Turning Lead Into Gold...Er, Solar Panels

Lead-acid batteries at a charging station in Cambodia | Photo: Roger Price/Flickr/Creative Commons License

File this under "pretty cool if it really pans out." Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology may have found a straightforward way to recycle toxic auto batteries into solar panels.

The MIT team, led by professors Angela M. Belcher and Paula T. Hammond, was studying a relatively new family of solar cell based on a promising semiconductor material called organolead halide perovskite. Cheap to synthesize, organolead halide perovskite solar panels have reached efficiencies near those of commercially available solar panels. In one study, perovskite-based solar cells converted up to 16 percent of the sunlight hitting them to electricity.

But there's a problem: though it offers the promise of cheaper solar power, making organolead halide perovskite requires a source of lead. Lead mining is one of the most environmentally destructive activities humans engage in. So Belcher, Hammond, and their team took a look at a source of lead that's already been mined: the ubiquitous lead-acid auto battery.

Has The Rice Solar Project Been Abandoned?

Removing tortoise exclusion fencing from the Rice Solar Energy Project site in June | Photo: SolarReserve

A solar power tower project proposed for a stretch of private land in Riverside County's eastern desert, and approved by state regulators in 2010, has been languishing unbuilt for four years due to lack of capital investment. Now the project owners' competitors are calling the project "abandoned." But is it?

The Rice Solar Energy Project, which would produce a maximum of 150 megawatts of power and include a molten salt storage component to produce power after sunset, was okayed by the California Energy Commission in December 2010. But since then owner SolarReserve, now wrapping up construction on the 110-megawatt Crescent Dunes Solar plant near Tonopah Nevada, has been unable to entice investors to lay down cash to get Rice built.

The delay has been long enough that representatives of other solar power tower companies are calling the project "abandoned." But a SolarReserve representative tells ReWire that reports of Rice's death are greatly exaggerated.

Renewable Energy Expert: We Don't Need Power Storage, Just Dance Lessons

Amory Lovins | Photo: Doc Searls/Flickr/Creative Commons License

It's a truism among renewable energy wonks that in order to run our society on renewable energy, we'll need a revolution in energy storage technology.

The reason? Solar and wind are intermittent power sources. The sun goes down and the wind stops blowing, but we don't ever stop using electricity. That means, so the thinking goes, that either we need to get most of our power from something other than solar and wind, or we need to store electrical power generated on bright windy days for use on calm nights. Problem is, storing enough power to supply an energy demand the size of California's would be mind-bogglingly expensive.

But an expert who just might be the world's foremost renewable energy wonk says the truism is wrong, and that society can be kept fully powered entirely on renewables, using minimal storage. There will be no technological revolutions required; just a bit of choreography.

How Much Has The Dialog Changed on Desert Solar? Here's How Much

Desert Solar: no longer cool? | Photo: Alan Cordova/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The way environmentally concerned people think about large industrial desert solar plants has changed over the last few years. In 2009, when the first few large projects started working their way off the drawing board and into the environmental review process, hearing criticism of those projects' environmental effects was rare.

Some expressed reservations from the beginning. A few groups like Basin and Range Watch and The Wildlands Conservancywent on record early with concerns about the big projects' effects on wildlife, hydrology, and air quality. But many of the bigger groups were reluctant to oppose desert solar projects, aside from quibbling about a detail here and there, lest they be seen as not doing everything they could to support renewable energy development.

Since 2009, though, with increasing data on those large developments' effect on wildlife and the increasing viability of rooftop solar as a cheaper, more efficient alternative, green groups seem to have far less trouble speaking out against ill-sited projects. Want some evidence of how far the swing has swung? An article this week in the Palm Springs Desert Sun offers a good example: it casts green group support of a desert solar project as a surprising twist.

Study: It's Possible to Power All of California With Clean Energy, But...

Welcome to California, 2050 | Photo: FredBaby13/Flickr/Creative Commons License

A new study claims that California could power itself entirely with wind, water, solar, and geothermal energy by 2050, but it would require devoting more than 4,800 square miles of the state's land and waters to wind turbines and utility-scale solar power plants.

According to the study by Stanford engineer Mark Z. Jacobson and 27 colleagues, published in late July in the journal Energy, the state should theoretically be able to supply 95 percent of its projected demand for power with wind turbines and solar power plants, with the remaining 5 percent coming from geothermal.

The catch is that according to the study, California would need to build miles utility-scale solar power plants and wind turbines covering 3,426 square miles of the state -- more than seven times the size of the city of Los Angeles -- with offshore wind installations covering an additional 1,406 square miles of the Pacific Ocean.

Bill Would Streamline Rooftop Solar Permits

Installing rooftop solar in California might get easier, depending on the State Senate | Photo: Brian Kusler/Flickr/Creative Commons License

A group of solar installers wearing hardhats descended on the State Capitol today to urge lawmakers to support a bill that would make it much easier to pull permits for rooftop solar projects.

The hard-hatted lobbyists were joined at a press event by the bill's author, Assembly member Al Muratsuchi, who represents Torrance. AB 2188 would force local governments to drastically reduce the amount of time it takes to acquire permits for solar panel installation. The bill would also prevent homeowners' associations from blocking permits for most small solar arrays.

"While it can take a solar company eight hours to install a home solar system, it can take as many as five weeks to get a permit," said Muratsuchi. "AB 2188 is a commonsense approach to reducing red tape, promoting clean energy, and helping consumers save money."

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