By: Joshua D. Rhodes, University of Texas at Austin; Michael E. Webber, University of Texas at Austin; Thomas Deetjen, University of Texas at Austin, and Todd Davidson, University of Texas at Austin

SolarU.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry in April requested a study to assess the effect of renewable energy policies on nuclear and coal-fired power plants. The Conversation

Some energy analysts responded with confusion, as the subject has been extensively studied by grid operators and the Department of Energy’s own national labs. Others were more critical, saying the intent of the review is to favor the use of nuclear and coal over renewable sources.

So, are wind and solar killing coal and nuclear? Yes, but not by themselves and not for the reasons most people think. Are wind and solar killing grid reliability? No, not where the grid’s technology and regulations have been modernized. In those places, overall grid operation has improved, not worsened.

To understand why, we need to trace the path of electrons from the wall socket back to power generators and the markets and policies that dictate that flow. As energy scholars based in Texas – the national leader in wind – we’ve seen these dynamics play out over the past decade, including when Perry was governor.

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New Options for Grid Energy Storage

Energy storageResearchers from Oregon State university have developed the first battery that uses only hydronium ions as the charge carrier, which the team believes could yield promising results for the future of sustainable energy storage.

Particularly, the researchers are interested in the area of stationary storage. This type of energy storage primarily refers to on-grid storage to harness power from intermittent sources, such as wind or solar, for later use in general distribution. Stationary energy storage is vital for the energy landscape to transition to more renewable types of energy because it will allow the electrical grid to continue to function when the sun goes down and the wind stops blowing.

This from Oregon State University:

Hydronium, also known as H3O+, is a positively charged ion produced when a proton is added to a water molecule. Researchers in the OSU College of Science have demonstrated that hydronium ions can be reversibly stored in an electrode material consisting of perylenetetracarboxylic dianhydridem, or PTCDA.

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Wind TurbinesGoogle is going green.

Tech giant Google announced that it will run entirely on renewable energy in 2017. This will be a huge shift for the company that, according to the New York Times, consumed as much energy as the city of San Francisco in previous years.

Google states that both its data centers and offices will reach the 100 percent renewable energy mark in 2017, with the majority of power derived from wind and solar. According to a press release by the company, going green makes the most sense economically in addition to Google’s goal of reducing its carbon footprint to zero. With wind energy prices down 60 percent and solar down 80 percent over the past six years, Google’s move to renewables will both make an environmental impact and help the company cut operating expenses.

In part, Google is able to make this transition due to the number of large-scale deals the company has made with renewable energy producers over the past few years. Google has guaranteed to purchase energy from renewable start-ups, which then allows those start-ups to obtain the capital necessary to expand their business.

“We are the largest corporate purchaser of renewable energy in the world,” Joe Kava, Google’s senior vice president of technical infrastructure, told the New York Times. “It’s good for the economy, good for business and good for our shareholders.”

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How to Make Solar Work

Solar energyGlobal energy demands are predicted to reach 46 terawatts by 2100. That number is a far reach from the 18 terawatts of energy currently generated around the world. According to one expert in the field, a major shift in the way we produce and consume energy is necessary in order to meet future demands.

Meng Tao, ECS member and Arizona State University professor, discussed how society could move toward meeting those demands at the PRiME 2016 meeting, where he presented his paper, “Terawatt Solar Photovoltaics: Roadblocks and Our Approaches.”

“We just cannot continue to consume fossil fuels the way we have for the last 200 years,” Tao told ECS. “We have to move from a fossil fuel infrastructure to a renewable infrastructure.”

For Tao, the world’s society cannot set on a path of “business as usual” by producing energy via coal, oil, and natural gas. And while solar energy has experienced a growth rate of nearly 45 percent in the last decade, it still only accounts for less than one percent of all electricity generated.

The shift to solar

Historically, solar technology soars when oil prices are at their highest. This is especially true during the oil embargo of the 1970s. During that time, private and public investments began to shift away from fossil fuels and toward solar and other renewable energies. That trend emerged again in the early 2000s when oil prices skyrocketed to a record-setting $140 per barrel.

“In the 1970s, the motivation to invest in solar and other forms of renewable energy was geopolitical,” Tao says. “Now, that motivation tends to focus more on the environment and sustainability.”

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Mark Glick speaking at the 6th International ECS Electrochemical Energy Summit.

Mark Glick speaking at the 6th International ECS Electrochemical Energy Summit.

Global investments in renewable energy have continued to grow over the past five years, exceeding $329 billion in 2015. As technological solutions that drive down costs continue to emerge, more countries are adopting standards to encourage the growth of renewable energy. In the United States, Hawaii is looking to set the standard in clean, sustainable energy for the entire country.

During the October PRiME 2016 meeting in Honolulu, HI, policy makers and researchers from around the world came together for the 6th International ECS Electrochimical Energy Summit, focused on Recent Progress in Renewable Energy Generation, Distribution, and Storage.

“For us, it’s important that we continue to bring the opinion leaders as well as the leading scientists and researchers to Hawaii because we believe that we’re the center of a lot of important activity,” Mark Glick, summit moderator and Hawaii State Energy Office Administrator, tells ECS. “There’s nothing more exciting to demonstrate relevancy than to have the leading scientists in the world in the largest research conference of its kind come to Hawaii.”

One hundred percent renewable standard

Since 2008, Hawaii has been on the cutting-edge of the renewable energy industry in the United States. As oil prices rocketed from $74.44 to $102 a barrel (inflation adjusted), the state found itself in a unique position to commit to greater utilization of renewable energy sources.

“After the oil price shock, we decided we needed to change our course,” Glick says. “So we set forth a renewable portfolio standard. At that time, we aimed for 40 percent renewable energy by 2030. Since then, we’ve been so successful at getting ahead of the curve on that renewable portfolio standard.”

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Wind powerNew research shows another step forward in the goal of developing energy storage systems robust enough to store such intermittent sources as wind and solar on a large-scale.

Their work explores the opportunities in solid oxide cells (SOCs), which the group believes to be one of the best prospects in energy storage due to their high efficiency and wide range of scales.

ECS member John Irvine and his team from the University of St. Andrews have set out to overcome traditional barriers in this technology, developing a new method of electrochemical switching to simplify the manufacturing of the electrodes needed to deliver high, long-lasting energy activity.

This from the University of St. Andrews:

The results demonstrate a new way to produce highly active and stable nanostructures – by growing electrode nanoarchitectures under operational conditions. This opens exciting new possibilities for activating or reinvigorating fuel cells during operation.

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Nuclear PosterThe U.S. Department of Energy recently released a new series of posters illuminating a new generation of sustainable energy and green jobs. The series is reminiscent of the famous imagery created for the Works Progress Administration, only this time, the images depict a renewable energy revolution.

The posters accompany a report on the energy accomplishments from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which was signed into law seven years ago by President Obama.

(MORE: See all the the posters from the department of energy.)

The newly established law created the Section 1705 Loan Guarantee Program, which worked to spur economic growth while creating new jobs and saving existing ones.

Some of the key accomplishments of the act include the creating of 10,000 jobs in the energy industry, $16.1 billion in loans for renewable energy projects, and a newly developed infrastructure that can power an additional one million American homes annually.

The Recovery Act also launched utility-grade photovoltaic solar plants in the U.S. Prior to signing the act into law in 2009, there weren’t any plants larger than 100 megawatts in the country. Now, five major plants are producing significant amounts of energy and 28 more are scheduled for the future.

Overall, the posters remind citizens of the positive accomplishments that can be achieved when government and science work together as well as give us all a visual image of an optimistic view of a renewable future.

The fifth international Electrochemical Energy Summit recently took place during the 228th ECS Meeting. From environmental damage to economic implications to political involvement, the summit served as a forum for the top researchers in energy technology to discuss the most pressing issues in renewable energy and inspire technological solutions.

During the summit, we gathered some key speakers from energy research institutions across the U.S. to talk about challenges in energy storage, roadblocks for implementing renewables, and the role government plays in changing the energy infrastructure.

The podcast is moderated by ECS vice president Krishnan Rajeshwar, with guests David Wesolowski, The Fluid Interface Reactions, Structures and Transport (FIRST) Energy Frontier Research Center; M. Stanley Whittingham, NorthEast Center for Chemical Energy Storage (NECCES); Gary Rubloff, Nanostructures for Electrical Energy Storage (NEES) Energy Frontier Research Center; and Paul Fenter, Center for Electrochemical Energy Science (CEES).

Listen and download this episode and others for free through the iTunes Store, SoundCloud, or our RSS Feed. You can also find us on Stitcher.

How Your Car Could Be Powered by the Sun

By concentrating sunlight into reactors, H20 and CO2 can be split to form liquid fuels.Image: The Conversation/David Hahn

By concentrating sunlight into reactors, H2O and CO2 can be split to form liquid fuels.
Image: The Conversation/David Hahn

The sun produces an astronomical amount of energy each day, but scientists and engineers are still trying to better understand how to convert that energy into an efficient, usable form. Recently, work in photovoltaics deals with utilizing different materials, new arrangements of cell components, and interdisciplinary work to improve efficiently levels. However, a new and exciting area of photovoltaics is now rising in the ranks: turning sunlight into liquid fuels.

With this new development on the rise, the possibility of one day filling our cars with solar-generated fuel is on the horizon.

Researchers are giving more attention to the production of solar fuels because energy conversion and storage and simultaneously covered under one technique. It will give solar energy a wider scope due to more utilization opportunities, whereas conventional photovoltaic energy is only being used for one-third of the day when sunlight is at its peak.

Currently, the greatest roadblock lies in commercialization of the man-made solar fuels due to the substantial amount of energy it takes to break down stable CO2 and H2O molecules.

However, researchers are also exploring aspects of artificial photosynthesis through electrochemistry to help produce efficient, affordable man-made solar fuels.

Further material from the ECS Digital Library:

Read more about processes and current projects on The Conversation.

PS: Watch Ralph Brodd, a pillar of electrochemical science and technology with over 40 years in the electrochemical energy conversion business, talk about the future of the energy infrastructure and how it has transformed over the years.

Making Solar Wallpaper

Design freedom improves the range of applications of the panels on the surfaces of interior and exterior building spaces.Image: Antti Veijola

Design freedom improves the range of applications of the panels on the surfaces of interior and exterior building spaces.
Image: Antti Veijola

We’ve been talking about climate change and green energy for a while now, so of course we think solar panels should exist wherever light is. Now, that could mean using solar wallpaper to harvest as much energy as possible.

VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland has developed and utilized a mass production method based on printing technologies that will allow the manufacturing of decorative, organic solar panels for use on the surfaces of interior and exterior building spaces.

The new organic photovoltaic panels are only 0.2 mm thick each and include the electrodes and polymer layers where the light is collected.

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