Summer is upon us, and while most of our businesses consume large amounts of energy to heat things up, we may be looking for ways to personally stay cool. I thought we would look at some of the recent energy-related news because energy is such a large part of what we do.
Did you know that for one brief sun-shiny and likely breezy moment on Sunday, May 8, the total output of German wind, solar, hydropower and biomass reached 55 gigawatts (GW)? This was just short of the 58 GW being consumed at that moment. While it was Sunday morning and few factories were consuming, this is quite a remarkable feat – having the renewable output of a country as large as Germany almost match its consumption.
How did they get there? As Germany’s economy has grown, so has its share of renewable energy in power generation. Since 1991, Germany has increased renewables sevenfold. It ranks second in installed photovoltaic solar capacity, and Germany is not the sunniest of countries.
Having said all of that, understand that this was a sunny and breezy Sunday morning. On average throughout the year, renewables supply 30% of Germany’s power needs with the balance being more conventional fuel sources. As a comparison, the U.S. gets 13% of its power from renewables (less than half as much).
Technology and development is assisting with the growth of renewables worldwide. Currently, more than 13% of Germany’s power is generated by wind. Wind turbines are getting larger, which will allow fewer of them to generate the same amount of power or the same number to generate much more. The largest of all is a turbine that cuts a 538-foot swath. A single blade is about 260 feet long, which is approximately the entire wingspan of an Airbus A380 jumbo jet. As these units have gotten bigger, they have also become more efficient. Global installations as of 2015 were a record 63.5 GW, which is as much power as is generated by 63 nuclear reactors.
The most powerful wind turbine is located in northern Denmark – the land of windmills. This turbine produces 8 megawatts (MW) of power, which is enough for 4,000 homes. In early May, Siemens won the largest contract for its 7-MW turbine from a Spanish utility, which will purchase 102 turbines valued at $1.2 billion.
Just last year, a group in Texas completed a 200-MW wind project encompassing approximately 15,000 acres. The project generates enough electricity to power 55,000 homes. This wind project joined three others in Texas. When two additional projects are complete, installed capacity will exceed 1 GW.
In addition to wind, developments have occurred in solar as well. As with many things in our technological world, materials advancements are driving progress to greater solar efficiency and versatility. One such improvement involves a solar panel developed by researches in China with a layer of graphene – a one-atom-thick sheet of pure electrically conductive carbon. The graphene attracts natural salts found in rainwater, which creates positive and negative ions. Tests showed that hundreds of microvolts of electricity were generated from simulated rainwater. So, even when it rains, these solar panels generate electricity.
Additional solar developments are listed here.
- Panels using light-sensitive nanoparticles were found to be up to 8% more efficient at converting sunlight.
- Nanocrystalline copper indium selenide is being used to capture and convert more solar energy from the bluer part of the spectrum, resulting in higher efficiency.
- Solar-sensitive nanoparticles (i.e., colloidal quantum dots) could be mixed into inks and painted or printed onto thin, flexible surfaces such as roofing shingles.
- Molten salt is being used to store energy generated by solar photovoltaic (PV) systems.
- Rechargeable batteries are being incorporated into solar cells, which lowers costs.
Lower-priced oil and natural gas are likely leading the way for our North American readers to save on energy costs. In spite of these lower costs, we are pleased to see that developments continue as we collectively seek to generate energy from all available sources. And some of these alternative technologies may make power generation accessible to users around the world. We encourage researchers to keep up the good work.