Solar Fuel: An Interesting Idea Takes a Realistic Step

Shu Hu, in foreground, measures the efficiency of one of his team's solar fuel cells. | Photo: Robert Paz, Caltech

Every time we use fossil fuels to move ourselves around, heat our homes, or generate electricity we're using stale solar energy. Plants took sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide and turned them into hydrocarbons, which then got socked away for anywhere between hundreds of thousands and hundreds of millions of years.

Rather than burn those vintage hydrocarbons, releasing their stored carbon into the atmosphere, wouldn't it be great if we could mimic the process of photosynthesis on our own? Imagine taking sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide and turning them directly into fuel for our machines. Not only could we avoid dumping the Paleozoic's sequestered carbon back into the atmosphere, but we might well be able to avoid the other kinds of pollution involved in extracting and processing fossil fuels.

That's the theory. The practice is more complex and fraught with obstacles. But a group of researchers at Caltech might just have found a way around one of those obstacles, using a material once deemed worthless for technological use.

U.S. Carbon Emissions Are Rising Again

Carbon emissions from U.S. coal plants rose in 2013 | Photo: World Bank Photo Collection/Flickr/Creative Commons License

In the run-up to the anticipated announcement next week of new, strict federal greenhouse gas emissions limits for power plants, a federal agency has announced that the nation's carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel use have started rising again after a five-year decline.

The Energy Information Administration (EIA), a semi-independent wing of the U.S. Department of Energy, announced Wednesday that the United States' energy-related carbon emissions in 2013 were up by around 2.4 percent over 2012, and that the first two months of 2014 saw emissions around 7.45 percent higher than for the same period in 2013.

The rise marks the end of a five-year period from January 2008 through December 2012 in which the nation's greenhouse gas emissions fell, and it looks as though a rise in emissions from coal and natural gas are to blame.

April Was Bad Month for Birds at Ivanpah Solar

An American kestrel. This tiny raptor is falling prey to solar flux injuries at Ivanpah | Photo: Nathan Rupert/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The April stats are in for reported bird deaths at the Ivanpah solar power plant in the California desert, and it's bad news: 97 birds were found killed or mortally injured between April 1 and 29 at the nearly 4,000-acre plant in San Bernardino County south of Las Vegas.

That's a record number of reported deaths for the facility, though the increase may be at least partly a statistical artifact: sources tell ReWire that biologists from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) were on site throughout April investigating wildlife mortality on the premises, likely leading to more stringent searches for injured wildlife.

But those searches still covered just 20 percent of the facility, meaning that one could reasonably extrapolate that total bird mortalities for April could be five times the official count. And that's not taking into account injured birds that land outside the fence, or are eaten by scavengers before survey crews can find them.

Another Solar Record Set, Renewables Power Nearly Quarter of California

California solar on a cloudy day | Photo: Steve Rider/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Yet another milestone in California's quest to go solar: the state's industrial-sized solar power producers pumped more than 4,500 megawatts into the grid around noon on Monday.

According to the California Independent System Operator (CaISO), the agency that runs the grid serving most of California, utility-scale solar power plants set a new record of 4,566 megawatts of output at 12:03 p.m. on May 19.

Around 575 megawatts of that noontime peak came from solar thermal plants, which use the sun's energy to generate steam which in turn turns turbines. The remainder came from photovoltaic panels, which convert sunlight directly into electricity.

Breakthrough in Energy Storage Announced by UC Riverside

Mihrimah Ozkan, Cengiz Ozkan and Zachary Favors in the Ozkan's lab. | Photo: UC Riverside

Supercapacitors are one of those "gee whiz" electrical power storage technologies that offer a huge amount of potential for helping make our energy consumption saner and more sustainable... someday. But a team of researchers from UC Riverside has come up with a novel molecular architecture that they say doubles the power storage capacity of commercially available supercapacitors -- today.

Unlike conventional batteries, which store electrical power by converting the electrical energy into chemical energy, supercapacitors essentially hang "extra" electrons on their molecular surface, which allows much faster charging and discharging times. (Imagine a smartphone battery that reached a full charge in a minute or two.)

But because the amount of energy present-day supercapacitors can store -- their "energy density" -- is quite limited, they're basically used mainly for things like current regulation in sensitive electronics. Heavier uses as power supplies for consumer electronics, electric cars, and even to store grid power would require radical improvement in supercapacitor energy density. And UC Riverside engineers say they've taken a potential step in that direction.

Solar Helping Keep California Cool During This Heatwave

Solar on a Covina big box store roof | Photo: Walmart/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The agency that operates the electrical power grid for most of California forecasted last week that the state was in good shape for the summer, even without the San Onofre nuclear power plant and with drought making significantly lower output from hydroelectric stations. This week seems to be underscoring that confidence.

Warm temperatures mean greater demand for power in California as people reach for their air conditioning, and the California Independent System Operator (CaISO) is charged with making sure there's enough electrical power to meet that heightened demand. This year, the state's record drought means the prospects for hydro power in the state are well below average, and Southern California's grid still struggles to make up the more than two gigawatts of supply lost when the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station went offline.

But if CaISO's grid stats for Wednesday afternoon are any indication, last week's forecast wasn't far from the mark. With a heat wave hitting much of the state and pushing statewide power demand toward an unseasonable 40,000 megawatts, the grid seems to have plenty of juice to spare -- and more than ten percent of the afternoon's demand is being met by solar.

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