New cost effective solar energy products are on the near horizon. Let’s take a look at some of the promising ones.

MIT reports prototype solar dish passes first tests.

A team led by MIT students this week successfully tested a prototype of what may be the most cost-efficient solar power system in the world–one team members believe has the potential to revolutionize global energy production.

The system consists of a 12-foot-wide mirrored dish that team members have spent the last several weeks assembling. The dish, made from a lightweight frame of thin, inexpensive aluminum tubing and strips of mirror, concentrates sunlight by a factor of 1,000–creating heat so intense it could melt a bar of steel.

MIT Sloan School of Management lecturer David Pelly, in whose class this project first took shape last fall, says that, “I’ve looked for years at a variety of solar approaches, and this is the cheapest I’ve seen. And the key thing in scaling it globally is that all of the materials are inexpensive and accessible anywhere in the world.”

Pelly adds that “I’ve looked all over for solar technology that could scale without subsidies. Almost nothing I’ve looked at has that potential. This does.”

Raw Solar

The website Raw-Solar has this diagram explaining the practical application.

A solar thermal dish reflects the rays of the sun onto a small receiver using specially curved mirrors, concentrating the sunlight 1000 times. The high concentration increases the efficiency of the energy collection by reducing the surface area for thermal losses. A robust tracking system keeps the dish pointed directly at the sun all day, maximizing the available sunlight.

Water is pumped through the receiver where the high intensity sunlight heats it to 212-750F (100-400C), making steam. The steam can then be piped into an existing steam system, such as a district energy system or food processing plant.

What makes this system special vs. its competition is that it can use small flat flexible mirrors that can bend in exactly the right shape to concentrate the reflected sunlight on a precise spot. The materials are all easily produced and the team could put this dish together by hand.

Inquiring minds will want to consider this MIT video demonstration of their solar power dish.
Following is a photographic clip from the demonstration. In the clip below a wooden beam was held where the rays were being concentrated and it immediately caught fire.

Hot Thin Roofs

Let’s now turn our attention to Hot Thin Roofs.

A new solar energy product, thin enough to be built into shingles, may finally make the technology competitive.

With energy prices soaring, affordable solar power would be welcomed by any entrepreneur looking to trim the electric bill. Trouble is, power generated by the most widely available technology – panels covered with photovoltaic (PV) systems, which translate sunlight into AC current – still costs two to three times more than electricity generated from coal and other fossil fuels. That may be about to change.

Several startups, including HelioVolt in Austin, Miasolé in Santa Clara, Calif., and Nanosolar in Palo Alto, are working on a new technology called flexible thin film that’s on the brink of making solar more competitive. Nanosolar has just begun to ship its thin-film solar systems to a German utility.

Made from pliant sheets of foil, the solar panels can be molded onto roof shingles, which are at once more attractive than clunky, heavy glass panels and less expensive to produce. In fact, the cost of making thin film is so much lower than traditional solar panels that experts say it could produce electricity for about the national average of 10.4 cents a kilowatt hour.

Selling Green

CNN Money is reporting on Selling Green – Making Solar Pay.

Solar energy may be hot these days, but it still costs two or three times more than the power your local utility provides. SunEdison, a Beltsville, Md., startup, has created a new financing model that allows solar to make financial sense for businesses.

The roof of Sea Gull Lighting Products’ distribution center in Burlington Township, N.J., is covered with solar panels that the lighting maker did not pay a cent for. They are installed, operated, and maintained by SunEdison. The company acts as a bank, soliciting investors interested in a return on solar energy. SunEdison’s investors own the solar panels, and Sea Gull agrees to buy the power.

The problem with the model above is that it requires subsidies to be cost effective. The winning products in this space will need no subsidies.

Algae Power

Another in the series of innovative technologies in the CNN Money report is on Algae Power.

Isaac Berzin, who founded GreenFuel Technologies in 2001, is working with Arizona Public Service to scale his process to commercial levels. He has built a small algae farm next to one of the utility’s natural-gas plants. The algae, which grow in racks of plastic bags, feed on the carbon dioxide in the exhaust of the power plant. The system not only reduces the greenhouse gases coming from the power plant by 40% but can also produce biodiesel and animal feedstock as a byproduct without competing with the global food supply.

I find these products exciting and at least two of them seem commercially viable. All of them might be. And the higher oil prices get, the more economically viable some of these and other products become.

Raw-Solar’s beauty is a simple design using basic components, without the high cost of custom designed parabolic mirrors. There are plenty of desert areas in the US with huge percentages of cloudless days where such a system could be commercially viable.

Interestingly, the Bush administration halts solar energy projects on federal lands.

The Bush administration has put a two-year stop to solar energy projects on federal lands in Arizona and other Western states while it studies their environmental impact.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Department of Energy will study the impact of solar energy production and other facilities that could be developed on public lands in Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, California, Colorado and Nevada.

There are 125 applications by solar energy companies to build facilities on public lands in those states.

The final analysis will show that the cure for peak oil is high enough energy prices.

Instead, the government sponsored solution was ethanol from corn. That “solution” was a complete disaster. US biofuel plants are going bankrupt as fuel prices rise at the pump and grain and fertilizer costs soar. Producing ethanol from corn makes no sense. To make matters worse, ethanol producers receive a taxpayer subsidy. And finally, tariffs make importing ethanol 3 times as expensive as it should be.

Mike “Mish” Shedlock
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