Tuesday 27 May 2008

Capacity expands in solar PV

According to Gaetan Rull, analyst at Yole Developpement, "The production capacity for wafer based solar cells will increase 62% and reach 10GW in 2008." One of the reasons identified by Yole Développement, is the anticipation of the renewed availability of silicon that will start in late 2008 and will drastically increase in 2009-2010. Leaders have succeeded in securing long term supply agreements and want to be ready when poly-Si will be available. Visibility on specific projects is reduced after 2010. Leading cell manufacturers have an-nounced their projects up to 2011 but medium and small companies have not disclosed their plans. Yole is tracking expansion projects on a daily basis and will update production capacities as soon as information is available. Regarding modules activities, Germany, Spain, USA and China are leading and Japan consolidating.

Signet Solar Rolls Out Industry's Largest Silicon Thin Film Solar Photovoltaic Modules


Signet Solar, a manufacturer of silicon thin film photovoltaic modules announced the fabrication of the industry's first ever Gen 8.5 (5.7 m2) silicon thin film solar PV module at its new factory near Dresden, Germany in a record setting ten months from the start of construction. After finishing construction of the 200,000 square foot production facility in only seven months, Signet Solar completed installation of equipment and started initial fabrication in less than three months. Signet Solar's technology lowers the cost of photovoltaic (PV) modules by combining proven silicon thin film technology, with very large area manufacturing and an industry standard equipment set. The initial modules from the fully automated module manufacturing line met the specification of the product and were confirmed by independent testing by Fraunhofer Institute.
I believe that there is a good chance of picking up any type of solar system next two years at very good prices are very high since the global recession should be in full effect by the 2009-2010 time frame as the same time huge capacity comes on line.

Saturday 24 May 2008

Algae and hydrogen

Robyn Williams: Oil is a main supply to drive transport and other engines. But what about hydrogen? We've discussed this before. What about hydrogen from ponds with algae?

Ben Hankamer: One question we often get is; is it actually feasible to produce any biofuel, whether it's hydrogen or oil or whatever, on the scales that we need globally? Say if you had a solar voltaic panel right now at 12% efficiency, the area you would need for global energy, to supply the entire global energy demands would be about 4% or 5% of the Sahara desert. It's actually doable. Every year we receive 8,000 times the amount of energy we require to drive our economy from solar energy, which we just really don't use.

On an Australian scale, if you start thinking about algal efficiencies of, say, 7% efficiency, something like that, if we had a 7% efficient system we would require something like 1% of Australia's surface in order to produce the energy requirement that we need for Australia.

Robyn Williams: Any reasons to think that you could get 1% of the surface area?

Ben Hankamer: No, it's not been discussed, but when you start thinking about the vast areas of non-arable land in Australia that could be used, there's huge potential. You've probably heard the big debate at the moment about food versus fuel with biofuels, and that's one of the big strengths of micro-algae is you can locate those on non-arable land and therefore not compete with food production.

Robyn Williams: We'll meet Ben in a moment at the University of Queensland. That's where they got the algae in the ponds, even using salt water (which works) to make the fuel of the future. But there are technical hurdles to leap as well as financial ones. Dr Peter Isdale is CEO of IMBcom at the university.

Peter Isdale: It's all about cost, and the cost of the production of hydrogen at the moment is quite high from conventional sources, but the algal photosynthesis route offers a way of producing it quite cheaply.

Robyn Williams: How cheaply?

Peter Isdale: We've done feasibility studies in conjunction with a large engineering company, and we've shown that we are within reach of being able to produce the hydrogen at something which approximates commercial viability. The missing ingredient and the missing cost factor is what will be picked up in the development of bio-reactors and the engineering solutions.

Robyn Williams: Tell us something about the scale of this. Is it small ponds? Is it just a number of vats? Or is it on a big scale that could be expanded almost indefinitely?

Peter Isdale: Given that the projections for the production system for the algal hydrogen is likely to be in sort of square box-type bio-reactors, then we can visualise it by looking at a series of ponds over which you could presumably theoretically gather the hydrogen as it bubbled to the surface. We've done some projections which show that if you were to construct a series of ponds 1,000 metres on the side, that's a square kilometre, and 33 of these ponds would actually supply Queensland's stored chemical energy needs for the year 2020.

Anyway, intuitively you would think, well, how could that be, because after all that's an area about the size of the city of Mt Isa. But in fact it does work out that at the efficiency level that we project, that hydrogen will be produced, that such a small area of ponds would actually produce the energy that you'd need.

Robyn Williams: For the whole of Queensland, what an extraordinary suggestion. Now, if I come to Ben, could you first of all introduce yourself?

Ben Hankamer: I'm Ben Hankamer, I'm group leader at the IMB and the focus of my work is really on developing clean fuel systems.

Robyn Williams: How did this idea about hydrogen from algae come up in the first place?

Ben Hankamer: We really based our work on a study that was initially presented by Tasios Melis from Berkeley, and he showed that normally if you have algae you grow them and they absorb sunlight and they use the solar energy that they capture to split water into protons and electrons, and they combine that with carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and make all the bio-molecules in the cell. What Tasios Melis showed was that if you deplete those cultures of sulphur you could switch over the photosynthetic pathway towards hydrogen production. So you have a two phase process; one in which you split water and make the protons and electrons and store them, say as starch, for example, and in the second phase you convert that starch and other bio-molecules to hydrogen.

Robyn Williams: So they don't want to make hydrogen but you make them.

Ben Hankamer: Yes, it's really a survival mechanism. So under anaerobic conditions, just like you or I need oxygen to breathe and if we don't have it we die, and the reason we would die is that we can't make ATP which is the universal energy carrier in the cell. What these algae have developed to do is to convert the protons and electrons back to hydrogen, feed them out of the cell, and this process allows them to stay alive and produce ATP.

Robyn Williams: Okay, so when you've got the algae in the pond, can you keep going indefinitely, feeding them stuff, or do they get to a certain point and stop?

Ben Hankamer: It has already been demonstrated that you can do this in a cyclical process. So if you take sulphur out of the medium and induce hydrogen production and then you add a bit of sulphur back in, you can allow the algae to recuperate, and then you take the sulphur out again and do it as a cyclical process in that way. So yes, that's possible.

Robyn Williams: What do you feed them, just sulphur?

Ben Hankamer: You can do this in a number of different ways. From a purist point of view the best thing to do is just add the trace elements that most plants need, plus water and sunlight and carbon dioxide. But you can actually add other carbon sources, such as acetate and different carbon sources to improve the process.

Robyn Williams: So that seems to be pretty cheap, as a feed, to maintain them.

Ben Hankamer: Yes, it is relatively cheap as a feed, that's one of the benefits of the system.

Robyn Williams: You're telling me here is a system that can actually scale up to supply a state like Queensland with its needs, and yet it requires very little in the way of resources. It sounds almost too good to be true.

Ben Hankamer: I don't like to try and make it sound better than it really is. There are efficiency issues. So at the moment we are at a conversion efficiency of about 1% from light to hydrogen. That would be in an outside system right now. And where we need to get to to make it economically viable is about the 7% to 10% mark. So there are definitely improvements that need to be made. We've spent a lot of time working with IMBcom and with Peter Isdale's group to do industrial feasibility studies and evaluate where those key bottlenecks are in making those processes economically viable. One point is to make the bio-reactors cheaper. Most bio-reactors cost in the order of about 100 euros per square metre, and we need to bring that down to about 10 euros.

Robyn Williams: That's about $A15?

Ben Hankamer: That's about right, yes. You can probably already see this is a really multifaceted project; you need to do genetics on the algae, you need to develop best media conditions, you have to build bio-reactors. And so this resulted in my colleague Olaf Kruse and I setting up the solar bio-fuels consortium, and using this consortium to headhunt people with specific skills and bring them into the consortium to tackle all aspects of the project. So Clemens Posten, for example, at the University of Karlsruhe in Germany, is in the process of making these cheap bio-reactors.

Robyn Williams: Okay, imagine what's it's like in, let's say, 2020...it's the phrase of the moment! Imagine a town with various ponds around it, they may be enclosed, they maybe with ducks swimming on them...perhaps not...but could you imagine, to supply my hydrogen driven car or bus, what that town might look like and how much of its needs could be supplied?

Ben Hankamer: Think of it more like a series of large plastic bags that would be either flat on the ground or organised in some kind of structure to catch the light, and the hydrogen would be bubbling off those cultures and you would collect the hydrogen. In the first phase of development what we would do is we would feed that hydrogen into fuel cells and generate electricity which could be fed to the local households. That would be the easiest thing to do while an infrastructure is being developed for hydrogen distribution and hydrogen cars.

Already, if you look at the car manufacturers, most car manufacturers have an active program in terms of developing hydrogen powered fuel cell cars. You can see the space shuttle is already running on hydrogen. Boeing is in the process of developing airplanes which can run on fuel cell hydrogen systems. People are developing laptops that can be driven on hydrogen, et cetera. So you can see everything from a small scale to a large scale gradually being built up.

Probably what will happen is initially people will start with the small things, the niche markets like fuel cell powered lap top et cetera, and gradually go to the larger scales. I think the thing that will probably interest most people is what about the hydrogen car and how would that work. So you would need to have some kind of storage facility for the hydrogen and some kind of pressurised system to deliver the hydrogen into the car. So the storage at the moment, there's two strategies; one is that you pressurise the hydrogen and make it into liquid hydrogen, just like a gas cylinder really.

Or the other one is a system called a metal hydride storage unit, which you can imagine like a metal sponge, a nano-sponge, it has very tiny pores in it and you pressurise it so the hydrogen goes in and bonds with the surface of the metal, and by using this kind of approach you can pack the hydrogen atoms in very tightly and store them. To release them you apply heat and the hydrogen gas gets released from the system and is supplied either to a car or whatever it is you're powering.

Robyn Williams: So that's what it will look like. In the meantime, back in 2008, what are the impediments?

Ben Hankamer: At the moment one of the real problems that industry is facing is that they don't knew what will be the fuel for the future. It might be hydrogen, it might be bio-diesel, for example, it might be more liquid gas that we're already using at the moment, LPG. So for industry it's very difficult to know where to invest. That's one problem. So there's going to need to be a guide from government to support preliminary research across a number of different fields. It's often tricky for government because governments don't want to influence the direction of the market, they want the free market and the market to develop itself.

On the other hand, industry is usually interested in supporting projects within a five-year term, and for very long-term infrastructure projects such as the hydrogen economy, one will also need some government involvement at that level. With the Garnaut report coming out later on this year there will be guidance there in terms of how a carbon trading scheme should be built up for Australia, and that in turn will give more value to renewable energies and therefore start guiding the development of such systems.

Robyn Williams: Talking about politicians, back to Peter Isdale; what's been the response from Canberra and the state government of Queensland, for example, on the prospects for such research?

Peter Isdale: I think governments have to work with what they've got, and state and federal governments have been quite supportive of a lot of alternative energy proposals. Hydrogen is probably a little far away. I'd say the main focus at the moment is on clean coal technologies and bio-fuels. When and if the advantages and the availability of good, clean hydrogen work themselves into the market frame, I think we'll see much more support for the kind of development that we're after.

Robyn Williams: And Ben mentioned Germany and America, what about overseas? Is it burgeoning there, this sort of research?

Peter Isdale: Yes, it is, and there's a lot of money being spent internationally on hydrogen research, particularly bio-hydrogen.

Robyn Williams: With algae?

Peter Isdale: With algae. It's seen as having a huge potential, but it's not within the realms of investment returns at the moment. For example, it's not a venture capital play to invest in hydrogen at the moment. The time to return is outside the window of venture capital.

Robyn Williams: You're not putting off my listeners who are millionaires, billionaires, who are about to write a cheque, are you?

Peter Isdale: The listeners are welcome to write the cheques. The thing is that it takes patient capital, and where there are many patient listeners who have listened to you over the years, if they've got patient capital we'd love to hear from them.

Robyn Williams: Dr Peter Isdale with Dr Ben Hankamer at the Institute for Molecular Bioscience, University of Queensland. Hydrogen from algae.


Peter Isdale
Chief Executive Officer IMBcom Pty Ltd The University of Queensland

Ben Hankamer
Institute for Molecular Biosciences The University of Queensland

Tuesday 13 May 2008

Endless Possibility

Hermann Scheer has been described both as the "solar king" and the "Stalin of windpower", but the German MP behind the revolutionary project to make his country completely energy self-sufficient is sanguine. "Our dependence on fossil fuels amounts to global pyromania," he says, letting out the characteristically jolly chuckle that escapes whenever he is making a serious point. "And the only fire extinguisher we have at our disposal is renewable energy".

Scheer, chair of the World Council for Renewable Energy, has been a fierce advocate of renewables for more than 20 years, and it was he who came up with the idea of the "feed-in tariff law", which has been picked up across Europe and by opposition parties in Britain. According to what has become known as "Scheer's law", German households and businesses that generate renewable energy can sell it back to the grid at more than triple the normal market price.

"The key to it working is that consumers have guaranteed access to the grid at guaranteed prices," explains 63-year-old Scheer, a qualified economist. This probably goes further than any single piece of national legislation in the world to encourage the growth of the renewable energy industry.

Power companies do not like it, but it has given incredible verve to an industry that had not until now had many believers. More than 300,000 individuals and small businesses have jumped at the opportunity in Germany, and the number is rising all the time. Scheer's family, whose house is powered by a windmill, is among them.

"The general target is to mobilise all renewable options, producing a renewable energy mix and reducing the dependency on conventional energy over time," he says. So far, 15% of Germany's energy comes from renewables, an increase of 11% in just eight years. By 2030 at the latest, the 100% target should have been reached. "We could increase the speed of this growth if it weren't for the barriers we're facing at local and regional levels," he says, citing both psychological and legal obstacles.

Scheer's law has created whole new industries - wind power, which employs 80,000 people in Germany, and photovoltaic (solar) power, which employs 40,000. The jobs are, in effect, subsidised, but in time this will become less and less significant because of the system's commercial success. Both wind and solar sectors are growing at around 30% a year, making them attractive for investors and for developers of technology. The potential returns are huge.

Feed-in tariff

Several Mediterranean countries - including Spain, Italy and Portugal - have latched on to Scheer's law and are in the process of introducing it. The governments of Brazil and China have also called on Scheer to advise them as to how they might apply it. In Britain, the Conservative leader, David Cameron, has shown an interest in the feed-in tariff concept, which Scheer will make the focus of his address to a parliamentary committee on environmental matters.

Scheer comes to London next week as part of the Royal Institute of British Architects' series of architecture and climate change talks. But while Britain is under pressure to adopt something similar, Scheer can feel the strong resistance to his ideas in a government that appears to be more wedded to nuclear power and coal. He calls the British government's negative attitudes towards renewables "small-minded" and "inexplicable".

He dismisses the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform's view that the feed-in tariff, with its system of subsidies, stifles competition. "The fact is that the subsidies paid for fossil and nuclear energy are much higher - hundreds of millions of pounds a year - around 10 times more than has been spent on renewables over the past two decades," he says. "And nuclear power stations, for instance, are even relieved from having to pay their huge insurance bill because the taxpayer picks it up. So this argument about renewables and subsidies doesn't stand up.

"I cannot understand the [UK government's] attitude. I think it's a big mistake, based on ignorance over years about the real potential of renewable energies. Because this was ignored, there's a so-called nuclear renaissance taking place, and according to the British government this will happen without public money. This will never work. I assume this is just a trick to get the British public support for nuclear, but without public money it's impossible."

He also cites the damage he thinks British independent scientist James Lovelock has done for the renewables cause, with his claim that only nuclear power can halt global warming - an attitude that the government seems to have adopted. Scheer says: "[Lovelock] says renewable energies cannot work, but he shows that he has practically no knowledge of the real state and development of renewable energy whatsoever." Among the myths, he says, are that renewables are expensive to acquire and unreliable. "What's happening in Germany proves that that's not the case, and the more widespread it becomes, the better the technology will be and the cheaper it will be."

Scheer will try to communicate that when in London. "I'll tell them all about the benefits renewables have for economic, cultural and civilian development, and will urge them not just to look at actual cost comparisons, because that's such a small-minded view and with that we can't find a grand strategy or solve this macro-economic and macro-ecological problem."

Scheer, a holder of the Alternative Nobel Prize, and a self-described "possibilist", would like to reverse the view in Britain, which he refers to as "the unbroken power of one-dimensional thinking", by demonstrating how free and plentiful renewables are compared to fossil fuels and nuclear. "The amount of sun, wind, geothermal and bioenergy at our disposal is by far sufficient," he says. "Take just the sun - it sends around 15,000 times more energy to our planet than all 6 billion people need. These resources are indefinite and cheap - the sun and wind won't be sending you a bill, and neither can you privatise them.

"And don't give me the arguments against the aesthetics of windmills. They're not there to be liked - it's enough to accept that they're necessary, because we need 100% emission-free energies. Who, after all, likes power lines? But they're accepted. Here we're dealing with an existential problem."

To illustrate the unmilked potential in Britain, he points out that Germany is home to 20 times more installed windpower systems than the UK, "although the UK has better wind conditions, longer coastlines, and more space for good sites". The difference is, he says, "thanks to the feed-in tariff, we created an industrial dynamic".

Scheer is the author of the seminal works A Solar Manifesto and The Solar Economy, the most widely-read books on the subject of the transition to renewable energy. In them he argues that modern technologies will help create a "solar information society". Backing his point is the world's first mass implementation programme of photovoltaic solar energy roofs, which Scheer helped to push. It saw 100,000 solar roofs installed in homes and businesses across Germany.

"We're talking about the most important and exciting structural change of civilisation since the beginning of the industrial age," he says, with another chuckle. "The benefits and ramifications are huge. Not only do renewables mitigate climate change, they also give us cleaner cities, improved health, revitalise the agricultural economy so that the farmers of today will become the oil sheikhs of tomorrow, and fight underdevelopment and deprivation in the developing world."

Social commitment

One of the most exciting aspects, he says, is the boost given to the freedom of individuals as they become less dependent on conventional power and its providers. "You give people energy independence and you get social commitment - you only get that with renewables," he argues.

Even national security issues could be overcome, and wars over energy become obsolete. "Look at all the political support there is for oil and gas," he says. "For a start, you could get rid of the British costs for military commitment in Iraq which belongs to the oil bill. Think of the savings!"

At some point, Scheer believes his ideas will become commonplace. He lets the 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer make the point for him. "There are three stages to a new idea," Scheer says. "At first, it is ignored. Second, there is strong opposition against it. And finally, those who once opposed it set about introducing the initiatives themselves as if they'd been theirs all along."

· Hermann Scheer will be speaking on April 22 at the Royal Institute of British Architects as part of its International Dialogues: Architecture and Climate Change series. Tickets are available through architecture.com