Opinion

Looking to the sun (even when we can’t see it) for new energy

I just bought a bed lamp at the Twin Lakes Target for my grandson. What made this unusual was that it was a twenty LED lamp that gives a strong reading-intensity light. It wasn’t long ago that a salesman at Lynnwood’s Seattle Lighting told me it would be years before we’d see LEDs used in home lighting and even then the price would be prohibitive. The bed lamp cost $24.95.

I bought a five-function calculator in 1972 for $29.95 that would add, subtract, multiply, divide and do square root. It was about the size of a small paper-back book. Now they’re the size of credit cards and are given away

I drive a 2005 Prius that gets about 45 miles per gallon to the average tank of gas. My daughter bought a 2009 Prius that gets an amazing 53 mpg. That much progress in four years is making me less than satisfied with my mileage. So I’m thinking that when my six-year warranty expires I might opt for the off-the-shelf conversion kit that would up my mileage to near 100 mpg.

How about my newish 10 megapixel five-power optical zoom camera that was twenty dollars cheaper than its 4 megapixel three-power predecessor. The new one’s card holds thousands of high resolution pictures instead of 256 on the old one. If I never filled the old 256 capacity card, what am I going to do with a card that stores thousands? Oh well. Technological progress marches along and we follow in its wake. Newer better things show up so we buy them.

Arlington’s MidNite Solar is a company that makes equipment to connect roof-top solar panels with the grid. MidNite Solar knows we can do solar in Marysville where we get fully 70% as much radiation as San Diego. MidNite’s interfaces allow homeowners to collect solar power, use it to reduce electric bills and sell any surplus back to the PUD. Solar technology is a cutting-edge field in which yesterday’s products can’t compete with today’s designs.

MidNight Solar must be keeping a close watch on a pair of innovations that could make internal combustion engines and fossil-fueled electric plants as obsolete as Swiss movements for watches and clocks. Such a change would cut the carbon dioxide production of industrial societies to a level below the most ardent environmentalist’s dream.

The first of these is thin-film solar collectors. Up until this year, getting electricity from solar panels has been so expensive for homes and businesses that they were practical only where transmission wires don’t reach. Traditional solar panels are manufactured in an expensive vacuum process that uses the same silicon used in computer chips. Those panels proved too costly to compete with hydro or coal power. But certain MIT scientists and others were quietly working to come up with solar-capturing stuff that could be cheaply made in sheets or even painted onto surfaces.

About that time, eGroup’s Martin Roscheisen sold eGroup to Yahoo for $425 million. He and Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin wanted a new challenge and had the deep pockets to hire talent and corner ideas. The result was NanoSolar, a company that has leapfrogged over competition in the solar-electric business to become not just a world leader but The World Leader.

What sets NanoSolar apart is successful large-scale production of thin-film solar collectors. Rather than coming off an assembly line, their product comes off a printing press. NanoSolar can make collectors ten times as fast as silicon-based collectors and is making them at one tenth the cost.

What does this mean? Designers of coal-electric plants figure the cost a new plant is about 2.1 cents per watt of energy the plant would produce. NanoSolar’s new installation in Germany will go online for about 2.0 cents per watt. If solar power can compete against coal and is dogged with none of coal’s environmental issues, a revolution in power production may be just around the corner. NanoSolar has built two huge manufacturing plants, one in California and the other outside Berlin.

The second innovation deals with storage of electric energy. For many uses, gasoline is often preferable to electricity because you can store a barrel of it in the barn for a year and it won’t lose its charge as batteries do. But imagine a battery that could hold a charge indefinitely, that wouldn’t wear out, that weighs a fraction a lead-acid battery’s weight, could be charged in a few minutes and was clear of the environmental issues that plague the manufacture and disposal of lead-acid or nickel-hydride batteries. It seems a dream to good to be true.

This innovation is called the ultra-capacitor. A capacitor is a gadget that holds a negative and a positive charge separate from each other. An effective insulator keeps the charges from zapping across a gap to neutralize each other. A storm cloud and the earth, separated by non-conductive dry air, make a big capacitor. To make capacitors useful, science provides ways of tapping off measured amounts of the zap, rather than letting it short out in one spectacular spark, like lightning.

Texas’ EEStor (Electrical Energy Storage) gets the lion’s share of ultra-capacitor publicity though a number of reputable labs are working on their own versions of the ultracapacitor. EEStor has gathered funding from ZENN Motors, the U.S. Government and other heavy hitters which indicates that it is more than the latest scientific hoax.

All of this must be music to the ears of MidNite Solar and other imaginative energy tinkerers who are leading our energy-hungry nation away from its dependency on fossil fuels.

Comments may be addressed to: rgraef@verizon.net.

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