This episode of Dnews is brought to you byDomain . Fossil fuel energy is the most common typeof power plant in the United States, but solar just hit a HUGE milestone that might makethem finally shine past the competition. For all the talk about solar panels beingbetter for the environment, they are still notoriously inefficientâ€¦ or were, untilnow. Australian researchers from University of New South Wales created the most efficientsolar panels ever; these new panels convert 46percent of their sunlight energy into electricity.Typical rooftop panels hover around 15 percent at best. This new technology works by distributingthe solar collection into three cells picking
sunlight up in multiple wavelengths, and thenreflecting the excess light at a fourth panel! Genius! So 46. Percentâ€¦ Yepâ€¦ Ahemâ€¦ pause 46% doesn’t SOUND like much, does it? Right?It’s less than half! Traditionally, power plants usually use heat to create steam andmove turbines. Those turbines generate the electric current. I bet you’re as curiousas I was about which plants are the most efficient, but they’re doing better than a LOT of them. To calculate efficiency of a power plant,you take the output power and heat, add that
together, and divide by the total amount ofpower produced. Essentially, you’re accounting for the fact that burning fuels is HOT, andyou lose a lot of heat in the power transfer. Let me give you an example, in the U.S., thereare over 1400 coal power plants burning this fossil fuel at an efficiency of about 33%.Meaning twothirds of ALL ENERGY from coal in a plant designed to use coal to createelectricity is lost. Even the most efficient plants are only 45 percent. Nuclear energy, also measured by the previousequation, ranges from the low 30s to the high 40sâ€¦ With the best, most heat efficientplants topping out around 48percent. As technology
improves, and the population has become moreinterested in environmental protection, both coal and nuclear have become more efficient.But if we’re all honest with each other, making the plant perform better isn’t easy. Instead,a quick solution is to take the heat exhaust and loop it back into the plant. This conservesthose extra BTU’s of heat, rather than letting them float away into the atmosphere. Someplants do this to conserve as much heat as they can. They can also help burn the fuelmore efficiently, or fine tune the plant to keep it tip top. Unfortunately, wind power is the big loseroutside of commercial solar, but even with
that, they’re running anywhere from 25 to50 percent efficiency. It varies depending on the design, and the location. Offshorewind farms run more often than onshore ones, but the efficiency depends on how hard thewind is blowing and how much of that wind power the turbine can harvest. Lots of scientists are working on making superefficient wind power. Biomimicry is a big part of their recent advances, with some scientistsdiscovering that mimicking sharks, whales or birds will help make the installationscapture more energy. This also informs the winner and champion of ALL these power generationsolutions hydroelectric.
The biggest hydroelectric installations canget a 95percent efficiency, and even the smaller ones can still hit 85. 85 is a LOTmore than the next closest. It’s pretty incredible. But when you take into account the simplicity,the eye is drawn right back to solar. Sure, coal and nuclear have a lot of bang for theirbuck, solar needs a lot of space, and sunâ€¦ but while 46percent didn’t sound like a lotbeforeâ€¦ an infinitely renewable, nonpolluting energy solution that is essentially equalin efficiency to other major generation techniques sounds pretty darn good. No? And by the way, if you’re looking for anefficient way to buy a domain name, look no
Can We Rely on Wind and Solar Energy
Are wind and solar power the answer to ourenergy needs? There’s a lot of sun and a lot of wind. They’re free. They’re clean.No CO2 emissions. So, what’s the problem? Why do solar and wind combined provide lessthan 2% of the world’s energy? To answer these questions, we need to understandwhat makes energy, or anything else for that matter, cheap and plentiful.For something to be cheap and plentiful, every part of the process to produce it, includingevery input that goes into it, must be cheap and plentiful.Yes, the sun is free. Yes, wind is free. But the process of turning sunlight and wind intouseable energy on a mass scale is far from free.
In fact, compared to the other sourcesof energy fossil fuels, nuclear power, and hydroelectric power, solar and wind powerare very expensive. The basic problem is that sunlight and windas energy sources are both weak (the more technical term is dilute) and unreliable (themore technical term is intermittent). It takes a lot of resources to collect and concentratethem, and even more resources to make them available ondemand. These are called thediluteness problem and the intermittency problem. The diluteness problem is that, unlike coalor oil, the sun and the wind don’t deliver concentrated energy which means you needa lot of additional materials
to produce a unit of energy.For solar power, such materials can include highly purified silicon, phosphorus, boron,and a dozen other complex compounds like titanium dioxide. All these materials have to be mined,refined andor manufactured in order to make solar panels. Those industrial processes takea lot of energy. For wind, needed materials include highperformancecompounds for turbine blades and the rareearth metal neodymium for lightweight, specialtymagnets, as well as the steel and concrete necessary to build structures thousandsof them as tall as skyscrapers. And as big a problem as diluteness is, it’snothing compared to the intermittency problem.
This isn’t exactly a news flash, but thesun doesn’t shine all the time. And the wind doesn’t blow all the time. The onlyway for solar and wind to be truly useful would be if we could store them so that theywould be available when we needed them. You can store oil in a tank. Where do you storesolar or wind energy? No such massstorage system exists. Which is why, in the entireworld, there is not one real or proposed independent, freestanding solar or wind power plant. Allof them require backup. And guess what the goto backup is: fossil fuel.Here’s what solar and wind electricity look like in Germany, which is the world’s leaderin â€œrenewablesâ€�. The word erratic leaps to mind.
Wind is constantly varying, sometimesdisappearing completely. And solar produces little in the winter months when Germany most needs energy. Therefore, some reliable source of energyis needed to do the heavy lifting. In Germany’s case that energy is coal. So, while Germanyhas spent tens of billions of dollars to subsidize solar panels and windmills, fossil fuel usein that nation has not decreased, it’s increased and less than 10% of their total energyis generated by solar and wind. Furthermore, switching back and forth betweensolar and wind and coal to maintain a steady flow of energy is costly. Utility bills forthe average German have gone up so dramatically
that â€œenergy povertyâ€� has become a popularterm to describe those who cannot pay or who can barely pay their electricity bills.If those bills one day go down, the reason will not be more solar and wind energy, butlower oil and coal prices. There’s no free lunch. And there’s nofree energy. And that very much includes the highly expensive energy from the sun and thewind. I’m Alex Epstein of the Center for IndustrialProgress, for Prager University.