Archive for January, 2011

Two Big Solar Projects for 2011

As promised, here’s a rundown of a couple big solar projects announced this year.  The first has actually been in the works for several years now.  Arizona-based First Solar has teamed up with China to build what will be the world’s largest solar farm (2 Gigawatts!) in a remote area of Inner Mongolia. Though the deal was first announced in 2009, it wasn’t until earlier this month that the project got a crucial go-ahead from Chinese regulators (approval of a pre-feasibility study and negotiations over what payments the companies would receive for feeding the power to the grid), allowing work to commence.  The solar farm will cover 25 square miles and will be built in stages from 2011 through 2020, with the initial stage producing 30 Megawatts.  Guangdong Nuclear Solar Energy Development Co. will become the majority partner in the deal, giving First Solar the backing of a recognized name in Chinese energy markets (they own 2 nuclear power plants and are constructing 4 more).  The two companies will work jointly on the construction phases, however, the thin-film panels will be produced by First Solar’s Malaysia plant, avoiding the necessity of turning over company trade secrets.  This is good news for American alternative energy companies looking to get a foothold in the growing and ultra-competitive Chinese renewables market, one that’s traditionally been quite difficult to navigate in a way that satisfies both company interests and Chinese regulations.

Executive spokesmen announce the Solexant deal, showing example panel using their technology.

Next up, here on American soil, 2011 welcomes the construction of Solexant’s new manufacturing plant in Gresham, Oregon (already home to the states largest ground-mounted solar array in the Northwest), one that upon completion will be the world’s largest nanotechnology manufacturing facility.  As with the China deal above, Oregon and California-based Solexant announced the deal last year, but until this year’s construction is complete, Solexant will operate out of an existing plant, where they will manufacture their proprietary ultra thin film solar cells using a roll to roll printing process developed in conjunction with the DoE Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory.  This process uses deposition of nanocrystal inks on a flexible substrate, producing a cell which is both flexible and amazingly thin.  First phase development promises to produce enough panels to create 100MW of energy, enough to power about 10,000 homes, and once completed, Solexant plans to add more 100MW production lines.  The venture has received funding/loans and tax credits from the Oregon Department of Energy in return for bringing the state the potential of more than a thousand new jobs over time.

Solexant uses roll-to-roll printing technology to make their flexible cells.

If these two projects are any indication, 2011 promises to be a huge year for solar, here’s to hoping that the trend continues!

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Turning a landfill into an energy hill

There’s been chatter recently among members of the environmental movement that it makes little sense to create enormous solar farms on pristine desert land in the American Southwest when there are so many structures and other urban locations for installing solar power.  Well, here’s one community in Georgia that’s giving their local landfill the ultimate green makeover by installing solar panels atop the plastic lining that covers waste within.

From a mountain of trash to a tower of solar power

DeKalb county is planning to convert the Hickory Ridge landfill into a massive solar power plant by placing flexible solar panels over a specially designed extra-think plastic cover (pictured above).  The project, designed by Carlisle Energy Services and built in collaboration with BFI Waste Systems and landfill operator Republic Services is one of only two in the country, the other one being in San Antonio Texas.  The county hopes to generate enough power from the flexible panels to power 400 homes, not bad for land that’s traditionally considered an eyesore!  The flexible panels are a a better match for such setups than traditional panels because as landfill contents settle, hard panels would require a lot of readjustment to maintain proper light exposure.  The flexible panels will simply adjust to the ground they’re given.

I’m excited to see projects like this, which utilize spaces society has used to the point where they are no longer attractive for communal entertainment or enjoyment. It’s ever better to see that this project received $2 million in Federal stimulus money to get the plant up and in operation, better that than some of the other places our federal funds have gone lately!  With the announcement of the world’s largest nanotech thin-film solar plant to be built in the United States and the world’s largest solar farm getting the go-ahead in Mongolia (more on these tomorrow!), let’s hope those panels find use in outside-the-box settings like this where they can go beyond generation to actual community restoration.

Want to find out more?  http://bit.ly/e3Frst or http://bit.ly/f6sTG1

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Solarious, the Sequel

It all started with a plan to get a little real-world experience in green. I was going to learn how to use a solar panel, and maybe hook one up to the place where I live, achieve true energy freedom, and hopefully help a few mega-corporations forget my phone number in the process. It felt innocent, idealistic, practical even. So I started Solarious here to follow the journey and catalogue some of the things I learn along the quest for self-sustainability. Today, almost three years later, it’s the journeys I haven’t shared here that have most greatly affected my destiny on this planet. But I’ll have to fill you in on all that later. In an effort to explore the world of green employment and a couple creative projects as well, I took a break from writing here last year. But the good news is I’m back, and could never have guessed how fast things can change even in a single 12 month period!

One major change is that green has finally gone from the niche market to the mainstream. Now I’m not arguing that adoption of policies and practices has approached the levels which it should. If anything we are like scrawny freshmen showing up for the first day of high school, ready to have our minds filled with the “answers” to life. There is so much we don’t know, both in and outside the classroom/laboratory. We are hardly even skilled at figuring out the things we have to know, much less knowing those things themselves. But at the end of that first day of school, we are at least learning that the cool kids aren’t always the established social powers, the big companies and time-honored traditional ways of doing things. No, becoming an entity of value, and not just financial value but a more-encompassing social and existential value, is becoming trendy.

This is an important moment for the “green movement”. Suddenly, you bring your canvas bags to the grocery store and no one stares you down. The farmers markets are crowded like never before if the owners of hybrid cars are an example, then anyone can be persuaded to join the green team! There is a danger posed by the level of acceptance that trendiness brings. This is the period in which society opens its ears to an idea. The people who are committed to this idea have a responsibility to carry the weight of the lifestyle they espouse. If people think that going green is about canvas bags and farmers markets and fair trade certified and recycling, then it will become something like so many movements before, a fad which fails to entertain its masters, and what an opportunity we will have lost in an age of potential.

When I started to learn about sustainable living, I was fascinated by the number of different ways in which you can change your life to become more self-reliant. It’s a little intimidating actually, when faced with the vague idea of “greening” your life. As time has progressed, I’ve come to see this area of thinking less a green movement and more one toward sustainability. Semantics, you say. Call it whatever you want so long as the job gets done. Well, I heartily agree. But in this case, the idea of green has become something quite corporate. Coca-Cola has a green division, so do BP, Walmart, and countless other behoemoth corporations who clearly don’t place doing the right thing above financial profit. No, they would not even be allowed by corporate bylaw to exist in such a state, so I feel fairly comfortable saying that efforts toward “greening” their work processes and products are largely driven by profit and little else. And there is little doubt on the surface that such a condition is less than conducive to long-term sustainability!

But this is where one must look deeper. True self-interest alone would force individuals to not drive the world down to the rims, because they still need a place to live. It is possible to be quite “green” and lead a totally unsustainable lifestyle. You buy carbon credits to offset your abnormally high amounts of air travel for work. Or maybe you bought a Prius so that your 40 minute commute each morning and evening wouldn’t make you so guilty. How about going “organic” and paying more for the privelege to eat steaks and drink exotic coffee and eat fair trade chocolate without remorse.

Hey, I do love a good Andean chocolate bar too, no need to protest. Just realize that there is a difference between being green, which is largely about taking your current habits and sprucing them up to where no one was harmed in the making of your XX so you can consume it happily, and sustainability, which means that somehow or other, we need to start living within the means of this planet and the systems which operate therein. Change is coming and it’s not going to be found all dressed up pretty with a pretty organic hemp ribbon and pricetag at a farmers market booth. No, this change, like all before and the myriad yet fated to come is going to be gritty by the terms of the day. Trust me, there is nothing sustainable about sipping a fair-trade columbian coffee and ordering the free range bison burger if that’s all you’re doing to combat the processes of inefficiency taking over our society. You thought it was “green” to buy hemp clothing. Could you MAKE that fabric from a plant?

I do understand that there is a line to be drawn in this age of interconnectivity and mass learning called the internet. You don’t have to know how to do everything, you just Google it and ten minutes later you’re a Minor Expert, whose degree from the school of everything is already in the mail. So there’s plenty of time to look that stuff up when it becomes relevant. Again, we’ve got plenty in common, no judgements here, but what would you do if your cell phone and all-access (wind-powered?) DSL plan went down and there was no internet freely available to you? How would you go about getting the knowledge you need? Don’t you think it’s time to start taking some of those steps toward knowledge now? This all sounds a little doomsday, and it’s designed to, because the aim is more about illustrating that sustainability is the true paradigm for future decision-making.

When you make a decision in your life, it’s fine to start with thinking about reducing your current burden on the planet. There’s so much that can be done in this area you could easily occupy a lifetime in pursuit of the perfect Nalgene bottle and recycled tile for your bathrooms. It’s like being a programmer and wanting to know every latest language that’s introduced to the market in a quest to be the newest greatest thing out there. Facebook may have wanted you to learn their proprietary FBML in 2008 but now they are deprecating the entire language in favor of more traditional programming language solutions. So if you spent a lot of time learning FBML to break into that lucrative user base, your time would have been better spent elsewhere, learning a language that’s useful in many applications and will stand the test of time.  It’s a matter of depth, you have to know something pretty well, and for a time, before you actually know much about its strengths and limitations.

Too many green products still go by the adage “Why have one tool when you can have two?” when sustainable thinking, like the standard language framework, are built on the priciple of “Why have two when one will do?”. So pick your battles wisely by learning about the processes underlying the actions you take for granted in your daily life. It’s a level of scientific examination for which few currently have the stomach, but it’s essential that as people in the greater public come with questions about being green, what they see is a message of sustainability, one that respects nature and our place within, one that doesn’t gloss over the issues at hand in order not to scare away potential advocates, and one being delivered by people who live whole, happy lives that just don’t happen to hurt the planet. So find a corner of the issue and start biting away at it, get to know it thoroughly. When people come asking how you did it, it will seem natural to share your journey and help them to take the leap.

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