Over the weekend, the New York Times noted that the solar power “craze” is partly responsible for Wall Street’s recent good times. The Times used the example of solar giant SolarCity, which has seen a sevenfold increase in its share price to $59.27 since it went public, but this could just be starters for the US solar industry. An international research team based at North Carolina State University has come up with a simple way to increase the efficiency of organic solar cells by more than 30 percent, leading to lower costs and a much bigger market.
That’s great news for companies like SolarCity. The company – another brainchild of Tesla creator Elon Musk – packages and installs solar systems, so it’s not subject to the kind of downward global pricing pressures that doomed US manufacturers like Solyndra.
In fact, down works good for SolarCity’s business model. Solar cells account for about half the cost of a fully installed and connected solar system, so a major drop in the cost of solar cells will have a significant impact on overall costs. That gives SolarCity and other solar packagers another opportunity to offer their systems at more competitive prices, and nudge conventional fuels out of the market.
Solar cell efficiency breakthrough courtesy of NCSU.
The research applies to organic solar cells, which refers to a relatively new class of solar cells based on polymers (loosely speaking, plastic). Organic solar cells are less efficient than silicon, which is still the gold standard, but they make up for it with the potential for a broader range of applications and a low cost manufacturing process.
The key to the breakthrough is the creation of a new low cost polymer by NCSU’s partner in the project, the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Called PBT-OP, the new polymer is made from two readily available monomers and a third monomer that can be synthesized with relative ease (monomers are identical molecules that can be bonded together into long chains as polymers).
The new polymer skips over a key hurdle for lowering the cost of organic solar cells, which is the use of fluorine. Typically, in organic solar cells a fluorine atom is needed in the polymer’s “molecular backbone” in order to increase efficiency, but that is a complicated processes and it introduces significant manufacturing costs.
PBT-OP has the fluorine advantage without the fluorine. To get a handle on that, all you need to know is that organic solar cells consist of an electron acceptor material and an electron donor material, each with its own molecular orbit.
The trick is to find the ideal difference between the highest occupied molecular orbit of the acceptor and lowest unoccupied molecular orbit of the polymer.
Once you get that nailed down, what you’ve done is to create a kind of super-efficient electrical highway, in which excitons (the energy particles created when a solar cell absorbs light) travel as quickly as possible within the interface of the donor and acceptor domains. That means you minimize the loss of energy that occurs in a conventional organic solar cell.
NCSU physicist Harald Ade breaks it down:
The possible drawback in changing the molecular structure of these materials is that you may enhance one aspect of the solar cell but inadvertently create unintended consequences in devices that defeat the initial intent. In this case, we have found a chemically easy way to change the electronic structure and enhance device efficiency by capturing a lager fraction of the light’s energy, without changing the material’s ability to absorb, create and transport energy.
Thank you, Harald. Now let’s also thank the U.S. Department of Energy, which funded the research project in partnership with the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology.
SolarCity And Tesla
Now let’s get back to that SolarCity/Tesla connection. Tesla Motors co-founder and CEO Elon Musk is best known for his innovation in the electric vehicle field, which seamlessly marries EV charging stations with onboard technology in the form of Tesla Motors’ Supercharger network, and he is also the Chairman of SolarCity.
Tesla has been introducing Supercharger stations powered at least partly by on site solar installations in the form of canopies, so it’s no surprise that SolarCity is providing the installations.
Given SolarCity’s track record with thin-film solar cells and the solar/mobility connection with Tesla Motors we’re thinking that it won’t be long before both companies cook up new applications for organic solar cells as the cost of the technology continues to drop.
Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.
Senior editor at the outstanding progressive news outlet AlterNet, Tara Lohan, recently contacted me because she was writing a story on “which developments in clean tech are the most promising in terms of making renewable energy more prevalent.” She asked if I had any suggestions. If you know me and know how easy it is to get me to go on a monologue about clean energy and electric cars, you already know that I responded at length. Tara actually ended up making the 3-page article more or less an interview piece. It’s a very good read, imho, and she does well to add some other points and perspective, so I recommend checking it out.
Of course, I provided far more commentary than would be utilized in that story, but I didn’t want it to “go to waste,” so I am reposting my comments below. As is almost always the case, looking at my comments again, I felt there was a need to clarify or better communicate some of my points and to add some other pertinent information, so I’ve added those points in brackets (American brackets — [ ] — not British brackets, which I use obsessively and used in my initial responses to Tara).
Before finally sharing my response with you, just remember that Tara was asking about ”which developments in clean tech are the most promising in terms of making renewable energy more prevalent,” not “which developments in clean tech do you think are the best.” On to the comments…
Feed-in tariffs have been used for the majority of wind and solar power capacity growth around the world. They continue to be very important for growth in these industries, especially the solar industry. However, as the costs of those technologies fall off a cliff (as they’ve been doing in recent years), many FiTs are getting scaled back or cut completely — just as was always planned. I think FiTs will continue to be extremely important, especially in countries without mature markets, and also for more nascent technologies (e.g., wave energy and tidal energy), but they are already accomplishing their key target, which is to bring down the price of renewable technologies through a ramping up of deployment and resulting economies of scale. Without turning this into a long and detailed article about FiTs, I’ll just add a couple more things. Firstly, one of the wonderful things about FiTs is that they enable the renewable energy revolution to be democratized more than almost any other policy. Also, they can very simply make up for the unpriced externalities of dirty energy sources — decision-makers can just add that missing price into the rates given to renewable energy producers. I may not be in the majority, but I actually think that FiTs should be used in that way and that, rather than scaling them back when solar and wind become competitive, an estimated “externality cost” for natural gas or coal should always be provided above and beyond what solar and wind power plants could themselves earn on the “fair market.” [Clarification: I don’t think this is actually how legislators use the policy, and I don’t think this is an ideal solution for dealing with externalities — better would be an adequate tax/price on GHG and other pollution. But I do think that as long as the playing field is not level — as long as fossil fuels are not forced to internalize all of their costs — adding on a certain $/kWh that clean technologies should get boosted, perhaps as part of a FiT, would be a half-decent solution.]
Net metering is another simple policy that is not exactly “sexy” but is very effective. The short summary, as this is often used, is that it pays owners of renewable energy systems (most notably, solar PV systems) retail electricity rates for extra electricity they produce and send back to the grid. While this may often be lower than what is offered through FiTs, the policy is implemented in a more stable and long-term fashion, and it still goes a long way in helping owners of renewable energy systems to get their investments back and eventually make money off of their systems. Also, being one of the simplest policies out there, it’s easy to explain, easy to replicate, and hard to deny. Net metering is currently in place in 43 US states. [Of course, there are currently some ALEC-led and utility-led attacks on net metering, but net metering should theoretically exist “forever” — it’s a policy to pay solar electricity generators a more or less fair market value for the electricity they generate. Also worth noting is that not all net metering policies are of the same quality. Freeing The Grid offers a great evaluation of net metering policies state by state if you want to dive deeper.]
Solar leasing is a much different and I would say much more controversial type of cleantech development. Nonetheless, I think it could eventually have as much impact as the policies above. The key thing about solar leasing is that the leasing company takes care of almost everything for the customer, including the upfront cost of a system. Most people (I’m not one of them) prefer to pay as little as possible up front for something, even if that means they pay more down the road. People are also not that thrilled about taking out large loans that put them in a lot of debt. Solar leasing allows people to go solar and save money on their electric bills from day 1 without having to put much (if any) money down and without having to deal with a bank or loan. People are very, very attracted to this model, and it dominates in the places where it exists, often accounting for 75% or more or the residential solar market. There are some strong critics of the solar leasing model. These people often complain and warn people that it sends more of the homeowner’s profits to a large (leasing) company. I think that is often the case. However, solar leasing companies are [supposedly] often able to take advantage of solar incentives that their customers can’t take advantage of, theoretically allowing them to make their profit on money the customer wouldn’t get anyway. Also, I’ll just reiterate two points I stated and implied above: 1) even if it isn’t logical when you crunch the numbers, people are very averse to large, upfront investments (even taking out loans) and will pay more to avoid that; 2) many people don’t want to think or worry about anything, especially technical and financial matters, so they will pay to be able to avoid that. It’s not just people, either. Large companies such as Walmart and GM have gone the solar leasing route in order to leave it in “the expert’s” hands. [Note that there are actually nationwide $0 solar loans and PACE programs available that seem like they’d be much more competitive than a solar leasing contract. However, there’s no denying that solar leasing companies have been very effective at convincing customers that their options are the best around… I’m still scratching my head a little bit, but there’s no denying that solar leasing is a huge trend in the industry, and no one is forcing 75% of Californians who are going solar to lease rather than buy.]
Electric cars, in general. They’re better than gasmobiles in almost every way. They have better pickup. They drive more smoothly. They are much quieter. They are much greener, and do not emit any pollution near the consumer/driver. [Woops, I should have been very clear that they don’t emit any pollution. Power plants that produce electricity might, but the cars don’t, and the cars can run on clean power.] They are much simpler and require much less maintenance. And many are also cheaper than their gas cousins over the lifetime of ownership, something that will become more and more common. As people come to realize that electric cars are on the road and so much better than gasmobiles, sales will take off. They’re already starting to. Furthermore, because much of the upfront cost of an electric car is in its fuel — its battery — I think innovative ways of financing these cars will help them to really take over the market. Elon Musk, who is the CEO and Chairman of Tesla Motors (the world’s leading electric car company) and also the Chairman of SolarCity (a leading solar leasing company), has stated that he thinks electric cars will go this leasing route, just as solar has. It matches the reality of how most consumers approach purchases. Shai Agassi, a longtime tech leader and electrification entrepreneur has recommended a route more similar to that taken by cell phone companies or by Apple (or a combination). You can read that in detail here and here. As a final note on electric cars, I’ll just add that I was once a big “car hater.” My master’s degree is in city and regional planning — cars are horrible for cities — and my master’s thesis was on bicycle planning. But I became a huge electric car fan because they are so much greener, they are so much better in other ways, and I think that cars will be a big part of society indefinitely and need to be much cleaner. [Since writing this, I have actually come to the conclusion that buying EVs makes much more sense than leasing them for most people. But, again, consumers seem to be very attracted to the leasing model, and if I am correct, the majority of EV drivers are leasing their cars. Furthermore, I wouldn’t bet against Elon Musk’s opinion in this sector. Also, aside from the standard “leasing the car” vs. “buying the car” options, I do think the “buying the car but leasing the battery” option will grow in popularity, and perhaps even something similar to what Shai Agassi described/recommended in one of those article linked above.]
Also, notably, electric cars are a great support for renewable energy, as they need their electricity to come from clean power plants in order for them to be most effective at reducing pollution and helping to stop global warming. A lot of people get that, and many EV owners also own solar PV systems. Each technology supports the other environmentally, financially, and on the market.
Crowdfunding and crowdsourcing wind and solar projects is an interesting and powerful development that is just getting off the ground. It is hard to know how far these options will go, but if they really take off, the potential for democratizing the electricity sector is huge. Speaking of…
Democratization of energy. Both solar PV and electric cars help the average person to become producers and owners of the energy they use. They help to democratize the entire energy industry. The ramifications are immense. They are probably beyond our imagination. This process, though just beginning, is already having a paradigm-shifting effect in some locations, such as solar-leading Germany and Australia. But we’re just at the beginning. The democratization of the energy system is coming like a slow but very powerful wave, and it is going to change the world.
Zachary Shahan is the director of CleanTechnica, the most popular cleantech-focused website in the world, and Planetsave, a world-leading green and science news site. He has been covering green news of various sorts since 2008, and he has been especially focused on solar energy, electric vehicles, and wind energy for the past four years or so. Aside from his work on CleanTechnica and Planetsave, he’s the Network Manager for their parent organization – Important Media – and he’s the Owner/Founder of Solar Love, EV Obsession, and Bikocity. To connect with Zach on some of your favorite social networks, go to ZacharyShahan.com and click on the relevant buttons.
I used to write one article per day. But with my editing duties at other publications and posting content to JBS News from authours besides myself, I’m now down to writing once or twice per month. Meaning, I only get to write about the super important stuff nowadays.
So, on that note, let’s cover today’s announcement that Apple’s VP of Mac Engineering, Doug Field, has been hired by TESLA Motors.
Think of the possibilities! When you combine the best under $100,000 car in the world with the full computing power and vision of Apple computer’s top Engineer, the result in a year or two might well be a bona-fide game-changer in this segment of the auto industry.
TESLA has built an almost perfect car with the S model, complete with zero emissions, performance and styling that defines a new class of electric vehicle and (bonus!) an unparalleled pride of ownership experience. Besides more colour and material choices, the ability to improve on the S model is limited. Really, what could you do to improve this car?
TESLA owner, meet a new way of using your car.
If you think about the interface between car and driver, that is one interface. Another interface occurs between the car and the car owner, and yet another interface occurs between the owner/driver, and the utility company.
With the perfect car the only thing to improve on is the role the car performs. It’s a car, right? What other role could it perform? And what has an Apple engineer got to do with any of this?
Let us count the ways that a TESLA Model S could become more than the great looking and great performing near-supercar that it is, with the injection of a visionary Apple engineer into the mix.
Is it a gorgeous EV car, or a transportable battery pack?
1. Homeowners: At the end of the day, every EV driver plugs their car in to their househod electricity, and we all know that some cars or the charger units have the ability to auto-schedule their charging time to meet the lowest electricity rates of the day (usually late at night and into the early hours of the morning).
Now imagine if TESLA’s newest engineer decided to instruct the car’s charge controller software to automatically have the battery in the TESLA allow uninterrupted power to the home in the event of a household power outage? Of course, once grid power was restored by the utility, the car would resume charging and be ready for next use. Everything is automatic.
If you happen to be one of those TESLA owners you wonder why everyone is talking about the big power outage the night before. “What, the power was out?” Try not to be too smug.
2. Solar powered homeowners: For that growing number of homeowners who choose to mount solar panels on their rooftops, owning a TESLA could afford them the opportunity to store the solar energy collected during the day for later use, courtesy of the TESLA’s battery. That energy could be used by the home throughout the day or night, to minimize the amount of electricity purchased from the grid during the most expensive times of day, while still keeping the car battery charged to a minimum drivable charge (whatever percentage of charge the car owner determines is reasonable). At the software charger interface you might see these words; “Never allow charge to fall below, a) 80%, b) 70%, c) 60%, d) 50% when using battery for household power.”
TESLA fleet owners: The obvious thing for small business owners would be to install solar panels on their business rooftop and leave their TESLA’s plugged-in all day. Again, if the grid fails, the business can still continue normal operations — giving them an advantage over their non-TESLA competitors. Larger businesses might want to replace their entire present car fleets with TESLA cars and direct employees to plug-in upon arrival at the workplace, to allow uninterrupted electricity supply in the event of power outages. Not only that, drivers might want to ‘charge up at work’ for free, with the only downside being that occasionally, the car might be leaving work with only a 70% (no-cost to the driver) charge — or whatever the driver has specified as the available default as some people have a longer commute home, than others.
Modulated Demand: In a small-to-medium sized business, even 100 or 200 plugged-in TESLA’s could offer an advantage that their competitors can’t match. (Zero electricity-related downtime, not to mention a 100% clean energy car fleet for starters). For other small fleets such as towns or government agencies for example, cars are for the most part parked, but available when required. Why not leave them permanently plugged-in, modulating electricity flow throughout the day/night? I call this ‘Modulated Demand’ as the car battery can be used to levelize energy flows and free-up energy consumers to purchase electricity at the cheapest time of day/night, instead of the present (most expensive) method.
3. Supplemental Grid Energy: Taking it a step further. Should a utility company spend $15 billion dollars on a large nuclear power plant to meet rising demand, or should it offer a $1000. coupon to each new TESLA buyer who keeps their car plugged-in to the grid for more than 360 hours per month and who is willing to allow up to 30% (or more) of the energy stored in the battery to be accessed at any time by that utility?
(Let’s say the new TESLA owner gets their coupon after 12 months of 360 hrs. per month availability, consecutive months or not, and whether any battery energy was accessed or not. The coupon pays for the privilege and ability of the utility company to have additional on-tap energy during peak energy consumption hours, or during energy production or transmission interruptions).
Easy enough for an Apple engineer to write that code and have the total hours of grid availability and the amount of any battery power accessed (if any), summarized and uploaded to the utility company, so they can properly credit the TESLA owner on their monthly electric bill via net metering.
This doesn’t even begin to cover what the Apple touch could do for TESLA, the private or fleet owners of these great cars, especially homeowners and businesses with rooftop solar, and the utility companies.
Today, a seemingly small but profound shift occurred in the electrical grid/electric vehicle world. Get ready. Even apart from meshing electrical grids with EV’s, it’s gonna be a game-changer.
Musk tweeted about the trip late last week, with details having been finalized. The trip will no doubt showcase Tesla’s network of Supercharger stations, which have been slowly cropping up along America’s coast. But America’s heartland is devoid of Superchargers, so how Musk plans to spend just 9 hours recharging at Tesla-exclusive charging station has me scratching my head.
The 3,200 mile journey will require a minimum of 11 refills, even if Musk manages to wrangle 300 miles per-charge. Musk claims that they will spend just 1.5 hours a day recharging, the same amount of time they would spend at rest stops or tourist attractions.
Fair enough, but Tesla’s own Supercharge map shows wide swaths of the country remain uncovered. Am I missing something here? Probably. I know enough not to doubt Elon Musk when he says he is going to do something.