

Japan has been working to reshape its energy sector since the 2011 meltdown of the Fukushima Daicchi nuclear reactor by focusing on energy efficiency, conservation and an increased use of cleaner-burning natural gas to help keep emissions in check…

Japan decommissioned 50 reactors after the 2011 meltdown, forcing it to re-examine its energy mix. Prior to the Fukushima disaster, nuclear had provided about 30 percent of Japan’s electricity, with renewable energy accounting for less than 3 percent, excluding hydropower. The country relied heavily in imports of liquefied natural gas in the wake of the disaster.

Kyushu in its statement said it would “never” allow a repeat of the 2011 disaster.

“We will continue to make sincerely an all-out effort to deal with the Nuclear Regulation Authority’s inspections, and carry out carefully remaining process, putting utmost priority to safety, with a sense of alertness more than ever,” it said.

A magnitude-9 earthquake and resulting tsunami 2011 led to a meltdown at the Fukushima facility, the worst nuclear catastrophe since Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine in 1986.

Not much of an article – deliberately. I’ll offer more in-depth discussion as the process of restart proceeds.

Japan hasn’t much of a choice at present. They have this capacity in place. The nation has been making do – which means spending a lot more to provide electricity than anyone has been accustomed to. The citizens of Japan are – unfortunately – used to going along with whatever decisions their politicians make. So, they’ve been absorbing the price hikes flowing from a kludged-together system of electricity production since the disaster.

Though a lifetime advocate for nuclear-generated power, I’ve had to change that position in the last year or two. China’s subsidized development of solar-generated electricity, wind-generated electricity [along with parallel development in northern Europe] has qualitatively changed the picture…for the better, I believe. Regardless of all the hollering, trade sanctions, whining from Congress, the result has been legitimate cuts in the cost of establishing alternative power generation both on a large-scale and home-based.

A win for nations and individuals. A win for the environment.

China expands ban on coal to suburbs


Click to enlarge12,000 died in the London smog of winter, 1952

China will expand its bans on coal burning to include suburban areas as well as city centers in efforts to tackle air pollution…

Detailing its clean coal action plan 2015-2020, the National Energy Administration (NEA) said it would promote centralized heating and power supply by natural gas and renewables, replacing scattered heat and power engines fueled by low quality coal.

The world’s biggest coal consumer will ban sale and burning of high-ash and high-sulphur coal in the worst affected regions including city clusters surrounding Beijing.

If you’ve been around as long as I have – and your memory still works – you recall the two-pronged solution to air pollution and smog has been this simple for decades.

After World War 2 the worst smog in the world belonged to London. Just like Beijing, the problem not only was coal-fired electricity generation; but, coal-fired home heating and cooking. It took a couple of decades; but, the last mile solution of getting natural gas to homes took care of the worst of it.

In Beijing and other polluted Chinese cities renewable energy sources are phasing out the portion of pollution coming from soft coal-fired electricity and, now, the government has dropped the other shoe and will end reliance on coal for home fires.

Under the action plan, coal-fired industrial boilers will all shift to burn natural gas or clean coal by 2020 in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei city clusters, Pearl River delta and Yangtze River delta area…

The government will offer subsidies for clean fuels

Natural gas will serve as the first level of carbon reduction as wind power and solar power continue the most dramatic expansion in the world.

Germany says “We don’t need no stinking Fossil Fuel!”

Sitting in a control center that helps ensure uninterrupted power for 82 million Germans, Gunter Scheibner is proving that renewable energy from the sun and wind can be just as reliable as fossil fuels.

Scheibner, in charge of keeping flows stable over 6,200 miles (9,976 kilometers) of transmission lines in eastern Germany, must keep power from solar and wind in harmony whether it’s sunny or overcast, windy or still. In doing so, he’s overcoming the great challenge for renewable energy: how to keep supplies steady when the weather doesn’t cooperate.

The system Scheibner manages has been so successful that Germany experiences just 15 minutes a year of outages, compared with 68 minutes in France and more than four hours in Poland. The model in Germany, the biggest economy in the world to rely so heavily on renewables, is being copied from California to China as wind and solar displace traditional fuels such as nuclear and coal…

Back in the GOUSA…The Edison Electric Institute, an industry group based in Washington, and incumbent producers claim that variable flows from renewables will destabilize the power grid.

Germany’s decade-long 120 billion-euro ($127.1 billion) investment binge to shift toward low-polluting energy forms is proving critics wrong. The country has raised its share of renewable power for electricity to about 28 percent, more than any source including lignite. In Scheibner’s region, it’s more than 40 percent…

Researchers studying the grid say that a much higher concentration of renewables — 50 percent or more — is possible. That will come at a cost. Germany needs to invest 6.1 billion euros a year in its grid by the end of this decade to cope with additional wind and solar farms, the German Institute for Economic Research in Berlin estimated.

“There’s a myth among opponents of renewable energy that you need 100 percent backup spinning all the time, and it’s utter nonsense,” said Michael Liebreich, founder of Bloomberg New Energy Finance. “Any grid needs flexibility. You can have a nuclear plant shut down by jellyfish or a coal plant closed because of a freeze and you can’t shovel in supplies fast enough.”

I hope you don’t mind me skipping the coal-centric whining in the middle. Watch the latest commercials from the Koch Brothers if you think you’re missing anything. They’re the core of patriotism and apple pie – so they say.

Reliable estimates on the cost of a more flexible grid are hard to come by. The U.S. grid could absorb as much as 80 percent of its supplies from renewables by 2050 while keeping investment in transmission within the historical range of $2 billion to $9 billion a year, a 2012 study led by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory showed.

In the U.K., the Imperial College Centre for Energy Policy & Technology suggested in 2006 that consumer power prices would rise 1 percent to fund the costs of adapting grids to intermittent power flows.

We face the same fight here in New Mexico as Arizona citizens. Power companies want folks installing solar panels on their homes to subsidize the cost of maintaining decrepit transmission systems. Meanwhile, our PNM plans on exporting their own solar-generated power over new transmission lines sited to deliver more electricity to California.

The Koch Brothers and our public utilities together generate enough bullshit to fertilize crops for half the world.

Electricity markets are rigged — consumers robbed!

For decades Wall Street financial engineers, teaming up with electric power producers, have gamed wholesale electricity auctions to earn bigger profits than either a regulated utility or a competitive market would yield. This month they made a major advance in their campaign to get rich by subtly draining your wallet. Yet every major news organization ignored this.

This latest development took place in New England, which already has America’s most expensive electricity. February’s electricity auction saw the annual cost to customers rise to $4 billion, up from about $3 billion in last year’s auction and less than $2 billion in the 2013 auction. That $4 billion figure would have been much higher but for a rule capping prices.

By the way, that $4 billion is not for the electricity, which costs extra. The $4 billion price tag is for capacity payments made to owners just for promising to run their power plants in 2018 and ’19.

If that sounds bizarre, it’s because it is. It is comparable to government taxing us to pay auto dealers to keep enough cars and trucks on their lots to satisfy expected future demand.

Half the states also have auctions that set the price of electricity for periods ranging from a year down to a few minutes. The other half still rely on traditional rate regulation, which has its own problems.

If there is abundant capacity to produce power at peak periods, such as hot summer afternoons, then prices will not rise much, if at all. But if there is barely enough power to meet demand, then prices rise significantly. And if capacity is just 1 percent less than demand, the wholesale price soars.

In these auctions every producer gets the top price even if most bid far less. These are known as clearing price auctions, in which the highest bidder sets the price for all suppliers…

Robert McCullough, an Oregon utility economist known for busting industry myths, says gaming of electricity markets is easy and lucrative, as long as regulators look the other way.

“With perfect competition, you always bid your marginal cost — as the economist Alfred Marshall was pointing more than a hundred years ago,” McCullough said. “However, when your market share is sufficiently high that you have the potential to set the market price, it is in your interest to raise your price above marginal cost, even though you will lose some of your market share” because one or more of your fleet of power plants will produce no electricity and thus not collect any money.

“This gets even better when you can buy someone else’s plant and shut it down,” McCullough added, because the reduced capacity means higher prices. Combined with the savings from not operating the shuttered plant, the result is much bigger profits.

Yes, these are the same schmucks who bankroll Republican agitprop about how free market capitalism guarantees our freedom. They leave out the part about buying politicians, buying off regulators with better-paying jobs as a reward when they’re through pimping the biz.

Then you get to double dippers like North Carolina’s governor Pat McCrory. He had a whole career working for Duke Energy. Left to become the gpvernor and, no doubt, will return to being officially on the payroll, once again, after he’s through directing that state’s legislative mediocrity into further kissing corporate butt.