This desalination device delivers cheap, clean water with just solar power

Namibia is in the middle of a prolonged drought. The president recently declared the second state of emergency in three years because the lack of rain is leading to severe food shortages. But if scaled up, this technology could help supply households and agriculture with fresh water. The basic tech that it uses for desalination, called reverse osmosis, isn’t new. But because the system can run on solar power, without the use of batteries, it avoids the large carbon footprint of a typical energy-hungry desalination plant. It’s also significantly cheaper over the lifetime of the system.

[Photo: Solar Water Solutions]

“Basically the running costs are zero, because solar is free,” says Antti Pohjola, CEO of Solar Water Solutions, the Finland-based startup that makes the technology. Desalination usually uses large amounts of electricity because reverse osmosis requires keeping water at a constant pressure. The new tech keeps water at the right pressure independently, so it can work without connecting to the grid or using a set of expensive batteries to store power.

[Photo: Solar Water Solutions]

In some remote communities, especially ones on small islands, the systems could replace pricey, polluting diesel-powered desalination. Because it can eliminate the operating cost of diesel fuel, the technology can pay for itself within three to four years. “We focus on remote, off-grid areas where there is no electricity infrastructure available,” Pohjola says. The technology is also useful far from the coast; in Kenya, the company has installed systems in rural villages where groundwater used for drinking is too salty for healthy consumption. Plus, the process also filters water through a membrane that removes bacteria, viruses, and other contaminants. The devices are modular, and a smaller system can produce 3,500 liters of water an hour.

[Photo: Solar Water Solutions]

In Namibia, the first system is in place on the campus of the University of Namibia, and the water will be used in part to irrigate a new “carbon garden” of trees planted to help remove CO2 from the atmosphere. But similar systems could help address the country’s water challenges at a larger scale, and could help the country prepare for a future that’s likely to involve more drought as climate change worsens. The same could be true in other countries, with networks of small desalination plants providing water locally rather than delivering it long distances. “In Asia and Africa, not only the electricity will be made by decentralized smaller systems, but we could also make water infrastructure local through decentralized systems,” says Pohjola.

Algae: Single-Celled Savior Of The Climate Crisis

Can marine algae sustainably replace behaviors that are damaging the climate? © 2018 Bloomberg Finance LP

© 2018 Bloomberg Finance LP

A team of Cornell University scientists set out to produce carbon-neutral fuels from algae and found what they believe is a “doable” and profitable system to not only render the transportation sector carbon negative, but reduce pressure on forests, on fresh water and on ocean fisheries.

And, they say, it will make money.

“We were not getting into this to grow algae and make money,” said Charles Greene, a Cornell University oceanographer who leads a pair of consortiums investigating marine algae. “There’s a lot of small companies out there that grow algae and produce sort of niche products and make a lot of money doing it. But we got into this because we were really interested in solving the climate problem.”

The scientists have published a number of papers on what they’ve found, but the forthcoming one promises to be a doozy.

“This is the paper that that we’re working on now: Basically we figured that a scaled-up marine microalgae industry could profitably—and that’s a really important term, profitably—meet the projected global demand for animal-feed protein, for vegetable oil, and for liquid-transport fuels.”

In a recent visit to Stanford University, Greene outlined a system developed with colleagues including Cornell visiting scholar Mark Huntley. If scaled globally, the system promises a suite of stunning co-benefits, including:

• Reducing global freshwater consumption by 18 percent,

• Freeing 2.8 million square kilometers of cropland for reforestation,

• Reducing the demand for wild-caught fish by 34 percent (the portion currently dedicated to fish meal),

• And, potentially, helping to feed 9.5 billion people.

“Think of it this way: there will no longer be pressure to deforest the Amazon for soy or to deforest Indonesia for palm oil. We can actually lead to an emissions reduction of about 13 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide per year by 2040, and that’s roughly a third of our current CO2 emissions. That’s why we got into this, and we’re really excited because this is doable.”

Greene described the system at Stanford, beginning with the effort to clean up transportation:

Electrify What You Can

The team foresees electrifying as much transportation as possible, especially light vehicles, and of course cleaning up the power sector.

“First of all we’re just going to assume electrification of the light-vehicle fleet by 2040,” Greene said. “Now people can argue whether that’s going to happen or not, but it is doable. But we’re still going to need liquid fuels for other parts of the transportation sector.”

Those parts are more difficult to clean up: aircraft, ships, trains, trucks, heavy machinery. “Right now we don’t see a way to avoid liquid fuels for those, but things happen, so you can’t you can’t say for sure what the future holds. But anyway we’re going to go with the fact that we are likely to need liquid fuels into the future.”

Fuel The Rest With Algae

“How can we continue to use liquid hydrocarbon fuels and become effectively net negative? So this is where algae come in.”

Marine algae grow in sea water, so they don’t compete for fresh water. And they grow best on non-arable land, so they don’t compete for crop land. The algae grow best in arid subtropical regions of the world, Greene said. “These are deserts.”

The Cornell researchers’ vision of marine algae grown in the world’s deserts.

Cornell University

Feed The Algae Captured CO2

Algae need surplus CO2 to optimize their productivity (which the Energy Department estimates can be up to 100 times higher than the land plants usually used for fuel).

Power plants have long been considered a source for this captured CO2, but such a system would not be carbon neutral if the carbon comes from the burning of fossil fuels. So the CO2 should come from direct-air capture. That sounds expensive. Former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz estimates the cost at about $1,000 per ton, much higher than the $40-$50 social impact of a ton of carbon. But Greene is working with Global Thermostat, a carbon-capture company that claims to have reduced the price to $100 per ton, and that pitches itself as “the only company that can economically capture CO2 anywhere — directly from the air as well as from industrial smokestacks.”

If that dream becomes a reality, fossil carbon disappears from the equation. The carbon emerges from tail pipe, jet engine or ship’s funnel is just carbon returning to the atmosphere from whence it came. That’s carbon neutrality. The next step renders the system carbon negative:

Sell The Co-Products

Once captured, CO2 can be used in a litany of products including building materials, cements, chemicals, plastics, grid batteries,. Greene foresees using 80 percent of the CO2 that way, and delivering only 20 percent to the algae. Once consumed by algae, the carbon can be used in bio-petroleum wherever fossil fuels are now used.

“If you produce other longer-lived bio-petroleum products like plastics and perhaps use those in the human-built environment, then you have the potential to store that carbon in these long-lived

materials, essentially sequestering it,” Greene said. “So then it actually becomes carbon negative.”

The algae can also produce salable products like ethanol, feed for fish and livestock and food for people. A system that meets the world’s demand for liquid fuels, Green calculated, would be large enough—thanks to algae’s vigorous productivity—to produce ten times as much protein as the annual global yield of soy.

“This is how we’re going to come up with the protein that’s going to feed nine and a half billion people by mid-century.”

Greene, Huntley and their colleagues set out to solve a fuel problem but discovered an unexpected opportunity:

“If you were just growing the algae for fuel, you know, kind of best-case scenario, if everything’s working well, it’s about $10 a gallon in the end,” Greene said. “And that was when we said ‘Okay fine we’re not going to be able to compete with fossil fuels.’ DOE had this objective of growing algae and trying to get it to $5 a gallon, and I just don’t see that happening. But if you have these other co-products, you know, we’ve done the calculations, you can basically almost give the fuel away because you’re making so much money.”

Watch Greene’s presentation to the Stanford Precourt Institute for Energy:

This Swedish Cleantech Company Wants To Mass Produce Printable Organic Solar Cells

Photo credit: Getty

Getty

Innovations in solar technology  – from creating solar skins that are more aesthetically pleasing for homeowners to smart solar water bottles and solar storage advancements by using bacteria (electroactive microbes) to store energy – the future of photovoltaics and concentrated solar power remains in a state innovation.

According to a March 2019 report from the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), the US solar market is expected to double over the next five years. The same report notes that there are now 62.4 gigawatts of installed solar capacity in the US. 

In Europe, Research and Markets reported that despite a drop in the solar market in 2016, the European solar PV industry recovered in 2017 adding 8.6 gigawatts of solar capacity and is expected to add 16.5 gigawatts by 2025.

Mattias Josephson, CEO of Epishine, a Swedish cleantech company, says his company has made several roll-to-roll process breakthroughs which he believes is key to the tipping point to printing organic photovoltaic (OPV) cells. 

Josephson says a long-term goal for their solar cells are factories with manufacturing machines in the size and scale of newspaper presses where each machine can print solar cells on rolls equivalent to one nuclear reactor per month.

“This would accelerate the global shift from fossil fuels to green utility-scale energy plants. An ultra-light solar cell which eases transportation and makes areas such as deserts and even water – lakes, oceans, ponds – suitable places for solar energy,” added Josephson.

“[..] If you add a scalable and cost-efficient manufacturing solution completely independent of both scarce, toxic and expensive raw-materials to the process, you get a picture of the breakthroughs we’ve made and think important,” added Josephson.

Epishine is using organic electronics – conducting and semi-conducting hydro-carbon-molecules with no silicon or metal.  “Our active layer is based on polymers, which is long hydro-carbon-chains, this is similar to an organic light emitting diode (OLED) where ‘O’ stands for organic electronics,” added Josephson.

Epishine’s thin, flexible and semi-transparent printed solar cells could be a part of building materials that generate electricity in structures.

Josephson believes that in several years, Epishine’s solar cells viable, affordable building-integrated solar cells for a variety of building materials.

“With exponential global challenges  – such as exponentially increased energy demand – we expose the environment and the climate to great risks,” said Josephson. “In addition to healthier consumption and circular solutions, we need new energy systems that can scale quickly enough and incentives to switch to these.”

“The best of both new energy systems and powerful incentive systems are probably found in new innovation – which is also developing exponentially. For example, innovation can be found in new materials like our solar cells and in blockchains for safe incentive solutions,” adds Josephson.

Today, the company is harvesting light and produces light energy harvesting modules that use indoor lighting to create energy to support low power devices currently powered by batteries.

Epishine has a €2.8M grant from the Swedish Energy Agency, Knut & Alice Wallenberg, Vinnova, Climate-KIC and several other angel investors. They also have €1.6M ($1.3M) in funding from ALMI GreenTech Invest, Potential Invest, Lars Björk, Linköping University, Chalmers Ventures and a group of local business angels.

Are Microgrids Powered By On Site Green Energy The Next Big Thing?

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Blue solar cell panels, New York cityscape illuminated at night in the backgroundBlue solar cell panels, New York cityscape illuminated at night in the background

Blue solar cell panels, New York cityscape illuminated at night in the background

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Given the spate of natural disasters and the impact that they have had on delivering electricity, microgrids that encircle specific campuses are gaining in popularity. They offer a Swiss-Army knife of possibilities — everything from greater reliability to cleaner power to economic development. Their future?

Consider IIVI Incorporated makes 3D sensing technologies and it wants to reduce its carbon footprint by installing a microgrid at its New Jersey manufacturing facility: It is using a localized grid because the electric utility is unable to supply the amount of power it needs to keep up with its growth.

That is also happening at hospitals, universities and technology companies — enterprises that can’t afford a loss of power for minutes much less several days. Those microgrids are designed to work in unison with distributed energy resources like solar panels and battery storage as well as fuel cells — the types of 21st Century technologies that are not just more reliable but potentially, much cleaner. 

As for IIVI Incorporated, Bloom Energy built it a 2.5 megawatt power system in nine months. Its solid oxide fuel cell technology takes natural gas or a biogas and converts it into electricity. And the company says that its capacity factor — actual output in relation to its nameplate capacity — is 90% compared to about 25% for solar energy and 40% for wind power.

“We are converting the chemical energy from methane in a single step to electricity,” says Asim Hussain, vice president of commercial strategy for Bloom, in an interview. “When you do it in a single step, it is far more efficient. This is not a traditional combustion system. We emit a lot less CO2 and compared to the U.S. grid mix of energy resources, we reduce emissions by 50%.”

Hussain, who spoke to this reporter on the sidelines, was a panelist at the Microgrid Knowledge 2019 conference in San Diego this week.

The fuel cell and the microgrid can be independent of the central grid or they can be set to kick in when the utility-provided power goes out. They are different from on site distributed generation that directly burn fuels that are used to power whole campuses. The fuel cell efficiency rate is between 40% and 60%, say experts, meaning that for each unit of energy that is input, roughly half is returned in the form of power. But if the waste heat is captured in a co-generation plant, then those efficiencies are about 85%.  

Fuel cells work by combining hydrogen and oxygen. That process requires other fuel sources to break apart the elements. Right now, hydrogen is produced mainly from natural gas using steam reformation, which does nothing to limit the reliance on fossil fuels or the infrastructure that must carry them. The end product, however, is emissions free.

“There are no smog forming particles,” says Hussain. “We are producing electricity far more efficiently than combustion-based plants. “And we are using it on site, meaning that we do not lose it on transmission. This allows us to reduce greenhouse gas levels.” 

Saving Money and Energy

According to Navigant Research, about 500 new microgrid projects have been deployed around the world in the last six months. A key reason for on site generation and microgrids is that total annual cost of power interruptions to the U.S. economy is around $200 billion.

It is about being reliable and resilient, or quickly coming back from an outage. The biogas that Bloom uses to create electricity is also known as renewable natural gas, which is produced from any organic material found in landfills, sewage treatment or bio-digesters. It is a substitute for fossil fuels in microgrids. 

Bloom is working with Southern Company to power a biogas pilot at a landfill. The company says that its 50 kilowatt Bloom Energy Server began in February and is delivering renewable baseload power into the local grid. Ebay installed about five Bloom Boxes on its main campus. It says that it is now using 15% less electricity, saving it many thousands of dollars. Staples and WalMart are doing something similar with the fuel cell maker.

Meantime, the city of Phoenix, Ariz. is taking raw biogas produced at its wastewater treatment plant and cleaning it before it is compressed and injected in natural gas pipelines. The city is converting an existing resource into energy that would otherwise get sent into the atmosphere and create greenhouse gas emissions.

“If you want to island — (to break free from the central grid) — you need some form of combustion process to sustain a lengthy outage,” says Michael Bakas, executive vice president of Ameresco, in an interview with Microgrid Knowledge. So far that’s meant using fossil fuels. “Solar and solar storage will not carry you through. You need a peaker plant or a cogeneration plant.”

The conversion process has a cost associated with it, which means that renewable natural gas is more expensive than natural gas. But Bakas points out that using cleaner energy provides not only an environmental benefit but also an economic one, as the cost of the technology falls.

“We are not back up on only,” adds Bloom’s Hussain. “We are always on. We are meant to serve all the time. Look at the cost per kilowatt hour. That is where we are competitive. Do not just look at the cost of capital.” 

Whether it is increased sustainability or improved reliability, American enterprise is driven to search out new technologies. And oftentimes that involves using solar photovoltaic, wind turbines, and fuel cells. The more clean energy resources are brought on line, the more that those technologies will improve and prices will fall, all of which will compound the environmental benefits.

Bill Gates: This is what we need to do to tackle climate change

Wind and solar power generation is expanding around the globe at record rates, allowing more people to get their electricity from clean, renewable sources than ever before. This is great news.

And here’s better news: We can do even more. By investing in energy innovations, we can build on the progress we’ve made deploying current technology like renewables, which will help accelerate the transition from fossil fuels to a future of reliable and affordable carbon-free electricity.

Image: Gatesnotes

This would be an incredible achievement and the most important step we can take to prevent the worst impacts of global warming.

Here’s why: While electricity generation is the single biggest contributor to climate change—responsible for 25 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions and growing every day—it’s an even bigger part of the solution. With clean electricity, we can do more than light our homes and power our grid. We’ll unlock a source of carbon-free energy to help power the sectors of the economy that produce the other 75 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, including transportation, buildings, and manufacturing. Think electric cars and buses; emission-free heating and cooling systems in our homes and businesses; and energy-intensive factories using more clean power to make products.

So, what will it take to reach the goal of zero carbon electricity generation?

We must solve two challenges. The first challenge will come as no surprise. We need to do more to harness the power of the sun and wind. And thanks to falling prices for solar panels, wind turbines, and other technologies, deploying renewable energy systems is more affordable than ever before.

The second challenge is probably less obvious and more difficult. We need big breakthroughs in technologies that will allow us to supply the power grid with clean energy even during windless days, cloudy weather, and nighttime.

Usually, you back up renewable sources with fossil fuels like natural gas that can quickly and reliably provide power when it’s needed. To reach zero carbon emissions, however, we need to find a way to use more clean energy sources as a backstop.

While I wish there could be a single, magic bullet solution to this problem, there isn’t one right now. What will be required in the years ahead is a diverse and flexible mix of energy solutions—a Swiss army knife of energy tools—to support a future of renewable energy generation to meet our needs. Some of these solutions already exist. Others will require more innovation. All can help us make the transition to low-cost, carbon-free power. This is something a growing number of states across the U.S. are recognizing as they adopt 100 percent carbon-free standards for electricity.

Here are three key solutions we’ll need for the transition to clean electricity:

1. Improved energy storage systems: The sun and the wind are incredible energy sources. Finding ways to store that energy to use after the sun sets and the wind stops blowing is a big challenge we need to solve. We do have ways to store energy for a matter of hours—like lithium ion batteries—that are becoming cheaper every year.

What we don’t have are reliable and widely useable ways to store renewable energy sources for days, weeks, or months. We need to be prepared for seasonal changes (when we have short days during the winter) or worse case scenarios when there are long periods of cloud cover or no wind for weeks or months.

Fortunately, there’s a lot of creative thinking to solve these challenges. I am an investor in a group called Breakthrough Energy Ventures (BEV) that is backing a number of companies exploring ways to store energy. Here are some key areas of innovation:

Hydro: The most common form of energy storage today is pumped hydro, which uses electric motors to pump water uphill to a reservoir. When the water is released from the reservoir, it flows downhill and generates electricity through hydroelectric turbines. The challenge with this approach is that it only works in geographies with high elevations and low elevations. A new company called Quidnet Energy, supported by BEV, is trying a different approach that is lower cost and can be built in flat areas. Quidnet’s system uses renewable energy to pump water into underground wells, creating huge amounts of pressure. When that energy is needed, the pressure is released, pushing the water up the well and through a turbine, generating electricity.

Batteries: Lithium-ion batteries, like you would find in a laptop, mobile phone or electric car, are one of the fastest growing storage solutions. But they work best for short-duration storage. Form Energy, a BEV-backed company, is creating a new class of batteries that would provide long-duration storage at a lower cost than lithium ion batteries.

Thermal storage: Thermal-powered storage technologies have the potential to offer a flexible and reliable power backup for the grid. One of the most effective ways to store heat is in molten salt. Malta, Inc., a BEV company, has developed a molten salt thermal technology that operates like a heat pump. Renewable energy stored as heat in molten salt. In discharge mode, the system works as a heat engine, using heat to produce electricity.

Zero-carbon fuels: There are other exciting potential storage solutions as well, including zero-carbon fuels produced with wind and solar power that can be turned back into electricity or used to decarbonize other sectors.

2. Carbon capture and storage and nuclear: I often hear that lower cost solar and wind power along with the emerging breakthroughs in energy storage mean that these sources will be enough to get us to a carbon-free power grid. But because the world must balance the need to eliminate carbon emissions with economic growth, we should also consider what solutions would be most affordable. A recent study from researchers at MIT found that supporting renewable energy with a mix of clean energy solutions—including nuclear and carbon capture and storage (CCS)—would make carbon-free electricity up to 62 percent cheaper than using renewables alone.

Nuclear power is already a source of carbon-free electricity, producing about 10 percent of the world’s power. It would also serve as a very reliable source of clean energy to complement renewables. But high costs and safety concerns have slowed the growth of nuclear power. With innovations in nuclear power we can create a new generation of nuclear energy that would be safer, produce less waste, and be lower cost.

There are several nuclear technologies that should be explored. One of them, a company I helped start called TerraPower, uses an approach called a traveling wave reactor that is safe, prevents proliferation, and creates very little waste. To make these innovations a reality, we need governments—especially the U.S.—to step up and commit new funding for nuclear energy research and demonstrate that there is a future for nuclear energy.

Another way we can get zero-carbon electricity is carbon capture, utilization, and storage, which separates and permanently stores CO2 pollution from an energy plant’s exhaust to keep it out of the atmosphere. This technology is especially important in places where there isn’t good renewable energy potential, or where it would be too costly to retire and replace existing power plants.

3. High-voltage, long-distance transmission lines: Renewable power resources like wind and solar are often located far from the cities or industrial areas where energy demand is the greatest. Connecting our renewable energy supply with demand will require us to build transmission lines that can handle large amounts of power over very long distances. High-voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission technology—as opposed to the alternating current power lines most electric grids in the U.S. use today for transmission—would help us integrate renewable energy into our world’s power supply. Expanding HVDC lines, however, will not only require new investments in our power grids, but also supportive national and local policies to support their construction. Research and development at U.S. Department of Energy national laboratories like the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory is helping lay the groundwork for how we can design, build, and operate a 21st-century grid.

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by climate change and what to do about it. Global greenhouse gas emissions, for example, went up again last year—another reminder that we must act quickly if we want to prevent the worst-case scenarios of our warming planet.

Still, as I learn about all the new ideas to address this challenge, I am optimistic that with the right mix of solutions we can deploy right now and new innovations we can build a path to a carbon-free future.

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Forget the hype. Here’s the state of clean energy in 6 charts.

The world isn’t putting its money where its mouth is to fight climate change.

That’s the depressing takeaway from an annual report the International Energy Agency released on Tuesday. Worldwide investment in renewable energy fell slightly last year, and the proportion of money budgeted to low-carbon energy has stagnated at 35 percent. The report shows that, despite all the rousing pledges to embrace clean power, governments around the world are still spending most of their investment money on new ways to burn fossil fuels.

“[I]nvestment activity in low-carbon supply and demand is stalling, in part due to insufficient policy focus to address persistent risks,” wrote EIA Executive Director Faith Birol, in the preface of the organization’s World Energy Investment report.

The following five charts from the EIA provide a sense of what is happening.

Here’s the big picture: Since 2105, the world had been pouring smaller amounts of money into all kinds of energy investments — coal, natural gas, and renewables. In 2018, instead of dwindling further, energy investments levelled off. Why? Because the money going into coal mining and oil drilling offset decreases for other projects. Investment in coal supply crept up 2 percent, the first rise since 2012.

There is some good news if you dig down far enough. For instance, the number of electric cars and buses on the roads is shooting up. And they’re displacing vehicles running on oil: “Globally, electric cars and buses sold in 2018 are expected to offset 0.1 million barrels per day of transport oil demand growth,” the report’s authors wrote.

But that’s just a drop in the oil barrel: The report also notes that fracking in the United States alone produces 6 million barrels of oil a day.

We’d need to really goose investment in low-carbon energy to keep the goals of the Paris Agreement in sight, according to this report. In 2018 spending on energy efficiency and nuclear power stayed flat from the previous year, while money for renewable power dropped. Money for batteries grew by almost half, but that’s not as significant as it sounds because we’ve never spent much on batteries.

You know what hasn’t stagnated? Demand for energy. More people around the world are installing air conditioners and gaining access to basic creature comforts like thermostats.

And we’re not building enough low-carbon electric plants to keep up.

“Energy investment is misaligned with where the world appears to be heading, and also far out of step with where it needs to go,” the authors of the report wrote. The graph below suggests that the world needs to double the amount it’s investing in low-carbon energy systems every year to have a reasonable chance of avoiding 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming above pre-industrial levels.

At least the amount of government money flowing to science is increasing. And funding for energy research and development is going up.

But even that silver lining has its cloud: The money going to research isn’t keeping up with economic growth in many countries. Even though Europe’s overall economy grew last year, the European Union put a smaller percentage of its money into energy inventions.

These days politicians mostly agree that the risks of climate change are dire, but policies haven’t shifted with the rhetoric. In this snapshot, global movement toward a carbon-free energy system looks more like a tentative tiptoe than a sprint.

These flexible solar cells bring us closer to kicking the fossil-fuel habit

Last December, researchers in a lab in Oxford, England, shined a sun lamp onto a tiny solar cell, only about one centimeter square.

The device was actually two cells, stacked one atop the other. The bottom one was made of the type of silicon used in standard solar panels. But the top was perovskite, a material with a crystal structure that’s particularly adept at turning light into electricity.

A pair of probes attached to the so-called tandem solar cell measured its performance. Other researchers in the lab at Oxford PV, a company spun out of the university in 2010, gathered behind a flat-screen monitor, waiting expectantly for a calculation of the cell’s efficiency to appear. When it did, they exchanged high fives. The cell had converted 28% of the energy in the light into electricity, a new efficiency record for a perovskite-on-silicon device. An independent test confirmed it a few days later, after the tiny cell was put on a plane to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colorado.

Oxford PV’s commercial-sized solar cell (left), and the one-centimeter-square version (right).

Oxford PV

While silicon panels might dominate the market—with around 95% market share—silicon is not an especially good solar material. It mainly uses light from the red and infrared end of the solar spectrum, and it has to be fairly thick and bulky to absorb and convert photons. The most efficient silicon solar panels on the market achieve less than 23% efficiency, while the theoretical maximum for a single layer of silicon is around 29%.

Perovskite, on the other hand, can use more of the light that reaches it and can be tuned to work with different parts of the spectrum. Oxford PV has opted for the blue end. Paired in a cell, the two materials can convert more photons into electrons together than either can deliver on its own.

Oxford PV plans to deliver solar cells based on perovskite and silicon to the market by the end of next year, using a German factory it acquired in 2016 from Bosch Solar. The two materials will come in a package that otherwise looks, ships, and installs the same way as a standard solar panel, in a kind of half step that the company believes will make it easier to introduce the technology to the market.

Oxford PV’s manufacturing plant in Germany.

Oxford PV

“It’s technology disruption without the business disruption,” says Chris Case, Oxford PV’s chief technology officer.

Dozens of startups that had sought to supplant silicon about a decade ago wound up in bankruptcy instead or were relegated to a niche market. But venture capitalists have invested tens of millions of dollars into perovskite ventures in recent months, heating up what had long been a frosty market for alternative solar materials. The question now is whether perovskites will fizzle too, or will finally beat silicon panels in the marketplace.

“There’s a whole set of things that make it a potentially transformational technology,” says Joe Berry, who leads the perovskite research program at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. “But the list of technologies that have tried to compete with silicon is long and distinguished, so you have to be humble in that sense too.”

“A solar cell on steroids”

In the late 2000s, a number of well-funded startups attempted to commercialize new and more flexible solar materials, including thin-film technologies like cadmium telluride and copper indium gallium selenide (remember Solyndra?), as well as things like organic solar cells. The promise was that cells made from such materials would be far cheaper to manufacture and could be produced in various shapes.

But silicon solar panels were a fast-moving target. Efficiency levels continued to improve and prices plummeted, thanks to government-funded research efforts, market stimulation policies, and economies of scale.

Commercial photovoltaic system costs (US dollars per watt of direct current for fixed-tilt systems)

Source: National Renewables Energy Laboratory | Chart created by MIT Technology Review

China, in particular, employed aggressive subsidies and strategies to accelerate manufacturing and exports in a quest to dominate the market. The nation’s module shipments and global market share took off starting in the mid-2000s, prompting allegations of illegal dumping aimed at knocking out overseas rivals. Prices for commercial silicon panels dropped by more than half from 2010 to 2013, and the market for alternatives sank.

So these days, to justify the vast expense of building new factories, supply chains, and distribution channels, any new material has to be better in crucial ways: more efficient, cheaper to manufacture, more versatile, longer lasting, or ideally all of the above.

Perovskite shines in some of those categories. A single layer can theoretically reach 33% efficiency, while a tandem perovskite-on-silicon device could achieve around 43%. High efficiency matters because you can produce more electricity from the same number of panels, or the same amount with a smaller footprint and lower costs.

Perovskite solar modules should also be cheaper to make, at least eventually. Producing silicon panels is a multi-step fabrication process that entails refining the silicon under high heat, infusing it with other materials, and precisely slicing it into wafers that must then be precisely patterned in a clean room to create a photovoltaic cell.

Perovskites, on the other hand, can be produced at low temperatures and used in liquid form to coat flexible materials like plastic, enabling a roll-to-roll manufacturing process similar to newspaper printing.

By repurposing Bosch’s thin-film manufacturing plant, Oxford PV expects to be able to mass-produce silicon-and-perovskite cells by the end of next year, and package them together into standard-looking panels.

“It’s an ordinary solar cell on steroids,” Case says.

In March, Oxford PV said it had raised more than $40 million to get its products into the market, bringing its total funding and financing to around $100 million. The factory will pump out 250 megawatts’ worth of cells every year.

Another perovskite startup, Energy Materials, is also looking to use roll-to-roll manufacturing. Based in Rochester, New York, it’s using film equipment originally built for Eastman Kodak to mass-produce perovskite-only solar panels. At full scale, the process will cost half as much as manufacturing a traditional solar module, while the capital costs will run an order of magnitude cheaper, because silicon requires costly, precise machines and plants, says Thomas Tombs, the company’s chief technology officer.

Swift Solar’s flexible perovskite solar cell.

Swift Solar

Since perovskite can be flexible, semitransparent, and lightweight, it could also be used where heavy, rigid solar panels wouldn’t work—on windows, creakier rooftops, irregularly shaped surfaces, or even moving vehicles.

Swift Solar, a NREL-affiliated startup that has raised nearly $7 million in recent months, is looking at putting perovskite-perovskite tandem solar cells—which use two perovskite layers, each tuned to a different part of the spectrum—on drones and electric vehicles to extend their range, according to its CEO, Joel Jean. Such a cell could be highly efficient, as well as more flexible and lightweight than one with a thick silicon layer.

Unlocking new uses for solar power

In his book Taming the Sun, Varun Sivaram, chief technology officer at ReNew Power, argues that new solar technologies like perovskites may be essential for ultimately displacing fossil fuels.

But why do we need even cheaper solar power if silicon panels are already competitive with, say, a coal plant?

One of the biggest problems with solar is that once it’s generating a significant portion of the electricity on the grid, the additional value of the next panel or plant begins to drop off sharply.

That’s because at night, solar farms don’t generate electricity at all, meaning the rest of the system still needs to be capable of meeting total demand. On sunny days, on the other hand, there may be more electricity than the system can use or store. That’s already happening in regions with lots of solar power, like Germany, China, and California.

Grid operators regularly have to force or incentivize solar farms to throttle back their production, often by pushing prices down to zero or even below. That can squeeze the solar plants’ profits, which eliminates the economic incentives to build more of them and continue reducing the use of fossil fuels.

In a paper published in Nature Energy in 2016, Sivaram and Shayle Kann, now managing director of private equity firm Energy Impact Partners, calculated that to preserve the economic incentives to keep building more plants, the cost of developing solar would need to fall to 25 cents per watt. The all-in costs of the cheapest commercial systems are $1.06 per watt, according to the latest NREL report.

Much of that is due to the high price of installing and wiring the bulky hardware. So cutting the price that dramatically will likely require not only dirt-cheap solar cells but also lightweight, flexible ones that are easier to deploy. Perovskites are the most promising material for making anything like that leap today, Sivaram says.

Cheap solar electricity could also drive down the cost of things like seawater desalination, artificial trees that can pluck carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, or electrolysis plants that can convert surplus energy into hydrogen fuel.

“It unlocks all these other new applications we never thought about before,” Sivaram says.  

The instability problem

The tougher question surrounding perovskites is their durability. Efficiency leaps don’t much matter if the material lasts only a few months or even years—and so far, perovskites have tended to degrade quickly when exposed to ultraviolet light and moisture.

That’s a very big problem for a material that needs to lie under the sun for a few decades. And if companies roll out perovskite panels that end up failing too soon, it will tarnish the material’s reputation even if they later develop more durable versions.

An Oxford PV worker examines commercial-sized perovskite-silicon tandem solar cells.

Oxford PV

For now, Oxford PV’s market plan depends on whether its perovskite-silicon cell can be made to work and look like a standard silicon solar panel, which includes packaging it in a glass casing that will help it last longer.

But the company did have to work hard on the stability of the material itself, employing computational modeling and rapid screening to pinpoint promising compositions among some half a million possibilities. The company’s recipe for perovskites is proprietary, but its CEO, Frank Averdung, is bullish. “We have solved the reliability issue,” he says. “We have nailed it, and this is the reason we can move into manufacturing mode now.”

Avoid The ICE Makers, Invest In EV-Related ETFs Instead

The internal combustion engine (ICE) has reigned supreme for 100 years and auto lore is firmly ingrained in American culture.

Television’s Duke boys used (and destroyed) over 250 Dodge Chargers. Millions thrilled over James Bond’s exploits with his Aston Martin. Corvette clubs, antique auto shows, drive-throughs and more exemplify the love affair Americans have with their cars and trucks.

But times and culture change. Wheels may no longer be a top priority with young people. Technology, as manifest in the smartphone, appears to be the new idol.

And, complicating things even further, there is now a new kid in town: the electric vehicle (EV).

This article explores why EVs are likely to displace ICEs in the near to mid-term future and how investors can profit by avoiding traditional auto and investing instead in ETFs holding EV related companies.

Was 2018 the year of peak ICE sales?

Global auto sales appear to be on the skids. Nothing particularly new there; vehicle sales usually decline as economies falter. But in the past, auto sales have snapped back when times improve. Will it happen again? Several analysts think not, at least not for ICEs.

The future, of course, is very difficult to predict. But let’s look at the reasons why EVs will likely displace EVs in the near to mid-term future.

EV sales are now quickly growing

Electric car sales have grown each year since the introduction of the Nissan Leaf in 2010, especially in the last 2-3 years.

EV sales were 64% higher globally in 2018 than in 2017; they now comprise roughly 2.2% of all sales. In the U.S., EV sales were a little over 2% of car sales in 2018. In China, the world’s largest auto market, January saw EV sales at 4.8% of all sales, while in Norway, the top EV sales county, EV sales were 31% of 2018 sales.

The Tesla (TSLA) Model 3 was by far the world’s best-selling EV in 2018. China’s BAIC-EC series was second, and the Nissan Leaf third. It’s expected that in 2019, EV sales will hit 3.5 million vs. 2 million in 2018, up 75%.

Five reasons consumers are, and will, pick EVs over ICEs

For starters, a Tesla Model 3 Standard Plus today costs $39,500. The car goes up to 140 mph, accelerates from 0-60 in 5.3 seconds, has a 240-mile range, and gets 133 mpge. You may say, “Well, that’s a Tesla.” The thing, however, is the other EVs aren’t far behind in those numbers.

There’s more, read on.

Fuel, Technology, and Maintenance

EVs never need gasoline or oil changes. And, with 80% fewer moving parts, they require a lot less maintenance.

Tesla has a dedicated smartphone app which gives you the ability to remotely lock/unlock the car, control charging, turn on/off cabin climate, and give the car’s location at all times (good if the car is stolen, maybe not so good when your spouse tracks you). The app automatically unlocks the car when you approach and then locks and turns everything off after you exit.

Tesla uses its website to sell its vehicles. Since an encounter with a fast-talking salesman at a dealership ranks right up there with a root canal in popularity this appeals to consumers. Tesla is not the only company using the internet to buy and sell; fast-growing Carvana (CVNA) also does.

Electric, internet-connected vehicles can use over-the-air software upgrades for repairs, and enhancements such as battery upgrades. Tesla, again, appears to be the leader here but I suppose others will soon follow.

The Wow Factor

When I was a kid, back in the early 1960s, whenever a family brought home a new car all the neighbors showed up to ooh and aah over it. In our jaded times that just doesn’t happen anymore. Yet, when I took delivery of my Model 3, it was deja vu all over again. Neighbors and friends all wanted a look and get a ride. The excitement is back.

You know the ICEs’ days are numbered when a $60,000, 5-passenger, 4-door Model 3 sedan outruns a $294,250 built-for-the-kill Porsche 911 GT2 RS. Of course, most of us don’t race but I wonder just how enamored folks will be with their ICEs when they regularly get left behind at the light by funny-looking EVs.

Climate change is the elephant in the room, the one that no one in the fossil fuel industry wants to talk about.

The facts, however, are indisputable: Levels of CO2, a greenhouse gas, are rising relentlessly. Not surprisingly, the earth’s temperature is going up right along with the CO2 levels. New records for both are set each year now. No, these are not procrastinations from wild-eyed ecofreak groups as climate change deniers would like you to believe. Rather, almost every mainstream scientific organization which studies the subject agrees: Climate change is not only coming, it’s here already.

Oceans are hotter than they’ve ever been in recorded history, coral reefs are dying, ice sheets are melting at unprecedented rates, extreme weather events are on the rise. Now the arctic environment appears to be falling apart. No one, not even scientists, knows how this will play out.

As stuff like this sinks in many will want to do something and one thing many can do is switch to an EV.

Falling Prices

Currently, unsubsidized upfront costs for EVs are higher than that for ICEs. However, EV prices (especially batteries) are steadily falling. Bloomberg claims that the unsubsidized upfront cost of EVs will soon (starting in 2024) be competitive with ICEs.

Once EV costs reach parity (and then fall below ICE prices) it will be pretty much over for ICE sales – the vehicles will fade from the roads. Not right away of course; 98% of the vehicles out there today are ICEs.

Safety

EVs are safer to drive and ride in than ICEs. Why? With no engine, gas tank, and fuel system space is freed up which can be used to add more safety to the passenger compartment.

It’s true, EVs have large batteries but they can be configured in advantageous ways. For example, Tesla has, and Volkswagen AG (OTCPK:VWAGY) plans on having, table-shaped batteries under the seats which have the additional advantage of lowering the vehicle’s center of gravity, making rollovers less likely.

With no engine in the front, EVs have a larger Crumple Zone. In a frontal collision, it’s better to have a suitcase thrust toward you than a hot iron engine.

Then, of course, EVs do not generate noxious combustion products such as carbon monoxide and cancer-causing particulates. (Though in high traffic areas you pick up those things from adjacent ICE vehicles.)

Another safety feature I wasn’t really aware of until I began driving my Model 3 is the regenerative braking. Think of it: Lose control of an ICE vehicle and the only thing that will stop the vehicle will be other cars, telephone poles, people, buildings, you name it. Lose control of an EV and the regenerative braking quickly slows the vehicle, even if you’re nowhere near the brake pad.

Not surprisingly, once people own electric cars the vast majority of them never go back to ICEs.

Invest in these ETFs instead of legacy auto

Avoid legacy auto companies such as General Motors Company (GM) Ford Motor Company (F), and Toyota Motor Corporation (TM). Sales for these companies will, for reasons noted above, stagnate or fall.

Tesla is the leading EV company and only pure EV play. I feel Tesla will do well but if you don’t like the drama, look at ETFs which hold companies which are involved in EV-related businesses. Here are two.

First Trust NASDAQ Clean Edge Green Energy Index Fund (QCLN), as you might guess, invests in clean energy companies. (See the ETF summary here.) This fund has net assets of $103 million with holdings in 41 companies. The top 3 holdings are ON Semiconductor (ON), Universal Display (OLED), and Albemarle (ALB).

QCLN’s top holding, at 8.36%, is ON Semiconductor which provides EV solutions and products for autonomous driving, vehicle electrification, battery power management and lighting.

Albemarle, the fund’s third-largest holding, at 6.60%, supplies, among other things, lithium compounds for the batteries used in electric vehicles and consumer electronics.

Tesla, the fund’s 4th largest holding, at 6.23%, designs, develops, manufactures and sells electric vehicles.

QCLN has returned 21.9% YTD, compared to the S&P 500’s SPDR S&P 500 Trust ETF (SPY), up 17.7%, and the Invesco QQQ ETF (QQQ), up 23.5%.

ARK Innovation ETF (ARKK) For the more adventurous. This ETF, as its name implies, invests in innovative technologies. (See ARKK’s summary here.) ARKK has net assets of $1.6 billion and holds 34 companies. The top 3 holdings are Tesla, Invitae (NVTA), and Stratasys (SSYS).

Though Tesla is the fund’s largest holding at 10.5%, the bulk of ARKK’s holdings are in other innovative and disruptive technologies such as 3D printing, data and machine learning, molecular diagnostics, industrial innovation, and other leading-edge technologies.

ARKK is up 31% YTD, beating both the S&P 500 and NASDAQ.

Conclusion

Likely, the first indication that EVs are displacing ICEs will not be what you see on the road (ICE vehicles last an average of 11 years) but rather a falling off in ICE sales while EV sales climb robustly.

We already know consumers are fascinated by EVs. Even if they don’t lease or buy one immediately they may put off buying an ICE while they think it over.

I suspect that once unsubsidized EV prices reach parity with ICEs, in a few years the floodgates will open and EV sales will rapidly climb and surpass ICEs’ sales. Some legacy companies, such as Volkswagen see the writing on the wall and are preparing for the transition.

Disclaimer: As always, investors should do their own research and exercise due diligence before investing in any of the companies or funds mentioned in this article.

Disclosure: I am/we are long QCLN, TSLA. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.

New desalination method could get industry – and the environment – out of a very salty pickle

In contrast, the TSSE method – developed by a Columbia Engineering team led by assistant professor Ngai Yin Yip – is beautifully simple. It uses a solvent with temperature-dependent water solubility. Vary the temperature, and you vary the solubility. This solvent is added to the brine, where it floats above the denser salt-laden liquid. At room-temperature, water from the brine is drawn into the solvent. After this stage, the solvent is drawn off and warmed via low-grade heat under 70° C (158°F). The “temperature swing” nature of the solvent subsequently demixes it from the water (remember, this is a temperature-dependent solvent, where at higher temperatures, it holds less water). The resulting desalinated water then settles to the bottom, and is collected.