Dear EarthTalk: What’s the latest in cutting-edge, hyper-efficient solar cells? Are we really moving beyond huge photovoltaic panels anytime soon? — Michael Williams, Hartford, CT
Many people still consider environmentalists’ favorite black panels as the cutting edge of renewable energy. However, the burgeoning solar industry has spent the last four decades refining these original photovoltaic panels, giving way to an entirely new generation of solar technology.
Most of us could hardly recognize some of the new solar collectors. Researchers at Michigan State University specifically responded to the aesthetic critics of solar panels by creating transparent solar cells. Well, not totally transparent — they actually have thin strips of traditional solar panels to convert the infrared light being reflected by the entire panel. This technology could effectively turn any sheet of glass into a solar energy producer, from the windows of your office building to the screen of your cell phone.
This could spell the end for space-intensive solar plants. Currently the cells cannot convert light into electricity at efficient enough levels to be productive, but researchers hope to achieve efficiency closer to that of existing photovoltaic panels in coming years. Though less effective than older technology, the sheer scale of utility of the new model makes it a much more substantial potential energy source.
Beyond the collection of solar energy, storage continues to be a problem. Modern batteries are typically inefficient and expensive, making solar energy only useful during daylight hours. Researchers at Ohio State University are working to solve this problem and recently debuted a photovoltaic panel with a built-in battery. If the new design is successful, fusing the battery and panel into one could be a game-changer. The design has already shown to make batteries 20 percent more efficient and 25 percent less expensive.
Another area of solar innovation has been ingenuity of application. Thinking outside the box has helped establish potential ways to industrialize the production of solar energy without consuming an excessive amount of acreage in the process. The Dutch have already pioneered solar roadways, in which highways are lined with solar panels. This saves clearing more land and makes use of land that is otherwise entirely unproductive. Another effort to limit land use involves constructing solar plants in the 70 percent of the planet that is covered by water. Experiments have already begun in France, England, India and California.
And while seemingly far-fetched, generating solar power from space is another area being examined. Satellites could capture significantly more sunlight than earthbound panels, as they could be positioned to collect solar radiation all the time. The first proposal and tests of this idea began over 40 years ago. The challenge is to create satellites that can capture sunlight, convert it to microwave energy, and beam it back to Earth. The exciting potential of this idea has led to large-scale investment by India, China and Japan.
No doubt we are only at the beginning of the age of alternative renewable energy, and the next few years and decades will be an exciting time to follow the growth of solar power from a fringe sector to a dominant player in the global energy mix.
Contacts: “The World’s First Solar Road is Producing More Energy Than Expected,” http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2015/05/11/3657220/solaroad-producing-energy/; “New design brings world’s first solar battery to performance milestone,” https://news.osu.edu/news/2015/08/03/%E2%80%8Bnew-design-brings-world%E2%80%99s-first-solar-battery-to-performance-milestone/. Photo above: Researchers Richard Lunt and Yimu Zhao test cutting edge transparent solar cells at their Michigan State University lab. Credit: G.L. Kohuth, The State News.
Dear EarthTalk: How are environmentalists and environmental groups using crowdfunding to get their projects off the ground? – Sean Jackson, Baltimore, MD
Crowdfunding relies on the collective effort of a large amount of individuals making online contributions to allow a project or venture to happen. ArtistShare, a website that allows fans to fund the creation of new artistic works, was the Internet’s first fan-funded crowdfunding platform, launching its initial project in October 2003. Today, crowdfunding is a bit more crowded, to say the least, and among the most popular sites for this purpose today are GoFundMe, IndieGoGo, Kickstarter and Razoo. Crowdfunding has grown from a market of $880 million in 2010 to $16 billion in 2014, with 2015 estimated to surpass $34 billion.
A wide variety of both small and large-scale environmental endeavors are now utilizing this revolutionary new kind of fundraising. In November 2015, Indiegogo.com, the largest global crowdfunding platform, allowed the HomeBiogas system to reach their fundraising goal of $100,000 in 24 hours. The HomeBiogas system is a family-sized biogas system that converts any organic waste into clean cooking gas and a high quality liquid fertilizer for the garden. With the system, 2.2 pounds of food waste produces an average of about 200 liters of gas, which generates around one hour of cooking over a high flame. Also, using the HomeBiogas for one year saves six tons of CO2, the equivalent of your car’s yearly emission. The campaign will be active on IndieGoGo until December 23, 2015, and with the support gained they hope to streamline the products to households by May 2016.
On KickStarter.com, a creative project-focused crowdfunding site where “every project is an opportunity to create the universe and culture you want to see,” over 2,000 people pledged a total of some $280,000 to fund the Little Sun Charge high-performance solar phone charger, developed by artist Olafur Eliasson and engineer Frederik Ottesen. Backers of the Little Sun, which offers a full smartphone charge from five hours of sunshine, are projected to receive the product in March 2016. The device is handheld and can be clipped to a backpack to collect sun when walking outdoors.
Smaller scale — but equally impactful — current environmental efforts seeking crowdfunding include: Ashley Hoffman’s Fundraiser for the Kentucky Association for Environmental Education; the World Parrot Trust USA’s effort to save wild parrots from being stolen from their nests and forced into captivity; the Washington Youth Garden’s living garden classroom that provides hands-on science learning, inspires environmental stewardship and cultivates healthy food choices in youth and families; the Franklin Land Trust’s work with Western Massachusetts landowners to conserve farms, woodlands and scenic vistas; and the Nature Conservancy’s innovative approach to turn farmland into temporary habitat for millions of migrating birds. All of these campaigns are posted on Razoo.com, which has helped non-profit organizations raise $450 million since 2006. Any registered non-profit can claim its Razoo page and start raising money online immediately through the site’s customizable fundraising portal.
While crowdfunding to support environmental campaigns and projects may still be in its infancy, no doubt more and more non-profit leaders and activists will embrace it as a way to expand their constituencies and pay for operations in the most democratic way possible.
Dear Earthtalk: Whatever happened to Al Gore? He was all over the media around the time of An Inconvenient Truth but lately I haven’t heard anything about him. — Jim Mercer, St. Paul, MN
Al Gore, one of the first recognizable faces of the environmental movement, sent ripples throughout the political world when he released his enormously successful book, An Inconvenient Truth, back in 2006. His environmental leadership dates back much further, however: He was traveling the country warning about the impending climate crisis in the early 1990s, and as Vice-President under Bill Clinton, Gore was a key proponent of U.S. and international participation in the Kyoto Protocol, an ultimately unsuccessful effort to align international efforts on greenhouse gas emissions reductions back in 1997.
After losing his bid for the Presidency on a technicality in 2000, Gore left politics and devoted himself to raising awareness about climate change through speeches, activism and the publication of An Inconvenient Truth — as well as production of the follow-up documentary film of the same name, which took home an Oscar for Best Documentary.
With the publication of An Inconvenient Truth, Gore launched two non-profits committed to making climate change a political priority in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which he consolidated into the Climate Reality Project in 2011. Gore still devotes about half his time to climate campaigning, recently addressing negotiators at the COP21 climate talks in Paris about how to enlist everyday people as “global citizens” in efforts to rein in greenhouse gas emissions.
Gore has also devoted lots of his time since 2000 on another form of green: making money. While it’s well known that his investments since he lost the White House to George W. Bush have turned Gore into a rich man with a net worth in the hundreds of millions of dollars, less is known about the methods employed to make this money.
Generation Investment Management (GIM), the firm he founded in 2004 with ex-Goldman Sachs executive, David Blood, practices an entirely new form of capitalism — a model they hope the entire world economy will one day share. Instead of religiously following the highest short-term revenue strategy, GIM’s “sustainable investment” approach takes into account environmental, social and economic damage. Though not a new idea, here is the kicker: They are enormously profitable, with a 10-year average of 12.1 percent yearly increase, ranking them second of over 200 firms analyzed by the consulting firm Mercer.
While the current capitalist system focuses on short-term gains based on market demand, the sustainable-capitalist model also adds effects on environment and society. For example, Coca-Cola is enormously successful under the traditional system. However, Generation sees it as unsustainable, as its history of environmental conflict and its links to obesity will eventually result in health concerns, leading to a crash like the tobacco industry. Similarly, Generation views petroleum, while one of the largest industries today, as a bad bet over the long haul for similar reasons: The more oil that’s burned, the bigger the reaction will be against it. The new approach that allows Generation to actually profit from this idealistic mentality is their ability to see ethical investments as an advantage, rather than an inherent negative.
This revolutionary model is one of the newest trends in capitalism, and just might be its savior. Consuming at an unsustainable rate cannot continue for much longer, so adapting to this new system could be one of the most important legacies of Al Gore.